Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Another ultra under the belt: Voyageur 50 Miler

Voyageur is over. I finished an ultra, and once again, that was all that mattered. Voyageur is a race I am glad I have now completed and it is one that I will never run again for the reasons below.

The way out

160 people were signed up, and it looked like a huge crowd for an ultra – the biggest ultra by the number of participants I had ever run in my life.

The pace started out fast, like it always does. I ran with a group of folks who seemed to be taking it how I wanted to – quickly over the early technical section, not letting up on the flats, all while recognizing that hills should be walked. This group splintered after the first aid station at mile 3.5 because people took more or less time getting their aid on, so to say.

After the first aid station, I put on a favorite race tactic: I skipped basically every other aid stations on the way out to get a jump on people. For the most part, it worked. I put 30 seconds to a minute on them each time and I just ran and ran and ran. Most caught me eventually as I slowed to a crawl in the latter half. More on that later.

The first 25K or so went as smoothly as a jaunt through the woods can. I felt good, was pushing comfortably, and did not feel like I was stressing my systems in dealing with the single track, muddy forest roads, or the Powerlines (more on those below).

Things started to go south in the two or three miles prior to the aid station at mile 18.6. Those miles were set to a long, gradual uphill and I had a pack behind me that put fear in my steps. The incline was minimal but noticeable – too shallow to walk, but just enough to make running difficult.

When I got to the aid station at 18.6, I was a little gassed. My wife asked me how I was doing. I responded that I was winded because of the uphill, but that I felt otherwise fine. I did not feel fine. She forced me to take some salt in the form of Pringles and get moving. “Pick up those feet,” became her mantra, practically shouting it as I left each aid station she met me at.

I left that aid station with water in one hand, Pringles in the other. I ate them slowly, one at a time, as I walked up the rural, paved road. It kept going and going, turning and still making its climb. I ran what I could and walked what I couldn’t. My decline started then and there.

Eventually I left the pavement and entered into muddy forest roads. Mud enveloped small depressions and slowed running to ginger steps, lest I lose a shoe in the muck.

No sooner than I saw the next aid station in sight did I see the leader passing me going the other direction. It was getting hotter now and I skipped aid like I had with alternating stations before. It was the first major unintelligent decision of the day.

Those three or so miles down to the zoo are just that – down. The course ran along a dirt road and later turned onto maintenance roads for Spirit Mountain. Eventually, you turned down the hill onto a road and toward the zoo. Which of course means you must go up it on the way back.

I got to the turnaround in terrible shape. The temperature had clearly climbed, and being exposed on the side of a hill did not help. I had seen all of the front runners ahead of me on their way up the hill, running what I knew I would later walk. Looking back, I was clearly dehydrated and needed some sustenance. Not that I recognized that at the time, however. My wife picked up on this at the turnaround and made me eat two cookies, two slices of watermelon, a salted potato, and I drank maybe 15 oz of water just standing there. I left with a full bottle, too.

The way back and going into ultra territory

From the turnaround on out I stopped at every aid station if only to fill my 24 oz bottle, for I had consumed all or nearly all of its contents since the aid station. Some of those were only a few miles apart – no more than two. Yet the fluids were consumed and refilled. I figure I drank close to 1.5 gallons of water on the way back (~100 oz on the way out, too) and still was dehydrated upon finishing.

The remainder of the day was a battle fought in the gray matter between my ears. Something clearly had gone wrong that day – whether it being I started out too hard (always a likely culprit), was dehydrated (most likely), underfueled (less likely; I had a gel every 45 minutes or so), or all of the above and now it was taking its toll.

At some point, fatigue set in. After about mile 33, I found it hard not to walk. This was a mental goal of mine going into the race. I was to do better than I did at Superior 50K this spring and run over technical sections. For the most part, I believe I succeeded. In the latter stages of the race I could not run the technical roots and rocks, but that was based on pure exhaustion and not mental fatigue. Perhaps they are similar, but the feeling was different. When I was exhausted and confronted with a technical section, I took it easy so as to protect myself. I felt assured that I was doing the right thing. In contrast, when I walked out of mental fatigue at Superior this spring, I felt like I failed that test.

Ultras are mind games because the brain lasts longer than body, and my body had started to fatigue. My muscles were not sore, but my legs do not want to be picked up. My knees cannot rise like they once did, and I started to shuffle. With physical weakness comes mental doubt, and it s vicious, reverberating cycle. Many things crossed in my mind, but the Sawtooth 100 was chief among them. Should I run it? What was this run saying about my ability to do twice this distance? Could I even finish it?

At some point I banished those doubts. Maybe it was somewhere around mile 41, when I finished the Powerlines the second go around. That was the hardest part. But I had survived, and that was all that mattered. I would finish, the issue now was when.

Those last 8.5 miles were hard fought. I was passed by a handful of runners who were moving much more cleanly than I. But I had given up on place at that point. It was about finishing.

The last stretch is a cruel 3.5 miles. The first 2.5 or so are the most technical of the entire course. Those trails take you along a river and over and around rocks, boulders, and exposed cedar roots. The last mile or so is pavement. Painful, endless pavement with only two turns, both 90 degrees to the right.

I ran hard through the finish, and yelled as I crossed the line. My time, long since irrelevant, was 10:42:15, a full 100 minutes (2 min/mile mind you) slower than my previous 50 mile finish. Terrain and weather do matter, and today was living proof of it.

The Powerlines

The infamous Powerlines. What are they? Not what I thought – they were much, much more. I was under the sorry impression that there were two ups and downs to get to the top of a set of powerlines. Of course, this is what is depicted in the race photo. But of course, it is not the whole picture. After you get to that peak, there is a quaint jaunt through the forest until you reach a second, longer, steeper set of lines.

When I came around to the Powerlines on the way back, the dusty inclines demolished me. The sun radiated down, unfiltered by clouds or obstructions. I could do no more than be in full-on hike mode, plodding one step after the other up and down repeated hills. But I did not stop or enter into a mountain-climbing lock-step. In that, the hills were a success.

The Powerlines are one of the reasons I will never run this race again. Simply put, the Powerlines are dangerous. I fear the day it rains the night before or the morning of the race. The clay-like mud would make getting up nigh impossible. Similarly, the trail itself it too rutted and steep to descend with any safe speed other than a reserved, plodding trot.

Saying this, I will retreat slightly. There is nothing wrong with ridiculously steep hills repeated over and over or placed in succession on a course. The issue here was one of surface – potentially slippery, rutted and technical, and steep. All three made for a bad combo.

Post race and recovery

I slept that evening, something I was surprised enough about to be writing it here. After Surf the Murph, I rolled in agony that night as muscles cramped and complained from the toil I had put them through just a handful of hours before. But that was not the case with this race.

Instead, I was just sore in a few joints, my ankles mostly. There appeared to be very little muscular soreness. Most of any residual pain was gone by Tuesday or Wednesday, and I felt good enough that week to log 39 miles, including 20 miles with some steep hills just a week after the race.

The plan. Oh, the plan. The plan right now is to run those 20 milers every week for the next four or so weeks and then take two weeks of easy running. Then run 100 miles in one day. Easy, right?

The Lesson

My father asked me what I learned. What is the Lesson, he asked, like it was some sort of epiphany I was supposed to experience with each venture beyond 26.2. At the time, I told him that I didn’t know. I hadn’t had the time to digest the whole process and what I had just done. But the next day it came to me: eat and drink early and often.

When I was sucking wind at the later aid stations, food and liquid rejuvenated me. At the turn around, I spent a considerable amount of time eating watermelon, potatoes with salt, a cookie or two, and as much ice water as I could pound down in those few minutes. And I felt better. I still had a hell of a climb back up to Spirit Mountain and its respective aid station, but felt I felt better. It was the Lesson.

The Lesson echoed what John Storkamp had told me just a few weeks before Afton. In a nutshell, with the stomach goes the whole run. If you can manage the eating and drinking, and appropriate the care and feeding of yourself during a run, the rest is easy.

A final note

I did not fall during Voyageur. It is a historic occasion – it’s the first time I have finished an ultra without falling.


SteveQ said...

You say you'll never do Voyageur again, but we all say that and then do it again when we've forgotten what it's like. I've heard in rainy years that the power lines are like a sluice that one rides on one's butt and you climb the hills by grabbing hold of plants (the prepared have gloves!)

Congrats on the fall-less finish!

wildknits said...

Ah - pictures can be deceiving! I keep trying to count the hills in the Powerlines section - is it 6 or 7? Somehow I always lose count. Yes - there are two sections and, depending on your direction of travel, that last bit into Grand Portage can be a brutal surprise.

I have run those hills in all manner of weather (being a local makes that possible). Mowed and unmowed.

First time ever (years ago during a NMTC run called the Roughrider) it rained, hailed, and there was lightening. I had pounds of clay stuck to my shoes. I finished in 1:20 or so (6 miles) and although it was the toughest run of my life I was hooked.

Last summer I ran it in a downpour (part of a training run on the Half Voyageur course). I "skied" down some of the hills and used the vegetation (and a push from behind from a friend) to make it up the hills. It was a hoot and a holler!

Are they dangerous? Possibly. But I would argue Crosby-Manitou in the dark with it's steep gorges and sharp rocks is way more dangerous.

I agree with Steve - the memory of the pain fades and you decide you need to give it a try again and see what you can do.

I ran my first Voyageur in what can only be described as perfect weather (and less than perfect attitude). But for injury I would have been out there this year trying to redeem myself.

Good luck at Sawtooth!!!

Scott said...

I wasn't there, but reading your report I say you came to the right conclusion. Ultras (especially 100s) are "eating and drinking contests with some exercise and scenery thrown in" as Sunny Blende says. You need to get that hay in the barn early because its harder and harder to catch up (as you found).

You have the mental fortitude to tackle Sawtooth, just enjoy those early aid stations!