Thursday, October 15, 2009

Arkansas Traveller 100, 3-4 Oct 09

The road to my finish at this year’s AT100 actually began two years ago. In the 2007 event, I suffered a DNF there along with Blake Thompson and John Nevels. After a certain measure of redemption at the Inaugural Pinhoti 100 last year, all three of us vowed to go back to Arkansas and complete some unfinished business. Alas, time demands on John at Auburn kept him from this race, heading back to Pinhoti instead. So it was up to Blake and I to gain a full measure of redemption on a course that shook us off pretty hard.

As with the Pinhoti 100, I was quite fortunate to be crewed by Allan Besselink. We first met back in 2001, and I’m proud to be a charter member of SmartSport Int’l team and his SmartLife Institute. Over the years we’ve arrived at a training protocol that balances family and professional demands but also has produced many strong ultra finishes, and this AT100 may hopefully be an example of that. I heartily recommend his book, RunSmart. We’ve often joked about writing an article titled, “Ways that a Husband and Father of 3 Boys Can Train for a 100mi Race and Not Have Your Wife Leave You

So before this story goes any further, I will send a hearty thanks to wife, Kirsten, and our three boys. She graciously gave me some extra training time at the local Tuesday Night Cross-Country Runs all summer, plus missing several Saturdays and pulling Friday evening training runs during the 8-week ramp up to this race. Thanks also goes Rob Youngren and Eric Fritz for crewing/pacing Blake during good humor and help during the race. They helped me as well at several points, so always nice to share both the temporary misery and long-term joy of success!

The Gear/Equipment/Fuel
· ASICS dual-layer trail running shorts (internal compression shorts
· Shoes: Montrail Streak, with several pairs on Injinji socks
· Brave Soldier lube (available at ZombieRunner), great stuff!
· Multiple (5-6) shirts through the race
· Nathan Hydration vest
· Cheap wrist bands on my lower calves (keep sweat from draining into my socks)
· Oakley Rx sunglasses
· Black Diamond headlamp (had it since 2001, time to upgrade to something brighter), plus a cheap Garrity flashlight
· Fuel: Hammer Perpetuem, mixed as paste (4 scoops per flask), plus Endurolytes

Race morning started 0500, clear and relatively cool, which is great running weather. Got over to race HQ, checked in again to pick up my number, grabbed some last minute gear from the truck before the race start. Then Stan Ferguson (RD) starts to get the crowd at the start line whooping and hollering (Good Times Running!) and come 6am, we are off. I caught right up to Blake and we begin to steadily chew up some miles, feeling strong and jabbering away in the dark. The first aid station came and went as we worked a steady climb up to Flatside Pinnacle. Weather was gorgeous, couldn’t ask for much better. I made a quick stop to recycle some fluids while Blake continued the climb, but caught right up to him past the aid station as we entered the Ouachita Trail section of the race. We were around 10th place or so at this point, well ahead of most runners. But that was the plan, as we wanted unfettered running on the trail, not to be in a conga line out there. So we crossed back through Brown’s Creek, continuing to jabber away as we climbed back up the trail and pushed the pace a bit on the trail.

Alas, that short-term strategy has a minor disadvantage for me, as we rolled into the Lake Sylvia aid station around 9am, 45min ahead of schedule. Rob and Eric were there, but Allan nowhere to be seen! No big deal, I had another Perpetuem flask on me, grabbed some gels packets and headed back out. Funny interlude here as we came out of the trail and into the aid station, a very friendly volunteer pointed us along a big arrow in the left-hand road, waving us left, and kept saying, “Turn Right” (i.e. her right, our left). Feeling somewhat humorous, I poked a little fun and called out “You mean turn LEFT” as we made the obvious turn, the crowd getting a good chuckle. I felt somewhat bad after, the humor was at her expense, but we were feeling good in the early stages of the race. Out of the aid station I took a little walk break while Blake cruised right up the road and headed for glory!

So enjoyed a good pace as I went through Pumpkin Patch, Electronic Tower, and Rocky Gap aid stations, recalling the terrain features from two years ago and how I felt then as compared to today. Ran out of Perp around 10:30am, so switched the HammerGel packets, and could start to feel why difference shortly: slight grind in my quads, in my knees, etc. Hammergel is great, but nothing compared to the Perpetuem. Crested a nice rise just past the 30mi marker and made the descent and approach to the Lake Winona aid station. Allan was waiting for me there, along with Rob and Eric. We re-taped my heels, changed socks, changed, re-loaded with Perp flasks, water, and Endurolytes before heading out.

I pressed smoothly to Pigtrail and Club Flamingo uneventfully and with a steady pace and steady fueling. Out of Flamingo, another runner (younger kid) pulled up alongside to chat and said that we were “27 minutes ahead of 22-hour pace”. Man, I didn’t even want to hear that shit, and tried to let him kindly know that such pacing charts were all BS at this point, there were lots of miles to run, etc, etc. No way I was going to start thinking about finishing times so prematurely; though he fell well off the pace, little did I know the kid was a damn prophet (at least in my case!)

I pulled up to Blake somewhere between Flamingo and Smith Mountain, and we enjoyed a mutual jawboning session as we pulled into the marvelous Smith Mountain aid station. The folks there sported a Peace-Love-Happiness theme and offered L.S.D. (Lemon-lime Sports Drink), plus were cranking some sweet 70s music (Michael Jackson as I recall). After that we made the climb over the carved trail that goes over Smith Mountain to the next aid station, and the jawboning gave way to some minor cursing and the weeds and grassed grabbed at our legs and we tripped through holes covered by leaves. But the shallow descent down the far side was nice, and we cruised through the BM Road aid station and headed for the Powerlines.

Interesting side-story on the race began in the section of the day, as we passed a guy coming back along the trail out of Powerlines. At the time, we presumed he was the leader, and we were impressed with his time! However, as we gave him a “Way to Go!” he simply ignored us and kept his head down. ‘What a prick!’ we were saying to ourselves. More to follow….

So into the Powerlines we rolled, about 2 hours ahead of my 24-hr race plan, but feeling good. I swapped shirts again, but decided to keep current tape job and socks. I was started to feel this could turn out to be a good race, so wanted to keep some momentum going and move on to a very runnable section of the course. Weight-in at Powerlines went smooth, down to 181 (from pre-race weigh in of 188). Rob picked up pacer duties for Blake, and we pressed on for Copperhead Rd (formerly Chili Pepper).

It was here we found out from Rob the dude we passed heading back was formerly in 2d place, but got missed a turn on the course and was back-tracking an extra 14 miles! Oh my gosh, I don’t know the dude could have gotten off-course out here (esp. after Winona and missing so many aid stations), but I also don’t know that I wouldn’t have DNF’ed on the spot! So we decided to forgive his poor running manners and intransigence on the course, we might not have been real friendly either. More to follow….

Eric picked up pacer duties for Blake at Chili Pepper and we began the long haul out to the turn-around aid station, 5.8m hence. I stayed with them for a bit, but the downhill stretches were calling me, so I let gravity do its job on this larger-than-normal-ultrarunner body and slowly pulled ahead, adding on about 400m by the turn-around. There I corrected a mistake from two years ago, stopping only to make a quick shirt change then boogie out of there as fast as possible. This spot is the first of the mental boosts, because it signals you have finally turned for home, instead of running away from the start. I considered it the true halfway mark of the race, 58 miles down and 42 more to go. I first passed the 14-miles-extra-guy, still rather silent, and that was the last I saw of him the rest of the race. Right after that came Blake and Eric, grinding away the climb to the turn-around and still smiling.

The next notable (and alarming) event of my race came about 62-63mi point where I felt a slight twinge in my right calf, somewhere at the upper soleus area where it goes under the gastroc. I couldn’t tell if it was a muscle strain or a cramp, but I dumped an Endurolyte about 30min early to so if that would help. Cruised well back into Chili Pepper with Allan to greet me. There I swallowed down three more Endurolytes to see if the calf was a cramp or a strain, and it seemed to edge over the next hour. We re-taped my heels, got new socks, re-loaded Perp, picked up flashlights. Now comes the first of two decision points where Allan was worth his weight in gold. He urged me to change shirts again, but I demurred, thinking I was good-to-go for now. However, after being in the chair (for foot taping and new socks), I caught a shiver and chills within one minute, and changed my mind on his urging right there. A good call, for the fresh/dry shirt as the sun went down and a slight breeze picking up was the right way to go, keeping away a cold-clammy chest, one of the issues that brought me to a DNF two years ago.

So on went the lights and I pressed back to the Powerlines and another successful weigh in (up to 182 lbs now). Now comes Allan’s number 2 weight-in-gold, crewing-expert moment. It’s about 7:45pm in the evening and I’m a full two hours ahead of schedule (having a A-game as Allan was beginning to say by now). The race plan called for me to pick up flasks of Caffe Latte (caffeinated) Perpetuem for use overnight, thinking I’ll need them sometime after midnight to keep me alert. But I’m two hours early and thinking I don’t need them until later. But Allan rather sharply chides me to get with it, “this is the ball game, and you need to pull out the rocket fuel, the best stuff you got. What the heck are you gonna save it for?!” And you know, he was spot-on correct, as we will come to see. So I grabbed up two flasks of that stuff from the cooler and headed out.

Two years, this is the aid station where I cashed it in. I was falling asleep on my feet, without a crew or any support, and demoralized from the day. But tonight is way different, 180° the other way. I got to tell you, now I was starting to faintly grasp that a sub-24hr race is within my grasp. I’m running well, fuel is working, no stomach issues, no cramps. But even with that idea twinkling at the back of my brain, firmly planted at the fore of my brain was the fact that I had 33 miles to go, over some rough terrain, in the dark, and running alone for the next four hours. Way too early to be getting the smell of the barn in your nose.

A quick hop back to the BM Road aid station, shook Stan Ferguson’s hand and headed out for the gnarly little climb back over Smith Mtn. I’m starting to get a good rhythm going with my headlamp and flashlight (yeah baby, I bring both to the game), seeking out the holes and roots and rocks and trees that can bring me crashing to the ground and hurting myself. A strong, steady descent from the mowed path, plenty of chem lights, and finally I can hear the music coursing out of the upcoming aid station. A tight swing of the trail to the right and out come the disco lights and sweet strains of ELO’s Illegal Woman pouring out of the speakers. Though all the aid station at AT100 are great, Smith Mtn takes the prize.

Now the aid station pattern is getting set for the night, as I bypass everything but a water refill; no soup, so pretzels, no nothing. I’ve got momentum, adrenaline is flowing, I’m joking with the aid station personnel and thanking them for their time, but I am also OUTTA THERE! I make the short descent down the chewed up forest ‘road’ past a few hunters/campers listening to the ballgame late on the radio, and turn left for a solid climb. I can hardly believe it, but I’m still power-walking the hell of the climbs (ever running the shallow ones when I can figure out they are shallow, hard to do in the dark), and running steady on the flats and descent. I stayed with another guy coming out Smith Mtn, but he faded away as I pushed the descents. The caffeinated Perpetuem that allow forced on me is paying serious dividends as I am both well-fueled and wide-awake, plus feeling the adrenaline in my system.

The final approach to Club Flamingo was marked by tiki torches, a very nice touch. There I grabbed my drop bag, changed into a long sleeve shirt (Mountain Mist 50K), got some water, and headed out. I quickly passed through Pigtrail and pushed the rolling hills on the approach back to Lake Winona. At this point caffeinated Perp shows its lone disadvantage, as I had to make a pitstop! (Apologies to the RDs, but difficult to get more than a few feet on the road in the dark). Popped up from that and a few minutes later I passed a pair of dudes in the dark (probably runner and pacer). They were seemingly dicking around in the dark, standing on side of the forest road. Friendly as can be when I passed, just not covering any ground. Beyond those two I began the long descent towards Lake Winona. I can’t believe I am still running well, thinking that any minute now the wheels are going to fall off. The whole race I’ve got an internal monologue on and off. Most of it is just checking my body and stride, keeping an eye on the watch and putting down more fuel every 10min, remembering to take a mandatory walk break (working a 25min run, 5min walk cycle most of the race), getting electrolytes down every hour, etc. Some of it is checking the time schedule, doing the aid-station math in my head. Pieces of it are internal prayers to keep steady, keep me safe, watch over my wife and my boys, and thank Him for staying with me through the long night. Other pieces were just positive self-talk about running light and smooth, staying focused, and reminders that this can be done, it is within your capabilities. It’s great to have someone running with you to pass the miles, but when that’s not possible, I’ve found that I cannot afford to let my mind wander too much.

The aid station is lit up like a Christmas tree and looks great as I rolled in there just about midnight, a full 2 hours ahead of schedule. I jawboning out loud, animated, giddy, but managed to step over to the scale for the final weigh in (183 now). Eric Fritz kindly refills my water, I grab the last of the Perpetuem flask I will need, change into a final long-sleeve short (the Pinhoti 100!) and just haul ass out of there. Allan and Eric started to take about my probable finish time, and I begged them to “shut up, I don’t even want to think about that.” They started to talk about pace, and I say “please don’t, I can do the math in my head, but I can’t be thinking about that right now!” Even as good as I’m feeling, so deep into this race, there are 16mi of tough running to go. It ain’t over yet.

The climb out of Lake Winona is a grind and I push up and over it, cruising another descent and then grinding a climb to Rocky Gap. The poor roads get a little frustrating in the dark, searching back and forth with the flashlight trying to find a decent running line. At one point I rolled my ankle a bit and nearly fell over in a big rut, screaming a loud F-bomb in frustration. I blow in, get water, pass on coffee/soup, etc, thank the folks profusely and head out. This section heading to Electronic Tower is the second-worst piece of the course, little more than an ATV trail swerving back and forth on a climb towards the next aid station. The weather forecaster proves his/her unbelievable incompetence, as the rain starts in about 1:30am, at least 6 hours ahead of schedule, and beginning a steady rain shower that would continue until Monday morning. But in my case, it didn’t matter. I was feeling a good groove, plenty warm in the fresh shirt, and maintaining enough effort to keep me warm. I passed the 90mi marker somewhat in shock that I’m still moving strong after so many miles; it has never gone this well so deep into a race.

The folks at Electronic Tower were great, reminding me of the steady downhill to come with a series of right-hand turn at intersections. I ran steady the whole way, walk breaks nearly unthinkable in this wonderful groove I’ve got going. I blew through the Pumpkin Patch aid station in a tear, but grabbed a piece of pumpkin pie for the road! The last section of the course is among the worst in my mind (Smith Mtn ranks #3), as it goes down into this gnarly hollow along an ATV trail. The route is pitted with holes full of water across the path, fallen trees reaching out to poke you in the legs and faces, the lone creek crossing of the race, and other niceties. Nothing really bad, but a tough spot to be if you are really hurting mere miles from the finish. Those who came through this after being in the rain for 4-6-8 hours were really sucking. I just ground through that crap, spotting the 95mi marker and screaming a huge “F*** YEAH!” in the dark and kept pressing. Now I am smelling the barn, not thinking about blowing out anymore, just pushing more fuel into my system and the pace as much as I can stand. The only thing I am even holding back for is the final 2-mi descent to Lake Sylvia before the finish. Once I get over the creek it’s a shallow climb up the crossroads and final position where the radio operators call my position in. But I’m pushing hard and run it anyway, up over the top, push down some more fuel and lengthen the stride just a touch (how the hell am I actually running at this point) and cruise down towards Lake Sylvia. Screw the flashlight, turn that sucker off. Screw the headlamp, turn that sucker off too. Flying nearly blind in the dark, I’m re-doing the math in my head for the 89th time tonight and thinking, “Holy Cow, I’m gonna go under 22 hours!”

I cruise past the eerily silent campgrounds and Lake Sylvia day area, and start to ground the ¼ mi climb up towards the finish at Camp Ouachita. I take about a minute of walking, just trying to calm myself down, trying to take a moment to let it sink in, wiping off my watch in the rain and reading the time (!). But screw it, I pick up the run again, grind out that last climb, so the lights at the finish another 300-400m up, and POP!....there goes the right calf! Ooh oooh oooh, that hurts. A few limping strides, and oh yeah, I did a number on it this time. But screw it, there’s the line, it’s 3:45am, I strip off that wonderful hydration vest, strip off that headlamp, scream out loud “#61 IS COMING IN!” and baby it is done.

21 hours, 45 minutes, 45 seconds.

100 miles

A personal best by 5 hours, 40 minutes.

Quite probably the finest athletic performance of my life

Stan Ferguson plays the music for me, shakes my hands, and I head inside the lodge. Alas, Allan and Rob are nowhere to be found. After about 20min in the lodge, wrapped up in a blanket and eating some chicken soup, I borrow a cell phone (from a young kid who came in 2min ahead of me) to call Allan. Turns out he was not expecting me until 4:30am and was napping in the truck. When I called it said it was done, he initially thought “oh no, it’s over, he dropped out”. I say no dude, I’m finished, in the lodge. Can you bring me some dry clothes and a towel!

After that we head down to the campground and I grab a hot shower (heavenly), though I’ll admit to using the fold-down handicap bench in there to wash my feet! The Montrail Streak shoes had served me exceptionally well, covering all 100mi, but it was time to put them out of their misery and were left in the trash can at Lake Sylvia. Back at the lodge I managed to snack on some fruit, though I had little appetite at the moment. Rob came around 5:30am anticipating Blake’s arrival. We talked a while, Allan zoning out, I’m still flying on adrenaline. Funnier part of the morning was watching Chrissy Ferguson being escorted with an absolutely blank, expressionless look on her face, getting settled into a cot. She then got animated and spouted something to the effect “I am never f***ing doing that again”. Sure, Chrissy, sure.

Breakfast was served about 7:15am, tasted great but I still had little appetite. Napped fitfully in a lounge chair until 8am, when Rob grabbed me and we headed out to watch Blake roll in with Eric Fritz. His pace fell off after midnight, but he stayed steady, grabbed a trash bag to ward off the wet and cold, and made it to the line for redemption of our previous DNF, all with a huge smile on his face [insert his finish line photo].

Rest of the morning went by slow. Tried to eat some more, nut still little appetite. Tried to nap, with little success. Blake grabbed his buckle and headed out for Huntsville with Rob/Eric. Allan and I had a planned stay in Little Rock before his flight home the next morning, so we stayed for the awards ceremony at 12:30pm. Drove to Little Rock, check into the Embassy Suites, limped up to the room. Still not sleepy, I headed down to the swimming pool and soaked my legs in the semi-cold water there; the Jacuzzi looked inviting, but that would be foolish right about now. We grabbed some dinner, checked some email, posted photos and status to FB and Flickr, then Allan crashed out. Sleep come with difficulty for me, finally settled down around midnight.

Up around 4am Monday, Allan had a 5:40am flight back to Austin, so I drove him to the airport, then took a nap back at the hotel. Grabbed a huge (and well-earned) Embassy Suites breakfast before loading the truck and heading out (via Starbucks across the street from the hotel). The drive to Huntsville went fairly well, grabbed some more Starbucks in Memphis, but got home easier than anticipated. As it normal in a house with three boys, Kirsten was hammered from me being gone the past 4 days, and one child was coming down sick!

I still had trouble sleeping Monday night, so zombie’d through work on Tuesday and another restless night. Took Wednesday off and finally settled into a deep sleep that night; gracious how these races can screw up your internal mechanisms! I went to ART (physical therapy) appointments right away on Tuesday and Thursday, but it is going to be at least a month of no running with this right calf. Oh well, the line from The Replacements seems appropriate: Pain heal, chicks dig scars, glory…lasts forever.

So, anybody up for some mountain racing in Colorado next summer? ;-)

So where began the seeds of this success? Besides the mental fixation on my past DNF here, let us dial back 18 months to March 2008 at the Mississippi Trail 50-Miler, a fairly easy and run-able course in the DeSoto National Forest. Despite a series of ultras through the winter, my performance was less-than-stellar. It took me 10+ hours to get through a fast course. I was steady but just could not muster the speed and power of past times. It was very frustrating. So Allan and I kicked it around, then went back to the drawing board and re-tooled the training program, focusing on long-lost 10K speed. So through last Summer I ran speed, power, speed, power, and more of the same. No long stuff over an hour, every workout focusing on higher tempo pace pushing right through anaerobic threshold. I used some of that renewed speed to power success at the Inaugural Pinhoti 100 last November.

As I got into the Spring of 2009, Allan and I upped the ante and re-tooled a training program targeted at a 40min 10K pace. Through the Summer I again hammered track workouts, grueling tempo and fartlek runs, and hill sprint workouts, along with explosive power efforts in the weight room and via plyometrics. I threw in the Strolling Jim 40 (always a good time) in May plus a few some 2-3 hour trail runs in the early Summer to keep a taste of long work. Also in there was about half of Rob’s Dysmal 50K training effort on Monte Sano in prep for his trip to Hardrock.

The ramp-up for AT100 lasted eight weeks, and I got right out of the gate with a 50k at the Bartlett Park ultras in early August. That long run was the baseline, and I built in mileage from there in multiple ways. Training runs were restricted to 4 days a week (M, W, F, Sun) with two days lifting and one day of complete rest. Mon, Wed, Sun contained all the speed and power workouts. After Bartlett, the same workouts just got longer with more distance and intensity: longer fartlek, more/longer intervals, longer tempo, more hill repeats, etc. In addition, I incorporated a great lesson from Ray the K. He advocated the simple measure of adding on a few extra miles after your normal workout or elsewhere on the same training day. So I did that, adding on as much a 45min of “cool down” running after a hard track workout, an extra few miles at cruise pace after the tempo run, and pulling a ‘double’ (two-a-day) about once a week. Some might call this junk miles, but I say the definition of junk miles get real loose when it comes to ultrarunning. Or as DeWayne Satterfield aptly stated it once when we training down at Pinhoti: “Ain’t no such thing as junk miles when you’re training for a 100.” Mind you, I kept the non-running rest days in the schedule; I’ve learned that I’ve got to rest or I’ll blow out.

As with the successful run at Pinhoti, I planned for several day-long runs in this cycle to try to cement the AT100 success. Past the Bartlett Park 50K (where I pulled a steady 5:20 in the heat/humidity), Fridays (sometimes Saturdays) were the long runs, and I started extending those out. I basically went +2 hours every other week, going from 6hrs (initial plan at Bartlett) out through a plan for 12 hours. Some folks like the back-to-back long runs over the weekend; I go with the single long run at the same combined mileage. It works better in my schedule (back-to-back runs and 3 boys at home? No way), and I firmly believe for me it is superior physical and mental preparation for a 100. So I built longer and longer through August and September, culminating in a 103-mi week in mid-September; it was the biggest volume training week of my life, and included 56mi monster run at Wheeler NWR with Rob, Kathy, Blake, et al. I also put in long days of 50+ at Monte Sano, and 45+ at the Ocoee River area.

I believe another factor worth mentioning is how I incorporated a shift in my stride pattern starting in the early Summer. I had been steadily shifting towards lighter weight, more minimal running shoes, then a colleague at work handed me a copy of Chris McDougall’s Born to Run.[link]. Besides that it is just a fascinating book and a great read, it cemented for me the need to shift my normal running stride up off the heel and work a slightly shorter, faster tempo while striking at the midfoot and forefoot. I started with the fartlek workout in May and within a few weeks could feel the difference, and then see it in the times as I quickly chopped off a minute from my normal 6mi fartlek route. After pounding the last breaths of life from my old shoes, I switched back to a lighter trail shoe (the Montrail Streak I already had), plus a pair of NB904 for road work. It took several more weeks to get my feet used to the stride pattern, and I still need to concentrate on it some when I get tired, but it is permanent.

Next up on my training calendar? A few weeks of rest and therapy for the strained calf muscle. After that I might take some spin classes to do something different, plus get back in the weight room. We have aid station duties at the upcoming Pinhoti 100 (Nov 7-8), something I am hoping the Huntsville Track Club and Fleet Feet sponsor every year as well make our only 100 a permanent fixture in the UR calendar. But the next adventure should a 3-day crossing of the Georgia Pinhoti Trail, led by the fearless Rob Youngren. Stay tuned….