Monday, April 15, 2019

Race Recap: The National Sprint Du—Er, the National Supersprint Duathlon Championships

The National Sprint Duathlon Championships has been my "A" race for the spring. All my training efforts have been directed to doing well in this one event. So as the race approached, naturally I began keeping tabs on the weather—and the weather looked bleak. Thunderstorms all day on Sunday the 14th, with the worst of them at around 2 pm, just an hour after the race was scheduled to start.

But I knew that things could change, and it was still possible that a window would open up during which we could race, so I packed my bike up Saturday and drove down to Greenville, SC where the race was to be held. My main goal was just to improve on my performance from 2018, where I had finished 11th in my age group. To that end, I had resolved to lose 10 pounds so I'd be faster on the run, and work on transitions and starting the second run quickly off the bike.

Well, the 10 pounds never did come off, but my run training had gone well and I was feeling good about transitions and running faster after hard rides. So maybe I'd have a chance to improve on last year.

On Sunday morning the forecast for the afternoon was still looking grim. While many participants (including, hopefully, me) might be able to finish before the worst of the storms rolled in, my event included age-groupers as old as their late 80s, who might take more than three hours to finish. Soon we all learned that our already-short sprint was going to be made even shorter, effectively a supersprint, to ensure everyone could finish before the thunderstorms arrived. Instead of a 5k run, 11-mile ride, and 2-mile run, we'd be doing 2k, 4 miles, and 1.375k. A very short race indeed! Now transitions would take on an even greater importance in the event, so I decided to not even change into my biking shoes for the ride; I'd wear my racing flats throughout. This meant I wouldn't have to run on wet ground in stocking feet for over 50 yards from my bike rack to the mount point, and I wouldn't have to try to slide wet shoes onto my feet while I rode onto the course.

Getting ready to go near the start
Before the race started, a squall whipped through the transition area, knocking several bikes (including mine) off the racks. All the athletes (including me) poured back into the transition area to re-load their bikes. In the end I managed to balance it on there, and fortunately there wasn't another squall before we got going.

I got some strides in before the start, and then everyone lined up to race. I was in wave 3 (men age 50+), behind the younger male and female athletes. There was only a light drizzle during the run, but we sloshed through puddles to get to the start, and had to run through a small drainage stream once we got started. I felt okay, but probably hadn't warmed up quite enough for the short run, and so was only able to manage a 6:29 pace for the run. I should be able to do better than that for such a short distance. I whipped through the transition zone, slid my helmet on, and ran to the bike mount line. I was on my bike in 1:01 -- a big improvement over my 1:35 transition from last year!

My strategy of staying in my running shoes began to pay off almost instantly, as I passed 4 or 5 riders who were trying to slide their feet into their shoes on our way out of the park. We turned onto a highway that had been closed off for the race and I picked up the pace, passing several riders as I went. There was a nasty headwind, but not too much rain. I could only manage 15 mph or so on the uphill sections, but picked it up to the mid-20s on downhills. So many hills in just 2.1 miles! I was passing quite a few riders in this section, and was only passed once. Finally we arrived at the turnaround, after which we'd have a tailwind all the way back. We'd been warned that our brakes wouldn't be very responsive, so to be extra careful on the turnaround. Result: I was probably too careful and had a hard time getting back up to speed. Also, I forgot to downshift and took a second to find the right gear. All these mistakes add up when you're only riding 4.2 miles!

Eventually I got back on track and was able to maintain a faster pace on the way back -- in the 30s on downhills and high teens on uphills. I was giving it an all-out effort, gasping for breath at every moment. Then we turned back into the park and once again I was able to pass several riders fiddling with their shoes. I averaged 21.3 mph for the ride, which was slower than the 21.7 average I had managed the previous year on a much longer ride. The rainy and windy conditions probably had something to do with this, but I also think it's due to the slower section inside the park, which constitutes a proportionately longer part of the ride on the shortened course. If you exclude that section, my speed for the ride jumps to 22.3 mph (compared to 22.2 mph last year in better conditions).

I executed a perfect flying dismount and headed for my bike rack. I threw down my helmet and took off, again saving time because I didn't need to put my running shoes on. T2 was 51 seconds, compared to 1:17 last year.

On the final run, I felt quite a bit stronger than I had last year, and was able to run pretty quickly right out of the gate. It wasn't quite as fast as Run 1, but I was doing a solid 6:40 pace. We climbed a tough hill to get out of the park, and a runner passed me. I looked down at his calf and saw a "53"—he was in my age group! I couldn't let him pull away! So I picked up the pace and hung right behind him, gasping for every breath. About 200 yards from the finish, he seemed to slow a bit, so I tried to pass him with authority. I turned into the park and ran as fast as I could down the hill. There was just one sharp right-hand corner and maybe 50 yards of chute left in the race. As I rounded the corner, "53" whipped past me on the inside. DAMMIT! I tried to keep pace with him but it was no use; he beat me across the line by one second!

I ended up in ninth place in my age group -- two placings better than last year. It's hard to compare the two performances, though, because the distances and conditions were so different. I had saved a full minute in transition -- there's no question of the improvement there -- but I was technically slower on the ride (even though I was faster on the "real" section on the open road). I was hoping for a better performance, but I'm still pretty happy with what I did. 

At the finish after the race. You can see it has been partially destroyed by the winds!
I've got another duathlon in two weeks, in Cary, NC. Assuming the race goes as planned, that might be a better place to assess where I am compared to last year.

Oh, and one more thing: Apparently my performance in this race means that I have qualified to be on Team USA in the world championships in the Netherlands in 2020. I'm seriously considering joining the team and trying my hand at an international championship. Stay tuned!

Details from yesterday's race are below:

Monday, July 23, 2018

Brief Race Recap: Lake Hickory Triathlon

After spending the first half of the year focusing on ultras, for next season I've decided to get back to my strength: shorter running races and duathlons. So naturally that meant the first race I signed up for after the Amalfi Positano Ultratrail was the Lake Hickory TRIathlon. I mean, my friend Rob needed to do his first tri, and the swim was only 400 yards, so it was almost like doing a duathlon, right?

In the spirit of mastering shorter races, I had spent some time over the past month practicing transitions. My goal was to get my transitions under 1 minute, and I mastered the half-flying mount, putting and taking off my bike shoes while riding, and doing a full flying dismount. Then I got a look at the Lake Hickory bike course and had second thoughts about putting my shoes on during the ride. It proceeded gradually uphill from the transition zone for about a quarter mile, then hit a STEEP uphill. If I couldn't get my shoes on before then, I'd be riding barefoot for nearly the first mile. Since my bike was only about 30 feet from the bike exit, I decided I'd be better off putting on my shoes at the bike, and then mounting at the line. Here's my setup in the transition zone:

As minimal as I dared!

I went out for a quick warmup ride and run, then headed to the start, where I posed for a photo with my novice buddy Rob:

Rob may be a novice triathlete, but he's got me beat in posing for race photos! Thanks to Nicole for the photo!

I was in the second start wave, and I decided to hang back a bit since I'm a relatively slow swimmer. This turned out to be a bit of a bad idea, because I spent most of the swim trying and failing to pass other swimmers. While the race website listed the swim as 400 yards, my watch recorded 565 yards. It sure seemed farther than 400 yards! Needless to say, my swim time of 10:55 was a bit disappointing, and it placed me in sixth place out of seven in my age group. I'm hoping the course really was long, because I don't want to believe I can only swim 400 yards at a rate of 2:44/100! Here I am exiting the swim.

Mainly glad I'm finished with the swim! Nicole van Baelen photo

The first transition was definitely not going to be under one minute, not so much because of my lack of skills, but the fact that the swim exit was about 500 feet from the transition zone. I got to the bike as quickly as possible, slipped on my shoes, and ran to the mount line where I executed a perfect half-flying mount. My 1:36 T1 ranked me second in my group. Much better!

The ride was a challenging one: A double loop with over 1,000 feet of climbing in just 16 miles. I made it past the steep ascent out of the transition area and then focused on picking off all those faster swimmers ahead of me. One by one I zipped by them, my average speed climbing from 18 to 19 to 21+ miles per hour. The course included lots of long, gradual ups, with few flat sections, and steep, relatively technical downhills. Every downhill seemed to have a sharp turn at the bottom, so it was difficult to carry speed onto the uphill sections. Still, I was definitely doing better than most riders. No one passed me on the ride, and I passed dozens, including many who were wearing my age group number.

Finally I was on the steep downhill to the finish. I had taken care to remove my shoes before I got to this section, so I could concentrate on controlling my speed and dismounting at the proper spot. Final pace for the ride: 21.3 mph, the 10th fastest bike leg in the entire field and 2nd in my age group. I nailed the flying dismount and scooted to my rack, where I quickly slipped on my shoes. I did have to take a moment to wipe the gravel off my feet, but I still made it to the run start in 56 seconds, just under my 1 minute goal. Here I am starting the run:

Ready to pound the pavement.

The 5k run started up the same steep hill as the ride, and I accelerated as quickly as I could up the hill, picking off a couple of runners as I went. My target pace for the run was sub-7:00 per mile, but these hills were making that pace a challenge. The first mile featured 108 feet of climbing, and the best I could manage was a 7:36. Mile 2 offered some relief, but there was still 56 feet of climbing. I ran down a hill to an out-and-back, which meant I had to run up the same hill. On the way down I saw a guy walking up; surely I'd be able to pass him at some point. I let that be my motivation as I churned back up the hill.

Unfortunately, after climbing out of the dead-end, we were turned down yet another downhill out-and-back! I chugged back up this second hill, clicking off a 7:22 Mile 2. There was yet more uphill in store in Mile 3, but here at least I finally caught up to Walking Guy, who was telling another runner he had severe stomach cramps. Thanks, dude, you just ruined my killer instinct by making me feel sorry for you! Not sorry enough to stop and help or anything, but sorry nonetheless. Finally I rounded the last corner and was able to head downhill toward the finish line! I finished Mile 3 in 7:20. Within sight of the finish line, I picked it up to 6:34 for the final 0.2 miles; my watch had the course a bit long, so my overall time for the run was 23:38; not bad but not the 21 and change I was hoping for. Again that was the second-fastest in my age group. Here's a shot of me crossing the finish line:

Fortunately the ambulance would prove unnecessary!

As you might guess, the two second-place finishes on the ride and run put me second overall in my age group. Even without the poor swim, I would have finished second to the winner, Frederic Six, who was first in all three disciplines! Fellow DARTers Rob and Glenn finished soon after, in their first and second triathlons respectively. Rob ended up getting second in his division (Masters Novice), and Glenn was happy with his result as well. Here I am on the podium with my award and the other winners:

Congrats to all! Rob Marcus photo.

No race is complete without a post-race meal, and Rob and I were able to find a good one in a local diner on the way home. Fabulous burger and tater tots! Eat all the calories! Even if it's just a sprint!

Details of my race are below.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Race Recap: The Amalfi Positano Ultratrail

As I was running the Amalfi Positano Ultratrail yesterday, I spent some time going over the recap I was planning to write today. I had plenty of time to think about it: I spent over 11 hours on the trail. One thing I WASN’T thinking about, ironically, was how close I was to missing the final time cutoff at Capo Mauro, 43 kilometers in to the 50k race—runners were required to check in here by 5 pm, 10 hours in. Surely I could run what was essentially a marathon in under 10 hours!

I had signed up for this race six months ago on a bit of a whim. There was this movie online that made the race look absolutely incredible. I convinced my wife Greta and our friend Suzanne to go along: “we’ll make a trip of it! We’ll visit all the parts of Italy we’ve never been to.”

Before I knew it, the trip was booked. Then, a few days ago, again before I knew it, I was in Italy, getting ready for what I hoped would be the race of a lifetime.

And again before I knew it, I was at the confusing, frantic start of a race where 90% of the participants spoke a language I hadn’t studied for 30 years. The announcer was trying to relay important information to us, in Italian, when it became clear that the few Americans and Brits in the field weren’t getting it. Finally an Anglophone was found, and he explained that we needed to get our bibs scanned manually at the start line—there was no actual starting mat! I rushed up to get scanned, then lined up at the start.

Me with a bunch of Italian guys
A few minutes later, we were off. The first mile was on the paved streets of Agerola, high above the Amalfi Coast that gave the race its name, giving the runners a chance to spread out before we hit singletrack.

Not long after hitting the trail, we were rewarded with our first spectacular views of the coast, 1,500 feet below, shrouded in mist.

Whoah!
Soon we would be down there, right at sea level, with barely time to catch our breath before heading up, even higher into the mountains above the dramatic Amalfi coast. The race's organizers practically boasted about its imposing 3,060 meters of vertical gain (and loss) over the course of the event. As Brolympus would say, that's 10,039 feet in American! Here's the elevation profile provided in the race packet:

I modified the profile (in green) to add the elevation and distance to key landmarks
As you can see, the race features two major climbs and three big descents, with a lot of "small" hills in between that would be imposing in their own right in any other race. As it turned out, the apartment we had rented for the week of the visit was situated just above the aid station at 10.5 km, so Greta and Suzanne decided to form an impromptu cheer station there. I was supposed to text them when I reached the Fiordo di Furore 8.7 km in to make sure they arrived on time. When I arrived at the Fiordo, a haunting, narrow inlet flanked by steep cliffs, my hands were so sweaty that I couldn't operate the touchscreen on my phone. I was about to give up when I remembered that I was carrying some dry paper towels in a ziploc as an emergency supply of toilet paper. That did the trick, and I was able to send a brief text: "At bottom," which was enough to alert them that I was on the way.

Before I got to the Fiordo, I descended a seemingly endless staircase. "The longest staircase I've ever seen" according to my new running buddy, a nice fellow from Bristol, England, whose name I never learned. We made our way to a narrow parapet above the coastal highway, where we crawled through a hole in a bricked-off wall that was supposed to indicate the trail was closed, before proceeding along the route. On the other end of the parapet we crossed through another "trail closed" barrier. Apparently this is how Italian trail runners roll.

We climbed another steep trail out of the Fiordo before emerging onto a paved road. It was here, the day before, that I met another runner on my shakeout run. She was a little freaked out because a sketchy-looking guy seemed to be following her as she previewed the course. I offered to run with her to a nearby cafe -- the same cafe, it turned out, that would be our aid station on the following day. She told me she had previewed nearly the entire course over the previous three days. She wouldn't be able to do the race itself because she and her new husband had to leave that day, so they had run it on their own instead. This paved road, a gradual uphill, turned out to be the fastest, flattest part of the entire course. It lasted about a mile.

At the end of this mile was the cafe / aid station with my personal cheering squad. Greta and Suzanne were cheering not only for me, but for every runner who passed. I stopped and chatted with them for a few minutes, then grabbed some water and took off. Greta documented the visit:

Approaching the aid station

Saying arrivederci!

Now it was on to the first big climb: 873 meters to the top of Monte Murilo (that's 2,864 feet for my metric-impaired readers). The first part of the climb was on a manageable trail, but soon it turned nearly straight up the side of the cliff. It was at this point that I remembered my friend Carl telling about his recent, extremely technical ultra back home: "It's so steep that if you stop to take a rest you have to hang on to a tree." My response as I made my way up this barren slope was "what tree?" It was so steep that I questioned whether I should have hauled my trekking poles along. Why bother when you can just reach out and touch the hillside directly in front of you?

Somewhere on the steepest hill I've ever raced up....

At one point I ran into another pair of the few English-speakers on the trail: two British guys. I passed them and headed up a steep gully. Here the trail was not only steep, there were sticker bushes choking the path. As I finished ascending the sketchiest section, the two Brits emerged above me: They had noticed that the real trail actually looped around this section. "Need a hand?" one of them asked as he passed. Next I caught up to a group headed up an even steeper gully. As I arrived, the Brits again noticed that the actual marked path turned off to the left, avoiding this difficult pitch. I charged past all six of them and headed up the marked path, making a mental note to look for course markings EVERYWHERE.

Every ten minutes or so, I checked the elevation on my watch. Only 1,500 feet? Really? Then "Only 1,700 feet? Really? And so on until I was at a panoramic viewpoint seemingly overlooking the entire Amalfi coast. I stopped to take a couple pictures:

That's Amalfi!

I'm on the Amalfi Coast!
Here the course circumnavigated the top of Monte Murillo before finally arriving at the next aid station (15.5k), where the course split between the 30k and 50k routes. I was checked in with an official time stamp and was able to sample a full Italian aid station, which included apricot tarts (which I didn't try), raisins (which I did), and bread with honey (which sounded better than it tasted). Since according to my trail map there were several water stops before the next aid station just over 10k away, I only took on about a liter of water. My Grand Canyon partner Rich will be glad to hear that there was also Coke -- but lukewarm, not ice cold. Since I knew I had a big descent ahead I tightened my laces and continued on.

The descent started fairly technical and ended on a long staircase, some parts very rough and others well finished. Down, down we went, until finally entering a town above Amalfi and heading back up. I hadn't spotted any water stops but wasn't too concerned since I knew more were coming. The trail wound up and down, past waterfalls, over creeks, but still with no official water stops. Were we just supposed to fill up at the creek? I didn't have any kind of water purification device, and it seemed like there were plenty of livestock in the area so I guessed the water was not safe to drink. Here are a few photos from this seemingly-endless section of trail.

Deep in the forest

Amalfi...so far away!

I'm in the mountains! In Italy!

According to my watch I should have been at the 26.8k aid station a while ago, but the long descent to the station hadn't materialized. I began rationing water, taking just a tiny sip every ten minutes or so. I was definitely never completely parched but I certainly wasn't comfortable with the amount I was drinking. Finally, the descent began, and in another mile or so I arrived at the aid station. I was officially over halfway done with the race but I wasn't ready to "count" it until I finished the massive climb that was ahead of me: From 277 to 1,009 meters, or a climb of 2,400 feet.

This climb started with -- you guessed it -- more stairs. At this point I was much more tired than I had been previously, and the sun was fully overhead, baking me and the other runners. I was also carrying a full 3 liters of water because the map indicated we'd have no water for the next 10k. Taking this all into account, I allowed myself to take intermittent breaks. At one of them I stopped to take a photo of Amalfi behind:

Stairs above Amalfi
When we finally left the stairs and headed back onto trails, I took a look at my watch and saw that we were still depressingly far from the top of the climb. I knew we'd reach a summit and then run along a relatively flat stretch before reaching the aid station, but for now we ran through a dark forest, up technical trails, up and up some more. Finally I saw we were at an elevation of 3,100 feet and figured this must be the top, but we just kept climbing. I reminded myself that 1,000 meters was more like 3,300 feet. Not yet, Munger!

Eventually, finally, the trail leveled off. But now this meant I needed to be running. It had been so long since I'd been on a runnable stretch that I had to remind myself how to do it. Slowly, one step at a time, I started running. The trail got more and more runnable, until finally it was an actual road! A gnarly, unpaved road, but a road nonetheless. After a series of 25-plus-minute miles, I was finally running sub-16 miles. I even knocked out a sub-14 mile! I laughed at myself for being happy about a 13:xx mile. The 36k aid station arrived quickly, and I became more optimistic about my prospects. Just 9 miles left! To get an official finish, you needed to come in under 12 hours; I was now at 8:40. I had 3:20 to run 9 miles. Surely I could manage that, especially since the rest of the course was flat-to-downhill. All I needed was 20-minute miles, and I'd finish with 20 minutes to spare.

Naturally, as soon as I left the aid station I hit another monster hill. A 200-meter hill looks flat on an elevation profile that goes up to 1,200 meters! I did the mental math as I went, and my prospects looked worse and worse. But I consoled myself by knowing the last mile would definitely be on a flat road. Even if I lost 10 minutes to my 20-minute average, I could make it up on the last mile.

Unfortunately it wasn't just the uphills that were challenging in this section. The downhills were gnarly and rocky. I couldn't pick up speed anywhere. I was running 25, 27-minute miles. Finally I arrived at the last aid station, and the attendant there stopped me. He made a phone call. In broken English, he told me my race was over. They were cutting me off. I missed the cutoff by 8 minutes. I said I would make my own way to the finish, even if it wasn't official. They said no, I needed a medic. A medic? I felt fine. No, I told them, I'd continue on.

As I left, an older man, probably in his 60s, followed me. "La macchina. Ti guiderò in macchina."—I'll drive you in the car.

"No," I said. "Puo finire." I figured I'd easily leave this guy in my dust as I headed down the trail. Unfortunately he proved more adept than I anticipated (either that or I was really just that lame). The trail, as always, was quite rough, and the footing was unsteady. Then I stumbled on a rock and toppled into a spiny bush. I was fine, just a couple scrapes, but my calf immediately cramped up. Nothing I couldn't stretch and run on, but the man became more insistent that I give up.

"Hai bisogno di un medico," he said.

"No, no medico," I replied.

I kept moving, but began to wonder what the point of it was. Whether I "finished" or not, I would not be an official finisher. I had run for over 10 hours in some of the most beautiful scenery I'd ever witnessed. I'd still have that experience, no matter what. I decided it wasn't worth arguing about in a foreign language. I'd stop. The man had indicated that the car was a short ways down the trail, where the refreshments were set up. We continued down for a few more minutes and arrived at the refreshment table, which was already being broken down.

As I sat there filling up on bananas and water, another runner came by. He was much more insistent on finishing, and continued on. Then an Italian woman arrived. She chatted with the aid station workers, then addressed me in English: "Dave, come on, you can finish. I will run with you to the finish."

I was surprised that she knew my name. "No, I said. This is it for me." She stayed for a few minutes, chatting with the workers, then convinced another runner to go with her to the finish. I hung out for a few more minutes, then asked the workers in broken Italian how long it would take for the car to leave and drive me to the finish. He said he had to wait for all the other DNF runners to arrive. I figured that might take an hour or more, so I decided to make my way to the finish. It had become apparent that there was a shortcut I could take on the roads, so I packed up my stuff and told them I was going. No one tried to stop me.

Just as I left, a goatherd arrived in the station with 100 or so goats. They were heading down the same road I would travel. While the goats and their herd dog sauntered down the road, the goatherd stopped to chat with the aid station volunteers. So my return to civilization began in the middle of a herd of goats. They were wary of me as I ran down the road, and eventually I started to overtake them. The skittered off the side of the road into the forest, parting so I could pass. When I passed the herd dog, he looked back at his disjointed herd as if to say "what is up with these stupid animals? It's just a dumb human running by."

The road was smooth and paved, and I was able to run easy 11-minute miles back to the start, about 3.2 miles -- saving myself 1.3 miles and more gnarly trail. I was able to snap one last picture of the glorious Amalfi Coast before descending into the town of Agerola:

The view west as the Amalfi Coast fades into the mist
Soon I was back at the start / finish, where confused race officials grilled me on the status of the other runners. How many runners were still out there? Was I running with them? I tried to explain that they had gone on the trail and I'd taken a shortcut, and that there were probably other runners behind us. Then the medic arrived and asked to check me out. I told her I was fine, and she seemed to believe me. Another man asked if I wanted to eat something -- I could walk with him over to the refreshment table. But between us and the food was my car. It sounded much better to get in the car and head back to my lovely rental apartment with a view of the coast. I sent a text to Greta and told her I'd be there in 30 minutes. There was pizza and beer waiting for me. I couldn't imagine a better end to an amazing, wonderful, challenging, confusing, intense, incredible day.

Postlog
My watch tracked the distance I ran on the course as 28.13 miles, plus 3.22 miles to the finish, for a total of 31.35 miles -- just over 50k. I ran 10:08 on the course and 35 and change off the course  -- a total of 10 hours and 43 minutes. My watch doesn't seem to want to communicate that 28.13-mile run to my phone and the "official" online sources of Garmin Connect and Strava, so I can't break down the stats of the run much beyond that right now. I'll be able to sort it all out when I get home. I don't think at my current level of fitness I could have run much faster. I'm just not a great runner on technical trails, and there was a ton of technical running on this course. I think if I had done a lot more hill work in training I could have completed the climbs faster, and maybe made up that elusive 8 minutes to avoid the cutoff, but I'm not letting it bother me much. I still got to do an epic run in a beautiful place, so I'm very happy with that. Now I get to enjoy another week and a half of vacation before heading back to the real world. I'll see you then.

Monday, April 30, 2018

The Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim Run

For the past 6 months or so, I've been set on completing what many runners consider a "bucket list" run: The Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim (or R3). It's an awesome task: Run from one rim of the canyon down to the bottom, cross the Colorado River, run up the other side, and then run all the way back—41 to 45 miles, with over 10,000 feet of climbing.

My wife has tried to explain the run to non-runners and had mixed success. She was telling our neighbor Ed about it, saying "it's a thing for runners." 

"It's not a thing," Ed replied, confidently.

I guess Ed doesn't read the same fitness websites that I frequent. The Daily Burn rates it as the top trail running adventure to try before you die

I planned to do the run after a short visit with my mom in Tucson at the end of April. My friend Rich would join me in Phoenix on Wednesday, and we'd drive together to the canyon, do the run on Thursday, and fly home on Friday. After studying the various Facebook groups and websites devoted to this "non-thing," we determined that we could probably finish the run in around 12 hours, a fairly easy average pace of 15 minutes per mile.

Before I knew it, it was Wednesday, April 25, and Rich and I were "carbo loading" at lunch with beers and burgers in Flagstaff, just an hour away from the canyon. 

Burgers are carbs, right?
After our meal we headed up to the park, checked into our lodge, and took a half-mile stroll from our room to the edge of the canyon for the obligatory pre-run selfies.

Looking good!

Feeling good!
The sheer verticality of the canyon was evident from a number of vistas:

The river crosses the center of the photo; we'd run up the
smaller canyon on the right of the photo tomorrow
before climbing the north rim

As we discussed our route, a tour group of senior women overheard us. "You're going to hike DOWN THERE?" one of them asked. We explained the run to them and they were awestruck. "That's AMAZING," they said. "You are superstars! Can we take a selfie with you?" We felt a little like imposters as we posed for the photo with them. We certainly wouldn't be challenging Jim Walmsley's sub-6-hour R3!

After a dinner at the pasta buffet at the Yavapai Lodge, we crashed early in anticipation of our 3:30 a.m. alarm. After a bit of a fitful night's sleep, we lumbered out of bed and slathered ourselves with sunscreen. My weather app said it was 31 degrees at the rim, but Rich consulted another app that reported a more-comfortable 43 degrees. We'd be running the first couple hours in darkness, but we expected things to heat up considerably by the time we reached the river. 

This is the satellite-tracking map of our run. We started the beacon
at our hotel so the first part of this track was our taxi ride to the start!
The plan was to pack enough food for the whole trip, but pick up water along the way. The first 7 miles down South Kaibab trail had no water but we expected it to go quickly, so I carried about 2 liters of water, just in case. At 4:10 we headed out into the darkness to meet the taxi that would take us to the start. As it turned out, it wasn't too cold and our thin jackets kept us reasonably comfortable. By 4:25 we were taking selfies at the trailhead in the dark.

Yep, it's dark!

Rich snapped a slightly better photo of me with his flash.
Yes, that's a really dorky hat I've got but it
definitely was effective against sunburn!
About 4:30, we headed down the trail and too realized we were overdressed. The temperature probably rose by 20 degrees as soon as we were over the rim. We decided it would be silly to stop after just a quarter-mile so agreed to go a mile before stopping to strip off our outer layers.

For the first few miles, we ran carefully. It would be incredibly annoying to suffer a fall having barely started the trip. We could see the headlamps of another group perhaps a mile ahead; we figured they were doing the same thing as us! Unfortunately we missed some of the most spectacular views of the canyon due to the darkness, but after a few miles, the sun started brightening the horizon and we stopped for a couple of photos:

First decent view of the canyon!

I sneak into Rich's panorama

The run down South Kaibab was comfortable, but I could already tell that my legs were getting pounded. About 5 miles in we caught up with the group ahead of us: Four guys from Ohio, three of them doing their first R3 run. "You guys are fast!" they told us, "I guess we'll see you coming down from the North Rim while we are headed up!" We stayed fairly even with them and reached the bridge across the river at Mile 7 together.

Headed into the tunnel to access the bridge

Our Ohioan friends snapped our photo on the bridge

View of the Colorado from the bridge

Another half-mile and we had reached Phantom Ranch, where the bell called the guests from their cabins to "second breakfast" at the restaurant. We sat outside on the picnic tables eating our Uncrustables and filling up with water. I decided 2 liters would be plenty to get me to the Cottonwood Campground (6.4 miles in) where there would surely be water. We had heard a trip report saying there was also water at the Manzanita rest stop and the North Rim, and the entire route up to Roaring Springs 8.6 miles from Phantom Ranch went along a creek with water that could be filtered if necessary.

Back on the trail, the first few miles were very runnable, going through a narrow canyon that crossed the Bright Angel Creek several times on well-constructed bridges. I glanced at my watch a couple times, where I was being given credit for knocking off a 9:20 mile. I was pretty sure I wasn't going that fast, which meant that my Garmin's mileage would be way off. With no real way to know exactly where we were, the only thing to do was to continue plugging along. The narrow canyon was beautiful, and would be enormous anywhere else in the world, but here we knew we were in just a tiny corner of a canyon system that stretched many times farther and deeper. If we had been suddenly transported to this canyon, we'd have no idea what incredible expanses lay beyond. 

Entering the small canyon formed by Bright Angel Creek

Rich coming up the trail
After a few miles of this, the canyon opened up a bit, and we had the first bits of direct sunlight. It was going to be a long, hot day. The North Kaibab Trail was 13.5 miles long, and we'd be running both directions on it. More than a marathon on just the north half of the canyon alone!

A cactus beginning to bloom in the morning

A flowering, pink prickly pear
Throughout the run we had seen quite a bit of wildlife: Deer, squirrels, ravens, butterflies, but nothing dangerous--until I rounded a corner and heard something I'd never heard in person: The unmistakable razzing of a rattlesnake! Fortunately this guy decided to move off the trail as soon as he saw me coming:

Glad this was a shy fellow!
It was quite a slog to the Cottonwood Campground, which was buggy and had no water other than the creek. Since we were pretty sure there would be water at Manzanita 1.4 miles away, we kept going. Sure enough, we reached Manzanita and found a tap and plenty of cold water. The Ohioans were here too, but just heading out. I guess they weren't as slow as they thought (or we weren't as fast)!

After Manzanita, it would be 5.7 miles and 3,600 vertical feet to the North Rim. The trail ascended steeply and there was very little running, just steady hiking as the day got progressively hotter, even though we were now over 4,600 feet in elevation. 

Roaring Springs emerges from the side of a cliff
View of the canyon from North Kaibab trail

I'm in a canyon!

Rich heads up the North Kaibab Trail

I also made a short movie which should give you a sense of what it was like to climb this section:


About three miles from the rim, Rich sat down on a rock. He looked absolutely exhausted. We weren't even halfway through the run and here he was almost totally spent. I didn't feel great but I was pretty sure I was in better shape than Rich. I didn't want to stop. I suggested that I could go on ahead and he could turn around if he needed to. He agreed that might be a better plan. If he was really exhausted, I'd probably catch up to him, depending on where he turned around, and we could finish together. So I plodded ahead by myself.

After another mile I met up with two of the Ohioans, who also looked to be mightily struggling. I stopped to refill my soft flasks with water from my main bladder. I had about a liter of water left, so I was in good shape to get to the top where I could refill.  "Do you think you could spare a little water?" asked one of the guys, "I miscalculated and I'm completely out!" I gave him a half-liter, figuring even if I went without water for the last half-mile or so I'd be fine.

We hiked together towards the rim, eventually running into the first two Ohioans on their way down. "There's nice cold water at the top," they told us. "You are nearly there! We've only been descending for 8 minutes tops." I picked up the pace and soon was at the top ahead of the Ohioans. I had started cramping in a new spot, my left hamstring near the knee. I've had problems with my high hamstrings for years, but never down by the knees. The pain was excruciating!

Then I sat down for a moment. Big mistake ... I got a massive camp in my right calf (the OTHER leg) and it took a tortuous minute for me to stretch it out. I decided to stay on my feet for a while as I limped over to the faucets to fill my flasks. I drank nearly a liter of refreshing, cool water from the tap and finally felt almost human again.

By then the second two Ohioans had arrived. "You saved us, dude!" one of them told me, "we were both out of water and I don't think we would have made it without your help." We chatted and ate for another ten minutes or so. They wanted to do something to thank me, so I took a couple of "fun size" Payday bars as a fair trade for the water. As it turned out, I would be glad I did.

Finally I decided it was time to go. I filled all my bottles with 3 liters of water, took a quick selfie at the North Kaibab Trail sign and then headed back down.

Halfway!
Due to the cramping in both legs, I decided to go easy at the start. Honestly I don't think I could have run if I had wanted to. Walking seemed just fine for now, even if the downhills are supposed to be where you make up time on this route. Amazingly, five minutes down the trail, I ran into Rich, headed up. "I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if I got three miles from the North Rim and then turned around," he explained. He actually looked much better than he had when I left him.

"That's awesome," I said. I briefly entertained the notion of running back up to the top with him, but then thought the better of it. "You go up to the top, take a nice break, fill up with water, and then head on down. I will just walk until you catch up to me." My legs still didn't want to run, so this seemed like a better idea than joining Rich at the top and then possibly getting dropped by him later!

So I made my way down at a steady walking pace, taking time to shoot photos as I went.

Redbuds blooming on the trailside

An imposing cliff
I made another video crossing a neat bridge deep in the canyon:


About five miles from the rim, Rich finally caught up with me, and we picked up the pace a bit as we headed towards the Manzanita rest stop. We took a quick break, refilled with water, and continued on down the canyon. We were drinking much more water along this section as the day got progressively hotter and we spent more time in the sunlight. I had been carefully applying sunscreen all day and didn't notice any sunburn. My dorky hat was really paying off in this section, keeping my face and neck shaded so I didn't have to worry about the sun in those areas (though I slathered the sunscreen there as well, just in case!).

It was here, about 8 miles from Phantom Ranch, that Rich and I both began to experience painful blisters. Mine was on the left heel, and Rich's was on his toe. His got bad enough that he decided to stop, only to realize that neither of us had anything to pierce it with. Frustrated, he pulled his shoe back on and continued down. He couldn't run on steeper downhills but managed to pick it up to a run on the flatter sections, which fortunately were becoming more frequent as we got closer to the bottom.

Cactus flowers now in full bloom
We re-entered the narrow canyon near Phantom ranch and once again my Garmin started reporting irrationally fast paces. At one point I logged a 5:28 mile, which if it had any basis in reality would have been my fastest mile ever. This close-up of my Garmin route seems to show me springing from canyon wall to canyon wall when in reality I was just plodding along the trail at the bottom:

Spider-Man would have difficulty duplicating this route!

We knew we were getting close to Phantom Ranch but we weren't sure exactly how close. We passed the two lagging Ohioans, who had again run out of water. They didn't ask us for any because we all believed we were near the ranch and the creek was right there if they really needed it. I was expecting  to see the ranch around every corner, but it took us about 30 minutes longer than our least-optimistic estimates to finally arrive, despite being able to run much of this section of the trail.

Rich and I were hoping that the Phantom Ranch Cantina would be open and stocked with cold Coca-Colas. Unfortunately it was closed; It was nearly 6 pm and the cantina closed at 4. We weren't even close to making it.

Again we sat at the picnic tables outside, eating our Uncrustables and refilling our water bladders. There were lots of campers lounging around this area, and while they had all hiked at least 7 miles to get there, to us who had just run 34 miles in the blazing heat, they may as well have been lazy full-service resort guests. They all seemed somewhat in awe of us, and amazed that we still had 9.3 miles to go. The Ohioans made it to the ranch and we traded notes for a while until it was time for me and Rich to make the final push home.

Both of us were already nearly totally spent. The thermometer at the ranch read 95 degrees in the shade. But the sun was going down, so we were hopeful that temps would decline on our way out of the canyon. There would be no running from here on out; it was a 9.3-mile hike to the rim.

We crossed the river on the second bridge and turned onto the Bright Angel Trail, which, depressingly, didn't immediately head out of the canyon, but instead proceeded along the river for nearly 2 miles. I took my last photo of the trip here, of a blooming cactus above the river:

Lovely!
We finally reached an attractive-looking beach where the trail turned up the side of the canyon. We decided that if we ever came back to run the canyon, we'd just run down to this beach, hang out for a few hours, then climb out, skipping the brutal heat of the North Kaibab Trail to the North Rim.

A quarter of a mile up the trail, I began to hear the bleating of sheep. I hadn't realized there were sheep in the canyon; we might as well have been in Scotland with all the racket from the sheep. But I never saw one. Finally I realized that I wasn't hearing sheep at all; the noise was produced by frogs croaking in nearby Pipe Creek. But though we crossed the creek several times, I never spotted one of these curious croaking frogs in the water.

After a while, the creek dried up and the trail hugged the side of a cliff. The moon had risen and cast a subtle glow on the trail, making us think we might not need our headlamps even though we would probably not arrive at the rim until after 10:00. Just then I heard a rattling from the spot where I was getting ready to step. Another snake! This one was smaller than the first, but coiled in position to strike. I stopped just in time, and used my trekking pole to try to guide it off the trail. It moved only reluctantly. There was a cliff extending upward on the left of the 4-foot-wide trail, and a drop-off on the right. I guess it was understandable that the snake didn't want to leave the trail. I nudged it to the edge of the trail and then quickly moved past it.

Since Rich didn't have trekking poles, I waited for him, then tried to keep the snake pinned to the side of the trail so Rich could pass. Then snake kept rattling and trying to move to the center of the trail. Understandably, Rich didn't want to go by. Finally I got the snake to move aside a bit, and Rich zipped past. It was the fastest I'd seen him move all day! After that we decided maybe it would be better to wear our headlamps so we could spot snakes sooner!

Soon the creek reappeared, and we crossed it several more times. At one crossing, it was unclear which direction to go. There was a faint trail heading up the canyon wall to the left, or a drop-off back down to the creek. The trail didn't seem distinct enough to be our route, but there was no other sign of a trail in the darkness. We didn't want to head up a trail only to have to turn back. Finally we decided to cross the creek again, and fortunately found the trail on the other side!

The trail climbed up and up until finally we reached Indian Gardens campground. Halfway to the top in terms of distance -- yeah! But then I looked at the altimeter on my watch and realized that our elevation was just 3800 feet. We'd climbed 1400 feet but had another 3000 feet of climbing to get to the rim! I decided to focus on the positive and only told Rich the part about being halfway there. I ate my last Uncrustable and the last Payday bar the Ohioans had given me. We refilled our water and continued on. Even in the darkness, well after sunset, the thermometer here read 80 degrees.

Slowly, steadily, we plodded on up the hill in the darkness. Some of the steps carved into the trail were very tall for our tired legs; I dreaded whenever we came to one of these, and struggled to avoid cramping as I stretched my leg to climb it. Rich had to stop several times. I wanted to keep moving but didn't want to leave Rich behind, so I stuck with him at these moments. We could see a pair of headlamps far below -- that must have been the Ohioans. Ahead of us was another set of headlamps that seemed to be getting closer, but we could never quite catch up.

We reached the 3-mile rest house. At an elevation of 4700 feet we had barely completed half the climbing to the rim, despite having hiked over two-thirds of the distance. We kept moving. There was water at the 1.5-mile rest house, but we still had over 1000 feet of climbing to go. We did finally catch the headlamps that were ahead of us, a pair of hikers who had wisely only gone to the river and back that day. As we continued, slowly the silhouettes of buildings on the rim came into view above us. A couple more switchbacks and we had made it! We were at the top. It was 11:15 pm.

We walked down to the shuttle stop and could see that no shuttles were running. It was still two miles to our lodge, but fortunately Rich had phone service (mine did not), so we could call a cab. The dispatcher told us it would be 20-25 minutes. We didn't care; we waited. For the first time in 19 hours, I was cold, so I put on my emergency jacket and a long-sleeve shirt that had gotten soaked earlier in the day when I hadn't screwed the top all the way on my water bladder. I didn't care; it was definitely warmer than wearing nothing.

Finally our taxi arrived and Rich and I stood up to get in. After a few seconds the driver unrolled the window and asked if we had called for a cab. Couldn't he see we were moving toward him? Then I realized we were actually moving like sloths in slow-motion. From the driver's perspective, we weren't moving at all! Hilarious. "Yes," I said. "And do you know if there's any place still open on the rim were we can get a Coke?"

As it turned out, there was not. Even the vending machines in our lodge were broken, so we made due with Miller Lite (don't ask why we had these) and potato chips in our room. Rich had two sips and was asleep on his bed. I managed to finish a whole beer and a half-bag of chips before showering and turning in. I finally got to bed around 1:00 am, but had to set an alarm for 6:00 so we'd be able to complete the 3.5-hour drive to the airport in Phoenix in the morning. Somehow I managed to do that drive without my legs cramping up, and successfully caught the flight home. I had done it. We had done it. An amazing experience, one I'll never forget. Sure, it had taken us about 6 hours longer than expected, but we had survived, and both of us had completed the entire trip, under our own power.

I'm a tall guy, 6'2", and I'm usually not able to sleep on airplanes, but that day, I slept for all but 30 minutes of the flight home. I guess I was tired....

More details of the R3 run are below:

Monday, April 9, 2018

Race Recap: The National Sprint Duathlon Championship

National Championship races are an attractive challenge for me. I've competed in two of them and really enjoyed myself both times. Yet I've never been anywhere near the top of my age group. The best I did was 7th out of 12 in the .US National 12k in 2014.

This year I decided to break up my ultra-training with yet another national championship: The National Sprint Duathlon Championship on April 8. I even hired a bike coach to write up a training plan specifically for the event -- a first for me. A duathlon is combination of biking and running, typically in the format of Run-Bike-Run. I've run two duathlons but in both cases it was because the swim portion of a triathlon was cancelled; this would be the first time I'd trained specifically for a duathlon. 

For this race, the "no-drafting" event (as opposed to the draft-legal event held the day before), we'd run 5k, then ride 11.2 miles, then run another 2.85k (1.85 miles). My plan was to run the first 5k at roughly a 6:45 pace, then ride in the 22-23 mph range, then hang on for the final run, going as fast as I could and hopefully keeping my pace somewhat close to what I did in the longer first leg.

In such a short race, transitions are critical, so most duathletes, like triathletes, wear shoes with stretchy laces so they can change in and out of running shoes quickly. I don't like the stretch laces, but I figured out that I could wear normal laces for the first run and just use a different pair of shoes for the second run. My wife Greta was there to cheer me on and take photos, so she got a picture of me at the finish line before the race.

Sealed in like a sausage ready for cooking!

It was a cool day for April in South Carolina, which was just fine by me. I wore gloves while I warmed up but decided I wouldn't need them for the race and left them with Greta. At age 51, I would start in Wave 3 with all the men 50 and over. I decided to start off a few rows back to quell the urge to start too fast. Before I knew it, we were off, headed downhill towards a sharp right-hand corner. 

Me and a few of the faster masters

The corner turned us about 110 degrees and onto a narrow cart-path, headed up towards the highway where we'd run most of the race. There was some jostling as we rounded the corner but fortunately there were no geriatric casualties! I looked down at my watch and saw that I was running quite a bit faster than planned -- 5:35 per mile -- yikes! I dialed back the speed as we headed up the first hill of the course. Soon we were at the first turnaround and I had settled into something closer to 6:30. I was breathing hard but didn't feel like the pace was unsustainable, so I kept it up. 

Mile 1, 6:33, Mile 2: 6:48.

About two miles in, I noticed my right shoe had come untied. So much for my brilliant plan of using standard laces for the first run! I couldn't double-knot the shoes because then they'd be too hard to untie, so I ran the risk of them coming untied and that's just what had happened. I decided to press on without tying the shoe, a situation much more unnerving than the "wobbly" feel I don't like about stretch laces. Argh.

Mile 3: 6:44.

My Garmin has the course a tenth of a mile short -- possibly because of those turnarounds. There were four in the race and I always find my Garmin shorts me on turnarounds. In this case, that's good news, because it means I've finished the 3.1-mile course in just 20:07, or a 6:28 pace! Wow! And as a bonus, I didn't run out of my shoe or trip over my shoelaces.

Transition 1 didn't go great. I stood up to put my helmet on before putting on my shoes, so I had to sit down again to do that, then get up again and hustle out. My time for the transition ended up at 1:36, or over twice as long as the fastest athletes. It's faster to clip your shoes into your pedals and then run barefoot (or in stocking feet) to the bike exit, but I hadn't practiced that so I didn't try to do it.

Finally getting going on the bike

On to the ride. I was expecting good things. There was a bit of a traffic jam at the start as the route wound through some narrow roads before getting onto the open road. I chewed out a clueless kid on a mountain bike who was riding all the way to the left. Technically it is illegal to pass on the right, but me and another guy did because there was no room on the left. The bulk of the ride was on four-lane highways, one of which had been completely closed to traffic. While the roads were nice and open, they were also quite hilly. There was no section of the ride that was completely flat. I knew I'd get relief on the downhill sections, so I hit the climbs hard. I was passing lots of riders as I caught the women's wave and the stragglers from the first wave (men 49 and under). One guy passed me but I saw a "64" on his leg and let him go. Funny that my pride wasn't damaged in the least that this old guy was passing me. I only had to worry about men in the 50-54 group!

64 and I ended up trading leads over the next couple miles: He'd pass me at the start of hills but I caught him at the tops. Both of us were still passing other riders by the half-dozen. The ride was one big out-and-back, and I knew the turnaround was the highest point in the race. When the turnaround was in sight, I picked up the pace and passed another seven or eight riders. I'd have a nice long downhill to recover on, so why not? My split for the first half of the ride had me at over 23 mph.

Turning around, I realized that part of the reason for the fast first half was that there was a tailwind. Despite weather forecasts of 2 mph winds, it was clear the wind was blowing harder. Even though the ride home was a net downhill, I ended up going slower on the second half. My official overall average speed was 21.7 mph. A little slower than I'd hoped but the course was also hillier than I realized, with a total of 748 feet of climbing in 11.2 miles. 

I hopped off my bike and noticed that the guy two bikes ahead of me was in my age group. Could I catch him on the run?

Who entered the transition zone without pressing "lap" on his watch? This guy!

The guy ahead of me had a gray pony tail and was much smoother in the transition, opting to take his shoes off while riding and smoothly running in stocking feet to his station, which happened to be right across from mine. While I fumbled with my shoes, he was off, and before I knew it I was a solid 15 seconds behind him. Meanwhile I finally realized that I hadn't stopped the timer for my ride, so I quickly clicked "lap" twice to fast-forward to the second run portion of my event.

More importantly, my legs simply did not want to move at this point. I was struggling to hit an 8-minute-mile pace, and I wanted to be running sub-7-minute miles. I limped and lurched up the hill to the highway, and finally seemed to shake the kinks out of the legs about a half-mile into the race. A couple people had passed me, and I started to reel them back in. But pony-tail dude would not be caught; he was stubbornly 15 seconds ahead of me, almost precisely matching my pace as I ran faster and faster.

I was breathing heavily, but I reminded myself that this run was less than two miles. It'd be over before I knew it. Sure enough, soon I was sprinting down the finish chute, still the same 15 seconds behind Mr. Pony Tail, who turned out to be Richard Hendry of St. Petersburg, FL.

Looking strong, but not strong enough to catch Hendry!

In the end I managed a 12:04 for the final 1.85-mile run, for a pace of 6:31. Not too shabby! Overall my time was just over 1:06, good for 11th place out of 25 in my age group. Still not a podium finish, but better than I'd done in any other national championship, so I'll take it!

I enjoyed the experience tremendously and I think I might be hooked on this duathlon thing. Unfortunately there aren't a lot of them around, but the nationals are coming back to Greenville next year, and I'm going to make of point of returning!

Below is the Garmin record of my race!