Sunday, July 22, 2012

Race Recap: Kendall Mountain Run

Silverton is a quaint old mining town in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, at an elevation of about 9,300 feet. Other than the dusty, paved main drag, Greene Street, all the roads are gravel. An antique tourist train comes to town around lunchtime every day, and most of the tourists are content to have lunch, visit the local shops, and hop back on the next train to Durango.

Here I am on one of those gravel roads, literally at the end of the tracks:

Even though the town is already at 9,300 feet, the surrounding mountains are quite a bit taller!

Of course, my plan wasn't to ride the train, it was to run up Kendall Mountain, a 13,000-foot peak that looms over the town. Here it is looking especially foreboding:


It would be the highest mountain climb I had ever attempted. And if I needed medical or clerical attention, the available facilities did not look good:

This may or may not be Silverton's only church / hospital

After dinner in a colorful local establishment, I settled down for a fitful night's sleep. The next morning I'd be running the Kendall Mountain Half Marathon, ascending from 9,318 feet to 13,066 feet at the top of Kendall Mountain, then running back down. I'd made elaborate plans and predictions, but truth be told I had no idea what to expect. Not only was this the highest race I'd ever participated in, when I reached the top, it would be the highest point I'd ever stood on. A few days earlier I had set my previous record, by driving to the top of Independence Pass, at 12,095 feet.

Finally I awoke at 6:30 and packed up my gear. Despite the fact that the race had aid stations every 1.5 miles or so, I had decided to carry a hydration pack. But since there was water along the route, I only filled it halfway. I also carried a camera, and some gels. Because of the large scar on my left arm, I've been wearing a compression shirt for all my runs this summer. I thought briefly about wearing my DART singlet over the shirt, but decided it would be too warm, so I left it in the room.

Around 7:55 the race director made a few announcements: Stay to the right, yield to the downhill runners, and be careful during the final scramble to the top. Then at the sound of a very loud starting pistol, we were off! 

Lining up for the start. There may have been more spectators than runners!
I'm in the center of this picture, in the orange hat.

The only flat sections of the course would be the first and last mile. At least that's what I thought. I had been hoping to put in a quick 8-minute mile for the first mile of the race before heading uphill. But actually the slope started about .75 miles in, and we had a nice 150-foot climb at the end of Mile 1. As Mile 2 started, I was already walking.

My plan had been to take a 1-minute walk break as infrequently as possible. Initially I was hoping these would be after about 3 minutes of running, but by the end I was thinking I'd be doing a 1-minute run followed by a 1-minute walk. If I could maintain this pattern all the way up the mountain I'd actually end up with a pretty good overall time, possibly faster than 2:30, which would put me solidly in the top third of all finishers. By the end of Mile 2, I could see that even a 1-minute run/walk cycle was unlikely, it was simply too steep. Somehow I managed to keep on a 14-minute-mile pace through Mile 3, but at Mile 4, things got really steep.

Another runner pulled up next to me and asked "are we there yet?" I should probably put runner in quotation marks because at this point, we were both walking. In fact we weren't even halfway up the vertical of the climb. We'd ascended about 1,100 feet and still had 2,600 to go. Miles 4, 5, and 6 would each have more than 800 feet of climbing.

Different competitors had different strategies. One runner who passed me early on kept a slow, steady running gait for pretty much the entire run. I don't think I ever saw him walking (although he was well ahead of me by the time we got to the steepest part of the run). Another woman pretty much walked the whole thing, but at a very fast pace. Indeed, she too was well ahead of me by the time we reached the summit.

I was spending so much time walking I figured I might as well get my camera out and take some pictures.

The "are we there yet" guy is to the left. Full-time walker is ahead in green

Me and a few of my friends taking a stroll in the woods.

As we ascended I ended up spending a lot of time with a guy from Durango who told me his wife had given birth to their first child earlier in the week. She told him he might as well still do the run, so here he was!

We kept climbing, mostly walking, up and up and up.

As you can see, the road is quite rocky. While the grade was relatively even, there was rarely an extended stretch of smooth ground. I began to wonder what the descent would be like.

Finally, in Mile 6, we hit a few runnable stretches. The road seemed to level out just a bit as it headed up towards the summit. Then we rounded a corner and I saw why. We were headed towards a little notch, where the final aid station was located. After that, it was a scramble up a very steep trail to the summit. I could see 7 or 8 competitors making their way up the scree, more crawling than running, as one or two runners were making their way down. Before the race, we had been given the choice of making this climb, or taking a longer "mellower" route that wound around behind the summit. I didn't see anyone choosing that option.

I reached the scramble and began making my way up. Ever 30 seconds or so a runner would come crashing down, and I'd do my best to stay out of his or her way. I noticed a couple runners had thought to bring gloves to assist them on this climb/descent. Nice idea! The Proud Father was still with me on this section, but we were each too engrossed in making our way to the summit to talk. Finally, after 7 or 8 minutes of climbing, we were there! A few aid workers were handing out water, and I got one of them to take my photo holding the Summit Coffee sign!

Brian and Tim, I think I have a new decoration for your coffee shop!

(If you aren't a Davidson resident, you may not know about our local hangout, Summit Coffee. It was founded by a mountaineer and still has a lot of mountaineering-themed decor. It also serves at the unofficial headquarters for the Davidson Area Running Team. I'm hoping this photo will rate a spot on Summit's walls....)

Then it was time to start down. I had been a little spooked by the climb and asked the aid worker about the "mellow route" down. He said it wasn't marked and as long as I stayed to the left I probably wouldn't get lost. This didn't seem very mellow to me, so I decided to go back down the way I came. I actually found it easier than I thought it would be, and passed several people on the descent through the scree. Then I reached the road and tried to settle into a steady running gait.

Things went well for about the first mile or so, and I found I could maintain a 9-minute pace. Avoiding the rocks was a bit of an adventure, but somehow I managed to descend with few stumbles.

But after about a mile and a half, I began to feel a burning sensation under my left heel. I could tell it was a blister, and I stopped to tighten my shoelaces. It was about all I could do. I kept running, trying not to favor the heel too much. I knew this one was going to be painful and take a long time to heal, but grousing about it now wasn't going to help me get down the mountain.

The road got steeper, and I had to slow a bit. A few people passed me in this section. I find I'm just not a very good downhill trail runner -- probably mostly because I don't spend enough time on trails. Still, I was maintaining a fairly reasonable pace, and didn't feel the need to stop for breaks. Occasionally I had a sip of lukewarm water from the hydration pack.

Finally, I reached the bottom of the mountain. I had read a recap of the 2005 race saying that the hardest part was the flat finish. It was definitely a struggle transitioning from the long downhill into running form for the flats. I did have to stop and walk a couple times, too. It was not easy. For me the strangest part was the transition onto the smooth (albeit unpaved) roads of Silverton. It felt precarious, like I was running on a hockey rink. A crazy sensation. Then, about a third of a mile before the finish, I saw Greta, waiting to take my picture! My first thought was "don't take a walk-break now!" Here's the shot she got of me as I headed towards the finish line:

Victory (or at least sitting) is at hand!

Just a few more blocks to go, and I'd be finished. I crossed a small bridge into a park, and made my way across the finish line. I was done! The race director handed me an official Kendall Mountain Run glass (very nice!), and directed me to the water station.

As it turned out, the race wasn't a true half-marathon -- I had measured 12.18 miles on my Garmin -- but I wasn't complaining. This was most definitely the toughest half I've ever run, and nearly as hard as a full marathon. Soon Greta caught up with me at the finish area, and I sat for a while chugging down water.

I had made my way up and down a steep mountain, and even run some of the time. I had climbed higher than I ever had in my life, and back down again. I had done it in 2 hours and 42 minutes. This was a little slower than my "A Goal" of 2:30 or better, but it was right in line with my B Goal, and well under my C Goal of finishing in less than 3 hours. The official race results haven't been posted, but I'll update this post with the results when they are; I was pretty close to the middle of the pack. Not bad, considering most of the runners are from Colorado! I'm pleased with the result, but glad it's over. A great race, and an amazing experience!  

Update: Here are the race results. I was 49th overall, and 4th in age group. On the plus side, I was the first North Carolinian!

The Garmin plot of my race is below:

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Race strategy: Kendall Mountain Run

On Saturday I'll be doing my first-ever race that ventures above 13,000 feet. It'll also be the first race I've entered that starts above 9,000 feet. In fact, the entirety of the race will be at a higher elevation than I've ever competed.

As if that weren't enough, this half-marathon will also feature the longest sustained climb of any race I've been in. The Kendall Mountain Run starts in Silverton, Colorado, at an elevation of 9,318 feet, then ascends to the summit at 13,066 feet, a total climb of over 3,700 feet! Then it returns back to Silverton for the finish.

The first mile is flat, so that means that all the climbing occurs in just 5.5 miles. The climb is on "jeep roads," which based on the videos on the web site appear to be relatively decent gravel roads. But there's no question they are steep -- the average grade will be over 13 percent. There is simply no way I will be able to run this entire course. The question won't be if I talk walk-breaks, it will be how often. On rougher, steeper trails, close to this elevation, I've been able to sustain paces in the 18-minute-mile range. So in principle I should be faster than that. But although I've hiked/ran up to 11,500 feet, I've never been as high as 13,000 feet, so at that elevation it's possible that I will reach some sort of limit.

We've been staying closer to 6,000 feet in elevation, and here I've found that an 8-minute pace on flat ground isn't easy. On grades of around 8 percent I've managed about a 10-minute pace including walk-breaks. So I'm thinking the best I could do during the sustained climb of Kendall Mountain is probably around a 14-minute pace. More likely is something like a 15-minute pace for the climb. The downhill is steep enough and I'll be sufficiently exhausted from the climb that I probably won't be able to really fly down it. I'm thinking an 8-minute pace is about the best I'll be able to manage, with a 9-minute pace more likely.

So I broke the race down into four segments: the 1-mile start, the climb, the descent, and the 1-mile flat finish. I plugged in a few scenarios, and set up some goals for the race:

The "A Goal" is an aggressive but not overly optimistic plan, and it results in a 2:30 time for a half-marathon. The Optimistic goal is about the best I can reasonably expect to do, if everything goes perfectly and I'm feeling as good as can be hoped for: 2:18. The B and C goals would be a little disappointing but given the challenging terrain and elevation, I'd be happy with either of them.

To hit the A Goal, I should be able to take two walk-breaks every mile, and as long as I maintain a 10- to 11-minute pace while I'm running, I can hit it. For the C goal, I could pretty much walk the entire climb (at maximum speed). For the optimistic goal I'd either need to take fewer walk breaks or actually maintain a somewhat faster pace between the breaks.

All this is really to say that I have no idea what is going to happen. If you take a look at last year's results, you can see that 2:30 is a pretty good time. It is in the top 22 out of 130 or so competitors. Even a 3:00 finish is decidedly middle-of-the-pack. Given that nearly all the participants in this event are from Colorado, this flatlander from North Carolina should be happy with any result under 3:00. But it would be nice to get an age-group placing. To do that I will probably need to be south of 2:30. Last year, third in my age group was 2:24. I'm not sure that's doable, but if I'm feeling okay on race day, I may just give it a shot!

Details of yesterday's workout, my last run on the hills before Kendall, are below:

Monday, July 16, 2012

Hills in the clouds

Working out in Colorado has been an eye-opening experience. An 8:15 pace on level terrain -- normally an easy workout for me -- leaves me seriously sucking wind. My attempt at a tempo run was seriously curtailed. But, difficult or not, I'm still signed up for the Kendall Mountain Run in less than a week, and I need to have some sense of what to expect.

I've done a couple trail runs, but these trails are much steeper and more technical than what I'll be experiencing in Silverton. So yesterday I decided to do a hill workout that's easier than the trails I've been running on. I haven't had much luck finding roads that precisely match what I'll be seeing on Kendall Mountain, but I figure at least running on roads will give me a better sense of what I can expect on race day. I plotted out a 13.9 mile route -- a little shorter than the 15 miles my workout schedule called for, but I figured I'd be able to make up the extra mile somewhere along the way. Like Kendall, it would be front-loaded with uphill, and it would have a downhill finish. Unlike Kendall, it would top out at around 7,000 feet elevation (Kendall is nearly 13,000 feet tall). While it has plenty of hills, it's not as hilly as Kendall: 1,500 feet of climbing versus 3,300.

Also unlike Kendall, as it turned out, most of the roads I ran on yesterday were paved, though there was a good 3-mile segment on gravel.

Still, I think it was a closer approximation of what race day will be like than either the trail runs or the flat tempo workout I did a few days earlier.

Once I started running uphill, I could tell it wasn't going to be easy, but it was going to be doable. I don't think I'm going to have to hike all the way to the top of Kendall Mountain. On the steeper sections I tried to walk about 2 minutes per mile. There were two miles where I climbed more than 300 vertical feet, and I completed them in 10:01 and 11:20. On Kendall, I'll be *averaging* 600 vertical feet for 5.5 miles, so again, this isn't as steep as what I'll be doing on Saturday.

That said, after my hilly run, I was still able to hit the downhills fairly hard, finishing my last downhill mile in 8:03. I did find an extra mile over the course of the run (on "Panorama Road," which lived up to its name and added another 200 feet of climbing), so I ran a bit farther than I'll be doing Saturday. My total elapsed time for the workout (including stops to check the route) was 2:24:57, a time I'd take for the race in a heartbeat -- last year that would have been good for fourth in age group.

As an added benefit, yesterday's workout was amazingly beautiful. I got to run on gorgeous country roads with stunning views and practically no traffic. Here's a photo I snapped near the high-altitude point of the run:

Hill in Carbondale

I'm gradually building a sense of what running this high-altitude hill climb (and descent) will be like. I'll save my prognostications for the race for a separate post.

Details of yesterday's workout are below:

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A high-altitude "speed" workout

At 6,200 feet, running is a little different from the near-sea-level conditions I'm used to. I can still pull off 8-minute-miles fairly easily, but I hadn't tried anything faster until Thursday, when I had a tempo workout planned. It's a fairly standard workout for me, but it's also a tough one: tempo runs of 18, 13.5, 9, and 4.5 minutes, separated by easy runs of 4, 3, and 2 minutes.

But given the fact that I have three very hilly races coming up, and two of the three are at elevation, I wanted to work in some hills as well. So I modified the workout to start with a tempo run on the flats, then do a hard climb up a trail, then run another shorter tempo on the flats.

Close to sea level, in cool weather, I should be able to do an 18-minute tempo run at roughly a 6:30 pace. What could I do at 6,200 feet? It was 3.3 miles to the trail, so I would run that whole distance -- actually a little longer than 18 minutes even at a 6:30 pace. I decided to start out at a 7-minute pace. That lasted about 1 mile. For mile two I decided to try for a 7:15 pace. That didn't last either, and miles 2 and 3 were much closer to a 7:30 pace. Finally for the last .3 miles I was able to pick things back up and hit the 7:15 pace.

Next came the hill. It was a trail I had never run before, which was supposed to have a very scenic view of the Carbondale, Colorado area where I am staying. Finally I got my 4 minute break, which I cheated a little on and give myself 5.

As it turned out, the trail was fairly technical, and VERY steep. There were sections where my watch registered a 40 percent grade. I was only able to manage an 18:30 pace -- but hey, this was about 500 feet of climbing in .7 miles. On tough trails.

Here I am at the top of the climb, with Carbondale and Mt. Sopris in
the background

Heading back down I didn't do much better, a 13:17 pace.

Then, back on the flats, I was supposed to try one more tempo run for a couple miles before slowing it down for a cooldown. I just couldn't do it; I had nothing left. I walk/ran a couple miles at over a 10-minute pace, then forced myself to keep it under a 10-minute pace for the final 2 miles.

Overall I had averaged almost exactly a 10-minute pace for 11.5 miles.

Conclusion: Running at 6,000+ feet is hard. Running on trails at that elevation is harder. For the Kendall Mountain run I'm expecting that the route will be easier, on relatively well-maintained jeep roads where the grade is closer to 13 percent. They should be a little more runnable, but they will be at a much higher elevation, between 9300 and 13,000 feet. Tomorrow I'm planning a long run on more-gradual hills. I'm hoping that gives me a better sense of what I'll be dealing with next week.

Details of Thursday's workout are below.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Running in Colorado

This summer I will be spending about 5 weeks in Colorado, and I just arrived three days ago. It's a glorious, vastly different world from Davidson, North Carolina. While the morning temperatures are as much as 20 degrees cooler, the elevation where I am is over 5,000 feet higher. Within a short drive (or run), there is the opportunity to get much, much higher!

As I discovered last summer, running at altitude can turn an "easy" run into a nightmare. I'm still planning on racing here, but I'm hoping to be more prepared. We arrived in Colorado two and a half weeks before my race, and I'll take that time to not only acclimatize to the altitude, but also to the running conditions here.

My first two runs were easy, flat runs, just to get a feeling for what the elevation does to me.

Today I took it to the next level with a planned 17-mile trail run including over 4,000 feet of vertical gain.

The hitch in my plan was that my wife Greta was coming with me, and she is not a runner! The trail is an out-and-back, so we decided to split up at the start, with me running ahead and she walking as far as she could. When we met up, I'd walk the rest of the way down with her.

The other hitch in my plan was that I was using a new piece of equipment: A CamelBak hydration system. I've never run with one, so I wasn't quite sure of all its pitfalls. More on that later.

I started off running up the trail at an elevation of 7,800 feet. The trail immediately began climbing. The trail was narrow and the damp undergrowth that overhung the trail quickly rendered my shoes soaked through. I was hoping to average 15-minute miles for the 8.5-mile ascent. After a 13:54 first mile, I could tell that was going to be a challenge. I had gained 495 feet in just one mile, and I was sucking some serious wind. Mile 2 was even steeper, gaining 617 feet. The new plan was to try to keep each mile under 20 minutes.

Then things got interesting. I knew the hike was pretty much a steady climb all the way to the top, and I found myself heading down a jeep road. I stopped and looked in my trail guide, which had anticipated this wrong turn "Stay to the left as the road heads back downhill." Oops. I walked back about a quarter-mile and saw a faint trail heading upwards. Could that be it? I ran up it a ways and saw that the trail opened up. This was it!

But with Greta following behind, I didn't want her to make the same mistake. I found some sticks and tried to make a giant arrow in the road pointing the right direction, but it just wasn't very visible.

I took off my orange running cap and strapped it to a tree about 20 yards up the trail. Hopefully she wouldn't be looking down at the trail and miss it!

All in all I had gone about three-quarters of a mile off course. I knew Greta didn't want to be out all day, so we had agreed that I would turn around about 2.5 hours into the run, whether or not I reached the top.

As I headed up the trail, things got progressively rougher. There were lots of downed trees, and they still had their branches, so negotiating my way through them was difficult. Here's a photo Greta took of a particularly gnarly log-jam:

The typical runner will need to modify his stride for obstacles such as this!

Behind one downed tree was a very surprised bear, who dashed up the trail about 30 yards ahead of me! I decided I'd try to make more noise as I ran/walked up these difficult trails, in case another surprised bear decided to fight instead of flee!

As I made my way higher up the mountain, I could tell that I didn't have the strength I had had at the start. Between the elevation, the trail, and the cumulative effects of hard trail running, I was steadily losing my battle to maintain even a sub-20-minute pace. Very little of the trail was actually runnable. Here's another section of the trail so you can see what I was up against:

Yes, there is a trail in there, honest!

My goal was a spectacular viewpoint at Mile 8.5 on the trail, but given my wrong turn, it would have actually been around Mile 9.25. After 7 miles of climbing, my GPS showed I'd been at it for 2 hours and 15 minutes. My pace was still around 20 minutes per mile, so running 2.25 miles in 15 minutes to make my 2:30 deadline was out of the question. I decided I'd turn around at Mile 8, no matter what. Mile 8 ended up being in the middle of the forest (at 11,200 feet!), so I turned around and headed back down to a nice viewpoint to take my "summit" self-portrait:

I look surprisingly less exhausted than I feel!

There really were some spectacular views on this trail, and I knew I was missing out on a 360-degree view at the top, but this would have to do. Not bad!

Unfortunately I wasn't able to pick up the pace much on the way down. The trail was very rough, and I had to stop and pick my way through downed trees. Oh, and I was also just dog-tired. But when I did find a rare open section of trail, I was always able to open things, up, so I'm pretty sure I could descend quite a bit faster at these elevations if the trail was a little friendlier. I did manage to keep my miles under 20 minutes, but only just barely.

Then, somewhere around Mile 11, I was surprised to find that sipping my CamelBak provided no water. That didn't seem possible! I had 70 ounces of water, which is more than I typically drink in any long run. I guess because I had no visual feedback of how much I was drinking, it didn't seem like I was going through the water that quickly. Lesson learned: Monitor your CamelBak!

Fortunately there were only a little over 4 downhill miles remaining, so I would be fine, but running out of water in the middle of the wilderness is very disconcerting!

About 2 miles later, I found Greta, who had already started back down the mountain. Amazingly, we had been able to say in contact via text message, so I wasn't very concerned about her. She had spotted my hat just fine and knew what to do. She looked pretty worn out; I can attest that just walking this trail was a very tough workout. Fortunately there were just 2 miles left, and Greta had done a better job managing her water than I had. We took those miles nice and easy, and got back to the car without further incident.

On the drive home, Greta declared that she would be participating in no 5 1/2 hour hikes during the rest of our trip. I can't see why -- this one had come off with hardly any hitches!

Details of today's workout are below.