Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Race Recap: Pacing Val Wrenholt at the Leadville Trail 100

Val Wrenholt is a relatively recent addition to our running group. At first glance, she doesn't look especially fast. But on the first day I ran with her, this past spring, me and a couple friends were planning a long run at a relatively fast pace for us. Val had shown up and since I'd never run with her before, I wasn't sure she'd be able to keep up. We told her our plans -- I think it was a hilly 17-miler -- and asked if that would work for her. Seemingly unconcerned, she said "yeah, whatever."

We took off at around a 7:45 pace and started chatting about our upcoming races. I asked Val what she had planned and, just as nonchalantly, she said "I'm doing the Leadville 100." I stifled a gasp, because I knew Leadville was one of the toughest ultramarathons in the country, and one of the most famous. The Leadville Trail 100 starts in the town of Leadville, Colorado, at an elevation of over 10,000 feet, and climbs four passes over its 100-mile route. The cumulative elevation gain for the race is over 14,000 feet — meaning that there is more climbing every 25 miles than I experienced in the entire super-hilly Crater Lake Marathon!

As you might guess, Val had no trouble keeping up with us that day -- in fact, it was the rest of us who struggled to keep up with her. I later learned that Val had already been the women's winner of the 2011 Table Rock 50 Miler and finished second among women in the Umstead Trail Marathon this year, so if I'd been keeping up on the big trail races in the area I would have known who she was.

Over the next couple months I ran with Val several times, and when she heard I would be in Colorado over the summer, she asked if I'd be interested in pacing her at Leadville. I had been planning on a quick return to North Carolina after finishing at Crater Lake, but given that Leadville was just a week after Crater Lake, and that I'd have to drive back through that area anyways, I decided to give it a shot. (It also helped that all my ultrarunner friends were drooling with envy that I might have the chance to run a part of the legendary Leadville 100!)

Val wanted me to pace her for Miles 60.5-72.5, with an option to tack on an extra four miles at the end. I wasn't sure I'd be able to handle 16 miles one week after running a marathon, so I only promised I'd be able to do 12. The next problem was finding lodging in the area. With 800 runners and their crews descending on a town of just 2,600, all the motels within 50 miles were booked up months in advance. Fortunately Val had grown up in Leadville, and her parents still lived there. They'd let me sleep on an air mattress in their basement.

I arrived in Leadville with my 19-year-old daughter Nora on the Friday before the race. Val had written out her race goals and projected splits on a couple sheets of notebook paper. Plan A was to shoot for a 22-hour finish. Plan B was 25 hours, and Plan C was 30 hours, just beating the cutoff time for all runners in the race.

Leadville is known for having very difficult cutoff times: Fewer than half of those registered in a given year actually finish in the allotted time. If Val finished in 22 hours, she could very well be in the top 5 women: In 2011, only 5 women finished in under 22 hours. Indeed, only 9 women finished in under 25 hours! But Val had never run any 100-miler, let alone such a difficult one, so all this was really idle speculation. We'd have to wait for the race to see how she would perform.

The race starts at 4 a.m. on Saturday morning. Runners are allowed to have pacers to carry gear and offer support starting at the halfway point of the race. If Val was going to finish in 22 hours, she would be reaching Mile 60.5, where I was meeting her, at about 4:30 in the afternoon. Val also needed me to drive her to the start of the race so that her husband Ross, who'd be the primary crew person, could get a couple extra hours' sleep. I was happy to do it.

I set my alarm for 3:15 a.m., enough time to get up, throw some clothes on, and head out the door. But I slept fitfully and woke up at 3:05, so I decided to take a quick shower before heading upstairs to meet Val. She was already up too, and hadn't slept much either. We hopped in the car for the 5-minute drive to the start. I got a quick photo of her before the race:

As ready as she'll ever be!

I'd been in Leadville a couple times before, but now, at 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, was the most crowded and active I'd ever seen it. All the coffee shops were open, and there were probably close to 2,000 people wandering the streets. 700-plus were there to run, and the rest were there to watch and help.

About 10 minutes before the start I wished her good luck, then headed just past the start line to watch the herd of runners stream by in the dark. Here's the video I made of the start; it was an awesome sight:

I couldn't see Val in the video, but if you look closely you should be able to see two-time Leadville winner Anton Krupicka running by shirtless around 18 seconds in.

I went back to the house and tried to sleep a bit, but ended up getting up for good at about 6. I spent the day waiting around the house, playing with Val's two adorable daughters, and trying to stay off my feet as much as possible. The race website gave split times at each aid station, and we could see that Val had had an excellent start. She arrived at the Half Pipe aid station, 29 miles in, in just 5 hours. When she arrived at Twin Lakes, 39.5 miles in, at 10:47 a.m., she was still pretty much on her target pace. But then Ross called and let us know that while she was looking very good, she was concerned because she hadn't been able to eat much. Ahead of her was the toughest part of the course, the ascent of Hope Pass and the descent to Winfield where all the runners turned around and climbed Hope pass again. Here's what it looks on the course elevation profile:

Hope Pass is the tall pointy thing on the right

As you can see, it's a dramatic 3,200-foot climb, followed by a descent almost as long, all in a space of only six miles. Then she turns around and does it all again.

I would be meeting her at Twin Lakes at the end of that descent, and running with her 12 to 16 miles. By this point I had decided that I could definitely handle all 16 miles, so I prepared myself mentally for a long run.

If all went well and Val stayed on pace, she anticipated coming through Twin Lakes again at 4:30 p.m. giving her just under 10 hours to do the final 39.5 miles. But we had also learned that the reporting system was breaking down ahead of her. The aid stations at Hope Pass and Winfield weren't getting good cell / satellite reception, so there were few reports of runners' times at those critical stations. Val's other pacers were Kelli and Nathalie, both natives of the town of Leadville. We had heard that Twin Lakes was a tough place to park, and Winfield was a difficult drive, so the plan was for Ross to stake out a spot at Twin Lakes, and just wait there for Val to go all the way to Winfield and back. Meanwhile Kelli would drive Nathalie out to Winfield to get Val her supplies, and for Nathalie to run the first pacing leg, the tough 10.5 miles from Winfield back to Twin Lakes.

I decided to arrive with Nora at Twin Lakes two hours early at 2:30, just in case Val was really cranking. Fortunately Ross was able to find a parking spot for us and we had nice comfortable chairs to sit on. All we could do was wait. 4:30 came and went, with still no sign of Val. Runners were coming through the aid station, and we amused ourselves by trying to figure out when they had passed through going the other direction, and how that compared to Val's time. Finally Kelli showed up and said she had seen Val at Winfield, but that she hadn't looked good. She still hadn't eaten anything and the lack of energy was beginning to take its toll. Then Kelli went home to get a little rest before her turn pacing Val.

After she left, we realized we had forgotten to ask what time Val had arrived at Winfield, so we were left to figure, plot, and speculate some more. Finally around 5:30 we heard from Kelli, who had received a text from Nathalie saying that Val was at Hope Pass, sitting and eating a cup of ramen, and wasn't in a hurry to leave. At least she was finally eating something! So how long would it take for her to make her way back down to Twin Lakes? It was anyone's guess. It was also possible that she had actually arrived at Hope Pass much earlier, and that Nathalie's text hadn't been sent until later when they returned to cell phone range. It seemed like Val should be arriving at any time.

We waited and waited, but Val didn't show up.

Finally Ross decided to hike up the trail a ways to see if he could see Val. He'd text me and Nora when he saw her and we could be ready to meet her. Nora and I waited another 30 minutes or so, but still heard nothing from Ross. Finally around 7:00 Ross showed up in person. "Did you get my texts," he asked? We hadn't. "We'll she's here! She'll be coming up the road any second!"

I quickly loaded up my gear, and soon we saw Val and Nathalie, both looking quite chipper. The ramen had stayed down, and Val had picked up the pace. "You better be ready," Nathalie said, "It was all I could do to keep up with her!"

Val headed to the aid station, and Ross and I triple-checked to make sure I had everything we needed. I would be carrying a hydration pack, a jacket for myself, and a long-sleeved shirt and pants for Val. I'd also have two handheld bottles for Val: One filled with water and the other with Gatorade. After Val ate another cup of Ramen and some oranges, we headed quickly up the trail, which was a steep, rocky climb for the first 200 meters or so. Here's the photo Ross snapped of us on our way out of the aid station:

I swear I look more like the person who's already run 60.5 miles

I was a little concerned about hand-carrying the water bottles because I hadn't run with handhelds since I had surgery on my left arm about two months before. I was also out of breath within a quarter-mile. Although we were just walking, it was a steady climb, and Val can walk very fast. She later told me that she often trains walking uphill on the treadmill at 4 miles per hour. My maximum walking pace is probably closer to 3.4 mph. I think the main reason I was out of breath is that I wasn't expecting to start, and I hadn't mentally prepared for it. After a mile or so I settled back into a regular stride and felt fine.

Most impressively, Val was passing runners (mostly walkers at this point) quite regularly. We passed a half-dozen on the steady 1000-vertical-foot hike out of Twin Lakes, and then we settled into a comfortable run on every flat or downhill segment thereafter, passing even more people.

Val did some quick calculations and determined that if she averaged a 15-minute pace for the remainder of the race, she would still finish in under 25 hours. All sub-25-hour finishers get a special gold buckle; it's an honor to receive one, and something most runners in the event — male or female — have no hope of achieving. Of the 795 runners who started the event, just 78 would earn a gold buckle. Only 10 women would.

I had planned to carry my GPS along my segment of the race but somehow I had left it at the house, so at one point when Val asked me what pace I thought we were running, I really had no idea. I guessed 11-minute-miles. In fact, over the 10.5 miles from Twin Lakes to the Half Pipe aid station, we averaged a 12:18 pace, including the walk all the way up the 1,000-foot climb, so I'm pretty sure that when we were running, we were doing better than an 11-minute pace.

My strategy pacing Val was to offer her water and fuel at regular intervals but not be pushy about it. I figured if she didn't feel like eating or drinking then forcing it on her wasn't going to do any good. Similarly, every once in a while if I felt like we'd been walking a long time, I asked if she wanted to try running for a bit. Sometimes she'd say yes, and sometimes no, and I didn't protest no matter how she responded, especially since we really were making very good time.

Val was actually quite lively and happy to talk for most of the time I paced her, despite being in some pain. She had twisted her ankle on the way down from Hope Pass with Nathalie, and was concerned that it might be serious. It wasn't stopping her from going on, but on some occasions it did stop her from running. It got dark, and we put on our headlamps. While we were stopped, I got a text from Kelli. I told Val to go on while I responded. Kelli wanted to know if we needed her or Ross between Half Pipe at Mile 71 and Fish Hatchery at Mile 76.5 (there was an opportunity for crews to stop at about Mile 72.5). I told her I didn't think so. By this time, Val was a quarter-mile ahead of me and I ran as fast as I could to catch up. It took a half-mile or so to do it, and I was sucking wind hard by the time I caught up. I decided I wouldn't respond to texts in the future unless both of us were stopped.

As it got darker we could see the headlamps of runners on the trail ahead of us. It was a beautiful, cool night, but not terribly cold. I began to wonder whether there was any point to me carrying pants and a shirt for Val. We could see stars above, and the bobbing headlamps in the quiet wilderness looked almost like ships drifting through a peaceful harbor.

But Val's ankle was bothering her progressively more, and she reminded me to give her some Tylenol when we reached the aid station at Half Pipe, Mile 71. At the aid station, she ate more ramen, more oranges, and drank some flat Coke. She was sitting next to a woman who looked pretty bad. "I think I know who you are," Val said, "weren't you one of the pre-race favorites?"

The woman laughed and said that she had never run more than 30 miles. She said she was ready to drop out. Later on the trail Val told me it was Kerri Bruxvoort, who had been the first-place woman at the Leadville Trail Marathon earlier that summer and had been given complimentary entry into the 100-miler.  Bruxvoort did indeed drop out of the race at Half Pipe.

As we headed back to the trail, Val asked for her sweat pants, and I was glad I had brought them. On the other hand, she would not take even a sip from the bottle of Gatorade I carried for 16 miles! I guess that's the point of having a pacer, so you don't have to worry about carrying more gear than you need.

One of the things we joked about as we ran along was how over-marked the trail was. There were ribbons, glow-sticks, arrows, rocks blocking off side-trails, and many sections of the trail were actually wide enough to run side by side, either because they were old roads or actually on existing roads. Val started playing a game in which she'd run to the next glow stick, which added a Vegas-like gambling element to the event because we often couldn't see the next stick. It might be a hundred yards off, or it might be a half-mile -- who knows? It was amusing in a masochistic sort of way.

Soon after we passed the crew station at a place called Timberline, Mile 73, the trail became even wider, and we were running in an open field with no trees (which—duh—is why they call it Timberline). We were continuing to pass team after team, and though the ankle was bothering her more, Val didn't seem to want to slow down. She was doing great.

Then, I heard her foot hit a rock and watched her fall flat on her face.

It happened so quickly there wasn't anything I could do to help. Almost as quickly, she bounced back up. I asked if she was hurt, and she thought that she was okay, but she might have a scrape on her chin. There was nothing to do but brush as much of the dust off as possible and keep going. A couple of teams had passed us when she was down, but we passed them back and continued on our way.

I decided that we needed more light, and so I pulled out a handheld flashlight and started running with that in addition to our two headlamps. It was a bit of a balancing act, especially since I was already carrying a water bottle in each hand, but I decided that if Val could keep running after that faceplant, I could suffer through a few miles carrying an extra couple ounces in my hand.

Soon after, we reached pavement. Cars were driving along the road, but thankfully, they were pretty much all crews, so they knew to look out for runners and drive slowly. We passed team after team, continuing our glow-stick game but using lampposts or reflective road markers as our targets. Finally we reached a junction and Val said this was a mile away from the Fish Hatchery, so I called Nora to let her know we were coming. We ran and ran for what seemed much longer than a mile -- and as it turned out it was more like a mile and a half. But soon we saw Kelli and Ross. We were there, at Mile 76.5. I had done all I could to help, and now it was up to Kelli -- and mostly Val! It was 10:48 when Val arrived. She had just over 6 hours to run 23.5 miles and claim her gold buckle. A 15-minute pace would do it.

I told Kelli Val wasn't eating anything but the ramen and oranges at the aid stations, and wasn't drinking the Gatorade. I told her to give Val more Tylenol for her ankle. In what seemed like an instant but was actually probably 7 or 8 minutes, Val was out of the aid station and heading back on the course with Kelli. Ross asked me whether I thought Val had a chance at 25 hours and I said I was sure she was going go make it. We were on pace, and she wasn't showing any signs of slowing down. Then he asked me when he should get to the finish line. I said I didn't think she'd be more than 30 minutes earlier than the 25-hour prize.

I headed to Val's parents' house with Ross and Nora, updated her folks on her progress, had a slice of pizza, showered, and went to bed at about 12:30. I set my alarm for 4 a.m., an hour before the 25-hour target. I drove to the finish line, where Ross was already waiting. He was getting progressively more anxious as a few teams triumphantly crossed the line. They were crossing every 3 or 4 minutes, but there wasn't any sign of Val and Kelli in the distance. I reminded him that at the pace Val was moving, it was very unlikely she'd show up before 4:30. I was putting my bet at about 4:55. She knew what she was doing. Finally at 4:45 Ross decided to get in his car and drive down 6th Street opposite the runners to see if he could spot Val and spur her on. I watched from the finish line as his lights moved away from me, one block, two blocks. Then he quickly turned around, drove about a block into town, and parked. I could see the headlamps of four runners approaching. Two of those runners had to be Val and Kelli! A huge smile came across my face as I looked up at the race clock and saw that they had over 10 minutes to go two blocks. She was going to make it!

I tried to snap a photo as Val crossed the line, but all you can see is a blur. I assure you, this is Val, and the clock reads 24:49:53. She was the 78th runner to cross the line, the 10th woman, and the last runner to finish before the 25-hour mark. She had done it!


What an accomplishment for a person who had never run over 55 miles, and who had never run an ultra of any sort at elevation. Val headed straight for the hot trailer to warm up, and then to the medical tent to have her ankle looked at. The doctors at the time thought she had a stress fracture. Imagine running 45 miles on a stress fracture! As it turns out, it's likely that it is joint or tendon damage, but it still sounds incredibly painful. I'm amazed that she persevered for so long with such an injury.

One thing she was certain of — at least in the immediate post-race ordeal in the medical tent — was that she was not only never running Leadville again, she was never running a 100-miler again. We'll see about that. Either way, it was a race to be proud of, and I was proud to be just a small part of it. Congratulations, Val!

Ross, Val, Kelli, and me at the finish. Apparently Val was
the only one of us cognizant of the location of the camera.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Race Recap: The Crater Lake Marathon

Before this week, I had two memories of Crater Lake National Park. The first was a drive-through visit with my Dad when I was probably 8 or 9 years old. The next was a somewhat more extended visit with Greta about 20 years later when we had a week-long trip without the kids. Each time I've been very impressed. On my first visit, the park was covered in about 10 feet of snow, and I only remember driving up through a snow-lined trench, and my dad's disappointment that the Rim Drive wasn't open. To me it was simply awesome that any place could have so much snow, in June!

On the next visit, Greta and I had the chance to hike down to the lake and take the boat ride to Wizard Island in the middle, seeing the lake from an entirely different perspective.

Now, nearly 20 years later, I've had a chance to visit again, and what I've been struck with is how big the place is. That may or may not have something to do with the fact that this time, I was getting ready to run around the lake, but to me it was just amazing to see mountains towering over the vast blue lake sparkling in the sun, to walk up to precipices that dropped hundreds of feet to the water below.

As I previewed the course on Thursday, I wondered whether I would be able to take the time to enjoy the vistas around the lake as I ran past during the Crater Lake Marathon, two days later. But I also took note of the dramatic hills I'd be ascending, and, more importantly, descending during the race. While the race starts at an elevation of 7,600 feet, it ends around 6,000. 1,600 feet of descending would be tough on your quads in any marathon, but this race also included about 2,500 feet of climbing, which meant the total descent was over 4,000 feet!

My goal was to try to complete the race in under 4 hours, which previous-years' results suggested would put me in the top 20 of around 100 competitors. To do this I had constructed an elaborate spreadsheet plotting out my splits for every mile. For the most part this meant running uphill at a 10:30 pace and downhill at an 8:00 pace, but there were a few exceptions for steeper or flatter sections. I had memorized the whole spreadsheet, which after talking with some of the runners on the bus to the starting line, put me in a distinct minority of competitors. While I had spent hours poring over the elevation profile of the race, the more common approach appeared to be to ignore the elevation chart entirely and just run by feel.

When our buses arrived at the start line about 45 minutes before the race, I expected to feel very chilly. I had prepared by buying some "disposable" sweats at Goodwill, but it turned out they were probably unnecessary: The warm morning sun had already crested the rim of the lake, and I was quite comfortable in my shorts, compression shirt, and calf sleeves. I began to worry that it would be uncomfortably warm by 11:30 when I hoped to be crossing the finish line.

With little ceremony, we lined up on the road, and after a ranger explained that only the outside lane of the Rim Road would be closed to traffic, the race was started. I had lined up about 100 runners back from the start line because this race also included a 6.7-miler and a half-marathon, and I figured they would start off much quicker than me. I was surprised to find everyone running quite slowly, so I ended up weaving through traffic for about the first 90 seconds of the race. Fortunately, with the three events capped at a total of 500 participants, there wasn't much traffic to weave through, and I found myself in the clear quickly.

The first six miles of the race were primarily downhill, and I felt pretty good, so I took them comfortably fast. As I ran along I tried to keep track of how much time I had banked, because I was definitely running faster than the plan. Here's the chart for the first six miles:

I was feeling pretty good and was able to chat with a couple of the other runners. One guy sounded like he was in my age group -- he also looked like he was planning on running a lot faster than me, so I let him go. I consoled myself with the fact that I got to see spectacular vistas as I ran along. I was carrying a camera, but I didn't manage to take any photos during the race, so I'm including a few I took during the preview two days before:

Crater lake 1
Imagine it like this, but with bluer skies and calmer water

The next stretch was a few miles of rolling hills. A woman ahead of me was doing the Galloway plan, and I seemed to be gradually gaining ground. Meanwhile behind me I could hear a man telling someone "happy birthday." A minute or two later, he was passing me: he was a portly man, running shirtless, and was full of advice about how to run the race. "Watch out for that hill after Mile 22," he said. I was amazed that someone his size was maintaining a pretty decent pace. But soon after he was headed to the side of the road to take a leak, and I passed him back. A few minutes later I passed Galloway Woman too.

Meanwhile the birthday girl had caught up to me, and we chatted briefly about our plans. I told her that I was hoping to run sub-4-hours, and she said she was too, but that she, like apparently everyone here, hadn't looked at the elevation profile and was just running by feel. Then she promptly left me in the dust!

Here are my splits for Miles 7-9:

I was still adding to my banked time, but I was also noticing that my Garmin seemed to be measuring the course short. Each mile marker seemed to come a minute or so after the Garmin had beeped signaling the end of a mile (I hadn't used my usual system of manually tracking miles because I wasn't sure the course would have actual mile markers!). So in reality I had only banked about 6 minutes at this point, but that didn't seem too bad.

Finally I began the first major climb of the race: Miles 10-14 would involve over 1,100 feet of climbing! Mile 15 also had some climbing, so I counted that in with 10-14. As I headed uphill I reminded myself that I could probably take one or two walk-breaks per mile and still hit my 10:30 projections. Since I had been training at a higher altitude and on steeper hills, I was finding the climb relatively easy, but after a while the miles began to take their toll. I took full advantage of walk-breaks. I was pretty much on my own on this section, passing no one but not getting passed, either. Finally I arrived at the top, a turn-around at a viewpoint about halfway through Mile 15. Here a runner caught up to me, and I figured he would be passing me soon. He was a young guy, and I figured his legs would be more resilient than mine on the upcoming downhill. I asked him if he was ready for it, and he said "in my head I am." Amazingly, I pulled ahead of him at the next aid station and never saw him again.

Here's another photo of the lake, once again not actually taken during the race:

Crater lake 2
Wizard Island and Crater Lake, again with slightly more clouds than on race day

And here are my splits for the climb:

I was still banking time, but not quite as much as I had been on the previous sections of the race. But amazingly, by mile marker 15, my Garmin had caught back up to the the markers, so I was legitimately over 10 minutes ahead of pace.

However, my legs were quite tired, and I was now facing seven miles of solid downhill. After just one mile it was pretty clear to me that I wouldn't be able to maintain my planned 8-minute pace on this section. Each step seemed to shake my bones, and although my highly-padded Hoka One Ones were helping, they couldn't fully compensate for the pounding I was taking. I did the best I could, but I was losing time with almost every mile. At Mile 19 we turned away from the lake, at a spot called the "Phantom Ship Viewpoint." We didn't get to see the phantom ship, but fortunately I had taken a photo of it two days before:

Crater lake 3
The phantom ship is the small island in the middle. It's ship-ish, but not terribly convincing

The road continued down, not quite as steeply, and I began catching up to a man who had slowed to take a drink. I was still losing time, but managed to hold relatively steady. It seemed like a 4-hour marathon was within reach. When I caught up to the man told me he had had a 4-minute bout with diarrhea at Mile 13. So things could definitely be worse for me.

Then Galloway Woman caught up to us both, and passed both of us, and Diarrhea Guy took off behind her. I felt like I had been passed twice, even though technically I'd just pulled even with Diarrhea Guy. I focused on solid form and tried to ignore the pain in my legs. For some reason I was able to comfort myself with the idea that I'd be hitting an uphill stretch just after Mile 22. Here are my splits for Miles 16-22:

I'd lost 4 minutes over the 7 downhill miles -- but at this point I had pretty much lost track and was just trying to hang on.

Just past Mile 22, we passed by the finish area for the race. Everyone seems to agree that this is the cruelest segment of the race: You pass right by the finish line, and then have to run two miles up a dirt road, turn around and return to the finish. I would imagine this would be especially dispiriting to someone who hadn't checked the elevation profile before the race, but I was expecting it. I took a sponge from an enthusiastic child volunteer, and was quite relieved by the cool water drenching my head and shoulders. I hadn't noticed until now, but the day had gotten very warm. Now I could run uphill, and since I was planning on running miles 23 and 24 in 11:00 and 13:00 respectively, I could take walk-breaks.

I told myself I could run 3 minutes and then take a 1-minute walk break, and that worked well on Mile 23. Mile 24 gained almost 400 feet, however, and I slowed even more, taking 1-minute walks and 1-minute runs. I knew there was just a touch more uphill after the Mile 24 marker, but I wasn't prepared for how long this would take. It turned out that there was over 100 feet of climbing in my "downhill" Mile 25 and I became concerned that finishing under 4 hours was going to be out of reach. Finally I reached the turnaround and started heading down again. While this was tough on my legs, I was consoled by the fact that there were only 2 miles of downhill. It was also motivating to see all the other runners still on their way up. At about Mile 24.4 it occurred to me that even though I'd lost track of how much time I had banked, I could check my total time. I switched my GPS to total time mode, and saw a total time of around 3:41. I had 19 minutes to run less than two miles, all downhill. This just might be doable!

I just kept running, occasionally checking my pace to make sure it was faster than 10:00 per mile, and it seemed like it was going to happen. I passed mile marker 26, and knew it was going to happen. There were a surprising number of people cheering at the finish for such a small race. I crossed the line, and stopped my watch. The time read 3:58:07. I had done it! Here are the splits for those last four miles:

As it turned out, I was 17th overall, third in my age group. I was very pleased with my result, and also very sore. I sat on a log and chatted with some of the other finishers, while refilling my water cup frequently. On the bus back to the rim, I ended up sitting next to Birthday Girl, a geologist who had finished first among all women. She said she had been surprised by that final hill, but it hadn't stopped her from winning! We both agreed that this was one of our favorite races, a challenging course in a beautiful setting. It was simply amazing to be able to run a marathon in such an awesome setting. Running it well was just a bonus.

Speaking of bonuses, here's a bonus bit of geekiness to add to the recap. I created a graph of the time I banked over the course, and compared it to the elevation profile of the race. As you can see, I banked time over the first 15 miles, then had to use up most of that time over the second half, as I couldn't maintain my projected pace over the major downhills near the end.

For even more geekiness, check out the Garmin plot of the race below.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Race Preview: The Crater Lake Marathon

Tomorrow I'll be running my fifth marathon: Crater Lake. It should be an absolutely spectacular run, but also spectacularly challenging. Yesterday Greta and I drove most of the course (except the last 4 miles, which were closed to traffic), and were struck most of all with the incredible beauty and scale of the place. It's as if a god took the Grand Canyon, stopped it up at both ends, then filled it with sparkling blue water:

Crater lake 1
The lake is so big, it won't fit in one photo!

Crater lake 2
Here's the other half!

The race nearly circumnavigates the lake, offering several beautiful vistas of the lake, and many more views of the surrounding mountains. I had previously found a good elevation profile of the race here. Here it is, reduced in scale so you can see it all at once:

As you can see, it's quite hilly. According to Greg Maclin's site it involves 2600 feet of climbing and 4100 feet of descending. From the profile, it's clear that the really tough climbs are from Mile 10-14 and 23-24. That second massive climb has the additional wrinkle of being on an unpaved gravel road, and following an 8-mile, 2000-foot descent!

For my purposes, I divided the race into five types of terrain: Up, down, "flat" (really rolling hills), and steep up and steep down. As I mentioned earlier in the week, I'm going to try to do this race in under four hours, which should put me in the top 20 percent of finishers. I've been spending the past several weeks trying to come up with a realistic pacing plan to accomplish that. I want to be able to really use the downhills to recover, so I'm not counting on running them super fast; I've settled in on an 8-minute pace. In my training runs at elevation, I've been able to run downhill at an 8-minute pace without getting out of breath at all.

Uphill, however, is another matter entirely. Most of the course isn't terribly steep, with only four miles gaining 300 feet or more, which is just over a 5% grade. Mile 24 will be the toughest climb of all, gaining 500 feet for a 10% grade. But the span from Miles 10-14 is a five-mile stretch gaining about 1,100 feet. Although that's not Mount Constitution-level, it won't be easy! I'm hoping to do the uphills at a 10:30 pace. I've given 13 minutes for that last steep uphill mile 24. Then I'll do whatever I can down the final two steep downhill miles, but I've budgeted 8:30 per mile for this difficult stretch on gravel roads and tired legs.

In case you're interested, here is the spreadsheet I used to plan my pace for the race:

The weather forecast for the race looks okay. It should be about 48 degrees at the start, which will be ideal, but it will warm up throughout the morning, hitting about 60 at the halfway point, and about 73 at the finish. I don't know how exposed that final hill-climb is, but if it's in the sun, it will definitely feel warm!

I'll be carrying a hydration pack and a camera during the race, but I'm not sure how much I'll be pulling the camera out. I suspect that the slower I go, the more pictures I will take!

I'll have a full race report either tomorrow or the next day, so stay tuned, and wish me luck!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

High-altitude running

Working out in Carbondale, Colorado was one thing: I was at about 6,000 feet elevation, and I found that after a week or so I could comfortably run 8-minute miles, or even a bit faster. But for the past week, We've been staying near Telluride, Colorado, at closer to 9,000 feet!

At this elevation, the air contains about 73 percent of the oxygen found at sea level. Contrast that to 81 percent at 6,000 feet. So I had a third again less oxygen than I had in Carbondale, and I could definitely tell the difference during my runs. An 8-minute mile on level ground was a real struggle, and even a 9-minute pace wasn't easy.

Part of this may be due to the fact that there really wasn't any "level" ground around the cabin where we were staying, and I was running on gravel roads, not pavement. Still, there's no question that running at this elevation was contributing to the difficulties.

The real question I was trying to answer as I ran in Telluride was how the elevation would affect my marathon at Crater Lake, which ranges between 6,000 and 7,800 feet.

I'd like to be able to complete that race in under 4 hours. If it was close to sea level, I think I wouldn't have much trouble doing that: There is less elevation gain and a similar loss to Blue Ridge, which I finished in just over 4 hours.

I've created a tentative plan for running Crater Lake: 9:00 miles on the flats, 10:30 on the uphills, and 8:00 on the downhills. That doesn't seem very fast, but considering that for most of the race I'll have less than 80 percent of the oxygen I have a sea level, I think it's pretty reasonable.

The last four miles of the race involves an even steeper hill, a 2-mile climb and descent on a gravel road, so I planned for 11:00 and 13:00 on the uphills and 8:30 on the downhills. 

When I arrived in Telluride I had less than two weeks left before the race, so technically I should have been in taper mode, decreasing mileage while maintaining training intensity. Maintaining intensity was no problem at all: the altitude and the hills took care of that. But I also wanted to do as much as I could to simulate the conditions of the race.

On Thursday my plan was to run a hard run -- normally during sea-level training I'd be doing tempo runs but there's not much point to that at elevation because you can't run very fast, so I wanted to replace it with some hills. As it turned out I didn't know the area very well and ended up with just one large hill. The half-mile hill gained 160 feet, and I had to stop for two walk-breaks. It wasn't ideal, but I still managed a 9:18 pace for the mile, so considerably faster than my planned marathon pace. I also kept it easily below 8:00 pace on the downhill mile, so overall it felt okay. However I was very tired after just 8 miles. My average pace for the run was 8:30, so next I wanted to see how I felt after running a 9:00 pace for a similar distance.

On Sunday was my last long run, a planned 90 minutes at an "easy" pace, so that seemed like a good time to try for a 9:00 pace. I slowed things down on a similar route to what I had done on Thursday, and felt pretty good. I arrived at the final hill, this time in Mile 9 instead of Mile 7, and decided to simulate one other plan I had for the race. For that last, steep hill, I had figured out that a 1-minute run, 1-minute walk should work out to a 12:30 pace. I wanted to see how that played out in reality, so I tried following the plan during the run. It was tough, but I could do it, recovering enough during the hard walking phase to run solidly later. The result was indeed a sub-12:30 pace.

I did feel a little better after my 10-miler than I had after my 8-miler at a slower pace earlier in the week, but still not great. That might have been more due to the fact that I had spent the entire previous day at an outdoor jazz festival than anything in my run preparation, but still....

It does seem that my plan for Crater Lake is at least plausible. What remains is to actually do it. I'll have a little more about my strategy for Crater Lake later in the week.

I'm making my way towards Crater Lake over the course of the week, and I'll be doing some easy runs in the morning just to stay loose.

Details of my last two more-difficult workouts are below.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Hills of Orcas Island

After spending three weeks in Colorado, my wife and I headed to Orcas Island in Washington for our cousin's wedding. We were there for three days, so I wanted to take the opportunity to get some sea-level training in.

I also wanted to test out my new running shoes, Hoka One One Bondi Bs. Hokas are the object of much speculation among runners because of their radical design. They have a full inch of padding both under the heel and the forefoot. They are also extra wide for lateral stability. Some runners believe the generous padding encourages poor running form, while others say the padding allows runners to maximize speed, especially on steep downhill runs. Since I had had such a difficult time on the downhill segment of the Kendall Mountain Run, I decided I'd give these expensive shoes a shot. I've been spending a lot of money on blister treatment anyways, so why not see if a change in gear could prevent some wear and tear on my feet and legs? (This post isn't intended to be a review of the shoes, though -- I may decide to do a separate review later).

In addition to being a beautiful island, Orcas is also very hilly, so whatever training I got in while I was there would have to incorporate hills. For my first run, on Friday, I decided to do some speed work. The plan was to run 9 miles -- One mile for warm-up, then 6 at "tempo" effort (whatever that pace turned out to be on these dramatic hills), then two for cool-down.

The warm-up mile was almost completely uphill, so I warmed up quickly. Then, as I started in on the tempo run, the road continued uphill, flattened, then headed downhill -- about 240 feet of downhill! I finished the first mile in 7:12. I could tell that the shoes were helping to cushion my strides; it felt quite good. Then I reached a dead end, and so had to run back up the same hill. My pace for Mile 2 slowed to 8:06. Then it was back down towards the start. I picked up speed until my pace approached 6:00 per mile. I was flying! But I hit the bottom of the hill before the mile ended and headed up another hill (in the opposite direction from the start of my run). This one was even steeper than the first hill, and my pace decreased as I climbed over 100 feet in about a tenth of a mile. By the time the mile was over, my pace for the mile was 6:52. For Mile 4 I was determined to keep my pace up despite the uphill, and completed it in 7:55, again with over 220 feet of climbing. Finally things "flattened" a bit and I managed a 7:12 and 6:54 for the final two miles, each still with over 100 feet of climbing. My overall pace for the tempo was 7:22, including 889 feet of climbing and 1045 feet of descending.

I took an "easy" day on Saturday, 6 hilly miles, in preparation for my tough long run on Sunday.

The plan on Sunday was to run from our rental home on the water to the top of Mount Constitution, and back. The mountain isn't Coloradan in proportion, but it is over 2,000 feet tall, and the cabin is at sea level. The round trip would be nearly 20 miles. This would be my last "easy" long run before my marathon in two weeks at Crater Lake, and I wanted to get a sense of how well my legs held up during extended uphills and downhills in the new shoes. For a normal long run, I might try for an 8:30 pace overall, but I wasn't sure how to adjust my pace in this super-hilly environment. I decided to just try to maintain a similar effort to what I do on any other long run.

The first few miles were by now familiar territory, with several long-ish climbs but nothing over about 200 feet. My pace oscillated between about 8:30 and 9:30 depending on the hills. Then, around Mile 4, the road started the steady climb to the interior of the island. I arrived at Moran State Park, where Mount Constitution rises, and stopped for a couple pictures:

The quaint sign at the park entrance

The start of the climb. Unfortunately the sign obscures the dramatic incline

Now it was up, up, up, a steady climb for 3 miles. I knew the road flattened out for a couple miles near the top, so I wanted to give a solid effort for these three miles to see how I handled it. Here are the splits:

Mile 6: 374 feet, 10:28
Mile 7: 484 feet, 11:18
Mile 8: 551 feet, 12:10

The hill wasn't quite Kendall-Mountain steep, but it was definitely a challenge, averaging about a 10 percent grade for two solid miles. About a mile and a half in to the climb, I was ready to take a walk break, when I saw a group of four cyclists working their way up the mountain ahead of me. Could I really be catching up to the cyclists?

I decided to see if I could pass them, and I kept running. Slowly I closed in on them, passing two of them and telling them "they'll probably beat me on the way down." There were two more ahead, and they seemed to be picking up the pace. I kept pushing it, and finally caught a third cyclist, who asked me if I'd be running the Triple Ripple. I hadn't heard of it, but I've since looked it up -- looks like fun!

There was one more cyclist ahead, but I was never able to catch him. At the end of Mile 8 the road leveled out and he zoomed off ahead of me. As it turned out, "leveling off" is a relative term. Miles 9 and 10 were still primarily uphill as well, with 330 and 240 feet of climbing. But finally I made it to the top, turned off the stopwatch, and climbed to the top of the observation tower where I took a couple photos:

The obligatory self-portrait

Not every day do you get to look down on the clouds!

After looking around for about 10 minutes, it was time to head back down. Without going all-out, I wanted to see how quickly I could descend on tired legs, and how the new shoes performed. It took a while to get used to the new shoes, but after a mile or two I was able to get into a nice rhythm. Most of the downhill miles were in the 8:00-range, but I did manage a 7:11 on Mile 13. The hills were steep enough that my legs still took quite a pounding, and by the time I got to the flatter (but still downhill) Miles 16 and 17, my pace had slowed considerably. I only managed a 9:08 on 16 and a 9:50 on 17.

The good news is that after all that downhill (and all that climbing), I didn't feel completely spent. My legs were still responding, and I kept a respectable pace all the way to the end, even on very hilly terrain.

As I headed into the final steep descent, I decided to see if my legs were still able to turn over quickly. I hit the "lap" button on my GPS and took off as fast as I felt I could handle, which turned out to be a 7:56 pace. The .2-mile descent dropped 146 feet, nearly a 14% grade, and I found I could still run fairly strongly, even after almost 20 miles of running, including 3,700 feet of climbing and descending. During the Blue Ridge Marathon, I struggled to maintain an 8:20 pace around Mile 20 while descending a hill that wasn't as steep, so I'd say this is a strong endorsement for the Hokas' ability to absorb a pounding.

After the run, I was tired, but not completely spent, despite arguably putting in more effort than I might have on a full marathon. After an hour or two, my legs didn't feel bad at all, another sign that these shoes are helping (of course, all the other hill training and racing I've been doing lately probably didn't hurt either!).

Now it's time to start tapering for the Crater Lake Marathon, which is in fact just 10 days away. I'm looking forward to it!

Details of last Friday's and last Sunday's runs are below.