Have you ever stood before a task, and felt like it was as vast and challenging as trying to sail across the Pacific? Though our world of ultra running isn't quite as challenging as the analogy, my point comes in reference to the diverse amount of challenges that await one in the Pacific Ocean: currents, storms, sharks, whales, navigation troubles, etc. etc. the list goes on in how a human being can be challenged in every way possible.
Similarly, when I think about my goal of "doing my very best" at AC, I find the answer becomes more and more complicated the more I know about the race. It's long, it's hot, it's excessively varied terrain, and near perfection is required just to be under 20 hours.
-Sunset from a mile west of Cloudburst
Saturday's run with Jorge, Dano, Rupuerto, and Tommy Nielsen was thought provoking. We kept to mostly a controlled pace for the first 30 of 40 miles (no CR play) and as we talked, I found out Tommy (who has won AC, and ran it several times) considered Hardrock easier for him than AC. When pressed further for an explanation, Tommy explained that Hardrock has a consistent rhythm: hike for a couple hours, descend, hike for a couple hours, descend. I thought about AC, and he had a point: some parts of AC were steep where the runner has to make difficult judgement calls about how hard to run or hike, where other parts are flat and fast where the runner needed to have saved enough to make up time, while other sections are ovens that can fry a runner if they come into it even the slightest bit dehydrated or under-fueled. Though both races afford runners many opportunities to blow up and struggle, AC has an added allure tempting runners to run beyond their means and punish them for it.
We had ran 29 miles from Vincent Gap to Three points through alpine and high country terrain. When we stopped for a bit to refuel, most were in good spirits laughing and joking, but still wishing the post run rituals were already in effect. We pressed back onto the trail to run the last 11 to Chilao for the 40 mile day. I knew the section well, and it was one of the faster sections on the course with a 5.5 mile flat/gradual downhill before a 2 mile gentle climb. We started gradual as food was still settling, but eventually Jorge and I started to get to business moving a little more quickly as the trail began to dip an dive down to Sulfur Springs. We reached the road in just about 40 minutes, and began the 2mi, 600 ft climb to the Mt. Hilyer aid station (barely a hill compared to the rest of the course's climbs).
Still, I struggled. I knew the CR was 58, and that I had ran 8:00 pace easily before. I had come into Three Points a little dehydrated and a little hungry (when I say little, I mean by my standards, it wasn't a big deal). Yet, as I pushed along up the road, the heat and the solid food I'd had at Three Points began to react. I reached the aid station on CR pace in 58, but as Jorge and I jogged up to the base of Mt. Hilyer, I couldn't cool down, and the water I was drinking wouldn't process. I could feel the heat in my breath as it passed my nose, and felt my heart-rate in my head. Still, things weren't too bad.
The climb only had maybe 20 yards that one might want to hike, yet I found myself struggling to run again in the flat up top. The water just sat on the top of my stomach and all I could manage was a gentle jog down through the boulders that had been one of my favorite sections of the course. I got to the Silver Moccasin Trail off the CR pace, and the flat connector felt more difficult than ever as the trail was even hotter here (about 90 degrees). Nothing was processing and all I could do was walk so I sat down for a minute and felt better as my HR slowed. I got back up and jogged down into Chilao, where I doused my head under the faucet for a bit.
-Blue Ridge, it all starts here
The experience just proved how quickly AC can punish a runner that isn't on top of their fueling. Perhaps my curse for that section actually was my legs: they felt fine the entire time, and then enabled my overheating by letting me run beyond my stomach and endocrine system's ability. My goal of becoming a stronger climber had been reached but it had also let to yet another concern to take into my expanding race plan.
Sometimes I think about AC, and I wonder if I even have the ability to come within 30 or 50 miles of CR pace. It's not impossible, but it's not a goal that allows for any significant error. Every section must be run setting up for the next section why still hitting it's own split. To stay present, but be planning for the next section of the course takes a lot of maturity and planning. I don't think anyone can have a limit on their mental/emotional ability, but to be able to thread the needle section after section after section is really really freaking hard sometimes. Tony has experienced this at Leadville chasing Matt Carpenter's record, and it's been a clear display of the challenge: the courage to attempt to run perfect from start to finish in the face of very real and near danger of blowing up.
The more I think of my race plan, the less I think I'll be relentless with my body early on, but still find ways to get the legs to relax and push as close to the goal pace as I can with the smallest effort. I think a lot about the race, and the common conclusion each time I play it out is that I need to be as thoughtful as fearless. The potential will be unknown until July 23rd, whether I get to find it out is up to me. I alone have the final say and final responsibility for my race. All I can say right now is I've never trained this hard and been so tired, while still feeling so good when I get warmed up on a run. I'm happier than ever to be at this point, and that taper next week is looking more appealing than ever..
6/13-19: 81 miles, 17,700ft
6/20-26: 111 miles, 23,000ft
Foster the People - Houdini