Monday, August 18, 2014

2014 Angeles Crest 100 Recap


“I’m a lover and a fighter
A worker and a writer
I am a dreamer, woken up by fits of rage”
 
- The Show Ponies “Choppin’ Wood”
 
Relief in Altadena, Photo provided by Rony Sanchez
 
When I think about the Angeles Crest 100, there’s this inevitable emotional trail that my mind starts to wander down. I have confidence that my body is capable of a great performance, but I also have the stress of repeatedly losing control of the situation by being too focused on chasing (relatively) high speed splits on each section. Essentially, I love the potential that’s laid out for a great performance each time I line up to race it, but I hate the way it consumes me and takes me away from thoughtful and cognizant decisions.
 
So when I found myself galloping along the PCT above Wrightwood and throwing up my breakfast from sheer joy and excitement to be in the moment, I had to stop and curse the damn course for rattling me loose so early at mile 6. I wasn’t hungry, and there really wasn’t a pressing need to be attached to my breakfast, so I wasn’t too torn up about it. Chris Price caught up and we ran with Jorge who was equally concerned about maintaining a consistent pace and not getting caught up in the excitement of early splits.

The strange thing about AC is that though your body might warn you about your true effort levels being higher than your perceived effort levels, the trail encourages you on and distracts you from hearing its warning signs. The regurgitation was a warning to focus on my stomach first, yet it would take until mile 47 to remember to do exactly what worked last year.

With Pringles at Inspiration Point, Photo by Sally McRae
 
So, I ran along at a good pace with Chris, cruising along the PCT to Inspiration Point to make sure I hit the unnecessary 1:33 to mile 9.3. I didn’t feel hungry because we were running well, but I made sure to get 2 gels down after inspiration point on the way to Vincent Gap (mi13.7).

Vincent Gap, Photo by Jack Rosenfeld
I’d had a good run up Baden-Powell three weeks before, but that was when I was fresh and fed. However this time, it was 7:11AM, I’d slept poorly, ate 2 gels, ran 13.7 miles, and started to second guess myself. So, I ran very slowly (with a couple hiking breaks) up the lazy switchbacks to the top. A few folks passed me, and I felt dumb, but I started taking in more calories and resetting my body. The penalty was a few minutes at the top, but I was ready to reel in the leaders.
 
It’s important to enjoy as much of the course as you can, and I had no problem enjoying myself on the scenic and fast terrain down to Islip (mi26). I was 8 minutes behind my goal CR splits, but I was focused on being present and continuing on strong.
With Matt, Monica, and Matt at Islip, photo by Kyle Robinson


My crew was caught off guard as I called audibles to change plans, but I got out with what I needed to reel in the leaders (Chris, Jorge, Guillaume, and Michele) a little closer over Mt. Williamson. It was humid and warm, but I enjoyed myself again on the descent and came in to Eagle’s Roost (mi30) in the driver’s seat of my race.

Rapid Cooling, Photo by Hillary Coe
Everything I needed was already laid out and I quickly swapped shoes into my 1400’s for the flatter terrain ahead. I chugged down my protein drink and felt heavy with my pack, ice bandana, and full bladder, but it was necessary to catch up to the lead pack on the climb. Sure enough, I couldn’t see anyone on the downhill, but on the climb out of Cooper Canyon, I caught Chris and Michele near the bathroom and then Guillaume and Jorge a minute later on the PCT climb around to the north rim of the canyon.

Flowing with the Course, photo by Kara Clark
I almost threw up again, but I held my composure and mixed in walking and running to reach Cloudburst (mi37) in first, now 30 minutes behind my goal race. My splits were slower than last year and my thoughts drifted from CR to a low 18 hour finish.

Running out of Cooper, Photo by Hillary Coe
Cloudburst Aid, Photo by Anibal Corsi
 
My crew sprang into action again, and I felt a boost from their energy and the crowd cheering for me. This time I didn’t drink much protein drink, opting instead for a quicker pace over to Three Points. Last year, I had trouble with breathing in the Purple Poodle, and in my pre-race visualizations, I had planned on wearing a dust mask to save myself from the hypoxic-asthmatic-allergic –race robbing-experience of last year. The weather was cooler, and the scent wasn’t thick in the air, but I still slid the mask on each time I ran past a patch of the nasty stuff.


Into Three Points, Photo by Peter McKinney
 
All this focus on Poodle made me forget about how hard I was in fact running, and how far I had come. In hindsight, the obvious action item wasn’t to rush out of the aid station with caffeine and sugar, but rather a little bit of protein mix that would keep me smoothly converting carbohydrates in my stomach like I had from Eagle’s Roost to Three Points (mi42). A mere 10 minutes of gentle running to let the Recovery drink do its work was worth a good 90 minutes. Yet, there I was focusing on trying to race like I was finishing a 50k.
 
Eventually I got to the middle of the section and started to bonk repeatedly. I would take down a gel, and then feel hungry in 5 minutes. I was out of luck because all I had left was a PB&J bar that was much thicker and tougher on my stomach than the recovery drink. I went to the bathroom, ate it, walked, and gingerly ran up the climb to Mt. Hilyer (mi49).
 
I realized I needed my protein stat, and took in 3 cups of broth with ice along with a Ginger Ale. Foolishly, I threw in a salt and the overly salty mixture came back out on the trail after 50 yards. I knew puking usually gave me a 30 minute adrenaline window to run before bonking again, so I took it and made my way down to Chilao. The tiny bump in the trail by Horse Flats had me walking, and I knew I was running dangerously low on fuel again.

Into Chilao, Photo by Hillary Coe
 
At Chilao (mi52), I expected to get caught by Guillaume or Chris. Instead, I saw Chris in casual clothes (his heart was racing too fast, so he had dropped) and Guillaume was nowhere to be seen (still 10 minutes behind). I revised my race strategy to favor the recovery drink, and it started to help me build back more energy as I left Chilao and started running more miles with my pacer, Peter.
 
As good as it was to share some miles with a friend, I couldn’t deny the overall exhaustion in my body as we grinded up to Shortcut Saddle (mi59). Unlike last year when I was moving slow because I couldn’t breathe, this year I was moving slow because my body was really tired and sore. I remember the distinct thought “wow, this feels a lot worse than mile 59.. this feels like 89.” I had tried to blend recovery and taper from Western States and maintain some sort of endurance from my training during the spring, but the ache in my right knee, the weakness in my quads, and the exhaustion kept my turnover flat and slow.


Approaching Shortcut Saddle with Peter Photo by Hillary Coe
 
I focused my crew on getting my recovery drink ready for the 15 miles to Chantry, but they had a hard time keeping track of all my requests. We got passed at the end of the aid station by an exuberant Guillaume as I waited for my bottles to get filled up. Finally we were off, and I worked to reel in Guillaume and share a kindred mile with him talking about the race thus far.
 
Guillaume was psyched and I was happy for him. I openly admitted that I couldn’t take any more risks to try to win the race, but I motivated to get to the finish ASAP where I could sit down freely and partake in luxuries like solid food and not running. Guillaume pulled away, and I started to drop Peter (who was running 15 more miles than he originally signed up for). I ran alone for a few moments until Ruperto ran flying by with his pacer pushing him on. The windy and open fire road exposed the scene unfolding below me: both Ruperto and Guillaume were speeding up, but Ruperto was slowly reeling in Guillaume. The recovery drink started to do it’s job and I got back up to speed. I reeled Guillaume back in and I cheered him on to keep eating to stay within striking distance of Ruperto. Unfortunately, I would later learn that he had more issues (like me) besides just eating enough.
 

Team Unicorn Presents: Adventures at AC100 from peter_in_la on Vimeo.

I hiked and ran up the perfectly graded fire road to Newcomb Saddle. I normally loved this area of the course because it was shaded and led to the first views of the city, but today I just wanted to get through it. I arrived at mi 68 just 3 minutes after Ruperto had left, but I was adamant about keeping my intake of recovery drink going. The descent into Santa Anita Canyon was lonely but I kept moving (except for a bathroom break).

Chantry. Photo by Alex Suchey
At Chantry (mi 75) I was now 7 minutes behind Ruperto, but all I could think about was doing whatever it took to finish (eat, drink, pace myself). Leaving with Matt, I listened to his stories and tried to keep my mind off the pain in my knees and exhaustion throughout my body. After running casually quick over the last 25 all year, I was at the polar opposite: labored and slow. The climb up Winter Creek was painfully slow (something that I should acknowledge is normal for everyone at AC), and it felt awful compared to last year when I ran strong and hard to keep Ruperto at bay.

I gave myself a couple minutes at the bench, and Guillaume came marching by with Christophe. I encouraged him on, and labored up the last few switchbacks to the Toll Road. “Just one last drawn out climb left, I can do this” I optimistically said to Matt. Instead, the downhill beat my body down, and I rolled downhill like a stubborn rock that has just enough momentum to slowly continue.
 
Hearing I was 33 Minutes behind Ruperto sounded awful, but I was more excited about the fact that I only had two aid stations to go at Idlehour (mi82). We refueled in the softly falling rain, and made our way into the canyon. It’s intense darkness reminded me of the first time I ran AC in 2010: OVERWHELMING. There’s something to be said for the layout of the course adding a distinctly tough emotional aspect. It’s more than just physically challenging when you’re vulnerable and tired and have to to head uphill and into the darkness instead of downhill and toward the light.
 
Matt and I talked about great ultra runners, and how somehow they found ways to keep everything together. It motivated me to try and get myself pulled back together, so I kept gulping my protein drink and slurping down gels as I trudged slowly through the canyon. We finally ran the last half mile out of the canyon in 4th place behind Guillaume and Michele who had passed me in the bottom of the canyon. Guillaume was in the Sam Merrill aid station (mi89) getting ready to leave when I arrived. He said his quad was done and he was going to have to walk to the finish, but he still hobbled out of the aid ahead of me determined to do his very best.
 
I refueled and had a rough time getting into gear leaving the aid station. We finally started running and pulled my body down the Sam Merrill trail. I was like a wheel barrow: mobile on my left leg, stiff on my right leg, and running with an awkward transition from left to right as we moved downhill. We finally caught up to Guillaume just before the Lake Avenue Junction with 8 miles to go. Later I would find out that the last 8 miles would take Guillaume a full 2 hours longer than me due to his rapidly deteriorating quad.
 
Matt and I saw lights chasing us, and the muscle memory from running the Sunset Trail so many times finally paid off as I got into gear pushing away from the chasing lights of 4th place Randy Vander Tuig. We took a full minute in Millard (mi96) to get down some broth and soda for the last 4.5 miles to Loma Alta.
 
Randy was still within striking distance, and his presence kept me excited enough to run the Arroyo well enough to minimize the pain. The relief of finally leaving the single track behind and hitting pavement was the sweetest feeling of my night. I ran the last 25 a full 80 minutes slower than last year (70 minutes slower than Ruperto), but I was proud of my resolve to pull my haggard body to the finish line, and earn a proper blood and guts AC100 finish.

20:41 Photo by Alli Castillo Potrekus
 It was in imperfect day, but I was grateful for my crews support and the entire field giving their best effort. Ruperto won the race on his 8th try, and it was awesome to see his efforts over the years come to fruition. All the work that the race family put it was apparent. The energy level at the race was strong and positive, which is the way it should be for a course of its caliber.

The RD's, Photo by Rene Auguilar
Epilogue:
To run as fast as possible at WS and AC takes a bit more dialed in training and also a bit of acceptance of the limited success. Five weeks seems like enough time on paper, but it really felt like this frustrating gap of not enough recovery and too much time to let endurance lapse from pre-WS training. For me, the way I ran and fought to finish strong at WS severely limited the amount of risks I could take and get away with at AC. Simply put, there’s only so much 100 mile magic you can pull out in a few months. If I had accepted my bad day at States more complacently and came in rested, I would have had more in me to fight for another win.
 
One thought that stuck with me in the humbling late night hours in Idlehour, was how I hadn’t had a break from running since December of 2012. I’m taking that break right now and re-evaluating everything about how my summer went, and what I want to do for the next 12 months. I think I’ve identified a genuine risk of overtraining, and a distinct need for more climbing power to help me race smoother through ultras.
 
Avoiding coming over trained is a popular talking point in ultra running, and the specific reason is that the body is going to be asked to absorb a tremendous amount of shock and stress. Any weakness, small injury, lattice tear line, etc. is exacerbated somewhere between mile 30 and 100. Essentially, it’s very much like a car crash: though you might want to hold on tight and fight it, all you really can do is absorb it efficiently. You have to take punches and keep moving. So, in English: I have to be more patient when I get to rough points in training. I can’t ignore speedwork and hill intervals, and I can’t let myself overindulge in long slow runs or neurotic mileage goals when my body is exhausted.
 
As I’m taking this month-ish off from running, I’m realizing that all this was not in vain. All my various adrenal/respiratory/muscular-tory/etc. systems absorbed a lot this year. I think going forward it allows me to worry less about my endurance abilities and focus more on my speed. It might seem like one could argue my bloody end at AC was indicative of a need for more mileage. Honestly, I wish I had done less mileage and avoided allowing for any nagging injuries a chance to come back. This is the big motivation behind taking time off right now: close up as many injuries as possible and give me a blank canvas to start training on in mid-September rather than an inadequate one week recovery.
 
I’m thankful for this experience. It’s actually really positive to be in that vulnerable state for so many miles and to be humbled again to motivate sincere training each year. As well as things went last year, I didn’t admit to really any mistakes. This year, I have a much longer confession..

At Bishop, running too much. Photo by Geoff Cordner
 
Our sport is cyclical: when you start competing, there’s a bit of beginners luck afforded to rookies: an ability to go into reserves, to make mistakes and keep moving. After a few years, there’s a bit more experience in utilizing different tactics to squeeze more fast miles out of the body, but that also comes with the ability to take it to deeper places of exhaustion and injury. The cycle comes full circle with veterans learning when to push and when to rest.
 
Just about everyone in the sport is after finding their limits, which means that this unfortunate low point in the cycle is unavoidable. It might be public or it might be secretive, but everyone goes through an “oh shit” moment when they realize they’ve done too much. It can be constructive with a cathartic realization, or it can be indicative of a destructive addiction with nature, adrenaline, physique, or socializing.
 
I couldn’t say no to a trip to New Hampshire two weeks after AC to run the Presidential Traverse, and sure enough my knees felt awful in the technical terrain. It was positive though because it reinforced my plans to take a solid month off from training. I know exactly what it felt like to run fast and long in early April, how frustratingly exhausted I was in May, the anger I felt with my body not responding at States, and the disappointment in running AC slower than last year. There is ample fuel for the proper fire.

"Enjoy when you can, endure when you must"
 
 

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