Monday, June 20, 2016

Finding Finesse in the Heat of the Summer 100

This weekend I spent some of my more energetic waking hours running through the San Gabriel's in the hottest temperatures seen this year. There's plenty of posts from folks (myself included) that argue the finer points of what specific "secrets" or "tricks" are important to know for navigating these mountains, ridges, canyons, and creeks with the greatest joy and minimal amount of unnecessary pain. As far as running through challenging terrain in fiery heat goes, there sometimes isn't any way to sidestep the inherently difficult task at hand.

Miles that make you think twice..

When the general public is notified of "the toughest endurance event" through various mass media outlets, there's ample hyperbolas to describe the heat, distance and/or combination of unique, one of a kind obstacles found only at Kona or Death Valley. Still, if one finds themselves out in the exposed and sun drenched Cooper Canyon at mile 35 of the Angeles Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run, there's another level of challenge that other "internationally recognized pinnacles of endurance" can't quite replicate. There's the terrain itself which bucks upwards and downwards at 20% in sections; there's the perfectly still 95 degree air that awaits competitors with a money back guarantee to roast them like a Thanksgiving Turkey; there's the sheer distances of  4+ miles of climbing to the next aid station and the 4+ miles behind them from the last one that they came from leaving their body in vulnerable drought conditions; and there's the simple fact that just getting through the first 26 miles of pre-heating requires 7,000 feet of climbing before entering "the oven" which means the average runner is already in some degree of extremis. The mind bakes, the legs ache, the trail climbs, the air is still, and the next 75 miles of racing still have more heat, longer stretches without aid, more climbing, and plenty of bone jarring terrain that will demand much more than just running from the competitor. The challenge is distinct and undeniable: move quickly through the hot spots, manage fluid/electrolyte/calorie intake, use whatever tools you have available to keep cool, and don't lose your mind as it bakes in your skull.

I suppose the last point above was the toughest part of my Sunday run from mile 52, Chilao to mile 68, Newcomb Pass. I've felt the burn of the Badwater, and experienced my kidneys slowing down to a near complete stop due to overheating, but the difference at Badwater was that I had a crew vehicle available every mile of the 135 miles of paved road. Midday Sunday, in the 95 degree heat of the San Gabriel backcountry, I didn’t have a car and attentive crew monitoring me every 8 minutes. The exposed and reflective heat of the Silver Moccasin trail was a technical and searing frying pan, and I was a 150 lbs spat of tissue trying to unload heat in engulfing (metaphorical) flames. Now, had it have been a nice day, I would've trotted along enjoying the sights and sounds, but it was over 90 degrees and climbing, and I was sweating faster than I could absorb water from my stomach into my bloodstream. Indeed, it was something to be worried about since the day was only getting hotter, and the next stretch would be some 12 miles without water. 

The "secret" or "trick" for me today wasn't in the little tricks like running from shade to shade like an ant being burned by a microscope, or sitting in the water of the (sure to be dry by race day) Westfork of the San Gabriel River, or the ample use of salt. No, it was already apparent the day before when I ran the first 38 miles of the course, that I needed something more than just combating the heat. All these things individually were less important and effective than the overarching concept of finesse.

I will admit- I've had plenty of laughable moments in my time in the mountains that have shown I have an utter lack of finesse. However, my bones don’t move with unrestrained vigor as they used to thanks to running in said steep, hot, humbling mountains for the last 8 years. I'm on the exposed and burning hot "Edison Road" that hides hot pockets of air easily over 100 degrees, and I start to recall memories of my worst moments in this canyon. Not a complete thought forms, but I slightly turn my toes inward to ease the impact on my knees, I shift my pack to adjust the load of my water, I listen to my breathing and hold it in for an extra moment to avoid tight and sore lungs, I sip my water when my mouth is just dry enough to earn a swig, I ingest a salt and a gel when the trail and I agree that my heart rate can slow for a moment to divert extra blood to the stomach, and I keep my mind solely focused on moving as efficiently as possible to the top of the climb through a combination of running and hiking that match the slight variations of my core body temperature. 

The Cajon Pass
The finesse isn't in doing all those things, but doing them with grace, timing and synchronicity of the heart, body, mind, and terrain. The people that do this exceptionally well look like freight trains climbing and descending the Cajon Pass; an event that transpires dozens of times a day with great ease and insane amounts of well-placed force. Trains typical weigh in at 15,000-20,000 tons (on the 2.2% grade Cajon Pass, 33,000-44,000HP would be necessary to get over the grade). However, there aren’t always 7-10 locomotives available to do the work of pulling a train straight over the hill. Momentum is used to get a running start that allows the train to coast over the 2 mile hill. Even just to start from a standstill, cars are linked together with slack to allow for a slow build up as momentum necessary to get up to speed. The tractive force of a single locomotive is only 180,000 lbs, but spread out over a long gradual pull, a single locomotive can move an unfathomably large amount of cargo up to speed using the low rolling friction of rail to its advantage. 

The same ideas apply to getting my body from Wrightwood to Altadena under my own power. The question isn't simply how much effort can I give, but how much finesse can I use to make a arduous journey a thing of art. Form is low rolling friction, momentum is getting through hot sections quickly after I've cooled myself at an aid station, and patient, consistent, guarded force is how I survive sections in excess of 100 degrees that threaten to stop me dead in my tracks.

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