Thursday, August 22, 2019

MD Heat Race 25K - August 17, 2019

Be Prepared
Having experienced the toll that heat, hills and humidity can take at Hell Hath No Hurry in June, I prepare for this year's version of the MD Heat Race 25K (for one, by opting not to do the 50K) accordingly.  MD Heat promises equivalent amounts of the three Hs.  My preparation, as it turns out, is not quite well enough.

Friday night I pack my bag, which we will return to after 5 miles and then at the finish, by putting in an extra shirt and handkerchief to change out. Rather than fill my handheld bottle with water I opt to fill it with sports drink.  A pillbox with salt tablets goes in my pocket and gels go in the pouch on the handheld.

Go Horizontal - I
Pre-race resting
(photo by E. Burki)
Emaad picks me up and we make the half hour drive to the park-and-ride lot off of I-195 where we board the bus to take us into Patapsco Valley State Park,  We get our bibs and talk with other runners in the pavilion at the start-finish where the post-race party also takes place.  I place my bag on a low pavilion wall by the course for easy access at mile five, and lay on the wall to await the start.

Race Director Nick calls everyone to the start for a pre-race briefing which includes explicit warnings related to heat stroke.  He warns everyone that if you stop sweating and start to feel chills, you are not experiencing heat exhaustion, but heat stroke and to stop running, and not to try to get to the next aid station. Help will come for you.

Then Nick blurts out "Ready, set, go!" and leads the 200 runners across the field and toward the bridge to cross to the other side of the Patapsco River for the five mile lollipop part of the course.

Early on (mile 1?)
(photo by Kirk Masterson)
In less than a half mile, we go through the iconic tunnel under the railroad tracks and head uphill.  The course is hilly (advertised as over 2200 feet of climb and descent) and it lives up to it from the outset.  We go up, with Nick amongst us.  I kid him about running the entire race, but he responds that he has already run the course about six times this week, and that is enough.

A couple of miles into our climb, Emaad says that I should look to see who is behind us.  Fearing falling, I don't look but the voice is unmistakably's Don. He has decided at near the last chance to sign up, as he volunteered in 2015 (when he was injured and transferred his entry to me) and with an offer for a good entry price, has decided to run it.  He asks why we are going so fast and says we are on the top half of the pack.  Three possibilities come to mind: he is mistaken, the field is really slow, or we are engaged in "fly and die" pacing. We'll find out later which it is, but three miles in, there is no way to tell.  He stays with us until I stop to try to take a picture, and then is gone.

Emaad and I reach the top of lollipop within sight of the park-and-ride - a short stub trail connects to it and mountain bikers are taking advantage of the free parking - and head downhill.

Approaching the tunnel we spy a family and a photographer setting up to take pictures by a stream and jokingly threaten to photo-bomb the shoot.

Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head
On the wall (mile 5.5)
(photo by E. Burki)
Emaad and I arrive back at the start/finish/aid station 1 in about 1:11 minutes for the about 4.9 miles so far.  That's a good pace, but it doesn't feel stressful. We catch Don at the aid station but he goes on as I change my shirt and handkerchief, both of which are soaked with sweat.  And my shorts are soaked all the way to the bottom hem, a sign that the day is distinctly humid.

Emaad and I leave the aid station and in a half mile come to the 10 foot high wall perpendicular to the river. It may have once been part of a dam, or it may be a flood control measure, but in any case, we go to the river end of it, clamber to the top, run along it to the far end and climb back down to the trail.

Then we cross the park road and pick you the Ridge trail that more or less parallels it, but only after a medium length climb.  It's an uphill so we pretty much walk it until it levels out.

In a little while the leaves sound like they are rustling, and they are, but not from the wind.  A storm has moved over the park (even though it isn't even 11 a.m.) and the gentle rain gives way to larger drops and a steady rain.  I put my cooling rag over my head, not to stay dry but to keep rain out of my eyes.

Emaad has stopped at Cascade Falls to take pictures as I catch up with him. The rain continues and the runners are less troubled by it than some of the many hikers and children who thought they might have a nice day in the park with a hike and a visit to the falls.  Instead they are being rained upon and have runners wending around them. But they all seem in generally good spirits anyway.

Cascade Falls (mile 7.5)
(Photo by Nick Yates)
We reach Aid Station 2 at the Swinging Bridge. Elapsed time for the total of 8.3 miles we have covered is about 2:19. The rain continues and as we get some food, including bacon, and refill our bottles we take care to avoid streams of water running down the canopy protecting the volunteers.

Go Horizontal II
From the second aid station it seems that the course does nothing but go upward.  I remark that it is a sustained climb reminiscent of some that I have done in the West, as most of the eastern trails that I have run on generally top out fairly quickly .  Not this.

But the rain ends and the sun makes an appearance.  Of course, no rain brings back the heat and the humidity.  On we go. Up we go.  Finally it levels out - that it is - it becomes mostly rolling.

Near mile 12 we cross Rockburn Branch. It is a bit downhill to the stream and then uphill on the other side.

I start to get a cramp on the inside of one of my thighs. Then the other leg starts to cramp. I try leaning against a tree to stretch. Emaad pauses at the top for me.  The cramping gets worse. Then I start to feel woozy, or dizzy or lightheaded. I see a fallen tree near the top and say I will sit down on it for a bit.  I get there and lay on it more than sit on it. The cramps are continuing and I'm feeling poorly.

Unplanned log stop (~mile 12)
(photo by E. Burki)
I recall Nick's warning about heat stroke, but since I'm sweating and am not having chills and don't feel nauseous I figure it is just heat exhaustion.  I ask Emaad to get a salt tablet out of my pack and I take it. Draped lengthwise on my stomach on the fallen tree, I can't lay still because of the cramps. Runners coming by express concern but we try to assure them that the situation is manageable.  Gradually my head clears and the cramps subside.  Emaad provides me with a fallen stick for balance, but after a few yards it snaps.

Aid Station 3 turns out to be only about 300 yards away.  (For the record, it's about mile 12.5 and we are there in 3:49.) There are chairs and I sit down while I drink and rest. Another runner is also sitting. I tell Emaad that I plan to sit for another five minutes. He heads out, telling me that he'll be walking slowly.  An aid station volunteer fills my cooling rag with ice and I wrap it around my neck.

For Want of a Baggie
After the five minutes pass I get up and head out. I decide to text Emaad and let him know I'm on my way.  I take my mobile from my pocket and press the button. Blank screen. Same result from the on button.  The phone is dead, drowned from the rain and sweat in my shorts pocket.  I had neglected to put in in a baggie partly because I didn't expect the morning shower, and partly because I simply goofed.

I go on with a number of other runners. We walk, we run, we walk some more. Other runners pass us. Most of the runners pull away from me, but I pull away from the man who was also sitting at Aid Station 3. Finally, as we cross the park road for the final 30 or 40 yards to the finish line he catches up with me.  I briefly consider racing to the finish but promptly put that thought away.

Go Horizontal III
At the end as at the beginning
(photo by E. Burki)
Don and Emaad are at the finish for me.  I have a volunteer hose me down. AS I go into the pavilion Nick is just finishing giving away prizes and calls on me to give away the various items I donated - commemorative Cal Ripken Coke bottles and various other items. I do it standing on a picnic table with my shirt off and draped over my shoulder, dripping water from my hose down.  Before getting food from the fabulous selection that the race is justly know for, I go to the restrooms to change to dry clothes. It takes a while, as the leg cramps resume.

After eating some kielbasa and pulled pork and downing two sodas (and half a cup of beer) Emaad and I go to catch a ride with a volunteer back to the park-and-ride. While waiting I lay down on a picnic table. Before getting in the car I grab a third soda.

I finish in 5:03:18, good for 127 of 141 overall, 77 of 85 males and 6 of 7 in my age group. Don finished in a nice 4:22 and Emaad in 4:56.  And I wasn't the oldest finisher for a change as two persons in the 70+ AG finished (the oldest one being five years older and 18 minutes faster than me).

And besides the swag pictured below, I got one more piece of hardware thanks to the race: a new mobile.
Swag: Bib, Luna bar.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Hell Hath No Hurry 50K - DNF - June 29, 2019

Prelude or Epilogue?

We are sitting at a picnic table at the finish of the Hell Hath No Hurry Trail Challenge at Settlers Cabin Park just west of Pittsburgh. It's about seven in the evening.

"I was going to say something inappropriate," Wanda [not her real name] says.

"Please do," I urge.

She takes a sip of her beer. "For doing that, I'll have your babies."

Emaad keeps his eyes down, intently studying the cheeseburger I brought him. A faint rumble of thunder sounds to the north, in the direction of our hotel.

I look at Wanda. Give a bit of a smile. Pause before answering.

Pre-Race Analytics
In 2016, while staying at my house before the 2016 Marine Corps Marathon, Peter gifts me a pair of Hell Hath No Hurry socks, a race which he founded and is the race director.

He describes it as a multiple loop course with varying distances, from 10K (one loop) to 50 miles (eight loops) with a nice cook-out at the end. For some reason I envision a stroll in the park.  Nothing hard, and maybe a bit boring with the multiple loops.  My brain disconnects that he is an experienced 100-mile runner, even though I paced him for 20 miles at the 2010 Massanutten Mountain Trail 100 Mile. And I gloss over the race's name.

Emaad and I are looking for a 50K in June and I easily convince him that this is a good race for us.  We sign up, make our hotel reservation - conveniently within a mile of the start - and I let Peter know that we are coming.

Only then do I start to do some research.  I look at previous years' results and see that the winning times are unusually slow - 6:25 in 2018, 5:25 in 2017, 5:56 in 2016, 5:58 in 2015.

The website has a deceptively simple, but surprisingly consistent, formula to compute runners' ranking.  It takes a race winner's time as the numerator and divides it by each runner's finishing time to give the other runner a percentage ranking.  For example, if the winner finishes in four hours and another runner finishes in five, the latter gets a ranking of 80 percent. Basically, it means the other runner had finished 80 percent of the race at the time when the winner finished. It is a useful tool to come up with a predicted finishing time.

I started to calculate what my expected finish time for the race should be.  My ultrasignup ranking in the races I run is usually reliably between 50 and 55 percent. Extrapolating backward, if I ran HHNH in 2018, a relatively slow year, my predicted finishing time would be about 11:40. In a fast year, like 2017, my expected time would be 9:50.  Since one had to start the fifth and final loop by the eight hour mark, there would be little margin for error even in a good year.  I belatedly realize that this is not going to be an easy race and the chance of missing the cutoff is higher than usual.

On the drive to Pittsburgh I tell Emaad my gloomy assessment.

Dinner the night before with Peter, his father and my first cousin Bob, and the rest of the family, did nothing to inspire confidence.  First Peter notes that the loops are actually more like 6.7 miles, rather than the 6.2 miles that would actually be 10k.  That's OK, a trail race distance is whatever the race director says it is.  Sometimes they are longer than advertised, sometimes shorter. He says that elevation change is about 800 feet per loop, for a total of about 4000 feet of climb and descent for the 50k.

Then his wife Jenny points out that rain on Thursday night will help make the course muddy.  Peter adds that the trails were laid out by Boy Scouts who were not particularly skilled in trail routing so muddy areas abound. Peter then surprises his father, who will be manning the grill at the end, by telling him that he will be running on Saturday. "Like a loop or two," Bob says. "No," Peter replies, "All eight.  I'm running the 50 miler."

Race Day
The 50K does not start until 10 a.m. so Emaad and I have time to go off for a good diner breakfast.  The day promises to be hot and and humid, so I pack five shirts and handkerchiefs, figuring that I can change them every loop.

Approaching the Heaven Aid Station
A few minutes of driving gets us to the park, and a short walk takes us to the covered pavilion at the start/finish.  We plunk down our bags and chat with another runner, Wanda, who indicates that she, like us, will be running slowly.

The co-race director gives some brief pre-race instructions: follow the pink ribbons and if you hear the air horn, it means take shelter from an imminent dangerous thunderstorm.  The runners treat that as a bit of a joke, as there pretty much no shelter to be had in the woods.

Promptly at 10 we get the "go" command and the 45 of us in the 50K head off downhill across a grassy field, then onto some single track, across the edge of another grassy field and then into the woods on single track.

Entering Heaven
Sure enough we go up and down, and through patches of mud. Not all the mud is in bottom land as you would expect, but places where water drains down hillsides across the trail. Emaad and I move along at a modest pace. No hurry on this course.

Leaving the Heaven Aid Station
In about three miles we get to Heaven.  That's the name for the mid-course aid station. It is well stocked with all the usual ultra foods and supplements, plus grilled cheese, enthusiastic volunteers and Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey. "Maybe on the last lap," I say, eyeing the bottle.

The second part of the course is even harder than the first.  The uphills are not long, but some are steep.  The course skirts a swamp, and the mud there is ankle deep and unavoidable.  We press on, cursing the mud, walking the uphills and trying to run where we can.

Then a voice hails us from behind.  It is Peter, on his fourth loop, as the 50 mile race started at 6 a.m.  We chat and I follow along with him. He points out sections of the trial that volunteers had cleared out earlier in the week with grass whips, saying that they had been nearly impassible.

Peter and I
(Photo by E. Burki)
We finish our loop and he goes on while I go over to change my sweat-soaked shirt and handkerchief. I get through the first loop in about 1:43 and spend 5 minutes changing and getting refreshments at the aid station. That seems like it might be good enough to get through the five loops, as I need to average two hours per loop for the first four loops, and I know that the first loop is likely going to be the fastest.  Emaad comes in and we set out on the second loop.

But a couple of miles in I'm starting to feel tired.  Some of the steeper uphills are particularly difficult now and I think that on subsequent loops I might have to go up them on all fours.

Heaven comes and it is refreshing, but a mile beyond it there is a downhill and Emaad takes the opportunity to run it.  I can't.  Gradually he disappears from my sight.  I travel a bit with another runner - really a hiker - and I can't even stay with him.  I'm passed by a 50K runner on his third loop.

I finish the second loop in about 1:12, or about 3:55 for the first two loops.  That's under the two hours per loop I need to average to make the cutoff.  I go and change my shirt but decide that there is no sense to going on.  I go to the scorer's tent and withdraw. Then I wash the mud from my legs and  hang out with cousin Bob as he get ready to fire up the grill.

Fueling up at the Start/Finish Aid Station 
after Loop 1
Muddy legs
Emaad comes in from his third loop at 4:10 p.m.  By now temperatures have reached 90 or more and the humidity is oppressive. (His device will claim a high of 93.) He looks pretty good, but it is unlikely, although not impossible that he can make the 6 p.m. cutoff to start the final loop. I urge him on. He barely hesitates and sets out.

Once he is out of sight, I head back to the hotel to shower and change clothes before heading back to the park. He texts me how far he has to go, but there is no sight of him.  My mobile buzzes with a severe thunderstorm alert for an area that ends less than a mile from the park. The sky to the north, toward the alert area, looks ominous.

About 6:25 p.m. Wanda finishes her fourth loop and is done for the day.  Emaad comes in about seven minutes later, and he too, is done, timed out even if he wanted to do another loop, which he doesn't.

The three of us sit down and get some food and fine craft beer. (The night before Peter said that one of the pleasures of being the race director is getting to take a bunch of other people's money and go beer shopping.)

Peter finishes the 50-miler in at 7:14 p.m. in a time of 13:14, good for sixth place overall.

Emaad relieved that he is done
This is an aptly named race. The course is hellish and you won't be done in a hurry.

The winning time for the 50K is 6:32. To give an idea of how hard the race was, due to the course and the weather, consider that I ran the Pemberton Trail 50K in February in 6:41. The Pemberton winner ran 3:41 (Alisa Macdonald, first female; first overall) It took me just under four hours to go 20K at HHNH. It took Emaad 8:32 to go 40K.

Other metrics of difficulty: there were 23 finishers out of 45 starters for the 50K, a 51 percent finishing rate. In the 50-mile, 37 started; only seven finished. That's a finishing rate of 19 percent.  Even this year's Bull Run Run 50 miler, under very muddy conditions, had a finishing rate of  60 percent.

Choose Wisely

At the picnic table, with Emaad's eyes locked on his burger, and Wanda and I looking at each other, I choose my words carefully.

"That's awfully nice of you," I say, "but I don't think my wife and children would approve."

Done examining the cheeseburger Emaad picks it up and bites into it. Peter stops by to chat. Wanda takes another sip of beer and then cuts into the cheeseburger I brought her, the good deed that led to her remark.

No more thunder rumbles in the distance.

RD Cousin Peter, Grill Master Cousin Bob and me (post shower)

Swag: bib and socks. No finisher's award.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Dirty German 50K - May 11, 2019

Man Down
I look at the dirt from inches away. I'm on my hands and knees, or maybe my elbows and knees. All I know is that seconds ago I was running and now I'm down. It was not a slow motion fall or a  stumble and fall variety of going down.  This was sudden, abrupt and hard.

I take inventory. Hands are OK. Legs are OK. Left side of the chest hurts; it must be where I landed. Small bruise on my left eyebrow; I must have hit my head as well. I stay down while trailing runners come up and ask if I'm OK and if I have water, food, phone.  I assure them that I'm OK and have all those things as I get to my feet. I thank them and urge them to go on; that I'll just walk for a bit. There's about three miles to the finish of the Dirty German 50K and about half of that to the next and final aid station. I know I can walk it in if need be.

But I don't feel so well. A few steps leave me feeling unsteady. I sit down on the side of the trail to regain stability and to await Emaad.

Emaad and I drive up to Villanova to stay with his cousin. It's a leisurely drive, with a stop at the Dog House in New Castle, Delaware. This small, cash only, counter or carry-out, limited menu dive specializes in foot-long hot dogs, split and grilled and served on chewy, tasty rolls from a local bakery. Emaad notes that one of the servers has a tear-drop tattoo, and says that means he killed someone.  A Wikipedia check reveals that it might mean that, or something else. In any case, we wisely don't ask the counterman what his tat means.

Getting to Villanova early, we visit Tin Lizard Brewing Company (Bryn Mawr) (for a pale ale and an Irish ale) and Tired Hands BrewCafe (Ardmore) (for a saison and candied bacon) to sample the local beers and hydrate.

First Loop
Enjoying the music before the start
Saturday morning, Google navigates us the half hour drive to Pennypack Park. We park on the street  along with many other runners, walk to the pavilion where we pick up our bibs and premiums, drop our bags and wait for the start. An accordion player provides appropriate German music for the waiting runners and spectators. The 50-milers, running three loops of the course plus a bit of an additional short loop, start at 7:30. The 239 50K runners, doing two loops start 30 minutes later. The one-loop 25K runners start 30 minutes later, at 8:30.

A bit of a run through a field at the start/finish helps sort out the runners as we reach the entry to the mostly single track. The course wending its way through the park is mostly dry, with only occasional spots of mud and puddles, most of which are easily avoided. There is a bit of up and down, but none of
the climbs are long or particularly steep.

Salt Sherpa
After a couple of miles I let out a curse when remembering that I forgot be carry salt capsules with me, as the day that forecast as being cloudy with a chance of showers is turning out to be mostly sunny. A nearby runner tells me she has extra and offers me some. I thank her for the offer and accept a pair that I stash away. "You can be my salt sherpa," I tell her.  She says that is an agreeable nickname.

In three miles we arrive at the first aid station where the accordion player is already there to serenade us as we pass through.  Around mile five a deer stares out of the woods next to the trail at the runners passing by.  I pull out my phone to snap a pic but just as I'm finally ready, the deer turns around and disappears.

Pennypack Creek from the bridge
The second aid station at mile 7.5 is reached with no issues, as the faster 25K runners overtake us. We run back on the other side of Pennypack Creek, finally crossing a bridge that takes us back to aid station 1 at mile 11.5.

In about a mile we enter a part of the course that folds back and forth on itself. The website calls it the roller coaster section, but it seems more like what one's small intestine is like.

First Fall
In about three miles we come to the third aid station. Moving right along we run and chat with other runners. I stumble, take a few steps and then turn my right shoulder in to roll as I hit the ground. Not a bad fall, and I complete the roll so I can pop back to my feet.  Emaad has seen this move before, but the others are impressed by my ability to turn clumsy into agile.

Down Again
Soon we are back at the start/finish, and after a stop at a porta-potty, run over the through lane timing mat (in 3:33) to start our second lap.

Typical single track
Almost across the grassy field I fall again, this time without much warning.  But the field is soft and no harm comes of it, although I note the concrete bench that was not more than a stride or two from my head. Another step and the landing would not have been so inconsequential.

Emaad and I are generally running together, but sometimes I get a bit ahead. I run with a pair of women. We talk about falling, as one is concerned about it and the other says that she has only fallen three times in her career.  Sure enough, that is too much for the running gods and in a few minutes on a flat section she catches a toe on a root and goes down.  She has dirt on both knees but is not hurt so on we go.

Special Hydration I
Arriving again at the first aid station (now mile 18) I see that there is a special offering of complex carbohydrate liquid refreshment. I ask for some and it is freely given. When I pull out the phone to document this happy moment, the aid station volunteer says "no social media, as our permit does not permit [complex carbohydrate liquid]. We want to remain on good terms with the park authorities." I put the phone away as I take another sip of the deeply satisfying liquid aid.

The run to the second aid station (now mile 23) is uneventful with chats with other runners including some 50 milers who we overtake. The volunteers at the aid station are concerned about running low on cups, so I use the collapsible cup that I am carrying and mention how the North Face was a cup free race as well as others that I have run.  The volunteers express concern about how that might slow down providing aid, but another runner says that isn't the case.

Salt Sherpa and I in the second loop
Salt Sherpa catches up with us and we run and chat together for a bit. I don't need to rely on her kindness any longer as the aid stations have packets of salt tablets, and I get one.

I run with a runner who is an electrical engineer by profession and we discuss whether mobile phones can cause cancer, a topic brought up the night before by Emaad's cousin, an oncologist. Surprisingly to me, he concurs that it might be the case. He also says this is his first 50K and that he hopes to run a marathon fast enough to qualify for Boston. Given our 50K pace that seems a stretch goal, but I say nothing.  We talk about training and coaching for such an effort and I silently note that he is in my age group. This will be consequential later in the day.  I bid him good running and go on.

A bit further on a deer stands athwart the trial. In a bit of contradiction I yell at it to run away while reaching for my phone to photograph it.  Like the deer earlier in the day it does not hang around long enough.

Special Hydration II
Arriving back at the first aid station (now mile 27) I inquire in my finest high school German, "Haben Sie mehr [complex carbohydrate liquid] bitte?" Enthusiastically a can of the refreshment is retrieved from a cooler. Normally I'm quick through aid stations - gulp some Coke, refill my hydration bottle or back, grab some potato chips, cookies and candy and go - but for this I linger and chat. I fully intend to finish the entire can, but the volunteer signals that I should hand it back to him so that he can finish it. Off I go.

Trail Runs for All
I pass a pair of women doing the 25K and give them the usual "Hey" greeting.  They are not the lithe, lean type that one expects on the trails, or running long, or even running at all.  But here they are, he epitome of "relentless forward progress." We had passed them earlier on the first loop and overheard them talking about how their friends had questioned them for wanting to do the race.  But they are here and trail runners accept everyone.  It isn't a question of speed for most of us - it is to get to the finish.  And they are out there, doing something their "friends" don't think they can or should do. I have great respect for them for being on the trail and for prevailing.  We don't do these things because they are easy, but because they are hard.  I'm sure the 25K was hard for them - harder (and slower) than the 50-miler for some. Great credit to them for ignoring their friends, persevering and finishing. No, great credit to them for taking the first step, not the last one.

Pride Goeth Before a Fall
The time dawdling at the aid station while I hydrated has given the electrical engineer a chance to catch up. I see that he isn't far behind me.  Since we are in the same age group and I'm feeling pretty well, I determine that I'll try to finish ahead of him. He doesn't know it, but I'm going to race him.

Through the folds of the small intestine section I can see where he his without having to obviously  be looking back.  I plot to skip the final aid station to gain a few additional seconds or more. We leave the twisty section and the course starts to straighten out a bit. No usual walking uphills for me now. Press on, press on!

The End
Brat, potato salad, apple spice bread
And now I'm sitting on the side of the trail.  The engineer had stopped to see how I was, but now he is gone and I await Emaad. He arrives sooner than I expected and is a bit surprised to see me sitting there.  I get to my feet and the unsteadiness is gone but my chest hurts. Not the sharp pain on intake of breath that would signal a cracked rib, but a dull pain that says bruised ribs.

We go on, with me mostly walking. Running hurts my chest some, and the fall has taken the its toll on my will.  We get a little something at the final aid station.  With less than a half mile to go we spot a woman walking ahead of us.  I stir and suggest that we try to catch her. The funny thing is that even with her walking and me running, I'm not gaining on her.  Emaad takes off in pursuit. He doesn't catch her but finishes 40 seconds ahead of me.

We collect our medals, and get a brat and German potato salad to eat before the walk back to the car, which seems further away than it did when we walked to the start.

At the finish
I finish in 7:43:19, with splits of 3:33 and 4:10.  I finish 170 of 214, and 5 of 5 - DFL- in my age group. I gained two places in the second loop. On the other hand, I'm the oldest finisher.
Swag: Medal, Bib, Growler, Full-Zipper Shirt

Thursday, May 9, 2019

North Face Endurance Challenge DC - April 27, 2019

No linear race report this time - just vignettes and pictures. If you want to know what the course is like, see my reports on the 2012 and 2013 North Face Mid-Atlantic 50Ks, and the 2014 North Face Mid-Atlantic 50M. Same race, same course, different name. The map is here, on pages 4 and 5.

What's a Fella to Wear?
Runners generally, and trail and ultrarunners in particular, obsess over what to wear and carry. What's the course surface (rocks, roots, sand, mud, etc.) and elevation (steep or rolling hills)?  How far apart are the aid stations? What time is sunrise and sunset? What's the terrain (shaded forest, open meadows, treeless desert?)?  What's the weather (hot, cold, humid, windy, afternoon storms?) Are there drop bags allowed?

Crunch the data and decide: long or short sleeve shirt (or more than one); tights or shorts; hat, visor, neither; gloves; buff; gaiters, headlamp; handheld bottle or bladder; gels or other nutrition (and how many); sunscreen or lip balm; salt tablets and ibuprofen; tissues; handkerchief.

Ready to start
A wet spring and rain on Friday assures that the course will be wet, so gaiters to keep the mud out of the shoes.  Cool temperatures to start suggest a long sleeved shirt; sleeves can be pulled up as the day warms up.  Running vest and bladder are a no-brainer to carry nutrition and adequate supplies of liquid.  The relatively cool temperatures and breezes mean it won't feel too warm to wear it. 

Tights are a closer matter. The temperature generally weighs against them, as after an hour or so it will be warm. But I live in dread of ticks and poison ivy, and the course has both, at least when I previously ran it in June.  The switch to an April date means the grass won't be so high in some of the fields so there is less chance of ticks, and the poison ivy will have had two fewer months to grow. But the tights will provide warmth in the beginning and protection from those things I dread, so I go with them.  I figure I can take them off during the race if need be - I wear shorts over them.  Besides, the Eric Clifton-made jester tights always garner compliments.

Mud? We Laugh at the Mud!
A bit of rain Friday and Friday night promises to leave the course soggy on Saturday, and sure enough, the start of the race at 7 a.m. has use stepping through soggy grass around the soccer field at the start used to spread out the field and plodding through mud in the early going.

Bluebells along the Potowmack Canal (mile 4)
But after the mudfest that was Seneca Greenway Trail Marathon and 50K in March Emaad and I don't find the course particularly troubling.  I urge the more cautious runners around us to just run through it: "You're going to get wet and muddy today, so go ahead and get it over with now. Remember all those times your mother told you to stay out of the mud? Well today you get to play in it."

After a few miles of somewhat muddy conditions, the partly sunny day and breezy conditions work to help dry out the course, although there still is some mud in the last few miles, but less than was there when we were outbound in the morning.

In Riverbend Park (mile 21)

"Congratulations on your finish," I say to Sara, "Now you are no longer a [is there the slightest hesitation in my voice? Does she notice it?] rookie."  Although I ran the 50K race and she ran the marathon, we leapfrog each other the last 8 or 9 miles and I chat with her during times we are running together.  Not only is this her first trail marathon, it is her first marathon on any surface and I provide morale support and practical advice as we run along. She tells her non-running boy friend that my support helped her to the finish.

For some reason, this race attracts what seems to be a large numbers of first timers, for all its distances. It is very well organized, and the course is just challenging enough with some short but steep climbs along with its single track. The switch to April from its original June date means its less likely (but not impossible) to be brutally hot or humid, or both. And the addition of the Fraser aid station eliminates what used to be a 7 mile stretch without aid.

A few miles in I catch up to a runner and ask him if it is his first ultra. He replies in the affirmative.  He is running without a water bottle or any form of nutrition, flashing red clues that he has never done one before.  He says that with aid stations only 3 to 4 miles apart he will be OK.  I don't argue with him, but after a bit of leapfrogging he soon falls behind and we last see him in the loop in Great Falls Park, where he is probably a few miles behind even our leisurely pace.  And I don't see him at the finish, even though we hang out there awhile.
Emaad on boardwalk in Great Falls  (mile 18)

Somewhere between the Carwood and Frasier aid stations (around mile 23) I get passed by three young men. Two are wearing Navy-themed shirts, the third is bare chested. I complement one for the slogan on the back of his shirt: "If you want to go far, run with someone. If you want to go fast, run alone." I salute them with a "Go Navy" and get a "Beat Army" in return. We leap frog a bit but they are generally faster and soon disappear from sight.  

Awhile later I catch up to them. The shirtless runner is sitting on the ground rubbing his thigh. I ask him if he is cramping and he replies in the affirmative.  I give him a salt tablet, but he doesn't have anything to drink with it (none of them do; clearly first-time ultrarunners). I offer a drink from my pack, but he hesitates. Hold out your collapsible cup (the race is cupless - no paper cups at the aid stations, but every runner received a nice six ounce flexible cup to carry along) I instruct, and I fill it from the hose on my pack.

Great Falls Gorge Overlook (mile 19)
Later on, they will catch up and pass me individually.  As the last of the shirted runners goes by, he says, "I've got to catch up with Crampy," - a nickname earned and deserved.

"Rookie" was almost not the word I said to Sara. Ultrarunners refer to first timers as "virgins." But maybe that's socially incorrect (especially with someone you only met on a trail) particularly with her boy friend next to her. 

Dean Karnazes
At about mile seven a runner comes up on Emaad and me.  Emaad says "Hi, Dean," and as he does I recognize that the runner is legendary ultrarunner, race organizer and author Dean Karnazes.  His 2006 best seller, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner, made him famous and popularized the sport - if you consider a sport whose largest events do not attract 1000 participants popular. But he is not just a celebrity, he's the real deal, with wins at Badwater 135 miles (2004) and the Vermont 100 milers (2006), and a four top ten finishes at Western States 100.

Remarkably Dean slows down to run with us for the next couple of miles. We chat like all trail runners do, about races we've done and what we have upcoming. Dean is going to Greece in September to run the Spartathlon, a 250K race from Athens to Sparta. He says the hardest part is the first 50 miles from Athens to Corinth, a distance of 50 miles that has a 9:30 cutoff. Apparently he isn't concerned about the 105 miles that follow that.  We tell him of our plans and discuss a 100 miler; he suggests trying a 24-hour race to get a flavor for it.

Dean Karnazes with me (mile 11)
We discuss the Washington pollen (predominately tree pollen at race time) and when I start coughing he offers me a gummy bloc to suck on to stop the coughing.  It works.

We ask if we can take pictures with him and he graciously agrees, so we stop to pose.  After awhile he says that while he would rather be running, he needs to get back to the start/finish in time to give out awards at 2 p.m. and takes off.  I guess that he ran the marathon distance between his duties at the start of the races and the awards ceremony.

How Old?
When we finish I go and check the results in the off chance I've won my age group, 65+.  The real time results show that I'm 3 of 3 so  that's that.  The next day I scan the complete results to see where I stood. One runner finished after me and the results have me listed as 3 of 4.  I search for the two ahead of me. The second place finisher is 66 and an hour ahead of me. I keep scrolling upward for the first place finisher and finally find him finishing 40th overall (35th male) about two and a half hours ahead of me. But what is most remarkable that his age is listed as 118.

I send an email to the timer: "I'm used to being beaten by people in my age group (65+), but not by the world's oldest man" identifying the unbelievable speed of the centenarian.  I n a few hours I get a response: "Ha...good catch :) This must have imported incorrectly, his birthday was entered in as born in 1901." Turns out he was 30, not 118, so I wound up 2 of 3.

Finish Details
Emaad and I run the last few miles together. At the finish we retrieve our drop bags, change shirts and go to get our post race meal.  Rather than have a meal line like in the previous years I did the race, there are four food trucks - pizza, fried fish/BBQ, halal and kabobs - each offering a number of offerings for your ticket.  I elect BBQ ribs while Emaad goes for the lamb and rice from the halal truck.  We take our food to the beer area and redeem our beer coupons for the offerings from Sierra Nevada. Then we buy a second beer to drink while talking to a husband and wife who (of course!) just finished their first 50K. He has done triathlons, and says this was harder. Leaving the beer garden I pick up a Sierra Nevada pen and Hop-N-Mint lip balm.

Swag: Shirt, Medal, Bib, Collapsible Cup, Finisher's Bottle, Pen, Lip Balm.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Seneca Creek Greenway Trail Marathon - March 2, 2019

The good news - it's not raining on Saturday.  The bad news - the ground has been saturated for a month and it rained on Friday.  The takeaway - the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail Marathon & 50K promises to be a mudfest.  It will be a promise fulfilled.

Starting Out
Staying warm pre-race
(Photo by E. Burki)
I pick up Emaad and we drive the short distance to the park. After the inevitable, but brief, discussion of what to put in a drop bag, how many layers may be necessary, and other clothing choices, we walk the quarter mile or so from where we parked by the side of the road to the start where we pick up our bibs.  We go into the picnic pavilion where the post-race food and refreshments will be served and keep warm by the fireplace and propane space heaters.

We walk back to the start, exchange greetings with Don, Michele and Glenn, and others that we know. Someone sings the National Anthem and we are off down the park road, past the park cars for the turn onto the southbound trail.

Well-placed near the back-of-the-pack we are assured of a trail that where it is muddy, is well churned into a slippery brown amorphous mess.

The section of the Greenway Trail south- (or outbound) south of Riffle Ford Road and to Germantown Road stays in the bottomland near the creek and accordingly is particularly muddy. Michele splashes straight through the muck, explaining that trying to avoid it by running on the edges risks slipping of those sloped surfaces. There is great deal of logic to this, but nevertheless I try my best to stay out of that part of the mud. 

Glen, Emaad and I approaching Riffle Ford Road
(Photo by T. Bryant)
On the other side of Germantown Road the trail veers away from the creek to climb onto a ridge, until dropping down next to the creek approaching Black Rock Road at Black Rock Mill.  From there it is less than two miles to the aid station at Route 28 (mile 7.3) after another ridge climb through a pine grove.  We tell Don that since he us running the race we miss him being the aid station director for his particularly witty food themes and signs leading to the aid station. (See my report on the 2012 race for examples.)

More Mud
After getting the usual potato chips and cookies I head across the bridge to get to the Seneca Bluffs Trail to continue south.  By now, Emaad, Glen, Michele, Don and I are pretty much traveling together, sometimes leapfrogging each other or falling behind.  We are joined by Stephanie and Jon. We are not pack of young wolves. More like a gray wolf pack. Our average age is over 59. But we are still out here, playing in the mud.

One might suspect that the ridge trail, away from the creek would not be too muddy, but that is often not the case. The trail is on the side of the ridge, so drainage and seepage from the higher parts create plenty of water to make mud and there are a few places where intermittent streams contain water.

Cold Water
Approaching Dry Seneca Creek
(photo by E. Burki)
And then, after a particularly muddy stretch we crest a small rise, and make a left turn to the banks of the ironically named Dry Seneca Creek.  Perhaps when the creek was named in the 19th century it would get dry, but acres of paved surface from roads and development assure that there is water for it year-round. And Friday's rain has it full and fast flowing.

As we all stop to watch runners ahead crossing the creek, and get mentally prepared for it, I borrow a trekking pole from Stephanie to steady myself.  With my other hand I hold onto Michele for mutual support.  The water is just over my knee and moving swiftly. It is turbid and hard to tell what the footing is like from step to step. The trekking pole is useful for probing the way across.

Meanwhile Emaad is crossing while he is taking a selfie video of his crossing.  He slips but recovers. Don puts large trash bags on each leg but the water overtops the bags and he crosses the stream dragging the water-filled bags to the other side. He empties the bags on the other side.

The good part of the water crossing is that the mud has been wiped from our shoes, but the price we pay is how cold are feet are.  Don takes off, telling me that he has to run fast because of how cold his feet are.  He has a change of shoes and socks awaiting him in his drop bag at the Berryville aid station a mile or two ahead.

When Emaad and I reach River Road at mile 14, he says his sock has gotten creased under his toes and he sits to adjust it.  When he takes his shoe off there is nothing the matter with the sock.  Instead, there is a ball of mud under his toes.  He removes it and the problem is resolved.

Aid and More Aid
Emaad fords Hookers Branch (mile 15)
We cross over Seneca Creek on the River Road bridge and head up Seneca Road to the trail head for the Seneca Greenway Trail to go north.  Just before reaching it we come to a very unofficial aid station.  An organized runners group, which shall go unnamed to protect the not-innocent, is grilling quesadillas, and has the usual runner's choices of cookies and salty items.  But they are also offering beer, and for the cold, adventuresome or daring, liquor.  Later Don tells how he took advantage of the aid to warm his cold, numb toes with rum & coke and a beer chaser. I pass up the opportunity.

Chocolate-covered bacon 
at Berryville AS (mile 15)
After about a mile of up and down we come to Hookers Creek.  It isn't anywhere as high as Dry Seneca Creek.  I try to put plastic newspaper bags over my shoes, but they are too small to fit.  (Next time, try them on beforehand.) I pick a course over some rocks and shoals and manage to keep one foot dry.  Emaad, knowing he has dry shoes at the aid station 100 yards, ahead charges across the stream.

The Berryville Aid Station is well stocked, and in particular has chocolate-covered bacon.

Don and Emaad change shoes and socks, but I elect to keep going with my muddy ones.  As the next stretch runs along the creek,  mud is inevitable.

Sure enough, it is.  I'm starting to feel a bit weary from the slip-sliding in the slop. Emaad catches up to me good naturedly complaining that I had left him behind. On the other hand, he didn't have much trouble catching me.

Relentless Forward Progress (aka Death March)
We go on, through mud, slipping and sliding.  At one point there is a small rivulet to cross but I slip down the bank and wind up sitting on the sloppy bank.

The iconic deer skulls with holiday caps.
Soon enough we get back to the Route 28 aid station (mile 19.5). Emaad is waiting for a grilled cheese but I walk on ahead, having caught up to Michele.  I keep walking, Michele goes on ahead, and Emaad finally catches me at Black Rock Mill where we head onto the Seneca Ridge Trail. The 7.3 mile stretch between the Route 28 and Riffle Ford Road aid stations is seemingly interminable, with plenty of up and down.  We are pretty much alone and we trudge along, stopping to examine the deer skull display that has been trail side for years. (See the 2014 report for an picture of fewer of them at the time.)

A Choice Denied
As we plod along we debate our chances of making it to the decision point at mile 27.7 by the cutoff time. This is the time where one can either run about a quarter mile or so to the finish for the marathon (actually about 28 miles, not the traditional 26.2 mile marathon distance) or go around Clopper Lake for another 3 or 4 miles for the 50K.

Typical footing
Neither of us can remember what is the cutoff time, however.  We face an existential question - if we make it in our state, do we really want to spend another hour circling the lake in the mud? On the other hand, we don't want to have quitter's regret the next day. If we miss the cutoff, the decision is out of our hands.  We try to recall the cutoff time but cannot agree.  But what we do agree on is that we are increasingly unlikely to make it.

Finally we reach the Riffle Ford aid station, and volunteers tell us that we have missed the cutoff ahead. Actually, it isn't even a close call. We are at least 25 minutes late.  When we reach the decision in a half mile, volunteers point us toward the finish. They get no argument from us.

There are 119 50K and 115 marathon finishers. I finish in 7:56:22; Emaad is 8 seconds ahead of me. It was a tough day under hard conditions.  In February I was 75 minutes faster at the longer Pemberton Trail 50K.

Don makes the cutoff by 3 minutes and finishes the 50K in 8:39:50. Stephanie and Jon miss the cutoff by 5 minutes but the volunteers tell them they can go on anyway.  They decline, as they are giving a marathon runner a ride home and don't want to force her to wait for them and finish in 7:35:05. Michele finishes the marathon in 7:43:39 and Glen comes in at 8:28:19.
At the finish
(Photo by B. Jacobs)

Colby examines the swag:
Car magnet, plastic mug, bib