Friday, July 18, 2014

2014 Arrowhead 135 Race Report, Part 2: Time Slips Away

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” - T.S. Eliot

I started Part 1 of this report alone, in the dark, out in the cold, at 3am on the second night of Arrowhead, losing the battle to stay awake.

"I’d come to, standing on the trail, staring into the woods, shivering, not knowing how long I was out or which way I should be going. It was frustrating; standing still was dangerous in that cold, and I was in a race! A quick look at my sled and the tracks in the snow would point me in the right direction and I’d start moving again, with purpose, trying to warm up, chiding myself for slipping mentally. Then, out of nowhere, I’d come to again, staring into the woods, shivering, colder than before, not knowing how long I was out or which way I should be going. It took a few times to realize that I always turned to the right. In hindsight, I should have bivied, hopped into my bag and slept for an hour, but I hadn't had food or water for hours, I was cold, and the Skipulk checkpoint at mile 110 should have been just around the corner.
I’d seen Divesh at the shelter at mile 98. He took off a few minutes before I did, but was nowhere to be found. I took my mitts off long enough to look at my watch; 3am. I should have been to the checkpoint by now. Was I on the right trail? Had I ventured off somewhere in one of my dazes? I looked for tracks—I saw a couple, but wished there were more. Were they on the right trail, or were they as lost as I was? Who was I following alone into the darkness?
The shapes in the woods were driving me mad. Every time I looked up, I’d see a person bivied next to the trail, a shelter, an LP tank, a garage, or a mailbox. I kept worrying that the imaginary figures next to the trail needed help, but every time I got closer, the figure was just a mound of snow, the shelter was just a branch, the mailbox just a tree. After a while, I gave up looking; I couldn't trust my eyes, I couldn't trust my brain. I’d spent over 40 hours pulling that sled without sleep and was too cold to stop, so I just pointed my headlamp at my feet and kept moving.
Then I'd come to again, even colder than before."

It took me a while to realize, after the race, that those imaginary figures I hallucinated, bivied next to the trail, those people I was worried about, that was me. I was worried about me. That floored me; it put a whole new perspective on the experience.


Part of me knew that I should have been bivied next to that trail, that I should have been sleeping, that I should have been warming up in my bag. I don't know if it was the exhaustion, the sleep deprivation, or something else that kept pushing me along that trail. I knew I wasn't safe, but I didn't think I was in danger. Could I take another step? Yes. So I pointed my headlamp at my feet and kept going.

But the hallucinations.

When people hear that we hallucinate during these events, I imagine they picture "Alice in Wonderland" or "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"-type hallucinations. In reality, the best way I can describe it is that, at a certain point, it’s easier for your brain to insert something familiar, something convenient, something close, than it is to process what’s actually there.

First, you start noticing things that really shouldn't be there, like a house cat along the trail, or spectators off in the distance where no spectators should be, but when you look a second time, they’re gone—just a wild flower, a bloom in a tree, a rock, or a shadow. They start so mundane, you really have no idea how many things you thought you saw before that weren't really there. Your brain needs glucose to function. When it gets low, it starts shutting down higher-order processes, like comprehension, computation, etc. At a certain point, you start having trouble figuring out simple things like pace and time? 

Then, if you keep pushing, things get really weird. At Superior in 2011, Ben Bruce and I got so bad that we started sharing hallucinations. Ben knew that a bridge marked the end of the trail, and we kept worrying that we were lost. I’d ask Ben, “Is that a bridge over there?” He’d reply, “Yeah! I see it!” We’d get a little closer, and it’d just be a downed tree or a ridge. We saw hundreds of bridges. I was losing it. I needed that bridge that marked the end of the trail to be there, so I saw it, over and over. Alicia was pacing us in. She was trying to talk to me, ask me how it was going. I could hear every word she said, but I couldn't put the sentences together—it was too hard. I could feel myself slipping away.

Melgeorge's to Skipulk

I left the carnage of Melgeorge's, roughly 70 miles in and 26 hours removed from International Falls, on the morning of the second day. It was still well below -30ºF, but it was light out and I was awake. I'd eaten and I'd seen my people, Alicia and Tucker, albeit, outside in the cold.


Alicia snapped this pic on the short section of road between the cabin and the trail. The name of the game was steady as she goes. For the most part, that second day was a blur. It went by so fast. The sun was out and the forest was beautiful. Every few hours I'd see a snowmobile. A quick wave was what most wanted--just enough to ensure I wasn't in need of help. Sometimes they'd stop for a few seconds. I imagined how strange it must have been talking to some random, crazy stranger out walking around in the middle of the woods at -30ºF when you couldn't even see an inch of their face.

Chris Scotch passed me somewhere in there, then Helen, then Divesh. Before I knew it, it was dark again, and, like the day before, I really hadn't eaten anything. My hands were brutally cold. Using the poles led to numbness, then pain, so I'd stow them and bunch my hands up in the main part of the mitten. When that wasn't enough, they'd go, mitten and all, into the down-lined pockets of the Nilas jacket. When that wasn't enough, they'd go down the front of my pants, by my groin and my femoral arteries, which made for even slower hiking.

A while after nightfall, I'm not sure what time, I saw Divesh for a minute at a shelter around mile 100. I was tired, starting to doze on the trail, and wanted to eat. I tried, but it was so cold, even in the shelter, that I couldn't bare to use my hands for anything but a few chocolate-covered espresso beans. I had water in my pack, but getting the hose to my mouth required taking off my mitts and unzipping my jacket and top layer to get to, so I'd grab a huge drink only when I had to take the mitts off for something else.

Back on the trail, the hills were surprisingly steep. I had no energy to pull hard on the climbs, but at least they warmed me up a bit. I tried to keep a nice, quick cadence with little steps, but when I slowed too much, I started falling asleep. I'd wake up shivering, standing in place on the hill. It was infuriating! Getting angry helped, though. I'd get a few moments of haste before settling back down and losing it again. For a while, the crest of every climb just led to an immediate, steep downhill, which led into yet another steep climb where I'd lose it all again. I'd come to, just standing there, shivering. Over and over.

Then the hallucinations picked up.

I started seeing mail boxes, LP tanks, sheds, driveways.. at one point I was on a road. I honestly don't know if any of it was real or not. I know it all couldn't have been, but maybe some of it? I didn't know what the checkpoint would look like, but I desperately needed it. Was I on the right path? I should have been there by now. Everywhere I looked, I'd see things that shouldn't be there, so I just looked down at my feet. I looked for footprints, bike tracks, anything that'd confirm I was going the right way, anywhere to stop seeing the things I knew weren't real. But looking down aimed my breath into my coat. Before I realized it was happening, my coat was frozen shut. I fumbled with it for a second, but it wouldn't budge, and my hands were too cold to fix it. Just like that, I couldn't eat or drink again--even if I'd wanted to. And then I'd come to, shivering, staring into the woods, staring at imaginary people bivied in their bags.

After a while, the lone remaining skier, Ben Shillington, caught up. That was nice. It snapped me out of that viscous cycle for a while. We chatted for a spell, even see-sawed for a short stretch before it flattened out and I lost him. When he was out of sight, the cycle started again. I don't know how far we were from the Skipulk checkpoint, it couldn't have been more than a handful of miles, but he made it there an hour and a half before I did.

It was a vicious cycle. I needed that checkpoint.

Skipulk

I figured I'd hear the generators and see the lights a ways out from Skipulk, but I didn't even know I was close until I was standing right next to it. It was the strangest thing--but damn, I was happy to be there.

I told them my number and said that I needed to warm up and get some sleep. There were two ice-fishing shacks with heaters. The volunteers told me that the second one was crowded, 3 or 4 people inside, and the first one had two bikers that had been there a while. I had him open the door to the first one. The shack had one cot and one chair, each occupied by a biker, and they had their gear strewn everywhere. No matter. I grabbed a corner of the cot and started to knock the ice off my gear, but before I even got my coat off, I heard Alicia's voice outside, talking to the volunteer.

Man I love seeing my people.

I asked where she was parked, because I hadn't seen her on my way in, and she told me the parking lot was just up the hill. I asked how far, and the volunteer said just a few yards away. I told him I was going to warm up there, and he said that was fine. He gave me directions and even helped me put my harness back on. Nice guy. I pulled my sled to the truck and hopped in. Tucker was adorably excited to see me. I got all my frozen stuff off, wrapped up in a sleeping bag, and finally ate the pocket full of food I'd been carrying around all day. It was fantastic! I told Alicia I needed an hour of sleep. She set an alarm. I was out before my eyelids closed.

"BANG! BANG! BANG!"

I was startled awake by someone pounding on our window. My heart rate tripled in three beats! Was I late?! Had I overslept?! What time was it?!

Alicia cracked the window.

"Is there a racer in there?" The man asked.

"Yes. #51. Sandor. He's in the back." Alicia replied.

"He can't be in a vehicle. It's against the rules. He's going to be penalized."

Shit.

I asked Alicia what time it was; I'd gotten 45 minutes of sleep. Better than nothing.

I started putting my gear back on, grabbed another bag of food out of my pack and started shoveling cookies, Kit Kats, Fritos, anything I could find into my mouth. It took me a minute to get everything on and packed up. I pulled my sled over to the fire.

I didn't know the race official that woke me up, but I tried to tell him that I didn't intentionally break any rules. The volunteers told me how far away my truck was, held the door for me, helped me put my harness back on, and pointed me towards my truck. They knew I where I was going and what I was going to do, and not once did it occur to any of them that I was going to break a rule. The rules clearly state that you cannot accept outside aid, but it's not clear that means you cannot get into a vehicle at a checkpoint just to sit when the warming houses they provide are full. The ridiculousness of it all gets even worse when you consider that, at the last checkpoint, I could have rented a cabin, took a hot bath, made a pot of coffee and soup, and watched a movie under a down comforter in bed! The official told me that I'd probably get penalized an hour or two, that it wasn't a big deal, and that I had plenty of time, but still...

With nothing to do about it but get going, I sighed, said "Thanks," and went on my way.

Skipulk to Fortune Bay

For the first few hours, I was doing alright. I left Skipulk at about 6am. It was dark, and my headlamp was essentially dead, but it was going to be light soon, and I didn't want to take my hands out of my mitts to try and change the batteries. Not too far up the trail there was a huge hill with a shelter at the top. I looked for bivied racers, but it was empty. Company would have been nice, but there was barely anyone left. Before I knew it, it was light, and the day was just scooting away.

I took out my maps when I came to a T in the trail. The signage and tracks were pretty obvious, but being this far in the race, I wanted to make sure. Peeking ahead at the map, from here, the trail went east for a long ways before turning south just a bit before the finish. From that point on, I was gunning for a right turn.

Big mistake.

The trail is really straight as an arrow for miles at a time towards the end. Every time I'd get to a turn, I'd hope for that hard turn south, but it never came. Over and over, there'd be minor corrections, just to head east again.

Then the miles caught up with my a tendon in the front of my right leg, and I was hobbling.

The one saving grace of that last, flat section to the end was that the temperature finally warmed up a bit--above zero even! So much, in fact, that I took my Nilas jacket off for the last few miles to the finish--the first time since Gateway.

The finish area was perfect, with Tammy, Alicia, and Tucker waiting for me. I got to the banner and promptly laid down in the snow. I'd finished. I could stop now. What a trip.


Fortune Bay

A wonderful finish-line volunteer congratulated me on the run and guided me upstairs to the hospitality room where a handful of other racers/finishers were hanging out. I stopped to take my shoes off for the first time in 56 hours--and they were perfectly fine. One pair of Drymax Cold Weather Running Socks and a pair of Montrail Mountain Masochists Outdry (their Gore-Tex-like material)--the same combination Geoff Roes wore for his ITI350 win--had worked wonderfully.


I got my picture taken in front of the banner with my trophy.

Then Jackie Krueger pulled me aside to discuss my penalty. What I gathered from our conversation was that Arrowhead would rather not have spouses/families follow the race, not at checkpoints or using Spot devices. I accepted my 1-hour penalty, but pressed that it wasn't clear that sleeping in a vehicle at a checkpoint was against the rules. It was clear as day that getting a ride in a vehicle was against the rules, but not simply getting into a vehicle, especially at a checkpoint that offers heated shelters.

My takeaway is this:

In every ultramarathon I've participated in, aid stations are places for loved ones to welcome their runners a brief reprieve from the rigors of the trail. Arrowhead is not this place. The organizers want a remote, solitary challenge between you, the other participants, and the trail. It's their race, and I respect their decision to have it be however they want it to be, just don't make my mistake and go in expecting it to be something it's not.

The best part of my race, of every race, is seeing Alicia and Tucker. I was alone for a vast majority of the 56 hours of this race. The moments I got to spend with my loved ones was more than worth any penalty they could have given me (while still allowing me to finish). I don't want to break the spirit of the rules, but I want to see my people. I can see them without penalty outside at checkpoints, which, in the future, is exactly what I'll do. Oh--and I'll be very tempted to rent a cabin at Melgeorge's for my hot bath, down comforter, movie, and bag of popcorn mid-race. If anyone want's to split a dog-friendly cabin, let me know.

Will I do this race again? Yes.

Why? Because I want to get good at it before I take a shot at the ITI350 in Alaska.

Why do I want to try the ITI350? Because it seems just outside my reach, and I'm not sure I can.

Friday, March 21, 2014

2014 Arrowhead 135 Race Report, Part 1: Into the Cold

I’d come to, standing on the trail, staring into the woods, shivering, not knowing how long I was out or which way I should be going. It was frustrating; standing still was dangerous in that cold, and I was in a race! A quick look at my sled and the tracks in the snow would point me in the right direction and I’d start moving again, with purpose, trying to warm up, chiding myself for slipping mentally. Then, out of nowhere, I’d come to again, staring into the woods, shivering, colder than before, not knowing how long I was out or which way I should be going. It took a few times to realize that I always turned to the right. In hindsight, I should have bivied, hopped into my bag and slept for an hour, but I hadn’t had food or water for hours, I was cold, and the Skipulk checkpoint at mile 110 should have been just around the corner.

I’d seen Divesh at the shelter at mile 98. He took off a few minutes before I did, but was nowhere to be found. I took my mitts off long enough to look at my watch; 3am. I should have been to the checkpoint by now. Was I on the right trail? Had I ventured off somewhere in one of my dazes? I looked for tracks—I saw a couple, but wished there were more. Were they on the right trail, or were they as lost as I was? Who was I following alone into the darkness?

The shapes in the woods were driving me mad. Every time I looked up, I’d see a person bivied next to the trail, a shelter, an LP tank, a garage, or a mailbox. I kept worrying that the imaginary figures next to the trail needed help, but every time I got closer, the figure was just a mound of snow, the shelter was just a branch, the mailbox just a tree. After a while, I gave up looking; I couldn’t trust my eyes, I couldn’t trust my brain. I’d spent over 40 hours pulling that sled without sleep and was too cold to stop, so I just pointed my headlamp at my feet and kept moving.

Then I'd come to again, even colder than before.

Why?

My first ultra was the Zumbro 100 in 2011. When the race started and we headed out of camp onto that first glorified deer trail, I thought, “Oh boy.” I had no idea what I’d bitten off.

Not knowing if I was ready for a hundred started my obsession into the blogs reading about what people did to prepare for these races. The race director at Zumbro was a young guy named John Storkamp. He’d set the course record at Zumbro before becoming race director. The guy was very fast at 50-miles; annually one of the top runners at Voyageur and Door County, and a top-twenty placing at JFK. There was this other race on his resume, though, that he’d won a handful of times: Arrowhead 135.

Looking at that race, I’d never seen anything so silly. The race had 60-hour cutoff! The organizers made you carry survival gear, including a -20ºF sleeping bag, but warned that you were silly not to carry a -40ºF bag! One year there was only one finisher on foot! The more I looked into it, the less appealing it seemed. People lost fingers and toes! I hadn’t even finished a hundred yet. Arrowhead seemed so far out of my comfort zone that I had zero interest in even considering it.


Then I finished some races, and as I got to know the people that do these things a little better, I started to get a little more curious. In 2012, Geoff Roes ran ITI 350, and I was hooked. I combed over every item on his gear list and read everything I could find about his training before the race. When the race started, for a solid week, you couldn’t pull me away from Twitter or Facebook. I inhaled everything ITI. The feat seemed inhuman. The following season, John Storkamp ran Tuscobia 150, Arrowhead 135, and ITI 350 in a 6-week span, Tim Hewitt went unsupported in the 1000-mile version of ITI, Jason Husveth finished Arrowhead, and Joe Grant started blogging about his 2013 ITI 350. The fire was stoked. I was getting dangerously close to thinking about trying this type of race.

The tipping point was Zumbro, 2013. We had a hard spring with a late melt. Mid April felt like early March. Two weeks before the race, the course was a flooded, icy mess with knee deep water everywhere. The water went down a touch before the race, but it snowed the night before, and we started the race with several inches of snow over a wet course, turning to mud, then ice, then melting again. I was laughing, 15 hours in, when I asked, “Is there anyone still in this race?!” The course was merciless. There was a 33% finisher rate. At 28 hours and change, I finished 4th—not because I was fast, but because everyone in front of me dropped out. At the finish line, John Storkamp—who’d just finished the insane trio of Tuscobia, Arrowhead, and ITI—said, “Now you’re ready for Arrowhead.” I didn’t know if I could do it or not, but I knew I was ready to try.

I started buying gear in June.

The Race

Alicia, Tucker, and I left for International Falls through a snowstorm early Sunday morning, made it through gear check by noon, and headed to Coffee Landing with wunderkind Logan Polfuss for lunch. At the pre-race briefing, the race director joked that more people were going to win swag in the pre-race drawing than finish the race. There was nervous laughter, but for good reason.

We woke race morning in the dark to a brisk wind and a temp of -27ºF. The reported windchill was -50ºF as we headed to the start. I knew the bikes started at 7:00am, skis at 7:02am, and sleds at 7:04am, and thought I was fine on time, but when I pulled my sled through the parking lot and over to the trail, I was greeted with to a herd of blinking red lights in the darkness a quarter-mile up the trail. I knew I’d never be first, but I didn’t want to be last! No matter. A few minutes in a 60-hour race aren’t such a big deal, but I was still surprised to see everyone gone. That first mistake, showing up late, was a small one; the second came 10 minutes later, and wasn’t so small.

Getting dressed that morning, I’d decided on 4 layers up top: Nike dri-fit base; Patagonia Piton 100-weight half-zip fleece; Mountain Hardwear Monkey Man Grid 200-weight full-zip fleece; and Mountain Hardwear Effusion full-zip hooded shell. The race was cold enough that I never wanted to take off the Patagonia fleece, so I put my Salomon S-Lab 5 hydration pack on top of it, under the top two layers, figuring I had enough over it to keep from freezing, which I probably did, at the time.

International Falls to Gateway

Leaving the start line a few minutes behind everyone, I was on the chase. 10 minutes in, I started getting warm. There were a handful of options: slow down; open my coat; take off my hood; etc. I decided to stop and take off my outer second fleece—my second mistake. Taking off the layers, I cooled down fast. As I packed the fleece into my sled and put my shell back on, a handful of familiar faces strolled past, including John Storkamp and Chris and Helen Scotch. That settled my nerves about starting late a bit. I got everything situated and started behind them.

Thirty minutes later, I went to take a sip of water from my hydration pack and the neoprene-covered hose had already frozen where it leaves the bladder on my back. I was essentially wearing a 5-lb weighted vest. I still had 2 liters of water in my insulated Nalgenes in the sled, but I never expected them to stay thawed until Gateway in that cold. When I went to take a drink of water from the Nalgenes, they were already starting to ice up.

Going into the race, I planned on eating 1000 calories every 3 hours. At 3 hours and change, I took off my Black Diamond Absolute mitts and fumbled with my first 1000-calorie zip-lock baggie of food in my pocket, leaving my fingers in just my RAB fleece liners. To eat, I had to pull my mask off my face, but it was stuck, frozen both to the buff around my neck and to my beard. I tugged the mask off my face, pulling out a bunch of beard hair, but it wouldn’t come free of the buff. It was a challenge getting anything into my mouth. By the time I got a few mouthfuls of food in, I couldn’t feel my fingers. I gave up my 1000-calorie goal and focused on getting feeling back in my fingers. They wouldn’t warm up in the mitts. It took a long stretch of hiking with my hands down the front of my pants to get feeling back in my fingers. That scared me enough to give up on eating on the trail. I figured that people go weeks without eating; at a 20-minute pace, it’d only be 12 hours to the first checkpoint. No big deal. I’d just eat there.

After I got feeling back in my hands, I tried to take another drink of water, but both Nalgenes were frozen solid. I laughed at the thought of how worried I was about the weight of my gear, yet, at that moment, I was probably carrying 10 pounds of ice. Oh well. People go days without water. I could go another 8 hours. I’d just fuel up at Gateway. In fact, doing the math quick, I figured, worst case scenario, I could do all of my eating and drinking at the checkpoints.

I pulled into Gateway (35 miles) 10:21 into the race just before nightfall.

One thing these events have taught me is that the most important things in my life are the people that choose to share these experiences with me and support me on my crazy endeavors. At mile 80 of a 100-mile race, my job, my house, my clothes, my bank account, none of it matters; I’m just thinking about making it to that next aid station, and if I’m lucky, seeing my people. It was fantastic seeing Alicia and Tucker in the parking lot of Gateway when I pulled in.

Gateway was fabulous; Kit-Kats, Snickers, vegetarian chili, Gatorade, Doritos, hot chocolate, and mac & cheese galore! The employees and volunteers were wonderful! I tucked into the restroom and re-body glided, unfroze my pack and my Nalgenes, refilled everything, and even laid down to relax for a minute before bundling back up. This time, I put my thawed hydration pack under my second layer, over just the Nike base layer, and, on top of the Effusion shell, I pulled on my totally awesome 850-fill down Mountain Hardwear Nilas jacket. I planned on only keeping the Nilas jacket on until I warmed up a bit, but that jacket didn’t come off for another 40+ hours. I loaded a pocket full of chocolate covered espresso beans smuggled in from Costa Rica (thank you, Dan LaPlante), kissed Alicia and Tucker goodbye, and headed out for the night. I’d spent 1:05 at the checkpoint. At 6:26pm, it was already dark.

Gateway to Melgeorge's

My pace was slow leaving Gateway, but with a belly full of food and liquids, I was fine with that. Matt Long passed me pretty quick into this section. It was fun to chat with him for a second, but I had no hope of keeping up with him—that man can hike. For 99% of this race, I was alone, and this section was no exception.

Whenever I started dozing too much, I ate a mouthful of espresso beans. I made it a point to take a sip from my pack every so often. Even though it was getting colder, dipping down below -30ºF, my water was staying water; it was even warm, which was actually nice. By 3am, I was dozing pretty badly, and Michael Nichols and two others caught up to me. I walked with them for a bit and chatted a touch, which started to wake me up, and I pulled ahead again. Mike came with me for a while, but when he stopped to eat, I put a gap on him. He caught up again a bit after daybreak on the trek across Elephant Lake to the second checkpoint at Melgeorge's. That was the coldest moment of the race; daybreak, -34ºF, into a 20 mph headwind—the windchill must have been at least -65ºF.

Mike’s wife Kamie met us on the shore of Elephant Lake and walked the last few hundred yards to the checkpoint cabin at Melgeorge's, where Alicia was parked outside. It took me 14:42 to travel the 35 miles to Melgeorge's (mile 70) from Gateway (mile 35), and I pulled in a bit after 9am. I was freezing, starving, and needed to get inside to thaw out, so I asked Alicia to come into the cabin with me so I could see her.

That didn’t go so well. The checkpoint was chaos, but maybe not for the reason you’d think. As soon as Alicia walked in, they kicked her out. Sure, there were some racers in the cabin, but coming from outside, who cares! We’d just spent the entire night walking alone in the darkness. It had just gotten light outside, and we’re finally able to come in out of the cold. I wouldn't care if I have to sit on a floor, I just want food, warmth, and the happy, smiling faces of my people! Worse than kicking out our crew, though, was the fact that there were hypothermic, frost-bitten racers, shaking and in pain, getting no attention from the understaffed, tired aid station workers! I was trying to get warm calories, but it was difficult. My request for a second grilled cheese was met with disdain; apparently they thought I’d already had two, but who cares if I had! I’d spent 26 hours on the trail! Who cares how many sandwiches I’ve had! I grabbed chips and nuts off the table, filled my bottles, and got out.

I spent less time at Melgeorge's than every other racer on foot, not because I felt good or was full, warm, or rested, but because I wanted to see my wife and puppy, and to do that, I had to go back out in the cold. But out in the cold with my people was better than that cabin, by far, so I bundled back up and went on my way.

Monday, April 29, 2013

"You can't beat death, but you can beat death in life, sometimes."


Reading Amy Rosenbaum Clark's fabulous article All in the Mind in April's Upper Midwest Trail Runners newsletter this morning, I was reminded of a quote I read in Travis Wildeboer's 2013 Barkley Marathons race report The 60-hour day that Andrew Thompson, the 8th finisher of the Barkley in 2009, said to Jonathan "Jonboy" Basham on their drive to the race in 2010 before Jonathan became the 9th finisher of the Barkley,

“You're entering a tunnel Jonboy,” said Thompson, “and there is no way out other than the other side.”

That's how you finish an ultra; you go into a tunnel and you don't come out until the finish. Come race day, after all the training is over and your kit is packed, it's all mental. During these events, that old mantra, "This isn't hard. This just is," constantly flows through my head. Though recently, that's morphed into everything: "It's raining. That's just how this is now." "My feet are wet. That's just how they are now." "My legs hurt. That's just how they feel now." Somehow, accepting my current conditions as they are with the mentality of, "So what? This is how it is now. Keep moving," really helps me keep going through that tunnel to the other side.

This mentality has seeped into every other aspect of my life. Life's hurdles and challenges that once seemed so daunting don't seem so big anymore. These events have taught me so much about life, about myself, about what's truly important.

I don't often remember my dreams, but thinking about that triggered memories of mine from last night. In my head, I was deep into loop 3 of the Barkley with a few faceless others, scaling a wall onto a thin ledge high above the valley, too extreme, too dangerous, even for the Barkley, watching the clock, knowing it was time to leave the others behind and keep going through that tunnel to the other side.

These things we do are fantastic. We're choosing to live life, to cheat death. How can we not laugh, smile, and giggle the entire time?

"your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you."

— Charles Bukowski

Sunday, March 31, 2013

2013 barkley marathons

(in honor of laz, the completely sane and charming race director of the barkley mararthons, this post is absent capital letters)

buckle envy
"you do realize that the losers in the barkley lottery are the ones who get chosen, right?" -laz

i spent a large portion of my weekend glued to the twitter feed #bm100, a feeble attempt to feel "out there" from afar.

there's a record amount of media covering this year's barkley marathons, from ny times articles to a documentary to facebook pages to twitter feeds to functioning (gawk) real-life web pages! for good or bad, more details are available than ever before. i've read it all. the race has consumed me. i've written about this thing i desire here and here.

2013 did not disappoint, as laz, the idiot king, conjured up another doozy. rain. fog. mud. cold. carnage.

the conch blew at the respectable hour of 8:04am, and an hour later, at the lighting of a filtered camel, 35 brave souls ventured "out there."

21 made it out for loop 2, but only 5 survived to leave camp for loop 3. (in contrast, the 350-mile iditarod trail invitations in the brutal alaskan winter amazingly had 48 finishers out of 48 starters this year--different races entirely, but still)

the barkley bugle
the 5 that left for loop 3: travis wildeboer (unsupported superior and long trail fkts); nickademus hollon (22-year-old ultra boss, badwater finisher, arrowhead finisher, hurt competitor, 2-time barkley fun run alum); the abbs (bev and alan, tough mfers and multi-time barkley fun run vets); and one of last year's record 3 finishers, jared campbell (barkley alum, hardrock winner, and nolan's 14 buff).

earlier in the day, jared came in first from loop 1 like a boss in the ultimate direction sj ultra vest and euro-capris, more than an hour before travis and nick and 2 before the abbs, making it look easy.  

euro capris, barkley-style
but it's never easy. on lap 2, the barkley happened, and jared reportedly lost 7 hours off course and was the last of the 5 to leave camp for loop 3, just minutes before cutoff. 

laz and the infamous, now-secret results book in camp
nick hollon was the first to finish loop 3 for his third consectuive fun-run finish in 32:56:15 (seconds fellas? for the barkley? really?). travis wildeboer finished loop 3 just under an hour later, in 33:50 (thereabouts), and the two left together for loop 4 at 34 hours and change, less than 2 hours under cutoff for a loop 4 start. 

as the pace slows in the later hours of the barkley, the suspense grows with everyone eager for another runner to appear back at camp. the downtime is never quiet, though. this year, western states rd craig thornely (aka, lord_balls), crewing the abbs, kept laz busy, discussing race management, perhaps? to think what laz would do to western states is frightening. 

jared broke up talks of making western states more "barkley," coming into camp as 2013's third fun-run finisher at 35 hours, but the 7 hours lost on loop 2 had taken it's toll, and with one hour to leave camp for loop 4, he voluntarily tapped, refusing to continue (rtc). just like that, the alum were none.

the abbs were next into camp, finishing the fun run in 39:09, over the 36-hour limit to continue onto loop 4. they don't make them any tougher though, with alan's 4th fun-run finish in 4 tries and bev's second fun-run finish, making her quite possibly the toughest woman on the planet.

loop 3 page count
rumors filled the air that, on the top of rat jaw on loop 4, travis and nick were in good spirits, laughing and singing, seemingly taunting the course.

rat jaw at day
nick came in from loop 4 at 46:50 with travis just 5 minutes from his heels, but travis turned it around quicker in just 13:13, getting out of camp 5 at 47:09 and choosing a forward, final loop 5. nick left camp 5 minutes later for his backwards loop 5.

nick getting his loop 5 page from laz
travis prepping for loop 5
in the end, nick made it back to camp in 57:41, becoming the 13th finisher of the barkley marathons, the 14th barkley finish (brett maune has two finishes, 2011 and 2012).

nick flying into camp for his loop 5 finish
lap 5 page count
at camp, nick joked about going out for another loop, but when laz offered to let him hit the "easy" button, he refused, opting for "no" instead.


travis finished loop 5 an hour later at 58:41, becoming the 14th barkley finisher, adding to the barkley's rich history of thru-hiking/peak-bagging alum.

travis coming into camp for his loop 5 finish
the fifth and final touch of the yellow gate
lap 5 page count and a well-deserved smirk
really, the only non thru-hiker alum are jared campbell (even though he's done nolans 14) and nick hollon (i'm not sure about mark williams). it seems the right kind of crazy for the barkley is that which can manage a small amount of hurt for a large amount of time without completely losing your shit. the mental aspect of the task seems bigger than the physical, surprisingly, and it takes a special kind of nut not to crack.

epic indeed.


travis wildeboer and nickademus hollon, barkley alum

telling stories in front of the yellow gate, "no shit there i was"
brett maune, jared campbell, john fegyveresi, travis wildeboer, nick hollon, and laz
with "frozen ed" furtaw, the first official finisher of the 3-lap barkley marathons

someday i'll get there. until then...
unending unease
another year of comfort
still yearning to fail

*the pictures above were taken from others and are used here without permission. to those i borrowed from, thank you. to those that want their's down, no worries, just ask.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Ultimate Direction Signature Series Scott Jurek Pack Review






















As a self-proclaimed ultra-blog junky, I’ve been following Anton Krupicka’s blog for quite some time. If you’re familiar with Tony at all, you know that for years he’s preached a minimalist running philosophy, "stripping down the amount of gear to the bare essentials," usually just a pair of shorts and a couple gels. Even for long, 50+ mile training runs or FKTs (“fastest known times” on “known” routes), he just grabs a handheld to refill in mountain streams and stuffs a few extra gels in his modified shorts. I know he’s ventured more into the mountaineering sport of late, but still, putting his name on a pack begs the question, did Tony K sell out?

I mean, it's a rather large philosophical change. Don't get me wrong, I love packs. I've been using my Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 pack for the past year-and-a-half with only few complaints. But Tony K pitching a pack?! That came as a bit of a shock.

In any case, I’ve used Ultimate Direction's handhelds for years, so I was pretty stoked when they announced that they were developing their Signature Series line of packs, even if I was a bit skeptical of Tony’s involvement.

THE LINE

If you’re not familiar with Ultimate Direction’s bottles, their main differentiator is the cap, or specifically, in Ultimate Direction’s case, their “nipple.” No kidding, there’s a nipple on the top of Ultimate Direction bottles.

The various nipple stages
They are so nipple-ish, in fact, that my friend, Ben Bruce, nearly refuses to use the bottles from sheer nipple-embarrassment, whereas they happen to be my favorite feature. The objective of Ultimate Direction’s new Signature Series line of packs seems to merely be placing their nipple-bottles in the correct anatomical position with a comfortable pack. No kidding.

The "Scott Jurek" Nipple Placement
This correct anatomical placement is accomplished with three Signature Series models, named after their designers, from smallest to largest (the packs, not the designers): Anton Krupicka; Scott Jurek; and some guy I’d never heard of (which merely speaks to the relevance of the intended use of the pack to my “sport”—his name happens to be Peter Bakwin, but I’d still never heard of him).

Now, keep in mind that I’ve only tried the Scott Jurek model, but the differences seem fairly easy to explain.

The AK Race Vest
The Anton Krupicka pack seems to be for folk that don’t actually want a pack, but merely a way put nipples on your chest (or bottles on your chest, instead of your hand or your waist). It’s billed as a more minimal pack than the Scott Jurek, which it is, kind of.

The SJ Ultra Vest
The Scott Jurek pack is billed as the more typical ultra pack, but really, the only difference between this and the Anton Krupicka pack is a bit of carrying capacity. When it comes down to it, the Scott Jurek vest is also very “minimal,” you know, for a non-minimalist piece of gear. I’m still not sure if you could fit all the UTMB requirements in this guy.

The PB Adventure Vest
The “I don’t know who you are” (Peter Bakwin) pack is billed towards FKT through-hike guys. Think FKT on the John Muir Trail, the Long Trail, the Superior Hiking Trail, or the like. I’m really not sure how big this thing really is or whether it’s realistically too big for a UTMB pack or if this IS the UTMB pack. I’m not much of a fast-packer, though I’d like to be. The only through-hikers I know (aside from my new donut-running compadre Jake Hoffman and planned SHT FKT-attempter and TCRC bigwig Kurt Decker) of are Barkley guys (Brett Maune is kind of ridiculous, btw). I’d actually love to get my hands on one of these to try out.


THE COMPETITION

With apologies to Nathan and Camelbak, prior to Ultimate Direction's Signature Series launch, my pack-of-choice has been Salomon's Advanced Skin S-Lab 5. I've had the Nathans HPL #020, the Camelbak Octane XCT, and the Salomon XT Wings 5, but none compared to the Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 in any way.



Pros:
Low profile--fits well under a jacket
The fit is perfect--my first wear was 103.3 miles, shirtless, without issue

Cons:
Runs hot--really traps in heat in warmer temps
Clasps can be difficult to snap on and off
Sharp gel edges eventually rub through the front-pocket material
Filling, though easier than other bladders, is still a challenge, especially when the pack is stuffed full

THE REVIEW

My first thoughts of the Ultimate Direction pack, unwrapping it, was that it was very light (7.5 ounces without bottles), much lighter than the Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 (10.5 ounces without the bladder). The material seemed much more breathable, and hopefully won't trap as much heat in, though it's damn cold out in Minnesota in December and January, so I won't know about that whole "trapping heat in" until much, much later. At least it feels like this pack won't run as warm.

The bottles, combined, hold 40 ounces of water, 10 ounces less than the standard capacity of the Salomon pack. If that's an issue, you can always throw another handheld in the back or even slip in a bladder, as the pack has interior components to hold the bladder and route a hose. One issue with the handhelds, though, is that they protrude out too far to realistically put a jacket on over the pack, which, in the extreme cold, can be a problem, as one of my favorite things about the Salomon pack is that it fits close enough to wear under a jacket.

First Run

My first run with the pack was a 20-mile run around the lakes in Minneapolis, and boy did I get some looks. "Hello! My eyes are up here ladies!" A few people even stopped me to ask what kind of pack this was, which had never really happened before with a new piece of gear.

For the run, I filled one bottle full, another half full, slid them into their pouches, threw two gels in two of the four pockets next to the bottles (four gels overall), tightened the elastic strings around the bottles, and took off. The first few miles, I hated this thing.

First issue: The bottles were bouncing something fierce. The half-full bottle tried jumping out of the pouch every so often--the faster you ran, the worse it got. At a 10-minute pace, they were OK. At a 7-something pace, they were completely awful. I was ready to empty the bottles out of sheer frustration until, at a stop light, I realized I could stretch the elastic cord over the top of the bottles to better lock them in place. Just like that, the pack was saved. Night and day difference, really.

Second issue: I lost two of the gels in the first mile of running, one from each pocket. Apparently, with two gels in a pocket, the lack of friction between the gels causes one of the gels to catapult out. It happened in each pocket I had gels in. One gel per pocket worked fine, though, and I didn't try three. With four pockets, one on each side of each bottle holder, this doesn't seem to be too big a problem.

The good: This pack is ridiculously comfortable, very easy to get on and off, the buckles are adjustable and extremely easy to adjust and clasp, bottles are ridiculously easy to fill, and the storage capacity at the rear is pretty darn good, actually, with the SJ vest having separate compartments in the main body of the pack. For the first run, I had a second, warmer pair of gloves and a shell stashed away in one pocket and my emergency baggie (toilet paper, tums, tylenol, advil, s-caps, band-aids, and tape) in the second. Everything cinches up quite well. Nothing bounces.

Later that night, though, a third issue developed: My back hurt something fierce. One bad thing about the bottles up front, when there's nothing else in the back, that's a lot of weight pulling where most guys aren't used to having weight pulling. Easy solution though, either even it out with weight in the back, take some weight off the front, or a bit of both.

Second Run

My next run with the pack was 16 miles at Afton State Park (just steer clear the groomed cross country tracks) with my brother and Jason LaPlant. For this run, I put one bottle up front and the other in one of the pockets at the rear. Again, no bouncing at all, and what do you know, no back pain! Another benefit: It was darn cold out this day, near-zero temps, but I had water all day, whereas the hose on my brother's Camelbak froze up within the first half-hour of running. The nipple on the bottle up front started icing over a few hours into the run, but I was always able to unscrew the cap and drink open-mouthed. After a few hours, I switched it out with the full bottle at the rear, which, being out of the wind and close to my back, stayed ice-free.

First bottle up front
Second bottle in the rear

RECAP

All said, I really like the Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra pack. Most mid-distance runs (12-20 miles), I end up just putting a bottle in the back and taking a drink when I stop, leaving the pockets up front for my phone or whatever else. I like having that "just in case" gear along, especially on remote runs in the cold, and not ever having to fumble with a bladder or hose has really been nice.

Pros:
Comfortable
Light, and hopefully cool
Hassle-free, easy on and off
Bottles don't freeze-up in the cold

Cons:
Limited water capacity
Back pain with all the weight up front
Bottles protrude too much to wear under a jacket, and bounce when not strapped down

I'm not sure if this will replace the Salomon pack in my arsenal, but I have found myself using it more than the Salomon pack lately. As to whether or not Tony K sold out pitching these packs, I have no idea, but I like them.

Next up, I missed at the UTMB lottery, completing my year of lottery failures, and I've got a Goofy story to tell you about.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

New Custom Blog Header!

I logged onto my Facebook yesterday to find that John Storkamp had updated Rocksteady Running's Spring Superior 25k/50k race page with new content, including a FANTASTIC custom image of yours truly gracing one of the headers!



Jennifer Pierce snapped this picture at 2012's Spring Superior 50k heading into Oberg on the way back to Caribou Highlands. I remember saying hello to her as I ran by. Her husband, Zach Pierce, is usually behind the lens, but he was running that day, and Jen is quite the photographer in her own right. 

Incidentally, 2013 Spring Superior opens on January 15th. Remember to register early! The race is a fantastic one, and it will fill up fast. The Superior Hiking Trail is gorgeous, and the race brings you from Caribou Highlands in Lutsen south on the trail to the top of Carlton Peak before turning around and heading back. 

What most amazed me, though, was how much John took Jen's picture and ran with it. He's quite the graphic artist, and does quite a bit of design work in addition to his second-to-none race directing in the fairer months (Zumbro, Spring Superior, Afton, Fall Superior, etc.) and his own racing, including pulling sleds for hundreds of miles in the winter (3-time Arrowhead 135 winner, 2013 Tuscobia 150 winner, also running 2013 Arrowhead on January 28th and the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational on February 24, 2013) as well as running every other race distance known to man in the fairer months (see his UltraSignup/Athlinks).

Check out Jen's original pic here:



And John's voodoo magic here:


I'm still blown away at how great this picture is, and not just because the runner in the picture is so darn good looking. Many thanks, John! Plus, it's always neat to see yourself on one of your favorite race websites, too. For me, this is just neat all-around!

Oh, last bit of news! I just ran a half-marathon PR today, and got to meet Frank Shorter at the Disney Marathon Expo on Thursday! More on those later. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Lottery Luck

I have no lottery luck.

This may sound like I'm whining, but at this point, I'm actually kind of amused. You'd think that there wouldn't be so many other "crazies" out there that this would be a problem, but let me tell you a little about what I have to go through to run in the events of my choosing in this "sport" of mine.

For 2012, I registered for two lotteries: Western States and Hardrock. My odds for getting into each were low, I don't recall the exact numbers, but less than 5% per (probably much less). Being the hopeful optimist, though, I imagined the nightmare of getting into both races, and how delightfully fantastic that would be. When the lottery days came and went, I felt deflated. It wasn't as though I actually thought I was going to get in, I knew the odds, but I hoped, and I lost.

Thus far, for 2013, I've registered for 5 lotteries: HURT, Western States, Hardrock, the Barkley, and UTMB. In short, so far, I've missed HURT, Western States, Hardrock, and the Barkley. The UTMB selection looms.

According to Run100s.com, there are 110 100-mile races in North America. RealEndurance.com has ranked a majority of these races from easiest to hardest, each having a percentage with respect to Western States, which is arbitrarily set at 100%.

According to RealEndurance, the "easiest" 100-mile races in the states, in order, are:

82% Keys 100, Key West, Florida
82% Heartland 100, Cassoday, Kansas
82% Umstead 100*, Raleigh, North Carolina
82% Iron Horse 100, St. Paul, Alabama
82% Boulder 100, Boulder, Colorado
83% Lean Horse 100**, Hot Springs, South Dakota
83% Rocky Raccoon 100***, Huntsville, Texas
87% Vermont 100, West Windsor, Vermont

*Wesley Rolnick, you're on notice.
**Made sure to get this far down just to make Jordan Hanlon's 2013 Race Schedule look "light."
***Misty Schmidt is a rockstar Sawtooth finisher now, so I can't give her crap.

In contrast, the 3 "hardest" 100-mile races are:

270% Barkley Marathons, Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee
"Meaningless Suffering Without A Point. The entry procedure is secret. There is no official website. This is not the official website. It is not listed on any calendar. You have to email the race director on a certain day of the year. The race will fill up on that day." RealEndurance 
159% Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run, Silverton, Colorado
"The Hardrock 100 connects or passes near the old mining towns of Silverton, Lake City, Ouray, Telluride and Ophir. With a total elevation gain of approximately 33,000 ft and an average elevation at near tree line of 11,186 ft, the Hardrock 100 peaks out at over 14,000 ft on Handles Peak, one of Colorado�s 14ers." RealEndurance 
128% HURT 100, Honolulu, Hawaii
"A very tough, multiple lap (5) course on muddy, rooted and rocky single-track trails in a mountainous rainforest. Nearly 25,000 feet of ascent and descent." RealEndurance
A little lower on the list is:

111% Superior Sawtooth 100, Lutsen, Minnesota

UTMB isn't ranked on RealEndurance, though I imagine it'd compare to Hardrock.

So, for the record, my five lottery entries this year include Western States, the grandaddy of them all--the race that every other race is judged against, and then 4 of the most difficult 100-mile races around. Fun stuff, eh?

Now, my lottery luck.