Thursday, October 17, 2013

Chicago Marathon

PRE-RACE

My road to Chicago started way back in March when I was still getting ready for Boston.

I wanted to find something for the fall that would keep me going throughout the spring and summer.

Chicago became the marathon of choice when my training partner and good friend, Lindsay Willard, told me that she was signing up for Chicago too.

Chicago has always been on my to-do list as part of my "sub-3 hour 50 states" marathon quest, so this was perfect.

My fall marathons have been a crap shoot the past few years mainly due to injuries and poor preparation, so I badly wanted a solid race in order to springboard me towards a strong Boston '14.

I was feeling really confident heading into Boston '13 with a goal of sub-2:46. If I could hit my goal at Boston, then I would go for another PR in the fall.

I ended up running 2:45:59 at Boston, and picked up a lot of new training ideas that I wanted to implement leading into the summer, and eventually, Chicago.

I spent the spring and summer cross-training for triathlons, and going to the gym at least once a week to strengthen my core, hips, quads, IT band, and hamstrings. The things that have always broken down on me late into the season.

Every Monday was my easy day: light run or bike in the AM, and then 45 minutes of core and a swim in the evening. Looking back now, these Monday workouts were key in keeping me healthy for the entire year.

For the first time ever I also tried following a set marathon schedule. It was a pretty intense schedule that called for doubles nearly every day with weekly mileage output of 85+ for three months, and upwards of 110 miles for a couple of weeks at the peak.

I use to do this type of mileage all of the time when I wasn't following a set schedule, so I didn't think it would be that difficult, but there was something about following a set schedule that intimidated me.

By the end of the first month of the Chicago training cycle I was never close to hitting my weekly mileage, so I modified the schedule and did my own thing. I backed off the weekly mileage and increased the intensity.

I went back to the way I had trained for my first BQ: reduce the mileage and get use to the marathon target pace (6:10-6:20).

During the peak of my modified Chicago training I only had one week where I went over 85 miles, and averaged only about 65 miles per week. The key was that all of my runs were in the 6:30 or lower pace range. I wanted this pace to feel easy at Chicago.

One other thing that I did was that I ended most of my workouts with at least two miles under 6 minute pace. I even did a few workouts where I went out for 13+ miles at 6 or sub-6 miles for the entire run. These were painful workouts that left me in agony, but I knew that they would pay off come race day.

Again, the key to my health, during and after these intense sessions, always came back to my relatively easy Mondays.

By the time Monday rolled around I felt like a car that was badly in need of a wheel alignment. My stride and coordination was completely off, and I could feel weakness in my hips and IT band.

After completing my 45 minute stretch and strengthening routine, I felt like a new car rolling off of the assembly line.

This became my routine for four straight months.

During this time I managed to set PR's at every distance that I ran, from the mile to the 50K. More importantly, I was able stay injury free, so something was working.

I was now ready to take on my final goal race for the year.

THE RACE

My main goal in Chicago was to set a PR, preferably sub-2:45, in order to get the Boston "A" standard for registration purposes.

I also felt that a sub-2:42 wasn't out of the question based on the way I felt, and the way I had been racing leading into Chicago.

I arrived in Chicago early on Friday and met up with Lindsay at the airport before heading to our respective hotels.

Our hotels were about a mile from the start and finish, so we spent some time checking out the surrounding area, the expo, and then just staying off of our feet.

By Friday afternoon, I was starting to feel really achy and almost feverish. All of my joints were on fire, and our 3 mile shakeout run felt harder than it should have been. This scared me.

I didn't know what was wrong, and chalked it up to the early morning flight. I took an Aleve and started to feel better almost right away. I was still a little worried that the aches and pains would still be there once the medication wore off, so it was nice that I still had another day to rest and see how I felt.

Fortunately, I felt fine after a solid night of sleep and when I woke up at 5:30AM the next morning.

The weather for race day was turning out to be ideal: low 50's at the start with overcast skies and a expected high of 65.

On a dark race morning I met up with Lindsay at 6:30AM near the entrance to our corrals. She went to check in with her sub-elite group. It was the last time I would see Lindsay for awhile.

I went over to bag check and changed into my racing gear.

For gear I opted to go with just a cap, singlet, shorts, gloves, and two gels. I planned to grab a few more gels out on the course around mile 17-18.

It was 7AM by the time I got into one of the many porta-john lines, but it didn't look like I would be able to go before race start. Poor planning on my part and I had even been warned about this by a friend who ran Chicago last year.

It was 7:10AM and I wasn't any closer to the front of the bathroom line.

I had to be in my corral by 7:20AM, for the 7:30AM start, so I decided skip the bathroom, take my chances, and head to my corral before being "locked" out. If you don't get to your assigned corral before the 7:20AM cut-off, then you have to start in the back of the wave. Not something I would want to look forward to if I was hoping to PR.

Fortunately, I found shorter bathroom lines once I got inside the corral area (tip to others), so I did manage to relieve myself one last time before race time. As most runners know, this is always a huge relief, literally.

My pacing plan was to go through the first 5K in a controlled 19:30, the first half between 1:20-1:21, 30K in under 1:57, and then hang on for dear life as I try to negative split the second half with a strong final 10K.

My entire training regiment had been geared towards a negative split marathon, which I had never been able to accomplish before. The flat Chicago course would be the ideal place to do it on.

Even though I was late to my corral I was able to wiggle myself to the front and within 10 rows from the official start line. I was in the middle of pack, warm, and ready to race.

The announcers introduced the elite runners and the gun went off right at 7:30AM with little fanfare. You gotta love and appreciate well organized races.

It took me 15 seconds to reach the start mat and I was off.

I quickly settled into a 6:20 pace, and then trouble struck.

Not just me, but probably everybody with a GPS watch.

About a half mile into the race you go into a tunnel and you lose the GPS signal on your watch. By the time I came out on the other side, my Garmin had me running a 4:30 pace for my first mile!

I usually let my Garmin automatically mark my mile splits, but because of the initial miscalculation, I decided to manually get my mile splits at each official mile marker.

I had never done this before in a race, so it was interesting to see how this would help or hurt me.

The first few miles were clicking off effortlessly for me, so I knew I was in good shape so far. I went through the first 5K in 19:35. Only five seconds off of my target.

The energy over the majority of the Chicago course is amazing! You're running through the downtown area for a good chunk of the race, so I felt like I was running down Boylston St for the first 13 miles at Chicago. It's that good.

It's very easy to go out too fast on a course like Chicago where you have crowds cheering, drums banging, and music blasting inches from you for miles and miles.

Part of the appeal of Chicago is the course layout is very spectator friendly. I managed to see a few friends at least 3 to 4 times throughout the race, and they probably didn't have to walk more than 2 miles in that entire time!

By mile 7 I was beginning to catch up to some of the elite and sub-elite women that started out in front. I kept my eyes peeled for the familair BAA yellow and blue that Lindsay always wears on race day.

It wasn't until right before mile 8 that I eventually caught a glimpse of her and her fluid stride. She was looking strong and fresh, but told me to just GO! as I went by her at 6:10 pace.

I went through the half in 1:21:20, which was slightly slower than I had planned for, but more importantly, I was still in control of my race and feeling great.

My next checkpoint was going to be the 30K mark, since I had just raced the Nahant 30K two weeks prior at my goal marathon pace. I was looking to come in around the same time of 1:56.

I noticed that the running packs were beginning to thin out at this point, and I was hanging around with runners looking for about the same finish times as myself. There wasn't much talking. Just racing.

I went back and forth with a couple of runners, which made the race more interesting, and saw a few others that took off too fast and were now coming back to us in agony.

The 30K mark came and went for me in 1:55:39, which was about a minute faster than my time at Nahant. This was a good sign. This meant that I still had at least 50 minutes to run roughly 7.5 miles in order to get under 2:45.

I was currently averaging a 6:12 pace and not having any issues, so it would take a relatively big and sudden blowup for me not to PR. It was now just a matter of how much I would PR by.

My final checkpoint before laying it all on the line was at the 20 mile mark. All of my training during this cycle had been geared towards the final 10K of the marathon. I knew exactly what I was capable of, and right now I knew exactly how much time I had.

I went through 20 miles in 2:03:55 leaving me with 40 minutes to run a 10K.

I remember telling myself to GUN IT after taking my last GU.

Oddly enough, the only section of the course that stood out for me was Chinatown at Mile 21. I was hit with the familiar smell of Chinatown: roasted duck.

Being Asian, I noticed that a few of the locals became more interested as I ran through, and even got a couple of nice cheers in Chinese for my effort. Yùnxíng!!

With four miles to go I just thought back to the endless miles I trained on the two mile stretch of Sandy Pond Road in Ayer. 2 out. 2 back. Finish strong.

I pictured myself at the turnaround at the end of Sandy Pond Rd at mile 24.

It was time to go home.

The 1 MILE TO GO sign on the course told me that I just had to give less than 7 minutes of my life to reach the finish.

I've got this.

Similar to the NYC Marathon, you have meter markers near the finish to tell you how much running room you have left.

800 Meters.

Two laps around the Chelmsford track. Just like I had trained. 3 minutes to go.

I came around the final turn and could see the finish banner off in the distance. It isn't as bad as running Boston where that last quarter mile, after the left on Boylston, feels like an eternity.

It was over before I knew it.

I sprinted across the finish, raised my arms, and instinctively stopped my watch: 2:43:35

POST-RACE

I gingerly made my way down the finish area still feeling pretty good. No leg cramps or feelings of being sick. Everything was still functioning.

I was happy with my 2+ minute PR, but more proud of the fact that I was able to run a pretty even race throughout.

I ended up running the first half in 1:21:20 and the second half in 1:22:15 for a +:55 second positive split. One of my better paced marathons.

The only thing left to do was collect my medal, get my bag, change into dry clothes, and begin my recovery routine.

I tried to find out how Lindsay was doing, but couldn't get a hold of anyone right then and there.

I eventually made my way back to the hotel and immediately drew up an ice bath while downing a couple of protein shakes.

I've been a lot better with my post-race recovery routine, since I was trying to figure out if I could possibly run back-to-back sub-3 marathons.

Done with Chicago it was now time to rest, recover, and get ready for the Stonecat 50 Miler on Nov 2nd, Manchester on Nov 3rd, Baton Rouge on Dec 7th, Dallas on Dec 8th, and Rocket City on Dec 14th.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Patriot Half - Sink, Cruise, Fly


I signed up for the Patriot Half tri back in the dark days of winter when I was recovering and rebuilding from a long and frustrating 2012.

With Timberman under my belt, I was ready to give the half distance another shot before even thinking about doing the full Iron Man distance.

I then spent the next four months preparing for a PR at Boston. Biking and swimming was only an afterthought during my Boston training, but it did help break up the monotony.

I was in fantastic running shape when April rolled around and I managed to hit my goal at Boston (by 1 second - 2:45:59), and felt great. So good in fact that I decided to go for another marathon PR a month later at Providence.

This pushed my tri training out another month.

Providence went really well, but I missed the PR by less than a minute.

It was already early May and I had been on the bike only a handful of times, and in the open water even fewer.

The early spring was definitely cooler this year than last, but I was running out of time and had no choice but to jump right into tri training no matter the conditions.

My first open water swim at Walden was a balmy 60 degrees.

The early morning training rides weren't much warmer, but they had to be done.

I was into full on tri training mode by the middle of May, and then decided to take a vacation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon....

I lost a full solid week of training while out in the Canyon, but what I lost there, I gained back in the experience, which will stay with me for a long time. Being able to endure a 46 mile trail run in 90+ temps will typically help build a little mental toughness.

Two weeks out from Patriot, and feeling a little desperate, I did a 30 mile ride followed by an 8 mile run in 90 degree temps. I felt fine and thought both were solid efforts. I was already well acclimated to the heat thanks to the Grand Canyon run.

One week out, I donned all of my racing gear and went hard for 40 miles on the bike and 10 on the run. I was able to sustain 19.5 mph on the bike and 6:30 pace on the run. Another solid effort at close to race pace.

This was pretty much all I could expect at Patriot the following week considering the amount of training I had put in. I was hoping that it should be enough to get me a PR (sub 5:12), and possibly close to a sub 5 on a relatively "easy" course this early in the season.

The C goal was to sub-Bash (5:07).

The swim was once again going to be the x-factor.

I had an OK swim at Timberman (41 mins), my first 70.3, and it wasn't as traumatic as I thought it would be. The swim goal for Patriot was to sub 40, which I thought was very reasonable considering that I was doing the mile swims at Walden in about 30 minutes.

I quickly learned that swimming at Walden and swimming at Long Pond in Freetown were going to be two completely different experiences.


The Swim

I went down to Cathedral Camp, site of the race, the night before and got my BIB number.

To test out the water, the organizers allowed us to swim for a few minutes in Long Pond. The water was calm and about 65 degrees, which to me is the perfect temperature for racing in a wetsuit.

This might not be so bad after all.

I got up early the next morning and drove the 30 minutes from my friend's place in Easton back to Freetown.

I was able to set up my gear and mentally prepare myself for the long day by 7:15AM. The race started at 7AM, but my wave didn't go off until 7:30AM.

The 30-39 AG'ers were the second to last wave to go, with only the relay teams behind us.

The water looked about the same as the previous night, and I didn't feel much of a wind on an otherwise calm and cool morning. This was looking to be a great day for a race.

I ran into Jimmie Cochran in the waiting area for the swim. He was shooting for sub 5, and hoping to catch his wife, Kate, at some point during the race. She was one wave ahead of us.


I didn't feel nervous at all as I stood in the water, waiting for the countdown and GO signal. I was actually looking forward to the swim and hoping for the same experience that I had at Timberman.

I positioned myself in the middle of the swim pack, next to Jimmie, when we got the GO signal. In hindsight, I should have moved myself further to the right and away from the group.

Right away, my swim stroke was hampered by the mass of bodies fighting for position. I didn't want to get kicked in the face, so I backed off a little from the main group.

I finally got some breathing room, but was still caught up in the swell of swimmers thrashing all around me.

I had no issues breathing or keeping calm, but it was a little nerve-wracking thinking that it might be like this for the entire swim. Very much different from Timberman where I was clear of other swimmers almost from the start.

And then I started to feel the swells.

At first I thought it was just the water being pushed around by the swimmers, but the swells were rhythmic. Every few strokes I would get picked up and then come back down again. There was definitely a strong current in the water.

I was starting to feel a little nauseous, and had a slight panic attack.

I could tell I wasn't making much forward progress, so I put my head down and really went for it to see if I could swim out of the current and get back into a smoother rhythm.

About two minutes later, I looked up to sight and saw that I was about three minutes off course!

The closest buoy was ahead, but far to my right. Damn!

I told myself to stay calm and just move steadily towards the buoy.

What I should have done was to keep going straight ahead and move in towards the buoy line as I got closer to the first turn buoy, instead of basically making a right hand turn.

This would have saved me a few minutes, but I was worried that the officials and lifeguards around me might start yelling at me to get back on course.

I was pretty much alone at this point, and could see my group making much better progress way up ahead. I managed to pass a few stragglers from prior groups, but that was little consolation as the relay swimmers, with a five minute delay, began to pass me with ease.

Eventually, I was able to find a groove on the swim and make my way around the first turn buoy. I wanted to check my time on the Garmin, but didn't really care about my swim time at this point. I just wanted to finish the swim.

I figured that I couldn't be much slower than my Timberman swim, since that swim was my first 1.2 mile open water race. I figure that I had experience on my side now and my time would be about the same even with the mishap early on.

I found out I was dead wrong when I finally got out of the water 47 minutes later, 6 minutes slower than Timberman.

Fortunately, and for some reason at that moment, I thought I had clocked a 46 minute swim at Timberman, so I wasn't overly worried about my swim time, and I consciously told myself to just move on. Make it up on the bike and run.

This was the problem I had at Timberman. I had trouble compartmentalizing my race.

I spent a good 20 minutes on the bike at Timberman worrying about my swim time, and that affected the rest of my race.

As soon as I got on the bike at Patriot, I was focused on that portion of the race. The swim was what it was. There was nothing I could do about it now.

I quickly did the math in my head and knew that a PR was still very possible, and a sub 5 was still attainable, if a little bit harder now.

The Bike


T1 went by in a blur.

My wetsuit came off easily, and I made sure that the timing chip didn't go with it like it did at Timberman.

Glasses, helmet, shoes.

I still haven't built up enough confidence yet to try the shoeless mount and dismount, but I plan to work on that this summer and give it a go at future race.

I was 404th out of 500+ out of the water, so I had a lot of ground to make up over the next 4 hours.

The Patriot bike course consists of two 28 mile loops on relatively flat roads with some moderate, short climbs.

I didn't know how a course like this would suit me, since I do a lot of biking on hilly courses out in Ayer, and Timberman was a beast of a bike course.

Before the race, Jimmie had told me that it's tough to build up any consistent speed here, since there were a lot of turns.

I experienced a couple of those turns right away, and had to slow down as the roads are open to traffic.

The turns didn't frustrate me as I was still able to average 19.5+ for most of the first loop.

My legs felt heavy through the first 20 miles, but eventually loosened up. My gearing was a lot better now than it was at Timberman, and I felt that I was pretty dead on throughout the entire course.

I also focused on staying seated, and in the aero position, on most of the climbs in order to save my legs for the run. This was probably my biggest mistake at Timberman: standing up for the climbs.

Staying hydrated and well fed was the game plan for today on the bike.

I was using a front mounted aero bottle for the first time at Patriot, and this was a lot easier for me to stay hydrated. Definitely a good choice even though it can be a bitch to balance on the bike rack.

In the bottle, I filled it with regular water fortified by two Nuun tablets. I filled it up twice during the ride, and felt that it was sufficient for my needs on a fairly warm day.

I also made sure to eat something every hour on the bike.

I took my first GU at the one hour mark into the race, and then a big size Bonk Breaker an hour later. My final GU was around the 45 mile mark to prep for the run. I also ate a mini-Bonk Breaker near the finish of bike as I was feeling a little hungry, and didn't want to deal with it during the run.

Overall, I took in about 400-500 calories on the 2 hr 50 min bike. I didn't feel like I lagged at all at any point during the ride. Very consistent splits.


My bike time here was, surprisingly, five minutes slower than it was at Timberman, but I paid the price dearly once I got off of the bike at Timber.

At Timber, my quads locked up almost immediately, and I had nothing left for the run after the first three miles.

Today was going to be far, far different.

The Run

I gingerly made my way to T2 after dismounting about 50 yards from the bike racks. My legs were a little wobbly, but nothing serious. I felt worse at Timberman.

I had verbally repeated my BIB number to myself near the end of the bike, so that I could remind myself where to rack my bike. Unfortunately, I was telling myself 386 instead of 368. I lost about 30 seconds, and a few ounces of pride, with that mistake. Silly.

Once I found the correct bike rack, I wasted no time turning myself into a runner.

Hat and sneakers (no socks).

Before leaving the zone, I gave Ally a quick high five. She was part of the Princess Booyah relay team that would come in 2nd overall, and 1st in their division!

I shot out of T2 like I was fired out of cannon, looking forward to chasing down the remaining 150+ people in front of me.

Total race time up to this point was about 3 hrs and 43 mins.

I would need to run a sub 1:17 to break 5 hours. My current half-marathon PR is 1:17 and change. There was no way I was going to PR even if I hadn't swum 1.2 and biked 56 beforehand.

However, a sub 1:30 would give me a new PR for this distance. That was at least manageable, and about 10 minutes faster than my run at Timber.

My legs felt fine, but my breathing was still trying to play catch up.

The temps were in the low 80's, and my heart rate showed it.

I looked down at my Garmin through the first mile and saw myself clocking a 5:58 first mile. A little hot, but expected. I always start out fast on my favorite leg of the tri.

During my brick sessions, I tried to train myself to start off slow and work the pace down over the course of the run. A lot easier to say and train for. A lot harder to do during the heat of battle.

I lost track of how many people I passed by the 2nd mile, and it didn't matter. It was me versus the PR clock at this point.

The water support on the run is fantastic with a station at every mile. I mainly just grabbed water, but did take some Heed at one table.

I took my only GU around mile 7 of the run, and that was enough to get me through to the finish without issue.

The words of encouragement from other runners also helped.

I've always found it interesting that nobody says a thing to you when you pass them on the bike, but they will cheer you on if you pass them on the run looking strong.

Every slight uphill on the run course paid you back in full with a comparable downhill on the other side. A rolling course for the entire 13.1.

I checked out every body marking on the male runners I passed to see their age. I was a little frustrated early on in the run as I was passing people in their 40's and 50's. Nobody in my AG.

It wasn't until about the 10K mark that I started to catch people in their 30's. I figured that I was close to dead last in my AG when I got off of the bike. It was now time to put myself where I belonged.

A few people I passed recognized me from other races and they cheered me on by name, which helped tremendously. Also seeing other TriFury members out there gave me a boost.

With 5K to go, I was well on pace to finish under 1:30 for the run. Could I possibly finish under 1:25?! A sub 1:25 would definitely put in the top rankings for the run leg, which was something I always try to shoot for.

"20 minute 5K" is the mantra I always repeat to myself when I am out racing a marathon, since this is what I usually shoot for early on in order to be on pace for sub 2:50. That's what I would need here to get under 1:25.

The most difficult part of the run course just so happens to be the final 5K. A couple of good climbs that only really flatten out just before the finish. The heat of the afternoon sun was now in full effect too.

Once you're within sight of the finish, you have to run an additional quarter mile on gravel and grass, which isn't the greatest feeling, but you can deal with it at this point.

I gave it my usual kick, and for good measure, passed one person in my AG right at the finish.

This strong finish put me 66th overall, 6th in my AG, and 6th fastest run time on the day, only one spot right behind Ethan Brown's run time.


Overall, I thought this was a decent race with a few more mistakes made and lessons learned.

Leaving with a PR is always nice, but the swim left a really, really bad taste in my mouth, and it had nothing to do with what was in the water.

With Rev3 two months away, it's back to the lab to figure out how to push myself even further to get under the sub 5 mark.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Grand Challenge - North Rim

Ryan and I were ten minutes into our descent of the South Rim when we finally ran into Dave and Dane who were still making their way up. They had about 30 minutes to go before reaching the top.

The pair still looked pretty good considering they've just traversed 22 miles over tough terrain in desert heat, and still had to climb another 500+ ft over the last half mile.

I could, however, see a look of worry on their faces as we approached.

"The water is out. We're not going back."

That's all I remember hearing from Dane.

Apparently, the curious flow of water that we witnessed about 15 miles earlier was a busted man made pipe carrying water throughout the canyon floor to the different campsites, including Phantom Ranch and Cottonwood.

My initial reaction was to join Dave and Dane, and call it an end to the adventure. No hesitation whatsoever. I'd experienced enough and didn't want to leave a bad taste in mouth of the Grand Canyon.

I thought it was just too risky to cross back over the canyon during the hottest part of the day with only the water on our backs. For me, that was just a Camelbak, two water bottles, and another hand held bottle. Ryan had something similar. Still, this would never be enough without refills at the campsites.

Plus, I wasn't looking forward to the 5500 ft climb that awaited us 20 miles, and about 8 hours, away.

I looked over at Ryan and there was no hesitation in his reaction either, but he was in a different mindset. He was ready to continue on and take his chances with the water situation.

I didn't put up much of an argument, and decided to go with Ryan and find out how far we could make it under the given circumstances.

Dave and Dane wished us luck and continued on to their finish lines. I told them to expect us around 8 for dinner.

Ryan and I continued gingerly down the South Rim, passing people that we had seen a few hours earlier. Some of them even recognized us and were verbally surprised to see us going back towards the North Rim. Our responses were usually, "going to get the beer" and "gotta go get the car", but that got old after about the tenth person.

I was feeling pretty good considering that we were 7 hours and 25 miles into the run. No cramping, no bonking, no soreness. Again, the only nagging pains I had were in my toes, and only on the downhills where my forefeet were pushing against the inside of my sneakers full of sand.

You could say that we were feeling a little cocky too:


This feeling of euphoria was all too familiar. No matter how crappy you feel during an ultra, you always get a second, third, fourth wind after reaching a milestone. For us it was reaching the halfway mark at the top of the South Rim.

This is how I felt at the Rocky Raccoon 100 miler. I felt like crap on every single one of those 20 mile loops, but as I got closer to the finish of each loop, I felt better and better. And every time I headed back out it felt like it was my first loop, until my senses finally caught up to me after 60 miles, and we all know how that one turned out.

Ryan and I decided to ease up on the downhill running in order to save our legs for later. There was just too much descent, and my teeth were actually numb from the pounding. Like most long distance runs, the downhills are usually the most brutal part and come back to haunt you later on.

We got into Indian Gardens around 2PM and the water was still flowing normally here. This is probably the most populated rest spot on the route, since it's "only" about 4 miles from the South Rim, and a manageable out-and-back day hike for most people. Still, we saw plenty of people who were definitely out of their element and unprepared for the grueling return hike back up the South Rim, if that was their intention.

I clearly remembered seeing one couple where the female did not look like she wanted to be at the bottom of the canyon in these temps. The male friend was trying to put on a good face and just smiled at us as we hiked past. Ryan made a comment that probably rings true: the beauty of the canyon has probably been responsible for a few broken relationships that started out with good intentions.


By this point I was no longer taking pictures or admiring my surroundings. For the first time all day, it felt like business with two goals in mind: get to the North Rim before dark, and don't die out here.

We took turns in the lead trying to keep the pace at a reasonable clip. Like a good track workout, being out in front usually gives you an extra pep in your step. You gotta do your part to keep the train moving.

Even though the current temps were hovering around 90 degrees, I realized that I had given up all my compression gear at the South Rim in order to lighten the load. I was now worried that if we didn't get to the North Rim before dark that the temps would drop back down into the chilly 50's like the previous night.

But right now, darkness couldn't come soon enough.

The afternoon sun was absolutely relentless and there was hardly any shade once we bottomed out on the canyon floor.


You would think that a trail that meanders around the base of half-mile high canyon walls would provide some cover. Nope. Not when you're trapped in the "box".

The sunlight was spilling into every crevice of the canyon at this time of day. We were like ants roasting under a magnifying glass.

Our well paced run soon became a strategic run/walk. The run/walk then became a brisk hike.

I could feel that I was in danger of overheating by the time we reached the Colorado River once again and with about 13 canyon miles to go.


Ryan was still in good shape, and he told me to go cool off in the river.

We found a trail down to the river's edge where the water was calm, and almost beach like.

There were a few other hikers already there taking advantage of the ice cold river.

I quickly took off my sand crusted sneakers and socks and just dipped in my throbbing toes and thighs.
The water numb my sore toes to the bone, and it felt absolutely fantastic.

I immediately got a second/third wind, and started to come back to life. Things were looking up once again.


It wasn't too difficult to get going again after that quick break, and reaching the Silver Bridge gave us a little hope of progress.


They say that you can learn a lot about yourself over 26.2 miles. Now imagine running with someone for 46.

I was getting to know Ryan, someone who I had never met or spoken to before this trip, a lot better as the miles slowly ticked away.

This was now officially the longest I'd ever spent running with anyone, and to help keep our minds off of the heat, soreness, and monotony of the canyon floor, we talked about movies, the 80's, work, personal lives, past adventures, and everything else in between.

There was no way that I would have felt as mentally well or as focused if Ryan wasn't there to keep me sane.

I was still eating and drinking normally, mainly Bonk Breakers (fantastic protein bars that Lindsay Willard introduced me to), and my water fortified by Nuun tablets.

We reached Phantom Ranch around 4PM and the run/walks had ceased. We were just walking now with less than ten miles to go.


Ryan tried to stay mentally focus, but was having trouble even remembering what day it was. The heat was just too much to bear even for walking.

We would take mini breaks every time we found some semblance of shade. We soaked ourselves at every stream crossing, but we dared not refill our water packs in those same streams. Only thing worse than dehydration is dehydration from diarrhea.

Ironically, our oasis in the desert came in the form of the busted pipe that had derailed the journey for Dave and Dane.

Ryan and I were looking forward to coming across the water flow that we remembered from the morning. Once we did though, instead of trying to avoid it like earlier, we both jumped in without hesitation.

I laid flat on my back, letting the cold, refreshing water flow right under me. My core body temperature dropped a substantial amount within seconds. I could have stayed there the rest of the afternoon.


We both marched on dripping, wet, and revitalized, but the literal ups and downs continued for the rest of the hike.

The five mile stretch between Phantom Ranch and Cottonwood Camp became the most desolate and desperate part of the journey for me. It just seemed endless because the landscape was unchanging and we didn't see another hiker for close to two hours.

We were both thoroughly exhausted by the time we reached Cottonwood. Every movement I made, from refilling my water pack to eating a snack, felt like a chore.

Ryan spoke briefly with a couple of other hikers who were finishing up the first leg of their R2R2R on the North Rim. They were planning on resting at the North Rim, and start up again for the South in the early morning hours. That almost sounds like a smart idea. Apparently, what we were attempting was as hard as you could make the crossings: starting and finishing on the North Rim during the hottest part of the day. Duly noted.

We eventually broke camp and left Cottonwood knowing that this was the last sign of civilization that we would see for the next 3+ hours, unless of course you counted the myriad of hallucinations that we would experience the rest of the way.

By 5PM, we were finally at the base of the North Rim to begin our final ascent to the finish.

We had less than 7 miles to go, but still 4000 ft to climb, so basically Mt Washington.

It was around this point that Ryan asked me if he thought we could finish this in under 16 hours, which would put us at the finish a little after 8PM. My brain was fried and I had no idea how much time we had left, and just told him most likely not.

I'm usually pretty positive and upbeat, but the Canyon was bringing out the worse in me.

There are no words to describe how intimidating it is to look up from the canyon floor knowing that the tip top of that mountain way up over there is where you need to get to. It was just unreal.

And the switchbacks....


...each step we took was basically like doing one lunge.


As darkness finally descended upon us, and about 2000 lunges later, we were finally almost to the top.

"Hey, I know you!"

I looked up through the fading light and saw that it was Vanessa!

She was just finishing up her own adventure too.

Vanessa had hiked down to Phantom Ranch and was on her back to the top of the North Rim. She thought that we were completely insane to do what we did. I had to agree with her that she was absolutely right.

I told her that Ryan was only about five minutes behind me, so she stayed and waited to finish the journey with him.

I looked at my Garmin, and noted the time of day (the only thing still working on it). I had 20 minutes to go before 8PM.

We were going to finish in under 16 hours.

It's definitely nothing spectacular considering that the Fastest Known Time for R2R2R is a little under 7 hours!

I then next heard the familiar Boston twang of Dane. It looks like they survived grueling the 2+ hour car ride around the rim.

We were done, and we were still alive.

There aren't too many things in life that you can do, and live through it, and say it was life changing. For me, this was one of those things.

Too Long, Didn't Read version: THIS WAS ABSOLUTELY THE HARDEST THING I HAD EVER ACCOMPLISHED.

Now please enjoy the video put together by Dane.



Epilogue

Ryan went on to place 3rd at a 50K the following weekend. I won a 5K. Ranger Dave went back into stealth mode until his next adventure, and Dane probably signed up for another 100 miler.

Hell's Canyon, here we come.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Grand Challenge - South Rim

Ranger Dave and I left Bryce around 1PM. I punched in the coordinates for the North Rim lodge, our base camp for the expedition, and ETA was going to be 3 hours+ through the deserts of Utah and Arizona.


The route took us south back through Kanab, so we stopped in the downtown area for a great lunch and, of course, some ice cream at Three Bears. It was generic ice cream (Yeah, I'm spoiled) and it didn't sit well with me for the rest of the trip south to the lodge.


The drive to the lodge was generally scenic, and reminded me more of Vermont than the desert scenery that we were so use to up to that point.

The lodge sits at 8000+ ft and about 20 minutes from the edge of the North Rim. We could definitely feel every feet of that climb as we both got pounding headaches the higher we went.

I immediately lost about 3lbs once we got to the lodge's bathroom, mostly the ice cream from Three Bears.

Dane and company were not at the lodge yet, so Dave and I decided to drive the additional 20 minutes to get a sneak peak of the North Rim while it was still light out.

We were like giddy schoolgirls once we entered the park entrance. We also learned that we could access the park at any time, since they were open 24 hours. We were planning to start the run by 4AM the next morning, so this was very good news.

The conditions were perfect to be able to see clear across the canyon.


I remember getting the same chills I got when I entered Yosemite and seeing Half Dome for the first time. Absolutely surreal to see something you've seen so many times in pictures and movies, right in front of you, in all it's beautiful glory.


We went out to Bright Angel Point, thinking that this was the start of the trail head (we were wrong), and were shocked to see the shear drops on both sides. This was going to be nerve-racking at 4AM and in the dark.


Ranger Dave spoke to another ranger (park) to get the lowdown on our planned journey across the canyon.

The ranger said that they don't encourage runners (actually discourage), especially those that try to do the rim-to-rim-to-rim run in one outing. They stopped talking after that.

We also discovered that some "pure" hikers look down on those that do R2R. My thinking is that we're doing the same hike, but only faster, so chill out people.

Some interesting facts about the Canyon:

- It's "only" 10 miles from the North Rim to the South Rim as the crow flies, but 23 miles as the idiots run.

- Our North Rim starting line sits at 8000 ft while the South Rim halfway point is lower at around 6000+ ft. This was probably a slight oversight in Dane's research when he decided on which rim to start out on. Starting out on the North Rim, like we were going to do, would mean that our final rim climb would be 5500+ ft vs 3500+ if we were finishing on the south side. Not something we were looking forward to.

- The Colorado River, which carved out the canyon, sits at 2500ft above sea level, 7 miles from the North Rim, and 16 miles from the South Rim (using the trails).

- At the lowest point on our run, we would have travelled back 2 billion years in geological history! Who needs a time machine?!

- It can get as hot as 106 degrees down on the canyon floor.

Dave and I finally had our fill of the sneak peak and decided to head back to the lodge to look for Dane.

We got back around 7PM, stopping off at the nearby general store for some last minute supplies.


We then heard the unmistakable Boston accent as we entered the lodge lobby.

DANE!

With Dane was the lovely Vanessa (his niece), and her fiancee, Ryan Dempsey. Ryan was the final member of our four person expedition team. The Fantastic Four was finally united.

This was the first time that I had the chance to meet Ryan.

Ryan and Vanessa both live in San Francisco and are both certifiably nuts when it comes to running. Ryan only started running ultras relatively recently, and Vanessa will enjoy the occasional marathon every few months. Just for fun.

We all went to dinner by 8PM, but Dave and I were still full from our late lunch and settled on just dinner salads.

I was a little worried that we were just eating salads before a grueling 46 mile run, but my stomach was still a little unsettled from earlier.

Rest was probably more important at this point, since we had to get up in 6 hours, so we quickly settled the dinner bill and checked into our quite posh lodge accommodations.

I had the heated room while, Dave opted for the freezer, since he kept telling me that he preferred the cold. Right, Dave?

I stayed up until 10PM finishing up some work for back home, but quickly fell into a deep sleep the moment I finally put my head down for the night.

The morning came way too fast for my liking, and it was still pitch dark out at 3:15AM when we woke up. The full moon helped, but we were in the middle of nowhere, so pure darkness engulfed everything around us.

I had a feeling that it was probably chilly out, since this was the desert after all and I hadn't seen a cloud in the sky since I landed in Vegas three days prior.

My quick litmus test of stepping outside stark naked proved that theory correct, so I decided to go with the compression socks, arm sleeves, mittens, and undershirt to help withstand the early 50 degree temps.

On top I wore my GLRR cap, Crow singlet, an awesome head lamp borrowed from Dane's friend, Jennifer (thanks!), and my 500+ mile pair of Adidas Adizero Adios. This was going to be it's final journey as they have served me well over the past month. There was no way it was going to survive a 46 mile dust and dirt ridden canyon crossing.

I packed my pink Camelbak with my cell phone, spare battery, a ton of Hammer gels, Nuun tablets, Bonk Breakers, Vaseline, two extra water bottles, painkillers, snake anti-venom, trail mix, organ donor card, and some cash in case I needed to take a taxi back.

Everybody was ready by 3:45AM, but I was still foggy and fumbling with my gear. I'm usually well prepared, but I just couldn't get going this morning. Then it appeared that my Camelbak had sprung a leak, which made me doubt my gear. I had no choice at that point and threw everything I needed into the back of the rental.

It was go time.

I did the driving and drove right past the Kaibab trail head where we were supposed to meet Ryan and Vanessa. Like I said previously, Dave and I were wrong in thinking that the hike was to begin at Bright Angel Point.

The North Rim Kaibab trail is a lot more hiker friendly then the Bright Angel Point that we scouted out yesterday, so this came as a big relief to Dave and Dane who were fretting about falling over the steep edges. I don't blame them.

We finally parked in the Kaibab trail parking lot, and found Ryan and Vanessa. Vanessa was going to start at 6AM and run down to Phantom Ranch and back by herself. That was about a 22-24 mile round trip in and of itself. Vanessa's one tough gal.

We said our goodbyes and good lucks to Vanessa as we headed off into the darkness of the North Rim descent.

The first two miles of the descent were just switchback after switchback after switchback. It didn't strike me then, but this was what we were going to have to ascend in about 14 hours, on very tired legs. My mind couldn't even comprehend that at this point.

I clearly remember that there was a fine dust in the dark air, which our headlamps illuminated. Almost like a light snow fall, but more like ash. We were breathing this stuff in, and I joked about how we were going to die of black lung by the end of this run.

It got warmer and warmer as the we got deeper and deeper into the canyon. The morning light was starting to filter into the canyon, but it was still far off in the distance.


We could only make out the faint noises of the wild life in the canyon, and I was a little surprised that we didn't encounter many other life forms other than a few hikers early on.

Most of the hikers were coming from the South Rim, smartly starting their journey in the cool of the night, or from one of the handful of campsites down on the canyon floor.

We eventually came upon Cottonwood camp about 6 miles into the run, and our spirits were still very high.


We quickly went through Cottonwood without getting any additional water. It was still relatively cool out and we were still carrying everything we had brought with us.

We continued to hustle further down the trail towards the next campsite at Phantom Ranch, five miles away.

And then Ryan took a nasty fall on a fast stretch of trail. I was in the front of the four man Indian run, and all I heard were his footsteps, behind me, coming to a dead silence.

I looked back and saw Ryan crumpled up in a ball of dust.

Dane and Dave quickly came to his aid and asked if he was alright.

Ryan looked OK other than a couple of small cuts on his knee and hands.

He struggled to respond with the wind knocked out of him.

We stayed there for a good five minutes before testing out his legs again.

I once again took the lead as Ryan hung back with Dave and Dane.

video

A few miles later, we came upon a stream of gushing water on the main trail, but it didn't look natural at all.

The flow of water emanated from the canyon wall and floor, and a few feet above and away from the main stream to our right. We just thought it was odd, and didn't think much of it at the time other than how to get past it without getting wet.

Who would have thought that this event would play a critical point in our story later on.


We eventually got to Phantom Ranch around mile 13.4 in about 3 hours. We still had less than 3 miles to go before reaching the mighty Colorado River, and 10 miles to the South Rim.

Our Garmins were pretty much useless this deep down in the canyon. I was only getting running time and the occasional elevation readout. I was a little disappointed as I wanted to see the elevation ups and downs on this run, but this was going to be the least of my worries as we continued on.

At the pace that we were going, we were actually afraid that we were going to get to the South Rim before our support crew (Brian Shorey & Family) were planning to be there, which was going to be 11AM.

It was only 7AM, so that gave us 4 hours to cover 10 miles. Even at 4 miles per hour we were on pace to reach the South Rim by 9:30-10.

On that note, I'd like to say that time and distance exists on a whole different realm down in the canyon. One mile can take 7 minutes or it can take an hour. It just all depends on the current conditions.

video

Once we reached the base of the South Rim, we quickly learned that 2 miles was going to take us a very long time, and we would need every minute of that 4 hours to even hit our goal of 11AM.

Before reaching the South Rim though, we came across some of the more famous attractions in the canyon: The Colorado River and the Silver Bridge, which crosses the river at around mile 16.



We hit the proverbial wall at mile 21 a little after 9AM. There were a lot more day hikers on this side of the canyon, so it made running that more difficult on the narrow sections of the South Rim climb.

I was still with Ryan, with Dave and Dane in tow about 20-30 minutes behind us. Ryan was struggling a bit on the South Rim switchbacks, but I wasn't in much better shape myself.

I had run out of water, and didn't bother to re-fill at the last water station with about a mile to go. I was being foolish thinking that it was only a mile.

The temperature was now easily in the 80's, and we had been in the sun's direct line of sight for the past hour or so.

Every step of the 3500 foot climb became to the top became a chore, especially on the steps with the wide landings built to accommodate the many pack animals that traverse these trails. Of course, they also had the right of way whenever you came up on them.

On a side note, be weary of all the donkey dropping and piss pools throughout the canyon.

video

Two hours, and a few prayers later, Ryan and I finally reached the summit of the South Rim at around 10:45AM.

It wasn't long after that that I ran into Brian, his lovely wife, and his dad who were hauling around enough food to feed an army!

It was definitely the best PB&J's that I've ever had. This made up for all of the crappy support down below during this race. Who organized this thing?!

I took my time changing my socks, refilled my Camelbak, and took a few extra food supplies from Brian for the return trip. Ryan did the same, and he looked ready to head back down as soon as possible. I've seen and experienced that look before when you reach the halfway point of an ultra run. No matter how shitty you felt 20 minutes early, once you hit the halfway mark, you're a new person.

I did a once over of my feet and everything looked fine. I went ahead and applied another layer of the miracle cream, Vaseline, on them for the return trip. I was completely covered in Vaseline by this, and it would take at least a week's worth of showers to get all of it. Icky is a word that comes to mind.

The only pain I was feeling were on the tips of my toes, which were throbbing from the long and steep descents. It was mainly because of all the sand that was getting into my sneakers and taking up whatever precious space that remained for my swollen feet.

I already knew that I was going to lose more than a few toe nails from this run just from the pain I was feeling, and we still had to cover 23 miles.

Brian gave us a walkie-talkie for the return trip, and it was small enough to carry, so I didn't mind carrying it even though I had doubts that it would even work in the canyon.

We snapped some photos before I told Brian that it would take us about 8 to 9 hours to get back over to the North Rim, since it took us 6.5 hours for the initial crossing, and that was during the "cool" period and on a relatively easy ascent. He should expect us a little before nightfall.

Ryan and I were now ready to head back into the belly of the beast under the full brunt of the afternoon inferno. The North Rim was waiting for us with an evil smile.
  



Unfortunately, Ryan and I would soon find out that we would be making the final leg of the R2R2R alone, and under some very precarious circumstances.

This is where, as they say, the plot thickens.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Grand Challenge - Bryce

Back on Wednesday, when I was driving back from Zion and to my hotel in Kanab, I ran into Dane, his wife, and two other friends, who were there to enjoy the other things that the area had to offer.

They had been in the Kanab area since Sunday volunteering at the world famous Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. Just think heaven on earth for animal lovers. People from all over come, and some stay, to volunteer at the shelter that takes in all types of animals looking for a second chance.

(The Great Dane is on the right)

We eventually met up for dinner across the street from our hotels at the Spurs Grill. A great place to spend a warm evening eating, drinking, and listening to live Korean music. Yeah, that was a bit strange, but enjoyable nonetheless.


And eat we did, under the guise of packing on the much needed calories for our adventure in three short days. I had already gained close to ten pounds since landing in Vegas, but it probably had something to do with the thin air where we were staying...

Before parting for the evening, I gave Dane my 7 day pass to Zion for his visit on Thursday, while I went to shop and pick up Ranger Dave 200 miles away in Vegas.

I decided to hold off on visiting Bryce until Friday so that Dave could join me, or until Dane realized that he too had a 7 day pass, but to Bryce, that he was holding out on me. I'm still waiting, Dane.

Bryce Canyon

After a hearty southwestern style breakfast on Friday morning at the hotel, Dave and I made the scenic drive out to Bryce Canyon National Park, about an hour and a half northeast of Kanab.

We managed to get there by 10AM and had no trouble finding parking within walking distance of all the trail heads.

Bryce is beautiful beyond belief. My words can do it no justice, so I'll just shut up now and let Bryce do all of the talking.












Who do the hoodoos? We do!



OK, Bryce, stop stealing the show. This is my blog.

Dave and I wandered around the rim of Bryce, snapping pictures of the spectacular hoodoos from up above.

We then noticed that there was a trail that meandered around down below throughout the canyon.

This was Fairyland. The eight mile trail loop was the recommended choice to enjoy all that Bryce had to offer.

We quickly made our way to the trail head, and began the deep descent into the belly of the beast.

Right off the bat, we could feel the effects of the high altitude.

Bryce Canyon sits at 8,000+ ft above sea-level, which is often considered the demarcation for high altitude, and high altitude sickness if you've got it.


We were forced to run/walk on the well-groomed trail, and it took awhile before we could get some acclimation to our new surroundings.

I was now wearing my Adidas Adios in favor of my North Face trail sneakers, which I wore the day before at Zion, and my feet did not enjoy one bit. Adios it was for the Grand Canyon run the next day.
  
Ranger Dave was decked out in his usual workout attire: Army Ranger shirt, cargo shorts (filled with quarters to annoy the crap out of me when we ran), and his shit kicking boots.



Finally, after two solid hours of running, hiking, power-walking, looking for Dave's license, and leaving with a greater appreciation for the beauty of nature, we were ready to head back to the hotel in Kanab to prepare for the greatest challenge of all, and what we came here to get down...