Monday, March 7, 2011

Expect the unexpected

When  you are running 100 miles with 15 to 20 aid stations, 8 or 10 drop bags, every imaginable weather condition and temperature possible there is a pretty good chance something will go a-rye before the race is over.  I have run three 100 mile races and each one has presented a few unexpected challenges.  A few I could never have imagined, like loosing a cue sheet and back up flashlight with 60 miles to go.

At Pinhoti, the section from mile 45 (Silent Trail AS to mile 55.3 (Adams Gap AS) was the most challenging  section of the race for me.  It is a very difficult, rocky trial that requires total focus on every step.  When you factor in a very dark night and cold temperatures, it was tough, even by Wasatch or Leadville standards.  I had been running about 12 hours by the time I hit this section and the temperature was around freezing.  If you look at the course profile below, there are a couple of 500 ft climbs but they were not the problem.

I had done a couple of night runs in training and the Katcina Mosa started in the dark.  This was the first time I had run this long at night and I remember feeling like there was not another soul for 20 miles in any direction.  Earlier a girl had been running with me but she stumbled and took a pretty good fall.  I stopped to see if she was OK and she said she was but was going to slow down.  I had been running alone for what seemed like several hours when I began to hear a noise.  I thought it was music but I could not tell where it was coming form.  As I ran, the sound would fade in and out but eventually became more distinct.  Yes, it was music and it still sounded very far off.  I was still in very dark woods with no sing on anything, anywhere.  I had run this section in a training run and I knew I was getting close to Adams Gap.  I had crossed a creek I remembered so I knew I was on the right trail.  Finally I started the climb I thought led to Adams Gap and the music was now getting louder.  Then in the black I saw what I thought was a twinkle of light off through the woods.  Then I saw more light and I knew I had made it to Adams Gap, and was I ever glad to be there.  The aid station volunteers had a huge fire burning and someone gave me a cup of hot soup.  (That was the only aid station all night that had any soup left by the time I arrived.)  I sat down by the fire with my soup and that is when I learned another ultra truism. "Beware the fire!"  It felt so good to sit there in the warmth of that fire, friendly people are all around, a couple of other runners are sitting around, appearing to have no intention of ever leaving, so I just sat.  I would start to think about getting up and heading up the gravel road, into the cold dark night.  My mind would say no and I continued to sit.  I probably sat there 10 or 15 minutes, maybe more.  I rationalized that I was three hours ahead of cutoff and an hour of my intended pace.  (Of course, with no cue sheet, I didn't realize I had lost chunks of time every mile I had run since dark.)  I did finally force myself out of the chair and start off into the cold, but it was hard.  Surprisingly, after a few minutes of walking/running, I felt good and ready to take on the rest of the course.  I had learned my lesson.  I now make a point never to get too comfortable at an aid station.  Usually I don'e even sit down unless I need to change shoes or socks.

Another unexpected thing happened at Pinhoti in 2008.  At the Blue Mountain AS at mile 34, a remote aid station, that can only be reached by about a one mile hike.  This is the final AS before the fairly easy climb up to Bald Rock at the top of Mt Cheaha.  I arrived and was informed that they just ran out of water!  It is six miles to the next AS and I was almost out of water too.  This sounded like a repeat of Katcina Mosa,  but this time I was not the one that screwed up.  One of AS workers said there was one coke left in the cooler so I took it and headed off.  Have you ever tried to run with a bottle of coke?  Running shakes up the coke so it builds up pressure.  I could feel the bottle expanding in my hand so I allowed the pressure and some of the coke to spray out.  Then I put the lid back on and started running again.  Fifty yards lated, I had to open it again.  This time I smashed the plastic bottle as much as possible without squeezing out any more coke and started off again.  I made it about 100 yards before having to open it again.  After a few minutes of this ridiculousness, the Coke finally ran out of fizz and I resumed a more normal running style.  I was able to reach the Bald Rock aid station without any problems and thanks to the coke, without getting dehydrated.  The bad thing was, at that point, I was on a 27 hour pace which meant almost 1/3 of the runners were behind me.  Hopefully someone was able to get more water to that aid station, I never heard.

I have already talked about leaving my fanny pak with cue sheet and flashlight at Bald Roch in the Pinhoti.  In my next race, Leadville in August of 2009, I lost my flashlight (yep, the same one,) somewhere after Twin Lakes at mile 60.  In one of my early posts on equipment I talked about why I now run with a headlamp and a flashlight but I will go over that again.  When running at night with a headlamp, the light projects no shadows from the perspective of you eyes.  The light source is directly above your eyes so everything appears flat.  You can spot rocks and roots if they are a different color than the surrounding terrain, but if a rock is the same color as the dirt in the trail, it is almost inviable.  Depressions in the trail simply disappear.  I had this problem at Leadville, after loosing my flashlight.  Some of that section of the trail was on a jeep trail and occasionally I would step into a hole that I did not know was there.  That will get your attention.

I have backup equipment for everything that is critical.  All this extra gear goes in a bag that Marye Jo takes to each aid station.  Often, parking is not allowed near aid stations and crews have to walk , sometimes quite a ways which is why she takes the bag to all the aid stations.  At Leadville, I had an extra flashlight and batteries in the supply bag.  When I realized I lost the light I called Marye Jo and asked her to be sure the extra flashlight was in the bag when her met me at the Half Moon aid station.  Actually, the Half Moon has no crew access so she met me a couple of miles down the road at "tree line" where the crews are allowed to meet runners.  Once again I could see all the holes in the road.

At Leadville I carried the flashlight along with two water bottles.  I found it was no problem to carry the Nathan "Quick Draw" bottle and the flashlight in the same hand.  I simply held the flashlight against the water bottle and pointed both where I wanted to see.  At Wasatch I had decided to run with trekking poles because of the amount of climbing, 26,882 feet of it.  I could not figure any way to manage a flashlight and a trekking pole in the same hand so I came up with another system.  I purchased a Surefire Saint Minimus head lamp and wore it around my waist.  The power is infinitely adjustable and it projects a "flood" type beam versus a spot.  I aimed it at the ground close to my feet and used the headlamp to watch for obstacles in the distance and to see where the trail goes.  This system worked great and I intend to continue running at night in races this way.  It leaves both hands free.

The picture below is just before the start of the Wasatch 100.  If you look carefully, you can see my trekking poles sticking out of my backpack, the Nathan X-Treme 3Liter Backpack.  I am carrying my flashlight because we would be running about an hour in the dark.  I only use the poles for climbing or steep descents so I did not use them at the start.  By the time I started up the first climb it will be getting light and I could stash the flashlight until I reached my first drop bag at the Francis Peak aid station at mile 18.76.  I only have one of the "Surefire" lights and I put it in the drop bag for the Big Mountain AS at mile 39.4, the last drop bag location before reaching Lamb's Canyon, mile 53.1.  I knew it would be dark before I reached Lamb's Canyon.

The most significant unexpected can be the weather, especially in the mountains in the Western US where you can find yourself in a blizzard in the middle of August.  I have been fortunate that all of the 100 mile races I have run ("started" might be a better word) have had great weather.  That 100K was another story.  As I have mentioned before, when I ran out of water in Katcina Mosa half way up the climb to Windy Pass the temperature in Salt Lake City hit100 deg.  The normal hight for August is 85.  The highs had been about 85 for the three weeks leading up to the race.  The high was 85 on Thursday when I arrived for the race.  Friday it jumped to 94.  Saturday it hit 100 but by Sunday it was back to 85.  I was just lucky.  Wasatch came very close to having really bad weather last year.  The day before, the upper sections of the mountains received sleet and snow with very high wings all day and rain fell at lower elevations.  Driving to the start the last storm came through the valley and off over the mountains about one hour before the start.  The weather ended up beautiful late in the day and cooler than normal.  As you can tell from the pictures it was cold and foggy until mid afternoon.  The run goes right by the Francis Peak Radar Dome which looks like a giant "golf ball" and I never saw it. It is actually visible form the SLC Airport.  That first morning we were running through snow from about half way up "Chinscraper" the first climb.  Take a look at the pictures I took on the first climb and along the ridge of the front range.
 Just below Chinscraper

 This is Chinscraper

 Climbing along the ridge line
Running along the top of the Wasatch Front Range Crest.
The views left something to be desired that first morning.  By late afternoon it cleared up and you could see for miles.

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