Monday, May 26, 2014

PCT 50: Turning Lemons into Lemonade

Things don't always go as planned.  That's part of the beauty of ultras; there is enough time spent on the course, that even the best laid plan can go to shit.  Part of the challenge, is not just running the race, but dealing with the mental and physical low points that can occur at any time.  PCT 50, for me, was more of a test of mental fortitude that physical force.  I handed myself a whole basket full of lemons on this one, and it was all completely avoidable.  And so this race, stands as a solid outline of what NOT to do during an ultra.

I had big plans for PCT 50.  I'd put in serious, calculated training leading up to the race thanks to my coach, Ian Torrence.  From a physical standpoint, I was the most "specifically" trained I've ever been for a race.  PCT was pretty much the focus of my early season / spring race schedule.  In March, I ran Way Too Cool 50k, which, while not exactly going the way I wanted, did result in a 50k PR by almost an hour.  I knew my fitness was good.

After WTC, I ran the Griffith Park Trail Marathon as a training run, took it easy, and still ended up doing pretty well.  I ran something around a 4:30, which for an easy training run on a great course, I was happy with.  For my next big training weekend, I camped out at the starting line of PCT 50, and spent two days logging around 40-ish miles, covering all but a very small portion of the PCT course.

This was the first time (aside from running in Marin a few times then racing the TNFEC race) that I had done any real sort of course recon.  It was a good plan, as it gave me a good sense of what to expect with the course.  After the first day of running, I knew that pretty much the first 15 miles is uphill, climbing from about 3k-6k' on the rocky single track of the Pacific Crest Trail.  As the course was an out and back, I also knew that meant the last 15 miles had the potential to be very quick as long as the legs were holding up.

Day two of the recon brought more "rolling trail," but could also prove to be hot and sunny depending on the race day weather.  The trail (which ends up being from around mile 18 to the turn around and back) got a little sandy in places, and was very exposed, going through a previous burn area.  There's a lot of ridge running right along the mountains overlooking the Anza-Borrego desert.  After having a solid training weekend, I felt ready.  I knew what the course was like, and I felt well trained physically and mentally.  I was ready for race day.  I knew this wasn't going to be a PR type of course; it was too rocky and likely to be warm.  Even still, in the back of my head (much like anyone), I still had the chance of a PR in mind...time would tell.


We got a little bit of a later start than usual for race travel, but since this one was somewhat local, I felt comfortable making the 3 hour drive Friday evening.  My son and I picked my wife up from work, ate some dinner at Chipotle, and then took the 3 hr drive from Palm Springs to Pine Valley, CA, where we would be spending the night.

This is where I made my first mistake.  I usually have a very specific race morning (healthy pre-race food or not, it has worked in the past).  I always eat a blueberry bagel with strawberry cream cheese, a banana, a Gatorade, and a cup of coffee.  Figuring that there would be a grocery store of some sort either near or on the way to our lodging, I didn't go to one of the large grocery stores in Palm Springs before driving down to Pine Valley.

Here's a little note:  if you are going to take the fastest way from Palm Springs to Pine Valley, there is absolutely nothing on the way.  Nothing.  We eventually made it to our motel, which while small, and slightly run down, it served it's purpose.  Luckily, there was a little grocery right next door, but didn't have exactly what I was looking for.  Race day breakfast ended up being a plain bagel with chocolate/hazelnut spread, a banana, a Gatorade, and since there was no coffee, and I wanted the caffeine in the morning, a Red Bull.

We got to sleep sometime around 9:30 pm, and woke up at around 3:30 am to allow myself to get ready with plenty of time.  My morning routine was the usual shower, bowel emptying (your welcome for that image), breakfast, and getting dressed.  We were out the door somewhere between 4 and 4:30 am, and drove to the start line which was about 10 minutes away.

Arriving at the start line early (as I always prefer), I got by bib and swag, and hung out making last minute preparations.  It was chilly out, so I threw arm sleeves on with my singlet, but I knew as soon as the sun came up and I was running I'd warm up quickly.  At 5 am, the early starters were off and running, and come 6 am, so were the rest of us.

Section 1 – Start to Fred Canyon AS (mile 6.4 mostly uphill)

The race started well.  I got caught up in a conga line pretty much the whole way (it’s a single track ridge trail, nowhere really to pass), but that’s a good thing in this case.  I think it kept me reigned in a little bit.  The pace was comfortable, and I was having conversations with the guys around me.  I got to the first aid station still feeling very fresh, however, I hadn’t taken in any nutrition at that point.  I took a small swig of coke at the aid station and moved on.  

I knew I should probably have started ingesting nutrition at this point, but I felt ok not doing so.  I always use Vespa for my races, and since I had a high-calorie breakfast, I felt like I could pick up nutrition from here on out and be just fine.  Famous last words.

Section 2 – Fred Canyon to Dale’s (7.3 mile uphill)

The first mile here was slower because I do remember popping a gel coming out of the aid station, so I was fumbling with it while climbing.  I don’t really remember this section going poorly or good.  It just kind of happened.  There was a lot of climbing, and I was trying to employ a reasonable run/hike strategy to conserve energy.  The only part of this section I hadn’t seen in training was the last 2-ish miles.  I finished almost a full handheld bottle of Tailwind in this section plus the one gel (about 280 cal total).  I drank one full handheld of plain water.  Also at this point, when arriving at Dale’s, my stomach was sloshing.   

I hate sloshing in my stomach.  It makes it nearly impossible to take in any sort of calories, and it's a mental warning also, because that's when you realize your gastric emptying is not occurring like it should (or at least like it normally does).  I still had energy, and physically was feeling strong, so I kept pushing.  I was still passing people, and had strong climbing legs.  So far, so good.  "So far" being the key point.

Section 3 – Dale’s to Todd’s cabin (~4 miles rolling)

Looking back, I realized that up to this point of the race, I had maybe taken in 300-400 calories total.  To anyone on the outside looking in, it would have been obvious what was about to happen.  To me, I was completely oblivious.  I started getting a little sluggish, moving a little slower, but figured (at the time) it was probably just the climbing catching up with me.  I ran this 4 miles in 44 minutes, and considering it's very runnable, and I had run it faster in training, that was slow.  When I pulled into Todd's Cabin aid station, orange slices and ginger ale where all I could take in.  I rolled out of the aid station, which is a short climb back up to the race course, and that's when it happened.  

Section 4 – Todd’s Cabin to Penny Pines (5.2 miles, ½ rolling, big descent, big climb)

Everything went to shit.  Looking back at my training paces through here, this section was on average 1:30-2:00/mile faster in training than what I was running now.  The wheels came off in this section, both mentally and physically.  Obviously nutrition led to a total bonk, add that into the fact that we were now running into 40-50 mph wind gusts, and I was just in a bad mental place.   This whole section, I was mentally coming up with excuses to tell my wife (whom I would see at the Penny Pines aid station), so I could justify to her (and myself) a drop.  I've never had a mental low like I experienced there.  

Clearly, this dark place was a result of an epic bonk.  However, at the time, I just couldn't put that together in my head.  I knew something else had to be wrong, it couldn't have been my VERY poor fueling.  I was coming up with phantom issues that would cause me to DNF.  The month before PCT I experienced some Achilles issues, and had convinced myself I had that pain again.  And then (since I was in a mood to sensationalize) I convinced myself that if I kept going that it would probably rupture and ruin my entire running season.  This had to be the problem!  It made sense!  Right?

I rolled into Penny Pines AS (around Mile 22) to see my wife; I was a mess, both mentally and physically.  I was nauseous, gassed, and defeated.  I had nothing left in my legs, and convinced myself that my tendon was going to explode.

Luckily, my wife wasn’t having it.  I tried to convince her it was my Achilles causing problems, because injury is an excuse I knew she would allow me to drop for.  Instead, she sat me down, force fed me anything I would take in.  I had two bottles of water, a gel, 2 cups of ginger ale, orange slices, and some crackers.  I changed into a different pair of shoes (for my first time ever in a race, but I was willing to try anything to turn it around), and she told me to do the next out and back section to the turn around, and if I still felt bad, we’d call it and go to the hotel.  

After 15 or 20 minutes sitting around feeling sorry for myself, I left the aid station, practically in a protest just to show my wife how bad off I was.  I'd show her!  This next 5 miles, then back to the same aid station, and she would KNOW how bad things were.

Section 5 - Penny Pines – 1/2way – Penny Pines (~4.5 mi rolling)

Maybe she was right after all.  After about a mile, I started feeling a little better, and started passing some people that went by me in the aid station.  I got to the turnaround, feeling decent, but still a little bonky.  I headed back to Penny Pines, this time in a totally different demeanor than when my wife saw me the first time.  I drank some more water, but didn't want anymore liquid nutrition, because I just wasn't processing it.  I ate some oranges and gummy bears, and drank some ginger ale.  I grabbed a handful of pretzels, and told my wife "I'll see you at the finish.  I've got some Mother F***ers I need to catch."  Off I went.  

Section 6 - Penny Pines to Todd's Cabin (5.2 miles)

Back out on the course from there with a bottle of plain water, handful of pretzels, and pockets full of gels.  It was still windy as shit, and getting warmer.  Sun was definitely out, but I was too focused on other things to worry about the gnarly sunburn I was getting (if you're going to wear a singlet, wear sunscreen).  I knew I was sweating, but my singlet/shorts were dry.  I took in one gel and drank a full bottle of water.  I wasn’t flying through, but I was moving and feeling a little better.  Still not completely back, I settled in this section for a long day, but a finish.  Mentally I was in a better place.  I stopped trying to worry about any goal except staying on the move.  

I was still clearly calorie depleted, but in my own little headspace, I knew I could gut the rest of this race out.  I had to keep going.  Not only was it important to me to cross that line at the end, but my ride was there waiting for me.

Section 7 – Todd’s Cabin to Dale’s (~4 miles)

I wasn't going to break any Strava records, but I was drinking water regularly, and sipping on gels a little at a time.  My legs felt fine, I would say there was very little, if any, physical fatigue at this point.  The problem, was on any of the uphills, I just had no gas and got light headed.  Flats and downs, I could run at a "respectable" pace; or at least one respectable in my current state of affairs. It was at least fast enough that I picked up a few places, and wasn't getting passed. 

Section 8 & 9 - Dale's to the finish

Knowing that the last part of the race was mostly downhill, had me in decent spirits.  I knew I could still run downhills, and my quads were feeling good.  What did beat me up in this section, was the rocks.  My feet were quickly beginning to feel like hamburger meat.  I pushed on anyway, going as hard as my feet would take me.  I picked up a few more places, and didn't get passed at all.  I caught up to and ran with one other guy up until around the last mile, when I had to stop briefly because I thought I was going to vomit.  He took off, and I didn't have the gas to catch him (but I didn't vomit!). 

When I crossed the finish, my wife pretty much told me I looked like death, and she's probably right.  I pretty much felt that way. Surprisingly, by the end, I was only about 3 minutes off my 50 mile PR.  A huge shock to me, considering how the day went.  Makes me curious to know how fast I could have gone if I had gotten my nutrition right. 

It's pretty incredible how things can turn around in a race.  By no means was I feeling great in the second half, but I felt strong enough where another 25 miles seemed doable.  The mind is clearly a powerful part of running and racing:  when you're mentally strong, it can carry you through some physically tough times.  Conversely, when your head is not in the game, it can break an otherwise physically strong body.

Much was learned from this race, and I'm glad I stuck it out.  I credit that to my wife, more than myself.  Luckily she knew to push me back on the course.  I'd rather have a bad day running, than DNF for no real reason.  

There's something to be said for finishing, even if you know it's not going to be your best race.  Endurance sports aren't always easy, and they aren't always fun...but they always have a reward of some sort.  Often times, you just don't know what that is until it's over.  

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