Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Rocky Road 100 Mile(13:14:44)

I’m sitting in bumper to bumper traffic on I-5 on my way through Los Angeles to get to Coto De Caza at 5p.m. on Friday….the day before the Rocky Road 100 Mile race. So, I decided to pull off the highway and go for a 20 minute jog at a neighborhood park in Pasadena to get the junk out of my legs from the long drive. As I was running, I was wondering if I should even be there. My wife had a 102 degree temperature along with a sinus infection and both of my children (Lauren, four years old, and Nathanael, six years old) are also sick. Moreover, I am completely on my own; no crew, no friends accompanying me on the trip. This usually spelled doom for a good race result. I have only gone alone to a 100 mile race twice and both times I didn’t make it past 40 miles.

This time around it felt different. I can attribute my new found confidence to the lessons learned from the experiences at my last two Tahoe Rim 100 Mile races(21:27 and (23:55).  They have given me the confidence and resolve to finish when every bone in my body said to stop. Also, I was running a race that suited the environment in which I trained. I live in the Central Valley of California (Modesto) with the emphasis on ‘Valley.’ For last few years, I have tried to run mountain hundreds with steep grades and at high elevations when my training dictated I run something flatter and at sea level. The Rocky Road 100 mile had rolling terrain and was run practically at sea level. This was ideal race to fit the training I had been doing. Also, I had no breaks in my training to heal injuries. I was focused, determined, and motivated. So much so, that I was up four to five days a week by myself at 4 a.m. to get many of my runs in. And that was with a very busy daily work schedule and family schedule. In addition, I ran more mileage and put more time on my feet than I had for any other hundreds I have ever run. I can attribute the rise in mileage and lack of muscle fatigue to Peter Defty. I changed my diet completely in December and went to an OFM diet while using Vespa during my training. This diet required me to cut out sugar, wheat, and white flour in my diet. This allowed my insulin levels to stay constant and helped me to burn fat in training, instead of glucose. And my energy levels weren’t on a roller coaster ride. I felt strong throughout most of my training runs.

Fast forward to race morning. I toe the line for the Rocky Road 100 mile in ideal weather conditions with uncertainty and a heavy heart. Was I in as good a shape as I thought? Would my stomach hold up? Would I be able to mentally get through the low points without help from a crew or family? Well, those questions would be answered very soon. Shortly after the gun went off a little after 6 a.m., the lead group separated themselves. The group contained the Southern California ultra legend Ben Hian, Nickademus Hollon (21 year old stud!), and myself. The plan was to stay with Ben for three loops, then determine whether to stay or go.

I completed the first 15 mile lap with Ben four minutes behind the lead two runners, one of which was Nickademus Hollon. I wasn’t too worried about the four minute gap, but I felt like I could push the gradual downhills more than I had. After seeing the course, my game plan started to take shape and I figured out where I could attack. I would run the uphills under control and I would “stride-out” on the downhills. I just wanted to make sure I stayed in that aerobic level for entire race if possible, so I could save my stomach.

As we came into the end of the second lap, Ben dropped off a little and the lead group still maintained their 4 minute cushion but they weren’t able to add to it. I really felt good. I just felt like the pace they were running was out of their comfort level and that they would come back to the rest of the field soon.

My fueling all day was planned meticulously, but simplistically. I felt like I could carry one 20 oz bottle full of water for the entire loop and take a cup or two of water at each and every aid station. Also, I would take in some food at every aid station, whether that was half a gel, piece of banana, bite or two of pbj, hand full of chips, etc…I prepared six 20oz bottles of water stuffed with a gel and a Vespa and had them in an ice chest next to my car, with a couple of cans of V8, and a couple of pbj sandwiches. I would come into the start/finish aid station, veer off to my car, grab a bottle, and I was off. It was seamless. I also was going to change out of the Brooks D7 Racers I was wearing at thirty miles to save some mileage on my new Saucony Fastwitch 4’s.

As I approached the turnaround of the second lap at mile 22.5, the lead two were only two minutes ahead and they had a look on their faces that showed that the early pace may have been a little too fast for them to maintain. Two miles before the end of the third lap I passed one of the lead runners and then I came up on Nickademus a mile or so before the end of the loop. We said some encouraging words to each other as I pulled in front. I came into the aid station, grabbed a water bottle and pbj for the road, and I was off without missing a beat. I bypassed on the shoe change because I didn’t want to mess with the good karma.

Now we were entering familiar territory, Jon with the early lead. In recent years, this didn’t lead to a good outcome, but I still felt strong and decided if I just maintained the comfortable pace I was running, that I would be in good shape for a good result.

Ben and I had talked earlier about the quick early pace and commenting on whether it would take its toll on the lead runners. In that conversation he was sharing some insight on the course. He stated that the course doesn’t seem hilly but that every grade is very gradual and sometimes not noticeable. The cumulative effect would take a toll on your legs, so he said. By mile 30 there were a couple of hills he would begin walking to conserve energy. The crazy thing is there was no point at which I felt like I needed to walk.

The only low point of the day was from mile 58 to 64. I really felt sluggish. I didn’t feel like walking but I could tell my energy was lacking and my feet / legs were beginning to hurt. I told myself if I could make it to the start/finish aid station (mile 60) I would treat myself to a Tylenol, one of the simple joys in my ultra running life.

Back home, my family and friends were following the race updates online. I came to find out that for whatever reason, my fourth lap didn’t not get recorded, so my 30 minute lead after lap three, became a 50 minute deficit after lap four! The chatter began on Facebook about what may happened. Did I go out too fast? Did I get lost? Was it part of my strategy? What? I did have a track record, recently, of falling off the pace after 50 miles and I know that they must have been thinking “here we go again.”

As I headed out for my fifth loop, I calculated that my lead had grown to 50 minutes and I still felt pretty strong. Then, suddenly my prayers were answered; the Tylenol had taken the edge off my pain and gave me a little adrenaline rush. For the next ten miles (miles 64 to 74) I enjoyed the easiest running of the day. It felt effortless and I began to dream about what time I could possibly run. Could I break Hal Koerner’s Rocky Racoon time 13:24? Even better….could I break 13 hours? Why stop there…..could I break Ian’s 12:48…….Ok, that wasn’t going to happen, but I really felt like I had an outside chance of breaking 13 hours if I could just continue what I was doing. Well, this exuberant feeling was short lived because with one mile left to complete my fifth loop, the feeling of nirvana had left me and it was replaced with pain and sluggishness. I ran one of my fastest loops of the day.(1:59) I slammed a V8, grabbed another bottle, and turned down the shoes change once again, even though the blisters were swelling and toe nails were beginning separate from the cuticles.

I was beginning to feel the buzz created by my performance. It seemed as though each and every runner I passed was keeping track of my progress and always supplied me with encouragement in the form of a smile, hooting and hollering, spontaneous bowing, or just words of praise. Additionally, as I entered the start/finish aid station and the mile 5/10 aid station, I would see spectators get out of their cars just to see me. It was crazy! I felt like a rock star! I am used to being the spectator getting out of the car to see the runners like Hal Koerner, Anton Krupicka, Jeff Roes, ……etc.coming through an aid station.

I slowed a little on my sixth lap but still finished the lap in 2:02. I could not believe that my six lap totals were 2:00, 1:58, 1:56, 1:57, 1:59, and 2:02. It was unfathomable that I could keep pretty even splits for the entire race. As I crossed the finish to complete my sixth lap I handed my water bottle to a race volunteer to fill with water, then I veered off to my car to grab three things, a jacket, beanie, and my head lamp. I grabbed my things and the water bottle as I head out of the parking lot and the start/finish area to embark on the last 10 miles of the race. I get down to the transition of the road and the horse trail and realize that I only grabbed two of the three things from my car. I forgot my headlamp! I had to make a quick decision. Do I go back and sacrifice the time to be able to see clearly the last ten miles or do I take a chance? The decision was easy for me. I would go for it! For the majority of the last lap I could ‘mostly’ see the ground that I was running on but passing cars and their bright headlamps blinded me on portions of the run.

The entire lap I was thinking of 13:16, Eric Clifton’s 100 mile U.S. trail record up until last year. I knew it would be close. 8:30’s would not do it, and I was struggling to go any faster. I would have to run the 4.5 mile gradual downhill out of the start/finish at an eight minute pace or even a little bit better to make up for the uphill finish where I would obviously give a little time back.

I finally reached the 95 mile aid station (turn around). I said, “Number 128 in and I’m leaving.” I caught a glimpse of Ben Hian and Scott Mills at the aid station. I stopped to high-five both of them as they shared some words of praise. By then, though, I had the finish line on my mind. I carefully maneuvered the descent out of the aid station. I spent the next five miles continuously checking my watch to see my speed. I knew it would be close. Passing runners would shine their lights ahead on the trail to give me light as I went by. I blew through the 97.5 mile aid station without even a hesitation of slowing down. I needed every second at this point. Finally I could see the cone to signal the turn to the finish but it wasn’t very obvious because I didn’t have any light. Elation came over me as I crossed the finish line in 13:14:44. Spectators and volunteers were stunned and even surprised that I was done. Both race directors were expecting me to arrive at 13:30, not 13:14, so neither of them was there. I overheard the race photographer on his cell phone talking to Rob Cowan, the race director, telling him that I finished and that no RD was there. Shortly after that conversation, Rob arrived, shook my hand, and then asked if he could give me a hug. I was stunned and even numb by what happened. Everyone around me looked at me in amazement, but it was just one of those races that felt easy. I can’t explain it, but if you have run in this sport long enough, you treasure these moments because they are few and far between.  

To the race directors Rob Cowan and Charlie Alewine, the volunteers, and runners thank you for making the Rocky Road 100 the crown achievement of my running career.   

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