Archives for posts with tag: 100 miles

logo_colorIn February of this year while visiting family in Florida I received notification that I had won the lottery.  No, no, not THAT lottery…the Cascade Crest lottery.  Every year hundreds of runners register for this beautiful 100 mile mountain race in Washington state.  To retain its pure wilderness integrity, the organizers limit the number of participants to 150 and hold a lottery to determine who gets in.  I was one of the “lucky” ones.

I spent the last six months training with this one goal in mind.  It was a long slow buildup with a few tune up races along the way.  It’s a struggle to find the right balance between too much and not enough training.  I’ve found that the biggest challenge for me isn’t getting the finish line, but rather, figuring out how to get to the starting line feeling healthy, rested and injury-free.

cascade_crest-760x400Two years ago I ran my first 100 mile race in Arizona.  It was an incredible experience running through the Sonoran desert for nearly 24 hours.  That race, however, was pretty straightforward–multiple 15 mile loops on smooth trail with minimal elevation change.  Cascade Crest, on the other hand, is one giant 100 mile loop through the mountains, much of it on technical single-track trail and with over 21,000 feet of elevation gain.  Aesthetically it’s an amazingly beautiful course, but also one of the toughest races in the country.

9432337My plan was to take it slow, power hike the steep uphill sections and keep my competitive instincts in check.  It was the first time in any race where my goal was simply to finish.  I didn’t care about my time or place.  I just wanted to get in done before the 32 hour cutoff time.  And hopefully have a (relatively) good time in the process.

The race has three volunteers for every one runner and the 15 aid stations were staffed and stocked to the gills.  A tremendous amount of energy is needed for a race of this length, so I used these pit stops as an opportunity to consume calories like my life depended on it.  Some of the many things I ate along the way were: pizza, guacamole, bacon, ramen, quesadillas, turkey avocado wraps, PB&J’s, pretzels, Pringles, M&M’s, granola bars, hummus, watermelon, chicken noodle soup, and pierogies.  I might be the only runner in history to put on weight during a 100 mile race.

Ultramarathon Aid StationI hit the halfway mark at around 12 hours, at which point I got to experience one of the unique aspects of this race–a 2.3 mile abandoned railroad tunnel under Snoqualmie Pass.  This section is part of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, which runs from Seattle to the Idaho border.  It was cool, damp and kind of creepy inside the tunnel.  I ran in the bubble of light created by my headlamp and could hear the echo of footsteps behind me.  It was nice to run on smooth flat terrain for a change, but still,  I was happy to finally see that light at the end of the tunnel.

irontMy buddy Jon met me at the next aid station and would run with me for the rest of the race.  Having a pacer is a traditional component of 100 mile races.  Not everyone chooses to have one, but it’s nice to have a friend along to share the experience and to help get you to the finish.  Jon is a veteran of nine 100 mile races, so I was thrilled when he offered to pace me.

Running through the night was psychologically the most difficult part of the race.  Jon and I spent hours swapping stories and then sometimes went miles without saying a single word.  Every once in a while we’d shut off our headlamps and gaze up at the cloud-like density of the stars overhead.  The miles really started to drag in the last few hours before sunrise and one section, nicknamed the Trail from Hell, took us more than 3 hours to go just 5 miles.

I caught a second wind with the rising sun (and a bottle of Starbucks Frappuccino someone gave me at an aid station).  That stuff is like jet fuel!  We started passing other runners, using the Beastie Boys’ “Body Movin” as our mantra.  The No Name Ridge aid station was staffed by several women dressed in Hooters uniforms, serving fresh-off-the-skillet chicken quesadillas.  It was like a dream, and now in hindsight, I wonder if I was, in fact, hallucinating.

hooters_tshirtsThe next 10 mile section of trail was referred to as the Cardiac Needles, an intimidating-sounding proposition 80 miles into a race.  This series of steep ascents and descents completely trashed my legs.  Many people used trekking poles to get through this section.  I was happy to find a walking stick to help take some of the pressure off my quads.

The highest point on the course is the Thorpe Mountain fire lookout.  Everyone was required take a paper ticket from the base of the lookout to prove that you actually tagged this high point.  I felt like Charlie from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, running down the trail clutching my golden ticket.

thorploOnce the Cardiac Needles were behind me, I knew I’d have no trouble finishing before the 32 hour cutoff.  As we dropped back down to civilization an afternoon thunderstorm rolled in.  It cooled things off and dampened down the trail dust.  The rain was cleansing and gave the nature surrounding us a newfound freshness.  I felt revitalized and started to fully savor the magnitude of this journey.  In a world filled with near-constant stimulation, there is a noticeable lack of time for contemplation.  I feel incredibly blessed to have had this opportunity to let my mind and body aimlessly wonder for more than 30 hours.

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fur-ther   adverb   1. at or to a greater distance.  2. at or to a more advanced point.  3. the psychedelic bus populated by the Merry Pranksters and immortalized in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

On October 28th at 5:44am, I could go no further.  For almost 24 hours I’d been running up, down and around Arizona’s McDowell Mountain Park.  After 101.4 miles(nearly half a million steps), I could finally stop.

Someone handed me a belt buckle and gave me a place to sit.  I knew I should eat, drink and stretch, but all I wanted to do was curl up in my tent and sleep.  At that point I felt no joy, just relief to have finally finished.

It’s been over a week since I returned from Arizona and it’s taken awhile to process the whole experience.  I’ve been asked lots of questions since I gotten back and I’ve finally wrapped my head around some of the answers.  Here are my thoughts.

Why would anyone want to run 100 miles?

Good question, one I often asked myself at Javelina.  I signed up for this race because I was looking for a new challenge and one hundred miles in one day had a nice symmetry to it.  It sounds like a long way to run and it is a long way, but with proper training and the right mindset, it’s a distance that anyone can complete in a single day.

Did you run the whole time?

Some 100 mile races are more runnable than others. The Javelina 100 takes place on a relatively smooth trail with lots of rolling hills, but nothing too long or steep.  I ran about 95% of the course, only walking the rocky sections at night.  A few of the top competitors ran the whole race, while others walked quite a bit.  To be honest, I wish I would have walked more to give my running muscles a break.  Towards the end I was passed by a walker and realized:  A)  Walking can be more efficient than running.  B)  Damn, I’m running slow.

What did you eat?

It’s important to have a consistent fueling and hydration plan.  I tried to take in 100 calories every 20-30 minutes, mostly by eating energy gels/bars and munching on fruit at the aid stations.  I alternating water and Gatoraid in my handheld water bottle and took salt tabs every 2 hours to keep my electrolytes in balance.  When I got burned out on the energy gels/bars, I starting eating a piece of pizza every few hours.  It was a well-needed injection of carbs, protein, fat and calories.  You can probably imagine how good it tasted.

Was it hot?

This was the 10th annual Javelina 100 and this year was the one of the hottest ever.  The temperatures got into the low 90’s and even though it was a dry heat, out in the desert there is no shade to protect you from the sun.  At times I felt like the vultures were circling overhead as we struggled through the afternoon heat.  Of the 400 starters only 160 finished before the 30 hour cutoff, a finishing rate of just 40%.

What did you think about?

Through I didn’t really make a conscience effort to do so, my mind for most of the day was almost completely empty.  I didn’t think about my time or the distance or the heat or the pain.  I was somehow able turn off the random thoughts in my head and focus only on eating, drinking and moving forward.  Towards the end, the mix of dehydration, hunger, exhaustion, and sleep deprivation created a real psychedelic experience.  The shadows caused by my headlamp and the full moon made the saguaro cactus look like other runners.  It was pretty trippy.

One of the coolest things for me was to see all the different kinds of runners at Javelina, various shapes and sizes, ages and races.  Most of the participants were in their 30’s and 40’s, yet surprisingly there was more in their 50’s than in their 20’s.  There was even a handful of runners in their 60’s and one 70 year old guy from San Diego.

How did you train?

If you want to run a marathon, there are dozens of books that will tell you exactly what you need to do to get to the finish line.  In comparison, there’s very little information available about training for an ultra.  The only book I could find is called Relentless Forward Progress (a good mantra, by the way) by Bryon Powell, who started the popular irunfar.com website.  In the last few months I bumped up my mileage to about 60 miles a week, ran 50k and 50 mile tune-up races, and did a couple of all-day runs in the Columbia Gorge and around Mt. Hood to get used to being on my feet for extended periods of time.  It’s also important to make sure that all of your equipment and fueling/hydration systems are dialed in.  Something as simple as a blister or a cramp can jeopardize the whole race.

What would you do differently?

Many of the runners had support crews and pacers to help out during the race.  Yoshimi was in Japan visiting her family, so she wasn’t able to come with me to Arizona, so my support team was made up of just my amigo, Lobo.

Just a couple of lone wolves, me and Lobo.  During the race I was fine on my own, but it would have been great to have someone help afterwards with packing up camp, driving to Phoenix, dealing with all the motel, restaurant, rental car and airline stuff.

Would you do it again?

The pain is still pretty fresh, so it’s a bit too soon to say for sure, but yeah, I probably would at some point.  Javelina takes place in a beautiful desert setting and its 15.4 mile loop course made things logistically easy for a 100 mile virgin.  If I do run another 100 miler, I’d like to do a race on a more aesthetically pleasing point-to-point course in a dramatic mountain setting like the Rockies or the Alps.

To see the sun rise, then set and then rise again, all while running through the Sonoran desert was a unique experience I’ll never forget.  It was amazing to be part of a community of runners who set lofty goals and put in the time and effort to realize those dreams.  In the last few days the soreness in my muscles has finally subsided and the relief I felt initially has since faded.  Now all that remains is a lingering glow of joy.

“Birthdays was the worst days.  Now we sip champagne when we thirst-ay.”  –Biggie Smalls

With no disrespect to the Notorious B.I.G., I’ve always felt that birthdays are the best days.  Holidays must be shared with all, but birthdays are unique to the individual (and the roughly .27% of society that shares your date of birth.)  When I first met Yoshimi, she informed me that we would not just be celebrating her birthDAY, but her whole birthWEEK.  This somehow evolved into two, then three weeks and eventually into the whole month of July, which she renamed Yo-ly.

For some reason I’ve had less success instituting Shawn-tober onto the calendar.  I do, however, try to do something special every year.  For me it’s not about parties, presents or sipping champagne Biggie-style, instead I try to seek out some sort of unique experience.  I’ve spent Octobers in Ireland, New Zealand, India, Turkey and Argentina.  My thirtieth birthday was spent drinking yak butter tea at Annapurna base camp in the Himalayas.  On my fortieth, I was laid up with a black eye after getting hit in the head with a portable shrine at a harvest festival in Japan.  Last year we took the Amtrak cross country, stopping off in Montana so I could run my first 50 miler.  It’s fun to try and come up with something new every year.  For 2012, I decided to go big.

Though I’ve run for most of my life, it was just a few years ago that I realized that there are races longer than a 26.2 mile marathon.  These “ultra” distance races make up a very small, yet quickly growing segment of endurance events.  As opposed to your typical marathon, ultras are usually run on trail in distances of 50K (31 miles), 50 miles, 100k, and the granddaddy of them all, the 100 miler.

Most people are surprised that races of these distances exist.  They would be even more surprised to learn that there are now 97 races in North America that are 100 miles long.  What’s crazier is that dozens, sometimes hundreds of runners compete in these events, many of which are held at elevation, on technical trail, through deserts and over mountains.  It’s like some sort of cult and somehow I’ve been brainwashed into becoming a member.  October 27th will be my initiation ceremony at the Javelina 100 in Arizona.

These 100 mile races are a uniquely American invention that started out as a horse race across the the Sierra Nevada in California.  In 1974 Gordy Ainsleigh, after having to drop out of the previous years race because of problems with his horse, decided that he would try to run the entire course instead.  He managed to finish just under the 24 hour cutoff time.  For his effort, he was awarded a silver belt buckle, the same prize given to all successful riders.

A few years later, Western States officially became the world’s first 100 mile running race.  The WS100 is now the most prestigious ultra distance race, kind of like the Boston Marathon of ultras.  To learn more, check out this trailer of a documentary made about the 2010 WS100.

I’d love to run Western States someday, but thought I better start off with one of the “easy” 100 milers.  The Javelina 100 is held each year during the full moon in October.  This year there will be nearly 400 participants, some who will be dressed up for Halloween.  I guess it’s not tough enough for some people to run 100 miles, they gotta get dressed up like Spiderman to make it more of a challenge.

The race is run on cactus-lined desert trails in McDowell Mountain Park, about an hour outside of Phoenix.  All runners who finish under 30 hours will be awarded a wild pig belt buckle.  I’ve never had one of those giant Texas-sized belt buckles, but if I’m successful at Javelina, I’ll be proud to show off my wild pig.