Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Why I Run

I often get asked why I run long distances. Why do I choose to put my body through so much pain? I usually struggle to respond because there's no simple answer to that question. In fact, there are dozens of answers which rotate through my head depending on the circumstances of my life.

Sometimes I asked myself the same question

Here, in no particular order, are the reasons why I run.

1. Because I'm competitive and athletic options are limited when you're a short dude with no fast twitch muscle fibers.

Pictured: one of the many athletic things I can't do

2. Because I love spending time outdoors and a 12 hour run on single track is a great way to scratch that itch.

Especially if it's with someone I like

3. Because it helps me process the thoughts in my head. I mean think about it. How often do you get to unplug from the world for more than a few minutes at a time. No phone. No internet. Alone with your thoughts.

And passing photographers

4. Because anything worth doing is worth overdoing, and as far as addictions go, running is fairly benign.

This hurts less than a hangover

5. Because some day I won't be able to run. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, or I could live until 100 and run every day until then. Either way, the amount of time allotted to me is finite, and I intend to make the most of it.


6. Because I get to meet new people and spend time with old friends. The running community is one of the most positive and welcoming groups that you'll ever find.

These people are all pretty cool

7. Because I get to be alone. This probably sounds like it contradicts the previous point. Well it does. Life is all about finding balance, and running strikes an excellent balance between community and solitude.

Quiet morning run at Round Valley Reservoir

8. Because it keeps me in shape. Let's be honest here. The reason why most of us exercise is because we want to look good naked.

It doesn't make me any less awkward though

9. Because it's easy to be sort-of-good at it. At least compared to other sports. At any given distance, a mid-pack runner can run about half as fast as world record pace. 50% of a world record is equivalent to some average Joe hitting 36 home runs in the MLB or throwing 27 touchdown passes in the NFL.

Pictured: another thing that I can't do

10. Because it's hard to be really good at it, and that gives us all something to work toward.

I will never be as fast as this man, but that won't stop me from trying

11. Because a little bit of suffering is good for the soul. Most people would be better off if they felt a little more discomfort in their lives. After experiencing a heinous climb at mile 85 of a race, you realize that the minor annoyances in life aren't so bad.

Pictured: a large amount of pain

12. Because it lends itself to analysis, and I have an unhealthy obsession with Excel spreadsheets.

Behold my insanity!

13. Because you get out of it exactly what you put in. Obviously genetics are a huge factor, but in general, runners who work harder perform better. There are no shortcuts. You can't cheat the clock. No excuses, no matter how valid, will improve your time.

But my feet hurt real bad!

14. Because beer. I don't know why, but ultrarunning and craft beer are inextricably linked together, and it's a match made in heaven. Plus, the amount of calories I burn from running mean I can drink beer guilt free.

Shower beer is best beer

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Heaven and Hellbender

Saturday, 3:24am - 23 hours elapsed

I walked into the Curtis Creek Campground aid station at mile 80, hours behind schedule. I was tired, sore, nauseous, and - for some reason - hiccuping uncontrollably.

"That -hic!- whole section was -hic!- bullshit," I informed my crew.

I collapsed into a camp chair and pondered how best to unfuck myself, while I held my breath in a desperate attempt to cure my hiccups.

I still had to complete a 4,000 foot climb and descent to get to the finish.

What the hell is a Hellbender?

Established in 2018, the Hellbender 100 is a rugged trail race in highest mountain range of the Eastern US. With multiple summit elevations over 6,000 feet and valleys under 2,000 feet, the Black Mountain Range is uniquely capable of offering the kind of massive sustained climbs and descents that are typically only found in western mountain races like Hardrock or Wasatch.

View of the Black Mountains from The Pinnacle
Photo from hellbender100.com

With five separate climbs of 3,000 feet or more, and many smaller climbs in between, Hellbender boasts an impressive 26,000 feet of total ascent. Adding to the difficulty is the heat and humidity of North Carolina in the spring. As ultramarathon aficionado Walter Handloser said, "It's almost as if someone took a Colorado race and wrapped it in a southern skin. Then deep fried it."

Hellbender 100 race map

The race starts in the small western NC town of Old Fort and climbs north into Pisgah National Forest, where it makes three loops before returning back to Old Fort.

Hellbender 100 profile

The climbing and technical terrain is heavily front loaded, i.e. the highest and rockiest peaks are primarily in the first half of the race, which led me to believe that I could possibly negative split if I ran a smart race (spoiler: I didn't).

Okay, but what actually is a Hellbender?

Despite sounding like a Dungeons and Dragons character, a hellbender is a rare giant salamander found in parts of Appalachia.

A wild snot otter hellbender
Photo by Ryan Wagner

This magnificent beast is also affectionately known as the snot otter, lasagna lizard, mud-devil, or grampus. So kudos to the organizers for choosing the most badass of these monikers for their race. I don't think I would feel nearly as cool running the Snot Otter 100.

The Pinnacle of the Race

After an 11 hour drive to NC and not nearly enough sleep, I found myself standing under a starting banner in a rural Boy Scout camp. With an understated "okay, go" from RD Aaron Saft, we were off into the darkness.

Start of the Hellbender 100
Photo by White Blaze Marketing

I started at the back of the pack and watched as dozens of headlamps disappeared into the darkness ahead of me. I settled into an easy trot and found myself side by side with Billy Richards and Walter Handloser, who are both attempting to set the record for most 100 mile races completed in a calendar year. Let me tell you there is nothing more humbling than finding out that your "A Race" for the spring is just number 13 out of 50 for these guys.

Nevertheless, it was comforting to find myself in their company since these two know how to pace 100 miles better than just about anyone on the planet. Consequently, when we found ourselves dead fucking last at mile four, I didn't worry too much about it.

At mile 5, the course began it's first climb, a 7 mile 4,000 foot ascent of The Pinnacle. Unfortunately, any momentum we had was shattered a quarter mile in, as a massive train crossing stopped us in our tracks for a full two minutes.

To be completely honest, this is not ideal

Although two minutes is nothing in the grand scheme of a 24+ hour race, it's difficult to be patient in situations like this. I joked to the other runners that if I finished in 24:02, I was going to be pissed. Thankfully I would miss my time goal by much much more than that.

Despite the sun peaking over the mountains in the distance, the temperature dropped steadily as we climbed, and the wind became more intense on the exposed Heartbreak Ridge Trail. The weather reports had shown a chance of thunderstorms all day, and I stopped to put on a long sleeve shirt. Hypothermia is one of the leading causes for DNFs in ultramarathons, and I wasn't about to take any chances this early in the race.

I passed the time by talking to other runners about random things. I picked Walter's brain about the upcoming Ouray 100. I thanked Billy for making my frequent racing look pretty reasonable by comparison. An XOSKIN ambassador told me way too damn much about the gear he was wearing. That kind of stuff.

The last few pitches of the climb grew increasingly steep and technical, which was a sign of things to come. With a final 500 foot push, we summitted The Pinnacle, an island of rock overlooking a foggy green landscape.

View from The Pinnacle on a clear day
Photo by HikeWNC

The wind was brisk, and I only stopped for a moment to appreciate the view before heading back for the tree line. I checked in at the Blue Ridge Parkway just below the summit in 57th place of the 81 starters. The descent was a rocky, muddy, slippery mess, but it was made much more tolerable by the company of two badass ladies: Lee Conner and Michelle McLellan. Lee was running her third ultra in three weeks and Michelle had just paced her husband for 50 miles the previous weekend. Clearly I'm not the only trail runner that has issues with moderation.

Despite their lack of rest, these ladies pushed the pace on the descent, and we dropped a handful of 9 and 10 minute miles, which is pretty quick for me in a 100 mile race. Lee occasionally ran backwards or sideways so she could talk to me more easily while she ran. The general format of our conversation was:

Lee: Hey Ryan!
Me: Yeah?
Lee: Have you ever thought of running [race XYZ]?
Me: Maybe some day...
Lee: You should do it! It's great because [many legitimate reasons].

Needless to say, my bucket list of races has now doubled after spending a quarter of this race with these women.

"Thick thighs save lives" —Alex Thorpe
Photo by Vasu Mandava

After a two hour long 4,000' descent, we reached the Curtis Creek Campground aid station for the first time. It was now 10am, and the weather was starting to heat up, while the humidity from the storm clouds overhead made the air sticky and oppressive. I downed a few cups of the most delicious strawberry avocado smoothie I've ever had (mental note for future races), refilled my water bottles, and got back on the trail.

Meeting Mrs. Snook and Mr. Mitchell

Lee and Michelle were in and out of the aid station faster than me, which was impressive since I like to treat aid stations like a NASCAR pit stop. I caught back up to them at the trail head. Immediately I was thankful to have their company again as we began a 3,000 foot climb of the Snook's Nose Trail.

The first mile of Snook's Nose gains 1,063 feet. But it's actually much steeper than that since there are a handful of flat sections mixed into this ascent. The footing was muddy and slick, and I leaned heavily onto my trekking poles for extra traction. This single mile took 29 minutes, and it felt even slower. The trail "leveled off" after this and only gained 725 feet in the following mile, and eventually we found ourselves passing the increasingly higher summits of Snook's Nose, Laurel Knob, and Green Knob.

Easing into Neal's Creek
Photo by Valerie Thorpe

The ladies bombed down the jeep road descent to Neal's Creek aid station, and I happily let them go. I pulled into the aid station in 38th place, feeling a little warm but otherwise not too damaged from the first two massive climbs. I met my crew for the first time here, which consisted of my mom and mother-in-law. I was more than an hour behind the schedule that I had given them, so I made a point of assuring them that I felt fine. The terrain was just more difficult than I had anticipated.

Back on the trail, we were faced with - you guessed it! - another huge climb. This time it was a 3,500 foot ascent of the Mt. Mitchell Trail to its namesake summit. Once again, I was relieved to have the company of Lee and Michelle to pass the time during this 2+ hour climb. An early highlight was Michelle's story about meeting some random guy at a race and bragging to him that she had finished 3rd at the Barkley Fall Classic. The guy would turn out to be John Kelly (of Barkley Marathons fame), although apparently he was very impressed by her podium finish.

Hazy view from the Mt. Mitchell Trail

The other highlight of the climb was when I got enough cell reception for a quick phone call to Alex, who was working back in NJ. I let her know that I was doing well but was way behind my time estimates. Getting to talk to her was great for my mental state and helped keep my mind off the ever increasing heat (and the fact that I was working just a little too hard on this climb).

After a few hours straight of 20+ minute miles, we reached the summit of Mount Mitchell, snapped a few photos of each other, and headed down to the aid station just below the summit. I inhaled an avocado wrap (another mental note here for future races), gulped down as much water as my stomach could handle, and got back on the trail for a wild traverse of the Black Mountain Crest Trail.

View from the summit of Mt. Mitchell

The Black Mountain Crest Trail had a distinctly Catskill-like quality, which made me feel right at home but did not make the terrain any easier. The footing was extremely rocky, steep, and damp, and often required the use of all four limbs. The trail eschewed the use of switchbacks, essentially drawing a straight line between each of the highest summits in the Black Mountain range. Some of the particularly steep pitches had fixed ropes to aid hikers, and I made liberal use of these and any other handholds available to me.

Billy Richards at the start of the Black Mountain Crest Trail
Photo by White Blaze Marketing

The ridge was blanketed by an ancient and dense spruce-fir forest, which retained the moisture evaporating from the ground just as effectively as it held out the rays of the sun. The summit clearings occasionally offered brief vistas into the distance, but the view was mostly the beautifully dark primeval forest.

In just over three miles of trail, we had climbed and descended seven of the highest peaks on the east coast: Mt. Mitchell, Mt. Craig, Big Tom, Balsam Cone, Cattail Peak, and Potato Hill. Then it was time for a brutally steep and rocky descent on the Colbert Ridge Trail, which is perhaps best known as one of the signature descents in the Quest for the Crest 50K.

It took a full 90 quad-killing minutes to reach the bottom of this 3,500 foot drop. I had gone just 15 miles since the last time I had seen my crew, but that section had taken well over 5 hours. With 13+ hours elapsed and over 15,000 feet of elevation gained in the first half of the race, I felt like I had just completed Manitou's Revenge, but I still had another 50 miles of running ahead of me. I had moved up to 21st place, using the technical descent to my advantage and passing a few other runners at aid stations.

It was at this aid station that the first of several strange things happened to my body. As I was fiddling with my watch, the tip of my thumb randomly started to bleed. I hadn't cut it on anything, but blood was gushing out fast enough that droplets were falling on my gear as I sorted through it. As far as I can figure, the skin was just so waterlogged and/or raw from using trekking poles that it split open. Weird. But not the weirdest thing that would happen to me before the end of the race.

Bumbling on Buncombe

While the Black Mountain Crest Trail was difficult because of its lack of switchbacks, the Buncombe Horse Trail suffered from the exact opposite issue. Or rather, I suffered from it. This climb was 5 miles of switchback hell. Here is my GPS track from two miles of the climb.

Buncombe Horse Trail map

Some of these switchbacks felt like they were four steps long. Step, step, step, step, turn, step, step, step step, turn, and repeat until dizzy. At one point, I stopped to take a picture just so I had something different to do. Here you go:

Sunset from the Buncombe Horse Trail

At least we had sort-of-a-view of the sunset.

At the top of the climb, we were rewarded with... muddy and waterlogged ATV trails. Seriously, fuck this whole trail.

Despite several miles of flat terrain after the climb, the footing was so soggy that it was impossible to run. I slogged along at a pace barely faster than a walk. Thankfully this traverse from hell was broken up by an aid station staffed by an amazing group of ladies who had hiked in a giant bowl of bacon! This was a nice little mental and physical boost since my Tailwind nutrition was starting to disagree with my stomach after 16+ hours of running, and I needed calories badly.

The descent was slow and unmemorable, except that I ran into Walter again. He was taking his time, unwilling to push too hard and jeopardize his next 37 (!) upcoming 100 mile races. Unfortunately, he passed me on a small uphill, and that would be the last I saw of him in the race.

I arrived at Neal's Creek aid station for the second time, now in 16th place. It was nice to see my mom and mother-in-law after such a frustrating section of the course. I sat for a few minutes to talk to them and collect myself, but apparently I was still quick enough for another crew to comment that I looked like a man on a mission.

A cool shot from earlier in the day
Photo by White Blaze Marketing

Then it was back out for a "short" 1,000 foot climb and a few "rolling hills" until I would see them again.

Lead Legs on Leadmine

I realized half way up the "short" climb that I was running out of steam. My calorie deficit was starting to catch up with me. At the top, we crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway, and I sat down on a rock and chatted with a course marshal while I nursed an energy gel, desperately trying to add some fuel to my sputtering engine.

The "rolling hills" after this would turn out to be a nightmarish series of 30% grade climbs and descents on a ridge line known as the Leadmine Trail. Each one was about 100-200 feet high, which turned out to be just short enough to completely kill any rhythm I could establish. My quads screamed on every descent, and my lungs couldn't keep up on the climbs. I was falling apart.

After what seemed like an eternity on this three mile section of godforsaken trail, I began the gentle descent down to Curtis Creek Campground. Unfortunately, this is where my body began to stage a full scale rebellion. For the first time in my life, I got the hiccups while running a race. And not just gentle funny little hiccups. These were violent to the point where I could barely keep the contents of my stomach in place. I tried to hold my breath to get rid of them, but my oxygen starved brain threatened to shut down. Not wanting to pass out on a remote trail, I slowly walked into the aid station.

I was greeted with cheers and bright lights, but my enthusiasm for this adventure was fading.

"That -hic!- whole section was -hic!- bullshit," I informed my crew.

I collapsed into a camp chair and pondered how best to unfuck myself, while I held my breath in a desperate attempt to cure my hiccups.

Once they subsided, I tried to eat anything and everything that was offered to me. Soda? Yes please! Pizza rolls? Why the hell not? Another strawberry avocado smoothie? Now we're talking!

I stayed in that seat for a full 10 minutes, which probably beats my previous record by a factor of two. By the time I got up, my stomach was full and my quads and hamstrings had completely seized up. I shambled back onto the trail looking so zombie-like that my mom considered throwing me in the car and ending my race for me. Ah, a mother's love!

Shambling into an aid station late in the race
Photo by Vasu Mandava

Happiness is a warm rock

The next four hours of climbing (that hurts to type) were not pretty. A quarter of the way up, I started to fall asleep while hiking. I couldn't keep my eyes open, and I started to veer from one side of the gravel road to the other. I spotted another runner behind me and decided that I would get some sleep and that he would be my alarm.

I found a nice flat rock in the middle of the trail, sat down with my head on my arms, and promptly fell into a deep sleep. The sounds of the nearby river faded away, and I even had a short dream.

"Hey, are you okay?"

It was my human alarm clock working to perfection. I had been asleep for probably 30 seconds, and I actually woke up feeling a little refreshed. I'll make another mental note of that for future races.

The two of us slogged on together in silence for the next few miles. I got ahead of him briefly, but had to stop and sit down when my hiccups returned. My body was clearly using every weapon at its disposal to tell me it wanted to stop moving.

With 27 hours elapsed in the race I reached the top of the final climb beneath the summit of Bald Knob. The sun had risen on the second day of the race, and all that remained was a 3,000 foot descent on Heartbreak Ridge, following the initial climb of the race.

I downed another energy gel and willed my legs to start running after four solid hours of hiking uphill. They responded slowly and painfully, but they responded nonetheless. A 14 minute first mile gave way to an 11 minute second mile and then another one.

All of a sudden, I was legitimately moving well for the first time in hours. Apparently, even after 27 hours of running I'm still able to magically pull a fast downhill finish out of thin air. I passed the handful of runners who had just passed me on the previous climb, and then I picked off a couple more for good measure.

With a half mile to go, I put my foot on the gas... and promptly lost sight of any trail markers. Had I made a wrong turn in my enthusiastic descent? I backtracked a quarter mile to the last intersection and spotted a pink ribbon just before the turn but nothing after it. Which way was I supposed to go? I followed the other trail for a few hundred feet but didn't see any markers there either.

Well screw it, might as well pick a direction, I thought as I retraced my steps in the initial direction I had gone. Finally I spotted a ribbon ahead, and just beyond it was the finish line. I ran across with a big smile on my face despite the anticlimactic final mile. I was finally done!

Last few steps of the Hellbender 100

My final time was 28:45:26, which was almost four hours slower than my goal but still good enough for 14th place.

Closing Thoughts

I cannot thank my mom and Julie enough for taking four days out of their very busy lives to support me at this race. You ladies were a huge reason why I was able to finish this monstrous race! I would also like to thank Aaron Saft and the other race organizers for designing and implementing such an audacious event.

The Hellbender 100 is a beautiful and brutally difficult race. Talking to Aaron after the race, he was proud of the amount of technical terrain that they had packed into 100 miles of trail. With some time to think about it, I'm glad that this race challenged me as much as it did. I learned how to dig myself out of some unique situations that I have never faced at a race before (random bleeding, hiccups, sleep deprivation, nutritional deficit). And in keeping with my theme for the year, I spent more time on this course than in any other race in my life.

I was initially disappointed with my time until I looked up the results. Had I finished in my anticipated 25 hours I would have been fourth overall, which was probably too ambitious given my lackluster training during the winter and spring. That being said, I would love to go back and give this race a more honest effort next year. With better training, better race day execution, and a little bit of luck, I think I could negative split this race some day (that's a lot of talk from someone who ran a five hour positive split!).

So take notice, Black Mountains: I intend to come back next year with my A Game. Better bring yours too!

Friday, May 31, 2019

Swimming the Sea of Rocks at Tammany 10!

Felsenmeer...

A sea of rocks.

Felsenmeer
Photo by Elizabeth Azze, Mountain Peak Fitness

From that sea, a massive wave rears its head. Known as Tammany, it dominates the region like the powerful Lenape chief whose name it bears.

Mount Tammany from across the Delaware River
Photo from Wikipedia

The Tammany 10 is less a race than a challenge. The concept is simple. Two trails climb to the summit of Mount Tammany from the Delaware River: the steep and rocky Red Dot Trail and the slightly-less-steep-but-still-very-rocky Blue Trail.

Mount Tammany loop

For normal people, climbing the Red Dot and descending the Blue makes for a scenic 3.3 mile day hike with about 1,200 feet of climbing.

Those who are dumb brave enough to sign up for Tammany 10 must reach the summit - you guessed it - ten times. Adding in an out and back from the start/finish area every two loops makes this a 38 mile race with 12,000 feet of climbing and an equal amount of descent.

The resulting elevation profile looks like a fine tooth comb:

Tammany 10 elevation profile

Tammany 10 is the premiere trail racing event in NJ, and likely the only true mountain race in the state. I had volunteered at the aid station there in 2017 and 2018, since grilling quesadillas by the Delaware River seemed like a much more enjoyable use of a Saturday than hauling myself up a mountain ten times. In 2019, my FOMO got the best of me and I finally signed up.

As is tradition...

I woke up on race day morning with a sore throat and my head in a fog. In what I hope will not turn into a pattern, I had picked up a cold a few days earlier, but it seemed to be subsiding. I downed a shot of DayQuil, popped a zinc supplement, and hoped that my daily bucket of coffee would put some pep in my step.

The weather for the race was perfect... well, by my standards anyway. It was a brisk 24°F with 29 mile per hour winds. For those of you keeping score at home, that's a wind chill of 7°. For my stocky, prone-to-overheating body, that's as good as it gets. A light snow had fallen overnight, depositing just enough powder to make the course look pretty. I started the race with a thin long sleeve shirt, shorts, and gloves. I would go on to finish the wearing less than that.

At 6:35am, we set off on our challenge, 61 goddamned idiots bold adventurers.

I quickly fell back to the midpack as runners surged around me on both sides. It took me a few minutes to regulate my breathing since my cold had left me a little congested. Thankfully trail runners are unfazed by snot rockets and obnoxiously loud throat clearing. After an all-too-brief runnable section, I took out my trekking poles and set to work on the mile long 1,019' ascent of the Red Dot Trail.

One of the nice things about Mount Tammany is that the climb has numerous vistas along the way, including a 180° panoramic view from the summit. I tried to remind myself to take in all of these sights during the climb, since the descent offers no chances to relax and look around.

View of Mt. Minsi from the summit of Tammany in 2018

Once at the summit, it was time to put our heads down and focus on the ground lest we become one with it. The descent is relentlessly steep and technical for about a mile, before leveling out at the banks of Dunnfield Creek.

A runner negotiating the felsenmeer at the summit
Photo by Elizabeth Azze, Mountain Peak Fitness

After tap dancing downhill for what felt like hours (I just checked - it was actually 13 minutes), I reached the creek and caught up to Mendy Gallo and Kathleen Cusick, two of the most badass ladies you'll ever meet. I knew I was pacing myself right if I was in their company. Together, we finished the descent and got to work on the second climb. They were both moving well, and their enthusiastic conversation helped pull me along the climb. We reached the summit together, and I pulled ahead for the second descent of the day.

And so the pattern for the day began. Climb, descend, and repeat.

After every second loop, we made a short out and back to the start/finish area to check in with the race directors and grab our nutrition. The aid station was staffed by NJ ultrarunners Alex Galasso and Steve Lange, the latter of which holds the second fastest Tammany 10 finishing time ever. Needless to say, these guys knew how to get runners in and out of the aid station with everything they needed. If you're reading this, thanks for your help!

Since the remaining loops all pretty much run together in my head, here are some highlights from later in the race:

  • Seeing Mike Siudy just ahead of me and Mendy just behind me on every out and back. Too bad we didn't just run together since we all finished within a 20 minute window.
  • Hearing "Ay girl, you look good in them shorts!" and looking back to find Jay Lemos lapping me late in the race, running in first place. He had finished 2nd overall three times in his prior four Tammany attempts.
  • Chatting briefly with 2nd place runner Brian Rusiecki on one of the final laps and realizing that he was not going to catch Jay.
A very happy Jay Lemos after winning Tammany on his 5th attempt
Photo by Elizabeth Azze, Mountain Peak Fitness

Let's finish this thing up, shall we?

After running steadily all morning, I found myself at the base of the final climb. Only 3.5 miles and 2,400' of elevation change separated me from the finish. I had 57 minutes left to finish the loop if I was going to finish under my goal of 9 hours (okay, my A goal was to beat my buddy Ryan Espulgar's time of 8:45, but that wasn't going to happen).

If you've read my race reports before, you know the drill. Head down, ragged breathing, and probably a worse smell that usual. I wouldn't say that I red-lined on the final loop, but I was definitely orange-lining it, if that's a real thing. I didn't want to push myself too hard since I had a 100 miler in three weeks and I also didn't want to overexert while sick and end up passing out on the trail and having to be rescued.

After a 48 minute final loop, I jogged the final road section and crossed the finish line in 8:57:06, good for 7th place. Mike and Mendy both came in a few minutes behind me. Mendy had finished first woman, with the second fastest women's time in the history of the race! We quickly changed out of our gross racing clothes and spent the rest of the afternoon eating freshly grilled food, sipping on beer, and enjoying the sunshine.

Video from Mountain Peak Fitness (featuring Jay sending it! on his final descent)

You gotta pay the piper

It wasn't until I got home that night that I realized just how sick I was. It turns out that I had the flu (like, the actual kills-a-bunch-of-people-each-year flu), and the race effort inhibited my recovery quite a bit. I was up all night with chills and full body aches, and I didn't run for the rest of the week. So, I guess racing was a stupid decision. But sometimes you just have to send it!

On the bright side, this race gave me some confidence going into Hellbender 100. I had gone from 21st place after two loops to 7th place by the finish, and I had the smallest differential between my fastest and slowest double loop (6min 55sec).

Three weeks later, I would run the Hellbender 100. Stay tuned for more details.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Dry heaving my way to a finish at The Frozen Snot

"Aaaaaaaack!"

That's the sound of me dry heaving mid-run at the Frozen Snot 14 mile race.

Without breaking stride, I deposited a mouthful of last night's dessert (peanut butter ice cream, thankfully) onto the pristine white forest floor. I glanced at my GPS. Mile 1.9.

This was not going to be my day...

Picking my way up Barb's Kiss My Ass, mile 1.5
Photo by Mike McNeil

The Frozen Snot

The Frozen Snot is a race whose course is as ridiculous as its name. A true sky-race in the heart of central Pennsylvania, Frozen Snot is part trail run and part winter mountaineering expedition. Case in point, the trails were originally cut by local athlete Fred Stover so he could train to climb Mont Blanc.

The course packs a hefty 5,800 feet of climbing into just 13.5 miles, but that doesn't tell the whole story. The first 1.4 miles and the last 2.2 miles are on flat gravel roads, which means almost all of the climbing is actually done in under 10 miles of trail. But that still doesn't paint an accurate picture of what this course looks like.

Elevation profile

The steepest climbs require the use of all four limbs, and the steepest descents are equipped with fixed ropes to help keep runners upright. Due to the insane grades and the fact that the course is frequently covered in snow on race day, Frozen Snot is likely the only half marathon in existence that requires runners to carry microspikes or other traction devices. Perennial race winner Matt Lipsey eloquently summed up the course as "14.5 miles of bullshit."

Course map. Look at all those contour lines we crossed!

To add insult to (very likely) injury, the race is held on what is often the coldest weekend of the year.  This year was no exception as the temperature was a brisk 5°F when we toed the line on the morning of February 2.

With all that in mind, let's get back to the action.

Race Day, 3:00 AM

After hitting the snooze button three or four times I finally crawled out of bed, already tired after a night spent mostly in the bathroom. For reasons still unknown to me (karmic justice for posting stupid running memes on Instagram?) I contracted a nasty stomach bug 12 hours before the race and dealt with debilitating nausea and stomach cramps for the rest of the weekend.

As I shambled around our apartment gathering race gear, Alex wisely tried to convince me to sit this race out, but I insisted that we both run. There is a good reason why women outlive men. So despite her protests, we packed our bags and headed off on our 3 hour drive to McElhattan, PA.

I tried in vain to eat a bagel en route but my stomach somersaulted every time I swallowed a bite of food. I would have to make due with just liquid nutrition for the rest of the day.

A Rough Start

Somehow at least 273 people were crazy enough to sign up for this race, and we left in a mass start from the parking lot of a rural US Army Reserve Center. We had 1.4 miles of road running to warm up and sort ourselves out before entering the woods.

Up until my stomach issues arose the previous day, I had envisioned a top 10-20 finish at this race. I had hiked the course as a training run last winter, stopping for snacks and pictures along the way, and finished in 4.5 hours. I figured with a little effort, I could take 30 or even 60 minutes off that time. After all, this kind of shitty terrain is my specialty.

But when the starting gun went off, a mass of humanity sprinted forward jockeying for position and I could only waddle slowly behind them, fighting the urge to vomit onto the runner in front of me. I reached the first section of trail in about 100th place and stopped to put on my spikes. I then joined the conga line of people ascending Barb's Kiss My Ass, which climbed 1,022' through a boulder field in just 0.47 miles (40% grade).

Climbing was a welcome reprieve from the jostling of the initial run, and I managed to pass a handful of people on the narrow trail. However, with a foot of snow on the ground, the only way to move efficiently was to stay on the packed track left by the runners ahead of me. So mostly I just settled in and made slow steady progress.

Conga line on Barb's KMA
Photo by Dave Seasholtz

At the summit the trail flattened out briefly, and the transition back to running caused me to regurgitate the mouthful of melted ice cream that starred in the prologue to this story. I clenched down with my core muscles and tried to force everything else out, hoping that an empty stomach would be a happy stomach. No such luck. This would be the theme of my race: unproductive painful dry heaving whenever I tried to run.

Nevertheless I got to work on the ensuing (unnamed) downhill, which dropped 750' in 0.36 miles (-39% grade) through hard packed snow. These are the types of descents where speed depends less on athletic ability and more on a willingness to sacrifice your health and safety. I trusted my microspikes and leaned into the descent, careening past a dozen runners in only a few minutes.

Then it was time to gain all of that elevation back again on Goat Path Extension, which was 817' in 0.44 miles (35%). With the field spread out a little more, I was able to maintain an honest hiking pace while occasionally grunting words to the people around me.

Fixed ropes on Lightning Bolt
Photo by Dave Seasholtz

After another brief summit and another mouthful of my stomach contents spat into the snow, it was time to descend Lightning Bolt, which was a leisurely 1,002' in a mile (19%). This is about the grade of the trails that I train on at home, but any advantage I had was negated by the knot I felt in my stomach every time I tried to open up my stride. My ego was bruised as a couple runners passed me like I was standing still, chatting casually about how the trail felt "flowy." I politely disagreed.

Bridge at the bottom of Lightning Bolt
Picture from last year's training run

At the bottom we crossed a half frozen creek on a makeshift wooden bridge before climbing and descending Gut Check, which was more of a speed bump than an actual hill at only 136'. Then it was just a short flat jog through Laurel Run, a winding trail through dense mountain laurel, before we reached the first aid station at mile 4.8, more than 90 minutes into the race.

Drowning My Sorrows

I've seen my share of aid stations at trail races, and let me tell you that this one made a lasting impression. It was small by necessity, as everything had to be packed in on ATVs, but the selection was impressive. Two large folding tables were set out. One had the usual aid station fare along with bacon that was fresh off the campfire. The other was filled - absolutely filled - with different kinds of Fireball whisky, from the original cinnamon flavor to a Fireball RumChata concoction.

Aid Station 1
Photo by Dave Seasholtz

The bacon seemed like too much for my tender belly to handle, but I figured a shot of cinnamon liqueur might settle it a little. It went down easy, and I considered chasing it with another shot but then opted not to push my luck.

Onward and upward, quite literally. We climbed a short but nasty embankment called The Avenue which overlooked the aid station. At 335' of vertical gain in just 0.13 miles, The Avenue is one of the steepest sections of the entire course at a whopping 49% grade. Thankfully the lead runners had kicked footsteps into the snowy hillside which my spikes easily bit into. The sound of laughter and the smell of fresh bacon wafted up from the aid station the entire way.

After a short rope-lined descent down Debbie's Drop (477' in 0.42mi, -21%), we arrived at Why Not?, also known as Backside of the Beast. Despite being one of the longest climbs of the race, it was a manageable 24% grade, climbing 1,048' in 0.84 miles. I passed the time chatting with other runners on the way up and before I knew it we were standing at the summit of Mt. Logan.

Next up was the most difficult descent of the race: Mt. Logan Direct. This monster of a slope dropped 1,358' in 0.82 miles for an average grade of -31% and a peak grade much worse than that. A half dozen fixed ropes lined the descent, and I made liberal use of each and every one of them as I careened downward. I passed a handful of people who clearly valued their lives far more than I did. I also spotted at least one safety volunteer, who presumably was there to collect the shattered corpse of anyone who lost their footing.

Speaking of which, I would be remiss if I forgot to thank the dozens of volunteers who stood out in the cold all day. From the aid station workers who provided vital alcohol and pork products, to the course marshals who kept us from wandering aimlessly into the vast wilderness, everyone was cheerful and enthusiastic despite the frigid temperatures. Thanks guys and gals!

But back to the descent...

Strava shows that I covered this section at a 16:58/mi pace, which makes it sound like I was walking. But the speed I took this descent felt like 5K pace. My feet could barely keep up with my body as I half ran, half stumbled down the steepest face of Mt. Logan.

Once back on flat ground at the bottom, my stomach cramps returned and I was passed back by the last two people I had passed on the descent. I shuffled along the short stretch of gravel road leading to the Zindel Park aid station.

Prepare Ye

Convinced that any food I ate would immediately be un-eaten on the trail, I passed through this aid station without stopping and re-entered the woods. At the trail head was the following sign:

Prepare ye to meet The Beast

The course description lists The Beast at 1,300' of vertical gain over 2,900' of horizontal distance, or 45%. Strava claims that it is slightly less steep than that. Whatever the truth is, The Beast lives up to its name. The final and single largest climb on the course, the Beast ascends a boulder field parallel to Mt. Logan Direct before gaining a steep wooded ridge back to the summit of Mt. Logan.

This is the type of grade where it's hard for me to pace myself since even a slow walk makes my heart rate skyrocket. Luckily, I was following a woman who reminded me to take in the views of the mountains behind us. I didn't take any pictures of them, but I did quickly snap the first and only mid-run selfie of my life. Please enjoy my ice beard:

This race lives up to its name!

Now I'm pretty sure most of that ice is just from my breath condensing on my facial hair, but there's also a reasonably good chance that there is literally frozen snot in there too. So my experience truly lived up to the spirit of the race.

Back to work on the climb...

Here's what it looks like when you're fully in the grasp of The Beast, taken during my training run last year.


And here is what my sorry ass looked like to everyone else.

Meeting The Beast
Photo by Mike McNeil

But the difficult part of the Beast isn't the boulder field. It's when you get to the top of the boulder field and you realize you're only half way up. These are the moments that make you consider getting into basket weaving as a hobby instead of mountain running.

But luckily my legs felt good since I hadn't been able to run hard all day, so I made decent progress up The Beast and finally found myself standing at the summit of Mt. Logan for the second time. I took a few steps forward before my stomach rebelled yet again. So I walked for a little while. When everything settled, I ran a little, then felt terrible again and walked. This cycle repeated itself many times on the final descent, and I left a series of small peanut butter scented puddles on the white snowy trail the entire way down.

I passed through Zindel Park aid station again and was finally on the home stretch. A few hundred yards ahead, I saw a familiar neon yellow jacket. It was Alex, who was finishing up the 9 mile short course!

Alex looking characteristically cute on Barb's KMA earlier in the day
Photo by Dave Seasholtz

In a grand romantic gesture, I snuck up behind her and called out "Ay girl! You come here often?" Despite this, she was still happy to see me, and we jogged the last few miles together.

We crossed the finish line holding hands in 4:25:43, good enough for 41st in the long course and 47th in the short course respectively. I was three minutes slower than my previous training run, but I had a great experience and got to run two miles with my wife!

Done!
Photo by ‎Kirsten Ebeling-Labant‎

Epilogue

Pennsylvania does not mess around when it comes to building trails, and they take their post race food just as seriously. The Reserve Center was filled with pizza, soup, and other hot food. But I wasn't ready for solid food and Alex wasn't in the mood for any of their offerings, so we just collected our race swag (whisky glasses and fleece blankets!) and hit the road.

Mile for mile, Frozen Snot is right up there with the Barkley Fall Classic and the Swan Song Loop in terms of difficulty. The trails are as steep as anything you'll find in the Presidential Range and running this race in February gives it a true high alpine feel even though the high point is only 2,100 feet.

So ends our first experience with Pennsylvania trail racing. We can't wait to come back in better shape next year and give this race hell!