The universe operates in terms of cycles – or seasons as I like to call them.
This applies to obvious things in our environment – like the changing weather throughout the year; as well as other things like relationships that come – and go – and then come back together again, businesses that thrive – wither and then come back to life, or as was the case of my White River 50 experience, emotions that go from good – to terrible – to oh my god I’m gonna die – to great….all over the course of a few hours of racing.
The seasonal nature of things plays in out so many ways.
I’ve seen this enough in my own life that I know it’s how things work. Sometimes the seasons play out over the course of a few hours. Other times it takes many years…but they always do play out.
Acknowledge the seasons and know that when things are not going so well…they are bound to improve. Likewise, when things are going great – take the opportunity to “prepare for winter” – that is to say, remember your successes and draw on them stay strong and confident in your purpose when things become challenging. This is where journals become powerful tools, as do vision boards, affirmations or regular meditation on a positive intention.
The White River 50 Miler was totally awesome. I signed up for the race many months ago, but the week prior if you asked me if I was going to run it, I would have laughed at you. I was dealing with a few injuries and still not recovered from Ironman CDA. However, a subtle but important mental shift made all the difference.
Instead of thinking about this as a race or some kind of extreme endurance event. I simply though about it as “just a fun day in the mountains.” I literally told myself this out loud. Good thing I live alone or my roommate would have thought I was psycho! Eventually, I came to truly believe what I was saying and I totally realized that doing the event was not only possible, but it could actually be sorta fun.
I also managed to give my friend Sean a little prodding…and he decided to run it as well (on practically no training!). It also helped that two good friends Charles and Jenny were also signed up to run. My game plan was to just go as far as I can without risking any major damage to my body. I was fully prepared to drop out if I thought I would injure myself.
The course was 44 miles of single-track trail (the other 6 miles are on a dirt fire road) in the pristine White River wilderness near Mount Rainier (in the hills surrounding Crystal Mountain Ski Resort). The views from the course are mind-boggling good. Many times I caught myself just staring off to the right or left – with epic views of Mt. Rainer and the Cascades.
Besides being gorgeous, the course is gnarly. In terms of sheer elevation gain and general course difficulty, it rivals the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon in my opinion. What makes CCUM a little tougher is not so much the course, but the weather (it was over 100 degrees in some parts of CCUM) and the general remoteness of the race and travel involved in getting there.
White River has ~10,000 feet of climbing split into two MASSIVE CLIMBS followed by crazy long descents.
I can’t overestimate these climbs. It felt like running up Mt Si (for those of you in Seattle you will know what I mean) and then some….and then running down about the same distance…then repeating that effort! For veteran ultra trail runners this might not seem like a ton, but for me it was.
Sean’s blog has a great image comparing the White River course to the Boston Marathon with its infamous “Heartbreak Hill” that is worth checking out.
I’ll break down the race into Pre-Race, Race, Post Race and Lessons Learned.
Found a last minute room for the race at the Crystal Mountain resort. It was a few miles from the start line, and right where race registration and other pre-race stuff was happening. Very convenient!
My gear (pictured below) was pretty basic. With weather predicted in the mid-70’s to low-80’s and sunny, I was planning to wear a t-shirt (North Face Flight Series) and shorts (Nike running shorts) along with a visor and sunglasses (they sat on top of my head most of the day since the course was mostly shaded). I wore my Inov-8 Roclite 295’s for the first 37 miles (hilly and gnarly trail) and Brooks GTS Racers for the final 13 miles (downhill and flat/smooth trail).
Fueling Strategy (250 calories per hour). I wanted to stick to simple food and get most of my calories in via gel to prevent any stomach issues and maximize absorption. Some people want sandwiches and real food (cookies, chips, etc) during these race (and the aid stations are stocked with this stuff!) but I try to stick to simple sugars. I fueled on:
Hammer Gel (in flasks, run with 1 flask and the rest in drop bags). I went through 15 servings of Hammer Gel along with 3 GU packs from aid stations.
GU Chomps (in drop bags). I went through 6 bags of chomps.
Hammer Endurolytes (2 per hour – more if sunny/hot)
Cola (after 37 miles – provided on course). I consumed about 32 oz of cola in the last 2 hours.
Coconut water (in drop bag at 32 mile point). I consumed an entire 32 oz Zico container.
Banana pieces (at aid stations). I consumed 4-5 pieces.
The course has a ton of aid stations, with the options for dropbags at a bunch (like 6-8 places) along the course. Still, it was recommend that runners use two handheld bottles (or the equivalent) to get them through longer stretched. I wore an Amphipod 22oz handheld and a waist-belt with two 10oz Amphipod bottles and a pouch to carry GU Chomps and Endurolyte tablets. I was very happy with this approach.
I used three drop bags. In each I placed 2 packs of GU Chomps, in 2 of them I had spare socks (only ended up changing socks once), and in the last drop bag I had a different pair of shoes (a pair with more cushion for the long 6 mile descent after the second climb – around 37 miles in). I also had a liter of coconut water in a drop bag…that I snagged at around 32 miles in (halfway up the second climb).
The race featured all kinds of cool (and random) swag….in addition to a t-shirt and socks, we got a drink “cozie,” a pen, an umbrella and a trucker hat (at the finish)! Much of the swag was provided by SCOTT sports, who sponsored the event.
The pre-race meeting was held in a small bar right in the little lodge/hotel we were staying at. Pretty cool vibe. A lot of people seemed to have already run the course at least a few times. With around 300 entrants (240-something actually ran), this was the biggest field yet.
Ate a massive pasta dinner at the pre-race carbo load and hit the sack early to prepare for the 6:30am start. Both Sean and I decided to forgo the “early start”..convinced that we wouldn’t need to worry about hitting the time cut-offs…we had 13 hours to finish the course officially (14 hours with an early start). I ended up regretting this decision later on during the day. More on this later!
After hitting the porta potty and getting drop bags in their appropriate spots, I headed to the race start – a dirt road along a flat mid-forest airstrip for small aircraft (a giant grass field). I positioned myself towards the middle of the pack, along with my friends.
Miles 1-4 to Aid Station #1 @ Camp Sheppard: I trotted along with my friends, and the whole field was just running in a giant pace-line it seemed. I kept my eyes on the trail and the shoes in front of my as we meandered along pretty flat and winding trail. The pace was totally slow and comfortable – on purpose! In one spot there was a downed tree to climb up and over, but overall this trail was pretty straightforward. I almost tripped about a dozen times….and realized I needed to really pay attention to the trail and not zone out. We rolled through the first aid station around 4 miles in – I topped off a water bottle and carried on. The whole time I focused on taking in Hammer Gel and staying relaxed.
Miles 4-12 to Aid Station #2 @ Ranger Creek: This stretch of trail begins flatish…then the first mountain climb of the course begins! Over a six-mile stretch we climb almost 3000 feet! If you aren’t sure if that is a lot or not…let me just say that it is. It’s like climbing more than the height of Mt. Si (Seattle-ites will know what I mean). I focused on nutrition and hydration, power hiking any of the uphill portions and running short stretches of flatish trail throughout the climb. I was right next to Sean for most of this portion of the run and he kept me entertained (as well as another runner) a very long joke that took like an hour to tell 🙂 .
Miles 12-17 to Aid Station #3 @ Corral Pass: Think the first climb was done? No way! The first couple miles of this stretch continue climbing for another 400 feet, then it flattens out to a rolling section along Corral Pass. Epic views of Mt Rainier and lush valleys almost make the pain go away. There is an out and back section here where you get to see where the competition is. During this stretch I felt quite good, running most of it. I saw some more friends, including Barefoot Ted during the out-and-back portion. There was some snow on the course, but they did such a great job building snow steps and putting in some fixed lines that it wasn’t much of an issue. My Inov-8 Roclite 295’s did an amazing job keeping me firmly grounded.
Miles 17-22 Aid Station #4 @ Ranger Creek: We continue the out-and-back portion of the trail, and then begin a long descent…6.8 miles on a single track trail! At first it was a relief to be running downhill. After a mile this thought changed as my legs were starting to totally fry. I took a few short walk breaks on the downhill to let my feet/quads recover.
Miles 22-27 Aid Station #5 @ Buck Creek: The downhill continues and at times Sean and I wonder if we are off trail or something. There aren’t many other runners around and it seemed crazy to run downhill this long. Well, it is crazy to run downhill this long, but we were not off trail! Eventually…..we hit flat ground, thank goodness, and emerged near the race start area to take on more aid. I felt better after a few miles of flat ground, and Sean pulled ahead of me a bit so I was pretty much on my own here. Felt fine overall and started to mentally prepare for the second mountain climb to come – which is over 8 miles long!
Miles 27-32: Aid Station #6 @ Fawn Ridge: After a few miles of flat terrain, we began to climb. I caught up with Sean and my friends Charles and Jenny also caught us. We power hiked together up the mountain. This mountain was a little shorter than the last one, but steeper! After taking aid – and refilling my water bottles with coconut water from my drop bag (it’s amazing stuff…need to do this again next time, and at my next Ironman race) I powered through and kept climbing. I felt good and decided to push a little harder, breaking away from my friends and pushing up the climb. At this point time-wise I was a little nervous of the aid station cut-offs. We were about 1 hour ahead of the aid station cutoff time at this point….this race really had a pretty aggressive required pace to avoid being pulled from the course. Maybe I should have taking the early start after all? This would have given an extra hour of cushion to finish. Oh well…nothing I can do about that right now.
Miles 32-37 Aid Station #7 @ SunTop: Does this climb ever end? It went on and on and on and on. At one point some mountain bikers passed me and I asked how much further and they said “you’re almost there…maybe a mile at most.” Total Liars!!!! 🙂 That climb kept going for eons. I powered through, eventually emerging on Sun Top, enjoying the epic views of the mountains and downing some watermelon, filling my shirt and hat with ice and changing my shoes into a more cushioned road shoe (Brooks GT Racers). I was still over an hour ahead of the aid station cut-off. The next 6 miles would feature a long downhill on a dirt road. At this point, I really did feel relieved since I knew that I would finish the race no matter what.
Miles 37-43 Aid Station #8 @ Skookum Flats: I knew this part of the course would be challenging for me. I’ve been battling Plantar Fasciitis since CCUM and while it wasn’t affecting me so far, this long downhill on a dirt road was scary. I started running down the hill, and after half a mile had to stop. My feet felt like they were going to explode. Over the course of the next few miles I did more walking than running, and tons of people passed me. Fitness really didn’t mean anything at this point….my feet just couldn’t handle the pounding. At points I was walking backwards to take the pressure off my feet. Sean caught up with me and we made it down to the end of this segment together, as he was also battling some IT band issues.I again started to worry about missing the cut-off time for the next aid station.
Miles 43-50 TO THE FINISH! Once we hit the aid station at Skookum flat, Sean waved goodbye and hammered the final stretch in a successful attempt to break 12 hours. I loaded up my water bottles with Coke, and walked the first 1/2 mile along the flat and well cushioned trail. By this time my feet had recovered and stopped throbbing, so I started running. I felt better and better every mile so I picked up the pace, reeling in many runners that passed me during the long downhill. After a seemingly endless 7 miles, I emerged onto a road and gave it everything I had for the last quarter-mile into the finish.
Final Time =12hrs 13mins 54secs (201/244 runners).
What I love about ultras is the everyone just seems to hang around for a long time at the finish. Even with my late finish, all the athletes were still there, including the top finishers (many of whom congratulated me and the other finishers!). This kind vibe is unique to the sport. There was a great potato bar with tons of toppings and other food for refueling.
The first thing I did upon finishing was take off my shoes and sit down. My feet were so sore I could hardly walk, but the rest of me (my legs in general) felt surprisingly good! I’m looking forward to getting this plantar fascia problem solved. Even the next day, my feet were the most sore part of my body. My legs recovered surprisingly quickly – though I still feel like am a little more tired than normal during hard training sessions – and it has been a couple of weeks since the race. It will probably take a full month to feel 100% normal.
Barefoot Ted once told me that running 100 mile is like living a lifetime in a single day – with all of its ups and downs. I’ve never done a 100 miler, but I can say 50 miles of running/power hiking has that kind of feeling and definitely takes you to places you don’t go in typical daily life. All kind of emotions come up unexpectedly. I went from feeling pretty darn depressed at mile 38 to feeling re-energized and ready to rock and roll by mile 45. Things go from bad to good to worse to amazing – sometimes in the course of 10 miles! Knowing that things will get better when you feel like crap is powerful knowledge and can power you through some really tough times. This great quote I blogged a few weeks ago came to mind several times during the run:
Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn -Harriet Beecher Stowe
I witnessed the power of staying present to what was around me, and not getting caught in any kind of negative self-talk. Staying positive is absolutely critical. At one point in the race (around mile 32), I was hiking with a man who had done the race several times and was a veteran ultra-runner. He was talking constantly, and often just complaining about stuff and generally not being positive. After 10 minutes I had enough, and pushed ahead fast to get away from him and his negativity! Staying upbeat when positive is that important when you are pushing that hard.
In terms of nutrition and fueling, when all else fails – really nailing nutrition is so important and can help you finish a race that you have no business finishing 🙂 . I made a nutrition plan, stuck to it – and had no issues with digestion or hydration. I also learned that coconut water is like liquid gold during a hot race and coke is jet fuel and worth drinking plentifully during the final couple hours of a long event.
My last lesson is that conventional wisdom – the kind that says you need to run a lot and be super healthy to run an ultra – is totally wrong. I came into the race with a bum knee and feet, but did what I could to get healthy before the race and approached it with the attitude of just enjoying the day in the mountains and seeing what would happen. Things ended up working out for the best – but I was fully prepared to drop out if my health was at risk.
I think a lot of people can complete these kind of events – and they should not let someone else tell them they haven’t trained enough or aren’t ready for it. If you really want it bad enough you can do it. I am totally convinced that any reasonably fit human being can complete a 50 miler with a marginal amount of training. Just go into the challenge with a positive mindset.
Even more correctly stated, life is an ultra-marathon and not a sprint.
Ultra-marathons are often held on rugged terrain in all kinds of weather and conditions. It’s rare when you run an ultra non-stop from start to finish. Pacing is critical. You learn to take advantage of flats and downhills to run, and conserve energy on climbs by walking often. Fueling is also critical: with hydration, electrolytes and steady flow of calories.
You go through all kinds of highs and lows in these races…people talk about the proverbial “second wind”. In an ultra you will come across a second, third and maybe even fourth or fifth “wind”! Staying positive (through self-talk and encouraging others on the course) is key.
Life mirrors this.
Proper rest and nutrition are critical to performing well at work and in my ability to be aware during the day (nothing like low blood sugar to get me day-dreaming!).When I eat a lot of garbage I don’t perform well at work and my relationships suffer.
I push through the lows – challenging projects, conversations, etc. – knowing that things will get better if I just stay focused and keep making progress. It really does help to stay positive even when things don’t go well in the short-term…..knowing that the long-term successful outcomes are often preceded by bouts of short-term struggle.
I shouldn’t call this a race report since the objective was less about racing and more about experiencing the culture and the beauty of the Copper Canyon region of Mexico. Arriving at the starting point of the race involved 2 flights, a 2+ day ride in a van and an 18 mile rugged and hot hike down into the canyon town of Urique. The days prior to the race were filled with intense hikes and general overload of the senses with a new language (Spanish) new food (quintessential mexican) and new people (both Urique locals and Tarahumara Indians). I ended up finishing the event, which was my goal. It took me 12.5 hours, far longer than I hoped – but I don’t care too much about that. Crazy and unexpected things can happen after pushing the human body for many hours.
I had an amazing time and plan on returning next year. If you are at all considering doing an ultramarath0n or even visiting the Copper Canyons – I highly recommend it. I felt totally safe the entire time, and see that much of what I had read in the news about violence and killings and foreign travelers being at risk was overblown. Do your homework before going, but also recognize that the popular media is really good at creating attention grabbing headlines that aren’t always indicative of reality.
Day 1: There are many ways to get to Urique Canyon. My method was definitely not the fastest, but it was cost-effective, safe and made for a good chance to meet other interesting people. I flew into El Paso and stayed overnight at a Motel 6 with another racer that I met online. The hotel was clean and safe, and 12 of us were all meeting here to board a van driven by Doug “Diego” Rhodes, who operated a hotel near Urique and served as a guide to visiting gringos. The next morning we awoke to the sight of a large white van parked outside. We immediately wandered out to meet our fellow adventurers. It was exciting to meet the people we would be spending the 10 days with! Everyone was super cool, including a large contingent from Seattle, two people from Ohio, one from California, three from Utah and one from new Mexico. Amazingly, it turned out that 4 people in the van were vegan!
Day 2: We headed south and immediately crossed the border uneventfully (there is rarely much traffic heading south, but always traffic coming back to the US). Heading through Juarez was not a big deal. It’s been tagged as “the most dangerous city in the world” by popular media but it seemed just fine. We past plenty of trucks filled with armed guards, humvees and dudes with machines guns on the streets (military) – but I didn’t see this as much different from other places I’ve been to in South America (Lima or Quito in particular). Diego made sure we moved swiftly through the city.
We departed Juarez after a quick stop to exchange money and continued heading south through a flat and windy desert, stopping in the small town of Cuatemoc for the night. The next day we continued driving to Diego’s hotel…which is more like a ranch. It’s in a beautiful part of the country, with rolling hills pierced by rocky cliffs, pine tree forests, bright blue skies all the time and an elevation of 6000 feet. Here we met Caballo Blanco himself! Caballo is the race director and all around supporter of the Raramuri people (also know as Tarahumara, Raramuri is their traditional name), he would be our guide into the canyon and make sure everything was cool leading up to the race. He is an incredibly genuine and nice dude.
Day 3: The next day we had an off-day, and we welcomed some additional travelers joining us at the ranch. All-told, 27 gringos’ met up at Diego’s place! In the morning I led a yoga class to help get us loosened up. Various groups spent then spent the day exploring. My group went on an adventure that had us hiking and scrambling up the side of a mountain near the ranch. We hit the summit where there was a large flat plateau and started running! We explored a bit and eventually spotted a trail that descended the other side of the mountain toward a small town. We took the trail and made it down into the town, and returned back to Doug’s place via a dirt road. In the afternoon. A few of us went out on another hike to visit Tarahumara burial caves, complete with lots of human bones.
Day 4: After lots of food and a night’s rest, we prepared for our departure to Urique, which required an 18 mile hike up and over a mountain ridge, and down-down-down 5000 feet into the heart of the Copper Canyon. Our luggage would meet us in Urique via van. All 27 of us loaded up on tons of water and food and proceeded on the hike. It was gorgeous, one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done. We spotted hawks, buzzards and wandered close to some “grow fields” if you know what I mean. The temperature rose sharply through the hike – well into the 90’s. The trail was at times steep and made of loose slippery rock pieces and dirt. The adventure had begun!
After 13 miles we hit a part of the trail where Caballo let us loose to run the rest of the way into town if we wanted. It was another 5 miles or so, and a bunch of us took off. It was a tough run for me. I was super dehydrated from the heat and my legs had absolutely no energy. I trotted along slowly and eventually made it into town. The first night I stayed at Entre Amigos, run by a gringo named Keith, with about 10 other racers. It was a gorgeous property full of tropical fruit trees bursting with fresh fruit (papayas, grape fruits, oranges, lemons, limes) and a super huge garden that all guests were allowed to raid at will. He had a bunk house with dorm style beds and a few double-bed room. He also had a bunch of campsites. I opted for a campsite, and since I didn’t have a tent, I just slept with my sleeping bag on top of a tarp under the shade of a mango tree and the stars! We had free use of the kitchen – and cooked out own dinner of fresh beets and kale from garden, with rice, salsa, tomatoes, avocados and tortillas we picked up from a small store in town.
Days 5-6: My friend Jim from New Mexico and I opted to move into a clean and simple hotel room right in the heart of town. Staying at Keith’s was nice but we realize that sleeping on the floor would get old after a few more nights. We got a room with two double beds and a private bathroom at what was dubbed “the nicest hotel in Urique” for 300 pesos per night (less than 30 dollars).
The next two days featured hikes of the entire course, led by Caballo. You might be thinking…”Hey, isn’t it crazy to hike the entire course in the days before running 50 miles?” The answer is absolutely yes!!! Which is why I chose not to do the hikes :). Others did do the hikes, covering 18 miles one day (first major loop of the course) and 22 miles another day (second major loop of the course). The last 10 miles were a repeat of part the first loop and they skipped that. A second reason why I didn’t do the hikes is that I was feeling incredibly sick the day after our hike into Urique. I was massively dehydrated and had a raging headache most of the night. I opted to lay-low and rehydrated. I went out for a 20 minute run in the heat to help acclimatize on each day instead. After a couple of days I felt back to normal.
Day 7: Rest, eat, sleep! This was a true day off. The town was buzzing with energy as Raramuri hiked in from all over the canyon. More gringo’s arrived and it was fun just walking around town and meeting people. I led a little impromptu yoga class in the town square which was fun. We had an audience of Raramuri watching us!
The course featured three loops of 18, 22 and 10 miles – that all begin and end right in the heart of town. In terms of course severity – the overall conditions made it by far the most challenging terrain I have ever run on. Technical trails. Rocky dirty roads that made it tough to run fast even on the flats or downhills. Searing heat (it was over 90 degrees for most of the course, and probably hit 100 in certain spots). Some crazy long and steep climbing. That said, many other gringos who were veteran racers of 100 and 50 mile ultras said the course wasn’t that bad as far as 50-milers go, and that the total elevation change wasn’t super hard (9,000 ft total climbing). It’s all in the eye of the beholder I guess :).
Loop 1: The 18 mile loop had a 10 mile out of back along a dirt road (note: all dirty roads here are riddled with rocks, they aren’t nice and smooth roads like we have in the USA!). This stretch had a bunch of “death hills” (as Caballo likes to call them). The next 3-5 miles was an epic climb on technical single-track up a mountain followed by a winding and long descent on a dirt road back into town.
Loop 2: The 22 mile loop to Los Alisos features a long flat 6 mile stretch on dirt roads before climbing brutally up the side of a mountain for several miles. This part of the course is very hot and exposed with little shade. After hitting an aid station 11 miles in, you turn around and run back!
Loop 3: The final 10 mile repeats the out and back “death hills” from the first loop.
The weather for the entire week of the race was hotter than normal, and race day looked to be the same. Hydration would be super important.
My gear was as follows:
Lululemon lightweight top
Lululemon running/yoga shorts (they have a liner….eliminates chaffing)
Bodyglide – use all over or suffer!
Amphipod 22oz handheld bottle
Amphipod waist belt with 2 x 10oz bottles and pouch for food/electrolyte tabs
Hammer gel flask – holds 500 calories of gel
Inov-8 Roclite 295 trail shoes
Ironman triathlon socks
Medical tape (I tape my pinky and big toes to prevent blisters)
Orange flavored Hammer gel bottle (big one) – use this to refill gel flask after each loop
Nuun electrolyte tablets – 9 tablets
Hammer Endurolytes tablets – 10 tablets
Cliff Shot Bloks – two packages
Cliff Bars – a couple in my drop bag just in case
During the race I planned to consume 250 calories per hour and I came in just under that in actuality. I took in 2500 calories total during race day, which was OK given that I was moving so slow for the last 10 miles. I was never really hungry during the race, and afterwards I was so tired I skipped dinner and fell asleep at 7:30pm! Not being hungry is a sign that I took in enough calories, though I was probably under hydrated a little.
I carried 40 ounces of water with me (handheld bottle and waist belt), with 1 Nuun tablet in the handheld bottle and the other bottles just plain. I carried Nuun with me and dropped 1 tablet in my handheld each time I refilled it (about 1 time per hour). I took 6 Endurolytes during the race – at random times and gave some tabs out to Raramuri that I saw cramping. A key strategy for me was to dump at least 10 ounces of water on my head and back every hour if possible. When I saw an aid station, I immediately emptied my bottled on myself before refilling. This strategy totally saved me from imploding due to the heat.
My calorie consumption was as follows
Loop 1 – 18 miles – 500 calories of gel, 200 calories of shot blocks, a ~3 banana halves, 5-6 orange quarters and 2 cups of pinole (ground corn mixed with water) at aid stations
Loop 2 – 22 miles – ditto
Loop 3 – 10 miles – 500 calories gel, 1 banana and 2 pieces of orange
My feet had zero blisters, which other folks found hard to believe while chatting afterwards. I’ve always had pretty resilient feet and been blister free for most of my running life. Also, the Inov-8 Roclite shoes are incredible and wrapping my toes in tape (it stayed on for the first 35 miles) helped for sure.
Guadaloupe Coronado and the Big Climb (~18 miles) aka “if you aren’t awake you will be now!”
Mile 1: The race start was 6:45am. The Raramuri are known for going out incredibly fast. It was crazy to see about 100 people take off sprinting as if they were running a 5K! The experienced runners (Raramuri included) stayed in the mid pack and waiting for the carnage to take place during the first major climb. I went out nice and easy as we cruised the flat paved road through town and onto a very rocky dirt road with mild rollers for the first mile.
Miles 2-5: We hit some major hills. Caballo calls them “death hills”. They aren’t that bad by themselves, but in cumulative they will crush you. At this point in the race I start walking anything that even smells like a hill! Some folks try to run even the long hills…I don’t know what they are thinking! The weather stays pretty cool and there are quite a few aid stations…about 1 every 2 miles or so.
Mile 6-8: We hit a turnaround point and retrace out steps. I notice that a lot of the locals are cutting the course! They are taking small trails that veer off the road and re-join the road later on. They aren’t saving that much time…maybe a quarter-mile at most, so I ignore it. The way I see it, I get to use my technical gear and they get to use home field advantage of local trails 🙂 .
I really begin to feel that this course if harder than I thought. The footing is tough even on the dirt road, with tons of large and small rocks and sections with soft dirt/sand. It’s super tiring on my feet and lower legs. I start to get concerned about my ability to finish.
Miles 9-13: Turning off the dirt road, the technical single-track and climbing begins. I walk a ton of this…since we climb for what seems like forever. A bunch of people pass me…and then the field thins out a bit. There are no aid stations on the climb. I’m glad I brought both a water bottle in my hand and two 10 ounces bottles in my waist belt. I am pretty sure I’m not going to finish this race…I am just not in good enough shape and my legs are dead.
Miles 13-15: Finally…an aid station! I grab some oranges and some strange “bags” filled with water. They are like the milk bags we used in school, only filled with water or a Mexican sports drink called “Zuca.” I grab one bag and bite the end, squeezing the water in my mouth. I grab a few more and squeeze them into my water bottles. I grab a few oranges and a cup of pinole. Wow, that pinole is good stuff! The route descents down a twisting dirt road. At times the road is too steep for me to run comfortably, so I sadly walk parts of the downhill.
Mile 16: I round a corner and smell like someone is smoking a joint…a big a strong one. I look to the right and left and see no one in the fields. I keep running downhill and catch up to two young kids (they may have been Raramuri or local Urique boys, not sure) who have been racing since the start, they were about 1/2 mile ahead of me most of the race running in jeans, cotton t-shirts and sandals! They looked like they were 12 years old at most. I then notice they are passing a joint back and forth…I laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of being out-run by two young kids in jeans and flip-flops smoking a joint. I can’t make that up if I tried.
Miles 17-18: Reality sets in about how hard this course is. Caballo Blanco passes me with a big smile on his face and some words of encouragement. He is running light and smooth. I am assuming at this point that I am not finishing the race. My legs are totally trashed half-way down the descent and my feet really are super tired from all the rocks. Regardless, I need to run back to town so I continue on and feel better as we enter back into town to complete this big loop. I head to my drop-bag and refill my Hammer Gel flask and grab some more Nuun and Endurolytes. I decide to start the next loop and see what happens.
Los Olisos Out and Back Loop (~22 miles) aka “a run through the blast furnace”
Miles 19-25: I feel very good during the flat to slightly rolling stretch through the Urique river valley. I pass quite a few people, including a few “gringo’s” that were starting to feel the heat as the temperatures were climbing into the 90’s by now. There were several places to take aid and I enjoyed some banana pieces at each along with 2-3 orange wedges and a cup of pinole. I ran about 80% of this stretch, only walking a few of the bigger hills.
Miles 26-29: After crossing a suspension footbridge I begin the climb to the grapefruit orchards of Los Olisos. The temperature is climbing rapidly and I estimate that is hits at least 100 in this part of the course. The landscape turns into a moonscape devoid of much vegetation as I climb the steep trails. Footing is tough and the trail is narrow. I really struggle just to hike this section. Runners are going both directions on this trail and there are steep drop-offs at some points. I dumb water on my head all the time to stay cool. I’m diligent about taking Endurolyte tablets or dropping Nuun in my bottles. I pass out Endurolytes to a Raramuri who appears to be cramping badly. He is very thankful.
At one point I hit a steep and narrow part of the trail with a cliff on one side and a rock wall on the other. I’m trying to go one direction and runners are coming back at me in the other direction….and a Burro is also trying to navigate the trail amidst all the chaos. I go spread eagle against the cliff until the Burro saunters by and I continue on. Only in Mexico!
Miles 30-33: Hitting the turn-around point I am totally out of water. I ran out long ago and am very dehydrated. I drop some iodine tablets (thanks Mark!) into my bottles and refills at the one aid station (the water was from a nearby spring since they couldn’t carry bottled or bagged water up this trail). I laugh at the sight of the station being manned by a couple big security dudes carrying M16’s! I devour some oranges and carry on back down the mountain slowly. I am super tired and still worried about just finishing. Looking around though, I am inspired by the Raramuri, persisting with little gear or fuel – I keep moving on.
Miles 34-40: Completing the descent I retraced the flat section back to Urique, which is suddenly much tougher than on the way out! My feet are incredibly tired and I run about 50% of this section. I can’t believe that I am walking flat and even some downhill sections but nothing I can do about that. The weather is burning hot. I dump water on my head to keep cool at every chance I get. I run the last mile back into town and hit my drop bag for a refill of Hammer Gel and water. Looking at my watch I realize that no matter what I will finish this course, even if I have to crawl. I have enough time even if I end up needing to walk the last part of the course.
Guadaloupe Coronado Out and Back Loop (~11 miles) aka “death hills”
Miles 41-45: I run out-of-town for a few miles. I see people running the opposite direction towards the finish line. These folks are completing in about 9-10 hours. I’m very jealous! I see some friends and that is cool. Once I hit the first small climb I start walking again, and find running next to impossible. Ever little hill has become a death hill. Caballo was right!
Miles 46-50: It takes absolutely forever to get the turnaround point. All my energy goes into maintaining forward motion and the sun starts to go down and the weather cools. There are fewer people out on the course so there is less to distract me. I’m walking and walking slow. No more power hiking. I try running occasionally and it’s super painful. My friend Bookis rolls up next to me and that motivates me to jog again. We stay together through the turnaround, where I take aid. I tell Bookis (he ran the entire race in Luna sandals!)to not hang with me since I’m not capable of running any more. I continue walking most of the next few miles, and the darkness comes quickly. By mile 49 it is almost pitch black, with just the stars and moon out. I hit a dirt road and occasional trucks passing by force to move to the edge of the road to avoid becoming roadkill. They help to light my way. At one point I almost impale myself on a bull cow that happened to be standing in the middle of the dirt road…lucky for me I heard it’s moo in time!
Mile 50-51: I see the lights of Urique and run back into town. I actually feel a lot better now. Amazing how seeing the finish provides a great burst of energy! There were tons of people in the village, and they were having a finish/awards ceremony on a stage in the town square. There was no post-race tent or food stuff given out. In fact, when I finished it took a few seconds to even find one of the race volunteers to tell him I finished! Surprisingly, instead of him telling me my time he asked me what my time was! I was too tired to talk so showed him my watch, he wrote it down and said good job. 12:32:01. Several hours longer than I thought it would take, but no matter, I finished! I saw some other gringo friends: some recently finished and laying on the sidewalk in recovery while others had been done for hours. I gave some high five’s, took a photo and stumbed about 100 yards back to my hotel room, where my roommate was resting (he got food poisoning and didn’t race).
The Long Journey Home
The morning after the race we said goodbye to friends departing via bus, and then piled into our van for the long and hair-raising climb out of Urique Canyon via a 90 minute twisting dirt road winding its way up the mountainsides. We had an overnight stop in the small Mexican town of Cuatemoc before continuing on to El Paso. My flight home became more interesting when I missed my connection in Denver (after sprinting across the entire terminal!), resulting in another overnight stay! I finally arrive back home safe and sound.
This Copper Canyon experience is one I’ll never forget. I’m already planning on returning next year.
I’m going to expand on the first principle I stated in Part I, that I think the outcome for endurance events are more driven by factors beyond raw fitness than of fitness itself. Nutrition, mental focus, pacing, gear and other factors are just as (if not more important) than how high your VO2 max or lactate threshold is.
Let me explain. In my last 50K race, The North Face Endurance Challenge in Marin Headlands, I was never once out of breath on the course. However, I clearly suffered greatly and my result did not reflect my fitness. How could this be? Simple. I did the following things:
I went out way too fast, running the first 8-10 miles about 10-15% faster than I should have. It didn’t feel that way during the run, but in hindsight this was the case.
I bonked hardcore after 16 miles. I hit mile 16 having consumed a couple gels and a few pieces of banana and boiled potato. This might seem enough calories, but given the course severity it took almost 3 hours to get this far and that was way too few calories. Also, given I was running faster than normal my caloric burn rate was far higher than normal training.
I had terrible shoes for this course. I wore Mizuno Waverider running shoes. They are lightweight training shoes, meant for smooth pavement. I also wore them for the Ron Herzog 50K and realized they weren’t great on trails, but I didn’t remedy the problem. I was slipping and sliding all over, given how wet and muddy the North Face course was. Footing was a real issue during the race. I would slow down my pace at times and it just took way too much mental energy to focus on where my feet were going.
I ran carrying a single water bottle. Big mistake, as I slowed down in the second half of the race, I would run out of water/calories between aid stations and just suffer. Rookie mistake. I should have carried two bottles or used a hipflask system. Had I not bonked I would have been fine with 1 bottle, but the slower pace after mile 16 meant I was running/walking slow and needed more fuel between aid stations.
I wore a great Gore-Tex running jacked which kept my upper body warm, but my legs were freezing cold given the rain and the fact that I slowed so much. Studies show that cold muscled perform worse – far worse – than warm muscles. My legs were frozen for most of the race. This was of course exacerbated by my bonking and slower pace after mile 16.
Had I addressed these things by wearing appropriate clothing, using proper trail shoes, carrying more fuel and starting out more slowly (and using walk breaks early on); the result surely would have been very different! Live and learn! Addressing the non-fitness related variables has a big impact on race day. The longer you plan to go, my opinion is the more these other things count. Especially, bad footwear can easily take someone out of commission in an ultra-marathon (a bad blister or foot issue can bring down the toughest runner!). Same goes with an incorrect fueling strategy.
Will continue this multi-part post later.
Going for a 90 minute run on some flat dirt trails today. I trail tested my new Inov-8 Roclite 295’s yesterday. They are too small…back to the store they go!
This year I am getting back in racing. It’s been a number of years (since 2003 in fact!) since I’ve trained with any kind of regularity and raced while caring about place/time. It’s motivating to have clear goals again, and I’m looking forward to learning from many years of mistakes (I guess we call that experience?) and making this a fun and productive year training-wise and racing-wise.
Here are the primary events I have in the plan for 2011. IMCDA and the Portland Marathon are the major races. Aside from these events I might jump into a few Olympic distance triathlons or some 5K to half-marathon races as part of training efforts.
3/6 Copper Canyon 50 Mile Ultra Marathon (Goal = finish!)
4/30 Wildflower Half-Ironman Triathlon (Goal = finish and test race strategy for IMCDA, <6hours time)
6/26 Ironman Coeur d Alene MAJOR RACE (Goal = <11 hrs = <1:05 swim <5:45 bike <4:00 run)
7/30 White River 50 Mile Endurance Run (Goal = finish in top half of the field, <10 hours)
9/24 Black Diamond Half Ironman (Goal = top 5 in age group, <5:20 time would be nice!)
10/6 Portland MarathonMAJOR RACE (Goal = <3 hours and qualify for Boston Marathon)
11/5 Ron Herzog 50K (Goal = top 10 finish, <5:30 time)
12/3 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler (Goal = finish in top half of field, <10 hours)
I know many of you who read my blog also race…I’m interested to hear what you have on tap! Leave a note in the comments with your plans for 2011.
I’m super slow in sorting through all the wonderful pics and vids from my trip to the Galapagos and Ecuador. Hope to get a post up before the end of the year with a recap 🙂 .
Starting to do more strength training and speed-work; on the track, on the bike trainer and in the gym. It feels good! In my longer runs last fall (the Portland Marathon and both 50K races) it was clearly muscular strength holding me back not aerobic fitness, so I hope the heavy squats, deadlifts and track repeats will eliminate the bottleneck.
Yesterday I did my longest and toughest run ever, the Ron Herzog 50K (which ended up being around 32 miles, a little more than 50K). I stumbled upon it a week ago while looking for trail runs online and decided to give it a shot. This is a small race and when I showed up it seemed like a lot of the participants knew each other. I think around 50 people were there. The race FREE….with suggested $25 donation to support the ALS association in honor of Ron Herzog, an ultra runner who died of the disease.
I’ve been fascinated with the study of endurance for years. I am always amazed at people who are able to endure and outlast more than anyone else.
In the case of endurance, the best study is through direct personal experience. In my own experiences of pushing my edge – whether through racing Ironman Triathlons, cycling 200+ miles in a day or swimming across Puget Sound – I’ve discovered more about my self than through anything else.
By enduring, I’ve also stumbled across a few techniques that anyone – regardless of physical ability – can apply to significantly increase endurance.
“When you think you are about ready to quit….you’re only at 40% of your potential” – David Goggins
If you like this video short by L-Studio, you can read more David at his website. He is an active member of the Navy Seals and avid ultra-marathon runner and triathlete.
He took up endurance running fairly recently and as his first triathlon completed the grueling Ultra-Man (more than a double Ironman!). I love to see stories about people like David, who are shattering our limiting beliefs about the human potential.