Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sucking it up at the Cat 50K (2012)

(My 2014 race report is available here)

The Hype

Heading into my first Catoctin 50k, I read all the reports. The rocks, the heat, the lack of tolerance for sniveling, whining, whinging.  True, all true.  So how to do a race report without falling into the covert complaining trap?  Here goes.  And I'm really more than half serious, too.

Festival of Rocks

Yes, they are with you the whole way. Big dry boulders to hop across. Wet slippery boulders in the stream crossings.  Little pebbly rocks that move around underfoot, usually in unexpected directions. Football-sized immovable rocks that do not not move, that crowd together and keep you constantly off-balance, that seek out and bruise any unprotected area of the foot.  An infinite variety of rock types.

But the technical demands of the Cactoctin trail are not unrelenting.  There are sections of a good 30 to 40 yards where the terrain levels out and you can really open things up and get into a groove.

Heat and humidity

Just an average hot humid day in 2012, peaking out around the low 90s (I think). Normal hot, not one of the must-be-global-warming crazy hot days we've been having this summer. I tried to think of it as a nice warm bath on a cold day. That went pretty well until the hour, when the sun came out full force and I overheated.  Icewater, a popsicle, and a little walking did wonders.


All that stuff Kevin says about no sympathy, no frills, "I don't care," etc?   Well, someone didn't tell the volunteers, who go above and beyond to take care of runners on the trail. They are informed and knowledgable as well as solicitous (eg, "are you keeping up with your electrolytes?").


I saw one race report complaining about the lack of scenery. Well, it's true, you don't see anything but trees (and rocks). The race is basically a hot, humid, green tube with terrible footing. This just means you don't have the distraction of beautiful vistas, which only lead to rubbernecking and possible dangerous falls.

Getting lost

The blue trail blazes are pretty good, actually.  The overwhelming challenge of the Cat 50K is keeping mental focus. Lose it, and you may go down, or go astray. Inevitably, the mind strays...and too bad for you if that happens at a trail intersection. I did fairly well, given the statistics of lost souls. I lost maybe two minutes on a short side trip, then maybe another 10 when I missed a sharp left turn in the latter part of the race.

Post-race festivities

Fantastic post-race party. Good conversation and good company.  War stories, past and present.  I'm glad my stomach was "on" today, because after the race I enjoyed the best veggie burger I've every had. I'll never go back to frozen supermarket veggie burgers after experiencing this grilled masterpiece of burger, avocado, and shitake mushrooms.

My race

Dropping from 13th place near the final aid station, I ended up 18th place, in something like 6 hours 34 min, a slew of people passing me during the last climb.*  Ugh.  Considering the goal was--well, I didn't have a goal, except not to do anything stupid.  Felt great until the final set of climbs, when I overheated and had to walk for a few stretches and douse myself with water to cool down. The big triumph for me was finally mastering that Rubics cube of fluid, electrolyte, and nutrition--for this particular gut, anyway. Nausea and GI issues have been the bane of my ultra existence thus far, so getting it dead-on right under these conditions gives me a lot confidence for cooler fall races.

*After the race, I was not showing up on the results, so I wrote to Kevin, who replied right away that he was on a cross-country motorcycle trip for 2 weeks--then he somehow fixed the issue from the road.  Another example of how you get way more than your $25 worth in this race.

Cat 50 vs. Promise Land 50k smackdown

During the race, in one of those mental "wandering" periods, I found myself thinking about whether Catoctin or Promise Land was the more difficult race.  All things considered, I'd have to say that PL is the more physically demanding race, but Catoctin is the more mentally demanding.

Some respect, please

I'd take issue with one blogger who wrote that the Cat 50 was not good training for a longer ultra, presumably because the rocks kept things slower.  That's nonsense.  The Cat 50 above all teaches mental focus.  Focusing on the moment, on your surroundings; paying attention, for hours on end.

Everything about this race also teaches you the virtue of positive thinking and collective effort.  In other words, of turning off ego and self-regard and self-pity, and turning outwards towards the world and others.  Enduring not just the big physical tests, but all the little physical insults of the trail and the weather. These are pretty key attributes for ultra runners.  Or for anyone at all.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Blue Crab Bolt 10K Race Report--Fast, wet, and slippery

The 10.8 K course, which they seem to change up every other year, is just plain fun.  First in the Blue Crab Bolt series, it takes place on trails in the Clopper Lake area of Seneca Creek State Park in Maryland.  I know these woods well, but normally experience them at the 4 or 5 hour mark of a long weekend trail run.  

For those of us used to covering trails at an ultra-runner's snail pace, flying along these short twisty single-track races at 10k pace is like playing a fast-paced video game.  Rock, root, branch, slippery bridge, TREE.   This soggy, blessedly cool oasis of a July day provided an extra hazard in the rain-slicked bridges, some of which you had to literally stop running and walk on tip toes. (And by you I mean cautious middle-aged guys, worried about twisted knees.)

Start out in a field, strung out in a line reminiscent of those high-school cross-country mass starts of yore.   Funnel quickly onto a road that bends downhill for a good mile or so before swiveling left onto single track through the woods.  All trails to the end of the race.   First, Great Seneca Trail to 2.5; hit some big slippery rocks and do a little almost-falling dance; then Long Draught Trail for a bit; Mink Hollow Trail for several more; then in the last 1.7 miles onto Lake Shore Trail, past the Boat Center, round a corner, then all of a sudden (so it seems) head  up the finishing chute.  

My strategy: semi-blast the downhill to get a good start, cruise through the first several trail miles, pick it up and push home.  For once, it pretty much played out that way for me. That's me in #13, a very satisfactory performance for this unspeedy runner & a great tune-up for the Great Rocks of Cactoctin adventure this Saturday.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

One hundred miles for Fundación Prótesis Para la Vida

Looming ahead in the personal annals of ill-advised adventures is something called the "Grindstone 100," which will take place on October 5-6 (potentially to Oct 7) later this year.  More on this monstrous undertaking below.

First, a word about the whys and wherefores, and an appeal for your help.  (A link to the online pledge form appears at the bottom of this blog.)

The Cause for which I'm running: Fundación Prótesis Para la Vida

What has kept me going more than three decades as a runner is at bottom a simple love of movement.  What has fueled the last two years as an ultra-runner is a childlike compulsion I never quite got past to explore the world on my own two feet & see what lies over the next hill.   So it is disquieting to me in the extreme to think how easily mobility can be taken away from any of us at any time.

I think of mobility as a fundamental human need as well as a right.  Yet poverty prevents many people from obtaining the prosthetics they need.  One of the organizations founded to help those who could not otherwise afford mobility is Fundación Prótesis Para la Vida (Prosthetics for Life), based in Ecuador.  Some of their patients (not the very young ones pictured here, obviously) have waited decades for a prosthetic limb.

Prótesis para la Vida is a very small organization, with bare-bones administration and facilities.  Your pledge of support will therefore go an astonishingly long way.  It will go directly to those who need the help.   As they explain on their website, for the same budget as a single below-knee prosthesis in the United States, their clinic is able to provide something like thirty equivalent prostheses to patients in Ecuador.   Prótesis para la Vida also provides low-cost adaptive designs:  aids such as standing desks and other equipment, ingeniously constructed out of cardboard and other affordable materials, to improve everyday life for patients.

In honor of Jennifer Lee Knowles (1965-2012)

To be honest, when I run now, I am often running with those who are gone.  My good friend since college, JenLee was a remarkable person in so many ways.  Smart, compassionate, and tireless, she served as the U.S. Coordinator for Prótesis para la Vida.   There's a moving tribute to JenLee and her work in Ecuador provided on the website.

There's also an inspiring report on the first JenLee 5K, held last March in the shadow of the Imbabura Volcano.  The photos of participants, including prosthetic patients among the runners, gives you a good sense of what the work of  Prótesis para la Vida means to the community.  I think this race is an appropriate legacy for JenLee.  An avid climber and mountain biker for many years, she could be scarily tough and resilient.  Those qualities certainly shone brightly throughout her struggle with the serous carcinoma that ultimately took her life.

The Grindstone 100 Mile Race

This excursion through the Virginia mountains adds up to a little bit over 100 miles (101 point something, as if that matters) and includes some nice little "hills" amounting to an elevation gain of 23000 feet.  The unusual feature is that you start out at 6PM, just as the sun is setting, with a good 12 hours of running through the night on single-track trail.  Then there's another day of running--and for most runners, another sunset and another night on the trail.

I am duly humble about my chances.  While I've done the 100-mile distance a couple of times, and I've done the mountainous 50 km to 50 mile races, combining the massive climbs with the century distance is terra incognita for me.  Plus, you can't trust mountains.  They call the shots.  They make their own weather.  What is passable terrain one day, is a slough of mud and rocks the next.

Please pledge your support

Here's the deal.  You fill out the online pledge form now, promising X amount per mile actually completed.  After the race, once I recover consciousness and stop eating pizza, I will send you documented proof of my finish (or portion thereof) plus the link to Prótesis para la Vida.  A PayPal link (with alternatives) will be set up so you will be able to make a donation in the appropriate amount directly to them.

Online pledge form here.  It's fast, it's easy, you can pledge what  you like (a penny a mile, ten bucks a mile) and I won't sell your info to marketers!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Highland Sky 40 Miler, An Appreciation

I'm calling this an appreciation rather than a race report.  If you want a blow-by-blow, I-did-this-I-ate-that-I-got-this-split-at-AS4 kind of report, there are several good ones out there.

Let's start with what was for me the emotional--and I think literal--high point of the race, Aid Station 7.  Pictured is AS7's brilliant crew of volunteers, who obviously love their job, and made mine so much easier.  When you get to this stage of the course, around 30-something miles, you know in your bones why HS40 has been called "mile for mile, the hardest on the East Coast."  So says David Horton, and that's high praise indeed.  The man knows from hard. 

At AS7, you still have the aptly named vertiginous "butt slide" ahead, but you've survived the worst: the 2000 foot climb in the first 8 miles, the subsequent battering descent through rocks where you lose most of that altitude, and the re-climb back up to Aid Station 4.  Starting at AS4, you point your toes due north and follow the long and wearying "road to the sky" (aka Forest Road 75). I actually enjoyed this section.  It gave me a mental and physical break before stepping back on the Bear Rocks Trail at AS6. 


<----Road to the Sky 

Entrance to Bear Rocks Rocks (AS6)---> 

Race director Dan Lehmann has said his aim was never to design the hardest course in the East.  I believe it. The course exudes his depth of feeling for this extraordinary area of the country.  Tough is a side effect, not the point. There must be some rule of nature that says that the most beautiful experiences will also be the most extreme.  Or, perhaps we're wired to perceive the beautiful and the sublime just when we need it most.  As an AS6 volunteer put it, "you don't need to feel good to appreciate pretty."     

Pain, loss, survival, and indestructible beauty--all appropriate descriptors for Dolly Sods.  The odd name comes from the German family name Dahle, and "sods" just mean an area of bare boulders and grassy heath barrens.  At over 4000 feet, the strangely un-mid-Atlantic terrain of Dolly Sods is like nothing else in this region of the country.  That idiosyncratic spirit extends to the climate. Dolly Sods has a tendency to make its own weather (plan for rain--the mild weather of 2012 was surely a fluke!). It is a place of acidic bogs, blooming mountain laurel, club moss, ground pine, unexploded ordinance from WWII, and (rather unexpectedly) giant ant hills. Whole meadows not of grass but of ferns wave you into patchy forests of red spruce.

All this beauty hides a sad secret. The mostly treeless barrens are reminders that the Scottish highlands sort of feel to this place is the result--like the Highlands--of environmental devastation. Logging, mining, and deliberate burns changed the face of the landscape so profoundly that the fertile topsoil was sometimes lifted away entirely. The forests are slowly returning. This is a place of regeneration.

I'll be back, for sure. I was thrilled with my performance, running one place (46) better than my age (47). If I can keep up that pattern, by 75 or 80 I'll be phenomenal.

If you go, be sure to unwind in the twin towns of Davis and Thomas. Davis has the excellent Hellbender's Burritos (pictured above is the X-files diorama in the men's room), and Thomas has the classy Tip Top Cafe (formerly Hypnocoffee in the old Davis location).-->>