Monday, September 20, 2010

Maturing at Pine to Palm

It took a lot of courage for me to approach the Seattle Bar aid station captain and say, "I'm calling it, I need to DNF, please cut my wristband." I had done everything right, I was on pace for a sub-24 hour finish, I was in 33rd and feeling fresh...with the exception of a left IT band that, 15 miles before, had blown up.

Drifting around a corner at Pine to Palm.

The day before we had arrived at our hotel in scenic Grants Pass overlooking the Rogue River. The Siskiyous are a sight to behold: rugged peaks carpeted by dense evergreens with golden field grass meadows and rock-strewn valleys. We drove to the Williams Grange for our pre-race briefing, registration, and dinner. There were a few hiccups (only two medical check-ins for all the runners), but as always it was a great opportunity to survey the field and meet a few new people.

I woke up at 4:00 to empty my system and get in a couple of Clif Bars and a banana. Arriving at the starting line at dark, most of the runners, myself included, slipped on a headlamp in case we arrived at the trails before sunrise (first six miles were run on paved and gravel roads). Like most of the other runners, I chose not to use my lamp and instead spent the first hour of the run in darkness. Within a mile, the pack had thinned out. I was behind a group that included the women's race winner-to-be Amy Sproston and ahead of a few individuals. Running relatively alone in the serene darkness across rolling hills through misty farmland was serene and relaxing. Fog hugged the ground while low stratus settled along the hillsides, the early-morning sky obscured by decks of high clouds. Smoke rose out of a few chimneys and some farmers were already beginning their day. I can't imagine a better first hour in an ultra. However, I felt my IT band pulling on my knee and hoped it would loosen up before the trail.

At the first aid station I topped off my bottle with water and descended two hundred feet into a meadow before reaching thicker trees and the first climb, a staggering scramble up to 7,500 ft with no aid station for over 11 miles. Right on schedule it started to drizzle at 7:00, though the trees protected us for the most part. I hitched onto the back of a train of relatively experienced runners, passing several folks who were already breathing heavily early into the climb. As we climbed above 3,000 ft, the leaves covering the trail thinned as we entered evergreen territory. By about 6,000 ft the underbrush had disappeared, with sparse poison oak and a few other ground-dwellers blanketing the mossy dirt between tall pines. The wind howled through the trunks, and at this point on the windward side of the mountain, we were above the clouds. Gazing over mammoth boulders and blown-down trees to the cloud and fog-shrouded valleys below was breathtaking. My breaths lost some strength from the subtle effects of the altitude. Suddenly the trees disappeared and a rocky crag came into view - the top of the first climb.

 I use rocket boosters on the downhill to eke out some extra speed.

Another runner and I were buffeted by strong winds and driving rain as we slid down a muddy and rocky scree to to the mountaintop meadow. As we reentered the forest we caught up to another pack of runners and slipped past them on the switchbacks. The ride down to the bottom was exhilarating with multiple stream crossings and twisty switchbacks. There were a few hair-raising moments as we skirted the steep slopes and rock screes on the single-track trail, which appeared to have given way at a few locations during stronger rainstorms and contributed to the piles of debris down slope. We kept expecting the aid station, but were instead greeted with trails peppered with fist-sized rocks, roots, and 20%+ inclines, the latter of which resulted in a lot of sliding on heels and more or less ricocheting off of tree trunks. I could feel my IT band pulling below my knee, but I figured that I could tighten the compression strap at the aid station and manage it for the rest of the race.

We caught up to another pack of runners, choosing to cruise with them into the station rather than try to overtake them. We were less than a mile out as we ran down stream gullies loaded with boulders and rocks. Without warning, a runner in front of me ground to a near stop and I piled into him, tumbling over his back and slamming my knee - my bad knee - into the broadside of a boulder, hitting the sore spot on the outside where the IT band attaches. I hobbled into the aid station with the other runners and we all hit the dirt and gravel road for a long 13 mile slog to Seattle Bar in the refreshing light rain.

 This illustration details the pain train that hit my IT band.

I quickly realized several things: my IT band below my knee was burning, it had started to feel stiff at my hip, and I could no longer kick my left leg back and had to adjust my stride to more of a shuffle. The latter was what worried me the most. I have a mid-foot strike and tend to pull my leg up and back with my hamstring, rather than bound and stretch it forward which would result in a heel-strike. That backward-pulling action very quickly became intensely painful, so I was no longer moving forward with the same strength as I normally would.

By the third aid station, I was not feeling good. I considered dropping, but the aid station folks said that it was fairly flat for the next seven miles to Seattle Bar and my IT band may loosen up and feel better. Four miles later, I my hip stiffness had turned into a mild pain and I could feel the tendon popping over both my hip and knee joints. The race took a turn onto a trail with two miles to the aid station. It was riddled with short but intensely steep hills, and I could barely get down the 50 foot descents without wincing. I pulled into Seattle Bar at just after noon, right on target for a 19:45 finish - that included the limping and the futile attempts to adjust my compression strap. While I talked with some people at the aid station, I realized that this was my race, and only I could make a decision about whether to drop or continue. I had spent the last three hours coming to grips with this reality, but it was still difficult.

Aid station volunteers are there to help you refill your bottles, but they are also there for psychological support. It just lifts your spirits to round a corner to cheers and happy folks doing everything they can to get you to the finish. But when the medical volunteers and other runners listen to you weigh your options and tell you, "it's better to cut your losses and have a two-week, rather than two-month recovery", you realize that it just isn't worth ruining your body. If this had occurred at mile 83, I would have had no problem saying "screw it" and just slugging it out for another several hours. However, I was not even a third of the way to the finish, had three nasty hills left, and already could barely stand running on the flats. If I managed to make it to the finish I would incur degeneration in my tendons and damage my bursae so much that recovery would take many months. Not only that, but the race would be miserable. Sure, you can say that ultras are all about misery and overcoming the pain, but the sore muscles and the psychological battles are transient and a different sort of suffering than a musculoskeletal injury. This was an expensive DNF, but in hindsight now, I recognize that my health is worth more than the entry fee.

Minus the injury, I had been doing everything right up until the moment I dropped out. Unlike the nutrition fiasco at White River, where I had only managed to consume 800 calories by mile 26, I packed in a whopping 2000 calories by mile 31, more than doubling my calories per mile and leaving only a minor calorie deficit. That worked out to an average intake between 300-350 calories per hour, certainly the upper limit for someone of my size - anymore and it would not be digested.

I ate early and ate regularly, throwing down Gu packets, Oreos slathered in peanut butter, fig newtons, and pretzels, along with a Clif bar at mile 14. All without stomach issues. Hammer Perpetuem, even at full strength, is much easier to down and less-cloying than CLIP2, despite supplying twice the calories and much more fat. I attribute my nutrition success to the Perpetuem, as I imagine the fats really helped to calm my stomach from the start and prime it for the 24-hour eating contest that would have been. It has no aftertaste and washes out the sweet aftertaste of the standard ultra faire. While I had dropped some weight, I am unconcerned, as the water weight tied up with carbo-loading can equate to 3+ pounds of weight loss. Minor weight loss is easily remedied with extra fluids and salt.

I'll also add that beer at the pasta dinner is the way to go. Hear me out, because I have heard a lot of people complain about dehydration from the alcohol. Yes, it is a much stronger diuretic than caffeine, but drinking adequate water between the dinner and the race can more than make up for it. It's a great way to get in zero-residue carbohydrates and it relaxes pre-race nerves. I mean, listen, the Tarahumara get smashed on corn liquor before their big races, this is only a pint of porter.

Further, despite climbing the longest and highest peak in my running career and passing a swathe of runners on the downhill, my quads were not trashed at the bottom like they were at White River. And this was all in Vibrams over technical trails much worse than I've trained on. The Five Fingers are by no means a handicap and I feel as though I'm starting to master the art of downhill running with minimal protection - 4mm of midsole and 4mm of compressive outsole with no support of any kind. No, my arches are not sore. I'm at the point where I am subconsciously adapting weight distribution on my foot during foot-strike - I can hit some pretty rough rocks and debris without pain, instead letting my foot relax and conform to the obstacles. I still need to get comfortable with putting my hips forward and need to engage my core a bit more - "controlled falling" versus leaning back and breaking.

I will rebuild myself. I am taking a week off of all exercise, at least, and will work with the awesome folks at my university to speed up my IT-band's recovery and strengthen the deficient muscles responsible for this injury. My sports physician and therapist believe that if I have the dedication, I may well get over this well within a month. As the pain has all but subsided now, they are fairly certain that there is no serious damage.

I think the North Face Endurance Challenge in San Francisco would be a good avenue back into racing. The 50 miler is less strenuous than these recent races, with short and numerous climbs rather than staggering mountain ascents. I will make my 100 return at Rocky Raccoon in Huntsville, Texas this February. The 5-loop course had 6,000 ft of gain over the entire distance and is one of the more famous ultras. Plus, I've never been in Texas outside of the airports and I would love to race in some snow, which I hear is common that time of year. However, if my recovery speeds along, there is the Pinhoti 100 down in Alabama and the Ozark 100 in Missouri, both early in November.

With the exception of my IT band, I finished feeling good. That I was racing so well made it all the harder to approach the aid station captain and take the DNF. Now, however, it feels reassuring, because I had handled my nutrition so well and I was having a good time, savoring the scenery and the camaraderie much more than at White River. That tells me that, barring injury, I am prepared for a 100.

Bring it.

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