Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Quad Rock 50

The 2017 Quad Rock 50, which I will hereafter refer to as Oven Rock, was a good learning experience for running in the heat. While I’ve done races like Bighorn which can get notoriously hot, they often give their heat in short bursts. At Bighorn, you’re always ascending or descending 4,000+ feet and traveling through multiple climate zones - at worst you’re in the oppressive heat for a few hours. At Quad Rock, there is no escape. A 1,500 foot differential between the lower and upper reaches of the course gives you little escape from whatever weather race day brings. This was really the first sustained-heat-race I’ve ever run.

My plan was simple - keep my body temperature down by keeping my shirt and sleeves soaked, hydrate, and eat whatever I could, prioritized in that order. I think I handled the first well, the second decently after a substantial hiccup, and the third not well, but well enough to get 28th and run a P.W. 10:45.

I started out in my regular shorts plus a cotton crop top and Moeben sleeves (who I understand is no longer in business, boy that makes me feel like I’m getting older), a visor, and lots of bottles and snacks scattered in my drop bags. The pace set by the front runners was brisk so I hung back quite a ways. Sunrise was spectacular, with orange and red creeping through purple scattered clouds - the last clouds I’d see until the final 6 miles.

By the time I was halfway up the first climb to Towers I was already sweating. We had hit an inversion around the Sawmill/Loggers intersection and were already basking in the previous days’ warmth and humidity. Through the climb I passed a number of folks I wouldn’t see until the finish. I use this as a sort of gauge for whether I went out too fast, and I think I hit my early pace bang-on. I tossed some water on my back just before turning downhill onto the Spring Creek descent.

Spring Creek was cool, but when we turned onto Stout we got a real nice preview for the rest of the day. The sun was already cooking the trail and by the time I reached the Horsetooth aid station at the bottom of the first descent I had already drained my water bottle.

For me, the race was really blasé from Horsetooth to Arthur’s. I passed no one on the climb up to Horsetooth and passed no one on the Mill Creek descent. I think all of us were biding our time as we were fast aware of the struggle the later miles would become. At Arthur’s I was in a good mood, if not a little hazy, and for the first time in as long as I can remember I enjoyed the climb up Howard. In spite of its southern exposure I kept cool with a soaked shirt and arm sleeves. I can remember what it was like to run in the heat years ago, and it definitely feels like I need to work a lot harder to keep cooler now. I’m 35 pounds heavier than I was when I first moved to Fort Collins, and a most of it is upper body strength - helpful for 200 milers, not so helpful when you want to dump body heat in a fast race.

At the top of Howard I hit a wall. Not stiff legs, just low mental energy, a lack of focus, and a loss of appetite. In hindsight, I now understand that this is my body’s signal for more electrolytes. I shuffled over the top of Timber and had a minor panic attack when I found out there was no water stop here. As I’d later learn, I had beaten it to the punch by 10-20 minutes. I was out of water at this point (I had banked on refilling and had used a lot of my water to keep my shirt wet) so I slowed down on the descent on Timber to try to save my legs.

At the turn-around I ate some oranges, a little bit of salt, and plenty of Coke, and within five minutes blasted out of there. I felt a bit shitty but I mustered a smile and some banter with the volunteers before leaving. Usually I’m in a pity-me headspace at the midpoint of a race, but this time I was hungry for the second half. I think I’ve done enough of these that I approach them, no matter the course or conditions, with a healthy level of optimism and intensity. I think a lot of people looked forward to the weather forecast with trepidation, but I couldn’t wait to get into the heat of battle. Hahhhh....

About half a mile up the Timber climb I went through a few waves of nausea. Rather than waste time, I chugged some water and induced a solid barf fest on the side of the trail - oranges, a granola bar, and coke everywhere. The first burst was productive, thankfully. I kept jogging and over the next ten minutes I barfed some more, occasionally just tilting my head to the side and continuing to plow on. After that episode finally ebbed I power hiked for a bit while I drank water and had a gel. I also, in a stroke of genius, decided to take a salt pill. Until this point I had been drinking regular strength Tailwind, but it was making me queasy and, apparently, was not giving me enough salt. I ended up needing about 2-3 times the salt I had been taking up until that point (about 2-3 salt stick pills per bottle of water). Everyone says you’re not supposed to do anything new in a race that you haven’t tried in training. That's ridiculous unless you have a perfect race in the exact same conditions you train in. A little experimentation during this race really helped me dial in how to read my mental and physical state to determine my salt needs.

The climb up the second half of Timber was agony - I had dug myself into a nutrition and hydration hole over the past two hours. This was really the crux of my race because I hit such a low point. I crested Timber at nothing more than a sad shuffle, and I could feel my body heat going out of control - I was baking in the sun and shivering in the shade. Taking a salt pill whenever that happened seemed to quell it almost immediately, though.

At Arthur’s aid I plopped down, drank a lot of Coke, ate two whole oranges, and chomped some salt. I took the time to get my self put together before Mill Creek, which proved to be a smart choice. While I absolutely slogged up the bottom section of Mill Creek out of the valley, I started feeling better once I got to the meat of the climb. There was no running, but there some solid power hiking, which I hadn’t been able to do for quite a while. The trail on this stretch really baked, though. There was no breeze, the sun was overhead, and we were all on the highway to hell. Literally, there were signs displaying the lyrics to Highway to Hell. I’ll admit to enjoying those signs, if only because they couldn’t possibly add anything, except some dark comedy, to the struggle to get up to Towers.

By the time I reached Towers I was almost out of the hole. Unfortunately, that meant that my legs had spent the last 3+ hours in a dehydrated state and had become summarily trashed. Good training for Bighorn, though. Also, I need to mention that Westridge trail's geometry makes no sense - it feels uphill both ways. But man, on a hot day, it absolutely kills on the way back. Descending Horsetooth through crowds of graduation-day revelers is always a fun exercise. There’s a bit of shock, a bit of reverence, and a lot of confusion on their faces as sweat-drenched people with 1,000 mile stares careen down the rocky, switchbacky trail.

Horsetooth aid was an oven at this point, and I ate the only thing I could: oranges. I couldn’t stomach gels. I had been eating peach candies - the gummy, no-fruit kind - but even they were becoming a chore in the heat. I watched Danny Bundrock roll in and out of the aid station and realized what I had been doing wrong. Every time he came in he had volunteers drench him with a whole pitcher of water. Then he’d go about his business and right before leaving get another quick shower. I was only soaking my shirt at the end of my aid station routines, and even then, I wasn’t really getting my shorts soaked. Basically, he was evaporatively cooling the whole time at the aid station, while the rest of us suckers were sitting there with our tongues hanging out.

The next section of the course was the real deal - absolute, unyielding heat in the low elevations. Spring Creek canyon seemed like Florida - humid, searing, filled with all sorts of characters carrying Bluetooth boom boxes. I was thankful to turn onto Stout because I thought the ridgeline it scurried up would catch a nice breeze.

I was wrong. It was stagnant and it really tested my resolve. I had to ration water between drinking and keeping my body cool, and I had two full-sized bottles. My brain felt like it was melting. But every time Stout would flatten out, I would start into a jog, no matter how hot it felt. I realized that some of my hesitance to run faster over the past few hours was just inexperience. I just didn’t believe that I could keep chugging along at a solid clip without collapsing. Central governor and whatnot.

Wow, did the final descent hurt. My legs were supremely trashed, but at least the weather was becoming bearable. The sky started to fill with some mid-afternoon thunder clouds and temperatures dropped down to somewhere around 75 or 80. When I hit the looping bottom of Sawmill I leaned into the trail and eked out a pretty decent pace, but when I hit East Valley I could barely get my legs to turn over. I hiked some of the steeper parts of the trail on the way to Arthur’s aid, where I had to stop to drink some Coke and get myself out of another rut.

With 2 miles to go I sped up little by little, getting as much out of the rolling downhills on East Valley that I could. When the trail flattened out I started to kick it in - maybe by only another minute or two per mile, but enough to make it feel like a solid effort. With half a mile to go I was grunting with my head angled down, arms swinging - probably looked a little overdone to the folks camping in the bay and having beers in the sun.

I really enjoy the final little climb at Quad Rock. You can see the finish line area just around the bend, but you’ve got to make it up a steady incline to get there. The course really makes you earn everything, including the chute down into the finish.

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