Monday, July 11, 2016

Bob Graham Round: Success!

After a failed attempt in 2014 due largely to weather but also to a bad stomach, I went back for a second go at the Bob Graham Round in the UK.  The BGR is not a race but a challenge; the goal is to complete a 66-mile circuit of 42 peaks in less than 24 hours.  There are five legs to it, in the sense that you cross four roads where you can be met with more supplies.  For an "official" completion, you need someone to witness you on the top of each peak, which means having support runners with you the entire way.  The difficulty of the BGR lies in the navigation (summits in the Lake District are often in the clouds with little to no visibility, and even if you can see, the navigation isn't obvious), the ascent/descent (roughly 27,000 feet of elevation gain plus the same amount of descent), and the terrain.  Very little of it is on what American runners would think of as a trail; the vast majority is grass, bogs, rock, scree, or a combination of the above.

I was more than a little stressed in the weeks leading up to my attempt this year.  While I'm generally fairly relaxed about whether the outcome of a run is getting to the finish or not, preferring to focus on whether or not I've done my best to get ready for it, a BGR attempt is no easy thing to organize, considering the number of support runners and road crew involved.  When you've finally managed to get all that into place, you definitely want to take advantage of the lucky opportunity to get it done.

I was also concerned about my fitness.  In early June I was a support runner on Christine Holmes's successful round, and seeing how amazingly strong she was both impressed and worried me.  I certainly never went up hills like she did when 8 hours into an event!  I wasn't sure how I was going to get to that level in time.  Fortunately, although the fitness improvements seemed impossibly slow at first, they came quicker and quicker later on, and with 10 days to go I had a confidence-boosting final long run on legs 3 and 4.  I also had the benefit of some nice days out climbing, which made the run-up to the event far more fun.

If there wasn't enough stress in the few weeks before my start date, I got plenty more when the weather forecasts started coming out.  It was pretty clear that a nasty front was moving in and that at some point in the day on my planned date there would be some serious wind (40 to 50mph on the summits was predicted) and rain.  The day before, however, was looking pretty reasonable, with just a few hours of windy and rainy conditions in the morning and then an improving forecast throughout the day.  I had a good strategy talk with my friend Dave, who was visiting to do some climbing, and we went through the various options.  With two days to go, I made the call to move the start up by 24 hours.  After help from several friends and about 6 hours on the internet and the phone, I managed to round up enough supporters to go on the earlier day.  Several of them were friends who were already planning to support on the planned date and/or who took time off of work or rearranged their schedules to make it, which I can't thank them enough for.  Others were people I had never even met before who were kind enough to help out--fantastic.

I didn't get much sleep the night before the run, not so much because I was too excited or nervous to sleep but because I simply couldn't finish all my packing and preparation in time to get to bed!  The alarm clock at 1:45 a.m. came all too early.  I ate breakfast and drove off towards the start, stopping at the place where I would cross a road 13 miles into the run, at the end of leg 1, to hide a box of food, water, and spare warm clothes in the woods.  With such a minimal support crew, I didn't want to make anyone get up at the crack of dawn to come to that road crossing, so a hidden box seemed like the better option.  I sent a text to my leg 2 supporters telling them where to find the box, and if all went well (which it did) they could just have everything ready by the time I got there.

Rob Allen had kindly agreed to start off with me.  He wasn't sure how far he would go and whether he might in fact just do the whole round, so we each carried our own stuff for leg 1.

We got a nice surprise when we met at the Moot Hall at 3:20 a.m.--Paul Wilson, who I had briefly met during my 2014 attempt, came out to see us off.  At 3:30, we departed for the big adventure.  Leg 1 passed in a mostly pleasant blur.  We had an enjoyable climb up the first peak, which is a long ascent but not very steep.  And although we got caught in some serious wind and rain at the top, we came out of the cloud on the descent and had fairly decent conditions the rest of the leg.  Well, decent weather conditions that is--the less said about the wet and boggy ground conditions the better!  On the descent from Blencathra (leg 1's last peak) we were met by Paul, who took a really nice little video:

At the road crossing Kim, Rich, and Cat (who had rearranged their schedules and childcare to come out on the Friday instead of the Saturday!) were waiting to run leg 2 with me.  I think I stopped for about 30 seconds to empty a few things out of my pack but we essentially took off straight away.  The weather took a turn for the worse as we headed up the steep climb on Clough Head, but the wind and rain were just about bearable with heavy-duty waterproofs.  Despite the persistently bad conditions and the ultra boggy ground, we made good time on this leg and I was thoroughly enjoying myself.  I hadn't seen Kim for at least a year so it was also good just to catch up!  I lost some time to clothes changes which were necessitated by the weather, but we still arrived at the end of leg 2 ahead of schedule and I was feeling great with plenty left in the tank, so all was well.

The Dunmail road crossing was manned by Dave, and although I was really happy to see him, I knew I had to fight the urge to stop and talk and instead had a quick change out of my waterproofs and pressed on up the steep Steel Fell.  My support for leg 3 was Caroline and Giles, who I knew from a combination of the West Highland Way race and the Bandera 100k.  They had saved me during my last-minute hunt for support crew when I couldn't find anyone for leg 3.  I couldn't have been any luckier--I knew they were both super strong runners, plus Giles had been on leg 3 before so could help me with the navigation if needed.

I had been afraid of leg 3 as it's the hardest leg and also right in the middle of the round, but somehow it nearly all went well.  My legs felt strong, my stomach was doing okay, and I was surprisingly hungry.  True to Caroline's prediction, I was far more interested in the food they brought than in my own food, and I easily overcame my guilt at stealing their amazing falafel/feta/lettuce wraps.  We made reasonably quick work of the lower level peaks and then it was time for the big rocky climb up Bowfell, which I had struggled on last time but which was actually fun this time (the way I had decided to go involves scrambling up a gully, which feels more like playtime than hard work).  I did get us briefly lost in the mist coming off the summmit of Great End, but we got back on course with only maybe 10 minutes lost, and the rest of the leg, with some of the harder summits of the round, passed by without any issues.  The scree descent to Wasdale was just as fun as I remembered it, and after we managed to cross the somewhat alarmingly high river, Caroline took off ahead to let the road crew know we were on our way.

The Wasdale road crossing was basically the same as the Dunmail one; I stopped to use the toilets but otherwise forced myself to run straight through with only a quick hug to Julie instead of stopping to chat like I wanted to.  For leg 4, I knew I had Janson as an expert support runner (has he supported the most BGs of anyone out there...?) but my happy surprise at Wasdale was that Andy was also coming with.  Andy was my secret weapon in 2014 with his fantastic support on leg 3, but this year he had a knee injury and didn't think he'd be able to run.  He had also only arrived back in the UK from Japan at 9pm the night before!!

Janson set us a steady pace up Yewbarrow, one of the hardest climbs on the route, and we were at the top of it 45 minutes later.  From there we made steady progress for about two more summits in good conditions.

Then the wheels started to come off.  I had probably become a bit lax about my eating in the past few hours, and the lack of food combined with the hard effort for all those hours began to wear on me.  I started feeling dizzy, which I've never had in an ultra before, and I had to work hard to stay upright.  Andy and Janson were great and did everything they could, but things deteriorated steadily and by Kirk Fell, about two-thirds of the way through the leg, I was fully into death march mode.  Janson demanded the running pack I was wearing, which I had been reluctant to give up because it had the GPS tracker in it, but he was right that I did feel a bit better without the pack on.  I spent a fair bit of time whimpering at Andy, who was perfect with his steady support.  We have resolved that at some point we're going to manage to go on a run together that doesn't involve brutal levels of pain and suffering...

Most of the rest of leg 4 was a bit of a blur, but I was at least able to enjoy the views we were getting as the sky cleared and it got to be dusk.  Janson gave me a good pep talk about how I could still get a solid finishing time and how all was not lost, and we made reasonably good time between Great Gable and Honister, the last road crossing.  It was starting to seem likely that I was going to make it to the finish.

I saw my excellent crew again at Honister, who had also been enjoying the beautiful evening...

Julie and Jen.  I love this picture.

...and again with only a short stop, we set off on the fifth and final leg.  For this leg I had Jen, a friend who had also supported me in 2014, plus in yet another great surprise, Andy said he would carry on with me on this leg.  I also had two people I'd never met, Dougal and Les, generously come out to support the leg, so all in all I was feeling extremely pampered.  I was in terrible shape though, throwing up and largely unable to eat or drink.  I certainly wasn't the best company at this point, mumbling occasionally or grunting my assent when told to run an easy section.  I knew I was lucky though; I was in great hands and we had a perfect night for a run.  Dougal and Les seemed like lovely people and I'd love to meet them again sometime when I'm in a slightly better state!

I did wish I could enjoy the last few summits a bit more, but at least they passed by quickly.  Soon enough we were on top of the last one, Robinson, stopping to savor the moment for a few seconds and then heading off for the brutal descent.  Fortunately I had the benefit of Jen's navigation and we got to use her amazing descent route, which was far, far better than the regular method.  I was being seriously slow and still throwing up, but at least I knew we were rapidly nearing the road.  When we finally reached the road, I knew it was around 5 miles (exact distance was subject to debate with Les!) of relatively flat running back to Keswick.  I summoned up the last of my energy and managed to start doing more running and less walking.  Soon we were actually running much more than I had expected to, and with a couple of miles to go, I finally started to enjoy myself.  I know there was a good conversation about scones, with some highly useful tips on quality scone locations, but I can't remember any of what was said so someone will have to remind me!  (Though I'm not sure anywhere in the Lakes could beat the Threlkeld village hall cafe's fresh scones...)

With a mile to go I picked up the pace a bit and we did a proper run in to the finish, arriving for a time of 22 hours and 45 minutes.

What a fantastic day; for the most part, it just could not have gone any better or been any more fun.  As an added bonus, my time beat Scott Jurek's 23:44, and since Scott is the only other American to have completed the BGR, I get the "fastest American" title for now.  Since we have no comparable terrain in the US to train on, I am pretty happy about that!

Ultrarunning doesn't generally come with tangible rewards.  This run was an exception.  As an early birthday present, my friend Nick made me the most beautiful trophy I've ever seen.  He made it all himself, doing the carving with a laser and using the local slate (which he knows I love) as a base.

Actually that wasn't my only tangible reward.  I was touched to receive a card and bottle of champagne from Richard and Jo, the owners of the holiday cottage I was staying in.  And I had promised myself two presents if I finished the BG--I bought both of them the day afterwards:

Sunday, May 1, 2016


SCAR is the name for the "Smokies Challenge Adventure Run," a runners' challenge that involves running the entire 72 miles of the Appalachian Trail that go across the Smoky Mountains, all in under 24 hours.  I had been itching to try this for several months and finally, this weekend, it was time to give it a go.

The route certainly lived up to expectations.  I started at Davenport Gap, the northern border of the Smokies, at 3:48 a.m.  I had decided to go southbound for two reasons--one, it would give me a more gradual descent off the mountain ridge at the end of the run, and two, it would get me past the Charlie's Bunion area before the tourist crowds became too intense.

I set off to warm, muggy weather and a peaceful, still forest lit up by a pretty sliver of moon.  After 8 or 9 miles I popped out on a nice section of ridgeline just in time for the sunrise.  From here until mile 31 would be one of my favorite runs ever.  There was the perfect morning light on the ridge (my photos do not do it justice), the views off both sides, the many sections of perfect trail for runing...  My legs were still feeling heavy and sluggish from Lake Sonoma, but it didn't really matter as I knew I didn't need to run quickly for this day; I just needed to keep moving steadily.

From my short runs in the Smokies, I mostly remembered the rockier sections of trail, but actually a lot of it is smooth, perfect singletrack.

Around mile 29 I got an exciting surprise:  my friend Julien!  I knew he was going to be at Newfound Gap to pace me, but I wasn't sure where on the trail I'd find him.  I got into Newfound Gap, which is mile 31.5, in 7:55, which was also a surprise as it was 35 minutes ahead of schedule.  I was especially pleased as I had taken most of those miles conservatively, pacing myself as if I were doing a 100 miler rather than a 72 miler.  After a slightly longer-than-ideal stop at Newfound Gap, Julien and I set off for Clingman's Dome, about 8 miles away.

Heat is my kryptonite, and it struck with a vengeance at mile 32.  After Newfound Gap you drop off the other side of the ridge and run along the hillside below the ridge.  This meant I lost my cool breeze and gained direct sunlight.  And the hills on this section are surprisingly difficult, even though they're not the biggest on the route--Julien aptly named them the little steep monsters.  Ouch!  Julien did an impressive job keeping me moving at a good pace after I started to slow.  We met Divesh just south of Clingman's Dome and did a quick swap of my food and gear for the final 32.5-mile stretch.

My original goal for SCAR was to run it in less than 22 hours.  But when I left Clingman's Dome with 10:15 elapsed, I realized that if I had a great second half of my run, I could possibly run under 20 hours or even under the women's course record of 18:50.  On one hand, I had some significant nausea already starting, and I knew I was behind in my water intake.  On the other hand, my legs were still feeling strong, and I actually managed to get ahead of  what I needed to run for an 18:50 between miles 40 and 50.

Looking back north towards Clingman's Dome

My stomach didn't do well during those miles, though.  I barely drank and I don't think I ate anything until I was able to barter with a hiker for his Snickers bar at mile 50 (I gave him a bag of peanut butter pretzel bites).  Then the weather turned.  The occasional showers turned into a steady downpour that would last the remaining 22 miles.  When you haven't been eating or drinking, you're stopping often to throw up, and it's raining heavily and windy, it's almost impossible to stay warm, even with good rain gear and warm tights on.  I shivered my way along, feeling cold and miserable.  The trail was flooded and after it got dark it was almost impossible to see, since my headlamp wasn't quite cutting through the dense rain and fog.  From miles 55 to 59 I slowly lost my cushion on an 18:50 finish, and at mile 59 the large hill up to the Mollie's Ridge shelter took away any remaining chance I had at the record.

The one thing I had to look forward to in the final miles was that Divesh was planning to run in 5 miles from the finish and meet me.  He actually made it 6 miles in, and I was thrilled to see him and have some company in the cold.  Those last 6 miles took so long that I was convinced I must be nearing the 24-hour mark (I hadn't looked at my watch in several hours since it was under several layers of rain jacket and gloves) but I had to laugh when we emerged from the trail for the last mile on the road and I discovered that the clock was at 19:41.  I had planned a sprint finish down the last mile, but an attempt at sprinting quickly led to an especially painful bout of throwing up stomach acid, so I decided that a fast walk/shuffle would have to do, and I finished in 19:54.

Other than the bad weather, my SCAR was basically a summary of everything I love about running:  great trails and views, a classic point-to-point route, pushing myself to a time that I wouldn't have thought was possible, and even getting to see friends and family in the process.  And, with about 18,000 feet of ascent over 72 miles, it was a great stepping stone between Lake Sonoma and my summer Bob Graham Round plans...

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Lake Sonoma 2016 race report

Warning:  May contain whining!

On the surface, all went well with my race.  I had a good result place-wise (9th, in a very competitive field) and a decent time (8:37) considering how hilly the course is.  Beneath the surface, however, was a disappointing day.  My training for Lake Sonoma carried on from the solid base I had built up for Bandera.  I recovered quickly from Bandera and started my Lake Sonoma training with some nice endurance weeks.  Then it was a couple of speed workouts and two short races.  One of these, a 12k on very hilly dirt roads, was possibly my best short race ever, which was definitely encouraging.  After that I still had time for a couple more weeks of endurance, and I finished off the training period with 29 miles on an especially hilly section of the Appalachian Trail, feeling strong and fast the whole way.  I was ready to race.

Gentle jog on the course with Divesh the day before the race

Race day morning appeared promising, with cool rainy weather, a good night of sleep, and a big breakfast. But just a couple of miles into the race, I began to notice something odd:  I seemed to be running unusually slowly.  As always, I was pacing myself by heart rate.  I wasn't wearing a GPS so I couldn't say for sure how fast I was moving, but it certainly didn't seem to be a particularly quick pace.  I was aiming for a heart rate of 155 to 157, compared to the 150 I use for training, but my race day pace felt slower than a training run.  When I arrived a full five minutes late to the first aid station at mile 11.6, there was no denying that something was wrong.

I started up the hill out of the aid station and tried to convince myself that I just needed an extended warmup and that things had to improve.  But they didn't.  I trucked along at my 155 bpm and arrived at the mile 20 aid station eight minutes behind schedule.  My legs still felt completely fine, it just appeared that my lungs had decided to take the day off.  At this point my limited supply of patience ran out.  I decided that if it was going to take running at 160 to 162 bpm to go the speed I wanted to go, then that was what I was going to do.  I turned the pace up a notch and tried not to think about how I was ever going to maintain this effort level for 30 more miles.

The new pace allowed me to claw back about five minutes on my goal splits, and I arrived at the turnaround in 4:02, only two minutes behind schedule.  Things seemed to be looking up; my legs, and more importantly my stomach, were feeling good, and I was starting to pass a few women.  My morale got a boost when Meghan Hicks informed me at mile 30 that I was now in 10th place.  Maybe this day could still work out okay...

There is that saying in ultrarunning that it never always gets worse.  I would add the caveat that this is true except when it does.  By about mile 35, my legs were thoroughly unhappy with the effort level I'd been attempting to put in for the previous few hours.  I started walking up a few of the hills, then moved on to walking up most of the hills.  I arrived at mile 38 about 12 minutes late and with far too little energy in reserve for that tough last half marathon.  As beautiful as the Lake Sonoma trails are, I have to admit that I was sick of them by a few miles into this last section.  Everything had become an identical blur of rolling hills and curves, with no real way to know how far we had left.  Somewhere in the last two or three miles I asked Loren, a guy who had been alternately in front of and behind me for several miles, whether he thought we would ever get to the finish.  He didn't think so either.

The only thing propelling me along at a pace resembling a run was that I'd seen Anita just a few minutes behind me at mile 45 and I knew it would take a big effort to stay in front of her.  Each time I was tempted to walk an uphill, I'd remind myself that Anita was most certainly not going to be walking that hill, and I'd press on.  Finally I rounded a bend and could see I was about a quarter of a mile from the finish.  I attempted a sprint, which felt suspiciously like the same pace I'd just been running at, but I had nothing left and for a second I actually started walking.  Loren, who was just behind me, yelled at me to get going and not let him pass me.  It was a very welcome push that got me across the finish in a reasonably respectable manner.  Even if, as I suspect, he did let me "win"!

So what went wrong?  It certainly wasn't my stomach, and since my pace was slow right from the start, it can't have been a lack of calories.  It also doesn't seem to have been anything about my training, since I felt so good in nearly all my runs the past month and then had a nice taper.  I did start to feel a bit of heavy legs the week before the race, but that was gone by race day.  My best guess at the culprit for the bad race is either the humidity--I have mild asthma and one of the things that exacerbates it is humidity--or that I was anemic.

To counterbalance the whining, I will say that it was an incredibly fun experience to run an entire ultra with no nausea.  Let's repeat that next time, please!  It was also satisfying to stay somewhat mentally in the race even after I was physically done for.  And last but very much not least, John, Lisa, and all the volunteers put on an excellent event, complete with top-notch postrace food that I was thrilled to be able to sample for once!  I may need to make at least one more trip around that lake in the future.

We got to meet Deirdre and Seth for a postrace dinner--I had to try not to be too jealous of their impending Kalymnos trip!