Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Series of Tune-Ups: Stagecoach and Flagstaff Sky Running

This has been started many times. I attempt to write with regularity, but I struggle with the confidence to actually post anything. I feel as though my life lacks the impressive qualities that make for good reading, especially with regard to the hobby I've decided to spend my time and funds on over the past few years. Maybe it's just me growing into some sort of adulthood humility. I surely hope not. Writing is something I enjoy, and reading the stories of others is equally enjoyable. Sharing my stories is my way of contributing the the community.
I noticed turning leaves, meaning we've been in our new home long enough to see changes.

Life is ripe with newness. Flagstaff is a great place to call our new home, my academic program has been fulfilling, and running has been quite resplendent as fall descends onto Northern Arizona. Friendly faces in all of my new settings have been in abundance, and I'm quite thankful for it.

Running, as mentioned, has been more enjoyable as the cool weather comes around. Instead of worrying about being competitive (a waste of time considering the talent residing here), I've gotten a chance to get out on the trails a few days each week, and Kelsey and I have even been able to do some racing.

Stagecoach Ultra
The weather forecast was rather ominous all week, getting worse with each passing day. I was ready to run in slick mud and be cold all day. The thought of switching places with Kelsey and curling up in some dry clothes in the back of my Outback for nap, only to get out and run into the night to finish a collaborative 100 mile effort was thrilling. I'd felt cooped up long enough. A few hours a week of being away from town suffices only when a real getaway happens once in a while. I'm not sure which was more exciting to me: the challenge of a distance I haven't covered in a year (to the day- I raced the Hungerford Games 50 this weekend last year), or the restful time of lying in a sleeping bag or talking with other people who also, for some reason, like this hobby.

The full 100M/relay were cancelled because of the poor weather. We were consoled with the announcement that there would be a 50k the next morning. Not exactly what we were prepared for, but a respectable alternative. Ian Torrence, the RD, didn't have to plan another event for the very next day. He did anyway, and that's awesome. Considering that my longest run in a long time was 21 miles, a 50k was still going to be a hearty challenge

On the way home, the weather was starting to roll in. The summit of Mt. Elden was masked by a cloud.

The possibility of a full day's run was no more, but I couldn't sit inside and wait for tomorrow. I can't say whether it was clarity or just an abundance of pent-up taper nerves, but I realized that people die waiting for the next day. This was just a run up a mountain, a common occurrence for many outdoor enthusiasts. All experiences are wonderful when we realize how limited our time is here. It's a well-traveled trail in a fairly big town, but it was an experience that had an awakening effect on me.

Running up the peak felt quite effortless. That's not to say that my heart wasn't pounding and sweat wasn't flying off of my head. I just didn't mind at all. The struggle didn't feel uncomfortable. The weather was cool and the air felt moist when I breathed it in. The yellow of the Aspens and the cool, damp air reminded me of home and made me smile. I made it to the summit in 45 minutes, a personal best for me by about 4 minutes. The clouds were now surrounding me as I rounded the corners back down to the Sunset Trail to finish via the Heart trail. I can't believe how fantastic the views are from these rocky switchbacks. Just don't pick your head up to look while running or you'll end up on your face, as I've found. Whether barreling down a trail filled with jagged rocks or sitting on my ass to take in a view, doing it wholeheartedly works best for me.

The actual race worked out really well the following day. When planning the relay, we knew that the one who started the race would get the "best" part of the course, which contained the only large climbs and more mountainous terrain. With the consolation race, we were both able to get the part of the course we wanted to run. It was beautiful. Aspen trees were just beginning to turn, the weather was sunny and pleasant, and the course was in pretty good shape. 35 miles of actual running felt foreign by mile 22 or so because my longer outings for the last month or so have been more vertically oriented, substituting the rhythmic cadence of running with grunting up steep ascents and bombing back down. The last part of the course was a gradual descent over 13 miles of desert two-track. I should have been able to pick it up and cruise the last half marathon-ish and make for a huge negative split. My unconditioned legs had other plans as I plodded along to finish in just over 5 hours and make a 7th place spot. It went fairly smoothly with all things considered, and I didn't injure myself. I did chug a bunch of water and beer immediately after finishing and spray vomit all over a shrub, but that's my secret and I won't tell anyone. Kelsey, in typical fashion, earned a spot on the podium in 3rd place. Well, last minute finish lines in the middle of the desert that were just aid stations the day before don't have podiums, but if there was one, she'd have been on it.

I took no photos of the event. In spite of seeing photographers on the course, I haven't been notified of photos from this year. A google search reveals that a music festival with scantily-clad patriots shares the name, so there's a silver lining.

Flagstaff Sky Running Weekend
Stagecoach being a day later than planned lowered my recovery time to 6 days for the Flagstaff Skyrunning events. I knew that a full week was pushing my luck, so I "only" registered for the 39k on Saturday and the Vertical K on Sunday. I facetiously use the term "only" not to imply that a sub-marathon distance race is beneath me, but rather to show just how out of touch with reality I've been from not racing.

Day 1: 39k Sky Race
The 39k was hard. Really hard. I was having a rough go of it right from the start, but this course would be brutal on my best day. With an empty stomach and no warmup, I followed the lead group up Mt. Elden, and realized just how close to the redline I can be before I blow up. 15 minutes into a long day, I had blown up. A climb I've done with relative ease in previous attempts was a sweaty struggle on race day. So it goes.

Let the struggle begin. 3 miles out and  2500' into what will end up being a 5+ hour day. 
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little disappointed in how this race turned out, but I was fully expecting it to be difficult. When trying to decide between the ultra (55k) and the sky race (39k), I chose the shorter because I thought I'd have a better chance of racing it. Not "racing" in the sense that I'd be expecting a win, but something I could run with intensity. In that regard, I'd call it a success. I resisted the urge to use that mental and physical "cruise control" that simply gets me from A to B. For the most part, I was able to focus but never felt quite right. I surmise that the ability to focus and race is the difference between being trained and untrained for me. My body and mind are in an "economy mode" of sorts, similarly to a car with such an option. I can slip into a higher gear and get just about anywhere efficiently, but not quickly.

This course is incredible. I'd recommend it for anyone who loves a true challenge. It has some tremendously steep climbs and fast descents, great organization and top-notch direction from Aravaipa Running. My small amount of trail/ultra running success (top 3 finishes or wins) has been on flatter courses. Shit, the races I've won have been pavement  or dirt road/trail courses. Like many runners, I've been drawn to more than just distance, but also topography to challenge me. The humbling experiences of mountain racing have been some of the most fulfilling. This event rekindled a desire to break into the lead pack.

Of the photos that have appeared so far, this one succinctly captures the day. 
This race left me pretty depleted and sore. It was a good reminder that I need to eat and drink more while I push the pace. It surely sounds melodramatic for a 27 year-old to say, but I feel like an old man who has come out of retirement- rusty and out of shape. Whether it comes back or I stave off slowing down is yet to be seen.

Day 2: Vertical K
Feeling pretty beat up the following morning, I was terrified to start the Vertical K. I haven't felt nervousness like this from a race in years. I almost didn't go. A more pleasant option of taking the dog for a hike was presented. I had an out. The thought of actually failing to finish a 3 mile race was overtaking me. I had run most of the VK course the day before. The last few miles of the 39k were straight up the ski hill, going from 9400' to 11,600' in 1.3 miles or something like that. I was dehydrated, hypoglycemic, sunburned, and mentally drained. Doing it again the very next day had me wondering if it would be any fun at all. The only reason I decided to do it was because I was afraid. "You're afraid to run? what a wimp" is all I could think to myself. I had been searching for an opportunity to actually face a fear of failure. It used to be what intrigued me about the sport. Thanks to feeling completely out of my element, I had a chance to recapture that for the first time in a while.

I started out pretty trepidatiously, but fell into a groove pretty quickly. Running up steep grades is weird. I found a decent medium in which I couldn't speak, but could still keep moving. Pushing it too hard almost immediately caused a loss of momentum. I kept turning the legs and tried to keep smiling. It was working as I picked a couple people off and managed to smile. The harder I ran, the happier I felt. The pain from the day before was gone. In its place was a desire to keep going and keep jamming the legs up the hill. Maybe it was knowing that I wouldn't have to be out there for 5 more hours, or maybe I've just found a fun event that suits me, but chugging (not butt-chugging) up a steep grade to reach a peak is a feeling unlike any other.

7th place, trailing behind the front pack. Seems to be my spot.
I made it up in 1:05ish, thrilled to have actually made it considering the shape I was in at the bottom. The entire weekend was a cathartic experience in that I experienced the physical exhaustion that I hadn't felt in a long time. It helps me to reset and turn the volume down on trivial things like reasonable academic deadlines and a largely stress-free life. Kelsey being there for both finishes, in spite of a rough day at the Ultra, meant the world to me. Watching others run on when you've thrown in the towel for the day is just plain shitty. She was there, smiling at both finishes, even the one at the windy top of a cold mountain. Not only was she appreciated, she was needed.

The view from the chairlift ride. One of the coolest parts of the day.

Other jogging things

I've got no big racing plans on the immediate horizon, but I'm taking another whack at the Zane Grey 50miler this year. I'll have altitude, mountain trails, and maybe even some real training on my side this time around, so hopefully the weather cooperates and we'll be allowed to finish. For now, I attempt to get in shape so that I can get in shape.

Run, hike, or walk tall, folks.

Kelsey making her way up Humphrey's. Things are shaping up for a good TNF EC in San Francisco
The colors are certainly beautiful, but they pale in comparison to Michigan. 

Michigan's topography, on the other hand, is no Northern Arizona.