Thursday, April 30, 2015

Ambulate and Hydrate: Zane Grey 50 Mile Report 2015

I tend to have some degree of difficulty separating my life into individual pieces. It's hard to think about running, school, work, and relationships as separate entities when they all affect each other directly. For that reason, my trip reports tend to meander. Apologies. 

Kelsey, Cohen and I strolled up to the pine trailhead with about 5 minutes to spare. I pinned by folded, crinkled-up number to my shorts and walked over to the start area (I can't even remember if there's a line or not). It's a competitive race on a relentless course, and I was excited to actually make it there.

Training for the race had gone well, considering the short amount of time that I had. I'd say it "started" with a failed attempt at the Antelope Canyon 50 mile in late February. I had done virtually no running up until that point, and arrogantly tried to cruise a 50 mile race. My state of mind was anxious and irritable, and I was doing things for the wrong reasons. I got caught up in poor study habits, not balancing school, work or training in the least. Life felt overwhelming and just kept doing the same shit that wasn't working, wondering why I felt frustrated. Antelope Canyon was the final blow to my ego, and it was time to rebuild.
En route to a colossal implosion at the Antelope Canyon 50M Photo: Craig Lloyd

I learned that "winging it" isn't always for me. Maybe I'm getting a little more "type A" in my old age or my expectations for myself are just increasing, but constantly wondering how things were going to work out was making me feel that I was losing control of my life. For better or worse, running has become a part of me that I won't let go. It's a positive thing that keeps me from falling into a trap of complacency. Even with 20 credit hours and 30 hours a week of work, it's something I need. To simply want it all and not be willing to work for it is childish, and that's how I was acting.

I needed to get ready for Zane Grey. I needed to do it in six(ish) weeks. I needed it to happen while working weekends, having one 10 hour clinical each week, and other courses to study for. Who would be up to helping me with such a ridiculous task? I reached out to elite ultrarunner, coach, and fellow Flagstaff resident Chris Vargo. We met up and he didn't bat an eye at the idea of helping me with this. Even in my own coaching, I'd be at least a little reluctant to help someone with such a time crunch to get ready for a demanding event like Zane Grey.

Adding structure and accountability to training instantly turned it around. I progressed from my 30-40 miles each week to peaking at 87. My best week of training consisted of only 72 miles, but had a hill workout, several easy 10-13 mile runs, and most importantly, a 4 hour run with 4000' feet of gain followed by a 10 hour shift on my feet at clinical. Tempo runs, intervals, and progression runs peppered my weeks and kept me from getting flat.

It's easy to train when sights like this lie around every bend.

A 20 minute nap separated a long run and a long day of learning hospital stuff. I felt great and alert all day.

Oh, right, this is a race report.

The race start felt eerily similar to last year. Since the race is 100% singletrack, there really isn't anywhere early on for people to "find their place." Excited people were going out hard and slowing down at the first climb. Everyone can and should run their own race, but I like taking the first mile a little slow so that the first big climb doesn't knock me on my ass 2 miles in. Since that's my strategy, the price is having to get around people as we climb. No big deal. It's a long day. I kept thinking about the year before, and how I taped my achilles' and didn't run on it for over a week before the race. I actually felt good this time! No shitty KT tape falling off of my leg. No lackluster training at sea level, no fatigue from driving and flying for two days. It was going to be a good day. I knew that on relatively scant training, my best time would come from staying steady and focusing. Running at a supramaximal effort wouldn't bode well.

I had decided that I had two goals for the day: to maintain focus, and to do exactly what I wanted. I wasn't gong to slow down to chat with anyone, nor would I speed up. Every step was going to be mine. I let my legs feel springy as I cruised the descents, and kept a short, bouncing running gait on all but the steeper climbs. I was having fun. On this crazy ass practical joke of a hiking trail, I was enjoying myself. The first 8 miles went by without feeling too difficult. A quick fill-up at the aid station and a handful of fuel from Kelsey, and I was on my way. I thought the aid stations being relatively far apart compared to other ultras I've run would be a major hindrance, but it made the run more fun. With my inov-8 race vest, I had just enough fuel and water to make it between aid stations. If it were warmer, I may have needed a little more and added the 2L bladder to the pack.

The next aid station at mile 17ish came up pretty quickly as well. I made it there in just a little over 3 hours. According to my terrible math skills, I was on pace for 9 hours. This was the plan A/best case scenario. Considering that such a time is usually reserved for the top 5 or so each year, I knew it was still a long shot.
Leaving Washington Park Aid Station at mile 17
Photo: Melissa Middleton (talented photographer, runner, and fellow former Michigan Resident)
Check her work out here
The next section was by far my slowest and most frustrating of the day. The trek to the Hell's Gate aid station involved very little running, some nausea, and some gross bowel stuff. The last few times this has happened to me, I've gotten pissed and written the whole day off. This time, I was having too much fun to give up. I marched on, eating and drinking as much as I could. It may have been a bit masochistic, but I figured that taking advantage of a temporary slowdown would allow me to cram calories and fluids in. I ate GU packets two at a time and whole packages of Clif Shot Bloks as I grunted up climbs, washing it down with swigs of water and that nasty, minty, chalky electrolye drink (Come on, GU, step up your flavor game). Maybe being tested on fluid and electrolyte balance on a daily basis in school is helping to reinforce their importance. The giant loose rocks of this section stick out in my memory as the worst on the course. At one point, all I could hear were rocks scraping together and me yelling "fuck" over and over again, perpetually tripping. I'd guess that it's what hell is like, but it was kind of fun. At one point on this section, I must have been focusing on the trail a bit too much. I picked my head up to see a cow elk running parallel to me about 15 feet away. Naturally, seeing a 500lb animal running next to me was startling and awe-inspiring. Thanks for not killing me, nature.

The rough patch slowly faded away as I cruised into Fish Hatchery, where I heard Kelsey say "Oh, here we go!" followed by an excited grumbly noise of a Great Dane. I filled up with water and stuffed what was probably a selfish amount of GU into my pack. Seeing Kelsey and Cohen made me happy and I headed out for more. This section was one of my favorites on the course, as it was a bit more buffed out with some crazy steep climbs. There was actual soil and trees in several spots, adding to the beauty and changing the scenery. It was the longest section without aid (I think), but went by pretty quickly compared to the last one. All that was left was a refuel and a 7 mile push.

I strolled into the last aid station pretty nonchalantly, resting a little as I soaked my bandanna with water and ate candy. Kelsey helped by providing a little sense of urgency and kindly told me to put my head down and hurt for 7 miles. I have a slight aversion to being told what to do, so I held my own little protest in my head and ran happy for a mile or so. After the kinks shook out and I accepted that it was just going to hurt for an hour, I started the push. I picked up one spot and did my best to float the downhills, keeping my knees bent and springy. This is a hard thing to do late in a race because it hurts, but once I make myself do it, it hurts less than stiffening the legs and riding the brakes all the way down. If I could see the top of an uphill, I pumped my arms and ran. If I couldn't, I put my hands on my knees and grunted until I saw the top. With all of the seasoned runners entered in the race, I knew I was at risk of being picked off at the last minute. I never looked back, but just used the fear of being chased to get the damned thing over with.

I finished the race in 9:51:03, netting me a 12th place spot. There were 120 finishers, so being in the top 10% of the field feels pretty good. Placing in a race like this almost seems arbitrary, considering that it's relatively small, but competitive. It's kind of the luck of the draw when it comes to who shows up and who drops out. but I showed up that day and I got 12th.

Hours, minutes, and ranking aside, I'm proud of this effort. Prior to this day, I hadn't finished a 50 miler since 2013. 2 years without a finish. I hadn't even realized that fact until I was about to finish Zane Grey. On a long run of 21 miles, I ran negative splits for a 50 miler. The exciting thing is that it happened at a time when my life felt balanced for the first time in a while. It's a good reminder of how elusive being present-minded really is. If I didn't know I was focused until after the fact, then how do I recreate a perfect moment? Just keep trying shit, I suppose. I enjoyed myself, put the work in, and success came out. Each time I nail it, I get a little closer to figuring it out. Each time I swing and miss, I still learn something, even if it's the same damned thing I learned last time.

Miscellaneous notes:
Gear: Nike Racer shorts, cheap cotton singlet from Kohl's, Inov-8 race ultra vest, knotted up rag bandanna, Patagonia Duckbill cap, Suunto Ambit 2 watch.

Food: Upwards of 18 GUs and three packages of Clif Shot Bloks, M&Ms, a banana, and an accidental ginger chew (who the fuck is eating those? Gross).

Shoes: New Balance WT110 v1. Women's size 12 = Men's 10.5. (It would be really cool if NB made a shoe very similar to this again). The men's version in my size is long extinct, so I scoop up the women's. One small blister after 10 hours with no socks.
I only get a few hundred miles out of them before they come unglued or tear across the top, but they're glorious miles.
I'd be remiss if I didn't thank my partner Kelsey for her support. On many occasions during training, she encouraged me to get out and run when I wanted to cut it short. I lean on her more than she realizes.
On a training run in the Grand Canyon before the race. 

I'll try to add more pictures from the race itself if they come about. Anybody have any?


  1. Nice race! Top 10% is always my race goal but has gotten harder to reach now that I'm on the wrong side of 40. I actually finished in the bottom half of a race at the golden gate dirty 30 (won by Chris, BTW) two years ago and it's gnawed at me ever since. Gotta take another swing this year!

    1. I've heard great things about that race! If my work schedule and funds weren't so restrictive of late, I'd love to get back to CO to do some races.

      I've been trying to figure it out, but do you have a blog? I always find your perspectives insightful, and would definitely read more.

    2. I've notice when I post on your blog, it either posts twice or not at all. Not sure what's up with that, but I'll try again, once again in bullet-point form as my weekly quota of properly formatted prose was used up in my last attempt at a post.

      - GG Dirty 30 is an ass-kicker and a good race
      - Try Telluride Mountain Run instead - more beautiful, more altitude, more like Hardrock but only 40 miles

      - Thanks for the nice comments
      - No, nobody wants to read a blog about a middle age suburbanite with a propensity for humble-bragging
      - Did I mention how slow I felt having to line up behind almost 2,000 people at the start of the Boston Marathon? :)

      No blog, but you can find me and my occasional mountain or dog pictures (and sometimes both) on Facebook if you search for "David Sutherland" or davethecanuck.

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