Down and Dirty: Dances with Dirt Hell 50K Recap

NIGHT AND DAY. That’s the best way to describe the difference between my experience at Run Woodstock earlier this month and the Dances with Dirt – Hell 50K last Saturday.

He's not really a bad guy once you get to know him.

He’s really not a bad guy once you get to know him.

Cool and dry where Woodstock was hot and wet, it was a perfect day for a long trail run. With no danger of bonking, I ran strong from start to finish and felt great the whole time. But every one of the four Dances with Dirt races this year had its particular challenges, and the Hell race was no exception.

As this was the 20th anniversary of the run, they promised to “pull out all the stops” – and they delivered. Here’s a sample of what the 50K and 50 mile runners went through.

I avoided this by walking over some logs. But just as I was congratulating my cleverness - well, see below.

I avoided this by walking over some logs. But just as I was congratulating my cleverness – well, see below.

There wasn’t much mud, but what was there was spectacular. The reason you can’t see my legs in the photo below is that they’re completely submerged. Fortunately, the runner in the photo above helped pull me out.

DWD Hell - Deep in the Mud

There were only a couple of water crossings – but one was a downriver wade of a quarter mile.

DWD Hell - Wading Downriver 2

And there were some hills:

DWD Hell - Blurry Hill ClimbAs you can see from the runner’s shoe, we are climbing an almost vertical slope. I wish this photo had come more more clearly – but then again, it’s got kind of a neat impressionist look, don’t you think?

And there was some bushwhacking off into parts unknown. The blue paint is the “trail” marking.

DWD Hell - Bushwhacking

But it all paid off with a finish in the top 20 overall. And I got a special belt buckle for completing all four DWD events this year!

DWD Belt Buckle Group

My strong finish was helped by some gear adjustments based on what I’d learned from my failed 100K attempt.

To tackle the chafing problem, I wore my triathlon shorts. I’d never run more than a 5K in them, so I was violating the rule of “don’t try new stuff in a race” – but since triathlon gear is designed for marathons (the Ironman running distance), I figured I was safe. And it worked! No chafing, and they dried out quickly after that long river wade.

I wore the same shoes as for Woodstock, but wore thinner socks and applied a bit more tape around the toes. I also rubbed Gold Bond Friction Defense over my feet. The result: no blistering, even though my trip through the mud meant running 10 more miles in soaked shoes.

With the usual well-stocked aid stations there was no shortage of food and water. All the same I sucked down a couple more Gu than usual, which I think helped keep my energy level up. Something to consider for future ultras.

Wow, Coke really is available everywhere.

Wow, Coke really is available everywhere.

Next up: 25K this Saturday on the Vasa trail in Traverse City.

Running On: Lessons from My Ultra DNF

Runners are funny people. They encourage the efforts of others, and when someone crashes and burns, they always know the right thing to say. Except when it comes to their own performance – then that stuff goes right out the window.

So it came as no surprise to me that everyone – 100% – of people who knew about my DNF at Run Woodstock supported my decision to stop. Some were even grateful. And everyone had something encouraging to say. So how did that make me feel? I think the meme below expresses how runners I know feel about such things.

Meme-FailingNotFailure

That out of the way, I feel better now. And besides, there’s another ultra this Saturday – the Dances with Dirt 50K in Hell, which, being its 20th anniversary, promises to be a lulu (check out the course description here). So instead of moping, I’ve been looking at what went wrong and what I can learn from it. And I’ll want to try the 100K again someday, too.

After some self-analysis, discussions with Coach Marie and a bit of WAGging (*) I’ve identified three main areas for improvement. If any ultrarunners are reading this, you’re welcome to chime in with your own stories and lessons learned. And if any readers are considering an ultra, I hope what’s written here won’t scare you away. An ultra is a blast. Really. I mean it.

So here we are:

The Physical – Aye, There’s the Rub

The biggest contributor to my early exit was the heat exhaustion. I’ve since read that even minor dehydration can play havoc with the body’s ability to regulate temperature. I was drinking a lot of fluids, but also sweating so much in that wet heat that it may not have been enough.

I bought two things for my next effort. First, a forehead thermometer. I can carry it in my pocket or running backpack so if I feel that way again, I can check to see if my core temperature is safe or too high. The other is some chemical cold packs to bring down my temperature if ice is not available, or I’m between aid stations.

Thermometer and Cold Packs

Chafing is another regular problem I have during ultras. Despite applying Body Glide and Vaseline, by my third loop my thighs were raw where my soaked, sweaty shorts rubbed on them. There were also a couple of “hot spots” in my underwear, and I don’t mean the good kind.

Gold Bond Friction DefenseMy coach told me about Gold Bond Friction Defense, a Body Glide-like product that also contains aloe for soothing the skin. I’m going to try it on Saturday.

Finally, there was blistering. From my other ultras I know where the trouble spots on my feet are, and I made sure to tape them carefully. That worked, but blisters are apparently more clever than I thought, and I got a couple where I didn’t tape. On the other hand, rubbing Body Glide all over my feet each loop helped keep them dry and comfortable. With mud and river crossings on the Saturday course, I will be continuing that practice.

Mental Lessons – Lord, Give me Patience – NOW

It’s fairly indisputable that any run of 30-plus miles qualifies as a long run. A 100K (62 miles) might even qualify as a very long run. Not surprisingly, long runs take a long time to complete. Any successful ultraunner, therefore, possesses at least a modicum of patience and mental discipline. But the longer the run, the more is needed, and at some point, most people hit a limit. I think I hit mine.

My plan for mentally managing the 100K was to break it up into manageable segments, like with last year’s 50-miler. Each loop had four, marked by the aid stations, all about four miles apart. But while similar in distance, they were very different in feel. The first leg and third segments were okay, but for some reason the second and fourth legs seemed to stretch on and on.

View from my headlamp during Run Woodstock 2012.

View from my headlamp during Run Woodstock 2012. The bright spot is the next trail marking flag. Or a ghost. I forget which.

On a trail in the dark, distances stretch and the inner clock I’ve relied on to estimate my pace and distance simply doesn’t work. Even known landmarks and milestones seem to take longer to reach. I began to get frustrated and began to tell myself how much worse it would be the next time around. That part of me was quite relieved when I quit.

The key to solving this, I think, is some formal mental training. My coach suggested restoration-style yoga, which includes a focus on meditation. I’m looking into this and will keep you posted.

Attitude – A Different Animal

Perhaps my biggest miscalculation was treating a 100K race like an extended 50K, instead of the very different type of race it is. Setting aside the maxim that for a long ultra, “if you think you’re starting too slowly, go slower still,” I ran at what seemed to be a comfortable pace – my 50K pace. No doubt that plus the heat caught up with me.

Pace too fast 2

Yum, yum!

Yum, yum!

I had the same “50K” attitude toward nutrition – being sure to drink and have salt at the aid stations, but otherwise winging it. For a 100K, I think I’ll have to approach it more systematically, to know more exactly what I need at what time. There are some general guidelines to apply on replenishing electrolytes and how many calories I should replace, what percentage should be simple sugars vs. complex carbs, how much protein, and how much water is needed to process it all. More to come there, too.

So for Saturday’s race, I can apply some lessons already. And I won’t have to worry about heat issues – it’s a morning race and will be much cooler. Should be a good time!

=================

(*) WAG = Wild-Ass Guess. Not to be confused with SWAG – Scientific Wild-Ass Guess – for which, as I understand, you need a Ph.D.

The Not-Quite-100K: Run Woodstock Recap

I ran an ultramarathon at Run Woodstock last week. It just wasn’t the one I signed up for.

Run Woodstock - start area

Yes, yours truly experienced his first DNF (Did Not Finish) in a race. After looking forward all summer to my first 100K trail race, I succumbed to the elements and called it off at 56K.

No wonder it's called the "Hallucination 100K" - we haven't even started and I'm already hallucinating.

No wonder it’s called the “Hallucination 100K” – we haven’t even started and I’m already hallucinating.

I’m a bit bummed out, naturally, but more surprised than anything. I’d signed up for 12 miles farther than I’ve ever done at one time, but I felt ready. Given my successes with multiple 50Ks this year (all strong finishes) and first triathlons (finished upright) I anticipated no trouble. It was just a case of banging out the miles, slow and steady. But it was not to be.

So what happened? I’d written in a previous post that I knew there would be limits on what I’d be able to accomplish, but that I hadn’t found them yet. Found one! And it wasn’t a bit fun, although I sure learned a lot from it. Here’s a recap.

The Start – Friday, 4:00 p.m.

Race day started out better than expected. Instead of the predicted rain at race start, it was sunny and 92 degrees. “Congratulations,” we heard as we stood in the starting queue. “Today is officially the hottest day of 2014 so far.” Standing around in shorts and tech shirt, it wasn’t so bad. Once we started running, however, the effects were felt quickly.

I don't think Randy's had that much hair since 1969.

I don’t think Randy’s had that much hair since 1969.

I knew what to do – don’t start too fast, take salt at the aid stations, and above all, stay hydrated. And I did, drinking more than I’ve ever done in an ultra. And yet I sweated so much it’s possible it wasn’t enough. I was grateful for the extra gear I’d packed. Even if it didn’t rain, ditching sweat-soaked clothes for dry ones would be welcome.

The Storm – Friday, 7:30 p.m.

The severe weather sirens sounded near the end of my first loop. The predicted storms had missed us so far, but now one was headed right for us. I’d been anxious to complete the loop before dark anyway, so here was some extra motivation to pick it up a bit. I made it back to base camp in the nick of time.

As I sat in the gear tent changing into dry socks, the surge hit us – intense wind gusts that lifted up the tent walls all around us, causing considerable oohs and aaahs.

That tent wall is supposed to be touching the ground, you see.

That tent wall is supposed to be touching the ground.

“Go on! You’re safe in the woods!” someone yelled to a runner hesitating on the start of his next loop. (Boy, was he wrong – see below.) But as another gust threatened to blow us to Hell – literally – I decided to sit it out. Ten minutes and a 20-degree temperature drop later, I headed out on my second loop.

I’d taken a rain jacket with me, and as a drizzle turned into a steady rain, I put it on. This kept me dry and warm at the time, but turned out to be a bad decision, as I kept sweating under it. Instead, I should have taken off my shirt to keep cool.

Yeah, me too!

Yeah, me too!

It was dark now, but the trail was well marked with fluorescent flags and I had no trouble staying on course. But in the dark, the distances seemed to stretch out even more than usual on a trail, the first half especially. Instead of working to stay calm and patient, I got annoyed and began to dread repeating the loop twice more. But I met up with a small group in the final segment and finished the second loop feeling good. Just another 50K to go!

The Bonk – Saturday, 12:30 a.m.

The trouble started as I took off my shoes to dry my feet and put on fresh socks. When I put my soaked, muddy shoes back on and stood up, they were too tight. Either they’d shrunk, or my feet had swelled, or both. That was okay – I had my Hokas in the gear bag, so I put them on – and they were tight, too. But as they were dry, I figured they would stretch enough, and out I went for the third loop.

I was feeling a little unwell and walked quite a bit of the first two miles. When we hit the gravel trail, I began jogging and felt better, passing and chatting with a few other runners. As we returned to the woods, I returned to walking. Something was going wrong with me in a hurry. It felt much like the second half of the Dexter-Ann Arbor half marathon – growing nausea and flushed in the head. I was overheated.

Just get to Gracie’s, (the aid station) I told myself. There you can get some ice and rest. A couple of runners passed me and asked how I was doing. “Hanging in there,” I told them. Then, out of nowhere, the thought came, persistent and insistent. Get to Gracie’s and tell them you’re done.

WTF? Where did that come from? Never before, in any race, had I ever even thought about dropping out. Nor was this a mental debate. I would be done. Period. Still, I resisted a bit.

Oh, that smarts.

I thought it was funny when I took it…

When I got to Gracie’s, I sat and applied ice to my neck for a while. But I did not improve. If anything, I felt worse. So I went over to the staff and told them I was done. They gave me a ride back to camp. “No worries,” the race director said when I told him what had happened. “You live to run another day.”

The Recovery – Saturday, 1:30 a.m.

I sat in the first aid station with ice, and after a half hour or so I felt better. Vital signs were okay, although I realize now they never took my temperature, so I don’t really know if I had heat exhaustion. Maybe if I’d just waited longer at Gracie’s I could have continued. On the other hand, passing out on the trail at night would have been a bad thing. So no real regrets.

And just in case I might have begun feeling sorry for myself…

Also in the first aid area was a young woman wrapped in a blanket and looking miserable. She’d been on the trail during the storm surge – and a tree had fallen on her. No serious harm, fortunately, but she was out – and she’d signed up for the 100-miler.

“I’ve had the worst luck with this race,” she told me. “Last year I was at mile 98, and I got clipped by a guy on a mountain bike.”

These are Super Slammers - five 100-mile races in one year. And people call *me* crazy.

These folks are Super Slammers – five 100-mile races in one year. And people call *me* crazy.

Next, I’ll be looking more at the mistakes I made and what I can do better in my next attempt at a race over 50 miles. Report following discussion with my coach.

A Beer for Brian

IF YOU’D SEEN ME LAST NIGHT paying tribute to my cousin Brian, and avoided being struck blind, you’d have had good cause to doubt my sanity. But I was fulfilling an obligation and following some very sage advice.

Fortunately, there are no photos. But you’re welcome to use your imagination.

Brian-croppedBrian was a sweet, good-natured guy with a broad and deep sense of humor. He was fun to be around. He enjoyed life, and at 51 was far too young to leave it. But his cancer was aggressive and incurable, and he passed away two weeks ago.

His memorial service was held yesterday in Wisconsin. My wife went but my biggest race of the year was this weekend – the 100K at Run Woodstock, which would start Friday afternoon and spill over into Saturday morning. So I offered to run my race in Brian’s honor, which the family thought was a fine idea.

Run Woodstock - ready to go

Ready to rock ‘n roll! Brian’s photo is pinned to my shorts.

Except that the 100K didn’t go according to plan. I overheated and dropped out at the 56K mark for my first-ever DNF. (More on that event, and what I learned, in an upcoming post.) I called my wife to let her know, and that I felt bad about it. By not finishing, I felt like I hadn’t really honored Brian properly. She set me straight.

“Brian wouldn’t have wanted you to kill yourself over this,” she told me. “You know what he would have said? Fuck it, and go get a beer.”

The moment I heard that, I knew it was exactly what he would have said. So my revised mission was to follow that advice. And I knew just how to do it.

In addition to the races, Run Woodstock offers fun, untimed trail runs of 5K or 10K on Friday and Saturday nights. There are two options available. The first is to follow the standard course on the trails. The second takes you to a secluded part of the woods where you can run a mile loop “the natural way”. You’re allowed shoes and a headlamp, and the rest is placed on a tarp at the starting point.

Or perhaps more appropriately, a "what the Hell" activity.

Or perhaps more appropriately, a “what the Hell” activity.

So which option did I choose for Saturday night’s run? Only the Natural option offers beer. Plus it fit well with the first part of the advice.

So I followed the flags to the tarp and made the necessary wardrobe adjustments. There was a group all ready to go for their mile, so I joined them. It was a perfect evening, dry and cool, and the loop flew by quickly and easily. After the sweltering heat followed by rain Friday night, this was pure bliss.

And unlike the first time I ran the natural mile, I felt completely at ease, even when we gave two fully clothed hikers a surprise. Everyone else seemed comfortable, too. “Liberating!” I actually heard someone say. Part of this, I think, is that runners tend to be easygoing and accepting. Awkward situations are nothing new to them and they pretty much take things as they come. It’s either part of what makes them runners, or what running does to them.

I finished the loop and picked up a cup of beer. As I was getting ready to salute Brian’s memory, I overheard a nearby group of women. They were doing the Natural for the first time and were a bit uncertain about where to go on the trail. Being the compassionate and chivalrous man that I am, I offered to go with them. “Oh, yes!” they said, so I put the cup down and off we went, two guys to about six or seven women. The evening just kept getting better!

That is, until we passed a woman walking along the trail holding a baby, nursing it while she walked. All the women stopped to ooh and aah over the baby and the other guy was telling the mom how great she was for doing this. So I was now by myself.

What to do – wait, or run? My body said run, and amazingly my brain agreed, so I went with that. Turned out to be a good plan. When I returned to the starting area, there was one cup of beer – the last one – on the table. In previous years, they’d set up a bar shack with more beer, wine and other drinks, but this year they’d kept that all in the main campground. So I’d arrived just in time.

I picked up the last cup, explaining that it was needed to fulfill a sacred duty. Naked in front of God and the other naked people, I raised the cup toward the heavens. “Brian,” I said, “this one’s for you.”

If he was watching, I hope he had a good laugh.

A SFW version of my toast. RIP, dude.

A SFW version of my toast. (The button is from last night.) RIP, dude.

Woodstock Warmup!

FRIDAY’S FORECAST FOR HELL: HOT, with rain showers likely, then cooling off on Saturday. Trail conditions: 200 yards of campground road followed by 61.9 miles of slippery, shoe-eating mud.

Just hours now to Run Woodstock and my first-ever 100K trail race, starting at 4:00 Friday afternoon, and crossing the finish line somewhere between 4:00-6:00 a.m. Saturday. The rain is also supposed to start around 4:00 Friday afternoon, and end somewhere around 6:00 a.m. Saturday. Rain, dude, we’re good buddies and all, but why couldn’t you have signed up for a different event? Not that a little rain bothers me, of course. Not at all. Won’t even notice. Yeah.

Woodstock - Making Sandwiches

Three hours making sandwiches! It’s comforting to know I have skills like this to fall back on if I ever lose my job.

At least the weather forecast made my preparation simple. Pack everything! That done, I went over to Hell Creek Ranch to help set up, making PB&J sandwiches and unpacking medals for the 1,600 people running this weekend. Mother Nature was there too, dumping about fifteen minutes of light rain on us. Just warming up for the races, you know.

I saw Randy, the race organizer there, and asked him about the quality of the trails. “Oh, they’re fine from the campground to the woods,” he said. Oh well, at least only the “hundies” (100K and 100-mile runners) will be out there Friday night. I can only imagine what the trails will be like Saturday morning when the other races start. Might need to call in the kayakers from the summer triathlons.

Super cool, right? Isn't it worth an all-night run on muddy trails in the rain to  get one of these? Sure, I'll wait while you think about it.

Super cool, right? Isn’t it worth an all-night mud run in the rain to get one of these? Sure, I’ll wait while you think about it.

Full weekend report to follow. For now, gotta finish my pre-race training regimen: carbo-loading and rest. Let me tell you, sitting around watching TV and eating pie isn’t easy. Seriously. I am not used to this. But I’m doing my best.

Hunting the Snarky

Runners in particular are fond of snarky slogans, and I enjoy collecting them. So I’m interrupting my regular program of highly informative, thought-providing, and possibly world-changing posts to show you all some entertaining T-shirts and signs from my recent races and training runs. After all, it’s hard to come up with highly informative, thought-providing, and possibly world-changing posts all the time. And maybe one day I’ll actually write one.

Until then, here you go. Enjoy!

RBTW - If Found Please Drag

RBTW - Run Now Wine Later

RBTW - Beware of Fast Women

For this one, see the sign near the lower right corner. (Click on the photo to get a larger image if needed.)
Sign - Free Idiot Test

Shirt - In Case of Zombies

Shirt - Trample the Weak

Yeah, don’t we all?
Napkin - I Want It All

Up next: Adventures in night running.

Rabbit in the Vineyard

I CHARGED DOWN THE FINAL STRAIGHTAWAY toward the “Mile 3″ sign, hearing nothing but my own heavy breathing. Behind me, somewhere, were close to 800 other runners. Ahead was one lone runner – and the pace bike. My mind was flashing between two thoughts: Keep going – just hold it together a little longer – and, What the *&%! am I doing in second place???

The answer, near as I can tell, is either that wine drinkers don’t run particularly fast, or that the fast ones didn’t get up early enough to run a morning race.

Last Saturday’s Running Between the Vines race was the second in the Running Fit “Thirsty 3″ series. The first, the Hightail to Ale in May, brought nearly 4,000 runners to Detroit’s Atwater Brewery to run a 5K along the Riverwalk (and a line at least that long to get a post-race beer). Saturday’s race at the Sandhill Crane Vineyards just outside Jackson split 1,400 runners between a 5K and a half marathon, with wine and food tasting afterward – an event aimed at a more refined and sedate type of runner.

Okay, never mind.

Okay, never mind what I just said.

A long wait for parking was the only glitch in an otherwise perfect day and well-run event. The half marathon started on time at 7:30 a.m., despite many runners still parking or standing in the porta-john lines. No harm done, as it was chip timed, but I was grateful I’d chosen the 8:00 5K and had a half hour to get loose.

God + wine: a classic pairing.

God + wine: a classic pairing.

Having completed a triathlon just three days before, I left my “hard run” vs. “fun run” decision to the last minute. Then I thought what the hell and worked my way to the front of the line. “Go, rabbits,” someone said laconically as the horn sounded and we sprinted into the first turn. Wine drinker, obviously.

RBTW - Run Now Wine LaterOur route went through a restricted neighborhood which opened its gates for us. Tall and solid gates, not some half-assed toll booth lever. Wine drinkers are apparently perceived as upright and trustworthy, although judging from the paucity of spectators, not worthy of much attention.

I was in the lead group, but I fully expected people – lots of them – to overtake me. Instead, incredibly, I was overtaking others. Before long I was in fourth place. Then third. At the one-mile mark I passed the next guy. I was in second place, and the pace bike and front runner were clearly visible ahead. I’ve had top 10 finishes in trail races, but never in a road race. This was something entirely new – and unbelievable.

As I ran through the water station at the halfway mark I heard voices and footsteps behind me, but taking a page from Satchel, I didn’t look back. The Mile 2 marker came and went. I was holding second but not gaining on the leader, who remained about 20 seconds ahead.

I had a decision to make. Should I go balls out and try to catch him? Would I ever have a better chance to win a race? But if I did, I might crash and burn, spoiling what promised to be my best-ever finishing position.

Coincidentally, I later came across this New Yorker article about Alberto Salazar, a world-class runner in the 1980s, and his ability to push through pain and exhaustion to win races. The author (Malcolm Gladwell – yes, him) recounts his own “balls out” moment as a runner, and concludes he is not like Alberto Salazar – it was not worth it to him. Unknowingly, I’d reached the same conclusion. Second place would be good enough.

Down the final stretch and back into the vineyard. The finish line appeared, and I surged through it. Second overall! The third place finisher was only six seconds behind. I wonder what his thoughts had been regarding me?

Vines Finish - 0007

And the crowd goes wild! Er…the one guy watching tips his glass at me.

In the spirit of full disclosure, my time of 20:38 would have been buried way down the list at the Hightail to Ale 5K, where the top 5 finish times were under 18 minutes. But that’s what races are like. It isn’t the fastest runner who wins, it’s the fastest runner who shows up that day.

The post-race wine and food tasting was surprisingly good. Even though I don’t drink much wine, I liked their Pinot Grigio so much I bought a bottle. I’d won a nice wine bottle carrier and needed something to fill it, didn’t I?

Here's what the people really came for.

Here’s what the people really came for.

The final in the “Thirsty 3″ series, the Scrumpy Skedaddle, is Oct. 5. I wonder how cider drinkers compare to beer and wine drinkers in a 5K. I’ll be sure to let you know.

And let's not forget Run Woodstock - less than 3 weeks away!

And let’s not forget Run Woodstock – less than 3 weeks away!