Maniac on Singletrack

I HAVE THREE TAKEAWAYS from last weekend’s Singletrack Maniac 50K:

  1. Never assume a water jug is full
  2. You never really know what you’re capable of until you do it
  3. Ultrarunners are the best f**king people on the planet. (I knew that already, so this race was just another confirmation.)

There’s the TL;DR version. For those of you inclined to read on after lists like these, here’s the rest of the story.

Singletrack Maniac takes place in Williamsburg, Virginia, on the trails of beautiful Freedom Park, with start and finish at a nearby middle school. It was a pretty standard atmosphere – well-stocked aid stations, enthusiastic volunteers cheering us on, and runners and families hanging out on the lawn afterward. Which made it all the more remarkable, given we’re still in pandemic mode. (From my perspective, people were protecting themselves appropriately.)

The wisest advice you can give an ultrarunner!

I started out fast to establish a place on the singletrack where I could run at my chosen pace. This meant I was somewhere in the front 20 or so. I decided to push myself a little and ran harder than my standard 50K pace. This meant I was uncomfortable much of the time, but sustainably so. During my time out there I passed a few people and a few passed me, so overall I felt I was in the right place.

The course is a little unusual in that it’s two different trail loops, each run twice. My strategy was to learn from the first time through each loop, and adjust for the second loop accordingly. The first part, held on the A trail system, went well, and I felt strong as I entered the second half of the race on the D&E trails. And as I’d heard from others, this is where things got interesting.

The back loop does not have short, steep climbs and descents like the Potawatomi Trail back home, but it makes up for it with  long, gradual climbs and a lot of gentle rolling terrain with sharp turns, all of which sap your energy without you really feeling it for awhile. It became evident the second time through, when areas I’d run through the first time became walk/run or power hike.

And then came my kick-my-rear-end moment. On this part there’s a creek crossing, and just over the bridge were two tables with water jugs. I was low on water and looking forward to it. I opened my bottle and dumped the remaining contents over my head, as I was warm from the effort and rising temps, even as a little voice in my head warned me not to trust a water jug. Sure enough, it was empty. I had a bad moment or two before I tried the other jug, which fortunately had a little left in it.

Following that episode, I got a second wind and was able to resume fulltime running pace again. Funny how quickly a race “low” can switch to a “high” (and vice versa) but that’s ultrarunning for you. I was a little bummed when two guys I’d seen off and on throughout the race passed me for what I assumed was the last time. They looked way too comfortable.

And yet, as I emerged from the trail at the mile 30 aid station, there they were. I’d caught up somehow! Just one mile to go. But the path back to the road was a long uphill. Staring ahead, I realized how gassed I was.

“See you guys after the finish,” I told them.

They were having none of it. “Come on, man!” they said. “Match pace to the finish!” And we took off together. I kept up with them until one final checkpoint exiting the park. We stopped to show our bibs, and I didn’t have the heart to start running again, so I began walking. They waved at me from ahead. “Come on, man!” they said again. Where else but trail ultras does this happen?

Well, that did it. Turn down a second challenge? Might as well turn in my card. So I dug deep and took off after them. It was godawful hard, but as we reached the top of the hill, I caught up. Still, I figured it wouldn’t be long before they took off Roadrunner style and left me in the dust with my tongue hanging out.

So I redlined it, going all out. Man, did it hurt, but I was not going to jog it in, dammit. I’ll go this hard until I can’t, I told myself. The approach to the finish is a U-shape – run on the road, turn into the school driveway, and run back through the parking lot. This prolonged the agony, but somehow I held it together. Across the line I sprinted, well ahead of the two guys who’d given me the motivation to finish strong.

I went to the refreshment tent and lay down gratefully in the shade. The race director approached. “You won second Masters,” she said, placing my prize down next to me. Second in the 40-and-over age division. How about that? And I’d finished in the top 20 overall. I made sure to thank my colleagues for pushing me.

Me with some fellow top finishers, with our award growlers. Me second from left, my motivators the rightmost two.

Was it worth the ten-hour drive there? Absolutely. And I recommend it for anyone who would like to try out a trail ultra. Gorgeous park, not too many rocks and roots, and great support. And who knows, you just might discover you’re capable of more than you thought, even if you’re an experienced trail runner. Happened to me!

Swim, Bike, Run – As Nature Intended?

An email newsletter from a local racing company landed in my inbox recently. It carried this interesting announcement:

NEW RACE! We are excited to let you know about our 2021 schedule – we will see the return of our regular schedule along with bringing back an old-time classic.

Well, hey, a new race means more business for Happy Planet Running, as this event company is one of my clients. So, naturally, I had to find out about it.

WTF? For reals? Why yes, there was even a “Register” button included. And Portland has the same thing, also sponsored by WHY bars!

My astute readers have guessed by now that both newsletters, though real, were dated April 1. I found it hard to believe anyway. Early spring in Michigan is definitely not a time to hold an outdoor event in the buff. The water temperature alone would require a wetsuit, which kind of defeats the purpose. And yet, the race director told me a number of people fell for it!

I can’t really blame them; it could happen. As a veteran of the World Naked Bike Ride (Portland, 2018) and the clothing-optional Burning Man 50K, (the links are to my experiences there) I know two of the three sports have such events. Toss in some skinny-dipping (and who hasn’t?) and there you go!

2018 WNBR Portland. I’m the one on the right, just to be clear.

But I couldn’t just let the subject (or anything else) drop there. Being an inquisitive sort, I went to the all-knowing Internet to find out if there really is such as thing as the titular (*) tri in the newsletter. (Purely for research, you understand.)

I thought I’d found one in England. Nope – another April 1 announcement. The Wildflower Triathlons Festival has been dubbed “The Woodstock of Triathlon” and based on the review it sounds pretty much like that. No naked athletes, though, just one naked aid station, but I suppose it’s better than nothing.

I also came across, “Don’t Get Naked In Transition,” a book full of practical advice about doing triathlons. As a triathlete that particular rule sounds pretty self-evident to me, but you never know.

So I can conclude a couple of things from my investigation. One, the nude triathlon is an as-yet unexplored market for a young and hungry race company to exploit. (My client does many triathlons but is sticking with her core competency of clothed events.) And based on the number of people who clicked on the “Register” button in the newsletter, there would seem to be a guaranteed respectable headcount. Of course, there would be some challenges, like where you would put your race bib. Nothing that couldn’t be overcome with a little American ingenuity.

Now having pitched the idea (you’re welcome, no charge) would I actually do one? That depends, I’d want reasonably warm water, and shoes and bike helmets would have to be allowed. And decent beer. Like Oberon. Offer Bud Light and I’ll find somewhere else to shake my booty, thank you.

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(*) You know I had to get that word in there somehow.

Grandmaster of Disaster

After running the Grandmaster 100K last month in the Arizona desert, I now share one characteristic with legendary ultrarunner Jim Walmsley, who has now twice set the course record at the Western States 100.

No, I did not win Western States. I haven’t even tried to qualify for it (yet). But we do indeed share one type of experience. I shall explain.

My usual plan with an ultra is to run it once, enjoy the experience, and move on. The Grandmaster Ultra is one of the select few I chose to go back to. The stark beauty of the desert, the challenge of the course, and the camaraderie of fellow 50+ runners was too strong a call to ignore. And it was among the few ultra choices available in early 2021.

I’d run the 50-miler in 2020 (just prior to Covid and all that), so I signed up for the 100K this year. A way different beast. In addition to the extra 12 miles, the last few hours would be run in the dark. I looked forward to the challenge.

Check out the incredible scenery below. Believe me, these photos don’t come close to full vision, wide-angle experience.

The footing’s even more fun in the dark!

I arrived with lowered expectations, due to pandemic-related necessities. But aside from mandatory mask-wearing and slightly fewer food options, it was the same as last year, including bonfires at the aid stations after dark. The weather was perfect for running – in the high 30s at start, rising to around 60 degrees in the afternoon, then dropping fast after sunset. Good preparation was key. I made several checklists and packed my drop bag carefully.

I would be running the 50K loop twice, so I sent a drop bag to the halfway mark of that loop, and had another one in my car at the start/finish. I was all set. Or so I thought.

The first loop went exactly to plan. I finished it around 6 hours 15 minutes, right on schedule, feeling strong, and, unexpectedly, as the lead runner. I checked my feet – nothing serious going on – put on a fresh shirt and socks, drank a lot of Gatorade, and headed back out. At every aid station the volunteers congratulated me on being in the lead. I’d met the couple behind me, Gene and Julie, friends running together, and they congratulated me too. Did I mention how great the camaraderie is with trail runners?

And the aid station volunteers were awesome, too!

Partway through my second loop I put on my headlamp, a new design that promised to be lighter and more comfortable than the standard headlamp. It was great. It’s light and so well balanced on the head I didn’t feel it at all, and its medium setting was plenty to light my way. The only thing missing is a red LED on the back for a rear light. So I clipped a couple bike lights to my belt instead.

In the desert, stuff just kinda shows up outta nowhere.

I got to the halfway aid station still feeling good. It was dark and already noticeably cooler, so first thing was to switch out my sweaty shirt for a fresh, dry one. Only I didn’t have one in my drop bag. Somehow, despite my carefully detailed checklists, I’d overlooked packing one. Not good. My only option was the shirt I’d swapped out on loop one and left to dry in the sun. It was still damp. I put it on anyway, figuring it would be better than no second layer. And I had a wind jacket. It would have to do.

On my way back I encountered Gene and Julie again. “Your lead just keeps getting bigger,” Gene said. I indeed figured I could stick to my current pace. No need to hit the gas just yet. I refueled at the next aid station and began the next stretch, which I knew was the longest and toughest on the loop. And during that stretch, things began to suck.

First, the terrain seemed to have changed; I didn’t remember there being so much uphill. I became convinced that in between my first and second loops, a construction crew had come in, elevated the grade, and strewn extra rocks on the trail. And I was getting cold, due to my slower pace, rapidly falling temps, and wet shirt.

Every ultrarunner knows to expect highs and lows during a race of this length. I’d been marveling that even after 50 miles, I hadn’t hit a low. Now one showed up and gleefully reminded me constantly that I was sore, tired, and cold. And, by the way, there was still a long slog remaining to the finish. Those few miles seemed to go on forever. Finally I heard the noise and saw the lights of the aid station ahead.

The middle of that tough stretch. Easy during the day. At night…not so much.

I got there and stood by the fire a bit, which didn’t help much. I think my clothes were just too wet. So I moved on to the final aid station. It was less than two miles, but I was not in good shape. I was shivering and had to sit down. Fortunately, someone had some toe warmers, which I slid down my shirt. After a few minutes my core felt warm enough that I was ready to push on to the finish. It was nearly five miles, but mainly downhill. All I had to do was hold together a little longer.

Down the wide, gravelly road I went, feeling better from the warmers and a quicker, steady pace. I reached the bottom and the final turn to the finish. Just between one and two miles to go, on a nice soft runnable surface.

And I had a Walmsley moment.

At mile 93 of the 2016 WS 100, Jim was not only the lead runner, he was on pace to break the course record. Per his own account, all was on track – until he made a wrong turn, went two miles off course, and ended up walking the rest of the way.

And on my final turn by that highway I went wrong, ending up on a path that looked sorta right, except there were no ribbons. In daylight I would have figured it out pretty quickly from landmarks and the fence line. But it was dark, and I figured it had to be right. I kept going, getting more and more concerned. Then I saw a woman up ahead.

“Have you seen any ribbons?” she yelled.

Well, if I was lost, at least I had company. We ran on a little longer, not seeing anything familiar. So we decided to turn around and head back to the intersection. I took off hard, pleased to have a reserve to draw on, but frustrated I’d gone so far the wrong way. I estimated I’d gone over a mile off course.

I got back to the crossroads, found the correct path right next to the other one, got on it and continued hard to the finish, crossing the line at around 16 and a half hours. My second loop had taken ten hours.

And I’d finished third. Both Gene and Julie had taken the correct turn and finished well ahead of me. Julie actually won the race overall by about ten minutes. So I was second male finisher and earned a trophy instead of the winner’s belt.

I was bummed, naturally, but also amused at the irony. Last year I’d won the 50-miler by a single second, and the fellow I’d finished with had accepted his second-place trophy with good grace. Now after being unchallenged leader for nearly 61 miles of a 62-mile race, I had to do the same.

I did my best to smile as they took my photo. But I was suffering badly from cold and fatigue, so right after that I got in my car, cranked up the heat, and returned to my lodging. What a relief to get into a warm bed with dry clothes.

And how do I feel about it now? Just fine, thank you. One advantage of being over fifty is learning what’s worth getting upset over, and what isn’t. And a race result is a definite isn’t. Besides, it makes for a good story. And I like the trophy. People think it’s pretty cool. What was I going to do with another belt?

Now I ask you – isn’t that one cool-looking trophy?

And one other thing may change as a result. I’d been thinking this would be my final time at the Grandmaster. There are too many other races that look like fun. But I was not happy with my time, even accounting for the wrong turn. If I’d won, I might just let it go. But now? I’m beginning to think I can do a lot better if I give it another go. Jim Walmsley did.

Remembering Rebecca

I’m back home, fresh off the Grandmaster 100K in sunny Beaver Dam, Arizona and the surrounding desert. Feeling pretty good, considering, and enjoying the rest days. I have quite a story from the ultra (two, actually), and I was all set to tell you about it.

But today I learned something that forces me to put all that aside, and I’m going to share that with you instead.

I’ve written before about Rebecca Gartrell, who, before we ever actually met in person, chased me across the state of Michigan. Literally. On foot.

We were both running the 2018 Veterans Memorial, a 150-mile race from Ludington on Lake Michigan to Bay City on Lake Huron. The race raises money for Victory Gym, a nonprofit and free gym for veterans and first responders, and also providing PTSD therapy. A great cause I was happy to be part of. And while I drove up from Ann Arbor, Rebecca came all the way from Texas to participate.

Well, from mile 80 all the way to the finish she was on my mind. Because I was the lead runner and she was in second, and at every aid station progress check, it seemed like she was creeping ever closer. I did win by a good margin and wanted to meet her, but was too wiped out to stick around. But I found her race record online, and man, was it impressive.

Five weeks later, Rebecca ran the Last Annual Vol State 500K, a ten-day race across the state of Tennessee. After the VM 150 I was just trying to walk normally again, but for her it was just a warmup, I guess. She did it unsupported, sleeping on park benches and church lawns. Just goes to show, I told myself (again) – no matter how crazy you are, there’s always someone crazier.

Fast forward to the 2019 Veterans Memorial race. I’m there to help out and run the first 12-mile leg for fun. She’s also back, and I meet this remarkable lady for the first time. After chatting about her Last Annual Vol State race, I implored her to talk me out of doing it. “Nope, can’t do that,” she said. Damn. So it’s still on my list of races to do. Someday.

2019 VM150 start. I’m on the left in the red shirt, looking at Rebecca. Kurt, the RD, is on her left in the blue shirt and jeans.

Just recently she appeared on my radar again. I’m researching 200-mile races to celebrate being 60 next year (crazy, yes) and found an online recap of the Buckeye Ultra 200. It features two very tired guys finding the strength to push each other to the end. They finish nearly together – second and third. And the winner? Yep. Rebecca Gartrell.

This month she set out on a planned 870-mile run across the state of Texas (see above, “always someone crazier”). By herself, with one friend as crew. For fun. No money, no prize, no glory. Just to do it. They set up a website to track their progress. I cheered them on.

Well, on Monday, 265 miles into her odyssey, Rebecca was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver early in the morning. I heard the news today from a friend who had also been following her progress. It still hasn’t sunk in. Part of me wants to believe she’s still out there doing her thing.

This is so damn unfair. Things like this shouldn’t happen to people so full of life. And I can’t imagine what her family and friends are going through.

I have no words of wisdom, folks. I can only pass along what her friend and crew person said in the post announcing her death:

Life is short and very precious – hug your loved ones a little tighter and longer and live for the day. She would have wanted you to.

Rest well, Rebecca. It was great to know you.