Category Archives: Ultramarathons

A Smaller Bigfoot, and Call for BHAG Ideas

I WUZ THIS CLOSE.

All this year I’ve had it in my mind that 2020 was going to feature my first 200-mile race. And I had it picked out: the Bigfoot 200 in August, in Washington State.

I’d already started the process; I told my wife and coach, and lined up a tentative crew with our friends on the West Coast. And as the race requires eight hours of trail work beforehand, I signed up to volunteer with the Friends of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail here in Michigan.

All set! I just needed to wait until registration opened and push the button. Then would begin a year’s worth of training to get ready.

Well, it didn’t happen quite that way.

Registration for the 2020 Bigfoot 200 opened late last month. There was even a substantial “early bird” discount. I went to the website and dutifully went through the course map, runner instructions, disclaimers, and other stuff they want you to read before registering.

This is good advice. Bigfoot is far different from any other ultra I’ve been involved with. For example, the Veterans Memorial 150, while no walk in the park, passes through several towns and has easy crew access most of the way.

Lest you think civilization makes 150 miles easy…

Bigfoot is 200 miles in the middle of nowhere with little or no cell phone service, aid stations averaging over ten miles apart, and only a few locations with crew access. A GPS tracking chip and survival equipment is mandatory for runners, with good reason.

None of that phased me, though. From previous tough ultras I figured I had the physical and mental stamina to get it done. No worries! And yet, as I reached the final signup page, my fingers hesitated. Something wasn’t right. I took a break to ponder what.

Cost was certainly a factor: a $900 entry fee and travel, lodging, and meal costs on top of that. Not a showstopper – Burning Man last year cost a similar amount – but still substantial. Plus my crew would be making a multi-day commitment and traveling to locations difficult to access. It’s a lot to ask.

But it came down to basic questions I finally figured out to ask myself. Was I really looking forward to this experience? With all the effort I’d be putting into training, preparation, logistics, and actually running the silly thing, would I enjoy it?

After I finish this race I’ll tell you I enjoyed it.

The answer, to my surprise, was No. I just didn’t feel ready for it. And so I won’t be doing it next year. However, I do plan on being there.

While perusing the website I found out there are some shorter races – the “Littlefoot” series – of various distances up to 100K. The 40-miler, a loop around Mt. St. Helens, particularly appealed to me. I’ve been there and hiked some of the trail. And I can do it in a single day, leaving more time to spend with our friends. Registration doesn’t open for that one until January, but I fully intend to push the button then.

So now I need to choose another BHAG(*) race for next year. I’d like it to be a 100-miler or more, although more then one fellow runner has recommended Comrades Marathon, the infamous 12-hour, 56 miler in South Africa. I welcome reader suggestions!

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(*) BHAG = Big Hairy-A$$ Goal

Cardiac Kid

Last month’s North Country Trail 50K was a reversal in my usual race routine: I ran an ultra as a fun break in my regular training.

This year I’m working on getting faster, and frankly it’s been a struggle after three years of training to “go long” so I looked forward to this 50K as a diverting return to familiar territory. No pressure to put the hammer down; quite the opposite, in fact.

Rarin’ to go at 6:30 a.m.

For this was the first race I ran entirely by heart rate instead of pace.

Why? To see how I would perform by staying “aerobic” which means maintaining a pace where the body is receiving enough oxygen to keep the muscles fueled. At a certain level of effort you go “anaerobic” where the body is using up oxygen faster than it comes in. This condition is standard for sprinters, but bad for distance runners if it happens too soon.

The key number to know is your Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate (MAHR). Go above that, and you’re running on borrowed time. It can be precisely determined in a medical lab, but there are ways to estimate it based on general assumptions on age and fitness level.

Physical age, that is, not emotional maturity. (Well, THE SIGN SAYS “Howling”!

Using the popular “Maffetone method” I estimated my MAHR to be around 130 beats per minute (BPM). I decided I could go slightly over that for a 50K and set my target average heart rate for 135 BPM, slowing down if it hit 140 or more. After twenty miles I felt strong enough to step it up, so I ran the final 11 miles at a target BPM of 145.

The result was one of the smoothest 50K I have ever run. I felt good throughout, and by focusing on BPM I could ignore my competitive instincts when other runners passed me or I saw one up ahead. I’d hoped for a finish under six hours and somewhere in the top half of the field, but got a surprise: a time of 5:36 (near my best) and a top 10 finish, too!

And a finisher’s medal that would send a horse to the chiropractor!

One more smart move was staying hydrated, learning from my digestive issues at the Potawatomi Trail 50. As it was a cool day I drank “ahead of my thirst” to make sure I was getting enough, and had no problems.

Now in the spirit of balance, here’s something I screwed up.

The race was on a Sunday, and Monday is a Body Specs gym day. Naturally I gave myself the day off, right? Umm….not quite.

Okay, I’ll admit I was partly motivated by wanting to show off the humungous finisher’s medal. But I was also feeling good enough to go. A nice, light recovery workout would be great, right? And so it seemed to go, until my legs tightened up later, and for the next two days I had to press on my quads just to sit down. (At least it was good power hike training.)

So I suppose you could say my heart was in the right place, but the effort was in vein.

Yes, I’m Aware that I’m Not Aware

Years ago, I was out on a Saturday morning club run. Among the runners that day was my instructor from the Running 101 class I’d taken the previous year. That class got me into running regularly, and resulted in my first half marathon. She looked at me as I passed.

“You’re doing great!” she said. “Drop those shoulders.”

Sure enough, they were riding up. I knew I was prone to this under stress, such as while running or in a tough Aikido class, but it’s not something I readily recognize. Since then I’ve worked on being more self-aware during long runs, and to consciously remind myself to relax.

Learning and applying self-awareness has several benefits. For one, it forces me into the moment – “how am I really feeling right now” – and takes my mind away from how much time or distance I have remaining. And once in the moment, it’s easier to remain there, to appreciate that I’m doing something I love, and how beautiful a day it is, or how beautiful the trail is. For me, at least, an ultra is a great thing to have finished, but the memories are more important. I have distinct memories from every one of my 22 (so far) ultras, and replaying them, good or bad, is very much like being there all over again.

Feeling good at the 2014 Dances with Dirt – Hell 50K.

It’s also good to be honest with yourself when others are not. Race staff, volunteers, and spectators don’t want to discourage runners. So what comes out of their mouths are things like, “You’re looking strong!” whether I’m bounding along or shuffling like a zombie and they’re texting the county coroner to stand by. So the times when they’ve been honest with me really stand out, like the guy who told me my nose was bleeding halfway through a 50K, or the aid station captain who gently hinted that maybe I should turn in my chip because I looked pale and wasn’t sweating. All this means I have to be conscious enough of my condition to make good decisions – or to specifically ask for an honest assessment from someone else..

Here are a few things I do at times during a long run or race:

  • Check my breathing. If I’ve picked up the pace, or run hard for a while, my breaths can get shallow and less productive. No matter how fast I’m going, I switch to several deliberate deep breaths. Not so much to get extra oxygen into my lungs, but to get the excess carbon dioxide out. So breathe out to empty the lungs, then breathe in normally.

Relax! Breathe deep!

  • Check posture. Am I upright, back straight, leaning from the ankles, or starting to hunch over?
  • General body check. How is everything feeling? Is there pain anywhere I’m not paying attention to? Am I favoring one side over the other? Do I need water or salt? You may wonder that I have to consciously do this, but when you’re focused on a particular goal or milestone, such as getting over this last ridge to the aid station, you can lose touch with how your body is doing.

Then, of course, there are times it’s obvious how my body is doing.

Having run ultras for years now, it’s mostly second nature. Or so I’d like to think. And yet, this very morning I was out on a club run, cruising through Nichols Arboretum, and we passed a couple of people on the trail. I was the last one in the pack, and shortly after I passed them I heard the older man’s voice behind me: “Relax the shoulders!”

One of these days, I’ll learn. Maybe.

My Ultrarunning Secret, and Other Pithy Wisdom from the VM150

I slouched in a comfy chair at this year’s Veterans Memorial 150, sipping a Coke and chatting with some Victory Gym staff. One of them heard I’d run the race last year. “150 miles,” he said. “What’s your secret?”

I thought for a moment. These were highly trained veterans who’d seen active service and more hardship than I’d ever know. And they were looking at me, wanting to know how I could run crazy long distances.

What did I tell them? Well, it’s a secret no more. Read on to find out!

This year’s VM150 was held over Memorial Day weekend as always. I have other training priorities this year, but I wanted to be involved somehow. It’s a fundraiser for Victory Gym, a nonprofit gym free for veterans and first responders, and offering support services for those dealing with PTSD. Last year the race raised over $18,000 for the gym.

I decided to run the first leg from Ludington to Scottville, help out at that aid station, and then be available as a pacer Sunday night. I would also collect the event’s waste for recycling and composting through my company, Happy Planet Running.

I showed up Saturday morning in a not-so-subtle red tech shirt, white shorts, and blue shoes. Kurt, the race director, introduced me as last year’s top male finisher, and Rebecca, the top female finisher, who was running the race again.

At the start. I’m just right of center. Rebecca is on my left (I’m looking in her direction), and to her left is Kurt, the race director.

The good news is that we had a record number of 150-mile finishes (seven) and 100-mile finishes (nine). No doubt the cool weather played a big part, with the high temps (low 80s) basically equal to the LOW temps for 2018’s race (with highs of 95+ during the days). Ah, Michigan weather!

Here are some vignettes from my time spent at the race that weekend. First, from that first leg to Scottville:

  • Chatting with Rebecca, whom I hadn’t actually met until now. Six weeks after the 2018 VM150, she’d run the Last Annual Vol State 500K, a 314-mile trek across Tennessee west to east. It took her six days. “Did you have a crew?” I asked. “Nope, I was ‘screwed’,” she said, using that race’s term for an unsupported runner. Where did she eat? Local towns. Where did she sleep? Park benches and churches. Wow. I asked her to talk me out of trying that race, but she refused.
  • Around mile seven, someone’s watch beeped. “Oh, I got all my steps in today,” he said.

At the Scottville aid station, my “helping out” turned out to be sitting around and clanging a cowbell for incoming runners. Tough job, but someone’s gotta…

  • Catching up with Ruth, who’d been unable to finish last year due to health issues. “Rebecca refused to talk me out of running Vol State,” I told her. “Oh, I’m doing Vol State this year,” she said. WTF? Yes, she’d recovered from her health issues. She planned to take the entire ten days allotted. “I figure I can do 50K per day,” she said. Eating and sleeping? See Rebecca’s plan.
  • Micheal Troutt, whom I’d met last year at Victory Gym, was there. He’s now very involved in the Warrior Ethos Foundation, a charity helping disabled veterans with things like house repairs, adjustments for wheelchair access, or finding transportation. This guy is always finding new ways to help people out. America needs a few million more like him.
  • Some Victory Gym staff members were there helping out. One of them heard I’d completed the race last year. “150 miles?” he said with some awe in his voice. “What’s your secret?” They all looked at me. What could I say? What’s a few miles in a safe environment compared with military service in a war zone? And yet ultrarunning is not exactly a typical or easy activity. Finally I had an answer. “Too stupid to quit.”

After the aid station closed, the Victory Gym president drove me back to Ludington. He told me how difficult it can be for veterans to adjust to civilian life, especially those with physical problems. The VA is short on resources, and vets in general don’t like talking about their problems. Over ten buddies of his had committed suicide. “But if they call, we can help them,” he said. “We just need to get them past that initial urge. So we do our best to let veterans know we’re here for them.”

I called Sunday afternoon about pacing, but the remaining runners were all set. So I picked up the collected aid station trash bags and drove to the finish line. I arrived just before midnight. Five solo runners and one relay team were still on the course. Gradually they trickled in, receiving our cheers and their belt buckles from Kurt.

  • Some of the race staff were napping on the picnic tables, wrapped in blankets. Ruth got up and stretched. “How can you possibly be comfortable,” I began, then cut myself off. “Oh yes, Vol State. Never mind.”
  • I chatted with a couple who were crewing. “Who’s your runner?” I asked. “Dean,” they replied. THE Dean? Who’d caught me at mile 35 last year, then gone to the ER with heatstroke? Yep, it was him – and this year he was going to finish! “He used the wet towel this time like you did,” they told me.
  • And then Dean came in! I approached, but he immediately lay down and began stretching while talking to his crew. Finally he sat up and said something about the top finisher. Kurt told him the name. “That guy’s in his fifties?” Kurt shook his head. “I’m talking about that Jackson guy,” Dean mumbled. Everyone laughed. “He’s right behind you!” someone said. He turned, and I shook his hand and congratulated him. “You were my motivation for finishing this year,” he said. Awww.

Dean, second from right, with crew and friends at the finish line.

The last runner finished at 3:30 a.m., and by 4:00 I took my trash and went home. A memorable weekend, even just helping out. Can’t wait for next year!

P.S. If you’d like to see my official sustainability report, with composting and recycling numbers, you can read it on the Happy Planet Running website here.