Tag Archives: race

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.

Hills, Hops, and Masks – Racing Safely

I did something this week I haven’t done in a long time.

I ran an actual 5K race. With a real bib, chip timing, and other runners present.

Honest to goodness.

The event was Hills to Hops, held at Robin Hills Farm in Chelsea, put on by RF Events. Normally they’d be busy with summer triathlons, half marathons, and even ultramarathons. But of course nothing is “normal” right now in the world of athletics. Those events have gone virtual this year, but they were still looking for a way to get people together to enjoy an actual factual race. And with modifications to keep people safe, they did just that.

Recently reopened after renovations, Robin Hills Farm offers events including live music, food and drinks, and space for special events. The property includes trails that can be used for hiking or running, sufficiently long to create a 5K loop. So RF Events set up a two-day event, offering a 5K each day, with full chip timing and age group awards.

So, what were some of the modifications made to ensure safety?

  • Each race was limited to 100 runners, as currently required by Michigan
  • Instead of a single mass start, there was a 90-minute window for starting, 5:00-6:30 p.m. You could start at any time during that window.
  • Bibs were hung off a fence. I was sent my bib number via text ahead of time, so I just walked up to the fence, found the bib with my number, and checked the tag to make sure the information was correct. Even had four safety pins with it.
  • A long one-way path to the starting line to avoid people passing each other coming and going.

Note the gorgeous property!

  • The finish line far enough away from the start. And just a couple of water bottles were placed on the table at any one time.
  • No medals at the finish line. They were optional, and had to be ordered ahead of time and be shipped to you. Same with T-shirts.

Safe starting.

Safe finishing.

The course wound through the farm’s property. Some was dirt trail through woods, other parts in a grassy meadow, and it ended with a staggered run back and forth up the rows of the amphitheater and to the top of a hill to the finish. With a slow trickle of runners across the start line, it was never overly crowded.

Everyone there behaved themselves, wearing masks when around other people, and observing good social distancing. (See, folks, it can be done.) The post-race scene was nice, too. Plenty of shady space to hang out in, and the bar was open to get a beer or drink. Live music, too.

One more bonus – with so little stuff handed out, there was very little trash to deal with. I informally collected about 30 bottles and cans for recycling (that is my job, ya know), but there was almost nothing else. Not a viable model for my business, but a lot less frantic activity.

RF Events is planning similar races for the next couple of months. Check out the events here: http://rfevents.com/pop-ups

I’m planning to be there. Join me! This running thing just might catch on, you know.

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

Ten Years of Racing!: A Celebration, and a Lesson Learned

Last Saturday’s Holiday Hustle in Dexter – a fun and otherwise ordinary end-of-season 5K – was memorable for me. Ten years ago, the 2008 Holiday Hustle was my first-ever official race.

That’s right! A dedicated non-runner until my mid-forties, I’d begun with just a few short runs here and there to supplement bike rides and Aikido training. Then, finding out about the Holiday Hustle just a few miles from my house, I said what the hell and signed up.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Last Saturday I joined the crowd in the starting queue with over a hundred races to my name, from 5Ks to marathons and beyond, including two 100-milers and my (current) longest distance of 150 miles, accomplished last June at the Veterans Memorial. Had anyone predicted this back then, I’d have laughed and said they definitely had the wrong guy. Well, you know what they say about truth and fiction.

So there was definitely something to celebrate and enjoy about this year’s race, and I did, although like any 5K I run, it was a sufferfest for all 3.1 miles. I finished in just under 21 minutes, and claimed second in my age group. On paper, a good solid result, especially because I went right back to work heading up the event’s Zero Waste team. No sense going all out and killing myself over this race, right?

“Santa, I want a worm composting bin for Christmas!”

Except that’s not how I felt.

I wasn’t expecting a PR (personal record) because I’ve trained this year mostly for ultramarathons, and not for short races. And given I set a PR for the 50-mile distance, and got two podium finishes, including a win, I have zero complaints about that.

Third at the Dogwood 12-Hour race in March

1st at the Veterans Memorial 150 in June.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But at any race, competitive runners (at any level) should give themselves the best chance to do well, whatever that means that day. And I didn’t do that at the Holiday Hustle.

How so? First, I didn’t warm up thoroughly, contenting myself with a quick half-mile jog followed by a few strides. To best prepare my body to run hard on a cold day, I should have run at least a mile easy, coupled with dynamic stretches to get fully loose. And I should have lined up much closer to the start than I did, because I knew I’d be weaving around other runners for the first half mile otherwise.

Why did I sabotage my chance at my best effort? I’m really not sure. Perhaps subconsciously I wanted to give myself an “out” if I didn’t run up to my expectations. Which, as I well know after all these races, doesn’t work anyway. Compounding a poor run with poor preparation, or lackadaisical attitude,  doesn’t help. So much better to think, “I didn’t meet my goal, but I gave it my best shot. And that’s all I can ask!”

I can’t do anything to change the result, of course. All I can do is change my attitude going forward. Even a fun holiday race is still a race, and there’s part of me that wants to do it well. So – chalk up a lesson learned. And, Lord willing, there will be plenty more chances to apply it. Ten years is just the start of what I hope are many, many more years of running adventures. And I’ll be sure to share them with you right here. Thanks, as always, for reading!