Saturday, November 8, 2014

Pinhoti and Grindstone

Back in 2011 I ran the Pinhoti 100 in the Talladega National Forest of Alabama, my fifth hundred miler of the year. I'd had high hopes for the race but things quickly went south when an aggressive start and the cumulative fatigue of a hard year finally caught up to me. My friend, Nate got to witness my utter loss of dignity as my stomach rid itself of all precious fluids every fifteen minutes for the last few hours of the race. He all but dragged my ass to the finish and still loves to harass me about it today.

At the finish,Todd Henderson, the race director said he hoped I'd come back again and I reflexively told him I would. I knew I wanted to do better, but wasn't sure I'd really return. Pinhoti is for sure a well-run race with a good course but I've got a long list of races I want to do, and ones that require significant travel are hard to justify a second go-round of. Sometimes unexpected opportunities arise, though.

Running Grindstone 100 this October, I felt like I had some long-delayed gratification finally coming to fruition. First, the race was cancelled in 2013 because the House Majority Leader threw a partisan hissy fit and shut down the federal government. When Grindstone 2014 finally rolled around I'd been having a tough year, not really satisfied with how my races or major FKT attempts had gone over the last few months. As I ran through the rainy and foggy Virginia night, moving up from fifteenth place to third, I felt like redemption was imminent. A smart and conservative strategy would pay off if I could just hold on for the last few miles. Then I experienced what'd I'd describe as a priority upset and in an instant I didn't give a shit about the race.

My friend Kristina ran up to me looking panicked, blurting out a string of words, but daughter, seizure, and ambulance were the only ones that I really needed to hear. We made our way to the mile 97 aid station where I dropped out and jumped into a waiting car for a ride to the hospital. Growing up in New Hampshire, I'm accustomed to religion largely being a private matter and I've always felt a little awkward to hear public displays of it in the South, but I started to cry when one the volunteers said they were praying for my family. Red-eyed, I limped into the ER on stiff legs looking like hell, not having slept in over thirty hours, smelling of ammonia and encrusted in dust and salt. The nice lady at the front desk assumed I was there to check in. Without going into too much detail, everything turned out alright and I spent the rest of the day with my wife and two year old daughter laying low in a hotel room, together as a family.

When the dust settled, I realized my Grindstone DNF left me without a Western States 100 qualifier with only a month before the lottery, which I've unsuccessfully been entering since 2009. A new ticket allocation procedure that normally would work in my favor quickly threatened to turn my odds upside-down, dropping from thirty-two tickets in the pool to one. It's silly that with my race history there should ever be a question about whether I'm "qualified" or not, but 'dems 'da rules and they're the same for everybody. So that's how I signed up for Pinhoti with four weeks to recover from Grindstone. The last minute arrangements would mean traveling to Alabama alone, but paying for the flight with flyer miles made the out of pocket expenses bearable. My wife understands how much keeping my Western States dream alive means to me and aside from that, I now had an opportunity to set things right in Alabama and establish something to show for the 2014 season.

For the first time in a hundred miler I'd be entirely alone; no pacer, no crew, no travel companions, and only one or two acquaintances at the race. I'd rent a car and use a single drop bag at mile 55 with my night stuff, but otherwise I'd carry everything I'd need with me and make heavy use the volunteers and aid stations. I did my best to relax amongst the nervous chatter on the dark bus ride. When the first timer next to me asked for advice, I just said the two most valuable things I could; trust your own experiences (what works for you) and don't over think it. It's just running. I focused on those two things myself.

This year I deliberately didn't line up close to the starting line, so as not to go out too fast. That was my mistake in 2011; running on Karl Meltzer's heels for a couple miles. There's certainly a balance to be had here, as this time I immediately got stuck in a conga line where the trail funneled down to singletrack. I'm all for going out slowly, but waiting in line to hop a log or cross a stream isn't much fun. I decided it was worth the energy to make some passes to break free of the mid-pack so I could run unhindered. Once on my own I settled into an easy cruise on very runnable singletrack trail. It reminded me of what a 100 in Bear Brook would be like; lot's of mildly rugged mountain bike trail with a few technical sections and some rolling climbs and descents.

By the first aid station I was in eighth and beginning to leapfrog with a few others. I'd let my legs turnover quickly on the downhills and take it easy on the ups to keep my heart rate under control. Descending into the Shoal Creek aid station, air horns and a low rumble cut through the woods, signalling the approach of a train in the valley below. At the aid station, I watched as the third place runner made an uncomfortably close crossing of the tracks, while fourth seemed tempted but made the safe decision and hung back. Fortunately, the aid station was on our side of the tracks and a handful of runners took a moment to rest and refuel for the five or so minutes it took the train to go by. It only took a couple miles to catch up to third when we resumed running and I took over his position, where I'd end up staying by myself for the next 75 miles.

Photo courtesy of @raceupdates
As I moved along I was getting updates from the aid station volunteers on first and second place. I managed to pull within ten minutes to second, but never caught sight of him and despite a couple off-course bonus miles, the winner, Ryan Smith was never really threatened by either of us. By the time mile 80 rolled around and I still wasn't closing the gap, I figured I just didn't have the horsepower to catch the other guy and would just have to hold steady in case he faded. It was kind of nice not to feel the pressure of a battle and I found myself getting a little leisurely at the final aid stations. Normally I blaze right on through but I was having a little trouble staying awake so I'd hang out for a minute or two by the fire, usually leaving with the funny combined taste in my mouth of coffee, bacon, and Halloween candy. One station even had delicious steak tips.

It was rather gratifying to glide by a few familiar spots where three years ago I just wanted to sit down out of exhaustion. This race could not have been a more different experience. While I was undeniably tired, there was no real sense of exhaustion or the frustration that comes from crashing and burning. The night was clear and chilly, a bit below freezing, and I shut off my headlamp for a while on some of the road sections, just to zone out on the patterns of my movement, watching my breath condense rhythmically in the air under the moonlight. I felt calm, mindful, in control, and genuinely happy. All was right with the world. It puzzles me how a sense of contentment, rather than being being driven by dissatisfaction, could carry me to my second fastest hundred mile time ever - on on a substantially harder course, too. Eighteen hours and fifty minutes after we all started, I crossed the finish and promptly fell asleep in a chair.

Photo from Pinhoti FB page
I want to make it clear that as much as I talk about Western States, I truly enjoyed Pinhoti in and of itself. I feel fortunate to have been able to cap my season with it and I'd recommend the race to anybody. That said, I did get everything I came for.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Dry River and the Southern Presidentials - 10/11/14

Four in the morning and I'm once again awake and driving north in the dark. My legs are tired but there are thoughts to be thunk and decisions to be decided. It doesn't take long to grow sick of NPR's early morning BBC drone and I switch over to Rammstein on the CD player, well aware of the irony in listening to German industrial metal to prepare for six hours of almost total silence and time in my own head. With only a handful of leaf-peepers up at sunrise I'm able to make good time, the dashed-line passing zones granting free passage. I leave them with only a brief turbo whine and doppler-ized, flatulent Subaru rumble to remember me by.

Elevation profile
Dry River washout
Oakes Gulf - There's a plane crash in here somewhere.
Montalban Ridge
The Dry River valley
Frost above 5,000 feet
A new spot for me.
As your attorney, I advise you to bring more cheese.
Dry River valley
Mount Clinton Trail
A wee washout

As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate. - Camus, The Stranger

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Bigelow Range Traverse - 9/27/2014

Deep down, nobody can forever live up to the lofty images we project for ourselves. We feel fraud between who we are and the image we project and thus judge ourselves inadequate. We punish ourselves for not living up to impossible ideals. Give yourself and everybody else a break and know that the only normal people are the ones you don't know very well. - Karl Baba

Monday, September 8, 2014

Utah - August 2014

Wasatch Front



Great Salt Lake







Friday, August 15, 2014

Teton Circumnavigation - 8/11/2014

Despite the name, the Fastest Known Time website makes an excellent resource for finding the best recreational trail runs to visit in an unfamiliar area, even when one has no intention of putting down a race-quality effort. For an experienced ultrarunner, it seems that every significant mountain range, canyon, or park has a must-see route to spend a whole day on and it's helpful to have one central site to catalog them all.

I recently found myself in Salt Lake City for work and Grand Teton National Park seemed tantalizing close enough to tack on to the end of the trip. Maybe calling a 5.5 hour drive "close" is a stretch, but it doesn't require getting on a plane and New Hampshire is a whole lot farther from Jackson Hole than Northern Utah is. Close enough. I'd briefly been to the Tetons once with my wife just before the Wasatch 100 back in 2011, but we didn't get to explore much and I knew I wanted to go back for a deeper look.

The Teton Circumnavigation traces a route from the valley on the western side of the range up Cascade Canyon to Hurricane Pass and Alaska Basin in the high country. There, it rolls along snowfields and alpine ridgelines, spending a few miles over 10,000 feet, to the Static Peak Divide where it descends into Death Canyon and back to the valley. By the numbers it's roughly 35 miles with 7,000 feet of gain.

The views are utterly indescribable and I found myself gaping slack-jawed for most of my time there - glaciers, alpine lakes, peaks so craggy that they look like where the Grinch would flee after stealing Christmas. With every new twist and turn in the trail my mind was blown just a little bit more. I did my best to film the experience:

With all of the filming and gawking I still managed to get back to the car in a little over seven hours. There are quite a few things I could do better and I'm left wondering how close a focused effort would get me to Evan Honeyfield's 5:34 record time. I'll be back if I get the chance.