Thursday, March 26, 2015

4Refugios Nonstop 2015: A bucket list'er.

Perhaps there are races in the US like 4Refugios Nonstop (The Rut and Speedgoat 50K are probably most similar, but both are 6 miles longer with slightly less vertical), but I've certainly never done them. 4Refugios made every "technical" trail race I've ever done seem tame in comparison. The race is advertised as 42 Km (26 miles) with 3500 meters of elevation gain (11,500 feet) and 3700 meters of descent (12,100 feet). When you factor in that the first 3 and last 3 miles are relatively mild and don’t go up or down that much, it leaves most of that ascent and descent crammed within the middle 20 miles, which makes the average 15% uphill grade and 18% downhill grade even steeper. If you like to bomb wildly down steep insanely technical descents, or scramble up slippery talus slopes at 60% grade then this is the course for you. Add it to your bucket list. Or, if you’d like to be surrounded by grandeur so amazing that it makes you forget that you don’t like really steep insanely technical slopes, then this might also be the course for you. 4Refugios is tough, but so beautiful you won’t regret that face plant down the steep scree field. And, you’ll be wearing a helmet, so at least you won’t damage your head if you do fall.

The elevation profile. The font is quite possibly to small to read (click to make larger), but I like the 61% max grade tidbit. 
4Refugios is challenging not just because of the grade, but the technical nature of the trail, many parts of which are hard to distinguish as a true trail, but rather an exercise in heading in the direction of red painted dots which blaze the way over talus-covered passes. An indication of how poorly I followed this “trail” would be that my Garmin registered 29 miles for the 26 mile course. The shortest point between 2 red dots is indeed a straight line, but this was for me, easier said than done. I also spent some time off course on top of La Navidad, which probably added on a mile, and I potentially took a slightly longer route to the finish, as I passed the same person twice during the final 4 miles, flying by each time, the second time 20 minutes after I passed her the first time. So, my mileage totals were potentially wonky for more reasons than my inability to hit the tangents.

An example of the trail. Follow the red dots. 
On course. This is up and over the first pass after Refugio Frey, and we're about to bomb down the scree field off to the left in this picture.  The video below shows one guy's attempt at the descent. 

2015 was the 10th year of 4 Refugios, but only the 2nd year of the version of the race that I was entered in, 4 Refugios Nonstop. 3 races happen during the weekend, 2 Refugios on Saturday, 4 Refugios Classico on Saturday and Sunday (2 Refugios each day), and then the 4 Refugios Nonstop on Sunday. A refugio is basically a mountain hut that provides lodging and meals to backpackers/climbers/skiers. The race passes by 4 scenic mountain huts, which double as aid stations. The event is capped at around 600 runners in the 3 events, somewhat equally distributed among the 3 races. Unique to this race is the requirement to wear a helmet the entire race and carry a harness and 2 locking carabiners to clip onto a fixed line during one of the 2 "tiempo muertos". The required gear includes an additional long list of items including a somewhat extensive medical kit and enough layers to keep you warm were you to get stranded/injured along the way, or survive in the case of inclement weather. The "tiempo muertos" or dead times are designed such that during zones that are particularly tricky/dangerous were you to try to race through them, you've got sufficient time to pass carefully before "racing" on. There’s one 30 minute dead time on the climb up out of the 2nd refugio (Jakob) where you’re required to clip onto a fixed line and it’s a one-at-a-time deal. Another 40 minute dead time starts the final descent, to encourage folks to not kill themselves getting down to the last refugio (Lopez) where there’s someone in charge of telling you when your 40 minutes is up and you can start running again (based on the time that was sharpied onto your race bib at the pass above).
Hanging out at the first Tiempo Muerto with Lau Lucero and others. Lau, last year's winner, went on to finish 3rd.
A short summary of my race: I was with the women that finished 1-3 (all previous winners of various versions of past editions of the race) on top of La Navidad (on the elevation profile, it's what looks like the middle high point), where we got somewhat lost, and struggled for 10 minutes or so to find where the trail descended off the side. It was clouded in up top, and getting cold, so I stopped to take a jacket out of my pack right about the time the group (including several guys) found the trail, and everyone took off down the side of a very steep slope. By the time I got my pack back on, they were already disappearing into the distance, and I stood there momentarily jaw dropped watching them fly down the very technical descent. This descent was my low point in the race, as I couldn't stay on trail, and struggled to try to run over terrain I wasn't comfortable moving fast on. Losing the group so quickly left me deflated. The trail eventually became one with a river that descended down the valley and at times was the river, and at other times skirted along the sides. At one point I came to a waterfall, which seemed unlikely to be the trail, but not impossible based on the trail to this point. About halfway down the waterfall I came to a point where I would have had to have made a bit of a jump so stopped to reassess the situation. I could jump down the falls, and perhaps pummel myself on the rocks below (wasn't that far, but would have hurt), or turn around and climb back up and go back to find the trail. As I sat there, I looked up above and could see the trail off to the side of the river on the opposite side, so realized I needed to back track. It was during this descent that I really lost any competitive drive I'd had, and also realized I just didn't have the technical skills and/or confidence to try to keep up with the women in front who were able to push the pace over terrain that I would prefer to butt-scoot across. 
Heading up one of the many rocky ascents, this particular one is leading up to the climb to Lopez, the last and steepest climb up a whole lot of slippery talus. It was on the talus around Lopez that the helmet seemed a wise idea, mainly from the amount of rock that was getting kicked around (in large part by me). Photo by 
Visualization can be a strong tool, those in the sports psychology world say, but when I visualize myself running down a steep rocky slope, it’s never a pretty picture. It starts out OK, but then I always catch my toe and skid to a halt on my face. Lucky for me, I only had one real fall, which cut up my hand a bit and the side of my thigh. My lack of confidence perhaps slowed me on the descents, but looking back, spending extra time on the course was not all bad, as it was unforgettably gorgeous from the minute the sun came up. I don’t regret stopping to snap a few photos, and only wish I’d captured a few more at the hard-to-describe places. But being hard to describe, they were also tricky, and I was more focused on surviving them.
Not a bad place to slog uphill. Photo by
Going in, I knew that the race would not play to my strengths--more runnable courses are my strength, but despite that, courses like 4Refugios are more intriguing to me, and by continuing to run technical mountain races I hope to continue to improve at them. The race distance was also fairly short. Time-wise, no--I've finished 100Ks faster than I "ran" these 42K, but upon finishing I felt I hadn't paced myself properly as I could have kept going for another few hours, held back more by crappy technique than fitness. Not the feeling you want to have at the end of a race. I wound up 4th in 9:47, a long ways off of the top 3 who came in fairly close together with Claudia Veronica Ramirez winning in 9:08, Sonia Boretsky in 9:11, and Lau Lucero in 9:22. Claudia won last year's Clasico version, Sonia has won the Clasico 4 times in the past, and Lau won last year's Nonstop in 9:40, which, without any other reference, was roughly the time I was shooting for, although I also hoped to be competitive. This is a race that I'd love to do again, not necessarily because I feel like I'd be any faster, but just that it was such a cool experience. The 3 local talents definitely showed the visitor who is top on these trails. I'd love to learn some descending tips from these ladies; they were fun to watch bomb downhill.
At times, such as the descent off of La Navidad, I got frustrated with how timidly I was approaching the race, but then would look up at the beauty around me, and acknowledge just how fortunate I am to have had the opportunities that I've had, and the good health to participate in events like these. Out there on course, it was easy to put myself back in a happy place by simply looking at the immense beauty surrounding me. So many highlights, including the reflection on the lake by Refugio Frey, the turquoise mountain lakes looking down from the first Tiempo Muerto, the views both arriving in and leaving Laguna Negra, the complete shock at looking up at Lopez and realizing we literally were going straight up that thing, and then the relief of coming down the other side in a tiempo muerto, and mainly on my butt.

The lake next to Refugio Frey, the first of the four during the race. I took this on a run earlier in the week. Refugio Frey is a hot spot for climbing with lots of granite spires surrounding it. 
One lesson learned if I were to do this again (and for UTMB later this year), would be to pack more carefully--I felt like I was carrying a ton of bricks, and others seemed to have better thought out the gear requirements and were carrying packs half my size. When you are doing that much climbing, a heavy load feels like a really heavy load. I was happy to finish with minimal damage: no blisters, no hot spots, all my toenails, my quads intact, and all fingers unbroken. 
Bariloche was a place I visited back in 2003, and it left a lasting impression back then. During the course of the week, I'd get to a place and have one of those deja vu moments, and realize I'd been there before, like Refugio Frey. In returning to them again 12 years later I couldn't help but reflect about who I was then versus who I am now and the adventures I've had in between. Kind of like the experience of the entire 4Refugios course—you finish not quite the same person at the end as the one who began it, but overall better for the experience.
Refugio Frey. Brought back a lot of fond memories of past travels in Patagonia.
4 Refugios was a memorable race experience, and I feel very fortunate and thankful to my sponsors, for allowing me the opportunity to travel down to Bariloche to participate. Many thanks to Mountain Hardwear Argentina for extending the invitation and for providing great support while I was down there. Petzl was also a huge help in providing me with a helmet, harness and new Nao light for the race--if I were to ever choose to run in a helmet again, the Petzl Sirocco is the one I would choose as it's light as a feather. In the meantime, having some basic gear (helmet and super lightweight harness) and living next to Smith Rock has motivated me to climb again after a 20 year break. I'm heading out for my second time next weekend. 

Also, the organization that puts the race on, led by Martin "Cepi" Raffo, with a lot of assistance by Club Andino Bariloche, is top notch. Admittedly, some of the volunteer posts were downright dreamy (albeit a bit cold, windy, and exposed), as you'd run into volunteers standing in the middle of the most spectacular vistas. Many thanks to Cepi and all of the volunteers. 4Refugios is truly a unique event for its difficulty, design, and above all, for its beauty. If you have a bucket list, the desire and means to experience the beauty of Patagonia, and you like technical mountain trail scrambling, then 4Refugios should be on that list!

After 9:47 of wet, dusty, gravel-filled shoes and socks, my feet were unscathed thanks to Montrail Bajadas and Injinji Trail 2.0s (and a little Desitin). 
Words don't really do the course justice, so some photos to fill in the gaps. Luckily I had the chance to be down there for an entire week, so many of these pictures from the course (or near the course) were from the days prior leading up to the race. 
Technically you pass by 5 refugios, this being the first, known as Piedritas, but what I like to refer to as Rock, Paper and Scissors in harmony.
Wildflowers along the course. 
More wildflowers along the course. This particular section is about 2 miles in, and the race passes this part in the dark.  
Refugio Italia on Laguna Negra. This was the 3rd refugio, sandwiched in between the tricky descent off of Navidad, the steep climb up to this spot, and the big climb up Lopez to come. This little spot was a gem. Would love to go back and spend some time here.

Racers heading up away from Laguna Negra. At Refugio Italia, the two races merge (2nd day of the Clasico and the Nonstop, so you start to see a lot more racers).

Continuing to head up away from Laguna Negra towards Lopez on a lot of sharp pointy rocks.

The race takes you up and over to the left and then Lopez is in the background. We head up the talus slope in the middle of the second row of mountains pictured here. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Revisiting past DNFs: HURT 100

Looking around at the clean shoes and eager faces at the start line of the HURT 100 is a little discouraging, knowing despite how chipper we all seemed at 5:55 a.m. that, very likely, fewer than half of us would cross the line to kiss the sign, and those of us who did would no longer have beach-ready feet. HURT is hard to finish, but that’s what the RDs want per the sign that you kiss upon finishing and what’s imprinted on the finishers’ buckle, “’Aole makou e ho'ohikiwale kela,” Hawaiian for, “We wouldn't want it to be easy.” 
The HURT sign at the finish. Photo: me. 
This year the finishing percentage almost reached 50% (60 finishers out of 121 starters), the highest finishing rate ever (average is closer to 40%). During the first and second loop we joked on course about it being “HURT Light” although that joking stopped by the third lap. Even in a dry year, which this was, the tedious technical repetitiveness of HURT makes it a mental challenge to keep heading out loop after loop. Compare HURT’s finishing rate to other races considered to be the toughest 100s, like Hardrock (with very different qualifying standards, so hard to compare), which often boasts a finishing rate over 70%.  Besides the trail itself, a number of factors contribute to why HURT’s finishing rate is so low:
  1.  The weather in Hawaii in January (heat and humidity vs. snow and cold back home). 80 degrees with 80% humidity feels really warm if coming from real winter.
  2.  A January 100 is tough to prepare for—lots of your running buddies are taking a down season. Throw in the holidays and travel, and there are a lot of distractions, along with the shortest, coldest days of the year to train. 
  3. The lure of the beach, and the simple fact that loop courses close to an urban area and the beach are relatively easy to drop from—drop and you could be ocean-side with drink in hand in 20 minutes vs. drop at the wrong spot at Bighorn and receive an offer to hike out with the aid station crew and horses the following day.
  4. The loop. Every time you leave an aid station you have to head up one of three climbs, which after the second or third loop, you have memorized and might dread.  And each aid station can be driven to so it’s likely your crew is there with a car. It's a really easy race to drop from, although the aid station volunteers will try to persuade you otherwise.
Honolulu. The course is somewhere in those mountains in the background, dangerously close to the beach or your hotel. Photo: me.
I DNF'ed HURT in 2011 after 60 miles. Looking back it’s easy to second guess my decision, but at the time, it what was I thought I needed to do. The year prior I’d torn half-way through my posterior tibial tendon, and it became increasingly painful on loop 3; continuing on it seemed to not be in the long-term best interest of my ankle or 2011 season. Linda and I headed to Maui after HURT and the rest of that Hawaii trip was not as much fun as it could have been, as I dwelt upon my DNF; DNF's really can suck the fun out of destination races. I went back to Hawaii later that year for my cousin’s wedding, and one rainy November morning ran the course from Paradise Park (AS 1) to Nu'uana (AS 2) and back. I swore after that muddy, slippery run that I would never run HURT again. Why needlessly suffer?  Each year though, in January, as friends entered and succeeded at HURT, I had a little twinge of feeling like I was missing out. So, this past summer when I was home sick in bed (and still dealing with a torn hamstring tendon attachment after Comrades), I saw Denise post somewhere on social media about throwing her name in for HURT, and within minutes did the same. FOMO at its finest.
The HURT trails on a rainy day in 2011. We lucked out this year. I think this is also part of the section leading into Paradise Park that has now been graveled over. I've had nightmares about this section. Photo: me.
Training and the Build-up
I often complain that my training isn't ideal, but the lead-up to HURT was especially not ideal. The World 100K broke me. I’d face-planted in the Seattle airport en route to Doha and my knee ballooned up such that it looked like I had an alien coming out of my kneecap. The alien child disappeared before the race start, but my knee was left bruised and swollen. Hard to believe, but running 100K on the hardest surface imaginable with a ton of fluid on your knee is likely going to cause some lingering problems. Immediately following the race in Doha I couldn't bend my knee without some painful medial clicking. 
My knee about an hour before go-time in Doha after a lot of ice and ace-bandaging. Something's still not quite right in there.
The clicking led to an MRI to make sure it wasn't a meniscus tear (it's not), and various other visits to a variety of specialists (PT, acupuncture, body work, sorcery) to figure out the issue.  The World 100K was on Nov 21, and trying to deal with an issue didn't allow much time to get in decent 100-mile training mileage, and my mileage leading into Worlds was never very high as I was still building from my hamstring injury this summer. I hit 70 miles just once in training for Worlds; my mileage was closer to 50 most weeks.

The knee clicking never really went away (turns out it's not really knee, but likely some tendon attachments, hamstring or adductor of some sort), but the pain eventually did, so after a 3-week "recovery" from Worlds was able to get in a good 3-week training block ending on Jan 3 in time for a 2-week taper. My longest run was 25 miles, and I had 3 runs over 20 miles. I finally bought a plane ticket a couple weeks out when it seemed like I could extend and lift my left leg enough to clear rocks and roots. My HURT build-up post-worlds looked something like this:

Nov 21: World 100K, left knee was wonky and painfully clicking immediately following.

Week ending 7 weeks out: 0 miles, save an MRI, PT and body work sessions.

Week ending 6 weeks out: more PT visits, and the equivalent of maybe 15 miles on elliptical/treadmill hiking.

Week ending 5 weeks out: 30 miles uphill hiking on treadmill (15% grade @ ~14:30 pace—I hike with a purpose when on the treadmill and they are medium-hard effort workouts; a couple of botched runs, culminating in a fall on the good kneecap on trails Sunday because I couldn't lift my left knee high enough to clear obstacles) for about 45 miles total. The run on Sunday left me curled in a sobbing heap in the middle of the trail, but my friend Darla offered the sage advice as I lay there sobbing on the frozen trail, “You know, things can turn around quickly.” It was on this run that I decided to pull the plug on HURT, and later Darla’s words convinced me to hold out a little longer. Things did seem to suddenly turn around, and I picked up the mileage the next 3 weeks.

Week ending 4 weeks out: 67 miles, long run at Smith Rock on trail with ups and downs; slightly more hopeful, some hill work and more uphill hiking. 
Running in scenic IL over the holidays. I actually think farmland is pretty, it's just not great HURT training. 
Week ending 3 weeks out: 75 miles, much of this home over the holidays, which means flat runs on country roads in rural Illinois. I also included in this mileage the “workout” I did on Sunday en route home from Illinois, where I had a few hour lay-over in Atlanta and tried to walk every step of the Atlanta airport. Atlanta is a big airport and I didn't quite make it (because I back-tracked to grab Chipotle). I ended up with blisters (I switched into running shoes mid-walk) and some back chafing from the over-weight carry-on I was lugging around. Oh, the things we do...

Week ending 2 weeks out: 82 miles, most of which were on uneven snow, which really worked all those little connectors. I ended up with very few miles on technical trails, but the snow was a good substitute for tiring out those little things that get tired on HURT trails. I kept doing some uphill treadmill hiking with one or two sessions each week of 60-90 minutes at 15% under 15:00 pace. One 26 miler on uneven packed snow on Jan 1, and 22 miles of long hill repeats on Jan 3.
The weather wasn't HURT-like, but a week of running on uneven snow was great for working all those little stabilizing muscles. 
Last 2 weeks: 2 week taper with a 13 mile run the Saturday before at the MadAss, a speed session, and a hill session.

Sauna training throughout. I had also sauna trained for Worlds, so was in good "sauna" shape. I'm a firm believer in spending quality time in the sauna before a hot race. I like to spend about 50 minutes (I escape every 15-20 minutes to shower off and refill water) in a ~180 degree sauna  5-6 days/week. This is a major time suck.

Prior to the race, I looked up my 2011 splits as a frame of reference. They were 4:24, 4:54, 6:05. My thought was to go out a bit slower this year, knowing that getting through laps 4 and 5 would be the hardest.  My goals had little to do with place this year. Yes, I’m always hoping to be competitive, and deep down I wanted to win and run a decent time, but I also wanted my “competitors” to succeed. At HURT is there is a general sense of camaraderie in terms of trying to keep everyone advancing forward to kiss the sign, and you really sense it at the pre-race meeting, and aid stations throughout. All ultras have that at some level, but it does feel stronger at HURT to me. The RDs and volunteers genuinely care if you succeed and will go out of their way help you make it happen. My only real goal this year was to kiss that damn sign, and check HURT off the list of past failures. The women's field was stacked, but I wasn't concerned about how it would all shake out. After DNF’ing at HURT before, finishing was primary; “racing” was secondary, and in a field of friends, I really just wanted us all to reach our goals. 
Me and Little D enjoying some Hawaii sun in our matching Julbo shades on a shake-out run on the Pillbox trail. Photo: John Odle.
I got to Hawaii on Monday and enjoyed a few days on the North Shore. I was working, so didn't have much time to explore, but it was a nice way to get used to the weather, have a change in working environment, and to have that up-late-packing/early-morning-flight experience several days out from the race. As much as I travel, I still suck at packing. Wednesday, I moved from the North Shore down to Kailua for a fun day with Denise and crew before picking up my crew of Jason and Mikio on Thursday and Friday and a move to Kaneohe. I've stayed in Waikiki before, and, in general, avoiding Waikiki was the key to seeing a side of Oahu I really liked. It was fun to see a lot of friends at the pre-race meeting; the women’s field was a strong one, but more importantly filled with friends and the out-and-back nature of the course ensured the opportunity to cheer on friends in passing throughout.
My friend, Yukari, who I met at Hasetsune Cup in Japan. She wound up 5th, and another Japanese runner 3rd.
Onto the Race:
The first loop felt easy; the climbs weren't nearly as steep as my memory of them, and I didn't feel like I was working too hard. On the first climb, I quickly found myself in the lead, kind of what I had told myself not to do, but I felt in control.  About half-way down the first descent a female voice greeted me from behind, and assumed it was Kerrie, but then asked (hard to turn around on these trails without a face-plant) and wasn't surprised to hear it was Nicola, instead. After a couple minutes, she passed, and floated down the technical trail like I was standing still, with Jamil Coury. This continued for the first 2 laps, where I would pass Nicola and Jamil climbing out of the aid stations, and they would scamper past going down. In my head I’m a decent downhill runner, and not so strong on uphills, but Nicola schooled me on the downs, and I felt strong going up. I think my inability to descend technical downhills quickly probably saved my quads from earlier destruction.

Coming into Nu'uana with Jamil Coury right behind me during the first loop. Jamil got ahead of me in loop 2 or 3, but then we passed him taking a nap on the trail somewhere during the night. Photo: Mikio.
I came through lap 1 in 4:04, which was a lot faster than I had planned and caused a little alarm, although I felt good. I was still eating and drinking well, so kept moving well through lap 2, and hooked up with Sam for the second half of this lap. Nicola was still close, although catching me closer to the bottoms of the climbs. Sam was really the only person, besides my pacer, that I spent any significant amount of time with so it was nice to have someone to talk to for the last half of lap 2. He did remark that he was a ways ahead of his goal pace, as was I, and would likely suffer later (sorry, Sam). My only fall came in lap 2 coming into the Nu’uana aid station, and although I face planted, I didn't hit anything very hard. My biggest fear, after the fall before Worlds and on the other knee in December, was falling on my knee caps. I still have what feel like Mike and Ikes floating around in there and I didn't think my bursae could handle it.
The classic HURT root shot. What I refer to as the "root tangle up top". This photo I took in 2011, but it hasn't changed; maybe a few more roots. When dry, this section is not horrible. When wet, the roots are slick as snot and not so much fun. You pass through this section what feels like 50 times. 
There is a lot more to HURT than those classic HURT shots of the root tangles up top, but because of the course design, every section you love or hate, you pass 5-10 times. The first time I ran HURT I think I expected it to be 100% covered in roots, so it seemed less technical than I'd feared. This time, it seemed less steep, but more technical than my memory of it. And the steps. There were more than a few occasions when I thanked my parents for giving me tall genes, because there are parts of the course where being 5'2" would be a disadvantage as there are metal-edged steps, which would be waist-high if you were less tall. 
Finishing loop 2 with Mikio ready to help out. My crew was on top of it all day.  Photo: Jason. 
Loop 3 was fairly uneventful. Nicola and I started out Loop 3 close together, but I had 15 minutes or so on her by Paradise Park, and then coming out of Nu'uana AS I didn't see another female until I'd been out of the aid station for 45+ minutes, and it wasn't Nicola. I was bummed to later hear she'd dropped, and also bummed to stop seeing some other friends on this loop. That's one of the discouraging parts of HURT--when you stop seeing your friends in passing, and knowing what that means. At some point, I decided I needed a pick-me-up and I turned on my music to try to motivate the pace until I'd have someone to sing to me (Jason had promised to sing me Taylor Swift songs), and I made it in under 5 hours, so was slowing, but the wheels were still attached. 

The wheels came off in the 4th and 5th loops. Picking up Jason was a boost, but as it turns out, I don't know enough Taylor Swift songs to even recognize them, and I made the mistake at Paradise Park AS on the 4th lap to down a ton of liquid calories at once (a combo of miso soup, sprite, and coconut water). I'd been feeling slightly nauseous for several miles, and the past hour of calories (which weren't much) all came back up on the way out of the aid station. After that point I might have consumed 300 calories in the last 33 miles/11 hours.  30 calories an hour isn't going to get you very far especially when you're in an already-depleted state. I went in feeling a couple pounds heavy, so perhaps I burned off that extra winter fat during those hours. During loop 5 I got super sleepy and told Jason I needed to listen to music to motivate. I was so tired, that I didn't even notice my shuffle was on repeat and played one MGMT song for over an hour. Jason did, though. :)

Loop 5 is all about the "last time." Like, in this case, "the 10th and last time I have to cross this darn river." Photo: Mikio.
And the last time I have to go downhill, even mildly. Here, a few minutes from the finish, and descending very delicately. Photo: Mikio. 

The last 2 loops were a calorie-deficient slog, and I felt bad for Jason, but at long last, and well after daylight, we made it up the final climb, and one final painful descent into the Nature Center. My quads were trashed by the last loop, but held up surprisingly well for the lack of long runs and downhill pounding in training. I was decently uphill trained after so much treadmill hiking, but not necessarily the other way around. I could tell my heels were getting trashed, too, but viewing the damage mid-race does little good. Jason tried to motivate me with time goals, but I was cringing with every step, and not that motivate-able. I finished in 26:22, which is a time I'm happy with, and ranks 5th on the all-time list. I do kick myself a bit after-the-fact for having the last 2 laps turn into such a slow slog. I went into the last loop with a 3+ hour lead and I was moving slowly enough that I was worried Alicia would catch me. Luckily the race ended at 100 miles, because she gained a ton of ground on me in the last lap and finished 2nd in 28:10. I'm a little horrified by my splits (4:04, 4:27, 5:00, 6:05, 6:46). Oddly, I more or less stayed in 8th place overall throughout those last 2 laps: Alicia and Eric Purpus were flying on loop 5, but overall, most of the rest of us were crawling.  Sometimes it's just about getting done, regardless of whether it's pretty. But now I want sub-25!

Finally, kissing that sign. Photo: Jason. 
The awards for the top 3 male and female finishers at HURT are always something local and hand-crafted, and in its 15-year history, always unique. Had I known that I was racing for a ukulele, my approach to the race might have changed, and I might have choked from the pressure of racing for the coolest award ever--a hand-made concert ukulele made from a koa tree that had fallen near the course made especially for us. Luckily they weren't revealed until the awards banquet. They are beautiful instruments, and I look forward to learning how to play mine. So far, I've only figured out tuning, and Dueling Banjos, but plan to branch out soon. Thanks HURT--you went above above and beyond once again. 

Top 3 M and F finishers with our ukuleles. Best awards ever. Photo: Bob McAllaster.
Things that worked for me:
Jason keeps the FB and twitter followers up-to-date on the Oregon contingent. Photo by Mikio.
1. My crew was awesome. I can tend to look a bit serious/focused during races (I’m smiling inside, really), and I may have forgotten to acknowledge their outfits during the race (I expected nothing less, especially because Jason had been looking for a grass skirt since landing, and had Jason not been in a grass skirt, I would have been surprised). Mikio and Jason were the best crew one could ask for (not to insult past crews, of course…), and I hope to return the favor someday. A huge thanks to Mikio and Jason for their super support. They were also a hit on the interwebs and twittersphere with their photos and live reporting. 
Can you believe I failed to comment on their attire until after the race? Bad runner! Photo from Jason.
2. A&D Ointment—the preventative diaper rash ointment (not the curative stuff—the preventative—A&D makes both). THIS STUFF IS AMAZING. And cheap. And available everywhere. I had zero chafing between my legs, which has never happened in a 100. A hundred mile issue solved. TRY IT! 

3. The Montrail Bajada II(or soon to be) released. I’m lucky to wear the men’s sample size (9) so have been wearing this shoe for several months. The foam is a little cushier than previous Bajada models, and the tongue is now gusseted and has lace loops on 2 sides to keep it in place (in the original model it would often slide to the side). Previous models also had some blowout issues (I never had issues with this) and the upper has been completely revamped, and is “sleeker”. I love this shoe. Full disclosure: I did end up with bad heel blisters. But, this all happened after mile 60. I had zero issues the first 60 miles, and also never once took my shoes off the entire 100 miles. I double knotted them at the start and didn’t untie them until I crossed the finish. I stopped eating/drinking the last 40 miles because of nausea; blisters are linked to hydration issues in my experience. So, I don’t blame my heels issues on the shoes (or socks), but on the combo of trench foot that developed from being constantly wet for 100 miles (sweating heavily) and then dehydration. 
The Bajada II's were great for HURT and are my current favorite shoes. 
4. Injinji see above under shoes about heel blisters; I blame this on hydration issues. So, my heels weren't pretty, but my toes and pedicure were still beach-ready. 

5. Clif Recovery drink. I used this for a bulk of my calories during much of the first 3 laps, which was not necessarily intended, but it tasted good. I think what I need to work on is getting more solid food in the first half of a 100 so that there’s something inside me. At some point it just seems that my stomach is just too empty. I don’t know if there’s anything to this but when I did start to get sick, there was almost nothing to throw up. I did focus on real foods in the first lap (was trying to get down PB&Js), but when it’s hot, I struggle. Every race I say I need to work on this, so at some point, I need to follow through as nausea starting around mile 60 is the death of me in almost every 100 I've run. The Clif Recovery drink was still going down OK in sips, and I should have been more diligent in getting a bottle down between aid stations.

The roots are still there all night, they just get harder to see. I got very sleepy and very trippy during this part. A bright light helped me manage to stay awake and never quite fall despite about 50 toe clips.Photo: Jason.
6. Lights: The only thing I put some time into planning out pre-HURT was my lighting plan. My plan worked out well (I borrowed lights and switched them out every aid station), with some user error thrown in. For HURT you want the brightest thing out there, and want it on high, so be prepared to switch it out every couple of hours, which means every aid station at HURT at night (unless you're still running 4:30 laps--I wasn't). My one failure in this regard was that I'd never even turned on one of the lights, and didn't know how to work it. Of the lights I tried out (I had an arsenal), the Petzl NAO was the brightest. I still prefer the Petzl Tikka RXP, in general, because it's super bright, lasts much longer, and is less weight, but on HURT trails, it pays to have a NAO, but take a few extra NAO batteries and switch them frequently. Because you spend so much time staring intently at the rooty trails all day and night, my eyes got really tired, and the brighter the light, the more awake I stayed. 

7. Sauna training: HURT was hot and I was soaked by mile 2, but the heat never really bothered me, besides maybe not helping on the nutrition front. I spent a lot of quality time in the sauna (and also used an ice bandana, which helped both with cooling and possibly the trench foot issues). 

8. Uphill hiking on the treadmill: Even though there are lots of long climbs around Bend, I really like uphill hiking on the treadmill. Walking at 15% grade at a quick pace--I often do 14:38 (4.1 mph) or 14:17 (4.2 mph) pace--for 4 - 6 miles is a great way to get ready to hike uphill quickly in races. When I go out on long runs, I never end up hiking much (I use a  mix of running/hiking), and doing a dedicated hiking workout on the treadmill is a great way to practice hiking quickly for an extended period. I often get into an ultra, and find myself hiking and think, "Why don't I practice this?" I hiked more for HURT than I have for any other race, in part because I couldn't run in early December because of my clicking knee, but could still hike on the treadmill. 

I said I wanted to check HURT off the list and get my finish and never go back, but I can’t say that there isn't already a part of me that wants to end up in Hawaii next January and work on a more evenly split race. If I don’t end up racing next year, I may just learn enough on the ukulele to provide some on-course entertainment during the late night hours, hanging out somewhere up in the root tangle on top playing dueling ukuleles. 

Beautiful ukulele! Or, just a way to sneak in a photo of Sam, who is also quite pretty. 
As always, thanks to my amazing sponsors: Montrail, Mountain Hardwear, Injinji, Clif Bar, Julbo, and Nuun for the support! 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Hasetsune Cup 2014 (and 2013)

I understand why I don't blog with any frequency. Blog posts don't need to be books, but alas, here's another chapter:

About two miles into Hasetsune, I was worried as I looked up at the first vertical wall of a climb. From last year, I remembered that Hasetsune was really tough, but I’ve never run a race two years in a row where I remembered so little about the course.  Shortly before the start of the race, I turned to Max and told him that the hardest part of the course was from kilometers 30-55, and that the first 30K was” runnable.”  The first statement is likely true, although it’s hard to differentiate between the first 30K and the section from 30 – 55, or from 55 – 71.5. The first kilometer downhill through town is fast, but this quickly transitions into a climb for a couple of kilometers, and then, abruptly, to the first of many steep climbs—hands-on-knees steep. I looked up the first one, about 2 miles in, and at the long line of racers in front of me hiking, and my first thought was, “Max is going to kick my ass.” This first ascent still wasn't enough to jog my recollection of the climbs to come. In the first "runnable" 30K the climbs were relentless. Last year must have been so painful that I simply blocked out the memory of it, as this year it was like running the first half of the course for the very first time.  At every hill I thought to myself, “You've got to be kidding me.” Followed closely by, “Max is going to kick my ass.”
See just how mad Max was? 
While races without aid are not unheard of in the US (Plain 100, as an example), the set-up of Hasetsune is. Whereas Plain 100 has no aid, it also has little support on course, and no crowds of supporters, some dressed up in Mini Mouse costumes, shouting encouragement along the way. Hasetsune, in its 22nd year, is a big event in Japan; the 2,500 spots fill almost instantly online. The logistical support is high—in that there are many volunteers involved and a good amount of fan support along the way. It’s not like you see people the entire way, as you're usually enveloped in dense forest, but you do pass a handful of checkpoints where folks are out cheering, and also spots on the trail with volunteers taking down numbers. The course is impeccably marked with white signs (all in Japanese), and red arrows. Last year I did get slightly off course when I followed an errant sign to a shrine, but this year, I used common sense and followed all signs of the same size, color, and not made of wood (the permanent trail/tourist signs). Once it gets dark there are red blinking lights (like the kind you’d use as a rear light on a bike), that were spaced frequently enough to rarely doubt whether you're on course. Aid is minimal, in that they allow you just 1.5 L of fluid (water or sports drink) at the 2nd of 3 major check points. 

A wee exaggeration but if all the other signs are on laminated white paper, following a random wooden sign 60 Km in is a bad idea. 
Studying the course profile of Hasetsune is deceptive. It looks like an undulating gradual climb up to a couple of peaks, and then a gradual descent to the finish. This isn't what the course feels like or is actually like. While there are peaks, the continual short steep ups and downs make it hard to know which are the peaks and which are just part of the incessant zig-zagging up and down. Most climbs aren't super long, but it's almost all up and down. Over the 71.5 Km course, there's over 30,000 feet of ascent and descent, which equates to almost 700 feet/mile. 
Team Montrail/Mountain Hardwear Japan-U.S. in a rainbow of colors at the start. Photo by Sho Fujimaki.
Last year’s race was a challenge for me for different reasons than this year’s. I was fitter last year, after racing well at Western States and training for hills through the summer for UTMB. Despite a disappointing UTMB, my DNF wasn't for lack of fitness. I’d done a lot of hill work. However, a work training I was co-facilitating the week before Hasetsune made it so that I couldn't arrive until Friday late afternoon, and I didn’t sleep well Friday or Saturday nights before the Sunday start. The technical nature of the course dictates that a lot of concentration is required to stay upright, and for me, the combination of jet lag, poor sleep, and tired eyes made for a very sleepy Amy once the sun went down. The race starts at 1:00 on Sunday afternoon (Monday is a holiday), so that everyone gets the nighttime running experience. It gets dark around 5:30, which means that for all but the fastest, at least half of the race will be run in the dark. So, for the last 40 Km, I struggled to stay awake. It was also a bit warmer last year, and I ran out of fluids long before Checkpoint 2 (43 Km), where they allow you 1.5 liters of water or sports drink.  Last year I led through about half-way, to be passed by 4 women, but rallied late to finish third in 9:44. I felt like I disappointed the Montrail/MHW hosts, and myself, but it wasn't a complete train wreck, just not quite what I'd hoped due to some very sleepy miles. After last year I wanted to come back, focus on more specific hill training, and stay awake the entire race.

However, the injury that turned Comrades into a long hike kept me out for almost 2 months this summer. Having suffering a fairly significant (1.8 cm) tear to my semimembranous tendon attachment (one of the hamstrings), I only began running again around August 1. I worked diligently all summer doing physical therapy, without feeling like it was healing, but a PRP (platelet rich plasma) injection the end of July really seemed to be the thing that helped it turn the corner. Trying to be smart, I eased back into running keeping my mileage quite low through August, and into September only got up above 50 miles once or twice going into Hasetsune on Oct 12. I was definitely not where I wanted to be, but I’d committed to the race months before, and the carrot out there of a Japan race in October had given my start back into training a goal on which to focus. And despite being polar opposites, I wanted to race prior to the World 100K Championships and this seemed like a good distance option, as it would also build confidence as a long run, and (hopefully) more time on my feet than will be required at the 100K.

Running near Yaya Village up in the hills above Addis. Really interesting glimpse into some aspects of how/where Ethiopians train.
In addition to injury, sometimes life gets in the way, and besides the injury, work and life has been hectic.  I decided to move to Bend, OR at some point over the summer and found a house to buy in early September. Between September 11 and Hasetsune on Oct 12, I had a 3-week work trip to Ethiopia, 5 days back home to close on the Bend house, a couple of days at work back in Portland, and then turn around and leave for Japan. I can't complain though, because Ethiopia is one of my favorite places to go for work. Addis Ababa is set at 7500 feet, and work permitted me stay at a high altitude training center, Yaya Athletes Village, so I was able to enjoy early morning runs up around 9000 feet in the peaceful hills above Addis, “long” runs on the weekends (my long runs were never as long as I intended—I topped out at 17 miles, but 17 miles at 9,000 feet felt like a lot more to me), and had the luxury of a decent gym, which is not always the case in the places work takes me. So, I had a decent 3-weeks of training in Ethiopia. And, Ethiopia is just a cool place to visit. I also got to spend a few days in Jijiga, and surrounding communities, near the Somalian border (couldn't run there), but a cool experience, regardless, and a good reminder of why I love my real job.

Cute little goat herder we came across while out on the run. 
During my few days back in Portland, I had one particularly good run with the Tuesday night group, that left me feeling oddly confident. It wasn't anything special, we just ran up Leif the way we always run up Leif, and I even bailed when they jumped on the trail to head back and cut the run short, but I felt strong and fluid, like I hadn't felt in months, and felt like I was really running again. Perhaps that one run was enough to convince myself that I was strong enough to tackle Hasetsune. The missing links were long runs (since June 1, I’d done one 20+ mile run in the Enchantments in August, a 26 mile run in Bend in September, and then one 17 mile run in Ethiopia. 3 long runs in 4 months), decent weekly mileage, and any steep hill training, but it’s all I had. I focused on believing that running is 90% mental.

Max and I arrived in Japan on Thursday, and spent Friday doing interviews at the Tokyo Columbia/MHW/Montrail office for Japan trail running magazines and websites.  The trail scene in Japan is a vibrant one, and growing, probably similar to the growth seen here in the US in recent years. I’ve had the chance to meet the MHW/Montrail team on 3 visits to Japan in the past 2 years, and they are fabulous hosts. Montrail is the number one trail brand in Japan, with the Bajada being the number one seller, so an interesting difference from the market here in the states.
One of the websites, DogsorCaravan, prides itself on being a Japanese version of iRunfar, down to the style of pre-race interview.

Max was happy to come across so many cats in Japan, this during some interviews in the Columbia office.
My pre-race plan was to start out a bit slower than last year in hopes of a stronger middle section. Time-wise, my training had been nowhere near where it had been last year, so I was hoping for a similar time if I had a good day, taking into account last year’s struggles. I tried to remind myself that muscle memory is a grand thing, and that ultra-distance races are as much mental as physical. The last thing I’d done before I’d gone to bed Saturday night was to check my splits from 2013, so I’d know roughly where I wanted to be.

The start. Note the creative and colorful use of KT tape. Very popular in Japan.
I felt like I started out controlled, but came into the first major check point at 3:00, 3 minutes faster than 2013. Likewise, I hit the next major check point (and water stop) at 42'ishK about 5 minutes faster than my 2013 split, and without running quite as dry as I had in 2013. The weather was warm at the start, but cooler than 2013, which also helped on the hydration piece, which is one of the challenges at Hasetsune—carrying enough to make it more than half-way without a chance to refill (each person is allotted 1.5L of water or sports drink), on a course that is going to take 9+ hours to finish.

A typhoon was on the way, and heavy rain was expected starting on Monday morning, but held off for many of us. Hasetsune has a 24 hour cutoff (yes, for just 71.5 Km, but this course is tough and many finish close to the cutoffs). The 2014 edition was much foggier than 2013, and visibility up top was a challenge at times once the sun went down, about 4.5 hours in. I used my Petzl Tikka RXP, which has the reactive lighting technology, and then a one AA hand-held Fenix. I love the Tikka, but in fog, no headlight is ideal, and the handheld was key in filling in the light from below.

Somewhere early on. Photo by DogsorCaravan.
So, while I assumed I would be slower than last year based on fitness, I guess it goes to show you that muscle memory is a great thing, and that ultra races are, indeed, often as much about your mental place as your physical. I went into the race with somewhat lowered expectations, but ready to accept what the day gave me, and that I shouldn't count myself out at the start. I surprised myself and felt relatively good for much of the race. It was hard, but my quads didn't die, and I was able to run faster than 2013 even in the earlier sections. I often feel that ultra runners, as a bunch are often over-raced or over-trained, so perhaps there's something to be said for years of experience and the benefit of a couple of months off (usually forced by injury, but injuries may be the key to mentally recharging us) to refresh and re-energize.
Supporters cheering at Checkpoint 1. 
Like last year, and as I mentioned to Max, for me the hardest part of this course does come after the water stop, namely on the last big steep descent following the last steep climb that includes some chains. I kept waiting for the chain section, but each chain-less climb helped indicate that there was a least one steep final climb to go (the chains are attached for hikers to hang on to). It's a super rocky section, that I would struggle to hike down without falling, and I always pussy-foot my way down it, and watch at least a few guys scamper past. I'm not sure how much I could improve on this section, as it's just not my cup of tea. Where I do think I could improve is in just ascending faster, as this is a section that one can train specifically for, and for which I hadn't trained. Despite my lack of steep hill training (both up and down), I didn't struggle on the downs, except in the super-technical sections, and that wasn't a quad issue, but a fear and agility issue.

Relieved, I finally passed the natural spring (another place on the course to get water, but being in the last section of the race, is nice, but not entirely helpful if you're already dehydrated by that point. It does indicate that you're approaching the 3rd major checkpoint, and from there is the "easiest" part of Hasetsune, which is mainly downhill, but also with some flat and steep ups, that remind you that you are still at Hasetsune, a race that keeps on giving.
In the final 10K or so, you do pass through a couple of small communities as you head back to finish from where you started. Single loop courses have always had a strong appeal to me. Photo by DogsorCaravan.
Throughout the race I had no idea how far behind me the 2nd place woman was. I'd seen a couple of women in the first mile of the race, which might have spurred my faster-than-intended start. There was a lot of chatter in aid stations, but being all in Japanese, I had no idea what was being said. The last section seemed not as gloriously downhill as last year, but I remembered more of this part from last year than previous, and while it does seem to go on forever, there is comfort in knowing that your'e eventually going to be spit out in town and a couple of blocks from the finish. I did finally find the finish, in 9:31:18, faster than my 9:44:47 from last year. After struggling all summer with injury, and sub-optimal training in August and September, I was thrilled with my finish. Second place (福田 由香理) was not far behind in 9:35:50, and 3rd (江田 良子) in 9:49:29. Full results are here.

First female and thrilled to be back racing. Photo by DogsorCaravan.
Happy to be done and to be greeted by friends at the finish. Photo by DogsorCaravan.
Max's first comment to me after the race was along the lines of "WTF?", but Max has not, in fact, attempted to kick my ass. We did laugh about it afterwards (I was laughing....he was sort of laughing).

On the men’s side, Ruy Ueda crushed the course record from last year ( 7:19), almost getting in under 7:00 at 7:01. I met Ruy briefly at the Shibamata 100K in June of last year. His first ultra, he came in behind Meghan and me by a ways. I believe he met the Montrail/MHW folks who had come out to watch me at that race, and was on the team by last year’s Hasetsune where he was 6th. Still in his first year and a half of ultras, Ruy is 21 and has a super bright future in front of him. Like Max, he likes to mix things up, and is as likely to jump on the track for a 10K as run a technical mountain race. He’s definitely one to watch on the ultra circuit in the coming years. Setting the Hasetsune course record is a huge deal in Japan, probably much like setting a record at Western States in the US. Ruy wants to come race in the US in the spring, and I can’t wait to see how he lines up against a competitive US field. Another Montrail/MHW team member, Shuko, was 3rd, and Max was 8th, which was good for a team win.
Team Montrail won all 3 Hasetsune Cups. Men's, Women's and Team. Photo by Sho Fujimaki.
Top 5 women. I'm big in the U.S., but I'm a giant in Japan. Photo from my iPhone.
I would like to do this race again, and like I said last year, to train more specifically, namely include some steep hands-on-knees hiking, and just more vertical. I’d like to break 9 hours on this course, or at get in the vicinity. After the race I looked up past times, just to see who holds the course record. The women’s course record is 8:54, set by one of Japan’s top ultrarunners, Norimi Sakurai, who has won Hasetsune 5 times (in addition to the 2007 IAU 100K world championships in 7:00, and holds track world records in both the 100K and 6-hour). Definitely not an "easy" record to go after, but one I would merely like to get closer to, and see if I'm capable of getting close to the 9-hour mark. 

As always, thanks to my sponsors, and especially Montrail and Mountain Hardwear. The Montrail/Mountain Hardwear staff and team in Japan have been wonderful hosts to me on my visits to Japan. I can't thank them enough. And to Clif Bar, Injinji, Flora and Nuun for their continued support. To all of the Japan Montrail/MHW teammates, but also to Max King who was an awesome travel companion. Max has a lot of fans out there and for good reason--he's a really nice guy. I'm a fan, too, despite his comments about cats. On a gear note, I wore the Spring 2015 Bajadas for this race and I love these shoes. They improve on the current Bajada, and have some significant improvements (tongue, upper, foam) that make them a shoe I would wear in any trail race.

The Spring 2015 Montrail Bajada. Love it!
And a few more photos from the trip:
Somewhere famous....A shrine near the hotel.
The view from our hotel in Tokyo.
Barrels of sake.
Food is always an adventure in Japan. We had some amazing meals (luckily this was not part of one). 
The last night in Tokyo. With Tomo, me, Max, and Daigo.