Thursday, November 5, 2015

Race Report: When You're Not Sure If It's Your Turn or Not

We all have our bad days.

But really though, the notion of a 'bad day' is all in your head.   You can consciously brace yourself to have a bad day beforehand so you end up feeling no worse than expected.  
Of course, that would first take some motivation to look for a good day first. 

The 100miler version of the Javelina Jundred race consists of six big-ass 15mi loops and one tiny-ass 10mi bonus loop in the middle of nowhere just outside of Fountain Hills, AZ.  Part of its uniqueness comes from the fact the loops are run washing machine style (i.e. alternating directions) so you can see how the leaders look as they try to lap you, and its placement in the vicinity of Halloween, which encourages some idiot runners like myself to do the whole thing in costume. 

My training regime following Lost Soul was as follows:
  • Switch to road running (vs. mountain goating).  Work the tensor fascia latae and iliotibials bands more than the glutes.  
  • Run the Le Grizz 50mi down in Montana.  At half the distance and 50%-ish "steeper" than JJ, this would be a good way to transition into similar trail conditions three weeks before the race.  
  • Get needled the Monday before the race. 
Astute readers will notice that I set myself up to fail with no heat training at all.  (You'd think Phoenix gets colder by Halloween with the shorter day times--but you'd be surprised.)  Unfortunately, this would have been a moot point anyways as I was sent off to the North Sea two days after coming back from Montana, and finding a spin bike and a sauna that lets you bring along a spin bike in Aberdeen is not the easiest of tasks.  Even with Scottsdale being only ~380m above sea level, this short jaunt to the ocean was definitely detrimental to me as I had found out on a Prairie Mountain hike the Sunday before the run.  

But I digress.

After race package pickup the day before the race, I headed out to McDowell Mountain Regional Park to figure out where the hell I was going to drive the following day at 4am in the dark.  I noticed the parking pass we were given was effective for that day as well, so I figured I'd go for a short shakeout hike to assess if I needed gaiters for the sand and to breath in the humidity (or lack thereof) in the dead of the afternoon.  I found the North Trail loop at the end of the park road to be an easy 4.6k and decided to do it with no water and only in my Vans casual shoes.  Taking note of my walking pace to be 10:15-10:45/km, I found myself alone in the desert (seriously, where are the vultures here?) except for an MTBer who passed me going the opposite direction around 2k in.  Time seemed to slow down as I was in awe of the complete lack of life here, and I was once again alone in my mind palace, wondering if places like this inspired the imagery associated with the concept of limbo in Catholic theology.  One thing led to another and suddenly I started questioning why I was down here for this race.  

And I couldn't remember.

I remembered I signed up back in January, but I couldn't remember.  Maybe it was insurance for UTMB points or WSER qualifiers, but I doubted that because I had signed up for enough races with those features during December last year anyways.  Maybe it was because I wanted to run an ultra in a costume, but I had done that with Frozen Ass 50 and Blackfoot 100k already.  Maybe it was because I wanted to see if I could close 100mi in a sub-24hour timeframe, but given I had not done 100mi yet back in January as a reference point this was unlikely.  Maybe it was because I wanted a solid finale for the year, but that was no longer the case anymore as I had races through to January 2016.  Maybe it was because I wanted to meet a smelly goth version of Pumba.  Maybe I was drunk at the time.  So much had gone by this year already that I couldn't remember why I was down here. 

And I kept trying to remember through the night.   Nothing.  
Defeated, I came to the sudden realization that I had done so much this year the whole meaning of doing ultras as a therapeutic hobby had diminished its meaning into near-nothingness.  This race had become an outright chore.  

I've said previously that I wanted to close a 100mi in a sub-24h timeframe so I worked with that to get me through the day and a bit, as I thought it was still a reasonable goal given how Sinister 7, Fat Dog and Lost Soul went, but even then that just didn't feel like the purpose of this race, or that I was where I wanted to be.  I didn't feel anxious like I normally did with my early-season races, just bored and still confused as to why I was down here. 

On race day I woke up at 2:45am and headed out to McDowell to catch the first bus to the start line so I could set up my chair and bag of goodies in a prime location.  I didn't mind the early start as it would have been 3:45am in Calgary which was more bearable than what the clock told me.  While waiting for the bus, we heard a herd of coyotes heckling in the distance.  I'm sure they were just curious about the giant light tower that magically appeared in the middle of nowhere, but I thought to myself--this would be fucking unnerving if I heard this shit while alone out on the course.  The herd quieted down as the buses started pulling in, and I put myself in the finish line drop bag area, with the chair at the end of one of the aisles; the plan was to swap out shoes, roll, and refill on Vitargo/pickles/the like before running my chip over the timing mat.   The costume I picked out for this race was Toad from the Mario franchise, as it was minimalist enough for the desert--just his trademark hat and vest. 


It was a little brisk at the start and I took the opportunity to clock a fast lap, like I did with Lost Soul, to warm up and to bank some time before the sun really came up and sent things all to hell, literally.  I saw Dennene a few dozen metres in front of me and worked my way up to her around the 2k mark and ascertained she was starting slow at a 5-6min/km pace and then going faster, whereas I'd do the opposite from that pace as I was nowhere near her levels of awesomeness, so I elected to hang on for the first lap before falling back to a more comfortable pace.  I'd never run with Dennene before as she'd always leave me in the dust at every race we participated together at--so this was an opportune moment to exchange stories about our seasons and to talk shit about certain people in our awesome Alberta ultra community.  The loop went by pretty quickly as a result--but I made a few observations about the 15mi:
  • No cover will mean that you can probably see the lights of Jeadquarters and aid stations from across the course at night and that will fuck with your mind.  
    • That's right!  Not a single fucking cloud in the sky.  Made for some postcard views, but my camera was in my other pants.  
  • Mass infestations of the jumping cholla in the rock garden between Coyote Camp and Jackass Junction.  Trip and fall and land on one = instant DNF.
  • Douche-grade 5.6mi downhill between Jackass Junction and Rattlesnake Ranch.  Would be a good spot to bank time on the odd numbered laps but may be a killer on the even numbered ones.  
  • It got hot fast when the sun shot out of the Four Peaks to the South.  I would imagine the inverse for when the sun came down.  
coming into Jeadquarters for the first time.  the only known photo of me mid-race as at time of publication.

I knew I had to stay away from Dennene if I wanted to finish this thing because there was no way I could keep up with her in the heat.  I let her pass me while I picked up some watermelon from Rattlesnake Ranch, and soon enough I found myself grinding out the douche-grade to Jackass Junction.  She disappeared into the distance as runners started passing me again, which I was totally OK with as I had started out quick.   I saw another runner dressed as Mario, which was nice, but the kicker came when Gordy Ainsleigh passed me while still on lap 1 and called me Mustafa.  I really hope he wasn't trying to be stereotypical because I'm going to make that a thing now. My hydration intake also increased and found myself completely out of fluid 1km outside of Jackass Junction; I backed this up by filling my buff and Toad hat with ice; it's quite amazing how well the latter retains it.  By the time I got to the second hill after Jackass Junction it just seemed like I had found myself in the middle of a parade surging around me.    I noted that I passed Dennene coming the other way just under two miles out from the start/finish but by the time I got to changing my Icebugs out, I had blown more than three hours on this lap.  

(Side note: Icebug Animas + Altra StoneGuards + Salomon Quicklaces = awesome.   I felt pretty agile around the rocks and cacti between Coyote Camp and the Tonto Tank turnoff and never felt any rocks piercing up from the bottom.  I've complained about the stock build quality of these shoes before, but having only spent $50 CAD on them new, they warranted further investment which I was glad I did, as I have a fairly nimble shoe to do dumb short shit with.)


Now wearing poorly-chosen Salomon Speedcross 3's, the uphill grind past Coyote Camp turned into a nightmare.  I didn't want to run up the hill but at the same time exposure to the dry breeze was putting my dehydration into overdrive with my hip flexors starting to revolt.  I got to Jackass Junction at a slower pace than Two but was revitalized by two guys handing out freezies about 3.5mi further down.  They admired my costume and gave me props for wearing the silly hat this far by giving me three freezies.  Not one to reject help when offered, I ended up triple-fisting the three freezies all the way to the 150 St. Gate turnoff, just for giggles.  (Yes, feast on that imagery.)  I noted that I met up with Dennene on her fourth lap well before that happened and finished the lap brushing right up to the four-hour mark.  


It was still daylight but the sun had started plummeting down towards the McDowell Range when I refilled my pack, so I brought along my headlight expecting it to get dark somewhere between Jackass Junction and Coyote Camp.  On the douche-grade up to Jackass Junction I could feel my hip flexors and IT bands continuing to revolt, but I was still moving at a comfortable pace.  This was contrasted by the 100mi leader passing me on his sixth lap before I even hit Jackass Junction.  In addition to continuously packing ice into my hat, I started shamelessly throwing cubes down my Twinskins to my hips and IT bands.  "Yes, I have a thing for Temperature Play" was my response to confused looks.  

Unfortunately, having been up since 2:45 AM started to take its toll on me as I felt my eyelids get droopy around the I found myself drifting to the sides of the trails every so often, even waking up mere inches from impaling myself on a prickly pear a couple of times.   I met up with Dennene with her pacer between Jackass Junction and Tonto Tank now, noting that she was making good progress on lapping me.  Once I got to Coyote Camp I found myself chugging diluted Coke and hot ramen in a panic.  I got to changing out to my Rapa Nui 2's at Jeadquarters around 8pm.  10 hours to close out 60km was starting to cut it close if I wanted to make 24h at my rapidly declining pace.  I was pretty out of it though--I remember a staff member asking me by name at the aid station if I was on my way out to five or six but I had no idea who he was (the name on my bib read "Leonidas").  He had a look of grim concern on his face though when I replied 'five'.


The next two laps could best be described as sheer utter physical and psychological carnage.  

Only when I was on my way up from Coyote Camp did I realize the man who greeted me at Jeadquarters was Dean Johnson, the race director for Lost Soul.  I had no idea he'd be down here but was now feeling bad for not realizing who he was.  I imagined the look on his face was because he had seen me in much better days at both Fat Dog and Lost Soul and probably knew something was very wrong with me at this race. 

I had left Jeadquarters before 8pm.  Doing the math in my head--if I averaged 3.5h a lap, that would give me 3 hours to close the bonus lap if I still wanted the sub-24h buckle.  Unfortunately, this was a moot point when I realized I had been running the undulations past the hill at Coyote Camp at a blinding 10min/km+ pace.  I tried to speed up but my quads were having none of it, just like after leg 5 at Sinister 7.  It didn't make sense to me--how the hell am I running as fast as I was walking the North Trail two days before?

Even as I pulled into the desert nightclub that was Jackass Junction, the sight of dancing Mario Kart-themed costumes beckoning me to join them on the dance floor couldn't sway my spirit.  I was sure I was way off my fueling regime--I hadn't touched my pickle juice since Jeadquarters, I wasn't stuffing ice down my pants anymore and I noticed I was fresh out of salt tabs--maybe because I was just so hellbent on looking for the sub-24h buckle and not worrying about the moment at hand.  I trudged onwards along the downhill douche-grade to Rattlesnake Ranch, but couldn't muster anything sub-10min/km.  

I've been through some low points in my short racing experience, but I had never ever felt this bad trudging towards Rattlesnake Ranch.  I had walked most of the flat stuff between Skagit and Skyline at Fat Dog but I felt much worse here--there was just no way I should have been shuffling high-quality desert running track that slowly.  It didn't help that you could see the ambiance of the light tower at the Ranch from about 3 miles out, or the fact that my nostrils were now covered in dry blood, which had never happened to me in an ultra before.

Thoughts of DNFing crossed my mind--but I wanted a valid reason to do so instead of "oh I just feel tired".  I schemed of ways to trick people into bodychecking me into a cactus to pass the time, except I couldn't get anyone to play along because I was too out of it to notice anyone coming up from behind me. 

As the slope started increasing on the last mile and a half to Jeadquarters, I started falling asleep again--only to be woken up by a snake sitting on the middle of the course.  To which I jumped knee high, nearly onto a spider larger than the size of my hand just beside the snake.  I looked left and a robed skeleton with a scythe set up to stare down at me.  Fuckers.  I would have to get that snake thing looked at before Angeles Crest though. 

Landing at Jeadquarters, I chugged a bunch of salt tabs and refilled my bag--and saw it was three minutes to midnight.  I was confused by how I didn't see Dennene going the other way this lap but I grabbed some root beer and pizza and got the hell out of there as I was behind schedule by half an hour.   The belt buckle was slipping away.


The dead grim reaper and his two friends weren't there on the way back.  Great, now I was hallucinating too.  

It was the grind up the douche-grade that finally did me in.  My walking speed was well below my North Trail pace on Friday, and I was now coughing out bloody sputum.  The latter didn't concern me at all as this happens all the time when I run too hard in the winter, but it shouldn't have happened here.  I finally let that belt buckle go and settled with just finishing and keeping my DNF record clean. 

Jackass Junction was now disturbingly quiet.  The dance floor was empty and there were a few people huddled on the chairs and cots of the warming tent.  Grasping at the opportunity to reel the pack back in--I quickly chugged down some ramen and coke (just like university!) and went on my way. 

Apparently the undulation between Jackass Junction and Rattlesnake Ranch wasn't the worst of it, as my mind had to contend with the constellation of bouncing headlamps shifting its way across the landscapes towards me on their journey to claim the belt buckle I so wanted before.  I tried congratulating all these runners on their way to the finish but lost my motivation right before Coyote Camp due to the sheer volume of runners coming the other way, but also because there were these two idiot girls with handheld torches running the other way who blinded me into nearly tripping over a rock, and then a prickly pear.  I had made a deliberate effort to angle my headlamp downwards like a car does for the comfort of oncoming runners, but I guess not everyone was so considerate.  On top of that, the douchebag coyotes from the previous morning were back heckling me, but this time I was alone when I heard them.  It wasn't actually unnerving though--but only because I was just so apathetic to my situationI tried to ride the gravity down Coyote Camp to build momentum but that didn't do shit all, and ran into Jeadquarters well past 4amIt was quieter than usual and the finish line drop bag area was emptied of most of the bags, which was quite disheartening for me.


With 10mi remaining and the race pretty much a write-off in execution, I got on with finishing my so-called bonus lap.  It was set up so that you could actually see the finish line lights from anywhere--along with the lights of runners ahead of you, who always seemed eleventy bajillion miles away.  I ground out that hill at a hilarious 12-15min/km pace, and my headlight was shut off about 2k from the Tonto Tank trailhead.  

Four miles out.  It was well past the 24h mark now with the sun creeping over the Four Peaks again--if I still had any fucks to give today, I wasn't giving any.  Even to the runners behind me in position but coming the other way, proactively congratulating me--all I could muster was a weak whispered 'thank you' to each of them. 

As my feet felt the slope shift back to slight downhill-ish undulation, I found myself back under 10min/km rolling downhill.  It felt good....until I saw that the ranges were getting lit up quicker and quicker.  I had left my Oakleys back at Jeadquarters and was now running with no eye protection and a hat with shit sun protection.  I tried to get it up to sub-9min/km but the supernova came with about 1.5k before rejoining Pemberton.  Still no clouds in the sky.  Now thoroughly pissed with probable retinal damage, I never stopped--not even on the uphills

I don't know what pissed me off more--the fact that I didn't get the belt buckle I wanted or the fact my time was 25:25:24 (I'm 25 years old this year).   


Talking to others at the finish line--they said I should have been proud of this race.  Four hundies in four months (Sinister 7, Fat Dog 120, Lost Soul and this) is a ludicrous achievement, especially if that last one involved wearing a silly hat for the whole day.  And not to mention this was still a 100mi PB for me.   And that I was probably still in the top half of all the finishers and remaining runners on the course.  I still felt unfulfilled though--I knew I could have done much better, but I just didn't and couldn't appreciate the value in doing so.

Monday came.  I knew the day would be a write-off as I had a few things to do at work before noon from the hotel room; I had originally intended to walk up Camelback Mountain or Piestewa Peak to ease the ankle swelling but the temperature ballooned to the 90s by the time my Madrilian friends logged off so I decided to hit up Tempe Marketplace instead to do that walking-off.  
I stopped at Barnes and Noble and while browsing, I picked up Matt Fitzgerald's How Bad Do You Want It?  With the shitty FX rate I decided to just glance through this book stateside and pick it up at Chapters/Indigo up north, but within the short time I had to flip its pages, I gleaned the following things based on the psychobiological model I probably should have figured out immediately after the North Trail on Friday:
  • Expect to feel shitty.  Your perception of effort will decrease and you feel like you have more in the tank.  I couldn't block out the pain and discomfort in my legs and that overwhelmed me after the start of the fifth lap because I wasn't consciously expecting it.   Perceived effort is made of two layers--how you feel, and how you feel about how you feel.  I had a shitty attitude about this race going in and that didn't help with the strength of the latter.   As soon as the cramps started, I had nothing left to back me up and proceeded to lose the plot. 
    • "This is going to hurt, but no worse than before" is much better than “I really hope this doesn’t hurt as much as it did the last time”.
  • Choking is what happens when you focus too closely on what you want and not on the moment.  I hung myself up on the sub-24h timeframe without watching my fueling, hydration and temperature.  There are smaller goals you always have to deal with on your way to your overarching objective--for example, my next race will secretly be a competitive gel-drinking, pill-popping, pickle-eating competition with myself corresponding to a much larger goalThese quantified smaller goals are more tangible and can help you crank your effort as needed.   Simply going by feel on your way to a bigger, ambiguous goal is never going to cut it and gives your effort no structure at all
It's simply quite amazing how quickly physical capability can evaporate when your head's not in the game.  This race took a lot out of my self-esteem given the performances I had at Fat Dog and subsequently Lost Soul, and--I kid you not--I was so disappointed on how it went down that I didn't even inquire about results until I got to my gate at Sky Harbor on Tuesday morning.  
At the same time, it gave me a little motivation to get my shit together and find my form again for my remaining events prior to a racing hiatus commencing mid-January.  Bad days hurt, but if you keep looking forward and play it right--they can also bring about the gift of purpose, opportunity and a sobered, strengthened resolve. 

By the numbers:

  • placement: 136/459 starters
  • time: 25:25:24
  • DNF%: 39%
  • distance: 163.3km
  • elevation : 2065m
Other things:
  • Maybe it was the whole 'party in the desert' atmosphere, but I thought the start line mix (caution--it autoplays) the DJ conjured up was some pretty hot shit that easily puts Barney Stinson's Get Psyched Mix to shame.  If you need a solid 40-ish minute warmup to something epic, you should check it out.  
  • Shit people say because you're dressed as Toad:
    • "I will eat you for energy if I catch up to you."
    • "I need an energy boost!  Quick, high five!" 
    • "Can you let me into your secret star stash?  What about your secret secret star stash?"
    • "Psilocybin?"
    • "I hated your house in Mario 3."
    • "Yo the princess is in another castle, man!" 
  • Per the above--sorry Dean for not recognizing you right away.  Thanks again for coming down to volunteer. 
  • Thanks Dennene for letting me join you on your first lap!  I learned a lot in that short timespan and those concepts will be put to good use shortly.  You've had an awesome year so rest easy now.  I fully expect you to wear your JJ trucker hat the next time we run into each other as we have the same color!  :D
  • And thanks to the volunteers!  You don't even need to talk to them for them to know what you want.  Seriously, when I got to Jackass Junction for the second time, I just took my hat off, held it like a trick-or-treat bag in front of a volunteer, and was promptly directed to the ice cooler.  Classy.
Up next:
  • The 24h version of the KUS 6/12/24 in Wichita on 14 November.  Yes I'm a masochist but I'm also glad I have the opportunity to bounce back mentally so close to this race.  Should make for an awesome writeup. 
  • Oh I don't know, maybe take a break or something.....
Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew. 
--Jack Gilbert

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