Monday, June 25, 2018

Race Report: Not Today

It's been a long half-year since I last posted, and more since I last wrote a race report.  I was worried that writing this would be particularly onerous as I wasn't sure if I was able to inject the same color into my prose the way I did in reports previously.

Thankfully, Mother Nature had my back during the 2018 108k version of the River of No Return (RONR) Endurance Runs and ensured that my experience would be ridiculously eventful.  Buckle up--it's a long one, and in a historical first, one with no photographic evidence that I was actually on the course.  

(it's been strava'd though so it did happen.)

My goal race this year is UTMB after striking out at the lottery for two years in a row.  As a result of its late-season occurrence, my whole season this year is about finding the sweet spot between undertraining and overtraining, with my de facto response to others' ideas of adventure being, "let's not overdo it now".  I'm definitely motivated to train for it as I've been packing 65-75k/1000-1400 m D+ at work during lunch as of late, so undertraining is less of a risk (barring some catastrophic injury); alas, to keep me from redlining, I've been telling myself that 'stoke just burns you out faster' for the better part of the year. 

Anyways, here's what you missed since I last posted:
  • I elected to keep my pre-UTMB race season short and progressive--
    • 50mi in May, with Ecotrail Oslo.  I don't write race reports for anything under 100k unless it's clearly warranted, but I'll get into what happened more when I write my UTMB report one up.
    • Then this race, the 108k RONR in Challis, ID, three weeks later.
    • The 100mi version of Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Runs in July
    • A return to Fairplay for 30mi with a different burro than last year's the weekend after
      • preceded the day before by a 5k race with a llama in the same venue, for "acclimatization and most definitely not for the lolz"
    • and then a long-ass August with no racing but plenty of long 50k runs where I would fuel with only meat and cheese (and some opportune wine) because UTMB aid stations are hilarious
  • I stopped running with my running group at home for most of the winter and early spring, not that I had many folks wanting to run with me.  I've gotten to know my iPod classic's music library better as a result, and apparently i go hard on the synthpop.  
  • I met my new burro in Colorado for Derby Day/Cinco de Mayo and packed on quite a few miles that weekend, managing to tag four 14ers in less than 24h.  My vision started going at one point, but I guess that's what happens when you drive from DIA to the foot of Mount Evans and just send it.  
But I digress. 

I chose RONR because I was looking for something between 50mi and 100k with some substantial climbing that necessitated bringing poles, sometime around June/July.  It was either this or Beaverhead, and the deciding factor would be whether I got into Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Run, which I did.  

I didn't read too much into RONR given my mellow attitude, and wasn't particularly keen on a goal besides finishing around 3rd lady/P33 again.  All I knew was that there'd be ~5500m of gain, and my drop bag would be at 38.5mi in.  This necessitated a few changes to my loadout--

  • I had run the Canmore Triple Crown in a relaxed sub-7.5h pace the Monday prior to Ecotrail, with my Black Diamond FLZ's that I had used since late 2016, but in an effort to shave some weight, I decided to refurbish my old Carbon Z's in my closet--namely replacing the stump of a basket that resulted from a mishap while pacing at Leadville, and reinforcing the straps with staples and a fuck-ton of glitter tape.  (Someone took my poles by accident once upon a time at Fat Dog, and I would prefer if it didn't happen again.)  
  • I had also ran the Triple with my lesser-used, non-weekender Ultimate Direction TO race vest v3 pack that I last raced in at Miwok during 2016, but it felt comfortable the whole day and the trekking pole loops were used a lot on the flatter/bearable downhill sections, so I elected to take this pack instead of my 'daily driver' Salomon Sense Set Vest that is amazingly still kicking around from 2014.  
  • I elected to bring my original ~2015 Hoka Speedgoats for the first 39mi, but only wore them for the first time this year the Sunday before the race on a 49.99k fun run.  (I was out of juice for the last 10m.)  
  • I was all business, so no phone/camera, no bear spray (!), no buff and a pair of flimsy non-waterproof gloves.  I would wear my jacket around my waist and arm warmers around my wrists all day.  
I had decided to drive down from Calgary the Thursday before the race, as I was on the brink of aid station season so I needed the trunk space to smuggle some provisions (read: beer, dumb Oreo flavors), and things pretty much started going downhill right as I left my apartment.  First, my GPS unit wouldn't start as the last map update I did once I got back from Colorado apparently bricked my firmware (#fuckyougarmin), and I hadn't checked it prior to leaving.  It wasn't too much of an issue as I'm fairly confident in my sign-reading skills and had gone through the Missoula/Polson area back in 2015.  Then an oncoming truck just south of Polson on 93 decided to send a rock into my rental's windshield, leaving a giant chip in a car that wasn't even 800km old.  

I forgot all about this when I got to Challis, as the whole town of ~1000 had gotten behind this race, and for the very first time in my life, the hotelier greeted me by name as I walked in to my hotel.  (Yea, yea, I know.  It's still a nice touch.)  The town brewpub was also full of racers already and I struck up a conversation with a local named Celia also running my distance.  She had run the race twice in drier conditions and then promptly moved from Bend to Challis for the scenery--and I couldn't blame her.  There's not a lot of people in Custer County, which makes for some ridiculous geography.  

My misfortune resurfaced the next day, when I decided to drive down to Craters of the Moon just down the 93 as I had always wanted to visit it since I was in grade 6 for it was trippy as fuck.  I had brought my Speedgoats and race socks for hiking/scrambling in lava tubes, but as I added more km's to the day I noticed that the sharp igneous rock was exacerbating the tears in gills of the upper and letting sand in, which eventually led to me tearing a hole in the heel of my right sock.  Furthermore, I had installed some Quicklaces a few years ago so I could race in these shoes, but the external sheath over the the right shoelace had torn from me probably nicking a rock, and I noticed the kevlar was already fraying.  I wasn't particularly keen on driving to a running shop to pick up new shoes given how the Canadian peso had been doing vs. the dollar, and the race pickup host site only had Speedcross 3's available, so I elected to connect the torn sheath with a bobby pin, which would also act as a stopper against the shoelace hole if the kevlar failed.  I didn't do anything about the gills though as I knew I was in for some moisture overnight and that the dirt on course would likely cake into sizable loams of mud.  

After the race briefing, where a bunch of us, including myself and Celia, got called out for a variety of things like past achievements and for me--being a lost foreigner--I went over to a pizza and past joint with a fellow Canadian, Steven, who I had crossed paths with at Lost Soul's last year.  Naturally, because my trip can still get worse, this place was a fucking redux of Vermilion Fork at Fat Dog during 2015--understaffed, short of service, and short on pasta, despite fully knowing they would need all three of those that night.  I made due by basically drinking their pasta salad at the salad buffet with their spaghetti sauce and left the place fairly satiated.  

The Race

I woke up Saturday at quarter past 3 to the tune of a sizable rainstorm that was forecast to have ended way earlier but at this point with all my bad luck, I was fresh out of fucks to give.  We started from the City Park at 5 and went down 93 for a few miles before hitting the Lombard trail on our first climb of the day.  The views were strangely Scottish--giant ass hills with nary a tree, almost desert like, but strangled by an early morning fog.  I had accelerated out of the gate to seed myself into a tolerable position where I didn't have to run on mud polished off by eleventy bajillion pairs of feet, but as the altimeter started rising I started bleeding speed and those behind me started recovering their position.  I found that my worn Speedgoats were able to grip the shoulder of the trails where the mud wouldn't allow them to.  

morning start on Lombard, as stolen from Andy Farina.  Andy got a pre-race shoutout for being a resident of Gainesville, FL (i.e. at sea level).  
The rain eventually tapered off by 615h and I soon breached the cloud line while the sun shone through.  I blew through Birch Creek AS at 9mi in as I had barely drank any water in the cold but the climbs didn't stop there.  Keystone 3mi later was the same story, and that marked the end of the first climb, at around ~8300', and the start of a long descent into Bayhorse town.  The course description online for this leg said that "If you haven’t seen a deer, elk, antelope, sheep, bear, wolf, hawk or eagle by now then you hopefully registered under the Legally Blind category for the race," but all I saw on this section was a pile of sheep shit and some fresh snow on Borah.  

breaching the cloudline, as stolen from Andy Farina.
gonna be one of those days, as stolen from Andy Farina.
I stuffed my trekking poles into the ice axe loops of my pack and sent it downhill, chasing after a few runners who I had struggled to maintain conversation with earlier on the uphill while coming back down the cloudline into some humidity.  There was a nice mile-long out-and-back section down past the abandoned Pacific Mine to Bayhorse from the 50k/108k junction, and I was able to gauge how far back I was--it was somewhere around 12th to 15th at that point.  
Bayhorse peanut gallery, per Eastern ID Spine Sport and Rehab.  The route switchbacks up that dumb hill in the back.
Bayhorse took a few seconds longer as it was 14mi to the next aid station with food, so I topped off my fluids, shot some pickle juice and started hiking back up to the junction.  I whipped out both my poles to hike back up, but to my chagrin I couldn't get the handle of my right z-pole to lock.  Closer inspection revealed that I had amazingly either ripped out the top inner brace of the middle section or hammered it into the middle section.  Cheering on the descending runners behind me hid my frustration as I tried everything to fix it - biting the brace and trying to pull it out with my mouth (apologies to my dentist; I know you have to already contend with my gel addiction, but this is probably a whole other level); wrapping the pole around the top of a fence and pulling down both ends down, or just using the pole as-is with the handle swinging wildly.  None of those worked.  




And of course it was the pole with a new basket and carbide tip.  I resigned myself to stuffing the defective pole back into my pack's loops and elected to alternate hands on my remaining pole every other mile, since the second climb would be a good 5000' .  The twelve-year-old in me passed the time dreaming up ED references I could use to title this, but after a while I heard runners closing in on me in the proximity of one switchback back, so I woke up and realized I was wasting time and miles by not shopping for a rigid but not too girthy piece of deadfall that was long enough to just rise to the occassion hit the spot.  I started out with one that was roughly shaped like a gimpy 'Y' in which my right hand could rest on part of the branch, and it was fine until I was hit with a long, sustained downhill and it proved to be too heavy so I threw that away.  On the downhill I also found the defective pole sitting vertically on my right side was fucking with my gait since my pack wasn't balanced, so I tucked it into loops I sewed into my Nathan flipbelt that sat right on top of my ass, which worked a little bit better but I would occasionally scratch my wrists  with a long arm swing over the carbide tips.  Whatever.  

looking back towards Bayhorse (behind the mountain on the left), as stolen from Andy Farina.
I pretty much had a crisis of faith at this point, as I have lately been questioning the mandate of similar adversity I have been facing at work and whether I was set up to be unsuccessful, and started to do the same with this race.  I was still executing pretty decently--I only knew of one lady ahead of me so I was still at least hitting my usual goal of third lady--but a part of me wanted to believe the world didn't me to finish, and that I was expected to succumb to fear.  

And then I saw it, shortly after the next uphill hike started--just sitting next to the trail by a creek.  A concave branch already shaped like a cane, shorter than what i wanted it to be but packing a ton of elastic energy with its shape, with the right girth at the top and at the bottom.  Sure, it was still heavier than my carbon z-poles, but this did the job.  All my itches of cowardice disappeared, as I switched over to thoughts of gratitude.  

I tied my right arm warmer around the top of the branch to keep the dirt off my hands, but none of that would matter as I eventually breached the snowline and was able to keep my hands fairly clean.  It didn't take long for me to catch up with Sylvia, last year's Triple Crown of 200s winner (and also technically the only lady to have ever completed it) and the runner she was hanging with, the latter who freakishly seized his right leg right as I passed him.  There was nothing we could do but flag down SAR techs who had passed us on ATVs shortly before that, since we were way in the middle of nowhere.  

in for some chop, as stolen from Andy Farina
yes, chop.  as stolen from Andy Farina

Sylvia and I shot the shit as we went up the Ramshorn to 9500' in the snow, trading stories of burro racing for her tips on how to run three 200s in three consecutive months, and figuring out our pre-UTMB plans (I'm a mere mortal so I'm just doing TRTER 100, not Tahoe 200 like she is).  She didn't have poles so unfortunately I left her behind in the snow as I broke past 10000' on the summit and caught up with someone who was rocking two tree branches.  He had some speed on me on the 3000' D-/5mi downhill over these large-ass rocks so I let him go while Sylvia sent it after him.  With memories still fresh from the lunacy of Northburn Station, and because I was able to catch Sylvia at all of the previous aid stations, I let them fight it out.  

initial descent off Ramshorn, as stolen from Andy Farina.
I came across an course volunteer taping a sign to a different sign and asked if I could borrow some tape to wrap around the part of my defective pole missing its brace.  He did help me with that, so I preemptively threw my branch away to shave off some weight.  Obviously, once I tested this pole a couple metres down the road, the wire inside the z-pole finally snapped, and the pole broke off into four pieces.  

Audible sigh.  

I ran down the now-smoother forest road in a hailstorm with what can only be described as resting visceral-disgust face, hands clutching parts of the broken pole, looking frantically for the aid station somewhere in the next 2mi where i could dump this piece of shit.  Much to my delight, oncoming vehicular traffic hilariously stopped for this probably homicidal-looking trail runner equivalent of a post-racquet smash tennis player, and egged me on to go faster.  Sure enough I caught up with Sylvia at Juliette Creek and a few other runners as well.  A volunteer asked me for any garbage, and I handed him my wrappers along with the remnants of my pole.  Another volunteer named TR saw my predicament and, without hesitation, offered his gently-used Carbon's for use.  I traded him the remnants for one of his strapless rubber-tipped ones, and made arrangements to meet him at the finish before sundown to return his pole. 

With my faith in the world restored by this amazing spot of luck, I quickly refilled my bottles and grabbed a shot of pickle juice for my perogy (duh) before chasing Sylvia up some single track that criss-crossed the Juliette Creek multiple times.  The balance in my poles allowed me to reel a few others in but she dropped me yet again after about four miles when I had to shed my jacket after yet another five-minute long hailstorm.  We went up a cairn-marked meadow to a three mile long jeep road, where I was greeted with views of mountains for days and a thunderstorm chasing me.  The mud on the road frustrated my attempts to outrun the storm, but knowing I had fresh shoes and cocaine caffeine not more than four miles ahead kept me plodding along.  

Julliette Creek crossings, because ropes are for tools.  As stolen from Andy Farina.

said meadow, as stolen from Andy Farina. 
Sure enough, Sylvia was at Bayhorse Lake when I got there, flipping her gear too.  It didn't seem like the volunteers had much action yet that day as there were pretty much 2-3 pairs of hands seeing to each of us, including one lady who saw to taking my shoes and toe socks off herself, drying my feet and then putting on new shoes and toe socks while I restocked my pack and downed some mustard packets with broth.  Jokes about piggies and markets were made by multiple people.  

Sylvia and I left together in the sun, but fresh off some caffeine I sent it on the uphill for 1.5mi to around 9000' before she found me again shortly after descending some creek drainages.  Nearly 10k of downhill then followed, and I probably only hung out with her for just more than 1k before a tightness on my right knee made me ease off.  I saw her leaving the next aid station, Squaw Creek, just as I hit the portapotty there as I could feel the Tailwind I was drinking was acidifying my stomach.  (AGAIN.)

a meadow on the way to Squaw, as stolen from Drew Adams' race report from last year.  conditions were similar as well.
The volunteers at the aid station informed me I was in 10th place, despite me not wanting overdo it.  It was 8 miles to the next AS but I knew it would push me to 9000' yet again, so I took a hit of coke and refilled my bottles before setting off once again.   I hadn't seen any runners behind me since Bayhorse Lake so I deliberately eased off, sitting my glutes down during creek crossings as I knew the race had 12mi of downhill at the very end.  This section took me through meadows up a never-ending saddle that probably turned into a ridge at some point, but it was extremely frustrating as the altitude and mud choked my ability to run and I was definitely averaging 3-4 mph.  With the sun starting to set my hands got progressively colder and soon I had to put my jacket back on as I approached the end of the ascent, marked by the fact I could finally see bare rock above treeline.  
Willow Patch Meadow, in 2017.  It looked just as shitty this year.  
I knew Buster Lake AS was the start of 12mi of straight downhill, and I intended to run non-stop the whole time at roughly 6mph, save for probably one pee.  The RD had warned us to get to Buster Lake and GTFO to descend, as it's always cold there this time of year regardless of the weather, so I did that after taking a go-for-broke pickle juice shot and heavily diluting my tailwind.  The Garden Creek road started out fairly rocky and my lack of ankle dexterity kept me close to 4-5mph initially, but as signs of civilization returned, the road improved and I was able to pick it up a little bit.  

The sun was starting to hide behind hills as I turned onto the paved Custer Motorway, but based on the sun/moon calc on my watch I was still on time to meet TR and return his pole.  Custer Motorway AS was past the 100k mark but it took only seconds, with a volunteer meeting me well outside of the AS to grab my water flask.  My stomach was in full revolt now so I was committed to only drinking water, and to the delight of the aid station volunteers--consuming only half the gummy bears on the table.  After probably two more miles, I took my shades off and after another mile, a light rain started to pick up.   the motorway soon turned into main street, and despite the presence of lit streetlights, i was adamant on not whipping out my headlamp.  As my familiarity of where I was relative to the Park grew, I picked it up a little bit and hit the finish line at around 11kph, ten minutes back of Sylvia (probably the delta between her and I leaving Squaw Creek), ten minutes ahead of the next guy, still in 10th place and amazingly 3rd in my AG.  TR was there along with a few vollies from Bayhorse Lake cheering me on, shortly before 10pm.  

it's not a Lost Soul rock, but it'll do.

Obviously this race gave me a higher than average number of reasons to quit.  It honestly never crossed my mind since I'm one to earn my DNFs, but all the accumulating frustration and reluctance to own the situation was nonetheless taxing on my mind.  On a course that had freakishly similar sustained uphills and downhills as Northburn Station, i kept drifting my thoughts  to what got me through that shitshow race--being grateful for the opportunity to appreciate suffering, being grateful for being afforded the most amazing volunteers at the right time of the race, and being grateful for the opportunity to be truly conscious in an amazingly scenic pain cave.  But unlike Northburn, this time I was able to finish with a pain-free shit-eating grin, fully satisfied with how I owned the cards I was dealt, and content with how I played them.  

by the numbers:

  • time: 16:40:40
  • distance: 
  • D+:
    • advertised: 5479m
    • according to trailrunproject: 4535m
    • my watch: 4855m
  • placement: 10/57
  • DNF%: 28%
  • TR, who lent me his pole--obviously I could not have done this well without you and your generosity.  I will now keep my trekking poles at all my aid stations from here on out.  it's only fair.  
  • nameless Bayhorse Lake volunteer who dealt with my wet, gross pruney feet.  you obviously didn't have to but i shaved off a few minutes as you kept my hands free to do other things.  
  • all the other volunteers and organizers, for being consistently helpful and a delight, almost to the point where it was a little cultish.  but it's only weird if it's uncommon, and i am glad you all kept my spirits up as my day was turning into shit.  
  • Andy Farina, for staying out there for 21+ h  just so I could steal your pictures, but also bossing it from sea level.  
  • Sylvia, for tolerating my anti-social downhill pace.  sorry i wasn't brave enough to keep up.  see you in Cham when we get to do it all over again!
Stray observations
  • my orphaned pole has a home already, with someone who also has a soon-to-be orphaned pole.  i'm sticking to the sturdier but heavier FLZs in the meantime, but I am at peace with wringing out every last use of the carbon z's that were sitting in my closet for the better part of almost two years, and that the purchase of the FLZs were finally justified.  
  • if you are someone as cynical as me with the way certain races have ruined ultrarunning culture, you should do this race to restore your faith in the world.  you won't regret the value you get out of the cost of participation, which is rather disparate.  
    • it's family run by the legendary Paul Lind, who has some history with WSER lore.  
      • on the assholes taking down his flags before the race: "sorry if you don't see me [on race] morning, i may be in jail because there's a lot of places to hide a body in Custer County."  which is true, everything is so damn remote.  
    • as aforementioned, the whole town gets behind it.  sure, you'd expect residents of any town's race to help out at local races' aid stations--but the town pretty much empties out onto the course on race day.  
    • it's deceptively challenging, but only in the sense i had no topographical knowledge of the area prior to the race.  and you may not too. 
    • every aid station member here had a weirdly infectious enthusiasm and encouragement that always reversed my resting trail bitch face.  if you read the article in the penultimate bullet, Paul says he doesn't have the budget to run a WSER-quality race, but I did not notice that at all with the calibre of the race.
    • a fair amount of this race was shared with vehicular traffic--and of the eleventy bajillion vehicles that passed me, the number of drivers who didn't cheer me on can be counted on one hand.  
    • the thing where Paul calls racers out at the briefing for a variety of fun facts--sure, that's a little extra pressure if he parades your race CV like those who ended up faring rather well anyways, but recognition is recognition, even if it's for things like "sea-level participants" and "participants not from here".  
    • don't know what flag color to follow?  look at the color of your bib.  
    • did i mention some lady dried my feet and changed my wet shoes and socks for me?  
    • I was shooting the shit with the same ATV-bound SAR techs reappearing all over the course, and they all recognized me all day long.  
    • obviously there was a self-serve keg at the finish.  
  • Amazingly I didn't need Google Maps once I got to Challis.  Craters was just down the road on 93, and all my stops after the race all the way back to Canada were also in the proximity of 93.    I guess I'm spending way too much time in the Redoubt these days.
  • serious question for trekking pole manufacturers: why are poles not concave?   spring loaded ones already exist, so why not take it up a notch?  
Tips for prospective long-course RONR participants:
  • this race is obviously longer than 108k.
    • but there's less than 17700' of gain! 
      • but you should still bring your poles!  the last 15mi are downhill, and you do not want to walk those.
  • bring two headlamps - a disposable one you can drop after the initial half hour of darkness at an aid station, and one for after in case you need it.  I didn't need the extra weight in my pack.  
  • i didn't loiter at the first few aid stations as i was loaded for bear with eleventy bajillion clif bars, but the aid station loadouts would have rendered the extra weight unnecessary.  
  • not running with friends for training helped me a lot.  there were less than 60 participants in my field, but the time between being able to see people or even ATV drivers was something akin to Fat Dog.  Custer County has a fairly low population density to begin with, and this race will prove that.  
    • if you think you can see an aid station approaching, it's probably just a snowbank.  you'll know when you're getting close when you can smell the fires/food cooking.
  • this year was uncharacteristically wet but in previous years you could have gotten away with running with road shoes.  
  • dry, cold weather gear for after Squaw, but you'd have to drop your bag at Bayhorse Lake like I did.  
  • use mountain forecast to cross reference the latest forecast from the RD.  it unexpectedly snowed a fk-ton on the morning of the race.  
  • the 'climb' up to Buster Lake goes forever, only in the sense that the canopy of trees is very thin and it will appear as if you are approaching treeline the entire time. 
Up next
  • local aid stations:
    • AS3 at Powderface
    • AS3a/4a from 9am to 5pm at Sinister 7
    • AS5b/6c from 7pm to 11am at Sinister 7
  • TRTER 100
“The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.”
--John Muir

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