Dam Good Run 26k

I ran again. It was hot. The End.

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photo by Sweet M Images

After spending 4 hours getting quite toasty in the Arizona sunshine, I think I’m kind of glad to be wrapping up the racing for the summer. I feel a bit like an endurance horse who is probably ready for a break at the end of a season — I’ve crammed quite a bit into the last quarter, and could use a breather and some recovery time.

I did really well to get through this whole running season without any significant injuries or needing to take time off…so now it’s time to take that time off voluntarily and let whatever cumulative micro-abuses that are dwelling (I’m sure there are some) take care of themselves.

Aside from the unexpected heat at Crown King two years ago, I’ve not done much deliberate running in the heat. (Nice to know there’s some level of crazy I haven’t hit yet.) Since I run a lot with the dogs, I try to get them out as early as possible to avoid the heat, and generally my idea of heat training involves just existing in Phoenix in the summer.

So when temperatures decided to jump from “pleasant” to “oh, look, it’s summer” right before the race, I wasn’t overly enamored of the idea. I admit, the “No refunds” policy kept me from dropping, either down in distance or altogether, since otherwise it would have been very, very tempting.

However, I really wanted to do the Dam Good Run, because how often do you get to run right next to a lake in Arizona?

And so it was that I found myself once again back at the shores of Lake Pleasant, only this time starting 2 hours later, 20 degrees warmer…and only having to go half the distance.

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start/finish area

I was running again with my friend Cristina — we did the Javelina Jangover 7k back in the fall together, as well as one of the Black Canyon training runs in the winter, so we knew we paced well together. And once it warmed up out there, it was a really good run to have company. Our strategy basically consisted of:

  • run for a bit
  • decide “that’s enough of that nonsense” once we hit a climb or enough cumulative heat built up
  • attempt to dissipate heat by bitching about it
  • decide walking didn’t generate enough airflow and the faster we moved, the faster we would be done
  • run again
  • lather, rinse, repeat
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heading down to the New Waddell Dam. this race is unique in that this one day is the only time any kind of “civilian” traffic is allowed on the dam. 

The trails around Lake Pleasant are a lot of fun — mostly singletrack trail (with the exception of the 3 miles of pavement from the start, across the dam, and to the trail), lots of ups and downs, twists and turns, and not too much overly-technical or rocky stuff (for Arizona, at least…it always involves rocks around here, just varying degrees of them).

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pretty sure I’m contemplating jumping into the lake at this point and swimming around to the finish

Pitchers of water and scoops of ice handed out at the aid station were lifesavers — at the turnaround point and final aid station, I had them dose my whole head with water, and I stuffed ice anywhere I could manage (hat, neck wrap, bra). I may have sounded like a dysfunctional ice machine rattling my way down the trail, but it kept me cool(ish).

The trickiest thing for me to manage was my stomach/eating. I knew the heat would make it harder to find foods that appealed. While I didn’t do as well in the eating department as I do when it’s cooler out, I did okay on a mix of Huma chia seed gels, Clif Bloks, and Skratch Labs exercise mix on-the-go, and watermelon and oranges at the aid stations. I stayed hydrated, didn’t crash, and didn’t have any kind of heat stroke…which is about as good as you can ask for in temperatures that hit 97* along parts of the course.

And the best part was the finish line at the edge of the lake. Through the finish, and straight down to the water, with just enough pause to drop the pack and shoes.

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best natural ice-bath ever

Time was 4:03. As soon as I saw the weather forecast, any time goals went right out the window and the goal was simply to just finish and not keel over. Since I managed that, I’m happy with it.

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Gear Roundup:

  • InkNBurn “Chameleon” racerback. This is the lightest-weight, coolest shirt I own. The material is really silky and light, and it has pinhole-sized holes in it, so it’s really breathable.
  • InkNBurn “Wings” shorts. Ended up needing to bust out the Bodyglide to keep the chafing in check, but I can’t say I expected anything less with the amount of water and sweat.
  • Balega merino socks, Dirty Girl gaiters, and Hoka Speed Instinct shoes (not pictured). All good except for that same perky blister on the side of my right big toe. But I also didn’t do any preventative taping on my toes at all. Speed Instincts were really comfortable and a good choice for the trail. They have a lower profile and are a little more streamlined than my Challengers, so I have really good ground feel in them for rougher/rockier terrain.
  • Nathan VaporHowe vest (pictured up at top race photo). Yep, still love it. With the amount of sweat and dirt on it, I will be forced to test its washability coming up here in very short order (like, before the next time I wear it).

I think that’s it for now…hoping to return this blog to its original intended purpose as a horse blog as I taper off from the running season. Running might be my sidebar distraction, and a way to get in some trail time, but the ponies are still my passion.

Crown King Scramble 50k 2017

If there had been a category in my high school yearbook for “Person Least Likely to Become a Runner,” I’m pretty sure I would have won it. It wasn’t even that I hated running…I just wasn’t very good at it. The most enjoyable times I could remember running were the handful of times we did a “cross-country” run on a dirt path around the school. That was so much more enjoyable than endless laps around the track, and I could pretend it was the kind of trail I might ride a horse on.

But despite the fact I wasn’t great at it, I didn’t actually hate it. I grumbled about it because that was just what you did in gym class when you weren’t that great at something. But running, or attempting to run, was always something that stuck with me, off and on.

And if you had told high school me that I would someday be able to call myself an ultramarathoner, I would have laughed. Hysterically.

Spoiler Alert!: After this weekend’s FINISH at Crown King Scramble 50k, that’s exactly what I am.

It’s been an almost three-year journey from my first “official” on-trail training run to actually finishing an ultra. It’s involved a lot of ups and down: race successes and failures, trial-and-error on gear, dialing in nutrition and hydration, learning to train smarter, avoiding injuries.

I DNF’d this race two years ago, and it was a pretty big mental setback for me. I’ve not chosen particularly “easy” sports to be involved in — endurance riding and ultrarunning — and I’ve not had the smoothest entrance into either of them (eventually enough setbacks and frustrations start eroding one’s confidence and determination). So to end my first ultra attempt with a DNF smacked of a repeat of my entrance into endurance riding, in which I rider optioned out of my first 50-miler attempt and it took me another 3 years to actually get to and finish a 50.

But I also hate unfinished business, so I knew I would be back to settle my score with this race. It took me until 2016 to really get my running mojo back to the point I wanted to even think about doing another race, and then when I saw the Facebook posts coming in after Crown King 2016, seeing some of my running friends completing the race, that was sufficient incentive/motivation to head straight for UltraSignUp.com and submit my entry for Crown King 2017.

But I also knew that what I did last time insofar as training really didn’t work.

For those that might not remember, this is the elevation profile of the Crown King Scramble:

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That? Adds up to just over 7,000 feet of climbing over 31 miles. And 3,000 feet of downhill, so the downhill muscles don’t get off scot-free, either.

Let’s recap: I live at 1200′ elevation. My “trails” are flat canals and bridle paths, and I’m a 25-30 minute drive in any direction to actual trails. Nothing like a challenge, right?

Okay, so now with the back story thoroughly established, we get to the actual race. (Finally, the audience sighs with relief.)

I had mentioned in a previous post that I had managed to convince Kaity to come out and join me in this endeavor. It would be a first ultra finish for both of us — her first attempt, my second. Since the whole course is wide open jeep/4×4 road, it can help to have some company along the way to enliven things a little bit more.

Since the race start at Lake Pleasant is about an hour and fifteen minute drive from my house, and since we were doing the early start* at 5AM, we would have had to be up at around 2:00 in the morning in order to be there on time.

Um, no. I did that in 2015, and really didn’t care to repeat the experience of starting a race on what was likely a collective 3-4 hours of sleep. So we elected to get a campsite at Lake Pleasant for the Friday night before, as well as for Saturday night afterwards (after taking the shuttle back down from Crown King).

Kaity drove out and arrived Thursday evening, we packed up my truck Friday morning, and headed out to Lake Pleasant early afternoon. We had a slight snafu upon arrival with someone’s camper occupying our campsite…but no occupant around. We still set up our stuff (tent footprint was clear) and it got sorted out within a few hours after the occupant arrived and realized they had misread the site labels and were supposed to be in the next site over. All’s well that ends well, but we had a bit of potential drama and excitement for a while there, wondering exactly how it was all going to pan out.

It was nice to have the afternoon to prepare and go about things without feeling rushed. I had already packed my running pack, drop bag and finish line bag at home, but made sure everything was sorted and in its proper place, added some last-minute things, and set out my clothes for the next day.

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Flat Me, ready to go: Nathan VaporHowe 12L vest, InkNBurn “Sakura” singlet, INB “Dragon’s Gate” capris, Brooks Juno sports bra, SmartWool arm sleeves, Balega Blister Resist Merino socks, Dirty Girl gaiters, Hoka Challenger ATR 2 shoes.

Being well-prepped ahead of time also meant time to sit around camp and relax for a bit, and take in the lake scenery , have a fly-over from an osprey (only the second one I’ve ever seen!), and get serenaded by one of the wild burros.

The weather was doing funny things…a rather chilly cloud cover blew in, and we even got a few little sprinkles here and there. I’ve still got some PTSD leftover from Black Canyon regarding running when it’s cold/wet/muddy, so I had been stalking the weather like a crazy person in the 10 days leading up to the race, alternating between sighs of relief and hand-wringing as the weather vacillated between hot, cold, and perfect. The forecast was calling for snow Friday evening up in Crown King (!), and for possible rain early Saturday morning, but down at Lake Pleasant level it was supposed to be mostly clear, with overnight lows in the high 40s, and clear along the way and up in Crown King by the time we were expected to be up there.

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campfire contemplation

After getting cozy warm in front of the campfire, bed at a reasonable hour (by 9pm) actually happened. Thanks to a tab of melatonin and some earplugs, I actually slept pretty well, especially considering I usually don’t sleep well in a new location, and it was a fairly active campground with plenty of traffic, music, and other campers.

My alarm was set for 3:20, and about 2 minutes before it went off, I awoke to more burro braying…for a second, I thought I was in ridecamp and someone’s mule was making its presence known.

I had done the taping I was going to do (big toes, and preventative on the ankle area from Black Canyon) the previous night, so it was a pretty simple thing to pull clothes on and make a beeline for getting coffee prepped. 4:00 in the morning is really not my idea of a great time to have to eat breakfast, but I managed to eat half a banana, several bites of oatmeal, and the surprise hit of the morning was a cup of rice pudding.

We pulled out of camp at 4:25 and were over to the start area about 10 minutes later. I checked us in, we deposited drop bags and finish line bag, and had enough time for one last porta-potty visit before being herded over to the starting area on the boat ramp.

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At the start line. Way too early and not nearly enough caffeine on board.

At 5:00 on the dot, we were off, heading back up the road we had just driven in on. It’s about a mile and half of pavement before you hit dirt road, but given the fact it is still pitch-black out, the smooth surface is a welcome way to start, even with headlamps.

By the time we hit the first big turn, 4 miles in, I was able to ditch the headlamp and run in the early-dawn light.

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sunrise

The desert looks absolutely amazing right now; with all of the winter rain, this has been probably one of the best flower years that I can remember in the past 15 years or so. The brittle bush was going absolutely gangbusters, making the entire desert look like a bucket of yellow paint had been tipped over it.

Aid station 1, Cow Creek, was at mile 8.5. Paused there to refill my soft bottle with Skratch Labs and top off the vest bladder, plus grab a few snacks: potatoes, pickles, dates, and a bean roll-up piece. (My strategy was “eat early and often” so that I wouldn’t get behind on nutrition as the race went on. It worked.)

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They take taking care of runner very seriously around here.

There’s a beautiful section that goes through a canyon between aid stations 1 and 2 that is full of some amazing rock formations, pretty greenery, and random abandoned cabins.

During parts of this section, I wasn’t thrilled with the fact I was having trouble getting into a really good cruising rhythm. I felt like I was really struggling to find a good breathing pattern, and my hip flexors were already feeling stiff.

Time-wise, my goal was to make it to aid station 2 in 3:30 and not tap into that early start “extra hour” time if at all possible, so I would have that in reserve for the second half. We rolled into French Creek aid station in 3:35, so 5 minutes off my time goal, but 10 minutes earlier than the previous go at it, and only some general discomfort versus “demoralizing injury pain.”

This was the longest stop, as I decided to change shoes into my older Hoka Challenger ATR 2s. I started with my newer ones (same model, just not as many miles) with the idea of having the freshest plush cushion for the hardpack running section, but I don’t think they were quite as well broken-in at the toe area, because they felt a touch tighter, and I got a small side-of-the-right-big-toe blister. Swapped to the older ones for the second half and they felt better, and blister didn’t get worse.

I also refilled my bottle (another Skratch Labs down), my hydration bladder, and re-packed more food refills. Took a potty break (third one thus far), grabbed some munchies off the the food table plus a little cup of coke, and then we headed out of there.

Let the real climbing begin.

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I’ll be blunt: I hate this section, from miles 17-19, topping out at Silver Mountain aid station. The heels are steep, and they just keep going. There are several false summits, and the last climb to the aid station never seems to end.

I also didn’t take pictures this year; my multi-tasking was focused on eating and drinking. See my 2015 race story for pics. The climbs haven’t changed.

Kaity got ahead of me for the first time here, as she has about 6″ more leg than I do, so covers more ground both up and down hills. But compared to 2015, I did so much better, and only had to take two 15-second pauses in climbing during this whole section. (Credit my gym regimen and the interval training with some fast heart rate recoveries. Two years ago, I could not get my HR and breathing under control…just kept getting higher and higher, no matter how many stops I made.) And I was able to run all the flats and downs.

So my steady-eddy pace still got me into the aid station maybe 45 seconds to a minute behind her.

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Climb up to Silver Mtn aid. Photo by SweetM Images

Another repeat: top off bladder, refill Skratch Labs bottle, grab some aid station nibbles.

The next section from Silver Mtn to Ft Misery aid station is much more friendly than the previous one. A few small hills, and some decent runnable sections. The hardest part here was the detour off the main road around some active mining activity. The reroute bushwacked us through a creekbed…with a flowing (and cold!) creek.

As we started climbing and gaining in elevation, the weather had started changing, getting colder and with an increasing cloud cover. A couple of times I regretted leaving my arm sleeves back in my drop bag, especially as the wind kicked up and some of the clouds looked like they were contemplating dumping some moisture on us.

Back to the creek…given that the weather had turned a bit chilly, we were reluctant to go wading through the cold water, so did a lot of rock hopping and picking our way through and around.

(Apparently Black Canyon didn’t completely cure me of my aversion to getting my feet wet. However, next time…suck it up, Wingert, and go blasting through that creek. You’ll make much better time.)

The lure of Ft Misery is the fact it is the “Ft Misery open bar” with just about every variety of alcohol one can imagine.

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there has to be at least one redeeming healthy benefit to a Bloody Mary, right?

Last time, the thought of anything other than maybe a little slice of watermelon made me want to puke, but this time, I was still feeling really good, so topped off my hydration bladder and bottle, grabbed some snacks, and one little Bloody Mary (with a pickle).

But I also knew the next section would be a hard one for me, mentally. Not only is there the whole “screw with your head” factor of being able to look up and *see* the Oro Belle aid station…at the edge of the mountain side on a long climb up…there’s a section of trail that you do some decent climbing, only to drop all the way back down and have to re-climb again. And this was the section that I stopped in two years ago.

Physically, I was feeling tired and sore. The longest run I have done this year was 20 miles, and we were now at about 24 miles. I was slowing down on the hills again, due to being up in elevation, and just not being a super-strong hill climber.

Kaity pulled in front of me again at this point, and from about mile 24 onward, I was on my own. Fortunately I had been running with music, so I cranked the volume up and put it on one of my “strategically chosen” playlists full of songs specifically selected to cheer me up, energize me, or make me want to kick some ass or rock out.

I did my climbing, I scampered down the inevitable downhill, then “one foot in front of the other” trudged my way back uphill. I kept popping electrolytes, slurping a chia seed gel, nibbling on some Clif blocks, and hydrating. Slow-n-steady, just getting it done.

And then I got to “quitter’s rock,” this innocuous-looking lump of granite sitting next to a creek, right at the base of the big climb up to Oro Belle. But it wasn’t calling my name this year. No, this year, I walked right by it, flipped it off, and out loud said, “Not this year, f*#@$er.” If anyone was around me, they probably thought I was crazy. But hey, it is an ultra.

Passing that rock felt like I just smashed through an enormous wall. I started up the climb to Oro Belle reinvigorated. I had seen Kaity further on ahead of me as I was approaching the climb; I figured she was maybe 3-4 minutes ahead and if I kept this up, I might be able to catch her again.

I just kept steadily moving upward; what appears to be an absolutely awful climb is more of an optical illusion, and the grade isn’t nearly as steep as earlier climbs.

At the aid station, I just topped off my soft bottle and nabbed a couple of dates and was out of there in under a minute. Home stretch of less than 5 miles to go, 2 of which were downhill…I really didn’t need to stop and regroup at this point.

Now, the climbing keeps going after Oro Belle…another 2+ miles of consistent, steady up. Up into the pine trees, up to the highest point on the course of about 6400′. I had been keeping a steady, consistent pace, but all of a sudden I wasn’t seeing Kaity anymore. Had she picked up the pace? Hit the top of the climb and blazed her way downhill?

It was sufficient motivation for me to keep going…maybe I would catch her on the downhill.

Hitting the top of the climb was the sweetest feeling. I got a wonderful adrenaline rush, and I could almost hear my quads saying “Yeah, let’s go, about time we got to do some work here.”

And the road is pretty smooth at this point, too. Earlier, a lot of the downhills were pretty rocky, so I would take my time navigating the more technical spots. But now? Smooth decomposed granite footing.

flew.

I seriously did not know I would have the legs and lungs to, at 30 miles into an ultra, actually hit a sub-10-min/mile pace several times. But I did.

I was running for that beer at the saloon, for competitiveness (still hadn’t seen Kaity ahead of me), and above all, I was running for my own personal vindication, validation, and victory.

I turned the last corner, crossed the bridge into town, and actually sprinted up the main road and under the finish line banner.

Finish time: 8:57:40.

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My “really optimistic” timing pace had been 8 hours. My “just get through it” pace chart was for the 10-hour cutoff (with the early start). But my own personal goal had been “get through in under 9 hours and not have to tap into the early start buffer.”

Goal met.

I felt immensely satisfied. I had finished under my own physical and mental power, uninjured, and if they had cruelly moved the finish line out by another mile or two, I still had gas in the tank to keep going.

(Once I finished, I was looking all around the area for Kaity and not finding her until I made another pass back to the immediate finishing area and saw her where she had just snagged a table for us with a view of the finish line so she could watch for me to come in…as it turns out, she had to visit the bushes off to the side of the trail, so I passed her on the downhill in and ending up finishing 2 minutes ahead of her.)

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Finishers. That hoodie is now one of my prize possessions.

Included with the race entry is a meal ticket for a delicious BBQ lunch, and we had a good hour and half to linger before we had to catch the shuttle back to Lake Pleasant.

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The spoils of war success. BBQ lunch, finishers glass/stickers, victory beer.

The shuttle ride back was interesting…you really appreciate just how deep into the mountains Crown King really is when you’re rocketing along a dirt road in a 12-passenger van, wondering just how much experience said van driver really has in driving mountainous dirt roads. I think it also might have beat me up just as much as the run itself did. Glad it wasn’t the shocks and suspension on my vehicle.

Once back at Lake Pleasant, we took advantage of the campground shower facilities (very civilized campground) before making a run into nearby Carefree to grab dinner at Chili’s. I was fully expecting to be in a crazy, ravenous, “consume everything around me” mode, but after splitting an appetizer of hot wings, I only ended up eating about half my dinner and boxing up the leftovers for the next day. I guess that means I stayed well-fueled through the whole race, so my body wasn’t in this massive deprivation/starvation mode.

Since tent camping isn’t actually a quick-n-easy affair, and we didn’t know how late we would get back or how wiped out we would be, we were already planning to stay at the campground until Sunday morning, then pack up in daylight and head back home.

That worked out really well…we were able to leisurely pack up camp and get everything nicely organized, then head home late morning. The dogs were incredibly thrilled to see me…I’m pretty sure they are smart enough to pick up on patterns of where I’m going based on what I pack, and the last time I packed the camping gear, they got to go. So they were pretty bummed to be left behind. (Sofie was glued to my side for the next several days afterwards.)

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Artemis already appropriated my beloved prize

As I wrap this up, it is 6 days post-race, and I cannot believe how good I feel. The sorest part of me was my hip flexors, and they didn’t even hurt so much as just felt stiff. The worst carnage was a blister, smaller than the size of my pinkie nail, on the side of my right big toe.

I’ve even felt good enough to engage in “active recovery” this week — my gym workouts Tues/Thurs morning, a group run at Papago Wednesday evening, and taking the dogs out every morning. Granted, I can feel that I’m not recovered yet, so all of those activities were done at about 50% of normal output effort, but it’s gratifying to feel this strong, and not have my body screaming “I hate you” at me, or second-guessing if what I did was “too much.”

Actually, it felt just right, and I’m not a “one and done” with ultras. I will be curious to see if it correlates at all to horse conditioning and bringing a horse up through distances, where once you hit that necessary fitness/conditioning level for a certain distance, if you just have to maintain it to be able to still compete at that distance, but staying at that level is way easier than initially getting to it.

I don’t know how much I’ll do this summer, since the races around here are all night races, and the longer distances all end up being repeat loops…that just doesn’t really float my boat in terms of what sounds like fun. So I might do some shorter-distance stuff through the summer, and then I’m eyeing a couple of point-to-point or single-loop 50k options for this fall/winter.

A more in-depth breakdown of what worked/what didn’t/what I would change/other misc thoughts post is still to come, so if you have any questions or if there’s something you want to see me address, ask away and I’ll cover it in that post!

The Preparation Game

The countdown is at T-5 days until the Crown King Scramble 50k.

While I’ve had a few moments here and there of a more cavalier, “take it as it comes, stop overthinking” attitude, by and large I am operating closely within my comfort zone of “plan, overthink, and plan some more.” It’s what works for me. I like thinking ahead, planning contingencies, and organizing minute details. I love my lists, and orderly piles of things. A “fly by the seat of my pants” attitude stresses me out way more than my advanced planning. I’m a big fan of the “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” approach.

Planning also gives my brain something concrete to focus on other than nerves, more nerves, and imaginations gone wild. (I always know when I have a big event coming up…in the weeks leading up to it, I have some weird dreams. Very vivid, very detailed, and very bizarre. My subconscious has been working overtime this past week, and most mornings I’ve been waking up going “WTF was that?!?”.)

Yesterday was my last training run on the trails. At 6 days out, I wasn’t looking to add any fitness, but just keep my legs tuned up and remind my body that it has a job to do coming up shortly. I’ll do one more gym workout tomorrow morning (again, not pushing myself to capacity, but more to stay limbered up and keep the muscles awake but not tired), and then I’ll have several days where I will do nothing more strenuous than taking the dogs for a walk. (Which can be a full body workout in its own right on some days.)

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my bestest running buddies were happy to drag me down the trail

I had to borrow some superstition from my days of taking theater/drama classes from junior high school up through college: “A bad dress rehearsal means a great opening night.” Yesterday’s “dress rehearsal” run was not fabulous. By the time I finished I was feeling pretty good, but the first few miles were a major strugglefest, and all I could think was “I feel crappy at mile 3…how am I supposed to go 31 next weekend?”. Never mind that it takes me 3-4 miles to really find my rhythm, and I conveniently forget this every.single.time.

So by all rights, I guess that means the run should go well?

It’s also something of an “away” race — far enough of a drive, combined with the early start, that it totally justified the decision to get a campsite at Lake Pleasant and camp out Friday night before the race, and Saturday night after. That makes it seem like a “bigger” deal than a more “local” race as well in that it does require a bit more prep and forethought than “grab running pack and drive 30 minutes to nearby trailhead.” I managed to get most of the camping gear unearthed this weekend, and it’s currently sitting in a large pile in my garage.

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I found some gorgeous singletrack and amazing wildflowers

The wildflowers are unbelievable right now…next weekend should be quite the scenery spectacle, if what I saw this weekend is any indicator. I’m an AZ native and I couldn’t even identify half the flowers that were blooming out there…but a quick wikipedia consultation just told me lots of brittlebush (the yellow flowers), fairy duster (the fluffy pink stuff), desert lupine (purple), globe mallow (orange flowers on tall stalks), plus century plants, banana yucca, hedgehog cactus and probably plenty more that I either didn’t see or would be hard-pressed to identify.

The weather forecast has been absolutely wrecking havoc on my attempts to plan attire. In the past two weeks, I’ve seen everything from “it’s going to snow in Crown King the day before” to “sunny, high of 60” to “rain, rain, and more rain.”

After Black Canyon, I’ve got a bit of PTSD about being cold/wet. But Crown King 2015 was out-of-nowhere, near-record highs…which meant hot day with no heat training. So I don’t know which one is worse. I don’t suppose a high of 60, with just a light breeze and some scattered clouds would be too much to ask for?

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Current forecast is for a high of 49* in Crown King, cloudy, with a “passing shower” in the afternoon. Friday night low at Lake Pleasant is in the mid 40s. Start time is 5am, in the dark, and the course just keeps gaining in elevation, so you end up in 6000′ elevation by the time you’re done.

I still have no idea what to wear. Typically once the sun is out, I’m plenty warm (mid-high 50s yesterday morning when I was out, and I was in shorts and a tank top)…but that clouds/cold/going into the mountains aspect of this run has me pulling my hair out. Want to be prepared, and not get cold, but don’t want to overheat, or make myself be a pack mule carrying all kinds of crap.

We get one drop bag to access at mile 15, so I can’t even stash a ton of clothes along the way.

Currently debating right now between shorts and capris, and tank top with arm sleeves, or tank top with lightweight half-zip pullover. Featherweight rain jacket will be carried in the pack no matter what.

I suspect I will end up packing all my options and deciding Friday night at camp. And spend a lot of time checking the weather forecast in-between. Right now I’m leaning towards capris/tank/arm sleeves, but I’m sure that will change over the next few days.

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decisions, decisions.

I’m nervous. I’m excited. But mostly I’m just ready for my feet to be on that course to give it another go. I was suitably humbled in 2015, and definitely do not feel overconfident this time. But I feel ready. I know I’ve trained better, and more strategically. I’m stronger, have done more hills, way more cross-training, and have figured out my own feeding and hydration way better. I’ve found shoes that are working well, and have an array of comfortable clothing choices. Pacing at Black Canyon put me through the mental wringer and taught me that as long as I’m physically okay, I can push through my mental barriers.

So let’s do this thing.

Whirlwinds of March

I know the whole “In like a lion, out like a lamb” saying that applies to the month of March, but there has been nothing meek and mild about my schedule this March. Actually, 2017 has started off strong and just keeps gaining in momentum.

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view from 7100′ at the top of Mt Ord on a training run

After logging some great training runs in January and February, March handed me back-to-back travel weekends for work. One planned way out, one very last minute.

The last-minute trip was the first weekend of March, when I was offered the chance to go be the Renegade rep at the FITS (Fun in the Sun) endurance ride in Florida, hosted by Valerie Kanavy at her Florida farm.

That was an absolutely amazing weekend. I learned a ton, provided some good exposure for Renegade, was on-hand for customer service needs, and picked up a number of valuable tips and tricks for riding, training, and crewing. Valerie was a wonderful host and I very much enjoyed getting the chance to talk with her and spend the time at her farm.

Once I got back from Florida, I had just a couple of days to unpack and repack before turning around and heading back to the airport, this time to Dallas, TX, for the annual AERC Convention. This was my fifth time attending convention, and I had an absolute blast. Running the Renegade booth went really smoothly, the venue was really nice, and I got in some really good socializing and networking.

This was my first time spending any significant amount of time in TX (overnighting at a horse motel in Amarillo on a road trip 19 years ago hardly counts) and I was really surprised by the amount of water and vegetation in the Dallas area. Would have loved to spend more time there and explore the areas some more, but I was able to get out Friday evening for some excellent BBQ!

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March isn’t done with me yet…while I’m at home this weekend, I’m still working, this time doing the in-home catering for one of Mom’s memory art workshops. (A bit of a scheduling bummer, as I had several catch ride offers for Old Pueblo…but there’s something to be said about jumping on the opportunity to make $$$…see RP saddle caption above about the Money Tree.)

I want to slot at least one more good, double-digit training run in this weekend (Sunday), and then it’ll be the downward “just maintain and don’t do anything crazy” taper leading up to Crown King 50k on April 1.

Adventures in Pacing

Alternate titles: Mis-Adventures in Pacing; Really, Arizona Has Nice Winters; How To Run and Get  A Spa Treatment At the Same Time; When You Plan to Be Broiled and Get Frozen Instead.

Thing to note that prompted this whole story:

  • I’m training for Crown King 50k
  • which requires getting some good long runs in
  • and I like using events to achieve said long runs.
  • I love sharing my desert with out-of-state friends.
  • I relish any opportunity I have to see my out-of-state friends.
  • I’m completely hooked on the whole ultra-running experience…I like running the races, I’ve enjoyed the volunteering I’ve done…but I’ve not yet had the opportunity to pace someone through part of a race.

Combine all of those elements together with the fact that Mel had chosen to run the Black Canyon 100k, with the goal of obtaining her Western States 100 lottery entry qualifier for the year (finish time of 17 hours of less for the 100k)…and Black Canyon is a “local” (ish) race for me…and I love the Black Canyon trail, and knew about 90% of the trail from having done the training runs on the course…

And you get me volunteering to be Mel’s pacer for the latter part of Black Canyon 100k.

In normal years, this is a fun, challenging course…lots of downhill, some short but challenging climbs, and lots of technical rocks. And for the past three years, temperatures have ended up reaching record highs for February. (I believe last year it ended up at something like 90* as a high.)

Now, we’ve had a fairly mild winter, temperature-wise…but it’s been wet. Not California-water-inundation levels of rain, but for us, pretty soggy. Definitely flash-flood levels of rain, with normally-dry washes running, and bodies of water that we call “rivers” but everywhere else would qualify as “stream” or “creek” actually running large/high enough to legitimately earn their “river” designation.

And there are several “river” crossings on the normal Black Canyon course. At those crossing points, the Agua Fria might be a foot deep if you’re lucky…just enough to belly-flop in and attempt to cool off from the afore-mentioned 90*.

This year, the water level at one of the crossings peaked at 14′ in January after significant rain.

It was down for the training run, but the levels kept creeping higher as we kept getting more rain, and the forecast kept predicting more and more rain on race week, and race day.

Ultimately, the decision was made by race management to create an alternate course for this year: an out-and-back that would avoid the river crossings, because even if the forecast didn’t hold, the river would probably be running too high to be safe to cross. (Smart decision: The river was running about 7′ high on race day.)

The course changes meant a net-downhill course was now an even mostly-downhill on the way out and mostly-uphill on the way back. The start at Mayer High School down through the first ~26 miles of the course was the same, with the course then splitting off for several miles down to the new turnaround point, and then back the same way.

Okay, with that bit of establishing background all laid out, onto the good stuff…

Mel flew in Friday, and after picking up her race packet, was at my house by late afternoon. I made homemade chicken green chili enchiladas (hitting all the major food groups of carbs, veggies, protein and dairy…nomnomnom pre-race dinner) and we had a highly entertaining evening catching up, sharing stories, and getting aid station drop bags packed and race plans ironed out.

The start up at Mayer is about an hour and half away, so it was an early wakeup call to be rolling out of the house by 4:30 to have Mel there with plenty of time for the 6:45 briefing/7:00 start. It started raining off and on as we were driving through the Scottsdale area, and by the time we hit the north part of Phoenix, it was raining steadily, with the weather app radar showing a large green blob steadily making its way north.

(Partway through this drive was the location where I blew out my truck engine two years ago — Black Canyon City — and this was the first time I’ve one the drive since. Needless to say I had a bit of PTSD going through there and until we were past the big climbs on I-17. New [reman] engine and all associated new parts did flawlessly, so I might be able to relax and enjoy the drive once again.)

Mayer High School is kind enough to open their doors (and cafeteria and gymnasium) to the horde of runners that descend en masse, so there’s a warm and dry place to hang out — as well as real bathrooms to use. The race also uses a lap around the track as a starting point before leaving the high school, running through the town of Spring Valley for a couple of miles, then picking up the Black Canyon Trail just outside of town.

Aravaipa Running can always be counted on to take good care of runners and race attendees, and they had a spread of hot coffee, hot chocolate, fruit, and pastries available inside for people to fuel up while they waited.

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horse of runners heading out to the track to start

Since I was angling for Not Worst Crew/Pacer Ever, I headed out in the rain with Mel so I could capture the forensic evidence of her being there and at the start line.

Once Mel was off and running, I retreated back to the truck, cranked the heater up, and basked in warmth and dryness (and attempted to dry my already-wet feet) while I waited for my fellow crewbie, C, to arrive. (We ran the Javelina Jangover 7k together back in September and she’s getting hooked on the trail running/ultra world.) Since I would be pacing Mel for the last 20 miles, it was super-helpful to have a second person to drive/haul stuff around.

Once C arrived, we transferred everything over to her truck (aid station drop bags, changes of clothes, food, etc.) and headed down to the first place we would meet Mel, Treasure Mine aid station at mile 12.5.

The aid stations were well-prepared for the weather — extra tents, heaters, hot beverages and broth — and people were definitely making good use of the amenities. I saw a lot of carnage coming in to this aid station — bloody knees, mud coating, and enough rain still coming down that the term “drowned rat” came to mind.

Mel came hustling in, wet but still clean, and we got her pack refilled with food and bottles topped off before sending her back out there, 5 minutes ahead of her anticipated time and pace chart.

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hanging out at Bumble Bee

From there, we headed down the road to the Bumble Bee aid station at 19.2 miles where it was another lather-rinse-repeat: stand in the rain, grab bottles from Mel as she came in, refill those and her food, let her grab some food from the aid station, and hustle her back out.

This was the turnaround point for the 60k distance, and apparently, due to the weather report (more rain), they were giving the 100k the option of dropping down to the 60k for completion-only. Mel’s only question upon learning this was “Do I still get my Western States qualifier?” When told no, the qualifier was for the whole 100k, she headed back out on the trail without when a blink of hesitation.

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muddy times at Bumble Bee

With Mel back out on course (right on time), we now had approximately five hours before she would be back into Bumble Bee to pick me up as her pacer (we couldn’t go to aid stations 4, 5 (turnaround point), and 6).

So C and I headed down to Rock Springs Cafe for lunch (I wish I had gotten pie there…they have really good pie…but I suspected I would probably regret it by the time it came to pacing) and to find an open feed store for C to make a hay run.

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crew shenanigans…driving around on back roads through Black Canyon City trying to find an open feed store.

We did finally manage of our goal of obtaining a bale of bermuda hay for C, so we headed back to Bumble Bee where we had enough time to even grab a late afternoon nap.

I changed into my pacing clothes — long tights, long-sleeve merino wool short with short-sleeve tech shirt over, buff, Ultimate Direction rain jacket, pack, Balega merino wool socks, and Hoka Challenger ATR 2s.

We had strategically parked in such a way that we could see Mel coming down the road, and we bailed out of the truck and ran her into the aid station. Another quick topping off of bottles and food, I shed my outer rain jacket, and we were flying out of there.

This section between Bumble Bee and Treasure Mine is one of my favorite sections of trail ever. It’s single-track, and just fun. It was still raining, but the footing was excellent, with only a few puddles here and there, and crossing the occasional teeny little running wash. (It was kind of fun to see…I always knew that the little washes would run with enough rain, but have never been out in the desert during the rain enough to see it.)

We had probably another 45 minutes or so of daylight, and as the light faded, the wind kicked up. It wasn’t too bad yet — this section is really sheltered — and we were making really good time. Mel had gotten a little behind time in the middle section, and we made up all but a minute by the time we left Treasure Mine.

C met us at Treasure Mine where we did a quick headlamp battery change, food re-stock for Mel, and we grabbed cups of ramen noodles and broth to carry out with us. It was still raining, so we had decided that we would make the last aid station stop at Antelope Mesa as quick as we could, so told C to not even stop there…just take the stuff back to my truck and she could get out of the rain and be done for the night.

We hustled out of Treasure Mine clutching our broth cups, back out into the rain. This section from Treasure Mine back to Antelope Mesa has a lot more climbing, and is a lot more exposed and open. The wind had also picked up, and it was at this point that it started getting really cold and really wet, especially on some of the exposed ridgelines where the wind blew icy needles of rain right into us.

It was also somewhere during this stretch that my gloves (Fortunately the $2 Old Navy knit variety, not some really nice ones) had popped out of one of my pack pockets and were lost to the trail. I discovered this shortly before Antelope Mesa, so have no idea exactly when they went on walkabout.

It was really cold and really windy by the time we got to Antelope Mesa. We stopped there for maybe a minute, long enough to grab more broth and some bean roll-ups, and dashed out before we could get too comfortable. Coming in to Antelope Mesa, we were leading a wagon train of half a dozen people, and there was a lot of misery and train wreckage that I could see as we quickly dashed back out into the weather.

Even that brief stop and slight bit of warmth made a cruel contrast to what awaited us. It was only 7 miles to the finish, but 5 of those miles were nasty, sloppy, icky, freezing mud. A good portion of the trail at this point was a jeep road, and you could move forward without sliding. We slopped forward the best we could, with me trying to strategically position myself behind Mel to block her from the worst of the wind whenever I was able.

I can say getting through this section was one of the hardest things I’ve done. Harder than the DNF at Crown King, harder than any endurance ride. I’ve had more physically painful moments, but I have never been so cold, and so wet…and had to be the mentally strong one.

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m a bit self-indulgent when it comes to discomfort and difficult things. I much prefer someone to take my hand and say “we’re getting this done.” But part of my job as pacer was to be the one to say “let’s get this done.” I couldn’t let on how cold I was, or how discouraged I was, or how this was absolutely insane and we were probably going to die of hypothermia out there, or how my head was playing mind games with me in terms of what I thought the trail was doing versus what it was actually doing. (At one point, I thought I could see the single track stretching out in front of us, which was insane because we were on a jeep road, it was pitch dark, and I could only see about three feet in front of myself with my headlamp. It was the ultimate in headgames.)

So I reassured Mel that she was getting it done, that the miles were ticking off (even if I did have to fudge the numbers a few times), she was on pace (this part was not fudged…she had set a goal of 19-minute miles for this section and she was ticking of 18-minute miles, even in the cold and mud).

And it was still raining. And still windy. I looked at the weather report the next day, and the area got 2″ of rain, and wind gusts of 40mph.

Finally, finally we reached the road…lovely, solid, hardpack, not muddy road. It was a relief to pick up a shuffling jog versus the mud slog, and I chattered at/nagged/encouraged Mel for the next mile and half or so to keep on going. The high school was visible, and we were almost done.

And as a parting gift on the final turn up the street to the high school I managed to step in a hidden pothill that was filled with water. My feet had just warmed up again from the last mile of not-mud, and so an unexpected water dunking was rather freezing. I think I kind of tweaked something on the unexpected step as well, but several days later as I write this, the ankle is a little sore but functional.

Going through Spring Valley actually warmed up — all the houses provided a wind break, and the pavement was a little bit warmer than mud.

Until we reached the high school, which was at the top of the exposed ridgeline. More wind, more driving icicle rain. More chattering teeth and shivering runners. But Mel shuffled through the parking lot, onto the track, and over the finish line at 11:37pm. Her “optimum time” was 11:30, with midnight as the cutoff for Western States lottery qualifying, so I guess I did my part to keep her “on pace.”

I shooed Mel off to the high school while I retrieved the truck from its further away parking space (my fingers were so cold that I couldn’t grasp the key hard enough to turn it in the lock, since the truck is older and the locks are stiff…I had to use the caribiner on my keychain to act as a leverage bar to basically twist the key around) and moved closer to the high school. Once I got it moved, I hustled back inside…still shivering. A cup of hot coffee has never tasted so good. Understandable, after you’re told your lips are actually kind of blue, as are your fingernails.

Huh, knew I was cold, but didn’t think I was that bad.

Anyway, mild brush with hypothermia aside (bet you never thought you’d read that sentence from someone who lives int he desert), we sat in the gym with warm drinks while a very kind person went out and got Mel her wood-fired pizza, which we then proceeded to polish off very quickly.

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slightly blurry because I’m still shivering. slightly cold-delirious, but happy.

Pizza and move coffee consumed, I braved the elements again long enough to run outside, grab Mel some clean dry clothes, run back inside, grab another cup of hot water, and run back outside to the truck where the heater got cranked on again and I used the front seat as my changing room. (Sorry if I had an inadvertent audience out there…I was too cold to care.)

Ensconced in multiple layers, with the truck heater working really well, I was finally getting warm, and once Mel came back outside, we took off for home before I was completely out of functional energy.

The drive home went really smooth (and it was still raining) and we rolled into the driveway at 2:30ish. I had some very happy puppy dogs to greet me, and then I fell into bed, not even bothering with a shower.

And then I completely failed at sleeping in, up at about 7:30, because apparently once the sun is up, so am I. And so are the dogs. But I still had all of the stuff in the truck to unload — all the wet clothes got chucked in the back and I really couldn’t be bothered to deal with it until the morning.

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mud carnage. bare feet are Mel’s. Tights and neon shoes are mine. five washings later I still have mud stains on my tights.

Mel didn’t have to be at the airport until later in the afternoon, so we had some time to go to my favorite gelato shop and my local running store. Oh, yeah, and it was still off-and-on raining.

As I write this several days later, the weather has been in the high 60s/low 70s, bright, sunny, and perfect. Which I’m thinking my northern CA friends who have visited here in the winter won’t actually believe. I try to convince people our winters here are gorgeous, but every time I get a visit from an out-of-state friend, the weather goes completely sideways. Um, sorry?

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More mud. I was feeling stuff getting wadded up under my toes but I assumed it was some of my tape of my toes/feet peeling off from the water. Apparently not…

I think I’ll wrap this up here for now, with a second post to follow on the good/bad evaluation, plus more details on gear.