It's about time to get serious with the training for this year's Big Thing - the Primal Quest expedition race in September. Pack weight, paddling, lots of climbing, gear prep, all that good stuff.
But first! One race in a format that I enjoy very much, the "last (wo)man standing" style event that started with the Big Dog Backyard in Tennessee. Mark Swanson and Shasta Trail Runs have set up a 4MPH Challenge race on a beautiful 6-mile course that you have 90 minutes to complete. It's a one-way trail/road over to a second aid station, then you turn around and come back to the start in the next 90 minutes. If you decline to start a lap or fail to finish one, you're out. Until then - run until you stop! Kip and I ran this race in 2015 and enjoyed it and it seemed like a good one to run again.
This weekend was totally just for fun for me, a reason to visit Kip and Scott in California, and a test to see how this would go with zero pressure for once. I was psyched that Kip decided to come do the race as well, great company for the drive over and a trail running buddy for whenever we happened to be going the same pace.
There was a bunch of potential rain in the forecast, that was a possible downside. The upside was that it rained hardly at all, mostly in the first couple hours, and it was amazingly cool and cloudy the whole time. Beautiful running weather! That made everything much easier, what a major bonus.
After spending a night tripping over roots at Rocky Raccoon, I was also thrilled that this trail was so easy to run on. There were a few small obstacles but I could see every potential trip hazard and I could run without the threat of falling on my butt. After some recent races for comparison, I was definitely appreciating many aspects of this one. Only thing missing was my Super Crew husband, but for quite a few laps I had plenty of time in transition to take care of everything on my own, no worries. He would have been super bored, and anyway, this race was just for fun.
Enough with the lead-in already, let's get running!
Here's me with my rain jacket flapping, running down the beautiful trail. All photos are courtesy of Shasta Trail Runs - much appreciated!
The course starts on pavement through the campground parking area, then jumps onto singletrack and weaves along the lake for several miles. One memorable section is along the main road, and one has to wonder what the cars (or I guess, the drivers) think of our headlamps in the middle of the night. This was the rockiest section of trail so I tended to run/walk through here (and I might be in this photo if you look really closely, but I couldn't say for sure):
Then lots of twists and turns and lovely views of the lake and wildflowers and a tunnel of manzanita (maybe?) - all very pretty:
After a while (which tended to feel longer as the laps went on) we exited the trail onto another section of pavement. There's a chance that's me in the back, or at least someone with my color hat on:
I liked the road in the middle as a place I could power walk up the hills and run down, slowing down through here the least of all the parts of the course. Then back to singletrack, including a solid climb up some switchbacks, a long traverse above the next valley, and then a steep drop down to a creek.
Two years ago we had to rock-hop across the creek and that was quite a challenge. Since then the race organization helped the park build a bridge, yay! It's a beautiful bridge too. Unfortunately it wasn't quite ready for us yet, but happily we weren't back to rock-hopping. The race organizers had a solution. It involved this, which John would have loved to be a part of, I'm sure:
Setting up the plank, with supports and even an anti-slip cover! It still required a bit of care, which became "a lot of care" in later laps, but it was a big improvement and I succeeded each time without getting my feet wet.
Then a nice gentle downhill to the far aid station. The start/finish area had been moved further back (to a lovely spot with real bathrooms and covered areas and picnic tables) so they were able to remove the technical loop around the far field. Another excellent improvement.
Someone asked me how the course compared to the Big Dog - the daytime laps are definitely easier, with the smoother trail, more % pavement, slightly shorter distance per hour, and I think less overall climbing. However, the nighttime laps are harder because the 4MPH Challenge stays on the same trail, while the Big Dog switches to the easier road for 12 hours.
Still on the easy daytime laps, a crowd of runners coming back along the middle road section:
The woman on the right sat next to us in the far TA and she would talk to herself and say funny things and make us laugh - thank you for the smiles and cheeriness!
Hey, there's Kip (in the background, obviously)! Go Kip go!
A couple other events were going on at the same time, a 12-mile and a 36-mile division. They were billed as non-competitive, but it is worth mentioning that this 12-year old named Natalie got back to the finish line first for the final lap of the 36-mile event. Most impressive!
As you might expect, the laps mostly blur together in my brain. Kip and I ran together off and on and had a great time talking to pass the time. I dialed in some time checkpoints and worked on optimizing my time on the course. After one really crowded visit to the far aid station (it was raining and there were a maximum number of people there all trying to set up chairs and drop bags under the easy-ups), everything smoothed out and became routine. Run, finish, pee, drink Spiz, fill the water bottle, maybe eat a bit of fruit or reapply some lube. Sit for a couple minutes, get up and go again.
My running felt really easy all day, I was very pleased. I let my lap times drift upward and I applied a bit more effort as the day went on, balancing the amount of leeway of time and effort that I still had available. My recent training on the Hill of Life in Austin seemed to be worth it, as the uphills took no toll on my legs. The weather continued to be awesome and perfect. My mantras were "patience", "posture", and "panther", finding that I liked mimicking a big cat padding along the trail. Plus, you know, alliteration.
After 7 laps, it was time to pick up the lights. We didn't actually need them until we were almost back to the start/finish, but it was better than fumbling through that last mile in the dark. Well, time to figure out if I can improve upon this part! Two years ago I yo-yoed between too slow and too much push, too relaxed and too stressed. This time I eased into the nighttime transition, paid close attention to my splits, and continued to slowly ramp up the effort but only a little at a time.
The night laps were certainly a bit slower, but nothing to fret about. I was really happy with my improved attitude about it, that helped keep this race "just for fun" and I was interested to see how far I could take it.
Starting another lap, we usually hung out in the back and let the faster runners go on ahead:
It was interesting watching everyone else speed away at the start of each lap. Looks like everyone else had decided on the "faster running, more transition time" strategy. I was working toward minimizing the time sitting down and lowering the stress of the running/walking. I started thinking about it as area under a curve, where the graph is effort over time. Sometimes when my brain is left alone too long it gets a bit math-y...
As far as what everyone else was doing, whenever I started thinking too much about anything like that, I would say to myself, "Irrelevant!" I used that word a few times that night. It's a keeper.
Kip tested out a new ibuprofen strategy of taking a little at a time but more frequently, and that seemed to work out well for him. His legs were feeling better than mine by the end of the day, which we both thought was odd considering our comparative training coming into this race. I made note of his ibu test and decided it might be something I could make use of. I was utterly hydrated for once (thank goodness for the bathroom/portapotties on each end of the course!) and this looked like a good opportunity to run such a test. So I started on a low dose/higher frequency intake after mile 60. Legs and body responded well, that seemed to be working.
Kip lasted partway into the nighttime hours, way to go Kip! He hit several milestones, or as he put it "I should do one more lap so I can reach (x)" where x = 50K, returning to the start/finish (also known as where our car was parked), running a lap at night, 50 miles, etc. Finally, for realsies, he was ready to be done after 60 miles. It was great running with you, Kip! He went to shower, nap, and then helped crew me on that end of the course. Much appreciated.
I was enjoying how everything was going so well. My main goal was to set a personal record (PR) for this course, which previously was 72 miles officially (I went almost 78 miles but the last lap was over time). Heading toward the 78-mile mark, I just wanted to be sure I got there on time for it to count. Stay calm, just get there. And I got there, excellent!
It was finally time to start taking a look at the rest of the field, which had been quite large for quite a long time. It took a while for the group to start dwindling, well done to everyone who lasted all day and into the nighttime hours. It was hard to count everyone for sure because they allowed people to start a minute or two into each lap, but with a little focus I guessed there were two other women and six guys heading out on the 78-mile leg. Top 10, cool.
For sure my previous women's record was going down. Any chance I might be able to get it back? Well, the other two women were running strong, so I decided that for the immediate future this question was irrelevant. Just something to keep in mind in case it mattered at some point.
And all of a sudden, there were just two of us ladies remaining. I didn't get a chance to meet them (or many other runners for that matter) with my pace being so different from most everyone else's. But I did hear that Roxanne was running with bronchitis? That's pretty hardcore. She made it to 78 miles before succumbing; I'm guessing she has more miles in her when she's not sick.
The group of us made it back to the first TA, no problem. I went about my business, peeing and refilling and drinking, making the most of a couple minutes. Kip mentioned that the other woman, Melissa, wasn't happy to see me finish that lap. Well, that's interesting. Turns out, she decided not to run another one - after we started the next lap, Kip came running after me to report that she was done. Awesome, thank you Kip! And also, how are you still running?
So now I just needed to make it to the other end to hold the women's title again. Careful pacing, watch the time checks, ease on up the hill and down the other side. Yay for the win!
Go on or no? The interesting thing about this particular race was that I had reached a point of making that decision lap by lap. It was a very "pro/con" kind of discussion in my mind. How are my legs holding up? What is to be gained by continuing?
One thing I noted was that a 6-mile lap is WAY more commitment than a 4-mile one (i.e. compared to the Big Dog). That's a pretty long way, so you kind of need to be sure you can make it at least most of the way without it turning into a death march somewhere in the middle. When the miles are easy, 6 of them doesn't seem like much. Later in the race, it becomes a bigger hurdle to continuing on. Not an insignificant difference.
So, contrary to my normal mode of having a plan and sticking to it, I was perfectly happy making assessments on the fly, putting off the bigger decisions until I really needed to make a choice. I had a few things going on at the 90-mile point. I needed a bit of time in the portapotty, I had fewer minutes to spare (down to around 3 minutes at that point), and I needed to mix up another set of Spiz if I was going to get any real food in me.
My thoughts about continuing included wanting to get back to the other end of the course and not having to wait to get shuttled back, wanting to make it to daylight and the second morning for the first time on this course, and wanting to show that the women's win wasn't my only motivation (it really wasn't something I had thought that much about). My legs seemed OK with continuing, requiring more effort and moving a little slower with each lap but no real issues yet.
What ended up happening in those 3 minutes: A stop in the bathroom that should have been quicker, a water refill that should have been more, a kind of "throw up my hands and give up" regarding the Spiz powder mixing since I was low on time, a skip of the ibu pill, and a grab of 2 honey chomps packets to have *something* to eat now that I was skipping the Spiz for the first time.
I lined up with the 6 guys, said to myself "I don't know what I'm doing!" and took off back into the night. It was finally starting to get light again, yay! I really appreciated being able to see the trail again. I wasn't moving faster but my brain was happier not having to concentrate as hard. I focused on eating some chomps to keep from bonking at this stage in the game.
Then the question - maybe 100 miles? Should I go for it? I pondered this for a while on the way back, working up some plans. It seemed reasonable, I had a serving of Spiz left at the other end, I had help from Kip to make that turn-around a lot easier, and he could come pick me up if he knew I was going to stop next time at the far end.
As I was mulling over the ideas, about a mile from the end of the lap everything started hurting at once. My legs got sore, my knees were aching, even the bottoms of my feet seemed tired which doesn't often happen to me. Hmm, I guess that ibuprofen was really doing something, up to the point when I stopped taking it!
Well, that was fine, it helped my decision. I muddled through the run/walk cycles to finish out the lap and made sure I got back in time. 96 miles and 24 hours - good enough! I had fun, I got to run some experiments, I learned some things, and it was topped off with a "last woman standing" title that I haven't managed to accomplish in a couple years.
5 men continued from there, and after 108 miles it was whittled down to 3 - Saravanan, Larry, and David:
They lasted 120 miles before David and Larry stopped (topping the previous record of 114 miles). Here's Saravanan on his last, winning lap:
Pretty picture of the road coming into the far TA:
It would have been fun to wear this shirt after the race, but it didn't arrive until after I left for California. Back in Texas, modeling my new favorite shirt - and Waffle House arm warmers :)
Fun race, fun time with Kip, excellent weekend!