Sunday, October 28, 2012

Hairy Gorilla trail race

We had an enjoyable day running on trails at Thacher State Park - especially checking out the amazing costumes people wore.  And ran in (sometimes quite quickly).

Josh of the Albany Running Exchange:

Costume contest:

One of the "hairy gorillas" manning the course:

Finisher awards!

That was fun.  Time to get ready for Hurricane Sandy...

Big goes to Nashville

Last Monday we had a bit of time so we drove around Nashville for a bit, sporting the new "Big Dog on the trail" shirt.

Exploring the Parthenon - a full-scale replica of the original in Athens.  Not something we expected to find in Nashville.

Oh, and John could sleep here:

Also a landmark we did expect:

Plus one more stop at Waffle House before heading to the airport...

A nice end to an amazing weekend in Tennessee!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Running with the Big Dog

(Warning: Long, very long...)

History and pre-race

Lazarus Lake, a.k.a. Gary Cantrell, is the race director of several events including most notably the Barkley Marathons.  He is also the master of a rather famous dog named Big and the author of 2 books about him:
My Name is Big
Big Adventures

Last year for the first time Laz put on a race in an interesting new format.  It takes place at his home and is called the Big Dog Backyard Ultra.  Every hour starting at 7 a.m. Saturday all participants begin a 4 1/6 mile loop.  In order to stay in the race, you have to finish the loop in less than one hour.  Then you stop and wait for the top of the next hour, and at 8 a.m. everyone starts again.  Repeat until there is one (and only one) person left.  There is a possibility of no winners if all (two or more) remaining runners don't finish their last lap.  Until the winner is decided, everyone left in the race is tied for first.  It's a fairly easy loop to finish in one hour.  But there is no room for major problems (or depending on your speed, minor ones either).  How many could you do in a row?

When I first heard about the race, my immediate reaction was "that is me".  A race that values consistency over speed, endurance over strength, patience and efficiency over raw talent.  I was all over it.  I didn't have enough vacation days in 2011 to get there after spending them all for Hardrock (and I wouldn't change anything about that) but I almost jumped on a plane to Tennessee last October anyway...

Last year the race was all on trail (except for 5 minutes on the road at the start of each loop), and the reports were that it was fairly technical, rocky, windy, and with a huge tree to hurdle in the middle.  33 runners started, but many missed a turn back toward the start/finish and instead continued onward in a "endless loop", eventually making it back but after 8 a.m.  They were allowed to continue if they made up the time on the next lap.  Eventually 10 people made it through 12 loops which is when it got dark.  Darkness made it a lot slower and more difficult, causing runners to time out in quick succession.  Joe and Lisa (last woman standing) completed 16 laps, Dave finished 17 laps, and Tim won with 18 laps total.

This year Laz and some of his friends worked on the trail some more, smoothing and straightening it and removing most of the stobs.  Then he moved the nighttime laps to a road course.  It seems that Laz prefers this race to last longer, therefore he was trying to make it easier - odd logic, but it worked in my favor.

For me 2012 involved marathon running, walking training, the Vermont 100, adventure racing, and recovery from a knee injury in April.  Plus one training session specifically geared toward the Big Dog race where I surprised myself in what I could do and gained some good experience and confidence.

One last remaining question - what is the course like?  Was it a tad too long for my abilities such that I would have to work harder than I wanted from the start?  How difficult would the rock steps and log jump be?  Would we get our feet wet in every lap?  Would the weather be favorable?  And if I somehow made it to the nighttime road section, could my legs and knees handle it?  OK I guess that was more than one question.

John and I flew to Nashville on Friday, stocked up at Walmart, made the first of three (!) stops at a Waffle House that weekend (it turns out we really miss Waffle House living in NY state), and headed to Laz's place.  I walked the course with Laz and Mr. Big leading a small group on a tour while John set up our tent and TA spot.  We met a few nice folks and it was fun putting some names to faces I had been reading about on the Ultra list.

The next morning we unloaded our gear and got ready to start the race.  There was enough to do so I didn't get too hyped up.  Good, because I was really focused on trying to stay relaxed even though I was excited that this race was finally here.  Time to get running!

Daytime loops on the trail

Unlike my normal race reports, for this one I have no sense of the chronological, nothing to reference to put events in order.  Just repeated loops.  These are my random thoughts, along with a bunch of photos that John took while he was running.

I started in the back of the pack, always trying to ease down the descents.  I mainly walked the uphills and tried to maintain a speed hike.  At the top of each hill I focused on picking up my feet to get a good running rhythm going again.

We had a great time chatting with various folks throughout the day, although I more listened than chatted.  John was great for engaging others in conversations that I could listen to, and many times they said interesting and funny things to pass the time.  John did a better job of keeping track of who was who.  It was like the GTA except without the evening meals where I got to meet the faster runners too.

We finished the first lap in 53 minutes, which was perfect.  We had time to sit and drink something, eat a couple grapes or Honey Stinger chews, and stretch our legs a little.  Time to listen to Laz for a bit before the whistle blew 3 times at 3 minutes to go.  Another whistle (a double) at 2 minutes, one blast at 1 minute, then the cowbell to start the next lap.

Heading down the road to the turn-around:

I enjoyed watching people those first few minutes on the road.  Some people were very focused, others acknowledged me and some smiled, others were busy talking.

Running just a short bit before walking the rest of the uphill and then heading back through the start/finish area:

Laz cheering everyone on:

I was very happy all day!  Beautiful trail, pretty woods, perfect weather, feeling fine, my pacing was working, and I knew I had a chance to do 12 hours anyway.

I worked on my splits for various points around the loop, adjusting if I had been slowed by a group of runners in front of me.  No point in working too hard to pass unless they were significantly slower than I wanted.  I still couldn't help passing a few on the downhills, as that is where I tended to gain time.

Tom, on the other hand, seemed to have one speed regardless of slope.  I would get ahead in the first half of the loop and he would pass me running uphill.  We tried to work together to stay out of each other's way so we could each maintain our own rhythm.  It was always funny seeing "Tom the Train" chug by heading up the last hill, like clockwork for many laps.

More pictures John captured while he carried the camera for a couple laps:

I enjoyed this section of the woods:

Shannon, Joe, and Josh:

Scott looking good:

Hi Catherine!

One place to duck:

The top of the field section:

A couple guys wearing bright green, possibly Case and Andy:

The swamp at the bottom of the field was the only wet spot, and it got worse as the day went on.  We worked on where to step to keep mostly dry, but I dunked various parts of my feet at various times.  Mud-smeared shoes were unavoidable.  A couple added rocks helped briefly until they disappeared into the muck too.  Laz, we could run faster if you somehow find a way to fix this next year  :)

Someone asked me how many laps I planned to run.  That made me giggle.  I had no plans, only goals.  Goal #1 = finish 1 loop.  Goal #2 = finish 2 loops.  So there was an indeterminate number of those.  Goal x = don't be the first to stop running.  Goal y = be the last woman standing.

Goal z = go further than Lisa did last year, although it is far from an equal comparison, obviously.  I believe it might have been Ray (or Laz) who on Sunday said she would still be running if the night loops were on the road last year.  I'm not sure if he meant the second morning or still running a whole year later...

More photos from John:

Hi Greg!

No one had "endless loop" issues this year, thanks to some excellent signage at the trouble spot:

John ran with me for a while, also ran with others to chat, took pictures, ran fast or slowly, didn't worry about anything, and had a good time.  I think he really enjoyed his 50 miles on trail on Day 1.  I sure enjoyed his company too:

I suggested he needed at least one photo with him in it...

Almost done with the loop - a view of the start/finish:

Another solid finish time, just behind Greg:

Hi Mr. Big!

Starting another lap, heading out with Charlie and Justin:

It was neat seeing the caves and rock formations.  Loved the pretty foliage.  Such a beautiful trail.  Entertaining switchbacks and rock hopping.  I managed the big tree step-over OK.  Loved the trail.

The most obvious cave:

Charlie making a fine leap over the large log:

Approximately the 2-mile mark:

Heading down into "Cave Canyon":

My favorite section:

Back in the field:

Yep, the swamp just kept getting wetter:

John even had time to shoot a little video:

And here we have a cave...

Dewayne rocking the tie - he ran with it for many hours, amazing.  Joe in blue on the left and Jim in yellow on the right.  Getting ready for another lap, waiting for Ray K to finish his previous lap just seconds before the next cowbell so he could start with us again.  Not sure how he continued to do that all day long.

I started counting runners around lap 6 or 7, somewhere in the 20's (out of 29 starters).  It was just idle watching, only curious.  Fewer each lap.  Some timed out.  Some dropped out.  Many still going strong.

I kept a smooth glide down the first hill on the road.  Eventually this put me closer to the front of the pack, except for Henry who ran fast all day.  Someone commented that I was trying a new strategy but I believe I was keeping the same pace while others were slowing down.

When Catherine didn't start the 8th loop, I was suddenly the last woman on the course.  Cool!  It is an interesting dichotomy to be rooting for others to succeed while gaining a mental boost every time fewer runners toed the line.

Eventually different packs of runners were showing up on the trail ahead of me each lap.  It was nice to get to talk with different people throughout the day.  Tom consistently passed me up the last hill while Josh and Ray kept their constant finish times near the end of each hour, but others seemed more variable.

Joe, for one, seemed to have the ability from the outset to run quickly or slowly, whatever felt like a good idea at the time.  I heard him talking with Dewayne for a lap or two.  Near the front for a few laps, now back at the back, then another fast loop.  Last year he lasted the longest of all the runners here today, so I tried to keep an eye on him and he always looked strong.  Also, he recently ran 147.5 miles in the world championship 24-hour race in Poland (3rd US man).  So yeah, he sounded like the odds-on favorite before we even started.

It would get dark during the 12th loop, the last one on trail for the day, so we took our lights.  This loop was a bit of work for me for the first time.  It required focus to step over the logs and along the rocks in the right places.  My lap time was still OK, but it is clear that additional dark loops would have gotten tough.  We had been asked to vote "road or trail" for lap 12, and I had slightly hesitated but chose trail along with the majority.  And it was good to get a small taste of what the runners had faced toward the end of the race in 2011.

During the 12th loop I said Goodbye to the trail - "for today..."

Road laps at night

Words.  Words running in my head.  Conservation of energy.  Words waiting for later to spill out.

2 1/12 miles out, turn around and come back the same way.  Cones at the turn-around.

Plenty of time.  Phew.  Relaxation, relief.  Time to spare now.

12 runners start the road course.  2 don't make it back in time.  Some confusion at the intersection, time lost.  I have heard the "two left turns" directions and don't have an issue.

Run down.  Run the flats, gently.  Speed-walk uphill.

Niggles to work through for a couple laps - bottoms of my feet, knees, right shin, lower back.  Muscles and joints taking turns adjusting to the new surface and stride.  Eventually all working itself out.

Hayride passes us, people watching.  Cheering or unbelieving?

Moonlight.  Bright road.  Few cars.  No light needed.  Gliding in the dark.  Silent meditation.

Moonset - bye moon!  Still some light from town, still can see the road.  No light needed.

Follow the center line.  Just to the right, best place for leg comfort.

Jim also following the center line, just to the left of center.  Almost running into each other after one of the turn-arounds!

Fast runners with bright lights.  Shading eyes to block the light.

Thinking at one point that the current set of runners would last many hours.  But 1 or 2 kept dropping each lap.

John running with me.  Talking with Jim.

A bit of chatting.  Lots of silence.  Quiet meditation.  Encouraging each other at the turn-around.  Back to inner thoughts.

One woman in a car stopped to ask if we were training for a marathon?  Jim tried to answer but we really didn't know what to say... strange.

John ready for a nap, stops after 16 laps, done and happy, crews for me after that and tries to stay warm.  Good sleep in the tent, awakening every hour to cheer me onward.  Thanks John!!

Found the ghost I was chasing after finishing 16 laps.  Doesn't make sense, not the same course as 2011.  Small victory, ghost behind me now, drifting away.

5 runners remaining after John stops.

Watching the sky - Orion, Cassiopeia.  Trying to find the Big Dipper, finally catch sight of it later in the night. No shooting stars (supposed to be a meteor shower).  Except one bright explosion on the horizon, maybe the tail end of one.

Looking up while running = nice change of pace after looking down at the trail all day.

Don't know my splits, don't need to know.  Plenty of time.  Walk fast, run slowly.

Don't know what lap it is, don't need to know.  It's dark.  We're on the road.  All that matters is now.

Working on relaxing, breathing.  Calm the heck down (CTFD).

Tired of carrying my bottle.  Hardly drinking anyway.  Start drinking more between laps, ditch the bottle for a while.  Pockets in my fleece to carry a micro light and TP baggie.

In TA.  Listening to Joe lobby to stay on the road the rest of the race.  Me and Laz thinking this was funny.

Shannon offering help and brats, so sweet.  John crewing from the tent, staying warm.

Cold now getting started each lap, worse if I stop longer.  Better to run slower and stop less to stay warmer.  But still like getting off my feet for a few minutes.  Balancing.

Henry is done?  After 17 laps.  Looked around and saw Joe, Jim, and Andy.  Jim says Joe probably didn't expect us 3 to join him in the final 4.

Smiling!  Whole next loop grinning my fool head off.  Joe may have noticed.  Tactical error.

Crystal clear now: 7 a.m. on the trail.  You and me, Joe.  Be there.

Joe changes strategy.  No more fast running.  Time to hang out with the slow folks.  Took turns tailing each of us.  Following right behind or beside us.

I'm in the ditch, communing with nature - scared Jim.  It's just me, Jim.  Cow across the way scares him again.  Jim is a bit jumpy.  Something for me to giggle about.

First trail loop might be at 6 a.m.?  Would still be dark - discussion - Joe pushing hard to wait until 7 a.m.  Talk of a vote.  Something to ponder.  Hard to decide.  Never asked - trail starts at 7 a.m.  OK.

Andy and Jim hang on.  Brave warriors.

Jim lasts 21 laps.  Knee issue seems to be the problem, still hangs in for a while.

Running down toward the dog house, me and Andy and Joe.  Joe drops back and then yells out as he walks off into the ditch while looking at his iPod.  After making sure he was OK I almost burst out laughing hard, but somehow contain myself.

Good speed-walking pace all night.  Good thing I trained for this (indirectly) - thanks Mom!

Plan for the first trail loop.  Need a plan.  Can I finish it?  I think so.  Might be tough.  Focus.  Gearing up.

Sky lightening.  Last road lap!  Joe says last one for 12 hours.  Funny guy.

Daylight.  A different world.  Vulture flies off a powerline pole.  Trees, houses, fields.  Amy and Sophie out for a run.

Prep for the trail...

Second morning, back to the trail

Amazingly, I still had adrenaline stores.  Usually I get at least a little tired after a couple hours of running and lose my pre-race excitement but this time it was still there, lying in wait for the moment I needed to call upon it.  That moment was the cowbell start of lap 25.  Time to find out if any of the 3 of us (me, Andy, Joe) could finish a loop on the trail after running 100 miles in 24 hours.

I took off, although Joe was faster.  He ran ahead to grab his iPod and then disappeared ahead of me.  My legs responded and my feet did an awesome job of getting me over the opening rocks.  Andy disappeared behind me.  My splits started out stupid fast.  Umm... Joe was going slowly down the long hill, watching for me.  I passed him and he stuck to me like glue for the rest of the lap.

Downhill I made a bit of ground on Joe but not enough to lose him.  Uphill he caught up easily.  His breathing was faster than mine, but it had been that way on the road so it didn't mean much.  I pushed the technical section at the start of the loop but couldn't drop him.  OK, time for a change of strategy.

I calmed down and took stock.  What did I have to work with?  I had my splits - Joe apparently didn't need any on day 1 and so didn't pay attention to them and now was asking around for advice on that question.  I had focus.  Joe seemed content to listen to his music and might have been zoning out.  I had control of the pace as long as he was following me.  What could I do with these things?

My plan was daring and quite silly.  I slowed way, way down, trying to aim for a perfect time check where there was just barely enough time to barrel down the last technical hill and sprint for the line.  Maybe I could catch Joe napping?  One shot, only one, and there were many problems with this plan.  But I was stuck on the idea that I had to find a way to beat someone who was faster and stronger than me.  I forgot what had gotten me to this one-on-one "battle" in the first place - consistency, patience, endurance, etc.

So yeah, I tried, but there was too much time left on the clock in the last section.  I had started the loop too fast, taken too long to come up with this plan, and erred on the side of caution in getting back on time.  We made it back to the finish with a minute to spare.  No sprinting, just another lap completed.  Joe turned to me and paid me a huge compliment about my pacing.  That about floored me.  Um, thanks?

Andy didn't make it back in time, so he ended with 24 laps, 4 more than he predicted when he signed up.  Way to go, Andy!

Just me and Joe left.  We started lap 26 and I didn't run so hard this time.  I needed a bit of recovery from that last hour of excitement, for one thing.  Joe ran on ahead again.

I don't remember much about this lap.  My splits were slower but still OK.  Joe didn't wait for me this time so I was alone.  I noticed fresh deer tracks and heard a bit of rustling off the trail.  It was certainly quieter out there compared to the big party of yesterday.

Not sure if it was this lap or the next one, but one time I passed Laz's house and could already hear people yelling my name.  That was pretty funny.  I especially enjoyed breaking out of the woods to the sound of cheers.  I was quite aware that some people were rooting for me but I didn't have the energy to acknowledge it at the time.  My focus was completely on beating Joe.  Or trying to find a way to beat Joe, that's really the right way to say it.  Anyway, I want to thank everyone near and far who sent good vibes and gave me extra energy to try to stay in this thing!

John hanging out with Mr. Big:

Again, it could have been this hour or the next one, but at some point Joe and I lined up for the start and just stared at each other.  Both slightly bent over, both intently trying to figure out what the other one had left.  Joe joked that he had bought some plane tickets for us (he was apparently trying to figure out when we were planning on leaving) and I asked if they were for Tuesday?  I didn't know until later that Joe wears hearing aids, and when he wears his iPod ear buds he can't actually hear anything else.  Good thing I didn't spend much energy attempting lame trash talking.  It does explain why Joe didn't speak much overnight while he was listening to tunes.

Time for lap 27!  Joe went back to the "hang with Marcy" strategy.

I controlled the pace and wondered if I might have another shot at my stupid plan, but Joe eventually got tired of the slow jogging and passed me at the field section to finish faster.  I spent the next 20 minutes running alone, pondering many things.  I was starting to feel exhaustion creep in.  I knew I could make it back but wasn't sure if I could finish another lap.  Should I even cross the line and "make him run another one" as people had been excitedly urging me to do each round?  Or should I just stop short and make a graceful exit, shake his hand and give him the win?

That's when Laz's words entered my brain.  He talked about how some people just decide to stop even when they finished the previous lap in time.  Some don't keep going to see how far they can really go, even though most everyone starts the race saying they won't quit, they will only stop if they are timed out.  Then the story of 2011, where Tim had run conservatively all day until there were only a few left.  Then he threw down successive fast laps and made himself appear unbeatable - how it seemed that the others made their decisions based on how strong they perceived Tim was, instead of how strong they believed THEY were.  Was I doing that now?

Back and forth, I played out the questions and scenarios.  Would I be proud of myself if I stopped?  How could I not be, after everything I had already managed to do that weekend?  How long might this day last if I kept going?  Could I imagine any situation where I actually won?  How bad did I want it?  Oh wait!  I have an answer to that one.  I want it bad.  That's a start.

It occurred to me that this is the same thing that many other runners had been going through the whole weekend.  It had hit me now.  I had to face this barrage of questioning too.  Physically very tired, mentally in a state of flux.

Finally I cleared the opening in the trees and heard the cheers.  A minute before reaching the line I reached my decision.  It came down to this:  If I had needed to run one more lap in order to win (say, if Joe had theoretically decided to stop), I would find a way to do it.  Or at least I would give it my best shot.  Therefore I wasn't stopping now.  One more time.  Let's do this thing.

Whistles, cow bell, starting lap 28...

It had taken 3 hours, but I finally realized that I needed to run for myself and only for myself.  Who knows how long I can run?  Back to the game plan, and for goodness sake, CTFD.

So my brain finally got itself together.  I suspect my body heard that and decided to take matters into its own hands, so to speak.  She won't decide to stop?  It's back to running for hours and hours?  Well let's just see about that.

I was back in the zone, cruising down the long hill.  I turned the corner at the bottom and slowed for the flat section.  But my breathing didn't slow.  My heart rate was still OK (it had been elevated since the start of the trail laps this morning but not racing).  I wasn't hyperventilating.  But I couldn't get my breathing to relax and go back to normal.  I walked slower and slower.  No help.

I wasn't sure about sitting down at that point, as I was feeling slightly "off" and it seemed better to stick with what was normal at that point.  I took small steps and worked my way slowly, slowly up the next hill.  Big deep breaths, just too many for the level of effort I was putting out.

Well, that was that!  I had zero leeway.  No time to rest and recover, the format had finally caught up to me. What a run.

Now... how to get back?  I could turn around and retrace my steps, but I knew there was a shortcut from the intersection where the loop portion starts and ends.  I walked slowly up the hill and found the cut that appeared to aim for the house.  It helped a lot that Little and Sophie were barking in their pen, so I knew I was mostly going the right way.

Back to the trail, there was the house.  I wanted to take the road down as the safest route (since my breathing was still cause for concern).  I paused to make sure Mr. Big wasn't in his bigloo, then sidled past the pen where the other two dogs were hopping up and down and barking and asking for some attention.  Hi girls and thanks for the help in getting here!

I walked down the road and was sorry I had to disappoint the loyal fans :)  but everyone was so supportive and helpful.  Now Joe just had to finish the loop on time, and I was sure he could do that.  There he was, running on in.  He saw me sitting waiting for him and I'm pretty sure I saw a look of relief.  Well fought, Joe, and huge congratulations on winning such a challenging and seemingly never-ending race!


Amazingly, he could still squat down so we could get our photo taken together (with Andy, Henry, and Greg looking on):

Joe, it was a huge honor running with you!

Luckily I had some help getting everything compiled and into the car so we could find a hotel and sleep for many hours  :)  Thank you John!

That was fairly epic, as weekends go, and we will remember this one.  Many thanks to Laz, Big, and the whole Cantrell family for hosting us crazy folks at your home.  We had a super time and are excited to have come away with many new friends.  Congratulations to all the runners!  Hopefully we will see you all again on the trail someday soon.