Sunday, October 28, 2018

Running with the Big Dogs

Happy to be back at the Big Dog Backyard!  We missed last year with John's hip surgery and my PF issue, and we've been recovering well from both since then.  I did some good buildup training, with more of a focus on Mount Rainier, but I had no clue how ready I would be to run indefinite 4.167-mile loops.

At least the weather was a huge improvement over 2016 - 20 degrees cooler.  The only slight detraction was the rain overnight Friday and into the first couple hours of the race.

The biggest news was the starting field: 70 runners with an incredible assortment of resumes.  200-400 miles at timed races, Badwater, Vol State, Spartathlon, race winners, nationally ranked runners.  And that's just the women's field, and that's not even including Courtney Dauwalter.

Courtney, among other things, won the Tahoe 200 miler this year (2nd overall), won Western this year, and won Moab 240 last year - overall.  She was my (and many people's) pick to win the race.

Most of the previous years' top Big Dog runners were back - Guillaume, Harvey, Johan, Jeremy, Joe, but missing Babak and Tim.  If I started listing all the accomplishments on the male side of the start list, we'd be here all day.

Suffice it to say, I am no longer "in the running", just thankful to have been part of this event in the early years, content to be setting my own personal goals now, happy to see friends we missed last year, and thrilled to meet some amazing ultra superstars.

Let's get to it!

Hiding out in our tent before the race start to stay dry just a bit longer:

Our little "chair area" near the start/finish mat:

Ready for the start, bringing a light for the first "almost daylight" lap to help see the rocks:

70 runners is a big increase from previous years, and I think (I hope) we're reaching a max on the field size.

John greeted us on our way back from the road out-and-back, as I was chatting with Ben and a couple other runners before we ran through camp and hit the trails:

My first loop was a bit stressful, between not knowing what to expect from my legs, having to wait in a long line of runners at every downhill, then feeling like I should push the uphills in order to stay in my place in the train, then trying to watch my heart rate monitor and adjust my pace based on that.  On top of that, my splits were slow and I worried about why this was the case.

I finally decided "to heck with the heart rate numbers" and "to heck with just following people" and did some passing in spots where it was easy to get around.  Hello folks!  Just need to do more of my own thing, even if it was still fairly constrained.  My first lap time of 54:20 was completely fine and my legs felt great.

And I was smiling - it was great to be back!  I love this trail and these woods!

Oh yeah, about the trail.  The rain didn't seem to affect it too badly right away, no creek crossings and no marsh at the bottom of the field, excellent.  With 70 runners and an out-and-back "lolli" section of the lollipop loop, it was clearly going to get worse before it got better.  But for the beginning it wasn't too bad, just a bit slippery in spots.

And!  There were no more downed trees to step over, no more giant log to cross, not as many twists and turns!  People have been doing a super job in the past couple years with cleaning it up and making it even more runnable.  So impressive!  I was kind of in shock about that and I told as many people as I could that they should be thankful like I was.  No complaining about a little mud.

John's photo of the driveway heading back toward the start/finish:

A creative way to stay dry between laps (possibly a crew person):

More wetness protection programs:

Happily it wasn't pouring or anything, just a shower that got heavier once in a while but was mostly at the tail end of the overnight rain system.

Mike and Mike at the timing table - thank you guys and it's great to see you!

Mr. Big helping with the timing while staying mostly out of sight:

After that first loop I settled down and got into a groove.  I stopped looking at the heart rate readout, only checking the average at the end of each lap so John could record it.  The uphills were a bit more challenging than I would have liked, but I didn't want to get out of the conga line and it didn't seem overly taxing to stay in it.  I passed a few people on the downhills but also stayed patient when it wasn't easy to get by, trying mostly not to step on anyone's heels (and mostly succeeding).

Every couple laps someone would strike up a conversation and I'd meet someone new, which was great.  It was wonderful to meet Cassie and Greg and chat with them a couple times, such nice people (on top of being talented runners!) and Greg didn't seem to mind my yammering on about Boston sports:

Heading back out on another loop, enjoying the overcast and cool day:

It was fun meeting Anne and sharing thoughts about strategy.  Reminiscing about prior Big Dog years with Joe and Kelley was great.  Mark Lattanzi came to the event for the first time and seemed to be enjoying himself.  Anatoly told me stories about being in the Russian army and made me laugh.

It was especially awesome talking with Ben (laz's neighbor) who we had seen every year since we started coming to this event.  Everyone should thank Ben for all the work he has done on the trail over the years.  And every year he comes to run further than he did before.  This year his goal was to complete at least one road loop.  You can do it, Ben!  (and he did, blowing away his previous 12-hour PR by 5 more hours).

John fed me SPIZ, swapped out my hand bottle, and handed me a little something to eat every hour.  Trader Joe's recently started selling maple sugar leaves, now that's a melt-in-your-mouth running treat!  John had to ration those, so I settled for blueberries or chocolate in between.

The jeerleaders!  We had a "cheer squad" who treated us to demotivational performances before several laps, what a hoot!

Here they are just getting warmed up at the start of lap 5, where John captured all the runners coming back through the start/finish area after a few minutes on the road:

"G-I-V-E, just give up and you'll be free!" - awesome!

(PS to John - turn your phone sideways when taking videos...)

Sandra posted videos of them on Facebook, inspiring people to write in and suggest additional cheers.

Later in the race - "D-A-R-K, it's dark out there, so be afraid!"

Thank you Gina, Chrys, and Amiee!

Loving the cool temperatures and overcast sky:

I learned recently that I had the most lifetime miles on the Big Dog course - that's pretty funny!  It was mostly by virtue of showing up time after time to run an average of ~100 miles.  Nothing fancy.  Apparently other people had heard this stat and I got several questions and requests for advice during the race.  That's fun!  I'm not sure any of my advice was helpful, but it made me feel good to be asked.

Oh, and I no longer have the most lifetime miles here, but considering who I ceded it to (and the fact that I didn't know about this stat until last week anyway), I'm good with that!

Time for another loop, let's do this thing again!

As expected, the trail conditions deteriorated with the passing of all those feet every hour even though the rain had stopped.  Slippery rocks, mud everywhere, loss of traction on a couple steep little uphills, careful running and more than one fall (thankfully none by me).

There was one particularly challenging-but-skiable corner that warranted attention.  I had never seen mud in that turn before, but on the other hand, several other possible trouble spots were holding up fine.

I apologized in advance to John for the muddy shoes and gaiters that he was going to have to deal with that night during/after my shoe change.

John took the camera for a walk a couple times and got some action shots in the woods:

The sun made a couple brief appearances, prompting me to try swapping to a wet shirt and to pour water on my head.  I didn't feel hot, but there is such a strong correlation between temperature and my heart rate that I figured it wouldn't hurt to try to keep as cool as possible.

Motoring along through the woods with Anne and a couple guys, as the trail conditions started to improve toward the end of the day:

The crews seemed happy that the sun was finally out.  John kept looking at me like "how can you be warm when I'm wearing a puffy jacket?" - perfect running weather, at least for the runners!

My average heart rate numbers and my overall perception of effort were just so much better than in 2016, what happiness and relief.  Breathing never felt stressed.  My legs felt good except having to work through an IT band and slight knee issue around laps 10-11 on the downhills.  Not totally unexpected, something I'm still working on.  Other than that, I was still motoring along and keeping decent, smooth form.  One guy called me "the silent runner" which I obviously found to be a big compliment because I still remember it and am mentioning it here.

At various times during the afternoon I'd be coming back up the last hill of the loop and someone would run past exclaiming "oh my gosh, I'll only have 4 minutes in camp!" while the runners around me who were used that that pace were like, "uh, so?"  The basic fact of slow laps isn't so much a problem, but slower-and-slower laps, sure, that's more of a cause for concern.

Especially since loop 12 takes a little more effort and focus.  Carrying a bright light, knowing my splits, pushing just a little harder (while not stressing too much about it), not letting runners in front of me dictate a slower pace, all things that help me with loop 12 as darkness sets in and everyone moves a bit slower.

56:10 for loop 12, no problem.  Still not quite enough time to change to my Hoka shoes, but I had always planned for a short transition to the road.  Plenty of time after lap 13 to get ready for the night running.

It was amazing watching so many runners start the road section, way more than previous years.  Per Mike Dobies, 76% (53/70) made it to 50 miles, while 30-50% has been the prior norm.  Heck, there weren't more than 50 runners total to START the race before last year.  It's neat being part of the early progression of this event.

Overnight was quite chilly.  John helped me change my shoes, wipe off my legs, and put on some tights.  It didn't take many laps to add a long-sleeve shirt, Buff, gloves, and eventually a fleece jacket.  Running warmed me up, and by not stopping too long between laps I didn't cool down too much.  It's all about balance.

New fun thing this year - Haunted Woods!  For several hours at the beginning of the night, we'd be treated to loud screams and chainsaws along the far corner of the course.  That looked entertaining.

Normally I enjoy the road running but this year I never really got comfortable with it.  The long downhill run to the first corner wasn't smooth, I looked for more walk breaks than usual, and my times weren't as fast overnight as before.  To compensate, I focused on practicing speed-walking.  Lap times were still fine, around 53-55 minutes depending on bathroom breaks (the porta-potties were basically "on the course" so it made sense to pop in there before crossing the line).  I didn't worry about the time, although I did wish for additional minutes so I could lie down in a blanket more than the one time.

It felt like a very gradual downhill spiral, legs just not feeling peppy anymore and not taking too well to the pavement.  On the bright side, I didn't have any issues and I was confident about getting to the end of the night.  My confidence in my ability to get anywhere on Day 2 slowly waned and I got pretty quiet overnight.

Every year I try to learn some constellations so there's something to look at in the sky as the earth rotates through the hours.  The moon was particularly bright this year, which was great for visibility and I wasn't complaining about not being able to see the stars as well.  I also found I needed to focus more in front of me so I couldn't look straight up to try to figure out the star formations.  However - Orion is the one constant, coming up toward the latter part of the night, followed by Canus Major.  The Big Dog constellation on the horizon always makes me smile!

Podcasts also kept me happy, even though I couldn't leave the iPod on the whole time because parts of the course were super windy at times.  There was quite a north wind blowing.  I hoped it would dry out the trail.

That last uphill bit right before the end of the lap kept getting steeper and steeper.  Contemplating that this section is also part of the trail loops didn't help my predictions for the morning.

John wasn't there when I came in one time, but he had left everything I needed, basically just SPIZ to drink and some warm decaf in the thermos.  I lightly wondered if he was OK, knowing he was probably just sleeping.  Somehow he slept through an alarm and all of laz's whistles that signaled 3, 2, and 1 minute to go.  At the call of "30 seconds!" he popped his head out of the tent - hi John!  It's all good, go back to sleep  :)

My stomach started in with an odd issue toward the end of the night.  Coming up the final hill, if I pushed it at all it would suddenly rebel.  It seemed like something wanted to come out from one end or the other.  I'd slow way down and eventually everything settled down.  I'd be fine by the time I returned to camp.  What the heck?

Lap 23 was slower because of that (plus a pee stop).  I moved with more purpose during lap 24 since I needed time to change shoes at the end.  Almost done with "you have plenty of time"!

John was ready for me after lap 24, time to change back to the trail shoes.  We quickly talked about the tights I was wearing, because I was like, "well, it probably doesn't matter, I don't think I'm getting very far."  It was cold enough to keep wearing them for the moment.  OK, fine, take them off and throw on the mini-gaiters, my shoes are off anyway and this would be the last time I'd have extra time to work with.  You just never know, right?

The real point was that there were still plenty of runners in the field (34 including 8 women) and I figured if I could just finish one lap then perhaps I'd beat a couple more of them.

The road out-and-back at the start of loop 25 kind of sucked and I was basically shrugging to John when I ran back through camp toward the trailhead.  I'll just do what I can.

And - I can run!  My legs hit the trail and everything felt "normal" again.  Or as normal as 100-mile legs can feel.  I was transported back to 2012/2013 when I had made it into Day 2.  The good old days, as it were  :)  Rocks, steps, dirt, curves through the trees, bring it on.  It's a gorgeous morning!

Not surprisingly, my breathing was now faster and I'm sure my heart rate was higher (I'd taken off the monitor for the overnight laps).  But nothing ridiculous, nothing I couldn't handle indefinitely.  2016 sure helped as a point of reference when I struggled with high effort levels for hours on Day 1.  Here I was getting a break on the downhills, especially now that there was plenty of room on the trail to move my own pace.

Yay for running!  The joy of morning and sunshine and legs that worked, I was almost dancing.  I came through the timing mat, dropped off my fleece jacket and smiled at John as I lined up again.

One problem still to work on - my stomach was still a problem, again on the last uphill climb.  Slowing down on the climb did help, but I didn't have nearly as much leeway on the trail for that.  Toward the end of lap 26 I almost made a pitstop off to the side of the trail (ready with a scooper bag) but decided I could make it back to camp.  I ran across the mat, looked directly at John and pointed to the porta-potties.  On my way there I heard laz say "beeline!" which was pretty funny.

I just realized this is the exact photo John was taking when I pointed toward the bathrooms:

John grabbed the SPIZ bottle and ran over with me, handing me the bottle so I could drink while I sat in the stall (and by the way, huge kudos for all the runners and crew for keeping the seats mostly completely clean all weekend, especially the one labeled for women - something new this year and much appreciated!).

He told me that, just for my info, 2 women looked like they could run all day, and I replied "don't care" which he said he figured as much.  I was strictly focused on my previous results and how many of them I might be able to match or surpass.  I had already gone further than in 2016 and 2014, now it was time to find out how close I might get to my goal of a distance PR.  I completed 27 hours in 2012 and 29 hours in 2013.  I'd been trying ever since to get even close to that with no success.  This was a multi-year effort in the making.

OK, done with the porta-potty in only a couple minutes (which was good, because that's all the time I had), back to the timing mat, let's try this again!  Very thankfully, that did it.  No more stomach issues, yay!  One less thing.

Looking around at the start of the next lap, it seemed like there were a couple fewer women.  Indeed, Anne and Kat were done, also Alicia sometime around here.  My plan of "just run and see what happens" was working OK so far.

All the cheers from crews and spectators were so appreciated, every time we started a lap, came back through camp to head to the trail, and returned to the finish line.  Nice morale boosters.

Lap 27 went well and I suppose I even entertained the thought that I might be able to run all day?  Not sure where that came from!  Probably a bit ambitious, I better work on reining in my brain.  Focus, Marcy.  One thing at a time.

Jasmine ran past me on the last uphill asking what time is it?  Um, I don't know the time (my watch was running on chrono and I didn't feel like messing around with it) but I could tell her that we were 44 minutes into the lap.  I wonder if she picked up on my disbelief that anyone would be out here without a watch.  Maybe hers wasn't working, benefit of a doubt.

One more lap down!

John headed out into the woods for our next loop to capture a few action shots.  Guillaume and Johan leading the way:

Courtney and Maggie right behind:

A couple minutes later, here I am running along on my way to another 57-minute lap:

My brain took more turns, as I pondered various subjects from my brain training research, wondering things like how having an important goal (I really wanted 30 loops) might affect both my ability to reach that goal and also my subsequent ability to continue further, what might be the limiter this time, and whether all that thinking might somehow sink into my subconscious and actually create a physical manifestation that becomes the limiter.

So much thinking!  Just stop thinking!  I tried really hard to just "go, go, go, don't trip" and run from one split to the next.  I really was extremely grateful to be there, remembering my Day 1 suffering from 2 years ago and how this was still better than that.

At some point the question of "why?" came up, something I consider occasionally, mostly idly.  On this morning, the answer was "because I can."

Ah, and the trail was beautiful!  The mud had dried up.  It was the most buff the trail had ever looked.  With no trees to step over, I could maintain momentum and get in a groove.  "Because I can" indeed.

Next lap - I ended up near Courtney and Maggie while running down the road, listening to Maggie say that after this lap they would be tied with the previous women's best of 29 hours.  I watched Maggie try to figure out which women were still in it.  I think she knew all of them, well, all of them except me.  She kept looking past me until finally she focused on my face and asked "what's your name?"  When I replied, she said "Oh, you're the one with the previous women's best!"  That she knew that made me smile.  Slightly famous, if just for a moment.

I figured I would briefly share the new women's record with several ladies, that had pretty much been a given since I saw the starting field.  On the other hand, Jasmine was done after 27 hours and I believe Cassie returned to camp during lap 29, so it was just me and Courtney and Maggie.  3rd place to those two?!  I'll take it!

Lap 29 was more challenging, watching the splits and needing to push more to keep up the pace.  It was so interesting, with no particular thing going wrong or any specific problem that I might be able to troubleshoot.  Not even a particular part of the terrain, as my uphill climbing was still decent and downhills were still going fine.  The biggest indicators were just how much additional time and effort it took for each part of the loop, a little more every time around.

Once again - the goal was 30 hours.  It was John's PR distance too, it made me happy to think I could share that with him.  Could we do it?  I had a heart-to-heart with my legs and body, and we all agreed that yes, we could probably do it, it was going to take a lot of focus and effort, AND I got some feedback from my legs that in return for that effort this was probably the last lap.  I'll take it!

Kelley was snapping photos of runners in the corral before the start of lap 30, and I couldn't resist asking her if she would get one of me with Maggie and Courtney.  I think I accurately conveyed the extent of my astonishment to be standing there with these two amazing runners!  The women's podium, if there were such a thing at this race (which there is not):

John's photo of the starting field for loop 30:

I took off knowing I'd have to push pretty hard but balance it with not pushing too hard and causing other issues.  I got behind on the splits, losing 30-40 seconds for every 10-15 minutes of running.  This was OK since I didn't need any extra time at the end of the lap, but I didn't want to cut it TOO close.  The rocky sections were particularly challenging and slow.  The smooth sections helped me make up a little time.  All the muscles in my legs were working hard and my breathing and heart rate were high.  I tried to relax when I could.

Finally the split at ~40 minutes was back to being OK and I knew I could make it as long as nothing major happened.  Just a good solid walk up the last long hill and then a few more minutes of labored running.  125 miles, yay!

John did the "proper crew" thing and tried to convince me to try another lap, just to make me think one more time about my decision.  It was quite clear to me that it would have taken a monumental effort and a ton of adrenaline to even try to complete one more lap on time - so if there had been a reason to attempt it I surely would have.  I was very excited about my PR and 3rd place female finish and completely fine with stopping.

He got me to line up one more time (you never know, maybe Maggie and Courtney wouldn't show up - ha!) which was great because I got to shake their hands and wish them well.  It was wonderful and humbling to meet them and follow in their wake for a while!  Go take down the whole thing  :)

Chatting with laz after turning in my timing chip and receiving my dog tag - I love these.  "I gave my all in Big Dog's Backyard Ultra"  Thank you so much laz!

Big huge from Mike - thank you Mike!

Time to watch the race for a bit and enjoy the beautiful (and still chilly) day:

Sunday evening we went to a hotel, got cleaned up, took a nap, managed to get out for some food (only the allure of Waffle House got me out the door) and finally went to bed.  Solid sleep!

Monday morning we got stuff cleaned up and mostly packed, then returned to the Big Farm to watch more of the race.  Five people were still running - including Courtney!  Go Courtney!

It was simply incredible watching Day 3 for the first time.  We had witnessed Johan and Jeremy's tie at 49 hours in 2014, but had missed the excitement of Guillaume's 59-hour win over Harvey last year.  To see five people running and looking good with over 200 miles on their legs was amazing.

I had even run with Greg on Day 1 - I'm not sure anyone expected him to still be here two days later, including Greg.  Nice work!

Gavin taking care of business in between laps (the toothbrush is a great idea, I need to add that to my list):

Courtney and her crew in a tent borrowed from the Lang's (very nice of Anne and Andy!):

Gang of 5 - Johan, Courtney, Gavin, Guillaume, and Greg in the background about to run over to the corral for the start of the next lap:

And they're off - again!

Another beautiful day for running:

Looking a little more like mortals, but still moving well:

In an endless loop:

Ah, here's something different.  Guillaume succumbed to an injury, a swollen tendon on the top of his foot.  Yep, I can relate (well, except to the 225 miles part).  Congrats sir!

Laz is about to blow the whistle yet again (prompting ear plugging), while Mike and Mike continue to work the timing tent:

Looking for Greg - where is our compatriot?

56 hours and 233 miles completed, well done Greg!

The final three.  Johan mentioned something was going on with his wrist, but people were mostly like "you don't need your wrist to run" so he didn't get a lot of sympathy.  We were more in awe of how these people were still going without much sleep or rest.

And again...

Greg had been wearing a "No DNF" hat, but he switched it to this one ("DNF") after he stopped - that's awesome:

And the afternoon continues on - go y'all, especially Courtney!

Well, we couldn't stay, early morning flight and work and all that.  We woke up the next morning to the final results:

Johan - winner! - 68 hours, 283.3 miles
Courtney - top female! - 67 hours, 279.2 miles
Gavin - penultimate drop - 65 hours, 270.8 miles

Absolutely stunning.

Derek of Marathon Investigations did a nice write-up about the race, including a photo of Johan at the finish and some of laz's writing.

Thank you to John for your super crew-man efforts and all of your support last weekend!

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