Saturday, June 28, 2008

100 Mile Visions Lost in Smoke

Below is an article that came out today in the Sierra Sun. My effusive thanks to the runners who took time to respond to my questions and/or allowed me to quote from their blogs. Your comments are clearly the cornerstone of this piece, and I never cease to be amazed by the wisdom emanating from this group.

Tomorrow, look for my pictures from some beautiful training runs in Yosemite last week!

Hundred Mile Visions Lost in Smoke

Early Wednesday evening, through the thick smoke blanketing the forests, you may have heard the sound of 390 hearts collectively breaking. These were the runners slated to be on the starting line this morning at the 35th running of the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. Dreams dashed with the cancellation of the race, the runners did what ultrarunners do: they kept on going.

Although most people meet the idea of any 100 mile foot race with awe, among ultrarunners Western States holds a special status. It is considered the race to run, and everyone has it on their race “wish list.” As a runner myself, I had the audacity to start dreaming about it back in high school, when I thought 8 miles was a long run.

The trail itself crosses rugged mountains and canyons on a route once followed by Indians and pioneers alike. For runners, the historical significance of the race began when Gordy Ainsliegh crossed the line in 1974 as the only runner among horses in the Western States Trail Ride. From there, the legends and lore surrounding the race have grown, with names like Ann Trason, Tim Twietmeyer, and Scott Jurek drawing a hush of respect from athletes dreaming of running the famed race one day ourselves.

Runner Scott Dunlap, of Woodside, CA, was to run his first Western States this year. Referencing the belt buckle awarded to finishers, he said, “The community around the event is amazing. So many of the people around States have been in it for 10 or more years. To have a buckle and be a part of it is to be a part of this family.”

Race legend and 14-time winner Ann Trason reportedly said that the dust from the trail gets in your blood and never goes away.

The popularity of the race has made it very challenging to gain an entry, and thus running Western States represents more than just the 8-12 months of training. Runners must first run a qualifying race and then enter a lottery process. It’s a drawing with so many entries that hopeful athletes this year only had a 16% chance of getting selected. Because of this, most runners have been trying to gain entry into the race for multiple years.

“It took me three years to win a lottery slot,” Dunlap said, “but I started training as soon as I did, in November of 2007.”

Donald Buraglio of Carmel Valley, CA, welcomed his first 100 mile race on his blog “Running and Rambling” with these words, “After months of training - not to mention years of anticipation - I’m finally on my way to the Western States Endurance Run.”

Today was supposed to be the culmination of dreams.

With the cancellation of the race due to the proximity of several fires, runners are forced to come to terms with a painful loss. Are they crying in their Gatorade? Sending irate emails to the race director? Swearing off running forever, madly shaking their fists at mother nature?

Although the runners are understandably devastated, the pervasive attitude seems to be one largely of philosophical acceptance.

“It’s kind of funny how my emotions went up and down more than the Western States course,” Dunlap shared. “At first, I was angry thinking about the hundreds of hours put in to be ready for this day, and the years of waiting just to get in. But then I also realized that given this escalation of commitment, I was prone to do something stupid like try and run through 24 hours of smoke. I respect that a race director and their staff need to be the sane ones who think about our safety, and I thank them for making a decision that couldn’t have come easy.”

Buraglio had similar sentiments. “Although this is a heartbreaking turn of events for everyone associated with the race, I certainly can’t say I’m upset by the cancellation – because I know it was probably the right thing to do. As much as I was looking forward to it, I’m sure that nobody loves Western States more than the race committee. They undoubtedly exhausted every last possibility to make this event happen, and their decision wasn’t made irrationally.”

Part of learning to endure 100 miles of trail running is knowing how to make the best of things. Dealing with the adversities of the trail seems to lend itself to an understanding that some things are beyond our control, and that there will always be another day. Ultra runners know how to think long-term.

Andy Jones-Wilkins, who finished 2nd in the 2005 race, was already anticipating the 2009 race with enthusiasm, just hours after Wednesday’s announcement of the cancellation. In lieu of Saturday’s race, Sean Meissner planned a weekend of running in the wilderness near his home of Sisters, OR, along with fellow top Western States contenders Prudence L’Heureux and Kami Semik. Donald Buraglio took the opportunity for some family time, spending the weekend on an impromptu family vacation.

Although stomaching the loss of a dream isn’t easy, the sentiments of many of the runners are summed up well by Buraglio. “I’ve always felt that ultrarunning isn’t so much about the races themselves as it is the process to get there. In fact, by the time we stand on the start line, most of us are already fully aware of the physical ability and psychological resolve we’ve forged within ourselves.”

And so, for these racers, dreams will have to wait for yet another year.

“We ultrarunners are patient and tenacious,” said Dunlap. “There will always be another day to enjoy this race, and it will be that much more epic when it arrives.”

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Auburn Trails 50K

The Auburn Trails 50K, with it’s somewhat misleading title, was held last week in Cool, California. As with a handful of other ultra races in the area, it began and ended at the Cool fire station. When I first signed up for the race, I was envisioning the shady river canyons that I always run in Auburn. I guess I ignored the part on the website that said “Olmstead Loop.”

Nonetheless, it was a pleasant race, and many of the usual suspects were present. It felt like a small turn out, but while on the course, I rarely found myself running alone.

I began with a very comfortable pace. The air was still pleasantly cool at the 7:00 am start, and I carried only one bottle. I didn’t know anything about how many aid stations there were, or how far apart they were. I just ran.

After we were about 1/3 of the way through, we began a steep climb. I felt great, and when I realized I was passing people, I decided maybe I should continue this trend and run a little faster. At this point, I think I switched from “running” to “racing.”

It occurred to me that 50K would be over with fairly quickly, and the earlier I finished, the less heat I would have to endure. With these thoughts, I sailed on across the dry golden grasses and past massive spreading oaks.

The aid stations were well stocked, but I noticed that I was less interested in eating than usual. I stuck mostly to GU’s and a few potatoes, washed down with ice water.

By the time I was on the last lap of the OImstead Loop, the day had warmed considerably. I was beginning to wish that I’d stashed a second water bottle, since clearly just one would be stretching it between aid stations at this point. It was too late now though, and I just tried to drink as much as possible at the aid stations before heading out. I was almost done, and knew I would just have to tough it out.

When I crossed the line I felt good about my race. My time of 5:37 was nothing special (some runners said the course was long, but who knows) but, as I said to my husband later, I was on the tail end of the fast people’s lunch. In other words, folks like Bev and Alan Abbs, Ray Sanchez, and Peter Lubbers were still at the finish area eating their home cooked lunch. (Grilled burgers and Linda’s potato salad!) Frequently these folks are long gone before I get to the finish line, so it felt like a bit of a treat to hang out with them.

Although it was warmer than I would have liked, it was ultimately a beautiful day, and my coolest (no pun intended!) race of the year. Thanks as always, to Robert, Linda, Norm, Helen and the rest of the volunteers. Another great race!

Friday, June 06, 2008

Silver State 50

Now that school is out and the mountain of papers is graded, I have a chance to re-visit my weekend at the Silver state 50 miler in Reno. Just in time to avoid the backlog of race reports too, since Auburn Trails 50K is this Sunday!

The week before the Silver State 50/50 unfolded with a few inauspicious events. For one thing, the forecast was predicting temperatures in the 90s in Reno. After running Diablo under similar conditions, I wasn’t really looking forward to that. In addition, a mysterious ankle pain that has plagued me all spring had an unexplained flare up. I had planned to run some real miles that week and go into the race on tired legs as training for my upcoming 100. Instead I took most of the week off, logging only 16 miles prior to race day, albeit high quality miles.

I decided that since my goal of running tired was thwarted, I should just go out and try to have a decent race and see how I dealt with the heat. I felt the ankle thing had the potential to cause a DNF, but other than that I felt great going into the race.

I had considered skipping the pre-race meeting on Friday. Last year I found myself more confused than helped by Stan’s description of the course. There had been a large course map available though, and I was hoping for the same thing this year since the course had changed quite a bit from the previous year. I arrived at the check-in just before the start of the meeting. I got in line behind a woman who turned out to be Kami Semick. Upon hearing I was from Truckee she said, “Oh, so do you know Betsy?”

If you read my Miwok post, you will see the humor in this question. I tried not to laugh, and gave her a rueful “no” in response.

The meeting did turn out to be helpful. Although most of the directions were confusing as usual, I did learn that there would be one section I needed to pay attention to. The descent route and the return route from the River Bend aid station crossed each other numerous times. It was key to be aware that you stayed on the single track on the descent, and then the road on the return climb.

The race began from a park in north Reno, and even at 5:30 am it wasn’t super cold out. I said hi to friends Sean and Peter at the check in, and we headed over to the starting area. As we waited for Stan to send us off, I heard Sean say “Good luck Betsy,” to a woman next to me. I hastily introduced myself to her, and she in turn introduced me to Paul. More local runners, hooray!

I think there were about 60 starters, and we set off across the soggy grass at 6:00. After maybe a half a mile, whoever was in the lead missed a turn. Of course we all followed him off course like little lemmings. I was jogging up a hill when all the runners in front of me suddenly turned around and started running toward me.

“Uh oh,” I said grimly, “this can’t be good.” As everyone behind me also turned around and discovered the missed turn, the runner who was now in the lead put his hands triumphantly in the air as if to say “I’m winning!” and we all chuckled. This did not seem to bode well for the rest of the race. I did, however, enjoy chatting briefly with all of the faster runners as they passed by me. I usually don’t see these folks once the race actually begins.

The first part of the race climbed steadily, but much of it was runable. I figured since it wasn’t too steep, and it was still relatively cool out, I may as well run while I could.

Before the first aid station I noticed a hot spot on my right heel. I wondered if I was running funny because that was my bad ankle. Perhaps it had precipitated the blister? I had a drop bag at the mile 15 aid station with plenty of blister remedies, so I figured it would have to wait until then.

I had seen Jenny Capel take off early and knew it was a given anyway that she would finish well ahead of me. I could see Betsy and another woman off in the distance as we steadily climbed Peavine Mountain. My hot spot was clearly turning into a blister, and I also had to pee like mad. The desert terrain was not offering any likely bathroom stops, and I trudged along very distracted for the next several miles. I finally found a mildly descent spot behind a rock; not exactly screened from view, but good enough. I was wondering at my own modesty, recalling once dropping my shorts in front of 20,000 or so people at the Boston Marathon. I suppose showing my butt to the faceless mob is different than showing it to someone I might end up running with for 10 hours.

Betsy Nye rounds a switchback on the initial climb

When I finally arrived at my drop bag at the Ranch Creek aid station, I removed my sock to see a nasty blister on my heel. No wonder it hurt. It seemed a little early in the day for such issues, and I was not pleased. I had pre-taped the only areas that I sometimes blister, and they were doing fine. I had never gotten a blister on my heel before, and I was wearing the same shoes I always wore. What was going on?

I spent about 5 minutes refueling and dealing with the blister before heading out. I had drained and patched the blister, but now it hurt worse than ever, causing me to limp down the trail. I was a little concerned about this development, and wondered if I could possibly DNF at mile 20 because of a blister. How depressing would that be?

Just before I left the aid station, Peter Fain came in leading the 50K race. I headed off alone on the loop that would eventually bring me back to that same aid station, desperately trying to ignore my blister, and in search of another bathroom spot. Eventually I came upon Betsy and a guy in a blue shirt coming towards me. I got that sinking feeling again, and started searching the area for telltale pink ribbons.

We met up right at the turn that they had missed, and headed off downhill. I decided to try to keep up with Betsy and Blue Shirt Guy, but it wasn’t long before I realized their pace was not one I could hold for long. I figured I would stay with them on the downhill to practice my descending, then let them go once the trail flattened out. Soon though, Betsy ducked off into the woods, taking advantage of the fact that there actually were trees through this stretch, and I lost Blue Shirt Guy at the next aid station.

This stretch was relatively flat with some small bits of shade. Soon I caught up with a man who turned out to be Bill Finkbeiner. We chatted for a while, and upon hearing I was from Truckee, asked, "Oh, so you know Betsy?"

"Yes!" I practically screamed in triumph. "I mean, um, I just met her, but yeah." I ammended. He seemed to feel he wasn't having his best day and soon he too ducked off into the woods. Well, at least it seemed everyone was maintaining their fluids.

I was still feeling fine when I finished this loop to arrive again at the Ranch Creek aid station. I took another 5 minutes or so to re-do the patch on my blister, and noticed that several other small blisters had sprung up. I was a little frustrated, but proceeded to slap some more tape on my feet and figured I would just have to tough it out. I was at mile 27.

I chatted with a few other runners at this aid station. On a day this hot, I think you feel an extra bond between runners, and we all checked in to see how each of us was faring. I found out later that one of these runners, Austin, was only 16 and running his first 50! That’s so impressive. I can’t imagine having that kind of tenacity at only 16.

The next stretch was the descent to the River Bend aid station in Verdi. I had filled my Cool Off Bandana with ice at the last aid station, and it was pleasantly dripping ice water down my back as I ran through this dry, hot and exposed section of trail. I really think the ice in the bandana was a big factor to having a good day under less than ideal conditions. Packed with ice, I tied it to the straps of my tank top, and it sat between my shoulders keeping the sun off and keeping me cool and wet.

Bouncing down the singletrack, I noticed that I felt a little shaky, and realized that my blood-sugar must be low. This was bad, and I immediately shoved down a GU, afraid that it was already too late and would just upset my stomach. Fortunately it seemed to help, and I immediately followed it with another one for good measure.

I could see the runners ahead of me heading back up the hill already. I was still about 3 miles from the aid station when Jenny Capel passed me going the other way. I knew she was the only woman in front of me, but I didn’t have any delusions about making up the 6 miles between us. As I neared the aid station, I took my inevitable fall of the race. Even as I was going down, I knew it wasn’t going to be a bad one. I did get a little bloody on my thigh and shin, but the most annoying part was the dirt on the mouthpiece of my watterbottles. Yuck!

As I “cameled-up” at the aid station, one of the volunteers put so much ice in my bandana that it was almost too heavy. I decided not to complain, and was glad later that I didn’t. It was 6 miles uphill in the heat to the next aid station, but it truly felt like about 12.

The long climb back up to the top of Peavine. This was without question the most hellish 6 miles on the course.

Still Climbing

I did pretty well on the uphill, per usual, and even passed a few people. I got so in the zone though, that I missed a turn. (This also seems to be de rigueur for my races this year.) By the time I got back on track, I think I only went about half to three quarters of a mile extra, so it could have been worse. I was pretty annoyed with myself for a while, but the heat eventually drove all other cares from my brain. (I would later learn the high for the day was 96.) About a half mile from the aid station, a car came down the road and stopped to fill up my bottles with water. Perfect timing, I had just run out! Apparently folks were arriving at the Peavine Summit aid station out of water and in bad shape, so they decided to send some water part way down the hill. Good improvising guys, I think that was a smart decision!

From this point, there were 11 miles to go, and it was largely down hill. It was still getting warmer out, and I wanted to finish as soon as possible. Looking at the runners around me, everyone seemed to be wilting. Aside from a handful of nasty blisters though, I felt pretty decent. My ankle was feeling okay, which was a big relief. I decided to push the downhill and see if I could hang on to second place. I could also see that I had a chance of finishing in under 11 hours. I had run 11:05 at TRT 50 last year, and although this course probably wasn’t quite as hard, I felt like the conditions were much worse, and I would be pretty pleased to finish in under 11 hours.

With that in mind, I had a fairly enjoyable finish. I ran the whole way, passed one or two more people, and crossed the line in 10:49.

Sean handed me a cold bottle of water almost as soon as I crossed the line, and I gratefully sucked it down. I hosed off the dirt and dried blood, and happily put on my flip flops before inhaling a burger and coke and crashing on the grass with Betsy, Paul, Sean, Peter and other racers who were grateful to be done.

All in all I felt pretty happy with my day. I am hoping the blisters can be attributed to the heat, and other than that, everything went quite well. I managed my fluids well and was able to take in food the entire time. I did eat mostly gels, while I usually eat about half gels and half solid food. I also went with GU2O in both of my water bottles, instead of water in one and GU2O in the other. I did take only water at the one aid station that had Gatorade instead of GU2O (who drinks that stuff??) but I balanced this out by eating, and taking a few salt stick caps. The ice bandana was important to staying cool, as was the generous amount of ice the volunteers put in my bottles at each aid station. A second place finish might sound more impressive if more than 5 women had crossed the line, but on a day like that, I think we can all be proud to have finished at all! According to the race results, only 31 people finished. Since I don't know exactly how many started, I'm not sure what percentage finished, but there were certainly a few DNF's.

Jenny Capel won the women's race in 9:28, and Eric Skaden won the men's race in 7:46. In the 50K Peter Fain won the men's division in 5:05 and Kami Semick won for the women, taking second overall, in 5:16.

Someone had placed these two chairs facing the view on the final descent. With only 3 miles to go, it was not very tempting to stop for a rest.

The aftermath of my race came in the form of some heat trauma. Apparently there was an exposed strip of skin on my back between my tank top and shorts. The sunburn made it look like I fell backwards against a wood stove! It blistered up badly and I could only wear low-waisted pants for a week because it killed to have anything touch it. I also got a horrendous heat rash on my face. No kidding, and it seriously looked monstrous. Someone less vain than I would have taken pictures and posted them on her bolg, purely for the entertainment value. Me? It was all I could do to keep from calling in sick to work.

The irony is that the following week the temperatures plummeted, and I found myself on my morning run in 28 degrees and snow. Brrr! Three weeks later, and it still isn't quite what I would call warm outside.

A huge thanks goes out to all the volunteers who were out there in the heat all day! They did a great job of getting us everything we needed, and adding in a couple extra aid stations to help combat the heat. Congratulations to everyone who finished. It was a tough day, and still turned out to be a great training run!