Sunrise at mile 85
Wow, that was a welcome sight! After failing to complete this race for the past two years, it was finally time to click off the headlamp and start cranking to the finish line to put things right. I kept doing math in my head and realized I had gone from the prospect of squeaking under 24 hours to smashing that mark. I was so happy to still have legs to run through the final miles. The winter’s worth of hard training paid off with a 22:20 and 13th place.
I know I can go a good bit faster, but for the first time in a few years I feel like I’m back on track. It feels good! I don’t think I’ve ever run a smarter race in terms of starting conservatively, working through all of the issues and problems that come up while still making good forward progress, and closing strong. So thaaat’s what it feels like… :)
Learning From My Mistakes (it took a while)
I first ran the Buffalo Run 100 in 2012. I finished 13th place in 23:28 and was happy to get that time after a fairly miserable 60 mile stretch in the middle of the race.
I came into the race that year at a fairly high fitness and confidence level. I had a solid winter of training with several long runs, lots of hill repeats, and a race or two already in my legs. I went out too hard and ran the opening 20 miles that look like this:
at a 9:44 pace. Doesn’t sound like much, but on that course it was moving pretty well. Then I came unglued and ran the next 20+ miles that look like this:
and averaged a 12:44 pace over that section! Ooof. Stupid. Lots of shuffling and walking on that easy rolling terrain. I had neglected my fluids early so I suffered a lot and really struggled to stay in the game. I was badly dehydrated and didn’t start feeling half decent again until about 3:00 in the morning. I eventually rallied to have a strong final 20 miles and finished on a high note.
Meadowlark on the island hitting the high note.
In 2013 and 2014, I failed to finish the race. Although I made it north of 70 miles each time, my legs were just too ‘green’ from a lack of sufficient winter miles to really get the job done.
Taking My Own Advice
For once in my life, I actually put something I said into practice. I’ve found that it’s very easy to give lip service to a concept, while another thing entirely to start doing it. Rubber meeting the road and all that…
I wrapped up my latest Leadville report with the following paragraphs:
I think at some level I am a little scared of pouring my whole energy into preparing to run at my ultimate potential. Almost to the point of wondering if I am self-sabotaging my preparation so I can always say that I was unprepared when it comes time to explain a poor performance.
For me, the revelation of this year’s event is that I need to remember to focus on the journey. What if you make all kinds of sacrifices, show up in tip-top condition, and have a crap race? Wouldn’t it be better to skip all of those sacrifices, do just enough to probably ensure a finish, and have the best of both worlds?
I’m learning that it’s not the best of both worlds, though. It’s the best of neither.
Concentrate on the journey. That preparation and those sacrifices have their own rewards, regardless of the race outcome.
I need to remember that even if the day of the race is complete failure, it is the journey leading up to it that needs to be given the attention. So what if you sacrifice and invest all that time, then fail on the day. You are still better off than not trying at all. And I would argue better off than half-assing the preparation and still managing to ‘succeed’ on race day. Nothing is learned from that. No growth occurs.
I wanted some growth to happen this time. I decided to fully commit to the training needed to not only finish this race again, but do it in my own style. No crew, no pacer, run smart and make the most out of what I had on the day.
Running the race wasn’t the challenge. The challenge was training for the race.
I began my training on November 1st after taking most of October off. I didn’t have a super detailed plan, but rather went back to the same well that has produced results in the past. The 20 miler.
20s seem to be the perfect distance for me. They are long enough to provoke the body into some adaptation, but without beating me down excessively. There are exceptions, but for the most part they fit well into my training philosophy that states:
Beat the crap out of your body, as gently as possible.
I was super committed to the long run, and filled in the rest of the week with a touch of quality here and there, leaving the rest as recovery or general aerobic work.
It took me a little while to build up to the 20, but from mid-November through mid-March I did 19 runs in the 20-28 range. In my peak training week I did five of them in an eight day span. This included running 21 miles home from work on night, and getting up at 04:00 to run back into work the next morning. Those are the best bang for the buck back-to-back runs I can do. It packs 42 miles into a span of just over 12 hours and teaches you how to run at a steady effort for hours on end.
Even with all of the long runs, my mileage was only at 65 mi/week over a 13 week span. I ultimately failed to get into the same shape I was in for the 2012 race, but was very happy with how far I had come given that I started out in a pretty deep hole fitness-wise. My weight, although declining, was still too high as well.
The long runs may not have given me much speed to work with, but they had given me two very critical things – confidence, and strength.
Since I had GPS data from two of my last three races including the 2012 finish, I used that information to calculate some splits that I was going to aim for. This takes a little of the fun out of ‘racing’, but I felt like I needed to be super careful about starting too hard while keeping realistic targets in place for me to aim for.
I also decided to wear a heart rate chest strap for at least the first four hours and keep my heart rate in the mid-140 range to further enforce a moderate effort at the beginning. That said, I didn’t want to go too slow. I think the super-slow strategy kind of backfired on me last year so I ended up picking split times between the two extremes of 2012 and 2014 in a lot of cases.
Did it Work?
Absolutely. I think I still have a lot of time I can shave off, but for making the most out of what I had to work with on a given day I don’t think I have ever run a smarter or more controlled 100 miler (This was my 11th finish).
In a way, it was sort of ‘easy’. I hesitate to say that, because then the natural question becomes, “Why didn’t you push harder, then?”
Hey, it’s 100 miles. Covering that distance is plenty hard. Even though I made a few attempts to push into a higher level of effort, I couldn’t ever get it to last. It seemed as if I was stuck in 2nd gear the whole time. I think this might have been a result of my steeper-than-normal taper. I have had great results from coming into a race with a short taper, but looking back now I see that they have all been when I was already quite fit and able to handle the load. As it was for this race, I was still building my fitness and should have been a little more careful with my taper and pre-race recovery.
The course starts out climbing for a few miles at a very moderate grade. I ran all of it in 2012 and used a more moderate mix of hiking and running this year, hitting the first aid station a couple of minutes ahead of my planned split (1:02/1:05). All systems felt good, but not great. I was mostly trying to settle in for the long day ahead.
The first 20 miles are my favorite part of the course, I really enjoy the views and variety of the terrain. I finished that section exactly on my planned split (3:30). That was 21 minutes behind my 2012 split, but I was happy to be sticking with my plan. Getting through those first 20 miles in great shape is a huge win and will set you up well for the rest of the day. Think about it. I gave up 20 minutes that early, yet would end up finishing over an hour faster than my 2012 time. It’s all about finding the sustainable balance.
After you come through the start/finish area at the 20 mile mark, you cross over to the east side of the island for a long while. The terrain is significantly easier over there, but doesn’t necessarily translate into a faster speed. The best strategy for me was to stick to the moderate pace and use the time to stay on top of fueling and hydration.
A few miles into this section, I came up on a bison that was just a few yards off the trail. He was very concentrated on grazing and didn’t seem to be paying any attention to me. I give the animals a lot of respect, but didn’t think twice about stopping to take a photo right after I passed by. My act of stopping triggered something in the bison and he started to charge straight from the grazing position without warning. Dang, that got the adrenaline pumping!! Luckily it was a bluff, and I didn’t get stomped. No comment about the condition of my shorts.
Here is the pic I took while getting charged. Blurry grass and a big ol’ head.
After I moved away a bit. You win Mr. Bison.
I came across two large herds on the way to the turnaround and gave them PLENTY of room as I made a wide detour each time keeping a close eye on their disposition. It made for some slow going as I tromped through the tall grass and rocks, but it sure beat the alternative! Out of all the years I have run this race, the bison seemed the most jumpy this time around.
I finally made it to the turnaround at the far south end of the course which is mile 33. Time to evaluate the situation and give the plan a reality check.
It’s almost laughable now, being that it was a March race, but the heat was getting to me in the late afternoon. In fact, miles 25-35 would be my low point of the whole race. My split at the mile 33 turnaround was 6:10. Slow going, but 6:10 is exactly what I had written down as my projected split which was right in the middle of my 5:45 in 2012 and 6:30 in 2014. Not too shabby.
The plan was working alright, but 25 minutes seemed like a long way to be behind my 2012 split at mile 33 with the idea of wanting to beat the finish time from that year. I didn’t really have an option, though. Running faster just didn’t seem possible at this point. I left the aid station grateful that I was on target, but unsure of what the future would hold. I guess that’s why we do these things – to find out!
I still felt poorly for a while, but eventually after the sun started going down and I cooled off I could feel a rally coming on. I ran the remaining 15 miles to the halfway point very well, coming through the 50 mile mark at 9:47. Now only 3 minutes behind my 2012 time. Hmmm… I had made up around 25 minutes just in that section and was feeling very relieved that my strategy was finally starting to pay off.
Now the course repeats itself for the final 50. It was now 10PM and I headed down the same dirt road I ran at noon during the start of the race. Ok, buddy let’s see what ya got.
This section is always tough. What was an easy 3+ hour cruise earlier in the day becomes a long 5 hour haul in the dark with a lot more hiking thrown in. I really like it, though. The views over the water to the city lights way off in the distance are pretty spectacular and well worth the price of admission.
I ran along solo the whole way, passing other runners here and there, but never really running near the same pace as anyone else. Some races are like that, despite the dozens of people out there doing the same thing as you, it feels like you are in your own little bubble for long periods. Luckily I had a new iPod Nano to keep me company and I let the tunes keep me company through the long hours of the night.
Once I made it back to the start/finish area it was time for another progress check. It was now 3AM on the dot, and I had gone from 25 minutes behind my 2012 time at mile 33, to pulling almost even at mile 50, to now being 25 minutes ahead at mile 70. It was on!
I’m not a pro, but here’s a tip from someone that rarely uses pacers (and never a crew). Pack your drop bags very carefully and organize them using containers or baggies, so everything you plan on needing at a particular stop is in one spot and you don’t have to worry about digging around or forgetting something. I went into the start/finish tent to get my drop bag and sit down to change my shirt, get fresh batteries, etc. There were runners milling around in various states of consciousness, but it wasn’t particularly busy in the tent. A very well meaning volunteer sat next to me and started blasting me with question after question about my race, how I was feeling, did I want anything, etc., etc. All very nice and appreciated, but when it is three in the morning and you are trying hard to concentrate on what you need to take with you it can be super difficult. I learned my lesson in my first year running Leadville as a very nice volunteer at Twin Lakes did the same thing and distracted me to the point that I took off at mile 60 without my headlamp. Thankfully, I didn’t get too far – but I had to run back and get it and that sucked.
Now I pack gels, batteries, headlamp – everything I will need at that stop – into a container. The container then goes in a large ziplock that has room for spare clothing that I may or may not need at that point. That goes into my bag and stays dry, accessible, and as fool proof as possible.
I already gave away the ending at the start of this post. I went on to run strongly through the sunrise and finished over an hour ahead of my 2012 time. With all of that coming in the second half of the race. While I was thrilled to beat that time, I was mostly grateful to just have a decent run and erase the poor showings of the previous two years. I learned a lot about working for a goal, preparing as well as you can, then sticking to a plan.
I feel like I can go a lot faster, but now I’ve learned I have to put in the work to get there. I’m on it.
The best outcome is that I finished feeling good and can now use this race and build up as a springboard for the rest of the season.
Hats off to Jim and his crew for putting on another fantastic event! And thanks to all of my family, friends, and office mates that encouraged me along the way. You are a big part of my success!
Typical Colorado morning run. 28 miler two weeks before race day.
I had a great time seeing friends and shooting the HRCA St. Patrick’s Day 5K on Saturday morning with 1,000 runners. The racing season has begun! Here are a few sample images from the day, the rest can be found here.
This is one of my favorite recipes for a fun race:
sign up on Wednesday night for a Saturday marathon
drive 8 hours after work on Friday to a Wal-mart parking lot in the middle of nowhere
fall asleep in Hotel de Subaru just before midnight
wake at 4:15, more driving
run a marathon in a cool place you’ve never visited before
A last minute trip to Utah to spend the weekend with family led me to do a quick search of race calendars to see if there would be anything I could do along the way. The Little Grand Canyon Marathon turned out to be a perfect fit. It is a nice low-key event that was exactly what I was interested in doing.
I was only a couple of weeks removed from finishing the Leadville 100, but had the itch to do a longer run as prep for a 50 miler later in the month. I told myself I’d just take it easy and treat it as training.
A pre-dawn bus ride dropped us off in pretty much the middle of nowhere. We stood around, casually waiting for everyone to have a chance to take care of last minute business before the RD gave the ‘go’. No rock and roll bands, or cheering spectators. Just a few runners and 26 miles of road in front of you.
I haven’t run a marathon in a few years and had forgotten that this event wasn’t like an ultra with tons of leap frogging during the start as people’s pace changed to accommodate tying shoes, pit stops, pack adjustments, etc. It seemed everyone locked into a pace and there was a mostly static chain of runners cruising through the countryside. I settled into 11th place and just stayed there forever, never really gaining or losing any ground with the runners around me. It was kind of an odd sensation. I topped out the longest climb of the day at mile 5 still locked into the same place.
The course starts with a few miles of pavement with a few long-ish climbs to keep things honest, before transitioning to dirt/gravel road that descends very gradually all the way to the finish line. The first half is wide open and barren (but beautiful in its own right), and the second half follows a tributary to the Little Grand Canyon which is an amazing place I somehow had never visited before despite having traveled all over the state.
The sunrise across the endless expanse of desert-like surroundings was well worth the price of admission. Truly an amazing sight.
The terrain changed leading up to the halfway mark and the static nature of the placings finally started to change as well. Rolling climbs with a rougher road started to take a toll on some of the runners ahead of me and I was able to move up to 7th without changing my effort level. This was a small race (55 runners in the full marathon) and we were getting well spread out by now.
I essentially ran the final 14 miles alone, except for picking up stragglers from the half marathon that had started their race at the 13 mile mark. It was a long lonely haul, but a great experience. I locked into a steady pace in the very high 7 range and kept it there for 10 miles before starting to fatigue a little in the final two as some hills had to be dealt with and my Leadville legs started to show up.
I stayed in 7th place with a 3:32:08. Not too speedy, but it got the job done and was just the type of run I was looking for. 6th and 8th place were 6 minutes ahead and behind me, so I was definitely in no-man’s land.
Strava data here.
While it isn’t necessarily a destination-type race, I would definitely do it again if time and circumstances permit. I would love to spend a couple of days in the area exploring and photographing the canyon. It was a lot more impressive than I was expecting.