Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Allure of 100 Miles

In the minutes after completing a 100 mile race I usually have the same internal monologue with myself. The conversation typically involves me telling myself I will never run a hundred miles ever again, that I need to take a year off from ultramarathons, or I hate running and knitting seems like a rather painless hobby worthy of pursuit. Mike, remember that time you had ten functional toe nails? Neither do I.

For reasons unknown to man, about 24 hours after this, I am figuring out which 100 miler to do next. It's a twisted passion in that when it comes to running, I have a memory like Ten Second Tom from the movie 50 First Dates, or Dory in Finding Nemo. As soon as my body starts feeling physically better, it's like I completely forget how much stress it went through during the previous hundred mile escapade. But, there's something about the 100 mile distance that keeps bringing me back, eventhough I feel like the distance has gotten the better of me on most occasions. I have attempted six very different 100's and finished four. Even the races that I have finished, and seemingly finished well, I felt like my body felt good for maybe two thirds of the race, and then was basically in survival mode the final thirty miles. That's a long time to feel like you are just trying to gut out a finish and not DNF.

It makes me wonder if training for 100's is even something you can do, or if you just have to learn by doing them and finding out what your body does best, or worst, for one hundred miles. I have found that even with 100 mile training weeks and long runs of 20-30 miles at 8:30 pace, that you still can't fully prepare the body and mind for what will happen in the depths of the 100 mile distance (ie after 50 and 60 miles). If you have a rough patch in a 50 miler, you can gut it out for the last couple of hours and still finish well, yet a rough patch in a hundred could yield hours and hours of discomfort. In the case of a race like Hardrock, or Badwater, a rough patch may be an entire day's worth of slow hiking, walking, vomiting, and kidney failure.

Despite over 60 ultramarathon finishes, I find the challenge of 100 miles to be the most alluring distance. No matter the race, or terrain, there's that mystery of what will happen beyond the 100k mark. You can train day and night and somehow a hundred miles can still throw you the one curveball you didn't expect. My most recent race, the Graveyard 100, humbled me in that I felt like the race was a total disaster (given the 30 miles of walking), and yet I still ran a relatively respectable time. I suppose it still boggles my mind how I can run pretty much every step of a 50 miler, but end up walking historically 40-50% of the second half of each 100 I have finished.

Again, I am admitting I am still a novice at 100's. I still go out way too fast, though I wonder if running even 30 minutes slower over the first 50 miles will cause my gynormous second half positive splits to shrink a little. Before my first 100 in 2007, a friend told me that a typical runner sees a 1:1.3 ratio for the first and second half of a hundred, assuming the course runs similar for both halves of the race. This is fairly consistent, but it does make me raise an eyebrow at my 1:1.5+ ratio I've been churning out. Reflecting back at my awful splits from the Graveyard 100, I ran a 7:57 front 50, and a sloth's pace 12:31 for the second 50 miles. That 7:57 jumps off the page as looking too fast, but this is about 30 minutes slower than if I went full out for the same distance, thus it felt slower, though it was still way too fast. I'm thinking 8:30 would have been much more practical, and may have saved enough in the legs for a 10:30-11:00 second half which would have gotten me much closer to an achievable time of 19-20 hours (maybe not). It seems no matter how fast, or slow, I start a 100 mile race, my legs are reduced to a slow jog at best and a lot of walking.

After reading this and seeing how much I struggle the last 40 miles of all my hundred milers, you're probably wondering why on earth I would want to keep doing them. Why not just stick with the races I can run the entirety of and be happy with 50 milers and 50k's. Well, the answer is that I love venturing into the physical and mentally uncharted territories of my ability, and is often the reason I willingly choose to run 100 milers without a crew, or pacer. I also found that the things we use to distract ourselves from the pain, or monotony of 100 miles (like a pacer, or headphones) can often take away from experiencing the intricate details of a course and it's surroundings. Instead of tuning out, I really enjoy being forced into a sometimes uncomfortable place where I can't simply ignore my thoughts and physical nuances. It really makes it that much more of a symbiotic relationship between the run and the runner. I love it!

BTW, I wanted to give a last shout out to Graveyard 100 Champion Brenda Carawan. I don't know if people realize how amazing running a 16:33 for 100 miles is on any course. This is a phenomenal time for a man, or woman, and is really an elite level performance. It was the fastest female 100 of the year, and unless someone runs faster at a 24 hour run, Javelina, or Umstead, I dare say it could be the fastest female 100 time in 2012. This really does place Brenda up there with some of the elite US women who are running anywhere from 15-18 hours at road and trail 100's. Keep up the good work!

"The way you approach the first 10% of a race says a lot about your personality, but the way you endure the last 10% of a race says everything about your character."
-Mike Bailey

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

My Graveyard 100 report. Swing Big, Miss Big

Baseball legend Babe Ruth once said "I swing big, with everything I've got. I hit big or I miss big." Well, you could say that I took that approach going into this past weekend's innagural Graveyard 100 mile ultramarathon in the Outer Banks. I definitely went out swinging for the fences, and while I won't quite say I missed big, it was like hitting a glancing foul ball that barely made it out of the infield.

Going into the run I knew I had some monuMENTAL challenges infront of me. Though my winter running mileage was indeed adequate for a 100 miler, most of my running was done on mountain trails and gravel roads. I am not a road runner. I knew that whatever conditioning base I needed for endless miles of pavement really wasn't there. Yet, I readily accepted that as part of the challenge for this event, as well as knowing crewed runners were likely to benefit from logistics of the course far better than lone rangers like myself (can you pluralize the term lone rangers?). The aid stations were spread out every 18 to 25 miles, which required runners to carry 3-8 hours worth of food and gear. Finally, as such the case with any first year event, we were sort of guinnea pigs who didn't have any results, or race reports to go by. Part of the reason I am writing this is to help runners who would like to participate in this event in future years.

On paper the course looks fairly benign. It is a 102.2 miles of, paved, flat, and fast road. This format drew in a variety of folks like myself looking to set a 100 mile PR, perhaps have an "easier" shot at getting a silver sub 24 hour buckle, or a minimal course to complete their first 100 miler. None of the above turned out to be true, and even for seasoned ultra runners, this was a very tough event. The event website states this, and the details should not be overlooked.

The alarm buzzed at 2:22am. A few shuttle rides, and a couple hours later it was 4:45am and we were on a cool windy beach at the north end of Currituck. 72 runners shivered under the nearly full moon eagerly awaiting the start. At 5:10am we began our 102.2 mile odyssey down the well traveled shoreline road, route 12.

I took the pace out hard from the start, fully knowing the risks of a major blowup later. The morning was cool, and the sunrise was inspiring to watch as it rose over the Atlantic ocean. I passed through the first aid station in 2:45, a mere 19.9 miles into the race. I ended up ditching my headphones, because I partially think the music was causing me to run faster than planned, but it also meant I would have no music the remaining 80+ miles. I knew the pace was way too hot early, so I tried backing off a bit, but the truth is that the road was running so fast that even when I felt like I was going "slow", I was probably running a good minute per mile faster than where I wanted to be. The perceived slow down still wasn't enough as I passed through the marathon mark in 3:42, 4:22 for 50k, and arrived at the 32.7 mile water stop in an overly brisk 4:35. This was an 8:24 minute mile pace through the first third of a 100 miler, which put me on a very unrealistic 14 hour projected finish pace. At this point I knew I was playing with fire, and if I wanted to avoid an embarassing early DNF I had to smarten up a bit. Time for some built in walk breaks and major slow down.

By mile 40, my body was already feeling the burn from the pavement. My feet had developed several hot spots and my quads were really started to throb. It reminded me of the times I felt so much more beat up after a road marathon, than say a trail 50 miler through the mountains. The road was taking it's toll, and this time it was taxing my legs (like the clever puns I used there?). At this point, Brenda Carawan comes frolicking by me like she's out for a run in neighborhood. To give credit where credit is due, Brenda did what I could not. She went out on a mission, held it together, and ended up setting a massive personal best. By the way, she won the event overall. Women ended up humbling us guys and took a clean sweep of the 100 mile and 100k races. No men were even close. Great job ladies! Meanwhile, back at the Mike Bailey walkathon, I was trying to avoid being "that guy" who leads a race for 40 miles, only to crap out with a pathetic 60 mile zombie walk to the finish.

My quivering mess for leg muscles crawled into the scenic Bodie Lighthouse aid station, mile 45, and I knew I was in for a loooong day. I was at the aid for about 10 minutes, couldn't figure clothing, so I grabbed everything and said adios. With the bright sun it was hot one moment, and then with the wind and walking, it was cold the next. C'mon body, make up your mind about being hot, or cold, this is getting a bit silly. At the race's halfway point I somewhat broke out of my funk and enjoyed the splendid view from the course's 2.5 mile Bonner Bridge. With that little pick me up I arrived at the 50.8 mile water stop in 7:57. While this was a nice split for around the halfway point of the race, I knew all too well that my legs did not have anywhere near enough to "run" the second half like I had hoped.

The miles rolled along and the wind swirled the sand from the dunes over the smooth asphalt. It was actually quite a beautiful sight, though I also felt the conditions were perfect for a chapstick or sunscreen commercial. On the arrid straight aways you could see for miles and miles where you were headed. At several points in the race you could see your destination about 10 miles off in the distance and knew that you weren't going to get there for another two hours. Sheesh, what a mind job. Spray painted mile markers on the ground signaled the completion of 55 miles, then 60. I reached the Rodanthe aid station a few hours before sunset and grabbed my night gear. I will say that 100 milers, as far as being a physical and mental test, really begins after the 100k mark. They said that the night stretch of 24.4 miles between aid 3 and 4 would be the hardest, and I am pleased to say that it did not disappoint. I reached 70 miles in 12:20, and then the sunset drew in the chilly night breeze, accompanied by a colorful spectrum of colors off the western skyline.

The night brought cold, but also gave me plenty of incentive to keep jogging to stay warm. I would summarize the twenty mile stretch from 63 to 83 miles as a mix of brisk walking and about 60% jogging. I was really laying the hammer down with those blistering 12:30 miles. However, the wind, though at my back for most of day, was really preventing me from staying warm, even with the intervals of running. My feet, which hurt as early as 40 miles earlier, were on fire due to blisters on both feet. Despite attempts at fixing them throughout the day, the repetitive steps were making it tougher to run. Lack of running + dropping temps = very rapidly dropping core temperature. This is an equation many runners fear, and for most Graveyard runners, it was a bad reality. When I reached the final Hatteras Lighthouse aid station (mile 87), I had been slowly fading into a cold induced walk for a couple hours. I knew I absolutely had to find more clothing, because the light coat, t-shirt, and shorts that had sufficed all day weren't going to cut it for the remaining 13+ miles. After about 15 minutes warming up and eating some hot chili an awesome volunteer let me borrow an extra shirt and blue tights. I tossed on a garbage bag for wind protection, and though I looked like love child of Quasimodo and Spider Man, it was time to roll.

Eventhough I was now plenty warm, I knew my running for the day was long over. My feet and quads weren't capable of much, and when I could feel the skin of my blisters sloshing around in my shoe, it was clear running would do more harm than good. This was the first time my feet have blistered in Drymax socks, and they were bad. The last hours were indeed long and lonely, but it was in these times where the road never seemed to end that I reminded myself that THIS is the challenge I came for. I remembered my friends Ian and Bill, whom I lost in the last month, and promised myself I wouldn't complain about the cold, tired legs, and blisters. My thoughts shifted towards the moon rising over my left shoulder, the sound of the crashing waves muffled by the dunes, and the stars above that looked like a Light Bright masterpiece. My mind settled and even with 95 miles of harsh pounding, I was happy and content.

Soon the lights of Hatteras were on the horizon, and though it seemed like it took ages to get there, it meant I was very near the finish. A volunteer van drove by and said I had half a mile to go, but after a half mile I saw nothing. I stood at the intersection for about five minutes where they said to stay left for the finish line, but I looked to the left and didn't see anything set up. Little did I know, I was literally about a hundred yards from the finish, but it wasn't until a crew person walked up to me that I was pointed to the correct spot. A few steps later I was done, and honestly I don't think I've been more happy to be done with a race. Compared to trail races with full aid every 4-10 miles, this one tested my mental game pretty good.

Some closing thoughts. If you think it will be easy to break 24 hours because the course is flat, you are in for a surprise. This is also not really a race for people attempting their first 100, or ultra. If you are a novice runner who really wants to try this event, perhaps invite your friends to crew for you, as races like this can really bond runners and crews. The scenery of the course is very beautiful, though you will be very isolated most of the time. You will run through little coastal towns to break up the monotony, but in March most of the businesses are closed. I probably walked about 30 miles of this race, and everything after mile 83. I'm not sure if the trashed legs were due to the pavement, fast pace early, or combination of both. Either way, it was a lot of walking. I will say that when they shuttled us back home the runners still on the course looked like extras from music video Thriller. Lips were chapped, faces were crusted over from sun and wind burn, and eyes glossed over from sheer fatigue. Yup, you too can experience these aesthetics for only $210 and a signed waiver :-)

Immediately after the run I felt more wrecked than any other race I had ever done. I could barely get out of the shuttle van, and walking up the four steps into the finish line motel was tantamount to ascending the Hilary step on Mount Everest. It is always so ironic how one second we are running distances of mentally managable increments of 10 and 20 miles, and then we find taking a handful of steps to get into a shower nearly mind numbingly impossible. Thankfully, I am writing this post three days after the run, and I am happy to say the blisters are healing, the swelling is gone, and three nights of fitfull sleep served me well. 100 milers also give me carte blanche to eat anything set infront of me that contains a measurable caloric value.

Race stats:

Time: 20:28:16 (4th overall, 3rd male)
Time at aid: something around 50 minutes. Mostly eating, warming up, finding gear so I wouldn't freeze to near death, and making people look at my gross feet.
Starters: 72
Finishers: 44 (39% drop rate) ideal weather
First time 100 milers: 2 out of 20 finished (90% drop rate)
Sub 24 hour buckles: 21 (29%)
Weather: high 30's to high 40's. Sunny. Wind from the north 10-28 mph.

Thank you to RaceNC (Brandon and Heather Wilson) for their support and for having the crazy notion to put on a 100 mile run down the entire length of the Outer Banks. Thanks to all the volunteers for making this new event happen, and for braving the wind and cold so we would pursue our nutty passion for running stupidly far. This was a worthy challenge, and certainly unlike any ultra I have ever done.


Mike Bailey

Monday, March 5, 2012

Rising up for the Grave...the Graveyard 100

Well folks, we are only five days away from the inaugural Graveyard 100 mile run in the Outer Banks. This is a race I know little about, but it looks to be a formidable challenge in a rather nontraditional sense within the context of ultra running. The course is almost completely flat, non technical, and is 100.7 miles of point to point pavement. It will likely be windy, cool, possibly rainy, and very lonely with only 87 runners in the 100 mile event. The Graveyard 100 breaks away from the trails and mountains that I have grown so acustomed to running, and the monotony and pounding of seemingly endless pavement should be a whole new mental challenge.

The race logistics are rather unique. Runners are being given the option of either being driven over the course's 2.5 mile bridge, or running it. Riders must make up the distance at another designated point in the race. The aid stations are also rather sparse, given that they will be spaced over segments of 18-25 miles. The one great thing, especially for me, is that the course is essentially a straight line on one road, so it should be humanly impossible to get lost. Can I get an amen!

The game plan: I'll be going at this race old school like most events I run. I will be driving down before the race and sleeping in the hotel de sedan (aka my car). I have no crew and no pacer. Unlike Western States, I will be wearing a watch, and perhaps even a gps for the last third of the race.

The race director has stated they are preparing for racers who could potentially run in the 14 hour range. I'm not sure anyone in the field is capable of that, but it does appear the course could dish out some fast times, especially if we are treated with a nice tail wind from the north.

Goals: Making time goals for any 100 miler can be daunting, because there are so many variables that can change over the course of 100 miles. I suppose I'll start by saying that I am trusting the "training" that I've done over the past few months, but also aware that with only three one hundred mile finishes, I am still a relative novice at the distance. My 100 mile personal best is a modest 21:52 at the 2010 Old Dominion 100. On paper it looks like a stout race, but in reality the run was marred by a few poor decisions with nutrition and dealing with feet issues. I also lost about 20 minutes trying to find the course during a section where the flagging had been removed. I think I'm in shape for this run? I won't divulge all my training secrets, but is does involve a lot of Taco Bell. The irony is that I still understand that even with all the training in the world, I could end up having a disasterous race at 20 miles, or a huge personal best. That's life.

All in all, I am going to enjoy this event and the pure solitude. Yet, sadly I will be running in memory of two good friends that I have lost in the last month. They are Bill Parkins (61) and Ian Hodges (22). These were two people, born of humble beginnings that eventually touched people in mighty ways. Bill wore braces on his legs as a child and was told by doctors that he would never walk. But, Bill had another idea and though his life was never full of the physical health we value, he was more alive than many of us. When Bill passed away from cancer, you knew that the boy they said would never walk ran the good race. Then there is Ian. Ian Hodges was born with Down Syndrom. He was a beacon of light in our community, in our church, and in my life. I will miss his smile and the frequent hugs.