Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Son of a Peleus

I'm sitting at the bottom of my stairs looking down at my shoes. Brooks. Adrenaline. GTS. 8. Seems like am awful lot of names. I retired my last pair of the 7s after Bighorn. A little early in terms of mileage, but I figure they'd earned their keep. The newer models fit pretty much the same. With only 30 miles on these ones so far they feel pretty fresh. I'm staring at them thinking how good it feels to have my feet back in a pair of running shoes after two full weeks off. The custom orthotics forming fitted to the soles of my feet. The snug fit in the heel. Just enough space in the front to wiggle my toes, but not so much that they don't feel supported. It feels good. Really good. I'm about to go out for a run with my wife. Her training has stalled the last couple of weeks mostly due to work, but its time to get it back on track for her 1/2 marathon at the end of August. I will also be testing my Achilles tendon on this run. Walking has felt fine for the past week, but I forced myself to wait in order to test it on any sort of run longer than a hallway. The memory of hobbling through those final 5+ miles of my last 100 still sits firmly in my mind.

Those last, long, slow two hours to the finish line are certainly not my best race memory ever. They've also kept the usual "post-race amnesia" from wiping away all the bad bits that normally occur over the course of an ultra and retaining just the highlights of another great experience. This is not to say that there weren't some incredible parts of the Bighorn 100. In fact, I would have to classify it as the most scenic race I have ever done. There were a lot of things that didn't quite go as I had hoped, but the beauty of the course is unsurpassed by any other race I've done. So, rather than dwell on the altitude issues, stomach pains, intestinal distress and various slips, slides and falls of the race, I am going to try to portray the best aspects of this amazing mountain 100. It shouldn't be too hard since I actually remembered to bring my camera for once and took pictures at least during the first day.

Since the race started on Friday morning rather than the traditional Saturday, I flew out on Thursday. I met up with Catra very early Thursday morning to carpool to the airport. We were on different flights, but Andy (her bo) and I would fly into Montana together where all three of us would hook up for the drive down to Sheridan, Wyoming. In Sheridan we had to check in, weigh in and get our drop bags finalized and turned in.

Checked in, bags sorted and labeled, meet and greet other runners at the traditional pasta dinner and then we headed to Dayton where we would stay closer to the race start. The weather gave us a little tease as the skies opened up at our hotel.

Luckily, come the next morning, the sky was nice and blue.

The rain would just assure that the mud and slush up higher on the course would be nice and fresh for us. The race begins at a leisurely 11am so we had plenty of time for breakfast and then waiting around at the start.

The course begins along side the Tongue River which was raging quite heavily. Luckily, the only crossings of this beast would be via bridges.

However, there would be plenty of smaller streams to jump over, step over or simply slosh on through as the course continues into the wild well beyond the initial fire trail where it starts.

Soon enough, this empty road would be filled with runners, shuffling along at their normal 100-mile starting paces.

I try to start slow as I know there will be plenty of climbing before our first real downhill. Soon enough we turn off the road and the conga-line up the first bit of single track begins.

I take the opportunity to snap photos of those in front and behind me...

...as well as the amazing beauty that this area has to offer.

The course eventually ascends to more open, grassy terrain....

...and we continue our ascent...

...but, the beauty of the course just continues to amaze.

After a brief downhill stint (where I almost miss a turnoff in my over-exuberance), we begin the first major climb up over 8000ft.

Snow patches can be seen ahead.

These become snow fields.

The final stretch of the climb on road...

...brings us to the first bit of real snow to deal with.

I could definitely feel the elevation, but this first trip up to 8000ft went just fine. This was a relatively short trip up high with a gradual climb on the newly added section after the Upper Sheep aid station. It took around 7 miles and topped out about 8100ft going around the aptly named Freeze Out Point. We eventually headed back down to the first major aid stations at Dry Fork.

Dry Fork was followed by a steep fire road descent which eventually leveled out, crossed through some streams, rolled through some woods and into the Cow Camp aid station about 6 miles later. We would be repeating this section in a little over 8 miles, but first we had to take on what would be the biggest challenge (for me at least) of the altered course. From Cow Camp we had a 3 mile, 2000ft climb going from 6500ft to 8500ft.

I knew this would be the first test for me as both the climbing and dealing with the elevation were not my strongest suits. Furthermore, at just 21 miles into the race, I had to take it easy and be mentally prepared to be passed by many people, losing any time I had made on the recent downhill sections. We would be repeating this climb again around miles 75, a fact I was desperately trying to keep out of my mind as I began to feel the double whamey of steep climbs at altitude.

I took many pictures, to try and distract myself.

The climb begins.

The views remain spectacular.

This is where we are headed.

As expected, stronger climbers like Olga here, catch and pass me on the way up.

We snap a photo together before she heads on her way. I wouldn't see her again until a couple miles before the turnaround.

The last push up this climb was not only extra steep, but had some nice slippery mud and slush to add a little side of insult to go with this big serving of injury.

We finally made it to the top.

While the big climb was done, we would still be rolling along between 8300-8500ft along this fire road through mud and snow before getting to head back down.

I was feeling the elevation aplenty at this point. It reminded me of my TRT50 race last year where I also experienced problems around 8500ft. Any amount of effort would send my heart-rate soaring and bring a nice dose of light-headedness on. I really didn't want to exert too much effort so early in this race as the idea of returning to this state with an additional 50 miles on my body was starting to creep into my psyche.

As you can see, I am definitely up above 8500ft....

...and definitely NOT happy.

We, of course, eventually headed back down, back over the ridge and the 1000ft drop down to Dry Fork aid station. Here, at just under mile 30, I decided to take a little bit of time and gather myself. I found that I actually felt pretty good despite my struggle shortly before. Knowing that I felt fine down at 7500ft meant that I wouldn't have to worry about elevation until the return trip. I put it out of my mind and focused on getting ready for the coming evening.

The weather was good so I just switched into a simply long shirt and stuck with whatever other gear I had in my pack. I didn't have my normal Red Bull and Ensure in my drops. We did stop on the drive down at a store that turned out to be on an Indian reservation. While they didn't have Ensure, they had Slim Fast which looked similar enough so I grabbed some. I downed about half of this before my stomach wretched. I dumped the rest, but my stomach wasn't happy. I had forgotten to bring my prescription acid reflux medication so the idea of having a bad stomach through the night was something that gave me a bit of concern. I tried to keep such concerns out of my head, but somewhere in the woods shortly before Cow Camp, I became distracted by something to the left of the trail and found myself in the dirt. Luckily it was pretty soft soil and while my left knee hurt a little afterwards, I was able to shake it off and run normally after a few strides.

At Cow Camp, I refueled and still felt OK. The sun was going down and I was looking forward to the upcoming rolling hills followed by the big downhill. As I enjoyed the next section in terms of the running terrain, my physical condition was starting to become a little troubling in other ways. I started to experience some intestinal issues (which I believe were due to that fateful Slim Fast) necessitating a number of trips into the woods to do what bears do there. My acid reflux was also beginning to act up.

As night descended, I thought about my wife. I took a picture of myself as I said "good night" to her in my head.

Ooops! I forgot to smile...

OK, so there are not more photos it got dark and I ended up dropping the camera in my bag at the Footbridge aid station. So, the rest of this report is probably filled with a lot more whining than it is beautiful scenery. If you're bored by incessant runner blathering, just scroll to the bottom for verification that I finished.

I did really enjoy the fast downhill leading to this major aid station, but my stomach issues were not letting up. I wasn't experiencing nausea, but simply pain whenever I tried to eat more than just a tiny bit. I stuck to broth and nibbling, but probably wasn't getting the calories I needed and my energy was pretty low through the night.

A note about Footbridge. With the altered course, they had us do a little out and back to a road here before heading on through the canyon. This mean that people were coming in from three different directions. The front runners passed by on my way down here, but it was like Grand Central Station with the faster folks coming in from one direction, those a few miles ahead coming back from the turnaround and then us runners just down from Bear Camp. I decided to deal with my drop bag after the out-and-back and so I headed out after (yet) another necessary trip to the porta-john.

We were originally warned that it might be very cold during this section, but it was anything but at the aid station. I asked around about the temperature and nobody had heard anything about cold temps at the turnaround. I stuck with just my long sleeve and didn't even put my gloves on. The section through the canyon was interesting. Much more technical and rocky and probably quite beautiful during the daylight. I think the canyon walls captured the heat of the day and radiated it because I was pretty warm the whole time. I was still having difficulty eating and was trying to stick to small portions and things I could suck on. Experimentation led to some rather strange tastes. At one point I was chewing a bit of beef jerky (which I never eat) and sucking on a Jolly Rancher at the same time. I also found that eating Peanut M&Ms, one at a time, worked pretty well for me.

I probably would have enjoyed this section much more if I had been feeling better. The varied terrain kept it interesting and there were lots of ups and downs. The Little Bighorn River could be heard rushing along the whole time. In fact, I almost ended up in the river at one point. I stupidly didn't change my flashlight batteries at Footbridge and they ran out part way to the next aid station. I was going slow so I switched to my little mini-light backup. This was right at a section where the trail goes down by the river through some marshy stuff. When I found myself right at the rivers edge with no obvious trail in front, I backtracked and sat on a rock to switch batteries. The rest of this section was pretty uneventful. The final climb to the turnaround was pretty relentless, but afterwards I felt relatively good. On the way back to Footbridge, the sun started coming up which is always nice to see, but it is usually where I start getting tired being a night person. At half way, Cathedral Rock aid station, I was complaining about my stomach and someone offered me an Aciphex. It's not the medication I am on, but I was in the past so I was glad to take them up on it. It was sort of like a lifeline at this point as I knew this second day had a LOT of hard climbing in store for me.

By the time I returned to Footbridge, my stomach was starting to feel better. I had some more soup broth and stuck with the single M&Ms as I did a quick shirt swap and headed out for the section that they call "The Wall" on the course description. This is a long, steep uphill to Bear Camp and beyond. I just focused on my breathing and went as slow as necessary to keep from pushing. We would climb well over 2000ft during the next 3-4 miles before reaching the rolling hills into Cow Camp. I few people passed me right at the start of the climb, but I was surprised that more did not as I was really going slow. A couple more caught up at the aid station and passed during the next bit, but I held off a last few just before the final climb as I didn't want them in front of me once we hit some downhill. I was aching to stretch my legs out some. The rolling hills a welcome change, but it was here that I first noticed my Achilles. It wasn't bad, but I could feel it a little when running the flat or slight uphills. Luckily, it didn't bother me on the downhills as running these is just about my only talent in this sport. This was also the section where the majority of the 50 milers were heading out looking fresh and fast. They were all so kind offering encouraging words and offering to move aside. I always insisted they take the trail as it wasn't going to make much of a difference in my time to walk beside the trail as they passed.

Reaching Cow Camp, I took a breather in prep for what was ahead. Everything felt reasonably OK, but after that long climb, I was pretty sure a sub-30 hour finish was not going to happen so I didn't rush it. The 50K runners were now coming down from Riley Point. I envied them getting to take that loop in the opposite direction. Heading out for that beast of a climb back to the dreaded 8500ft level, I returned to my slow, metered pace letting a few people pass me right at the start. The 50K runners were even more encouraging and more insistent at giving up the trail. I can only imagine what I must have looked like at this point. I was again surprised that more people didn't pass me beyond the first bit. I even caught one or two and saw one woman sitting with he pacer hovering over her. She apparently had breathing trouble and I don't think she continued beyond that spot. I believe that the vast majority of people back at my time here were other sea-level or flat-lander folks like myself. A number of them confirmed this as we all struggled up that final steep (and now even messier) bit of climb. I started having some breathing issues of my own as I noticed wheezing sounds coming from my chest. This was probably the slowest 3 miles I have ever gone in a race. I think it took me 2 full hours. It was pretty much step-step-gasp-rest the whole way up.

I finally made it to the peak where I took a bunch of the nasty Hammer Gel they had there filled my bladder and handheld and then drank my fill. My hydration needs seemed to be through the roof. At this point sub-30 was long gone and I didn't even want to think about projecting a finish time. I was just going to take it easy the whole way through up here because even when I got back down to Dry Fork, it would still be nearly 20 miles to go. I later thought that maybe I should have tested pushing myself up there as a test, but that just the normal revisionist tendencies that come about after forgetting what I felt like after that climb.

At Dry Fork I was at first ready to just get in and out. I knew I probably should change my socks as my shoes were very wet and muddy. I was about to go when a woman offered me a foot wash. I had no time goals here. Who was I to reject an offer for a woman to wash my feet?! I knew there was a reason I didn't want to remove those socks. My left foot looked OK, but the big toenail was dead as a doorknob. My right foot looked like a prune as my big toe had gone right through the sock and gotten soaked. A good washing and change of socks and I was ready. Then, who came into the aid station, but Catra and Andy. I chatted with Catra for a bit when she offered the idea of heading out all together. Again, I had no more time goal so I took her up on it.

Four of us headed out of Dry Fork together as some guy (whose name I can't recall) had clung onto Catra coming into the aid station. We stuck together an easy, but not totally leisurely, pace through the Upper Sheep aid station. I went ahead to run the downhill and then planned to be caught on the next uphill when I saw it. The last steep climb on the course called "The Haul" is only about 500 ft. Since we were around the 7000ft mark, I decided to test my ability to push a descent climb at this elevation. I pushed a good powerhike pace up the hill passing two 50K runners on the way. I was surprised that I still had the energy and began questioning whether I should have been pushing earlier. The top of this climb led to a long downhill that would loose more than 2000ft before the next aid station. I couldn't resist!

I let it go all the way down flying down the first part. It became steeper and I ran it until I felt sharp pains in my toes. I eased up a little bit and then it flattened out. It became a bit marshy leading up to one of the creeks. It was small and so I just jumped across without much thought. My landing was left than perfect and I felt a pull on my right Achilles. I felt it a bit during the next few paces, but as the trail continued downhill, I was able to continue on without trouble all the way into the Lower Sheep aid station. I was suddenly feeling quite good. Seven and a half miles, mostly gradual downhill, lower elevation. A sub-32 hour was in the bag and something closer to 31 was quite possible if I felt strong to the finish. I took some fruit at the aid station and headed out.

I could feel my Achilles a bit more during the next half mile. Then, as the trail leveled out, a shooting pain went through it and made me pull up. I messaged the calf and around the ankle trying to loosen it. I tried to go on and the pain shot back. After a little few more failed attempts of trying to run only to pull up limping, I tried some walking. I found I was able to walk without pain if I maintained my foot at a right angle. Basically, if I pushed off with my toes (like when you run) it hurt quite a bit, but if I kept it in a fixed position it was OK. After a little bit, I tried to use my bandanna to hold my foot in this neutral position to enable me to proceed without pain. While I was doing so, some wonderful guys from race sponsor Sport Spot happened upon me and one of them had a nice big roll of tape. He taped up my foot to hold it in position while the other guy found a stick for me to use. I didn't have words enough to express my appreciation for these two trail angels. I was able to continue down the trail without pain and it turned out I didn't even need the stick.

I made it to the next aid station from which is was just over 5 miles to the finish. It would be pretty easy terrain from there on out, but I was going to be moving at a 3mph pace at best. Those last miles were excruciating. Not only was I moving slowly and unable to speed up, but it was dirt then gravel then paved road. It made it seem even longer to be traveling along a straight and uninteresting road at a snail's pace after all that time spent in the midst of mountain beauty. Pretty much everyone I passed during those downhill miles caught and passed me by even though some were also walking. Catra and Andy come on through and then Brad Neiss came around just before the final turn. It was actually good to see Brad as I had no idea of how he and Jeff were doing back there. He kicked it in the last 1/2 mile as he was happy to be breaking 32:30. I did what I could to improve my pace, but must have looked quite pitiful limping along as fast as I could.

Finally, crossing the road and around into the park where we had met for the pre-race meeting. The final path is along the edge of the park where everyone can see you coming and cheer you in. Apparently, those camping near by joined along with the cheering. Then, when you get close they had a bagpiper playing near the finish. This is the part where I really wished I could have kicked it in and crossed the finish line, or at least get it over with sooner. I told the bagpiper maybe he should play "taps" for me. Catra was waiting at the finish with camera in hand so I totally hammed it up and hopped across on one foot as fast as I could.

It was good to be done.


We hung out in the park and partook of the post-race BBQ. Able to eat now without trouble, I scarfed down a sausage and some various other foods. We were all pretty tired so we headed out before too long snapping one final picture before leaving for our hotel.

Other than the tape on my ankle, you'd never no I had a bad race from that picture.

The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful. When I removed the tape I was assured that I hadn't just wimped out by the pain whenever I pointed my toes. I put it on ice for the night. Other than that, I also had some pretty bad chest congestion, coughing up quite a bit from my lungs the rest of the day. I felt OK, the next morning at the awards breakfast, but knew that I would be out for at least a week. I was pretty sure that the Achilles was just a strain as there was no pop or anything when it happened and no redness or swelling had come on.

It probably sounds like I was more disappointed in this race than I really am. The final 5 miles were definitely disheartening, but in the end everything else that happened during the race was just par for the course (so to speak). In fact, as I said when I started this post, this was certainly the most beautiful race I've ever done. I wish I'd had my camera the second day as well since things often look different heading in the opposite direction.

After watching the Oregonians take almost all the awards home (other than Brad's award for the 3rd place man under 30), I picked up my own belt buckle. Sitting there in the plaza the previously mentioned "post-race amnesia" did kick in a little and I found myself thinking that how I might do better if I returned on the normal course and with better course knowlege and ...

The test run went well covering 9 miles at an easy pace. I followed it up on Sunday with 19-1/2 hilly, hot and (surprisingly) humid miles in Purisima Creek. No pain at all in the run. A little tightness on Monday, but nothing to worry about. Continued ice, message, stretching and easy running during the week. I completed close to 23 miles on Mission Peak yesterday to cap nearly 50 for this past week. Recovery complete.

Time to get ready for what's next!


Victoria said...

So now that I've seen a picture of you-- I remember you passing me at Ohlone. Not clearly, because it was um, hot and painful, but I do remember you going by me at some point. Nice race-- and your pictures (plus Klas Eklof's Hardrock ones) are making me think that I should try to aim for one of those 100 races in the next 5 years...

Anonymous said...

Steve, great job of hanging in there with those tough conditions. Thanks for writing the report and also for posting photos, it makes it so much easier to visualize the course. I'm glad to hear that the achilles tendon turned into nothing more than a bad 5 miles at the end of the race! chrrrris

Sarah said...

Great report and FABULOUS photos, Steve! Thanks!

And glad to hear that your recovery is going so well.

See you soon!

Sarah (PCTR)

Eudemus said...

Thanks for the positive comments Victoria. It looks like we have a couple more common races on our calendars. You'll have to make sure and say "hello" now that you recognize me :-)

Eudemus said...


Thanks for the encouragement. It was definitely a tough race. Very different challenges than C2M, though. I need to start bringing a camera to all my races.

Eudemus said...

Thanks Sarah. I don't think it was my most inspired report, but I do like the pictures. Looking forward to seeing you guys at HH. The only downside of doing more races in fabulous places like Bighorn is that I haven't gotten to do as many PCTR events this year!

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

Congrats, again, Steve. Great photos, went through them all. I have to go to bed now and can't read the text for another week, but promise I will.

olga said...

Man, that's a lot of pictures!!! Good to see you there, Steve, and awesome to talk things!