Thursday, December 17, 2015

Thoughts on the Grand Slam of UltraRunning and on Running 100-milers

Buckles from each race and the Grand Slam trophy

This post has been long in the making.  I began writing it about two weeks after finishing the Grand Slam but never pulled the trigger to publish it and kept changing and adding to what I was writing.  So without further ado, here's my report on the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning.

It is now just under 4 weeks since finishing the Wasatch Front 100 and adding my name to the list of 281 other finishers of the Grand Slam of UltraRunning since they began tracking this race series in 1986.  I don't think they could have had many others because Vermont began in 1989 and replaced Old Dominion and there have been other races like the Arkansas Traveler that have replaced some of the four I completed due to fires, cancellations, etc.  As a refresher, The Grand Slam of UltraRunning is a challenge of finishing four of the oldest 100 milers in the United States in the same year.  Western States 100 (California), Vermont 100, Leadville 100 (Colorado), Wasatch 100 (Utah).  The way the races are spaced out usually makes it 11 weeks from the start of the first race to the start of the last race.  So it isn't like doing one 100 mile race in January, April, August, December.  You start at the end of June (27th for me) and finish the first half of September (finished on September 12th, but started on the 11th).  The races are all mountain races, meaning there is a good amount of vertical ascent and descent throughout the race and it takes place in and around the mountains of that area.  The NYC Marathon, a "hilly" and tough road race to PR gains 885 feet over its 26.2 miles.  Divide 100 by 26.2 and multiply that by 885 and you would get 3,338 feet of gain by doing the NYC marathon equivalent 100-miler.  Western States has 17,949/22,905 (ascent/descent), Vermont has 14,160/14,160, Leadville has 18,168/18,168, and Wasatch has 26,882/26,131.  The elevation profile for all but Leadville I took from Stan Jensen's amazing website while using Leadville's official Athlete Guide for that elevation data.  To me, Vermont doesn't have the same mountain feel as the other three do.  High altitude is a factor in all but Vermont.  The average altitude at the four races based on my simple calculations are as follows:

Western States: 4,000 feet although the first 31 miles average 7,000 feet elevation.
Vermont: 1,400 feet
Leadville: 10,150 feet
Wasatch: 7,800 feet

Those are averages for the entire race.  I truly believe the altitude issue puts sea level runners like myself at a disadvantage.  However, we know what we are getting into when we sign up for the races so while it is a valid reason for performing slower than you would on similar terrain and elevation change at a sea level race (like Vermont or Old Dominion) you still have to suck it up and finish the race.  It just means that you have to adjust your expectations of your finishing times and add at least 100 minutes from what you would expect normally.  Again, this is from the point of view of a mid pack or slower runner in my opinion.

Weather is always a factor in 100 mile races.  Very rarely are conditions ideal for the entire race.  It may be cool in the morning but then gets hot during the day only to feel very cold at night or some other combination.  Sometimes you are exposed to heavy rain and wind, or snow and stretches of sticky or slippery mud on the course.  In the case of two of the races this year, temperatures were near record highs, while one was somewhat warmer than normal and the other was on the whole nice temperatures (below average) compared to normal.

Advice for someone taking on the Grand Slam:

The day before Western States, a few of the Grand Slam hopefuls met up with Jimmy Dean Freeman, a Grand Slam finisher and a very good runner and also a former TNT coach in California.  His advice for us was solid in my opinion and this is what it was.  Take each race as if that is the only race you are doing that year.  In other words, take on that race and plan the race strategy as if there are no other 100-milers you have to run.  So don't feel like you have to go slower each race in order to make it through all of them.  Just look at what Ian Sharman and Nick Clark did in 2013.  These elite runners went all out.  In fact, Ian and Nick's placing in the 4 races were: Ian - 4th, 4th, 1st, 2nd   Nick - 6th, 3rd, 2nd, 1st.  So to say you have to run each race conservatively is just false.  However, I would say that you have to have a smart race strategy and if something goes wrong, you must then give up on the goal times and just tough it and and survive to finish that race and continue on with the Grand Slam.

The most important thing aside from the race itself is what to do in between races.  Here, recovery is the most important thing and not trying to get any "training" in.  If you've made it to the sstart line of Western States, there is no more training you can possibly do to get more fit without risking overtraining or being more tired than you should be for the next races.  That doesn't mean you should sit on a couch for the time in between races.  Active recovery, so long as you aren't experiencing any pain is key.  Walking, hiking, easy spinning, etc. will help you recover faster.  Lots of running (including slow long runs), speedwork, hill repeats, etc. are things you should avoid or at the least, not feel compelled to do in between races of the Grand Slam.  Take that first week after the race off from running, but go walking.  Then go out for a short (30-60 minutes) run and see how you feel.  Then you are basically back in the taper period.  Don't worry at all about your fitness.  If you finished Western States, you are fit!

Below are my summaries of each race for me.  If you want to read the full detailed description of the race, click on the full blog post link in the summary.

Summary of my thoughts of how each race went:
Western States:
Full blog post:  The course was much harder than I expected going in.  This was my fault because I took the elite finishing times and listened to so many comments about the course being "runnable".  I think that because of the intense heat this year, my opinion of the race may overstate how hard it was compared to a day of milder temperatures, although who knows how I would have felt with a snow year.   Still, I was very surprised by the amount of climbing that went on in the race.  I expected flat to downhill after the first 50K and especially after Devil's thumb at 48.5, with some very small or short uphills after mile 62 or even mile 70.  That was not the case.  I think I would love to try this race out again to see if I can luck out with the weather and if not, to instead just run it smarter now that I know how the course goes.  Western States is a beautiful course for the first 35 miles and still scenic after that, just not big mountain views.  It is managed incredibly well with fantastic aid stations and volunteers catering to your every need.  The volunteers saved me a tremendous amount of suffering.  I believe it should be a race that all 100-mile runners should attempt once, similar to running the NYC marathon and Boston for marathon road runners.

Regarding my race; looking back on it now, I am disappointed with my finish time of 26:52.  I know I am capable of running that race faster and going sub-24 hours.  I don't know if I could do it in a year with similar hot weather but I would like another crack at this race.  The heat just destroyed me and I tried to make that up on the downhills on the switchback descent before Devil's Thumb and that ended up trashing my legs for later.  The way I felt that day, I just knew I could not do sub-24 this attempt. So maybe I'll put in for the lottery again some other time.

Full blog post:
This race is what runable means.  The course is not technical and I easily wore my hybrid road/trail type shoes (Hoka One One - Stinson ATR) on the course.  The scenery this year was not so nice because of the overcast and foggy weather, but that also kept the temperatures down.  Compared with the other three races, this one is not as pretty in my opinion.  It may be a different type of pretty for some people that like running alongside farmland and seeing vast hills of green.  This race is great because of their aid station placement.  They have food and/or water aid stations just about every 3-5 miles and I was able to run a lot of the race with just two handheld bottles and a waist pack for other supplies.  It is still a very well run race and has a homey feel to it.  The new race director, Amy Rusiecki has done a brilliant job taking on the duties.Vermont for me this year is like the way I would want and even expect Western States to go if I run it again.  It was my second crack at Vermont, having ran it in 2011 as my first 100-miler.  Back then, I ran 25:20ish. This time, I was hoping for a sub-24 finish but also thought I could run 20-22 hours depending on weather conditions.  I wasn't sure though how well I could really do because it was so soon after Western States.  The weather was kept cool until about 3PM thanks to overcast conditions.  We got lucky.  I didn't feel great the first 10 miles but then things started to come together as I chatted with other runners.  I had a rough patch around mile 72-80 and just pushed onward after that to a 21:38 finish.    I was very proud of my finish time at Vermont this year, especially because it was just 3 weeks after my poor performance at Western States.  Vermont got me thinking I've got some potential and the good races I've had in the past were not flukes.

Full blog post:
Leadville sucks for runners that are not acclimated to high altitude.  Some people from sea level still manage amazing times but I have no idea how they do that. Whether it is because they sleep or train in a Hypoxic tent, or are just freaks of nature, there is no doubt about it, the altitude issue at Leadville is a major factor in this race.  There are two very tough climbs back-to-back and some other good ones in the race but the entirety of the race feels so much harder because it is over 10,000 feet in altitude and in many cases 11,000 (and 2 cases 12,000) feet.  The race is very crowded and aid stations are spaced apart 9-11 miles in most cases.  These make the race tough.  There is some very beautiful scenery along parts of the course though.  Weather usually ranges wildly in the mountains of Colorado.  It can get hot during the day and freezing at night.  Storms can also roll through.

Regarding my race, I went into it with high expectations because of my Vermont performance and I had experience at Leadville two years prior.  I don't know if it was the heat or something else but I just was feeling down and depressed for the first 60 miles with a few ups here and there but I honestly was debating dropping out of the race at just about every aid station until mile 60.  My eyes fogged up which made me slow down when my body felt like it could have gone faster the last 15 miles didn't help my overall time.  I finished about an hour faster than 2013 but I was hoping to finish 90-120 minutes faster if possible.  It just was not in the cards that day and I may just need everything to go right to get a sub 25-hour finish there.  So another race that I was somewhat disappointed with my finishing time.  I did meet an awesome runner in Regis Shivers who paced me the last 40 miles so that I finished faster than I would have if I was on my own and felt much better the last part of that race.

Full blog post:
Wasatch is the beast of the series but it is Beauty and the Beast, or as their motto goes, "100 Miles of Heaven and Hell".  This course is so tough but they give you plenty of time to finish, 36 hours compared to 30 for the other 3 races in the Slam.  All the while you are surrounded by incredible scenery.  I can't help but remember all of the times I just marveled at my surroundings and felt so privileged to be able to run this race.  The climbs in this race are constant.  If you ask why there are so many hills or why are we climbing again the answer is always, "This is Wasatch! What did you expect?!".  Like the other real big mountain races, weather can vary tremendously.  We were unlucky to have a very hot year. I think one of the 2 or 3 hottest on record.  That didn't stop it from being cold at night on some parts of the course.  The race is organized very well and the volunteers there are great and the entire atmosphere makes it a race you would want to come back to year after year.

My race there, like two of the prior races in the Grand Slam didn't go as planned.  The race was tough but I struggled more than I ever have in other races.  This was the first race that I forced myself to take a nap break.  I actually took two. One for 5 minutes and another for 15 minutes.  Maybe it was because I knew this was the last race to do and I wanted to make sure I could finish and time wasn't important after realizing my day wasn't going well.  The risk of doing something stupid by not taking that nap break may have been too large if the nap was what I needed to finish the race. Yet I know that if I could have broken 30 hours, I would have been so much happier.  I think I can break 30 hours there and maybe I'll come back another year to give that a shot.  It was such a beautiful course. . .

Summary thoughts on the Grand Slam:
The Grand Slam is a unique challenge.  It's not an arbitrary set of 100-mile races.  The history of it certainly has its appeal.  Given that 42 people this year attempted this challenge and only 17 finished makes the feeling of completing this challenge even more special.  That is not a knock on those that didn't make it through all four.  Quite the opposite.  It made me realize just how difficult each one of the races are individually; that really good runners can fail to finish one for so many different reasons.  Taking on the Grand Slam is an expensive adventure.  Especially from the East coast.  There are ways to make it less expensive but obviously, it is something to consider if you want to attempt it.  With getting into Western States so difficult now, I would guess that the amount of people going for the Grand Slam will continue to be large.  There are always people doing crazy races and adventures that will top what the Grand Slam is.  There were 3 runners who were going for the Original Six Hundred Challenge (one threw Badwater into the mix as well) and someone (Ed Ettinghousen) did 42, 100 mile races in 2014 so there will almost always be a level of crazy that surpasses what you think is crazy and what you do. That doesn't diminish what you are doing.  Any time you challenge yourself to do something difficult, it's worth doing because that is how we grow stronger.  I would strongly encourage people that are considering the challenge to go for it.  The main reason is that you never know what life circumstances may come up that prevents you from ever being able to take on the challenge again. So if it is something you aren't sure about doing and you can work around the financial aspect of it, you should definitely give it a shot.

Thoughts on 100-mile races:
It is Wednesday, October 7th and 3 weeks and 5 days since I started the last race of the Grand Slam and up until about 2 days ago, I had no desire to do another 100-miler next year.  I was going to enter the Hardrock 100 lottery but because my sister is getting married the weekend before it, I probably can't do the race because I would not have time to acclimate well enough to so I don't get sick with the very high altitude for that race.  On Sunday, 3 weeks and 1 day from finishing Wasatch, I ran an easy trail half marathon and had so much fun with the shorter distance race.  This brings up the question of why on Earth would I subject myself to 18-36 (or more) hours of torture when I can just run for 1:30-2 hours or maybe longer depending on how hard the course is?  Oddly enough, on my walk home from work on Monday October 5th, I thought about doing a mountain 200-miler.  Why not take a week off from work and spend 3-4 days of that running?  Then I thought how terrible I will feel at mile 130 and decided to hold off on that brilliant thought of planning a 200-mile race.  I thought about running a 48-hour event or even a 24-hour race but those types of events haven't worn on me yet.  I did however, feel like I could do another mountain 100 miler.  The Bighorn 100 (Wyoming) came into the picture and while I'm not yet sold on the 100-mile distance there, things are moving in that direction (note, it's been nearly two months since I began writing this and I will run Rocky Raccoon 100 in Texas this February).  I'm still trying to figure it all out.  How can I go from never wanting to do another 100-miler again to thinking it may be fun to do another tough mountain 100-miler, and then probably signing up for one?  Part of it is that dimmer switch in our brain that slowly lowers that remembrance of how painful and tough the race was and replaces it with the amazing views and happy feelings from when we finished the race.  The pure joy of NOT having to run anymore somehow makes its way into the mind and confuses it into being a joy to run the race and be at mile 68 and sleep-walking along the trail and still being 12 hours from finishing!  Maybe it is that same idea that suckered me into it in the first place; it would be a fun adventure so why not give it a go?  Well, I've given it a go 12 times (14 if you count my two DNFs - 1 was a fat-ass run, the other I bailed early because I signed up the day of the race and mentally wasn't ready for it).  Doing a race in a new beautiful location (Bighorn Mountains or the San Juans) is the excuse for even considering it right now.  However, I have also begun to debate putting my name in the lottery to do Western States again (update - I did not put my name into this lottery for 2016), just to  have a better performance than this year and I would consider doing Wasatch again because it was so amazingly scenic.  The latter thought though brings me back to the counter-argument of why do I have to do a 100 mile race to see beautiful scenery?!  Can't I just take a trip out to those mountain ranges and do some day hikes?  Why worry about cut-off times and drop bag contents when I can just go out with a backpack for 6-10 hours and enjoy the short and very easy day?

I used to do Ironman triathlons but gave them up after 2008 because I didn't really enjoy the bike training as much and despised the swim training (I came out of retirement in 2012 to run the NYC Ironman since it was in my backyard and I wanted to see if I could do it without doing any bike or swim training).   So I had a reason for giving up that sport.  I wasn't happy overall with it and it was also expensive to participate in them.  I'm very happy running though.  So maybe I will stop doing these races when running longer doesn't make me feel as happy anymore.  I find that hard to see with so many friends now getting into ultra distance events and meeting so many great people at these races all of the time.  Unlike swimming and cycling, you chat with the other runners during the race and while training and it is a much more social sport than the other two disciplines of a triathlon.  Therefore, it must come down to enjoyment.  Do I enjoy these races and training for these races?  The answer may not be a straightforward "yes" but I think the weight of the "yes" is higher than the "no", with the main reason being that I do enjoy running.  It usually calms my mind and releases stress and just feels good to me.  This isn't the case for everyone so it won't apply to everyone.  Going for a 45-100 minute run is something I don't usually think of as a chore.  Even when I'm not training for a specific race, I would still want to go out and run.  The question still remains though, why must I run 100 miles?

These are the questions that I can't give better answers for than simply in a masochistic way, I love that challenge and for now, that outweighs the other reasons for not doing the race. I also feel privileged to be able to run these races.  I'm lucky enough to be able to do this as a passion.  I know of people who can't do this because of illness, injury, or other reasons and they would love to be able to do something.  So I run for those that can't.   For example, at one of Team in Training's practices, we had two mission moment speakers which were sad stories.  It got me to think that I'm just lucky to be able to run and enjoy this sport.  So in essence, I do these races because I can run, because at some point in my life I will not be able to do it any longer.  I'm not forced to run, but running is a force on me and my life.

On the psychology of running, I was recently interviewed by a former TNT alumni for an article in the New Yorker.  He also interviewed some incredible stellar long distance athletes. Here's a link to that article.

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