Wednesday, October 03, 2012

My body tells me no

2012 Bear 100 race report, part two

There are few times I enjoy less than the morning hours before a long race. Especially summertime running ultras, which all seem to think it's great to start at least an hour before the inky black hour that comes before dawn. Setting my alarm for 4:30 is sleeping in, and when I finally do roll out of bed, I experience muddled panic as I try to remember what order I need to apply chamois cream (which I use as body lube), Hydropel, underwear, tights, shirt, arm warmers, socks, shoes, and gaters. At 4:38 a.m., it's less intuitive than you'd think.

I managed to stuff down a dry pumpkin cookie and a bottle of purple smoothie, which of course made my already churning stomach lurch and groan. The predawn air in Logan wasn't cold at all; in fact it was mildly warm, which foretold of oppressive heat that was sure to follow in the sunlit hours. I was hot and nauseated and couldn't shake the dread that I was about to set out for a 36-hour hard effort on my feet, and this was likely the best I was going to feel for the next three days.

The race started and 230 runners took to the deserted streets of a quiet Utah neighborhood that could have easily passed for the neighborhood where I grew up. I jogged along with the crowd and gazed up at the darkened windows, imagining what I would have thought when I was a child — the kind of insomniac child who often gazed out my window into the empty night — and suddenly saw 230 headlamp-bobbing runners go by. The image made me smile.

The smile didn't last long once we hit the singletrack and I realized I was probably too far up in the pack. The first climb out of the gate gained 3,500 feet in five miles, and the narrow trail funneled all 230 runners into a miles-long Conga line. Usually I fall farther back in the line than I'd like to be and have to plod along at a too-slow-but-probably-wise pace. But this morning I was moving faster than I preferred, actually a lot faster. Sweat poured down my temple and the still-cool air of Dry Canyon seared my throat, but I couldn't slow down lest I get run over by all the runners still behind me. Still, this felt like way too much exertion for this early in the race. I thought I might puke. I kinda hoped I would, because at least that would give me an excuse to step off the trail until the last runner passed.

Dawn finally began to creep over the horizon, casting pink light across the Cache Valley. As soon as I started pulling out my camera to shoot photos, the runner behind me decided to strike up a conversation. I admit I was feeling antisocial and replied with terse one-syllable answers for a while, but as he persisted I eventually warmed up to the conversation. Turns out my line mate wasn't even a competitor in the Bear 100, but a pacer for a 64-year-old man from Missouri who was behind him. In some races, runners over 60 years old are allowed pacers for the entire 100 miles, and it sounded like this pacer had signed up to go the whole way. The pacer was from Colorado, some town above 7,000 feet, and talked about numerous well-known races like he was an old pro at them all. He kept referring to the man behind him as "my runner," and talked about him like he wasn't even there to respond for himself, although he never did. Occasionally the pacer yelled back at his runner to eat a gel. Every time he did this, I thought about eating some of my own food, but I still felt pretty sick.

We dropped into a long drainage and continued with a persistent running stride up the next climb to Logan Peak. The exertion level was still too high for me, but the Bear 100 is a race and I guess that's just what you do in a race — stay with the people you happened to start with as long as you can. Pacer continued to chat amicably with me but I found myself completely unable to respond — I was breathing too hard. Finally I blurted out, "Damn ... it. I ... thought I'd ... be ... able to breathe ... up here. I guess ... I lost ... it." I was referring the ten days I spent in Italy, when I slept at 3,800 feet and climbed as high as 11,000 feet during day hikes. I'd hoped the acclimation would stick, but then I came back to California for another ten days, and that was probably long enough to turn back to a sea-level wimp all over again. Pacer from Colorado had no idea what I was talking about.

As more reasonable morning hours approached, I began to feel better. Although oxygen-starved, the air at 9,000 feet was still cool and the autumn colors had to be near their peak. Whole groves of aspen trees had turned electric yellow, and the brown hillsides were dotted with maples the color of fire engines. Although still running, I slowed my stride to a shuffle so I could gaze at the Technicolor show. The leaf-peeping shuffle resulted in numerous near face-plants, including a spectacular 45-degree-angle, windmill-arm, flailing stumble, so closely saved that the guy behind me called out, "Nice catch!"

After 1,500 feet of descent, the trail veered onto narrow singletrack, and I realized with trepidation that this was probably the first 4,000-foot downhill I'd seen on the elevation profile. I have coordination issues and struggle mightily with any descents that fit into the steep, long, or technical categories. This one was all three. Beautiful multicolor maple leaves lined the trail and carpeted the ground, but I could only shuffle along and stress about all the rocks they were hiding. Soon the trail veered out of a shallow drainage and began to cut across the mountain on a steep sideslope. The slope dropped at a near-vertical angle to my right, which I call my "dabbing foot." I feel considerably less comfortable with right-side exposure because I tend to fall directly into it. I convinced myself that if I accidentally stepped off the trail, those wimpy maple branches wouldn't hold me and I'd tumble hundreds of feet to my death. It sounds silly to write about it now, but I'd whipped myself into a near panic about the whole thing. My perceived sense of balance on foot is really that bad.

Of course, many people who had been behind me passed like I was standing still. It was a long, swooping descent through the trees — the kind of singletrack most trail runners live for. I stepped precariously off the trail every time a runner went by, and got grumpier about it until the Colorado pacer and his runner came flying past. Runner yelled out, "Love running in the mountains!" like a giddy 4-year-old kid. Colorado pacer had just told me this guy was from the "flat" part of Missouri and did most of his training on treadmills. Why was he such a good downhill runner when I was so bad at it? It wasn't fair! Well, it was probably fair, but it certainly wasn't confidence-inspiring. It's situations like these that remind me why I'm still not a runner. Really, I'm not. I'm practicing running, I'm working on my weaknesses, and I continue to truly enjoy traveling long distances on foot. But I'm not a runner, not yet at least. "What the hell are you doing at the Bear 100?" I said out loud with hope that the self-depreciating question would cause me to laugh at myself and I'd feel better. It only made me feel like an idiot.

Back down at 5,000 feet, it was hot and dusty. I finally made an extended stop at an aid station to eat some food, which was long overdue given I was now twenty miles and who knows how many hours into this thing. Freshly cut fruit and homemade zucchini bread did lift my spirits, and I started up the next long climb to Richards and Ricks double summits. There was even a thousand-foot descent and climb between the two — but there are so many thousand-foot-plus drops and climbs in the Bear 100 that you lose track of them early in the race. All you need to know about the Bear 100 is it's a hundred miles and you're either descending or climbing, often steeply. Despite the hot sun and already dead-seeming legs, I still loved climbing.

Danni surprised me at the mile 30 aid station, as I thought she'd probably work and hopefully sleep during the day before meeting me at mile 52. She drove out early to crew for me, but at that point I didn't need anything. I was simply excited about reaching that point, and also a little incredulous. Every time I hit the 50K mark of a longer race, I can't help but think about how "You've already done your 50K and you still have to go for a really long time!" Usually in foot races, I get to stop at 50K. So I always feel a hint of injustice when I can't.

After I crested the aptly named Mudd Flat summit, my already marginal energy level plummeted. I began to feel woozy and even less coordinated, but by the time my common sense screamed at me to "eat a damn fruit snack," the bonk had hit my stomach. Ickiness, nausea, and calorie-deficit-induced feelings of hopelessness and despair all washed over me as the sun sank lower on the horizon. I had, yet again, run for 11 hours on the kind of diet that might barely cut it for surviving a six-hour 50K. I haven't done a long run yet where some kind of a bonk didn't hit around mile fifty, so I'm not exactly sure what I expect at this point.

Danni met me about a half mile from the aid station. "Am I going too slow?" I called out as she approached.

"No, you're doing great," she replied.

"I'm going so slow," I lamented. "My legs can barely move."

I admitted my bonk and she promised to help me rebuild at Temple Fork, which was still only 45 miles into the course and the very bottom of yet another 3,500-foot climb. "You have tons of time," she tried to assure me.

"Do I?" I asked. "I don't know."

A big part of me was thinking that this less than half way and I was doomed, but I clung to Beat's words of wisdom that I shouldn't ever think about finishing the race, only about continuing to the next aid station. And I did really want to make it to Tony Grove.

"Do they have chicken soup and ginger ale down there?" I asked Danni.

"I think they do," she said.

I felt better already.