Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Western States 2019 - Did you bring a puffy jacket?

Well, maybe not a puffy jacket, but at least a hoodie. For the first time since the abnormally cold year of 2012, I needed a jacket in the evening. It didn't rain, but it was overcast for a lot of the day. It was not hard to make a case for a puffy jacket.

For the ninth year in a row, I managed to weasel my way into the Last Chance aid station at the Western States 100 trail race. It's located at mile 43.3 in a remote area with no cell service.

There's not even a Starbucks.

It's all about the ice (not really)

A big change this year was how we got our ice. In the past, we would pick it up at the WSER warehouse in Auburn on Friday afternoon, drive it up to Last Chance, cover it with tarps and blankets, and hope for minimal melt loss overnight.

This year, they decided to drag an ice trailer up to Dusty Corners (the aid station before ours, about a 3 mile drive that takes a good 20 minutes), which would keep the ice nice and cold Friday night.

On Saturday morning, Amer and I headed over to Dusty Corners to pick up about 1200 pounds of ice.

Like Hot Potato, but with 20 pound bags of ice and numb fingers.
Amer working out how many frozen margaritas he could make with that ice. ("Almost enough" was the answer.)
Delivered, covered, and ready for the runners. Or margaritas.
The one thing we didn't know, was that it was going to be uncharacteristically cool, and we were going to have our work cut out for us trying to convince runners to take ice with them.

Just before the runners made it to us

Many of us spent Friday night at Last Chance, sleeping in tents or, as in my case, sleeping in our vehicles. The mosquitos were thrilled at all the company.

"This is the easiest espresso maker ever" said Bonnie as she performed a complicated set of operations that resulted in a small amount of what I was told really was pretty tasty espresso (foam not included).
Larry and Megan daring each other to use the Leaning Tower of Porta-Potties.
Whoever delivered the porta-potties thought it would be funny to place them on a slope. When you went in them, it really felt like they were going to tip over onto their back. Brave volunteers used science and some old logs to level them out so that the runners wouldn't have to deal with the possibility of a porta-potty-based DNF.

Pre-race meeting. "Since there's no place to plug in the blender, we won't be able to make margaritas." 
Most of the well over 50 volunteers at this aid station.
As we were taking the traditional group shot, we got word that the leader was already through Dusty Corners and would be to us earlier than ever before. Time to get the final touches done and open for business!

The runners at Last Chance

As is our recent tradition, the first runner was Jim, well ahead of last year's pace (which was well ahead of the previous year's pace, which was ahead of… you get the idea).

Jim going to get his bottles filled with Hawaiian Punch.
Jim is a big believer in getting as wet as possible before heading out to the first of the canyons. I suspect he would do this even if there were snow drifts across the trail.
And he's gone. Less than a minute total, but he got his bottles filled, ate a bit,  got soaked, and was gone. Very efficient, very impressive.
It was about eight minutes later that the second place runner, Jared, came in.

This thermometer is normally in the sun and normally well above 90ยบ. Not today - the warmest I saw it get was the low 70s. That made convincing some runners that there really was heat ahead a challenge.
Runners grazing at the all-you-can-eat buffet.
Some volunteers got quite a workout trying to keep up with their runners!
First woman runner, Courtney, was not getting brain work done, no matter how much it looks like it in this shot.
Last year we saw a few runners with hats that had a special pocket on top to hold ice - this year we saw a LOT more of those.

Megan: "You want ice shoved where???"
My favorite runner, the Pixie Ninja, getting wet before heading out to a third place finish!
Jesse from Let's Wander Photography stopped by briefly to get a few shots.
Emergency Backup Sam, aka John, getting his Popeye arms on. (He told me later that all the ice was gone by the time he  made it to the next aid station, Devil's Thumb, which is only 4.5 miles away.
Who knew pine needles could be so useful? (Well, maybe Bonnie.)
A problem we have always fought in the past, was that the area around the buckets would get muddy and we would have to shift them around to a dry area. Bonnie had the idea of gathering pine needles and spreading them over the mud, creating a mat that allowed the water to drain without the runners having to stand in mud. (I'm including this mostly so that I'll remember it for next year. It was a genius move.)

All Day Ken gets the most out of his sponge soaking.

Just before the cut off, the final runner came through and made it out before the Horn of Doom was sounded. Happily, no runners dropped at our aid station this year!

This signaled that it was time to start tearing down this oasis we had set up, and try to get to the track in Auburn before the winner made it. (We are very isolated, with no cell service, so we know little about what is happening in the race. It's always a dash to get to cell service, reconnect to the outside world, and get caught up.)

Sadly, almost half of our ice ended up getting released to the wild.

The mosquitos were puzzled. And sad that they had no place to plug in their blenders either.

Before we leave Last Chance, the signs

The trail just before the Last Chance aid station.
I decided to create a set of signs for the entrance to the aid station, and to try to make them in the style of the old Burma Shave signs.

Click any of these pictures to see them larger.
And then there were the signs for runners after they left the aid station.

General signs for all runners.
Oscar made a set of signs for some runners he knew in the race.
The signs I made for various runners, several based on requests and suggestions from others.
I always wonder whether runners see their signs, or whether those that don't have a sign are disappointed. This year I got texted this picture from a coworker (who I had never met) out of Singapore who took the time to take this selfie.

I really love this shot - thanks Reuben!

At the track

Once I made it down to the track (well after the first two runners, Jim And Jared, had finished in course record times), I noticed that the track was there, but the football field was missing. A chain link fence surrounded the inner perimeter of the track. This meant that the finish line medical area had to be moved from its normal position on the field. And to keep runners from running into each other, they actually were routed around the track in the opposite direction of normal (after a hairpin turn).

We were assured the distance was still 100.2 miles.
This was unfortunate since a lot of the overnight fun is hanging out on the field and chasing runners around the track. (Well, not me, but the herds of kids that are hanging around, playing frisbee, waiting for a parent to come in.)

View of the finish line from the stands. All that dirt makes it looks like there's going to be a rodeo.
First woman Clare has just entered the track and is about to make that hairpin turn to go around to the finish.
A herd of McKunes waiting for John to make it in.
Fortunately, you could still hang out near the gate the runners come in through, and along the wall on the outside of the track. I'm sure this configuration was a one time thing, and that next year the field will be open again. Most likely. I hope.

Meanwhile, the runners kept coming in to finish!

The Emergency Backup Sam, along with the Real Sam, came storming through the gate.
The herd of McKunes migrating around the track, just ahead of the Golden Hour - the last 60 minutes before the race ends. John did not want to be a 29er.
Reuben, from that earlier sign selfie, and carrying a Singapore flag, made it to the track with lots of time to spare. 

Wrapping up


What a weekend.

So much effort goes into to preparing for this race, and just like that, it's over. There were two runners that finished in the last 60 seconds, which made for an exciting end to the event.

The hurriedly packed aid station stuff that I had to haul back.
The cool weather put a unique spin on the race, but it was, as always, an epic experience. And exhausting. So exhausting (and I just have a relatively small part compared to so many that are involved with this race).

It's hard to explain why this event is so compelling for me - I often know at least a few people running it, and while I like to geek over the elites as they come through, the runners pushing the cutoffs are often the most interesting and fun to work with. You get a real appreciation for the effort and energy these runners are putting into this race, and a great understanding of what it really takes to cover 100.2 mountain miles in less than 30 hours.

But next time I WILL figure out how to plug in my blender.

That's it - move along…

PS: Here is a link to some pictures I put on FB: General aid station.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

I get to go belt shopping!

Sorry - that's a bit of a spoiler in the title. (Also, sorry for this being so long. REALLY long.)

Signing Up

Back in 2015, I took my first shot at the 100K distance at the Razorback race, where I had 36 hours to get it done.

I failed.

And that really bugged me later on. I was a bit of a trail snob back then, and once the weather turned the trail into soup, I quit rather than to continue on using the flat, paved two mile loop option. I was sure that I would go insane on such a short, boring loop.

I was an idiot.

Since then I've done a number of timed races on flat loops, including on a high school track, and have learned to really like that format. And I've yet to go insane. (At least by my standards.)

In the fall of 2018, Coastal Trail Runs announced that their annual New Year's One Day race was not going to be able to happen on New Year's Eve, as was the tradition, due to permit issues (the park decided that it no longer wanted events on holidays). So the race moved to the first weekend of January. I was never able to attend the New Year's Eve version of the race, but this new date fit perfectly.

What didn't fit perfectly was my fitness. I had done a six hour race at that same location earlier this year, and struggled towards the end of it. But I weirdly thought I could give the twelve hour version of this race a good shot. Maybe get my third 50 mile finish.

But I didn't sign up.

Then, on Black Friday, Coastal held a sale, and suddenly I needed to make the commitment. So I signed up for the 24 hour version. Naturally.

Pre-Race Musings

The thing about these kinds of races (and one of the things that makes them such a huge mental challenge), is that you can stop whenever you want. So I thought I could just see what happens:

  • C Goal: Get to 50K - that would be my first ultra since (and this stunned me a bit) August of 2016 at Run-D-Vous (my second 50M run). 
  • B Goal: Get to 50M - especially if I could do that in 12 hours (wildly unlikely though).
  • A Goal: Get to 100K - this was really a stretch, but if I could keep from napping (which would be tough), 24 hours should be plenty of time to get to 62 miles, even if I had to crawl. 

But I don't like crawling.

As the race day approached, one of my worst fears started to look very likely - it was not only going to be rainy, but very windy. I generally don't mind rain since I normally sweat so much that a bit of rain doesn't make a huge difference.

But wind? I do not like fighting the wind.

I was born in southwestern Kansas. As a kid, I knew all about wind. You've heard how Eskimos have 200 words for snow? Kansans have 400 words for wind. We didn't use a cute little wind gauge - we tied a logging chain to a tree branch. When the links started snapping off, you knew there could be a real storm coming.

I've gotten soft though, and trying to run in a rainy, wet wind is not fun. The one thing in my favor was that a third of the course was paved and the rest was a fairly solid gravel, so footing wouldn't be an issue.

My jug, table, and pet Sun in the staging area.
The race started at the decent hour of 9AM, which meant I didn't have to get up crazy early. Once I arrived, I set up a table with a jug full of Tailwind and my pet Sun. (The Sun was created back in 2012 when Mrs Notthat ran a ridiculously wet CIM - I was her crew and the Sun became an easy way for her to find me along the course.)

My arch-nemesis is in the house! Or, well, at the race!
I knew quite a few people in the race, but the person I was really looking for was my arch-nemesis. She has had an unbelievably rough last couple of months, and nobody would have blamed her if she had decided that she needed this weekend off. But for people that sign up for these sorts of events, running them often is the best therapy when things are tough. So naturally, she showed up raring to go.

Trying to convince this awning that it wasn't a kite.

Race Start

It was not raining at the start, but the wind was quite enthusiastically making its presence known. Everything was wet due to earlier showers.

We're off! About two-thirds of the course is hard packed gravel like this.
All three times (6 hour, 12 hour, and 24 hour) started at the same time. Between the three times, there were 164 runners that started (including a runner from each of 6 teams). A fun thing about this race format is that, as long as you finish at least one lap, you're a finisher! You almost can't DNF.

Selrahc, not his real name, pausing to grab a picture.
The paved bit of the course. There is a pedestrian lane and two bicycle lanes running next to the road. 
A huge difference from when I ran this course in the summer was the almost complete lack of tourists. There were a few bikes, but for the most part, we had complete use of the whole paved bit.

Looking across the lagoon. I might get lapped on the first lap!
"Hi Liag! Not your real name!"
In the early part of the race, Liag showed up to take pictures of us as we looped around. This is normally not a tough gig - all the runners will go past you every 10-20 minutes and the backgrounds are amazing. The weather, however, made this much tougher.

Picture by Laig. Before the rain started. Sorry for blocking the view of the bridge.
Anrol, not her real name, flying down the trail. Sadly, a badly positioned rain drop on my lens kept this from being a great shot.
A fun thing about this race was that you could change your direction every time you finished a lap. There were two timing mats - just cross them both, turn around, then cross them again. With runners going both directions, you would end up seeing some twice per lap, while others going the same direction as you, you might never see.

There was some debate about which direction was the best. Early on, I felt like CW (clockwise) was the best - you got the inside track the whole way around. After the rain though, that inside track was often flooded with puddles. (In the dark, the CCW direction made it surprisingly easier for a sleep-deprived mind - like mine - to miss the turns.)

I decided that I would change direction every six laps (essentially, every 10K). I also posted a status update at those points. 

Mr Coastal taking his pet cone for a walk.
"Hey! Is that horse for rent?"
It was great fun seeing Eca (not his real name) out there patrolling the course (at least until the rain started in earnest). 

Alright - which wise guy took the bridge?
The rain came in from the north, and the bridge gave us early warning that a shower was coming. If it turned up missing (like above), that meant we were about to get wet.

We turned out to be mostly dry until about noon, when things got decidedly moist.

A giant slip-n-slide! (Actually, the footing was solid, even on this bit up the course's massive hill.)
Watch out for car splashes!
The very brave Bryan W Ting (his real name) risking his camera to capture amazing shots of us. Note my camera strap getting blown into the shot.
About 1 PM, the clouds opened up and we all got soaked. Anyone trying to keep their shoes dry were doomed at this point. Bryan Ting was out taking pictures, and I was amazed he didn't run away to protect his equipment during this downpour. Here's a typical shot of his during this period.

Picture by Bryan W Ting. So much rain!
Anyone up for a swim?
While the hard packed gravel trails didn't really get muddy or slippery, they also took forever to drain. This puddle would eventually get a bit smaller, but it (and its many cousins) had to be negotiated for the rest of the race.

The cavalry bringing the sunshine!
A bit before 3:00, Mrs Notthat and Not a Canadian showed up to give me moral support. It was not a coincidence that, at this point, the rain really tapered off. It was great fun having them there, although I suspect they were more than a bit surprised by how slow I was going. (By 3:00, I was averaging a bit over 17 minute miles.)

Proof that my arch-nemesis and I were actually quite civil to each other. At this point, we were pretty much tied. Picture by Not a Canadian.
As it edged to dusk, Mrs Notthat and Not a Canadian did two things: Convinced me to change into dry clothes and warned me that the night might not be kind, rain-wise.

I brought a lot of spare clothes in anticipation of getting wet. When it came down to it though, I was really hesitant to change, both because I didn't want to lose that time and because I guessed I was just going to get rained on again.

But it had rained little since about 3:30, so at 4:15 or so, I did a complete change of everything but my knee brace. This meant spending quality time in a porta-pottie doing things that porta-potties are not designed to let you do, namely, extract yourself from soaking wet stuff while not making the dry stuff you want to put on also soaking wet. Or worse. In the end, it took me 30 minutes to get changed.

But it was glorious to be in warm, dry clothes and shoes. This meant I had to become better at puddle avoidance to try and keep my shoes dry as long as possible, but it sounded like that was a short term issue due to the forecast.

When I looked at the weather forecast just before the race, it said there would be showers up until about 4 PM and then it would stay dry until late the next morning. They had nailed the 4 PM stoppage, so I was looking forward to the dry night. It was still windy, but since I had warm dry stuff on, the wind was just a nuisance, and not a real issue anymore.

However, looking at the updated forecast for the night showed an 80% chance rain at about midnight, with the chances remaining high for the rest of the night.

It was at this point I started making deals with myself - I would stay out and keep moving until the next serious rain hit, then I would sit in the car and wait it out. I was so over rain, and trying to deal with it and another change of clothes in the dark did not appeal to me.

Mrs Notthat and Not a Canadian stayed around for a bit more, but then said their goodbyes and headed home. For the first time, I started listening to podcasts and music. (At 3 PM, the 6 hour runners were done, which greatly reduced the number of runners on the course. At 9 PM, the 12 hour runners would be done, leaving around 45 of us on the course.)

The bridge was gorgeous all lit up at night, and even better, it was not being blocked by rain!
By about 6 PM I hit the 50K mark. (Yikes - a 9 hour 50K!) This was the halfway point of my A goal. At this point, I couldn't imagine doing all of that again, especially with the predicted rain on the way.

At the 12 hour point I was just under 40 miles, which depressed me a bit. But then I did the math; I had 12 hours to get 22 miles done. If I did 30 minute miles, I would get it done easy (well, ish). Since I was averaging 20 minute miles, this meant I could possibly be done in maybe 8 hours - I could take an hour nap, then come back out in daylight and get a few more laps done!

But all of this depended on the rain, and that 80% chance was looking grim. But this also meant, if I had to hole up for an hour or two while it rained, I could still get it done. The problem with that though, was that I was finding it really hard to get started again whenever I paused to eat something or make a bathroom stop. Could I get going after stopping for a couple of hours? My feet were very tender and my whole body ached. (Remember - I had not put it through this sort of effort for nearly two and a half years!)

I started drinking hot tea. The angel that is Htenaj (not her real name) convinced me to eat a cup of ramen noodles. My stomach was OK, but seemed on the verge of revolting, but her getting me to eat that soup, spread over several laps, seemed to really help.

The brave Racso (not his real name), with Jr watching, lubing my sore feet.
Around midnight, several things happened.

  • Racso offered to put lube on my feet and handle any blisters that were there. My feet were painful, and I was sure they were covered in blisters, but there was actually not much blistering being done - they were mostly just tender.
  • My Garmin died. I brought a brick to recharge it, so I walked a couple of laps while it charged. (Then I put it on and promptly forgot to start it, so I ended up missing out on probably 5 or 6 laps of data. Granted, the data was just me going around in ever slower circles.)
  • Somewhere around here I hit 50 miles! At about 1:30 AM I had 13 laps to go!
  • Shortly after getting my Garmin back, my Apple Watch died. So I put it on the charger for a couple of laps. (Fortunately it's smart enough to just start working again once I put it back on.)

But the truly interesting/great thing was that it was not raining. Even better, the wind was calming down. It was actually almost pleasant out there! There were few cars and normal people around. It felt like a number of the runners were off taking naps since the course did not have many people on it (although that was really hard to gauge since they could have been going my direction).

Keeping to my bargain, even though I was very tired and sleep sounded like an amazing idea, I kept going, knowing that the rain could start at any moment.

Rasco got me to eat some of his homemade pho, and that was great. It didn't seem to bother my stomach and gave me some energy. I was now mostly averaging 25-26 minute miles.

It continued to not rain, so I continued to keep moving. Then one of the most amazing things ever happened at about 3 AM - Mrs Notthat and Not a Canadian showed back up! I was totally stunned! It was such a huge lift having them there, although by that point I was pretty far gone, both mentally and physically. I had been starting to have trouble staying out of the puddles, and had actually come close a couple of times to missing a turn and actually getting off course! I wasn't great company for them, but they were great at warning me about puddles and tripping over cones.

Mrs Notthat and I getting flashed! 
Not a Canadian and I getting flashed!
Mrs Notthat and I following the white lines on the paved bit. Picture by Not a Canadian.
I kept on going, the rain kept holding off, and the miles, slowly, kept counting down.

Htenaj and Not a Canadian employing the strategy of staying on each side of me to keep me from wandering off the trail.
On the final lap, Htenaj joined us. It was dark at the start of it, but you could see some daylight nudging the horizon.

I'm about a third of the way through that last lap - daylight is really happening!
They wanted me to pose for one last shot by that stupid bridge.
When I got about two-thirds of the way done with that last lap, it started to rain again. Not a heavy rain - probably not heavy enough to have stopped me during the night, but, well, I was really looking for an excuse to stop, so maybe?

All done!
Here is a video that Not a Canadian took of my "strong" finish!

There was an amazing amount of discussion on that last loop over what that song was called. Sheesh. (And for the record, that did not break that bottle. I have no idea why I did that. Also for the record, that was the first time I had tried to run since about mile 10.)

Mrs and Mr Coastal were as amazed as I that this actually happened! (Note that by this time it was raining pretty steady.)
My support team! (Well, Eon, not his real name, and the Endorphin Dude were actually still in the race, but they couldn't turn down a group photo!) Missing from this shot is the amazing Racso!
From my Garmin. As you can tell, it's missing 5 or 6 laps.
A canvas backpack bag, a finisher medal, a personalized bib, and - wow - a buckle!
A very cool fleece lined hoodie with not one, but two drawstrings! (I haven't tried to figure out why yet. It did not come with instructions.)
The buckle up close. So pretty!
I have dreamed of earning a buckle for a few years now, but was afraid that my window had closed. My long run leading up to this race was a Half Marathon a few weeks earlier. But given enough time, just about anything is possible.

To be really detailed, 100K is 62.13712 miles. Each loop was 1.0275 miles. 60 loops worked out to 61.65 miles - about a half mile short of a 100K, so I did 61 loops for a total of 62.6775 miles (which doesn't count all the trips to the car or the bathroom, or the additional distance late at night when going in a straight line proved really challenging).

I finished at 7:26 AM, so I still had a bit over 90 minutes that I could have kept going. But I was so trashed by this point - after sitting for just a few minutes I started to shiver and needed to get in a warm car. I felt bad leaving early - there were still probably a bit under half the 24 hour runners on the course. (WAY TO GO YLOY, not your real name, not only nailing your first buckle a few minutes after me, but also for continuing and getting a few more laps in! YOU ARE AMAZING!)

Wrapping Up (Finally)

This was a great event. If you are staying away from these kinds of looping races because you are sure you will go mad, you may be right. But you may be wrong (like I was) - it's a very different challenge and just as satisfying to finish.

Health-wise, in addition to the normal stiffness and soreness, I ended up with very tender forefeet and a quite unhappy left ankle. 
  • I was convinced my forefeet were nothing but one big blister (and I swear at one point near the end, one of them ruptured with a burst of pain), but in the end, that didn't seem to be true. I had taped and lubed my feet before the race, but the tape came off when I changed out of my waterlogged socks and shoes, and I hadn't thought to bring more. I did have Squirrel's Nut Butter, and put a bunch of that on them, and that worked fine for a while. It really seems like my feet just didn't like the pounding. (They are much better now.)
  • Sometime during the middle of the night, my left ankle - specifically the front of it - started complaining. This was odd since I was pretty sure I had done nothing to twist it, and it felt like it was on the opposite side of where an Achilles issue would be. I ignored it (I had not thought to bring an ankle brace) as it steadily got worse. This issue is still dogging me a week later. 
I think the one thing I would do different is to bring a waterproof bin with the stuff in it that I'm likely to need during the race. I must have made 6 or 7 trips to the car to get things. (If there hadn't been the threat of rain, I would have just had everything there next to my pet Sun.)

I have to thank Coastal Trail Runs for putting on this event, and running it so smoothly. When I first signed up, it sounded like only 100M runners would get a buckle, which was a bit of a disappointment, but I was OK with that especially since I figured there was little chance of getting to 100K anyway. Later on, that changed and suddenly the buckle was there for the taking. (For the record, there were 6 runners that got 100 miles or more, and two of them were women, including the overall winner, Megan Arauzo, who managed 120 miles in those conditions! Stunning!)

Also a huge thanks to the volunteers that kept interesting food available (I couldn't resist a piece of pizza, which I fear didn't really help my tummy much, but it tasted great) and kept encouraging us to keep going. (And kept the awnings from blowing away! And raccoons from eating our food!)

A special thanks to Htenaj and Racso who were there most of the night with us, battling raccoons and getting stubborn runners like me to eat something once in a while. You two were amazing! Anyone willing to touch my feet in the middle of the night is a hero!

And then finally, Mrs Notthat and Not a Canadian! You had warned you might be coming down in the afternoon, but with the horrific weather we had had, I had my doubts. But you showed up and stuck it out for hours of slow walking and my whining. Later, when Racso was getting ready to leave at about 2:30 AM or so, he actually said you two were coming back up, but when I asked him to repeat that, he remembered that he wasn't supposed to tell me, and changed it to Htenaj was going to keep working with me to keep eating and such.

And I bought it.

There was no way in the world that those two would come back out, in the middle of the night, with me still having so many laps to do and the threat of rain lingering over us. But they did, and I was truly stunned. And they helped me stay on course and make that 61st lap. I probably could have done it without them, but it would have taken longer and I would have been WAY more miserable. Having them there made such a huge difference!

That's it - move along…

PS: Here's a link to Liag's pictures, Bryan's pictures, and my pictures.

PPS: There is a large part of me that knows this was a major accomplishment, but there is also a part of me that knows it really wasn't all that amazing, at least from a physical standpoint. For me though, the mental challenge was a really big deal - getting through that is what I will treasure.

PPPS: I was pretty sure I was the only person over 60 that got at least 100K until I checked the results, and a 74 year old guy that ended up with nearly 68 miles! Wow!

PPPPS: No, I have not signed up for a 100M race. Yet.