Monday, June 27, 2011

Working the Western States Last Chance aid station/resort

Note: This is going to be long and, for a lot of you, ridiculously detailed and boring. No grandkid or Mrs Notthat pictures. My feelings won't be hurt if you run away now. 

When I first joined San Jose Fit in 2009, there was this old guy (who looked like he could whip me in just about any contest, except maybe making a bathroom scale say "uncle") who gave a little "Tom's Tips" talk before we went out on the trail. These were always entertaining and useful, but there was a puzzling one where he tried to make it sound fun to spend a day in a very remote corner of the Sierras, supporting runners that were trying to cover 100 miles in a day.

I couldn't for the life of me fathom why anyone would run 100 miles in the mountains or why anyone would want to spend a day filling up water bottles and cheering on runners that must surely be demented.

But then I started running trail races and clearly understood both why a runner might be attracted to a 100 mile race and how it could be fun supporting those runners at an aid station.

So, a year too late to be there with Tom (you can read what I wrote after his party last year here), I took him up on his offer to help at the Last Chance aid station at mile 43.3 of the 100 mile Western States Endurance Run. For you non-runners, just like golf has its majors, so do trail runs, and the Western States for a lot of people is THE major. It's absurdly hard, often including having to deal with show for the first 30 miles or so (it starts at the Squaw Valley Ski Area, which this year has so much snow they are going to be open for the Fourth of July weekend), and filled with many challenging sections of trail as you head to the finish line in Auburn.

This marked the 30th straight year that Stevens Creek Striders, a South Bay running group that Tom also was part of, had run the Last Chance aid station. So they chose to give a Hawaiian theme to the area this year. Curt, one of my coaches from San Jose Fit, joined me in heading up to this aid station on Friday afternoon, where we would camp out and be fresh on Saturday morning.

Curt looking for signs of the aid station on Friday as we were driving out to it. (Actually, while it's extremely remote and requires you to drive on bits of the actual Western States Trail, the directions we were given were perfect and we had few doubts about which way to go as we navigated a maze of roads that would have made Google Maps crash.)

We passed a surprising amount of snow as we were driving to the site.

After we arrived and set up our tents, a Volvo station wagon pulled in. It was bursting at the seams with drop bags for the runners. Last Chance was the first aid station after the snow that you could prepare a drop bag for, with fresh shoes and socks being a welcome change for a lot of the runners.

The way these bags were organized, and even better, how they managed to make it to the station's entrance as the runner pulled in (there was a spotter up the trail a bit that would radio in bib numbers so they had time to find the bag and hustle up to the entrance) was amazing and a perfect example of how well run this aid station was.

About 100 feet from the aid station there was this spring (note the pipe with water pouring out of it into the wooden square on the left). This provided cold water for the "Car Wash," where runners could get cooled down with a wet sponge or have ice put in a variety of interesting places. The Car Wash was very popular.

The downside of this spring is that, well, mosquitos REALLY like marshy areas like this. Friday evening was spent doing our best to not be carried away by them.

But once the campfire started up, the mosquitos went away, and it was a very pleasant evening. Lots of stories about past events (some of these people had been doing this aid station for a LONG time) and the roasting of the biggest marshmallows I have ever seen (think super burrito size) made this a nice break before the madness of the next day.

Curt peaking out his tent on Saturday morning.

The morning started with a bonus early morning six mile hike on one of the most challenging stretches of the trail - the exact same trail all runners would be going over once they left our aid station. The goal was to get down to the river for a memorial of sorts for Tom.

Tom ran this race three times, finally finishing and earning his belt buckle in 2002. That is a picture of him at the end, plus his bib from the race. Tom's son Eric ran this race for the first time this year (spoiler alert: he finished on his first try!) and this is what he was going to see as he careened down this trail.

This is the bridge over the river. I love that five runners equal three horses (presumably, each with a person leading them). I'd love to see someone down here trying to enforce the five runner rule, but the runners are spread out enough that it probably rarely comes up.

This is the view the runners had as they approached this aid station. In the front-left are the radio people. Straight ahead of them are the medical people.

Note the scales. The first thing each runner did as they came in is shed their water bottles, backpacks, and belts and got weighed. Too much weight gain or loss is a bad thing and could point to serious health concerns. This happened multiple times along the course.

The porta-potties even got their own special touches.

We were still about an hour from when the first runner was expected in, and I was helping someone put up bright yellow signs they had made for friends in the race. I had one friend doing it, and felt bad that it had not occurred to me to make him a sign. And then inspiration hit - this is the back of my van that just happened to be parked about 200 yards beyond the aid station. I hoped Sam would see it, but there would be no way to know. Probably.

The pre-race pep-talk. Most of the people working this aid station had done it many times before, but there were a number of us Last Chance virgins.

There was another memorial of sorts for Tom (shown in the poster wearing the cook hat - he was famous for making grilled cheese sandwiches at this aid station).

We each wore these shirts that helped identify us to the runners (it would be a little unnerving to have some random person approach you and take your water bottles). Curt's a little bummed that it's going to clash a bit with his pink lei.

Making grilled cheese sandwiches. There was also soup, PB&J sandwiches, and tons of other things for the runners to eat and drink. I'm sure some runners lost valuable time while perusing the selection.

And then the first runner hit - about 15 minutes ahead of when anyone expected him. From this point (about 11 AM) until the cutoff at 5:30 PM, we were all hopping. There would be some slow periods, but they never lasted long.

A cool thing was that there was always a line of greeters, waiting for runners to come in. You'd hustle over (often knowing the runner's name thanks to the advanced notice of the radio guys), welcome him or her to Last chance, take the runner's water bottles, backpack, and anything else that would affect weight, ask what should be put in the bottles and such, and point them to the scales.

While the runner was weighed, the greeter would go to the hydration station and get the bottles filled. You would then escort the runner through the station, encouraging them to eat, sit if they needed to, help them go through their drop bag if they had one, show them the car wash, and generally give them a ton of positive encouragement. "Well, yes, the trail is a bit dodgy up ahead, and well, a bit steep, but the trees provide a lot of shade and the views are wonderful and nobody's been eaten by a mountain lion yet!"

I had looked at the entrants list the day before and was stunned to see a runner from Pagosa Springs CO. - my old hometown! I was hoping to see the guy as he came through, and managed to spot him as he was getting ready to leave. The look on his face when I called out "Go Pagosa!" was priceless - the chances of running into anyone else out here in the middle of nowhere that had even heard of Pagosa was very remote. We talked for a few seconds and then he took off.

This is Tom's son Eric taking advantage of the buffet. He was looking great for this being his first time.

This was known as the MASH tent. We had two doctors and half a dozen nurses working at this aid station. Any blisters or open wounds caused by the effects of gravity and the ground were all dealt with quickly - all of these medical people were also runners, and they understood how important time was. We ended up with three people dropping from the race at our station - I had expected more, and was impressed that one guy, who arrived in pretty bad shape, was able to keep going after a bit of a rest (one of the doctors even ran with him for a few miles, just to make sure the runner really was OK).

And then Sam showed up. He looked great but was dragging a bit due to the after effects of a flu bug that had hit him a few days earlier. He ended up getting in 78 miles before missing a cutoff, which was stunning given the circumstances.

And yes - he did see my dusty note.

Just after the 5:30 cutoff, the course sweepers arrived on horseback. Their job is to ensure no runners are still on the course or injured once the cutoff happens.

And that's about it. Tom knew what he was talking about (naturally) when he said how much fun it would be to work at this aid station. It was a BLAST helping all these runners get through this place.

This guy, David from Slovenia, was one of my favorites. He came running up holding a camera, shooting a video of the aid station. He was bubbly and hardly seemed tired at all. And like most of the runners, was very appreciative of all of our efforts.

I'm hoping to get to work at this aid station again next year. Even better, I'm hoping to get a fuller experience by, after heading out from here, spending time at the other accessible aid stations and such further on down the course, watching the runners go through, and then being at the finish line.

The winner finished in 15:34:00 - an astonishing time to cover 100 miles on foot. The cutoff is 30 hours - 310 of the around 400 runners that started the race beat that cutoff.

This is a tough race to get into; you have to prove you can do a long race (50 miles in under 11 hours, for example) and you have to get through a lottery. Sam lucked out and got in on his first try. I'm sure he will try again next year, and hopefully he will luck out again, and even better, hopefully I will get to cheer him across the finish line in beautiful Auburn.

A huge thanks to Lina and Peggy and the whole Stevens Creek Striders group for putting up with Curt and I as we rode on your coattails and worked this event. It really was a blast!

That's it - move along...

PS: There are a bunch more pictures here.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Colorado trip

Last fall I heard about a group in my old hometown of Pagosa Springs Colorado, called GECKO, that puts on trail races in the area. So last winter I eagerly awaited their 2011 schedule to see if we could work out a trip back there to do a race and visit the family.

Their Turkey Track Trail Race sounded perfect - it's in June so it shouldn't be too hot, but is late enough that we shouldn't need snowshoes, and it's a pretty mild course for our sea-level lungs. We also decided to inflict Facebook on my parents and bring them a laptop computer.

It was all set - we had the computer, my parents had the WIFI, we had plane tickets - what could go wrong?

Life has a way of tossing challenges at you just to see how you handle them.

My sister Zil's (not her real name) ex-mother in law passed away about a week before we headed out. The funeral was set to be on the same day as our race. (Since we didn't know her, we fortunately didn't really have to make a choice between the race or the funeral.)

The good thing that came out of this was that bonus family members ended up being in town at the same time as us - we would get to have an impromptu family reunion!

Note: I have already posted a LOT of pictures from this trip. I'll include links to those pictures where appropriate below.

Wednesday: Flying to Denver
Mrs Notthat and I wanted to have a few days in Colorado to acclimate a bit, so we chose to fly out four days before the race, with the goal of getting halfway to Pagosa that night. After nightmare rush hour traffic in Denver and a nasty traffic backup on a narrow road, we barely managed to get to the Royal Gorge before sunset.

The Royal Gorge itself is very cool - deep majestic canyons made even more dramatic by the late afternoon sun. Then they decided to build a fragile, frightening bridge over it. Mrs Notthat loved it.

This is what she was looking at in the above picture. Getting there a bit late meant we didn't have to pay to get in (they normally charge $15 or so a person, but all the shops and rides and whatever that justify that money were closed by this time).

We drove to Salida, found a motel, and ate a very late Mexican dinner.

Thursday: Arriving in Pagosa
Driving from Salida to Pagosa was pretty straightforward, outside of some very crooked roads and needing to dodge road construction.

The official overlook on Wolf Creek Pass is closed while they work on the road, but we found this unofficial overlook. (That's as close as I dared to get to the edge - heights and I don't get along all that well.)

We arrived around lunch time to find everyone busy preparing for the viewing and funeral. Lots of smiling and laughing was still to be found though.

Click here to see a bunch more pictures from the trip to Pagosa.

Friday: Testing the altitude and garage sales
There were a couple of issues facing Mrs Notthat and I with respect to the next day's race: How would her blistered heel hold up (she got the blister the weekend before) and how would our sea level lungs perform.

So Friday morning, we got up a bit early and headed out to the golf course to test things on the cart paths.

The blister bit went OK - the bandaids and tape made it tolerable (and by the next day, the blister was no issue at all). The altitude was another story - short, level runs made both of us wheeze like 100 year old steam trains. No personal records were going to get set the next day.

A fun pastime in the area is to hit the garage sales. One of the first ones we went to had this very perky dog that loved to chase that mud and slobber-encrusted frisbee. For reasons that dog will never understand, there was no way Mrs Notthat was going to pick it up and toss it. (I, on the other hand, had no problems doing that over and over.)

Look at the view from this yard sale. A few days earlier this view did not include those mountains in the distance due to smoke from the wildfires in Arizona. We were very fortunate that the winds changed and cleared the air before our race.

There were an AMAZING number of AMAZING kids around the house - most were nephews and nieces that we had either never met before or were much smaller the last time we saw them.

And the weather was wonderful, making this little backyard fountain awfully attractive to the kids.

Friday night we picked up our race packets and Mrs Notthat bought a pair of snake-proof sandals. I've got no idea why she's making that face, but I'll probably spend the night on the deck for including this picture in this post.

Saturday: Raceday!
The trail race was fantastic, although you couldn't have gotten me to say that during the last five miles of my Full Marathon.

Here Mrs Notthat and nephew Blailand come out looking for me, having a hard time believing how long it is taking me to finish. No PR for me, but Mrs did manage to get a PR for her on the Half - this was a stunning accomplishment given her heel and the altitude.

You can read all about the race here and see a lot of pictures from the day here.

Sunday: Family reunion
First, I should mention that the computer thing went OK. We were able to get the WIFI to work and spend some time getting my parents hooked up to email and Facebook.

Here a group is watching YouTube cat videos or rap musicals or something.

We also spent some time looking at my mom's quilts in progress. These things are stunning!

There are a LOT of pictures from the reunion here - for those with an aversion to clicking links, here is the shot of my parents, brothers, and sisters. All born in Kansas - who would have thought we would end up in Colorado, standing in front of a large spruce tree that my sister Einnob (not here real name) stole from a forest when it was just a foot tall?

Monday and Tuesday: Heading back to Denver and California
Monday afternoon Mrs Notthat and I headed back to Denver, with plans to stop at the Great Sand Dunes National Monument along the way.

At the top of Wolf Creek Pass.

Me sitting on a small sand dune, at the foot of some really big sand dunes. This place was really hard to believe, even when you were staring straight at it.

A short distance from the sand dunes there was this fun waterfall (complete with mini-glacier in the upper-left corner) at Zapata State Park. You had to work a bit to see these though.

This is looking back the way I had come, walking up the middle of the icy creek, to be able to see the falls.

The flight home on Tuesday was nearly magical - the plane was only about half full! And on time!

And it was great to see Weird Haired Mom pull up curbside at the airport. You can see a bunch more pictures of the trip home here.

It turned out to be a great trip. I wish we had been able to drag our kids along, just to come closer to completing the impromptu family reunion, but it was a lot of fun to see everyone who did manage to make it. It would have been better if we could have stayed longer as well, but with work the way it has been, it was good to have gotten this much time.

The cool thing is that we are planning to do this all again next year, with the added bonus of at least Blailand joining us on the trails.

Thanks to everyone who worked so hard to make this all go so well - especially my parents who ended up with a VERY full house (and a bathroom that took the brunt of the action - it was not a good sign when we showed up Thursday only to find mom with a plunger in her hand, but all seemed to go well after that).

That's it - move along...

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Coldest winter a summer in San Francisco?

Not today.

Mrs Notthat, Weird Haired Mom, and I did the Zombie Runner/Coastal Trail Runs San Francisco race today.

Honestly, I didn't want to do this. We just got back on Tuesday from a trip to Colorado where I did a Full Marathon, and I felt like a weekend off would be good. Also, this race was in San Francisco, which is always cold and infested with bad drivers and no parking. And lastly, it had a bit more pavement than I like in my trail races.

But Mrs Notthat and WHM both REALLY wanted to do it, and I like doing Zombie Runner/Coastal events, and it was in an area that could be interesting - the clincher was that the longest distance was a Half Marathon, which I should be able to easily do (even with the 1000' of elevation). And it was at sea level.

I told you - I really didn't want to do this race! You can't make me! (Actually, I think I was warming up.) A couple of things:

• The weather was STUNNING - I did not see that coming at all.
• Traffic and parking were little to no trouble.
• The views were fantastic - way better than I had thought they would be.

The three of us before the race started. The Bridge sneaking into the picture as well.

The Half started first and headed away from The Bridge for a short out and back.

Once we turned around, this was the view we got to run towards.

A fun thing was that most of us Half runners were able to run past the 10K runners before they started their race (we had gone 1.9 miles at this point).

The one blemish on an otherwise great race (and for me, not much of a blemish, and for WHM, no blemish at all since she actually paid attention to the course ribbons, and not the mass of people heading the wrong way) - there was a turn fairly early that a LOT of people missed. You didn't go very far though before you knew something was wrong. I knew we had to go under The Bridge, and this looked like a good way to do it, except this road doesn't go under the bridge at all.

After making the turn, se headed up the steps. A LOT of steps. This course had a lot of this sort of thing, and weirdly, I handled them well (for me, anyway).

Getting ready to go under The Bridge.

The view under The Bridge.

There was a wide variety of trail types on this race. The single-track, like this, was easily my favorite.

Enirehtak (not her real name) smiling because: A) She has already hit the 10K turnaround and is headed back to the finish line, and B) She REALLY loves running in sand (HA!).

Mrs Notthat has also just turned around and is heading to the finish line and loving the sand.

Once we passed the 10K turnaround aid station (picture to come later, I promise), we had to spend a bit of time on residential streets. Not as good as a trail, but not as bad as I had thought it would be, and it was fairly short.

Back on the trails and looking over my shoulder. I can't believe how small The Bridge looks now - can I have really gone that far?

The Cliff House, which means the Half turnaround is coming up! Yay!

The aid station at the Half turnaround - I've gone 7.7 miles and only have 5.4 miles to go. I still have a mild chance at a PR, but my legs are feeling a bit heavy after last week's fun. But I should easily beat 3 hours and the 3.5 hours time limit.

The 10K turnaround aid station/beach play area. At this point, I only have 3.1 miles (a 5K and 5Ks are easy, right?) left. Unfortunately, a heel blister that I had forgotten about from last weekend started to raise its voice a bit. But I was still fairly strong, so I took off and still managed to run the places I should have.

The finish line! I was pooped by this point. I had pushed a bit harder than maybe I should have, but I did it in about 2:50 or so, and felt happy to have done it.

Mrs Notthat also did very well, and by all indications, had a great time.

The shirt, goodie bag contents (nice!), bib, and medal from today's event.

So in the end, I'm REALLY glad I was talked into doing this race. It was WAY more fun and cool than I had expected. Everyone - the Zombies, Coastal people, fantastic volunteers, and all the runners - was great and made this an amazing event.

Next weekend I really don't have a race to do - instead, I will be at the Last Chance aid station (about mile 43) for the Western States 100 mile trail race. If you are running this, stop by and say "hello!"

That's it - move along...

PS: You can see a LOT more pictures from today here. It's worth it - there are a lot of really nice pictures of The Bridge and other runners.