Friday, February 19, 2010

Orcas Island 50k, Feb. 3rd, 2010

I was feeling great heading into this race. My confidence was high, after nailing PBs in the 8k and 10k just a few weeks prior. And although I know a couple of road races mean nothing when it comes to a distance trail event, I was feeling really good with my training and felt like I might be able to pull off a top 10 finish at this race.
This race would be my first big ultra (and, I know, it really wasn't that big). But it was a destination event for our PIH group coming over from Victoria. The group was excited, and we certainly had some great runners coming over for this one.
The training for this race started in mid-December, pretty much after my family returned from Hawaii. I spent quite a few chilly mornings getting in my long runs. One such training run I will remember for quite some time will be the Cowichan TCT training run I did with my brother-in-law, Jason. It was a dark, frosty December morning, and the temperature was -1. My Camelbak froze, and I had to work hard not to freeze myself. Ah, that was a good one for sure.
I had peaked my training at 40k, and did so 3 weeks prior to Orcas. I think my final 4 weeks went something like this: 36k, 37k, 40k, 35k. My weekly mileage hit 80k+ at its peak for 3 weeks. Although most ultra guys would say that this is about 1/2 of what weekly mileage you require, it was alot for me, and all things considered, I was feeling pretty good. I had even thrown in a couple 90 minute Mt. Doug Gutbuster sessions into my training, just to get the hills and mud in. So bottom line: I was feeling good, and felt that I did everything I could to be prepared for this one.

The trip down
I was lucky enough to get a ride from my father-in-law early Friday morning to our group rendezvous point at the PIH Headquarters. My running friends were there, and after a brief wait, we piled into the club van (aka "Harrier Carrier") and set off for the Tsawassen ferry. I spent much of the time on the ferry loading up in the buffet. I knew that after this meal, there likely wouldn't be much opportunity to really pile in the Calories. So I did.
After arriving on the mainland, we drove toward the boarder, and we were pleased to only have about a 5 minute wait heading across. While this was great news, our other car - the car carrying the rest of our running group - was asked to pull over. The problem was that Carlos Castillo did not have a Canadian Passport...only his British one. They eventually did get through, but it took about an hour. One hour for us to hang around a Subway Restaurant and visit.
Eventually we were off, and after a brief stopover in Bellingham to pick up a few organic groceries, we made our way to the Anacortes-Orcas Ferry terminal.
Things were now getting exciting. There were piles of cars loaded with runners in the ferry lineup. In fact, the car right in front of us had a licence plate from Utah that said "I Run Far", and a bumper sticker that said "Western States 100 Miler". And when the guys stepped out of their car, I could tell that they didn't just buy this for show. They had earned it. They looked professional. Top to bottom in Montrail gear.
The ferry trip over to Orcas Island was memorable. The ferry had the heat cranked up to 40 degrees, and after spending a solid 45 minutes attempting to complete an impossible cat puzzle that I am sure was missing most of the pieces, the cards came out and we all partook in a classic game of "Asshole".
We finally arrived on Orcas Island and then drove around to where I would be staying. I was amazed at how long it took to get from one end of the island to the other. It was only 11 miles, but it sure did feel like forever. At this point, I was ready to be at my destination. And finally, we found the lodge, and my group dropped me off (the rest of my PIH group had rented a house, and I had opted for the lodge).
I quickly scanned around and asked the guys in the lodge if I was actually in the right place, and they confirmed it. My immediate impression was that things looked a little disorganized. I couldn't get into my cot right away, as the organizers were still figuring out who was going to sleep where. But eventually, I was assigned a cot, and I also had first dibs on picking out a race shirt.
I found my cabin, and peeked inside to see what kind of accommodation $40 would get you for 2 nights in these parts. Well, let's just say it wasn't the Howard Johnson. It actually was Camp Thunderbird all over again, except in my cabin there were 7 bunks (14 people). Things were going to be very cozy, as it was pretty tight in there. I was just hoping that nobody was going to snore. That would not be good.
Soon after, Jason arrived (and this was the reason I was staying at the lodge) with his group. I was in the middle of making Kraft Dinner using the camp's kitchen. I remember carrying out my heaping dish of KD right past all these ultra runners to sit down next Jason to wolf it down. I was a little embarrassed, as my dinner probably cost me all of about 89 cents. I am pretty sure no other big ultra dudes were eating KD that night. A few of the other runners gave me a look like "Is that really Kraft Dinner? What are you, like 8 years old?"
Anwyays, I took comfort in the fact that my body was used to eating this crap, and while one may laugh at me for eating such crap, I have learned that ,"If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Bottom line: it works for me.
Jason and i must have spent the next hour watching a small film that the organizers had put on for entertainment. The film was about some Greek runner in the 80's, who actually was the founder of ultrarunning. It was very interesting, and in watching it, it confirmed to me what I already knew: that ultrarunners are mentally unstable. This Greek guy was a total nut.
Jason and I went back to the cabin and got to sleep around 9pm. Surprisingly, most of the other 12 people in our cabin were also in bed by then. We all knew we had a big, bold day ahead of us.

The race
Warming up for a long race like this is really just a matter of trying to stay loose. Mentally I tried to check myself into the fact that I would be out there for the better part of 6 hours. The weather for the day looked perfect - no rain, and not cold.
I assembled myself onto the start line in about the second row. I originally was hoping for a top 10 finish from this race, but after seeing the sponsored elites in the first row, I changed my mind and just went out there, trying to have a strong race. I didn't see Jason, but I put myself beside Rafael Albert (we have a history together) on the start line.
The race began, and as expected, the fastees zoomed ahead, and I tried to ensure that I found what was a comfortable pace. I did just that, and figured that I was in about 15th place. The course was fantastic in the initial going. It was singletrack. Not too muddy, and not too challenging, but there were hills for sure. In fact as the first few kilometers whittled away, we went down some significant switchbacks, only to have a large powerhike to get back up them. I was passed by a couple of guys, and I also passed a couple runners myself. The race was early, but I was feeling superb.
At around the 10k mark, there was a very large hill that we had to powerhike up. It took a few minutes to get up it, and it gave me a chance to look back down the switchbacks and see who was behind me. I could hear a guy behind me chatting away about his recent experience at the 100m Hawaii HURT event, so I knew there were people close by. I was relieved to see the top of the hill arrive, and now the trail gave way to a more open fireroad. Slow downhill was the theme for the next few kilometers. I was surprised to see how fast people actually ran in a 50k. I checked my watch shortly after, and it was right on 1 hour. I began my recovery walk: took 1 S-Cap, 1 Gel and plenty of water. Just like training. One guy sped by me and asked if I was alright and I said yes. I guess he thought I was in trouble, but I was actually just fine. I just happened to have my mobile aid station on my back. I was pretty disappointed to have a pack of about 6 guys pass me though.
I took to my pace again, and the trail continued on the open fireroad for quite sometime. As we got closer to the lodge, the trail diverted back onto singletrack and followed a river. Again, the trail was rolling here, and I actually recall that there was next to no flat on this course.
I could see the paved road on the left, and I knew that we were close to the first aid station. I had caught up to the pack of 6 guys now, and was right behind them as we ran across the grassy field toward check point #1. We were now 16k in. The cool thing for me is that in coming to this check-in, there is a small out-and-back, so you can see exactly who is infront of you. I ran toward the aid station, and a girl read my number outloud, and I did an immediate 180 turn and carried on. Everyone else in the pack of 6 had stopped for supplies, but my thinking was that I didn't need an aid station, I had it on my back.
Because of my quick turn around, I now found myself in 8th place. I can say this with confidence, as I was counting the people that had done the turn around already. Still no sign of Rafael or Jason, but I figured they were hot on my heels. As I carried up the singletrack, I followed the signs and now went left. As I did that I heard Jason's voice say, "Go Jeff, yeah!" I was pretty much out of breath, and didn't really have time to stop and ask him how his race was going, so I carried on.
Once again, I still felt great at this point. I was now in a good place in the race, and all I had to do was continue a comfortable pace.
The course now took a devious turn to the right, following some powerlines. I say devious, as the trail went pretty much straight up. Memories of the Kusam Klimb came over me, but I was up to the task, and held my own on the steep slopes. I actually was reeling a guy in with my powerhiking, but I had heard from people before the race that this hill was a killer. And killer it was. It continued up and up, and if you could imagine a bulldozer making a path straight up under powerlines, uprooting stumps and broom bushes...well that is what it looked like. Because it was so open here, I actually could see way, way up infront of me and catch sight of another runner way up ahead.
I battled through and was right on the heels of the #7 runner when something awful happened. I felt my left calf cramp up. I was shocked and actually laughed in disgust. I checked my watch, and it read 1:45. I stopped and took 2 S-Caps, 1 Gel and plenty of water. I then carried on (at a slower rate) hoping that this was, in fact, nothing. The cramping didn't subside unfortunately, and not only did I lose sight of the #7 runner, but I was passed by the #8 runner. This was not good.
As I kept climbing up the hill, the calf eventually began to work itself out, and I was beginning to get hope that I would be alright, after having taken my 'emergency' cramping supplies. And just as I was feeling good again, the other calf started to cramp. Oh shit. This was not good. I took more water and walk-ran my way, and eventually got to the top of the mountain. Both calves were in trouble now, but I was very hopeful as I saw the top. I knew that once the climbing had ended, I would be using different muscles than my calves, giving them a much needed break.
I arrived at the top, and was pleased to see that the trail went back to singletrack. The trail was spectacular here, and it was wooded (it reminded me of the JdF). There were a group of 25k runners here coming up, and we were obviously going the other way than them, so it was a little tough to share the trail, but we did it. Most of the 25k runners cheered for me as I sped along.
My body was once again on form, and I caught up to the #8 runner. The windy downhill was good for my body. At least I thought it was left hamstring started to cramp. Oh shit. I took another gel, another S-Cap and more water, and I knew now I was in serious trouble once again. I carried on but went on with a slower pace. A couple guys passed me, but I was more concerned now about staying in the race, than cracking a top 10 finish. I still had hope that the dark times would come to an end, and that my body would bounce back. I was now around 2:30 for elapsed time.
As I ambled along, my other hamstring started to go. This was very bad news indeed. I wouldn't classify these cramps as 'deadly' cramps, but they were of a serious nature. I walk-ran for a bit, and didn't care that I was being passed by a handful of people. I needed my body to recover, and recover quickly from this nightmare. As the downhill ended, the trail arrived to the edge of a lake and we took a left turn. I was now in a full-fledged walk-run program here, in an effort to simply survive. I grinded my body around the lake trail and caught sight of Des Bazzett ahead of me. He was in my club, but did the early start. As I jogged by him, he said ,"You look great, you're like in 12th place!" I turned to him and said, "Thanks, but my body isn't doing too well." I continued on around the lake trail, and then I was very surprised to see the front two 50k runners zoom toward me. One of them looked at me, waved, and said, "Good job!"
I assume that by seeing them means that there must have been another out-and-back. In actuality, these two top guys were actually lost and had taken a wrong turn. Nevertheless, these guys certainly looked stronger than me. My cramps were coming and going every minute now, and the walk-run was turning into more of a walk. I succumbed to my body and simply walked now...hoping, praying for something positive to happen.
After walking for quite sometime and getting passed by another 2 guys, I finally reached the end of the lake. There was a yellow sign that said "50k first time left, second time right." Perhaps this is where those two top guys went wrong? (we had passed this sign about 12k in) Anyways, I walked to the right. My 4 muscles were cramping badly now and my walk resembled that of a penguin. I was now at the 3 hour mark - 30k in. I walked on for two minutes now considering of actually dropping out of the race. I had just passed a point where I could take an early exit back to the lodge. The cramping was not subsiding and I still had around 20k to go. Of which, I knew there was a significant uphill about to hit me. Thoughts danced through my head. I then finally made up my mind. I was done.
In some ways this was an easy decision, but in other ways it was the hardest decision ever. I had never dropped out of any race. I knew that if I had to finish this race by walking the last 20k, I probably could manage. There was also the slimmest of possibilities that my body would somehow have a miraculous turnaround. And what of my family, and what of my running friends? How would they react to my dropping out? By giving up, I was admitting failure. I hated that thought beyond belief.
However, my body was simply not responding this day. I had tried everything to change the circumstances, and it was not happening. My family and friends would have to understand. Yes, I could walk/stagger the last 20k, but what would be the point of that? 50k races are not supposed to be done this way anyways. I decided that although the trail had beaten me this day, I would leave the race on my own terms, and perhaps be back another year to get my revenge.
So, I took the left turn at the yellow sign and headed back for the lodge. This would be my walk of shame. I had about 3k of walking to the lodge, and wouldn't you know it, the cramping stopped not too far after I passed by that yellow sign.
About 20 minutes later, I was at the lodge and I reported to the finish line to let them know of my DNF. I kinda expected to see a couple others who had done the same, but when the volunteers wrote my name down on a separate piece of paper, I was smart enough to understand that I was the only one thus far.
I headed into the lodge and found my running friends (who had done the 25k). They were all surprised to see me, but were extremely supportive. I did get my own pickings at the food table, and I did get the first shower back at my cabin. After my shower, I grabbed a beer from my back, and used the time to come to terms with everything that went down.
After my shower, I went to the finish line to watch the 50k runners come in. It was, after all, a spectacular day weather-wise.

The Aftermath
Perhaps the hardest thing about my decision to drop out was seeing everyone else finish, and the smiles on their faces when they did so. In fact, when the 12th place runner finished, I could not help but blurt out, "I was right behind that guy the whole way!" Damn, that was hard.
I watched both Rafael Albert and Jason Oliver finish, and I went over to congratulate them both. They both had a good day, and they definitely showed me up, proving that "slow and steady wins the race."
When I got back home, I was thrilled that my family was totally supportive. I wasn't exactly sure how Janelle would react to my DNF, but her reaction was golden. She said, "I suppose you'll just have to go back next year and do it again."
As great as this was, I spend the next couple of weeks really thinking about things. From the ferry ride home that day, the DNF result and the failure had put me into depression and put severe doubt in my mind.
Was I built for long-distance events?
Did I really have enough time to train properly for these events?
Was it unrealistic to think that I could run a strong 50k for the entire duration?
Should I just concentrate on shorter-distance events?
Will I continue to fail at this kind of distance?
And the biggest question of all: "Why did I cramp that day?"
These questions still plague my mind. I still don't really have a concrete answer for that final question. I know I am capable of great things, but I am pretty certain that I don't really have the time to put into training for these things. Sure, I have determination beyond belief, but it is pretty unrealistic to think that 80k of mileage per week at the peak of my training is adequate for 50k events.
So now what?
I am signed up for a few shorter road-races coming up, and I will focus on those. As for the long stuff, and all my 2010 epic plans, I am on hold until I get my confidence back. For the time being, I have lost this confidence, and I have lost quite a bit of my will and desire to attack these long distances.

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