Tag Archive for Ellie Greenwood

Small Victories; Western States 100 (0-62)

I didn't make it to the Olympics Nana and Grandad but I'll take this!

I didn’t make it to the Olympics Nana and Grandad but this is pretty cool! #WS100

At first I was really confused, but then I grabbed my phone to switch off my alarm. Wow. I had done it. I had actually slept! I thought to myself ‘OK let’s go. Western States in two hours. Sweet’. Sleeping was a small victory.

I grabbed my blood tester so I could get my breakfast going. I wanted to scoff down my 600-800 calorie breakfast with a two-hour window before the gun. I knew a heavy breakfast would not be an issue, it would be my last normal meal for at least a day. Plus, the first four miles of the course are straight uphill to the highest point (8,750ft) from Squaw Valley (home of the 1960 Winter Olympics) which meant hiking not running so my stomach could handle this. My glucose was 165 mg/dL, a good start. My nurse and me had decided to bolus 75% of the insulin required for this carb heavy meal of two bagels, a banana, a yogurt and a cereal bar.

Hanging out in the warm with my crew prior to the start.

Hanging out in the warm with my crew prior to the start.

My crew of Tiffany and Team Novo Nordisk team-mates, Benny and Matt worked like clockwork loading the car and checking out of the hotel at 4am sharp. All I had to do was eat all those carbs and get dressed. We got to Squaw and I went off to grab my bib and ankle chip. I surprisingly had to go through a mini-medical again. My weight shot up 5lbs but I was now wearing my backpack and running shoes. I didn’t understand this process. Maybe it was because of the heat and Craig Thornley (RD) was covering every base? Afterall, it had been announced late yesterday that this would be the second hottest Western States in its 40 year history with a high of 102. It definitely was not hot yet though. We lingered inside the main building until five minutes to go. The start area was electric. Although dark, the sun would rise soon which was a positive only in the fact I wouldn’t need my headlamp until the evening.

I said goodbye to my crew and  squeezed my way to the front of the pack (just to get out onto the course efficiently more than anything else). I looked up and there high above me on a three-step painters ladder announcing the crowd in his skimpy blue shorts and white cotton t-shirt was the man who started it all forty years ago to the day, Gordy Ainsleigh. I shook his hand and am fairly sure I told him I loved him in all of my excitement. Come on. I mean, how can you not love Gordy? His horse was too weak to compete in the 100 mile race so he decided to run it instead and so he did, in under 24 hours by the way. No crew, pacers, water, aid stations, nothing. Just sheer guts and determination. That’s Gordy.  Needless to say, I was now really buzzing and just like that we had the ten second countdown and away we went, everyone screaming and whooping at 5am.

Mile 1 - up we go!

Mile 1 – there is no concern about going out too fast at Western States 100!

After 90 seconds, I stopped running and started my power hike up the fire road towards Emigrant Pass. AJW had mentioned at the veteran’s panel discussion pre-race “Only the sub-17 hours run the climb and those who believe there is a bank”. I did not fall into either of those categories. My plan was simple, strict and potentially hugely successful. I was following the sub-24 hour race times per aid station. I had 55 minutes to climb 3.5 miles which worked out at a 16-minute mile hiking effort. I was adamant I was going to stick to my pace so I would not blow up. I had pacers from mile 62 (Foresthill) to the end; my girlfriend Tiffany and team-mate Benny. They would kick my ass so hard if they needed too, because they knew how much I wanted the ‘one-day’ silver buckle. That was honestly my one and only goal for the race and for the course and temperatures, quite the goal to still strive for.

A flood of people passed me as I dropped back to what felt like the middle of the pack as we climbed the early morning light. Occasionally, the climb flattened and I could run a short spurt. As we passed  the waterfall S-bend section, I realized my shoes were not tight enough. I found a rock to address this and lost a minute or two of time. I reminded myself of Ellie Greenwood’s tip; don’t panic. So, I had lost time to tie my shoes better. So what? It was mile 2! I stayed calm and kept hiking. I hit the Escarpment aid station one minute early. Just like I had been encouraged to do, I had hiked so far on just half a bladder of water to conserve every possible piece of energy. I now filled it to the very top, grabbed some bananas and continued on up the last half mile to Emigrant Pass.

Climbing between Escarpment and Emigrant Pass.

Climbing between Escarpment and Emigrant Pass.

We passed some photographers at the top of the climb and spectators. I had kept turning to my left all the way up to watch the sunrise behind Lake Tahoe. This view was absolutely mind-blowing. I thought at the time ‘I have never run in such a beautiful setting’ and a week later, that statement remains true. AJW said “saviour the moment, soak up the Western States experience (being a lottery, you never know when or if you will do this again), thank the volunteers, enjoy time with your crew and take in the views, look back before descending the mountain for one more look at Squaw and Lake Tahoe”. I did and would do all of these things.

Emigrant Pass sunrise.

Emigrant Pass sunrise.

Follow the yellow *ribbon road.

Follow the yellow *ribbon road.

I followed the Montrail yellow ribbons down the single track the other side of the mountain. The highest part of the course was already over. With seven miles before the next aid, the thing to do now was to eat, and eat often and run at a very easy pace. The course here had zero snow on it compared to previous years. Holding back the legs took some serious discipline on my part. My pace was 10:45’s and I used my Suunto Ambit to guide me as best I could as I descended in the wilderness section of the course. I knew nothing of my place or cared. “Run your own race” said everyone at the panel. It’s true, you have to do this your own way, it’s 100 miles!

This was a rugged section of rocks with the added factor of amazing views of near and far mountains in high alpine country of the Granite Chief Wilderness. Supposedly, you could see thirty miles away here where the Robinson Flat aid station was. Looking up too much could cost you a fall so I tried to save my curious eyes when we had slight uphills to look around.

Towards the end of the section, I had joined part of a congo line; tight single track up a rocky stream. Keeping your feet dry was not really an option here but being patient was. Some people around me dug an elbow in here or there to jump ahead a whole place at mile 9. This seemed beyond ridiculous to me. I stayed calm and decided now was the time for my earphones.

Running the wonderful Granite Chief Wilderness

Running the wonderful Granite Chief Wilderness section.

When the course flattened out, I started running again. I wanted to hit the aid at 2h 10 and thought I only had a few minutes to cover some serious ground if I was going to make it. I must have lost a chunk of time in the congo line. But I turned a long right and then I saw people. Here I was at Lyons Ridge aid, two minutes ahead of time. A quick fist pump. Small victory. I checked my CGM and was around 150. Fist pump, small victory. You get the idea now. It was time to eat some more and not hold back as I could tell my BG number was dropping off. An old guy with a hose asked me if I would like some of Foresthill’s water. He said it with such passion, it felt rude to decline. It was only 7am and I thought, this seems early to be cooling off but the moment he sprayed my torso I felt a big difference. Everyone was right, dry heat (although not that hot yet) is deceiving.

Lyon Ridge

Lyon Ridge

Running along the ridge line on my way to Red Star Ridge (mile 16) was another spectacular section. The congo line had split up before the aid station and I got to run this part solo. My music was blaring out some 90’s British Indie; Placebo and Radiohead I recall. I was officially in my element. Life was good, real good. I sang (no one heard), smiled (no one saw) and ran with happiness. I even had a really fun pee break on the ridge. I’m ranking it number one on my ‘most scenic pee of my life’ list! On a more serious note, peeing was great as it meant i was hydrating well (my glucose level was steady). The ridge line went directly over a section of rocks and the trail then descended into wooded pine lined switch backs for a mile or so.

Scrambling up a section on the ridge line.

Scrambling up a section on the ridge line to Red Rock Ridge.

Running through a foot-strike scientific experiment (Western States is used for a host of sport science data) screamed ‘aid station approaching’ which was pretty darn sweet as my watch said 15 miles when in fact the aid station was officially mile 16. Reaching these check points before I expected too was a real plus mentally. Small victory, yes. Too add to the plus column, the aid station was really loud. It was in a really remote spot so no crew were here but it was a non-issue, the volunteers were simply awesome. I had a personal volunteer right on me saying “What do you need?”. She grabbed my backpack off my shoulders, refilled it with water and I topped up my hand-held with the GU electrolyte drink. Both drinks were packed with ice. I even spooned my hat in a bucket of ice and threw some more down my back for good measure. It had only just turned 8am but all of this was completely necessary to keep my core temperature as cool as possible as the outdoor thermostat was going up fast. I had already gone through 80% of my gels, chews and fruit bars – a good sign I was eating and eating often. I loaded my backpack with more and off I went. I walked out of the aid munching on a cereal bar. I kept saying to myself ‘eat early and often and run easy’. I was doing both textbook style.

From mile 16, it was more gradual downhill running into Duncan Canyon where I would get to see my crew of Tiffany, Benny, Sean and Matt for the first time since Squaw. That was almost five hours ago. The goal pace on the section was 11:30’s but I was definitely going sub-11’s. It was tough to hold back, sometimes it felt like I was doing more damage than good, by braking at that pace. Some parts of the trail were now very exposed, so I played a continuous on/off game with my Oakley’s. Running in the sun was a sure-fire way to keep me drinking regularly. I was more or less a robot anyway; take an S-Cap every 30 minutes, drinking water every 5 minutes, consuming 300 calories of food/liquid an hour. But a quick reminder from the sun didn’t do me any harm to keep at it.

Tiffany helping me refuel and Matt about to prick me!

Tiffany helping me refuel and Matt about to prick me!

After hours of steady relaxed running, I entered into an army of people at Duncan Canyon aid. I caught a glimpse of “Changing Diabetes” ahead on a shirt. My team-mate, Ryan Jones was just leaving the aid station. I locked eyes with Matt. He guided me off to the left like I was a plane looking to park at a vacant gate. He did a great job too. Away from the mass of spectators and into our own shady spot. The crew knew the drill here; towel (to wipe my fingers), blood test (result = 211), sunscreen (Tiffany slapped it on, she was not stingy) refill drinks with ice and a refill foods for the backpack. And go.

Tiffany and Sean - food display 10/10 : )

Tiffany and Sean – food display 10/10 : )

All the food I had bought from REI was carefully displayed on a blanket and I picked out what I wanted efficiently. The ‘piece de resistance’ though was the Anton Krupicka style bandana neck scarf supplied by Tiffany. This was not going to win me any style contests but with a chunk of ice wrapped in it, this would cool my neck and torso all day long. I hadn’t tried this out before but I couldn’t think of any negative reasons why not to try it. The one aid station hiccup we did have, was not having the Aquaphor on hand. I lost a load of time in Leadville due to chafing so this was potentially a big deal although I was not feeling any skin irritation yet. The crew would be back at Dusty Corners in 14 miles and I was confident it would be on everyone’s mind there.

I peaced out and descended a steep section of trail, focusing not too fall in front of all the spectactors. I entered the aid happy and left happier. It was really great seeing the gang. Everyone was in high spirits. I walked a small uphill and then decided to get going again at running speed. And DOWN I went like a sack of spuds! I had got my left big toe stuck under the smallest rock and fell down onto a section of dirt. On the positive, I found no traces of blood to wipe off. Small victory? Absolutely! At first, I didn’t want to clean myself up feeling like I was wasting water but the reality was, I now had 70 fresh ounces of the stuff to get me up to Robinson Flat aid at mile 30.

At mile 25, Ryan came into sight again. I caught up to him and we checked in with each other. He was feeling the heat and had decided he was going to change shoes up ahead to his more cushioned Hoka’s. He was only carrying one water bottle on his hydration belt which concerned me as it was only going to get hotter and hotter for the next several hours, especially in the most feared part of the course; the canyons. We hit a big stream crossing. There was no chance of keeping your feet dry here. We waded through knee-deep, grabbing big rocks as support. Upon, reaching the far side I almost forgot to dunk my hat in the cold water. I felt like Indiana Jones grabbing his hat at the very last-minute. The option of a cool wet hat versus a hot dry one for a few miles could make a big difference. Every opportunity to get cool, I took it.

Crossing the stream before climbing up to Robinson Flat.

Crossing the stream before climbing up to Robinson Flat.

The climb up Robinson’s was long and slow. A volunteer back at Duncan Canyon had told me six key words as I left “2 miles down, 4 miles up, looking great” describing this section, so I was mentally zoned in pretty good.  I had to do a bit of basic math for pacing as these miles called for 15-minute pace. I went with 12-minute downhills and 17-minute uphills or thereabouts. Ryan led the climb all the way. Conversation distracted us from thinking too much about the heat or the climb. I thought I would go past him here but he set a good pace and I tucked in behind. As Ryan had already decided he would need some more time than me at the aid to change his shoes, we agreed we would see each other down the road.

All smiles rolling into Robinson Flat with team-mate Ryan Jones.

Mile 30; All smiles rolling into Robinson Flat with team-mate Ryan Jones.

I hopped on the scales at Robinson Flat, the first major aid station with medical and more spectators than usual. We were just under 30 miles and my weight had dropped only 1lb. It got rewarded with a “great job” by the doc and so I walked over to regain my backpack from a volunteer who had been filling it with ice and water. Whether it was my constant weight in the heat or something else, I really did feel overall really good. The quads were my achilles heel however, tingling slightly at this point so I got a volunteer to sponge them down with ice-cold water that helped wake them up. What really woke me up though was seeing Jeff Le, a really inspiring Brooks ID runner whom I have known for years but never met until now. Jeff went on a life transformation by shedding 160lbs and is now an incredible role model for many; an ultra runner himself over the last few months. He gave me a nice distraction from my quad discomfort. Maybe so much so that when I started running out of the aid station I actually had to turn back! I had forgotten to put ice in my hat and down my back. Losing a minute to do so may have saved me ten by not doing so, who was to know? Now finally ready to roll, I sheepishly tried exiting again, running through a tight yellow marked path with people either side cheering me on.

Before I knew it, I was climbing again, now up on Little Bald Mountain with the most sun exposure thus far. Good call on the ice. The positive of the climb was that I knew the elevation profile. It was only a mile and change up, before four miles of all downhill into Miller’s Defeat. Just before I descended, I checked my pace chart and focused on easy 11-minute miles. I was technically now in the second phase of the course “the canyons” but that didn’t mean start going any faster. The downhill here would be over 1,000 feet and very runnable terrain on dirt roads but I had to save my legs for the canyons. Miller’s Defeat was a tiny aid station. It was an efficient cold shower here, more ice and bottle refill only which would easily see me through to Dusty Corners where my crew would be for the second time.

Mile 38; Running in the sun to Dusty Corners.

Mile 38; Running in the sun towards Dusty Corners.

I was eating good, really focusing on the caloric intake per hour and sipping water regularly. Glucose was overall, really good. If it dropped below, 120, I ate immediately but that was all. My pace stayed steady at 10’s (although I knew it should have been 11’s). I told myself, any slower and I would be doing quad damage. Whether or not I was right, I was doing 10’s and I knew I had gone from hitting aid stations on the money to now building up a few minutes ever since I left Lyon Ridge. I was breaking my strict plan of no faster than sub-24 pace before 62. What was wrong with me? Why can’t I ever stick to a plan? I hoped the great feeling I was experiencing would still be the there at Foresthill when pacing duties commenced. I did not want this to be a zombie march home like Leadville and waste the energy of Tiffany and Benny because I got greedy up front.

Yes. Pour more water on me.

Yes. Pour more water on me. I will not complain.

I flew into Dusty Corners with a twenty-three minute lead on sub-24 pace. Laura and her friend Geri had arrived direct from the airport in time to crew and pace Ryan. I gave her a sweaty hug, she didn’t seem to mind. Everyone was asking me how I was feeling and I couldn’t pretend I felt anything other than amazing. I truly did. The irony is, after the same time on my feet in DC four weeks prior I was crossing the finish line of my 50 mile race and was absolutely beat. And here I was, OK, a few miles less on my feet but in hotter conditions with many many miles to go and I just felt incredible. My glucose had raised into the mid 200’s (slight overcompensation on the carbs between Duncan Canyon and Dusty Corners) so I took a unit, filled my handheld up with Powerade Zero (no carbs) rather than Gatorade and took gels/chews in my pack for down the road. As it was almost noon, I decided now was a good time for some lunch. I have never really thought in this kind of mind sight before but it made sense to me. I had been grazing on gels, cereal bars and fruit since the start and now was time for something more substantial.

Everyone's happy at Dusty Corners with Laura and Tiffany

Everyone’s happy at Dusty Corners with Laura and Tiffany

I left the aid with a chicken caesar wrap. I purposely walked the next half mile so I could consume ‘lunch’. I soon got into my stride again and ran through the breathtaking Pucker Point that gives you a glimpse of what’s to come next; the hot and deep canyons. If I was here for a leisurely hike or training run, I would have appreciated the view far more but I was pretty happy not looking over the ledge to see how deep it went. My mind didn’t want to know, my body said, just get me there and I’ll figure it out.

Pucker Point. Don't look down unless you want to see how far you have to run!

Pucker Point. Don’t look down unless you want to see how far you have to run!

Around mile 40, things turned ugly and quickly. I started to get into some serious discomfort with cramping in my hamstrings and IT band areas. Stationary agony took over. To add insult to the situation, I was stuck in an exposed section of trail as the sun beamed down on me. An S!Cap, a slow walk, a brisker walk and finally some sort of shuffled running ensued to get me going again. But within yards, the same pain occurred in my other leg. This was not good. How many miles to go? Too many to count. I had to switch that off straight away. What did Ellie say again? Don’t panic. OK. Focus. I had too just put one foot in front of the other and so that’s exactly what I did.

I finally made it to a sign that read “single file runners”. I felt guilty that I was walking towards people conducting another gait analysis study and here I was, walking towards them about to be a useless statistic! So I put on a brave show and miraculously found some perfect form (heavily biased opinion) and passed their low fixed camera, even exchanging some pleasantries acting as if my legs had never felt any better!

Last Chance aid really was just that. Not my last chance to bail before the canyons (DNF is not in my DNA) but my last chance to really cool off the legs with a soak. I topped up all my water supplies and put ice in every possible place worth carrying it. Of all the course, you did not want to run out of liquid here before the next 4.5 miles. It would take (on paper) 80 minutes to descend 2,000 ft into the super hot Deadwood canyon and then up the steepest climb the other side; 1,500 ft in 1.7 miles with thirty something (I try and forget) switchbacks to Devil’s Thumb. A lack of fluid here would be a disaster.

Left appears a good option.

Left appears a good option.

As I descended the first of many switchbacks down, I instantly recognized the point where Kilian Jornet took off from Geoff Roes and Anton Krupicka in the 2010 race (this was caught on camera for the inspiring documentary “Unbreakable” by JB Benna). As my quads stung with each downhill footstrike, my head shook in disbelief he actually could and did do that. If you want to be humbled as a runner, I encourage you to watch any of Kilian’s videos. Moments later, a runner in his mid 60’s came flying past me down the switchbacks without a care for saving his legs or any of the roots or rocks in his path. Double humble pie! And I thought I was a good downhill runner!

I ended up descending with a girl a few feet in front of me; Traci Falbo. She was pretty badass. I had no intention of taking the lead from her. I found out she is not only friends with my friends (Kino, Jackie etc), but this was only 25% of her Summer racing. She was one of the thirty-two going after the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (Western States, Vermont, Leadville and Wasatch in the space of three months!) Triple humble pie for me down the first canyon!!

Suspension bridge I purposely avoided at first to cool off in Deadwood Canyon's river bed.

Suspension bridge I purposely avoided at first to cool off in Deadwood Canyon’s river.

As I had learned from the course talk, I was instructed to go down the trail and cool off in the river at Deadwood before crossing the bridge. The temperature was supposedly 10-15 degrees hotter down there than the rest of the course which made it 117 ish (?!). Yes, it was hot but I won’t pretend it actually felt that hot. I scrambled down rocks into the clear water where other runners were soaking below. I lifted my insulin pump from my shorts and soaked in the clear water up to my chest. I didn’t really gage the time I relaxed here but as soon as Traci left, that was good enough for me. I scrambled out, crossed the bridge and got my power hike on still dripping from the river.

I checked my GPS for current mileage and added 1.7 to it so I would know when this climb of climbs would be over theoretically. Steady climbing to Devil’s Thumb, that’s all I could do. I guess I had my strengths and weaknesses wrong this whole time with trail running. I’m actually a climber, not a descender because I took no prisoners getting out of this canyon! I’m pretty sure I gobbled up ten spots on the climb. Most competitors were not enjoying the ride up, some were top ladies having rough days outside of the top 10 spots.

Devil’s Thumb aid station was booming with energy for the middle of nowhere. We were welcomed with open arms which was clearly just a trick to get us directly on the scales again. They had me at 174 and I bartered with them that it looked more like 175. My CGM was vibrating and beeping at me which is never a good sign. I double checked the score with my glucose meter I was carrying on board. Yep, I needed some glucose to push me back up. The next aid station was at the bottom of El Dorado, one hour away. I chugged some Coke and Sprite but my stomach was cringing that fizz now (I had been sipping on those all morning).

I saw a runner with an ice pop and asked him where he got it. A volunteer gave me the choice of three flavors. I took all of them. Ice and sugar together? Perfect. I still wasn’t convinced I was carrying enough sugar supplies in my pack to get me down the next 5-mile stretch safely when my eye caught a half drunk Gatorade bottle on the ground behind the aid station. “Can I have that?’ I asked boldly. “Um…well” and before I could get the long excuse why I couldn’t, a lady interupted “I have a frozen one in my car”. An angel at Devil’s Thumb! As she ran off to her car, I iced my legs, refilled my hat and bandana full of ice and then there it was, the coldest frozen best ever Gatorade I had ever held! I knew I was carrying 34 grams of carbohydrate, 34 grams of sugar in my right hand like the nerd that I am (have to be) and off I went. I had lost weight and time at Devil’s Thumb. But it was important to try to eat and leave fully stocked up on carbs to make sure I didn’t go hypo in the canyons.

A gradual descent pre-canyon

Moving along between canyons; sometimes one step at a time was better than nothing

Before the drop off into El Dorado, I ran some easy flat trails but was struggling once more with cramping. I decided after a lot of choppiness; run, cramp, walk, repeat, to just walk at a brisk pace on the borderline of cramping up but not quite. This kind of sucked because I knew doing this for long enough was eating into my time I had accrued (it was now down to about 15 minutes post-Devil’s Thumb). As the descent begun; the long 2,600 ft drop into El Dorado Creek, a runner passed at what looked like a nice controlled pace. I jumped on board, at first from a distance and mimicked his pacing. Could I hold this? Um…yes. For a minute? OK, sure. How about two? Yes, why not? My glucose felt good, right where it should be in the mid 100’s again. I kept going. “Hey man, hot as balls right?” he shouted back to me. “I guess. I’m more concerned with  cramps right now” I replied. “Double up dude” referring to salt capsule intake.

I try my best to take two per hour as per instructions but maybe he was right. Do the instructions know I’m cramping non-stop in the middle of the Western States canyons at 115 degrees? Jessie was his name and he proved to be my next saviour. More S!Caps in the system and me and Jessie were now descending this canyon like it was a 10K trail race. We joked the weather should be killing us. A London and Portland boy used to rain and clouds running sub-24 pace at the 2nd hottest Western States on record. We smiled and laughed at that one. We had unknowingly crossed the halfway point of the race on the descent and rolled into the aid station at the bottom. An aid station in the bottom of a canyon. God bless those volunteers.

Ice cold sponge showers were free of charge, so I took two. Jessie went ahead as I picked up some fruit and chocolate for the climb. At least three runners sat in chairs looking defeated. So far, I had avoided the chair like the plague. I was not planning on using one until Green Gate (80 miles). “Beware of the chair” one of many great ultra sayings. The chair doesn’t get you anywhere, you’re better off keeping the wheels turning, especially down in a hot canyon! Needless to say, I didn’t spend too long looking at the chairs and off I went on the 1,800 foot climb up to Michigan Bluff where the crew awaited me for the third time. Knowing that, put a rocket on my back. I soon and surprisingly caught Jessie again and this time passed by. My climbing strength shock me again as I passed several more people on the up. Was I being too aggressive? Absolutely not. My heart rate remained well in range, I just stretched my legs fully and kept the pace steady.

A famous Western States landmark sign (and shoes). 56 miles were behind me.

I reached a flat on the red sandy trail which spelled the climb was over. A few spectators hung out sunken into their $8 Walgreens foldaway chairs to my right. “Welcome to Michigan Bluff!” an older gentleman yelled at me. I smiled and responded “Great to be here!” It really was. One last ‘mini’ canyon and then it was pacer time, all the way to Auburn. Matt Patrick was the first person I recognized at the frenzied aid station with bright carnival flags lining the route. I think he said I looked great and if he didn’t, I remember, I definitely did. I had picked up some more time thanks to Jessie being my slingshot of energy when I was having a real tough time only a few miles back.

Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

Michigan Bluff; Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

Blood glucose was back at a safer 200 (it beat dropping off from 100 back at Devil’s Thumb). All the crew were there for both me and Ryan. They were, as per norm, on top of it  all, each with their own job to do; refill bladder with ice and water, refill handheld with ice and Gatorade, bandana with ice, ice packs on my head and shoulders, refill backpack with food etc etc. Race car crews should be asking for tips from my crew. I cannot and will not ever be able to thank them enough for their energy and support. It was beyond awesome.

One more canyon (Volcano) to go and then Tiffany would begin pacing me. That felt great to know. The stretch of trail before the canyon descent was straightforward. I tried to eat some more real food here. A swiveled around a metal gate and that gave me enough of a clue that this was now business time once more. The quads were hurting, getting numb almost but the worse pain were my Latin buddies; left and right sartorius that wrap diagonally form the lateral hip area to the medial knee (longest muscle in the body science fans). Those were killers and known to get painful with chronic downhill activity. Yes, that box was firmly ticked!

But my head was strong, I knew I was having a great race overall. I followed another super strong female runner down this final canyon. I shamefully asked her (Abby) if she thought the river was much further. We agreed it couldn’t be anymore than a mile. I felt better knowing she lived and trained in Colorado because she was flying! Eventually it (the river) appeared almost out of nowhere. Back in the drink up to my chest just for a minute or two. This was such a lifesaver to bring body temperature back down, a great tip from the veteran’s on Thursday. Abby was all business and climbed out the river and up the other side, never to be seen again (Spoiler alert; she finished F10 – the only female without a sponsor. Amazing.)

The climb up to Bath Road was standard procedure power hiking. I felt like I was ahead of pace here but didn’t bother to check. I have climbed Bear Mountain, NY enough times (the same climb in elevation change) that this one was definitely the easiest, plus it was the last one which helped in the head. The sign saying ‘Auburn Running Store aid station 1/4 mile’ though was not mentally good for me because it was way further!! Me and another runner playfully harassed the aid station for their false advertising sign! I didn’t hang here for even a second. Foresthill aid was in 1.4 miles where the crew would be waiting. I had everything I needed so kept going.

I didn’t know I had to keep climbing beyond Bath Road aid though but that’s exactly what I had to do. It was all asphalt which was a nice break from trail (normally I crave the opposite). Pacers and crew cars were coming down to meet their runners, so I had some nice camaraderie with them to keep working up the climb. I turned hard left on a pine trail parallel with Foresthill Road so I knew I was close. More and more people came into sight, my favorite one though had her new backpack on, cap back to front with pigtails and a huge smile on her face. It was great to see Tiffany so excited, about to pace me during Western States. What an experience for us to share.

The scales had me back up to 177lbs. Small victory. I was ahead of schedule by thirty minutes or so but felt great, not worn out. Small victory. 62 solo miles done, 38.2 to go, ALL with pacers now. Small victory. If you don’t build the puzzle one piece at a time, you never complete it. This was exactly how I was getting through the distance, managing the experience and adventure as best I could. I was enjoying it tremendously. Now I just had to keep it all together with the help of pacers and this would be a huge personal victory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pre-race build-up to the Western States 100

The calm before the storm. The Western States 100 start line at Squaw Valley.

The calm before the storm; The Western States 100 start line at Squaw Valley.

The start of the week leading up to departing for California were fueled with lists, packing and re-packing. I really had no idea what the weather would be like at midnight or 3am during the run so was packing every item of running clothing from spare singlets to a winter hat and gloves. I’m an over-packer regardless but this trip was not the one to be stingy on any one single item I might crave (you can read that as cry for) at mile 80. The one really worrying piece of clothing not packed, not even in my possession still, were my running shoes! A couple of fresh pairs of Brooks Pure Grit 2 were clearly going the scenic route from Seattle, WA to NYC. Thanks FedEx, just what I didn’t need!

Fresh out of the box, ready for some WS miles!!

Fresh out of the box, ready for some WS miles!!

My toy store (REI Soho) proved my saviour. The sales rep confirmed slightly confused I really wanted two pairs of the same shoe on Tuesday evening. When I confirmed and said it was for an upcoming race, he replied “Huh, must be some race”. I smiled, agreed and went home to pack them.

A1c on the money!

A1c on the money!

I had a great appointment at Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center Wednesday morning. My nurse Emily and I discussed the upcoming race in detail and compared my results from Leadville for guidance. We agreed on one main change. Reduce the basal level of insulin less than for a normal 8-mile run or marathon. This is due to two facts. My energy expenditure level is far less over 100 miles and I needed to make sure my BG levels were not too high so I could eat along the way to bring in calories. I would need to intake 250-300 calories per hour. To top off my visit, my A1c had dropped again; 6.3. Could life get better? Yes, I was flying out to Western States!

Tiffany and I flew out to Reno, NV that evening. It would give us two full days to get settled. But once at La Guardia, we heard immediately of our delayed plane. It was back to being anxious again (just like those shoes!). We questioned if we would get stuck in Denver for the night (our transfer city) and looked at other flight options to get us out to California direct. As per usual with flying, we really didn’t have any control over this. The biggest stress and question was, when would we now get to Squaw Valley?

We landed in Denver over two hours late. Luckily, we’re both runners.  A two-minute dash through the Rocky Mountains airport and a delayed second flight equaled a couple of delighted travelers high-fiving at gate 38. We would make it to Reno. We sat on the plane and I cheekily asked Tiffany if she enjoyed her first ever time in Colorado.

We landed in Reno at midnight, 3am east coast time. It had definitely been an ultra just

Reno ram goats!

Reno ram goats!

getting here. Yes I was tired but Reno-Tahoe airport is like a crazy dream. You get off the plane and immediately step onto wildly dated Aztec carpet with more slot machines than waiting seats. My highlight though was the taxidermy display of ram goats. OK, it was definitely time for bed. This idiot was delirious.

We woke up early, I inserted a new CGM site (so it would be at its most accurate for the race) and tried to bring my blood glucose down slightly. Stress, traveling and time zones play some games with blood glucose. We departed Reno on four wheels. A quick trip to Walgreens to get some water for the 90 minute road trip to Squaw Valley turned into a mass assault for anything and everything we would need for the race; fold away chairs, bug spray, Gatorade, Coke, Red Bull, an ice cooler, chips and chocolate!  In a way, we were pleased it was done before we got over excited with all the build-up to come at race headquarters.

We chose a more scenic drive west which added thirty minutes (and probably thirty photos). We winded up Mount Rose and descended the other side to the north rim of Lake Tahoe. Neither of us had ever been here and we were uncontrollably excited with the beauty of the Californian great outdoors; huge pine trees, mountains with snow caps and of course, Lake Tahoe. The “vacation” had now firmly begun.

Lake Tahoe is sweeeeeet!

Lake Tahoe is sweeeeeet!

We drove through the vacation town of Tahoe City (where we would stay) and drove the five-mile stretch of gradual incline to Squaw Valley ski resort. Our plan was to be at the peak of the mountain for a Western States opening ceremony at noon. We had the option to hike the four miles up (2,550ft) or take the tram which would save the legs. I used my head and saved the legs. Even after we reached the top of the tram ride at High Camp, we still had to hike another mile (550ft of gain) to get to the ceremony at Emigrant Pass – the highest part of the WS course at 8,750ft elevation. I felt a slight lack of oxygen on the climb but really quite minor. The views were as warned, epic. It felt like I was back in Colorado. I feel relaxed on the mountains in the summertime.  I cannot explain how or why I find such joy. I don’t need to analysis it in detail, I just know I am happiest here. Tiffany ran most of the mountain up and tested out altitude for the first time. I dared her to run a big section of uphill thinking she would bail and of course she did not just to prove me wrong! Two peas in a pod.

Emigrant Pass ceremony at 8,750ft. Mile 4 of WS.

Emigrant Pass ceremony at 8,750ft. Mile 4 of WS.

The ceremony was packed full of Western States veterans, today’s best (Andy Jones-Wikins, Ian Sharman and Ellie Greenwood I spotted) and many first timers and their families. We could see the huge alpine country to the west and Lake Tahoe to the east. We were standing in between large patches of snow, still clinging onto their last few days. Seeing the snow seemed weird to me. It was the end of June and the temperature was in the mid-90’s.

East view of Lake Tahoe from Emigrant Pass.

East view of Lake Tahoe from Emigrant Pass.

Tiffany got a workout in by running the four-mile stretch down the mountain to Squaw. I hiked back the mile to the tram casually. I was definitely jealous but knew I had to be smart. She even beat me to the bottom! We spent the afternoon off our feet at some really important and worthwhile meetings. Cue, Walgreens fold away chairs.

Meeting on the lawn.

Meeting on the lawn.

A ‘crew’ clinic helped confirm our team plan for where to go to on the course and where not too. Tiffany scribbled notes as I tried to not stare too hard at the veteran talker’s silver belt buckle. She had it all worked out anyway; where to drive, when to be there and of course she knew her pacing leg from Foresthill (62) to Green Gate (80) by heart. She let me relax, she was fully on top of this. My other two crew members were Benny Madrigal from Team Novo Nordisk. A Californian who  I regard as one of the fastest 5K to marathon runners of our twenty-something team. He has run trails all his life and would be my pacer from Green Gate to the finish. Sean McPherson and I met during The North Face DC 50K race in 2012. We placed 1st and 3rd but didn’t know we were both type 1 diabetics until months after the race. He would be a key crew member for me as he knew the course inside out (his parent’s live near Auburn). The third person also meant, they would all get some sleep.

The course meeting gave me some great tips, I otherwise would not have thought of/known. 1) don’t carry a full hydration pack of water up the first four miles, you can top up at Escarpment (first aid station). 2) run the first 30 miles to Robinson’s Flat super super easy and eat often. 3) put ice everywhere! The forecast was showing 101-102 degrees. Put ice in your bladder, bottles, cap, neck scarf, down your back etc and do it often. 4) cool off in the rivers  of the canyons. Rather than cross the bridges and climb straight out of the 115+ degree canyon, go down the trail a bit further and cool off for a couple of minutes. I also got various stats on how long climbs were, where medical weigh-in’s were, where most people drop from the race (I ignored this part) etc.

The final meeting (Veteran’s panel discussion) of the day was one not to miss. It was a gem. The host was Andy Jones-Wilkins (AJW), a seven time Top-10 WS finisher. The panel consisted of Gordy Ainsleigh (the grandfather of ultrarunning), Tim Twietmeyer (25 time WS finisher, 5 time WS winner), Ellie Greenwood (2 for 2 at WS and current course record holder) and Ann Trason (14-time WS winner amongst many other women’s records).

The advice was priceless. Well, Gordy kept talking about wanting beer on the course which I think is probably a no-go by the lawyers but it definitely loosened up the audience. The main subject was “heat”. We all had this fear now that we were not only going to be running the most famous ultra race of them all; Western States (many for the first and only time), but we were going to have to do it in fiercely hot temperatures, especially down in the canyons around the middle of the day. I had been on the fence about how to hydrate for the race; with two hand-held bottles or my backpack. Ellie talked hydration and sealed the deal for me saying “better to have too much water than too little”. I would run with the pack (50oz bladder and a 20oz bottle) for the first 62 and then switch to two 20oz handhelds with my pacers for the evening/night-time running which would cool off a little.

Tim warned about personal goal times and now was the time to adjust those. It felt like Boston Marathon ’12  heat wave all over again. “Don’t adjust your times by 10-30 minutes, adjust it by three hours” he warned. I looked over at Tiffany and said “I’m not adjusting my goal (sub-24)”. She look slightly concerned for my well-being.  I knew in my head, if the conditions had have been cool, let’s call them ‘perfect’, I could perhaps run the course in 21 hours. That is a huge perhaps, as I only have one 100 under my belt and that was 28 hours. I used this completely irrational unknown fact to ignore Tim’s advice (sorry Tim). Let me emphasize my mental state; I did not come here for anything less than the “one-day” silver WS buckle.

Veteran's Panel; Ellie Greenwood, Ann Trason, Tim Twietmeyer, Gordy Ainsleigh and AJW.

Veteran’s Panel; Ellie Greenwood, Ann Trason, Tim Twietmeyer, Gordy Ainsleigh and AJW.

Ann Trason, shamefully urged runners that when they would go through a rough patch (which we all would) vomiting could actually be a good idea to reset the ‘stomach button’. Some cringed, some laughed. I took note, although, I have never been sick while running. The general advice though was, never stop moving forward. Just keep going. I left Squaw glowing. We drove back to Tahoe City to check-in at the hotel and relax. This would be my last chance to get one more decent night of rest.

Lake Tahoe for breakfast anyone?

Lake Tahoe for breakfast anyone?

WS-eve. We grabbed breakfast on the lake before driving back to Squaw. Benny and Matt fro the team were now in tow having arrived late Thursday evening. I met up with the Sports Science department from my old university (Liverpool John Moores) as a volunteer for a heart study they were conducting at the race. Pre- and post-EKG analysis and ultrasound studies. I have always been interested in the heart and it was great to have a chat with some fellow Brits, seeing who still worked at the university from my time there. I would see them again at the finish line in a completely different state!

A ‘fun-run’ was kicking off at 10am. Being WS, this was a bit more than your 5k local town race though. Montrail (the WS sponsor) were putting on the 2nd annual 6K Uphill Challenge which follows the WS course. Benny and Tiffany picked up their numbers and were going to race it hard. I went back and forth on whether this was such a good idea to do but Matt reassured me “Do it with me, we will hike it at the back of the pack real easy”. Done deal. And I didn’t regret it.

Montrail 6K Uphill Challenge @Squaw Valley

Montrail 6K Uphill Challenge @Squaw Valley (Benny in the lead!)

Being the first few miles of the WS course, it helped me understand what pace I would need to do this at tomorrow to hit Escarpment (3.5 miles) in 55 minutes, which is 24 hour pace. We walked, hiked and ran small sections of flat, making many new friends along the way. I even bumped into Nick Polito (a fellow Brooks runner) as he was descending the mountain. Running is such a small and oh so friendly world.

Post-6K challenge with Matt and Benny.

Post-6K challenge with Matt and Benny.

We never saw Benny. I think he sprinted the whole thing and came top 10! Tiffany was ecstatic at the top too. She had come 3rd or 4th woman and loved it. I feel some more trail running is around the corner for her! Me and Matt made it in 45 minutes. My 6k PR!! So, it told me, I could hike this ten minutes slower tomorrow and be on pace. That was really good information to have without wearing myself out. We grabbed the tram back down and met up with Ryan Jones (my team-mate also running WS) and his wife Robyn for lunch.

WS100 Check-in. Medical and lots of free gear!

WS100 Check-in. Medical and lots of free gear!

I did my pre-race check-in which was super fun. I bumped into ultra legends Hal Koerner, Mike Morton and Timmy Olson who are all great guys and super approachable. As Matt reminded me, name any other sport where you get to compete with the best in the world? I even snagged an official pre-race bib photo with Timmy which was awesome! My weight was 177lbs and that got marked on my yellow wristband. This stat was an important one. Just like blood glucose levels need to be steady so does your weight in ultrarunning. I would need to eat and drink smart to stay around 177 and therefore increase my chances of having a great race.

We split from Squaw mid-afternoon and did the famous grocery store run for last-minute food items and breakfast. One last team meeting on the shore of Lake Tahoe and a ‘final supper’. A grabbed a beer to try to take the edge off what was about to unfold. I was hopeful I could  get some sleep but I wasn’t convinced.

A Western States profile plaque for me to study!

All checked in and ready to go home and rest. Oh wait, a Western States profile plaque for me to study!

I was tucked up in bed by 9pm but not done quite yet. I ran the numbers one more time for each aid station arrival,  calculating average pace per section. I’m very scientific, maybe too much so, but it comforted me to know my pacing variations over the course I would need to hold for sub-24. I wrote these notes on my elevation graph print out, taped it (to waterproof it) and put it in my race shirt side pocket. I would carry this with me and focus on the numbers to a) try to hold my pace back and b) to  ultimately achieve a dream of mine for a long time – to complete the Western States 100 with a one-day buckle. Lights were out by 10pm. Time to dream.

Running the numbers. I went to bed confident I could execute this plan, even with the forecast of a high of 101 degrees.

Running the numbers; I went to bed confident I could execute this plan, even with the forecast of a high of 101 degrees on race day.

2013 Race Calendar; The Plan of Attack!

I have spent a few more weeks than I had planned in my off-season; my right ITB told me to roll more, rest more. It’s given me time to reflect on an amazing 2012, appreciate being 100% healthy and like most runners in December-January; plan for an even more amazing 2013.

The A race (of all A races!)

My “A” race stands out like a sore thumb, in a very very good way; Western States 100. As a first time entrant to the lottery system to the oldest and most prestigious 100 miler in the world, the chances of actually getting a place were between slim and none. I somehow got in. What is it with me and raffles in 2012? I don’t know but I need to be buying Mega Millions too. I’ll be rubbing shoulders with the best in the sport; Tim Olson, Ryan Sandes, Ellie Greenwood to name only a few. I will be fortunate enough to share this awesome experience with my Team Novo Nordisk teammate; Ryan Jones (a fellow LT100 finisher in 2012).

Did someone say running in Colorado?! I’ll go!

My second major race falls into a new distance. The 100K race is something yet to be tackled on my resume. I’ve seemed to found a fairly successful race distance between 50K and 50M; the “W” from The North Face in DC and my 16th place at JFK (both 2012) are my highlights to date. I was unable to enter the Ultra Race of Champions (UROC) event last year due to the date being a week apart from the Chicago Marathon. This year, no such marathon dilemma, it is fully on my radar. It will be my “A2” race if you will. The event, in it’s third year now, attracts the best athletes going after the biggest prize money in ultra running (not that I think I will get anywhere near the pot of gold!) It has moved from Virginia to Colorado for 2013. I don’t think I can resist the challenge of some thin mountain air on a great point to point course beginning in Breckenridge and finishing in Vail.

Looking to PR big time @ the oldest one of them all; Boston Marathon

But, back to the start. I”ll kick things off with some winter training with a great and smart training partner; Gary Berard, and give Boston a good effort. It’s time to shave off some time from my PR of 2:45. Then, it will be full on trail season with a return to Bear Mountain for 50 miles and DC for the same distance (key fitness tests for Western States). I’m dabbling with Pocono Marathon in mid-May purely from a downhill elevation perspective (specificity training). Remaining races will no doubt happen on a whim to add the year. I haven’t figured out a half-marathon yet towards Boston for starters and I’m keen to tackle a Half-Ironman maybe towards the end of the year. I am really excited and ready to race alongside my team mates at Team Novo Nordisk and make this year the best one yet.

Here’s the calendar to date (bold=registered);

February 16th: Martha’s Vineyard 20-Miler, MA (tbd)

April 15th: Boston Marathon, MA

May 4th: TheNorthFace Endurance Challenge 50M, Bear Mountain, NY

May 19th: Pocono Marathon, PA (tbd)

June 1st: TheNorthFace Endurance Challenge 50M, Washington DC 

June 29th: Western States 100, Squaw Valley-Auburn, CA

July 20th: 20in24 Relay, Philadelphia, PA

September 28th: UROC 100K, Vail CO (tbd)

JFK 50 Mile: The 33 Minute PR

A year ago I stepped up to what many regard as a ‘real’ ultramarathon; 50 miles. The race to me was simply known as JFK. I have since learned much of its history. It is the oldest 50 mile foot race in USA, inspired by Teddy Roosevelt and implemented by President Kennedy in 1963 to make sure all military officers were fit for war. The course has stayed the same each year since. Starting out in the small town of Boonsboro, MD, the race is 15.5 miles of road climbing and Appalachian Trail (AT), just over a marathon on the C&O canal towpath and ending with 8 miles of rolling road hills into Williamsport, MD. I learned a lot from my first 50 in 2011, mostly don’t assume your body will keep going without fueling or pacing!  I was however ecstatic with my 7 hours 13 minutes and 33rd overall. How could I not be? It was a PR!

JFK elevation: 15 miles of trail fun followed by 35 miles of flat and fast canal path/rolling hill roads

I returned to this historic race for precisely that reason. This year was the 50th running of the oldest 50 mile race in the country. I signed up in Spring for one of the 1,000 places against 10,000 people and was lucky to get a place. I think I put about six stamps on my envelope come to think about it, just to make sure I had paid enough postage and maybe it would get there even quicker!

Race Day: November 17th 2012

I woke up at 5am to temperatures just above freezing that would rise to a high of 52. Perfect running conditions. First, great weather in Leadville (no thunderstorms), then Chicago (no heat) and now JFK. The weather gods have been kind to me this year. Walking the half mile from Boonsboro school to the start line on the main street bundled up in five layers, I had the intention of starting the race with a long-sleeve top over my Brooks ID singlet and wear hat and gloves. I scanned what over runners were wearing and decided to scrap my extra layers and go singlet and sleeves from the start. A final pre-race blood test had me at 240. My glucose had risen from 143 at breakfast. Not ideal and a slight miscalculation of bolus intake. I already had my hand-held bottle filled with Gatorade which I now wished was just water. I poured half of it away, upset with myself for not having water to replace it with and/or having a better starting blood glucose. Probably both. I increased my basal rate on my insulin pump and knew I could get water at aid stations to stay hydrated. I would figure it out, I always seem too.

The start of the 50th annual JFK 50; me (in neon yellow, no not Eric Clifton in pink tights!)

The great-grandson of Teddy Roosevelt fired the starter pistol to get us under way at 7am sharp. I sat right behind the two favorites; Max King and David Riddle before they quickly pushed up to the very front. As the top 25 of us quickly took off from the main pack, I immediately wished I had kept my gloves as the cold wind rushed over my hands.

The pace was fast, faster than I had thought possible. 7:02 at mile 1. I had studied my Garmin data from JFK 2011 and knew I was too aggressive in the first half of the race which led to a breakdown in the second half with cramps through miles 32-38. So why was I running a 7-minute mile?! In my defense, the start of the race is a good time to jockey for position before the trail section and road miles are always going to be quicker than trails.

Road miles out of Boonsboro, MD

My plan for this year’s race was 8:30 average pace through the first 15 miles and 7:30’s for the last 35. This would equate to a 6 hour 30 minute race. Plan B was: 6:43. Why so precise? A 30 minute improvement from 2011 sounded nice and Plan C was to go sub-7 hours. My training seven weeks post-Chicago consisted of not much training. Rest had become the new mileage. My longest run had been 16 easy miles.

We soon climbed steeply for a mile and jumped onto the first section of trail. As the sun rose on my left, the shining light flickered through the trees making it hard to see the trail but at the same time, was one of those beautiful images that remind you why you are a runner. This trail section was fairly wide and still a frenetic pace for 50 miles. An aid station appeared so I grabbed a cup of water as planned to balance out the effort of the first few miles.

We hit a road section again, in the woods now, and climbed again, this time steeper to get to the highest point of the course. Ellie Greenwood was a few yards ahead of me and I studied her as she chose when to run and when to walk the hill. I copied her. My average pace had fallen to 10/min miles but I trusted what I was doing. This is the two-time Western States 100 champion as well as numerous other amazing achievements in the sport. Others around her chose to run the whole way up. I knew I would see the majority of these people again before the race was over.

A familiar looking volunteer from last year pointed at a narrow gap into the woods and I now knew we were onto the magical AT section for 10 miles. This is by far the toughest part of the course, not because of elevation changes but the jagged rocks buried under and around large brown leaves. The pace now fell into that 8:30 range but the energy expenditure felt like 7:30’s. As tough as it I say it was, it is and will always be the most fun part too.

I joined forces with a familiar face, Derek Schultz on the AT, a fellow Brooks ID runner with a very strong ultra background (Laurel Highlands Ultra course record holder). He bombed the downhills and I caught him on the flats as we shared stories for a few miles. We passed the JFK 50 legend Eric Clifton in his trademark outrageous running tights (neon pink this year) and Derek chatted to him while I closed the gap on a pack of three ahead.

I tagged on the back and we became a solid four, staying in order passing the early 5am starters. The last few miles of AT are where the rocks get trickier as your brain gets more tired. It’s also a place that has put a nice dent in my right shin for life from my fall last year.

Just as I thought to myself I may just get off this trail without falling, down I went at the feet of two men from the 5am start. They were staring straight down at me as I moaned in some serious pain. One of them said to the other “That one looked like it really hurt” as if they had been hanging out at the third corner of NASCAR all day comparing car crashes.

They were right. That one did really hurt. My left foot got tucked under a rock and down I went hard on my right side, my right knee connecting perfectly with a rock embedded on the trail waiting to cut me open. I very gingerly got up and got handed my water bottle that must have flown off course during the downfall. I looked down to see if the pain was actually warranted and saw a nice line of claret over the notch of my tibia and was relieved. I mean, if you’re going to fall and moan about it, you want to see proof it hurt right! I hobbled, I walked and finally I ran again and slowly got back into my stride, relived it had not been any worse.

Descending the switchbacks of Weverton Cliffs

At 14.5 miles, I was now functioning like nothing had happened back there. I descended the steep Weverton Cliffs switchbacks down to the Potomac River. A 1,000ft drop in less than a mile. There were lots of 5am runners in this section so I had to communicate well to get by without any more drama. If the switchbacks had a tree on the inside, I grabbed it and swung around the turn without losing too much speed. Clearly the fall, had not hurt my confidence.

I heard lots of cheers below and soon ran through a large crowd of spectators including Michael Chu as I got close to the C&O canal towpath section. At the aid station prior to this 26.3 mile stretch of flat monotonous running was Tiffany, being a trooper running around Maryland all day supporting me. She greeted me with a huge smile and handed me my blood tester. I pricked my finger, blood strip already set up and got my reading: 275. 27…what?

My glucose went up after 15.5 miles? I filled my water bottle with water and kept on going. I analyzed in my head why 275. I had thought that maybe on the trail I was going low around miles 10-13 so knocked back two gels, which in hindsight I never needed. I readjust my basal level from -60% to -20% and would see where my glucose was again at mile 27.

I checked my average pace for the first third of the race; 8:25. Just faster than I had planned but I was happy with that. Now was time to get into my faster stride. I was hitting 7:38 average for the first few miles of the canal. Not quite the 7:30’s I would need for Plan A but it was still early in the race and I found my pace to be manageable. The most important thing was not to run a mile faster than 7:30 even though I felt good. I passed a pair of runners who made a comment “The race doesn’t start until mile 30”. It made me think. I actually put that in my head but changed it to mile 35. I still remember how quickly the body can fall apart from miles 30-35 with that ‘still X miles to go’ mentality.

Changing pace on the C&O canal path

Just shy of marathon distance, I saw a deer ahead on the canal path. I’ve always enjoyed seeing them while out on the trail. As I got closer, I waited for the deer to see me and bolt but it never did. I ran around it giving the guy some space but clearly not enough as it begun to follow me and then decided to chase me! When did deer ever chase humans! My pace went into marathon mode for a few yards until it either felt sorry for me or just got bored with this running thing.

I then teamed up with a human. We chased each other back and forth but not like the deer. We decided it would be easier to say hi, acknowledge we were running the same pace and run together. He (Nick), like many others in the race was part of the military, based at West Point, NY. We ran into a main aid station at 27 to lots of cheers, still chatting away. Tiffany was there again, ready to help me with my blood test; 250. Well, going down but still not low enough to start really eating much. I gave her my handheld water bottle, no need for that anymore as now aid stations were frequent along the canal path (every 4 miles or so) and I was carrying gels in my compression short pockets anyway (if I would ever need them), so I didn’t need to be lugging around Gatorade on heavy arms. Tiffany told me we were in 26th and 27th place.

I caught back up to Nick and we carried on at our pace. We discussed our JFK races from last year, both with similar stories of good but not great performances. He was way ahead of his time goal so when he stopped to take an S-cap and said he would catch me back up and never did, I wasn’t too surprised.

I hit 50K and knew the next few miles would be the toughest mentally. There would be aid at mile 34 and the next main one at 38. The aid station at mile 34 never seemed to come as the long left bend around the Potomac River just kept on going and going with no one in sight. I almost wanted to see another deer! My pace was now slipping towards the 8 minute mark and I wasn’t feeling great. I knew I wasn’t going to cramp like last year; I had been taking two S-Caps on the hour like clockwork. It was my sugar. This time, I knew it for a fact. I could feel the symptoms of a hypo, not just the effort of running 34 miles. I finally saw a dozen Santa and elf hats and an area decorated in tinsel. What a great sight! A volunteer asked what I wanted and I said “Everything!” I grabbed two cups of Coke, M&M’s, orange slices, pretzel sticks and some cookies. I told them, this was the best aid station on the course. Partly because it was decked out for Christmas but also because mile 34 of 50 miles sucks! It’s far enough into the race that you’re really hurting but still too far enough from the finish, you can’t get too excited about it being ‘almost’ over. I played games in my head; 8 miles of canal path, 8 miles of roads. ‘Lets go’ I told myself.

Mile 34 Cookie Monster sighting

I left the aid station swiftly and munched on the food. I had three cookies left. I ate one but quickly realized I was not carrying any more liquid. Their was no way I could eat the other two cookies without getting a really dry throat. I decided to keep them by putting one in each of my short pockets. I don’t know why I did this, I had gels on standby if need be but laughed to myself as I felt like the Cookie Monster taking on the JFK50! Churning out these mid-30’s miles was real agony. I knew a 6:30 finish time was off the table now but as I turned a corner onto a long straight away, I saw a great sight; three runners way ahead. I knew I would eventually get to them. This image gave me new energy. Seeing them and my mile 34 aid station intake made me feel so much better. The pace came back to 7:35-40 and I closed the gap gradually. Eventually I passed them and knew I was now closing in on the top 20 of the JFK50. This became a new goal in itself, one that I did not plan or think about at all pre-race.

I kept my placing but felt my energy and pace dip again as the final aid station on the C&O canal path was not too far away. I pulled out one of the cookies from my shorts and ate it with an energy gel, about 50 grams of simple and complex carbs as one. My mistake of experiencing two hypos close together was that I had tweaked my basal rate of insulin between miles 27-38 and I had been too aggressive to bring my glucose level down.

At the aid station, Tiffany asked how I was doing. My reply was negative for the first time “I’m so tired”. Rightly so, 38 miles is, well 38 miles. But it wasn’t the distance. My glucose was 90. Proof that I had been fighting hypos. I took a Gatorade from her and downed it in seconds and grabbed some Jelly Belly Sport Beans.

Mile 41: the C&O canal towpath almost over

I pushed on but still didn’t feel great. The third place woman passed me and I watched her as she ran with an effortless stride (unlike me). I realized she was hurting too, just not showing it. I kept her in sight and as my glucose rose from the Gatorade and sport beans, my body felt better and I noticed on my watch that there were now only 10 miles left. That’s nothing, I said! 2 miles of canal path, 8 miles of roads. Dig deep. And I did. 7:09, 7:07 for the last two canal path miles.

I had caught back up and re-passed her, promising her beer and pizza at the end for helping me. By keeping her in sight, we had both closed the gap on some other runners who were now also behind us. One of which was third place runner Jeff Buechler from last years 2011 JFK. I felt bad for him, his leg must have blown up or something to be this far back from the leaders.

My pace was now really going up in gear. My glucose felt like it was back to normal and I was about to hit the last section of the course; the rolling asphalt hills. The part I like to forget, is the immediate climb off the C&O canal path which is 200m of pure agony. Your pace goes from hare to tortoise as you clamber up it. I didn’t dare look at my heart rate data but I’m sure it was close to max. I reached the crest with no desire to go any further until I saw a runner ahead. As I ran along the farm roads, one turn then showed me that after him there was no one left to catch. With under 8 miles to go, I was convinced this would be my last place to take. I contemplated sitting on him until one mile to go but quickly realized he was suffering far worse than me so passed by, wished him well and I truly felt sorry for him even though we had over a 10K to go. I asked him if anyone was ahead. He said no. Why would he have said yes? He knew it would only motivate me to kick on. Smart runner, dumb question from me.

I crested a hill as I opened the gap on him. He was right, no one. Just me and the road and an excruciating 7 miles to go! I chose the 8.5 road miles to think of my uncle and his battle with cancer using each mile as a year of his fight. It really helped me because I was absolutely exhausted. I went past an aid station and grabbed a cup of Gatorade to top up my glucose level. I refused to have another hypo now and didn’t care so much if I went the other way. I even threw away my last cookie like a pro cyclist would throw away a water bottle before a big climb. Every ounce mattered to me. I’m pretty sure looking back, that throwing the cookie away didn’t do anything for me!

For the first and only time on the course, we had mile markers. They were traditional wooden blocks by the side of the road with the number of miles to go. All on my own and ready to be done, all I wanted, was to see the next one with a 6 on it.  As I closed in on the mile 6 board, the wind knocked it over on its back as I ran past. I laughed at that one. This was exactly how I felt! I hadn’t looked at my watch for a while. My pace at this point was what it was, meaning I had no more speed to give. It was just under 8-min pace which I knew would put me around 6:43 finish time (Plan B goal). I focused hard to remain sub-8 minute pace.

With 5 miles to go, I noticed a guy in the distance running on an adjoining road. He looked the part. Light shoes, skinny, skimpy shorts. The tell-tale signs of a fast runner. He joined the race road and ran ahead of me. After having some time to really think about this ironic scenario, genius me realized he was not a random runner, he was the next guy ahead of me! I had to assume he went the wrong way or took a pit stop. Either way, I was on his heels and soon he was another one behind me.

Mile 46

Any excuse not to run now ; )

I turned right in between a row of small houses and saw a police car stopping traffic. I knew this was mile 46. I also knew I wasn’t going to see Tiffany here but really wanted too. This pain was really getting unbearable now. Then, of course she jumped into the street cheering me on. It was awesome. My energy was again lifted and the road was now coned off to traffic with the final 4 mile stretch.

At three miles to go, I hit another long straight and I could see three more runners ahead. One was Ian Torrence who I had run with in the pack of 4 back on the AT, hours earlier. I had to pinch myself that I was going to maybe catch this guy. He is a few years older and maybe not his old speed but this guy is a real name in ultra running.

And so it was, I chalked off more guys. My plan to not run hard early and blow up was working. My tank was close to empty but I had been slowly improving my place for most of the race. I had not been passed properly since early in the AT section.

I climbed a sweeping hill to the final aid station at the top. I remembered this and knew I was one mile shy of the end…until the volunteer shouted “1.5 miles to go!” Oh well. What’s half a mile over 50.2 miles right? I turned left to roll downhill on a main road and glanced to my left to see the last person I had passed way back and no threat to me now. I could have eased off the pace at this point and kept my place but I knew I was close to a 6:40 finish time. I made that my mission as I clocked off a 7:10 mile 49.

That 33 minute 50 mile PR feeling!

Can you say ‘Run Happy’ Brooks runners?

I climbed a slight hill on the final straight and saw the finish in the far distance. What a sight! I pushed all the way home and made it; 6:40:38 an average pace of 8 minute miles. I had just taken 33 minutes off last year’s time. What a difference a year makes in my short ultra running career.

I got helped over to a chair by the finish line where I got to celebrate with Tiffany and was also greeted to another familiar face; ultra runner Mark Rodriguez, who came out to watch. I did a post-run blood test for the first time in the comfort of sitting down; 123. A man stood over us and said “I like to see those numbers” explaining further that he was a doctor. We agreed. It was the first good one of the day!

I walked into the Williamsport school to go and take a shower. I hid from the first aid medics that would have loved to play with my gashed knee (I learnt my lesson from this last year!), chat with Ellie Greenwood (by far the best female ultra runner in the world right now) who enjoyed the fact that my last name was England like no tomorrow and met with Max King and David Riddle too. Top ultra runners but better still, top people who genuinely care about their fellow runners as much as they care about their own performances. JFK next year? Maybe. I prefer the mountains to flat courses. If I do go back, I have to consider breaking into the Top 10 males as my goal. We will see. With this much fun and support on the course, why not? For now, rest and more rest before my inaugural race for Team Type 1 in the  California International Marathon on December 2nd.

Ellie Greenwood was more amazed at my last name than her 17-minute course record win (I like to think so).

Finally caught up: Me with Max King (new course record holder) and David Riddle (2011 winner and old course record holder)


 

 

Jeff, Jen, Me and Tiffany. Hanging out at the finish line ready for Buffalo Wild Wings!

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