Thursday, May 28, 2009

I'm a Trail Runner

There's a scene in J.B. Benna's terrific movie, The Runner, documenting David Horton's record-setting 2006 journey along the entire 2700-mile Pacific Crest Trail where Horton is asked why he wasn't attempting his amazing quest in an unsupported fashion (i.e., why he was relying on friends to crew for him along the route rather than fastpacking alone). He responds without hesitation, "Because I'm not a backpacker. I'm a runner." I'm reminded of this scene whenever someone wonders why I avoid the roads like the plague these days. Sure, I live in Houston and I don't have access to endless miles of beautiful singletrack. And, yes, my meat & potato miles are flat or flatish loops around parks and a university campus. My mountains are concrete stadium steps. But it has less to do with environment than temperament. I'm not a road runner. I'm a trail runner. Why? This video (which has been cross-posted on many other sites) hints at the answer. [Note: if you aren't a fan of Coldplay's homage to U2, you might want to turn the sound down]

UltraRunning from Matt Hart on Vimeo.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

It's Not The Heat . . .

As I death-staggered through the final couple of miles of my Memorial Day "run," I reflected once more on that most unpleasant of distance running subjects, the bonk. Most of us have dealt with the classic calorie-deficiency bonk before. Whether at mile 19 of a road marathon or mile 60 of a trail 100, the symptoms are pretty much the same - epic energy crash and an inability to do simple things like move forward at more than 2 m.p.h. The solution to the calorie bonk is pretty straightforward as well - get calories. In a marathon, by the time you bonk, it might be too late in the game to fully recover. But in an ultra, there's usually time for multiple cycles of bonk-rebirth.

There's another sort of bonk, however. One that many a Houstonian knows all too well: the Heat Bonk. More accurately, the Heat & Humidity Bonk. Yesterday had all the elements. Heat? Check - between 83-87 degrees for the duration of the run (not July hot, but then I'm not July heat acclimated either). Humidity? Big check. There's a reason the Memorial Park trails have names like Laos and Ho Chi Minh. Poor run management? Check. Didn't feel like I was setting a very fast pace, but that's the challenge in dealing with the heat. You have to pull back on the reigns significantly and from the get-go, because unlike the calorie bonk, it's damn near impossible to come back from the heat bonk. Once you're cooked, you might as well cash it in. After about 2 slightly too fast hours, I was cooked. Every tiny uphill became a mountain, every short stretch of shuffling felt like speed work. A 5-minute stop back at the car (complete with electrolytes, ice water, and a gel) helped only temporarily. As soon as I tried running again, it became obvious there was nothing left. 10 degrees cooler and 20% less humid and I'm sure I could have churned out another couple of hours. But it wasn't the end of April, it was the end of May. And so I staggered back to my car, a little woozy and a bit nauseated. Not exactly a confidence-builder for Rocky Hill Ranch 50K in a couple of weeks.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Born to Run

If you're looking for a great read over the holiday weekend, you can't go wrong with Christopher McDougall's wonderful new book, Born to Run. Not only is it hugely entertaining, but it might just change the way you look at the "advancements" in modern running. Two big thumbs up.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Hogs Hunt 2009 Photos

Hog's Hunt 2009

A couple years back, Mariela, the fearless leader of our running group asked for volunteers to help out with an aid station at Hogs Hunt, a local 50K/25K trail run at Huntsville State Park. I had run a few trail races at that point, but I'd never volunteered in any capacity & felt it was a good time to start. What an introduction. Mariela and I arrived at the park early that morning to a spectacular thunderstorm - thunder, lightning, and a torrential downpour. Enough to scare off a number of the crossover road runners who traditionally like to give this race a try. But, of course, not the idiot trail runners, who lined up and headed down the trail through the deluge. Mariela and I managed to get things set up in time once the weather broke, and it actually turned out to be a lovely day. Also, it was great fun. Ever since then, I've tried to come back to help out Mariela and HTREX, both at Hogs Hunt and RD Paul Stone's fall counterpart "little" Rocky Raccoon.

A month or two ago Mariela asked if I'd be interested in running the aid station because she would be off conquering the Jemez 50 Mile in & around beautiful Los Alamos, NM. I agreed without hesitation. I immediately contacted my buddy Chris to see if he was interested in co-captaining the aid station. Fortunately, I think he was even more geeked about it than I was. After a mad scramble late Friday to get everything together (tables, coolers, canopy, beer, cutting board, knives, beer, extra munchies, folding chairs, beer) it was off to bed for maybe 5 hours of sleep. Up at 3:00, organize and load up, pick up Chris, and hit the park shortly after 5:30.

My car was already pretty full, so it was nice to run into Jaime (and his big, empty van) at the Lodge. With three sets of hands at this point, set-up goes pretty fast. Lynnor stopped by and dropped off her terrific exchange student, Feli, and shortly thereafter Mary and Denise pull up. With all this help, by 7:00 we were fully stocked and ready to roll. The 2 lead runners came blazing through at about 7:45 (the race started 10-12 minutes late, I think), and then there was a 5-10 minute lull until another group came through (including eventual chick's 50K winner, Meredith Terranova). It's just amazing how fresh all these lead runners look after pushing hard for nearly 13 miles in the Burmese-jungle-heat. Traffic sporadic until maybe 8:15 when the pace of visitors really picked up. I knew from past experience that the runners tend to come in waves and once the fast 25K-ers started mixing in with the slower 50K-ers, we were filling cups and bottles and making PB&J quarters at top speed.

A little later, Chris and I grabbed 5 gallons of water and trekked out to a back-course, unmanned water table Paul had set up about a mile before our aid station. This was our first real taste of warm-day carnage & it didn't disappoint. At least half a dozen people stopped us en route nearly begging for water because "there's no water back there." You don't say. It was indeed fortunate then that Chris and I just happened to be carrying 5 gallons of water on our stroll. When we made it to the table (now with maybe 4.5 gallons of water), it was a little disspiriting to see how many folks had not even attempted to throw their used cups in the easily-accessible garbage bag next to the table. Okay, it was more than a little disspiriting. [Note of trail running etiquette: put your f-ing garbage in the f-ing garbage bag.]

Once back at the aid station, beer-drinking and pain-watching began in earnest, as many runners staggered in as if they'd just crossed the Mojave in July. Appallingly, many of these runners (mostly 25K-ers but some 50K-ers!) weren't carrying any water bottles at all. Hello! It's a week before Memorial Day. In Texas. Might be hot, ya know. Oh well, I'm happy to report that we were prepared for such stupidity, er, oversights and loaded up with lots of ice and extra Coke & Mountain Dew. Needless to say, ice was a popular commodity. As the flow of runners slowed down, many started hanging around the aid station a bit longer before they went out to tackle the final 2.86 miles. As much as I enjoyed providing aid for the "racers" who wasted little time at the aid station, the dawdlers (with whom I share a common bond) are often very entertaining folks. A few took a seat for a few minutes but only a couple dropped.

By 1:45, our job was done and we managed to break everything down and clean up in no time. Dumped the remains of our provisions back at the Lodge with Paul and headed home, exhausted but with a definite feeling of satisfaction. If anyone is considering volunteering at a race, I can't recommend it strongly enough. Not only do you gain a valuable perspective on how much work is involved in making these things happen, but it's also a blast. More pics of The Aid Station That Was Formerly Site 174 (But Is Now Site 142, or something like that) below.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Wither Spring?

Since I've lived my entire life in and around this part of Texas, this shouldn't really surprise me, but what the hell happened to Spring? You know, that season between Winter (such as it is in Texas) and our cruel, cruel Summer (bad song reference). Calendar says first week in May. Temperature says last week in June. Yesterday's late-afternoon 6-and-change around Hermann Park and Rice U was a nausea-inducing broiler of a slog. Thermometer in the car read 91. I believe it. Add to that the fumes wafting up from the rush-hour traffic around Rice and the nasty smell of a roof being tarred nearby that accompanied me for at least a mile, and it was a sucknomenal run. Note to self: running around Rice at rush hour is to be avoided. Found myself throwing in lots of little 30-second walk breaks, mostly to keep from passing out. Heat acclimation began in earnest. Gonna be a long summer.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Best of Times, Worst of Times, Part I - The Worst of Times

American River 2006

Dude must have been at least 70. 75 maybe. I think he may have been using a walker. "What dude?" you may ask. The old dude who was passing me at mile 48 of the 2006 American River 50, that's who. He wasn't the only one. I'm reasonably certain I was also passed by a woman with no legs and large box turtle. It was one of the "worst of times" indeed. I was worked. Spent. I had nothing. Where did it all go wrong? Maybe it was because I let the first 26 flat, paved miles lure me into a too-fast pace. Maybe it was the next 20 miles of mud and ankle-deep water that comprised the "trail" portion of the race. Maybe my training sucked. Maybe it was all that and the fact that this particular race ends with a lovely 1000 vertical foot climb over the final 3 miles. Yep, 1000 feet, 3 miles. In retrospect, it certainly isn't the toughest climb in these sorts of races. Most of the vertical gain came in the first mile and the last 2 miles were pretty tame and on pavement. But at the time for this flatlander, it was definitely the hardest ascent I'd ever faced. And at mile 47 in only my second 50 mile race, it was an eye-opener. It was the hardest physical thing I'd ever done & I couldn't imagine feeling worse.

Miwok 2007

But feel worse I did. Much worse. For example, Miwok, my first 100K finish. At alternating points in the race I felt wonderful (even giddy) and then (sometimes just minutes later) . . . utterly crappy. But that's the nature of the beast. There will be ups. There will be downs. And they will be repeated and even amplified the longer the race goes on. So what makes Miwok special? Well, Miwok was where I first experienced the uber-bonk. If you've run marathons, you've probably had your experiences with "hitting the wall." 18, 19, 20 miles in, the energy is gone. Your glycogen stores spent, the body begins to feed on itself. It's hard to run. Maybe you walk a little. It sucks. Well, this was hitting the wall on roids. Hitting it and having it fall on top of you. My pacer Chris and I had just come off a long but fun descent (about 1400 vertical feet in 2 miles or so) from Pan Toll (Mile 49.5). I'd made it through some rough patches earlier in the race and was feeling pretty good, especially considering I'd already covered over 50 miles. Once the big descent is done, you've only got maybe 3 and half miles to the next aid station (Highway 1). Not far at all. Unless, that is, you've not been taking in enough (or really any) calories over the past few hours and your body sort of, you know, runs out of fuel. When that happens, especially 52 miles into a race, the hammer comes down shockingly fast and brutally hard. One minute you're okay. The next it's a struggle to put one foot in front of the other. And I don't mean one foot in front of the other running. Or even walking. I mean just managing to move the body forward at all becomes a monumental struggle. Any small roll in the terrain is magnified tenfold. The brain, deprived of fuel, begins to struggle too - the mind goes blank. Everything is fuzzy. You are reduced to your reptilian essence. There is no multitasking. Only singular thought.

In my case that thought was . . . Coke. Make it to the aid station so I can have Coke. Get aid station for Coke. AidstationCoke. Sure, Chris would do what good pacers do and say positive things. "We're close." "You don't look too bad." "Do you realize this is that longest you've ever run? That's awesome." At least I suspect he was saying things like that. I know his lips moved. But all I knew was . . . Coke. Here's the funny part. We knew the aid station was maybe only 3 miles away. Probably less. But in my frame of mind, units of measure begin to lose relevance. They become unmoored from the tangible, the known. To me, 3 miles was a loop around Memorial Park. 3o minutes on a bad day. But this 3 miles was not that 3 miles. Seriously, this 3 miles shared not one similarity with that 3 miles. Because, you see, this 3 miles NEVER FUCKING ENDED. At some point, even Chris's positive pacer demeanor failed as he began to wonder where the fucking aid station was, to proclaim profound thoughts like "3 miles my ass." And then hours (days?) later, when I literally was on the verge of passing out on the trail, we caught sight of it. The Highway 1 Aid Station. A shining beacon on the hill. Well, really just a folding table and a couple of dudes chilling out. The volunteers (saavy ultra veterans no doubt) would not let me sit down ("beware the chair"). Instead, they treated me to multiple cups of, yes, COKE, the miracle drug. And PopTarts (frosted, with sprinkles). And then they sent us on our way.

I felt only marginally better as we walked out to tackle the final 8 miles or so, but caffeine and sugar are God's gifts and they did not let me down. Soon, I was reborn yet again. Maybe we didn't run much during those final miles, but we ran a little. I finished. Called the spouse to let her know I was alive. Ate some real food. Got some swag. Cheered for the very few runners finishing after me. All was right in the world. That is, until a few months ago and the Rocky Raccoon 100 miler. But that's a subject for it's own post. For now, I'll let the picture at the top of this post suffice: Mile 60. The end of my day.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Why Not?

Here goes. Been knocking around the idea of blogging about running for a while. Mostly because I enjoy checking out other (usually far more talented) runners' blogs & figured, while I couldn't run 100 miles in 13 hours, 32 minutes, and 20 seconds like certain freakishly-talented runners (not enough hair & too many clothes holding me back), I probably could reflect on running - my own and others' - reasonably well. Not sure what I'll do with the blog now that I've got it. To be sure, a little writing about my own training and racing. Maybe some reflections about the Texas trail running / ultra scene, which is richer and more diverse than many might imagine. Post a few photos. Link to some interesting crap every now and then. No doubt work my favorite late-race-vulgarities into my posts (e.g., "this climb is craptastic" and "fucking grilled cheese"). We'll see.