Monday, September 5, 2011

Ring Redo 2011

This past weekend I made the pilgrimage to Front Royal, Virginia to take part in The Ring. As some of you  may know, there was a bit of drama associated with my first attempt at The Ring in 2010. (That report can be read here.) After my DQ last year, I was very determined to clean the slate.

The weekend started early on Thursday evening when Jim H. and his cousin Tim K stopped by to pick me up in route to Virginia. We picked up another NEOTC hitch-hiker, Kimba, in New Stanton and arrived at Portebello at around 10:00PM. We settled in and were about to hit the hay when Q, the co-race director of the Ring, showed up. The party started back up again and we got to bed around 3:30. We got up late and Q lead us on a 20-mile run on Dickey Ridge which runs parallel to the eastern ridge of the trail where we'd be running the Ring on Saturday. It was a great run and we got to see some cool wildlife on very tame single track.

Owl we spotted on Dickey Ridge.
Wonder what kind it is?
(Thanks to Q for this picture)

After our Ring-warm-up run, we bummed around the pool and relaxed till the rest of the VHTRC folks showed up. We actually got to bed before midnight which was a bit disappointing to me. I've never gone to bed the night before a VHTRC event before: I've always gone to bed the morning of the event.

Race morning dawned very humid and the temperature was expected to break into the 90's during the day. Having run 20 miles the day before, and expecting very challenging weather, the race presented a great opportunity to better understand my body's potential in less than perfect conditions. I formed a race plan that I thought would best fit the hot weather and make finishing a realistic/eventual outcome. My plan was to run only on the downhills during the heat of the day and walk all the flat and uphill sections. When the sun got low and temperatures dropped I'd start running and see if I could make-up any ground on the competition.

I started out very conservative and at about 13 miles into the run I hooked up with Vicky K. Vicky is a club legend and so I tried to talk little and listen much as she relayed stories of the trails she'd run and places she'd been. Vicky and I worked together through several challenging sections of the trail. It was nice to have some company to take my mind off the really hot, sticky, and breeze-less atmosphere of mid-day. At the base of Waterfall mountain we met up with Steve C. who was seeing the trail for the first time. The three of us climbed the steep grade from the base at Dry Run up to the aid station at Crisman Hollow road. The climb was very difficult. It's truly a chin scraper of a climb and if you stop to take a break you have to keep one foot back to brace you so you don't fall backward down the hill.

At this point we were about halfway though the run and making the climb in the mid afternoon swelter had overheated my engine a bit. I took a few extra minutes to put some ice cold water on my neck and cool down in the aid station while Vicky and Steve moved along down the trail. Keith M was running this aid station; he was the third person who missed the turn at the Strasburg Reservoir last year. He, Jim and I are known as "The Reservoir Three" and we've all taken some good natured ribbing over the last year about it. It was good to see him and have a few laughs with him and his fellow aid station workers before taking on the rocks of Kerns Mountain.

I caught back up with Vicky and Steve on the ridge of Kerns Mountain and shared trail with them until we got to the descent to Moreland Gap aid station. When I got to the aid station there were other runners who had gone out faster and had been ahead all day. The weather was starting to exact its toll. The starting field of 34 was being thinned by the hot weather.

Gary K and his grandsons help me with my drop bag at Moreland AS.
Brennan W is on the right working on his feet. He would eventually drop with foot issues.
(Photo from Q's Flicker page)

Leaving Moreland Gap, I started into the 8 mile long Short Mountain section of the course. As the sun was setting I caught up to the third place runner, Kerry B. We covered the second half of the section together  and we discussed what the rest of the course involved. She was particularly interested in where I had gotten off track at the Reservoir last year. After the fireworks of last year, no one wanted to make the same mistake.

As we left the aid station Bur told me the next runner had a 30 minute lead, so in my mind I resolved that I'd not be able to catch any more runners before the finish. Kerry and I left the Edinburg aid station together and got separated as we made the climb up Powels Mountain. As I reached to top of the climb my flashlight flashed over a piece of reflective piping typically found on clothing and gear to add visibility to runners at night. As I got closer to the reflective spot I realized that it was a runner lying on his back on a rock. It's not uncommon for ultra runners to take naps on the trail if the sleep monster shows up. I checked to make sure he was not injured and gave him a couple Hershey-mini's (one of my trail favorites) and a trash bag to keep warm in while he napped. The runner turned out to be David P and it would end up taking him many hours to complete that trail section. He would go from second place to last place before he reached the aid station at Woodstock gap. [Edit: The official results indicate that David went from 1st to 11th overall. He still had two runners behind him when he pulled out.]

I would run the last 20 miles of the course alone and work from aid station to aid station till the finish. The rest of the race went by very uneventfully. I was very careful at the Reservoir and Lookout sections on Signal Knob where I had gotten off course last year. I finished the race in second place overall and no worse for the wear. I learned that even in hot nasty weather, a strategy consistent with the conditions can get you through easily and uneventfully. I got my asterisk removed and am officially a member of the Fellowship of the Ring, which is what official finishers of The Ring are considered.

This year we were very fortunate to have John S and Stephanie D hosting a finish line recovery station with hot food and fluids for the finishers. They threw quite a party for runners and the volunteers. After a short nap, I found a place to sit and watch a very small group of hardy souls finish. Overall this once again proves to be a great event hosted by a very generous and gracious group of people. Thanks so much to Q and Bur and all of the folks involved at the event this year for throwing a really great party on the Massanutten rocks.

The finishline recovery station. Professor Bur lecturing
winner Randi B (seated foreground right, blue chair).
Randi's wife Kerry (center rear) was the first female
 and third overall.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Return to the Ring

Time and the perception of time is a funny thing. One year ago I had completed two runs over 50 miles and only one of them had "counted." In the last year, I've done two 100  mile races, two 71 mile races and a host of runs in the 50k-50mi range. A year ago I was getting ready to run The Ring and was still very unsure of how I felt about ultra-distance running. Now I'm hooked the ultra-distance events but I still feel (and am) very green.

 What happened at the the Ring in 2010 turned out to be quite epic and some there may be some people out there who have not read that tale since it was pre-blog. It feels like just yesterday and yet I feel like a different person at the same time. Its a fun and interesting read for those who haven't seen it. Here is what I wrote a little less than a year ago:

The Ring, 2010
I’m still a noob at this ultra-running gig and so from time to time I wonder, “will there ever be a day when, after finishing a big event I think, ‘wow, I didn’t learn anything new out there today. Maybe I’ve arrived?’” And then I have an experience like I had last week at The Ring and the trail answers back to me, “silly kid, maybe someday but today is not that day.”

For the non-ultra geeks who read this, The Ring is a 71 mile race which follows the orange-blazed circuit of the Massanutten Trail in George Washington National Forest in the beautiful state of Virginia. Back in June, after finishing the Laurel Highlands Ultra, I fell into an email dialog with Jim H (aka Slim) and Bob C (aka Gombobu) of the NEO Trail Runners about the most appropriate late-summer ultra for me given my other goals for the year. The Oil Creek 100 is my A-race for the fall and I wanted a challenging, low-key event that would build my fitness, my skill-set and not completely waste me. The Ring fit the bill and would get me some trail time on what are arguable some of the toughest, gnarlest  trails in the east and on the MMT100 course, which I hope to run in the spring. And so, after consulting the gurus, I settled on The Ring.

The weekend started wonderfully. I met Slim and Kim O (aka Kimba) on the turnpike and followed them down to Bird Knob, which is south of The Ring course. This section of trail is on the MMT100 course and we did a 8ish mile recon-run to shake our road weary legs out. After our run we hustled back to Front Royal to meet the cast of characters from the VHTRC (Virginia Happy Trails Running Club) for dinner. I was really looking forward to hanging out with these people. I’ve read a ton about them and wanted to hear them swap yarns which are trail running lore. Friday night I didn’t get to bed until around 2:00AM, we were having so much fun. After a few hours sleep, I woke to the smell of waffles and sausage. We ate, got ready and scurried out the door to get to the trail head for the start at 7:00.

My goals for this run were very simple: 1) don’t get hurt or run too hard and waste my legs, 2) see as much of the course as possible and 3) experiment with gear and diet. I actually didn’t have it in my mind that I had to finish. Low key, fun-run events are the laboratory of the ultra runner and offer a controlled environment to see what works and what doesn’t. If I did complete the whole course, I knew I would spend more time on my feet than I ever had before at a sustainable pace. This would be good training for the OC100 in October.

Early in the run I fell into a rhythm, power walking often, keeping my heart rate in the mid-130s and listening to pleasant conversations between other runners. Somewhere between the start and the 10 mile mark, Slim and I hooked up and moved ahead of the group we were running with. Slim knew the course very well and I had every intention of sticking with him as long as I could. We cruised along the most technical, rocky, craggy trail I’ve ever been on. There really aren’t words to describe the course. Pictures don’t do it justice. But we were not going too fast and so I was content to cruise along with Slim and talk about everything we could think of.

As we approached the first aid-station at mile 25, we came up on Kennedy Peak. The summit trail is a short spur off the main race course. Slim asked if I wanted to detour and top the peak for some bonus mileage. The peak has an observation tower on top and we went to the top and snagged a picture which I sent to my wife with the message, “what a view!” We got off the peak, hit the first aid station and proceeded back onto the course.

Slim and I kept working together along the course which follows ridgelines, drops into saddlebacks and gaps and returns back to the ridge. At some points you are literally standing on a rock on the ridge and can see the western horizon and West Virginia on your right and the eastern horizon and the Shenandoah’s on your left. It is so cool…beyond words!

Coming into Crisman Hollow aid station.
(Thanks to Bobby Gill for this picture)

As we worked through what is considered one of the more difficult assent and traverse, Kerns Mountain, Slim and I took turns leading. We were now approaching the half-way point in the race. As we dropped into the aid station at Moreland Gap, we found out all the runners ahead of us, had dropped out of the race and we were in first place. Wow, that’s unexpected! I had thought that if I completed the loop in 22 hours I’d be very happy. And now here we are on pace for a sub 20 hour finish and we’re leading! We left the aid station and started up the long rocky climb on Short Mountain. All day I had felt very good but as we got onto the ridge my stomach started to revolt. A recalcitrant GI is one of the most feared ultra-ailments. I don’t often suffer issues in this department, yet here I was. I wasn’t nauseous or sick. My stomach simply refused to empty and was distended and hurting. This is a problem in an ultra. If you stomach is full and won’t empty, you can’t cram any more water or calories in. Eventually something gives way, and usually its a wrong way trip for the contents of your stomach. I kicked myself for not watching my electrolytes better thought out the day and figured that was the issue. Lesson 1: take the electrolyte tabs regardless of how you feel early in the race.

Jim and me at Woodstock Aid Station. Q has his back to the picture in blue.
(thanks to Z for this picture)

I suffered pretty good though this section and really couldn’t enjoy Dan P’s corn chowder at Edinbugh Gap aid station. Dan and his family are renowned for making the BEST corn chowder on the planet. On top of my stomach issues I was having vision issues: either because of my electrolyte imbalance or because of the dust in the air from the dry trail, my vision was very cloudy. I changed my contacts, which were visibly gritty and that helped for a while. Lesson 2: no contacts in races over 12 hours. I downed a Red Bull and hit the next section of trail. My stomach began to protest less, though I didn’t put much else in other than water at this point.

Slim and I began making good time through these sections and somewhere along the line realized that we had a crack at sub-19 hour finish. We flew through these sections of trail feeling great and running a lot, which was a major goal of mine. I wanted to be running late in this race. That would indicate I had held back my effort sufficiently in the early part of the run and that my training for OC was progressing. I wanted to have a lot left in the tank at the end of this run.

As we came into the final aid station I began to prepare myself for a very long final climb. The last section of the course starts on gravel access road to the top of Signal Knob. It’s a steady 5 miles up hill. Once you crest the summit it is flat for a bit and then 5 miles downhill on very technical trail with lots of rocks. The descent’s location in the course (the end) coupled with the time of day (about mid-night) and the rockiness have earned it much disdain by runners over the years. As we crested the hill, Slim and I did the math: we had to cover the five miles at about the fastest pace we’d run all day to finish under 19 hours. So, what do you do? Ease up, walk it in and play it safe? Of course, we do none of this. We CAREEN down the slope yo-yoing off one another, sighting trail blazes with one eye, spotting a place for your next step with the other and stealing a glance at the watch whenever you can. We are flying down this section and Slim is hooting and hollering as we go. I attempt a feeble yea-ha and blast out of the rocks onto smooth trail.

We rounded a sharp left on the trail and Slim shouts, “we’re almost there!!” and boom: we pop out in the parking lot. 18hrs 44mins!! But wait, where’s Q? He’s the race director and has to be there when we finish to record our time. He’s not in the parking lot, I think we beat him here! We scramble from car to car looking for him in the lot. We wake up some other runner’s spousal-unit in the process and beg him to write down the time from his car clock and sign the paper as witness to our finishing time. As we’re changing clothes, Q pulls in and records the time.

What a feeling! What a trail! What a run! I was on top of the world in my mind (though I’m sure I looked like a wreck)

And I wish so much that was the end of my story…but sadly, its not. The trail had one more lesson to teach me…

After the run, Slim and I made our way to the Portabello, which is the VHTRC crash-pad to shower and rest. I slept for a few hours and then got up to drive the 4+ hours home. Amy and I had a wedding to attend Sunday evening and after another nap when I got home and a lot of caffeine at the wedding, my numb feet actually helped me to dance.

Monday morning I slept in and then got up for a 7 mile run/walk to shake the kinks out. I felt great. I got home from my workout to a voicemail from Slim which sounded very grave. I called him back and sat down, bracing myself to hear some really bad news about a fellow runner who was hurt on the trail. Slim was beside himself but no one was hurt and I breathed a sigh of relief. It turned out that on our climb up to Signal Knob we had strayed off course and followed the road and not a short section of trail which runs parallel to the road for a short bit. The little trail is inconsequential in distance, is parallel to the road and doesn’t add anything to the course. If point of fact we ran more than the race distance if we included the summit spur to Kennedy Peak. But, the race course follows the trail for a portion of the accent up Signal Knob and not the road and we didn’t follow the trail. We were disqualified from the race and Slim blamed himself for the missed turn. Slim and I had effectively grounded our club in the sand bunker and in the process DQ’ed ourselves from the race.

As Slim finished this story I knew immediately the lesson to be learnt. I assured him that he could not take blame for leading us off course. One of first principals of ultra-running is self-responsibility. Certainly, as runners we are not and can not claim self-reliance: we’re aided by the greatest, most selfless volunteers, who give us all the food, water and encouragement we need to finish our epic runs. But in the end, you have to take care of yourself and follow the course and any rules the race mandates. I did not know the course. During the day but especially late in the race, I had let myself rely too much on Jim to guide me along the trail. That responsibility was not his to bear and I was wrong to let him feel burdened by it. And so Lesson #3: know the course and stay the course…or it can cost you.

So I’m left here pondering what all this means. The path of your emotions before, during and after an ultra often looks like the elevation profile of the trails we follow: you’re up, you’re down, you laugh, you want to cry, you’re rowdy and crazy and you’re frustrated and stymied. In the end, you get to peer deeper into yourself and your inner being and you’re often surprised at what you find.
Why do we do this? Run 71 miles through all that it requires. Complete the distance to be disqualified for a breach of the rules And now, after all that, in the back of my mind I know this: I have to go back to The Ring. I have to do it all again. Maybe not next year but some Labor Day in the near future, I have to go back, and toe that line. I have to see again if I have what it takes and dance on those rocks again. I’ll be back and I will remove the albatross from my neck and finish the run on the course…someday.

Map of the section I missed
(red is the Ring course,blue is the route I went )

So that was a year ago. I'm going back this weekend to (hopefully) correct the record. If the weekend is memorable I may write a report but I hope its not quite so epic as last year. But, you just never know.

   Picture of me at the intersection where I turned wrong.
I stayed right, should have bore left. Looks very different in the daylight.
At Ring in 2010 we hit this area at around mid-night.
(taken by Jim at the Reverse Ring in Febuary 2011)