Sunday, June 24, 2012

Race Report: Bighorn Mountain 50 Miler

What a race! Bighorn may have been both the prettiest and best-executed ultra I've done yet. I finally got my nutrition down and ran a race I was happy with, finishing in 11:51. That's the executive summary. Here's the full version...

The Bighorn Mountains rise dramatically out of the great plains in northern Wyoming and spring to over 13,000 feet seemingly out of no where. They are physically separated from the rest of the Rockies, and Yellowstone and the Tetons, immediately to their west, but are no less spectacular.

Photo from
On offer are 100 mile, 50 mile, 50 km, and 30 km races -- something for everyone. The logistics are arranged such that racers from all four events finish at the same park in Dayton at roughly the same time. The 100 milers start from the finish line and run west across the Bighorns and back; for us 50 milers, a bus takes us on the outbound journey and we run back. Since that bus departed Dayton at 4am, I made a quick campsite at the high school and got the usual spotty pre-race night of sleep.

Cowboy camp style, in honor of the locale.

It's only really dark for about six hours a night in north Wyoming in mid-June. Heading into the mountains at 4am with the sun rising, many of us saw the spectacular geography, flora, and wildlife we'd be traversing through for the first time as dawn broke. It was as magnificent an experience as I've ever had on an overcrowded school bus.

When we arrived at the start line, they gave us exactly as much time as it took for each of us to use the port-o-potties once, then we sang the national anthem and, on its concluding note, we were off!

It was cold at the start, many people were huddled around warmers despite jackets and gloves. However, you warm up really quickly as the sun comes up and you descend: by 40 minutes in, my gloves were off and my jacket tied around my waist. I might skip the jacket and brave the first half hour if I were to do it again.

The first miles, at 9,000 feet, are over snowy, muddy alpine meadows. Don't bother trying to keep your feet dry; it won't happen. I was mud-caked halfway up my calves within the first hour. They told us that many racers like to change socks and shoes at mile 18 -- that's an excellent idea.

With drops at miles 18 and 34, I had mentally divided the race into thirds and my mantra for the day was easy for the first third, steady in the second, put the hammer down in the third and see what you have left. A sentence I had read somewhere kept coming to mind: "Among those ahead of you, there are those that should be, and those who you will catch." True words.

From mile 18 on I was passed by exactly zero runners. Not even one, not ever. I must have passed upward of a hundred people over those eight hours, and I am convinced that is the way to run these races. I've heard that the ideal way to run a 100 is to split 1:1.3 for the first and second 50s, respectively, but I doubt it. People race through their glycogen reserves in the first thirds of ironmans and ultras and end up walking late in the game. It pays to save that fuel.

I also three-way split my hydration system and poles. For the first third of the race, which involves a rolling descent from 9,100' to 4,600', I ran with a handheld water bottle. At mile 18, for the race's big climbs, I picked up my Nathan hydration vest and ultralight hiking poles, which I then dropped off at mile 34, opting for the more-running-than-hiking-oriented handheld for the final third. That worked out really well, allowing me to take some pressure off my legs during the big climbs but charge a little harder on the flats; I think I'll employ a similar strategy at Pine to Palm this fall. 

My other great success of the day was fueling. I struggled with this during my Grand Canyon double crossing and 50k (still to be blogged) a couple weeks earlier, so this time I decided to try just eating whatever sounded good at the time. This included, over the course of the race: trail mix, gu, sports drink, shot blocks, M&Ms, beef jerky, candy bars, turkey wraps, pretzels, crackers, chips, fruit, PB&J, pizza, avocado, espresso-bean brownies, Mountain Dew, and the best Icee pop I've ever had at mile 48. And unlike my last couple long, hot events, my stomach didn't lock up this time. I suspect too little protein and fat in previous events caused my stomach to over-acidify, leading to nausea. By the end of the race, I could feel the jolt of energy that each shot block provided. I will pay a lot of attention to fueling for the 100 miler. I'm coming to appreciate just how much of this sport is managing heat and fuel.

The geology was spectacular throughout, with big cliffs, grand views, and spectacular stream crossings and waterfalls. The wildflowers too--lupine, indian paintbrush, alpine sunflower, and plenty more--were incredible and made an always-nice distraction from the task at hand. Around mile 35 I came upon a bull moose, not 20 yards off the trail. At first I was thrilled, but as he gave me the stink eye as I passed, I got nervous... had he decided to charge, there would have been little I could've done in my exhausted state. He took a few steps in my direction to show me out of his meadow and that was that.

After an aid station around mile 40, there's a big pass to climb, and then a steep descent for five miles. It was here that I really put the hammer down. It hurt, often a lot, but I passed a lot of people on this descent. I had lost my Garmin around mile 19 (some kind ultrarunner picked it up and brought it to lost and found -- thank you!!!), so I kept asking at aid stations for the time, and for the second half of the race, it looked like I was right on the cusp of 12 hours, if I could finish strong. That goal, which emerged during the race, motivated a strong descent out of the canyon.

The last five miles of the course were the only thing I didn't like about this race. Once you exit the canyon, and hence the mountains, you have five miles of flat, exposed dirt road before the finish line. It is hot and grueling. I passed a 100 miler here that was shrieking with every step (and who finished and is now a 100 miler forever -- congrats!).

I was challenged for a pass by one runner, with whom I'd been running off-and-on for the last five miles and discussing the possibility of a sub-12 finish, just 200 yards before the finish line. I heard her coming, and then heard a lady from the crowd yell, "yeah, get him!" And then I turned on the rocket boosters. I was not about to be passed for the first time in 32 miles with the finish line in view. It's amazing the reserves we have when we need them.

Done, still un-passed for 32 miles.

You can see the stream to the right of us in the picture. After the race a bunch of us jumped into that snowmelt to sooth aching joints. It was wonderful and terrible, and I didn't realize until I got out that I had very little thermoregulatory ability left and got really, really cold.

As I was picking up my drop bags, I commented on how good a fellow runner's coconut water looked, and he gave me a can. I love the ultra scene.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Cycling Napa, Stumbling upon Ruins in Utah & Triathloning the Ironhorse

The May roundup, mostly in pictures...


Cycling wine country

After running the Grand Canyon, I headed up to Napa, California to celebrate one of my best and longest-lasting friend's impending marriage. Gotta love a guy who wants for his bachelor party a couple days of epic cycling and wine drinking. And that's what we did...

From the porch of our amazing hilltop house for the weekend.    (Photo by Ben W.)

Nice place for a bike ride.


...and tasting.

And lots of games...    (photo by Ben W.)
...some mind-benders...    (Photo by Ben W.)

...some we hadn't played since college...    (Photo by Ben W.)

...and others that formed the foundation of these friendships nearly two decades ago.    (Photo by Ben W.)


Estes and Rocky Mountain National Park

After the bachelor party, I went to Davis and to find a place for Anne, Dip, and I to move into in the fall, and I'm really happy with the place we ended up with. Meanwhile, Anne flew into Denver for a weekend with my extended family in Estes Park, so I jumped on I-80 for a drive that will surely happen too many times in the coming years.

We were going to ride Trailridge Road though Rocky Mountain National Park in preparation for the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic next weekend, but, as tends to happen at 12,000 feet, a spring storm came and dumped snow, so the road was closed. Some pictures from the morning before the storm:

The fam.

The now-a-tradition, jump-off-a-rock-wall-in-a-national-park photo...

...and the also-now-a-tradition, family-pretending-to-jump-off-a-rock-wall-in-a-national-park photo.

And a much older family photo tradition.     (Photo by Carl King)

We had what may have been the best meal I've ever had at the Fawn Brook Inn (free-range roast duckling with Grand Marnier, maple syrup, and dried cherries) in Allenspark, the town Julie and I's great, great, great grandfather founded).

Family at the Fawn Brook Inn. Who knew Austrian food was so good?!

I managed to sneak a couple of training runs in, including a nice 11 mile loop around Lumpy Ridge in Rocky Mountain Nation Park, a beautiful trail among rapture sanctuary.

Lumpy Ridge at dawn.


Mount Massive

After Estes, Anne and I packed up for some Colorado mountain climbing, Utah camping, and then Durango for the Iron Hose Bicycle Classic. Based on trailhead accessibility in the Civic, summit accessibility with Dipity, and southern aspects to avoid lingering snow, we decided to climb Mt Massive, Colorado's second highest peak at 14,421'.

Dipity and Anne, looking back on the valley they just ascended.

Dipity and I with Mt Elbert, Colorado's high point, in the upper-left corner.
Dipity's method for hydration and thermal regulation above the streams.


After a restorative night at the always-wonderful Valley View Hot Springs, we headed through Durango for the Utah desert.

"ATM, pinto beans, 24 hour gas" Can you guess what the local industry is?

Unfortunately, must of the splendor of southern Utah is in national parks (Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands) and so is off-limits to Dipity's sort. We ended up hiking canyons in BLM land, where millennium-old artifacts sit with little more than a note asking visitors not to disturb anything. Pretty sweet. Arch Canyon reminded me of Glenn Canyon, minus the flood.

Happy to be down from the cold heights.

This grass was around Bright Angel Creek in the Grand Canyon also, in both places quite a bit taller than me. Anyone know what it might be?

Anne with 1000 year-old structures that we stumbled upon in Mule Canyon.

Ancient(?) cave paintings in Arch Canyon.

Painted and ready for battle.

Three gods that watched over us while we slept.

The water was so salty/alkaline it was tough to drink.

Marshmallow flowers, one of the many beautiful dessert flowers in the canyons.


Iron Horse Bicycle Classic made triathlon

Apparently by Durango standards a 50 mile bike ride over two 10,000-foot passes just isn't enough for a weekend, so they've tacked on a 1500m swim and 10 mile run to make a "triathlon weekend" of the Iron Horse. And being unable to refuse a challenge, I signed up, never mind that my training has been 95% running this year.


The swim was rough. Between my total lack of swim training and the difficulty of getting enough oxygen at altitude in a sport where the opportunity to breathe is intermittent, by halfway through I felt my form deteriorating and new it was going to be a struggle. I ended up swimming a 30:47, 1:53/100, a full 13 seconds per 100 slower than my ironman swim, which was less than a year ago and three times longer. Technique is everything in swimming. I did, however, win my age division. OK, I was the only entrant in my age division. OK, OK, so 6 of 8 of the 14 and under girls who swam beat me.


The night before the ride, we had a wonderful pasta dinner party with some friends I hadn't seen in years. It was awesome to catch up with them, imminent bike race notwithstanding.

The team approaching the start.

The race was a blast. It has to be one of the most gorgeous rides in the world. It was hard, but not too hard. The wind was at our backs all the way up the valley to Purgatory. Up on the passes, those winds turned into crosswinds, which was terrifying, especially as they caught on my bladed-spoke wheels making my whole front end wobble as I descended at 40+ mph. I finished in 3:06, which I was thrilled with, but at the expense of some serious cramping in my quads. I suppose I got what I deserved, doing events for which I haven't trained.

From the top of one of the passes.    (Photo by Barak Naggan)

Post race coffee in Silverton.


The whole town was abuzz with the series of bike races, and it was tough to not go into full celebration mode after our ride. We went out for sushi with a bunch of old friends that night, and I made a half-assed effort to keep the celebration in check and refuel for the next day's 10 mile run. Not surprisingly, the next morning that effort felt less than half assed as we dragged ourselves out of bed for the 8am start. The run was almost as pretty as the ride, following the Animas River trail all the way through town before climbing up to the plateau on which my alma matter, Fort Lewis College, sits. I was really slow to find my legs, it wasn't until about half way through that I felt decent. I finished happily in 77 minutes, legs still intact. Trey got a nice little piece of pottery for placing in his age-group.

Trey and I post run.
After the run, we went and jumped in the freezing cold Animas River, and Julie showed me the brick she got in our names at the Durango Discovery Museum.

Tough to read, but that brick says "Michael & Julia Levy."
And then, finally, it was time to rest and recover:

Next up, five days recovery, then the Golden Gate Dirty Thirty 50k...

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

So it begins: Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim Run

Having received final approval of my master's thesis last week, I saw no reason to stick around Morgantown waiting for graduation, so we loaded the Civic with the bulk of our material possessions, and Dipity and I headed west, leaving Anne behind to finish up at work and with the apartment (thank you, Darling. You are the sweetest.)

Fuel efficiency fell 30% from the load. Ouch!
After a night in Indianapolis with my charming Aunt Ruby, we stopped at the Konza Prairie Long-Term Ecological Research Station to see one of the last remaining remnants of original tallgrass prairie. I got an excellent tour from Allison, a PhD student at Kansas State studying stream metabolism at Konza. One of the major manipulations they study at Konza is fire-frequency, and it was really cool to see the conifer and shrub encroachment that fire would normally keep at bay. We saw bison and their calves, a bunch of meadowlarks, a turtle, lots of beautiful flowers, and big old knotty oaks in the lower reaches of the stream channels. After the tour, I went for a run on the beautiful ~7 mile network of trails they've made available to the public, which was a nice other way to experience the prairie after the air-conditioned Fort Escape tour. Someday, I'll go back in the fall, when they say the big bluestem can be over 10 feet tall!

Stopped in Denver at the parents house to drop off much of the cargo (sadly, Dip included), have a celebration dinner, play a little tennis, and stock up on supplies for the run. Mom and Dad gave me a new waterproof camera and pair of hiking ultra-light hiking poles for graduation. Perfect the Grand Canyon! Drove down to Durango with Sister Julie, and it was great to have six hours to catch up, just the two of us... it's been a long time! Julie's latest hives of bees happened to arrive just as I was coming in, so I got to experience the hiving process, which was a real treat. Last year, I was sidelined for a few weeks after I kicked up a hive on a trail run and took about a dozen stings in the calf, so I was a little nervous about the potential for stings the day before my rim-to-rim-to-rim run, but my worries were unfounded. As we moved the workers into their new homes and very delicately ensured that the queens went with them, hundreds of bees clouded all around us, but they weren't the least bit aggressive. Julie was even working without gloves! It was a really neat experience, and I'm looking forward to keeping bees once we get established in our new home in California.

After a marginal night's sleep in Durango, headed down to Flagstaff, where the very generous Phil Turk had reserved a hotel room for me for the nights before and after the big run. What an enabler! Grabbed a little pasta at the natural grocery, set up all my gear and nutrition, and got in bed around 9:30, hoping to get a few hours of sleep before getting up around 1am to do the 1.5 hour drive to the South Rim, in order to start early enough that I might minimize my time in brutal mid-day heat in the bottom of the canyon.

Naturally, not everything went as smoothly as I had hoped, and I ended up departing the South Rim around 3:15am. The moon was just a day off of its brightest in years, and moon shadows were incredible. Having never been to the Grand Canyon before, descending into it at night was surreal. There was a constant tension between wanting to take in the grandeur of it all and keeping my focus on the light my headlamp cast 5' in front of me to avoid falling off a ledge and, in so doing, confirming my mother's fears.

Moon setting over the South Rim.

The descent went quickly. I can see how people get in way over their heads descending. It's tough to fathom how hard it is going to be to climb back up all those feet. From my parking spot at Pipe Creek Vista to the bridge was just over 7 miles and a net 4,800 foot drop, from 7,200' on the rim to 2,400' at the river.

Bridging the Colorado.

The double crossing is a study in contrasts: up and down, fresh and exhausted, desert and wetland and ponderosa pine forest. After the river, the pounding descent turns to a gently ambling trail up Bright Angel Creek, and the scrubland of the south rim is replaced by a beautiful riparian ecosystem fed by the significant catchment I was about to ascend. This section offers an opportunity for some fast miles, but don't be fooled, you're ascending and it's easy to burn through your glycogen reserves here!

Riparian vegetation along Bright Angel Creek. Note the trail cut on the left.

Some pictures to tell the story of the ascent up to the North Rim...

Making my way across, looking back at the South Rim...

...and forward to the North.
These and other cactus blossoms were everywhere, in pink, yellow, and magenta. Beautiful!
The yucca blooms were insane! They're commonly over 10 feet tall, some easily 20'!
Getting higher now. You can see the trail in the cliff on the right.
Supai Tunnel, maybe 1,500' below the North Rim.

As I was approaching the top, my quads starting cramping. That was pretty unnerving. Unlike in an ultra, there's no DNF option here... no aid station with cars to take you back to your starting point. I was hoping it was an electrolyte imbalance and not the result of the pounding descent, but I started having visions of hobbling up South Kaibab, unable to bend my legs. But the mental-emotional is a major aspect of ultra-running, and I put those thoughts aside, focused on what I could do to fix the problem, and kept on truckin'. On both sides of the canyon, it felt as if the top would never come. These are major, major climbs. I would encourage prospective rim-to-rim-to-rim runners to think of this as two major mountains to climb, with a couple of half marathons in between. Trail hills, train stairs, and train in the heat.

As you get higher, the flora turns into beautiful ponderosa forest, which is just so different from what you've been in all day, and so beautiful.

Tenacity wins the day!

And then, finally, the top.


This one's for you, Jules:

Resting, and trying to let gravity help the blood out of my feet and legs.

The water was on at the top, which was a welcome surprise after the park's website said it was still off for the winter. Without that refill, it's nearly 14 miles without, and despite my 2 liter carrying capacity, I would have been dry for much of that descent.

I chatted with a park intern at the top who was familiarizing himself with the restoration vegetation on the rim. He had lived in West Virginia and studied at Annapolis, and we discussed the horrors of keying-out grasses, Appalachian or Grand Canyonian.

After about a half hour rest, complete with many calories and electrolytes, it was time for the second half. My quads were pretty happy on the way down, perhaps because descending uses different muscle groups, but I think the electrolytes are what really helped me out. I went into this run with far-insufficient training in heat, so the heat got to me, and, even worse, I wasn't confident in my ability hydrate and keep my electrolytes balanced. Too many electrolytes and you retain too much water and bloat and get nauseous; too few and you get cramps and, if severe, hyponatremic, which kills people in hot weather. In retrospect, I should have erred quite a bit farther on the too-many side. Live and learn.

My favorite picture of the day. If you squint real hard, you can see my civic on the far rim, that patch of blue center-right. It is at this point that one realizes a) just how massive an undertaking this is, and b) just how committed you are at this point! Note the trail along the right and far below in the center of the photo.

On the descent I opted for the short detour to Ribbon Falls. It adds a mile or two to the trip, but was well worth it. I stripped down to my shorts and took a very refreshing shower in the falls! There's a small cave behind the falls you can crawl into.

Ribbon falls

Nice place for a shower after about 33 miles.

The rolling hills between Ribbon Falls and the river felt interminable. Looking at my GPS data, I see I did about an hour of 10 minutes miles here. It would have been around 1pm at this point, and while I didn't feel like I was overexerting, I think the heat and the effort here probably did some pretty serious damage. It started getting tough to put down gels and blocks here, and by the time I got to Phantom Ranch, all I wanted was a Coke, which they don't stock! I settled for a lemonade, and refilled for the last time since there's no water for the climb up South Kaibab. In retrospect, I should have stopped for longer, cooled off more completely, and made sure I could keep digesting calories. Approaching the river, having run 40 miles and been in the heat of the desert for hours, and facing verticle-mile of cliff that you then have to ascend is quite the blow. On both sides, I wasn't really ready for just how much of a climb it is. And this time, I was spent, it was hot and exposed, and after a couple thousand feet of climbing, I was too nauseous to try to eat. I should have forced it -- I needed the sugar. Maybe food would have stayed down, maybe I could have evacuated and then eaten, but I just kept marching up. My pace slowed, the breaks got more frequent, my water supply dwindled, and by the time I got to the top, well, this is how I felt:

Obligatory shot with sign telling visitors not to attempt to hike to the river and back in one day.

From about 1,000' below the top. You can see the trail cut across the sides of the two rock outcrops on the left.
From just below the top.

At the top, I met Pierre, a Parisian professor of cinema (what a life!) who was very impressed with what I had done. I decided to take the shuttle the .9 miles back to the car to chat with him and his wife rather than pounding the pavement to finish the day. It was interesting to see how different people reacted when they learned what I was doing. In general, foreigners expressed much more enthusiasm and awe than did Americans. I'll leave that as an observation.

I saw far fewer people over the course of the day than I anticipated. I did meet two fellow R2R2Rers ascending, while I was descending, North Kaibab. One, a woman, looked strong and was in good spirits; the other, a man, looked like he was struggling badly, seemed unhappy, and was deeply discouraged to learn he was still 1,500' below the North Rim. I hope he made it out alright.

It was quite an adventure and probably the most physically challenging thing I've done to date. It's hard to compare these things, but I don't remember experiencing the type of exhaustion I felt getting back up South Kaibab during, say, my ironman race or Longs Peak grand slam climb. The distance alone would make this a very tough day, and the elevation gain alone would make this a very tough day. Put them together and add some heat, and it is quite the undertaking.

I'm struggling to find any sort of concluding words, so instead, I'll leave it with a few more pictures and my theme song for the moment.

Looking downstream from South Kaibab just above the river.

Steep enough for you?

Lord Turtle, watching over us all.

My themesong: