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...