With a solid spring of racing and training in the bag (see Part 1), I was ready to get into my focused training for Bighorn. For me, that looked like a 50 mile race at the end of April, and consistent big weeks of mileage and vertical. The focus would be less on speed, but rather hill climbing endurance and power, and strong quads to keep me running after 18000 ft of descending late in the race.
Unfortunately, the three weeks between Gorge Waterfalls and my 50 Miler, Capitol Peaks, was also my final 3 weeks of my first semester of school. During the last 10 days of school I had 14 exams, both written and oral practical exams, resulting in running going on the back burner. I ended up running on the road and trails from my house much more than I would have liked, as I could not justify the time spent driving to and from trailheads and in traffic. Nevertheless, I knew that heading into Capitol Peaks, I was probably in the best running shape of my life and ready for a good day out. The previous three years of a daily running routine had resulted in increased running economy, as well as the ability to mentally prepare for running 80 km up and down the hills.
Mental strength and preparedness are as large part of any ultra marathon as the actual running. Often the runner will fail not due to their physical inability, but rather there unwillingness to push beyond what they feel is possible or what they prepared themselves for. Completing such challenges as the Lavaredo Ultra, a 119 km mountain race during which I felt physically destroyed and extremely nauseous for the final 6 hours, or the Wonderland Trail, a 150 km self-supported trip round Mt Rainer during which my right knee was extremely swollen and painful for the second 15 hour day of running, have left with the knowledge that I am capable of completing long distance events while experiencing great pain and physical distress. These types of experiences are ones that can only be felt to be truly comprehended, and the discomfort and mental battles that last for hours during these events make you acutely aware of your physical limitations. Experiences like this also demonstrate the power of the human mind to push the body given the right impetus, which I perhaps why I and so many other endurance athletes choose to continue skirting that boundary along what is physically possible from the human body.
I finished my finals and the first semester of school on Tuesday, and headed down to Olympia, Washington on Friday. The 50 miler would be the start of a 12-day roadtrip with Jill that would take us around the Olympic Peninsula to hike, run and camp amongst an incredibly beautiful backdrop. As we hurtled south on I-5, I felt ready for a race to test my fitness and in particular my race nutrition and gear for Bighorn. Both nutrition and hydration have been two issues that I have faced in many of my previous ultras. Joe and I had come up with a strategy that we hoped would solve this conundrum. My fueling plan would consist mainly of Tailwind (an electrolyte and calorie based powder) mixed into my water, Clif Shot Bloks, Pocket Fuel Nut Butters as well as some food from the aid stations such as boiled potatoes with salt, bananas, potato chips and Coca Cola. The food seemed to have been sorted as I had been without major nausea for several races. On the other hand, cramping is something that I suffered with at the Squamish 50, Oregon Coast 50k, and Gorge Waterfalls 50k earlier in the year. In all of those races I had been using a single 500 mL water bottle, and in some of them, a collapsible water bottle which I could shove into my shorts once I was done with it. The problem seemed to be a product of the prodigious amount of sweat that I produce during a race effort, an inability to get a proper mix of electrolytes and water down, and finally sheer muscular failure. Full muscular cramps are often the result of muscle failure, and is quite common in harder effort races, The only way I have found to sort with these cramps are to slow down and to stretch out the offending muscle until you can continue. Thus, the problem is multi-faceted and in order to solve the two issues, two different solutions are needed.
After consultation with my coach, we decided that I was to use my Salomon 5L vest, which had served me well at the Lavaredo 119km last year and could accommodate a water bladder. My biggest issue with a bladder is that they are very slow to refill at aid stations, as well as the fact that the backpack tends to cause me to sweat more than I would without it. Joe and I devised a system with the Platypus brand of bladders that my crew could switch in and out quickly, while allowing me to carry 1.5 L between major aid stations. With the new fueling system in place, I was excited to potentially solve this issue once and for all. The solution to muscular failure is not an easy one. As far as I have learned, it is just to get faster, stronger, and your body comfortable to produce the kind of output required during a race effort. I felt like I was doing as much as I could on that front as well, so headed into the race I was excited to see the fruits of my labour.
Capitol Peaks 50 Miler is an older race in the Pacific Northwest, and really exudes many characteristics of the old-school low-key ultra. The race begins in a field with little fanfare, and quickly transports runners onto trail where they will intermittently see runners throughout the day, but mostly run by themselves for the day on pristine singletrack through the woods. Upon finishing, there is no post race banquet, no gift bags and no post race yoga cool down. Winners receive handmade mugs, finishers receive a hug from the race director, and there is homemade soup, live music and hearty food at the finish. It provides a very relaxing atmosphere compared to several of the larger ultras which I have competed in, but the course is still managed by a top-notch team who caters to you throughout the day.
My intention for the race was to run at a manageable pace, practice my 100 mile nutrition and fueling strategy, and to run a hard training run without needing much downtime following the race. With the goals in mind, I would say that the race was very successful. The weather was cool, but humid throughout the day and this allowed me to run well without the threat of overheating at the forefront of my mind. The course itself was great training for Bighorn. It had a lot of runnable sections, which is an important part of ultra running that many of us seem to forget. I feel that too often there is the desire to march straight up and down mountains for the whole day, then expect that we will be fine to run for countless km’s on easy rolling terrain come race day. Of the 80 km’s of the race, I would guess that I ran at least 77 km. The many evenings and mornings spent on the trails and roads around North Vancouver were giving back, and it allowed me to run strong throughout the day. My nutrition and fueling was also on point, and I did not feel nauseous, low on calories or on the verge of cramping at all throughout the day. The combination of more water and Tailwind seemed to do the trick, although the weather was definitely cooler than I expected for race day at Bighorn. When I crossed the finish line 7 hr and 53 min after the inconspicuous start, I felt relieved to stop running. but was definitely nowhere near my threshold for pain or discomfort. The day had progressed well, and I had not overextended myself in the process…in other words a great training race!
Following the race, Jill and I spent another week on the Olympic Peninsula exploring the amazing terrain that makes that area special. After one day off, we began running and hiking daily and saw some incredible mountains, valleys, rivers, rainforests and beaches. It was an incredible trip, and I am very lucky that I have someone who wants to spend their vacations away from home moving through these environs with me.
Upon returning to Vancouver and suffering from post-trip depression, I focused on my final training block before Bighorn. For the next 6 weeks I averaged over 110km per week, with a focus on long runnable climbs, one day of hard speedier work and at least one long day with lots of vert. Between school and running, I was in a routine that didn’t leave much time for anything else, but I was ok with that. I enjoy having a focus and a goal that you can drive towards, and a more aesthetic life without a lot of other distractions. Bighorn was my driving focus, and I was making a concerted effort towards it with laser focus.
I think that the idea of running 100 miles is, and should be a pretty scary undertaking. I wanted to do everything in my power to show up at the start line as prepared mentally and physically as possible to not only complete, but also run the race well. During this time in the weeks prior to the race, I would often visualize the types of climbs and terrain that I would be facing during my race, and embraced the pain that I anticipated to feel come race day. I tried to look back on my previous races and recall the physical and mental fatigue that I had faced, and draw upon that during long training runs. I wanted to remember what it was going to feel like to be 15 hours into a run, to recall that deep-seated fatigue and pain that settles into your bones. This was going to be no easy affair; I wanted to give it the respect that was due.
Three weeks before the race, I completed my last long training run, a 50 km move through some challenging terrain that was reflective of the racecourse and would leave me beaten by the end. This final run capped off over 175 km of running in 8 days with 7550 m of climbing, about as much as I could put my body through given the circumstances. This final push had left me pretty drained, but I was happy to have left it all out there, and knew that I would be able to take it easy on my body until race day. From here on out the focus was on letting the body repair itself, getting plenty of rest and sleep, and most importantly avoiding injury. Running volume was reduced significantly, and I worked hard at running as easily as possible while still maintaining good form and mechanics.
Sooner than seemed possible, the week of the race was upon me and it was go time. I made final purchases and adjustments for gear, packed, re-packed, strategized, crammed for school and wrote some exams to make up for ones that I would be missing while away. In one final surge it was all done, and I was off to Vancouver International to fly to Montana where I would truly be stepping into the unknown.