Tuesday, April 30, 2013

2013 Possum Kingdom 55K Race Report

Possum Kingdom Lake

So much for the race schedule I wrote down a month ago, I’m already having to cut back on that ambitious road map to Cactus Rose 100 Mile, starting with my race at the Possum Kingdom 55K Trail Ultra, held at Possum Kingdom Lake in Texas.  I signed up for the 52 Miler at Possum Kingdom over a month before the race, hoping my ITB would be healed enough to make a go of it, but after having my ITB give up on me again 23 miles into Hells Hills 50K 3 weeks before PK...who was I kidding; apparently myself, as I still held out hope there was still a small chance I could complete the 52 Mile race at PK.  The original plan was to run the first two loops of the 52 miler, if my legs were still holding together by the end of it I would have gone on to complete the final third loop, if not I was going to end my race at the second loop and claim a 55K finish.  However, just one small problem, the Race Director informed me I couldn’t decide to drop to the 55K mid race (I should have read the race documents), I had to decide before the race started...within 15 minutes of hearing the news I dropped to the 55K option.

While the feedback I was getting from my ITB was promising in the few long training runs I did between Hells Hills and Possum Kingdom, my confidence in it holding together over 52 challenging trail miles was close to zero...the quick decision to settle for the 55K race came as a relief more than anything.  In hindsight, I should have settled for the shorter 25K option at Hells Hills as well, but I was eager to get back into the Ultra running scene that was such a huge part of my life the previous year; the two months of no racing between Rocky Raccoon and Hells Hills seemed like an eternity, ignoring what my body was telling me, I went ahead with the 50K option and promptly tweaked my ITB in the process...fortunately it was nothing too damaging.  I read an article awhile back written by Scott Jurek about how he takes off from running completely for 2 months to recover from a grueling year of races; after Rocky Raccoon I was planning something similar with 2 months of running very low weekly mileage (20 miles or less), and run the occasional 5 or 10K race.  Then the thought of completing my next 100 miler at Cactus Rose entered my head and the drumbeat grew louder calling me back to the world of trails and ultras.  You can read and hear all the advice you want about training and recovery, but first hand experience counts for everything, especially when it comes to stubborn Ultra runners like myself (stubbornness is practically a virtue when it comes to completing Ultras), never rush a recovery process, you’ll only end up paying for it later.

Resetting my mindset into completing a 55K, maybe I can push myself a little faster now with the shorter distance, good thing because I would have a lot of great speedier company along the way during the first of two loops.  The race was a little bit confusing starting out, it has a lot of intersecting points that’ll send you through a mini-loop before reconnecting with the main trail in a sort of figure 8 pattern.  I don’t always look up the course map before a race and didn’t for PK, so it threw me off a bit the number of times I would be criss-crossing with the lead runners during the first loop (was I that slow, I kept wondering...).  The course was very well marked though with bright red arrows pointing runners in the right direction on the intersections, and it was great to have the chance to run into your faster friends more often during a trail race; as opposed to maybe seeing them once at the start of the race that only goes in one direction (or when they lap you...).    

Google Earth image of the course

With this no longer being a 52 mile race for me, I reverted to my usual plan for shorter Ultras like 50Ks; start fast, inevitably crash somewhere past the midpoint, and muddle my way to the finish.  I usually don’t plan much for Ultras in the 50K range anymore, and more or less just show up and see how long I can run before burning out, they’re training runs these days for longer distance goals; pretty much all my Ultras will be training runs leading up to Cactus Rose anyway.  It’s a good thing I ran into some friends early on that are rock solid middle of the pack pacers than before I could burn myself out.  I shared the majority of the first loop drafting off of Jeremy Day, who pretty much runs on auto-pilot, and his friend Ted.  This was all of our first time to run at Possum Kingdom, and we spent the majority of the run just noticing how great the trail is to run on.  Looking at the course elevation profile, I was preparing for some steep climbs, but it’s a bit deceiving, since those climbs are spread out over the entire 17.35 mile loop; the climbs were actually so gradual I practically ran the entire first loop with very little walking breaks, even though there’s around 1,280ft elevation gain per loop.  The trails at PK was also pretty smooth to run on, while it does have a fair amount of loose rocks in certain sections, you can generally avoid them, most of the trails were wide enough for two people to comfortably run side by side on (especially helpful since you’ll be running across other runners all day), so there’s a lot of room for side-stepping the rocks; I had very little problems running with my Vibram Spyridons, but all that would change on the second loop.

Image taken from Endurancebuzzadventures.com

Around the midpoint of the first loop, another friend, Kim Gray, caught up to us, for someone who was slightly feverish and could hardly breath while running, it was an impressive feat.  With Boston still on a lot of Runner’s minds, we mainly chatted about her experience running the Boston Marathon this year, where she finished just twenty minutes before the bombs went off...a reminder never to take running for granted.  With around 2 miles to finish the first loop, our little group broke off, and I took the opportunity to stretch out my legs a bit by speeding down a long straight-away, my favorite section of the course, with trees closing in on you on both sides of the trail and plenty of stones to play hopscotch around, the sensation of speed barreling down this section of the trail was exhilarating.  I eventually caught up with another friend Peter, who was out here training for the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, one of my top 3 dream races; naturally I started quizzing him on his training plan to tackle a monster 100 miler with 20,000ft elevation gain and loss...I was probably better off not knowing at that moment, without saying much, I have my work cut out for me if should I ever find myself signing up for that race.  I’m also thankful to receive some new exercise tips from Peter on how to strengthen my ITB, I’m at the point where I’m willing to try anything to get my ITB healed, short of seeing a sport’s therapist just yet.  Jeremy and Ted caught up with us less than half a mile to the finish, and we all finished the first loop together, that would be the last time I saw those guys on the trail.

Section of the Straight-away

With cool early morning weather, good company to share the trails with, and beautiful new sights to take in, running that morning almost seemed effortless as I finished the first 17.35 mile loop in a breezy time of 3:25 hrs.  I stopped to stretch my ITB a bit at the start/finish area, while the guys I was running with all left pretty soon after finishing the first loop, except for Kim who had to DNF...finishing nearly 17 and half tough trail miles in her condition was commendable as it is. Now the race gets frustrating, I’m not exactly sure why, but shortly after I started my second loop my feet and legs were hit with pretty bad fatigue and felt like dead weights to lift for the rest of the race.  Was my conditioning only good for 18 miles or so before I had to struggle to run, or was I not getting enough nutrition, relying mainly on Clif bars to fuel the first half of the race instead of gels?  Both points are most likely, as I’m still slowly recovering from Rocky, and maybe my body just can’t process those Clif Bars fast enough to provide the energy for racing Ultras (I had the same crashing problems at Hells Hills at similar moments in the race) and I still need to rely on energy gels that I’m trying to move away from in my training runs.  The rising temperatures into the 70s and disappearance of the morning cloud cover didn’t help matters either, the second loop will mainly be a quiet struggle from here on out.

Finding myself moving at a lethargic 13-14 minute/mile pace, I might as well enjoy the sights and take some pictures with the camera I brought with me (the first loop was for scoping out good sites to photograph later).  I don’t know how many times I’ve regretted not bringing a camera along on the many trail races I’ve entered; beautiful sights I’ve encountered on the trails from areas all around Texas such as the gorgeous and cavernous Pine forest of Tyler State Park (Whispering Pines 50K), the rugged beauty of the Hill Country Natural State Area Park (home of Bandera and Cactus Rose), and several areas around Central Texas (those huge granite domes of Reveille Ranch were spectacular to run on) are better shown with pictures than any description I could provide. Possum Kingdom is definitely one of those races you’d wish you had a camera on you as well, but it’s not so easy trying to take photo’s on the run.  Stopping so frequently to snap photos of scenic views of the Lake and trails may have compounded the problem I was already having with fatigue, since it broke my momentum to a standstill, making it rather difficult to pick up and run again.  After several stops for photo’s I had to put the camera away for good and focus on running my race; I’ll need to start practicing taking photos on the run for future trail races.

The first fully stocked and manned aid station is around 6 and half miles into the loop (there’s a water only table 3 miles in); stopping for awhile to stretch my ITB (really starting to bug me by this point) and taking in gels at the aid station helped returned some of my energy levels, but my legs still felt dead all the same.  With dead legs, slight inclines became mighty hills and all the rocks were increasingly difficult to side-step and dance around resulting in painful feet compounding my problems, I swear someday I’ll actually use those Altra Lone Peaks again on a trail race...  Around 4 miles later, and several stops along the way to stretch and massage my ITB, I made it to the second aid station, a remote outpost deep in the forest manned by two dedicated, if slightly bored, guys.  Compared to the first aid station that was parked near a boat ramp and had kids running all around, I always prefer those remote aid stations that seem like an oasis in the middle of the desert when you come upon them; there to save weary travelers from oncoming thirst and starvation.  I’ve been meaning to volunteer for the longest time at trail races (much like I’ve been meaning to donate blood again for the longest time...), and if I were to, it’ll be at these distant and quiet aid stations where you probably won’t have much to do after all the shorter distance races are completed, except wait for the occasional straggler running the Ultra distances to stop by for a refill.  I would get so much reading done volunteering for a 50 to 100 miler this way, I figure; thanking those guys for their volunteer work, I set out for the long 7 mile slog to the finish.

The wheels, so to speak, would start falling off soon after I left the aid station; not only would I have be to dealing with a stubborn ITB problem, my quads were starting to tighten up on me.  My ITB never got as worse as it did at Hells Hills (which I'm very much relieved of), thanks to some diligent stretching and massaging exercises I was doing periodically on the run, so I was able to run a lot further and harder at Possum Kingdom.  With PK being my longest sustained run since Rocky Raccoon, a distant 3 months ago, my legs felt almost as trashed as I remember them feeling after my first couple Ultras from last year...kinda disheartening to realise just how quickly one can lose their endurance conditioning after a long recovery period of limited running; or maybe I shouldn’t have taken these shorter Ultras for granted and so naively believe that I can do them now practically on autopilot after already having ran a 100 miler a couple months back.  I struggled back to the last aid station around 2 and half miles before the finish, which is actually the first aid station that you loop back to, and stayed far longer than I would have wanted, to stretch and massage out the tightness in my quad muscles.

I did have one final objective in this race, and that was not to get beat by the lead 52 mile runners, my ego would at least take some solace in that very small but minor victory.  As long as I made it under 8 hours, I thought I could finish before them...so much for that, the lead male and female runner passed me by at under 7 and half hours, and finished the 52 mile race at 7:45 Hr and 7:47 Hr respectively (and a full hour before the 3rd place finisher).  I was in awe, especially of the lead female, Nicole Studer, who cheerily and effortlessly passed me by around her 50th mile (I was merely on my 32nd and half mile), as if she were out there on a simple five mile training run.  Sucking in my pride, and still having a comfortable margin to make it in under 8 hours, I took it a bit easier the last 2 miles...I didn’t have the strength left in me to push the pace over possibly the worst section of the course anyway.  About a mile to the finish, there’s a long stretch of beach like sand, and you’ll be trudging through that sandpit slightly uphill for most of the way...the conditions of the trail could have been so much worse, considering there was a 40% chance of rain the previous night *shudders*.

I ran it in to finish at 7:55 Hrs, not the time was I expecting (was hoping to finish between 7:15-7:30 Hr), but I can live with it; if my legs were healthy and I can nail down my nutrition just right (and stop taking pictures...), I know I’m capable of going Sub 7 for the 55K on this course, and I’ll definitely be back here next year to give it another shot, though I may try for the 52 miler again.  Upon finishing the race, I wondered out loud to the Race Director (besides joking that the course is 5K too long), why haven’t I ever been to the trails of Possum Kingdom before, with it being fairly close the DFW area?  I want to thank Endurancebuzz Adventures and all their volunteers for putting together another fun race, and for especially on finding a gem of a trail just 2 hours away from the DFW area.  I probably would have never discovered that such a beautiful, diverse, and fun to run trail existed close to the DFW area, and will be looking forward to their next race held on the first of June on the gorgeous and lush Pine-needle covered trails of Tyler State Park, the Whispering Pines 50K Trail Ultra...it’s been much too long since I’ve last visited that trail running paradise in North Texas.  

Garmin Link of the 17.35 mile loop (Garmin is off by half a mile) - http://connect.garmin.com/activity/304700914

Race Report from Endurancebuzz.com, scroll down for a picture of me on the trails - http://endurancebuzz.com/2013/05/08/possum-kingdom-trail-run-2013-results/

Sunday, April 7, 2013

2013 Hell's Hills 50K Race Recap

My race at this year's Hells Hills 50K started out all right, finished the first 25K loop in about 3 hours and was feeling pretty good going into my second. Didn't think a Sub-6 Hour finish was possible, but maybe I could match my 6:12 Hr finish at Rocky Raccoon 50K I thought...then it went all downhill. My ITB was painfully acting up again around mile 21 or 22, and I had to frequently walk to settle it back down; don't think I aggravated it, but it was getting very discomforting near the end.  Hopefully it'll recover fast, because I can't afford to wait out too long for the problem to simply "go away" when it comes to training for Cactus Rose, which will be just around the corner sooner than I'll realize.

During the race, all the rocks were getting to me, it seemed the trails got even rockier from last year, and were beating my feet mercilessly through the Vibram Spyridons.  I heard people describing the trails were smooth from just a few years ago, but erosion over the years and a flood of rain a few days prior to the race has resulted in a lot of loose rocks on the trail in certain sections.  I should've changed into my Altra Lone Peaks on Loop 2, but I'm very stubborn and thought I could tough out the second loop to finish the race in my Vibrams...after the first few miles of the trail loop where it was really rocky, I was ready to beg someone if they could trade shoes with me.  Also, for this race I tried to go through the whole 50K without taking one Gel, and went with Clif Bars and PB&J sandwiches instead. I've been doing all my training runs lately sans gels, opting for my Hummus with Olive Oil Tortilla wraps instead, and it's been working great, didn't want to bring a whole cooler with Hummus wraps to the race so I tried Cliff Bars instead. I'm not sure if it was the reliance on Clif Bars, or that I was just out of shape for a 50K, but I felt pretty much out of Gas for the last several miles; it didn't help that I had only 1 water bottle with me and ran out of water 2 and half miles from the finish... All those issues resulted in a finishing time of 6:47 Hrs, I'll take it, all things considered.

Hanging out at the end of the race, I was discussing the condition of the trails at the Rocky Hill Ranch with a couple of ladies; the devastating droughts from last year has really taken a toll on the beautiful sights around the trails that I experienced from last years Hell's Hills 50K race.  Gone were a lot of the lush greenery along side (if not overgrown...) most of the trails, the beautiful field of Bluebonnets you run through around mile 10 looked like a field of burnt grass this year, and most of the majestic and tall pine trees that towered over both sides of a straight section of pine-needled covered trails that you encounter when you reach the appropriately named Tunnel of Pines aid station were mostly dead and barren.  I wished I had a camera on me last year at Hells Hills to capture the sights...I'm glad I didn't bring a camera this year because it was a bit depressing to witness the toll the recent droughts have caused.  There was still a lot of good sights to take in this year though, and the challenging trails of constant ups and down and twisty turns makes for a thrilling race for those looking for a beginner to intermediate level trail race.  Hoping the conditions improve next year, because I'm still intent on a Sub-6 Hr finish on this fun and adrenaline-pumping course...maybe not with the Vibrams again.