It's been a rough first half of the year, filled with fits and starts, desperately trying to find the momentum to carry myself out of the post Bryce 100 funk of injuries and overall fatigue, that's been plaguing me for over half a year. I thought I had found it after completing Run Lovit 100K in February, but a slow recovery and buildup after the race, combined with the beginning of a heavy season of miserably omnipresent rain and thunderstorms to greet us in the normally dry Spring months in Texas, led to another disappointing DNF at Ouachita Trail 50 Mile in March; where I missed the cutoff at Mile 26 in a muddy and sloppy course. No matter, I came out of OT50 uninjured, no harm, no foul, still plenty of time to regroup in the months ahead I thought to myself, but the rains, to my utter dismay, never stopped falling throughout the months of April and May; by never stopping, I'm meaning historic One Hundred Year flooding of biblical proportions, enough to completely fill up all of our bone dry reservoirs and lakes (and then some), due to years and years of drought and record temperatures, and enough to cover all the land mass of Texas in 8 inches of water. Like I mentioned in my Cedar Ridge Preserve overview, all the trails here in North Texas closes when wet, meaning for months on end, all the hundreds of miles of dirt trails here was effectively reduced to maybe 3 miles of open, if barely runnable and muddy, trails at Cedar Ridge Preserve, the one place that stays open; even then, they had to section off all their major hill areas, leaving me with little to no option for serious hill training to prepare for my biggest test yet of the year, the North Umpqua Trail 100K in Oregon.
The North Umpqua Trail 100K, or NUT for short, was actually my third choice for a challenging mid-year 50 Mile to 100K race to help condition my legs for the main goal race of the year, the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run in September; when I couldn't make either of my first two choices due to a work conflict, the Cruel Jewel 50 Mile or Jemez Mountain 50 Mile, I found the NUT 100K on Ultrasignup and was instantly taken with the chance to run on some gorgeous Oregon trails and making a whole sight-seeing trip out of the whole affair. I've always had a lifelong fascination with Oregon, and spent a better part of my youth trying to make my way there through the game, “The Oregon Trail”; so to be able to finally visualize that land of natural splendor of scenic Mountains, Valleys, Rivers, and arable farmland that was the end goal of that classic game, which frustrated me to no end due to all the deaths of Tuberculosis and Cholera I had to endure, was an exciting prospect. Though I had my reservations that I could complete a tough race like the NUT 100K with over 11K ft of climbing (around 8K descent) and a very aggressive cutoff where you had to make the first 46.7 miles in 12 hours, I had over two months to train, enough time I convinced myself...and then the rains came, and came, and came.
When push comes to shove, I like to consider myself to be a dedicated runner when it comes to pursuing hard physical and mental training to endure Ultras, you have to be when you live in North Texas that's normally extremely hot and humid 8 months out the year, but I can be as discouraged and lazy as the next guy when it comes to the rain, especially when it closes down all the trails you normally train on, and there's not much options for recreational pavement trails either. So as the rains kept pouring with no end in sight, I kept putting off the high volume training till the next week (and the next week...), and stuck to boring flat pavement runs when I desperately needed the trails and hills; after a month went by like this, I started getting desperate. If all of the North Texas trails are effectively reduced to a mile or so due to closure, than screw it, that's just what I'll have to do; during one of my peak training runs, I ended up completing over 50 micro third mile loops in the rain at Cedar Ridge because that was effectively all that I had to run on with a modest hill bump. Times like those, I wish I would have just shelled out for a gym membership to run on an incline treadmill, but it was too late for that, the taper period had already arrived and I was extremely under-trained for the NUT 100K.
I came close to canceling the whole trip to save on the extra traveling expenses that would incur if I went (though airplane tickets had already been bought and not refundable...), I convinced myself though that I could at least try to make the 12 hr, 46.7 Mile cutoff (making the trip more justifiable in my eyes), because from the course profile below, it just didn't look all that intimidating. The first 40 miles of the course barely rises a thousand ft in altitude, and all the rolling hills in between didn't seem all that hard...but I should know by now that a small course profile picture rarely accurately displays the true difficulty of a trail; I ended up under-estimating the climbing I would be facing by half the actual amount. Besides really wanting to see other parts of Oregon after the race (especially Crater Lake), I had recently snagged a pair of trekking poles on sale, the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z that I wanted to test out over the Ultra distance; so with all those rationale in mind, off I went to journey towards the Oregon Trails...well, fly anyway, and hope I don't somehow get Tuberculosis on the way there.
|From the North Umpqua Trail guidebook found here - http://www.blm.gov/or/districts/roseburg/recreation/umpquatrails/|
The NUT 100K is a point to point 64 mile race along the North Umpqua River, the race started at 4am, but I had to be at the shuttle bus at 2am to travel from the finish area at the Lemolo Lake Resort all the way to the start at Swiftwater Trailhead; after a long and scenic drive from Portland International Airport (flew from Dallas the day before the race), it didn't make much sense to get a motel room for just a few hours, so I napped in my rental car at a rest stop (first time for everything!) for a couple of hours till they started busing. While a bit sleepy at the start, I quickly woke up when the race started in the chilly pre-dawn hours of Oregon (was so jealous of the weather coming from Texas already), the first three miles was a series of smooth and fast rolling hills, that I was taking way too fast, till you reach the base of the first big climb of 600+ ft; great time to slow things down and break out the trekking poles. Since getting the Black Diamond trekking poles, I have gone on exactly one training run with them, and was still working out the proper mechanics, especially on how not to be that one guy with the poles swinging them wildly about, threatening to skewer anyone who comes within a 5 ft radius. So I quickly learned how to use them as compactly as possible, on the steep climbs I was facing, I shortly swung the poles with both arms forward, making it easy to power myself up with both arms, and never stepping far beyond the poles before I brought it forward for another swing to keep my body upright and those behind me safe from the tips; while on the downhills and flats, I carried them around like a Hunter would a Spear, with the tips pointing down and the poles resting on my shoulder.
In the over three years since I've been running Ultras, how have I managed to survive without these poles, I thought to myself, as I was powering myself up the 600+ ft hill with shocking ease, it was like night and day climbing with the trekking poles, all of a sudden I was able to unlock the extra horse power of my upper-body to make it up these normally quad-busting hills, and relieving a lot of extra pressure on my feet and joints in the process. Which had me thinking, why don't more people use trekking poles at Ultras that feature a lot of climbing? I was the only person I saw at the NUT 100K who were using them (of course, being a back to mid pack runner, I don't come across many people), and even at Bryce 100 last year, I only came across one other person using them. Maybe it's the annoyance factor of having to carry them around and always having to be mindful of others around you, maybe it's the Masochistic mindset a lot of Ultra-runners have that keeps them from using them (and one I can certainly relate to, after spending a year running Ultras in a pair of Vibrams), or maybe it's the fear of falling on the poles and puncturing your spleen, whatever the case, I'm actually relieved that more people don't use them, because can you imagine the chaos of a crowded single track trail filled with absent minded runners flailing those pointy sticks all around you?! You'll quickly lose an eye out on the trail if that were the case, in the mean-time, being the responsible trail citizen that I am, I will gladly use the leverage that trekking poles provide you on those steep and never-ending climbs.
Once I had finally made it up the first big climb of the race, daylight had started to illuminate the trail, and on the descent, I was treated to an awe-inspiring view of a sweeping old-growth forest of giant Hemlock and Douglas fir trees stretching on to the Horizon; coming from Texas, such a view was not possible, I truly was in Oregon now I thought to myself, and would have cried if I weren't racing down a steep technical downhill stretch leaving no time for such deep introspection, instead I let out a loud "whoo!" and enjoyed the long trip down after a tough climb. From that point on, I was just blown away by lush fern lined greenery of the trail and picturesque views alongside the North Umpqua River every step of the way, and even said as much to the volunteers at the first aid station I came across at mile 7.8. The trails continued on being like a dreamscape I've always had of running through the towering old-growth forest of the Pacific Northwest, maybe it was the early morning haze and lack of sleep that was still affecting me, but I was having a bit of an out of body experience, as if my soul was being absorbed back into the forest itself. What snapped me back to reality was a series of tough hill climbs of 200-300 footers past the first aid station, and lasting all the way to the second one at mile 15.8; with my trekking poles and strong early racing legs though, I was averaging a solid 14-15 min/mile pace through a very hilly first quarter of the race, and was looking forward to the next five and half miles of relatively flat trails to make up even more of a time cushion, but then the trails got really technical and had other plans.
|Have to stop using the high contrast setting on my camera when the Suns out, but these are a couple of the fern covered trails you'll see out on the trail.|
The next five and half miles to the third aid station was a beautiful stretch of trail that ran right along-side the bottom of the river, offering up a continuous stream of scenic and up-close views of the wide and rushing North Umpqua; flanked by valleys of towering trees on either side, any photo taken here would be worthy of a post-card. Unfortunately the trails got super technical with jutted, sharp, slippery, and loose rocks nearly the whole way through, I couldn't make up much time as I thought I could, as I found myself frequently picking my footing carefully over all the uneven rocks, slowing down my pace to no faster than in the more hilly sections earlier. I was wearing my Altra Olympus, with a high stack height due to all their cushioning, I had to be extra careful over the rocks, even then, ankle tweaks and jolts was unavoidable, and the handful of times they happened over this section, it slowed me down further and started the breakdown of my feet and legs. Upon reaching the third aid station, and 21 miles into this race, I was sensing that I was in trouble heading into a long 8.7 Mile stretch to the next aid station, but I still had about an half hour cushion on the 12hr cutoff, and was looking forward to more climbing along the riverbank cliffs where I can use my poles more often; so I grabbed the last of three gels they had left (my one complaint of the whole race, seriously, they should have had more gels, felt bad for the people behind me) and embarked on the punishing death march ahead.
|Trail along the bottom of the North Umpqua River|
|From the official race photographer, lots of other great photos here - http://paulnelson.smugmug.com/NUT-100K-2015/|
By now the sun had started to reach it's peak, and temperatures were climbing into the high 70s, balmy weather when you're coming from Texas, but running alongside the river and it's cliff-banks were a lot more exposed to the direct sunlight, making it even hotter, and with it raining so much recently in Texas, I wasn't as acclimated to the heat as I use to be. No matter, with the next four miles being a series of tough climbs, I was looking forward to a slower and steadier pace, and to use my arms more to climb and take some pressure off my acking, rock beaten feet, and hope they recover for more running later on when the trails start flattening out again; I just wished my arms and shoulders would've agreed with the plan. As I've mentioned earlier, this is only the second time I have ever ran with the poles, and I was using them pretty aggressively on a very hilly course, powering myself over thousands of feet of climbing by this point, my upper-body was not use to the sudden exertion and was getting more worn out and sore as the miles and climbing progressed. Also, the trails never got any less technical, breaking down my feet and ankles, and quad muscles that were over-compensating for the rocky trail surfaces even further; add in the ever increasing heat, and you've got the trifecta of trail misery in tough climbs, painful rocks, and a punishing Sun. As I was obsessing over my rapidly shrinking time buffer, I just couldn't make up anymore time over the hilly and technical terrain with my body starting to experience a full meltdown, by the time I dragged myself up over undulating hills along the cliffs to reach the Mile 30 aid station, I knew my race was done...so what's another 3 and half more miles to drive that final nail in the coffin.
You know what, I traveled all the way from Texas to be here, may as well go out with no sense of uncertainty that I could’ve finished that race under any circumstance, even if they had increased their cut-offs. That moment of certainty came when I had to climb over several large fallen trees on the trail, it was comical how much I had deteriorated, with my arms no longer functioning due to over 30 miles of tough climbing with the poles; I had to flop on my belly over the trees, nearly pulling a muscle in my shoulders in the process, I was relieved no one was around to witness my hilariously failed attempt at being an American Ninja Warrior. I mainly walked and hiked the last 3 and half miles to drop at the mile 33.5 aid station, soon after, the last runner behind me, being escorted by the course sweeper, arrived to drop as well; a little consolation prize that I wasn't the last person on the course at the time, I suppose.
For how under-trained I was heading into the North Umpqua Trail 100K, and despite not meeting my consolation goal of reaching the 46.7 Mile mark, I was pretty happy and surprised with how far I had made it, considering how badly I under-estimated the climbing I would be facing. I figured there would be no more than 4K ft of climbing during the first 40 miles, by mile 33.5 my Garmin ended up reading 6-7K ft of climbing, double the estimate; finishing that distance, with that much climbing and the course being so painfully technical, in a little over 9 hours...I'll gladly take it, all things considered. After this race, I'm a little bit more hopeful than I am terrified about my prospects at the Wasatch Front 100 Mile in September, while all the recent rains have left me feeling under-trained, I'm not feeling injured or worn out anymore, so maybe all the rest during the rainy months was secretly a good thing, while I head into the final 2-3 month training push. I'm also more hopeful of being able to survive Wasatch's insane 26K+ ft of climbing due to how well the new trekking poles performed, I barely had much hill training heading into the NUT 100K, and still managed to knock out nearly 7K ft of climbing over 33.5 Miles, in just over 9 hours...pretty impressive when it comes to how I would normally perform in a similar race.
I now have a clearer picture of what I have to do in order to get ready for Wasatch due to my experiences at the NUT 100K, and with hopefully drier summer weather, I just have to execute my plan, and hope it's enough to survive that Monster Hundred in Utah. So, despite the DNF, I'm glad I went ahead with the race, the NUT 100K was a beautiful experience, and I'm hoping I can run it again soon to see what else I missed, I heard the second half of the race was even more gorgeous, or "brutiful", on how many of the people there was aptly describing the race. Finally, I got to knock out a childhood goal of visiting Oregon someday; I only spent a few days up there, so couldn't see too much, just driving down many of their scenic highways would make a great road-trip alone, but the one other place I spent a lot of time at the day after the race was Crater Lake, and just paying a visit to this calmly powerful, sacred, immensely beautiful, and piercingly blue lake was worth the trip alone.
See you guys at Wasatch.