Sunday, October 18, 2015

At Long Last

Sixty five and sunny is what smacked my face when I got off the plane after a red-eye from Seattle to Cleveland. Is it really October? That was my initial question. Oftentimes Ohio is mid 40’s, snowing, or just plain out miserable. I couldn’t believe that this was going to be the weather that I was going to have for the duration of my stay in Ohio and Pennsylvania. I flew home to take on the 7th annual Oil Creek 100 in Titusville, PA. The course is known to be rocky, technical, and difficult overall. It boasts an impressive 17.6k feet of climbing during the duration of the race. Challenge accepted. I in an odd way enjoy technical courses, particularly if climbing is involved. Ever since moving to WA, my climbing technique has improved drastically. As odd as it may sound my mentality going into this race wasn’t that of a “a race,” but more of an experience. Trees and fall foliage are impressive this time of year in the Midwest. I have heard rumors how beautiful the course would be. This, along with proximity to family, is what brought me home.

Before heading to PA, I had the opportunity to see some old friends and family and attend my hometown fair. Considering I hadn’t been to the fair since a senior in high school, it was an experience! It would be criminal to be at a fair and not get fair food…I succumbed and got a coveted elephant ear. Just as I was stuffing my face a fellow ultra-runner spotted me and called me out. Terri Lemke exclaimed “You shouldn’t be eating that!” In half embarrassment I scarfed down another bite in front of her face. I figured I am going to be burning a lot of calories so I might as well load up, right? Terri ran the race a few years back. Her husband, Mark, shook his head and looked a bit nervous that I was attempting the race. Terri quickly told him that “Nick is used to those races.” Not exactly what I wanted to hear two days before the race…We exchanged a few more words and parted ways.

Around Aid Station 2

The day before the race we made it out to Titusville. Not to my surprise the Allegheny Mountains were absolutely stunning. Vibrant colors ranging from crimson reds, mustard yellows, and magma orange is what met our eyes. Titusville is a quaint town in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains. It’s a beautiful town with tons of history. In fact, it was the first spot in the United States where oil derricks were used to drill for oil. Hence the name of the race, Oil Creek 100. I would get to explore the site of where this occurred. We had dinner at a small restaurant called Maria’s. I ordered the spaghetti and got some last final calories before the day of the race. Then we went to the pavilion and picked up the race packet and I got to meet my pacer, Todd. He willingly volunteered to pace me for the last 25 miles of the race.

That night I packed my gear and was ready to wake up at 4 in the morning for a 5 am start…The thing with flying from the West Coast to the East Coast is that 4 in the morning was more like 1 in the morning. After having a somewhat restless night I beat the alarm clock. My parents awoke with me and my mom gave me some great words of wisdom, “I don’t know why you do this to yourself.” I thought the same thing to myself. I suppose there is no fabricated answer as to why people run that distance. I gave them the final instructions of what I needed when I saw them. We then headed out to the start of the race.

We got there and it was cold out. It was about 39 according to our car. However, the good news was that it was supposed to warm up to about 62 and be sunny all day. I decided to just where shorts and a long sleeve shirt. For hydration I of course went with Orange Mud’s VP2. I toed the start of the line towards the front. Going into this race my expectation was to place in the top 5. GO! We were off. I was now going to be out in the wilderness for what I thought the next 20 hours. In the beginning I was following the leaders. There were about 5 of us running together. I talked to one guy who had run Grindstone the year before. We exchanged some of our running stories while the two guys in front of us did the same thing. We were on pavement for the first 1.5 miles. We would go on this pavement a total of 8 times. Flat and pavement. I knew that I shouldn’t be deceived. This was far from a road race! Once we hit the trail we started to ascend. This is when one guy took off and he was gone. Me and two others were together now. I found out that a guy in our group ran the Mohican 100 and placed pretty well. That was a race that I had done earlier this year as well and placed 3rd. Thankfully conditions were much more favorable this go around! We joked about how terrible this year was for that race.

I was following the Mohican guy and I noticed that his back was getting wet. Turns out his water bladder was leaking. Apparently he hadn’t sealed it properly. He pulled over and addressed the situation. The other guy with us stopped as well. I continued on. In retrospect I guess I feel a little guilty; however, what would I have done for him? It isn’t a 3 man show to seal up a bladder. I needed to progress onward. In my mind I did pity him a little. It was mile 4 and his day was not off to a great start…with that said, I was very appreciative of the Orange Mud hydration pack and company that I am blessed to represent.

About mile 7 I crossed a road and didn’t see the ground appropriately. Consequently, I had my first fall. Nothing dramatic but falling is never an enjoyable ordeal. I’m not a believer in karma, but maybe this was for not helping the guy back there? Regardless I continued on. For this race I made it a goal to make sure that I stay on top of nutrition and hydration. A race can easily go bad early on if one isn’t intentional with the food that they eat. For this race I veered away from GU and gels. I had power gummies in their place. They are similar to gummy bears except with better flavor and much more vitamins. This is a food that I thought my stomach would be able to tolerate much easier.

About halfway through the first loop I shut my headlamp off. As the sun was coming up I could see the colors and the trail much easier. It was stunning. Colors bursting into life. This was a reminder of why I do what I do. Running for me is the perfect fusion of activity and my addiction to nature. This was proof of that. Right now I was in second and just got out of the 3rd aid station. The course is 4 aid stations and 4 laps. The first 3 laps are 50k, which is about 31 miles. The last loop is a 7.5 mile loop. After the 3rd aid station my stomach decided that it needed to use the restroom. Thankfully there was a porta pot in the middle of the woods! This sport isn’t always glamorous, but let me tell you, that a porta pot in the middle of the woods is the equivalent of finding an oasis in the Sahara. After that pit stop I continued on and to the fourth aid station. Unfortunately the parents weren’t there…we had discussed that the loops should take me about 7 hours. It took me 5. I was getting a little nervous because I was running out of power gummies and my parents had the only stash. None of the aid stations had them.

I grabbed what I could and headed out. No sense in waiting for the parents. I did pass the first placer on his way back. He was about 15 minutes in front of me. In this sport 15 minutes is practically nothing. I continued on. My legs were feeling great. I continued with the nutrition and hydration. My secret for this race was filling up the water bottles 2/3 full. I didn’t want the pack to be too heavy, yet I needed to make sure that I had enough water. This worked well as I was about out each time I entered an aid station. I continued on and got the second aid station. This is where I saw the parents. They were super apologetic for missing me the first time. They both commended me and said that I looked good. For once, looks were accurate. I felt tremendous. I was about at the halfway point and really my legs felt like they had just started. They encouraged me and said that the leader was about 5 minutes ahead. I closed the gap! I continued on and up Heisman Hill. Of all the hills in this race, this one takes the crown. It is gradual enough that one should run it, but I refused. The gradual incline is my least favorite of all terrains. I’d take super rocky and steep any day of the week.

I continued on and sure enough I caught up to the leader. We exchanged greetings and ran a little together. We were passing tons of 100k and 50k runners. We never really talked but I felt like I was being stalked. I have never led a race before. Ever. I didn’t like this feeling one bit. It felt like everyone was chasing me and were really close behind. This guy I know was no joke, He ran the course last year and ended up winning it in 18:18. That was a very respectable time for this course. I felt like he was plotting something-he just wanted to use me to keep a pace and then he would ditch me. A huge pet peeve of mine is to lead and then get passed by people. Once I pass someone, I don’t allow myself to get passed by them again.

We both continued onward. I tried a Tropical Hammer gel. I about puked it up. I haven’t tasted such a terrible tasting gel before! Back to the power gummies I go! The guy was still behind me…As we got out of the 3rd aid station I noticed that I was making some distance on him. We climbed up Cemetery Hill and then shortly after, Roosevelt’s Revenge. I did gain some ground on him on these. To the flat section and then we completed lap 2! 62 miles done, 38ish to go. This lap too took 5 hours. A 100k in about 10 hours. Somehow I was still feeling great. My legs still felt solid. I continued onward and passed last year’s champion. I was about 10ish minutes ahead of him. I didn’t feel that that was comfortable enough. I continued on and got to the first aid station. One of the girls there exclaimed, “he’s on his 3rd lap!” That was definitely a pick-me-up. Between my music and that great compliment, I felt I had a lot going for me.

I continued eating and drinking. Next thing I knew I was at the 2nd aid station and my dad asked “how are you doing that?” I laughed and thought to myself the same thing. I have never felt this good for a 100. Ever. This is also where I picked Todd up. We started running together and he took the lead. I gave him a run down that I don’t run the hills anymore and that I run all the flats and downhills. He understood and we moved on. We passed a couple of his friends and they joked with him saying, “he hasn’t dropped you yet!” Both Todd and I laughed. We got to the 3rd aid station and this is when we turned the headlamps on. This was my favorite aid station as they had fresh blueberries. I scarfed down 3 cups of these. I think they have some magical power of some kind. Todd and I continued onward in the darkness. We started climbing the hills and Todd’s stomach was getting bad. He urged me to continue on without him. I did so. Although Todd only accompanied me for 10 miles, I sincerely appreciate his willingness to help me out. I was glad to hear his stomach was better post-race.

I continued in the darkness, alone. I ate it a couple more times. Running in the dark over rocks and roots isn’t what I’d recommend to someone. Not to mention that the legs were beginning to feel the distance. They had about 85 miles. Next thing I knew I hit the pavement and was at the aid station. Lap 3 was completed, but, more importantly, 93 miles were done. Just 7.5 to go! My parents reloaded my food and water. Mom told me that I had 2 hours to run 7.5 miles to break the course record. I couldn’t believe it. I continued out and passed the 2nd placer. He was walking on the flat pavement. I knew that he was hurting. No one walks flat pavement unless they are at a very bad low. I think he was in his low. I ran past him and we both wished each other well. I hit the woods and continued on. The last lap contains a hill called The Hill of Truth. It is a 600 foot hill that connects with the main trail. Before getting to the hill, I ate it one more time. Both bottles came shooting out like rockets. I picked myself up and kept going. I just needed to survive 4 more miles.

Climbing the hill was easier than expected. I attribute my good climbing game to the numerous mountain trainings in WA that I did this summer. The ones in WA were more technical, steeper, and longer. After getting up the The Hill of Truth, I hit the pavement and knew that I had it won. I continued onward, got around the corner and could see lights at the finish. I got to the end and was greeted by my parents, about 20 volunteers, and the Race Director. My final time was 17:04:50. He informed me that I had beat the previous course record by 21 minutes and that I averaged 10:15 a mile. I was in disbelief. I pinched myself to see if it was real. I hugged both parents and claimed a chair! Finally, I had won an ultra. I thought it was funny that I had to beat a course record to win one! Nonetheless it felt great. The last 2 races weren’t the best. Mohican was a mud pit the entire time and Volcanic I ran an additional 3 miles on a 31 mile course. This race all of the stars aligned perfectly. I couldn’t have been happier.

Finish with the parents

I have so many people to thank for this event: Tom for coming up with the idea of hosting this event, the volunteers who consistently amaze me with their willingness to put up with not always happy runners and Todd for volunteering to pace me, and Josh and Orange Mud for the gear that they provide. Lastly, I have to thank my parents for getting reservations, riding with me to the race, crewing me, and staying up with me the ENTIRE time. Each time I passed them they had a smile on their face. I’m beyond blessed to have them and am appreciative of their support. Even though they don’t get it, I think they do in an odd way. Thanks to all who read this. Hopefully it was amusement to some degree.







Monday, September 7, 2015

Just look at the mountain!

After a full day at work and then 3 hours of driving, I finally made it to Marble Mountain of Mt. St. Helen's National Monument for the Volcanic 50k! You can rest assured that I was ready to wind down for the day and catch up on luxurious sleep in my Volkswagon Jetta! It seems every time I drive to races, I don't exert the energy to pitch a tent. No, I unfold my sleeping bag, put the back seats of my car down, and throw extra blankets over me to maximize beauty sleep! My sleeping strategy was about as well planned as my race strategy for Volcanic. I ran this course last year and placed 3rd accidentally after taking my camera and snapping pics of the mountain while circumnavigating around it. I passed the 4th placer who told me I took the podium. That is when I powered to finish 3rd last year. This year was more intentional. I knew I had the ability to smash my time from last year and hopefully if all goes well, place even better.

When race day rolled around, I was up and ready to go. The rules of the race state that we need to carry a whistle, blanket, jacket, and hydration pack. The only thing I managed to pack was the jacket and pack...Last year they didn't check this mandatory gear, so I didn't think they would this year and didn't even bother packing them. Big mistake. I found myself for the next hour trying to round up the other gear. Thankfully I met this guy from Portland named Nate. He let me borrow his blanket so I could claim the coveted race bib. Thanks Nate!

At the start of the race, all 200 runners lined up. I took my place at the front of the pack. I didn't see any sense trying to push my way through hoards of people on single track while going uphill for the first 2 miles. As we started, that is exactly what we did. Up, up, and away! Normally I like to take an easy in the beginning and not push the uphills; however, this is only a 50k and not a 50 mile or 100 mile. I don't really have time to take it easy. There were about 7 of us that actually ran the entire 2 miles uphill. Talk about a good way to get the heart going! Things were going very swell. My legs felt comfortable and my breathing was very controlled. This is when we started going over the boulder fields. You can't really run over, it's more like just trying to survive and not twist an ankle or worse. Then we started to climb again. This is when the leaders pulled away a bit. I didn't bother on this section because the grade was much too steep. One could almost hike as quickly as these guys were running them. I knew the course from last year and I knew where I can use the legs for later in the race. In fact, it was in the last 8 miles where I passed 7 people to take my place on the podium. There wasn't much sense in pushing it here this year.

So as we passed from here, the leaders began to make a margin on the rest of the field. I met this guy named Bill Huggins, and we happened to talk for basically the duration of the race. He was a former Seattleite who transplanted to Portland. We discussed life in the PNW. He was just returning from ultrarunning as he hurt his back from last year. Let's put it this way, the guy made a great return. I ran with him for probably 8 miles. We would trade places of who lead between us every now and then. At this point we were sitting in 6th and 7th places. The other 5 were the valiant souls who decided to run every single hill.

It was probably around mile 18 that I decided to leave Bill. As nice as it was to have the company, I was here for a very different reason than he was. He was making his debut back into ultrarunning. I wanted to run faster and place better than last year. After crossing a river and using the rope to get past up the steep grade, this is when I came across the sand section. Basically you are running in sand for about a mile. Oh, and the exciting part is that if you slip, you take a tumble a thousand yards into a dry river that we just crossed about 3 miles back. It was in this section that I started to put the distance on Bill. In fact, I was out there all by myself. I could see mountains far off in the distance. The comical part is that this race is supposed to be ultra scenic as you circumnavigate around Mt. St. Helens. You get to see every angle of the mountain from when it was blown to smithereens back in 1980. However, you couldn't really see the mountain. The fog was heavy and the air cold. Not many scenes that direction. But you could see really far everywhere else. By this time it was fairly smooth and you could run. This is when I ate a GU, and tapped into the reserves! This section I was moving very well. I passed a couple of hikers who said that 2 guys in front of me weren't that far up and that I looked much better. They said they were breathing heavy and exerting a lot of energy. Just what I had hoped for! They burnt their energy on the earlier climbs and now were going to pay the penalty later on in the race! A rule of ultrarunning is to never overexert yourself early on. There are always more miles to be ran.

As I went over this knoll, there was a heard of elk. I would say about 10 doe and a GINORMOUS bull elk with antlers about two of me. It was truly huge. I stopped and gazed at the herd. The does were completely oblivious and kept moving down the hill. However, the bull elk didn't really do the same thing...he kind of stopped and we made eye contact for about 5 minutes. I wasn't about to play the matador because I conveniently didn't bring my cape. The best part is that there were no trees I could run up and the course marker was literally by his hoof. After he decided that I wasn't the most interesting thing around, he decided to carry on his business and followed the rest of the herd. I can honestly say that it was a unique experience, but in the moment, I wanted nothing more than the bull elk to go. In fact, I wish I hadn't seen him because if he had charged, I would have been toast. Glad the rest of the herd left him!

After that encounter I continued on and entered the next aid station. This is where things took a turn for the worse. They told me that the 4th placer left 3 minutes ago. I left and saw him out in the distance a bit. I was following the course and then down, down, down, I went! The weird part? I could see really far out, but I didn't see any runners...There was no way that he had gotten that far way! Another dumb mistake I made is that I kept going even though I didn't see any course makings...They had done an amazing job with the markings the entire time up to this point...and then nothing. I went around the corner and saw a parking lot! I definitely didn't remember this from last year! I asked a couple of pedestrians and they informed me that I wasn't on the trail! Fantastic! I had just run 1.5 miles in the wrong direction! I quickly turned around and worked my way up the hill that I had just flew down. Nothing like being punished for a stupid mistake!

I kept going and I could see Bill up in the distance. After wasting 30 minutes to get back to the trail, Bill had finally caught up. I eventually saw him at the last aid station and all of the workers there felt bad for me. Bill had told them my mistake and I soaked up all of their pity. I mean honestly, who gets off course on a circle! All I had to do was make sure the mountain was to the right of me and everything would have been all right. I spoke with Bill for the next 3 miles and our experience of the race so far. I then left him (again) and tried to catch up to the 4th placer. I hopped over some more boulder fields and zoomed down the last hill to the finish in 6:03. My time last year was 6:26. I bested that time by about 25 minutes and the best part is I ran 3 miles further. The Race Directors felt bad when I told them my pitiful mistake. Definitely not their faults! The winner took the crown in 5:21 and crushed the old record of 5:49. Truth be told, had I stayed on course, I honestly believe that I could have contended with him because I know I spent a minimum of 30 minutes getting back on the course. However, as with all speculation, anything could of happened. Very pleased with the overall result. The talent this year was much stronger than last.

Lessons learned this year is to try and pay attention to course markings and just look at the mountain! Never assume that you are on course. Also, I need to remember to bring a whistle and blanket. Oh, and next time, I'll take my cape that way I'm ready to be tackled by a bull elk. Huge thanks to Orange Mud for their amazing gear. The VP2 worked brilliantly (as usual). Hopefully you enjoy the read and have a stellar rest of a Labor Day Weekend!