Friday, April 15, 2016

Through Blood and Hail

"This ought to be easy." Those were the initial words that entered my mind as I briefly analyzed the race profile for the Zion 100 in Virgin, Utah. It had been a while since I had done an "easy" 100 and after a near flawless race at Oil Creek in October, I thought that I could contend with the course record at Zion. You see, Oil Creek had 17,700 feet of total climbing and this one only has about 10,600 feet. However, as the saying goes, "never judge a book by its cover." That is precisely the lesson that I learned at Zion.

When my friend, Joel Ballezza, and I traveled to Zion, we received about 5 different emails stating that rain was likely going to be inevitable during the race. There were warnings from the Race Director stating the risk associated with running a desert race while it's raining. Unlike areas that regularly receive rainfall, the desert isn't a location that absorbs water well. It tends to run like streams of water and create mud that can't be imagined, but only experienced. Despite the warnings, Joel and I decided that we already made plans for this and we weren't about to back out due to inclimate weather. This is ultrarunning after all.

The night before the race, we should have known how this was going to be. Neither of us had packed our drop bags, but we attended the race briefing the night before the race. As we got there, we noticed that every runner had packed their drop bags and were dropping them off. However, we didn't have ours. We were quickly asked if we had any at the check-in. We both said "no" and were informed that we had to have them dropped by 8:00 PM Thursday night or we wouldn't be allowed to have them. It was 6:30 PM and we were 30 minutes from all of our gear. We asked if they could make an exception and were given a resounding "no." We quickly turned around and headed back to the house we were staying at to pack our gear. After looking at the aid stations (a bit more in depth) we decided which ones we wanted to put our gear in. We quickly packed the drop bags and headed back to the start of the race. It was 7:45 PM when we dropped them off. Although normally I'm a minimalist, having some gear in drop bags is better to have and not need it than needing it and not having it. After that stressful moment of racing to get there in time and missing the entire race briefing, we arrived and at least got our gear dropped off.

The morning of the race, we were up at 3:45 AM for the 6 AM start. Very, very early. I had a knife and a bottle of peanut butter. That was my breakfast. I took 5 knife fulls and scarfed down the peanut butter. From there we changed and headed to the race. After taking the shuttle to the start of the race we were one of the first ones there. I sat down by the bonfire to stay warm. As I was sitting there, Sam Reed, another ultrarunner, was there who had run HURT 100 with me in January 2015. He remembered me and asked if I was Nick. He noticed my hat (and likely tattoo) and to my surprise, I said "yes." We made small chat and discussed the weather and how it can't be as bad as Hawaii. From here, we headed to the start of the race.

Once we got to the start, we were off. It starts off very gradual. I noticed that my shoes had a couple of holes in them by the big toes. This was something that I never noticed when I packed them. This was not a good thing, especially considering that the majority of the trail is sand and small pebbles. I could feel them getting into my shoes early on and filling my shoe. Fantastic! I contemplated getting duct tape or something else to cover my shoe but ultimately decided that I would be ok. We then started the ascent up Flying Monkey Aid Station which is a dramatic climb early in the morning. The image below shows how dramatic the climb is.

Being a mesa, we started to run all over the top once we reached the top. At this point, I started running with two 100k runners. I thought that this was a good idea as they were moving a little faster. To be honest, I didn't even know what place I was in this early on as they started all of the 100k and 100 milers together. This makes it extra challenging to figure out who the competition is. Once we checked in at the Flying Monkey Aid Station a second time, we continued down the descent towards Dalton Wash. Getting here was a bit of a challenge. We crossed a couple moist areas and even a river (thankfully I avoided getting my feet wet) and reached the aid station. By this point, the 100k runners started to get ahead of me. This was more than OK with me as I wasn't racing them and wanted to keep my own pace. From Dalton Wash Aid Station I started to head towards Guacamole Aid Station. Getting here wasn't too difficult. It was mostly on all roads and I could tell that I was moving really well in getting there. I was sure to fill up my bottles to make sure that I was hydrating on this flat section, especially as the sun was coming up a bit more. Once I got there, I grabbed some avocados and ran around the top up here.

This section reminded me of the scene off of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. It was the scene where the Hobbits were in the woods and were warned of getting off the trail. If they got off, they got dazed and confused and fell into the trap. That is kind of what this section felt like to me. I got there and found myself running in what felt like a maze. Even though there were nice pink flags, it wasn't easy to stay on course and I found myself getting off a lot and not knowing where to go. I felt like one of those hobbits that was about to get completely lost on the trail. However, after passing Joel and being informed that I was heading the right direction, I quickly escaped this trap!

From here, I headed back to the Dalton Aid Station. It was here that I again had one of my fastest splits. I zoomed past the road section and got to meet another Orange Mud Ambassador, Eric Aditya. He welcomed me and helped me with my bottles. Although I couldn't stay and talk much, I'm very appreciative of his help and encouragement. From here, I started to head towards Goosebump. It was this aid station when nothing went right. Although I passed a couple of runners, things were about to get bad. This climb was probably the worst of the entire race. As I approached it, it looked like I had never seen a mountain in my life. I started to bonk. Usually hills and mountains are a strong suit being from Washington, however, I feel like the entire world could have passed me on this climb! It was a slog and the two runners who I passed then passed me about halfway up this climb. A huge pet peeve of mine is passing someone and then getting passed by them. To me it's a sign that I don't really know what I'm doing.

Once I got to the top, my calf muscle completely cramped up. It wouldn't stop flexing. It was incredibly painful and I wasn't exactly sure what to do about it. After standing still for about a minute I finished the rest of the climb and asked the aid station workers what their input was. They suggested salt. After taking a couple of salt tablets and taking longer at the aid station than I should have, the calf finally stopped flexing. I grabbed some more of my food that I stashed at this aid station and headed out. It was at this point where things really started to get bad. Because I hadn't been drinking nearly the amount of water that I should have, I noticed that my urine was not normal looking at all. Like at all. It was a very dark brown, borderline red color. To say I was panicked would be an understatement! I began to walk and have some serious concerns. A few other runners started to pass me and I asked their input.They were worried for me and said that they have never had that happen to them before. It was like a true nightmare coming to reality. The fear of pissing blood was something that I needed to somehow resolve. It was only mile 35ish, far short of the end of this race. Ultrarunning is an adventure to me, but if this problem persisted, I would have dropped. I'm sure that my doctor would be proud of me for continuing 10 extra miles of this questionable bodily dysfunction....

Once I hit that aid station, I drank tons of water and continued on. I took it an easy for about 1.5 hour and walked most of it. I wasn't about to risk this. Thankfully, my urine got more clear and I started to feel good about pushing it a bit harder again. I headed back to Goosebump Aid Station and onto Cemetery I was! This was another road section. I zoomed past this and got there and caught up to a couple of other runners. I felt really good, especially as I got my music and treated myself to some Coldplay and ChainSmokers. As I was heading to the Cemetery aid station, there was this lady that for some unknown reason wanted to touch my calf muscles...Without asking, she just reached down and started to feel my muscles...She then exclaimed "I have no idea how you guys do this!" I was completely flabbergasted and completely confused. I wasn't sure if this was from finishing 50 some miles or the fact that this lady voluntarily touched dirty, sweat-infested calf muscles. Either way, I left with something else to think about on my run. After climbing up this hill, the good vibes were soon about to die...This is when the rain settled in. In my brain, I picture the desert getting a light rain. This isn't at all what I experienced. No. It was a torrential downpour for 5 minutes followed up by 10 minutes of hail. Being on a mesa, there was no place to take shelter and I was in a short sleeve shirt getting pelted by these ice crystals. I was hating life. I was beyond freezing and there was nothing that I could do about it. I started to yell out loud "why am I doing this!?" as they continued to smack me in the face. I looked over at the other mesa and saw sunshine. Hahahhaha. But seriously. Why does it seem that I am ALWAYS in the wrong place at the wrong time? I started to walk again and the winds were picking up even more. I finally got to the aid station and the rain started to fall even more...

While there, there were about 3 other 100 mile runners who came in. They all had rain gear and looked extra prepared-something that I wasn't. A lady named Nancy came to me and asked if I had any ponchos. Of course not! She then said that she would go find an extra. She did and came back. She said that it was my lucky day as it was the only one left. I gave this lady a hug and think I cried internally. Finally, something that went right! Back in the rain and roads I went. However, this time, the roads were completely mud and about a foot of mud was sticking to my shoes. I practically walked this entire 4.5 miles back to the aid station. My hands were so cold from the hail and that I didn't even have the strength to open my food packets. Consequently, I started to bonk again. I finally got to the aid station. From here, I gathered my other jacket and headed back down the long hill. At the bottom I put my headlamp on and started to on the roads again.

After getting another high and hitting the aid station, I began to catch up to people. This is where the 3 loops began. They give you a different colored wrist band every time you finish one of their unique loops. They had this bomb ramen noodle soup that made this aid station my favorite. I had it every time and didn't have a hard time keeping it down. By the second loop, I had passed 4 other runners. I was feeling really good and continued on. This is when I got to the blue and final loop before the finish. This had to be the loop from hell. It started off gradual and then took me in the middle of nowhere. And I mean the middle of nowhere. I couldn't see lights anywhere. I started to get incredibly annoyed and questioned if I was even on the course anymore, something that I knew that I was as I continued to follow the blue course markers.

This is when the rain started again. It was about 12:30 AM at night and was beyond tired of this loop. The wind picked up big time and I grabbed the poncho that Nancy gave me but couldn't even put it on as the wind was blowing so hard that I couldn't get it to stop blowing in the wind so badly. Awesome. Freezing, can't get poncho on, and getting soaked. Again. I finally gave up and said I will continue this death march to the aid station. About 2 hours later, I finally saw light which indicated the end of this death loop and hope for the finish. I checked in and started to head towards the end. One worker told me that it was 8 miles and another 6. There is a huge difference, especially at mile 94. I continued onward and got to the road section. I honestly thought that I was close to finishing. I was wrong. Ended up rounding the corner and got back on this dirt section. I could tell that the ups and downs were beginning again and that my glorious ending wasn't in sight. This is when my headlamp started to die. I had packed extra batteries in my Orange Mud pack but didn't have the ability to get to them without being completely in the dark. That is when I saw two lights pretty far in front of me. I started running much harder and made tremendous ground on them. I noticed that they both started to look back and picked their pace up.

Truth is is that I wasn't trying to race them but only ask for some light as I change my headlamp to ensure that I get to the end. They continued to pick up the pace and that is when I noticed the light at the end. Finally! There was light at the end of the tunnel and chance to finally be able to sit down! I was over this race and just wanted it to end. Between the blood and the hail, this race was absolutely nothing as I had anticipated. After getting there, I crossed the finish line and was informed that I placed 9th overall. However, results later show that I was 7th in 21:40. The two guys in front of me finished 1:30 minutes in front of me in 6th and 5th. Had I known this, I might have pushed a little harder. I also had a couple of hot spots on my feet from the consistent rubbing of the sand and pebbles that entered my shoes from the holes.

Overall, I learned that hydration is key and that being a minimalist and even having a risk of rain, it is better to pack and not need than to need and not have. After freezing to death and being saved by an aid station worker, I decided that this isn't something that I want to risk again. I thought sub 20 would have been easy but the conditions and the inability of taking care of myself during this race proves that nothing is ever a given. Huge thanks to Orange Mud and their gear. It never ceases to amaze me how efficient the gear is and how it contributes to my accomplishments in this sport. Thanks to all of the volunteers and Nancy who for sure saved this race for me. I look forward to heading home for the Mohican 50 in OH in June and then likely Ouray 100 in Colorado in August. Very happy to have finished my 6th 100 in 6 States!

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