Thoughts Before My Ultramarathon Debut

This run will be the hardest physical exertion I have ever demanded of my body.

To date, the most I’ve ever run in a day is ~27 miles. A marathon + warm up. Tomorrow I will attempt to cover 93 miles on foot. 3x+ my lifetime max. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever even run 93 miles in a single week.

Traditional wisdom says you should progress up to a ~100 mile effort. Go from racing a marathon (26.2 miles) to a 50k (~30 mile), then a 50 mile, followed by a 100k (~60 mile) before finally attempting ~100 miles. I’m not much for traditional wisdom.

I am doing this run; self supported, solo, overnight, on trails, covering ~25k ft of elevation and in remote wilderness with no cell service. Any one of those things might make an effort like this crazy. Doing all of that for my first ultra – is maybe crazy enough for even me.

But just to add a bit more to all of that. I’m not in shape. I’ve run 277 miles so far this year. Averaging 5 miles on 55 runs. I think I’ve only done three double-digit runs. For comparison, the year of my fast marathon I had run 1,227 miles by this point. 4x+ as much.

So here I am attempting a run 3.x my max on 4x less training. I’m the most worried I have ever been that I won’t be able to finish something that I started.

I’ve long been fascinated with the idea of going until failure. I would gaze out at the horizon and wonder how far I could run before I just collapsed. Tomorrow I get to find out. That is unless by some feat I finish it – in that case I guess I would be forced to find something more intense for next year.

Gear

I’ve been massaging my gear list for a week. In spreadsheet form and in person. With a run like this every ounce counts. Factoring in my steps per minute, the number of miles and the impact multiplier of downhill running, every oz on my back will add something like 10k lbs of force onto my muscles across the course of the run. In total I have ~15 lbs of gear I’m debating, but I’d like to run with less than 10 on my back.

Which is more worth the oz – a fresh pair of socks, 100 calories or sunscreen? Tough choices.

I learned from my run in with hypothermia at the Boston Marathon that it doesn’t take long for things to go bad when it gets cold, even if you’re running 6:30 miles. So I’m not keen to skimp on warm clothing – I’ve got more than I’ll need, which should hopefully be just enough.

Goals

  1. Do not die
  2. Complete the 93 mile Wonderland Trail on my own two feet
  3. Keep my heart rate under 120 bpm average for the first 45 miles
  4. Do not spike over 140 bpm at all for the first 45 miles
  5. Finish in under 48 hours without sleeping
  6. Finish in under 36 hours
  7. Finish with a final 10 mile average over 110 bpm
  8. Be doing something that looks like a run for >10% of the final ~10 miles
  9. Finish in under 30 hours
  10. Finish in under 24 hours – a single day

Ride Report: RAMROD 2019

On Thursday July 25th, 2019 completed the RAMROD (Ride Around Mt. Rainier in One Day). This is the ride report.

Goals

I was just there to finish the ride.

This was something that was on my bucket list and I jumped on the opportunity to join a few coworkers who wanted to do it together. I also used this as a training ride and litmus test for this year’s real bucket list item, a 93 mile run around the same mountain.

  1. Finish – ACCOMPLISHED
  2. Finish before the time cutoff – ACCOMPLISHED
  3. Finish strong – SORT OF ACCOMPLISHED

Successes

What am I proud of from ride day?

  • Longest bike ride I have ever done
  • Longest duration I have ever done a physical activity for
  • Completed a fairly challenging ride on 5 training rides of 100 miles total

Failures

What areas could I improve for future rides?

  • Should have eaten more breakfast while commuting down
  • Had a section around miles 60-70 where I didn’t eat much & bonked a bit
  • Post ride beer was a bad idea – my stomach wasn’t ready for that

Thankfuls

What that was out of my control am I thankful for?

  • People to ride with
  • No flat tires or bike trouble for me
  • Support crews that were always there
  • Sock ice!

Frustrations

What that was out of my control do I wish had happened differently?

  • I really couldn’t have asked for anything better

Ride Recap

Strava here

This ride was a big test for me. I wanted to see what my body was capable of with little, to no training. I was able to finish the ride in 13 hours 37 minutes, 23 minutes before the time cutoff of 8pm. That meant I was one of the last finishers, not something I’m used to, but a finisher nonetheless.

Pre Ride Day

Going into the race I had done five training rides of a total of 100 miles. The longest was a 55 mile ride in April, three months before the ride. In the 12 weeks leading up tot he ride, I had done a total of two rides totaling 15 miles. I had run a bit more, averaging ~2 runs and 8-10 miles per week. Essentially I was riding off the couch.

The Morning of

I woke up at 3:30 so I could meet the guys I was riding with at 4am at a park & ride, so we could get to the start around 5 and actually get riding around 6. We had to park a mile or so away from the school where it started so, we got some extra miles in, just to make sure the day was hard. That was a long morning.

I had signed up for the pre-race breakfast. In retrospect I should have eaten something on the ride down and probably should have eaten more there. It was good to get some solid calories in though.

Since this wasn’t a race, the start wasn’t an all-at-once thing. Riders were able to start as they pleased anytime between 5am and 7am. We started towards the middle of that range, which put us towards the back of the pack. Most riders seemed either eager to finish early before it was too hot or nervous that they wouldn’t finish, and thus eager to start earlier.

Start

We started the ride by nearly immediately making a wrong turn. We were supposed to take a right turn on SE 424th st towards the top of the image below and then turn left onto 244th but ended up following some riders that seemed to know where they were going and went into the heart of Enumclaw before someone realized we were off course.

Thankfully our trusty navigator found a shortcut back to the main course on Griffin Ave, that avoided us having to backtrack 1.5 miles to the start. In the end I think we rode a tiny bit more than we should have, but not enough to materially impact the 152 mile ride.

The first 55 miles

The first section of the ride, from Enumclaw into the park was relatively flat and on country roads. The biggest issue I had was getting used to riding in a paceline again – something I hadn’t ever done much of as pacelines are illegal in triathlons. The road was fairly rough, generally bumpy asphalt, shoulders that sometimes disappeared, potholes, branches reaching into the road, etc. That meant it was important to pay attention to the people in front of you and to signal to those behind you, especially when you were in the front. I messed that up a few times which resulted in someone taking a branch to the side or a pretty decent bump.

Our group of 4 riders took turns in the lead spot and periodically we grouped up with other riders. We were going intentionally slow.

There are two rest stops in this stretch, one at 36 miles and another at 55. We took both opportunities to get out of the saddle for ~20 minutes. We ate, stretched, used the bathroom, put on sunscreen and took slefies. Generally we set the tone that we were going at a relaxing pace.

I averaged 106 bpm through this part, which is essentially the effort level of a brisk walk.

The Park & First Climb

After the mile 55 rest stop we started climbing. The next ~23 miles would take us from 1,500ft to 4,800ft, a climb of 3,300 ft. The nice part about this section was the pavement was like butter the second we entered the national park. The shoulder wasn’t huge but for the most part traffic was light and the fact that we were off regular-use roads meant that most riders were not in a hurry.

The park is essentially three climbs. A big one, followed by a partial decent, a small one, followed by some more decent and then the last big one – the one that breaks people.

Our group split up on the first climb and found our own pace, agreeing to meet at the top.

We ended up stopping for two unplanned rests on the climb though.

The first was a 20 minute break at 2,400 ft for our group’s one mechanical failure of the day, a flat tire. Thankfully ride support was nearby within minutes and sold Phil a new tire, as the one he was using had a hole in it and would likely result in another flat tube.

The second was a quick 5 minute stop to refill water and regroup less than 2 miles from the top. At that point most of us were out of water and we weren’t positive how far the next stop was, so we used the chance to refill. In the end we would have been fine pushing through it. I did forget to eat for a good bit of the climb though, and it had been three hours since our last aid station, so eating something at that point ended up helping me feel a good bit better.

We took another 5 minutes at the very top to refill water bottles and get a group picture in front of the mountain.

I generally tried to stay in the 130s for the climb, only popping up into the 140s briefly. I averaged 131 through this section, including rests.

The Descent & Minor Climb

From mile 78 to 86 was a beautiful descent past reflection lakes. The nice thing about cycling is downhills are restful and not high impact like running downhill. I averaged 28 mph and 97 bpm through this section, so basically I was resting. What I did notice is I was much slower on the downhills than the others in the group. I suspect that had a lot to do with me not spending any time riding this year, I hadn’t built up much confidence in my downhill abilities so I was riding the brakes.

We took a 20 minute stop at box canyon where I must have eaten five chocolate croissants. They really hit the spot. That was also a chance to reapply sunscreen and chammy creme before the killer climb.

The minor climb was mostly uneventful climb from 2,800 ft to 3,400 ft. I required 140 bpm through this section to keep 7.7 mph up though, so things were getting a bit tougher. I know from experience that 140 bpm is about my 10 hour limit, so I was nervous to get into the 140s much for fear of having a major bonk later.

We eased through the final part of that descent and stopped at mile 97 to refill bottles before the killer climb. There was a sign that said ‘Sock Ice’ to which I was immediately curious. The volunteer informed me you could fill a tube sock with ice and put it around your neck and then as you rode up the hill with the sun on your back it would melt and cool you. I was sold.

I decided to ride the rest of the ride without socks (which was my original intent anyhow) took off my socks and filled one with ice. I offered my other one to the other guys I was riding with but for some reason none of them felt like putting a sock I’d just ridden 100 miles in around their neck. Beats me.

Cayuse Pass

This is the climb that gets you. Cayuse pass is a name that will live in infamy for any rider who has done RAMROD. When I first looked at the course map I wondered why there was a rest stop at mile 4 of an 8 mile climb – that seemed excessive. On the day of the ride I ended up wishing there was an additional rest stop at mile 6.

It is 8 miles at a constant 6% grade rising from 2,400 to about 4,700 ft. Most riders get there at the hottest part of the day and the sun is beating down on your back as there is hardly any shade as you climb along the black asphalt reflecting the heat back at you. By this time you get to the start of the climb, just about 100 miles an 8k fi into your day, your legs are spent, your glycogen stores are depleted, the sunburn has kicked in and your sit bones are sore from, in my case, 9 hours in the saddle. Then you start climbing a hill that, even fresh, would be a solid effort.

This is the final test. Once you reach the top it just an easy 44 mile ride net downhill to the finish. All you have to do is make it up and the finish line is within reach.

Our group split into our own paces to grind it out. I kept slow and steady, averaging 6mph and 140 bpm for the first 4 miles and then pulled over at the rest stop I had previously (naively) thought excessive. By four miles in my sock ice was nearly melted and my bottles were now lukewarm so I refilled both with fresh ice & cool water before. This felt like a quick stop but was nearly 10 minutes. Our group hadn’t all caught up but the first two of us decided to keep going lest our legs lock up before we made it.

Just four miles left to go but each one was a grind. About three miles in I looked ahead and saw cars driving on a road way higher than I was. I started to dread that maybe my math was off and I had another few miles and thousand feet to go. I got to the point where I was just ready for the climb to be over – looking around each corner hoping to see a tent. Sure enough a tent appeared and I thought I was done. But unfortunately this was just a communication tent. Nonetheless I pulled over in a small patch of shade near it to cool off – mentally needing a rest before finishing the last mile or so.

The final mile was more digging deep, doing whatever I could to find 130 bpm until finally I reached the top. Seventeen minutes later I was down the other side of the hill that had taken me nearly two hours to climb. It’s funny how gravity works like that.

Deli Stop

The final rest stop had a lot of food to refuel everyone for the last miles. I was there for about 50 minutes as we waited for our group to catch up and then gave everyone some time to rest. I ate like a post race feast. Turkey sandwich, three or four croissants, chips, pickles, orange juice, cookies – I must have put away over 1k calories right there.

The finish is ~37 miles with ~2k net downhill but unfortunately there is a solid headwind. By the time we left the deli stop it was 6pm and the course closed at 8pm so we figured we had to average ~18-20 mph in order to finish on time – which seemed impossible given we had mostly been chugging away at 6mph for the past few hours on the climb.

It turns out we were able to form a pretty good draft line. We averaged ~22mph for the first hour taking turns in the wind. I found that I needed to put out 140-150 bpm to take lead where as being in the back of the draft line I could keep the same pace with only 120 or so. It is pretty amazing how much of a difference that makes. We ended up passing a few groups and periodically some of them would join our line, but none of them took the lead. Phil from our group ended up doing the lion’s share of the work out front.

As much of a physical rest as being in the back of the line is, mentally it is super challenging. I hadn’t spent much time (any time) riding in packs this year so I just wasn’t in tune for that, which makes it especially hard when you’re on your last leg.

Finish

The last miles drag on a bit as mentally the race was finished hours ago but a few miles of flats remain. We spun it in and got to the finish a solid 23 minutes before the cutoff.

Our one crash of the day happened at the finish line. A volunteer stepped in front of Matt to hand him his award patch and he slammed on his brakes, forgetting to unclip his feet. He tipped over in slow motion (as seen in grainy picture below) and I slammed on my breaks but hit him in slow motion right as I was stopping. If you’re going to wreck, do it at the end and at ultra slow speeds.

We ate ice cream, picked up our packets, noticing most of the 800 others had already been taken.

We then hopped back on our bikes to go to our car. 152 miles of riding + a mile or so before and after the race makes for the longest day I’ve ever spent riding.

We went out for burgers and beers afterwards and had varying levels of success getting food down. After 3 oz of beer I had the hiccups for a few hours.

Data Breakdown

It wouldn’t be a Greg post without a few charts. Here are a few of the interesting bits from this ride.

First, straight out of Strava, is the elevation chart and my speed + effort throughout. You can see that generally I chugged along at an even pace, minus the few big climbs and descents.

What is kind of interesting is that if you adjust the elevation profile by time you can see that I spent much more of the day going uphill. In total I spent 5 hours climbing of ~11.5 moving. This is because the downhills go so quick they take proportionately less of the day.

Race Report: Gulch Countdown 2019

On Saturday January 5th, 2019 I did not finish the Gulch Countdown race, getting disqualified after ~27 miles. This is the race report.

Goals

I really didn’t have goals for this race, I was just out there to have fun. Part of me wanted to see how far I could run untrained though to see if it was going to be a good idea to attempt to go on a 93 mile run this summer.

  1. Make it to 6 laps (13.1 miles) – ACCOMPLISHED
  2. Make it to 12 laps (26.2 miles)  – ACCOMPLISHED
  3. Make it past 50k -Not Accomplished
  4. Be the last man standing – Not Accomplished

Successes

What am I proud of from race day?

  • Somehow ran the farthest I had ever run in a day, despite low training
  • Did a great job implementing my pacing strategy
  • Had a lot of fun meeting other runners and talking on the trail

Failures

What areas could I improve for future races?

  • Got lost in lap 1 and had to sprint to finish in time
  • Didn’t push it hard enough during the middle section of lap 12

Thankfuls

What that was out of my control am I thankful for?

  • Abram for organizing & facilitating the race
  • The family that hosted the race in their driveway
  • All of the effort that volunteers put into making this first time, small scale race one of the best I’ve been a part of

Frustrations

What that was out of my control do I wish had happened differently?

  • Can’t really think of anything, this was a great race that I had low expectations for

Race Recap

This race stands unique as being the longest race I have ever run, the first race (of hundreds) where I did not finish and also the race I was least trained for, ever. I loved every minute of it.

First, I should set context, the format of the race was unique – it consisted of 2.2 mile long laps on a muddy, hilly single-track trail that started at fixed times of decreasing duration. Anyone who finished the last lap before the cutoff was allowed to start the next one. Finishing a lap early just meant you had to wait around for the next one to start. The pace of the first lap was ~15 minute miles, by the time I got eliminated the pace was closer to 9 minute miles.

Pre Race Day

Going into the race I had been running 4 miles once or twice a week, so I wasn’t sure how long I would last. I don’t think I’d cleared double-digits on an easy run in over six months. I had recently logged a few miles sub-six, so I knew speed wouldn’t be my limiting factor, it would be endurance – how long would I last before I simply ran out of energy. With that in mind, my strategy was to go as slow as possible and eat a lot early, so that I had every chance to still have glycogen reserves late in the day. I figured I could make it to 13 miles or so on guts and the slow pace cutoff. After that was a question mark. Going past 26.2 was a goal I had in mind as it would make this the longest I had ever run.

Because the race was a loop, and we had to wait after finishing a lap for the next one to start, having a self-provided aid station was perfectly possible. I had brought along a cooler full of clothing, food & gear to help me survive the day. Layers, braces, gels, and extra everything, just in case. In the end, it was a bit overkill.

The Start

There were perfect racing conditions when the race started at 8:30am – 40 and cloudy. I started off in three layers of clothes – including a fleece jacket. I took off on the first lap in the very back of the 50 runners. In fact, my GPS was having trouble getting calibrated, so I walked across the start line 15 seconds after the gun went off. You can see me looking at my watch in the picture below.

The first lap demonstrated one of the best aspects of this format. I had no motivation to run fast, so instead I ran with other people I might not normally have run with in a race. I spent most of that lap talking to my friend (and wife of the race director) Kristin. We were running slow enough that the main pack separated a bit and unfortunately, neither of us was paying attention to the course very well. During a place where the loop intersected itself, we accidentally doubled back on our tracks, putting us on a course to run an extra mile. We had been going pretty slow and so by the time I realized how far behind we were, there were only 10 minutes left to finish over a mile of the course. You can see me in the picture below way on the other side of the course from everyone else.

I took off running and logged one of the fastest times of the day on the back half in order to finish just before the cutoff. I went from an easy 130 bmp to over 170 and was thoroughly sweating in my fleece jacket. Kristin didn’t survive the lap, but I think she only planned to run one lap anyhow.

That first lap was a huge setback in terms of energy conservation. It would mean that I had not only run an extra mile compared to everyone else, but also that I had burned a lot of extra energy going top speed.

After that first lap things returned to plan for the most part. The next 5 laps were basically a nice slow group run where I got a chance to talk with a bunch of different folks. I slowly stripped off layers and ate food in the breaks between laps. I usually had 2-4 minutes to spare. I don’t think I ran two laps in the same outfit actually, I’d strip off a top one lap and a bottom the next – trying to keep as warm as possible without overheating.

Half Marathon

The end of lap 6 marked the half marathon was a marker in my mind at which point we’d start doing some real running. I planned a big reset and finished with a few extra minutes so that I could change socks, strip off my tights and hit the porta-potty. Once I was in shorts, it was time for business.

Laps 7-9 felt like a real run. I noticed it got a lot quieter. The number of people running had thinned a good bit and instead of rambunctious conversations on the trail, most of us were keeping pretty quiet. I started having less, if any, time between the laps and was more in need of support during those breaks. I took a bottle with me for one lap and probably should have had it with me for others. With all of the mud on the course, I wanted to keep my hands free though, in case I fell. It was about at this point that I noticed more people falling. Tired legs and a sloppy course that had been trampled 7+ times made it much easier to take a dive.

It was lap 10 where my mind shifted from, ‘I can do this all day’, to “I’m not sure how many more of these I have in me”. The cutoff time had now dropped from 32 minutes to 23 minutes, and we now all had 22 miles under our legs, meaning we were past the point of a run when people usually hit the wall. I made notes of a few milestones on the course to see how long it took me to get between them. I figured it would be good to know how close I was to finishing one of the coming laps on time. Lap 10 took a good bit of work.

Lap 11 was my fastest of the day. The group was getting thin and I was starting to hurt. I locked behind another runner and held on for dear life. We kept hitting the milestones on the course perfectly, so I just hung on. It felt like real work. We pushed the flats and downhills and power hiked the uphills. We finished with maybe 20 seconds to spare and the next lap would have a cutoff one minute faster, meaning we needed to run 40 seconds faster to finish on time.

Lap 12

Once I cleared lap 11, I knew my total would be at least 27 miles, even if I walked that last lap. Only 9 of us started that lap. I doubted I could finish on time, but there was no harm in trying. I thought I might be able to do it if I found the right runners to hold on to. After-all, I only had to go 40 seconds faster than my previous lap.

I started off hanging onto the main group at all costs. Surprisingly I crossed my 9:00 checkpoint on time. Just 12 minutes more and I would finish. As I hit the long steady uphill section, things started to fall apart. I let a runner in front of me go, and that ended up being a critical mistake. I caught another runner, but he was limping along and in no place to push the pace. I pushed him to dig deep and then took off, hoping to beat the clock. At the mark where I knew I could finish in 6 minutes, I checked my watch and only had 5 minutes left. This was going to be an all out sprint. I cleared the 3 minute marker with 2:40 left, I was making progress, but not enough.

My (Did Not) Finish

The cutoff whistle blew with me in eyeshot of the finish, I was probably 30 seconds away. I walked it in and crossed the line a few minutes later. I didn’t finish that lap within the time, so I was eliminated from participating in the next one.

It turns out only 2 runners went on to run lap 13 and they both ran another 10 miles before hitting a lap that neither of them could make the time cutoff for. Both of them could clearly put in the distance, the guy that won finished 19th in the Western States 100 last year, but the pace eventually got too fast for the trail. So even if I had finished, I would definitely have ended up in 3rd place and likely only finished one other lap before getting cutoff. My plan was actually to walk the next lap with some pizza and relax, but alas I was 30 seconds too slow.

Here is the race organizer, Abram, on the left with a few of us that DNFd on lap 12.

 

Data Breakdown

It wouldn’t be a Greg post without a few charts. Here are a few of the interesting bits from this race.

First, here are some overall stats to set context for the day. My GPS logged me at 27.79 miles and 2,817ft of climbing at an average pace of 11:24. Interestingly, I spent 40% of the day climbing. Of the 5.25 hours I was moving for 4.75 hours, so I had a total of about 30 minutes of downtime.

It wasn’t until after the first lap that I realized I should turn off auto-lap on my watch so that I could see the cumulative time for each lap and better measure out my progress over the day. The times below are a bit wonky because some laps include the rest time at either end of them while others include none.

The heart rate charts shows how well I executed my planned strategy of saving energy till the end. Other than miles 2-3 where I had to sprint and maxed out my heart rate, I kept it pretty conservative, even up the big hills. My last lap was my hardest effort of the day, which is all you can ask for.

Despite putting in a lot of work, my heart rate primarily stayed in zones 2-4, with a good bit of time in zone 1. For reference, in a marathon, I would primarily be in zone 4 and anything shorter than an hour would be almost exclusively in zones 5 & 6.

What is Next?

I’m hoping Abram will run this race again and that maybe I can put a tiny bit more training into it before next time so that I can get closer to 50k. I actually think with my speed that if the race finished around 35 miles again next time, I’d have a decent shot at winning it. Unlike a 100 mile race where I needed to have crazy endurance, this race favors being well balanced.

As a result of this race, running nearly 30 miles off of almost no training, I’ve decided to try and push what I can accomplish without training. I don’t have much time to train these days but that doesn’t mean I can’t have fun. This summer I plan to try and tackle the 93 mile Wonderland Trail off of about this much of a base. I suspect that run would be challenging no matter how much I prepared, so I might as well save some time in the process. Wish me luck.