Sunday, July 26, 2015

US Mountain Running Championships Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 10; 14th Edition 
167.9 miles run in 2015 races
Race: US Mountain Running Championships
Place: Mt. Bachelor, OR
Miles from home: 150
Weather: 50s; Some sun; cloudy mist at top

Runners are not all the same.

I love how egalitarian the sport of running is these days. Without it, not only would I probably not be running as much as I do, I assuredly would not have much of an audience for my books, blog, speeches etc. I am perfectly aware that a 2:49 marathon PR would have barely qualified to run Boston back in the day. Those who feel I am cocky or arrogant (rather than confident or well aware of my value and worth) don't know me. Accolades and praise are definitely to be bestowed upon many who take up the sport of running, regardless of their finishing time. However, and this is huge, because of this "ours is the only sport where you can compete with the greats" sometimes we forget we are not the greats. But we are not. That is you and me (at least most of you, anyway.) We do the same sport as the elites but when you think about it, we really don't. I know this all seems rather obvious but to more than a few people, it is not.  For those who think that they are just a few pounds, a trainer and some hard workouts away from being elite, I highly suggest you sign up to run against the best in your country. That is exactly what I did at the US Mountain Running Championships.

There are no excuses for how I performed in this race. Only reasons. Actually, one reason: my parents. I didn't win the genetic lottery. Absolutely the people who excel in this race work very hard.  They have great work ethic and drive. But they also have, like Liam Neesons, a very particular set of skills, skills they have acquired over a very long gestation.  Even if I was in the shape I would like to be to take on this race, I would have still been destroyed by more of these runners than I could count. I am perfectly OK with that fact, especially when I give all I have on race day. If we do show up, leave nothing on the arena of play, we have nothing of which to be ashamed. As I have often said, no one should ever apologize for their skill level; only their effort. Having said all of that, let me describe this course and my own participation in it.

Designed by Max King, he of the enviable foot speed on road races (2:17 marathon PR, I think) and 100k world championship title, this course was brutal. Starting at the Sunrise Lodge at Mt. Bachelor near Bend, Oregon, the course immediately goes up upon commencing. Over 800 feet in less than a mile over a varying amount of terrain it ascends. Grass, roots, scree, sand, rocks of varying sizes and the like are all under foot.  Then, through a brief single-track trail, dodging trees which were literally right in the trail, you erupt onto a rutted jeep road for no less than nine switch backs as you descend from 7300 feet to 6500 feet. For the women it was two loops of this course; for the men: three. (For the reasoning why it was a different number of loops, read more here. I will also be talking about this in a later blog post.)

My bestie Shannon was entered in the women's race which started an hour before the men's. This allowed me to at least see not only her off but to get an idea how the course was run, as far as we could see it from the starting vantage point. When the bell sounded, I could see the running did not last very long for most people. By that I mean only a few non-mortals would be tackling this chin-scraper in anything resembling a run. Why I have signed up for so many of these types of races this year, when I am so so bad at them is anyone's guess.  But as I watched her climb up this monstrosity I was not looking forward to following suit soon thereafter.

I watched the women do their first loop in the company of Bryon Powell of iRunFar, ultra-star Megan Kimmel, and former track studette and now marathoner Renee Metivier Baillie. Nothing like being outclassed by not only all the competitors but the spectators as well. As the first few female runners came down the mountain, I loved seeing all shapes and sizes of women. Some were what you would expect with tight figures, great abs and small frames; some had dumps like a truck and curves to wreck a car; some were tall and rail thin; and some were 11 FREAKING YEARS OLD! Just awesome the whole way around.  But it was time for me to get ready to race.

Normally, while I don't cede too much space at the front of a race to too many runners, I will be a row or two back. This almost always bites me in the ass as I have to run around people who don't belong there. At this race, however, I knew I was outclassed. I put my butt in the way back of the 116 competitors. Doubling also as the collegiate mountain championship race, there were athletes from all over the country here to take on Max King's baby. I just wanted to not break any bones and hopefully not finish last.

First Loop:

The cowbell sounded and we were off. I immediately fell to the last 1/3 of the back.  More accurately, I stayed in the last third of the pack. Even on a good day, one thing I know about my body is that staring off and immediately going uphill is not something I do well. Throw in the fact this race started at 6,500 feet and my sea-level bum was having none of it. I looked in awe as some of the guys ran ahead. I shook my head at the number of people continuing to try and "run" which seemed like it was using so much more energy than they were getting results for.  Then again, I was way behind them so who was I to cast any aspersions?

The footing was fair and with a thin track where many had already run, it was easy to know where to go.  The loose rock and the like was easy to navigate when you are only moving along at a 20:00 minute mile pace. Up ahead runners turned left and out of immediate view.  I wondered how much of the 800 feet we went up at that point and hoped it was the majority.  When I made the turn myself I could see it was definitely not.

The roots and grass gave away to a mixture of sand and grey rock here with some scrambling needed to keep the footing.  Again, this was easier at this pace.  Then again, as I gasped for breath and used my hands to push my on my quads, nothing was really easy. After this very steep climb there was a quick 90 degree angle and for maybe 100 yards, you could actually run.  But before you could run a photographer was there to take your picture. As you walked. Hunched over. Dying for air. Or was that just me?

Around the top of the ski lift and finally down we go. I had been telling myself I was taking this first loop "easy" until I saw what it had in store for me.  I also told myself that since I am a fairly good downhill runner, I would be making up time on those in front of me. I envisioned reeling in dozens on this descent. Instead I reeled in three. A large crowd was waiting at the place where we sent ourselves hurdling back up the hill.  I greeted them all with a very Clark Griswoldian "This is stupid. This is stupid.. This is stupid." Then back up I went.

Second Loop:

I can tell from my pace off my Timex ONE GPS+ that my second loop was not faster.  I can tell you, however, that it felt much easier than the first loop. I stayed in virtually the same position amongst racers this entire climb up the hill.  Two older gentleman passed me as we started the climb but then stayed about twenty feet in front of me the whole way.  When we finally to go the point where I could run, I glimpsed behind me for the first time in the race and saw some thin fellas behind me moving rapidly.   Oh you have got to be kidding me. I am going to get lapped.

I was trying to decide what to do as I did not want to get in their way. The only portion of the course where this is a reality is the 1/3 of a mile section on that very narrow-single track.  As I crested the hill and began running down it, I assumed I had enough distance and leg speed to get out of there before these flashes of light got to me.  I was wrong.


For those who don't know track parlance, this phrase is used when someone approaching you from behind to let you know you are inexplicably running WAY too slow in lane one and are about to get, as Ludacris said: ran the Eff over. I found this humorous because where we were currently running could not be less like a track if it tried. Also, well, I really didn't have anywhere to go. I too was running downhill at breakneck speed (for me) and while I know people should pass on the left, the right side of the trail provided the only real place for this to happen. So, hoping the guy barreling down upon me saw this conundrum as well, I stepped onto the slippery sliding left side of the trail. Bear in mind I didn't stop running as that would have caused me to go down in a heap of arms and legs. Fortunately, all went well and no collision occurred.

A few meters later, I heard some voice and some word being said. What was said was rather indistinguishable. (It wasn't "track".) Here, however, I had at least a small shoulder to stop and pull over. As the runner passed me, I looked back and didn't see a third racer even though I recalled one being behind me. So, I began running again. Almost immediately, I heard heavy footsteps approaching, which made me realize this was the indeed final runner. I again, at the corner of a switchback, had a small area to pull over. This runner, taking no chances, simply went up and over an embankment. As I began running again myself, I wondered how much faster they were running than me as I began to give chase. The answer was "Quite a damn lot."

I soon passed the two older gentleman who passed me on the uphill and they both pulled over for me like I
was one of the leaders. I immediately felt bad and told them they needn't do that. This was their race just as much as it was mine and the nature of trail and mountain running is that the person passing has to find a way to get around. Of course, the person in the way needn't be an ass about it but that's just the way it is.

When I hit the runnable section I was astounded how much distance the front runners put in between us.  I mean, I should not have been surprised since they just lapped me but nevertheless. Wow. A different breed. As I neared the end of this loop one last runner passed me from behind, just to make sure I really understood how much of a different class I was in here on Mt. Bachelor.I began my final loop meters later, locked eyes with a spectator, nodded at the lightning bolt which had just passed me and said; "Well, that wasn't disheartening." 

Third Loop: 

The third loop was cathartic. I found out what was in store for me on the first loop.  The second loop was there to remind me I was not only not done but that people far superior to me were going to crush my spirit.  This loop was about completion. As I began the climb to the top this final time, the crowds had begun to thin. Everyone was heading toward the finish to cheer on whomever they wanted to cheer on. Ahead of me were a few runners I felt I would catch by the end of the day.  However, I had the sinking feeling I was absolutely last in the "open" division. Granted I am less than a year away from "masters" (holy crap. really?!) but today I was 39 and therefore running against people potentially 20 years younger than me.

I passed two runners as we approached the summit and one stayed in front of me. As I had not seen him most of the day I assumed I would have more in the tank to pass him on the downhill. Winding through the singletrack gave me no time to look to see if I was making any progress on catching him. I couldn't look as I needed to make sure I did not become one with the mountain and not in any sort of "zen-like" way. Popping out onto the jeep road, I saw I was within striking distance to take down one final competitor.

When making a pass in a race, there is one thing I have learned in all of my racing one must do: make it definitive. If you pass a runner, and then slow down, all you do is fire their engine up. As such, if you aren't ready to pass, save your energy. Two weeks ago in the Dam 15 Miler I wasn't ready to pass a guy in front of me for the lead quite yet. However, he slowed exponentially and left me with no choice. So, in spite of my desire to hold off for a bit, I passed, turned up the speed and went on to win the race. Here, the chap in front of me did not exactly slow but for some reason went reallllly wide on one of the curves. With me on the inside of turn, I was left with no choice but to make my move here. So with a mile left, I did.

I could tell, however, this guy was not going to let go easily so I really had to run with abandon. At one point, my foot slipped on some loose rocks and kicked out to the inside. Hitting my other foot, this could have easily sent me sprawling. Yet somehow it hit my shoe at just the right angle to send it forward. I stumbled a bit but recovered. The twisting and turning of the road underfoot was definitely giving my proprioception a run for its money.

Up ahead appeared was what I was guessing was one of the last  finishers, who was just on his second lap. Sixty-seven year old Guenter Hauser was out here on this brutal course giving his all.  I passed him and in spite of being in full race mode wanted to show him what an inspiration he was, even if I only saw him for three seconds. I gave him a pat on the back and said "way to go."  He returned the exchange and it invigorated me.

Down the final quarter of a mile and I could hear the footsteps behind me. One of the three remaining spectators was a young kid who yelled: "Go Dad!" Obviously the guy hard-charging on me from behind was this boy's father. As we left the path and began running over uneven grass and field, I could almost feel his breath. I was going to be damned though if I was going to let him catch me.

Down the final stretch I gave everything I had (and accordingly it showed that for a brief sprint I hit a nice 4:47 mile pace) and secured 99th place overall in a time of 1:13:06.  I have never been so thoroughly knackered or excited to finish in the bottom 15% of an event.  In fact, I don't think I have ever finished in the bottom 15% of an event.  But that is what happens when you race people out of your caliber. (Full Results Here.) Knowing now that working hard kept me in the double digits of finishers made all that extra hurt so much more worth it. There really is no difference in between 99th and 100th, except for the fact that we all know there sure as heck is a difference.

Also, I didn't finish last in the open division. The fella I passed at the top of the last climb had that honor. So two weeks ago I won a trail race outright by a large margin and this weekend I got destroyed by the competition. It all goes to show it only matters who shows up to a race in order for you to go from feeling great to wondering if they are the same species as you. So, in this arena, just show up. Put yourself on the starting line even if you may very well finish way behind everyone. Let the naysayers say what they will and by definition they will say "nay." Allow them to poke holes in your accomplishments when they sit at home on the couch. Because even if you finish absolutely dead last, every person who didn't race that day got destroyed by you.

Kudos to all the runners out there who took on this challenge. It was beyond fascinating and inspiring to see so many ages, shapes and skills on the mountain all at once. It reminds me, as it does virtually every time I run a race, why I like to be out here, pushing myself. The feeling of accomplishment by stretching your body to its limits is euphoric. Your quads hurt, you have lightheadedness, and you do briefly wonder what the hell you were thinking. But that all passes and all you are left with is the glow.

Go get your glow, runners.

1 comment:

gg said...

Enjoyed your recap. Well done. Keep up the good work. Get inspired and inspire others. :)