Wednesday, April 20, 2011

SweetH20 50K Trail Race

Wherein I get slapped around a bit by a trail with a sweet name and a bad reputation and I live to tell the tale.

SweetH20 50K starts a series of races (including Enoree Passage 40-Mile and the Foothills Trail Ultra 77-Mile) that are very special to me on a number of fronts.

This time last year, I sat here reading Georgia Snail's 2010 SweetH20 50K race report. This is back when we were just "blogger friends". I had been following his blog and knew of his plan to run this event as his first ultra. His race report, full of horrible recountings of pain and suffering beyond anything he had ever experienced, had me at hello.

Shortly thereafter, I found a 40-Mile race and e-mailed a guy named Jason Sullivan to ask him if he thought it was a good "first ultra" race... the rest is history.

A year later, I sit here writing my own SweetH20 race report, and I'm finding it ironic that Thomas' race report from last year and my race report from this year are pretty much interchangeable. In fact, I don't really feel like recounting Saturday's misery. Can't you just go read his report and insert "Psyche" every time you read "I"?


You guys are so lazy. ...Fine. Make me do all the work, then.

SweetH20 50K Race Report
Like everyone else, I've grown tired of winter and find the recent warm temperatures bring with them a bit of spring fever. Being out on the trails in the sunshine and among the wildflowers is apparently enough to set off a virtual epidemic of race fever, as the week before SweetH20 generated enough trash talk to get every runner within a 100-mile radius seriously stoked to run. Get Christian involved and make that 300 miles.

With all the smack talk, people were laying down goal times right and left. I signed up with a 7:30 goal based on the pace I ran for MMM, assuming the courses were somewhat comparable. This meant keeping it slightly under 14-minute miles.

So after months and months of hardly any preparation at all, race day finally approached. This would be Charles' 3rd trip to the 'Creek, and my first. Our no-plan-plan was to stay together for one loop and then see what happens.

The morning of the race worked out perfectly. It was about a 45 minute drive to Sweetwater State Park, and we had plenty of time to catch up with old friends. We ran in to Thomas first, and boy, did he look good! If you haven't noticed, the Snail has been dropping some serious el bees lately, and he looked like a lean, mean racing machine on Saturday.

There were about 200 runners casually standing around at the start of the race waiting for the 7:30 a.m. start. As I looked around, I was amazed that I knew so many people. We spent a few minutes catching up with Big Easy, Diesel, Weezy, and a few people with regular names, too. Brad Goodridge and Charles got to compare some serious scarrage, which is always a boost for a Pirate. Ronnie Hines came around taking pictures, which made me realize I had forgotten to bring my camera.

Charles, Me, Dan Burstein

A few words later from the RD, and we found out that the creek crossing that the race is famous for was being removed due to the heavy storms from the night before. I didn't hear what course change that required, but before I knew it we were off and running down the road, out of the state park, going around the lake.

People were flying down the road!! I think Charles went through Mile 1 in 8:45 and I was not far behind at 9:10- a far cry from the 13:55 pace I should have started at. I remember thinking, "What am I doing? I should not be running the first of 32 miles at a pace that actually has me breathing hard." I also remember wondering in what universe is 14-minute mile pace "race pace"? You would think ultras would draw hordes of people purely because they would believe they could run faster than that over long distances. Some would actually be right.

The course layout was simple, a 15 mile loop that we traveled twice. I took Christian's advice to heart. He said, "Get through the first trip to TOTW and powerlines happy, and all should be well. Feel dead, and the day will be long 'cuz you'll still have the following brutality left:

Jacks Hill
Water Crossing (takes good balance, not fatigued legs)
Yellow climb
TOTW (again)
Powerlines (again)
Jack's Hill (again)
and that pleasant little concrete crawl up to the finish.

We hit the first real interesting part of the coursejust a few miles in

After some very technical single track, the first "water" crossing came up quickly. There's a concrete spillway about 50 yards across, with a couple of ten foot ropes that we used to sort of rappel down the wall, run through the six inch deep water and pull ourselves up the same set up on the other side. Pretty cool.

Big Easy is making it look, well, easy

Continuing on, we were now running along the banks of Sweetwater Creek. I hit a root and took a pretty decent fall. As I was getting up, I saw Naresh! He seemed to appear out of nowhere, which is a scene that would repeat itself throughout the day. Naresh is a very sneaky runner.

We soon began the gradual ascent up the bluff, single-track switchbacks. Charles, Naresh and I were running together, the mood was light, we were joking and enjoying the camaraderie.

Ooh, look at me! I love hills!!!

Around mile 5, we began to leave the creek behind and worked our way to the power lines and the entrance to the "Top of The World". There were at least five major climbs in this section, each becoming more difficult. We ascended a couple hundred feet in each 1/4 mile and then we were on Top of the World where pictures cannot due justice the 360 panoramic view. It is spectacular.

The descents were tough, my quads were burning and my toes were throbbing from being jammed into the front of the toebox of my shoes.

Miles 14-16 (?) found us rolling through the flattest portion of the course, and then suddenly I was staring down (up) a trail that would almost bring me to my knees. In 3/4 of a mile we climbed 400 ft, only to descend 400 feet in the same breath. While walking up this hill, I thought my heart was going to explode. I had to stop to catch my breath several times, and Charles ran ahead, seeming to climb effortlessly. Damn him! Each single step was a chore, and I prayed I would not see this hill again.

I hate this hill

We traveled along the creek bed for the next few miles and worked our way back to the entrance to Top of the World and the power line hills. The pain I felt at the climb back in mile 18 was nothing compared to the battle of wills I encountered between miles 25 - 27. Endless hills, each step bringing about greater pain. I "quit" each of my upcoming races 5 or 6 times during this stretch. I decided trail running was not for me. I tried desparately to just keep moving forward, but I could see the remaining hills at the top of each climb, taunting me. There were runners on those hills, and I could not imagine how they were doing it.

That second pass through the power lines seriously sucked. To compound thing, Charles was feeling good (ha! feeling good! Are you effing kidding me??) and said he was going to push it.

Arriving at the Top of the World, my mind was mush and I could only focus on the idea of getting off of that mountain. Pulling into the aid station I ate some oranges and just felt completely out of it.

The return trip down was a chore, and I spent a large portion of the time dissected my training and decided I was completely under trained for this event. In hindsight, I was strong through the first 21-22 miles, then the wheels fell off. I was revamping my training plan to include massive amounts of climbing, as there is no way in Hell I am suffering this bad at the Pitchell.

The last few miles were difficult, I walked most of them, running for short spurts on the downhills. I mentally checked out when I knew the finish would be ahead, and hopefully somewhere close. The road went on and on. When. will. this. end? Where is the finish?

Then I heard some cheers for someone behind me, and I glanced back to see it was a girl. There was no way in hell I was givingup one more spot with the finish line in sight. I started running and praying I was going to see the damn finish line- soon. Suddenly, someone is telling me to turn and go up the stairs, which just seemed surreal. Really...? I have to freaking climb stairs to get to the finish line? What is wrong with you people??

Finally I hit the stairs and everyone started cheering! I saw Charles as I crossed the finish line in 8:21:33, a full 23 minutes after him and Naresh (super duper congrats to them both for breaking 8hrs.)

Then Naresh was suddenly there taking my picture.

The mouth is smiling but the eyes are not so sure

I was given a sweetH20 hat, a bottle of water and directed to the food table. I felt dizzy and naseaus and even after throwing up it took me a long time to recover.

A final recap...


Congrats to everyone who PR'd this course, which was a ridiculously large number of people.

Thank you Douglas County Rogue Runners, Johnny Buice(RD) and every single volunteer that was out on the course for this event. Without you this day would not have been possible.

Thank you Holly Armbruster (again!) for taking care of me. You are the absolute best.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Barkley 2011

After spending six days in Frozen Head State Park bearing witness to the most incredible endurance achieve- ment I have ever seen (not to mention being in the company of such incredible people), adjusting to "real life" feels more like a smack down than a let down.

As I look back on the Barkley weekend, I realize several things...

First, and without a doubt, the Barkley Marathons is truly the ultimate endurance race that requires training specificity. Yielding just 10 finishers in its 25 year history, if you look at the long distance experiences of those who have survived the entirety of being "Out There" you see a common thread- these are guys who have made it their business to suffer for more than just days on end.. sometimes for weeks and even for months.

As Sherpa John recently noted, the Barkley is probably easier for them because in their eyes it's one of the shorter events they've endured. Indeed, the bottom line for success at the Barkley appears to be the ability to suffer for long periods of time... and with a quiet patience.

The take away for me for my attempt next year (if I get in!) is to train with a speed hiker's mindset, with lots of climbing and lots of relying on self sufficiency. Can you say Bartram and Foothills Trail? Good thing Charles and I were already talking about running the entire Bartram Trail- this will surely be good Barkley training.

Aside from trying to wrap my mind around what it takes to finish 1 loop let alone 5 loops, for me the overwhelming experience of being a Barkley weight lister at camp this year was simply the the honor of being in the company of some of the world's greatest people and athletes. The humility and spirit of the Barkers has left me nothing short of renewed, inspired, and grateful.

Finally, and I honestly have no words to convey what this experience was like, it was simply amazing to witness Charles' most awesome defeat by this race that eats its young. He suffered the pain and had the privilege of being "out there" and in doing so joined the ranks of some of the luckiest people on the planet- he is now a Barker.

Here is his race experience in his own words:

"Today, even though it is close to a week after my tapping out, it is difficult to put into words all that I experienced while "Out There" at the Barkley this year. I certainly have a newfound respect for both the wild nature of this area and those strong enough to tackle this tremendous challenge. I feel somehow changed, more in tune with myself, than I ever have. Stronger, yet also more vulnerable.

Until Friday the 1st, as far as I knew I was still # 1 on the weight list - starting out at # 21 when the list was first published by Laz I had no expectations of getting in but over the last several weeks my name kept moving up until there it was perched right at the top. I had no choice but to prepare to run. Psyche on the other hand had moved up from # 6 on the weight list all the way up to the # 3 spot - she was getting prepared to run also.

We had originally planned on traveling up to Frozen Head to crew and lend support for our friend Joe Lea (aka Marmot) who had secured one of the slots. We knew Marmot was very strong and thought he might have a real shot as a contender. But when our names moved up on the weight list our focus shifted more to our own aspirations.

I think I had somewhat of a portent of things to come when on the drive up on Wednesday I passed by a strange assortment of dead animals - a beaver, a coyote, and a hawk!

Arriving late Wednesday Psyche and I secured a spot and setup camp. It was fantastic to meet some of the other early arrivers, "Frozen" Ed and his lovely wife Gail, Carl Laniak, Chip Tuthill, Dale Holdaway, James and John Demers, and others.

Spent Thursday sightseeing around Wartburg, hiking along the Obeds scenic river, driving up 116 past Brushy Mountain Penitentiary, and getting our things together in the event we might be "in the race".

Friday was surreal as we met more and more folks filling up the campground and finally strode up to the big white tent to meet Laz and inquire about our entries, license plates in hand. Laz informed me that I was in the race taking over John Dewalt's spot!!! So the next order of business was to go and get the topo maps we had purchased at park headquarters the day before and mark up the route on them. After doing that we went into town and lunch at Hardee's while I laminated my course directions with clear packing tape.

Friday night we sauntered up to the main gathering to eat and meet a few more folks. I never did get any of the infamous Barkley chicken because every time I went over to the grill there were no pieces ready, and then when I went back over someone had already gotten the "cooked" pieces off the grill! Damn...:)

Naresh arrived late Friday night with wild stories of a naked guy all jacked up on meth who had literally vaulted over Naresh's car next to the front gate to the park! Wow, it seems fitting that happened at the Barkley!

I laid down about 10:30 that night and actually managed to sleep about 1.5 hours until I was awakened by the conch blowing loudly through the camp at 12:07....and then again it blew! Christ! From then on it was a mad scramble to shower, get dressed, lubed, and all my gear on and ready for a cold nighttime start at 1:07 am. I struggled up the hill only to see that the race had just started and runners were moving steadily up the road toward the first climb up Bird Mountain. And I missed the cigarette lighting completely!

That initial climb up Bird Mtn was slow but definitely hard and I was sweating hard by the top. I had originally run to get in the middle of the pack but fell back a little on the climb. At the very top Iso Yucra passed me and left me standing still as he flew down the trail on the other side. All I remember about this section of trail (and true about much of the North Boundary trail) is that almost all of it was pitched and the footing was difficult/slick from recent rains. I'm still nursing a broken arm from a trail fall 8 weeks ago and have to be extra careful about falling on it again so much of the time I moved slower than the other runners on the wet terrain.

Reached Book 1 without any problem and grabbed my page, but my first mistake was that my ziplock bag was in my pack which was painfully slow to take off and put on for every book stop - later I would simply stuff the baggie in my front pants pocket. After we crossed Phillips Creek and started heading up the next climb I realized I had lost my trekking pole that I thought had been securely tied to my pack! Damn again!

Along the NBT I remember quite a bit of steep climbing on the trail and marveling at how strong the other runners were. I played tag with Allan Holtz and fell in and back with a group that included Frozen Ed, Sue Thompson, Abi Meadows, Paul Lefleholz, Dale Holdoway, and a couple others. Along this section my legs started to cramp but I was ok when I just continued on - but thoughts of having to quit early on due to spasms had me worried. During this time I heard thunder and soon some rain and small hail started falling. I struggled with the hood on my rain jacket but couldn't figure out how to clasp it so I started getting a thorough soaking. My low point on this section came at a small ditch soon after we crossed Son of a Bitch Ditch - my left leg totally seized up and I was left lying in a muddy ditch unable to move unable the cramps subsided, all the while hail was falling all around me!

On up to the coal ponds and the Garden Spot, Stallion Mountain, Fyke's Peak (which I don't remember at all!), and down to the New River was somewhat of a blur as I tried to stay with the group. They were much stronger than me on the climbs but I could usually catch them on the descents. That whole area is very eerie and traversing it at night only enhanced that foreboding feeling. I was terrified of being separated and struggled mightily to stay with the group as we all climbed around up and over the cross country terrain, sliding down steep slopes on my ass and using small trees as climbing poles to get up the steeper slopes.

We finally made it down the steep descent down a leaf filled draw to the New River and found a place to cross. The others were able to jump from rock to rock without getting their feet wet but with my paranoia about falling on a slick rock and rebreaking my arm I just wading right through the water - that would be my method to cross all subsequent streams. From the river was a jumble of downed trees to climb over and navigate around before we climbed up and over 116, traversed downroad and into the woods again. This took us up into a virtual swamp where the mud was so deep it almost sucked my shoes off. We spent about 10 minutes there hunting around before someone found Book 4. Next up - climb up the Testicle Spectacle!

Kent Moeller and I were the last to start up the climb and I quickly realized that I would never be able to catch everyone else on this huge climb, so, including Kent, I let them all go and struggled up it at my own pace. The briars were something to contend with but it was generally easy to avoid most of them. The climb itself is an unrelenting beast and gets steeper as you get closer to the top. A couple of times I actually had to grab thick briar stalks to help pull me up the muddy slope!

Once at the top there was no trace of anyone down the Meth Lab Hill side or back on the route I had taken up Testicle Spectacle - I was on my own for the first time in the race, but the sun was coming up and I still had my map, directions, and compass intact. I stopped to rest there, get some food and get my bearings to continue on.

My first of many mistakes came coming down Meth Lab Hill - instead of continuing down quite a bit and past the Neo butt slide I started off the power line cut and into the woods far up the ridge. This cross country jaunt eventually led me down the steep other side of the ridge to Raw Dog falls but I probably lost quite a bit of time. In fact even at Raw Dog falls I had trouble finding Book 5. After 15 minutes futilely searching I realized I was on the wrong side of the creek - at the Barkley perspective is EVERYTHING! Ok, now found the book and then to find Pig Head creek. I had no trouble going down and back up Pussy Ridge (not sure exactly which spot was Danger Dave's Climbing wall but if it is what I thought it was it looked too dangerous to attempt). Up a very steep and broken glass covered hillside to 116 and down a switchback - great, this must be Pig Head Creek but where is the pig head? I'll be damned if I looked and looked but never found it - hiked down the road to the next switchback, back up, and realized I must have been in the right place - but another 20 minutes wasted (I ended up climbing up the right side up a steep embankment and never saw the "trail" on the left side)! This was a tough scramble up the ravine and very steep to get up and on the ridgeline. Had no problem seeing the faint traces of old roadbed but mistake # 3 I followed the road left instead of right! Damn, after going 1/4 mile down I realized my mistake and had to climb back up.

The next section was fairly straightforward as I made my way to the old prison mine and start of the Rat Jaw climb. At this point I was trashed and hungry and sat down to rest. After a few minutes Steve Durbin happened along the trail and I was damn happy to see anyone! Steve and I made our way up Rat Jaw around the left side - this was a BITCH of a climb, especially without my trekking pole, and more than a few times I was on my hand and knees crawling up while sliding halfway back down! Up on top finally we took a break to eat and fill up on water. Howie Stern joined us as he had just arrived at the summit. One of the more humorous situations also occurred as a mother and her 2 daughters made their way to the summit on a hike and we told them a little about what we were doing "out there"!

Steve and Howie started descending Rat Jaw before I did. Once I started the descent I ran into Mike O'Melia on the way up who asked me if I wanted my trekking pole back! He had picked it up on the descent down Bird Mtn. and carried it with him the rest of the way.....I was sure glad to have it back!! The descent down Rat Jaw was uneventful but slow as I picked my way through the woods and got farther away from the power line than I wanted. Once I tracked back over I realized the briars were mostly gone on this lower section so it was pretty fast getting the rest of the way down. On the last steep section of Rat Jaw to the prison I sat down to butt slide and startled a large rat snake who had been sunning on the rocks! He started to rattle his tail to mimic a rattlesnake and actually started coming toward me so I kept poking him away with my trekking pole all the while sliding down to make my get away!

At the prison now but now the problem was figuring out how to get into the tunnel entrance! I walked around both sides before finally settling on a method that had me grabbing the gate with my right hand and I jumped down and swung myself over and onto the ledge, pulling myself up and inside by the gate! Going through the tunnel was one of the most memorable experiences I've ever had! But getting out the other side was no picnic as it was a steep bank with only loose stones to pull yourself up.

Spent some more time getting oriented for the Bad Thing climb and surely lost some time on it. By this time I was wasted and moving slower and slower - still able to climb though as I steadily moved up the mountain. When I reached the summit at last I nailed it because the Needle's Eye was right in front of me! Another break to retrieve my page and rest before staring down the Zip line. This was probably the hardest section for me - just a rugged, steep descent bushwhacking all the while and dodging downfalls, small trees, boulders, briars, and anything else that is an obstacle out in the woods.

I eventually made it down to the creek but mistakenly followed it past the confluence and onto the remains of the "jeep" road. I went down this quite a way before again realizing my mistake and backtracking up and over the creek. Book 9 was pretty easy to find. At that point I was joined by Bob Haugh and together we started up Big Hell. Although I was trashed and running on empty I was anxious to get to the top so I got ahead of Bob and made it to the summit - once again I lucked out and my "line" had taken me directly to the correct capstone where Book 10 was hidden!

From that point on was mostly a hike in as I didn't have enough energy to run - that last 4 miles seemed to take FOREVER and I was surprised to have yet another climb even on this candy-ass trail!

Made it to the campground and ran up the hill just as it was getting dark, something better than 19 hours after I started. Touching the yellow gate, seeing everyone there, and hearing taps played for me was just surreal.

The rest of the time in Frozen Head was spent resting and watching as others finished their races. It was a wonderful experience seeing Joe, John, Nick, and James finish their fun run! And Monday getting to watch as Brett made history was the greatest athletic achievement I've ever witnessed!

All in all, even though my time was way over the limit I am satisfied that I left it all on the trail. Forced to dig deep, by myself, I found out what I am made of and that has made me a better person. Yet longing to push farther....

Psyche, it's your turn next year!!!

Thanks to Laz and everyone else who makes this event what it is, a celebration of the human spirit!

Charles Raffensperger

A huge thank you to Laz and to everyone who makes this race possible. Congratulations especially to Bret Maume for his finish this year, and to everyone that had the courage to start and fail.

See you next year!