Thursday, July 17, 2014

UTMF & Western States 100

These two races form part of the new 10-race Ultra Trail World Tour, a year-long series of popular races around the world that will culminate with La Diagonale des Fous on the island of Reunion off the southeast coast of Africa in October. Whether or not the series has legs is yet to be seen, but it is certainly one example among many of the booming popularity that our once-niche sport is currently enjoying.

Regardless of what the future holds for the UTWT, I was happy to be a small part of the effort in its foundational year. And while neither of these races went particularly well for me, in fact they both went quite poorly, I still consider myself extremely fortunate to have taken part in both.

Indeed, a trip out to Japan to run around Mount Fuji should be on any runner's bucket list: the mountain is about as iconic as they come and Japan is about as welcoming a country as you could ever wish to visit. Throw in a detail-driven, organizational national psyche and you find yourself running around an amazing mountain with nary a second thought as to the potential pitfalls of running through the wilderness of a very foreign country.

Western States, by contrast, is a race that I have become intimately familiar with over the last five years, and one that offers very few cultural surprises. It is a special event, if for no other reason than the foundational position it commands within the lore of the sport. And while I'm glad to be moving on from the event, I also know that I will dearly miss the passion - for the trail, for the sport, and for the community - that is so evidently on display in those 100 miles between Squaw Valley and Auburn, CA.

What follows is a double report on these two UTWT races, followed by a couple of concluding thoughts on 100-miling and the pain of banging my head against a solid brick wall.

Mount Fuji

After a week of incredibly gracious hospitality from Altra's man in Japan, Takashi Fukuchi, and his wonderful wife, Rae, it was time to get on with the task at hand: a lap around Nippon's Big Cone.

The late afternoon start was something I could have done without given the extra layer of thought and preparation it added to my typical pre-race motions (wake up two hours before the start, eat donuts, drink coffee, visit the toilet, suit up, run), but you deal and get on with it.

Just before the start: me and Brian Beckstead, one of the three founding guys behind the Altra brand and a handy 100 miler to boot.
The opening miles through Kawaguchiko under the shadow of Fuji were predictably fast (as predictably fast as U.S. races are predictably slow to get going), and I soon found myself running in a pack that included the lead ladies, among others. The opening dirt-road climb out of town probably averaged 10 percent, a grade right out of the Clarkie all-day playbook, and I soon found myself settling in nicely and moving up through the field. Topping out, we then transitioned to a very fast, net downhill section of tarmacadam, before finally hitting some soft piney singletrack for the descent into the village of Fujiyoshida.

By the top of the next climb, which funneled into some outrageously fun, steep and technical singletrack high on the summit ridge of Shakushiyama, I was running within the top 10 and feeling great. That is until the ensuing technical, muddy descent from the summit where I took an awkward fall that left me prone on the ground with my left shoulder out of socket (a legacy from my rugby days). It had been a few years since my shoulder last dislocated, but a bit of on-the-ground contorting soon had it popped back into place and I was up and running soon after the initial stab of pain had subsided.

Running in eighth or ninth now, I came in solo to the intermediate aid station before the next town, but left just as a gaggle of runners poured in. Flipping on my light, I soon realized that I was seriously underpowered in the lumen department compared to my peers and was forced to let them go on the technical descent into town.

Rolling out of Yamanakako, I was fortunate enough to hook up with Dave Mackey who appeared to be running well and enjoying his evening. On the roads out of town we caught up to Frenchman Antoine Guillon and formed a solid trio as we made our way through a nice rolling wooded section, taking a name or two in the process. Both Dave and Antoine were clearly stronger on the downs (and both had far superior lighting), so it was back and forth as we cruised the rollers. Ultimately Dave would gap Antoine and me on a longer descent through this section, leaving me to pigeon-French a conversation with the amicable frogger for the next few hours.

Attention to detail is not one of my stronger suits, and so in typical fashion I was experimenting with nutrition on the fly out in Japan. And to my great surprise my stomach appeared to be tolerating - nay embracing - the diluted Cool Citrus VFuel that I had mixed in a soft bladder-bottle stuffed into the chest pocket of my Ultraspire pack with a handy straw flapping around close to my mouth. Gels were going in at the pre-planned rate, energy levels were high, and confidence was strong as a result.

I spent a lot of the night rolling around in the mud.
On a long road section somewhere close to the halfway point, last year's winner Hara-san went powering by at quite an impressive pace, dropping me to seventh or eighth. On the short out and back from the subsequent aid station I crossed Antoine and Mike Foote, so clearly the race was still very much on for top 10 placements. The net 10km of downhill dirt road that ensued went quickly and with little fanfare, with the exception of one particularly bruising fall. A couple shoulder checks along the way revealed two lights within a half mile behind; nothing in view ahead. Mike caught up to me just as we hit the water stop before a rough section of trail carved out by a power-line cut, and we ran the next portion together, both in high spirits.

Still energized and feeling fantastic, I ran this section with Mike at what felt like a strong effort. Halfway through this section though, I took another abrupt digger, dislocating my shoulder once again in the process. This time it took a couple of minutes to pop it back in. Nonetheless, I was back running alongside Mike within a mile and we were soon catching and passing runners. First Hara and then an ailing Thomas Lorblanchet. Coming into the aid station under the TenShi Mountains, the crux of the course - and not before a third shoulder dislocation while grabbing a pole to make a 90 degree turn - Mike and I were sitting pretty in sixth and seventh.

And then I learned from my crew that I'd eaten through the box of Cool Citrus that I'd brought with me and would have to make do with chocolate. While prepping for the burly 12 miles to come through the mountains, I spied a bowl of miso soup and slurped it down. Almost immediately my stomach rebelled, essentially ending my race and the charge for a podium finish.

The four hours - yes four hours to complete 12 miles - through the night in the TenShi mountains were incredibly hard, and now that I was vomiting rather than eating, they were also fantastically exhausting. Nonetheless, there were apparently runners worse off than me. Near the top of the hands-and-feet first climb, I passed a hurting Dave Mackey, then soon passed an even-more hurting Emmanuel Gault for a temporary spot in the top five. But I knew it was just a matter of time before the floodgates behind opened up.

Tip-toeing down the ludicrously steep descent from the final summit in the TenShi (where there were literally miles of fixed ropes), Antoine blazed past me. Given how poorly I was now moving, I was surprised he was the only one. Some four hours after I had left the previous stop, I finally pulled into aid station nine, with a new day now dawned. By this point I was truly miserable and giving serious consideration to dropping. My stomach was in knots and I was severely dehydrated. Apparently one bottle, no calories and lots of puking is not the way to tackle a four-hour stretch of technical, mountainous trail: attention to detail Clark! But I couldn't bring myself to pull the plug when faced with a crew that had sacrificed a weekend to come out and help.

I jogged out of the aid until I was out of sight, and then began walking. A mile out I came across a camera crew and asked them how I could extricate myself from my predicament. Due to severe linguistic difficulties I didn't get an answer so walked on to a nice spot by a creek and sat on a rock not quite sure what to do. After 30 minutes of sitting around feeling sorry for myself, Dave came hobbling through looking perhaps as bad as I felt. He compelled me to walk the final 50km into the finish with him and all of a sudden I was moving again with a somewhat renewed sense of mission, and quite honestly relieved not be pulling the plug.

Finally at the next aid station, I begin to feel like I might be able to get some calories in, and indeed a bowl of noodles was accepted by my stomach. On the ensuing climb, John Tidd caught up to me and I was able to find some energy and motivation, slotting in behind. Some 15 miles later at the penultimate aid station, with Tidd a long stretch of pavement behind me, Meghan Hicks informed me that I was in 10th position. Dumbfounded that I could still be in the top 10 (the rate of attrition was apparently quite high), I pressed on, finally finding the finish some 23 hours after I had started, relieved simply to have had the cojones to dig myself out of a major slump, to have finished what I had started, and to have gotten around the mountain.

A DNF had very much been in the cards and totally acceptable to me at my lowest point out there, but thanks to Dave and John I was able to finish and am now of course hugely thankful to have done so. A trip all the way out to Japan with nothing but a DNF to show for it would have been painful to accept. Thank you Dave, thank you John, and thank you to my wonderful crew.

A thoroughly underserved 10th place finish.
Western States

Jogging up the ski hill, I was somewhat bemused by the ridiculously cagey start that was unfolding. With all the hares in the field, it seemed like at least one of them would take off up the mountain, but instead I found myself leading the way to the Escarpment at an effort that I estimated to be among my lowest ever in the five times I'd done this race. Through the Granite Chief I maintained that lead, before runners finally started catching up, close to Lyon Ridge.

First to the top. Not a bad morning for a run. Photo: Ryan Smith.
The pace soon began to quicken and so I let the large chase pack go, feeling a distinct lack of pep and - quite honestly - desire in my stride. By Robinson Flat, some 30 miles in, I was beginning to feel like this wasn't going to be my day. I was 8 to 10 minutes off my usual pace, with a pair of quads that already felt iffy and a mind that had a singular lack of drive. Up to this point I had been working behind Ian Sharman and Brendan Davies, but on the ensuing half marathon descent from Robinson, I would lose them and then watch Ryan Sandes and Alex Varner pass by me with the utmost of ease.

Coming into Duncan at mile 24. Photo: Justin Mock
Coming into Dusty Corners: Mock
By Devil's Thumb at mile 47, I essentially knew the game was up and for the second time in as many races my thoughts transitioned to dropping out. On the contour trail to Last Chance, normally a strong section of the course for me, I was appalled at how slowly I was moving and then on the descent to Eldorado, I literally threw in the towel while tip-toeing down the drawn-out descent on a pair of totally unresponsive legs that appeared to have suffered major quad damage. Four or five guys - all looking good - went by me on the descent, and then a couple more as I lingered down by the creek eating blueberries.

On the long walk up to Michigan Buff, as more runners streamed by, I plotted my escape route, 100 percent certain that I was going to quit, all the while thinking about how I was going to dodge the inevitable pressure to continue from crew and volunteers. Sitting in my chair feeling ridiculously sorry for myself and imploring overzealous aid station volunteers to leave me alone, I tried to clear my head a little. My quads were shot, my feet were blistered and I just couldn't visualize a finish. The 16 miles of mainly downhill on Cal Street seemed insurmountable.

Finally, some 30 minutes later, Shelly Jones-Wilkins looks me straight in the eyes and tells me that I need to finish this race, learn from it and move on. There will be no lessons learned unless I get to the finish line. Finally, I feel a slight spark, and while the remaining 45 miles still seem quite impossible, I agree to a quick massage to see if that might turn my legs around. Two wonderful ladies work my legs and within three minutes they have me back up and running. Incredible. Thank you so much.

Jacob Rydman, my selfless pacer,  donates the socks off his feet, I slip my Lone Peaks back on and all of a sudden I'm running out of the aid station, and indeed I run virtually all the way to the next aid stop at Foresthill.

By this point I am firmly out of the race for places, but a respectable finish in the 18-hour range still isn't out of the question. That is until my stomach predictably turns sour a quarter of the way down to the river, essentially ceasing all possibility of calorie consumption. Jacob and I move reasonably well on the descent to Cal 1, but then halfway between Cal 1 and Cal 2 I come up against a major brick wall. The nausea in combination with my blisters and blown quads stop me in my tracks and I tell Jake that I'm going to have to walk to Cal 2.

Right at the top of the Elevator Shaft, a precipitous and loose drop into the Cal 2 aid station, I hear the unmistakable AJW baritone. The pass is about to happen and I step off the side of the trail to let Andy through. He stops briefly with a slight look of surprise in his eyes, then simply gives me a hug and tells me that he loves me. Wow. Somewhat taken aback, I proclaim my shared love for Andy and just like that he's ripping down the elevator shaft in pursuit of his tenth finish. The man-love from Andy is good and wholesome, but not enough to resolve my issues.

I ask Jacob what the escape route out of Cal 2 looks like and he tells me that if I want to quit then I need to get to the river. Damn it. We sit in Cal 2 for a good long time. The stop eases my stomach situation slightly and I consume a couple of morsels, but mainly suck on ginger ale. I watch friends go through the aid, all looking motivated and strong, but find no motivation to move until an ailing Kaci Likteig walks in, proclaiming her quads to be destroyed. Finally somebody who can sympathize with my misery.

We commit to walking down to the river together where we would perhaps unceremoniously drop or perhaps continue on to the finish. And then the Cal 2 calories appear to kick in a bit and I feel like I can jog again. Kaci catches my rhythm and all of a sudden we're both moving at what could genuinely be described as a 'run.' Spirits now high, Kaci and I make a pact that we're both going to finish this thing. We seal the deal with a fist bump, and for the first time since El Dorado and can envision a finish.

Across the river I receive some foot treatment giving up further time on the clock, but not caring one iota. I struggle through the first few miles from Green Gate and then proceed to lose my lunch. The stomach reset allows me to continue running, but I go too hard and by the time I drop into the Auburn Lakes Trail aid station (85) I reach my lowest low of this unrelenting day of lows. The nausea engulfing me is now total and I sit in the aid station contemplating how on earth it is that I'm going to complete the final 15 miles of this bruising day. The answer ends up being time. I sit in the aid station for half an hour, maybe more, before finally heeding the advice of the wonderful ALT nurse to hike to Browns Bar, some five miles down the trail. We walk every single step of those five miles and finally my stomach comes back to life.

Over those last 10 miles, I go from tiptoeing out a run, to gradually picking up a head of steam that would ultimately result in tempo session from No Hands Bridge through town and an all-out sprint on the track. I end the day feeling like I have barely started, my stomach is ready for calories and my mind is clear. I have never finished a 100 miler feeling this fresh, coherent and with such an appetite. Had it been a 200 mile race, I may just have been in with a shot.

But it wasn't. Instead I finished 47th overall, over five hours off my best time, but in good spirits and at peace with my final run from Squaw Valley to Auburn, California. It has been a fun ride but it's most definitely time to move on to other challenges. The cougar will have to remain the thing that dreams are made ... to quote Sam Spade.

Conclusion

In order to race 100 milers effectively, your mind most be 100 percent committed. I believe my mind was ready for Fuji, but totally indifferent to Western States this year. I figured I could show up, go through the motions and come away with a solid finish. Instead, when things started going wrong, I used those hurdles as excuses to look for a way out.

In order to race 100 miles effectively, you need a functioning stomach. I'm close to being at my wits end on this one. I will work with my good friend Abby McQueeney Penamonte - a registered dietician and talented 100 mile runner herself - over the next few weeks to see if we can't figure something out for Steamboat in September. If that ends up being another disaster, then I am currently of the opinion that I will retire from racing 100 milers - or at least take an extended break. I know what it feels like to endure hours of nausea whilst trying to maintain strong forward progress, and quite frankly it sucks. I don't need to keep banging my head against that wall.

Fortunately, there are plenty of other long-distance challenges that can be taken on in the mountains at a much lower intensity, so if I do end up quitting the 100 mile distance it will hopefully come with a renewed sense of purpose for big projects in the mountains that perhaps do not involve a formal start and finish line.

Either way, I am happy to have completed both UTMF and Western States, despite an overwhelming desire at points in both races to quit, and I look forward to applying those lessons learned to future challenges.

26 comments:

  1. Great report Clarkie! With the exception of Tom Green, your finish at WS was, to me, the most inspirational of the entire weekend. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks, Andy. You and your family continue to be an incredible inspiration as well. I'll take that mile 70 man hug with me to the grave. Cheers!

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    2. Me too! See you in Silverton:)

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    3. Hardrock on fresh legs. Yes indeed. See you in Sliverton.

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  2. Wow. Great post. Sad to hear that the belly is not obeying the brain any longer. I had been wondering what your post would be like based on the delay since WS. Awesome to stick with it when you really did not want to

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    1. Thanks, Alex. The WS fail was a tough pill to swallow for a couple days post race, but I also felt a significant sense of relief to be moving on - and still do. My mind just wasn't there this year, so it's definitely time.

      Hope you are well!

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  3. I am so glad I hoped to find your report(s) here, and I am so glad you didn't disappoint with your honesty. I am not the same level, and my trouble(s) lately are in different category, but I hear you on getting the head bung out against the wall. I will keep my fingers crossed that you'll solve (at least partially) your stomach problems, but if it's not resolved - you're so right, there is much out there to stay in the sport and/or do other big projects! Kudos to you for the finish, like Timmy Olson's at HR100, this one is for all of us out there!

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    1. Thanks Olga, and I hope you get a handle on whatever issues you're dealing with.

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  4. Awesome job finishing both races. It's easy(ish?) to move through an ultra when everything is clicking...much more difficult when nothing seems to be going your way. Fast times and top 10 finishes are inspiring and all but your perseverance is right up there. Thanks for finishing!

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    1. Yeah, at the end of the day I'm a whole lot more content to have five WS buckles than I would have been to settle for four. In fact, I might cherish this one the most. I certainly had to work the hardest for this one.

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  5. Nick, if it wasn't for you and making that pact I would have never finished WS. I remember you saying "If I can't finish for myself, I will finish for my kids". That brought tears to my eyes and determination to my soul. You have influenced and inspired me beyond my imagination. I cannot thank you enough for your humble generosity. YOU are the epitome of a true Ultra-Runner. Best wishes on your next adventures.

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    1. Aww, thanks Kaci. I think we gave each other the mutual kid up the rear ends we needed to get the job done, which was really inspiring and what the sport is all about. Thanks for being there.

      I had you picked for the win this year, but clearly you didn't have the day you are capable of. It will come. Keep working (and find some better hills).

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  6. Nick, I followed your WS progress intently from afar. As the race unfolded I could tell it wasn't going the way you hoped it might, and I was really bummed to see reports that you might be dropping. It seems more and more common for people at the top end of the sport to drop out when they fall out of contention for whatever reason... but not you. Following your struggle to the finish was truly inspirational. Very classy. You earned more respect that day than you would have with another podium finish.

    Show that same grit at Steamboat.

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    1. Thanks, Rob. It was definitely a struggle, but messages like yours make it seem like is was ultimately a worthwhile one. Happy trails!

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  7. Your honesty regarding your trials and tribulations is quite refreshing...but I would expect nothing less as you have always been quite honest with yourself (and your readers) about yourself. I was concerned when no post popped up the week after WS...glad you are back. I hope you figure something out regarding your GI issues (I can relate...mine, unfortunately, are further down the path) as your heart is still obviously in 100 milers. That said, I admire the enthusiasm with which you are willing to refocus on new passions if things don't work out. Glad to have been able to haul water for you at Quad Rock...hope to see you there next year.

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    1. Thanks, Pete! Come run QR next year.

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  8. Hey, you can't retire from 100s just yet....Burch just set a CR in South Dakota (in the mud, no less) that needs a challenger next year. We'll save you a spot :).

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    1. Hah, yeah, Burch nailed one at last. Probably too good for me. That weekend will be open in 2015. Maybe I'll run the JV race!

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  9. Nice write up. Like I said yesterday evening, finishing when you can, instead of DNFing, is so much more rewarding, not just for yourself, but for your fans as well. Awesome job!

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    1. Thanks, AJ, and great meeting you too. Check out the local paper for an article from Thursday's Towers session: http://www.coloradoan.com/story/sports/running/2014/07/20/always-three-hills-towers-road-run/12906677/

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  10. Completely appreciate how real you have kept the whole thing. Win, lose or draw, more 100s or none again, you sir are one of the most solid people I have met in this game. All the best Nick.

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    1. George - the feeling is entirely mutual, and it's been entirely too long since we last connected for a run. Let's remedy that soon!

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  11. Nick, you've always been a runner I respect and admire because of your toughness, consistency and passion. I'm sorry Western didn't go as planned. But it sounds like you made a mark this year and the race had some special moments, such as with your experiences with Kaci and AJW.

    I don't know who all of your sponsors are but let me recommend VFuel. While I'm no where near the runner you are, over the past few years my stomach at Leadville has been very problematic. Last year, it cost me my best-ever shot at sub-20 at Leadville but somehow I regrouped late in the race. Anyway, if you haven't already tried VFuel, you might want to give it a shot. I actually now finish long runs feeling hungry. I still have some moments but VFuel has been solid so far. The big test comes in a few weeks.

    Onward and upward!

    Wyatt

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  12. Digestion changes as the body does and boy does the body change during an ordeal of the kind you face in race. You are THE toughest doughnut eating mountain runner I ever heard of. Mega-inspirational. Please don't retire from the Hundo's just retire from the pre-race doughnuts. Maybe try something gluten free. ... at Rabbit Run try eating them glazed donuts AFTER the race! You are a true champion of the sport! See you at the Black Squirrel, Blue Sky and QuadRock.

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    1. Thanks Jamey. I've been working with a nutritionist for the past few months, and yes, doughnuts are definitely on the banned food list. Gonna give it the old college try and hopefully with a solid nutrition plan things will work out a little better than they have for the last two.

      Thanks for the encouragement. Much appreciated.

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  13. very good! I found the perfect theme used!

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