Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Race Recap: 2012 Escarpment Trail Run

Waiting in the rain at the start
This past Sunday I ran my 4th major race, and 6th overall, of the 2012 season: the Escarpment Trail Run. It's a quirky event ... there's no online registration (you apply by postal mail), and no awards for winners. Yet, it has a big reputation in the trail running community. I think that's because, in many ways, this is trail racing at its purest: one trail, through the mountains, no road crossings. Just you, other runners, and some magnificent country traversed via a very challenging route. It's been called the "Boston Marathon of trail runs." Mile for mile, it's one of the toughest trail races in the country.

The race follows the Escarpment Trail for 30k (18.6 miles) through the Catskill Mountains. The Escarpment itself is a steep mountain wall, where the Catskills rise up 2,000 vertical feet from the Hudson Valley far below just to their east. The Escarpment is also known as the Wall of Manitou, and it's a striking feature of the landscape. At times, the trail follows the edge of cliffs overlooking the valley; at other times, it follows ridgelines up and over summits. Seven of them, in fact. From the northern trailhead in Windham, NY to the finish line a North/South Lake in Haines Falls, the route tackles Windham High Peak, Burnt Knob, Acra Point, Blackhead Mountain (the race's highest point at an elevation of 3,940'), Arizona Mountain, Stoppel Point, and North Mountain.

All of those mountains add up to some serious elevation change. In less than 19 miles, the trail logs a very impressive (even intimidating) 10,000 vertical feet of elevation change. It's rugged country in the heart of the Catskill Forest Preserve. Because the trail crosses no roads, aid station volunteers hike/backpack in to trail junctions carrying all the water and supplies. The trail features occasional rock scrambling, steep ascents and descents, ledges, and overall rough going.

And they're off! More than 200 runners funnel onto the Escarpment Trail
Aside from the pure challenge of the race, and the appeal of running through the mountains, this race had added significance for me. I'd never seen the middle section of trail before race day, but both the start and finish had connections to earlier times in my life.

My first job out of college was working as an ecologist for an environmental non-profit in the Albany, New York area, two hours north of New York City. I lived in a nearby suburb. Longing for the mountains, sometimes after work I'd drive south 40 minutes or so to Windham and trail run up the Escarpment Trail toward the summit of Windham High Peak.

Even earlier in my life, from the age of about 11 to about 15, each summer my family would take a week-long camping trip to North/South Lake, the southern terminus of the race. We'd always do a hike up the Escarpment Trail to North Point, a prominent series of open rock ledges below the summit of North Mountain, with sweeping vistas.

Now, in this race, I'd revisit those old haunts.

The only problem was the weather. Major storms swept through on Friday. More heavy rain followed on Saturday. And on race morning Sunday, you guessed it ... more rain. In fact, it would rain steady and hard for 95% of my race. It made for treacherous conditions—mud, standing water, trails flowing like streams, very slick rocks. Staying on your feet and not taking a hard drive would be an important focus of the day. (I almost bit the dust probably a dozen times. Miraculously, the only two times I fell where in the brief sections of trail where the rocks and roots relented ... once I landed in some soft moss, another time in ferns. What luck! Falling anywhere else on the trail would have been very bad news.)

Heading into the race, I had a pair of goals: crack the Top 20, which would equate roughly with the top 10%, and/or finish in 3:30. I felt like both of those goals were reasonable if I ran well. But this was a very tough race. In any given year, the winner might finish in sub-3 hours. The last finishers might take 7 hours. The race director advised those of us running the race for the first time to add one hour to your typical marathon (26.2 miles) time, for a race less than 19 miles! (Incredibly, one guy was running the race to earn his "600 mile" T-shirt, which meant he was gunning for his 33rd finish, and the race was in its 36th year, I think!)

I had two main concerns going into the race: course conditions and my leg fitness.

With the rain, I expected to run slower and cautiously. The one saving grace was that temps in the 60s and the constant rain kept things very comfortable. There was no risk of overheating on this day, which otherwise might be a problem for a race in New York State at the end of July. I revised my target finish time to 4 hours.

It might seem funny to also be worried about my leg fitness, given that I've been running ultras all season, but let me explain. Compared to my last major race, the Finger Lakes Fifties Ultra, the Escarpment Trail Run tackles twice the elevation gain and loss in half as much distance. That's a four-fold increase in the elevation profile of the course. Following the North Face Endurance Challenge 50-miler at Bear Mountain, I'd tailored my training to focus on running a faster pace over mellower trails, parallel to what I expected at the Finger Lakes Fifties Ultra. But that meant that I hadn't been running the hills much. After recovering from Finger Lakes, I'd only had two weeks or so of running trails with larger elevation changes before it was time for the Escarpment, and I wasn't sure how my legs would handle the shock of jumping back into a mountain race with 10,000' of elevation change. We'd see how that would pan out.

At the finish line 30k (18.6 miles) later
The race began at 8:59am. (Not 9:00am. Remember, I said this was a quirky event!) More than 200 runners packed the trailhead along the side of the highway. I slotted myself in up close to, but not at, the front of the race. I knew that very shortly after setting off, we'd cross a narrow wooden bridge over a stream bed and hit the singletrack trail. It's a major bottleneck, and it comes almost immediately. I didn't want to get stuck behind a mass of bodies. So I went out much harder than I normally might. I was pushing the pace, but I wanted to get established on the trail before dialing back the pace and settling into a rhythm.

The long ascent of Windham High Peak went well. I eventually settled into my usual routine: power hike steeper sections, jog the easy uphills. I reached the summit in about 25th place.

The descent off Windham was a long, semi-technical descent, and I made good time here. I tend to run the technical downhills pretty well, and that was true in this race as well. I passed several racers, and by the time I reached the bottom of the major climb to the summit of Blackhead, I was in 21st place, with an eye toward cracking into the top 20.

The ascent of Blackhead is a big one—it's steep and unrelenting. In less than a mile, the route climbs some 1,500 vertical feet. I held my position in the race, continued over the summit, and bombed the descent to Dutcher's Notch, a mountain pass at the base of the next major ascent up Stoppel Point.

I'd decided to keep my race nutrition pretty simple on this day. I carried a single 20-ounce bottle with First Endurance EFS drink (which I topped off with Gatorade from aid stations as I passed through). And I carried a single 4-ounce flask of First Endurance EFS Liquid Shot for extra energy.

Everything was going according to plan ... until I hit the ascent of Stoppel Point.

Team Bronski
By the time I reached the ascent of Stoppel Point, my legs were really feeling the race. The ascent of Stoppel happens in three distinct chunks—three steep climbs separated by brief stretches of runnable trail. I was making steady uphill progress, but my pace had definitely slowed. A number of runners passed me on this uphill, and I slipped back to the high 20s in the standings.

Near the summit of Stoppel Point, I encountered the famous plane wreck. Decades ago a small passenger plane crashed on the mountain, and its ghostly fuselage and wings still sit on the mountain, literally an arm's reach off the side of the trail.

Shortly beyond was the Stoppel Point aid station, 14.4 miles down, 4.2 to go. From there, it's an easy run over the top of North Mountain, and then a long, pounding, rocky descent to North/South Lake. Had there been any views on Sunday, I would've liked to have seen them. But we remained socked in by clouds, and I focused on maintaining my footing.

Fortunately, I maintained a good pace on the descent, and didn't slip back in the standings further. I had hoped to catch and pass some of the runners who had passed me on the ascent of Stoppel, but I couldn't reel them in. Three of them finished four minutes ahead of me.

I popped out of the forest and across the finish line in 4:01:11. (My prediction, remember, was 4 hours. Not bad!) I placed 29th out of 208 finishers. Also not bad.

My legs felt like overcooked gluten-free pasta noodles. They were toast. It was a funny feeling—my legs felt liked they'd been through a war, but overall my body lacked the kind of deep fatigue that comes at the end of a 50-mile ultra. When Marin asked me, "Daddy, was this a short race or a long race?" my response was something along the lines of, "It felt like both."

I chugged a bottle of First Endurance Ultragen for recovery, changed my clothes, and Team Bronski moseyed over to the lake so the girls could take a dip. They get the Spectators of the Year Award for enduring that awful weather. Especially since spectators can only really see runners at the start and finish. It's a lot of waiting around otherwise.

Looking ahead, my next major race is The Big One: the Virgil Crest Ultra. I'll spend this week recovering from the Escarpment, then focus my training on hard runs, with long miles and lots of mountains with hefty elevation change. Virgil Crest is seven weeks away, and I'm going to be ready. Let the countdown begin!


Friday, July 27, 2012

Get Busy

400 square feet of a battle between harvest and weeds
Tim Robbins' character, Andy Dufresne, said it in The Shawshank Redemption: "It comes down to a simply choice, really... get busy living, or get busy dying."

Sometimes in the gluten-free world, our day-to-day feels like a version of that quote: get busy living, or get busy blogging. As you might guess—given that today is July 27 and we last blogged on July 4—lately we've made the choice to get busy living.

We're of course also glad to be back blogging, and we thought it'd only be appropriate to update you on where we've been.

Tending to our tomatoes
A ripe one! It never made it home from the garden, eaten fresh in the field
Plenty more where that came from
Primarily, we've been traveling. A lot. We spent the better part of a week on vacation down on Long Island, New York—visiting family, surfing, going to the beach, boating, clamming, cooking fresh fish.

We had a one-day turnaround and it was off to Colorado for a week, where we closed on the sale of our house, visited with friends, stayed in a cabin at 11,000 feet in the mountains, and did some glorious hiking and trail running.

Then it was off to Ithaca, New York and the Finger Lakes or yet another week, where Kelli and the girls (and later, me, when I caught up with them) prepped for and celebrated the 50th wedding anniversary of her parents.

In three weeks, we literally only spent a handful of days—maybe 3 or so—together at home in the Hudson Valley.

Baby carrots
We've had precious little time. And when time is in such short supply, you have to make important choices about how you spend it. For me, the focus has been on quality time with the girls, training for ultramarathon trail running, and tending to our garden.

Gardens require attention, and frankly, we simply haven't been around enough to give our garden the attention it truly needs. Several varieties of produce (our spinach, Swiss chard, cilantro, and a few others) were completely choked out by weeds, and we're planting a new late-season crop of those.

Other plants have fared much better, and we've finally got the garden to a manageable state. The tomatoes look glorious. The zucchini is flourishing. We've had beets from our garden in our smoothies.

Two rather large zucchini
A much better size
As we resume blogging today, we're looking ahead to an action-packed weekend. Tomorrow (Saturday) we celebrate Charlotte's second birthday. And on Sunday, I have my next major race: the Escarpment Trail Run. Mile for mile, it's one of the toughest trail races in the country. In 30k (just under 19 miles) the extremely rugged trail traverses 5 or so major summits, logging 10,000 vertical feet of elevation change.

After this race, my focus is squarely on the Virgil Crest Ultras and the 3rd Annual Gluten-Free Ultramarathon Challenge at the end of September. Conveniently, it's also the end of the month, which means it's time for another giveaway! Make a donation to the Challenge in support of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, and you'll be entered to win a signed copy of the book of your choice—2nd edition of Artisanal Gluten-Free Cooking, Artisanal Gluten-Free Cupcakes, or The Gluten-Free Edge. The winner will be announced next week, so get your donations in before July is over! Thank you for your support!


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Race Recap: 2012 Finger Lakes Fifties Ultramarathon

Happy July 4th everyone! We're officially halfway through the year, and as of this past weekend, I'm also officially halfway through my season of racing ultramarathons. This time it was the Finger Lakes Fifties ultramarathon, held in Finger Lakes National Forest in between upstate New York's scenic Cayuga and Seneca lakes.

The race takes place on a 16.5-mile trail loop. The FL 50s ultra is unique in that runners are registered for both the 50k and 50-mile race distances. You don't have to decide which distance you're doing until you're actually running. 50k competitors complete two laps, for 32.9 miles. 50-mile competitors complete a third lap, plus a baby 0.5-mile loop to make an even 50.

Also unique about this race is that it's first ultra I've done where you weren't permitted to have a crew. Apparently, they had problems last year with interference and confusion at aid stations between race volunteers and family/friends. Kelli has always served as my crew, so this presented an extra challenge.

As a gluten-free athlete, I like to be self-sufficient with my race nutrition. I don't like relying on aid station offerings. In fact, based on the race info, I knew ahead of time that I couldn't eat most of what they'd have at the aid stations: PB&J sandwiches, pretzels, Fig Newtons, etc.

I contacted the race organizer, explained my predicament, and fortunately they were more than wiling to accommodate my needs. I packed two aid station drop boxes that I'd give to them the night before, when I showed up to pick up my race bib, and those boxes would get shuttled out to aid stations at miles 5 and 10, where they'd be waiting for me. I'd also have my own drop bag at the start/finish line.

I've written about my race nutrition before, such as in the preview of the North Face Endurance Challenge at Bear Mountain. But this time I decided to make a video diary, since everything was laid out on the kitchen table at my in-laws' house in Ithaca as I prepped the day before the race. Here's a narrated look behind the scenes at my latest nutrition plan for ultramarathon-distance trail racing:

Temperatures were due to reach the low 90s on race day this past Saturday. That's brutally hot to be racing 30 to 50 miles. Nine days earlier I raced well despite similar heat at the Minnewaska Summer Solstice 14k, but that was a much shorter race and historically I haven't performed well when the mercury starts to climb. How the heat would affect me in this race was a big unknown variable.

Temps were in the 60s when the cowbell clanged at 6:30am, and more than 160 of us were off and running. Even within the first mile or two of the race, something felt off. My quads were tired, my legs seemed heavy. They should have felt fresh, but they didn't. Kelli was the first to realize the problem several miles later: "Do you think the mountain was too much too close to this race?" she asked me.

Kelli was referring to our ascent of Mount Monadnock seven days prior. The climb involved 1,800 vertical feet of steep ascent and an equal amount of descent. Kelli carried Charlotte most of the way in a  backpack carrier. Marin climbed the mountain all on her own, but I carried her down the mountain in another backpack carrier ... mostly so we could move a lot faster since we were racing a thunderstorm back to our car at the trailhead. But Marin's bodyweight, plus the inherent weight of the pack and a few things in it, left me with an extra 40 pounds on my back. That weight—and the challenge of the ascent and descent—took its toll on my legs.

Had I given them enough rest in the few intervening days leading up to the FL 50s race? It suddenly appeared that I had not.

As the race went on, the heat rapidly climbed. I would dump cups of water over my head and body at aid stations, and I was drinking as much electrolyte fluids as I could without getting a stomach cramp. But managing the heat was a constant challenge. I thought I could handle it better than I actually did.

One other factor conspired to put a kink in my racing plans: twisted ankles. In the course of the race, I rolled both ankles (including my right ankle twice!). The culprit wasn't gnarled roots or jagged rocks. It was cows. Yes, cows. In two places the trail left the relative comfort and shade of the forest and traversed active cow pastures. Cows, it turns out, make for horribly uneven footing. When the ground is muddy, their steps leave all sorts of deep depressions. With the hot, dry weather we've had, those depressions all solidified, often obscured beneath the grasses of the pasture.

None of the ankle rolls was very bad—I have no discoloration, and swelling is minimal, but four days later, my right ankle still feels decently tweaked.

I had intended to run the 50-mile distance, but by mile 25 or so it was clear to me that I'd be calling it a day after 50k. Most of the runners made the same decision. Based on preliminary race results, of 164 finishers, 116 opted for the 50k option. Check out the second video, directly above, to see footage from the race! I hope you enjoy the video, a new feature here on the blog.

Also based on preliminary results (final, accurate results haven't been posted yet), I placed fairly well: 13th out of 116. (UPDATE 7/5/12: Final results are in with updated standings. I placed 11th!)

I should be happy with that result, and to some degree I am. But there's also a touch of disappointment. I know that if I ran the kind of race I'm capable of with my current level of fitness, I should have been in contention for a Top 5 finish. But that's not the race I actually ran. And so I take it as lessons learned, focus on recovery, and look ahead to the next race, which is coming up at the end of this month: the Escarpment Trail Run in the Catskill Mountains.

Finally, I'm happy to report that the 3rd Annual Gluten-Free Ultramarathon Challenge is back on track, with donations coming in once again. We're currently 42% of the way toward my goal of raising $5,000 for the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. We're also less than $1,400 away from bringing the three-year total to $10,000. Woohoo!

The GF Ultra Challenge giveaway winner for the month of June is the Wilson family! Congratulations! Please email me with your mailing address and book of choice.