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Road Trip, R2R2R, and Life Lessons by Rachel

I (Rachel) completed my second double-crossing of the Grand Canyon (R2R2R) on Monday June 3rd, 2019. This is a trail that goes down the South Rim of the Canyon, up the North Rim, and back to the South Rim. It’s roughly 47 miles total with almost 11,000′ of climbing. Only two hills to climb though! It’s not a race, it’s a “do at your own risk” adventure.

 

The first time I did R2R2R was in 2016 with a group of friends. One girl from the group had done it before and coordinated everything for us. It was an eye opening experience in so many ways. Nothing quite bonds runners together like 17 hours on your feet in the midst of something so beautiful. It’s a journey that is hard to put into words. I’ve wanted to go back (just to make sure it was all real, haha) since the second I stepped out of the Canyon two years ago. I’ve done three 100 mile runs and a handful of other hard races since then and there is always a certain feeling I pull from the Canyon when I go dark during these events. Josh has been with me during these rough spots and I always reflect back on this almost indescribable feeling. Because of this, R2R2R has been something I’ve wanted to share with him so he can understand what I’m talking about.

 

This write up includes info about our entire 8 day trip, not just the Grand Canyon. If you just want the logistics on the double crossing, then scroll down to “GRAND CANYON R2R2R LOGISTICS”. There’s a lot of other details in between.

 

In December, I asked Josh if he wanted to hop in a van with me over the summer and do this epic road trip. He said absolutely, but had a thousand questions about times, dates, minutes, seconds, reservations, clocks, physics, climate change – to the point that I got overwhelmed at the thought of planning the trip. Finally I just booked a flight into Vegas, rented a camper van and trusted that it would shake out. Problem solved. This led to more questions about even more things, and I told him to just roll with it. This is not his style, but he grew his tree a little and put some faith in me. I did give him somewhat-ish of an itinerary a couple weeks out just so his head didn’t explode, but this was strictly for his benefit. My plan was this: No plan.

 

We flew into Vegas because the fares were less expensive versus Phoenix or Flagstaff. I also wanted Josh to get a little taste of Sin City and it did not disappoint. Our flight was through Allegiant. They go directly from Louisville to Vegas, so that was a no brainer. It was the first time either of used a discount airline and you literally got what you paid for. Your ticket is admission onto the plane and everything else is a la carte.   Want to pick your seat? $. Carry on? $$. Water on the plane? $$$. Snack? $$$$. As long as you know this ahead of time, it’s all good though. It was still the most affordable option, even after all the nickel and diming. The staff was great and we didn’t crash on the way to and from, so I consider that a win.

 

The van rental was through Outdoorsy (like an Airbnb for campers). First time renter, and I was very pleased! The van owner, Kay was a great communicator and her boyfriend Paul picked us up from the airport. I’ll admit, two things made me anxious about this trip. The first, it would be the longest I’ve ever been away from my kids. The second – this van rental. I didn’t want to be tied down into hotel check-ins since I had no real plans, but I was a bit concerned about not having a place to park, sleep, shower, and didn’t want to be stranded on the side of the road somewhere. Paul was such a fun guy and really put us at ease. German through and through with lots of good stories. His one about scorpions in his house led me to snagging this beaut… our one and only souvenir from the trip.

one and only souvenir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paul gave us a tour of the van, a Ford Econoline 15-passenger. Very few amenities – It had a built-in pump-faucet/sink, countertop, cook-stove, cooler, under-bed storage, black-out curtains, and a super comfortable king sized bed.

 

 

Friday, Day 1 “Planned”: Arrive in Vegas, drive to Hoover Dam, camp at one of the free Lake Mead campsites.

Friday, Day 1 “Actual”: Arrived in Vegas, parked in Treasure Island’s parking garage, hit The Strip, got our fill of “T n’A” by people watching, ate, and slept it off in the parking garage. 99% sure we were the only sober people in the city that night.

The Strip

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, Day 2 “Planned”: Wake up with the sun over Lake Mead, hit up the Hoover Dam early, hightail it to Flagstaff for a shakeout run, set up camp just outside the Grand Canyon, relax, prep for a 3am R2R2R start.

Saturday, Day 2 “Actual”: Woke up around 1am to the sounds of Vegas, cleaned up in a casino bathroom, hit the road to Hoover Dam. Arrived at 2:30am, said f**K it to finding a campground, and slept in a hotel parking lot. Woke up with the sun, cleaned up in the hotel lobby bathroom, saw the Hoover Dam, then headed to Flagstaff.

 

Flagstaff was really cool! This place does exist! Josh has a man-crush on elite ultra-runner Jim Walmsley. Walmsley lives in Flagstaff. So of course, he wanted to hop on one of his frequented training routes just to do it, with the hopes of mayybbbeeee catching him in action. To Mt. Elden we went.  I wasn’t too keen on doing this. Sure it was only 6ish miles and about 2k elevation gain, but it was also the day before a very hard effort, and the terrain just didn’t look too pretty. I was wrong. The trail was actually gorgeous and challenging – one of the most technical ones I’ve been on. Also the highest I’ve climbed- right around 9300’. It was a hard hike up, and a harder run down. There is a fire tower at the top of the mountain you can climb. The view was breathtaking. Literally. The wind was so bad up there that you held your breath out of fear. There was actually a wild fire about 13 miles east of Flagstaff, so seeing a fire on a fire tower made me feel like I should be earning a salary for standing guard. The most impressive part – Josh. I know he has a fear of heights. When we got to the steps, I handed him my hat and water bottle and told him I’d be back. I’m not afraid of heights and I was a little on edge, especially feeling the structure shake and sway in the wind. I stood up there for a few, soaking in the fire, the San Francisco peaks, and the flats of Flagstaff. I turned around to head down and almost tripped over Josh. He crawled up the fire tower (see picture proof), knowing he would kick himself later for not doing it. Granted, he didn’t quite get the elevation gain I did because he wouldn’t stand up all the way, but it was damn impressive. I could tell he was terrified and to push past that fear on your own is very respectable. Josh was riding that adrenaline high the rest of the day and all I could think of was “just you wait.” I knew firsthand what he was about to witness in the Canyon as far as heights go and I was excited to see how he handled it. We found out later via Strava that we missed Jim on the trail by less than an hour. He started just after we left (and did it about 3x further and faster). Swing and a miss.

Mt Elden

Fire Tower

Flag

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, Mt Elden took out my Altra trail running shoes. I got a huge hole on the outside!  Not good considering it was day 2 of 7, so we stopped in at Run Flagstaff, a local running specialty store for a new pair of kicks. The owner was a great guy, super chatty and knowledgeable.  It was a lot of fun talking shop with him about our upcoming R2R2R and the learning about the local (elite) running scene in Flag (the locals just call it “Flag”).  He hooked me up with a pair of Hoka Torrrent trail shoes, which I absolutely loved and wore the remainder of the week.

The plan after Flagstaff was to head to the Grand Canyon and rest up for our 3am start the next day. Instead, we headed south to Sedona because the actual plan was, “no plan.” The drive was stunning. We scored a sweet last minute campground spot within walking distance to the town, set up shop, and headed out on some trails. Sedona’s beauty is unmatched and there is no doubt it can cure anything that ails ya. The scenery just doesn’t even make sense. Sedona’s trails were soft and red and gentle and calming, total opposite of the raw Flagstaff trails. They were the perfect nightcap to day 2.

Sweet camper van

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, Day 3 “Planned”: Start the double GC crossing at 3am. Finish at 9pm-ish.

Sunday, Day 3 “Actual”: Morning road run in Sedona, coffee at Starbucks with the most beautiful backdrop I’ve ever seen, and a bouldering adventure up to the Chimney Top vortex. Then drove to Grand Canyon.

 

Upper Chimney Top was another feat for Josh that impressed the hell out of me. I assumed it was a short trail (one mile) to a good view. Instead it was a mile of scrambling up steep rock. I see where someone with a healthy fear of heights would be a little anxious and it took him a bit longer to overcome this one, but he did. We made it to the summit, which took us to a sheer drop to the valley below. It’s a good thing there was an “end of trail” sign because we wouldn’t have figured that out on our own 😉 We sat and took in the vortex, left all of our woes there, and scurried back down reluctantly leaving Sedona behind. This unplanned stop was his favorite and we can’t wait to get back out to Sedona for more trails, mountain biking, and soul searching.

 

Sedona

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Downtown Sedona

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was really hoping to impress Josh with his first Grand Canyon sighting. We ended up just playing tourist and followed the crowd to the main viewing area though. I forgot how big this place was. I forgot how unimpressive it is from the top, knowing what’s waiting for you in the shadows. We spent the evening exploring Grand Canyon Village via shuttle and planning our run the next day. Josh got a little impatient with my “winging it” technique and started locking down all of the details. He organized our packs and made sure everything was in order. I know the importance of being prepared for this, and yes- I had a plan and knew what was necessary, but I sat back and let him do it because it’s what he does. Check, double check, and recheck. Three times. I always appreciate this about him because I know without question that he will have everything covered. All I have to do when I’m with him is follow his lead. All he has to do is plan for another person. It’s a fair trade.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Instead of camping outside the Village as planned, we slept in the parking lot next to the trailhead. Bright Angel lodge is open 24 hours, so we used that as our staging area that night and the next morning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday Day 4 “Planned”: Wake up after R2R2R, leave the Grand Canyon and head to Bryce for the day.

Monday Day 4 “Actual”: 4am R2R2R start, 9pm finish.  The best Coke I’ve ever had in my life. Best finish line pic too.

 

GRAND CANYON R2R2R LOGISTICS

  • 4am start at the South Kaibab trail. We took the 24 hour taxi from Bright Angel lodge to the trailhead. The driver was there within 5 minutes and charged us $10. Our backup plan in case the taxi was busy- jump on the free shuttle hiker’s shuttle that picks up at Bright Angel at 4am. We chose to start at the South Kaibab (instead of just doing an out and back) because the views are totally different vs. Bright Angel. Seeing the mule trains headed down to Phantom Ranch is pretty cool too, and this is the route they use.

 

  • South Kaibab trail starts at 7260’ and is a 6.7 mile trek down to the suspension bridge over the Colorado. Total descent is 4660’ Lots of steps. Lots and lots.

 

  • It was completely light by 515am. Don’t forget to turn around often to watch your progress as you go downhill. It’s incredible to see how quickly you get swallowed up in the Canyon.

 

  • We ran a bit and hiked a lot. It’s tempting to bomb that downhill, but be mindful of the stress it puts on your quads. I chose to use trekking poles the entire time and would do it again next time. Josh did too, thought they were a burden, and would leave them behind next time. He is also much stronger on trails than I am.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Once you cross the suspension bridge, it’s only about 0.4 miles to Bright Angel campground/Phantom Ranch. Take your time. It’s a cool vibe. The canteen doesn’t open until 8am, so our 6am arrival was too early for coffee. This was our first spot to refill water.

 

  • From here, you just follow the same trail 14 miles up to the North Rim.
Grand Canyon R2R2R 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Cottonwood Campground is your next water stop. Its 6.7 miles from Phantom Ranch. This is a really cool section along Bright Angel creek. You’re sandwiched between the canyon walls for the first part. The second part is full valley sun exposure. It’s a subtle climb, about 1620’. You won’t see it, but you’ll feel it.  The sun, heat, gradual climbing, and still being early in the day can attribute to some mental darkness. Be prepared for this section to be a little challenging!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • From Cottonwood Campground to the top of the North Rim is 6.9 miles and 4161’ of climbing.

 

  • Roaring Springs is 1.9 miles past Cottonwood Campground. This is the last “flat” section before you actually feel like and see that you’re going up. The creek is beautiful and powerful here, hence the name. We had access to water here.

 

  • Supai Tunnel is the next stop. 3.3 miles from Roaring Springs, 1.7 miles below the Rim. The water at Supai was off, making a 5.2 mile stretch with 3000’ of climbing with just the water on our back.

 

  • The 1.7 mile climb from Supai to the North Rim is the steepest and most challenging section. The good news is, we passed a lot of hikers coming from the top, so it kept us occupied. This section houses the best view of the Grand Canyon in my opinion. The Coconino Overlook is a good pause, 1.2 miles below the rim, and is just gorgeous. You can see the San Francisco Peaks from here- all the way in Flagstaff. It was really cool knowing we were looking at those same peaks from Mt. Elden a couple days before.

 

  • We took a break at the North Rim. Water was on, so we slammed down several bottles and chatted up some hikers. So far, we were the only ones doing the double crossing. It took about 8 hours to get to the top, nice and slow, time on feet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Going down the North Rim trail was a lot more runnable than South Kaibab. The grade didn’t feel as steep. You’d think that an out and back would just be more of the same- but that’s not true here. Totally different perspective from descending the South Rim and a totally different perspective from climbing out. Be sure to slow down and enjoy.

 

  • Heading back to Phantom Ranch- you’ll realize why you were so taxed on the outbound earlier. It’s such a good, runnable, slightly downhill descent. We clicked off some decent miles during this section and it felt good to run!

 

  • After we passed the campground, we split onto the Bright Angel trail. The intersection is marked- just pay attention. You will cross the Colorado on a different bridge. This trail is longer (9.5 miles from the campground vs. S. Kaibab’s 7.1 miles) but a little gentler on elevation (4380” vs 4780”). The main reason I see this as the better climb out is the water access- 3 potential spots if they’re all turned on. South Kaibab doesn’t have any. This is a slow climb. You’ll be on tired legs, probably behind on water from the heat, so having that access is crucial. This trail starts out with very deep sand that lasts a good mile or so. You’ll go through Indian Gardens, which is just magical. It’s so green and lush and colorful- almost has a jungle feel to it. It’s such a different vibe. Not to miss. The first time I did R2R2R, it was dark when we came through. We made it here right around sunset, and I’m so thankful we were able to see it.

 

  • It gets dark really quickly once the sun dips below the walls. The last three miles were via headlamp, and all you can see are steps and switchbacks. Look ahead- steps. Look up, switchbacks, look at the sky- a faint outline of the rim above. Even the last mile, it’s still a shock to see how far you have to climb to get out. This is the feeling I tell Josh about all the time. It’s overwhelming.  You’ve been climbing for hours and hours. You have a mile to go, and you still have so far to climb. Physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting and overwhelming. I love it.

 

  • There are two small tunnels you go through within the last 1.5 miles. When you go through the 2nd one, it’s only about a quarter of a mile out. You’re still climbing, still seeing switchbacks, still grinding… then out of nowhere, this single yellow street light surfaces- and you’re done. That’s your finish line.
Our finish line photo from inside the lodge – Victory Coke

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are a few tips: 

  • The Grand Canyon has a pack in pack out policy. No garbage cans to be seen, even at the campsites. Be sure to take a gallon Ziploc bag or something to store your trash. It’ll make it easier on you to keep wrappers from falling out every time you open your pack.

 

  • Check the website or visitors center for water availability. Just because there is access doesn’t mean it’s always on. Be prepared and have a backup plan.

 

  • It was in the mid 60’s when we started, mid 90’s on the bottom, and mid 80’s at the North Rim. Be sure to check your weather and pack accordingly. Two weeks before, the North Rim had really severe winter weather, so don’t assume one way or the other!

 

  • We packed enough food for 200 calories/hr. and used just about all of it. I got really burned out on the food I packed and started rejecting calories the last few hours. Don’t be Rachel.  Pack something you know will sound good when nothing else does and save it until you reach that point. I made the last several miles harder on myself than they needed to be because I was running on fumes.  Sorry Josh.

 

  • We each had two 16oz water bottles and Joshed packed (didn’t fill) a 1.5 liter bladder. We also carried water purification tablets, several packets of Dripdrop, and Base Salt.  The only time I felt like we got a little behind on water was on the North Rim climb. That Supai water stop sure would’ve been nice. In retrospect, we should’ve filled the bladder up at Roaring Springs, but there was an outdated update there that said the water at Supai was on, and we believed it.

 

  • We chatted with a lot of people. This is not a desolate run by any means. When we started, we could see a few headlamps behind us from people getting on the trail too. Bright Angel and Phantom Ranch were both booked and we saw several day hikers from there exploring the bottom of the canyon. The North Rim was chalk full of people hiking down and back up. We passed several rangers throughout the day. Only one other group doing R2R2R though! More details below on that.

 

  • This is not an easy trail! To prepare- you need to get used to the footing on aggressive trails. Build your hiking legs, build your endurance, get in the heat (or overdress) as much as possible! Learn what your body needs and be disciplined in fueling and hydrating. Hire a coach maybe 🙂 Even though it’s not a race, I know a couple that can guide you in the right direction and get you ready for this epic challenge!

 

Tuesday Day 5 “Planned”: Spend all day at Bryce, then head to Zion to camp.

Tuesday Day 5 “Actual”: Left the Grand Canyon that morning and drove two-ish hours to Page, AZ.

 

Page started off a little rough. We got into town and were at a loss on what to do. It was in the 90’s and there was no shade to be seen. We were both exhausted. We agreed to get a hotel room that night to recharge and cool off. After a nap and some planning, we walked down to the Glen Canyon Dam. Again, not too impressed with the landscape until we actually immersed ourselves in it. A different kind of gorgeous, but gorgeous none the less. We had a fantastic dinner at a local Mexican joint and got a good night’s sleep.

Glen Canyon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Day 6 “Planned”: All day at Zion.

Wednesday Day 6 “Actual”: An early morning visit to Horseshoe Bend, 4 hours kayaking (Kayak Lake Powell Outfitters) through Antelope Canyon, boulder scrambled and cliff jumped, visited Lone Rock beach, and then drove to St George UT.

 

We decided that the short amount of time we had to devote to Zion and Bryce National Parks weren’t enough. That will be another trip one day. I crave the water, so being on Lake Powell was perfect. I’m really glad we didn’t rush through this town. I hated it initially, but was completely in my element once we got on the lake. We did a guided kayak tour, so it was cool to get some local knowledge about the area. Seeing the canyon that way was a really intimate experience. Our guide mentioned some good cliff diving spots, so after our tour, we hiked out to them. I really wanted Josh to cliff jump too, but after the fire tower, rock scrambling, and surviving those tight Grand Canyon drop-off trails, it was a hard pass from him. I didn’t push – figuratively or literally. He had proven himself enough. We hit up Lone Rock Beach per our tour guide’s recommendation to cool off again (with ice) on our way out of town. This place had a very California vibe to it- tons of campers and tents scattered around haphazardly on the sand. People just living their best life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The drive from Page, through Hurricane, to St George, UT gave us another change of scenery that we couldn’t wait to explore. We got a campsite right smack in the middle of two expressways that had the best showers I’ve ever been in. The owner claimed 80lbs of water pressure, and I don’t know if that was accurate but it sure felt it. Rejuvenating. We hit up a local dinner joint and planned our next day. This night was the roughest. It was really hot. We both slept very little. I gave up the comfort of a bed for a picnic table and some natural air circulation and I don’t regret it.

 

Thursday Day 7 “Planned”: Day 2 at Zion, drive back to Vegas, return van, get a hotel for the night.

Thursday Day 7 “Actual”: Spent half the day in St George at Snow Canyon UT, drove to Vegas, returned van, went to Anthony Cools show on The Strip, hotel’d it for the night.

 

Snow Canyon. So. Much. Love. Such an unexpected surprise. It was every bit as beautiful as Sedona and the Grand Canyon, but not nearly as crowded. We explored slot canyons, red cliffs, white cliffs, snowcapped peaks, hiked down into lava tubes, and climbed sandstone formations known as “the wave”. We spent a good amount of time here on foot exploring. The state park was pristine. I felt like at any time, a brontosaurs could’ve popped its head up from grazing to look at us. The way the valley formed made you feel like you were in a snow globe, just bubbled in to the environment. We want to go back to St George with road bikes and mountain bikes and running shoes and stay forever, stuck in time. I’m sure Bryce and Zion parks are equally as stunning, but the feeling of solitude here made it all the more memorable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then there’s Vegas. Being in Snow Canyon that morning, then on the Vegas Strip that night… whew. Both of us know ourselves and each other pretty well, and the people in Vegas really reiterated to us that we would rather be with that Snow Canyon brontosaurs. The drive from UT to NV through the mountains was impressive though. We had White Castle in a casino, lost some cash playing poker, and watched Anthony Cools inappropriately hypnotize people. Good clean fun, and an entertaining way to round off an incredible trip.

 

Friday Day 8 “Planned”: Don’t miss the 6am flight to Louisville.

Friday Day 8 “Actual”: Didn’t miss the 6am flight to Louisville. Nailed it.

 

 

My takeaways from this trip:

It all works out how it’s supposed to. The first time I did R2R2R, my life looked totally different. I never imagined I would be back two years later with Josh, in this scenario. Life is hard, relationships are hard, kids and marriages and divorces and rumors and family and friendships are hard. Being judged is hard. Hurting people is hard. All of it gets hard, and it rarely goes as it should on paper, in your head, or from someone else’s perspective. If you plan it though, and stick to it simply because it’s what you planned, you miss these life defining, soul fulfilling moments along the way that weren’t accounted for initially. You miss the Lake Powells, the 80lbs of water pressure, the Snow Canyons, the Josh’s.  Yes- the original plan, your original path would still be full of beauty, but the unplanned leaves you with a feeling of wonder and respect that it’s meant to be. The unplanned teaches you to let go of trying to control everything and trust that the way life leads you is the way that it’s supposed to be. It may take years to see, but it all works out how it’s supposed to.

 

I missed my kids so much. I want them to experience all of this. I want them to appreciate the freedom they have in their future and go. Live, learn, explore. Get out of Kentucky. Get away from me. Live their own lives with adventure, without fear of the unknown holding them back. We met a girl in the Grand Canyon who worked for the Arizona Conservation Corps. It was a group of young adults from all around the US, and I felt like I was talking to a future version of my daughter. My job as a parent is to encourage them to go, whatever, whenever, however and with whoever they choose no matter how different, and I will follow in whatever capacity I need to.  I kept telling Josh all week that I can’t believe I missed this, can’t believe I didn’t do this when I was younger, etc, and he made me realize that it all works out how it’s supposed to. It wasn’t my path. Perhaps I learned this later in life because it’s my job to carve that path out for my children.

 

I found the moment I was chasing from the Grand Canyon two years ago. Déjà vu. It was a feeling of defeat. Physical and mental exhaustion, wondering how in the hell you’re going to get yourself out of that Canyon. And then you just do because you don’t have a choice. I love this feeling. It would be a safe bet to say any ultra-runner does.

 

Do the things you love with the people you love. Don’t wait until you have all the details. Don’t wait until you save the money. Don’t wait until the right time. Commit, do it, figure it out as you go. Life is too short and there is too much living to be done. Find your thing that makes all of your problems seem small in comparison. Be humbled by nature.  Hiking through canyons and up mountains that have been there too long to fathom has a way of putting you and your problems into perspective. Find this feeling, drink it in, remember every detail and seek it out when your regular life gets in the way.

 

Final takeaway: Don’t be disappointed if you didn’t see Jim Walmsley on Mt Elden, because you’ll see him and 4 other bad ass pro ultra-runners prepping for their Western States podiums in the Grand Canyon! True story. We were headed back down from the North Rim, and Josh very nonchalantly goes “Oh, look. Its Jim.” And there he was, all smiles, just a runnin’ up that climb like it was completely flat. He was with Eric Senseman, Tim Feriks, Jared Hazen, and Stephen Kersh. They caught up to us again, well… blew past us actually at Phantom Ranch. 8 hour day for them, 16 hour day for us. Circle back to “it all works out how it’s supposed to.” Our path clearly isn’t the pro ultra-runner one, but the one we have chosen has led Josh and I to some pretty spectacular things and a whole lot of personal growth. We will keep rolling with it.

–Rachel Groves 

Yep, we saw these guys

 

 

Rachel’s Rocky Raccoon 100 Race Report

Rocky Raccoon 100 in Huntsville TX was the longest, most miserable 28 hours of my life and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. So many lessons learned on a personal level as well as a coaching level. The highs and lows of life in one day.

RR100 was my 3rd 100 miler. My other two races were at Tunnel Hill, where I ran a 22:30 and a 19:30. I wanted to run TH100 again this year, but Josh challenged me to step out of my comfort zone and tackle an actual trail. I’ve done several trail 50k’s, 50m, and one 100k- but this 100 really intimidated me, even though the elevation was relatively low. Trail running is a whole different ballgame. Training specificity is key, and running trails can be so contingent on weather and time. I went into this race knowing it would be my longest “time on feet” attempt.

Josh and I ran this race together.  Our goal was 24 hours, with a secondary goal of finishing before the cutoff to get our Western States lottery ticket.

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Race day weather was perfect. Lows in the 50s, highs in the 60s, humid and overcast. It had rained quite a bit mid week, and on the race course (which was a 25 mile series of out and backs ×4) and there were about 20 huge shoe sucking mud pits with standing water. Most were unavoidable. You could tiptoe all you wanted, but your feet were gonna get wet.

I did my usual precautions before the race. Bodyglide, preemptive taping, and a plan of attack for shoe and sock changes. I know that I’m succeptable to blistering on trails, so I wanted to head it off the best I could.

Our plan of attack as far as pacing, stupid easy (as I say). We learned the trails, talked to a lot of people, stayed quick through aid stations, and enjoyed the weather. My feet got wet very early, and I could feel some damage that I needed to address at our drop bags at mile 25. I taped my big toes, both which already had blood blisters between, and reapplied some lube. I also put dry socks on, knowing they’d get wet again very quickly. Other than that, loop 1 was executed as planned with a lap time of 5:30. Lap 2 was more of the same, stupid slow, boringly easy, 5:30 split, more blisters, more tape, more lube, sock and shoe change, knowing they would get wet again.

Josh and I made the decision when we registered for this race last year that we would not have a crew because of the travel logistics. We still had some familiar faces at the race though. Local runners John Wright and Michelle Bischof were tackling the 100. Compass athletes Jeremy and Erin Couch came down to crew for Michelle, and Jessica Partin for John. It was nice to have some hometown support!

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JEREMY, ERIN, JESSICA, & JOHN

I hit the 100k mark in good spirits. We were both managing fluids, salt, and calories well (mostly in the form of coke & ramen noodles…). That’s when a switch was flipped. My. Feet. Hurt. Every time I stepped on a root, rock, or moved my foot out of a back and forth running gait, it would put pressure on the blisters. Some popped when this happened, just to give room for another one to form. Treating them wasn’t doing any good. The fluid from the blisters and wetness from trails just slid tape off and caused it to cut into my skin. There were a few sections on the course with powder fine sand that kept seeping into my shoes, and it kept grinding into the wounds on my feet.

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AID STATION DRINKS (yes…that is a bottle full of coke 🙂  & SNACKS ARE THE BEST

At around mile 64, I started really struggling. I couldn’t tell if the pain was mental, if I was being a baby, or if it was truly pain pain. I began beating myself up for stressing about it and questioning if I was just looking for excuses. It became too painful to run though,  and Josh encouraged me to just keep moving the best I could. Lap 3 was really slow- the second half mostly walking. 7 hour split, but still keeping sub 24 finish within reach.

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SO. MUCH. WALKING.

Josh ran ahead of me to our drop bags so he could prepare to assess the damage. I finally made it to mile 75, feeling pain in every step for about 4 hours at this point. Josh took my shoes off and cleaned them up. They were total garbage. Blisters between all of my toes, on the sides, balls of my feet and heels. He did the best he could, even threw duct tape at it. I was miserable. I knew that if I started my 4th lap, most likely I would have to walk the whole thing- and that would be another 10 excruciating hours on my feet. I put Josh in a tough spot. As my coach,  seeing my feet and knowing how much pain I was in, I knew he would agree with my decision to drop. Knowing me personally, he knew that I could tough it out, and that he should make me. I’m not a quitter, and he didn’t let me quit. He told me that my feet were already f*****d, they would hurt regardless, so I can have f*****d up feet and a DNF, or f*****d up feet and finish. This got me headed out, against my will, onto loop 4.

 

My takeaways.

1. My strength is my mental game. This race pulled a complete 180 on me. My physical pain didn’t allow room for me to pull out my mental bag o tricks. The physical element was screaming at me, not giving me room for any of my mental cues. Every step hurt, and all I could think about was every step hurting. I couldn’t pep talk myself into every step not hurting because it did.

2. Josh is a complete and total badass. He did everything he could for me. Popped blisters, made sure I was eating and drinking, carried a pack so I didn’t have to, kept me moving. The perfect mix of sympathy and bluntness. He backed off when he sensed he needed to, took the lead when he knew I was struggling, and never once complained. He stayed positive and confident in me for 28 hours. Keep in mind, he logged 100 miles as well. This wasn’t pacer/crew duty- this was during his 100 miler.

3. I let my pride go. I finished this race 4 hours behind plan. I walked for 40 miles. I met the back of the pack racers, and I have a whole new understanding for their grit and determination.  Walking the last 40 of a 100 was hard. 28 hours. Hard. Way harder than running sub 24, sub 20. These people fight like crazy to get to that finish, watching their second sunrise, seeing the aid stations diminish,  losing crowd support, knowing that their finish times are double that of the winners and won’t warrant respect in any award categories. At the late miles, the zombie walks kick in, the spirit is broken, the exhaustion and pain rears, and yet they press on. We press on. Josh pushed me into that 4th lap, but these people gave me the inspiration to keep going. Absolutely amazing and unbelievably inspiring. I have so much admiration for them.

4. This is my proudest race. I had to fight harder and longer than anything else I’ve ever done. It took a nurse at the finish line fixing my feet telling me that she can’t believe I got through this race in the shape I was in, to understand that I didn’t fail. It took Josh telling me for 40 miles that all we needed to do was finish, that finish times offer zero indicators on what goes on during a race. Close to half of the 100 mile starters did not complete this race. Most reports indicated that “trench foot” from the wet and muddy trails were the main reason. My training was on point- the rest of my body held up better that I expected. Josh “walked” away (thanks to me, haha) with practically no wear and tear from this venture. Pretty good indicator of his fitness as well. He would’ve finished strong at this event had he been left to his own devices.

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POST RACE “PROFESSIONAL” FOOT TREATMENT

This write up isn’t a justification on why our time was slow. It’s a reflection on what I learned, which is why I wouldn’t change a thing. Perfectly executed races are great- don’t get me wrong, but you grow from your struggles even more so than your successes. Embrace the suck, and always look for the gift. I am better because of this, and hope I can translate this into better coaching for our clients.

 

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We will be revisiting this literature…

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FINISH LINE PHOT0… 28 HOURS LATER

 

Plan for the Punch – Mental Preparation for 100 miles

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Thanks for simplifying it, Mike Tyson.

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Physically preparing for 100 miles is simple.  You run.  A lot.  More than you want to.  When you want to, you run.  When you don’t want to, you run.  When you can’t run, you walk.  You fit it in when you can, however you can.  On lunch breaks, at o’ dark 30, after copious amounts of O’Charley’s rolls, in 0.2 mile loops around playgrounds.  Your head converts time to miles.  I sit in traffic and think… I’ve been in my car for 4 easy effort miles- aka 40 minutes.  You stay on your feet as much as possible, always moving forward and with intention.  Everything ties into training.  You sleep to train.  Eat to train.  Relax to train. Recover so you can do it again and again.  You learn to baby your body so it can handle the constant load.  And it will, as long as you’re smart.

Long distance ultras make me feel really slow. 90% of my workouts are “zombie paced” runs.  The pace I can sustain for hours and hours and hours.  It is mind and body numbing, but it’s the price you pay when you know you’ll be running for 20 plus hours.  I never feel lean and fit like I do when I’m training for a faster race.  I don’t feel accomplished when I finish an easy effort.  I hate it that I barely break a sweat sometimes.  I love the adrenaline rushing through my muscles on a maximum effort workout.  I want to push my limits and go until I can’t force it anymore.  I love the fast benefits you get from that power you’re exerting.  I want to see fast splits.  It is so satisfying.  I still get to feel this- in that itty bitty 10% window, but it always leaves me wanting more.  At Compass Endurance Coaching, Josh and I always make sure our athletes understand the “why” behind not gutting out every run.  We see it time and time again, that some people try to get by with going hard all the time.  Some, much longer than others.  But it catches up, and when it does- it’s pretty catastrophic on the long term running plan.  So I tell myself this all the time.  I explain to myself during every run, the “why”.  I remind myself that I signed up for 100 miles, not a 5k.

Going back to Mike Tyson.  The punch in the mouth… I’ve learned that during races, especially ultras, you have to plan that hypothetical (hopefully) punch more than anything.  Yes, plan to get punched. Plan for it to hurt.  Plan for it to knock you on your ass.  Plan for it to make you quit.  Plan for it to be unexpected.  Plan for it to be repeated over and over and over.  You can go into a race prepared, disciplined, positive and centered, and that is necessary too, but you have to plan for the punch.  You will go dark.  It will get ugly.  And when it does- knowing that you expect it will take away some of the sting.  It will get you through.  You have to feel the lows to feel the highs.  You have to go through the dark to get to the light.  You have to let go of trying to control the circumstances you can’t and learn that as long as you keep progressing, those circumstances will change.  You have to know exactly what you want, and understand that it won’t be all sunshine and rainbows and mf’ing balls of positivity.  You have to remember that your emotions are liars.  If you feel like you’re on top of the world, you’re not.  If you feel like you’re in pure hell, you’re not.  Shut down what you feel.  Embrace what you know.  Stay in a constant state of equanimity- where you’re calm and composed and calculated.  If your coach tells you that you trained correctly, you did.  Don’t question it.  Head down and grind.

Coach Josh tells me I’m ready, I’m ready.  I will have +/- 24 hours on February 2nd to repeat all of the above in my head, over and over and over.  Almost game time!

– Rachel Groves

The Why & How for Rocky Raccoon 100

One of the things Coach Rachel and I like to do when preparing an athlete for their ultramarathon is to give them a little pep-talk a few days before the event.  To reflect back on their training cycle, reset expectations for the race, and to remind them “their why” for doing the event.

While we emphasize race-day-routine practice and visualization throughout the entire program, many, myself included, can lose sight of the forest for the trees during training.  We are all guilty of thinking “my race isn’t for 5 weeks, I do not need to visualize my race on today’s long run.”  So we feel it is always a good idea to have a bit of phycological rhetoric during the taper – this is when reality hits that the event is only a few days away and athletes tend to absorb message a bit better.

That being said, Rachel and I are running the Rocky Raccoon 100 mile trail race next weekend (RR100).  We have recently spent some time reflecting on our own training and revisiting our goals and expectations for this event.  I thought it would be fun to share a little about our thought process behind race selection, goals, and training leading up to this event.  I won’t bore you with tons of details, but I wanted to be transparent with how we (Compass Endurance Coaching) have prepared for this event.

 

Why the RR100?

  1. It is a Western States 100 qualifier.  We both have existing WS100 lottery tickets and need to complete a qualifying race in 2019 to keep our lottery eligibility.
  2. It is early in the calendar year. Historically Rachel has ran her 100-milers in the fall season and I have ran mine during the summer – Both scenarios take up a considerable amount of time during the “summer months” to train and/or recover.  By checking the WS100 lottery box in February, it opens up the rest of the “summer months” to focus on other aspects of life and racing.  It frees up the summer so to speak.  The downside to this timing, of course, is long training days in the winter….however, we’ve been blessed with a mild fall/winter season here in Kentucky.
  3. The course elevation gain is relatively low – About 6,000ft. I prefer a bit more and she prefers a bit less, so this was a good compromise.  It is a 4 lap, 25 mile “loop” around a lake in south Texas.  Average temperatures are between 40-60F.  Some very fast times have been ran here by elites in the past.  Lots of exposed roots on the single track trails are the most common “obstacle” noted in race reports.  Sounds great on paper, what’s not to like?

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Race Goals

  1. The primary goal is to finish and grab those Western States lottery tickets. Contrary to our normal “time goal” races where you tend to bury yourself, the target here is to enjoy the adventure finish feeling “good” and not completely wasted.  The measure of how well this race goes will be how quickly we recover afterwards.
  2. Of course, 24 hours is always a good line in the sand for a hundred….So we’ll be conscious of that timeline as we move through checkpoints as a gauge. I am confident our fitness is there, but as in any hundred miler, race day execution and that muscle between your ears is the most important factor.

 

Rachel’s Training

  1. She was trained for and raced a fast 50 miler at Tunnel Hill in November. 7:58 to be exact.  Her training approach for RR100 was pretty straight forward.  One, recover from Tunnel Hill 50 (2 weeks off).  Two, build upon her existing speed-endurance base with more trail specificity and long run volume (8 weeks).
  2. With limited available time to train during this cycle, there was a strong emphasis on quality over quantity. She targeted one quality strength workout per week, typically in the form of a tempo run or even just simple fartleks.  The bulk of the volume came on weekend long runs and back to back long sessions.  She probably did not get in as much trail specific work as ideal, but did get some good pavement vertical over the cycle.
  3. Weekly mileage was less than her “normal 100 training”. Over the 8 weeks, volume averaged 45 miles, peaking out at 71 miles.
  4. Notable long sessions: One, Tunnel Hill 50 of course….  Two, a 31 mile cross town long run.  Three, a 24 hour period consisting of 16 morning pavement miles, 13 evening trail miles, then 13 trail miles the following morning.
  5. Lots and lots of hot power vinyasa yoga.  Averaged 5 hours of yoga per week.  Very good stretch, core, imbalance work, and heat exposure 😊.

 

Josh’s Training

  1. My training philosophy for this event was simple – To run a lot, mostly slow, but sometimes fast. I was rolling into this 8 week block for RR100 with a big aerobic base from consistent volume most of the year.  Rachel took the quality over quantity approach out of scheduling necessity.  Whereas I took the “a rising tide raises all boats” approach (referring to volume).  I am typically very calculated and methodical when it comes to writing my own training plans….But for this event and given our loose race goals, I just wanted to run…. To keep it unstructured, low stress.  Run what felt good, run when it felt good.  I fit the miles in when I could, often running 2 or 3 times per day – before work, on my lunch hour, and after work.  I ran hard miles when it felt good, hobby jogged when it didn’t, and recovery walk n’ jogged when I needed it….Really tuned into my body and let it guide me, realizing there is no perfect training block, or perfect one peak week that dictates fitness.
  2. Weekly mileage was more than my typical ultra training. Over the 8 weeks, volume averaged 71 miles, peaking out with two 100 mile weeks.
  3. Notable long sessions: One, 37 miles on trails at Bernheim Forest on Thursday, then Otter Creek trail marathon on Saturday.  Two, a 31 mile cross town long run.  Three, 20 morning pavement miles followed by 13 evening trail miles.
  4. A bigger emphasis on stretching this cycle. Additionally, I made lifestyle and diet changes which has reduced body fat and increased strength to weight ratio.  The leanest and most fit I have felt in years.

Stay tuned for a post race recap to see how all this plays out… I am just as anxious as you are to learn how this ends…haha…

-Josh Elliott

 

 

 

 

Mohican Trail 100 Race Report

I was very fortunate to have great friends along as crew and pacers! Rachel Groves has ran several ultras and is training for her first 100 in the fall. She paced me from mile 50-75. Mike Ekbundit is a veteran at ultra endurance events, including two 100’s. Mike paced me from mile 75-100. Katie was the crew chief for the entire day. There were 3-4 crew access spots on each loop that I got to see these guys. I could not image completing this event without these three people! Ultras really are a team sport! I owe them so much!

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Finish Line with Mike and Rachel

 

The final weeks leading up to the Mohican Trail 100 went as planned with no unforeseen issues. Training, diet, sleep, recovery, and taper had all went as planned. Getting to the starting line healthy was the priority and I did just that.

The race morning alarm went off at 2:30am in preparation for the 5:00am start. I had a light bagel for breakfast and packed the car with enough crew gear and supplies to outfit at least three runners..haha…. After a quick trip to the restroom, we headed out on our 30 minute drive to the race venue.

The morning temps were in the low 50’s and the air was crisp. In typical trail race fashion, there was little hoopla at the start. 250 runners and crew with headlights burning in the dark, awaiting the start signal. I felt great and ready to get underway. I was not overly nervous. I knew it would be a long day and tried to conserve as much energy as possible (which meant staying calm at the start). I purposely positioned myself in the middle of the starting pack to force me to keep my pace in control during the first few singletrack miles. And we were off!

Lap 1 –

The first lap was pretty uneventful by design. I simply wanted to take in the scenery and learn the course a bit. After about an hour of running the sun came up and the sounds of the forest came alive. The course had a lot of character. Much of the trails and terrain were similar to Jefferson Memorial Forest, where I spent a majority of my time training. There were also unique sections, such as a gorge which we basically had to walk, climb through, that had a hand-over-hand root wall climb to get back on top of the ridge. My heart rate, nutrition, and hydration execution was all on track. 25 miles complete!

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Hand-Over-Hand Root Climb

 

Lap 2-

For this lap I put in my I-pod and tried to zone out for most of the lap. The temperatures and sun were in full effect by now, so keeping myself cool was the priority (temps 85-90 degrees). The field was pretty spread out by this point, so long periods of time would go by without seeing other runners. I was not fully aware of it at the time, but in hindsight I was not doing a good job of keeping up with hydration and electrolytes during this lap. While I thought I was drinking plenty, I was not peeing near frequently enough. Also, my heart rate on this lap had escalated to the higher end of my target zone. Partially due to the heat and dehydration. My elevated heart rate forced me to slow down to keep things in check.

Towards the end of the second lap, I began to have my first bout of negativity. I was getting hot, my neck and shoulders were starting to hurt (from a previous strain), and negative thoughts were starting to creep into my head. On top of this, I had started to get twinges in my calves, on the verge of cramping. I continued eating and drinking on schedule and knew that once I got back to the start/finish area that I would see my crew and things would get better. 50 miles complete!

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Crew station – Picking up Rachel for Lap 3

 

Lap 3 –

After 50+ miles of running by myself, I was ready for some fun conversation with Rachel. We headed out on lap 3 and I immediately was having a difficult time with calf and groin cramps, especially when going uphill. I never had any debilitating lock-ups, but was on the verge many times during the first half of this lap. I increased my water and electrolyte intake and the symptoms had subsided by the second half.

For the first time all day, it was getting very hard to stomach forcing down gels. A couple times I felt nauseous, but never did vomit. My crew had gotten really tough with me on drinking more this lap. I was behind on hydration from the second lap and needed to catch up. Rachel did a great job of forcing me to drink more often. Our pace had slowed on this lap, but I still felt like we were moving good. Still doing more running than hiking at this point during the day was a bonus.

I had a blast running with Rachel! She sparked some great conversations that kept my mind occupied. Towards the end of the lap, the sun had set and we needed the headlamps. This made the trail feel new again and we were in good spirits all the way back in. The miles seemed to fly by on this lap and I owed it all to Rachel! She forced me to eat and drink on schedule and we had FUN! Could not ask for a better lap. 75 miles complete!

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Rachel and I entering an aid station

 

Lap 4-

I picked up Mike and we headed out on the final lap. By this point, the temperatures were back into the 50-60’s and I was a bit chilled being wet. I had changed into a dry shirt which felt great. I was still riding the high from the third lap, but that did not last long. After about an hour into this loop, I could tell my state of mind was changing rapidly. Legs and body was still in tact, but my head was starting to wonder. Around mile 80, I felt a painful blister developing on my foot. At the crew station I sat down and they addressed my feet and changed socks. This was the first time I had sat down or had any type of equipment change all day. It was at this crew point I became aware my head was doing some funky stuff. Trying to talk to multiple people amongst the crew station chaos (there was really no chaos haha) was a chore.

From here to the finish was really a mental blur for me. The best way I can describe it was an out-of-body experience. My mind was loopy, I had lost all sense of time and awareness, and I was just randomly babbling to anyone who would listen. I remember asking Mike if it was time for another gel?…. Nope, only been 1 minute since your last gel….. Eat now? No, only been 1 minute since you last asked…..Gel now?…. No, still have 15 more minutes, etc, etc…. Mike led the way and I focused on his feet and we moved along. Despite not thinking clearly, I was have FUN in my own head. It was like a really happy drunk feeling as we moved along. That said, if I would not have been with a pacer, I would have been in bad shape trying to eat, hydrate, and stay the course on my own.

My quads and feet stabilizer muscles were extremely sore with about 10 miles to go. Each step downhill (and over rocks and roots) was getting more painful. Hiking was the norm from here on in, very few sections were runnable for me at this time. At no time did I ever want to quit, or even “take a break” for that matter. We kept moving forward all a big thanks to Mike! The sun came up and we removed the headlamps around mile 95. The sunlight gave a boost of energy and we moved towards the finish line with excitement!

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Mike and I headed to the finish!

 

Seeing the finish line, the crowd, and my crew, I lost it emotionally. It was such a great sight to see! Katie ran the last quarter of mile with me to the finish line!

Results-

Finish time 25:32. 29th place overall out of 249 starters. I could not have asked for a better experience for my first 100 miler! Extremely pleased with the results.

I kept this race report a pretty high level overview. If anyone has specific questions, feel free to contact me. I enjoy sharing my experiences 🙂

Dances With Dirt 50K Race Report

DWD Race Report

Photos by Indiana Trail Running Facebook

This was my first time running Dances With Dirt (DWD) Gnaw Bone 50K, but I was very familiar with the reputation this course and promotor had for being tough. I have mountain biked a majority of the race venue before, so I had a good understanding of what I was up against. I had a lot of confidence going into the race I would be well prepared for the steep conditions, as I have done a majority of my training in the hilly Jefferson Memorial Forest (JMF).

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Like most nights before a race, I did not sleep well at the hotel. I was up at 3:00am excited to get underway. The temperature outside was in the mid-40’s and the rain was pouring! The forecast showed the rain moving out early morning, but the temperature was only expected to get into the low-50’s.

After some light breakfast and coffee, I arrived at the start area to watch my friend Maddy start the 50 mile race. The 50 mile race started 30 minutes before the 50K race. I also dropped off my drop bag, which I would access at mile 21.

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Start – Maddy in pink

By this time the rain had nearly stopped and it was just light enough not to need a headlamp for the 50K start. In my vest I carried one water bottle (which I would refill at the aid stations) and enough nutrition to carry me to mile 21.

Instructions from Coach Troy were pretty simple for this race — save enough to push hardest the last 10 miles and have fun. I knew I needed to be disciplined and not get caught up in “racing the competition” early on to be successful.

The race started promptly at 6:15am and we were off! The first mile or so was on a gravel road to help thin out the heard before we hit the trails. I headed into the woods in roughly 5th position. Once on the trail, the next 2-3 miles were up a steep, muddy, horse trail, with ankle deep shoe sucking mud. This section was very difficult to run, so I started hiking the hill almost immediately. Even hiking, my heart rate was very high. I was passed by about 3 guys who were running. I knew based on my walking heart rate, that these guys were burning precious matches trying to run. It is a bit hard on the ego to be passed this early in the race, but I kept reminding myself to be smart and patient.

Eventually we got off of the horse trail and onto the mountain bike single track trail. The mountain bike trails were in very good condition and very runnable. I felt right at home on these trails – Very much resembled Jefferson Forest. I continued to keep my heart rate at the low end of my spectrum and log miles. Another cool thing was that I was starting to pass some of the 50 mile runners who started 30 minutes before my race. It was fun to make encouraging small talk with these runners along the way. I feel this helped to keep me motivated all race. I had caught up to Maddy mid-race and we enjoyed a short conversation. I was glad to see she was moving along well and in good spirits. She also informed me that she believed only 2-3 50K runners had passed her. She mentioned the leader (singlet guy) was flying. I knew I had passed several 50K runners along the way, but I honestly did not think I was up that far. The miles clicked off and I continued hitting my fueling and hydration targets.

 

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One of the multiple creek crossing

Just before the mile 21 aid station I had caught up to another 50K runner form Kentucky (I’ll call him Kentucky) and we ran into the aid station together. I accessed my drop bag and refilled my vest with more nutrition to get me through the last 10 miles of the race. Kentucky did not stop and got a jump start on me out of the station. This is the point of the race Coach wanted me to push hard! I was feeling great, so I turned up the gas. Kentucky and I continued to play leapfrog for the next 3-4 miles. I had the advantage on the uphills, but I could not shake him.   Eventually we caught and passed a 50K runner that I remembered from the start. He was someone I had earmarked as a “fast guy”. It was at this point I believed Kentucky and I were in a race for second place. I had been pushing hard for the last few miles, but I had not shown my full hand yet. I did not want to make a move to soon and risk blowing up.

With about 5 miles to go we hit a stretch of road which lasted for maybe a mile. I am confident in my road speed and I was almost positive he would not be able to hang with me as good as I was feeling. I pushed hard and opened up a large gap as we headed back into the woods. I continued to push hard to increase the gap. The interesting thing I find about trail running is, you can really break someone’s spirit when they cannot see you anymore. This was my goal and it worked!

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The home stretch

The last 5 miles or so, the 50K course blended in with the half and 10k courses. Again, it was fun and very motivating to be around other runners and encouraging them into the finish.

I crossed the finish line in a time of 5:07 and was informed I was the winner! What?? Yes, the early leader in the singlet had dropped out of the race. It was a great surprise and really neat wooden trophy to boot! Kentucky finished about 12 minutes behind me. We shared beers and stories as we watched the other competitors finish. One of the 50K finishers (his first) was my high school friend Tony who I had not seen in about 15 years. You never know who you may see at trail races! Maddy finished the 50 mile race as the 4th overall female!

 

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Awards – Plus free entry to 2017 race

DWD Gnaw Bone is a top notch event and course that I would highly recommend. Well organized and attended! Thanks to all the volunteers!

Next up Mohican 100!

My Journey to a 100 Mile Ultramarathon

 

 

Why I am writing this

I write this for a couple of reasons. The first is to simply document the adventure. I have done some cool stuff in the past, and afterward I wished I would have written about it during the process.

The second is to hopefully spark someone’s interest in trail and ultra running. If I can do it, anyone can do it!

 

What is an ultramarathon (ultra)?

By definition an ultra is any race over 26.2 miles (which is the marathon distance). Most are run on off-road trails, though that is not a requirement. 50km (31 Miles), 50 Miles, 100km (62 Miles), and 100 Miles are the most popular distances.

 

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Louisville Lovin the Hills 50K 2014

 

Catching the trail and ultra bug

I grew up in rural Indiana, and the woods were a big part of my childhood. Fishing with my grandpa and hiking through the woods with my dad were staples of my youth. The trails took me back to being a kid and just having fun, and I found peace and solitude running through the forest, forgetting all the training gadgets and data I had been chained to for the past several years on the road. Trail running to me was about being with nature, breathing fresh air, and being alone inside my own head.

 

Living in Louisville, KY puts me near many excellent trail systems and race promoters. There are trail races varying in distance from 4 miles to 50k all around me, and the local parks boast excellent running trails with a variety of elevation gain and terrain.

 

I laced up for my first official trail run in the fall of 2013. I had been a road runner for many years but had spent the two years prior focused specifically on racing Ironman distance triathlons. By the time the 2013 triathlon season was over, I was burnt out on pounding the pavement and staring at the white line while cycling on the roads. I needed a change of pace and scenery. I bought a pair of trail running shoes and hit the trails. Over that winter, I immersed myself in books, videos, and websites on trail and ultra running and quickly became educated on the roots of ultra running. I learned a lot about the Western States Endurance Run (first 100 mile foot race) and the Leadville 100. The Leadville and Western States races were what motivated me to want to run a 100 miler, and learning about the distances and elevations covered by runners during the races and their training were so inspiring to me. I knew immediately in those first few months of trail running that I eventually wanted to run a 100.

 

 

 

The year of the ultras

2014 was the first year of ultras for me. I took a year off from long distance triathlon and focused on trail and ultra running. I continued to be a student of the sport, reading and learning as much as I could. I set my sights on the Land Between the Lakes 50 miler, and I competed in several trail marathons and a 50k leading up to it. The entire year was a big success, and I had my first ever overall win in a running race (a 50k at that—the Cloudsplitter)!

 

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2014 Cloudsplitter 50K overall winner

 

 

The year of the 100

Though I spent last year focusing on Ironman Louisville, my 2016 ultra planning started in the early part of 2015. I always like to have races and events planned out far in the future. Step #1 for me is signing up for the race, and since many popular events can sell out 364 days in advance, it is especially critical to register for events early. Registration for the Mohican Trail 100 opened in mid-2015, and I registered immediately.

 

 

Why the Mohican Trail 100?

First and foremost I wanted to select a 100-miler that was a Western States qualifier. The Western States 100 is a prestigious ultra that requires a qualification race and lottery system to enter, and the Mohican 100 is a qualifying event. Secondly, I wanted a spring or summer race date since I much prefer running in warm weather versus the cold. Because the Mohican is in June, a majority of my training miles would be logged in above freezing temperatures. Lastly, I was concerned about location and course. The Mohican 100 is located in Ohio, putting it within driving distance for crew and pacers. Also, the course is a 4-loop course; another benefit for crew and pacer logistics, as opposed to a point-to-point race.

 

How would I train?

I knew the training and preparation for a 100 mile race would be significantly more difficult than training for a 50 miler. I wanted to reach my performance potential and ensure I got the most value out of my training time. To that end, I hired Troy Shellhamer to coach me through training for and racing the Mohican. Troy is a very successful ultra runner and coach who also lives in Louisville. I was familiar with Troy’s racing and coaching accomplishments, and since he has trained and raced on the same trails that I would be, I knew he would be a great choice.

 

Aside from the performance aspects, the other reason I hired a coach was to help me become a better coach myself. As most of you know, I launched my multisport & run coaching services last year (Compass Endurance Coaching). I wanted to put myself in a client’s shoes, and working with a coach would allow me to better serve my athletes, especially from a communication and customer service standpoint.

 

 

Early Season Races

The official training block for the Mohican started January 1st, and so far this year I have raced the Lovin’ the Hills 50k and the Land Between the Lakes 50 miler. Both of these races have been great confidence boosters for the Mohican. My 2016 performances in these two races well exceeded those from 2014, as I cut around an hour off my overall time in each race. I even earned some hardware, finishing as the 5th Place male at LBL 50!

 

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2016 Land Between the Lake 50 Miler

 

And not only have I gotten physically stronger this season, but I have also learned a lot about pacing and fueling on the trails. Coach Troy has taught me that with proper pacing and fueling, I can actually race a 50k and 50 miler instead of simply trying to survive these distances. This concept has been an exciting eye-opener for me this year.

 

So what next?

Running, running, and more running, while enjoying the longer days and warmer temperatures! For the last few weeks I have been averaging around 9 hours of running per week, with a majority of these miles logged on trails. 4 hour long trail runs are the norm for now, and running specificity has been key—there will not be much time cycling or swimming for me until after the Mohican. Next up I will be running in 2 more tune-up events: The Backside Trail Marathon and the Dances with Dirt 50k. I will update you on how those events and my peak weeks go in my next blog entry.

Today’s Hot Topic: Conquering the Heat

We just had our first HOT weekend of the year here in Kentucky. Temperatures were in the 40s last weekend, but this weekend they crept into the low 80s with lots of sunshine.

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Springtime greenery

 

The first heatwave of the season always takes a toll on athletes. After several months of cold training, we are ready to quickly shed the winter clothes, but unfortunately our bodies are not yet adapted to handling the new heat. Friends, colleagues, clients, and myself struggled through tough runs this weekend…Why?

Why the Struggle?

We all know your body cools itself by sweating and evaporation. When you are hot, blood is routed to the skin where it can be cooled. There is, therefore, less blood/oxygen being transferred to the working muscles, which decreases performance. Additionally, exercising in hot temperatures naturally speeds up glycogen depletion and increases lactate levels.

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Heat acclimation on Bourbon Street, NOLA – 2015

 

Heat Acclimation

Your body will automatically acclimate to the heat, as it does every summer. You will sweat sooner and increase the number of activated sweat glands. Blood volume will increase, thus more blood will be available to exercising muscles. And heart rate increase will be less than before acclimation.

Heat acclimation typically takes place over the first 5-10 runs of an hour or longer in the heat. Cardiovascular adaptations will start within the first 5 days. Sweating changes typically occur in the first 10 days.

What to do in the meantime?

Slow down! Because of the reasons mentioned above, your body has to work harder than it would in cooler weather to achieve the same output. Adjust your pace in the heat to compensate. For example, if you are used to running 9:00 minute miles at a heart rate of 140bpm in cooler weather, on a hot day you may find your heart rate escalates to 150bpm to hold the same 9:00 min pace. You will need to slow your pace to settle your heart rate back down into your preferred zone. Studies have shown that marathon performance can degrade 10% or more on 85 degree versus 55 degree race days.

Hydrate! Hydration is always important but even more so in the heat. Start your workout well hydrated, and then hydrate early and often. Understand your hourly sweat rate and drink accordingly. Supplement with electrolyte tablets or drinks as required. Proper hydration is an involved and important topic that I won’t discuss fully in this blog post, but stay tuned for a hydration-only post in the near future.

What else? I have a few other simple tips to keep in mind for making the heat transition bearable. Wear sunscreen! Not only does it protect your skin, but it helps keep your skin cooler. Dress in breathable, wicking fabrics to pull moisture from your body and aid in the evaporation process. Modify your training route to keep yourself near accessible water sources. Lastly, understand the warning signs of heat illness, and cut your workout short and take appropriate action as required to stay healthy!

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