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Thanks for visiting my blog. This is where I document and share all of my running adventures with my friends and fellow runners. The good, the bad, and the unquestionably painful. All for your entertainment! Enjoy!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Vertigo Night Run 63k: The Race That Tried to Kill me.

"I should have worn a diaper on that last loop, because crapping my pants was a real possibility."- Kelly Agnew at the end of the Vertigo Night Run

That quote pretty much sums up my experience from the 2014 Vertigo Night Run. What started out as a casual 40 mile training run, turned into so much more. But without the possibility of adventure, this sport wouldn't be the same.
 
The Vertigo Night Run is an Aravaipa Running event and is held in the Arizona desert, outside of Phoenix. This race is part of the Insomniac Night Series, which makes sense, because who really wants to run the Arizona desert during the day, in July? Doesn't seem like a good idea to me.
 
The course is a 6.5 mile loop that twists and rolls through the rocky desert. They offer a 10k, 31k and 63k option. For me, it would be the 63k, which meant I would be running this loop six times.

 

The race starts at 7:00 PM and the desert gets dark at 8:00. I was pretty confident that I could leave the headlamp at the start/finish area for the first loop, because there was no way it would take me an hour to cover 6.5 miles. I only bother to mention this now, because I was absolutely wrong.

Start

(Note Jamil Coury filming us. At one point, Jamil runs into me on accident, yells "CONTACT", laughs and runs away. I nearly pissed myself from laughing so hard.)

Oh yeah...it was 106 degrees at the race start.

When the race started, I went out at a slow pace because I was worried about overheating while the sun was still up. I felt pretty good for about the first 800 yards, but we were grinding up a gradual incline and it was hotter than Satan's sack out there. There was a gentle breeze blowing but I think a 106 degree wind probably hurts more than it helps.

I dropped to slower gear to fight off the heat. Then I slowed even more. By the 3rd mile, I was alternating walking and running just so I could try to get my body temp down.



I was embarrassed to be walking so early but I didn't see a choice. I was never going to make it if I tried to race this first loop. I know attrition is high in all these races, so I focused on keeping myself held together and promised myself that there would be some speedy miles after the temps dropped.

 


I chatted with a few runners, enjoyed the sunset in the desert and focused on staying hydrated.

I was carrying a single handheld bottle, filled with Hammer Endurolyte Fizz tabs. There's an aid station 4 miles in for refills, and then it's a short, 2.5 miles back to the start/finish. By the time I made it to the aid station, my bottle was bone dry. I loaded it with ice water and headed out.

I swear to Sweet Baby Jesus that water never tasted so good!


I decided I would run the rest of the loop, not because it was cooling off, but because it was getting dark and my headlamp was 2 miles down the trail still. I drank up and started my mad dash to the finish area.

Ultra City

It was pretty much pitch black when I finished my first lap. It was dark, I was slow and I felt a lot worse than I should have at that point. I loaded up on water and Fizz tabs, grabbed my headlamp, stripped off my shirt and headed right back out.

Lap 1 Complete

The second lap was a lot like the first, except there was a bit more running involved. The 10k and 31k had started while I was on my first lap, so the trails were considerably more crowded.

Once again, I drained my handheld well before the 4 mile aid station. When I arrived, I drank 3 large cups of ice water before filling my bottle. I estimated I was drinking about 10 ounces of fluid per mile, which has to be some kind of record for me. Even at that, my voice was beginning to crack from dehydration.

My second lap was faster than my first.

Finishing Lap 2

Heading out for the third lap, I was distracted by the storm in the distance. There was a steady stream of lightning pounding the hills across the valley. It was fun to watch the explosions in the desert sky. With the absence of the moon, it provided a brilliant backdrop for the race.

I silently hoped the storm would stay on that side of the valley because it looked unbelievably violent.

I was passing several runners on my third lap and enjoyed the brief conversations. The temperature had finally dipped below 100 degrees, but it was still oppressive. I wasn't feeling great, but I was getting a long far better than a lot of other runners. Attrition was high.

Finishing Lap 3

At the onset of lap 4, the storm across the valley had migrated closer to the race course. I could hear the deep roll of thunder that had been silent until now. The storm was wide and the lightning seemed to stretch across the entire horizon. It was clearly heading our way, but I was hoping to be finished before it reached us.

My legs were getting heavy from the rolling trail. The entire course is runnable, but not flat, so the exertion doesn't register like it does in mountain racing. I was moving pretty well, but not as fast I had hoped.

Near the end of the 4th lap, the storm was nearly on top of us. The lightning had surrounded the entire race course and was relentlessly pounding the hills and desert floor.

What had once been peaceful and entertaining at a distance, had become stressful and worrisome up close.



Finishing the 4th Lap

I knew I was in the top 10, but when I came in after 4 laps, I learned I was in 3rd place. I had just been in 4th, but another front runner had just dropped. I hadn't been preoccupied with my standing in the race, but it was pleasant news, nonetheless.

I didn't waste any time before heading back out. Jo filled my bottle, I grabbed a Hammer gel and started to head to the trail while talking to Jo. She followed me down the trail while I was giving her my update and expressing my concern about the storm. Just as I was getting ready to run off, a huge gust of wind came through and started toppling the tents at the finish line. I yelled for Jo to get back there where she would be safe and I headed back out on the course.

Things were starting to get biblical!

The storm had rolled in fast and was happily hovering over the race course. The lightning strikes were relentless and the thunder was deafening. I could feel the air blast from the nearby lightning strikes. It was getting pretty sporty now!


My mind was completely occupied with the thought of getting struck by lightning as I hurried down the trail. The rain had started, but it wasn't as torrential as I would have expected from a storm this size. The winds picked up and the temperature dropped by about 10 degrees. It would have been quite pleasant if the storm didn't bring with it, the fear of death from the sky.

I was definitely on track for my fastest lap of the night.

As I was flying down the trail, mesmerized by the storm, I almost didn't notice the large rattlesnake making its way across the trail.

I was midair when I looked down and saw it stretched out beneath me. There was a lot of information to process in a very short amount of time. First, I needed to confirm that this WAS a rattlesnake. A quick glance toward the butt end of the serpent verified that it was. As time slowed to a crawl, I probably could have counted each rattle on his tail.

Now that I knew it was, in fact, a poisonous snake, I needed a plan for not getting bit. As I hovered above the snake, I assessed my options for landing safely. After a quick review, it became clear that I wasn't going to be able to avoid landing directly ON the rattlesnake. Accepting that reality, I did the only thing I could to protect myself...

I landed on his FACE! As soon as my foot made contact with his head, the tail came up and whipped me in the leg. The rattles were buzzing loudly as I launched myself off his face. I took three strides down the trail before turning around to look. He was alive, but quite pissed off. He gathered himself up, dusted off and hurried away from the trail with his tail still buzzing.

My heart was pounding as I blurted out, "DID THAT JUST HAPPEN?!". Yes, Kelly...that DID just happen.

I headed back down the trail with the added fear that culminated into believing that every crooked line in the sand, or stick on the trail was a snake that had been dispatched to do me harm.

Between the lightning strikes and the snakes, I was getting a little jumpy.

I had to stop running entirely a few times because I was being blinded by the lightning. The strikes were so close that I was losing my night vision and was stumbling down the trail until it returned.

Shortly after the aid station, I got word the race was being stopped due to the weather. I was bummed at first, but relieved to be calling it a night.

I ran hard, finishing out the loop, stopping at 52K.

I officially finished in 3rd place overall with a time of 5:41. Not blazing fast, but fast enough for the conditions.


I really had a great time, despite the last several miles being a scene right out of Natural Born Killers. The storm would have been a highlight of the race if it hadn't been right on top of us. But like all Aravaipa races, this one was great.

The goal was to log some training miles for my upcoming 100's and that was achieved. Up next...we're running local before heading to Wyoming for the famous El Vaquero Loco!

Thanks for reading! We hope to see you on the trails sometime soon.

Monday, July 14, 2014

2014 Leadville Silver Rush 50: Regaining Perspective

"You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing for you."- Walt Disney

The mental evolution of my running career is something that I completely overlooked until I was faced with the daunting realization that I had a problem. A big problem. 

After several miserable races and a lot of pretty lame excuses for such, I was forced to sit down and really THINK about where my failures were emanating from. Initially, I blamed several physical failures for my shortcomings. I blamed poorly designed race courses, shitty course markings and bad aid stations. But I never thought to blame myself. 

Slowly, reluctantly and quite begrudgingly, I began to see right through the web of lies I was spinning for myself. My failures weren't physical, they were entirely mental.

When I truly analyzed my poor performances, it became clear that I had evolved into the type of runner that will DNF or otherwise throw a race away, whenever things aren't going exactly as I had hoped. If I lost sight of the podium, I was content with calling it a day so I could start getting ready for my next race. I became the runner that I had always criticized for not being committed to seeing things through. I became the last thing that I ever wanted to be. I was THAT guy. I don't like THAT guy. 

Since this epiphany, I've been working to regain the passion I once felt for this sport. I want to love running again. I want to appreciate the gift and revel in the natural beauty of the mountains I run in every day. I want to feel the childlike enthusiasm for racing through the mountains, rather than the mechanical obligation to perform like a circus animal. 

I want things to be the way they were. Like a failing relationship, my relationship with running was on the ropes and I needed to fix it. NOW!

This is why the Leadville Silver Rush 50 miler came at the perfect time.

This would be my fourth consecutive year of running this race and it's like an old friend. I know the course better than any other and I've always enjoyed every step of this race. It's exactly what I needed to get my mind back on track. 50 miles of tough mountain running in a place that has always brought a smile to my face. I was happy to be back in Leadville. 

My Wife and Trail Running...My Most Treasured Things in Life

Lining up for the Silver Rush is always exciting. This race start has an intensity that a lot of races can't match. Our heads are filled with adrenaline charging music, a beautiful National Anthem, and then we're sent charging up Dutch Henri Hill like a wave of warriors. It's pretty intense.

Flag Waving For the National Anthem

Shotgun Blast to Send Us on Our Way

I never intend to race up the first steep climb, but the rush of enthusiasm always gets the better of me. Starting at 10,000 feet can make this sprint pretty challenging, but I felt great on the way up.


I continued to race the first several miles of the course. I felt strong and was having a lot of fun. The first seven miles are a long grinding uphill. This tricks you into running harder than you should because it's not steep. It's just relentless. A lot of runners fall victim to these early miles and I was nearly one of them.

After the first aid station, the climb gets steep enough to take notice as we trudge through water that spills over onto the rocky trail, navigating our way across slippery rocks and moderately technical terrain. Nearing the top of the climb, it becomes clear that this is a legit mountain race that will sear your lungs and fry your legs if you don't exercise some caution.

After topping out at the first pass, we have a nice, gradual downhill heading into the Printer Boy aid station. I had started the race with two handheld bottles filled with Hammer Endurolyte Fizz and I had a few Hammer gels stuffed in the bottle holders. My plan was to swap my bottles for a pack at the aid station. I rolled into Printer Boy, handed my bottles to Jo, slipped my pack on and kept rolling right along.

Coming into Printer Boy

Heading Out of Printer Boy


After Printer Boy, we're treated to about a mile of steep descent before crossing a paved road and beginning a long, grinding climb.


 Heading UP...and UP Some More

After about a month of climbing, we top out in the Rock Garden. This is probably the most scenic section of the course, providing views of several 14'ers across the valley, and most of the Leadville 100 course.

Running the Rock Garden

This section rolls, but is pretty runnable. My advice is to take your time and enjoy the scenery. It's a truly beautiful spot.




After a bit of (somewhat) flat cruising, we take a totally unnecessary descent. To a first timer at the Silver Rush, this may appear to be the drop that takes us into the 25 mile turnaround point. That would be a foolish mistake. This is just a steep descent that stages us at the lowest possible point before making our final climb over Sherman's Pass.

Losing Elevation That We'll Immediately Regain. Only Steeper.

View Down Valley as we Climb UP the Pass

Making the Final Push Over the Pass at 12,000'

When I reached the top of the pass, I took a few moments to look around and soak in the beauty of the Colorado Rockies. As a few people filed by, I refused to be burdened by the "race". I just wanted to enjoy where my feet had taken me and appreciate the moment for what it had to offer. I felt centered. I was happy.

Dropping off the pass, I ran with a few other runners as we swapped positions. I was running a solid carefree pace and was focused on the peace of my run, enjoying my time with other runners and the great feeling of descending toward the halfway point in the race.

Cruising into Stumptown at Mile 25

As I reached the aid station, I tossed my depleted pack to Jo as I continued down the trail to pass through the timing mat. By the time I came back through the aid station, she had my pack refilled and ready to go.

I should never be surprised by how efficient my wife has become in the crewing game. She's the best crew chief in the business and she was really dialed in at Leadville.

Tossing on a Full Pack, Ready to Head Back to Leadville

Physically, I was feeling better than I ever had at the midpoint of this race. Mentally, I was in old, but familiar ground. I was having fun and happy to let things unfold naturally. I was having more fun than I had enjoyed in a long time.

I left Stumptown and fought my way back over the pass and down into Rock Garden. I made small talk with other runners, swapped war stories and gave encouragement to those that were struggling. Rock Garden passed quickly.

Getting Ready to Drop Out of Rock Garden

After a sharp and fast descent, we crossed the paved road again and headed back up the steep climb toward Printer Boy. This is a grueling climb and the sun was beating down on us mercilessly. Before I crested the top of the climb, I could hear the revelry at the aid station. A reminder that this is all supposed to fun.

As we rolled into the aid station, the crowd support was intense. It was an awesome feeling to be surrounded by that kind of enthusiasm and it served to renew my spirit.

Back to Printer Boy Aid Station at Mile 36

I rolled into the aid station, swapping my pack for two handheld bottles. Jo had them loaded and ready to go. She was getting me in and out as fast as possible, like she always does, but I wanted to linger. Not because I was tired or needed attention, but because I wanted to enjoy the scene.

Jo walked out of the aid station with me as I filled her in on my day. We smiled and laughed before I kissed her and headed toward Leadville.

Feeling centered again.

Enjoying Printer Boy

The run from Printer Boy starts with a stupid climb. 3.5 miles of gradual uphill that feels like it'll never end. Running is sporadic at best but I managed a few bursts of leg speed on the way up. The trip to the top allowed for me to get lost in my thoughts and occasionally chat with other runners. It was time well spent.

After cresting the top of the last pass, it's a mostly downhill run to the finish. Mostly, because there are a few rollers mixed in to serve as a reminder that you've run a really long ways. I pushed hard toward Leadville but not hard enough to become depleted. It was a well measured downhill ass whooping mixed with the appropriate amount of lingering.

Two miles from the finish, I took note of the time and realized I was probably going to miss a sub 9 hour finish. My time from last year was 8:42, which is a pretty respectable finish time for that course. I had a brief moment of panic but it quickly faded and I settled back into my calm stride and focused on enjoying the remaining miles on one of my favorite race courses.

The Silver Rush course weaves you toward, and then away from the finish line a few times in the last mile. You can hear the announcer, music and cow bells...then it fades. I knew the route and expected this, but it's still a little disheartening.

I eventually found myself running across the top of Dutch Henri Hill and could see the finish line down below. For a brief moment, I didn't want the race to be over but that feeling passed when I realized I had tickets for two free beers waiting on me.

I made the final sweeping turn and descended to the finish chute, crossing in 9:01, my second fastest time at the Silver Rush.

Finishing and Feeling Great!

I was truly content with my run and I still felt strong at the finish. I didn't land on the podium or even snatch an age group award, but I still felt like the run was a huge success. It was a cathartic exercise that gave me 9 hours to shut everything out and learn to enjoy running on the trails without pressure, fear or unwarranted expectations. It was just me having fun, which is why I started all this madness to begin with. Despite recent wins and FKT's, I consider this to be my most successful run of the year.

In the end, it's all about being happy.




Tuesday, June 3, 2014

2014 Comrades Marathon: On the Road to Durban


"Comrades is a great 5k. The problem is the two marathons you have to run to get to the starting line" - Unknown



I don't know the origin of that quote, but I can wholeheartedly agree. 

For those that are unaware, the Comrades Marathon is an 89k (56 mile) road race in South Africa. It's also the largest and oldest ultra marathon in the world, and is the largest spectator sport in South Africa. 

Simply put, the Comrades Marathon is a big deal.

The race course alternates each year between the "Up Year" and the "Down Year". I need to tell you right up front that I have run both courses on consecutive years and I can barely register a difference in the level of difficulty. So if any of you are planning to run Comrades on an "easy" year, you just forget about it. This was the down year and I still had more than my fair share of hands-on-hips climbing along the way "down". 

Pietermaritzburg City Hall

Being the down run, we were bussed inland to the start line in Pietermaritzbug and would be running back to Durban, which sits right on the coast of the Indian Ocean. The bus ride went well once our driver calmed down after getting lost a couple of times. Few things can start your day like a bus full of Africans yelling at each other.


Before I dive into the details from my race, I would like to share a few interesting facts about Comrades:

1. Runners are not allowed to display sponsor or corporate logos anywhere on the body.
2. Each runner must OWN their own timing chip and have it registered with the race.
3. Each runner must wear TWO bibs, unfolded and unaltered. One on the front of your shirt and the other on the back.
4. Runners must be registered members of a running club, unless you're an international runner.
5. Runners must run a qualifying race to register, unless you're an international runner.
6. The race has a firm 12 hour cutoff, at which time the finish line is closed and any remaining runners are barred from crossing the line. No finish time, no medal, no sympathy.

It's also important to note that it's wintertime in South Africa. To some people, that fact may suggest cold temperatures and possibly good running weather. This is true...if you're an African. For local runners, they're in the coolest and most hospitable time of the year for running. For North Americans, we're just emerging from our winter and not yet acclimated for hot weather running. Despite being winter, it's still 80+ degrees in the shade, and much warmer on the race course.

The race begins at 5:30 AM and I was comfortably nestled in my starting corral by 4:50. It was already warmer than I wanted it to be.

I have completed 156 races in my life and none of them can rival the spirit of the starting line at Comrades. The start line has a calm sense of enthusiasm, friendship and warmth, unlike any other event I've been a part of. It's an experience you have to enjoy firsthand to fully understand.

My favorite part of the pre-race ritual is the singing before the start. It's a beautiful song and despite my inability to understand a single word of it, I find it to be very moving. You can watch the video I took below.



After the anthem is played, the runners are sent off, accompanied by the ever faithful serenade of Chariots of Fire. This too has become a tradition at Comrades, and as soon as the song begins, the runners are pushing toward the front.

As a 135 pound white guy, I found myself wondering how more runners aren't crushed to death like this. It was akin to selling Justin Bieber tickets outside of a Canadian junior high school.

The first few miles are run in darkness. There's enough lighting to run without incident, but just barely. The real problem was the TV cameras, which aimed bright lights right into your eyes along the course. Whenever we approached a camera in the darkness, I tucked in behind a taller runner so he could shield me from the blinding glare.

As the sun came up, I was happy to see overcast skies because this would significantly reduce my exposure to the heat of the day. The clouds are our only real option for shade all day long. I was sincerely hoping it would remain cloudy during the race. However, unlikely...

Coming to a Checkpoint

Unlike a lot of runners, I don't race with a GPS watch. I prefer to wear a cheap digital watch, and if I'm so inclined, I can calculate my splits in my head. This is also a great way to occupy my mind during long races. For this race, I vowed to only allow myself to look at my watch at the end of every 10k split, otherwise, I may over think things, which is never good.

At the end of my first 10k split, I realized I was on a very solid but comfortable pace. Pleased with my progress, I went back to ignoring my watch.



At the end of my 20k split, I was also pleased by what my watch revealed. And again at 30k! I was having a great run! I was comfortable, moving quickly and having a fantastic time interacting with other runners and the spectators. I began to think I might have a spectacular day. I should know better than to ever begin that line of thinking in an ultra.

Somewhere in the South African Countryside 

"KAY-LEE!! KAY-LEE!!! GOOOO KAY-LEE!!!" That was what I heard from the crowd all day. It never got old and the pronunciation of my name forced me to crack a grin every time I heard it.

Sachets of Water and Energade on the Course

I checked my watch again at the 50k split and noticed I was pretty close to a PR for that distance. I was still feeling great and I was in a good place mentally. I was fueling and hydrating perfectly and it was paying off.

As you can see from the picture above, water and sports drink (Energade barely qualifies as a sports drink) are served in plastic sachets instead of cups. This takes some getting used to because you have to tear the sachet open with your teeth so you can get to the contents. But this also makes them portable. I was grabbing several sachets and stashing them in my waistband so I always had water with me.

In addition to fluids, the aid stations had small amounts of candy, potatoes and bananas. Far fewer options than what you would find at any American ultra.

Local Children Begging For Candy and Food After the Aid Stations

The moment I had been waiting for came suddenly, and without warning at the 55k mark.

I began to feel very hot, like I was cooking from the inside. The sun was no longer being concealed by the clouds and I was overheating badly.

I slowed my pace in an effort to reduce my body temperature, drank more water and began to apply ice to my head and neck whenever I could find it. Despite everything, I couldn't get my temperature back down and I began to worry about more serious problems.

I wasn't dehydrated and I still had a lot of energy. My fueling strategy had been perfect. I was still sweating properly, but with no air movement, I just wasn't getting the cooling benefit of my sweat.

My 60k spilt was brutally slow and I felt like crap.

But...I Wasn't the Only One

I stayed focused and worked diligently on improving my situation. I was hoarding ice in my shorts, my shirt and under my hat. In these later miles, there are water sprays for the runners to pass through and I made a point of parking myself under them for as long as I could tolerate.

Cheerleaders Failed to Cheer Me Up...It Must Be Bad!

I was still running but my pace was ridiculously slow. All I found at the end my 70k split was more disappointment.


At the 75k mark, I began to come back to life. I tested my condition by slowly picking up my pace and things began to perk up again. After 20 kilometers of doctoring myself, I felt like a new runner. Unfortunately, I had lost a tremendous amount of time on the clock and there was no way to overcome that reality.

I pressed on toward Durban with deliberation and confidence.


As we got closer to downtown Durban, the crowds grew and so did the support. I was among the few runners that could still maintain a decent pace, so I was getting more than my fair share of attention, which I really needed at that point.

The Distant Durban Skyline Under the Bridge

Entering downtown Durban was intense. The crowds were thick and the noise was earsplitting.

I began to see familiar landmarks and I knew the finish line would be coming quickly. I began interacting with the crowd again and feeding off their enthusiasm.

Downtown Durban

As I neared our hotel, I could hear the race announcer calling out the names of runners. The finish line at Comrades is an intense scene, creating a unique balance of destruction and celebration. I was eager to get to that line.

Human Suffering Meets Compassion

I Don't Have Words For This

The race ends in the local cricket stadium and soon enough, I was rounding the final corner and entering through the gates. After a parade lap on the perimeter of the cricket field, I could see the finish line and the race announcer was calling my name over the address system and letting the crowd know I was an American finisher. The stadium lit up with cheers as I made my way to the line.

Coming to the Finish

Done! 9:14:53

I found my way to the International Runners Tent, found my bride, my beer and soft piece of grass to sit down on.


Scene at the International Tent

Happy to Be Reunited

Jo and I relaxed and watched the rest of the race unfold while meeting up with friends as they finished their own races and came into the International tent. This is a race that a lot of runners plan and prepare for during their entire running careers and watching the culmination of that effort is pretty amazing.

We watched from the infield until all our friends made it in, then we walked across the street to watch the final moments of the race on TV, and from the window in our hotel room. Witnessing the final moments of the Comrades Marathon is something we didn't want to miss.

As promised, the finish line was closed at the 12 hour mark and hundreds of runners were shut out. Still on the course and knowing their race is over and their dreams have vanished, you can see the devastating emotions rise up in every runner on the course.

Runners Heading to a Closed Finish Line

I didn't have a goal for this race, so it's not fair for me to say I was disappointed. In fact, I feel quite the opposite. I feel pleased that I was able to battle through a terrible low point and rally my way to the finish. All things considered, I am very satisfied with my finish time and how my race unfolded. It's races like these that inspire confidence in my running and my technical abilities and I need that confidence for my future races.

Jo and I truly love South Africa and we're happy to have had an opportunity to return for this race. I achieved my goal of finishing both courses on back to back years and now it's time to find another international race to fixate on.

Thanks to all my friends and sponsors that have been so gracious and supported Jo and I along the way. Next up...the Bryce 100!

Goodnight Durban