Friday, February 23, 2018

2018 Actif Epica 162km Race Report


My dream goal is to one day participate in the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) in Alaska; the oldest and arguably most challenging winter ultra in the world.  The “shortest” race is a 350 mile trek on the famed Iditarod Trail from Knik Lake to the town of McGrath; the longer event stretches all way to Nome.  This is the human powered Iditarod where participants must decide before the race to either ski, bike or hike.  Depending on the year one mode of travel is favored over another.

In order to be eligible to participate in the ITI applicants must first have finished at least three different qualifying winter ultras.  A finish of the Actif Epica 162km would earn me my first qualifier.

My winter ultra-experience has been a mixed bag.  I dropped out of my first two winter ultras. 

The first was at the Susitna 100 mile in Alaska; a warm winter meant a major course re-route due to the various river crossings, lakes and swamps not being frozen over.  Unfortunately the alternate course was a series of out and backs along some very chewed up snow mobile trail with a lot of exposed dirt and rocks and frankly just quite boring and difficult to drag our sleds full of required survival gear through.  So my wife Kathy and I decided to stop after 40 miles as this was not the wild Alaskian winter experience we’d expected. 

The second was years later at the Arrowhead 135 mile in Minnesota; yet again a warm spell meant soft snow surface that made it difficult to pull our sleds efficiently and to avoid overheating.  We decided to stop after 35 miles at the Gateway Store checkpoint.  This turned out to be an excellent decision because shortly after we got a ride back to International Falls it dumped almost a foot of wet snow creating a chaos on the course with rescues and drop outs; only a hand full of very experienced foot races finished the race!

However, at my third attempt at a winter ultra, I finally finished!  The race was the Tuscobia 80 mile in Wisconsin.  While it was not an ITI qualifier (the 160 mile version is) it was a wonderful and challenging experience and did instill in me a lot more self-confidence that I could safely continue doing winter ultras successfully.

So now it was time to finally finish my first ITI qualifier; the Actif Epica 162km!

Friday, September 22, 2017

Some "Fun Run" Barkley Marathons Statistics

If you're an ultrarunner (or subscriber to Netflix) you've probably heard about the Barkley Marathons.  So you all know that, through 2017, there have been exactly 15 finishers (and 18 finishes) of the full Barkley Marathons 100 Mile. You can probably even list them:
Williams (1995)
Horton & Wood (2001)
Keizer (2003)
Tilden & Nelson (2004)
Robinson (2008)
Thompson (2009)
Basham (2010)
Maune (2011 & 2012)
Fegyveresi (2012)
Campbell (2012, 2014, 2016)
Hollon & Wildeboer (2013)
Kelly (2017)

However, there hasn't been much reported about the so called "Fun Run Finishers".  Those folks who managed to complete 3 loops of the Barkley Marathons in under 40 hours.  While a Fun Run is still considered a DNF, it is by far not an easy accomplishment to make it through three loops as these sobering statistics will attest to.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Learning to ride a freewheel Unicycle: Session #4, Getting more comfortable!

After my revelation during the last practice session about trying to focus on pedal-coast-pedal transitions I focused today's effort solely on working on these transitions.  I had several pretty good transitions in a row during a single trial.  In control and coasting for several feet before pedaling again.  It seems to be a mental hang up that I'm having to fight to pedal again after coasting; that and possibly not having quite the correct body position (leaning back just a bit too much).  It seems like the trials where I leaned a bit more forward as I went into a coast it was easier to pedal out of it.  If I'm too far back it's easier for the wheel to get ahead of me and I have to dismount.

I'm also much more comfortable "prop mounting" now.  I no longer have to wedge the wheel into my Jeep's running board in order to mount.  It's convenient now so I'll still do it, but I now have learned how to mount safely by applying the break and quickly moving into a static, pedals-level, position using a pole, wall, etc... to prop myself against.  This will become much more useful later once I'm able to ride for any substantial distance.

So, incremental improvement today... but was improvement never the less!

Total practice time was around 40 minutes.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Learning to ride a freewheel Unicycle: Session #3

This was my first, at-work, training session on White Widow. So, over lunch, I drove over to a good spot on a dead end road and set up shop.  At first my goal was just the same as the previous two session, to prop-assist mounting the freewheel unicycle then try and ride as far as I could, in control.

However, after a few minutes of practice (which was going pretty well due to the slight uphill grade of the road) I realized that I was missing the point of the freewheel unicycle.  The point is simply this: coasting.  Up until now I honestly have been afraid to coast, I'd only been focusing on trying to ride as far as I could like a would a conventional unicycle.  That's the wrong approach.  Instead, I need to embrace "the coast" and focus on that aspect in these sessions.  In particular I need to practice what I now know is the fundamental freewheel unicycling skill: pedal-coast-pedal.

Without being able to comfortably, in control, and on demand pedal-coast-pedal I'd never be able to ride White Widow. So that's how I spend the remainder of the 40 minute practice session.  Riding about 10 feet or so then attempting to briefly coast with cranks vertical and resume pedaling and repeat.

At first I was abysmal. I could not convince myself to pedal after starting to coast!  I even got to the point at yelling at myself: "PEDAL!" It will definitely take time to train my brain.  It's like as soon as I'm coasting I think I'm done for and try and dismount.

Near the end of the session however, I was successful with at least a few pedal-coast-pedal trials.

Now that I know what skill set to focus on I think I should see much more rapid improvement.  Once I can comfortably pedal-coast-pedal it should then only be a matter of linking these segments together with regular riding to extend how far I can ride.

Total session time was around 40 minutes and just over a mile of GPS recorded mileage.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Learning to ride a freewheel Unicycle: Session #2

It's been over a week since my last (first) session with my freewheel unicycle, "White Widow".  I was very concerned with so much time between practice that this second session wouldn't go too well. However, I was pleasantly surprised with my progress overall.  Here is what I changed with my unicycle setup:

1. Swapped the 152mm cranks for 125mm cranks.

2. Lowered the tire pressure significantly from near max psi to something more like 30 psi.

Ryan C and I met once again behind the HCES but this time I brought my own Jeep and parked right on the edge of the small asphalt track.  To mount I wedged the unicycle wheel right into the running board, placed the cranks in the 12-6 position (dead position) and carefully stepped onto the pedals while grabbing the roof of my jeep to pull myself up and into the saddle.  Then I'd carefully keep front pressure on the cranks, lean slightly forward and rotation 90° to face parallel to the jeep and track.  Then I'd simply begin to ride off slowly and see how far I could get before a UPD (Unplanned Dismount). While session #1 my best efforts were measured in feet, this time my best efforts were measured in yards, many yards!  I even was reasonably successful at purposefully pedaling-coasting-pedaling. 

With a freewheel unicycle I've learned what NOT to do that is counter-intuitive for anybody who knows how to unicycle.

NEVER lean back.  This is probably the most dangerous thing you can do on a freewheel unicycle.  If you lean back there is no way to counter that rotational force as pushing back on the pedal merely spins the crank around and the end result is you fall on your back, hit your head and the unicycle goes flying out in front of you.  Trust me, I speak from experience! Ouch!

So my basic riding approach, from watching several videos of successful freewheel unicyclists is to:

1. Lean much further forward than I normally would on a conventional unicycle.

2. Arms are extended in front of me rather than to the side.

3. Start out pedaling very slowly but also slowly accelerating. As long as you're accelerating, riding a freewheel unicycle is just like riding a conventional unicycle.

4. To slow down, attempt to coast with cranks vertical.  Here I've only had partial success and not consistent at all.

And into the future I think working on #4 will lead to big breakthroughs hopefully soon with more practice.  It's just a matter of fully understanding and "feeling" how the freewheel unicycle responds as I shift from pedaling to coasting and back.  Over time I'll get more comfortable with how this unicycle behaves and then I'll be able to keep riding.  Once I can ride then I can learn to free-mount using one of many techniques I've read about; all quite a bit more complicated that a standard static mount as you can't apply any back pressure to the pedals as they'll spin around; also you must use the disc brake effectively to keep the wheel from turning under you while you mount.

That's about it for now.  Total session time was about 1h 15m (goofed around on my 5' giraffe during an extended break).

Learning to ride a freewheel Unicycle: Session #1

I want to document my progress in attempting to learn how to ride a freewheel unicycle. Today was my first session with "White Widow", a 26" freewheel unicycle built from a poweder coated "pearl" Kris Holm unicycle and Nimbus Trike freewheel-disc hub. Traditional unicycles are fixed gear; the cranks turn directly with the wheel; when you stop pedaling the wheel stops. In a freewheel unicycle the cranks only turn with the wheel in the forward direction; when you stop pedaling the wheel can continue to turn just like in a bicycle. A HUGE component to riding a traditional unicycle and maintaining balance is the ability to apply back pressure to the cranks. With a freewheel unicycle this doesn't work, if you try you simply spin the cranks and the wheel will shoot out in front of you quickly and if you're lucky you didn't just fall on your back and crack your head open!
So, for this first session I met Ryan C and we went behind HCES and I used his Jeep as a prop to get situated in the saddle and cranks. Back to basics of learning to ride! Once propped up I'd simply try to see how far I could get before a UPD. I successfully made it 20-30' several times but it still feels very forced. I've got 152mm cranks on there and feel like I need to:
1) Put shorter cranks on to make pedaling less choppy
2) Perhaps either put on trail tire or deflate the tire a bit to have a bit more rolling resistance.
3) Practice brake assisted freemounts.
My overall impression is that this unicycle has a balance envelop much smaller than a traditional unicycle and so it's a matter of finding those limits and staying within them! The goal will to eventually be able to ride around everywhere on this freewheel unicycle that I can now on traditional unicycle but with the added ability to coast on demand and in control. With braking, this should make downhill riding much easier and fun.
Total session time was about an hour.

Monday, April 10, 2017

2017 Barkley Marathons - Second Fun Run Done!

Barkley Marathons Selfie (Photo: Eric Fritz)
Loop 2, Top of Rat Jaw with Brandon and Husky (Photo: Kendra Miller)
The whole world holds it's breath after Laz only counts 12 of 13 pages! (Photo: Karen Jackson)
Finished the Fun Run... AGAIN! YES! (Photo: Billy Simpson)
Quick Summary of Failures

This past weekend was the 31st edition of the Barkley Marathons held at Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee.  This race is considered one of the most difficult 100 mile races on the planet.  The five loop race has 67,000 feet of climb (and 67,000 feet of descent) which is more than any other 100 mile race.  Since 1986 only 15 runners out of just over 1000 have finished within the 60 hour cutoff.  The loop is unmarked, brutally steep, and is almost entirely off-trail; the only provided aid are a couple of water caches (gallon jugs of water); no GPSs, pacers, or cell phones, and only the race provided wrist-watch could be worn.  To prove you’ve completed the loop correctly, runners must locate several books spread around the loop (typically at the high and low points of mountains) and remove a particular page and turn them in at the completion of the loop. 

I trained harder than ever for this year’s race, lots of hill climbing and long, solo hikes and runs.  My goal was to finish all five loops under the cutoff.  Unfortunately some early navigational issues during the first loop in the dark and heavy fog slowed just about everybody down including myself.  I ended up a couple hours slower than expected on the first loop.  However, the second loop (opposite direction) went much better with only a few navigational issues, but the reverse loop is a lot more tricky and the climbs much steeper which makes it a slower loop anyhow.  By the third loop I was still feeling very good but was well outside the time frame needed to be allowed to start a fourth loop (runners must start 4th loop within 36 hours), however I still had time to finish the loop under the cutoff for a “Fun Run” finish (3 loops under 40 hours).  I finished the Fun Run in 39:03 and was just 1 of 6 runners (40 starters) who managed 3 loops or more; most quit after the first loop.  Two runners made it to the fifth and final loop but only one managed to complete the course correctly and under the final time limit; he was just the 15th finisher!  This was my 8th start and second Fun Run finish; only 34 people have finished Fun Run (or further) 2 times or more in the history of the race.