Monday, June 24, 2013

How to Maximize Elevation Gain in as Few Miles as Possible: The Dismal 50km

Over seven years ago, while starting my training for the Hardrock 100 Mile, I endeavored to come up with a local training run that would exceed 10,000’ of elevation gain in as few miles as possible and be on trails. After some thought and looking at maps of Monte Sano State Park I had an “Aha!” moment. You see, I discovered probably the best possible course, super steep, a ton of climb, a “loop” course and best of all right out my back gate! Unbelievable! 

The route I came up with drops down the McKay Hollow Trail (“Death Trail”) then continues down the Natural Well Trail, crosses McKay Creek and continues to ascend the Natural Well Trail up past THE Natural Well and up to the Monte Sano Escarpment at the high point of Natural Well Trail and cuts up a bootlegger trail up through the escarpment to Panorama Blvd. That is the “outbound” leg, now reverse the route back to the picnic area and you have ~4.0 miles and ~1500’ of gain (equal loss). I tack on an additional .3 miles (out and back) to get to and from my house. I call this route a “Dismal Repeat”. Therefore, the Dismal 50km consists of 8 Dismal Repeats, this year 34.4 miles and over 12,000’ of climb (equal descent). To understand the significance of finding a route with this amount of climb over this distance consider the Hardrock 100 mile has 33,992’ of climb and 33,992’ of descent over the 100.5 mile course which is 338’ of climb per mile. This Dismal 50km route climbs 12,000’ and descends 12,000’ over 34.4 miles which is 349’ of climb per mile. So the Dismal 50km is a perfect analog of the Hardrock 100 course though only over 1/3 of the distance with respect to climb per mile. However, this course is obviously at much lower altitude where the average elevation at the Hardrock 100 is 11,186’ while the average elevation of the Dismal 50km course is probably 10% of that number! However, when the Dismal 50km is run in the summer months, the heat and humidity is also a perfect analog of trying to run at altitude! This I know from experience!

But why “Dismal”? The inspiration for the name comes from a section of the Susitna 100 mile course where it crosses the Dismal Swamp. I pictured a harsh and formidable landscape. There is also the obvious meaning that this route, especially multiple repeats, is a dismal prospect to endure because of the massive amount of elevation gain/loss over some of the most difficult trails in the Monte Sano State Park.

Figure 1: The Dismal Repeat

Figure 2: Dismal 50km Elevation Profile
So the inaugural Dismal 50km occurred in March of 2006, perhaps a bit early for a Hardrock training run but so it goes. That first run I setup my mini-aidstation just inside my back gate; an ice-chest full of colas, some gels and a couple pre-frozen hydration bladders. I’d only run all the way to the aid-station if I needed to resupply, otherwise I turned around just outside the picnic area on the trail towards my house. I remember I kept track of laps by lying sticks side by side in my turnaround area. I also remember that freezing those hydration bladders was a huge mistake as they never really thawed out too well and so I didn’t get to drink very much! So on that very cool clear day I finished the 32 mile route in 9:45, my legs were crushed! Little did I know how “fast” a mark I’d set!

In June of 2009 I was once again training for the Hardrock 100 and this time around wanted to use the Dismal 50km as my last long training run three weeks out from race day. Unfortunately for me this day turned out to be the hottest day of the year with a triple digit heat index! The route that year was a touch longer as all my turnaround points were actually through my back gate in on to my garage where I’d set up shop with bags of ice in the freezer and gallon jugs of water and iced tea at the ready. I remember also discovering we had some Pedialyte ice pops that really saved my bacon in the sweltering heat! This run totally destroyed me as it took me 11:35 to finish the ~33 mile course! Ouch!

A year later I didn’t run the Dismal 50km but my friend Josh Kennedy did in preparation for the San Juan Solstice 50 mile. His run was in June and again on a viscously hot day! I'd just finished my 335 mile speed-hike of the Pinhoti Trail a month before and was still trying to recover and taper for the same race Josh was preparing for. So, unfortunately for Josh I had no interest in spending the day on the rough trails with the encroaching vegetation, spider webs, snakes and bugs. Josh was a true testament to perceiverence as he had to endure several rattle snake encounters and a route that was extremely slick; wet, muddy and stinking humid! Josh started just after sunrise and finished in 12:50; not long before sunset! I remember his wife Kirsten was so worried about him that she drove up to our house, their three children in tow! Luckily Josh had just finished and was cooling off using our garden hose! To date Josh is the only other fool to complete the Dismal course that I’m aware of. Sucker!

The last time I ran this Dismal course was last Spring but this time I was training for the Barkley Marathons which sports over 11,700’ of climb per ~26 mile loop or 450’ climb/mile. Therefore, this time around I shaved off a bit of distance per Dismal Repeat with the goal of making the route significantly steeper per mile. The final route was 27.2 miles with just over 12,000’ of climb (equal descent) or 442’ climb/mile that took me 9:24 on a beautiful March day.

Current Run:
This past Saturday I ran the Dismal course for my 4th time, once again for a last training run before the Hardrock 100. This year’s route was the longest yet as I decided to have the turnaround at the front of my garage which meant I had to run through the vacant lot next to our house. I liked this set up because we have an outdoor refrigerator that I could use as well as a cooler that I filled with ice and water for easy bottle resupply. Also I wouldn’t have to tramp through the house and disturb our dogs every hour! This change made the route even longer however, at  4.3 miles per repeat or 34.4 miles in total for 8 repeats.  I got started at 5:41 a.m. just after sunrise. The first repeat truly lived up to its name; dismal! With the sun still just barely above the horizon the humidity was extremely high though the temperatures were very mild. The humidity was tolerable but what made the first repeat really bad was the 100s of spider webs I kept catching in my face! Yuck! However, after toweling off the webs at the end of the first repeat I had no other issues with webs; the course had been cleaned.  The next several hours on the course were fairly enjoyable as the sun was now up enough to burn off the early humidity but not yet high enough in the sky to really sear the Hollow; the occasional cool breeze through the heavy canopy really helped as well.  My approach was fairly conservative over the first 4 repeats as I hoped to avoid a repeat of my 2009 effort! I just tried to take it easy on the downhills and only run the easier uphill sections; basically let my heart rate and perceived effort level be my guide.

Over the second half of the run it became apparent that I wasn’t going to crash and burn and as I felt pretty darn good I decided to ramp up my effort just a bit.  My half way split of 4:51 was very motivating as I was, unbelievably, on pace to surpass my personal best for the course; remarkable considering this year’s route was at least 2 miles longer and in much hotter and humid weather! Even though I knew at the back of mind that that a sub 9:45 was possible I didn’t really focus on that; just took it one repeat at a time. My lap times really started to drop; the difference I think was I that I was starting to run more of the steeper grades on the Natural Well Trail unlike on earlier laps. I also think I was pushing the Natural Well downhill a bit harder as well. My effort on Death Trail was fairly uniform throughout as this trail is technical and difficult enough that you aren’t really rewarded very much by pushing too hard! I really smelled the barn I think; my heat and vertical climbing training were really paying off!

Some amusing anecdotes from my run.  With an out and back course one would think that they’d soon learn and remember the location of every rock, every root and every blow down along the way. Ha! I managed to remember to duck under an eye level blow down the first eleven times I past under it but not the twelfth! BAM! OUCH! Have a nice scab on the bridge of my nose! So dumb! What’s ironic about this incident is that several weeks ago while training on the course I ran into another blow down, at speed, that briefly knocked me unconscious and bruised my poor butt on some rocks in the trail! The problem is that I wear a ball cap most of the time on runs and the bill, with your head slightly bent, creates this blind spot right at eye level! So dumb!

Anyhow, to wrap things up, I felt like I was riding the building heat wave in the Hollow the last three laps, my energy was good but I knew that if I slowed or stopped, that wave would crash over me and my shot at sub 9:45 would be crushed!  So I didn’t let up on the gas at all although I had to take a bit longer pit stop after lap six because the upper in one of my shoes totally blew out and I had to be careful how I stepped or risk my whole foot coming out of the shoe! Doh!  Finally I’d completed the penultimate lap and ran inside the house and set the microwave for a 10 second countdown. While the time counted down I announced to Kathy, do you hear that sound? When the bell rang on the oven I said, “There’s the bell lap! Off I go!” And with that I ran back out of the house and onto my last lap. Even though my GPS had died I knew, off clock time, that I had over 1:22 minutes to cover the last lap to break 9:45. Piece of cake!

It had been a long day in McKay Hollow but for some reason I really relish this challenge, the solitude, the simplicity yet extreme physical and mental difficulty of it all. Time really just past by so quickly; I couldn’t believe I was almost done! I passed by the same rocks, roots and yes eye raking blow downs one last time; said my farewells and at last I was done; my fastest lap yet to finish in 9:29, sixteen minutes faster than my best and more importantly over two hours faster than my disastrous adventure four years ago!
Net Split

Total = :20
Avg: 1:08