Monday, January 27, 2014

Long Haul to Spartathlon (Guest post by Bryce A Carlson)

 Synopsis:  After racing the Rocket City Marathon on December 14th, 2013 to a 2:57:10 finish (not bad considering conditions and not really being fully invested in making a solid effort) I'd spent the better part of the next few weeks not running hardly at all. My wife and I were on vacation in Colorado over the holidays; snow-shoeing, snow-mobiling, snow biking, etc... but no serious run training. It was a restful time. Then, the weekend after we return home I discover on the Spartathlon Facebook page that there are new qualifying standards for the 2014 event. The long and short of it was that my 2011 Badwater 135 finish was too old to use for a qualifier. Crap! What's worse, Spartathlon entry was about to open up and by all estimation the race would fill in short order. So, panic set in as my wife Kathy and I tried to figure out what to do. Very quickly we found a 100km race outside Tampa, Florida that I could use to attempt to qualify. To qualify I'd "only" have to run a sub-10:30 which is right over 10:00 min/mile pace for 62 miles! No sweat! Ha! So, only home a week from Colorado I suddenly found myself on a plane to Tampa; with decent leg speed but woefully undertrained for ultra distance! I'd have to rely on muscle memory and a wealth of experience and life time miles. In the end I was successful, though the effort certainly wasn't ever easy, finishing the Long Haul 100km in 9:51:07; more than good enough to punch my ticket to Greece! So now I've entered the Spartathlon 246km and am awaiting to hear back if my entry was accepted...

What follows is a more detailed account of my race mostly through the eyes of my friend Bryce Carlson who was in the same Spartathlon qualifying predicament as me.

Posted on January 23, 2014 by
Despite several years living and training in Atlanta, I’m not a hot weather runner. Here I am, in Greece, 40 miles into a 153-mile race from Athens to Sparta and I’m already suffering. I’ve got a solid cushion ahead of the cutoffs, but the air is hot and humid, I’m going through 2 bottles of water per hour, my legs and hips are tightening, and I’m experiencing building gastrointestinal distress. By 60 miles in, I’ve been having bowel problems for a few hours (which I won’t detail) and after consultation with the race physicians I’m advised to drop out. They remove my race number, point me toward a number of other dropouts scattered about in solitary contemplation, and I sit with head in hands feeling the full weight of failure descend upon me.

The pity party lasts a couple hours before I finally come out the other side, pick my head up, and resolve to return sometime soon for redemption.

Rob: I first met Bryce during his 2010 Spartathlon attempt. My wife Kathy was also attempting the race and I was her support crew. As Kathy steadily worked her way towards Sparta on foot I spent a lot of time driving back and forth along the course and hanging out in the various little villages along the way. In short I became captivated by the race, the Greek countryside, the Greek people. Even before Kathy touched the foot of the King Leonidas statue in Sparta I knew that I'd be back one day to attempt the same awesome accomplishment; to follow in the footsteps of Pheidippides.

It’s now 3 years later, and I’m in Oklahoma City in late October circling a 1 mile paved course. I’d been planning my return to Spartathlon for the past couple years, and finished four 100 mile trail runs over the preceding few months to gain experience going the distance. But thanks (no thanks, really) to a lack of forsight, my window to qualify for the 2014 Spartathlon is now razor thin. This effort in Oklahoma City, I’m thinking is my last chance. My legs are worked over from the 100 milers this past summer, but I think I have enough left to hit the 24-hour qualifying standard (111 miles).
At 12 hours I’ve covered about 70 miles and I’m feeling pretty good. But I’m starting to get sick of my food, and unwittingly allow myself to get behind on calories. The low energy leads to a number of bad decisions that precipitate in a downward spiral I’m unable to pull out of. After covering only 33 miles in the last 12 hours, I miss the Spartathlon standard. It was the sole reason I made the trip to Oklahoma City, and I’d blown it. The dream of returning to Greece was going to have to go back on the shelf for another year or few.

Or so I thought. Fast forward to present.
Rob Youngren announced (and reminded me) a couple weeks ago that Spartathlon 2014 registration hadn’t yet opened and he’d identified a 100K race in Florida the weekend of January 18th that might be his/our last chance to qualify.

So it turned out I had one more shot!

I’d spent the last couple months getting excited about my 2015 Race Across USA, and largely forgotten about the missed opportunity back in Oklahoma City. But now, again, the desire to return to Greece came flooding back. Yes, this opportunity was far from a guarantee. I wasn’t sure I was prepared right then to make the 100K standard (racers must complete 100K in under 10hrs30min to qualify for Spartathlon)? And would the Spartathlon be too much to take on as I also prepared for Race Across USA (and which would begin about 3.5 months after)?

I had been training, but a back injury put me out of commission for the last couple weeks of December. I’d returned to running full time for a couple weeks since, but wasn’t sure if that’d be enough. I knew I had the speed to meet the standard (must average about 10:00/mile), but wasn’t sure

I was currently in good enough shape to hold it for the distance.
After a little back and forth with Rob, who was in the same boat (had the speed, but hadn’t been training), I decided to go for it. The Spartathlon is a truly special race and I was overcome with the desire to return. I also felt the training for Spartathlon and Race Across USA would complement each other and the intermediary goal would help with motivation through the long weeks to come. So, let’s do it!
With 6 days to prepare, I thankfully got a late registration into the Long Haul 100K (many thanks Jen and Leanne!!!), booked a plane ticket with frequent flyer miles, and coordinated with Rob to share a rental car and hotel room. Unfortunately, this little trip also came at the end of our first week of classes at Purdue. So, I wasn’t exactly rested, wasn’t able to study the course, or put together much of a nutrition/pacing strategy.
Thankfully, I seemed to get a boost from a few positive omens:

1. Rob more or less inspired me to take this shot at qualifying. I first met Rob at Spartathlon in 2010 where he was crewing his wife Kathy Youngren. So here was a Spartathlon link, prodding me to give it another go.

2. We arrived at packet pick-up Friday afternoon and saw Bob Becker. Bob and I first met at Spartathlon in 2010. I’d seen Bob once since then, but it was inspiring to see him and it gave me a boost of confidence and excitement.

3. I also had the opportunity at packet pick-up to meet Andrei Nana, who raced extremely well at the 2013 Spartathlon.

Having 3 connections to Spartathlon before the race seemed pretty ominous, and I was feeling increasingly excited and determined not to let this opportunity slip away!

[I’d like to take a quick minute to say how hospitable and first rate the race administration was. Leanne and Jen were really great to let us into the race late, and treated us like all-stars all weekend. They were just incredible, and I can’t thank them enough for their kindness!]

Rob: Yes, huge thank you to Jen and Leanne and all of the Long Haul 100 staff and volunteers. This group really knows how to put on a long ultra distance event. Super organized; they thought of just about everything! I highly recommend event as a first timer 100k/100m or as a place to post a pretty good time. The veggie wraps after the race where the bomb! 

At the start, temperatures were in the mid-40s and we arrived with just enough time to take care of last minute business and toe the line before getting too chilly. I was a little over layered, but knew we’d be looping by my drop bag every 3-10 miles where I could dump the extra layers. Rob and I agreed to work together so long as it was to our mutual benefit, but would hold no hard feelings about leaving the other behind if they started struggling.

The Long Haul course was a 20 mile loop that runners would repeat 3 times for the 100K (plus a short out and back) or 5 times for the 100 mile. The course was perfectly flat, but included a lot of uneven footing. Our plan was to run comfortably for the first 20 miles and then add in walking breaks from there on out (mostly on 10 minute cycles of 8 minutes running, 2 minutes walking). We went back and forth a bit for the first 25 miles as someone would stop for a bathroom break, refill a water bottle, or change a layer before catching up a few miles later. By the 25-30 mile mark, we’d pretty much settled into our rhythm and worked stride for stride for much of the race.

Rob: We did perhaps run a touch too fast that first 20 mile loop but past experience has proven to me that I tend to operate a bit better working off a healthy time cushion than trying to just run an slower but more even pace that puts me right up against a time goal. Plus as it's the first "loop" it's good to scope the whole loop out at a good run pace to see what kind of course we're dealing with; which areas were great for striding out and which needed to be taken with a bit more caution. Turns out the Long Haul course had plenty of variety: from flat as a pancake asphalt stretches to rough single track torn up by wild hogs. However, the balance was on fairly nice packet dirt/sand double track trail. There wasn't a single "hill" on the loop though there were a few undulations. The most technical section came near the beginning and end of each loop where the single track route went literally right through and across a swampy area. Thankfully race staff constructed, at the last minute, a series of plywood sheet "bridges" and even a more elaborate log and plywood bridge you see in the photo above. Amazing folks. Without the bridges we'd been going through waist deep water twice every 20 mile loop. Refreshing as it sounds it would have slowed things down and running with wet feet can be a pain.

About ½ way into the race the temps had climbed into the mid 50s. After dumping my long sleeve layer and arm warmers earlier, I was still feeling overly warm and so took a quick minute at my drop bag to swap my t-shirt for a singlet (tank top) with Spartathlon significance.

4.  The singlet I’d packed happened (not exactly by coincidence) to be the same one I wore during my Spartathlon DNF (did not finish).

I thought the symbolism would bring me strength, but the journey to qualify was about to get harder!

After 20 miles, we were 35 minutes ahead of pace. With the walking breaks, we were averaging around 10 minutes/mile. At that pace we felt comfortable we could maintain the 35 minute cushion to the finish. But we might have been a little overconfident and without realizing it we’d slowed down. With about 14 miles to go we realized our cushion was nearly gone. We’d need to maintain our current pace over the last 14 minutes to hit the 10:30 qualifying standard!

Rob: That was such a strange realization to find that the clock time didn't jive with my own perception of pace and distance covered. What happens, I believe, as that once you get locked into a given race pace it becomes sort of a rut. Your range of leg motion, breathing rate all get fixed in place. This is the danger of "running by feel" in a race and not keeping track of mileage milestones to check pace. So, going by feel we started to fatigue and so going by that we naturally slowed to maintain our perceived level of effort! Instead, as any runner knows, you have to increase effort the further you are along in a race just to maintain pace! We weren't doing that!

It was almost as if putting that singlet on signified the burden and emotional weight of my past Spartathlon DNF. As if that shirt, or the Greek Gods, or my head, or whatever, was forcing me to really work if I wanted to qualify and stand under the Acropolis in 2014 with a clean slate.

There are no guarantees in life, and in ultrarunning there is always the risk of a lull in energy and slowing pace. So when we saw we were right on the line, it definitely caught our attention. I remember a distinct “oh shit” moment, and where we’d been chatting and having a good time for most of the race up until then, we now went quiet and the pace quickened significantly. We were now running probably 8:00-8:30/mile and walking at a brisk 4+ mph (still at 8:2 run/walk ratio, sometimes less walking if we had to stop for water bottle refill).

Rob: Right, so I've been in this "racing rut" in the past and knew what we needed to do. Speed up! Sounds counter-intuitive and impossible that late in the race but I've found that just stretching the legs out; increasing range of motion on my stride, really helps loosen things up and you feel better. And when you feel better you can run faster. So on one of the next run sessions I proposed we pick the pace back up to ~8:00-8:30 for the next 8 minutes. Yes the first few minutes were rough but amazingly my legs felt soooo much better! Believe it! Try it next time you're in a rut you might just surprise yourself that yes you can increase your pace even late in a race.  I won't say it was easy as I fully dreaded every time Bryce would say "Ready to run again?" NO, but what choice did we have!

After several miles we could see we’d gained back some time, and allowed ourselves to relax a bit. Mentally, at least. Physically, we more or less kept that quickened pace up to the finish.
We’d previously agreed to finish on our own terms rather than cross the finish in a hand holding Kumbaya moment, and with 3 miles to go Rob was feeling antsy and opened it up on me. At that time we were in 2nd and 3rd place, and close enough to Mike Crowder in 1st that Rob though he’d give it a go. My give-a-shitter had apparently broken a mile or two back and I let them both go. I was still going to finish well under the 10:30 qualifying standard, and barring unforeseen problems under 10 hours.

Rob: Sorry about that Bryce. Just my innate competitive instinct and this delusion that we were rapidly eating into the 100km leader's gap ahead of us (we weren't). I've done enough long distance races to know that if you can finish strong there is ALWAYS the chance of catching the competition ahead of you. Never fails, but it's a tough road!  Anyhow with 3-4 miles to go I kept running right through our timed walk break and ran all the way to the end. Just before the last technical crossing of the swamp bridges I caught up to Brian Teason (100 mile). Unfortunately for Brian I think I caused him to loose concentration for a moment as he tripped over a root and went sprawling on the sandy ground. I stopped to see that he was ok but he waved me on. So I poured on the speed as best I could thinking that if I'd caught Brian, who had had quite a gap on Bryce and me, that perhaps I might still catch Mike the 100km leader. But as I was cruising down the paved levee to finish my last 20 mile loop I saw Mike coming back the other direction already on his last 2 mile out and back leg. He had a healthy gap on me, perhaps a bit over a mile? But I kept cruising along anyhow as it honestly felt good to stretch the legs. And, frankly, I just wanted to be done! So I hit the turnaround, got my black bracelet (they gave runners a new rubber bracelet each time they left the start finish area to make it obvious for volunteers what loop you were on) and hammered (relatively) the last 2 mile out and back in 15:00 flat. Not near enough to catch Mike but it was sure fun trying!

We finished with a quick 1 mile out and 1 mile back after our 3rd 20-mile loop, and there were lots of high fives as Mike, Rob and I all passed each other coming in and out of the turnarounds. Ultimately Rob (2nd) fell about 6 minutes back from Mike (1st), and I (3rd) fell about 3 minutes back of Rob.

I did it! We did it! Pending approval/acceptance of our race entries, we were going to Spartathlon!

Rob: Yes we did it! So awesome! I honestly had no doubt that I could handle a sub-10:30 100km but actions speak louder than words; I still had to DO it. So many unknowns and reasons to doubt yourself on such a crazy, kamikaze-like adventure like this. Am I in good enough shape? Is the course overly difficult and slow? Will I be able to keep my stomach together, eat enough, drink enough.... Honestly everything happened so fast that I really didn't have time to think only DO. Sometimes I think that's the best approach; like removing a band aid, just rip it right off!

We finished around 5pm, and since I had a 6:45am flight on Sunday we didn’t linger around the finish area long. We did, however, have just enough time to thank Jen and Leanne once again for putting on a great race. I also had the distinct pleasure of chatting up ultra race timing extraordinaire Mike Melton. I’d seen some of his musings and commentary on the ultra list, and really enjoyed getting to chat with him for a while.

Before I knew it, I was back on a plane heading home. On layover, I wasted no time pulling up the official results and submitted my Spartathlon application.

The carrier pidgeon is now off, and I just have to wait and see if I’ve been accepted. The automatic messaging system informed me I’d be notified within 15 days. So, if everything is on level, I should know by Monday, February 3rd at 11:28am. Not that I’m counting down or anything ;)

Rob: Yep, it's all over but the waiting game. As I write this over a week later (I'm not very quick with race reports, heck I had to steal Bryce's report just to get one out!) I too am waiting an answer. I'd already applied when entry first opened up just to hold my slot. I was hoping they'd accept my Badwater 135 finish result but as soon as I got home I e-mailed the race staff giving them my updated 100km qualifier. 

Good luck Bryce! Hope to see you at the Acropolis early on the morning of Friday, September 26th!

Photo credits for 2nd and 3rd pictures: Arden Meyer