Fuego y Agua, Take 2

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The 2012 Fuego y Agua 50K was my first ultra marathon race. I had done a handful of ultra distance fun runs, but none with an entry fee and a race bib. I enjoyed the experience, but my race left a bit to be desired. Needless to say I learned a lot.

That was just the start of a breakthrough year for me. Throughout the year I raced 26 times, with 3 wins, 9 podiums, and 18 top ten finishes. I ran two more ultras, which were both huge successes for me. I was at the top of my game and I wanted to exact my revenge on the slopes of Volcan Maderas come February 2013.

Maderas

I thought long and hard before coming up with a goal. With better training, improved fitness, more ultra racing experience, and detailed course knowledge I estimated I had a realistic chance to run the challenging 50 Km course in 6 hours (significantly faster than the nearly 8 brutal hours it took last year). With last year’s 50K winner (and course record holder) signed up for the Survival Run, I figured a 6 hour time would probably be good enough for a top 3 finish, possibly even a win. Honestly, I didn’t care what place I finished, I just wanted to crush the course.

Good luck Rob

After hearing all about the race last year A group of five of my Buffalo running friends joined me in registering for Fuego y Agua this year. Unfortunately, our friend John didn’t actually make it to Nicaragua, as his son was tragically killed in a car accident days before he planned to leave. The rest of us were all thinking of John and his family throughout the trip, and we dedicated our races to them.

Travel

Granada

Granada

From three different starting points in the U.S. we all arrived in Managua at the same time. The next day we went sightseeing in Granada. The following day we made our way to Ometepe. As we were finishing a delicious lunch at the Cornerhouse in Moyogalpa two guys walked in the door and sat down at the table next to us. I immediately recognized them as elite runners Yassine Diboun and Nick Clark. I eventually worked up the courage to approach them. They were both very friendly. We briefly discussed 3 Non-Joggers (a bullshit running podcast on which Yassine is a frequent guest), Ometepe (where Melissa & I lived in 2006-2007), howler monkeys (which Melissa studied while we were there), Fuego y Agua (which I raced last year), Volcan Maderas, hydration, etc. A bit starstruck, it took me a while to process the fact that I had actually just given racing advice to a couple of the biggest names in the sport.

Concepción

The rest of the Buffalo stayed in Moyogalpa while Melissa, Will, and I took the bus to our former home in Mérida to visit with friends on the island. While there I did a short run to scope out the new 50K finish line, which was unfortunately a full kilometer further down the road than last year. It’s not like the course was really that accurately measured to begin with. More distance, more rolling hills, more bad footing. I’ll deal with it.

Maderas

Road

The next morning I took the bus back to Moyogalpa for packet pick up and the pre-race meeting. I arrived back to my hotel around 7pm. I got everything ready for the next morning, watched Unbreakable on my iPhone, and fell asleep around 9pm. Continuing my streak of 3 or fewer hours of sleep the night before an ultra I predictably woke up at midnight and laid in bed until my alarm went off at 3 AM.

Race

Just before the race began at 4 AM the organizers asked all of the Survival Run participants to move to the front, so I dropped back behind them… which was a mistake, because I immediately had to weave through them all as soon as the race began. By the time we left Moyogalpa I had caught up with the leaders and we turned onto the dusty dirt road.

The leaders.

Now, I know what you might be thinking. Rob, don’t you have a long history of starting races too fast and fading by the end?

Yes. Yes, I do.

But this was part of my plan. First, if I was going to run this course in 6 hours I would have to feel good and execute everything perfectly. I’ve done this before. Many times, in fact. I’ve also failed to execute perfectly a number of times. I was leaving no margin for error here. This was either going to be a spectacular success or a spectacular failure. Either way, I wanted the race to be spectacular. It was a huge gamble.

Second, how often does someone like me get a chance to run shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the top elite runners in the sport? I formed a lead pack with Dave James, Nick Clark, and Yassine Diboun.

Take a minute to let that sink in.

This was a once in a lifetime opportunity. We weren’t running super fast, maybe 7:15-7:30 pace. And these guys had 62 grueling miles ahead of them, whereas I had a measly 31. How hard could it be?

Last year’s race had reflective course markers for the early miles which were run in the dark. This year the course markers weren’t reflective and I didn’t see a single one of them. I remembered the course from last year. Well, I remembered it as well as you can remember a trail in the pitch black dark. Fortunately we were told there would be volunteers at every major intersection, and before we knew it we reached one. A local guy on a motorcycle sat there and instructed us to turn right. So we did.

Still no course markers to be seen. We eventually made it off the dirt path back onto the paved road. I immediately recognized this was not the place where we hit the paved road last year. So we were off the course, as was the chase group that caught up with us by this point. We made the left turn and we would eventually get back on course. Nobody had any idea where we went astray (I think the guy on the motorcycle was actually supposed to instruct us to turn left) or how far we ran out of the way (comparing my GPS data to last year’s data I computed we ran an extra ⅓ mile).

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The blue path shows the course from last year, while the red path shows our detour

A few runners were pretty upset by the apparent lack of course markings, while others didn’t seemed bothered at all. At this point we were all in the same boat, so I wasn’t panicking yet. We picked up the pace for a few miles on the paved road. Amusingly, during this stretch one of the elite runners mistook me for Dave James. We were both running at the front, both with shaved heads, no shirt, and black shorts.

I made it in and out of the first aid station quickly. After the aid station the group splintered a bit. Dave James took off on his own. Nick Clark chased him, and I chased Nick. We went up a long gradual hill, then down a steeper one. At the bottom Nick made contact with Dave just as we reached a soft sandy beach, while I remained about 20 meters back.

The beach was tricky last year, because the turn off the beach was hard to see (even when it had a reflective marking). Half the field missed the turn last year. I had barely seen the marker just in time. This year I ran with my head turned sideways so my 500 lumen headlamp could illuminate the area. I really didn’t want to miss that marker. It was the only remaining place on the course I wasn’t 100% sure about. We ran and ran and I saw nothing. We ran and ran and I saw nothing. I had a horrible feeling in my gut that we missed the turn and would have to backtrack. Eventually the beach came to a dead end at a forest. We missed it.

We ran into a couple of locals on horseback and we stopped to ask them for directions. We had a hard time communicating, but it was clear the path to Ojo de Agua was further back on the beach. But where? Eventually one of the locals turned around and lead us to it. All the while we were running into more and more people who missed the turn and now had to backtrack with us. Once we found the trail I looked around for the markers and I still didn’t see any. But at least I recognized the trail.

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The time we lost felt like an eternity, but was actually about 16 minutes. We ran 1.2 miles out of the way and we stood around for a while. Dave was pissed and took his fury out on the trail by picking up the pace to catch back up with the few who miraculously found the turn. Nick seemed to take the minor setback in stride, though he matched Dave’s acceleration. I, on the other hand, was pretty devastated by the way events were unfolding. I left zero margin for error, and after 11 miles of running I had gone off course twice, lost 20 minutes, and wasted energy I couldn’t afford to waste. Now Dave and Nick have pulled away from me for good, and I’m being caught and passed by runners who had been running a minute per mile slower than me and who were a hell of a lot less tired.

Ultra running is as much mental as it is physical, and I was struggling. I slid into a very dark place, where I would remain in purgatory for hours. I wanted to drop out of the race at the Ojo de Agua aid station at mile 15, but I knew Melissa was waiting for me at the next aid station. So I decided to at least go that far. Physically, I was doing okay. My pace felt like that of a crawl, though in reality I was still ticking off 8:30 miles.

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Looking like death warmed over

Just before the start of the climb up Maderas I saw Melissa. I explained everything that had happened and how upset I was about it all. She told me what I needed to hear to keep going. So I did. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but I was going to climb Maderas anyway. From the aid station I walked the entire thing. At first I was hiking quickly, covering the first mile in 20 minutes. Fatigue set in after about 1000 ft of climbing. Between 1000 ft and 3000 ft I was barely moving, clocking two 45 minute miles on the steep ascent. As bad as things were I was still doing better than last year.

Foo

I was eating, drinking, and taking electrolyte pills the whole time, but for some strange reason the gel I ate at 3000 ft completely snapped me out of my funk. It was like a switch had been flipped and I was a whole new person. The last 1000 ft of climbing were almost effortless. Before I knew it was descending into the crater, chugging water at the aid station, and climbing back out again.

The early parts of the descent through the jungle gym were slow, but I picked up speed the further I descended. I started to have some pain in my right knee (my good knee) so I wasn’t hammering it as fast as possible, but I was making good progress. Finally I exited the forest and I was able to run at a pretty good clip down the rest of the rocky trail, before making it out to the road, and on to the finish line. Melissa and Will were waiting there for me, and I was very glad to be done.

Map

I finished in 7h20m, 35 minutes faster than last year. My time from the start to the base of the climb was the same as last year (I ran faster, but significantly farther too). My time up Maderas was 35 minutes faster. My time down Maderas was the same. The race did not go how I wanted it to go, but it was another good learning experience.

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Back to life

My fellow Buffalo Jen was the 3rd place female in the 50K. She came in with a huge smile on her face and described the Maderas climb and descent as the most fun she’s had in ages. And then it hit me. I couldn’t have described my experience as fun. And that’s where I really blew it–not in starting too fast, not in missing turns and losing time–but in taking this amateur athletic competition just a bit too seriously and not enjoying it as fully as I could have. There’s no reason I had to go to that dark place when things went wrong. I was reminded of that again while reading Nick Clark’s race report:

Getting off course has become such a regular occurrence in my racing history that I’m barely phased by the turn of events. I’m running through a banana plantation on a volcanic island in a country that I’ve never visited before: life is pretty damn good and by crickey I’ve got all day to catch back up to those that passed through while we were wandering around on the beach.

This was the first time I had ever gone off course like that in a race. Nick was next to me the whole time for both of the missed turns. He went on to win the 100K with a new course record. I choked.

I was sorely disappointed after the race. But I’ve had a few days to put it in perspective and I’m over it. The race wasn’t all bad.

  • I ran very strong in the early miles, and I did it fairly comfortably.

  • Not only did I get the chance to meet and talk to elite runners I’ve read about for years, but I actually got the chance to run with them for 11 miles.

  • I never had the horrible cramping problems I encountered last year.

  • I wasn’t thrilled with my ascent of Maderas, but it was still significantly faster than last year.

  • Though not as high as I hoped, I still managed to squeak out a top ten placing in the 50K.

  • I’ll be better prepared mentally if I every find myself sliding into such a dark place in future races.

  • We had a great Buffalo road trip, with everyone finishing their races (Don in the 25K, Rob, Jen, Judy in the 50K, Brian in the 100K).

Buffalo!

Spectating at the USA Cross Country Championships

The 2012 & 2013 USA Cross Country Championships took place in Forest Park, about 2.5 miles from my home. I knew about the 2012 race months in advance before completely forgetting to go. For 2013 I briefly entertained the notion of running the community (i.e. non-elite) race, but given the extremely short distance (4K) and my recent training (for a 50K), it wasn’t a great fit. Instead I walked over there today to watch the elite races.

Women

The elite women ran 8K (5 miles), and multiple olympians were in the field.

Elite women start
The women start

Elite women
The leaders pulled away quickly

Shalane Flanagan leads Kim Conley
Shalane Flanagan and Kim Conley lead for the entire race

Deena Kastor
Deena Kastor in 3rd

Chase group
The chase pack

Shalane wins
Shalane wins

The race results are here.

Men

The elite men ran 12K (7.46 miles). The announcers made sure to mention repeatedly there were 10 guys who had run a sub-28:00 10,000 meter race. A huge lead pack of about 30-40 runners stayed together through the first 4 laps of 6.

Elite men start
The men start

Elite men large lead pack
Big lead pack

Dathan Ritzenhein, Chris Derrick, and Matt Tegenkamp pull away
Dathan Ritzenhein, Chris Derrick, and Matt Tegenkamp pull away with 4K to go

Chris Derrick, Matt Tegenkamp, Dathan Ritzenhein lead on the last lap
Chris Derrick, Matt Tegenkamp, Dathan Ritzenhein lead on the last lap

Second Wind runner Jeff Kelly
Second Wind runner Jeff Kelly running with the elites

Derrick won, Ritzenhein took second, Tegenkamp took third. The race results are here.

January 2012

Running

11,879 feet total ascent.

Month Distance # Workouts Avg per Workout
January 131.5 Mile 13 10.1154 Mile
Total 131.5 Mile 13 10.1154 Mile

Running 2013 1


Cycling

Ouch.

Month Distance # Workouts Avg per Workout
January 3.7 Mile 1 3.7 Mile
Total 3.7 Mile 1 3.7 Mile

Cycling 2013 1


Walking & Hiking

Burrrr.

Month Distance # Workouts Avg per Workout
January 37.64 Mile 12 3.13667 Mile
Total 37.64 Mile 12 3.13667 Mile

Walking 2013 1


Stairmaster

15,130 feet total ascent.

Month Distance # Workouts Avg per Workout
January 29.56 Mile 6 4.92667 Mile
Total 29.56 Mile 6 4.92667 Mile

Stairmaster 2013 1

SHivering Icy Trail Run

And here’s another entry from the better late than never category.

In the month before Fuego y Agua I wanted to do a tune-up race in the ballpark of 10-15 miles. On January 12 there was a large, well organized 20K (12.4 mile) race in Forest Park on pavement. It was a beautiful sunny 50˚F morning. I chose a different option. At 5pm that night I ran the SHivering Icy Trail Run (let that name sink in a minute), a trail half marathon in the dark in 33˚F rainy weather.

I chose wisely.

This wasn’t an actual race, more of a fat-ass event. There was no official entry forms or fees. But a surprisingly large group of 40-ish people showed up in just awful weather for a good time out in the woods. And several people showed up to run hard.

A group of five or six of us went off the front early. Two of us pulled away just before the first section of single track. By the end of the first section I was by myself. Back onto a gravel road a couple miles into the run I had to take off my glasses because they were fogging up. And my vision is the worst in the dark. Then I hit a new section of single track that had been added since the last time I had been to this particular trail last spring. It was very muddy and entirely off camber, so my progress slowed significantly.

Then there was the extra credit. At some point (I had no idea where) along the trail there was a cemetery. We were supposed to find the cemetery and read the name on the largest tombstone there for bonus points or something. I noticed the cemetery and found the tombstone. As I made my way back out to the trail Travis Redden caught up to me and we ran the next several miles of single track together. In all honesty, he was flying and I struggled to keep up on the technical sections in the dark.

Once we made it back out to the gravel road with about three miles to go I dropped the hammer a bit (less because I wanted to win the fat-ass event, but more because I was freezing cold). I finished in 1h43m, a few minutes ahead of Travis. As the first finisher I received a major award.

Fastest SHITR

I was cold and wet while running. The instant I stopped I got really cold… which prompted me to get straight to my car to warm up. So I didn’t stick around long. Of course, in my haste I neglected to mention the extra credit (was it Caroline?), so I guess I’ll never know what that would have been good for.

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Rob at the finish line (photo from Rock Racing)

The event was super fun. I got the hard run I wanted, along with practice running in the dark, practice running on a fairly unfamiliar trail, and practice running in shitty weather. Mission accomplished.

You can read the event organizer’s report here.

Running in the Smokies

For the past few months I’ve been training my ass off for the Fuego y Agua 50K on February 16. Last year I handled the distance fine, I handled the heat fine, but I completely fell apart on the long, steep ascent of Volcan Maderas.

Maderas
I have a score to settle with Maderas

Just as last year I’ve done lots of distance training and as much heat training as I can (in a sauna). But this year I’ve focused much more on hill training. I run as many hills as I can find. I spend a few hours a week on a stair master. I run hill repeats. But I had a feeling that might not be quite enough. The Saint Louis area is quite hilly (particularly in comparison to central Illinois), but the biggest hills we have here are around 400 ft, whereas Maderas is 4,000 ft.

Gatlinburg and Mount Le Conte
Gatlinburg with Mount Le Conte in the background

So I took a little vacation. Last weekend I drove to the Smoky Mountains, the nearest place with 4,000 ft climbs. I drove all day Friday, and got a good night’s sleep in Gatlinburg, TN. The next morning I went for an epic (by my standards) mountain run. Starting around 1,300 ft elevation I ran uphill for 3 hours to the peak of Mount Le Conte at 6,593 ft, just over 1 mile vertical ascent. The trail was around 11 miles. So I ran 5300 ft ascent in 11 miles in the same time (actually, slightly less) as it took me to race 4000 ft in 4 miles up Maderas during the race last year.

Steamy stream

Bull Head
Bull Head trail

Smokies
View from the top

It was very cold at the top, with deep snow in places, so I didn’t stick around too long. The 11 mile return trip downhill was easier physically, but it was much harder on my body. My knees were aching pretty bad by the end. There was a lot of ice-covered rock at the top which made for slow going at times. The rest was muddy.

Trail
Muddy trail

Rob
Rob ready for Maderas?

I planned to go hiking on Sunday morning before returning home, but my knees were still too sore, so I did a bit of automobile tourism. On the way home I drove one stretch of 7.5 hours, which is by far the longest I’ve ever driven non-stop. So that was something.

The least prepared I’ve ever been for a race

Better late than never.

Each fall there is a cyclocross race a half mile from my house. I missed out on racing it last season (2011) due to absent-mindedness. I almost missed out on racing it this season (2012) for the same reason. I remembered which weekend the race was, and I thought I knew which day it was on (Sunday). I just finished eating a big lunch on Saturday when I sat down on the couch to check on the start time of the race tomorrow. The race starts at 1 pm. Today. It’s 12:25 pm. I have a full stomach. I haven’t ridden my cyclocross bike in weeks. This is the least prepared I’ve ever been for a race.

I spent about three minutes deciding whether or not to go. I quickly changed clothes, grabbed my bike (which thankfully was in working order), and rode over to register for the race. By this time it was 12:50-ish.

I started mid-pack and spent the first few laps moving up. By half way through the race I could only see one guy ahead of me and I was catching up to him. With two laps to go I dropped my chain and lost some time. With one and a half laps to go I dropped my chain and lost some time. With one lap to go I dropped my chain and lost some time. I had no chance of catching up after that triple whammy.

Concordia Cross

I ended up finishing, wait for it, 3rd. Apparently there was a guy off the front who I never saw. Anyway, considering my complete and utter lack of preparedness I was quite pleased with the result.

This ended up being my last race of 2012, and it capped off what I consider to be a breakthrough year for me. I raced 26 times (not including the weekly practice crits). I had 3 wins (in 3 different sports), 9 podium finishes, and 18 top ten finishes. Furthermore I made it through such a tough year with no major injuries. Hopefully I can maintain this momentum into 2013.

Wild in the Woods – Klondike Park

In my previous four races I hadn’t finished lower than fourth place overall. The small Klondike Park 7 mile trail race two weeks ago seemed like a perfect fit for me so I went into it thinking I would probably win. That was my first mistake.

Wild in the woods klondike park
Photo from here.

I started out at what felt like comfortable pace. The first mile was on a paved path through the park. Four runners stayed together in the lead pack. I let the others set the pace. It felt slow. Just before the first mile marker we hit The First Big Steep Hill. Feeling great, and seeing the others seemingly struggle, I took the lead, thinking I would probably just finish the last six miles alone. Towards the top of the hill my watch beeped, indicating the first mile had passed. I for some reason chose not to look at my time, which I have since come to regret. I now know we ran the first mile in 6:07… including the big steep hill.

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Much to my dismay the others stayed on my heels as we entered a section of very technical single-track trail. I pushed the pace, but they all were able to follow. It was sinking in that I did not have this thing in the bag. We exited the woods together onto a wide flat crushed gravel path. I started paying attention to my mile splits, a few 6:15-ish splits in a row, as two guys pulled away from me. I was slowly beginning to pay the price for starting too fast, a tale I’ve told many times before.

There was another big hill around mile 5, which completely destroyed me. I passed Melissa & Will shortly after that. She said I looked fine, but I was totally faking it. I then entered another section of very hilly technical single-track trail. In the span of one mile my splits ballooned by 3 minutes. It felt like a death march. Another runner caught up to me from behind, got lost, caught up to me again, then passed me… which didn’t do much for my confidence.

I finished in fourth place, extending my streak of top-four finishes to five consecutive races, though this was by far the ugliest of the bunch. At some point the following will sink in:

  • Don’t start too fast, stupid.
  • Don’t underestimate a trail you haven’t run before.
  • There’s a lot of good runners out there.

Mistaken Identities

A commenter on Flickr recently suggested I look a little like German electronic music artist Paul Kalkbrenner (who I had never actually heard of before this comment). Perhaps a little.


2010 RobPaul-Kalkbrenner-2.jpg

Other random celebrities I’ve been compared to in the past 15 years include Chris O’Donnell, Kevin Spacey, Ewan MacGregor, and Ivan Basso.

Who do you look like?