Sunday, June 7, 2009

Feeling the Heat at Hells Hills 50

Getting the boot : my trophy from Hell's Hills

I spent all week wondering why I signed up for this race - I am not a good hot weather runner and was not looking forward to it. So when my alarm clock went off at 2am on Saturday morning I was really not in the right frame of mind for a hard 50 miler.

My goal races over the past year have been built on pre-defined race goals and strategies, nutrition plans and a lot of mental preparation. All three were absent from this race, and the extent of my preparation was deciding to run in my Asics trail shoes to give me a little weight advantage in the heat. Of course, this was not a goal race - I had earmarked it as nothing more than a training run - but it's still a 50 miler. I really shouldn't take these things so lightly.

Anyway, to the race - it consisted of three 16.7 mile loops of the "tough and rugged" mountain bike trails at the Rocky Hill Ranch in Smithville. There were also 25k and 50k races being run.

I hung around chatting to Alan Wrinkle before the 5am start, and once we got going it was cool but humid. I hadn't bothered to change the batteries in my headlamp from Rocky Raccoon because I knew it would only be dark for an hour or so, but it made the footing in the first few miles a little tricky. "I mostly disappeared into my head" I figured I would try to get some fast miles under my belt early before the heat descended, and so I found a little niche for myself near the front of the pack. Meredith had a small group of runners who had started running at 2am - they were doing 2 loops as a training run, and started their second with us. I loosely attached myself to them, but generally ran by myself. I was in a funny little mood - not very talkative - and mostly just disappeared into my head. Despite myself, I started to enjoy the run - savoring the smell of the pine and the beautiful full moon. I flip-flopped with Meredith's group for most of the loop - they would catch me and we'd run together for a while, then I would do a quick in-and-out at the aid stations and see if I could get to the next one before they caught me again. Such are the silly games by which I amuse myself at these long races!!!

But it worked. God bless 'em, they towed me to a nice 2:50 first loop. I dumped my headlamp in my drop bag, refilled my water and Gatorade and headed back out for loop number 2. I knew that I hadn't been drinking enough on that first loop, and it was a mistake that would come back to haunt me.

Loop number 2 was when things started going to hell. It was getting hot and my motivation levels kept dropping. I've run virtually all of my ultras with two handheld bottles - my two amphipods are great, but they are not insulated which means the liquid does not stay cold during the summer. I would put iced water in them, but within a mile all the ice would be gone and the water would be hot. In retrospect I should have taken my camelbak.

I ran for a while with a real nice guy from Waco called Paul, and it turns out we were both using this race as an early training run for Cactus Rose. "I want Gavin to be proud of his dad too" We chatted for a bit about the reasons we run these races, and he told me he had four daughters at home who were all at the stage where they thought daddy was the greatest, and were so proud of his running. So his motivation was that he had to make the most of it while it lasted, and he couldn't go home and tell them he hadn't finished a race. That struck a chord with me because I want Gavin to be proud of his dad too. Right now my running doesn't mean anything to him, but at some point it will.

By midway through the loop, I was draining both bottles well before I reached the next aid station, which meant I was getting into hydration deficit. Not good, and this resulted in some none-too-pleasant mild dehydration side effects (no, I'm not going to elaborate). When I left the tunnel of pines aid station, I had already started mostly walking. This meant it would take that much longer to get from aid station to aid station, so I had to start rationing the water I was carrying. This was a catch-22 which put me further and further behind the hydration 8-ball. At one point I was passed by a guy wearing a martial arts vest, then about half an hour later I was passed by what looked like the same guy. Surely I'm not that dehydrated that I'm imagining things?

I finished out the loop in around 6:40, and by now it was seriously hot - about 94F. "I teetered on the edge a few times" I spent a bit more time at my drop bag and cooler sucking down fluids, and popped a few salt caps before heading back out. I also figured out the "martial arts" puzzle - there were two guys running in the same martial arts vest, and the three of us set out together on the final loop. I was reduced to a walk interspersed with some run/shuffle while they ploughed ahead. I continued to plod forward, and tried to figure out why I wasn't running more. I came to the conclusion that it was partly mental - in my goal races, when I was tired I was always able to mentally override my body and push it. Here I just didn't care enough. But that wasn't the whole story - I was also trying not to overheat, and I know I teetered on the edge a few times. After all, I had to run a smart race in the heat just to finish the thing.

It seemed that the aid station would never appear, and I started to feel a little lightheaded - my water long since gone. Until thankfully, gloriously there it was. And there were the two martial arts guys - and they looked a lot worse than I did!!! The aid station really saved me - I filled one of my bottles with ice cold water and poured the whole thing over my head. The shock of the icy water really woke me up and invigorated me. I refilled my bottles with water, heed and as much ice as I could cram in, and downed a few cups of de-fizzed coke. Then I got ready to head out again. The martial arts #1 guy had already gone, and the other one left just behind me.

Then my competitive side kicked in - I told myself I was not going to be passed again so I took off running and put some distance between myself and martial arts #2 guy. I think martial arts #1 guy had the same idea about me because he was gone (he confirmed this when we laughed about it after the race). I had enough energy to run fairly hard for about 1.5 miles, though this wasn't all bravado - I knew that the more distance I could cover running, the less time I would have to spend without water.

Early in the day I had enjoyed the smell of pine, but it was now getting a bit nauseating. And I discovered that as the day had heated up, the heat was being absorbed by the trees and reflected down onto us runners - bugger.

I kept praying for the meadow. Although it is really exposed and crossing it would be brutally hot, it would mean I was close to the final aid station and only about 6 miles from the finish.

I felt that if martial arts #1 guy was anywhere in sight when I got to the aid station I had enough in the tank to take him on the last stretch. But he wasn't, so I guess we'll never know. I was now in that strange buffer zone where I probably wouldn't be able to catch anyone ahead of me, but nobody behind me was anywhere close enough to worry me. The only other thing I could aim for was a sub-11 hour finish. So I set off with that in mind.

Those last few miles were pure misery. The heat was getting to me, my water was quickly gone and the clock seemed to be working against me. I pushed a slow run where I could (mostly any shady section I could find), and was glad when I popped out onto the jeep road. The last portion of the run is completely unshaded, but when you're virtually at the finish line that doesn't matter so much. I sucked it up and jogged up the gravel road until I made the turn into the field and toward the finish line. I beat the 11 hour goal with about 2 minutes to spare - yes (in all the "thank god I'm done" excitement I forgot to stop my watch).

Once I finished I realized I was feeling surprisingly good, especially when I saw the state of some of the other runners. A whole bunch of friends came over to congratulate and hug me - Cheri, Joyce, Diana, Robert, Joe and several others. They were all insistent that I move into the shade and a lady came over with an ice pack which felt wonderful. Joe gave me the finisher's medal and a trophy for finishing 6th overall - something that really surprised me because I'd run horribly and really struggled. But I guess so did everyone else. I joked that it was a triumph for stubbornness over common sense, and there is more than a grain of truth to that.

Things I learned from this run
I am very stubborn, which helps compensate for my lack of natural running ability. After a tough second loop I never considered not going out for the final one. It's always good to reaffirm I can "gut it out" - good old British stiff upper lip!!!

I am not a hot weather runner - give me a frosty morning any day. This run in the heat felt harder than both the Bandera 100k and the Rocky Raccoon 100 miler. I do have a nice tan though.

I recover quickly because I am not sore at all today, though I was definitely feeling the effects of the heat and dehydration last night. Apparently I had a long conversation with Nancy that I have absolutely no recollection of. But I seem to be back to normal today. I did consider getting up early to go run hills with John and Roger, but laziness got the better of me and I slept in instead.

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