Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Mesquite Canyon 50k Trail Race

For the past few years I've been telling my aunt and uncle in Cave Creek, AZ, that I would visit them, its been five years since my last trip. I fulfilled that promise and also discovered an amazing new trail race -- the Mesquite Canyon Trail Runs in the White Tank Mountain Regional Park in Waddell, AZ. Having been to AZ many times before I can say that March is probably the best time to visit. By this time of year storms have dropped lots of rain turning dry washes into raging rivers and transforming the desert into verdant oasis. Giant saguaro cactus suck the water out of the ground like sponges and swell up big and fat. Grasses and weeds cover the valley floors to the point where my uncle fired up the weed-whacker just before I arrived. In the later part of March the mountain sides are littered with brightly colored flowers with certain species dominating some areas while other species take root in topographies with different soils and terrain. For example you can be on a trail and see a patch of bright orange poppy flowers, and then after dropping in a small gorge 100 feet away you might come across a dense patch of white flowers. It seems like there's an intense struggle going on that's precipitated by rain, and ending when the sun kills everything that can't stand the heat. That's why it's the perfect time to plan hiking trips and trail races through the desert mountains.

My aunt Jane had spring break off from her teaching job. I flew into Phoenix on Wednesday so that we could do some hiking before my race on Saturday 3/20/10. On Thursday we drove to the White Tank park because Jane had never been there and I wanted to get a better sense of what I was up against. I was so taken by the beauty of this place that I didn't want to stop hiking, and kept following along the race course. After about 5 hours we had covered about 10 miles. As we drove home I thought maybe that wasn't the smartest thing to do before a rugged 50k trail race. I was feeling a little tired and hoped that my body could recover in 36 hours. In order to help things along I bought a 10 lbs. bag of ice and dunked my legs in Jane's
Japanese soaking tub. After a total of 15 minutes in ice cold water, going in and out every few minutes, I called it quits. I was also abstaining from drinking alcohol until after the race. Having toured the trails and studied the topo maps and elevation profile I felt that I had a pretty good mental image of the entire 50k course. While hiking on Thursday I also received a disturbing email from the race director saying that the park wouldn't allow them to use a vehicle to transport water out to the most remote aid station. Instead they would carry 6 gallons of water out there for emergency purposes only. This meant that we would be going more than 9 miles between stations, and we needed to be prepared. Luckily I had packed my 1.5L hydration pack and 2 hand held water bottles on the trip. We were allowed one drop bag at mile 14 but that didn't seem all that helpful.

The White Tank park is vast with many tall mountains rising up to about 4000 ft from the desert valley floor at 1400 ft. Over the ages water has run through the mountains cutting out
rugged canyons with names like Mesquite, Goat, Willow, and Ford. The park offers basic amenities including camping, bathrooms, and a visitors center. The single track trails are professionally maintained and perfect for trail running and mountain biking.

When the race started at 7:00am the air felt chilly and the temperature must have been in the mid 40s. I wore a short sleeve tech shirt as a base layer and my Trail Monster singlet on top of that. I figured that I would ditch the shirt and a pair of cotton gloves at the drop bag location. At the start I left my hand-held bottle empty except for a good dose of chia seeds which I planned to fill with water when I reached the
Mesquite Canyon aid station in the mountains. I also wore a pair of REI Trail Running Gaiters knowing that I would encounter lots of sand and tiny rocks. About sixty other people started the races with me which I thought was pretty good considering this was the first year. The first and last couple of miles of the 50k course take place on the valley floor where everything is flat and easy. There are two major climbs in the order of 1500 to 1700 ft each. The first climb was very runnable with a moderate slope and mostly smooth trails, only a couple sections were too steep and rocky to run. The first 1700 ft descent from the peaks to the valley floor dropped me down a very rugged and steep trail. I had a lot of fun with this section since I still had fresh legs and made good progress with short choppy steps and fast turnover. I was able to pass a few people who took a more cautious approach to the downhills. I ran for about 2.5 hours to the drop bag aid station at mile 14. I had consumed the contents of my hydration pack by then and needed to refill. That's also when I started eating a little food and popped my first Succeed S-cap pill. Until then the temperature in the mountains had been nice and pleasant with the shadows of the mountain peaks keeping the trails cool. But once in the flat valley in the midst of sandier trails the temperature became uncomfortable. Ahead of me was a long nasty slog up 1700 ft on very steep and rocky trails. In the absence of much vegetation it seemed like the sun reflected off the jagged rock surfaces much more intensely, making this one of the hottest parts of the course. After a couple miles of this torture I felt totally drained. Drinking Gatorade didn't make me feel much better so I took another S-cap. This made me feel better almost instantly and I realized that I needed to be taking one pill every 30 minutes instead of 60. Higher into the mountains things turned greener, the trails smoothed out, the temperature dropped, and I was able to run slowly. Finally after cresting the highest point and knowing the worst was behind me I had completely gained my strength back. The next 4 miles leading up to the mile 23 aid station were the fastest and most exhilarating. The smooth trail sloped downward slightly and followed the contours of the Mesquite Canyon walls snaking back and forth. After passing a couple guys I lead a pack of four people. Normally I like to run alone in ultras but in this case we were like a runaway freight train cruising down a track. After reaching the Mesquite Canyon aid station again I handed my pack and bottle to volunteers to fill with water and Gatorade, while I drank 2 cups and ate a few orange slices. The next aid station was about 5 miles away, and up ahead was a pretty rugged climb, and then a descent through the Ford Canyon. This section included some of the most technical trails on the 50k course.

As described on the White Tank Mountain web site, “infrequent heavy rains cause flash floodwaters to plunge through the canyons and pour onto the plain. These torrential flows, pouring down chutes and dropping off ledges, have scoured out a series of depressions, or tanks, in the white granite rock below, thus giving the mountains their name.”

Here the trail follows along the very bottom of Ford Canyon. At its headwaters in the mountains a runner enters easily by hoping down a bank and into a wide sandy wash. While running in this sandy section I was reminded of running in the snow back home. The complexion of the area quickly turns to white and hot. Slowly the wash begins to narrow and the canyon walls grow taller and steeper. More and more rocks appear in the bed of the wash until eventually after two miles I'm scrambling over and around nothing but huge totally smooth white granite boulders. After 5 and a half hours the air is hot and everything looks bright. While in the depths of the Ford Canyon I passed 5 guys who had been reduced to walking. My strength was good after religiously swallowing my S-cap pills and taking-in liquid. I asked some guys how they were doing and if they needed anything but none accepted my offer. Then suddenly my hydration pack stopped working and I thought there might be a kink in the line. However, after coming to a full stop and unscrewing the lid I realized that I was empty, and the volunteer at the last aid station didn't completely fill the bladder. Now all I had left was half-full water bottle, and the end of the canyon was nowhere in sight. At that point nothing mattered except for getting out of that canyon and reaching the next aid station before I ran out of water.

But then as I came up close to the canyon wall I noticed something move inside a crack in the rocks. A big lizard, maybe a
Gila Monster, was staring straight at me. I had seen many tiny lizards scampering across the trails all day but nothing was as big as this guy who was about a foot long from head to tail. I felt that it was my duty as a Trail Monster to stop and take a picture of one of my brothers.

When I had one gulp left in my bottle I was still scrambling down rocks, the valley floor was still a ways off, and the aid station was nowhere in sight. I finally decided to stop as I passed a couple hikers going the other way and asked them if they could spare any water. To my surprise they said no, but that the aid station wasn't much further. As I rolled into the aid station it felt like a huge weight had been lifted and I was really happy. I immediately drank 3 cups, ate a bunch of orange slices, and asked a volunteer to fill my pack only. By then I was on the valley floor and it was an easy 2 miles to the finish. My legs, knees, and ankles all felt fine and I had good energy.

About a mile and a half from the finish line I saw a guy ahead of me take a wrong turn. I assured him that the finish line was this way. Had he kept going he would have been on the 50k course that we already ran at 7am.

I crossed the finish line in 6:38:57.

For the next hour I relived tales from the trail with fellow competitors and ate soup and more oranges. The guys who I passed in Ford Canyon finally came across the finish line 45 to 60 minutes after me. I couldn't believe how good I felt at the finish. I figured maybe it had to do with the fact that I walked up some sections and scrambled down others. I was sure that it had something to do with the way I managed my liquid and S-cap consumption. I hoped that it had something to do with my training choices and that I was well prepared. I'm absolutely convinced now that in a month I'll be ready for a 50 miler. And if all goes well, by mid July, I may be ready for another
Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Race Report: The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Miler Bear Mountain, NY

First I must give credit where credit is due. The organizers of this of this race really did a fantastic job. The level of organization is comparable to what you might find at a major marathon. The North Face Endurance Challenge at Bear Mountain is a high frills high quality event for the trail runner who is looking for a supreme challenge. I picked up my bib and packet the day before the race without a hitch. Then at 4am on race day morning I picked up my timing chip and dropped off 3 drop-bags. Each aid station was operated by at least 8 very competent and well-trained volunteers. Every time that I stopped I was able to hand my hydration pack off to someone while another person attended to my food needs. It seemed like there was always someone ready to provide medical aid, although I didn’t need any. I had one guy hand me my drop bag just as I arrived. They had every conceivable food including chicken noodle soup, potatoes and a plate of salt, bananas, oranges, gummy bears, chips, M&Ms, PB and ham sandwiches, red and blue Accelerade, water, Mountain Drew, and cola. I think I remember being asked at every aid station “is there anything else that I can get you?”

Course Marking
A crew of experienced trail runners must have spent days marking the course. There were colored ribbons placed every 30-50 ft along the entire 50-mile course. At intersections huge foam core signs were stuck in the ground and pointed the way. It was clear that the volunteers were anticipating where runners would look and might get confused. I remember coming up over a ridge once and looking down into the valley for the trail heading. Someone had placed a ribbon way up high in a tree so that it was at eye level from where I stood on the ridge.

Course Description
Bear Mountain state park takes in a vast area – the closest nearby comparator in terms of overall dimensions and types of mountains is Mount Desert Island. Bear Mountain feels a lot more rugged with a higher density of mountain ranges and just a few roads passing through. There’s virtually no development in the interior like you would find at MDI.

“Endurance challenge” is the operative term that best describes the 50-mile event; “endurance run” wouldn’t fit well. There were many times during the day when I felt running would be a luxury. I would totally agree with the rating of the course as 5 out of 5 in terms of technical terrain and overall difficulty. A lot of time was spent walking up and down steep rocky slopes and climbing cliff faces that required both hands. During the first 15 miles I would estimate that 40% of the terrain was runnable. There were at least a dozen stream crossings that could be navigated by jumping from rock to rock; and a few more places with bridges. My first pair of shoes got very muddy and wet and this is when I tripped the most and rolled my ankles. Later when I put on my second pair of shoes and 2 fresh pairs of socks I tried to keep them as dry as possible. I think this strategy worked well because I remember a few times when I did roll my feet on the rocks that the shoe slid around my foot and I could feel one sock slipping against the other. Since the shoe and sock absorbed most of the shock and not my ankle, it built up my confidence and I was able to navigate the technical terrain much faster.

Even though I was out there for 12 hours my mind never wandered. One had to really concentrate the whole time on foot placement or else you could easily trip or roll your ankle. The one really bad spill that I had occurred when I was running on a nice flat stretch of double-track and then turning onto a semi-technical trail that sloped downward. One foot caught on something and I did and end-over-end coming to rest on my back.

It seemed like there were more stretches after the Mile 21 aid station that were not treacherous. Occasionally we would get on some decent single-track or nice wide jeep roads. There was one almost surreal section between the Mile 10 and 15 aid stations where we popped out of the woods and ran on the grassy apron along the Palisades Parkway. Even though there were cars whipping by really fast in the opposite direction this was the one section where it was possible to let your guard down. The dead deer next to the side of the road reminded us that danger wasn’t far away. I also remember a couple of instances where we were actually running on old pavement. One section stemmed from a beautiful mountain lake and the other I figured was an old fire road. We ran across many bald mountain tops with scrubby brush and some places where talk grass grew.
I’m not the kind of person who cares to use a watch when I’m running. I only knew about the time was when other people were talking about it. I recall one instance that worried me though when my friend Chris Pulick from G.A.C. said we had been running for 2:45 and we hadn’t reached the Mile 10 aid station yet. I thought at this rate there’s no way we could reach the Mile 15 aid station within the 4 hour cutoff. I remember another guy saying around Mile 10 that our overall pace was 19min/mile.

Chris P. on his way down to the Mile 15.5 aid station and me on my way out

Occasionally we would come across signs of civilization – old and new. The old being massive rock 3-sided shelters with huge wooden timbers holding up the roof and overlooking beautiful mountain vistas. The new being bright tent cities and civilians hiking around with trekking poles and talking with strange New York accents.

I think it’s fair to say that none of the title sponsors, the national marketing firm that is organizing the NFEC series, or the adventure racing company that managed and directed the race truly understood the nature of their 50-mile course. Only 19 of the 86 starters (22%) completed the distance within the 13 hour time limit. The
official results provide some insight into the level of difficultly, but they don’t paint the full picture. Only 65 people made it to the Mile 26.5 aid station. I can’t say for sure how many of the remaining 21 people dropped out or didn’t make the cut-off time at the Mile 15.6 aid station. The 4-hour cutoff at mile 15.6 was supposedly expended to 4:45. One volunteer at the end of the race suggested that everyone was allowed through but that would mean all 21 dropped and I find that hard to believe. The use of timing chips and chip-mats at mile 26.5 seemed like over-kill, but it was consistent with many other aspects of the event that were over the top. It’s also ironic how the split times are reported in fractions of a second given that it took most people over 6 hours to reach Mile 26.5. The other thing the results don’t show is the guy who actually crossed the finish-line first but was disqualified because he failed to check-in at the Mile 10 aid station (a rule that was clearly explained just before the start).

My Effort
While I barely managed to make the extended cut-off time at Mile 15 in just over 4 hours, my effort was cut short after 12 hours when I reached Mile 40, 1.5 hours after the official cut-off. Although my quads were shot and energy levels were getting low, my spirits were high and there was no doubt that I had the strength to finish. Given the opportunity, and considering my rate of progress at the time, I probably could have finished in 14.5 - 15 hours. To give you a little perspective, I completed my first 50-miler 5 months ago at Stone Cat in 11:09. Despite my failure to finish this was the greatest adventure in my life to date. With the Vermont 100-miler only 3 months away, I can begin to imagine what it’s going to take.

The forecast for race day and the day before guaranteed rain and thunderstorms with a high of 63. I prepared for the worst and readied 3 water-tight drop bags with fresh socks, underwear, shorts, gloves, and a longsleeve and short sleeve technical running shirt. In my Mile 26 bag I also stuffed in a small towel, hat, and a pair of shoes. At 4am on race day morning it was about 50 degrees and it had stopped raining. A thick layer of fog had settled in and I could see lightning flashes but didn’t hear any thunder. All was well until about ½ hour after the 5am start when the skies opened up and it poured. It was a good thing that people were still bunched up at that point because our headlamps improved the visibility and people would alert others to the presence of hazards like streams or downed logs that could clothesline the unsuspecting person. My glasses fogged up so bad I could barely see what I was stepping on which was basically a stream bed with loose rocks, mud and leaves. The poor visibility was also a blessing in disguise because we couldn’t see what was ahead. The first 2-miles are relatively easy but things go vertical very quickly and runners face the longest and most difficult climb in the whole race. The first ascent is about 1100 ft vertical and involves climbing cliff faces using both hands. People really got bunched up here while waiting for those up ahead to make their way up the rocks. From above it must have looked like a bunch of jack straws laid out up the side of the mountain.

Eventually the sun came out and visibility improved. The fog however persisted for many hours and reached above the highest elevations. The rain had made everything very slippery and treacherous. It’s no wonder that people struggled to reach the Mile 15 aid station within the 4 hour time limit. The fog was also a blessing in disguise because it kept everything cool and protected us from the sun. However, that protective layer disappeared with the wind and sun by Mile 20 and things started to get hot and humid. Clouds rolled by throughout the day covering up the sun and attenuated the effects of solar radiation. The choice to consume 1 S-cap per hour (roughly) worked well for me and I felt well hydrated. There were actually a couple of times that I stopped to pee. Although I didn’t think about it during the race I would estimate the temperature got into the mid-60s. However, to my surprise, when I was getting a ride back from the Mile 40 aid station, the car’s thermometer said it was 74 degrees. I hadn’t run in weather like that for 6 months.

I started eating for this event on Wednesday. In an attempt at “carbo-loading” I ate good healthy foods that were high in protein and no carbs on Wednesday and Thursday. One day at noon I defrosted a huge chunk of venison (hind quarter cut) that my father shot the previous fall in Canada. I marinated it in my favorite teriyaki sauce for about 4 hours and grilled it that night. I reasoned that if I ate a deer’s leg that I would run like one during the race. I had invited Ian and Emma over for dinner but Emma had to work and Emma said Ian had to do their taxes before he could go play. I was glad because I got to eat the whole thing myself. On Friday I ate nothing but delicious bread and pasta.

On race day I carried 2 types of food with me. I decided to wear my North Face hydration pack instead of carrying bottles because I figured it would free up my hands and that was more important than carrying the extra weight. I had been training all winter with my pack and I knew I would be comfortable. In my bladder I mixed a pretty strong dose of Hammer’s Perpetuem powder; and I had placed extra powder in each of my 3 drop bags. This choice turned out to be a mistake. I never trained with this stuff and didn’t know how it would make me feel. During the race it didn’t seem to satisfy what my body craved so I dumped the whole concoction at the Mile 15 aid station. At the early aid stations I tried the red and blue Accelerade and found that I really liked the taste of the blue. Starting at Mile 15 I had a volunteer fill my pack with a solution of half blue Accelerade and half water. This solution really satisfied me throughout the day and helped to keep me feeling well. During the race I was also popping 1 Succeed S-cap electrolyte pill every hour or so. When I made the mistake of not balancing my electrolytes during my Stone Cat 50-miler I paid dearly for it. Although I never trained with S-caps before they really worked well and I will always use them on long runs and on hot days. Other than the Accelerade and S-caps I got the bulk of my energy from food at the aid stations. I ate the foods that I knew worked for me: plenty of chicken noodle soup, potatoes and bananas rolled in salt, gummy bears, and the occasional apple and orange slice.

Turning Point
I went through a bad-to-good turning-point shortly after the 5th aid station at Mile 26.5. This is where I planted my largest drop bag – my 20-liter sea-kayaking dry bag. Even though I knew I had a razor thin margin of making the Mile-40 aid-station on time, I dwelled here the longest. I stripped down to my shorts, toweled-off, put on a dry shirt, 2 pairs of Smart Wool socks, and a new pair of Montrail Hardrock shoes ½ size larger than normal to accommodate the socks and swollen feet. I popped 4 ibuprofen pills and grabbed my stash of S-cap electrolyte pills. During this time one volunteer filled my hydration pack, another handed me 2 cups of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, 2 cups of water, 1 cup of blue Accelerade, a fist full of gummy bears, and a couple potatoes rolled in salt. Another volunteer reattached the bib to my shirt and the timing chip to my shoe. While I scrambled back up the steep trail that I had just descended I realized that a Phil Collins tune had invaded my mind. Thinking back I vaguely remembered hearing some music playing at the aid station and figured that’s where the devil-seed was planted. Nevertheless, on the following stretch to the Mile 33 aid station my spirits were never higher, this time I skipped along the tops of rocks with confidence and passed 4 or 5 troubled souls. I attribute much of this surge to the smell of a freshly laundered shirt and the cushy shoes and socks that absorbed the shock when I rolled my ankles.

Not long after I departed from Portland on Friday morning I got pulled over for doing 79mph on I-95. When asked how fast I was going I said 80. The officer also asked if I was in a hurry for something. I guess there were other people on their way to pick up a bib number for a 50 mile race because I still got a ticket for $137.

Just as I was picking up my race packet the day before I ran into a bunch of people form Gil’s Athletic Club (G.A.C). These are the nicest people to hangout and run with. Instead of being alone the night before I went to a BBQ restaurant with 15 friends. Who else would be eating pulled-pork sandwiches and drinking beers the night before a 50-miler? I played it safe and stuck to my plan by eating the one dish on the menu that contained pasta. I had a great time running with Chris and Susan Pulick before Mile 15.5. It seemed like I ran into Cheryl Mulvie and Paula a bunch of times. I caught up to Roger Martel around 28 but then we rejoined and ran together for a mile into the last aid station at 40.

The only wildlife that I saw on the course of was a small turtle shell, or maybe it was a tortoise. It was strange because I don’t recall it being anywhere near water and it had beautiful red dots along the perimeter of the shell. I didn’t see any bears during the race but I did almost stepped in a huge pile of bear shit.

Other Reports
AnthonyP’s Race Report

Photographs by Tom Sperduto