Thursday, July 24, 2014

Mt. Mitchell Double Ascent

Several weeks ago a friend of mine (Karl) asked me if I was planning on doing any big climbs in preparation for Leadville this year.  While I had thought about it, I hadn't gotten around to actually planning anything and probably wouldn't have.

Karl suggested we drive to Black Mountain and run to the top of Mt. Mitchell.  Twice.  There is a trail that runs from the Black Mountain Campground to the top of Mt. Mitchell, which is the highest point east of the Mississippi River.  The trail is approximately 5.5 miles long with a low point of 2,995 feet and a peak of 6,684, for a total elevation gain of 3,689 feet.  On top of that, it is a pretty technical trail.  Naturally, I said yes.  Who wouldn't want to do that?  Besides, it was a great way to simulate the double crossing of Hope Pass between miles 40 and 60 of Leadville.  Well, as good a way as us east coasters are going to get.

So at 4am we left Raleigh for the 4-ish hour drive to the Black Mountain Campground.  We arrived shortly after 8am, got our gear together, made a pit stop, and headed for the trail head.  The campground office, store, and restrooms are conveniently located between the parking lot and the trail, which made the morning much more pleasant.

We started off at a light jog, and very soon the trail pitched up.  Like a couple of morons, we kept running for the first little while in a gross overestimation of our abilities.  Very quickly it became apparent that this "run" was going to be a power hike to the top.  We slowed our pace to a brisk walk, which was as fast as we could manage with the incline and the roots and rocks that were omnipresent.

As we were getting an early start, we kept rounding corners and finding patches of young hippies and hipsters camping just off the trail in campsites of varying complexity and sophistication.  Many of them were just beginning to stir and seemed as surprised to see us as we were to see them.

As we climbed higher we encountered fewer hippie nests until we were very alone on the mountain.  We got extremely lucky with the weather.  We chose July 5th for our adventure, not because of the holiday, but because that was when it fit with my training schedule.  Normally July in North Carolina is hot.  Hot and steamy.  Stupid hot.  Not today.  It never got out of the 60s and at times became downright chilly.  This was right up my alley as I function much better in colder weather.

The trail is marked by blue blazes, which should be easy enough to follow, but we managed to miss a turn on the way up and added another half mile to our first trip.  This was a minus, plus, minus situation.  The first minus was the extra half mile.  The plus was that the gradient was a little more gradual.  The second minus was that the trail was WAY more overgrown than the more direct route, and at times I joked that I felt like I was running the Barkley.  (Side note:  I am VERY aware that climbing Mt. Mitchell on a marked trail is no comparison to Barkley.  I'm not a moron.)

Eventually we met back up with the blue trail.  Fortunately, Karl had studied the route and knew about the split and that it would rejoin, so we didn't have to back track.  I was in no way prepared and was relying completely on his knowledge.  He will be crewing and pacing for me in Leadville next month so I figured it would be a good opportunity to put my trust in him.  That and I'm lazy and disorganized.

We made it to the top in about two hours.  We posed for a picture and explained to some tourists what we were doing, which made them feel lazy and us feel superior.

After that we hit the rest rooms, refilled our bottles, and headed back down.  I was excited to go down because I knew it would be a rest from a cardio point of view.  We ran when we could but had to hike most of it because of all the rocks and roots.  I didn't want to risk a fall and an injury that could sideline my training.  The trip down seemed to go much faster than the trip up, but in reality was only about 10 to 15 minutes faster.

We got to the car, refilled bottles, sat for a few minutes and ate, then headed back up.  Not too far into the return trip I began to feel nauseated.  I could tell I was running out of gas and pushing too hard.  Karl was beginning to open up a gap.  He noticed it too and asked if I was okay and slowed his pace.  Here is where I learned a valuable lesson.  I dialed my pace back just a bit and made myself eat a gel and drink some water.  Sure enough, in just a few minutes, I began to feel better.  Aha!  Nutrition and hydration are important.  Who knew?  Oh, wait.  Everyone knows that.

After that, I got my second wind and began to feel really good.  In fact, I felt as though I was getting stronger as the day progressed.  We made it back to the top, this time taking about two hours for the slightly shorter, steeper trail.  We hit the snack bar, watched the tourists, posed for another picture, and headed back down the mountain.

The woman who took this one asked if we were brothers.  Nope, just a couple of morons with matching beards.
As we left the summit for the second time, I was feeling great and excited to only have 5.5 miles to go, all of it down hill.  We didn't run very much at all, but just hiked as quickly as we could.  What I discovered is that I can power hike on a rugged trail as fast or faster than I can "run" it.  We hammered down the trail, passing people that we had seen earlier in the day.  Some of them we passed as many as three times.

As we got closer and closer, I got faster and faster, feeling more and more encouraged and excited.  I also realized this was my one chance to train on a mountain before Leadville, and I wanted to push myself as much as I could.  When we were about to bottom out, the trail smoothed out and allowed for running, so I broke into a fast run for the last quarter mile or so.  It felt great to open it up.  I felt light and strong and happy.  Karl was right behind me as we reached the dirt road that led back to the camp ground and the car.

We loaded into the car as quickly as we could and headed out.  There is no cell phone service at the trail head, and we wanted to let our families know we were alive and on our way home.  We had to drive for about twenty minutes before we finally got service. 4 hours later we found ourselves back in Raleigh.  We had started at 4am, driven 4 hours, run/hiked over 22 miles in just over 8 hours with a total elevation gain of 7,378 feet and a total elevation loss of 7,378, and driven 4 hours home. It made for a long day, but an amazing adventure.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Failure, Leadville and Life

Let’s face it, nobody likes to fail.  I sure as hell don’t.  We’ve all done it and will continue to do so.  Failing is an essential part of growth and learning.  The way I see it failure is divided into two categories.  The first is honest failure.  The second is bullshit, rationalized, half-assed attempts that were bound to fail from the beginning and do indeed result in failure.  True growth and self-reflection come only from honest failure.  Sometimes when we’re scared that we’ll fail we hold back and don’t give it our all so that when we fail we can take comfort in the “fact” that if we had really tried we wouldn’t have failed.  We don’t grow and learn when we engage in this self-deception. 

For the last two years the Leadville Trail 100 Run has been an honest failure.  It has been an experience that has taught me more about myself than I could have ever anticipated.  I gave it my all and fell short. I picked myself up, redoubled my efforts, gave it my all and fell short.  Again.

When I DNF’d at Leadville last year I was far more upset than I let on.  I was humbled and embarrassed.  My overblown and extremely fragile ego was badly bruised.  As a result I never wrote a proper race report and even took down this blog for several months.  It was only with time and perspective that I have come to recognize my repeated failure to finish Leadville as the truly amazing life experience that it has turned out to be.  Had I finished without any struggle, it would have been cool but would not have meant as much.

To paraphrase Thomas Payne, “That which we achieve too easily, we esteem too lightly.” 

I am back in the heat of preparing for my third attempt at Leadville and have had a lot of time to reflect on what went wrong, both during and after the race.  So, let’s start at the beginning. 


After I DNF’d in 2012 I hired Scott Weber as a coach.  He has been coaching LT100 runners for a very long time and has an intimate knowledge of the course.  I followed his plan to the letter for 50 weeks, running close to 3,000 miles.  I got stronger, faster, and lighter.  Along the way I shattered my PRs at both the marathon and 100 mile distance. My coach thought I was ready, and I tried my best to believe him.  I purchased a hypoxic system from Hypoxico and spent as much time as I could in it in the weeks leading up to the race.  I meticulously planned and organized my gear and nutrition and created spreadsheets for Wendy to use as she crewed for me.  (We decided that we wouldn’t take the kids along.  While we love them, and they are great kids, trying to crew a 100 mile race in the Rockies with two young children was a freaking nightmare.)  We planned, we strategized, we packed and finally jumped on a plane Thursday before the race.


We flew non-stop and arrived around 10 o’clock Thursday morning.  We picked up a rental car, grabbed some lunch, and headed west.  We stopped and spent the night in Silverthorne (Elev. 8,730 feet).  I went for an easy 3 mile run to shake things out and felt encouraged about how good I felt.  We got up extra early Friday morning to drive the rest of the way to Leadville. My plan was to get to packet pick up as early as possible and weigh in before breakfast.  I didn’t want a full belly to increase my weight since they will compare the weight taken at packet pick up to med checks throughout the race.  Runners losing more than 7% of their body weight would be pulled from the race.  I arrive and weighed in at a whopping 138lbs.  (15lbs less than the previous year.)  After that we headed to the Tennessee Pass for breakfast and a meeting with Coach Weber.  I ate lots of food and soaked up as much advice from Scott as I could.  He was very confident that I would finish because I had, as he said, “done the work.”  Somewhere in the back of my mind I don’t think I believed him. 

After breakfast we checked into our room on the third floor of the Delaware Hotel and then headed out to the pre-race briefing.  This year they had moved it from the 6th Street Gym so we ended up walking down to the school.  It was much the same as last year with speeches, warnings, laughter, cheering, excitement, and lots of very fit, super hydrated people with little access to restrooms.  Good stuff.  After the briefing we headed back to the Delaware to prep my drop bags and organize all my nutrition and gear.  In the lobby we bumped into ultra running legend Marshall Ulrich.  He was super nice and friendly and agreed to pose for a picture with me.  We chatted for a while, and I came away being really impressed with what a nice guy he was. 

After dividing up all the gear and deciding what to put in which drop bag, we headed out to drop off the bags and then recon the course  and pick locations where I would meet Wendy at the aid stations.     Then dinner and back to the room for an early night.


I woke up at 3am, ate, drank water, took care of business, and got dressed.  Wendy and I headed down and loaded up the car, and I wandered over to the start line.  After a quick kiss for luck and a photograph I was off into the corral to find my place and await the shotgun blast.

START TO MAYQUEEN (0-13.5 miles)

I started close to the front and off to the right to avoid getting caught up in the crowds.  Just before 4am the national anthem was blared through the cold, dark air, we were made to promise not to quit, and a shotgun blast sent us off into the Rockies in the clear, dark night.  The first part of the run is downhill, and the trick is to stay steady and not get caught up in the excitement and run too fast.  We ran down 6th Street, turned left, then right, and headed out of town on a wide dirt road.  The dust from the other runners was so heavy in the air that the beam from my headlamp made everything look hazy.  I was eating and drinking regularly, better than the previous year anyway, and feeling pretty good.  I wanted to be farther up in the group than last year to avoid the worst of the conga line around Turquoise Lake so I made sure not to lollygag too much. 

Right about the time we finally hit the single track around the lake I felt an all too familiar urgent, hollow gurgle in my stomach.  I knew I needed to relieve myself but didn’t see a great place to step off the trail and into the woods.  I kept telling myself that I would find a good spot in a minute.  I never did, and by the time I got to May Queen the moment had passed.  I no longer had to go, but my stomach was not right either.  I had missed my window.  Take away lesson:  There is no perfect place to crap in the woods during the opening miles of a race with 1,000 people.  Don’t wait for the perfect place.  You won’t find it, and you’ll just end up miserable and screwed. 

Despite my GI issues I made it to MQ right on time for my target pace, found Wendy, swapped bottles and nutrition, and headed out.


Other than my stomach issues, I was feeling okay.  I was drinking and taking nutrition on schedule and still moving well.  I made good time along the Colorado Trail and up to Haggerman Road.  I ran most of Haggerman up to the logging road, still feeling good and starting to pass people.  Once on the logging road I began a brisk walk and ran occasionally up to the top of Sugar Loaf at just over 11,000 feet. I felt much better than in 2012 and was beginning to think I could actually finish.

The summit came sooner than expected, and I began the LONG descent down Power Line hill and finally popped out on the road, took a right, and headed down toward the next aid station at mile 24.  (They moved it from Fish Hatchery to a field about a half a mile down the road.)

As I came into the aid station my stomach was off but I was still moving well, eating, drinking, and had energy.  I was also still on pace for a 28 hour finish.  I found Wendy, who was exactly where she said she’d be.  Next to her was Coach Weber.  I ditched my long sleeve shirt, got some band aids for my nips (should have done that before I started), grabbed fuel, and headed off.


Not to sound too negative, but this is my least favorite part of the race.  Runners follow the road for a couple of miles before heading back into the woods.  While the scenery is beautiful, it is very open, which makes it seem like you aren’t moving at all.  On top of that the traffic was really terrible in and around the aid station.  Runners could barely get down the road in places because of all the crew vehicles.

In 2012 I was shot and walked most of this section of the course.  Last year I alternated a decent run/walk pace and was feeling tired but okay.  Then around mile 27 I puked.  I mean puked.  It hit me out of nowhere.  One second I was running along, the next I was bent over desperately trying to expel everything I had eaten for the last 18 months.  I shook it off and kept going, but I could tell my stomach was off.  Things were begging to head south.   I made it to Half Pipe, refilled my bottles, and kept going.  I was still ahead of the previous year's pace at this point but was working much harder than I should have been.


I headed out for the 10 miles to Twin Lakes, the lowest point of the race at 9,200 feet.  Things weren't going well.  I was moving but continuing to slow down.  The last couple of miles are down hill, but my legs were shot and I was out of gas.  I finally stumbled down the steep embankment into the Twin Lakes aid station, checked in, got some soda, and found Wendy and Coach Weber.


Here, I sat down for the first time.  My stomach was off, and I felt terrible.  I had fallen badly behind pace and knew things weren't looking great.  My coach told me the cold, hard truth that statistically things weren't looking good for a finish.  No shit.  I drank some pepto and headed out with fresh bottles.

It was hot, and I was hot, but I didn't realize it.  I'm from the south where we mix our heat with oppressive humidity that you have to wade through.  When you're hot in the south you are dripping with sweat and your clothes are soaked through.  I wasn't dripping, so I just assumed I wasn't that hot. WRONG.  The air is so dry that the sweat was evaporating as soon as it made an appearance.  In hind sight, that was one of my biggest problems.  I was completely dehydrated; I just didn't realize it at the time.

I power walked across the flats before the climb up Hope Pass, feeling hot and a little dizzy.  As soon as the trail sloped upwards I started puking again.  Let me tell you that a mixture of pepto bismol and perpetuem spewing violently out of your mouth is a decidedly unpleasant sensation on every level.  I ate another gel, had some more drink, and immediately puked again.  This would be a recurring theme as I climbed Hope Pass.

The good news is that my breathing was better and my head wasn't swimming like last year, so all the time in the tent from Hypoxico seemed to have helped.  It took me FOREVER to make it to Hopeless Aid station.  I was so hot and so exhausted that when I got there I sat down and immediately drank about 40 ounces of water.  I started to feel better, gathered my things, and pushed on toward the summit of Hope Pass, one half mile and 600 vertical feet away.


A few dozen yards above Hopeless I stopped and looked at my watch.  I was hours behind schedule. I was supposed to be on my way back from Winfield by now.  I knew what was going to happen.  I knew that I could make it over the summit and down to Winfield, but I also knew I wasn't going to make the cut off there.  Because Wendy was waiting for me back at Twin Lakes and there was no cell phone coverage in Winfield, I knew I'd have to thumb a ride and try to catch up with her.  I knew all of this would take hours.  If I just turned around and headed back down the mountain, I could be back in the hotel in a couple of hours.  I stood there, at 12,000 feet, with the wind whipping around me and the sun beating down on me and said out loud, "I quit."  I took about three steps back down the mountain in the direction from whence I had just come and stopped.  It was wrong.  I thought of my son.  I was not going to go home and tell him I quit.  I couldn't.  What kind of example would I be if I showed him it was okay to quit when things are hard and the outlook is bleak?  What kind of father would that make me?  Not one I wanted to be.  I knew the odds of beating the cut off were small, but I also knew that there was zero chance of a finish if I quit.

With renewed purpose, I turned around and headed up and over Hope Pass.  As I crossed the summit at 12,600 feet, I didn't even pause to take in the scenery.  I headed down the mountain as quickly as I could.  That last half mile went really well.  I was freshly hydrated and highly motivated by the thought of my son waiting at home to hear how I did.  I even made good time for the first quarter of a mile or so heading down Hope Pass.  Then I started feeling lethargic again, and I could feel my energy draining.  I was still not able to take any nutrition and was moving on an empty tank.

Long story short, I missed the cut off at Winfield again.  This time by just a few minutes.  I thumbed a ride with a fellow runner and his extremely nice family, met Wendy, and headed back to the hotel to shower and wallow in my own self pity.


I really started to think a lot about failure after I DNF'd at Leadville the first time.   It made me angry and sad and motivated and depressed and inspired me to try harder.  That’s what I did.  I tried harder. I ran farther. I did more, and I went back.  I had the same results as the year before.  My failure to finish Leadville on my second attempt unhinged me in many ways. 

Sure I was still a loving husband and father with a good job that I don’t hate, but something in me had shifted.  I began to question why I ran.  I was embarrassed by my failure.  I had told all my family and friends I was going to run this race and finish it and had given it everything I had and come up short.  I had written extensively about it on this blog and had more Facebook posts about it than I’m proud to admit.  When I failed to complete the race for a second time, it felt like a very public failure.  I was humiliated and defeated.  So much so that I couldn’t bring myself to really talk about it or write about it and even took this blog down for several months.  Even when I put it back up I wrote a halfhearted, halfassed race report that, but for a few nice pictures, isn't worth looking at. 

Almost a year of self reflection brings me back to honest failure and what one can learn from putting it all out there and falling short.  What can we learn when we believe with all our hearts that we can accomplish something and throw everything into it with everything we have and still come up short?  That failure is not anything of which to be ashamed.  That failure is beautiful.  If you let it, it will teach you more about yourself, about who you really are, than all of your success stories.

I have, with time, come to embrace and relish my two failures to complete Leadville.  Sure a buckle the first time out would have been nice, but then I would never have learned not to fear failure.  I am no longer ashamed.  I am proud of my failure because it was an honest failure at a bold attempt.  I tried to do something that most people think is insane.  (By most people, I’m referring to normal humans, not my fellow ultrarunners.)  To set lofty goals and reach for them and fail spectacularly is better by far than to eek out a mundane existence, all the while sitting at your desk and daydreaming like a modern day Walter Mitty. 

As clich├ęd as it may be, as I step ever more soundly onto the shores of  middle age, I have begun to question many of my decisions in life.  I have realized that too many of them have been made out of a fear of rejection, a fear of failure.  As I move forward my goal is to be honest with myself about what it is in life I truly want and to go after those things, even if they are scary, even if there is a better than average chance of failure.  To follow one’s dreams wherever they lead, to tilt quixotically at whatever one’s windmill may be, to put one’s self out there with everything, and to fail publicly and openly is truly liberating.  

That being said, I am not quitting my job and running away to join the circus.  I will, however, go to Leadville again this August and gallop full speed, with wreckless abandon, toward my own personal windmill.  I have sacrificed a lot over the last year to get ready for this race and will continue to do so until I can say that I have finished it or it has finished me.  My promise is to be fully honest, both with you and myself, about this journey.  No matter what the end result, I'm sure it will make for a great story. Again.