Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Cutthroat Classic (Sam's version)

Stephen Mitchell: Cutthroat Classic 2012
Never the prettiest runner, here I am just cresting the top of the climb
This past weekend was the Cutthroat Classic, a trail race crossing over the Pacific Crest in the North Cascades, about a half hour from Mazama and home. The race itself is 11+ miles in length, half-up and half-downhill. The field is always an interesting mix of skiers and runners, and usually ends up as a mad dash to the top by the skiers in an attempt to maintain a lead on the heavily-switchbacked, steep five mile descent to the finish (we have never professed to be good downhill runners). I've been doing this race since its inception in 2001, when I was a junior in high school. Those first few years were rough; I had exertional posterior compartment syndrome for a few years in my late teens and so every time I raced the Cutthroat, my lower legs would go numb along with my feet, and the downhill would be a blind thumping where I would turn my ankle at least a dozen times. Not the best introduction to trail races, especially at a time when I largely despised running, anyway.

This year's race, like so many other years, started on a nice cool morning at Rainy Pass, about 4800'. The start line is right off Highway 20 and there is a 1/2 mile lead-in to the trail on road that allows for some shake-up. Without fail, as happens every year, some runner from Seattle thinks they're gonna smoke the whole field (along with those damned skiers and their huge thighs) and takes off at a breakneck pace. And, like clockwork, about 1/2 mile onto the trail (which begins in a steady climb and remains so until the Pass), they drop off pace and get swallowed. I was sitting in fifth position, enjoying the pace and waiting for MOD teammate Brian Gregg to make a break which would surely shatter the field. As expected, the early-wonder leader dropped off and we passed by him, and shortly thereafter Brian made a surge. Another guy went with him and a third got stuck in the middle. I was positioned behind Marcell McArthur, a previous winner of the race and a really solid runner; he was waiting behind the guy who blew up a few minutes before. We watched as the break took off and Brian's lead increased; I finally yelled (politely) at the guy holding us up that he'd better either catch the break or pull over, which he did (pull over). Marcell and I then took off and fought to chew up the gap between us and the lead. It wasn't to be, and I then passed Marcell and chased after the guy hanging out in no-man's land. I caught him at the first creek crossing, where he was daintily tip-toeing over the rocks. I splashed by him in the deepest part of the creek and pulled into third, where I would remain for the rest of the race.

From then on it was a solo effort; Marcell got by that guy as well and stayed about 50 seconds off me through the finish. I knew I could stay ahead of him on the climb but was convinced that he would eat up the gap through the downhill, on which I'm a complete duffer. When I hit the pass, Alan Watson (sitting on top and yelling encouragement) told me I had about 45 seconds on Marcell. I let fly on the downhill; I've run the course so many times I know exactly how many switchbacks there are and what they look like. I wanted to maintain my gap until the bottom of the descent, where there still remained a 1.5 mile flat trail push to the finish. I thought that if I could hold him off until then, I could put in a surge to stay ahead. To my surprise my legs felt better than expected on the downhill and I held my lead on Marcell. I never saw a glimmer from Brian and the second-place runner; they were probably 3-4 minutes ahead by that point. I only sought to keep my little oasis of safety as I galumphed down the trail.

As I hit the flats I really opened it up and tried to remember all the running technique that Alison has taught me over the last few years. Hips forward, fast cadence, footstrike on the balls of the feet. I had a massive blister which I could already feel enlarging on my heel so I was just as happy to keep the load off that part of my foot. As I hit the last turn before the finish I knew I'd hold my position and charged the bridge over Cutthroat Creek that lay 100m before the line, enjoying the cheers of the crowd. My time was 1:18:21, over three minutes faster than last year.

The last five years I've used the Cutthroat as a mid-summer fitness marker, a way to gauge the progress of training and aerobic conditioning on the eve of fall and real specific preparation for the racing season. Since 2008 I've happily and consistently dropped my times in the race; I started in 2008 at a time of 1:25:31, over seven minutes slower than last Saturday. What this shows for me is a dramatic improvement in aerobic conditioning; we don't attempt to peak or taper at all for this race, but instead place it in the midst of regular training. What this meant for last week is that we had a hard muscular endurance/speed workout on Monday, an aerobic endurance track workout on Thursday, and the race on Saturday. Both Brian and I felt strong; Brian's tremendous aerobic system propelled him to the win and a new course record of 1:12:41 (or something); five-plus minutes ahead of my third place finish. Both of us, along with Scott, are quite excited at what this suggests about our prep for the season. And to think, we haven't even begun the specific phase of training yet!

Also, in her third race as a Naney, Alison notched an overall women's victory and personal best time of 1:29:51; clearly her speed and power training is also paying off. She's pretty psyched; her big goal race of the year is a 50-miler in San Francisco in December, and all signs point to a great finish there, as well.

Stephen Mitchell: Cutthroat Classic 2012
Overall podium - Brian getting some new dinnerware
Thanks to Steve Mitchell (www.mitchellimage.com) for the great photos.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Hart's Pass to Rainy Pass

I feel incredibly lucky to live in a place where I can drive 30ish minutes up to the highest point on a road in the state. Last weekend I ran from Hart's pass to Rainy pass on the PCT with my friend Stacey, her friend Ryne and his girlfriend Kristen. After a bit of a rough start with a flat tire on the way up (caution: watch for rebar sticking up from the road), we started off on our mountain adventure on a clear, warm morning. Stacey's husband, Dave, started with us and did an out and back before generously driving back down to Mazama and then up the highway to meet us at Rainy pass.

The last time I did this as a night run, starting at midnight on a full moon. It was incredible, but I was excited to see everything during the daylight, especially through the overgrown, brushy parts where I managed to roll my ankle no less than seven times. That section this time was really fun, and there were huge mountains to look at, too! We were graced with some cloud coverage through the heat of the day, which was a welcome break. This truly is a must-do run. Even with tons of hiking, it's possible to do in a day, and the grade is perfect, making even the climbs quite enjoyable.
We're off!

Kristen, going down, down, down.
Oddly, this section was not visible in the middle of the night.

Me, Stacey, and my weird, contorted shoulder, almost done with the final climb

After many miles of climbing, we make it to Methow Pass. Almost all ridge running from here.

Matching Canadians, rockin' the last stretch of flat

Looking west-ish. Mountains are ok.

And finally, the descent to Rainy Pass.
It was a good day.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Angel's Staircase

Photo by Mike Maltais, Methow Valley News
Writing a race report for a good race is much more fun than one that didn't go as planned, but here goes. It still amazes me how much more there is to learn from a bad race than a good one. So in that spirit, on with the proverbial show...

A little over a week ago I took part in Rainshadow Running's stunning Angel's Staircase 35k race. I had a great race there last year for the 25k, so I was excited to run the course again, after the hill and speed work I'd been doing this year. James started us at Foggy Dew Campground, which meant we had the pleasure of starting and ending with a three mile forest service road. I was excited about bombing down the road at the end, but honestly, not too hep on starting out with a three mile grind before getting to the singletrack. As it turned out, I felt better on the first three miles than I did all day; what I thought would seem to take forever was gone quite quickly and I easily motored up to the trail.

It was HOT out. We started at 11am so the finishline crew (and party) would co-inside more than last year, but it meant being out in the hottest part of the day. My race last year at Cascade Crest was cut short due to how I responded to running all day in 90 plus temperatures. This year, however, I trained  in the heat for several weeks and since I'm usually downright cold, I don't mind the hotter temperatures. The previous week I did a longer run in the same area as the race and loved every warm minute of it.

Laboring up the dusty trail. Photo by Candice Burt
I decided to take the climb easy, and enjoyed myself for the first hour or so. I drank lots of water, and had a lot of electrolytes. My ears needed to pop on the climb; this was slightly disconcerning, as the same thing happened at Cascade Crest, for about 30 miles. I reminded myself that I just needed to get to the top and then I could fly back down to the finish. With the race being in such a remote location, it was imperative to not do anything stupid like sprain an ankle while not feeling up to snuff, and just get safely down the mountain.

Looking down at Merchant's basin, where we climbed up. Photo by Candice Burt

The views were amazing at the top and at around 8,000 ft, I was ready to descend. Since the course is an out and back, passing people on their way up was a little tricky, but soon I was back in the trees, felling terrible. My stomach was not happy, and by now it was well past my lunchtime. Gel was not really doing it, and by now I had no water for my body to be able to absorb the food anyway, so I tried to think about other things, like my ears that still wouldn't pop, or my feet that hurt, or my legs that had no snap. Ah yes, the downward spiral of a bad race. I managed to get to the aid station without anyone passing me, but while I sat to collect myself, a couple people went by. At this point I didn't care about anything other than being done with this stupid thing and going to take a nap. I left the station munching on some potato chips (yum!) feeling pretty sorry for myself. Running made me feel like I would lose my guts, so I opted to walk. It took the full three or so miles to get my mind back into the game, realizing that it was either going to take me a looooooong time to get back if I walked the whole way, or I could suck it up and get done with this thing. I started running again when I got to the forest service road, and was pleasantly surprised to feel ok. My stomach settled and though my ears still needed to pop, I knew I could blast back to the finish and get some real food (watermelon is the BEST running food in the universe). The 50k-ers were on their way down by this point, so it was fun to catch as many as I could.

The post-race feast was overflowing as usual, the course was well marked, and once again, James put on another top notch race. In the time after the race, I've been reading a fascinating book on overhydration by an accomplished and highly regarded South African exercise physiologist (yep, I'm that geeky). I realized that in training I don't pay as much attention to getting lots of water as I do when I race (since a race is important and all, so hydration is a top priority), thereby drinking too much: or at least that's my current theory. After nearly ten years of running these races I still learn something new each time.  So now I'm back to drinking when I'm thirsty and so far, so good. Next up is the Cutthroat Classic, another fine mountain run. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Evolution of an Ultrarunner

This year I've been trying to get faster. I love going out to the mountains for hours at a time, and especially love racing long distances. For several years, it treated me relatively well, with several solid finishes. Each time, though, I felt that I needed to qualify my performance: that it wasn't a big race; that so and so wasn't there; etc. I've prided myself at running my own race and not worrying about what others on the course were doing; I figured I can't control what everyone else around me does, so there was no reason to stress out about the other competitors. I'm realizing now, however, that was because I didn't have anything else to draw on during those races. If someone passed me on an uphill (which was likely), I didn't have much recourse other than to hope I could catch them on the way back down. In essence, I didn't have control of my race, either. When told to start a race, I went and hoped my single speed legs could go the distance.

Midway through a (gasp) speed workout this spring
There have been numerous times this year when I was out of my comfort zone and thought I should go back to just running races, whether I was actually trained for them or not (the race-to-get-into-shape mentality) and hope that somewhere along the way I'd pick up an extra gear. I was doing workouts like hill sprints and put in a lot of time at the gym using those heavy things called weights. Last weekend's race was a perfect indicator of why I need to do what I'm doing: building strength and racing shorter distances makes you faster. My particular physiology is very slow-twitch-centric. I'm in the right sport, that's for sure. Training my weakness, however (the fast-twitch aspect) broadened my fitness in a way I never thought possible. 

Saturday was the last in the super fun Bellingham Trail Running Series. Candice Burt puts on a great event. I highly recommend them to anyone looking for a well-marked, challenging, fun course with great post-race fare. There was a 12k and a 30k. I, of course, wanted to do the 30k, but also knew that the 12k would be better for me in the longterm. The course uses trails that I'm familiar with from the classic northwest ultra, Chuckanut Mt. 50k with the kind of profile I like most: all up, and then all down. I was excited to race these trails on fresh legs, particularly the lovingly nicknamed "Chinscraper," a hands on thighs climb that normally comes at mile 21.

Candice said go, and from the start, people took off! Oh yeah, in short races people run hard. There wouldn't be 10 miles to warm up before hammering up a hill. Luckily, I had Sam with me prior to the race to help me with a warm up, as I'd never done one before (isn't that what the first 10 miles are for?). I was glad I took his advice to take a few minutes to not only get the blood flowing, but also to do some higher intensity running so it wouldn't be a shock to my legs and they wouldn't fill with lactate. I felt nice and controlled as I let several women pass me, figuring it was still quite early and there was a lot of climbing. My game plan was to go moderately hard up the Fragrance Lake trail (quite lovely and perfectly runnable), then really go for it on Chinscraper. I started passing people pretty early on, but there was still one woman ahead of me who was climbing really well. I knew once I made a move I'd have to work to stay ahead of her but also didn't want to settle into a pace when I could go faster. On a flatter switchback I moved around her and almost instantly thought I went too early. I couldn't let her think I was hesitant, though, so I envisioned a hill sprint workout to gap her. It worked, and I was able to let up and recover a little, which my legs and lungs appreciated. I started up Chinscraper and felt really good. It was so fun to know that this was the last bit of the race, since I don't really count the downhills as I love them so much. A guy who was doing the 30k came past me moving really well (they started 2 hours earlier, but had a tough course up to this point) and I was able to latch onto him for a short bit, before getting back to my power hiking. I could tell I was putting time on the girl behind me, but didn't want to let up now: there were guys up ahead I wanted to catch! I hit the road at the top and let it rip. Again, I thought of the girl behind me and didn't want her to be able to see me at the few spots where you could see the trail below, so I booked it. I also love downhill running and wanted to see how many people I could catch. It turned out to be just two people, but I felt really strong and knew I could keep the intensity up. I came into the finish in 1:01, several minutes faster than I thought.

So happy I won!
Because it was the last race of the series, The Blackberry Bushes, one of my favorite bluegrass bands was there, and the food was top notch. Doughnuts and watermelon rock. Don't worry, though, that was just my appetizer. The sandwiches and fermented wheat recovery drink hit the spot also. Sam, Nikki and I proceeded to enjoy a fabulous afternoon laying in the grass, soaking up the sun and listening to good music. Thanks, Candice, for putting on a great race.

Winning a race is always fun, but I think the best thing about this one was that I felt strong. For perhaps the first time ever, I had the ability to make moves and strategize. I was running within my abilities, and I surprised myself. I'm continually amazed at how we can train our bodies to continually get better and better. This was the last short race for the year, and now I'm excited to put the strength and speed I've gained toward my natural abilities at the longer events. Look out!