Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Path to the Angeles Crest 100 Mile part I: Sean O' Brien 50 Miler: Race Report


Staying warm before the race.



But most of the day was like this...

Why blog? I'm not sure. I guess it's nice to have something to look back on, and of course my grandmother is a regular reader so that provides some incentive.
  I've fallen off the blogging horse since my last report from my DNF (did not finish) in Oaxaca. I have run a few races since then, but nothing spectacular: I ran a solid 20k at the Picacho race, a local favorite because it is point to point through the local mountains and very technical. I then ran the Mexico City half marathon and then, a month later, nearly froze to death during the Rover Marathon. The race was run in worst rains Mexico has experienced in a generation. I was cold, I got lost, I started running back to an aid station at one point to quit, frustrated to discover the course wasn't marked after being lost for an hour, but then I ran into Chespiro, who knows all these courses and he showed me the way. So I turned around and slogged in for a 6:30 finish, over an hour longer than my time the previous year, and at least 90 minutes over my goal time. Still, I was glad to get the finish.
  There was a lesson there. Don't drink the "DNF's are ok" kool aid. DNF's are horrible and I also suspect they are habit forming. Some folks see no point in "hiking it in." I disagree. Barring the risk of grave bodily harm, it's always best to just get it done.
  
  I still think about that damn DNF in Oaxaca.

  And then I signed up for the Angeles Crest 100 which will take place on August 2 and 3 in 2014. That run will be the culmination of three solid years of running on trails. But to prepare for that race I needed some 50 mile races to get ready. Last year in February I had a fantastic time starting off the new year racing my first trail 50k at the Ray Miller 50, so I thought I would return this year and do the 50 mile race. It's also a great chance to visit with my sister, Meggin and her family.
  Fortunately, my brother-in-law Jeremy Hardy would be joining me to run his first 50 mile race. We made the foolish mistake last year of running the Surf City Half Marathon the day after the 50k. Lesson learned: run the trail run and then relax on Sunday.
  The training leading up to Sean O' Brien was mixed. I lost a week because of a pulled muscle in my back, and then after Christmas I lost two weeks to illness. I was worried; I was very close to texting Jeremy and saying: "hey dude, sorry but I've got to drop down to the 50k." I rationalized all kinds of reasons why it would be better to drop down and race the 50k.

I feared failure.

  But then I remembered that on August 2 I will run 50 miles and still have 50 miles more to go. At that point it's basically mental. Hell, most training programs for 100 and 50 miles are nearly identical. Most of us don't have bodies that can tolerate 150-200 miles per week of training. And even if I do have that kind of body, I don't have the time.
  So my plan was to show up to the Sean O' Brien 50 and race smart and see how my body responded. I had gotten in a few long back to back weekends (5 hours on Saturday, 5 hours on Sunday) in the months before the race, and that would have to be enough.

 Or so I had hoped. Jeremy and I woke early and my day almost ended with my first step at 3:00am in the morning. Instead of walking to the bathroom I stepped down the stairs in the pitch black. Caught myself on the railing. Time to wake up.

 I ate a big (for pre-race) breakfast: two pieces of toast, an egg. We drove the 40 minute drive to the race and were shocked by the cold: 28F. We checked our drop bags and then we sat in the car with the heat on until 10 minutes before the race.


Sunrise
  After a couple flat miles, the race climbs to the 6.5 mile aid station. I took it at a very easy hike, reminding myself to eat and drink at least one bottle (20oz) before the aid station. I was feeling great, and after this station I ran a few miles with Steve Harvey, a guy who has being doing this for 30 years and puts on a number of races in the SoCal area. I even got to pick his brain a bit about the AC 100 (he ran it in 1986, the inaugural year).


Buenas Vistas (all day long)

 "You know were most people lose it on the AC? On the first climb up Acorn trail." 

At the 18 mile aid station I stopped for some potatoes and refills, and Steve was gone down the long descent to Zuma beach, but I had learned a few good tips and also some interesting anecdotes about the early years of ultrarunning.

  I arrived down at Zuma beach at 5:05, just about an hour ahead of the cut off, so I was no longer worried about that. However, the crux of the course was ahead: two long climbs that were exposed to the sun. Note for next year: this is at minimum a two bottle section unless you are a front runner.


Refueling at Zuma beach aid station


  I climbed well here and was sort of dreading the bonk, as usually it comes somewhere around the 50k mark, but I had been fueling well and drinking well all day, and climbing strong.

 If I had to make a complaint about the course it would be this: too many miles of fire road for my taste (though the views of the Pacific were spectacular), so it was a relief to get back on the Backbone trail, rolling single track that was fun to run. It was late in the day, but I was still feeling strong. I was struggling with downhills. My knee caps were killing me on the downs and I found myself walking at some points just to avoid the pain.


Always a good reminder on long climbs...


  However, I began pushing harder as the sun dropped lower in the sky. When I reached the final aid station at mile 44, I thought perhaps I could make it in 12 hours so I started to push as hard as a I could. It soon became clear that 12 hours wasn't going to happen, but I was catching people at this point in the race and that kept me motivated. In the final miles of the race it was dark and I had a few moments of doubt about the trail, but my memory from the morning served me well (the race was out and back with a loop at the end) and I crossed the finish line moving well, a great contrast to my first 50 mile race in Jemez where I couldn't even must a jog at the finish and sprawled out on the grass unable to move for some time.


A short bit of video on the final descent.
  Here's a real video of the race:





 Jeremy was there and he had run a great race, going under ten hours.

 I finished in 12:17.

 I buried that DNF from back in July somewhere on the climb out of Zuma Beach.

 I also learned something about fitness here, as my weeks off didn't seem to have much of an effect. I fueled well and started slow and it paid off in the end. Also, while I don't think this course is comparable to Jemez, it was far from easy and I had a 3 hour and 16 minute PR. Can't feel too bad about that.

  Could I have started off stronger earlier in the race and still had the strong finish?

  I guess that's what keeps the game interesting.


Recovery Beverages for Sunday





the details:

ran with one bottle until mile 13 where I picked up my second. This worked well, though probably could have gotten away with one bottle until Zuma beach. Two from Zuma beach is a must for anyone but the front of the pack.

I ran with my Jurek Essential which worked well. I could have carried all my GU's in my bottle holders but much easier access with the belt. I should have brought a ziploc to stash potatoes.

Cascadia 7's and Balega socks. Sad this is my last pair of 7's. I'll try and save them for Zane Grey in April.

  Be wary of depending on aid station gels. I arrived at one and they only had strawberry, which I detest. However, the aid stations here are like buffets at a five star hotel. They have everything. But if you gotta have vanilla Gu, best to bring it with you...

Next  up:

 The big race coming up is the Zane Grey 50. Looking forward to meeting my sister Allison and Jeremy out in Arizona.

March 7: 14k in Tepoztlan
March 29: Carrera de Resistencia 66k. This will be a good long training run for Zane Grey.
April 6: 21k (road) in Veracruz as a member of Team Feel the Magic. Hoping for a half marathon PR here, it's at sea level.




And of course, on August 2, the AC 100....

Thursday, July 18, 2013

DNF: Adventures in Oaxaca (Barro de Jaguar q50 80k)

                                                                     Photo: Douglas Brandon


  "In short, I was afraid..."
  Twelve hours into the race and I'd reached a confusing fork in the road. To the right was a ribbon; to the left was a ribbon. I waited for the group I had been walking with. I was unable to run the downhills at this point due to the pain in my right knee. It seemed unlikely I would make the time cutoff at PC 7, the next and final aid station before the final climb and descent to the finish. A truck had come by a few moments earlier and offered us a ride back to the ranch, and though tempted, I had refused. I at least wanted to walk it to the PC 7 and make a decision there. 
  I should have gone left, that was the trail down to PC7. But it was getting dark, the course was not marked for night time running, and the previous aid station had been abandoned: we arrived to an empty garafon of water and a bunch of discarded orange peels on the ground. I would have paid 20 bucks for a coca cola. 10 bucks for a handful of peanuts or potato chips. The group was going right. They would walk down the road and the truck would meet us and bring us back to the ranch. The rain was coming down. I should have gone left, but I was exhausted, afraid and confused. I lost the faith and started walking down the road to the right.


Apparently I missed the memo about posing for a photo during the pre-race equipment check.....


 The beginning

  I signed up for the race a couple days after finishing the Jemez 50. I figured it would be a good change of pace to run an "easy" 50 miler, get a 50 mile PR and see the mountains of Oaxaca. The course profile had been released for the first 40k and while it looked stout, I assumed the second half would be flatter, as the time limit for the race was 14 hours. At Jemez (and other tough 50 milers like Zane Grey and San Juan Solstice), 14 hours is around a mid-pack finish. At Jemez, I finished in 15 hours and 33 minutes and the final runners came in at around 16:30.
  A few days before the race they finally released the course profile for the rest of the route. The second half was as brutal as the first. Over 5,000 meters in total. 16,500 feet of climbing. Almost double the climbing of Jemez; more than any 50 miler that I'm aware of... I knew there was no way I could finish a race with that profile in 14 hours, but I was certain there was some mistake or that the cutoff time would be changed.


Course profile. The middle (9kish) route was eliminated just before the race

  
  If I'd attended the race meeting I would have learned that the race had been shortened to about 72 kilometers as they started to realize the route was too difficult for most to finish under 14 hours. But I had met up with some fellow runners I knew from previous races and we decided to drive from Oaxaca City to the ranch and skip the meeting so we could set up camp in the light. 

 The next morning we woke and walked the 30 meters to the start line and started running. I felt great and concentrated on keeping it easy. I was moving well on the climbs. At about 2 hours and 25 minutes I arrived a the first major aid station. I asked how far we were into the race and I was told 9-10 kilometers. I knew this couldn't be correct. 2.5 hours to go 10k? Clearly the guy didn't know what he was talking about...

  The next part of the course was the most memorable for me: it was a climb on all fours up a rocky no-trail ascent to Nueve Puntas, the high point of the race. It was simultaneously so ridiculous and so incredible that I could only laugh and try to avoid getting stabbed by the mala madre cactus plants with their nail-like points. I caught up to Elsa, the eventual second place female finisher, which got me thinking I was moving too fast too early in the race, but I still felt great so I kept on. Finally we peaked out on an incredible rocky ridge where a couple steps to the right would have resulted in a long plummet to our deaths. Breathtaking views of the Sierra in all directions. This was shaping up to be the most incredible place I had ever run.


Nueve Puntas


  And then the descent. Straight down on a bed of pine needles. I tried cutting my own switchbacks, but fell twice and then basically skied down from tree to tree. Most of the descent was off trail and so I carefully ran from flag to flag until finally arriving at the 25 kilometer aid stations. Five+ hours. I had to laugh at that. I also wondered how in the hell I was going to make the cutoffs at this pace, and no one seemed to have an answer to whether or not they would be adjusted. 

  The sun was out and high in the sky now so I dipped both my shirt and hat in the stream crossing and moved out under the sun on the one flat section of the course. This eventually took us into a town and there was a giant inflatable arch which made it look like the finish of the race. They were announcing our names as we came into the aid station and the streets were lined with people. One local guy --apparently the town drunk-- who had a scar which suggested an ill-attempted do-it-yourself tracheotomy from years ago had one phrase in English he kept saying over and over: "no pain, no gain." He insisted on shaking hands and high-fiving an awkward number of times before I got the hell out of there.
  
  The final 10k back to the ranch was exposed and uneventful except for one section of the course where someone had pulled down most of the flagging. Fortunately I was running with three other runners at this point and we were able to puzzle out the route. I had hydrated well and taken care of myself, but my first low came after the surreal run through the pueblo (about 30k). However, a couple kilometers before the ranch I came across the first aid station that had coca-cola. It was heavenly and I immediately felt better and started moving at a better clip.


In the Heart of Mezcal Country
  
  I arrived at the ranch (the 40 kilometer mark) at about 8 hours and 5 minutes. As a point of comparison, I typically run this distance in the mountains in about 5:30-5:45. I was beyond the cut off (as were most of the people in the race, as it turned out), but was allowed to keep going. It wasn't clear I would be able to finish and I didn't quite make out what the race director told me, but he seemed to suggest we would be able to run at least 50k. It was here shortly after the turn that I caught up with Laura Guizar and we ran together for a while. We missed a well-marked turn at one point which cost us about 25 minutes. A truck found us and told us we were off course. Apparently the ribbons we had been following were from an older race. After this I started struggling with cramps. I took a couple handfuls of salt in the aid station and Laura gave me a salt pill and this helped for a while, but I was slowing dramatically and Laura moved on ahead. 

  Most of this race had been on incredible single-track, but this section was an interminable dirt road that I found myself walking. People were catching up to me that I had passed 8 hours earlier.  
  And then the truck came by spreading a lot of doom and gloom about the final climb and raising doubts about us making the cut-off at PC 7. 

  And then I was standing in the rain with the sun going down and I made the decision to go right, essentially ending my race. By the time the truck came back up the hill to pick up the racers there must have been ten of us. One couple wanted to continue as they needed the 2 points to qualify for UTMB, but the race officials called in to the ranch and the word was final: no one else was being allowed to pass.

  We got in the truck and headed back. 

  For a while I blamed my DNF on other things: the poor organization of the race, the unrealistic cut off times, the abandoned aid station, the course profile being released a few days before the race.....  But I could have finished. I just didn't. Like most DNF's, it was mental. I got weak and I was looking for excuses not to finish and I found them. This failure of will demonstrates the importance of one's commitment to finish. It one isn't 100% committed to finishing a race it gets easy to find excuses not to keep moving on. 

  Back at the ranch I was sitting at the finish line and the final two finishers came in a few minutes after 15 hours. One of them was Laura, who had an incredible run and just kept moving. Congratulations to her and everyone else who got it done out there. It was a beast of a race and anyone who finished is certifiably hardcore. 
Feeling good early....            Photo: q50 race photographer

The positive take-aways:

  I didn't have much issue with my stomach and took my Gu's a little at a time and made a point to eat in the aid stations. Potatoes and salt worked great.

  I hydrated well, at least for the first 11 hours or so. Two bottles definitely works better for me than wearing a pack.

  I had a fantastic first 9 hours of the race.

 Zero foot issues. Same socks I wore for Jemez (Balega).

The negatives:

 Be wary of running with others. At times it was really helpful, especially when route finding and then later when talking to Laura who had a very positive attitude and who was 100% determined to finish, but when I started walking with the group that was looking to drop, I absorbed some of that negative energy and fell into groupthink.

 A lack of will. My failure to finish is 100% attributable to a simple lack of will and failure to believe I could finish. Perhaps I wouldn't have made the cut off at PC7, but I should have kept moving, even if it was only at a walking pace.

 Walking downhill with a bum knee is painful, but far worse is taking a ride in a truck back up to the ranch. I will never forget that lesson.

  The race had organizational issues, but the route and the terrain were world class. It seems unlikely the race will happen again, but if it does, I'll be there and I will finish.



  

Monday, May 27, 2013

A Two-Headed Creature: Jemez 50 Mile Race Report



"What a strange thing that which men call pleasure seems to be, and how astonishing the relation it has with what is thought to be its opposite, namely pain! A man cannot have both at the same time. Yet if he pursues and catches the one, he is almost always bound to catch the other also, like two creatures with one head." 

--Socrates in Plato's Phaedo

                                                            5:00am start                                  Photo: David Silva


 Exposed to the sun, sprawled out on the ground on the impossibly steep, no-trail climb up the backside of Pajarito Moutain, I recalled the words of the volunteer at the last aid station: “Just keep moving.”
  I had never flopped on the ground during a race before, but there I was unable to even keep my own promise of 100 steps before taking a break. I would get to about 23 and then basically fall down. My stomach was tied in knots and had been for hours.
  Without a watch, I wasn’t sure how close I was to the 5:00pm cutoff at the ski lodge.  Ten or so hours into my first 50 mile race that I had been so resolutely determined to finish, but the doubts were creeping in: why was I doing this? All that training, all those climbs up the Cerro de San Miguel and here I was at the tail end of the race, concerned I might not be able to cover four miles in three hours.

  
We began in the dark.
Those first miles of the race were magnificient: rolling, rocky trails through an apocalyptic landscape brutally shaped by the 2011 Conchas fire. Trying to keep my enthusiasm in check, everything felt beautiful and easy. The 3,500 foot hike up from Camp May to the top of Pajarito was fun and I was passing people.
  Arriving at the ski lodge for the first time (mile 17), I reapplied suntan lotion, grabbed a few more GU and headed out to the Pipeline Road Aid Station eating a Cliff Bar. The first signs of unease set in here, my stomach tightened and a few runners that I had passed earlier went by at a solid clip. I wouldn’t see them again.

Feeling good early in the race....            Photo: Jim Stein




  I stopped again on the backside of Pajarito in the bit of shade offered by a tree. I was trying to eat some GU. The group up ahead of me was moving away slowly. A guy I had passed 8 miles earlier in the Caldera came hiking by: he asked if I was ok, if I had enough water. He had run the course the previous year and he assured me that he was thinking he would “peak out” in about 15 minutes. This got me up and moving.
  A few more steps.
  A bit later, during another break, a course official was slowly moving his way down the mountain. He looked worried when he saw me. He was going down to meet the course sweepers. He asked me if I was ok and I lied and replied yes. He told me it wasn’t too far to the bench near the top of the mountain and then it was downhill to the ski lodge. This encouraged me and the grade began to relent and I was able to walk.

 Looking down at the Caldera from Pajarito                                 Photo: Benedict Dugger

•••

 The first time through the ski lodge I hiked most of the way to the Pipeline road aid station trying to digest and get my stomach back in order. The Pipeline was the turnoff for the 50k runners.  The cutoff for the 50 milers was noon, and I had made it here at 10:30. The slide down to the caldera was one of the more unusual features of this race. It was literally a rock slide straight down. The rocks were moving downhill at about the same speed that I was. I fell and thought I punctured a hand-held bottle, but fortunately that was the only mishap. Once I made it down the rock chute, I was looking at about 14 miles of flattish running. On paper, this section should be easy, but mentally it was the toughest part of the race. We were out here in the heat of the day, and while the views were spectacular, the distances seemed interminable. Like most runners, I prefer to be in the woods on winding single track that enhances the sensation of speed. The open expanse of the Caldera was a constant reminder of how slow I was moving. When I got to the Obsidian Valley aid station, I announced that that was officially the longest 6.2 miles I had ever run. I was tired of the Caldera and I wanted nothing more than to be hiking up the backside of Pajarito. Seven miles or so to go to the climb.

•••
  After picking myself up off the ground for the last time, I saw the Bench and knew I was nearing the top of the mountain. I was moving steadily, and soon began the downhill through the ski slopes to the lodge, passing the ski signs I had seen earlier on this descent: the double black diamond runs “Little Mother” and “Nuther Mother.” The blue run asking “Why Not?” My silent answer for this sign was less certain than it had been hours earlier. But this was a fun downhill, mostly single track section and I was feeling better with each step.
  And then I saw the “Aid Station sign” and soon the cowbell started ringing. Unlike the first time I had come through the ski lodge, the place was nearly deserted: a couple of runners recovering and some very helpful volunteers. I experienced a huge burst of energy. I felt like Lazarus. I ate what I could and loaded up my bottles with ice and water and ice and coke. I had made the cutoff,  arriving at 4:10, but I spent a lot of time here soaking my head, getting my headlamp and trying to mentally get it together for the final push and I didn’t leave until 4:28. About 14 miles remained but most of the climbing was behind me.

  Again, I hiked it from the ski lodge to Pipeline Road. This station was manned by runners from the Los Alamos track team. They pulled out some cherries that were chilled and I ate a few of those. It was an incredible relief to know that I did not have to slide down the chute to the Caldera again. There was a short hike up awaiting me, but after that it was almost all downhill until the final two miles. After the climb, the Pipeline Road eventually turned off onto single track through forest that was destroyed by the fire, but signs of new life were everywhere.
 And then it was like the beginning of the race again. I was alone, the sun was low in the sky, and the winding, single track, rocky trail and accompanying views were incredible. All my doubts about why I came to run this race vanished. I was running. Picking up speed. At one point I heard voices behind me that pushed me to run even harder. I arrived at the lonely Guaje Ridge aid station as they were packing things up. I continued to run. I met up with a runner I hadn’t seen since the Caldera. We encouraged each other and I kept moving. I thought Randy would be waiting for me at Last Chance Saloon, the last aid station two miles before the finish. He had run the ½ marathon earlier in the day: his first trail run, and I was eager to see how it went. I passed one more runner that I hadn’t seen since the climb up the backside of Pajarito, and then a few more turns and there was Randy Grillo in the middle of the forest. We caught up on the day as we ran into Last Chance Saloon. He had finished his race, driven back to Santa Fe, showered, napped, and then returned.  Last Chance had beer, tequila and food, but my stomach was struggling with water and coca cola, and I was worried about being passed late in the race so we kept moving. It was getting dark, but I didn’t quite need my headlamp. It was a relief not to have to watch for trail markers and Randy kept me moving quickly. I thought I saw someone behind me, but perhaps it was only a shadow.
  And then the final right turn and rocky climb up to the finish.
  It was dark.
  Someone was ringing a cowbell.
  Pati was there cheering.
  I couldn't even jog it in.
  I was done.
Now I could lay down and not feel bad about it. Randy handed me a Happy Camper IPA, but I couldn’t even begin to think about drinking it or eating anything.




  As I lay on the ground I thought about Pajarito. I reflected about my dream of running 100 miles. Could I really have gotten up and covered another 50?
  I thought I could.
  But I was really happy I didn’t have to.

Postscript:

  Every report I’ve read about the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs remarks on the beauty, brutality and spectacular organization of this race. And my Pajarito-high expectations were exceeded on all accounts. Every aspect of this race is fantastic: The landscape, the organizers, the runners, the trails.  Thanks to everyone who worked to make this race happen. And a special thanks to Randy and Pati for their hospitality and encouragement. 50 miler next year, Randy?

Happy Camper with a Happy Camper            Photo: Randy Grillo
End of a short, fantastic trip to New Mexico.  Thank you Randy and Pati!        Photo: Pati Grillo




Boring Running details I want to remember for next time:

  I went with no watch for the first time in a race and it worked. I think if I had known I had plenty of time to make the second cutoff I would have taken a long nap on Pajarito. Having the pressure of the cutoff and not knowing the time helped.

  Two hand-helds (Ultimate Direction). I ran my first two “ultras” (a 50k, a 62k) with a Nathan pack, but I tend to drink less water when I am wearing a pack and carry stuff I don’t need. I was able to carry six Gu without the pack and my arms never got tired of the bottles.

  I broke the “don’t do anything new on race day” with a new pair of Balega socks, and it worked.  Still, better to test socks out before race day…

  Zero feet problems. Cascadia 7’s are a fine shoe, even the well-worn pair I raced in. Someone else can uphold the minimalist trend: I’m sticking to my “boats.” I’ve got one more new pair of 7’s before I need to switch to the 8’s. I hope the 8’s are as good.

  Neglected to dunk head/soak cap at aid stations.

  I’ve got to figure out the stomach issue. Maybe PBJ’s instead of GU? This was the killer and I really didn’t eat enough. I won’t be able to finish a 100 miler if I can’t figure this out. I went the last 24 miles of the race on coca cola, three or four GUS, a couple cherries, a handful of M&M’s and 6 salted peanuts. Not recommended.
 
I took one salt table and then just stopped because I never train with those things. No cramping. I don’t think I need salt tablets. My tight stomach is not from cramping, but something internal.

  One thing that worked for me running down Guaje Ridge was keeping an open GU packet in my left hand taking a drop at a time instead of trying to suck down a full packet. My stomach felt better here, but it could have been a million other things. Need to keep experimenting.

 As an after thought I threw an extra shirt in my drop bag which at the time I thought was superfluous. Wrong: changing from my snot/sweat/GU/dirt stained shirt into a clean short sleeve was magical.




















Sunday, April 28, 2013

Mexican Beauty/Mexican Reality: Race Report, Carrera de Resistencia en las Montañas 62k. “What a long strange trip it’s been.”




We would run the route out and back for a total of 62 kilometers


   What’s there to say about a well-executed race? Not much, really.
 Fortunately for you, neglected reader, my race was a long-and-winding disaster, so the report that follows might prove a bit more appealing than if all had gone well.

But first a digression:
 No one talks much about the Grateful Dead’s studio success, and with good reason. They made their magic on stage. However, there are at least a couple studio standouts: American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead. I bring this up only to recall the cover of American Beauty and also to justify my use of the somewhat tired “what a long strange trip it’s been” line which comes from one of their few radio hits (Truckin’) that was a track on American Beauty. If you recall the cover, depending on how you looked at it (or depending on what you were in the mood to see), it said both “American Beauty” and “American Reality.”
  I haven’t listened to the Grateful Dead in the past decade and a half but this popped into my mind at the end of the race for reasons that will be made clear at the end of this report.



Boring race background stuff:
  My big goal race is the Jemez 50 miler on May 25 in New Mexico. I woke up at midnight back in December to be the first person to sign up for the race. I’ve got plane tickets and personal days lined up. Why Jemez? One, because I’ve got a friend who lives there (who, sensibly, is running the ½ marathon) and two because I wanted my first 50 miler to be the hardest 50 miler in the U.S. (don’t ask, I don’t know why). And most folks figure that the toughest 50 miler distinction is a toss-up between Zane Grey, San Juan Solstice and Jemez.

   So everything has been geared towards Jemez. I ran a 50k (followed by a ½ marathon the next day) back on February 2 and 3rd, and then ran just over a marathon in the mountains a couple weeks later. But then I got wonderfully sidelined by one of the great experiences in my life: performing in the theatre production of A Woman in Mind. After 20+ years I was back on stage. Running took a bit of a back seat. I didn’t stop running, but the long runs didn’t get much beyond 30K (and there weren’t too many of those) and I fell short of 50 miles a week, hovering in the forties, at best.
  I did run a few shorter trail runs in the first couple weeks of March, and I improved dramatically in all three runs from my efforts the previous year, but success at 14k, 16k and 26k doesn’t readily translate to success at longer stuff.
  But the big part of my plan was to run the 62k Carrera de Resistencia en las Montañas (CAREMO.) It was perfectly timed: a month before Jemez. I’d spin the wheels on a long run and still have time to recover. I told myself it was a training run, but a race is still a race. Nobody likes to get passed. Even when training.
  I didn’t have grand goals. I dreamed of 8:30, a bit out of reach, but I was certain I’d finish sub-9. I had run the course in one direction: CAREMO is the first 31 kilometers of the oldest marathon in Mexico, the Maraton Rover, but instead of running down to Cuernavaca after arriving in Tres Marias as the Maraton Rover does, you turn around and run back to Mexico City.  UP/Down/Up/Down.  31k out, 31k back. There’s a few kilometers of flattish running in there, but not much. My 31k split to Tres Marias was 4:15 last year in August. I thought I could match that.

  And I almost did. I’m definitely in ok 20 mile shape. I went out very conservatively and then started picking things up, passing some folks around 15k. I made the climb up to the highest point of the race and then the long descent into Tres Marias. I arrived around 4:25. Good, I thought. I took it easy.  I knew the tester in this race would be the steep climb back up to the Cerro. 
  I climbed well. Didn’t get passed.
I was distracted, however. Earlier, about a kilometer after the turn around in Tres Marias, a group of runners looked distraught and as I passed them I caught the words “me asaltaron/They assaulted me.
  I’ve heard tales before. Folks having their mountain bikes taken at gun point, a few news reports of hikers getting robbed. It’s all been second-hand info. But it happens. Some have warned me about training alone out in Desierto de Los Leones, but I see so few people out there that it seemed a bit of unjustified paranoia so I never gave it much thought.
 
 These freshly assaulted runners were going to end their race in Tres Marias.

 I did the only sensible thing and kept running.

My two points of logic that led to above decision:
1. The thiefs (or, as I heard runners referring to them later, Ellos que no tienen madres/those without mothers) probably would not strike again, as the word was out, as were a few police trucks
2. The tried and true “it probably won’t happen to me”. (always 100% correct until it isn’t)

But let me clarify so you don’t accuse me of building cheap suspense, and because my grandmother, Nina Carlin, is a regular reader of this blog (the only regular reader, I should say): I wasn’t robbed. I made it home, showered, ate and wrote this report.

But the thought stuck with me, the negativity began to flood in. I thought back to the trash along the side of the road in the first part of the race. I recalled the gentleman strolling along whom I saw just casually throw a bottle in an empty yard (well, empty except all the other trash that was strewn there.).
  I reflected on Boston.
  I contemplated on the phrase “hijos de la chingada.”
  I mused about poverty and whether or not that was any excuse to leave garbage everywhere.
  I decided it wasn’t.
  I had dark fantasies about getting robbed, but turning the gun on the robbers and putting holes in their kneecaps as a well-earned lesson in not taking things from runners who are tired.
 I noticed every piece of trash on the course.
 I went to a dark place, and my race was falling apart. I had finished the last major climb, but couldn’t get things to turn over on the downhill. My stomach was tight. Folks started passing me.
  I was nauseous, dizzy.
Not wanting to eat a GU, but knowing I needed to eat a GU.
I reflected on what an easy target I would be for robbers. And how unlikely it would be that I would have the wherewithal to provide them that well-earned lesson in the kneecaps.

  In fact, three teenagers with small sticks could have held me up.

  These three fantasy teenagers with hypothetically small sticks would have been rewarded with 3 packets of GU, 50 pesos and a Garmin watch. I fantasized that I could negotiate with these hypothetical robbers to leave me with my Patagonia Houdini, as it’s so flimsy and cheap looking they could never imagine I spent nearly a 100 bucks on the thing. They could take my cell phone. I don’t know why I brought the damn thing anyway as I hadn’t taken a single picture. And what the hell would they do with a Nathan Pack?
 
  Especially after I blew out their kneecaps.
 
 And so it went.  (in my head, while I was running shuffling down the mountain back toward Mexico City)

Around kilometer 50 a crew of about 6 people passed me. Passing all of us was a happy couple running like gazelles downhill.  

 They were running the race I wanted to run. I’m glad I got to see it.

  “Well done, happy couple. Well-executed race. I forgive you the smug looks I imagined on your faces when you blew by me.
 Bet you wish you had a great race report to write. Maybe next time. I’ve got a training plan for you.”

 It would have felt nice to vomit, but I couldn’t. I more or less kept moving.

And then I came to a little impromptu aid station. It wasn’t there on the way out (As a side note, the first aid station was at kilometer 25. As much as I hate wearing the pack, it was the right call.)
Nothing sounded good. I didn’t want anything; I just wanted to feel better. So I drank some Red Cola (not even real Coke. I love the 300 peso entry fee, but Jeez!) and a bit of water.
 
  I was asked offhand if I’d been robbed. I had to think about it, as in my head at that moment I had been robbed and I was wanted by the police for the unjustified shooting of three teenagers armed with nothing but small sticks. I don’t know where the gun came from.

  Apparently a few folks had been robbed, not just one. I didn’t ask for details. I was left with only the slightly flimsier point number 2 in my logic as described above.

  Still, the sensible thing was to keep moving.

  And then I was out of the woods, back in the neighborhood that had crept up the mountain: haphazard, unfinished houses up high. Some no more than four brick walls with a tin roof. And trash was everywhere. And I was never running this race, or any race that used this route ever again. It was a disgrace. All this I spoke very loudly in my head. But it wasn’t just the race I was chastising. It was all of Mexico.

  If you’ve every lived in a foreign country for a while, you’ve probably done some version of this. When things go bad, we expats don’t blame the DMV, the IRS, the Cops, the Democrats or Republicans. We blame the whole country. And this I was doing, indicting all of Mexico. They had failed to maintain civil society  --as evidenced by some runners who got robbed and all the trash strewn about—and I was leaving, an act that would ripple far and wide across the nation and result in a lot of soul searching and perhaps a national reading of Rosseau’s The Social Contract, followed by rigorous discourse which would result in sweeping changes: the most notable being no trash where I run, and robbers will not be a threat to my possession of a Garmin GPS watch.

And then I lost the course.

There were no ribbons to be seen. A big truck was moving slowly down the hill. I knew they were the thieves and I thought of removing my watch, just to have it ready. Hoped they would be satisfied with the Garmin, my last packet of GU and 50 pesos, and not take my Patagonia Houdini.

They drove past.

 And then there was another runner. Never been so happy to have someone come up behind me in a race. He said we were on the right path. He was a seasoned vet, and I tried to follow. On the downhills I could stay with him, but I was such a sorry shuffler on the flats and couldn’t keep up. I struggled to keep him in view. He seemed to have his wits about him. We were in traffic now. And then the course flattened out for a long while. I saw him turn. And when I took that turn I was in the middle of a street packed with vendors, covered in tarps, with people walking everywhere. One of the markets that spring up across the city on the weekend. I had no idea where to go.
  I’m supposed to run through the market? I kept going until it was obviously Not the Right Way. I asked a Taxi Driver where the Pemex was, he pointed me back the way I had gone. Back through the market again.  I figured since I was lost I might as well use the phone and capture a bit of the market on video.
  My Garmin had died. A blessing. It would have been painful to know the time.
  I wandered. I thought about just getting a cab and going home. I didn’t want the shirt, the medal. I was done with this race. And anyway, I was leaving Mexico.
 And then I remembered this was my first “ultra” beyond 50k. Would I fail to finish my first ultra? I wandered and asked and finally found the street I was looking for. I walked.
  I saw the Pemex. I still walked. Some folks started cheering and I felt a bit ridiculous for walking, but after nearly an hour of wandering around lost, it seemed almost dishonest to jog it in.
  And then I got a big hug from one of the volunteers. She put a medal around my neck. And immediately I felt quite stupid about being such a grump.
  And then I was sitting on the ground, in front of a Pemex station, about three feet from where the cars where barreling past, where the longest avenue in the world, Insurgentes ends and turns into the Cuota (toll road) to Cuernavaca. A few racers where chatting. Without me asking, a cold beer was put in my hand. I didn’t know any of these people. A woman who turned out to be the second place female was next to me, and we chatted a bit. I prayed to all/any gods that she not ask me my race time.
She didn’t.
 Incidentally, in addition to being very fast, she’s strikingly beautiful.
  We talked about running and training, but strangely, not the race. What a relief. The assaults were mentioned in passing and then not brought up again.

  It was a beautiful moment there on the side of the highway.
 
It turned out that others got lost, too. We saw one runner arrive by bus from the other direction and then finish. We all had a good laugh at that. Numbers were exchanged. Vague plans to run were made.
  Sitting there on the gravel, exhausted, cramped and a few feet from the highway, cold beer in hand, surrounded by a few good people, I decided I wasn’t going to leave Mexico. I decided my terrible race had actually been a fantastic adventure. Which is all for the best, as truth be told, I’m not much of a runner. Never have been.
 But I can hold my own on an adventure.
 
  Somewhere in there I realized that Mexico is a great, beautiful and flawed place.
  Like most places; like most people.


And that’s when I had my American Beauty/American Reality epiphany, and realized one had to see all sides simultaneously to understand the whole. I also had the idea it would make a good title for this report, so I finished my beer, said my goodbyes, and went home to write it.

Like some sort of miracle, this photo was just posted to the Solo Para Salvajes site as I was uploading this report. Thank you, thank you, thank you Sir Mike Kazt, whom I don't know. I owe you a beer. The man who kindly put a beer in my hand at the end of the race is Eliseo Sosa, sitting to my right with the red cap.

 Postscript: As it turns out, it was a bit worse than I knew while racing. Six racers were assaulted and beaten and robbed by armed men. If you read Spanish, here's the link to the article