Monday, June 9, 2014

Every Fool Has His Day: Travesia de las Sierras 50 mile race report



  If a good race results in a bad race report, the following report will be terrible. This was my first visit to Villa Del Carbon, a small town tucked into the mountains an hour or so out of the reaches of the sprawling (and, frankly, ugly) northern part of Mexico City*. Villa del Carbon is beautiful and worth the trip. Seeing how people live up in the hills makes one wonder why they would move down to Tlanepantla. Economics of course. Not everyone has a plot of land in the hills to farm and live off the land. The contrast between the congested, gray-drab cement structures of the far reaches of the city (*technically, not a part of Mexico City, but it all blends seamlessly) and the remote, lush green of Villa Carbon was both profound and disturbing.

  I was fortunate to hook up with the members of the Mytikas running group and we fought Friday traffic (including a chase scene that involved 4 police officers and a warning shot fired --we didn't stop to ask for details). I was definitely not in the familiar center of Mexico City that I know and love.


                                                           The Early Conga Line                              Photo: Martin Forstmann

The "lobby" of the hotel was filled with runners catching up and waiting to get their packets. I took a little nap, grabbed my race stuff and walked into town with the Mytikas crew to grab dinner. Luis was running the 100 mile race, and Oswaldo, Rentato, Hugo and Israel were running the 100k. I would be doing the "short" race (80k) as my plan was to recover quickly and get back training hard for the AC 100 mile race on August 2 and 3.

  During dinner I was thinking of ordering quesadillas and chicken soup, as my stomach was its normal pre-race dainty self (including nerve-induced diarrhea, which, just as it did before Zane Grey, disappeared the moment the race started. Weird.), but when I saw everyone else ordering full meals I went with the house special Enchiladas Chiripas. Huge plate and I polished it off with a Negra Modelo. I left it to fate to see how that would play out...
  I woke up with a bit of a panic as I remembered that I only had hotel reservations for one night, and I couldn't leave my stuff in the room all day. I loaded everything in my car and walked the two blocks to the race start. Everyone snapping pictures and chatting it up. I find it very hard to be social before a race, as I just want to be alone in my thoughts, but I ended up in a few of the approximately 128 group photos that are always taken before every race in Mexico. Here's one:


               Pre-race group photo #112: With the Mytikas running group (and others) at the start                             Photo: ?


  I had considered running with the Nathan pack, as the aid stations can be a bit unreliable in these races, but in the end I went with two hand helds and the Jurek Essential. My plan was to eat a vanilla GU every hour along with potatoes and salt, all of which could be stuffed into the Essential and the handhelds.
  The race started (a bit late, as usual) and we descended about a kilometer through the town until we crossed a road and headed into runnable terrain in the forest.
  Coming into the race, I didn't have high expectations for the course. It was out and back (for a total of 50k), and included a 5k section of pavement which I would see four times. Not really what I'm looking for in a mountain race. There was a bit of climbing (just shy of 7,000 feet), but I would have liked more for proper AC 100 training.
  However, I was pleasantly surprised: the variety of the terrain kept things interesting: there were some short, steep climbs, stream crossings, technical single track, and rolling, grassy trails between corn fields. And the road was nearly empty and rolled through tranquil countryside with great views.  I enjoyed the pavement section: it provided an opportunity to stretch out the legs, get into a rhythm and push. Life dictates that the majority of my runs are on asphalt, so I was prepared to grind it out on the road. The out-and-back style had other advantages: it allowed for interaction with all of the other runners. This is always helpful in a long race. Encountering Hector Mendoza --the Happy Face Runner-- with his whistle and endless good cheer and positive vibes (I've never seen that guy looking miserable during a race) is always a boost. Every time I see him he reminds me to smile and he usually snaps a photo. Aside from runner interaction, it also gave me course knowledge so I knew where to push and where there would be hiking breaks to shovel potatoes into my mouth. I love exploring new trails, and my favorite course layout is the point-to-point, but out-and-backs have advantages as well. For one thing, I could see how much time I was putting on runners behind me.


Hector "Happy Face Runner" Mendoza
           Hector "Happy Face Runner" Mendoza who reminded me to be happy when I started getting grumpy about the lack of trail markings.        Photo: Martin Forstmann



          On the Road in the Morning Dew: Juan Pablo (L) and Martin Forstmann (R)      Photo: Hector Mendoza (??)

  Which brings me to how well this race went.
I started slowly in the morning and my plan was to keep it that way until the 25k mark. However, at about 10k I felt great and decided to pass a couple of runners that have finished ahead of me in the past few races. I knew it was way too early to be making any sort of move, but I figured if I felt good I should use that energy, as there would certainly be lows later in the day. There were some major route-finding problems on the climb to the high point of the race. The course simply wasn't marked for about 6 km. However, I had the course description in my pocket and using the GPS mileage of other runners around me we puzzled it out without too much lost time. It's pretty unnerving to arrive at an unmarked three way fork in the road during a race...


                                       Through the fields...                                                                   Photo: Martin Forstmann

  Arriving at the 25k mark at the high point of the race, I was relieved to run into Pedro Fletes, the race director. He was re-marking the course and glumly commented that "everyone got lost." I ran downhill with a new confidence and practiced my AC 100 strategy: run downhill steadily (but not recklessly), hike the ups hard and run the flats.


Chespiro to the rescue! Marking the course(again)...better late than never!               Photo: Martin Forstmann
  My knee threw a kink in this plan, and when I descended off the road onto the last steep downhill before the flat section of trail that leads back to town, my right knee flared up and I had to limp and try to keep the leg straight as I went down this hill. To simulate this at home, try keeping your knees locked straight and then walk down a stair case. Fortunately, the knee was not an issue on flats or uphills, so I was able to plug away as I finished my first 50k "lap." 7:11 (though I didn't know that at the time as I wasn't wearing a watch). I grabbed my remaining GU's and tied my shirt around my waist as the sun was out after a cloudy, misty morning. The sunburn hurts as I type this.
  I had been thinking about an 8 hour 50k, and while I didn't know how far under that time I was, I felt fantastic, and now it was time to really push. I tried to run everything and I arrived at the 62.5k aid station feeling great. I had to grunt up a boring dirt road for 2.5k and then turn around, and go back down to the same aid station and then back to town. I got into a fairly negative space on that climb as I thought the section was thoughtless and just plain stupid. Why not make the section up along the fantastic trail that follows the river? I ran into the RD Pedro again back at the aid station and politely proposed an alternative for the following year that would avoid this 2k out and back on a dirt road.
  I hit a bit of a low on the climb back up through the fields and to the road, but once back on the road I tried to run everything, pushing on the downhills as hard as I could....trying to get my quads ready for AC...
 It didn't seem to matter how hard I pushed, I just kept feeling better. I had some final, uplifting exchanges with other runners who were heading out in the other direction. Martin Forstmann, whose photos you see throughout this report, was pretty beat up and clearly struggling with a rough day (back in March at the 60k Carrera de Resistencia, he easily dusted me, putting about 15 minutes on me in the final 15k), and I tried to give him some encouragement but I wondered if he would finish the race.
 The knee magically felt better, and I made sure to keep eating even though the end was near. I ran every step of the final steep climb into town and felt fantastic. 11:39:40. A 50 mile PR (previous: Sean O' Brien 12:17). Here's a garmin reading from last year's Travesia 50 winner, Sinhue Fletes.
  I hung out at the finish line and enjoyed the Caldo de Pollo and potato quesadillas (with the tortillas fried in oil) a couple of things that make these races --despite their casual organization standards-- so fantastic.
  In many ways, the race was a great confidence builder for AC, but I shouldn't crack the bubbly just yet: AC will be hotter with three times as much climbing and descending. 
  
  I should probably also keep in mind it's twice as long... 
  
58 days to race day and still lots of work to do. With school ending I will be able to get up in the mountains more frequently and I've got to log some 20,000 feet weeks or pay a very steep price (pun intended) at AC.
   I walked to the hotel, changed and took a shower and came back to watch finishers.  It was dark when I heard that familiar whistle and I was shocked and thrilled to see Martin running in with Hector. The Argentine looked like he'd been ground up with some burger meat, but he got it done. Awesome, emotional finish. 
  And a clear reminder that any fool can run a good race when it all comes together: high energy, no stomach issues, every step feels good, etc. But to finish on those days when nothing comes easy is the real test.

The next morning, after showering and eating, I sat in the town square eating barbacoa with Renato "111K" Rios (he bagged some extra mileage on his adventure) and watched the hundred mile runners still plugging away. I had shared some miles with some of those runners the previous day. While I slept they were still at it. That was pretty sobering and will serve as a good motivator for the next 58 days.

Post-race thoughts/reminders/boring running details:
    I ate two big meals in the 15 hours before the race and my stomach was perfect the whole day.
    During the race I ate around 11-12 GUS and two ziplock bags of salted potatoes. I drank water and gatorade (orange) for the whole race, and some random peanuts in aid stations. 
    The first trail race I've worn road shoes: The Saucony Rider 6. I bought these in Arizona for road running and I've liked them so much I've been wearing them for everything. Right now they are my first choice for AC 100. My old Cascadia 7's still have another race in them, but the Saucony's feel lighter. Sadly, the pair of new Cascadia 9's I have pull my sock down on my left foot when I run, and I can't stand running in them. Bummer.
  I didn't feel strong on the steep climbs. I need to focus on more hills in the next 50 days.
  I ran more of this 50 than any other 50 I have run. Part of this was the nature of the course, but I've been doing long runs of 4-5 hours in Ocotal where I run the whole time, no hiking. I think this is helping. While I need to get out and do some long hikes up the Cerro de San Miguel, I need to keep long runs in the mix as well.
  The knee pain went away, but I've got to work on that. If I can't run the downhills at AC.....my race will be over before Chantry Flats.
  I felt fantastic after the race, and other than normal post-race soreness, there is no lingering pain. I will rest one more today and then head back out tomorrow. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

The 25th annual Zane Grey Experience: A view from the back of the pack.

The Race
  





Checking out the the finish just before we saw the email that the course would end at Fish Hatchery.


The Famous Zane Grey Rocks (all trail photos from the day before the race).


Tonto Creek. Guess we'll have to cross this next year...




 The hail, rain and snow had kicked in with the wind. I was freezing, starting to shiver and it was still early in the race. I fantasized about the fleece pull over I had in my drop bag at Washington Park, mile 17. Usually, when things get tough late in a race, my mantra is ¨this is what you came for.¨ For this race it was ¨fleece pull over, dry gloves.”  If I could just get there and get some warm clothes on, I’d be ok.

  The way this race turned out is yet another reminder that we always worry about the wrong things. Hydration and heat management were my big concerns coming into Zane Grey. And rocks.

  Shivering, I finally pulled into Washington Park. I opened my drop bag and ripped out my pull over. It was dripping wet and cold. Everything in the bag was an icy mess.  

I stood there and stared at the ground for a moment, enjoying a bit of quality time with my stupidity. 


Hey DUMBASS: waterproof your drop bags
My dream of warmth imploded and I was crushed. Patricia, a volunteer was helping me with my stuff as my fine motor skills were shot. I couldn’t open the zipper on my pack. I couldn’t pull off my wet shirt. I was afraid to go back out there as wet and cold as I was, and I suggested that I hang out and get warm first, but Patricia told me that was the worst thing I could do.
  Then the race director told me two things:
1.     You’ve got three minutes (shit, I was running without a watch but I thought I was 30 minutes ahead of the cut off…)
2.     I’ve got nice warm car that’s going up to the finish at Fish Hatchery now.

He looked me over and I wondered if he was deciding to pull me from the race. It would have been a difficult decision to argue with, as I needed help to do simple tasks like putting on a shirt and opening my pack. There was certainly a part of me that wished to be put out of my misery.

The pull of that warm car offer was strong. My brain was working overtime to give me reasons to drop. I wasn’t sure it was even safe for me to keep going. What if I twisted an ankle and couldn’t move fast enough to keep warm? There were no drop bags at the next aid station (Hell’s Gate), and even though I had just been informed the race was ending at Mile 33 the thought of arriving at Hell’s Gate in the state I had arrived at mile 17 was frightening.  

  The race director’s voice again: “You’ve got two minutes! If you drop at Hell’s Gate you will have to stay there until the end of the race!”

I was looking down at my wet stuff, wondering why I hadn’t stuffed it into the garbage bags I had so cleverly packed in each of my drop bags.

I wanted to get a little angry or maybe feel sorry for myself, but I remembered rule number one: no whining. I also remembered that I had 30 seconds to make a decision. I stared at the puddles on the ground, searching for some answers there, I guess.

 And then Patricia, the aid station volunteer, took off her jacket and gave me one of the shirts off her back.

 An old- school Leadville 100 long sleeve tech shirt that was bone dry. I asked her where I could return the shirt at the end of the race, and she told me not to worry about it, that she would be long gone and I should just pass the favor on one day.

  If you happen to read this, thank you Patricia. That saved my race.  I hope I can return to favor to another runner some day.

  I pulled the garbage bag over the dry shirt (with Patricia’s help) and put on my wet Patagonia Houdini. Garbage bag never felt so good.

“One Minute!”

 I grabbed a handful of Gu and peanut butter bars, still not sure I was making the right decision, and started out of the aid station.

  “Just keep moving, keep eating. If you have to walk, swing the arms.” These were my thoughts as I left the aid station with less than a minute before the cut off.

A few minutes later I saw a runner going back to the aid station. Was that the smart decision? Would I be thinking about him in a few hours when I was lost and frozen, praying to God or search and rescue a few hours from now?
  I had left the aid station, but I wasn´t 100% committed. If it gets worse, you can always turn around and go back, I told myself.

 I kept moving as much as the mud would allow. Zane Grey is famous for it’s rocks, but today the rocks were the runner’s friend: at least when one stepped on a rock the foot didn’t come back up with a Frisbee-sized platter of mud.

  After a while the snow seemed to let up a bit, and the silver lining was that there would be no getting lost today with the clear trail of footprints… (also, the course was marked superbly, blue ribbons blocking many possible wrong ways).

  Hell’s gate appeared by surprise: my first thought was that it was an impromptu aid station. The rain had stopped. They had hot noodle soup. Life was good. Running was suddenly “fun” again. I was going to finish.
  I was there with about 4 other runners, checked in, started drinking my soup, feeling relieved I hadn’t dropped back at Washington Park.

Aid station volunteer on the walkie talkie: “Ok, they are telling us to start pulling everybody.”

 We didn’t wait around to see if that meant us.

The sun came out after Hell’s gate, and a mist was rising off the ground. It was sublime. I sort of forgot that I was racing, or maybe I didn´t care as I took in the incredible views of the rim. I started congratulating myself prematurely on my finish and then slipped and found myself on the ground.
   Ok, time to focus and get this done. I did, slowly. I was pretty sure I was last, which I found amusing, but I was going to finish. That would have to be enough. (One runner finished behind  me, as it turned out.)
 
  I’ve only seen 33 miles of the Highline Trail, but it’s the most incredible single track I’ve been on. The views of the Mogollon Rim to the north need to be experienced. I didn’t bring the phone, which was the right call: my fingers were too cold to operate it, and the time I would have lost taking pictures would have cost me a finish. So you’ll just have to go see it for yourself.

  The trail is no joke. Even after recovering I hit a bit of a low in the final miles and finished at Fish Hatchery at 10:09, which would have missed the cut off had the race continued. Folks say the toughest section of the trail is 33-44.

That’s a sobering thought.



 I’ve got unfinished business on this trail, and I definitely want to run between the rocks at Trailhead 260 and see all 51 miles that this spectacular trail has to offer.  I hope to be back next year. I would also love to run the Mogollon Monster 106, but I need to up my game for that beast or I won’t make the cut offs.

The real finish...will have to wait for next year.

Congratulations to my brother-in-law Jeremy Hardy, who finished in 8 hours. Jeremy, a native Californian, had this to the say: “that was the coldest I’ve ever been.”


Doing a really bad job pretending to be disappointed that the race was shortened to 33 miles because of the storm. Off-brand garbage bag courtesy of WalMart.


It felt THIS good to be done (and warm).


Some thoughts about Zane Grey

•The course profile is misleading. I thought it would be hands on knees climbing for the first climb. There are no big, steep climbs (between miles 1-33). There are endless ups and downs.
•This is not the course to go minimalist. And I’m not talking about shoes. Bring more than you think you will need. I haven’t run my previous 50 milers with a pack (Jemez, Sean O’ Brien, Oaxaca), but slower runners should pick up a pack at 17 and still keep a bottle.
•Yes, they have GU at the aid stations, but pack your own flavor in your drop bags. Nothing like a choice between strawberry-banana and tri-Berry
•The area is worth checking out, try and stay an extra day or two:

    ••Check out THAT brewery which is on your left shortly after you pass the Pine trailhead. Great brews, good food, friendly.

   ••The Runner’s Den in Phoenix is 10 minutes from the airport and is a great local running store.

  ••Diamondback tickets are relatively cheap by major league standards and you can buy them at the door.

Baseball game! It was warm here, too!

••Angel’s Trumpet Ale House in Phoenix has a nice outdoor patio, good food and a good selection (30+?) of beers from brewers all over the country.


   ••I won’t lie: unless you are shopping for guns, “downtown” Payson leaves a bit to be desired. Camping or checking out a house or cabin in Pine might be the way to go.



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 muster 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.