Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Desert Solstice 24-hour Invitational - Part 2: my race

As I mentioned in my previous post, that was my first time racing for so long on a track. Last time was for the World Masters 10K in 2011, only 25 laps!

After a busy November month, including adding Quad Dipsea at the last minute, I was very unclear on my goals for this event, even on race morning which wasn't so good from an mental preparation standpoint, oops!

A couple of weeks before the race, I wasn't even aware that there were three series of records: road, indoor and outdoor track. Thankfully, Nick Coury prepped me, please make sure to read the preamble of this post for more details about this very special race format.

Looking at the outdoor track records, the 50K and 50-mile records seemed at reach except that they meant a "too fast" starting pace to hold on for 24 hours. That was a serious dilemma as I was tempted by these records, yet wanted to also improve my 24-hour personal best (127 miles in June and 133 miles in September). I went to bed on Friday evening thinking that I would not chase the 50K record, but would go after the 50-mile and 100K ones, then see what happens, hoping to at least reach 100 miles and call it a day. In other words, not really racing for my best 24-hour as this meant starting faster than what was sustainable for 24 hours. I even created an Excel spreadsheet to map the records with average speed.
A few weeks before the race Nick connected me with a local ultra runner, Rich, who hosted me for the weekend, an amazing perk of this invitational. Moreover, I was sleeping in Rich's son's bed in which elite and former record setters Jon Olsen and Zach Bitter stayed in, the pressure was on!

After picking me at the airport, Rich drove me to the local ultra running store, iRun, where I met James Bonnett whom I got to know when we both ran Western States in 2007:
Here we are at the pre-race dinner, Jamil Coury and Sabrina Redden, and Erin and Rich:
Rich picked another participant on Saturday morning and dropped us at the track at 7:30. I was rushing to get ready when Eric Clifton told me I seemed a little too stressed... The wisdom of the experience... (For the non insiders, Eric is a living legend in our sport, he even has a Hoka shoe named after him. I met him for the first time at this year's Ruth Anderson in April). Anyway, I was barely ready and missed the pre-race briefing, thinking that at least, there was little chance I was going to get lost on this ultra simple course! ;-)

Right off the bat, we could tell that there were several races going on. At the pre-race dinner I heard that Kevin Grabowski's goal was to crush the 100K hoping to qualify for and make the 100K Team USA. At a sub 7 min/mile pace, Kevin kept lapping us. Mike Bialick had another goal, breaking 13 hours for 100 miles, and he was therefore running in second position. I settled for 3rd and here we went for many and more laps, the whole group at different paces.

Kevin was of course the first to reach the 50K mark (125 laps) in 3:36. Unfortunately, at that point, he had already started to slow down from his initial pace and, unable to reach his 100K goal, dropped 10 laps later. With great sportsmanship tough, he came back to the track after changing to take great pictures of all of us which he posted on Facebook. For instance, he captured great shots from the highlight of the afternoon when we were running under two magnificent rainbows after a light rain shower.
Mike was still running 1:48 laps like a metronome and lapping me every 12 laps or so. I was myself running laps at 1:53 +/- 3 seconds with the exception of my fastest lap in 1:47 (lap 65) and a 2:15 one (lap 67) for my first pit stop. I was even glad to pass the 50K mark in 3 hours and 56 minutes, 9 minutes slower than our age group American record, as this corresponded to my plan. Just before 2 pm, I saw Nick coming on the other side of the track with a flag marker and I was wondering which record someone else might be about to get. To my greatest surprise, it was for me, the most kilometers ran in 6 hours on an outdoor track in our M50-54 age group, and a World record! 75,203 meters. Oh well, I already ran 80 km in 5:43 on a rolling road course a few years ago, again, World bests or records on track are not always such a big deal.

I remained focused on my initial goals, starting with the American record for 50 miles, which I indeed improved by 7 minutes (6:26). For this other milestone, no time to stop to celebrate, I just kept running toward the next goal, that is the 100K one at 8:16:51 for our age group (also one of the 4 that Jay Aldous set on that track in 2011).
Here I am, still going strong after 6 hours and 40 minutes (lap 207), photo credit Andy Noise:
Unfortunately, after the 50-mile mark, I started having trouble clocking sub 2-minute laps. By the 232nd lap, I "only" had to run 18 laps in 40 minutes, that is 2:13 per lap, but I wasn't even capable of that anymore so I decided to stop and rest. The volunteers and my improvised crew were super helpful, providing me with a cot and sleeping bag as well as getting me to eat and drink.
After a 50-minute break, it was hard to run again but I was super glad to manage to run 70 more laps under 3 minutes which got me to the 75-mile mark. By lap 312 though, I decided to stop again and, this time, laying down for 24 minutes was not enough to get me re-energized. As much as I wanted to reach 100 miles in order to save my UltraSignup score, it wasn't worth enough to spend the night walking on the track. I called it a day, or rather a night, at 9:10 pm after completing my 327th lap (130.8 km or 81.2 miles).

It was a strange mixed feeling between the disappointment of having run so few miles in a 24-hour event and the joy and satisfaction of having set two new age group records, including a World best. But I left the track in high mood, thanking the Courys for the amazing experience and opportunity, my host, Rich, the volunteers who kept cheering us through their 6 or 8-hour shifts, and the super spontaneous crew which assisted me for 14 hours!

Rich, Nick Coury, I and Jamil Coury:
My "adopted" crew, Donna Riopel and Eric Clifton's wife:
Donna, and Emily:
Before leaving, I also saluted a few of the runners who were still going so strong and had 10 more hours in their 24-hour quest. It was an honor to run with so many of the big names in our sport. It had been a few years since I had seen Dave James whom I first met in Costa Rica at the Coastal Challenge in 2008. Unfortunately, he had a bad day and leg issues before the 50K mark. Jay Aldous had slipped on a patch of ice a few days before the race on his knee which was still bothering him. He still managed to run 444 laps (110 miles) in 18 hours but missed our age group 24-hour record.

Eric Clifton improved the M55-59 world record for 6 hours, missed the American 50-mile one but improved the American 100K record.
For his 38th 100-miler in 2014, Ed Ettinghausen, aka The Jester, was running smart and logged 115 miles (Ed is going to complete 40 100-milers this year, improving the previous Guinness Record which was 36). Here he is, chatting with Traci Falbo, with Kevin on their right.
On the women side, Katalin Nagy had a phenomenal race, logging 151.44 miles in one day! World record holder for 48 hours, Traci Falbo finished 5th overall with 147.68 miles, another very impressive performance.

I went for a 10K run on Sunday morning before flying back to the Bay Area on Sunday evening but took the entire week off (running) before flying to Europe for the Holidays. Again, this has been a very special opportunity to try something new in ultra running. I hope to be back as I certainly learned a lot, some knowledge I look forward to reusing in future races. My only regret is that, with a rank of 52.60%, this appears as a major counter-performance in UltraSignup (the insiders will relate... ;-). But even Zach Bitter got a 68% at Desert Solstice last year although he had set a new American record for 100-mile in a blazing 11 hours and 47 minutes, so who am I to complain... ;-)

That was a great way to wrap-up a long and rich 2014 season, looking forward to a great 2015 and wishing you all the same!

PS: Courtesy of Nick Coury, Aravaipa's CTO:
100-mile results: http://aravaiparunning.com/results/2014DSResults100m.htm
24-hour results: http://aravaiparunning.com/results/2014DSResults24h.htm
Splits: http://aravaiparunning.com/results/2014DSSplits.htm
And more pictures: http://photos.aravaiparunning.com/2014desertsolstice

Desert Solstice 24-hour Invitational - Part 1: the technical context

This has been an amazing experience, there is so much to tell about that I'm going to split my "race report" into 2 parts for once. Indeed, there are a few important facts to establish so you can better understand and appreciate the performances set that weekend, 2 weeks ago.

First, the Desert Solstice Invitational has been set up 4 years ago with the sole goal of creating an environment propitious to setting national and world records. For that, the founders of Aravaipa and race directors, the Coury Brothers, Nick and Jamil, first set an official 24-hour event on a track, a format which isn't commonly found especially in North America. Then they reach out to potential record setters and hand picked them to create a field limited to 30, a good balance between emulation and not getting the track too crowded which would mean a lot of passing in lane 2. With that, 26 US records and 6 World records have been set at this event in only 4 years, these numbers say a lot on the impact that the Courys have on our sport! Now, as we'll see later, there are many potential records which can be set so, beyond calling upon the usual suspects which for instance make the US Team for 100K or 24-hour (2 handfuls at max), the Courys can't know or call every candidate in each age group. To address this, they set up a process where you apply to the consideration of being invited based on having met certain minimums and your genuine will to go after an existing record. And that's how, after running my 2nd 24-hour event this year at the US Nationals in September, I applied and got... invited.

Now let's talk about the records. When you think about records in the running area, the first coming to mind is usually Usain Bolt's one on 100 meters dash. With the Olympics especially, this is one of the most watched event in Track and Field, short enough to not be interrupted with ads even in the US! If you pay attention, you will notice that the screen may actually display Olympic Records, in case the World Record has not been set during one of the Olympiads. You already have two records for the same distance, and same setup! From 100 meters, there is a bunch of other distances, like 200m, 400m, 800m, 1,500m, mile, 5,000m, 10,000m and you go on and on. So much that, at some point, you'll have to leave the stadium and introduce another family of records, the road ones. Starting introducing some variability in the terrain and even the cumulated elevation if the event isn't in super flat Netherlands. It is particularly true for the marathon were there isn't enough consistency between the different courses (e.g. New York, Boston, London, Paris, Berlin) to agree on the concept of a record, In this case, we talk about best performance. To recognize that another factor can also play a role and that not all the tracks are alike, there are Indoor and Outdoor Track records. And the Road ones as we mentioned above. Since 10,000 meters are part of the Olympics, it's very unlikely that someone would come to such a 24-hour event to try to improve it. But anything beyond that makes sense (e.g. 10 miles, 20K, 20 miles, 50K, 50 miles, 100K, 100 miles, 200K).

We talked about the distance, but there is another dimension used to categorize records, time. We have the records for the most kilometers (or miles...) ran in 1 hour, 2 hours, 6 hours, 12 hours and, yes, so on... There are commonly 48-hour, 3-day and 6-day events every year, both on tracks or not (mix of road and trail). Of course, you then have the gender x2 multiplier but, more importantly, the number of age groups: Junior, Open (19-34) then 5-year age groups starting with 35-39 and typically up to 80-85 if not more!

Overall, for a 24-hour event, we are talking about at least 12 age group records times 5 time-based and 8-distance-based records, times 2 genders = 312! And that's just for outdoor track, otherwise you are talking 936! And then you multiply by every nation (~200), and that is 187,200!! Any taker? ;-) Bottom line, there is a lot of potential and actually way too much for the super elite in our sport to chase them all, leaving room and opportunities for those who are interested and willing to fit that into their calendar. And until all these records are set by the best of the best...

To give you an illustration, in my age group, which is still quite competitive in the long distance running field, here are the current national records for 50K and 50 miles (from USATF road records and track records):
- 50K road: 3:19:33 John L Sullivan (53) Washington, DC 1982-Mar-13
- 50K outdoor track: 3:47:09 Walter Connolly (54) Rochester, NY 1984-Nov-04
- 50 miles road: 5:35:03 Ted Corbitt (50) New York, NY 1970-Oct-18
- 50 miles outdoor track: 6:33:58 Jay Aldous (50) Phoenix, AZ 2018-Dec-11

As you can see, there is quite some discrepancy between these performances, it all comes down to who seriously chased the record at a particular distance or terrain. For instance, in the case of Jay, he "just" set this 50-mile as well as the 100K record and 12-hour on his way to set a world record for our age group for 100 miles on an outdoor track!

There are so many records to track (pun intended!), even at the world level, that the IAAF delegates the task to another association, the IAU (International Association of Ultrarunning).

At the US level, the task is owned by the USAT&F who not only distinguishes ultra and non ultra, but also publish listings for Master age groups versus Open and Junior. More people to contact, with different convoluted processes and processing speeds. Bottom line, it may take 1, 2 or even 3 years for records to be ratified! And one more opportunity to thank Nick Coury for his passion and support of our community in this record setting area! With all this paperwork, you may well be chasing a record which has always been improved by someone else...

Enough on the record topic or "theory", let me switch to another subject before I lose you with this long introduction to my race report...

This event is put by Aravaipa, and more precisely by their founders, owners and race directors (and brothers!), Nick and Jamil Coury. Aravaipa is a Phoenix-based business which puts 21 major running races up each year, including the famous Javelina Jundred (or should I say infamous as many get tricked by the apparent easiness of this 100-miler and its loop format). Another race which they organize is Across The Years, or ATY, which consists in a multi-day event. They started with up to 72 hours but are extending to 6 days this year. The Desert Solstice invitational was created as a by product of ATY to focus on "shorter" times and distances record settings as well as provide a late season opportunity for some to make Team USA. From the fastest runners, the Courys do also an amazing job to get new comers into trail and ultra running, creating a very close and friendly community in Arizona which felt family to me as soon as landed in Phoenix and throughout the weekend!

Let's now talk about a few other specifics of this track event/format:
  1. Track length. Most of the tracks have 8 lanes and a standard length of 400 meters in lane 1. One mile is 1.6093 kilometer so slightly more than 4 laps. (See a discussion about the differences of lengths of each lane which I included in one of my September posts.)
  2. Track surface. As I mentioned before, the rubberized surface of such tracks makes sprinting super efficient by preventing any slipping between the running shoes and the track. While this is good for a few minutes of hard racing, this is particularly unforgiving when running for hours: if you don't have a perfect stride and footing, every defect will be amplified as your shoe can't self-adjust when on the ground. See for instance the blister I got after a 70-lap training run on the track in August.
  3. Track facilities. When I first heard about Jon Olsen running more than 150 miles on a track, I was imagining that he was going in and out the track to go to the stadium's restrooms . But that would lead to losing many precious minutes and I read the advice that other Team USA members gave him to get his "own facility" to discreetly pee without having to leave the track. At least, at Desert Solstice, we had two porta-potties on the track, in lane 4 in order to minimize the distance and time for our pit stops, very convenient and efficient!
  4. Lap direction. Mind you, although we don't go that fast in a 24-hour event that centripetal or centrifugal forces are much of an issue in the curve of the track, getting into a turn every 100 meters creates quite an unbalance effort on the body and particularly the legs and its numerous joints. For this reason, the race directors got us to change direction every 4 hours, providing a good relief as well as some variety in the otherwise and overall boring scenery.
  5. Crews. For the non insiders, crews are the people who assist you in ultras, an essential help and component of success for many (when you don't get such support we talk about being "uncrewed" or even screwed!). In remote and mountainous races, some aid stations are not accessible to crews so you may not meet your team for 20 miles or a few hours. On a track, you see your crew every 2 to 3 minutes which means that they have to be constantly alert and available. I was amazed for instance to see our Bay Area ultra volunteer Dave Combs helping three runners (I learned later that he had come to just spectate the event but offered to help these three runners who, like me, didn't have a crew). Refilling a bottle, handing out a Gu or a S!Cap, some food, grabbing an extra layer, this can be an extremely busy job with the hundreds of laps!
  6. Stadium. Running on a stadium track, you may think that there is a crowd watching. There wasn't actually anyone at the track except for the crews, volunteers and organizers at Desert Solstice. Our ultra running sport isn't that popular and, to be honest, it would be quite boring to watch 2 dozen of runners do laps for 24 hours! ;-)
  7. Pacing. As I found out in my first 2 24-hour races this year (June and September), it is key to start really slow if you want to run for so many hours. The track format helps monitoring your cadence as it provides you with a split every 1/4 mile, not to mention the perfectly smooth and flat surface.
With this preamble and technical background, it is time to switch to my race report... And, since that was my first time racing on a track for so long, I also welcome comments from track veterans on points which I might have missed in this post.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Recovery or training? Hard to tell...

Yikes, it has been a while since I felt so sore after a race. You could think that the Dick Collins FireTrails 50-mile was much harder than the 28 miles of Quad Dipsea but my legs definitely thought otherwise. Granted, I didn't stretch after the race (my bad!) and we stopped by two places in the afternoon to meet with friends before driving back home at 9 pm when I could finally take a well deserved shower and rest... Bottom line, it took me 2 days to stop limping while walking or going down the stairs. And a week for the elbow and hand wounds to heal, that's how you create memories I assume...

My first post-race run was on Tuesday, a painful 15K at 7:50 min/mile but it felt good to get the blood flowing in my legs. I took Wednesday off to rest more (well, sort of resting as I squeezed in a 1-day round trip to Minneapolis, MN, for a client meeting there); and I ran my 15K course again on Thursday and Friday, both at 7:07 min/mile.

While a super competitive field was fighting over muddy trails at The North Face 50 in Marin County and others were gathered in Auburn to watch the Western States lottery leaving thousands of applicants in the disappointment of not being picked, I went for 19 miles at 7 min/mile on Saturday and 80 more laps on the track this Sunday, even slightly faster (6:45 min/mile). I initially wanted to go for 120 laps but that will have to do for the Invitational Desert Solstice next Saturday; yes, it's time to taper again or finish this post-Quad Dipsea recovery...

By the way, on Friday, I got a very impressive award in the mail, for my "Senior" win at the Marine Corps Marathon, look at that!
Did I say Senior? Ouch, time flies...

And Agn├Ęs said that I could put this trophy with the others at my office... ;-)

If you can and want to chip in for the project I ran for there, there is still room and the fund raising page is still up!

Thank you in advance for that, and more news from the track next week then!

Have a good week all, even with some rain as we feel lucky to to finally have some rain here in the California. Still a long way to go to make up for 3 years of drought, but we'll take it!