Monday, February 23, 2015

Antelope Canyon 55K, first race of the year

Spoiler alert, let's just say I had a pretty good day at this race.

I've been training hard all winter.  With the weather being reasonably conducive to running outside (keep in mind I hate cold weather), I've been able to really rack up the miles.  In fact, I have more miles this year to date than I ever have since I started keeping a running log, like 8-9 years.  Couple all of the running with my strength work at Bomber Athlete, plus weekly speed sessions, and I felt pretty good about where I am so far.
Antelope Canyon 55K was to be where I would be able to gauge where my training was.  I checked out the course elevation profile, looked at last year's results and kind of put a goal time in my head.  Last year's results showed that the winner of the 50K ran it in 7:38.  Now for those that don't know, a 7:38 is really kind of a slow time given the amount of climbing in this race, as in not much climbing.  So there had to be another factor that resulted in a slow time.  I had heard rumors of copious amounts of sand on the course, but didn't really pay much attention to them.  7:38?  For a 55K?  Heck, even in my old decrepit state I could run it that fast or faster.
Went down Friday with a couple of friends, stayed at the Lake Powell Resort with a bunch of other HUMR's.  I was told the resort was completely full with runners for the race.  Given that this is the off season, I imagine they were pretty happy to get the extra business.  Had dinner with friends and hit the hay.
Toby with a nervous smile before her first ultra
Got up Saturday morning, got ready, and caught a ride to the start.  Met up with friends again, said our hi's and all of the sudden we were off.  We didn't line up or anything.  Matt, the RD said go, and off we went.
A little bit of prerace action

I immediately noticed that I was roughly middle of the pack.  My usual place.  I figured I would move up some as the day went on, with a finish somewhere in the top third.  Again, my usual place.
Did I mention I heard rumors of sand?  Holy crap, there was sand, and more sand, and more sand, and still more sand.  Like miles and miles of sand.  Ever tried running in dry, loose ankle deep sand?  Yeah, it's slow, it's tough.  Nontheless, I adjusted my gait a bit, shortened my stride, didn't push off on my toes, and was able to keep a steady pace without wearing myself out.
The always happy and upbeat Andrea
My race plan was to evaluate the first couple of miles, see how I felt, then decide if the day was worth really pushing, or if I would just take it a bit easier.  So after a couple of miles, I noticed I felt really good, the running was easy, breathing was easy, I was happy, so time to push the pace.  So many times I just cruise a race thinking that I'm saving some energy for the end miles.  Today I thought I would really push and see where it led.  If I blew up late in the race, so be it.  I would learn from it.
As the miles wore on, I did find myself passing quite a few people, but I really had no idea where I stood in the pack.  I did manage to keep a couple of faster runners in site for a few miles, but eventually that ended as they kept pulling further and further away.  Meanwhile, I was just having a good time running by myself.  No one else around, just keeping the pace a notch above what I usually do.
Shortly after I arrived at the Horseshoe Bend aid station, I met up with a couple of other runners, Kara and Eric, and we kept each other company for the next ten miles or so.  Lots of fun, all running at the same pace.  This ten miles had no trail for us to follow.
Horseshoe Bend, yeah, we ran right along the cliff edge
It was all cross country through sandstone and sagebrush, going from flag to flag, from flour marker to flour marker.  It was nice at times to have three sets of eyes looking for course markings.  We had to stop a couple of times to look for the next marker.  After a bit of that, we ended up at the very edge of a 1000' shear cliff that dropped down to the Colorado River.  Horseshoe bend in all its glory.  It.was.stunning.
Didn't get a chance to suck my gut in before the pic was taken
The best thing is, we got to run right along the edge of the cliff.  Pretty cool stuff.  I managed to snap a few pictures, but mostly just looked out in awe.

Eventually, we made our way away from the cliff and headed for the next section of stunningness.  After the Water Hole aid station, we dropped into Water Hole Canyon.
Kara, the women's 55K winner descending into Water Hole Canyon

Me next
This is a slot canyon and at some points, you did have to turn sideways, it was so narrow.  We had to climb at ladder up about ten feet at one point.  It.was.stunning to run through this.
After running through Water Hole Canyon for about a mile, we made our way up a steep sand hill and back out into the open countryside.
Eric's turn for a picture in Water Hole Canyon
 Now it was time for some straight-line running, downhill, along a powerline (kind of boring and not very scenic), in yet more sand.  Thank goodness it was downhill.  I felt really good here and really opened it up, putting a bit of distance between me and my two running companions.  After this section of downhill effort, there was a crappy section of uphill running, in yet more sand.  I did manage to run this entire uphill mile without walking a bit.  A testament to all of the strength training and speedwork this winter.  It was the top of the hill that I took a wrong turn for a couple hundred yards before I was yelled at by some other runners.  Yep, haven't gone off course at a race in a long time.  This bit of off course running now put me behind my two running companions, but I was hoping to catch back up.  So once again, time for more sand running.  Did I mention there was a bit of sand on the course?  Yeah, a lot, like fully one third of the course was ankle deep, dry and loose sand.
Got a bit narrow in spots

Yeah, we climbed this ladder
Eventually I made it to the Page Rim Trail.  This is a trail that encircle the town of Page, AZ.  Page sits on the top of a small mesa and this trail meanders along just below the rim of the mesa.  The 55K runners had to make one loop of this trail before heading for the finish line.  Well, by now I was starting to get a bit tired.  We hit this trail at around mile 20.  That meant we still had about 12-13 miles to go.  The good thing was, it wasn't sandy, it was nice hardpack single track, very runnable.  The bad thing is that it was very runnable.  When you're presented with a flat trail late in the race, when you really want to just walk for a bit, you fell obligated to run the damn thing because, well, it's runnable.  So I ran, and ran, and ran.  I did manage to catch a couple of people on this section, but I did notice one of the women ever so slowly gaining on me.  I knew I wouldn't be able to hold her off, but I was going to make her work for it.
I left the last aid station with 6.9 miles to go and figured 1.5 hours given my current "running" pace.  Yeah, I was starting to slow down just a bit.  This is the point in a race where I usually just kind of throw in the towel and cruise it in.  This time I decided to see just how deep I could dig to keep a run at a decent pace going.  It was tough, really tough.  My calves were wanting to cramp, the legs were tired and sore, my breathing was kind of ragged.  I wanted to walk at every uphill opportunity, no matter how small the uphill.  I had to really tell my self to keep running.  I think this is what's called the pain cave, that point where you just withdraw into yourself and focus on the task at hand, no matter what you feel like.  About two miles before the last aid station, Toby, one of the ladies I traveled down with, passed me.  This was her first ultra and she was doing really well.  If you knew her story, you would know just how well she was doing.  Very tough lady.  Anyway, we chatted for a couple fo seconds and she motored on ahead.  I was glad to see her doing so well.  About a quarter mile out of the last aid station, the lady I was trying to stay ahead of finally caught me.  I thought, oh well, I tried.  As I came upon the last aid station, I saw that she went into the canopy.  I thought here's my chance to get that place back.  I filled a water bottle really quick and bolted.  I knew that the finish line was less than a mile away and if I could put some distance between the two of us really quick, I might have a chance to stay ahead.  I could see the finish line in the distance, so I took off as fast as I could, in other words, not very fast.  I dropped off the mesa we had been running around and ran as fast as I could. I did manage to hold her off for that last 0.7 miles.
I managed to cross the finish line with a time of 6:13.  Not quite my goal time, I did want a sub 6-hour time, but I was happy with it.  I had pretty much laid it on the line to run that fast and I was spent.  As I was standing there, I asked the timers what my placing was.  I figured somewhere in the top 20-25.  When they told me I was 10th, I didn't believe them.  I don't ever place that high in the standings, at least I haven't in several years.  So yeah, that made the effort all that much sweeter.  7th place male.  Really happy with that.  No one who finished ahead of me was older than 42.  Yep, grandpa kinda took it to the kids today.
So the final result show me with an 8th place finish, 6th place male out of about 90 starters.  No one over the age of 42 finished in front of me, so yeah, I'm really happy with my time and certainly my placing.  I certainly wasn't expecting that at all.  This bodes well for my upcoming season provided I can keep up the training, and indeed bump it up substantially.
So what did I do differently to get there?  Well, like I mentioned, specific strength training, specific running, and a different metal attitude.  One where I left most everything out on the course.  It felt really good to push hard.  It was uncomfortable for most of the race, but we're always told, get comfortable with being uncomfortable.  I certainly was this time.
I got the chance to see plenty of friends running the race as well, and cheer them on.  I always enjoy the social aspect of these races.
Fueling - 
Basically I didn't fuel the entire race.  I ate one gel, about four cups of coke, and a bottle of Tailwind drink.  I intentionally did that for a reason.  I figure that when I run a marathon, I don't fuel much, why should I treat a race that's just a bit longer any different.  Not fueling as much certainly gets me through the aid stations quicker.  I probably drank 60-70 oz. of water as well.  My stomach was fine.  It did start to get just a bit queasy the last few miles, but nothing worth slowing down about.  The only change I would have made  would have been to take some electrolytes and maybe one more gel late in the race.  I think that's why my  calves wanted to cramp up the last few miles and that bit of energy would have been nice to have.
Shoes - 
I wore my Altra Olympus, no gaiters, and I had very little sand in my shoes.  I attribute this to the slight change in my gait when I was running in the sand, more of a flat footed gait.  Seemed to work for me.  Plus I never seem to get much dirt and sand in my shoes.
Gear/clothing - 
The weather was perfect for this race.  High's in the low 60's, cloudy most of the day, no breeze.  I wore shorts, compression shorts, a short sleeve t and a long sleeve t.  I had light gloves on most of the day as my hands can get cold when it's in the 70's.  That choice was perfect.
Race critique -
Did I mention anything about the insane amounts of sand on the course?  Yeah, there was a lot.  For the most part I enjoyed the course.  The first few miles weren't anything to write home about, running on sandy atv roads, trash strewn about, but once we headed for Horseshoe Bend, things got a lot better.  That section coupled with Water Hole Canyon were my favorite parts by far.  The trek around Page on the rim trail was also pretty nice.  Very runnable, scenic views of Lake Powell, the surrounding desert, and just a nice trail.  I would recommend this race for anyone who likes desert running.  Matt Gunn does a great job with any of his races, and this one was no exception.  Aid stations were very well stocked with everything you could want during an ultra.  The volunteers were great, very helpful.  The Navajo tacos at the finish line were good and a nice change of pace for post race fare.  Plus Matt had plenty of good beer at the finish line.  Hard to beat that.
The completely awesome finisher's coffee mug
It was indeed a good day.