Austin Rattler 66k April 10, 2016

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Terrible place to spend the weekend
I’m starting this blog post at 9:30am on Saturday, 4/9, sitting on a small United jet, waiting on the mechanics to give the greenlight for the second leg of my short trip to Austin. Sitting on the LAX tarmac in an early aisle seat, I’ve got a mom and her really well behaved son to my right, and a guy that fits the bill for Austin native to my left… suede boots, pink socks, funky wool coat, long hair and a solid beard game. Sorry Austinities reading this post, but this is exactly how I envision you, albeit he’s missing the guitar.
So, why the hell am I on my way out to Austin on a Saturday morning for a trip lasting just a hair over 24 hours?
The Austin Rattler 66k is owned and operated by Lifetime Fitness. Yes, the same Lifetime Fitness that builds exercise equipment, and also the same Lifetime Fitness that purchased the Leadville 100 a couple years ago. The Leadville 100 is the third race within each summer’s Grand Slam series. Western States, Vermont, Leadville and Wasatch are four of the oldest 100 miles in the US, and they occur within 12 weeks of each other starting in late June, and running through early September. Runners that can actually get in, which is seemingly more difficult these days than running the events, and then subsequently finish these four races over 12 weeks, have officially finished the Grand Slam.
Not expecting much heading up to Auburn in December, I was shocked to have my name pulled for Western States. Planning on a fall 100, I also decided to put my name in the hat for Wasatch in September, as this mountain range in Utah is absolutely breathtaking. Considering my lack of luck as it relates to lotteries (no WS in 2014 or 2015, no Lake Sonoma 50 in 2015 and no Leadville 100 in 2015), I threw my best Hail Mary towards the lottery gods in 2016. Not sure if this was luck or the lottery gods laughing at me for thinking I could tackle these two difficult races, but my name was pulled for Wasatch in addition to Western States.
As I started working through the WS training plan that Thomas developed, mileage began ramping up in late February and March. On a long Saturday training run preparing for Way Too Cool, I ran into Erik Dube on the trails and we started talking about summer plans. Erik will be racing Angeles Crest 100 in the fall for the first time. With multiple 100’s behind him and his ability to tackle difficult races in heat, I think he’ll do great in September.
We were talking about WS and Wasatch as Erik has tons of experience on the trail from Squaw to Auburn (6 finishes in sub 24 hours). Jokingly Erik says, “Hey, you should race the Grand Slam.” Knowing there were four races that comprised the event, thanks little league, I had no idea what four races made up the event. “You’ve already got 2 locked up!” Ok, so WS and Wasatch are two of the four. Thinking that Angeles Crest was another, I shouted back “Well, there’s no way to get into the Slam as AC 100 sold out in less than an hour.” I probably should’ve just taken Erik’s word, considering he has damn near more 100 mile finishes than all the ultra’s I’ve ever completed, “AC isn’t one of them.”
“So, what other races make up the Grand Slam?”
Erik shared that Vermont and Leadville were the two others, and that WS and Wasatch were the two most difficult of the four to get into. Thanking him for the info, considering I’ve hounded Erik for ultra knowledge over the years, I didn’t think much of the conversation as training began to ramp up.
Following the next day’s run, I jumped online to quickly research the Grand Slam. Since Tom Green initially finished all four races in 1986 (Old Dominion, Western States, Leadville and Wasatch), there have been 280 others that have completed these four storied 100 milers in the same year (Old Dominion was replaced with Vermont several years later, and is now considered part of the Slam).
Thinking how damn difficult it is to get into Western States and Wasatch, especially in the same year, I took a quick look at the registration information for Vermont and Leadville. Unfortunately, both races were full and Vermont was the only race with a waiting list. Since you’re not on the hook for payment until your accepted and confirm waiting list registration, I threw my name onto Vermont’s waiting list not thinking too much about it. At the same time, I also emailed the race director to ask what my chances looked like to clear the list.
Looking at Leadville’s website a few days later, I learned that Lifetime Fitness has several other events within their yearly lineup of races. There is a Leadville marathon, the Silver Rush 50 miler, multiple mountain bike races, and an interesting distance of a 66k in Austin. Seemingly to increase involvement with their other races, Lifetime decided to attach a finite amount of Leadville 100 qualifying registration slots to each of the races above.
With training for Western States taking precedent over all other summer races, I started looking at the viability of entering one of these Leadville qualifiers. The Leadville marathon unfortunately didn’t fit into the calendar, and neither did the Silver Rush 50 miler. Interestingly, this 66k in Austin was only one week before the Leona Divide 50.
Ramping up for Western States, Thomas thought it would be a good idea to start with a runnable 50k early in the season, and then follow it up with a runnable 50 miler a couple months before the big dance. Leona Divide fit in perfectly with training, so we planned to ramp back up after Way Too Cool, and essentially “train through” Leona Divide. Training through a race essentially means continuing training leading up to and through a race,  and not building in a significant taper/recovery plan. The initial goal was to run LD conservatively for the first half, and then significantly increase pace until I was racing all out over the last third. Looking at the option of racing the Austin Rattler as a Leadville qualifier, but knowing that it would be 10 miles less than Leona, and with absolutely no course knowledge, I decided to check-in with Thomas and get his thoughts.
Thomas has been great to work with! He’s incredibly patient as I’ve fumbled through workouts, trying  to learn how to perform a proper track session or tempo run. With workout times that I’m sure he finds laughable, considering his past performances, he’s been incredibly supportive. Having zero experience with this amount of volume, he’s also done an awesome job making sure to follow up on how I’m responding to training.
Before bringing my thoughts to Thomas, I received a response from Vermont’s RD stating that my chances were great for clearing the wait list, and as long as I was registered for the other three, it shouldn’t be an issue to race Vermont. With this newfound information, I was even more confident to get Thomas’ thoughts.
Telling Thomas about my long shot chance at qualifying for the Grand Slam, he was quick to say that it’s something he wouldn’t race, but if I wanted to give it a shot, we could modify the training plan and it shouldn’t have a negative impact on WS training.
So it looks like I’ll be flying out to Austin on Saturday to tackle a 66k that I know very, very little about…
The Austin Rattler 66k takes place on Rocky Hill Ranch, a supposed mountain bike mecca for Texans. Located an hourish southeast of Austin, this race consists of two, 20 mile loops. There was little course information posted, and thankfully someone posted a Strava link which shows the cumulative gain of less than 2,000ft. With Way Too Cool being considered very runnable, this 50k still has nearly 4,000ft. of climbing. With an extra 10 miles and 2,000ft. less of vertical gain, the Austin Rattler seems like it should be pretty damn fast.
After landing in Austin around 2:30pm, my buddy Aaron picked me up and let me borrow his car for the trip down to Rocky Hill Ranch. A true friend, Aaron gave up a Master’s golf pub crawl to pick me up and hang out for a couple hours on Saturday. For those of you that have not participated in a golf pub crawl, everyone dresses up in their most ridiculous golf gear and makes their way through as many “holes” as possible, scoring lower shots based on volume or ABV of the drink consumed. Unfortunately, a birdie could cost you both a shot and beer. Pretty sure Aaron’s liver thanked me for passing on this round, as shooting par at this event seems a hell of a lot harder than Augusta.
Rocky Hill Ranch is about an hour southeast of Austin in a town called Smithville. For those familiar with Texas, Smithville borders Bastrop. For those not familiar with Texas, it’s in the middle of nowhere. Pulling into the ranch around 5:00pm, there were few people around, but tons of trucks and trailers parked in the field. Rocky Hill hosts a Saturday 100K mountain bike race over the same course as the run, with similar qualifying standards for the Leadville 100 mountain bike race (same course at Leadville 100).
With plenty of parking on their 2,500+ acres, I set up camp and checked in with registration. Considering the sun doesn’t set until 8:00pm in Smithville, I decided to hit the trails for a few miles to get a feel for the terrain and scope out the early miles. A small storm had made its way through Rocky Hill early on Saturday and hundreds of bikers had thrashed through the singletrack all day, but thankfully the trails were in decent shape. With the race starting at 6:00am and sunrise not scheduled till past 7:00, I was also on the fence with carrying a headlamp.
After a light dinner and a few pages of Run or Die (great running book for when you’ve had your fill of jaddgottheruns), I called it an early night and slept out under the stars.
With several hours of Z’s in a sleeping bag that actually keeps me warm (please read my first blog post on Fastpacking Gone Awry for reference), the 4:45am wakeup call still came rather quickly considering the 2hr time difference between CA and TX. The 60+ degree weather was great for getting ready, but I was nervous that this could cause issues later in the race if the temp continued up.
Drinking my first leaded coffee since Way Too Cool (cut out caffeine as I don’t need another habit that spikes the heartrate) made the early morning discharge rather pleasant… thank you wetwipes… and with a short warm and lube up, we were off.
Thomas’ plan was to run a VERY relaxed first 20 miles, and then pick up the pace from 20-30, and push all out 30-40. Originally finding out that only age group winners were offered the Leadville entry, and since  30-39 would likely be the most competitive group, we planned on staying with the lead pack assuming they went out conservatively. At the last minute, we were told that there may be additional qualifying spots allocated for certain age groups, but there was no confirmation of how many or which groups would receive the spots.
A beautiful 6:00am start in Smithville, Tx
Deciding to start without a headlamp, I would be relegated to run alongside or immediately behind someone with light. We thought this would force me to relax in the early miles, as I couldn’t see a damn thing and it was pitch black. Unfortunately, this didn’t work quite as planned. From the gun, a group of 6-8 runners shot off to the front and set a strong pace. Not checking my watch as I wanted to run by feel, it wasn’t too difficult to “feel” like we were moving way too fast, way too early in the race. Not having a damn headlamp, I was forced to stay with this group or drop back to the significantly slower chase pack. Needless to say, the first 8-10 miles of the race were much, much faster than I wanted to start.
The only dummy without a headlamp…
Thankfully the sun rose sometime after 7:00am, and when I could actually see without leaning over someone and poaching on the light, I decided it best to slow down and stick to our original plan. We were running low 7:00 minute miles, and I felt that not only was there little chance this group of 6-8 could hold this pace for 40 miles, there was no way in hell I would be able to stick to this. With a Leadville qualifier on the line, I sure wasn’t happy letting the lead pack go, but our plan was to run conservative for the first 20 and what we were doing for the first 8-10 was quite the opposite.
I settled into my own pace for the next 10-12 miles, and spent some time with a local young doctor that was tackling his first ultra. We talked about training and nutrition, and about how we sure hoped the lead pack would come back. With a couple miles before the halfway mark, I made my first surge and prepared for 20 miles of racing. Coming through the 20 mile mark in 2:32 and somewhere around 8th place, I felt much stronger than when we hammering the early miles, but knew there was a TON of work to do if I was to snatch this qualifier.
Heading out for the second 20 mile loop, miles 20-25 felt awesome as I could actually see the damn trail. Thinking back after seeing the terrain we ran on in the dark, not starting with a headlamp was a stupid move.
Miles 26-30 were uneventful, as I ran completely alone, as I did for miles 20-25. Feeling strong and pushing over these middle miles, I started having doubts if it was the right move to let the lead pack go so early. Sitting in 8th place with less than 10 miles of running left, I stuck to the plan and started to race.
There are a few sections of trail that loop and zig zag back-and-forth, so runners are able to see others that may be within a half mile. For the first time in 10+ miles, we made a turn and I saw two runners moving at a decent clip. Looking at my watch to gauge the time it would take for me to get to their spot, I realized they were only 3 minutes ahead. Feeling like our plan was starting to work, I pushed over the next couple miles and caught these two…
6th place…
Starting to regain some confidence, I continued to push and made a move on another runner around a mile later. With a huge smattering of dirt on his arm and looking pretty haggard, I asked how he was holding up as he had the cramping waddles. I offered some salt and he refused, so I stopped and forced him to take three S-Caps… I know how it feels to be a saltless mess!
5th place…
With less than 8 miles to go, I saw a blue jersey several hundred meters ahead. Knowing that Thomas would chew my ass if we didn’t stick to the plan, I continued to hammer and moved past this solid runner a few minutes later.
4th place…
A mile or so later, I spotted another blue jersey that looked to be running strong. Quick turnover and a powerful stride, it took awhile to catch up, and we shared some mutually encouraging words. Hoping he didn’t come with me, I made another push and continued forward.
3rd place…
Less than 5 miles from the finish, I see a fellow shirtless runner looking pretty rough. We were rocking the same shoes, so I tried to make small talk but he wasn’t having it, “My legs are shot!” I told him to keep moving, as there’s someone moving up  (blue jersey), and started pushing towards the finish.
2nd place…
Pulling into the last aid station, I grabbed a gel, quickly filled up my handheld while asking the volunteers how close 1st place was. With 4 miles to go, they said somewhere around 5 minutes. In ultra language, this could be 2 minutes, 5 minutes or 15 minutes. I tried to push as I knew we had one out-and-back left. Hoping to catch a glimpse of 1st, I knew if I couldn’t see him on this stretch, unless he ran into a tree, it was all but over. Unfortunately, no luck seeing 1st (another shirtless runner by the way), so I continued to push over the few miles before reaching the parking lot/field. Hoping it was enough to secure a spot to Leadville, I crossed the finish in 5:05 (2:32; 2:33 splits). Thankfully, 2nd place was good enough for a Leadville spot, and I officially inked my application for the Grand Slam.
Needed another 10 miles to catch the champ, but happy to be done!
This is going to be a long summer…

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What I Learned:
– Building a plan and sticking to it, independent of what other racers do, can be very difficult but very rewarding when your plan turns out to be the right one
– I’m really starting to trust in my training. A 90, 110 and 100 three week lead up to the Austin Rattler sans taper wasn’t the perfect scenario, but what I lost in leg peppiness, I made up for in endurance and strength
– Speed and specificity training works. Keeping a 7:00/mile pace for the first 10 miles of an ultra would have absolutely destroyed me this time last year. Albeit not the smartest way to start an ultra, all those workouts allowed  me  to recover and push through a competitive second half
– SALT WORKS!!! Had one slight twinge, a precursor to cramping, and immediately chomped down two additional tabs. Took 7 S-Caps over 40 miles, and it held the cramping at bay
– Being able to see is important. I’ll be wearing a headlamp moving forward
– I’ve got a long way to go in this sport, and not coming from a formal running background has its disadvantages. This shit ain’t easy, but I’m really starting to enjoy the mental side of things. Hopefully, the physical side catches up one of these days…

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