Cramposaurus Rex (Leona Divide 50) 4-24-17

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After a relatively successful race at the Sean Obrien 100k in early February, and with the least post race soreness I’ve ever had after an ultra, I was fired up to start the 8 week training block for the Leona Divide 50 mile. Essentially mirroring Thomas’ training plan since November, I was so impressed with his fitness gains in the few months we’ve been training together. In less than a year, Thomas went from barely being able to walk a step post surgery in January, to finishing a competitive 100K in 10:19. Yes he’s a ridiculously talented athlete and he works his ass off, but this trajectory didn’t seem even close to normal.
Learning that Thomas had been working with Joe Uhan, a PT, coach and successful ultrarunner in his own right, since before his surgery, I learned he was able to change his biomechanics to become an even more efficient runner. We had talked about getting my gait analyzed post Grand Slam, as we were both fairly certain my biomechanics needed a hell of a lot more than a slight tweak. For as much work as I need to fix my gait, I’ll be dedicating the next blog post to learning how to run.
In February, I started working with Joe for both biomechanics and coaching. Feeling like I had been receiving a free training plan since November, since I piggybacked off of Thomas’ workouts for four months, it was an easy transition to partnering with Joe because he knew exactly what I’d been doing post Grand Slam.
With a heavy focus on form, the first several weeks were difficult to adjust, as everything felt a bit weird while running. Once that initial phase passed, running with a more forward lean and higher knee drive began to feel a bit more natural. As I’ll post in the next blog, there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done, but I feel like we’re moving in the right direction.
The lead up to LD50 was great. Workouts were either really easy, or really freaking hard. I’m starting to learn that this approach is definitely right for me, as I’m able to adequately recover from hard workouts, by not being an idiot on my recovery days. I’ll provide some more detail as to the type of workouts I’ve been doing, but a lot of track workouts, tempo runs and gruesome Stagecoach hill repeats. If any runners living in SLO are reading this blog, I’ve got a humbling hill repeat workout for you.
After a short taper, a few sauna sessions to prepare for the expected heat on race day and a strategy discussion with Joe, I felt prepared to nail the LD50.
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Saw a few of these markers throughout the day.
Another amazing race in the Keira Hennniger lineup of So Cal events, the Leona Divide 50 mile takes place in the Angeles National Forest, 15ish miles northeast of Santa Clarita. With 40+ miles on the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT), the LD50 is essentially two out-and-backs starting at the Spunky Edison aid station, approximately 2.6ish miles from the start at the Green Valley Community Club. Apparently, the LD50 is now the only ultramarathon allowed on the PCT. Due to it’s longstanding tradition starting in 1992, no other races can be held on this sacred stretch of trail.
Arriving to Green Valley just a few minutes before the 7:00pm cutoff for early check-in, I said hi to Keira and also chatted briefly with Jakob Herman, the former Co RD for the Santa Barbara 100. Jakob is in the final prep stages for his inaugural 50 mile trail race in Switzerland in July (100 mile being added in 2018), and based on events he’s previously been involved with, I’m expecting this race to be a home run.
As I’m sure Keira’s team wanted to get some rest before an early Saturday rise, I snuck out quickly and made a very short drive up Spunky Canyon Road to find a spot to car camp for the evening. Not certain if it was the unexpected heat or time of the year, but the second I got out of the car to set up my sleeping arrangements, I became the Friday night buffet for about a trillion hungry mosquitos. Sure hope we don’t run into these guys in the morning.
After a decent night of sleep, the 4:30am wakeup call started my normal race day routine of leaded coffee, a medium sized breakfast with low fiber, and an early trip to el bano. Not certain on the parking arrangements, as Keira’s pre race email said we could be parked over a half mile from the start, I made the long .8 mile drive back to the starting area before 5 to hopefully land something closer. Seeing the long row of cars parked on Spunky Canyon, thought I was a bit too late, but just as I was planning to set up on the road, a volunteer gave me the greenlight to pull into the parking lot.
This must be an omen… I’m going to have a great race!
With nearly an hour before the start, I had plenty of time for a second bathroom break, a quality warmup and proper lubing. Decided to wear the Ultimate Direction (UD) Tim Olson vest, as it’s extremely light, well vented, and can hold plenty of gear in the front or back pockets. Normally racing in the Altra Superior’s, most of my training leading up to LD50 had been in the Altra One road shoes. After talking to Melissa about her experience at LD the previous year, I decided to pull the trigger on the Altra One’s, as they are extremely light but still have enough cushion to soften the blow of 50 trail miles. Knowing it would be hot, just not how damn hot, I also wore my trusty, Joannie built ice bandana.
After holding up the group for a few minutes due to the bathroom line taking a bit longer than expected (Keira had a ton of porta potties, so I’m blaming late arrivals), Keira made a last minute announcement that all runners would need at least 40 ounces of water when leaving the Agua Dulce aid station at mile 18ish. Thankfully I decided to wear the vest, as I normally race 50 milers or shorter with a single handheld. For non runners reading this post, soft flasks that fit into a race vest are normally .5 liters (17ish ounces), and handhelds range in size from 12-20+ ounces. Yes I would be a few ounces short, but I’m a seasoned ultra runner that knows how to handle my nutrition and hydration.
Should have taken Keira’s advice…
The start of the race had 50k and 50 mile runners starting together. There was a pack that darted out from the start (hopefully 50k guys), and a group of 10-20 making our way up the windy road to the trailhead/My Friday Hotel. I started with Dom Layfield, an excellent ultrarunner now living in So Cal. He was only two weeks out from the Georgia Death Race, where he placed a solid 4th. Based on Dom’s performance at Sean O’Brien only a couple weeks out from the Spine 100, I knew he’d be prepared to race. Also ran into Jesse Haynes, as he has the “hook up” on Keira Henniger races. He would be using the LD50 as a training race, since he’s preparing for WS in a couple months. Repeat winner Jorge Pacheco was also in the mix, along with previous women’s winner Rachel Ragona.
Thankfully, the first 2.8ish miles to the Spunky Edison aid station was either asphalt or jeep road, so we had plenty of time to separate before hitting the PCT. Climbing into the single track, we were moving at a comfortable pace, as my plan was to be more conservative on the climbs, and more aggressive on the descents. Not wearing a HR strap, I monitored my breathing as a barometer of effort.
Hitting the first down hill section of the race, it did feel a bit odd to push a more aggressive pace, as I’m usually relatively conservative on descents. Focusing on form instead of speed (knee lift and forward lean), the descents still felt comfortable and not taxing.
We crossed the 10 mile aid station after a solid descent, and began to climb again before the largest downhill/uphill of the day. Sometime around 8:30ish in the morning, we began to pass by thru hikers making their way up the PCT. Most were in good spirits, albeit a bit dirty, and it was a great way to start the day saying “Good Morning” to people with several hundred miles already on the feet.
Totaling 6 miles, the descent to the Agua Dulce aid station is a beautiful stretch of mostly single track. The views of the Angeles National Forest were majestic, but I was worried about keeping my damn eyes on the trail, as there were some sketchy, overgrown patches that could’ve resulted in a big spill without being careful.
Pulling into Agua Dulce right behind Dom with empty bottles, I decided to take my time at the aid station to fill up and drink an additional bottle, since we had a 9 mile stretch back. The time was approximately 9:30am, and it was already starting to heat up. Not filling up my bandana with ice was my first major mistake of the day, and an additional bottle would’ve been smart to sip while hiking back out.
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On paper, the LD50 is a relatively “easy” course, with four major ascents (1,200ft, 1,200ft, 1,800ft and 1,000ft,) before hitting the last runnable 20 miles. We were starting the third and largest ascent of the day early enough to beat extreme temps, and I’ve fared relatively well in warm races, so I felt confident in making quick time up this climb. Being the turnaround of the first of two out-and-backs, it was also fun to see the other runners making their way into Agua Dulce.
Meeting back up with Dom, we climbed together for awhile and chatted. He eventually moved ahead, as I had a slight bit of cramping in my quads and hamstrings. Since we had started to hike and it wasn’t unbearably hot yet, I wasn’t sure what was causing the cramps. I thought I’d been keeping up with nutrition/hydration, and was also taking a salt tab every hour. I decided to drink the remainder of my first water bottle, only a few miles outside Agua Dulce, to see if dehydration was causing the cramps.
With the cramps at bay and with 6 miles to go before the next aid station, I’d have to ration my water for the next hour. Not a good idea, as the cramps came back shortly and hit with a vengeance. The only cramping I’ve had in previous races has been while running, and usually at a brisk pace. At this point in the day, somewhere around mile 21, I was having cramps that locked me up while hiking. I slowed down dramatically on this climb, finally reaching the top with only a few sips of water left.
The 3 mile descent to the Bouquet AS was much better, as my legs seemed to come back to life. Making decent time down the singletrack, I passed Bear Spring, where some PCT hikers were filling up their bottles. Thinking how much fun it would be to hike the PCT one day, I started to daydream about what it would be like. All the beautiful views… the wildlife… the interesting people…
SMACK, SMACK, SMACK!
Thousands of gnats decided to wake up and say, “Welcome to the PCT”! Right at face level, these little fuckers started splattering all over my face, under my sunglasses and into my nose and mouth. Thankfully I started with the bandana, so I quickly moved to untie it and cover my face, but whenever I thought I was in the clear and would tie it back around my neck, the little bastards would shoot out again. For what felt like an eternity but was probably only 10 minutes, I learned quickly that the PCT isn’t all rainbows and sunshine.
Pulling into Bouquet with only one major climb of the day left, I felt confident that getting two bottles of water into me, and filling up the ice bandana would stave off any future cramping and allow me to settle into race mode.
Well, that didn’t work out too well.
No more than a mile outside of the aid station, the killer cramps returned, and I was slowed to hike/slog on a climb that was entirely runnable. Getting passed by Jorge and Rachel at this point, I was trying everything to get rid of this damn issue.
Ate another gel… CRAMPED!
Finished another bottle of water… CRAMPED!
Took another salt tab… CRAMPED!
Slowed down to a snails pace… CRAMPED!
The hike/slog back into Spunky Canyon was long… really freaking long… and it started to get hot… really freaking hot!
Based on my past performances in hot weather, I thought basic heat management would suit me sufficiently for tackling this course. Not thinking about it until after the race, all of my training has been in the early morning hours, and I hadn’t ran in warm, let alone hot weather since Wasatch in September. The four sauna sessions likely had little impact on my acclimatization, as once the temps climbed into the 90s, along with my dehydration, Cramp Fest 2017 was on!
My last chance at salvaging a quality race would be to rehydrate like a camel at Spunky Edison (mile 32ish), load up on whatever watery foods I could hold down, and hope that this would kick the cramps for good. I did exactly this, taking more time than I ever do at aid stations to relax and hydrate. Since my stomach hadn’t turned sour, I drank as much as I possibly could without puking. Feeling better, I decided to head out for the final out-and-back of the day. With still 20ish miles to go and being entirely runnable, I was crossing my fingers that my lethargic pace over the past 10 miles would’ve rejuvenated my legs to push these last few hours.
WRONG!!!
No more than a mile out of Spunky Edison, and on an ascent I should’ve easily been able to run, the cramps came back worse than ever. These cramps were sneaky, as I’d feel ok, but then everything would lock up mid stride and I’d fall onto the trail. With a drop off to “game over” on one side of the trail, I had to lean in towards the mountain because I wasn’t sure when the cramps would come back on.
This 7 mile stretch was pretty atrocious, coupled with the fact that I even passed a guy during this time that looked worse than me. Now sharing the trail again with 50k runners, there were countless racers making their way back towards the finish, while a few were still working towards the turnaround. This old timer was moving shirtless without anything! No water bottle, no nutrition, no salt… what the hell was he thinking?
I asked him if he was ok, because I shouldn’t have been passing anyone at my pace. He asked for some water which I gave to him, and he downed my entire bottle. Well, this is going to get interesting.
CRAMP… CRAMP… CRAMP…
I’m nearly out of water again with 3-4 miles to go, and I’m moving at a pace that needs a lot more than one water bottle. The lead 50 milers began to make their way back, and I tried my best to cheer them on. Normally, I always try to say “good job, looking good, keep it up”, or some other line that’s likely not true, but hopefully makes the runner feel a bit better. Wasn’t able to be so cheery on this stretch, as I’d be in the middle of a “good job”, when I’d lock up and fall down on the damn trail. Not quite sure how I made it into the aid station at mile 40, but I was definitely not certain if I’d be able to make it back in.
Seriously contemplating my first DNF as nothing I was doing was fixing this problem, I finally decided to suck it up, drink till I was on the verge of puking again, and hope for the best. Leaving this AS will less than 10 miles to go at under 7hrs, I was confident, well sort of, that I could make the cutoff.
Can you guess what happened after less than a mile outside the AS???
The worst cramps of the day hit, and I was unable to even shuffle or hike at most times. Running out of water again, because I was likely averaging 20-25min/mile, I seriously wasn’t sure if I’d make it back to Spunky Edison. This was by far the longest stretch of my race (7 miles), as I was utterly battered and my legs were fried from the continuous cramping.
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Awesome picture from LD (not taken by me) to break up the bitchfest.
Pulling into Spunky Edison nearly 2 hours later, I was done. Drank another 1-2 liters of water and filled up my bottles for the 2.8 miles back to the finish. As a perfect fitting for my final couple miles, multiple trucks tore ass down the jeep road kicking up a seemingly never ending blanket of dust in my face. I couldn’t run or even shuffle, so I tried to power walk as quickly as possible. The final few miles are all downhill, and since my quads had been cramping for over 6 hours, they were not too happy with the descent.
To put the cherry on top of my nearly perfect race, my power walking pace of 20+ min/mile was obviously too fast, and I locked up again no more than a couple hundred yards from the finish. Definitely had some odd looks from the crowd as I made my way across the finish line in 9:20 (somewhere between 10-12th place), completely covered in dirt from the countless debilitating cramps that knocked my ass down for the past 30 miles.
Keira was there to congratulate all finishers, and even she gave me the look of, “What the fuck happened to you out there”? I thanked her for quarterbacking an amazing race with awesome volunteers, and hobbled back to my car to clean up.
Jesse drove past me while making my way back to clean up, and we briefly chatted about how brutal it was out there. He had a similar issue with cramping and decided to drop down to the 50k distance… smart man!
After a quick rinse off and another 100 ounces of water, I said thanks again to Keira, and started my 4hr journey back home. Fittingly, I couldn’t leave the venue for approximately 10 minutes, because my feet cramped up as I got into the car, and I was forced to lay with my legs hanging out the vehicle with half my ass off the seat.
At least the Mexican food on the way home was tasty!

 

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What I Learned:
  • There are a variety or reasons why people cramp during races, but no matter what the driver, they are not fun to deal with for extended periods of time
  • Dehydration is no joke, and I definitely put myself into an early deficit and should’ve brought another bottle
  • Acclimatizing to weather is important, and a few sauna treatments don’t make up for zero training in the heat
  • Heat management should happen early in a race, even before you think you need it
  • It’s imperative to lean into the mountain when cramping for 30 miles, or you will fall off the trail and die
  • Not sure if it’s grit or just plain stubbornness, but I was really proud of myself for not quitting
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