Tuesday, February 27, 2007

My Susitna 100 race story, originally published on Jill's Blog on Feb 27th, 2007:

Here is the experience of my first 100 mile race: The start was just how I like my races to start - hectic and sudden. (after not sleeping much at all the night before the last thing I want to do is stand around in the cold any longer than I have to) We were required to declare our mode of travel by 8:45 and we rolled into the parking lot at about 8:42. By the time I jumped out of the car and told the race director that I would be traveling on foot it was time to do all the last minute adjustments and then the racers were lining up at the start. By the time I was ready to go and made my way over to the line, it was 8:58. With 2 more minutes before setting out on a run that would double the longest run I had ever done, I suddenly felt really calm. For the first time in about 2 weeks I wasn't thinking about what I needed to do to prepare for the race. At this point I had done everything that I could do. No more worrying about my sled, my food, or my sore foot. There was now nothing I could do about any of these things and this felt really good.

I had just enough time to look around at some of the other racers. I noticed Pete Basinger lined up front and center. I knew that Pete was doing this ride as a "training" ride for the Iditarod Trail Invitational, but I also felt pretty certain, just from glancing over at him for a few seconds, that he was going to win the Susitna. I don't know Pete very well, but I know that he's an amazing racer and I felt a sense of excitement simply being lined up on the same starting line with him, even if he was on a bike and I was on foot. Just in front of me on the starting line I noticed John Stamstad. At the time I didn't know too much about his career in the 90's as one of the greatest endurance mountain bikers ever (He even has his own Wikipedia page!!!), but I had been told that he would likely be doing the race on foot (he retired from bike racing in 2000) and that he should be one of the front runners. After noticing Pete and John, I had just enough time to glance over to Jill for one last good luck gesture. Jill and I both get really quiet just before our races so I guess there was an unspoken understanding at that point that there really just wasn't much more to say to each other. I looked back down the trail in front of me for a few seconds and then I heard someone yell, "Go".

After shuffling to the side to let the bikers and skiers ahead, I tried to find a pace that I felt was a good pace to start with. When you've never raced anything longer than a 50k, it's quite difficult to figure out just what you should be doing at this point in a 100-mile race. In the first 3 miles I must have forced myself to slow down a dozen times, but each time I would end up going too fast again after a couple minutes. Eventually the field thinned out and I was able to focus more on what I was doing and less on how I was moving in relation to others. By about mile 5 I really settled in and felt OK with my pace.

From here things progressed pretty uneventful for quite some time. I noticed at about mile 12 that my quads were a little tired already (probably a result of having not run much at all for almost 2 weeks), but as I progressed on toward Flathorn lake I felt pretty certain that they weren't getting any worse and that this probably wasn't anything I was going to have to worry about until much further into the race.

Flathorn Lake was a very welcome sight. Just before reaching the lake, the trail was very bumpy for awhile, and dragging a sled behind you is ten times worse if you're pulling it over bumps. As soon as I dropped down onto the lake, I felt great. The surface was hard and smooth and the view looking out onto the lake was incredible. I turned on my iPod for awhile and began to speed up into a much more aggressive pace. I was running in third place at this point and could see both the runners ahead of me on the lake. I passed one of them by the Flathorn checkpoint (mile 25) and headed back out on the trail (after checking in and getting some water) about 4 minutes behind the race leader.

This was the point when things started to feel really good. I began to find my rhythm such that hours were passing by in what felt like 10 minutes. I took the lead in dismal swamp (around mile 30) and this gave me a burst of energy to push on even faster. After crossing the Susitna river and heading up into the woods towards the second checkpoint I began to notice that I was now running up all the hills. For the first 20 miles, I walked up all of the hills to conserve energy. But now I was running up all the hills. This wasn't really a conscious decision that I made, but rather I simply fell into habit of pushing hard on uphills. This is of course a logical thing to do on a training run, but in the middle of a 100 miler??? Probably not the best idea. I was feeling great though so I pushed onto Eaglesong at an obnoxiously fast pace. I checked into Eaglesong (mile 46) at 8 1/2 hours and noticed 2 things: Pete Basinger was in the overall lead and was moving about twice as fast as me and Jill was about 20 minutes ahead of me.

Heading back onto the trail after Eaglesong I knew that I was going to pass Jill before Luce's. This is the slowest stretch of trail for the bikers and I was continuing to feel stronger and stronger with each step. about 30 minutes down the trail I could see Jill in the distance pushing her bike across soft snow, just as the sun was going down. I had about 5 minutes to think about what I would say to her when I caught her. I knew she would feel discouraged that I was catching up to her in middle of the race, but I also knew that she was making good timing and that she was going to pass me again when the trail improved. In 5 minutes I could not think of anything to say to her though. I wanted so badly to say the right thing so that she would not feel discouraged about her progress in relation to me, but I just couldn't think of how to say it. A week later I'm still not sure what I should have said to her at that point. I knew that I was moving along a few hours faster than I had imagined possible, and that me catching up to her had nothing to do with her going slower than she planned, but just saying this to Jill at that time didn't seem to do anything to make her feel better. All I could really do was move on down the trail and wait for her to pass me later in the night.

After checking in and out of Luce's, I got onto the Yentna river. This was when things began to get strange. I could begin to feel that I was physically tiring a little bit, but mentally I fell into a trance that I've never felt before while running. From Luce's to the Susitna river is about 9 miles and I can't recall a single thing that I thought or did in that stretch. I simply ran along and then I was at the Susitna river. There is a small checkpoint here and I stopped for some water. I asked the guy there how far to Flathorn and he told me it was about 10 miles.

Normally I think of a 10 mile run as a pretty decent length in which I'm going to have some time to think about several things and maybe listen to some music to help pass the time. Now though I was at this point where 10 miles seemed to be just around the corner. The only reason I recall much of anything that I thought or did in this 10 miles is because I played leapfrog with 2 female skiers through this stretch. They passed me somewhere on the Susitna and then I passed them in Dismal Swamp and then they passed me again just before Flathorn Lake. We didn't talk with each other much on the trail but it was nice to have them there so that looking back on it I at least have some memory of any of the 20 miles from Luce's to Flathorn. In all though, it was so nice to have that long stretch of mileage in which I was able to zone out and not really think about much of anything.

And suddenly there I was back at Flathorn (mile 75) and I was feeling great. It was almost midnight and was getting cold so I took some clothing into the checkpoint to add some layers (up to this point I was wearing exactly what I started the race with: one thin layer on my legs, windproof shell over a thin layer on top, thin fleece gloves, skull cap on my head, and two pair of thin socks). My plan was to spend about 15 minutes at this checkpoint... just enough time to get some water, change my clothes, and mix up the last of my Perpetuem. I ended up spending almost 40 minutes though.

The hospitality at this checkpoint was amazing. Here I was in middle of nowhere, in Alaska, at 11:30 pm and there were these wonderful women who run this checkpoint offering me everything you could ever want after running 75 miles: a warm cabin, comfortable seat, hot water, hot chocolate, soda, oranges, bananas, brownies, rice, cornbread, jambalaya, and some great company. There were also several other racers (bikers and skiers) at the checkpoint at this time.

In hindsight I probably spent more time here than I should have, but oranges, rice, and cornbread never tasted so good and it was nice to change my socks and add another layer on my legs, a face mask that would keep my neck warm, and switch over to thick mittens for the last 25 miles. Jill arrived at Flathorn just before I left and I told her that i wanted to get going to see if I could break 20 hours. I suppose I was being a bit optimistic about this but I was really feeling good and I had 5:15 to cover a stretch of trail that had only taken me 4:41 at the start of the race, and I was still feeling as though I had enough in me to push the last 7 or 8 miles faster than I had run any stretch yet in the race. I also noticed that Pete Basinger had been through here 8 hours into the race so I was still a little ahead of double his time (I was at 15 hours).

It's amazing though how quickly these goals and feelings can change. Within 5 miles of leaving Flathorn I began to hurt. My quads were aching much more seriously now and my feet and lower legs began to ache on and off. I simply hit this point at around mile 80 in which I couldn't seem to pick my feet up anymore.

So here I was out on the trail in middle of the night with only 20 miles to go, on pace to break a race record for those traveling on foot. This was what I was thinking one minute and then a few minutes later I was thinking, "Holy Shit, how am i possibly going to run 20 miles feeling like this"???

I quickly stopped thinking about 20 hours and about Pete Basinger zipping through here on his bike, and then I stopped thinking about 21 or 22 or 23 or any other number of hours... i just wanted to finish. I put my head down an shuffled along hoping to get to a point where the pain became the norm such that I wouldn't feel it anymore. I achieved this every now and then for about 30 minutes at a time but then I would snap back to reality and feel every muscle in my body telling me to stop. I walked for awhile but that didn't help much. I started running again and the pain would return. When I started to walk for the second time I also started feeling cold. I had added the right amount of clothing at Flathorn if I were still moving at the same pace but since I was now moving much slower I wasn't generating as much heat and I was constantly fighting off chills. I debated whether to stop on the trail and get more clothing out of my sled, but then I would look down at the trail through the thin light of my headlamp and just try not to think about anything for a few miles, hoping I could block out the cold and aching muscles just long enough to finish.

Somewhere in the midst of all this Jill went cruising past me on her bike. I don't remember anything we said to each other, but I was so glad that she was back in front of me. I knew that this was mentally a good thing for her and somehow it was also a good thing for me. Now she was coasting on toward the finish and I was shuffling along completely on my own, and somehow this was comforting. I was cold, tired, and aching all over - and yet in some ways this last 5 or 10 miles became my favorite part of the race. For most of the last 5 miles I was able to pick up the pace a little bit and as I did so I noticed that I was blocking out pain more effectively than I had ever done before. for a few minutes I would focus on the pain and then I would go 15+ minutes where I forgot about it entirely. And then there was a junction in the trail that I knew was only 2 or 3 miles from the finish. Just knowing that I was this close gave me enough energy to run this last stretch at a pace similar to that which I was doing several hours earlier in the middle of the race.

Last year, when I ran the Little Susitna 50k, I crossed the finish line and dropped to the ground, I felt like I couldn't move another step. As I finished the 100 last week, though, I simply slowed to a walk as I saw the race director approaching me to record my time. I was relieved to be done and my legs were in unexplainable pain, but a small part of me felt like I could keep going, and that I wanted to keep going. I suppose this is the same part of me that has been trying to tell me all week that I should do the 350 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational next year.

After recording my official time of 21 hours and 43 minutes, there was nothing left to do but to sit down and begin the recovery process. Little did I know that this was actually just the start of the real pain and suffering. For the next 12 hours I felt like I had been run over by a truck a few times and then placed on a spinning amusement park ride for a couple hours until my body was finally deposited into a small cabin somewhere in Alaska that was heated to about 85 degrees.
It took me about an hour to take off my shoes and change my socks. I was trying to drink liquids and eat food but my body didn't really want any of this. It was simply trying to reject everything. I remained in this state more or less that entire day and then finally later that night my body calmed down and suddenly I couldn't feed it and hydrate it fast enough.

I had some toes that were messed up pretty badly and some very sore muscles in my legs, but within 4 days this was all more or less recovered. I haven't been back out for a run yet, but I've xc skied about 40 miles in the last 4 days and will probably go for a short run tomorrow just to be sure everything's working properly. After all, it's never too early to start training for next year's 350.

By the way, my time was about 20 minutes slower than twice as much as the overall race winner, Pete Basinger who as I write this is in the final stretches of the Iditarod Trail Invitational. He is currently on pace to break the race record by several hours. Check out the Iditarod Trail Invitational page if you're interested in seeing how he's doing.

Here's some specifics on what I ate during the race for those who are interested in that kind of thing:
Hammer Perpetuem (sustained energy mix) - about 2000 calories
Cytomax (sports drink mix) - about 1000 calories
7 Fruit Leathers (dried fruit) - about 300 calories
4 Granola Bars - about 700 calories
1 Sandwich - about 400 calories
Hammer Gel Raspberry flavor - about 500 calories
Hammer Gel Espresso flavor w/caffeine - about 200 calories
Walnuts - about 400 calories
Chocolate - about 400 calories
Rice, Cornbread, and Oranges at Flathorn - about 600 calories
Total Calories: ~6500

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

HI,
I AM ITALIAN RUNNER AND I WOULD LIKE TO RACE TO SUSITNA LITTLE NEXT YEAR,DO YOU HAVE SOME CONSEILS AND TIPS ? BEST REGARDS FROM ITALY

Geoff said...

post your email address and i will get in touch with you.

Anonymous said...

Ok Geoff,my adresse is: f.bazzani@tiscali.it.
Best and good training
Bazzo

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