Sunday, March 3, 2013

ITI Analysis and Other Observations

It's been quite some time since I've posted anything on here. Not a whole lot is new with me. Still far from recovered, but slowly getting a bit better with the passing months (with some definite bumps in the road along the way). As my health improves I'm becoming gradually a bit more active, but my main focus lately has been on things other than running. It's easy for me to go for a hike or a bike ride and take it really easy. With running though it's not so easy for me to keep it mellow. For this reason I've mostly been avoiding much running, as a means of avoiding overdoing it too soon.

I took a trip with Elle out to southern Utah a couple weeks ago. Forgot how much I love it out there. I'm not sure exactly what it is even, but I can be anywhere in the Utah desert and just walk off into the landscape and explore for hours on end. Most places I've ever been I need to seek out things within the landscape that interest me: creeks, mountain viewpoints, interesting plants, etc. In Southern Utah though, I can be anywhere and just walk off through the land and be entirely captivated by the simplest things: sand, rocks, juniper trees, pine cones, etc. Even in Alaska, where I love the land so deeply, it isn't as intriguing to me on a micro scale as is Southern Utah. Corle and Elle have spring break in 3 weeks, and I'm counting down the days, because we're taking off to Utah as soon as they're both out of class for 9 days.

The past week I've spent closely following the Iditarod Trail Invitational. It's been a crazy year for this race (I guess every year is a crazy year for this race). The top 7 or 8 bike finishers all broke the previous race record. The interesting thing about this is that they really weren't riding any of the stretches any faster than many previous years, they just didn't take any rest. They were certainly aided by a trail that didn't seem to have any serious bad stretches (unlike last year in which the entire trail was pretty much "bad"), but more than anything I think there were just so many strong riders that they just kept pushing on with no rest. This seemed to break a few of them, but many of them were able to hang on to the end, going more than two and a half days without any legitimate sleep! It will be interesting to see if this is a trend that continues into future races (when the trail is good). My approach to this race has always been to rest a little more than most people, and then move faster when I am on the move. This is in the foot division though, in which you pretty much have to sleep because you are going to be out there well over 4 days no matter how you do it. On a bike though, it seems like this year's race may open up a door in which riders at the front of the pack essentially ride the race with no sleep. Of course this all is dependent on trail conditions, and in well over half the years to come it just won't be an option at all to finish in under 3 days (at which point you almost certainly need to mix in a more substantial amount of rest).

In the foot division, Dave Johnston went for it right from the start and made the first ever serious threat to Steve Reifenstuhl's race record of 4 days 15 hours. In the end Dave came up about 4 hours short, but his run could have changed some things for the way this event is approached by runners in the future as well. Until this year I think most people (myself included) thought that Steve was essentially a maniac, and that no one would ever make a serious attempt at doing this race faster than he did on foot. I can put together the pieces in my mind to see how you could do this race in about the time that Steve did, but this would be absolutely best case scenario, as soon as one thing goes wrong that sets you back 2 or 3 hours you are not going to make it. My thought has always been that over the course of 350 miles something will have to go wrong. For this reason I have always thought of Steve's record here as the most impressive performance I am aware of in endurance athletics. I still feel this way, but it was really cool to see Dave come so close to cracking the puzzle. Can't wait to hear Dave's perspective on it. My guess is that he can easily pick out some areas in which he could have made up 4 hours, because that's just the way racing is.

Beyond this I was super stoked to see my good friend Joe finish as strong as he did. He tied for second in the foot division, and his time is certainly one of the fastest ever on foot for a rookie in this race. Normally I don't take much credence in the idea that being a rookie is a huge disadvantage in a race. Even in a 100 mile race you really don't need to have much knowledge of the race and the course to have a great race. You are going to go out and run the entire course in one shot, it will typically be marked quite well the full distance of the course, and at the end of the day all you really need to do is go out and run the thing as fast as you can. Course knowledge might be able to get you and extra 10 or 15 minutes, but when people talk about past experience on a particular course meaning anything much more than that I think they are over dramatizing the  situation. In the case of the ITI though, I do think race experience is a huge factor. You aren't doing this race in one strong push as fast as you can go. You are constantly making decisions about when to push on, when to rest, when to push hard, when to take it easy. You go through several different phases over the course of the race in which you are so worn out that you can't continue to move. You rest and then move on. The management of these cycles is the most important part of doing the ITI quickly. As Jeff Oatley, one of the most accomplished ITI cyclists told me: You are constantly making decisions about what to do at a given time in the race based on where you will be and what you will be doing 50 or 100 miles down the trail. If you have never seen what lies in the next 50 or 100 miles you will have a much harder time making the most efficient decisions. Yes, it could be said that this dynamic exists in any race that you do, and to some degree I suppose it does, but in the ITI you go beyond a tipping point in which this kind of knowledge and experience can go from making a 10 or 15 minute difference to something more like a 15 or 20 hour difference (or more). All of this said though, I'm pretty sure Steve Reifenstuhl was a race rookie when he set the race record in 2005 (which either debunks my whole theory here, or makes his performance all that much more impressive - probably a bit of both).


spruceboy said...

I am pretty sure steve and rocky did the 2000 version of the ITI (or whatever they called it back then) together on foot, so steve was not really a rookie in 2005. Dave Johnston seemed in very good shape at the finish - quite a contrast to the stories about how wrecked steve was when he finished.

Unknown said...

Love seeing your pictures from Alaska. We did a Cruise/tour in 2011 that followed the gold rush from Anchorage all the way up to the Yukon Territory. Pictures just do not do it justice.

Bryon Powell said...

I hear you about just wandering in Southern Utah. During our just ended 6-week stay, I had many multiple hour wanders into the La Sal foothills with no purpose... just looking, poking, absorbing, reflecting. That, perhaps more than anything else, is why I want to live there. I'm a kid in the woods again. Everything is special. There are many secrets and even more treasures. From wash to swell to ridge to summit, I want to get to know as much of it as I can.


Alaska Ultra Sport said...

Steve R. did the early Iditasport in 2000 and one more year I think. He was definitely experienced on the Iditarod Trail, but also already in his 50's when he set the record in 2005. He was pulling a tiny sled maybe 10-15 lbs. we called a lunchbox ( I was in the race that year and saw Steve on the trail)I heard Dave J. was pulling a 30-35 lbs sled. Steve walks instead of running and only stops 2-3 hours at the time. He averages about 3,5 -4 mph Great analysis Geoff. We hope to see you back out there on the trail.

Phil said...

The ITI is an interesting beast, such contrast year to year. Sections of trail that took an epic amuont of time previous years, whiz by this time around and vice versa. It's what makes it so addictive to me.

Unknown said...

Winter Ultra snow racing on foot is sort of a specialty sport, not for everyone but very addictive to those who try. The ITI is an extra unique race with variables such as weather, gear, sleep, food and safety that has to be dealt with on a daily basis for 350 miles. This is not an easy race no matter what speed you attempt it at, nor an easy race to walk either, with mile after mile of never ending whiteness that can really start to make you go mad. So how fast can you complete the ITI and can you "run" it the entire way. These are the questions i asked myself. Steve Reifenstuhl is a maniac and proved that this race can be done very fast. Find and read his race report , (it quite frankly scared me when i read it) yes his 2005 race should go down in history as one of the greatest endurance feats ever preformed. His courage and determination could have killed him and the people that assisted him at the finish line could not believe how close to the limits he pushed himself. Before the start of the 2013 ITI I knew I could not do this race like Steve (it would kill me) but i started thinking about running the entire distance and felt that i could maybe do 70 miles a day at best day after day for 5 days. I would only be able to sleep 2 hours a day to pull this off. (This was the biggest test and I had no clue I could go day after day on two hours sleep but I was going to try)) The rest of the time would be spent tending to my feet, eating, having a couple of beers and socializing (this was key because it took my mind off of the intensity of the race even for a short while). My sled and gear was heavy by my standards (36 lbs total)(this is where i will take off time in the future, lighter gear choices) but i had what i needed to survive a couple of days without shelter in the Alaskan elements. The weight you carry is the most crucial element of this race. It is a gamble. Steve Reifenstuhl risked it all and carried 15 lbs. I was not willing to do that, to go after a record. You also have to ask yourself are you willing to have a DNF in this race to go after the record (for me, no way, it is way too time consuming and expensive to risk it, and it only comes once a year and is an Invitational). So if you leave your overflow boots at home and there is miles of overflow (DNF), If you leave your snowshoes and the trail is overblown with 3 feet of snow for 100 miles (DNF), Sixty below and you bought your 10 below jacket (DNF) get it. This event is so long that you will experience many many problems and you have to decide on your feet how to overcome them. This year for me (a bad cold on day one, chronic diarrhea day two, blown knee day three and bad stomach/lack of appetite the entire distance) but i made the decision that i must go on. Multiple times I almost started to cry but scolded myself to wait til the finish and buck up buddy. At mile 210 I left the Rohn aid station at 2pm Wednesday (exactly 3 days).(effort wise Rohn is halfway). This was the number one goal I had set for myself (Rohn 3 days) to test the waters of this race. I had now become hardened and knew I would "run" the entire distance. After that, I put my head down and didn't look up til the finish. I ran about 4 mph every step I ran, walked every uphill, and screamed the downhills. I came up four hours short of the record but was all smiles at the finish and guzzled two Budweiser's. Hours later my beautiful wife surprised me and flew out to the finish in McGrath, i broke down in tears. My legs and feet took a severe beating and are very swollen, my knee is still hurt pretty badly and my mind lost some of its sharpness but i proved to myself that this course can be run and that Steve's impossible record is within reach. So i suggest to you racers out there; saw off your toothbrush handles, borrow a super-lightweight down bag, brush up on your wilderness skills and sign up for the 2014 ITI ASAP!!!!

David Johnston

Geoff said...

Awesome response Dave, great to get a little taste of what you went through out there. So much good info in your analysis. I can't wait to give this one another crack one of these years soon. thanks for sharing.