Monday, June 23, 2014

A Summer's Eve on Mount Moosilauke

I finally got around to playing with the GoPro I picked up a few months ago. I'm pretty pleased with how this came out for my first try. I spent less than ninety minutes running and gathering footage, and about five hours editing and compiling it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

So Close I Can Smell It: Pemi Loop FKT Attempt - 6/8/14

For me, running the Pemi Loop is an exercise in excessive optimism. I suppose it needs to be. I'm much stronger than last year, surely I can shave off twenty minutes. This thought, a good trail condition report, an excellent weather forecast, and the realization that I hadn't made a visit to the Pemi Loop in over two years led me to make my return. For perhaps the thirteenth time I ran the 50k-ish, 9000 foot course on June 8th with the aim of going as fast as possible and maybe regaining the FKT.

On my last attempt in 2012 I had the benefit of frenzied mountain training for Hardrock, but only managed to shave a token two minutes off my 2011 time. This go 'round, I reasoned I had the benefit of my marathon training for greater leg speed. Plus, I would go lighter than ever before. I'd wear 8-ounce New Balance trail shoes with sticky-rubber outsoles, rather than 12-ounce Brooks Cascadia cinder blocks - feared for their poor grip on wet rock. I finally found a pair of running shorts with good pockets so I could cram in 10 ounces of gel, a small headlamp, and an ultralight windshirt rather than actually carrying a pack. This would force me to use hand bottles for water, with a reduced overall capacity, but would make it easy to refill out of wild water sources on the move. After some research, I've become more comfortable with selectively employing this practice (lots of good information here at Far North Endurance). I'll also say that I wouldn't take such a minimalist approach on a day with any credible threat of poor weather but I then wouldn't be attempting an FKT on those days anyway.

The shoe, Minimus Zero V2

On Pemi-day conditions didn't turn out to be ideal, much more humid and warm than I would have liked, and I struggled more than usual in the final miles. Right now, over a week later, I can recall the damp composting smell of late spring on the Garfield Ridge Trail. It's a little strange to me, but during a hard effort like this I'm left with short, vivid snapshots in my memory from a few particular places and they're not always visual. This one is kind of a distinct Pemi-Loop smell; rotting leaves and moss mixed with B.O. and a whiff of ammonia. Maybe the sound of trickling water and my own labored breathing on the background. That's what I have associated with the the route.

To make a long report short, I cut almost five minutes off my personal best time but came up eleven minutes short of the FKT in 6:38:21. What's spooky to me is how utterly consistent my split times have been, something that can bee seen with a little bit of analysis.

I was nearly dead-nuts on my last two attempts until Galehead Hut, where I pulled ahead of my old times a little. Some time was lost dilly-dallying on Franconia Ridge but I gained it back on the descent of the Osseo Trail from Flume (remember that leg speed thing?). If this were a three-way race I'd have been almost always within sight of my 2011 and 2012 selves for much of the route. This despite several factors in my favor (lighter wight, greater experience) and several factors against me (heat, the generally deteriorating condition of the Bondcliff Trail). Another notable point is that my time to the the junction between the Garfield Ridge and Franconia Brook Trails is a very good indicator of final finishing time, halfway by the clock and accurate to within a five minute margin.

As for the whole water capacity thing, I could have comfortably made it to Garfield Spring with only a single hand bottle. I filled up once on the way up the Bondcliff Trail, then again at the spring where I chugged a bottle and was able to ration my 40 ounce capacity for the rest of the day. I did finally run dry on Mount Flume but at that point I was only 45 minutes from the parking lot and could tolerate a little bit of cotton mouth.

And now I'm left searching for those remaining 11 minutes. This is the best kind of challenge, difficult but feasible. I feel more or less tapped out as far as flat ground and descending speeds go, so I'll need to get stronger on the climbs and improve my stamina. This will mean lots of easy base-building aerobic activity as well as a focus on hill repeats and the like. That combined with a cool, dry day (perhaps this September) and maybe I can get back in the record books, however fleetingly.

What is somewhat gratifying to me is the realization of just how much I've improved since my first Pemi Loop in 2005. If I were to race my 2005 self, I'd be rolling out of my own bed right around the time my slower self left the Lincoln Woods parking lot in the dark. I'd have enough time to make coffee and eat breakfast at home, make the ninety minute drive up North, then pass my old self somewhere on the Twinway. From there, I'd steadily pull away and be home with enough daylight to drink a beer and mow the dandelions on my horribly neglected lawn, all well before dusk, while 2005-Adam would stagger the final few miles down the Wilderness Trail to the car and probably stop at McDonald's on the way home in pathetic desperation. Progress is beautiful thing, regardless of how it relates to the cutting edge of your sport.

GPS Track:

Monday, June 16, 2014

Spring Training Part 2: Refocus

My ankle healed fast and I went from hobbling to some careful trail running within a week. Despite the initial swelling and bruising, I seem to have gotten off easy without substantially tearing anything. Being back on my feet helped my mental state immensely and I just kind of let go of the feelings I had for Massanutten; instead refocusing on the upcoming Manitou's Revenge in the Catskills and running in the mountains for it's own sake.

The mountains have held onto their snow cover longer than in recent years, so I stayed local for a while. I'm fortunate to have Bear Brook State Park in my backyard:

Hedgehog Ledge Trail
Feedin' time

Southern White Mountain ranges tend to melt out earlier, so I paid a visit to the Squam Range:

North to Waterville Valley
Mount Morgan
South to the Lakes Region
 A favorite mountain running route of mine is the Mount Osceola from Waterville Valley, by way of Mount Tecumseh. It's a good twenty mile out & back trip with 8,000 feet of gain that's not too far of a drive.

Old Man Winter Lingers...
Neat view into the heart of the Pemi from Osceola
Tripyramids from Osceola
Mighty Mount Tecumseh's Summit
 Then, feeling rather adventurous, I devised a 40+ mile, 17000' gain route to enchain most of the peaks in the Pemi. Things didn't go as planned and I ended up cutting the route short to about 31 miles with only 12000' gain.

Fog and rain on Franconia Ridge
Descending Lincoln Slide
The sun finally comes out on South Twin
North Twin
Birch glades on the abandoned Hale Fire Warden's Trail

My family was out of of town, so I decided to make a full weekend of it. Sunday brought a fun run on Mount Washington, with a side trip to Mount Isolation.

Lakes of the Clouds
Atop Mt. Monroe
Pepperoni on Mount Isolation
A brave bird
The Davis Path
Tuckerman Ravine
Mt. Washington
The new diesel Cog. This one doesn't set the grass on fire.
The Great Gulf
Whether this will influence my performance at Manitou's, I don't know. I've certainly enjoyed myself enough that I'm tempted to just not bother with formal races sometimes. From what I understand, Manitou's will be the first true mountain 50 miler in the East. It's what a race on the Hut Traverse would be like if we could have such nice things. Normally you'd have to go to Pyrenees of the Alps for something like that because so much of the best American terrain is off limits. On top of that, it appears that the field is quite stacked this year; Mikhaylov, Nephew, Welts, Wellford, Ruseiki, all names with strong results and FKTs associated with them. Even in a race that suits my strengths I'm going to have an uphill battle competitively.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Spring Training Part 1: Disappointment

The Massanutten 100 in Fort Valley, Virginia was supposed to be my Spring 2014 focus race. I've run it twice before in 2010 and 2011 with finishing times of 28:50 and 23:17, respectively, and I was looking forward coming back to what was a personal breakout for me three years ago. 2011 was my first time in the top-ten of a major ultra and I've not finished outside the top-ten in the eight 100-milers I've done since then. There was alot of potential unlocked at Massanutten in 2011 and my hope was that I could use some of the things I learned from marathon training to dig even deeper.

As such, I began to ramp up my mileage this spring and included more quality workouts than ever before, culminating in a peak five week period that would include four 50K races before a short taper. There are plenty of April and May 50Ks to choose from in New England and I pretty much decided to run them all. I'd used them to boost my weekly mileage, get some quality long runs in, keep my enthusiasm high, and have some fun.

The Cape Cod Trail Race came first on April 6, with five 10K loops on conservation land outside Otis Air Force Base. It was a good opportunity to get out on some dry trails while everything in the woods back home in New Hampshire was still locked under snow and ice. The course was a little slower than I expected with some notable elevation gain, tight singletrack, and rock gardens to run through, but that's a good thing. I barely squeaked out a sub-four hour finish in 3:59:21 for second place to Eric Ahern. With lap times of 45:00, 45:42, 47:00, 49:55, and 51:43, I could have run a more evenly paced race but I was never really in contention for the win and I just chalked it up to a learning experience.

On April 19 was the Traprock 50K in Bloomfield, Connecticut. This course has a reputation for being very technical, and it is in places, but there are quite a few easy miles were one can stretch their legs and open up their stride a bit. I find that people tend remember the hardest parts of any given course and, combined with a tendency towards exaggeration across the board in ultrarunning, this makes most races sound more fearsome than they really are. In any case, Traprock has many similarities to Massanutten and I enjoy it enough to return for a third go. My last time here in 2013 was something of a disaster as I'd picked up a stomach virus from my daughter that decided to rear it's ugly head on the third and final loop. It put me on my knees with vomiting and other unmentionable digestive indignities and put her in the emergency room.

I was in the lead for a while on the first lap (1:24:46) with some enjoyable conversation before deliberately throttling back and falling to fourth place on the second lap (1:31:20) in an effort to be more conservative. On the third and final lap (1:37:31) I moved up to second and was hunting the leader, my good friend Ryan Welts. I drew within a few minutes of him, close enough to shout out a warning that he'd better move his ass when we passed by on an out-and-back section. He must've listened because I was unable to catch up and finished five minutes back in 4:33:42.

Next was the TARC Spring Classic on April 26 in Weston, Massachusetts, which I'd be running for the fourth year in a row. The race is well organized with a good community of regulars. It's also a fast course as far as legit trails go with negligible elevation gain and easy footing for 90% of the 10K loop. Every time I come here I've set a new 50K personal best and I was hungry to improve further. This year the weather could only be described as atrocious; the temperature hovered around 40 degrees all day with a heavy rain. My long sleeve shirt was quickly saturated and clung to my body. Making a fist would wring out my gloves and make water trickle onto the ground. I was able to maintain a hard pace throughout, largely because I needed to fend off hypothermia.

I shared the first lap with Sam Jurek who was less than a week separated from a fast time at the Boston Marathon. He must have been recovering well because he steadily pulled away throughout the race to finish ten minutes ahead of me. I didn't worry about him too much and instead focused on staying as even as possible, which paid off. My lap times were 43:14, 44:04, 44:57, 47:23, and 46:50 - far more consistent than ever before and earning me a 3:46:21 finishing time. While this is only a minute faster than last year, the pace was more even and I felt better at the end; more like an intense training run than an all-out race effort. Oh yeah, and good for second place (again!)

Lastly came the race that would prove to be the hardest of them all, the Big A 50K on May 3rd at Mount Agamenticus in Kittery, Maine. This one was the most low-key, having an old-school fatass feel; just a guy with a watch and a clipboard next to a table of pot-luck junk food at the start/finish line. Agamenticus isn't very tall but when you run up and down the mountain several times on each of the three laps, the gain starts to add up. On top of that it was the most consistently technical course of the spring with legit boulder-hopping and treacherously slick wet slabs near the summit. The views were unmatched as well; visibility stretched from Cape Ann jutting out into the Atlantic on one horizon to snow-capped Mount Washington on the other. A very cool place to have a race indeed. I suffered a minor setback on the first loop when I took a fall and lost my gel flask out of my shorts' pocket, but I was able to improvise with Coke and aid station food until I got my gel back in time for the final lap. My final time was 4:59:28 which I'm told is a course record or something. Of all the races this spring, Big A was my favorite.

So, with all that out of the way, I was feeling pretty confident in my preparation for Massanutten. Possibly in the best shape of my life, which is always a good feeling. And then disaster struck. On a simple mellow run in Bear Brook State Park, my home training area, I turned my ankle on a rock. It wasn't a particularly demanding section of trail, but there was a rock lurking under some dead leaves just the same. I turn my ankles pretty frequently, usually with so little consequence that the term "ankle yoga" gets thrown around among my friends, but this time was different. It hurt badly and before I'd even come to a stop I thought to myself "there goes Massanutten". It took a few minutes for the pain to subside enough for me to think straight but I was able to walk, though not run. I evaluated my options and chose to slowly limp a couple miles to the nearest road where I was able to flag down a ride home.

There was only a week left before the race and while a few days of rest did improve things, I knew that even if I could run at a tolerable pain level, Massanutten's distance, footing, and night running just wasn't a smart move. I emailed the race director and my pacer a few days ahead of time and withdrew my entry. And just like that, after all the preparation I'd put in, my spring and summer changed.

To be continued.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Franconia Ridge Loop - 3/8/2014

Better late than never, I guess...

Following my marathon in February, I'd had just about enough hard training on the roads for a while, so a return to the mountains seemed in order. Two weeks after the race I was feeling the urge to put down a hard effort and I'd heard that the popular Franconia Ridge loop over Mounts Lafayette and Lincoln was in prime condition. I was hoping to strike a balance between recovery and residual speed that would allow me to turn a fast time, despite my lack of recent mountain-specific training. I knew I had improved leg speed, but there hadn't been a lot of vertical over the last couple months.

Wearing tights, studded Gore-Tex trail running shoes, and a small pack I was able to make rapid progress to treeline on the well-packed snow of the Falling Waters Trail. With a stop to throw on my wind shirt (rather like wrestling a Hefty cinch-sack in a stiff breeze) I made the summit of Lil' Haystack in 55:02 and fought a headwind across the ridge to the summit of Lafayette at 1:18:47. By this point I was 15 minutes behind FKT pace but still pleased with progress considering the winter conditions. Uphill on even the friendliest snow is always slower, but downhill is a whole different story...

The Old Bridle Path was a sidewalk-like snowshoe trench, with all the rocks, holes, and other summer obstacles smoothed over I was able to fairly plummet down from the summit, sometimes glissading, other times bounding with full road-running strides. Maybe that marathon training was an asset after all? I hit the parking lot in 1:48:21, having cut the gap on the FKT to only two and half minutes, making the descent from Lafayette in under thirty, and covering the last mile in 6:54.

A couple weeks later Kevin Tilton established a new Fastest Known Time  in 1:45:13. I've heard a few musings that going faster in winter maybe shouldn't "count" towards an FKT, because the experience is so much different. I strongly disagree. Kevin only shaved 37 seconds off Ben Nephew's time (set in June, 2012), which shows that the two seasons can both be very competitive for overall time, so why bother to sub-divide it? Additionally, I like that choosing the best trail conditions adds an extra dimension beyond outright fitness, especially when it's something as counter-intuitive as waiting for cherry conditions in March. In the summer it's up to the runner to select the best day possible; going for speed on a Pemi Loop in the rain would be foolish. Separate seasonal records really only seem justified to me when there's a truly substantial difference in overall time that can't be reasonably overcome; the Hut Traverse in summer versus winter, for example.

Much more to come.