Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Taking the High Road

I don't like running uphill. Also, I'm not very good at it. "Well, Barry" the sensible and reasoned response might be, "perhaps you should avoid running up hills". However, I am neither a sensible nor reasonable person, and after seeing this video:

I found myself signed up to race The North Face Endurance Challenge San Francisco 50-miler. Now the above video doesn't necessarily give a good indication of the hilliness of the course, but this elevation profile

does. Don't panic, the Americans haven't embraced the metric system yet, so mercifully, the y-axis is in feet. What I'm eventually going to get round to saying here is that I needed to get good at running hills. Or, more realistically, at least used to the idea of spending lots of time trudging up them.

Canadians don't have very good imaginations when it comes to naming their roads. So it'll come as no surprise to learn that "Mountain Highway" is exactly that: a long, winding road that takes you from suburban North Vancouver to the top of Grouse Mountain. It's pretty unrelenting and probably the least interesting place to run on the whole of the North Shore. But training-wise, it's unfortunately hard to beat in terms of getting experience of long, constant, just-about-runnable uphill.

Knowing this, myself and Alex had resolved to run up and down Mountain Highway on Sunday. Twice. It's just over 12 km from top to bottom, so you're looking at roughly 50 km of hilly goodness. Neither of us were particularly enthralled by the prospect of this training run. This only increased for me on Sunday morning when I noticed that the ankle stiffness I'd started to experience on my run the previous day was still lingering. "I dunno", my internal monologue muttered, "perhaps  you shouldn't go out and run for five hours today". But then the competitive jerk side of my brain chipped in with a brusque "Shut up body, you'll do what I tell you". So that's how we found ourselves at 8 o'clock on a chilly Sunday morning at the base of Mountain Highway, desperately trying to distract ourselves from what lay ahead.

Fortunately, the grade of this road is just about shallow enough to sustain an actual running pace, so we began with a gentle jog that was still fast enough that the first few kilometres clicked by fairly quickly. I'd like to think that the wilderness inspired us to ponder some of life's greater philosophical questions, but really we spent most of the ascent gossiping about mutual friends and making supportive noises about each other's questionable life decisions. Still, in no time we were getting high up the mountain. At this point, despite the fact that the weather had been unseasonably dry for the past few days, a number of icy patches appeared on the road. It was while gingerly trying to step over one of these that I slipped and fell flat on my back, thus maintaining my impeccable record of wiping out on all the least technical surfaces in the Lower Mainland (the wide, flat trails of the Pacific Spirit Park around UBC are my chief bĂȘte noire).

Still, we made it to the top without too much trouble and turned around to eagerly embrace the descent. This was altogether more fun and at 10:31, only a minute later than my predicted ETA, we were back at the bottom. In the previous few days, Alex had been rightfully worried about me being her only source of entertainment for a five-hour training run and had been desperately trying to recruit suckers friends to join us. Sadly, inexplicably, nearly everyone seemed to have something better to do. Apart from Ben. Ben cheerfully informed us that he hadn't done a long run for a while and had never run on the North Shore. I quietly marvelled at the language Alex must have used to convince him to join us, but as we turned round to head back up the mountain, now we were three.

Yeah, you're smiling now...
Of course, the two-and-a-half hours that Alex and I already had under our belts meant that we were well warmed-up, whereas Ben was not long out of bed, and possibly slightly hungover. Which is to say, that while me and Alex chatted jovially as we trotted up the mountain, Ben quickly became a picture of grim, heavy-breathing, determination. After about another half an hour we were almost starting to feel guilty about dragging him out of his lovely warm home for this ridiculous stunt, but then he seemed to perk up, picked up the pace and struck out ahead. Now he was pulling us along, which we were grateful for as the weather had taken on an altogether more wintry feel with snow coming down with increased persistence.

The last few kilometres to the top seemed to drag on a lot more this time; yes, we were starting to get a bit tired. And cold. And hungry. But eventually the Grouse Mountain chalet loomed out of the clouds. There was a temptation to go inside to warm up briefly, but I was worried about the danger of being seduced by the warmth, coffee and smell of baked goods. So after a brieft photo op

we turned back around again for our final leg. Ben had clearly been fantasising about the downhill stretch for some time and quickly settled into a rapid pace. Alex and I, however, were definitely feeling it a lot more in our thrashed quads. While I'd only managed an easy trot around the seawall the previous day, Alex gradually revealed that she'd been on an epic 3-hour mountain run on the Sunshine Coast, and I think it was finally starting to catch up. Still, by this point, the novelty of being constantly blizzarded in the face was starting to wear thin so we pushed on, and soon enough, were back at the car. We felt pretty pleased with ourselves. We'd got through a run that was tough both mentally and physically, and Ben hadn't pushed us off the side of the mountain in anger. Nearly 50 km of running including 1,500 m of elevation gain in just over five hours. A solid morning's work.

Nutritional Information
  • Pre-run: juice, oatmeal with banana and honey, cup of coffee
  • While running: water (about half a litre?)
  • Post-run: chocolate milk, a kamut bar (I've no idea what kamut is, but it was delicious, so thanks to Alex's friend Lucy for that), more coffee
  • Brunch at the Tomahawk BBQ: two cups of coffee and the "Yukon Breakfast" which consisted of two eggs, two slices of toast, hash browns and most of a small pig, thinly sliced and fried.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Cougar Mountain 50k

I told Alicia, my partner in running crime for the weekend, that I would pick her up around 1 pm. As I rolled up at 2:30, she bounded towards the car clad in hot pink yoga pants, and clutching a yoga mat, as befits a Lululemon employee. "I love it when people are late!" she exclaimed, setting what I hoped was to be the tone for a relaxed weekend ahead.

We were headed to Washington to run the Cougar Mountain 50k. For reasons that aren't exactly clear to me now, we'd both found ourselves signed up for The North Face Endurance Challenge Series San Francisco Championship 50-miler. 50 miles. Or, 80 km. I'm not sure which is less intimidating. Anyway, the point of this weekend was to run the 50 km race as a kind of "training run with aid stations". As it would turn out, we both more or less ignored the aid stations, but having an organized run with lots of people around sounded like a good way to get in a long training run.

We crossed the border quickly and stopped off in Bellingham to pick up supplies. Alicia was insistent that this close to Halloween, we should attempt to accessorize our running outfits appopriately. Fortunately I managed to distract her into only buying a pair of children's gloves festooned with pictures of spiders, evading her attempts to persuade me to run 50 km wearing a Darth Vader mask. We then confronted the task of nutrition, which was made more difficult by the fact that both pumpkin-flavoured beers and Winter ales were in season. Eventually, we made some tough decsisions, and as an afterthought, picked up some food too:

Spirits buoyed we then made a brief stop at REI, where I became ludicrously over-excited by LIMITED EDITION seasonal Clif bars:

Clearly, I'm a marketing man's dream. (But if anyone from Clif is reading and would like me to review any of your delicious, yet nutritious products, please feel free to send me a few cases of goodies. Just sayin').

Now fully equipped, we hit the road again and after a couple more hours in the driving rain, found ourselves at our hotel. We checked in and immediately abused the kind offer of free cookies in the lobby. Then, as seasoned athletes, we carefully considered our pre-race nutritional needs in order to maximize our performances the following day. We ordered in pizza and cracked a couple of beers.

Alicia wandered off to peruse the hotel's DVD collection, to find us something suitably motivating for the challenge ahead. I wasn't sure what she'd find. Maybe something like Into the Wild or even Unbreakable: The Western Sates 100. Instead she came back

Oh deer.

with Bambi. Rather than making me feel at one with the wilderness, it just left me with a deep sense of resentment towards my fellow man. But maybe that aggression would come in handy, right?

We had a quick glance over an elevation profile that I'd dug up and agreed that the online course description - "...rolling hills, a few moderate climbs and a few steep but short inclines." was a little disingenuous. This beast allegedly had 7,600 ft of climbing over 50k, which is, you know, significant. Still, a bit late to do anything about that now, so we turned in for the night.

As seems to happen to me far too often these days, I awoke confused at six o'clock on Sunday morning by an alarm going off. It was still dark outside, but I was cheered by the absence of torrential rain. We breakfasted, packed and stole a large number of questionable items from the free breakfast buffet. Arriving at the lobby to check out, we bumped into Ryne and Kristin, two stalwarts of the Vancouver trail running scene, also down to run the race. Ryne's run over a hundred trail races so we were cheered when he told us how enjoyable the trails are on Cougar.

After a short drive to the start of the race, we suddenly realized that the weather was a lot dryer and milder than we were expecting and quickly abandoned unnecessary items. The race started with a lap of a water-logged field, the idea being to spread the runners out before hitting the trails. It also had the side-effect of completely soaking one's feet within seconds, thus obviating the need for any complicated puddle-avoidance manoeuvres.

As I completed this lap at what was clearly a way-too-fast pace, I noted there was a group of maybe half-a-dozen guys ahead of me, which felt about right from what I'd seen of the entrants list. I forced myself to settle into a more comfortable pace as we transitioned from a dirt road on to a leaf-strewn trail and the race began to play itself out.

The initial few kilometres were tough. Not bothering with any kind of pre-race warm-up, my legs felt stiff and I struggled a little with pace. Things weren't helped by the first few climbs where my calves and ankles felt decidedly achy. Now, I'm not a good uphill runner, so I'm happy to power-hike at the first sign of anything remotely steep. Not so for the chasing pack, who were happy to breeze past me. I quickly lost a few more positions. Not a problem, I thought, just run your own race.

Eventually, I started to settle into some kind of rhythm and had some back-and-forth fun with a couple of guys who were faster on the uphills than me, but slower on the downs. After about 12 km, we hit the first major descent of the race, an enormously fun series of switchbacks. As I galloped down these I made a mental note to enjoy this as much as possible, because I sure as hell wasn't going to enjoy it when I had to clamber back up this way later on. Eventually, the trail gave way to a service road and I trotted past an aid station on a major road crossing. At this point, I was relieved to see a number of people turning back as they were running the considerably less hilly 20 mile race. I was now leaving "Cougar" mountain, and heading to the amusingly named "Squawk" mountain.

Although the fun pretty much stopped there, as Squawk immediately started with a steep climb. I was passed by a couple more people, including one Ather Haleem. Still, the climb was more or less what I was expecting and was actually pleasantly surprised when the ascent seemed to stop. Back on to some more runnable terrain, I started to enjoy myself. "What a nice shiny bridge", I thought as I approached a creek crossing. "Actually", I pondered as my right foot slid out from underneath me and I crashed to the deck, "perhaps 'slick' would be a better adjective". Landing heavily on my left side, I was relieved to see that no-one was around to witness my embarrassing fall. I gingerly resumed running, resolving to treat any future man-made structures with significant suspicion.

There were a few more climbs before hitting another sustained descent. As the overgrown trail gradually widened, I picked off a few of the people who'd passed me earlier. Then as the trail gave way to another service road, I picked up the pace even more, and noted that at one instant my Garmin was reporting a 3:19 min/km pace. Deciding that it probably wasn't sensible to run this fast, and also that it was probably even less sensible to be staring at my watch while running down a steep, rock-strewn hill, I eased back slightly before the next aid station where they kindly pointed out that I'd run straight past the turning for the next section of the race. We were about half-way and I was feeling pretty perky.

This was the longest sustained climb of the race and I was grateful to have the company of Chris for a section of this. As a local who knew the trails well, it was good to get some inside information on what was ahead. Eventually, he sprang away from me with the youthful exuberance of a man 15 years my junior, although I quickly caught and passed him - and a couple of others - as we hurtled down the third and final major descent, taking us back on to Cougar.

Finding that the aid station didn't have any beer, I declined their other wares and trudged back up the mountain for the final third of the race. I looked around and saw Ather, who I'd recently passed, not too far behind, and was sure that he'd soon catch me as he seemed much stronger on the uphills. Still, we managed to pick off another struggler before he surged past me and at this point I became dimly aware that we were in 6th and 7th places respectively, which I was pretty pleased with.

Over the next few miles, an entertaining game of cat-and-mouse played itself out between myself and Ather. He'd pull away from me on the climbs, then I'd gradually reel him on the downhills. This worked well for me and I found myself pushing the pace more than I'd expected to. We picked off two more runners and were now battling for 4th and 5th positions. Eventually, we came to the final aid station, where Ather stopped to refill his water bottle. I asked the marhsal: "How far to go?" and he replied "Five". Alicia, they don't use the metric system in America. That's five miles.

Spotting a chance to snatch 4th place, and being the competitive jerk that I am, I blasted past Ather and ran hard for the next ten minutes or so, the aim being to crush his spirit by getting out of sight. This seemed to work (well, I couldn't seem him, but I can't comment on the state of his spirit), but I'd not remembered the course elevation profile as well as I'd thought. I was convinced that this last section was mostly flat, but there were still several significant climbs. Pushing the uphills as hard as I could for fear of being caught, the last few miles were a struggle. As the trails opened up, I asked a marshal if I was nearly done. "Oh yes", he replied and a few seconds later the finish line was in sight. Managing to muster a sprint for the final four or five metres, I crossed the line in 5:09:48 for fourth place overall. A 50k PB by well over an hour, I felt pretty pleased with myself. Then I felt really thirsty. And hungry. So I set about demolishing the finish line buffet with a sense of grim determination.

Photo courtesy of Glenn Tachiyama

Eventually, I realized that I was getting a bit cold. I also realized that I smelled really, really bad. So I went to the car to change, which was unfortunately timed as I missed Alicia crossing the finish line. Afterwards, she skipped towards the car with a hapless young man in tow, who informed me that she'd caused something of an upset by beating the local favourite to win the women's race and also set a new course record.

Photo courtesy of Glenn Tachiyama

It turns out we'd had very similar race experiences, plodding slowly uphill but making up for it by blasting the downhills. We'd both made the same ill-judged decisive move at the final aid-station and were even suffering from the same embarrassing post-race "discomfort".

We returned to the finish line after grabbing a six pack of Blue Moon from the trunk and found it easy to make new friends. Eventually, after picking up Alicia's gift certificate prize, and the cashing it in at a local running store, we headed back home, feasting en route on left-over pizza, disgusting breakfast muffins and other ill-gotten gains. A challenging, very well put-together race, great people and very satisfying performances - a successful weekend. I'd highly recommend the Cougar Mountain 50k and will definitely try to get back for it next year.

Nutritional Information

I don't fuel well. I ran with a hydration pack containing one litre of water. This ran out about 20 minutes before the end of the race, so not disastrous. I had an assortment of Clif products with me, but only consumed three Shot Bloks (that's cubes, not packs) and half a Clif Bar... so about 200 calories. Didn't turn out to be a problem on the day, but it's probably something I should think about more for longer races.