March 10, 2009

Gettin Dirty At The Duo (An Epic Race Experience)

Repeat Offender:

I have run The Dirty Duo 50k once before. It was in 2007 and ended up being my first ever solo win. There was a bit of controversy back then however as two runners missed a turn and ended up back at the start-finish area. One runner, very impressively I will add, got driven back out on course and continued on from where he went wrong. Michael Sanders out of the Seattle area ended up finishing in 2nd place after all of this, just under six minutes back. There was obviously much speculation about who would have won had this not been the case. I took solace in the fact that I was leading when these two runners missed a turn, and that I had run completely solo for the entire second half with not another runner in sight, but none the less it has always felt a little tainted.

Dirty Duo 2009 however will forever go down as one of my personal breakout races! I have NEVER been pushed like I was at this past weekends race. I have NEVER even come close to running as hard as I did this past weekend over a distance like this, and I have NEVER suffered so much immediately following an event.

I had two goals for Dirty Duo 09. First was to try and run under 4hr, and second was obviously try to pull out another win. My time in 07 was 4h25m, and last years winner Darin Bentley ran a 4h11m. I was not aware of anyone eclipsing the 4hr barrier, but I also know the course has changed slightly over the years. This year in particular, due to downed trees and some lingering snow and ice, there was a slight re-route as well. The top of the largest climb was cut short and an alternate trail was to be followed back around. I do not believe this cut off much in the way of distance, but it surely would allot for a time savings of a few minutes by the end of the 50k.

Montrail Teammate Aaron Heidt was in town from Vernon, and all involved knew he would be the favorite on the day. Aaron's specialty is setting course records. Ryne Melcher would end up running the course as part of his training leading up to Chuckanut 50k, in just two weeks time, and Aaron Pitt dropped down to the 25k distance to ensure he was not pushing any injuries that he is still recovering from. Ellie Greenwood lined up for the 50k as well, and we were all off and running at 8am.

A light dusting of snow had fallen overnight yet the sun shone bright as the kms ticked away. I mentioned in my previous posting that I felt I'd need to run the hills to keep up with my teammates...well, I more specifically meant, 'I know I will have to step it up if I intend to compete with Aaron on the day.'

I always start slow and ease my way into ultra races. I always power hike climbs and hammer it out on the descents in ultra races. I almost always manage to finish strong and with enough energy to celebrate wherever I may finish in ultra races. All of that simply had to go out the window on this day. I've been training my ass off. It was time to test out the body.

About twenty minutes in and Aaron was already pulling ahead. I had started out faster than normal, but was still hesitant to push myself right from the get go. I awaited the first sizable downhill, just past the old 'gazebo location' and opened it up to try and make up some ground. By the time we crossed Twin Bridges the first time (maybe 25 min in?) Aaron was only a hundred meters ahead. Shortly thereafter the climbing began and I knew what I had to do. I threw my power hiking experience out the window, shortened my stride, used the brim of my hat to hide the grades ahead, and got my heart rate a pumpin! Once the trail started into a rock and root riddled technical section I quickly made up the gap and even pulled into the lead.

The Race Starts Here:

The big climb starts on Old Buck. There was no question in my mind that Aaron was going to make time on me here, so I ran what I had in me and about 1/2 way up he pulled ahead and eventually disappeared over the top. Once you crest the entire thing you are greeted by a very technical, and now freshly snow covered, descent. I knew before the race even began how this would play out. I simply had to close the gap while I could and I leaned forward and accelerated as fast as my mind would tears started streaming down my face,
"HOLY SHIT yer gonna kill yourself! Yeah, but I HAVE to catch Aaron!"

I just managed to latch onto Aaron as the grade started to flatten and we ran together for a few km until the final descent presented itself to us. Aaron to me,

"You want by?"

"Yeah, might as well."

By the time we hit 'Fisherman's Trail' I had a lead of just a few seconds. This section of the course is completely flat for about three km, and I thought for sure that Aaron would fly past me. I have most certainly improved my flat land speed in the last few months, and it was evident to me now for the very first time. The snow covering the trail certainly played to my favor, but by the time we reached the next steep climb, up 'Homestead', I did not see Aaron behind me. I thought he must've stopped to tie a shoelace and as it turned out he had to stop and pee real quick! Someone mistakenly took his water bottle before the race and he was on a new fluid that apparently wasn't doing him any favors. He worked hard to close the gap though and we hit the upper section, past the parking lot, again running only a stride length apart!

Split Second Decisions:

This was the 1/2 way point in the race. I, as most, had left a 'drop bag' with my fluids to be picked up. I must admit, by this point in time I was very surprised by how strong I was feeling, and that I had been able to hold Aaron off. We came around the corner and a volunteer said to us,

"50k that way. Aid station that way."

She was pointing in two different directions! There was a 'Gazebo' that has been utilized in previous editions of this race, but unfortunately it collapsed this winter under the weight of our December snows. The aid station location was now a few hundred meters out of the direct line of travel. I had a split second decision to make. I knew for a fact that Aaron had to stop here and grab his bottle. I had intended to do the same, but glanced at my handheld and figured I could stretch it until I hit 'Twin Bridges' again.

Me to volley,

"Do we need to go to the table to check in?"

"No! I have your numbers."

And with that, I peeled right, and Aaron was forced to go left. I didn't shoulder check until the trail turned a corner, and I was able to indeed confirm that he had made the pit stop. I put my head down and tried to lengthen the gap as much as possible.

From here we hit a nice technical descent through 'Circuit Eight', and I was positive that my lead was now increasing. Again at the bottom were ran the flat 'Fisherman's Trail' for about 3km until repeating the rest of lap one. Crossing 'Twin Bridges', and utilizing the aid station thanks to Peter Watson and Nicola Gildersleeve, decked out in full Hawaiian gear, including coconut bras, I confirmed my lead was decent and shortly thereafter proceeded into the singletrack trails again.

At this point in the race, with less than 20k to go, I truly thought that I had managed to build enough of a lead to keep Aaron out of sight until maybe the very top of the 'Old Buck' climb again...I was not quite 1/2 way to this climb when I happened to look back on one of the switchbacks. I was in absolute shock when I spotted Aaron closing in on my like a wolf to its prey. For a few seconds I thought my race was over. How the hell am I going to beat this guy? We both know that once we hit 'Old Buck' he's going to power up and over it leaving me in his wake. Could I possibly close that gap a second time if this were the case? Especially with it essentially being 'the home stretch' thereafter? On the first lap I did not run the entire climb up O.B., and I had zero intentions of running much, if any of it, on the second go around. My fate seemed inevitable...and we both knew it.

Aaron caught up to me not a minute later, and I tried to put in a slight push so as to stretch him out just a bit more. I didn't want him getting any time to recover from his effort before we hit the climb. I knew he had to have pushed himself hard because he made no attempt to pass, and I know how Aaron works. If he can pass, he does, and when he does so it is with a near sprint so as to mentally kick you right in the face!

Old Buck was coming up fast. We were again neck and neck. I knew there was no one else close to us.

My Revelation:

Going into this race I had taken plenty of time to reflect upon the last nine months, since I decided to fully dedicate myself to my running. In that time I have competed in six races, not including the Club Fat Ass 50k, ranging in distances from 50k to 100 miles. I won the first three, and have finished second in the last three. Why was I finishing second? Why was I not able to win these races? What was different about these races, or what was I myself doing differently? I was able to step back and honestly say that in each of those second place finishes, I was VERY happy with a second place finish. Essentially, I was not willing to push myself beyond my perceived limits to strive for the win in these races. Of course I ran hard. Of course I suffered, and of course I gave 110%, and of course I never gave up on trying to win. BUT, not once did I lay it all on the line in these races with an all or nothing, going for broke, first place or nothing mentality.

I hit Old Buck. I was fully aware of the fact that Aaron is a better climber than I. That I could not possibly out run him over this terrain, and that we both knew it to be a forgone conclusion that he would distance himself from me before we reached the top. I don't know where it came from because honestly I've never been there before, but I kept my legs pumping and even found the strength whenever the trail slightly relented to put in an extra push. We only spoke once, about half way up the climb,

Aaron to me,
"Are the hairs on the back of your neck standing up yet?" (when you push to your breaking point, the hairs on your neck try to jump off of you skin and your head actually starts to go numb)

"No. I'm saving that for the top of the climb!"

We were now 2/3 of the way to the top, and I was still in the lead! Again I hid under the brim of my hat. The climb doesn't look so bad if you're staring straight at the ground! With only a few hundred meters until the downside, I realized that I was going to hit 'my terrain' while still in the lead. Now it was Aaron's turn to respond by going beyond his comfort zone over the rocks, roots, and snow covered obstacles that lay below.

I laid into that trail with everything that I had, yet I simply could not gain a sizable gap. There was just no give anywhere. I had never experienced anything like this before as I have run a good 90% of my ultras completely solo, rarely pairing off or chasing anyone to this length.

I put in a second push over the next section of the course and was surprised that I finally gained some breathing room! I shoulder checked on one switchback and it was for real, I had at least a few hundred meters of trail on Aaron. I decided to check my GPS watch, to try and pump myself up by confirming how little course there was left to cover...but as soon as I took my eyes off the footing below...WHUMP... I went tits up having slipped on a wet tree route. I could feel at least three areas of my back/side that started throbbing, but I had only one thought,

"Get up you f#$k, he's right behind you!!"

I cleared the final descent and as I turned back onto 'Fisherman's Trail' I got a high five from good friend and volley on the day Wade Repta (also off to Western States this year). I was heading towards Pete and Nicola and my final passing of the 'Twin Bridges' aid station. I thought the race was in my hands. There was still about ten km to go, but I thought I had broken free of Aaron, yet I dared not slow my pace.

Why Won't You DIE!!

As I ran past the aid station I heard yelling but could not decipher what was being said. I should checked left and saw nothing. Then I heard it...

"He's gaining on ya!!"

I shoulder checked right and sure enough, like a nasty flu that just won't quite, Aaron was right on me before I even cut the corner away from the bridge. Aaron has a track background and I thought for sure he would be able to pass and distance me on this flat section, and I again dug deep to prevent that from happening.

We had one decent climb left, up and over 'Homestead', which we hit almost in unison. I managed to run the first 3/4 of the climb, but near the top it became too steep and I was forced into a power hike. I dared not look over my shoulder, just kept my arms and legs swinging as far as they could handle. After a few hundred meters I sensed that if I did not run I would be passed and somehow I was able to power up and over the top of the climb.

We ran through the 'Gazebo Area' aid station together and as the trial widened we were now right next to each other, matching pace stride for stride. Aaron was trying to pass and I had no intentions of conceding after all I'd left on the course till that point in time. Again only a few words were spoken. Aaron to me, with a good natured friend to friend laugh in his voice,

"Never in a million years would I have guessed this to happen out here today!"

A Little White Lie...

I had the home turf advantage and knowing that we were about to run out of double track I accelerated into the stairs that were to follow. Aaron asked me how far we had left to go? Again I made a split second decision...what was a little white lie between friends? Even on a 'full course' year I know DD to be somewhat short, but by how much I had no idea. I was guessing that we had no more than 6km to go, but at the very moment my GPS watch beeped for 40km.

"Ten k to go. That was the 40k beep."

I could feel the let down in hearing those words spoken, but it did nothing to take away from our battle.

We flew down the stairs and the 11am 25km runners were just starting up the same trail. Being that I work at a running store I get to meet many, many great people within the scene. We passed no fewer than forty people coming towards us, and I would guess that I heard my name being cheered on no fewer than ten times! Aaron to me, again with a laugh,

"You know this is getting really f'in annoying for me right now!"

Not ten seconds after this I heard a huge THUMP! I looked over my shoulder to see that Aaron had lost his footing on a slippery section of boardwalk. I didn't ask if he was alright, I told him he was so that I didn't have to slow down!

"You're OK right!!"

"Ya know Gary, a real friend woulda stopped and helped me up!!"

Again Aaron caught back up to me, just as we were staring down the last real obstacle in the entire 50k race. There was a steep but short climb, complete with stairs, mud, rocks, roots, ice, and snow. I ran up the first flight of stairs but my legs overloaded as I hit the following stair case. SHIT! I thought this would be it, I thought Aaron would push me to one side as he went flying by! I buried my head, threw my arms wildly in front of me, and strided as long as my hiking would allow. With only a few meters to the top I was still in the lead and I managed to start running again. It had to be adrenaline, for there was nothing else left.

At the top you cut left for a few meters, and then go right onto a fairly flat and cushy singletrack...there was less than a mile to go (miles sounds better than km here!), I didn't want to but I had to look over my one...I scanned...I FINALLY had a gap!! With every turn in the trail I threw my eyes behind me like I was being chased by a ravenous cougar. Not once did I spot him though.

A Sprint To The Line...

The trail proceeds to spit you out into a graveyard, and from here there is but 500 meters of running to go (sorry, too tired to figure out some cheesy graveyard pun here). I looked once more...DAMMIT HEIDT DIE ALREADY...sure enough he was coming hard. I checked again 100 meters later...he was closing the gap!! I could not believe that after running for almost 50km that it was going to come down to a sprint finish!! I don't remember feeling anything, I just stared straight ahead to what I knew to be the final turn into the finishing chute. I was trying to will it closer to me without acknowledging any of the pain sensors that were warning of a system overload.

I rounded the final turn, sprinted down the hill, and nearly collapsed across the line...3h39m36s...NEW COURSE RECORD!! (although with small asterisk beside it)

I had NOTHING left. No celebration, no smile, no whoop whoop, just a body that demanded that I sit it down before it fell over. Aaron came in just 14sec later, and I didn't see him smile until he noticed how much pain I seemed to be in!

Something in my hip/periformis area locked up tight on me once I sat down and I ended up limping like I'd been shot for the rest of the day! Massage didn't help cause I cramped up every time she tried to move my legs! Thankfully I can now say, two days later, that after rolling on a 'myofacial' ball for a few hours I am almost back to good.

I know that race report was long, and I had no intention of making it so, in fact it's now 3am and I couldn't turn in until I had it all out. It's a story that I will personally reference many times in the future, for I will forever consider it to be my own personal breakout ultra race. More than anything it was really, really cool, to see first hand how much my training has been paying off...109 days till Western States...27 hours till I fly to Germany for a week!!

My Gear:
-New Fav Shoes, Montrail Mountain Masochists baby!!
-Carbo-Pro 1200, using only 750 calories this time
-Thermolytes x only 9 this time!
-Shot Bloks, eating only one individual blok this time (my stomach needs to be tricked by chewing something in a race)
-Gel x1

A VERY SPECIAL THANKS to Race Director Heather MacDonald and super volunteer Peter Watson, who did everything from shovel snow, to cut out downed trees, to man an aid station, to flag sections of the race!! Of course, EVERYONE who helped out deserves a MASSIVE thanks, these are just two of the main culprits who ensured that the race went off without a hitch this year!

Big Congrats to Montrail Canada Teammates:
-Ellie Greenwood for smoking the women's field and finishing 5th overall
-Aaron Pitt for placing 2nd in the 25k
-Ryne Melcher for placing 3rd in 50k, while training and not racing mind you

-My Trans Rockies Teammate Tamsin for killing the women's 25k field and placing 3rd overall
-My former A.R. teammate Megan Rose for winning the women's 30k bike
-A.R. friend John Markez for taking the 'solo' (duathlon) win

All the participants who got out there and experienced the trails on gorgeous March morning!

Full Results Here

Last but certainly not least special thanks for most photo credits to Don Scott!

BEDTIME pour moi!


mo said...

Great run, great story...enjoy the post race celebration in Germany!

Nicola Gildersleeve said...

Ah! That was a lot of fun to read. What was your avg and max Heart Rate for the race?

Anonymous said...

Great write up, felt like I was running it with you!!

Aaron said...

The quotes were a little off but overall it was a pretty accurate account. All in all a painful read.

I'll say it here: You were the better racer on the day. I mistakenly thought that the fastest runner toeing the line would win but as you proved mental preparation, race planning, controlling the race based on your race plan, and adapting to changing circumstances in the race are all super important and when physical fitness is close these remaining factors often decide the outcome.

I guess I've been getting a little complacent. I won't be relying just on fitness at Chuckanut Gary - guaranteed.

Anonymous said...

Nice work Gary!

Anonymous said...

Congrats to you, Aaron, Ellie, and all the others who gave it their all last weekend. As a rookie I find it funny that you guys are choked if you get 2nd or 3rd... when 99.9% of the population couldn't even imagine running that distance. Kudo's to all finishers! Have a well deserved holiday.

Shaner said...

Great job Gary! Keep up the solid training. I'll see you at the MOMAR in May - hope you are honing your nav:-)

Anonymous said...

That's one fine race report, Gary! Nice work on improving your climbing skills. Congrats on the win and be sure to celebrate hard in Germany! Bryan

Jayme Frank said...

Gary, nice work! Just getting back into training after 5 years off 50k scares me! Maybe I'll see you in 2010 at the exteme, something much more my speed.

Gary Robbins said...

Thanks guys! Germany was epic as well...on more of a drinking front of course! Stories to come, eventually.