Annapurna 100 Race Report

This is an old-fashioned race report, on a not so old-fashioned race.  Indeed, it was the most unique race I have ever done.  This was and is a bucket list event for any endurance athlete, and it deserves to be treated as such.

The race options were 50km and 100km.  The 100k race uses all of the 50 km race, plus some extra running on the streets/flat of Pokhara and some additional running after reaching the 50k finish.  I registered for the 50k.  I will break it up into thirds, as that is how my mind perceives it, in retrospect.

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Starting in the dark outside of Pokhara, Nepal
To begin, the race director operated this race on Nepali time, meaning we didn’t start the event until 5:22 am, even though it was scheduled to start at 5:00.  The first part of the race (15k or so), traversed a relatively flat section of the country before turning North and heading uphill into the foothills of the Himalaya.  I would compare the “scene” to be similar to many other Ultra-marathons, in that there was variable scenery and terrain, lots of conversation and anticipation regarding the next check point/aid station (CP).  As the sun rose over the south Asian valleys, we were treated to some crazy sights and sounds not to be found in the USA.  Water Buffalo were making early morning cud chewing sounds, and random cows walked unobstructed on the trails and roads that we ran on.  As we ran though villages on the sides of the valleys, children would step out from their houses and see what all the fuss was about, and sometimes, I would talk to them, and they would occasionally run with us.  They were very much NOT ready to hear a white guy speaking to them in their native tongue, and I loved watching their faces as they go from mild shock to a big smile as they felt that they were participating in the race with us.   There were several watering holes on the trail, and we watched women draw water from them, wearing their saris with tika on their foreheads.  It was surreal.

There were two limiting factors that I unsuccessfully addressed in my choice as to how to run this first third.  First of all, the roads were dirt based and intermittently covered in stones and not gravel.  My feet alternated between landing on just dirt, just stone or a blend.  The stones were of all sizes and shapes, and within an hour, the bottom of my feet were beginning to fatigue, as I had foolishly chosen to run without looking as to where my foot landed, thinking we would be off this terrain soon.  Second, the course routed us through small tribal villages, but none of these villages had the Western equivalent of street lights.  The paths were unlit, and there is no moon shining down the light the way this time of year, as layers of fog descend after sunset, and they don’t burn off until sometime after 9 am.  By the end of this first section, my legs and lungs were strong, but by feet weren’t.

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Me, in the distance, starting yet another steep descent.

I had arranged with the race director to have three drop bags on the race, as I knew that I would need to change clothing a lot as a result of my prolific sweating-this was perhaps the only time that knowing how to speak the language made a difference, as no other competitor on the 50k had three drop bags.  When we did arrive at CP4, I changed out of my soaked shorts and shirt, put on some new ones and downed a PBJ made with bread and PB that I had brought from home.  It tasted so flipping good!  As a treat, I also took my iPod from my drop bag, put it on, and started running with a woman from Slovakia.

That started the second section of the course.  Within a minute or two, we were  introduced to the steepness of the Himalayan foothills.  During the first section, my pace had been between 8 and 9 1/2 minute miles; however, once we started on the first climb and I had to resort to run/walk, I could tell that my final pace would be a lot higher.  Once we reached to top of the first climb, we were met with a 20%+ downhill walk to the valley floor where we crossed the river on a footbridge.  We ended up using footbridges like the ones you see in pictures at least half a dozen times.  This first descent made me acknowledge that I hadn’t adequately trained for descending.  My knees began to ache before we hit the bottom and I was relegated to walking thoughtfully down slick rocks as we gave back a 1000+ feet of vertical over the course of a quarter of a km.  When I hit the bottom, the effects of the fatigue were obvious in a way that concerned me, as I couldn’t run faster than a 9 minute mile on the flats.

bridge crossingOnce we crossed a footbridge over a major tributary of the Ganges River, the climb was on!  We climbed steadily for 7 km, and my pace never was faster than 20 minute miles.  The surreal side of the race continued to impact me, as we would go through tribal villages occupied by Gurungs.  Everyone in the village would have a cell phone with a data plan.  I stopped at a woman’s house with another Nepali runner, and we struck up a conversation about meat as she filled my water bottles and offered me some buffalo yogurt to relieve my boredom and fill my stomach with some variety.  Alas there were no bathroom to be found.  Development in the third world takes so many forms…both good and bad.

There were a few moments that I was sure a old man in a walker could have passed me.  Himalayan trails were not built with switchbacks in mind.  When the trails require elevation change, they just go straight up or straight down.  There is no way to train for this in the states, unless you live in the basement of the Empire State Building.  That said, the Nepali nationals had an advantage over the Westerners in this section, and those guys whom I passed during the first third passed me and never looked back.  The uphills were very manageable, but the straight downhill sections wore me out.  The stairs that the villagers had put in were often slippery that time of day, and I watched many people fall down both during the climbs and the descents.

When we hit the final third, flat sections were not to be seen.  Ben Looney and I were in the front of the American contingent from our group.  I changed clothes one last time, and I felt great.  However, with two climbs and one descent remaining, the weather took a change for the worse.  The temperature dropped and rain started coming down. I was not equipped for being cold and wet.  Ben had a raincoat with him, but I did not.  I felt dumb and considered turning in my Eagle Scout badge, as I was anything but prepared.  Instead, I improvised by going off the trail and entered a Gurung house, where Ben and I rested and waited for the rain to pass. Fortunately for us, no one was home, I didn’t have to explain what we were doing and drink a cup of tea. Within 15 minutes, the rain had stopped and the sun had come out.  The temperatures quickly warmed and our spirits were again high.  The climb to the final aid station was tough, but I knew that Ben and I were going to finish strong.  I said a prayer of gratitude before having a bowl of soup at the last CP and starting the final descent.

We stopped to get some photos, as we could see the town of Sikles in the distance, and knowing that it was the finish line gave us lots of inspiration for the final push.

We “knew” that the final climb was labeled as the 7000 steps.  I didn’t count, but it seemed like it was 70,000 steps.  With about 3 km to the finish line, we concluded that we had already gone 50k, as we had gone off course a few times.  It took us over an hour and half to cover the final distance to the finish line, and we were ‘escorted” into the town by young boys running ahead of us wearing only flip flops.  We were were within 5 minutes on the finish line, I consulted with Ben, and we agreed to run to the finish line, whatever the trail was like.  Crossing the line to a crowd of cheers and clapping made our day.

At the finish line, we were aware that the temperature had dropped.  We gladly accepted our medals and certificates before changing our clothes and sitting down for a couple of bowls of hot soup before heading to bed.

My final ranking was 44th out of 106 competitors.  I came in 20 in my category.  My time of 12 hours 22 minutes translates to an average of more than 14 minutes per mile.  Prior to this race, the longest that I had ever run was 9 hours, and my longest bike ride was 7 hours.  The following day, I celebrated my 52nd birthday, and I couldn’t be prouder of this accomplishment.  Slow but steady won the day.  Only Ben and I out of a group of 6 runners were able to complete our races.

There are stories of people and places that will come later (maybe next?), for now, though, I can’t recommend this race for those who want to see what they are worth.  It tests more than your strength and endurance.  It tests your ability to focus as well as your capacity to overcome difficult moments that are an inevitable part of an Ultra.

Will I do this race again?  Probably not-it is a lot like the Badwater.  Then again, now that I had done something more difficult than Badwater Cape Fear, maybe I will do it again.

Stay tuned.

 

To DNF or not to DNF-that is the question

DNF stands for Did Not Finish.  It is written at the end of the race results next to each athlete who failed to reach the finish line.  For the first time in my Ultra Marathon career, I took a DNF.  It was the right call, but it sure was preventable.

Jeff LaughingEach time I race, there is a moment during the race when I must address feedback both from my mind and my body regarding mid race performance metrics.  My mind tells me stories and reminds me what I am feeling.  I speaks and shares that I am slowing/speeding/going to slow/going too fast.  The mind, though, doesn’t always give black and white directions as to how to address the issues as they arise.  It is more like a sports commentator or television newsperson.  They point out issues, with little ability to address the core deficiency or shortcoming.  One would think that the best way to address feedback that says, “you are going too slow,” would be to speed up.  But how do make adjustments is never discussed in the space between my ears.

Second, my body gives me similar messaging, but only uses imperative statements as to how to fix the problem.  Examples include, “I am hungry, Feed me!” or, “I am dehydrating, give me something to drink!”  The exclamation points at the end are intentional.  The conversation is only about my body’s current state, not its past of future state.  It is primordial.  I really like it, as it is never ambiguous.

This last weekend, I decided to DNF at mile 21 of a 31-mile Ultramarathon.  This year, I signed up for the US National Whitewater Center (USNWC) Ultra Marathon.  I have done this race twice before, and each time, I found the value of the event and the lessons learned to be worth in the investment.  I love that I can sleep in my own bed the night before and travel less than an hour to get to the venue.  Yet, this year, the race didn’t go as I had planned.

Upon arrival, I did my normal check in that includes setting up my own aid stuff at the end of each 10 mile lap.  That means I would place a cooler and a small bag that contains a couple of changes of clothes (shirt and shorts), as well as some Jeff-ific food that I know I can keep down and use as fuel when my tank is empty.  Since it was my third running of this event, I knew that there could/would be a few changes to the course each year for variety’s sake, but I didn’t know what that might mean.  I was confident that I could finish the race, based on my fitness and the assumption that the race directors would be taking care of us when we were out there running.

The changes to the race turned out to be catastrophic to my game plan.  The distance was the same, and the level of difficulty changed only slightly.  What WAS different was access to aid stations.  I was very much used to having the ability to get something to eat or drink every 3 miles or so.  This year, the first aid station didn’t occur until 5 miles into the event, and the second one was 4 miles later.  In the past, runners would see 3 aid stations during those first 9 miles.  Now, we were getting only two aid stations.

Once I finished the 2nd lap, I walked to the official race timer person and gave him my race number and told him that I was DNFing.  My mind was telling me, “you can’t possibly go 5 more miles with nothing to eat or drink, as you have already hit a stage in your hydration and fueling that has you fatigued.  My body was saying, “I am thirsty and hungry, please feed and water me more often.”  Both message sources lead me to the same behavior choice….stop what you are doing and do things differently.

I didn’t have it in me to go 5 miles till the next aid station at mile 26 before getting anything to drink.  Temperatures were going up, fatigue had set in, and I knew that injury was more likely when the body is under extreme stress like the kind of stress dehydration can cause.  And, I didn’t have a way to carry water with me for the next 5 miles.  I was done.

In two weeks, I am racing the Annapurna 100 Ultra-marathon. There was no way that I was going to let this local race and my desire to finish it and get a prize deter me from the real goal of successfully finishing Annapurna.  That race is a big-time fundraiser for The Nepal Project, and I will be travelling half way around the world to compete.  Finishing today’s race wasn’t worth the risk of a preventable injury.

I stretched a bit and walked to the showers to wash the dirt and sweat from my body.  I downed my recovery drink (yes, I love Endurox), before heading to my car to drive home.  Before I made it home, My body was already starting to recover and was saying to me, “I am hydrating but still need more!  Keep the liquids coming!”  My mind was saying, “you have stopped before you regretted it.   Wise.”

Of the two errors I made, one was exclusively on me.  My preventable error was that I didn’t review the placing of aid stations before the start of the race.  I assumed that the entry fee would have included just as much evenly spaced out aid as it had in the past.  Wrong.  The second error was my human decision to believe the race-director’s pre-race briefing when he told the runmers that there was plenty of aid on the course.  That turned out to be untrue.  Two pits stops in 9 miles, repeated 3 times, is less assistance than I was used to.  Had I known this in advance, I would have brought my running pack that would have let me carry water and food during the race.

This prompted me to review the spacing of the aid stations on the Annapurna 100, and I can see that there are 3 instances when I will need to go 5 miles without aid.  For those reasons, I am bringing my running pack to Nepal, and I will fill it with powders, PBJ sandwiches, power bars and maybe some gels that I know will make me happy during the final part of that race when all the climbing starts happening.

If that is the lesson that I learned by DNF, it was worth it.  The real name of this blog should be “To learn from a DNF or not to learn.  That is the question.”

I learned.

Balance-not something you find…it is something you make.

This year represented my 4th opportunity to compete in a World Championship level event in Duathlon.  Since there is no Intergalactic Championship to take part in, this year’s race in British Columbia, Canada represented the end of the road for competitive Duathlon in 2017.  Nothing bigger than a World Championship…at least, not yet.

World Championships are always memorable.  The Parade of Nations makes you feel like an Olympian, albeit with only half the number of countries represented.  Putting on the National Team uniform and knowing you represent the USA for all to see is humbling yet empowering to the spirit of adventure that lives in all of us.  The overwhelming sense of funk that all athletes exude when their race is over and they socialize with other athletes is the source of great olfactory assault, yet mildly reaffirming that you just finished something that is difficult and special.

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Running with Mike and Rob

 

The best part of the 2017 World Championship was getting along with other TeamUSA athletes.  Run 1 turned into a fun run with my friends Mike and Rob. We ran side by side for the first 5k, averaging about a 6 ½ minute mile and we all reached the transition point within 10 seconds of one another.  We talked to each other, often, keeping each other encouraged.  Rob said that our banter was the only thing that kept him going during those first 40 minutes of tough running.  The bike was super-fast, as the terrain was flat.  Run 2 was more of run 1, and I hit the finish line, setting a personal best for that distance, despite a few cramps.

 

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3 athletes and the coach from Liberty University

I got to meet some great people and connect with some old friends.  I traded clothing with a Team South Africa athlete, and I got to meet the coach of Liberty University Triathlon and connect him with my youngest son.  Can’t tell you how proud it would make me feel to have both of my sons attend Liberty!  Rob and I attended an essential oils party with a couple of girls on TeamUSA, Melissa and Kerry.  We laughed so hard that it hurt!  Lastly, getting to experience the solar eclipse, minutes after crossing the finish line is an event I don’t ever see replicating.

Each year’s World Championship has had a unique focus in my memory.  Year one, the top of mind item was trying to reconcile my desire to compete with a lack of training due to injury.  Year two, I was overwhelmed by the distance and effort required to complete Powerman Zofingen and was grateful to finish the race.  Year three challenged me in that I was trying to become a better Ultra Marathoner while simultaneously getting stronger on the bike.  This year, I attempted to have a greater balance of training, life and work, with Spirit a part of every task.

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Kerry and Melissa-too much fun.

After all, balance isn’t something you find.  It is something you create.

This year started with a far-fetched goal of competing and finishing the Badwater Cape Fear Ultramarathon in early March.  I hyper-exceeded goals there, coming in near the top in the standings, both for age and for overall.  The end of the year includes 3 Ultra Marathons in a 7-week window, including one in Nepal to raise money for school building and another with our scout troop to help boys develop into men.  Although neither event has happened yet, I am sure that joy will come while running with Nepali natives and with our scout troop.  Both events shall be my “highs” of 2017 with regards to fitness.

After all, seeking fitness for fitness sake is selfish.  Using fitness to build the Temple of God while helping others hits at the core value of the human experience.

It is my heart’s desire that each of your reading this, regardless of where you are in your fitness journey take a few moments to answer the question, “how can I use my fitness achievements to help others?”  No matter how many medals I hang on my wall, none of them are worth as much to me as the smile I see when I help another athlete achieve something new.

That is the balance that I want all of us to create.  That is the selfish application of fitness that can make you happy.  Give it away, and you will have more wealth in your heart than you can imagine.

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Before the Start of the Badwater.  Seems so long ago!

My bike now sits in the basement, with only a day or so a week of riding happening between now and the winter.  My running shoes are now my weapon of choice, and the finish line now has images of people I am running for, not of places to see and things to accumulate.  Follow the story on http://thenepalproject.org for ongoing updates of the impact of the Annapurna100 on the people of Nepal.

Badwater Cape Fear Race Report

The Badwater labels itself as the world’s toughest footrace-Death Valley to Whitney Portal, in the middle of summer.  It is 135 miles of tough running, and you have to finish it in 48 hours.  Do the math…that is more than 5 back to back marathons.

Until Friday afternoon, Badwater was nothing more than a “what’s next” race.  When I scheduled the East Coast version called Badwater Cape Fear, I did so as a response to winning the Weymouth Woods Ultra-marathon, and I picked this Badwater for the challenge of it.  Thought it was the next logical progression.  The Badwater Cape Fear edition starts with a “quick 12 mile warm-up” on the scenic roads of Bald Head Island before heading down to the beach to run 20 miles (or 40 miles) in the sand to Fort Fisher and back.  Running on roads vs. running in sand is like trying to find something in common between standing in an igloo with walking through a jungle.  The position is the same; the surrounding conditions are not.

It isn’t the statistics, but the people make that race unique.  At pre-race check-in, awkwardness associated with meeting new people migrated to “very cool” first impressions in a matter of a minute or two. Conversation with other runners about their path to the Badwater never generated the same answer twice.  Former triathletes, college track stars, marathon runners, women with two kids, etc, were all excited about lining up the next day.  For many, their spouses were there supporting their athlete.  I got to hear stories both from Badwater veterans and support staff who have been there as these extreme endurance athletes ran though the desert all night long, in the middle of summer.  I had dinner with a multi-time Badwater finisher who gave stories about the depths of despair that are a part of running in the desert for that long.

I asked one guy why he signed up for Badwater Cape Fear, and he said, “I was in a funk, and I knew that I needed to suffer to get out of it (the funk), so I signed up and now I am here.”  What the heck….

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First feelings after finishing.  

About 2 hours into the race, I stopped wondering what all the other athletes were thinking.  “What was I thinking?”  consumed my thoughts.  Heading down to the beach, seeing 10 miles of sand ahead me, knowing that once I started the 10 miles each way, there was no quitting.  Running on Cape Fear, with Frying Pan Shoals to my right and nothing but undeveloped dunes to my left put me in a funk that I had never been in.

Here is a sample of the comments that went through my mind:

 

  • Oh, that man just got attacked by a dog. OK, he got up and is still running….
  • That was a pretty fast puke!  That girl just kept on running.
  • That old man looks good in a tutu and pink high tops.  NOT!
  • Profanity isn’t helping, here.  But it does feel good…
  • Why don’t they have better choices at the aid station?  No chicken, beef or pork tacos?  I really want a taco right now.
  • I am never doing one of these races EVER again.  What was I thinking?
  • Who in the hell invented high tide? Stupid.
  • Who thought that running in high tide would be “loads of fun?”  Idiot.
  • I wonder when they are having the next Badwater?  This is kind of cool, and I might like to do another one.
  • How did I get sand up my butt? I have stayed away from that body part, most intentionally!
  • Profanity doesn’t feel good anymore, yet it keeps coming.
  • That guy is fast!
  • Was that a boy or a girl?
  • Why did that other girl get all those body parts pierced?
  • Can I ride with the beach patrol in their truck, just for 5 minutes?
  • How are the two of those women talking and laughing?
  • Why aren’t I talking and laughing?
  • I have a 3-hour drive home after I this race. That isn’t happening.  My hip flexors are somewhere out to sea.  WTF?
  • The people working these aids stations are great! I could not keep going without their help!
  • Profanity is working again.
  • I am sure that those who don’t believe that Jesus is their savior will have to run this thing.

At the finish line, I felt blessed that not only could I do this race but be successful at it.  Dave Krupski came up to me at the finish line and started some fun/casual chat.  He DNF the race, as he got hurt and never made it down to the beach.  He said that he had a couple of athletes that he coaches out on the run, and he was there only for them, now.  I had no idea who he was, until I started writing this blog piece.  He is a crazy successful Ultra Marathoner who personifies the ultra-running community well.  No concern for awards or accolades.  He had a focus on what races he had just done and what he has coming up…we could all learn from that sort of approach to living.

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The joy of completing my first Badwater!  Got a chance to wear my TeamUSA windbreaker, and I needed it today!

Will I do another Badwater Ultra?  Maybe.  Will I do the Badwater 135?  Not a chance.  At least, I got my steps in.

There is a Badwater 508 cycling event that has my attention, though…anyone want to do it with me?

 

 

 

The cost of giving your heart to others….

As some of you know, in addition to playing the role of athlete and business owner, I also lead a non-profit dedicated to building schools in the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal.

The folks in Nepal know that I am an athlete.  Here is an copy of the blog I posted at thenepalproject.org

Dancing7.JPGWhat happened at the Madan Bhandari school is a great story.  After all of the investment we have done in solar power, computers and teacher training, it seems like everyone wants to send their children to this school.  In addition to an increase in enrollment is an increase in enthusiasm.  In order to accommodate, leadership at the school has asked the Nepal Project for funds for an additional building.

As always, I prayed about it.  Within a day or two, I saw a marketing message about the Annapurna100, and Ultra Marathon that takes places in the hills of Nepal after the monsoon during the harvest and festival season.  Temps are cool but there isn’t a cloud in the sky, and the Himalaya are on display like no other month of the year.

Thinking would cause me to delay.  I quickly signed up and committed to running this Himalayan Ultra Marathon to raise money to fund the school project. The race is 31 miles, and starts with 8 miles “on the flats” on dirt roads outside of Pokhara, Nepal’s second biggest city.  After those 8 miles, we start climbing.  We finish at a village of 3000 people on the top of a ridge, overlooking 4 of the 10 biggest mountains in the world.

My efforts to raise money for our causes have nearly always been inadequate.  I need others to run the race with me.

So far, I have two takers.

meganMegan Riley owns Big Fat World Tours, a travel agency specializing in tours that include an endurance event.  She has organized trips to participate in the Reykjavik and Dubrovnik Marathons for her clients, but she has never done an Ultra Marathon.  She has signed up and will be coordinating travel, lodging and tour events for anyone else who joins us.  Since I am now a certified coach in Triathlon, I agreed to train her to get ready for the event.  She already has a regime on stretching and strength that she has started, as well as a schedule of test events between now and next October to be ready.  She is donating 10% of her company’s profit to The Nepal Project.

lucindaI am excited that my sister is also coming!  Lucinda is a physician in the Los Angeles area and is nearing retirement.  She has been to Nepal many times and was my only family member to come visit me while I was a Peace Corps Volunteer there in 1980s.  She was concerned that she wouldn’t be able to run the whole way. To accommodate her fear, I asked one of my former students to ride his motorcycle on the course and pick up American stragglers who need some help.  I reminded her that walking is an option that nearly everyone who does this race will employ at some time, during the day.

Considering that only 11 women finished the race last year, I am impressed that the first two to join us on the race are American women.  That spirit of “I can do this, too” has made the US a great country.

Come run the race with us and support schools on the other side of the world!  Megan has space for up to 12 people in her tour.  We are not looking for experienced Ultra Marathoners (that is very helpful, though) as there is plenty of time to train before this event. We are looking for people who have put “climb in the Himalaya” on their bucket list but have no plan as to how to accomplish this while their body still can do it.

Each time someone joins up, I will post of their commitment on our blog and Facebook page.

Lastly, anyone who joins us for the race can count on a trip to the Dang Valley two days after the race, to see the schools and the people we have invested in, first hand.