Monday, June 27, 2011

Western States - a Bearish Ending

I was in Northern California last weekend for Western States 100.  Nature handed us a beautiful day as we headed out from Squaw Valley at 5am on our 100 mile journey.  

Everything was going to plan – start conservatively, have a solid middle and then hold on for the end.  Except the end threw way more at me than I planned.

I had passed Tracy Garneau for the lead around mile 90 at Browns Bar Aid Station.  We exchanged pleasantries, and then my pacer, Prudence L’Heureux, and I, set off for the Hwy 49 Crossing (93.5) where we would see our crew for the last time, then onto No Hands Bridge (mile 96.8).  I had been battling stomach issues since the trail from Forest Hill down to the river, so although I was still moving forward, and close to hitting the sub 18-hour time frame, I wasn’t feeling especially spiffy.  But I didn’t think I needed to feel spiffy, as I knew I was extending my lead over Tracy, and we had less than 5 miles to go.  So when I heard what sounded like a big guy charging the downhill around 95 miles, I shifted aside and waved him through.  Well the him was a her, and it was Ellie Greenwood.  “That” I thought to myself “is impressive.”  I tried to respond for all of 10 feet, but knew I just didn’t have it in me to challenge her pace on the downhill.  But, I thought that there was a chance that she was going to blow up, and I still had the ability to run, and was able to run the hills.  Knowing we had our last big climb ahead of us up to Robie Point, I didn’t think I was out of the game. And once I hit the pavement of the last mile, I knew I could fly.

“Stop!”  Prudence my pacer had stopped in the middle of the trail as we were about ½ mile from Robie Point (98.9 miles).  “Bear.”  I wasn’t that concerned – just yell and clap and a bear is supposed to run away.   The bear was going up a tree overhanging the trail, and Prudence was sure she saw a cub with it.   Mom and cub, now that is a little more concerning.  We paused for a few seconds, then decided to make some noise to scare if off.  We clapped our hands and waved our arms and yelled as we moved forward.  The bear dropped to the trail and started towards us hissing.  The thought flashed in my mind “I didn’t know bear’s hissed.”  We yelled some expletives as we ran back down the trail.  We stopped after a couple hundred feet, sure that the bear wasn’t fully charging us, and gathered ourselves.  What the hell do we do?   There was no way to “go around the bear” as the trail is cut into a hillside, with thick brush and rock on both sides.  We considered running back down to No Hands to get some help, but I ruled that out.  We could see the aid station lights at Robie Point, so we started yelling for them.  No response.  We yelled louder, flashed our lights.  I couldn’t believe that another runner had not come up the trail yet.  Finally we saw a headlamp moving down the trail from Robie Point.  Wanting to make sure the person knew what to expect, I yelled “be careful, it’s a bear with a cub”.  The headlamp turned around and went back up. 

After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only 10 or so minutes, Tracy and her pacer showed up.  According to the splits, they were 7 minutes back at Hwy 49 crossing, and add another few miles to that, we were probably 10 or so minutes ahead.  Our conversation went something like this:  “Why are you stopped?”  “Bear and cub, and she’s angry.”  “Oh bear, we have those in Canada, let’s go.”  So as Tracy and her pacer lead the way, the bear once again drops out of the tree and starts for us.  We all run back down the trail. “Oh shit, you were right, she is angry”   “Yeah, that’s why we’ve been standing here for TEN MINUTES!!” 

As we all contemplate the situation, we see another set of lights coming up the trail.  Another runner, male, and a pacer.  “Why are you stopped?”  “Angry bear with cub.”  “FUCK THE BEAR, I WANT TO FINISH!!”  “We don’t want to see you get mauled.” He flashes his lights up the trail and sees the bear in the tree.  “Shit, we should all just stick together, walk slowly, stay as a group.”  Thinking there is safety in numbers, we all start up the trail, sweet-talking the bear “Please let us by, we just want to fin…”, Bear drops out of the tree and it’s all elbows and high knees.  I am ashamed to say that my only instinct was to make sure that I am not the last person.  There is no camaraderie when you’ve got a bear chasing you uphill.  At least we had gotten past the fulcrum and were able to go up the trail instead of down.  After about a hundred yards, we realized the bear let up, we all slow down.   Shaking our heads and still affected with temporary Tourette’s, we make our way to the aid station.

The volunteers at Robie Point were sparse with their words.  We said “There was an angry bear on the trail.”  “Yes.” “Did you hear us yelling at you?”  “Yes.”  That was it.  Granted there is probably nothing in the volunteer manual on “angry bear containment,” but I found it interesting at mile 99, I had more words than they did. 

With a little over a mile to go, I am emotionally done with the race.  Prudence and I start jogging in, both still dumbfounded about the bear experience and all the time lost.  With about a half-mile to go, we hear fast moving feet and see lights coming from behind.  Then I hear the voice of my friend, Nikki Kimball.   My first reaction is “Nikki is feeling better and having a great race.”  Then I realize it’s me she’s racing.  “Nikki, did you see the bear on the trail?”  “No bear, just a rattle snake”  “Your not going to make me race you in, are you?”  With that, she did not respond, only accelerated.  Honestly, had the tables been turned and it was me catching up to the second place person, I would race too.  So, it was game on.  Half a mile to go and we are approaching 10k race pace.  We hit the track with me in front, and I hear my sister yell “she’s catching you!”  So I shift gears once again to put a little more cushion in between us.  As we cross the finish line, all I can think is “Really?”  Did this last 5 miles really just happen?   (video of the sprint finish)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Comrades 2011


I returned to South Africa last week to run the historic Comrades Marathon race.   The specifics:  86.97 kilometers (54 miles).  This year was an “up” run – starting in Durban and ending in Pietermaritzburg.  The first marathon climbs about 2200 ft, with very little decent.  The remaining 28 miles rolls, gaining about  3500 ft and losing about the same.  20,000 people entered the 2011 race, and I think I read 14,000 showed up at the start. 

As I talked about in my post about last year’s experience, South Africa has a complex political and social environment.  Granted huge amounts of progress have been made since the end of apartheid in 1990, but coming from the United States, it is difficult to not feel a little out of step with the surrounding environment.   South Africans live in a very “on guard” state.  Durban itself can be very unsafe.  Daytime safe zones dot the city map, and security guards are in place 24/7 to ensure these areas stay safe.  At night, movement is extremely restricted, and day and night, taxicabs are scrutinized to ensure they are “safe” before taking a ride.   That being said, there are only a few bad eggs that make it an unsafe environment.   But it is the vast majority of the people of South Africa that are the grounding force and make the overall experience wonderful. 

This year I ran for NedBank, a South African based running club.  The athletic system in South Africa is organized around a club system, which comes into play in major events such as Comrades.  Serious contenders run for a South African club which gives the runners access to crew points along the course as well as club incentives and other perks such as transportation and accommodations. 

I chose to stay at a small Bed and Breakfast versus staying with the team at a large hotel.  It was important to me to be able to prepare my own food and to distance myself from the pre-race commotion.  At the recommendation of my friends from Bend who were also running Comrades, Geof Hasegawa and Tonya Littlehales, I booked a room at the Rosetta House, which is located in the “safe” neighborhood of Morningside in Durban.  Being at the Rosetta House allowed me to be able to walk to a local grocery store, chill when I needed to chill and to have a wonderful, home environment from which I could prepare myself for the race.  Bill and Lee, owners of the Rosetta House, were over the top in helping to accommodate my needs.  Their hospitality and the quiet location was exactly what I needed in order to recover from the travel and get myself mentally prepared to race. 

The race started at 5.30 am.  In order to avoid the anxiety from last year where we arrived at the start only 5 minutes before the gun, we left the B&B at 4 am so that we would have plenty of time to navigate the congestion and arrive without raising my heart rate.   

It maybe funny to read, but the race went by in a blur.  One would think that running for six and a half hours would be tedious with a lot of time to think and take everything in, but I really don’t remember much. The first half seemed dark, and the second half I was uber focused.  The highlights for me – the first third I didn’t feel snappy.   In fact, I thought I was going to have a mediocre day.  So this reinforced my mantra to conserve in the first half so that I could run the second half.    By the halfway point, I felt my energy start to flow, and I started pulling away from the people around me.  The last quarter of the race, I was in full flowing mode.  I felt like I was running solidly, and assuming that I could keep a steady flow of calories coming in, I was going to be able to hammer to the end.  I think I was six minutes back from the Russian twins at the halfway point, and was able to pull in four of those minutes in the last 27k. 

The stats:  7.10 per mile pace through 42.96 kilometers; 7.08 pace for the remaining 44 kilometers. 

One surprise that I had was how long and steep the final climb, Polly Shortts, was with less than 12k to go.  It’s proof that you can study something on a map, and even run it from the other direction (down) and neither does it justice for hitting such a long, steep climb almost 50 miles into a fast road race.  Most people around me were walking up the hill.  I remember mentally thinking “oh good, no one is running this hard, so I’m just going to do a plodding run up it.”  And plod I did, but I managed to pass a handful of runners along the way.  In fact, the video of me coming over the crest of Polly Shortts says it all - - I can see how heavy my legs felt and how it took a good 400 meters to get rolling again. 

Once again, the crowds along the way were phenomenal.  It's hard to express the complete joy I felt in the second half all due to the people who came to watch the race and who put so much energy into cheering and encouraging each and every runner.  How can I ever repay that?  Thank you, once again, South Africa. 

Comrades Results:


      Stephen Muzhingi (ZIM) 5:32.45
      Fanie Matshipa (RSA) 5:34.29
      Claude Moshiywa (RSA) 5:42.05
      Jonas Buud (SWE) 5:42.44
      Gift Kelehe (RSA) 5:43.59

      Elena Nurgalieva (RUS) 6:24.11
      Olesya Nurgalieva (RUS) 6:24.35
      Kami Semick 6:26.24 (US)
      Ellie Greenwood (GBR) 6:32.46
      Farwa Mentoor (RSA) 6:35.49