Race Report: Pigtails Challenge 100

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For my loyal readers I apologize that I haven’t written a blog post in a while. I wish I could claim it’s because I’ve been too busy running. But I have been busy. Directing races is no easy job and like the blog motto says I’m into “making life harder than it has to be” and for my job that translates into organizing races that are not logistically easy or quick to do– but hey(channeling Si Roberts) if it were easy I wouldn’t want to do it anyhow.  No promises but I’ll try to post a bit more often.

Speaking of making life harder than it has to be… If one wanted to run an “easy”(NO 100 MILE RACE IS EASY) 100 miler The Pigtails Challenge 100 would be a great choice! It’s certainly an easier 100 than any of the other 100s I’d previously ran(Plain, Wasatch Front, Hardrock, and Cascade Crest) or paced at(Western States, Leadville, HURT, and Tahoe Rim) but those are all “mountain” 100s. I chose Pigtails precisely because it was not a mountain 100. After finishing the first three 100s I attempted(although none of the finishes came easily and in all three not finishing was very close to happening at various points) I had began a hideous DNFing streak. I finished the 2007 Hardrock in 25th place and in 35 hours but at mile 82 I was on pace for a 28-29 hour finish and had been in a three-way tie with Karl Meltzer and Jared Campbell for 2nd place– that’s what Webster’s would define as a “meltdown”. [I have a whole blog post devoted to Hardrock and my history there] Since 2007 I had attempted five 100s and for one reason or another I did not finish any of them. I chose Pigtails to help me get the DNF “monkey off my back” and to give me confidence going back to Hardrock again this summer for my 4th attempt and hopefully 2nd finish.

I came into ultrarunning back in 2001 highly influenced by the Eco Challenge Adventure Races I used to watch on TV as a kid, the thru hike I completed of the Appalachain Trail in 1999 and the general appreciation for exploration and adventure that I’ve had my whole life probably thanks to my dad(a former cave mapper for USGS) and all the time I spent in the woods as a kid.  Despite running a couple seasons of cross county for my high school team and having always been naturally talented I didn’t come to the sport as a seasoned runner with lots of miles logged on the roads, tracks or trails.  Instead of a solid base of miles, a fast mile time or any races on my resume longer than 10k I entered the ultra-world with a strong desire to complete difficult courses, a willingness to suffer and thanks to the six months spent hiking the AT the “need” to be in the mountains. Just finishing 50ks was my goal the first few years(well I am competitive so running fast and placing well were goals too) but after crewing for John Pearch at Western States in 2003 I was unable to resist the desire to run further. But “easy” 100s were out of the question.  In my head I dreamed up a new “Grand Slam” the Varner Slam: Plain, HURT, Hardrock and Wasatch in 12 months(I never attempted the slam but that’s how I was thinking). I signed up for Plain and upped my training having less than 3 months to get ready. A forest fire ended up cancelling the race 5 days before race weekend but I invited all the runners to join me on a 78 mile run through the Enchantments and other trails in the Leavenworth area where I was living at the time. This alternate run, called Cure for P(l)ain, had even more elevation gain than the Plain 100 had, was on more rugged terrain and like many years at Plain we had no finishers because it was so hard. The next year I signed up for Plain again and finished second and broke the previous course by more than four hours. The whole story of my near win at the 2004 plain 100 is a long story but the short version is that I ran a near perfect race up until the top of the last mountain at which point I lost a lot of time because of a navigational error and my resulting despondence. In 2005 I applied for Hardrock but didn’t get accepted in the lottery so I ran Wasatch instead and again I ran a good race for a while but again because of an error on my part(this time getting behind on food and water) I fell from being with the top runners to finishing in 20th place. 2006 I was on the Hardrock waitlist again and had hoped to make it in the race but missed out by a few places and had no desire to run any other 100 other than Hardrock so instead I directed the hardest 50k the world has ever seen, The Epic 50k, which went up and over the four mountains that surround the town of Silverton, CO(the same town that Hardrock starts and finishes)–it had 14,400ft of elevation gain, three of the four mountains were over 13,000ft tall(the lowest was 12,500ft), and Kyle and Erik Skaggs won the race in 8:56! In 2007 I finally made it into Hardrock–getting into the race off the waiting list the day before thanks to a minor miracle at the Silverton School Gym. Like I wrote earlier that race went great for a while and then fell apart but I, with the help of my pacer, sitting, stumbling and staggering the last 18 miles in 12 hours! After that “death march” to the Hardrock finishline in 2007 I could not again find the strength in five tries to finish a 100 miler until this weekend at Pigtails.

To tilt the odds in my favor I knew I needed to remove as many obstacles to finishing a 100 as possible. Pigtails is not at altitude, the weather is mild, the 9.4 mile loop is pretty flat but not too flat(so there’s a good mix of walking and running), getting lost is impossible, there are aid stations every ~5 miles, it’s close to home, it’s a loop that I know well, pacers are allowed and the support is great. There was pretty much nothing I could use as a scapegoat if I were to somehow not finish–this one would be totally 100% on me if I didn’t finish.  Not that I didn’t do what I could to sabotage my race before and during. In the months after signing up for the race I trained with Pigtails in mind, adding in more flat and runnable trails and roads than I normally would but definitely not as much as I should’ve averaging only about 30 miles per week. Then in April, the month before the race, I kinda freaked out about not getting in enough “Hardrock” style training runs and races and so I over did it by doing three hard 50ks with a total of 30,000ft of elevation gain and two 25k runs that brought my elevation gain for the month up over 50,000ft most of it coming in just those 5 runs. Needless to say my knees hurt. They hurt so bad for two weeks I couldn’t run for more than 3 miles with out debilitating pain. Luckily I had an old pair of Hokas that Candice bought me for my birthday a couple years ago that I never wore because I didn’t like their clunkiness but rest combined with the cushioning of the Hokas I was able to run again with little to no pain in the couple weeks leading up to Pigtails.  A week before the race I was still uncertain I would do it because of the pain in my knees but I paid for two nights at a hotel in Renton for race weekend so that made up my mind for me.

photo: Candice Burt

photo: Candice Burt

Race week I didn’t talk or think about the race much(normally I plan out my splits, pour over every detail on the race websites, study the maps and elevations profiles, and in general obsess over every little thing). I didn’t even post to Facebook that I was doing the race until the night before the race and I almost didn’t even do that for fear of building up any kind of expectations or pressure inside myself. But at the last minute I decided to embrace the situation of having to face the DNF monster once again.  Having the support of everyone in Facebookland and at the race was so nice and I’m sure it helped to keep me positive.

photo: Candice Burt

photo: Candice Burt

Despite claiming not to have a finish time goal and stating it was just about finishing I did in fact have a time goal. Originally when I signed up for the race I had planned to actually train for it and therefore be ready to run a fast time but in hindsight the lack of training may have been to my benefit. Instead of going for a course record or a win I instead was forced to take a more conservative approach. In the days before the race I did think a little bit about a time goal–sub 20. 19:59 sounds so much cooler than 20:01 doesn’t it? Ok ok I know that’s silly but it’s just how I roll and having a time goal helped me to stay focused throughout the day and the challenge of hitting the splits for each loop(1:52) kept me engaged when I might have otherwise zoned out and forgot to do things like eat, drink, walk and run at the proper times. Plus I figured with a goal of sub 20 on a course as “easy” as this one I’d have a chance to still run an even faster time if 12 minute miles just seemed way too slow or if on the other hand things fell apart I’d still have a good shot at going sub 24.

Photo: Takao Suzuki

Photo: Takao Suzuki

At 6am all us 100 milers started running the six mile out and back portion of the race to make up for the fact that the loop was only 9.4 miles. The 150 mile runners had started 24 hours earlier and the 200 mile runners had started 48 hours earlier. Yes I said 200 milers! Those of us “only” doing the 100 were the slackers of the Pigtails family. All day and night long the runners of the longer options were amazingly inspirational to me and made my endeavor seem so much more obtainable. As we ran out to the turnaround I kept checking my watch, I was running at a very easy intensity, but the watch kept telling me I was going too fast. So I let folks pass and I slowed down and tried to hit 12 minute miles. I ran the out and back in 1:04 which was way slower than lots of folks but was eight minutes faster than I was supposed to. To make up for it I took my time in the aid station and ran my next loop extra slow– I wanted to let go of any temptation to run with or in front of anyone and I wanted to settle in to a consistent and sustainable pace that I could hold for the entire race not just 30, 40, 50 miles.

The first loop is done clockwise. The second is done counter-clockwise. And so on. This alternating “washing machine” format keeps things interesting as far as varying the scenery as much as possible on a 9.4 mile loop but it’s also nice to get to see how close or far away the other runners are. And in fact as I was leaving to start my 3rd loop Tim Stroh(the eventual 100 mile winner) was coming in to finish his 3rd loop! I was blown away that he was already that far ahead of me but I let it go and reminded myself to stick to my plan.

photo: Glenn Tachiyama

photo: Glenn Tachiyama

 

Until loop 7 nothing really exciting happened, I ran pretty even splits(most loops were within a minute or two of my goal time) and I ate and drank on schedule. I was just cruising along at a very comfortable pace. Sure there was a hot spot on my right big toe that hurt for 40 or 50 miles but except for the one time I bumped it causing excruciating pain for a couple miles and when I got a little thirsty for half a loop at the hottest part of the day I had absolutely nothing to complain about. I didn’t even turn on my music until after mile 50. I just enjoyed seeing everyone and I had fun hitting my splits(like I was on the track). Then Candice paced me for a loop, which went great and the time just flew by, I was getting tired and sore but nothing to worry about. I was spending an extra minute or two at each aid station to eat and drink more but I was balancing that out by running just a little faster each loop. But then I took a wrong turn!

Yes I took a wrong turn on a loop course that I had already ran seven times, plus the out and back, plus at least 10 other loops that I’ve run there in the past at other races on training runs. I’ve always said at races I’m my own worst enemy often doing something mindless and or turning negative and convincing myself to quit. The wrong turn was accidental and in some ways easy to do and in other ways so boneheaded. See the loop is not quite a loop– it’s more like a lollipop in so as it’s a loop with a short(~0.1 mile) out and back section between the start/finish/aid station and the loop itself. Each time you start a loop you run out on the “stick” of the lollipop to the loop and when you get to the loop you go left if you’re starting an odd numbered loop and you go right if you’re starting an even numbered loop. Simple. But after having run almost 72 miles my brain was getting a little foggy and I went right through the intersection with out even thinking about which loop I was on. It wasn’t until later on the loop that I would realize I was going the wrong way and by then I didn’t want to run back the way I had come to do the loop in the right direction– I was tired enough at this point that I didn’t want to run even a single extra step. So as I ran explained to the other runners I went the wrong way on the loop, most of them probably wouldn’t have noticed or cared but for the few who were either just in front of me or behind me and were concerned with place I wanted to make sure they knew so I wouldn’t get any kind of competitive advantage from my mistake. If anything all the explaining to the runners, then to the volunteers at the aid station and then finally to the race director Van Phan cost me more time than any kind of advantage I might have gained and some folks even thought the direction I went was harder than the other direction. But I was worried I’d be disqualified for not following the race rules thankfully Van (and all the runners too for that matter) was understanding and allowed me to continue.

photo: Candice Burt

photo: Candice Burt

At this point I only had two loops left to complete, I had just run a pretty fast loop (if you subtract all my time spent explaining my silly mistake) and I was still on sub 20 hour pace. I had run well all day and had stayed on schedule and had been lucky that my mistake hadn’t messed up my race(like at so many of my races before) but less than a mile into my 9th loop I developed a new hot spot/blister on my left foot under my toes. At first I though a small rock or stick had gotten in my shoe but after taking off my shoe and sock the pain was still there. It was so bad I ran with an exaggerated limp and every step was so painful. I tried everything I could to step differently to avoid the pain but nothing worked. So on I went just hoping the pain would eventually go away just as the other hot spot had earlier. Instead new pains came. Ankles, feet, legs, shoulders, almost everything you can think of started to hurt so much I could no longer jog the slow pace I has been easily maintaining all day. Even walking hurt. For the first time all day I was being tested. It was approaching midnight, I had been running for about 17 hours, the sky was dark and so was my mood.

But I held out hope that the last lap would be better as I’d be so close to being done but instead my body deteriorated even more. However Candice was able to pace me again so at least I didn’t have to suffer alone. The miles which flew by earlier now slowed down to a near halt and in the dark everything started to look the same and I was tricked numerous times into thinking I was further along on the loop than I really was. I wanted to just lay on the ground and be done with the race but I knew I couldn’t stop for any reason(although at one of the very lowest points I did stop long enough to get a hug from Candice which definitely helped).  Even witnessing perhaps the most astounding physical feats I’ve ever seen couldn’t snap me out of my pain induced funk.

photo: Candice Burt

photo: Candice Burt

About a mile and half into my last loop Candice and I were walking up one of the many gradual climbs on the loop when I saw a runner approaching very quickly from the opposite direction. This runner was moving so fast I actually thought it must be a volunteer or pacer running to get help or something–no one had been moving that fast on the course for hours maybe not even since Tim Stroh was still fresh and on one of his early loops. As it turned out it was Ultra Pedestrian Jason “Ras” Vaughn one of the 200 milers! He was on his last lap and he was desperately trying to beat one of the other 200 milers Ken Michal. Then a minute later Ken and his pacer George Orozco came flying past us just as fast! And if it weren’t ridiculously unfathomable enough already to see two runners, who had already done more than 198 miles, running as fast or faster than anyone had run past me all day THEY WERE RUNNING IN THE PITCH BLACK NIGHT WITH THEIR FLASHLIGHTS TURNED OFF! Running in “stealth mode” like they were battling for a top 10 spot at Western States blew me away, impressed the hell out of me and yet all I could do was keep stumbling towards the finish of my race that was half the distance of what they had just done going at about 1/3 their speed.

When we got to the point in the loop where I knew we had 3 miles to go my spirits lifted from utter despair. When we got within a mile of the finish passing the last few houses that line that part of the loop I began to believe again I would finish. When we got to the “stick” of the lollipop I thanked Candice again for being there for me and I picked up the pace from zombie stumble to a slow shuffle for the last little downhill into the finish and crossed the line in 21 hours and 55 minutes. Not sub 20 but more importantly not a DNF either!

photo: Candice Burt

photo: Candice Burt

I sat down by the propane heater. Ken was there. Van was there. Brandon Williams, who had paced Rob Bondurant for a loop between two loops of babysitting Candice’s kids so she could run with me, was there. Gavin Woody, who originally signed up for the 200 but had to downgrade to the 150 because of work obligations but then mid race upgraded back to the 200 and finished, was there. Tim had stuck around long enough to congratulate me. I told the amazing story of how Ras and Ken raced by us in the dark. Folks teased me for my wrong turn. Gavin nodded off in his chair. The 200 mile champ Daniel Kuhlmann woke up and came over to hang out. I ate a hot quesadilla and complained about how much I hurt on the last two loops. I was happy.

photo of the 100 mile results by Matt Hagen

photo of the 100 mile results by Matt Hagen

9 thoughts on “Race Report: Pigtails Challenge 100

  1. I loved reading this James!! So happy for your finish & I can’t wait to read your Hardrock race report, especially the part about kissing the rock! 🙂

  2. James, we are both going to get it done at Hardrock this year! No looking across at each other in the Grouse Gulch tent with water dripping on our faces 😉 See you and Candice at the Avon!

  3. Nice report and even better race, James. I know you’ve been doing this a lot longer than me, but I think sticking to the plan when the plan isn’t grand, is harder than just going for it (mentally). I’m super proud of you and your efforts. Congrats and GOOD LUCK!

  4. Pingback: Getting Ready for Hardrock | Varner Miles

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