Monday, August 10, 2009

Race Report: Mt Disappointment Endurance Races: Hal Winton 50 Mile/USA Track & Field So Cal 50 Mile Trail Championship

A few days ago I ran the Mt Disappointment 50 mile trail run, which doubled as the USA Track and Field Southern California Association 50 Mile Trail Championship. Coming into this, I had read on a number of other blogs and heard from a number of people that Mt Dis was just about the most miserable 50 miler imaginable since it's a race that has the tendency to get very hot, runs through some very steep terrain through the San Gabriel Mountains, and has a lot of extremely technical footing. I had also heard that the name is very fitting: a lot of people go into this race seeing the slow times and read the course description on the course website (which makes it sound a bit more tame than it actually is) and think they should be able to go in and beat almost everyone and are extremely disappointed when they run 12 hours instead of the 9 they hoped for. Fortunately, I was happy with my results and it was only a very very slight disappointment for me since I finished in 9:03:33, 3 minutes and 33 seconds off of my goal of 9 hours.

Going into the race, I was incredibly anxious. I had pretty solid training, having run quite a bit in the Wasatch Mountains, heat-trained in a sauna for a bit of time, and done some serious track workouts and tempo runs, which have certainly boosted my lactate threshold and pain tolerance. Unfortunately, 9 days before the race, I sprained my ankle fairly painfully while doing one of my last couple serious mountain runs in Utah. For some reason, it couldn't seem to get better and it actually hurt quite a bit the day before the race, so I was really nervous about running at all. I took the entire week off leading up to the race except for a single 1 mile barefoot jog on Monday (which was supposed to loosen it up, but actually made it a fair amount worse). I was hoping that I'd wake up on race morning and feel fine, but when I woke up, walking hurt. Going into the run, I thought I was screwed and was thinking about DNF before the race even started.

As the race started, I started off down the road at a quick pace, a fair amount of soreness radiating through my left ankle and through my shin and foot. The first 6 miles or so were on a road, while the last 45 were on a trail, so I just hoped that the softness of the trail would make me feel better when I got there. Since the race started and finished at the top of Mt Wilson, the first 9 miles or so were entirely downhill with a several thousand foot drop. I was using my Garmin Forerunner 305 with heart rate, so I just focused on keeping my HR around 160 at the start. With a good downhill, despite the relatively high elevation (5650'), this meant sub 7:00 miles for the road section. I knew this was ok since my heart rate was sticking around 160, but it still kind of scared me to go out that fast in a 50 mile race. Fortunately, a lot of other people were running at a similar pace at the start (I did 5 miles in 33:45 and there were probably 20 people in front of me).

Once we hit the trail after the first aid station, which I didn't stop at for more time than it took for them to write down my number, my ankle felt better - for about a half a mile. 6 miles in and BAM. My ankle was weak and the downhill was steep, turny, and technical and all of a sudden, I sprained it again. I screamed loudly, hobbled in pain for 30 seconds, and, all of a sudden, just got super pissed about the whole situation and basically said to myself, "I don't care how bad my ankle hurts, I'm not letting this screw with the one super difficult hot trail race I have this summer to put on my Badwater app for next year", so I just mentally decided to ignore it. Of course it still hurt and I was absolutely unable to attack the technical downhills, which provided lots of room for people to fly by me, but sometime between mile 6 and 15, I literally succeeded in blocking out the pain and it didn't really bother me much the rest of the race (other than the fact that I was intentionally extremely timid on the technical downhills to avoid hurting myself yet again, which probably cost me 20 minutes throughout the entire race, but saved me a lot of pain and a potential DNF).

About 10 miles in, we cut back off the trail and started climbing up a dirt road. We ascended somewhere around 200 feet before arriving at an aid station. I had made up my mind pre race that I was going to waste absolutely as little time as possible at aid stations, so I blew by it, taking just enough time to grab my "heat hat" ( ), get rid of my single, which was already starting to get hot, and grab a very quick bite of food. Leaving the aid station, we hopped back on a fairly non-technical and wide - but steep - trail that ascended a net total of 1600 or 1700 feet before arriving at the next aid station a few miles ahead. This first serious climb wasn't so bad and I was able to re-pass most of the people that passed me while I was timidly descending the technical downhill on my bad ankle. Arriving at the top, at mile 13, I spent no more than 30 seconds at the aid station and blew through as fast as I could.

We had a quick descent at this point before ascending again, running about a mile of flat trail (the only flat section in the whole race), and then descending a short bit. After this descent, we started a serious climb around mile 18. Climbing a net gain of 1200 feet (though it was rolling, so there were some downhills that also had to be made up for) from 18 until 20 in somewhere around 100 degrees was enough to start a headache for me and after descending into the Red Box Aid Station at 21 miles, I didn't feel super great. Fortunately, I put some chocolate milk in a cooler that made up my drop bag at Red Box, so I drank it and wasted about 5 minutes sitting there letting it settle. The protein and milk fat were absolutely great and helped me feel full and satiated, but my headache was still there. I had forgotten to pack a couple advil just in case this happened and the aid station volunteers were not allowed to give out any sort of medications, but some random woman who was standing around waiting for a runner to come through heard me asking for advil and gave me 2. I ended up wasting another 5 minutes in the bathroom, so I lost a total of 10 minutes or so in Red Box before I finally got back out. Unfortunately, I had eaten a bit too much in this station, so I had to go slowly for a little bit to keep the food from coming back up (heat + full stomach + running = vomiting... haha...). The advil took a few miles to kick in, so I ran incredibly slowly and lost probably 10 minutes off the pace I should've been running on the steep downhill between 21 and 25.

Around 25 miles, my headache started to clear and a few local California runners in the 50 miler (Rob McNair, a 2:37 marathoner, and a friend of his, whose name I forget) caught up with me, burning their way through the downhill, so I struck up a conversation with them and ran with them until the aid station at 26.2, exactly a marathon in. We split the marathon in 4:05, if I recall correctly. Overall, we had gone downhill to this point, but there had been plenty of significant uphills and some serious and technical terrain, so I felt that the split was pretty solid. Rob kept telling me "Stop caring about your time, you should just be happy to finish a race like this," but by 26.2, I was starting to feel pretty good again, so I kind of ignored what he was saying and just kept shrugging off how hard the finish was going to be. I continued with Rob for another 10 minutes (his friend didn't stop at the aid station and we had taken about 2 minutes to eat) and decided to take off ahead of him since he wanted to walk a fair amount on the uphill from 26.2 to 30. I put in a nice jog-like pace up the 1000 foot climb and kept my heart rate around 172-175 the whole way up, right in the lower end of what's considered my "threshold zone". At one point, I couldn't keep my heart rate below 175 and knew I was going to start building up too much lactic acid, so I walked for about 30 seconds to lower my heart rate, but ran the entire uphill other than that.

I had been in 17th place at 26.2, but leapfrogged up to 12th between 26.2 and 30. 30 to 31.8 was a quick 2 ish mile loop that ended back at the same spot before continuing on down the trail and one person just a couple minutes ahead of me dropped in this section, so I ended up being in 11th place going out of the mile 31.8 aid station.

Mile 31.8 to 41.25 was the most worrisome section of the course for me. I knew going in that this was going to be a tough section since 32 to 35 was downhill, but 35 to 41 was a 2000' climb in the heat of the day without a single bit of shade. I was carrying 2 water bottles the whole race (one with water, one with HEED) and popping 2-3 salt pills an hour, 3 at this point now that it was pretty darn hot, but I was pretty sure that water would be an issue at this point. There was some icewater at mile 39 (not an aid station, but a tent with a chair and a cooler), but in the heat, I didn't think 2 water bottles would be adequate for 7 miles. I tried to ration it, but by mile 37, I was pretty much out of water and had to keep my effort really low between 37 and 39 to keep from sweating out too much and getting dehydrated. By the time I got to 39, I was getting pretty dehydrated, but I drank an entire bottle while I sat down for about 4 minutes at mile 39. I felt sluggish going out of mile 39 and it took 5-10 minutes for me to start feeling hydrated again as my body processed the water in my stomach, but I started feeling like I could have a good finishing kick when I got to mile 41.25.

I wasted another 4 minutes there eating some pizza and drinking a bunch of Mountain Dew (for a total of 20 minutes wasted in the bathroom or at aid stations eating food) before continuing down the last big descent of the course. At mile 41.25, I could see the entire finish of the course: a 1600' descent in 4.25 miles, followed by a massive 2600' net climb in the last 4.5 miles (the majority of that happening within maybe 2.5 miles). I tried to just not think about it, but looking out over the canyon realizing I had to descend one mountain and then climb another, the sheer magnitude of what the last 8.75 miles contained was pretty overwhelming.

The trail from 41.25 to 45.5 was pretty darn technical, but I had just been told by a volunteer at the aid station that there was "almost no way to cover the extremely difficult last 9 miles or so in 110 minutes", ie I couldn't break 9 hours, and I wanted to prove her wrong, so I flew down the ridiculous mountain trail as fast as possible. I got to mile 45.5 at 7:47:00 and was out by 7:48:00, having just taken the time to pop a last 3 salt pills, eat some pringles, and refill my bottles. Leaving the station, someone said it was "possible, but very difficult" to make this climc in 72 minutes. The first mile or so wasn't so bad and I made decent time on the climb. However, at about 46.5, the climb just got ridiculous. It took everything I had to never stop to lie down or just sit on the side of the trail. I was moving very slowly, but I still passed 10-15 middle-back-of-the-pack 50k runners/hikers and 2 50 milers in ths section and no-one passed me. However, I still couldn't quite get up fast enough and ended up being able to hear people at the finish as I watched my watch pass 9:00:00. 3 1/2 minutes later I finished and immediately sunk down in a chair. I ended up in 8th place overall and 1st in the 19-29 age group, plus I apparently broke the 29 and under course record. The top 2 guys were right around 8 flat (world-class runners Guillermo Medina and Troy Howard, the latter of which recently posted an incredible 26:01 at Hardrock 100, the 3rd fastest time on the course, which is almost certainly the hardest "legitimate" 100 miler in the world). The results haven't been posted yet, but it sounded like 4 of the other 5 runners ahead of me were within 14 minutes of me. Last year, my time would've been good for 4th place, though apparently this year was probably a little faster (maybe 5-10 minutes) since the beginning of the course was slightly modified from the previous 2 years due to some sort of permit restrictions, but it's probably still safe to say I would've finished top 5 against last year's field. As for the USATF standings, I'm not sure how I ended up, but I know that only US runners who are members of USATF were elgible, so I'm willing to bet I was top 5 in the USATF standings. As soon as I find out, I'll post it...

I am obviously a bit disappointed that I finished so close to 9 hours without breaking it, especially since I know that my ankle probably cost me around 20 minutes and my headache around mile 20 cost me about 10 minutes, but I'm still pleased with how I finished, especially since I could've used my ankle as an excuse to not push myself. I probably could've spent a little bit less time at aid stations, but 20 minutes stopped overall, including a bathroom break, isn't too bad over 9 hours. My nutrition was pretty much spot on during the race: I consumed about 20 salt pills and ate 6 gels (4 non-caffeinated power bar gels and 2 caffeinated hammer gels with 25 mg caff. each), about 30-40 pringles, 3 PB&J quarters, a Nesquik chocolate milk, a handful of gummi bears, 2 cups of Mountain Dew, 2 cups of sprite, 9 bottles of water, and 6 bottles of heed. Calorie-wise, this is somewhere around 2500 calories. Since my body processes somewhere around half of its calories from fat when running an ultra, this calorie intake was probably pretty close to ideal. 3000 would've been about perfect, so I was pretty close.

Albums listened to:
1. Believer - Gabriel
2. Cynic - Focus
3. Cynic - Traced in Air
4. Sanctifica - Negative B
5. ZAO - The Funeral of God
6. Gorguts - From Wisdom to Hate
7. Living Sacrifice - The Hammering Process
8. Living Sacrifice - Conceived in Fire
9. Martyr - Feeding the Abscess

I had 2 iPods, the death metal one, and the inspiring music one. The DM one was supposed to be used for the 2nd half only, but my "inspiring music" ipod meant for the first half randomly wouldn't work, so I had to listen to the DM one the whole time. haha... I spent the majority of the time listening to music, but the battery didn't quite last the whole way and I spent a little bit of time not listening to music.

Lessons learned:
1. Carry Advil.
2. 160-170 is a good heart rate range for a 50 miler and I can let it climb to 175 for a pretty long period of time on steep hills without screwing myself over.
3. In Cascade Crest 100, I'll try to keep it more at 155-165 and typically keep it under 170 on the climbs since 100 miles is still MUCH harder than 50 miles.
4. Ultras truly are all about confidence and mindset. Even if you are hurting, a little confidence and a positive outlook can take you a long way.

Ok, I think that's about it... Overall, I definitely did not enjoy this race as much as some other ultras (ie American River 50) due to the difficulty, but I think with more mountain training, I'll have the ability to really run well here, so I'll probably be back for more next year (despite the fact that I claimed at the finish that I would rather have any single body part surgically removed than have to run that hard of a 50 mile course again)

*****In case you're thinking about doing this yourself, here are my 2 most important pieces of advice:
1. Train in the mountains. Hill training will not be enough for a good performance in a race like this. I had LOTS of incredibly difficult mountain runs covering as much as 3000' of gain within a few miles and I still felt that I could've been more prepared for the finish. You will need VERY long extended climbs in your training; try to find something where you're going up steep climbs for 30 minutes plus or you're going to get rocked.
2. Train for the heat. If you have a sauna you can use, spend time in it. You don't need to actually run in it; just being in the sauna will help you with your acclimation. While you're in it, drink lots of water and eat salt for 2 reasons: a. to get your stomach ready to handle things when all of your blood is being diverted to your skin to cool you, b. to keep you from getting dehydrated, duh. If you don't have a sauna, run when it's hot out. Don't wimp out on training, it'll only hurt you in this type of race.
Rating the difficulty:
Heat: 4/5, it can break 100, but not by much. It's a little humid, but not terrible.
Technicality: 4/5: the rocky parts are tough, but there are some dirt road sections that have good footing (unfortunately, those are all incredibly hilly)
Hilliness: 4/5: They estimate around 8700 feet gain and loss; I need to check my Garmin when I get home, cause I bet it was a little more than that... Overall, even if it was like 10000', it could still definitely be worse.
Overall: 5/5, not from one individual factor, but from a combination. It's not like Badwater where the heat alone is enough to destroy you or Hardrock, where the elevation is ridiculous enough to give you problems, but it's bad in a number of ways, so it's overall an extremely challenging race.


  1. That's funny the aid station was called Red Box. Like you should have been able to rent movies for $1 there or something

  2. Yeah, someone was joking about that. Actually, my drop bag at red box was a red cooler box too.