Thursday, July 18, 2013

DNF: Adventures in Oaxaca (Barro de Jaguar q50 80k)

                                                                     Photo: Douglas Brandon

  "In short, I was afraid..."
  Twelve hours into the race and I'd reached a confusing fork in the road. To the right was a ribbon; to the left was a ribbon. I waited for the group I had been walking with. I was unable to run the downhills at this point due to the pain in my right knee. It seemed unlikely I would make the time cutoff at PC 7, the next and final aid station before the final climb and descent to the finish. A truck had come by a few moments earlier and offered us a ride back to the ranch, and though tempted, I had refused. I at least wanted to walk it to the PC 7 and make a decision there. 
  I should have gone left, that was the trail down to PC7. But it was getting dark, the course was not marked for night time running, and the previous aid station had been abandoned: we arrived to an empty garafon of water and a bunch of discarded orange peels on the ground. I would have paid 20 bucks for a coca cola. 10 bucks for a handful of peanuts or potato chips. The group was going right. They would walk down the road and the truck would meet us and bring us back to the ranch. The rain was coming down. I should have gone left, but I was exhausted, afraid and confused. I lost the faith and started walking down the road to the right.

Apparently I missed the memo about posing for a photo during the pre-race equipment check.....

 The beginning

  I signed up for the race a couple days after finishing the Jemez 50. I figured it would be a good change of pace to run an "easy" 50 miler, get a 50 mile PR and see the mountains of Oaxaca. The course profile had been released for the first 40k and while it looked stout, I assumed the second half would be flatter, as the time limit for the race was 14 hours. At Jemez (and other tough 50 milers like Zane Grey and San Juan Solstice), 14 hours is around a mid-pack finish. At Jemez, I finished in 15 hours and 33 minutes and the final runners came in at around 16:30.
  A few days before the race they finally released the course profile for the rest of the route. The second half was as brutal as the first. Over 5,000 meters in total. 16,500 feet of climbing. Almost double the climbing of Jemez; more than any 50 miler that I'm aware of... I knew there was no way I could finish a race with that profile in 14 hours, but I was certain there was some mistake or that the cutoff time would be changed.

Course profile. The middle (9kish) route was eliminated just before the race

  If I'd attended the race meeting I would have learned that the race had been shortened to about 72 kilometers as they started to realize the route was too difficult for most to finish under 14 hours. But I had met up with some fellow runners I knew from previous races and we decided to drive from Oaxaca City to the ranch and skip the meeting so we could set up camp in the light. 

 The next morning we woke and walked the 30 meters to the start line and started running. I felt great and concentrated on keeping it easy. I was moving well on the climbs. At about 2 hours and 25 minutes I arrived a the first major aid station. I asked how far we were into the race and I was told 9-10 kilometers. I knew this couldn't be correct. 2.5 hours to go 10k? Clearly the guy didn't know what he was talking about...

  The next part of the course was the most memorable for me: it was a climb on all fours up a rocky no-trail ascent to Nueve Puntas, the high point of the race. It was simultaneously so ridiculous and so incredible that I could only laugh and try to avoid getting stabbed by the mala madre cactus plants with their nail-like points. I caught up to Elsa, the eventual second place female finisher, which got me thinking I was moving too fast too early in the race, but I still felt great so I kept on. Finally we peaked out on an incredible rocky ridge where a couple steps to the right would have resulted in a long plummet to our deaths. Breathtaking views of the Sierra in all directions. This was shaping up to be the most incredible place I had ever run.

Nueve Puntas

  And then the descent. Straight down on a bed of pine needles. I tried cutting my own switchbacks, but fell twice and then basically skied down from tree to tree. Most of the descent was off trail and so I carefully ran from flag to flag until finally arriving at the 25 kilometer aid stations. Five+ hours. I had to laugh at that. I also wondered how in the hell I was going to make the cutoffs at this pace, and no one seemed to have an answer to whether or not they would be adjusted. 

  The sun was out and high in the sky now so I dipped both my shirt and hat in the stream crossing and moved out under the sun on the one flat section of the course. This eventually took us into a town and there was a giant inflatable arch which made it look like the finish of the race. They were announcing our names as we came into the aid station and the streets were lined with people. One local guy --apparently the town drunk-- who had a scar which suggested an ill-attempted do-it-yourself tracheotomy from years ago had one phrase in English he kept saying over and over: "no pain, no gain." He insisted on shaking hands and high-fiving an awkward number of times before I got the hell out of there.
  The final 10k back to the ranch was exposed and uneventful except for one section of the course where someone had pulled down most of the flagging. Fortunately I was running with three other runners at this point and we were able to puzzle out the route. I had hydrated well and taken care of myself, but my first low came after the surreal run through the pueblo (about 30k). However, a couple kilometers before the ranch I came across the first aid station that had coca-cola. It was heavenly and I immediately felt better and started moving at a better clip.

In the Heart of Mezcal Country
  I arrived at the ranch (the 40 kilometer mark) at about 8 hours and 5 minutes. As a point of comparison, I typically run this distance in the mountains in about 5:30-5:45. I was beyond the cut off (as were most of the people in the race, as it turned out), but was allowed to keep going. It wasn't clear I would be able to finish and I didn't quite make out what the race director told me, but he seemed to suggest we would be able to run at least 50k. It was here shortly after the turn that I caught up with Laura Guizar and we ran together for a while. We missed a well-marked turn at one point which cost us about 25 minutes. A truck found us and told us we were off course. Apparently the ribbons we had been following were from an older race. After this I started struggling with cramps. I took a couple handfuls of salt in the aid station and Laura gave me a salt pill and this helped for a while, but I was slowing dramatically and Laura moved on ahead. 

  Most of this race had been on incredible single-track, but this section was an interminable dirt road that I found myself walking. People were catching up to me that I had passed 8 hours earlier.  
  And then the truck came by spreading a lot of doom and gloom about the final climb and raising doubts about us making the cut-off at PC 7. 

  And then I was standing in the rain with the sun going down and I made the decision to go right, essentially ending my race. By the time the truck came back up the hill to pick up the racers there must have been ten of us. One couple wanted to continue as they needed the 2 points to qualify for UTMB, but the race officials called in to the ranch and the word was final: no one else was being allowed to pass.

  We got in the truck and headed back. 

  For a while I blamed my DNF on other things: the poor organization of the race, the unrealistic cut off times, the abandoned aid station, the course profile being released a few days before the race.....  But I could have finished. I just didn't. Like most DNF's, it was mental. I got weak and I was looking for excuses not to finish and I found them. This failure of will demonstrates the importance of one's commitment to finish. It one isn't 100% committed to finishing a race it gets easy to find excuses not to keep moving on. 

  Back at the ranch I was sitting at the finish line and the final two finishers came in a few minutes after 15 hours. One of them was Laura, who had an incredible run and just kept moving. Congratulations to her and everyone else who got it done out there. It was a beast of a race and anyone who finished is certifiably hardcore. 
Feeling good early....            Photo: q50 race photographer

The positive take-aways:

  I didn't have much issue with my stomach and took my Gu's a little at a time and made a point to eat in the aid stations. Potatoes and salt worked great.

  I hydrated well, at least for the first 11 hours or so. Two bottles definitely works better for me than wearing a pack.

  I had a fantastic first 9 hours of the race.

 Zero foot issues. Same socks I wore for Jemez (Balega).

The negatives:

 Be wary of running with others. At times it was really helpful, especially when route finding and then later when talking to Laura who had a very positive attitude and who was 100% determined to finish, but when I started walking with the group that was looking to drop, I absorbed some of that negative energy and fell into groupthink.

 A lack of will. My failure to finish is 100% attributable to a simple lack of will and failure to believe I could finish. Perhaps I wouldn't have made the cut off at PC7, but I should have kept moving, even if it was only at a walking pace.

 Walking downhill with a bum knee is painful, but far worse is taking a ride in a truck back up to the ranch. I will never forget that lesson.

  The race had organizational issues, but the route and the terrain were world class. It seems unlikely the race will happen again, but if it does, I'll be there and I will finish.


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