Monday, June 9, 2014

Every Fool Has His Day: Travesia de las Sierras 50 mile race report

  If a good race results in a bad race report, the following report will be terrible. This was my first visit to Villa Del Carbon, a small town tucked into the mountains an hour or so out of the reaches of the sprawling (and, frankly, ugly) northern part of Mexico City*. Villa del Carbon is beautiful and worth the trip. Seeing how people live up in the hills makes one wonder why they would move down to Tlanepantla. Economics of course. Not everyone has a plot of land in the hills to farm and live off the land. The contrast between the congested, gray-drab cement structures of the far reaches of the city (*technically, not a part of Mexico City, but it all blends seamlessly) and the remote, lush green of Villa Carbon was both profound and disturbing.

  I was fortunate to hook up with the members of the Mytikas running group and we fought Friday traffic (including a chase scene that involved 4 police officers and a warning shot fired --we didn't stop to ask for details). I was definitely not in the familiar center of Mexico City that I know and love.

                                                           The Early Conga Line                              Photo: Martin Forstmann

The "lobby" of the hotel was filled with runners catching up and waiting to get their packets. I took a little nap, grabbed my race stuff and walked into town with the Mytikas crew to grab dinner. Luis was running the 100 mile race, and Oswaldo, Rentato, Hugo and Israel were running the 100k. I would be doing the "short" race (80k) as my plan was to recover quickly and get back training hard for the AC 100 mile race on August 2 and 3.

  During dinner I was thinking of ordering quesadillas and chicken soup, as my stomach was its normal pre-race dainty self (including nerve-induced diarrhea, which, just as it did before Zane Grey, disappeared the moment the race started. Weird.), but when I saw everyone else ordering full meals I went with the house special Enchiladas Chiripas. Huge plate and I polished it off with a Negra Modelo. I left it to fate to see how that would play out...
  I woke up with a bit of a panic as I remembered that I only had hotel reservations for one night, and I couldn't leave my stuff in the room all day. I loaded everything in my car and walked the two blocks to the race start. Everyone snapping pictures and chatting it up. I find it very hard to be social before a race, as I just want to be alone in my thoughts, but I ended up in a few of the approximately 128 group photos that are always taken before every race in Mexico. Here's one:

               Pre-race group photo #112: With the Mytikas running group (and others) at the start                             Photo: ?

  I had considered running with the Nathan pack, as the aid stations can be a bit unreliable in these races, but in the end I went with two hand helds and the Jurek Essential. My plan was to eat a vanilla GU every hour along with potatoes and salt, all of which could be stuffed into the Essential and the handhelds.
  The race started (a bit late, as usual) and we descended about a kilometer through the town until we crossed a road and headed into runnable terrain in the forest.
  Coming into the race, I didn't have high expectations for the course. It was out and back (for a total of 50k), and included a 5k section of pavement which I would see four times. Not really what I'm looking for in a mountain race. There was a bit of climbing (just shy of 7,000 feet), but I would have liked more for proper AC 100 training.
  However, I was pleasantly surprised: the variety of the terrain kept things interesting: there were some short, steep climbs, stream crossings, technical single track, and rolling, grassy trails between corn fields. And the road was nearly empty and rolled through tranquil countryside with great views.  I enjoyed the pavement section: it provided an opportunity to stretch out the legs, get into a rhythm and push. Life dictates that the majority of my runs are on asphalt, so I was prepared to grind it out on the road. The out-and-back style had other advantages: it allowed for interaction with all of the other runners. This is always helpful in a long race. Encountering Hector Mendoza --the Happy Face Runner-- with his whistle and endless good cheer and positive vibes (I've never seen that guy looking miserable during a race) is always a boost. Every time I see him he reminds me to smile and he usually snaps a photo. Aside from runner interaction, it also gave me course knowledge so I knew where to push and where there would be hiking breaks to shovel potatoes into my mouth. I love exploring new trails, and my favorite course layout is the point-to-point, but out-and-backs have advantages as well. For one thing, I could see how much time I was putting on runners behind me.

Hector "Happy Face Runner" Mendoza
           Hector "Happy Face Runner" Mendoza who reminded me to be happy when I started getting grumpy about the lack of trail markings.        Photo: Martin Forstmann

          On the Road in the Morning Dew: Juan Pablo (L) and Martin Forstmann (R)      Photo: Hector Mendoza (??)

  Which brings me to how well this race went.
I started slowly in the morning and my plan was to keep it that way until the 25k mark. However, at about 10k I felt great and decided to pass a couple of runners that have finished ahead of me in the past few races. I knew it was way too early to be making any sort of move, but I figured if I felt good I should use that energy, as there would certainly be lows later in the day. There were some major route-finding problems on the climb to the high point of the race. The course simply wasn't marked for about 6 km. However, I had the course description in my pocket and using the GPS mileage of other runners around me we puzzled it out without too much lost time. It's pretty unnerving to arrive at an unmarked three way fork in the road during a race...

                                       Through the fields...                                                                   Photo: Martin Forstmann

  Arriving at the 25k mark at the high point of the race, I was relieved to run into Pedro Fletes, the race director. He was re-marking the course and glumly commented that "everyone got lost." I ran downhill with a new confidence and practiced my AC 100 strategy: run downhill steadily (but not recklessly), hike the ups hard and run the flats.

Chespiro to the rescue! Marking the course(again)...better late than never!               Photo: Martin Forstmann
  My knee threw a kink in this plan, and when I descended off the road onto the last steep downhill before the flat section of trail that leads back to town, my right knee flared up and I had to limp and try to keep the leg straight as I went down this hill. To simulate this at home, try keeping your knees locked straight and then walk down a stair case. Fortunately, the knee was not an issue on flats or uphills, so I was able to plug away as I finished my first 50k "lap." 7:11 (though I didn't know that at the time as I wasn't wearing a watch). I grabbed my remaining GU's and tied my shirt around my waist as the sun was out after a cloudy, misty morning. The sunburn hurts as I type this.
  I had been thinking about an 8 hour 50k, and while I didn't know how far under that time I was, I felt fantastic, and now it was time to really push. I tried to run everything and I arrived at the 62.5k aid station feeling great. I had to grunt up a boring dirt road for 2.5k and then turn around, and go back down to the same aid station and then back to town. I got into a fairly negative space on that climb as I thought the section was thoughtless and just plain stupid. Why not make the section up along the fantastic trail that follows the river? I ran into the RD Pedro again back at the aid station and politely proposed an alternative for the following year that would avoid this 2k out and back on a dirt road.
  I hit a bit of a low on the climb back up through the fields and to the road, but once back on the road I tried to run everything, pushing on the downhills as hard as I could....trying to get my quads ready for AC...
 It didn't seem to matter how hard I pushed, I just kept feeling better. I had some final, uplifting exchanges with other runners who were heading out in the other direction. Martin Forstmann, whose photos you see throughout this report, was pretty beat up and clearly struggling with a rough day (back in March at the 60k Carrera de Resistencia, he easily dusted me, putting about 15 minutes on me in the final 15k), and I tried to give him some encouragement but I wondered if he would finish the race.
 The knee magically felt better, and I made sure to keep eating even though the end was near. I ran every step of the final steep climb into town and felt fantastic. 11:39:40. A 50 mile PR (previous: Sean O' Brien 12:17). Here's a garmin reading from last year's Travesia 50 winner, Sinhue Fletes.
  I hung out at the finish line and enjoyed the Caldo de Pollo and potato quesadillas (with the tortillas fried in oil) a couple of things that make these races --despite their casual organization standards-- so fantastic.
  In many ways, the race was a great confidence builder for AC, but I shouldn't crack the bubbly just yet: AC will be hotter with three times as much climbing and descending. 
  I should probably also keep in mind it's twice as long... 
58 days to race day and still lots of work to do. With school ending I will be able to get up in the mountains more frequently and I've got to log some 20,000 feet weeks or pay a very steep price (pun intended) at AC.
   I walked to the hotel, changed and took a shower and came back to watch finishers.  It was dark when I heard that familiar whistle and I was shocked and thrilled to see Martin running in with Hector. The Argentine looked like he'd been ground up with some burger meat, but he got it done. Awesome, emotional finish. 
  And a clear reminder that any fool can run a good race when it all comes together: high energy, no stomach issues, every step feels good, etc. But to finish on those days when nothing comes easy is the real test.

The next morning, after showering and eating, I sat in the town square eating barbacoa with Renato "111K" Rios (he bagged some extra mileage on his adventure) and watched the hundred mile runners still plugging away. I had shared some miles with some of those runners the previous day. While I slept they were still at it. That was pretty sobering and will serve as a good motivator for the next 58 days.

Post-race thoughts/reminders/boring running details:
    I ate two big meals in the 15 hours before the race and my stomach was perfect the whole day.
    During the race I ate around 11-12 GUS and two ziplock bags of salted potatoes. I drank water and gatorade (orange) for the whole race, and some random peanuts in aid stations. 
    The first trail race I've worn road shoes: The Saucony Rider 6. I bought these in Arizona for road running and I've liked them so much I've been wearing them for everything. Right now they are my first choice for AC 100. My old Cascadia 7's still have another race in them, but the Saucony's feel lighter. Sadly, the pair of new Cascadia 9's I have pull my sock down on my left foot when I run, and I can't stand running in them. Bummer.
  I didn't feel strong on the steep climbs. I need to focus on more hills in the next 50 days.
  I ran more of this 50 than any other 50 I have run. Part of this was the nature of the course, but I've been doing long runs of 4-5 hours in Ocotal where I run the whole time, no hiking. I think this is helping. While I need to get out and do some long hikes up the Cerro de San Miguel, I need to keep long runs in the mix as well.
  The knee pain went away, but I've got to work on that. If I can't run the downhills at race will be over before Chantry Flats.
  I felt fantastic after the race, and other than normal post-race soreness, there is no lingering pain. I will rest one more today and then head back out tomorrow.