08 October 2019

Belt-buckle breakdown: Run Woodstock Hallucination 100 mile race report

It was such an epic journey that it's hard to know where to begin.

So in an effort to make this more readable I'm going to break this report down not in terms of chronological sequence but rather by component parts - and hopefully those of you who are only interested in certain facets can scroll through to what catches your fancy.

Here are the areas that I'm going to focus in on:
  • The course (including conditions)
  • The equipment
  • The (other) people
  • The advice
  • The runner
  • The mistakes.
The course
While I'd told many people that I was going to go to Hell (Michigan) - with the hopes of also fulfilling the "and back" part - the actual address to punch into the GPS navigator had me heading to Pinckney, a little northeast of Hell and about halfway between Ann Arbor and Lansing.  I'd made the trek the night before the race to stay with my friends Chuck & Jan in Emeryville (just outside of Windsor) so that the day-of drive to Hell Creek Ranch Campground would only require 90 min. of travel time.

As the name would indicate the property on which we'd be starting the race was a campground - and a funky-vibed one at that.

Can you dig the speed limit, sucka .....?!?!

The 100-mile race distance consists of six 16.6 mile loops (or 26.7 km), and as I was to find out upwards of 1/3 of the loop was either on crushed limestone rail-trail or rural sideroad.  Aid stations were situated approximately 4 miles apart, so we had the initial start/finish aid station (with drop bag tent), the "Grace" station (at 4 mi. and then crossed again at 12 mi.) and "Richie's Haven".  At each station there were plenty of friendly faces, loads of snacks/liquids/foods and rockin' tunage.

With respect to the trail conditions they were very well groomed and not particularly technical - for all intents and purposes the entire course was runnable (except perhaps for the steepest and longest incline at 13 mi.) and there was only really one notable patch of mud that required circumnavigation.  Aside from that the biggest hazard (and some were big) were the piles of horse droppings that greeted you from time to time ... easily dodged in the daylight, but almost indistinguishable from the regular trail footing at night (yuck).

There were boardwalks over ponds and creeks.

There was marshland with shoulder-height grass and weeds (which I was almost certain would send me home with at least a few ticks, but thankfully none were found).

There were extended sections of downhill bombing with 'death to the right' (aka a steep drop-off, but I like Rhonda-Marie's descriptor better).

There were next-to-no bugs (mosquitoes, deerflies or otherwise).  I think that during the entire race I might have swatted at bugs perhaps four times, and was never bitten.

And as for the conditions on the day (and night), you could hardly have asked for better.  There was a steady rain that lasted for maybe 30-40 min. at around 1pm on Friday afternoon (the race start time was at 4pm), but after that there was no precipitation that affected the run.  This meant that everything underfoot was relatively secure, and even when the nighttime temperatures cooled down to about 14°C (vs. the daytime high of about 24°C) there was nothing to make it miserable or even unenjoyable ... it was all-around pleasant.  I didn't need to don any of the extra layers (e.g. long-sleeved tech top, rain jacket or running pants) that I'd brought with me so that minimized the amount of extra time that might otherwise have been required for changing into different outfits.

Now I have to say something else about the vibe of the campground - when we looped back through the start/finish area it was hard not to feel encouraged.  With so many people camping out as part of the race weekend (families, crew members, racers tackling different distances) there was never a point - even in the dead of night) when there wasn't a cascade of applause lifting your spirits.  As well during the daylight hours there was music playing (live bands on the soundstage were a feature part of the camping experience), and just tons of colour to stimulate your visual senses.  It was - dare I say it? - groovy.
 [ Photo courtesy of Run Woodstock on Facebook ]

The equipment
This is just a basic rundown of what I used during the race:
  • Shoes:  Reebok Floatride Forever Energy (although these are road shoes they did serve me well at the Sunburn Solstice Trail Run and the Limberlost Challenge - plus I was encouraged when there were a few other 100-mile runners that I spoke with pre-race who had competed in this event in previous years and chose to lace up road shoes as well)
  • Apparel:  Reebok "Race Crew" ACTIVCHILL tee; Reebok 5-in. split shorts; Falke RU Energizing compression socks; Sugoi arm sleeves; Buff original headwear (as neck-warmer/sweat absorber)
  • Pack: Ultimate Direction AK 2.0 Race Vest (with Platypus Big Zip LP 1.5L bladder, courtesy of superathlete extraordinaire Christina Blackley
  • Headlamps:  Princeton Tec Remix (125 lumens) and Black Diamond Astro (150 lumens)
  • Watch:  Epson RunSense SF-810 (which unfortunately ran out of battery partway through the fourth loop)
  • Nutrition:  REKARB energy syrups; GU gels; PC Organics banana & raspberry strained baby food pouches (this stuff was like magic!); assorted Timbits; Ironman Ruth's homemade oat-cakes and rhubarb/banana/chocolate muffins; Salt Stick salt tablets; Pep-O-Mint Lifesavers
And then there was the extra stuff that I packed but never ended up actually using/needing (but was still glad that I had with me):
  • Skechers GOTrail Ultra 3 (extra shoes)
  • Dollar-store variety 'magic gloves'
  • Reebok running performance cap
  • Reebok run essentials s/s and l/s shirt
  • Team Running Free fleece hoodie (at the advice of my friend Julius)
  • Jar of pickles
  • Trader Joe almonds  
A pretty decent haul in the race kit goody bag!
The people
This list go almost literally go on and on - prior to the race I deliberately sought the advice of a number of experienced ultrarunning friends, including Steph Hurtado, Keith Lascelles, Chad Dickinson, Steven Parke and Jim Willett.  I'd benefited so much as well from the comraderie and encouragment of my tribe the Barrie RunNinjas, and would be remiss if I didn't thank the Barrie Trail Running Club too.

However along the way in the race there were definitely a few folks who played a big part in the overall experience:
  • Marilyn - we first met in the line for race kit pick-up.  I immediately took notice of her slight and diminutive frame which I interpreted to be 'fit and fast' - and sure enough as she engaged me in pleasant small talk while we waited together in line she told me that while being a first-timer at the Hallucination 100 like me (she was from the greater Boston area) she was "6 for 10" in 100 milers.  I would later pick her brain while setting up gear in the start/finish area drop-bag tent, covering everything from pacing to how much extra gear to bring on any given loop.  We started pretty much together but after about 3k I (foolishly?) sped ahead and didn't see her again until my 5th lap when I was really struggling with GI issues and she passed me looking strong.  I would only see her again after regaining some strength and obliviously saying "trying to pass on your left" at about mile 99.  My finishing time was only about two minutes ahead of hers, and when she crossed I wanted to be there to greet her and offer up my thanks.  She embraced me with the hugest bear-hug possible and tearfully congratulated me on my big accomplishment. 
  • David - we had our stuff situated beside each other in the start/finish drop-bag tent, and got to chatting while waiting for the pre-race meeting.  David was a local runner and had finished a few hundos, including the Hallucination 100 several years back.  I immediately noticed his stars-and-stripes running shorts, and we connected not just on the fashion front but also as he is a dad to a few young-adult children.  I loved going through David's fueling plan with him, which included some niacin tablets which I learned can warm you up when feeling cold during a long race.  While a seasoned ultra-athlete, I saw David hurting during his third lap and he told me that his hamstrings were simply not having it that day ... and as such he had to drop out after about 45 miles.
  • Doug - I connected with Doug as we started from the campground on the second loop.  From the campground the course narrows to single track, so I got to chatting with him and another younger runner (Jacob) and we ran together for the next 4km or so.  We were exchanging stories about how we got into running, and I found out that among other things Doug's nickname was "Goat" (apparently short for "Rancid Goat"!) and that he's been quite involved in charity races and helping execute races of various distances which are promoted as friendly to first-time racers.  A super-friendly guy, Doug and I would end up playing 'leap-frog' for pretty much the remainder of the race - he and his pacer (unlike me, Doug had a full crew there to help him with logistics, refueling and pacing) would often pass me out on the course but we'd see each other at the aid stations because Doug (who was nursing a bad hamstring issue himself) would spend more time resting while I tried to grab some food and keep moving.  Doug was 110% pure grit, and it was so inspiring and uplifting to my spirits to keep crossing paths with him all throughout the day and night and day again. 
  • The border patrol/customs agents - obviously an unusual addition to a race report, but I found that both entering the USA and re-entering Canada the border guards were absolutely fascinated by the fact that my reason for travel was to run an ultramarathon, much less a 100 miler.  As soon as they caught wind that that was the focus of my trip they completely abandoned the normal array of questions (e.g. where do you live, are you bringing anything into the country, how long is your stay, etc.) and just peppered me with questions about the logistics of the race, what kind of training was required and what kind of plan I had in place to stay awake and moving.  I almost felt like I had to cut them off just so that I wouldn't tick off the other cars in line behind me.  
The advice
When I peruse through other people's race reports I admin to sometimes not reading through the entire narrative - not because its uninteresting, but because my sole purpose is try to walk away with a few nuggets of information that I can implement into my next comparable venture.  As such I thought that I would highlight some of the key pieces of advice that I received which I think are worth noting for anyone attempting an ultramarathon, and perhaps in particular a hundred-miler:
  • Walk before you have to - I know that I voiced this myself after reflecting on the Sunburn Solstice Trail Run, but I've also read/heard this from multiple fronts.  At some point in an ultra you are most likely to have to walk - so incorporate them strategically instead of feeling that its a last resort.  When you choose an interval to walk you are almost certainly even going to carry that on at a more vigourous pace than if you are reduced to having to walk.
  • Stay in the moment - a video that I'd recently come across was a TED talk by a gent named Ned Phillips and out of all the stories that he told the one little bit that stuck with me was about how important it is when running to just think about running.  Sounds simple, and it is - but profoundly so:  https://youtu.be/_tc4K5Zujqw?t=629
  • Be careful of over-preparing - another video that proved immensely helpful was an interview with Anton Krupicka (won the Leadville 100 twice, and placed second in 2010 at Western States).  Besides reiterating the 'stay in the moment' approach Anton also shared some reassuring words about how ignorance leading into one's first 100-miler can be underrated.  It's not an excuse for negligence or laziness in making sure that you're well-trained and reasonably aware of what's in front of you, but that you can overthink your preparation.  I even read that you can over-pack, putting energy and $$ into bring far more stuff than you need, especially to races (like the Hallucination 100) that has fantastic aid stations that are not too too far apart.  Even the very small cooler of food/snacks that I brought was barely scratched because of how well stocked the race aid stations were.
  • Brushing your teeth can feel as good as a shower - this was a tidbit advised by both my friends Steven and Steph.  I packed a toothbrush and toothpaste and pulled them out after lap #4 (approx. 9:00 am) in the hopes that having a fresh mouth would revitalize me.  It was no instant wake-up call, but I can say that I did have something to look forward to as I was plodding toward sunrise, and it was great to feel like my breath wouldn't melt metal.
The runner
What can I say?  I spent an entire season only racing ultras in the hopes of being fit enough to complete the Hallucination 100 in the allotted time (30-hour cut-off, which would give me a Western States qualifying ballot).  In addition to plenty of time logged on my feet I also took Steven's advice of trying to put in a few run streaks to try to help bolster my mental preparation - for me this meant running every day for the month of January (no mean feat during the polar vortex-type winters here in Barrie, ON) and the month of March.   I figured that if I could get out there when I was not only tired but the conditions were certainly prohibitive that perhaps I would be ready for pushing through those proverbial 'walls' when I felt like running was the last thing that I wanted to do.

And the walls, they came.

I think that there were at least five distinct occasions during my 100-mile run when I effectively thought that I was done.  The earliest occurrence was at around kilometre 32 when I was walking up a hill and couldn't even maintain a straight path.  Now I confess to have been battling light-headedness and vertigo for the five days leading up the Hallucination 100 - I think that it may have been a result of a sinus infection - and wasn't even sure that I would make it to the start line.  However I felt like I could give it a go with my only real fear being that if/when I fell on the trails that the world might start spinning out-of-control.  Thankfully that didn't end up happening (maybe in part due to the fact that when I did fall I went full-out Superman diving instead of my normal tuck-and-roll strategy).

Then there was the GI (gastro-intestinal) stuff.

As much as I have tried to learn from the assortment of ultras that I managed to complete this year, I still do not have a handle on how to fuel in a way that doesn't upset my stomach.  By the time that I was going around on loop #5 (about 85km in) I was finding it very difficult to get in the calories that I needed without having my stomach reject it altogether.  I was grateful that aid station #1/#3 (we passed by it twice) had plain cheese pizza, but the only way that I could get it down was to walk slowly and try to eat it in the smallest of nibble-sizes.  I couldn't handle anything sweet - so no more gels, no candy, not enough peanut butter & jam sandwiches.  And even chicken noodle soup threatened to make a reappearance after swallowing it if I tried to consume it in modestly-full spoonfuls.  This made for a recipe of near-disaster as I went into a serious calorie-deficit position and pretty much walked the entire fifth lap.

About 27km of watching people look good while I felt like a zombie. 

27km of hearing "on your left".

27km of thinking about how I was going to draft my 'DNF' race report.

Oh, and did I mention that my watch had run out of battery life during the fourth loop?

I'd told myself that I was pretty much spent, and that there would be no way that after the fifth lap that I would have enough time (at my current pace) to make the cut-off.  That decision to bail was also made psychologically a bit easier given that the organizers give anyone who completes more than 100km the option to back down and receive a time for the "Happening 100k" (instead of a DNF in the 100 miler) as well as a medal for that distance.

Coming back into the campground at the end of lap 5 I sat down (and I really hadn't sat down all race long - I tried to keep moving at all times, even if it was just at a slow walk) convinced that I was done.  The senior volunteer who was tracking bib numbers as we came through the aid station asked me how long before I'd set out for the last go-round, and I told her I was pretty much finished.  Her response was "but you still have lots of time" ... and not knowing what time it was exactly I still had no designs on pressing on.  I was pretty sure that it was past 4pm, and that would leave me a total of six hours or less to complete another 27km of feeling downright nasty.

"It's 3:31 pm", she said.

Moment of truth time.

With more than six hours left I somehow convinced myself that I could give it a go and pull out at one of the aid stations if/when things got extraordinarily ugly.  So I (figuratively) girded my loins, and went to ring the bell that hung in the aid tent - it was explained to us during the pre-race meeting that on the final lap runners had to ring the bell to signal that they were only going round once more (much like you would hear at a track-and-field event).  Once I gave it a good ring I planted my right foot forward to try to muster something of a jog ...

And guess what?

I actually found myself running.  Faster than I had for the previous 5-7 hours.  Not sure if it was the bell that mentally woke me up, or the prospect of potentially being able to earn my first belt buckle - whatever it was, I managed to make my last loop my third fastest of the race:
  • Loop 1 - 3:10
  • Loop 2 - 3:53
  • Loop 3 - 5:01
  • Loop 4 - 5:10
  • Loop 5 - 6:17
  • Loop 6 - 4:23
As a last note on this section I'll say that even though I did not have any crew or pacers with me (and honestly I think that this event was well set-up to not need any additional help) I did use the setting sun as my 'unofficial' pacer for the final loop.  The last thing that I wanted to have to do is to pull out my headlamp again to run in the dark - so my cadence picked up with the lengthening shadows.  There's nothing quite like desperation to keep your feet moving.

The final tale of the tape

The mistakes
I'm sure that there are many more errors in judgment, preparation and execution but I think that I'll just note two of them here:
  1. Driving home right after finishing - yep, I waddled my way from the finishing to collect my drop-bag stuff and headed straight out of the campground to my car.  I then launched headlong into the 5+ hour drive home, which included a late-night stop at McDonald's to grab a caffeine jolt and numerous overpass bridges that seemingly became Transformers before my eyes.  Apparently the hallucinations for me were kept on hold until after the run.  Still, I managed to get home safely somehow, grabbed a shower and hit the hay in my own bed.  This all despite numerous recommendations not to extend my streak of 34 awake hours to 39 (including my wife telling me to just nab a hotel room).  Don't try this at home, kids.
  2. Giving myself very little recovery time - I took two days off of running after getting home.  I thought that my legs actually felt pretty good, and since I had already committed to pacing the County Marathon again this year I didn't want to dive into off-season mode quite yet.  And while I didn't launch into a hardcore training week, I did help my friend Jeremy move the following weekend and promptly threw my back out completely.  I was shelved for about three days with radiating lower-back pain, and after that subsided my neck seized up for another three days.  I felt like I was physically falling to pieces, but I suspect that that was just my body telling me "what - you didn't think that I just did the most strenuous workout in 49 years of life?".

So there it is - the Hallucination 100 as I best remember it.  Where we go from here is to submit my single ballot into the 2020 Western States Endurance Run lottery - and even if I don't see my name drawn (which is almost guaranteed) I may think about hitting up another belt buckle adventure.  It was an excellent time all in all, and I still believe that I could finish one in under 24 hours.

But first, some donuts and a decent off-season ...! :)

Sign me up for another rodeo, cowboy!