Monday, July 28, 2008

7/19/08 El Scorcho!

The El Scorcho 50k was my 177th marathon+ultra since being sick. You'd think that after 176 long races, I'd know how to run them properly. I still make mistakes, though. Sometimes lots of them. Lots of rookie mistakes.

Welcome to my race at El Scorcho.

But first... what kind of funky race has a name like "El Scorcho"? A 50k held in Ft Worth, Texas, during the hottest time of year. Fear not, though. To help with the heat, El Scorcho starts at midnight. And that's why I signed up. A 50k at midnight! With a funny name!

Actually, that was the secondary reason why I signed up. The primary reason was because I was planning a trip to Dallas that weekend anyway. My sister had arranged a surprise party for our parents' 35th anniversary, and the whole family would be there. Groovy - I could go to a party and run a race. In fact, I'd have to leave the party in order to run the race. I had no idea how my body would handle running all night long, so I figured that filling it up with party food might give me that extra kick I'd need to stay sharp.

Ok, not really. Welcome to the first of several rookie mistakes I'd make for my 177th marathon and ultra: screwy nutrition. Think about the typical race. You wake up on race morning and eat a little something. How about chicken fajitas! And chips and salsa! And cake! In fairness, I topped it off with fruit. I also stayed away from the beer. Instead, as I was sitting outside of my parents' house in 95 degree heat at the party catered by Pappasitos, I drank 5 or 6 diet cokes. Yum. Just what a person needs a few hours before an ultra. It wasn't supposed to be that way; I meant to be good. But I was hungry, I was at a party, and it was there. Besides, I figured that if I ate about 7p, it would be...uh... processed within 5 hours.

I've run a few midnight races. There's a 5k in Seattle that's held every Independence Day exactly at midnight. I've done that race in "serious" race mode. I've also showed up to it somewhat tipsy. I've never done well there. Something about running at night is wacky - my body gets confused. That midnight 5k is usually 2 minutes slower than my typical 5k time, and that's a lot for 3.11 miles.

El Scorcho is a 5k course that participants repeat 10 times... except for the folks registered in "La Scorchita", the 25k sister event. The course meanders along gravel and asphalt bike trails (and a bit of grass, like a cross country course) in Ft Worth's Trinity Park. It is not at all technical, though being held in the middle of the night makes it a little trickier. Some of the course is lit, and some is not. Although this year's race was held on a full moon weekend, a couple sections seemed very dark indeed. Most of us had headlamps and/or flashlights. A few brave souls did not.

Counting both the 50k and the 25k, the event was kind of a big deal. Lots of runners and lots of friends-and-family spectators... at least for the 25k. The organizers utilized chip timing, and thank goodness for that. Who wants to be counting laps at 4a? Additionally, the course offered two aid stations - a chance to drink every 1.5 miles. No need to carry a bottle nor worry about food.

Thinking that parking and finding the race site might be confusing, I showed up about 90 minutes early. I was wrong... Trinity Park was easy to find. The parking situation was phenomenal - a football stadium's parking lot that could easily fit 10x more cars than necessary for El Scorcho. And the lot was lit, an amazingly important detail for a middle-of-the-night event. I picked up my stuff, and with 85 minutes to spare, I went searching for Maniacs and 50-staters. Many people were setting up for the night with camping chairs, coolers, and a few tents. I met Maniac Claude and The Boones, the 50-stater royalty. Some folks who know me at various internet message boards (hello, RunningAHEAD) came up to say hi. Wearing pink is like having a bright shining beacon sometimes. It was great meeting everyone.

Finally, it was about time to start. The 50k would go off promptly at midnight; the 25k would start 10-15 minutes later. I was amazed at the number of people who had signed up. I didn't think all-night running would be a big attraction, but I was wrong. And the 25k seemed to be an even bigger draw. How cool.

Off we went. I didn't really have a solid goal for this race. I didn't know anything about the course, and I didn't know anything about how my body would handle running at night. I hadn't gotten much sleep the night before either. I knew it wasn't going to be technical, and I didn't think there would be hills, so I decided on a round number: I wanted to finish somewhere near 5 hours. Assuming I ran the race evenly, this would be easy to track; I needed to run 10 30-minute laps. No sweat. Except that it was dark and there were no mile markers. The only way I could tell how fast I was running was by my breathing and pulse. Both of which were different at night, especially while I was talking to folks. Hmmm. If anything, I wanted my first lap to be slow. I'd get the lay of the land, get warmed up, and then go faster later.

The course had an out-and-back section with a bit of grass running, then it cut through the "woods" (hey, it was dark. In the daylight, the trees might have been sparse. I don't know) over to the aid station. Then, back on the trail, over a couple bridges, out to a road by a bunch of neon lights, back on the trail to a playground, more trail, and then the start/finish area.

My 1st lap was 27:18. Uh oh. Rookie mistake #2: I went out too fast. A whole minute per mile too fast, and that's a lot. So I slowed down.

Even in the middle of the night, July in Ft Worth can be over 80 degrees, and so electrolyte replacement would be important. El Scorcho utilized NUUN as its electrolyte drink. NUUN is a little fizzy tablet that comes in a small tube, kind of like Airborne. I have a tube of it in my kitchen, and it has never been opened. NUUN just seems weird. Welcome to my next rookie mistake: trying something new on race day (or night). I've never had it in my life, but El Scorcho started out hot... and I was downing two cups of it every 1.5 miles. For a little while, at least.

The 25k folks had started 10 minutes after us. By the 2nd lap, all the faster 25kers had passed me. There were lots of people to talk to, and there were lots of lights flashing around. It was surreal.

Back to the start/finish. My 2nd lap was 27:28. Crap. I had intentionally tried to slow down... and had managed a full extra 10 seconds. 10k in, and I was still one minute per mile too fast. The interesting part was that while I was too fast for my somewhat random goal of 5 hours, I didn't know if I was too fast for my level of fitness. Maybe I could keep this up. By the 2nd lap, I knew that El Scorcho's course was pancake flat. Plus, as the evening wore on, the temperature was cooling off. I had managed exactly 5 hours at a slightly downhill 50k back in May.

Extra training, flat course, warm weather. Maybe I could beat 5. Then again, maybe not. One minute per mile over 31 miles is a heck of a lot faster than 5. Had someone asked me before the race "are you ready for a 4:29 50k?", I would have given them an emphatic NO. Also, once again I let the warm weather go to my head. I like warm, and I like hot, but it doesn't make me faster. Sometimes I trick myself into thinking it does. Rookie mistake #4. Anyway, I decided that I'd try to keep my laps under 30 and try to beat 5.

By the 3rd lap, I began to realize that even in the dark, 10 laps of the same thing might get exceedingly boring. I started to learn really intricate details about the course. I counted the number of bridges we went under. I counted the number of times we crossed the tiny train tracks. Trinity Park used to have (and might still have) one of those little trains that kids ride - like in the movie The Jerk. And I could tell when my body chemistry started getting out of kilter. The first change was behavioral. By the middle of the 3rd lap, I wasn't so chatty. The second change was bigger - vertigo. Not super bad... I wasn't falling over. I was just slightly dizzy. But this was only the 3rd lap! Oh my. Then towards the end of the 3rd lap, my stomach started to go sour.

My 3rd lap was 29:19. I had slowed down, but I was right at my adjusted "laps under 30" goal. I was beginning to feel it, though. And it was not good.

My 4th lap was filled with self-doubt. Six more afterwards! Plus, the faster 25kers were into their last lap... and so some of the spectators were starting to leave. Oh man. Nevertheless, my throat kept drying out, and I kept gulping the NUUN. That's when the sloshing started; fluid wasn't clearing my stomach. I hadn't gotten any dizzier, but the dizziness also didn't pass.

My 4th lap was 30:38. The trend was in the wrong direction, and it was finally crystal clear to me that I had gone out WAY too fast. My new goal was called "finish upright". My stomach was sloshy and sour. My head was spinning. I tried not to be grumpy. On the good side of the ledger, I was still sweating properly, I wasn't breathing hard, and I didn't have a headache. I figured that I wasn't overly dehydrated and heat exhaustion hadn't knocked me down. So I continued.

The 5th lap was more of the same. I tried not to drink as much, but I stuck with the NUUN when I did drink. Sloshy. Sour. I ate a chunk of banana at the aid station, but mostly my brain was saying "No food!" My belly was now kind of distended. Yup, my stomach was stuck. 33:18. My first half was 2:28, but my splits were getting ugly. And it felt like I was running pretty hard just to hit 33 minutes. Finish upright.

I started the 6th lap as a nice walk in the park. I was waaay past the point of racing. Maniac Claude passed me in here. Good luck, dude. Onward. I did a little of the "old man shuffle". And then a lot of the old man shuffle. Wow.

As I approached the aid station, my body told me in no uncertain terms: it is time. Time for what? I won't be graphic about it. It was time for my digestive system to have a showdown with itself. I was in the OK Corral. Would the Clantons win? Or the Earps? (or the urps?) Have you ever seen a Western where the two guys in the shootout manage to shoot each other? Right, nobody wins. Or maybe everyone does.

Anyway. Time passed. Stuff came up. Stuff went out. Time passed.

After that, it finally dawned on me that perhaps NUUN was not my thing. Water and the electrolyte tablets in my pocket would have to do. Bananas if I wanted some calories. No more NUUN. The 6th lap was a brutal 35:21, though that did include a great showdown gunfight thingy. Entertaining for all! My belly was no longer distended. Nor did I slosh.

By the 7th lap, I figured I could do the whole course without my flashlight. Perhaps even blindfolded. I saw some interesting stuff on this lap, though. It helped that I was slowly shuffling. Exhaustion had set in for some, and other people were probably having the same food issues as me. Some guy had managed to go off course during the out-and-back section, and a gal was following him. Somehow, he managed to avoid a wire fence, but she did not. It caught her right in the midsection and she went face-first into the concrete. I approached her at the same time as a bicycle cop who had been patroling the course. He asked her if she was ok. "Yeah, except I busted some teeth."


Because the cop was there to help, I shuffled off. It dawned on me that I clearly wasn't feeling *that* badly. I was still coherent. I hadn't gone off course. I wasn't as dizzy as I had been. I continued with the old man shuffle, but I started to be sociable to others again. Interesting. Behavioral changes had been the first sign that my body was losing it, and now the opposite change in behavior was one of my first clues that I might be recovering. So did I switch back to NUUN at the aid station? Oh hell no. That 7th lap was a 40:11, almost the same time as if I had walked the whole thing.

I was feeling a little bit better. Off I went. I don't remember much about the 8th lap... not because I was out of it; actually I was fine. An uneventful lap was a GOOD thing. 34:22. Still slow, but better than the previous two laps. My belly was working again, and I was able to do something between a shuffle and a run. I remember asking the spectators at the start/finish if it was really 4a (YES!), and off I went.

It's amazing how many details I was still learning by my 9th lap of the exact same thing. This was good. As I hit the aid station, I decided it was time to turn my semi-shuffle/run into an actual run. I didn't know if I could, but I was bored, and it was time to try. Ouch. It was kind of like my running muscles had gone to sleep and I was slapping them into wakefulness. They didn't like it, but reluctantly... slowly over the next mile... they did indeed wake up. I finished the 9th lap at 33:39, but I'm pretty sure that the second half of that lap was much peppier than the first. It certainly felt that way.

Oh man. Time for my last lap! I did not dawdle at the start/finish. No loitering. It was ok; most of the spectators were asleep. I noticed that the trash bucket was filled with beer bottles. Hmmm. Must have been quite the party.

No loitering. I ran. It felt like I was running my 5k race pace, although I was actually going much much slower. As I passed little clusters of awake spectators, I told them thank you and goodnight. I blew through the aid station. Thank you and goodnight. I knew how many steps to the two bridges, I knew where the turns were, I knew when to step off the curb without adjusting my stride... I was FLYING! At maybe a 9:30/mile pace. HA. That's slow for me, but hella faster than the previous few laps, and anyway it felt like I was sprinting. I was passing all kinds of people, but I didn't know what lap they were on. When I could, I whispered some encouragement and then I disappeared into the night.

As I approached the finish, the guy in front of me decided to do a cartwheel for his big finish. Woohoo. I didn't do anything quite so dramatic. I just sort of stopped.

5:21. Yuck. I had run an ugly 2:28/2:53 split. But a bar graph of my laps would show an interesting bell-shaped curve:

27:18, 27:28, 29:19, 30:38, 33:18, 35:21, 40:11, 34:22, 33:39, 29:38

Had I not made so many goofy mistakes, that middle part probably would look better. I was happy that my last lap was in line with my 3rd lap (the 1st two laps were clearly too fast). Based on the last lap, I'm pretty sure that "about 5 hours" was the reasonable goal. Now I know.

The food at the end of El Scorcho was really odd: bottles of water and pasta. I was happy to have some water, but who wants pasta after a race? Especially at 5:30a? There had been fruit, but it was all gone. I needed some calories and I wanted to go to bed, so I didn't stick around long.

I did run into Claude before I left. He had run a 4:52 and came in 15th overall! WOOHOO!

I came in 28th out of 91. I think a few others DNFed. Lots of people had issues with the heat and the whole "middle of the night" thing. I'd be really happy about a top third finish had I run a smart race. I did not run a smart race. I'll stick with being happy about that last lap :-).

So I drove 45 minutes to my parents house and managed a few hours of fitful sleep before spending the rest of the day at the emergency room :-(. My father was feeling poorly. Turns out that he has an aortic aneurysm. Boo for that, but he's doing ok now.

Next up: the race that has scared me for the past few months. The White River 50 Miler. How did I do? Well, I didn't come in last. More about that RealSoonNow.

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