Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Syca(more) To My Stomach - Sycamore Canyon 100k 2017

Fuck it. What does my gut say?

I was trying in my ever indecisive fashion to make a choice between signing up for the 50k or the 100k. It was a loop course which meant that 4 loops made for the 50k and 8 loops made for the 100k. I had gone out and done both odd numbered loops and even numbered loops to get a feel for what that would feel like on race day. I don't really mind loops courses at all but these 8 mile loops might prove to be different mentally, I reasoned out to myself. Maybe I could go for the 50k and shoot for a sub-4:30 time, which would've been 100% doable given my current fitness. That would pay me $50 cash and a free entry into next year. Or I could nut up and do the 100k, as it is the longest option available and it is always in my style to choose the longest distance offered in a multi-distance race (given it's not 200+ miles). It wouldn't be true to who I am to pick the easier option. But who does that even matter to, Phillip? Okay, well, if I go for the 100k option, I might have a chance at winning and maybe even the course record which stood at a little over 12 hours by my friend and amazing athlete Steven Tally. I'll get $100 for the win and an entry into next year, as well as a nice little bump to my Ultrasignup percentage (which in the large scheme of things is on the bottom of reasons I do things but it's still fun to take into account).

As is usual when I find myself being indecisive, I go over the details in my head over and over and over again, ad nauseam. I finally got frustrated with my inner me and just decided to go with whatever my intuition said. "What does my gut say?", I asked myself. "Sign up for the 100k! Regardless of the outcome, you know it will be a beautiful day out there". So, the Monday before the race I signed up for the 100k. "That should be enough time for me to commit to something," I thought. I usually don't like signing up for races too far in advance mainly because anything can go wrong or plans can change and I don't exactly feel comfortable just eating the cost of a race I end up not doing. So signing up for long races on the same week they are held is not too uncommon for me. I signed up for SD100 last year at the end of March which left me with 2 months before race day and I thought that was still a little too far out to call but since my name had come up off the waitlist I was forced to make a hasty decision.

I had just gotten done with a 100-mile week and was feeling in really good shape. Tapering is usually the protocol for race of this distance but I thought fuck it, my body is telling me I'm ready so I'll just train through this race. Now, when I say I was feeling in really good shape, I mean to say I don't think I've ever been in better ultra-running shape. After that 100-mile week (which I logged in under 13 hours for the week) I felt like I hadn't even run that week. I think some of this can be attributed to my 10-lb weight loss and also the San Diego 50 mile Trail Race I had done about 2 weeks prior which had given me a good amount of endurance back in my legs that I was lacking prior due to a minor injury (though I had performed pretty poorly in that race as well due to poor hydration choices). Whatever the cause for my new found conditioning, I was responding well to everything I was doing and so I felt confident going into the race.

The details of the race:

102km (63.2 miles)
~9,000 ft of ascent, ~9,000 ft of descent
8-mile loops
12:05 Course Record
3% Technical Trails

The day before the race, I made a last-minute trip to Sprouts to pick up some things to leave in my drop bag. I was looking for Picky Bars (which, note, they do not have at Sprouts only Trader Joe's) but they were demo-ing a similar type bar called Square Bar which I ended up buying 6 of because they tempted me with 2 free ones. Vegan protein bars are always a good choice, and these ones tasted good. I am no longer vegan but I will feel more inclined to get something if it is labeled as vegan -- usually, anyhow.

After picking up the bars, I went to the nutrition bar section to see what else they might have. Oh hey, an organic protein shake which awesome nutrition facts (good amount of carbs, good protein obvi, and a good share of sodium and potassium, as I think it was coconut based). 

All good stuff right? I looked at a protein shake right next to it with"plant-based" protein. Hmm. Being the bro body builder wanna be that I am, I decided to go with the whey protein shake which was the one I noted above, mainly because it had more carbs, protein, potassium and sodium. Now, although I am lactose intolerant when it comes to running, I've eaten whey protein bars during 24-hour races and have never had a bad reaction to them, so I didn't think twice about it. There's a difference between whey protein and regular dairy items in the sense that although whey is derived from dairy, it doesn't contain lactose as it has been filtered and thus doesn't create the reaction in me that milk or cheese might, for example. So, good to go, let's get it and get out of here. It'll be perfect to take at the halfway point (51k) of the race, so that became my plan.


So you can already tell how this story ends, right? Hint: I'm lactose intolerant.

Race Day:

It was a very crisp morning starting off in the mid to high 30's. Part of the reason I had waited until the week of to sign up for this race was also to get a more accurate sense of the weather and what to expect, which I know, doesn't sound like something you'd have to worry about in San Diego, but lately we've been getting drenched with an untypical amount of rain. Having had my last race be rescheduled because of said rainfall, I needed to make sure this weekend was going to be good to go. And according to the 7-day forecast, it was looking like Saturday was going to be the best day of the week. And boy, was it ever.

Early Morning Volunteers Are Awesome
Lady in purple was playing with my Rubik's Cube
This is mile 0, 8, 16, 24, 32, 40, 48, 56 and 64

The race started at 6:02am, which for races of these lengths is awesome because it usually means you might have a chance to end before the sun goes down. It was nice and cold, even for me, and that's how I knew it was going to be an awesome day. We took off, the same time as some of the 50k racers (I say some because there was a mixup with the Ultrasignup posted start time for the 50k and the start time listed on the website which created mayhem). The first mile goes down what is known as Cardiac Hill, which is a pretty wide dirt road that goes down at about a 6% grade until it flattens out at the first aid station, which is positioned at mile 1 and 4 (or 4 and 7 if you are on an even loop). This race is easy to get confused and go the wrong way especially if you've never been out there or if you didn't bother to look at the map. Fortunately, for those people they decided to position someone out there at crucial points to direct you in the appropriate direction. Martha's Grove is at mile 2 for odd loops and mile 5 for even loops. It is probably the most technical part of the course and it is downhill. It is the only part of the course you do the same direction on every loop and so it easily becomes the most annoying. It only lasts about a mile and single track so it's pretty cool, but it can definitely slow you down if technical downhill is not your strength and especially in the latter stages of the race.

When I say it was a beautiful day, it truly was. The rains that we had had so much of recently in San Diego made the entire landscape look alive with green. There were little brooks flowing, crossing paths with the trail. Hikers and equestrians were enjoying the trail with us and due to the small nature of the race, it never really felt overcrowded. The wind was nice and cool, and with a high of 60, it made for the perfect day to relax and enjoy the serenity of the day. Last year I had volunteered for this race and recall how warm it was -- high 80's I believe -- so this was a great turnout for the day.

When I had gone out on the course in the previous week to scout it out, I had done a "race-pace" reality check for an odd loop. I decided to go at a comfortable pace and whatever my split was for the that lap, I was going to aim to make it my pace for race day (for at least the first half of the race). The odd loop I had done ended up being around 1:15 and change and so that's what I would aim for for the first 51k of the race. Because of the hills of the race, it makes it hard to accurately figure out what pace you're supposed to do for each mile to hit a certain overall pace or loop split, so I decided to just feel it out for the most part. Lo and behold, I have recently become so in tune with my body and its perceived level of exertion that my first split actually ended up being 1:15 and change -- bull's eye! The 3 first place 50k guys were ahead of me including one 100k guy named Zach Nelson. It's a long race so your placement of the first half is not necessarily going to be the way it ends, I reminded myself. Well, that certainly turned out to be true, but not entirely in my favor.

Lap 2, mile 16, completed in about a high 1:13. Okay, time to take some time and get some more Tailwind from my drop bag. I can take it slightly easier this next lap and be okay. Andrew Bird's 228 video playlist was still playing from my phone, as I had planned to keep his music playing the entirety of the race. I felt bad not being able to answer a volunteer when she had inquired what music I had playing as she was filling my handheld. I had been stuffing my face and running back and forth between the aid station and my drop bag somewhat frantically. "Sorry," I grumbled, mouth full of whatever I was trying to cram in there, "I can't talk much". Off to start the 3rd lap.

Oh--I gotta tell you about when I fell. "It's not a trail race if I don't fall," I joked, tryig to catch up with the runner who saw me fall in front of him. It was at the bottom of the hill on lap 2, right after the steep rocky section before it connects to the road. I was drinking some Tailwind from one of the 2 handhelds I had and I guess I must've missed seeing a rock as I was taking a drink because I tripped over something and had landed on my back. The grade of the hill, thought flattening out, was downhill enough to have me do an involuntary crunch with my lower torso, bringing my knees to my chest. I still had my mouth full of hydration and this rolling crunch motion had actually caused me to spit up all of it right in my face as I was lying there on my back. Yes, I drowned myself in my own Tailwind spit-up. I was more upset at the fact that I wasted that hydration than I was embarrassed. Although, that's not to say it was my proudest moment, especially as someone was right behind me to witness my gracious, albeit spontaneous, trail-inspired acrobatics. Maybe yoga has its place here. A funny moment that I'm grateful only turned out to be just that. Now to deal with the "Did you take a spill somewhere?" questions the rest of the day, as the dirt on my running clothes would betray me.

The end of loop 3 clocked me in at around 3:45. Again, perfect pacing, this should put me at a little over 5 hours for the 51k mark if I want to take my time on the 4th loop. As I was coming into the 3rd loop, I had seen that Dan Lacy, last year's 50k winner, had regained the lead from 3rd place. "Awesome job, buddy!" I breathed on a steep uphill as he bombed the descent heading my way. Jonathon was not too far behind, despite him having just run Black Canyon 100k mudfest last week. He said something to me but I had said some kind of affirmation to him at the same time so not sure what it was but I think it had something to do with race positioning or how his race was going. "Ah, man, how lucky they are to be on their last lap!", I thought to myself. realizing I still had 5 more ahead of me. 24 miles, 3,300 feet of climbing, 3 hours and 45 minutes -- feeling great! Off to start the 4th lap after grabbing some more Tailwind and refilling my handhelds.

Towards the end of the 4th lap, time to make my way up Cardiac Hill again. Still having a good amount of energy, I was running up this hill. That's when I saw the first place 100k guy Zach who was walking uphill. I caught up with him and tried to see how he was faring. Apparently he had a nagging injury that flared up again during the first 3 laps and he was unfortunately going to have to drop as soon as we reached the main Aid Station. "Aw, man, that sucks!" I empathized, knowing how annoying minor injuries can be. "Yeah, I was going for sub-11, which would've been possible, I was hoping you wouldn't catch me until the top but I'll just run this one in with you," he decidedly stated. So I walked with him until it leveled out, at which point we both ran into the 51k Aid Station. Looking at my watch, 5:07 as I pulled into the Aid Station feeling pretty damn good. Took at little extra time since it was halfway and it's good to have at least a little 3 minute mental break to collect yourself before the final 4. That's when I made a grab for my protein shake in my drop bag. I chugged that thing like I was a gym bro at minute 29 of my 30 minute post-workout anabolic window.

And that was it, that was what caused my downfall -- the milk-containing protein shake. I know it sounds like no shit, a whey protein shake would contain dairy product but au contraire, Pierre, a lot of protein shakes that come in a carton (like Muscle Milk) don't actually contain any milk at all. So this was just a case a careless negligence when I should've been more cautious to try anything new on race day, let alone read the back of the new product entirely. Clearly, this story won't end well but let me go into detail as to how it affected the rest of my race.

Alright, lap 5 I consciously decided to start taking it easier and do 1:20-1:25 minute laps and save energy for my last lap which I would try to do at 1:15 or faster if I had the energy. This is when I would start walking even the slight hills and started doing 10-11 minute miles regularly. "I'd rather play it safe," I thought "even though I feel like I would be good to push it a little". I didn't want to start cramping prematurely and I had done a good job of avoiding that so far so why push it unnecessarily? I was now in the lead and it looked as though for sure I was going to win if I just finished the race. It was now a matter of "Will I get the course record and if so by how much?". It started becoming real in my head, I was starting to feel it. It was happening, I was about to win my first ultramarathon race ever and it would be a course record to boot! Man,what a great way to start my sophomore year of ultra trail running! Altra didn't want me as an ambassador, maybe they'll reconsider. Maybe I'll hold a grudge and not even bother with Altra. Man, but I love their shoes. Man, I can't believe I feel this good into a race that I've been going at a pretty good 9:36-ish overall pace with about 4,500 feet of climbing underneath me (Strava said 4:59 for 50k split) and my downhill legs still have so much life left in them. I could start bombing downhills on my last lap, it's gonna be great. My hydration is 100% on point today, too, so it's an awesome day so far, really. This is really happening!

I pull into lap 5. 1:35 split. Something doesn't feel right. I'm sweating more and I start feeling some gas-like pressure in my GI tract. Ugh, just 3 more laps, Phillip! Do it. 6:42 into the race, I leave after grabbing some more Tailwind and water. 24 miles in 5 hours, totally doable.

Then, I decided maybe this pressure was forming because I actually needed to go the bathroom (2) but because of all the jostling around it wasn't really feeling like I needed to go but I probably should to relieve the pressure. So I pulled off to the side of the trail and spent 5 minutes trying to just calmly force something out (apologies for the graphics, if you're a runner you understand, surely). I would consider it a minor success as some pressure was relieved. When I got up to Martha's Grove however, it started getting ugly. I just started feeling like I was full, even though I wasn't taking in as much hydration as I had been previous laps, and the honey stinger I had on my I had been holding onto since mile the last time I passed by this aid station on the previous lap. I felt for my stomach and could feel it protruding pretty prominently from my abdomen. Fuck. Something is blocking anything from going in. This is why I hadn't felt the need to drink or eat as much. This is not good, not good at all. I'll need to figure this out at the end of this lap. My body was calling for a complete and total shutdown of nutrition entering my body until I could figure out what the hell was going on. Yes, my stomach was Donald Trumping me, and all I wanted to do was drain this fuckin' swamp in my stomach. Ugh.

I started thinking, "Okay, this is not game over, you just need to stop and figure stuff out once you get to the main Aid Station at mile 48". Walking up Cardiac Hill that time however felt like hell. I was quickly getting dehydrated despite my day's efforts to keep on top of that. Nothing was going to get in me with this blockage. I walked up next to a fellow 100k racer I had seen at a race previously. She had done the Endurance Challenge 100 mile Urban Ultramarathon with me back in 2014. This race had been my first DNF (at mile 52) and it was due to scarcely placed and poorly stocked aid stations that essentially made having a crew a necessity. I got dehydrated, lost about 8 lbs of body weight during the race, and couldn't continue. Naomi had also DNF'd that race, though it was more a technicality as she didn't "finish" the race in under the 30 hour time limit. If I remember correctly, she had finished in about 32 or so hours, which in my opinion still counts as a finish. She was expressing her frustration at the fact that she thought she might just have to drop down to the 50k distance because she wasn't making adequate times on the loops. I tried talking with her some more as we tried to remember where we knew each other from, but the nausea and other symptoms from my lactose intolerance were starting to have a dramatic effect on me. I was beginning to slur together words pretty significantly and when I wasn't saying words I was just groaning trying to move myself up the hill. We bid farewell as I was in a hurry to make it to the main aid station once it flattened out to figure out my situation.

I pulled in, not looking to well. Jonathon, being done, had decided to volunteer and help out the rest of the day (which was awesome by the way) and I think I was trying to explain what was going on. I ended up spending at least 30 minutes here. Ginger ale, solid foods, sipping other liquids. I wanted to make sure I got something in me before going back out there and maybe sitting and resting will give whatever it is that's blocking me a chance to pass and I'll go out there and be okay again. "Alright, I'm still not feeling that awesome, but I'm feeling better, so it's time to head out". I slowly jogged out as Jonathon tried to coach me to listen to my body and walk whatever is necessary.

As I was about to make the turn that leads down Cardiac Hill to start my 7th lap, I heard someone call my name -- "PHILLIP!". I look back and it's someone from a car I didn't immediately recognize. It turned out to be Steven Tally, course record holder and fellow trail crasher. "Phillip, you are doing awesome today and you're totally going to smash my record". "Nah, I don't think so, I'm in pretty rough shape right now". "That's exactly how I felt at the beginning of lap 7 but then I turned it around, trust me, you will. Hey I'll tell you what, I'll come run some miles with you if you want, if you think that'd help". "Yeah, if you can, I can sure use the help", I responded, really hoping that if my stomach thing doesn't correct itself that he might be able to help me through these last 2 laps. I have a lot of respect for Steven as an athlete and he represents the friendly, humble yet competitive nature of endurance sports, recognizing we are all out there for similar reasons.

So the course record visualization was obviously starting to fade, but I still had a chance to at least win this thing. I was still in the lead, but I didn't think the 2nd place guy, Jonathon Burchmore, would be too far behind me. I had kept at least an hour lead up until lap 7, but given my half hour break I knew he would probably be coming up Cardiac Hill as I was going down. Sure enough, as I reached the bottom I passed him as he was coming up. "Damnit," I thought, "He might catch me". Still, despite competitive natures, we always offer passing affirmations in ultra running -- "Great job man, looking good".

I made it to Martha's Grove for the 7th time of the day before I started feeling that the blockage hadn't in fact gone away. Damnit. I couldn't drink any Tailwind without feeling like I was going to throw up. I hate throwing up If I can avoid throwing up at any cost, I will -- and I mean any cost. Especially as I'm getting dehydrated and running a race. When I get dehydrated, cramping is an inevitable part of the process. I don't mean little twinges of cramping either. I mean, muscles in my body will seize up into the tightest knots they can possibly tie themselves into and will not release until I get the appropriate balance of water and electrolytes in me. I knew if I puked, there'd be a good chance my abdomen muscles (among others) would seize up entirely and send my body into a state of shock as I lay in a comatose state on the side of the trail until someone comes by casually asking if I'm okay. This kind of cramping has happened to me before and an ambulance was involved as I couldn't remember what year it was (I thought it 2003 in the year 2014). So I'm not even sure if puking was going to happen naturally, but as far as I was concerned it wasn't. But God, every time I drank something that feeling was there. So if you can imagine the feeling of being on the verge of puking for 4 hours while running (or even walking) during a race, that's what the latter half of my day felt like.

Every time I tried to push it -- which sometimes simply meant walking fast -- that feeling would come back. 20-minute+ miles were starting to happen, even downhill, as I had to stop often to calm the nausea back down. I walked pretty miserably into the mile 52 Aid Station. This was it, I wasn't going to continue any more. It would be a danger to myself and inconsiderate to the race organizer to continue potentially 4-5 more hours knowing I couldn't take in any hydration or calories. I could finish, but it would be ugly, and irresponsible. I sat down and talked it out a little with the awesome volunteers there. Someone offered me a little trail mix to chew on to get something in me, so I took it thinking, yeah, what could it hurt? As I was sitting there, I noted how beautiful of a day it was, explained my stomach issue and also explained how I felt like I could do 100 squats but couldn't run without wanting to puke. "How far behind me is the 2nd place guy?" I asked. "He's a lap and a half behind you". As much as I wanted to believe this, I knew it wasn't true. I knew, as I sat there, he would come running down towards us any second. Sure enough, here he came, running down right past us at the aid station as he took the lead. Well, there goes the race. Can I finish?

As I was continuing to chew the hamster food, Steven came biking down from Martha's Grove. He was sweeping and I think he was just making the rounds. I told him that this is where I was going to call it. He offered to walk back up the hill with me, which is when something in me decided "I can't do that". Walking up that side of the hill, back on the side I left from not to long ago, would be a sign that I definitely dropped, whereas if I continued at least another 4 miles, I could at least give the impression that there's still a chance for me to continue. So I just took off.

Going up the steep rolling climbs leading into the main Aid Station was hell. It seems my stomach issue was starting to affect my breathing, not only because of dehydration but because every time I breathed in deep or rapidly by walking fast uphill, it would push against my stomach, causing the worst nausea ever. Whitney, who had finished the 50k earlier, had started walking out to see where I was out of concern, seeing that the 2nd place guy had come in before I did. As we walked the last half mile of rolling hills, it seemed to take forever, as my symptoms were getting worse and my bottles were staying full.

Barely able to walk without groaning, we pulled into the Aid Station (lap split 3:17) where I had the fattest Deja' Vu. The EMT guy, Jonathon, and another volunteer were there, all asking me questions, thought I can't remember what they were asking. I was unresponsive with a 100k stare. People kept asking me questions as I sat there, "What do you need? Do you want gatorade? Soda? Soup?". I couldn't nor did I feel like responding. I was just, sitting there, staring blankly ahead, trying to breathe regularly, trying to just, be. I couldn't even. I eventually agreed to some soup and luckily that started reviving me back to life. God, cup o' noodles tastes so good at this point in a race. It was getting pretty dark at this point, the temperature starting to drop significantly. I had taken my sweater the last time I left the Aid Station but at this point it was covered in cold sweat, you know, the kind of sweat you perspire when you're on the verge of puking. The sweater was drenched with that kind of sweat. I had gotten severely dehydrated and knew what this meant. When you get to a certain point of dehydration in a race, it becomes really hard to recover from. For me, this was the point of no return. I knew the situation wasn't going to get better, as it had only gotten worse since I had last seen them. So I sat there, eating soup, ever present in the moment entirely.

Once I started coming back to life, that's when Leo had come who was going to pace me for the last lap. I'm glad he had come during my most miserable moment because, being relatively new to ultra distance events I wanted him to see how ugly it can get for me. I felt bad having him come out when he wasn't going to actually be able to run with me. He was cool with just hanging out though, and he advised me to listen to my body also. Oh, I was listening alright. In fact, it was the only thing I could hear for the last 2 loops. This is when the inevitable dehydration cramps started happening. Every muscle I used that day -- upper back, lower back. obliques, abs, calves, quads, hamstrings, hip adductors/abductors, glutes -- all started seizing up. Sitting down, standing up made no difference. "Just keep eating and drinking soup" I told myself.

As I talked it out with everyone there, it became clear that it would not be a good idea to go out there and do potentially a 3-4 hour lap knowing I was likely going to get worse. I eventually told the Race Director my decision. She politely offered to knock me down to the 50k so it wouldn't show up as a DNF, but I told her I had mixed feelings about doing that. It was a DNF and I knew it was a DNF. I didn't set out to do a 50k that morning, I set out to do 100k. Retroactively placing me in the 50k race category would have felt a little dishonest to me (though I did manage to position 4th among 50k racers despite running the 100k). So I took the DNF.

This is what a DNF looks like

And that was it. Obviously more cramping, speculating what could have caused my GI distress, pizza eating, head shaking. I kept saying how I felt robbed. I sabotaged my own race. My legs felt great, hydration was on point most of the day, I had never felt better during an ultra of that distance. I was on pace to not only win and break the course record, but I was going to 50 mile PR during this 100k race which had 3 times as much climbing as my 50 mile PR race had. I was in fuckin A-mazing shape. My lactose intolerance had taken me out, I would find out the day after.

A quick irony to wrap this up: One of the things I believe gives me a great advantage in endurance sports, particularly ultrarunning, is being Native American. We have generations of great endurance capabilities under our feet and it is my firm belief that it is something we are and can be good at. This is why I am on the path I am currently on, how I lost all my weight and became somewhat good at ultra-distances in a relatively short amount of time without having any running background whatsoever. The irony of the day however, is that Native Americans also have a higher disposition towards lactose intolerance, which is what prevented me from actually winning my first ultramarathon. LOL. Gotta laugh at yourself and your stupidity sometimes. All's well that ends well, and I am keeping this momentum going. No injuries, beautiful day, great health, life well lived. 'Eyaay 'ehan.

"Don’t be afraid to fail. Anything I’ve ever attempted, I was always willing to fail. You can’t be paralyzed by fear of failure or you will never push yourself. You keep pushing because you believe in yourself and in your vision and you know that it is the right thing to do, and success will come. So don’t be afraid to fail." - Arnold Schwarzenegger 

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