Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Day (and Night) of the Buffalo

Jim Skaggs -- Pre-Race

Week Summary

Carson River Flats: 5.8 mi (+11 ft); 10:32 pace
Buffalo Shakeout: 3.1 mi (+30 ft); 10:33 pace
Buffalo Pacer: 27.7 mi (+2,610 ft); 18:08 pace
Buffalo Finish: 11.1 mi (+461 ft); 11:18 pace
Weekly Totals: 47.8 mi (+3,111 ft); 12:02:57 on trail

You can work hard to achieve your goals, only to run into obstacles over which you have little control. Sometimes the obstacle is a hormone-rattled bison or an entire island or a precarious gust of wind. Other times it is your own confidence or getting caught in the draft of the moment. We ran into some formidable obstacles at the Buffalo Run 100-miler this past weekend, but we are happy to have had a go at it. And as is often the case when success eludes us, we come away with a few things that will keep us going. 

After Tuesday's easy jog on the Carson River, Wednesday saw Darren and I packing for the Buffalo Run at Antelope Island, Utah. We had high hopes as we drove into the twilight on our way to a stop-over in Elko, Nevada. The weather felt promising and almost tasted like spring. Thursday morning we sped into Utah and were at Striders Running Store in Layton in the early afternoon. The beautiful ladies at Striders (Chuck at Eclipse should find that employment agency) gave Darren his race packet and we didn't linger too long, although I probably bought more GU than absolutely necessary. Soon we were parking at the gate to Antelope Island State Park and changing into our shoes and shorts for a shirtless run along the lake margin -- our post-drive shakeout before the race start. Having jogged around for about 30 minutes we cruised to the hotel and then hit Rooster's Brewery for some carbos in the form of Polygamy Pale Ale.

A noontime starting time has some advantages.  First and foremost, you don't have to get up at some crazy hour to prep and gain the starting line. So we lingered over the hotel breakfast and double-checked the Nathan packs and drop-bags prior to heading out to the island.

Buffalo 100 -- High Noon
A cool stiff breeze met the small group of 44 runners at the starting tent set up by Director Jim Skaggs and crew. Even with the slight chill on the wind, the day promised to be as warm as predicted. A laid-back attitude pervades the Buffalo and after a brief commentary on the few rules of the race, the small group lined up to begin the long day and night (and day, for some) on the trail. And immediately the first obstacle presented itself. Darren is a wonderfully capable and talented runner, only a tier or two or three below the best ultra-runners in the world. Unlike clear mid-packers like myself, Darren is presented with a slight problem at the start of each event. One of the attractions of events like this, most ultras in fact, is that any of us can line up with the best -- for a couple minutes of shivering in the cool of the starting line, we are equals. For high-middle-tier runners like Darren this is enticing and slightly perilous. When the gun sounds (er, Jim says "go") it's almost impossible not to stride along with friendly heroes for a while (start video here). The pace is slow compared to most tempo runs and not difficult to manage, but the game plan and long-term fuel is leaking away. It's fun, but the price can be heavy.

Darren at Mountain View ~22 miles
This might be especially true at the Buffalo where almost all of the run's climbing is on the first section of the two 50-mile laps. So from the start the little group of elites, Karl Meltzer and Dan Vega, plus Darren and one or two others climbed out of White Rock toward Elephant Head. I would be pacing from the 50-mile point (on the second lap) so I let 'em run and went back to the hotel to rest and hydrate and waste some time.  But I was soon bored so I returned to the island to check out the aid stations and watch the passing action. Soon after I arrived, Karl sped through the Mountain View aid station (AS) to be followed in about four-minute intervals by second (Yellow Shirt, until I see the results) and third place (Dan Vega). Darren came through about an hour later feeling good after 22 miles. He mentioned that he'd tripped in a violent wind gust at the Elephant Head turn-around and couldn't feel his thumb -- he didn't realize that he'd also received a blunt contusion on his IT band lateral to his right knee. He was still a half-hour ahead of the pace I'd planned on paper.

Karl was soon at Lower Frary AS, but the bison were toying with the trailing runners -- is there some kind of cross-species communication and conspiracy between speedgoats and bison? Dan was charged and diverted briefly from the trail. Yellow Shirt barely escaped on a long sprinting detour uphill, "I'm going to die", he thought, "but interestingly their heads look soft." His comments rattled in the laughter of the aid station, but the station chiefs took it seriously called for a park service trail sweep. In the meantime, I went back to meet runners and warn them. The herd milled around the trail but we convinced the runners to a very short short-cut through a lower field before regaining the track to Lower Frary. Once Darren hit the station I left for Layton to meet Dennis and Mary as they arrived from Grand Junction. It was a quick out-and-back so we could meet Darren at the end of his first lap. I had to be ready to go.

Darren at Dusk ~47 miles
The sun was setting beautifully as we returned to island. We searched for Darren below Mountain View, but saw only a fan club for a young runner named Perry. So we set ourselves on the long bar that connects Buffalo Point with the main island, runners traverse this bar about four miles short of the lap's finish. Dad stared down the road with his binoculars in which a rare figure would grow into recognition. Is it Darren? No it's Bison Horns, who's now wearing a red shirt, making him harder to distinguish from Red Shirt who has a short pony-tail. And here's the intrepid Phil Lowry who simply keeps on going. Two Bottles, moving well, and then Darren who's beginning to slow amid a growing pain surrounding his knee. The IT band is fighting each step. He heads out around Buffalo Point, Karen the lead woman just behind him. We move down to the start/finish tent at White Rock to meet them.  Karl passed through at 6:30 PM and 6:30 gun time; wow, that's 50 miles folks.

Entering the 50-mile AS
Ready for the second lap

It's over an hour until we see Darren again. His steps are painful but he's relatively cheered to be half-way and  isn't feeling too discouraged. But he realizes this is something he hasn't experienced in a race before. We take our time getting ready for the second lap, fueling with some broth and changing his shoes. At 10 pm we are off, and walking up the long climb toward Elephant Head. Our headlamps lonely on the dark island, and yet two integral points in a moving constellation connecting all the runners, each on their individual nighttime journey.
We walk the long climb and then search for stride on flat sections, pulling up on downhills as Darren's pain demands. He is searching for a break-through, maybe some change in the condition that will allow some time at a better pace. Our walking pace is relatively fast through Elephant Head, often better than 14 minutes per mile. In fact, I have trouble keeping up and keep shifting gears (but running is too fast) to maintain some consistency while I encourage him forward. He doesn't need the encouragement, his motivation is strong but I know I'm fresh and should set what example I can. It's very fun even if we aren't romping along the dirt trails. But I forgot the Advil, so my responsibility as crew was broken. Ibuprofen isn't the best thing during an effort such as this, but he feels well-hydrated and we aren't exactly burning it up so it might have helped ease the strides a bit.

Wind gusts greet us as we approach the light of the Elephant Head AS where Dan Vega rests in a chair. He's not having his best race, but he's still cracking us up as he jokingly harrasses the wonderful aid station volunteer. She's wondering if he doesn't have somewhere to go.  He's completed his loops at Elephant Head, tasks we are just beginning. The single track to the Elephant turn-around is amazing even in the dark. Another highlight of ultras in general, "run out there and touch that rock and run back". No officials, no instant replays, no video cams for checking up on runners -- nothing but pure doing it. We did it and then headed into the deep drop to the lake shore before the long climb and winding trail back to Elephant Head AS and onto the pass-through at the White Rock (start/finish) AS. We run a little and it feels nice but Darren can only last so long.

As we return to White Rock we begin to pass many coming in the opposite direction. We are briefly uplifted realizing we've now completed tasks yet ahead of these folks. And even in our relatively slow pace, we've only been passed by Karen, though we catch her on the climbs, "Damn you guys walk fast."  She passes us one final time and we eventually walk calmly into the starting tent (now our Mile 70) and Darren grabs a chair. Our mood is good, but he's hurting in both ITs as he's been over-compensating for too long. A field doc tries to help with a tape job and we warm up with broth and potatos. Karl drops into the tent, "I'm finished," he says quietly and grabs a chair. A new course record of 15:28 receives a hearty ovation from all five of us.  Karen sadly drops out with a bum foot. We shake Karl's hand and head out -- he's finished, we've got 30 miles to go. I bear witness, awesome. Check out his post-race interview at irunfar.com.

But we were reduced to a walk, and it wasn't really the walk we wanted. The pain became almost unbearable and still he stepped forward. Karen wouldn't have been impressed with our new pace, but I was impressed that we kept going.  But as we reached the Lower Frary AS it was time to re-think his determination. Could this lead to something worse? Single steps were now excruciating and almost equally bad in either leg. A doc tried to build some straps but it was pretty much over. This wasn't the mental defeat that Leadville felt like, it was mechanical and every now and then you have to listen to the machine. Thanks to the great crew from Black Diamond for your hospitality and a great aid station at Frary! Again, there was Dan Vega suffering an unusually slow race, but joking with the station crew. He'd still finish in around 21 hours.

Darren at Lower Frary
With the sunrise and Darren resting with the Black Diamond crew, I returned to the trail for a training run testing my abilities on no sleep. It turned into a great run.  I had two relatively long stops -- one to remove my nighttime layers and a second to chat with the helpful volunteers at the Mountain View AS -- but I still managed to cover the 11 miles back to the finish in less than two hours (I skipped the out-and-back from Frary to the Ranch turn-around but soon wished I hadn't; it was beautiful and simply enjoyable). I met Dennis and Mary at the finish, they thought Darren was behind me. But he was waiting patiently at Frary for our return.

It is always unfortunate to search for excuses when hopes and goals are not met. You work hard at this and yet the finish is elusive, especially in our relative inexperience at such distances. It isn't that far, as Karl says, but it is long way to go. I walk away from Buffalo looking forward to San Diego actually with much more confidence. We walked for over 8.5 hours and were only 22 miles short with 6 hours left to go to the 24-hour point and more to the 30-hour cutoff. The bison showed that patience will pay off; and I'm certainly not one to run with the bulls from the start. Darren likely sees that now too; he may get closer to the higher tiers, but we should focus on conquering and relishing in the distance a few more times.  I won't pace him to Mile 77 any more, but we'll pace each other to success on other trails to greater distances.
The Young Mountain Runners
Thanks to Dad and Mom for joining us on the island. Thanks to Desna, Carrie, and Chloe for cheering from home. We could hear you.


1 comment:

  1. That sounds about right! I'm walking a little gimpy still (leg kicking out and around) but recovery is coming along.

    I wouldn't say I'm a top, mid-tier runner, but I can keep up at times (obviously not the most wise decision). It's just so darn fun to be there for a while!

    This race had some great characters (Phil Lowry, Dan Vega (comic), KARL, Karen (not Marylin) and one hell of a great pacer; your still a good luck charm I just need to smash that ominous number 77!).

    Also, how could you forget our bad omen early in the trip of a wheelchair and walker blocking our path in the road?

    On to SD and beyond 77!