Getting Lit Up
The burn came in many ways. From one degree, it manifested itself as a searing pain across my quads. Then there was the liquid fire of lactic acid that seemed to be infiltrating my diaphragm and suffocating me. I was 2 miles into a 19-mile mountain race known as Sierre-Zinal and I already knew I was in trouble. As we climbed up a 30% grade slope in a forest full of roots Killian Jornet, Juan Carlos Cardona, Cesar Costa, and Jonathan Wyatt (to name a few) opened up a gap on me and the rest of the chase pack. I thought back to my race at Mt. Washington this summer and how I was 5 minutes slower than the previous year. I reasoned that running a bunch of 50k to 100k trail ultras in the US have finally tired my legs out. My climbing legs, my confidence and strength in racing, were failing miserably.
Up near the top crest of the main climb after 40+ minutes of such suffering, fellow Ricky Gates came up and passed me as well as the eventual race winner Marc Lauenstein I saw Killian 23 seconds ahead and still reasoned that there was hope to salvage my race as the course suddenly flattened out onto a very runnable road! I quickly passed Ricky back and split a 5:40 mile (after a series of 12-15min miles going up the hill). Confidence was high and I was in a great striking position. After downing a gel and some water at the aid station I was in the hunt!
This lasted about 2 miles. Suddenly a tightness seized at my hamstrings. Uh oh! I remembered back to my race at Jungfrau when debilitating hamstring cramps caused me to stop during the race. Small rocks on the not-so-technical trail suddenly became hard to step over as my stride became compromised. A stiffness also built in my hip flexors as I thrashed my way along the beautiful ridge-line trail leading to Zinal in the distance. Shit! I still had a good 10 miles to go and I already knew it I was in “death shuffle survival mode.” Ricky and half a dozen other runners who I just saw as a blur quickly passed me back and were gone. The pain was intense, but I continued the good fight. I thought back to how Max King had told me he “bonked” in this race last time so I had prepared to pound 5 gels and drink sports drink/coke at all the aid stations. However, all the calories in the world weren’t going to do me any good as this was sheer muscle failure!
Four miles later I started thinking about how the women’s race was playing out and whether or not I’d get to see Stevie Kremer and eventual winner Elisa Desco flying along the ridge trail as I knew they (and all the other world-class female mountain runners in the race) were probably gaining on me. [Btw Stevie is a great new runner on the mountain-running scene and she has already made a splash in the past year or so by winning Jungfrau and the Mont Blanc Marathon this year]. Eventually I made it to the final 2-mile descent into Zinal, which involved some slight technical trail. My main focus was not to fall and hurt myself although the competitive juices were still flowing as I swore to myself as I lost a couple more places.
The support of the crowd at the finish line area was a amazing but I was too tired to give out any high fives this time. I did, however, grab some of the chocolate that was sitting out at the finish line area as I stumbled around dumbfounded and depressed. After having a string of strong ultra-trail race performances for the early part of this year (two 100km wins, two 50 mile wins, a 3rd at Transvulcania and a 3rd at Mt. Washington, and a 50km win) I figured I was due to have a tough day and get “lit up” soon enough. The thing is a lot of times you learn the most from your biggest disappointments. Here are some things I learned from this experience:
1. Prior course knowledge is essential for not only executing proper race-day tactics/strategy, but also for specificity in training and knowing what demands will be placed on the body. I should have figured this out after Transvulcania this year.
2. Racing ultras in the US does not carry over the same fitness required for shorter distance (or perhaps any distance) mountain races in Europe. The mountains here are steeper and less forgiving compared to running up the more reasonable slopes of US trails. I think this goes along with still not having enough vertical in my weekly training as it’s takes a certain type of musculature to be able to pull of powerhiking 30% grades and then running (and switching back and forth) for hours on end. Furthermore, I should have had more intense training to generate more muscle tension in my legs…a couple Vertical K’s would’ve been much more specific prep!
3. It takes me longer than 2 weeks to recover from an ultra…even “just” a 50km like Speedgoat. I remember in my days at Hansons I had a good seven-week block averaging 130 miles a week and I hammered a 20-mile long run (with a final 3 miles in 14:50) about 3 weeks before the Boston marathon in 2010. I thought I was in the best shape of my life but I ended up tanking and had “dead legs” early on in the race. In retrospect I’ve learned that my body is fragile and I can easily overtrain (and overrace) myself before I get injured or mentally “burnt-out.” My climbing legs couldn’t fire at 100% during this race and taking a full 7 days totally off after Speedgoat probably made my Vo2max drop a good 2-3% anyway. Unlike certain other ultra-mountain runners I can’t recover very fast.
Overall the 40th edition race of Sierre-Zinal was a once-in-a-lifetime experience (although I hope to be able to come back and redeem myself one day) that I was very fortunate to take part in. The mountain views up from the region are truly breathtaking and everyone I met was very supportive and passionate about the race . I also loved tasting the local Raclette cheese!
Here’s some video footage that I put together showing off some of the trails and mountains I experienced on my 8-day trip to Switzerland:
Finally, I’d like to thank the race organization, David Borrmann, Pablo Vigil, SCOTT Running, my sponsors, and everyone who reads this blog and has continued to support and encourage me. Even with tough races and disappointments, the view has been worth the climb!
See you on the trails,
About the Author (Author Profile)2-time Olympic Trials Qualifier, Mountain runner, Author of "Running For The Hansons," trail runner, videos for Vo2max Productioins, LLC.
Sites That Link to this Post
- Daily News, Tues, Aug 13 | August 13, 2013
- Sage Canaday reflects on Sierre-Zinal | Ian Corless host of Talk Ultra podcast | August 13, 2013
- Sage Canaday start of UROC 100k Training | August 21, 2013
- Sage Canaday UROC 100k Training | September 4, 2013
- Interview mit Marc Lauenstein – Sieger Sierre-Zinal | Swiss Ultra Trail Community | October 2, 2013