The Greenland Trail 50-k
Altitude and dehydration KICKED MY BUTT!
Last weekend I attempted to run the Greenland Trail 50-k in Colorado. It was only to be a "training" run in preparation for the upcoming Wyoming Double Marathon on Memorial Day weekend.
After living in the Black Hills for six weeks, I thought that I had acquired at least some acclimation to altitude. However, as I painfully discovered, my physiology still thinks it is in Wisconsin at 900 ft instead of the Black Hills at 3,500 ft.
I would have posted this race report sooner but last week I was under a deadline to peer review some articles and write up an editorial. I was invited to be a guest editor for a supplement on diabetes, cardiovascular disease risk and dyslipidemia that will be published next month in a medical journal. It will be sent to family physicians across the US for continuing medical education. After dealing with curt editors myself as a writer in the past, it is a very odd feeling to now be on the other side of the fence.
Anyway, back to the Greenland 50-k…
Saturday April 19th was a beautiful clear blue day. The type of day that we often get in the arid West and which I missed during my years living in Wisconsin. Words cannot describe the blue of these skies.
Snow-covered Pikes Peak was visible on the horizon. It is 14,110 feet (4,301 m) high. Since 1966, there has been an unbelievable footrace up and down the mountain every year: the Pikes Peak Marathon.
I gazed upon this mountain many times through out the day and wondered what kind of runner would choose to tackle such a mountain.
"One who is crazier and in better physical shape than I am!" I thought.
I was amazed by the turn out. Most ultra-races have 200 or fewer participants. There were 500 runners registered; of course most of them were running the 8-m and 25-k races and not the 50-k.
Still, for a dedicated ultramarathoner, it was wonderful to see so many trail runners in one place.
Maybe I am not as much of a crazy odd-ball on the fringe as so many of my non-running friends and acquaintances consider me to be?
Even if I am what most folks would consider a bit eccentric, at least I know that I am not alone.
I was glad to be running with Haliku, my very best friend… really he is a brother to me. After running traditional marathons and road races, I convinced him to try a trail ultra with me.
Haliku's little brother, Tim, who is also an accomplished runner, came along but had to stay on the sidelines instead of running because of an injury.
I was very grateful to have both of them along, even more so as I faced hardships later in the afternoon.
As we gathered at the starting line, Haliku observed that we were not wearing chips for our time.
"Road runner!" I grinned.
A majority of us ultrarunners are not concerned with our times; I have only worn a chip once during any of my prior races. Because every race is unique, it is difficult to compare performances by pace/time, unless you repeat a race in future years. What counts to us is how far we go and how our experience went.
"A difference of a few seconds or even a minute or two, really doesn't matter in an ultra," I observed.
I had no idea how ironic and prophetic that comment would be until the afternoon.
Then….. at 8AM…. the race started.
We were off!
I kept repeating to myself, "Go slow…go slow."
The 8-milers and 25-k'ers took off fast, as did some of the 50-k'ers who were racing.
"This is only a training run," I reminded myself, "it doesn't matter what your time is or even if you finish." It was very difficult to not get caught up in the crowd and instead hang back and let others pass me.
The Greenland Trail 50-k is run within the 3,000 acres of the Greenland Open Space. Part of the Colorado Front Range Trail, the Greenland Trail passes through native prairie grasslands, by ponds with croaking frogs, over rolling hills with Gamble oak and ponderosa pines. There are majestic views of Pikes Peak and the surrounding buttes in all directions.
From the starting line, the race travels south on the Old Territorial Road. At the first intersection, runners continue to head south towards Palmer Lake.
After 3.5 miles, the runners turn left, run up and over the saddle, which is the high point of the course at 7,400 feet, at five miles. The next three miles are all downhill.
At seven miles, there is a right on the Greenland Trail. The 50-k course follows the Greenland Trail back to the Old Territorial Road where it goes left and follows the above route again four times. There are two aid stations: at mile 3.5 and 7.5 of each loop.
After the fourth and final loop, the runners head to the finish back at the trailhead where the race started that morning.
The day started out bright but cool- a great day to run.
It was challenging to not get caught up with the other runners; I knew that I must run my own race and take planned walk breaks in the beginning of the race. From past experience, I learned that taking walk breaks early would be rewarded later in the day.
The first part of the race, Haliku and I ran together. Later, we parted ways. Haliku was having a great day and felt strong. This would be great training for the high altitude climbing expedition he and Tim have planned in Bolivia next month.
However, from my higher than usual heart rate, I knew the altitude was already having some effect. I understood that I must pace myself.
As we headed north towards the second aid station, the wind began to pick up. By the end of the day, it would be 30+ mph. The temperature increased to the mid 70s, higher than what I was used to. The wind was so dry, I could not feel myself sweat. Salt built up on my face and hat. I was losing moisture whether I was aware of it or not. Between the wind, the warm temperatures, the upward climb and the thin air- it made for slow going.
The aid stations were supplied with Hammer HEED sports drink and water. They also had potato chips, M&M's and orange slices. I always appreciate the volunteers at such events who spend all day in the hot sun and wind to offer sustenance and encouragement to the runners.
In hindsight, I wished that they had some more solid food, like bananas and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, as many races do.
Lesson learned… next time I will make sure to find out exactly what will be offered and bring my own, if necessary.
Haliku was doing awesome, so we parted ways. I encouraged him to run on and have a great race. I didn't want him to be slowed down by me, the non-altitude-acclimated slow turtle. I kept moving on as my heart rate and respiratory rate allowed.
After we separated, a felt some waves of nausea. Odd, my stomach never bothered me on runs before. I ate a few pieces of crystallized ginger which seemed to help. I also took an extra electrolyte cap. Many swear by the antiemetic properties of ginger.
I don't know how true that is, but the spicy-sweetness of the ginger tasted good and I did feel better.
As I came over the high point, I spotted Tim. Not able to run today, he walked the course and offered encouragement to us and the other runners.
I took a walk break and we walked together for a bit.
I commented to him how high my heart rate was. Even with slow running… it would jump to the 170s, much too high for me to be able to complete the race. With walking, it refused to drop below 140… which is normally the high end of what I allow myself when running.
I was worried by the nausea. It was not severe enough yet to make me want to drop. However, I knew that needed to take in more fluids if I was to keep going.
What if the nausea got worse?
Tim advised me to try letting some snow melt in my mouth. That was great advice. After a few hundred yards, I was feeling somewhat better.
Nevertheless, my much higher than normal heart rate was concerning. Tim wisely observed that perhaps it would be smarter to drop at the next aid station. He was absolutely right; today was only a training run, it made no sense to punish myself and push beyond what my body was ready to do. What would the point of that be?
Nevertheless, I told him that unless I felt much worse, I would keep going. I could even walk the last ten miles if I had to.
Ultrarunners may be slow but we are not quitters.
We started heading down the hill, now the wind was at our backs. I started feeling better so I said goodbye and started running slowly again.
By the time I was at the aid station located nearest the finish line, I felt a great deal better. I was even craving a turkey sandwich with swiss cheese on white bread. Unfortunately all that was at the aid station was sports drink and potato chips.
After eating a few handfuls of chips, a mouthful of some energy gel and refilling my bottle, I decided to attempt the final loop.
I changed over from HEED to plain water because I was concerned about my state of hydration.
One of the greatest challenges of participating in extreme endurance sports is maintaining adequate hydration.
Too little fluids, and you become dehyrated. Symptoms might be thirst, lightheadedness and a desire to stop.
Too much fluid can be even more dangerous than dehyration. Those who go for many hours taking in only sports drink and who consume more than they need are at risk to develop dilutional hyponatremia. Blood levels of sodium drop to dangerous levels. Mild cases may have symptoms such as swelling, lethargy, headache and nausea. In worst case scenario, sodium levels drop low enough to cause mental status changes, seizure and even death. Most of the few case of death related to ultrarunning are due to hyponatremia.
When you are feeling bad, it can be difficult to decide whether your problem is dehydration and too little fluid versus too much fluid and too low sodium. Measuring your weight is one method. A significant decrease in weight suggests dehydration; a paradoxical increase in weight suggests overhydration and too much fluid. Many of the longer distance ultras (100-milers) require runners to weigh in at aid stations. If a runner has had too much of a weight change, they may be pulled from the race for safety reasons.
Another way to assess your state of hydration is how you feel.
Are you thirsty? If so, you are probably already significantly dehydrated.
Do have a craving for salty foods? Your sodium may be too low.
But when ultrarunning, symptoms are unreliable. By the end of most races, all you know is that you feel bad. It is impossible to sort out what might be the cause. Sometimes you don't feel thirsty at all despite being severly dehydrated. Nausea can be a sign of hyponatremia but also dehydration.
Finally, you can assess how you are doing in regards to hydration by the nature and frequency of your urine. Clear light-yellow urine every hour or two is normal. No urination or a trickle of dark urine suggests dehydration. Urine crystal-clear like water every 15 or 20 minutes suggests overhydration, perhaps with low sodium.
Contrary to the advertising in the popular running magazines, there is no sports drink which has adequate sodium for ultra-endurance events. If enough sodium were put into a drink, it would be completely unpalatable. Thus, to ensure that serum sodium levels do not drop too low, ultrarunners eat salty foods such as boiled potatoes rolled in table salt, potato chips and pretzels. Many of us also take in extra sodium as electrolyte capsules.
It is estimated that the average daily excess sodium intake in the US is about 8 grams. If you have an average loss of sodium of 1 to 3 gm per hour through perspiration, that means you have enough sodium to last about 4 hours. However, there is great variation between individuals depending on weather conditions, heat acclimation, sodium and fluid intake, physical fitness, and probably genetics.
Myself, I use SUCCEED! S!Caps about 1 or 2 per hour, depending on conditions and how I feel. They contain 341 mg sodium per cap.
If you are a running-physiology nerd like I am, I highly recommend reading Tim Noake's book: The Lore of Running.
I was already short of breath from the altitude and the incessant wind. I tipped the front of my hat forward to block the wind so I could breathe.
All of a sudden, I felt extremely ill. Much much worse than I had ever felt before in any race. I had a throbbing headache. The nausea returned suddenly with a vengeance. I took a few more pieces of crystallized ginger to no avail. They got stuck in my throat. I tried to drink some more water but almost gagged. I started walking; I could not run without feeling like I was going to throw up.
I tried to pee and only produced only a dark amber trickle. "If I can't start drinking soon… I am totally screwed!" I thought.
I arrived at the last aid station, with only five more miles to go until the finish line. I was no longer at the back of the pack- the pack had disappeared over the horizon and was long gone.
By this time, Haliku had already finished with a great time of 6:11:10.
The volunteers at the aid station offered words of encouragement: "There is still time for you to make it before the cut-off of 8 hours, if you push it." I cautiously drank some water and refilled my bottle.
"Run strong! You can do it!" they urged me as I slogged (slow-jogged) onward.
However, within only a few hundred yards, I was reduced again to walking as I headed up that 7,400 ft hill for the last time.
I was dizzy and at one point I thought I was going to pass out. The urge to quit was overwhelming. I looked down at the aid station I had just passed; it was down the hill only 3/4 mile away. I seriously contemplated walking back down and DNF'ing.
However, going backward is against everything we believe in as ultrarunners. "Every foot forward is one foot closer to the finish line," is the mantra of ultrarunning. If that aid station was in front of me instead of behind me, at that moment, I am sure I would have dropped.
But it was not in front of me, it was behind me. Bad as I felt, I just could not convince myself to go back down the hill I had just fought so hard to climb.
A little further up, I found a cool shady spot underneath a tree. Next to it was a gravestone surrounded by a metal wrought iron enclosure to keep the livestock away. Normally out of curiosity, I would look more closely at the grave and read the epitaph. Today, I did not. I was in survival mode.
I sat down, leaned against the cool metal bars and tried to sip some water. I contemplated what I should do next.
I was frustrated. When I was not moving, I felt absolutely fine. When I walked, I was a little queasy. But when I ran, I felt like throwing up.
"I guess this is what they mean by 'bonking," I thought. The headache, nausea and dizziness literally felt as if someone had "bonked" me on the head.
I found out later that I was not alone. Haliku told me that he saw several people vomiting and never saw them again.
I looked off into the distance at Pikes Peak. The sky was clear and the views were outstanding. I heard chickadees and magpies calling. This really was a beautiful day; I should feel fortunate to be here experiencing it.
Now if only I didn't feel so bad!
"How ironic would it be if I died right now and they found me lying next to this grave?" I thought, "At least it would be quick and I wouldn't feel so sick anymore."
But then I thought about how much I love my family and friends. I quickly realized how upset they would be if died right there under that tree. I immediately forced such morbid and non-productive thoughts out of my head.
"No one ever died from nausea and no one ever finished a race by sitting under a tree!" I chided myself, "Stop feeling so sorry for yourself!"
So after a few minutes I got up and started walking again. I found some snow and put a big ball of it under my hat.
That felt good!
I was able to moisten my mouth with another ball of melting snow I held in my hand.
"Dig deep….just keep putting one foot in front of the other… dig deep," I repeated this phrase to myself over and over.
Another runner who was out on a training run and not in the race came up behind me.
He stopped and walked beside me. I must have looked like crap, I certainly felt like it.
He asked how was I doing and kindly offered me some sports drink. I thanked him but declined. I carried enough fluid with me, my problem was that my stomach was simply refusing to cooperate.
After a few moments, he wished me well and ran on, promising to give word on my progress to Haliku and others at the finish line.
As the finish line approached, the altitude decreased, my nausea went away and I felt better.
Maybe I could even try running a little?
I looked at my GPS watch, the elapsed time was about 7:30- only a half hour until final cut off. Even if I completed the entire 31 miles, if I took more than 8 hours, I would receive a DNF (Did Not Finish) for my efforts.
I did some quick calculating in my mind. I was only about 3 miles from the finish. If I could run a 10 minute mile or less, I might just make it before the cut-off.
Now usually running a 9 or 10 minute mile, especially downhill, would be no big deal for me. However, after running 28 miles, the last ten of which I spent trying not to vomit, I assure you that it seemed completely impossible.
However, between running downhill and with a tailwind, maybe, just maybe, I could do it? I decided to go for it.
"Dig deep and just do it! Only three more miles of pain! You can do it!"
I picked up my pace and I swung my arms quickly to match the increased turnover of my legs. My lungs burned; my legs ached.
About half-way down the hill to the finish line I felt an unusual sensation. Suddenly, the tissue under my right heel moved and slipped. Uncomfortable but not exactly painful, I knew I would feel it as a blister the next day.
Then just as suddenly and only a few paces later, exactly same thing happened under my left heel.
I do not get blisters very often and when I do, I don't get them on my heels. Usually there is a hot spot warns me first. They say that dehydration can change skin turgor (flexibility and stretchability) predisposing to blister formation. Maybe that was what happened, I don't know.
In any case, I had more important things on my mind. I ignored my heels. I focused on the task at hand.
The runner who had met me up on the hill had informed everyone that I was at least 15 or 20 minutes out. Based on how I looked and what my pace was when he saw me, he was correct. No one expected me to finish by the cut-off. But no one, including myself, imagined that I would sprint in those last 3 miles.
Haliku came out a few hundred yards to meet me. I was spent, out of breath and ready to give up but Haliku ran along and shouted at me to keep going.
"You can make it! …. Just one more hill!….. This is your last hill!"
I came around the bend to see the finish line and time clock. The large orange block numbers on the time clock clicked:
7:59:21…..22…..23….. I pushed with all I had to get over the finish line.
How good it felt to stop and for the race to be over!
I did it! I had finished before cut off with only 35 seconds left on the clock! Haliku gave me a big hug.
One of the race directors said, "I don't believe it!" as she gave me my finisher's medal. I took it and smiled. At that moment, all I wanted to do was sit down and catch my breath.
Now that a week has passed, I have had some time to reflect back on my experience. My time was 7:59:25. There was one other runner behind me by a few minutes.
That morning, I observed, "in ultras seconds don't matter." Well, it turned out that seconds really do matter after all.
This was my slowest 50-k ever. Even so, it is my proudest performance to date. It was the most difficult race I have ever completed, even including my 50-mile races. It took everything I had to keep going. It would have been much easier and smarter to have dropped.
And yet… somehow I overcame what my mind and every ounce of body was telling me. I kept going. That is what ultrarunning is all about, simply putting one foot in front of the other. I am proud that I stuck with it and that I did not quit. This finish means more to me than if instead I had run a good race and finished two hours earlier.
Many road runners obsessed with times and personal bests would have been embarrassed by finishing in second to last place. Not me. Ultrarunning is all about the experience. It is about not giving in or giving up, no matter how tough, how hopeless it gets. Ultrarunners always try to see our water bottles as half-full instead of half-empty.
"To finish is to win," they say. I wholeheartedly believe that.
On a positive note, when they do eventually publish the race results in Ultrarunning Magazine, it will be very easy to find my name. It will be at the end of the list right at the bottom of the page. But at least my name will be there!
In the days following the race, the parts of my body that hurt the most were the two blisters on my heels and the sunburn on the back of my calves. My legs felt good, but that should not be a surprise. It was my stomach that let me down- not my legs.
I ran 12 miles yesterday and 10 miles today. I feel great and will be ready to tackle another race in a few weeks. They say that every ultra is training for other ultras. I have learned much from this experience. It certainly gave me a great training stimulus. My only hesitation is realizing that the Wyoming Double Marathon is at 8,000 to 8,700 feet, which is 1,300 ft higher than the Greenland 50k.
Will I have enough time to acclimate to altitude? I do not know. Fortunately, I still have a few weeks to run and consider my options.
On the other hand, what is the worst that could happen? A DNF? I've done that before, it is no big deal. I do not want to DNF but I am not afraid of one either. I came as close to DNF'ing this race as one possibly could but I persevered nonetheless.
This race has strongly reiterated the following to me: "Never EVER give up, no matter how tough it gets or how impossible it seems." That bit of advice has served me well in running but also in life. Only by pushing oneself to the edge of one's limits can one discover the true boundaries of one's ability. Often, maybe even most of the time, we are capable of accomplishing a whole lot more than we realize.
Until next time… I wish you all the very best.