When I first signed up for The Rut Vertical Kilometer and 50k, I was going down with one ambition: to win. Of course I was going to win. I’m super fit, spend tons of time in the mountains, and will have a little time at altitude. What could go wrong?
For those that are following closely, I came out with a 3rd and a 4th and never made it to the summit of lone peak. Not exactly the same as two firsts and some course records just for fun. My trip altogether was productive and these lessons learned are as much to put them down as a record for me rather than give advice to others. Listen, learn, or don’t, it doesn’t really matter to me. What matters is that I learned.
First off: Altitude. I traveled down to Montana early enough so that I would have a few days to acclimatize. While I had not raced about 10,000 ft before, previous experience with ski races above 7,000 ft has taught me enough. I know that I don’t want to be racing on my third or fourth day at altitude. Also I know that I need to pace pretty well and avoid strong surges as I don’t seem to recover from an altitude blow up. Other than those few things, I think fitness shines through even at altitude. All that really is required is proper planning and a little self-control.
I spent most of the acclimatization period trying to fit in as many diverse activities as I could. My parents’ new locations meant that cruising up the various canyons and gulches of the west side of the Bridger Range was the easiest, but I was able to get a few rollerskis in as well as excursions up Hyalite Peak and Beehive Peak. With a couple days getting over 10,000 ft and more than four days under my belt, I went into The Rut VK feeling relatively confident.
Vertical Kilometers and similar races are relatively easy in execution. They are generally short and don’t have much terrain variation other than gradual or steep uphill. The Lone Peak Vertical Kilometer wasn’t much different than Bird Ridge, Knoya, or the other Alaskan races that dot my early summer schedule. Lightning forecast and high winds force a last minute course change to the bottom of the Lone Peak Tram instead of the top. Thus I only raced about 2,200 vertical feet and 2.4 miles. It was tough but the lessons aren’t that much different than those that I always seem to arrive at following Bird or other races: run more, hike less. I ended up in third somewhat satisfied with a so-so performance as at least I was the top American; however, the craving for a win wasn’t satisfied.
I occupied the day in-between races with a short run and too much time just sitting around. With a 6am start for the 50k, I got all my stuff together and loaded into my parents’ small camper for the third trip to big sky. The only real important event of that day was the meeting. First, it was brought up that some of the European runners had been cutting switchbacks in the 28k race that day. Suddenly, it seemed to be Americans ganging up on the European practices and generating a bit of unnecessary conflict or maybe just fueling our own competitive natures. The other thing was that I realized the hydration vest I was planning on racing in was overkill and that I had left my standard drink belt in Bozeman.
Thus we come to the second race the 50k along with the second lesson: Feeding and Race Systems. One of the biggest topics of discussion at many of the longer Alaskan races that I participate in (Crow Pass, Kesugi, Lost Lake) is about the racing system. There are no aid stations for these races and there is some mandatory gear so dialing in a system before hand is essential. Over the years, I think I have nailed my needs for each of these. However, when aid stations are available and plentiful things change a little bit. Early in the week, I had planned to race with a 12 liter race vest, but the ability to have drop bags as well as food and drink every 6 miles forced me to rethink. I borrowed a standard horizontal fanny pack drink belt. I travelled quite light for the 50k with the plan to rely on aid stations using my drink belt to spread things out over the 6 miles between available aid. The issue with this idea was that I didn’t actually pause at the stations. I struggled a little with stomach issues and had trouble getting solid food down. Breathing while eating is tough and I also knew that whatever I ate was going to jiggle around uncomfortably on the next downhill. Thus my total food consumption for four hours of racing: two shot blocks. I was a little better for liquid and managed to consume about 16oz of heed that I put in my bottle halfway through as well as a couple ounces of pepsi at the last feed station. I had no water until about 12 miles into the race.
So third problem: cramping. This was a first for me. About 12 miles into the race after significant climbing and descending, both my hamstrings started tightening up on the gradual uphills. As my usual strength climbing began to suffer, I knew it was going to be a little rough. So the obvious question becomes how to prevent that. There are the normal cramping solutions including additional electrolytes (salts, pickle juice, etc.) but I think the critical thing for me is additional leg speed. Having always been an uphill runner, the downhills kill me. I can manage for one sustained downhill (Lost Lake, Crow Pass) but multiple puts too much stress on certain muscles. For me I think the key is additional downhill practice at speed as well as just some additional running speed. In this case pure fitness and training only for skiing left me as a one-dimensional racer.
As for the last lesson, I will leave off with a simple one. Running fast in the dark is hard. I need to go use some of that prize money and get a fancy performance headlamp.