Hamster Endurance Run – 32 Hour / 100M – 8/22/2020

Starting with Thanks

There are always many emotions that happen during a long run, but the one constant happens afterwards as I reflect back on the experience.  I am extremely grateful for many, many things over not just the past days but the past weeks and months from my friends and family: My inspirational running friends who inspire and encourage me to push my body more than I ever thought possible.  My trainer Matt Campbell who I’ve worked with for years to improve my strength and running (an amazing ultrarunner himself).  The race directors, in this case Gretchen Walla, who step up and keep these fun events going both in-person and virtually in times of pandemic. All of my crew and pacers who kept me fed, watered, and running, from experienced crew/pacers such as Takao Suzuki (also course photographer) and Germaine W to a host of first timers who were able to join the fun (in order of appearance): daughter Meg Comer, son Ben Comer, Cesar Alvarez, Pam McBain, and Michael Insalaco. Without them, I would have run slower and spent far more time in aid stations and literally missed the race cutoff.  And I’m most thankful for my amazing wife Laura Comer, not just for all of her race day support but for putting up with me for weeks, months, and years as I prepare for these races, frequently, despite my best efforts, waking her up as I duck out at 5AM for a long run or step out again after dinner or choose the occasional vacation based on races.  None of this would be possible without her.

The Race – Gettin’ Loopy

The Hamster Endurance Run is a timed (6/12/24/32 hour) run that normally takes place around Lake Padden in Bellingham, Washington.  It got its “hamster” name from the hamster wheel where the poor creature runs on this small loop never getting anywhere, which is exactly what running on the 2.6 mile Lake Padden loop feels like.  With this years pandemic, the race was moved to “virtual” where you ran on a course of your own design (under 4.5 miles) but all starting at the same time on Saturday, August 23, 2020.  I chose a nice set of flat, groomed dirt / woodchip / gravel trails just one mile from my house.  I was originally going to run the mile from my house to the course, run the 2 miles on the course, and then run back to my house and use it as my aid station but I realized I could use my car trunk as my aid station and avoid 2 miles of road with no sidewalks.

The Bad

One week before the race, I ended up in the ER with severe abdominal pain which was quickly diagnosed via CAT scan as a hernia, which is when your intestines poke through a hole in your muscles. The staff poked and prodded me a bit, gave me some morphine, and said “call the surgeon in the morning.” I figured my race was done. However, when I asked about running the race, the ER doc said “Don’t lift heavy things but a run / walk is fine as long as you aren’t hurting. If you feel pain, don’t try to push through it but stop what you are doing. And see what the surgeon says.” So on Wednesday, 3 days before the race, I met with the surgeon who reviewed the scans and found not just 1 but 3 hernias: the largest causing me pain, another smaller which should be repaired, and a tiny one in my belly button (apparently a common thing). When I asked about the race, she actually was excited for me to do it saying “cardio is a good way to keep the intestines moving” and repeated the same warnings about not pushing through pain. Fortunately, I haven’t had any pain since that first major episode (I’ve also avoiding lifting things) even during the race. They originally wanted to schedule the surgery for the Tuesday after the race but it didn’t seem wise to show up at a hospital in my usual post-race condition so the surgery will take place the following week, 10 days after the race when I should be fully recovered.

Race prep

As usual, I over packed. 

This was before I added my electronics, a cooler, and some other goodies for the crew.

My trunk was stuffed, but extremely well organized, into several bins of clothes (jackets, arm warmers, change of socks, hats), electronics (headlamps, battery chargers, headphones), cooler with ice (fruit, sandwiches, drinks), food (running-specific like gels and chews as well as typical ultramarathon trail kibble of chips, M&Ms, and gummies), and gallons and gallons of water.  I also had some special things for my crew which I’ll describe later.  I knew I had probably overpacked but better overly prepared, right?  Wrong.  Too much means it’s too hard to move things around to get to other things.  It’s too many choices.  One of the first things I asked of my family as they came to restock my supplies was to start removing stuff.  They did a great job of refilling my water bottles so I had them get the gallons and gallons of water out of my car.  I should have also had them remove a bunch of the running-food (see below for food analysis).

My run training for this race was mostly around completing the “Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee”, directed by Lazarus Lake of Barkley Marathons fame, which had me running 1022 kilometers (635 miles) between May and August (I finished in 93 days, doing many 50 mile weeks).  After gaining a bunch of weight back from a too-stressful work environment that had lots of free junk food, I’ve spent the past 6 months working at home from a better job (for me) and have dropped 25 pounds.  While still heavy, it allowed me to get through the GVRAT through a ton of walking and from that pull off Hamster.  I also work out w/Matt Campbell twice a week on both running strength (think lots of leg work such as single-leg standups, lunges (front, back, raised), etc. What I didn’t have was enough quality runs (see Lessons below).

Race Day

I set out a little after 8AM.  I ran my course counter-clockwise as the elevation gain always felt better in that direction; I think the ups are more gradual and the downs more steep, which I like more than the reverse.  Given these trails are in the middle of a several thousand home community, I’m always amazed at how many people hang out on the sidewalks instead of the trails.  It was rare to see anyone, and even then just 1-2 small groups, per 2 mile loop. 

One person I was surprised to see was Tamara Smith. I knew she was running Hamster but given she lives well north of me, I was startled to see her pass by me on my first loop. It turns out Tamara was running a 4 mile loop from a friends house in the neighborhood and our courses overlapped for 1 mile. Given our similar paces, I ended up seeing her and her friends every other loop. Very fun to see familiar faces.

My plan had me starting out at a 14-minute pace and then slower doing a bit every few hours.  While that sounds slow (OK, it actually is slow compared to most fit runners), that time also includes stops for water refills, bathroom breaks, etc ever few miles so it’s not quite that bad.  Every hour I added my time to my planning spreadsheet in order to see if I was still OK time-wise; seeing me falling behind, I quickly calculated I had an extra hour and forty minutes to spare in my schedule (unfortunately math is hard while running and the real time was only one hour and twenty minutes which I figured out about 12 hours later as it became apparent I’d be pushing the cutoff).

I picked up my first pacer at 1PM, by which time I was already a mile and a half behind my time (since I’d have to make up the mile at the end when I’d be walking, that equated to 20 minutes per mile).  While my initial pace goals weren’t crazy, I simply hadn’t run enough long (>20 mile) runs at quite those paces. The pacers were great in being on time or early and communicating well so we could coordinate my being back at the start.  Each pacer was amazing: My first three (Cesar, Pam, and Michael) had never paced before.  Takao has been in the race scene forever, both as runner and photographer, and was kind enough to stay late into the wee hours to keep me moving in the dark.  Takao was lucky enough to spot a bear, unfortunately heading down the trail we were about to turn onto. We enjoyed a very loud conversation for the next mile or so until we were sure we were past the bear. Germaine joined the fun early on and got me through until noon when Michael came back and my son Ben joined in, his first time in running more than one half mile after a skiing accident.  The pacers did an amazing job keeping me moving, chatting to keep my mind off the stupidity of doing this, and by running ahead to refill bottles, replace dead electronics, etc as good as any full-time aid-station crew.

The range of emotions throughout a race is interesting. While nervous at the beginning, I was comfortable with my chosen pace. At least for a while. However, once you added in bathroom breaks (fortunately there was a Honeybucket on the course), the times become a bit more aggressive. I got a bit behind early on and then just couldn’t keep up with my hoped for times until my estimates got up into the 19 min/mile range at which point things settled. Fighting cutoffs (if I don’t get to 100 miles in under 32 hours, no belt buckle award for me) always makes me look at my watch more and do math in my head (I eventually switched to just asking Siri) which in turn slows me down even further.

While I usually get really down for 10-20 minutes late at night, I really didn’t have that this time. I certainly wasn’t happy but I didn’t get the “I have no need to do this and should stop now” moments. These are especially common on loop courses where you see your car every loop; being out in the middle of a forest where you can only get a lift back to your car after many, many hours waiting at an aid station. I warned my pacers I would get quiet and grumpy and apologized in advance for anything I might say. I think the worst was when there was a (relatively) steep downhill that my pacers wanted me to run down late in the race; I told them where they could go in no uncertain terms as my quads just couldn’t take the downhill pounding.

The Finish

As I knew since early in the race, the finish was going to be a nail-biter and it was. I hit 100 miles with less than 5 minutes to spare. But I made it.

After pacing me in the middle of the night, Takao came back to get some photos of me at the finish. I will be forever grateful to him for giving me these wonderful memories to enjoy forever.

Everyone who was able came by for the finish at 4, including Takao who got behind his camera as the course photographer (see pics).  My mom showed up at the finish line with a big bag of ice (which initially ended up on my head.  See picture) and ice water.  After a few minutes of attempted distanced pictures, Laura got me into the car and drove the short way home.  In retrospect, I should have run home as the last mile of the race as that would have been easier than getting in and out of the car.

The Aftermath

My quads had hurt once the distances started exceeding my typical runs but eventually they felt better (or more likely, I just couldn’t feel them at all).  I noticed that, despite wearing gaiters, I had some small rocks or wood chips in my shoes but they weren’t bad and I didn’t think I had time to stop to fix it.  I thought I might have had a small blister on my left small toe.

The truth is, my quads and right calf were sore but not too bad.  My left calf, however, was twisted into knots and was unbearable to even touch. I had several smaller blisters on my feet and one giant on my my right heal.

I spent the evening with my feet and calves raised with ice under and over them.  I also rolled my legs (massaged them) as much as possible, although the left calf was having none of that.  The next morning I was able to at least get out of bed myself and hobble to the bathroom.  I also had a chance to weigh myself and I seem to be down about 6 pounds; unfortunately this is temporary and will quickly return as my body gets back to normal.

Lessons

After doing dozens of long races, I still learn something every race.  For this one, I already mentioned over-packing.  While variety is nice, I know what I use and I really can limit things to those.

Food: I know I don’t eat enough on long runs.  I went into this knowing that and concentrated on getting a constant supply of calories as well as larger meal-times.  I still had trouble eating towards the end but it wasn’t too bad.

  • Bagel and protein shake before the start: 500 calores
  • 2-3 Shot Blocks (inc 1-2 caffeine): 600 cal
  • 2-3 Honey Stinger chews: 480 cal
  • 0 gels
  • 2 handfuls of plain potato chips 200 cal
  • 1 handful Oreos 300 cal (these things are crazy calorific)
  • 1 handful of M&Ms (I couldn’t get the @#$%$# bag open when I went back for more): 100 cal
  • 1 handful of Gummy bears (again, trouble opening the bag. I’m sensing a theme.  Open the bags before the race and leave them open if possible) 100 cal
  • 2 PB&J sandwiches for lunches: These were a staple and were perfect when I wanted “real” food. 800 cal
  • 1 double hamburger from Five Guys for dinner: Probably too much food at once so I spread it out.  Two smaller burgers might have been better.  And while the offer of fries was appreciated, they just didn’t sound good. 500 cal
  • Thermos of Ramen noodles: These were a godsend in the middle of the night when it was cold and I needed something neutral in my belly.  They were cooked perfectly with all the moisture sucked up into the noodles.  300 cal
  • 2 Oh Yeah protein bars: These are a staple snack at home. I haven’t used them at a race before but I’m used to them and handle them well.  440 cal
  • 1 Premiere protein shake.  Another staple snack that goes down super-smooth: 160 cal
  • 1 apple & 1 banana: 200 cal
  • Pancake for breakfast: 200 cal

Total calories: 4800 

This is probably still a bit low but it is far better than I’ve done in the past.  I can’t complain.  I still can pack far better, perhaps only bringing 2x the amount of food rather than 5x.

Training: While the Great Race Across Tennessee gave me 50 mile weeks, because of my weight and lack of forethought, these were all very slow, short miles spread across the week. Even my “long runs” were typically under 12 miles with the rare 20 thrown in. I really needed a more structured program with more speed and longer runs (50K, 50M) and doubles (back to back marathon length) thrown in. Matt is great at creating these for me so I’ll work with him.

Weight: The rule of thumb is that you can run one minute per mile faster for every 10 pounds you lose. This absolutely holds true for me. I was 25 pounds lighter for my first 100M (Pigtails) which I ran 2 hours faster and which had 6000′ more elevation (another rule of thumb is treat every 1000′ of elevation as one more mile of running so that would be like running 106 miles). 2.5 min/mile = 250 min (~4 hours faster) and 6 more miles adds 90-120 minutes back in making it right on. I look forward to getting back into top racing shape.

A Little Thank You

Finally, as I mentioned, I am incredibly grateful for all of the people who helped me get through this race.  To thank them, I made them each a little goody bag.  And when I say “made”, I mean I literally took a piece of fabric, sewed it into a draw-string bag, and embroidered “Hamster Crew 2020” on it.  I filled it with things that seemed appropriate for a race in a pandemic.  I helped Laura make facemasks for everyone, many of which had running (running shoes) and trail (trees and animals) themes.  I also picked up running buffs (neck gaiters) that have a slot for a filter; while the science of the usefulness of gaiters is scary at this time (they may make things worse by turning big drops into small drops which hang out longer), the addition of the filter should help.  I also threw in some hand sanitizer, Kleenex, gummy bears, and M&Ms.  Everything a pandemic runner needs.

Finally

So I close again with my gratitude for my friends and family that make this possible and for my body which puts up with this stupidity.  Thank you all.

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