Monday, April 10, 2017

Call of the Wilds 2015: Flirting with Diasaster

Before I start sounding like I am making up excuses for my rather pedestrian 9hour and 17 minute finish at this year's Call of the Wilds Mountain Marathon (more like 28-29 miles with 7400ft. elevation gain), let me make the following admissions:

  • My training this year is significantly behind last year's mileage and difficulty. No excuses - it's just that trying to balance life this year was more difficult, stressful, and demanding, so I simply have not been able to focus on improving over last year's performances and have been in "maintenance mode" as a runner. 
  • I did not do my homework for this year's race. Last year, I finished at a respectable 8 hours and 4 minutes - not bad for the first time on such a difficult course and rather acceptable considering I viewed it as a training event leading up to the Oil Creek 100K in October. This year, I hardly looked at a map and relied on memory (most of which my mind erased for my sanity and protection). 
  • I failed to consider what might happen if weather conditions were more typical for mid-August instead of last year's temps which were in the mid to low 70's. And that, my friends, was probably the biggest mistake I made, turning a challenging trail run into a struggle just to finish intact and healthy. This year's temps reached 90 degrees in nearby Williamsport and humidity was as high as 95% before sunrise. The temps would prove to be a near insurmountable body blow to any hope of repeating or improving upon last year's effort. 
Now for the things that went completely wrong:

  • As a result of the temperatures and humidity, I was losing water at a rate much faster than I can ever remember. Sweat was literally dripping off the front of my visor like rainwater throughout much of the race (except when I stopped sweating altogether, which was a different issue). I simply was not able to hydrate quickly enough nor adequately enough through my Nathan bladder, and sucking on that hose just did not give me any indication of how much or how little I was rehydrating. Regardless, conditions were so difficult for me that I could have been carrying two milk jugs full of water and I don't know that I could have replaced lost fluids quickly enough. How bad was it? At the beginning of the race I was part of a cardio study and I had to weigh in with all my gear. After two days of hydrating as much as possible and two huge plates of pasta and meatballs the previous night and a full stomach from breakfast, I weighed in at a surprising 178 with all gear fully loaded (still surprising to me - I weigh around 166 and thought 178 was obscene). When I completed the race, I was weighed in at the finish line (granted my hydration pack was not as full at that point), but my weight was 167 with full gear. Net loss of 11 pounds. At home this morning, I weighed in (without gear, obviously) at 163. 
  • I completely screwed up my hydration in a manner that can only be considered comical (if it weren't so stupid and dangerous). I have SaltStick caps I use to replace electroytes, and the bottle reads about 550mg of sodium chloride per cap. That's alot, even when losing electrolytes and salt, and I generally use those caps by "feel", meaning I will wait until I sense a familiar weakness or cramping sensation to indicate I should take a tab. Too much salt is dangerous in warm weather conditions, so I defer to a more conservative use of those tabs. However, I recently purchased another brand called "Rehydr8" which only carries about 200mg of sodium chloride plus other electrolytes, so the recommended dosage is more than one tab when taking them - or - as I thought during the race, I can take them a little more frequently and maintain a constant intake of electrolytes and salt without overdoing it. Well, being the overly cautious idiot that I am, I packed both the Rehydr8 tabs and the SaltStick tabs in case I didn't like the Rehydr8 and I could fall back on what worked in the past. Within the first hour, I grabbed a salt tab after gushing sweat like a mobile shower and completing the first climb (which was a rude awakening and a reminder of the epic difficulty of this course). Instead of grabbing a Rehydr8, I grabbed the more potent Salt Stick. Not a problem, except for the first three hours, I took tabs at one per hour and ended up with a gut full SaltStick tabs instead of the Rehydr8. Now I'm loosing way too much fluid and taking in way too much salt without proper dilution. And now I am hurting big time. 
  • The heat. I can usually muscle through heat. I did fairly well at the World's End 50K and completed the Oil Creek 100K during a day that featured well-above normal temps and humidity. But today was absolutely brutal. Throughout most sections of the course, there was absolutely no air movement, and it was hard to maintain any level of exertion without overheating and becoming dizzy, nauseous, or weak. On top of that, most of the exposed sections of the course (ridgelines and fire roads) were pounded by the sun and again, without alot of air movement. It was crazy. If I try to run through it to get past it, I overheated and wanted to lie down by the trail. Speed hike it and I end up being exposed to the sun and heat much longer than I wanted, gradually wearing me down. It was absolutely a no win situation, and by the time I faced the last major hill after Aid Station 4, I didn't see how I would finish this race. 
  • Aid Station issues. As I mentioned, my hydration was completely messed up. Taking the wrong salt tabs, then recognition of that fact, made me stop taking them for quite awhile. No problem - I supplemented with my own food and grabbed some pretzels at aid stations. By the way - it was so hot outside that any peanut butter and jelly sandwiches prepared felt like they were made on toast. I knew I was in trouble by aid station 3, and apparently, so did a few volunteers who insisted I take their water bottles even before I climbed the macadam hill to the aid station. I felt the urge to use the restroom, so I stopped in and that's when I had a scare. I managed about a shot glass full of fluid and it was very, very brown. Now we have issues. Although not tea or cola colored, I was definitely in the amber range. So now I am forced to linger at the aid station for far longer than I want to, slowly sipping water so as not to get sick on my stomach while trying to rehydrate. In the sun. By aid station 4, I knew that I was not likely to match my time from last year. The conditions, combined with hydration errors and perhaps a little less training than before, turned the day into a battle of endurance. The clock didn't matter. Now it was a matter of whether I would even finish. And I wasn't quitting unless I passed out along the trail. By the last aid station, I had to use a kiddie pool to cool my body temp down. I allowed myself to find a little shade and sat in the grass while eating watermelon. All told, I probably lost at least 40 minutes total at aid stations just making sure I could cool down, rehydrate, and summon the energy to keep going. 
  • Humidity - As anyone knows who has done the Call of the Wilds course, it's not a course for beginners or casual trail runners. It is not a recreational course for fitness runners. It can be ruthless, technical, brutal, and punishing. After finally reaching the summit after some gut-busting climbs, one would think a nice downhill section would allow for one to make up some time. But at Call of the Wilds, many of the downhills run through loose rock, scree, and old stream beds, making the downhills a threat to break an ankle with every step. As if that weren't enough, the humidity seemed to glaze the rocks in oil, and even my Brooks Cascadias had trouble finding any grip as I'd slip and slide through the descents even slowing for fear of breaking or turning an ankle. Last year, I remember bombing through some of those descents, but after being gut-punched by the heat and in a much different frame of mind and body, I was descending many of those sections far more purposefully and cautiously. Kudos to the elite folks who can crush those sections - I'm just not in their league. 
I'm usually a top third finisher, but not this time. My only consolation was that guys I usually finish with also seemed to struggle and lost as much as an hour from their previous year's time. What I'd like to learn as how the top finishers - not necessarily elite guys - managed to crush the course, stay hydrated well, and perform as well as they did. All told - this was not my day and I complicated it with a series of errors and by becoming dehydrated. I fought that issue from behind the rest of the day, and although I haven't seen the final tally of finishers, I suspect the heat claimed quite a few DNF's. 

I'm not sure I'm going back, although there is a part of me that would like to make Call of the Wilds a focus race instead of a training run to see if I can strategically and physically master the course.

Note: I went back in 2016. Did it again. Suffered again, too. There's no way around it: this is one of the toughest trail events anywhere in PA. 

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