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The backpacker takes third! Race report: Run Rabbit Run 100

Did anyone predict this result? I’m doubtful, given my running resume compared to the deep and talented field at the 2015 Run Rabbit Run 100. To know how it happened, read on. I won’t apologize for it being a long post — I wrote it mostly for me and for family members and close friends who couldn’t be there.

A special thanks to the volunteer RRR100 race committee — especially Fred Abramowitz, Paul Sachs, and Brady Worster — plus all of the volunteers in the aid stations and on the course.

For all  RRR100-related posts, click here.

Course profile (temporary) tatoo with aid station locations, made by ElevationTat. Now if only those numbers were accurate...

Course profile (temporary) tatoo with aid station locations, made by ElevationTat. Now if only those numbers were accurate…

Expectations

A 20-hour finish looked good. It was a nice, round number. In other years, it would put me in the Top 10, a finish with which I’d be very happy. And it was exactly 13.2 percent slower than Rob Krar’s 2014 performance, as was my 2008 Leadville time relative to his 2014 time.

I was aware, however, that a 20-hour and Top 10 finish implied some questionable assumptions. First, I didn’t know if Krar’s LT100 and RRR100 efforts were comparable, and I didn’t ask him. Second, the field was deeper than it ever had been — there were numerous guys with more talent and experience than me. And finally, it was unclear if I was as fit as I was in 2008. Read about my training plan.

Honestly, I would have been pleased with a range of performances. After a 7-year hiatus from the 100-mile distance, I would have reason to be happy with just a finishing buckle. But, of course, I wanted and hoped for better: this was an opportunity to offset a sub-par performance in May, to prove that I wasn’t a one-hit wonder, and to test myself at the Distance of Truth. I was hungry to race.

Unsustainable start

In every ultra I have raced, the field generally starts stupidly fast, i.e. not even remotely sustainable, so I was expecting it. Sure enough, by the first aid station at mile 4.5, I was 15 minutes behind the leaders and fighting for Top 30.

It’s not like I had started slowly, either. For the first 40 minutes, my Suunto Ambit2 GPS Watch + Heart Rate Monitor recorded that I climbed at 50-60 vertical feet per minute and had an average heart rate of 150+ beats per minute (versus my intended range of 135-140). I began to doubt: “You’re not as fit as you think you are. You should have run more and backpacked less. You don’t have a future in this sport.” etc.

I would have panicked more, but thankfully Jim Sweeney of Albany, NY, pulled up beside me. Jim, who has much more experience and who in June ran sub-16 hours in a 100-miler, assured me that the race would come back. His prediction proved correct, but I had to run for another 6 hours before being convinced of it.

Jim and I stayed together for the next 20 miles, along Mountain View Trail, down Fish Creek Trail, and into the Emerald Mountains. We kept a casual and conversational pace, and hiked anything more than a subtle uphill grade; my heart rate remained in a more manageable 130-140 bpm range. When we arrived at Olympian Hall (mile 21) on the outskirts of downtown Steamboat Springs, we learned that our respective significant others — my wife, Amanda, and his girlfriend, Brianna — had become even better friends while waiting there for us.

We pulled out of Olympian with 20 racers ahead, including five women. This was a confidence booster: I thought that any racer who could beat me was already ahead of me; that probably none of the women would finish before me; and that at least a few of the elites would eventually drop out. Top 15 already seemed reasonable, and my prospects for Top 10 were looking better.

The Emeralds

The tempo of the next 20 miles — through the Emerald Mountains and back to Olympian Hall — felt different than the first twenty, as if racers were finally settling in for the long haul. Running paces slowed; there was more hiking and less running; and the general mood seemed less hurried and frantic. I wished I’d simply started this way, rather than getting swept up in the early excitement and bravado.

On the 1,500-foot climb out of Olympian, I sadly hiked away from Jim, who seemed to be less fresh than he thought he should be. Forty miles later at the first Dry Lake aid station, he would drop.

Now on my own, I settled into a constant effort, keeping my heart rate in the mid-130’s. The results were good: I caught and passed Emma Roca, the eventual women’s winner; Nick Pedatella, whose legs were still flat from a 120-miler in mid-August; and Josh Arthur, who has been racing hard all summer. At the second Olympian aid station (mile 42) I passed Jacob Puzey, a very fast trail runner out of Flagstaff who was attempting his first 100-miler; and a few minutes beyond, Timmy Olson, the two-time Western States winner on whom I’d gained 18 minutes in the previous 11 miles. I heard later that former US 100-mile champion Dave James, who had gapped the leaders on the first climb of the race, had dropped at Olympian and simply ran back to his hotel room.

When I pulled up to Amanda to restock, I was still fresh and chipper, and now surging with confidence. After strapping on my headlamp and grabbing some warmer clothing for the higher and colder elevations ahead, I gave her a big kiss and told her confidently that, “I’m going to be in the money.”

Daytime clothing (left) plus nighttime additions (right). At 8 PM I added my arm sleeves and wind shirt, but should have grabbed another layer. At 2 AM on my return trip through Dry Lake, I added the extra long-sleeve, 200-weight fleece pullover, and thicker fleece gloves. I wore the same shorts and shoes for the entire race.

Daytime clothing (left) plus nighttime additions (right). At 8 PM I added my arm sleeves and wind shirt, but should have grabbed another layer. At 2 AM on my return trip through Dry Lake, I added the extra long-sleeve, 200-weight fleece pullover, and thicker fleece gloves. I wore the same shorts and shoes for the entire race.

Into the darkness

At races like Leadville and Western States, an early-morning start means that the elites finish shortly before or shortly after sunset. At RRR100, however, every racer spends the night outside. In fact, with a goal of 20 hours, I expected to race more in the dark (10 hours, 44 minutes) than in the light. Not since the 2009 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic had I raced through the night, so I was somewhat concerned but figured that it probably wouldn’t affect me more than anyone else.

I settled in for the 10-mile, 3,000-foot climb back to Long Lake (mi 53). I shuffled up Fish Creek Falls Road and diligently hiked the lower portion of Fish Creek Trail before resuming a shuffle through the upper meadows. It seemed like I should have been going faster, but even so I was catching everyone: Michele Yates, Andy Reed, Steamboat local Devon Olson, plus countless Tortoises and their pacers, who had started 4 hours earlier than the Hares on Friday morning.

Just before Long Lake, I caught up to Mark Austin of Boise, who seemed to be moving better and more easily than everyone else. We agreed to team up, and quickly left the aid station towards Summit Lake (mi 57). It was a clear and calm night, and temperatures were plummeting. I regretted not grabbing at least one additional layer at Olympian Hall, and momentarily pondered the irony if I had to drop out due to poor clothing decisions. I pushed on, knowing that I had warmer clothes at Dry Lake (mile 65) and that temperatures would probably warm up as I began the 2,000-foot drop from Summit.

We hiked at least one-third of the distance to Summit. Although, Mark is a very fast hiker and that still meant 15 minutes per mile; with some running, we averaged sub-12. It felt easy — my heart rate was just 110-120 bpm — and we wanted it that way: we were only 55 miles deep and knew that the real race did not begin until Spring Creek Ponds (mile 69), at the base of the final big climb.

On the 8-mile descent to Dry Lake, I pulled away from Mark (who would finish in fourth) and caught the first female, Emily Richards, who was running strong and appeared to have a lock on the $12,000 prize. At the aid station I found Amanda, who informed me that I was in sixth place, that fifth place was just a few minutes ahead, and that fourth place was not out of question. Kendrick Callaway made a bolder prediction based on how fresh I still looked: that I’d be on the podium.

The out-and-back to Spring Creek Ponds gave me the opportunity to see where other runners were at. I intersected Jason Schlarb five minutes down the trail, and didn’t see the second-place runner, Bob Shebest, for another 17 minutes; third place, Nick Clark, was just behind, but fading hard. I crisscrossed Marco Sturm, in fourth, about 15 minutes from the bottom, and caught the fifth place runner (name?) a few minutes before the aid station.

The real race begins

This summer there never seemed to be a good time for me to drive to Steamboat and scout the course. Finally, less than two weeks before the race, Amanda kicked me out of the house and told me to go. It was an extraordinarily selfless thing to do, since I had just returned from a 10-day backpacking trip in Wyoming and was just about to leave for a 3-day backpacking trip with the Sierra Designs team.

On my first day in Steamboat, I ran the final 35 miles of the course, knowing that it could be the crux: it would be late in the race and late in the night, and the gradual inclines would create a wide spread between racers who had to hike versus those who could still run.

A few minutes up from Spring Creek Ponds, my scouting failed me when I missed a turn onto the singletrack. I went 400 yards before realizing my mistake; it cost me 5 minutes but no placements. Remarkably, in the 4.5 miles back to Dry Lake (mi 74) I still gained 3 minutes on Nick and 8 minutes on Marco.

When I left Amanda at Dry Lake, I thought that I could hunt down Marco in fourth place, who was ahead by 20 minutes. I didn’t think much about Nick in third — it seemed like a big reach. (Official splits put him 44 minutes ahead.)

As with Fish Creek, I shuffled and hiked up Buffalo Road towards Summit Lake (mi 81). It also did not feel fast enough, but this tactic had generated good results so far, so I kept at it. A few hundred yards before the aid station, I caught Nick, who had slowed dramatically. He was feeling “shitty,” but nonetheless gave me some encouragement, saying that I looked great and that third place was “probably 10 minutes ahead” and not looking much better than him. A Tortoise’s pacer in the aid station, Troy Howard, said the same thing.

Phantom third

In fact, official stats put Marco still 20 minutes ahead. If I’d known this, I might have pulled up and hung on for fourth, since that’s a big gap to cover in just 21 miles. But if Nick and Troy were intentionally deceiving me, it worked — I left the aid with the intention of getting on the podium.

Between Summit and Long Lake, I moved reasonably well and averaged 12:30 min/mi pace — not bad on singletrack, in the dark, at over 10,000 feet, with 80 miles already on my legs. As I passed Tortoises and their pacers, I asked each one on the whereabouts of the next Hare. Each time I got a different answer, with no trendline; often, racers seemed confused about who was a Tortoise and who was a Hare, and few had a good sense of time. When the Dry Lake aid volunteers told me that I was just 3 minutes behind Marco, I was skeptically optimistic.

I tried to stay relaxed out of Dry Lake, knowing that I wouldn’t make up a 3-minute gap in a single mile. But I did not want to wait long to make my move, either, since the thought of racing the final 6 miles — in which the course drops 3,300 quad-busting vertical feet to the base of the Steamboat ski area — was too much to fathom.

Strangely, the next pacer and Tortoise that I met reported that only two Hares had passed them, and “I’ve been watching closely.” When I began to crisscross the leaders of the 50-mile race shortly after daybreak, they reported not having seen anyone ahead. So where was Marco? It wasn’t making sense, and I didn’t know what to believe. (I would find out later that Marco made a wrong turn shortly after Dry Lake that cost him about an hour.)

At the final aid station just below Mt. Werner, I was told, “You’re in fourth, great job.” My heart sunk as I turned downhill. But then the aid volunteer qualified herself: “You’re the fourth 100-miler, but third Hare.” Without an explanation as to how I went from fourth to third without passing Marco, I restrained my excitement and figured I would not ultimately know until the finish. I allowed myself a big “Whoop!” anyway — I was nearly done, and fourth place would be pretty damn cool, too. True to form, I also began to choke up, the first break in my game face for 19 hours.

Enough energy at Mi 107 for a finish line hop. Credit: USL.tv's Gia Dawn Madole

Enough energy at Mi 107 for a finish line hop. Credit: USL.tv’s Gia Dawn Madole

The finish

My Leadville finish was ugly: I had to be carried by my crew from the medical tent to my car, and from my car into the house I was staying; I couldn’t run for a month. Since registering for RRR100, I had feared a repeat, and was unconvinced that I could finish a 100-miler in any other fashion.

It was different this time around, which I might attribute to having run a lot more, rather than just backpacking all summer. My quads and IT bands weren’t thrilled about the final descent, but I managed to keep a steady and controlled 8:30 min/mi pace to the bottom and back into the cold, katabatic air that had pooled overnight in the Yampa River valley.

There were no spotters on the course and there seemed to be no communication between the Mt. Werner aid and the finish line, so my arrival a few minutes after 8 AM was nearly unexpected. Anticlimactic, I suppose, but not a big deal: you don’t do these things for the finish anyway.

I broke the tape with my arms raised and an uncontrollable smile. A finish line photo shows me jumping, too. Amanda looked stunned and in disbelief, and when she told me that I’d placed third, I think I adopted the same expression. My performance had far surpassed what I thought was feasible, even if everything had gone my way.

Recovery

Besides almost passing out 10 minutes after the finish on a park bench, and again 30 minutes later in a Starbucks, I felt shockingly good by Sunday morning. Walking was easy; stairs were unappealing but manageable; and a short run was not out of the question if my head was into it.

I even wondered aloud to my buddy Dave if I could have raced harder. Of course, that was a joke — I gave RRR100 just about everything that I had. And with the little that I didn’t lay on the line, I’m ready to pour into next time.

An unexpected payday: $3,500 for third place. Since I hadn't even considered such a high placement, I had to ask the race director at the finish line what the amount was.

An unexpected payday: $3,500 for third place. Since I hadn’t even considered such a high placement, I had to ask the race director at the finish line what the amount was.

14 Responses to The backpacker takes third! Race report: Run Rabbit Run 100

  1. Don Milligan September 26, 2015 at 10:40 pm #

    Congrats Andrew!

  2. Jeff Valliere September 27, 2015 at 8:29 am #

    Not bad for a hiker! 😉

    I’d love to see what you could do if you really went all in with this, I am sure you have a lot of room to improve even, if that is what you ever chose to do. I guess that would put me out of the question as a running partner though

    Anyways, congrats again!!

    • Andrew Skurka September 27, 2015 at 2:26 pm #

      Given my talent level (i.e. the genes I got from mom and dad), I think a Grade B Elite is reasonable. I’m just about there right now, though I haven’t raced enough to be consistently put in that group. Even when I was full-on runner in high school and college, I was never a Krar or Canaday, and don’t see a viable way to overcome my genetic deficiencies.

  3. Vadim Fedorovsky September 27, 2015 at 6:09 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this with us, Andrew.

    Your stats and all the details you include are extremely helpful and inspiring.

    Congratulations on a great race!

    Amanda – major kudos to you for helping him make this happen.

    -Vadim

  4. Josh Spice September 27, 2015 at 7:25 pm #

    So awesome, Andrew. Congratulations. That is just amazing.
    Last weekend, I finished the Equinox Ultramarathon (40mi) in 7:51. It was my first running race. The last time I ran was 28 miles the last week of May – 3.5 months without running. I feel your thoughts, but I can’t imagine 100. Thanks for the inspiration to keep going. I hope my efforts help people better understand all those things they “can’t” do 🙂

  5. Bob Shebest September 28, 2015 at 12:11 pm #

    Enjoyed your race-report and usl.tv interview. Always excited to see others having success with heart-rate to pace well and nail the finish. Congrats on your finish! I’m thinking hard about coming back next year…

  6. Brian September 29, 2015 at 10:27 am #

    Great race report, Andrew. It’s been fun to follow your progress through the whole build up. Hopefully this sets you up for a nice TNF Challenge in a couple months.

    And I’m wondering, RRR is a qualifier for Hardrock. Thinking of putting your name in the lottery there? It seems like that kind of course could be perfect for your running/hiking strength.

    • Andrew Skurka September 29, 2015 at 1:45 pm #

      Yes, I’ll probably put in for both Hardrock and Western States, and plan on being rejected from both.

  7. Adrian October 1, 2015 at 4:00 pm #

    Nice write-up and great job with the race. I was on of the tortoises that you must have passed somewhere in the latter miles, as I finished right at 9:00.

  8. DVD RNR October 9, 2015 at 11:19 pm #

    Great report! Um, well, I was a tortoise and finished before the whistle 🙂 34 hours still got me a buckle 🙂 Think I am going to crank out Cheyenne Mountain marathon on Sunday. Smiles and run on my friends!

    • Andrew Skurka October 11, 2015 at 8:15 am #

      Slow, whatever. It sounds like you run for the right reasons and love it.

  9. Doug K October 30, 2015 at 4:52 pm #

    bravo !
    that’s a tremendous result, and a nice little check to go with it. Wonderful.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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