Friday, 15 December 2017

Racing the Planet: Patagonia (2017) - Our First Race as a Team

After a few weeks, it’s finally time to reflect on Racing the Planet: Patagonia, my first race as part of an (awesome) team. So here goes…

Camp 1 (Pre-race) –

After checking in Saturday morning (gear check, etc), we had a chance to hang out for a bit before heading to the camp. Thus, Ken, Garth and I took the opportunity to have one last beer before heading out. During this time, we attempted to scope out the competition and try and figure out who might struggle during the week. And around maybe 3 pm we hopped on a bus for the long ride to camp. When we finally arrived on the bus, we were informed that we weren’t quite at camp yet; we would need to hop in a raft and paddle across the maybe 200-foot-wide river to get there. When we did get there, the camp was really well situated with great views (a theme that would repeat itself for most of the week). That night before heading to bed early, we hung out for continuing to scope out the competition while having dinner, which consisted of makeshift sandwiches made from the meats, cheeses, and bread we picked up in Bariloche – our last non-freeze-dried meal of the week. We also got to meet our 4 other fellow tent-mates who we would share next week cuddled up with.

Day 1 (Stage 1) –

Despite all the preparation (and all the races Garth, Ken, and I have done together over the last 3 years), one of the first things I realized as we began running on day one (about 30 mins into the race) was that we hadn’t at all discussed our individual nutrition strategies. Seems like an obvious thing, but I guess none of us had really thought about.

Looking back, it obviously didn’t matter in terms of whether we would win, but I still keep thinking about how if it were a close/tough race, the minutes (or even seconds) burned trying to coordinate eating habits could play a major role in winning and losing.  For example, if we eat at different times (every 30 or 45 minutes), we would slow down twice, instead of just once if we all ate at the same times. I think this is something we will need to seriously consider at the much more competitive Salton Sea in April.

In the end, this was something that didn’t really matter in this race. On day one, we went out controlled and comfortable. And even so, by checkpoint 3 (~18 miles), we had already developed a sizable lead and were running way up in the top 20 for the entire field. There was a decent amount of climbing/descending and it was a fun day, we all felt great, and by the end it became pretty apparent to the race organizers that we actually knew what we were doing and were “pretty fast” as they put it. The other thing that became apparent with team racing (as was expected) is that we all run the downs and flats, and climb the ups at different paces typically in races. So while Ken and I might generally go up and down faster than Garth, Garth is very consistent across the board, so he probably feels better than I do on long stretches of flat terrain. Ken is just Ken and he feels great all the time.
I think we pushed it a little harder than Garth had intended/expected for day one, but in after a good 20 minutes with his feet up at the finish, and a quick dip in the nearby icy river, he was feeling good again. The bigger concern was that Ken’s knee was really bothering him for some reason. He couldn’t even squat down for some reason. And so a river ice bath was in order.

The river was also a nice way to do some laundry and have fresh clothes for day 2. That afternoon, as we hung out in the baking sun, I quickly realized that taking my sleeves off early that morning during the run was not the best idea. As the only one of us that stupidly did this, my forearms were a bit fried. Luckily, however, I had the sleeves to wear in the ensuing days.

Day 2 (Stage 2) –

Despite Garth’s endless remarks that “we’re going to take it easier today, go out slow,” we pretty much picked up right where we left of the day before. Going into the day, we actually didn’t really know where we stood in relation to the second place team. So we went out even faster than the day before and maintained it through to the finish. We did push Garth a little harder than he wanted, especially along the final 4 miles of train track running into camp. The day also left Garth with a blister that he was concerned would affect him the rest of the week.

When we crossed the finish, the volunteers were again remarking that they couldn’t believe how fast we were as a team. And by this point, we had opened up an almost 2.5 hour lead. As a result of our lead, we were also subject to an equipment check. For us, no big deal, we had our mandatory equipment checked pretty quickly and avoided any penalties for not having something.
(Side note: This is a good point to introduce one of the main characters of our story: CW. CW was someone we met before the race who would be a focus of discussion throughout the week. CW was nice enough, but definitely seemed concerned with beating us. This person reminded us of another person whose sole purpose was to beat me at Grand2Grand 3 years ago, as they have many similarities. During our equipment check, CW had a pretty big outburst as he/she couldn’t find some mandatory equipment. We all felt pretty bad for the volunteers who were checking. Still, for whatever reason, at the end of it all, no penalties were issued.)

The camp for this day was again in a great location, but as the afternoon wore on, the winds began to pick up (and the temps began to drop), a sign of what we would face in the day(s) ahead.

Day 3 (Stage 3) –

On this day, the winds were mighty. We started with a fully exposed 7 mile run on the same train tracks we finished on yesterday. As we started, we quickly realized it would be 7 miles into a massive headwind. So what do you do when you’re with a team in such situations? A Peloton of course! We ran the bunched together and rotating as leader every 5 minutes or so. It worked really great, but at some point Garth got really angry with a guy that was latching on to us and just riding in the back. I think this anger partly stemmed from a fall Garth had a few minutes earlier that really could have ended his race if it were worse. It was stupid stumble across the tracks, and he did end up on the ground.

In any case, Garth decided to increase the pace to an almost sprint for a good mile. When this happened, of course Ken comes blazing up from the back of our pack and comments “are we going to hold this pace for a while? This is fun!” Eventually we lost the guy and continued on our way.
The whole day was really pretty flat. And so somehow, despite the head winds, we were again running faster than either of the prior two days. And so, the day went pretty well until the last maybe 4 miles after I chugged an Endurox because I was feeling so hungry. After doing so, for some reason I felt like I had a lump in my chest (or almost like someone had punched me in the gut) and attributed it to heartburn.

Now knowing what I would experience the next two days as well (a similar feeling), I don’t think it was heartburn. I’m still not certain, but maybe I pulled or bruised something in my upper abdomen running as hard as we were this (and the prior two days) with a pack. I do know that my pack, which I have now used for 3 stage races, was definitely showing signs of wear at this point, as the shoulder straps were becoming overly stretched causing my front bottles to bang into my sides with every stride.

Luckily, Ken and Garth were there to push me through the final few miles and we made it to the finish, at this point moving all the way up to the top 15 even as individuals. This camp also featured a cold stream just a few 100 feet away which we could use for a soak. As we approached, some guy was even stripped down completely naked taking a bathe. This was too much for me, as the water was absolutely freezing and took my breath away just rinsing my head off. Nonetheless, I did also soak my legs for a bit.

That afternoon, the strain (or whatever) in my upper abdomen was really uncomfortable and made me not even feel like eating. I had to force myself. But by the evening I think I was starting to feel a little better because I was able to eat. Unfortunately, however, this uncomfortableness would be a recurring theme the rest of the week. Any time I ate too much, took a deep breath, or ran too hard with my pack on, I would get a pain in my stomach. Really anything that was over-stretching the muscles in that area.

Ultimately, 3 stages were done, we had a sizable lead, and the next day was shortened to only ~20 miles because some of the previously planned river crossings were chest deep from snow melt. So my thinking was just get through tomorrow, and I would get a good long rest before the long stage. Although it is worth noting that I was really looking forward to stage 4 because it had a lot of climbing and very steep descending; this had been lacking the prior 2 days. Ken and I were especially looking forward to bombing the steep descent, but I am pretty sure Garth would have never allowed it anyway.

Day 4 (Stage 4) –

The theme of the week was again repeated on this morning. Garth says: “today we go slow, take it easy.” Ken replies: “no man, we run based on feel. If we’re feeling good, then we go fast.” Garth says: “that’s not the plan.” And what happens? We go out at the same pace as the prior three days. And again, it was a fast day. Not only that, because of the change in course, they turned it into an out-and-back, so we could see exactly where were stood in relation to all the other runners. By the mid-point (the out), we had already added about 20 minutes on the next team (and this was after only ~9.5 miles).

Generally, I was able to run and keep up with these guys during this stage, but I was definitely beginning to feel more and more uncomfortable in my chest area, as my pack was continuing to bang against me. And we did run all the way through the end of this stage, but honestly, the last mile running downhill was beginning to feel pretty unbearably painful for me. Still, we finished and that and was that. We added more time on the next team, and we had plenty of time to rest before the long stage.

Unfortunately, because of a change in the course that resulted in an out-and-back, we now had to be bused a couple hours to the next camp. With that said, the ride seemed pretty quick and we got to see some good scenery along the way. Once at the next camp, we noticed the temps were starting to drop quite a bit, so we changed into some of our warmer gear and headed to the fire to eat and try to dry out our shoes from the waist-deep river crossing that day. The rest of the day was pretty uneventful, but we did notice the weather in the area was continuing turn for the worse. There was almost no question it would be windy and rainy during the 50 mile stage the next day.

Days 5 (Stage 5) –

Going into this stage, we already had a massive lead. We knew something tragic would have to happen to spoil our chances of winning. Still, it was 50 miles (actually 45 because of the altered course from the prior day), and anything could happen over that distance. It was also a rainy, cold morning, and I wasn’t feeling too great from the start, as my chest wasn’t necessarily hurting yet, but it didn’t feel right either.  Really, the only thing I was looking forward to this day was that we were going to get to climb a good amount (a couple 1000 feet) early on in the stage.  Otherwise, I honestly was ready to be done before we even started. Garth was also not feeling great this morning because his freeze dried meal the night before was really fowl. It smelled terrible and after a couple bites he tossed it. And his replacement meal was good, but was also really spicy. As a result, he spent most of the night back-and-forth to the toilettes. This, in turn, kept me up a lot of the night because he had to step over me to get out of the tent. In sum, while I had been looking most forward to this long stage all week, that morning I was just not feeling it.

Because it was cold, and raining, we started the stage with our jackets on. And because we ran the first few miles on a road, within the first mile I was already hot. So I took my jacket off. This would become a recurring theme throughout the day as each of was take our jackets off because we were hot, then put them back on because we were cold (as well as gloves) – on, off, on, off. 

The road miles went quickly and we soon turned off the road onto single track. This was so welcome, as it was really the first single track we had been on the entire week. As a result, I must have forgot about any discomfort I was feeling because this stretch to the first aid station felt good as I got to open it up a bit on some downhills and cruise the flats, all while chatting away with Ken and Garth. After the first aid station, we started the long ascent. This was also fine for the most part. We were cruising and Garth was regularly telling us to slow down going uphill because he has shorter legs.

All was fine until eventually, as we started to near the top of the mountain, it started to rain and the wind picked up. It was really cold. And so I tried to get us running downhill a bit to stay warm, but that was really where I realized I wasn’t feeling good. My upper abdomen really started to hurt anytime I would try to speed up downhill, presumably from the pack bouncing. Not only that, it would hurt whenever I took a deep breath. And so began some of the worst 20-25ish miles (mostly on boring dirt road, in shitty, cold and rainy weather) I’ve ever had to cover.

It was really terrible, and as the miles went on, it became more and more painful/uncomfortable. Luckily I had Ken and Garth there with me to keep me moving. They both agreed we just needed to finish and were amenable to my turtle pace. The only reprieve I had was for maybe 20 minutes after taking a few Motrin. I actually felt better during that time and was doing some decent running, but it wore off pretty quickly and then I just felt worse.

Even so, are walks were still at a pretty good clip even on the ups, which was made obvious every now and then when Garth would have to run a few strides every 20 or so feet to keep up with Ken and my long strides. As Garth pointed out, I think my fast walking was partly due to the fact that I really didn’t like the fact that people were passing us, especially when going up. What can I say; it makes me competitive even when suffering.

The only good thing about this stretch was that they offered us hot chocolate at one of the aid stations along the way. I couldn’t finish mine, so Ken nabbed my cup before I could hand it to the volunteer.
After what seemed like forever, we finally made it to the finish, the crossing of which proved pretty unexciting for me because I felt like shit and I was cold. We sat down for a few at the finish so Ken could give blood for an electrolyte test he was participating in with the medical staff. This proved futile because they couldn’t get any blood from his finger. After a few minutes we headed for the fire to try and warm up. A few minutes by the fire proved enough and we headed for the tent.

As soon as we were going to the tent, the skies opened up and it started pouring. We ran, barely making it before it got really bad. We quickly changed and hopped into our sleeping bags to warm up. I think at this point we dozed off for at least a little while before finally getting up to have a quick dinner before bed; in my case, this was an apple crisp dessert I had been looking forward to all week, and it didn’t disappoint.

The day was done, thankfully.

Day 6 (Rest Day) –

We woke up pretty early, and although it was cold, the rain had passed and the sun was starting to come out. It turned out to be a gorgeous day in the end. So even though I was really just feeling like shit (my chest wasn’t feeling any better), it was a chill day and the scenery was fantastic. We did some walking around, took some pictures, chatted with others, and really just enjoyed the day. And by the end of it, we were really just all ready to go to bed, get up, run the quick 7 km to the race finish, and head back to the hotel for a shower/food/wine/beer/etc.

To our surprise, before bed, they told us we would be starting extra early the next morning (5 am) because we needed to be coming out of the national park (we were ending at a glacier) before 9 am. This was fine with us because we knew we’d get back to the hotel earlier.

Day 7 (Stage 6) –

We woke up at about 4 am to get ready for the final run and it was really, really cold. As a result, none of us wanted to get out of our sleeping bags and we ultimately all decided we had to run in our long sleeve shirts and tights, which we hadn’t done all week. We wanted to keep the notorious bright orange shirts present for the finish photo, so we put them on over our long sleeves.

I was still really feeling terrible, but I told Ken and Garth I would take 3 Motrin right before we started and hopefully that would numb me enough to run to the finish.

When we finally pulled ourselves out of the tent, we stood around near the fires trying to stay warm until the start (note: I think it’s worth pointing out that the local Argentinian volunteers that prepared the fires and hot water all week were great. They were super energetic, as they would chop wood for what seemed like 24 hours a day. They also played music and danced around. It created a really good atmosphere every morning as we prepared to run).

About 10 minutes before 5 am, I took the 3 Motrin and we lined up at the start. It was obviously still dark, so for the first time of the week, we needed to start off with our headlamps on. Right at the start we took off towards the front and were moving at a good pace. Having taken the Motrin, my body was pretty numb and so I was okay for a little bit. After a few kilometers of moving quick uphill, and starting to breathe a little heavier, however, my chest really started to hurt. But at that point, we only had a few more kilometers to go, so I just tried to hang on. And before we knew it, we were at the finish.

At the finish, the view was great. The race ended at the Black Glacier in the national park, and so it was a great place to get some finish line photos before hoping on the buses back to Bariloche. Ultimately, it was good to be done, and as was our goal, we had locked in our first team race with a win.

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