Thursday, October 27, 2011

Documentary on "Marathon Boy" Budhia Singh

On November 3rd, HBO will air a documentary entitled "Marathon Boy", about India's child marathon runner Budhia Singh.

Here's a trailer for the documentary, as viewed on HBO's official site.

I first heard about little Budhia via an article from the BBC News entitled "What happened to Budhia Singh, India's Marathon Boy?" and was reminded of his story today, upon seeing "A Child Running for His Life" in the Wall Street Journal Online.

I was not running ultras when I read the first article, but found the story disturbing. Essentially, "Marathon Boy" refers to Budhia Singh, a child from the slums of India who was sold by his mother to a peddler at a very young age. Budhia possesses a natural talent for running, which was spotted by judo coach Birachi Das, who subsequently adopted the boy. By the age of three, Budhai had run several marathons. By the age of four, he had run 48.

I remember having mixed feelings about the story when I first read it. My strongest and most immediate reaction was of concern for the young boy; even if he liked running and was driven to pursue it (which I think is the argument typically given by the parents of such phenomenal child athletes), it seemed like an extremely harsh schedule for one so young. Indeed, at the age of four and in 93 degree heat, Budhai ran a 42 mile race at 5.75 mph pace while being urged on by Das, only to collapse at the finish, unable to walk a single step further and ultimately requiring medical attention that according to the doctor, saved his life.

I don't care who you are, that's disturbing stuff.

On the other hand, I could not help but wonder at the boy's stamina - a four-year-old running 42 miles at 5.75 mph pace? That's astonishing. And yet, at the same time, unsettling.

It's unsettling because it does not fit with our ideas of what a child that age should be able to accomplish, and while it can be inspiring when adults push themselves past the limits of what we all thought was possible, in the case of a child being urged on by his or her parents, it makes for a far darker tale.

I don't get HBO so I don't plan on watching it. If I did get HBO, I still don't know that I'd watch it, though the trailer is certainly compelling. I find the story alone tough enough to contemplate,and I'm not sure anything would be gained by viewing the footage.

Still, it's an interesting story of human stamina... but also a complex tale of greed and even love. Birachi was not the first Indian youth that Das "saved" from the slums, but to what end? I don't know the answer to that. I even had mixed feelings about the boy being banned from running long distances; I understand the reasoning (and I'm no pediatrician), but the idea of being told you cannot run long distances because a higher governing body does not think it's right rubs me the wrong way.

If the boy wants to run, I think he should be able to run... and when he wants to stop, let him stop... and provide him with guidance and education on everything in between. Or, perhaps the fear is that if he runs again, he will again be caught up in the fervor surrounding his talent, and he will be compelled to push further... I don't know, it's all speculation at this point.

Regardless, there is an interesting story here for us as runners, parents, and human beings. I wish Budhia Singh the best in all that he does, and hope he finds peace in his running and in himself.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Return to Twin Peaks: 50 Mile Race, 2011

The week leading up to Twin Peaks was a tough one, but it had nothing to do with the race. Instead, I had spent most of the week preparing for job interviews, and by the time Friday came I was relieved to turn my focus towards a different matter entirely.

Yes, a 53 mile race with close to 18,000 ft in elevation gain seemed exactly the thing to take my mind off my week, and the Cleveland National Forest couldn't be a better place to do it.

Sunrise on a training run, about 6 miles up the Indian Truck Trail

If you've never been to the Cleveland Nation Forest, it's gorgeous. I first discovered it during the 2010 Twin Peaks 50 miler, which I DNFed after losing the trail (and all subsequent hope) about 40 miles into the race. After my DNF, which I took pretty hard, I returned to the area numerous times to train, for not only does it offer the elevation gains I prefer in my trails, but it has some fantastic views, and forest dense enough that for half a day, you can forget that you actually live in a congested and smoggy city like Los Angeles.

But, I digress.

On the morning of the race, I drive towards the Start area feeling uninspired and sleepy, wondering vaguely if my Coyote friend Pedro and our new friend Steve would have trouble finding the right road. I also wondered, quite suddenly this time, if I should be more concerned about the race - I was treating it like it was just another run in the woods, with no drop bags and very little in my pack - would I pay for my lax attitude later by being caught off-guard and between aid stations without the right supplies?

After considering that for a second, I put the worry aside - I had respect for the course, and was not coming in unprepared. I was very familiar with the area, and knew the aid stations could be relied upon for certain supplies - the rest would be up to me. I could certainly be caught off-guard by something, but that's a given. It should all go fairly well, at the very least.

When I pulled up at the start and viewed the lines of cars and runners busily preparing themselves with the application of bib numbers, sunscreen, and the like, my doziness and vague uncertainty was replaced with dawning anticipation. We were getting ready to do it. We had the entire day to run on the trails. This was going to be awesome.

I got my bib, fussed with my water bottles, rechecked my pack, posted the obligatory Facebook status update, took several pictures with my cell phone despite feeling certain they would be of too poor a quality to use for anything (they were), and then left my car for the last time to wait at the start.

Pedro and Steve joined within a few minutes. After that, the group was addressed by Twin Peaks Race Director Jessica DeLine.

With Pedro at the start - photo by Steven Rose
Final address by Jessica (far right) - photo by Janine Swiatkowski

After going over the course route one last time and instructing us to have at least 40oz of water between stations, Jessica called us up the the line, and at 7AM, we were off (note runner 150 in the picture below; I'll get back to him later).

The Start - photo by Janine Swiatkowski

The first stretch was 6.5 miles up Indian Truck Trail, with about 2600 ft of climbing. We hiked and chatted, trying to move briskly up the trail while still wanting to conserve energy for the long day ahead. Some folks were running, but I knew that hiking was better for me on that section, with some running mixed in when the trail evened out on its way up and around the mountain.

Mountains off to the left at the bottom of ITT - photo by Steven Rose

On a training run: Looking back on ITT, about 3 miles up the trail

After starting any ultra, my typical routine after settling into a climbing or running rhythm is to conduct a quick mental review of my goals and race plan - it helps me focus, and kicks the race off right.

For Twin Peaks, my goals were simple, and were directly tied to my performance at AC100: (1) enjoy yourself, (2) no complaining, regardless of how bad things got, and (3) I had to run the last mile as hard as I could. 

Hey, I said they were simple.

At AS #1, mile 6.5. Photo: Janine Swiatkowski
In retrospect, running the last mile seems like a very easy goal in a 53 mile race, but I was used to being in significant pain by that stage and did not have much confidence in my will to endure.

In my effort to keep it simple I had no goal time for the race, but as I trekked up the hill I figured that over 52 miles, if I averaged 4 miles per hour I'd finish in 13 hours.... with all the elevation gain and adding in time for stopping at aid stations, finishing in under 13 hours seemed very reasonable. I decided to shoot for that, knowing that if I felt good in the second half of the race I could then aim higher.

I reached the first aid station at approximately 8:30am, which was right on track for that climb. The station was well-staffed, and after refueling quickly I moved on. At that point I was ahead of Pedro and Steve, a position I would try to maintain through the day not only for the fun of it, but to challenge myself to push further.

Following that, we gained a bit more elevation (1000 ft) running along the Main Divide to Trabuco Peak, then descended to the Horsethief AS. This 4.5 mile section has steep rolling hills, but overall it's a fast run, with more descent than ascent. I chatted with several other participants on the way, two of which had also completed the AC100 this year. None of recognized the others, something we chalked up to being almost completely destroyed by the time we reached the finish line in Altadena (yet, all of us were debating a return in 2012... go figure).

On the Main Divide, looking back on the sandy fire road

Runners headed up the Main Divide. Photo: Janine Swiatkowski
After the West Horsethief aid station, the course took a sharp right to go down into the canyon, descending nearly 2000 ft in 2 miles via switchbacks, making it both the best and the worst section of the entire Twin Peaks course.

It's the best when you're running down it. Descending this section is both thrilling and terrifying as the loose shale shifts and rolls under your feet and the shrubs' branches reach out to trip, and to trace long red scratches on your legs, arms, and face. At the same time, what thrills are the views and the speed that is possible if you allow yourself to let go, just a little... but that's often all that is allowed, as the switchbacks taunt you with hairpin turns that must be taken at a slower pace, or you risk slipping off the trail and into the brush, and possibly falling further down the mountain (unlikely, but it could happen).

As for when it's the worse? Well, when you have to climb back up it, of course. But that comes at mile 32; we've got 20 more miles between here and there and will discuss it in due time.

Regardless of its hazards, it's still my favorite section of the course. I made up some time on the descent, my familiarity with the trail coming in useful as those behind me took the hill more cautiously, and even with noisy complaints.

At the bottom of the canyon, the trees are dense and lovely, and there is a coolness in the air that is augmented by the sound of the river rushing past to the right as you make your way towards the rocky banks. I passed a series of small houses, then came to the parking lot at Holy Jim, and the third aid station. This marked 15 miles into the course.

Next, we'd be hiking to Santiago Peak, with a water stop on the way. I had been doing very well in monitoring my electrolytes and water; prior to each aid station I would check my supplies and make a mental note of what I needed to fill up on at each station, so I could be sure to leave properly stocked.

Holy Jim Trail - photo by Steven Rose

The climb to the Bear Springs water stop was 2300 ft, with trails through dense woods and several stream crossings. It was 4.5 miles to the water stop, then another 3 miles and 1700 ft up to Santiago Peak.

I was familiar with the peak and not intimidated by the climb - in fact, I was feeling surprisingly comfortable with everything so far. I felt really good. Tired, but good. My electrolytes were on track, my water was on track, and headed up to the peak I decided to push hard, knowing that the turnaround at the peak would provide us runners with our first opportunity to see where we stood in the field.

The Main Divide from Santiago Peak. Photo: Steve Rose
I did not know where I stood in the women's race and had no idea who was ahead, but wanted to get a lead on anyone just behind me so they didn't get any big ideas about trying to catch up. On another note, I was eager to see how Pedro and Steve were faring, and hoped they would be looking good.

Approaching the top, the peak's radio towers would come into view, then would disappear again, only to reappear fleetingly around the next corner in what seemed like a perpetual peep show. I took heart in noting that they did appear larger and closer with each sighting however - the peak was definitely approaching; the climb was finite (despite all rumors to the contrary).

In confirmation of this, more runners were now passing on the way back down the mountain. Included were some runners I had never seen, a confusing detail until I remembered that there had been an early start, at either 5:30 or 6am for those runners who requested it. I spotted about 5 or more women ahead of me, but felt certain that they had not been in my starting group.

In fact, I was pretty certain that at that point, I was the first woman (not that there were that many of us, because there weren't). Still, I began to move faster, in case the second-place woman was right behind me.

Santiago Peak. Photo: Janine Swiatkowski
Upon reaching the top, I was pleased to see faces I knew, and like every aid station, the volunteers were happy, smiling, and ready to help. Mieko was at this aid station, with John Hockett and photographer Janine Swiatkowski, who would later be kind enough to allow us to download her pictures from the event.

Hug from Mieko at Santiago Peak. Photo: Janine Swiatkowski
View from Santiago Peak. Photo: Janine Swiatkowski

Leaving Santiago Peak was a good feeling. We were 22 miles into the race, and in my mind, what remained could be split into two manageable chunks that I was unafraid to tackle. The weather was warming, but so far had been very pleasant with mild temperatures that were ideal for running and racing.

Making matters better was seeing Pedro shortly behind me coming into Santiago Peak. He looked strong and happy, and it was good to see him - I felt like we were putting forth a good (Coyote) team effort so far.

Coyote Pedro at the Peak. Photo: Janine Swiatkowski

Steve Rose was not far behind, looking a little more tired but still going strong and in great spirits. Steve was also stopping every so often to take pictures of the course, which he was also kind enough to share for the purpose of this report.

From Santiago, we descended via a sandy and somewhat impetuous single track. Now: typically, I like single track, and have never referred to one as impetuous, but in this case, the description was earned. The trail began enjoyably enough, but as it continued the walls of the trail became increasingly steep and you had to choose between walking directly along the winding thin ravine on the bottom of the trail or bouncing along the steep, sandy sides. Both options were slow-going and required concentration, though you still could not be guaranteed not to fall (of course). The one relief was that is was relatively short, and before long the trail dumped us out on the Main Divide fireroad.

By that time I had passed several more women, all of whom I suspected had taken the early start, though I could not be sure. It was at that point that I set my mind on winning the women's race and breaking the women's record, which at that time Jessica reported stood at 13:20.

*NOTE: We would later come to find that the actual women's record was set in 2008 by Gina Natera-Armenta in a time of 12:00:00, but this would not be set straight until the week following the event. As my eventual finish time was 12:18 (uh, spoiler alert?), Gina's record still stands.*

After hitting the water station at Bear Springs one more time, I headed back down to Holy Jim. I did my best to move quickly, feeling weariness setting in, and for the first time, the tiny sense of desperation and impatience that can sometimes creep in as the race wears on, especially if I'm not minding my electrolytes.

I felt like I was walking along a thin line, with focus and my current optimism on one side and a quick slide into hopelessness on the other... but it was far too early for hopelessness, and no reason for it. It was a beautiful day. I had the race in hand. The most challenging section lay ahead of me, but only just; and after that I could focus on completing the last section. I just needed to continue to monitor my electrolytes and water, and all should be well.

I went through Holy Jim, then on towards Horsethief. This was the section I looked forward to the least; the climb that had been so fun to descend was now a grueling series of switchbacks that must be conquered before moving forward. I grew impatient to begin as the trail wound further - where was the first turn, so I could get this thing over with? Then, I passed another woman, and we exchanged words of encouragement, though she was feeling poorly. Whatever words I said had a positive effect and she appeared to leave our exchange with better spirits, which in turn made me feel better.

We began the climb, with me glancing at my watch to gauge the carnage. In training, I could climb this hill in 20-30 minutes; tracking the time would help me determine to a certain degree where on the hill I was. The trick there, of course, would be to mimic the pace I held in training...

Yeah, there was no way in hell I could mimic the pace I held in training.

But, I did my best to keep moving forward. Within the first 1/3 of the climb, Pedro passed me easily - I saw him coming and yelled some smack-talk just for the hell of it, and also for the entertainment of myself and the woman I saw behind me, but it had no effect on Pedro - no, he was too busy passing me like I was a cactus rooted by the side of the highway. We exchanged encouragements, then he took off, and my feeble and hasty plan to stay behind him step for step evaporated in the heavy canyon air.

Actually, I remember watching him go and making a mental note to ask him later about his training plan. I have always considered myself to be a good climber, but this dude was moving. Still, it had lifted my spirits to see him and made me all the more determined not to let him get too far ahead... I wouldn't be giving up without a fight!

After passing some fallen companions who were trying vainly to find shade on the trail, I made it to the top... but it did take a damn slight longer than 20-30 minutes. At the aid station, the volunteers offered me a rag for my face, which I refused but then accepted when they told me my face and neck were crusted with salt.

From there, it was back over to the Indian Truck Trial AS, at mile 38. I ran and walked, but mostly ran, trying to get a glimpse of Pedro up ahead. He was nowhere to be seen despite my efforts, and I reckoned he had quite a lead on me by that time. I kept pushing forward, certain I could break the record but not knowing how far behind the next woman was. Around each corner, I would accelerate, trying to stay out of sight in case the next woman was gaining on me.

There was another fellow I kept seeing, the aforementioned runner #150. We had been crossing paths all day, most memorably because I seemed to pass him on every downhill, and then he'd pass me on every uphill... because he would run the uphills. All of them. But, then he'd walk some of the downhills, so I'd catch him again.

It was an odd system, but he seemed to be progressing well and that's tough to argue with. However, I did give him a bit of ribbing at the next aid station, where I discovered that he'd been running without bottles all day. Not only that, but this fellow had never run further than 14 miles before.

Again, while a part of me thought that was crazy, another part said "Yeah, but look, he's doing it." And, so he was... as we climbed back up to Santiago Peak (it would be our final big climb of the race), he started jogging again, and I'll be darned if he wasn't moving forward with steady and controlled progress.

As for me? I was hiking that part, but did run when I could, and was very pleased to be able to run uphill at all by that time. Truly, I was feeling very encouraged by my position in the race, and had nothing to complain of. As I had with the first climb to Santiago, I focused instead on reaching the peak quickly so I could widen the gap between myself and anyone on my heels, and possibly even catch up to Pedro.

After reaching the peak, there would be 10.5 miles to go, with a descent of 4500 feet. My legs were feeling great, and I couldn't think of a better way to end the race.

I passed Pedro not far from the peak, and again we exchanged excited words at how well we were both doing. At the aid station, I was in and out fairly quickly, the main focus being to get my supplies, then get back on the trail. On the way down, I passed two women headed for the top, and while I was 99% sure they had started in the earlier group, I told myself not to assume that.

At one point I even pretended they had started in my group, so I had to finish as hard as I could to make sure they did not overtake me on the final stretch. With this in mind, I passed the final aid station at 46.0 miles - only 6.5 miles to go.

It was starting to get dark, but the sky was beautiful and the air temperature was perfect. I reminded myself that it would be easier to go fast before the sun went down at 6:30PM, so I ran as hard as I could, stopping to walk in just one section where the road climbed sharply.

The sky as the sun went down; pink, purple, and blue. Photo: Steve Rose

Descending the hill, I grew tearful as I looked at the sky and moon. It had been an incredible day, and I felt as fresh and invigorated as if I had only done 10 miles.

By about 6:40pm it was dark enough that I needed my flashlight, especially on that rutted fireroad, and I held the light down low so it would cast long shadows on the largest rocks sticking up. At that time, I told myself I had to finish by 7:00, for a course time of 12:00 - I thought the record was 13:20, but getting in under 12:00 seemed like a better goal.

I focused on the road and ran faster, pretending I was running to catch a boat that was leaving at 7:00 sharp, and if I didn't get there before then I would miss the boat. For a minute or two I even imagined raising the stakes by imagining my kids were on the boat, but then I decided that was a foolish game to play, and that running to catch a boat was quite enough.

Yes, these are the things that I think about :)

As 7:00 neared, I realized I had misjudged the amount of road remaining, and that finishing in under 12 hours was significantly out of reach. I slowed slightly; just enough to be sure I would not trip on the rutted road in the darkness - my light was detectably dim, and I wondered if the kids had been playing with it at home since the last time I had changed the batteries.

With about a mile to go, I felt the tiniest touch of desperation again nip at my heels... where was the finish? Where was the damn gate, to signify that I was getting closer? Oh, there it was... focus. Stay calm. Stay on track. You got this.

Then, with half a mile to go, on the road ahead I heard "HOOOWWWL!" It was Pedro!

"Whooo-hooo!"I cheered back, to let him know if was me in the darkness (a howl would have been more appropriate, but I'm fairly new to this Coyote thing and honestly, under the circumstances, it slipped my mind).

"Hey Pedro, how's it going!"

I can't remember his response, but suffice it to say we were both pretty pleased with ourselves. I was excited he had done so well, and he was excited I was about to finish, and to smash the women's record so decidedly, as well... or so we thought.

We rounded the final turn, and there was the finish - it was hard to see anything, but the lights showed the finish line, and that was all I cared about. Jessica walked over to congratulate me warmly on being the first female finisher in 12:18, and then gave me $250 cash for first place, plus $100 cash for breaking the women's record... or so we thought. She also gave me a mug for being the first woman in my age group.

It was all pretty sweet.

After that, I got some food, talked with the other finishers, got some warm clothes on, and waited for Steve to finish, which he did, fairly shortly afterwards. Runner #150 also finished, despite not having a flashlight in the dark (somehow, I had guessed that he might not have one).

All in all, it was an incredible event - low-key, challenging, and very satisfying. It was also fun to get to run with people I knew; besides Pedro and Steve, there were folks I recognized from other races, and the camaraderie made it even more fun to be out there.

As for the record: Later that week I would find out that I had not actually set the women's record, which was disappointing, but important to get right, obviously. And, it pretty much settles my decision to return next year... I simply have go back and take another crack at it, along with any other woman out there who'd like $350 cash for her effort. 

In conclusion... what did I learn?

I always like to follow races with what I learned, and what I'd like to do differently next time.

What I learned: 
  1. For me, focusing on heartrate as a gauge of how fast I should be going is a better technique than trying to adhere to any pre-determined pace. If my heart is pounding early on during a long uphill climb, I need to ease back just a bit, and bring the heartrate down to something more manageable for that stage. The goal for me is steady and consistent effort, not using myself up in the first third and dragging myself through the rest of the race from there.
  2. 300-400 calories and 300-400 mg of sodium is about what I need for fuel and salt. I kept those levels dialed in all day, with about half of my calories coming in the form of Gu energy gels, which are easy to digest (the rest came in whatever looked good at aid stations, but usually peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, potato chips, mini candy bars, etc.). For this race and for the SBER, those levels worked, though in different weather conditions they may vary.
  3. Knowing the course provides a distinct mental edge. This is a tough course, but knowing what to expect made it manageable, and I was able to focus on knocking out certain sections at a time, knowing that the rest of the course held no surprises. There are many times when I can't practice a course in advance, and that's OK - but when I can, it definitely helps.
  4. Prepare for the terrain you will be racing on. In this case, that was big climbs, and having spent many Saturdays steadily hiking up mountains had to be of help. That may be why my legs still felt so fresh towards the end... or perhaps that was all in my head as I was so excited to win the race and finish strong. Regardless, my legs were ready for the climbing. It only makes sense. 
As for what I would do differently next time? That's a tough one, besides "know what the record is" and "go faster". There's not much I would do differently. I think it suited me not to prepare too hard for it; going into the race with a relaxed attitude was what was needed. I'm not sure I want to change that. 

So after Twin Peaks, what's next? 

Well, there's the Chimera 100 miler in 4 weeks, in the same area... now that's going to be a kick in the pants. I'm glad that Pedro will be there doing the 100K, and other new friends I've made on the trails; it should be a good time.

And, there's always next year. Now that I've come so close to breaking the record, I feel an obligation to return - but more than that, I want to return for the race itself. It's a beautiful location, with just the right amount of ups and downs to keep it interesting and keep us runners rolling along. I'll definitely be back to see what happens next year, and hopefully we'll get a repeat of the ideal weather from this year's race.

Thanks to Jessica and to all the volunteers for a great race experience, and to Pedro for being great company out there, especially during the final stretch. Thanks to Jimmy Freeman and the Coyotes for being great inspirations and training partners - this group has a weird mix of taking their running seriously while having some serious fun doing it, and it's a pleasure to be a part of.

Anyway, that's it - hope to see you there next year!