On the Potential Interface of Ultrarunning and Pygmy Rabbits

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[Featured image: looking toward Lake Elsinore from within the Cleveland National Forest, Riverside County, California during the 2017 Twin Peaks 50k]

This Autumn is, for me, an interesting confluence of long-distance trail running and biological consulting. On November 18, 2017, I will toe the starting line of the Chimera 100, a 100 mile trail race in the Santa Ana Mountains on the border of Riverside and Orange counties in southern California. I also won a contract from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to conduct a survey on 2,048 acres of northern Nevada for Pygmy Rabbits, a species listed as sensitive by the BLM, as part of the Owyhee Roads Fuelbreak Project. It was unclear to me how the implementation of that survey would affect my training for the race. A 50 kilometer (more or less) race that I ran this past weekend answered a few of my questions.

The Training Plan

Let's be frank: I've had nothing but failure at the 100 mile distance since I completed my first at the Zion 100 in 2013. I've spent a considerable amount of time agonizing over the reasons why, and between my own thoughts and discussions with experienced friends in the running community came to the following conclusions:

  • I've spent way too much time and energy since 2013 focusing on the Angeles Crest 100
  • All of my 100 mile race attempts have been during hot weather and I don't handle hot weather well
  • The peak training periods for the races I've chosen since Zion have always overlapped with the busiest and most hectic time of year (spring and early summer) in biological consulting

We determined that the best way to try to get my running back on track was to enter a race during the winter (or close to it) when heat is less likely to be an issue and work is a bit less of a distraction from training. I was also, theoretically, supposed to enter a race that was considered to be on the low end of the difficulty scale; Chimera doesn't fit that description, but I really only get excited by races in difficult terrain.

After officially entering Chimera some time in the early summer, I managed to win the Pygmy Rabbit survey contract from the BLM. I mapped out a training plan (something I also haven't done since the Zion 100) that was "blind" to the survey being conducted, hoping that all of the walking during the survey would allow me to pick up training in progress when I returned. I also decided to enter the Twin Peaks 50k as a training run, as it uses portions of the Chimera 100 course. I stayed devoted to my training, and hit all of my training goals until I left for Nevada on September 23.

Approaching snow squalls on the last day of the survey.

Approaching snow squalls on the last day of the survey.

The Survey

I will write in more detail about the implementation of this project after I submit the final report to the BLM. Pertinent to my discussion here, however, is the following:

  • I led a team that included two other surveyors.
  • We surveyed 114 miles of transects per person over hilly to sometimes mountainous terrain at an elevation of 5,500 to 7,000 feet above mean sea level.
  • Walking transects were off-trail, generally ran from sunrise to sunset (setting up camp where we finished each day), and were in often windy conditions ranging from below freezing with near white-out snow squalls to temperatures in the 80s, sometimes within 24 hours.
  • Actual walking distance (which was greater considering walking around vegetation and terrain obstacles) was approximately 200 miles per person.
  • The survey took place over two weeks, so we walked approximately 100 miles per person per week.

I really feel what we did there, considering the enormous challenges we faced, was an amazing accomplishment. Despite being a trained distance runner, implementing this project often felt like an extreme mental and physical test: it is not easy to get up every day in the cold wind to take down camp right after sunrise and immediately start walking for hours on end, while keeping your focus on Pygmy Rabbit sign within 25 feet of either side of you. While I thought my planned survey schedule was aggressive and I wasn't sure we'd meet it, we finished the survey only one day later than I originally planned.

We took three rest days during the survey. I could have run some during those rest days, but I did not. I needed the rest as much as my team did. There was one rest day that I worked out in the hotel gym with free weights.

I knew that all of that "time on feet" was good for training, but given the lack of high-intensity workouts during that period I was not sure what kind of shape I'd be in for running when I returned. I also lost seven pounds during the survey.

The Race

The Twin Peaks 50K was on Saturday, October 14. We returned to Los Angeles on the afternoon of Monday, October 9. While I had 10 miles on the training schedule for Tuesday, I felt I really needed the day to finish unpacking from the trip and assimilate back in to my life. On Wednesday, I decided to try to do the scheduled 15 miles. That run opened up feeling fantastic, but quickly deteriorated when my legs felt strained. I ended up doing 5.5. I ran about the same distance with a friend on Thursday night and felt a lot of pain in my knees and my Achilles tendons. I was more than a little worried that the race on Saturday would be a giant suffer-fest, especially with a forecast in the 90s after I spent so long in cold weather.

Saturday morning finally came. The race started at 7am. The aches and pains were gone. I kissed my wife (who was also running it) and said goodbye as I went my pace. Instead of running super-conservatively, I decided to run the way I had trained on my long runs which was to use a 20/20, 20/10, 20/5 walk step/run step strategy on climbs, with the amount of running determined by a combination of how vertical the climb was and the surface I was running on. I wasn't sure I could maintain that for the whole race, but I figured I'd try, and the step counting kept me mentally occupied during the race.

As the miles ticked by, I was continually amazed that my legs constantly felt fresh and my heart rate stayed low, no matter what the terrain was like. Past the mid-point of the race was the significant combination of the climb up Holy Jim Trail and Main Divide Road to the summit of Santiago Peak. I maintained my run/walk strategy where the surface allowed (which was much of it) and passed a bunch of runners I had not seen since the start. I reached the aid station at the summit of Santiago Peak (about mile 22) honestly feeling like I had not run even a mile. Much of the remainder of the race was downhill from there.

The last aid station was approximately 6.5 miles from the finish. I knew I was fairly close to the front of the pack, but wasn't sure how close. As I had been all race, I was in and out of the aid station very quickly, leaving before the runner that I thought was in third. He left shortly behind me. I maintained my distance for a while, but as the elevation got lower and the route became more sun-exposed, I really started feeling the heat. We hit a short climb and I couldn't run it. He could. He passed me. We got lower, we hit more constant sun, and I faded badly. Eventually, in the last two miles, I couldn't even continually run downhill and had to take walking breaks. I could see the runner who passed me below and he was walking some, too, but he was a long way ahead of me at this point.

I finally crossed the finish line at 7:39. That's more than two hours slower than my best 50K time, but a time I understood to be pretty good for this race. I also found out I wasn't chasing third... it was fourth. I finished in fifth. I was super happy with the result and how my body performed for most of the race. Depleted, I sat at the finish line to hydrate, eat, and chat with the other runners as I waited for my wife and her friend to finish three hours later.

There is a lot that can and will happen between now and the start of Chimera, but I feel like the Pygmy Rabbit survey was an overall benefit to my race training. I have two more high mileage training weeks remaining, before I taper my mileage into the race. Wish me luck.

Twin Peaks 50K Summary

Distance: 32.4 miles

Time: 7:39:37

Moving Time: 7:28:05 (11 minutes at aid stations... not bad)

Elevation Gain: 7,487 feet

Average Pace: 14:09/mile