Monday, September 8, 2014

Susquehanna Super Hike - My DNF Race Report

September 6, 2014

During my commute to work this morning I heard this report on WITF about the Bird In Hand Half Marathon this past Saturday:

Dozens treated for heat issues at midstate half-marathon
Written by The Associated Press | Sep 8, 2014 12:55 AM

(Bird-In-Hand) -- Dozens of runners required medical treatment for heat-related problems during a half-marathon on a hot and humid day in Lancaster County. More than 50 people received help at medical tents during and after the Bird-in-Hand half-marathon on Saturday. A few of the runners were taken to nearby hospitals for additional help. The problems included dehydration and heat exhaustion, as temperatures in the 80s mixed with very muggy conditions. A race organizer says many of the runners simply slowed down because of the weather.

Saturday was a hot humid day for sure. One of the most humid I can ever remember. A powerful humidity that could seemingly dominate a human into submission. Saturday also saw the running of the Susquehanna Super Hike and Ultra Trail Run in the Lower Susquehanna River Gorge less than 20 miles away from the lovely Lancaster County town of Bird In Hand. The difference between the events was primarily the distance and the terrain. While the Bird In Hand Half is 13.1 miles run on a gentle rolling road course through scenic Amish countryside, The Super Hike covers 23.4 or 29.6 miles on rugged trails through steep rocky hills. Stories of the predicted epic weather filled the news in the days leading up to the weekend so when I hit the road from home at 4am and saw that the temperature was already 73° I wasn't surprised. The forecast offered a high temperature of 90° with matching dew points leading into the certainty of late afternoon violent thunder storms.

The Susquehanna Super Hike is where ultra running started for me back in 2010. That year it was 28+ miles and I hadn't even run a marathon yet. I totally loved the event. To me, the route is beyond compare. It uses two trails on the Lancaster and York County sides of the Susquehanna River. Back then it started at The Otter Creek Camp Ground in Airville, PA in York County and after heading south/down-river on The Mason Dixon Trail and a crossing of the Norman Wood Bridge high above the Holtwood Dam, you finished at The Pequea Creek Camp Ground after some extremely hilly miles on The Connestoga Trail in Lancaster County. This year the route was reversed putting the nasty hills in the opening miles and a previously opening 6+ mile loop was now at the end giving the organizers the opportunity to offer two distances for participants. The reversal of the course sounded like a brilliant idea to me and I was in.

I've never run an ultra without some sort of support. I've run two when Janice couldn't come along, but both times my Niece Heather and her Husband Jim were able to stand in for her and crew for me. This day would certainly be different, I was going 100% alone. No big deal, it wasn't even a 50k. I prepared everything I needed the night before so I could limit the amount of predawn disruption I would cause in the sleeping household. Tiptoeing around the house I kept catching myself forgetting things. Unfortunately the last thing I caught was that I forgot to take the medicine I take to fight Allergy Onset Asthma. I say unfortunately because I was already a few miles down the road trying to figure out how to keep my windshield clear in the morning's foggy humidity. I wasn't turning around, I would just have to get by without it.

Parked In

Still in the September morning darkness, I arrived at The Pequea Creek Camp Ground a little after 6am. Parking was a surprise, we were directed down an open row which already had cars parked on either side. I wondered where we were going and then realized we were being instructed to park head to tail between those rows, essentially parking ourselves in. If there was an emergency, the cars in my row were not going anywhere. Registration went quickly and I found a truck going to the finish
line to take a drop bag with a change of clothes for afterwards. I met Steve the guy who I was chasing before I capsized at The Chiques Challenge and his better half Cassie. Talked with Rik and got to see an Eastern States 100 shirt close up on Zach. It was the typical casual pre-race chatter and all in all, I felt pretty good.

After a welcome from The Keystone Trails Association President and some brief announcements, we were off. The opening mile is flat and follows the creek to the river. I knew this would be my fastest mile on the day and I planned to stay around a 10 minute mile pace just to get in front of some of the folks who wanted to hike. The humidity seemed to increase exponentially all of a sudden. Just as suddenly, my lungs closed shut. Clamped. Couldn't breath. Done. Yep, I had gone just over 1/2 mile and I couldn't take a breathe, my head was spinning and I was dizzy and about to fall to the ground. We reached a section of pavement where the course makes a u-turn to take us to the trail and I stopped running and walked as best I could. So much for going without my medicine. Man, I had really screwed up. My race was over and I needed to go back to my car, but remembered I was parked in. That emergency was happening. I kept walking and shortly after hitting the trail I found a rock to sit on. My brain was scrambled, I knew if I went back to my car I would be stuck there and I knew if I tried to continue I could end up in an ER. I continued, walking, stopping and sitting. I watched as runners passed, hikers passed, slow hikers passed and even the folks who were afraid they wouldn't finish passed. I was now without a clue, so at the 2 mile mark, I dug my cell phone out of my hydration vest and called Janice. Of course, I had no real idea what time it was and I woke her up. How she could help me was unknown as well, but I do know when my life is sucking, she's who I need on the other end of the telephone. I'm not even sure what we said, but talking with her made this break my longest so far and I felt a little better so I got up and walked more. Each time I would try to run or even walk a little faster or we would hit the smallest of hills, my lungs would rebel and my dizziness would send me searching for a tree to lean on or a rock for my butt. Hiker after hiker asked me if I was ok. It became amusing to watch their looks when I would answer, "no". I explained to one person that I have Allergy Onset Asthma and forgot to take my medicine. Suddenly I heard a young woman say that the man with her was a Respiratory Therapist. So perfect, now I was hullucinating too. He reminded me that high humidity also aggravates my condition. He offered me a puff on a rescue inhaler, it didn't look at all like mine, but he said the magic word "Albuterol" and I was on that thing like an addict. My lungs opened and my head was back and I started with a quick walk that evolved into an easy run. Wow, maybe I had just been saved.

That euphoria was short and a little more than a half mile more down the trail my lungs closed again and I caught myself on a tree before falling. Now my mind was made up, I'd get to the first checkpoint at 7.16 miles (The Pinnacle) and drop out. I walked into the checkpoint handed in my number and laid down in the grass and waited for a ride back to the start. I sent a text to Janice letting her know my day was done. I was told it would be a while and as I waited, others collected facing the same fate. On the ground as the minutes passed, my lungs started to breath easier. Two women who were sitting near me comiserating about their early dismissal from the event caused me to wonder what the heck was I doing sitting there? I was here for the fun of it. I was here because this event and these trails had held a spot in my heart. This event was not a goal, I know I can do this. This event was a training step on my way to my real goal, the Oil Creek 100 next month. I've learned enough to know that I'm not going to finish a hundred without experiencing and pushing through at least one bad patch during the event. Sitting on the ground waiting for a ride is not part of that equation. Just then I noticed Janice had answered my text and something snapped. That was all I needed to ask for my number back. I said I was going to push to the next checkpoint and see what happened from there. The check point leader was concerned, reminding me that I looked pretty awful when I arrived, but he gave me my number.

I walked and even ran a little. When my lungs labored and the light headedness returned, I managed it by walking or stopping. I guess I forgot to mention that I ran the month of August with Plantar Fasciitis in my left foot. I altered my gate and ran through it (266+ miles). I was finally able to visit the Podiatrist Thursday evening, less than 2 days prior to this event. The doc informed me that this visit was different from my previous check ins with him. Previously PF pain had manifested itself in the arch of my foot and this time it was the classic heal pain. He informed me that while the injection would alleviate the pain, I could experience some lingering pain from the 3 injection sites. I made it to the Holtwood Rec area, not a checkpoint, but it was a manned water station just prior to a lot of downhill to the next checkpoint. I found myself actually running and I began to notice that my stride was resembling my normal non-Plantar Fasciitis stride for the first time in a month. Great right? Well, my left calf muscle was wondering what the heck had happened and started to feel the difference in my gate and I could feel the beginning of a knot. On top of that, that probable pain from the injection was now a reality. Oddly, this added discomfort seemed to help me with the fact that I couldn't consistently fill my lungs with air. I had a couple things to manage now and it seemed to help me mentally. Because I was in more dicomfort I had more to think about besides my wheezing and collapsing lungs and that seemed to help. Yeah, you figure it out.

I had left The Pinnacle with folks who were worried about making the 12 hour cutoff, got to Lock 12 and those around me were talking about an 11 hour finish and I reached the last checkpoint at Posey Road hearing folks talking about being bummed about missing a 9 hour finish. I was asked if I was doing the long distance (29.6 miles) or the short distance and I was now convinced that I'd make that decision when I reached The Otter Creek Camp Ground - [you could stop there with 23.4 miles or continue for an additional loop totalling 29.6 miles]. Walkng, running, leaning, wheezing and sitting was now my process and I knew I'd at least make it to the camp.

At Lock 12 I sent a text to Janice to let her know I got my number back and I noticed my phone said it was 91° in Holtwood - at the Posey Road checkpoint a guy said his dashboard thermometer read 93° - it was definitely cooking up to that explosive afternoon the weatherman had promised. While on Posey Road, the course gains elevation and presents a wonderful 360° view. With that view came the reality that the forecasted violent storm was not far. The stacking clouds looked amazing. Off the road and along a corn field and back into the forest and in no time, winds picked up, thunder was pounding and lightning was striking. Tree debris was falling and it was now pouring. My mind was easily made up to cut the day short, so I DNF'd the 29.6 mile distance. Urey Overlook isn't Handies Peak, but I just didn't think it was wise to head to high ground as lightning was striking so I wussed out and called it a day at 23.4 miles. The down pours continued and came and went. I made a call to Janice to let her know my whereabouts. I found my drop bag and was able to clean up and change in the camp's shower house. After a raucous bus ride in the pouring rain, I was back to the Jeep and headed home.

Dog Therapy

That hot humid Saturday was quite the trying day on so many levels. Sunday I woke up with my lungs still agitated and somewhat clogged. My medication and a couple puffs on my inhaler fixed that. We took Mollie, Mojo and their cousins Shakespeare and Brickle to their favorite doggy swimming hole. Later I went for an easy run to get it all out of my lungs, legs and mind. I ran into a couple hikers with a big black and white dog who seemed like such a sweetheart. We met in a tight section of trail on a climb and I had moved aside to let them pass. The dog sniffed and licked my knee. The hiker apologized, he had no idea how much I appreciated his big adorable dog.