Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Race review: Dunes 100

My First 100 Mile Race: The Dunes 100

Running my first 100-mile race has been a long time coming; I completed my first 50k in 2010, my first (and only) 50 miler in 2015 and my first (and only) 100K in February 2016. I’d given myself the goal of completing a 100-mile race before I turned 40 (October, 2017) and after pouring over the Florida ultra-marathon calendar I settled on the inaugural Dunes 100.

Although the goal was set in my mind, I kept putting off the actual registration. Why? I was scared! I know, I know: goals are important and the first step of goal-setting theory is to actually accept the goal, and yet I procrastinated. BTW, this is exactly how goals don’t get met! The excuses kept coming: “I’ll register after running next weekend.” I was running the Celebration Marathon on January 29th so “I’ll register after the Celebration Marathon if I’m still feeling good.” “I’ll register after logging another 50k training run.” On and on it went until, two weeks out, my wife helped me recognize my lack of commitment and suggested I should register if I was doing the race. Two minutes later:

Thanks for the push, Harmony! You know exactly what I need!
A little backstory on my support network, I met my wife the day of my first half-marathon (January 21st, 2007). Since that day, she has inspired me to run more and to run farther and she always supports my ever-enlarging fitness goals. BTW, she has a 3:00 marathon PR so that obviously provided a little jump in my competitive drive too! I cannot emphasize enough that she has made me what I am! Her support has been integral to my success, not just as a runner, but in life. Thank you, Harmony!

For weeks before the race I poured over ultra-marathon race reviews, mental tips, fueling strategies, etc. I wanted to be as prepared as possible and if I weren’t, it wouldn’t be because I hadn’t read enough on the subject. It was all consuming. I had made a packing list with each item I was bringing and which items were going into which drop bags. A week before the race, everything was laid out on the floor of my office.

The Dunes 100 was held at the Jonathan Dickerson State Park in Hobe Sound, FL and because I had never been there prior to the race, course reconnaissance was part Google Earth, part trolling other runners’ photos taken at the park. The course is a 25.286 mile out-and-back, completed four times for the 100 mile event, with approximately 45 miles of sugar sand, including the “Dunes of Heaven” and “Dunes of Hell.”

Race weekend: I drove to Jonathan Dickerson State Park for the first time on Friday afternoon to attend the pre-race briefing. It was then I saw the Dunes of Hell for the first time as I drove along U.S. 1. Wow! They were definitely steeper than the photos I’d seen showed. I should mention that the descriptive name, Dunes of Heaven, is only appropriate when juxtaposed with the Dunes of Hell; true, they are not as bad as the Dunes of Hell but they’re still small rolling hills of deep sugar sand. They’re far from the ideal running surface and definitely not heavenly!

The Dunes of Heaven east bound

The Dunes of Heaven west bound

The race briefing was laid-back and it was fun meeting the other runners and race organizers. There were a lot of first-timers running the 100 miler and as well as meeting new friends, I got to meet several friends I had only known from Strava. Pre-race photos were taken and introductions to all 100-mile runners were made (something fun and not possible at larger events).

Race morning arrived and I got to the start area about 30 minutes early. A few more pre-race photos were taken before we filed into the starting corral.

Taken just minutes before the start.

For each 25 mile leg of the race there were 6 aid stations (AS): AS1 (5.9 miles), AS2 (7.7 miles) and AS3 (12.5 miles/turnaround), AS2 (17.4 miles), AS1 (19.2 miles), and start/finish/turnaround (25 miles). The aid stations were well-stocked with typical ultra food: water, Gatorade, soda, bananas, oranges, pickles, pretzels, Rice Crispy treats, M&Ms, quesadillas, broth, potatoes, PB&Js, etc. The list is longer but you get the picture, right? There was more than enough variety and quantity of food for even the pickiest eaters. The adage made popular in Chris McDougal”s Born to Run that ultras are “eating and drinking contests with a little exercise and scenery thrown in" was not disproved at this race! Eating, specifically foods I don’t usually eat (chips and soda), are, for me, one of the many draws of ultra-running.

So what did I eat? I didn’t want to only rely on aid station food so I made 8 PB&J sandwiches that were cut into quarters. I calculated each sandwich was about 450 calories and I ate one sandwich on each 12.5-mile section (one quarter every 3 miles or so). I kept the sandwiches in my drop bags and would grab one on my way through and stuff it in my pack before heading back out on the course. My PB&Js were just supplemental; as mentioned above, I ate potato chips (crisps), potatoes with salt, pickles, and what seemed like gallons of Mt. Dew at each aid station. When out on the course I only drank water but due to the heat (it reached 86°F/30°C) I was literally drinking gallons. My pack’s bladder held 1.5 liters and while the sun was up I was refilling it with ice and water at every aid station. I also carried a soft flask on the front of my pack with extra water.

Aid station 2
On to the race itself: I used time-tested ultra advice to ensure I finished. "Start slow and taper off from there." Wise words, indeed! Although my first lap was a little fast, it was in my plan. I wanted to get as many miles in before the sun came up and the temperature soared. The first 12.5 miles were awesome; the park was especially beautiful as sun rose and the fog slowly burned off.

Sunrise through the fog at Jonathan Dickerson State Park
Almost immediately after beginning the second lap, my watch reset and I could not turn it back on. This was an early mental setback as I contemplated running the next (possible) 20 hours without knowing my pace or distance. Luckily, the watch started working again and I only missed a few miles of data. After completing the first lap, my original plan for laps two and three was to run 20 minutes and walk for 5 minutes. I ended up using a 10/1 split which was much better. For the whole race I planned to walk up any incline (this was imperative!). Even though I had a plan I was fortunate that, around mile 26, I began running with Eddy Souza. It was Eddy’s first 100-miler too and it was fun chatting as the miles passed. 

Eddy and I on the most runnable part of the course
The Dunes 100 allows runners to use pacers after the first 50 miles and Eddy had arranged for four friends to pace him for each 12.5-mile section of the final 50 miles. Without a doubt, Eddy was a HUGE part of my success, but the pacers, Sebastian Rovira, Nick Stump, Nathan Gehring, and Tom Walters, were definitely the glue that held the race together for both Eddy and me. My race plan for lap four was to simply get through it and just keep moving and the pacers ensured the relentless forward progress that was needed. No one ever completed an ultra by standing still, right?!

L to R: Tom Walters, Nick Stump, Eddy Souza, & Nathan Gehring

Running into AS4 (mile 62.5) and picking up pacer, Nick Stump.
I read so much about the devastating lows runners can experience when running ultras. It’s understandable; the distances seem insurmountable and the only way is to break it up into bite-sized chunks. I attribute my good mood for most of the race to having company, however, it wasn’t all cake and ice cream. At around mile 70 I was getting a little overwhelmed by the thought of running another 5 miles only to turn around for another 25 mile lap. Moreover, this last loop could quite possibly take us 7 hours. Getting started again at mile 75 was tough, but again, having a pacer saved the day and encouraged Eddy and me to run several minutes before taking another walk break (repeated over and over). The last miles were a slog. We walked as fast as we could for the last few miles, without running a step, until we were about 200 meters from the finish line! You can’t walk across the finish line, can you?
Crossing the finish line with Eddy was the sweetest finish I have ever experienced. It was a unforgettable journey resulting in personal achievement. It was a unforgettable journey resulting in team achievement. Eddy and I both completed our first 100-mile race in 21 hours, 40 minutes and 55 seconds. We tied for first place!

And of course, what 100 mile race would be complete without the buckle! It's gorgeous and most definitely hard-earned!

I have to give a huge thank you to all the volunteers who donated their time to help me meet my goal! You are all incredible and I'm not exaggerating when I say the volunteers at Dunes 100 were the best I've seen at any race!

To everyone at Down to Run, you guys seriously know how to put on an event! Thank you for your commitment to our sport and help making goals (dreams?) come true! 

Did I miss anything in this review you want to know about? Write a comment and ask!

Miscellaneous information:
GPS Watch: Garmin Fenix 3
Headlamps: Nathan Halo Fire and Black Diamond Spot
Hat: FUR flap hat