Thursday, April 12, 2012

Suunto Ambit - Initial Thoughts

I have avoided the GPS watch craze for the past few years that I've been running. Trust me, I like data and being able to compare my progress in my running against benchmarks but there is a certain allure in "running naked." In fact, I have not run with a HRM for two years and so my trusty Polar 625x has been relegated to a glorified stopwatch.

The new Suunto Ambit, however, has made me reconsider the GPS watch space. I was initially drawn to it's ability to navigate to waypoints, but the promise of a longer battery life was intriguing as well.

Well, the new toy arrived yesterday and I thought I would write up my initial thoughts.

  • I am not a GPS watch user so I have no basis of comparison other than what I've heard from my running buddies. Based on one run through a reasonably dense canopy the GPS itself seems quite good. I like the detail I get post run and am happy not to have to plot my routes on gmap-pedometer.

  • The extended battery life is a bit of a red herring. In "normal" mode you track GPS and record every second. You can change the options so you record every 10 seconds and do a GPS fix every 60 seconds but of course you lose a lot of detail. What would seem logical is to give me a choice between 1 and 60 seconds so I could tune my watch to the distance I plan on running. I will have to play to see how far I can get on the "high" settings - Suunto claims 15 hours which would satisfy the demands of a 50k or 50 miler. I also understand you can charge the unit while you run so if you had a portable charger you could extend battery life at the higher settings. I clearly have some testing to do in this area.

  • There are ZERO options to define exercises on the unit. This actually concerns me the most as with the Polar you could create reasonably rich exercise profiles. One of my current goals is to do more HR-based training but I don't have the option to define exercises with intervals that work different zones. This seems a huge oversight to me in such a device. You can work around this limitation by defining multiple "activities" (more on this in a second) but the options are limited to one HR zone and no intervals.

  • Creating activities is cool but time consuming. There is a lot of data that the watch displays or can display (25 different metrics). What is really slick is you can define, per activity, what is displayed on each screen (including elevation and HR profile graphs, as useful as that may be). With all this customization comes the price of "time to setup" which is not insignificant. I will also be testing out what I want to see on said runs and I suspect I've given myself information overload to start and will be winnowing down what I want to see as time progresses. Still, you have a great tool in Movescount that allows you define this all rather easily.

  • The watch is a nice size - much smaller than the Garmins I've seen and about the same size as my Polar. It's bulky as an everyday watch but certainly not something you would only wear when exercising. Of course I live in Seattle so take that fashion advice with a grain of salt.

  • I did keep hitting the "stop" button fiddling with the watch while running. There is a key lock feature I was not aware of before I went out so that should satisfy this problem. Also getting familiar with a new watch with different button placement will resolve this issue over time.

  • The altitude does not auto-configure so you need to know your starting altitude or atmosphere pressure (um, yeah....) and reconfigure from time-to-time. This is no different than my Polar which also has altitude on it.

  • The Running activity includes an auto-lap every 1k. Lame and annoying on the first run. The first thing I did when I got home was to reconfigure that setting.

  • Which does bring up an interesting point: you have to configure most of these settings on the watch from Movescount. I suspect this will not be a long-term issue (and, seriously, a first world problem if there was one) but it is interesting you cannot change these settings on the fly from the watch itself.

  • Movescount seems ok. I struggled with this as I like the Polar desktop tool and prefer to have all my data myself v. uploaded to a website. I like all the data I get and could do analysis on it all day long probably. My big gripe is they seem to base all movement on SPEED and not PACE. Makes sense for cycling; not so much for running.
Overall it's a really great watch. In the grand scheme I have no complaints - it's a clear upgrade from my Polar but may not be an easy upgrade from an existing GPS watch. I do hope that the upcoming firmware updates address some of my concerns and will be contacting Suunto support to see what they say about this. Of everything missing I'd really like to see two areas improved - more configuration of GPS / record settings and the ability to define different exercises / workouts.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Badger Mountain Challenge 100 Race Report

2012 was the second year of the Badger Mountain Challenge and my first 100. I decided to sign up after Seattle marathon with my friend Desiree and later Jeremy. I put my training in place and started to pack on the miles. Unsurprisingly January and February were my highest volume running months ever.

Jeremy and I at the start

Desiree and I at the start
I've now run enough marathons and 50k's that I feel I know what to do to complete a race with a goal time. Training for a 100 was different - you don't run 80% of the distance before the race like you would a marathon. I ran a lot of back-to-back long runs on the weekends and picked the brains of as many 100 finishers as I could. I was most concerned about my stomach - I don't have stomach issues but would I at this distance? - and my feet - I don't blister but would I over 100 miles?

I would classify this 100 as "frontier" in nature - definitely lighter on course markings and support than many ultras. The course had changed a couple of times in the final weeks leading up to the race but I had studied the maps enough I felt confident I knew where we were going. I was the unofficial "tour guide" of the three of us and we were planning on sticking together as long as made practical sense. Desiree and I were trying to make sure to stick together through 78 miles which is when we'd come off the ridge and should be pretty close to morning light.

My brother and friend Karlee had agreed to crew for me. Up until the night before the race we worked on our race plan, where they would meet us and when. Desiree had her friend Sarah crewing for her.

The Start

Runners headed up Badger Mountain
The race started in a small housing development at the base of Badger Mountain. Unceremoniously we took off. I was reminded to start start slowly as we hiked to the top of 800' Badger. It was raining and windy as we came off the mountain and headed up Candy Mountain and down the other side. We ran through some rollers to get to the base of Red Mountain, our third climb of the day. The wind was still steadily high and the rain had picked up. By the time we were on top of Red we were getting gusts near 60mph and I had pulled my buff over my face to offer some protection. We made it to the Foxhill aid station (16 miles) in 3:15 after a short bushwhack off Red Mountain. I changed out my sopping gloves and snarfed down some food.

Explaining to the RD the nasty winds

Headed back out
Headed into McBee - Red Mountain the background
The next section to McBee Parking Aid was uninteresting. We had some trail finding issues - seems some local property owners had pulled flags. The rain was starting to subside but we were running on asphalt through this section. I snarfed a grilled cheese sandwich my brother got me at a gas station and changed rain jackets before heading out. We were good on pace - 22 miles in less than five hours.

The Ridge

Hiking up to the ridge
We climbed up to the ridge line up the steepest part of the course - 1100' in about 30 minutes. On the ridge we found jeep & farm trails with lots of loose rock. We worked into a modified Galloway rhythm - we'd run flats and downhills and hike the uphills which worked out to 12-15 min running with 8-10 min hiking. We hit Chandler Butte Aid (mile 27) in another two hours where three people were dropping - broken ankle, hypothermia and some other reason. The rest of the ridge was fairly uneventful - we kept moving and I had the opening theme to Gladiator in my head.

Coming into Hwy 221

Getting a little foot aid from Sarah who enjoyed this way too much
We came into Hwy 221 Aid (mile 36) at 4:15 still good on pace. I had a toe blister to tend to so got some aid from Sarah for that. We headed out onto the worst part of the course - 2.5 miles downhill on asphalt highway. This was the new course reroute I was unfamiliar with. We had enough shoulder but were still exposed to the traffic so hugged the guard rail. After 1.5 miles we were able to run off road. From the bottom we made our way through some neighborhoods rather slowly - the amount of asphalt running had worn us down a bit and we were ahead of schedule enough we thought we'd ease off a bit to give ourselves a break. We saw the race leaders coming back the other direction. We made it up to Lincoln Aid (mile 43) which was the most fun stop of the run - great encouragement, very helpful, taking pictures, etc. I had now run farther than I had before!

Still fresh at Lincoln Aid
Gearing up for the night at the turnaround
Getting to the turnaround was largely uneventful. We started running into the faster runners and seeing friends and sharing our war stories to that point. We were hearing about other DNFs as well. We made it to the turnaround aid (mile 47) at 7:50 without having to use our headlights. We stopped here for 22 minutes and our aid station stops were starting to get longer. We headed back out into the dark with our lights retracing our steps in reverse. We got through Lincoln Aid pretty quickly and kept moving. The hike up Hwy 221 was unpleasant - trucks were speeding past and were not reducing their brights. The climb only took 23 minutes but it seemed to last forever. We arrived at Hwy 221 Aid cold and ready for a break. I had some more blisters so Karlee tended to my feet. I added a fleece layer under my rain jacket, put on my rain pants and two layers of gloves. As we were leaving I noticed Desiree was wrapped in a blanket but didn't think much of it. My stomach was not feeling "on" and I hadn't taken much food at the aid station. Karlee was with us for this stretch - we had 22 miles without crew access and we wanted company with fresh legs.

Karlee administering more toe aid

Racer and pacer ready to go

The Night

As we headed out it became clear that Desiree was cold. I moved in front of the wind to protect her best I could. I was cold too so was hoping that moving up the ridge would warm us up quickly. She and I stopped to pop some pepto tabs as we both weren't doing so hot in our tummies. We hiked much of this section (9 miles to Chandler Butte) and it seemed Desiree wasn't warming up. We were on the lookout for barbed wire we had come across on the way out and successfully avoided it. The stars were starting to come out and we had a pretty clear evening although it was cold and windy on the exposed ridgeline.

As we started to see the Chandler Butte lights (which never seemed to get closer) I was starting to calculate times and I felt we were starting to hit the edge of the cutoff pace - we were moving to slowly. Jeremy and I pulled into Chandler Butte with Desiree and Karlee five minutes behind us. Desiree was upset - she wasn't able to move quickly and thought she was hurting our chances. We had actually made ok time - 3:17 for the nine miles - but needed to keep that pace up with minimal aid stops.

As we left Chandler Butte we had less than 11 hours to knock off 34 miles or so. I helped Desiree down the descent from aid over the rocky path. I knew she was upset and was trying to push but just didn't have much power at the moment and none of us was sure what was wrong. She wanted us to leave her and push out but we weren't doing that up on the exposed ridge. Jeremy came back to her and I got ahead with Karlee. We decided to keep the pace we needed and got to the McBee Ridge Aid (72 miles) at 5:30am. Unfortunately Desiree had gotten hypothermia during the night and was pulled off the course by the aid workers. Jeremy and I pushed forward with Karlee and got down to McBee Parking Aid (78 miles) at 7:05 am having seen a beautiful sunrise in the Horse Heavens Hills.

The Low Point

I was warm from running the last seven miles and as the day was rising around us. I pulled off my rain pants, changed shirts and dumped my hydration pack in favor of two water bottles for the run in. Desiree was warming up in Sarah's car and told us to "finish strong" - the least we could do. We ran out with my brother and another runner who'd been at aid for a couple of hours recuperating.

The ridge we hit next was a punishing series of up and down jeep roads much of which I found unrunnable after over 24 hours on my feet. The sun was coming out and I just wanted water. We passed by the location for the next aid station but it wasn't there. We caught a runner who was having a hard time. Once we got off the jeep trails we were running around the edges of a vineyard with crushed gravel roads which, while runnable, were not pleasant to run on. This was the low point people had talked about. I lost the impetus to move quickly and forced myself to get the group moving a couple of times but we didn't push hard or for very long. We got to a point where we lost the course markings - another property owner pulling flags is my guess - and ended up descending a driveway into a small town which was certainly off course. Jason and I knew where we were and how to get to where we needed to go but tempers were flaring and I was nearly out of fluid.

We came into Dallas Aid (mile ~84 for us by this point) at 10:24. There was no way, in my mind, that we could cover the remaining 15 miles in 5 1/2 hours - we were moving too slowly. It had just taken us 3:03 to cover maybe 10 miles. I looked at my brother and said "I think I'm done."

The Finish

Jeremy was talking to the aid worker and looked at me and said "come on. let's go." Whatever fire was lit was lit strong - I grabbed some Peanut M&Ms and refilled my bottle with Nuun and took off. We rocked some sub 8 minute miles for the first 2/3 of this loop through farm country including a 650' ascent. If Jeremy was going to make me go I was going to make him hang on for dear life. We bombed the downhill and got around to the other side and eased our way back to the aid station to head out. We had just covered 4.5 miles at mile 85 in just over 52 minutes. We had gained back a lot of time.

Photo finish!
We headed out back toward Candy and Badger Mountains which we could see rising out of the horizon in front of us, taunting us with each step. We were moving into the wind on an asphalt highway but we made decent time running just a bit. We made it through a culvert under the highway and interstate and got up Candy Mountain in 20 minutes. More gravel roads at the bottom relegated me to more hiking - if I was going to be DFL then I might as well be as close to the 32 hour cutoff as possible. We got over to Badger and had a good pace up to the top on the well-groomed trails. The running along the ridge was unpleasant on tired legs so we hiked again. As we came around the edge toward the finish we knew we had to run it in so we bore down and finished with a final descent and sprint to the finish line. Jeremy and I finished side-by-side in 31:32:18. And not quite DFL.

The Final Talley

One piece of advice I got before the race was "don't worry about time" and I certainly didn't. We were in good shape at the turnaround for a sub 28:00 finish assuming you hold the same pace throughout. We spent a lot of time at aid stations - over 2 1/2 hours - and could have easily cut an hour off the time right there. There were definite parts (the vineyard, the final stretch) where I could have been running v. hiking but didn't push myself. But for my first 100 this was a great result.

I'll be find right here
Not being able to run in with Desiree makes this a bittersweet result as well. She is a strong runner and was run afoul by something none of us saw coming. But she's going to get it done at Pine to Palm this fall and I'll be there to help.

Post race recovery has gone well - almost too well. I didn't have any specific pains in my legs during the run and I have felt great post run (nearly a week now). My feet were swollen but that's subsided and my blisters have gone away. I will not wear my Montrail Rogue Racers again - they just don't fit well and in fact the stitching blew out between the midsole and upper in a couple of places. I will also likely switch back to toe socks to keep the toe blisters at bay.

I feel my gear and nutrition were right on target otherwise. I had a great crew helping me out and letting me not sweat the small details during the run. My training also felt right but I'm hoping to add more miles before my next 100.

I do have to shoutout to Karlee and Jason who took time off work to follow me around on this crazy quest. They were the best and I couldn't have pulled this off without them. Thank you thank you thank you thank you!!!!!

The ever popular question is "will I run this race again" and the answer has shifted from "hell no" during the race to "quite possibly" in my one-week post-race fuzz. We ran 12-15 miles on asphalt but if the Hwy 221 stretch can be figured out that would make the decision easier. Naturally my memories are fond now that I've completed my goal - so we'll just wait and see!