Do people still write race reports? Better yet, do people still read race-reports? These days it seems I only have time to write training plans, grade math tests, walk dogs, and run. It’s been a while since I’ve even done a blog post ’cause my laptop crapped out at the end of 2017, kind of like my race season did with North Face 50mi. The fires here in NorCal had taken their toll and I’d gone through my own various stages of grief, having only been affected to the degree that the fires ravaged many of my beloved training grounds. Having not put in a solid training block for NF50, I was reminded of how much it sucks when we write checks in an ultra that our body can’t cash. Unclear when parks would reopen and riding a low in December, I bowed out of both Bandera and Black Canyon, two golden-ticket races for which I’d registered way back in mid-2017. I just needed to open up some bandwidth.
I’d put it all on Georgia Death Race (GDR) at the end of March, clearly my best shot at a golden ticket. It felt good to relax in December and have a ton of time to do things right for GDR. The focus of the training block was simple—do quality work over a long period of time. And, keep it simple stupid.
Once mid-January hit, my weekly volume started coming back up. I hit one of the best training grooves I’ve experienced in a long time. Thursdays it was a 20mi tempo run at sub-6:30/mi pace, which seemed to supercharge my run economy, not to mention confidence. Then, 72 hours later I’d get my ass up to Lake Sonoma before sun-up and bang out progressively longer long runs on Sundays, culminating with a 50mi run, four weeks out from GDR. It was all business at Lake Sonoma for 12 straight weeks. I imagined building fitness for GDR that was “too big to fail.”
March hit and things got a little rocky. I’d picked up a chest cold, which was more of an annoying inconvenience. The first thing to go was the Thursday tempo session, in order to preserve the quality of the Sunday long run. With so much in the bank already, I didn’t worry too much about having to take more time to rest. The good thing about getting sick was it forced me to go to bed earlier. As a result I started waking up earlier. I got into this beautiful sleep cycle all the way into GDR, where I was in bed by 9pm and waking up without an alarm at 5:30am. I also started running again in the mornings, which to my surprise, felt amazing. With the three hour time change to the East Coast, I wanted to be getting up as early as possible here to encourage minimal negative effects on race-day due to the difference in time. You should pick up the book, Why We Sleep sometime. You’ll learn some shit you didn’t know and have a new appreciation for all the benefits of a full sleep cycle.
Then, just like that, it’s St. Patrick’s Day. Two weeks out from GDR. And I crack a rib…
Yeah, so I went to local regional park I’d never been to before, just to hang out with friends and participate in a fun, St. Paddy’s Day trail run. It was wet, rainy, and foggy. Since I was getting close to race day I decided against racing to the top of the mountain with the fast folks, opting to just jog the alternate, easier route to the top. Wise decision. Ego in check.
At the top, there’s about 30 of us standing around, bullshitting. There’s festive beads and Guinness Stouts floating around. The view’s non-existent today with all the fog. Before heading down, there’s a surprise announcement that the first person down will have $100 donated to the Regional Parks in their name…
Uh-oh. Pulling at my heart strings… I wouldn’t mind donating another $100 to the parks…
[enter ego stage left]
You wanna race me—downhill?!
I’ll be your huckleberry…
Starting off, no big deal, I’m [over] confident in my downhill skills. I’ve run 800 miles since Jan 1 and somehow have managed to not fall once. That, however, is about to change. Within the 1.5-ish mile descent I slip and fall three times, chasing this obstacle-course racer dude, who’s taking insane risks, at one point even trying to jump a wooden fence, but slipping and just crashing through it. I stop to see if he’s dead. He gets up and continues ripping downhill, a man possessed. This isn’t even the route I took to the top. I have no idea where I am. I try desperately to remain upright. The third time I fall, it’s on the steepest section and my legs come out from underneath me. The mountain makes contact, like a heavyweight champ delivering a forceful blow to my rib cage. OOOMph…
The situation I’ve gotten myself into is ridiculous, I agree. But, it appears insanity is contagious. I must see it through to the finish! Plus, I’m not losing to this dude. But every time I slip-n-fall, he pulls away.
Where’s the goddamn finish?! I’m up and running full speed again. All out. Through the fog ahead I see the gate to the parking lot. I’m closing hard. Flying. I touch the gate first. Jesus Christ. WHAT was that all about?
I just got a glimpse of what’s been brewing under the surface these last three months. Clearly, I was ready to go into battle and take this ferocity 72 miles farther.
It goes without saying I could’ve done without this ridiculous incident. As the days passed, it was clear I had some kind of rib injury. A teacher friend recommended arnica, which seemed to help. Amanda got some roller balls with essential oils going. I lambasted myself several times a day. A lot of ibuproven got shoveled in. I watched YouTube videos on how to tape up broken ribs. It was kind of a welcome distraction before the race, ’cause this was all I was thinking about. Since I had no time left run long and assess how the rib felt after 3-4 hours, how the hell was it going to feel after 8-10 hours into GDR? “Expect nothing and be prepared for anything.”
The stars aligned this year, with my 6th graders Outdoor Education experience being the same week as GDR. On Wed, I taught my 7th grade math class 1st period, went over and hung out at camp then went home and packed for Georgia. On the other side now, I’m on spring break, so really great timing. In stark contrast, last year after the GDR, I was back in the classroom on Monday morning, without a golden ticket and being dragged into a social media shit-storm. This year, much improved experience!
At the start line, feeling relaxed and ready to rock, we’d see what the day would bring. I’d done a mountain of work for this race. Just relax and stick to “The Process.” What will be will be. Right now, it’s all in front of you. You’re gonna get the race you deserve. Just let that shit happen.
In the early going it’s rolling, just like Lake Sonoma. Up, down, up, down. Guys are already jockeying for position. At one point on a climb, I stepped off the trail and let seven or eight guys go by. By the time the sun’s up and I’m running the out-n-back off the ridgeline to Skeenah aid at mile 21, Andrew Miller’s already got a commanding lead. That’s fine. All I need is 2nd place, and there’s miles and miles left to be run. Anything can happen. Who will have legs after Jake Bull at mile 50, when the party really gets going.
GU Energy products have been working so well for me these days. At aid-stations, I’d dump a packet of Roctane into my bottle and fill ‘er up. I was supplementing with Campfire S’mores and Toasted Marshmallow GU along with chews the entire way. Not even soda late, which is typical for me. No nausea or vomiting since I kept calm and steady throughout. I’m much better at this whole running off feel now, being careful to not let the “water” get too “muddy,” if you’re familiar with the metaphor. Weather conditions were ideal.
I’d done most of my training in the Hoka One One Speedgoat 2 and I had a brand new pair, fresh out of the box, strapped to my feet today. Problem was I wasn’t running at Lake Sonoma and I’d forgotten how easy it is to roll ankles on this highly technical course, particularly my right one, which I’d twisted badly in training a year ago. So, here we go. I rolled it not once, but some four times in the first half, where the pain became more acute with each successive roll. It was basically a repeat of last year. I should of taped it up before the race, but since it wasn’t an issue in training it just wasn’t on the radar. I stopped and tied the right shoe tighter and that definitely felt better. Having the shoe too loose on my foot was contributing to the problem.
The good news though, with my side KT-taped up, I had no problems with the rib during the entire race. I did fall a couple times and felt it but just tried to take the impact on my left side and shield my right side. After years of BMX/freestyle as a kid and mountain-bike racing in my early 20s, I’m glad to see I’m still good at crashing, rolling out of falls relatively gracefully and quickly restoring forward momentum.
This ankle issue though? It was really cramping my downhill game. Hurting like hell on the long descent from Winding Stair on the way to Jake Bull, I wasn’t pleased to be overcompensating and blowing up my left quad in order to relieve stress on the right ankle.
As a general rule, I’ve stopped taking pain-relievers in races. I’ve just had some scary experiences I’d rather not continue repeating. But, because of the rib, I’d brought a couple ibuproven tabs with me today in the event that I was clearly in contention for a golden ticket and my rib injury was so painful that it would put the ticket in jeopardy. Serendipity. Wishing I’d done it hours earlier, I popped just one ibuproven tab (thanks, Hal Koerner’s Field Guide to Ultrarunning) and rather quickly, the pain was dramatically lessened and I found my effective downhill running much restored. How effective that one tab worked was uncanny. It is an anti-inflammatory after all, and it combated the inflammation really well.
Note: NSAIDs can really mess up your kidneys when taken in a dehydrated state. When I took this single tab I did so after hours of managing increasing pain and a significant degradation in my aggressive downhill running. It’s important to point out that the temps were mild and my hydration status was good. Just that single ibuproven tab was consumed during the race. Please be careful with your own use of NSAIDs. I try to be smart about them and remember that when it comes to such things, that “borrowing strength builds weakness.”
Jake Bull aid-station’s at mile 50 of the race. As planned, I got here in good spirits, a happy ankle, a happier rib, and apparently in 3rd place (there might have been some off-course shenanigans too, on the way over from Winding Stair, when I was crying about my ankle and not focused on the trail and course-ribbon. I’d lost about 10min, and Caleb Denton, a friend and GDR veteran, had cruised into 2nd place while I must’ve been popping ibuproven tabs, listening to a banjo in the Georgia back country.
When I left Jake Bull, they told me the next runner was only 5min up. I settled in. This is typically my favorite part of the race: the final 25%. It’s 11 miles from Jake Bull to the final aid-station at Nimblewill, with a gnarly 4mi mile climb on switch-backing fire-roads for good measure. Last year, it was warmer, I ran outta water, and was vomiting on the side of the road, thinking I might actually die in the Georgia Death Race.
Because of the time change, I started this race at 2am PDT. Thus, I wasn’t ready to poop before the race. I purposely ate less food the night before and, late in the race, it looked like I might make it through the the entire race without having to go.
Starting up the long climb up to Nimblewill, nature called. I hopped in the bushes and when I hopped out of the bushes feeling like a new man with a new lease on life, ready to tackle the world, I spied Matt Thompson climbing toward me. Like a switch, it was back to race-mode and climbing at a strong, sustainable pace. Settle into this climb and hope to put some distance between myself and Matt. And while I’m at it, Caleb better come back to me…
When I pulled up even with Caleb, he noted, “I thought you were in front of me?” I informed him I’d been off course for a few minutes. He replied, “Didn’t that happen last year too.” I’m like, “Yeah,” shamefully pulling ahead and only looking back when the mountain switchbacks offer a clear glimpse of the fire-road way off to my right-hand side. “Too big to fail,” I reminded myself of all the work that went into this one day. “Even I can’t f*ck up this day.” Clear the mind and get back to task at hand.
I desperately wanted to reach Amicalola State Park, with a good [enough] gap on 3rd place; whether that was on Caleb, Matt, both, or a band of wolves, barrelling down on their prey, just minutes ahead. My living nightmare would be to get passed on the damn stairs going up the falls with a mile-n-change to run to the finish. The RD, Sean “Run Bum” Blanton captured my reality after 12 hours of racing:
Unless you were Andrew Miller, the golden ticket was never “in the bag” here at GDR. Even on the final, nasty descent to the finish line, I was looking back up, ready to blast off, like a wily and reckless obstacle course racer. Heading in to this race, as always seems to be the case, I imagined it coming down to who wanted it more. In the weeks leading into GDR, I questioned myself, “So, how bad do you want it? Why do you want it? How deep are you willing to dig to get it?
Like the Boston Marathons and Hawaiian Ironmans I’ve raced my way into in years gone by, it was clear in my 20th year of competitive running, that I may actually fall short of my goal of racing my way into Western States. I think the trick was becoming okay with the possibility of failing. It would be okay. I’d failed before. I’d fail again. But, I wasn’t going to fail again without upping the ante in terms of my preparation. I made GDR a priority this spring. I didn’t race anything else. I trained smart, checked my ego, and listened to my body, not getting too worked up that I never hit weekly mileage numbers in the 90s or higher. It made a big difference here. I had good power all day. My mind was engaged and I was in my element, having fun doing what I love—mixing it up with great competitors in an event that plays to my strengths.
“While everyone else is crying doom, the athletes are caught up in Teilhard’s continually accelerating vortex of self actualization.” -Dr. George Sheehan
In 2018, I’ve been at this competitive running game for 20 years now. A lot of the guys I look up to now are younger than I am, by a lot. Andrew Miller’s 21! A lot of the runners I draw inspiration from aren’t guys. How cool is it that competitors from such different walks of life can converge at an event, and elevate one another to higher levels of athletic achievement? We’re among the lucky ones; to experience these great and grand enthusiasms; the intensity of the moment; hurling ourselves down the trail; rapt.
March went out like a lion, to be certain. But now it’s April and the party’s over. The ankle’s on the mend. The rib’s angrier after GDR than it was before. It’s twelve weeks to States. I’ll start off by giving the body two week’s rest before resuming structured run training. If I need it, I’ll have to take all of April. Rib’s are a pain in the ass to heal. To run how I want to at the end of June, I definitely want to be firing on all four cylinders once May arrives. I have a ton of work in the bank. GDR is exactly the experience I wanted to have in my legs and mind moving forward. I’m looking to shave a couple hours off my time at States. I believe it’s in the cards this year. Believe. Believe. Believe.
A heartfelt note of appreciation to my beautiful and highly supportive wife/agent Amanda. I love you! FYI: Here’s Amanda’s Essential Oils Facebook page | Thanks to all the athletes I coach who inspire me with their passion and dedication to this crazy sport. | Thank you to Hoka One One for producing the best trail shoes out there—#speedgoat2 #timetofly | Thanks Healdsburg Running Company for the cheers from afar and always sending out the kick-ass vibes! | Thanks Inside Trail Racing for hosting so many great events in the Bay Area and beyond. | Cheers of gratitude to sponsors BUFF USA, Drymax Sports, and Squirrel Nut Butter. | GU… You’re killing it! My nutrition’s never been more effective (or tasty!) #summit_tea #toasted_marshmallow #stroopwaffle | Thanks to Dave Townsend at Santa Rosa Physical Therapy for helping me manage all of my “old man issues” and keeping me moving down the trail! >>> 🙂