Strike Two in Malibu

sobSoooo, it only took me three years to make it to this start line. Two years in a row I had to email the RD, Keira Henninger, and let her know that I’d be a no-show due to injury. So as 2016 came to a close and I was laying the groundwork for Bandera 100k on 1/7, the idea of being injured for a third consecutive January haunted me.

The prep for Bandera ended up going very well and by the time race-day came around I was ready to rock. It was one of those race-mornings where, upon doing your obligatory warm-up jog, you’re delighted to find the legs feel fresh-n-loose right outta the car. But of course, things went south for me in the great state of Texas. But, had they not and I’d earned my Golden Ticket into Western States there then I wouldn’t have raced Sean O’Brien (SOB) 100k, instead focusing on building in a longer rest period before starting my prep for Georgia Death Race (GDR) in early April. Thus, the silver lining of being directed off-course at Bandera was that I now had the opportunity to finally race SOB and get a solid 100k in me before the build to GDR.

sobprepI was eager to race again post-Bandera, not just because I wanted—and needed— redemption but also because I wanted to capitalize on the fitness I’d built in the fall. And I was still pretty fresh (I’d only raced about 40 of the 62mi at Bandera before dropping). I would now, however, have to  s t r e t c h  that peak fitness another four weeks to SOB. Truth be told, the disappointment coming off Bandera affected my running mojo for a couple weeks before I finally got my head on straight. I felt robbed not getting to run that final 20mi; a wonderful opportunity just plopped to the bottom of the ol’ port-o-john.

If anything though, we have to be resilient in this sport. On 1/22, I was pleased to put up one of the best mountainous long runs I’ve ever done here at home, just two weeks out from SOB. One session doesn’t make or break a race, but it served as a reset and restored both my passion and confidence. Before I knew it, it was time to “taper” again.

The plan going in to SOB was to simply roll with the challenging course and execute the most effective 100k I was capable of on the day. The competitive field would be deeper here than at Bandera so I programmed my head to do what Speedgoat Karl Meltzer always does so well and just “do my thing over the first half and then work hard to not get passed in the second.” The misting, muddy, 5am starting conditions here at SOB were about as inviting as the 20deg temps that greeted us at the start in TX. Oh the joys of racing ultras in the winter months! The sun couldn’t come up fast enough for me on Saturday. And once it did, I instantly felt more at ease—being able to see the trail—and course markings—a helluva lot more clearly. Naturally, after Bandera, the last thing I needed was to go off course again.

At the start, Keira informed us of a slight course change due to the recent rains that would ultimately shave off about 4mi, as well as omit one of the toughest—if not the toughest—climb on the course. This was a bit of a bummer given the fact I need all the miles and mountains I can get in these Golden Ticket races to help me level the playing field. Of course I was grateful too we didn’t all show up race morning only to hear the race was canceled. Somehow, Keira convinced the park folks just hours before the race to let us run with just that small change to the course. Game on.

Pre-dawn running on one of my favorite parts of the course. Photo Credit: Howie Stern

Pre-dawn running on one of my favorite parts of the course. Photo Credit: Howie Stern

About an hour in there was enough light to run without a headlamp. Immediately my mood started to improve and I began enjoying the running more and more. Soon thereafter, I reached the Kanan Rd. aid-station where I knew I’d see Amanda for the first time. I cruised through and heard her note on my way out, “Chris is right there…”

Chris Wehan has been my Inside Trail Racing (ITR) teammate, fellow competitor, and compadre for several years as well as pacer-extraordinaire at both my Tahoe Rim Trail 100 in 2014 and San Diego 100 in 2015. Additionally, Chris placed 4th here at SOB in 2015, which ended up being just one “hard-luck” spot away from his Golden Ticket into Western States. In 2016, after earning entry into States via the lottery, he bested his coach, Ian Sharman, at American River 50mi, earning a 2nd place finish only to end up with a frustrating injury that ultimately sidelined him, putting his dream of running States on the back burner once again. At the end of 2016, Chris came roaring back to post a 2:35 marathon PR at CIM. And now, at 35 years young, I felt he was poised to run to his full potential here at SOB. Indeed, I had a front-row seat to watch Chris run one of his strongest races to date.

Through the Kanan aid-station I spied Chris’ orange-n-gray ITR kit up ahead and noted how quickly the gap between us was opening up. He was seemingly floating up-n-away on the climbs, and then out of sight. I’d never seen him climbing so well. It was early though and his climbing pace was simply faster than my current fitness was capable of sustaining in order for me to have an effective second half. Later in the race we’d see what the time separation would be and then I’d try my hardest to give him a run for his money.

It was a sloppy mud-fest heading down to the Bonsall aid-station at around mile 20. This section was supposed to be part of the original lollipop portion of the course with spectacular views of Malibu and the Pacific Ocean. It was changed to an out-n-back with the Bonsall aid-station arriving about 1.5mi earlier (we still got the views!). Thus, on the way down, I got to see everyone in front of me coming back. I was pleased they weren’t that far up.

Bend’s Ryan Kaiser was firmly in the lead, looking comfortable working back up the slippery slope from Bonsall, then Chris, and then a handful of other guys, including another ITR teammate, Airik Sorenson who just recently posted a 6:38 at North Face 50mi in December, earning him an 8th place overall in that highly competitive field. Airik and I had just raced each other at ITR’s Mt. Tam 50k back in November; both of us knocking our noggins on the same downed tree at mile 26. He edged me out there but I was hoping at this longer distance I might be able to reel him in later…

On the way back up from Bonsall it was a true mud slog like I’d never run in before. It added a fun element to the already challenging course. It was truly laughable. Mud was caking up on the bottoms of our shoes and we were all doing the best to knock the mud off while trying to stay upright. It was pretty much an exercise in futility so we just rolled with it. I caught up with Airik and we chatted a bit. He wasn’t feeling great but was in good spirits nonetheless. On we slogged in our heavy, nature-fashioned mud boots.

Up and up an up… and the half-way point finally arrived. I made my usual mental switch from pace-mode to race-mode and shifted over to race-pace on my watch, seeing what kind of average speed I’d stacked up over the 30mi we’d run thus far. I was surprised to see I was right at 9:00/mi average, a round number I thought was curious given that my pace at the half of Bandera four weeks ago was exactly a nice, round 8:00/mi average, showing just how much many muddy mountains [in mud boots] slow you down! I was psyched with the speed since I knew I’d probably have to average around 9min pace in order to be in contention for a Golden Ticket here at SOB. But… now the course was shorter—with a big climb omitted—and my intuition told me I’d likely have to be significantly faster, like sub-8:30/mi faster… We do what we can. “Full effort is full victory.”

Arriving at the second half of an ultra is something I live for. It’s finally time for me to start building to that finish line >>>. Coming back through the field, lot of words of encouragement were shared and it was great seeing so many SoCal ultrarunners in the race and out spectating; folks that I don’t get to see very often outside of social media. The mud factor made things even more fun since we were all slippin’-n-slidin’ out there, trying to get past one another without taking each other out. Lots of laughs out there on the course, to be certain.

Back at Corral Canyon Rd. then some fire-road switchbacks descending down to the Bulldog Rd. aid-station, and then to the turn-around. No one was in sight behind but, more concerning, no one was in sight ahead either. A pit in my stomach grew. “Was there some out-n-back that had been added on after the course-change in order to tack on some distance?” I thought? “Did I miss hearing about it when it was announced at the start?” “Well, you’ll find out soon enough.” “Please let those guys still be in front of me…”

The road eventually flattened out and I knew the aid-station was getting close, yet no one was coming back. A lot of folks were out hiking and biking. I refrained from asking them if they’d seen any other runners come this way. I didn’t want to know. I wanted the racing to last as long as possible.

I’d never been so glad to see the first place runner coming back at me from a turn-around before. Chris had passed Ryan Kaiser at some point and was looking good. We exchanged words of encouragement and I was relieved that we were all still in it to win it.

Along came Ryan in 2nd, looking just as relaxed and smooth as he did when I saw him hours earlier climbing back up from Bonsall (must be all that time on the treadmill up in Bend!). Amanda surprised me when I saw her at the turn-around, which, turns out, was actually less than mile from the Start/Finish. With fresh bottles from my drop-bag, I started after Ryan and Chris. I’d loosely pegged myself for about 5th place here today but, yet again, I found myself in contention for one of those ever-elusive Golden Tickets. No one else was coming back my way so I knew I likely had at least 3rd place locked up unless I tanked in the final two hours left of racing. It’s been a while since I’ve had a successful ultra beyond 50k.

I knew from friends that the Bulldog Rd. climb was going to be a b*tch, since it comes late and you’ve got a lot of miles in the legs. About an hour passed before I finally reached the summit. I ran a lot of it early and power-hiked more of it as I got closer to the top. It was uplifting being on the receiving end of so much encouragement from runners barreling down at me! I wasn’t as strong as I would’ve liked to have been on this section but all things considered I was happy I was moving well, staying present, and thoroughly enjoying the racing.

With 2mi to go. Photo Credit: Howie Stern

With 2mi to go. This felt goooooood on the legs and feet. Photo Credit: Howie Stern

By the end of the race I’d taken in some 2000cal inside 200oz of fluid over my 8 hours and 49 minutes of racing and I was still moving pretty well at the end though just a little bummed it was over. I’ll take that as a good sign for all that lies ahead. >>> 😀

With the Golden Ticket winners, Ryan Kaiser and Chris Wehan. Photo Credit: Amanda

With the Golden Ticket winners, Ryan Kaiser and Chris Wehan. Photo Credit: Amanda

As they say, we’re only as good as our last race. It’s satisfying to have earned a spot on the podium here at SOB, even if it’s in the so-called “hard luck” 3rd place position. I’m proud of the effort and had a helluva lot of fun out there on Saturday. Plus, I stayed on course so that’s always a big win!

Going into my fourth year now as masters runner, I’m surely still “fumbling toward endurance,” to a use a term coined by Geoff Roes. My desire to keep trying to figure sh*t out remains alive and well. As we age, we’re going to inevitably acquire some chinks in our armor. For example, I went for some 15 years in endurance sports without incurring a serious injury; then I hit 40—Chink! Sometimes we have to tackle our egos when our vulnerabilities are on display for others to see. Whatever we do we gotta keep moving that ball downfield, so to speak. When life sacks us, we fall back on our core beliefs, or principles, or religion, or mission statement, or code we live by, whatever you happen to have. Just have something in place that gives you the courage to persist in the face of adversity, negativity, and cynicism. Dr. George Sheehan stated it best in his book Running & Being, “There’s no excuse for not playing good defense.” Like Superbowl LI we just witnessed over the weekend, you just never know what can happen in the second half. It ain’t over ’til it’s over so keep on pluggin’!

Complete Sean O’Brien 100k Results

View my SOB100k on Strava

Parting Shot: Amanda earned this trophy dealing with me over the past month!

Parting Shot: She earned this trophy dealing with me over the past month!

A heartfelt note of appreciation to my beautiful and highly supportive wife/agent Amanda for jumping through the 10,000 hoops we needed to clear to make this trip possible. I love you!  |  Thanks to all of the athletes I coach who inspire me with their passion and dedication to this crazy sport.  |  Thank you to Hoka One One for your continued support, innovation, and producing the best shoes out there—#speedinstinct #timetofly!   |  Thanks Healdsburg Running Company for always sending out the good race vibes! | Thanks Inside Trail Racing for putting on so many great events in the Bay Area and beyond.  | Gratitude to Victory Sportdesign who produce the best drop-bags in the biz! |  Thanks to Dave Townsend at Santa Rosa Physical Therapy for helping me effectively manage all of my issues and keeping me out there pluggin’ away! >>> 🙂

Shot Down At Bandera

bandera_2014_buckleThis was my first time going to Bandera, TX, aka, the “Cowboy Capital of the World.” I’ve wanted to run the 100k here for a long time. Race weekend was book-ended with high temps firmly in the 70’s, but over the weekend the temps plummeted. It was gonna be a cold one! This warm-blooded California cowboy purposefully trained in a few chilly dawn mornings at home but not with temps quite as low as we’d see on race day. On Friday’s shake-out run from my hotel, I quickly made the decision to run in tights—with shorts underneath—and dialed in my layers up top so I could shed as it slowly “warmed up” to the predicted high of 42. If you’re comfortable, you’re happy, and if you’re happy, you’re going to be moving well out there. There was an REI nearby and I picked up some some other stuff to help keep me happy during the first loop, hoping to further encourage energy conservation for later.

With Stephen Wassather seconds before the start. Photo Credit: Maggie Tides

With Stephen Wassather seconds before the start. Photo Credit: Maggie Tides

Heading out on the loop #1 there was a good group of us that stayed together for a long while. Mario Mendoza set the pace and we were all happy to be cookin’ along and keeping warm. It’s always magical to be running on trails you’ve never run on before, especially after a long December build for an early Jan event. It was tough taking in the scenery though since the course is crazy technical with rocks galore. You’re doing your best to remain upright. I was having fun dancing over those rocks and trying my damndest to not hotdog it too much. There was some hootin’ and hollarin’ though. I mean, it’s Texas after all.

The miles go by and Mario slowly puts some distance between himself and the chase pack. I’m pacing the first half off heart-rate and I’m being mindful of both it and perceived exertion. I take advantage of what flat stretches and downhills I can get to open up my stride and take advantage of any paths of least resistance. My mantra today, “Quiet mind. Execute.”

Soon I find myself alone while catching glimpses of Mario up ahead. This is my first Golden Ticket opportunity of 2017 to try and gain entry into Western States 100 in June. It’s hard not to run outside myself early. I feel a little numb but the legs are solid. And, I’m right where I want to be in the race. Relax and just enjoy the ride…

As I’m running down a section of trail I see three spectators up ahead at a clearing. I clip a toe and start to go down. My hand-helds cushion the fall and I find myself doing a somersault that puts me right back up on my feet. Whoa, easy does it cowboy, I think to myself. I get composed and press on, keeping that HR right where I know it needs to be. I’m grateful at that moment my bottles didn’t explode, ’cause they have all my calories in them.

Soon enough a marathon of miles has passed by and I know it’s gonna be a great day because the skies are clear, the sun’s warm, and the running’s easy. And the time’s flyin’ by too. And before I know it, I’m about two miles out from the half-way point, back at the Start/Finish. I’m deliberating—hard—about exactly what pieces of clothing to shed. I decide I’ll ditch my nylon shell and my gloves. I’ll keep on my long-sleeve pull-over. Later, I may ditch the pull-over and go down to just my short-sleeve jersey. I’m eager, not only to discard the clothing, but also to get in-n-out of the half-way as quickly as possible since I’ll have the opportunity to see who’s behind me, how they look, and how much separation there is between them and myself. It’s a pivotal moment in the race. A turning point. The moment where I go from pace-mode to race-mode.

I soon see Mario blazing back toward me, returning from the turn-around. We pass one another while we sharing words of encouragement. I kick it up a notch. >>>

Running back from the timing chip mat at the turn-around. Psyched to get some layers off! Photo Credit: Maggie Tides

Running back from the timing chip mat at the turn-around. Psyched to get some layers off! Photo Credit: Maggie Tides

Who better to have crewing for me this day than Meredith Terranova, recent UltraMan competitor and long-time endurance sports veteran. Her husband Paul, a former winner and perennial beloved favorite here at Bandera 100k, was racing the 50k today and she was crushing crewing duties.

Cruising back out, the empty bottles and gloves hit the ground. The jacket comes off. Meredith hands me two fresh bottles of VitargoS2. Knowing the chase group is coming, I bolt back up the same way I came in to go out on lap #2. It’s ON!!

Soon thereafter, I get back to the point where I saw Mario and runners are pouring out onto the dirt road. “Settle down” I’m telling myself. Quiet Mind. Execute. With the changes from last year’s race, I knew the course was a little longer. I was hoping to hit to do the lap #1 in about four hours. When I hit the View button on my Suunto to switch over to race-pace for the first time I was happy to see exactly 8:00/mi average. My average heart-rate for lap #1 was 140bpm. Now the game I would play with myself over lap #2 would be fighting to hold as close to this average pace as possible. I was excited to get to the “Nachos” aid-station at mile 42, with 20mi to go to the finish, because that would represent about one-third of the race remaining. I firmly believe that in racing ultras, “You must save half your energy for the final third of the race. I felt I’d saved enough to make a valiant push to the finish.

Something felt off though and dread started to slowly creep in after Mario and I had passed one another. I was still seeing course-markings. And that volunteer did say, “100k runners this way!” I know I didn’t miss a turn. There wasn’t any other trail to take. Right?

Here’s what I posted on the URP Daily News thread about what happened next:

urp_daily_news“Expect nothing and be prepared for anything.” I came prepared but the devil? Yeah, he’s in the details.

So who’s to blame? The URP Daily News thread offers a lot of thoughtful dialogue about this all-too-common occurrence in trail-running—athletes getting off-course—for one reason or another. Full disclosure though: this isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve been bucked off the bull and have found myself off-course more times than I can count. It just comes with the territory. I do buckle down and study course maps for every race I do. For Bandera, I’d printed out the provided race-doc from the website months ago and started studying the course. I drew by hand, over and over again, for example, the Crossroads aid-station because the website stated that some runners “will” get off course here since there was four ways out of this aid-station and you must be paying attention. I was dialed and said to myself, “Relax, it’s Bandera. They’ve been doing this event for years. It’s a Golden Ticket event and it’s the USATF 100k National Championship. They’re going to take good care of you. Then, I pressed the “I believe” button in my head and just hoped for the best.

Naturally, in the days leading up to Bandera I discovered there’d been some course changes and I was nervous about the fact that we weren’t running on the exact same course as last year. The Crossroads aid-station route had been completely changed around. A new version of any ultra-marathon course has vulnerabilities. It’s simply untested. I’m not a huge fan of the course map provided on the Bandera website. It makes me a little crazy, having to zoom in and out to even read aid-station names, which I didn’t even know were correct or not. Still, trusted friends had told me the course is very easy to follow and I trusted that things would flow smoothly and I could concentrate on the task at hand—RACING MY HEART OUT.

Racing on the front sometimes comes at a risk. We’re the first runners to arrive at the various aid-stations, intersections, and the like. Some front-runners will arrive before an aid-station—or even a finish-line!—is ready for them. I’ve run by aid-stations before that weren’t even there yet! It’s a huge challenge for race-directors to successfully orchestrate the myriad tasks that come along with organizing an event over vast distances and accurately predict when racers will first arrive. I volunteer at the occasional event myself. I recently pulled a 12hr shift at a cold, rainy Inside Trail Racing event. It’s definitely given me more empathy for the job race organizers do. In ITR’s case, do all the time, all year round.

I’m not in the habit of finger-pointing and after today I’m done bitching. Athletes and event organizers assume good will toward one another. After all, the people putting on all the events are life-long runners themselves! They know the deal. Athletes racing on the pointy end of the race don’t plan to f*ck up their races by missing a turn and race organizers don’t purposely try to sabotage us. There is, however, a lot of emotion on both sides when things go south. As a front-runner at Bandera on Saturday, with high hopes of earning my way into Western States, I’ve shared herein all that was going on in my head right up the time I went off course. I shared this final comment on the URP thread:

urp2I did the best job I could on the day. A navigation issue hasn’t significantly impacted my racing performance in two years. I was executing the event to the best of my ability and thriving on a challenging course and day. Sh*t happens. Two years ago, at Gorge Waterfalls 100k, an absolutely wonderful spring event held in Oregon, the front-runners were lead astray early as a result of course vandalism. We rallied, figured some sh*t out, helped one another, and got back to the task at hand—racing one another! Later, with the “help” of band of happy hikers, I went off course again for about 4min, thereby putting myself out of contention for a Golden Ticket. I owned the mistake. I rallied and fought hard in hopes of still getting on the podium. With less than a mile to go, and 4th place hot on my tail, I saw a course ribbon at a crowded visitor’s center intersection—no course monitor in sight—and shot straight through it, running on fumes after 60 some miles of racing, going for broke. I ended up way the h*ll out in BFE and had to flag down a motorcycle cop and ask him where the state park was and had to turn around and run back, losing another two places by the time I hit the finish. I f*cked up that race bad. The race-report was emotional in nature. I feel that what I wrote in that report as well here and in my URP comments are both fair and accurate. Some races just go sideways.

Still, many races have gone my way, and for them I’m most grateful. At San Diego 100  later in 2015 I was flying blind for several middle miles before finding a waded up ball of course ribbon some tortured soul threw in the bushes. I got lucky there. Some race directors have moved their 100s to Fridays in part to increase the likelihood that course markings aren’t tampered with.

At the 2015 Run Rabbit Run 2015, I found myself at mile 85ish at 3:30 in the morning, debating whether or not to run down a trail that didn’t feel right and that hadn’t been marked as well as it could’ve been. I looked at my watch and saw it was 0.5mi to the last aid-station. With thousands of dollars on the line, I made the tough decision to run back to aid-station and ask for clarification. A proactive volunteer ran me back out to the turn and told me that I needed to run down a bit and there’d be a left turn in about a quarter mile. I thanked him and went on to secure a top finish. Sadly, the guy that was in 3rd missed the turn and ended up adding an hour to his time. Crushing! Sometimes things pan out in your favor and sometimes you come home with a big fat DNF. I try and remember to dwell on the good races and let my “buddies” dwell on my shortcomings! Like I’m fond of saying, It only takes one “Oh Shit” to undo ten “Atta Boys.” Much to my dismay, folks remember all the “Oh Shits.”

banderaprepAs you can see from my training log leading into Bandera, I’ve been hard at work making my dream of racing well here a reality. There will be other races. Above all else I want to fiercely protect and preserve my passion for this great, great sport of ours. We are truly living at the top of our powers when we’re out there “gettin’ after it.” A recent Rich Roll podcast with former Navy SEAL, David Goggins, really hit home when Goggins shared that his journey as a Ranger and then a Navy SEAL, as well as his participation in endurance events, has really been about being “proud of who I am as a human being” and that what really matters in life is courage, honor, and respect.

Tropical John Medinger brought tears to my eyes last year before Western States when he told us that our fighting to that finish line in Auburn brings honor to ourselves, our competitors, and everyone involved. Sometimes, when setbacks occur it’s all to easy to forget these grand ideals, and take the low road. Here at Bandera, I began practicing a mental strategy Goggins used to finish a raw, excruciatingly painful Badwater 135: envisioning the finish line and “how I would feel [once I crossed it]” On Saturday, the thoughts of how I would feel at the finish line continually buoyed my spirits over a bitterly cold first lap. In 26 days, I’ll step into the arena once again, envisioning that finish line, and do my very best to honor myself, my fellow competitors, and everyone involved, whatever the outcome.

Congratulations to all the finishers at Bandera. Congrats to fellow Hoka One One athlete, Paul Terranova for winning the 50k. Thanks to Meredith Terranova for crewing and having breakfast in the fridge for me when I got up at 4am to catch my flight out. And thanks to all the folks at Bandera 100k for putting on a such a beautifully brutal event. I hope to come back and put things right.

New friends that stayed at the Terranova Ranch over the weekend, Jason Zeruto and Troy Bertram. Both guys fought hard and finished the 100k. Inspiring performance fellas!

Parting Shot: New friends I met over the weekend who stayed with us at  Terranova Ranch, Jason Zeruto and Troy Bertram. Both guys fought hard and earned that 100k belt buckle. Inspiring performance fellas!

A heartfelt thanks to my beautiful and highly supportive wife/agent Amanda for her thankless job as “First Responder” and always picking me up after I’ve fallen.  |  Thank you to Hoka One One for your continued support, innovation, and producing the best shoes out there—#speedinstinct #timetofly!  |  Thanks to Vitargo for the steady energy and SIMPLIFYING my nutrition.  |  Thank you Healdsburg Running Company for all the wonderful support from the HRC/H-Burg crew!! | Thanks Inside Trail Racing for putting on so many great events in the Bay Area and beyond. Your course-marking sets the standard in the sport.  |  Victory Sportdesign produces the best drop-bags in the biz! |  Thanks to Dave Townsend at Santa Rosa Physical Therapy for helping me manage all of my issues and keep on runnin’ down my dreams >>> 🙂

Race Until the Fitness Wears Off (or you hit a tree)

Sonoma ULTRA 50k

#1: Sonoma Ultra 50k on 10/1. Photo Credit: Amanda Shebest

Everything’s come full circle since a year ago. Health and fitness are finally back to where they should be. With a hefty spring racing schedule lined up, I was feeling some shorter, faster fall races were in order to build up some racing fitness for the spring as well as go have some fun here locally whilst I still can.

As I wrote about in my last post, Sonoma Ultra 50k was an opportunity to dust off my 50k fitness and clearly showed me I needed to work on my “top-end.” I really tanked at the end of that race but still enjoyed most of it, getting to push harder and faster than at any other point this year. As is the case with most races: it’s fun… until it’s not.

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#2: Coyote Ridge 50k on 10/16.

About 10 days of chillaxin’ after Sonoma Ultra 50k, I found myself excited to race again. I looked online to see what was coming up that weekend and found Coyote Ridge 50k, out of Muir Beach. As extra motivation I targeted the course-record. Although the day brought muddy conditions I brought better fitness and was able to even-split the course and snag that course-record by only a minute! This was my first satisfying ultra of 2016. Being injured, then under-trained, then over-trained, I finally felt like I was back at the top of my powers. To have that extra gear during the entire second half was just fantastic.

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#3: Healdsburg Half-Marathon on 10/29.

The Healdsburg Half-Marathon was next up, two weeks post-Coyote Ridge. On the weekend in between these events I did a practice run on the H-Burg 13.1 course and finding I was sore from running at a good clip on the road for about 12mi. That seemed to be a reasonable effort in between the 50k and the 13.1.

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4-Time Olympian, Meb Keflezighi, greeted athletes at the finish of the 13.1. I raced with a phone for the first time so I’d be most likely to get a pic with the champ! NYC 2017 will be his final marathon.

The half-marathon was interesting. In a way it felt like coming home because of all those years I spent as a road-runner and a triathlete. At the start, I stood behind the four guys that had chosen to register as elites. I was there to have some fun and see if I could hold 6min pace for 13.1 and grab the Masters win so I just hung out behind the road rabbits. Once we started, two guys quickly pulled away, going on to run sub-1:10, while a young guy from out-of-state, slowly drifted away, only finishing 2min up by the end. I was happy to run a 1:18, which was just one minute faster than my last road half-marathon at 1:19, off-the-bike in Vineman 70.3 back in 2012.

With the HRC gang. Local boys bringing home the bottles of vino!

With the HRC gang. Local boys bringing home the bottles of vino!

Looking back, the half-marathon was fun, but it didn’t pack the fitness punch that running another 50k would have. Who knows? I found myself continuing to ride the fitness wave from the last block of solid training I’d done in August. How long would it last?…

Final bloody miles of Mt. Tam 50k. Photo Credit: Let's Wander Photography

#4: Final bloody miles of Mt. Tam 50k on 11/12. Photo Credit: Let’s Wander Photography

Coming into the fourth and final fall race, Inside Trail Racing’s Mt. Tam 50k last weekend, I’d been racing every other weekend for eight weeks straight, with not very much running in between. The week leading in kinda sucked ’cause I was nursing a pesky chest-cold. The election results put me in a slump as well. I still felt a desire to race. What the hell?!

As far as local races go, Tam’s pretty competitive. And the fast start isn’t helped by the fact that the 30k runners start with the 50k. The intensity in the early miles was pretty hot. I was glad I wore my HRM to help me keep things in check. Being four weeks removed from Coyote Ridge, I was curious to see how my body would respond to this 50k. Right off the bat I had to let quite a few guys go ahead of me, stepping off to the side of the trail numerous times to let guys by, but thinking, “Just be patient. You’ll see them again in the second half.”

The second half comes and I’m moving up from 9th to 7th, to 5th to 4th. I’m closing pretty good. Better than I expected. Then WHAMMO! Trying to run fast under a recently downed tree, I smack my forehead hard into the tree’s obscured trunk. I underestimated how low it really was. The impact lands me on my back. My legs instantly start cramping (I should’ve been doing a better job with hydration). I get up, get around the the damn tree, and get moving down-trail once more. I take my hand away from my forehead to discover a lot of blood. Dammit. As I’m running down to the last aid-station, blood’s running down my face, kit, and legs. I’m not in any pain though, I can see straight, and I’m not dizzy, so I polish off the rest of the race, holding onto 4th place—and 1st Master—to the finish.

The most memorable part of my Mt. Tam experience, is that my ITR teammate Airik Sorenson also collided with the same downed tree while he was racing in first. In second at the time, was Paddy O’Leary, who found Airik on the ground and stopped to ask if he was okay. Airik’s fine and Paddy leaves him with a bottle and bounds down to the finish for the win. So, that’s right—a tree was Paddy’s greatest ally in helping take the win. To be fair, Paddy’s a hellava runner and likely would’ve earned the top spot with or without the help of the tree. He’s prepping for North Face 50mi and with this 50k, put up more than 70mi for the week. So, it was basically a fast training run for him. Adding to the comedy of errors was first place female, Penny MacPhail, who earned herself not only the win for the ladies, but also a black eye… from the same downed tree.

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Saturday, Bloody, Saturday. Mt. Tam 50k, with race winner, Paddy O’Leary, and runner-up, Airik Sorenson. A memorable day on the trails!

A heartfelt thanks to my beautiful and highly supportive wife/agent Amanda for her thankless job as “First Responder” and always picking me up after I’ve fallen.  |  Thank you to Hoka One One for your continued support, innovation, and producing the best shoes out there—#speedinstinct #timetofly!  |  Thanks to Vitargo for the steady energy and SIMPLIFYING my nutrition.  |  Thank you Healdsburg Running Company for all the wonderful support from the HRC/H-Burg crew!! | Victory Sportdesign produces the best drop-bags in the biz!Thanks to Dave Townsend at Santa Rosa Physical Therapy for helping me manage all of my issues and keep on runnin’ >>>

There Is No Finish Line

rrrAs we headed up the ski slope to the top of Mount Werner I wondered how I felt at this point last year. It wasn’t quite the same route up but I arrived at the top about a minute earlier. We then zipped over to Long Lake aid-station at mile 11. I filled a bottle, having all my calories in my vest pockets today, versus going with liquid calories from start to finish. I had an alarm set for 20min intervals and I’d fuel with decaf gels-n-chews to about mile 42, then gradually transition to all Vitargo by the final third of the race. Having just pure water during the warm afternoon seemed like a good idea. I had a lot of “good ideas” going into this event.

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Team Hoka on the first climb. With Sage Canaday and Chris Price. Photo Credit: JAdRunning

Heading down Fish Creek Falls I hopped, skipped, and jumped from rock to rock. After leaving one of my favorite parts of the course we arrive to my least favorite—the four-mile road section that connects Fish Creek to Olympian Hall and the next lollipop section of the course. On the way into Olympian I catch up with a few runners and we all end up waiting together at a traffic light for a minute. Heading into Olympian Hall at 21 I see Amanda for the first time. I instantly confess, “I’m really tired.”  What I really want is to get myself above this mind-fog and into an effective racing head-space. “C’mon body. Let’s get with the program.”

On the way up-n-out of Olympian, I continue to feel sluggish but know that’s just part of the game sometimes. “Get up this climb and roll the descent down to Cow Creek.” Since the hare division started at noon, the afternoon was wearing on and it wouldn’t be too long before the sun would set. Knowing my splits from last year, I chose to not have a drop-bag at Cow Creek, knowing I’d make it back to Olympian—and my lights—before sunset.

At Cow Creek, I filled my bottles and drank 20oz of water before departing. It’s 12.5mi back to Olympian with no aid and that takes me a good two hours so I wanted to ensure I left this aid-station topped off. It was warm enough that I doused myself with water a few times on the way back. The noon-start throws a nice monkey wrench into your 100mi race psychology because at this point in the day I’m usually a hell of a lot farther into a 100-miler. So it was a tough realization at Cow Creek—given how I was feeling—knowing I was only 50k in. “Things’ll turn around. Just hang in there.”

I was starting to catch up with a lot of runners in the tortoise division by now as well as a hare, here and there. The exhaustion I was experiencing was really wearing on me so I took at caffeine pill and hoped that would help lift me out of my funk. I wasn’t even 40mi into the race. Catching up and talking with James Walsh, who was running his first 100-miler, we were joking around about how 100-mile racing is so radically different than racing Ironman (both of us having raced Ironman Hawaii together in 2011—and finishing within minutes of each other while not knowing who the other was. “I haven’t seen another hare in three and a half hours!,” he tells me. Commiserating with another runner buoys my spirits and we run on for a while enjoying some sweet Colorado single-track.

More time and tortoises on the trail and the relentless grade—just gradual enough that you feel like you have to run. Josh Arthur and I lament this fact when I catch up with him. When I spy him up ahead, I yell “Josh! Hey man, how’s it going?!” To which he replies “This is the best day of my life…” in a tone that mildly suggests otherwise. We shoot the breeze for a bit before space and time separates us once more. Josh has done really well here, so you never want to count him out.

I summit and begin the descent back down into Olympian Hall. At some point, the indomitable Jeff Browning goes by. I say, “Hey, I’ll run with you back to Olympian.” I’m hoping this opportunity might be the turning point in my race. Another “good idea” of mine here at Run Rabbit.

At Olympian (the second time), Amanda was on the ball. Just as I’d done the year prior, I put on a sleeveless base-layer and a tight long-sleeve zip. I grabbed my lights and I was outta there. Browning was in-n-out even faster and was already completely outta sight. But, I reminded myself, the racing doesn’t begin until mile 70. From that point, I’d still have seven hours to race to the finish line…

Now it’s back through Downtown Steamboat Springs and eventually starting to climb back up to the Fish Creek Falls trail-head. Paul Nelson, of Paul Nelson Film & Photography, is out there on the side of the road and asks me how things are going. He’s filming and I’m one of the athletes he’s following today. I tell him I came through Olympian in like 7th place and last year I came through in 5th so things were looking good. “And, we’re not even half-way yet.” Which, I’m thinking in my head, really kinda sucks ’cause I feel like like shit. “Whatever, I’ve done the training, I’ll be fine,” I tell myself. Paul gives me a pep talk and the words really resonate. The long stretch up to Fish Creek Falls begins. The sun sets and darkness begins to fully envelop the day.

rrrprepThe prep for Run Rabbit Run this year included 30% more run-specific volume in the month of August than last year. Since I wasn’t using Hypoxico altitude equipment I had more time to run than last year when I was doing supplemental, hypoxic sessions on the bike as part of my altitude acclimatization. Returning from injury this spring and being under-trained for Western States 100 truly sucked so I vowed to be back to my bullet-proof self for Run Rabbit in Sept. And to justify going faster than my 19:13 from last year, I felt I needed to train even harder. It’s worked before…

One thing about the race this year was that in addition to the underlying fatigue, I wasn’t having that much fun from the start. The race-director, Fred Abramowitz, would say that I’m not supposed to have fun during a 100-mile run but by “fun” I guess I mean full and total engagement with the process—that joyous flow state that’s created when the mind and body meld into one when fully engaged in the act of racing an ultra. Anyway, I was still waiting for that switch to be flipped and for the fun to start…

I’d been flip-flopping with 22 y/o Daniel Metzger all day and while I’d taken a little detour for a couple minutes, going straight on a switchback in the dark, he’d moved up ahead of me. Catching up with him once more, he shared that some other guys moved ahead as well. “Great.” I just wanted to get up to Long Lake at mile 53—the true half-way point of the event. It was now starting to get really cold. The slog up Fish Creek Falls continued, laboriously.

Jesse Haynes catches up and, moving at a reasonable pace, I hike/run with him for quite a while. Jesse’s had a big year with a Top-10 at Western States and a win at Tahoe Rim Trail 100 just a month later. “I don’t know if running three hundreds in a year was a good idea,” he says. I agree, but what the hell; this was Jeff Browning’s fourth 100 for 2016. Notably, I’ve never done more than two 100s in a calendar year.

Long Lake aid-station is less than two miles away. We hit 10,000′ and the temps have dropped into the 30s. I feel clammy. The last thing Jesse hears from me is my distant wretching as he floats away, up ahead into the frigid darkness.

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Olympian Hall, early in the going. Photo Credit: Joe Grant

Puke-n-rally. Tortoises moved by me and try to console. Then another wave of nausea hits and I’m on the ground, dry-heaving. This time on all fours. I just want to lay down on the trail like Karl Meltzer after 1600mi on the Appalachian Trail. “This sucks. Get up.” When I do, I start shaking uncontrollably.Less than half a mile to Long Lake. Start moving or you’re really gonna be screwed.”

Hugging my body with my arms while running I feel ridiculous. Every step, I’m digging myself into a bigger hole. Finally… the sound of voices again—life-saving aid. I see the fire with many runners—in various states of carnage—around it; camp chairs looking all-too inviting. I stand before the flames for quite some time. My nutrition alarm goes off. Another wave of nausea hits. “Wow, this race is not panning out similar to last year, at all…”

I hobble over to the drop-bags and a volunteer helps me locate mine. I grab stuff and quickly make my way back over to the raging fire. I put on my nylon shell over my base-layer and long-sleeve. I put on a beanie. I have my gloves and hand-warmers at the ready. What I really need is a puffy jacket and tights but alas, they’re at mile 70, and I didn’t plan for this shitty scenario at mile 53. I packed my drop-bags similar to how I did last year—with the assumption I’d be in a racing mode and not in a survival mode.

And then it happened—I sit down in a camp chair. Later, a volunteer recognized I was a mess and brought a blanket for my legs. “I’ve painted myself into a corner here,” I thought to myself. “Dammit!!” I haven’t been this messed up since my first 100 at mile 67 at Tahoe Rim Trail in 2009, except this time, I’m cold. Really cold. I’m not considering moving at this point but wondering how in the hell I’m going to get over to Summit aid-station, 5.5mi away—higher and colder…

Time passes. Runners come and runners go. Familiar faces. Words of encouragement exchanged. I barf into a large ziploc bag for a while. I eat some soup. That comes up. Ginger ale: no dice. 10,000′ is not being kind this year. Just as someone puts another log on the fire I put my head in my lap, groaning under the aid-station hustle-n-bustle. Runners are sharing their stories from the day. Tortoises and hares, males and females, are strategizing where they plan on dropping. And some will drop while others’ destiny will somehow see them to the finish line. A young guy, racing as a tortoise is trying to pull it together. He says his fingers are cold and stiff. He’s clearly still in the game. I give him my hand-warmers and urge him to get outta here. After a time he’s gone and some new desperate face arrives.

An hour and a half has gone by. Food still won’t stay down and I’m still shiv-shiv-shivering. Finally, a guy comes up to me and asks what I’m going to. “Ah, good question,” I think. I tell him I want to continue but given my physical state, I have no idea how I’ll get outta here. Shit or get off the pot. Matter-o-factly, I tell him my day is done. In a while another volunteer comes over and cuts off my wrist-band. “Well,” I think to myself, “There’s a first time for everything.” Some time passes and the guy finds me again and let’s me know he’s taking some other runners off the mountain soon. I get up and ask him if I can take this blanket with me. “No.”

At the truck I see about four other drops inside. I open up the back cab, throw my stuff in and tell them, “I’ll be back in minute.” I then drop to the ground for one final wretching session, all the while reassuring myself that continuing on was simply not in the cards today. Over two hours after arriving at Long Lake, we start down the road with the heater on high. It feels good to be moving again, even if it’s no longer under my own power.

What makes this DNF pill a little easier to swallow was the fact that I’d had the opposite experience here last year. I’d run myself to a 2nd place overall in what’s still one of the fastest times on this course. Because of this I came in this year and broke one of my cardinal rules—“expect nothing and be prepared for anything.” 2016’s been a bitch with injury and struggling to come back and continue trying to live up to my insane expectation that I must continue improving, season after season after season. Seems like the sport’s been trying to teach me something this year and I’ve been too busy obsessing about splits, finish times, and podiums to notice. “Everybody has a plan until you get punched in the face.” Yep.

Hands down, the most fun I had at Run Rabbit Run 2016 was after I dropped. We barreled over to Summit aid-station on this roller-coaster of a fire-road, where we picked up my Hoka One One partner-in-crime, Sage Canaday. Sage had been pushing the pace all day and—like me—was looking for a little redemption from a tough day at Western States 100 in June. Sage was in good spirits and we all found ourselves sharing the day’s trials and tribulations.

The process of dropping out of a mountain ultra like Run Rabbit Run is no easy task. Back at Long Lake, around the fire, a guy told me “This is not a good place to drop. You should drop at Dry Lake (about mile 66) ” I thought to myself, “Well, I wanna jump outta this chair and continue racing but if I can’t take this fire with me, then my ass stays right here.”

We transition from the truck into the back of a Subaru, about 5 of us packed in the back like toes in an Injinji sock, for the ride down to Dry Lake and then on to Spring Creek Ponds where I’d meet back up with Amanda. On the way down we shared some stories and LMAO’d the whole way. Someone handed me a thermos of hot coffee. We talked about DNF’g races and I shared this was my first legit DNF. I wondered if feelings of guilt and shame would eventually surface around my decision. Sage just laughed and said he once DNF’d a 3k on the track and the everyone burst out into laughter once more.

At Spring Creek Ponds, the moment had arrived to find a phone and call my wife and tell her we’d come all this way so I could drop out of the race. She’s now seen it all—running my first 100, a handful of Ironmans, winning 100s, setting course-records, failing, succeeding, and now adding the DNF experience to the list. She’d been back at the hotel keeping track of my progress online, and since I hadn’t come through Summit or Dry Lake yet, she made the smart call to stay inside. It’s not that far from the resort over to the mile 70 aid-station, as that’s a low point of the course (literally in elevation terms and figuratively for the runners I suppose).

Spring Creek Ponds is one of the amazing aid-stations along the Run Rabbit Run course. Last year I was in-n-out of there so fast I didn’t really get to appreciate it. This year? I more than made up for it! Down from high elevation, I was feeling back to my normal self. A decision had been made and no significant feelings of remorse had surfaced. Sometimes you’re the hammer and sometimes you’re the nail. I made the most of the moment, yukking it up with the likes of Zach Miller, Ford Smith, and even Nick Clark, who, volunteering this year, was who I ran with into this very aid-station last year. My how things change.

Amanda was on her way and the runners who were still in the mix that I’d been with at Long Lake started arriving and departing. Jesse Haynes lingered for a while while Keira Henninger gave him a good dose of tough love and saw him off. The competitor in me stirred but my day was over. Keira and I talked a bit and she was super positive about looking ahead and getting back to kicking ass soon. For sure.

Hindsight is always 20/20 and I’ve had some time to objectively reflect on the factors that led to this DNF. If the simplest answer tends to be the right one then the reason why I failed to have a repeat strong performance here is most likely due to being somewhat cooked from the training I did in August. By the end of the month I’d been averaging 112mi a week running with a ton of climbing. The training was enjoyable and it was the first time this year where my body was at 100% so I was really fired up to “go big” in training. Perhaps the taxing training load coupled with resuming a 50+hour work-week mid-August (teaching and coaching) took its toll. Quality of sleep was impacted and I simply started accumulating a lot of fatigue, which I felt would be remedied with a bit longer taper than last year. Everybody has a plan…

Training aside, the altitude and the cold really seem to be the one-two punch that knocked me out of the race. Last year, using Hypoxico altitude equipment, I was so elated that I was not the least bit nauseous for the entire duration of the race. So initially, I blamed my DNF on not using the Hypoxico equipment, but after getting my blood labs back from the doc a week ago and seeing values higher than they’ve been in years suggests that the AltoLab equipment I did use effectively prepared me for the high elevation (even if it felt like it hadn’t). Honestly, I don’t know. Granted, running 100 miles is tough enough without coming from sea-level to the mountains of Colorado to do it. In the end I never was able to shake the fatigue going into the race. Unlike last year, there was just a lot of resistance everywhere I turned. C’est la vie.

After an up-n-down year of being injured—and then a fear of re-injuring myself—I’d have to say I’ve lost touch—-to some degree—-with the art of racing and have instead spent too much time dwelling on expected outcomes. It appears you’re never too old, or have too much experience, to repeat mistakes you’ve already made and supposedly learned from.

Moving forward I’m setting some hard-n-fast racing ground-rules for myself:

  1. Expect Nothing and Be Prepared for Anything
  2. Keep It Simple
  3. Execute In the Moment
  4. Patient + Positive = Power
  5. Know Thyself
  6. NEVER Start Pushing Until AT LEAST the Half-Way Point (of ANY distance)
  7. NEVER Run With Splits (mine or otherwise) 
  8. Liquid Calories Is the Way To Go
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You’re only as good as your last race. Sonoma ULTRA Trail 50k on Oct 1st. 2nd place and first “old guy.” Photo Credit: Amanda Shebest

This year I was not planning on running Scena Performance‘s Sonoma ULTRA 50k, as I had done last year. I’d signed up for pacing duty instead, which I knew would ensure I didn’t race it, since it’s only two weeks post-Run Rabbit Run. Then friends suggested I “dust myself off” [i.e., from my DNF] and race the 50k on my favorite training grounds here at home. Everyone was on-board—and I was fresh—so what the hay. It would allow me to work on getting back in touch with really racing.

After Run Rabbit, I eventually got back to running, but decided to start leaving the watch at home. It felt light and right. With intuition guiding me, I got to race-week in a healthy groove of running a bit every morning and chilling during the hot afternoons. I arrived to the start line feeling like I would’ve wanted to for Run Rabbit—fresh, loose, and overjoyed to be racing. I bounded, effortlessly off the start-line.

On the first 2000′ climb I reminded myself: “Expect Nothing. Be Prepared for Anything.” l’m never as pumped racing off the front as I am racing with a fellow competitor. It only takes one other runner to make a race. Half-way up the climb, I was taking it easy and keeping my breathing in check. “Never Start Pushing Until AT LEAST the Half-Way Point.” I was happy to have some company. Racing strategically, I eventually let the guy pass, his breathing more labored than mine, I’d let him wear himself out. At Panorama aid, we started the descent to the Ranger Station, I was descending very well and the running felt easy. Down to the turn-around 2000′ and back up another 2000′. Half-way back up, there he is again. Eventually, I step off the trail and let him pass. I’m not getting sucked in to working too hard too early.

Over to Goodspeed in Sugarloaf State Park, I leave the aid-station, 1min back. This is exactly where I wanna be. We head up into Sugarloaf to Suzanna Bon’s aid-station at Gray Pine (the halfway point). I get some Coke, say hi to Suzanna and start thinking about catching this guy on this lollipop section that heads up the ridgeline and back down to Gray Pine.

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Sonoma ULTRA 50k. October 1st, 2016. 10,000′ inside 31 miles. Dang! http://www.strava.com

Steps upon steps up to the ridge. No sign of the front-runner. With Napa Valley to my left and the Valley of the Moon to my right it was time to descend. In a mile, 1st came back into view. We hit Gray Pine together and introduced ourselves on the way out. Yuri Gonzaga, 26, did his first trail race at Mt. Diablo two weeks earlier to place 3rd. Yuri tells me he’s really feeling the effort at this point in the race. I tell him he’s running very strong and just keep doing what he’s doing. The encouraging words seemed to work; maybe a little too well…

We make our way down to Goodspeed, grab nutrition from our drop-bags and start the final ascent back up Hood Mountain. Armed only with endurance, I quickly reach my threshold while climbing. The cumulative four hours of this peppy pace has finally caught up with me. I let the kid go. Maybe I can catch him on the final descent…

It’s not about racing anymore, it’s about courage, to be honest with myself and do my best. I remind myself, “there’s no excuse for not playing good defense.” The technical, rock-infested climb up to the top of Hood is awful. I reach the top and am so thankful. I descend the rocky, twisty Summit Trail down to Panarama, where I slam a full 12oz Coke for the push to the finish.

With 3 miles to go. Photo Credit: Adrian Ramirez

Coke: the world’s greatest energy drink. 3 miles to go. Photo Credit: Adrian Ramirez

Energy’s still great but pushing the pace results in some nasty leg cramping. I’m out here for some fun and having Yuri out here made my day. I’d certainly rather go head-to-head with a fellow competitor and get second than win easy. Looking at what I did last year I figured I’d run about 5:20. I crossed the line in 5:15. Yuri broke five hours in 4:58, going to show, once again, how much time you can save if/when you can run strong over the final 25% of an ultra.

Indeed, I’ll be chasing a Golden Ticket into Western States next June where I’d like to again compete for that top Masters spot as well as running about two hours faster than I did this year. It only takes a couple Jorge Maravillas though, to knock me out of Golden Ticket contention but I’m not worried about it. In fact, worrying about it makes it less likely that I’ll race well enough to earn an entry.

Accept your limits to move pass them. Instead of obsessing over outcomes, I’m just gonna keep it simple and focus on my health and well-being; coming into events fresh-n-loose, and executing brilliantly. I believe with the learning I’ve amassed the last four seasons, I’m poised to now have the breakthrough season for which I’ve been dreaming.

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Parting Shot: Race rig from Ironman Hawaii 2011. Sub 5-hours for 112mi. Watching the race on Saturday, I’m grateful for the four occasions I raced in Hawaii, in ’02, ’04, ’07, & ’11. I’m also grateful for the second “career” I now have as an ultrarunner but sometimes, I do miss that bike…

A heartfelt thanks to my beautiful and highly supportive wife/agent Amanda for her thankless job as “First Responder” and always picking me up after I’ve fallen.  |  Thank you to Hoka One One for your continued support, innovation, and producing the best shoes out there—#speedinstinct #timetofly!  |  Thanks to Vitargo for the steady energy and SIMPLIFYING my nutrition.  |  Thank you Healdsburg Running Company for all the wonderful support from the HRC/H-Burg crew!! | Victory Sportdesign produces the best drop-bags in the biz! | Thank you to Julbo Eyewear for the beautiful, functional, and comfortable sunglasses.  |  Thanks to Dave Townsend at Santa Rosa Physical Therapy for helping me manage all of my issues and keep on runnin’ >>>

2016 Western States 100

headerWith a wink to my wife Amanda from the start line, a shotgun blast was heard and timer started. I’m grateful I did Run Rabbit Run last year, with its uphill start, giving me a better sense of how to negotiate the escarpment here at Western States. I kept tabs on my exertion and heart-rate, but really I was just soaking in the electric energy all around me. Joy alone seemed to buoy me up the mountain and I was sure to take in the panoramic view up on top. I spied the Nevada mountains to the east that cradle my much beloved Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) 100 course that, seven years back, first crushed my body but left an indelible imprint on my soul. I’ve been coming back to the 100 ever since.

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Everybody’s fast when it’s easy. Photo Credit: Paul Nelson Photography

Tahoe Mountain Milers, the folks that host the TRT Endurance Runs, also run the Lyon Ridge aid-station at mile 10.5 here at Western States. I volunteered here a year ago, which led to my gaining entry into this year’s race. So at Lyon it was sweet to see TRT race-director, George Ruiz, and some other folks and give them some quick hugs and high-fives, before continuing on toward Red Star Ridge.

Through Lyon Ridge aid, heart-rate and perceived exertion were right where they should be at this point in a 100-miler. Calories and fluids were going in just fine. I felt calm, relaxed, and simply happy. The Hoka One One Speed Instinct’s were eating up the technical terrain and were quickly proving to be the best shoe for the job. Like Indiana Jones, I had “chosen wisely.”

Click here for my Hoka One One Speed Instinct shoe review

To add some more structure to my race, I’d brought along Mike Morton’s 15:45 masters course-record splits from 2013 (the second hottest WS100 on record). Today was not supposed to be as hot, and if things really came together, who knows, maybe I could get close to his time. Ultimately, I figured, if I ran to my potential I’d arrive at the Placer High School track somewhere in the 16-17hr range.

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Red Star Ridge. It’s all in front of me. Photo Credit: Gary Wang

Rolling into Red Star I was around 14th place and running comfortably. Naturally, I enjoyed the cool morning in the high country. The bliss wouldn’t last all day to be certain. I always think of the TRT race motto: “A Glimpse of Heaven and a Taste of Hell.” Often times that’s the 100mi racing experience in a nutshell. When we do the work in training we usually get more “Heaven” than “Hell,” but there are no guarantees, especially if you’re working to your potential. A quote I used all through my run here at Western was, “Embrace the pain and use it to fuel your journey.”

Down to Duncan Canyon, with about a quarter of the race already completed, I was happy to already find myself right where I wanted to be—right around 10th place and no worse for wear. I remember arriving to the aid-station, people everywhere. I’d abbreviated all the aid-station names on my pacing chart and was expecting to see Amanda here but looking around I didn’t see her then later realized that this “DC” was Duncan Canyon and not Dusty Corners. Duh. Western States rookie mistake.

For the rest of the morning I was running with or near Ian Sharman and if anybody in the race knows how to run himself up into the Top-10 it’s Ian. Through Robinson Flat and Miller’s Defeat aid-stations I settled and appreciated Ian’s tips on the race, like wanting to push harder at certain points but continuing to exercise restraint (and try to stay upright on the rocky terrain). It was all new to me and yeah, it was hard continuing to hold back and watch my HR drop into the high 120s. But hey, if I can get to Foresthill with an avgHR lower than what I’m used to in 100s, and be in the mix for Top-10, sign me up!

I’d run Canyons 100k seven weeks prior to States and I was excited to get to familiar ground that I’ve recently run. Last Chance dropped me down to the swinging bridge and I had arrived at the Canyons 100k turn-around. Climbing legs were good and this ice-bandana I’d picked up from Amanda earlier was really working out. I had shared with Ian earlier that I was actually feeling cold. He said that was a good thing so I just rolled with it.

The run down to El Dorado Creek wasn’t as fast-n-fun as it was at Canyons 100k, since I was so fresh by comparison (and it was 52 degrees that day). I was in disbelief to discover the 2015 Ultrarunner of the Year, David Laney, at the El Dorado aid-station. We left together. David had volunteered at Canyons and I picked his brain about States. I knew he’d put in a ton of work into this race and by the looks of it took some risks early in the going. And why not? Nothing ventured; nothing gained. We shook hands as we started the climb up to Robinson Flat and I encouraged him to keep pluggin’. He did and we stayed together for the first mile or so. I yelled back some encouragement once more and knew he was likely in for a long slog to Auburn. I hoped he’d gut it out.

I’d moved up to 8th or 9th and that sounded beautiful. Arriving to Michigan Bluff, I was in high spirits and saw two athletes I coach, Louis Secreto and Francisco Benevides. Louis was crewing and pacing for me today. On an absolute high, it was great to see these guys here. And now, only a hop-skip-n-jump to Foresthill. Settle in and relax…

At about 3pm it was getting to be about the warmest part of the day. Arriving at a stream crossing before the climb up Bath Rd. I did what you’re supposed to do at Western States and that’s lie down in the streams. This is the first time in the race where I started feeling the cumulative effects of the day starting to wear on me. I needed to cool off. The primal brain, however, absolutley loathing every second spent stopped while the reasoning centers urging me to remain still. I lasted about 60 seconds and it was time to emerge. And to whom am I greeted, coming up from behind, seemingly licking his chops, just as I start my ascent? Bronco Billy himself—Jeff Browning.

I didn’t know what to expect from Browning at Western States. I knew he’d won HURT 100 in January and was also doing Hardrock 100 a month after States. I wasn’t surprised to see him but I wasn’t happy about it either. He passed me up quickly on the climb with a cordial “Hey Bob.” and he was out of sight pretty quickly. This would be Jeff’s twenty-fourth 100-miler. He got in on a sponsor slot from Altra and from the looks of it, he was making the most of the opportunity, not being phased in the least bit about running Hardrock in July. I stayed within myself and made my way up Bath Rd, where I knew I’d see my pacer for the first time.

Melanie

With Jason Riddle (left) and pacer, Louis Secreto. Photo Credit: Melanie Wehan

I’d told Louis before the race, I’d like him to jump in after the river crossing at mile 78, but now, after 100k of rugged trail-running in me, I said “Hey, I’ll probably be faster down to the river if you’re with me. Wanna jump in now?” Louis has huge passion for Western States and the sport and was all-to-happy to start pacing duties early. I was grateful both he and his wife Linn were out here so Amanda wasn’t all by her lonesome all day. They are the best.

Photo Credit: Lorna Doone

Amanda and recent SD100 finisher, Maggie Tides, help cool me off in Foresthill (mile 62). CHILLY!  Photo Credit:  Jenna Ballesteros

Foresthill was absolutely magical. I’d been there a year ago—spectating—for the first time. The energy is palpable. For a lot of runners, Foresthill represents a significant milestone in the race—the point where the push to the finish begins; the infamous run down to the river. I’d pushed this section pretty hard at Canyons 100k, attempting to bank some last-minute quad-crushing descent to prep the legs for States after a frustrating spring nursing a cranky knee back to health. Now was the time to see whether my body would cash the check I wrote in the first 62 miles of the race.

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Amanda, dropping me on Cal St. Photo Credit:  Melanie Wehan

Here at my first Western States there was one true goal and that was Top-10 or bust. I was very reasonable in the first half trying to keep up with Morton’s masters’ record splits. I was down 16min by Foresthill and I didn’t care at all. It gave me some structure early and I’d only stick to them if they happened to align with HR and RPE. I’ve run enough 100s to know that to perform the best you can—on the day—you must run within yourself. By doing so, I stayed cool, processed calories, and most importantly: kept my belly happy. I’ve come to understand that if I’m nauseous and vomiting in an ultra, I’ve put myself in that compromised position by running outside my abilities.

Past the Cal 1 aid-station, I wasn’t surprised to feel some exhaustion starting to creep in. Considering the lighter training load coming into the race, I expected—if I’m being honest with myself—to have to suffer more than I typically do to reach the finish line. I hoped it wouldn’t get too ugly, but because the style of my training looked so different from what I typically do, I couldn’t predict how my legs would feel in the final third of the race.

Through Cal 2 I was still in 9th place. It’s 8mi to the river crossing at Rucky Chucky and I can’t say with any degree of enthusiasm that I was psyched to run it, since the experience of doing so was fresh in my mind, having running it 7 weeks ago at Canyons 100k. One thing was for certain: I wasn’t running the way I should be at this point. The quads and calves were really starting to talk to me. I just couldn’t do anything about the slowing.

I hear Louis say, “Hey, we got company.” Hoka teammate, Chris DeNucci, and his pacer, Mario Fraioli, come by. I asked them how far back the next guy is. They say the spaniard, Tofol Castanyer, isn’t too far back but he’s looking bad, which doesn’t really buoy my spirits because I know I’m sucking and it’s going to get worse given how my legs are feeling. It was inspiring to see Chris. His upward trajectory in the sport over the last two seasons has produced some amazing results and with the lessons learned from last year’s Western States, it came as no surprise to see him running well at this point in the race. He’d come through Foresthill in 12th, 10min back. Denuch pushed me back to 10th and I was feeling like I was on a high-wire with no safety net; one place away from moving into “bust” territory. Deal with it. Sh*t will turn around. It always does. Get to the river…

Photo Credit: Gary Wang

Photo Credit: Gary Wang

I love the Mike Tyson quote, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” That pretty much symbolizes the final 3 miles down the river—like a giant Gordy Ainsleigh in ginormous boxing gloves reached down from the sky and socked me right in the face. It was becoming increasingly clear I would not get to play the role of predator this day. No, this day I would not have the privilege of reeling in any more carnage—-I slowly and painfully realized that today… I am the carnage. FML.

By the time I got to the river crossing I was already cold. I’d never raced with the ice-bandana before and should’ve taken it off earlier than I did to warm up a bit before the river crossing. I wasn’t running well so I wasn’t generating much body heat. I was wondering if I did too good a job with my heat training? Wasn’t this Western States? Aren’t I supposed to be hot? Gordy with another icey blow to my glass jaw.

The river crossing sucked. I was completely oblivious to my surroundings and seemingly helpless. A little kid helped me buckle my life vest. Volunteers standing in the water keep telling me to to hold on to the rope with both hands. Both Hands! Okay, okay, I’m doing it. Do I get disqualified if I only do one hand? I had no idea Jim Walmsley had given everyone a bit of a scare earlier trying to swim across and getting swept a bit downstream by the strong current.

What the hell is wrong with my body? My legs are seizing up in this cold-ass water. Dammit, I’m f*cking freezing. Who the hell put these boulders in here? Gordy! This race is totally kicking… my… ass! The boulders are f*cking slippery. Never feeling more vulnerable in a race situation, I’m super psyched to see the paparazzi on the other side capturing my feeble attempts at pulling myself toward them. Fake it. Try to at least look like you have some semblance of control.

Somewhere in the Rucky Chucky “experience” I saw Amanda. I heard her words echo in my head for a while after Louis and I started the climb up to Green Gate, “You gotta get moving.” I realize that honey, I thought to myself. I’m in 10th. Louis knows my race is going sideways. He asks, “What do you think you have left for the run from Green Gate to the finish? I don’t even remember what I mumbled.

Running Top-10 at Western States is the gold standard in the sport of ultra mountain running. Since the start of the year when an MRI revealed some nasty sh*t going on in my knee, I’ve fought to keep the dream alive. Plan A for the spring prep went right out the window and Plan B went into action, starting with a full month off from running. Health became the focus instead of an emphasis on increasing fitness. Training was overhauled and so much attention was paid to ensuring the full health of my knee without having to take drastic measures like a cortisone shot. Uphill and flat running was emphasized over aggressive downhill running. At mile 80 as we moved passed Green Gate, the dream was still alive. I’m currently in 10th place at the Western States 100. What an honor it’s been today to mix it up with some of the best 100mi runners in the world…

In the five miles to Auburn Lake Trails I lose 5 places. And I don’t give a sh*t. I have little left, the internal dials locked on damage-control mode. I sit down at the aid-station and thoroughly enjoy the volunteers there. I get some chicken broth. We’re yucking it up. Louis wants me to go. I’m bummed we have to leave. I was just getting comfortable. I’ve never DNF’d an ultra but am starting to get mighty curious how I’m going to get to the godd*mn finish line. Well, you’re walking just fine. I look at the chicken broth in my bottle. Suck it up.

My legs are cooked in a way I’ve never experienced before; my quads and calves have never been so jacked up. The training account for this race is long since overdrawn. “What do you expect? You injured yourself by bombing the downhills in late season short-course races. Then you pussyfoot around the descents for 5 months leading up to a 100mi run with 23,000′ of net down. What did you really expect?

The downward spiral of negativity persists. In my head I’m thinking, “If I can’t Top-10 then being 25th or 45th at the finish is all the same thing. Whatever. I’ve pretty much given up on nutrition and hydration as well. I’m just over it. I catch a toe on rock and fall off the trail into some bushes/briar patch. My legs seize up. Awesome. Louis tries to help me to my feet. Falling off the trail feels like insult to injury. What a f*cking disaster this has turned into. Cool cut on my shoulder though. That’s something.

Louis tells me “The girls will be at Highway 49.” I wasn’t expecting to see Amanda there but I wanted to see her now more than at any point in the day. Arriving at the aid-station and seeing her I felt ashamed I was so shattered and no longer running for a Top-10 finish. We hugged and as I was leaving and she let me have it: the Mahatma Gandhi quote I often share with athletes I coach, “Full effort is full victory.” As we starting making our way to No Hands Bridge the Ghandi quote floated around in my stream of consciousness, leading me all the way back to 1999, when I first read George Sheehan’s book, Running and Being, in which he wrote “There is no excuse for not playing good defense.” Dammit George, even Steph Curry has rough days. You should’ve seen Game 7.

I’d lost 4 more places by the time I dragged my weary bones into the 93.5mi aid-station at Hwy 49. My running was in the crapper and the miles were going by so slowly; aid-stations seemed like they were 15mi apart. This is the maddening difference between running 5-6mph versus running 3-4mph. I was now in 19th but imagined it more like 34th. “Full effort”. DE-FENSE!! Let’s get the ball back and try to sink some 3s…

No Hands Bridge. Photo Credit: TRT pacer and best man, Michael Cook

No Hands Bridge. Photo Credit:  TRT100 pacer and best man, Michael Cook

In the weeks leading up to States, I had friends and athletes I coach bring up the competition at States, particularly, Jim Walmsley, who set stout course-records at both Bandera 100k and Lake Sonoma 50 earlier this year and put up 140/140/120 mile weeks before his two-week taper. Now I know when I’m out-classed and realize Walmsley’s in another league. He’s a super inspiring runner. Jokingly I started telling people I was going to catch Walmsley at Robie Point (mile 98.9) and go on to win the race, thinking to myself, “Ha-Ha. Wouldn’t that be something?!”

I wasn’t having a lot of fun on that nasty climb up to Robie. I was beginning to think Louis didn’t know where the hell he was going anymore and was just screwing with me. But I was a helluva lot more happy climbing than descending by this point in the going. Arriving at the aid station I look over at the table and Jim Walmsley standing there, still in his race kit. WTF? I’d heard he’d gotten off course around Hwy 49 but assumed he’d made it to the finish line already and was simply back out for a cool-down and to cheer on some runners. As Louis and I were closing in on the finish, I would later come to understand why so many people were asking me the same question, “Hey, are you Jim?”

Photo Credit: Gary Wang

He made it! Photo Credit: Gary Wang

The last mile was good and I did my best to stay in the moment and appreciate the final minutes of a truly special day, regardless of placing and finish time. Louis, Amanda, and I ran into the Placer High Stadium together. I joked around with Amanda that we needed to be in Lane 1. I saw fellow Tahoe Mountain Milers, Kati Bell and Shane James and gave them hugs and high fives. If it weren’t for Kati’s encouragement, I wouldn’t have had this amazing opportunity. I was pretty elated to see that finish line. Nothing feels more satisfying than getting to the finish of a 100mi run. It’s nothing short of incredible what the human body can endure.

After a “full victory” squeeze from Amanda, another Hoka teammate, Paul Terranova, put my finisher’s medal around my neck. And since he’s known for his push-ups at the end of ultras, I spontaneously offered to crank some out with him, reminding us and everyone that we always have more to give out there, we just have to find the inspiration.

Amanda

Rickey Gates said in a recent Instagram post about Monday’s Mountain Marathon in Alaska, “Racing is about doing what you can do on that given day.” I didn’t like the cards I was dealt this year at all but I played them to the best of my ability because I wanted to honor myself, my competitors, and the Western States 100. Laying on the infield after finishing, feeling like death warmed over, rolled up like a burrito, and occasionally vomiting into a cardboard box, I couldn’t help but smile each time I heard Tropical John’s voice announce the names of fellow competitors as they entered the stadium, tough-as-nails athletes, some who’s day had also gone south but found it in themselves to soldier on when the lofty goals they’d set for themselves were blown up hours before.

Feeling like a soldier of the Great War myself at that moment, having awoken half dead in a trench on the front lines, I think of Teddy Roosevelt’s words about “faces marred by dust and sweat and blood,” the valient striving, the “great enthusiams, the great devotions.” And the “daring greatly.” All of us, one crazy family, strung out from from Squaw to Auburn, spending ourselves in this worthy cause, none possessing a cold or timid soul. Courageous. Bold. And maybe a fair amount of stubbornness and straight up stupidity as well.

One way or another I’ll be back to States again next year, hopefully to race, as I have some unfinished business, or volunteer and/or pace. In the meantime, I’m excited by the fact that I had no issues with my knee during the race or subsequently. I was late getting this race-report out because we stayed up in Tahoe for a week after States and I didn’t do sh*t. Back home now, I’m excited to be running everyday and hoping I have no issues with the knee moving forward. Fingers and toes crossed.

I finally ran the numbers yesterday and my run-specific training volume for States was a full 20% less than my build for Run Rabbit Run in August last year, which would make sense because had I had that 20% in me going in, it likely would’ve made the difference between being ready to rumble—versus being ready to crumble—at mile 80. I tried to make up the difference with cycling but nothing’s going to supplant the muscular endurance needed to pace the first 60 and push the final 40 of a 100 mile run.

A heartfelt thanks to Western States Race Director, Craig Thornley and his amazing team of staff and volunteers for putting on one helluva race. If I never have the opportunity to run it again, I know I made the most of my day and, along with a silver buckle, I have many wonderful memories I’ll cherish for a lifetime. It feels good to be part of the club!

13557868_10154379664696812_6962943801841384551_nA HUGE thanks to my super awesome, beautiful, highly supportive, rock-star wife, Amanda—always full of great ideas—for embracing the full Western States crewing experience along with her partner in crime for the day, Linn Secreto. It’s pretty cool having support out there and I appreciate you two running around all day helping to keep me going.

Louis Secreto, thanks for jumping in early buddy! That’s all I could do on the day. Thanks for helping me up-n-out of that briar patch. Looking forward to 50mi of pacing at your Tahoe Rim Trail 100 later this month. It’s going to be spectacular (at least for me). Hope your coach knows what he’s doing.

Thanks for all the support from friends and fans near and far. I actually didn’t start putting my name in or trying to race my way into Western States 100 until 2015 because we, as athletes, have to pick our battles carefully and the fact that Tahoe Rim Trail 100’s in July, affords me, as a school-teacher, the time to put up some big miles in June for this July event. But after running it four times and accomplishing all that I wanted to on that course, the time arrived to branch out and experience other 100s. All trails seem to lead back to Western States though. Now I see why.

One thing’s for sure: It’s getting more challenging to stay healthy and train/race for these crazy things. I’m grateful for all the encouragement and kind words I’ve received. I hope to be on that starting line again next year, do it better, and make good on that dream of a Top-10 finish. It’s right there…

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Parting [shot] is such sweet sorrow. With Amanda. She got hugs. Paul Terranova got push-ups. Photo Credit: Linn Secreto

Thank you to Hoka One One for your continued support, innovation, and producing the best shoes out there—#timetofly!  |  Thanks to Vitargo for the steady energy and SIMPLIFYING my nutrition.  |  Thank you Healdsburg Running Company for the sweet #74 trucker hats. I appreciate all the wonderful support from the HRC/H-Burg crew!! | Victory Sportdesign produces the best drop-bags in the biz! | Thank you to Julbo Eyewear for the beautiful, functional, and comfortable sunglasses.  |  And a BIG 100 mile thanks to Dave Townsend at Santa Rosa Physical Therapy for helping me keep the dream alive. You helped me understand what course of action I needed to take to have my cake and eat it too this spring. You rock!

Shoe Review: Hoka One One Speed Instinct

Instinct

I feel the need…

I started running in shoes from Hoka One One (pronounced “O-Nay O-Nay,” meaning  “to fly over the earth” in Maori) three years ago for the protection and comfort, especially while training for and running 100 milers. In training, benefits from running in Hokas includes decreased recovery time. That’s a big positive. And in racing, the most significant benefit is not having to think about my feet (at all) for 100 miles of mountain racing. I find this to be a highly desirable feature. Always looking for that edge over the competition, I eventually evolved away from my trusty Stinson as my “go-to” training/racing shoe to the Challenger ATR, and then on to the Challenger ATR 2 last season. This year I’ve been struggling to find a model that I have the same level of synergy with and that fits my foot no less than perfectly. That shoe could be Hoka One One’s new Speed Instinct.

Nine days out from Western States 100, the Speed Instinct shows up on my doorstep and within minutes I have them on, jogging around the house. This morning I put them through their paces trying to ascertain whether they’d not just be a good shoe for Western States, but—could it be?—the ideal shoe for this fast, furious, and infernal 100 miler? Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Weight. The Speed Instinct weighs in [on my scale] at 8.9oz, (M8.5), exactly the same as the Challenger ATR 2. For comparison, the Speedgoat weighs in at 9.4oz while the Clayton tips the scales at 7.6oz. Note: while light, the Clayton, a road-shoe by design, makes for a very lithe trail shoe, given dry conditions. I want to see a pair of the Ironman Hawaii edition Claytons coming out this year closer to the race in October. Fierce!

Insole. Hey, look at that! Hoka inserted a thicker insole into the Speed Instinct than their standard insole. Niiiiice. And the quarter ounce of increased weight is super worth it, adding to the overall comfort of the shoe. Note: to ensure I never have to deal with an insole slipping in either training or—heaven forbid—in a race, I like to Gorilla Glue my insoles. Never again have to worry about them ever bunching up in the toe-box during a wet race or a hot race where you have to keep yourself wet then entire day for cooling purposes. Not that these thicker bad boys would ever slip in the first place, but… why risk it? I like knowing gorillas are holding my insoles in place. After all, a shoe takes a nasty beating over 100 miles.

Tongue and laces. The Speed Instincts have the same soft, thick tongue that we  see in the Challenger ATR 2. This has taken a while to grow on me since I was partial to the thin tongue in the previous generation Challenger. “Hey, change is constant Shebest, buck up!” I do think the thicker tongue contributes to the new Challenger being a little too snug, on my foot at least. This does not, however, feel like the case with the Speed Instinct. The stock laces we’ve seen on the Claytons are used in the Speed Instincts. I like these laces a lot. It’s a wider lace than comes on the Challenger and they stay tied. Yaah. Goood.

Toe box. This is a big one for me because I need to run in a Men’s 8.5 and my left foot’s a little wider than my right so it’s tough to keep that left foot happy. For States, toe box is a BIG deal since there’s 23,000′ of downhill running. And I really like running downhill, and in order to be downhill running well, later in the race, I need to keep my toes happy. In recent weeks’ long, hot training runs, the Clayton, with its spacious toe-box fits the bill, but, it’s a road shoe, with road tread, and the first 50k of Western States is likely to have some snow, mud, and tricky sections to negotiate, and the Clayton’s sole isn’t gonna cut it. Thus, my plan was to run in the Challengers through 50k or so, and then transition into the Claytons, which are super comfortable and run well soak-n-wet. I still might. Jury’s still out.

Tread. First impressions with the Speed Instinct is I might have a shoe that gives me a wider toe-box and the traction I need early on in the race. In the seven 100s I’ve done, I’ve always had spare shoes ready-n-waiting but have yet to actually change shoes in a race. I’d like to keep that trend going.

In the moment. When I first started climbing in the Speed Instincts this morning, I noticed I was getting a little heel slip. This was quickly remedied by simply tightening the laces closer to the top of the shoe. I recommended using that last lace eyelet at the top to help secure the shoe to your foot and prevent slippage, which is different from shrinkage.

The shoe climbs well, both running uphill, fast-hiking, and power-hiking. I was sure to not tighten the laces too much in the toe-box ’cause it’s really important for my foot comfort to have some room up there for the foot to naturally splay out, as I’m a total and complete mid-forefoot runner.

With only 8 days to go to Western States 100, I’m a little bummed I didn’t ask for this shoe sooner. I read some online reviews earlier this year but I’m terrible sometimes about trying something new and felt like the Challenger ATR would again be my shoe-of-choice for 2016, even if it was a little tight in the toe-box and seemed a little soft (like me). I made a big effort to get the Speedgoat to work for me but my left foot kept busting out of them. Totally sucked ’cause I love how the sole of the Speedgoat feels, especially on rocky, technical terrain. With the Speed Instinct, you have a sole that’s tougher, like the Speedgoat sole; you don’t feel those sharp rocks as much as you do in the Challengers or Claytons.

I popped out on the road and ramped it up to 6min pace for a few 100yds to get a sense of how the shoe responds running fast on the road. It doesn’t feel as amazing on road surface as does the Clayton, but to be fair, the Clayton is a road shoe after all. Furthermore, the Speed Instinct first strikes me as a shoe that may need a bit of a break-in period, but I’m also guessing it’s a durable shoe that will hold up well for 400 miles, or more.

Shocking! Western States is expected to be hot this year. Back at my car I brought a 24oz water-bottle with me, but… not for hydration but rather for the express purpose of pouring directly into my brand new shoes. Yes, I dumped about 12oz of water right into my shoes and headed back out on the trails to see how the shoe responds when saturated with water, as it’ll be on race-day due to regular water crossings and from the effects of cooling during the hottest part of the day. I can’t stand too much “squooshing” from a shoe when it’s wet. The Challenger ATR 2 is a little more squishier than its predecessor so I was quite pleased this morning to find the Speed Instincts are pretty quiet when wet, feel fine, and drain well.

Nearing the end of my run, I chose a steep, technical descent to bomb down to really get a sense of how the shoe responds and how my foot feels inside the toe-box. No problems. The shoe fits my foot snug but not as snug as my Challengers. The toe-box is not as wide as the Claytons but it appears to be wide enough. Overall, my hunch is this is going to make for a highly effective trail-racing shoe.

Decisions. At a minimum, I’ll start Western States in the Speed Instincts, since I need the traction and my toes will be happier after 30-50mi than they would be if I started off in the Challengers. I’ll have regular opportunities to go to my Claytons if the need arises. After all, I’ve not done a proper long run in the Speed Instincts so perhaps after 4-5hrs my feet will be begging for the Claytons, but I suspect that won’t be the case. I only have a handful of runs remaining before the big dance on the 25th. I’ll do these runs in the Speed Instincts to further break them in. Overall, a super comfortable shoe that feels fast while maintaining that high level of comfort and protection I demand from a running shoe. #seeyouinsquaw >>> 😀

A great shoe complements and eccentuates your natural body mechanics. Run beautifully for longer.

Parting shot. A great shoe complements and even accentuates your natural body mechanics. Run beautifully for longer. Fly over the earth >>>

Faster than Twitter, thanks to my beautiful, loving, and highly supportive wife Amanda for her thankless job [even from afar] as “First Responder.”  |  Thank you to Julbo Eyewear for the beautiful, functional, and comfortable sunglasses. It’s GREAT to be working with you!  |  Thank you to Hoka One One for your continued support and producing the best shoes out there—#timetofly!  |  Thanks to Inside Trail Racing for offering so many fantastic races in great places.  |  Thanks to Vitargo for the steady energy and SIMPLIFYING my nutrition.  |  Thank you Healdsburg Running Company for all the wonderful support. HRC rocks! | Victory Sportdesign produces the best drop-bags in the biz! | Thanks to Dave Townsend at Santa Rosa Physical Therapy for helping me keep the dream alive!

The Canyons 100k

It’s 4:50am on Saturday, May 7th and I’m in Foresthill, CA, in my car, with the heater blasting listening to Kati Perry while studying weather.com. It’s forecasting rain to start around 9am. I stuff a super thin rain-jacket in a shorts pocket and jog to the start. At 5am, The Canyons 100k is underway.

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Cruisin’ behind Peter Fain in the early miles. Photo Credit: Singletrack Running

From step one I knew it was going to be a good day running. My training told me so. My body told me so. And, since my sub-par North Face 50 back in December, my mind told me so as well. Confidence was high. Excitement was high. And I was bouncing along overjoyed to again be in the mix of another tough mountain ultra.

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Canyons represented the final test to see if my ol’ knee was truly back to 100%. Would it hold up over 10hrs of racing with 15,000′ of cumulative descent? All of my emphasis in training for Canyons was on the flats, ups, and goin’ long, because it was hotdogging it on the downs racing at the end of 2015 that got me into trouble with the knee. Therefore, healed up good, Canyons would serve as a key downhill workout for Western States 100 in late June. And man, am I glad I did this race. I underestimated what that course would do to my quads! Dropping out of both Sean O’Brien 100k and Gorge Waterfalls 100k earlier in the season were tough decisions but I needed the time to both heal up and reinvent my ultra-run training. I still want my cake and want to eat it to, that is, I desired to have at least one ultra in my legs going into States with the objective of toeing the line 100% fit and healthy. In Feb, I felt that was a lot to ask of myself, thus demanding I restructure how I train.

For Canyons I took notes on Rob Krar’s post-race interview with USL.TV’s Jeff Miller after his win here in 2015, and worked mindfully in the first half of the race to try and set myself up for a quick run from Foresthill down to the River, on iconic trails many of which I’ve never had the privilege of running before.

I was coming in at a training peak but without the extra punch having a spring race or two would give me. That punch would come as a function of simply executing an effective 100k here though. My three primary objectives for Canyons 100k:  1.) the knee needed to hold up 2.) I needed to get some good downhill stress goin’ and 3.) I needed to not push too crazy hard up from the River at mile 48 to the finish so that I could limit recovery time and get back to quality 100-mile training as soon as practical since Western States would only be seven little weeks away.

The early miles were enjoyable and my body started waking up with the sunrise. There were four of us on the front including Luke Garten, Peter Fain, and the guy with the Irish accent, which I quickly deduced was Paddy O’Leary. We dropped lamps at Michigan Bluff, cruised up through El Dorado Creek, The Pump, then farther northeast until we heard  URP’s Eric Schranz’ alphorn at Devil’s Thumb. Switchbacks all the way down to Swinging Bridge following Luke and Paddy, where we got our obligatory bracelets and then it was up, up, back up to Devil’s Thumb.

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Paddy back atop Devil’s Thumb with plenty of wind for the alphorn! Photo Credit: URP

The rain started coming down and temps were hovering around 50deg so I put on my wispy rain jacket and was psyched I’d decided to bring it along. I didn’t want to be forced to run harder just to keep my body warm at this early point in the race. Being comfortable keeps me happy, and if I’m happy, I’m moving well.

On the way back down toward El Dorado Creek we were rocking it. With the double out-n-back course layout, it’s fun to see everyone in the race, especially the four guys I’d coached to this event. This section was probably the most fun I had all day since it was still early and the running was effortless. Always holding a little back for that run down to the River from Foresthill though. The anticipation was electric!

And soon enough, it was just Paddy and I making the left on Bath Rd with him hitting the aid station about 10sec before me. As I arrived, I spied my Sonoma County buddy, Christopher Thomas, working the Foresthill aid-station, with my drop-bag. I said, “dump it” and handed him my HRM strap, picked up my two bottles of VitargoS2 and motored on down Cal St at 6min pace. Those tempo runs I did on the road made it feel pretty easy.

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#fastestmusclefuel

So… I’d asked the RD, Chaz Sheya, that morning just how far down Cal St the turn was, in an effort to prevent getting off course since I’d never run this section (and I have a healthy fear of getting off course). Yeah so, during the race, as I’m heading down Cal St. I see two pink ribbons on the left and none any farther down. So I go left, and run down the road a bit lookin’ for pink ribbon. I ask an old-timer on his porch if there’s a trail down here and he replies that it’s a dead end. Awesome. I turn around and run back toward Cal St, see Paddy and we exchange shoulder shrugs and make the obvious decision to run farther down Cal St to the proper left turn, where we quickly regain and follow the pink-ribbon-road down to Cal 1. 6:16 pace… Let’s do this!

Paddy’s been running like a champ all day and all I know about him at this point is that he’s run under 7hr at NF50 so he’s got a big engine and it’s bigger than mine. Later, after some online stalking I would discover Paddy won Inside Trail Racing’s Chabot 30k back in Feb, got 4th at Cool 50k with a 3:27, and threw in a 2:37 at Boston for good measure. Really Paddy? At this point in Canyons though, I’m pretty sure this is his first 100k, and shit can happen.

Without burying myself to try and go head-to-head on the way back up—to preserve something for States—I know my only plays are either open up a gap on the way down, which he’ll work to close by the finish line, or just simply outlast him. I’d have fun with dicing it up until the choice to shut it down became obvious. Until then, continuing to work hard all the way to the River would cap off a great day of strong downhill running. And my quads were really beginning to feel it. Daaaaaamn…

We run into Cal 1 together but since I’d picked up two bottles of Vitargo in Foresthill, I didn’t need anything. I told Paddy I’d see him back on the trail and cruised into the lead starting to think about trying to open up that gap. By Cal 2 I’d opened a 2min lead and then set my mind to the task of running the longest stretch without aid of about 8mi down to the River, to the turnaround at Ruck-a-Chucky.

Less than a quarter mile from the turnaround, as I was dreaming of having opened a 5min lead on 2nd, Paddy passes me on the left and floats away up toward the aid-station ahead. I stay with him. I dropped my bottles and the volunteers and I go on a little easter egg hunt for my drop-bag (an occupational hazard of sorts of running on the front—aid stations aren’t always ready for you). We find it and I grab my fresh bottles and hightail it outta there. About a mile later, Paddy catches me and moves ahead. “Well, kid’s a hellava runner,” I think to myself. “You’ve done a good job here today Shebest. Execution’s been solid, knee’s held up, and your speed’s there. Keep pluggin’ and get this 100k in the bank for States. You’re right where you wanna be.”

As I ran up I was looking at my watch to see my growing split to 3rd place. Expecting to see Luke or Peter, I was surprised (not-that-surprised) to see fellow Hoka One One teammate, Magda Boulet. At that point I only had 40min on her, so I knew I’d better keep a move on.

In damage control mode now, it was nice to have good climbing legs, although I was ready to be done, pretty tired from all the hard work I’d put in running with the kid all day. That made the race for me though. I’m still amazed how being in the flow of racing makes the hours just float by. Magical. Eventually, I ran into Luke and two members of Paddy’s crew, shot the breeze with them for a minute and got back to the task of getting my tired ass back up to Cal 2, by which point, by the way, Paddy had put 15min into me from the River. Whatever.  😉

Between Cal 2 and Cal 1 I ran into a different nemesis, in the form of Eric Skaden and we reminisced about all the times he handed my ass to me in various races like TRT100 and Miwok 100k. It was good to see him out there and get to chat a bit about Western States training and execution.

Thank God it’s not 5 or 6mi from Cal2 back up to Cal St. I was very much ready to be done, though still in very high spirits. Today was just a sweet, sweet day of running and I was so grateful to be healthy, moving, and getting one last race in before my birthday on Monday. Climbing back up Cal St to the finish at Foresthill Elementary School was pretty cool. I looked over my shoulder a few times to see if Magda was going to run me down, which I thought was going to happen at any moment in the final 5 kilometers. I said in jest at the finish line, “Never trust an Olympian!).

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Finish. Whew! Photo Credit: Chris Perillo

Man, it felt good to arrive at the finish. Canyons is one badass race! And if it’s good enough for Magda, going in to to defend her States title, I’m feeling pretty damn good about having done it as well. I’m giving myself about 10 days of no running then really looking forward to a robust 3-week training block for the big dance. School’s out for summer on the 27th, so I’m really looking forward to the singular focus being off from work will afford me to concentrate on simply executing perfectly on June 25th. #noexcuses

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With the winners! Photo Credit: Chaz Sheya

This will be my very first Western States 100. I’ll have just turned 42 years young. I don’t, however, have the luxury of time to eventually “figure it out” like I did with my four Tahoe Rim Trail 100s. I’m lookin’ at it this way—those TRTs were like the four years it takes to get a Bachelor’s degree. Similarly, Pine to Palm 100 and San Diego 100 earned me a Masters. I started my PhD with Run Rabbit Run last September and hope to defend my dissertation in Mountain Ultrarunning, here in my 8th 100-miler at the Western States 100. Believe! Believe! Believe!

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Challenger 2 ATR from Hoka One One. This shoe got 1st and 2nd at this years Canyons 100k. #TimeToFly

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Parting Shot:  Hangin’ with the HRC crew at Scena Performance’s Hood Vertical Challenge a week out from Canyons. Yeah, it was tough not to participate!

Faster than Twitter, thanks to my beautiful, loving, and highly supportive wife Amanda for her thankless job [even from afar] as “First Responder.”  |  Thank you to Julbo Eyewear for the beautiful, functional, and comfortable sunglasses. It’s GREAT to be working with you!  |  Thank you to Hoka One One for your continued support and producing the best shoes out there—#timetofly!  |  Thanks to Inside Trail Racing for offering so many fantastic races in great places.  |  Thanks to Vitargo for the steady energy and SIMPLIFYING my nutrition.  |  Thank you Healdsburg Running Company for all the wonderful support. HRC rocks! | Victory Sportdesign produces the best drop-bags in the biz! | Thanks to Dave Townsend at Santa Rosa Physical Therapy for helping me keep the dream alive!

Getting Back to Business

Photo Credit: Let's Wander Photography

North Face Endurance Challenge – Dec 2015. Photo Credit: Let’s Wander Photography

As runners, it’s tough not to run. And when something’s hurting (and it’s not going away) it weighs heavy on our minds. Denial can sometimes be stretched out for weeks, even months. After dealing with an injury a year ago, however, I was a bit wiser this time around, and recognized the need to get some help with my issue, rather than procrastinate as I’d done before, just increasing the time it took me to come back to healthy, happy running. The hardest part was taking the first step, before things really got outta hand.

SRPTlogoAt the end of Jan, an x-ray and MRI at Kaiser revealed I had some nasty stuff going on inside my left knee (likely my right too but not as severe). Here’s the blog-post about it with MRI results. Now of all times, this was an especially shitty time to have an “injury” to deal with, since, for the first time, I’m entered in this year’s Western States 100, held at the end of June. But as happens with many ultrarunners, we tend to run ourselves into the ground. And living in the Bay Area, man it’s not hard to do since there’s such a wealth of wonderful trail running events. Peer pressure and supporting sponsors are contributing factors as well. Well that, and racing is fun! So yeah, at the end of 2015, I ran myself into the ground, but mind you, for what I perceived as an essential reason (see previous post for more on that).

So the knee was really pissed at me and I now knew exactly why. The next step was to visit Dave Townsend at Santa Rosa Physical Therapy. Whenever I feel it’s the “beginning of the end” [of my running], Dave gives me hope, and that leads to [patiently] bringing my running back to life, and with renewed gratitude.

Kaiser suggested I take 8 weeks off with no running or cycling. That made me really nervous because I knew two months away could really put me in a hole, out of which would take some time to recapture the fitness I wanted to have in the bank by June. I wasn’t prepared to think about running Western States in any other form but excellent. I need confidence to be high, for this, my eight 100mi trail run, and one that’s on a pretty big stage. I might not get another opportunity to run this bad boy. I need to make this one count!

Dave did a thorough assessment of my situation, and we discussed how and why my left side was dealing with yet another stress-related injury, now two in the last 16 months. After this assessment, Dave and I went to work on creating a rehab routine that included a variety of stretching and strengthening exercises. I’ve done them religiously since our meeting back at the start of Feb. I’ll be 42 this year, and what I’ve learned—the hard way—-is that if I want to keep running at a high level, I have to be increasingly vigilant about giving my body more TLC in the form of foam-rolling, yoga, the use of Trigger Point balls, cycling, strength training etc. Yet again, my run training needed a face-lift. I needed to evolve and I had plenty of time in Feb to think about how I wanted Mar-Jun to roll out, in order to give myself the best chance of running well at States on 6/25.

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February – No Running. Weeks in ascending order chronologically. Source: Strava.com

As you can see I was really into the cross-training during the work-week starting out in early Feb. Intuition (and a little ego) told me it’d be okay to do a long ride on Sunday, which I felt was necessary to at least break even with my fitness once I returned in March. That first Sunday I hit 100mi, which I found was me trying to show myself I was still strong and could do a bike workout that felt similar to my standard Sunday long run. The knee didn’t hurt but the notion that I really needed to use this month wisely, to really recover, started to sink in, through my thick, stubborn skull. Thus, I just focused on morning TLC sessions, doing my SRPT routine mixed in with some yoga. I walked to work a lot as well. The weather in Feb was dry so I was lucky to be able to consistently get out on Sunday for long rides. I focused on hitting long, sustained climbs in my Zone 2 (ultrarunning HR zone).

My wife, Amanda, also helped nurse my knee back to health with a variety of remedies including mixing up some Essential Oil blends as well as having a friend of hers make me some amazing bone broth (I drank a cup every morning and night for a few weeks. Amanda also researched and got me a variety of supplements that I’m still taking, more out of fear at this point than anything. I’m grateful how smart and proactive she is, dealing with her unreasonable, grumpy-when-injured, ultrarunning husband.

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Ease back into running. Weeks in ascending order. Source: Strava.com

March 1st couldn’t come fast enough, and my patience was indeed wearing thin. I was itching to run. Coming back, I knew I had to continue exercising restraint. There’s just too much on the line this year, to take unwarranted risks. So, I figured running every 72hrs (3 days) starting back would allow my knee to continue strengthening while easing back into run training. Those first few runs were pretty wonky. I wasn’t confident at all my knee was ready to come back to the stress of running. By the weekend, however, things felt a lot better. The following Monday, I felt I was ready for a quality session. And since it was my downhill running that overtaxed the knee, I felt an [up]hill session was a wise choice for the first quality session back. That went well and so, encouraged, I did a tempo run 72 hours later followed by a Sunday long run 3 days after the tempo run. It felt so good to run up at Lake Sonoma, even if I did get tangled up in a bunch of briars while swimming across a flooded section of trail from recent heavy rains. I’ll take it!

According to plan, I just wanted to get my feet back under me, build a bit of fitness, then take the next 5 days or so to really recover and absorb those initial quality sessions. This time off preceded my Spring Break from teaching, which, including weekends would be ten days in duration (3/19 – 3/28). With all that time off I could easily over do it…

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Spring Break Training – 3/19 – 3/28 (10 days). Weeks in ascending order. Source: Strava.com

I love hilly long runs. Naturally, this is why I gravitate to long, hilly ultrarunning events. They speak to my heart and soul. Thus, I planned it out to conduct four long runs over the 10 day spring break. Where once I would’ve done a long run every other day (and more heavily accumulate fatigue) I decided it best to stick to my 72-hour rule, which had been working well since I started back running. The plan was to hit the first long run that first day off, which coincided with the Lake Sonoma 50mi Training Runs anyway, and Lake Sonoma doesn’t have the long, steep descents that I find at Hood Mountain & Sugarloaf Ridge. Essentially, Lake Sonoma would be a little friendlier to my knee for this first “official” long run back.

My long runs were then scheduled as follows: Saturday, Tuesday, Friday, and Monday. The day after the long run would be a non-running day where I’d get out and ride the bike, easy, for a few hours, just spinning the legs. The day before the long run, I decided to do double days. But, running twice in a day didn’t seem like a wise decision considering my knee, so I decided to make the morning session a pretty easy fast-hike wearing my 20lb weight vest. I get a kick out of this session because I’m killing two birds with one stone, i.e., practicing a skill—fast-hiking—that’s important in ultrarunning while getting some strength stimulus from the vest. I soon started listening to podcasts during this session as well. Eventually I’m going to integrate minimalist shoes since the session’s only an hour, I’m not running, and stress on the legs is minimal. Seems to me a cool place to get my feet even more in touch with the trail. Hoka’s got some very light, more minimalist style shoes that’ll work well for this particular session.

Another point of note: now two days removed from the long run, I was feeling the effects of the long run and felt validated in the decision to run long every three days versus every other day. We feel the effects of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) most two days after a hard session. With the extra day of recovery, I feel we can not only arrive more fresh to the next quality session, but increase the duration of that session, deriving even more quality from it. Because most of us are slaves to the 7-day work-week, we can’t take full  advantage of this 10-day training cycle that a lot of pro endurance athletes use. If/when life presents the opportunity to employ it, I highly recommend trying it out! Quality sessions are more fun when the body (and mind!) are fresh. Weekly training volume is what it is.

The PM session—opposite the weight vest session—is what I now refer to as the “Easy. Light. Smooth,” or “ESL” run, whose name I stole from Chris McDougall’s book, Born to Run, documenting how the Tarahumara Indian tribe runs—Easy, light, and smooth. Recall, this session is my first actual run since the long run two days prior so I want to use it to gauge how I’m coming off the long run before I ask my body to do another one. As it turned out, the method turned out to be very effective. Endurance sports training 101: Keep the easy days easy so the hard days can actually be hard. And in a long run, the quality comes from duration not intensity.

For the subsequent three long runs, I wanted to get out to my fave place to train here locally—Hood/Sugarloaf, where I spend much of the time just going uphill, which is great for me ’cause that’s my limiter in ultra racing. And all the low-impact uphill work didn’t affect my knee. Over the whole spring break I was very reasonable and controlled with my descending (my strength), which unfortunately places incredible demands on the knees, especially in races that last 7-19 hours! Anyway, I really enjoyed these last three 5+ hour runs with around 8000′ of climb each. The streams are flowing and everything’s green. The temps were down and I could easily get around my loop on one 300cal bottle of Vitargo for hydration. That will not be the case as the season heats up!

Spring Break Running Totals: 147mi w/ 36,000′ of elevation gain/loss

Thus my spring break served its purpose—establish a strong foundation moving forward with training and get some very specific work for the 16,000′ of elevation gain/loss at Canyons 100k on May 7th. I’ll hope to have this wonderful opportunity to race on the Western States 100 course, but also get to compete one more time whilst I’m still 41 (I turn 42 just two days later). I love getting to race on or near my actual birthday. Provides some extra incentive! I will, however, have to keep my eyes on the prize and listen to my body during Canyons. If the knee’s really talkin’ to me, I might have to make a tough decision and drop in order to, as I tell athletes I coach, “preserve the future.” I do anticipate racing strong from start to finish but given that Canyons is only 7 weeks out from States, I just have to be careful. There’s a big difference between doing an easy 5-hour long run and racing a demanding 100k. My plan is to arrive to the starting line of Canyons very fit and fresh so I can not only race effectively but also recover very well in time to get back to a training block for States, which I’m very excited to do!

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Psyched and super grateful to back on board with HOKA ONE ONE this year. Lots of great new models to try out and keep me running strong. It’s gonna be another awesome season!!

 

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Equally psyched to back on board with the fastest muscle fuel out there—VitargoS2. And by the way, the new watermelon flavor is the bomb.com!!

Faster than Twitter, thanks to my beautiful, loving, and highly supportive wife Amanda for her thankless job [even from afar] as “First Responder.”  |  Thank you to Julbo Eyewear for the beautiful, functional, and comfortable sunglasses. It’s GREAT to be working with you!  |  Thank you to Hoka One One for your continued support and producing the best shoes out there—#LetsGoHoka!  |  Thanks to Inside Trail Racing for offering so many fantastic races in great places.  |  Thanks to Vitargo for the steady energy and SIMPLIFYING my nutrition.  |  Thank you Healdsburg Running Company for all the wonderful support. HRC rocks! | Victory Sportdesign produces the best drop-bags in the biz! | Thanks to Dave Townsend at Santa Rosa Physical Therapy for helping me keep the dream alive!

Check Engine Light

With three straight ultrarunning seasons in me, one thing’s increasingly clear: I’m at a point of diminishing returns. To continue improving I have to keep working on what I have control over, namely volume and intensity of training while exploring some shorter race distances to help build greater power and speed. In 2015, with two successful 100mi campaigns in the bank, I found myself in early November wondering where my desire to put up big weeks of training had gone. North Face Endurance Challenge… you temptress! Alas, there was little training mojo but in the words of Jack London, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” Racing always seem like fun. Why not race more, train less and see if I can’t work on that power/speed development?!!

The overarching plan at the end of 2015 was to “get fast” so I could race my way into Western States 100 at either Sean O’Brien 100k in February or at Gorge Waterfalls 100k in April. All these years of racing, I know how to mix up a good training/racing cocktail to achieve my long-term goals. So I raced fast and often over a 3-week period leading into North Face. I was sure to chop the volume since the intensity went up. It was a lot of fun and I felt like the experience would serve me well in the long-term.

As luck would have it, my golden ticket to States fell into my lap in mid-November as a result of the work I did with Tahoe Mountain Milers at both Western and Tahoe Rim Trail last summer. So I no longer needed to race my in at Sean O’Brien or Gorge. Yet, I still wanted to race those events, and badly. That’s what we do—we sign up for event, train hard, taper, and go big (then repeat the cycle). All the while, health often gets taken for granted.

After North Face at the beginning of December I pretty much shut it down and really wasn’t doing much exercise at all in the weeks after. As a masters runner now, I’m realizing this is a very bad idea; I really need to keep moving. I need to ride the bike more and keep things lubricated. After a couple weeks I went out and did some short trail runs only to find my left knee was givin’ me hell. I experienced an intermittent sharp pain under my patella. It was there. It was not there. Go to the bike. Work it out. Mix the cocktail. Find the solution. Manage it. Run. Pain’s better! Okay, ease back in…

The injury litmus test I’ve always used is if the pain subsides as the run progresses, you’re probably good. If the pain gets worse, you got a problem and you should back off the running and accept you have an issue that needs attention. My knee pain subsided and I chalked it up to a weird niggle that ultimately seems to have originated from racing two tough 30k’s too close together back in Nov; then piling more stress on top of that in order to encourage increased speed and mental fitness for the spring. By mid-January, Sean O’Brien (SOB) training was finally starting to come together:  a 70mi week with 15,000′ of elevation, backed up with an 80mi week with 18,000′ of gain. No knee pain, but… was somethin’ still goin’ on in there??

I wanted to put up one more big week of training before taking a rest week and then sharpening the week into SOB. Monday came rolling around and I noticed some mild swelling. Hmm, not good. After having dealt with a different stress related issue in the same leg a year before, I knew the best path was to take the issue seriously and get some help sooner than later. After a week, the swelling was just about gone and things were looking good again.

I followed through with my promise to myself and went in to see my sports doc and we hashed it out. “The x-ray looks good and I see no need for an MRI, but if you want one we can do it. Are you sure you wanna know what’s goin’ on in there?” We set up the MRI for later that same day. With Western States on the line, I needed to know exactly what I was dealing with, and if racing two tough 100k’s this spring was even in the cards.

This was 10 days out from Sean O’Brien. I had my plane tickets, car, and hotel booked. I was super stoked to race. My 3-month plan to arrive to Feb fast and fit looked like it had worked well. I would use SOB and Gorge as stepping stones to my States-specific training in May and June. Perfect! I asked my doc if I could go out and do my tempo run on the road before the MRI that afternoon. He said, “Why not?” The MRI would be what it was going to be anyway. Since I’d rested for a week and absorbed that last week of training I was on a tapered high starting this run. I zipped through a 14-miler on rolling country roads averaging low 6s the whole way—great! Average HR was in the high 140s—great! Green light for SOB 100k!!

My MRI revealed the following (see below). Everyone keeps telling me that it’s not as bad as it sounds. Well, I’m thinking, it doesn’t feel as bad as it sounds, so…

Moderate marrow edema within the anterior pole and body of the
patella likely representing stress related changes with stress
reaction/fracture. Additional probable stress related change involving the medial
femoral condyle and lateral tibial plateau. Focal deep chondral fissuring of the inferior central patellar cartilage.  Small joint effusion.

My doc went over my MRI results with me and suggested I take some time away from running to allow the knee to heal up. It was a bit counter-intuitive to see there was indeed, havoc going on inside my knee, yet I just had a great tempo run 2 hours prior with no issues at all. Well, what now?

In my early 20’s I drove my dad’s old Isuzu Trooper we got when I was in 6th grade. I put some big miles on that beast. By summer ’96 I don’t think there was a light on that dashboard that wasn’t illuminated. I drove it straight into the ground.

Clearly, ignorance wouldn’t likely lead to the bliss I’m seeking at the Western States 100 finish line in June, so just like that, Sean O’Brien was out (for the second year in a row). And after looking at at least a month away from running, so is Gorge Waterfalls. Trying to “force fitness” for Gorge—not to mention the stress of the race itself—could possibly lead right back to where I am now, or worse. I was bummed about SOB since I was looking to do well there, and Gorge, because I wanted to go back and improve upon last year’s performance. And yeah, it would’ve been cool to Top-2 at SOB and/or Gorge to prove—at least to myself—that I could earn my way in through racing, even if I no longer needed to do so. I’ll have to remain content with what I’ve done at the 100mi distance over the last 3 seasons. That’s confidence enough.

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Rehabbing the knee. Photo Credit: Dave Townsend

We play the cards we’re dealt. I’ve stopped running and have gone in to Santa Rosa Physical Therapy and got some great PT stuff to help balance me out since this is the second stress-related issue on my left side, along with some reassurance that I’m looking good for a full recovery in time to come back right and do a proper build to Canyons 100k two days before my birthday in May. Naturally, I’d love to come into States having raced at least one ultra. And I’m feeling the good mojo with Canyons—100k with 14,000′ of vert. If I can train properly and hit 70-80mi running with 15-20k’ of gain with no knee swelling, it’ll be game-on. Otherwise, more rest could be needed and I’ll have to come into Western not having raced, which though not ideal, wouldn’t be that bad as long as the training’s there in May/June. It’s all about the preparation. Ultimately, knee-be-damned; I’ll baby it now, but come the end of June, it’s go-time.

Things are progressing well. I’m doing the PT every morning along with yoga and foam-rolling. I’m practicing fast-hiking on trail with a 20lb weight vest a few times per week, spinning, strength training, and did my first century ride over hilly terrain last weekend. That was a nice 7-hr effort. No pain during and no post-ride swelling. Yeah, I’m missing trail-running but it’s a no-brainer right now to take the rest given my goals later this year.

In parting, check out this sweet vid from Ultra Muse from last year’s Run Rabbit Run 100. That was a crazy day where I just stayed within myself and allowed the race to come to me. Hoping to be back in September (knee willing!).

Faster than Twitter, thanks to my beautiful, loving, and highly supportive wife Amanda for her thankless job [even from afar] as “First Responder.”  |  Thank you to Julbo Eyewear for the beautiful, functional, and comfortable sunglasses. It’s GREAT to be working with you!  |  Thank you to Hoka One One for your continued support and producing the best shoes out there—#LetsGoHoka!  |  Thanks to Inside Trail Racing for offering so many fantastic races in great places.  |  Thanks to Vitargo for the steady energy and SIMPLIFYING my nutrition.  |  Thank you Healdsburg Running Company for all the wonderful support. HRC rocks! | Victory Sportdesign produces the best drop-bags in the biz! | Thanks to Dave Townsend at Santa Rosa Physical Therapy for helping me keep the dream alive!

 

 

 

 

 

NF50: Shooting From the Hip

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Finish #5 here at North Face Endurance Challenge. Photo Credit: KC Hope Kennedy

Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change. Post Run Rabbit Run 100 in Sept, I felt pretty content with my season and decided to DNS Javelina 100 in October. There just wasn’t enough time to recover and do Javelina the way I would like to do it. Plus, the mojo to keep training just wasn’t there and the body niggles were. With the primary objective still being finding a way into Western States for 2016, I knew I’d likely be targeting Sean O’Brien (SOB) 100k in Feb and Gorge Waterfalls 100k in Apr, as my “golden ticket” opportunities. So, my plan for the fall was to keep things pretty loose before resurrecting the dedication needed to really excel at those two golden opportunities. Also, remaining injury-free has been very high on my list o’ priorities. With solid endurance in the bank from two successful 100mi campaigns this year, I wanted to give myself some solid racing experiences. These have come in the form some shorter, fun, fast, and competitive efforts—Sonoma Trail Marathon, Mt. Tam 30k, Peacock Gap 30k, a trail turkey trot, and North Face 50. All of these events have really pushed me outside my comfort zone and I’m excited for all that lies ahead.

Luckily, on Nov. 19th, Tahoe Mountain Milers punched my States ticket for me (see previous blog-post) and the tables were turned; I no longer have to race my way into States. I now have the option of doing SOB and/or Gorge. If I’d known earlier that I’d get in, I would not have signed up for SOB in early Feb and made North Face a higher priority. One cannot always have his cake and eat it too. So, the final 5 weeks before NF, I was averaging 30mi weeks total volume, but giving myself some rich racing experience needed to sharpen for the spring. I was also hoping I’d have decent enough fitness to achieve two objectives at NF50—win the Masters division and set a personal best for the course. All things considered those goals seemed reasonable.

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Start line. 5am. Fully caffeinated.

I really didn’t know what to expect from low volume training weeks while having two hard 30k’s in my legs (Mt. Tam 30k on 11/14 and Peacock Gap 30k on 11/21) along with a fast little 3.5mi trail turkey trot in my legs on Thanksgiving (hey, it was legit!). Confidence, however, was fine because all my events this year, I’ve demonstrated I can always gut out a decent second half when I have to. At North Face, I wanted to explore the edges a little and see what kind of race I could put together. I had nothing to lose here so I wanted to let it all hang out and learn more about myself.

Climb out of Muir Beach. At least it wasn't muddy.

“Learning about myself” on the climb out of Muir Beach. At least it wasn’t muddy this year.

The race plan was simple: give some attention to pushing the heart-rate for the first 30mi and then switch over to average race-pace at mile 30 and tough it out to the finish. My average HR from a previous NF50 was 142bpm. My avgHR from those two November 30k’s was each 153bpm. I wanted to keep my foot on the gas and run at the higher limits of my aerobic zone and see what I could pull off. My avgHR through the half was 150bpm. I knew it was likely unsustainable, but this was unchartered territory for me. I’d never done so much intensity leading up to a 50-miler either! I was learning and the learning will lend so much to my 2016 season. This experience was about finding a way to continue evolving as an ultrarunner. “Only those who go too far…”

Six miles in, I saw Jorge Maravilla and Dylan Boman float way on a climb while I rode my personal red-line, pacing at the limits of my aerobic potential on the day. Once the sun came up, a train came by, with conductor Jason Schlarb on the front. I wanted to go, but I couldn’t answer the call. Norway’s Sondre Amdahl had been hanging out a minute or two ahead of me all morning and I knew he was likely in the lead for the Masters. We met at the Western States Training Camp this year and I’ve been following his adventures on social media ever since. I slowly reeled him and and encouraged him to keep on pluggin. Hoping I was now the top Master, I knew Paul Terranova would likely be the next 40-plusser I’d run into, so I’d have to stay focused and in front of him, at all costs!

Looking forward to making the switch in mindset from aggressive pacing to “racing” I looked at my Suunto and it was creeping slowly up to 30 miles. Up some switchbacks it read 29.95mi, and as I rounded another 180deg turn, I spied Terranova… right behind me. We hit some rolling flat, my watch rolled over 30mi, I switched to avgPace and saw 8:19/mi total race pace. Man, if I could only hold that, I’d go under 7 hours here. That’d be awesome! Would those 30k’s actually trump the big volume weeks I normally do? My legs are already starting to cramp. Need more salt.

Yeah, so it was a rough last 20mi but NF50 served its purpose—help toughen me up for 2016. I did manage to accomplish my two goals, though barely. I was only 4min in front of Paul by the finish and only improved my best time on this course by 1min. All things considered, it’s been a great month of racing.

The warm embrace of the NFSCA finish line.

The warm embrace of the NF50 finish line. AvgHR of 144bpm…

With North Face in the books, I’m taking 3 weeks off from running to rest up, do some cycling, strength training, and yoga. I wanted to navigate this fall season smart so that I’d arrive at the door of 2016 injury-free, and maybe just a little bit tougher. I still am planning on SOB 100 in early Feb with my sites set on racing Gorge Waterfalls 100k in early April to the very best of my ability. I have a score to settle with that event. Looking at the big picture, my thinking is that executing well at both SOB and Gorge will really set the stage for a strong showing at Western. One step at a time…

Parting Shot: With the Hoka Family at Tamalpie in Mill Valley post-race.

Parting Shot: With the Hoka Family at Tamalpie in Mill Valley post-race.

Faster than Twitter, thanks to my beautiful, loving, and highly supportive wife Amanda for her thankless job [even from afar] as “First Responder.”  |  Thank you to Julbo Eyewear for the beautiful, functional, and comfortable sunglasses. It’s GREAT to be working with you!  |  Thank you to Hoka One One for your continued support and producing the best shoes out there—#LetsGoHoka!  |  Thanks to Inside Trail Racing for offering so many fantastic races in great places.  |  Thanks to Vitargo for the steady energy and SIMPLIFYING my nutrition.  |  Thank you Healdsburg Running Company for all the wonderful support. HRC rocks! | Victory Sportdesign produces the best drop-bags in the biz!