MUC50k – Miles Falling Like Dominoes

With Marin Ultra Challenge 50mi champ and Hoka teammate, Paul Terranova, who won both the Bandera 100k and Rocky Raccoon 100mi in January of this year. Photo Credit: Nate Dunn

Driving down to Marin County on Saturday morning at some ridiculously early hour, I counted six months since I’d last raced at Pine to Palm 100 last September. Furthermore, I got to thinking how it didn’t seem like a whole year has passed since I last ran today’s race (the 50-mile version). So cruising down the 101, I likened life to the “Happy Pi Day (3.14) Domino Spiral” video I shared with my students on Friday—the speed with which the dominoes fall increases as you get closer to the center. Time moves pretty fast…

With my accelerating stream of consciousness bending both time and space, I soon found myself under the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, at the Start/Finish of the 4th edition of Inside Trail Racing’s Marin Ultra Challenge. I enjoyed some great training these last few weeks, after getting on the other side of a fairly mild, but nonetheless, frustrating stress fracture.

Then just as soon as I had my best training week, I’d come down with some flu-like symptoms at the start of last week. The plan was to hit one more bigger week of training, to cap off my prep for Gorge Waterfalls 100k, here on March 28th. So I show up to my Tuesday hill session, park the car, think about doing hill repeats and… put the seat back and fall asleep. When I wake up, I drive home. I try again the next day. I didn’t even make it to the park; I just put my running stuff in a cupboard in my classroom and went home. The next day, I start my hill workout and get two intervals done before jogging around the park before heading back to the house. By Friday, I was effectively tapered, feeling much improved, and instead of doing the long runs I’d planned, the thought of running the 50k at MUC sounded like a the perfect cherry atop my Gorge 100k prep.

4-MUC-Base-Print-197x300The 50mi and 50k start together at around 6am and the young-guns took it out a lot harder than last year. In 2014, running the 50-mile, I found myself leading both races by mile 2. Not having raced in a while, this was a wake-up call, especially running up this steep road under the Golden Gate Bridge to get to trail-head. Legs felt as heavy as the concrete buttresses holding up the damn bridge.

Once we got up top, I got the intensity back under control, and running over to Rodeo Beach, three became two. Within a few miles, I had to let #1 go because he was runnin’ like he stole something. I had a feeling he’d come back later.

There was a good number of guys chasing, including 2014 Rocky Raccoon 100-mile champ, Matt Laye, who’s now returning to solid form after a dealing with a frustrating hamstring injury for many months. Back in December, we’d both been injured and volunteering at a Inside Trail event and got to hang out so it was great to be experiencing this race with another runner who you know is especially grateful to be back in the mix.

Having done the MUC 50mi last year, and probably from the back-to-back long runs I’ve been doing in training, my perception of the 50k was… interesting, to say the least. It seemed to fly by. Not having raced in so long, I found myself completely in the flow of the race—trying to catch as well as trying not to be caught. Predator-Prey. Eat or be eaten. Indeed, I missed these primal feelings. Completely absorbed in the running, spiraling further down into the present moment, everything else melts away.

No race, however, is without its drama, and the front runners got a little jumbled as we came back around to Muir Beach on our way back to Tennessee Valley somewhere around mile 23. As it turns out Matt and another guy ended up shaving off 0.7mi from a short out-n-back to the aid-station, just about the time I’d caught 1st at the Muir Beach aid-station. So, after some clarification on which direction to run, thinking myself in 1st, I motored back the 0.35mi to the turn home, soon to realize at least two guys were up ahead. Great. That’s trail-racing—just like a box o’ chocolates.

I got up to the gate at Gulch to see Matt running back toward me. He realized he’d cut off the short out-n-back and proceeded to right the wrong, which resulted from some confusion at that dubious trail junction. Volunteers are doing the best job they can. Kudos to Matt Laye for being a stand-up guy. If he hadn’t been aware of the error, or chose not to correct it, I wouldn’t have been able to reel him in by the finish. That’s what we call sportsmanship.

Onward I go, all the way back to mile 26 at Tennessee Valley, where I have a fresh bottle of VitargoS2 waiting to refresh and power me up Marincello and to the finish line. I now know there’s one guy up ahead. He’s not local and isn’t aware he shaved off the 0.7mi out-n-back. And, after working my tail off to this point, ending up 2nd doesn’t doesn’t sound very good at all.

View from the trail of the last few miles of the Marin Ultra Challenge. No finish line beckons like the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo Credit: Jeremy Bardell

Close to the top of Alta, I was finally able to reel in 1st, after not really having it the whole race. It was pretty much pedal-to-the-metal to the finish, and running the steep stuff back down, under the GG Bridge, was a lot less miserable than it was a year’s worth of dominoes ago, finishing that beast of a 50-miler, which Terranova had the honor of winning this year. After returning from injury, it’s been a challenging road back to race-fitness. So naturally, it feels damn good to out there again mixin’ it up with the boys (and girls as is so often the case).


Yeah, so the hope is that MUC50k will serve as a solid tune-up for Gorge 100k, here at month’s end, permitting just a bit more sustainable abuse in those later miles. I’ll be going up against young bucks like Nike’s David Laney & Ryan Ghelfi, ultrarunning vets like Gary Robbins and Yassine Diboun, and dark horses like Chris Wehan and Nathan Yanko. I’ve stopped looking at the entry list on UltraSignup; it wasn’t doing my confidence any favors.

I’m expecting nothing less than a full-on suffer-fest in the second half of Gorge. I’ll show up prepared and run a smart, strong race. That’s all we can ever do. There’s only two Western States 100 spots and Laney already earned a spot earlier this year, so even if he won, for example, the WS slot would go to 2nd and 3rd place, unless one them declines, then slots roll down as far at 5th place. On paper my odds don’t look good. Fortunately we don’t run on paper. Like my high school wrestling coach used to say, “Anybody can beat anybody on any given day.” You keep up that honest effort all the way to the finish.

logo_colorIn the submarine world, where I worked for a few years, you have back-up systems for back-up systems. So I’ve done my best to navigate my 2015 event schedule to ensure something awesome happens this year. So if no Western States, then I’m already in at San Diego 100 at the start of June. And if I do San Diego, instead of Western States, then I have three additional weeks in between it and Cascade Crest 100 at the end of August, which will scratch my itch to race in the mountains since I’m not running my much beloved Tahoe Rim Trail 100 in July (though I hope to be there in some capacity other than running!). There might even be a little Javelina Jundred action thrown in come Halloween time, if things are goin’ well and I find myself hungry for something other than Snickers Bars and Milky Ways. I’ll get out to more ITR races as well. There’s so many good ones on their event calendar!

I recognize that the gold standard in ultra-running is still a Top-10 performance at Western States and I’d surely love the opportunity to run against the best there to see how I stack up. The 100mi is my best event because that’s the distance that speaks to my restless soul. Not to mention there’s a fair amount of downhill running from Squaw to Auburn, and I really like running the downs. With four Hawaii Ironmans in me, I know a few things about running well in the heat, and some of that proficiency has come from failing to run well in the heat. In the grand scheme of things, it’s just another race, but I’d be bummed if I didn’t get to do it while I was at my best. I’m no spring chicken.

Random parting shot with Amanda and Nuya founder, Ted Neal, at Healdsburg Running Company with the Montrail Ultra Cup, in house for the upcoming Lake Sonoma 50mi in April. Photo Credit:  Skip Brand

Thanks to my beautiful, loving, and highly supportive wife Amanda for her thankless job [even from afar] as “First Responder.” Thanks for fixing my stress fracture!!

Thank you to Hoka One One for the their continued support and producing the best shoes out there—#LetsGoHoka! 

Thanks to Inside Trail Racing for your offering so many fantastic races in great places.  |   Thanks to Vitargo for the steady energy and making training/racing nutrition easy.  |   Nuya is perfectly natural hydration that combines electrolytes and carbohydrates to properly hydrate and fuel your body. I love it as a recovery drink!

Thank you Healdsburg Running Company for opening up in my ‘hood. Love the new store and the weekly group runs. It’s great to be building community with you!

2014 Lake Sonoma 50

LS50Wow… Lake Sonoma. Man-o-man. This was my third go-round here and it was by far the most satisfying. The spring racing’s been fabulous and I brought some good health and fitness into April. After Marin Ultra Challenge in March, I licked my wounds and just worked on keeping my speed up for Sonoma by doing a few super-specific workouts, namely a few fun interval sessions like 3 x 4mi @ sub-50k effort, and then a week out from Sonoma, the Annadel Half-Marathon, just to try something new and see if I could bring some leg speed into this crazy fast 50. When things are going well you just have to roll with it, so with Marin and Annadel in the bank, I felt confident I could race like I wanted to at Sonoma, i.e., write the check my body could cash.

After the Annadel Half-Marathon on April 5th. — Photo credit: Carlo Piscitello

Sonoma County’s been my home and triathlon, cycling, and trail-running playground for the past 10 years. With the first 2+ miles of this race on my beloved Skaggs Springs Rd., I ran on the front and felt comfortably awesome being there. Right from the get-go, I found myself playing to my strengths—flying on the downs and the flats while keeping the perceived exertion in check. So on those Skaggs Springs rollers, gravity carried me up to the front, passed Rob and Sage and I found myself making the turn into the woods, in 2nd, behind Max, knowing full well, that as the trail started to pitch up, I’d start losing ground, but losing ground on my terms—holding back on the ups while picking up good momentum on the downs. Hey, it’s a race!! >>>

Last year, I entered the woods in about 20th and stayed there, so it seemed like a good idea to start the day well into the Top-10, and fight the whole race to stay there. Within a few miles, guys started to slip by on the ups as expected and I was having a blast running on my home turf, while catching fewer and fewer glimpses of Krar and Varner up ahead, slip, slip, slipping away from me. It was looking like the ol’ marine layer was in full effect, so I was grateful to have conditions that would encourage a personal best.

Up around Warm Springs Creek aid, two Nike guys in the form of Ryan Ghelfi and Dan Kraft went by, which put me back into 10th, though I wasn’t solid on my place at the time. I ran with those two for a bit, losing more on the ups than I was catching on the downs but staying within myself and thoroughly enjoying the glorious morning.

Photo Credit:  Joseph Condon
Photo Credit: Joseph Condon

For Sonoma, I really wanted to better about consuming more calories over the second half so instead of just relying on gels, I thought mixing it up with some Shot Bloks would be a good idea. At the No Name Flat turn-around, I re-loaded with gels and Bloks. Soon thereafter I popped a few Bloks and something crunched hard in my mouth. WTF!?! I pulled the Blok out of my mouth and stuck to it was one of the crowns that was supposed to be attached to one of my back molars. Hmm, too bad. Keep running >>>

Photo Credit: Ernie Gates

My target-finish time-range for Sonoma was 6:40 to 7:00. I’d hit the turn-around in about 3:13, which was about 7min faster than last year. So at that point I was still on a 6:40 trajectory. Before the race I’d set my Garmin’s Virtual Pacer to 8:11/mi pace, thinking that a 6:50 total race time was right smack in the middle of my target range.

By the time Wulfow aid finally came up again at mi33, I was getting tired but still determined to fight to the finish. I’d not looked at my watch up until this point. When I flipped over to the Virtual Pacer, I found that I was 4min up, still averaging less than 8:11/mi. That quickly passed, and so did Jacob Rydman. That put me back in 11th, though I still imagined myself running for that 10th spot. It ain’t over ’til it’s over. I told Jacob after the race he runs like a deer, as he does. He ate up quite a few guys on his trip back from the half-way. If he ends up running Pine to Palm in September, it’ll be interesting to see where we are relative to one another around mile 80.

The support out there was awesome. A lot of local yokals running, volunteering, and spectating. I got some shout-outs at the half and was psyched to see both an ITR team-mate and my Hoka rep at Wulfow going out and coming back. They both pumped me up as I was at that tough mi32 section of a 50-miler, when you are dying (at least I was), but have quite a bit of running left. Last thing I heard from them as I crested the climb and started running down the other side, was “You’re doing great!” and “We can’t see anyone coming up!”

Love/Hate  —  Photo Credit: Chihping Fu

Knowing these trails as well as I do is a mixed blessing. But once passed Wulfow on the return trip, I could start to smell the barn. And in many ways, it was beautiful running around the lake, over streams, splashing water on my head, almost like I was out there by myself, pretending as I sometimes do in training here, that it was race-day and I was fighting hard just to round out the top-10 with guys and gals closing in from behind >>>

And then, alas, there arrived the Warm Springs Creek aid-station and its awesome crew. Mile 38 baby. “Fill ‘er up!” I chugged a full bottle of water, then re-filled my bottle with Coke as I mustered the will to begin the 7mi trek down-trail, to the final aid-station at Island View.

Can’t say I remember much of this stretch from 38 to 45 but I know it’s the first time in the race, where I was more mindful of sights and sounds coming from behind. I had gotten away from Warm Springs aid without hearing any follow-up cheers or cowbells, indicative of the next runner coming in to the aid-station, so I knew I had room. Walking the uphills could not be an option. Everything had to be run, to avoid being caught, to maintain position, and to try and catch the next guy. On this stretch, I kept making the choice to be the predator and not the prey, and I never looked back. At least, until Island View.

Island view aid station takes you off the main trail, down a quarter mile to the aid-station, and then a quarter mile back up to the trail. It’s 4.5mi from Island View to the finish. At this point in the going, you just don’t really want to see anyone when you’re making your way back up to the main trail, ’cause it’s really going to light up the person chasing you. So, as I made my way back up and was just about ready to make the turn home, I see a runner bounding—literally bounding—down toward me. Smiling, he says, “Shebest! Are you ready to suffer?!!” To which I half-heartedly replied, “Uhh… Yeah man.” Sounds like a great idea…

At the end of several 50-milers over the last year, there’s been a curious phenomenon occurring known as the Thomas Sanchez Tractor Beam Effect. Powered by youth, it locks on to my soul and starts reeling me in toward it at the very end of 50s. I’ve only managed narrow escapes with it in the past. At last year’s Lake Sonoma, we came in 20th and 21st. At Dick Collins 50mi in October, Sanchez came roaring to the the line, just a minute back for 4th. And here we were again, both with equally improved fitness, and duking it out in the final 10% of the race. These are the guys I think about when I do hill repeats and tempo intervals.

I’m so at home now on these trails that on some level they comfort me while suffering to beat the band. Every twist and every turn, a familiar reminder I was one step closer to the finish. If he’s going to catch me, he’s going to have to out-work me. Run, cramp, walk, stumble, jog, power-hike, run, cramp, stretch, hobble, skip, jolt, veer, trip, hop, skitter. Push…

With 3.5 to go, I found a friend, Patrick McKenna, out on the trail sending runner updates back to iRunFar via satellite. As I stumbled passed, with a long switchback over to my left, I asked Patrick, “Can you see him?” Patrick said, “Yeah, but I think you have some room.” Those words gave some hope to the sad story that was the current condition of my body. Cramp, run, power-hike, stretch, run, cramp. Push, just a little bit more…

It’s been a while since a finish line felt so awesome. Seeing “7:02-something” was good enough for me even if it was a bit outside my target range. Whatever. I just wanted to know my place. I gave Amanda a big hug and gave and got some high-5’s and found out from Tropical John that I’d placed 10th. Relief. And then Gary Gellin came roaring to the line just a few minutes later.

Shattered at the finish line. — Photo Credit: J. Tanner Johnson

Funny how the turn of events can pan out in our favor, or not. Had Sanchez not lit a fire under my ass with 4.5 to go, I would not have been inspired to push so hard to the finish and both guys would probably have eaten me up with a mile or two to go, since, in that context, they would have had the “psychological momentum” (a term I’ve borrowed from, author, Matt Fitzgerald).

I’ve always enjoyed throwing my hat in the ring with the big dogs to see where I stack up. That’s what kept pulling me back to Ironman Hawaii for over a decade, to race against the best out there, in really tough conditions. Lake Sonoma 50, with it’s relentless ups-n-downs and stiff competition, represents another opportunity to fine tune my racing process. Last year at Sonoma, Silver State, and North Face, all with comparable cumulative elevation profiles, I was going about 7:20, total race-time. In addition to getting more calories in during the second half, building in more speed and strength work early this year in training have helped shave off 15min (7:07 & 7:03, Marin Ultra Challenge and Lake Sonoma respectively). That’s about 3.5% improvement over 2013.

I tell athletes I coach that it’s only reasonable to expect around 3% performance gain from year to year, assuming the athlete’s been racing for a while. When you’re just starting out, the learning curve’s steep and you can chop off huge chunks of time early in the going. But once we get to that point of diminishing returns, things either have to evolve in training, or risk stagnation. Change is constant.

Slowdown Rank Sort provided by Gary Gellin

The 100mi distance remains my favorite and the one I naturally gravitate toward (like the Sanchez Tractor Beam). So it’s nice to see that 3% gain as I inch closer to summer and the century-runs to come in July and September. “Suffer better” is a term that’s being thrown around a lot lately. That’s a big objective right now—manage the suffering more effectively so I can run the backside of these 100’s well, when it’s more about the mind than the body. Anyway, it was just good fun to run off feel at Sonoma and believe I could hang on at the end. That hasn’t always been the case. Chasing—and being chased by—the best in the sport definitely brings out the best in us.

With ITR Teammate, Chris Wehan, left. ITR Teammates, Luke Garten and Gary Gellin, right. Left Photo Credit: Melanie Michalak / Right Photo Credit: UltraSportsLive.TV

The Inside Trail Racing Team was out in full force with a handful of guys racing and placing, including Luke Garten, Gary Gellin, and Jonathan Gunderson. Chris Wehan, 2013 Rio del Lago 100mi champ, was out rocking the Wulfow Aid-Station with his girlfriend, Melanie. The support from ITR, the awesome aid-stations, all the volunteers and spectators, made it a race to remember. Could I shave another 3% off next year? Hmmm… Are you ready to suffer Sanchez!?!  😉

Bruised with brews. — Photo Courtesy of Chris Jones

Thanks to my beautiful, loving, and highly supportive wife Amanda for her thankless job as “First Responder.” Look at my toe!

Thank you to Hoka One One for the their awesome support and producing the best shoe in ultrarunning—DEMAND MORE!    |    Thanks to Inside Trail Racing for your offering so many fantastic races in great places.  |   Thanks to Clif Bar for fueling my training and racing.  |   Nuya is perfectly natural hydration that combines electrolytes and carbohydrates to properly hydrate and fuel your body. I love it as a recovery drink!

Thank you Heart-n-Sole Sports for your continued support. Thanks to Brian and the awesome instructors at Paradise Yoga, a brand new yoga studio, right here in my hometown of Windsor. Yoga’s definitely helping my running. Namasté!   |  Thanks to the folks at Akoia Day Spa for the painful sports massages I get a few days post-event. Bringing me back to life!