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.

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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!

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! 

2015 Run Rabbit Run 100

“So as he rose for the shot he concentrated on trying to do something he had learned skin diving: not to care. Underwater he had learned to be detached, because to be in a constant state of concern was to be using oxygen. You have to make yourself not care, he would say when people asked how he did it. Not caring was why it was so easy to make these shots in practice when it didn’t matter and so easy to miss them in games when it did.”   –From Racing in the Rain, by John L. Parker, a prequel to Once a Runner

One race season leaves indelible footprints on the next. 2014 was the first time I raced two 100-milers in a single season—Tahoe Rim Trail in mid-July and Pine to Palm in mid-September. All things considered, I felt there wasn’t quite enough time—for me—to both absorb TRT and properly prepare for P2P. So the way 2015 panned out, having San Diego 100 in early June and Run Rabbit Run 100 in mid-Sept really seemed to open up some breathing room and do things right. RRR being my seventh 100, I feel this one was truly a synthesis of experience, where I was able to employ so much of what I’ve learned in my time in the sport to produce the result I knew I was capable of in a so-called high-stakes race. The ups—but particularly the downs—I’ve experienced in the last 18 months really paved the way for a magical race in Colorado. I’ve always liked doing September races. There’s just somethin’ about ’em…

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Crunch-time! Hammering out last-minute details before depositing the drop-bags the day before the race. Invaluable tips from Hoka teammate, Karl “Speedgoat” Meltzer helped sealed the deal.

The build-up to Run Rabbit Run 100 was so busy, there wasn’t much time to get nervous. I knew who was gonna be there and fully embraced the opportunity to race against the best. The competitive factor has become a huge driving force in fueling my training mojo as of late. With the training I had in the bank and my success at the distance, I ensured the self-talk stayed positive, believing that I was just as deserving of a strong result here as anyone else on the entrants list.

I hopped a flight outta Sacramento Wed morning, got into Steamboat in the early afternoon and just focused on resting up and setting my mind to the singular, monumental task of running this mountain-100 to the best of my abilities. With a quick rainy run on Thursday morning, the skies cleared, sleep was in the bank, and soon enough it was high noon on Friday and time to get the party started.

With Pine to Palm 100 course-record holder Becky Kirschenmann at the start. Photo Credit: Kevin Deutsche

With Pine to Palm 100 course-record holder Becky Kirschenmann at the start. Photo Credit: Kevin Deutsche

Holding back, letting people go—with great expectations of reeling them in later—was the name of the game. I figured that since the use of heart-rate has been so successful for me in previous 100s, why try to fix what’s clearly not broken.

With some solid run prep, including 7 weeks of using Hypoxico altitude training gear, I figured I was as prepared as I could be for the specific challenges this race presents. I just had to ensure I operated inside my optimized limits and focus on really nailing the execution.

Photo Credit: Paul Nelson Photography

The start of the 2015 Run Rabbit Run 100 (Hares). Photo Credit: Paul Nelson Photography

Heading up to Mt. Werner in the opening miles, I watched about 20 runners just float away from me. According to “the plan” I wanted to average about 142bpm for the first 30-40mi. I figured that target HR, like it has in the past, would set me up for a strong finish. But by the time I reached the summit, my avgHR was at 147. Well, there ya go. What to do now? Just flow with the course. Knowing that Run Rabbit Run 100mi course-record holder, Jason Schlarb, was in the mix again this year—along with so many other talented runners—I expected the folks on the front would go out pretty hard. I was counting on it!

Even with seven weeks sleeping in an altitude tent and doing 23 intermittent hypoxic sessions on the trainer, I was still surprised to see how the higher elevation—in contrast with my heart-rate at the same intensity back home at sea-level—was clearly pushing my heart to beat faster in order to supply needed oxygen to working muscles. Pacing off heart-rate early ultimately allowed me to optimally pace, conserve energy, process calories, while freeing up my mind to appreciate the exquisite beauty of the Routt National Forest, which was a big draw for me when signing up for this event.

Photo Credit: Paul Nelson Photography

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.” -John Muir.  Photo Credit: Paul Nelson Photography

The early miles are always glorious smooth sailing. It was in here patience was already starting to pay off, with a few runners came back to me just by running within myself. I filled up a water bottle at Long Lake aid-station, saw a couple runners there, including, Timmy Olson, and took off wondering if I’d be seeing him later.

It was great getting to run with Boise’s Mark Austin, for a good stretch. Mark was one of the few athletes I knew coming into the race. I’d expected to see him at TRT50 in July but he didn’t make the trip down. Last year, at the tough Silver State 50, in the mountains outside Reno, Mark caught me with a mile or two to go and snagged 2nd. This year he won it. Mark knows how to pace and always closes like a champ. Yet another guy to worry about here at Run Rabbit…

Photo Credit: Paul Nelson Film & Photography

Photo Credit: Paul Nelson Film & Photography

On the way down to Fish Creek Falls I was happy to dice it up with Michelle Yates, who was looking strong over this technical section which leads us out to the road back into town and then to Olympian Hall at mile 21. Once I hit the road, I felt the force flowing from the four tempo sessions I did on soft surface back home in prep for this event (I mean I signed up as a hare after all, gotta run quick when ya can!). Just lean into it and let those legs do the job they’re well conditioned to do…

Photo Credit: Kevin Deutsche

In the light of day. Photo Credit: Kevin Deutsche

At Olympian, I picked up my first of nine 300cal bottles of VitargoS2. After all these years I’m finally content with how I use hydration bottles in ultras. Two Amphipod bottles, a yellow one for Vitargo, and a clear one for water (and chicken broth late in 100s) really works well for me. This was the first race I’ve used a Flipbelt, and it helped secure the bottles in my waistband, even when full. The low temps made the distance a lot more enjoyable and to drink relatively cold Vitargo all day was definitely a treat. This was by far the coolest 100 I’ve run and it was great to have steady energy all day with no nausea or vomiting!! Can I get another exclamation point?    !!!

On the long descent down to Cow Creek I was excited to catch up with Nick Clark, who looked like he took a few nasty spills (I’d have one late in the race as well). So gradual, is this process of catching up to competitors in a 100. I’d started to catch folks in the tortoise division some time back so it was always so awesome to see other hares. Nick and I settled into a good downhill rhythm, chatted a bit about our displeasure with the tricky descent, and made our way into the Cow Creek aid, where I grabbed a Tikka RXP headlamp, with a spare battery. In the event something was off, I didn’t want to be without a headlamp so I’d stashed one in my mile 30 drop-bag as well as mile 42.

Photo Credit: Run Rabbit Run 100

Delicious single-track. Photo Credit: Run Rabbit Run 100

Talking with the occasional pack of tortoises, it was slow going back up to the water-only aid-station at mile 38, which I’d heard rumored may be dry since mountain-bikers like to help themselves to the runners’ refreshments. As so it was—bone dry. I’m glad I made the last-minute decision to definitely use two bottles. I knew it wasn’t that far back to Olympian Hall, so I rationed a bit but with the cool temps, hydration wasn’t the critical issue it is when the mercury’s through the roof. Just hang tough and ride the line…

Arriving at Olympian Hall in good spirits. Mile 42. Photo Credit: Kevin Deutsche

Arriving at Olympian Hall in good spirits. Mile 42. Photo Credit: Kevin Deutsche

MarieLanka2

Average heart-rate coming into Olympian at mile 42 was about 144 or 145bpm. That was a bit higher than I’d expected, or wanted, but considering the temps, great fitness, perceived exertion, and solid fueling, I felt the risk was worth it. Besides, my ace-in-the-hole was having a fully-absorbed San Diego 100 in my legs from June. This day, I felt bulletproof. I swapped out my short-sleeve race jersey for a base layer and long-sleeve jersey here and picked up my second Tikka RXP headlamp and another spare battery. I was fully charged to run through the night. Bring it on! >>>

Photo Credit: Kevin Deutsche

Let’s Go HOKA!! Photo Credit: Kevin Deutsche

And now the sun was setting, which was a foreign place for me to be and not have the race be even half over—strange sensation indeed. We started at noon, versus 5 or 6am like I’m used to, so I had to do some on-the-fly reprogramming of my head so I wouldn’t push too hard during sunset, as has been the norm in other 100s when I’m around 80mi in by sundown. I’d heard I was running in 4th and it wasn’t even mile 50 yet, so I just kept yelling back to enthusiastic spectators, “Hey thanks! And there’s still so much racing left!” I was having a blast, clicking off some street miles back up to the rugged Fish Creek Falls section.

vitargoSlog. Slog. Slog. The trail goes up to Fish Creek Falls aid while the temps go down. By the time I got back to Long Lake it was a gettin’ chilly. I grabbed a fresh bottle of Vitargo, a beanie, some gloves, and stuffed some hand-warmers in them to help keep my hands warm and functioning. Glad I remembered those bad boys. I found them at the bottom of a drawer before leaving home. They’d been left over from some cold winter when I was doing a lot of cycling. Nice thing to have them for the night-running here.

Up at Summit Lake (mi58) I heard my wife’s voice in my ear: “The time you spend putting on warm clothes you’ll gain back, and more!, since you’ll keep yourself warm and comfortable.” There’s always some unknown variable that she’ll focus on intently, then go to work on my head to ensure I take the issue seriously and proactively address it. I’m grateful.

In the days leading up to the race, Amanda got in touch with an old friend she danced with as a kid. Her husband works for Smartwool, which is based out of Steamboat Springs, and this guy’s friend has run the 100 here before. Amanda was on my case to call this guy—Alex. So I gave Alex a ring the day before and much to Amanda’s delight—and my own—he gave me a ton of great information that really helped me dial in my drop bags, and get a better sense of how, when, and where the temps would affect me over the race. It was then great catching up with Alex, pacers, and other tortoises on some climb out there in the night. Hoppin’ along the bunny trail exchanging cheers of encouragement with the tortoises is a very cool aspect to this event. Amanda also ensured I got in touch with Speedgoat, Karl Meltzer, before the race to get more insights on race-day strategy. No surprise, his wise words aided my race strategy.

Summit Lake to Dry Lake. After subjecting some poor guy at Summit aid to help me don a pair of especially tight tights, I threw on a couple more layers, left the bustling warmth of the aid-station, and started one long-ass descent down to Dry Lake en route to the turn-around at Spring Creek Ponds. Shortly after departing Summit, I look back and spy a head-lamp a couple 100 yards back. Then it was 100. Then 50. And then Nick Clark went by me.

As Speedgoat had suggested, I needed to be patient in this section because I really wanted strong legs for the challenging duration of climb out of mile 70 and ultimately for the final third of the race (when moving well matters most). Now I had just been passed by Clarky, which not only put me back a position but knocked me back to second Master (over 40). I’d gotten a good feel for Nick’s pace coming down to Cow Creek earlier and it was still inside my comfort zone, although now there was a bit more pep in his step. And, of course, I wasn’t forgetting who this guy was. Freakin’ Nick Clark. They don’t make ’em any tougher. So h*ll yeah, I thought to myself, what an honor to run with this guy. I’m stayin’ on this train. Honestly though, I’d written him off after Cow Creek, since he’d fallen a few times and seemed too quiet, maybe frustrated—understandably—so I was surprised and inspired to see him back killin’ it down to Dry Lake. And it was just too cool to pass up the opportunity to work together.

Faster together. We pulled into Dry Lake and the folks were just awesome. I was flying high, in good spirits, crackin’ jokes with volunteers and as we grabbed what we needed before gettin’ outta Dodge and getting back to the task at hand. Nick was in full on race mode. The night running was goin’ good. Every tortoise we’d catch, they’d know Clarky. No one had a clue who the h*ll I was. I wasn’t in California that was for sure. Eventually, we made our way up to a dark, slim figure walking on the right side of the road, 20 year-old, Jared Hazen, 3rd place overall at both Lake Sonoma 50 and Western States this year. He boldly ran with Jason Schlarb for some 65mi before the wheels came off. No shame there. I have former students older than this kid. Young, talented, and fearless.

Now running in 2/3, Clarky—5th here last year—and I kept up a good clip for a few more miles before we saw Jason Schlarb running back up. We exchanged some encouraging words and hightailed it as best we could down to the aid-station at Spring Creek Ponds. Upon arriving, I finally got a laugh out of Nick when I said, “Man, it sounds like a cowbell orchestra here!” All the energy at the aid-stations was so great.

Since Summit, Nick and I had ample opportunity to get a good sense of how strong/confident the other was feeling. Mile 70: this was the point in the race I’d been waiting for all day! I had no reason to doubt Nick would be strong for hours to come and suspected he was at least as decent on the ups as he was the downs. As we pulled the u-turn down into the aid, I zoomed to my drop-bag, snagged a fresh bottle and moved like h*ll back outta there and started moving quickly back up the climb. It was time to cash in on the 90,000′ of elevation gain I had in the training bank since August 1st! I wanted that Masters win so I needed to get out of Nick’s sight for a while or at least get some damage control goin’ on this climb so that once we got back to Summit Lake at 82, I wouldn’t be too far behind him. That, of course, along with the other obvious fact…. There was a growing presence behind, now in front, closing at a relative speed of sub-6min/mi pace. I hit my lap button and said a little prayer…

Challenger ATR -- Greatest. Shoe. Ever.

Hoka One One Challenger ATR — Greatest. Shoe. Ever. I had a fresh, fly pair locked-n-loaded for Run Rabbit, with just 20 little miles on ’em just to ensure they were perfect.

Now not-so-firmly in 2nd place, with 1st way off in the distance, there was 50k left to go and anything could happen. It was time to move with increasing purpose while being steady, getting in calories, and keeping my mental game crazy positive. Eight minutes and 30sec later, the next hare I spied coming down was Germany’s Marco Sturm. We’d diced it up a bit earlier in the race and I was impressed with his smooth, strong running over the technical stuff. [Marco got off course after Dry Lake and added about an hour to his time.] I rounded the 8:30 to 10min, doubled it, and gave myself a not too generous 20min lead on him. Not a lot. There would be no more Hollywood breaks at toasty aid-stations from here on out. With Nick right there, Marco some 20min back, I kept up my fast-hiking and waited with much anticipation to see who who’s headlamp would blind me next—Jacob Puzey? Tim Olson? One of the Colorado boys? Josh Arthur was 2nd here last year; he’s gotta be makin’ his move. Then there’s Boulder’s Andrew Skurka. And then there’s the leading ladies… Almost a year to the day, Becky Kirschenmann, was running me down at Pine to Palm 100 to place 2nd overall, nailing the 5th best ultra performance of the year from a female. She again has her TransRockies experience in her legs. And I gotta be on the lookout for Yates and Kimball…

Somewhere out there in the night. Photo Credit: Ultra Sports Live

This is the moment we train for. What I dream of as an ultrarunner. And the memories created here I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. The choice to answer the call, have the extra gear be there, and motor to that finish line is exciting. What an amazing space to be: alive and thriving, so raw, and so rare a moment in this modern world of conveniences. It’s after midnight, and I’m on some mountain top in Colorado, some 20mi to the finish line of a 100mi trail race. This is living…

Six hundreds paved the way to effectively deal with the otherwise overwhelming weight of distance and time. Don’t think just run. Smile. Laugh. Encourage. Keep the head positive. Above all else, maintain momentum in the moment. Second place at Run Rabbit Run is a pretty cool place to be. Don’t blow it.

Finally to Summit Lake, back up above 10,000′. This section from mile 82 to 97 was the reason I rented Hypoxico equipment in the first place. Now it was time to see if the 45+ nights in the tent and 14+hrs sucking rubber on the trainer was worth the investment.

I’m up high. I got competitors in front and behind, I’ve got over 80mi in my legs, and I’m puddle-jumping/weaving like a madman shifting focus from trying to catch 1st to dwelling on how far behind is 2nd back to “not caring” and just trying to recapture my now elusive flow-state I found myself in for so much of the earlier miles.

I take a hard fall. Back up. My light goes out. On goes the spare. Energy’s depleted. Chug more Vitargo. The hot chicken broth from the last aid is burning my right ass cheek. Take it out and carry it for a while. It’s so warm in my hands. My headlamp lights up my breath in front of my face. Hallucinations imminent. Was that a mudpuppy I just saw in that puddle? Indulge and have another look. No, it’s a slimy log. Are you sure? Snap out of it. When’s the sun gonna come up? Only 0.3mi to next aid at Long Lake…

In-n-out of Long Lake I zip down the trail and remember the serene water from the daylight now to my left with trees opposite reaching to a blue, cloudless sky. Signage ahead: “To aid-station 3: Fish Creek Falls”. Think. Does this take me to Werner? Yes. I don’t know. F*ck. 0.5 back to Long Lake to ask. I’ll go down this trail and see. Maybe not. D*mmit. It has to go to Werner. You can draw the map by heart. Think. Is it the trail or not? Sh*t, I can’t think very well right now. They’re catching you. Alright, I’m running back, f*ck it. It is what it is. I’ll just have to outrun anybody that catches me because of this little setback. Better safe than sorry. Get your effort down. Relax…

Back at Long Lake I get the attention of a knowledgeable volunteer and I inquire about the signage and whether it leads to Werner and the finish. He graciously runs with me back to where I was. We take the turn and run down a short connector to a fork in the trail, one leading right to Fish Creek Falls and the other going left to Mt. Werner (the final aid-station before the finish).

D*mn, that sucked. No one caught you there, you were lucky. No harm no foul. You weren’t lost, you were clarifying. And more importantly you didn’t just flush $6000 down the toilet. Smart. Now run your ass off to the finish! Full effort is full victory. Thanks Einstein.

Daylight breaks. Headlamp off. But the headlamp really illuminates those reflective course ribbons. Headlamp on. What if someone’s a couple 100yds back? They’re gonna see your lamp and catch you. Headlamp off. Catch a toe on a rock. Headlamp on. It’s light enough now. Headlamp off. Step in a huge mud puddle and leave shoe stuck in it. Really? Headlamp on. Find shoe in mud and slip back on foot. Oooo, that feels good. Love these shoes. Hmm, Injinji socks are cool too; like little gloves for your feet. Focus! Put hand over lamp and look over shoulder. Someone’s back there. Wait, doesn’t look like it. How’s that Kinks’ song go again?…

(yea, it goes like this, here it goes) paranoia, they destroy ya
(here’s to paranoia) paranoia, they destroy ya
(hey hey, here it goes) paranoia, they destroy ya
(and it goes like this)

Mt Werner – Mile 97. It’s all downhill to the finish. I’m a great downhiller. No chicken broth. Ergh. Fill ‘er up with Coke. Thank-you! Sorry, I’m cranky!!

I suck going downhill. Holy God this is awful. What kind of long-term damage am I doing to my legs right now? Switchback. Holy h*ll, I think I see my hotel room window. Look over shoulder to see if there’s a runner. Pounding. What meniscus? Each step must be taking months off my life. Pain is temporary. Pride is forever. How many more years before hip replacement surgery? Sun’s up and it’s a glorious Colorado morning. Savor this… beauty. This sucks. Switchback. See mountain-bikers. Ask if they see anyone behind me. “No.” “Thanks.”

Guy goes by in a Hoka kit. Hmm, nice jersey friend. “Hey, good job.” Other runners coming up the maintenance road. Wow, must be coming up to watch us finish. Hmm, more runners. You idiot, they’re running the 50mi. They started at 6am. I knew that. Cheers. More cheers. Hey, long night. Thumbs up, thanks. Hey, cool. More runners. Look over shoulder to see if Clarky’s coming. Smile. Wave of euphoria hits. Another. Start cheering for the 50milers. High-5s. See my buddy Kevin Deutsche from home. Another high-5. Wow, that was great seeing all those runners. Mile to go to the finish. Let’s try to stay on course. Atta boy. Get this sh*t done.

Photo Credit: Paul Nelson Film & Photography

Photo Credit: Paul Nelson Film & Photography

Brought it home for 2nd place overall and first place Master in a time of 19 hours and 13min. This stands as the 9th fastest time in the four-year history of the event. The co-RD said that Run Rabbit’s typically not nice to Californians. I can see why with the altitude and the low temps. I was more than happy to prove him wrong. Three guys from Cali, including myself, did manage to find the finish line. Upon crossing the finish line, we were immediately lookin’ for a heater and our flip-flops!

And as it panned out, Schlarb was over an hour ahead of me by the finish and I was exactly an a hour in front of 3rd. So funny how things go out there. You just never know what’s going to happen in a 100mi footrace at elevation, that starts at noon, has 20,000′ of gain and loss over technical terrain. Naturally, I’m wondering how I could’ve gotten an hour back to bridge the gap to 1st. I’ve come up with about 30min so far, including that little navigation snafu back at mile 90. Schlarb’s got a lock on this race, to be sure, having set the course-record, of 17:15 in 2013 and having been at the event, in some capacity the last four years. Rob Krar was here last year and won in a time of 17:40. Jason’s a professional mountain runner living in Durango, CO who’s spent some good time this year training up high in the mountains. Tough guy to beat!

All things considered, I executed pretty well. Naturally I’ll get sh*t for my course confusion and someone always chimes in that if I hadn’t worn the HRM I could’ve won, but I’m betting Denver dollars to Dunkin’ Donuts that I would’ve ended up on the long list of DNFs had I not worn HR in those early miles. A DNF is never an option, especially in an A-Pri event like this. Too much time, energy, sacrifice, and benjamins went into it to throw caution to the wind early and run wild. I took calculated risks and followed some of Speedgoat’s key rules for running 100s, namely, do your thing out there to stay within yourself, manage your issues effectively, so you can be there in the final 25% of the race. Eastern religion tells us that the middle road is often best. I like to apply that mentality to 100mi racing. It’s gotta be a balance of brains and balls out there. Doesn’t it?

In the money! Not a bad yield for an old school teacher with a mortgage.

In the money! Not a bad yield for an old school teacher with a mortgage. Photo Credit: Amanda Misiak

You know another golden nugget of wisdom from the Speedgoat? Here it is: “You’re always faster the second time you do the same 100.” Thinking back to my four Tahoe Rim Trail 100 times… 22:44, 19:57, 18:03, 17:38. I believe in that idea, wholeheartedly. Afterall, Karl Meltzer did go 18:32 here at Run Rabbit in 2013 at 45 years of age…  😀

Run Rabbit Run 100 – Strava Activity – I finished with a 3% battery charge!!

Complete Results from Hallucination Sports

1st place, Vitargo athlete, Jason Schlarb’s ultrasportslive.tv interview

1st place, Hoka One One athlete, Emma Roca, ultrasportslive.tv interview

3rd place, Andrew Skurka’s usl.tv interview. Listen to him talk about heart-rate!

Optimal Pacing for an Ultra-marathon | Q&A with Bob Shebest

Parting Shot: Sonoma's Suzanna Bon, 51, running Tahoe 200, a week earlier. First female and course-record in 68hrs. 4th overall finisher. Three over-nights. Two 20min naps total. My muse for RRR100.

Parting Shot: Sonoma’s Suzanna Bon, 51, running Tahoe 200, a week earlier. First female and course-record in 68hrs. 4th overall finisher. Three over-nights. Two 20min naps total. My muse for RRR100.

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! | A final BIG thanks to Dylan Bowman at Hypoxico for the support with my first experience using the gear. It was fun throwing this experience into the training mix!

2015 San Diego 100

SD100_9

Free. Your. Mind.  >>>>>> Photo Credit:  Paksit Photos 2015

In the days leading up to San Diego 100 I kept thinking about that famous Frank Shorter quote, “You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can’t know what’s coming.” The event was feeling a bit more ominous than it should have. Two weeks out I had to basically shut down the running and concentrated on a strong finish to the school year; the most challenging one, in terms of classroom management, in my ten years teaching. Throw in coaching and training for a 100mi run and no surprise that my soul’s check-engine light came on. Thankfully I had a week to catch up on rest and get my head on straight before the big day in SoCal on June 6th.

Let's just EASE into this... Photo Credit: Josh Spector

Let’s just EASE into this…   Photo Credit:  Josh Spector

Nice to have a direct flight down to San Diego on Thursday before the Saturday race. I got out on the course a bit on Friday to preview the start/finish after a huge night’s sleep. The race started to feel less threatening and more like it should—an epic adventure on brand-new trails! First thing I realized was I needed some gaiters to protect my ankles and feet from the plethora of pesky foxtails that were in over-abundance due to recent rains. I’d pick some up at registration later that day and in tandem with a brand-spanking new pair of Hoka Challengers, I’d have zero foot issues for 100 miles. BOO-yah!

Challenger ATR -- Greatest. Shoe. Ever.

Challenger ATR — Greatest. Shoe. Ever.

I’d posted a question on Facebook a few days before the race about what settings to use on my Suunto Ambit 3 Peak and an illuminating conversation thread ensued. I ended up using the 1sec recording interval with “best” GPS accuracy. For this race, I chose not to use heart-rate, not merely because it saves battery life, but because, this time, I wanted to race a 100 without it. Suunto note:  upon finishing I had 20% battery life remaining. My back-up Suunto never left its mile-80 drop-bag. I was happy that the Peak’s band didn’t bother my wrist all day, as it had been doing in training. I prefer the Sport’s band since it’s softer, but the Sport doesn’t have the Peak’s robust battery life.

With Spokane's Ben Bucklin. Photo Credit:  Paksit Photos 2015

Yukkin’ it up early with Spokane’s Ben Bucklin, who would go on to win the SD100 solo division.

Racing aid-station to aid-station was the plan from the start; chunking the mind-numbing 100-miler up into bite-size pieces is, for me, mentally advantageous. Thus, I had three pieces of data on my Suunto the entire race: lap-distance, lap-time, and lap-pace. Upon departing each aid-station, I was sure to hit the ol’ lap button and do my best to live in that “space” from aid to aid, a task that would grow increasingly difficult as the race wore on and my weary mind would drift to how much racing was still left…

2015 SD100 Aid Station Splits (Strava.com)

2015 SD100 Aid Station Splits. Click to enlarge. (Strava.com)

 2015 San Diego 100 – Strava Activity

Photo Credit: Billy Yang

Rollin’ on the PCT. 23mi in, averaging 8:35/mi. Sunrise Aid-Station. Photo Credit: Billy Yang

On this day, running “within myself” found me in first position after about 15 miles. I can’t say I was psyched to be there with so much racing to go but I’ve learned that I need to run my race at my pace, and this was the reality. I pressed on all day long, thinking about this-that-and-the-other, but returning to Karl Meltzer’s sage 100-mile advice, “You gotta be there in the final 25% of the race.”

Todd's Cabin. Mile 40. Photo Credit:  Scott Mills

Todd’s Cabin. Mile 40. Don’t know if Todd was there. Photo Credit: Scott Mills, RD

Photo Credit: Chris Wehan

Mile 51. Meadows Aid Station. Double-Butt-Bottling it, DeNuch style. Photo Credit: Chris Wehan

Race director, Scott Mills, his staff, and volunteers run a tight ship; one BIG reason I chose to run San Diego this year. Communication with athletes in the preceding weeks was excellent. Course-marking was dialed, including confidence ribbon every 3-5min, flour arrows with extra flagging at turns, signage, and critical junctions were often manned with volunteers to ensure weary runners didn’t make any knuckle-head mistakes. I previewed the finish route the day before. I could roughly sketch the entire course from memory, including all the connector out-n-back trails. Scott reinforced through multiple email communications, and again at the pre-race briefing, the importance of keeping your head in the game and doing your due diligence with regards to knowing the course. Bottom line for me:  I feared getting off course more than anything. Every ribbon spied was a small victory, all day long.

Even at this race, with so much vigilant course-marking happening—before and during the race—there was still a longish stretch, somewhere there in the middle miles, where I’d been running too long without seeing a marker. I knew there’d been no other way to go yet I was starting to get nervous. Down-trail, I saw a wadded up bunch of orange ribbon thrown between some bushes. “Ohhh, sh******t”, I thought. Right there, on a log though, near the displaced ribbon, I spied one lone ribbon that had a SD100 note attached to it, explaining to passersby that there was a 100-mile trail-race going on, imploring them to not remove the ribbon, etc.

It appeared to me that someone had found this particular downed ribbon, read the note, recognized its significance and thoughtfully placed it on that log as an act of goodwill. I imagine notes like that appealing to people’s humanity, discouraging vandalism on one hand and encouraging others to lend a hand and replace down ribbon. Yet, I didn’t fully trust the course-markings for a mile or so, scrutinizing over how each one was attached to a branch, tree, bush, sign, or rock. Vandals had sent us on a wild goose-chase at mile-20 at Gorge Waterfalls 100k in March. Once bitten, twice shy baby. The ribbon thankfully led me to the next aid-station, where I shared the news with a concerned aid-station captain.

Photo Credit: Debbie Jett

It wasn’t the hottest SD100 on record, but it got pretty toasty during the afternoon. Photo Credit:  Debbie Jett

Upon reaching Pine Creek aid-station I was about 100k in and still averaging about 9:30/mi pace. I’d been riding the line with nausea for hours. Before departing Pine Creek, I asked the volunteers, how far to the next aid. They reminded me, “Eight miles. All uphill.” My spirit took a hit. I lingered a bit longer there, drank another 12oz of water, cold-sponged myself, and set to the task of climbing. I would lose about 30sec/mi off my average race-pace by the time I reached the Sunrise 2, at mile 72.

Mile by mile, I was grateful for previous experiences like climbing up Diamond Peak at mile 80 in Tahoe Rim Trail 100 and ascending Peavine Summit from mile 33 to 39 in Silver State 50. In the words of educational theorist John Dewey, “All experiences live on in future experiences.” One foot in front of the other. I knew if I didn’t suck it up on this section, someone—back there—would happily reel me in, just like the flyin’ Frenchman, Jean Pommier, did last year at Silver State.

IMG_9683Somewhere about mile 7 of 8, up this godforsaken climb to Pioneer Mail 2. I was out of water and calories, even after rationing best I could. Both bottles now bone dry. I thought about this hilarious “100 Mile 101” pic my wife shared with me a few days prior. At this very moment I knew I just moved from #2 to #3—“This is shit.” What was curious about it was there was something in the back of my mind that now found the situation somewhat comical. The power of these “steps” though wasn’t necessarily the lighthearted humor, but the promise of getting to #5 and ultimately #6. I knew I still had to get through #4 though…

Photo Credit: Debbie Jett

#3: “This is shit.” With pacer Chris Wehan. Photo Credit:  Debbie Jett

At the top I was greeted by pacer extraordinaire, and Inside Trail Racing teammate, Chris Wehan, who told me, “I’m bored,” so he was jumping in early. Fine by me! We’d planned on teaming up at Sunrise 2 (mile 79). It was good to have some company. “Soooo… you’re walking?, he said.” I was having a moment. I soon got over it and started running again. Chris never fails to fire me up. Whether pacing or racing against him, he always brings out my best. At an Inside Trail 50k in Woodside in late April, we were hitting the early, soft downhills there at 4:45/mi pace. We would both subsequently blow sky-high later in the race. Friendly competition at its finest! I found myself thinking how nice it would be to run at 50k race pace to the finish, and get this bullsh*t over with asap.

Chris and I got into a rhythm and I grew quiet, struggling now with fatigue and nausea. Thinking I had at least a 20-30min lead over 2nd place, my mammalian brain attended to its job of slowing me down, since I believed there was no threat from behind. Nausea turned into vomiting. I’d reached #4 – “I am shit.” Back moving. Get in calories…

The secret sauce---VitargoS2.

The secret sauce—VitargoS2.

Besides a Picky Bar in the first 10mi, I’d only taken in calories from VitargoS2. I’d premixed nine bottles, each with about 300cal/bottle and placed them in drop-bags that I’d basically hit at every other aid-station throughout the day. Each time I picked up a bottle, I had a 280cal packet of Vitargo rubber-banded to it, to use at the aid-stations in between, where I would not have a drop-bag. As the race wore on, and my stomach was less and less cooperative, I found I had to dilute my 300cal mixture with water to reach a concentration that my gut could sustainably handle. Once beyond 70mi I also started using a 50/50 mix of water and chicken broth in what had been my water-only/cooling bottle (aka: bottle #2). From this point on, I’d use the “steady-drip” method of fueling/hydrating, taking little hits off the diluted Vitargo, chasing it with bigger gulps of delicious, life-giving chicken broth.

Predator-Prey. Ben Bucklin on the hunt, rolling through Pioneer Mail, mile 72. Photo Credit:  Billy Yang

Predator-Prey. Ben Bucklin on the hunt, rolling through Pioneer Mail, mile 72. Photo Credit: Billy Yang

Like the song goes, “When the lights go down in the California town / People are in for the evenin’.” Not the ultra-runners. We’re out there with all the critters that come out at dusk. As Chris and I shuffled up on the PCT to Sunrise 2, we watched the shadows grow long and spied several fox, deer, and later, closer to the finish, we had to run past a juvenile skunk, which evidently sprayed us a bit, since folks at the finish said I smelled kind of skunky. While chasing the sunset, I told Chris about the rattlesnake I almost stepped on in the heat of the afternoon. Biggest rattler I’d ever seen on the trail; coiled up, and rattling to beat the band. I’d given that guy a wide birth and told the RD, upon running into him again at the next aid. I guess I could go without seeing snakes, but all the wildlife throughout the day, added to the wildness of the experience.

SD_100_map

I’d been silently dreading Chambers 2 aid-station at mile 88 since about mile 12, when I hit it on the way out. It’s tough because you’re 88 miles in and you can see the finish from across the lake, that is, if you look left, which I didn’t. Chris said what I was thinking, “Let’s get in and out of this aid-station fast. You can see from the map that Chambers has an out-n-back connector. We wanted to be back-n-forth before 2nd place came in. And we almost made it.

As we were just about to turn right to head up the first of two climbs to the finish, 12mi to go, we see a headlamp moving along the trail to our left. Without someone ahead to keep me “in the hunt” I’d simply slowed too much, or so I thought. Turns out, Ben Bucklin had been making a charge for hours, getting feedback from aid-stations that I wasn’t looking too hot, inspiring him to give chase. With 12 to go, the race was ON!

The adrenaline surged, the temps were dropping, the stomach immediately righted itself and two miles of climb later, we were averaging 10:30/mi pace. Push. We ran everything I could. 5.1mi to the final aid-station at Paso Picacho, where we topped off my bottles, and quickly moved on down the trail. 7.1 brutal miles to the finish. Anything could happen. I had to push on the climbs, stay steady, try to keep calories coming in, and ride the line as best I could. I remember Chris reporting 10k to go, then later 5k to go. How I longed to be running my open 5 or 10k pace at that moment! Get this sh*t over with!

The final two miles into the finish are brutal. Lots of loose, large rocks that make running quickly all but impossible, especially in the dark. Every time we start to push, we’d stumble, or twist an ankle. Adjusting pace, we moved more carefully through this section, sometimes rewarded with a smooth stretch, where I’d open up the stride, imagining increasing the gap to 2nd by a few more seconds. Keep that cadence quick!

Careful to stay on course, we finally arrived at Highway 79, crossed, and made the hop-skip-and-jump to the finish. I was psyched to see 17:09:28 on the official clock and shake Scott Mills’ hand. I wanted to be under 17:30 here at San Diego since my 100mi personal best, set at Tahoe Rim Trail 100 last year, was 17:38. I also didn’t want to let Scott down by making any major knucklehead navigational mistakes, considering how much energy he and his staff put into marking the course so well.

Ben Bucklin came in a few minutes later, winning the solo-division (sans pacer), the first year this division was offered. I was counting my lucky stars that my pacer, Chris, happened to be visiting family in Los Angeles this same weekend, and so graciously offered up his time to hobble around in the dark with me, while I vomited, stumbled, farted, grumbled, and belched. Bucklin ran a solid race and pushed so hard to close the gap down to within 8min at Chambers 2, at mile 88. His efforts to bridge and get within sight of 1st, put the fear of God into me, which made me dig deep, find another gear, and work so hard to the finish. Competitors will always push us harder than we would otherwise push ourselves. Because of Ben, that final 12mi brought out my best and produced some powerful, and cherished memories. Long live sport.

With Gabe Wishnie (3rd) and solo division champ, Ben Bucklin. Photo Credit:  Scott Mills

With Gabe Wishnie (3rd) and solo division champ, Ben Bucklin. Photo Credit:  Scott Mills

San Diego 100 – Full Results

With ultrarunning LEGEND, Scotty Mills, SD100 Race Director. It was an honor to win his race and shake his hand at the finish.

With ultra-running legend, Scotty Mills, SD100 Race Director. It was an honor to win and shake his hand at the finish. Thanks to Scott, Co-RD Ang Shartel, and the army of amazing volunteers that make up the awe-inspired event that is The Official San Diego 100mi Trail Run.

breakfast

Parting shot. Nothing in the world like the breakfast after a 100-miler! With pacer extraordinaire, Chris Wehan.

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 the their 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 SAN DIEGO 100 nutrition.  |  Thank you Healdsburg Running Company for the awesome show of support for SD100. HRC rocks!!  |  Thanks to my friends at Nuya coconut water for the optimal way to replenish after a long (long) run.

Wolves in the Arena

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It’s about a quarter-mile to the turn-around in the 2015 Gorge Waterfalls 100k, and, in some intensely serendipitous turn of events, I’ve found myself in the front group of four guys, including Justin Houck, Ben Stern, and Chris DeNucci. As we descend into the Wyeth aid-station at mile-31, I’m pleased to find that my heart-rate’s dropping to 123bpm. THIS is exciting sh*t!! >>>

2013 Western States 100 champ, Pam Proffitt-Smith, is graciously crewing for me this morning while Inside Trail teammate, Chris Wehan, is popping up everywhere along the way, further stoking the fire in my belly. Since I’m fueling the entire race with bottles of VitargoS2, I slam some while taking a moment to internalize my good fortune—I’m gunning for a Western States 100 spot, of which there’s two on the line today. I’m 50k into this sucker and there’s no one in front of me. I find myself departing Wyeth, happy, in control, and now leading the race…

Photo credit: Chris Wehan

Mile 31 turn-around – Wyeth aid-station with Pam Proffitt Smith and Ben Stern. Photo credit: Chris Wehan

 “Nature’s arena has a way of humbling and energizing us.” –Scott Jurek

Photo credit: GlennTachiyama

Stacked field at the 4am start of the 2015 Gorge Waterfalls 100k. Photo credit: Glenn Tachiyama

In this month’s Ultrarunning Magazine, Errol “Rocket” Jones writes, in an article entitled, Whiners and Winners, “Get the most you can from your running, because a setback is coming. Injuries or overuse will happen if you stay with it long enough. It’s part of the equation in long-distance [ultra]running and racing. You’ve got to take your lumps […].” I preach to athletes I coach that it’s not the training we can do that’s going to make us faster, rather, it’s the training our bodies can actually absorb. There is a distinct difference. From Nov-Feb, I had to take a big dose of my own medicine. And the spoonful of sugar was the opportunity to race well at Gorge Waterfalls 100k in March.

After a successful 2014 campaign, where I was able to achieve my #1 goal of defending my 2013 win at Tahoe Rim Trail 100, in course-record fashion, and back it up with a repeat win at Pine to Palm 100, eight weeks later, I knew I was incredibly fortunate to be enjoying such consistent good health, largely in part, I thought, to strategic planning of both my races and high-volume training, and of course, training/racing in Hoka One One running shoes. Still, I know nature has a way of keeping us in balance, and my “lumps” came in the form of a stress-fracture of the navicular bone in my left foot, as confirmed by MRI just before Thanksgiving.

This setback didn’t weigh too heavily on my mind, as 2014 came to a close, since I felt I had time to make a full recovery. Sean O’Brien 100k, unfortunately, had to be tossed out the window since I would not have the preparation required to be in the mix for a Western States slot, and would likely just re-injure myself. Thus, all the chips had to placed on Gorge Waterfalls 100k at the end of March.

Coming back to full health was frustrating as hell. Re-capturing my confidence has been the toughest part. The foot would be fine one day, and throb the next. More and more days had to be taken off. I was forced to dramatically change the way I trained. In hindsight, it appears I was able to ride that fine line just well enough to not hurt myself again, while harvesting enough fitness to race well at Gorge. With my fastest 50k trail-run in the Marin Headlands just two weeks earlier, I felt I was ready to race a 100k, but barely. Fortune favors the brave, right?!

All smiles early in the going. Photo credit: Chris Wehan

All smiles early in the going. Man, how I dig ultrarunning! Photo credit: Chris Wehan

At the end of last year, when I was considering my options for “racing” my way into this year’s Western States 100 in June, I studied the 2015 Montrail Ultra Cup qualifying events. Ultimately, I chose two of the longest races, that both inspired me and seemed like they would play to my strengths. As I’ve stated, I had to bow out of Sean O’Brien 100k in February due to injury but the other event, Gorge Waterfalls, seemed like a good bet since it was in late March, was a 100 “K” versus 50 miles, giving me something like two additional hours to reel in some carnage in the final 12 “bonus” miles, increasing the likelihood I could move into the #2 or #1 spot, securing one of the “golden tickets” for Western. The fact that Gorge would be very technical, with 12,000′ of cumulative ascent remains very attractive to me. If only it was a 100 miles…

For the record, it’s quite disappointing to me there’s not a 100mi option—my strongest distance—offered through the Montrail Ultra Cup series. Western States is 100-miler after all. Seems to me like we’d want to put the most qualified 100-milers on the starting line there, rather than the fastest 50mi + 100k guys and gals. But, that’s not the current reality, and at the end of the day, I’m just a Masters guy trying to do the best with the cards I’m holding. My ace-in-hole is my endurance; a card I’m left holding at the end of a 50mi or 100k. As an athlete who’s spent a decade in Ironman Triathlon, chasing entry into that sport’s “Big Dance”—the Hawaiian Ironman—for which I’ve worked hard, focused, and qualified on four occasions between the years 2002 and 2011. I’m hard-wired to qualify for the Big Dance by earning entry at a qualifying event of equal distance.

Photo credit: GlennTachiyama

Delightfully brutal course. Photo credit: Glenn Tachiyama

After departing the turn-around at Wyeth, it wasn’t very long before Houck and DeNucci caught up with me. A great memory from the day was running together, headed back west, toward the finish, as 100k runners were making their way to the turn-around. “We have ourselves a race!”, one runner exclaimed. Soon though the pace was a bit more than I wanted to tolerate, as we were only about half-way through. This day, I vowed to be patient, present, and positive, and I was sticking to my plan. Also, my heart-rate was giving me good bio feedback that I needed to keep holding back, at least to mile 36-40, with plenty of running to do from there. Just be patient. One, or both, of them will come back to you. Believe…

Earlier in the day, at mile 20, the front-runners had been directed off course by some hooligans who had vandalized the course. That incident tested my resolve but ultimately Yassine Diboun had gotten us back on track. It ended up adding about 2mi to my race, which I used to stay positive, and get additional calories in. Since we’d gotten off course not too far out from Cascade Locks aid-station at mile 22, I soon ran out of Vitargo but fortunately always carry emergency calories in the form of gels. We just rolled with it, and as soon as we found our way back on course, it was almost like we’d never been off course, with everyone quickly resuming his position in the race. I tried to make light of the situation and said to myself, “Well, more miles, more smiles.” I might just get to qualify for States at a “100-miler” the way this day is going!

Leading into the race, I’d been thinking of the Cherokee legend, the Tale of the Two Wolves. As the miles went by, I kept listening to my body, getting in good calories and “monitoring” the growing battle between the two wolves loose in my mind—the good wolf and the bad wolf. I kept trying to “feed” the good wolf by reminding myself to be present, in the moment, and believing in my potential to reel in at least one of the guys in front of me. At times now, the bad wolf was getting stronger; more ferocious. The good wolf was sent scrambling through my subconscious, scavenging for any scrap of confidence it could find…

Good Wolf: “You’ve just had the highest quality 8 weeks of ultra-run training you’ve ever done. You deserve to be in this position. Stay the course!”

Bad Wolf:  “Pine to Palm 100 was half a year ago old man. You’ve got a crack in your foot. You’re broken. You don’t have the iron in your legs that only racing gives you. What the f*ck are you doing out here?!”

Good Wolf:  “You just ran your fastest 50k in the Marin Headlands two weeks ago. You’re stronger than ever! You have plenty of time to reel in 2nd place. You own this race!!”

Bad Wolf:  “You shouldn’t have run that 50k dumb*ss. Your insecurity is your greatest weakness. Besides, that 50k was only four hours of racing. You think that’s gonna help you in this 10-HOUR smack-down?! WTF are you thinking? You know better.”

Photo credit: GlennTachiyama

Holding some good form together around mile 58. Photo credit: Glenn Tachiyama

Nowadays we have runners who want a course so well marked that Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles could make their way through it, solo.   -Errol “Rocket” Jones,  from “Whiners and Winners,” Ultrarunning Magazine, April 2015

 

Arriving at Yeon at mile 49, I picked up an additional bottle of VitargoS2, departing that aid-station with about 600cal to fuel the final approximate half-marathon to the finish. Unbelievably, it had come down to the scenario I’d imagined in the days leading up to Gorge—-I was in good position to run down my Western States slot!!

Aid-stations are always a sure-fire way to feed our good wolf, and I left with a boost of confidence that, with 2nd place only 3min up, I had plenty of time to catch my prey. Beyond 50mi now, it was time to shine. With no one in sight, ahead or behind, the struggle with mind and body to continue pushing ensued, often glancing at my heart-rate as my honest assessment of the effort I continued to invest in the endeavor. I popped out onto a half-mile stretch of paved road. I see the red of 2nd place’s jersey ahead, turning back into the woods. Skip Brand is standing at the entrance. I harness some strength and imagine lopping another 20sec off 2nd place’s lead. Skip gives me some encouragement and I head back up the trail. A wave of nausea hits me from the effort I’d just put in on the road. I wretch a few times in the bushes, marveling at how smooth VitargoS2 is coming back up. I recover quickly and press on, soon able to again consume and process calories.

As the race progressed from here, more and more hikers lined the trails, out on this beautiful day, taking in the marvelous spectacle that is the many beautiful waterfalls in the area, including Wahkeena Falls, Fairy Falls, Multnomah Falls, Oneota Falls, Dry Falls, and Ponytail Falls. Getting closer now to “No Name” aid-station at mile 56, I started to get glimpses of 2nd place up ahead, now 90sec up, according to Chris Wehan. Patience was the biggest challenge now. Keep the calories coming in. Be steady.

Photo Credit: Chris Wehan

Photo Credit: Chris Wehan

I found myself running several switchbacks and arrived at one where several hikers fanned out across the crook of the 180deg turn. I thanked them and quickly made my way passed and down a section of trail that led to a paved road. I looked left and right for a  life-infusing trail marker. I asked a guy with a dog if he saw two runners go by or any pink ribbon. He said no. Back up the trail, I ran into the hikers I’d just passed. I asked them if they saw any ribbon to which they replied they’d seen some not too far back. Dammit, I cannot f_____g believe this just happened… Are you F______G kidding me?!!

I’d only been off course for about 2min and as it turned out, when I caught up with these hikers and passed them in the crook of that switchback, none of us realized that I was supposed to continue straight through, rather than around the switchback in the direction they were all headed. With the four of them fanned out as they were, I didn’t even realize running straight through was an option. I tried my best to own the mistake but wished there’d been some alternatively colored ribbon, indicative of being off-course at a trail junction. How could any runner in my position not want that? Whatever. What’s done is done. It’s my responsibility to know the course. Suck it up buttercup.

When I hit No Name, at mile 56, a panic was starting to build within me. The bad wolf was eating me alive. I knew 2nd place’s lead had now grown to about 4-5min and my hope of earning my spot to States was now slipping away. Panic slowly started to morph into apathy. A warm justification for a 3rd place finish was gradually washing over me like a nearby waterfall; its spray of indifference like a shot of morphine. The good wolf now silent.

With two miles to go, I’m trying to rally while stomping down this super touristy section of black-topped switchbacks, seemingly enroute to nowhere. I didn’t realize until later that day that the biggest mistake I made here at Gorge was choosing to not go to the Start/Finish in the daylight the day before. Because it was race-morning registration, I had no clue what the route to the finish looked like. As I’m hobbling down this steep section, I more concerned with who might be catching up with me than who is ahead. To my horror, I see a guy in black who looks so fresh I can’t believe my eyes! Note: I later discover this was Ben Stern’s pacer (no wonder he looked so fresh!). Anyway, this sends the biggest shot of adrenalin into my system I throw it into high gear and start taking the remaining switchbacks as aggressively as I can. I open up a good gap and don’t see the track star anywhere behind me. I hit the road at the bottom to find Skip Brand standing there with a front-row seat to all the unfolding action. I’m disappointed in myself for failing to secure a Western States spot, but 3rd place today is not bad, right? At least it’s still a podium finish even if, technically, 3rd place is the “first loser” at this event today.

Before darting off, I ask Skip, “How far to the finish?!” He replies “less than a mile. You have to over a bridge.” I look up ahead and see what appears to be a bridge in the road, but then there’s two more up farther ahead. I slam the rest of my Vitargo, see a pink ribbon, know that I’m on course, and blast through this busy intersection where it’s wall-to-wall tourists. I take a hole-shot through a bunch of pedestrians at a cross-walk, and with some 65miles in my legs, lay down a sub-7min mile… to nowhere.

As I get farther and farther from the chaotic Visitor’s Center, I see some runners up ahead. I ask them if they saw any other runners or pink ribbon anywhere. A motorcycle cop rolls through and I yell and whistle loudly at him. He pulls over and I run up and respectfully inquire where the entrance to Benson State Park is. I blast off back in the direction from which I came. Arriving back at the Visitor’s Center I stop and do a slow 360, trying to figure out where to go. I see a foot-bridge, lined with tourists. Pink ribbon! I head down a path. Dead-end. Not the right direction. WHY isn’t there a race volunteer anywhere? Fumes for fuel. I’m so horrified by this turn of events I consider running back to my hotel in Troutdale rather than be seen at the finish. I’ve let everyone down—my wife, my friends, my sponsors. 600 miles of training since January 1, for this race. 100,000′ of climbing. Dedication to some stupid ideal. For what? To blow it at the end and not even secure a podium position. Chris Wehan meets me with a few 100yds to go and runs me in. I do my best to hold it together but I’ve never been more disappointed in myself at a finish line. Afterward, sitting in the grass alone, I can only think about the Theodore Roosevelt, Man in the Arena quote, and what lies ahead at San Diego 100 in June…

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Yet, I ask myself, am I just one of Rocket’s “whiners”? I do think it’s very reasonable, in a “high stakes” Montrail Ultra-Cup event like Gorge Waterfalls 100k, to at least have one knowledgeable volunteer, there at the end with two 90deg turns to the finish, offering some much needed support to all those runners on the “struggle-bus”. Or, at least an arrow to go with the pink ribbon that says something like:

<<< To Finish

Admittedly, I’ve had more than my fair share of getting off course in trail-races (who hasn’t?!), but I’ve worked on it and the results have shown. In the end, I found myself scraping together every last ounce of energy I had, with close to 66 miles in my legs, running as fast as I could, doing my best to honor both myself, my friends and competitors. Seems like sometimes, there’s a fine line between a winner and a whiner, wouldn’t you agree Rocket? I’m left feeling more like the latter as I tap out this race report.

Justin Houck and Chris DeNucci ran f_____g great races (not to mention Ben Stern and Gary Robbins who did, in fact, find the finish line before I was finally able to). Had I not gotten off course at all, I still may not have been able to reel Chris in, (and definitely not Justin) but what eats away at me is how random circumstances took the opportunity to try, away from me. At the turn-around I was in a dream scenario that should not have manifest in the way it did; many of the top names dropped or never started Gorge 100k for one reason or another. I’d been given a kick-ass opportunity, but failed to make good on it. That’s how the cookie crumbles.

There’s still the Montrail “Last Chance Promo” that has about 30 runners that entered and finished the 100k on Saturday. One of those names will be drawn and will receive an entry into this years Western States 100. Naturally, the odds of me getting in are actually less than the 4.7% chance I had in last December’s general lottery. Still, a chance is a chance. I’m not whining! Otherwise, I’m setting my sights on Jeff Browning’s San Diego 100 course-record in June. Also, I’m revising my event schedule and likely omitting Cascade Crest in August as well as Javelina in October and putting all the chips on Run Rabbit Run 100 in Colorado in September. Seems like the right thing to do. In the words of another Roosevelt:

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

In closing, I’d like to share how incredible I think the Gorge Waterfalls 100k course is. As of today, I’m definitely coming back next year, with as many friends in-tow as possible! This course is right up my alley, and with the course-knowledge from this year, I’ll easily shave 30-45min of my time, given similar weather conditions and NO course vandalism!! 😀

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!! I LOVE YOU VERY MUCH.

Thank you to Hoka One One for the their continued support and producing the best shoes out there—#LetsGoHoka! The CHALLENGER was THE shoe for the job at GORGE WATERFALLS 100K

Thanks to Inside Trail Racing for your offering so many fantastic races in great places.  |   Thanks to Vitargo for the steady energy and making MY GORGE WATERFALLS 100K nutrition easy.

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! THANKS FOR BEING OUT THERE SKIP BRAND.

MUC50k – Miles Falling Like Dominoes

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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!