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

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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

gorge

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!

Pine to Palm 100

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So I had this crazy thought last year:  do two 100s in 2014 to celebrate turning 40. This reminds me [now] of a Navy buddy who had a coffee cup that read, “I had a bad idea.” What the h*ll, it’s ultrarunning after all, so it’ll probably suck for while but then you’ll have some great memories and stories to share. Game on!!

All things considered, things have gone pretty darn well this season. I can’t complain [too much]. With the full 2013 season in my legs, I feel I’ve navigated the 2014 race season fairly well—got some speed in the bank early in the year, culminating with a fast 50k in February, hilly 50-milers in March, April, and May. A huge block of run training in June not only set me up to do well at Tahoe Rim Trail 100 in June but also allowed me to recover properly from it so that I could sneak some August training in between the two 100s, which were only 8 weeks apart.

About that August training. Well, it was total fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants. I started back to school, and that stress, pushing 150 kids through my classroom everyday—learning names, establishing routines, and the like, really took a toll on the available energy [and desire] to train for another mountainous 100 in September. So, I had to trim the fat—lots of days completely off, some cycling thrown in, concentrate on getting good sleep [so AM running went out the window], a mid-week tempo session, along with a quality weekend long run. Bare bones. At the end of the day, Pine to Palm (P2P) was about experiencing a different 100-miler (a mountainous and beautiful point-to-point race) and celebrating turning 40. I knew I wouldn’t be as bullet-proof as I was in July, but what do they say? Sometimes you have to let yourself be a little vulnerable. Just go out there, run smart, and do your thing.

With all the stress of stepping out of my life for a few days to go run 100 miles in the forest, I was carrying a fair amount of guilt with me; guilt for leaving my students for two days, guilt for sticking my wife, Amanda, with the dogs the whole time, and guilt for just generally being 40 years old and still chasing something, out there on the race-course. Why?…

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I guess it’s because I believe in the late Louis Zamperini’s words—we should get out there and do the things we find fascinating so that we can feel most alive. The day before the race, I found a card Amanda had stashed in my race-gear. She’d included the Louis Zamperini quote about experiencing as much as you can in life. Amanda and I became fans of “Zamp” through Laura Hillebrand’s book, Unbroken, which comes out in theaters this Christmas. In both TRT and P2P, in those darker moments, I imagined myself sitting in the theater, watching ol’ Zamp’s movie, thinking back to my summer struggles in these two great events, my own [tame by comparison] tests of will and perseverance. On some level, I just wanted to be worthy of that moment in the future; sitting there, still, relaxed, and enjoying a movie on the big screen with Amanda, with a level of pride for having risen to the occasions, doing something I find fascinating and for which I have great enthusiasm. I imagined getting the silent nod from Zamp, as if my long-distance running efforts in Tahoe and Oregon were my way of honoring his life. In the spirit of Viktor Frankl, my imagining a moment in the future gave great meaning to the present moment, when all our bodies want to do is stop running, stop pushing…

With Eric Litvin, outside Rogue Valley Runners, the day before the race.

With Eric Litvin, outside Rogue Valley Runners, the day before the race. Photo Credit: Chris Jones

Amanda’s full of good ideas and suggested I get a head start on the weekend by driving half-way up to the race and stay in Redding on Thursday night, then drive the rest of the way up the next day. lnside Trail Racing team-mate, and TRT100 pacer, Chris Wehan, threw his hat in the race and would be one of my main competitors. We’d meet up in Ashland on Friday, where I’d drop my car off near the finish. Chris, his pacer Stephen Wassather, and I jetted off to the race-meeting in Williams, deposited drop-bags, and headed back to our hotel in Grants Pass where Chris’s girlfriend, Melanie would later join the party.

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Race Morning with Chris Wehan (left) and Kevin Chan (right). Photo Credit: Stephen Wassather and Chandra Farnham respectively.

Chris and Mel were at P2P last year so it was awesome having the gang back together after our fun times just two months prior in Tahoe. They knew all the ins-n-outs of the event, including how to get us to the starting line in the morning. I was super grateful.

It’s all fun-n-games race morning, bumpin’ around, takin’ pictures, really just not thinking about what’s really ahead. I’d made a bracelet with distances from aid-station to aid-station and that’s what I kept telling myself in the days and minutes before the 6am start—“Just run aid to aid. Nothing else exists.” Chunking in this manner really is a highly effective strategy to get through the day.

Since I was in unchartered territory here in Oregon, running my second 100 in eight weeks, I didn’t think I had it in me to get close to Tim Olson’s course-record (CR) of 17:19, set on a different course in 2011. That didn’t stop me from plugging 10:23/mi into my Virtual Pacer. At mile 28 I was 30min ahead of CR pace, but that moment was the only instance I looked at it. I’d need near perfect preparation and execution on race-day to get close to the CR, not to mention not having a CR 100mi performance just 8 weeks prior.

According to Ultra Signup, my main competitors were thought to be Chris Wehan (32), Andrew Miller (18) 3rd place in 2013, and Lon Freeman (39). In the months leading up, I was sure the competition on the front would grow, especially since P2P has become a Western States qualifying race. I’m sure other events the same weekend—Run Rabbit Run 100 in Colorado, The Rut 50 in Montana, etc.—drew speedy speedsters away from P2P. Oh well, not complaining!

The race went off without much fanfare. You have to love the start of a 100mi. It’s like, “Okay, the race started, let’s shoot the sh*t with some buddies we haven’t seen in a while.” Red Bluff teacher, and long-time ultrarunning bro, Joe Palubeski found me in the dark in the opening mile and we chatted it up for a bit. Then I realized I hadn’t wished Chris good luck so found him. Then, slowly, it was drifting into the moment at hand—running a 100 miles to Ashland. It was all goosebumps and smiles…

Two-time defending champ, Gerad Dean, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the TRT100 Training Runs and running with on race day in July, executed a great race here at P2P last year. So much so that I based my race on his 2013 ultralive.net splits since I felt that’d be the most valid guestimate of my first performance here. This proved invaluable on race-day, especially with regard to nutrition and getting from drop-bag to drop-bag, since Amanda wasn’t here to crew me, though Chris’s girlfriend Mel, was beyond awesome in helping me out wherever she could [all day] while crewing for Chris.

The first 28mi to my first drop-bag to Seattle Bar is a blur. I knew one thing coming into this race: I didn’t want to get off course. There were a few occasions where I just happened to be looking in the right direction and caught course-ribbons at the last minute. But not getting off course all day in this point-to-point 100-miler was pretty great. P2P race-director, Hal Koerner, told us at the race briefing that we’d have to try pretty hard to get off course. Still, I didn’t trust myself. Note: I talked to a woman at awards on Sunday; she’d gotten off course four times.

We were running with a group a four, which included Juan De Oliva, who I was talking with while we were all running up some switchbacks early. There was one occasion where we all thought we were off course (but weren’t) and another where I was running in the back and happened to spy a ribbon off to my right, going up another switchback. The gang had gone straight, so I gave a holler, and they turned around and followed me up the next stretch. Juan gave a great big smile ’cause we just avoided excess miles. A little team-work through this section proved valuable.

Next thing I knew I was enjoying chatting with Ethan Linck (23) from Seattle who was running his first 100 here at P2P. We were putting down some low 6’s running down some fire-roads and eventually caught up and quickly passed first place. I had on my trusty HRM and was keeping the effort parked in the low 140s. It was curious at that moment how it was more challenging to keep my HR down on the descents than on the climbs. I guess, instinctively, my mind wants to push the downs since that is a greater strength than the ups. Or, it could be that I just have more fun running down and just want to enjoy the sensations of running fast and free.

The downhill continued and through Steamboat Ranch at 22, I looked to just another 6mi to my first drop-bag at Seattle Bar. Winding fire-road. I heard Ethan behind me and then I didn’t any more. Relax and run…

I quickly weighed in at Seattle Bar (150lbs) emptied my drop-bag’s contents, downed 20oz of coconut water and grabbed a 20oz bottle of Vitargo and a 20oz bottle of water, for what was advertised as a nasty section up to Stein Butte at mile 33. I took off my shirt expecting hot temps and hightailed it outta Seattle Bar.

We were close to 50k in and the temps weren’t living up to their reputation. It appeared the smoke from recent forest fires was insulating us from the sun. Good thing too, was the smoke, albeit light, wasn’t affecting me in the least. This section, turned out to be very enjoyable and, for some strange reason, I kept imagining I was running on my home trails at Lake Sonoma. This would happen all throughout the race, where it was all-too-easy to imagine running at Hood/Sugarloaf or on the trails at TRT100. Regardless, it was clear that I was well-adapted to the sometimes technical nature of the P2P single-track stretches.

Within two miles, I almost step on a juvenile rattlesnake [who was thankfully rattling plenty loud for me to hear] and then my Garmin HRM craps out on me (perhaps the spike from the rattler scare short-circuited my HRM?).

P2P is a ultra-run designed for ultrarunners by ultrarunners. You get four great opportunities to assess the situation behind you—at Squaw Lakes (41.5), Hanley Gamp/Squaw Peak (52), Dutchman Peak (65), and finally at Wagner Butte (87). And that keeps things interesting.

At Squaw Lakes, I cruised in, dropped a bottle, and ran around the 2mi circumference of the lake, anxious to get a bead on the competition behind. I was wondering when the kid, Andrew Miller, was going to make his move. I knew he’d just won Waldo 100k on August 16th. He had to be tired from that huge effort. Not to mention his P2P course knowledge, after placing 3rd here last year. Like Speedgoat Karl says, “you’re always faster the second time [you run the same 100]”. Yeah, so I get back around to the aid-station, see my old Santa Rosa friend Chandra (who lives in SoCal now, with her boyfriend Kevin, who I’m currently coaching) who’s run out from the aid station. She gives me some encouragement and I ask her how far back 2nd place is. She says not too far back and I ask her who it is. She doesn’t know. Well, what does he look like? An ultrarunner.  🙂

Back at the Squaw Lakes aid-station, Chris’s girlfriend Mel and Chris’s later-in-the-day pacer, Stephen, have my drop-bag at the ready. I’ve begun feeling the effects of the last 50 miles. Plus I’m a little cold. What happened to all that crazy heat we were supposed to get Hal? Mel said, “You’re doing great, Chris is about 15min behind you.” I said, “Chris is in 2nd?!” Mel replied, “Yeah, he’s moving up.”

Running out, I’m thinking either Chris did a lot of secret training I don’t know about, or he’s writing a check his body can’t cash (which is good and bad depending how I’m thinking about it). My next thought, was who better to be chasing me than a buddy, who just paced me at TRT100, who’s girlfriend and pacer were helping me along in the race since it was just me and my drop-bags up here in Oregon. Still, it was a race and we were now pushing each other in earnest. Perfect.

At Hanley Gap (50/52), Celeb-RD Hal makes you run up to the top of Squaw Peak to retrieve a flag pin. I love it. When I got up there I found myself standing and staring at a concrete slab. No flags in sight. WTF Hal?!? I looked up and saw this little building up on top of some rocks. Ah-Ha! I found some little stairs to climb and beheld the coveted flags. On the way down I was filled with ambivalence, seeing Chris climbing up. I told him about the path up to the little flags. He said he knew. And I remembered he’d done this race last year—advantage Chris.

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Was that woman with the trekking poles wearing a race number?!? — Coming down from Squaw Peak around the half-way. Photo Credit: Melanie Michalak (aka: President of the Rebecca Kirschenmann Fan Club).

As I polished off the out-n-back, and arrived back at the aid-station, Mel threw me my calorie bottle and sent me on my way. I’d seen a woman starting up Squaw Peaks as I was coming down and was trying to wrap my brain around whether she was really in my race. Did I actually see a bib # on her right leg? She looked like she was all business with those trekking poles… Hmm… I’m really starting to feel this race… I have an idea…

I had a coin purse in my back shorts pocket. I refer to it as my mini medicine cabinet. For P2P it included a few Tums, Pepto Tabs, some anti-nausea pills, and a few acetaminophen (500mg) capsules. Since I knew the hardest part of the day was coming up—mile50 to approx 65—I decided to pop a couple acetaminophen to take the edge off. I figured I’d done a good job hydrating and eating up ’til this point and the body was in good shape, it should tolerate the acetaminophen just fine. Umm, wrong.

Shortly thereafter, my stomach started to go south. I’ve only had problems with vomiting in 100s, not with other end of the digestive track. My stomach was doing full-on doing somersaults. “This f_____g sucks!” Damm*t, I should’ve only taken ONE of those acetaminophen capsules. Sh*t!! I visited the side of the road a few times, getting some practice on my cat-hole digging skills. “If I could just work out this pain in my gut.” My lead is shrinking. They are coming. Suck it up… Keep moving.” I massaged my stomach and could no longer keep my hand-helds tucked in the small of my back since the belt I had on to secure them was not helping my stomach distress.

[Excerpt from Pine to Palm’s race-director’s new book, entitled Hal Koerner’s Field Guide to Ultrarunning: Training for an Ultramarathon from 50k to 100miles and Beyond]:

Pain Relievers

Pain relievers might ease discomfort or offer a helping hand a a low point in the race, but they should be approached with caution. Most studies point to NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen—or “vitamin I,” as it is affectionately called among ultrarunners—as being a poor choice of pain reliever during a race. For one, it can mask the muscle damage you are inflicting. Also, studies indicate it can contribute to a condition called rhabdomyolysis, which can result in renal failure […]

Aspirin, aspirin creams, naproxen, and acetaminophen, on the other hand, do not present similar problems for the kidneys and are generally good go-to choices of pain relief. I apply an aspirin cream preventively to my calves and around my knees prior to an event because I have found it help reduce inflammation and manage pain. I might take a single acetaminophen during a race, at mile 50 or so, to obtain a degree of relief when I need it most. However, I limit my intake to just that one. That may be excessively conservative but, personally speaking, I just don’t want to rely on it. I am uncomfortable with the idea of masking pain, perhaps running myself into the ground with an injury. Sometimes, when the analgesic wears off later, you make the unpleasant discovery that you would have been better off listening to your body instead of muting its signals! Thus I recommend a conservative approach to pain relievers (p.97).

I wish I would have read this prior to Pine to Palm. I did know better than to take ibuproven (NSAIDs) in an ultra. If I’d only taken ONE acetaminophen capsule instead of those two I would have likely avoided a lot of unnecessary discomfort (and slowing!). Live and learn. Bottom line: I need to be less of a baby. Like they say, borrowing strength builds weakness.

Smokey day. Photo credit: Stephen Wassather

Smokey day kept the sun off us. #godsend — Photo credit: Stephen Wassather

On and on and on it went, up the longest, god-forsaken fire-road, smoke hanging low in the sky and a red sun burning on the horizon. While my stomach was giving me fits, I remember trying to dwell on what was going right. I was grateful for how well my legs were doing beneath me—just clicking over in their Hoka Stinson ATR‘s without a care in the world. “Come on stomach, let’s pull through this. The legs are ready to dance…” The top of Dutchman Peak could not come fast enough.

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Arriving on top of Dutchman Peak. Photo credit: Linn Secreto.

Up on top of Dutchman, something shifted, I could see Chris on one of the several switchbacks below. He was only about 10min back at that point. Then I looked at the incredible views to my left as I approached the summit. All of a sudden I felt myself starting to get choked up [with emotion]. Up a bit more I saw Mel up to my right on an overlook with her camera. She called down with some encouragement and said, “Amanda liked her flowers!” This added to the emotion. Note – I thought it’d be cool for my wife to receive flowers from me while she was at home, hitting the refresh button on ultralive.net all day, whilst I was in the belly of the beast in Oregon. Next, I see this guy with his arms up and realize it’s my pacer, Louis (which, by the way, is a great name for any pacer of mine, being a Louis Zamperini fan and all).

"Man, I'm I glad to see you." With Louis Secreto. Photo Credit: Linn Secreto

“Man, I’m I glad to see you.” With Louis Secreto. Photo Credit: Linn Secreto

Dutchman Peak was hands-down the turning point of the race for me. Running up to the summit to retrieve my drop-bag, the American Author’s song, Best Day of My Life blasted out of huge speakers. For a moment, I thought Amanda was actually up there, somehow choreographing the whole scene; that song’s been a favorite of ours all year (the bulldog version of course). Yeah, so Louis and I get our sh*t together and get outta Dodge, running back down to the primary trail. We soon pass Chris, who says to me, “Let’s not do this again next year.” Cracking up, I wholeheartedly agree him. Then, just a bit back from Chris is the first-place female, Becky Kirschenmann.

I would come to find out that Becky was the women’s defending champ, and used Trans Rockies (a multi-day, 120mi trail run with 20’000′ of vertical, held this year from 8/11-8/16) to help prepare her for Pine to Palm. It was probably best I didn’t know these things as now she was within 10min of me at mile 65 of a 100mi run.

Departing Dutchman, we connect with the primary trail again, leading to some of the most delightful single-track running of the day. We pass a sign, “7 miles to next aid.” Things were again good. There was some hoot-n-hollerin’ goin’ on as Louis and I enjoyed the beginning of our journey together. Both of us transplant Pennsylvania boys who drive the same Subaru Outback Sport, live in Sonoma County, and only met by chance just two weeks prior. Louis’ runner came up injured and Louis, thankfully, offered his pacing services about a week out from P2P, much to Amanda’s relief. With what felt like a new lease on life, it was great to be on some very runnable terrain again, with the rising red moon in front of us. Five miles from Dutchman now, watching the water and calories. Six miles… 7miles… Where’s the aid-station?! 8 miles. Going dry… 9 miles… “Did we miss it?” We’re seeing blue ribbon. Boom, there it is. Whew. Long John Saddle.

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Stephen and Chris departing Dutchman Peak in hot pursuit. Photo Credit:  Melanie Michalak

I put on a tank-top, which was perfect with the current temps, grabbed two fresh bottles and we were off. No sign of any body behind. We got a mile out and couldn’t hear anyone back at the aid-station. We trust though that Chris and Becky are in pursuit. Don’t let up. This sh*t is getting exciting! At TRT I was chasing a CR so that’s what kept that race fun. Here, I was way off the CR but was feeling fortunate to have two runners closing in behind. This is what it’s all about. The simplicity of racing is often a great joy

Mile 80 (Wagner Butte). My mind was still playing tricks on me, given the conditioning it’s received from its four Tahoe Rim Trail 100s. Mile 80 sounds close to the finish, but at TRT100, you’re at the bottom of Diamond Peak, with a lot of hard running left to do. “Don’t think. Just run from aid to aid.” Curiously lucid, I got some great information from the aid-station captain. He said, it’s 3mi to the turn that takes you to the out-n-back up to Wagner Butte to retrieve the flag-pin. It’s 1.7mi from the trail to the top and 1.7 back. you’ll take a left at the bottom, then it’s 3mi down to Rd 2060 aid-station. Game on.

Louis and I discussed the possibility of getting up and down Wagner Butte before Chris and/or Becky arrived to do the out-n-back for the flag pin. I knew with how close they were at Dutchman, even with our strong push since then, we’d likely not opened up a big enough gap.

I’d been taking splits leaving each aid-station all day, keeping track of the distance from aid to aid, to carefully ration water and calories. From Wagner Butte aid, I took a split and watched the one piece of data I had displayed on my watch (since HR crapped out at mile 34) which was Lap Distance. 1mi. 2mi. 2.3mi… 2.8… Boom—3.0, and there’s the ribbon signaling the left turn up to Wagner Butte and the second flag pin of the race.

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At this point, I knew I was going to see some competition on the way back down from Wagner Butte Summit. The question was, how much of a gap had we created from Dutchman? Uphill over technical terrain to the summit we went. Once on top, we both searching around in the darkness with our headlamps flashing here and there. No flagpins. WTF Hal?!? Then I remember Squaw Peak. Look up. OMG, another elevated structure up there, atop these huge, sharp boulders. Louis starts up. “I’ll get it,” he says. I’m like, “I’m the runner, I’m coming along too.” I throw my hand-helds down right under a reflectorized race ribbon so I can easily find them later. Hand over hand I follow Louis up to the top. “What color do you want?” “What colors do they have?” We take a moment to enjoy the view of the city of Medford, lit up like Christmas to the north. I hoot-n-holler some more and we decide we need to take it easy coming off the rocks and back down the 1.7mi to the main trail so neither one of us breaks his neck. Once down I grab my bottles and take a split.

Smooth and steady. Run quickly when we can. Distance and time. Distance and time. Bam, there’s Becky. 0.7mi. So, we’ve got 1.4mi on her and she needs to climb up and down the mass of boulders for the pin. Pacerless, she steps aside to let us run through. We tell her to be careful on the rocks. She agrees. I yell back to suggest she should stay up on top for a while and enjoy the scenery. No reply. I tell Louis I don’t think she appreciates my humor. He’s not laughing either. We settle back into the task…

The 3mi after the out-n-back is pure murder on the knees and ankles. Hal told us he believes the only time this stretch actually gets any action is during Pine to Palm. Louis said while we were running down this technical, steep, and switch-backy descent, “This is insult to injury” [for the participants]. As we’re getting toward the end of this section we see a bunch of young dudes hiking up toward us. One cheers, “We’re aid-station 2060!!” I’m thinking to myself, “If you guys are Road 2060 aid-station, who the h*ll’s manning aid-station 2060?” Turns out, one of the guy’s mom was manning the station, alone. Poor lady. As she was helping me mix up a bottle of water/broth she was talking about killing her son when he returned. Louis and I eased on down the road… 10mi to go…

Somewhere in there, I stopped to pee. My headlamp happened to light up my urine stream and I found it oddly colored, like cranberry juice. “Hey, Louis, I’m peeing blood.” We got running again. Silence. “So,” Louis said, “Has this happened before?” “Umm, yeah, after a hard 50k in the Marin Headlands last fall.” [I’d taken ibuproven before the race]. “What do you want to do?” “Just stay steady.” I sure didn’t want to mess myself up but I still wanted to finish this race strong. Body seems okay otherwise. A little discomfort from my kidneys on both sides but nothing painful. Easy does it. Keep the calories and water/broth coming in. Steady energy input… Steady energy output…

Louis lets me know when it’s 4mi to go and I try to show some backbone. We we averaging between 7:30 and 8:00/mi pace up ’til that point. I suddenly get it in my head that we’re going to make a strong push to the finish. Now we’re running in the 6:00/mi range down smooth fire road, booking it pretty good. Louis is rocking it right by my side. A quarter mile later we’re back to 7:30pace. It was fun while it lasted…

This rolling, pain-in-the-@$$ mountain-bike section comes up and Louis says, “This trail sucks.” I whole heartedly agree with him. The trail’s anything but smooth and I’ve got no idea how I haven’t kissed the dirt yet. Thankfully—or not so much— we hit the super steep black-top and begin the final mile (death march) toward the finish line in Ashland. A couple 100yds down Louis spies a ribbon off to the right. I run over and study this “trail.” There’s another ribbon. It looks like some local riff-raff messed with the course-markings. There’s a big pile of green waste in the center of the trail. Louis runs down the road to try and find more ribbon. I’m thinking to myself, “this doesn’t look right. I thought we run down this steep, paved road to the finish. I know we do.” I start making my way down to Louis, when I hear him call up, “Here’s a ribbon. This is right.” I take a look uphill and see if I can spy a first-place female descending without her headlamp on. I catch up with Louis and a truck goes by us. It’s Hal, out spray-painting arrows on the course to the finish. We tell him about the riff-raffed ribbon. He gives us directions to the finish. We’re confused. He offers to drive us in, speed up enough to stop, open up his door, leans out, freshens up a spray-painted arrow from yesteryear’s Pine to Palm, and gets moving again before we catch up to him. Especially nice to see the inflatable arch and lots of folks hangin’ out at the finish.

We did it Louis. And I didn't die on you. Photo Credit: Linn Secreto

We did it Louis. And I didn’t die on you. Photo Credit: Linn Secreto

It sucked not having Amanda at the finish but I was in good hands having friends to keep an eye on me. This was the first 100 in which I didn’t vomit, during or immediately after. So that was nice, ’cause I got to enjoy the company of all the folks at the finish. Louis’ wife Linn let me use her phone to [eventually] call Amanda (it was a team effort to remember my wife’s phone #). Craig Thornley, aka: Mr. Western States, aka: Mr. UltraLive.Net, aka: Joe, was hanging out and I suggested, in my post-100mi euphoria that because I’d purchased 100 tickets for the last WS raffle—and didn’t win—I should at least get a Western States refrigerator magnet. I don’t think he was amused. Soon thereafter, an exhausted Melanie Michalak appeared and we started on the idea of transported my old bones over to their hotel, as per the master plan. I felt like a helpless 4y/o with my mom. “Umm, I’m cold.” “Can I take a piece of pizza with us?” Meanwhile, Becky Kirschenmann was back in the kitchen talking with folks about the day, looking really no worse for wear. l told Nate Dunn, who was in the cot next to mine. “I think she’s the terminator. I kept looking back expecting to see red eyes in the darkness.” At the end of the day, she finished up only about 30min back, shaving over 2hrs off her own Pine to Palm course-record. I’m confident that even if a handful of the most recognized female ultrarunners showed up and ran this course, they’d have a tough time besting Becky’s record. She’s set the bar high (and again, without a pacer).

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Greatest Breakfast Ever — Races & Pacers:  Chris Wehan, Stephen Wassather, and Louis Secreto.

I’d love to come back and do this one again. In the event I get into Western States 2015, it’s nice to have a point-to-point 100mile event in the books. All things considered it was a really amazing race, and even a week later, continues to dwell in my consciousness. It was special indeed to have every step taken all day be on a course on which I’d never stepped foot. And like all prior 100s, there were challenges to overcome and awesome friends with whom to celebrate the good times. Thanks to Hal, and his Pine to Palm crew for doing a bang-up job on race-day. And thanks for marking that course so well. Thanks to Mel and Chris for all the logistical team-work and full-on crewing/hand-holding/shuttling etc. And congrats Chris on slaying the P2P beast!! Looking forward to seeing what you two do at Javelina. Your best 100s are in front of you both. Thanks to Louis and Linn Secreto for huge support out there. Amanda was right (again) that I would’ve been screwed without a pacer. Thanks to Becky for keeping me honest and making me work my @$$ off from Wagner Butte to the finish. And big thanks to my wife, Amanda for giving me a pass to go do this. Your love and support is so appreciated.  😀

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Sunday Awards at the finish line in Ashland. With the “celeb-RD” Hal and women’s winner Rebecca Kirschenmann. Photo Credit: Linn Secreto.

Pine to Palm 100 Strava Data

ultralive.net webcast

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

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

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

 

‘Feelin’ Good’ at Tahoe Rim Trail 100

“It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.”  -Muhammad Ali
“The water is clearer than the air, and the air is the air that angels breathe.” – See more at: http://greatworldgetaways.com/californias-lake-tahoe-the-air-is-the-air-that-angels-breathe#sthash.pJlPdPgf.dpuf
“The water is clearer than the air, and the air is the air that angels breathe.” – See more at: http://greatworldgetaways.com/californias-lake-tahoe-the-air-is-the-air-that-angels-breathe#sthash.pJlPdPgf.dpuf
Spooner Summit. 5am. Photo courtesy of Ken Michel.

Spooner Summit. 5am. Photo courtesy of Ken “All Day!” Michal.

Back in the ring, to take another swing at the indomitable Tahoe Rim Trail 100. Trying to squeeze just a little more out this glorious event, in hopes of snagging the course-record that evaded me in 2013 due to a too conservative first half and excessive afternoon heat. With Einstein’s definition of insanity in the back of my mind, I duplicated—and beefed up—last year’s TRT June prep, logging over 500mi and 100,000′ of vertical, including a nice 50mi run at the TRT Training Runs. Wanting to bullet-proof my mission, I started off my June build with a 190mi/40,000′ week. And I have to say I thought about that week during the race, quite a bit—it provided a great deal of confidence.

“No limits. Just epiphanies!”

race_planTRT Like 2013, I geeked out on some spreadsheet scenarios, which would give my race some structure. Because the course-record was 17:47, I wanted to give myself some cushion, so I finally settled on a target race time of 17:20. After running the 50mi course during the training runs in June in about 8:30, I figured running the first half, on fresh, race-day legs, in about 8:10, seemed pretty reasonable (as long as I was at 140 beats/minute, +/- two beats). I also estimated that if I could run about 8:10 over the first loop, then I’d plan on the inevitable slowing to be no more than 12-15% over the second half.

I definitely felt the target on my back as defending champ, and it was tough not gunning it from the start. Still, I went from a first mile at 120bpm last year to an opening mile at 140bpm this year, thus establishing an early rise to an average HR of 140. By the time a small group of us arrived at Tunnel Creek (mile 12.7) I’d put down about 700cal in CLIF Bar bites that I’d rolled up and packed in a zip-loc bag. I figured it was a good idea to lay a foundation of calories, early in the going when the temps were low, the pace easy, and the stomach functioning properly. All of us bounded down into Red House, myself clocking my fastest mile of the day at 6:10. Easy does it…

Two-time Pine-to-Palm 100 winner, Gerad Dean and I, were the first to emerge from the 6.3mi Red House lollipop. As I grabbed some fuel from my drop-bag, Gerad had already weighed in and shot north toward the Bull Wheel aid-station. I moved with purpose, across the timing-chip mats after him. Following in his shoe-prints in the sandy single-track, I arrived at the Bull Wheel aid-station even before the water did. Asking repeatedly for some H2O, one of the volunteers sacrificed his own agua from his personal bottle into my hand-held (I’ll hope to pay this favor forward someday) and I continued north on one of my favorite stretches of the event—up toward the turn onto the Tyrolian downhill, a local favorite of mountain-bikers, whips and winds down and down (and down) to Diamond Peak Ski Resort, where I’d see my wife, Amanda, for the first time of the day—and catch up to Gerad.

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Fresh-n-loose. Rollin’ through Diamond Peak the first time, with Bay Area friends, Rose Repetto (blue) and Liz Bernstein (pink). Photo credit: Gary Wang

Amanda had me out of aid in a minute flat and Gerad and I spent the next 30 working together and occasionally chatting whilst we were still relatively fresh and the going was easy. We knew we’d opened up a nice gap and now, back on top of Diamond Peak at the Bull Wheel aid-station, we were happy to find the water had now arrived. Fill ‘er up! >>>

First Loop. Heading back down to Tunnel Creek from Bull Wheel. Photo courtesy of Tropical John Medinger

First Loop. Heading back down to Tunnel Creek from Bull Wheel. Photo courtesy of Tropical John Medinger

There’s nothing better than having a “home-court” advantage, and having run this race three times prior, I felt entirely comfortable bookin’ it back to Tunnel Creek while being sure to keep one eye on my trusty HRM. Metronomic cadence, breathing, focus. Just a cruise back down south to the half as the day was heating up.

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Buh-Bump. Heart-rate data from the first half of TRT100.

I came into the half in around 8:10, right around 9:45/mi pace. I’d gained back some good time on the switch-backy descent from Snow Valley Peak. This was a pretty quick first half as compared to 2013’s 8:28. Average HR was 141bpm, as compared to last year’s 139bpm. As I was coming into the half aid-station, I referred to a scenario chart I’d laminated to the back of my salt-tab’s coin purse. Since my target race-time was 17:20, I would now have to run no less than 11:00/mi pace for the second half in order to hit my finish-time target. I was pleased when I flipped over to Virtual Pacer on my fresh Garmin and saw that I had plugged in exactly 11:00/mi pace the day before, knowing instinctively that would probably be the pace I’d have to run. Now, all I had to do was run it…

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First half pacing.

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Leaving the 50, I asked Amanda if she had any idea where guys were behind. Since there was a new timing system in place, I figured she might have some info from Snow Valley aid, but coverage is spotty at Spooner (even with race direction’s best efforts to improve it) so she didn’t have any info for me. No worries…

Leaving my HRM strap behind, it was time to “embrace the suck” and knock out this second 50. I had two bottles of ice-water and knew I’d run out on the way up to Hobart aid, some 7mi north, a lot of which is uphill. A couple of miles later I tripped and fell. I was beginning to feel that 8:10 first half. My feet weren’t coming off the ground like the were hours earlier. I reminded myself how we get muddy water clear—by doing nothing. Slow it down Shebest. Get back into your comfort zone. Clear like Lake Tahoe. Let go of the performance goals and get present. It’s okay to walk. Finally, it flattened out, and I found myself at Hobart. Whew, rough stretch.

Out of Hobart, some miles down-trail, I crashed hard, bloodying both my palms and my right knee in the process. I popped back up and quickly regained my rhythm, surveying what was only minor scrapes and scratches on a now bloody, sweaty, dirty body. Black shorts are great to wipe the blood away, and the memory. Today, I planned on three things happening that I’d not anticipated. Two of them came in the form of falls. The first one was pretty minor. This second one took the wind out of my sails for a bit. Rhythm. Rhythm. Rhythm. Let it go.

Back down into to Red House loop for the second time of the day. I noticed the temps were going in the opposite direction I expected—DOWN! Compared to all three of my previous second-half race experiences down in Red House, this one was the most mild. Temps and revamped nutrition helped keep the belly happy. But 60mi is 60mi and the going was getting tough. I’d read a couple books on U.S. Navy SEALs coming into this race in hopes of picking up some good mental coping strategies.

Having been a Navy Diver myself, I find great inspiration from our SEALs and the tremendous mental strength these guys have to make it through the grueling six months BUD/S training, including the infamous “Hell Week.” Anyway, I picked up a mantra that SEAL candidates sometimes use in school when in an “evolution” and forced to “embrace the suck.” They say to themselves, “Feelin’ good. Lookin’ good. Oughta be in Hollywood.” So, anytime I found myself in the suck on Saturday, I just busted out that gem, and imagined my SEAL brothers in the sh*t in some foreign country, getting shot at, and generally enduring a reality much more demanding than mine, at an ultra-running event in beautiful Lake Tahoe. “Don’t be a cupcake,” a running buddy, Leigh Schmitt, once said to me.

Once I got back to the stick of the lollipop of the Red House loop, there was a first-aid guy on a mountain bike. I’d worked pretty hard getting back to this point in hopes of seeing just who was behind me. The first-aid guy informed me, “You got the whole loop to yourself, nobody has come down yet.” Music to my ears. I proceeded up and soon found Mark Austin, of Boise, descending. I asked him if he was #2 and he said, “I am now!”, which meant he’d caught up with Gerad, whereabouts unknown.

Polishing off Red House and arriving back on top of the ridge, Gerad was sitting next to weigh-ins dealing with the “Hell” part of the TRT motto. I told him I’d been in exactly the same place my first time out at TRT and told him to hang in there. I’m psyched for him—and impressed—he did. I was off, up the long stretch, past Bull Wheel and up to the turn onto the Tyrolian Downhill. This stretch took forever. “Feelin’ good. Lookin’ good…” >>>

Diamond Peak weigh-in (mile 80 weigh-in). Photo courtesy of Gary Wang.

Diamond Peak weigh-in (mile 80 weigh-in). Photo courtesy of Gary Wang.

Diamond Peak. Mile 80. Pit-Stop with Amanda. Photo courtesy of Gary Wang.

Diamond Peak. Mile 80. Pit-Stop with Amanda. Photo courtesy of Gary Wang.

As I arrived into the Diamond Peak parking lot and looked up onto the first landing there at the lodge, I didn’t see a soul. I was feeling pretty vulnerable as I made the turn, unsure I’d see my people. “Please be there…” Boom, there was Amanda, who’s eyes got as big as saucers when she saw me rounding the corner. It was awesome to have my rock-star Inside Trail Racing team-mates, Chris Wehan (with his Western-States-running-girlfriend, Melanie Michalak) and Luke Garten, there for support. These fun-loving young guns inspire me.

Heading out of Diamond Peak with pacer, Chris Wehan. Photo courtesy of Gary Wang.

Heading out of Diamond Peak with pacer, Chris Wehan. Photo courtesy of Gary Wang.

After a quick weigh-in and bottle swap with Amanda, Chris and I were off to tackle the final 20mi of the race, starting with the 2000′ climb out of Diamond Peak, with Luke running alongside us on our way out, reminding us we were on record-breaking pace. We had about 3:45 to run the final 20mi to be under the course-record of 17:47. I said I’d do my best. I knew there would be no guarantees, but I also knew I’d been in this same place three times before, but this time was unique—I’d never been at this point as early as I was now. “Feelin’ good. Lookin’ good…” >>>

Team Inside Trail Racing in full effect starting up Diamond Peak from mile-80. Photo credit to Luke Garten.

Team Inside Trail Racing in full effect starting up Diamond Peak from mile-80. Photo credit to Luke Garten.

Chris immediately set the precedent that negative talk was not an option, so after getting out of Diamond Peak we just settled into the work of getting up the climb. Running into Myles Smythe, from Michigan Bluff Photography, definitely added some fun to the otherwise dismal prospect of climbing a godd*mn ski slope with 80mi in your legs. He shot some film and I tried to look less like a zombie and more like a bad*ss mountain runner. Umm, right…

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Photo courtesy of the awesome Myles Smythe, Michigan Bluff Photography. More Myles, more smiles.

Running this event three times prior, I’d never experienced this relentless pressure to keep my foot on this pedal of madness. All for what?! Was it even worth it? Hell, I’m 40. WTH business do I have trying to break course-records? As I arrived to the top of Diamond Peak I was a full 30min behind my Virtual Pacer, who was running his murderous 11:00/mi pace. Earlier, when I arrived at DP aid-station, the Tyrolian Downhill helped me get all my time back but I knew I’d need every minute I could get, since the DP climb essentially puts a bear on your back, slowing the average pace down considerably. Now on top, it was time to get some time back, to recall what I’d done a year earlier, to run my race, and work with Chris to just stay steady and keep some calories comin’ in. Easier said than done, right?!

The first 10 of 20mi to the finish were still in the light and it was way cool to get all the way down to Hobart aid-station with some light still in the sky. We lit our torches and headed out of Hobart.

I probably should have just stuck with what worked all day but I started taking soda at mi80 and then hit the Coke at aid-stations from there. Stomach wasn’t havin’ it. And as Chris caught up to me just out of Hobart, he found me bent over, retching in the bushes. Everything came up. And here it was, the third unknown of the day. Deal with it. Don’t be a cupcake. I remembered an athlete I coached to Western States this year, Todd Bertolone. He had more than is his share of nausea and vomiting at States. I thought of him, and got my *ss moving again. Todd had his goals at Western, and met them. “Feelin’ good. Lookin’ good…”

Man-oh-man, that last ten was not what I envisioned. I’d mindfully built in a 27min cushion in high hopes that I wouldn’t need it, but d*mn the man, it was looking like I’d need every last minute. And now, Einstein’s relativity was working against me; time was slowing way down, the next aid-station, an almost hopeless eternity away. Chris helped me claw my way up to Snow Valley Peak, the highest point on the course at 9000′. I was now 32min behind my Virtual Pacer. I knew the course-record was still within reach, since it’s a long way down from Snow Valley, and downhill running is my thing. At this point in the going, my climbing legs were sh*t, as was my aerobic system; my glycogen matches long struck out. At Snow Valley aid, I grabbed a cup of chicken broth, and that alone is what fueled the final stretch home. I found myself wishing I’d put chicken broth in my hand-held. Warm. Nourishing…

What a pacer I found in Chris Wehan, 2013 Rio del Lago 100mi champ. In 2013, before I knew him, we duked it out at Lake Sonoma 50, where he eventually dropped me with some 10mi to go in the race. Later, we became Inside Trail Racing team-mates and I got to know him a little better. I’ve been so impressed with his athletic prowess as an Ironman triathlete turned ultra-runner. I’m super grateful it worked out with his work schedule that he could come up and pace. He did his homework on the race, had the splits written out on his arm, poured on the positive reinforcement, and worked tirelessly getting me to the finish. I ate it up. This was one guy I did not want to let down!

In full-on zombie mode, we made the right turn over to Spooner Summit. Lighting up the trails along the lake, we ran into Luke Garten, who had run a mile back to greet us. He shouted, “You have 16min to run one mile and you’ll break the course-record!!” Elation. All I said was “F#%k YES!”

It’s funny how all the grand, booming finish-lines I’ve experienced at big marathons and Ironmans seemed to pale in comparison to this modest, little finish-line next to a quiet lake, under the cover of darkness, with only Amanda and a few friends to share in the moment. It was this imagined snapshot in time, over those final miles, that created the desire to keep on moving forward until the deed was done. Pain is temporary. Pride… is forever.

Finish Line! Photo courtesy of Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Runs.

Finish Line! Photo courtesy of Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Runs.

Over the moon to have reached my goal, I was happy to be back with my Amanda, who had done such a wonderful job crewing me all day. Also grateful that she had some company while I was out there bumpin’ around in the forest. Chris, Melanie, and Luke made the experience that much more exciting and fun. When you have folks in your corner, it makes it a lot easier to stay in the fight and keep swinging. Also exciting was to later learn both athletes I’d coached to TRT100, Tina Borcherding and Eric Litvin, both braving thunderous lightning storms, reached the finish line as well. This was Tina’s first 100mi run. Inspiring performances from these two.

Want to bullet-proof your next ultra? Run in shoes from Hoka One One. My Stinson EVO’s have allowed me to run more training miles than I ever have in my life. In both my victories in 2013 and 2014, I’ve been so grateful to run all day with zero foot problems. The proof is in the pudding.

If you’re looking for an absolutely wonderful ultra-running experience, that gets better every year, TRT Endurance Runs has one of the best events in the country. Outside Magazine puts TRT Endurance Runs on their Trail Runner’s Bucket List. My advice would be to do the 50mi as a stepping stone to the 100, especially if you’re unsure how you perform at higher elevations. So, put your name in the lottery this year. You can’t win if you don’t play!

Breakfast at Fireside Lodge, in South Lake Tahoe, the morning after.

Breakfast at Fireside Lodge, in South Lake Tahoe, the morning after, with Melanie, Chris, Luke, and Amanda

Photo Credit: Doc Tanaka (500mi TRT buckle owner)

Later, at a very wet Spooner Summit. Photo Credit: Mark Tanaka (500mi TRT buckle-owner)

Since Amanda and I were spending the next week in Tahoe anyway, we headed back up to the scene of the crime on Monday morning, to spend a few hours helping to break down the finish at Spooner. Somehow, RD, George Ruiz, was still upright and in good spirits. Spending the morning with a few volunteers, in the muddy aftermath, was a perfect way to end this chapter in my athletic career. Thanks for all the memories!!

Race video from TRT Endurance Runs and Ultra Sports Live

Complete Strava data

Tahoe Daily Tribune: “Thunderstorms Make for Exciting Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Runs”

Any thoughts on Pine to Palm in September?

Any thoughts on Pine to Palm 100 in September?

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

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

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

2014 Lake Sonoma 50

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit:  Joseph Condon

Photo Credit: Joseph Condon

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

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Photo Credit: Ernie Gates

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

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

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

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Love/Hate  —  Photo Credit: Chihping Fu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Slowdown Rank Sort provided by Gary Gellin

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

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

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

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Bruised with brews. — Photo Courtesy of Chris Jones

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

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

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

 

Marin Ultra Challenge – Inspiration, Preparation, Execution

mucstartMarin Ultra Challenge is one of those events that immediately captures the imagination. In 2013 it was held in June and I sadly couldn’t make it work with my schedule. When I heard Inside Trail Racing was moving the event to March, and it was still a full four weeks out from Lake Sonoma, I just had to be a part of the action, especially since I live just 60mi up the road.

photo(3)Marin Ultra Challenge (MUC) epitomizes the essential beauty of our growing sport. Like the iconic Golden Gate Bridge itself, MUC represents a gateway into the increasingy vast realm of ultrarunning bliss, offering four unique race distances, each with all the spectacular scenery one finds running on the trails in the Marin Headlands, Mt. Tam, and Muir Woods. There’s no shortage of climbing and descending, with over 10,000′ of glorious ups-n-downs; definitely a job for the world’s best ultrarunning shoe:

A rising tide lifts all ships. In recent months, I’d experienced my best performances in the Marin Headlands, totally inspired by the efforts of my fellow ultrarunners. Two experiences, in particular, are Rob Krar’s brilliant performance at North Face Endurance Challenge (NFEC) in December, and Dave Mackey’s “Dirty Double”, where, within one week, he set a course-record at Quad Dipsea and immediately turned it around and ran stoic top-10 at NFEC. These masterful performances, having run along side both these guys in the early miles, pushed me to dwell deeply upon what was possible for myself at the 50mi distance, and beyond.

Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change. As a teacher, an endurance sports coach, and an ultrarunner, I know that if I’m not learning I’m not growing—no challenge, no change, as they say. It’s exciting where a little curiousity will take us. And these days, with blogs, podcasts, and the like, information on how to improve is right at our fingertips (or earbuds). Seeing guys like Krar and Mackey do what they do is awe-inspiring and quickly leads to the obvious question? How are they doing it? Well, beyond innate talent, lies a lot of hard fought experience, dedication to smart and balanced training, and a tremendous amount of passion to keep improving.

Marin Ultra Challenge in March served a few key purposes:  it gave me the opportunity to further dial in my 50mi race process before toeing the line at the insanely competitive Lake Sonoma 50 a month later. MUC in March also affords athletes the time to do a proper training build in Jan, culminating with a shorter distance race, say, three weeks out from MUC. I chose Inside Trail’s Chabot 50k, which serendipitously helped boost not only my racing endurance, but because Chabot’s a faster course—as compared to courses in the Marin Headlands—it really helped kick up my leg speed a notch or two. And these days, if you want to “rise with the tide,” you better be running fast often. Sink or swim. Fortunately for me, I don’t actually have to swim anymore. So nice. Soooo nice.

The big “test” for MUC was to add in a short, fast race just a week out from MUC, similar (but on a smaller scale) to what Mackey had done a week out from NFEC with his record-breaking Quad Dipsea. There happened to be a sweet, local 10mi trail run called the Ilsanjo Classic, just six days prior to MUC. I was more nervous for that than toeing the line at a 100-miler! I knew it was going to take me way out of my comfort zone (sink or swim). I ended up averaging a controlled 6:08/mi pace there, which I was hoping would allow me to run really quick on the downs and flats (was there any flat running?) at MUC.

Since January, I’d been sprinking in more intensity than I’ve ever done as an ultrarunner—two hill sessions and a tempo run on the road. That little hour of red-line running at Ilsanjo took the wind out of my sails through the following Thursday. Uh-oh, I thought all week. I was worried but just kept listening to my body, rested, cut runs short, took a complete rest day on Thursday, and on Friday I was pleased to find I’d come out the other side ready for a strong showing in Marin, by kicking it up to 4:20 pace for a tenth of a mile on Friday’s short shake-out run. Honestly though, I could have probably used another day or two of recovery. Or, was it perfectly timed??

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with Gary Gellin & Michael Stricklan

It was great to see Gary Gellin out supporting on race-day, and have the opportunity to chat with him since he’s had a big influence on my race execution in ultras. Nobody wants to hear it, but we do inevitably slow in the second half of these long-@$$ events. Now, by how much, that’s where Gary offered me my big “A-HA” moment last year by sorting our Lake Sonoma results and displaying for all by how much we slowed in the second half of that race. I’d raced the second half like sh*t and slowed by some 18%. Sage Canaday won, while slowing by only 12% over the second half. Then and there I’d made it a priority to always “do my math homework” coming into races, providing myself with a few “first-half/second-half pacing scenarios.

Last year, the heart-rate monitor really helped me dial in a reasonable intensity over the first half of ultras so I could run stronger and slow less in the second half. It’s been challenging for me to pace effectively in the early miles of ultras, having so strongly conditioned myself to my higher intensity Ironman marathon RPE (rate perceived exertion). After ten years and some 20 Ironmans, you can imagine the re-programming I’ve had to tackle. This year though, I feel I’m finally dialed in, and my trustly heart-rate monitor’s come off. But, what a great tool to help you optimize your own ultrarunning pacing.

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The night after Chabot 50k, I took a long look at the Marin Ultra Challenge elevation profile, and loosely established that 60% of the climbing’s in the first half. If I could summit Willow Camp and be around 7:50/mi average race pace, then I’d only have to hold around 9:30 pace to get under the existing course-record (8:45/mi pace). That would be around 10% slowing over the second half of the race. Ultimately, you can’t guarantee how things are going to pan out, but you can use previous race results to hypothesize what’s likely to occur, assuming the body’s cooperating, you stay on course, etc.

The 50mi and the 50k started together in the dark at 6am. My fully-charged Petzl NAO lit the way beautifully, up the short section of paved road to the first turn onto trail. There were two guys up, which was great, ’cause knowing my tendency to zone out in races and find myself off course, I was happy to have company navigating in the dark. But, they missed the first turn. I only made the turn because I’d done this section in another ITR event. Another runner and I yelled and got their attention, and I found myself leading, feeling great, and strangely confident I could keep myself on course ’til the sun came up.

One of favorite memories yet in ultrarunning came while making my way over to Rodeo Beach, running alone and averaging a comfortable 6min pace (a lot of downhill), then climbing up to Coastal Trail with the mighty Pacific Ocean glistening in the moonlight, and Ray Lamontagne’s Henry Nearly Killed Me, which I’d listened to three times in the car prior to race-start, goin’ good in my head. Smooth flow…

As I was dreamily bounding along, I missed a turn to stay on Coastal Trail, just passed Fort Cronkhite. Sh*t. Fortunately I caught my mistake pretty quickly and ran up to get back on the Coastal Trail heading up to the Tennessee Valley aid station.

You don’t have to be off course very long for runners who aren’t navigationally challenged to put some distance into you by the time you rejoin the caravan. One runner ahead turned into two, then three, four, and five! The most important thing during a little race snafu like this is to work mindfully to accept it as soon as possible, be present, get the heart-rate down, and minimize any further “damage.” Every time your brain starts dwelling on the setback, “change the channel” to something productive, that you actually now have control over. I thought of my Hoka teammate, Michael Wardian’s, comeback and victory at the recent Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica. Note to self:  that worked like a charm.

Within 20min or so I’d reclaimed the lead and started moving over the course as quickly and efficiently as possilble, taking in 300cal/hr from gels, and getting in an increasing amount of water. I’d set a time vibration alarm on my Garmin for 30min, reminding me to fuel, with the intention of changing the alarm around the 50k mark, to 20min, depending on what feedback I was getting from my body.

mucstrava2For the first half, I had two pieces of data available to me on my Garmin—race pace and race distance. I wanted to be hyper-aware of the 50mi/50k split at Heather Cutoff around mi16 and was grateful that it turned out to be so well marked. Then it was up Coast View to the Cardiac aid station and down the Dipsea to Stinson Beach for the most formidable climb of the day up Willow Camp, which I’d not had the pleasure of climbing before. Starting up Willow Camp my average pace was about 7:30/mi. I was pleased with that ’cause I knew I’d lose quite a bit on this bad boy. And by the time I summited, I was down to about a 8:06/mi average. I’d stayed in control, power-hiked here, ran what I could, and enjoyed the views overlooking Stinson.

I’d seen my Inside Trail team-mate, Chris Wehan, in Stinson Beach. He was out volunteering and having a good time. I asked him how far back the next guy was. He’d been following the action on UltraSportsLive.TV’s live feed. They’d given a bunch of the 50mi runners transponders so we could be tracked in real-time. Way cool. And I had a perfect little pocket for it on my vest too. Chris said that I had some good time on the next runner with a transponder. But, I was worried about runners, “flying under the radar,” who hadn’t been “chipped” at the start. Always race like the next guy’s two minutes up and the guy behind’s two minutes back. Keep plugging away…

With Willow Camp in the rear-view, the day was warming up. I’d had a few twinges in my right achilles earlier in the morning. I’d not had any problems with achilles this year so chalked it up to racing Ilsanjo and the fact I was running a 50-miler in the Headlands faster than I ever had before. Overall though, felt good. Chabot and Ilsanjo definitley seemed to be doing more good for me than ill.

Powered by gratitude, I cruised down Matt Davis Trail back to the Cardiac aid-station, I began dwelling on how much time/distance I’d lost being off course for a bit early on in the going. At the half, I switched over to my Garmin’s Virtual Pacer (VP), which I’d set for 8:45/mi (the existing course-record pace). I now was hovering around 10-13min ahead of my VP. That should be good, right? I finally made it to Cardiac and moved through as quickly and efficiently as I could. Two hundred yards passed Cardiac I realized I just forgot my drop-bag with the rest of my calories for the remaining 40% of the race. I had one gel left in my vest and a full bottle. Putting my metabolic efficiency to the test, I ran faster and ignored my Garmin’s vibration, telling me it was time to take calories. I was in ration mode, but relaxed and stepped on the gas, bounding down another fun section of trail.

Once I got back down to Muir Beach I was ready for some calories, for sure. No gels are permitted in the Headlands, so I loaded up on CLIF SHOT BLOKS and Coke. I actually ended up really liking the BLOKS for racing, especially in the second half of a race, since you can just keep popping these little guys in and let ’em dissolve. So, disaster averted!

muc2All the way back up to Tennessee Valley, I was doing my best to prepare myself for the final, big climb up Marincello. I’ve gone up this climb numerous times during races, and it never fails to test one’s mental fortitude. Armed with a quote I recently heard in the trailer for the new movie, Unbroken, [in theaters Dec. 25th] stating, “If you can take it, you can make it,” I arrived to Tennessee Valley and vowed to myself I would not walk any part of this climb. Now I wouldn’t exactly call what I did do up Marincello, “running” per se, but I was able to use the above mountain biker as a nice carrot to keep me motivated. You take what the trail gives you. It wasn’t easy, but I kept the cadence quick, the steps short, and crested that sucker, feeling spent but excited to wrap this race up (but with the curious desire for the experience to never end).

By the time I finally got myself up Marincello, I was only about nine or ten minutes up on my arch nemesis (my Garmin’s Virtual Pacer). In my head, at that moment, it seemed like it wouldn’t be good enough. Unbroken‘s Louis Zamperini’s quote had all-too-quickly deflated into the less inspired, “Fake it until you make it,” as the body really started protesting the now 6+ hours of toil. At this point in the game, the body’s in charge and we’re just leaning against our limits and hoping the ol’ wheels stay on to the finish. Cadence. Cadence. Cadence. Relax…

Alta and SCA trails revealed a not-too-distant yet out-of-reach national monument as I reminded myself to find my yoga breath and keep on keepin’ on. Another fellow Hoka One One athlete, in the form of Ken Michel, running the 50k, gave me some much needed encouragement as I hobbled over the final rollers before the glorious left turn that would take us back to where we started the day some seven hours before—under the majestic Golden Gate Bridge, all downhill… which sounds more delightful as I write this than it did with 49 miles and 10,000′ of cumulative quad-crushing downhill in my legs.

You never know who’s going to come up from behind, ’cause it’s never over ’til its over in these ultrarunning contests. Work to that finish line. Earn every step. And then the body has your permission to completely seize up. I must’ve looked pretty bad, ’cause at the finish line volunteers actually asked if I need to be carried. Fake it ’til you make it.

Two final things I want to highlight about the Marin Ultra Challenge were 1.) how Inside Trail Racing allowed us to deposit our head-lamps at an aid-station once the sun came up and had them waiting for us at the finish, and 2.) the big sponges in buckets full of ice-water that were offered at aid-stations once it got warm—THAT WAS SO AWESOME! There were over 70 volunteers out there making this event happen and for them I’m super grateful.

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With super-human race director, Mr. Tim Stahler, riding some post-race euphoria.

It was another existential battle of mind over body out there, on a course that still lingers in my mind and spirit (and probably body too). I was thrilled to see 7:07 (~8:30/mi avg pace) coming across the line, but I was most psyched about having executed my best mountainous 50mi event to date. The effort to do so does concern me because of the immense strain on the body. What doesn’t kill you…

As of today, now eight days post-MUC, I’ve still only jogged across a few fields with the dogs. Lake Sonoma’s in three weeks and I can either benefit from MUC or become injured coming back to training too fast. Running resumes tomorrow and I’m hopeful, after resting this week, cycling, massage, and yoga, that any niggles from MUC will have vanished. It might be akin to pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but I’m targeting 6:40 to 7:00 at Lake Sonoma here in three weeks. Ultrarunning gods willing, I’ll be able to pull it off. I did see a bobcat up close yesterday on a sweet, hilly road-ride. Ann Trason says that bobcat sightings are good luck. I’ll take that, and run with it. >>> 😀

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North Face Endurance Challenge

2013 marks my fourth consecutive North Face Endurance Challenge (NFEC). I’m pretty darn lucky to have two such fiercely competitive events—Lake Sonoma 50 and NFEC—right here in my North Bay “backyard.” It’s quite a thrill, and downright humbling, to [chase] the best in the sport. From 2010 to 2011 I managed to knock off 9% off my finishing time. In 2012, we saw the course shortened/rerouted due to excessive rains though I felt I continued to make progress. Juxtaposing 2011 to this year, I’ve managed to carve out another modest 4% gain, going about 20min quicker over this roller-coastal course. What a ride it is…

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Photo credit – Galen Burrell

Coming off Dick Collins Firetrails 50, I got some rest and ramped up the training for a few weeks before my Thanksgiving break, navigating that deviation in routine the best one can. Race week was business as usual, back in the classroom, and I even managed to get my legs up at lunch on Thursday and Friday before the race.

Race morning went off without a hitch. Got to the start an hour early, bundled up to keep the chill off. Cracked the seal on a fresh port-o-john, then had an espresso about 10min out and it was time to go. I had heart-rate zones of 141-147 set into my Garmin with the objective of running at an average HR of 144bpm for the entire event. The opening pace felt very manageable, much more so than any of my other NFEC starts. Good sign!

Once the first climb started, I characteristically fell back and stayed within myself, enjoying the effort through the darkness and the familiar string of lights in front and behind. I did wish that I’d chosen to wear my Petzl NAO instead of my old Petzl head torch since the old one’s beam left me fearful I’d roll an ankle. I just didn’t want to carry the heavier lamp the rest of the day, or lose the pricey NAO. Regardless, I trusted the stability my Hoka’s provide and rode it out until dawn. I’m grateful I didn’t kiss the dirt. I guess this could be called “faith-based running.”

Feeling good and average HR still down at around 140, I decided to work harder on the first flat section around 5-6mi and bridged up to the main pack with a few 5:45 miles. Bingo! All my conditioning as a road-runner continues to be a strength and I took comfort running with others versus going it alone in the dark. But soon enough it started to pitch up again, gradually and the pack slowly left me behind. I watched, and paced, wishing I had half of Kilian’s VO2Max. That was when Rob Krar shouldered up next to me, passed, with his beam directed toward his prey up front. The thought did cross my mind, as I watched him float up behind the pack, that he was executing well, and might just go on to win, which of course is just what he did. One. Solid. Dude.

Dave Mackey and Mike Wardian came by next. I chatted with Dave for a bit and began to settle in for the long haul. My experience at this race inevitably mirrors my reality in road marathons, where running around 2:40 for 26.2, I’m often in no-man’s-land, increasingly out of reach of the front-runners, and well ahead of the larger mass of 3-hour folks. It’s tough goin’ when you don’t have a carrot ahead and/or someone back keeping you honest.

So, we just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Coming through 30-35, the shine was wearing off, as it will, but I put on some tunes and found some flow though my weary legs were no longer able to push the HR up into the 140s. F#%k it. I just wanted to see another runner. And one appeared around mile 40 in the form of Mike Wardian, who, curiously materialized from behind. We couldn’t figure out where I’d passed him, but we ran together for a few miles, until the Tennessee Valley Aid station where I lingered just a bit too long and wasn’t able to bridge the gap back up to him. Still, his presence over the final 10 helped me out a lot and got my head back in the game. Espirit de corps!

It was inspiring not only seeing the who’s-who-of-ultrarunning out there in the thick of the race but also the who’s-who-of-ultrarunning out there spectating and cheering us on. Kind of surreal, running up from Stinson, seeing Kilian Jornet and his Salomon buddies on the trail, then later, struggling up some slippery, god-forsaken stairs, seeing another legend in Geoff Roes. At NFEC there’s certainly no shortage of inspiration. Even better is seein’ friends at aid stations and random places along the way. When you’re dying it’s good to have a reason to smile, especially since you-know-that-they-know just what you’re dealin’ with.

Post-race, I got some grub, couldn’t stay warm and soon hobbled back to my car’s heated seats. I was scheduled for jury duty on Monday though I’ve managed to dodge that bullet today, and now tomorrow, though I’m still on call for Wednesday…

Now, the long look ahead into 2014. I’ve put in for Miwok 100k in May. Hopefully, my luck holds out this week and I manage to snag one of those lottery slots. Prior to Miwok, looking forward to some Inside Trail Racing events, including Marin Ultra Challenge in March. After NFEC, I’m thinking hard about doing Lake Sonoma again, since I really enjoy the opportunity to run with the big boys. The “Spring 50s” will hopefully set me up nicely for a return to what I feel’s my true calling in ultrarunning—the 100-miler. With June to prepare well, being off from teaching, I’ll return to Tahoe Rim Trail 100 in July and try to shave another 3% off my 2013 effort of 18:04. That’d put me down around 17:30, under the existing course-record. I was getting concerned about turning 40 next year, until I’ve witnessed what folks like Mackey and Wardian have been up to lately. Following these guys’ lead, my plan for 2014 is to use some strategic racing to put more “tiger in the cat.”

Now, I’m taking four weeks off from running. My right hip continues to be a bother and the downtime will surely be of benefit. I’m even getting a massage on Thursday. That should be an interesting experience, since I’ve never used massage in my training before. Hey, that’s what us Masters guys gotta do, right?

Happy Holidays and I hope the lottery gods smile down upon you. Cheers for beers.