Strike Two in Malibu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With 2mi to go. Photo Credit: Howie Stern

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complete Sean O’Brien 100k Results

View my SOB100k on Strava

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

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

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

2015 San Diego 100

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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.

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.

p2p100

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!