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! 

Western States & North Face

2015 Western States 100. Lyon Ridge Aid-Station (mi10) with Tahoe Mountain Milers.

2015 Western States 100. Lyon Ridge Aid-Station (mi10) with Tahoe Mountain Milers.

The year is winding down and there’s already lots of buzz about the 2016 season. Names are starting to trickle down onto that coveted Western States 100 entrants list. And much to my surprise and delight, I’m on it! I volunteered with Tahoe Mountain Milers (TMM) this year at States and that put me in their raffle for a shot at getting into States. Each aid-station gets to send one representative. Last year, I think TMM had just two entrants and I wasn’t one of them. So, on November 19th, the day of the TMM drawing, they had five entrants in the raffle, which makes sense, considering the growing interest in the event. TMM helps run my beloved Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Runs, including the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, my first 100-miler back in 2009 and where I fell in love (became obsessed) with the 100 mile distance. I would go on to run TRT100 again in 2010, 2013, and 2014. This year, after running San Diego 100 in early June, I ran TRT50, then got “coerced” into pacing a friend in the 100. So it seems, I’d built up enough trail karma to have my name drawn on that Thursday night after 9pm.

Photo Credit: Tahoe Mountain Milers

Photo Credit: Tahoe Mountain Milers

Running with the gale force of TMM in my sails will be a huge motivator in the prep for States as well as running smart and strong on race-day. To come through the TMM aid-station at mile 10 and see the folks that made my race possible… well, I imagine it’ll be challenging to keep myself composed. Until June though, the focus will be on integrating all I’ve learned from the seven 100s I’ve trained for and raced, then do my best to nail the States prep and execute to the best of my ability on that big day in June . Excited for the opportunity and grateful I get to run Western whilst I’m still at the top of my game. As can be expected, I do have some lofty goals planned.

Inside Trail Racing Mt. Tam 30k (11/14). Photo Credit: http://www.letswanderphotography.com/

Inside Trail Racing Mt. Tam 30k (11/14). Photo Credit: http://www.letswanderphotography.com/

Backing it up to where we are now on the calendar, it’s a mere 5 days out from yet another North Face Endurance Challenge 50-miler. The difference a year makes! Twelve months back I was out-of-commission with a compression fracture sitting on my ass in Auburn, biting my nails at the Western States Lottery. I remember thinking to myself the whole time: I wish I were racing North Face… I wish I were racing North Face…

After Run Rabbit Run 100 in September, the idea of putting up 80mi weeks for North Face in December didn’t seem like a good idea. Nor did it seem like a lot of fun. Once October hit and I started getting back to running, I figured endurance was in the bank and that what I really was getting jazzed about was shifting gears and doing some faster stuff. After establishing some base miles post-Run Rabbit, I went out and did two Inside Trail Racing 30k’s, on consecutive Saturdays in November, hoping that the experiences would do something special for my North Face 50 on 12/5.

ITR's Mt. Tam 30k with the Bearded Gull, Travis Weller, and Alex Varner (pre-Quad Dipsea CR fame)

ITR’s Mt. Tam 30k with the Bearded Gull, Travis Weller, and Alex Varner (pre-Quad Dipsea CR fame)

I enjoyed the 30k’s more than I expected. I believe that had something to do with the fact I’d been doing hard sessions all year long, so the 30k intensity wasn’t so overwhelming. I typically run a 50miler around 142bpm and both these 30k’s averaged out to be at 153. I’m hopeful I can push the HR at NF a bit higher than normal for the first 30mi and still feel controlled, since I’ll have these bad boys in my legs!

Mental toughness must be mined and I recognize these guys down in Marin have it in truckloads—getting to push one another on a basis that’s as regular as they want it. Thus, the task at hand at Tam was really racing (like running fast for a change) and fighting hard over the whole 2.5ish hours, and still come in down the results list. The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts!

Inside Trail Peacock Gap 30k (11/21). Photo Credit: http://www.letswanderphotography.com/

Inside Trail Peacock Gap 30k (11/21). Photo Credit: http://www.letswanderphotography.com/

A week later, at Peacock Gap, at China Camp, Ukiah’s Ewe Ferrara was again racing after edging me out by quite a few minutes at Tam. Seems like I can catch him in a 50k or longer but just can’t hang at shorter distances, like those totaling some 19-ish miles. When he worked his way around me after a couple of miles, I took advantage of the opportunity and pushed pretty hard just to keep him in sight for some 10 painstaking miles. I like I think I can run downhill well. I was bested toward the end of the race when Ewe dropped me on a long, technical downhill. I definitely got was I was looking for by racing on these two occasions. At 29, Ewe’s getting stronger and tougher with each race. I am hoping to pay him back though at North Face on Saturday!

Healdsburg 3.5mi Trail Turkey Trot on 11/26. Photo Credit: KC Hope Kennedy

Healdsburg 3.5mi Trail Turkey Trot on 11/26. Photo Credit: KC Hope Kennedy

To get one last shot of speed in my legs, I had to go do the Turkey Trot, put on by Scena Performance and sponsored by Healdsburg Running Company and Nuya Nutrition. This NF prep’s been a dramatic break in how I normally train for ultras, but I do feel that there’s a time for all things under heaven, so to speak, and sharpening with races seemed like what my body and mind were up for, whereas, so often, the urge to keep stacking up big weeks seems as much or more appealing. In the end, my hope is that I’ll get through NF actually having placed less cumulative stress on my body while getting to the start-line on Saturday with greater fitness than if I’d just continued running big miles. Time will tell.

That turkey trot though? No joke. Turns out Scena decided to make it a pretty sweet little trail race of about 3.5mi in distance. Thankfully, I had those two recent 30k’s in my legs and head, ’cause I needed every bit of fitness to race this hard from beginning to end. Funny too, ’cause I’m in this NF50 head-space and just treated this turkey trot like it was an A-Pri event. The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in war.

I arrived a good hour before race start at 9am. Temps were hovering around freezing and I had on all my cold weather clothes from Run Rabbit Run back in Sept. (I had washed them). I was still feeling Peacock Gap, five days earlier. My legs were slow to warm up. I ran the majority of the course twice during the warm-up. Pretty funny since most races I run, there’s no way you’re going to see the whole course in the morning before the start, let alone run it twice. What a treat! Anyway, the warm-up and course knowledge helped me form a plan of attack to try and stay in front of the youngsters. After summiting the final little climb—at about mile 2!—it was downhill running on some technical stuff then a return to flat black-top to the finish. Strava said I was doing 5:03 pace that final half-mile to the finish. Crazy fun. The technical downhill helped me open up a gap. I edged out 2nd place by a whopping 32 seconds. Again, super fun to run fast. I need to keep doing more of this kind of stuff—at least the 30k’s!—to build some rockin’ leg speed for States, while being very mindful of over-racing and increasing chance of injury.

I’m hoping I have that extra gear over the final 20mi of North Face this weekend. I’m more fired up for this one than any of the other 4 I’ve done. Not having raced last year certainly has contributed to the stoke!

Parting Shot: Nothing like bringing home a puppy to ensure a quiet, relaxing race-week!

Parting Shot: Nothing like bringing home a puppy to ensure a quiet, relaxing race-week!

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!