As we headed up the ski slope to the top of Mount Werner I wondered how I felt at this point last year. It wasn’t quite the same route up but I arrived at the top about a minute earlier. We then zipped over to Long Lake aid-station at mile 11. I filled a bottle, having all my calories in my vest pockets today, versus going with liquid calories from start to finish. I had an alarm set for 20min intervals and I’d fuel with decaf gels-n-chews to about mile 42, then gradually transition to all Vitargo by the final third of the race. Having just pure water during the warm afternoon seemed like a good idea. I had a lot of “good ideas” going into this event.
Team Hoka on the first climb. With Sage Canaday and Chris Price. Photo Credit: JAdRunning
Heading down Fish Creek Falls I hopped, skipped, and jumped from rock to rock. After leaving one of my favorite parts of the course we arrive to my least favorite—the four-mile road section that connects Fish Creek to Olympian Hall and the next lollipop section of the course. On the way into Olympian I catch up with a few runners and we all end up waiting together at a traffic light for a minute. Heading into Olympian Hall at 21 I see Amanda for the first time. I instantly confess, “I’m really tired.” What I really want is to get myself above this mind-fog and into an effective racing head-space. “C’mon body. Let’s get with the program.”
On the way up-n-out of Olympian, I continue to feel sluggish but know that’s just part of the game sometimes. “Get up this climb and roll the descent down to Cow Creek.” Since the hare division started at noon, the afternoon was wearing on and it wouldn’t be too long before the sun would set. Knowing my splits from last year, I chose to not have a drop-bag at Cow Creek, knowing I’d make it back to Olympian—and my lights—before sunset.
At Cow Creek, I filled my bottles and drank 20oz of water before departing. It’s 12.5mi back to Olympian with no aid and that takes me a good two hours so I wanted to ensure I left this aid-station topped off. It was warm enough that I doused myself with water a few times on the way back. The noon-start throws a nice monkey wrench into your 100mi race psychology because at this point in the day I’m usually a hell of a lot farther into a 100-miler. So it was a tough realization at Cow Creek—given how I was feeling—knowing I was only 50k in. “Things’ll turn around. Just hang in there.”
I was starting to catch up with a lot of runners in the tortoise division by now as well as a hare, here and there. The exhaustion I was experiencing was really wearing on me so I took at caffeine pill and hoped that would help lift me out of my funk. I wasn’t even 40mi into the race. Catching up and talking with James Walsh, who was running his first 100-miler, we were joking around about how 100-mile racing is so radically different than racing Ironman (both of us having raced Ironman Hawaii together in 2011—and finishing within minutes of each other while not knowing who the other was. “I haven’t seen another hare in three and a half hours!,” he tells me. Commiserating with another runner buoys my spirits and we run on for a while enjoying some sweet Colorado single-track.
More time and tortoises on the trail and the relentless grade—just gradual enough that you feel like you have to run. Josh Arthur and I lament this fact when I catch up with him. When I spy him up ahead, I yell “Josh! Hey man, how’s it going?!” To which he replies “This is the best day of my life…” in a tone that mildly suggests otherwise. We shoot the breeze for a bit before space and time separates us once more. Josh has done really well here, so you never want to count him out.
I summit and begin the descent back down into Olympian Hall. At some point, the indomitable Jeff Browning goes by. I say, “Hey, I’ll run with you back to Olympian.” I’m hoping this opportunity might be the turning point in my race. Another “good idea” of mine here at Run Rabbit.
At Olympian (the second time), Amanda was on the ball. Just as I’d done the year prior, I put on a sleeveless base-layer and a tight long-sleeve zip. I grabbed my lights and I was outta there. Browning was in-n-out even faster and was already completely outta sight. But, I reminded myself, the racing doesn’t begin until mile 70. From that point, I’d still have seven hours to race to the finish line…
Now it’s back through Downtown Steamboat Springs and eventually starting to climb back up to the Fish Creek Falls trail-head. Paul Nelson, of Paul Nelson Film & Photography, is out there on the side of the road and asks me how things are going. He’s filming and I’m one of the athletes he’s following today. I tell him I came through Olympian in like 7th place and last year I came through in 5th so things were looking good. “And, we’re not even half-way yet.” Which, I’m thinking in my head, really kinda sucks ’cause I feel like like shit. “Whatever, I’ve done the training, I’ll be fine,” I tell myself. Paul gives me a pep talk and the words really resonate. The long stretch up to Fish Creek Falls begins. The sun sets and darkness begins to fully envelop the day.
The prep for Run Rabbit Run this year included 30% more run-specific volume in the month of August than last year. Since I wasn’t using Hypoxico altitude equipment I had more time to run than last year when I was doing supplemental, hypoxic sessions on the bike as part of my altitude acclimatization. Returning from injury this spring and being under-trained for Western States 100 truly sucked so I vowed to be back to my bullet-proof self for Run Rabbit in Sept. And to justify going faster than my 19:13 from last year, I felt I needed to train even harder. It’s worked before…
One thing about the race this year was that in addition to the underlying fatigue, I wasn’t having that much fun from the start. The race-director, Fred Abramowitz, would say that I’m not supposed to have fun during a 100-mile run but by “fun” I guess I mean full and total engagement with the process—that joyous flow state that’s created when the mind and body meld into one when fully engaged in the act of racing an ultra. Anyway, I was still waiting for that switch to be flipped and for the fun to start…
I’d been flip-flopping with 22 y/o Daniel Metzger all day and while I’d taken a little detour for a couple minutes, going straight on a switchback in the dark, he’d moved up ahead of me. Catching up with him once more, he shared that some other guys moved ahead as well. “Great.” I just wanted to get up to Long Lake at mile 53—the true half-way point of the event. It was now starting to get really cold. The slog up Fish Creek Falls continued, laboriously.
Jesse Haynes catches up and, moving at a reasonable pace, I hike/run with him for quite a while. Jesse’s had a big year with a Top-10 at Western States and a win at Tahoe Rim Trail 100 just a month later. “I don’t know if running three hundreds in a year was a good idea,” he says. I agree, but what the hell; this was Jeff Browning’s fourth 100 for 2016. Notably, I’ve never done more than two 100s in a calendar year.
Long Lake aid-station is less than two miles away. We hit 10,000′ and the temps have dropped into the 30s. I feel clammy. The last thing Jesse hears from me is my distant wretching as he floats away, up ahead into the frigid darkness.
Olympian Hall, early in the going. Photo Credit: Joe Grant
Puke-n-rally. Tortoises moved by me and try to console. Then another wave of nausea hits and I’m on the ground, dry-heaving. This time on all fours. I just want to lay down on the trail like Karl Meltzer after 1600mi on the Appalachian Trail. “This sucks. Get up.” When I do, I start shaking uncontrollably. “Less than half a mile to Long Lake. Start moving or you’re really gonna be screwed.”
Hugging my body with my arms while running I feel ridiculous. Every step, I’m digging myself into a bigger hole. Finally… the sound of voices again—life-saving aid. I see the fire with many runners—in various states of carnage—around it; camp chairs looking all-too inviting. I stand before the flames for quite some time. My nutrition alarm goes off. Another wave of nausea hits. “Wow, this race is not panning out similar to last year, at all…”
I hobble over to the drop-bags and a volunteer helps me locate mine. I grab stuff and quickly make my way back over to the raging fire. I put on my nylon shell over my base-layer and long-sleeve. I put on a beanie. I have my gloves and hand-warmers at the ready. What I really need is a puffy jacket and tights but alas, they’re at mile 70, and I didn’t plan for this shitty scenario at mile 53. I packed my drop-bags similar to how I did last year—with the assumption I’d be in a racing mode and not in a survival mode.
And then it happened—I sit down in a camp chair. Later, a volunteer recognized I was a mess and brought a blanket for my legs. “I’ve painted myself into a corner here,” I thought to myself. “Dammit!!” I haven’t been this messed up since my first 100 at mile 67 at Tahoe Rim Trail in 2009, except this time, I’m cold. Really cold. I’m not considering moving at this point but wondering how in the hell I’m going to get over to Summit aid-station, 5.5mi away—higher and colder…
Time passes. Runners come and runners go. Familiar faces. Words of encouragement exchanged. I barf into a large ziploc bag for a while. I eat some soup. That comes up. Ginger ale: no dice. 10,000′ is not being kind this year. Just as someone puts another log on the fire I put my head in my lap, groaning under the aid-station hustle-n-bustle. Runners are sharing their stories from the day. Tortoises and hares, males and females, are strategizing where they plan on dropping. And some will drop while others’ destiny will somehow see them to the finish line. A young guy, racing as a tortoise is trying to pull it together. He says his fingers are cold and stiff. He’s clearly still in the game. I give him my hand-warmers and urge him to get outta here. After a time he’s gone and some new desperate face arrives.
An hour and a half has gone by. Food still won’t stay down and I’m still shiv-shiv-shivering. Finally, a guy comes up to me and asks what I’m going to. “Ah, good question,” I think. I tell him I want to continue but given my physical state, I have no idea how I’ll get outta here. Shit or get off the pot. Matter-o-factly, I tell him my day is done. In a while another volunteer comes over and cuts off my wrist-band. “Well,” I think to myself, “There’s a first time for everything.” Some time passes and the guy finds me again and let’s me know he’s taking some other runners off the mountain soon. I get up and ask him if I can take this blanket with me. “No.”
At the truck I see about four other drops inside. I open up the back cab, throw my stuff in and tell them, “I’ll be back in minute.” I then drop to the ground for one final wretching session, all the while reassuring myself that continuing on was simply not in the cards today. Over two hours after arriving at Long Lake, we start down the road with the heater on high. It feels good to be moving again, even if it’s no longer under my own power.
What makes this DNF pill a little easier to swallow was the fact that I’d had the opposite experience here last year. I’d run myself to a 2nd place overall in what’s still one of the fastest times on this course. Because of this I came in this year and broke one of my cardinal rules—“expect nothing and be prepared for anything.” 2016’s been a bitch with injury and struggling to come back and continue trying to live up to my insane expectation that I must continue improving, season after season after season. Seems like the sport’s been trying to teach me something this year and I’ve been too busy obsessing about splits, finish times, and podiums to notice. “Everybody has a plan until you get punched in the face.” Yep.
Hands down, the most fun I had at Run Rabbit Run 2016 was after I dropped. We barreled over to Summit aid-station on this roller-coaster of a fire-road, where we picked up my Hoka One One partner-in-crime, Sage Canaday. Sage had been pushing the pace all day and—like me—was looking for a little redemption from a tough day at Western States 100 in June. Sage was in good spirits and we all found ourselves sharing the day’s trials and tribulations.
The process of dropping out of a mountain ultra like Run Rabbit Run is no easy task. Back at Long Lake, around the fire, a guy told me “This is not a good place to drop. You should drop at Dry Lake (about mile 66) ” I thought to myself, “Well, I wanna jump outta this chair and continue racing but if I can’t take this fire with me, then my ass stays right here.”
We transition from the truck into the back of a Subaru, about 5 of us packed in the back like toes in an Injinji sock, for the ride down to Dry Lake and then on to Spring Creek Ponds where I’d meet back up with Amanda. On the way down we shared some stories and LMAO’d the whole way. Someone handed me a thermos of hot coffee. We talked about DNF’g races and I shared this was my first legit DNF. I wondered if feelings of guilt and shame would eventually surface around my decision. Sage just laughed and said he once DNF’d a 3k on the track and the everyone burst out into laughter once more.
At Spring Creek Ponds, the moment had arrived to find a phone and call my wife and tell her we’d come all this way so I could drop out of the race. She’s now seen it all—running my first 100, a handful of Ironmans, winning 100s, setting course-records, failing, succeeding, and now adding the DNF experience to the list. She’d been back at the hotel keeping track of my progress online, and since I hadn’t come through Summit or Dry Lake yet, she made the smart call to stay inside. It’s not that far from the resort over to the mile 70 aid-station, as that’s a low point of the course (literally in elevation terms and figuratively for the runners I suppose).
Spring Creek Ponds is one of the amazing aid-stations along the Run Rabbit Run course. Last year I was in-n-out of there so fast I didn’t really get to appreciate it. This year? I more than made up for it! Down from high elevation, I was feeling back to my normal self. A decision had been made and no significant feelings of remorse had surfaced. Sometimes you’re the hammer and sometimes you’re the nail. I made the most of the moment, yukking it up with the likes of Zach Miller, Ford Smith, and even Nick Clark, who, volunteering this year, was who I ran with into this very aid-station last year. My how things change.
Amanda was on her way and the runners who were still in the mix that I’d been with at Long Lake started arriving and departing. Jesse Haynes lingered for a while while Keira Henninger gave him a good dose of tough love and saw him off. The competitor in me stirred but my day was over. Keira and I talked a bit and she was super positive about looking ahead and getting back to kicking ass soon. For sure.
Hindsight is always 20/20 and I’ve had some time to objectively reflect on the factors that led to this DNF. If the simplest answer tends to be the right one then the reason why I failed to have a repeat strong performance here is most likely due to being somewhat cooked from the training I did in August. By the end of the month I’d been averaging 112mi a week running with a ton of climbing. The training was enjoyable and it was the first time this year where my body was at 100% so I was really fired up to “go big” in training. Perhaps the taxing training load coupled with resuming a 50+hour work-week mid-August (teaching and coaching) took its toll. Quality of sleep was impacted and I simply started accumulating a lot of fatigue, which I felt would be remedied with a bit longer taper than last year. Everybody has a plan…
Training aside, the altitude and the cold really seem to be the one-two punch that knocked me out of the race. Last year, using Hypoxico altitude equipment, I was so elated that I was not the least bit nauseous for the entire duration of the race. So initially, I blamed my DNF on not using the Hypoxico equipment, but after getting my blood labs back from the doc a week ago and seeing values higher than they’ve been in years suggests that the AltoLab equipment I did use effectively prepared me for the high elevation (even if it felt like it hadn’t). Honestly, I don’t know. Granted, running 100 miles is tough enough without coming from sea-level to the mountains of Colorado to do it. In the end I never was able to shake the fatigue going into the race. Unlike last year, there was just a lot of resistance everywhere I turned. C’est la vie.
After an up-n-down year of being injured—and then a fear of re-injuring myself—I’d have to say I’ve lost touch—-to some degree—-with the art of racing and have instead spent too much time dwelling on expected outcomes. It appears you’re never too old, or have too much experience, to repeat mistakes you’ve already made and supposedly learned from.
Moving forward I’m setting some hard-n-fast racing ground-rules for myself:
- Expect Nothing and Be Prepared for Anything
- Keep It Simple
- Execute In the Moment
- Patient + Positive = Power
- Know Thyself
- NEVER Start Pushing Until AT LEAST the Half-Way Point (of ANY distance)
- NEVER Run With Splits (mine or otherwise)
- Liquid Calories Is the Way To Go
You’re only as good as your last race. Sonoma ULTRA Trail 50k on Oct 1st. 2nd place and first “old guy.” Photo Credit: Amanda Shebest
This year I was not planning on running Scena Performance‘s Sonoma ULTRA 50k, as I had done last year. I’d signed up for pacing duty instead, which I knew would ensure I didn’t race it, since it’s only two weeks post-Run Rabbit Run. Then friends suggested I “dust myself off” [i.e., from my DNF] and race the 50k on my favorite training grounds here at home. Everyone was on-board—and I was fresh—so what the hay. It would allow me to work on getting back in touch with really racing.
After Run Rabbit, I eventually got back to running, but decided to start leaving the watch at home. It felt light and right. With intuition guiding me, I got to race-week in a healthy groove of running a bit every morning and chilling during the hot afternoons. I arrived to the start line feeling like I would’ve wanted to for Run Rabbit—fresh, loose, and overjoyed to be racing. I bounded, effortlessly off the start-line.
On the first 2000′ climb I reminded myself: “Expect Nothing. Be Prepared for Anything.” l’m never as pumped racing off the front as I am racing with a fellow competitor. It only takes one other runner to make a race. Half-way up the climb, I was taking it easy and keeping my breathing in check. “Never Start Pushing Until AT LEAST the Half-Way Point.” I was happy to have some company. Racing strategically, I eventually let the guy pass, his breathing more labored than mine, I’d let him wear himself out. At Panorama aid, we started the descent to the Ranger Station, I was descending very well and the running felt easy. Down to the turn-around 2000′ and back up another 2000′. Half-way back up, there he is again. Eventually, I step off the trail and let him pass. I’m not getting sucked in to working too hard too early.
Over to Goodspeed in Sugarloaf State Park, I leave the aid-station, 1min back. This is exactly where I wanna be. We head up into Sugarloaf to Suzanna Bon’s aid-station at Gray Pine (the halfway point). I get some Coke, say hi to Suzanna and start thinking about catching this guy on this lollipop section that heads up the ridgeline and back down to Gray Pine.
Steps upon steps up to the ridge. No sign of the front-runner. With Napa Valley to my left and the Valley of the Moon to my right it was time to descend. In a mile, 1st came back into view. We hit Gray Pine together and introduced ourselves on the way out. Yuri Gonzaga, 26, did his first trail race at Mt. Diablo two weeks earlier to place 3rd. Yuri tells me he’s really feeling the effort at this point in the race. I tell him he’s running very strong and just keep doing what he’s doing. The encouraging words seemed to work; maybe a little too well…
We make our way down to Goodspeed, grab nutrition from our drop-bags and start the final ascent back up Hood Mountain. Armed only with endurance, I quickly reach my threshold while climbing. The cumulative four hours of this peppy pace has finally caught up with me. I let the kid go. Maybe I can catch him on the final descent…
It’s not about racing anymore, it’s about courage, to be honest with myself and do my best. I remind myself, “there’s no excuse for not playing good defense.” The technical, rock-infested climb up to the top of Hood is awful. I reach the top and am so thankful. I descend the rocky, twisty Summit Trail down to Panarama, where I slam a full 12oz Coke for the push to the finish.
Coke: the world’s greatest energy drink. 3 miles to go. Photo Credit: Adrian Ramirez
Energy’s still great but pushing the pace results in some nasty leg cramping. I’m out here for some fun and having Yuri out here made my day. I’d certainly rather go head-to-head with a fellow competitor and get second than win easy. Looking at what I did last year I figured I’d run about 5:20. I crossed the line in 5:15. Yuri broke five hours in 4:58, going to show, once again, how much time you can save if/when you can run strong over the final 25% of an ultra.
Indeed, I’ll be chasing a Golden Ticket into Western States next June where I’d like to again compete for that top Masters spot as well as running about two hours faster than I did this year. It only takes a couple Jorge Maravillas though, to knock me out of Golden Ticket contention but I’m not worried about it. In fact, worrying about it makes it less likely that I’ll race well enough to earn an entry.
Accept your limits to move pass them. Instead of obsessing over outcomes, I’m just gonna keep it simple and focus on my health and well-being; coming into events fresh-n-loose, and executing brilliantly. I believe with the learning I’ve amassed the last four seasons, I’m poised to now have the breakthrough season for which I’ve been dreaming.
Parting Shot: Race rig from Ironman Hawaii 2011. Sub 5-hours for 112mi. Watching the race on Saturday, I’m grateful for the four occasions I raced in Hawaii, in ’02, ’04, ’07, & ’11. I’m also grateful for the second “career” I now have as an ultrarunner but sometimes, I do miss that bike…
A heartfelt thanks to my beautiful and highly supportive wife/agent Amanda for her thankless job as “First Responder” and always picking me up after I’ve fallen. | Thank you to Hoka One One for your continued support, innovation, and producing the best shoes out there—#speedinstinct #timetofly! | Thanks to Vitargo for the steady energy and SIMPLIFYING my nutrition. | Thank you Healdsburg Running Company for all the wonderful support from the HRC/H-Burg crew!! | Victory Sportdesign produces the best drop-bags in the biz! | Thank you to Julbo Eyewear for the beautiful, functional, and comfortable sunglasses. | Thanks to Dave Townsend at Santa Rosa Physical Therapy for helping me manage all of my issues and keep on runnin’ >>>