Saturday, January 23, 2016

San Diego 50: A Perfect Disaster

It's been since Bear 100 last September that I raced (and far longer since I updated this blog), and to be honest, I didn't intend on racing this soon.  Frankly, I hadn't planned on running much other than some maintenance mileage for the rest of 2015 post-Bear; it was my first 100-mile race, and I had an overall great experience with it.  No real low points until around mile 90 or so, and everything went pretty smoothly.  As much as that race took out of me both mentally and physically, there was never a point in that race where I thought that I wouldn't be able to finish; I knew I was going to cross that finish line, and I did.

After Bear 100, I took about 10 days or so and ran probably twice, with a cumulative mileage total of about 6 miles.  It's not that I couldn't run more...I just didn't want to.  I wanted a break.  Mentally the race had broken me far more than physically.  I'm not an emotional person, but as soon as I crossed the line at Bear, I lost it.  I'm sure part of it was fatigue; I just couldn't control my physical body at that point, let alone my emotions.  I've had friends and family pass, and while sad, I never lost my composure when hearing the news.  This was nowhere near as significant in my personal life in the grand scheme of things, but seemed to affect me far more, and I just broke down for a solid five minutes.  It didn't stop there, and for three or four days after, I was especially emotional (not to mention the physical fatigue combined with a post-race case of acute narcolepsy).

After a couple weeks had passed, I was pleasently surprised with how well my body recovered...physically at least.  I did the typical ultra-runner thing that everyone tells you to avoid, and before I had fully recovered, I signed up for my first race of 2016.

San Diego 50 is a race that appealed to me for a few different reasons.  It was mid-January, so I knew the weather would be cool, which was different than most of the races I had done in 2015 (Bear being the exception).  It was relatively close to home; no need to have a one or two day drive just to get there.  All I had to do was just leave the evening prior, a couple hour drive, a stay in a cheap motel, run the race, and then drive home.  The biggest draw for me, was the course itself.  This was not a big mountain course, it wasn't on rugged, technical terrain, and compared to most races I'd been looking at it was flat.  So I registered.

When I started serious training for SD 50, it was right at the beginning of November.  With a solid month of unspecific running (not even anything I'd call training) between Bear and the start of my build up, I felt physically well recovered, and still in pretty good shape.  As time progressed through November and December, I got all my runs in, and was hitting all my key workouts.  I was running all my normal routes faster than I had all year.  But there was still a problem - my head was not in it.

Several times during my build up, I seriously considered stopping my training, withdrawing from SD 50, and just taking the real break that I should have had.  I needed an off season, but I didn't give myself one.  That would come to bite me in the ass later.

As race day approached, I felt ready, but I wasn't excited to run 50 miles.  It wasn't the race that didn't excite me, it was the physical act of running that distance.  I knew I was in shape, probably the best running shape I've ever been in.  This wasn't what I would call my typical "mountain fitness," which is what I tried to have for most of my 2015 races.  I knew for SD 50 I'd need to be able to run consistently for the entire race, so I had spent plenty of time focusing on more flat running, and tempo runs.  I should have had the best race I'd ever had based off of my training.

The morning came, and there I was again, lined up on a start line in the pre-dawn hours.  It didn't feel wrong, but it wasn't right, either.  My body was ready to go, but my head wasn't in the game.

The usual pre-dawn ultra start.  I'm the one in the blue jacket.

As we started the race, I tried to keep it mellow, and not go out too fast, which seems to be a problem I have (and I'm sure I'm not alone).  I'd done many back to back long runs at an effort that was much harder than what I was moving, so I didn't feel like I was overextending myself in the first part of the race.  The first 10 miles came and went pretty easily.  I wasn't flying, but I was steady.  I came into the mile 10 aid station, saw my wife (who is the best crew chief ever), and took the time I needed to grab a snack, refill my bottles, and grab some more gels before I took off again.  There were 3 or 4 runners who passed me while I was in the aid station, but for the first time ever in a race, I didn't care.  I was only out there to run my race, not anyone else's.

The next 10 miles to the next crew access aid station was more of the same.  I moved along steady, running almost all of it at a casual pace.  There weren't any climbs that I would consider major, but there was enough rolling to keep the terrain varied, which was nice.  There was a section going around Lake Hodges that was some steep, but short, ups and downs that were rutted out, but I was enjoying the views.

This is a good spot to point out that the SD 50 course, while in a relatively urban setting for the most part (you are running near houses pretty much the whole course), is actually quite beautiful.  Sometimes we seem to forget what natural beauty can be found, quite literally in this case, in our own back yards.

I rolled into the mile 20 aid station, and there was quite a cheering squad.  Aid station volunteers and other crews are always very supportive during ultras, and this was no exception.  There were even two members of other runners crews who stick out in my mind:  one guy dubbed me "Honey Stinger," presumably because I was wearing a Honey Stinger hat, and cheered for me every time he saw me; the other would randomly appear on different sections of the course, and was easily the most optimistic guy I've ever seen.

Rolling in to Mile 20 Aid Station.

As my wife did the usual aid station routine, changing bottles, gels, etc., I ate a little bit of fruit, and took the time to make sure everything was still functioning as it should.  Things were going well, so I pushed on to the mile 25 turnaround point.

Miles 20-30 is where the bulk of the climbing is on the course.  It's an out and back course, so you do have the benefit of knowing what's next after you hit the turnaround.  I didn't struggle in this section, I just dialed back my pace, and tried to keep my effort as consistent as possible.  I did just as any ultra runner should:  I ran when I could, and hiked when it was more efficient.  I managed to pass some people in this section, particularly when the climbs got a little steeper.

It was during this section, when I was at around mile 22 or so, when the race leader came flying back my direction (he would have been around mile 28 at that point), and he (Michele Graglia) was just floating along.  It was probably a solid 15 minutes or more after he passed that I saw the next runner inbound to the finish.

I hit the turnaround, and headed back, keeping my efforts measured.  It was around mile 29 or so, when the low spot hit me.  I came into the mile 30 aid, and saw my wife again.  I can't tell you at this point if I looked any different, but I was definitely starting to feel it.  It's pretty typical for me, regardless of the distance, to have a low spot around the 50k mark of a race.  I can't really explain why...anything I change in training or nutrition has never seemed to make a difference.  High fat diet, low fat diet, more speedwork, less's never seemed to matter.  I've just grown to expect it, and so has my wife.  She's well aware that when I get to that point in the race, I'm generally not feeling that great.

I ate some fruit, drank some coke, ate a Honey Stinger waffle, and pushed on.  Things started to slow down...not just my pace, but mentally.  Usually I do a pretty good job of shaking off the low mental spots, knowing that in a few miles, they will pass.  This one, for reasons I'd soon realize, wouldn't.

At mile 35, I was over it.  I wasn't over the low spot, I was over IT...running.  I didn't want to be out there anymore.  This wasn't the typical "I'm feeling sorry for myself because things are getting hard now and I want to have a pity party for myself."  This was much deeper than that.

In 2014, I raced Pacific Crest Trail 50, and had a pretty low spot around the same time in the race.  I was whining, because I was fresh off an achilles injury, and it was hot and windy, and I was tired and nauseous, and things just weren't going the way I envisioned them.  I moaned about how I wanted to drop to my wife, and made the excuse that my achilles was flaring up (physically, it wasn't, but in my head, it was), and that I should quit to avoid further injury.  She was smart enough to tell me to go to the turnaround and back (about 5 more miles), and if I didn't feel better, I could drop.  Well, in that race, I hit the turnaround on the course, and in my attitude.  I came around in the five mile stretch, and when I saw my wife again, I was motivated and on the hunt.  That's the way it usually happens.  With time, it almost always gets better.

This time, when I left the mile 35 aid station enroute to mile 40 where I would see my wife again, things got low.  Lil' John was singing the soundtrack for me at this point "Get low...get low, get low, get low, get low, get low..."

I immediately regretted doing this race.  It was at this point, that I knew it was too soon.  While I may have been physically prepared for the effort, mentally and emotionally, I was just burnt out.  I didn't just want to stop this race, I wanted to stop running...period.  I began to question why I was doing this type of activity altogether.  Even more, I felt like a failure.  Not because quitting this race would be a failure, but because I believed that I had failed at who I thought I truly was.  I identified as a runner, and I was failing at it.  In that moment, somewhere around mile 38, I detested the fact that I had seemingly built my entire life the past several years around who I was as an athlete, and now it was all in shambles.  I didn't think about my life outside running, and how great things were, how much I loved my family or my job, or more importantly how much my family loved me.  I only thought of failure.  I was done running at that point...maybe forever.

And so I walked.

I didn't care that people were passing me.  I didn't care that I wasn't running.  I had given up.

I came into the mile 40 aid, handed my wife my hydration vest, and before she could say anything I walked straight up to the aid station captain, and said the two words I've said only once before, and barring death or serious injury, vowed never to say again...

"I'm dropping."

"No," she told me.

In that moment, before the aid station captain could say anything else to me, all sorts of things ran through my head.  Did she just tell me no?  She can't tell me no!  I can drop if I want to, and dammit, right now I don't want to be here anymore!  Does she know what I've gone through the last 10 miles?

"Why?" she asked me.

"It's too soon.  I wasn't ready for this.  I haven't recovered from my last race."  I said.

Then she told me the simplest things, that I already knew somewhere inside, but I needed to hear from someone.  From someone who wasn't my wife, but from someone who didn't know me from anyone else.

"I've been where you are at.  Take a few minutes, or even a few hours if you need, you've got the time.  Sit down.  Eat.  Get your head together.  You're only 10 miles from the end.  You can do this, and you're not dropping."

I sat in the chair, but turned it around to face away from everyone except my wife.  I didn't know whether I should be angry, upset, happy, sad, or what I should feel.  So I sat there.  I ate something.  I probably drank some more.  I sat thinking.  I don't know how much time passed...10 minutes?  20?  40?  My head just wouldn't come to where I wanted it to so that I could finish this race. head came to where I needed it to.  And I got up.

And I ran.

It started out slow.  My legs were stiff, my spirits were low.  But, after one mile...two got easier again.  I could run.  Maybe not fast, but it was running, and once again, I was a runner.

Next thing I knew, random guy was out along the course again, cheering for me.  I'm sure he was cheering for everyone that ran by, but it felt personal.

"You look amazing.  You're killing it.  You're going to smash the rest of this race."

I believed him.  I didn't just need to believe him, I wanted to do so.  I kept moving.

Mile 45 aid station.  Bottles.  Eat.  Move.

The big climb up the last hill was next.  I could see people in front of me.  I didn't get excited, and charge after them, I  I was methodical.  I had five miles to reel them in and pass them.

Three miles left.  Three people in front of me that I could see, and I made it my mission to pass them before the end.  I'd never been running this fluid before at the end of a 50 miler.  It just felt...effortless.

Small hill, he's walking.  "Run it."  I said to myself.  One down.

She's stopped to tie a shoe.  "Pick up the pace."  Two down.  One to go.

Two miles left.  One more left to pass.  He was a nice guy, we had a short conversation about how he had been scared shitless because this was his first 50 miler.  "You've got it now.  We're almost done.  Nice job."  He smiled.  I ran faster.  Three down.  Bingo.

I came to within sight of the orange grove that I knew the finish line was just on the other side of.  One more person came into view.  I was hurting, but he was walking.  "Four is better than three."  I thought.  I picked up the pace, and got one more notch in the belt.

And then it was over.  Crossed the finish line, and I was done.  All the drama, all the mental anguish and doubt evaporated.  With everything that happened, I looked at the clock, and then realized that I'd just run the fastest 50 miler I'd ever done by 45 minutes.

"Damn."  I thought.  "What could it have been if I hadn't stopped at mile 40?"

The finish.

Truth is, we never know.  Maybe I could have run 30 minutes faster if I'd just pushed through.  Maybe, if I hadn't taken that time to reset, I would have gotten worse, and slogged it in 3 hours slower.  They say hindsight is 20/20, but it's not.  Sometimes looking back is just as muddy as being in the moment.  Either way, you take what you get, and considering what I experienced that day, I'm more than happy with what I got.  It ended up being a perfect disaster.

Needless to say, I learned quite a bit from this race.  And being a week removed from it at the time of this writing, I've made some key decisions moving forward.

1.  Mentally, I need a break from the ultra distance for a bit.  I even need a break from running.  I'm not quitting, that's for sure...I just love running too much.  I do need time off, mentally and physically.  I'll start running again when I want to run, not because I think I need to.  Maybe that will be tomorrow, or maybe that will be a month from now.  I honestly have no idea, and I'm just fine with that.

2.  At this point, I'm not planning to put another ultra on the schedule.  Maybe I'll tackle something later this year, but right now, I'm excited at the thought of getting back to some shorter distance stuff. There are a couple of shorter trail and road races that I did a couple years ago that I want to go back to, and see how I fair against my previous times.  Money says I'm faster, I guess we'll see when I'm ready.

3.  Race volunteers are awesome.  I need to volunteer at more races, and up my game as a volunteer when I do.  I don't know what her name was, but at that mile 10/40 aid station, the captain saved my race, and possibly my running future.  That might be a little melodramatic to say, but I think it's relevant.  A DNF would likely have left me guessing whether I should even be doing it; now the only question I have is when is the right time to do it again.

4.  It's time to diversify.  Not just my running distances, but my physical activities.  If I keep fitness through other ways, I'm less likely to experience mental burnout from strictly running alone.  I've started dabbling in climbing recently, and I really enjoy it.  It's also a nice activity the whole family enjoys, so I think that will start being a more regular part of my training moving forward.

5.  And does eventually get better.  I'm not going to be naive, and say that necessarily applies to life.  I realize that in this world, for some people in poor circumstances or situations, that may not be in the case.  But in running, specifically in a race, it does get better.  I think it was Ann Trason who has once been quoted as saying that in a race it only hurts so bad, and then after that, it doesn't get any worse.  I suppose that's true both physically and mentally...the trick is just finding out where that bottom is.

Consider my bottom lowered.  Time to move forward.

The spoils.  Lot's of black and white.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The year ahead

It's been awhile since I've updated this thing, but I suppose now is as good of a time as any to get back into it.  The new year brings some new challenges in racing and running, and revisiting some...unfinished business.

Much has changed since last season, not the least of which is now being an official Outdoor Ambassador for The North Face Locals program!  There's going to be tons of cool stuff to follow being an Ambassador for TNFLocals, and hopefully I'll get to continue to share contests, sneak peaks for new products, post some reviews, and who knows what else!  I have to also say, I'm very thankful for all the great gear TNFLocals has provided me, that will definitely keep me outfitted throughout the training, racing, and adventuring season to come!

I've got some big plans for the racing season, and everything is going to kick off on May 9th with the spring edition of the Whoo's in El Moro 50k.  A beautiful course through some of the SoCal coastal mountains, it's sure to make for a great run and a great way to beat up the ol' pegs just the right amount!

In June, I plan on putting in a solid training block, and I'll probably throw in a few smaller, local races.  The great thing about southern California, is there's something going on almost every weekend!  I also plan on spending some big days in the mountains around San Jacinto, Big Bear, and probably even the San Gabriel Ranges.  Lots of big mountain adventures ahead!

July 4th brings in the Moab Alpine to Slickrock 50 miler.  It's a tough race; I did the first half last year, before DNFing with no good reason, really.  Starting at Pack Creek in the La Sal Mountains, the course goes up up up, going over several high mountain passes (last year I got caught in a sporadic thunderstorm on one!), and then bombs down the slickrock into Moab.  I'll admit, this race beat me last year, but this year, I own it. 

After MAS 50, another huge training block, hopefully fitting in some longer adventure type runs in the mountains through July, August, and the first part of September.  Big days, big mountains, big miles, and big smiles are the goal.  One thing that the family and I have always done is volunteered at the Angeles Crest 100, and I plan to be there in some fashion again this year.  I'll likely do some more local races as well, such as the Mt. Baldy Run-to-the-Top (it's been on my radar).  And there's plenty of room for family adventures in here as well, venturing to places like Sequoia/Kings Canyon, Yosemite, Big Sur, and who knows where else! 

And then the biggest challenge of the year, my first 100 mile race; the Bear 100.  I've only heard how beautiful the course is, but I also know it is equally as rugged.  I've got a ways to go to get where I want to be for that race, but right now, I'm cautiously confident that I can get there...I'll show you in September.

When all that's done, I'll have to assess how beat up I am, and see where to go next.  There's lots of great races towards the end of the year like TNF 50 in San Francisco, Bootlegger 50k in Boulder City, or maybe even (dare I say) a road marathon!  There's so much else to do, so maybe I'll just take the family and go explore Zion, or the Grand Canyon, or Bryce....the possibilities!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

New Adventures Await

Several weeks ago, I got an email.  Amazing, right?!?  Well, this one was different from the usual "special offers" and spam that floods our email these days.  This email came from a group called The North Face Locals (#TNFLocals).  It peaked my interest...

The email said:

"We reached out to you...inviting you you to join The North Face Locals Ambassador Program.  You were identified as on of the top influencers in the outdoor endurance community through your great results at one or more of our Endurance Challenge races."

I looked up @TNFLocals on Twitter, because honestly, I had never heard of the program before.  I needed to learn a little more about it, and curb my skepticism.  I even went so far as to message The North Face's official Twitter handle (@thenorthface) and ask them if #TNFLocals was legit...their response; Absolutely.

That was a good enough answer for me!  I filled out the recruitment survey online, and then (because maybe I was a little excited to see if I got picked) I emailed the TNFLocals gang to see what was next.  Basically...I wait...but I'm good at that.

So wait I did...I waited what felt like forever.

And 6 days ago, I got this in my inbox:

Hello Local,

Huge congrats is due to you for being selected as a member of The North Face Locals Outdoor Ambassador Program.  We want to reward you for embodying the spirit of Never Stop Exploring by giving you exclusive access to gear, athletes, content, and experiences.

(Insert legal mumbo jumbo here)

Please keep an eye out for more instructions on your next adventure(s) as a TNF Local.

Cheers & Welcome,
#TNFLocals Team

So there it is! I am now an Outdoor Ambassador for The North Face Locals Program. I'm proud to be a a part of the program. I've always respected and admired the core spirit and motto of The North Face: Never Stop Exploring.  

Well I don't plan to stop. Look forward to big things coming in 2015!

Monday, May 26, 2014

PCT 50: Turning Lemons into Lemonade

Things don't always go as planned.  That's part of the beauty of ultras; there is enough time spent on the course, that even the best laid plan can go to shit.  Part of the challenge, is not just running the race, but dealing with the mental and physical low points that can occur at any time.  PCT 50, for me, was more of a test of mental fortitude that physical force.  I handed myself a whole basket full of lemons on this one, and it was all completely avoidable.  And so this race, stands as a solid outline of what NOT to do during an ultra.

I had big plans for PCT 50.  I'd put in serious, calculated training leading up to the race thanks to my coach, Ian Torrence.  From a physical standpoint, I was the most "specifically" trained I've ever been for a race.  PCT was pretty much the focus of my early season / spring race schedule.  In March, I ran Way Too Cool 50k, which, while not exactly going the way I wanted, did result in a 50k PR by almost an hour.  I knew my fitness was good.

After WTC, I ran the Griffith Park Trail Marathon as a training run, took it easy, and still ended up doing pretty well.  I ran something around a 4:30, which for an easy training run on a great course, I was happy with.  For my next big training weekend, I camped out at the starting line of PCT 50, and spent two days logging around 40-ish miles, covering all but a very small portion of the PCT course.

This was the first time (aside from running in Marin a few times then racing the TNFEC race) that I had done any real sort of course recon.  It was a good plan, as it gave me a good sense of what to expect with the course.  After the first day of running, I knew that pretty much the first 15 miles is uphill, climbing from about 3k-6k' on the rocky single track of the Pacific Crest Trail.  As the course was an out and back, I also knew that meant the last 15 miles had the potential to be very quick as long as the legs were holding up.

Day two of the recon brought more "rolling trail," but could also prove to be hot and sunny depending on the race day weather.  The trail (which ends up being from around mile 18 to the turn around and back) got a little sandy in places, and was very exposed, going through a previous burn area.  There's a lot of ridge running right along the mountains overlooking the Anza-Borrego desert.  After having a solid training weekend, I felt ready.  I knew what the course was like, and I felt well trained physically and mentally.  I was ready for race day.  I knew this wasn't going to be a PR type of course; it was too rocky and likely to be warm.  Even still, in the back of my head (much like anyone), I still had the chance of a PR in mind...time would tell.


We got a little bit of a later start than usual for race travel, but since this one was somewhat local, I felt comfortable making the 3 hour drive Friday evening.  My son and I picked my wife up from work, ate some dinner at Chipotle, and then took the 3 hr drive from Palm Springs to Pine Valley, CA, where we would be spending the night.

This is where I made my first mistake.  I usually have a very specific race morning (healthy pre-race food or not, it has worked in the past).  I always eat a blueberry bagel with strawberry cream cheese, a banana, a Gatorade, and a cup of coffee.  Figuring that there would be a grocery store of some sort either near or on the way to our lodging, I didn't go to one of the large grocery stores in Palm Springs before driving down to Pine Valley.

Here's a little note:  if you are going to take the fastest way from Palm Springs to Pine Valley, there is absolutely nothing on the way.  Nothing.  We eventually made it to our motel, which while small, and slightly run down, it served it's purpose.  Luckily, there was a little grocery right next door, but didn't have exactly what I was looking for.  Race day breakfast ended up being a plain bagel with chocolate/hazelnut spread, a banana, a Gatorade, and since there was no coffee, and I wanted the caffeine in the morning, a Red Bull.

We got to sleep sometime around 9:30 pm, and woke up at around 3:30 am to allow myself to get ready with plenty of time.  My morning routine was the usual shower, bowel emptying (your welcome for that image), breakfast, and getting dressed.  We were out the door somewhere between 4 and 4:30 am, and drove to the start line which was about 10 minutes away.

Arriving at the start line early (as I always prefer), I got by bib and swag, and hung out making last minute preparations.  It was chilly out, so I threw arm sleeves on with my singlet, but I knew as soon as the sun came up and I was running I'd warm up quickly.  At 5 am, the early starters were off and running, and come 6 am, so were the rest of us.

Section 1 – Start to Fred Canyon AS (mile 6.4 mostly uphill)

The race started well.  I got caught up in a conga line pretty much the whole way (it’s a single track ridge trail, nowhere really to pass), but that’s a good thing in this case.  I think it kept me reigned in a little bit.  The pace was comfortable, and I was having conversations with the guys around me.  I got to the first aid station still feeling very fresh, however, I hadn’t taken in any nutrition at that point.  I took a small swig of coke at the aid station and moved on.  

I knew I should probably have started ingesting nutrition at this point, but I felt ok not doing so.  I always use Vespa for my races, and since I had a high-calorie breakfast, I felt like I could pick up nutrition from here on out and be just fine.  Famous last words.

Section 2 – Fred Canyon to Dale’s (7.3 mile uphill)

The first mile here was slower because I do remember popping a gel coming out of the aid station, so I was fumbling with it while climbing.  I don’t really remember this section going poorly or good.  It just kind of happened.  There was a lot of climbing, and I was trying to employ a reasonable run/hike strategy to conserve energy.  The only part of this section I hadn’t seen in training was the last 2-ish miles.  I finished almost a full handheld bottle of Tailwind in this section plus the one gel (about 280 cal total).  I drank one full handheld of plain water.  Also at this point, when arriving at Dale’s, my stomach was sloshing.   

I hate sloshing in my stomach.  It makes it nearly impossible to take in any sort of calories, and it's a mental warning also, because that's when you realize your gastric emptying is not occurring like it should (or at least like it normally does).  I still had energy, and physically was feeling strong, so I kept pushing.  I was still passing people, and had strong climbing legs.  So far, so good.  "So far" being the key point.

Section 3 – Dale’s to Todd’s cabin (~4 miles rolling)

Looking back, I realized that up to this point of the race, I had maybe taken in 300-400 calories total.  To anyone on the outside looking in, it would have been obvious what was about to happen.  To me, I was completely oblivious.  I started getting a little sluggish, moving a little slower, but figured (at the time) it was probably just the climbing catching up with me.  I ran this 4 miles in 44 minutes, and considering it's very runnable, and I had run it faster in training, that was slow.  When I pulled into Todd's Cabin aid station, orange slices and ginger ale where all I could take in.  I rolled out of the aid station, which is a short climb back up to the race course, and that's when it happened.  

Section 4 – Todd’s Cabin to Penny Pines (5.2 miles, ½ rolling, big descent, big climb)

Everything went to shit.  Looking back at my training paces through here, this section was on average 1:30-2:00/mile faster in training than what I was running now.  The wheels came off in this section, both mentally and physically.  Obviously nutrition led to a total bonk, add that into the fact that we were now running into 40-50 mph wind gusts, and I was just in a bad mental place.   This whole section, I was mentally coming up with excuses to tell my wife (whom I would see at the Penny Pines aid station), so I could justify to her (and myself) a drop.  I've never had a mental low like I experienced there.  

Clearly, this dark place was a result of an epic bonk.  However, at the time, I just couldn't put that together in my head.  I knew something else had to be wrong, it couldn't have been my VERY poor fueling.  I was coming up with phantom issues that would cause me to DNF.  The month before PCT I experienced some Achilles issues, and had convinced myself I had that pain again.  And then (since I was in a mood to sensationalize) I convinced myself that if I kept going that it would probably rupture and ruin my entire running season.  This had to be the problem!  It made sense!  Right?

I rolled into Penny Pines AS (around Mile 22) to see my wife; I was a mess, both mentally and physically.  I was nauseous, gassed, and defeated.  I had nothing left in my legs, and convinced myself that my tendon was going to explode.

Luckily, my wife wasn’t having it.  I tried to convince her it was my Achilles causing problems, because injury is an excuse I knew she would allow me to drop for.  Instead, she sat me down, force fed me anything I would take in.  I had two bottles of water, a gel, 2 cups of ginger ale, orange slices, and some crackers.  I changed into a different pair of shoes (for my first time ever in a race, but I was willing to try anything to turn it around), and she told me to do the next out and back section to the turn around, and if I still felt bad, we’d call it and go to the hotel.  

After 15 or 20 minutes sitting around feeling sorry for myself, I left the aid station, practically in a protest just to show my wife how bad off I was.  I'd show her!  This next 5 miles, then back to the same aid station, and she would KNOW how bad things were.

Section 5 - Penny Pines – 1/2way – Penny Pines (~4.5 mi rolling)

Maybe she was right after all.  After about a mile, I started feeling a little better, and started passing some people that went by me in the aid station.  I got to the turnaround, feeling decent, but still a little bonky.  I headed back to Penny Pines, this time in a totally different demeanor than when my wife saw me the first time.  I drank some more water, but didn't want anymore liquid nutrition, because I just wasn't processing it.  I ate some oranges and gummy bears, and drank some ginger ale.  I grabbed a handful of pretzels, and told my wife "I'll see you at the finish.  I've got some Mother F***ers I need to catch."  Off I went.  

Section 6 - Penny Pines to Todd's Cabin (5.2 miles)

Back out on the course from there with a bottle of plain water, handful of pretzels, and pockets full of gels.  It was still windy as shit, and getting warmer.  Sun was definitely out, but I was too focused on other things to worry about the gnarly sunburn I was getting (if you're going to wear a singlet, wear sunscreen).  I knew I was sweating, but my singlet/shorts were dry.  I took in one gel and drank a full bottle of water.  I wasn’t flying through, but I was moving and feeling a little better.  Still not completely back, I settled in this section for a long day, but a finish.  Mentally I was in a better place.  I stopped trying to worry about any goal except staying on the move.  

I was still clearly calorie depleted, but in my own little headspace, I knew I could gut the rest of this race out.  I had to keep going.  Not only was it important to me to cross that line at the end, but my ride was there waiting for me.

Section 7 – Todd’s Cabin to Dale’s (~4 miles)

I wasn't going to break any Strava records, but I was drinking water regularly, and sipping on gels a little at a time.  My legs felt fine, I would say there was very little, if any, physical fatigue at this point.  The problem, was on any of the uphills, I just had no gas and got light headed.  Flats and downs, I could run at a "respectable" pace; or at least one respectable in my current state of affairs. It was at least fast enough that I picked up a few places, and wasn't getting passed. 

Section 8 & 9 - Dale's to the finish

Knowing that the last part of the race was mostly downhill, had me in decent spirits.  I knew I could still run downhills, and my quads were feeling good.  What did beat me up in this section, was the rocks.  My feet were quickly beginning to feel like hamburger meat.  I pushed on anyway, going as hard as my feet would take me.  I picked up a few more places, and didn't get passed at all.  I caught up to and ran with one other guy up until around the last mile, when I had to stop briefly because I thought I was going to vomit.  He took off, and I didn't have the gas to catch him (but I didn't vomit!). 

When I crossed the finish, my wife pretty much told me I looked like death, and she's probably right.  I pretty much felt that way. Surprisingly, by the end, I was only about 3 minutes off my 50 mile PR.  A huge shock to me, considering how the day went.  Makes me curious to know how fast I could have gone if I had gotten my nutrition right. 

It's pretty incredible how things can turn around in a race.  By no means was I feeling great in the second half, but I felt strong enough where another 25 miles seemed doable.  The mind is clearly a powerful part of running and racing:  when you're mentally strong, it can carry you through some physically tough times.  Conversely, when your head is not in the game, it can break an otherwise physically strong body.

Much was learned from this race, and I'm glad I stuck it out.  I credit that to my wife, more than myself.  Luckily she knew to push me back on the course.  I'd rather have a bad day running, than DNF for no real reason.  

There's something to be said for finishing, even if you know it's not going to be your best race.  Endurance sports aren't always easy, and they aren't always fun...but they always have a reward of some sort.  Often times, you just don't know what that is until it's over.  

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Cool Running: A Race to the Finish.

A clear, crisp morning was upon us in Cool, California.  I opted to run my season opener in the 2014 Way Too Cool 50k, after getting in through the lottery in December.  A race with a storied history, on beautiful trails around the American River in Northern California, this was the 25th anniversary of the race.

This was the first ultra I would race without my family there for support.  Every other race I've done (with the exception of a semi local 16k Xterra race last year I did with a friend), I've had my wife and son there, but not this time.  Part of me really wanted them there, because that's what I'm comfortable with, but another part of me was excited to do one on my own and see how it went.

I flew to Sacramento Friday morning, after a less than enjoyable traveling experience.  Generally, we drive the family to all the races, but going on my own this time, it was just as cheap and more sensible to fly up the day prior, and get a rental car to use while I was there (shop around, folks!  I got my round-trip ticket, rental car, and two nights in the hotel for SIGNIFICANTLY less than it would have been to drive up on my own.  Having some hotel points to use always helps!).

The morning flight was a near disaster.  One thing that makes me apprehensive about flying, is making sure I get all the race gear I need to the race location at the same time as me!  I'm able to pack all my kit in my carry-on, but nutrition had to be checked.  I arrived at the airport plenty early for my first flight out of Palm Springs, but it didn't make any difference.  About 5 minutes before our flight was scheduled to depart, we were told that the aircraft had some "computer issues" and would be delayed for an undetermined amount of time.  I wasn't too worried to begin with, since I had a 30 minute flight to LAX, and then almost a 2 hour layover before my next flight, so I knew I had some time to play with.

Eventually, after almost rebooking to a different flight, our flight boarded an hour and a half after it's original departure time.  A short hop to LAX, and I would still have about a half hour before my next flight left.  I thought for sure my checked bag with my nutrition was not going to make it.  To make things worse, when we landed in LA, we had to wait on the tarmac for another 15 minutes because our gate wasn't open yet (explain that one to me...we arrive an hour and a half late, and the gate wasn't ready???).  Anyway, we finally get to the gate, and I have 15 minutes to get to a different terminal and get on my flight.  After what became a little pre-race shakeout run, I made it, and for once I was happy to find that my second flight was delayed about 20 minutes as well.

I caught the second flight to Sacramento, and caught some amazing views of the snow-capped Sierras on my way, with a nice early morning view of Mt. Whitney in the distance.  I landed, and much to my amazement, my luggage made it with me.  Score one for the airline, I was happy about that.  A short drive from Sac to Auburn Running Company for packet pickup, and it was still way before check in time for the hotel.  I called just to chance an early, check in, and much to my surprise, I got an early check-in, and a room upgrade.  Nice!

After some lunch, I headed over to one of the conference rooms where Trail Runner Nation was doing live podcasts all afternoon.  I showed up about half-way through Don, Scott, and Sally interviewing the legend, Gordy Ainsleigh.  He is a character, for sure!  If there is one thing Gordy can do ultra style besides running, it's talking!

Gordy with Trail Runner Nation.

Next up was an interview with another ultra-running legend, Karl Meltzer.  Karl is for sure an interesting guy, with some great advice to be given.  He's also super approachable.  I don't know why, but as a mid-pack runner, I always find myself kind of star struck by the elite ultra crowd.  I realize they are people just like us, but I think I am more nervous to talk to elite runners than I would be with a movie star.  I think part of it is just that I really look at most elite runners as people who really are role models, and not so much for someone who makes a living pretending to be someone else.

Karl with TRN's (and Nike Trail elite runner) Sally McRae

Me with Karl Meltzer.  Legend!

After Karl's podcast, was one with the Nike Trail Elite running team, which is new for this season as Nike is just getting back into the trail scene (with quite a bang, I might add).  There was Sally McRae, Chris Vargo, Alex Varner, and the team manager Pat Werhane.  They had some very interesting insights into training, nutrition, and racing.

From left to right:  Alex Varner (Nike), Chris Vargo (Nike), Scott Warr (TRN), Sally McRae (TRN and Nike), Pat Werhune (Nike team manager), Don Freeman (TRN)

TRN also gave out some good swag, and I ended up with a Petzl visor, and a TRN buff (you can never have too many of either).  There was another podcast to follow with the Patagonia team, but I decided to pass on that one, to get some dinner and make sure I had everything ready for the morning.

Sunrise over Cool.

I managed to get a good nights rest, before waking up early to head to Cool for the race start.  It was pretty chilly in the morning, somewhere in the 40s, but I knew I would warmup quick once the sun came out and I got racing.  I got there about an hour and 15 minutes before race start, which was good, because with 1200 racers in this one, parking spots were at a prime, and I got a good one abut 100 yards from the start line.

Start line from my parking spot.  Get there early folks!

Race time approached, and I made my way to line up in wave 1 at the start line.  My goal (as discussed with my coach) was to make sure I didn't go out too hard, too early.  The first 1.5 miles or so is on paved road, so the start is fast.  This gave the pack a little room to thin out, but it was still pretty crowded.  From the start, I had mentally developed a tiered goal system for this race :

A goal:  Run sub-5 hours
B goal:  Run sub 5:17 (an arbitrary time listed as a projected finish on Ultra Signup)
C goal:  PR (which meant running sub 6:04, my Bootlegger time from November)
D goal:  As always, finish without total body destruction, regardless of time

As I was moving down the paved road, I checked my watch, and noticed I was running sub-half marathon pace.  I knew I needed to slow down, but being a slight downhill, and the race day excitement, that was tough.  I decided it would be a perfect time to stop and take a pee break in the tree line, to reign myself in a little bit.

After my break, I got back into it at a slower pace, and then we hit the trail.  Coming from a wide paved road, to single track, created an instant bottle neck and everything slowed to a crawl.  Leave it to me, 1.5 miles into the race, just getting on the trail, and I caught a rock with my toe and ate some dirt!  Thankfully, my handheld bottle took the brunt of it, and I was up and moving right away.

The first 8 miles of the race completes a loop on the Olmstead trail, and circles back to the start/finish area for the first aid station.  The first 10k of this, was a straight conga line.  There wasn't too much passing to be done, but I would pass going just off trail on the uphills since I was feeling strong.  The trails got pretty muddy in some areas due to the rain so that did slow things down a bit.  Even with the crowd and the mud, I must say, these trails are beautiful!

After just a little climbing, some mud, and some creek crossings, the pack thinned out, and we came back into the first aid station.  It was getting warm at this point, so I took off my gloves and ditched my arm sleeves, refilled my bottle with water and Tailwind, and was on the go again.  I settled into a pack of runners moving at a solid pace, and we began the descent down to the first crossing of Highway 49.

This downhill section was awesome.  It was wet, and muddy, but footing was still decent.  We were moving down the hill at around 7:30 pace, but I wasn't pushing, so I kept the pace.  We hit Hwy 49, and crossed down to the next aid station, which was a quick splash and go, and I was running along the American river.

This section provides really nice scenery, and very runnable trail, with no major climbs.  I kept pushing, running right on that edge of comfortable and too hard.  At mile 17 we started climbing, and the power hiking began.  I was well under pace at this point, and began wondering if I had gone a little too hard in the first half, even though I felt good.  Time would tell...

Somewhere along the American River trail. Photo courtesy UltraRunner Podcast

We got back into the woods, and after some good climbing descending, I rolled into the next aid around mile 20.5.  This was when I realized my legs were getting tired.  This is a fast course, and a great one to PR on, but the second half of the course is where the majority of the 4500' of climbing comes in.  Looking back, I probably would have run a little easier in the beginning so I had more gas for the second half, but, I had already made my it was time to lie in it!

I spent a couple minutes or so at this aid, as my stomach was a little iffy, not because of a lack of nutrition, but probably because of the opposite.  Post race looking back, I was probably pushing AT LEAST 300 calories and hour, which is just more than my stomach could handle.  A few orange slices, and a ginger chew tucked in my cheek, and I was feeling better already and back on the move.

Next up, after some more rolling single track, was the infamous Goat Hill.  I do pretty good on climbs, but Goat Hill is no joke!  It's only 1/3 of a mile long, but has something like 400+ feet of climb.  With all the runners that had gone through already, it was pretty muddy, too.  I grunted up with a few other guys, and was sucking air by the time I got to the top at the aid station.  I took a few to fuel up, top off, and collect myself, before starting down the trail.  I looked at my watch before I took off, and it was just short of 4:20 or so.  Only 5 miles left, but I knew that short of a complete turn around in my legs, I wasn't going to push out 8:00/miles for the rest of the course, especially with one more major climb left.  Time to revert to my B goal, which was still in reach.

Post Goat Hill, it's mostly downhill, and this is when I realized that my quads were pretty much shot (note to self, do more downhill training for my next race).  About a mile and a half outside of the GH aid, I fell again.  This time, it wasn't a stumble and back up, this was a hard fall.  Caught my foot on a HUGE boulder in the trail (okay, probably just a little twig sticking up) and went down, no hands, straight face plant.  This was one of those falls, where you get that tingly feeling throughout your body, and everything just tenses up.  I didn't jump back up after this one, instead just rolling to the side and letting people pass.  Several runners asked if I needed help, but I assured them I just needed a minute to assess and recover.  I did a quick self check, coming to the conclusion that the only thing that was injured was my ego, and the fact that I would probably be short at least one toenail on my foot (I was right, except it ended up being two...casualties of war).

Moving again, on toasted quads, I just sucked up the pain as much as I could for the rest of the downhill, and then hiked the climb back up to Hwy 49 for the second crossing.  I came into the last aid station, and didn't even look at my watch, because I knew there was only 1.5 miles or so left, and I was just going to give it all I had.  A brief stop at the aid just to get doused with water, and I was through in no time!

I started the wet, rocky climb out of the aid, and back towards the finish.  Goal from here?  Just run as hard as you can, and you get what you get, so that's what I did.  I still managed to pass a few more people in the last stretch, so I took that as a good sign.  I came up to where the grassy meadow was, and I could hear the finish line, so I kicked it into high gear for the last 400 meters or so.  All done, and I crossed the finish at 5:15, ahead of my B goal!

That night, after some email conversation with my coach (Ian Torrence), I was still disappointed with my finishing time.  I'm not really sure why, except that I had it deep in my head to get that sub-5 finish.  I know it was attainable, and that's why I was second guessing my time.

There are several things I probably could have done differently to aid in that sub-5 goal, now that I look back on it:

1.  Stayed at the faster pace at the beginning to get ahead of more of the crowd before getting onto the trail.  Getting a little more out front would have used up more energy, but I could have settled into a better pace, ahead of many more runners.

2.  Ease back on the first half to leave more gas for the second.  I was feeling good in the first 17 miles, so I went with it, but maybe just saving 30 seconds per mile would have left me with much more energy for the latter stages, and still kept me far under goal pace.

3.  Work more downhills in training leading up.  A mistake I won't make again, I spent too much time on flats in training, and my quads just weren't ready for it.  A decision I made solely on my own, but something I won't do again in the future.  My next race has a significant amount of downhill, much of it coming in a very long stretch at the end of the race.  I'll be prepared for it.

4.  Practice running in wet shoes.  While my shoes performed well in the mud, I don't get much (if any) rain where I live in the high desert of Southern California.  In the future, if it's a race where I know it's going to be wet, I'll spray my feet with a hose before taking off on runs.  It may not seem like much of a big deal, but I did develop one blister that became an annoyance.  Also, had I known how the shoes were going stretch and fit a little sloppier when wet, I likely would have selected different foot wear.

A week removed from the race, I've come to be pretty happy with my finish, being as it's a season opener.  It was a good fitness check, it pointed out some weaknesses, and still showed that I'm improving fairly rapidly.  It's a good spot to be in, when you know you can improve upon a time that was still a PR by over 45 minutes.

As always, running with the Eagle. 

For the gear junkies, here's what I used for the race:

1.  Team RWB singlet
2.  SF Running Company trucker hat (perfect for running!)
3.  TNF Better Than Naked shorts
4.  Zensah calf sleeves
5.  Wrightsock socks
6.  Nike Zoom Wildhorse trail shoes
7.  Nathan handheld
8.  Nathan trail mix belt with one flask of pre-mixed Tailwind concentrate
9.  Cheap gloves
10. Free arm sleeves from a TNF race
11.  2Toms sportshield for those sensitive parts ;)


I used one Vespa packet 45 minutes prior to the race, and sustained with 200 calorie bottle of Tailwind.  Pre-mixed concentrate that was a combination of the Naked and Mandarin Orange flavors.  I occasionally supplemented with orange slices or potatoes at the aid stations.

Final Thoughts:

I want to give a nod to my coach, Ian Torrence, without whom I'm sure I wouldn't have done so well.  He's continued to introduce me to challenging training, which has shown in spades to be beneficial in my running.  Choosing him to coach me is the single greatest investment I've made in my running future, hands down.  I can't wait to continue with him this season, as the racing only gets more and more challenging.

Shout out to Team Red, White, and Blue.  I love to represent Team RWB at all my races, because it's an organization I believe in.  For more details, or to get involved, go to

Tailwind Nutrition (not a sponsor, used by choice) has proven time and time again to be the best race nutrition I've found.  I've come to points in races before (as I'm sure we all have) where I just couldn't stomach another gel, but Tailwind always goes down easy, with no GI distress.  Like their motto, it really is "All you need.  All day.   Really."

Thanks to Nathan Performance (no affiliation), for making a handheld bottle with an extra finger hole in the strap.  WAY more comfortable.  And that new easy squeeze bottle is the bomb.

Thanks to the NorCal Ultras crew, and specifically Race Director Julie Fingar.  You put on a hell of a race, with some of the best volunteers out there.  They wouldn't have let me fill my own bottle if I wanted to!  And they were super fast and crazy nice!  Not to mention, one of the best post-race parties I've, cupcakes, soup, beer...a recipe for success!

Also, as always, a thanks to my wife, whose support has allowed me to get where I am today with my running and my life.  She gets it, which is a rarity when it comes to people understanding why we do these crazy ultra endurance activities.  Erin, I couldn't do this without your support and understanding.  I can only hope to reciprocate as you continue your own journey into the endurance world (she's doing her first marathon this year!!!!!).

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Snow Runnin'

Running in the mountains in the snow is something we don't get the chance for very often in SoCal.  There's a certain sort of peace that comes with a long run in mountain snow.

Where I went, and Where I'm going.

I suppose it's that time of year where I must have the obligatory year-in-review / 2014 goals post.  I'm going to keep this running oriented, otherwise this one could just get way too long!

2013 was my first year in the ultra marathon world, and has thus changed my perspective on running altogether.  I started out with Leona Divide 50k in April, and ended with The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 mile Championships in San Francisco, and throughout this year, here's what I've learned from running and racing:

- Race nutrition is a fickle beast. 

- Distance is not necessarily the most important factor to consider in a race. 

- Progression comes from experience. 

- Time flies on a race course. 

- My wife is an awesome ultra crew chief.

- Training the same way everyday, will most likely yield you the same results.

- My 5 year old son is the best finish line pacer you can find. 

- You can't judge a book by it's cover, or more importantly, you can't judge an ultrarunner by his or her appearance.  

- There is always someone faster.  Accept it. 

- Trail runners are the most awesome community of individuals out there.  You always have friends at every race, even if you haven't met them yet.

And I'm sure there's many more lessons...but I have to save some intelligent and philosophical comments for future blog posts so people keep reading...

Here's some running related goals for 2014:

- Get faster. 

- Run farther.

- Make training count.

- Make training quality.

- Don't fear the road and track.

- Spend more time in the high mountains.

- Don't forget to smile.

- Make time for some adventure.  

- Give back to the trail community.  I'm sure we (the wife and I) will be volunteering at several races this year, because we believe it's the right thing to do.  You gain a different perspective from the other side of the aid station table.

- Enjoy it.  Sometimes we forget why we run.  My goal is to remember.

And here's my racing goals for 2014:

- March:  Way Too Cool 50k - Honestly, I entered the lottery for this race not expecting to get it, but I did.  Going for a 50k PR.

- May:  PCT 50 - A good, fairly local, spring 50 miler.  It's got some good uphill grind for the first half, and quad bursting downhill the second.  Should be fun.

- August:  Telluride Mountain Run - I wanted to do a big mountain race up in the San Juans, and since I don't see myself getting into Hardrock anytime in the near future, this should fill that want for me :).

- September:  Kodiak 100 - I'm going for my first 100-miler.  I chose this one for a few reasons; it's close to where I live, I can run the whole course in training before the race, I love the trails and mountains where the race is located. 

And a shout out to my new and first running coach, Ian Torrence.  I looked forward to working with him throughout the next racing season.  Remember where I said earlier that progression comes from experience?  Well if you don't have all the experience yourself, the best thing to do learn from someone who does.  Runners always say the single greatest investment you can make in your running life is a coach, so that's what I did.  And if you're going to do it, might as well get the best, right?  Right.

So there it is...some of what I learned last year, and some plans for this year.  Might there be more for 2014?  I'm sure there will...but even I might not know what that is yet!