Friday, September 19, 2014

Superior Trail Races 50 Mile

"I think I'm done," I told my wife, hands on my throbbing knees and fighting back tears. The time was 6:47pm, I had been walking for the previous 24 miles, and I had reached the final aid station just 13 minutes before the cutoff. The final runners there were scurrying to get their needed supplies and head out as the volunteers were packing up after 19 hours of service to several hundred runners. The thought of suffering for 7.1 more miles on the toughest section of the course in the dark was something I couldn't get my head around, and yet I couldn't admit that I was truly done.

Traveling 50 miles on foot in a day is not something most people would consider, let alone run that far on one of the most challenging trails in the Midwest. Some hear about people running this distance - and much farther distances - and nonchalantly recognize it as something that crazy people do, without ever grasping what it is to actually do it: how much time it takes to train, the mental energy expended obsessing over the preparation, the strain on relationships, and how much willpower, grit, and patience it takes to execute on race day while enduring what can at times be the greatest suffering that the runner has ever endured, certainly in the physical realm, but most often also on the mental side as well.

Add to that the specifics of this race. As the race website states: "[it has the] reputation as one of the toughest, most scenic and best marked trail 50′s in the country." It's technically 52.1 miles point-to-point, 100% trail and 99% single-track. It has an elevation gain of 12,500ft and an elevation loss of 12,500ft for a net change of 25,000ft. The course record is 8:53:19. Take a look below at the elevation profile and you'll know why it's referred to as the Sawtooth Mountains.

THREE YEARS is a long time to wait to accomplish a goal, especially when it has to do with something you do almost every day anyway. The goals I typically choose for myself are usually much more swiftly accomplished, but in the summer of 2011, I realized that there was something big I needed to do, and it would take a great deal of time, devotion, and discipline to make happen. Crewing for my friend Joe Uhan at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run in California that June was an epiphany of sorts, witnessing this crazy sport called ultrarunning. I've mentioned this experience many times in my previous entries, but it's interesting to think back to it now as I finally reached the goal event that I set out to do. In the previous three years, I went from being an occasional 5k runner to running barefoot, overhauling my mechanics, drastically changing my diet to promote fat burning, training with a heart rate monitor to maximize aerobic function, volunteering at an ultra, running half marathons, a marathon, and a 50k, and reading or listening to anything and everything I could on ultrarunning and the various ways to prepare and succeed at it. It's been an interesting journey to say the least, not without its ups and downs, but this last weekend was the culmination thus far in such a long journey. 

The Bucket List (for now)

In preparing for this race, I knew that this summer would be key, but would also present myriad challenges. I had just come off of the best race of my life - my first 50k - in May on the same trail as this 50-miler, and was intent on maintaining my fitness and building strength over the summer. The only problem was that I would be traveling for most of the summer, first in Germany with 34 students for four weeks, and then in Norway for two weeks visiting friends. Consistency was definitely not in the cards, and I am a man of routine. Additionally, my wife is eight months pregnant, and preparation for the baby has required a good deal of thought and effort, and continues to do so. The greatest setback for me, however, was the death of my father on the 4th of July. I was in Germany at the time, and it was a devastating shock that threw me completely out of the orbit of my world. I truly felt disconnected from my own reality, unable to get back into a rhythm of normalcy. To say I was mentally stretched is quite the understatement, especially when I went back to work again for another school year. I knew when registering for this race back in March that I would face challenges, but was not prepared for the burden that those challenges actually became. At least I was feeling good, and had a few enjoyable runs, including a 35km run in the Fjella of southern Norway, which looks a lot like a melding of the North Shore and the Ely/BWCA forests.

TWO WEEKS prior to the race, I embarked on a quick two-day adventure up to the Superior Hiking Trail with beast athlete and fellow adventure friend Sam Jurek in order to scope out the first half of the course that I had not yet seen. Everyone I had talked to mentioned how brutal the 9.4 mile stretch between the Crosby-Manitou and Sugarloaf aid stations is, so I wanted to be prepared. We drove two cars up and set out a plan to see the entire first 26 miles if time and energy allowed. The weather was perfect, albeit a bit humid, and the trail was devoid of other humans save for one ragged through-hiker, and Sam and I had a lot of catching up to do. It was a disservice to me and Sam that my mind was in a negative spin at the moment. I was concerned about keeping the effort easy so close to the race, but that would mean going so slow that Sam would be tortured by my snail's pace. These two thoughts were so conflicted that I couldn't keep my stress in control and my heart rate spiked immediately after we started running. At about the 18 mile point, my IT band tightened so much that it yanked my left knee into an aggravated, unrunnable state, the same condition I experienced last fall during the marathon. Now I felt really f***ed. To a certain extent it was a blessing, however, because it caused me to give up the endgame and just roll with it. I focused on the PT exercises I was given after last fall's incident, and rested as much as possible. What else was there to do?

THREE HOURS pre-race, the alarm rips me from a dream at 2:15am and I'm up to eat and get ready. After taking the previous day off of work to make my way up north with a bit more leisure, stopping in Duluth to have lunch with my brother- and sister-in-law at Northern Waters Smokehaus, I had everything laid out and my mind was finally lucid and relaxed, except for one detail; in my rather scattered last-minute packing of my personal stuff (I had spent more than a week carefully packing the gear box for my crew), I realized on Friday night that I had brought my heart rate monitor strap, but forgot the watch at home! This is the one thing I need to help keep my pace, because I suck and keeping my running measured when racing. I figured that this was the sign that I was meant to relax and just race by feel, that I knew by now what my heart rate and body were telling me. Normally this would have been something that I couldn't get over, but with everything I had experienced in the previous two months, I let it roll off and was thankful that I wouldn't have to wear that strap all day.

My breakfast of paleo granola with Greek yogurt and a whey protein/coconut milk shake went down easy as I ate quietly in the dark motel bathroom as not to wake my wife and crew. Suiting up, lubing up with sunscreen and bug juice, and grabbing my start line bag, I was out the door after a goodbye kiss and a "see you soon" for my wife. The timing was almost exact as I climbed aboard the yellow school bus that would shuttle me and my fellow 50-milers to the start line. The "bus manager" boarded and gave us the details, and when another runner asked him for something more profound, he paused and then said something like, "This race is a gift. The weather, the volunteers, and the course are giving you a great gift today, so go out there and make the best of it." Unknown to me at the time, that simple first sentence would be what pushed me through some of the greatest suffering I've experienced ever in my life. It didn't click as much at the moment because we were all too busy laughing nervously as our bus driver took a wrong turn before even getting out the parking lot. An outspoken runner from the back was our sole saving grace who directed our clueless yet pleasant driver to the start line after one more missed turn, prompting the driver to keep going despite his desire to wait for the guy he was following with the convincing urgency in his statement, "I gotta take a dump!" It should also be noted, that for most of us there at the Finland Rec Center, it was the first time that the line for the men's room was longer than for the women's restroom. I suppose it's proof that women don't poop.

The banter was lighthearted and electric as we gathered outside for race director John Stohrkamp's final directions under the crisp, clear night sky, with stars that never before seemed so welcoming and bright. I had enjoyed this view on the bus ride, feeling calm and thankful with a few small prayers in my heart: for health and safety of all, a successful finish, and that my wife would not go into labor on this day. We lined up on the road with only ten seconds to start, and suddenly we were off. 

I had never started a race in the dark before, and running with a headlamp creates a rather surreal experience, especially when it's not very bright. I had a small amount of headlamp envy as my fellow runners' head torches blazed the path in front of them. I was quite happy to be in the midst of their light all around me on the road to the trail. Dipping down onto the trail, the forest enveloped us in its lush, dense blanket and we truly began our journey. It suddenly became quiet. The energy was still light, but focused, as we all now contemplated the day ahead. After ten minutes or so, voices emerged from ahead and behind as the runners loosened up once again and began to chat. To the general audience around me I asked when the sing-a-long would start, and the guy behind assured me that I didn't want to hear him sing, so instead I requested jokes. Jim, who first declined to sing, started it off with an Ole and Lena joke. I followed with several more, and this locked in our trail companionship for the next several miles. He asked if he could pace behind me, as he liked my approach in the beginning miles, so we talked training and running history, and he shared the challenges of running on a treadmill and playing video games simultaneously. With a baby on the way, I gleaned some insight into my possible future from his tales of time management and multitasking.

Soon enough the light from our headlamps was no longer visible and the starlight transposed to muted morning colors and a fresh smell of damp soil.  The terrain in the first section was rolling and moderately technical with no real surprises, and the conversation flowed easily. Eventually I stopped to pee and lost my new-found running comrade Jim, and I did not see him again. Soon after, however, a group of guys came up behind me, and in listening to their conversation I recognized both a familiar story and a voice. Turning around, I recognized a man I had run into a couple times before, once when I was volunteering at Sawbill AS back in 2012, and again in the hot tub at Caribou Highlands after the marathon last year. I first noticed him because he did the marathon in 2012 in Vibram Five Fingers, which I thought was rather brave. It seems we were on a similar path, and as it happened, were running at a similar pace. Reintroducing himself as Chad, he and his buddy Andy tucked in behind me as we rolled into the first aid station, Sonju Lake. It's a small operation with no crews aloud, and we were all feeling so good that we didn't spend much time there. A quick cup of Heed, a thank you to the volunteers, and I was off. Chad and Andy followed suit and we passed the next few miles with banter at a swifter pace that I would have liked, but it still felt comfortable. I was reminded of Max King's Ice Age 50 race report and the statement of his that has been my mantra ever since; "Don't run like a sissy." Without a heart rate monitor, and having the distraction of conversation, I must say that in looking back it's still hard to tell if I was running smart or letting my joy overexcite me. 

Stopping to pee again - a trend that proved my nutrition and hydration was locked in, Chad and Andy passed me a short ways before we opened up onto Bensen Lake Rd that leads up to Crosby-Manitou State Park and the aid station there. I could see them up ahead and made my way to them, power-hiking the gradual uphill, slowly passing the string of parked cars that led toward the sounds of civilization. Rounding up over the hill I could see Anna waiting for me, followed by her brothers Nathan and Jerod and their folks Tim and Nancy. It was the first time I got to see my wife and crew that day, and there was joy, relief, and comfort seeing them there with gear ready for me. Jerod filled my Camelbak while still on my back to save time, only for me to discover that I still needed to take it off to empty the air from it to avoid sloshing. Duly noted for the next AS. I chatted for a few minutes and Nathan informed me that I was right on pace between my first and second scenarios (perhaps a bit too fast?). Grabbing a banana and some gels, I made my way happily up the hill out of the AS and onto the longest stretch of the race, 9.4 miles to Sugarloaf.

In hearing several reports of the 50-mile course, every person said that this stretch from Crosby to Sugarloaf was the hardest. It's the longest single stretch between aid stations and includes some rocky terrain, some densely overgrown areas, and a few short, steep climbs. After running it with Sam, I felt that it wasn't all that hard, just really long. It tends to drag on quite a bit, and can be especially challenging if running alone. I had left the aid station before Chad and Andy in the attempt to follow my plan to keep moving early in the race, but set out at an easy tempo to relax a bit and settle in some more. Normally in races I like to be alone; it helps me relax, focus, and I don't need to waste breath talking or stare at the back of someone else's feet, which can make me really dizzy. I didn't mind it too much here as the sun peeked in through the dense cover from time to time and my brain spun in its rambling directions from one thought to another. The "brain iPod" was playing a track from the new Jonathan Byrd CD I got at the Storyhill Fest music festival over Labor Day weekend, which had a few key lines akin to my predicament:
"There's a jack knife out on highway 10,
it's the biggest mess I ever seen,
I'm waiting to meet the candy man,
it's been a long time, since I've been clean.
Reaching the one steep climb I remembered from the training run two weeks prior, a group of guys - who had been hootin' and hollerin' down the previous hill - came upon me and it felt like an eighteen-wheeler tailgating me on the interstate. I had to pee again anyway, so I stepped off the trail to let them by. "You're peein' a lot today, Matt!" shouted a voice from the middle of the pack. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Chad truckin' along, so I dropped in behind them and settled back in. We soon lost one of the guys, and the front runners pulled ahead, leaving just Chad and I. He had left Andy at Crosby to take care of some foot issues and was on his own. Already with a tight left IT band and sore right glute, he lamented, "I think the marathon would have suited me just fine today." He was still moving well it seemed, and I was comfortable at that pace, so we picked up our conversation and rolled. With about three miles to go to Sugarloaf, I was feeling a little antsy and wanted to pick it up just a little, so I bid Chad adieu and smoothed out the pace a little. This didn't last long, however, because my brain decided to get in the way. On a nice, easy flat section along an unknown lake, I reached the exact point where I remember my IT band jacking my left knee out of place on my training rung. Suddenly, I felt it again. It had been a little tight since Crosby, but was working fine, until I remembered it. Almost like clockwork I could feel the knee going, with minute flickers of acute pain when stepping in certain ways. The knee was going, and there was nothing I could do about it. I slowed down, focused on my mechanics, and tried to get my head in check. "This is nothing. You won't blow it out again if you take care of yourself now. You got this." I still felt positive and was in control, despite the blips that were growing. At just the perfect time, I rolled in to Sugarloaf, finishing on a beautiful stretch of open, flat trail through a grove of trees that both shelters and welcomes the runners into the aid station. 

Sugarloaf felt a bit more hopping than Crosby, being more out in the open as the sun was shining high. It was a bit awkward as I stood at the aid station, because a huge puddle separated me from my family. They clearly didn't want to get in the way of any runners coming through, but had eager smiles on their faces and wanted to help. After getting what I needed from the aid station, I stepped around a bit more, had Anna remove my arm sleeves, and chatted briefly before taking off again; 5.6 miles to Cramer Rd and the half-way point in the race.

The looks on the faces of both wife and dog are quality foreshadowing.
Although I was in good spirits, the memories of suffering on this section of trail two weeks prior were incredibly fresh and vivid. The power of the mind is something I've come to respect in the last year or so, and this was an example of that in the negative. I fought hard to keep positive, thankful for the weather and the day, feeding off of the energy I got from my family, and telling myself that I could make this work, but the visceral memory ran deep. My left knee was tweaking more and more, and the pain was becoming more organized and consistent. I started walking more, focusing on feeling my body relax and loosen up. No good. The knee was going to do what it was going to do. In addition, the majority of this stretch of trail was unrunnable mud. There was no getting around it, and it spanned the entire width of the trail, making travel miserable. Finally drying out and recognizing the last 3/4 mile to the aid station, I made a point to try and run easily as much as possible. I mean, it's all about looking good, right? Waiting at the road was Nathan with the camera in hand, cheering me on. I crossed and took the trail down to the trail spur that leads to the parking lot. As soon as I turned onto the spur I could run no further. I hobbled in to the aid station, feeling defeated. Stooping with hands on my knees, the conversation at the aid station was something like this :

 Me: "That section SUUUUCKED!"

Anna: "Yeah, everyone has been saying how terrible it is. How are you feeling?"

Me: "I've got good news and bad news. The bad news is that I blew my knee out a few miles ago. The good news is that I'm not done yet."


Jerod: "Damn right you're not!"

Leave it to my brother-in-law Jerod to say exactly the right thing, simultaneously sternly encouraging and humorous, to put us all back into reality. I told them that I couldn't quit at the half-way point, even if it meant walking to the next aid station. The decision was to keep moving as long as my knee allowed, or until I missed the cutoff at an aid station or the sweepers caught up to me. In any case, I was still on my middle pacing scenario, which surprised me quite a bit. I stretched a little and grabbed a bit more food than in the plan, as I knew I would be walking and my stomach could handle more than if I were running. Perusing the options, I noticed a pot full of breakfast sausages! "Sausage? I love you!" I blurted out to the volunteers as I scarfed one down, followed by a square of grilled cheese. Food never tasted so good.  I decided to pass on the biscuits and gravy though, which turned out to be a good call. At this point, Chad rolled in and I asked how he was doing. He mentioned dropping and made it sound inevitable. I wondered if this was also my fate, but was not ready to admit to it.

Walking out of the aid station, I was revived and positive, despite the conditions. Sure, I was walking in a race that I should be running, but I knew this second half of the course decently well, and it was a gorgeous day. Running or walking, a beautiful sunny day on the trail can't be under-appreciated. Thankfully, the first half of this section is relatively flat, so I was able to move quickly. I had forgotten, however, that this stretch was over seven miles, and not 5.5 as I had thought. It did seem to drag a bit, until finally a familiar face caught up to me. Chad pulled in behind me and we regaled each other of the events of the day since we had split. He was now in the pain cave and had been for a while, and sounded rather sure that he would drop at Temperance. I explained my situation as well, and after some deliberation I thought it was silly for him to drop at Temperance with no crew and no way to communicate with them. Having thought ahead before I had arrived at Cramer, I told my family to go to the Temperance River State Park parking lot and hike up to the bridge and wait there. Since no crew was allowed at Temperance AS, I would continue past there down to the bridge, where I would either have officially dropped back at the AS and would hop in the car with them to head back to the motel, or would continue on to Sawbill AS. The more I thought about it, though, I knew that Sawbill was a distinct possibility. We did the calculations for our current pace, time of day, and cutoff times for the aid stations, and realized that we still had plenty of time. Wanting to encourage him, I offered up a pact to forge ahead to Sawbill, and we would make the call there. Albeit somewhat begrudgingly it seemed, he agreed.

It wasn't long after that when we hit a "money" section of flat open trail that runs along the Temperance River to the bridge that crosses over and heads back upstream. By now, I was completely unable to run except for about ten hobble-jog steps at a time every few minutes. Chad, on the other hand, was feeling a little better and decided to try and run for a bit. "You'll probably catch up to me later," he said as he started running. I was happy to encourage him to do so and hoped that he would find some redemption. Not long after, I made my way to the bridge and found my family waiting there, looking relaxed, especially my Husky Dart, who was lying in the "dead dog" position on the warm pavement. Standing there on the pavement amongst tourists and day-trippers was an almost unfamiliar feeling, as this is the closest a racer will get to main roads or non-race people the whole day. I didn't care to stay long, but I basked in the warmth of my family surrounding me and took a few moments to pet my dog and rub my wife's baby bump. Surprisingly, I was still on pace! I had completed the stretch from Cramer to Temperance at just under a 16min/mile pace while walking the whole thing. This bode well for me and I was now set on finishing this race, but I still had to climb Carleton Peak. Time to go.

Looking like crap, doin' the "hobble jog"
The "dead dog" yoga pose.
Heading back upstream into the wilderness, the trail is equally smooth and flat as its counterpart on the other side, so I decided to push a little and run whatever I could. I forced the "jobble" and tried to move quickly any way I could. It was ten steps running followed by double that speed walking and it was working well. Reaching the point at which the trail starts to climb, I power-hiked to make some time. I passed a hundred-miler with a most excellent beard and a will that was dwindling. I encouraged him on as best I could, hoping that he would make it to the finish. Although this section is only 5.7 miles, it contains the toughest climb on the whole course, but it's not without a dark sense of humor. The trail climbs from the Temperance River valley at about 650ft up to about 1250ft in the span of approximately 2.5 miles, and then you see the peak...and the gorge in between you and it. Just as you think you've made it, you must go down again into the woods and then climb an additional 250ft in less than a mile up ancient boulders, skirting along ominous rock faces with deep fissures pumping out cool air. It's refreshing, but seemingly out of place on this course. The climb itself this time around wasn't altogether unpleasant for me. Whereas I normally suck at climbing during races, my current condition had made climbing my strong suit. I powered up the trail, thinking back to the summit turnaround of the 50km last May and wishing that the volunteer was still up there with the beer he was offering to runners. I settled for water and another S! Cap and made my way over the top and down. Normally, heading down the other side is incredibly fast. The trail rewards those willing to relax and open up a bit to zoom down, but today the larger drops from the boulders toward the top end destroyed me. Going down was viciously terrorizing both knees now after overcompensating with the right knee. I poked my way down gingerly as a few runners passed by. Thankfully the aid station isn't far after the descent of Carleton.

Sawbill aid station. I've had a fondness for Sawbill ever since I volunteered there in 2012 with the Immerfall family who has been championing its operation for the last twenty or so years. Not thirty seconds after I stopped, another familiar face was right there to greet me. For the life of me I can't remember his name, but he volunteered there as well in 2012 and has run the 50-miler in the past. I can credit him for first warning me of the stretch between Crosby and Sugarloaf, and it was nice to see his imposing stature and ear-to-ear grin. He was incredibly helpful as we chatted, and Dale Immerfall also came up to say hi. I almost didn't have the chance to talk to my wife, but I felt tremendously supported - something I needed after the last stretch. The people there were so helpful, in fact, that they beat my crew to their jobs. With the whirlwind of humanity buzzing here, there was no doubt I would make it to Oberg AS, and if I made it to the last official aid station, why wouldn't I make it to the finish? The pain and tiredness were catching up to me, but my stubborn mind was determined. Kiss the wife and go!

The motivational force is strong with this one.
Lovely day for a walk.

Keeping track of my pace since I started walking, I was making decent time and figured I could get close to my third scenario goal time of 14hrs 49min. This thought was rather perplexing, seeing as I was walking, but considering the terrain and average pace of a runner, I guess power-hiking was a close second in regard to moving quickly. The section from Sawbill to Oberg is also an easier 5.5 miles of rolling terrain. No problem...except for the boredom. The sun had baked me on the previous section - the most exposed section of the course - and now my mind was losing focus. I started to consider how long I had been on the trail, and how ridiculous such an endeavor is. For weeks before the race I had contemplated bringing my iPod should I really want it, but I have never been able to run with music and didn't see the need for it, especially since I can never get earbuds to stay in. Such a failure of preparation I have never regretted more. The "brain iPod" had shut off and my mind was spinning into a vortex of boredom and negativity, and all I needed was some tunage to pump me up. No deal. Oh, and there was more mud, lots of it. The constant slipping was starting to aggravate much more than my knees.

Dark times. Many ultrarunners - particularly 100-milers - speak of the dark times that a runner faces mentally, where the stress on the body breaks down the brain and it cannot remain positive and in focus. Although I was on one of the easiest stretches of the course, I was moving incredibly slowly, the pain in my legs was steady in both the throbbing and stabbing varieties, and my brain had opened up a deluge of destructive thoughts. Never before had I been in the middle of such a conflicting proposition; quit at Oberg with only 7.1 miles left and be free of the suffering and pain, or continue on in the dark for another 3 hours and slowly go insane. Thoughts of my father also came to mind, combining my loss with my current suffering and pain. I had decided soon after his death to dedicate this race to him (albeit privately), so how would I honor him with this miserable excuse for a race, especially if I quit? "Ugh, stop thinking like that, Matt. It will only destroy you more."

Struggling to hold back tears, I approached the aid station. Looking at my watch, I saw that I had only thirteen minutes before the aid station closed. I was at least five minutes out, maybe more, and this stretch of 5.5 miles had taken me almost two hours and twenty minutes. The thought of stopping and waiting in the woods so that I would miss the cutoff crossed my mind briefly, but I dismissed it just as quickly as it came. That would be a complete and total waste of the gift in the most weak way possible. The woods opened up to one of the coolest entrances to an aid station I've seen, and one that I had hoped would make an awesome photo op, but now that I was hobbling and it was nearing dark, that small dream had vanished rather quickly. There were few people left at Oberg, and the aid station volunteers were already packing up.  

"I think I'm done."

As the words left my mouth to my wife, another rushing impulse of tears flooded to the surface, but I held it back. Anna, thank God, called me on it, and asked me if I knew that I was done, or just thought so. We had made a pact before the race that would apply both to my race and her giving birth. Should I want to quit or should she want an epidural, the other would simply ask, "100%?" If we were 100% sure, then there are no questions asked and no further encouragement to go on in the present state. She posed the short question to me, and I wavered. I knew I couldn't give up, but I just couldn't wrap my head around three hours of suffering in the dark, just to finish a race that has no real meaning (or so I was thinking at the time). Knowing me as well as she does, Anna reminded me that I had just come 45 miles, and if I didn't finish now I would hate myself for a long time. At this moment, the aid station captain and sweeper came up to me and inquired how I was doing and if I had my headlamp with me. When I showed signs of doubt, he very matter of factly said, "You're not done. You've got about half-an-hour of light left and then two hours in the dark. No problem. Can I check your headlamp to see that it works?" Sometimes it's necessary to hear things put bluntly. "I've seen much worse. You're not done." He reassured me, and I realized that I was still standing, still walking, and still lucid. He and Anna were right. Jerod filled my Camelbak for me one last time and I took a gel and a Kashi bar from Anna and headed out after one more prompting from the sweeper. "You need to go now. I'll be coming your way soon, and I hope not to see you." I told him that if he did catch up to me, he'd damn well better bring the horse to carry me in. "Oh no, the horse will just run you over." Fair enough.

Anna walked me to the trail, reassuring me that I could do this and that I was doing the right thing. As we parted, I felt one more swell of tears, but turned to the trail and immediately went into determination mode. "Let's put this beast to bed!" I knew I couldn't run and that downhills were excruciating, so I took stock and asked myself what I could do. I could power-hike. Looking as ridiculous as the speed walkers in the Olympics, I took off up Oberg Mountain like a man on a mission. There was no way I was going to be on that damn trail another three hours. I've been able to run it in 1:15 in the past, so I should be able to hike it in two hours, I thought.

Leaving the aid station I was dead last. That made me the DFL representative (Dead F***ing Last), and with my new motivation I took that as a badge of honor. If I was going to be dead last, then I would at least make it look good. My first goal was to make it as far as I could with the daylight that I had left. After discovering that morning that my headlamp really isn't that good, I didn't want to be in pitch-black forest on arguably the most technical section of the trail with a crappy light. I soon caught up to some of the runners who had passed me in the last section, which ruined the growing pride of being last. I was almost looking forward to it, but no matter. I passed the incredibly peppy 100-mile woman who exclaimed; "Great job! I sure wish I could keep up with you, but keep it up!" Later, I passed the 100-miler with hiking poles in pristine-looking street shoes (his fourth pair of shoes for the race) and his pacer that I had run with a bit earlier, and as I moved around them, his pacer exclaimed, "Wow, he's on a mission! Nice job!" Although it's always nice to hear positive comments, I was too focused to give a sh**. Eyes forward and legs moving. I started passing more and more people who I recognized from earlier on. I thanked them for letting me by and cheered them on, but did so quickly. I can't recall ever going up Moose Mountain so quickly or with such little effort. Spending most of the day at a heart rate well below my normal aerobic range must have prepped me for this. Half way up the longest, steepest climb, there was a tree down across the trail, but at chest height, with no possibility of going under it, and little of going over. There was another runner there contemplating how to get over it, so I directed her to the side of the trail where there was just enough ground built up to climb over. I offered her a hand once I got over, and almost fell over in doing so. Thankfully, I made it to the top and out onto the flat section before the blue above changed to black.

Darkness. The moment finally arrived when I was forced to turn on my headlamp. "Now it gets real," I thought to myself, hoping that my headlamp would do the trick. My eyes had been adjusting naturally, and now the headlamp added a surreal contrast between the complete absence of light off to the sides of the trail with the little bit of definition I got from the light in front. Periodically, trail markers would appear, horizontal reflective pieces of tape floating like some kind of forest spirit there to guide me. A few times I also spotted a bouncing light up ahead and wondered if I might overtake them. The light seemed far away, and suddenly it was right in front of me. I passed several runners in the pitch black, one of whom asked me if I knew where we were. Thankfully I knew exactly where we were, as we had just topped out of the "long lonely climb of loneliness," the winding gradual climb up Mystery Mountain that always saps my energy at the end of these races, but not tonight. I felt awesome and couldn't quit. During the day, I recognize every inch of trail on this section, as I have now run it four times, this being my fifth (the eighth time if you consider the out-and-backs), but there was a long stretch where I had no idea where I was. Following the trail was a type of vertigo, and my mind struggled to determine where exactly my location was. Just then I noticed something glowing off the trail to the side. On a strangely-shaped lump that was definitely off the ground, I made out the reflective tape on a hammock between two trees. Following that, I saw a campfire ring and realized I was a lot farther than I thought. This was the marker I always look for, the campsite just before the turn off the trail to head down to the road! In a mad fever, I turned right and started bounding down the trail, almost running, and with no pain! Down, down, down, until I saw a headlamp standing still. A man in street clothes said, "You're almost done. Keep it up." I could hear the rushing Poplar River, and suddenly the trail opened up wide, leading to the turn onto the bridge. Turning my head to either direction, I paused ever so briefly to take in the beauty of the full moon shining on the river as it plunged dramatically down the hillside. Immediately after crossing the river I scurried up the small hill, passing four runners walking together, and the temperature must have risen at least 10 degrees! The air rising from the cold river water had just as dramatic an effect on the air temperature as it did on the scenery.

Gravel road turns to pavement. Now the last, and most painful stretch of the race. It's flat, open pavement and you can see and hear the resort, but the road stretches on for an eternity. Passing Papa Charlie's bar, I could smell the burgers, salivating while trying to stay focused on the finish. I wondered if I should stop and make that my last aid station, but continued on, mainly for the simple reason that I didn't have any money with me. A random guy standing by his truck asked me what time I started this morning, and after saying "5:30am," he simply nodded and said, "Hmm." Surreal as it was, and although the focus on finishing was great, I recognized the importance for me to contemplate the magnitude of the accomplishment, because I knew the finish line would be a whirlwind, and after 15+ hours on the trail, it passes by in a heartbeat.

Feeling the finish line, I offered up great thanks. This day truly was a gift. I was perplexed that I had just run 52.1 miles, and really just wanted pizza. Heading off the road onto the gravel trail that leads down behind the resort to the finish line, a number of spectators watched from the balconies of their rooms, shining their headlamps onto the runners and cheering them on. I felt one last burst with their cheers and picked up the pace, running as best as I could. The announcer introduced me just as I came around the back side of the building when at the same time I heard, "Matt, is that you?" Anna and her family were sitting there waiting and seemed totally shocked that I was coming in so soon. My mother-in-law Nancy squealed with excitement as I rounded the pool and crossed the line, fist pumping above my head. 

John Stohrkamp presented me with my finishers "medal," and I thanked him sincerely with a two-handed handshake. Official time: 15:38:51. Then suddenly, Chad's friend Andy appeared in front of me to offer his congratulations and send along congratulations from Chad, who finished more than 30 minutes ahead of me which couldn't have made me happier. It took a minute for my family to get over to the finish line, as they truly hadn't expected me to arrive so early. Who would have? The previous 5.5 mile section took me 2hrs20min, and this 7.1 mile section took me a hair under two hours. How's that for a revival?

Couldn't have done it without my awesome crew and cheer team!
Suddenly it all hit me. I had accomplished my goal of three years - to run 50 miles in a day. Now, I can't truly say I ran 50 miles, but all things considered, I raced 50 miles no matter what my pace. It was surprising for me to hear that of the 185 runners who started earlier that morning, only 107 finished. In that light, I suppose I reached my ultimate goal of finishing in the top half. It wouldn't have been possible, however, without my wife and family to help me along. I can't thank them enough for urging me on through the moments of doubt and suffering, because the feeling of finishing did make it all worth it in the end. Hanging out at the finish line, drinking my post-race recovery beverage, I felt the life come back into me; even my vision seemed clearer. Taking off my shoes has never felt so good, and to top it all off, my in-laws showed up to the finish line with pizza! Although I would have liked to hang out at the finish line and take it all in for a while, I was getting cold and wanted to relax on a soft chair and feast on my reward, so we headed back to the motel.

On the walk back to the motel, the question was posed to me if I would ever do this again. My immediate reaction was to say no, and with perfect timing, a guy in front of us said, "Give it two weeks." Now that it's been only a week, I already feel that I must do this again, to redeem myself a little, to be able to run this course sustainably and finish well. In the meantime, however, I'm not in a hurry to do so, and I'll be happy with my finish regardless.  Now is the time to drink beer and eat whatever the hell I want!


Fitness - C+
Although I had the ability to finish this race, including some impressive uphill power-hiking, the knee injury clearly showed how weak I am. I spent way too much time on metabolic efficiency and not enough on core strength. It showed greatly.

Mental Toughness - B?
Tough to judge. For the majority of the day, I had a clear and determined mind, and even when I was bored and hurting, I was mostly able to continue on. From Sawbill to Oberg would be the exception, and without my family, the outcome may have been different.

Pacing - B+
Without a heart rate monitor, I feel that I was at a decent pace. The 50km last May was my benchmark, and I ran that whole race between 150-170bpm. I'm sure I went too fast in a few parts this time, and I wonder how much longer I could have run if I had started much slower, but I think the knee would have blown regardless.

Nutrition/Hydration - A
After only a few races I feel that I have dialed in my nutrition and hydration: half a gel twice an hour, one S!Cap an hour starting 1.5 hrs in, drinking to thirst, and one cup of Heed at each aid station and a piece of banana when I felt necessary.

Mechanics - C-
Although I attribute my injury to core/trunk weakness, I'm sure that in turn affected my mechanics. I felt great when I was running, but the photos that I've seen so far show me hunching over more than I would like. The low grade is because of the injury.

Joy - B+
Clearly the last half of the race presented challenges, but I feel that I was thankful and positive for most of the day. It was truly a gorgeous day and an honest gift. Even when I was suffering, I was able to recognize that.

More information on this race - 
Previous race reports for this course on this blog - 25km, Marathon

Parting shot.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Superior Trail Races Moose Mountain Marathon

Sam's Rules of Life:
1. Never give up.
2. See Rule #1
3. Don't be a bi***
4. Pay attention
5. It's probably your fault (different from his official post, but certainly discussed as Rule 5)

Mile 18. Stabbing lateral pain in the left knee. "I remember this pain!" Reminiscent of an attempted 18-miler in June when at mile 15 the same thing happened. Sudden searing pain in the knee, forcing me to walk/hobble the final three miles back to my car. Back then I blamed the brutally rocky terrain of the backside of Bass Lake, along with my desire to run farther than I probably should have at that point in my training. It was a failure to observe Rules 4 and 5.

These rules came back to me again at my first ever marathon, set dramatically against the backdrop of Lake Superior, high above in the forest along the Superior Hiking Trail on a beautifully sunny day. Going into the race, I truly had no idea if I was really ready. Allow me to explain.

Five months earlier. Since recovering from yet another foot ailment in April and adding my first DNS to my record with the Superior Trial Races 50k in May, I signed up for the marathon as part of the fall series of the same race with five months to get myself back in order. No problem! I would have the summer off completely and would be living in Ely, MN, with Superior National Forest and the BWCA as my training grounds. With no other obligations, I could focus on doing it right. Eat well, get plenty of sleep, and train smart.

And that happened...until around the end of July. I had some amazing runs in the early summer, with cool temps in the Great Northwoods and plenty of shade from the dense, rapidly growing forest. Aside from the previously mentioned ugly run, I was progressing nicely and feeling awesome. I even had the chance to run in the mountains of California and participate in my first ever mountain race (detailed in my last post). Upon returning from California and talking a lot with my "running Jefe" Joe, I decided to change my focus in a big way that - theoretically and with all hope - would yield greater gains than the way I was currently training. In one word - Maffetone. I started Maffetone training with a heart rate monitor, a method that I wanted to detail more before writing this post, but haven't had the time for it, so perhaps I'll go back to it later and describe it in more detail for those who are interested. The short and sweet of it is that I wore a heart rate monitor for every run starting in mid-July, and would not run any faster than my pre-determined maximum aerobic function heart rate, which is 144bpm. This is to stimulate and improve aerobic function and avoid going anaerobic, a function that more heavily leads to injury and muscle imbalance. As it happens for many people, this slowed me waaaaaay down. I'm comfortable at a sub-8:00 mile pace for long distances, and now I couldn't go faster than 10:30 miles at that heart rate. I realized that my aerobic function was truly awful, and that I've been running in an anaerobic state for a huge chunk of my life and for most all runs. The number of injuries I've had is a big indicator of this.

In any case, this training slowed me down and did not allow me to do much strength or speed training. I just ran slowly, trying to improve my pace at the same heart rate over the weeks following. It's a slow process, but I was seeing progress. My mechanics were also a little messed up, because it's hard for me to run at that slower pace with good form. Then, at the start of August, a few things got in the way. I went to North Carolina for two weeks to visit a good friend, and the running was sporadic at best, and nothing more than about four miles, although I did do a run on the Appalachian Trail and my longest fully barefoot run along the beach at the Outer Banks. Nonetheless, I didn't feel it was enough. Upon returning, the heat cranked up here and the stress of the impending school year wreaked havoc with my heart rate, slowing me back down to where I started mid-July. With not a single run that was even moderately fast, nor on truly technical terrain, I couldn't say if this race - arguably the most rugged marathon in the country - would make or break me.

Race weekend. After an extremely stressful first week of school, I headed north early Friday afternoon, arriving just in time to catch friend Sam Jurek at an aid station during the 100-miler, unfortunately only to see him drop due to several legitimate factors (still love and respect you, brother). I joined my wife at the Mountain Inn and we had a relaxing evening, and finally the stress was wearing off. Unfortunately, Negative Factor #1 appeared - my allergies had kicked in full blast, now, the afternoon before the race, without any time to get them under control. That night, I couldn't breathe a single breath through my nose, and the "sleep" I got was really only a poor excuse for the real thing. I woke up with a terribly scratchy throat along with completely plugged sinuses. Super.

The first of three alarms went off at 5am. Thankfully we were both up right away and didn't need the other two. My hyper-organizational German side was a godsend on this morning, because I had laid out everything the night before. I need only eat, suit up, and go. We were out the door by 6:15 to catch the shuttle to the start, meeting up with Anna's friend Liz, who was also running the race. Negative Factor #2 -  It was already quite warm, but even worse was the extreme humidity! The air hung heavy in the clear, calm morning sky, threatening to smack you in the face like a hot, wet towel. Once I was finally on the bus, however, I was relaxed and ready. We arrived at the start with at least a good 45 minutes before go time, but it was good to have time to relax, warm-up a bit, and pee about five hundred times. A few of the hundred-milers came through while we were waiting, which heightened the mood all around.

The Start - Does my heart rate not realize how flat this is?
The start was a bit strange, heading out on the road, running in the opposite direction of the trail, then looping back onto the trail and crossing the road again at the AS. The transition from road to trail left us standing and waiting while everyone funneled onto the trail single-file, and since I was toward the back, I ended up walking for quite a bit until the trail opened up a little to pass. I was, however, none too eager to pass too quickly, for I had a plan. I took some good advice: give myself the first half hour or so to get my heart rate under control but not to exceed 150bpm, then stay at my MAF rate of 144 for the first half, and then "let 'er rip" on the second half. This was easier said than done. With the humidity, heat, and allergies, I had trouble keeping my heart rate below 150 when walking briskly! The start of the race is even the easiest part, with flat, fast singletrack for at least the first three miles. Needless to say I was concerned, but stayed focused. I gave in to walking briskly to maintain my heart rate, admitting that finishing was much more important than not walking. The benefit to sticking to my heart rate plan was that I got to run with Anna and Liz for quite a while, and they were even getting ahead of me at times. It's always nice to have people to run with, and I think it helped me relax a bit as well.

The first seven miles is quite flat, and is also the most open part of the course. Hitting the bright morning sun was already a bit zapping, and I regretted having no visor nor sunglasses, but knew it wouldn't be long before I would be happy to not have to carry them. Soon enough, the course drops down to the Cross River, whose beauty surprises you when suddenly arriving at its dramatic, rocky stature with swift yet elegant waters. Here the trail skirts very close to the river for quite some time, offering glistening sunlit water with its calming white noise. I think this was one of the most enjoyable parts of the race for me. It was cool and well-shaded, with a spectacular view that joins you along your travels.

Climbing up and away from the river, it's not long before the trail takes a steep and continued descent into the Temperance River AS. If you're not paying attention, you might just run right into the table there, as the station is tucked tightly between the woods and the road, which seems more like a wide access trail than a road. A friendly and efficient volunteer refilled my Camelbak while it was still on my back, and I grabbed some fuel. I only had one gel in the first section and was feeling hungry. A banana with peanut butter, a square of PB&J, some Heed and ginger ale, and a few potato chips and I was ready. Anna and Liz had arrived just after me, but were taking a potty stop, so I went on ahead. It was slow moving with all that in my stomach, but I knew it would pay off later.

Carlton Peak - Never before have I so wished for cold lemonade!
Magnificently scenic river #2 - Temperance. It was almost deja vu, skirting the edge of yet another gorgeous river, but this time, it was bigger and more dramatic. The trail actually heads out onto the rocks before folding back into the woods, and here is where I spotted a hundred-miler soaking in the water to cool off. The idea was tempting, but I kept moving, even though it was feeling a lot hotter by now. Crossing to the other side and heading back up away from the highway, I decided that some cool water would do me good. I found a spot where the river was most quickly accessed and splashed some water on my neck and head, not really noticing the family there enjoying the landscape, even though I was about three feet from one of the kids. I'm sure there were some strange looks, but I moved on, focused on my task. It was here that things got much more difficult.

The Superior Trail Race series is touted as one of the most rugged in the country, and I'm sure people from places like Colorado or California where the mountains are real mountains would scoff at such a claim, but they haven't been on this trail, nor have they climbed from Temperance River to the top of Carlton Peak. In about a three-mile stretch, the trail climbs from 600 feet above sea level to 1500 feet, varying between root-gnarled trail, gravel, and exposed jagged granite. Although there's no serious altitude to deal with, it is nonetheless as challenging as some of the climbs I've done in Colorado. Running was absolutely out of the question, and here is where I had to let my heart rate jump to 170. I had managed the first section mostly below 150, and was trying to stick to an increase of 10bpm with each section, but here is where that fell apart. Pace did not matter; I could have taken a step every 30 seconds, and I still would have been at 168, so I went with it. Liz had caught up to me at the start of the climb, so we at least had some good conversation to take our minds off of the daunting climb. The top section, albeit strenuous and challenging, is incredible. It becomes almost a scramble out on granite boulders, entering a vertical zone of fissures, cracks, and aretes above that loom with cool, ancient graces. I was picking out my vertical lines as I passed, remembering it for future climbing exploration. Finally we hit the summit and rolled back down again, and I felt good. I let 'er rip on the down and my heart rate played along. I also observed here that running a steady pace actually helped keep my heart rate down as opposed to walking! Strange, but the steady movement with feet underneath me seemed to control my heart rate better than plodding along with bigger steps requiring more muscle recruitment. Mental note for the future. It was simply good to finally have some speed.

Having some sweet, fast downhill was a godsend, and it was like this almost the entire way to the next aid station, aside from a climb toward the end, where the trail heads out into open skies, and yet still feels tight with thick, wetland vegetation that's just a bit over head height. Liz and I caught up to a guy and we all ran in to the aid station together. Sawbill is a cool spot and it's also where I volunteered last fall to get a taste of what this series is all about. The Immerfall family runs this AS and has been doing it since the race's inception nearly (or more than?) 20 years ago. It was fun to see some familiar faces, and wasn't surprised in the least to see one of them offering cold showers from a hose hooked up to the water there. I declined the shower, but got some snacks and was on my way. Liz stuck around to deal with some hotspots that were becoming blisters.

The Sneaking Snake of "Schnell!"
Although I had never run this third section before, I remember the Immerfalls and several other runners saying that the section from Sawbill to Oberg is rolling and easy, comparatively speaking. I was excited to see if that was true, and finally speed up a little, since I was now past the half-way mark. No craziness at this point, but faster and measured at or below 170bpm. It was actually quite easy, because all of the beta I received on this section was correct. It's a thoroughly enjoyable 5.7 miles of rolling, wooded trail, cool in the shade with soft, peaty soil underfoot. It was hard not opening up completely and blazing this section, but because I'm very familiar with the last section, I knew I had to keep plenty in the tank. There *may* have been a short stint at the start of this section where I ran faster than I should have, but no one needs to know that. Needless to say, I enjoyed it thoroughly. I came upon the woman I had started behind, knowing this because I recognized her shoes. She had the same shoes as my wife, so we chatted as we rolled, and the conversation helped keep things relaxed. I was in no hurry to pass her, and in any case, she had a solid pace going. Secretly, I added a sub-goal to make sure I passed her before the finish, which I figured would be a decent challenge. She looked fresh and was moving swiftly and consistently.

Negative Factor #3 - With about a mile to go before Oberg AS, it happened. (Insert sharp, echoing metallic sound here) Suddenly and without warning,  I felt a stabbing pain in the outside of my left knee. It forced instant hobbling until I could slow down and walk a few steps. My IT band had been getting tighter and more sore in the previous few miles, and it finally decided to take out its anger on my knee. This was a familiar sign that I was: a) running too hard after so many miles, and b) I had not been paying enough attention to my mechanics, or had simply lost my reference point for what is efficient after significant muscle weakening. Rule #4 broken and rule #5 in full admittance. I was now in new territory, having run farther than I ever have before in my life. I can't say I was surprised, but damn it hurt! I managed to keep running in to the aid station, keeping my form together as best as possible as I came out of the woods to a crowd of spectators, including Sam's mom and her entourage. I smiled and waved and didn't stop until I reached the aid station. As soon as I stopped, my knee started improving, so I did some mini-stretches as I drank my Heed. At this point I made eye contact with a fellow AS volunteer from last year who was helping out again, and we struck up a conversation. It was fun to run into someone I knew, and he was excited to tell me about his return to running after double knee surgery last year. A cool story indeed, as he was told he'd never run again. Although I enjoyed the conversation, I was itching to go, and it was hard to break away from his excited news, but I politely wished him well and mentioned that we would certainly run into each other in the future, and made my way out for the last stretch.

The Long Lonely Road of Loneliness
With my knee situation and familiarity of the last section of the course from the last two years of doing the 25km in the spring, I knew this would be my greatest challenge yet. The final section is by far the toughest, with two gutbusting climbs up Moose and Mystery mountains, respectively, the first of which climbs 600 feet in about three miles, and the latter which drags on and on in a neverending sea of switchbacks, reminding me of the movie "Labyrinth", sans David Bowie and his unsightly codpiece. I must have walked a good mile before I tried running again, which was touch-and-go at best. I could run perhaps a few minutes before the pain increased enough to force me back to walking. The steep climb up Moose was actually quite welcome, as it gave me license to hike, and since my knee didn't hurt when walking or going uphill, I made some decent time and passed a few people, including the woman I ran with earlier and vowed to pass. I thought she might duck in behind me and follow me up, but suddenly I was alone, and would be so for the majority of this last section.

When listening to people talk about running marathons, many - if not most - talk about hitting "the wall." I can now say from personal experience that this is a very real thing. Although avoidable in most cases, it seems to overtake many people around mile 21 or so, perhaps because this is new territory for those following traditional training plans who run only a maximum of 20 miles for their longest long run. I was well into this territory, and was happy to have made it this far, but around mile 21, my mental state took a faceplant, and I entered a sufferfest. Had I been smart and fueled better at the top of Moose, I might have avoided it, but alas, my brain was too preoccupied with my knee and how to overcome my mechanics problem. For about two or three miles, I plodded along, lamenting that I could not run, as it would extend my time on the course even more, when I just wanted to be done! The finish line seemed to get farther and farther away, and it was hard to see my goal time vanish as if it were a dream all along. While climbing the neverending switchbacks on Mystery mountain, a hundred-miler came upon me rather quickly, patted me on the back and asked how it was going. I remember feeling a bit confused and astonished at how peppy he was, as if he had just hiked out a mile or two to see runners and then jaunt back for a latté and scone. We wished each other well, and he took off running up the trail. He is the only person I have ever seen run that section of the trail. I'm still not sure he exists. He very well could have been a figment of my suffering imagination. In any case, it was a much needed interaction.

Hitting the top of Mystery, I pulled myself out of Megaslump and decided that I had been on course long enough. Walking was no longer an option, and I didn't care how much it would hurt; I was gonna run that finish down if it killed me! Strangely, once I made this decision and started running, the pain became constant which made it entirely manageable. A swifter pace also allowed better mechanics, which helped a good bit too. All I wanted now was to see the campsites - the greatest landmark in the whole race for me, signaling the near exit of the Superior Hiking Trail and the rushing Poplar River at the bottom of the hill, leading out to the final stretch. It took much longer than I had hoped, but finally the small wooden sign appeared with blue paint identifying the campsite. I took off! The downhill from there can get scary if you don't control your speed, and after 20+ miles my legs were a little wobbly. I stumbled at least once, but not enough to throw me down. Making a sharp right turn out onto the access trail, I let gravity do the work and flew down the trail, passing one runner who I thought might have been the hundred-miler I saw earlier, but didn't have the same pep in his step. At the bottom of the hill, I looked at my watch and my pulse had hit 200! "Holy cow, I need to slow down!" Although this is the final stretch of trail, there's still a section of gravel road and paved road that are much longer than they should be, and definitely sort the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

Crossing over the Poplar and taking a quick glimpse to the side to enjoy its splendor, I made my way up the gravel road to where it evens out, and settled in to a swift, yet manageable pace. I passed a  hundred-miler with what sounded like a South African accent and his entourage of pacers bringing him in, along with a "tagalong" marathoner who was walking with them and was complaining about her knee. Before I passed them, she had asked how far the finish was, and the guy said, "Oh, it's just up there." Now, when you ask a hundred-miler how far something is, be mindful of his perspective! She exclaimed, "Ok, I got this," and started chuckin down the road at what I would call a sprint. Her long bounds, along with what looked like a heavy Camelbak pack on her back made me cringe just a little. Shortly before I reached her, she let out a gasp, an "Oh my god!" and stopped. As I ran by, I encouraged her to settle in to an easy pace with short steps and come with me. When she asked me where the finish was, my retort of, "Oh, about a quarter mile, it's not far," was not what she wanted to hear. She ran a few more steps and then resorted to walking. Hey, I tried.

The pavement always hurts in this race, but since I was already in pain, it seemed to go faster than the previous two races (which were only 25km). I hit the gravel path leading down to the final stretch and kicked it in with as much composure and as big a smile as possible. Done! And it only took me seven hours and ten minutes! Not a very impressive time for a marathon, but all things considered, I was pleased with how it went. In cases like this, I'm ok with a sub-par performance, because it gives me more reason to do it again and improve. It was also pleasing that my greatest fear - that my stomach would go south as often happens when I exercise with allergies - did not come to fruition.

Liz finished about thirty minutes behind me, and we hung out and ate snacks waiting for Anna to come in. Because Anna's training was "a little scant," I honestly had no idea when she would arrive, but had a good hunch that she wouldn't be too far behind. She arrived at eight hours and thirty minutes, smiling and running smoothly. Impressed is an understatement to describe my thoughts. For having run her longest long run at ten miles a month or more before the race, and then only two to four miles a few times a week, I must admit that she's more of a badass than I. All in all, it was a fabulous day with feelings of success all around, followed by a soak in the hot tub and dinner with Sam and his fam.

Anna and I post race, pre-hot tub.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. I LOVE this course, and the RD John Stohrkamp organizes a helluvan event. I'd like to throw out a huge personal THANK YOU to the all of the volunteers who make this possible. They were all super friendly and eager to help. My ultimate goal would be to do the 50-mile next year, but after a 7+ hour finish for the marathon, I'm not sure I want to spend 14+ hours on the trail, even with the love I have for it. We'll see what the next year brings. On that note, I'll post the elevation chart for your enjoyment, which includes all three races. Check it out.

Fitness - B?
Clearly I knew that my aerobic fitness was crap since starting Maffetone training in July, but it had been so my whole life, so that would be less positive in this category, but I had no idea how my legs, core, and feet would hold up. Other than my knee, I felt good for most of the race, and my feet gave me no trouble at all in my Merrell Trail Gloves. My lower back did get sore, signaling that my core needs work. Had I been running faster, this may have been a different story.

Mental Toughness - C+
I would say that I was solid - and following Sam's rules 1-3 - for the whole race until I hit the wall. This grade carries over into hydration/nutrition as well, as I think that was partially to blame for my dark times. I let myself walk too much and for too long.

Pacing - A-
I followed my plan to the best of my ability. The Trail Runner Nation podcast I listened to on the way up helped a ton with a new mantra: "Plan to flow, and flow when it doesn't go according to plan." I started conservatively and increased pace as I moved on, adjusting my plan based on what my heart rate was doing. Had my knee not gone out, I would have had a stellar finish.

Nutrition/Hydration - B+
I don't feel like the problems I had were food or hydration related until the last section. I didn't take enough water at the last AS and was more thirsty than previously in the race, and I should have fueled sooner before I hit the wall.

Mechanics - D
If for no other reason than my knee injury. Clearly I wasn't balanced left to right, and my IT band took the brunt of it, leading to the knee being pulled out of whack. Due to my allergies and perhaps also the Camelback (although the Camelbak has never given me trouble before), I had horribly tight shoulders and neck, threatening a terrible headache, which thankfully never came. I'm sure this forced my shoulders up, head forward, and form to suffer.

Now only eight months until the spring series! Until then, here's your parting shot.

Marathon feet, complete with unofficial trail swag.

Friday, August 23, 2013

CA Trip and Western States 2013 Crew Report

After two long years (and two months after the race), I'm finally able to write an official post about my experience at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, my second go around as a crew member. It's hard to know where to start, except to say that this race has a special place in my heart. It's what inspired me to start running more - particularly on trails, eating better, training smarter, and to start this blog. To thank for this is Olive Oil Joe Uhan, good friend and talented athlete. I've always believed that we all need inspiration from flesh and blood people aka otherwise "normal" people who do great things. I found not only inspiration in Joe's first finish back in 2011, but in the community of amazing people that this race draws. This post recounts my experience, but if you're interested in hearing it straight from the runner, check out Joe's race report here.

**WARNING** This might be my most epic post ever, so grab some snacks and a few beers (or beverage of choice) and settle in for the long haul.

My experience this year was markedly different from 2011 for myriad reasons: a different mix of people, different outcome, and the chance to spend more time with Joe both before and after the race. I flew in to Sacramento a full week before the race and had a wonderfully relaxed build-up to race day, opposed to organized chaos in 2011 marked by a bilateral inguinal hernia that I ruptured on my flight to Sacramento, all of which was endearingly referred to back then as a "clusterf*** of awesomeness." Here's the rundown of my week+ with some of the highlights from this year.

After visiting my good friends in Folsom for a few days, I drove my white Nissan Versa rental up to South Lake Tahoe to stay with Joe and his "other running half" Jacob Rydman in a small rental house they acquired to chill out and acclimate themselves to the altitude. It didn't look like much from the outside, but was plenty comfy for the three of us, and sported some "flat, money singletrak" out back at the end of the road just a few blocks away, where we got in some good easy runs to stay loose. Extended hangout time with nothing on the docket was pretty sweet, as I don't get that much anymore with Joe, and it was cool getting to know Jake, a soft-spoken badass with a bright running future ahead of him. The days were spent chilling out with episodes of Seinfeld, Arrested Development, some old school rap gems, and an original Nintendo complete with Mike Tyson's Punch Out. We also managed to snag some sauna time for heat training at the local gym, and included some drills each day to stay loose. I shouldn't really be using "we" so much here, as they were the ones doing the heat training and staying loose for the race, and I was just lucky to tag along. Other than that, we had a lot of good food, including the largest salad I've ever eaten.

The proper start to any CA trip - In N Out Burger.

Wednesday, June 26th - First Official Run in the Mountains!

The first real highlight of my trip was my long run in the Desolation Wilderness above Emerald Bay on the west side of Lake Tahoe. I needed to get in some good miles to keep with my training for the Moose Mountain Marathon in September, and thanks to Jake's recommendation, I now have another run to add to my list of top runs all time. Starting at Bayview Trailhead (which I passed in the car 3 times like an idiot), I checked out the map and decided to head up and around Upper Velma Lake. It looked like about the right distance to do in about 3 hours, calculating 15 minute miles with all the climbing. Noting the necessary trail junctions and turns in my head, as I didn't have a map to take with me, I set off for a new adventure.

The trail starts by climbing about 800' in the first 3/4 mile up forested switchbacks, giving way to peeks of Lake Tahoe along the way and providing absolutely no warm-up at all. It was a brutal start to try and keep a steady pace, but I was determined and invigorated. Passing Granite Lake along the way, I made a mental note to plan on a swim on the way down if so inclined.

The phenomenal view of Emerald Bay from the switchbacks.
Higher up the trail with a view of Granite Lake.

From the top of the climb, it evened out a little and headed away from the lake further into the wilderness, climbing and descending until leaving the forest and heading down the mountain on the backside, often taking some effort to find the trail. The view of the canyon and the mountains on the far side was spectacular, with the familiar scent of granite, coniferous scrub and mountain dirt rising from the warm summer air. It's a scent I recognize instantly and love unconditionally. It has become the trademark of my summer travels.

After the first two trail junctions and feeling confident that I was on the right track, things got trickier. I finally reached the edge of Upper Velma and hit rushing river, too deep and too swift to cross safely on my own.

With people - no problem. Alone? Not so much.

Thankfully, after poking around a bit, I found a nice makeshift bridge across and was on my way.

Thanks to those who came before me.

The trail was sweet, flat, and fast from here, leading to the base of the mountain, where the forest once again turned to solid granite, making the trail extremely difficult to find. It led to yet another "water hazard," but this time with no discernible crossing. I spent about 10 minutes searching for a way across until a hiker who I had come upon at the previous crossing caught up to me. She and I worked together to find a way across, finally choosing to take off our shoes and "ford the river" at the edge of the lake where the water was much calmer. Everything seemed golden from there, except that we couldn't find the trail. With the way the smaller granite chunks had tumbled down the mountain, everything looked like marked trail. We spent almost a good hour with this whole ordeal, until finally we decided it would be better to just turn back. I was a little disappointed, but this was turning out to be great feet time in any case, and I wanted to get back to running and end the route finding. The way back was good, but I was finally getting low on energy. The sun had been baking me all day, and I needed more than just gels to fuel me. The climb back up the mountain was slow, but my mental state remained positive. Once I hit the final section of switchbacks, I flew down at an almost scary pace, making it to the car at almost exactly 4 hours on trail, only 2.5 of which was actual running. It was at this point when I realized that the decision to turn around was wise, because I had remembered the map wrong and turned off too soon onto a dead-end trail. All that searching for nothing! Here's the map in case you're interested. I just did the red section to Upper Velma and back, totaling about 10.5 miles.

My route - The red line from the east to the south point and back.

Altogether I was thoroughly pleased with my debut performance running in the mountains at altitude. The hiker that joined me in trying to find the way across the river had mentioned that she wanted to turn around because she'd been on trail for 3+ hours and it was getting late. I had made the same distance in an hour, which simply reinforced the reason that mountain running is so awesome. Naturally, running is faster than hiking, but to cover so much distance so quickly in an otherwise desolate place that normally requires a big pack and a ton of gear is just a cool feeling. It also gave me a lot more respect for the ultrarunners who do this for 100 miles!

On to Squaw Valley! 
After lunch Thursday we made our way north to the majestic start of it all - idyllic Squaw Valley, home of the 1960 Olympics. The drive up the west side of Lake Tahoe was gorgeous, and for the first time I was actually able to see the lake at water level. Now I know exactly what the bumper stickers "Keep Tahoe Blue" really mean. Turning away from the lake, Squaw Valley appeared in no time, and the excitement mounted.

Trivia of the Day - Walt Disney was the MC for the Olympic games here, and after seeing the unique rock formations on the mountain, he sent surveyors on horseback to sketch it all out, later using it as the basis for Thunder Mountain at Disneyland.

In 2011 I was gung-ho to participate in all of the clinics and festivities to take it all in. Unfortunately, I arrived after the crew meeting had started, but Joe assured me that I was now old hat and didn't need to go. It's always fun to get a taste of "Tropical John" Medinger up close, but there were other things to take care of. I found Jake in the parking lot and we went in to check out the free lodging that Jake's pacer Connor had connected us with through team Salomon. Apparently, Connor had been given a suite to himself by Salomon and had tons of room for us, thereby allowing us to cancel the rooms in Truckee and stay closer for free. As soon as we walked in, I felt immediately uneasy. There were people everywhere, including Salomon's best ultrarunners. I felt eyes all over me and could almost hear "Who the **** are you?" from behind them. I told Jake I was gonna head out and connect with Adam, one of Joe's pacers who had just arrived, and left quickly. Not my idea of tons of space, and even if it was free, I was definitely uncomfortable staying there. Thankfully, Connor said that there was another suite that he was switching to, that definitely had more space. Adam and I went to find it - suite 405 - and for some reason, 405 was the only number not on the fourth floor of this building! It was odd, but as we were looking up and down the hall, Jake called and said he had run into some of the Injinji guys (his sponsor), and they invited us to stay with them at their rental house just a little ways down the road, guaranteeing us plenty of open beds and a cozy space to hang out. I was in. We drove out there and it was incredible! A beautiful house with ample space and plenty of beds for us all. It was here at the table where Joe and Jake tackled their final gear needs, namely the creation of some sexy sleeveless cutoff tees ala Scott Jurek, mutilating their Lake Sonoma 50 race shirts for a good cause. Jake was rather liberal with his, cutting it off to just below the nipples, which I think is illegal in some states, but he does have the abs for it.

Like a 60's James Bond film.
A great place to crash, especially for watching Runaway Train to get psyched.

Back to Squaw for the veterans panel discussion. There was a great deal of confusion as to where this was happening, and no one really seemed to know. I was told by several people that it was in the conference room of the Squaw Valley Lodge, where it had been in previous years, but when I arrived there, a couple of guys were just hanging out chatting, and there was no evidence of a panel discussion happening. Joining a crew of others who were also looking for it, including the likes of 2012 Montrail Ultra Cup winner Denise Bourassa, we finally figured out that it was a short hike over to the Olympic Valley Lodge conference room, a much bigger space than the previously-used one, and for good reason. This year's panel was jam packed with veteran goodness: Ellie Greenwood (winner from previous two years and women's course record holder), Tim Twietmeyer (25-time finisher and 5-time winner), Ann Trason (14-time winner), and Gordy Ainsleigh (the guy who started it all in 1974). It was truly an historical event to witness, and if you're interested, you can watch it here.

Although I had missed the feeling of community at the clinics during the day, I got my fill hanging out with the OOJ posse over dinner and gear sorting at the suite where Joe's mom Meredith was staying. An exceptional group of people to be sure, and it was a good way for us all to get to know each other better. The evening wrapped up with a quality showing of Runaway Train (spoiler link) back at the Injinji house, a film that for some reason caught Joe's interest in a big way. Who doesn't like Jon Voight?

Friday, June 28th - First Mountain Race Ever!

Coming off of my mountain run high from Wednesday, I was totally stoked to take part in the Montrail 6k Uphill Challenge, a new tradition the day before the race, where pacers, crew, and anyone else can register for free to race up the mountain to High Camp. It's a way to experience the start of the race, and a great excuse for climbing the mountain instead of taking the gondola. It was HOT already at 10am, above 80 degrees. My ten minute warm-up was enough to drench me in sweat, so I was somewhat concerned about my ginger complexion on the open mountain. I met up with the illustrious Samuel Jurek and we jawed a bit pre-race until the proverbial gun went off. I took off conservatively and worked my way up, running as much as possible with small steps. It was an excellent challenge, and a ton of fun, until we came to a new section that was covered with mulch! Due to construction next to the standard start area, a new start was used which added 200m or so, thereby taking off 200m up the mountain by adding a short steep climb up a nasty section of mulch instead of winding up on the jeep road. Ugh! By this point, however, I was managing to pass people and not be passed by anyone else. I even managed to sprint the last climb up to the finish with a time of 42:43. Sam's GPS watch had clocked in 2.8 miles instead of a full 6km, but either way, I was happy with my performance. I got my free Mountain Hardware water bottle and Gu Brew at the top and took in the view for a while before heading down on the gondola. 

Racers on the final climb.
Sam and I at High Camp. Photo Samuel Jurek
Getting cleaned up and fed left me just enough time to get to the official pre-race meeting, also in a new location this year and primarily in the brain-baking sun! The highlight was seeing Joe up with the rest of the top 10 from last year, placed amongst a group of elites that he has worked so hard to be a part of.

Photo Jacques Dehnbostel

The pre-race meeting led into the team OOJ pre-race meeting back at Meredith's suite. Joe was incredibly relaxed, drinking Hefeweizen from a Pyrex measuring cup, explaining to us that he's learned a lot in the past two years, was ready, and was going for the win. Words were unnecessary to see how much love Joe has for this race, but he expressed himself quite elegantly with the sentiment that this race has become another family to him, and the course almost like a love interest that one must properly and thoughtfully prove himself (or herself) to. The energy in the room was electric, and I was amped. Joe said many times that waiting around for the race to begin was excruciating; he just wanted to get on with it, not in a nervous way, but in a way that most people can't wait for vacation to start.

All beer should be drunk from its appropriate glassware.

After dinner, Sam and I had talked about a viewing of Unbreakable, the 2011 WS documentary. I thought Joe had his copy with him that I could borrow, but alas, the copy I saw in Tahoe was Jake's. I went out to the WS store area to see if the tent for the film was still there, but everything was cleaned up and all the tents were gone. I spotted the Journey Films van and a couple people still packing up, so I approached them and asked if they had any copies left and voila! I had just enough cash on me to score a copy. Sam, James (fellow OOJ crew member and friend), and I met up at the gelato shop in the Village, grabbed a delicious treat, and joined Sam's runner David at his room for movie night. Thankfully, the film finished about 15 minutes before my planned bedtime, so James and I scurried back to the Injinji house to hit the hay and hopefully get some sleep before the 3:30am wake-up call. Upon entering my bunk room, who did I see standing before me but Dave Mackey, the "gentle giant" and elite ultrarunner. I was a bit surprised to see him there, but apparently he had just arrived at Squaw and was bunking with us for the night. I had the honor of having a "tooth party" with him, as my wife calls it, and as we were brushing our teeth next to each other, I mentioned that I had just seen him on the big screen, appearing in the documentary because he was Geoff Roes' pacer. With toothbrush still in mouth he muttered, "Oh, I haven't even seen that yet. That's when I got dropped." Good conversation, albeit short. It was only after this that the other guys informed me that Dave had taken the mattress off the top bunk and was apparently sleeping in the closet down the hall. Everyone has their own pre-race routine I guess.

Race Day - Highs and Lows (Not just heat and blood sugar, respectively)

My watch alarm was not as annoying as I thought it might be when it started beeping at 3:30am. The velvety richness of the early morning darkness, speckled with crackling white stars, whisked in crisp mountain air from the open window, awakening my senses and invigorating me for the day. I was up immediately and getting my act together. Having put all my ducks in a row the night before, I was up and out rather quickly, with plenty of time before the start, although not quick enough to take Joe to the start. I stopped in at Meredith's to see what was happening, and things were bustling there already. Joe and Jake were suited up and having their morning coffee, seeming relaxed but ready.

BGD, sans D, enjoying some early morning race fuel.

I walked to the starting area to catch the scene. Despite the throng of people and all the activity, it seemed exceptionally calm to me. Joe and Jake were off warming up, so I just chilled and took it all in. I love the start of this race, maybe because of the darkness, with only the warm glow of the ski hill lights, or just because it seems like a community of people all getting ready for a trip together. With about five minutes to go, everyone started lining up, and the elites took their position toeing the line, literally.

Joe with some last minute "stretchies" with a great view of Jake's fashion creation at left.

Just before the gun went off (yes, a shotgun is actually fired to start the race), Gordy Ainsleigh climbed the announcers ladder next to the start arch and offered this bit of advice via Winston Churchill during WWII: "When you're going through hell, keep going!"

Boom! Like a giant, wriggling caterpillar, the runners took off around the corner and up the hill en masse, and I got the impression that this year they were out a lot faster than in 2011, especially young stud Cameron Clayton, who - it seemed - thought he was only running to the Escarpment AS at the top of the mountain. That boy was practically sprinting!

I helped myself to a few bags of ice from Squaw Valley Lodge and James and I took off for Duncan Canyon AS, making a pit stop at the Safeway in Truckee for snacks and then in Auburn to downsize to one car. It was rather ridiculous, but because all of the crew members and pacers arrived at different times, we each had our own rental car. All in all, we probably should have stolen Adam's rental, a Dodge Charger. It would have been much more fun on the road to Duncan and Dusty.

The drive to Duncan Canyon via Mosquito Ridge Road is a true adventure: narrow, barely paved, and precariously winding along the mountainside. We were in a little bit of a hurry to make dead sure we made it on time to meet Joe, who we were expecting to be at the front of the pack. The drive was exciting and beautiful, with the sun inching up over the mountains. Upon pulling in to the AS, we found a Nissan Versa-sized parking spot and grabbed the necessary gear. The woman at the bottom of the trail who was in charge of parking patrol put us on edge with a comment that the first runners may have already come by! Being a slight bit fitter than James, I took the most important gear and hauled ass up the steep trail to make sure. Once I arrived, everyone was standing around looking almost bored. No runners had come by yet and it was going to be a while. Whew! The aid station was a fun place. Just above the actual station a makeshift stage had been set up, and there was a small bluegrass band playing tunes for people. They even had a microphone and speaker setup (running on a generator?) which they used to announce the incoming runners, cutely performed by a young girl. The AS itself was totally stocked! The turkey and spinach sandwiches looked especially tempting, even at 7:30 in the morning, but considering that my breakfast was at 4am, it was almost lunch time! A woman next to me struck up a conversation after noticing my crew shirt, mentioning that she knew Joe. It turned out to be ultrarunner Paul Terranova's wife Meredith. Paul went on to finish 8th with a stout performance.

Finally, we could hear commotion up the trail and the runners started appearing from the woods, bobbing down the hill into the aid station. Some looked rather frantic, some were relaxed, and a few seemed rather clueless as to which way they were supposed to go, which was especially strange because they were the old hat veterans of this race! Joe came down in about 12th place and we jumped out from behind the barrier tape to attend to him. He ignored us at first as he sought a scissors and some lube to deal with the seam piping under the arm of his shirt that he had neglected to cut off with the rest of the sleeve and was suffering from chafing because of it. After following him around and me saying "Joe, we're right here...Joe, right behind you...," he finally stopped and we got things moving. He tossed his heart rate monitor on the ground and said something to the effect of: "My heart rate has been at 170 the whole time, so this thing is useless." We gave him a fresh bottle and his ice bandanna, which James had overfilled "slightly," causing Joe to turn back as he was leaving and with a smug grin said, "maybe a little bit too much ice," dumping half of it out and tying it around his neck, all without breaking pace. James and I agreed that he looked awesome and hung out for a bit longer to see Jake come in and take in the front-of-the-pack excitement. 

Photo shoot at Duncan Canyon to show off the spanky crew shirts.

On to Dusty Corners! We had made a mental mark on the drive out as to where the turn to Dusty would be. Turning onto the road, I paused to take a look at the sign and make sure, not realizing that there was a car right behind me. The guy put his hand out the window and waved me forward to assure me that we were on the right road. Narrow road became narrower and then turned to dry gravel, kicking up a plume of dust behind us. After a while, I noticed that the white car that was so impatiently following us was gone. Had I made a wrong turn? I stopped to see if he would soon reappear, which he did, only for me to realize that he had dropped back to avoid my dust cloud, and here I had put him right back in it like a total d-bag. Sorry! A few minutes later we were at Dusty Corners though, so it wasn't all bad. At this point I realized that the white car was Paul Terranova's crew, including his wife whom I had just talked with at Duncan. 

We were quite early, so we grabbed some snacks and found some empty chairs under the crew tent, which was so nicely placed there by Doug the AS chief. It was a posh setup for crew, and I was certainly thankful for the shade. The pacer/crew duo for Meghan "The Queen" Arbogast joined us in no time, and we had a relaxing time with snacks and water to cool us off. The temp was already getting quite steamy by this point. 

Once we heard that runners were approaching, we got up and crossed over to the side where most people had gathered to meet their runners. James headed up the hill to meet Joe early and get the skinny on what he might want or need. At this point, there had been a decent change-up of leaders, with Hal Koerner coming down first and Timmy Olson in a close second, moving up at least 4 spots if I remember correctly. Cam Clayton, who had took off in a blaze of glory at the start, came down in around 6th place, looking like death warmed over, complaining about something "popping" in his ankle and proclaiming that was going to drop, but try to continue a little further. In fine style, Jorge Maravilla came sailing down the hill, arms out airplane-style, weaving back and forth down the trail, high-fiving people as he passed. After all, it's all about looking good. So far, most of the runners did look good. As the time approached for Joe to arrive, Meredith Terranova came to me and asked me if we had anything to douse Joe with. I only had his dousing bottle for him to take with him, so she disappeared briefly and came back with an extra bottle that she had borrowed from someone so that we could douse Joe on the spot. That's one thoughtful gal! About the time she showed up with the bottle, Joe was coming down the hill, waving. Well, I thought he was waving, but once I looked at the photo I shot, it was clear that he was giving James directions as he passed, pertaining to his ice bandanna.

He had moved up several spots by this point, and looked awesome! He was in great spirits, and it was a total whirlwind as always, here and then gone. James and I were once again filled with excitement after this second contact with our guy, like a well-woven suspense story unfolding in front of you. The one quote that stuck with me when we were attending to him; "It's amazing what you can do when you keep your heart rate down!" It seemed that his initial plan was bearing fruit, so to speak.

Back to Foresthill. James and I braved the crazy mountain roads once more, damn near run off the gravel road by oncoming vehicles blazing at light speed to get to Dusty. We made it safely, however, and things at Foresthill were already picking up. Thankfully there was just enough space for us to park at the "Team OOJ tailgate party" and go grab lunch at Subway. Air conditioning never felt so good! Back at tailgate central, we chilled on a tarp and relaxed in the shade, and I remember thinking that it felt like a long time before any runners came through at all. People-watching also made for good entertainment, especially the eccentric local lady who kept coming up to pacers and crew and telling them that the runners are true American heroes, sometimes snapping pictures of whomever would let her. She also did her civic duty to prohibit people from parking next to the fire hydrant on the corner where she was posted. Just another thing that makes this race so awesome. I made my way up to the AS to check things out, and while visiting the restroom, I ran into a fellow Minnesotan who I had seen after the Uphill Challenge and at the start area. Small world. Eventually, however, runners started trickling in, with Timmy Olson now in the lead.

I feel like the runners were much closer together in 2011, because there were HUGE spans of time before runners came through at Foresthill this year, and reports from previous aid stations didn't seem to be updating regularly enough. Thankfully, there's still plenty of race left once you hit Foresthill, so I wasn't worried.

With at least five different people in our entourage checking every possible online resource, we eventually learned that Joe had checked in at Michigan Bluff and was taking a break to get his legs massaged there, after a long bout of cramping. In fact, iRunfar had posted a pic of him getting worked on, and his face was positive and seemingly relaxed, so it was quite a shock just a few minutes later when Brandie, Joe's sister, got a phone call and blurted out to us rather abruptly, "Joe dropped." Bewildering to be sure, as everything seemed to be going perfectly. After another phone call a few minutes later, we were reassured that Joe had dropped due to his cramping, and was getting a ride back to Foresthill from Connor (Jake's pacer), once he saw Jake come through.

It was a situation that everyone has experienced at least once, where the entire group of people around you goes silent and looks at the ground, as if the wind has sucked all the words out of each and every person's mouth. Then, after a short bout of silence, commentary starts to emerge to act as reassurance that everything is ok. Naturally, it's hard to handle a blow like that, especially because it just didn't make sense at the time, but surely there was a reason for it. This is a fact of ultrarunning - people drop for all sorts of reasons at every possible time, even when everything seems to be going well.

Joe finally showed up in Connor's black beast of a truck, stepping out slowly and stiffly, saying something to the effect of; "This isn't how I intended to roll in to Foresthill." Giving his mom a big hug, there was an apology for letting us all down and a few tears shed by several people. Not only was the DNF hard for him from a personal performance standpoint, but clearly he felt the added guilt of us coming all that way to support him and see him race, only for him to drop at mile 55. That sentiment, of course, was the last thing on all of our minds, and I for one was just happy to be there to help a friend and to experience Western States again. As Joe opened up a bit more, we learned that he had been cramping for the previous 20 miles before Michigan Bluff, and could barely walk, let alone run, once he left the AS. He made it about a mile out of the AS, turned back, tried one more time, and then turned back for good, doing the "walk of shame" back to Michigan Bluff to have his yellow wristband cut and officially drop. The fact that he ran 20 miles with severe quad cramps is badass enough that finishing the race seemed inconsequential to me. Most people would have quit after one mile of that nonsense.

A seemingly appropriate sign for the circumstances.

Now came the point of deciding what to do. Where do we go now? The first thing was to wait for Jake to come by, because although we weren't officially crewing for him, he was definitely still "our" runner, and when he came by, he looked decent - not happy, but decent. There was still hope for a quality finish for him, and so we cheered him on and wished him good luck when he passed.

The group split into different factions, some going back to the pool house in Auburn to swim and relax, Adam and James to head further down course to see what they could see, and I hung out with Joe for a bit in Foresthill, just taking it all in. I was happy to be his chauffeur and take him wherever he wanted to go. It was some good quality time, just he and I, and I think it was easier for him to reflect and voice certain concerns in a one-on-one setting, regardless of if it was with me or someone else. I gave him the other half of my Subway sandwich and after a while decided to head back to the motel to regroup a bit. It took a while for Joe to decide what he wanted to do. He was torn between going back to the pool house to relax and get away from everything, or to go to the finish as he knew he should, to see the top runners come in. I was thankful that he decided the latter.

We all met up at the Placer High School track and watched Timmy Olson win his second Western States in a row, only 30 minutes off of his course record from last year! To understand the gravity of this, one must consider the conditions. In 2012 the weather was very cool and rainy, making the typically smoldering, brain-baking canyons much easier to deal with and the race faster in general. He completed the race in 14:46, which is completely mind-blowing in and of itself. This year's weather was the complete opposite, with near-record heat and the canyons reaching 112 degrees or more! In years with extreme heat, the history shows that finishing times are at least 2-3 hours slower. Timmy Olson added only 31 minutes to his time. Beastmachine indeed.

Proceeding the finish, Timmy was interviewed at the finish line, only to be interrupted by Rob Krar, blazing around the track to finish second, having made up a huge amount of time in the last miles, but not quite enough to catch Tim. One interview turned into a double interview, adding an almost eloquent final touch to a roller coaster of a day. At the conclusion of the interviews, the goal was to get a feel for what Jake was doing, because we had heard he was also slowing down and having problems near the river. It didn't look too good, but he was still moving. In any case, it was clear that Jake wouldn't hit the finish line until well into the late night/early morning. Joe departed to get cleaned up after we decided that it was time for dinner at In N Out Burger! I was stoked...but only for a brief while until the decision was made to go to Auburn Ale House instead. This was not a step down by any means, but I had been craving a double protein animal style. Regardless, a few brews and some delicious food with Joe, James, and Adam proved to be a memorable and relaxing meal.

At this point, I wasn't ready for my WS race day to be done. I had prepared myself mentally to be out on the course at least until around 10pm, and for some reason, I felt I needed to experience just a bit more. James, Adam, and I decided to head back to the track and watch a few more runners finish. Even after a leisurely dinner in town, we made it back to see the seventh place runner finish! We stuck around long enough to see Karl Meltzer finish in 11th place (10th male), who finished over 3.5 hours after Timmy. This is what I mean when talking about how stretched out the race was. I had considered heading back out on the course to catch Jake, but the live splits from the various online updates were showing that he had been stuck at one of the aid stations near Cal St. for nearly three hours, so it didn't seem worth it, mainly because it was unclear when he would get to the next station with crew access, if at all.

By the end of the day, I felt a little lost. The plan for the day had been disrupted so much that I wasn't sure what time it was, where I should be, or what I should be doing. There was a feeling that I had missed something, and I'm sure the lack of celebrating Joe's finish was a big part of that, but regardless, it was another kickass adventure.

Post-race: The Aftermath

Sunday morning brought us to the awards ceremony back at the Placer track. Just as Joe decided to see the first finishers the night before, he wanted to be there for awards, as painful as it might be. Once I connected with Joe, I found out that Jake did indeed drop at mile 80, forcing him to wait at the aid station for four hours in the wee hours of the morning until it closed so that he could get a ride out of there. That's the downside to dropping at a more remote aid station. Not that it was terribly shocking news, but it was a bit of a bummer. I found a spot under the tent in the stagnant, steam bath air and finished up my Subway sub from the previous day as breakfast. It was quite miserable with the extreme heat, but worse out in the sun. Thankfully, race volunteers started poking through the crowd handing out ice cream bars and popsicles, improving the general disposition of all. Sam Jurek and his runner David made their way over to me, David looking a bit catatonic after his 26 hour finish. Sam, on the other hand, was cheerful as always, albeit tired as well. Meanwhile, Joe was in long sleeves under the open California sky, catching up with the other elite runners, which seemed both tough and cathartic for him. It was also quite inspiring to see the final finishers come in under the 30-hour cutoff, receiving huge applause and several standing ovations as they rounded the track just before 11am. Far tougher is it to be out on the course for two sunrises than to finish in record time, as has been noted by many before. Those are the true badasses of Western States. Some of them finished the race and came straight over to the tent for awards, plopping down on the grass, many of whom fell directly asleep. That's dedication. The awards started with the usual affair: Montrail Ultra Cup winners, top 10 men and women, 1000+ mile buckles, and the "geriatric award," given to the oldest male and female finishers. After seeing most of the silver buckles handed out, we jumped ship and headed back to the pool house to relax and cool off.

The rest of the day and the following couple days brought quality vacation time at the pool house in Auburn where Joe and his family stayed. We grilled out, drank plenty of beer, enjoyed the pool, and reveled in what brought me to love ultrarunning so much - the community it creates. The 2013 WS signature beer that Joe's brother-in-law Nate brewed for the occasion was also passed around - the M9 Beatdown Porter. Of course, we all were hoping for the beatdown to be given and received by different parties, but it was nonetheless appropriate I suppose. It was also one of the tastiest porters I've ever had. Props to Nate! Joe also gave a post-race speech with poise and reflection, thanking us once again for supporting him in this unpredictable endeavor of his.

Post-race speech. Photo Meredith Stevens

As I wrap up this immense beast of a post, I want to thank Joe for another opportunity to take part in this incredible event that I have grown to love so much, and to thank his family for taking me in over the years. Their kindness and familiarity has meant a great deal to me, and such inclusion makes this event even more memorable and meaningful. I do hope I have more chances to do it again!

You've made it! You made it to the end of this post, almost as long as the race itself. Congratulations, you officially have the gameness it takes to run ultras. If you're not a runner, consider starting.

Until next time, cheers!