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!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Conversation With Myself

Upon reading Andy Jones-Wilkins post last Friday on iRunfar detailing the ever-present battle between the head and the heart when it comes to running, it made me more cognizant of the conversation between my head and heart lately. I thought I'd provide some of the transcript here to support his post.

Back story - Right around Earth Day I messed up my left foot and it's still giving me trouble. Strangely it's the same injury I experienced at the exact time last year, so I've treated it the same. I've run very little, and just when I thought it was good about two weeks out, I ran on it and relapsed, thus the following conversation (and yes, the dialogue in my head is oftentimes this cheesy):

Head: So smart guy, ya just had to run the trails in Ely this weekend, didn't you, and now you're paying for it...again.

Heart: I needed to run to keep my sanity, and besides, the dog needed exercise as well.

Head: So now you're back where you started, limping and unable to run, and there's only two weeks until your first 50km. The farthest you've run in your training has been 14.5 miles on the road, and the longest run you've done has only been 2 hours and 15 minutes, compared to at least 6 hours that you'll spend on trail at the race, and on top of all that, in minimalist shoes! What's the plan, big guy?

Heart: The race is an adventure, with more of a focus on joy and exploration than anything else. If I have to hike a good chunk of it, so be it! I'll have a lovely day on the trail amongst cool people, doing something that will bring me a great sense of accomplishment. Nothin better than that!

Head: We're talkin 30 miles! That's more than a "lovely day on the trail." And if you injure yourself more, maybe a full-on stress fracture, or a fall because you're mechanics will be compromised, what then?

Heart: Ever the pessimist. My fitness is still solid, and there's nothing saying that I can't bike or work out to maintain what I have. I'll stay off my foot, and a good two weeks should be plenty to let it heal. Should I have trouble in the race, I'll either turn around at the first AS and do the 25km, or DNF. I could use a total failure to learn a lesson, but it will at least be a positive one.

Head: What if the lesson is that you completely screw your training for the 50-miler next fall, your ultimate goal of over two years! Will that be worth it?

Heart: I think perhaps you're underestimating my grit...and also my intelligence.

Head: Intelligence? That's what I'm here for! You're pure id, plain and simple, and in any case, grit and stubbornness aren't enough for 50km with so many factors stacked against you as they are at the moment. You're just asking for trouble.

Heart: Just keep running...just keep running...

Head: Well the plan has been shot to hell: no long day training adventures on trail as planned, a complete shortfall of distance training, not to mention the longest winter EVER! There's no trustworthy plan from here on out.

Heart: You're just not thinking outside the box, Mr. Curmudgeon. My plan is to explore the unknown, have an adventure, find joy and have fun on the trail, and learn something from it. I love it when a plan comes together! And besides, there is one guarantee.

Head: Yeah? What's that?

Heart: Post-race beer, a decadent meal, and a hot tub with good friends to celebrate another adventure!

Head: I do like beer.

Heart: Cheers!

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Measure of a Long Run: Time vs. Distance

Holy cow! It's been more than two months since my last post. I certainly didn't intend for that to happen, but life has not only been busy, but the weather and training have also not been cooperating, and I suppose I haven't been feeling all that excited about discussing it. With the first real taste of spring today in all of its 60-degree glory, however, it seems that the much needed vitamin D has inspired me.

For any of you who have read this blog before, you'll know that I typically write lengthy posts, and I'm sure it's part of the reason why I don't write as often as I'd like (do endurance atheletes and/or perfectionists ever do something part way?), but I'm giving myself permission to toss out some "quickies" from now on to keep things here goes.

In training for the Superior Trail Races 50k on May 18th, I've done my best to run almost exclusively on trails and put in some longer runs, but the late season snow has been a complete hassle to say the least, and when running in conditions that feel like mashed potatoes, it's very difficult to go the required distance, as every mile feels like three. Thus, I've been doing timed runs instead of distance runs, which is something new to me.

I can certainly see the advantages to doing both runs for distance and those for a particular length of time, but I discovered that I have a dislike for timed runs, for several reasons:
  1. Because I have no GPS device and am running on trails that are not mapped well for distance, I have no idea how far I've gone.
  2. Due to #1, I also have no idea what my pace is, and can only guess.
  3. Because of 1 and 2, I don't feel I have an accurate gauge on the success of my run, because I don't know my pace and therefore will have trouble setting a reasonable goal for the race. Since Superior is my first ever ultra - the longest race prior to this being 25k - I'm feeling a bit obsessive about knowing and planning my race as best as possible.
Distance runs, therefore, are more usable to me, as I can do the same run more than once and judge my improvement and/or fitness gains by the time, or at least can compare it to future runs of a longer distance to see if my pace has remained steady or improved. Being as competitive as I am, I am not satisfied with knowing that I just ran 2.5 hours if I have no idea how far/fast I've gone. Then again, I suppose not knowing how far I ran on the complete sufferfest of a run I had last Sunday makes it at least a little better in that I can plead ignorance, because it felt like I was doing 15-minute miles. Who knows if that's true, but on the other hand, if I did know how far I went, I would have probably realized that I was running much faster than how I felt (I hope - it's usually the case), so once again I'm back to disliking timed runs. The Fonz agrees.

Now the question is whether or not I should just bite the bullet and get a GPS watch or a smart phone. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

One Year Review

Welcome to In Search of Badass, toddler style! It's hard to believe that one year has passed since I started this blog, and the last 12 months have been awesome, not without ups and downs, but nonetheless full of adventure, fun, and contemplation.

As January rolled in and the new year started, it was hard not to notice the myriad year-in-reviews and top (insert number here) lists scattering the interwebs. It's always fun to look back and sum up our time on this planet by highlighting the key events, and although it might be a cliché thing to do, I always enjoy it. My life is always so full that I tend to forget a lot, and being reminded of what happened in the previous year helps me gain a better perspective on time and how quickly or slowly it passes. As I mentioned in my last post, I'm also a list person, thus concise chronological lists fit my ordered, logical brain. In any case, I thought I'd take a moment to recap the last twelve months of my own life since I started this blog, and evaluate my progress toward the reason this blog exists in the first place - being awesome at life and a total badass. Should you need a refresher on the definition I'm using for said evaluation, check out one of my early posts here.

After my return to coaching Nordic skiing from a two-year break, I had the chance to up my volume of running, seeing as we had a freakishly warm winter, with not a single ski meet on real snow. It gave me the chance to run a ton, experimenting with my new Merrel Trail Gloves. I was already in race fever, having signed up for both the Earth Day Half Marathon in St. Cloud and the Superior Trail Races 25km in late May, and it was only February!

The running was shaping up nicely, and I was enjoying the long runs on the weekends. One of the small joys was discovering one of these on a Saturday long run adventure in new territory.

If I could choose just one word to represent this month, it would be motivation. I was blogging pretty much once a week, my brain was entertaining and analyzing a million ideas, and I was experimenting with my running a ton (hydration options, nutrition, form), not to metion getting psyched for the half marathon. I had my first ever truly barefoot run, and although it was short, it was thoroughly uplifting (but COLD!). This month also brought what will probably remain as one of my worst runs ever, followed by one of the best. I've actually been itching to do a repeat of that 12-miler to my parents' house sometime soon, but for now, I'll need to wait until the ice melts along the sidewalks.

April was a big month. Although my one-post-a-week goal for this blog fell completely off the wagon, it did so for a reason. I was just way too busy! Training took the front seat, along with a few other things.

The month started with my spring break, for which I headed up north to Ely where my wife was doing an externship rotation for vet school at the clinic there. I spent my days between writing curriculum at the quaint little coffee shop on Main St. and running the trails at the Ely Nordic Center, an awesome collection of wooded trails, complete with dilapidated ski jump. I had a monster hill workout up and down that one! We also acquired the newest member to our family, an Alaskan husky from bloodlines of two champion mushing kennels. Skijoring harness and harness for Dart were purchased the very next day.

Poison Dart Frog aka Dart
Earth Day Half Marathon, St. Cloud, MN. The time had finally arrived. Anna and I headed north to St. Cloud for the race, only to be greeted by 40 degrees and rain on race morning. Despite the apparent crappy weather, I had a blast, and was overjoyed that I was able to complete what was at that point the longest running race of my life, and more importantly that I was able to do it in my Five Fingers. Huge triumph! I also managed to surpass my goal of 8min/mi pace, coming in at 1:39:00, a 7:34 pace. Unfortunately, cramming my feet into my narrow tennis shoes afterward for the long drive home seriously exacerbated the stress on the feet, and I ended up with a nagging foot injury for the next several weeks.

To round out the month, the Monday after the race brought a visit from new friend Mountain and his girlfriend Cherry as they circumnavigated the US on an epic road trip. Mountain is the guy behind the Primal Professional barefoot dress shoe, and it was cool to finally meet him in person and talk shoes, training, Paleo living, and more. I also had the pleasure of showing them the wonders of the Midwest a little bit.

Monkeying around at Midwest Mountaineering's bouldering cave.
Off the beaten path at Minnehaha Falls.
Post-Earth Day Half, my foot was utterly messed up and I couldn't run. Diagnosis from the doc was inconclusive and the treatment was simply to avoid running for 4-6 weeks. With the Superior Trail Race 25km only three weeks away, I took two weeks off and started running again on the third. Thanks to advice from Dr. OOJ DPT, I decided to experiment with the notion that sometimes you NEED to run to work out the pain, and it worked beautifully.

Superior Trail Races 25km. I couldn't have asked for a more perfect trail race experience! Enjoying the company of my wife and fellow troublemaker Sam Jurek, we had a blast heading up to Caribou Highlands resort for the weekend, and the race itself was almost magical. I didn't quite reach my goal time for the race, but considering that it was my first trail race on truly rugged terrain, I'm happy with my performance and am even more stoked about the 50km this year!

Black Hills Climbing Trip. Back for the 13th annual climbing trip, the gang and I set out once again for a weekend of climbing, community, and camping in the Black Hills, a tradition that is near and dear to my heart, and one that I will not compromise on. It's the one time of year that I can count on seeing my best friend Rob and gather our little climbing community together for some quality time. The weather wasn't altogether agreeable, but we did get some sweet climbs in, including two on my bucket list: the Conn Route near Sylvan Lake, and Waves in the Rushmore area, the latter on which I led the second pitch with not enough quickdraws. Oops!

A helluva start to the weekend. Is there a lake near here?

The view from atop the Conn Route. Don't let the sunshine fool you, it was windy and COLD!

Repelling off of Waves.
Summer started off very well. Anna and I took her brother and his family, including their 5-year-old to Interstate State Park in WI for some climbing. It was a blast hooking the little guy up on the approach climb and letting him go. Hopefully he'll maintain the desire to climb!

In my mind, he needed some extra challenge, so I added it ex post facto.

I also did some solid running again, quite a bit of it totally barefoot, although the pavement was getting hotter by the day, and I did burn my feet a few times. I also made my own huarache sandals from shoe remnants I had lying around, which I meant to blog about, but never got to it. Perhaps in the future yet. Stay tuned.

Ze Vaterland. After school got out, I headed once again to Rottweil, Germany with my students on the exchange my colleague and I started in 2005. It was a total blast as always, mainly due to my awesome German counterpart who is constantly on the go and providing adventures for me. The adventure highlight was definitely climbing for the first time in Germany on real rock! A friend of my colleague and his son are avid climbers, so they took me up into the Schwabische Alb for an afternoon.
Max leading the first route.
The route I led - a slanty, slippery 5.9+ with few bolts.
The one big negative of the trip was due to a poor decision I made to play some pick-up soccer with my colleague and his friends. The game was fun, and I even scored two goals, but deciding to play in my Trail Gloves was a bad idea. They were too flimsy for all the sharp lateral movement changes, and one of the guys - a German-sized man - stepped right on my foot with his cleats, which put me out of running for the rest of the summer, and quashed my plans to run the Superior Trail Races Marathon in Sept. Lesson learned.

Wyoming Trip. Two days after arriving home from Germany, Anna and I left on a road trip out west for my dear friend Jen's wedding at an outdoor chapel in the mountains, which was altogether breathtaking and inspiring. On the way, we stopped in to Custer State Park in the Black Hills to camp and enjoy one of my favorite places on earth. We didn't get much time to climb, but we did manage to get on the spelunking tour at Jewel Cave National Monument, the second largest cave in the world. The tour is four hours long, 30 stories underground, and travels about 1/4 mile, starting in a room with a 50-foot ceiling and squeezing the cavers through its tightest spot - a mere 8" x 24". This was my fourth time on the tour, and it never gets dull.

The "brain drain" in all its chest-scraping glory.
The following two weeks was the largest single chunk of time that I was at home throughout the entire summer. I spent it trying to heal my foot while simultaneously training for a mountaineering trip to Colorado in August.

Colorado 14er Trip. After a long five years of not bagging any 14ers, my former college roommate Bret, his high school best friend Steve, and I took to the rock once again for my third go at summiting some of the 14,000ft peaks in Colorado. Bret and Steve are on the quest to do all 53 of them in their lifetime and have succeeded in almost as many as their current age (mid-thirties). I just like going with to enjoy the challenge and the amazing scenery. This particular iteration brought us to Long's Peak on the Front Range in Rocky Mountain National Park down to Mt. of the Holy Cross in the Sawatch Range and finally to Mt. Sherman in the Mosquito Range near Leadville. I'm not sure whose idea it was to start with Long's and its 14-mile round trip with 5,100ft of elevation gain, followed by 11.5 miles and 5,600ft of gain the next day on Holy Cross, but it was enough to kill our original plan of doing Tabaguache and Shavano the following day.

Long's was incredible. We stayed with my wife's aunt and uncle in Estes Park in their guest apartment high up on one of the mountains outside of town. It's truly an amazing place, and the perfect staging point before our long day ahead. After about 4 hours of sleep, we got up at 2am and headed to the trailhead.
The view from the deck, with Long's on the left.
On trail by around 3:30am, we started through the woods with headlamps, passing through the various ecological zones until we left the trees and vegetation behind for a kingdom of rock. I'll let the pictures do the talking from here.
Chasm Lake junction at 11,500 at dawn.
The long boulder field with a view of the infamous North Wall.
This mountain - and all 14ers - don't f' around.
Bret and Steve in front of the Keyhole, where things get interesting.

"The Narrows" linking the 600' vertical slog of "the trough" and the last pitch to the summit.
The final 300' of slick Class 3, known as "the Homestretch."
After bonking at the keyhole and barely making it to the summit, I learned my lesson; fuel early and fuel often. It was scary coming down the Homestretch with shaky legs, but altogether an awesome summit and the highlight of the trip.

Since this post is already beyond long, I'll share just a few shots of Holy Cross and Sherman, and will consider writing a separate post on this trip, even though it was half a year ago.

Mt. of the Holy Cross, before the weather got real sketchy.
Quick summit pick before hauling ass down in 20-30mph gusts!
After two long and exhausting days of climbing, sandwiching a terrible night of camping, we checked in to the Leadville Super 8 for the night, before our last - and easiest - climb. We happened to roll in the same weekend as the Leadville 100 bike race, which was super cool. The place was hopping, and it was cool to feel the energy. I in particular was imagining how it might feel the very next weekend when the ultra would be held. Good timing, indeed.
Most densely packed bag EVER, and what comes from shopping at lower altitude.
Almost at the summit of Sherman, climbing from below right.
The new summit pose. "If you crotch it, you OWN it!"
So long, Colorado, and thanks for all the mean fun.

Family Vacation, Lake Wisconsin. Four days after getting home from Colorado, Anna and I took off for Wisconsin to hang with her family for a week. Her parents rented a cabin on Lake Wisconsin, and it was a great way to spend some quality time with cool people, coupled with plenty of time outside in the sunshine. We brought our two kayaks and Anna's homemade canoe, and they got a ton of love. I did my first long solo paddle from the north arm of the lake down and around to the railroad bridge near the Merrimac ferry, totaling around 11 miles. It would have been a bit easier had I not been on a schedule to get back for dinner! Altogether a solid solo quest battling the wind in open water for the first half.

Labor Day in the BWCA. Before returning to work, Anna and I took a long weekend to the Boundary Waters for a canoe trip. Putting in at Baker Lake out of Tofte, we made a leisurely trip out of the five days, mainly because we put in on a very long, narrow chain of lakes without too many options, unless we wanted to suffer through a 300 rod portage in either of two possible directions to get to bigger waters, but with as many people as were out there, we didn't feel the need to chance portaging and paddling all day just to find no vacancy in any of the campsites. Being used to hauling ass on all my canoe and kayak trips, it was a little disconcerting at first to just stay put and take day trips, but it ended up being a blast. It was Dart's first canoe trip and she was a champ in the boat, and we did plenty of swimming. I also spotted my first wild otter!

Best idea ever! Brown ale in a Nalgene, available at Fitger's Brewhouse in Duluth. (Glass is prohibited in the BWCA)

In regard to adventure and general badassery, September was pretty quiet. One week after the BWCA, I headed right back to the same place as a volunteer for the Superior Trail Races fall series, which I had intended to run before I got injured in Germany. I worked at the Sawbill/Britton Peak AS with the Immerfall family, who have been volunteering at that aid station for as long as the race has been in existence. It was a very quick trip, but a fun and valuable experience watching the first 100-milers come through around 2am Saturday and then the 50-milers and marathoners later in the day. Altogether I spent about 17 hours there with a three-hour nap at around 4am. I had a blast, learned a ton, and if for some odd reason I'm not running it this fall, I'll be there again helping out.

September finally included a more normalized running regimen after recovering from the "Fußball incident" in Germany, which led to one of my top 3 runs ever while camping in WI over the first weekend of October with my college friends. The sun was out, the temps were cold, but this 10-miler was pristine, calming, and simultaneously invigorating as I cruised along the country roads through rolling valleys and stunning scenery, complete with quaint little farms, some gravel road to challenge the Five Fingers, and a ridiculously long climb at the end of the run. Paradise!

Monster Dash Half Marathon. Anna, her brother, her friend from vet school, and I rallied together to run the race that Anna and I have been meaning to do for at least two years. I hadn't had all that much time to train since recovering, but it was enough, and I was motivated, particularly because the route is gorgeous, familiar, and mostly downhill. The people (read: costume) watching was key, bringing everything from a full-on spartan complete with sword and shield to a guy carrying a shower ring with curtain over his head for the duration of the race. We kept it simple with a big letter P on our shirts and me with some black make-up on one eye; the girls were chick peas and I - you guessed it - was a black-eyed pea. The race went really well. It took my feet the first mile or two to regain feeling after going numb in the 30-degree morning before the start, but everything warmed up nicely, and I managed a PR at 1:37:18. Although it was a ton of fun, it solidified the fact that I have no more desire to race on roads anymore. Trails are where it's at! It was worth the sweet swag though.

No major events to speak of this month. I was running a ton and ski season started. I thoroughly enjoyed the dry-land training with the Apple Valley runner boys as we rolled through Lebanon Hills. I was feeling really fit and was almost reluctant to get on snow.

Spotty was the snow and skiing, but consistent enough so that we didn't need to travel to fake snow. Anna and I had our first chance to skijor as well, she taking Dart and I taking her brother's golden retriever. It was a blast, and soooo fast! I could get used to not doing all the work.

On the Friday before Christmas, I skipped out on practice to head to River Falls and join up with Joe and Sam for a mini-WS reunion. Starting with a headlamp trail run along the Kinnikinnick river in the snow, we covered all necessary topics, with the conversation flowing as swiftly as the running. Definitely one of the top runs for the books, and it was the perfect thing to induce proper hunger for the porketta that Joe's mom left for us. I swear I must have eaten at least 3 pounds of meat for dinner, washing it down with a fine selection of brews shared in tasting style. It was here when Joe enlightened me to the notion of "the meat sweats." The evening continued at Junior's bar with more beer and even deeper conversation, concluded with a late night pizza and viewing of Goonies. A stellar way to start the holiday break. There is an indescribable feeling of camaraderie with those two guys, and it's the type of relationship everyone should have in their life.

Post-Christmas brought me back up north for the annual winter ski trip with the team. We stayed at a camp near Grand Rapids, but ended up driving to Giant's Ridge each day due to a lack of snow. I can't remember a ski trip that I enjoyed more over all the years I've coached. It was more relaxed, the skiing was solid despite meager snow, and I was feeling strong. I put in a good 50-60km over the four sessions we had.

Skiing, skiing, and more skiing! Coaching dominates my life for three months every winter, and January is the heart of it. Unfortunately, as the race season heats up, the less skiing I get to do, but I managed my fair share. Perhaps it's because both months start with J, but I started planning for June and "the Big Juan" as Joe puts it. I'm already excited to head back to CA to see arguably the most storied ultra in the US, particularly with Joe starting as M9!


That brings us to the present. Ski season is done and I'm gearing up for both running and climbing again. I'm really gonna enjoy being part time and having my work day end at 1:35pm. In the meantime, I need to get over the cold I have at the moment, which hit me the day after the state Nordic ski meet last week. Perfect timing indeed, and perhaps a sign that I need a week off.

Now that I've detailed the year, let's take a look and evaluate, shall we?

In my third ever post, I listed off some of my goals. I'll relay them here once again:
  1. Be able to climb some 5.11's in the gym before the Black Hills trip Memorial Day weekend
  2. Run a steady 8min/mi pace at the half marathon (that may be adjusted later)
  3. Finish the trail race in 2:30 or under (average 10min/mi pace)
  4. Have fun! This includes my training.
  5. Use all of this as an excuse to eat lots of delicious food and drink more beer 
Check, check, nope, check, and (especially) check!  The only goal I didn't meet was my time for the 25km, but had I gone back to those goals before the race, I would have changed that, and probably would have thrown it out altogether, seeing as it was my first trail race and I truly had no idea what to expect. My time was, however, quite acceptable to me, and now I have an idea of what to expect from the course, which is a better trade, in my opinion.

So, have I become more badass? I've certainly had a much busier year than many in the past, and my motivation and action have increased dramatically. Whether it's discovering a new love of running or having this blog as a task master, I've done more, felt more successful, and had a ton of fun along the way. I'm also picking up steam, with the Superior Trail 50km on the docket this May - my farthest distance ever, along with the annual Black Hills climbing trip, a potential 25km in April, and the whole summer off to play! The wife will also be moving to Ely for a year-long position starting in April, meaning I'll be spending plenty of time up there in the woods and on the water. Just for funzies though, let's look at the qualities of badass as set forth in my early posts and evaluate accordingly:
  1. Intelligent - Well, I don't think intelligence changes, but I believe I've gained some wisdom and have engaged in more active contemplation, with this blog as proof of the latter.
  2. Technically proficient - My running form has improved dramatically since last year, and I've gotten faster to boot. My body is also adapting nicely.
  3. Driven by challenge - Having run only 5-milers at the farthest, I did two half marathons and a trail 25km, with a 50km set for spring. Does that count?
  4. Daring - Putting myself out there and signing up for races is an improvement, but I can definitely find room for improvement here, whether it be in athletic, social, or professional settings. I tend not to take risks unless they have a high chance for success. I need to fail more.
  5. Grit - I haven't reached my limits of pain and suffering yet, so I don't feel this can truly be evaluated except to say that I don't rate myself high on this one. Work for the future.
  6. Concern for others and world - See here and you be the judge. I must also express my utmost thanks to all of the amazing people in my life. They are the true motivation and inspiration for me, and I hope I serve them and the rest of humanity with honor and grace.
Whew! Does anyone else feel like they need a shower? If you've made it this far, thanks for reading, and I'll definitely give you points for number 3 above. Until next time, and feel free to leave a comment.