2013, The Price of Success.

My 2013 Ohlone 50k was 21 seconds to 3rd — today, I’m 1 day to walking.

What happened?  A treasured 2013 season in which I grew as a runner, a coach, was welcomed to GuEnergy Labs GUCrew, and continued to see 1 hour course PRs… an unbelievable Lake Sonoma, Ohlone, and States… all built up to the transitional 2014 season I had dreamed about from the moment I read about elite trail runners.  I’ve always, without question, known I could run faster.  2014 was the year for me to shed mental boundaries, turn fear to confidence, and become the runner I so vividly see nightly.

This year sat soundly on the success of 2013 and from the emergence from its challenges – going blind.  I shake my head writing this but, YES, I went legally blind at the end of 2013 due, in part, to Western States.  Suffering from Late Onset Cornea Hazel (LOCH) I could not longer drive, run technical trails, EVERYTHING outside my 15 foot immediate radius was a textured blur.  I called it shower door vision and it took away my world – every part of it.

I found a “trail” to healing, working with my PRK surgeon, to running again after a total of 4 eye surgeries coupled with the profound help & guidance of ultra-runner and research ophthalmologist Tracy Hoeg.  Dr. Hoeg was like an angel in the process helping me to navigate the unique course ultrarunners walk, through the health care system.

I’ll write more on this, but to whisk over it, my LOCH blindness was most likely caused by UV-B exposure post PRK surgery while training and participating in the Western States 100.  It was the correlation I did not want to be, but it was.  Western States blinded me.

I’m Screwed!AIFTL Repair

2014 begin with a deep appreciation for the simplicity of life’s basics: Family, Health, Vision, Work, Coaching.  I also realized, running was the glue which allowed me to approach each of these treasured things with love and energy.  The entry back into running was with caution.  On one hand it was something I loved, it’s in the fibers of me; the other hand held a fear of it.  For you could easily build the bartered proposition of, “Would you chose running or sight?”  With all of Dr. Hoeg’s help and the opinion of my Lasik surgeon we really did not know if I’d experience a relapse of LOCH when running again (there’s a waiting period of 4-6 months post surgery to find out).  So every run was in fear, fear of losing sight and fear of losing running.  I cried a lot.  I was lonely and lost.  Yet I couldn’t stop, the trail was me and I felt my connection to it fading far too much.

With each run into 2014 my confidence grew, my connection to the trails grew, and my fitness re-aligned to my 2013 success.  I felt back and back in a new way – my slow ramp up was building a base of strength and speed I’d never experience before.  Combined with each month passing without any LOCH symptoms I felt good.

My race schedule fell into place with 2 key races on the 2014 horizon:  Ohlone 50k and the inaugural Tahoe 200.  I was coming into the year’s races strong and shifted for a continued, smartly choreographed, build up to something inside that I always knew was there but fearful in letting it out.  I dipped into it in 2013 but this year was the time and I had played it smart and was feeling the rewards.  An added fuel was being graciously accepted as one of the GuCrew by GuEnergy labs of which I’m a heavy user of their products.  I sought them out for a reason and was ready to rise.

Then, the unexpected happened.  After running over and volunteering an hour at the Coastal Trail Runs’ Montara mountain event I was re-traversing the mountain on my way home.  Renegade mountain bike trails were my fix that week, so I took one, but slow.  During that I planted my right foot on a downhill traverse… and snap. I couldn’t put weight on it so I hopped on one leg down “The Wall” (practicing for uni-legged Easter) and found a stick to unload some pressure.

Fast forward 5 weeks with zero running and I still wasn’t okay.  I decided the Feb. Western States Training run would be a litmus test – still “off”.  The next weekend I ran, and DNF’d, Inside Trail Running’s Montara Mountain trail holding together well on the uphill with the downhill weaving a story of shit ain’t right.

To the doctor I went which opened an afternoon of medically trained professionals showering me with “I’m so sorry.”  What? It didn’t sink in, yet my x-rays were case perfect depictions of a Syndesmosis Ligament rupture, or specifically my Anterior Inferior Tibular Fibula Ligament (AITFL) the ligament that holds my Tiba and Fibula together, especially under impact forces.

I was done.

The “I’m So Sorrys” were revealed as the course of treatment presented included 2 surgeries and 84 days on crutches completely non-weight bearing.

I was screwed, literally.

Getting Unscrewed

Tomorrow, after 83 days of crutches and over 17 weeks of not really running I take my 2nd step forward into recovery, sliding ever so slowly back to my house and my people.  The retraction has been difficult; I watched Solstice (Western States running movie) last night and cried – I want to be back doing that and I’m almost there, kind of.

Visiting My MountainInto this step I take tremendous patience grown from this process, respect for other runners that are bumped from the sport from injury, and the deepest veined appreciation for what it means to gaze to a mountain top and feel it in you, in a way that the summit is yours whenever you need it.  Because, right now my summit may as well be on the Moon at a time when I need it the most. I miss my smile, the one I get when running to visit.

I’m getting unscrewed.  I’m getting closer to there.


No Hands Bridge Trail Sign

I turned around early during a wondrous, 1 week removed, post Western States run in Purisima Open Space with a wonderful group of friends from the Coastside Running Club. The Craig Britan (Soda Gulch) single track beckoned me but I promised my supportive wife that’d I’d be on-time. After all, she had sacrificed plenty in sleep deprivation, hotel snafus, oppressive heat, and chasing me 100.2 miles in the wilderness while crewing the Western States 100 last weekend – I couldn’t be late.

Waving goodbye to the group, I retreated to the car for a much anticipated snack of fresh blueberries. Driving home, munching on Nature’s popcorn, I was rolling them around in my mouth then “POP” I’d smash them, then another. Every berry felt unique and erupted with its berry-full, signature blend of sweet/sour mix of juices, no single berry the same. I was captivated in thinking our manufactured world, the one in which I run trails to escape from, is NOT, in any way, like these delicious blueberries. I can buy a Snicker’s bar in Squaw Valley, CA and one from Brownsville, VT (2,862 miles apart) and they’d taste identical as I satisfied my hunger from a vending machine in a building of 90 degree angles, perpendicular planes, and level floors at a comfortable 71 degrees Fahrenheit.

This expands beyond any race report, but I believe the physical perfections that we surround ourselves with manifest, mentally, as barriers – obstacles in our minds that are sources of fear when pushed into, and beyond. We have a fear of discomfort, incorrectly projecting that it’s a progression to pain. Over time, over a life-time, barriers accumulate creating a confining cage of mental captivity. Running 100 miles OBLITERATES these barriers, leaving you physically depleted at the finish line, yet with a mind so lucid and cleansed of all of life’s “trash” there are NO barriers in running, but more importantly, in life. In fact they are replaced with profound strength, rooted at the cellular level.

So, in short, running 100 miles is like eating blueberries.

My 2013 Western States was born from the 10 of hearts, drawn from the loony runners present at the Auburn WS lottery, placing me at the 2013 start line for a 4th consecutive year. I cheered like crazy while Jen, jokingly, called me a turd. I quickly booked hotels and contacted my A+ crew to let them know another year is a GO. A huge part of the WS experience for me is sharing the event and in sticking with that theme I recruited Sean and Kristin as pacer and crew for the 2013 ride.

An interesting addition to 2013’s race is that I’m a RRCA certified running coach, proudly training two wonderful athletes that are also running Western States: Mike Weston and Janeth Siva. Both are good friends and wonderful, experienced, runners. It was a unique experience to both coach and train with them towards a common goal – we motivated each other to no end. They are amazing people and it’s truly my privilege to help them.


Achilles Pain BIG TIME – Photo Franz Dill

Following my 5th place performance at Ohlone 50k I was whisked through a potentially WS race ending scare of season ending injury when my Achilles swelled, turned colors, and bunched up requiring an MRI to debunk a partial tear concern. I was FREAKING out because 5 weeks before the Big Dance I could not walk – while shuffling to the Doctor’s office I was being passed by ailing old ladies (and yes, I told them “Good Job”). Dr. Khan successfully guided me through recovery which entailed 3 weeks of NO RUNNING. With healing progressing very well I managed 2 runs before Western States: a 23 miler on the Tahoe Rim Trail one week prior and a 12 miler from Alpine Meadows (Five Lakes Trail) to the WS Start along the PCT and WS trails 3 days prior (a HIGHLY recommended run).

Pre-race we shared a wonderful home in Alpine Meadows a short jog from the Five Lakes Trailhead, complete with a swimming pond that the kids loved; a great place to cool the legs after a trail run. Staying with Ron and his family was a wonderful vacation, perfectly removed from the tensions of Squaw. The boys loved spending time with Ron’s daughter, Claire, while Ron and I spoke race day logistics while also enjoyed some hiking and light running. Unfortunately Ron was dealing with a persistent ITB injury that simply did not want to let up.


Timothy Olsen and Franz Talking Finishing WS with your Kids – Photo Kristin Steadman


Hal, Max, and Franz – Photo Kristin Steadman


Visiting Dennis at Rosie’s – Photo Kristin Steadman

Simon and Franz - Photo Kristin Steadman

Simon and Franz – Photo Kristin Steadman

Friday was crazy day. Everyone converged on both the Alpine Meadows’ house and Squaw. Crew and Pacers: Hao, Cortney, Sean, Kristin, and Raju all showed up with TONS of great energy. We made Sean run the Montrail uphill challenge to burn of some Western States anticipation and, separately, had Kristin and John hike/run to the top of Squaw. We capped the day with a mandatory trip to see Dennis at Rosie’s in Tahoe City – a 32 year bar-tending staple that’s a fountain of good luck. We also drew some luck from Simon Mtuy, Hal Koerner, and Timmy Olson in the village.


Finish Day Weather at nearby Roseville, Ya it was HOT !!!

Race day was relatively smooth until I left my bottles at the house – a Western States without bottles in record heat would be like, well, stupid. So we turned around and got them with plenty of time to spare. We saw Mike Weston at the start supremely focused on race day logistics with his crew, Connie. Ron made the call to start the race, which was wonderful to know his WS experience would continue into Escarpment.


Western States 100 2013 Start – Photo Kristin Steadman

The start goes with some brief, yet wise Gordy words. The mass of 373 runners waves up Escarpment. I hear Kristin yell and wave a blurred hello as we march up towards the barren slope’s flood lights. I pick a comfortable cruising pace, purposeful, yet scanning for elite females (that’s an awkward sentence to write). My ‘moving’ goal in-race and throughout training has been to place within the top 10 females. In particular I thought I had a chance to pace off Meghan Arborgast so when I saw her on Escarpment I tried to lock pace, however, she charged the steep sections more aggressively than I. Once we summited she took off strong. I had the feeling many of the runners’ strategies was to go out fast in the cool temperature then dial it back in the oppressive mid-day heat.

Through the stretch of Lyon Ridge (10.5) and Duncan Canyon (23.8) I was the backend of a train of competitive female runners none of whom I recognized but could tell at least 2 of them, one turned out to be Emily Harrison, was in the hunt for at least top 10. They pushed the pace but slowed significantly on the climbs. Emily was 3rd in line while I was 4th. I watched as she was gapped on the technical downhills, even slowing me down, but quickly caught up on the flats and ups. I could tell Emily was fast, having a Rory Bosio look about her, however, she blew me away with a move that was outstanding. After making up ground on a flat the trail pitched uphill to a sharp right-hand turn, then morphed into a long gradual uphill straight away. On that quick pitch Emily BLASTED by everyone after having sat back for at least ½ hour, took the turn and was GONE. I mean GONE. We wrapped around the turn and could see at least 100 yards down the trail and NOTHING – she was GONE. That broke up our train as the lady that was 2nd in the line chased, as did I. I never saw Emily again.

Emily later went on to finish 7th place female in a blazing 20:28 in her first 100 mile race. I later discovered that Emily has a marathon PR of 2:32:55 after only running 3 marathons in this iRunFar.com article!

At this point in the race the temperature was slowly climbing, yet my heat training combined with staying constantly wet and with an ice bandanna nullified most negative effects of running in the heat. A side benefit was controlled hydration and electrolyte intake as I kept my sweat rate in check throughout the day.

The push to Robinson Flat (29.7) was big. I needed that mental boost in seeing my crew and knowing a big chunk of the course was behind me. I came running in feeling good, but a little worn. Everyone was great! Jen, Hao, Kristin, and Courtney were all smiles and pure positive energy. I was behind 20 hour pace, my goal to this point, but had still planned to dial back the pace in the rising heat. I spoke the words, “I’m going to slow down now.”


Coming into Dusty Corners (38) – Photo Glenn Tachiyama

Ironically, I felt like I was slowing. I walked out of Robinson eating. Yet my splits told another story, I was building speed into the heat of the day. I was getting stronger as I ran to perceived effort and ample breaks at cooling streams without a pace chart. All I had was a reference to the 24 hour pace at the aid stations, of which I was well ahead of. I even lost track of what aid station was what, not really caring… simply running and enjoying the day. The elusive ghost cows greeted us on the trail outside of Robinson, only to be heard with the clanging cow bells wafting through the evergreens – declaring their encouragement masked in shyness.

The descent down to Swinging Bridge (~45) was tough in that my feet were soaked causing me to alter my running to protect some already developing hot spots. In retrospect I should have stopped and tightened my wet shoes. Two years ago I almost stepped on a rattle snake on this section so I ran, eyes LOCKED on the trail, looking for snakes. Finally I reached the bottom, the river, Swinging Bridge, and I see something I’ve never seen my 3 years of Western States races, runners in the river!

My competitive side simply passes on jumping in places as I wave down, knowing there’s a sizable pool on the far side of the bridge. Among the river waders is Simon Mtuy, an elite into himself and former holder of the fastest ascent/descent up Mount Kilimanjaro – I’m star struck. I power hike up The Thumb slowly pulling away from some Salomon decked out racers that had also splashed in the stream with me. One after the next I reeled in runners on the climb in a slow motion attack. I see an elite lady (F9 Ashely Nordell) ahead in bad shape; I checked in with her then carried on.

I caught up to Galen Farris whom I had run with before. We chatted for a while, then looked back and BAM, there was Simon walking up the biggest climb on the WS course with ease using every inch of his 6’8” frame to cruise past everyone. He caught us and pressed forward, inspiring me to chase. We entered Devil’s Thumb AS (47.8) together. Now, Simon is amazing and THE nicest person on the planet. I love Simon. However, it SUCKS to enter an aid station with him. Every volunteer flocked to him draping towels around his neck, filling his bottle, and fetching popsicles while I stood there sponging myself, listening to a mental orchestra of crickets within my second tier, manzanita scrub brush..

Yet, this spurred me to push the next sections. I love Simon but MUST get to all aid stations before him! Another long downhill and we dropped into El Dorado Canyon, immediately struck by heat. Hot, humid, South Carolina like heat – it felt like walking through warm glue. Again Simon was swimming in the river and I took off. The climb to Michigan Bluff was a bit of a low point, although not too bad. My energy was low, I was walking alone, and the heat started its nasty grip that would last throughout the race (even at night). I hiked most of the uphills and ran the flats – that was, until Simon emerged below me. I waved hello while commenting on his swim then took the hell off. At the top of the hill was the “Go Guy” holding a small index card size sign that simply said, “Go”. They even skipped through their playlist to give me a personalized summiting song (I forgot what it was… something about a long day or some crap).

Michigan Bluff was sweet! Hao and Courtney were there (congratulations, they’re expecting a little boy). I weighed in, likely well over their boy’s soon-to-be birth weight, at 140 lbs (1 lbs off start weight). Simon came in shortly after and the town erupted! I loved watching his 2 boys greet him with a fresh pair of shoes. I missed Eli and Max and knew they were only 1 hour away at Foresthill (62).

I took off slowly, intent on finishing two handfuls of sandwiches and quesadillas. I was soon passed by the iRunFar founder Bryon Powell, which was damn surprising since he has a 19:24 WS finish to his name. He frolicked through the high-speed, 5 cameras, foot strike experiment as giddy as a honey covered badger. A polar opposite, I walked up to it, ran only by the eager-eye running scientists then stopped directly afterward and pronounced, “I’m going to finish eating now!”

Onward to Volcano Canyon after lunch! I ran some uphills, never seeing Bryon but I did catch another elite female looking quite tattered and walking slow. After offering some encouragement to blank acceptance I went on, running to Bath Road alone (which came up much quicker than usual, I was pushing fully expecting Simon to emerge once again). At the aid station was the wonderful Sean, eagerly awaiting an evening run. I muttered some crazy talk about the Kilimanjaro champion chasing me then we took off for Foresthill.


ThePureRun Crew at Foresthill – Photo Kristin Steadman

Foresthill was awash with a Grand Coastside welcoming committee. I heard Kristin before I saw her (I was so glad she was a part of ThePureRun team). George Miller was at medical and I could not pass up a good high-five from him. I skirted through the aid station then went straight to ThePureRun pit crew. It was ON like I’ve never experienced before. I was eating, answering questions, throwing my shoes off, switching bottles, hugging my kids, kissing my wife, posing for pictures, being a Dad, being a Husband, being a Friend, meeting new people, wincing in pain, and eating some more all in the span of 2-3 minutes. It was AMAZING! 100% thanks to my wife and a very special thanks to Hao for stepping up to a level of competitiveness and focus on fast that’s new to both him and I. He was orchestrating a lot behind the scenes and I really noticed.

Sean and I were off to the river, the long run of 17 miles to the river. It was great seeing Sean’s enthusiasm for the event; when I invited him to pace I knew he’d love it (I’ll need to apologize to his wife now). We ran conservatively letting an occasional runner/pacer pair pass, then usually returning the favor as their energy faltered. Smooth and steady – I remembered last year pushing too hard only to crash just before ALT, I pulled back intentionally to guard from the falter. Sean and I locked on with Matt Keyes and pacer, whom drug us down the mountain at a good clip. For a time we ran with a gentleman, David Ross (scroll about 1/2 way down), that holds the world record for fastest marathon in a wetsuit at 3:25 exclaiming, “Running a marathon in a wetsuit is a helluva lot easier than this!”

We eventually got to the river, and alas, just missed crossing in the light. As always the river was abuzz with activity: lights, people, medical, and the river crossing. I ate a cup of macaroni and cheese (freaking YES, remember this wonderful food) then to the rope. The river felt AMAZING – THE perfect cooling temperature, but not too cold. This was the cooling needed from the day long heat of 102+ degrees. I peer back and Sean is having a blast grinning ear-to-ear really taking in the entire experience. THAT moment is why I asked him to pace me, for him to hit that rush of WS and he 100% found it in the river.

We made it to the other side, expecting ThePureRun crew but only see Hao. I asked if Jen was okay, and he deflected the situation some but did assure that everyone was alright. Little did I know there were 2 big items going on behind the scenes that sent Jen, Hao, Kristin, Courtney, and Uncle Murray on a wild adventure. One being our Auburn hotel was cancelled without us being notified (introduce get hotel in Roseville to the fun) and the other being the crew was falsely notified that I was 10 miles further up trail than I actually was (Green Gate vs. Peachstone). Rightly so, my crew DID NOT PEEP A WORD of this to me during the race, but I could tell there was A LOT of improvisational work happening behind the scenes. Thanks crew for getting me through the race while juggling crazy!

We hiked up to Green Gate while I was eating, finding Jen and Kristin ½ way up the hike. This hike is always so nice, because you get to check-in with your people and simply talk, about real stuff without the heavy burden of GO GO GO I can’t stay here. When you’re moving, you’re good. I tried doing some simple math too, pronouncing, “This next 30 miles is going to be a slog!” To which Jen and Kristin looked over and told me I only had 20 miles to go. Hot Damn then, I was ready to go!

Hao and I floated off for the horizontal canyons leading to ALT. The Coastside Running Club awaited and this time I felt good, really good. Hao guided me in pace, hydration, and eating keeping me on task and moving well. Our mantra was on par with, just keep eating and the remainder of the race will work itself out. And it did.

I ran into ALT yelling CRC! Hallelujah Goat! Checking my number was good friend Ron. I was surprised to see him after getting word he had dropped from the race at around the 20 mile mark. I hugged him, marching further while still yelling and whistling.


HG and Eric, When they Arrive Magic Happens – Photo Margaret Branick-Abilla

My first impression of the ALT aid station was of confusion. It looked different and, although obviously Christmas themed, my mind conjured a county fair carnival. I vividly remember looking down the expanse of the aid station and thinking it was like a illuminated carnival at night. I could almost hear Laughing Sally’s cackle then a deep voiced heralder projecting, “Step Right Up, everyone’s a winner!” In fact, I even had to step on a scale while everyone tried their hand and guessing my weight. My guess was 4 lbs down from my starting weight (Bhhheeeer, loser). The doctor’s let me pass, aided with the CRC crowd proclaiming me a Rockstar. Hell, I felt fine. I ate well there, other than shying away from the Bodas children offering me GUs – yes, I made a vomitus face, nothing personal kids.

The warming moment was saying hi to everyone. I remember turning and a semi-circle of wonderful Coastal friends were there to wish me luck: Margaret, Eric, Norm, Chris, Bryan, Amanda, Gary, Mor (and I know I’m missing people). It warmed my heart to no end and gave me special “powers” to haul ass the next 15 miles. Eric told me I was in the top 50 of Western States – that was the first time I had been told my place. It was inspiring, mostly seeing how EXCITED everyone else was for me. I still couldn’t comprehend it, but also, I knew my long-term goal is WELL BEYOND just top 50. I appreciated the milestone but also expect more of myself. With a quick picture of HG and I, pacer and runner were off with food in hand.

I faultered some at Brown’s Bar and in stretches leading to Highway 49. In part it was due to transitioning to a different fueling (real food) and within that likely not taking in enough calories, but also, it was still really hot. That sneaks up on you as your mind expects cool because the sun is no longer up, you project that, but it’s not reality. Then you slow your drinking, stop using your cooling techniques employed earlier in the race, and things get challenging energy-wise. Also, my feet were beat to hell and hurt. Every step was painful due to bruising and blistering.

Note to self: Try changing into more cushioned shoes at mile 60 to avoid this. It happened throughout the Grand Slam too in 2011 so it needs to be addressed.

I am proud that I NEVER took and single capsule of pain relievers. I had Tylenol on me, right at my waist. If taken early I probably could have pushed the 22 hour barrier but I chose not to, running this race pure. I’m sure it aided my recover but also was a testament to being better trained for the later duration of this 100 mile race.

Coming into Highway 49 I passed a runner. When you’re pushing into a new class of runners with faster times, everyone has a kick and everyone runs strong. There was NEVER a single runner that was easy to pass. Each one of them made me work as I did to them, dragging each other up hills, through energy depletion, and foot pain using the adrenaline of competition. That headlight, that I looked back on after passing, never went away easily.

We ran into Highway 49 with the flood lights casting bright, white light across the road crossing announcing “Number 154, Franz Dill” or probably Fraaaanz (thanks stupid Franz Ferdinand band for an adult life of name mispronunciations). I saw Kristin and Jen there! I went over to say hellos then back to graze. No breakfast stuff on the grill, we were told it was too early. I wasn’t feeling the food and heard Jen yell out, “Just Eat It!” I jumped into a Weird Al mouth solo of the song, laughing, and stuffing my face with quesadillas. Someone got the reference and I broke a grin.

I said the words I had waited all day to say to Jen , “I’ll see you at the finish line.”

They reverberate in my mind, releasing another capsule of energy as I pulled away from my crew and into the trails of Cool. I passed another runner at the top of the hill who looked ragged. Yet again, it’s never easy. Him and his pacer locked onto us through the entire section to No Hand Bridge. Not only that, the pacer had the light of a Coastguard helicopter projected onto my back, casting a shadow across the trail making it impossible to see my foot landings. I got pissed and ran, zoned out, and ran. Before I was complaining about my feet KILLING ME, but now, I was silent using 152% of my brain power to dampen that pain so I could run. We ran into the aid station then bolted. To my pleasure, they stopped. Something was ailing that runner. Hao and I drove to the finish with minor fantasies of breaking 22. I had no watch and had NO clue what time it was. He drove us hard to Robie Point. We heard the cheers and night-time sub 24 enthusiasm, the bellowing night parties hitting the witching hour of 3:00AM still welcoming us to Auburn. Hao and I shared how great THIS, this wonderful singular moment in life is – representative of months, even years, of hard grueling work. The peak of Robie Point is more beautiful than the track because you’re still alone crossing the “trail finish line” a mile before crossing back into real life to cross the civilized finish line.


The Dill Family at the Finish – Photo Kristin Steadman


Pre-Race with the BEST Pacers EVER Hao & Sean – Photo Kristin Steadman

Hao and I hit the track, the wonderful track! I scanned for my boys who were goofing off at 3:00AM at the high school. In year’s past I crossed with them both. This year Max (5) refused because he didn’t’ want John Medinger to talk about him on the loud speaker. Eli ran up to me, eager as can be. I reached out to hold his hand yet, he pulled it away and said, “Dad, I want to go faster.” I looked down while furrowing my brow, “Okay, let’s do it!” He took off at a sprint with me following. John called the race as “Franz coming across the finish line and LOSING to his son!” I loved it!!!

Video of Finish is Here on FB.

I cannot thank the small village of people enough that helped me accomplish a new Western States and 100 mile PR – all the volunteers, the race organizers, the Coastside Running Club, but most importantly my crew and family. I could feel everyone from the Coastside pulling for me, especially all my new friends from Empowered Fitness. My wife and sons, whom I adore with all my heart, are THE ones that allow this to happen. They not only become so selfless on race day to help me, but through the months and years, they’ve excused my multi-hour runs, our lack of vacations that did NOT include a race, and my constant distractions all for that finish line, all for that buckle, all for allowing me to find and take part in something that I’m good at.

My PureRun athletes also did excellent.  Mike Weston persisted through a foot injury, an in-race ankle injury, and the record high temperatures making it to the fabled Devil’s Thumb aid station when the caught by the cut-offs. I’m so proud of him and know, with certainty, that all aspects of his training were tuned, yet his injury was the gating factor.  He’ll be back to CRUSH the thumb and beyond.

Janeth, easily the strongest person I know, clawed her way to the finish having nearly a perfect day to finish in 28:51. Tackling two bouts of record heat Janeth’s training, rock-solid will finish attitude, and excellent support earn her a coveted buckle.

Congratulations Mike and Janeth! Ya’ll ROCKED it.

Other Western States Goodies:

Twenty-One seconds separated 3rd place from 5th place at the Ohlone 50k — 21 short seconds. Within a span of 18,660 seconds, the final podium spot was decided within the proverbial blink of an eye. Even more fascinating was, in the span of that time, a collective 19 Western States finishes crossed the finish line — that’s 90% of a States finish for every “Ohlone” second. Amazing company and an all encompassing joy to share the race with 2 talented runners: Kevin Sawchuk and Ian Torrance.

The story always runs deeper, 50km deeper in the very least.

Minutes prior to the 8:00AM start I’m dropped off by my lovely wife Jen. I dart to Stan Jenson and get my bib, sort my things, then scan for friendly faces. I see Janeth and run over to talk. I’ve been coaching Janeth through her WS journey. To say the least it has been a tough one for her. As if training for 100 miles wasn’t difficult enough she’s been thrown the book this season. It has been a pleasure to track her journey and learn what being tough really is. I thought I was strong, but there’s a new level that I didn’t comprehend until I met Janeth.

Following some truly emotional words, Janeth shoo’d me off telling me you need to get in front, the race is starting in 2 minutes. Off we were and my thoughts were consumed with Janeth’s toughness and hoping she’d have a positive break through today.

I intended to run comfortably at the start. I had been nursing a right calf/Achilles injury post Miwok and was tentative on steep Ohlone uphills, yet, I found myself in 10-15th place (it’s easy to count running on Mission Peak – you can see forever). My hill gear had me gaining on many people until I settled into a common pace with Kevin Sawchuk and Ian Torrance. We all ran comfortably to the summit catching runners here and there.

Kevin and I gapped Ian while cruising to Sunol AS (mile 9.11) running 6:30 min/mile. At this point the race hadn’t started – there’s too many hills on this course to even start thinking about speed. Kevin then veered off to the bathroom and I was left alone to climb a 3,000 ft monster with Kevin, the hill climbing animal, chasing me – I ran with him during Ohlone 2012 and he smoked me on this exact section.

I started to push some here, using this as a motivating opportunity to PR this hill. I would catch glimpses of Kevin’s bright red shirt below but we were matched in pace pretty evenly to my surprise. At this point I didn’t know exactly what place I was in but felt it was good. And, I felt GREAT energy-wise. The crippling hills weren’t that bad on me this season.

After passing the last bunch of early start runners, I dropped into Backpack Area AS (mile 12.48). I got to it with Coke, Salt, GU, and some ice and water over my head. Then bolted out to the cheers of GO! You’re 4th.

Wait, WHAT!?! I’m 4th?

My mind still doesn’t comprehend phrases like that in races. I’m use to people not knowing, losing count by the time I come in. It seemed Chinese to me – I didn’t understand.

Until 1 mile down the trail I saw 2 runners. At that moment I REALLY understood 4th and REALLY, REALLY understood 3rd and 2nd. I could not believe they were on the ridge just above me and I was gaining on them – a weird euphoric state swept over me. I ran every hill they didn’t. From their silhouettes I knew #2 was John Burton and couldn’t identify #3. I also knew that John was supremely trained for this race and brings a history of pulling back on this particular uphill to then BLAST the remainder of the race.

My mark gravitated to the #3 runner whom I could tell was faltering. 5 minutes back, 4 minutes back, 3… I would time him.

I also looked back and saw Kevin running strong.

And now, yes right now, would be the time that my right calf would begin hurting. Not the dull pain that I was accustomed to but a few sharp stabs. Enough that I stopped, I stopped chasing, I stopped being chased, standing in the dusty trail on one leg assessing myself.

My coach voice came over me saying, “You’re doing damage – STOP!”

My competitor voice came over me saying, “You’re in 4th and 3rd is right there! How often does THIS happen? It’s a strain, GET IT.”

Kevin caught me. I said, “Hey Sawchuk, Great Job!”

He humorously retorted, “That’s Dr. Sawchuk to you! States is the Goal. Keep your eye on the prize!” to which he later admitted was a mental tactic he was using to get me to slow down 🙂 See, these lead guys play the mind games with you!

The reality was I was in the middle of no where. Even if I did get back to an aid station there’s little they could do but hike out with me. Ohlone is a barren course. I pressed forward very slowly, unfortunately favoring my left leg. I monitored my gait as best I could but at times it was painful. Kevin took off, yet the bearded man #3 (now #4) continued to fall back – even with me running at 75% capacity.

And then, the sharp pain subsided. I could run “okay”. Transitions from uphill to downhill or vice versa were painful.

Then, I passed the bearded man. Endorphins were flowing. Kevin was no longer extending his lead. We reached Rose Peak (3,600 ft, mile 20) and I was told the leader was 19 minutes ahead. Another DAMN moment! The leader usually finishes in 4:40 or so. Were we going that fast!?!

I re-tooled myself for the long downhills – it hurt but wasn’t unbearable. I was managing while I pulled Kevin in closer and closer. He skipped the unmanned water station, forcing my card. I had to too. I caught him on the uphill – cramping slightly, wishing I had more water, yet moving with confidence in the eye of a trail companion turned competitor.

I was now in 3rd.

I fell in love with 3rd. The more I opened a gap, the more love stitched with reality. I was prepared to fight for 3rd every step of the trail to Livermore.

I flew into Schlieper Rock AS (mile 25.65) with intent. The race began now. My right calf injury was masked from reality, yet my cramping grew. I drank lots of water, GU, and salt which only kept the cramping from worsening. I tore down the technical decline as fast as I could with memory of Miwok (including the cramping) in my mind. I gained speed only to cramp and need to slow down. This was the eb and flow of my life at this moment.

21 seconds isn’t that long.

The single track was covered with overhanging thistle, poison oak, and it was dusty. I remember not feeling the thistle as I grazed it being more focused on my cramping. I was adrift in a running trance when, WHAT THE HELL?! I was jolted by a snake across the trail. Instincts react, I jump and jumping made me cramp, mid-air. With my feet locked into a pointed position I couldn’t land feet first – I came crashing down on my butt.

A plume of dust hoovered around me as a screamed in pain. Both my calves were excruciatingly tight – I could see the stranded contours of my muscles with my feet locked in Relevé; I sat upright with legs sprawled on the trail. I screamed in pain and tried to straighten my feet. Nothing.

First thought: Shit, I cannot move.
Second thought: I’m going to lose 3rd.
Third thought: Shit, there’s a snake next to me.

21 seconds go by.

I panic then the cramps jump to my quads. I scream again. It was oddly promising that Kevin hadn’t come down the trail yet. It gave me hope. Hope to prop myself up and then my body grudgingly released the cramps. I completely lost track of the snake – I had no idea where it was nor did I care. I got up and did a hobbling run fighting for 3rd.

60 seconds went by.

At the bottom was a group of 15 scouts huddled in the shade cheering me on. I dipped my hat in the stream as I crossed hitting the final climb. 1 minute later I heard them cheering another runner. I assumed it was Kevin but peering down I saw Ian and he was moving well.

Every hard fought section of trail was coupled with a look back. Where are they? 3 miles to go. I get a glimpse of Ian across the ridgeline and I’ve extended my lead, but I’m still cramping. Finally I hit the long downhill to the finish. Because of cramping I’m forced to stop for water.

2 miles to go.

As fast as I can go… I go. 7:00 – 6:30 min/mile. We reach a slight uphill that sends my legs into a cramping mess and I look back and see a figure – Kevin!

1 mile to go.

I welcome the transition back to downhill, the last downhill, leading to the finish line. There are friends of runners and hikers spattered about the trail. Footsteps get closer and finally Kevin passes. I say, “Good to see you Dr. Sawchuk.” But then I heard more footsteps. Ian was there too.

1/4 mile to go.

Ian passing caught me by surprise. I ran after him. The cramps said NO. Everything I had in me was ready to run strong to the finish except my legs. I heard Jen cheering.  My leg seized momentarily. Thoughts of having to crawl across the finish line flashed through my head. Luckily they released.

5th place in 5:11, over 30 minutes faster than last year, 1st in my age group, AND carrying with it competitive fuel for my next race – I’m still in love with 3rd.ohlone_finish_2013

Other Wonderful Ohlone Links:

Ohlone 50km Results

John Burton’s Blog Post

Jean Pommier’s Blog Post

First Female Rookie Blog Post



Course change sign weighted down by Beer.

Miwok 60k

At 4:30 AM on Saturday, Ron Little, Mike Weston, Janeth, and myself lumbered into the Stinson Beach Community Center, harboring buzzed confusion, centered around a stark white poster board with handwritten well parsed paragraphs of red writing; Stan Jenson stood alongside heralding a change.

To even the most alert morning birds of the sport, it took 2-3 recitals of Stan’s speech to reach comprehension, “Due to fire dangers, today’s race has been changed.  The distance is now 60km and will start at 8:00AM.”

Hoards of runners stood pondering the implications of change.  Months of planning now had to be realigned at 4:30AM in the morning – How does that change my drop bags?  What’s my crew supposed to do? What do I tell my pacer?  What about my pace charts?  Once the early morning cobwebs of restless sleep unfurled, runners converged on alternate plans.  To name a singular ultrarunner characteristic would be to declare flexibility in the throes of adversity.  From the top (Tia the Race Director) down to the athletes, we’re a crafty bunch with a drive to move nowhere but forward.

Forward we drove, the change was accepted and we continued in celebration of the miles we could run and not remorseful of the ones we couldn’t.  For that extra 3 hours we were gifted, some chose to nap others chose to log some pre-race miles.  Ron, Mike, and I along with 20-30 other runners dynamically mapped a route ascending to Pan Toll for a glimpse of morning dawn.  As a whole, we ran in scattered groups, but Ron and I’s route was a wonderful 7.25 loop climbing the Matt Davis trail and descending on the Dipsea trail.  Mike chose the more challenging Dipsea trail hill repeats!  You may ask why we all ran pre-race.  The consensus was that Miwok was training for something bigger – like Western States.

During the sunrise miles I did say to Ron, “Let’s run some pre-race miles and treat this like a fun training run.”  At the time I was 100% okay with that.  Then we lined up 5 minutes before the race.  I saw the top guys and girls.  I saw 378 people that would funnel into a single track in 1/4 mile.  I couldn’t get stuck in that so I pressed forward (not Lake Sonoma forward).  I set the goal of this run being: run it at my 100k goal pace of 10:00 min/mile.  That seemed reasonable.

Up the Dipsea stairs we climbed holding a quick pace.  We sped into the Cardiac AS and I was the only one to stop at the water and sponges to start the cool down (it was already getting hot).  I synced up with Jeremy, a Quicksilver runner that I recognized from Montara.  He and I were talking away to almost Muir Beach cruising at 6-7 min/mile.

During the climb from Muir Beach to Tennessee Valley my right calf started hurting.  In past weeks I’ve had tenderness there but today it was a building sharp pain.  My #1 thought, what’s the main goal here?  Western States, right?  I considered dropping at the CRC aid station to minimize the injury.  The visual played through my head as I talked it over with my CRC aid station teammates and pacer; I always concluded I couldn’t stop.

My pacer was a freshmen member of the Half Moon Bay High School track and cross-country team, Khalil.  I know his parents through my wife, I organized a Run for Boston at his school, and I take an Empowered Fitness boot camp class with his Dad on Thursdays.   Starting at Miwok 2010 there has always been a draw to run with one of the HS students as a pacer.  This year, we made that happen.  Yet, if I came into the CRC AS and dropped this opportunity at creating a “moment” in life wouldn’t happen.

I toiled with this a bit, slowed down, cataloged my injury as best I could, then decided I’m not running for me – I’m running to construct a frame work for Khalil’s experience.  My calf pain faded away.

With the CRC motivational signs beaconing, I stormed down the hill into Bridge View saying hello to everyone, many of whom I haven’t seen for months.  A big hello went out to Mor and Eric at the street crossing.  My wife, Jenna, Mandy, and Denise got big hellos and hugs.  I saw Omar and Khalil helping out and Gary who was sitting out the race due to injury.  The ultrarunning staple of good luck was Hallelujah Goat keeping a stark eye out for the runner’s safety from the canopy rafters!  I told Khalil, “Are you ready?” To which he nodded with a quiet smile.  “I’ll see you at Tennessee Valley!”


The Lovely Pirate Ladies of the CRC

I was repeatedly dismissed from the AS by my wonderful wife Jen who’d rather see me talk after I’ve finished.  Rushing downhill I saw Loren who recently “50 miled” at AR50 and the amazing Margaret!  Across the street and onto the long climb back to TV to catch a pacer!  This portion of the run was challenging in distance, pace, and heat.  It’s a long climb back to the ridgeline to join the Miwok trail back down to Tennessee Valley.  My stomach faltered here mainly due to the foaminess of the GU Brew sports drink – it halted my digestion and hydration.

Arriving at TV I saw Khalil all suited up and ready to run; both him and his father, Omar, had a grin of excitement.  I rummaged through my drop bag to refill on GU packs and we were off with no runners in sight to chase, until we arrived at the 450ft climb on the Coastal trail. In the distance I saw a runner.

“Hey Khalil, you see that guy up there?  He’s from Minnesota.”

“Cool.  Let’s get him.”

I groaned inside a little because my stomach was still recovering, but we ran up the long hill then paused on a steep section.  Immediately we heard footsteps behind us, turning to see the first place female Darcy Africa right on our tail.  She passed with ease and we wished her a great race.  I could tell Khalil wasn’t having it!  We pushed and finally caught Minnesota proclaiming, “I was wondering when you guys would catch me!”  At the crest of the hill we passed him and another runner.

Emerging from Pirate's Cove with Pacer Khalil.  Photo Glen Tachiyama

Emerging from Pirate’s Cove with Pacer Khalil. Photo Glen Tachiyama

During the downhill to Pirate’s Cove, it was on.  I warned Khalil about the downhill being technical and to watch his step, especially at the stairs.  I love downhill and I knew I had company in that when I heard hooting and hollering from behind as we blasted down towards the ocean.  Wrapping around the cove we caught another runner as we climbed towards Muir Beach.

Muir Beach brought some large stomach issues.  I tried pulling myself together in a 1-2 minute timeframe but it was hard.  Minnesota, Darcy, and Yellow Shirt passed us.  I walked out of the aid station calmly telling Khalil, “Just give me a minute, I don’t want to puke on you.”  I let him know I was ready to run and he set the pace, a great pace.  After 15-20 minutes of silence I reassured him that me being quiet means I’m working hard.  “You’re doing great. Keep me working.”  Sure enough we spotted Minnesota in the trail ahead giving us the look-back.  That seemed to really fuel Khalil to push faster.  At the uphill transition we caught him but were forced to walk as my stomach churned from the push.  Yellow shirt and Sonoma caught and passed us – I raced Sonoma a few weeks ago in Lake Sonoma the last 9 miles and beat him by 2 spots.

Khalil wasn’t too keen on these guys motoring up the hill ahead of us.  “Let’s get them!”  I told him I can’t right now but if we can hang with them I can pass them on the downhill to the finish.  I promise you that!  For 3.5 miles and 1,300 ft of climbing we fought hard to stick with them.  Eventually Yellow Shirt pulled away.  My legs started cramping, my right calf injury was screaming.  Within ¼ mile from the top we caught Sonoma – “Hey I remember you from Sonoma.  You beat me.”  I said yup and ran past him in some of the worst calf pain I’ve ever felt.  I whispered to Khalil, “I’m in so much pain, but I can’t stop running or he’ll catch us.”

As we crested the hill into Cardiac AS we saw Darcy on the opposing ridge.  I point her out and Khalil says, “Let’s get her!”  As we left the AS Sonoma motored in.  It’s a complete crazy downhill race at this point – everyone is ready to empty out the tanks!  We bolted and in ¼ mile found Yellow Shirt puking on the trail.  Asking if he’s okay he said, “Yes, but I’m done!”  Khalil was right, we did get him.  Now we were on the hunt for Darcy and her pacer, a beacon in a bright orange shirt.  I was ready to unload on this downhill.  Again I warned Khalil, “This is some crazy downhill coming up.  Be careful.  Watch your step, especially on the stairs.”  We hit downhill mode completely hunting Darcy.  Yet, there was a threshold I crossed that my calves did not like – too fast and I would cramp BAD.  They hinted then roared as I pushed too hard.  I told Khalil I can’t go any faster right now… but we were slowly catching up to her with 2 miles to go.  I learned I could go a little faster if I transitioned to heel striking and pointed my toes up to keep my calves elongated while running – neither recommended nor comfortable.

I was now in a state where any deviation from my footstrike would trigger calve cramping or a full lockup.  Great, we still hadn’t passed her and now we’re on the Dipsea stairs.  Both runners and pacers rip down the stairs – easily counting over one hundred.  Darcy’s pacer moved aside but she didn’t.  I heard Khalil say, “Take it!” behind me yet I didn’t have that burst without cramping.  A cramp at this point would have seized my leg leaving me tumbling down a rocky forest staircase.  Just before we bottomed out, we passed hitting a quick uphill and catching another runner.  He hopped aside saying I’m cramping all over.  I hear ya!  That uphill stopped me so quick!  I could NOT run.  The calf pain was searing over the adrenaline.  With an attempted power hike we got to the top then gunned it for some runnable downhill.  In the distance I saw a Green Shirt walking.  He was going down.  We caught him but started pulling him with us.  I heard footstrikes superimposed on Khalil’s; glancing back I see green.  Oh great!

My calves were so done.  I had no clue how I was moving.  I was running scared with Green Shirt behind us and I KNEW Darcy was tough.  I just gave it everything and tried to gap them as best I could.  More stairs and ½ mile down the trail there was a road crossing.  We hustled across but when I reached the other side…

WHAM.  I went from 7 min/miles to a COMPLETE screaming stop.  I YELLED, “AHHHHHHHH, MY LEG!”  My right calf had completely seized up.  I grabbed it and vaguely heard Khalil say, “What do I do?” I shot my gaze over to the other side of the street and to my amazement didn’t see Green Shirt or Darcy.  I still have this I thought.  I need to get moving!  I propped my leg against the asphalt, stretching my calf back into running position, and it released a little.  I told Khalil I have to try to run.  We ran, slower but we ran through the final trail section with 0.1 mile to go we hit highway 1.  Double checking, I glanced back and saw a Red Shirt blazing after us in a full sprint. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?!  I rolled my eyes and prayed for my calf not to seize as I sped up.

Somehow, I don’t know how, we crossed without being passed.

Khalil walked up and said, “Where’d Red Shirt come from?”  I said, “I don’t know but THAT was awesome!  Thank you!  That right there was all you Khalil.”

After cooling down a little I invited Khalil to come inside the community center.  I went to the shirt swag table and asked Khalil, “What size shirt do you wear?”  The volunteer gave me a small and I handed it directly to him.  “You were awesome!  Thank you, you earned this.”

Lake-Sonoma-50-logoSaturday the 14th started out typical, well as far as race mornings go.  Jen, my beautiful one lady crew, and I set out at 5:30AM from our hotel and promptly got lost.  The 3rd year of running the Lake Sonoma 50 wasn’t a charm but Jen and her portable computing and texting device steered our groggy efforts.  Arriving with plenty of time I was able to check in with two wonderful ultrarunners that I’ve been training for Western States.  Janeth was in grand spirits as usual and utilized the massive draw of ultra talent to score pictures with Timmy Olsen and Max King.  Mike was his usual calm self and practically has running ultras down to a recipe.  Well wishes exchanged and bib numbers on, it was race time.

I positioned myself near the top 1/3 of the race prior to the “gun” sounding.  I glanced around to see Hal Korner, Jorge Marvilla, Karl Metlzer shoulder to shoulder with me.  In the distance, off to the side, I saw my wonderful Jen mouthing, “You’re too far up!”  To which I responded, “I know” but embarrassingly some shirtless runner guy thought I was wafting sweet  nothings his way and waved back.  Begin Awkward Sequence!  Jorge yelled with uncontainable excitement then John Medinger launched us into the streets.  I used the 2.5 mile stretch of road to withdraw myself from the gunslinger pace promptly.

My race strategy was straight forward – average 10:00 min/mile across the entire race.  Not even across all miles, but for the duration of the race.  Using last year’s splits I knew where I ran too fast and where I crashed.  I adjusted my initial splits to slow down (9:30 min/mile for the first 15) then hold a steady 10:00 – 11:00 min/mile on the backend.  It was a little more complicated than that but you get the idea.  Backing off was key because my longest training run leading up to this time was 26.2 miles.  Right now my body knows a fast 26.2 miles – if I push fast for longer, the wheels can fall off.  That strategy equated to an 8:22 finishing time.  I rounded my goal up to 8:30 but that still scared me.  This would be my fastest 50 miler to date on a challenging, early season, “relentless” course.

Churning up the paved uphill road I immediately realize my Garmin isn’t tracking mileage.  DAMNIT !  It was in some weird indoor mode.  I quickly power cycled it, locking it’s infuriating microcomponents to the Sonoma sky.  I then spot Ken “All Day” Micheals and say hello then pose the off beat but required question of “How far do you have?”  He replied, wondering if it was a joke, “0.3 miles!”  Now I had to add .3 miles to everything… All Day !!!

In the distance I saw Jen Phifer – a great competitor and wonderful person; we had run close-ish splits for the 1st half of Lake Sonoma in 2012.  I was drawn to stay near her, but my logic took over and I found myself pulling back from sub 8 min/mile on the road.  Yet, I also noticed she didn’t pull away.  I’ve ran with Jen enough to feel something was different with her today and was concerned (I later found out that see was recovering from the flu and dropped out of the race).

So concerned, maybe OVERLY concerned, that once we hit the single track I saw her pulled just off the trail hunched over, kinda kneeling.  I too pulled off and asked, “Are you okay”.  She bounced up saying yes, just PEEING.  Oh so AWKWARD.  That thought didn’t even cross my mind.  I bounded over the creek crossing, darting up the other side in TOTAL embarrassment.

Only to be embarrassed again I saw the Race Director John Medinger directing traffic towards the first water only aid station.  I enthusiastically yelled out, “THANKS GREG!” … to John, not Greg.  As my wife would say about me at that moment, What a turd.  For the next 2-3 miles I BURNED it into my head in an attempt to remember 40 miles down the trail, you need to apologize to the Race Director JOHN when you finish.  I repeated that, silently, over and over again.

Just before Warm Springs Creek AS (11.6) I grouped up with a quick pack of runners that were purposeful but not too fast. Leading the pack was Meghan Arbogast, an amazing runner that has been a top-10 female Western States finisher something like 6x, many of those sub-20 hours (which is my WS goal).  I hung behind her with the sole purpose of studying how she runs.  I watched her through aid stations, up hill techniques, down hill techniques, foot strikes, running form, I just watched it all in a non-creepy, non-stalker kind of way.  She has been running, and winning, ultras since 2006 and she’s still doing it at the age of 51.  This was a wonderful learning moment.

Never fast, but ALWAYS consistent she picked apart the LS50 course with surgical experience molding her specific running technique into the terrain.  She’d happily let a pack of guys bound past her on the uphill (which she’d NEVER walk) then promptly run them down effortlessly on the downhills.  At Madrone Point (18.8) I was a few yards behind her.  Last year it was the same story but I came in with Krissy Moehel.  However, Krissy promptly smoked me at the turn around while hung back smashing into the 25 mile wall.  I thought about this — and was waiting for the crash.  I expected it, envisioning a timer set to a moment invisible to me.  When would it chime?

I saw my Love, Jen, just past Madrone Point (18.8) and she was spectacular and happy!  I had been running with a gentleman in a blue shirt and snapback hat.  He was behind me when I arrived then he promptly passed me, gingerly with an unwavering effort.  Jen whispered in her Jen like way, you have to beat that guy.  Because I had been talking to him while climbing the hill I knew he was working and my conversational pace was quicker than his.  No questions asked, I agreed to beat him later re-passing him on a climb.

Then I saw Greg, I mean John.  I was HAPPY to apologize for calling him the wrong name.  I stopped and shook his hand professing like he was a priest.  He simply smiled and said, “It’s okay, Greg is a good guy.”

Photo: Gary Wang

Photo: Gary Wang

I continued my push to the 25.2 mile turn around after repenting.  It wasn’t long before I became a complete spectator in one of the most amazing races of the year funneling back to me.  Max King zipped by me first with about a 1 minute lead on Cameron Clayton (easily spotted by his stark blonde hair).  About 4-5 minutes back was Sage Canaday, the eventual winner.  Then one after the next the elites of the sport whisked by and I greeted them all by name, because I’m an ultra stalker.  No, but really: Jorge, Hal, Nick Clark, Timmy Olson, Dave Mackey, … on and on and on.  I even saw Mr. Ricky Gates that recently moved to SF and has been pegging some of the Strava routes on Montara Mountain, setting insane times to North Peak.

Brian Tinder blipped my radar from the Adidas ultra team.  Him and I ran parts of my first marathon, the Sedona Marathon, side-by-side.  As the 1/2 marathoners closed the gap he veered off and dropped his pants while smacking his stark white bum at them.  Who could forget someone that does THAT?  “Good Job, Brian!”

Finally I made it to the turn-around feeling GREAT!  And, I saw Meghan just leaving.  My confidence leaped, I was running shirtless, I saw my Jen, and it was time to run HOME.  Off I went chasing shit, feeling the race that I wished I had in 2012.

After harassing the volunteers by trying to purposely go the opposite direction they were directing me, I went bounding down the hill quickly catching up to runners I perpetually read before mine in race results.  This drove my momentum as I was riding this excitement; I’m holding my own in a runner’s tier that I’ve projected myself in but have never held for the “big” races.  As I began wrapping back around to the runners behind me I sang their praises and said hi to each and every one of them (and I mean EVERYONE).  There was some deja vu as a passed the runners that I was grouped with in earlier years, yet today I was miles ahead.  When I saw Scott Leberge with whom I have ran a few races with, he said, “Wow, you’re up there with the elites.”

It started to morph from a dream to a reality.

My absolute highlight was seeing Janeth and Mike Weston in the race.  I’ve been training them for Western States and to seen them in the race was so special.  I KNOW all the hard work they’ve brought to that day and I also know some of the challenges they faced.  I saw Janeth first, instantly freezing in my tracks, then asked how she was doing – a bit of a rough patch that I tried coaching her through.  I wish I had 1/2 that girl’s toughness – it puts most ultrarunners to shame in what she can endure.  In all ways she’s an inspiration!  We both pushed on, me a little stronger than before because of her.  Shortly after I saw Mike.  He put a smile to my face because I snuck up on him.  Maybe it was coincidence but the minute he saw me he lurched from a walk to a run.  I stopped and checked in with him.  He was looking strong and consistent, like he always is – practically a machine.


Photo: Jennifer Dill

Energy renewed I crested a hill nearing Madrone Point (30.9) again and saw iRunFar’s Byron Powell.  Yet another little sign that I was mixing it in with the fast folks.  I LOVED it.  This excited my ultra stalker self to no end!  Emerging from a trail wiggle and some tree cover I saw my Jen AND good buddy Hao.  And yes, my reaction was to posed shirtless doing scrawny John Travolta poses – even repeating some poses once the FaceBook camera’s were ready.  Another quick crew exchange and I was off.

Where’s that crash, that timer that was suppose to go off?

I pushed for Wulford AS (32.8) beginning to feel some heat, although not effecting me much, still moving strong.  Thanks to Rick Gaston and friends for taking great care of us.  In and out I was off chasing some more runners running everything – just like Meghan I thought.  I had watched her so long in the beginning of the race I had her pattern, so I just mimicked it.  I didn’t think, only copied.  I passed one runner on an uphill, then another.  Converging on Warm Springs Creek (38) I saw another runner struggling on the uphills.  As I caught him and glanced over to say good job I recognized him and a delayed HOLY SHIT rang in my head.  It was Andy Jones-Wilkins (known best for being a 7x top ten Western States finisher).  My world rocked for a second, maybe more, time dilation was in full effect.

HOLY SHIT that was AJW and HOLY SHIT what does that mean for my Western States this year?  Or does it mean anything at all.  My mind was spinning.  Not only was I hanging on the back heels of the elites I was still passing people.

This was also about the time things got difficult.  I had ran out of water on the last stretch and really felt it coming into Warm Springs AS.  Jen was wonderful and lifted me by saying, “The next time I see you you’ll be done!”  At the AS there were 3 runners and I felt the other two look at me like who’s this guy? (at me).  I was first out and immediately started running like someone was chasing me – because they were.

I hit a mode and ran and ran.  I know this section of the course is hard to I tried to numb the pain and simply proceed.  It’s hard running when you feel chased because your body is constantly negotiating with you to walk a hill or take a 1 minute break but the adrenaline keeps saying, “NO, THEY’RE RIGHT BEHIND YOU!”.  I caught 1-2 more runners but ran mostly alone imagining footsteps behind me or packs of runners chatting effortlessly (pop, you’re down 4 spots when you’re passed).  Thankfully these were the voices of the boat goers lounging on the boat deck in swimsuits drinking beer beneath me.  Damn, that would be nice!

Into the quick out-and-back to the last aid station I saw Meghan.  SHIT she’s strong and SHIT I was hanging with her.  It works both ways as I left the aid station I saw everyone that was chasing me.  They felt so close.  I had a hard 4 miles to go, primarily uphill to the finish.

Up and Down around the lake I snaked mostly alone.

Then I saw a flash of someone below me with 2 miles to go.  I wanted to stop running up hills and rest my legs.  I was hoping I could break from this chasing runner so I belted out a few good paced sections.  I finally saw the 1 mile to go sign (still climbing uphill) I looked back and got a crystal clear, almost electrifying, visual of who was chasing me.

It was blue shirt was snapback hat.  The ONE FREAKING GUY in this entire damn race that MY WIFE told me to BEAT.  I was pissed.  So pissed.  I wanted to walk a fucking hill.  Now because I saw who was chasing me I couldn’t.  So with 1/2 mile to go it was an all out 100% effort to the finish – I can’t let him by!

A rocky summit followed by a street crossing (crossed fingers there was no car coming so I didn’t have to stop… crossed fingers again hoping a car WOULD come forcing him to stop).  I popped up on a flat and kicked it into gear with a quick glance to see if he was on the road behind me.  Weaving through some barriers I hit the grass with 50 yards to close on the finish line and FINALLY felt safe.  He finished 13 seconds behind me!

And it was done, an 8 hour 20 minute finish.  A full 1 hour and 2 minutes off last year’s race that into itself was phenomenal.  I was 34th in a race of MONSTER ultrarunners and it felt right.  It’s where I want to be and continue to be as more boundaries fall.

This being my third Lake Sonoma, John Medinger and his faithful crew, continue to do an amazing job in building an “old school” feeling event into an international destination race that is quickly building to lottery-like magnitude.  A 100% class A event that, with its old school feel, doesn’t cave to pampering runners and lives up to its relentless tag line.

There’s NOTHING that beats a fresh tamale with sea salt sprinkled over it and a cold beer after a 50 mile run!

Last Sunday was CTR’s Montara Mountain 10k, 1/2 Marathon, Marathon, and 50k. We had a wonderful CRC turnout with upwards of 10 runners in all events except the 50k and plenty of cheering from those friends, family, and beyond out to dish out that spark to run, yet another loop!

For me, this race was one to continue the transition into letting go and running in the red – training to be in the lead pack, staying calm in the stress of RACING. What better situation than to run my local trails, pull back the distance a touch, and let’r rip!

First off the pace was wild at the start of the race. I blame Sean (training buddy and CRC member that was running the 1/2 marathon). He took off like he owned the mountain and damn straight that’s how you need to do it! His pace and “White Shirt’s” pace drew the longer distance chase group up and down the mountain at course record speed. This was a prelude to why course records fell for the 1/2 marathon, marathon, and 50k on Sunday.

“Wait!  Shit… I didn’t say hi to Tim.”, I thought while running up Brooks Creek.  For a millisecond my legs locked and attempted to turn around.  I always pay my respects to Tim when I run Pacifica; I was SO MAD at myself for forgetting.  Tim was a highschool friend that passed at the age of 33 and a park ranger at San Pedro Valley Park.  There’s a commemorative bench that I always visit before each race.  I pressed on, thinking about how he’s throughout this park.

I made up time on the downhill from North Peak and closed the gap on the 50k and marathon leader. I quick and very cautious look at my Garmin had me doing at 5:50 min/mile pace. I wasn’t too concerned because I regularly do this in training on these trails. This gap closing speed on the single track Montara Mountain trail lead to one of the most flattering compliments of the day as we doubled back on the remainder of the athletes. Those still coming up the mountain would pull to the side for the lead runners (which is so awesome). This trail is rocky in parts and passing isn’t easy. One runner squished to the side as I skipped over precarious rocks on a side bank to get by. While passing I heard, “Holy Shit!!!” That comment right there was so awesome, candid, and real. It alone made me feel like I had been inducted into an upper trail running “team”.

I pulled up on the eventual 50k winner and new course record holder (beating his own record) Leigh Schmitt. We talked about what races each of us was doing this year. He let me know that he was ~1 month removed from his HURT 100 finish and was still nursing sore feet that suffered 1/2 dollar sized blistering during the race. Of course, in the competitive front you’re always trying to gauge your competition. Most are super nice and you simply have to ask, “What are you running?” He asked me and I told him, “I’m running the Marathon so you don’t have to worry about me.” He also commented that this pace was too fast and that we’re all going to blow up. Leigh is a veteran runner and part of me was wondering if this was a tactic. A way to “plant” fatigue in other runner’s minds – primarily those of new runners. Intentional or not, none of us slowed down.

The course re-entered the park proper and I had the opportunity to say “hi” to Tim.  I pulled from the lead pack of marathoners and 50kers shooting over to his bench.  I didn’t know it at the time but I was in 1st place, letting “No Water Bottle” take the lead.  I laid a hand on the bench and said, “Thank you Tim, for looking after us today.”  And with that, I sprinted away drawing confused looks from the race spectators.

I still hadn’t sorted out whom I was competing with, but during the Valley View / Hazelnut loop I kept attempting to lock-in the race numbers of those in front of me on the switchbacks. I couldn’t quite see (despite my brand new laser vision eye sight). At this point Leigh had taken way off with 2-3 other runners. I was mixed in with “White Shirt” and “No Water Bottle”. On the Hazelnut downhill “White Shirt” comes lumbering past me – mind you I’m doing 6:30 min/mile. At the AS he peels off and finishes the 1/2 marathon (2nd place after Sean); that’s one less guy I’m racing. I head into the AS to see Janeth, whom I training for the Western States 100. She gave me a refill on hydration and quietly said, “You’re in 2nd!” By that time I had figured out that “No Water Bottle” Guy was also in the marathon and he was first AND just leaving the aid station. Strangely I then yell out, “Hey first place guy! Come here!” He actually turned around confused then bolted for THE BATHROOM. I ran past the bathroom heading up for our 2nd ascent up to North Peak.

It hit me… I was in FIRST PLACE. Holy Shit!!!!

I immediately got stressed thinking I have to hold this for 1 more North Peak and 1 more Valley View/Hazelnut loop. Crap that’s a lot of hills and running!

I also thought of Julie Moss, Hawaii Iron Woman with the famous pre-finish collapse that lost her 1st place. WHY are these thoughts in my head? All I needed to do was run. Julie Moss also said when running, “I’m good at something and now somebody’s trying to take it away from me!” Julie Moss was with me as I started up that hill.

On the Brooks Creek Trail you can look back and see if anyone is chasing you. As expected I saw “No Water Bottle” making a charge. I said to myself he has to crack. Look at the signs: He’s new, He’s not caring water (or GU) that I’ve seen, and he’s having bathroom issues. In my mind he’d charge but break himself in the process. I was tired but continued an even pace up the mountain. I needed to make him work!

A few minutes went by and DAMN he was on me. That was so much quicker than I had expected. He continued to ride behind me pushing me but I didn’t speed up too much, just ran at my pace. Then he passed and looked damn fresh, somehow! What the hell! In a newbie like goofy way he said “Ummm, hey, what distance are you running?” I told him then said, “You’re first and I’m second! Great Job!” Then I thought, “Why’d I tell him that!!!” He had no clue what place he was in. He then turned around and said, “See ya at the finish line… {stumbled on his words} … umm but maybe sooner, or something, ya never know!” as he bounced up the mountain.

Part of me was mad; this was my mountain not his. I tried to get lost in my music and transport myself to running this same trail on a not so distance foggy night where, just before we turn off the single track, I emerged out of the fog to see a cloudy blanket tucked around Pacifica.

I pushed up hill and saw a glimpse of “No Water Bottle” bounding up the hill at a rate I couldn’t match. My only chance was to get him on the downhill. As well as I was running today, my uphill isn’t what I thought in comparison to front runners.

Nearing the North Peak summit I saw the gap and it was pretty big. I re-focused on finding where 3rd place was chasing me. (Thoughts of WS quotes ran through my head, “Always run like  your 15 minutes behind someone and someone is 15 minutes behind you). Fortunately the 3rd place runner was an even bigger gap. I motored downhill trying to gain ground pulling slower 6:30 min/miles on aching legs.

I pulled into the aid station beyond ready to finish my last lap, and dang if I didn’t see “No Water Bottle” just leaving the aid station. Again, holy crap, 1st and 2nd at the last aid station with 10k to go! I scarfed chips, did Coke shots, and raced out of there HOPING he was spent. When I left the aid station I saw nothing of him on the Valley View trail. He was just gone. I was in disbelief that he gapped me that quickly. At first I was deflated, then I thought maybe he made a wrong turn and he’s right behind me!?! I powered forward, unfortunately, never seeing him again.

My goal of breaking 4:00 was complete. I finished in 3:41 in 2nd place overall and 1st in my age group. That’s over 20 minutes faster than the previous course record! And, to average 8:24 min/miles over 26.2+ miles with 5,900 ft of elevation climb and descent is amazing – I’m in disbelief and grateful to be healthy and for the competition in each of us pulling one another to grander heights.

I loved giving my boys each a medal (finisher’s and 1st place) and having a wonderful hug and kiss from my awesome wife Jen at the finish line.

Right out of the gate I’m going to deflect. There’s at least 1 other non-elite (top 10 finisher) that has a FIVE consecutive year current streak in running the Western States 100.  Okay, I got that out there! I had to do some research but I found him and he’s a wonderfully humble and appreciative gentleman that carries a deep connection to the race and its history, much like myself.

Unfortunately, to maintain the balance of statistics, there’s also those that have not gotten selected over an equivalent period of time. I think a lot about these runners, a lot. Some have dreams and talents larger than my own, or breath every aspect of the race (volunteering, pacing, attending the training runs, working aid stations) except running. Their dues have long been paid multitudes over. I’m no more deserving than they are, likely less in fact. I simply lie on the other side of the bell curve… for now.

When the time comes for me to seed my trail love along other courses, both new and old, I’ll be there to support them in their journey from Squaw – volunteering, pacing, and aid stations. It’s all huge cog in cyclical dream race that captures the love of us all.  Once you’re in you can’t leave.

In attempting to answer the question: Why? Why me again? I can’t help but think, there’s ‘something’ out there saying:

“Franz, you fucked it up again. You were suppose to do something better – something grand. Here’s your final chance.”