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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.

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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

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miwoklogo

Miwok100k_2013

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!”

CRC_Miwok2013

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.”

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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.

lake_sonoma50_travolta

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!

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For this year’s 39th running of the Western States and my 3rd consecutive year running I wish I could capture a converging moment where tailored training, course experience, and race day drive notched together in a brake-out performance from the pulp of ultrarunnering, solidifying an effort matching the abilities I’ve built through years of hard work.  A performance comparable to dreaming the perfect oceanside scene then capturing it to canvas for all to practically smell its salty mist.  This year’s race didn’t do that, but it should have…  I wanted it to, bad.  To the point that conjuring its memories makes my eyes tear up.  To make writing this more complex I haven’t fully processed the race, emotionally.

But, here goes…

To set the stage the training races leading up to States were going wonderfully.

  • Montara Mountain 50k, PR by ~ 40 minutes
  • Lake Sonoma 50 mile, PR by ~ 38 minutes
  • Miwok 100k, not a PR but 18 minutes faster than last year on a MUCH harder (and longer) course.
  • Ohlone 50k, PR by ~ 34 minutes

Needless to say, I was feeling good about dropping my WS PR below 23:08 with a foundation of results built through training smarter and not harder.  I even became an RRCA certified coach to not only help others but to fold solid coaching knowledge into my own training, with confidence.

The only pre-race hick-up was getting sick.  Three weeks out from race day the family ill found its way into me and knocked me on my ass with throbbing sinuses, a bronchial jarring hack, and feeling like I had mononucleosis.  Sure it was a forced taper, but that’s not how I work; I can run 50 milers in back-to-back weekends feeling fresh.  At first I wasn’t worried but when my bacterial parasite hadn’t left 1.5 weeks out from race day I freaked.  I further freaked when I was feeling “better” and went out for a 4 mile test the body out run in Edgewood and quickly concluded my legs were weak and my lungs hurt, fresh was nowhere in sight.  I was further shamed when the next day my legs were stiff and sore – a 4 mile, easy pace run, bleh.  There was internal panic.  I didn’t let anyone know of the magnitude of my panic, but it was big.

Photo by: Glen Tachiyama

My only recourse was to rest and recover.  Remaining calm was key… may as well because I was running no matter what. I took my antibiotics like a good patient, managing its side-effects and their anti-ultra running diarrheal affects.

Layered a level below that was the weight of life, personal things that anchored me from releasing to the moment.  I’ll allude to them here but refrain from details; I don’t know who reads this blog thing.  But I will say, it’s a trying time and they (or it) played heavily into my Western States run.

Pre-race was typical, again with the wonderful support of my wife Jen, my two boys, and my sister Sona.  This time we stayed in Truckee and attended two mandatory events for a successful Western States run 1) The Truckee Thursdays Street Faire and 2) Visiting Dennis at Rosie’s in Tahoe City.  Dennis is the bartender and has been there 30+ years.  He may toy with being hard of hearing but if you even whisper the word “shot” he’s all over you — “Did someone say shots!”.

Fast forward to the race morning.  It was cold, but nothing hinting at what was ahead.  I toyed with keeping my beenie on but honestly was looking forward to running minimally.  Off I went up into the twilight darkness of an uphill ski slope in a simple outfit of a my CRC short sleeve shirt, some arm warmers, shorts (of course), hat, and a short tube of fabric to mask my face from dust.

Not much snow along the way in past year comparisons, but as I neared the first aid station near the peak, I heard a bunch of crazies cheering.  Those crazies turned out to be none other than Eric, Jose, and HG (Hallelujah Goat) bundled up like a gathering of Eskimos.  Rightfully so because the realization hit of how cold it was getting.  My “dust mask” quickly went over my ears completing my homeless person lost in the Sierras look that I was obviously going with today out of necessity of warmth.  I bid a grand thanks to my buddies with huge hearts pressing for the peak.

Am I at the top yet?  You knew that day when you crested a steep climb then instantly blasted with pelting hail and 45+ mph gusts of wind that smack through you then whipped around and cut to the bone.  What a wake up call with a grand realization that I was not prepared;  I was fabrically challenged.  I immediately roared, “Hallelujah Goat!!!” as hail stung my open lips, then I scampered down some rocky single track for tree cover.  It was on!

I thrive in adversity and love a challenge and today was another one of those days – as Pine to Palm memories flooded with rapid recall from my running history banks.  That worried me though, as that 100 mile race is the one and only I’ve never not finished because I emotionally just broke that day.  I forged on as the weather paused.  At about mile 10 my body just decided to slow, way way down.  Jen Phifier,  female winner of the 2011 HMBIM, passed me.   I bid her a great race (and she had one too) as I tried to hide my sudden and alarming energy collapse.

The trail became more exposed and the weather turned worse, with marrow chilling wind and rain.  Minutes accumulated to hours and I noticed myself developing a mild confusion.  My hands were tight with cold and the dexterity of my foot placement was way off.  The rocky trail no longer ran like a trail runners dream but more like a beer goggled obstacle challenge.  Yet, I never thought I was in that much trouble.  Until suddenly I really wanted to STOP.  I wanted to STOP really bad.  As with any ultrarunning challenge I began thinking through the WHATs and WHYs and WHATIFs.  It became VERY apparent that stopping in this weather would be a series mistake.

My only warmth was to run.

When I realized this I became quite scared.  This was transitioning from the comfort of a 100 mile race to a potential medical situation.  My entire being distilled down to move and eat – it’s all I could see in my mind, it’s all that I could calculate that would keep me warm.  Pushing towards Red Star Ridge (mile 16) I finally got some reprieve in the heaven sent warm chicken noodle soup!  I hunkered under the aid station canopy as the skies unleashed in the biggest downpour of the day.  I remarked, “I’m so glad I’m under here!”  I glanced at the precious volunteer holding my 2nd and 3rd cups of soup and she was shivering – dressed in a big down jacket with beanie and hood – and shivering uncontrollably.  I said, “Oh, you’re cold.  Are you okay?”  The comment seemed to float right through her.  Unfazed she replied, “I’m okay.  Don’t worry about me” as she continued to shovel soup at me and open a GU packet – my gloveless hands were frozen, I could no longer open the packets.

I wanted to quit.  But that moment locked into my brain long enough to realize the sacrifices made not only by this wonderful woman but everyone up and down this course.  We were all in the same weather and I was okay as long as I was moving.  Suck it up.

Ultrarunning friend Pierre welcomed me at Red Star too, happy as ever.  The last time I saw him he was being medi-vaced by helicopter out of Del Valle park unconscious during the Ohlone 50k.  I can’t stop.  Pierre is okay; I can be okay.  Everyone else here has obstacles in life yet today they pause to help us, the runners, with no expectations but a thank you and a smile — and, well, maybe a finish.  Number 282 out!

My mind was locked onto Robinson Flat, 13.7 miles away.  It’s the first place I’d see Jen and she’d have a jacket for me.  It was my singular mission to take advantage of my uptick in body heat to march down this trail to Jen.  The weather broke on and off and with the descent in altitude it warmed a few degrees.  I started to feel better and could move consistently.  Yet, as time wore on the cold pressed harder – again, I couldn’t feel my hands.  My finger tips were blanched white from the tips to be 3rd knuckle.  I had to run with my hand under my shirt to keep it warm.  They began to swell and engulf my wedding ring.

Robinson Flat (mile 29.7) was 1/2 mile away, you could hear the cheers (glorious sounds).  I darted passed a runner sitting in the rain, on a stump, vomiting.  He motioned to go on.  Finally circling through the aid station I saw Hao who immediately gave me his jacket.

Oh damn fucking hell was that the best thing I felt all day!  It was warm and dry and warm.  Long-time trail friend David La Duc complimented me on my homeless person lost in the Sierras look — “Nice outfit Franz!”

I filtered through the aid station to Jen and Hao, both appeared just worried sick about me.  Jen asked if I wanted gloves and, wow, they were like a warm piece of apple pie.  Once we got them on, though.  My hands were so swollen it was a multi-person ordeal just sliding them onto my hands, worrisome to say the least.  Jen mentioned the rain was suppose to stop in an hour.  I could last that long, easy.

Off I went, back into the woods a newly equipped runner.  Not a moment too soon because cresting out of Robinson I was hit with the worst rain of the day.  It poured while traversing the exposed mountain-side left barren by the 2008 fires.  If I didn’t have gloves and a jacket on, no hesitation, I would have been done, plodding back to the AS for an automotive escape.

Photo By: Glen Tachiyama

Although the rain passed my mood remained somber.  It was at this point in the race that I began tuning into my pace and realized, with neither excitement nor dismay, that I was locked on to the 24 hour pace.  I had been here before in 2010 and knew the canyons tend to draw out your pace: pre-canyon 24 hour pace easily morphs into post-canyon 25 hour pace.  The entire ‘thing’ was blah to me.  I just wasn’t my happy self today and I had to come to terms with it before the negative attitude spiraled.  I did cross paths with another runner that was in cloud 9, obviously on some trail medication.  He was very chipper and talkative, so I passed him.  But as I did I share some advice,

“Enjoy the highs when you’re high and look forward to them when you’re low.”

Fortunately for me the canyons were tame this year, allowing me to pick up some time on the 24 hour pace.  Climbs are relative, and the WS canyon climbs are no joke, but if you subtract the heat especially if you’ve run them in serious heat prior, they lose their sting.  It’s all about perspective.  Life is strewn with tests of perspective.

Onward I pressed driving my way to Michigan Bluff.  I came in there strong and fueling well – maybe a little unfocused.  My weight was near perfect.  My trail buddy Hao ran me in and fired off a series of questions.  Nope, no special requests.  I’m just rolling.  Still locked onto 24 hour pace – strangely like a gear in the 24 hour clock.  By then the wet and cold had passed and the day warmed some.  Foresthill was within mental comprehension at a mere 7.3 miles away.  There I’d meet with Jen and my pacer Bryan (it was his first time pacing & will be running his first 100 mile race in July).  I pulled in strong and the entire area really ignited me.  I knew the medical staff there from working it in 2009.  There was a huge crowd of great friends and my crew area from the CRC.  And, my 2 boys were there joking around and mocking me for eating baby food!  As always Jen was wonderful.  I raised some crew concern when I mentioned I was cold all day.  Rightly so, but I think I raised too much concern because they later told me they were worried sick about me being hypothermic.

Max hugging Dad at Mile 62

Picking up Bryan was the perfect dose of excitement for me.  I could tell he was ready to go and competitive about it too. Better yet, he was astutely aware of the 24 hour time that I was still toothed into like a gear.  Bryan’s chatter was great and his trail innocence was even better – while running into Cal 1 he didn’t eat or drink anything at the aid station.  I took note of it and just thought, “maybe he has everything he needs.”  Then going into Cal 2 I mentioned, “Hey Bryan, you can eat at the aid stations too.”  He responded with something like, “Really!?, nice I wasn’t sure.”  That right there made me smile for miles!  It was wonderful to hear and it brought me back to my early ultra days when every aspect of trail racing was brand new.  With that spark in my step Bryan and I went hunting down some runners.

The descent to the river was nice this year, perfect weather and time seemed to float away.  Darkness fell well before we hit sandy bottom which was a bummer because I knew from last year that’s where I turned on my head lamp, so I was behind.  No big deal, but you tune into those multi-sensory reminders during the run.  Sometimes they drive to the forefront of your thoughts – uncontrolled.

The river was amazing.  I was apprehensive crossing the snow melt sourced flow – but craving the wakeup.  Great friend Jose came storming in from the darkness with a huge amount of urgency in his voice.  “Let’s go quick, you can’t waste time in the aid stations!”  He glanced at Bryan as if to say, you should be talking to him like this too! I also heard “Franz! Franz! Franz!” out of the darkness.  I keep thinking who the hell is that, stopping mid-life vest snap to try and match the voice with a face.  Jose seemed alarmed by my easily distracted demeanor.  Finally the face emerged and it was Issac from my RRCA coaching class.  We shook hands then I calmly turn to Jose and said, “I’m cutting it close this year!”  He wrapped my jacket around my neck and hurried me to the cable strung across the river.  “Go, you don’t have time to waste!”

The river iced my beaten legs.  Normally I would have welcomed it, but my core temperature had recovered from the arctic rain running of 15 hours ago.  I wobbled across while trying to navigate boulders covered in waist high water using legs with 79 miles on them.  Graceful?  Nope not that.  I probably resembled a sedated cat thrown in a pool, especially once my chaffed areas were submersed — quick clumsy movements.

After a pause on the farside aid station, the uphill climb to Green Gate was all about warming up.  Stiff legged Bryan and I marched forward, each step getting closer to ALT.  I began feeling the pull of this aid station.  It was going to be filled with so many people I know and love.  My wife, everyone from the Coastside Running Club, friends Eric and Hao.  Days before the race I envisioned running into this aid station barking and yelling, “Hallelujah Goat!”  “Coastside!”.  Then, the woods bellowed with cheers.  Ultras have a knack for throwing a twist into your “dreams” because when I arrived I had a 9.8% desire to not talk to anyone.  I was happy, yes!  But, I think arriving at ALT converged with a wave of mental fatigue likely caused by my transition away from GUs about 2 hours earlier (You CAN’T blame me I had eaten 1 GU every 30 minutes for 16 hours!)

Kristin’s awesome sign. Hey, there’s a donkey in my cup!

I walked into ALT with a shell of a hello and muttered something about blood in my pee.  I didn’t intend it but that comment morphed into a outcry for sympathy that snowballed.  I weighed in fine, but during my prolonged stop I became dizzy which isn’t uncommon as the legs are acting to also circulate blood and when you stop there’s a drop in your blood pressure until your heart realizes it has to kick-in an extra couple of pumps.   My good friend Eric was really attentive to me and very positive calmly rationalizing my discolored urine as normal occurrence – just myoglobin, continue hydrating.  I saw a great poster a wonder lady and friend of my wife, Kristin had made giving reference to the “Wild Ass Running Crew” – that was awesome.  I then asked for some Ibuprofen because my legs were so stiff still from the river.  Eric, and rightly so, lectured me on its effects and potential kidney damage.  What I was REALLY intending to ask for was the Tylenol Jen had in my running bag (it’s better to use while running because it’s processed by the liver and that’s why I packed it).   Thoughts don’t always = words when your sleep deprived and physically spent.  Thankfully Jen knew exactly what I was talking about and retrieved them while Eric continue to warn me of the risks I was about to nottake.  (All the confusion was clarified between Eric and Jen after I left).

Eric and HG looking after me.

If I could take my arrival at ALT back I’d surely make everyone, individually, feel thanked.   Next year… right!?!?!

Off I plodded into the backend ALT darkness with pacer Hao.  I calmly checkout and waved farewell to all my wonderful friends. After moving for about 15 minutes I began to loosen up and started moving a bit. Hao very astutely monitored time and my pace. I knew it was close but enjoyed the time he was giving me to recover and get my legs (and mind) back. We caught up on my life and his not talking a lick of running and it was great – after being in constant immersion of running for 20+ hours it’s GREAT to take a break from that.

We cruised through Brown’s Bar.  I was eating well, which was wonderful.  I absolutely fell in love with these mini pickles wrapped in ham and cream cheese! I cleared their plate, nothing was left.  The BB wasn’t as festive this year without the Hash House Harriers, but still an oasis in the still darkness.

At this point the AS volunteers were giving out growingly stern warnings about the 24 pace pulling closer.  I remebered a blonde lady collapsing into a chair for a “quick rest”.  Immediately someone approached her and said you don’t have much time.  Don’t sit long.

Hao and I left for the long push to Highway 49.  The 24 hour runners were beginning to coagulate.  (At the end of races you’ll see no one for hours, but when you’re close to the end runners will bunch up in hour finishing groups – ESPECIALLY at the 24 hour mark).  Hao and I ran into Highway 49 cutting 24 hour time a little too close.  To my amazement I saw Eric and Denise just exhausted, but there to cheer me on.  My lovely wife Jen was there too.  My memories were foggy, but I did wish I could have spent more time thanking them.  But I couldn’t.  Time was too close.

Reaching No Hands Bridge was nice.  I told Hao is was a treat for me to show him what the last 2 miles of the course looked like in the dark, sub-24.  There’s a big screen up and Christmas lights everywhere.  You’d think the emotion of almost being there would overcome you, but you’re too tired to do anything but move forward.  Dehydration steals your tears and overwhelming fatigue robs you of emotion.

Hao and I ran, and we were just happy.

As always Robie Point was amazing with energy, bonfires, gongs, signs, and joyous people wrapped in blankets.  The simple phrase of “Welcome to Auburn” rattles your soul.  You can feel yourself morphing into a stronger person.  Each runner congratulates the next as we cruise on blistering painful concrete as if it were mile 1 again.  The stadium lights and muffled PA system yanks us closer.  The track came into view and I said something that shocked Hao (realize we’ve already gone through hell and back, 2x, so not much is shocking).

I turned to Hao and said, “I love that track.  If it wouldn’t be so awkward I’d drop my pants an put my balls on it!”

As we rounded the track there was Jen, Eli, and Max.  In minimalist style (or a child’s fervor) they came storming at me barefoot running around on the track at 4:52AM in the morning.  That’s right a mere 8 minutes to spare from the pinnacle sub-24 hour finish.  John Medinger announced my Grand Slam accomplishments and, thankfully, reminded me to hug my wife.

The burst of adrenaline fuels about a 30 minute celebration but soon after I’m asleep in a sleeping bag on the infield grass in a deep slumber, one that rivals a bear’s hibernation.

The true celebration comes 2-3 days after the race when your body has completed its throws of exhaustion and depletion – it’s like zombie mode.  And for me I have to transition back into normal life far too early.  There’s NOTHING like it, nothing that I’ve ever experienced.

It’s a life-time packed into a day.

I wouldn’t live any other way.

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Photo by Coastal Trail Runs

In a mix of 1/2 marathoners, marathoners, and 50kers I found myself trailing the lead pack by a surprising eye shot as we traced along the Brooks Creek Trail.  Typically I’m not a fast starter but I was enjoying feeling good on the initial North Peak climb while holding a great pace.  I knew quite a bit about the 50kers  leading the race:  Dan Rhodes is a good friend from the coast that’s a fast marathoner and successfully training for a fast 1st time 50 miler at this year’s AR50.  John Burton whom I don’t know personally but I did know he was last year’s CTR winner and course record holder.  I knew he was well capable of a sub 5 run here.  And most notably Leigh Schmitt whom I’ve met in previous Pacifica events and at the 2011 Vermont 100.  Leigh is an amazingly fast and consistent runner – and one of the nicest guys.  I mean at Vermont he extended an open invitation to swing by his Bay Area home.

With me in tow this group of runners drove me beyond my splits and the coastal views of Linda Mar State Beach on a sunny and warming “winter” day made it seem all too easy.  The out-and-back allowed for a quick time check and I was within minutes of the leaders.  This was also a great time to support other runners and good friends:  Margaret (CRC Club Member), Mariano and Nancy Warren (friends from the waay back High Sierra 3 Step), Rick Hernandez, and Janeth Silva.  I saw at least 3 runners with hats or shirts from last year’s Half Moon Bay International Marathon.  That felt really good being an organizer for the event and they were wearing it with pride.

I knew my ~ splits from last year’s PCTR run (although the course is run in a different order):

  • 1st North Peak to AS — last year 1:15  (this year 1:00)
  • 1st Hazelnut Loop — last year 0:58  (this year 0:50)
  • 2nd Hazelnut Loop — last year 1:00  (this year, run after 2n NP summit 1:00)
  • 2nd North Peak to AS — last year 1:30  (this year 1:06)
  • Short Hazelnut Loop — last year 0:46  (this year 0:41)

Amazing to me this was my first run beyond 20 miles during this year’s training, yet I felt fresh and was continuing to put time on last year’s splits.  I enjoyed the competitive feel of both chasing and being chased.

In the end I finished in 4:51:35 for 5th overall.  I received a neat 3rd place age group medal that my boys quickly confiscated.  Max immediately turned it upside down and told everyone the winged shoe looked like underpants.  Here are the overall results.

Coastal Trail Runs put on a superb event with great organization, a gold standard for course marking, and wonderfully friendly volunteers.  I’d highly recommend thier events for first-time and long-time trail runners alike.

A few new things I’ve been tweaking:

  1. Training more conservatively to start out the year.  I’ve run more 30k distances when in year’s past I’d run 50ks from the start.  The motivation for doing this is to avoid injury, like the stress fracture sustained last year that started with a January 50k in Pacifica.  However, in bartering with my inner self I allow myself to race the 30ks treating them more like a tempo workout.  Over just 2 30 races this has really increased my speed over distance in the longer runs.  I very pleased with this given my Western States goal is 21 hours.
  2. Fueling more.  During this race I was taking GU’s Roctane every 30 minutes as opposed to 40 (which last year I had determined through trial and error was my consumption limit).  What I also noticed is with a sustained increase in pace my body can handle a higher intake of calories.  Often times I found myself taking GU before my alarm went off.
  3. Running minimally.  Not the footware type but equipment-wise.  Even in scuba diving my mantra is less is better.  When underwater and you have 1 extra thing to track or get snagged on kelp, that’s one too many.  I feel like that in running also.  Over time it becomes physically cumbersome for me to carry things.  That’s in part due to my smaller frame and weaker arm and core strength.  It really just fatigues me then cascades into a mental fatigue.  At Montara Mountain I ran most of the race with no shirt which I’ve REALLY wanted to do for a long time – purely for the cooling effect.  But I’ve rarely done it due to a deep rooted, high school-like self consciousness.  It felt good to run free… and chaff in new places.
  4. Mentally, I simply believed in my endurance and ability to push beyond the hurt.  Last year’s Grand Slam taught me acutely what I can and can’t do.  My body often lies, telling me I can’t go on.  The hurt is too much.  Blah.  It lies.
  5. I’ve been taking a supplement from Wicked Fast Sports Nutrition.   I met the owner during the Vermont 100 and later exchanged a few emails with him regarding his products.  He send me a sample pack so I’m finally getting around to giving it a go.  Simply due to the name and number of pills you take I probably won’t have tried them on my own.  However, I am learning that micro nutrients are a critical part of long-term sustainable training.  I feel they’re working – especially the pre-race Energ-Ease.  I’m a difficult to convince, critical thinker but so far it’s helping.

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I’ve written a few blog posts that haven’t made the “publish” command. To name a few there’s my Wasatch race report and an ITR Brooks Falls race report. For much different reasons I haven’t posted them. My Brooks Falls initial write-up weighted rather critically on ITR’s inaugural event. As such I didn’t feel right in throwing something like that into the internet nethers. I refrained.

This weekend I’ll be heading to Pacifica once again to run Coastal Trail Runs’ Montara Mountain 50k event. It’s challenging course and great opportunity to up my long run mileage from the 20 mile range. Truth be told I’m really enjoying racing the 30 km distance, but the time has come for me to get back to work on the ultra distances. I love the CTR Entrant’s List format because pre-race I can see who’ll be there – both friends and competition. Yup, I ran most of the names through ultrasignup.com and found I have a pretty good chance at running top 5 again (although that’s changing by the day, even hour). We’ll see how the legs recover from last weekend’s 30k PR.

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