Sunday, August 18, 2019

Deep and Utter Disappointment

Yesterday and today I ran for the first time since Never Summer 100K. Three weeks without a step run. Three weeks intended to heal some lingering injuries. Three weeks designed to improve my health.

I have been dealing with an injury issue that I can't resolve. It first cropped up in the summer of 2017 and has stuck around since then. First, a pinch in the left hip that then spread to the lower abdomen and groin. I've seen my primary care physician and an orthopedic sports medicine specialist and a physical therapist and a chiropractor. I've had X-rays and MRIs and injections and range of motion tests. The issue has been impossible to nail down. A torn hip labrum. An adductor strain. A psoas strain. Severe inflammation.

It has been extremely frustrating. The issue doesn't prevent me from running. I've raced two marathons, run a third for fun, race two 50Ks and Never Summer all with the injury present. I've run around 7000 training miles. I can run. And usually I can do exactly what I set out to do. But sometimes the injury really fires up and I can't run intervals the way I'd planned to. Or I have to stop several times during a long run because the pain manifests as pressure similar to the urge to poop. Or I can't walk up a set of stairs the next morning due to hip soreness. But mostly I can run, so I just continue running.

These three weeks without running were intended to really give whatever this unidentified injury is a good solid rest. If it truly was just a matter of sever inflammation, three weeks should largely help resolve that. Psoas or groin strains should feel a lot better. Three weeks is quite a bit of rest. I should feel meaningful improvement in the injury, at least for a while until the miles pile up again.

So, yesterday I headed out for my first run with high hopes. Not high hopes that it would be a good run. There was no chance after three weeks of no activity other than some yoga every other day (really tough stuff for me, but not aerobic running fitness) that the run was going to feel good. And it was a ragged mess, struggling to make it through a bit more than five miles. No surprise. But there was a surprise. My groin was tight. My abdomen became aggravated immediately. My hips unhappy. I wrote it off to first-day-back gunk and moved on.

Today I went out to run longer. Still a bit of a mess. My legs screamed at me by five miles in. Evidently, the yoga's really been doing a number on my quads (perhaps an answer to my "how to prepare quads for downhill running question!") But the groin, abdomen and hips were also super unhappy. I was immediately right were I had been a month ago. It's like I'd not taken a single day off. No improvement, none.

I was met with deep and utter disappointment. How could three weeks of total rest not improve this at all? How could I immediately be back in the same place I was before? It doesn't make sense. Just as nothing about this injury has made sense.

So I'll continue to blunder through. Mostly able to run what I want to run. Mostly able to train the way I hope to train. And next time I think about taking time off, I may simple ignore the impulse because, why?

Thursday, August 15, 2019

#runninglifelessons: Practice Over Mastery

I think I'll call these little life lessons learned while running Running Life Lessons. Even better, #runninglifelessons for a bit of cheesy hashtag absurdity. Very creative stuff, I know.

This week's anecdote is something that's struck me over and over in life, and a lesson I fail to really grab on to. It just slips away and getting through takes over. It's particularly evident in running, but just as true everywhere else, I think.

Practice Over Mastery (And Over Surviving)

I recently sat down to start writing out a training plan for the Jacksonville Marathon. Jacksonville is going to be my next (and hopefully last) attempt to run a marathon in under 3 hours. 3 hours will be fast for me, fast for many people, and completely and entirely pedestrian relative to the true fast people...a topic for another time.

Anyway, as I began to write the plan out, it struck me that this plan really wasn't all that different than my last race plan nor the one before or any other. It was made up of the same pieces basically put together in the same order. Run six days a week, maybe some doubles, a total of about nine training bouts per week. One of those runs is hard and fast intervals, often at a track. Another is run at a tempo around my target race pace or a bit faster. One is a long 35KM run. Everything else is just some jogging around with some strides here or there, maybe a few hills sprints. But just running.

It's the same structure I used for my first marathon, for the Boston marathon, for the Georgia Death Race, for Never Summer. Little things were tweaked here or there, maybe some extra hill work or stairs, but really the same thing.

It's practice. Every day, every week, every month; practicing the same things. Practicing pace, practicing being comfortable with discomfort, practicing the discipline of lacing up the shoes and walking out there door each day. There's no mastery involved. There's no "Hey, I've figured this out!" moment. Just more and more practice to hopefully be a bit better than yesterday.

And I think that's true everywhere. I know there's no mastering my profession. I know this, yet have a habit of pursuing and hoping for mastery, or worse, thinking I've kind of attained it. I haven't, not by a long shot. Instead, each work day should be viewed as another day to practice that profession, to get just a bit better than previously. Each day should include a deliberate goal to improve something, not just to show up and do the job, not just to make it through another day, not to determine I've figured it all out and now get to coast along happily meandering toward retirement.

And it's true personally. Instead of surviving everything that life throws my way, but actually trying to get a bit better at life each day.

And it's small, micro-improvements. In running, you don't even notice them. Today's run feels a lot like yesterday's run which feels not all that different than the run three months ago. Then, one day you just try running a bit faster than you did before or a bit farther or something a bit more challenging (12,000 feet high in the mountains, perhaps!), and you can do it and it's not too bad and you have improved and the practice has paid off. Professionally, you don't even have a race or a pace to test yourself. You just notice one day that ideas flow more easily or you communicate a bit more clearly or dots connect that didn't used to. In life, I don't think there's any benchmark at all, just faith that a little improvement is a good thing.

Screw mastery. Just keep practicing, in whatever it is you're doing. The challenge for me is remembering this lesson and then practicing practicing. I'll keep practicing.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

JAX Marathon Training Plan

What the heck. I'm using this space again anyway. Might as well just put all my running and fitness thoughts here, as meaningless as they are to anyone else and as self-absorbed as they may seem. At least it will help me rebuild the habit of regular writing even if trite and low value stuff.

Prior to Never Summer, I had decided to take the month of August off of running entirely. I hadn't taken a serious pause in a couple years at least and have had some lingering mini-injuries. A month off certainly wouldn't hurt things. I've been faithful to that commitment so far and haven't run a mile since Never Summer. But I'm getting the itch to get moving again, and the yoga I've been using to do something just doesn't serve the same need for discipline daily running does.

So yesterday I decided to start working on a training plan for the Jacksonville Marathon, my next (and final) attempt to run a marathon in under 3 hours. I know, both not a truly fast marathon time and also quite fast for the vast majority of runners. Always a funny place to be in.

The training plan begins to develop:

Eek! That's a lot of expensive shoes to try!
This didn't scratch the running itch. I won't make it through August. But it did help me not run today and firm a commitment to stay off the road until next Saturday. 6 additional days is a heck of a lot better than 0.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Running Is Life

What an aggrandizing, over-zealous title. But there's truth to that title in a small way.

For some time, I've realized that in every running race there are these small moments that are microcosms of big life themes. Lessons learned in only minutes that could take years to understand in the broad context of a life. For some time, I've thought about writing about them. But it's always felt like self-puffery, like an excuse to tell you about my latest running exploit, like a way to brag just a bit more. And perhaps there's some truth to that.

Despite that, I'm going to try writing about some of these moments anyway. For one, I've missed writing and really want to begin again. For another, I want to put these moments to words to help my own learning of the lesson taught. And finally, just maybe someone else will get something out of it other than "man, this guy likes to talk about himself."

Some of these will be small, little, almost nothings. Others will hit on really big themes. Some will even appear as trite banalities such is "like life, running is about a journey and not just reaching a goal" although I'll do my best to minimize those.

So I invite you to join along as I share one thing learned while out running and racing that applies broadly to life. I'll try to do this weekly for as long as the ideas strike me. I'd love to hear your feedback, if something really resonates or if you think I'm way off base. And I'll begin with a short vignette from the Never Summer 100k ultramarathon this week.

Lesson: They're Just Regular People

This thought has been swirling in my mind for some time, but it really connected with me as I climbed up the steep incline to the summit of North Diamond Peak at the Never Summer 100k race. The idea is a simple one, but a bit shocking, as well.

Growing up, I'd flip through National Geographic magazine and read other stuff describing explorers of the world, of wilderness, of exotic locations. People trekking to the north pole, climbing Everest, diving to the bottom of the ocean. We would occasionally drive to Switzerland for family vacations, and there would always be a TV channel in the hotel playing video of a mountaineering expedition climbing some alpine ridge to summit a mountain. These were fascinating stories of exploration and adventure to me.

In my mind, the people that did these things became superhumans with born abilities that the rest of us did not have and could not cultivate. They were other and better than the rest of us. They could do things the rest of us could only dream of doing. They were unique and special.

Thunderheads loom above as we climb high up Diamond Peak
As I climbed North Diamond Peak with a line of other racers, it really struck home with me how wrong that thinking had been. Here I was, just a regular guy in a line of regular people, after just over four years of meaningful running training; climbing an incredibly steep mountain summit with a thunderstorm only inches over our heads to then run several miles along an exposed alpine ridge. And this was just a short piece of the entire race for that day!
There's absolutely nothing superhuman about me, no unique born abilities that others don't have, nothing special. As I looked around at the others climbing with me, I suspected many of them would say the same about themselves. Sure, some people may have been born with a bit more natural talent at running and hiking and climbing, some were bigger and others smaller, some stronger and more muscular and others skinnier and more lithe, but everyone was pretty much a "regular" person and certainly not a superhuman.

As my racing adventures have become more adventuresome, from early local races to now full-blown high elevation mountain ultramarathons, this idea that most of these people aren't superhuman has been percolating. Of course, there are some outliers at the very top of any sport who have extraordinary abilities, but I bet even those people are more regular than not. There is nothing special about me, except I did some training and signed up! It's both a liberating thought and a frightening one.

The question out of the lesson then is, what other things have I decided I could not do simply because I had the belief that those things were reserved for superhumans? Maybe something professionally? Perhaps another athletic endeavor? Maybe something in day to day life? What have I passed up that I really should try taking on? I almost think it's exactly those things that I've attributed to "only for superhumans" that are exactly what my heart desires to pursue, but fears to do so.

What about you?

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

2019 Never Summer 100k - A Tale Of Two Races

I wasn't going to write this race report. I really wasn't. I had decided my race report writing was self-indulgent blathering about materially selfish endeavors. Then I had another runner ask for a write up. Shortly thereafter, I listened to a podcast where the guest discussed the privilege of being able to visit these places, and the importance of sharing about these places so few of us ever get to experience. In this person's mind, it would be selfish to not share with those who do not or cannot visit. Serendipity. So, now I've written a self-indulgent bit of blathering about my materially selfish endeavor.

I recently completed the Never Summer 100K in Gould, CO. It's a newer race in the remote wilderness of the northern Colorado Front Range. At the pre-race dinner the night before the start, even Coloradans discussed how few of them knew about these mountains before they ran Never Summer. And almost everyone I met had run in a previous year and said the same thing...they had to come back because of who beautiful and special the course was.

The course trail features just about everything one could imagine in a mountain ultra: single track through thick forest, snow fields, alpine ridges (WOW! I need more of these!), alpine lakes, boulder fields, endless creek crossings, mud (and mud and mud and some deeper mud), inclines of what felt like 89 degrees climbed on all fours (probably about 40 degrees), declines equally steep, portions of trail where there was no trail at all, a bit of road, some jeep trails. Oh, and some serious elevation for a lowlander, five crossings well above 11,000 feet. Everything.


The logistics for this race are phenomenal. It's in true wilderness. No hotels anywhere nearby. All available accommodations something short of rustic. Camping is really it. Camping in a tent, a camper, a car or a cabin. Running water...well, there's snow melt flowing in the nearby creeks. But the logistics are phenomenal. The race allows you to book a car camping site at the start line right on Ultrasignup. The drive from Denver International Airport to the Gould Community Center is gorgeous. The race hosted a potluck dinner the night before, a dinner after finishing the race, and a breakfast the morning after the race. We had no food to plan other than a dish to pass at the potluck and a pre-race breakfast. Remote wilderness, but so easy.

I had traveled to this race with one of my training partners, Eddy. Eddy's a hell of an ultramarathon runner, much faster than me. It was also his first mountain ultra. And it was my first high elevation ultra. Georgia Death Race had more elevation to climb and descend, but never crossed 6,000 feet. Neither of us had any idea what to expect from the Never Summer course and elevation. Would we be able to climb? Would we even be able to breath?

Race Number One

Race morning was a bit chaotic. Eddy and I woke up around 4AM, nearly a half hour before our alarms. We had both had the same thought, being so close to the starting line should make getting ready a breeze. We barely made it there. I forgot to brush my teeth. Eddy just made it to the start out of the port-a-potty. A poorly executed start.

It was cold, but not overly cold. A long-sleeve shirt was enough to stay relatively warm in the mass of people at the start line. The sun rose as we waited for the race to head out. The racers were the fittest looking bunch I've seen at an ultra. Before I knew it, we were off.

The first two miles ran along a wide, gravel path with a very gentle incline. It was a great, easy warm up and the pack stayed close together. Late in the second mile, we turned up our first climb of the day, to the top of 7 Utes Mountain. And it was the climb you can't practice in South Florda or really anywhere on the east coast. 3 miles upward, climbing every step, each quarter mile a bit steeper than the last. And a theme for the day would develop.  About half way up, we stopped to remove a layer of clothing as we really heated up from the climbing. The view during that stop gave us our first glimpse of the endless mountain vistas we'd experience all day.

Climbing 7 Utes

Layer stripped, and it was time to start climbing again. The trail was still relatively wide, not a congested conga line up a narrow trail like the beginning of Georgia Death Race. It was hard work, but very comfortable. Near the top of 7 Utes, we encountered snow for the first time. SNOW! I had hoped all along we would have a little snow to really give us that mountain feeling. Then we were above the tree line and on to the 7 Utes summit at 11,478 feet.

7 Utes Summit
And the wind was cold, very cold, above the tree line with no protection. I had left my long sleeve shirt on and felt quite comfortable. Eddy had dropped to a singlet and was clearly a touch uncomfortable. We took a few moments to absorb the beauty of where we were. It was truly incredible. In every direction, rolling hills and craggy peaks and snow covered blocks of granite.

After a few quick photos - I had promised myself to make time for photos while being in this incredible space - we got moving again to not get too cold. And we were off for our first big descent of the day down the other side of 7 Utes. It was steep and frightening and went on and on. These descents are what I feared most. I have yet to find a way to train for these quad crushing downhills in flat Florida. Sure, a treadmill on decline gives some of that stimulus, but it's nothing like a 30 degree decline with rocks and roots and trees to avoid, fear of tripping and face-planting forcing me to put the brakes on. I had no problem climbing up with the locals, a fact all day long. But the downhills were another matter as runner after runner would pass by easily gliding down the descents.

Descending 7 Utes - Absolutely Beautiful Views While Crushing Quads
Off 7 Utes, we had our first relatively mild section of running. Small rollers and a climb or two around the mountainsides with views of the Crags eventually brought us to our first alpine lake, Lake Agnes. During this section of running, Eddy and I agreed we had been working a bit harder than we had hoped and decided to back off a bit. I had come into the race wanting to enjoy the day so long as I finished under 23 hours, the time required for a Western States lottery ticket. We were way under that pace and could tell we'd been putting in quite a bit of effort.

As we dropped down to Lake Agnes, another theme developed...spectators. I had never been at an ultra with an actual number of spectators. But here they were. Dozens of people who were camping around Lake Agnes or had hiked up to find us, cowbell ringing and encouragement and cheering echoing throughout the valley. How very cool. Incredible mountain views and heavy encouragement ringing from every direction. And then the lake came into view...

Lake Agnes - Incredible to think this sits at 10,500 feet
We continued around Lake Agnes for a bit and onto our first scree trail of the day followed by our first snow crossing. I had been looking forward to a snow crossing, but was surprised to find this one on a steep downhill. The two runners in front of me slid down it on their shoes just as if they were wearing skies. I decided to try the same, certain I'd end up on my rump in a moment. To my surprise, I safely found myself at the far end of the snow still on my feet. Off the snow, we headed onto a jeep trail and eventually into the Michigan Ditch aid station.
Heading toward Cameron Pass

I grazed and refilled bottles with VFuel at the aid station waiting for Eddy to arrive, who had fallen a bit back somewhere along the way. Eddy took just a few moments to eat some food, then we were on our way into our second big climb of the day. A roughly 1,500 foot climb brought us into high elevation again at around 11,300 feet.

Then we headed down into our first really significant descent of nearly 3,000 feet and a few miles into Cameron Pass and the Diamond aid station at mile 17.2. Diamond aid station is an important stop, the final aid station before the climb to the high point of the race, North Diamond Peak. Eddy and I took some time here. I gorged on salted avocado quarters and bacon which I would seek out all day, plus some gummi bears and other sugary goodness. We both cleared our shoes of dirt that had accumulated from several small creek crossings. Eddy dug through a drop bag to determine if he had anything he wanted to carry along. Then we headed out knowing what lay ahead was going to be a real doozy, and the most beautiful part of the entire course.

We started out along a bit of dirt road, then spent a short while running down Highway 14 before heading into a broad trail that went up and up and up. During this climb, it was my turn to stop and change out of a layer of clothing due to overheating. Of course, I knew the likelihood was that the wind above treeline might again be cold, but the day had gotten warm. After a couple miles of climbing on this broad trail, we turned onto a narrow bit of single track through dense trees that appeared to go straight up. Every step was a fight and the trail became steeper and steeper, eventually demanding that we zig zag left and right while going uphill to create our own switchbacks. And, through the trees, we could see people appearing no larger than ants way up on an exposed ridge line above to the North Diamond Peak summit, the high point of the race.
My attempt to capture the steepness of this climb
The barely-there trail continued up and out of the tree line. Unbelievably, as we came out of the trees, the trail seemed to disappear entirely and became even steeper! The summit was now visible, but looked a mile away. Step after step, we fought up the steep incline, Eddy dropping to all fours and me leaning heavily on my trekking poles. All around us, other racers fought and huffed and swore as they willed their legs up another step. Slowly, but steadily, the summit got closer. A quick break on a rock outcropping for some nutrition and photos before the final ascent was called for. The scenery was a thing out of this world
Just leaving the tree line

Nutrition up high

Crags and peaks everywhere

Finally, we headed for the summit. We could now see the expressions on the faces of those who had reached the top. The wind was sharp and cold, but the difficult climbing kept us plenty warm. And then, less than 15 feet from the summit, the booming crack of thunder rocked the entire mountain range. The cloud cover hung just feet above the summit which was just feet above our heads. We continued up only to be met by a mountain rescue ranger running off the summit telling us to side hill the summit for our safety. More thunder rumbled and rolled as we worked our way around the summit. I'm certain summiting would have been much easier and quicker than this side shuffle along the edge of an extremely steep mountaintop. But the thunder was more than a touch frightening and we had no desire to defy very forceful orders from the rescue people. We did not get to summit the high point of the entire course at 11,826 feet, but taking on a thunder storm on an exposed ridge line at high elevation seems to make up for those 15 missed feet as far as experiences go.

Having worked our way around North Diamond Peak summit, we encountered a massive alpine ridge line. For what seemed to be miles in front of us lay a completely exposed set of peaks and saddles. And along the entire ridge were runners fading off into the distance. We'd be descending and climbing 3 or 4 of these peaks before we next got to drop out of this high elevation. And the thunder kept cracking the entire way, although the darkest clouds seemed to fall behind us after a bit.
The Ridge Line!

On this ridge line, I also realized that I had cell phone connection. I had been trying to text my wife a Happy Anniversary message all morning, but the message would not send despite some moments of apparent signal. I tried something new up here, a quick FaceTime call. Lo and behold, I was suddenly face to face with my wife and son while hiking across an alpine ridge line at 11,500 feet in utter remote wilderness! A few moments for anniversary wishes, a few more to show my son and daughter the scenery and I was back focused on the task at hand, but with the weight removed of not having been able to reach my wife on our anniversary.

The first of dozens of creek crossings
After this alpine ridge line, we headed off the Never Summer mountains stopping briefly at the Montgomery aid station for more avocado and bacon and then down to 9,500 feet. As we headed back into the tree line, it began to rain. Just a drizzle for now and nicely cooling, as the day was warmer at lower elevation. Then the rain became a bit harder. Finally, the rain turned to sleet and hail and was absolutely freezing. Eddy and I took off. We ran (relatively) hard to stay warm. We kept moving as hard as we could because this rain was cold! For what felt like hours, the freezing rain and hail pelted us. We encountered our first really significant creek crossing with no way to avoid getting knee deep in fresh snow melt water. We were cold. We knew we were cold, but were moving well enough and creating enough heat to cope with it.  And then we arrived at the Ruby Jewel aid station at mail 29.4

The aid station was a scene of carnage. Runners were freezing and not certain how to cope all over the place. Runners in emergency blankets. Runners borrowing clothing from aid station workers. Runners grabbing trash bags or anything else they could find to create makeshift clothing. Runners dropping out, 25 total at this aid station alone, I believe. The volunteers were awesome (true at every aid station), tending to runners, offering hot broth (a life saver!), doing whatever they could to keep runners safe and moving, identifying those who seemed to be in particular trouble and making a challenging situation bearable.

The moment I stopped, I began severely shivering. The long shirt I had removed earlier was soaked, so I quickly put on my thin Salomon jacket instead. Then my gloves, but these were also soaked and only made my hands colder. The jacked helped, but not enough. Fortunately, I had purchased a Rab Xenon X jacket just before the race fearful that it might get very cold at night and had stuffed it in my pack, despite being a bit bulky. It was a lifesaver. I immediately warmed and was able to eat and drink and think straight.

The race directors warned that the upcoming ten miles were some of the most challenging on the course. Particularly remote and rugged trail with a significant climb and no aid for over 10 miles. Eddy and I knew we needed to spend extra time refueling and filling up with liquids here at Ruby Jewel. Eddy had also put on a coat and gloves, and we were fortunate to be warm enough to do what needed to be done at this aid station.

After a good 15 minutes, we headed back out onto the trail. The rain stopped shortly after we left and I was too warm only a few minutes later. And the coat was back off and into the pack. We both hoped for no more rain.

These next 10 miles may have been the most beautiful on the entire course. Single track trail, creek crossings, water falls, valleys with high ridges. The course worked it's way up slowly to our final true high elevation climb, but the steep and aggressive climbs were behind us. We slowly wended our way around various mountainsides consistently gaining elevation. The rain had stopped and the sun shone from time to time. The air was comfortably warm as we met new runners and crossed paths with some we had met earlier. Neither Eddy nor I was in a rush, always resettling on taking it easy.

Kelly Lake Trail

For about four miles we continued up this green lush valley until the entire mountain opened up as we reached the high point of this climb, again well over 11,000 feet. On each side of this open valley were towering peaks and in front and behind us, granite massifs as far as the eye could see. I continued to climb strong, often passing many runners. Par for the course, on short downhill sections I would immediately be passed by those runners again.
A short break on the Kelly Lake trail climb
Eventually, we found ourselves approaching the largest snow field we'd encountered the entire day. We could see runners ahead slowly crossing this snow field, at least the size of a couple football fields. And then, beyond that snow field, Kelly Lake. We had passed several alpine lakes throughout the day, but Kelly Lake was something different. The other lakes were not at nearly this elevation, not above the tree line, not around snow. But here sat Kelly Lake, over two miles in the sky, stretching before us, craggy and rugged mountain peaks on all sides. Just stunning.

We worked our way across the snow field, and discovered that we next had to cross a boulder field for about 100 yards. This might have been fun on another day, without 35 miles and 10,000 feet of climbing in our legs. But on this day, it was a bit torturous, every boulder feeling unstable and legs even more unstable. Slowly we worked across these boulders only to discover other runners 30 yards lower on the boulder field moving very easily. We had missed the easy line and made the job much harder than necessary. Then, as we approached the finish, the first drops of rain began to fall and the sky darkened quickly.

Eddy and I were both concerned. Now we were very high, the wind was very cold, and another rain storm built. This time we were smarter. We quickly stopped and put warmer clothing on and begin moving down the mountain as quickly as we could. The rain picked up as we dropped below the tree line and back into a forest. It poured, a freezing rain again, but we were fortunate to drop elevation quickly and get some help from tree cover. The rain continued for about 15 minutes or so. We dealt with it much better this time and continued on our way.

But the race directors had been correct. This 10 miles went on forever, were extremely rugged, and drained us. Both Eddy and I found ourselves in one of those dark spots that always comes up in an ultra. We were short on calories and short on motivation. But we slowly reached the Clear Lake aid station, which we would visit twice with an out and back up to Clear Lake in between. The report on the race had been that the first 40 miles to Clear Lake aid station were the most difficult, and the 20+ miles thereafter much easier and more runnable. All day, Eddy and I had talked about conserving energy and legs for those final 20 miles. But as we approached Clear Lake, it became clear that we were both suffering. We had survived the elevation without either of us having any severe elevation effects. Both a small headache at different times, but nothing more significant. But the steep downhills and the cumulative climbing had had its toll. Hopefully, the final 20 miles would be easier so we could keep moving decently.

Race Number Two

We approached Clear Lake with a plan to sit down, change socks, regroup and prepare for the easier section of the race. The most difficult of the climbing was done. We wouldn't cross 11,000 feet again. It was time for a reset. Unfortunately, as we arrived at Clear Lake aid station, it was raining again. We decided to not change socks or touch our shoes. Eddy slammed a Red Bull and I ate several salted avocado slices, seriously the best ultra food in the world. Then we headed out for the 2.2 mile climb up to Clear Lake.
Clear Lake...cold, dreary, still impressive

My climbing was still strong and I slowly put a gap on Eddy. I let him know I'd get up to the top of the climb and wait for him there. However, as I reached the top, the rain started again and a cold wind blew in. I decided to continue back down to the aid station, knowing I'd pass Eddy on the way to let him know why I continued.

I moved slowly, really slowly, on the way down. My quads were shot. Somebody, please tell me how to train for trail downhills in Florida! I was about a half mile ahead of Eddy when I passed him on his way up. We spoke momentarily, but both wanted to continue because of the cold. And it was starting to get dark.

Eventually, I reached the aid station and heard something I've never had to worry about at an ultra before...cut-offs. People were discussing the cut-offs at various aid stations and we weren't far off. A new experience for me. We had been taking it easy, but I didn't realize that easy. However, we were now going to get started on the easy part of the course. Smaller climbs, lower elevation, reportedly runnable. Eddy arrived back to the aid station only a few minutes after me, having made up a ton of time on the way down. We got ready to head out into the dropping sun with 8 hours to cover 20 miles for a finish under 23 hours. The cut-off is 24 hours, but a sub 23 hour finish is needed to earn a Western States lottery ticket. It sounded simple and we headed out.

The next 20 miles can be described in one word: mud. Sometimes super slick mud. Other times, knee deep mud. Occasionally, both. Shoe sucking, soul draining mud. Nearly every step of the way for the first 12 miles we dealt with mud. It was slow. It was miserable. It was dark. And it was so muddy. The shoes got heavier. It was not runnable.

During the first 12 miles out of Clear Lake the only item of note other than mud was crossing a high mountain prairie in the dark. As we crossed, we heard loud grunting. It wasn't too close, but it was loud and large. Clearly a moose. We couldn't see it in the dark, but we could hear it snort and grunt evidently unhappy with our presence. And it was frightening. A few miles later, it happened again. This time much closer and much louder and much angrier. This time, I was able to find the moose with my head lamp. Fortunately, it sounded much nearer than it actually was. But this big bull was angry and loud and continued to grunt and warn us to get out of there quickly. There was no incident, but it left both Eddy and me spooked and glad we weren't running alone.

And then, more mud. For miles and miles, we slipped and slid through the mud, looking for any path to avoid even a few steps of it. The aid stations were more frequent now, but it took ages to reach the Canadian aid station and even longer to get from there to Bockman aid station. But we did finally reach Bockman aid station, 8.4 miles from the finish. In Bockman, we were told the mud was over and life would be easier. 23 hours getting closer and closer, hearing the mud was ending was a godsend.

Unfortunately, it wasn't accurate. Sure, the mud was a bit less than previously. And there was a long section on road that was mud free. But probably half of the next 6.2 miles were still covered in slick mud. Also unfortunately, Eddy and I had been speaking less and less as we headed into the night. Not because of frustration with one another, but because we were both in funks and tired. And during a climb in one of these quiet moments, I got out ahead of Eddy. I was on a mission and not paying attention. This was a long, shallow climb. I had put my head down and worked for about 30 minutes without paying attention, passing several other runners along the way. I looked back and saw no headlamps at all. I waited once, and then again later, for a few minutes, but never saw another lamp. Finally, I decided I needed to push on and finish, hoping Eddy had been able to connect with a couple of runners I passed whom we had spent time with earlier.

Over the final four miles, I felt the strongest I had felt for hours. I hiked hard uphill, and ran small sections downhill. I reached the final aid station 2.2 miles from the finish, drank a quick coke cup, and moved on. I tried to run, failed, hiked hard. My headlamp went out, but I refused to stop to change the battery. 23 hours was weighing on my mind (ultra-brain...I had 1.5 hours to go 2.2 flat miles) and I pushed and pushed, using my phone flashlight to light the trail. I saw runners ahead, and then the lights of the finish. I ran the final quarter mile and was done.

22 hours 5 minutes, a good 3-5 hours longer than I anticipated. It had been hard, really very hard. It had been much harder than Georgia Death Race, something I still don't understand.

It had been beautiful, brutal, gorgeous, devastating, and the most remarkable racing experience of my life.

Thank goodness Eddy had been with me. The rain, the mud, the effort, the moose may have been too much for me to deal with alone. Eddy finished about 20 minutes behind me and had connected with some runners we had swapped places with all day, also earning a Western States lottery ticket, his first.

What a race. What a remarkable part of the world. Do this race. Just do it. It's a privilege to get to experience.

Some more photos:

Approaching Kelly Lake

My feet were great despite being wet all day. But I did have one giant blister on the ball of my left foot. I knew it was happening with about 10 miles to go and ignored it, focusing on finishing. That was the right choice.
La Poudre Valley on the drive out
Driving out

Driving out

Driving out

Performed remarkably. Will never be white again.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

2018 Georgia Death Race - Separating Night And Day

The trees and the rocks and the trail had to wonder what the big deal was. They'd seen this a thousand times over the centuries of watching guard on Duncan Ridge. But for us runners on that ridge who noticed, something otherwordly and unbelievable was taking place. No, not that silly little Georgia Death Race we were participating in. But something far more epic. Something none expected. Something that would likely stick with us for the rest of our lives.


Climbing along Duncan Ridge
The 2018 Georgia Death Race was all set to begin just south of the Georgia / North Carolina border at Vogel State Park at 5AM. Runners had arrived at the finish line the night before for a pre-race meeting full of little tips and tidbits about the race. When my crew (the indefatigable Nick Stump and Eddy Souza) and I arrived at the pre-race meeting, I was stunned. Stunned by the hills that gave way to quite high peaks as we drove closer and closer. Stunned by the view out of Amicalola Lodge windows. Stunned by the size of the race event relative to other ultramarathons I'd participated in. This was no small affair with a bunch of local runners, but loaded with hundreds of seriously fit looking runners all clothed in race t-shirts and hats from some of the most famous and gnarly races I'd heard of. I was utterly intimidated and we weren't even toeing the starting line yet. I hadn't climbed a single foot of the 16,000 feet of climbing that lay ahead, but was already fairly convinced that I was out of my league.

As race morning arrived, I'd slept very little. I never sleep well before a race I give a damn about, and was not surprised. Problem was, I hadn't slept well the night before since we had to be on the road so early driving from South Florida to northern Georgia. And I hadn't slept well the night before that either after my son arrived into our bedroom feeling ill. Even so, my energy was high. This was going to be an adventure, maybe the adventure, that I had been looking for since I began pursuing endurance events 3 years prior.


We arrived at Vogel State Park about 30 minutes before the race was set to begin. The air was cold, really cold for a South Floridian. Despite being dressed like I was prepared to run the Iditarod, I still shivered violently in the 30 degree temperature. I checked in with the race team and picked up the railroad spike I would have to carry with me for the next 74ish miles.

The full blue moon was crystal clear in the cool, crisp air. It was bright enough to light the way without need of a headlamp. Runners gathered and quickly tried to clear their bladders and bowels one last time, then made way to the start line for final words from the race director, Sean Blanton. Nervous pacing and chatter among runners, final words of encouragement from crew standing nearby, a moonlight rendition of "Happy Birthday" sung by 260 runners to the race director and then we were off.

And immediately into a climb. We ran up a nice gentle incline along a paved road, which eventually turned into a not-so-well maintained paved road and, finally, single track trail shortly thereafter. As we headed onto the single track, Sean yelled a reminder to us that we should be walking as everyone had blazed out at far too fast a pace. The trail rose into the night between the trees crossing small creeks, generally narrow enough to jump over. We continued to climb in a solid row of runners unable (or unwilling) to pass or be passed. There was some small chatter among runners, but it was eerily quiet for an ultramarathon as everyone focused on getting a sense of the trail and persistent effort required to rise into the mountains. The moon accompanied us along our journey, coming into view and then leaving it again as we followed the contours of this first bump in our path.

Twenty minutes later, the first small climb was done and we began our single-file descent down the trail. The pace quickly picked up, and I had my second realization that I was out of my element. The climbing had been comfortable, easy even. I had trained well for it. But descending downhill on a steep trail covered in roots and rocks, that was an entirely different story. It was tough and scary. One poor foot placement and I imagined myself falling face first into one of the sharp rocks littering the trail. Fortunately, this first descent was short and over quickly, well before real doubt had crept into my mind.


The big climb had arrived. Only three miles into the race and barely warmed up, and it was time for us to fight our way up nearly 2,500 feet and the highest peak we'd reach all day. This was the climb I had lost sleep over in the weeks leading up to the race. It was the big ugly one on the elevation profile provided by the race. It was long, sustained and sometimes steep.

And after about an hour and a half of head down climbing and consistent effort in the dark, we were at the top. I had climbed strong, really strong, for someone coming from the flat lands and the effort felt very sustainable. We were no longer a single file line of 260 runners. The field had been ripped apart by the climb. I was on my own with no runners or headlights in sight behind me and a small group of runners just a turn ahead of me. Sunlight was filtering through the trees, but sunrise was still a long way off.

The terrain along the ridge we had reached slowly rolled downward, but was not overly steep and not overly technical. It was comfortable running. I quickly reeled in the group in front of me and settled in behind them. I was not comfortable running alone in this desolate place. Eventually, we descended into the first aid station. I moved quickly through this station only 8.1 miles into the race. And that's when it happened.


As a couple other runners and myself reached the top of the next climb out of the aid station, we could see the beginning of sunrise to the east. The sun was rising above a peak well below the ridge we traversed. The valley below was now being lit up and had been filled with thick, pillowy fog. A beautiful sight.

But the real magic was to our west. The full moon had now fallen below our own ridge, but was still hanging above the next ridge over. The entire valley to the west was cloaked in the darkness of night, not a ray of sunlight reaching beyond our ridge, only lit by the strong light of the full moon.

We ran along for several minutes both simultaneously in sunrise and daylight and darkness and moonlight. We were spellbound, running along in a moment that wouldn't be believed even if someone had taken a photo. It was the line between two worlds, between night and day, between moon and sun. And we were there with it, basking in it, not quite believing it. We were at the top of the ridge, a part of the structure which separated night and day. And then the sun reached higher into the sky, light spilled into the western valley, and the spell was broken.

Who would ever forget, or believe, this experience?


The next 12 miles turned into a miasma of misery. The elevation profile had deceivingly made these miles appear to be mostly downhill with only a small bump upward here and there. The reality was far different, a series of a dozen and a half peaks climbed and descended as we continued along the ridge. None of the peaks on the ridge was overwhelming on its own, the largest having perhaps a few hundred feet of climbing. But progress was an extreme mental challenge. Just as one peak was reached and crossed, the next peak on the trail could be seen across the valley before the descent began. An endless pattern of up and down emerged.

And another pattern emerged. I continued to climb strongly and efficiently. I passed many runners on the climbs, while few passed me. The effort was high, but manageable. I wasn't huffing and puffing like others. I didn't need breaks on the way up, as many runners needed.

But on the way down, the roles were reversed. The runners I had just passed easily on the way up went flying by me on the way down. The trail had become technical and steep, with rocks and roots taunting me with their sharp edges at every step. While other runners allowed gravity to pull them down the slopes, lightly stepping from safe positions to safe position, I moved slowly and deliberately trying to remain in control. The effort to do so was massive. My legs were getting shredded. Doubts really began to creep in. How could I run another 55 miles when my legs were on fire trying to make it down just a few of these descents? How long could these endless peaks continue? Wasn't there some reasonably flat section on that elevation profile I had studied?


Eventually, I reached a couple race volunteers who pointed me down a turn off the trail to Skeenah Gap, the first aid station where my crew would be waiting. Their comment to me was another mighty surprise, "Just about 1.5 miles down to the aid station." Down?!? I hadn't noticed this in the maps. Worse yet, not only was it 1.5 miles down, but this was also an out-and-back section bringing us off the trail to a road that our crews could access. Each step down carried the weight of the knowledge that this would be a step I'd be taking back up in the very near future. The mental challenge of this knowledge was massive. The bright spot, knowing Eddy and Nick and hopefully a chair were waiting at the bottom, was the only salvation.

Headed into Skeenah Gap
Once at the aid station, it was time to take a break and assess my situation. Nick and Eddy were great getting me set up with more drink and food, asking the right question and reminding me "not to be a bitch." I had intended to change my shoes at this point from a pair of Nike Wildhorse to some Altra Escalantes. But the course was more technical than anticipated and my feet were feeling great and I didn't want to mess with a good thing.

After about five minutes, it was back onto the course and the long 1.5 mile climb out of Skeenah Gap and back onto the trail. And then, right back into the soul-crushing crossing of endless peaks. Up and down we went. Doubt grew and grew with each painful descent.


As time passed, I found myself increasingly alone. The first 22 miles I had generally spent in the company of others. It was much easier to follow someone else's feet as they picked smart lines through the terrain. But now I was fending for myself. I had to pick my own lines through the trail. I had to watch my feet and the course markings. I still felt solid during each climb, but downhills became increasingly painful and difficult.

I was finding my way to the lowest point mentally I'd experience all race. Low points are to be expected, and I was fully prepared to continue muddling through. And muddle I did. I still ran the flats and easy downhills, but the pace was slowing.

And the timing was unfortunate. The terrain was changing. The hard and steep climbs and descents were becoming more moderate with occasional switchbacks to ease the grade. Other hikers and tourists were showing up. I crossed Toccoa Hanging Bridge, something that would generally fascinate me, and barely noticed. I was grumpy and in pain and not moving well and failed to notice things were actually easier.

And then trail offered a bounty and I had no choice but to accept.


Before the race, I had told my crew I wanted to use a stick as a hiking aid during the race. The race rules did not allow trekking poles, but made no comment of something provided by nature. I had mostly forgotten my desire to use a hiking stick when suddenly the perfect stick lay right in the middle of the trail. The stick was smooth and devoid of bark. It was the perfect length for my height. It was dry and light, but very strong. It was perfect. And it was the beginning of a change in my mood.

I reached an aid station where I jammed calories in and found a random Red Bull sitting near the aid station. I was assured it was fine and drank it greedily. The avocado slices with salt were also magic. My energy and mood almost immediately improved as I left the aid station. A couple miles later, after a brief in-the-woods potty break, and my spirits were high. Downhills were still tremendously painful, but everything was different as I proceeded on.

Another aid station, more quick calories, and I was back on my way feeling better than I had in hours. And the trail provided a second bounty, another runner. We stuck together for the next several miles into the Winding Stairs aid station pacing one another, chit-chatting, commiserating in our suffering. The other runner had completed an Appalachian Trail through-hike in his youth and knew the area we were running well. The conversation was fascinating to me, probably boring to him. And the beauty of the trail came back into focus as we passed a mountain creek lined with rhododendrons. These were some of the easiest and quickest miles of the day and got me back to Nick and Eddy in high spirits.


Winding Stairs aid station would be the last time I got to see my crew before the finish. Eddy and Nick were again on-point getting everything ready for me, working through my pack to make sure I wasn't carrying extra weight and making certain I was all set for the longest uncrewed section of the race. They packed me up with warmer clothes and my headlamp accessible as nighttime was prepared to set in over the next few hours.

Out of Winding Stairs, the course immediately headed into the longest and easiest descent of the race. A gentle dirt road led runners down for nearly three miles until we were back on single track. This section was fast and easy, excepting a short stop I had to take when I feared I had missed a turn. This was running I was ready for!

Back on the trail, the course was beautiful and relatively easy. Still up and down, but not nearly with the intensity of earlier in the race. The climbs were moderate, the descents gentle and untechnical. I was still in tremendous pain even on these easy downhills, but my stick and I made steady progress and reached the next aid station at Jake Bull with relative ease.


We had been warned. Leaving Jack Bull put us onto perhaps the toughest section of the course. Not due to the difficulty of the trail, there was little trail to run. Not because of the steepness. But because we were about to embark on a gentle climb of over 3 miles across paved and dirt road, and the next aid station was 11 miles away and night was falling. We were warned that the climb felt endless.

And yet, I climbed well. I passed several runners on the three mile climb on the approach to Nimblewell aid station while hiking hard. About a mile and a half out of Nimblewell the climb ended, and Sean Blanton had a bit of a nasty surprise for us. For a mile or so, I could hear music and figured it was the aid station. It was too early for the aid station, but I assumed my GPS was incorrect. Unfortunately, it was a "false" aid station, a trick to mess with us runners. Just a couple people with a large speaker playing music. But they did have water, a blessing as I was running dry. Now it was time to head down again on single track into Nimblewell.

And any downhill running was over for me at that point. The long hike had left me unable to run at all. I tried and both legs nearly cramped almost immediately in the quads and groin muscles. 12 miles to go, and I'd be hiking in the rest of the way. It was dark, the trail was tricky and often water covered and I was moving slowly. It was going to be a long trudge, although not an all-out death march. I could still hike strong, just not run.


Nimblewell aid station was a true beacon in the dark replete with Christmas lights and projectors. Some wonderful vegetable soup, more salted avocado, a bunch of ginger ale (which I momentarily feared was actually Grey Goose Vodka) and I was back on the trail for the final nine miles of the race.

At Nimblewell I had been warned that I'd work my way to Amicalola Falls Park for the next six miles, then run right past the finish line (another Sean Blanton special) before heading to the 685 stairs up to the top of the waterfall, simply to turn around and run back down a trail to the finish line.

The pull of the finish line was strong. I hiked as hard as I could, alone on the dark downhill trail. Twice I was certain I had missed a turn, checked the Livetrail app to learn that I didn't, and continued on. Then, after what seemed like endless hours of quiet and loneliness with nothing but the clicking of my stick on stone, I could hear cheering. Not loud, but clear as crystal. Cheering in the middle of the night in the backwoods of the northern Georgia mountains had to mean the finish line. Then a road lay ahead and a volunteer pointed me left...onto the most technical descent of the entire race.

Rocks and boulders lined the trail. The going was exceptionally slow despite very little ground to cover. Every step was treacherous. Eventually, I reached the bottom and could see the finish line. Around a corner, and there stood Eddy alone in the dark.


As I passed Eddy, I could hear the waterfall. I asked him how far to the waterfall and Eddy responded that that it was about 200 yards on the left. I also asked what time it was. Eddy said about midnight, which meant I had an hour to go up and down and finish in under 20 hours. In about 200 yards, I crossed a road onto a paved trail. But where were the stairs? Up the trail I climbed, the waterfall crashing to my left, but still no stairs. "WHAT THE HELL, EDDY!!!!," was my only thought as the paved trail seemed to continue forever. Of course, Eddy hadn't been wrong. This paved trail was the beginning of the waterfall climb. I simply expected stairs in 200 yards.

Eventually the stairs came into view, Sean Blanton's almost final middle-finger to runners. Over 600 stairs straight up along the waterfall. It was back to hard uphill climbing and, like the rest of the race, I still felt strong climbing. I did take a moment to stop when the 700 foot tall waterfall came into full view lit up perfectly by the nearly full moon. Then it was back to climbing stairs.

The top reached, it was time to head back down to the finish line. I would finish this race facing my nemesis, going downhill. And what a downhill it was. After a short portion on the road, back onto the trail we went. Steep and difficult. I bounced from tree to tree to make sure I didn't simply roll down to my death. The noise of the finish line become louder, the lights came into view and then I could hear the creek. Sean's final gag.

As I tumbled down the trail, I could see the finish line...on the other side of a creek. The trail continued to a bridge, conveniently covered in race tape making it clear the bridge was off limits. The only way to the finish line was through the creek. Not deep, but 15 feet across with a rocky riverbed, it wasn't an exciting prospect. Then I stepped into the creek and the cold waters immediately soothed my sore feet. Through the water, up a small incline and Sean was meeting me at the finish.

Done in 19 hours, 53 minutes and 2 seconds.


Warming up after the finish
The 2018 Georgia Death Race was the most physically demanding thing I've ever done in my life. Finally, I feel I've completed a truly noteworthy event. Florida ultramarathons, while challenging and painful, never gave me that feeling. At the risk of sounding trite, this was a truly epic adventure. It was far more difficult than I had anticipated.

And there is zero chance I could have finished without my crew who gave up a weekend with families to be with me. Who drove 12 hours each way to get me there and get me home. Who stayed up all night tirelessly helping me along.

The question I've been asked is "what's next." Going into the race, I was committed to no more ultramarathons for a while. When I spoke to Eddy and Nick during the race, I said never again. On the drive home, I was certain I would never run another mountain ultra.

But it's in my blood now. The climbs. The moon and sun together. The suffering and pain. Playing guardian between night and day. The adventure. Someday, I'll do another.

After I learn how to run technical downhills.

Monday, February 20, 2017

100 Mile Ultramarathon Mental Tips

I'm going to be helping crew someone running their first 100 mile ultramarathon. As the race approaches, I've been thinking about my own 100 mile races and what might be helpful for someone to know particularly as it relates to the mental side of the 100 mile game. While I'm still a neophyte at these races, I think I've learned a few lessons along the way.

So, in no particularly order, and under the assumption a person has done the basic work to have the requisite fitness for a 100 miles, my tips for the mental side of 100 mile ultramarathoning:
  • Decide what's negotiable and what's non-negotiable before the race begins. In the dark moments, you'll want to negotiate everything with yourself. Anything you've left as an open question will become available to negotiate away. My most recent 100 miler, I had a stated goal of finishing in under 24 hours. However, I kept a private goal of trying to get under 20 hours. Even though I was way under 20 hour pace at the time, in the first real dark moment it became very easy to negotiate my way to giving up that private goal and settling for the sub-24 hour goal.
  • Know your motivations. There are the obvious answers, but I've discovered sometimes it's the less obvious that get you to the end. My first race, I wouldn't quit although I probably should have because the person who suddenly decided to pace me when I was fading made it so clear she really didn't want me to quit. No matter how painful it got, I did not want to let her down. I was also pushed forward (as slowly as it may have been) that I was at an invitation-only race and someone else might not have been there so I could have a space. In my second race, I wish I would have remembered that the faster I finished, the sooner my crew could get rest. Had that been at the forefront of my mind, I might have finished in under 20 hours. Frankly, I've also been motivated by how cool it would be when I get to post my finish to Facebook. Silly, of course. But a driving factor nonetheless. Motivation can come from all kinds of places and in a variety of shapes and forms. When running really long, it's critical to keep these motivations in mind and find new ones along the way.
  • Form. As fatigue sets in, form deteriorates, both in running and walking. As form deteriorates, things start to hurt. As things start to hurt, form deteriorates even more and things start to hurt even, even more. It's a vicious cycle with one solution. A relentless mental focus on maintaining form. This saved me at Daytona 100. I was 65 miles in, had felt absolutely great for the first 100 kilometers and then suddenly had terrible pain in a knee. I was reduced to a snail's pace. After a few minutes, my pacer convinced me to try a short run. At first, it was a no go. But after a couple tries, I really focused on forcing good running form and the pain receded. I was running again! However, had I had that relentless focus earlier, I would likely have prevented the worst of the pain from the beginning.
  • Have a plan. Follow the plan. And plan as many things as you can: when you plan to eat, when you plan to refill nutrition bottles, when you'll take salt and reapply lubrication and changes shoes and socks. Every little detail can be planned. If you have crew, let the crew keep you on plan. It becomes remarkably simple to forget even the most basic things deep into a race. In my first 100, the person pacing me asked me how much water I'd been drinking. As I thought about it, I realized I hadn't had a sip of liquid in a very long time, perhaps hours. And be completely ready to adjust the plan on the fly. Things aren't going to go according to plan. So make the adjustments that are needed. But refer back to the plan to make sure you're not forgetting anything.
Finally, if the goal is to finish the race, making the commitment to finish no matter what is the most important of all. (Disclaimer: risking potential injury falls outside the "no matter what" commitment.) I ran across the perfect description of commitment on the Science of Ultra podcast this week: "commitment is making the choice to give up choice." Choose to finish, leaving no other alternative available.