Monday, August 3, 2015



Nice buckle Mr. Jones!
Out of the frying pan. I managed to squeeze myself into the short list of runners at the 2016 Angeles Crest 100 mile run. I feel more anxious than I did when I found out I was running my first 100 two years ago! While I will continue to throw my name into the WS100 lottery, my odds are long for next year. Better to get another solid qualifying race on my calendar while I can.  I'll try for Miwok 100k again, but I don't want to leave my qualifier fate up to a lottery and I have no desire to run Rio de Lago. And, AC100 is also a Hardrock 100 qualifier...
Besides, a wise man recently said (was it Bob Shebest?) "sign up for the race that scares you." AC100 is that race right now.

*quaking*

Friday, July 10, 2015

Race Report: 2015 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run

Sitting in a chair in the Michigan Bluff Aid Station, I thought about solutions to the myriad ways I had  blown my race. I had a bad case of buckle fever and I had already decided to drop. Twice. Fortunately, I made a promise to myself long ago never to make a decision going uphill. Twirly looked at me with concern in her eyes, while Ann sat nearby encouraging me to keep going.

This was not how I expected my race to unfold.

Some say I was lucky to get my name drawn with only one ticket in the 2015 Western States Lottery. Twirly surely didn't think so. Weekends consumed by long runs and recovery, late dinners mid-week and regular tune-up races puts a strain on a relationship. Once my name was drawn, however, I felt I owed it to myself to try to improve upon 2014's performance. I set my sights on a silver buckle, training hard through the winter and spring. At the Miwok 100k in May, I bruised my kneecap in a fall. I attacked it with physical therapy and felt good about my experience at the Memorial Day Training Camp. I cut back my taper mileage a little to avoid straining the knee.


Vertical profile


Course overview

Beginning at Squaw Valley the race course climbs over the Pacific Crest at Emigrant Pass and drops over 20,000 feet before arriving at Placer High School track in Auburn. More than three vertical miles of climbing break up the monotony and provide ample opportunity to have inner dialogues of self-doubt and general disbelief. My strategy was to use my effort at Miwok as a guideline. A heart rate monitor alerted me when I hit 75%, which I hoped would allow me to get to Foresthill in decent time.

In 2014, I did not push myself very hard. My blood creatine-kinase (CK) levels, an indicator of muscle damage, were low. Western States finishers have a mean CK level of 20,000 U/L, while mine was around 5,000 in 2014. That told me I left a lot in the tank. Determined to put myself out there and see what I could achieve, I set my "A" goal at sub-24 hours. My "B" goal would be to improve upon last year's performance and notch a new 100 mile PR (sub-28 hours) and my "C" goal, as always, would be to finish.

http://www.wser.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Hoffman-2015-Sodium-and-Hydration.pdf
Dr. Marty Hoffman's conclusions about salt
I returned to Squaw Valley early race week for the second annual Science and Medicine in Ultra Endurance Sports Conference. As with last year, the conference was full of interesting information and observations. Of note was a study examining salt use and its effects during ultra racing, which found no correlation between exercise-associated hyponatremia (EAH) and salt supplementation. I encourage you to check out the materials available at the website. This year's research project is on recovery techniques, comparing 20 minutes of post-race massage with 20 minutes of pneumatic compression. A control group gets nothing. Also, they have asked us all to avoid but document the use of any other recovery methods (e.g. pain killers, massage, icing, etc.) in the week following the race. We submitted two 400-meter time trials before the race, and we'll have to do two more in the days following the post-race treatment.

The rest of the pre-race week I laid low, meeting friends occasionally for libations but staying in my room alone watching Women's World Cup soccer or Giants baseball. I got out for a couple shake-out runs. Having no crew in the Valley meant my stress levels were much lower than in 2014.

Twirly joined me on Friday night. Once I was confident everything was taken care of, I got a couple hours sleep. Race morning was calm and balmy. I checked in, got my bib, and returned to my room to wait. I was anxious, but I knew that once the gun sounded I would settle down. The starting line was mellow this year; no blaring music, just nervous chatter from participants. We counted down from ten seconds, and then we were underway.


Escarpment, photo by Kelly Cronin
The climb up to the Escarpment went smoothly. I kept myself in check and enjoyed the valley views as they unfolded. Cresting the ridge, I was six minutes ahead of my 2014 split and about six minutes behind 24 hour pace. Exactly where I wanted to be. The wildflowers of Granite Chief Wilderness did not disappoint. One of my favorite parts of the course is the backside of Squaw and the technicolor carpet of flowers. I ran easily amongst a pack of familiar faces, chatting about the day ahead and trying to keep my feet dry amongst the springs. 

I fell into a conga line behind Billy Yang, figuring he was pacing himself for a silver buckle. I planned to begin stretching my legs as we hit the double track coming into Lyons Ridge Aid Station, and I did just that. I validated my pace by asking those around me about their goals. I was right on the cusp, but when I arrived at the aid station I was 16 minutes off the 24 hour pace split. They did not have any of the Clif Organic Energy foods I was using to supplement my Tailwind calories, so I was stuck using gels for a couple of hours. I had not burned a match yet, but had exceeded my threshold heart rate in the thin air.

The course begins rolling along the high ridge-lines for the next 14 miles, and my effort on the short climbs was too hard. I constantly struggled to maintain my pace while my heart rate monitor protested. I could feel the altitude limiting my ability to climb, and the lightning fast recovery I enjoy at sea level was non-existent. I would gain the top of one hill with my heart rate at 85%, and by the time I arrived at the bottom of the next climb, it would still be above 75%. Billy and the others finally passed me about halfway to Red Star Ridge.
Still feeling strong at Cougar Rock, photo by Facchino Photography

Still having fun on Red Star Ridge, photo by Facchino Photography
Suffice it to say, my execution was lacking in the high country. I was not prepared for the altitude, and it was warm and  humid to boot. Despite the voice in my head telling me to take it easy, I continued to chase the 24 hour splits through the rocky and technical ridge-line trails. I arrived at Red Star Ridge Aid Station a half an hour off pace. I retrieved some Clif food from my drop bag and ate a few sandwich squares, getting through the station efficiently.



Entering Duncan Canyon, photo by Facchino Photography
My legs still felt good, no niggles. I kept my effort on the high side, trying to keep that silver buckle in sight. The course loses elevation faster and faster as Red Star Ridge gives way to Duncan Canyon. The day was warming up, and I was slowly falling behind on calories. I had crew at Duncan Canyon. There, I could catch up on my nutrition with a cold Boost nutritional shake and some coconut water.

Time to pick it up. Carry your momentum through Duncan Canyon.

I like to practice my turnover on the descent to Duncan Canyon Aid Station. The trail gets more runnable as you go. I got up a head of steam and passed a dozen runners or so on my way into the station. I quickly found my crew and got resupplied, but when I asked for the cold Boost I was met with blank stares. Twirly had not given them the drinks from her cooler! This was the first stumbling block in my plan. My confusion was compounded by the "Running Man" game show questions I was being asked by the guy with the bullhorn. He was fascinated by my beard and wanted to know "how I got it to curl like that." Still behind on calories, I knew I needed to get back on course before I got grumpy.


Wheels coming off in 3, 2, 1... Photo by Makie Ohler


I left the aid station 45 minutes off 24 hour pace. I knew what lay ahead: my first low spot in 2014. The exposed canyon was serving up another helping of hubris-slaying heat.

I stopped to pee and it was Sunkist orange! I immediately began drinking excessive amounts of water. I sat in the creek for a few minutes, washing, dousing and drinking. The apathy began to set in. 24 hours was off the table. The finish seemed so far away.

Stop thinking about the finish. One aid station at a time.

I hiked the climb, stopping periodically in the shade to rest. Others were doing the same. I met Joshua Holmes along the way. He's running the Grand Slam-plus-Badwater this year. He's good company. Fellow Sierra TrailBlazer Bill Hunter caught me just outside the aid station. We arrived at Robinson Flat seven minutes ahead of my 2014 pace.

The medical checks were completely different this year. I acknowledged the staff, they asked how I was doing. "I'm spent," I said, and they waved me through.

After last year's foot maceration, I had decided to change my shoes at Robinson Flat. That way, I could keep my feet dry for 50 miles and make up the time by avoiding the chair at Michigan Bluff. Twirly helped me get squared away with a Boost and some coconut water. She agreed that the Clif banana-ginger-beet flavor may be responsible for the Sunkist orange pee. I left the aid station 10 minutes behind 2014 pace, continuing with caution. Now I was bloated and spent.
Entering Dusty Corners, photo by Makie Ohler
Every five miles or so, I stopped to pee; the Sunkist color remained. My Western States Half Marathon (the split from Mt. Baldy to Swinging Bridge) would be my slowest ever. By the time I reached Dusty Corners I was hot. Pete and Makie Ohler helped me get iced down and watered up for the next section, Pucker Point.


Getting ready for more ice at Dusty Corners, photo by Makie Ohler
I love this section. Marble-in-a-groove single track combined with a spectacular view of Screw-auger Canyon. It's easy running.

I got a misting from the volunteers on my way out of the aid station. Less than a quarter mile down the trail I couldn't find my Tailwind supply. I back-tracked halfway to the aid station before remembering Pete had stuck it in my bottle holster. I continued to lose ground against my 2014 pace. The dominoes were falling. 

Stay positive.

I leapfrogged with Bill around the point. My power walk felt okay, but I still wasn't sure about my hydration status. By the time I got to Last Chance, I was in bad shape. I felt desperate. Just like Miwok, Nate Dunn came to the rescue. He reminded me of my training, of all the runnable terrain in my future if I just kept going. 

"Go get the Cadillac Car-wash. It'll cool down your core before you head into the canyons."

Trying to keep it together at Last Chance, photo by Nate Dunn

It took less than a minute to get me shivering. I bent over, trying to keep the water from running down my legs. Top-notch service at Last Chance Aid Station! I left with a bit of hope, and a lot of determination. I focused on staying smooth, keeping my momentum. The descent into Deadwood Canyon lit up my knee. It felt better to stride smoothly rather than dance the downs. I alternated between the two, passing many ginger-footed runners. I hit Swinging Bridge with little in the tank, hiking to the spring and taking a seat. 

"I don't think it's my day, you go get it," I said to Bill as he began to climb Devil's Thumb. I spent a few extra minutes dousing and fueling for the climb.

With no extra gears, I gave myself ten seconds at each switchback to rest before trudging on. The trail was littered with carnage. Some runners were obviously in GI distress, others were simply sitting in the shade. I sat a few times myself. Eventually I arrived at Devil's Thumb Aid Station.

The Popsicles were awesome! I had to have seconds.

I sat in a chair, being tended to by volunteer "Kat". She brought me some broth and ginger ale. Concern sat on her brow as she watched me mix my Tailwind. I could tell she wasn't going to let me sit for long. I commiserated with Brett Goldsmith, whom I had met during training camp. He couldn't hold anything down; he would succumb at Michigan Bluff but live to tackle AC100.

I negotiated one more Popsicle from Kat and made my way out of the aid station on 30 hour pace. I was now an hour behind my 2014 splits.

Taking long, purposeful strides continued alleviating the pain in my knee on the descent into El Dorado Canyon. I happened upon Scott Warr, of Trail Runner Nation, at the Deadwood Cemetery. He told me I'd just missed the cello player. I was beginning to feel sorry for myself there at the back of the pack. I couldn't exploit the downs, had no power going up, and really couldn't do much but walk. So walk I did. All the way across the canyon and into Michigan Bluff. Over an hour behind, I slumped into the chair while Twirly tended to me.

"I'm broken," I said. "My body is shutting down and I do not want to do this anymore. I've dropped twice, but then the hill tops out and I just keep walking." She quietly acknowledged me while getting my pack swapped out and handing me a dry shirt. Jesse Jimenez came by and offered some encouragement. Fellow Sierra TrailBlazers Running Club members offered more. I knew I couldn't drop. I was jealous of those who had, but my pace was keeping me in front of the cut-offs. There are three reasons to DNF: injury, getting cut, or just not having fun anymore. I couldn't justify any of them.


Got the fever! Photo by Jesse Jimenez

I have often said that I run ultras for these moments. I seek the "ego-strip". I yearn for those moments when I feel stripped bare, nothing left to hold onto. It offers an opportunity to do some soul searching. At least, that's what I have thought. Now that I was in that place, I didn't like it very much. I questioned my motives, and my methods. I couldn't come up with any good answers. There was no enlightenment.

Taking Ann's advice, Twirly gave me ten minutes to get my shit together, and then I was back on the trail, trying not to think about how much distance was left. I continued to catch and pass runners in Duncan Canyon. My power hike was paying off. By the time I reached Bath Road it was dark. Crew member Aaron was there, with a cold Boost and peanut butter cups. I could feel my pity party slipping away.

I spent some time gorging at the Foresthill Aid Station: quesadilla, bacon, avocado with rice, and soda. Twirly had set up a spot for me along the road to Cal Street. My pacer, Torrey, was conspicuously absent. Apparently, he had set out into the night looking for me. I was waiting for him to materialize when Ken Michal asked why I was in a chair. He convinced me to set out alone while Twirly went looking for Torrey. At the pace I was going, a pacer was more for company than anything else, I reasoned. He's a fast runner and shouldn't have any trouble catching up.

One foot in front of the other. Quit feeling frustrated at not being able to run and make the most of what you can do

Obviously this is not the race I'd planned, but I was still in it. I continued to pass runners. Torrey caught up to me about a mile before Cal 1 Aid Station. Once there, I lamented to Bruce about my race thus far. He encouraged me and gave me a power hiking technique tip: keep my hips forward. I expressed some concern about descending the elevator shaft with my bum knee, and he had some pointers on form for that as well. He is a tremendous resource. I count myself lucky to have his counsel.

While my mood had improved tremendously, my body was still revolting at anything more than a brisk walk. I kept picking up places though, passing 16 runners between Foresthill and Cal 2 Aid Station. The carnage at Cal 2 was bad. The triage area was overflowing with bodies on cots. One poor soul looked like he was about to have a seizure.

"Those cots look pretty comfortable," I said.

"Don't look. Turn around." Torrey countered. That made me laugh, and the volunteers chided me for laughing at those who were laying down. I let them know I wasn't laughing at the fallen, but trying to avoid becoming one myself! They rewarded me with a cup of the best chocolate milk I have ever tasted, and we hit the trail again. I was now only 50 minutes off 2014 pace.

I ran as much of the next switchback descent as I could, and managed to stay close to a runner in front of me when I switched back to the power hike. I passed an additional 15 runners between Cal 2 and the river. Comparing my Foresthill to the river split from 2014, I was three minutes faster. I began to realize that my turtle pace (hiking steadily) was actually more efficient than the "running and walking" strategy, which I stuck to in 2014.

I managed to photo-bomb Ken Michal during an interview for USL.tv, (Torrey and I enter the aid station 30 seconds in):

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream


Focused in the river, photo by Facchino Photography
We crossed the river, and I changed into dry shoes at the far side, popping a few blisters with a volunteer's pocket knife (mental note: include blister kit with shoe change). I brushed my teeth, which felt blissful, and we set out to climb the hill to Green Gate. My stomach had finally stabilized, allowing me to eat more at the aid station, which was really subdued at 4:30 in the morning. I hit the porta-potties for one of the best in-race pit-stops I have ever had. I could feel things turning around.

The final 20 miles went by in a blur. Birds began to chirp in the dark, signaling the impending dawn. I held my place in line, giving up a few spots to runners who were actually running, but gaining some in aid stations and passing the shufflers. Hal Koerner once again brightened my morning at Browns Bar, and I negotiated the steep descent to Quarry Road without incident. I could smell the barn, but knew I still had some ground to cover.

By the time I hit the Highway 49 Aid Station, I knew I would finish. I dropped my lights with Twirly, gave my sweat-soaked headband to Jenni Jimenez (the Jimenezes are awesome; I felt like I had extra crew whenever Jesse and Jenni were around) and grabbed a fresh bottle of Tailwind.

"I'll see you at the track!" I said, leaving as quickly as I had arrived. Poor Torrey didn't even have enough time to eat. Spectators began appearing along the trail to No-Hands, and I felt a swell of emotion building. I could taste the finish. Crew-member Linda took my pack at No-Hands, and gave me a clean shirt. The last climb lay before me. I soaked it in as much as I could.

Pete and Makie joined Torrey and me for the run from Robie Point. I tried to reflect the spectators' energy back to them, and ran most of the final mile. Ann and Bruce were both out on the course cheering runners in. I was glad to be able to share those final moments with them; their encouragement meant a lot.

I couldn't hold back once I saw the track, passing two or three runners on the back stretch. Despite walking 90% of the last 20 miles, I beat my 2014 river to finish split by over 10 minutes! I shaved 13 minutes off my 2014 Foresthill to the finish split.


High fives on the track: priceless, photo by Mackenzie Hardwick
The end is beer, photo by Makie Ohler
#2 in the books, photo by Facchino Photography
Finishing was a bigger relief this year. I enjoyed tearful hugs with Twirly and other friends before heading to the research tent to learn my fate. I ended up being placed in the pneumatic compression group. For 20 minutes, inflatable socks squeezed my legs and blistered feet. My blisters hurt, but the rest of it felt great. While I was on the cot, 70-year old Gunhild Swanson stole the show, becoming the oldest female finisher with 6 seconds to spare! It was truly inspirational and the story of the race for everyone.




Sweet relief, photo by Makie Ohler
I hobbled over to the awards tent, where Twirly had set up our chairs and a plate of food. Before I could get there, Brett Rivers told me Scott Wolfe had found Torrey passed out in the bathroom. Not moving too well, I asked Pete to go help him out. Torrey eventually made it to our spot, sheepish but no worse for the wear. Now I can say I ran him into the ground, haha.

Ken Michal told me in Foresthill that this buckle would mean more, and it does. It symbolizes the grit I needed to keep moving in spite of my condition. But it also represents the things I did wrong and the lessons I need to take forward. I need to race within myself and my conditioning. I need to be able to recognize buckle fever when it happens and take the appropriate recourse before it's too late.


With legend Tim Twietmeyer, photo by Makie Ohler
That said, my improvement over the final 38 miles surprised me. In short: I cooked myself in the high country, paid the price through the canyons and rebounded for the home stretch. If I had remained within myself for the first 50k, I could have set a new PR. Instead, I learned valuable lessons about what I'm capable of, and how low I can go without giving up. My post-race blood CK was over 30,000 U/L. Six times my 2014 levels. Obviously, the early effort had taken its toll. 

Once again, the Western States Organization put on an incredible event. I've said it before, but it bears repeating that this race is top notch. Awesome swag, thousands of volunteers, concerted efforts to protect the trail and its history all combine to create a surreal environment in which to test yourself. I will continue to enter the lottery every year, and gladly volunteer in those years I fail to gain entry.



My most valuable take-away ends up being one that has taken me a long time to come to terms with: time goals are fine for motivation, but race-day strategies must be based in reality. My conditioning was not capable of my desired effort at altitude. In the future, I hope to develop performance based goals rather than time goals. Execution, adaptability and problem-solving need to be my focus. 

Here's to hoping. See you on the trails!

Oh yeah, here are the deets:

 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Case Study: Buckle Fever

Buckle fever is localized in and around 100 mile running events

Buckle fever, or chronic ego driven exhaustion (CEDE), has been known to cause premature DNF and extreme remorse. This case study is taken from the 2015 Western States Endurance Run



  • Patient is a 43 year old white male with signs of over-exertion, gastric distress, severely blistered feet and piss-poor attitude admitted to the Michigan Bluff Aid Station one and a half hours before the cutoff.

  • Patient's chief complaints include bloated stomach, sharp joint pain, lack of enthusiasm, lack of confidence, lack of focus, lack of energy, general malaise and frustration. Additionally, patient claims his body is "shutting down" and "only has one gear". Patient claims he "does not want to continue and does not want to do this anymore."

  • Present illness began at race start in Squaw Valley early that morning. In an effort to secure a silver buckle, the patient exerted an unacceptably high effort at altitude in warm temperatures. Over approximately 40-50 kilometers the patient sustained heart rates at or above 80% of maximum. Additional complications arose from in-race nutritional supplements containing beets, which darkened his urine to the point of alarm. This resulted in over-hydration until the source of the problem was correctly identified and normal hydration was resumed.


  • Patient's family history includes parental marathoning, sibling middle distance running and overall health improvement through regular exercise.

  • Patient's social history shows numerous examples of epic challenges, including but not limited to: Alaskan commercial fisherman, previous WS100 finisher, long distance sailor, avid ultra runner. Patient also appreciates fine craft beers often.

  • Physical exam reveals some chafing, lack of color, salt-caked skin, thousand-yard stare and a curious odor.

  • Assessment: Patient requires tough love and the confidence that finishing is still possible. While reasoning with the patient is unlikely, shaming and guilt can be used with moderate success. Thought exercises illustrating the remorse of dropping have shown high rates of success.

  • Patient treatment course: Patient was given ten minutes to get his shit together, after which he was given two baggies containing sandwiches and fruit, along with the necessary lighting and water to make it to the next aid station, Foresthill. Patient continued on through the night, utilizing his "one gear" to stay ahead of cutoffs and eventually finish the race. This was the sought after outcome, and treatment was deemed to be successful.

Friday, June 12, 2015

2015 Western States Preview: The Hay is in the Barn

Shooting for a darker finish in 2015
This time last year, I was going to pieces. My anxiety levels were compounded by taper madness. Too much time to kill and not enough distractions. A year wiser, I feel better going into my taper for Western States. I only feel anxious when Sally McRae posts her damn countdown to Facebook:

"15 days. 20 hours. 38 minutes.  Heartrate: 107"

Knowing exactly how little time is left is almost as bad as trying to wrap my head around the whole course at once.

Knee issues did not derail my training, much. My peak training block, centered around the Memorial Day Training Camp, boosted my confidence; I felt strong. I know my goal is within reach, and I know it will not be easy.

Last year, uncertainty about the distance and my own instinctual self-preservation made my "A" goal of sub-24 hours easy to abandon soon after the shotgun. My best efforts to streamline my support ended up being a hindrance or simply neglected. This year, I have adjusted accordingly. I still plan to provide log sheets for my crew to document my progress, but my actual support will be simpler.

2015 Aid Station Worksheet


Most of the work sheet is for the crews benefit. The strategic, motivational language in the middle is what is important to me. At each aid station, I will have a zip lock bag filled with everything I need to get me to the next crewed aid station. That way, crew will only prepare a couple of handheld bottles with Tailwind. Barring surprises, this approach should enable me to trade bottles, drop my trash, grab the baggie and go. I can pack up the supplies on the trail, and having an extra baggie is handy at the other aid stations. Fill it up and take the buffet to go!

Another big change this year involves my pacers. In 2014 they also participated in pre-race festivities at Squaw and helped to crew me during the early stages of the race. This year they are off the hook until pacing duty. I ran Torrey into the ground last year, and David pulled almost as many hours awake as I did. Fresh pacers ought to help me sustain my momentum in the dark hours when I am trying to justify my desire for a silver buckle. Why is this important again?

And that brings me to the crux of this year. My "A" goal is a sub-24 hour finish. Last year I said it, but I knew it was impractical. Finishing my first 100, especially at States, was much more important than my time. This year, it scares the crap out of me. I know it is possible. I know it will hurt. I know I'd rather have two different buckles than two bronze buckles. I know I am ready. The hay is in the barn. Shaving off over four hours is not unheard of (see Pam Smith's ten hour improvement from 2012-2013), but it is a tall order.

This buckle needs a sibling
As always, I have a couple of other goals to fall back on in case the race gets away from me. My "B" goal is to improve upon last year's 28:06. During my crew meeting, I instructed everyone to not let me off the hook here. If I fall off 25 hour pace, I don't want to walk-in a 27:50 and call it a success. I want to put my best foot forward. I want a finishing time indicative of my training and preparation. I want to suffer for it.

And so my "C" goal is to finish my second 100. I imagine if the wheels come off this badly, I will be suffering more than the previous two scenarios. I try not to think about what may lead to me chasing cut-offs, or worse, getting cut.

I am returning to the WMS Medicine & Science in Ultra-Endurance Sports Conference, held on Tuesday and Wednesday of race week. I enjoyed the distraction last year, and it led to many changes in my training paradigms this year. The Alpenglow Festival is also being held race week, offering plenty of other activities to keep me occupied, such as a "pub run" sponsored by Salomon on Wednesday night (Salomon hash!) and movie night with JB Benna.

The home stretch is here. One more long run this weekend, lots of A.R.T. to keep the niggles at bay, some PT and strength training for my knee issue and one more Monster Massage on the Thursday before the race - then the big dance. I think I have everything under control, but then I remember it is the things outside my control which make this such a thrill.

See you at Squaw!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Ignorance is Bliss

MRI of my right knee
I have long been a fan of quantum mechanics and the plethora of theories attempting to describe our universe. Some of my favorites stipulate that nothing exists until it is observed, described or contemplated. And so it has gone with my knee injury. Stemming from a fall during the Miwok 100k in May, discomfort in my right knee was the catalyst for a series of medical evaluations. My primary care physician referred me to an orthopedist, who took x-rays and then requested an MRI. I ran through all of this, building to a big ten day training block focused around the Memorial Day Training Camp for Western States.

Training Camp went well; I taped the knee all three days and kept the Vitamin I intake on the low side. I ran about 130 miles in nine days and never felt any significant pain in the knee, although my quads took a beating.

The discomfort abated, becoming more of a stiffness than a pain. The MRI results came back last Monday. I have a bruised patella and a torn meniscus. The doctor gave me the green light for States and prescribed some PT. The patella bruise, he said, will take up to four months to heal, but running should not cause any further damage. The meniscus, however, will not improve. Eventually I will have to have the damaged section removed. I had a similar issue with my left knee in the late 90's. I had it repaired during ACL surgery, and it has held up well.

So now I am hyper-aware of a torn meniscus every time I run! Niggles be niggles though, and knowing what's going on there doesn't change anything. Or does it? I'll be mindful, and take precautionary measures like taping and icing. I may taper a little more aggressively in the coming weeks to rest and minimize inflammation. 

In my experience, the niggles I worry about going into a race never end up being the niggles I have to deal with during the race. Hopefully that will hold true on June 27th.

See you at Squaw!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Backpacking Buckskin Gulch and Paria Canyon

Buckskin Gulch, photo by Christopher Brothers

Photo by Christopher Brothers
While attending Northern Arizona University in the 1990's, my friends and I explored the surrounding wilderness almost every weekend. Backpacking the Mogollon Rim, Sycamore Canyon and the Grand Canyon provided an escape from the collegiate workload and nurtured my love of the outdoors. When I was asked to spearhead a research project in a tributary of the Colorado River just East of the Grand Canyon National Park, I jumped at the opportunity.

The Paria River had been classified as "impaired" due to high beryllium concentrations. I was to hike the canyon and collect water and sediment samples ten times over the course of two years. A rag-tag group of students would accompany me on three day blitzes of the 40 mile long stretch of remote canyon. Paria quickly became a special place for me; my own place of worship. Towering canyon walls, hanging gardens, narrow slots and hundreds of river crossings made for a surreal experience.
Stranded owl hunkers near pool, photo by Christopher Brothers

Given our short time-tables for each trip, I was never able to explore some of the more interesting side canyons of the Paria. Buckskin Gulch, the longest slot canyon in North America, would beckon as we collected samples from its confluence with the Paria. We would explore the lower mile or so before hurrying down the Paria. Years later, in 2006, I was able to hike the gulch with Twirly. We spent two days in Buckskin before hiking out to White House.


Last year, my father told me Buckskin and Paria were on his bucket list. I rounded up the boys for a five day trip from Buckskin Gulch to the end of the Paria at Lee's Ferry. I had not realized how long it had been since I saw the length of the Paria. I won't let it be that long again!

The confluence of Buckskin and Paria




We camped at the Wire Pass Trail Head on Monday night after dropping cars at Lee's Ferry and White House. Two of our five would be replicating the trip Twirly and I did in 2006, exiting via White House on the third day. My friend Jason, my father and I would head down Paria Canyon for the last three days, covering 44 miles.






Friday, May 8, 2015

Race Report: 2015 Miwok 100k

http://miwok100k.com/site/


The Miwok 100k, held every May in the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco, is one of those legendary races that gets into your blood. I was fortunate to be selected in the 2015 lottery, marking the 20th anniversary of the race and the debut of a new course (the reverse of the 2014 course). With eight weeks between Miwok and Western States, it was a great opportunity to practice race day tactics and see how my training was playing out.

The race starts and finishes in the hamlet of Stinson Beach, utilizing the Community Center as headquarters. The first 50k loop through the Muir Woods National Monument and Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The last 50k take the runners north from Muir Beach up the Coastal Trail, traversing the West slope of Mount Tamalpais State Park to a turn around at Randall Trail head, then returning to Stinson Beach via the Coastal Trail and Matt Davis Trail.


Miwok 100k course
2015 course profile, elevation gain 10,558 feet


I felt ready but anxious race week. I had successfully completed a tough training block in the three weeks since American River 50 Mile. I negotiated hill repeats, tempo runs, long runs and track workouts while staying healthy. Niggles were immediately dealt with via massage or A.R.T. sessions. Comparing ultrasignup results from 2014, it was obvious that sub-24 hour runners at Western States were finishing Miwok in around 12 hours, about 11:30 minutes per mile. My average pace for trail racing in the Marin Headlands is about 12:30 pace. I had my work cut out for me. My "A" goal would be sub-12, "B" goal sub-13, and "C" goal would be simply to finish and establish a qualifier for the 2016 WS100 lottery.

Rather than focusing on pace, I decided to keep my effort between zone 2 and zone 3 for the duration of the race. This meant I would be running more of the climbs, as my heart rate tends to recover quickly when I hike. Fueled by one bottle of Tailwind (200 calories), one packet of the sweet Clif Organic Energy Food (affectionately referred to as 'baby food') and 5 grams of Master Amino Pattern every hour, I was prepared to give it my best shot.


32ten screening room
I picked up my bib at San Francisco Running Company on Wednesday afternoon and did a final shakeout jog through Tennessee Valley. Thursday night Twirly and I joined others at the San Rafael showing of the Trails in Motion Film Festival. The films were awesome, but the venue cooler still. It was held at 32ten Studios, the original Industrial Light and Magic special effects studio and screening room. We were told the courtyard where we milled about drinking beer and eating was where Star Destroyers were blown up!


One of many set stills lining the halls of 32ten Studios

Race morning dawned balmy, and it was a quick trip across the bridge and over the hill to Stinson Beach. Twirly dropped me off at the community center before heading straight to Tennessee Valley to catch some shut eye until I drew near. After three years of crewing ultras, she realizes that the start is one place she doesn't need to be.

Race Director Tia Bodington gave the pre-race instructions without amplification, so I doubt anyone more than ten feet back heard a word she said. At 5:00 am, she counted us down and we all ran the pavement leading to the Dipsea trail and the single track climb to Cardiac. Some funny guy behind me yelled "ON YOUR LEFT!!!" as we all slowed to file onto the single track trail. It was cool and humid. Fog blew through the Dipsea Moors illuminated by 300 headlamps. I chose to use my handheld flashlight, as my hands were free. I used the Mountain Hardware pack I got at States in 2014. It holds two bottles on the shoulder straps.

Steep Ravine was socked in. My Julbo Venturi's fogged up! I kept a steady effort on the climb, setting the first of many Strava segment PRs for the day. As I made the turn from the Dipsea Trail to the Deer Park Fire Road, I was startled by a bagpipe player starting up his swooning tune.

The conga line spread out on the descent of Deer Park fire road. The sky began to lighten, birds began to sing, turkeys gobbled in the woods. I shadowed a small group along the runnable Redwood Creek Trail, leaving enough space between me and the three runners to avoid being on the bouncy footbridges at the same time. Overcast skies kept the temperatures cool, and everyone I crossed on the out and back to the Muir Beach Aid Station looked to be in good spirits. I exchanged high fives with Leigh-Ann on my way out to the Middle Green Gulch climb.

Middle Green Gulch, photo courtesy of @Ultratrailmatt
Inspired by Bob Shebest, my Garmin showed only my heart rate, the time of day, and lap distance. I hit the lap reset every time I left an aid station, comparing the time to the split sheets taped to my bottles. The lack of mile splits was refreshing, and the distance between aid stations turned out to be the most useful information my watch has ever provided during a race, besides heart rate. I felt good climbing Middle Green Gulch, running much of it as if I were on a training run. My fueling plan was on track, I had no niggles or discomfort, and I was successfully navigating the mental side of 62 miles. Namely, I was running aid station to aid station. I set another Strava PR for the climb.

I rolled into Tennessee Valley fifteen minutes ahead of 12 hour pace. Twirly had gotten a spot near the aid station, and we executed an efficient bottle swap and thank-you-kiss. The grind up Marincello felt never-ending. I continued my run/walk strategy dictated by my heart rate, leap frogging with a few runners.  The leaders came back at me after I gained the ridge line Bobcat Trail. Ben Stern led, followed by Galen Burrell and Chris Wehan. Gary Gellin was just two minutes back, in fourth. I gave him encouraging words, but I could tell he wasn't in a good place. He had led the first 20 miles, and ending up dropping around mile 35. Lake Sonoma had taken some of his mojo. The skies remained overcast, and the breeze along the ridge lines kept me cool. I found my stride along the SCA trail and even managed to hold off a few runners that had caught up to me, putting a gap on them in the technical sections.

At Bridge View Aid Station I mixed a fresh bottle of Tailwind and was back on the trail efficiently. On the descent to Rodeo Valley I realized I had to pee. I let the only runner near me pass, and successfully relieved myself without stopping. Usually that ends up being a mess, but I gauged the wind correctly this time, and didn't lose any ground. I passed a few more as we hit Bunker Road and the short detour along the pavement before climbing Rodeo Trail back up to the ridge. A group of three younger guys were running faster than me, but I continually caught up to them as they hiked the climbs. They blistered the downhill return to Tennessee Valley, and I told them that if they could run the final miles of Matt Davis Trail that way I would be impressed. They stopped at Tennessee Valley while I ran through. I wouldn't see them again for a while.

I ran along the floor of Tennessee Valley, feeling good, but shuffling a bit. I hear a runner coming up behind me fast, and hear a "good job" come as he passed me in a blur. Alex Varner, Lake Sonoma winner and 2:28 Boston finisher, made me feel stationary as he comfortably sprinted down the road on a training run. His heels never touched the ground! By the time the Coastal Trail climb came into view about a mile later, he and his partner were almost done with the hill! We may run the same courses, but the elites are playing a different game altogether.

Pirates Cove, photo courtesy of @Ultratrailmatt

I got back to Muir Beach and the 50k mark just under 6 hours into the race. I was still about 15 minutes ahead of 12 hour pace and had no issues. Twirly replaced my Tailwind bottles, baby food and MAP supplies. I got a little testy with her when I realized she was adding mix to the Tailwind I had left in the bottles I had given her at TV instead of mixing a fresh batch. It has taken me a while to figure out exactly how strong I can handle the Tailwind mixture, and she had deviated from my plan. "I'd rather you dump out the old stuff and mix it right", I said. I admit, I was grumpy. I had to empty rocks out of my shoes too, making the aid station the least efficient of the race thus far.



Deer Park Fire Road, photo courtesy of @Ultratrailmatt
Leaving Muir Beach the second time I felt the first signs of flagging energy. I let a runner or two pass on the Redwood Creek return, and slogged my way back up Deer Park Fire Road. I tried to conserve energy and momentum, but by the time I reached Cardiac Aid Station I was almost ten minutes off 12 hour pace.

Enter the apathy.

Jessi Goldstein and Brett Rivers got me squared away with another mix of Tailwind for the seven mile stretch to the next aid station, and I headed towards Pantoll not caring about my finishing time. I had held my desired pace for over 30 miles, but it didn't feel sustainable anymore. At the ranger station, I stopped to use the bathroom, which had a line. By the time I got back on the trail I was 15 minutes off pace, and decided to just cruise comfortably for a while.

Once again, I found a group to shadow from about 200 yards back, and paced myself well for the long traverse to Bolinas Ridge. The leaders came back at me again along this stretch. I recalled how crowded this section was during the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile. Today it was blissfully sparse of runners. As Ben came by at 6:00/mile pace with his pacer looking like they were out for a xc workout, I easily made room for them. Galen and Chris were still in pursuit, albeit a bit further behind.

Coastal Trail above Stinson Beach, photo courtesy of @Ultratrailmatt

Coastal Trail is skinny; at times, grossly off-camber. About a mile and a half before the Bolinas Ridge Aid Station it became so sloped it was difficult to carry any speed due to the lack of footing. I came around a corner with too much speed and the trail disappeared from beneath my feet, sending me sliding down the hill. I arose gingerly and tried to regain my pace. A few moments later a loose rock got caught up in my feet and I ended up kicking it like a soccer ball with the top of my left foot, which hurt like hell. The wheels were coming off!


Coastal Trail, photo by @Ultratrailmatt


I managed to regain my composure and catch the group I had been following as we climbed into Bolinas Ridge Aid Station, and I chatted with Chipp from New York about the day so far. The sun had come out and the temps were climbing. I used my collapsible cup to guzzle ice water (about 16 ounces), mixed another bottle of Tailwind and had some pieces of melon. Nate Dunn gave me some encouragement as I left the station. I spied pizza in his hand and asked him to save me a slice for the return trip.

Put the ice water down, Ken. Photo by Nate Dunn

100 yards out from the aid station my stomach revolted. Too much ice water had me bloated and wanting to puke. I slowed my pace and stopped drinking Tailwind for a spell, which helped. The Bolinas Ridge section of trail was relentlessly rolling. It reminded me of the Lake Sonoma course, except for the enormous Redwood groves. I swear I saw a stump that was 30 feet across. Ironically, as soon as my stomach settled, my right knee ignited with searing pain, reducing my gait to limp. I had dealt with some IT-Band Syndrome/runner's knee in January and February, but it had not been an issue since. I was confused, and worried. For the first time I found myself seriously considering dropping from a race. A stream of runners passed me as we approached the downhill into Randall Aid Station. My pity party was in full effect.

I had three options: If I was in fact injured, dropping might save my knee for States in June. If my knee would hold up, I could take it easy and finish under the cut-offs, giving me a guaranteed qualifier for 2016 WS100, or I could take some Ibuprofen and still put in a solid effort and post a time indicative of my fitness. As I hiked down the road to the aid station, I didn't know which way I would go. All I was sure of, is that I HATE having to walk downhill!

Icing at Randall, Photo by Twirly
Immediately upon entering the aid station I asked Twirly to get ice. I knew that regardless of how it played out, I needed to ice the knee. I gave the volunteers a hug for giving me special treatment (they filled a gallon zip lock for me) and stood icing while Twirly got my resupplies squared away. The second big SNAFU materialized as Twirly told me she left the bag with my Ibuprofen in the car, which was parked far away. Jesse Jay saved my day with some of his own Ibuprofen, and the wheels, though wobbly, stayed on my train. I spent 5 minutes icing before gathering myself together and setting out for the climb back to the ridge.

Having fun again, photo by Nate Dunn
Going uphill was easier on the knee, and I had enough energy to run when the trail allowed for it. The 13 miles from Bolinas Ridge down to Randall and back was a parade of runners encouraging each other, and the energy was contagious. I saw many familiar faces along the way, and by the time I got back to Bolinas Ridge Aid Station, my knee felt better. I negotiated a slice of pizza, and filled my cup with Coke. It was great. I told Nate I had no qualms about my finishing time. I screwed around in the aid station for about five minutes, enjoying the novelty of pizza and Coke.



I set out for the final 10k with my pizza and coke, talking with a runner who also happened to be signed up for States this year. As we chatted, he realized I was running faster than he wanted and bid me a good race. I realized I felt spectacular. I looked at the time: 17:15. I had 45 minutes left to break 13 hours. I only had about 4 miles left, so I ran.

Cruising Coastal Trail, photo by Glenn Tachiyama

Coastal Trail, photo courtesy of @Ultratrailmatt

Coastal Trail, photo courtesy of @Ultratrailmatt

Photo courtesy of @Ultratrailmatt

Photo courtesy of @Ultratrailmatt

Coastal Trail, photo courtesy of @Ultratrailmatt
Each time I saw a runner up ahead, I reeled them in. I slowed down for the tricky parts, taking care not to trip again. By the time I got back to Matt Davis Trail I had 25 minutes to descend the last two miles of technical, root-strewn switchbacks. I ran hard; so hard, hikers verbally recognized my pace.

Photo courtesy of @Ultratrailmatt

I kept glancing at the time whenever the trail would allow me to look away. The minutes ticked down as I watched for the landmarks of the descent. The tricky left turn, The low hanging branch, the big rock signifying the final switchback, the bridge across the creek. And then the final stretch through the woods and into town. I felt like I was flying.

Not knowing what the race clock said, I sprinted into town, eliciting looks of concern on Tia's face as I ran into the chute at 5:15 pace (according to the deets). The clock said 12:58. I had done it. A large group of friends were amassed at the finish line, and I felt a huge wave of relief as Tia handed my my official Miwok 100k key chain. Twirly had all my post race gear ready: coconut water, beer, dry clothes, etc. I grabbed my swag bag, a plate of food, and changed clothes. It took a while to relax.

Sprinting it in, photo by Jessi Goldstein


I executed well. Despite not meeting my "A" goal, I gained confidence in my potential to improve my performances in the future. I finished so strongly that I surprised myself. Never before have I gone so low and bounced back so starkly. I set personal records on 27 Strava segments over the course!

The event was extremely well organized, and had that low-key hometown feel that has become so sought after in today's ultra scene. The volunteers were all knowledgeable and supportive. The crowd of finishers staying at the finish line to cheer in their fellow runners was impressive. We stuck around until the cut-off, cheering in Leigh-Ann with 45 seconds to spare!

Leigh-Ann gets her DFL, photo by Chris Jones

And, they gave everyone an IPA from Lagunitas. *pro-tip: use the Coca-Cola ice baths to chill your swag beer*

Decompressing the day, photo by Chris Jones
Miwok is a race I will do again, for sure; despite my abhorrence for out and back single track. It encompasses some of my favorite trails in the Headlands. I was unsure of how to approach the 100k distance, but now I realize it is like a mini-100 miler. There is enough time for things to go awry, but you're not out there overnight. I think it may be my favorite distance so far. I managed to maintain my average race pace of 12:30 for a Headlands race. Not the improvement I was looking for, but at least it indicates my stamina has returned. My slowest mile of the race was when I was in Randall Aid Station icing my knee. If I can pull off a similar time to Foresthill in June, I may have a shot at silver.

Here are the deets: