Friday, January 4, 2019

Gear Review: Salomon Sonic RA Pro and S/Lab Ultra

I've branched out quite a bit in my shoe usage over the past couple of years.  I've been pretty loyal to inov-8 since discovering their shoes in 2008, and I still have several of them in my quiver.  The X-Talon 212 may be my second-favorite shoe of all time, after the old c. 1991 Nike Air Terra Zori.  (Does anyone remember those?  They were purple with yellow trim, lightweight, flexible, grippy...I had so many fun miles in those shoes.  I can't even find a picture of them on line.)  But in recent years I've expanded my arsenal to include some HOKAs (enjoying the Speedgoats), a couple of Nikes (the Wildhorse for trails and the Zoom Fly for speed work), and some other random stuff from Scott and Newton.  By far my biggest change came in 2018 when the MPF/RNR team partnered with Salomon and I was able to try out some of their high performance shoes.

Previously I had not enjoyed some of my forays into the Salomon line.  I liked the Sense Mantra OK, and had a brief flirtation with the Sense Ride (I think), but found many of their other offerings, like the XA Pro and the Wings Pro, to be very stiff and unresponsive.  Plus I find their naming system to be incredibly confusing.  So I was a bit apprehensive when this partnership was announced.  Fortunately mears fears were unfounded.  I've fallen in love with two different models this year and wound up turning in the majority of my 2018 miles in Salomons. 

My Sonic RA Pros after their muddy maiden voyage
First up: the Sonic RA Pro.  This is billed as a road shoe, and it definitely fits that bill.  I come from a road background, though, and I still do a fair bit of road running: probably once a week tempo or marathon-paced running on roads, plus a few miles at the beginning and end of some runs getting to the trailhead from my house.  Additionally, most of my "trail" runs are actually carriage roads, where footing is generally excellent.  I have some very light, very grippy, very responsive shoes that I'll wear if I know I'm heading for a technically demanding route.  In general, when I'm looking for a workhorse training shoe, I want something that can handle a bit of road and a lot mostly non-technical trails, which means I'm willing to sacrifice traction and, to a certain extent, weight, in exchange for cushioning and versatility.  The one thing I can't abide is stiffness.  Even in a road shoe, I need a responsive ride.  The Sonic RA Pro checks all of those boxes.  At 235g (8.3 ounces), they're light and responsive, but there's enough cushion for a longish run; I took them for multiple 20+ mile runs without feeling beaten up afterwards.  The 6mm heel-toe drop is about the limit of how low I can go without really bothering my Achilles.  They transitioned from road to trail with ease, and I was able to use them on some of the exposed rock slabs in the Gunks without feeling unstable.  The toe box was extremely accommodating of my wide forefoot, but the Sensifit system provided a snug fit that hugged the midfoot extremely well, and I did not appreciate any slipping or sliding in the forefoot as a result, despite, the extra roominess.  The upper was light and breathable.  Not an awesome shoe for mud--the blown rubber outsole slides around too much, and the upper doesn't do much to keep mud or moisture out.  But the shoe scored high marks for responsiveness and versatility, and I wore them for the Salomon OutdoorFest 6-hour in June with no complaints.

As I geared up for Leadville, however, I knew I'd need a shoe with a little more heel-toe differential to protect my Achilles over 100 miles, and I definitely wanted a little more cushioning than the Sonic RA Pro could provide.  I considered using the inov-8 Roclite 280s, which I'd used at Bandera in 2016, or the Race Ultra 290s, which I'd used at Rocky Raccoon in 2017.  But the Race Ultras had been feeling a bit clunky recently, and so after OutdoorFest I started putting in miles in the S/Lab Ultra.  I think it took two runs for me to be certain that these were my shoes for Leadville.

My trusty S/Lab Ultras in action at Leadville
photo: Joe Azze
The S/Lab Ultra is also known as "the Francois shoe" as it was developed with multiple-time UTMB champ Francois D'haene.  I'm not sure if I can adequately describe how much I love this shoe.  It weighs 300g (10.5 ounces) but feels lighter.  It rides low to the ground (26mm stack height in the heel) but yet feels cushioned.  It's grippy but not overly aggressive; flexible but not too soft.  The 8mm drop is right in my sweet spot.  Like the Sonic RA Pro, it has Salomon's Sensifit technology for a wonderfully comfortable grip in the upper, which has a bit more overlay than the former shoe but stops short of being too hot or restrictive.  I'd probably prefer regular laces to the Quicklace system, which I find can be difficult to tighten enough for really slippery conditions, but it does prevent the dreaded "lace bite," and I did appreciate the easy on/off when I changed my socks at mile 61 of Leadville.  I'd love to find something negative to say about these shoes, but I can't.  I even like the color.  They're coming with me to Rocky Raccoon next month, and I know my feet will be in good hands.

But I still hate the naming system.

Guest Post: Stewart Dutfield's Final Thoughts of 2018

17 July. We took an anniversary bike ride down the river to Hudson, over Mount Merino and the Rip Van Winkle bridge to Catskill, and back on the other side of the river. Most of the roads we followed date back 200 years or more, but we returned abruptly to the present, riding amidst fast-moving heavy trucks by the Port of Coeymans. This former brickyard has become a deep water port, supplying raw materials to the neighbouring cement plant and constructing portions of the recently-opened new Tappan Zee bridge.

29 July. In July 1977, 22 runners set out on the first Escarpment Trail Run: 30Km along a wooded ridge, high above the Hudson River to the east, with three major climbs and no road crossings. Everyone learned something about this new venture, whether "never again" or the need to carry water next year. This was a good year for the archive, with frequent participants earning T-shirts for having completed 400 and 500 miles in the race over the years. There are runners who resolutely spurn the offer of a T-shirt for just one more completion, while others believe that this will be their last hurrah and have just fun enough to weaken their resolution.

More than 1,200 miles between the two of them
17 August. A creation myth of Thousand Island salad dressing holds that it originated on Grindstone Island, where fishing guides grilled the day's catch for their clients during the Gilded Age. Each summer I camp overnight with my son at Canoe Point; in the late 19th century the American Canoe Association held its annual camp and regatta here, and since then the island has changed little except that the ATV has supplanted the horse-drawn cart for getting around. Today I paddled to Canoe Point, and set off to run around the island: past farms and preserved lands, two one-room schoolhouses, the defunct cheese factory, a red truck with a tree growing through it—totem of rural America—and a field of Highland cattle, eventually to the Grindstone Island Winery and, with as many bottles as I could carry, back to the kayak.
Old road, supposedly closed but presumably only to ATVs

Canoe Point, 1885
10 September. How lovely to live in a community that values its open spaces and plans for their conservation amidst growing pressure for development. I used one of the planning maps to visit as many recreation areas and preserves as I could by bicycle, pausing at a trailhead or park entrance for every three miles or so of the 50-mile ride around town. 

27 September. Steve Chilton's "The Round" describes Chris Brasher's unsuccessful attempt at the Bob Graham round, his entourage joined at the start by a runner named Charlie. After 25 miles, Joss Naylor left the group in order to travel to London for dinner with Muhammad Ali. Brasher retired after another 16 miles or so, but Charlie ran on and finished the route in 22 hours, having told his wife the previous evening that he would be out for just an hour. This was before cellphones, but why she didn't call mountain rescue is not made clear.

View from the Wittenberg over the plain of Shokan
29 September. My head filled with stories of running 42 Lake District peaks, I started an eight-hour run of the Cat’s Tail marathon wondering how a mere four major Catskill summits would compare. The route scrambles along the ridge from Slide Mountain, almost a thousand feet higher than Scafell Pike: a classic Catskill trail, amidst the smell of balsam fir, over Cornell and Wittenberg Mountains. Joe reminded me, as we ran, that John Burroughs' 1885 "The Heart of the Southern Catskills" describes camping rough on the summit of "the Wittenberg"; from here is perhaps the best view from the ridge, over "the plain of Shokan": now the Ashokan Reservoir that gives water to New York City more than a hundred miles away.

5 October
. In the spirit of F. Scott Fitzgerald's holding "opposing ideas in mind at the same time", I read two contrasting books and emerged struck by their similar views of society's increasing dependence on large corporations. In The Company Citizen, Tom Levitt offers practical ways to align corporate self-interest with positive social outcomes. Peter Dauvergne's "Will Big Business Destroy Our Planet?" sees corporations as willing for selfish reasons to lie, degrade the environment, and break the law. Both books are optimistic: one that corporate interests can be aligned with human values, the other that this will never reliably happen but activism and regulation will save the day once a great deal more damage has been done. Any political fuss aside, at issue seems simply whether corporate inputs—mission and purpose—are adequate to embody human values: or must we also insist on assessing the full cost of business activity and requiring corporations to compensate for any net negative effects? And if we must insist, will we do so strongly enough before it is too late?

13 October. I left hours before dawn for the Trapp Family Lodge, an Austrian-flavoured outdoor resort started as a music camp established in Vermont's Green Mountains by the "Sound of Music" family. The marathon consists of two loops on hiking and mountain bike trails. At the finish was Viennese lager, brewed on the premises. Fortunately, no alphorn were in evidence.

25 October. Cycling to work, I encountered the remains of a deer on the rail trail. I imagined a jurisdictional battle between the County and the Town Departments of Public Works, but whichever drew the short straw had the eviscerated mess cleaned up by the afternoon.

28 October. Don Ritchie's autobiography "The Stubborn Scotsman" describes his struggle with health problems, which it is tempting to associate with his many hard years of training and racing. Current research into long-term health effects of endurance sports may one day yield more reliable guidance. Meanwhile, my son's painful knee has been diagnosed as "fast-growing boy" syndrome; he has been learning to do physiotherapy exercises and about the sports and level of involvement that bring him joy. Today's delight in his new mountain bike suggests that this is an activity that might keep him happy and healthy throughout his life: something that I have been fortunate to derive from running.

4 November. The Batona trail travels the length of the Pine Barrens: a forest wilderness of blueberry and cranberry bogs and deserted villages, quite apart from the rest of New Jersey. A low-key run along the trail, started in winter a few years ago, now takes place amidst muted late autumn colours. At 43 miles, with the next aid station several hours of running away, refreshments included a nip of Lagavulin which I can almost still taste. The following morning at Batsto village, Joe was delighted to find a pile of bog iron left over from the smelting that took place from the mid 1700s to the mid 1800s.

11 November. When Siegfried Sassoon wrote that "Everybody burst out singing...the singing will never be done.", did he have in mind the soldiers of his Welsh regiment or the general popular celebration of the signing of the Armistice? Perhaps both. I experienced neither the horror nor the delight that it was over, but for fifty years have wondered what being thrown into it all would have been like. What comfort in a humanity that can condone Verdun, Ypres, the Somme, Gallipoli or the Eastern Front? As the singing surely did end, the horror drifted back to haunt generations to follow.

17 November. Gravel Grinding, a term for cycling over dirt roads, has arrived in the Northeastern US. We returned from the "Gravel Gobbler" to the S&S Farm Brewery covered in mud, and with fewer working gears than when we we started. We look forward to more.

30 November. Rereading Will Hutton's 1995 The State We're In during the buildup to the postponed UK Parliamentary Brexit vote, I found this:
Unless Western Capitalism...can accept that they have responsibilities to the social and political world in which they are embedded, they are headed for perdition. Paradoxically, the most likely consequences will be the closure of the very open markets that business most needs as societies seek to protect themselves from the destructive forces that unregulated capital can release...
Alas, our pragmatic management of the social impacts of globalisation has failed to prevent "that kind of breakdown", which now draws so many countries toward a populism of fear and exclusion.

12 December. What we now refer to as the Christmas Truce came early for some; in a book of World War 1 letters a 20-year-old describes from his "palace in the trenches" a case on December 12th. Under a white flag and led by an officer, Germans crossed no man's land to shake hands and smoke cigarettes with the French. The letter's author was killed a few months later.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Ultrarunner of the Year: My Ballot

Hopefully unanimous women's #1, Courtney Dauwalter
For the fourth year in a row I had the great honor and terrible luck to be given a ballot for Ultrarunning Magazine's prestigious Ultrarunner of the Year award.  As I did in 2016 and 2017, I'll share my picks below, but not before complaining about how awful the process of filling out the ballot is.  There are literally dozens of runners who deserve consideration for this award, and I invariably have a list of about twenty athletes on both the men's and the women's side who absolutely should be in the top 10--an impossible task.  I take the responsibility very seriously and therefore I agonize over every decision, and while it's fun in the abstract, the actual process becomes painful on a nearly physical level by the time I'm done.

My women's worksheet, version 2.
I continue to invite criticism by posting my ballot.  I'm not quite sure why I do this, other than that it's easy content creation.  I do enjoy debating the picks and hearing people's rationales for arguments for and against various decisions.  As with anything online it can get a little personal or angry, but for the most part people have been good-natured and civil about it.  Please continue to do so.  The debate is the fun part, but only if we respect each other's opinions.  Our sport covers a variety of distances, surfaces, and formats, and while these awards smush all of them together, we all value different things and have our own prejudices and biases.

Last year, I was supposed to have Jason Mintz come on the podcast to enact one of these debates in more or less real time.  A scheduling conflict prevented him from doing the show, but he forwarded his ballot to Laura Kline, who came on the show to argue Mintz's picks.  This year the original @veganultrarunner1 was able to come on the show and speak for himself.  Check it out, we had a lot of fun doing it.  I'll leave most of the details on our decision-making to the podcast and stick with just the basics here.  Since Mintz and I recorded last week, about a week before the ballot was due, I did make a few modifications to my final picks based on our conversation.

Women's UROY
1. Courtney Dauwalter
2. Kelly Wolf
3. Hillary Gerardi
4. Katylyn Gerbin
5. Keely Henninger
6. Sarah Bard
7. Amanda Basham
8. Brittany Peterson
9. Corrine Malcolm
10. Darcy Piceu

Courtney was the easiest #1 pick since Jim in 2016.  Kelly also seemed like a fairly easy #2 for me; after that it got significantly harder. I bumped Clare Gallagher for Darcy at the last minute; Mintz and I discussed that one at length.  Toughest omissions: Clare Gallagher, Katie Schide, Camille Herron, Megan Alvarado, Rory Bosio, Stephanie Howe Violett, Aliza Lapierre, Kaci Lickteig, Sabrina Little, Sabrina Stanley, and Taylor Nowlin.

Women's Performance of the Year
1. Camille Herron's 24-hour WR at Desert Solstice
2. Courtney at Big's Backyard
3. Courtney at Western States
4. Megan Alvarado, 146 mile 24 hour at Fast Track (#9 all-time US)
5. Sarah Bard, 8th at Comrades

For once, I found this category to be pretty easy.  Tough omissions were Kelly Wolf winning Lavaredo, Julie Hamulecki's Canadian record at the 100K World Championships, Magdalena Boulet winning Marathon des Sables, and Courtney at the Tahoe 200 (not really, I don't care that much about 200s).

Women's Age Group Performance of the Year
1. Diana Fitzpatrick (60 years old), an age-group record 23:52(!!) at Western States
2. Paula Chapman (63), 20:58 (!) at Kansas Fall (women's winner)
3. Claudia Newsome (67), 26:27 at the Jackpot 100 (fourth female)
4. Connie Gardner (55), 16:40 at Canal Corridor (women's winner)
5. Megan Laws (56), 8:40 at Lake Sonoma (10th female)

Men's UROY
1. Dylan Bowman
2. Jeff Browning
3. Jim Walmsley
4. Mark Hammond
5. Mario Mendoza
6. Cody Reed
7. Jason Schlarb
8. Rob Krar
9. Kyle Pietari
10. Jared Hazen

As usual, this was the worst, and made much more difficult by the carnage at UTMB, the cancellation of North Face, and the subsequently thin resumes of many of the top contendors.  Again, listen to the podcast for most of my reasoning.  My toughest cuts in this category: Zach Miller, Zach Bitter, Tim Tollefson, Hayden Hawks, Kris Brown, Brian Rusiecki, Olivier Leblond, Ryan Ghelfi, Cody Lind, David Sinclair, and Jim Sweeney.

Men's Performance of the Year
1. Jim Walmsley's CR at Western States
2. Zach Bitter's 12:08 at Tunnel Hill
3. Rob Krar's "comeback" win and near-CR at Leadville
4. Jared Hazen's 5:34 win at JFK
5. Morgan Elliot's CR at Mount Mitchell

I thought I had this list nailed, and then Rich Heffron pointed out that I missed Geoff Burns' fifth-place finish at the 100K World Championships.  He's right; my bad.  I should've had that in the top five, though I dis want to recognize Morgan's Mount Mitchell CR, which he absolutely obliterated on a historic course.  (I know, it should be "an historic course," but that's the one rule of grammar I absolutely refuse to follow.)  Toughest snubs: Jim's CR at Lake Sonoma, Hayden Hawks' win at Lavaredo, Olivier Leblond's 161-mile national championship win at North Coast 24, andJim Sweeney's solo 13:09 at the Hennepin Hundred.

Men's Age Group Performance of the Year
1. Bob Hearn (53 years old), 153.84 miles at Desert Solstice (and a likely spot on the US team)
2. Thomas Dever (61), 3:39 at Tallahassee Distance Classic (winner)
3. Jean Pommier (54), 6:20 at Ruth Anderson 50 (winner)
4. Ruperto Romero (54), 8:14 at Sean O'Brien (winner)
5. Hans Schmid (78), 8:07 at Quad Dipsea

Monday, September 17, 2018

Race Report: Leadville Trail 100

I don't want to say that Leadville was the culmination of my years as an ultra runner, partly because I think I can run it faster and partly because that sounds kind of final and I'd like to think that I still have a few good races left in me.  But it certainly feels like an apex of sorts, and I think marked the beginning of a new phase of my running career.  Ultrarunning may have been an inevitable destination for me; at every stage of my life as a runner, I've always gravitated towards, and found the most success at, the longer distances.  But the move to the 100-mile distance was by no means a given.  I can still remember, having already completed multiple 50Ks, telling a friend that he was crazy for running the 40-mile Mount Mitchell Challenge (a race I've since run three times).  Mike Siudy still reminds me frequently that I swore I'd never run 100 miles.  And even once I had decided that a 100 was probably in my future, the idea of running Leadville--one of the original Grand Slam 100s, with nearly 16,000 feet of climbing at an elevation between 9,200 and 12,600 feet above sea level--seemed ludicrous.  (I can recall thinking that Leadville finisher Ken Posner was insane...though I still think that's true about anyone who voluntarily runs Badwater, let alone a double.)  Having completed, with some modicum of success, a race that previously scared the crap out of me does remove some sort of self-imposed limitation that may have constrained me in the past.  There are still going to be races I have no interest in doing, but the idea of a mountain 100 is no longer a daunting, impossible prospect.

I flew into Denver nine days before the race and caught a ride out to Leadville with Josh Sprague, the owner of Orange Mud, one of my wonderful sponsors, who was attempting to complete the Leadman (all of the Leadville Race Series MTB and running races in the same summer).  I was in for a bit of a shock.  While I knew I wouldn't have any hope of sticking with most of the high-country natives in a running race, I had been fairly diligent about my acclimatization, and I certainly did not expect to be short of breath climbing the single flight of stairs in the house I'd rented.  Alas, such is life at 10,150 feet.

I spent Friday, my first full day in town, helping Josh and a bunch of other OM athletes at the expo for the 100-mile MTB race that would take place the next day.  I headed out for a shakeout hourlong jog that evening before dinner to get my bearings and see how much the altitude was really going to affect me.  The answer: quite a bit!  I ran a 7-mile section of the Mineral Belt Trail, a paved bike loop around town that passes many of the abandoned silver mines from Leadville's 19th-century heyday.  I soon realized that it would be very tough to run under 9-10 minutes/mile on even gentle uphill grades.  Flat stretches seemed generally OK, though, once I got used to the sensation of breathing much more rapidly, and taking more frequent deep breaths, than at sea level.

Saturday was mountain bike race day; I took Josh's truck out to Twin Lakes, the main aid station and crew access at the 40- and 60-mile marks of the out-and-back course.  I'd never crewed a bike race before, so I took my cues from fellow OM athlete Kristen King, who was supporting her husband Jesse.  The crew station was a very cool scene, like an ultra aid station on steroids.  There were dozens of pop-up tents set up on either side of the dirt road spanning the Twin Lake dam that the riders would traverse.  With 1500 racers coming through at 20-30 mph, it was a madhouse trying to pick an individual rider out of the crowd.  Somehow it worked, though, and the racers managed to find their crews, fix mechanical issues, take care of their nutritional needs, and everything else familiar to a regular ultra race.  Watching the leaders blast through in either direction was impressive; they did not stop at all, and seemed to maintain an insane pace and effort level throughout the day.

After seeing Josh and Jesse successfully through, I drove a few miles into the town of Twin Lakes (such as it is), where the run course would pass through a week later (the bike and run courses share similar trails, but parallel each other for long stretches, and the major climbs are quite different).  As it turns out, I parked the car in basically the exact spot where my crew would set up their Hypoxico tent one week later and undertook a reconnaissance run/hike of Hope Pass, the biggest climb in the race.  This section starts at about mile 39 at Twin Lakes and traverses a flat field for about a mile, crossing the Roaring Fork River at the low point of the course (9200') and then embarking a a 4-mile climb to the top of Hope Pass (12,600').  The race drops down the far side of the climb and continues about five miles to the turnaround point at Winfield, but I scouted only the initial climb on the north slope.  With my collapsable trekking poles I actually found the climb to be fairly reasonable, and was able to maintain about an 18:00 pace despite not pushing very hard on the way up.  The descent started off a bit technical, but after I got back below the treeline I found it to be very runnable and enjoyed it thoroughly.  In all I round-tripped the 10+ miles in a bit under three hours and felt really good about it; a huge confidence boost for the following week.

That confidence mostly vanished the following day when, with Brian's encouragement, I decided to jump into the Leadville 10K, which would give me a taste of the first and last 5K of the full course.  The first three miles were a barely interrupted downhill on mostly wide dirt roads; I struggled to keep my breathing under control and hung on to the back of the top 10, hitting the turnaround in about 20 minutes flat.  The return was pure, lung-searing torture;  I staggered home with a second half of 24:30 for a 16th-place finish in 44:55--somehow under my goal of 45:00, but severely shaken at how hard the uphill had been.  I was cheered a bit by the realization that Brian's time in 2013 had been only a few seconds faster, when he had gone on to run 22 hours for the 100; if I could pull that off, I'd be pretty pleased.

The girls! (I like trains.)
I did very minimal running the rest of the week.  Jodi, the girls, and my parents arrived late Tuesday night, along with Brian's girlfriend Kali.  We spent Wednesday morning on a very low-key whitewater rafting trip on the Arkansas River, and the afternoon on a scenic ride on the historic Leadville, Colorado, and Southern Railroad (which I enjoyed immensely).  Brian and his sister Katie arrived Thursday afternoon, just in time for Brian to place second in the Leadville Beer Mile (while dressed as a squirrel) in a very impressive high-altitude 8:25.  Friday was very low-key; I spent most of the morning hanging out with Brian and Dylan at the Hypoxico tent, and spent the afternoon readying gear and putting the crew plan together with Brian, Kali, Katie, and Kevin, who joined us that evening after some business meetings in Denver.  At this point we had ten people crammed into our very cozy rental, trying to grab a few hours of sleep before the 4am start.
At race check-in, with LT100 founder Ken Chlouber

I actually slept fairly well and felt good as we walked the 3/4 mile from our house to the starting line; I was a little nervous but mostly excited and chomping at the bit to get started.  I had a stated goal of 20 hours, but in reality this was mostly a pipe dream, and I knew even with a great day and great weather this was unlikely.  I mostly wanted to just make sure not to do anything stupid and be able to run strong over the latter stages of the race.  I knew the opening miles would be fast and I'd have to keep myself under control.  I was hoping to reach Outward Bound (23.5 miles, the first time I'd see my crew) in about 4 hours, to reach Twin Lakes (39-ish miles) in under 7 hours, at to reach Winfield in under 10 hours.  A 20-hour day would actually take about a 9:30 split into Winfield, which I thought was possible given how well I had climbed Hope Pass the week before, but more than chasing a specific split, I was determined not to burn myself out too early.  The benefits of a controlled start are pretty obvious, and any successful ultra I've had has always come as a result of starting out slower than I think I should, but the best of intentions are often waylaid in the heat of a race, especially a long one where the opening miles feel much easier than expected.  Only a few days before, though, I'd read a nice article from David Roche about starting races slowly.  It wasn't anything earth-shattering (though it was well-written and spot-on, as all of Dave's articles are), but it had come along at exactly the right time for me to be reminded about the benefits of a nice, easy start, and as we headed down those fast pre-dawn miles, I kept my pace well in check.

It was dark, but there were so many runners around me that I didn't even need to turn on my headlamp.  We reached the bottom of the initial drop and traversed a nice flat 1.5 miles or so of pavement before we reached the rolling singletrack that circled the north and west shores of Turquoise Lake.  I tucked myself in the middle of a single-file line of seven or eight runners, running a very relaxed pace, but after awhile I got tired of hearing one of them talk loudly about himself to anyone who would listen  and took off, settling onto the back of a pack of much quieter runners as we reached May Queen, the first aid station at 12.5 miles, in about 2:05.  It was still nice and cool, and I was feeling very comfortable with a full bottle and several gels in my OM Single Barrel Hydraquiver, so I ran straight through the aid station and the thick, accompanying crowds and headed towards the first major climb of the day.

Arriving at Outward Bound, 24 miles in.
photo: Joe Azze
After a few gradually uphill miles through some tricky singletrack, we popped out on a dirt road and began a steady uphill grind to Sugarloaf Pass, a little over 11,000 feet.  I picked up a few spots, but not many.  I was determined not to race this early, and used my breathing as a proxy for effort; anytime I felt my breathing pattern increase, I eased off the pace.  After cresting the hill the course dropped precipitously over the next several miles down what would be known as the Powerline climb on the return trip; I focused on trying not to trash my legs and just get down with minimal effort.  At the bottom of the climb we turned onto a rolling rural highway for a two-mile stretch to the Outward Bound aid station.  I suffered my first mild down period on this section, moving steadily but slowly, and feeling as if a faster past was well beyond my capabilities.  But seeing my crew at the aid station, along with Elizabeth Azze (there to crew a client), and my parents, lifted my spirits, as did the fact that I had exactly met my target split of four hours (I mean exactly--like, to the minute).  Brian and Katie fueled me up with GU and Coke, and after about half a mile of easy jogging I started feeling good and found a nice rhythm over the next several flat/gently uphill miles.

Enjoying a bit of rain.
photo: Leadville Race Series
I fueled well and ran well over the next few hours, moving quickly through aid stations, listening to music, enjoying the scenery, and just letting the miles pass.  I had been dreading the climb on the lower slopes of Mount Elbert but I didn't even notice it.  I traded places with a few other runners but did not worry about it at all, just monitoring my effort level and cruising along.  A steady rain started, but as I was about to start getting too wet to stay comfortable, the rain stopped, the sun came out, and I dried off immediately.  Before I knew it I was descending from Mount Elbert towards Twin Lakes and my main crew station.  Again on the descent, I suffered a bit of a bad patch; this would become a theme most of the day, as my climbs were insanely strong all day long but I struggled to find a good rhythm on the downhills.  But once again I was re-energized by my amazing crew.  Katie swapped out my hat and pack (I wanted a little extra carrying capacity and fluids for the Hope Pass section); I pounded a full can of Coke and a couple of GU Roctane gels, grabbed my poles, and headed off toward the pass.

Heading towards Hope Pass
photo: Joe Azze
I crossed the river and started the climb, falling into a strong power hike, and I immediately started passing people.  And I mean, passing them like they were standing still.  I was trying not to get too fired up, but it was hard to keep the emotions and the pace under control, feeling this strong and having this much positive feedback.  The climb seemed to pass in an instant and I reached the aid station, located about half a mile from the summit.  The enthusiastic volunteers refilled my bottles as I kept hiking, then ran them back out to me; I never broke stride, just smiled at the llamas grazing on the mountainside slopes (so that's how they got supplies up here! Llama train!) and pressed on to the top.  Less than five minutes down the far side, I passed Rob Krar, the race leader, already nearing the top on the return trip, hiking purposefully, without a pacer and with about a 20-minute lead.
Crossing the Roaring Fork
photo: Leadville Race Series

The descent was much steeper than the northern side, and I picked my way down slowly, surrendering a spot or two, but I felt generally OK as I neared the halfway mark.  However, I hit a real down period on the three-mile rolling trail that stretched from the bottom of the descent to the turnaround at the Winfield aid station.  This section was much longer than I had anticipated, and my energy levels dipped precipitously.  I ate a gel, but it wasn't enough, and when I reached Brian at halfway I may have been at my lowest point all day.  Still, though, I was in good shape, exactly 10 hours in; I had moved up about 15 places since leaving Twin Lakes, and 21 hours was still a possibility.  I sat for the first time all day, eating some noodle soup, bananas, and Coke.  After a few minutes we made our way back out on the trail.  It took a few minutes of walking for me to get my legs back under me, but once the calories kicked in I started moving pretty well again, and we picked up a couple more folks as we approached the return climb.
Return climb on Hope Pass
photo: Brian Oestrike

Once we hit the climb I locked in my poles again and started hiking like a madman.  We caught three people in the first few minutes and I was not about to slow down.  Fortunately Brian recognized that the effort was not sustainable.  He gently took the lead and slowed the pace down enough for my breathing and heart rate to get back under control.  We were still making up ground, but at a much more manageable rate.  I flagged a bit as we neared the top and the climbing got very steep, but we had picked up another seven spots by the time we reached the top.  I jogged the first several minutes from the summit very cautiously before settling into a better rhythm just beyond the aid station.  The upper slopes were not particularly enjoyable, and I surrendered a few spots here.  But in the last two miles of the descent I hit my stride (despite one rather loud and unpleasant fall, which miraculously did not result in any injuries) and arrived back at Twin Lakes tired but happy that Hope Pass was behind me for the day.  Here I took the longest break of the day, sitting in a chair while Kevin dried my feet and changed my socks (thanks buddy, sorry to put you through that) and crushing a PBJ and more Coke.  By the time Brian and I headed back on the trail I was feeling pretty good again with just over 40 miles to go.

Kali has a frightening encounter with the Pacer Squirrel.
photo: Katie Oestrike
I was once again probably overly aggressive on the climb up to the Mount Elbert aid station, passing several folks and getting myself into a bit of an energy deficit that I paid for a few miles later.  Brian was able to do a nice job of steadying my effort level and getting the pace to be much more consistent over the next several miles.  I went through another down patch from miles 68 to about 74, but my spirits were revived by my crew at a brief stop at the Tree Line aid station, when Kevin burst out of the woods in full squirrel gear.  Brian and I covered the last few miles back to Outward Bound (mile 77) at a nice clip, recovering a couple of spots, and I was happy to have the whole crew, including my parents, Jodi, and the girls, meet me there.  After changing into a long sleeve shirt and powering on my headlamp, I started the next section with Kali along as pacer #2.

We ran very comfortably on the road section for a couple of miles but unfortunately missed the turn (along with a few other runners) off the road and added on about 3/4 of a mile with that mistake.  However once we found the trail and started the Powerline climb I was moving well again.  Having been warned by Brian, Kali kept me in check, and for once I didn't give back any spots on the way down, in fact picking up another place or two in the last mile before reaching May Queen, slightly more than 12 miles to go.

I had left Outward Bound with what I thought was an outside chance to break 22 hours, but our missed turn, which had cost us probably ten minutes, had wiped that out.  As I left May Queen with Kevin, my last pacer, I needed to run the last 12.5 miles in under 3 hours to break 23:00.  This was not a guarantee; I remembered all too well the final 3 miles of the 10K the week before, which climbed almost 500 feet--not an insurmountable grade, but one that I though likely would reduce me to a walk at this stage.  Twenty-minute miles were not out of the question.  I figured I needed to reach the base of the climb with an hour to spare in order for a sub-23 to be relatively safe.

I got quite cold leaving May Queen, and Kevin and I took a few minutes to get going while I put on my winter beanie and my Patagonia Houdini jacket.  A few minutes later it started to rain, and it rained fairly hard for the next ten minutes or so.  We covered the first few miles at 13-minute pace, walking in a few spots, but I started to find my rhythm on the north side of the lake and settled into the 12:00/mile range.  Kevin was very aggressive about pushing my calories and fluids, making sure I didn't neglect any needs, and as we hit the road section leading from the lake to the climb I actually felt very strong, pushing the pace down near 10:00/mile.  We hiked the first minute or so of the uphill, strewn with ruts and loose rock, but as we reached the graded dirt road, the slope eased off, and I found maintaining an 11:00/mile jog was pretty easy.  We walked for about 4-5 minutes with about two miles to go, partly to ensure we'd finish strong and I think partly to savor the moment.  Before I knew it we were back on 6th street in Leadville, with the finish line stretched out before us in the distance.

Jodi and my dad were at the finish, along with Katie, Brian, and Kali (the kids were mercifully asleep back at the house with my mom).  I was struck in that moment at how far they had all come and what they had sacrificed to get me to this point, and I broke down in the medical tent afterwards, overwhelmed by gratitude and so happy to have them all there with me.  Safe to say this experience will stay with me for quite some time.  The race was incredible: the organization, the trail, the scenery, the competition, and the time I was able to share with my family and friends out on this course.  Leadville truly is one of the greatest US trail races, and I hope to be back many times again.

Salomon Sense Ultra and Agile shirt
Injinji Ultra No-show socks
Patagonia Stride Pro shorts
Black Diamond Distance Z trekking poles
Orange Mud Single Barrel Hydraquiver, miles 0-40 and 60-100 (also used an old-school Ultimate Direction AK vest for Hope Pass)
GU Roctane and gels, mostly Birthday Cake, that's just delicious
Orange Mud trucker cap and beanie (also used my GU five panel crusher for Hope Pass)
Petzl Reactik + headlamp

Early summer recap: Western States pacing and altitude training

Coming from sea level, my primary concern as I prepped for Leadville this summer--other than, you know, getting in shape--was how I would survive a 100 mile race that takes place entirely above 9000 feet.  Fortunately I happen to live about three miles from the CEO of Hypoxico, the world leader in altitude training systems.  Brian came by the house in mid-June with a generator, tent, and a mask/reservoir system for the treadmill, which was exciting but also increased my apprehension quite a bit.  Before I started on my acclimatization, though, there was another matter to attend to: a little race I like to call WESTERN STATES.

This was my third time making the trip to Squaw Valley for States.  My first was in 2005, the first ultra I'd ever been to.  I had spent some time in 2004 working at the Yosemite Medical Clinic in Yosemite Valley, where my main supervisor was Gary Towle, a WS100 board member.  He convinced me to be a medical volunteer at States the following summer, where I got to witness Jurek's final, dominating win; the experience is basically what turned me into an ultrarunner.  I went back in 2014 to crew and pace for my good friend, Salomon athlete Glen Redpath.  This year, the circle was completed.  Glen is the one who had introduced me to Brian almost five years ago, before Brian moved to New Paltz; now I'd be pacing my training partner over the same twenty-mile stretch I had run with Glen four years earlier.

Brian ready to go at the start.
I made it to Squaw on Thursday afternoon and did a brief 30-minute jog before meeting Brian and his friend Kyle for dinner.  Friday was a busy day.  First, Kyle and I jumped into the Altra Uphill Challenge, a 6K climb on the opening miles of the WS100 course.  I had not yet started any acclimatization, so I knew I'd be suffering from the altitude, which started at about 6500' and climbed to nearly 9000' at the finish.  And suffer I did.  I started off a bit too aggressively over the first half mile, and started to leak places past the mile mark.  But overall I felt much better than I had four years ago; despite temps in the upper 80s, the lack of humidity had me feeling pretty good, and I held on for a top-20 finish in 36:45, nearly three full minutes faster than I'd run in 2014--a nice confidence boost heading into my altitude training.  After a shower and lunch, we headed over to the mandatory pre-race meeting.  Then I was able to grab the great Eric Schranz of for an interview for the Pain Cave.  Then we had a race-strategy chat with DBo, our third crew member/pacer, before Kyle and I drove into Tahoe to pick up some last minute supplies for race day.

Hydrating at Michigan Bluff
Race morning was clear and cool, but the heat promised us later in the day ultimately did not disappoint.  Kyle and I saw Brian off at 4:00am and immediately headed out to Duncan Canyon, the 24-mile mark.  Brian came through in slightly over four hours, looking pretty strong; after a brief stop during which we loaded him up with fluids and ice, he took off to meet DBo at Robinson Flat (30 miles) while Kyle and I drove ahead to Dusty Corners (mile 38).  By this point the day had really started to heat up; despite the low humidity, temperatures in the high 90s/low 100s are not conducive to distance running, and Brian looked a bit worse for the wear when he passed through a few hours later.  He headed into the infamous canyons section of the course and the heat of the day, and we headed off to rendezvous with DBo at Michigan Bluff (mile 55).

We had a nervous couple of hours where Brian stopped showing up on the race tracking, wondering if he had dropped, but eventually he got back on track and came through looking reasonably well.  The heat had become challenging, and his stomach was not cooperating, but Dylan got him on track drinking more GU Roctane and he picked up the pace heading into Foresthill (mile 62) where DBo picked him up to pace the next 18 miles.  The two of them moved well down Cal Street and had moved up over ten spots by the time I met them climbing up from the American River on the way to Green Gate at mile 80.

Late night, Placer High School track.
By this time the had started to drop into the mid-80s, and I thought we might really start to hammer.  But Brian's stomach was still causing issues, keeping him from taking in anything but liquid calories and necessitating a brief puking spell at around 83 miles.  We kept pounding Coke and Roctane and struggled through to the 90-mile aid station.  Brian was able to move fairly well on the flats, but we had to hike every climb, and he wasn't up to his usual prowess on the downhills; we made slow and steady progress, picking up a few spots here and there, but couldn't find a strong, consistent rhythm.  We saw Dylan and Kyle at the 94-mile aid station which seemed to rejuvenate Brian a bit, and he charged downhill with renewed vigor, passing the Speedgoat, Karl Meltzer, about a mile before we reached No Hands Bridge at mile 97.  At this point we were trying to hold off Brian's friend Alex Ho, with whom he had tied for the win at Bighorn in 2017 and had been trading spots throughout the day; as we crossed No Hands we could see his and his pacer's headlamps less than a minute behind.  We started the half-mile climb to Robie Point with maybe a 30 second gap, but Brian pushed hard up the hill, suffering silently but running much of the way.  By the time we crested the hill past Robie with a mile to go, we had stretched the lead to about 90 seconds, and we were cruising to the finish until we stupidly missed a turn, ran an extra half mile, and lost two spots in the process.  Still, Brian ran an excellent 20:28 for 38th place, on a day when he did not have his best stuff.  The guy really has an extraordinary ability to make himself hurt, and it was pretty amazing to witness firsthand.

Altitude training, courtesy of Hypoxico
I tried to use this brief period of altitude exposure to jumpstart my acclimatization, and when I returned home I began training in earnest.  I started by sleeping in the tent at a simulated altitude of about 6000' and increased gradually until I was sleeping at 10-11K about 5 nights a week.  I also increased my hill training, combining some short-duration hill repeats (2-4 minutes each) with long climbs on Lenape Lane (3 miles of steady climbing between 3-10% uphill grade).  About four weeks out I started incorporating the altitude mask into my training.  I did a little bit of easy jogging at 10,000 feet, but mostly I would just crank the treadmill up to a 15% gradient, set the mask to 12,500', and hike uphill at about an 18-minute pace for half an hour or so at a time.  This was much worse than it sounds; within about 45 seconds I'd be gasping for breath and my heart rate would be up around 150.  But I could feel myself getting stronger, and while my breathing never got "easy," it definitely improved after a few weeks of this kind of torture.  Two weeks out I put together a couple of medium-long days with Phil in the Catskills--not my cup of tea, but it gave us an opportunity to do some extended 2-3 mile climbs at 15-20%, and to practice using trekking poles.  I've grown up as a cross-country skier, and so this came fairly naturally to me; by the time we finished the first big uphill hike with the poles I was convinced that I'd be using them on Hope Pass in Colorado.  I also volunteered to sweep the legendary Escarpment Trail Run with Phil and our friend Rick, which provided a long, if slow, day of climbing.  All in all, I boarded my flight to Colorado feeling more excited than nervous about the adventure to come, and fairly confident that I'd be able to handle myself on the Rocky Mountain trails.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Guest Post: Stewart Dutfield's Q2 Somewhat Running-related Diary

Seeing as how I'm basically a seasonal blogger myself at this point, I'm thrilled to have Stewart Dutfield continue to update his yearly diary on a quarterly basis.  ICYMI, you can read his 2017 year in review and his 2018 Q1 musings.  This current iteration may be my favorite so far.  It isn't all running-related, but then again, neither is life.


6 April. To have spent four hours at the National African American Museum with a 13-year-old boy is to look forward to returning for a whole day, to take things in more slowly. In single file down a narrow ramp, we walked several storeys beneath ground, and then slowly up through the historical exhibit—from before slavery (and, it was suggested, even before racism) to Obama and Oprah—to emerge at the foot of a heavy spiral staircase. Bounded by tall black walls, it continues the journey upward, but we have arrived here understanding that historical progress is neither unambiguous nor even consistently forward. 

Clayton led us to the sports exhibits: Owens, Robinson, Gibson, Ali, Jordan. Most moving to me was the bronze statue of Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Peter Norman (who afterwards was just as shabbily treated as the others) on the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics. Harry Edwards, very much part of events leading up to Smith and Carlos's protest, appears in short videos on aspects of black sports: reminding us, for example, that racial integration of major league baseball destroyed black-owned businesses in the negro leagues. While taking a photograph of the monumental staircase from above, I was tapped on the shoulder and quietly told that photographs should only be taken from below. With mild shame and indignation I struggled to grasp what seemed an arbitrary and unstated rule, but left feeling that perhaps this was exactly the point. 

Descending Castle Point on a run through Mohonk and Minnewaska
28 April. In Carmel NY is a statue of Sybil Ludington; the story goes that in 1777 she rode 40 miles overnight from here to rouse militia in defense of Danbury against the British. Two centuries later, a 50K road race roughly followed Ludington's presumed route and has taken place every year since. This year the event was no longer based in the basement of the VFW—where the business portion of the men's urinal still bears an image of Jane Fonda—and followed a new loop course never approaching within a mile or so of the statue. As usual, new leaves gave little shade on the pretty, undulating country roads. Some well-established metropolitan area road runners showed up, a few still going in their 50s, 60s and 70s. With luck, though having departed from its roots in the dubious history of Sybil Ludington's ride, the 50K will continue as a no-frills footrace for old-school athletes.

6 May. Live audacity at the Egg in Albany where Brandi Carlile sang "Babe I'm Going to Leave You", a tour de force for a young, fresh-faced Led Zeppelin who had transformed the song from a Joan Baez recording of the early 1960s.

Refreshment at Kaaterskill Falls on a run from Olana to North Lake
2 June. The Piccadilly Line from Heathrow brought me to Boston Manor, where I embarked on a gentle walk through West London history; first along the Grand Union canal to the mouth of the River Brent, where Julius Caesar may or may not have crossed the Thames in 54BC. Tom took me to a plaque to commemorate where Pocahontas had lived; then through the fields of Syon Park—little changed for 200 years—to lunch at the London Apprentice, which was here when J.M.W. Turner lived in Isleworth and might have been his local. Then over the lovely Victorian painted iron of Richmond lock and back to Kew, where an afternoon cricket match was in progress. We had spent our afternoon amidst Turner's picture of Syon House and Kew Palace, swans and all.

The Thames at Isleworth
Loch Lomond, the low road.
Photo credit: Joe Brown
9 June. It was dark as the bus descended the steep valley past Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater to deposit us beside the falls at Ohiopyle, PA. From here we would run the Laurel Highlands trail northeast to Johnstown, which in past months has crawled with journalists trying to understand the 2016 presidential election results. For my part, in nearby Ebensburg the previous evening I had visited a new microbrewery with the slogan "Our beer is always coaled" (fortunately, it wasn't). The trail is marked by 71 mileposts, and follows a ridge where we were a couple of weeks too late for the peak of the mountain laurel. "Highway Patrolman" playing in my head, I started comfortably but, as the humidity undermined my appetite for eating and drinking, gradually slowed over the later more runnable part of the trail and finished, once more in the dark, less than an hour before the clock ran out.
Joe on the Highland Boundary fault, descending Conic Hill.
Photo credit: Fiona Rennie

23 June. Just behind Tesco's in Milngavie, a footpath sign indicates that Glasgow is 6¼ miles away. The nearby terminus for the commuter railway is also the start of the West Highland Way: 95 miles in the opposite direction, along the shores of Loch Lomond and through the West Highlands. After a moment of silence for the great Don Ritchie, runners set off at 1am through the town centre toward Fort William. Daylight roused me at 3am from sleeping in the van, in time to support Joe at 19 miles with coffee and a bacon roll. Stella later joined me as Joe's crew. Approaching Glencoe over the Black Mount, Joe began to struggle with the increasingly rough, granite underfoot conditions. He and I covered the last 25 miles together overnight, and ran not a step. As the race director had predicted, there was no weather this year by Scottish standards: conditions proved largely dry and fresh, keeping the midges at bay except where Stella slept in the van at Kinlochleven. After a grim night on the granite paths, Joe finished at 5am and took his turn to sleep in the van as we drove to our B&B.

Crews provide all food and drink to West Highland Way runners.
Photo credit: Stella Potter
26 June. I took Joe to the Scottish National Gallery to see the large painting of Niagara Falls, which was my introduction to Frederic Church long before I first visited the Hudson Valley. Among the Titians and Poussins hangs a large, jarring new work by Jenny Saville; in El Greco colors of grey, red and blue, it depicts and bewails child casualties in Aleppo in our own time—on our watch, so to speak. See it if you can.