Sunday, November 30, 2014


As I mentioned in my post on the Shawangunk Ridge Trail Run, the Wagathon is my favorite fat ass run.  "The Wag," named after the rock-climbers' club Westchester Alpine Group, was started in 2005 by climbing legend Felix Modugno and was, in its early years, exclusively a climber's deal; the first three years featured fields of about 3-8 people, all climbers, none of whom ran with any real regularity.  But somehow people started to talk, and in my first year, 2008, we suddenly had almost 30 people at the start.
The start of Wag IV, 2008
The first four years, the course didn't vary much; starting in Sam's Point Preserve, the trail passed Verderkill Falls and Mud Pond on its way to Lake Awosting, Millbrook Mountain, and down to Trapps Bridge; after that, we followed mostly carriage roads up to Skytop at Mohonk Mountain House and then back down through the Preserve into the town of New Paltz, finishing at the Gilded Otter Brewing Company, a distance of about 30 miles.  I "won" the fourth edition in 2008, running a basically solo 4:07, and had a great time.  In 2009, the course changed slightly, adding the beautiful but difficult Gertrude's Nose trail and finishing outside town at the climber's haven, the Mountain Brauhaus.  By this time plenty of runners had joined the hardcore climbing contingent, and from that year on the run became more runner-dominated than climber-dominated.  I ran most of the 2009 race with Scott Willett, an elite triathlete and the founder of the Tri-Life training group, and we tied for the "win".  In 2010 the course changed again, now finishing in Rosendale at the northern end of the Shawangunk ridge; I dropped out with an injury halfway through, but returned in 2011 to share the win with Glen Redpath, my third "win" in four tries.

By this time, organizational duties had passed from Felix, through local ultra runner Joe Brown, and on to Mike Siudy, a climber in his past life who now passes his time running insanely difficult ultra courses through the Catskills.  Mike standardized the course, which had started to fluctuate quite a bit from year to year, and basically codified it into what it is today: a nearly 30-mile trip from Sam's Point to Rosendale, covering single track, carriage roads, and five rock scrambles, including the infamous Giant's Workshop, Lemon Squeeze, and Bonticou Crag.  Also starting in 2012, the structure of the event changed.  While it was always a fat ass event--no entry fee, no support, no awards, few rules--the run had, for the first seven years, had a mass 9 am start.  While the vibe was decidedly friendly and relaxed, there was certainly a mild competitive undertone, and part of the fun (for me at least) was trying to lay down a fast performance and be one of the first people sipping beer at the Red Brick Tavern at the end.  But after seven years in this style, people wanted a change--specifically, some of the faster finishers wanted to share drinks with some of the slower folks, but didn't want to have to wait several hours for everyone to get in.  So starting in 2012, the run became completely non-competitive: start whenever you want, just try to time it so you finish between 4 and 5 pm, so we can all eat, drink, and be merry together.

Phil and Brian at Verderkill Falls
I liked the thought, and admired the impulse toward mass drunkenness, but losing the competitive aspect did kill some of my interest in the event.  The logistics of the run aren't easy--Sam's Point is a good hour's drive from the finish in Rosendale, and it was hard to justify the headache of planning everything out for what now amounted to a long run on most of the same trails I run on every weekend.  Plus, I'm not exactly what you'd call "great" with heights, and some of the more exposed, tricky rock scramble sections are really not my cup of tea.  I never like feeling like I'm about to fall to my death, especially not 25 miles into a 5-6 hour effort.  So for a few years, I was out on the Wag.  But 2014 marked the 10th anniversary of this venerated event, and two of my good friends and training partners, Brian Oestrike and Phil Vondra, were excited to run it for their first time.  Glen was coming up from the city as well, running half the race as his longest run since Achilles' surgery in July.  Phil and I had the seemingly brilliant idea to stash a couple of beers out on the course, which we did the night before, and by 10:45 Brian, Phil, and I were heading off toward Verderkill Falls with the goal of finishing by around 4:30.

"W" is for Wagathon--at Castle Rock
We wound up with a near-perfect day of weather and had a great time chatting it up as we navigated the tricky single track past the falls and out to Lake Awosting.  From there, we followed carriage roads over Castle Rock and headed out toward Millbrook Mountain.  On the way, we caught up with Josh Burns, who had started a few minutes before us, and the four of us kept up a pretty solid pace to Trapps Bridge, 15 miles into the run and the site of our first beer stop.  We dropped a few hints to Josh about the beer, but as we approached the bridge, he announced that he was going to keep going up onto the ridge, and he was gone before any of us could say, "Hey, wait, there really is beer here."  Phil had left us a nice 750ml bottle of Aria from Perennial Brewery, which took us a good 15 minutes to plow through before heading back out on to the trail.

Beer stop #1.  Photo: Phil Vondra
From there, things got a bit wobbly.  The next few miles are a tricky traverse along the top of Trapps Cliff, and while we were pretty pleased with ourselves for having had the forethought to have a beer stop, we were clearly moving rather slowly and stiffly along.  After a few quiet minutes of slogging, Brian commented, "Man, we are really in the doldrums."  Apparently beer with 8% ABV is not a performance enhancer.

In the doldrums, at checkpoint #3.  Photo: Phil Vondra
The course gets worse before it gets better--we slogged our way through Giants' Workshop and the Lemon Squeeze, which Brian negotiated easily with his alpinist background, but I suffered quite a bit until we got past Skytop tower and started running again back downhill.  We hit a nice rhythm, though, and had cranked out a good couple of miles before we reached beer check #2, hidden behind the Mohonk Golf Course: a nice Yard Owl Dark Wheat:
No caption necessary.
There were no two ways about it after that: I was basically drunk, and Phil and Brian kept a pretty close eye on my on the scramble up to Bonticou Crag.  By the time we made our way back down the Northeast Trail and through the swamp at the bottom of the Widowmaker, I was almost back to normal, and all that was left was the final few miles racing the sunset.  We finished up in just over 6 hours, including the beer stops, with about 5:15 of actual running time--not too far off what we had planned, actually.  It was Phil's longest run ever, and all in all, we had a really fun day out.  I have to admit, it was fun seeing everyone at the finish, though I do miss the competitive aspect of it a bit.

Quick gear report: I used the Montrail Rogue Racer, the shoe I've been putting in the vast majority of my miles for the past few months.  They're only 9 oz, and billed as a racing flat, but they have a 9mm drop and a fair bit of cushion, and I've been very happy with them for many miles and several long efforts.  I wore my Pearl Izumi Ultra Split short which is a brilliant piece of clothing.  The pockets in the back of these shorts are actually sewn into the liner, which comes all the way up to the top of the short, so you can carry gels or your phone (the main pocket zips and holds an iPhone 6) with virtually no bouncing.  They're quite expensive for shorts but a fairly indispensable item.  And, as on most long unsupported efforts I used the Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest for hydration.  Though the day after this run I received in the mail the Orange Mud HydraQuiver, which may replace the UD vest as my go-to hydration system for longer runs.  More details to come!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Race Report: Tesla Hertz 50K

photo: Happily Running

This year did not exactly go as I planned, particularly from a racing standpoint, but one race that was on my calendar basically all year long was the Tesla Hertz Run.  I was drawn to this race from its founding last year, though I was unable to run it in 2013 as it fell just a week before Tussey Moutainback (which didn't turn out all that well).  But I was intrigued by the idea of a runnable trail race not too far from home, and a positive review from Brian Oestrike (third in the 50K in 2013) sealed it for me.  After struggling through much of the summer, but having a fairly productive fall, I made Tesla the focal point of my fall racing season.

Tesla Hertz is actually a festival of races taking place concurrently on a mostly flat, 10.4-mile singletrack loop.  The 100 mile, 100K, and 50 mile starts all preceded the 8 am start of the 50K, so that we were the last of the four races out on course.  As the fields were all relatively small, this was pretty fun, giving us the opportunity to see other runners (however briefly) all in various stages of their own races.  The forecast called for rain, and did not disappoint; it was raining steadily at 5:30, when I woke that morning, and did not let up at all until about 15 minutes after I finished, nearly seven hours later.  This made for some rather soggy conditions, though the course held up pretty well.  The loop, in Rocky Point State Preserve in northern Long Island, runs through a dense forest of pine barrens, which meant soft, sandy trails with plenty of pine needles.  We ran into a few puddles, but very little mud, and the footing was generally quite good, though certainly not fast; the ground was too soft to get any real return of energy, and it was hard to forget you were generally running on hard sand.  Still, though the course was almost exclusively twisting singletrack, there were minimal rocks and roots, and there were certainly long stretches of rhythmic, steady running over the course of the day.

Given the small field, I started the day with the goal of winning the race (this sounds silly--don't you always start with the goal of winning?--but in reality, I don't have a chance of winning the overwhelming majority of races I enter).  In the first few strides of the race, it became pretty clear it would be a two-man battle, as local stud Joe Marinaccio and I broke away and were immediately on our own.  Joe let me set the pace, which I did gladly.  I had been feeling great in my training for at least the past ten days, and as I set a relaxed but quick tempo, my legs responded quite well, and I was happy to establish the rhythm.  We ran together for the first mile or so, Joe right behind me, and I started to think about strategy, even at this extremely early stage.  The obvious thing was to relax and run easy, as we obviously had a long, wet day ahead of us, and there was no reason to do all the work and let Joe draft off me for the next few hours.  I could let him pass and follow his pace for awhile, turn the brain off, and worry about making moves later on.  But for some reason, I wasn't trusting myself with this strategy; I had a nagging feeling that, if I gave up control of the race, I might not be able to respond when the big move came.  Better to stay in front and dictate how the race was going to go.  And if I was going to lead, there was no point in letting Joe just cruise along for the ride; I'd have to make him earn it.  So, ten minutes into the race, I made a rash decision--I was going to try to run away with the thing.

Joe hung close for quite awhile, at first sticking on my shoulder and then slipping back by no more than a few seconds.  The course is basically a continuous loop with a short out-and-back spur, about half a mile each way, just past the halfway point, which led to the only aid station other than the start/finish area.  I turned around here without stopping, spotting Joe only about five seconds back, and continued to push on.  We got back onto the main loop without seeing any other 50K runners, meaning we had at least a one-mile lead at this early point.  By now I couldn't hear Joe breathing, so I continued to keep a steady, even tempo.  On a couple of long, straight stretches I checked over my shoulder and saw him about 30 seconds back, but by the time I finished the first loop I couldn't see or hear him at all.  I headed out for the second loop without stopping; I planned on taking off my arm warmers at this point, but it was still raining steadily and I was still a bit on the chilly side.  I kept rolling, trying to push my advantage.  I started doing some math in my head; if I could build a four or five-minute lead by the next time I saw Joe at the 15.8-mile turnaround, I could feel pretty comfortable over the last half of the race.  I hit the turn at right around the 2:02 mark, feeling pretty strong but starting to tire just a bit.  I knew the course record of 4:13 was within reach, but pushed that to the back of my mind as I focused on holding off Joe.

Unfortunately he was only 1:30 back at the turnaround, which started to play with my mind a bit.  This is the problem with talking yourself into a big lead--when you find out you don't actually have the lead you anticipated, it can be a bit depressing.  The next several miles were a lonely, depressing stretch: I was starting to fatigue, I didn't have the lead I had hoped for, and I was still an awfully long way from home.  I finished the second loop still in front, but as I left the aid station after refilling my bottle and dumping my arm sleeves, I heard cheers for Joe coming in.  My lead was holding but barely, and I still had ten front-running miles to go.

Still, I now had only one lap left; mentally, the game had just gotten a lot easier.  I was certain I was going to get caught, so I focused on the mantra of "Make him earn it."  If he was going to catch me, I was going to make him work his ass off.  This kept me going through the turnaround.  Every time I felt myself flagging mentally, I came back to that, and pushed the pace a little bit more.  I cruised through the turnaround again without stopping, glancing at my watch to gauge my lead.  Joe came by sooner than I wanted, looking very strong, and I looked down--still 1:30.  I couldn't lose him!

I now had two competing mental narratives.  My initial, negative thought was that no matter what I did, I couldn't shake my pursuer, and that being overtaken was simply a matter of time.  But I was able to quickly see the flip side: I'd been running off the front for a marathon, and had held the same lead for the past 10+ miles without giving up even a second.  Now, there were only five miles to go.  I had a cushion of nearly twenty seconds per mile; if I could maintain anything close to 8:00/mile pace, I could make it awfully difficult for him.  So that's what I did.  I ran scared, just like had had for the past two hours, and I must have checked over my shoulder ten times in the past thirty minutes, certain each time I'd see Joe charging up behind me, but it never happened.  I crossed the line first in a course-record 4:08:20.  Joe came in just about six minutes later; I had been able to add nearly a minute per mile over the final five miles.

All in all, it was a satisfying end to my ultra racing season.  Running from the front was a new and somewhat frightening experience for me, but I think it helped focus me mentally and really brought out the best in me on this day.  I was a bit bummed not to hang around afterwards, but I was very wet and couldn't wait to get back to Jodi and our weekend away in the Hamptons (and some dry clothes), so I hightailed it out of there pretty fast.  But I have to complement Vinny, Nichole, and the crew at Happily Running, who put on a great event that hopefully will continue to grow and flourish in the coming years.

I took an easy week last week and am trying to get back in the flow now.  Racing is probably done for the season; I'll run my high school XC alumni race after Thanksgiving, as I do every year, but otherwise I'll be focused on building back up for next year.  I'll come back in a few weeks to outline my plans for next season, which will start with a return trip to Mount Mitchell and hopefully go from there.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Race Report: Shawangunk Ridge Trail Run

I'm not sure at what point I realized it--maybe at the start, maybe five miles in, maybe after four hours--but at some point last Saturday, it dawned on me that running a technical ultra at the end of the highest-mileage week I've had in over a year was maybe not the smartest idea I've ever had.

I knew going in the that inaugural Shawangunk Ridge Trail Run would be a tough day.    Race organizers Ken Posner and Todd Jennings love their technical trails, and looking at the course map beforehand, it was clear that the race would encompass some of the most technical trails the area has to offer.  I love running point-to-point courses, though, and as the race was vaguely following the course of the Wagathon, one of my favorite fat-ass events, I figured I'd give it a try.  Plus, I liked the idea of a self-supported "adventure."  The date was pretty good as well, falling three weeks before my main focus for the fall, the Tesla Hertz Run, so I went in to the race looking for a good, long, hard effort.

As mentioned, the preceding week was the longest one I've had in some time.  I ran a nice long cool down following the Whiteface Uphill Race the week before, getting in about 17 miles for the day, and wound up getting in 16 on Sunday.  Monday was my friend Brian's 42nd birthday; in celebration, he decided he wanted to run 42 miles over two days, so we ran 21 miles both Monday and Tuesday.  Thursday I met up with tri-geek Mark Eisenhandler and inov-8 stud Laura Kline (who would win the SRT 20 mile division) for a track workout; while it went quite well, it was certainly the toughest workout I'd done in months.  Needless to say standing on the starting line in Sam's Point two days later I wasn't quite feeling my freshest.

Photo: Tom Bushey

The Shawangunk Ridge Trail is not a new trail per se, but is a new blaze by the NY-NJ Trail Conference that links up a series of pre-existing trails that, all together, run the length of the Shawangunk Ridge, from High Point, NJ, to Rosendale, NY, a distance of 74 miles.  Ken, the first person to run the entirety of the SRT, organized three divisions: a 74-miler over the full length of the trail; a 32-miler from Sam's Point Preserve to the finish; and a 20-miler, that started in Minnewaska State Park.  Only five intrepid souls took on the full beast this year (and only one finished), but the 50K+ had about 30 starters, and the 20 miler almost fifty.

Photo: Ken Posner, I think
As I mentioned, the course generally mimics that of the Wagathon, a local fat-ass which will see its tenth running this November.  In fact, the first five miles, from Sam's Point to Lake Awosting in Minnewaska SP, are identical.  After an uphill opening mile on an old carriage road, the course turns into a rocky, difficult single track for the next two miles to Verderkill Falls, then two more somewhat technical miles on an exposed rock ridge before passing Mud Pond and entering Minnewaska.  Generally, in the Wag, I will tolerate these opening miles, looking forward to reaching Awosting and running a majority of carriage trails the rest of the way.  The SRT, however, sticks almost exclusively to little-used single track and ventures onto the carriage roads for brief, interrupted stretches only.  I led the opening few miles but was passed by the eventual race winner near Mud Pond, about four miles in.  I was looking forward to reaching Awosting, but upon getting there, remembered that I had to negotiate the rock scramble over Castle Point and then down the tricky descent to Rainbow Falls.  I run those trails very infrequently, and got lost two or three times, once for several minutes, needing to bushwhack back though some thick undergrowth and up a dry stream bed to get back on trail.  Each time, I'd be caught by a group of three or four runners behind, only to pull away again almost immediately.  Finally I finished this section, only to be rewarded by starting the descent down Jenny Lane, one of my least favorite trails in the Gunks.  And then, after negotiating that, things improved only slightly, as the course then took us over the High Peters Kill Trail.

I won't bore you with the details.  It was just a very long, uneventful day.  I basically ran solo for the last six hours.  I had a nice stretch from Coxing Kill to Chapel Road on Undivided Lots Trail, a nasty little bit of single track that I actually don't mind too much; and the eleven miles or so from that point were, while hilly, pretty runnable.  But, by that point I was already 4.5 hours in to the day, and the final couple hours were no picnic.  I was able to manage 7:30 pace over the final five, flat miles along the rail trail and hang on for second.  It was a long end to a long 116-mile week, but the goal was to get a long, hard day out, so I guess I succeeded.  I guess I looked pretty crappy at the end, as Jodi seemed pretty concerned for about twenty minutes.  But once I pounded a couple of Diet Cokes and some chocolate milk, I was able to settle down and enjoy my reward:

So good.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Race Report: Whiteface Uphill Footrace

I tend to fancy myself a bit of a hill runner, though recent evidence seems to indicate that I may overestimate my abilities going uphill.  Maybe it's just that I'm so bad at going downhill that my climbing seems impressive by comparison.  But I do enjoy hill racing and though I have yet to try one of the big championship races, I anticipate that sort of thing in my future.  For now I've contented myself with whatever hill climbs I've been able to fit into my schedule.  I was able to fit Whiteface in this year and couldn't pass up a chance to head up to Lake Placid, one of my favorite places on earth--even if it was for just 24 hours.

As I've mentioned before, the summer was kind of a wash training and racing-wise, but I did get a few decent weeks in during August, building up to about 80 mpw by the end of the month.  I even got out onto the track for a "workout"--6 x 400 with my brother-in-law while we were on vacation in San Diego.  Never thought a 74-second 400 could hurt that much!  I haven't been running a ton in the way of long hill climbs, so I wasn't sure what kind of performance I could put in, but for once I was excited to be back on the starting line of what felt like a real race.

I first ran Whiteface in 2012, placing second to Duncan Douglas, a two-time US Olympian in biathlon (that's XC skiing and rifle shooting for all you tri-geeks out there).  The course is a paved, 8-mile uphill climb that averages about an 8% grade, pretty steadily the entire way up.  In 2012 my strategy was to stay as relaxed as possible through the first 6 miles and then try to make a move at the end.  This didn't work one bit.  I was about a minute behind Duncan throughout the race and when the time came to make my move, I couldn't get any closer, losing by just over two minutes.  I knew this time keeping contact would be essential.  Of course, I forgot that right away.

The weather at the start was perfect: mid-40s, overcast, no wind.  I felt a bit sluggish when the gun went off, immediately moving into fourth place behind the lead pack of three, including Duncan and Jacob Malcolm, the 2013 winner.  That was the first of several mistakes I would make on the day.  The three leaders wound up not running too much faster than me over the next few miles, but I gave them a 20-30 second gap right away which would prove very difficult to close back down.  I came through the mile mark right at 8:00, which was about 30 seconds slower than I remembered from 2012 and a little concerning, as the first mile is without question the easiest one on the course.  I was caught just before the mile mark by another runner (Jay Niederbuhl) from behind, and we would wind up back and forth for the next couple of miles.

Shortly before the three-mile mark, Jay had moved out a few seconds on me, but I forced myself back down to 8:30 pace and caught up quickly--in fact, my momentum carried me right past him, so I pressed the pace a little bit into the 8:15-8:20 range to see what would happen.  Sure enough, I opened up a little gap.  Then I noticed something surprising--I was starting to gain ground on Duncan, in third.  By this point, Jacob was long gone, on his was to an impressive 1:04 win, and the second-place runner was about 20-30 seconds ahead of Duncan, who--was it my imagination?--looked like he was laboring just a little bit.  The pace was challenging but sustainable, so I pressed on to see if I really was closing.  Within a few minutes I had him in my sights, and by four miles, I was only a couple seconds behind and closing fast.

Here's where I made my second mistake.  After doing some pretty solid work to catch up, I really only had two choices: (1) tuck in just behind Duncan, latch on, try to feed off him for awhile; or (2) make a good, hard pass, try to get a little gap, and keep pressing the advantage, really trying to make him hurt.  As I approached, I chose option (1), and prepared to tuck in and ease off the pace a little bit.  But I closed the last few seconds of the gap much quicker than I expected and surprised myself by suddenly running right next to Duncan, who didn't have he same turnover he had displayed earlier.  So I mentally tried to shift gears to option (2), except I wasn't ready, and would up somehow going with option (3), which was, pass him and immediately ease off, allowing him to latch on to me and follow me for the next mile.  It's been nearly six months since my last race, and I just don't think the racing instincts were sharp enough.  Race strategy is a skill, and just like any other skill, it needs to be practiced or it gets sloppy.  Lack of practice really hurt me here.

Anyway, we climbed together for the next mile or so, me setting the pace, and somehow we closed down the 30 second gap to second.  By the five-mile mark, we were within five seconds of second place--and yes, that's where I made another mistake.  Instead of completing the catch, I hesitated when Duncan surged; he bridged he gap up to second, and I was left alone in fourth, five seconds behind.  And now, as the grade kicked up to around 10% in the godforsaken sixth mile, I started to crack.  The two of them pulled away quickly, and I really started to struggle.  A headwind kicked up as we came into some exposed areas above the treeline.  The only thing that kept me from walking was knowing that the hill wasn't getting any easier and that if I started walking now I might as well just walk the whole rest of the way.  And then, right around the six-mile mark, Jay--who I thought I had left for dead--caught me, and did it right.  He saw me struggling, put in a nice, solid pass and immediately had a gap of a few seconds.

I held it to about a 10-second gap through mile seven as I watched Duncan pull away in second place up ahead.  Just past the seven-mile mark the road actually flattens out around a switchback for about 300 meters or so, and amazingly, my legs felt pretty refreshed by being able to climb at a 3% grade instead of 9-10% for a couple of minutes.  I charged back up to Jay, closing to within two seconds before the grade kicked back up and I went back into my death march.  We climbed the final half mile within a few seconds of each other.  As we reached the last stretch I was trying to figure out how I was possibly going to find the strength to make some sort of final challenge when he suddenly stopped, bent over, and started vomiting.  I felt a little bad taking advantage...but just a little.

My 1:10:25 was about 45 seconds slower than my run from 2012, which, given the summer I've had, wasn't too bad.  I certainly felt as though I had competed well, especially the stretch from 3-5 miles where I was able to basically run down second and third.  Unfortunately I wasn't able to make that stick, partly due to fitness and partly just to underdeveloped racing instincts, both of which should hopefully improve. All in all, a relatively solid performance; not an A+ effort by any means, but not a disaster either for a "first race back".  With some more robust fitness I think something in the 1:06-1:07 range is possible for me (Duncan ran 1:07:14, almost exactly his winning time from 2012).  The third-place finisher is a good, solid runner, but his PRs do not approach mine (from what I could find online); I'm not trying to be a jerk when I say that he's probably someone I should be beating, especially in a discipline (uphill road racing) that I would consider a "strength."  If I'm going to try to be competitive next year in some higher-profile mountain races, I'm going to have to be significantly better than that.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

July: Training Blues and OCR

Since Mount Mitchell in February, this has been almost a lost six months for me on the training and racing front.  My fitness level has been consistently mediocre.  I ran a very uninspired race at the Mount Penn Mudfest in April and otherwise have only two "races" to my name: a two-mile road race on St. Patrick's Day that I ran only for the chance to win a year's worth of free beer (which I lost by one second); and the Montrail Uphill Challenge at Western States.  I had plans to race the Prospect Mountain Hill Race, the Ice Age 50K, the Loon Mountain race and the Cayuga Trails 50M, none of which actually happened.  More upsetting is the fact that I've just felt consistently poorly for at least several weeks.  There are a lot of factors.  The weather, for one, has taken its toll on me.  I generally run poorly in the heat and am notoriously slow at acclimatizing; the past few months have been particularly tough for me in that regard.  Not helping that has been my so-so fitness level and the fact that I'm about 10 pounds heavier than I'd like to be, due to a terribly stressful May and June that saw me running must less and eating much worse than normal.  Even taking all this into account, though, I haven't been able to explain the lack of pep and the absence of motivation I've encountered in the past several weeks. Part of it might be related to canceling all those races, which has a de-motivating effect.  But I can't tell if it's a combination of all these things (pretty likely), or if there is something underneath everything.  I went to my doctor two weeks ago for a panel of blood tests, which all came back pretty normal, so that's good, and the past two weeks or so is probably the best stretch of training I've had in two months.  So maybe the worm is starting to turn.  [UPDATE: You can skip to the bottom of this endless, pointless post to find out what the problem is!]

Two weeks ago I jumped into the Survival Race, one of the myriad obstacle course races (OCRs) that are currently infesting the country.  I had a brief fling with OCRs a few years ago at the Warrior Dash, and since I've been a little light on the blog, I'll regale you with my interminable Warrior Dash story before I wrap this up here.

Warrior Dash is one of the first OCR series and arguably one of the most successful, at least from a numbers and financial standpoint.  They started with one race in 2009, grew to about ten in 2010, and now have 35 races spread throughout the year, many of which are two-day affairs.  Each site will see between four thousand and ten thousand runners for the weekend, split into 500-person waves, cover a 5K course with 10-14 obstacles.  Nowadays Warrior Dash is viewed with some contempt by "serious" obstacle course racers who deride it for being too short, too easy, or not electro-shockey enough, and it seems that Spartan Race and Tough Mudder have drawn away a lot of these uber-competitive Crossfitters; but Red Frog Promotions certainly doesn't seem to mind cashing the millions of dollars laid out by the less discerning members of the species.

ANYWAY, when Warrior Dash first came to New York in 2010, I ran it with a bunch of friends from New Paltz.  Several things attracted me that first year.  First, it seemed like a fun idea--obstacles, mud, beer.  Whatever, looked like a good time.  Two, it was at Windham Mountain, which is only about an hour away and would actually set up pretty well for me as a race course, given that it would involve climbing up the ski slope for the first half of the race.  But the part that really had me excited was the helmet:

The top three is each age group received small helmet-shaped trophies, which were pretty cool, but the top three overall got actual, full-on, life-sized metal viking helmets.  I was all in.  Top three in a race with over 9,000 people seemed unlikely, but I figured the race would attract a lot of non-competitive people out for some good time and beer, and with the uphill start, maybe I could pull it off.

Long story short (too late!): That first year, in 2010, we rented a slope-side condo with some friends, hung out until late drinking the night before, and then woke up to run the first heat of the day, when the course would be clear and we'd have the best chance of a fast time.  I won the wave by about 45 seconds and then stood around all day waiting to see if the time would hold up; it did for several hours, until I got knocked back into third at around 1pm, and then into fourth at around 4:30, just before the end of the day.  The next year was a similar story: won the first wave of the day; waited around to get knocked off the leaderboard late; wound up fifth overall; went home with an age group trophy for the second year in a row feeling very disappointed.

In 2012 I was ready to swear it off, but the lure of the helmet was too much to resist.  Rather than subject myself to the ultimate torture of running early and then waiting around all day watching the leaderboard, though, I decided to drive up late in the day and just run the last wave.  The course would be crowded, but at least I'd know right away where I stood.

The course was packed from about the one-mile mark on, but I navigated my way quickly through some very crowded obstacles without losing too much time.  When I crossed the line I had a pretty good idea that I had done it, and within half an hour or so I confirmed it: I had won!  I couldn't believe it.  After three years of trying, I was going to have a viking helmet.  I sipped a beer, waiting for the awards ceremony, trying to contain my excitement until my name was called.  And I reached the podium, and was handed...a crappy plastic mug and a keychain.  Those cheap fucking bastards had gotten rid of the helmets.

There's a great scene in Jerry Maguire where Rod Tidwell tries to tell Jerry his Reebok story, which he eventually boils down to: "Fuck Reebok."  That's my Warrior Dash story.  Fuck Warrior Dash.

So, obviously, that was it for me and OCR.  The nurses at work were awesome, they pitched in and bought me a real helmet for my birthday:

So when they asked me to join their team for the Survival Race this year, I kind of had to do it, to pay them back if nothing else.

Obstacle course races are pretty stupid.  They are ridiculously contrived, and they are all pretty much the same, and for every 500-person wave they send off every thirty minutes, there are probably three people that can actually run.  But, if you're going to do one every two or three years, I guess they're pretty fun.  The Survival Race obstacles were fairly similar to those I was familiar with from Warrior Dash, with a couple of difficult exceptions--a rope climb, a tire carry, a couple of tougher walls.  The water crossings were disgusting and the mud pit was VERY disgusting and I probably should be on antibiotics afterwards.  But even in my half-fit state I was able to overtake all of the fast starters within the first mile and win the first wave, which stood up to win the day:

5K Run M
1532Friedman, JasonNy, NY38M1100:26:35.1
7545Manza, Christopher,27M2100:27:29.7
7056Bell, Mitchell,15M3100:27:56.9
7945Sullivan, Sean,28M4200:28:16.5
1597Wiles, JoeNy, NY40M5100:28:23.5
5K Run F
1645Libutti, VeronicaNy, NY21F1100:30:37.4
7439Judge, Carolyn,23F2200:34:29.8
7024Angell, Kylie,24F3300:34:30.3
7533Magill, Kimberly,26F4100:35:03.9
7905Somma, Liberty,37F5100:35:52.9

UPDATE: So, my aforementioned lab work?  Lyme disease.  I'm about a week into the antibiotics and feeling significantly better, so maybe the fall racing season won't be a total wash after all.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Western States Weekend in Review

OK, I didn't accomplish all of my goals for my trip to Squaw Valley.  In fact, if you want to be technical about it, I accomplished one of five.  I did get to meet some awesome folks, including some of the world's best ultrarunners, and got a couple of leads on how I might move forward with my little side project.   But no, we didn't get Glen into the top 10.   No, I wasn't a contender in the Montrail Uphill Challenge.  No, I didn't PR in the beer mile.  I didn't even drink any Russian River!  (Though I did get some.  More on that later.)  A bit disappointed?  Maybe a little.  Bad weekend?  No way.

I reached Sacramento Wednesday evening, grabbed a quick hour on the roads, and a quick dinner before bed.  Thursday morning I suffered through the agony of US-Germany game on the cracked screen of my iPad, as the hotel's ESPN was out of order.  I walked to the gas station next to the hotel to grab a six pack of Budweiser, which I needed...for later.  Then I met Glen, his dad, and his son for the drive to Squaw, where we would meet up with his mom, his brother Mike, and his brother's SO, Anne, completing our six-person support team for the weekend.  

We reached Squaw Valley around 3 pm, about a hour before the start on the First Unofficial Unsanctioned Western States Beer Mile.  For those not familiar, a beer mile is a one-mile race, usually run on a track, that requires the "athlete" to drink one 12-oz beer before each quarter mile.   I won't get into all the myriad rules and regulations that govern this event, but please rest assured that they are numerous and very specific.  There is no track in Squaw Valley, so some genius decided the best way to do this would be to hike the first mile of the Western States course--again, for those not familiar, a switchbacking uphill dirt road at about a 12-15% grade--leaving our beers every quarter-mile, then race back down.  To me, this sounded like the worst idea I've ever heard, but nobody seemed to care what I thought, so our little three-man field hiked up the road, beer in tow.  Eventually, we picked up a fourth runner; none of these guys were over 27, and all of them, as it turned out, could drink me under the table.  It didn't start out too bad;

Beer #3
photo: Jamie Lynch

after two beers and half a mile, I was still in good shape to break 10 minutes, and was at least keeping contact with the other guys--we were generally drinking together--but by the fourth beer, things started looking like this:

And this:

Oh no.
photo: Jamie Lynch
We had decided beforehand that the usual penalty for puking--an extra lap--wasn't applicable, since we didn't know where we would turn around to get that done, and we figured running downhill with a belly full of beer was enough of a handicap/punishment.  The Facebook page that had organized the event expected 35-40 people, which made the field of four a little surprising, but it turned out all those people just wanted to show up and watch us be stupid, since we were greeted by a sizable, if slightly bemused crowd, including Grand Slam record holder Ian Sharman, and a bunch of people with video cameras.

As you can see from my Garmin data, I ran an 11:56 (the final split is an error of me re-setting my watch), not a great showing.  But I was clearly on sub-10 pace until the final beer--actually I was through 1200 meters and three beers in under 7 minutes.  Looks like I spent right around 6:00 actually running and about 6:00 drinking and puking.

So needless to say I went to bed Thursday night not feeling my best.  I woke up on Friday morning not feeling any better--stiff, tired, with a pounding headache.  I attributed it partly to the altitude (about 6500') and partly to the hangover, though honestly, most of the Budweiser was in the dirt four hundred meters up the left side of the Western States Trail.  Part of the point of the trip was to run the Montrail Uphill Challenge, though, so I forced myself out to the starting line.  It's a pretty cool event; Montrail is the presenting sponsor of Western States and they basically put on this free event with a bunch of swag, including t-shirts, pint glasses, and of course, something for a bunch of antsy ultra geeks to do while we're all waiting around for the big race to start.

The race is run on the first 6k of the WS course itself, which climbs about 2500' to Emigrant Pass--about a 13% grade. (How the runners go another 97 miles after doing this on race day, I'll never know.)  I like uphills, especially runnable, non-technical ones, so I was pretty excited and thought maybe I could be up front in the top 10 or so.  What I didn't take into account was that the entire ultra world is in Squaw Valley for states, and that there are a TON of incredible runners who are there to crew or pace for other incredible runners.  I don't know who exactly was there, but I saw sponsored athletes from Hoka, Altra, adidas, and Salomon.  Didn't see them for long, of course.  It was a hammerfest, and was an absolutely brutal mix of running and power-hiking.  I was hoping to run under 45 minutes, and actually ran 39:33 (the course was a little shorter than I thought, as we didn't run the final few hundred meters to the monument atop the Pass, but that stretch is mostly very gradual and I think I would have been about 43 minutes had we gone the whole way).   But in that field I was barely in the top 30.  (Yes, I got chicked, just once.)  All four of us beer milers ran the race.  Perhaps not surprisingly, we finished in reverse order of the previous day.  Our late starter, who had organized the beer mile (and who would have won it easily had he not spotted us at least a quarter mile), crushed us wearing an honest-to-god pair of huaraches; but I saw my other two new best friends on my jog back down.

My headache had abated during the race, but it returned after lunch, as we organized our bags and made our plans with Glen for the next day.  By that evening I couldn't wait to get down from the altitude.  I got about 6 hours of sleep before waking up around 3:30 to get ready for the 5am start.  We headed over with Glen, who seemed in good spirits, and spent a few minutes chatting with Dylan Bowman near the starting line before the gun went off.

DBo, Speedgoat Karl, and the other leaders at the start.
photo: Mike Redpath
We walked back the the hotel, packed, and left quickly.  I felt a little bit better on the drive out of the valley, but when we stopped to buy sandwiches for the long day ahead, my headache was in full force, and I was feeling pretty nauseous.  I bought some extra ibuprofen at the grocery store, which helped some, and took one of the Zofran pills I had brought along in case Glen ran into some stomach problems during his race.  We drove out to Robinson Flat, the 30-mile mark and the first aid station accessible to crew members.

Crewing an ultra is pretty fun, but it is a LOT of waiting around, and let me just say thank you to anyone who has ever crewed me in the past.  Basically, you rush to the aid station, spend some time unpacking all your stuff and getting ready for your runner, and then you just sit around waiting for them to come, which can be several hours.  Then they come, and unless you're doing a crappy job or they're really having a problem, you see them for about 90 seconds before they start running again.  Then you pack up and race to the next point so you can wait for another few hours.  It sounds awful, but it's actually pretty cool, especially at a huge event like WS where you can watch the best ultrarunners in the world.  I wish I had been feeling better and could have read a book or something, but I spent many of the next eight hours feeling awful, so that was kind of a bummer.

Getting support at Robinson Flat.
photo: Mike Redpath
ANYWAY, Robinson Flat was awesome.  The drugs had kicked in and I felt pretty good; it was still early on in the race so the wait wasn't too long.  The front runners showed up about an hour after we go there, a who's who of the sport--Max King, Rob Krar, Dylan Bowman, Miguel Heras, Karl Meltzer, Ryan Sandes, Scott Wolfe, Nick Clark, Yassine Diboun, Ian Sharman, Brendan Davies, Pam Smith, Kaci Leichtig, Nikki Kimball, Meghan Arbogast, Emily Harrison, Stephanie get the picture, sorry.  For a fanboy like me it was heaven.  I won't go into details of the elite races, there is a ton of coverage out there and you can read at your leisure, but it was super-exciting.   We were expecting Glen at around 10:15, but he was about half an hour behind that, which didn't bode well for the rest of the day.  Given the stacked field, we knew going in that getting Glen a fourth top-10 finish was pretty unlikely; however, we thought a strong, smart race in the 18-19 hour range might sneak into the top 20.  Already, though, his pace was more in line with a 19:30, and his place was in the 70s; moreover, he didn't look great, already struggling a little bit as the morning was starting to heat up.  We were anxious as we headed off to Michigan Bluff, the 55-mile mark.

Michigan Bluff is one of the largest and busiest aid stations on the course.  Also, since most people are there in the middle of the day, and since there is very little shade, it is also one of the hottest aid stations, except for those deep in the canyons, which are not accessible by crew.   We got in about 12:30, now expecting Glen closer to 3:30 than the 2:30 we had initially planned.   We also met up here with Christian Fitting, an elite ultrarunner from the Bay Area, who would be pacing Glen from Foresthill, mile 62, to mile 80 at Green Gate, where I would take over.  By this point, though, my participation was in doubt.  The drugs wore off, my headache came back along with my nausea, and then I started having chills, to the point where I was leaving one of the few shady areas to sit in the sun so I would stop shivering.  Before he left to get set up at Foresthill, Christian looked at me and offered to pace my 20-mile segment as well.  I told him I'd be fine, but secretly I was pretty worried.  My only saving grace was that with Glen struggling I knew I wouldn't have to run too fast; I figured I could stumble through a bunch of 20-minute miles even with a fever.

Glen and I at Michigan Bluff, mile 55.
photo: Mike Redpath
I took another dose of ibuprofen and some Tylenol and slowly started to feel better.  Glen made it in at 4:30--now on pace to run about 22 hours.  He didn't look great, but I didn't think he looked any worse than he had at Robinson Flat six hours before, and after a brief two minutes moved his way back out onto the trail.  We packed up and rushed over to Foresthill.  By the time we got there, around 5 pm, I was feeling much better, and thankfully from that point on whatever I had been dealing with for the past few days seemed out of my system.  Glen rolled through at 6 pm on the button, starting to look a little better himself, and he and Christian headed down Cal Street; we wouldn't see them again until mile 80.  I went over to the Ultrarunner Podcast tent and dropped off some Yard Owl beer for Eric Schrantz, who pulled a couple of these out of his cooler for me:

I almost kissed him.

We replenished our supplies and headed over to Green Gate, the aid station at 80 miles where I would take over pacing duties from Christian.  Tracking the runner updates on my phone, it seemed that Glen and Christian had found a nice rhythm, running 12-minute pace for a nice stretch of miles between 62 and 70; but by the time they reached the American River crossing at mile 78, he struggles had resumed, and Glen hiked the steep uphill from mile 78-80 in about 45 minutes.  He reached us still in relatively good spirits, though.  The pressure was off, and Glen is experienced and strong enough to know that he would be able to finish, and could likely hike most of the way in and still finish in under 24 hours.  But for the first time in three days, I was feeling good and ready to run, and I wasn't about to let him off the hook that easily.  I strapped on my Ultimate Direction AK hydration vest and we headed down the trail.

The first two miles were a struggle.  Glen's main problem at this point was blisters, which prevented him from running downhill at any kind of reasonable pace, so we moved slowly through some technical downhill sections and covered the first two miles in about 34 minutes.  But as the trail flattened out and the running became easier, Glen seemed to recover some; I gave him a Zofran which settled his stomach and helped him get in a few more calories, and we started running 13-minute pace down into the Auburn Lakes aid station at mile 85.

The aid stations at WS are unbelievable: packed with volunteers, any kind of food or drink you could want, fantastic energy.  We blew through quickly, feeling refreshed, and found some great rhythm on some wonderfully runnable trails, resuming our 12-13 minute pace.  Before I knew it we had reached Brown's Bar at mile 89.9.  I was having a blast and feeling great.  Glen seemed to be recovering some strength.  "Born to Run" blasted over the loudspeakers and we stormed into the aid station and got refills of our bottles from two-time WS champ Hal Koerner.
We ran through the night.  Visibility with our headlamps was pretty good, and the trail was just the most gorgeously runnable singletrack you could possibly imagine.  West Coast trail runners, you have no idea how lucky you guys are.  Glen hung tough, not flying by any means, but clicking off solid miles and passing folks about every thirty minutes or so, particularly at the aid stations, which we moved through very efficiently.
At the finish, finally.
photo: Mike Redpath
By No Hands Bridge (96.8 miles), I was really in Glen's ear about trying to break 22 hours.  It was a silly thing to care about at this point, but I knew I'd be more satisfied--and I had a feeling Glen would too--if we achieved this small victory.  And from the businesslike way he responded, digging deeper, pushing the pace, and using minimal walk breaks, it seemed he had begun to care about it too.  We dug our way up the steep, seemingly interminable climb through Robie Point and passed through the final aid station without stopping.  With one mile to go, I told Glen we needed a 10:30 to get in under 22 hours.  He grunted, dug deep, and started really running.  Finally we reached the Placer High stadium track, running near eight minute pace, and flew around the final 300 meters, getting him home in 21:58:48 for his sixth sub-24 hour silver belt buckle at Western States.  It may not have been the finish we had hoped for, but it was extremely satisfying nonetheless.  In a year that has been pretty frustrating for me from a running standpoint, this was one of the better days.

A man, his beer, and his buckle.
photo: Mike Redpath
photo: Mike Redpath