Race Report

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

Wait, is this still a thing?

Salomon OutdoorFest start/finish
Forgot I had a blog, didn't you?  I don't blame you, I almost forgot myself.  There were a few times in May and June where I had the fleeting thought "I should probably post something," which was almost immediately forgotten.  By July I had basically decided to mothball the thing.  The podcast consumes most of my blog-centric time and energy these days; I wasn't sure I needed to keep doing both.  Plus, there just wasn't much to blog about.  As I intimated in April, I spend the late spring/early summer period trying to build up fitness, dial in the podcast, and working on my proposal for a sports medicine/research facility.  It didn't seem there was much news to report on any of those fronts, so I kind of just let things slide.

In reality my training was actually progressing, though rather slowly and in fits and starts.  Once I committed to the idea of running Leadville I had to get over my paralyzing fear of the idea of a high-altitude 100-miler and start figuring out how to do it; this took a bit of time but once I put a plan in place I started to see some progress.  I secured the promise of a tent from Hypoxico Altitude Training and targeted 6-8 weeks of "sleep-high, train-low".  I built my weekly mileage up to the mid-90s by late April and started mixing some quality stuff back in.  Crucially, I found a new training partner willing to crush some harder stuff, having lost Dr. Mike to injury and Laura to Syracuse (Phil and Brian, with their commutes to NYC, aren't available consistently enough during the week to rely on for regular high-intensity work).  Kevin Borden started to join me for track, tempo, and hill work; his energy and enthusiasm were really the key to forcing me back into fitness.  Without that element I'm not sure I could've done the necessary work to find my rhythm again.

I served on the race committee for the Rock the Ridge 50-mile this year, which takes place in May, and was planning on running that with Ben Nephew and James McCowan as my main buildup race for Leadville.  (Cayuga Trails, which would've been my natural choice in early May, was moved this year to July to accommodate Ian Golden's congressional campaign, so was too close to LT100 to allow for adequate recovery.)  However, two weeks before race day, finally feeling fit, I came down with an upper respiratory infection--sore throat, fever, chills, the works--and had to pull the plug on RTR.  This was yet another frustrating setback in a spring season full of them, and an unexpected one; I rarely get sick.  Casting about for a plan B, I settled on the Salomon OutdoorFest Ultra, a new timed event on Staten Island the first weekend in June.

The logistics were less than ideal.  I worked the overnight shift on Friday, leaving work at 7am and driving home for a 30-minute nap before getting back into the car for the trip down to "the City," arriving about an hour before the 1pm start time.  The weather wasn't about to cooperate either; it was the first really hot day of the season, temperatures reaching 88 degrees within the first couple of hours, with the infamous #beastcoast humidity in full effect (thunderstorms threatened all day, but we were denied the relief of any real rain throughout). The course was blessedly shaded for the most part, but managing the heat was the primary task on the day.

The race was enthusiastically if haphazardly run.  The course was well-marked, a challenging but runnable mix of single- and doubletrack with some nice, varied terrain; however, nobody, including the RDs, seemed to know how long the loop was.  We were initially told 7K, which was corrected at the start to 3.5 miles.  In reality it was probably shorter; I think the results assume a 5k loop, but this remained unclear throughout the duration of the race.  There was one well-stocked aid station at the start/finish, where I mostly focused on putting ice in my cap, my bandanna, my shorts, and anywhere else I could get it.  Both the solo and relay divisions started together, so it was unclear immediately where we all stood place-wise, and I focused mostly on getting a good "time-on-feet" day in despite the heat and my fatigue.  I had initially hoped to run around 40 miles, but after seeing the weather and experiencing the first couple of laps revised that to 10-11 laps, which I figured was around 35 miles given what we'd been told regarding the course length.

Despite repeating to myself that this was a training run, and assiduously not caring about place, I eventually got caught up in the racing aspect of it, finding myself in the top 3-4 after about 4 hours.  Somewhere on lap 8 or so I moved into what I was pretty sure was second place, feeling pretty solid. I had settled into about 35-37 minutes per lap with about a minute in the aid station.  I finished lap 8 in around 4:22 and was listening as I replenished my ice and water to a conversation between one of the RDs and another racer who was trying to figure out how the race would end.  This had been made pretty clear at the start--only full laps would be counted (which made sense; there was no reliable way to count part laps on a 3+ mile trail loop).  The RD reiterated this to the runner--after the 5-hour mark, no one would be allowed to start another lap they were unlikely to finish.  I knew I would finish lap nine right around 5 hours, and made sure to inform the RD that I planned on starting a 10th lap probably just past the 5-hour mark, and that I'd have no problem finishing it within the six-hour time frame.  She thanked me and sent me on my way.

Cool finisher's patch.
I didn't get one of these either.
Lap nine proceeded without any issues and I set off for lap 10 at 5:02, comfortably settled into second place and feeling happy with the day's effort; I stuck to about the same splits I'd been running and finished lap 10 in second place in 5:38.  Only now, a different RD was encouraging folks to head back out for another lap.  Any lap started before the 6-hour time limit would be counted, he said, no matter how long it took to complete.  Clearly this made no sense--it's a six-hour race, not a six-plus-whatever-hour race--and I certainly didn't care enough to head back out for another loop after I had been mentally committed to the idea of 10 laps for, I don't know, the past four hours or so.  So I surrendered a couple of spots in the standings to folks who I beat.  Which, of course, in the grand scheme of things, doesn't mean much.  But RDs really need to make rules and stick to them.  Changing the rules of the game mid-race is really unfair, even when there's not all that much on the line.  (And you know what? This stupid little thing cost me second overall AND the masters' win; I think I was actually entitled to a free pair of shoes.  So it wasn't nothing on the line after all.  I didn't make a stink about it, but this type of thing bugs the shit out of me.)

Regardless, it was a good, long, hot effort in my sleep-deprived state, and it did help me transition into some more serious Leadville prep for the summer.  Little else to report on that front, as a couple of other possible prep races fell through.  Three week later I went to Squaw to pace the great Brian Oestrike, and undertook altitude training, so you'll have to sit through a post on that too before I get around to writing a Leadville recap.

Bandera Post-Mortem: Finish at All Costs?

So, Bandera went very, very badly.

Usually I like to do a pretty detailed race report, but I don't have a lot of details to report from this one other than that it was bad.  I felt bad at the start, I felt bad on the first climb, I pretty much felt bad throughout.  I was hoping to run the first half of the race at about 8:30 pace--similar to what I had run two years ago through the first lap--but struggled to run 9:00/mile pace over the first 16 miles through AS3.  Rather than slow down, I tried speeding up to see if I could run my way out of feeling badly, and hammered the next six miles at just under 8:00 pace, coming through 22 miles at 3:12, within striking distance of the sub-4:30 I wanted to run through the first 50K, but it wasn't working; I started to feel worse and worse.  I finished the first lap in 4:46, about twenty minutes slower than two years go, and spent a few minutes convincing myself to head back out for lap two.  I'd like to report that I found my legs in the second half and had a strong finish, but I didn't.  I ran-walked for the first two hours of the loop before getting a sort-of second wind and running consistent 10-11 minute miles for the next couple of hours, ultimately finishing up in 11:19, nearly two hours slower than my breakthrough run in 2016.

The spoils of mediocrity.
This was my sixth national championship race since turning 40, and despite five top-3 age group finishes (Bandera, Caumsett, and North Coast in 2016, Rocky Raccoon and Cayuga in 2017), I was still searching for my first age group title.  Somehow, in what was easily my worst performance as a masters runner, I was able to secure my first age group national championship. All it took was running a terrible race, having Paul Terranova not show up, and having Chad Lasater age up to the 45-49 group.  What a silver lining.

One sentiment I hear all the time is that you learn more from races that go poorly than races that go well.  This sounds like a very wise thing to say, but I don't think it's true.  I take many lessons out of strong performances: I know what workouts were beneficial in my training, what worked in terms of race strategy and nutrition, and where I can expect to race relative to my competition.  I suppose there are lessons to be learned from failure, if you can attribute a poor race to a mistake you made in strategy, preparation, or fueling.  In this case, though, it's hard to feel like I learned anything that will help me the next time out.  My training for the race had been nearly ideal, and I certainly didn't feel as if there were any aspects of my preparation that were missing; my times in the short prep races were comparable to those I'd run in the previous two years.  I wasn't out too fast, either, actually running a slower pace than planned for the first 16 miles (which was hard to do with a huge field of fast guys hammering at the front).  Maybe I was overtrained; maybe I had pushed some workouts too hard; maybe I was too focused on hitting splits over the first 50K that I got out of my comfort zone too early.  Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Sometimes when people invoke that maxim--that we learn more from defeat than from victory--they are speaking less of concrete lessons that can help us apply changes to future performances, and more about the nebulous idea that we learn about ourselves and our limits when "the going gets tough."  That we have more strength than we think, that we didn't give up, that we can push through the next time we hit a bad patch.  In a way I suppose this is true--you do need to suffer at some point in a race to learn how to deal with that suffering.  Without learning that suffering can be endured, that it passes and gets better, we'd never make it through the rough stretches that define ultra running, and we'd never finish a race when we hit a bad patch.  I'm not someone, though, who believes this is a lesson we need to learn over and over.  I've been running races since I was twelve years old; I don't need to be reminded how to deal with suffering.  I've never subscribed to the finish-at-all-costs mentality.  I know I can finish; I'm not entering races to prove it to myself over and over again.  I run races to challenge myself to perform and to compete against other runners at a high level.  Everyone enters a race with a baseline goal of "just finish," but should we?  What did I get out of walk-running through a 6:30 50K over the second half of that race?  I accomplished none of my goals (other than the aforementioned age group win, which had nothing to do with me).  I didn't learn anything new about myself or my "limits".  I finished a race that I had no doubt I could finish very slowly if I needed to.  I got the same belt buckle I got two years ago.  (It's a very cool buckle, but still.)  Am I any more satisfied with this experience than I would've been if I'd stopped after a single very disappointing lap?  And if I am, should I be?  By any objective measure--my time, my place, my position in the field relative to other runners I know--this was a terrible performance.  Why should the fact that I was able to walk for several hours to avoid a DNF mitigate that in any way?

If you've got a brilliant answer, I'm all for it.  All I can come up with is that I now have four tickets in the lottery for Western States in 2019.  Here's to another opportunity to humiliate myself.

Race Report: WC 50--There's No Cure for Stupid

This fall has been less about racing per se and more about setting myself up for 2018, when I have three big (for me) races on the calendar, plus hopefully an attempt at the Bob Graham Round (fingers crossed that trip comes together).  But racing can be part of training as well.  Races are good opportunities to experience stimuli that you might not be getting in your weekly training, either in terms of distance or intensity, and they can be a nice gauge of fitness as you shape your plans and goals moving forward.  My experience in September at Mountain Madness fell into the former category.  I travelled to North Carolina two weeks ago for the latter.

My sister and her family have lived in Charlotte for about 12 years now, only about 20 miles from the US National Whitewater Center, which is a really cool facility for aspiring elite kayakers and rafters.  Since opening in 2006, the center has grown to include rock climbing, zip lines, high ropes courses, and many miles of mountain biking trails, and they now host all sorts of events and races.  The WC 50, now in its fifth year, is the ultramarathon entry into the Whitewater Race Series, and a race I've wanted to run for some time due to its proximity to family.  The dates worked this year for a quick trip down for my nephew's birthday party and an early-morning jaunt in the trails.  I expected a low-key day out; I had no idea of the competition, but looking at previous results, I planned on running a relaxed effort near the front and seeing where my fitness level would get me.

We started in the dark, at 6am, on a fairly warm morning--temps were already nearing 70 degrees.  The race started out with a short "parade loop" around the whitewater course before heading into the trails for the first of three 10.2-mile loops.  I set off at a relaxed but quick tempo and was immediately at the front of a field of about 100.  By the time we hopped onto the singletrack about five minutes in, I was out in front with one other runner and it looked like we'd be on our own most of the day.  We ran together at a nice pace; the miles were marked with signs tacked to the trees, and we were clicking off splits in the 7:40/mile range on some fairly technical but runnable mountain bike trails.  It was a bit tough monitoring our footing with just headlamps, but it was fun running at speed through the darkness, and the early miles passed by quickly.  We ran together throughout the first lap.  The second half of the loop had a few significant climbs, though we kept up a solid tempo.  The mile splits suddenly had jumped up to over 10-12 minutes per mile, but I think this was due to incorrect markings as opposed to any change in our effort or actual pace.  (This sense was supported by subsequent laps, when we would again run 7:30-7:40 pace on the early "miles", followed by 10-12 minute "miles" later on.)  Regardless, we rolled through the first 11+ mile lap in about 1:39; I grabbed my Orange Mud handheld and ran on through the start/finish aid station, while my companion--a strong local runner named Chase Eckard--took a quick break with his crew before catching back up within the first mile of lap 2.

We kept the effort steady and chatted through the early part of the lap.  Chase said, "When do you think Karl will catch us?"  I knew that Karl Meltzer, the winningest 100-mile runner of all time, had been in town for the pre-race dinner, promoting Made to Be Broken, a film about his record-breaking run on the Appalachian Trail.  I hadn't realized he was racing, although I had considered the possibility.  For some reason I had assumed that if he was racing, it would be in the 50-mile, which had started at 5am on a course that incorporated our entire 10-mile loop plus an additional 7 miles on each of three 17-mile loops.  

"Oh, is Karl racing?" I asked.  

"Yeah," said Chase, "he started off at the back."

I have no idea why--partly because of my pre-race assumption, I guess, and partly because we were leading the race and why would I be leading a race against Karl Meltzer?--Chase's comment simply reinforced my notion that he was in the 50-mile.  I wasn't sure if he would run the opening 17 miles of his race in under 2:40 on this course, so by my twisted logic I wasn't clear if we were actually ahead of him or not at this point.  "Well," I said, "if we finished our first lap before he did, we might be ok; he might catch us later in this lap.  But either way, we'll pass him when he does the extra seven miles on lap two."  Chase didn't really have much to say about that, which given that Karl was actually in our race makes perfect sense; in retrospect I must have sounded like a freaking moron.

ANYWAY, we ran together until about the 16-mile mark, when Chase blasted away on a long downhill stretch and I eased off a bit, resisting the urge to really open up this early in the race.  Instead I took in some calories, slamming down two GUs in rapid succession (my first calories to that point, I realized, even with the fat adaptation I've got to be a little smarter about that) and settling into a nice solo rhythm.  I caught a few glimpses of Chase on some longer stretches, about a minute ahead at a couple of spots, before we started in on the climbing again.  I didn't expect to start racing for a few miles yet, but suddenly he appeared in front of me near the 20-mile mark, walking at the top of a long but runnable uphill.  We exchanged a few words of encouragement as I made an easy pass.  By the time we reached the end of lap 2, a little over a mile later, I already had about two minutes on him, and I was feeling good.  Barring disaster, I felt like I had it in the bag.

Disaster is exactly what happened about 25 minutes later.  I rolled through the opening miles of the final lap feeling a little tired but generally relaxed and strong.  My splits were within shouting distance of my first two laps.  I passed the 4-mile mark of lap 3, about 25 miles overall, in 3:52; doing some quick calculations (and taking into account the longer "miles" in the second half of the lap), I was looking at about a 4:55, maybe right around 5 hours if I slowed down a little.  I briefly stepped off the trail to fertilize the soil, not realizing I was near one of the myriad switchbacks on the course.  Somehow I got turned around and ended up on the wrong end of the switchback.  After a couple of minutes of running, I started getting a sinking feeling in my stomach.  The trails all looked the same, but some of those turns were looking too familiar...as if I had just run them...and then I came around a corner and arrived back at the one-mile mark.

Well, that was just too much.  I sat down on a log by the side of the trail and had myself a little pity party; after a couple of minutes I started walking backwards towards the start, ready to throw in the towel rather than run another nine miles.  After a few minutes of that, though, I felt pretty stupid, having travelled all the way down and then not even bothering to finish; I thought about Jim at States last year, sighed, turned around, and trudged back over the same three miles I had just run.  I finally cruised into the mid-loop aid station about 40 minutes behind schedule.  The volunteers were all very confused--none of the leaders had actually gone past me--but after I explained what happened they were sympathetic, as they had seen Chase and I up front all day.  The told me Chase was now running second to Karl, which is how I came to finally realize that Karl had been in the 50K all along; they poured me a shot of bourbon, which at this point I figured what the hell, and sent me on my way.

Speedgoat Karl on his way to the win.
photo: US National Whitewater Center
I actually felt pretty good the rest of the way, and managed to pick off one or two other folks en route to finishing in 5:41, officially 6th but in actuality 5th (looking at the splits, the 5th place runner is credited with a second lap of 1:21--fifteen minutes faster than anyone in the race ran any other lap on the day, and almost 30 minutes faster than either his first or last lap, so there's no way that's legit, but whatever).  I felt fine afterwards, and actually wasn't even all that sore the next day, so it confirmed at least a decent level of fitness.  And for the first hour or two I didn't even care about what had happened; I basically shrugged afterwards talking to Karl and said "That's trail racing, shit happens."  But after a little while the disappointment really set in.  I had put over seven minutes on Karl after one lap; on lap two I had given back barely 30 seconds.  I had basically tossed away probably my only chance to beat a legend like Karl--and not some outside chance; the race was basically over--by being a fucking idiot.  

Lap 1
Lap 2
Lap 3
Karl Meltzer
Bill Shires
Chase Eckard
Paul Halaburda
Stephen Spada
Jason Friedman

In retrospect it was the perfect commentary on my ultra season for 2017.  I did fine, winning a couple of small races that I fully expected to win; I came into every big race (Rocky Raccoon, Cayuga Trails) in great shape and then had great performances sidetracked by weird shit happening.  Only difference was this time I brought the weird shit on myself.  A fitting ending to a frustrating year.  Fuck.

Twelve weeks to Bandera.

Race Report: Mountain Madness 50K

It's been a bit of a slog this summer.  After a decent spring and a solid (if slightly unsatisfying) finish at Cayuga I took a much-needed break from training and from my usual LCHF habits.  The resulting gluttony was fun for about a week; after that it started feeling almost obligatory rather than enjoyable.   I started training again about two weeks and twelve pounds later (not joking), and unsurprisingly it took some time to get the ol' rhythm back.  I set my sights on the Vermont 50 mile for my return to fall racing, then downgraded to the 50K when I realized my fitness wasn't quite up to snuff.  My Achilles really started to flare up in early August; by mid-August I was hobbling on most of my runs and wasn't planning on racing at all for quite some time.  Getting off the pavement and back on the trails, as well as back to regular visits with the great Greg Cecere at Momentum Physical Therapy got me back on track, however, and I logged on to register for VT50 two days before the deadline only to be closed out.  (Of course.)  Casting about for an emergency plan, I found the Mountain Madness 50K in Ringwood, NJ on the same weekend as Vermont.  I hadn't run Mountain Madness (or any of the NJ Trail Series races, for that matter) since a rather infamous day in 2009 (which I won't go into here).  I knew it was a more technical course than I'd usually prefer, but I didn't remember it being all that bad, and figured I'd give it a shot.  My fitness wasn't great, but it was time to get back on the horse and kick-start the training buildup for 2018.

Training this summer hadn't been helped by the weather.  July had been pretty brutal, and while August was relatively mild (although quite humid), September turned almost unbearable, particularly in the two weeks leading up to the race.  Given my fitness level, the difficulty of the course, and the forecast, I wasn't expecting much; I was hoping to run around five hours but figured a 5:30 was more realistic.  The weather did not disappoint; at the 9am start the temperature was already 70, and by the time I finished (many) hours later it would climb to 89 degrees with a good deal of humidity.  I ran the opening few miles with two other runners at the front, a young local named Michael and another runner from Costa Rica who spoke absolutely no English and yet tried to ask us questions about the course as we were running.  (We were not terribly helpful.)  We took turns leading over rolling, minimally technical terrain.  My Achilles was not excruciating, but was tight, and my suspicions that it was limiting my push-off were confirmed when I tripped over a pretty innocuous root and sprawled across the trail, my first real fall in quite some time.  I popped up quickly, though, with just a few minor scrapes, and we continued together until about five miles in, when we came to a five-way intersection where the trail markings had clearly been tampered with.  We ran around a bit, looking for the next markings without finding any, then continued in the direction we'd been heading for about a quarter mile.  At this point we encountered markings that I recognized--we had come back to a hairpin turn at about the two-mile point on the loop; clearly not the right way.  Our Costa Rican friend charged off down the trail again, restarting the loop we'd just run; Michael and I yelled after him to not avail, then gave up and returned to the intersection.  By this time two other runners had reached the same point and were equally as confused.  We spent a couple of minutes looking at the map, trying to figure out where to go.  With no other markings, we headed back the way we had come, the only way we knew to get back to the start/finish, which was also the end of the opening 6.5-mile loop and would serve as AS1.  The four of us came into the AS right at the hour mark, as Rick, the RD, was sending off the 25K runners for their 10am start.  We grabbed some drinks and tried to explain to Rick where the issue was on the course, then started off in a group again to tackle the middle 25K loop.

Our pack of four quickly became Michael and I as we started the first major climb.  The trail was much rockier and steeper than the opening loop, and we power-hiked frequently, passing 25K runners along the way.  We were pretty even running on flat ground; I had a bit of an advantage climbing, but Michael bombed the descents, forcing me to work my way back slowly on the subsequent climbs.  I was being patient, but really wasn't feeling great.  Not terrible, but not feeling a lot of pep in the legs, and certainly more tired than I'd like to be less than two hours into a 5+ hour day.  I pulled into AS2 just before the two-hour mark, only a few seconds after Michael, and left a few seconds before.  I knew the next section would be mostly uphill and thought I might be able to open up a bit of an advantage.  Over the next few miles I felt a bit better, finding a bit of a rhythm and seeming to open up a little gap, but when I checked over my shoulder about a mile outside of AS3, Michael was only about a hundred yards back.  He caught up easily on the tricky descent into the aid station, as we hit the halfway point in just over 2:30.

At this point, I basically felt terrible.  I crammed in some off-brand Coke and a couple of bananas, but really had no motivation to get back out on the trail; the fight had suddenly left me, and when Michael took off I waited an extra thirty seconds or so before leaving the aid station, thinking maybe the impetus of having to give chase would spur me on a little bit.  Long story short: it didn't.  I stumbled badly multiple times over the rocky terrain, overheating the whole way back down and struggling on every uphill.  By the time I got back to AS4 (same location as AS2) almost an hour later I was in full death march mode, and still had nearly eleven miles to go.  I knew third place was not within striking distance, but I had no idea on the gap up to the lead, and didn't really care all that much; I just wanted it to be over.

I felt a little better coming down a major descent about forty minutes later, and started running a bit better again, but a couple of wrong turns sapped my momentum, not to mention my will to live.  I staggered into AS5 at the start/finish at right about the five-hour mark, hamstrings cramping badly, still needing to head back out on the opening 6.5-mile loop again to complete the nightmare.  I'd say I considered dropping out, but that's not really true.  I was basically resigned to my fate: I knew I was going to finish, I just didn't particularly want to.  I took my time in the aid station, knowing that my finishing place was assured and that there was no more aid over this final hour-plus.  After tossing back a bunch of Coke and cramming in some more calories, I grabbed the podcast machine and made my way back into the heat.  The final lap passed uneventfully, if not quickly (almost eighty minutes for 6.5 miles!) and I finally jogged home in 6:18, ultimately only about five minutes behind Michael, who I hadn't seen for nearly four hours.

Not much more to say about this one.  I went in with minimal expectations, and they were met in spectacular fashion.  As the Stranger famously said, sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you.  For this race, I think I'll just be happy to be finished with a long, painful day on the trails, take my lumps, and move on to the next one.

Guest Blogger: A Cayuga Trails Recap from Phil Vondra

all photos: Joe Azze
It's been a little over three months since my last race at the Cayuga Trails 50 mile, and I'm just about ready to get back on the horse.  My training partner Phil, with whom I've shared many, many miles, finished just a few minutes behind me there, and returned to racing last weekend with his second straight runner-up finish at the famed SOS triathlon.  This week he sent me his CT50 race report for some reason, and as he doesn't waste anyone's time with a blog, I offered to waste some more of my readers' time by posting it here.  So, here's Phil's slightly delayed CT50 recap.  I think you'll like it.  It's kind of like a race report on acid.  Picture a drunk British guy telling you about his last race and you've got the general idea.


Race : Cayuga trails USA 50 mile trail champs.  3 June 2017 Ithaca NY

  • Improve on 2016 place and time.
  • Eat, drink beer and hangout with a bunch of cool ultra runner type people.
  • Hangout with Laura Kline
Loop 1

We arrived at the park with about 40 minutes until the start time and organized a drop bag for Buttermilk Falls with some spare bottles and nutrition in it. The weather was perfect and glowing red/pink cotton ball clouds drifted over our heads, today would be a good day to die. I lined up 4 or 5 rows back and found Jay my New Paltz running buddy. Ian said a few words and then blew the rams horn, we were off. We set off at that quick pace that almost every race starts at and we hit the first small hill, I backed off and started to think about the miles that lay ahead. Jay and I ran close to each other and chatted a bit. The trails where nice rooty, rocky and rolling, the miles passed easily. We hit the new loop which added some vert but also some fun trails. I was jumping over a few logs which was fun but I knew in 5 hours each one would be a cunning trap just waiting to send me face first into the dirt. We ran past the Old Mill aid station, no need to stop. We headed to the first river crossing, it didn't have as much water as i expected and it was actually nice to get my feet wet. Let the squelching begin! 

The miles passed quickly and the trails were really nice rolling forest rooty and soft. Jay was in front of me and was running the steady smooth pace he always runs. We headed down to Underpass aid station and onto the easy single track and river crossing, I thought the crossing would be deep and was expecting it to be waist deep. Jay was ahead of me and I figured he would go in head first but it was kinda shallow so sadly no fun. We popped out the other side and cruised to the base of Lick Brook climb, I felt great on this climb, but kept a lid on it, knowing that these trails wouldn't give up a finish without a fight. We got to the top and started to roll through the forest and fields. I knew some of this course would be muddy but so far it was in great shape. Rolling along and chatting to Jay we missed a turn and ended up next to a farm and a pig pen, when I heard the banjo playing I knew we had over shot our turn. We did a 180 and ran back to find the turn we had missed. Running with Jay is like being with an able-bodied House MD, so i was probably riveted by some intense medical chat and didn't see the big red arrow telling us to enter into Mirkwood. 

Into the wood we went, it was wonderful mudfest everything an East coast runner wants. Jumping rooty and muddy ground I prayed my shoes would stay on my feet. We emerged onto some grassland with the odd mud patch. At this point I felt hungry and wasn't sure why, I had been good with nutrition and fluid, it was odd but I figured my body was giving me fake news and I would go all in at Buttermilk Falls AS. We headed to Buttermilk Falls, all was good. When we hit the aid station, I took on about 450 calories and some fluids, we got in and out very quickly. The climb up Buttermilk Falls was harder than I thought it would be but I kept my legs moving, spurred on by the fact my T-shirt had turned into a weapon of mass destruction. It single-handedly contravened several international weapon and pollution treaties, but I was racing I had no time to hand it over to the appropriate authorities. The waterfall is beautiful and the trails are perfect. I saw my buddy Tim at a merge point and he was looking good, that gave me a nice boost.  We headed back through the muddy forests and fields along the rolling descent, over the way too shallow river and back to Underpass AS.  It was time to go the dark side.

“Coke please.” 
“More Coke.” 
“Just one more Coke.  What's the worst that could happen?” (I have Youtube, I know the worst that can happen, especially if you're a tooth, a coin or a Mento!)

Fully loaded on sugar and chemicals, I set off again hanging just behind Jay. I took a fall but the ground was soft and I was fine. I felt it was a bit early to be falling.  The trails are good, the Coke is working, I felt great. We hit that big flight of stairs and I felt a bit weak but not too bad. The descent felt good and we headed along the trails to the river crossing and back to Old Mill AS. I got some Coke and ginger ale, the more sugar the merrier! We set off for the turnaround, some easy trails, some rocks some roots but it was fun, until I had another fall, this was a type 3 trail running fall, you don't see it coming, all you know is you're on the ground and you're cut and you hurt but nothing was broken or twisted (well, no physical part of me), I got up and felt ok but not great, I felt a bit sick. We ran into the turn around and I grabbed a few things, forgot a few things and lingered deciding if I should run back to my drop bag. I felt quite sick and weak at this point, so I figured I would just get back to running.

Loop 2

Jay was gone. I wasn't feeling great, I was sure I would be sick. It wasn't an exciting prospect. I also felt weak/dizzy running through the new loop near Old Mill. I knew that if I kept going it would pass. I got to the Old Mill AS and had some more Coke and ginger ale. Shuffling on the easier trails felt ok but I wanted to walk now. The internal battle was raging, "Just walk you'll feel better"; "Why walk on the flat or downhill that's silly;” “ A 15 min mile is better than a 20min mile;” “I'll run flat and downhill and walk ANY hills- that's the deal otherwise all the beer will be gone when you finish- lets go”...so on I went feeling kinda sick but pushing as best as I could and sticking to the deal my mind had made with my body. 

I crossed the river and wanted to sit in the water for a bit. I didn't, I pushed on. Up and down a few hills, I got a bit lost, I turned back and went down a hill I had just walked up, I saw a runner coming towards me and they confirmed I was on the right trail. All good, back to the struggle. The miles passed more quickly than I thought they would. I got to the Underpass AS and gorged on that sweet dark nectar! Off I went over the tracks and through the river. I got to the Lick Brook climb and I was slow but just as slow as the other runners already on it. I was starting to feel better, I was going to finish strong. I found extra strength knowing that I had passed that epic low and what lay ahead would be better. I was starting to overtake people and getting stronger. I felt strong running through the muddy field and forest, jumping roots and dancing around shoe stealing mud pits. Stairs, rocks, roots it was all passing by me now, I had sub 15 miles to go. The T-shirt was excited too, it often reminded me, it had gone from awful to suggesting that it was a close relation to a long lost ancestor who was responsible for the London plague and the rats where purely minions in a grand scheme. I thought about ditching the T-shirt but it wouldn't have been fair to leave it at at aid station that didn't have a hazmat team on standby. I would have to finish with it. 

Phil with Laura and Tim at a happy finish line.
I got to Buttermilk Falls AS. Coke, Ginger ale and watermelon. I was homeward bound, I was strong, climbing the falls felt good but I wanted to get into the cool waters. On I pressed running flats, downhills and small hills, i was overtaking people. I was going to enjoy the last 10 miles. It was nice to get encouragement from other runners and people out for a hike, it really helped. Coke and Ginger ale at every aid station, I got to Old Mill and was told 5k to the finish, time to give it my all. I got just passed the AS to the stone bridge and the volunteer said 2.6 miles to the finish, heck yeah I eat 2.6 miles for breakfast. The miles passed quickly. I overtook the lead woman and she said “you go girl” and then said “Oh sorry you're not a girl!” I wanted to say something witty/encouraging as a response but I had nothing. I got on the downhill back to the finish and felt great, took the left and ran to the finish. I had so much energy I sprinted to the line to finish a shade over 9hrs. I was happy and Jay told me I was 16th! That was better than 2016 and I knew that lots of beer was left! I got to eat and drink beer with some awesome trail people.

16th place, 9hrs 13 seconds (my time was slower than 2016 but the course was longer and had more gain)
1st AG 45-49
The new course was amazing, it had everything.

What did I learn  the advice i got from an ultra runner a while back was so true on this day. “You're going to get lows, everyone gets lows, you have to believe they will pass because they will.”

Thanks Ian and your volunteers you put on an amazing race!

Gear used
Salomon shorts
Hoka One One Challenger 3ATR
Patagonia T-shirt and its 20million microbe friends
Injinji compression socks
Salomon 2L vest
Huma gels
Ginger Ale

Race Report: Cayuga Trails 50

All smiles.
all photos: Joe and Elizabeth Azze
I’ve been having a difficult time starting this recap, both because I'm a little ambivalent about my performance--I'll get to that in a minute--and because I feel like I don’t have anything new to say about this race.  This was my fourth time running the CayugaTrails 50 mile in the race's five-year existence, and I’ve written extensively in thepast about my previous experiences.  It’s a race I keep coming back to year after year, despite the fact that I struggle with the course and I never seem to run it particularly well.  I keep returning because the race is in Ithaca, one of my favorite places; because the course is as beautiful as it is challenging; because as the 50-mile national championships, it’s a great opportunity to run against some really top-flight competition not far from home; because Ian continues to put on amazing events that put the athletes first; and because my MPF/RNR teammates annually put on a show of force that I always want to be a part of.  But my experience with this race has always been a mixture of positives and negatives, and this year was certainly no exception.

Last year I had an ideal buildup for this race ultimately foiled by another bout with Lyme disease, and this time around unfolded much the same.  After Rocky Raccoon it took a bit longer than I anticipated to start feeling back to normal; I didn’t really get into a good flow until early April.  But several strong hill workouts and two solid wins in low-key tuneup races (the XTERRA Northeast 50K at Wawayanda State Park in early May, and the New Paltz Pizza Challenge six days later) had me feeling pretty confident as taper time drew near.  Sixteen days out, I was forced to cut short a low-key track workout (three sets of 800m/400m repeats) with extreme fatigue, upper-body achiness, and dizziness.  I was immediately reminded of last year but tried to convince myself it was heat-related; temps were in the mid-90s, and I thought I might be dehydrated.  But when I had similar symptoms six days later, barely able to gut out 4 x 800m at 2:55 pace (which should have felt barely harder than a jog, given my fitness level) despite reasonably mild temps, I knew the Lyme was back.

At that point, eleven days from race day, my instinct was to pull the plug.  After dropping halfway through last year's race while on antibiotics I had no desire to repeat the experience. That night, however, I spoke with a buddy from med school who specializes in infectious disease, who thought my symptoms and previous lab results pointed more towards anaplasmosis (a Lyme-related, tick-born infection) rather than Lyme. If that was the case, I might be able to get away with ten days of antibiotics--which would finish up the day before Cayuga--and maybe feel well enough to compete.  I decided to wait until Tuesday before the race--my usual day for a final "hard" workout--before I made any decision.  I planned on 2x1mi at a relaxed but hard tempo; after I was able to run a 5:50 mile without feeling like it was the end of the world, I skipped the second rep and decided to go for it.  Cayuga would be my last race anyway before some planned down time; after I couldn't get the weekend off of work to run the Whiteface Skyraces in July, I was already anticipating my first real offseason since last summer.  So either way I figured I'd give Cayuga a shot.

Two old men trying to stay warm.
You know it's cold because Ben's wearing a shirt.
My jog with Phil and Tim the day before the race felt pretty solid, and as we lined up Saturday morning I felt reasonably confident (despite a restless night of sleep) that I could approach my perpetual goals at Cayuga of 8:00-8:15, top 10-15, top-3 masters.  I knew from prior years that even splits on the course were a near impossibility, even for the top elites, and that it would take a 3:50 opening lap to have any chance of running 8:10 or better for the race.  Given my recent illness, I had decided to run completely on feel, and let the time and place take care of themselves.  The goals were the goals, but just getting through this one without feeling like complete garbage was going to be a win.

As planned, Phil and I ran together in the early going; as usual in these circumstances, I set the pace with Phil tucked just behind.  We settled into position in about 30th place, running just over eight minutes for the first mile before easing off as the climbing started in earnest.  At the top of the first climb, about three miles in, Ian had added a mile-long loop of rolling singletrack that, while pretty, was obviously going to be a real slog on the second lap.  This threw off our splits as compared to previous years, but the effort level seemed to be in check as we rolled through AS1 and headed back down the gorge towards the river.

We crossed the river feeling strong and made a relaxed climb out of Lick Brook gorge nearing the top 20, but missed a turn at around mile 10 that cost us about three minutes and four or five places.  We still had a long way to go, though, so tried not to panic as we made our way back onto the course and into rhythm.  The trail was in great shape, for the most part, though there were some very soft sections that were going to get very muddy later on.  We came through Buttermilk Falls (AS3) just over two hours in, grabbed a few supplies out of our shared drop bag, and began the climb back up.  Coming back down Lick Brook we caught the second place female, and we maintained a nice rhythm back up towards Lucifer's Staircase.  Before reaching the stairs, we crossed paths with the marathoners on their way out; seeing many friends and training partners hammering by early in their race gave our spirits a boost as we faced the daunting climb.  We caught the women's leader at the base of the staircase and pulled away at the top.  Coming back down past AS5 to finish the first lap I was feeling very strong and was holding back so as not to put any undue pressure on Phil.  About a mile from the start/finish he caught a root and almost pitched off the side of the trail into the gorge; he was able to pop right up but seemed a bit shaken and had a little trouble maintaining contact the rest of the way down.  (He told me after the race that he felt like he was "in shock," and that it ultimately took him several miles to fully recover.)

We reached the turnaround in 4:04 on a course that was ultimately about two miles longer than previous years--maybe equivalent to a 3:55 previously.  I was feeling great.  Legs felt strong, the weather was cooperating.  After running the first 14 miles without carrying any fluid, and then using a handheld for the subsequent twelve, I switched to my Orange Med Single Barrel HydraQuiver for lap 2.  We were in 17th and 18th place, less than two minutes behind 15th, about 6-10 minutes behind 10th-14th.  I was ready to start hunting.  Phil was dawdling a little bit in the aid station, trying to get himself back on track, and we had planned on splitting up at that point anyway, so I grabbed a banana and took off.  Within fifteen minutes I had caught the two runners ahead of me and pulled away; by AS7 at the top of the gorge I was running solo in 15th place, with a little more than twenty miles to go.
Working my way through lap 2.

The Cayuga course is an unrelenting beast.  While the trails are almost universally runnable, the constant short ups and downs and sharp turns make it difficult to find a rhythm.  Small logs and stream crossings that pass unremarked on in the first lap become major hindrances in lap two.  Avoiding lapped runners, front runners, and marathoners in both directions begins to take its toll, adding in countless small lateral movements that sap momentum.  The staircases that were run up cautiously in the early stages become nearly insurmountable objects; the downhills pound the quads into submission.  Four hundred runners traversing a double out-and-back turns numerous soft patches into ankle-deep, shoe-sucking mud pits.  For me, the second lap of Cayuga is always a mental battle trying to avoid negative self-talk.  The difficulty of the course wears me down; there is a constant sense that the finish line is so far away.  I was running pretty well, making it easier to keep a positive outlook, but there's no getting around the fact that year after year, lap two of this course is a slog.  Ultimately, after my two early passes I was completely solo the rest of the way; I wound up about five minutes behind 14th and about five minutes ahead of Phil in 16th.  Despite a 4:50 second lap--about what I've done in previous years--I wasn't close to getting caught by anyone, which is a first for me at this race and speaks to the length and difficulty of this year's course.  (Times were generally 30-40 minutes slower than previous years among repeat runners in the top 20, with the exception of Scotie and Cole, who had amazing performances; I'd suspect my effort was worth about an 8:20 or so on the old course.  I'll take it.)  I would up fourth master, third in the 40-44 group behind Ben and Scotie--my fifth AG top-3 at a national championship since becoming an old man, but still looking for that first AG win. 
Mostly just relieved.

Much like Sabrina wrote in her fabulous recap of the race, I was somewhat ambivalent about the race in retrospect.  It wasn't my best day, but it wasn't my worst.  I finished about where I should've in the field, but certainly didn't make any great strides or achieve anything beyond my potential.  My time was the slowest of my three previous finishes, but I was closer to the winner and to most of the elite returnees like Ben and Matt than I've been previously.  Ultimately I decided I'm satisfied with the result, if not completely happy with it.  Which, considering the illness coming in, I guess is about all I can ask for.

Patagonia Strider shorts and top, courtesy of Mountain Peak Fitness/Red Newt Racing
inov-8 Race Ultra 290s
Orange Med Single Barrel HydraQuiver and Handheld
GU Roctane gels and GU Brew

Race Report: Rocky Raccoon 100

It's been almost two weeks since Rocky Raccoon, my first real 100 miler (not counting last year's 24-hour at North Coast, though maybe I should).  I've been struggling with various, conflicting emotions since I crossed the finish line in Texas.  Relief at being finished.  Disappointment at not having achieved most of my goals.  Frustration that, despite excellent preparation and race execution, I was left with a sub-par result, largely due to circumstances outside my control.  Pride at having actually accomplished the task of running 100 miles, still in a relatively respectable time.  Concern and fear over what I might be doing to my body.  Uncertainty as to where I go from here.

I came into Rocky about as prepared as I could've hoped.  I'd had four months of basically uninterrupted training since North Coast, averaging over 100 mi/week for the previous 13 weeks (including recovery weeks!) with a nice mix of track work, hills, tempo, and marathon-pace efforts.  Greg had almost fixed my chronic Achilles tendinosis.  Scott had basically tortured my muscles into balance.  My weight was perfect, right in the 137-lb. range.  Four weeks earlier, I had run a solo 50K in 3:39, feeling completely relaxed; my last 10 miles were easily the fastest of the run.  I had no excuses.  I flew to Houston on the Thursday before the Super Bowl with my great friends Phil and Laura (and Francis Ford Coppola, who was on our plane); Phil would be running his second 100 (after an epic battle with the Grindstone course last year) and Laura would be crewing me and pacing my last 25 miles.
All smiles at the start, with Phil.
photo: Laura Kline
The opening pace was about as fast as I expected.  My pre-race goal was 15 hours (I didn't know exactly how realistic that was, but I knew I could run 16 hours, and I wanted to be mentally prepared to try to run faster than that), and based on previous years I figured that a 15-16 hour performance would have me comfortably in the top 5.  I was anticipating a quick start, though, so I lined up several rows back and let folks go crazy in the early stages.  I stopped to pee around four miles in and was very pleased to find that Phil had been running right behind me (why he hadn't said anything for the first half hour is beyond me).  He was planning on running in the 17-18 hour range, so this pace was a bit faster than he needed to be, but he was happy to run comfortably with me and plan on slowing down later, so we settled in to 9:00 pace and wiled away the miles chatting and making sure not to go too fast.
With Phil at mile 23, cruising along.
photo: Laura Kline
We finished the first 20-mile circuit in 2:58, right on pace (if not place; we were easily outside the top-20, already over 30 minutes behind the leaders; but I knew there weren't about to be twenty sub-15:00 100s out there) and resolved to slow down just a tad over the next lap, so as not to overdo it.  Phil was the pacemaker for most of lap 2, and did a masterful job in guiding us through a 3:02 lap for a 6-flat split at 40 miles.  The course was fun--a mix of singletrack and doubletrack, with a few more rolling hills than I had anticipated, but mostly excellent footing and eminently runnable.  The aid stations were well-stocked and staffed with hilarious, enthusiastic volunteers.  All in all we were having a blast.  I stopped briefly at 40 miles to eat a little peanut butter and chat with Laura for a few seconds while Phil ran through the aid station and opened up a little gap on me, but I had been moving just a touch better over the last several miles and was not concerned about catching back up; by 42 miles were running together again.  I was a few seconds in front when we came to an intersection that had clearly had the markings tampered with; it took us a minute or two to sort out where the signs had been switched around and get back on the right path.  (Where does this compulsion come from, to fuck around with course markings?  How is this fun for whoever is doing this?  I could almost understand it if you were sitting there and laughing at stupid runners getting confused and running in different directions, but why are you switching markings and then just walking away?  What pleasure does that bring you?)

End of lap 2, 40 miles in.
photo: Laura Kline
I kept the pace steady throughout lap 3; I still felt very good, but did not want to go overboard yet, and focused on trying to run the same splits between aid stations as I had on the first two laps.  Phil fell back and I was on my own; I could track my progress to some of the leaders, though it became obvious that a lot of people had dropped out already and I didn't have a clear sense of where I stood.  My splits were not far off, especially accounting for the few minutes we'd lost at the tampered intersection.  The seven-mile Damnation loop between the second and third AS on each lap did become a bit of a slog.  This was the longest stretch between aid stations, and also the longest segment that didn't involve an out-and-back section, so it was rather isolating; it was a good hour of basically solo running, with few landmarks, and by the third time through it was starting to feel like a chore.  But I maintained through 50 miles in 7:34 and finished up lap 3 in 9:12, now in sixth place.  Fifth was a good 20-30 minutes ahead and looking strong; seventh was about 8-10 minutes back (Phil was about 10-15 back, in around 10th).  I knew by know that I wasn't going to break 15:00--negative splits are almost impossible in a race this long--but I told Laura that I'd be at the 75-mile mark in 11:45-12:00, and that 16 hours was easily doable.

I pressed on through lap 4.  After running through every aid station for the first 30 miles or so, I had developed a nice AS rhythm: two cups of Coke, half a banana, a few bites of PBJ, grilled cheese, or a quesadilla, and some pickles.  A minute or so, in and out.  I'd been running the whole way with my Orange Mud Hydraquiver Single Barrel, so I had 26-ounces of fluid with me, which I was generally drinking twice per lap starting with lap 2--one time with GU Brew, then refilling with water for the second half of each lap.  My fueling and energy systems felt pretty good.  I'd taken a few salt tablets, but not many.  I had peed probably four times in the first 70 miles or so; it was a little concentrated, but certainly not brown or anything concerning.  The Damnation loop on lap 4 was interminable; even though it was only about 4-5 minutes slower than I'd been running on the previous laps, it felt like it would never end.  Still, I maintained a nice pace through mile 72, on target to meet Laura at 75.5 in about 11:50.

In a race this long, things are going to go wrong at some point; how you deal with them is what separates a good race from a bad one.  At 73 miles, things that didn't need to go wrong started to go wrong.  I started feeling pretty tired and was struggling a little bit, when I started bleeding from my right nostril.  This isn't unheard of for me, especially when conditions are as dry as they were in Texas, but it certainly was an issue I didn't want to deal with at that point.  I slowed down a little and managed as best I could, and came in to the aid station to pick up Laura right around 11:53 or so.  (For comparison, my 12-hour split at North Coast was about 76 miles, so I was right there, if not a couple of minutes faster.)  Laura was ready to rock (and freezing cold, having been waiting for about 30 minutes as sunset approached) but I had to sit and manage my issues.  A volunteer pulled up a folding chair and brought me some tissues to pack my nose; Laura brought some Ramen and refilled my bottle.

"What else do you need?" asked the volunteer.  "I've got some whoppies.  You want some whoppies?"

Did I want whoppies?  I didn't know.

"I'm sorry, what?"

"Whoppies?  You need some whoppies?"

Shit, I didn't know what he was talking about.  I racked my brain, trying to think of what I was forgetting.  I'd been reminding myself for the past few miles that I wanted to tell Laura to give me a Zofran tablet (for nausea) when we got to mile 80...more as a precaution than anything else, though my stomach had felt mildly queasy...I knew I wanted to drop my vest pack and just use a handheld on the last lap...I couldn't remember what I had decided about whoppies.  Did I want whoppies?  Would they bother my stomach?  Wait, what the fuck was a whoppy?  Why couldn't I remember what a whoppy was?  Laura was back with my bottle, but she didn't seem to know about whoppies either.

"I'm sorry...what are you saying?"


"What...oh. Wipies."

Texas accents, man.

Once I had cleaned the blood off my hands and face with some wet wipes (aka wipies/whoppies), we started off at an easy jog.  I led most of the way back to the start/finish, not running the 9-10 minute pace I had been doing earlier, but holding a steady 11:00 pace for the next four miles or so, coming through 80 miles in 12:46.  I needed to run only 10:30 pace to break 16 hours.  Fifth place was over thirty minutes in front, but seventh place was about twenty minutes behind.  Sixth was mine, barring disaster.  I dropped my vest and grabbed my handheld, took the Zofran and, at Laura's suggestion, a caffeine tablet, as my energy levels were starting to sag a bit, and we started off, headlamps blazing, Laura in the lead, running ten-minute miles.

I struggled to keep up as we started off, though my legs felt alright, and tried to keep suffering through what seemed to be a bad patch.  But after a mile or so, I could tell it wasn't simply a bad patch.  My breathing didn't feel right.  I was fatigued, to be sure, but beyond that, I was struggling to keep my breathing under control.  I was hyperventilating on every uphill.  After about two miles, I told Laura I needed to slow down to try to catch my breath.  I wasn't sure what the problem was.  Maybe the caffeine, I thought; though I'm pretty habituated to caffeine, and had been drinking Coke and taking caffeinated gels for the past several hours, maybe the tablet had been too much, and it was causing my heart to race.  We stopped at AS 1 (83 miles) and I sat again to check my pulse.  120 beats/minute.  Nothing out of the ordinary; certainly nothing to cause unusual shortness of breath.  I rested a few minutes, drank some hot broth, and we walked on.

Over the next few miles, I tried to run on the flat and downhill sections whenever I could.  Uphills left me gasping for air and were not runnable.  We decided we'd have to try to just wait out whatever was happening.  I had no chest pain and was still urinating.  My legs actually felt fine; on the sections were I could run, I was holding sub-10:00 pace with any real soreness or achiness.  And maybe the breathing was getting a little better.  I'd just walk the uphills until it went away.

It was on the final Damnation loop where everything went to shit.  I started feeling a rattling in my chest when I was running; I tried to cough up phlegm but nothing would come up.  At first, it was only on uphills; by about 88 miles I could hear a rattling sound even on flat segments.  By now I was starting to freak out a little bit.  I doubted it was my kidneys, as I had peed only a few miles earlier.  Was my heart OK?  All the reading I'd been doing for work and school about ultrarunning and heart disease started playing with my mind.

"Laura, I think my lungs are filling up with fluid.  I think I just have to walk."

So, we walked.  Every so often I'd try running for a bit, but the rattling came back after fifteen seconds or so and I was too freaked out to keep going.  Walking seemed OK, and my legs felt fine, and I was still going to be able to finish, so we just walked.  I felt bad for Laura, who had given up an entire weekend and flown all this way and supported me all day to basically be reduced to walking for 18 of the 25 miles she was pacing, but I couldn't do anything about it.  I was still in sixth, somehow, through ninety miles, but by about 91 folks started straggling by.  Phil and his pacer Mike came past at about 93; he looked so strong I wanted to cry, but I put on a brave face and we just trudged through.  I was able to run for about fifteen of the final 25 minutes or so, and finished the last lap with Laura in 5:01, for a 17:48, 12th-place finish.

I went straight to the medical tent, although I felt generally OK, and had one of the docs listen to my lungs, which he pronounced as clear; my heart rate was about 140 when I first sat down, but came down to 90 within the first couple of minutes.  I was still having a hard time taking a full, deep breath without coughing, which would persist for the next couple of days, but otherwise things seemed to be fine.  I'm still not sure what the issue was/is.  My best supposition is that the dry, dusty air caused some bronchospasm and a bit of an asthma-like reaction; several folks, including Phil, commented on how dusty it had been, and I had my nosebleed as evidence.  But I'm scheduled for a chest X-ray and an echocardiogram tomorrow, so we'll make sure everything is ok.  (I'll try to post a bit on the echo, and some various ultrarunning/heart-related issues, next week.)

My favorite existential sign.
This is the next morning.  No, I don't look good.
So where do I go from here?  I won't make any long-term decisions until after the echo results are in. If everything is OK, I assume I'll get back to training in another week or so, and I'll put together a race schedule for the summer/fall in the coming weeks.  I'm glad to have finished, and to have my buckle, and my WS qualifier, and yes, a 17:48 is not anything to sneeze at.  But everything pointed to a sub-16, and my legs were certainly up for it, and my fueling and everything else seemed to be on point.  I'm equal parts frustrated and concerned, combined with the usual apathy/ennui after a major race is over.  It's not a great headspace to be in right now.

I learned that I can prepare for and execute a 100-mile race plan.  I confirmed, after Bandera and North Coast, that I can compete among the second tier of US ultrarunners at long national championship races--I'm not going to win, but after the true elites beat the shit out of each other, I'm certainly in the next wave of guys that are picking up the pieces.  And I learned that bad patches are just bad patches, and that I should recognize them for what they are, and not panic and try to force myself out of them by taking caffeine pills or whatnot; they just need to be endured until they end.  What all this means for me going forward, though, is still a bit of a mystery.

Patagonia Strider shorts and top, courtesy of Mountain Peak Fitness/Red Newt Racing
inov-8 Race Ultra 290s (discontinued, unfortunately, but really looking forward to the new Roclites)
Orange Med Single Barrel HydraQuiver, Handheld, and trucker cap
GU Roctane gels and GU Brew

Race Reports: Viking Run and RFTH

As part of the buildup for Rocky Raccoon, I recently ran two local, low-key races within a seven-day span.  Not that I particularly needed to race, per se, but both are fun events that I've enjoyed running in the past, and would provide two different training stimuli that I wanted heading into the final training push.  The training has actually been going quite well--averaging over 100 mi/wk for the past couple of months, including recovery weeks, with some good hill sessions, some longish marathon-paced running, and a couple of good long runs (particularly a 40-miler with Phil and Laura that despite the arctic conditions went quite well).  I've had a few little aches and pains, but with help from Greg and Scott I've been staying (mostly) on top of things.

Pre-Viking Run selfie, with obligatory hat.

First up in this little racing mini-block was the Viking Run, a very low-key 10K in Rosendale, about 10 miles from my house.  This race has been going on for much longer than I know; when I moved to the area in 2004, it was already a staple of the local scene.  It's generally held on the weekend before Christmas and New Year's; the 2016 edition took place on New Year's Eve.  We're often out of town during this vacation week, but I like to run this race if I'm around; this was my fourth or fifth time running it, but the first since 2014.  Generally, I can run up front if no fast young guys show up, which was the case this year.  I showed up after an overnight shift at the tail end of a 100-mile week, hoping to break 40 minutes, which on this course, which features over 1000 feet of climbing, is actually a pretty good effort.

I started off at the front and immediately opened up a small gap of about 10-15 seconds during the first mostly flat mile.  Tim Kosteczko, a local runner who's been putting in some good training recently, was hanging tough in the early going, but I was pretty sure that once the climbing started I'd be able to pull away.  We hit the first hill just past the mile mark and proceeded to climb for the next 10+ minutes; by the time I reached the top I couldn't see Tim behind me.  The course then drops precipitously for about a mile, turns around, and retraces its way back to the start.  I had a two-minute lead at the turn and knew I was pretty safe in terms of the win, but continued trying to push myself for the sub-40.  The return climb is absolutely brutal, and I struggled near the top, but was able to recover quickly on the way back down and hold on for a 38:55 and a three-minute victory margin.  This year, for the first time, local running nut Chris Regan had awards made for the race, and I wound up taking home a pretty cool viking horn trophy, out of which I imbibed a few that evening.

Cool! Thanks, Chris.
One week later, finishing a 120-mile training week, I returned for the fourth time to the Recover From the Holidays 50K, another low-key local event that I love to use as a workout/tuneup if I'm running a big race in the middle of the winter (which I usually am).  RFTH is a fat-ass race comprised of ten laps of a paved 5K out-and-back circuit.  This was actually the 21st running of this event, which is mostly used as a training run for local distance runners; RDs Pete Colaizzo and Charlie Sprauer will let anyone show up and run as many or as few laps as they like.  Most folks will run their 10-15 mile long run for the day and sit around the bonfire eating pizza with Pete and Charlie afterwards, but each year about 10-20 folks will battle the cold (and wind, and usually snow flurries) for the full ultra.  There are no awards, but it's free, as is the pizza, so you can't beat that price.

I'm on an odd-year-only streak with RFTH.  It's a race I've tried to do every year, but in the even years, something seems to get in the way.  (Last year it was Bandera.)  Still, I had secured wins in 2011, 2013, and 2015, and while it's certainly a casual event, 2017 marked my chance to become the first four-time winner of the race.  Among a champions' lineup that includes US national team members (Byron Lane) and American record holders (Sabrina Little), that would be a pretty cool deal.

Despite the recent heavy training volume, my legs have been feeling pretty good, and my goal was to run a relaxed but steady tempo of about 22:30/lap--right around 7:30 pace--shooting for a 3:45.  I figured my current fitness level would allow me to run that pace without too much difficulty and without sacrificing the last few weeks of my Rocky Raccoon training.  My friend and training partner Brian Hickey, who has won this race twice himself, was joining me there, but was aiming for 8:00/mile pace, so unfortunately it looked as though I'd be on my own.

Rolling along at RFTH
photo: Charlotte Kopp
We started off on a frigid 19 degree morning and I immediately opened up a small lead on Brian and the rest of the pack.  I struggled through the first lap just trying to warm up; my toes were completely numb and my teeth were chattering through the early stages.  I ran the first lap in exactly 22:30 and was already over a minute in front.  About halfway through lap two I finally felt as though I had warmed up and was able to settle into a comfortable rhythm of right around 22:00/lap.  As I clicked off the miles, everything felt rather comfortable.  I didn't quite have my climbing legs, but I was able to power through the hills, as they are relatively short, and was really able to hold a nice, quick tempo on the flats.  I passed 15K in 66:30, halfway in 1:50:15, and 30K in 2:12:35.  Starting at about lap three, I checked the port-a-potty each time past the start/finish, but couldn't catch a window when it was open; finally, after reaching 35K in 2:34:50, I stopped and waiting until it opened up.  Finishing my business, I started lap eight at 2:36:55, cruised through 40K in 2:57 and the marathon in right around 3:06.  Finishing up lap nine in 3:18:30, and still feeling very relaxed, I decided to push the final lap slightly to see if I could break 3:40.  It did take a little more effort over the final circuit, but I was able to run my fastest lap at the end and finish up in 3:39:20, my second-fastest time on the course (after a 3:32 in 2013) and ninth-fastest all time.  My final 15K was my fastest three laps of the day, covering that stretch in 63:30 (6:50 pace).  All in all, a great confidence boost heading into the final buildup to Rocky.

I'll have a couple of brief posts coming in the next couple of weeks prior to RR100, and hopefully a good writeup following it.  After that the blog may have to go quiet for a few weeks.  I'm finishing up classwork this spring while simultaneously starting a new work project and writing a scientific paper that needs to be finishes by mid-March, so things are going to get pretty hairy in there for a little while.

Race Report: SOS4Kids

Sorry for the delay--this race took place over three months ago--but the munchkins take over the blog again to bring you their latest report:

This was the second triathlon I've done.  This was my first triathlon.  I ran / swam / biked a greater distance than she did. I swam eight laps, ran one mile, and biked four miles, and then ran another quarter of a mile.  I swam four laps, then ran half a mile, biked two miles, and then ran another quarter of a mile.  When I was at the first running part, a lot of stuff hurt, but only a little. However, when I got to the biking part, my legs started hurting a lot.  In the biking part of the race, I was kind of annoyed because I didn't have gears and I'm pretty sure that everyone else did.  During the bike, I felt like I had missed the turn around, because all of the uphills and downhills made the whole race seem a lot longer. I won a silver medal in my age group.  I was feeling great at the end of the race. I won a third place medal in my age group.

-Lexi and Dylan

Race Report: North Coast 24

I'm having a difficult time starting this post. Just the idea of a 24 hour race was so foreign to me even six months ago that I'm not sure where it came from. In January I ran my longest race ever, the Bandera 100K; those 9+ hours remained the longest run I had ever done. How did I decide to run a race that would be another 1.5 times that duration?

For one, Bandera confirmed for me that I did have some aptitude for the longer stuff; with a somewhat conservative start, I had gotten (relatively) stronger as the race went on, running some of my fastest miles past the 55-mile mark and moving up through the field throughout the race. My training partners' focus on longer races helped nudge me in that direction as well. Brian's runner-up finish at Burning River in 2015 was eye-opening, even though he had a wealth of experience at the distance; and Phil, despite having run his first 50k in January 2015, was already talking about his first 100, at Grindstone in October. I ran my first ultra in 2006. It was time to get on board.

The 24 hour format seemed to suit me, at least in theory. I've never minded races on loop courses; I was not put off by the idea of monotony. And I was looking forward to running at night. Most everyone I spoke to cautioned me that I would experience a lull in the early morning hours. But with my usual unpredictable schedule, heavy on night shifts, my body was not only primed for action at 3am, but was very familiar with 24-30 hours without sleep. Where others struggled, I could gain an advantage simply by continuously moving forward.

I didn't have the ideal training buildup that I'd had before Bandera; my bout with Lyme disease in May and June meant I didn't get into heavy training until about 10 weeks before the race. But once August rolled around I was in a rhythm; I was able to bang out several weeks between 95-110 miles, peaking at 120 two weeks out. Not quite as many hard workouts as I'd like, but some good quality track work with Laura and Phil. I'd say it was about 90% of the ideal prep I'd had for Bandera. It would have to do.

I flew to Cleveland on Friday afternoon and spent most of the day in my hotel room trying not to freak myself out too much. Joe Fejes' race preview picked me to finish 14th among the men, which sounded a little low until I read through everyone's credentials and realized, Geez, I might really be in over my head here. Just be patient and keep moving forward, I told myself, and let the chips fall where they will.

I took my first-ever Uber ride to the race on Saturday morning and met up with my friend and sometime training partner Jim Sweeney, who was gunning for 150 miles and a spot on the US team for next year's world championships. Jim's dad Steve would also be running, and his girlfriend Bri and stepmom Ginny graciously offered to help crew me in addition to Jim and Steve. The biggest concern early on was the weather. Threatening and overcast all morning, the skies opened up thirty minutes before the start. We huddled under our pop-up tent, hoping that we wouldn't have to start in the deluge. The forecast called for rain on and off all day, but mercifully it let up about five minutes before 9 am, and we started in a light drizzle that tapered off over the first few miles. That was about it for the rain the rest of the way.

Before the race, I had told anyone who asked that the goal was 100 miles, and that anything over that would be a bonus. Which was true; after the first 10 hours and 62 miles, I'd be in completely unknown territory. But I knew that I should be able to do 100 miles on a flat loop without too much difficulty. I didn't want to base my race strategy around just getting to 100. I set myself a pie-in-the-sky goal of 140 miles, the minimum qualification standard for the national team--just over 10:00/mile pace. To do this, I'd need to go out a little faster, knowing I'd slow down later. I decided that I could run as fast as 9:10-9:15 pace in the early miles without the pace itself doing too much damage. Anything faster than that, I risked blowing up from the pace, not just the mileage. My strategy, therefore, was 9:10 pace for, well, basically as long as I could, then reassess.  Jim had decided to start by running 9:45 pace for the first six hours, then planned to run negative splits through the evening and into the night.  I didn't trust myself not to slow down, so I settled into my 9:10 pace and tried to make the time pass.

I spent the early miles running with a variety of folks.  I ran a few laps with Megan Alvarado (nee Stegemiller), an accomplished 100-mile racer from Virginia, and Andrew Snope, a huarache-wearing pre-race favorite from Georgia with a previous 136-mile 24-hour to his credit.  When our pace started to creep down towards 9:00/mile, though, I backed off a bit and let them go.  I focused on fueling and on keeping the effort level as easy as possible.  Whenever I felt any sort of increase in effort, I backed off.  Ginny and Bri kept me well-hydrated as the day heated up, and the miles crept by.  Ten miles in 1:31, twenty in 3:03, thirty in 4:34...just running the 9:10s, not worried about place, trying to get through each 6-hour block with minimal effort and just move onto the next one.

photo: Stuart Siegfried
Running has never been a transcendental pursuit for me.  I enjoy the mental aspects of the sport, and I can certainly attest to times when I've been "in the zone."  But I didn't come to the sport seeking enlightenment.  I run because I enjoy it, because I've had some modicum of success at it, because I like the competition.  After five or six hours on this paved, 0.9-mile loop, though, I found myself in a very unusual headspace.  I realized I was not thinking about anything at all except my pace, my effort level, and my fueling; everything else had been stripped away.  My life was simply this loop and getting around it as easily as possible.  It was very Zen.

As we passed the six-hour mark I started to globalize a bit and these feelings fell away.  Pace became my all-consuming thought.  I had covered 39 miles in the first six hours, exactly wha I had hoped for. The next six-hour block called for something similar, on the order of 35-38 miles, hoping for a 12-hour total in the high 70s.  I continued on, keeping the effort level in check.  I spent some time running with Olaf Wasternack, third last year with 140 miles, and Harvey Lewis, the defending champion who had placed ninth in the last world championships (both were a few laps ahead of me). Jim caught up to me and we ran together for an hour; then he lapped me once to catch up on the lap I had gained on him in the early going and we ran together some more; then he took off a bit and lapped me again.  He seemed to be moving very well.

With Jim.
photo: Pat Dooley
I kept plugging along and fueling.  I had stuck with zero carbs over the first two hours, just taking water, salt tabs, and some breakfast sausage I had liberated from the hotel buffet, to get my body into fat-burning mode.  Now I focused on carbs, salt, and protein.  Every five laps or so I'd stop at the food tent and eat the following: a handful of pickle slices, a quarter of a PBJ, half a banana, a couple of grapes, and maybe some M&Ms.  Sometimes I'd have some of whatever hot food they were featuring at the time--hamburgers, pizza, grilled cheese.  Then I'd grab a can of Coke and a cup of ice, and walk about 200 meters drinking ice cold Coke.  And then I'd run.  This was my life.

I went through a mild down spell around the 9-hour mark, but not bad; as the sun set and the weather cooled a bit I felt better.  Another mild down spell coincided with the 12-hour mark.  I had lost track of Jim in the dark.  My pace had slowed a little bit, and while I didn't feel too tired, I became aware that there was an awful long way to go.  I passed 12 hours with about 75-76 miles covered, right in line with my goals, but suddenly the enormity of what I was doing hit me.  I sat down at our tent for the first time, eating some mashed potatoes and thinking, God, I don't think I can do another 65 miles.  Steve was struggling with some leg pain and was there with Ginny in the camp, and I outlined for them a new plan.  140 was out, but I could run 12-minute pace for the next, I don't know, whatever.  That would get me to 100 miles in 17 hours, which was slower than my pre-race ideal projection, but I though would still be pretty cool.  Then in the final seven hours, I could cover 30 miles for a 130 total.  Seemed doable.

I struggled a little bit through the next couple of laps, but about thirty minutes later I took a couple of steps just trying to open up my stride, and boom! everything suddenly felt amazing.  My first instinct was to back off, but I decided I had to start running eventually, and I might as well ride this wave for a little bit.  Suddenly, 80 miles in, I started clicking off 9:10s again.  Olivier Leblond, who had led from the gun and was lapping me for the eight or ninth time, caught up to me and immediately commented on how quick I was moving.  We shared several laps together before I stopped to eat something and he pulled away.  It was nearing midnight and the field was thinning out a bit, but I kept rolling.  Past 90 miles I was moving so well that I briefly flirted with the idea of 140 miles again; it was looking like I would be hitting 100 miles close to 16 hours, and 12-minute pace over the last eight hours might be achievable.

About two laps later I started to feel some fatigue in my quads, which was not unexpected.  More concerning was that I was suddenly experiencing burning pain in my right patellar tendon with each step.  This is a bit of a chronic issue for me on longer runs, so I wasn't terribly surprised, but the usual stride alterations didn't relieve it, which was problematic.  At 93 miles I stopped in the medical tent, desperate.  The student there stretched and massaged my quads, which helped, then started putting gentle distal pressure on my kneecap.

"What is that, rolfing?" I asked.

"No, myofascial release."

After a few minutes he pronounced me done and I sat up cautiously.  "I think I felt the knee release," he said, "you might be good to go."  I left the tent and took a few tentative steps.  No pain.  I opened up the stride a little bit.  No pain.  I started running normally.  No pain.  Alright.  Here we go.

Not running quite as quickly as before, but still moving very well.  I did some quick calculations.  140 was definitely out, 130 was still in play.  More importantly, I was fast approaching my first 100 mile mark.  I decided I was going to push through 100 miles to see what my time would be.  Beyond that, with my chances at 140 gone, the final total didn't matter all that much.

I kept cruising through 100 miles in 16:34, still feeling pretty good, and quite proud of myself.  At that point I sat down for only the second time, just wanting to savor the accomplishment for a bit.  I started moving again a few minutes later, but much of my momentum was gone, and I struggled to find my rhythm again.  I made it another two laps feeling OK, but by the third time around I was developing some significant pain in my right IT band and my left quad, and I hobbled back into the medical tent.  They worked their magic again, and my IT band was much better, but the quad was beyond rescue.  OK, then.  Time to start hiking.

So, for the next seven hours, I walked.  I walked and walked.  I began to get a sense of where I stood in the field.  There were five men I knew were ahead of me: Olivier, Adrian Stanciu, Serge Arbona, Kevin Grabowski, and Jean Pommier.  There was Olaf, who I knew had been several laps ahead of me, but I hadn't seen for a few hours, and I suspected might be off the course.  And there were two people who were within ten laps of me still on course.  One of them was barely moving faster than I was, and it soon became apparent that he was almost done.  The other, John Bertram, was still running.

Hours passed.  It became apparent that I was going to either finish sixth or seventh.  If I stopped, John would catch me and I'd finish seventh; a couple of other folks might catch me too if I stopped completely.  If I kept moving, John was the only person who could get me.  No matter how slow I was going, if I just kept moving forward, I'd finish no worse than seventh, probably sixth.  So I just kept moving.  Every time I came around and finished another lap, I considered whether I wanted to finish sixth or seventh, and I just kept moving.  Adrian became my best friend, offering a thumbs-up or a few words of encouragement every time he lapped me; he even stopped once or twice and walked with me for a few minutes.  He was struggling but moving better than anyone else save women's leader Jenny Hoffman, who was simply laying waste to the women's field.

With less than two hours to go I was almost certain I had sixth place locked up, but every time I thought I was safe, John would trundle by, cutting another lap off my lead, and I would do the math again, thinking, God this is gonna be close.  With an hour left the lead was down to three laps, and I considered stopping, but no, he could run 2.7 miles in an hour.  Keep moving.  With thirty minutes to go, two laps.  I could probably stop, but could he do two 15-minute miles?  Probably.  Keep moving.  Finally, at 23:47, I finished my 137th lap, knowing I still had a two lap lead and my spot was safe, and I stopped.

The immediate aftermath of the race was not pretty.  I could barely stand up for the awards ceremony, and I nearly passed out in line at Einstein's Bagels about two hours later.  But Ginny and Steve brought me back to their hotel room, where I had a glorious shower and a two-hour nap, after which I felt remarkably better for the flight home.  Within a day or two, I had no more muscle soreness than I'd expect after any long hard race.  My feet, however, were a different story.  I donated three toenails to the podiatrist on Tuesday, and it took a week for enough swelling to subside that I could see my ankles again.

(The blue toenails are painted.  The red toenails are not toenails.)
Despite that, this was an amazing experience and a satisfying end to my racing year.  It was my third second-place age group finish in a national championship in 2015 (though, of the five people ahead of me, four were actually in older age groups, so that's kind of cheating).  I didn't quite reach the magic 140-mile goal, but I now have a respectable 100-mile PR and a wealth of knowledge to take into my next long event.  Except for some short, fun, local races, I'm done for the year; the next big one will likely be Rocky Raccoon in February, which I'm already a little excited about.  Thanks to Ginny, Bri, Steve, and Jim for all their help last weekend; thanks to Brian Polen and the team at Vertical Runner for a great event.  Much thanks to my sponsors for a successful season: MPF/RNR (and all of the companies that support our team); inov-8, and Orange Mud.  And huge thanks to my family, including my wonderful wife Jodi, who thinks I'm an idiot but tolerates it anyway.

Race Report: Cayuga Trails 50 Mile

Pre-race, with part of Team MPF/RNR.
photo: Elizabeth Azze

I don't really have the heart to delve too deeply into recapping last weekend's Cayuga Trails 50 mile.  Plus there isn't much to tell, so I'll keep this post brief.

The buildup to my third USATF national championship race of 2016 went as well as I could have hoped.  Following the two 50Ks I ran in March, I took a week off of running completely before starting up again at the beginning of April.  I was soon running 85-90 mpw, and continued to build up to a peak of 130 miles in mid-May, towards the end of a 10-week block of over 1000 miles.  I was running strong track and hill workouts with Laura, and had long runs with Phil of 35+ miles at sub-9:00 pace.  I had Elizabeth come by and beef up my core routine.  I got down to race weight with two weeks to go before race day.  Things could not have gone better.

Eight days before race day, Phil and I were out for an easy two hours, the last "long" run of the training cycle.  It was warm, but not too warm; nothing close to the near-90s I had battled with Laura on the track the night before.  The first part of the run went quite well; as we climbed up our usual trail to the Mohonk Preserve, I felt ridiculously strong and relaxed.  But about an hour in I started to feel poorly.  I suddenly felt flushed and achy, particularly in my neck, shoulders, and upper back; as we started back down the hill for home, I was exhausted.  A little less than a mile from home, I got very weak and lightheaded, to the point that I stopped and sat by the side of the road for about five minutes before I felt well enough to jog the last few minutes home.  Unfortunately I was intimately familiar with these symptoms--it felt just like my previous episodes of Lyme disease.

Panic mode quickly set in.  It was Friday afternoon; I couldn't get a Lyme test for at least a couple of days, and having had a positive antibody test in the past, I wasn't sure whether a blood test would be useful anyway.  I dug through the medicine cabinet and found an old course of doxycycline that I started immediately.  If this really was Lyme, maybe I could get on top of it with enough antibiotics in the upcoming week to feel normal by race day.

Over the next few days, I convinced myself I was feeling better.  My legs certainly didn't have the pep of even just a few days previously, but I chalked that up to a combination of the taper blues and the heat wave that gripped the east coast, ensuring all my runs took place at a humid 85 degrees.  Laura and I ran our last track tuneup on Tuesday; 2 x 1 mile at 5:50, which felt aerobically fine but significantly achier than I expected.  It was still awfully hot, though, and I kept telling myself my legs would come around.

After an uneventful trip to Ithaca on Friday and a restless night of sleep Friday night, I headed off with Phil at the back of the lead pack Saturday morning at 6am.  The field was incredibly deep, even for a national championship; much deeper than we had raced at Bandera.  My goal was a sub-8:00 finish, which I figured would be in the back part of the top-15.  With the stacked field up front, I was banking on the top contenders beating each other up a bit; enough carnage (which is usually the case at Cayuga) and a smart race and I might sneak into the top 10.  I wanted to run the first 25-mile lap near my 2015 split of 3:50; while that had been a bit too fast for me to handle last year, I knew with my fitness level that I could comfortably come through halfway at 3:50 and have a strong second lap in me.

The race started out as quickly as I expected; despite passing through AS 1 (uphill 5K) in 27:00, just 30 seconds slower than last year, Phil and I had at least 40 runners ahead of us, including the top five women.  We reassured ourselves that we were being smart, and ran a very relaxed tempo, keying off Sabrina Little about thirty seconds in front of us, chatting easily.  It was a bit humid but not uncomfortable, and it seemed like I was having a good day.  We passed AS 2 (7+ miles) in 1:01:30, two minutes slower than 2015 (when I had run that segment way too fast) and about three minutes faster than my 2013 split.

The miles passed by easily enough as we climbed up the Lick Brook gorge and made our way over to Buttermilk Falls.  We caught Sabrina about 10 miles in and ran together down to Buttermilk and AS 3 in 1:52--again, two minutes slower than 2015.  Phil and Sabrina both stopped to refill bottles while I ran straight through the aid station.  My stomach felt great, energy levels were good, legs fine as we started climbing back out of the gorge for the return trip.

Climbing out of Buttermilk Falls.
photo: Elizabeth Azze

About ten minutes past the aid station, nearing the top of the Buttermilk Falls stairs, I noticed the first hints that things were not going as planned.  The pace hadn't changed, but somehow the effort level had spiked considerably.  In fact, I was having to slow down to keep the effort level steady, especially on the climbs--not unusual, except for the fact that I was only two hours into an eight hour race and had no reason to feel this way.  Picking my way through some navigable single track, I noticed that my pace had dropped off significantly, and my legs were starting to ache much more than I expected at this point in the race.  I chalked it up to a bad patch and took an extra GU, but within a mile Phil, Sabrina, and a group of about four other runners had caught up with me and passed by as we started to step drop down Lick Brook towards AS 4.  I fell in with Phil, telling myself it was way too early to worry about racing for places now, and focused on staying relaxed.  I re-passed everyone in the aid station, as once again I blew through while they all stopped to refill bottles, but again, I was re-caught fairly quickly.

By the time we reached the base of Lucifer's staircase, about 20 miles in, I was struggling, already walking many of the smaller uphills.  I wasn't losing ground--in fact, I still had a slight lead on Phil/Sabrina et. al.--but I certainly wasn't moving well.  At the top of the stairs, I felt as though I was forty miles in instead of twenty.  Nothing hurt, really; I was just exhausted, and I couldn't imagine continuing on for another five hours.  We continued our usual pattern at AS 5, as I opened up a small lead over my nearest companions by forgoing aid, and was once again caught about a mile later.  By this time I had made the decision to drop, and I told Sabrina and Phil as much.  They were both a little surprised, but too wrapped up in what they had to do to try to change my mind, not that it would have mattered much.

I reached the start/finish at 3:58 and pulled the plug.  It was incredibly frustrating.  I wasn't hurt, my stomach was fine; I was hydrating and taking nutrition without a problem.  I just knew I couldn't run another 25 miles.  I could have jogged and walked, very slowly, and finished.  It would have taken me a minimum of six hours for the second half of the race.  I just didn't have it in me.

Eventually I hooked up with Brian, got out on the course to help support Dylan as he gutted out a tough fourth-place finish; commiserated with Cole and Iain in our mutual DNF disappointments; and got to cheer in a lot of great finishes from teammates and friends in both the 50-mile and the marathon; the list of courageous and inspiring performances is too long to get into here.  But there's only so much fun you can have at the finish line of a race you've just dropped out of, and it's been a pity party on this end for the last several days.

With Jason and Laura, who both did it right.
photo: Elizabeth Azze

The drive home that night was brutal; I had a splitting headache and felt nauseous most of the way, further reinforcing my feelings that it's once again Lyme I'm dealing with, though who the hell knows.  I'm about two weeks into antibiotics at this point and feeling minimally better.  Had blood work done two days ago, so stay tuned on that end.

I'm a bit unmoored right now.  This disaster of a race experience has shaken the confidence quite a bit, especially in light of the fact that I don't feel much better almost a week later.  As crappy as a DNF feels, I'm no stranger to the experience, and after a little self-reflection and rationalization I can usually refocus pretty quickly on what I need to do moving forward.  But right now the uncertainty is making that almost impossible.  The goal is to be ready for the fall racing season--I've basically given up on an summer racing at this point--but without knowing when or how I'm going to get back into training seriously, I'm finding a positive outlook tough to come by.

Race Report: Spring Dual Against CF Kids' Race

The girls had their second go at the Spring Dual Against CF a couple of weeks ago.  They learned their lesson after going out a bit too hard last year, and both of them tried to pace themselves.  Dylan was easily the youngest one there, which made it difficult for her to keep up, but she did take home the win as the only finisher in the 7-10 age group (though Lexi is 10, USAT rules dictate she race as an 11-year-old, as she turns 11 in November).


This was my second time doing the duathlon, and at the beginning, I was really exited, but also a little nervous. - I was really nervous, but also a little excited. - At the beginning, I was falling behind everyone, but I kept a steady pace. - Me too, but I was having a little trouble keeping a steady pace, because I wanted to be a little more ahead. - I felt pretty good during the biking, and I passed a few people. - Same. - During the last run, I started feeling exhausted, but I didn't sprint until the end. - Me too, but I was feeling a little more exhausted, and I couldn't sprint at the end. - After the race, I was feeling pretty good! - After the race I was very, very, very tired. Dad said that I was hyperventilating.

--Lexi and Dylan

Race Report: Canyon Meadow 50K--Riding the Ragged Edge

A couple of months ago, when we started planning a spring break trip to California to visit some family and friends, I did what I usually do and stopped by Ultrasignup, looking for races in the area.  This never really seems to work for me--I will rarely find a race that matches up with my travel plans--but to my surprise one popped up.  The Canyon Meadow Trail Races, in Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, would be held the day after we arrived in San Francisco, a mere 30 miles from where we were staying the night before.  Jodi took a bit of convincing; I had to make the argument that if I raced a 50K on the first day of our trip, I'd be comfortable taking the rest of the week off.  Logistically there were some problems with cars and rides and such.  But I was able to make it work and found myself at the start Sunday morning among a small ultra field mixed in with competitors running the 5-mile, half-marathon, 30K, and marathon options as well.

I'm not sure why it felt so important for me to run this race.  Certainly in the grand scheme of things it didn't matter much.  (I guess none of it does, really.)  I hadn't been targeting the race at all; it was very much a last-minute idea, or as last-minute as I get with this sort of thing.  I like running and racing in new places, which was part of it.  The timing worked out well with my vacation, and I was able to rationalize taking a dietary break for the week afterwards.  (It can be hard to stick with the diet on vacation.)  But mostly I think I was just excited to be in a race that I had a chance to win.  I've had what I consider a strong start to the year at Bandera and Caumsett, and a good six-month stretch reaching back to Water Gap.  But I didn't go into any of those races thinking I had any chance at a victory.  Sometimes it's just fun to try and run up at the front of a race, and I think I just really wanted that opportunity.

I knew going in, though, that I wasn't at my best.  As successful as 2016 has been thus far, it's come with a bit of a price.  Two high-level ultra efforts in eight weeks had taken their toll, particularly Caumsett, where the stress of pounding pavement at a high intensity for three and a half hours had left my legs trashed.  Laura was running the day after Caumsett, but even ten days later I wasn't feeling right, and though my soreness was gone by the time we got to California, I reached the starting line still without having had a run since then with any pep in the legs.  I knew I'd be in contention, but in terms of performance, I really didn't know what my body could offer.

I started off in the lead group of runners attacking the first climb, which comprises the first mile or so of the race and gains about 400' elevation.  I ran the majority of the climb at a very easy pace, walking only a few spots here and there.  It was a little tough to tell exactly who was in which race.  Our bib numbers identified which race we were running, but with bibs on the front, I wasn't sure who among the 10-12 people in front of me was in the 50K or the shorter distances.  I was pretty sure I was leading the 50K, based mostly on what I perceived of everyone's effort around me and the fact that nobody seemed to be carrying a bottle or pack as I might expect for a trail 50K.  (Though I wasn't carrying anything either, at least not on the first lap, so who knew how reliable that was.)  After the first couple of miles, the path leveled off, and I fell into an easy rhythm with a half-marathoner.  I decided not to worry about where I stood in the field.  I could only take what my body would give me on this day.  If it was enough to compete up front, great; I'd figure that out soon enough.  But early on I had to run my own race.  I ran as easily as I could manage, just trying to cover ground with minimal effort, enjoy the surroundings, and see where the chips fell.

The miles passed easily enough.  We reached the first aid station at 4.7 miles in just over 39 minutes, taking a quick drink and moving on.  Most of the climbing for the first lap was behind us; the course rolled gently, on a mix of dirt roads and West Coast single track, which is basically doubletrack with a few rocks and roots here and there.  The park was very pretty, though felt like the downtown city park it basically is; we were never terribly far from a road or parking area.  But the redwoods, while not particularly dense, were pretty, and there were a couple of breathtaking views to keep us interested.

I was content to maintain a fairly easy effort level through AS2, at about 10.8 miles, where one of the volunteers confirmed I was leading the 50K.  About a half-mile later we reached the start/finish area, except to complete the loop we ran past the finish line for a two-mile out-and-back paved section, where I was able to see for myself where I stood.  In front of me were all half-marathoners and a single marathoner, the women's leader, about two minutes ahead of me.  I made the turn and started checking my gaps to the next 50K runners: about two minutes to second place, who looked to be struggling; another minute back to third place, looking solid; and then about a 13-minute gap to fourth.  A podium spot seemed assured, but the win was still very much up in the air.  I finished the first lap in 1:43, right in line for my pre-race goal of a 3:30 marathon split, and took in my first calories of the day.  I had planned on grabbing my iPod for lap 2 but decided with only a small gap over second and third I should stay focused and alert, and instead resolved only to grab my Orange Mud handheld.  Unfortunately when I got to my drop bag I realized I had left the water bottle back in the car.  This caused a bit of panic, but I realized there wasn't much I could do now except hydrate at the aid stations and hope for the best, and I headed out for lap 2.

The second lap proved fairly uneventful.  I was running solo, except on the rare occasions when I'd lap a slower marathoner.  But I was almost never alone.  The park had filled up with all manner of hikers and joggers, all of whom seemed to have dogs, all of which seemed to be off-leash; I spent a great deal of time dodging curious puppies whose oblivious owners had stopped dead in the middle of the trail for a chat with someone they knew.  I tried to keep the miles effortless, but this was becoming nearly impossible; though the terrain was not overly difficult, I was finally feeling the full effects of the past few months.  Joe had warned me, in the lead-up to Bandera, that by trying to stretch my peak out to Caumsett, I was "riding the ragged edge of fitness."  I reflected now that by chasing this win I was really pushing my luck.  I didn't fear getting injured, but past the twenty-mile mark I knew I was both physically and mentally going to the well.  It wasn't particularly uncomfortable.  I just knew that there really wasn't any reserve left.

My pace had slowed significantly, closer to 8:30s now, but I saw approaching the turnaround that I had even pulled back a minute or so to the marathon leader (Anna Zielaski, who set a very strong womens' CR of 3:32 and won the marathon by nearly 30 minutes).  After making the turn and seeing that my lead was growing, I started to relax.  Second place was now about 12 minutes back, and I knew that as long as I simply kept moving forward, I was likely to hang on.

The final five mile stretch was an out-and-back over the first section of the main loop, which meant running the opening climb for the third time.  Though by this point "running" was a stretch; I simply hiked most of the climb and jogged the flat sections on top.  It was quite a slog.  Surprisingly, in the closing miles, my legs (despite feeling like Jell-O) were not the worst part of me; I had almost no strength in my core.  Particularly on the downhills, I felt incredibly fatigued in my back, glutes, and abs, to the point that I was favoring my entire core on the way down.  I was surprised because I've been very diligent over the past six months in adhering to my core regimen.  This regimen clearly needs a bit of a boost, and I'll be consulting with Joe and Elizabeth when we return to New York to do some fine-tuning in that respect.

Otherwise the closing stages were an nondescript slog.  I jogged home for the win in an unremarkable 4:22.  I had few goals for the day otherwise, so I guess we can chalk that one up in the "win" column, so to speak.  At least I felt as though I'd earned my dietary vacation.  My pilgrimage to the Russian River and Bear Republic breweries later in the week were gloriously guilt-free.  Much thanks to Wendell, Leng, and the rest of the crew at Coastal Trail Runs for a really first-class event.  And love to the sponsors as always.

Race Report: Caumsett 50K--"Too Short?"

I first ran the Caumsett 50K in March of 2008, my third ultramarathon and my first national championship.  The race, hosted by the Greater Long Island Running Club at Caumsett State Park in Lloyd Harbor, NY, has served as the US 50K road championships since 2006.  I ran much of the race with Dan Verrington and Leigh Schmidt, two studs from New England, ultimately falling off their pace but running a (still-standing) PR of 3:25, finishing seventh overall.  (Dan's 3:17 that day was, at the time, a national age-group record.)  It was about five minutes slower than I thought I might do, but I had felt like I had put in a very good effort and all in all was pretty pleased with how it turned out, nabbing a top-10 in a national championship race.  Of course, when I called Joe Puleo to tell him how it had gone, his immediate response was, "What happened?  Too short?"

My immediate response (other than "fuck you, asshole," which I'm 75% sure I didn't say) was"Oh, god, no!"  I was just scratching the surface of ultras at that time, and still had at least one foot in the marathon world; my marathon PR had come just 18 months earlier, and only six months before I had been in likely low-to-mid 2:30s shape leading into Chicago only to be foiled by an epically hot day.  I still had the mindset that anything longer than a marathon was an incredible undertaking, and had not yet come to the realization that 31 miles miles really isn't that much farther than 26.2.  The thought of going beyond that point seemed unimaginable at the time.

Fast forward eight years.  Training for my first 100K this winter brought with it a certain measure of anxiety and self-doubt.  Finishing was not my concern; I wondered, though, whether I really was built for the longer stuff.  In the last eight years, I've grown very comfortable with the 50K distance, and had several strong performances at the 40-mile Mount Mitchell Challenge.  But I had yet to experience any real success at 50 miles; certainly nothing commensurate with my performances in shorter ultras and trail races.  I'd been unable to completely master the nutritional requirements or to fight through the fatigue in the late stages.  So despite my long-standing (ill-considered?) belief that I get stronger as the races get longer, I was apprehensive that the 100K might not suit me all that well.  As Bandera approached and my fitness progressed, I started to think that maybe I should take another crack at Caumsett.  It was a known quantity at a distance where I'd experienced some success; a good fallback or safety valve if the 100K proved to be too much for me.  My workouts were not far off of what I'd been able to do back in 2008.  At 40 years old, could I run close to--or better than--that 3:25 I'd thought was beyond my reaching again?

As it has much of this winter, the weather cooperated nicely: clear and cool, high 30s at the start, low to mid-40s by midday, no significant wind.  I lined up in the third row with Laura and Joe Murphy, behind the likely favorites, including Zach Ornelas, who last year had set the course record of 2:52; Jared Burdick, second at the 2015 Cayuga Trails; 2:20 marathoner Fred Joslyn; and my teammate Cole.  My goal was to run even splits, even slightly negative if things went well, and try to stay near the front of the masters field, but ultimately to run my own race.  Zach took off at the gun, opening up a 15-second gap on the field by the mile mark; I ran in the lead masters' pack, in about 12th place, with three or four other old guys until we hit the mile in 6:10.  I felt pretty relaxed but knew this was not sustainable, and quickly eased off the gas and let the pack go.  I was running solo almost immediately, but was able to find my rhythm quickly and ran 6:30 for the second mile, just a few seconds ahead of what I wanted.  I settled in for the day.

photo: Ed Grenzig

The course is a 5K "loop" with a short out-and back section just before the start/finish, repeated ten times.  With a couple hundred runners soon joined by a few hundred 25K runners (starting five minutes later) on a short loop, the road quickly became congested.  Even so, I ran solo--as alone as you can be when surrounded by other people--the rest of the way.  I was passing and lapping people throughout, but outside of the first mile, I spent almost no time with anyone running the same pace as I was.

The race had split up into a few groups.  Zach was off the front, chasing the American record of 2:47.  Jared and Fred led one chase pack; Cole and Eric Senseman another.  Then came the masters group of three or four runners.  Then four or five solo runners stretched out over a few minutes' gap, including Dan Verrington, still getting it done at 53, and Caroline Boller, the women's leader.  Behind me lurked a few runners, including Joe and Laura, who was running very fast, though she looked pretty uncomfortable.  (She struggled through the day with some hip pain--us trail runners don't take too kindly to the roads--but gutted out a fantastic 3:40 to place second.  She is so, so tough.)

I struggled a bit getting comfortable in the early stages--I was running very even 6:30-6:35 splits, but my legs felt a little heavy and tight--but past 15K I started to feel great.  The 6:30s started to feel too easy, and I had to rein myself in to prevent them from turning into 6:20s.  Lap 4 was my fastest and easiest of the day, and lap five passed quite comfortably as well; I came through halfway in 1:41:06, in 15th place I believe, feeling very strong and confident that a 3:25 was well within reach.  My plan now called for me to relax through laps 6 and 7 as much as possible while making a concerted effort to take in some fluid and calories.  Through 25K I had taken in just a little bit of water and no calories, so starting lap 6 I grabbed my handheld and resolved to take in at least two gels, four S! caps, and the entire bottle by the end of lap 7.  I was well on pace and was OK with giving back a little time here.  Even if I gave back 30 seconds per lap over the next two, I was looking at a 41:30-42:00 10K and a 35K split of 2:23.  I was then fairly certain I could run a 62-minute last 15K for my 3:25.
photo: Ed Grenzig
Lap six passed without much incident--I was getting a little tight, but nothing unmanageable--but it was becoming clear that I had a bathroom issue.  From about the hour mark on, I had an inkling that I had to pee.  Normally, in an ultra, I'd just stop and go, but a flat road 50K, like a marathon run for time, is unforgiving; afraid to stop and lose precious seconds, by lap 5 I was starting to psych myself up to just pee on myself as I ran.  (What a stupid sport this is.)  Which would have been fine, but midway through lap six my stomach was starting to make it known that my pre-race evacuation, while satisfying at the time, had been inadequate.  I tried hoping it would go away, but that didn't work, and I really didn't have any other ideas, so I pulled over at the mid-lap aid station halfway through the seventh lap--almost exactly the 20-mile mark, in 2:11.

In a trail race, or a longer ultra, this would be no big deal.  A road 50K, though, has much more in common with a marathon than with what we usually think of in ultras.  One of the reasons I got out of marathoning (other than not being very good at it) was that the enormity of the effort coupled with the relentlessness of the clock was too overwhelming.  There is just no room for error.  Running a big-city marathon like Chicago or New York renders your place basically meaningless; I couldn't tell you if I had a good raced based on finishing 150th, or 500th.  Only the time matters.  To put so much effort into training only to be derailed by something as trivial as the weather, or the course, or, having to stop and poop--it's just too frustrating.  And I was acutely aware of that feeling as I opened the port-a-potty door and thought, "Oh, well, my race is over."

I gave up two and a half minutes in the stall--150 agonizing seconds--and it took me another 1-2 minutes of slow jogging afterwards to shake the stiffness out of the legs.  By the end of the seventh lap I felt like I had my rhythm back.  I tossed my bottle and got back to work.  The PR was gone, but sub-3:30 was still in play.

photo: Ed Grenzig
Lap eight passed quickly; I felt very strong and was able to earn back one or two of the spots I'd lost during my pit stop.  By the start of lap 9, I was tightening up again; the pace had slipped from 6:35-6:40 down to 6:50-6:55, but I was holding it together.  I split the marathon in 2:56:05 (pre-race goal had been around 2:50-2:51, so without my bathroom break, a 2:53 or so--not too far off) and caught Joe, struggling with hamstring tightness, a quarter mile later.  I started the bell lap knowing I'd need close to a sub-21:00 5K to break 3:30.  I couldn't quite make that happen, but by the mile mark I started seeing glimpses of Dan Verrington about a minute ahead.  I'd been chasing him for nearly three hours, and thought I was likely to run out of room, but I gave chase anyway.  For awhile nothing happened, but by the two-mile mark of the loop I had the gap down to about 30-40 seconds, and it looked like he was coming back to me.  I still doubted I had enough time, but kept pushing, and it paid off, as I was able to draw alongside with about a half mile to go and put in a nice hard pass to secure the spot by about 20 seconds at the finish.


In all, it was a good B+/A- effort.  I hadn't quite been able to pull out the PR--even without the pit stop, I might have fallen short--but subtracting three minutes from my seventh lap gives a 3:27, which I would have been quite happy with.  I'm beat up like I haven't been for awhile; I almost forgot how tough road marathons are, and I'll be on the bike only for the next couple of days.  But this was my second top-3 age group placing at a national championship this year, and I'll certainly take that.  It was tough, though, returning to straight time-based road racing for the first time in a number of years, and I think that my answer nowadays to Joe's question might be: "Yeah.  Too short."

Race Report: Bandera 100K--Suggestibility and the Curse of the Elite

"A trail of rugged & brutal beauty where everything cuts, stings, or bites."
--Tejas Trails race website

I've proven in the past to be a bit of the suggestible type.  Particularly where racing is concerned.  And as more and more races start to look enticing, I've found it harder and harder to say no.  A few years ago, even with several 50 milers under my belt, I had no real desire to tackle the 100-mile distance.  Yet within the last eighteen months, as I've immersed myself deeper into the ultra world, I've become fixated (like everyone else, it seems) on getting to the starting line in Squaw Valley.  And while most rational people think this is as stupid as it probably is, I've been spending more time training with less rational people.  Which is probably why it seemed like I had to get my WS lottery qualifier immediately.  And why when Phil told me he was registering for Bandera last fall, the only decision I had to make was whether I was going to join him there or wait a month to run Rocky Raccoon.

Ultimately a 100K seemed like a better idea than jumping straight to a 100 mile.  We started ramping up the training just after the Water Gap 50K in October; I'll go into a little more detail in a bit, but suffice to say it went quite well.  So well, in fact, that I found myself enjoying some of the best fitness I'd ever had.  I ran my high school alumni XC race in November for the twenty-third straight year (god, I can't believe it's been that long) and turned in my best performance there in a decade, despite the highest mileage I'd run since medical school.  I journeyed out to Texas with Phil and our friend Kali, feeling quietly confident.  I had two terrible runs in the days leading up to the race--tapering is the worst--but reminded myself of the last few workouts I'd put in, including a (short) ten-mile progression run in under 63 minutes, and a 20-mile long run eight days before the race that I'd run in 2:21 while holding back the entire way.  I came up with five tiers of goals for the race, ranging from easily attainable to frankly unrealistic:

"D" goal: finish my first 100K, qualify for the WS lottery
"C" goal: break 11 hours
"B" goal: break 10 hours, finish in the top 10-15, top 5 masters
"A" goal: sub-9:30, finish in the top 5 if I got lucky, top 3 masters
Ridiculously unrealistic goal: sub-9:00, Golden Ticket to WS 2016

The last one wasn't even really a goal; it would require me basically running out of my head for nine hours without any consequences and would also require a lot of folks in an elite field not having particularly good days.  None of which seemed to be in my control.

We lined up for the start on a clear, cool morning among a national-class field that included four men from the GUR top 50.  For a sub-elite runner such as myself, running against a field that is out of my league can make things a little easier; it frees me up from having to think about racing for places, especially early in the race, and allows me to focus on running my own pace and sticking with a race strategy.  That strategy was to run the first lap with as little effort as possible--really, the first 40 miles, if I could manage to be patient enough.

Bandera trail, where everything cuts and stings.
photo: Kali Bird

The Bandera course starts with the toughest running in the first five miles, which played into my strategy perfectly, making it very easy to back off, walking the big climbs, running the downhills as relaxed as possible.  I ran the opening mile at the back of the lead pack of twenty or so, letting them go without a fight pretty quickly and falling in after about a mile with Chad Lasater, another runner in my age group.  Chad is a native Oklahoman who currently lives in Dubai, and has had alot of interesting running experiences at many of the classic trail races throughout Europe, so the early miles passed quickly as we fell into a nice rhythm.  I led most of the way with Chad just behind; we passed through AS1, about 9K in, right around 9:00/mile pace.

From AS1 through AS3 was about 11 miles of basically flat, runnable trail, with some small steady climbs.  The millions of rocks that litter the Bandera course were a bit less dense in these sections, and it was easy to find a nice rhythm running between 8:00-8:30 pace.  I was careful to keep the effort in check, reminding myself to slow down every time I felt my breathing get even a little heavy or my legs take on a little fatigue.  Despite the relative ease of effort, though, we were making good progress, and caught two or three runners before we reached AS3.  Chad stopped at this point to restock his supplies from his drop bag, while I continued on, using my Orange Mud handheld and taking in about a GU an hour.  By now we had caught up with many of the 25K runners and I made my way through the back end of that field, still keeping the effort level in check, coming through 11 miles in 1:33, 16.9 miles in 2:21, and 21.8 miles in 3:05.   The four-mile section from AS4 to AS5 was almost completely runnable save for one giant climb and descent at the end; I ran that in a very relaxed 35 minutes and passed AS5 (26 miles) at 3:40, still feeling very smooth.  The last 5 miles of the loop mirrored the first five, with several large climbs and descents over the rockiest sections of the course, but I kept up a relaxed tempo and focused on walking the uphills efficiently and descending with minimal effort; I passed two more runners before I reached halfway in 4:26.  On the short out-and-back section leading in and out of the start/finish area, I counted about five runners, including women's leaders Cassie Scallon and Michelle Yates, within six or seven minutes in front of me.  Trying to read facial expressions is tough, but I convinced myself that I felt better than they all looked (with the exception of Cassie, who looked locked in), and after a brief 2-minute stop to refill my bottle, pound some Coke, and eat a slice of bacon (my first stop in an aid station on the day), I headed back out for loop 2 eager to make up some ground.

Judging from splits in previous years, most runners, even the leaders, demonstrated a significant slowdown on lap two, as the climbs and rocks started to extract their toll.  I knew that losing even two minutes per mile might not cost me any spots, and that if I could limit the damage to less than that, there might be a few people I could pick off.  And I felt good; tired, but I clearly hadn't overextended myself early.  Sub-9 was not going to happen, but I felt quite confident I could run a 5:30 second lap and come in under 10 hours.  I forced myself to stay patient, particularly early in the loop, and made my way cautiously through the first 5+ miles to AS7.  The split here was just under 1 minute/mile slower than on lap one, and I caught two runners, including Michelle.  I was assuming at this point that I was around 15th place, but the folks at the aid station thought I might be in the top 10.  I told myself they were crazy and pressed on.

Miles 36-42 were very runnable, but I tried to still keep the effort under control.  I was starting to fatigue a little bit, but by pushing the salt tablets and taking an extra gel, I kept that at bay.  I wanted to have as much left as possible for the final twenty miles, when I'd be entering unchartered territory for me, having never gone past 50 miles before.  Even so, I managed one more pass before reaching AS8, 42 miles in 6:11 (about 1:44 for the second loop, almost exactly 1 minute/mile slower than lap 1).  Stopped at the aid station was Kory Cool, a young elite from Kansas with a 3:05 50K to his credit.  He looked like he was getting ready to drop, but confirmed I was up to eighth place overall.

The next stretch to AS9 continued to be very runnable, and finally I felt comfortable letting myself get a little more aggressive.  I knew the section between AS9-10 would require a good bit of hiking and would allow myself a bit of time to recover, so I opened up a little bit; the 5.9 miles which had taken me 48 minutes the first time through took me about 54 minutes this time (again, keeping it right at 1 minute/mile difference), and I caught another runner leaving AS9 on a flat stretch leading up to the biggest climb of that section.  Somewhere in that stretch I passed the 50-mile mark in around 7:24, making this not only my longest run ever but also setting a 50-mile PR by over 5 minutes.

AS9 and 10 are the same spot, and as I stopped at AS10 to grab my headlamp for the final stretch, Phil was in AS9, looking pretty good.  We chatted very briefly before I struck out again for the final 9-mile push.  Once I found my rhythm I let loose; the next four miles were the last runnable four miles on the course; there was nothing left to save in the tank now.  And somehow I still felt great.  Tired, but strong; I mowed down the miles to AS11 in 37 minutes, reaching the 57-mile mark in 8:34 and knowing that sub-9:30 was in reach.  The last five miles were a bit of a slog--once I passed the 9:00 mark, I was really ready to be done--but I kept up a 10:00/mile pace, finishing lap 2 in 4:57 (again, almost exactly 1 minute/mile slower than lap 1) for a sixth-place finish (fifth male, second master) in 9:23.
A very happy, very blurry Phil, who had a great race to finish in 10:38.
This is the only picture I took all weekend.
I'm by no means an elite runner, but this was an elite result, against a very strong field.  How did that happen?  I'd attribute this to a few factors:

Training.  I've been fortunate enough to have had nearly 18 months of virtually uninterrupted training, with my only injury of significance in the past year being the freak back injury I had in July while tripping in the ocean.  I ran 4317 miles in 2015, second-most in my career.  Over the final ten weeks of the year, before my two-week taper, I ran nearly 1000 miles, recovery weeks included.  But beyond just the mileage was the amount of quality work I was able to put in: track intervals ranging from 400m repeats to ladders and miles; a couple of tempo sessions; four marathon-pace runs; and several long runs in the 33-40 mile range.  In terms of depth and breadth, it was the best sustained training block I'd had in years.  I supplemented that with some very light core work: just a short routine that takes 10-15 minutes of pushups, sit-ups, planks, side crunches, and various stretches, which I try to do at least five days a week.  Regular short sessions on the foam roller--generally daily, if I could remember--were instrumental in recovering between workouts and keeping me injury-free.

Diet.  I don't want to harp on this, and I don't want to give this too much credit.  As I've stated before, the science on LCHF is inconclusive at best.  And I don't want to proselytize--nothing is worse than having someone tell you what you should or shouldn't be eating.  Anecdotally, though, for me, I've certainly seen significant benefits from whatever bastardized version of LCHF/OFM I've been adhering to for most of the past year.  Much of this is likely due to just simple weight control; but I've found the benefit in energy level and expenditure during long efforts to be profound.  I ran 9+ hours at 9:00/mile pace without a hint of a bonk and without any GI issues.  My intake for the entire race consisted of somewhere between 6-8 GUs, half a banana, half a PBJ, a couple of M&Ms, and two strips of bacon. (I used GU Brew for fluids--probably filling my 16-oz bottle four or five times--and pounded Coke at every aid station in loop 2.)  It's not the reason things went well, but it certainly helped.

Strategy.  There's something to be said for having a plan and sticking to it, and forcing myself to hold back over the first 35-40 miles proved to be a winning plan for me.  I'm constantly learning how to run ultras better, and I've found--surprise!--that running within myself in the early stages has lead to the most success for me; almost every bad race I've had in the past several years can be tied to going out too hard.  As I mentioned earlier, this can be a lot easier when you're in a sub-elite or recreational position, rather than being an elite athlete who has to concern themselves not only with their own tactics but with those of everyone else around them.  As it turned out, I wasn't far off of grabbing a Golden Ticket, but pre-race that was a pipe dream.  If I'd started the race as a serious contender for a podium spot, would I have been able to lay back early and let the leaders build a 30 minute lead over the first 50K?  Patience is a lot easier when you don't have anything on the line.  The Curse of the Elite is that the margin for error is much smaller; they have to take risks the rest of us don't.  Last weekend, for Chris Dennucci and Jim Walmsley, it worked out.  For Kory Cool and Mario Mendoza, it didn't.  Not having to concern myself early on with what they were doing allowed me to pick up some of the pieces later on when things went sideways.  It lowers the potential variability--you won't win with that strategy, but it might give you the best odds of maximizing your individual performance.

All in all this was a great start to 2016 and a great introduction to the world of longer races, which I may have developed an appetite for.  The good folks at Tejas Trails put on a fantastic event, and I look forward to returning to Texas next year for Rocky Raccoon (don't tell my wife).  Next up are two more national championships: road 50K at Caumsett Park in March, then trail 50 mile at Cayuga in June.  The second half of the year is still up in the air, but may include some longer stuff as well.  For now, I'm enjoying a few days of carbs and beer, and a few weeks of being just an ultra fan before I start buckling down again.

Quick gear recap: MPF/RNR racing kit from Patagonia; compression socks from SLS3; Orange Mud trucker cap (and lightweight OM/Headsweats cap that I grabbed for lap 2, when it got a little warmer) and handheld; inov-8 Roclite 280 shoes; GU Roctane and GU Brew.

Race Report: Water Gap 50K

(All photos courtesy of Joe Azze and Mountain Peak Fitness.)

I'm tempted to say it's been a long season.  I ran my first race of 2015 on January 3, even though it was pretty low-key; the first of my two 'A' races for the year was at the end of February.  By mid-October I might be ready for a break.  But in reality, it doesn't feel like that long a season.  All of my races were crammed into the first half of the year; since the Whiteface Skyrunning weekend at the end of June, I've barely raced at all.  Maybe it'd be more accurate to think of the year as two separate seasons, with July serving as a recovery period, and this fall being the first part of a longer 2015-16 campaign that will probably stretch into next summer.  So, depending on your point of view, I either wrapped up the 2015 season or kicked off the 2016 season last weekend at the Water Gap 50K.

As a member of the Mountain Peak Fitness/Red Newt Racing team, I'm certainly encouraged to enter Red Newt events.  But even if I wasn't on the team, these races would be at the top of my list.  Ian Golden, who I've mentioned multiple times before, is a truly great race director, with an outstanding vision of what he wants his races to be, and the ability to shepherd those visions into reality.  Water Gap was the last event on the 2015 schedule for Red Newt Racing, and it promised to be something unique for a Red Newt race: fast.  Ian has a (well-deserved) reputation for courses that are not only beautiful but extremely challenging; anyone who has run Breakneck Point, Whiteface, or Virgil Crest can confirm how difficult those courses can be.  Ian further solidified that reputation this year by co-directing (with Charlie Gadol and Mike Siudy) two of the most notoriously difficult trail races in the Northeast, Manitou's Revenge and Cat's Tail Trail Marathon.  Even Cayuga, while eminently runnable, is a very difficult course that is easily 60-90 minutes slower than a "fast" 50 mile.  So when Ian declares a course to be "fast," that needs to be taken with a grain of salt.  The Water Gap course seemed to fit the bill, though: 31 miles of almost exclusively graded double-track, with only about 2000 feet of climbing.  A welcome change from what I'd been racing earlier in the year.  As always with a Red Newt event, I knew the competition would be stiff, at the very least from whatever of my ultra-fast teammates would show up that day.  But I was excited to get back into racing after a pretty long layoff.  Even though I wasn't in top racing form--probably more like 85%--I thought I could run near four hours on the course, which would be a nice stimulus for the training block leading up to January (more on that later).

I spent the night before the race camping near the finish with Elizabeth, Joe, Natalie, Lenny, and Ian; all would be volunteering on race day (along with several other teammates: Scotie, Zsuzsanna, Julian, and Amy; hopefully I didn't forget anyone).  I woke up early and grabbed breakfast in downtown Milford, PA with Joe and Mike Siudy before Joe gave us a lift to the start, 31 miles to the south.  The weather was perfect: clear and cool, in the low to mid 40s, with minimal wind.  At the start I met Phil Vondra, a frequent training partner, as well as teammates Carlo and Silas, who I expected to run away with the race.  Both had to be tired (Silas was on his third ultra-type effort in five weeks, following Virgil and Cat's Tail; while Carlo was only six days off a sterling 2:35 in Chicago) but both are strong runners who had to be considered the favorites.  Phil and I had a quick strategy session and decided to try to run 8:00/mile pace for at least the first ten miles, then reassess.  As I was basically training through, still running 75-85 mpw, and Phil was tired from a heavy week of drinking (it's an occupational hazard, apparently), a conservative approach seemed prudent.  So at least we had a plan in place that we could immediately ignore as soon as the gun went off.

Carlo and Silas went immediately to the front, joined by Justin Weiler (a strong upstate NY runner coming off of an excellent 3:44 at the Green Lakes 50K) and Tony Kharitonov (a solid masters runner from NJ).  Phil and I formed a chase pack with Jay Lemos, who was finishing up what truly was a long season that had included an impressive second place at the Eastern States 100.  We came through the first mile in 7:25 or so, obviously much faster than we had wanted, about 10 seconds behind the leaders.  We were able to let them go without any problem after that, but despite our efforts to find 8:00 pace kept turning out miles in the 7:30-7:40 range.   Conditions were perfect, and the course as very flat in the opening miles, so we maintained the pace, chatting constantly and every mile making noises about slowing down without actually doing so.

Catching Tony, just before AS1.
Just past the five-mile mark came one of the few decent-sized climbs on the course, about 3/4 of a mile long with multiple switchbacks leading up to AS1 (about 10K in).  I led our group uphill at a low intensity level.  We caught Tony at the top and the four of us ran together through the aid station.  I went through without stopping; Phil caught up within a minute, but it took Jay and Tony about a mile to rejoin us, and we continued on, running our 7:35s or so.  After a couple of rolling miles the course flattened out again and remained so for the next 12 miles or so.  Tony dropped back after the 10 mile mark and the three of us passed AS2 in the same fashion.  The miles clicked off fairly easily.  We still made overtures about slowing down, but as we neared halfway we figured we might as well keep on the pace as long as everyone felt good.  The terrain made it very easy to find a rhythm; our splits hovered around 7:30 with less than a few seconds of variation either way.  We were still chatting easily.  Jay had made a game of jumping over the three-foot-high barriers every time we crossed a park road or bridge, which kept Phil and I pretty entertained.

Through AS3 at 14 miles the pace remained steady; I ran through again without stopping while Phil and Jay stopped to refuel.  At this point I had yet to take in any nutrition other than some sips of water.  I felt a little bad not waiting for the guys at the aid stations, but at the same time, I had made the decision to go with the handheld so that I wouldn't have to stop.  Neither of them were carrying water.  We had each made our choice on either side of the tradeoff.  I couldn't feel guilty.

Our little pack, doin'' work.
My strategy was starting to pay off, though.  I kept running my 7:30s, not consciously trying to get a gap--I was having too much fun running with those guys to try to go solo at this point--but it was putting pressure on them to run a little faster to catch back up after each break.  After AS3 it took them almost a full mile to come back, having had to run well under 7:00 to do so.  These surges, however short, had to take something out of them.  After halfway (1:58) Jay had stopped leaping over the barriers, and through the 17 mile mark conversation had tapered off dramatically.  I took my first GU right around the two hour mark.  I was still feeling great.  The pace was starting to inch down a little bit, but it felt almost effortless, and we were getting into the stages of the race where getting a little more aggressive was OK.  Miles 18 and 19 were run at about 7:15 pace, and past the 19-mile mark Jay and Phil started to fall away.  I soloed on, into what had become a bit of a bothersome headwind, and took a second GU just before AS4 at 20.5 miles.  I made my only stop here, to refill my bottle, drop in a GU Brew tablet, and pee, giving up about 30 seconds before getting back out on course.

The course started getting a bit tougher.  Some rolling hills mixed with some short singletrack sections.  I started feeling some discomfort in my right patellar tendon, which has bothered me on an off for some time, though not to a significant degree; and also some tightness in the left hamstring.  I adjusted my stride, slowed to about 7:45 pace, and pushed forward.  The miles clicked by.  I passed the marathon mark at 3:18, approaching the final aid station.  On a long, flat, straight stretch approaching the checkpoint, I saw a flash of a green t-shirt leaving the aid station: Justin, in third.  That was a boost.  I had five miles to catch him and was obviously making up ground; I hadn't seen any of the top three since the opening twenty minutes or so.  I passed through AS5 feeling strong and ready to hunt.  Joe was waiting for me in the woods about half a mile later, filming me at the bottom of a technical singletrack descent.  He confirmed that Justin was just up ahead.  (Also that Silas and Carlo had about a mile lead on us at that point.)  We were in the midst of the most difficult section of the course--some steep singletrack with alot of sidehill running and thick leaf cover, obscuring the rocks and roots and making for some pretty slow going.  My pace had slowed to near 10:00/mile, but by the 27-mile mark I had caught and passed Justin.

Navigating some singletrack

About a mile later the singletrack ended and I started opening up the stride again.  I wasn't particularly concerned about getting caught--I felt pretty confident no one was coming back on my at this point--but four hours was looking possible, even likely if I could recapture my earlier rhythm.  I was able to drop down to 7:03 pace for mile 29 and 7:10 or so for mile 30, at which point I relaxed a little bit through the final finishing stretches, coming home in 3:57 for a nearly evenly split performance (1:58/1:59).

Silas and Carlo ran together the whole way, turning in an outstanding 3:44; my third-place finish made it a podium sweep for MPF/RNR, which was pretty sweet.  Justin gutted out a tough fourth, while Phil maintained a nice pace for fifth in 4:04.  All in all, a very successful day for me.  I met my goals of top five, top master, and four hours, all while training through.  The course was beautiful, the weather was perfect, the volunteers were great, and having Phil, Jay, Mike, and the whole MPF/RNR there at the end made for fantastic camaraderie.

I couldn't have asked for a better end, or beginning, to the season.  I've got some small stuff coming up--a couple of 5Ks and 10Ks--including my high school alumni race, always a highlight of my year, and I think a beer mile as well.  But I'm keeping the volume and intensity fairly high for the next few weeks, hopefully building to a large training block in December, leading into the main attraction for the next few months: Bandera 100K, the USATF championships, on January 6.  I'll be heading out with Phil and Elizabeth.  All of us will be looking to get our lottery tickets for Western States in 2017; Phil and I will be attempting our first 100Ks.  I'm planning on a big first half of 2016.  Bandera is one of three national championships I'm targeting in my first year as a master (Caumsett in March, Cayuga in May); I won't win any national titles, but some age-group medals could be possible.  And I'm toying with the idea of a couple of timed events as well, maybe a six hour, and possible even a 24-hour in July.  Could be a big year!  Stay tuned.

Race Report: Whiteface Skyrunning Weekend Recap

It's only recently that I've begun to realize I'm not, in fact, a good hill runner.

In my all-too-distant past as a high school, collegiate, and post-collegiate runner, I always considered the hills to be my greatest strength.  I was most comfortable on the hilliest cross-country tracks in high school and college, and my limited road-racing success was usually forged via a decisive surge on whatever incline the course would offer.  I've never been much of a downhill runner, but I felt like I could climb with almost anybody--short and steep, long and punishing, whatever the race called for.

As I've become more immersed in the trail and ultra scene, however, I've learned that I am an unremarkable hill runner at best.  My results on hilly courses are no better or worse than whatever my fitness level on that day would lead me to expect.  In fact, hillier courses have become a bit of a bugaboo for me, as my complete lack of downhill prowess is exacerbated on the trails and usually negates whatever small gains I might be able to claw back going uphill.  I've come to find that the best courses for me are runnable ones, where I can bring my long (if mostly unremarkable) prior experience to bear in terms of running moderately fast for moderately long stretches of time.

In short, hills just aren't what they used to be.

But my rational brain is no match for my forebrain, and deep down in my reptilian core I reflexively still thing I'm a hill runner.  Which explains why I registered for the inaugural Whiteface Skyrunning weekend as soon as it opened last year, and then spent most of the past several months regretting it.

As regular readers of this blog know by now (my apologies to all of you), Ian Golden's Red Newt Racing venture (aside from being one of my fantastic sponsors) consistently puts on top-level races, with world-class fields, over what is generally both breathtaking and breathtakingly difficult terrain.  As part of the first-year US Skyrunning series, the Whiteface races promised nothing less.  Ian's co-director, Jan Wellford, also directs the notoriously difficult Great Adirondack Trail Run, has the course record at the insane Mantiou's Revenge, as well as the FKT for the epic Great Range Traverse.  The signs were all there--this was going to be one beast of a race.

Skyrunning--a trail running discipline involving steep ascents and descents, over technical terrain, often at altitude--has gained popularity in recent years, particularly in Europe, with the high-profile exploits of Killian Jornet.  Ian and Jan created an amazing facsimile of a European Skyrunning event, not least in choosing the venue: Whiteface Mountain, home of the alpine events at the 1980 Winter Olympics and featuring the largest elevation change of any ski resort in the eastern US.  Nearby Lake Placid, which has hosted two Olympic Games (including the famed Miracle on Ice) is the closest you'll get to a European mountain resort town this side of Aspen.  In true Skyrunning fashion, the weekend hosted two events: Saturday's Vertical Kilometer (VK), a 4K uphill-only race with 3300' of gain (you read that right, that's an average gradient of 25%); and Sunday's main event, the Skymarathon, nearly 20 miles with just under 10,000' of climbing--and equal descent.  With cash and Skyrunning Series points on the line, an expected world-class field descended on the mountain.

Chatting it up with Ben pre-race.
Photo: Ron Heerkins Jr.
My expectations going in were extremely low.  I was still recovering, both physically and emotionally, from what I considered to be a disappointing performance at the Cayuga Trails 50 four weeks earlier.  It had taken nearly two weeks for my body to feel right, and I was still dealing with some lingering soreness from our car accident the week before CT50.  Combine that with steep, technical trails, and I didn't give myself much of a chance to do anything of note.  I figured Saturday would be the best chance I had to accomplish anything.  Several of the top runners, including my MPF/RNR teammates Silas and Cole, were skipping the VK to focus on the Skymarathon; plus, I wouldn't have to deal with the insane descents that I was sure to struggle with on Sunday.  We gathered for the 10am start on Saturday under crystal-clear skies.  I lined up a few rows back, with Scotie and Ryan, but I immediately made my way near the front after the gun, running just behind Ben, in the back half of the top ten.  I was being a bit over-exuberant, but much of the first mile was runnable, and I split the mile mark in 14:00 flat, I think right around tenth place, behind a gaggle of top mountain runners (including women's leader Stevie Kramer) but holding what I thought was a pretty good position.

Ryan showing me how it's done.
Photo: Joe Azze

The trail got steeper and steeper, and became less and less of a trail.  Past the mile mark I was reduced to hiking like everybody else.  I'm not much of a power hiker, though--I just don't have a lot of practice at it--and I started slipping back in the field.  My lack of trekking poles--again, not something I ever use or am comfortable with--proved costly.  Try as I might, I couldn't get my breathing down to a manageable rate, or keep my heart rate anywhere south of 180 or so.  Past the two-mile mark, as I gasped for air, struggling to hang on to Ryan's back, I seriously considered just stopping and sitting down to the side of the trail (which was barely more than a rough-hewn rocky path up the ski slope).  I even had a little fantasy about what would happen.  I'd sit there on the side of the trail as everyone went by.  Then after the race people would realize that I hadn't made it up to the top, so they'd come find me.  I'd be sitting there, hours later, just trying to catch my breath.  And Ian would come tell me that I had to walk up to the finish, or back down to the start.  And I would very calmly tell him no, I was just going to sit there, and he was going to have to figure out a way to get me back down the mountain.  This all played out in my head as I tried not to die.

Dying, near the top.
Photo: Ron Heerkens Jr.

Eventually, much hiking later, I reached the top, just a few seconds behind Ryan (one of the great technical trail/mountain runners in the Northeast, ask anyone other than himself, because he won't admit it) in 18th place.  My calves were knots, but my quads were fine, and after cheering in the rest of my teammates, I trekked down to the summit of Little Whiteface, where I shared a gondola ride back to the base with Pearl Izumi runner Michael King, who had edged me out near the summit.  I wasn't relishing the thought of doing that same climb twice the next day, and headed back to Lake Placid to lick my wounds, seriously considering taking a Sunday DNS and just burying myself in a tankard of UBU.

 I'm not sure what got me out of bed at 4:30 am for the Sunday start.  It certainly wasn't the weather.  Forty-five degrees, with a steady downpour forecast to last all morning, and rumors of wind gusts over 40 mph on the summit.  The conditions made for some pretty tricky decisions regarding gear as we gathered in the base lodge that morning. With the course promising to be a mudfest, I opted to leave my trusty Salming T1s behind in favor of the more aggressive traction of the inov-8 X-Talon 212s. I donned a pair of knee high 2XU compression socks, more for warmth than for any performance benefits, and selected full-length arm warmers below my short sleeve racing top.  I topped everything with an ultra-lightweight Salming Pro360 jacket and my trusty Orange Mud trucker cap.  With no expectations, I loaded my shorts pockets with GU and got ready for the start.

Before the weekend started, I estimated the course might take me around five hours to complete; after Saturday's slog, I revised that to six hours. On this course, in these conditions, and against this field, I had no illusions of being anywhere in the top ten or twenty.  Instead, I was focused on simply having a good, smart, solid training stimulus.  Most crucially, I was determined not to continue my recent worrying trend of starting races too quickly.  I resolved to run the first Alpine loop with as little effort as possible.  If I could get through that first 10K feeling strong--no small feat, considering it would include about 8000' of elevation change--I knew that the next seven miles, on the Flume loop at the base of Whiteface Mountain, would afford the opportunity to open up on some runnable singletrack.  Sure, I still had to get through another Alpine loop after that, but I figured everyone would be pretty cooked by that point.

Ah, crap.

Determined to start slowly, I lined up at the very back of the field and was thrilled to find my good friend Glen Redpath right next to me.  Glen is a top-notch ultrarunner from NYC with three top-10 Western States finishes among his myriad accomplishments, but he's just now rounding back into shape following Achilles surgery last year, and he had just driven to Whiteface after running the Ragnar Trail relay in Massachusetts the day before.  So we were more than happy to head off at the back of the field, running at a slow, conversational pace as we headed up the lower slopes of the mountain in the driving rain.

The pack on the lower slopes.
Photo: Joe Azze
After a few minutes I left Glen behind and moved up tot the middle of the field, spending some time hiking and chatting with Natalie Thompson, Jay Lemos, and Mike King (I tried, unsuccessfully, to buy his trekking poles off him).  Right around the mile mark, I caught up with Ryan, who had stopped to take care of an issue with his shoe, and we fell in together, power hiking uphill at a steady, sustainable rate.  Unlike the previous day, when I had been redlining pretty much from the start, I kept my heart rate and breathing well under control, and we climbed at a much more relaxed pace between short bursts of conversation.  About halfway up, the course split, with ambiguous markings and no course officials; we followed a long line of runners ahead of us up the right-hand pathway.  After a few minutes, it became obvious that we were following the VK course uphill, which wasn't quite right; we were supposed to take a slightly different route up, and descend via the VK route.  As soon as we realized this, though, the leaders came barreling back down, and we figured out from a few shouted words back and forth that they had taken the same route.  So we trudged on.

Despite the wind, rain, and footing, the slight lessening of the effort and Ryan's companionship was making this ascent much more tolerable that that of the previous day, and I was almost disappointed when we reached the final pitches of the climb toward the top, amid a driving rain. We reached the top right around 55 minutes, just four or five minutes slower than the previous day, and I guessed there were about thirty or forty runners ahead of us struggling their way down as we made a quick check-in at the summit aid station, and, without stopping, turned back downhill.  In seconds, Ryan was gone, putting his fell running experience from his time in England to good use as he loped downhill, picking up five places in seconds.  I focused on getting downhill with a mixture of caution and aggression.  For the past few weeks, I'd been working on running downhills, especially technical ones, more aggressively, and it seemed to be working; I was heaving down 40% downhills with ankle-deep mud, terrified, but actually holding my own as compared to most of the runners around me, and as we reached a short level section about halfway down the mountain I had actually picked off a couple of guys myself.  

I reached the point where the trail had split, now manned by volunteers, who directed me back uphill for the second ascent of the loop, to the top of Little Whiteface at the terminus of the gondola.  This climb started off on a graded gravel access road, quite steep but amenable to a little running, and with a mixture of running and power hiking I reeled in a group of runners as we turned onto a steep pitch of ski trail for the last half-mile push to the top.  We hiked together, passing Ian, who confirmed that we had indeed, along with the rest of the front third of the field, taken the unintended way up to the summit.  He informed us that as a compromise, our times for the first loop wouldn't count--everyone had to finish the loop, he said, but our splits would be taken at the base lodge, and only everyone's time for the Flume loop and the second Alpine loop would count for the official results. We took a minute or two to digest this, and then I relaxed my pace; no sense in wasting energy now.  As we neared the summit, a couple of my nearest competitors broke into a jog; I held back, turned to the runner next to me, and asked, "What are we missing?"

We both shrugged and continued on together, taking it easy on the downhill and chatting.  I learned that his name was Brian Finch, from Killington, VT.  Remarkably, he had lived for ten years in New Paltz before moving to Killington, so we had plenty to talk about.  He is a professional downhill ski racer, and even at our relaxed pace, it showed; he was incredibly comfortable and confident over the rocky, uneven terrain.  Our former companions had disappeared up ahead, but that was fine; all we had to do was conserve energy to the bottom, when the now-abbreviated "real race" would start. The third or fourth-place female caught us near the bottom, and on the lower slopes I eased up even a little more, running through a quick mental checklist, making sure I was ready to start racing at the base.  I decided to keep my gear the same; the weather hadn't abated, and I was feeling, for the most part, pretty dry and comfortable.  I reached the base station right around 1:48, grabbed some hot broth from teammate Amy Hanlon, and headed out on the Flume loop, the clock now running.  

After a short uphill, the course ran comfortably downhill for a half mile before flattening out for a stretch along the river, and I felt fantastic, dipping down near 6:30 pace as I caught back up with, then blew past, Brian.  About a mile into the loop, I crossed paths with the lead pack of three, about four miles ahead of me, looking haggard but absolutely hammering each other.  I pressed on as we wound uphill into a twisting singletrack section.

Cole on the Flume Loop
Photo: Joe Azze

The rest of the Flume loop passed uneventfully. I pressed the pace at every opportunity, knowing that I had a two-hour hike coming at the end and wanting to make up as much ground as possible while I could could put my running background to good use.  After passing Brian, I saw no other runners for the remainder of the seven miles, until about half a mile before the end of the loop, when a string of three or four runners suddenly appeared ahead of me.  Buoyed by the knowledge that I was gaining on people, I charged into the aid station in the group, having completed the seven-plus miles in just under 63 minutes, still in the driving rain.

The rain had given some signs of abating slightly over the last ten minutes or so, and I made the decision to shed my Salming shell for the final Alpine loop.  (It performed brilliantly; for an incredibly thin, light piece, it did a remarkable job against the rain and the wind, though it is not completely waterproof.)  I changed into a dry race shirt, my trusty Yard Owl jersey, but left my arm sleeves on; the summit was bound to be cold, and I didn't need a bout with hypothermia. I grabbed a few quick handfuls of food, took a deep breath to steel myself, and headed back out into the rain for the final loop.

Through the rain, a few runners were still gamely battling downhill, finishing their first loop.  I turned the corner to head up the lower slopes, and there it was--a line of at least eight runners, laid out in front of me, over the next half mile.  Slowly, I set about the task of picking them off, and slowly, it happened.  Within the first mile, five of them or so; we grunted acknowledgement at each other and offered brief words of encouragement. About a mile up, I caught up with the familiar form of Mike King and his hiking poles; he fell in with me and we climbed together for awhile, but I was pressing the pace and solitary hikers kept appearing in the mist in front of me.  I kept my head down and pushed on.  My mantra became, "Purposeful movement."  After Saturday's brutal slog, I knew that not all hiking was equal; I had spent much of the previous morning moving listlessly uphill.  Now, I focused on making each step strong and purposeful, in constrast to some of the flagging runners I saw ahead of me.  Slowly, slowly, I drew them in.  As we neared the summit, the conditions worsened.  Fog had settled in over the mountaintop, limiting visibility to about a hundred feet.  Gusting wind blew the rain sideways.  But we were almost there.  Just before the summit aid station, I made my tenth catch of the climb: my teammate Cole.  He was clearly having a tough time in the conditions, but just the fact that I was anywhere near a runner of his caliber confirmed that I was going pretty well.  I stopped inside the aid station for two cups of hot broth and a chance to tighten my shoelaces for the upcoming descent, and then I was back out in it, the fog and the wind and the rain, barreling down the rocky, muddy slope.  

It was a terrifying descent.  The wind gusts felt like they would blow me off the side of the mountain; I had to carry my hat to prevent it from blowing off my head.  My hands were starting to go numb.  The mud was mid-calf in spots, pockmarked with large rocks and tree stumps.  Somehow I re-caught Cole and one of the other runners who had beaten me out of the aid station, re-passed them, and pulled away.  The trail flattened out briefly and suddenly I was heading back up the access road toward Little Whiteface, the final climb of the day.  I fell back into my rhythm, repeating in my head, purposeful movement, purposeful movement.  I could hear the click click of Mike and his trekking poles behind me, but otherwise we seemed to be alone as we ascended to the top.

I left the final aid station about twenty seconds ahead of Mike and started attacking the final two-mile downhill stretch.  The mud was insanely slippery, causing me to slide several feet with each stride.  Twice I fell flat on my back but fortunately popped right back up, miraculously avoiding any of the rocks that would have caused me serious injury.  I lost complete control of my balance down one stretch and careered out of control over a short rock escarpment, somehow finding footing on the other side and continuing downhill. I knew Mike would catch me--he had proved earlier to be a much smoother descender, and his poles lent him a decided advantage in stability--but I knew he had started the Flume loop several minutes ahead of me.  If I could keep it close, I should have enough time in hand to preserve my placing.  

He did catch me, about halfway down the hill, and we ran together for awhile.  I locked onto his pace at best as I could, trying to walk the fine line between safety and aggression, until finally the base station came into view, and I relaxed, letting Mike open up a small gap.  I cruised across the line in a cumulative time of 4:44:19, relieved to be finished and pretty pleased with how the day had turned out.
Ultimately Jan and Ian decided to use the cumulative time as the official results, since using the 2-loop splits hadn't altered the scoring places at all for the top seven or eight runners.  There was a good bit of discrepancy beyond that, however, and I was pretty disappointed to find out that my 17th place would be the official result, and not the 14th I would have earned for the 2-loop split.  I sympathize with the difficult situation that Jan and Ian faced, and ultimately I accept their decision, though I can't say I understand it, or that I'm happy about it. My 2-loop performance was actually fairly solid, leaving me less than 15 seconds behind women's leaders Kasie Enman and Stevie Kramer, and barely a minute behind Ryan, in tenth place.  For a course that far outside of my comfort zone, against mountain runners of their caliber, I thought it was a very good result.  

Much kudos to Jan and Ian for putting on such an amazing event.  On that course, in those conditions, I would've expected a miserable experience. The fact that I actually enjoyed it is a testament to their skill as race directors. 

The race left my legs absolutely brutalized.  I've taken most of the last two weeks off to recover from that weekend and from the cumulative effects of a mostly successful first six months of 2015.  I'm ready to get back to training and building up for some fall races (I won't race again until probably September), but unfortunately I messed up my back something major a couple of days ago and am just now able to get around after two days in bed.  So...stay tuned.  

Race Report: Cayuga Trails 50 Mile

Photo: Ron Heerkins
I came into the Cayuga Trails 50, which doubles as the US National 50-mile Championship, off of one of the best training blocks I've had in recent years--a six-week stretch of over 650 miles with some excellent workouts on both the roads and the track.  In the weeks leading up to the race, I was extremely excited and confident.  I couldn't wait to get back to Ithaca and run the beautiful trails of Treman and Buttermilk Falls State Parks, to compete with my MPF/RNR teammates, and hopefully put up a national-class result.  Six days before the race, unfortunately, the family and I were in a pretty good-sized car accident (we're all ok, thanks!  A little sore, but no major injuries.  No, it wasn't the new car; it was Jodi's car, which was eleven years old and had over 200,000 miles, so she's going to get a new one.) and so my final week of preparation wasn't quite what I had hoped.  But between some ART from Scott Field at Performance Sports and Wellness, some electrical stimulation from Greg Cecere at Momentum Physical Therapy, and some excellent massage from my good friend Angi Williams, I was able to make it to the start with some soreness in my ribs but otherwise ready to go.

I graduated from Cornell in 1997 and so Ithaca holds a very special place in my heart.  I had run the inaugural CT50 two years ago, and I knew that my friend Ian would put on another world-class event.  Plus, this was one of the big races for the Mountain Peak Fitness/Red Newt Racing team.  Many of my teammates were gathering in Ithaca to test ourselves against some of the best in the country.  Ian hosted a pre-race dinner for the team at his house on Saturday night, and I had a great time meeting some of my new teammates and catching up with some old friends as my kids ran around with Ben's and Ian's in the backyard.

Race morning was overcast and a bit humid, but with temps in the mid-50s, nearly perfect conditions (though the trails were a little soggy from recent rain).  My warmup was OK; my ribs were tender from the accident but didn't feel as though they would limit me much, and my legs felt absolutely ready to go.  We took off at 6am, the start feeling a bit more controlled than it had two years ago, which had felt like an all-out sprint to the mile mark; I settled into a quick but comfortable tempo, about twentieth place, running with Brian Rusiecki and several others at the tail end of the lead pack.  We strung out pretty quickly, and by about the ten-minute mark I was running with just one or two others as we started to climb the steps past our first gorge to AS1.

The requisite elevation chart.  Yeah, it's as bad as it looks.
The CT50 course is an unrelenting beast.  It's more or less a double out-and-back, with four major climbs per lap, a total of 10,000 feet of elevation gain.  The footing is generally superb--a mixture of double-track, some paved roads, and a ton of technical but eminently runnable singletrack.  And steps.  Oh, my god, the steps; hundreds of them per climb; thousands over the course of fifty miles.  It's a brutal course because almost the entire thing is runnable but extremely hard.  You rarely get a break from going uphill or downhill, and when you do, you feel like you need to take advantage of it and hammer.  And that's a tough combination.  In three years, only five runners have ever broken seven hours, and they're some of the best ultramarathoners in the country: Sage Canaday, Chris Vargo, Matt Flaherty, Jordan McDougal, and Mario Mendoza.

My point is, it's not a PR course.  In 2013, I had run 8:48 for 16th place.  My goal this year was eight hours, which was a pretty good bet to be in or close to the top 10; I thought even with an OK day I was in shape to run 8:15-8:20.  Anything outside of 8:30 or a top-15 finish was, frankly, going to be a disappointment.  Ideally, I'd like to try to run even splits, but on a course like Cayuga, this is incredibly difficult; since there is obviously no respite in the second half, some slowdown is almost inevitable.  I set a target of 3:45-3:55 for the first lap, which would give me a bit of a cushion to slow down by 10% or so over the second half and still have a shot at that 8:00-8:15 goal.

I climbed the first section well and reached AS1 (5K) in 26:30, a little faster than I wanted to be, right with Scotie Jacobs, a MPF/RNR teammate and the facilities manager for the Ithaca Beer Company.  Scotie and I don't know each other well, but he is easy company, and a very strong runner, and we attacked the next section of the course with a bit too much enthusiasm.  Scotie was definitely pushing a little faster than I would have otherwise, but I was feeling great, and I was so excited to be not just racing--finally, after all that prep--but racing with a teammate, and went along for the ride.  We hit AS2 (seven miles) at 59:30--way too fast.  As Scotie said, though, at this race, you have to take what the course gives you, because it doesn't give you much.

Climbing with Scotie.
Photo: Ron Heerkins

I settled in.  The miles clicked by pretty easily.  I pulled away from Scotie and ran solo for awhile, feeling in control; he caught back up and pulled a bit ahead on the bomber descent down to the base of Buttermilk Falls, the quarter pole for the race (1:50 and change, still a little fast but seemingly in control).  We immediately started climbing back out of the gorge, passing through the aid station without stopping; I hadn't stopped at an aid station yet and wasn't planning to for awhile.  We saw Elizabeth and Joe Azze within the first half mile of the climb; Joe chased us with his video camera as Scotie and I ran what I thought was a pretty solid ascent of the gorge.

Just past the top I pulled away again and was running solo; I felt great and focused on running a sustainable tempo for the second quarter of the race.  I picked off a couple of spots and before I knew it I was heading back toward the start/finish line at the end of lap 1, hitting the turnaround in a near-perfect 3:49 (1:50/1:59), in 17th place.

On my way out to start the second lap, two problems became quickly apparent:

1. There were about ten runners, including Scotie and our teammate Ryan Welts, tailing me by about five minutes or less.
2. I was starting to get really, really tired.

The first problem wasn't a big deal.  I didn't have any room for error, but I wasn't far from where I wanted to be either; Cole, Carlo, and Silas were running ninth through eleventh, and I wasn't more than ten minutes behind them.  Both my time and place goals were within reach with a strong second half.  The second problem was obviously going to be an issue, but my legs still felt pretty good.  Nutritionally, I was on top of things.  My stomach felt fine, I was well-hydrated.  If I could run close to two hours for the third quarter of the race--giving up about 1 minute per mile to my time from that segment of lap one--I'd be in good shape.  I was definitely walking more now, but was still making solid progress.  I saw Ian just after AS6, which I reached 30 minutes after leaving the start/finish, having surrendered my minute per mile.  I could tell from his expression that I still looked OK.  Fake it until you make it, I thought, and pushed  on down past Lucifer Falls.  I hit AS7 in 5:01, 72 minutes since the turnaround and a little slower than I wanted, but hanging on.  Legs still OK.

photo: Ron Heerkins

It was on the descent into Buttermilk Falls nearly an hour later that I knew I was in trouble.  Until then I had been holding it together--leaking minutes, to be sure, but I had actually picked up another spot or two, and was maintaining about 10 minute/mile pace over some pretty difficult terrain.  But as I started the descent I could tell my quads were not going to hold on for another 13 miles.  I hobbled downhill, each step becoming more and more painful; I tried to open up the stride to remove the "braking" element from my quads, but couldn't maintain the turnover.  I reached the aid station at 6:01, still technically on pace for an eight-hour finish, though that obviously wasn't going to happen.  My three quarters of the race had now gone roughly 1:50, 2:00, 2:10.  Could I run a 2:20 for the final quarter, maybe salvage an 8:20 and hang on to my top-15 finish?

In a word: no.

There's not much to say about the last 12.5 miles beyond the fact that it sucked.  I walked, limped, hobbled, spent a miserable 160 minutes out there just trying to move forward.  My quads were so shot that on the final stair climb up Lucifer Falls, with about five miles left in the race, I literally questioned whether I could get up the staircase.  I lost eleven spots in the last 12 miles and it's a miracle it wasn't more.  My quads felt like they had been through a meat grinder; I couldn't run uphill or downhill, and could manage a slow jog on the rare flat stretches.  By the time I stumbled into the finish chute I didn't really care how poorly it had gone, I just wanted it to be over.

Is he laughing at me?  I think he's laughing at me!
Photo: Joe Azze
Later, after I had a little time to reflect, I obviously did care, and was obviously pretty unhappy.  My 8:40 was eight minutes faster than I had run in 2013, but it was at least 20-30 minutes slower than I thought I was capable of.  The first half of the race had been great, and I had hung very tough through 37 miles, but it's a 50-mile race, and with the training block I'd had, I was bitterly disappointed with the finish.  Nutritionally things seemed to go pretty well, and the failure was less of a dietary/bonking issue than my legs just not being up for that pace on that course.  Looking back on my training, the one missing element was hills; I get plenty of climbing in on my daily runs, but didn't focus on hard hill workouts, doing most of the quality work on the roads and track.  Maybe that was the issue.  I don't know, I'm kind of out of answers.  As well as I feel like I can run a 50K, I feel pretty lost at the 50 mile distance right now, and I really don't feel any closer to an answer than I did the last time I ran this race two years ago.  Maybe 50 miles is just too far for me.  (I hope not, I'm running my first 100K in September.)

For now, recovery, and a quick rebuild before the Whiteface Skyraces at the end of this month.  All hills between now and then.  I'm not expecting much; I can't imagine the course will suit me particularly well, and I have to let Ryan beat the crap out of me on a course like this since he was a good sport and came to a "runnable" one last weekend.  So hopefully it'll just be a fun weekend with Jodi and my teammates.  As disappointed as I was with this race, it really was great running on a team again, encouraging each other on the course, feeding off the great support from Joe, Elizabeth, and Ian.  That's what I'll take away from this race and look forward to next time.

Goofing around a bit, before things started getting ugly.
Photo: Joe Azze
Almost forgot, quick gear report: Patagonia racing kit courtesy of MPF/RNR; Orange Mud HydraQuiver Single Barrel (continues to perform brilliantly) and trucker hat (I know it's cool, 'cause Kevin Bartow was wearing one too); Shoes: split time between the Salming Trail T1 and the Montrail Fluidflex.  Nutrition: GU Brew and Roctane, as usual.  The Sea Salt Chocolate gets a big thumbs up!

Race Report: Prospect Mountain Road Race

I've been trying to get to Lake George for the Prospect Mountain hill climb for the past few years.  I like hill races, even those on pavement, and this one, less than two hours from my house, has been on my radar for some time.  The race has a long tradition; this year marked the twenty-sixth running, and several top-flight competitors have taken on the climb, most notably New England mountain running legend Tim Van Orden.  I didn't know who would be in the field this year, though I wasn't sure it would matter.  The race fell at the end of week of five of my final six-week push before Cayuga Trails; with 550 miles run in the previous 5 weeks, I doubted I'd be able to put up much of a placing if anyone of note showed up.  I was looking forward to racing, though; with only a pizza race to my name since Mount Mitchell, I was getting a little antsy.  And I've been feeling good, running some decent-to-solid workouts on both the track and the roads to go along with my 110-mile weeks.  I wasn't fresh, but I was fit; maybe I could sneak out some kind of result if the day went well.

This seemed unlikely as I finished my warmup and saw Mike Slinskey getting out of his car.  Mike is a bit of a local legend in our parts.  A three-time Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon, Mike holds many of the course records for local races in the Hudson Valley, and is an accomplished (if less prolific) mountain racer as well, having placed highly at Whiteface and Mount Washington in the past.  At 45, he's not quite the indomitable force he once was, but he remains a tough competitor, still one I've never beaten in a race.  His presence alone meant I was probably not in the mix for the win.  Oh well.

I felt a bit sluggish overall on the warmup--likely the result of my 5am alarm--and my stomach didn't feel great, but as far as I could tell my legs felt strong enough.  No tightness in my Achilles, which has been bothering me to varying degrees for several months, and no real residual soreness from the hard track workout two days previously, or the 119 miles of the previous seven days.  Not raring to go, exactly, but as best as I could hope for as we stood on the line.  There were a few other fit-looking folks lined up near the front, so we'd have to see how everything played out. 

The Veterans' Memorial Highway that runs from Lake George to the summit of Prospect Mountain is just under 5.7 miles, climbing 1600 feet in elevation.  If everything went well, I thought I might be able to run near seven-minute pace, close to the 40-minute mark which, based on previous years, would put me in the mix for the top two or three.  The first mile is mostly flat, and I started fairly aggressively, following a fit-looking runner about my height to the lead immediately after the gun.  I checked my watch after a couple minutes of hard work and saw that my GPS had me running 5:55 pace--probably not sustainable.  I backed off a tad to a slightly more relaxed tempo and allowed a small gap to open; I came through the first mile in 6:05, five seconds back of the lead, not sensing anyone from behind.

The climbing started in earnest immediately after the mile mark, and the pace slowed considerably as we started uphill at a 6-8% grade.  My cadence seemed a little quicker than the leader's, and I caught him within about half a mile, moving in front and opening a small gap.  I couldn't completely put him away, but it was still early; I resolved to keep the pressure on as best I could.

After a steady mile and a half of climbing, the road leveled off near the 2.5-mile mark, and he came back up on my shoulder.  I picked up the pace in response, and we dipped down under 6-minute pace as I started to open the gap again.  I was feeling strong, though I knew I was probably going too hard.  I passed three miles in 20:17, about five seconds in front, as the climbing started again.

From that point on there would be no respite from the climb, but we were already past halfway and there was no looking back now.  I started to pay the price a bit for my aggressive start.  My legs got heavy and my cadence slowed a bit.  I could feel the rubber band stretching between me and my rival behind me, but I couldn't get it to break; I could still sense and hear him back there from time to time, and at four miles (27:53) the gap was still only around five seconds.  Keep pushing, keep pushing.

The fifth mile became a slog.  The tempo dropped drastically, and I fought to keep my pace under 8:00/mile.  Slowly I could hear him coming back on me, and inevitably the negative self-talk crept in.  You can't do it, you can't shake him.  You'll be lucky to hold on to second.  I could hear him drawing closer, very slowly, with each step.

Stop it, I told myself.  If you can get to the five-mile mark with the lead you've got a chance.  I had very little left in the legs, but we were only about a mile from the finish.  Make him work for it.  See what he's got left.  With about two hundred meters until the five-mile marker, I could feel him right behind, and I knew I was going to get caught; I eased off the pace the tiniest bit, regrouping, gathering myself for one more move in the final half-mile.  Just relax.  Recover a little bit.  Maybe he's through, maybe you can come back on him at the end.

Sure enough, as he caught me, I felt him relax a tiny bit, content to latch onto my shoulder and not pass me and force the pace.  An opening, maybe.  I took a deep breath and kicked the pace down a notch, getting immediate separation.  Two strides, three, four.  Past the five mile mark, a three second gap.  Two hundred meters later I could feel the gap getting even bigger.  I was locking up, but there was less than half a mile to go, and it felt like I had finally put him away.  Around a big sweeping left turn with two hundred meters to go, I felt and heard nothing.  I chanced the tiniest glance over my shoulder and saw nobody.  Don't let up, I told myself.  You can't have more than a few seconds' lead.  Keep pushing.  Finish line in sight now.  The bored, tepid applause of scattered spectators.  Keep pushing, come on.  A hundred yards.  Fifty.  OK, nobody's there.  Nobody's cheering.  I eased up five yards from the line and, of course, out of nowhere, got blasted from behind by a tall gangly runner in an orange singlet whom I hadn't seen since the start.  No!  Too late, no time to react.  Half a second and it was over.

I slumped to the curb at the end of the finish chute, kicking myself. After leading from the nine-minute mark on I lost the race in the final stride.  I was angry with the spectators and the finish line officials--no heads-up?  No warning?  Not a single "hey, he's closing on you" or even a blip of excitement at the prospect of a sprint finish?--but of course I was mostly angry with myself.  Even three days later I'm still kicking myself.  Sure, it was a good effort, a good training stimulus, a solid run at the end of a huge mileage block, a nice result for a race I hadn't been aiming toward at all.  But still.  Two more hard strides would have done it.

The disappointment does not wash away easily, even for an otherwise well-executed "C" race.  I guess when I stop being disappointed about being pipped on the the line, I'll know it's time to hang up the racing flats; the fact that it still rankles me so much is probably a good sign.  And again, I'll take mostly positives away from the rest of the race.  For one thing, I beat Mike Slinskey for the first time in my life, so that's something.  In terms of my overall fitness level and my response to the heavy training, I feel like I'm right on track for Cayuga in three weeks' time.  And it's silly to pretend that anything's wrong or that I'm not race ready when, if I had run one second faster, I'd feel completely confident and pleased.  But it's hard not to let the teeniest bit of self-doubt creep in.  It feels like I bought a new car which I love but a week after I bought it it's got a big ding in the side panel.  The car runs great and maybe nobody even notices there's a dent and the paint's a little scratched.  But I still know it's there.

Of note, this was the first race I've run in the Salming Race flat, so check back in a few days for my review of the shoes.