The Smith Rock 50K takes place at beautiful Smith Rock State Park in Terrebonne, OR. It is an annual race put on by Go Beyond Racing, and while I’ve visited the park for a weekend of rock climbing in the past, I’ve never done any trail running there. I was extremely excited to explore the area further.
This was actually supposed to be my second 50k of the year, but I had to back out of the Gorge Falls 50k due a nagging injury to my glute/hip area that I sustained back in November on a crazy point to point with some friends. I still wasn’t 100% going into this, but things had greatly improved, and I had enough confidence in my fitness that I could complete the distance without further injuring myself. How the day was going to go though was anybody’s guess because I had only just had my first pain free long run of 18 miles the week prior. When I planned out 2017, I signed up for all of my races healthy. I was still riding the high of my first 100 miler finish, and I was hungry for more. I wanted an early season 50k to go out and run hard, and see what I could do. Last year my early 50k was Yakima Skyline. There is nothing fast or runnable about that race. This year I wanted a challenging but runnable 50k. Then I got injured and spent the entire winter running under a giant cloud of uncertainty. I was still able to run, so that was something, but I wasn’t able to climb, and I wasn’t able to run with any real power in my stride. Mentally, I had already assumed this would be just a long, easy run in a beautiful place.
My wife and I (and let’s not forget Indy) arrived a day early and camped at The Bivy, the walk-in campground at the state park. The overnight lows were to be just above freezing, but I was still willing to risk freezing my ass off just for a chance to finally get to go camping again. In 2015 I camped out close to 20 nights, and in 2016 I only camped one night. That’s just unacceptable, and I have no desire to repeat the offense in 2017. Thankfully, the 15 degree rating on my sleeping bag spoke the truth and I slept like a baby. Also, my wife thankfully stayed warm throughout the night as well because I had yet to convince her that camping in the cold could be fun. One step closer to getting her to go backpacking! I woke up a little before my alarm to the sound of geese overhead, and snow lightly hitting the tent, but I was very well rested. We eventually walked from our campsite to the start line with about 15 minutes to spare. Just enough time to see a few familiar faces before heading out for 31 miles and 4100 feet of climbing through the natural beauty of Smith Rock.
When you head out from the start you have a short flat stretch along the rim before a quick drop down to river level. The moment we started descending my legs had decided how we were going to approach this day. This wasn’t going to be a scenic, easy, long run, we were going to MOVE. Part of my brain said “you’re just going to go out too fast and get the energy out of your system, but then you’ll come to your senses and smooth things out.” Several miles in when the first climb came and I was still moving with a purpose my brain conceded to my legs and accepted the fact that we were going to push until we couldn’t, even if it resulted in a blow up and a shuffle to the finish. My whole body just needed to run hard. Adding to the energy of the day, I had other friends out on the course running too. Any chance to share a few miles with them just seemed to make things feel more effortless, and the miles ticked by.
Around mile 7 I was the lead runner in a small line of 3 or 4 when out of nowhere someone came up from the rear just hauling ass. They didn’t even break stride, but just ricocheted off the slope to the right, went around us, and kept flying up the hill. The first 15 miler had already caught up to us 50kers (we had a 45 minute head start)…and it was none other than Max King. The speed and power with which he was running was just unreal. He went on to set a new course record for the 15 mile ascent.
Somewhere around the 10 mile range the runners started to spread out and I was alone. Out of know where I heard this loud yell off to my left that about made me jump. “Aaagggghhhh!!!” Rattlesnakes are a known danger at Smith Rock, there are signs everywhere, and we even had a reminder just before the race start. I wondered if someone was in danger when the “aaaaaagh” changed to “heeeeeeee hawwwwwww.” Ass. I mean donkey, scared the shit out of me.
Around mile 12 or 13 I hit aid station 2 and saw my friend Sarah. She looked a little surprised to see me I think because she knew my reservations about the day. We both head out of the aid station together talking about how things are going so far and what we’re hoping to accomplish, and I tell her I’m going to try and shoot for a sub 6 finish after all. As we left there were signs reminding us how far it was to the next aid station, and also that the turn away from Gray Butte was on this stretch. Earlier, running with Shane, he told me that while the 50k course didn’t go up to the top of Gray Butte, it still got pretty steep. So far the climbing had gotten a little steeper, but wasn’t anything unusual. Finally we got to Gray Butte and you could see the radio towers up top. The course is clearly moving that direction and theres a band of runners spread out with there heads down grinding out the climb. I remembered the course map in my head, but at that point things were fuzzy. There were no signs designating a course split, and up until that point things had been clearly marked. Anytime the 50k course deviated from the 15 mile course there was an arrowed sign clearly stating what was going on. On we trudged. It eventually got so steep that a few runners started sidestepping up the grade just to give their calves a break. Moments later a runner came down from the top yelling that we missed a turn and that we’re on the 15 mile course. Confused we all started heading back down in search of the correct trail. Trying to make light of the situation I bombed down the hill with my arms up screaming “bonus miles!” which got some good laughs out of everyone. We eventually got back down to the turn, and there was a group of runners all in discussion debating whether or not this was the correct turn because it still wasn’t entirely clear, but there were orange cones. We decided to make the turn after making some stick arrows and writing 50K in the dirt so others don’t make the same mistake.
Going off course is just part of the sport, and it’s ultimately the responsibility of the runner to know the course, but I was pretty frustrated at that point. I tried to tell myself that in the end it was all about being out on beautiful trails, and that time goals were just arbitrary, but it wasn’t working. Going sub 6 was already a stretch, and now it was really going to be a stretch, if I still had a shot at all. None of us knew how much time had passed to know how much time we lost off course (13 minutes in my case it turned out). Thankfully I still had another 14 miles to get over it, which I did.
Back on course and moving strong, trying not to run too hard to make up for lost time, we all eventually arrived at aid station 3 and were told that we definitely weren’t the only ones to miss that turn. Eric said there was only about 10 miles to the finish so as long as I kept my pace I should be able to still get in under 6 hours. I took the time to fill my hydration bladder so I didn’t run out of water before the final aid station or the finish and I headed back out. By that time an already chilly day started to turn colder and windier. The high desert course is very exposed, offering endless views. It had been cloudy all day, but now weather was moving in and you could see the rain falling in the distance. By the time the weather hit, it came in the form of patches of light snow and hail.
Around mile 25 things started to feel labored. My heart rate didn’t feel like it was recovering like it was earlier, and I had the faint warnings of leg cramps coming on. I had some tightness in my injured area, but it wasn’t affecting my running. This was the final sustained climb of the course though so if I could piece this out and not lose too much time then it was almost literally downhill from there. And at least I wasn’t as bad off as the runner puking that I had just passed. Passing through the last aid station, I drank some coke, ate a pickle, and I headed off for the final 5 miles. Maybe it was all in my head, but a few minutes after eating the pickle there were no more hints of cramping, and I started to feel better overall. Running felt natural again and I wasn’t forced into the walk/run intervals that I feared I was heading towards. I was still on pace to go sub 6, and while most of the course was flat from there, there was a 2 mile downhill stretch to take full advantage of. Eventually I was back down running along the river in the more crowded part of the park then heading up the access road and back along the rim to the finish line with a finish of 5:53:41. A 50K PR by 32 minutes.
The beauty of this course cannot be overstated. The mountains you’re running in are beautiful, the sweeping views in every direction are humbling and breathtaking, and while there are normally clear views of the Cascades, the moody skies just added to the atmosphere of the day. The trails and terrain changed so much throughout the course that I never got tired of any one section. I’m not generally a fan of repeating a race because I’d rather explore somewhere new if I have the opportunity, but I’d gladly come back and run this 50K. This is my second Go Beyond event, and just like the first, it was well supported with fantastic volunteers, it had well stocked aid stations, and there was delicious post race food and beer.
It’s been a week and a half since I completed the Mountain Lakes 100, and with the passing of time I was hoping I’d be able to better wrap my brain around the enormity of the journey, but I’m not sure I have. Even having completed the distance it’s still a bit incomprehensible. At the start I had no idea how the day is going to unfold and if I’d be able to finish. During the act of running I had no idea if my body and mind would continue to move forward, and in what condition it would be doing so. Even after crossing the finish line I really had no idea how I was able to accomplish what I had accomplished.
At 3:15am I finally give up trying to sleep. I might, MIGHT, have dozed off from about 12:30 to 2:30, but despite having been laying in bed from 9:30 the night before, I was anything but well rested. The run starts at 8am, but it’s a 2 hour and 15 minute drive to get there. At least I’ve got plenty of time for my morning espresso and oats. Myself and 3/4 of the crew are on the road by 4:45. Megan, my wife, is playing the role of crew captain, Jen flew in from Edwardsville, IL to help crew and pace me the last 30 miles, and Indy, well Indy is our four-legged mascot. The other 1/4, Stephen, will meet us later in the day to pace me from roughly mile 55 to 70. We arrive at the starting area with plenty of time to pick up my bib, sip some coffee, and share the morning excitement with familiar faces and not-so-familiar faces. The starting area is beautiful. The sun is rising to reveal Mt. Jefferson reflecting in Olallie Lake.
Before I know it it’s time for us to corral down by the lake for the start, and then we’re off. I’ve been signed up and training for this distance since February, and now the moment is here to see if what I’ve done is enough. My overall plan is to just run relaxed and keep a positive attitude. I’ve ran 50 miles once before and really enjoyed that day and distance, but now I’ve got to double that. That’s a lot of unknown. Some of the most basic race advice for the 100 mile distance is to “spread the peanut butter.” You want to make sure you have enough peanut butter to evenly cover your piece of bread. Spread too much too soon and the peanut butter gets thin before you reach the other side, or you run out of peanut butter altogether. Spread it too fast and you tear the bread. It’s a great analogy, but when you’re not exactly sure how much peanut butter you’re even working with, you might not find out you’ve spread too much until mile 70. The course starts out on a decent length of forest service road which gives everyone time to relax and find their natural pace groupings. Not that the things are crowded by any means, there are only 145 of us. There is a short stretch of PCT, the first aid station, and then we’re on a pretty steady downhill until the second aid station. I’m being careful not to run the downhill too carelessly and aggressivley this soon because the last thing I need is to aggravate my IT bands downhilling on a road before the real fun begins. I’m not the only one being cautious, some runners are even choosing to walk the steep downhill. It’s also hard not to remind yourself that any long downhill stretches turn until long uphills later.
Soon, the second aid station is in site with plenty of familiar faces. Everything looks pretty good, I’m even offered a blueberry muffin, but my stomach hasn’t been right all morning. Not upset, just in a big knot. I choose not to risk it, relying on the assortment of nutrition I’m carrying for now. One of the big challenges in a 100 miler is keeping your stomach from going south. Some even say if you haven’t had stomach issues in an ultra that you just haven’t ran far enough yet. This is the first time my stomach has ever given me any real trouble on any run, and we’re barely over 10 miles in. Not long after leaving the aid station we finally hit our first long stretch of glorious singletrack, and of course it’s mostly all climbing, but that’s fine by me. Nothing like a good climb to make any temp t-shirt weather. This was probably my favorite stretch of the entire course. That isn’t to say anything bad about the rest of it, just that this stretch was that much more beautiful. Namesake mountain lakes, meadows, a burn area, rocky ridgelines. Just beautiful.
The overall course is a double lollipop out and back. Head south, do a loop, head back to start, head north much further, do a lap around Timothy Lake, and then head back south to the start/finish. With that in mind, aid station 1 and 3 are the same, but I’ve got to tell you, 3 didn’t look familiar to me. I didn’t exactly stop at aid station 1 though since it was only 5.3 miles in, but I was also probably too inside my head digesting the fact that I was actually attempting to run 100 miles. Since aid station 3 is the turnaround to send you back to the start it gives you a chance to pass by those ahead and behind you. I’ve never been on a course where I’ve known so many other runners so it was great to see so many smiles and receive so many high fives as we share this epic undertaking. Just as important and uplifting is knowing so many of the volunteers along the course that start yelling and cheering for you before you even recognize them.
Somewhere around maybe mile 15, along a technical stretch of downhill, I manage to roll my left ankle. After a few ginger steps to test if I can put weight on it, it’s a little sore, but things quickly loosen back up. Eventually the trail leads back to the jeep roads that take us back through the starting area, and the first chance to see my crew. Nearly a marathon finished, 26.1 miles. After a chat with them, some delicious grapes and some cold Coke, I hit the portapotties in the hopes of moving that knot out of my stomach. No luck. I return to my crew and they’ve stocked my vest with nutrition, and my headlamp. They wish me well, and with more grapes in hand I head out. I won’t see them again until mile 55.4, and it will already be dark. From here on out the course will be 99% singletrack.
Heading North on the PCT from Olallie Lake things are mostly runnable. A few climbs here and there, but nothing sustained. I’m starting to feel a little bit of hip tightness so I pick up the pace a bit to open my stride. Not long after that Red Duck, named for her Red Duck Ketchup arm sleeves, comes cruising up from behind. We’ve leap frogged and chatted a few times by this point. The trail starts descending just enough to where you can pick up some real speed if you want, Red Duck takes off and I follow suit. She jokes that I shouldn’t take any pace advice from her that most people warn her she’s going to blow up running that way in a 100 miler. I explain that running downhill is my only runner super power, she laughs and says it’s the same for her, and we keep cruising. The trail starts to level out after several miles, about the time my watch chimes that it’s time to eat something. Red Duck continues on, and I walk and take in calories. The hips are feeling much better. It may not be the smartest thing to bomb the downhills a little around 50k into a 100 miler, but it wouldn’t do me any good to get so tight that my IT bands start barking either.
The trail alternates between climbs and descents, but there’s definitely more loss than gain. A couple more aid stations drift by, one with a guy in a chicken suit. Somewhere around mile 45 I fall in with 2 other runners and we’re holding a really steady pace for several miles with hardly a word even exchanged. Things have actually been cruising by so fast that I allow my brain to entertain the possibilities of a sub 24 finish. I also remember the fact that it will actually be dark for quite a while before I get to pick up my first pacer. Most races set it up to pick up a pacer before nightfall for safety reasons. I love night trail running so I’m pretty excited at the prospect of having the trails to myself for a while. Finally, the front runner of out trio declares she doesn’t want to lead anymore so she lets the two of us pass and falls in behind. Soon after that our momentum is halted by a large tree down over the trail. It’s so big you have to straddle it and push yourself over. At this point the only thing my arms have done for 9 hours is swing back and forth so when I go to put my body weight on my left arm to push myself over, my shoulder screams in a white-hot flash of pain. I let my running compadres go ahead as I start to wonder if it’s a shoulder of all things that will take me out of my first 100 mile foot race. I walk for a few minutes and the pain starts to subside. Carefully, I test my range of motion, and everything seems to be in working order. I start running and things feel like nothing ever happened. I eventually catch back up to the female runner of the trio just in time for our first significant sustained climb in hours. It’s during this climb that I have really my only low point of the race, and it really wasn’t that low. Just a big fat slice of humble pie reminding me that I wasn’t even half way through the run, and a lot can, and will, happen so I need to not even consider my finish time yet. Just keep things easy as I planned, take it as the trail gives it to you, and run aid station to aid station. As we power hike, we swap stories about how many ultras we’ve ran, where we’re from, etc. The light slowly fades, and eventually it’s time to get the headlamps out. A while later we arrive at the Red Wolf aid station where I see Red Duck (I actually know her has Shannon by now) for the last time until the finish. I tell her of my silliness of dreaming of a sub 24 finish right before the humbling climb, and her mood changes from her usual lightheartedness to dead serious. She looks me straight in the eye and tells me not to even think about finishing times until at least mile 85. Just run aid station to aid station. This isn’t her first 100 miler, and she’s even doing this one sans crew and pacer, so I heed her warning. Bushwacker, one of the guys I circumnavigated Mount Hood with (don’t worry, no one’s given me a cool trail name yet either), is whipping up some incredible quesadillas with avocado in them. I have some quesadilla and a cup of soup, and for the first time all day my stomach starts to relax a little. Nothing like a little hot food I guess. With that thought, I grab a piece of bacon and head back out into the night.
The next aid station I’ll come to is Clackamas Ranger Station, at mile 55.4, where I’ll finally see my crew again and pick up my first pacer. It’s a lot of fun running at night, and from Red Wolf to Clackamas it’s mostly downhill so the miles fly by. At one road crossing I stop and turn my headlamp of just to stand in the pitch blackness and look up at the stars. The sky is full of them so far from any light pollution. Another, less stellar (see what I did there?) detail to note, I haven’t had to go to the bathroom in a long time. With the dropping temps my body finally needs to, but there isn’t much coming out, and things are definitely darker than they should be, but it’s hard to tell just by headlamp. I’ve been drinking Tailwind all day, and I’ve refilled my 2L hydration bladder about every 4 hours so I know I’ve been taking in fluids, but the problem is I’m apparently taking in too much sodium. I don’t have any other symptoms like puffy fingers, but just to stay on the safe side I decide I’m going to go to straight water when I get to my crew, and then once things get closer to normal I’ll take an S-cap if I need one. I’ll just have to monitor my calories more closely since I’ll no longer be getting a steady flow from the Tailwind.
Pretty soon I can hear the cheers of Clackamas Ranger Station in the distance as runners come and go. It puts a bounce in my step and I pick up the pace. When I arrive Megan, Jen, and Stephen are all waiting and cheering. I take a chair and throw on some dry warmer layers for the trip around Timothy Lake, and fill them in on how the first half of my day has been while I drink soup and eat some delicious perogies. Indy decides to lay down on my feet in hopes that I won’t leave again. My vest is restocked, Tailwind is dumped in exchange for plain water, and after a cup of soup, Stephen and I are off. The lap around Timothy Lake looks pancake flat on the elevation chart compared to the rest of the course, but there are still a few climbs here and there. Most of the trail is pretty wide so Stephen and I get to run side by side and talk trails. His high energy personality is much appreciated, and with his first 100k coming up we have plenty to talk about. He’s really pleased to see how well I’m still moving, as am I. The miles cruise by and before I know it we’re at the Wy’East Wolfpack’s Animal House themed aid station at Little Crater Lake. Everyone is dressed in togas and basically just having a dance party in the woods. It’s hard not to stick around too long, especially since I know just about everyone at this aid station, but we’ve got miles to cover so we head back out. Some more easy miles go by and before I know it we’re at mile 66.6, The Damned Aid Station at the Timothy Lake Dam. By this time of night you start to notice just how quickly you cool off when you quit moving so we don’t stop long. Just long enough to get what we need and admire the severed hands and other Halloween decorations.
We keep moving until we eventually arrive back at Clackamas Ranger Station. Mile 71.7. I’m almost 22 miles into uncharted territory and still feeling and moving great. Less than a 50k to go! Since it has been getting colder I decide I’m going to take the time to change into tights and a warmer top. The only problem is, stopping long enough to do so is enough to let the chill creep in and my teeth start chattering. I head into the warming tent to change and try and remedy things. They have sleeping bags and heat lamps. I wrap myself in a sleeping bag while I change, but the moment I take it away I get instantly chilled again, not just cold, but shivering. Too much time passes, and Jen comes in to check on me. I have her bring me some warm soup and potatoes and tell her once it’s finished that we pretty much have to leave instantly and get moving. In hindsight I may have been better off just sticking to what I was wearing, and just doing a quick touch and go the second time through Clackamas. It is what it is. Lesson learned for next time.
Jen and I head off into the night to tackle the final 50k. Jen and I have run a lot together back in IL. We know when to talk, and we know when silence is needed if one of us is struggling and we just need to work through it. Jen introduced me to trail running, and has seen me go from 5k to 50k, and now she’s here to help me finish my first 100 miler. We’ve got some work to do. Not only does Jen get the longer stretch of the pacing duties, but she gets all the climbing. With this many miles on my legs we’re both equally impressed I’m running as well as I am, and I’m still able to power hike at a pretty good clip on the steeper climbs. We still have a long way to go, but I still feel great and I’m having fun. The climb back up to Red Wolf was long but manageable. I ask if Red Duck ever came back through, and they said yes. The one aid station worker simply replied, “That’s a tough girl.” After a quesadilla refill we head out for a very welcome few miles of downhill running before we’re met with the 6 mile climb up to the Pinheads Aid Station. The steady downhill feels great, and allows me to really loosen up and open my stride again. The 6 mile climb, not so great. It feels never ending, but it also marks our last big obstacle to get to the finish. There are a few more sustained climbs, but nothing like this. Jen and I do our best to pass the miles talking. I tell her about the day, and how amazed I am that I’m still having fun. I tell her about my delusions of sub 24 followed by a quick reality check. I then tell her of my more realistic original goal of finishing somewhere in the 26 hour window, but tell her that I’m not worried about a time anymore, I just want to finish. She’s quiet for a bit, I hear her Garmin beep as she checks the time, and then she says that we might be able to still go sub 27, but she isn’t sure, and it will be really close. I still don’t take the prospect too seriously, and we hike on. We pass through the Warm Springs Aid station again and laugh at the hilarity of a guy in a chicken suit. It seriously never gets old. We don’t stay too long and we head back out for more climbing. Seeing the mile post at the aid station, Jen checks her math again, and is pretty sure sub 27 is still within reach, but it will be close, and we’re going to have to work for it. Eventually, the sky starts to glow with the promise of sunrise. Up until this point I haven’t even bothered to ask what time it was, but acknowledging that it’s almost sunup suddenly hits my brain with some severe fatigue. My eyes just want to close. Jen suggests I shed one of my top layers so the cooler air can help wake me up. After a few minutes it does and I feel a lot better. Pretty soon it’s times to take the headlamps off, and my new mantra becomes “new day, new legs.”
The endless power hiking finally gives way to runnable stretches and even some nice downhill. While my legs were really growing heavy from climbing, I’m surprised that with the change in terrain I’m able to still run at decent pace, and when it’s time to descend and gravity is on my side I can still really open up. The fun finally comes to an end, and there is another stretch to power hike, but knowing I can still run strong changes everything. I’m no longer willing to just finish when I finish, if there is even a remote possibility that I can get under 27 hours then I’m giving it all I’ve got. I know at the top of this climb things open up to a big meadow full of vine maple and downed trees, and the aid station is just inside the woods. Less than a half marathon to go. The moment things become runnable I take off for the meadow. A look to the left to take in the colors and the wide open view, then my foot catches something and I’m going into a shoulder roll. I quickly pop back up, dust myself off and start running again, this time I worry more about my footing than the views. As I make it to the tree line I see the top of the aid station tent through the branches, and then I see a volunteer. It’s a gentle downhill so they see my legs and number before they see me. I hear “93 coming in! Is that Denzil?! It’s Denzil!” It’s my friend Aly, and her energy is infectious. She tells me I’m moving well and I’ve moved up 10 places. I grab some gels for the road and tell her I’ve got to hurry because I’m chasing sub 27. As I take off running out of the aid station Aly yells “Go get that buckle!” at the top of her lungs, and I feel tears welling up knowing how close I am to finishing this. These last 12 miles, it’s game on. I’m running everything but the steepest climbs and hauling ass on the downhills. Jen is trying to keep from crying seeing how determined I am to give it my all. In a wavering voice she tells me “When you hit the road you just drop your vest and go. Just go.” It’s going to be close. We’re not even sure which clock we’re racing against. My watch has been running since the start of the event, but if we go by standard time then that actually means I have 1 minute less to work with. Yes it’s that close. We keep moving. I keep pushing the pace, passing several other runners. Another aid station comes and goes. 3.5 miles to the finish. On one long downhill stretch I fly by some other runners, and one jokes “He’s running to win it, folks.” Maybe there is no difference between a sub 27 buckle and a 29:59:59 buckle, but a goal is a goal. I keep pushing. We see one person running back from the start line looking for his runner to pace him in. He tells us it’s 1.2 miles to the finish. You’d have never guessed I had 99 miles on these legs. Still plenty of peanut butter left to spread. Mentally though, it was the longest mile of my life just waiting for that road to come into view. I remembered from the day before that the course was going to give me a steady downhill right before the road. As I’m running, Olallie Lake is visible on my right. I’m getting closer. Finally I see the road, and Jen yells “drop the vest and go!!” I don’t even bother with with vest because that takes time and effort. As I round the corner I’m running full stride and one of the volunteers that can see the clock yells “Keep running, you’ve got the cutoff!” (referring to the change of the hour). I run through the finish line and beyond, gradually coming to a stop down by the lake. Jen and I hug in celebration. We did it!!! 26:58:10 is the official finish time. Megan comes down to give me a kiss and join in the celebration. She said I came through so fast that she didn’t even have time to get a picture of me. I walk up to Renee and collect my finisher buckle and another congratulatory hug. 100.95 miles done. I can finally stop moving. I never thought running 100 miles would be so much fun, but I enjoyed every minute of it, even the tough parts, and I’ll gladly tackle the distance again.
For me, trail running isn’t about competition, it’s about exploration; it’s about freedom. To me there is nothing more freeing than embarking on a self supported adventure. No marked course, just a desire to run from one place to the other and see what’s along the way. I recently completed my second longest run to date, 40 (ish) miles point to point along the Rogue River Trail. There was no start or finish line, no crowds, no crews or aid stations, no swag. Just 40 miles, what I could carry in my pack, and my own two feet taking me from East to West.
We were just a small group of four, and while we were all covering the same distance and route, we all had different goals in mind for the day, so there wasn’t much of a plan for any of us to stick together, just all end up at the finish. Dave and Mark, two great guys whom I had never met prior to the weekend, chose an hour and a half earlier start time to allow for a more relaxed pace. Mark had a 100 miler the following weekend so he needed to keep things nice and easy so he didn’t blow his race (he finished his 100 miler in case you were curious). I was in the later camp, starting with my friend Anne, who was also going to make the 40 mile return trip the following day completely solo. She was one of the first trail running connections I made before moving to the Northwest. She has continued to make it a point to include me in adventure plans and volunteer opportunities, and always has great ultra wisdom to share.
Anne and I ran the first few miles together, but for 30+ miles of the 40 I was alone with my thoughts and the river, and what a beautiful river it was. Sometimes it was so gentle you didn’t really notice you were running along side it, other times its force was so violent you thought you were running along a series of water falls. The trail itself would alternate between exposed rocky cliffs and densely forested areas. One of the most interesting things was to see the vegetation change the further West I went. Everything started out relatively arid, but the closer to the ocean you traveled the more lush and green things became. While the Rogue River itself drains into the ocean, the trail, unfortunately doesn’t take you that far. How amazing would it be to just run to the end up dry land though? The stopping point just be an exposed cliff staring out over a vast, watery, abyss? One can only imagine. As far as encountering others along the way, I didn’t see more than a handful of hikers. The trail was ours.
The run itself went well for the most part, but it had its low points. The first 20 miles absolutely flew by and I was having a blast, the last 20…not so much. My seemingly effortless run was starting to slow, and my mood began to sour a bit. Overall, I’m sure I just went out too fast, but there were other factors as well. The balls of my feet were starting to hurt a bit, and that has never been an issue before. It’s possible that the harder granite surface was taking its toll, but the trails I run in the Gorge are pretty rocky, and my feet never felt beat up on those. Even by the end of my 50 miler last July my feet felt fine. By mile 30 my right IT band, which has never given me any problems at all, was making the outside of my right knee hurt. I suppose it’s possible I wasn’t fully or properly recovered from Yakima, or that this was simply a more runnable course than what had been training for since Yakima was all about steep ascents and descents, and that’s how I focused my recent training. I had new problems, and no solutions, but one thing ultra running teaches you is to expect the unexpected, and sometimes it’s just an exercise in pain management. When things started to break down I just reminded myself why I was really out here: to have an adventure. I was still moving forward, the scenery was still beautiful, and I was going to have great company to share cold beer and dinner with at the end of the day.
A couple of miles from the end, Anne was heading back in my direction. She had unknowingly passed me while I was underneath a bridge filtering water around mile 19. She was very relieved to see me because she had managed to catch Dave, and neither of them had seen me. Apparently, our shuttled vehicle wasn’t where it was supposed to be so she was going to head out to where she thought she would have cell service and find out where the truck was. It turns out it was just a little further down the road at the boat ramp instead of at the end of the actual trail. Dave had already managed to get it and drive it to our expected finish just as I was running up. Yay for not being stranded! Anne showed up a bit later after her side adventure to make the phone call. Cold beers and stories from the day were shared amongst the three of us over a Technu wipe down before driving to the lodge we were staying at. Mark wasn’t due for about another hour so Dave drove back to greet him with a cold beer after dropping us off to get cleaned up. The four of us wrapped up the day’ adventure with an all you can eat buffet dinner. What more could trail hungry ultra runners ask for?
The comfort zone: a warm bed, a snooze button, the couch and Netflix, an easy run instead of a scheduled track workout, staying out of the rain…doing it tomorrow. This is where dreams and goals go to die. If you never step out of your comfort zone you’ll never find out what you’re truly capable of. No one promised it would be easy, and some days it flat out sucks, but you have to learn to embrace that suck. Feel at home outside of your comfort zone. How do you know if you’re stepping outside of your comfort zone? It’s going to be hard, it will definitely feel like work, and it might even scare you a little bit.
Just over a year ago I moved from the land of corn fields and train tracks, Illinois. Not a lot of places to do hill repeats even if I wanted to, let alone mile plus sustained climbs. Flat was my comfort zone. On April 16th I found myself well outside of my comfort zone. I was running the Yakima Skyline 50k, a trail race with 9500 feet of ascent and descent, as much gain per mile as the Hardrock 100. I won’t bore you with the details, as I’ve already shared my race report, but it was a long, tough day with a 7:57:03 finish, and a smile on my face from ear to ear. The race had the desired effect. I was out in the Gorge running Larch Mountain, Table Mountain, and Angel’s and Devil’s Rest to make sure I was ready for the day, and I finished one of the toughest 50ks in the nation. I’m a much stronger climber now, and I can take that physical and mental toughness with me into any future race, and even life.
Amazing things happen when you step out of your comfort zone. The more you do it, the more you discover about yourself. And you don’t have to go to extremes. Maybe you try a new race distance, maybe it’s going from road to trail, maybe it’s an ultra, or maybe it’s just a far more challenging course at a distance you’ve already tackled. Scare yourself a little. If your heart doesn’t beat a little faster thinking about what you’ve gotten yourself into then maybe step out a little further. You’ll continually prove to yourself that you’re far stronger and more capable than you ever imagined. It won’t be easy, it’s going to take a lot of work, but in the end you’ll love it and you’ll be smiling ear to ear.
Embrace the suck,
This past Saturday marked my fifth time completing an ultra. Three prior distances being 50ks (2 self supported), and one of them a 50 mile event. In terms of elevation, the SOB 50 miler had the most with about 7300 feet of ascent and descent over the course; the Yakima Skyline 50k boasts roughly 9500 feet of ascent and descent. Going into the event I had no concept of what that much climbing and downhilling would or could feel like, especially over such a relatively short distance. I had never even racked up that much climbing in a month of training, let alone a day. Yakima is even boasted as great training race for the Hardrock 100.
Another first for this event is actually getting to toe the line with someone else I know. My friend Shalini, whom I logged plenty of trail miles with back in St. Louis, decided to fly out and use the race as a training run for Western States in June. It had also been almost a year to the day since we had last hung out, so it would be a great shared memory and a way to reconnect after making the move out to Oregon.
The morning of the event arrived after an uncharacteristically poor nights sleep for me. I even slept better even before my first 50 miler. We camped out the night before that though, and this time we stayed in a hotel room. I’m sure pre-race nerves played a part as well. This was the longest distance I had run, but it was definitely the most difficult course. The temp was a cool 34 degrees, but the high was expected to reach well into the 70s. If there are two factors I’m weak at it’s climbing and running in the heat. I sweat so much that I was even nicknamed “Puddles” by my running family back in IL. I had done my best to train for sustained climbs and downhilling, but being only April in the cool and damp Northwest, I hadn’t exactly given myself any opportunities to acclimate to running in the warmer temps that the high desert of Central Washington would offer. Oh, and all of the trails I’ve been running on have these things we call trees, providing lots of shade from the sun. There would be none of that out here. Totally exposed.
I had never been to a Rainshadow event before, but I had always heard good things. When we pulled in, the very first person we were greeted by was none other than the race director himself. James obviously takes pride in his events and the people that choose to participate in them. Driving along to park I noticed we were behind a vehicle with British Columbia plates, a lot of running sticker, and the words “Barkley” and “Good Luck” finger-written in dust. Gary Robbins? Nah, couldn’t be. Yup, it was. He was there supporting his wife for her return to ultrarunning since their child was born. My wife always comes along to support me, and I hope someday that I get to return the favor when she runs her first ultra. After a friendly exchange with Gary it was time to get checked in, and get to the start line where there would be another surprise, Gunhild Swanson!!! Talk about the embodiment of inspiration. 71 and still living life to the fullest. After a wonderful conversation with Gunhild, James Varner gave us a parting announcement to watch out for rattlesnakes, and then to the sound of cheers and cowbells, roughly 200 runners headed out to tackle the Yakima Skyline Rim trail.
We got maybe 1/2-3/4 of a mile of flat to let people stretch their legs and fall into their places before hitting the single track and the first climb of about 2500 feet over 2 miles. Going into the race I had two different strategies in mind. Be really conservative for the first half for, hopefully, a strong trip back, or take advantage of the cold temps while they lasted and push early since the heat was going to indefinitely slow me down. I hadn’t decided on which tactic I was going to use until that first climb. Most of the surrounding runners seemed content with whatever pace was being set, but I wasn’t patient enough to stay in a conga line for the next 2 miles so I started chipping away at the first of the 4 significant climbs of the day, passing clusters of power hikers along the way until I finally made it to the top when things became runnable again. The first aid station was about 5.5 miles in and water only. I was running with a hydration vest so I didn’t even need to stop. Just called off my number as I passed through and kept going on towards about 3 miles of steep downhill. So steep that my feet almost slid out from under me just as I was getting to the bottom where race photographers were cleverly waiting for others to do that all day long. They haven’t posted the photos yet, but I’m sure they got a good one there. Not long after was the 8 mile aid station, a fully stocked one this time. This aid station is so remote that the volunteers are brought in by raft. I only stayed long enough to check in my bib number and then I was back off. One of the requirements of the race is that you carry at least 40oz of water on you since it is so warm and remote so I didn’t plan on stopping until the 15.5 mile turn around, when my 2 liter bladder should be running fairly low. During my 50 miler I practically ignored most of the nutrition that I brought with my in favor of aid station fare, but this time I was sticking to the nutrition I brought with me. I was alternating between Gus, Stinger Waffles, and Picky Bars every 45 minutes depending on how much solid food I thought my stomach wanted. I also had Tailwind in my bladder for electrolytes and a steady trickle of calories. After leaving the aid station there was a pretty good flat stretch of canyon that gave me a chance to stretch things out a bit before arriving at the second major climb. I was still feeling good so I took the opportunity to pass as many people as I could power hiking in the hopes that it wouldn’t come back to royally bite me in the ass later. This climb seemed to go by quicker than the first in my mind, and then it was another long downhill to the halfway point. This downhill was far more technical. Softball sized rocks littered the trail that felt more like I was following a narrow stream bed. Around mile 14 I was moving along at a pretty good pace when all of a sudden I was flying face first downhill. I either clipped the edge of the trail with my shoe and then got tripped up, or clipped a large rock? I’m not really sure, but I was going down. Thankfully, I managed to react well enough roll into the fall the best I could, popping back up with only a bruised left palm, and a scraped right leg and elbow. I walked a few steps to make sure everything was in working order, and then it was back to business. There was a runner making his return climb maybe 30 feet ahead of me so enveloped in the task at hand that he didn’t even notice me diving head first on the trail. Soon after, I was pulling into another full aid station at the turn around about 3.5 hours into the race. One aid station worker remarked at how salt washed my face was, and another asked if I wanted to sit down. “Beware the chair,” thanks but no thanks. I pulled my bladder out to have it refilled and discovered that I had only drank about half of my fluids. I should have been close to empty by now. Note to self, start drinking more. I made it a point to drink so straight water at this aid station, and also eat some watermelon and grapes. Anything that had its own moisture content. The volunteers were fantastic. So good, that when I got my bladder back all the air bubbles were already taken out so it wouldn’t slosh. It’s the little things in life, really. I thanked everyone for being out there and then headed back out for the return trip.
This 3rd climb felt the easiest in terms of steepness, and even had some runnable patches to break things up a bit. It was getting close to midday at this point though so things were really starting to heat up with the overhead sun. I made it a point to hydrate more often, and took an S-Cap to hopefully play catchup on my electrolytes. A ways up the climb I ran into Shalini making her way down, and a bit after that I ran into Gunhild still smiling and plugging along. Neither of them would have to worry about the first cutoff, but but runners too much further behind were going to have to worry about getting pulled from the course at the turn around. Once I crested the 3rd climb and started the descent I could feel that the breeze had now become hot and dry. The lower I got the less breeze there was, and eventually I was back in the flat canyon that was so nice to run earlier, but now it felt like an oven. At one stream crossing I even stopped to soak my hat, and splash water on my face and the back of my neck. I could see the trail running out, and what lay before me was the long, windy dirt road that lead up the start of final climb with struggling runners littering the ascent. Thankfully, there was one more full aid station before I had to tackle it. I drank some more clean water, and even grabbed a handful of grapes to eat as I power hiked. I wasn’t going anywhere fast so I might as well have something refreshing to snack on to take my mind off of things right? The final climb was the worst. All in all it was about 5 miles from the bottom to the top. There were sections of this climb so steep that the only way you could move forward was on your tip-toes. It was brutal, relentless, and slow going. The heat started to take it’s toll, and I could feel my stomach becoming slightly unsettled. You could also see which runners were having a better day as some eventually caught up and passed, or the ones that had been in the distance eventually pulled further. I eventually made it to the final water only aid station and poured more cold water over my head than went in my mouth. I grabbed some ginger ale to settle the stomach too. There was a bit of a runnable stretch before resuming the steep climbing so I took advantage of it, but was eventually back to power hiking. I only experienced one episode of severe cramping the entire day, and that was surprising considering how much I’ve dealt with cramping at both Mary’s Peak, and at the SOB 50but during one stretch of climbing, my hamstrings just locked up. I tried standing up straight and that only made things worse. I kind of found a perfect squat angle where the pain was minimal. After about 30 seconds standing like that they eventually released, and I was able to start hiking again, and not long after that there was a runnable stretch, and even a slight downhill before the summit of the final climb and the journey into sweet glorious downhilling to the finish line would begin!!!! Scratch that. False summit. More climbing. And this is about the point where I discover that I’ve been drinking quite a bit more and suck the last of the liquid out of my bladder. I went ahead and shot one final Gu since I new that this would be the most fluid I’d have in my stomach to process it, and hoped it would be enough to keep me strong until the finish. I only had about 5 miles to go, and almost 3ish of it was downhill. After hitting the actual summit I was very excited to know it was literally all down hill from here. My legs were far from fresh, but I was able to sustain a pretty consistent downhill pace the entire way down. I was still cautious to do so in a controlled manner because the last thing I needed was to fall again because I tripped up, or worse, cramped mid stride. 30 minutes of downhill running after everything was far from easy, but it felt a hell of a lot better than climbing. This descent took you back to the river valley as well, so the breeze was cool again, and temperatures dropped a little the further you went. Eventually things flattened out for the final flat stretch to the finish. It seemed like an eternity from the trail head to the suspension bridge and back to the campground parking lots though. I even got passed along the way, but while I was running, I’m pretty sure my legs didn’t have anything in reserve to make chase. I finally rounded the corner to the final stretch. Gary Robbins was walking the opposite direction and greeted me with a smile, some encouraging words, and a high five. A tenth of a mile later I was across the finish with a greeting and high five from James Varner. El Fin. No more climbing, and no more running. Time to the enjoy the other things Rainshadow was known for besides beautiful and challenging courses, beer, fresh brick oven pizza, and live music.
My finish time was 7:57:03, which put me 68th out of the 123 that finished. Ultra Signup projected my finish time would be roughly 8:10:00 so I wanted to try and beat that, and I really wanted to come in under 8 hours. It wasn’t much under, but I’ll take it. The course was beautiful and rugged, and easily the most challenging terrain I’d run on. Amazing things happen when you step out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself. I recommend doing it regularly.
The importance of following a good fueling strategy is becoming more and more obviously important to me. I’ve experienced so many issues that I just wrote off as general fatigue or poor fitness, but in reality most of it has all been as simple as needing to eat more frequently.
On New Years Eve at the Purge and Splurge 30 mile run, we stopped around mile 20 to pick up some aid and add some layers. I had been been holding off fueling because I knew we’d be stopping soon. Once starting back up I quickly found myself in that dreaded walk/run trudge. If that were the case it was going to be a very long, cold, final 10 miles. A Gu and two mini snickers bars later and I was back to running and feeling strong within minutes. I was even able to close the gap that had been slowly increasing as everyone ran off ahead while I was wallowing in the caloric hole I had been digging for myself. My strategy for that day had been to fuel every hour on the hour. I had made some raspberry chocolate rice cakes that I had been experimenting with some success, and that was to be my primary fuel source, but I brought some emergency Gus as well. The snickers bars I just happened to grab at the impromptu aid station. I don’t normally carry literal candy, but it sounded great a the time. My one regret was only grabbing two. Once I was able to prove to myself how fast I could change how I felt with food I started fueling at 45 minute intervals instead of hourly for the remainder of the run.
My next fueling test/experiment was at the Tillamook Burn 20 mile Fat Ass. This time I was going to start fueling at 45 minute intervals and stick with it. I was alternating between Gus and some homemade power bars I made. It was an out and back course entirely covered in snow with just over 4000′ of gain. It was a tough day for sure, but I did my best to push the pace the entire way. Just after the 10 mile turnaround I was struggling after pushing the first 10 miles as hard as I did. Actually, out of respect for the carpool driver I had actually agreed to only run the 10 out and hop in the van because he had a time he had to leave, and with the conditions I didn’t want to be the one holding anyone up. Once I arrived at the van after making such good time he said I had plenty of time to do the whole 20 if I wanted to. Once again, after a short stop I found it hard to get things going again. a full 45 minutes hadn’t passed yet, but I went ahead and ate my bar, and not long after I was back to running strong. I was afraid that I had emptied the tank too much on the way out thinking this was a one way trip, but after digging back out of the hole I was able to stay on top of things and keep pushing at a strong pace. I even negative split the second half to my surprise. Given the difficult conditions and what I was able to learn about myself in the process, I was extremely happy with the day. It may have actually been the strongest 20 miles I’ve ever run.
Now that I have a much better idea of what works I’ve simply set an alarm on my watch to go off every 45 minutes to tell me to eat. Remembering time intervals on a long run can get tricky, and even getting 5 minutes behind the schedule can have consequences. My original method wasn’t even time based. I started out eating every 5 miles, an then eventually 4.5 miles. Pace can very so much though that that just isn’t reliable. So for now it seems I’ve solved for one more variable in this great experiment of one.
2o16, for me, is going to be a year of “let’s find out.” I’ll be entering my third year as a runner, and since I’ve already accomplished far more than I ever thought I was capable of, I’m no longer hesitant, but curious, to see how much further I can push things. Never in my life would I have ever thought to consider myself an athlete, but if I can work myself up from a 5k to 50 miles, then just maybe there’s a little untapped potential that I only need to be courageous enough to dig into. Notice I didn’t say call upon like it’s something I command, no, I must dig. This is going to take work, and lots of it.
When I set out to push things in 2015 I thought for sure after training for and completing a 50 miler I’d be at my limit and ready for a well earned break. Not to stop running, but just to bring things back to a more “normal” level of running, so I left the second half of the year fairly open. I had one friend tell me I just needed to keep it going and go after my first 100 miler, and while I still don’t think I should have gone to that extreme, I recently discovered my body and my mind did greatly miss the higher mileage weeks. These past few weeks have been the first where my mileage has reached back into the 40’s and I feel great. Normal. I didn’t realize I felt off until I ramped my mileage back up and capped the week off with a 20 mile run and then all at once my energy and enthusiasm for running came rushing back. I even chased that with a 9 mile Winter Solstice run up Angel’s and Devil’s Rest the next night! All the doubt of whether I could or even wanted to push things further washed away. I was so instantly bit by distance again that I decided to close the year out with a 30 mile point to point run of the Wildwood Trail in Forest park as part of Team Red Lizard’s annual Purge and Splurge event. Instead of telling myself I couldn’t or shouldn’t do “x” because I haven’t done “y,” I just went for it. It wasn’t a race, and there weren’t cut offs, so there wasn’t going to be a need to really push the pace, but I felt like there was a very high probability that the day would end in a miserable death march. Thankfully, it didn’t, and I only had one low point that was easily remedied by some calories. Otherwise, it was a wonderful day spent with 8, at the time strangers, covering 30 miles of single track.
In 2015 I used the comfort of a training plan to guide me into uncharted territory, and while I’m still going to follow a training plan to continue the distance journey, I’m going to leave a lot more room for spontaneity and adventure. If training is only calling for a 20 miler, but I have the option to run 40 miles on the Rogue River Trail, I’m just going for it. If a weekend lends itself to a backpacking trip then I’ll skip the run and chase the new adventure. If I don’t lottery into a race, then I’ll plan my own adventure run, solo if need be. And since 40-50 miles a week is where I seem to feel “normal” then maybe I need to find out if I can bring my training mileage into the 60’s and 70’s and become an even stronger runner. This fire is burning hot and it only seems to want more fuel.
My first on the race on the calendar for 2016 will be the Sycamore 25k in Arkansas on February 20th. I was forced to DNS last year due to an ice storm preventing travel, so hopefully that doesn’t happen again, but my dad and I will be running this together to celebrate his 63rd birthday and retirement. This will be a distance PR for him, and it’s going to be a fun experience all around. Next will be the Yakima Skyline Rim 50k on April 16th. 9500 feet of gain for a 50k…ouch, but the trail and wide open views look beautiful! My goal race for the year is going to be the Mountain Lakes 100 on September 26th. I just need to find out what it’s like to cover that kind of distance and run for over 24 hours. The training race that fits my training plan the best is the Waldo 100k on August 20th. It’s a lottery though so I’m at the mercy of the luck of the draw there. My backup plan is to run the Timberline Trail that weekend, a 40ish mile circumnavigation of Mt. Hood. And I’m on the fence on whether or not running the Volcanic 50k on September 5th would be biting off more than I can chew right between Waldo and Mountain Lakes, but I guess that’s where the whole “Let’s find out” comes back into play. Who knows, I may very well break myself along the way, but we’re going to find out lol.
Cheers to an adventurous 2016!!! Bring it!
With pretty much all of my focus being put on trail running since December of last year, I thought it would be interesting to run a road marathon, and being new to the Pacific Northwest, the Portland Marathon seemed like an interesting way to explore my new city. After so many 4+ hour training runs, and an 11 hour and 35 minute 50 mile run, I thought it would be interesting to see how I reacted mentally to the shorter race. Plus, a lot of my shorter, weekday training runs for my 50 miler were done on the road, and I could tell I was getting stronger and faster. My only other marathon was last December in Memphis, TN, and I finished with a time of 4:37:06. I was fairly certain I could run my next faster, but had no clue how much faster.
My original plan was to maintain the weekly mileage of my ultra training and modify the long runs appropiately. However, after my 50 miler, my training consistency pretty much fell apart. I had a good recovery, and started working towards building mileage again, but then went on a 16 day Wildland Firefighting assignment near Crater Lake National Park, and ended up with a total of 20 days without a single mile ran. Plenty of manual labor, hiking, and lugging gear 16 hours a day. Not quite running, but definitely solid cross training. I eventually was able to start building mileage again, but I didn’t have much time to ramp up to a 20ish mile long run and taper; only 3 weeks to build and then a 2 week taper until race day. My first long run of 14 miles was one of the more agonizing runs in recent memory. Not only did my legs really feel it, but my energy systems were all out of whack. Not running for so long, and not being anywhere remotely in control of my diet on the fire assignment seemed to have messed with my fat burning, and my crashes seemed abrupt. I did have a fantastic 21 mile run trail run 2 weeks later though, where I felt strong pretty much the entire way. My food dependency was still very out of sorts though, it took me 2 Clif bars and 3 gels to get through the run. I would just going from fine to starving very quickly. I actually feel like I’m only now getting my nutrition back under control to where I have sustained energy on long runs.
Race day finally arrived, and without the comfort of training consistency, I decided to just go out and run what I felt was a sustainable pace for as long as I could and see where it got me. For nutrition I was carrying 4 Gus. For whatever reason, the Portland Marathon would not have any traditional gels at their aid stations. At every aid station, they had water and some electrolyte drink I’d never heard that could apparently only be found at Whole Foods, and a few of the later aid stations had gummy bears and pretzels. The starting area was a sea of people and a winding array of porta-potty lines. Loud music, cheers, and announcers echoed through the streets. Nothing like the low key trail race starts I had become accustomed to. Despite the contrast, the energy was infectious and I was getting excited for the run ahead. About 4 miles in, that energetic buzz was wearing off and I was missing the silence of nature and the solitude of running on singletrack. Crowds cheered, loud music blared, and I was practically shoulder to shoulder with runners. Finding that quiet mental space to enjoy the run was a struggle to say the least.
As far as my performance went, I felt really strong for the first 18 miles, but I could feel the fatigue setting in. By mile 20, a day that had started in the high 40s was now approaching 80, and I was feeling pretty rough. The wheels were starting to fall off. The last couple of mile were plagued by calf cramps that may have been remedied by a 5th Gu that I didn’t have. I tried their mystery electrolyte drink and it tasted horrible. Gummy bears would also not prove to be my savior. While I’ve managed to feel relatively strong crossing the finish line at every race to date, this one would be a walk/run. I couldn’t even run the last .2 miles without stopping. It was demoralizing to say the least. Despite the last 6.2 being less than fun, I still managed to shave 22 minutes off of my previous PR with a finish time of 4:15:12, and it was very educational to hit “the wall” and know what it’s like to push too hard for too long. Could it have been avoided if I would have ran 10 seconds per mile slower? Did this only happen because of the much warmer temps at the end? Was I doomed from the start since I trained on trails for a road race? Who knows. While I definitely enjoy seeing improvement, I still run for the enjoyment of it, not chasing a number.
What I learned most that day was that I enjoy trail running far, FAR more than road running. I’m highly motivated by my surroundings and the adventure of trail running. I’ll take the solitude and the only support being a thinly manned aid station every 5-10 miles over cheering crowds and aid every mile any day. I’ll take steep, unrunnable climbs over “fast and flat” hands down. I’ll take streams, trees, meadows, and mountain views over city streets. I’ll even take an event that takes almost 12 hours to complete over a 4ish hour road marathon. I just enjoy the unique mental challenge of such an endurance event, and I enjoy being one with nature.
So what’s next? I’m currently awaiting the lottery results to see if I’ll be running the Gorge Falls 50k. That will be my first ultra of 2016. I’d also like to run the Volcanic 50k. Beyond that, I plan on finding other events in the 50k-50 mile range, and possibly a 100k, to develop as a runner. My training focus will now include a lot of sustained climbing. I keep going back and forth on whether or not I should tackle the 100 mile distance in 2016, or if I should wait until 2017. There are times when running for over 24 hours sounds like the most exhilarating challenge in the world, and there are times when I dread the thought of the training commitment. Then I tell myself, if you can find time to train for 50 miles, you can find time to train for 100. Running the Mountain Lakes 100m is a good possibility for September of 2016 though.
This past weekend I completed my first 50 miler. Words honestly can’t describe the experience, but I will do my best to try. The event was the Siskiyou Outback 50m, aptly abbreviated as the SOB. The SOB is a very beautiful and challenging course that starts at Mt. Ashland and follows the Pacific Crest Trail out and back, racking up just over 7000 feet of climbing along the way, and even taking you into California.
My day started at about 4am with a fairly standard runner’s breakfast of a bagel with peanut butter, a banana, and coffee. All of this was quietly prepared and consumed in the dark parking lot of a campground about a half mile from the starting line. Race bibs and timing chips could be picked up any time after 5:15am for a 6am start. That hour and fifteen minutes went by entirely too fast. I didn’t have any plans to wake any of my supporters to see me off, but my friend Landon, whom I’m actively roping into trail running, surprised me and woke on his own. I gave my sleepy wife a goodbye kiss, and Landon and I took off for the start line. As I was standing at the table to get my bib and chip, none other than Hal Koerner himself energetically approaches the table like a kid at Christmas, and asks if their are any extra 50 mile bibs. He decided at the last minute that he wanted to run. Hopefully not looking too eager, I gave a quick hello and a handshake.
6am arrived quickly, and before I knew it I was running the first steps of many toward whatever physical and mental challenges lay ahead of me that day. I felt calm and my mind was surprisingly blank. The group of 100+ runners quietly set off down the forest road, but the silence was broken with loud cheers once we made the first glimpse of a bright pink SOB sign pointing toward the PCT trailhead. Once on the PCT it was clear this was going to be a beautiful race. Within the first couple of miles we’d already passed through gorgeous meadows, crossed springs, and you never had to turn your head too far to see mountains. Before I knew it the first aid station was coming up.
For nutrition I decided to stick with Tailwind in my bladder, but with a more diluted mix, and supplement with whatever was at the aid station tables. I figured peanut butter and jelly sandwiches would be all but guaranteed. Arrived at the first aid station, and no peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were made. The ingredients were there, but not combined in their glorious trinity. There was a box of donuts, but I wasn’t that brave. I opted for a few banana halves and an orange wedge.
Aid stations were roughly every 5 miles. I continued with the fruit throughout the race, and it seemed to work well. I had bananas, peaches, grapes, watermelon….oh the watermelon. Talk about a slice of heaven. Calories and refreshment all in one. I’d also grab a PB&J square or two here and there for fat and protein. On my first trip through the Jackson Gap aid station (roughly mile 15), I was greeted with a live Bluegrass band!!! I don’t think there was much that could have surprised me more.
At around mile 18 I encountered the first place runner on his return. 5 minutes later Hal passed with a high five. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to run at their intensity.
Wards Gap aid station marked 22 miles, and up until this point things seemed to go by fairly quickly, and I still felt like I was running strongly. The next 3 miles to the turn around were all uphill though, and that final mile….it was really uphill. At the top of a scree pile named Big Rock, there was a volunteer handing out little green army men that we were to take back to Wards Gap to prove we made it all the way to the turn around. I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard for a toy in my entire life. The only good thing about the 3 miles of all up was the fact that I now had 3 glorious miles of all down. On the way back I was trying to come up with a way to celebrate the occasion of picking up my new battle buddy. Once the aid station was in sight I yelled out my best “Gooooooood Mooorning Vietnaaam!!!” Robin Williams impersonation. The volunteers all had a good laugh.
That was probably the last time there was any laughing, at least for a while. Several people had told me to be sure and save something for the 3 mile climb around the 44 mile mark, but no one ever mentioned the 6 mile death march that started at the 28 mile mark. To me, this was the longest and most difficult portion of the race. Unfortunately, there was a lot of power hiking. Anytime things would even remotely flatten out I’d run, even if it was for 20 feet, but most of it was too steep for my current abilities. I kept moving though. At one point I had a pretty nerdy motivational moment, and had a scene from V for Vendetta play out in my mind. “Creedy: Die! Die! Why won’t you die?… Why won’t you die?
V: Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof!”
The 6 mile uphill trudge did eventually come to an end, and once it did, I was back to running…at least for a few miles. All the power hiking wore out my hip flexors and they were starting to cramp. I tried to run through it, but they tightened up so much that my stride was that of someone with their shoelaces tied together. I stopped, shot a gel, and took an S-Cap. The relief was near instantaneous. Placebo effect, neural chemical response, whatever. I was grateful. I started to run again. Up until this point I had relied on sold food, and the electrolytes provided by my Tailwind, but it looked like I was going to have to supplement some more.
I arrived back at the Jackson Gap aid station (the 35 mile mark), sadly the band had gone home. I followed my usual solid food regimen, but also grabbed a couple more gels just in case. This time taking off, I could really feel the extra effort my body was taking to process the solid food. I felt sluggish and my heart rate was quick to spike. It eventually passed and I was running with relative ease again until hip flexor cramps returned, this time not as debilitating though. I shot another gel and took two S-caps. My body just needed faster energy and more electrolytes in the later miles.
When I arrived at the 40 mile mark aid station I just went for gels. My stomach hadn’t turned on me, but the gels were just far easier to process. I ran the last 10 miles in the best I could. I was amazed that I could still run so well, and even at a decent pace when the terrain permitted. Aside from the hip flexor cramps, I hadn’t had any other issues other than just being fatigued from running so long. The weather was perfect. We started the day in the mid 40s, and the high was in the mid 60s. Running at elevations of 6000-7000 feet didn’t seem to affect me. My feet didn’t even hurt!!! I was in pretty good shape!
I eventually made it back to the same road that initially led to the PCT. The finish line was only a mile away. Before I knew it I was crossing it at full stride, and someone placed a medal around my kneck. It took me 11 hours 34 minutes and 35 seconds. It was a long day, and it was a hard day, but I enjoyed every step. Would I have liked a faster time? Sure, but I finished, and that was the primary goal. There is always room for improvement, and there will most certainly be more 50 milers in my future.
Things have been getting more and more real with each passing day. I have moments where the task seems daunting, but for the most part the challenge exhilarates me. I’ve trained a long time for this; I’m crossing that finish line.
The Mary’s Peak 50k went well, but there were still some lessons learned there. Probably the most crucial being that my original nutrition plan was not going to work. I’ve gone from drinking Tailwind for calories and electrolytes, and supplementing with solid food here and there, to relying solely on what the aid stations offerings, drinking pure water, and taking S-caps for electrolytes. I’ve tested it out on every long run since the 50k and things seem to work fine. For a 25 miler I ran a series of out and backs from my car that was stocked with PB&J’s and a bottle of S-caps. I never experienced any of the cramping that I did towards the end the 50k since I was doing nothing to replace electrolytes after dumping my tailwind halfway through. I realize that the effort level on race day is much greater than a training run, so I’m sure there are still some unknown variables out there. I was also entertaining the idea of just using a handheld instead of a hydration vest since I was no longer carrying my fuel, but my 20 ounce bottle was running dry too fast on the 25 miler. The forecast is predicting a high of 90 in Ashland for race day, and I’ve been told by several people that the race is notoriously hot and the course is exposed. Much better to have the extra water than not enough. Even with a 6am start time, I’ll be out there in excess of 10 hours. There is no avoiding the heat of the day.
Embrace the Suck
Yesterday I ran the Mary’s Peak 50k, which was the training race leading up to the SOB 50 miler this July. Everyone met at a school in Blodgett, OR for packet pickup, and to be bused to the starting line at the base of Mary’s Peak. The starting line was nothing fancy, just a mark on a gravel road. No timing equipment or starting guns, just a “5, 4, 3, 2, 1..Go!” and the roughy 100 50kers set off on their way.
The first mile and a half or so was a gradual downhill on a gravel road until we reached the trailhead to start the Mary’s Peak ascent, 3000 feet of climbing over the next 8 miles. My strategy was to run anything flat, run the steady climbs, and then let momentum dictate when to power hike the steeper sections. The strategy seemed to work well, and the 8 miles of windy, dirt trail through fern and fir forest was over before I knew it. The first aid station was just above the tree line still on our way to the top. I was using a hydration vest so I didn’t need anything other than some cold, clean water to cleanse the palate of the Tailwind I had been sipping on. At the top of Mary’s Peak (which is part of the Coastal Mountain Range) you get an amazing 360 degree view. Out to the east you could see peaks of the Cascade Range in the distance, and to the west off in the far far distance was the ocean, which is apparently only visible on the clearest of days. It was all beautiful.
What goes up must come down. The next 8 miles was a very welcome trip back down the mountain. I thought the hardest part of the course was over, 3000 feet of climb in the first 8 miles, and the remaining 2000 feet were spread over the remainder of the course. Cake! That’s a whole lot of nope. The next aid station was somewhere around the 14 mile mark, and the signage said the next station would be another 5.8 miles away. On my training runs a 2 liter bladder has lasted me as long as 20 miles so I decided not to refill. The aid station was very well stocked with variety of food and lots of smiling faces. I grabbed some Oreo brownie bites and water before departing. I was also carrying fig bars to eat as needed in my pack. A few miles before the last aid station I had started to encounter other runners, and kept pace for a while with a lady from Eugene that had ran this course last year. The conversation and camaraderie was very welcome, and before I knew it the first half of the course had come and gone. After a while, I needed to slow things down a bit so I could eat, and my running friend powered on. She was looking strong so I didn’t think I’d see her again.
I eventually arrived at the next aid station and it was time to refill the bladder. While I was there I had some water and a few heavenly drinks of coca cola. I was still running solo, and set off to discover what was to be the hardest parts of the course. The race director warned us not to underestimate the climbs in the later miles of the race. When you look at the elevation chart on the site, everything else looks deceptively minuscule compared to the mountain. Besides the steep climbs the day was also warming up. I was starting to encounter more runners again, and would play leap frog and converse off and on with a few as the course played to our strengths and weaknesses. It turns out that I am a strong power hiker. All of the miles I’ve been logging for my field biology work were really paying off. I was able to go strong up the steep pitches and recover enough to keep a steady cruise when things would flatten back out. I eventually came to an unmanned water only aid station and decided that I was done with Tailwind. Ladies and gentleman, our nutrition plan has just gone out the window. I dumped most of the Tailwind and filled back up with pure water. I don’t know if I just mixed it too strong for the day, but with the climbing temps water was the only thing I wanted. I was hoping leaving the small amount of Tailwind I did would at least give me a little bit of electrolytes since I didn’t have any S-Caps or Endurolytes with me. I had also only eaten two fig squares thus far, when I would have normally eaten 4 for this mileage, but I was going based on hunger and how I felt, and I was feeling great. Normally on training runs my stomach would rumble every 4-5 miles. That wasn’t happening today.
Things continued to go well, and the course would go through a mix of logging roads, winding exposed meadows, and the usual green forests. To keep things interesting there was the occasional downed tree to scurry over, or sometimes under. Not always any easy task on tired legs. Some of the wooded areas we’d enter would have signs hung by the race director, probably to give us something to remember and maybe even chuckle about. There was, if I remember the names right, Imagination Land, Mohawk Alley, Collarbone Ridge, and most memorable of all…Carl’s Adventure. I don’t know who Carl is, but I don’t think we’ll ever be friends. There will climbs so steep up dirt single track that I was power hiking up them on my tiptoes. I arrived at the final aid station, 4.6 miles from the finish, still having fun and feeling strong. I had actually caught up to some familiar faces too! I joked with the aid station crew about Carl’s Adventure, and one guy laughed and said it’s a blast on a mountain bike going the opposite direction we had to run it. Since I ditched my Tailwind I had to rely on aid station fare now. I had a few shots of Coke again, and ate part of a Nutella and jelly sandwich. If that wasn’t enough I still had my fig bars, and some emergency gels with me. I thanked the aid station crew and headed out on the final stretch. It was all gravel road. A mile or so after the aid station I had managed to catch up with familiar faces, one was even the lady from Eugene. I was riding a high point and kept pushing on. Just as I was approaching the sign marking the final mile I could here footsteps gaining on me. It was the girl from Eugene with a big smile on her face feeling strong for the final push. Not long and we made it to the demoralizing climb for the final half mile. There would be no sprint to the finish for this race. It would be a slow trudge battling through random muscle cramps, exchanging encouraging words to get to the top before circling around to the finish line. I crossed the line with an official finish time of 6:25:10, which put me 43rd out of 100. Always the venerable midpacker.
Overall it was a great race, and a great experience. The course was definitely challenging, but I had a blast. I couldn’t believe how fast the day ticked by. It was just what I needed to get the confidence up for my 50 miler. I met a lot of great people, both on and off the trail. Aid stations were well stocked, and everyone was very friendly and supportive. You can’t beat the trail and ultra community.
May was an interesting month for training. I started my new position as a field biologist May 3rd, and as the month progressed I was spending more and more days in the field, and I also moved to 4 10 hour days. I spend a lot of time hiking and bushwhacking at 3000-4000 feet, and can easily get 2000 feet of climbing in a day. Coming from a desk job where I’d be in a chair for the bulk of my 8 hour day, it has taken some getting used to. Before, I’d get home from work itching for a run, now I get home from work pretty worn out, it’s already almost 7pm, and I’m ready to be done. The best solution that I have found for now is to drop my Wednesday run. I know mile for mile a hike isn’t worth as much as running, but it’s all time on legs, and it’s got to count for something, especially with the steep climbs. Having that extra day has left me feeling far more refreshed mentally and physically for both work and training. Even with the dropped day, I still managed to set a personal record for monthly miles logged. I also managed to get bit by a dog on one of my weekday evening runs. Nice big boxer. Didn’t really break the skin, thankfully, but it’s bruised and tender. I thought the owner had control of the dog, but apparently not enough control. Not a pleasant experience.
May also introduced consistent back to back long runs for the weekends, starting at 14 and 10 and moving to 18 and 10. The 14 and 10s weren’t too rough, but running that first 10 after 18 the day before was something to be remembered. The first 3 miles of that run had my heart pounding so hard I could feel it in my jaw. It was my first time running this particular section of the Wildwood Trail, and I was so focused on gutting it out that I didn’t even notice any of the streams or bridges until the return trip. Things looked so out of place that I thought I took a wrong turn and had to ask a few passerby if I was heading the right way. Thankfully, after 3 miles something clicked and my legs just took over. My heart rate steadied, my turnover increased, and I had energy again. It ended up being a fantastic run, and I was hit with the biggest dose of runners high I’ve experienced since I started running. I ran the same 18 and 10 this weekend, and the 10 miles went much MUCH better. It was actually one of the best runs I’ve had in recent memory.
My Sunday runs as a whole have been more enjoyable now that I’ve started meeting up with the Portland Running Company for their group run. I don’t mind running solo during the week, but on the weekend longs runs just go by so much better with company. I push harder too. The first group run I showed up for, my training called for 14 miles, and there were 4 or 5 people (of the close to 20) that were more than happy with that distance. The group meets on Thurman Street, which is conveniently close to Forest Park, so you have single track options with Wildwood and it’s adjoining trails, or you can take Leif Erikson Drive, which is more of a crushed rock surface. Ryan, the organizer, said we’d just keep it simple and do an out and back on Leif Erikson. Thurman is flat at first but very quickly starts to climb. About 2 miles into the run we’re still climbing and I asked when it leveled out. “Around mile 6” was the reply I got. One thing I’m learning about Portland and the surrounding areas is that everything starts on a hill. That’s something this flatlander is not accustomed to. I did my best to hang on, and at the end of my run I discovered I ran my 3rd fastest half marathon. Had there not been a 781 foot 6 mile climb, I’m pretty sure I would have PR’d that day. Today was my 3rd run with them, and the highlight was running with Mark Remy from Runner’s World.
For my training 50k, I signed up for Mary’s Peak on June 20th. It’s a little longer than 31 miles, 32.5 I think (yay bonus miles!), and you cover 3000 feet of climb up a mountain over the first 8ish miles. The good side to that is you have 8 or 9 miles of downhill afterwards. This flatlander will become a strong climber yet. I toyed with the idea of doing a self supported 50k, or asking some of the trail runners with the PRC to pace me for a bit, but the idea of an organized race is far more exciting. It will also give me a more realistic test for my gear, fueling, and hydration. The course looks like it’s going to be an ass kicker, but I’m excited to experience that race day energy.
In other news, I continue my quest to find the best burrito in Portland. So far I have not been disappointed, and habanero has been a common theme : )
This blog post is a little late, but free time has been at a premium between moving and starting a new career. April was a mostly solid training month until the last week and a half or so where long runs were replaced with filling a moving truck, and then I spent 3 days in a car driving across the country to Oregon.
The highlight of April was the River to River Relay in Southern Illinois. Teams of eight run 80 miles from the Mississippi River to the Ohio River. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it, but had a blast being stuck in a van all day with great friends. The day started around 430am. We all met in the hotel lobby in Marion, IL, which is where packet pickup was the previous day. Due to the remoteness of the relay route, Marion was actually over an hour from the starting line. It was still dark when we got close to the starting area, but you could see the line of headlights of the other vans making there way through the hills in the distance. The whole day was comprised of about 50 other vans dropping a runner off and then leap frogging to the next relay point to pickup/drop off runners. In the van, you’re cheering runners as you pass them and fueling/recovering for and from your own legs. The van started out organized, but very quickly became a chaotic array of sports bottles, snacks, and sprawled out sweaty runners. The official results still aren’t posted yet so I can’t share the specifics or placing, but we were one of the last teams to cross the finish line before the race was called due to severe weather. We managed to go the entire day without even getting rained on, but our 8th runner ran the last leg in the rain. Within minutes of crossing the finish line the rain became a downpour, and shortly thereafter a hail storm. It had to be very frustrating for teams to put in an 8 to 10 hour day (depending on their start time) only to be told to clear the course and drive to safety. Overall, it was an amazing experience, and our entire team of runners ran their heart out. After spending an entire day where my entire universe was comprised of running, supporting other runners, and constantly being active and on the go, I almost didn’t know what to do with myself the next day. Getting up and sipping coffee in a quiet house just didn’t hold the same appeal. I definitely missed the adrenaline rush of running and competing, and the positive and supportive environment of the relay van.
This was my last hoorah with my Illinois running family, and words can’t describe how much they’ll be missed. They are the reason I’m the runner I am today, or even a runner at all.
Yes there is an exclamation point in the title! While February was a month of frustration and a much lower than planned 98.52 miles, March was a fantastic month of training. I ended the month with 178.2 miles, which is a new record for me.
There were thankfully no missed runs, and a few of them ended up being a few miles longer than planned. That’s just part of trail running though, sometimes you get a little lost, sometimes you explore a new route, and sometimes someone talks you into going just a little further.
I didn’t have any issues ramping the weekly mileage back up, but I could really feel the accumulated fatigue the first week. Making sure my recovery runs were an easy enough effort on the subsequent weeks made it so I was able push on my harder days, and also feel strong on my long runs. My final long run of the month was a 22 miler, and that’s the strongest my legs have felt on that length of a trail run, and the paces are gradually getting faster too.
One major focus has been experimenting with different nutrition. I’ve had long runs fueled on nothing but PB&Js, and I’ve also experimented with two different liquid fuels, Hammer Perpetuem and Tailwind, but still supplemented with smaller portions of solid food. Energy levels have been fairly even with both liquid methods, but I still feel like my strongest runs have been with Tailwind. I like that Tailwind also takes care of my electrolyte replenishment because I’m a salty sweater. I drink to thirst though, so sometimes I may fall behind on my calorie intake if I’m not drinking regularly. I also question whether I really need THAT much sodium. Perpetuem is stored in a separate bottle so my hydration and fueling are completely separate, but I have to additionally supplement my electrolytes with S-Caps or Endurolytes. It still works, but that’s more to keep track of. I wish I felt comfortable enough relying on aid station fare alone, but I feel like it’s easier to stay on top of my nutrition if fuel is always readily available. I haven’t settled on anything yet, and will continue to experiment.
In other news, my goal race has changed. I was originally signed up for the Kettle Moraine 100k, but had to change things…………..because I’m moving to Oregon!!! I’ll now be running the Siskiyou Out Back 50 miler instead. The starting line is at 6500 feet, so I’ll have some elevation to adapt to, but the course sounds amazing. I’ll have access to so many different trail systems to train on now, and my new position as a natural resources biologist will greatly increase my time on legs. It will probably take some time to adapt to hiking all day and working, and still having it in me to go for a 10 mile run. I’ll just really have to listen to my body, and take additional rest as needed.
April will be an exciting month for many reasons. First off, I’ll be volunteering at and photographing the inaugural Ozark Foothills 25/50k on April 11th. Secondly, I’ll be running the River to River Relay on April 25th with the lovely folks from Runwell. Being the new guy to the relay team I’ve been given leg 6, the hardest routes on the course. And finally, three days later I’ll be loading up to drive across the country to Oregon. I can’t think of a better last hurrah than spending a weekend in a van with 7 other runners, running from the Mississippi River to the Ohio River. Depending on travel requirements it’s still up in the air on whether I’ll get any trail running in as I journey across the US.
And now for some photos I snapped on the trails…
I woke up this morning with yesterday’s blog post still on my mind. I tried my hardest to find the positive in last month’s running, but I just couldn’t. Even this morning it bothered me that I had such a negative outlook after a short derailment in training. I’ve read so much about ultrarunning and how much of a mental challenge it is. There will almost always be low points a runner has to battle through during long training runs and races. During those lows the runner has to fight through and convince him or herself to keep going, to put one foot in front of the other. It’s easy to just give up and say today isn’t my day. Sometimes you may question why you even pursue these endurance challenges at all.
Apparently training has its low points too, and that’s where my head began to go. When you are supposed to be consistently in the 40s and 50s for your weekly mileage, and you’re logging weeks in the 20s, and one week in the teens, your motivation can really take a hit. You start to wade through the darker places. How am I ever going to achieve this goal of these obstacles keep getting in the way? Some of them may be within your control, some of them not. It’s all too easy to become frustrated and let the missed runs you couldn’t control carry over into the runs you should have crawled out of bed to tackle. You start to question the time commitment it requires to train for distances of 50 miles and greater. You start to think its not worth it and it would just be easier to maintain a level of fitness that just allows you to tackle marathons and 50ks, or that maybe you should push the longer distances off a year or too while you build confidence. It’s not a fun place to be, but I’ve got to learn to drag myself out of the training lows so I know I can do the same on race day. Roll with the punches. Troubleshoot on the fly. In the end I’ll come through with even more resolve. So instead of always trying to be positive maybe I should approach it like a race. There will be lows. Period. Just know they’re coming and prepare and learn how to get through them. In the end I’ll be stronger for it.
What kind of mental struggles have you experienced in training or during a race, and how did you get through them?
February was quite a different training month than January. I was adapting well and very much enjoying the increase in mileage, and then I was hit with a one-two punch of terrible winter weather and training/life balance issues. Most frustrating of all was the ice storm that prevented my dad, wife, and I from running the Sylamore 25k that we’d been talking about running for roughly a year. Not exactly a training run that can be rescheduled.
I still managed to get out and complete a fair amount of the training runs for the month, they just had to be shortened sometimes. I’d like to think the extra effort it took to trail run through 7 inches of fresh snow made up for some of the lack of distance, but I’m still aggravated that 3 weeks were well below my planned mileage.
Some good came from the adverse conditions though. The inability to use my usual paved trail system for my weekday morning runs forced me to explore other road routes through the neighborhoods. Plenty of hilly options to mix it up from the usual routine now too. There is also nothing quite like running through fresh snow. The world becomes so peaceful, like no one exists but you.
I guess the big take away for this month is to learn to roll with the punches, and trust it will all work out come race day. March promises much warmer weather, and with that, hopefully a return to higher weekly mileage. I managed to get out and enjoy the nice weather today with a 23 mile trail run.
Here is what I had to say on the subject…
Whether you’re a trail hardened veteran, or new to trail running, there is always the choice to log your miles solo or with others. Our schedules probably naturally gravitate us in one direction or the other, but we’ll go over some of the pros and cons of each to shed some light on which option may benefit different aspects of training. Since the trail and ultra community is all about just that, the community, we’ll start with the pros and cons of running with a group.
To quote Woody Allen, “80% of life is just showing up.” Group runs hold us accountable. It’s far more difficult to talk yourself out of a run if you’ve got a great group of people relying on you to show up. Even if it’s just one other person that you don’t want to let down, you’re far more likely to show up for your run. We all know how daunting the thought of a long run alone can be. Knowing you’ve got at least one other person committed makes the hours of running ahead of you far more achievable, and even enjoyable. If you have a large group, and the free time, make the best of it. Turn a long trail run into a cookout afterwards. Everyone brings some food and beer to contribute, and not only do you have your post run meal, but you’ve got yourselves a party!
Running with a group is a great way to push your limits too. The only way to run faster is to run faster. We’ve all had those runs where we fall into the same comfortable pace, but with a group there are runners of all paces, and there is almost always someone faster than you. The same way we get caught up on race day running faster than we should, during a group run you’ll end up trying to stay with the front runners without even a moments consideration. Sure, we may not be able to hold that pace the entire outing, but every time you go out faster you’re conditioning your body to handle the harder effort. Eventually you become that faster runner that people are trying to stay with. And you won’t run just faster, but further! It’s easy to talk yourself into a few more miles if you’re having a great time and everyone is going a little farther as well. When I first started running, anything beyond three miles was the stuff of fiction. I showed up to one weeknight group run, and the usual route was 6 miles. It took some time, but every week I pushed myself a little further until I could go the full distance. If someone else can do it then so can you. The same mentality can carry you all the way to the ultra distances.
Do you know all there is to know about running? Yeah, me either, but there is a wealth of knowledge out in the trail community, and they are more than happy to share their passion for trail running, their trials and errors with fueling and hydration, great race stories, and even some lessons on trail etiquette. The only way you’re going to learn any of this is to get out and be a part of that community.
While all of the previous sounds fine and good, there are definitely times when it’s very beneficial to go it alone. Maybe you prefer to run solo, and you know it, and just use a social group run to break the funk? Perhaps the only time you get a run in is with the group, and you need some encouragement to tackle some solo miles? Maybe the only time you have to squeeze a run in is at 430am from your front door? Whatever the case here are reasons to go it alone.
Some of us choose to take our trail running to an actual organized event. Whether you call it racing, or just paying for aid stations, that’s up to you, but if you have a set event in mind to measure yourself against, there are some days you have to put some focused work in. Whether it’s an easy run on a recovery day, hill repeats, or a hard tempo run, you can’t always get the most out of those days if you are keeping up with, or waiting around for others. Sometimes your pace has to be your own.
Nothing builds mental toughness like a long run by yourself. When you hit that dark spot, whether it’s mental or physical, the only person that is going to keep you putting one foot in front of the other is you. The more you can confront that in training, the more prepared you’ll be on race day.
In the end, there are probably far more benefits to meeting up with other trail runners when the opportunity presents itself, but solo runs do have their place too. If you’re disciplined enough you can even reap the benefits of both at once. Use the group to hold you accountable so you show up, but maintain your own pace or workout for your training needs. Sometimes it’s motivation enough just knowing someone else is out their on the trail. And if you’re new to trail running, and all of your runs have been done solo, be sure and introduce yourself to the other runners on the trail. You’ll hardly find a more welcoming adoptive family than the trail and ultra community.
January marked my first full month of ultra training. I’m using one of the training plans suggested in Bryon Powell’s Relentless Forward Progress. My first few weeks were fairly average as far as mileage goes, low to mid 30s. The past 2 weeks, and from here on out, I’ll be consistently in the 40s and 50s for weekly mileage. Prior to this I had only broken the 40 mile mark 3 times.
The biggest immediate difference from my usual routine is the higher mileage weekday runs. During marathon training I’d run 4 miles before work a couple mornings a week, and Wednesday was always my midweek longer run of 6 miles, which eventually crept to 8 miles at peak training. With this plan I’m running at least 7 miles twice a week, and my Wednesday run is now reduced to 5 miles. My Tuesday morning run jumps to 10 miles shortly, and Thursdays are to have periods of speedwork as part of the run The consistently higher weekday mileage has made a huge difference. In a way, I feel like my previous 4 mile runs were me just squeezing something in to keep my legs moving. I was just kind of going through the motions. Regularly running longer than an hour has been a very welcome change.
Running long on the weekends is nothing new, and even running long back to backs was something I dabbled with during my marathon training simply because I couldn’t stay away from the trails on Sundays even after running long on the road Saturday. It drove me nuts having to put my focus on road running, but now my long run focus is thankfully back on the trails. This month had my longest run hitting 18 miles, and February will reintroduce long back to backs.
Last weekend I tackled my longest solo run to date. My plan called for 18 (turned into 20), but since I was out of town I wouldn’t have my usual support group to rely on. Prior to this my longest solo run was 12 miles. I made a bit of an adventure out of the run. I started at my friends doorstep, ran 6 miles to a local state park, did 8 on the park’s singletrack, and then ran 6 back. I don’t know why running that long alone seemed like a big hurdle, but mentally it was. I just always feared I’d get discouraged and cut the run short. This was not the case. I actually really enjoyed the solitude, and to top it all off, 20 miles felt great. I could have tacked on the final 10k and called it a marathon if I needed to. It was exhilarating. It’s safe to say that, both mentally and physically, I’m adapting well to the increased training load.
My only race/event in January was a night trail half marathon, the SHITR (Shivering Icy Trail Run). It’s a local fatass on its 3rd year. Definitely a great and fun event.
February will be an exciting month. I convinced my Dad and my wife to run the Sylamore 25/50k with me on February 21st. We’re all 3 running the 25k together. Neither of them have run this far before : )
I had been patiently awaiting the release of the Inov-8 Race Ultra 270s from the moment I first heard about them. When Inov-8 released the Race Ultra 290 I was excited to try it until I read it had an 8mm drop. To date, my go-to trail shoe has been the Inov-8 Trailroc 245 (I’ve put rougly 340 miles on them). With a 6mm footbed, and a 3mm heel to toe drop, it’s a fairly minimal trail shoe. It still has a rockplate though to protect from a direct impact. With my trail shoes having a 3mm drop, and my road shoes having a 4mm drop, I was not in the market to go with “more shoe.” Enter the Race Ultra 270. It has all of the features of the 290, making it ideal for longer distances over varied terrain, but with a 4mm drop. My intent is to use these for the Kettle Moraine 100k this June.
Here is what Inov-8 has to say about them.
The new lighter, racing version of the race ultra™ weighs in at just 270g and brings the athlete closer to the terrain with its reduced 4mm drop. Offers optimal cushioning and comfort for the long-distance athlete racing over trails and mountains, while also delivering increased levels of proprioception. A flatter outsole ensures a stable ride when fatigue sets in. Clip a race ultra™ gaiter onto inov-8’s unique on-the-shoe attachment system to ensure all debris is kept at bay.
I picked my pair up at my favorite local running store, Runwell, last weekend, and finally got to take them on a 16 mile test run on the Chubb Trail today.
The shoes performed admirably in the myriad of conditions I encountered. Leaves, rocks, uneven frozen ground (due to terrible ruts caused by mountain bikers and horse hooves), ice, and eventually mud as temps began to rise. I ran primarily on singletrack, but there was a small stretch of road as well.
One of the most common criticism I’ve read and heard regarding Inov-8’s shoes is that they are very firm, and provide little energy return. I personally rely on the natural springs found in the body (arch, achilles, etc) to provide energy return, not my shoe. The 270s manage to provide ample cushion and protection while still feeling nimble. I was able to charge the uphills, crash the downhills, and run the flats without ever feeling like the shoes were in the way. I actually liked running the flats and harder surfaces in these better than my trailrocs. It almost felt more like a road shoe in that regard. The upper and laces have been improved. The upper appears to be far more durable than the trailroc’s cloth material, so hopefully that will be the end of tiny tears that allow debris to sneak in. The toebox is wider, and perfectly roomy for my foot. My foot felt secure, never sloppy, and the laces actually stayed tied without the need to double knot. I never experienced any hot spots or blisters. Overall, I’d say the shoe disappeared and just allowed me to enjoy the run, and after 16 miles my feet still felt fresh. I look forward to seeing how the shoes improve as they are broken in, and hopefully I can still sing their praises as my runs grow longer, and even several hundred miles from now.
In the coming weeks, and for the foreseeable future, I’ll be chronicling my journey into trail and ultra running. It won’t be a training log, but more about the thoughts and adventures, and probably some lessons learned, as I continue to push the distance. All of my past photography posts will remain, and there may even be some photography related posts, but the primary focus of the site has shifted.
I began running last January, worked up to my first 5k in March, and eventually worked up to a marathon in December. Along the way I started trail running, which is when I really got hooked. In the process of reading and educating myself about running, I came across stories of ultra running. An ultra is any distance greater than a marathon, which is 26.2 miles, with the most popular ultra distances being 50k, 50 miles, 100k, and 100 miles. When I first read about ultra running in Born to Run it sounded like an amazing adventure. Where most might think there is no way they could accomplish such a thing, I became very intrigued. On June 6th I’ll be running the Kettle Moraine 100k. Who knows after that. There are a lot of training miles to cover between now and then, but I hope you’ll enjoy the journey between here, there, and beyond.
I created a less expensive version of my photo book, for those that might be interested in one. Instead of 368 pages with a photo per page, it’s 98 pages with 3 or 4 photos per page. If you go with soft cover and standard paper you can get it as low as $36.95. Here is the link, and Blurb says it will be available for 15 days. http://www.blurb.com/b/4099389-366
The Blurb book for last year’s photo challenge is finally done. I originally thought I’d arrange most photos 4 a page, and only give a few photos a full page. I thought a 366 page photo book wouldn’t be anywhere near reasonably priced, but I was wrong. It’s probably more than the casual follower would care to spend, but to me it was worth it to commemorate the accomplishment. I still made it available for purchase for anyone interested.
Taking one photo a day for a year is no small undertaking. I mean, sure, you can make it as easy as you want and take pictures of your feet everyday just to say you took a picture, but that isn’t the point of the project is it? No, the point is to force yourself to think creatively everyday, and to use your camera everyday. Are they all going to be winners? Nope. There will be plenty of days where you’re at a complete loss for subject matter, or your schedule just doesn’t permit much more than a quick photo of the dinner you barely have time to eat. There may even be a few days that you’d rather use your camera as a blunt object against yourself than take a photo. But like anything, practice makes perfect. Those tough days just force you to look at your surroundings even more differently than before, and this is when you really start to grow as a photographer. Constantly seeking your next photo subject will change how you look at your world forever. You’ll see in contrast, geometry, and compositional elements. It will become reflex. That’s the hope anyway.
Besides polishing your craft as a photographer, you will also learn more about yourself and what direction you want to take your photography. Do you enjoy shooting people, landscapes, or objects more? Do you love shooting weddings? Maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe you’ve learned that there are things you don’t like shooting at all! Perhaps you’ve discovered you’d like to pursue a full time career in photography? You’ve just loved the idea of shooting every day so much that you can’t possible imagine your life any other way now! I learned quite a bit about what I like to shoot, and whether I thought I could ever go pro.
Throughout the photo challenge I shot far more places and things than I did people. I wish there were more of a mix, but with shooting on the fly, I had to shoot what was readily available. So after a year of photos what do I like shooting the most? I think the things. When it comes to product photography, for the most part I have total control of the photo. I can rearrange, add, and remove elements until my heart is content. I never have to worry about my model becoming impatient or losing interest either. I enjoy landscape photography, but I don’t really find my locale very scenic so I’m usually left less than inspired. Had I done a fair amount traveling to deserts, mountains, and forests, there is a good chance I’d have more to say about the genre. People photography is still kind of tricky for me to decide on. There are aspects that I like, and aspects that I don’t. I think a lot of my indecision is due to lack of experience in this realm. Despite my limited experience, I’m pretty sure I have absolutely no desire to become a wedding photographer, or be a senior picture/baby/family photographer. I just don’t get excited about that stuff. I like shooting couples and engagement photos though. Getting to know two people and trying to capture that unique spark between them is a fun challenge. It’s a lot less formal, and most of what I call the “in-between moments” are priceless. I don’t really know how I feel about fashion photography, or typical model photography. I like that it’s a mix of product photography in some ways, but I don’t have any grand schemes for interesting set themes or shoot ideas. One area of the people photography spectrum I would love to focus more on is street photography. It’s probably my favorite type of photography from an appreciators standpoint, but I find it extremely difficult to consistently produce interesting photos. Maybe I’m using this as a crutch, but this is another instance where I blame my location. St. Louis just isn’t a pedestrian city. There are a few busy areas, but the city just isn’t alive like Chicago, or some of the other cities I’ve been to. Now that I’ve talked a bit about my likes and dislikes, do I have the desire to go pro?
When I began the challenge I was seriously considering the idea of pursuing photography full time. I’d hungrily consume any inspirational story, and think of ways I could get my name out there. I think the fact that I was a jobless recent college graduate had a lot to do with my ambition. I’ve had plenty of jobs that I’ve been less than thrilled about, and that advice about turning something you love into a career and you’ll never work a day in your life was buzzing through my head. I figured that even if I did land a job as a field or wildlife biologist it would cater to my future career as a photographer. It would be perfect! My adventures as a biologist would lead me to interesting locations to photograph! Well, I never landed a job as a biologist. I, like so many other people, am working outside my field. I probably should have seen the writing on the wall back in May of 2011 while hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail. We ran into a couple of section hikers at an overlook and got to talking. Discussion of the local flora revealed that one of the gentleman had a background in biology. It also revealed that he never found a job as a biologist, and that he’d gone on to manage a construction company. Talk about way out of your field! I stayed optimistic though, and thought for sure that I’d find something. Long story short, I didn’t. I’m not complaining though. I love the career I’m in now, and I’m very thankful to have a job regardless of what it is in these precarious economic times. Honestly, I think things turned out better than I could have ever even imagined. One of the reasons for that, I get to keep the hobby that I love as just a hobby. I’ve never taken as strong an interest in anything as I have photography. It’s really the only hobby I have ever truly stuck with too. If something were to make me hate my biggest passion I’d be lost. When I go out looking for a photo my brain slips into a different mode where time stops and all troubles slip away. I feel like a kid again, just being curious and exploring the world around me. The moment you start shooting for others and what they want, I feel like that all starts to slip away. Since my livelihood doesn’t depend on me making my big break, I’m not going to risk changing the way things are.
With all that being said, what does 2013 hold for me photographically? Not another 365 day photo challenge that’s for sure! I found it very rewarding, but I’ll find other ways to push myself as a photographer. Short term, I plan on putting a book together with the resulting photos, and making that available to anyone that wishes to purchase one. I hope to have that done in February. Long term, now that I do have the frame of mind to always be looking at my surroundings for a possible photo, I think I’m going to try and put more time and effort into actually planning photo ideas. Jot down locations, determine what the best light conditions would be for them, and maybe even figure out how to turn it into a portrait shoot. I also hope to play with more street photography, but that opportunity probably won’t present itself as often as I’d like. This blog isn’t going anywhere so I’ll be sure and keep you all updated. I look forward to everything come from this wonderful blogging and photographic community : )
I have a question for all of you that keep up with this blog. How do you subscribe? Do you prefer email, do you use RSS, or do you use WordPress’ built in reader to follow blogs? If I decided to move this blog and all its contents over to my main photography page, would you still follow? The benefit of moving it would make for a more uniform experience, eliminate ads for non wordpress users, and also allow me to take advantage of all the features and storage that I pay for with Zenfolio. My main fear of leaving the wordpress community is losing just that, the community. Thoughts?
I’ve gone a whopping 10 days without using my camera, and it’s felt kind of weird. I haven’t even brought it with me anywhere. This morning I had a photo idea though so I went with it. One of my new toys is an espresso machine, and it’s been getting quite a bit of use. These are the cappuccino cups I picked up to use with it.
While Megan and I were on vacation in Florida I had a bit of a surprise for her, and as a photographer it’s easy to say you want to go watch a beach sunset without anyone being suspicious. I did just that, and asked Megan if she’d like to spend every sunset with me and marry me. She said, “Of course I would!”
Thank you everyone!!!!!
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 13,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 3 Film Festivals
I didn’t have a white Christmas in Florida, but it’s sure coming down at my parents’ place in Missouri! And let me tell you, there is nothing more beautiful and peaceful to me than walking around in the snow with my camera.
The sunrise as Megan and I were leaving Florida yesterday morning. It was really pretty how you could see the individual rays of blue shooting up over the horizon. I chose this version because the trees blurring past fill the frame to create more contrast.
First day of snow!!!! It’s a cold and windy one too!
Boot detail shot. The boots that I took a photo of the other day ended up going back. Just not my style. I tried getting used to them, but they were a tad too dressy, and even had a western look to them. These are their replacements. A tad more rugged, something that can go with just about anything. I really liked that the other pair was slip-on, but I guess I’ll just have to learn to tie my shoes again.
I’m a little behind on posting, but here is yesterday’s photo. Megan and I went to an ugly christmas sweater party with a white elephant gift exchange last night. Here’s a shot of everyone sitting around ye old Netflix yule log, showing off the gifts they got. There was a Rudolph toilet seat cover, a unicorn corkscrew, a Justin Beiber singing toothbrush, a My Little Pony bubble bath set, princess costume jewelry, some crazy earrings, a puzzle, a Pokemon DVD, and a Nerf gun.
As far as the photo goes, I wasn’t able to avoid the reflection of my flash in the TV. I guess I should have used the flash off camera and held it higher.
I thought I’d venture out into the St. Louis art community tonight. The photography theme appeared to be sriracha, Stag beer, and hipster. There was a live DJ, free Stag and sriracha themed snacks, and a bicycle give away. It was an interesting gathering.
I don’t know what my deal is, but I can’t bring myself to wear running/athletic shoes unless I’m actually running or at the gym. If I’m out and about I’ve got to be wearing some form of boot or loafer. I just don’t like how athletic shoes look with jeans or khakis. I won’t even where them with a pair of cargo shorts. Anyone else have that hang up?