Sunday, November 9, 2014

Running History Part 2: Middle and High School

In part 1, I described my relationship with running during the first twelve years of my life while growing up in Austria.  Here I am going to write about how my competitive running aspirations grew through middle and high school organized sport involvement.

Middle and High School Running (years 12-19):

Adjusting to American culture and trying to make new friends in a new place was a trial for me when our family moved to Salina, Kansas, before my sixth grade year.  One of the few places that eased that transition for me was the sandlot.  When I refer to the sandlot I am talking about the open fields and courts where kids meet to play.  It was a new scene for me as it was the first time I was introduced to team cooperation in the big three of football, basketball and baseball.  One of the perks of being tall was that I had a built in advantage that allowed me to be competitive in these sports, even though I had basically no skill at all.  These were semi-organized events at best: just kids getting together and doing their own thing.  Over the next couple of years I spent enough time in the "sandlot" to get some decent skill at basketball and football, but I never really got into baseball.  I wasn't involved in any "organized" leagues at this time - that was still a foreign concept to me.  I had no experience with uniforms, set rules, parents watching, referees, and all that.  But playing in the sandlot was where I spent a lot of energy.

The neighborhood that I grew up in had a lot of kids of similar age.  In fact, within one block of our house there were enough children to field some pretty intense running games  - one of the most popular being "Jail".  In Jail you have one or two people being "it".  The rest of the kids spread and hide.  Those who are "it" have to find and catch everyone else, which sends them to "Jail".  The others may free those in jail if they can evade capture and tag the captives.  Here in California everyone has "privacy" fences.  On our block in Salina at the time there were no fences between the houses that we used as fair game for jail.  This made for some really nice games that we played generally after the sun set.  The dark made the games that much more exciting and challenging.

During those first couple of years I can't remember doing that much running - just for runnings' sake. Every semester I think we tested in the mile in PE class at school.  It's funny that I can't really remember how well I did for these tests.  I know I beat basically everyone, but I just wanted to get back to the games.

"Organized" Sports

The summer before my eighth grade year I got a letter in the mail.  The middle school football coach sent the letter to all the incoming eighth grade boys to invite them to try out for the team.  This obviously sparked some interest in me, but I had no idea what I was getting into.  Most of the other boys that were trying out had played in organized leagues for years.  They knew how to put the pads on, what position they might play - they even knew the rules.  They knew how to listen to coaches, and most importantly: they knew what they were doing.  When I showed up the first day it was all very foreign to me.  I basically just followed everyone else around and tried to do what they did.  I remember the first day of "pads".  After watching how everyone else put the pads on I finally was all suited up.  I felt invincible with all of that protection.  Then I tried to run.  It is a totally different thing to try and run around with all of that stuff on.  But then we lined up for the Oklahoma drill.  If there was ever a mano a mano test of manhood (outside of a fight) it is the Oklahoma drill.  In the Oklahoma drill an offensive lineman lines up across from a defensive lineman between two cones.  There is one running back that tries to advance the ball through the cones once the coach says go.  Generally, the lineman who controls the "line of scrimmage" wins the contests.  Once the coach says go, the lineman collide into each other to push the opponent in the opposite direction.  That is basically it.  There is plenty of technique involved that I could go into detail about, but that would be for another blog.  The first time I got to feel that primal satisfaction of besting my opponent in the Oklahoma drill I was hooked.  This sport was definitely for me.  

I could write about football forever, but I will just say that I was pretty good at it.  I ended up starting at tight end and defensive end and loving every minute of it.  After football season was over I decided I needed to try some more of these "organized" sports.  The next sport was basketball.  If ever there was a sport where prior experience with organization would have been helpful, it was basketball.  It's funny - you think when you play for as many hours at the playground as I did that those skills would transfer over easy to an organized league.  The problem is that you may never have learned good technique.  Or learned how to run a "play".  Or learned how to "box out".  Etc.  It is like a totally different sport.  A sport I was determined to master.  There were about seventy boys trying out for twenty spots for the basketball team.  I was totally out of my element, but I was tall, had some athletic ability, and I tried hard.  Basically I had some promise, but I did not make the team.   After getting cut, the coaches explained that there would be an "intramural" league, that you could participate in if you still wanted to play basketball after school.  They also explained that if one boy impressed them enough during intramurals that they would draft them onto the organized school team after christmas.  I was determined to earn that spot.  During the next month, I got better and better at what the coaches were expecting in the organized setting.  I learned about playing a role on the team, about patience and discipline on the court.  After intramurals were over that semester, the coach pulled me into the office and explained how pleased he was with my progress and invited me to join the team!  I was on cloud nine.  The next semester of basketball was a continuation of my learning experience.  It was tough and slow, but I knew I could be good, and I wanted to be good.

After basketball was over for the year I decided to continue with my experimentation with the school sports.  Next I was to decide between playing baseball or running track in the spring semester.  Easy call.  I showed up to the track tryouts where the coaches basically test you in various events to gauge your aptitude and decide where to have you practice so maybe you can represent the school in some events to earn points for team.  I remember lining up for sprints, and being terribly slow.  Then I tried hurdles - couldn't clear them.  Then I tried throwing discuss - almost hit an innocent person.  I was awful at everything.  So what happens to someone trying out for track that is bad at everything?  They get relegated to the distance events - regardless of aptitude.  I remember there weren't a lot of us - that is: distance runners.  Nobody really "wants" to run the mile in middle school track, or at least no one on my team.  So the first track meet came and I was entered in the mile.  To my coaches surprise I ended up keeping up with the front-runners and then pushing the final lap to edge out for second place!  I don't remember my time in that first mile race, but I do remember the coaches making a big deal out of the unexpected points for the team.  The rest of the year I placed top three in every mile that I ran with my best mile being 5:20.  I got a reputation at the school as a runner.  During lunch one day the cross-country coach from the high school visited and found me at my table to ask if I wanted to join the high school runners that summer in colorado for their running camp.  I remember feeling slightly awkward that this coach had taken time out of his schedule to come talk to me specifically with hopes that I would be their next star runner or whatever, and then I explained that I was going to be playing football for the cross-town rivals next year.  He got a glazed-over look on his face and told me to have fun with that - and then left.  

High School

My scholastic identity was solidified by the time I reached high school.  I was a jock.  I lived for sports, and my dreams were filled with hopes of greatness in any of the big three (football, basketball, track).  I continued to excel in both football and basketball - even climbing the ranks in basketball where I was getting floor time with the "first" team.  Track was tough for freshmen.  You had to have enough skill in your particular event to compete with kids three or four years older than you.  There was the junior varsity though, which allowed me to continue to represent the school in distance events.  I was able to contribute to the 4 x 800 team where I was solidly running around 2:15 consistently and being one of the top three on the JV team.  Running the 4 x 800 didn't allow me to continue practicing the mile because of the schedule of events, but I got to try my hand at the two mile.  I place as high as 5th with 11:30, but that was about it.  The thing was that the other "distance" runners, by high school, had dedicated themselves to the sport.  They ran cross-country in the fall, trained during the winter, and arrived ready-to-go for spring track.  They were all skinny and small and not good for much else.  I never ran more than 100 meters until I hit track season, and then would go out and run the distance events.  

Through the four years of high school I continued to focus mostly on football - as that was where my heart was at.  I spent the summer doing football camps, lifting, and doing drills for football.  I kept putting on weight -  a necessary metric to allow me to be a varsity football player.  I never progressed in track.  I didn't really lose speed, but I never got faster.  It was kinda silly by the time I was a junior lining up against the distance runners from other schools, being on average a head taller than everyone one else and weighing 50 more lbs.  The writing was on the wall that I had to find another track event if I ever wanted to make "varsity" by my senior year.  I decided to give discus a go as it seemed like I had the body type for the event.  I focused on that single event, and dedicated myself to perfecting my form and ended up actually doing pretty well.  My senior year I made varsity for discus and got better at it at every meet, eventually qualifying for the state championship.  It was an incredible ride, but the distance running days were over for me.

The next leg of my journey with running might be described as whatever I had to do to contribute to my singular athletic focus for the next five years of my life: football.  To be continued...

Friday, October 17, 2014

Euchre Bar Massacre

Not many people know ultra-marathons exist.  Even among actual ultra-runners I think you would be hard-pressed to come across someone that would know about "races" like the Euchre Bar Massacre.  Sure, much of the ultra community knows about something called Barkley Marathons, but this kind of competition is definitely a subset of a subset.  The Massacre is a race over mountainous trails, or not trails.  There was a 25 mile and 50 mile option.  It is self-navigated, meaning participants are given a notional map and have to complete the course without the aid of trail markers.  There is very little aid and long stretches where you might be very far away from any help.  You are required to carry sufficient safety gear and food and be able to get water on your own.  The trails (or not trails) might be fairly difficult to traverse.  There was plenty of times where I was on all fours trying to climb up a hill.  Sometimes that wasn't enough - you had to get your hands on rocks or trees or something at least semi-solid to pull yourself up the hill.  Going down that same hill was a whole other skill that I had never acquired before.  In short, there were plenty of skills that were required in addition to ultra-endurance.

I have given a little thought as to why more of these events do not exist.  It is a natural extension of the trail-ulra-runner: someone who thrives on moving efficiently through wild terrain for long stretches.  It seems logical that such a person would want to have the skills to do this regardless of maintained trails, being able to overcome almost any obstacle thrown in their way, and doing it self-sufficiently.  Ultra-runners are famous for being able to deal with discomfort, but I think a lot of us draw the line somewhere.  The fact of the matter is that as soon as you throw scrambling, blackberry bushes or poison oak, or a high probability of getting lost into the equation, there is a level of risk that many of us would rather avoid.  Maybe that is why we stick to the trails and to the safety.  But, there are definitely some rogue individuals who have indeed decided to take that next step, and I have to admit, this was a really fun day.  It probably helped that I did this with a couple of buddies at my side, which definitely helps with the risk part of the equation.  Not to mention it is always more fun to have an adventure with friends.  Sachin and James were the partners in crime for me in tackling the 25 mile version of this race.  This was while watching in awe as the fourth member of our cohort - Toshi - tackled the 50 miler.  The estimated finishing times for the races were in the 10-14 hour range for the 25 miler and 24 to whatever hour range for the 50 miler.  To put that into perspective: a traditionally hilly ultra-marathon of 50 mile distance should be completed in 7-11 hours.  This was a beast.

To prove that we had ran the course as prescribed, the race director, Sean, placed books at various landmarks where we would have to tear out a page and carry it to the finish line.  We were mingling around the picnic area when Sean said go and we all (all 17 of us) headed out into the forest in the early morning dark.  I got a first taste of what awaited us when within 200 ft of the start we were bush-whacking.  We finally made it up to an open dirt road and found a nice trail that we ran down to the north fork of the american river.  This stretch was rather eventless, just sorta in cruise-wakup mode.  We crossed the river and immediately headed up some rocks on the other side to find a trail that skirted the hill.  Only we went on the wrong trail.  There was a small group of us that figured out we were going the wrong way and then decided to bushwhack ourselves over to the trail we were supposed to be on.  The issue was that our sideways progress just sent us right back down a cliff to the river where we basically started over again.  We knew we were nearing in on our first landmark: some dudes grave out in the middle of nowhere.  We got within 100 ft of the grave when we decided we were going the wrong way, turned around, headed back to the river, then headed upstream before we figured out that we had to go back, and then sort of fumbled through bushes before one of us finally found the thing.  It was at this point that any competitive aspirations I might have had vanished rather quickly.  I knew that my only advantage over the others was my fitness and ability to cover large swaths of ground quickly.  But spending half an hour looking for a book made me realize how futile the exercise of "racing" was for me in this event.  Course knowledge would be the only thing that could really let you harness all of your physical prowess towards winning.  This would very much turn into a team challenge where we try to leverage all of our combined experience to at least have a shot at finishing the course.

James, Sachin, and I at the "sign"

Early morning at the river.

And the fun begins...

Kinda pretty here.

Sachin, crossing the footbridge.
I was pretty much in a full sprint all day.  I don't know how anyone was keeping up with me.

At the stream before the carnage began up Ebenezer's Highway. 

Filling up.
The real challenge began with the climb up Ebenezer's Highway.  Basically a stretch of off-trail scrambling up a steep hill to where our third book was located.  I have climbed this kind of a hill before, where basically you have to use the trees to pull yourself up and scramble on all fours.  But never for 2000+ ft.  It was tough!  


Neat little climb.

Yay, we are like a third of the way there...

Sachin, enjoying the views.
Running the chicane through the various hunters and other suspect individuals we finally made it to our only aid station on the course.  It was pretty nice to sit and hang out and drink some soda and eat some fig newtons...
The best aid station ever.

That's the guy!  The inspiration behind this fun stuff.  His name is Sean.  And then there is some guy on his smart phone, lol, I swear, I was just checking the map.
Sachin decided to call it a day at the aid station because of a lingering ankle issue that had been slowing him down all day, so James and I continued on to tackle the downhill.  I was really curious about how it was going to go to get down that monster.  In actuality it was really fun.  Basically a big slide.  You just sat down and rode the loose leaves all the way to the bottom.  You had to build in a few stops where you smashed into some trees to slow yourself down, but it was a blast.

We filled up our water at the stream again and continued on to smash some blackberry bushes.  We started to crash through them, but we came to a point where it was so thick, and the forward progress was so slow, that we concluded that there was no way to continue up this trail and still make the 4 p.m. cutoff at the top of the hill.  So we turned around and went back to the dirt road and decided to hike that up to the top of the road where we could then continue on "drop road" back to the campsite and call it a day.

On the way up the road we ran into Joel who was returning down from the top of the climb and was on his way to finishing the 25 mile course.  We chatted a little bit about his ability to endure the blackberries (he said they weren't bad, but by the look of the bloody scratches up and down his arms, James and I came to a different conclusion).  Joel was the only person who was able to finish the beast, which is pretty cool because his brother won it last year.

The winner of the 25 mile event, Joel.  Actually he was the only finisher of the 25 mile event.

Breakfast Sunday.  Toshi looks like he is high, because, well, he hadn't slept in over 28 hours.

You know it was a good day when you look like this.

James and I jogged it back to camp where sachin met us later when Sean dropped by.  Even with our drop we managed to cover about 30 miles with 9000 ft of climbing.  James drove back to town that night and Sachin and I hung out around the non-campfire with some other hearty souls until we decided to his the sack and wait for Toshi's arrival the next morning.  It was an intense thought to know that Toshi was going to be doing all of that stuff through the night.

Sure enough, next morning I am just awaking in my tent to hear some footsteps and some hollers.  Toshi finished in 25 hours and some minutes.  He was the only finisher of the 50 mile course.  Serious cred.  We piled into the car and then crushed a serious Man breakfast in Auburn before returning to the bay area.  What a great adventure with the guys...

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Backpacking with the Bro in Big Sur

I was racking my brain to figure out what kind of a backpacking trip would be best to share with my brother Josh.  He never went backpacking before.  He never climbed a mountain before.  He was more interested in short, intense, workouts that looked impressive to ladies.  Originally I considered taking him to the Sierra.  This is where I felt the most impressive backpacking was to be done which showcases landscapes that would be totally alien to someone who spent their whole life growing up on the plains in Kansas.  Unfortunately, the day before the planned trip, he came down with a massive ear ache featuring fluid buildup and lots of pressure.  We decided that going up to elevation might not be such a good idea, so my fallback plan was to take him on a challenging mountain hike from sea level.  Big Sur features plenty of such terrain and I decided to take my brother up from Limkiln State Beach to Cone Peak at 5200 ft.  I remembered this hike offering plenty of different types of challenges and terrain and plenty of really steep stuff.

I had rationalized to myself that Josh could squat 500 lbs and box jump practically his own hight, so surely climbing a steep gradient with a 20 lb pack would be a piece of cake...  Apparently the two different types of exercises are really very different.  He was used to doing something extremely difficult for repetitions for about 20 seconds, I was asking him to repeat a relatively low intensity movement for three hours.  It didn't register to me at the time that taking a guy from the flats of Kansas and introducing him immediately to some of the most rugged mountain terrain I could think of for his first backpacking trip might have been a bad idea.

Oh well, if nothing else, it was at least going to be adventure one way or the other.  So here we are all smiles at the beginning of our hike:

Nice and clean.

Showing off the "underwater" abilities of my camera to the bro.

Start at the ocean of course.
We climbed up from Highway 1 and Josh seemed to be in high spirits, feeling pretty confident about reaching the Peak which we could see from the beach:  "Look, it just right there, should be easy...".  Every once in a while we would reach a short steep section and he would say how he was glad that was over.  I didn't have the heart to tell him that once we got to the ridge it was going to be like that the whole way, I kind of wanted it to be a surprise...

We reached a nice gentle downhill into a valley with a stream running through it.  We just crested the hill where on the ocean side it was dry and dead with manzanita and other prickly shrubberies, and on the other side was the cool, moist valley with giant coastal redwoods and ferns everywhere.  The noise from highway 1 shrunk away and was replaced with the gentle gurgling sounds of the stream, and the quiet breeze rustling through the top of the trees.  This is a beautiful place.  And it was where I knew would be one of our last opportunities to fill up on water before our big hike.  With the bountiful water available I thought it prudent to cook some lunch and collect our energy for the climb.  Josh was introduced to his first dehydrated backpacking meal, some mexican backpackers pantry selection, and he actually liked it!

We filled up all of our water receptacles and began the climb.
Lunch at the first stream crossing in the redwoods.
It was a pretty warm day and once we reached the exposed ridge, the combination of the steep climbing and the heat was really taking it's toll.  Understandably Josh was guzzling the water.  I was trying to keep a consistent rhythm up the hill, just nice and easy, trying to listen to Josh's breathing to figure out whether I might be pushing him to hard, but he took a slightly different approach to the climb.  He realized that he could sustain shorts bursts of intensity and then take little breaks to catch his breath, and he liked that a lot better than the constant pace that I was doing, so every time I would look back, he would be waaay back, or at the next moment he would have caught up to me.  We were gaining about 1000 ft per mile, and after a couple of miles of this his quads started to bother him.  I was concerned given that we weren't even half way up the mountain, so we would look for any shade oak along the way to take breathers at.  Unfortunately, the flies were really bad this day.  Maybe they are always like that in the summer.  When I did this hike in November with Toshi, there were no bugs at all, just a great hike.  But the little flies would be crawling all over our sweaty skin, getting in our face, and generally driving us nuts.  We were praying for a nice ocean breeze to help us out, but I only remember one rest stop where we actually got a decent breeze that cooled us off and kept the flies at bay, and we stayed there a long time!
My brother beginning to curse my name.  But I was enjoying the views!

Almost there.
There were a couple of times where Josh's leg cramps got bad enough that I was reassessing whether it was prudent to keep going, and I knew Josh was in the same boat.  I had explained that once we got to the top, there was a nice gentle trail to take back down, and I know this was playing into his calculations, because when he looked down that mountain, he realized that it was going to be kinda scary to try and descend that thing the way we went up, so pretty much I had put him into the uncomfortable situation where there was basically no turning back.  He had to suck it up and make a push for the summit.  It was somewhere along the final stretch where we realized that the water was disappearing way too fast.  He had drank almost all of his water, and I was sharing water from my camelbak.  It dawned on me that we might have to start rationing because there was no water between now and the top of twin peaks (where we were planning to camp for the night), and no water for the summit push the next morning, and no water for a good stretch of the descent.  I had made the unfortunate mistake of underestimating our water needs, and things were about to go from uncomfortable, to really uncomfortable.

We finally made it to the top of twin peaks (5000 ft in five miles), and promptly looked for a shady spot to chill out before starting to set up camp for the night.  And then the flies really settled in.  Josh had the "all-purpose" towel that was used for about any gross thing you could think of.  It sorta reminded me about my boys and their "blankies", but in a disgusting, demented grown man sorta version.  This towel was then used to drape around his head to keep the flies out of this face.  I had a similar setup with my combo of cap and bandana.  We were thirsty, and we had water, and we didn't drink.  I have to give my brother props for that.  He definitely sucked it up when he realized that we needed to have that water for the next day.  I think survival instincts have a way to push us to levels endurance that we never thought we were capable of, and I have a feeling some of this was kicking in for Josh.  We started telling each other hilarious stories of our "young man" stupid days (I was remembering the past, he was telling me about last week) to take our minds off of our predicament.  It worked rather well actually.  As the sun started to set, the evening got cool and the bugs went away.  All of the sudden it was wonderful at the top of Twin Peaks.  There was a lot of laughter and the mood got less dire.  We were treated to an incredible sunset and awesome colors.  We set up our camp and settled in for the night.
He cheered up after it cooled off and the flies left us.
As we packed up the next morning a new kind of pestilence hit us: Mosquitos!  At least they got us to hurry up a little bit so we could get moving and avoid them.  The next mile and a half section required us to traverse a sharp ridge with some fun scrambling thrown in.  Once me made across this we hit real trail that curled up around the cone to the summit.  There was probably still another 300 to 400 ft of climbing to get there, but Josh and I were so thirsty at this point that we decided to call it good and head down the other way on the trail to hopefully get to water as quick as possible.  I was trying to remember what kind of stream we might see on the way down, but I knew it would be different than November.  In November there was snow at the top of the ridge and peak and probably a little melt off and such.  California is in the middle of a pretty harsh drought and I was afraid that many of the streams would be dried up at this point, I was just really hoping that this one waterfall I remembered on the way down was still flowing.  As we descended we drank our last sips of water.
The next morning, looking over at Cone from Twin Peaks.

Our campsite.

Another ridge as we stated our descent.

Josh and his "sticks"
Fortunately the water was still flowing, and we gorged ourselves and finally got some descent trail food in our bellies.  You really don't feel like eating when you are thirsty, so we were probably pretty low on energy before we hit this fall as well.
This water saved our lives.  Or at least it quenched our thirst...

Yeah, all we have to do is go down there.
We followed the nice trail back to the steep ridge that we had climbed.  I explained to Josh that we needed to go down this part to get back to the truck, so we actually did have to go down some steep stuff after all.  There were a couple of things about this descent that made it sketchy.  First, it was steep loose dirt that was just hard to get good footing on.  Next were the yucca plants.  They seemed to be strategically situated along the trail to cause the most damage to clumsy hikers.  The plants don't look too threatening, but they have barbs in the tips that embed themselves into your skin.  I have heard of surgery required.  This sort of freaked Josh out.  So we were taking it easy down the ridge.  I would get impatient every once in a while and sort of skip down the trail because it was easier than taking steps.  Josh tried to replicate but then explained that it was not such a good technique for someone as top heavy as he.  After one steep section that I jogged down, I stopped and looked back up the ridge to wait for Josh.  I saw him start to do a little jog down the trail, but then he started to slip, so he ran faster.  All of the sudden he was out of control, bounding down the trail.  There was a switchback with rocks at the turn, and there was no way Josh was going to slow down to make the curve.  Instead he hurdles the rocks in a giant leap, lands on his feet at full speed on the open hillside and continues to sprint full speed down the hill.  He reminded me of that movie Thor, where the dude is parallel to the hill sprinting at full speed.  I was staring in disbelief as he busts straight through a bush with things flying out of this backpack until he finally realizes that he has to hit the deck to slow himself down.  He tries to put himself into a baseball slide, but then his pack catches the hillside and he flips over and starts to tumble down the mountain.  After a few tumbles he slides to a stop.  He slowly gets up and looks up at me.  I was like: "Dude, that was intense!  Are you okey?"  He says he thinks so, and I got collect his stuff and meet him at the bottom where we have to sit for a while so he can collect himself and his legs aren't too shaky to keep going.  He said he had never been more scared.  I thought it was incredible he was able to use that athleticism to keep himself in one piece.  I was pretty sure it was just instinct that allowed him to come out of that with nothing but a few scratches.  Needless to say, we took it even more slowly down the hill until we reached the trail to the redwood valley again.  At this point he realized we were pretty much home free and I think he was lightening up a bit.  But once we hit the stream and I made the suggestion that we could soak our feet and chill out for a while, he said we should just get this thing done and get out of here.  I could take a clue.  We made it back to the truck and I could see he was rather relieved to be done.  We stopped by one of the the beach front cafes and got ourselves a burgers that totally hit the spot.  He told me that was the hardest thing he had ever done.  I kinda liked the sound of that.  But then he explained that he would never do anything like it again.  Whoops.  It wasn't all bad though, he did offer that we might try something a little easier next time, so I knew that I hadn't totally ruined him and maybe he did take some feeling of accomplishment and adventure out of the trip!

Please, let it be over!

I think he is happy to be done.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

IMTUF 100 Race Report 2014 - DNF

I have some catching up to do.  I need to blog about a great backpacking trip with my brother up Cone Peak in Big Sur (he fell off the mountain at one point - pretty nuts).  I need to blog about pacing my buddy John from mile 120 to 150 of the Tahoe 200!  I have felt so single minded leading up to IMTUF 100 that I just couldn't bring myself to spend the time to document some awesome adventures I have been having.  But this happens sometimes when you commit yourself so totally to a goal that all other things in your life seem to just take a back seat.  For good or for bad.  I really wanted this!  I really wanted to finish a tough mountain 100 mile race.  And this race just seemed to tic all the right boxes for me.  It was rugged - up and down mountain passes on marginally maintained steep trails.  It was beautiful - alpine vistas galore.  It had a great non-repeating loop course that covered new and exciting ground.  It had a start and finish place that was perfect for a fantastic family adventure to the mountains.  It was a low key event without hoopla.  And it was well run with great volunteers.

One might argue that an ultra-runner should attempt an "easy" hundred mile run before they go for the tough mountain hundreds (these tough ones are the courses to aspire to - for obvious reasons).  You could learn all about strategy - the art of fueling, and pacing yourself, and night running, etc.  Probably good advice - but there is a select subset of the crazies (ultra-runners) who prefer to learn through hard-ship/mistakes.  Maybe they can only learn effectively this way.  I suppose I might be one of those...

And I had no interest in putting myself through 100 miles of stupidness just to "learn" how to run 100s.  Whatever.  Let's see how this goes:

I pitched the idea to Joanne: Hey, do you think a cool family vacation would be to drive 13 hours up to Idaho to a "rustic" cabin featuring hot springs and taking care of the kids while I hike in the mountains for 30ish hours?  She said YES!  And I knew I was the luckiest guy in the world.  Or I had just racked up the biggest spousal debt imaginable, including endless foot/back massages, watching the kids for a/lot "mom's night" out, and/or limitless "bed, bath and beyond" splurge.  Who cares.  Live in the moment, right?

To be fair:  The cabin was legit.  I mean it had a bed.  Even a loft with a couple of more beds where you throw the kids.  A table.  The works.  Even an outhouse to pee in across the dirt road...The views couldn't be beat.  The Burgdorf hot springs are really nice.  There were a couple of covered 113 degree pools that spilled over into the main pool that cooled off to something a little more comfortable and then dumped out into a stream.  Crystal clear warm water.  It was really nice.  And the kids loved it.  Lots of floats for kids to play with, other kids, etc.  The one issue that we came across, and I must admit total guilt on this one, was that we couldn't get the silly stove to work.  I mean I understand the equations regarding combustion and fuel/air ratios... I know the fuel entering the chamber an the exhaust gasses leaving out of the pipe.  I took that class.  But for the life of me, I could not figure out how to make that dang thing burn the wood and make heat for us...I am sure it was a defect of the machinery and not the operator.

Anyways, I am pretty sure the family just slept in to enjoy the cozy morning while I got up at six a.m. to start running.  Every year IMTUF changes the direction that they run the loop.  This year we happened to run the loop in the "clockwise" direction, which meant that we covered the "easy" terrain first.  It was really nice running, very cushy trails with gentle gradients, reminded me a lot of northern California!  Until we reached the climb up to Diamond ridge.  It wasn't a steep climb or anything.  Not at the beginning at least.  But it would have been difficult to "run" this trail.  There was a lot of water, and a lot of bushes in the way.  But I was having a blast just hiking this section.  Then we started leaving the trees and it got steep and more fun.  The views were great.

Beautiful section along a river.

Starting the climb up to diamond ridge.  Views were nice.

I just came up that valley.   It got steep and fun at this section.

Looking down the other side of diamond ridge.  Bid downhill coming.
I crested the pass and then bombed down the other side.  This is where I started nearing in the upper payette aid station at mile 33 where I was pretty sure Joanne and the kids were going to see me.  Sure enough, as I descended the trail to the aid station I spotted a little red-headed two year old, just hanging out on the side of the trail.  I said Blake!  What's up dude?  And he screeched and joined in beside me.  Pretty soon other miniature people popped out of the trees and joined in along side as well and escorted me to the aid station...

My escort going into Upper Payette Aid Station. Mile 33.

The crew.
 The upper Payette lake aid station was a great stop where I got to get kisses from the family and refueled for my long trek up towards Duck lake.  We traveled up another valley in the middle of the day, and I was taking my time in the heat.  I could feel my legs getting a little twitchy with some cramping, but nothing unusual for this many miles in the heat of the day.

Duck Lake.

Views from Duck Lake trail.  Awesome.

Jeremy, Jeremy, and another guy.  The middle Jeremy is the race director.  Puts a TON of energy into making this race work.
 After the Duck lake aid station there was a gradual dirt road climb and then a long decent into the snowslide aid station.  This was a faster section and I ran the downhills at a pretty good clip, and I could feel the quads start to complain.  I refueled and packed up for the snow slide section.  It was going to be a really steep climb, 2000 ft in two miles, over some really rocky terrain that was made easier by using all four limbs.  It was in the hottest part of the day and I took my time up the climb.  Twenty steps up the hill, fifteen seconds bent over catching my breath, twenty more steps.  I was just barely keeping my legs from cramping up into a mess the way they did for me during TRT last year, but I was committed to taking the climb easy and looking forward to the nice long eight mile downhill on the other side.  This climb reminded me the most of the Sierra, with an incredible high alpine lake and really rocky, steep terrain.  Once I crested the pass I tried to run down the other side.  Unfortunately, the quads were no longer operating for me.  The initial decent was just as steep as the climb, and every time I tried to take a step down a one foot rock or something, pain would shoot up through my legs and I would almost buckle.  "Well, this is a new sensation" I thought to myself.  I was really wondering whether I could actually make it the eight miles to the aid station.  I felt like the body was rebelling and I would no longer be capable of getting down this mountain.  Somehow I struggled to hobble down the steep stuff until I hit a nice gentle gradient.  I tried to pick up the legs to jog it down, but they would not respond.  The quads were definitely finished.  I walked the excruciating seven remaining miles down to the aid station, getting passed by innumerable runners that showed concern for my state.  I told them I would make it.  I was ok.  Half way through the sun set and I turned on my head lamp and finally wobbled into the aid station.  They did their duty and tried to talk me into continuing, but I knew better than they did how fried I was.  And I knew what was coming up next.  If this was Western States, yes, I could have "walked" it in.  The steepest, most technical sections were coming up, along with a cold Idaho mountain night.  I didn't like my prospects and decided to call it a day.

Snowslide Lake.  Crazy climb to get here.  Crazy climb to get to the other side of the pass.

Views from Snowslide pass.

What I did instead of running the rest of the race.

So what now?  I am still trying to figure it out.  I trained as hard and as specific as I could this summer.  I was as physically prepared as I thought I could be.  But it was not to be.  I'm not unhappy, just disappointed with the results.  This isn't over.  There are plenty of miles to be run and mountains to be climbed.  To be continued...

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Tamalpa 50k Race Report 2014

The Tamalpa 50k is probably my favorite 50k race course.  It is a well run event with some of the best mix of trails and running weather that you will come across.  It takes place in the Marin Headlands on the north side of the golden gate bridge and traverses trails that snake along the coastline, up and down open hills with terrific vistas, and through technical rooty or rocky rainforest like single track under giant redwoods.  Along with this there is between 6000 and 7000 ft of climbing.  You can count on foggy overcast in the morning, basically perfect running weather.

My lead up to this race necessitated a cautious approach.  After the Skyline 50k, which I raced pretty much all out, I had to incorporate more recovery than I was planning on, feeling pretty fatigued for several days afterward.  But I knew that week of training was crucial to maintaining my fitness for IMTUF because of a business trip to Houston the following week that was going to have to be a "down" week of training for me.  So as soon as I thought I could handle it I started putting in my Black Mountain morning runs (my standard route for getting ready for IMTUF is PG&E trough Quarry trail to Black Mountain trail with plenty of power hiking practice - 12 miles with about 3300 ft of climbing on varied, steep terrain).  Then on Saturday I did my first summer edition of CTTS (Cypress to the Sea), where I run from my house to the Ocean, about 50 miles with 8000 ft of climbing.  That run ended up being much tougher than anticipated, never having run that route with warm, sunny conditions.  It really took a lot out of me.  Getting in some early morning runs in Houston wasn't exactly easy either as I was totally out of my element with the heat and humidity, even in the dark at 5 a.m. in the morning.  I would get back to my hotel room and squeeze out an improbably volume of sweat from my clothes.  And then I would put on my soaked, squeaky shoes the next morning and repeat.  Those runs were also kind of nerve wracking as I kept my head on a swivel, trying to spot the alligators before they could catch me off guard in the dark.  Four weeks out from IMTUF, the Tamalpa 50k race week represented another key period of training for me, so I couldn't let off the gas.  If I was going to give my best shot at Tamalpa, it would have been prudent to do a little mini-taper to be rested for the race, but I had my eyes on IMTUF, basically the reason I have been putting in huge miles this summer.  It would have been foolish to jeopardize all of that work.  So I kept hitting the trails hard.  And then it happened:  I started noticing the tell tale signs of over-training.  I knew I was fatigued after my wednesday morning run when a normal route that I always do felt like a never ending slog.  I had the toughest time cooling down afterwards too, and felt a little silly when walking the girls to their first day of school being all sweaty and out of breath - what's the point of being in awesome shape if I am so broken that daily tasks become difficult?  Ridiculously I woke up at 5 a.m. the next morning to hike up Black Mountain once again, going a minute a mile slower than usual and feeling pretty weak, I'm not sure what I was thinking.  Then on Friday, the day before the race, went out for an easy 5 miler in the morning, and every time I upped the intensity just a little, or ran up the slightest incline, my heart rate spiked through the roof.  I knew I was in dangerous territory and the Tamalpa 50k might have been a terrible idea.

I decided to give it a try anyways, already having paid my entry fee and knowing that it is a super fun event with a great party afterwards.  My plan was to take it easy and see how I felt.  If I could tell that I was going to be ok, I would pick it up a little bit and just shoot for a solid training day.  I rode up with Jean in the morning and we arrived with plenty of time to proceed trough the usual pre-race rituals.

The man himself: Jean Pommier, getting ready to set the new 50+ age group record.  I suggested a fold-away chair might be a good addition to his race prep gear.

And we are off!

The early miles.
 I have to apologize for the quality of the pictures.  The dampness got on the lens and screwed things up.
Rodeo Beach
 One of the neat things about consciously letting off of the gas and taking it easy was that I got to enjoy the course and the camaraderie much more than usual.  I brought the camera along, soaked in more views than usual, and tried to interact with other runners as much as possible.  It was great fun.  I got to meet a whole host of great guys that seemed less concerned about whether they were getting beat or not and therefore were more inclined to share in the experience.  Or maybe that was just my imagination.

Brian Boyer, a Quicksilver newbie who claims he gets his muscles not from pumping iron, but from dealing with his kids.

William Dai

Greg Frye, the construction worker who gets up at 3 a.m. to get his miles in.

John Gieng, a strong Pamakids runner, nice guy.

Chasing Whit Rambach to Cardiac Aid station.
I kept a steady effort, never pushing it, and I actually felt pretty good.  None of the noticeable fatigue.  Could I have recovered enough already to run a hilly 50k without drowning myself even more in fatigue land?  I thought it improbable, but everything was just clicking along nicely, so I went with it.  After reaching Cardiac Aid station for the first time, and knowing that I had a fun, technical downhill, one more slog of a climb, and then one last long downhill to the finish, I felt confident and let the legs unwind a bit.  I "danced" down the fun Matt Davis trail, probably the funnest part of the race for me, and then started the long climb back to Cardiac.  This was where I set my eyes on my motivation to keep pushing the last miles: Alan Reynolds.  This guy is a heart rate runner: meaning his pace is dictated by a heart rate "zone" that he wants to stay in.  The idea is that your bodies use of fuel and accumulation of fatigue is largely due to how hard the heart has to work to maintain your pace.  If your heart has to pump harder, let's say to climb a hill, then you will burn more glycogen than fat - glycogen being a precious commodity in endurance events because of it's limited stores in the body.  The tell tale sign of a heart rate runner is the relative easy effort they put into climbing hills, but then the ferocious way in which they hammer the downhills.  A skilled downhill runner has a tough time keeping the heart rate up because you are basically cashing in on all of the potential energy that was accumulated on the climb.  Less energy expended = less energy required from the Kreb's Cycle = less oxygen required from the blood = less pumping required from the heart.  I knew he was a heart rate runner to because we had a conversation about it.  We were going back and for pretty much all day long and I spotted him on the final climb up Steep Ravine and decided to just keep my eyes on him, run when he runs, hike when he hikes and if we could hit Cardiac at a similar time, I would let it loose and get a nice little downhill tempo run to finish off the workout.

It just so happened that I caught up to him before we crested the climb and then we paced each other to the aid station.  I was bantering with him, feeling him out on whether he was going to stop at the aid station one last time before the final four mile descent to the finish.  I wanted to stop to chug a cub of coke (don't ask me why something like a cup of coke can so capture every thought towards the end of an ultra, but I had been fantasizing about it for the last couple of miles - ultra running is weird like that)  If he was going to skip the aid station, there was no way I was going to stop!  Finally he dropped a hint that he would like to indulge in a soda beverage himself - perhaps I planted the seeds of his destruction with my not so subliminal obsession with the sugary cocktail.  We rolled into the aid station, I quickly chugged my heavenly nectar, and then took off!  I decided that the only way I was going to keep him from trying to pace with me down the hill was to drop the hammer right away and try to open up a gap.  The plan seemed to succeed and pretty soon I was running by myself, dropping some 6:40 ish miles to finish off the race.  Arriving at the finish line I walked over to the coolers and discovered ice-cold coke - a seemingly endless supply!  I was a happy camper.  I finish in 5:15, 30th runner out of 200.  It was fun to watch the other guys finish, and then we continued to chow on some great fire-baked pizza and trade war stories.  The sun came out at exactly the right time and we soaked in the nice rays and enjoyed the beautiful day.

I feel a lot better now.  And now that the most crucial part of my preparation for IMTUF is in the bag, from now on it just about soaking in all of the training and filling up my mental stores.  This caps one of the must fulfilling summers of training and racing that I have ever had.