“ālea iacta est”- First Foray into OCR- Rubicon Race Report

The die was truly cast as I lined up with my fellow racers at the historic Credit Island Park in Davenport, IA.  The site is famous for one of the most westernmost battles in the War of 1812, starting at 8 am with “three shots from the sixteen pounder”.

Luckily, no one was manning the turret

Luckily, no one was manning the turret

At 8am, five of us (myself, Ron and his two sons, Nick and Anthony, and Alex a local racer) made do with a countdown from the race director Chad Hopkins and we headed for the first of 13 obstacles over a 5k course.

The weather had been kind, so what could have been a sloppy mudfest (especially on the back part of the course) was actually a pleasantly runnable course. The first 7 obstacles were a series of increasingly high/difficult wooden structures, causing us to climb and crawl our way through the first half mile.  This was followed by a run of about 2+ miles, then a series of inflatable obstacles.  Yes, you read that correctly, inflatables.  IMG_5067I was EXTREMELY skeptical about going through bouncy castles for a race.  In the first place, I hadn’t trained at nearly enough birthday parties/Chuck E Cheese’s, but by the fifth lap through, when my legs were cramping because I was wedging my body into an apparatus made for six year olds, not forty-six year olds, I thought- this guy’s a genius!  My second thought was: “It would be really embarrassing if they have to use the jaws of life to cut me out of one of these things.” Let me explain:

  1. There was a technique to get through each one in the least amount of effort (sliding down the plastic/rubber with exposed skin was immediately rewarded)
  2. Depending on your size, you were squeezing through areas that could make you mildly claustrophobic
  3. After a few laps, they were dirty and slick with sweat (if it had been muddy or wet, they would have been nearly impossible)
  4. There was NO WAY you could have trained on them beforehand.  The age limit at most reputable places disqualifies the majority of obstacle course runners from actually getting on one.
  5. While you’re in them, half the time you’re thinking “Really? It’s this hard to get through a child’s toy?” and half the time you’re thinking “Wheee!”

So, back to the race, or races as I came to understand it.  Because I was in the first “elite” heat, we were racing each other for the fastest first lap.  The other four had experience with obstacle course races and , and so I had every expectation that I was a lock for 5th place.  We stayed together during the first sets of obstacles, and then during the run portion, I decided to move ahead as I felt the young guns were quick and I’m a little competitive…I was right to worry.  Continue reading

Dream Race

“I should worry about all kinds of things, but, you know what they say about stress”- Archer

IMG_4529*Note: for a shorter, yet still coherent version of this story, simply skip the sections in italics

This was it, this was the race, the experience that I wanted to have ever since plowing through Born to Run. The Copper Canyons, Caballo Blanco, if not the origins, then the tradition of running that stretched back through history. This is what got me interested in running after so many years. This is what helped me changed my form and embrace the joy of running distance. This was the dream race.

The planning for this trip happened months in advance: Fly into Chihuahua, take the train the next day to Bahuichivo, get a “ride” from there into Urique in the Copper Canyons. Have a day or so to experience the Copper Canyons, see and hopefully meet the Tarahumara, run the race and then reverse it back to Chihuahua. Simple.

When I plan, I usually try to see the worse case scenario, mentally prepare for it, and if it happens, be able to react with something thought out rather than “in the moment”. Case in point- a train strike threatened to skewer part 2 of our trip down. No problem, a ride in a van was arranged from Chihuahua to Urique roundtrip. Same price. Done.

I prepare for a race no differently, which is why I usually end up with too much food or way more water than I need to get to the next aid station. If I fail, it won’t be because of lack of planning.

I met Shalini at the airport in St. Louis, we picked up Jason, Francisco and Don at DFW and flew down to Chihuahua. David came in later that night. IMG_4451 IMG_4453We ate street tacos, Don found some beer and we settled in at our hotel. No hay problema.

As I’ve gained more running experience, two of the things I find myself doing are a form of compartmentalization and risk assessment. By compartmentalizing a run into smaller timeframes, I avoid the stress of contemplating the entire distance or time I might be out there. I try to “live in the moment”, enjoy what’s around me and keep thoughts of “you still have 30 miles to go!” at bay. At the same time, I’m constantly assessing risks: footing, temperature, aches and pains, mental state, distance left, etc., which can sometimes break down those carefully constructed walls. If I don’t get them back up in time: DNF. Luckily, this has only happened rarely.

Thursday morning, the van arrives 30 minutes late because our driver was asleep (ok, at least he won’t be over-tired for the 9 hour ride). We pile in with everyone plus two more- Carlos and the driver’s two teenagers, and head out. IMG_4466IMG_4468The sun chases us west as we take intermittent stops for local food and sights. We pass a police checkpoint with half the officers wearing balaclavas. When we ask why, it’s explained that they don’t want the cartels to know their identities. A little concerning, but it’s said so nonchalantly, it’s easy to dismiss as “you’re in Mexico, this is how things are”. About an hour later we’re passed by a truck with teens in the back carrying automatic rifles. Explanation, with a shrug, is they’re “probably cartel”. They wave, smiling to us as they go past, no big deal, not a threat to us. Put it in the worry about it later box. Like the odd part of a dream, quickly forgotten.

As we get closer to the Canyons, paved roads give way to intermittent dirt and gravel, which then start to give way to intermittent paved roads. The jarring and the views take our breath away.IMG_4474We stop at an overlook and get our first glimpse of Urique. Surrounded by harsh yet vibrant mountains, full of pine, oak and cactus, the mining town looks a quiet refuge next to a winding river. The descent into the canyon is heart-stopping at times. Narrow dirt roads, no shoulder, no guard rails. Just clear air and fathoms of drop. After what feels like hours we touch bottom, roll into Urique, try to figure out which hotel we’ve booked, sort it out and establish our turf. We’re in single rooms, sparse but clean accommodations, right on the main drag (aka the only drag).

We see Josue, the race director, finally get to meet the living legend Maria ‘Mariposa’, walk around town and get dinner. We see a few of the local police. They all have semiautomatics, but nothing different than we’ve already seen. Few runners are around, and we try to anticipate how full the town will be with everyone there. The Tarahumara are scheduled to start arriving tomorrow, and will camp just outside of town. The next day we’re scheduled to go out on a 10-mile out and back section of the course. We may do part of it, we may do it all. We still have a few days until the race.

At this point, you may be wondering why we got there so early. Part of it was to have some time to fully experience the Copper Canyons, but part of it, for me goes back to my planning. I didn’t know how long it would take to get there. If everything went smoothly (as it did) we’d be there early (and we were). If something happened (train strike, van break down, etc.), I wanted enough cushion built in to figure something out and still get there for the race. No need so far. And if you’re not wondering, quit reading this section and get back to the main part.

Friday morning, we dive into chorizo and huevos rancheros to fuel our run/hike (hike/run?) out to Guadalupe Coronado and the old mission church. IMG_4482 IMG_4485Bright blue sky, great group of people, it was a beautiful 10 mile out and back. Things were happening back in town and beyond, but we were enjoying the morning. We weren’t looking for them, so we weren’t seeing signs of trouble.

Now, a lot has been written about the cartels and what was happening in and around Urique. If you haven’t read it, the NY Times article is about as good as any. It affected us, but we weren’t involved in any of it. Almost like a bad accident you drive by on a highway. You’re aware of it, but no one you know was involved, so you note it, maybe say a prayer, and move on.

What we were involved in was helping how we could. That, for me, revolved around the kids’ races.

The day before the big race, the tradition is to have kids races at a 1k, 2k and 3k distance, depending on age. The morning started with “shirt and supplies” pick up where each kid received a race shirt and a bag full of school supplies from the Norawas de Raramuri organization and supplemented by what the runners themselves contributed. It was organized chaos as we handed out shirts and then got the kids ready for the run. I had brought with me a Superman costume with the thought that I would bring some levity to the run and maybe entertain a few people. With (very little) prodding, I wore it during the kids races and was rewarded by smiles, “thumbs ups” and high fives all morning.

The first race was the really little ones and I was still handing out shirts when it kicked off. So, in race parlay, that was my first DNS (Did not Start) of the day J. I made it out for the 7 and 8 year old 2k race, and after a blistering start, decided my best use would be giving encouragement to the kids that were pacing themselves. Within 200 feet of the start, one local child had blown out his sandal. He was hopping on one foot, still moving forward, while he fixed his sandal. This went on for about 100 feet or so, then he had it fixed, popped it on his foot and quickly left me behind. I caught up with another young man who was from Mexico. 11042987_1039902196023217_8239776099254088600_nHe had come down with his father (who was running the 50 mile race) and he was maintaining the steadiest pace I’ve ever seen in someone so young. The patience alone to maintain that pace while kids are sprinting and walking ahead of him amazed me. I stayed with him the rest of the way, and he ended up passing a group of about 10 kids that had employed the sprint/walk technique. The older kids race was getting ready to start, though, so I didn’t finish with him, but turned around and headed back out to the start (so, a DNF in the 2k race…)

  (Video Courtesy of Rob DeCou!) For the older kids, I knew I had no chance, so I lined up slightly in front of them for a photo opp and, as you can see in the video, my lead lasted about 3-4 steps. IMG_4587I did find myself with a young Tarahumara boy who ran for a while, but then started walking. It was obvious he wasn’t feeling well, and in my best grunting and pointing Spanish/Tarahumaran, figured out he had an upset stomach. We walked most of the 3k and as the faster runners came around to lap us, I turned around to watch the runners. I turned back and he was gone, fading into the crowd.   Didn’t finish that race either, so another DNF for the 3k. :)

On that morning, in those moments, I found the dream. The joy on the kids’ faces from picking up shirts, to getting their bags, to the run made our race somewhat irrelevant. We were witness to the simple pleasures that we often take for granted and the pure reason for running.

As it turns out, it was a good thing I found it then because later that day, we were told the race was being cancelled for security reasons: basically a mass DNS. Some of the pieces from the previous days started to fall into place, but we were still a step removed.

We had arranged for our van to pick us up the next day (quickest they could get down) so the only thing we could do was wait. We spent time wandering around the town in a bit of a fog, but determined to make the most of the time we had left. We spoke with and had our pictures taken with Tarahumara legends Manuel Luna and Arnulfo (which made it like most Saturdays). We had dinner with the race director, Josue, and were starting to settle down.

Then, in the middle of dinner, the mayor of Urique announced the race was back on. He had called in the army and they would be there in the morning to ensure security. It, of course, would now be unsanctioned, as the race directors have the final say, but it did lead to a bit of confusion and while some runners chose to run the next day, we decided not to. During the night, trucks owned by soldiers and federal police started arriving in town so that by the morning, Urique was transformed. Men with automatic weapons seemed to be everywhere. It was time to leave.

We piled into the van and the car with six others and made the 9 hour journey back to Chihuahua, passing a few additional army trucks headed into the valley As we couldn’t make it out the next day, some of us ran a commemorative run in a park in Chihuahua. Finally flew out on Tuesday, home in a flash.

IMG_4509So, like a dream it was over too quickly, and like a dream, I’m still not sure how I feel about it. We were exposed to the bright and dark sides of a culture and way of life. We didn’t look death in the eye, but we saw his shadow. We did, however, help the Norawas de Raramuri help a lot of people with food vouchers, clothes and school supplies. And we got to experience, through the children, the pure joy of running.

Bedrock sandals first take

Having run a few miles in the Bedrock Gabbro 2.0s, I wanted to provide a quick review:

Like: the lacing system, the corded toe strap, the heel design, tread
Not so sure: narrow footprint, rubber on sides of straps, footbed

Here’s a picture of them next to my Luna’s

IMG_3863-0.JPG

IMG_3862.JPG

Really like the heel design, no slipping experienced, and the lacing system in general worked pretty well. The tread is grippy, and the corded toe strap is very comfortable. However…

My wide feet are one of the reasons I love sandals. The bedrock’s are one size smaller, but you can see the difference in the width. Also, there’s rubber on the interior of the straps which even in short runs was a bit uncomfortable. Finally, the jury’s still out on the footbed. I can see how it would protect from rocks, but in my early runs, I’ve slipped more than gripped. I also wonder if they’ll mold to my feet as well as the Luna’s.

Overall, a good sandal and the toe cord, rock protection and heel system may be enough to get many to choose them over other sandals, but the narrowness and the rubber on the straps are throwing me off. I’ll continue to wear them and update this review if things change.

The idiot

Hunter Gatherer Survival Run- Fuego y Agua

For months, I’ve been trying to explain what this race is all about: 31 miles, No aid stations (carry your own food and filter and sterilize your water), oh, and you have to “do things” to complete the race. “Like what?”- Well, to start, you have to make your own shoes, you’ve got to make a bow, fletch arrows and then actually hit something with it, you’ve got to make a fire with a bow drill, you know, “things”. Still no comprehension as to why someone would put themselves willingly through this… To say “for the challenge” doesn’t quite describe it. For me, it comes down to the one thing that I’ve looked for since I started ultrarunning: Can I do it?

The short answer is: I didn’t. I “failed” (more on why I would use that word later) when I was timed out of the race after 14 1/2 hours, having completed a little over half the course. The thing about this race, though, is that because I learned so much and kept going despite the silly mistakes I made, it was an accomplishment. That, and the facts that:

  1. Out of about 18 starters, only 3 finished the race (a 300% improvement over last year)
  2. Sections of the course were designed by Barkley and Tour De Giants finisher Nick Hollon
  3. The archery section was designed by Tom Norwood, an excellent archer and lunatic
  4. I learned a ton just training for this race. I now know how to use a survival knife, do a flemish twist, create fire by rubbing sticks together, carve a bow (even with wood from Lowes), make and use a sling and build a deadfall trap.
  5. I lasted for 14 1/2 hours, completed every challenge up to that point and still had legs, even if I didn’t have any time left.
  6. And finally, met a bunch of warriors that can endure more than most people could.
Last Outpost...

Last Outpost…

So, here’s how it went down…

Friday (4pm)- Packet Pick up

Nervous anticipation as we wait for Race Director Josue Stephens. For his race in Nicaragua, he started the race a day early at packet pick up. Last year in this race you had to carry a log up a hill to get your bib. What’s in store for us?

55962448-JGP_6558Turns out, we are being divided up into teams, each person has to build a travois, use them to carry rocks up a ¾ mile hill, fill a six foot diameter circle, then build a cairn in the next 2 ½ hours. The team with the tallest cairn doesn’t have to sleep outside the night before the race. Yikes. 55962447-JGP_6742I end up on team red and we set to work. Hauling a number of rocks up the hill, you quickly find the flaws in your building skills. After the first few rounds, we decide to pair up and get big rocks up the hill on the few decently constructed travois; every few hundred feet, handing off the travois to a “buddy” and getting a few minutes rest. The technique pays off as we hall a number of large flat stones that allows us to build a slightly higher cairn than the white team. We head down for dinner. This is going to be an interesting race…55962446-JGP_6966

(Note: all times are approximate except the start. Even though I had a watch on, I was more focused on pushing on)

Saturday (4am)- Pack and Sandals

The race is a combination of running (31 miles, not counting yesterday’s fun) and skills. First order of the day- make a pack out of paracord and fabric that will hold your approved items (at the bottom of the page on the link) and your food (did I mention there were no aid stations and that you had to filter and sterilize your water?). That done, next you had to make the sandals you were going to run in out of raw materials from Luna Sandals, (NFI) using only your survival knife and a punch. I managed to make a mistake on both of the first two skills that cost me time. First, my pack was ok, but at one point I didn’t cinch it up quite right and something fell out. Luckily, I noticed it quickly, but the memory of that drop haunted me later. IMG_3749Second, I had planned on lacing my sandals in a 5-hole pattern that would keep my feet stable in the shoe. At the last minute based on overheard conversations from veterans about chafing, I abandoned that idea and went with a 3-hole traditional pattern. Stupid.

Having completed this first set of tasks in about 45 minutes or so, I headed out on a short 2 ½ mile out and back, through a river and up a hill. The water and terrain showed the flaws in my sandal design, so as I re-entered the start/finish area, I changed my sandals to a 5-hole pattern. Better fit, but in my haste I made the holes a bit too high up, so they rubbed my pinkie toes raw. I could live with the pain and adjust by taping my toes, but the bigger mistake happened when I unpacked, then repacked my pack, leaving out a Ziploc bag with my medical kit and a number of the items I would need to complete the challenges. I didn’t realize I had simply left them there and by the time I realized they were gone (about 3 hours into the race), I thought they had simply dropped out somewhere on the trail (see haunted by a memory above).

9am- Fruitless Search Completed

Having backtracked from the checkpoint a few miles and two hours later, I had given up the search and was back at the checkpoint.   I thought my race was over.

Luckily, there was no issue with me continuing.  I realized I may not be able to do some of the challenges now, but I still had items I could use, so I headed out.  The next challenge was only a few miles away.  On route, I had to pick up my travois from the night before and carry it down to a section of cliffs.  Here, hidden in the nooks and crannies were arrow shafts- I needed four.  After about 30 minutes of searching in the cliffs, I found the four arrow shafts I needed (thanks to Corinne and Nick for the leeway as there were only four shafts left spread out over the entire cliff).

I had part of a cheeseburger, drank some Tailwind (NFI) and headed back up into the hills to Eagle Cave.  Now, one of the reasons I had decided I could do this run was that I was ensured that the cave from 2013 was not on the list of things we had to do.  Oh, well…

11am- The Hole

Technically a cave, the opening is a 2×2 foot hole in the ground. Tight places and I are not friends I was not looking forward to this. We had to find 3 arrowheads with different colored dots on them. We didn’t have to find 4 arrowheads because when putting the white dot arrows out, three copperheads made their presence known and the bag was abandoned. 7 hours in, I get in the hole, find I’ve caught Angela (the only female competitor in the race), and she’s been crawling around in there for a while, still missing her 3rd arrowhead. I quickly find two, then start crawling back to look in an area she hadn’t explored. I get back there and realize I’ve found the bag of white arrowheads. OK, didn’t they say something about copperheads back here? Time to go… Luckily, on my way back I spotted the third arrowhead I needed, accidentally gave away their position to Angela (giving aid to a fellow survival run is grounds for disqualification) and we both got out of there quickly. Time in the hole: about 15 minutes.

The next section was a “self-navigation” over about a mile or two, bushwhacking the whole time (aka no trails).   I got turned around and by the time I got to the next checkpoint, Angela had beaten me there (even though she left after me).

12 noon- Fletching

An item on our list was four large feathers (which, as I live in a city and don’t have regular winged vertebrate access, I had to buy online) and artificial sinew. I had the feathers, but had lost the sinew (see above). Luckily, we only had to turn in the feathers, and there was sinew provided for us to fletch our arrows. Fletched all four and headed out to the archery range, about 4-5 miles of trails and bushwhacking away.IMG_3761

Next stop: make a bow and shoot it.

2:00 (ish)- Bow Time

Making a survival bow out of a Juniper branch is difficult, but easier than trying to make one out of the 1×2 I tried to carve with my survival knife at home. When I arrived, there were a few runners there finishing up their bows and I felt good that I had (kind of) caught back up.   It still took a while and I had to find a different branch halfway through the construction as the first branch turned out to be unsuitable. Once that was carved, stringing the bow consisted of making a Flemish twist with the string and then stringing the bow. I had the twist down, but couldn’t get the bowstring to stay taught. We then could practice with our bow as much as we wanted, but then had four chances to climb about 10-15 feet into a tree and shoot a “bear” about 15 yds away. After about 8 practice shots, I had hit nothing. It was getting close to 3:30 and I knew I was up against time, so I decided to give it a go, resigned that this might be my first missed challenge. Climbed the tree, wiped the sweat out of my eyes, pulled the string back as far as I could and let it fly…right through the heart. Well, 1/1000 of an inch into the bear at about where the heart was, but it stuck, surprising myself, the guy in charge of the checkpoint and the bear. BearI jumped out of the tree and picked up my bow and arrows (which I had to carry with me for the rest of the race).

Got the symbols for the challenges I had completed to that point, stamped them into my copper disk with my survival knife (chisel and nail having been lost with the bag) and stamped out my first word: F-A-I-L. To explain, the disk had four sections. By completing all the challenges in a section, you get a word. Do all the challenges and finish the race and they spell out I DID NOT FAIL. They build up over the race and you only get the NOT if you complete everything. One word down and it was only just before 4 o’clock. :)

Before leaving on the next leg (about 6 miles), I was told that I had to be through the next two checkpoints by 7:30 pm. I remembered the next section of running as being particularly brutal with a lot of bushwhacking, ridiculously rocky and cactus-y. On top of that, there was very little shade and while it wasn’t hot for Texas, it was pretty warm. Angela had just finished her bow making and so we agreed to head out together. 12 hours into any race, having someone to talk to distracts you from what I like to call “the demons”. Those voices that try to convince you to stop, remind you constantly of what hurts, and generally exist to beat you down. We ran, hiked and bushwhacked for 2 hours to cover that 6 mile stretch. (did I mention the terrain was pretty brutal?)

6:00pm- Bow and Sling

Rolling into what would be our final checkpoint, the last two skills were to shoot a target placed uphill from your position (by the way, once you made something you had to carry it. Carrying a bow and four precariously fletched arrows through all the bushwhacking made it even more fun and we found more than a few remnants of previous runners’ demise as we picked up the odd feather or arrow that had been claimed by the unfriendly vegetation.)

RPXD0007Hit the target on the third try (of only four allowed, so just barely) and then looked around for material to make my sling. My missing bag contained most of the material I needed, so I improvised and found someone else’s dropped sling and completed the challenge. By then it was 6:30 and we needed to go another 4 difficult miles, start a fire, boil water in a cup made out of cactus and then make tea with medicinal herbs we needed to identify in the next hour. We weren’t going to make and called it there.

We ended up 12th and 13th, outlasting 6 of the 18 runners that had started the race. A further 6 made it to the next checkpoint and only 3 finished the race. I felt good and had completed everything put in front of me. Still probably wouldn’t have finished the entire race (leaving the next checkpoint, you had to carry a 20 pound rock for 2 (I think) miles, build a deadfall trap with it, then run some more before getting in the freezing cold river for a 1.25 mile “swim” upstream.

We were driven back to the start.  I ate some jerky, watched the first and second place guys come in and then crashed hard.

Everyone out there was an incredible athlete, both physically and mentally, and it was humbling to participate and learn from them. As I said at the beginning, I learned a lot.  I like the dual nature of the challenge this type of race gives and will do it again if I can find the time to train properly.  Next year sees the race moving to California, so I need to go practice my fire making….Success will be in getting further the next time…

RPXD0001

the idiot

PS- Big thanks to Jeff Genova for the great pics and to RD Josue and everyone else who made this happen!

Mark Twain 50- We are all Mad…

“When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained” – Mark Twain

So it was, standing in the perfect dark just before 6 am with over 100 others, the cool of a 45 degree morning causing every manner of clothing combination to be applied, that I found myself wondering, not for the first time, why I run long distances. It can be summed up by calling it a type of madness, one that can drive you to do seemingly irrational things in the quest for (peace? satisfaction? exhilaration? pain? all of the above?). There are degrees to the madness (some today are running 100 miles, others like myself, “only a half”) but it’s only apparent from within. From the outside, we should all be committed.

After months of training in weather not even remotely resembling this, we took off. Luckily, the change of weather was in our favor. For now, we basked in the coolness.

The Mark Twain Race is held in the Mark Twain National Forest near Potosi, MO. It’s a 25 mile loop with about 2,500 feet of gain for each loop. The hills are runnable/walkable without them being “hands on knees” or crawlable (and I’ve run a few of those courses) and there are some good runnable stretches (most notably between the second and third aid stations-miles 9 through 15 on each loop). I ran it twice, some ran it four times. Here’s a link to my garmin data:

http://connect.garmin.com:80/activity/embed/590492604

The plan for the race was to do the first half in about 5 to 5 ½ hours and then make adjustments at the halfway point. My goal was not to go out blazing or push myself to the point of pain, but run according to Wu Wei– Without Effort. I had my Fuego y Agua Survival Run in a few weeks and didn’t want to take myself out of that race before it began. I had also decided to run in my Altra Olympus’ (NFI) for the same reason. I would normally be running in Luna Sandals (NFI- actually, that goes for every brand I mention, I don’t benefit monetarily or otherwise from any of it) but with the start temperature projected to be about 45 degrees, running on numb feet was not something I wanted to do. Also, we had run the course about a month before and there were places where it was too rocky for my wimpy feet, so I went with cushioning.

“Camping” the night before (putting down the seats in the jeep and sleeping on an air mattress in the back) was something I was getting better at, and I woke up fairly refreshed in the cold dark of pre-dawn. Start time was 6 am and we all had headlamps on to start (insert video). The first few miles were S-L-O-W as over 100 people (50 and 100 milers started together) wound their way in the dark on single track in the woods. It started to open up about mile 3 and I was able to (kind of) get my pace going. About 5 miles in, we hit the first aid station. A slight pause there, and then I got out as quickly as possible to stay ahead of the packs of runners. I was using Tailwind for the first time in my water bottles, combining hydration with fueling, and that, plus the cool temps meant I didn’t dally in too many aid stations for too long. In true MT style, though, all were staffed with incredible volunteers and had both the usual food you’d see, plus each team made something special (pancakes, soup, burritos, sandwiches) so I could have just run without anything and been well cared for!

The next four miles had some climb, but nothing too bad, and I hit the second aid station at about mile 9, still slower than I’d like to, but picking up pace. I had the great fortune to run with a number of people at various times and the conversations with Shane from Georgia, Shalini- doing her 1st hundred, and Lee- who I swapped jokes with for 3 miles and who tripped on exactly the same tiny root with the same foot both times I was running with him at the 18 mile mark (and again at mile 43) helped the miles flow by.

Coming out of this aid station, we had our one creek crossing and I managed to dunk one foot in. However, I was dry within a mile and never had issues. I used Run Goo on my feet under my socks and for the first time (I think ever) had no blisters. Coming out of that aid station, there was a bit of climbing (about 200 ft in the next mile), but then you could really fly (relatively speaking). I started to get closer to my goal of 5-5 ½ hrs and rolled into the 3rd aid station at mile 15 feeling good.  

Into the final aid station at mile 20, I hung out for a bit and spoke with some of the volunteers, then it was a nice easy run back to the start/finish. Right before the end, I caught up with Shalini, and we ran the last few miles into the start/finish area together. First lap done in 5:34, so close to what I wanted to do. I then messed around with my drop bag and it was Shalini shouting at me to get going that got me motoring out of there. I had spent about 7-8 minutes in the area, so knew we needed to move. I felt really good at this point, so good that I started worrying I was missing something. Oh well, back out into the wild…

Lap two started much more quickly. Running on and off with Shalini and other runners, I soon started passing people. Again, feeling really good but wondering if it was all going to come crashing down at some point. I made it into the first two aid stations more quickly than the first loop (no conga lines this time and it was light out). For some reason the 4 miles between aid station 1 and 2 seemed long, so I decided to pull out the Ipod and listen to the Ricky Gervais podcast I had downloaded. The thought was that music can distract me, but to be truly distracted, I’d rather be laughing hysterically. It worked because the next 6 miles between aid stations 2 and 3 (miles 34 to 40) went by in a flash. At the beginning, I thought this would be the crucial part of my race: Where I would start to feel doubts creep in, I’d start hurting and would entertain thoughts best left unthought. Never happened.

I caught Lee again at our usual place and as he prepared himself to trip on the root, we passed two runners. Once past them, they started to keep pace with us and I started to get nervous. We were about 7 miles from the finish- I don’t like to get passed in the last 10 miles if I can help it, so I decided to push it. I sped up, leaving Lee to his unerring pace and caught up with another 100 miler. I ran with her for a while and then started to hear the two other runners behind us. My quads were starting to tighten up and I still had over 5 miles to go. This could get ugly…

As we ran into a descent, I decided I had two choices: keep running steadily (but slowly) and hope my quads didn’t lock up, or let them run free and risk tripping on a root or rock (Not sure if I was getting my feet up as high as I could, so tripping was more than a possibility).  I decided to risk it and picked up the pace.  What felt like flying was really 12(ish) minute miles, but I was nearing the end, so that’s what I had.  I caught 3 more runners about 3/4 of a mile from the finish line and inched past them to finish 10th overall in 11:13.  As close to an even split as I’ve ever run and only 3 1/2 hours behind the winner. :)

Overall, a great course and great support!  The runners on the course really helped pass the time and the aid station volunteers were the best I’ve ever experienced.

Next is the survival run.  Madness is growing…

Zen and the Art of Mountain Running- Nirvana Big Bear 50k Race Report

IMG_3012The howling of the wolves was our starting gun, the rattle of the diamondbacks our cowbells. Nineteen intrepid souls began their looping journey in the semi-dark shadow of Crafts Peak near Big Bear, California. Some had ambitions of completing a 100 mile expedition, my goals were more modest- complete 31 and still have enough strength in my legs to work the gas pedal that would propel my car back to Las Vegas.

It was 37 degrees at the start, but warmed quickly, and soon I was down to shorts and a t-shirt. Early on, my toes were a bit numb in my sandals and I had another pair of shoes stashed at the start just in case the course was more technical than I could handle in my flip-flops. Turned out, that wasn’t going to be an issue.

IMG_3024Starting at about 6,500 ft was a new experience for me, and the first hill reminded me of the difficulties of running at altitude (well, at least more altitude than I was used to). The first two miles took nearly 30 minutes as I adjusted, and the pack drifted away from me.  As this was the Nirvana Big Bear race, I tried to place my mind in a present state and breathe.  After the second or third hill, I tried to focus on getting my heart rate under 200 and making it to the end.

IMG_3058The course itself was a series of three loops, the first two (of 1.5 and .5 a mile respectively) brought us up to just under 7,000 ft twice and then the 8 mile loop pushed us to the top at around 7,300 ft, then threw us into a series of hills before chasing us down the mountain and back to the finish.  Total elevation gain was about 4,800 ft per Garmin. Two well stocked and excellently volunteered aid stations were set up so that you actually hit them three times (miles 5, 8, and the start/finish).  This was the initial running of the NBB, and RD John Wog put on a fantastic race!

IMG_3091Because of the short loops at the start, I had the chance to glimpse a few other runners, but with only 19 on a 10 mile stretch, I didn’t expect to have much sense of where everyone was.  I am competitive, but generally not a competitor in these races, but I do occasionally gain purpose from knowing someone is just in front or just behind me. My first indicator that something different was happening at this race came as I rolled into the first aid station.  I had caught up to and was running with one of the 50 milers, and as we came to the table, the volunteer checking us off said to me: “You’re in third place!”  Awesome! I love being in front only 5 miles into a race! (he typed sarcastically) Something must be wrong. I don’t think I’m going too fast.  Maybe the wolves are actually out on the course (which, by the way, it turns out that there are wolves in Big Bear, but they’re at a sanctuary 20 miles away, maybe I heard coyotes…) We loped out of the aid station to complete a 3+ mile loop, and didn’t pass anyone. As we sauntered back through the checkpoint, I confirmed that I was actually in 3rd, and began the descent to the start.  I forgot to mention that I was holding my iPhone on a stick, trying to get a time-lapse of the first loop of the course.  That didn’t really work, but it did allow me to get a few good shots without really stopping.

As I made the transition, I passed a guy who looked like he was running the 50k, but I wasn’t sure.  “How can you look at someone and tell what they’re running?”, I hear you ask.  Let’s just say I was one with the mountain at this point, and because when I asked him what distance he was running, he said “50k”. Hypothesis confirmed.

Ok, now I’m technically in second place and we still have 20 miles to go.  Based on my past race experience, that’s not going to hold unless I do something different.  Time to channel my inner coyote and run like the wind on a becalmed sea.  I actually did the second loop in almost exactly the same time as the first loop (around 2:05) but because there were very few times you had long straightaways, I had no idea how much distance I had put on #2 or how far in front the leader was.  It was getting warmer and my heightened senses told me the leader was close…and that I would need a shower.

IMG_3133I bombed the downhill at a 12 minute pace J and came roaring into the start/finish to begin my final loop.  Another runner was there and as we left together we started chatting. He was running sleep-deprived from a 5 day old newborn and wasn’t sure what distance he had signed up for.  In addition he had kicked a boulder, so was struggling a bit on the downhills.  I had to stop to adjust my straps as my homemade lacing system was starting to rub, and by the time I was done he was way up ahead of me. It took me a while to catch up to him and we stayed close for a while before his injury started to slow him down even more.  I moved forward with the odd sense that something had just happened.

Leading a race is never something I had done and it was a bit terrifying.  Confirmation that I was now in the lead came at the midway aid station, so with 5 miles to go, I needed to step it up.  Rooting around in my head, I found the coyote again and woke him up, thundering out of the aid station and stupidly running a 10 minute mile that left my quads shaking.  I caught Ed the Jester (he was only 3 loops into his eventual 100 mile odyssey), talked to him for a bit and learned we both knew some of the same people, then power hiked the last hill into the final checkpoint, leaving only a little over a mile left to the finish.  I saw Doug (the eventual 3rd place finisher) hitting the aid station as I was going by the other way, so I knew I had a little over 3 miles on him, but didn’t know where Dustin, the sleep deprived, injured new father was.  The coyote was licking his paws, so I hobbled my best into the finish area, only to be reminded that I had completed 30 miles, not 31, so I needed to do two ½ mile loops to complete the distance.  A guide was provided and he assured me that we had no more hills to climb, so we set off at a respectable pace and finished in 6:38.  As it was, Dustin was about 30 minutes behind me and Doug was 11 minutes behind him. First place felt good! Maybe I should start looking for sponsors?IMG_3187

According to Wikipedia, Nirvana literally means “blown out”, and in the Buddhist context nirvana refers to the imperturbable stillness of mind after the fires of desire, aversion, and delusion have been finally extinguished. I’m embarrassed to report that I didn’t achieve Nirvana.  My mind is still all over the place, this race did not extinguish my desire to run, I do have an aversion to pain, and am still deluded.  I did almost blow out a quad, though, so maybe I’m close… :)IMG_3195

Note: Still Working on my American Odyssey Relay race report from the week before.  Trying to get other’s perspective, otherwise you’ll only hear about 1/12 of the race!

Moved by the Spirit- Spirit of the Osage 50k report

(Note: this race was held on 10/20.  Apologies for the late report)

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Not the farm, but an interesting country church

In the beautiful hills of Missouri, about halfway between St Louis and Kansas City, lies Osage County.  There are no stoplights in the entire county, and the land is dotted with farms.  Just off Highway HH, the hills rise to a peak at the home of race directors David and Victoria White.
This is where we started and ended our jaunt- three loops (and a short out and back) on a combination of paved and gravel roads.  As they lived at the highest point, each loop was capped by a mile long climb that brought you into the waiting arms of the aid station.  The temptation was to linger, but with the countryside beckoning, and knowing that a return trip would only take a few more hours, you left with that great feeling of one more lap in the books.

My strategy from the start was to stay at the back and stay disciplined.  The only elevation profile I could find said that there was about 1200 feet of gain for the entire distance.  That turned out to be per loop (note: always pay attention), so 3600 for the entire 31 mile distance!

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Not game ending, but not exactly what I was prepared for. I took the camera out on the first loop to get some shots, knowing I could drop it for the next two (and knowing that my desire to take pictures is inversely related to the distance I’d already covered).  I also was experimenting running in Luna (NFI) sandals and had “real shoes” ready at the end of loop aid station just in case. Loop 1 started well and I was able to chat with a few people and finally caught up with Chris Tallman about halfway through the loop. He had stopped to take a picture of a fairly uninterested bull and we decided to run the rest of the race together, swapping stories and enjoying the run. IMG_2326 Loop 1, about 11 miles, we finished in just over 2 hours and with the next two loops being shorter, we thought around a 6 hour finish was doable.  The Lunas were holding up well, so I dropped the camera and we started loop 2.

On loop 2 we started to catch and pass a few people.  In a 3 loop race, in my opinion, the second loop is the hardest mentally.  The early race euphoria has worn off, you’re seeing the same scenery for the second time (no matter how beautiful) and you know you are going to have to do it again when you’re done.  Having someone to run with helps as the conversation usually makes the miles go by largely unnoticed. That was loop two and as we hit the bottom of the last hill, I had an unexpected visit from John Cash (working aid stations after completing the 20k) saying I had an urgent phone call.  OK, so into his truck and back to the start line, I was on the phone for a good 40 minutes, but thankful that everything was resolved and was able to get back to the run.  I caught a ride back to the bottom of the hill and started again.  One note, I did wimp out and change into shoes while on the phone, so now I was ready to do the last lap plus a mile.

On my way up the hill, I ran into Justin Handy, a good friend and fellow SLUG.  I had spoken to a few people during the race that had told me this was their first ultra and I told Justin how unusual I thought that was.  He surprised me by telling me that this was his first as well (we had run a number of long training runs together, so I assumed he was a veteran)!  Ok, that 40 minute call served two purposes and one was to put me right where I was so I could run with Justin.  On the last loop we took turns motivating each other to run, run faster or walk faster.  Made it up the last hill and into the finish!  I was really glad I could be there for his first ultra and we devoured a few brats, some chili and a few beverages and enjoyed the great spread put on by Dave and Victoria.  All in all, a great day, a big change from my race two weeks earlier, but once again, a chance to run and talk with some great people.  The camaraderie is the biggest difference between these runs and the 10,000+ marathons, in my opinion, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  On to Nashville two weeks later for (what I assume) is going to be the flattest ultra I’ve ever run!

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