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!

28 Miles on a Safety Pin

IMG_2402 Author’s Note: This report is late due to the ongoing dialog with major motion picture companies on the eventual film rights to this story.  As those negotiations seem to have broken down on a number of fronts, I’ve felt it important to release the story and worry about whether or not Matthew McConaughey could or couldn’t actually run this far for another day.

Running in sandals gives you a feeling unlike any I’ve ever experienced.  No material to rub your toes raw, the wind freely blows through the hairs on your toes and with the one’s I was wearing (Luna Mono’s- I have no financial interest in mentioning them, but I do know someone that works there and I did spend the better part of the Fuego y Agua getting to know and like him.  He did also teach me how to add another strap to make them conform to my feet, so that may bias my thoughts towards these sandals versus others.  Void where prohibited, etc.) there was enough padding to keep me going through the 31 paved miles of paths of Nashville and set a PR of 5:23.  But that’s only part of it.IMG_2406

The real story is of a guy named Jason from Nashville, who ran the full 50 mile version of this race in his Luna’s as his first attempt at 50 miles in only his second ultra. Not only that, his ingenious use of a safety pin from his race bib kept him from dropping out of the race 22 miles in.  Jason started, like the majority of the other 184 runners, at 7:00 am on a bright, but slightly chilly, November the 5th.  I briefly saw him at the start, noticing that he, like I, was clad in Luna’s.  IMG_2410A few early stops to take some pictures and adjust my straps (still trying to figure out the “best” fit) put me behind him, but as I ran and chatted with different people (like just about every ultra I’ve been in, the runners all have great stories and challenges and it helps the miles fly by), I started to catch up.  I saw him again as we neared the end of the first 16 mile loop (the hilly one).

IMG_2412We were flying by my standards (sub 10 minute miles) and once I found out he was running the 50 mile, it was his first, and he was way ahead of his goal pace, we agreed to stay together,  making sure we stayed quick without blowing up.  He had an earlier, thinner version of the sandals on that he had been running in for almost a year, and we swapped stories and advice (both experienced and read) as the miles rolled past.  We ran past the finish line to start the second loop and into the more isolated section of the course.  Staying mostly on the paved path, we soon veered off into a grassy section at mile 18 and dodged roots and logs for about 2 ½ miles. Pace had slowed at this point to just over 10 minutes, but we both still felt good.  We caught a few people, and then came back out onto the pavement.  I can’t remember if it was a speed bump or just a foot drag, but at about mile 22, the front of Jason’s sandal caught and he pulled the toe strap right out of the bottom of the sandal.

Over the next few minutes we tried everything- tying a knot in the strap (not enough leather), running with the strap as it was (no dice), running ½ and ½ (one foot barefoot, again a non-starter).  Jason finally got the strap to go through the hole in the bottom and sit there, but we knew it wasn’t a long term fix.  Luckily, the next aid station was only about a mile away, so we slowly shuffled there, trying to think of a fix.  Of course, if I had all my survival implements from the previous race with me, we could have come up with a complicated solution that would have involved me cutting off a toe, but unfortunately, I didn’t bring them.  As we came into the aid station, we started to think about alternatives, and the idea of using one of the safety pins on Jason’s bib surfaced.  IMG_2417IMG_2419IMG_2423After only a few more minutes, we had the solution and motored out of the aid station!

My turn around point was only another half mile up the road, but after testing it, Jason declared himself ready to go and kept on.  Meanwhile, I turned around, and continued my race for the last 6 or so miles with the usual paranoia that sets in late in the race while running alone.  Is that someone catching me? What was that noise? I only went how far since the last time I looked at my watch?? Where is the bridge?  My GPS must be messed up, I know it’s not this far!  Luckily, although I saw a group, and they did nearly catch me, I was able to gut it out and finish 4th in my age group and 12th overall.  The real question was, what happened to Jason?

I got a text from him later that day that he finished in 12:43 after bonking around mile 35, he rallied and clicked his way to the finish line.  There are a lot of inspiring stories in the ultra world on overcoming adversity.  The distance and the time combine to throw a lot of reasons to quit at you.  A first attempt at 50 miles is daunting. Having your shoe fall apart would seem to most to be reason to quit.  Having a safety pin as the only thing holding it together for 8+ hours had to be a constant mind game and I draw inspiration from Jason’s perseverance.  My hat is off to him- look for the film in the 2015 summer releases!IMG_2425

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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Is Less Better? War Eagle 50k Race Report

I woke up to the sound of birds and thunder. Checking the clock it was only 1:20 AM, still a few more hours until I had to be up. The birds, it turns out, were the noises coming from the air conditioner. The thunder was from a massive storm that would greet us all later that morning. Not knowing whether this was a good thing or a bad thing, I went back to sleep…

The War Eagle 50k near Bentonville, Arkansas started, as most do, with packet pick up the day before.

Great Shirts!

Great Shirts!

I drove down from St. Louis, checked in, met RD Jeff Genova (great guy, dedicated to the sport and his race) and asked about the presentation that was being given by Luis Escobar. Now I know what most of you are thinking and no, it’s not THAT Luis Escobar, the 7th Marquis of the Guadalquivir Marshes, he died in 1991. No, I’m referring to the famous runner (anyone who’s read “Born to Run” (not the Springsteen Autobiography) will recognize him), photographer (he’s photographed runners all over the world, including the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico) and Race Director of the Born To Run Ultra Running Extravaganza. I was excited because the book had completely changed my attitude towards running and my form and was what got me started doing ultras.

So we kick off with a great presentation by Luis, complete with stories about Micah True, Luis’s Badwater races and, of course the Tarahumara. http://www.norawas.org/ The glimpse Luis gave us was inspiring. They run, but not for medals or buckles. They run for pride and they run for bags of corn to feed their families. Near the end of the presentation, Luis, who’s been down to Copper Canyon to run with them a number of times, translated the mantra they use in preparation for the race:

Earth is my body

Wind is my breath

Water is my blood

Fire is my spirit

He urged us to simplify our running. The Tarahumara run in sandals and loose clothing. That’s it. No GPS, no watches, just feeling the run. I resolved to not wear my GPS for the race the next day and just run by feel…

Ok, that didn’t happen. I’m way too analytical and after a sobering discussion with my wife, she pointed out that I would probably lose my mind if I didn’t have it. So, I resolved to wear it, but not to look at it too much. I should be able to do that.

So after a fitful night’s sleep and a re-taping of my toes (less learned- don’t tape your toes the night before, then go to bed without your socks on. The tape edges tend to peel away in the night) I was ready to go.

IMG_1884It was pouring rain as we got to the visitor’s center and the start of the race. The parks department was incredible, opening up the center to allow us to get in out of the rain and cold. IMG_1886I was surprised by the number of people there for the 50, 25 and 10k races despite the weather, but I shouldn’t have been. As I was learning, the respect for RD Jeff Genova and his team to run a safe race meant that just about everyone who signed up showed up knowing that if Jeff said “Go”, there was nothing to worry about. Because of the lightning in the area, we delayed about 30 minutes, but then got going a little after 7. My goal was to run the 1st half in about 13 minute miles, and run the second half in 14 minute miles to knock another 30 minutes off my PR. The rain stopped after about an hour and the sun didn’t come out, so the temps stayed in the ideal range. IMG_1891In addition, the aid stations were so well stocked and thoughtfully placed (about every 3 miles- and they included the INGENIOUS Peanut Butter Oreos! (NFI)), that after 8 miles, I dropped my race vest off at the Piney Road aid station and opted to run the rest of the way with just a handheld bottle. Losing that weight really helped.

I cruised into the Piney Road aid station at mile 15 averaging 12:35 (I had only looked at my watch a few times- I felt that showed INCREDIBLE discipline), so felt good about my plan and how things had been going. I had gotten behind a woman about a mile back and we had been chatting (narrow single track gives you three choices- hang on someone’s heels, pass them when possible or get to know them). Deb (not Bev as I previously reported. I think I was suffering from trail ear) from Kansas City (as I later found out) was running this race after completing much longer distances. We were running about the same pace, had a good conversation and I asked her if it was OK if we ran together a bit more. Running trails is very different than road races. In my experience, more people talk and help each other out. We both agreed that talking kept our minds away from the demons convincing you to slow down, so on we went. Out of the rocking Pine Road aid station and on to the second half of the race. Little did I know, but the GPS was acting up and it was not recording the full distance. So, as Deb and I hit an aid station at what I thought was 21 miles, we were actually at 23 miles and moving quickly. At aid stations, and at a couple of places along the trail, we passed other runners and it was Deb’s pull that kept me moving. As we hit the last aid station, I risked a glance at the watch and couldn’t believe our time. We were on pace for sub 6 ½ hours and only had a few miles left to go! The last mile climbed 200 feet, the first 100 of which was in .2 miles (10% incline) (thanks for that Jeff), but we motored through it. Deb and I finished in 6:15 and some change and then sat down for a bit. In the ensuing raffle, I missed out on the camouflaged doormat, but managed to score a nice timex sports watch!

What began with ominous skies turned out to be my best race yet, both from a time and an experience standpoint. Luis reminded us to “run gentle” and I was able to enjoy a run with minimal gadget use (did I mention I also ran the entire time without music? that for me is tantamount to torture normally, but I found I didn’t need it). Jeff and his volunteers made it so that we could all focus on the run rather than on what we needed to carry or measure. I’ll take these lessons with me as I go forward, and who knows? If less is better, maybe running free of the gadgets may be best? I’ll have to get back to you on that. By the way, here’s the elevation profile, etc if anyone needs it going forward: URL:

http://connect.garmin.com/activity/322131126

By the way, You probably knew Bentonville is home to WalMart,IMG_1882 but did you know it was also home to the Waffle Hut?

Not big enough for a House

Not big enough for a House

I’m Baaaack! Dogwood Canyon 50k Race Report

Yes, it’s been a while, and for that I apologize. I’ve been recovering and trying to figure out what to do next. Thanks to all of you, we’re now only $420,000 from realizing our goal of raising $3.5 million! Stay Inspired!

Anyway, ran my first race since Badwater, and it woke me up. In the future, I expect to continue to find inspiring stories, but will also give my reviews of gear I’m using. Enjoy!

Dogwood Canyon

The day started off well, and then went downhill from there.  Actually, it went uphill, then downhill, then uphill about 16 times.With 5400 feet of elevation gain in a 50k, this wasn’t a walk in the park, and definitely not one that you should try to run without first doing a lot of hill training (he says with perfect clarity of hindsight).

Having run it last year (and DNFing on a lame excuse of being “tight” after 19 miles), you’d think I’d be better prepared, but either because I’d already come through “harder” ultras during the year, or because I was lazy, I wasn’t.  The first climb happens at about mile 1.5 and you hit a 20% incline that goes for the next 2/10 of a mile (put that on your treadmill).  A bit of rest at the top, then back down to the riverbed (which you’ve already waded through two or three times and will be given the opportunity to wash your shoes and socks in a further 10 times before the day is over.

Next comes the “relatively” flat bit, which meanders along the riverbed, and through the river a few more times until you hit the second “fun” climb at about 3 ½ miles.  This one is only a 12-15% climb for the next ½ a mile or so.  This continues on for a bit, up and down, until you’ve climbed about 16 hills (I think I mentioned that already) and you are (or at least I was) making it a few steps, resting, going a few more and resting like an old wind-up toy with a broken  spring. I think the biggest difference between these hills and others I’ve run is that they were jeep tracks, so straight up and down as opposed to the switchbacks I’ve run on before.  Not really runnable (the down hills were definitely “fallable”, a technique I tried by bombing down a few early on) and they really took their toll.

So, to the enjoyable parts: Volunteers and fellow racers were great!  Every aid station (about 4-6 miles apart) was fully stocked and staffed by helpful, friendly people.  The weather turned warmer as the day went on (I was out there a long time), and I was even able to get a nice cold water down the back treatment that kept me going!  I was near the end of the group of 55 that finished the race (I don’t like peer pressure) but was still greeted by a great cheer that went up from the volunteers that were roused out of their slumber to cheer me on (OK it wasn’t that long, but I can’t imagine the stamina required to sit there and wait as long as they did).  Weather and scenery were also high points.  You can see some of the natural beauty from the pictures, and while it did get into the high 70’s, running in shade most of the time and a breeze part of the time really made it comfortable.  Oh, and about mile 16, I had to wander through some horses (I’m pretty sure they were there).

We drove back to St. Louis straight away (my wife shaming me by crushing the 25k and then having enough time to read 3 books, catch up on 3 years worth of neglected letter writing and compose a sonnet), and my quads are still singing.  If you want a challenge, this one will test you.

I ran in Hoka Mafate 2’s (review coming) and had ZERO issues (no blisters even though my feet were wet about 75% of the time).  Slight rubbing on the heel, but that was it.

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