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

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