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!

The Monkey vs The Mountain vs The Mafate

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A (somewhat serious) review of three shoes I wear/have worn: The Luna Mono, The Altra Olympus and the Hoka Mafate 2

So, I used to run in the Hoka Mafate’s, I’ve been running in the Luna Mono’s for about 6 months and just got my pair of Altra Olympus’ and I thought to myself: Has anyone reviewed/compared the 3?  A quick search showed a scattering of reviews, but none that compared all three, so I decided to take on the task for others, like me, that are looking for guidance in a sea of choices.  Arguably, all three are different in their own way, but there are a lot of similarities that make the comparisons less than ridiculous.

My conclusion is at the end of this brief review, so if you’re the impatient type, you can scroll down. ☺

First: The look

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The first thing you’ll notice when wearing any of these three shoes is that other people will tend to stare.  Both the Hokas and the Altras put you on a platform a few inches above the normal running rabble and the sheer volume of the shoes causes looks.  The Luna’s, while garnering a slightly different response, still score high on the gaping stare spectrum, especially when worn when it’s cold outside.

Next: The feel

For me, this is one of the key differentiators and the reason why I’d choose one over the others.  The Hokas have great cushioning, but my foot sits deep in the shoe.  The result is a rubbing on the side of my ankle that caused me to cut a notch out of the shoe (noticeable in the picture above).  Also, for me the shoes are a bit too narrow and for longer distances, as my foot swells, it rubs.  This is the hurdle, for me, where these shoes fall.  Raw skin and blisters should not be a part of any activity you love to do.  I will speak of them no more

The Lunas have their own special rubbing points, but I’ve found if I wear toe socks for really long runs, I have no issues at all.  The contact of the strap between the toes can be alleviated either that way or with a lubricant like Body Glide (NFI) and the buckle on the top of the foot can be dealt with the same way.  The heel strap rubbing is eliminated (in my opinion) with the addition of a tech strap, or additional straps as shown in the picture.  Once that is sorted, they are a lot of fun to run in.  Sockful or sockless, running on the road or on trail is comfortable and oddly freeing.  No worries about running through water or mud, it all just runs through.  I do get the occasional rock, but no more than wearing shoes without gaiters, and it is considerably easier to get rid of them than completely untying the shoes. Also, after a couple of runs, they mold to the shape of your foot, which makes them feel great.

The Altras, in my opinion, fixed a lot of issues I had with the Hokas.  Just as padded (in my opinion) on the bottom, MUCH wider toebox (although I haven’t run an ultra in them yet, so no idea on rubbing) and the collar around the ankle is a lot lower, so there shouldn’t be any rubbing there.  The few runs I’ve taken them on have been a lot of fun and the zen-like tread pattern works well on loose dirt/gravel.

Next: Form

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I run using the Chi method, hitting on the balls/mid foot unless my form gets sloppy.  Both the Lunas and the Altras can accommodate this style as they are zero drop (no difference between the heel height and the toe height).  As you can see from the pictures above, there is a slight difference in the amount of cushioning between the two :) , and that leads me to:

Finally: The conclusion

To recap, I wanted to love the Hokas, but they weren’t made for my spread out, swelling feet.  If you remember, I ran Death Valley in a pair of Hokas, but switched out between them and a different model of Altras.  I ended up having to cut relief holes in the Hokas to avoid re-aggravating the blisters.

The new Altra Olympus appears, at first run, to be all that was missing in the Hokas, I like the cushioning, the depth and the width.  I have two races coming up in the next few months and will run at least one of them in the Altras.  For me, if it’s too cold, or the course is ridiculously technical or long, I think they’ll be my go-to shoe.  I like minimalist, but I’m not a masochist.

The Lunas, however, are my go-to for everything else.  I love the idea of strengthening my foot muscles and running more naturally and I love how the sandals pretty quickly molded to my feet.  I have over 200 miles on my current pair, and they’re still going strong.

Basically, I run because I enjoy it.  I’m usually nowhere near a podium or a course record and I like to be able to walk and talk after a race, not collapse in a quivering heap.  I will pick one of these shoes over the other based on the type of experience I want to have (with the exception of the Hokas, did I mention that?).  If I want to bound around like a deer (or a monkey), I’ll take the Lunas, If I want to plow through a mountain, I’ll reach for Olympus.  I may have found the perfect pairs of shoes for me, at opposite ends of the spectrum, but covering it all.  I’m running in the swamps in Florida next week at the DWD Green Swamp 50k, so I’ll probably be monkey-ing around down there!

I have no financial interest in anything I mentioned here, but I do have friends that work for/sell both the Lunas and the Altras.  If that, in your mind, constitutes a conflict of interest, I’m really sorry I wasted your time.  My recommendation would be to go out and see what works for you. ;)

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