Tag Archive for Kilian Jornet

Feeling Good at the Vermont 100

Green Vermont mountains. Photo credit: Amy Rusiecki

Green Vermont mountains everywhere. Photo credit: Amy Rusiecki

Pre-race Goal Setting & Strategy

The Vermont 100 aka the VT100, was probably my first real race since school XC days that I approached it without any fixed goals. No time splits, average pace stuff and no finish time predictions. I did have one clear goal however; to run as fast as possible from start to finish ‘feeling good’. But that was it, nothing more. A new approach to running a very long way.

VT100 logo -

‘One step at a time’, a fitting slogan for my race strategy.

My former runner brain told me to be obsessed with breaking 20 hours. I knew the course would potentially allow for this with a great race but I respected and trusted my coach to guide me into a new way of setting running goals. By running on feel, my ability would do the talking for me. Perhaps I would break 20 anyway or maybe it would be 22 or the flip of that, 18? By not obsessing over numbers, I no longer would be able to feel like I was ahead or behind during the race (goodbye anxiety and stress). Just look at what Kilian produced at Hardrock the week prior. He ran ‘easy’ for 70 miles and then took off for the last 30 because he felt so good. He even dropped his more than capable pacer (Rickey Gates) because he began moving so fast. But alas, I am not Kilian, nobody is, but I and we can learn from the best and their style of running.

The day prior to traveling up to Vermont, I listened to my trusty source of trail running tips and humor from Trail Runner Nation. It was ironically fitting that the topic of conversation was Vermont and how to race on feel with guests Jimmy Dean Freeman – attempting the six original 100-milers in 13 weeks(!!) and my coach, Ian. For those intrigued, here’s a link to the podcast to what I’m talking about by running on feel;

JDF – Original Six Hundo – 2 Down – Mentor Ian Sharman | Trail Runner Nation

Listening to this was like getting a last-minute pep talk. Just in case, I wanted to say screw it, this approach sounds so vague, listening to this reassured me, this was how to do it. The detailed OCD sub-20 hour plan I had scribbled on my elevation profile chart weeks earlier was handed over to my crew on the 5-hour drive north Friday morning. Luckily for me, I had never re-read it to memorize any of it. It was now just a very basic guide to where I would possibly be for my crew of Tiffany, Francis and Rui (both paced me at Leadville in 2012) at each major aid station. Typical of them, they didn’t blink an eyelid to my very new approach which speaks so highly of who they are. They respected my strategy even though it would make it harder for them to track me down. Tip 1 for new 100 mile runners – get awesome crew!

My crew of Rui, Tiffany and Francis were priceless all weekend long. #VT1002014

My crew of Rui, Tiffany and Francis were priceless to me all weekend long. #VT1002014

VT100 course elevation and aid stations

VT100 course elevation with various aid stations.

Like Jimmy did recently at Western States three weeks prior, I couldn’t quite tear myself away from all my race data and planned to wear my heart rate (HR) monitor for the first 20 to 30 miles to guide me, capping my efforts at 150 bpm up the early climbs. And of course I would have my Garmin Fenix to keep track of all the data, yet I set my screen to only show elapsed time and my HR information.

July 19th – Race Day

Waking up at 2:15am Saturday morning felt anything like it. I had managed four hours of shut-eye and I was now ready to get going, my adrenaline was in full force. First things first though; a blood test. I was perfectly steady in the mid-100’s and I went to the kitchen to consume a couple of bowls of Honey Nut Cheerio’s, a yogurt, granola bar and a banana. Feeding the body calories now seemed to be the best move knowing a few hours later on in the day, I would not be craving real food so enthusiastically.

3:59am. VT100 start line at Silver Hill Meadow

3:59am. VT100 start line at Silver Hill Meadow. Photo credit: Vermont 100

In the dark fields of Silver Hill Meadow, 300 runners set off down a wide dirt road at 4am. As I had been warned, some runners leapt out in front at marathon pace. My extent of course knowledge was limited to knowing what sections were up or down and the names of aid stations only because I was carrying a laminated course elevation chart in my shirt pocket. I was basically out there just following yellow plates with black arrows or the guy ahead of me hoping he or she was paying attention. After a mile or so of road, the route turned sharp right onto a trail with some rocks and mud (that I was surprised to see on the course) and we began the first climb of what would be many. The course was renowned for being a relentless series of hills in humid conditions. Nothing too long or too steep but it would equate to 14,000 feet of ascent by the time we had covered the distance. This was great prep for Tahoe 200 (40,000 feet) and was a big factor why I was here. We all lucked out on the humidity factor though. This was not to be a hot race compared to years past. On one hand, I looked back and was annoyed I had put in  all those runs in Central Park with four layers on for what?! But on the other, I was relieved. 100 miles is hard enough without having to drown in sweat all day and worry about body temperature.

After an hour and change, the headlamp came off. The sun hadn’t quite risen but the openness of the land plus the non-technical terrain allowed me to be free of my Petzl Nao’s mega bulb. That headlamp is serious business people, highly recommended! At 5 miles, a hike up Densmore Hill was the first time to test out my strategic patience. Being able to resist the run and hike up gradients seems to be all part of the game at Vermont. This early on, everything feels great, my goal was to feel great all day long. Lots of folks around me pushed on while I went to power hike mode. My HR hovered at 151 and I knew I was now at my limit.

My ‘feeling good’ approach to the race took its first turn south at mile 10 however. Some very abnormal stomach cramps set in and I scrambled to figure out what was going on. After a little internal freak out, I nailed it down to nothing more than nature calling and took a detour into the woods (note; this was not someone’s property line! Last year, a runner pooped in a local’s blueberry bush which as you can imagine, caused quite the stir in town). Of course, this ordeal meant losing some time but the bigger picture was that I immediately felt better. Embarrassingly to admit, this scenario played out another five times throughout the first half of the race! I took the positive spin on this that I was definitely not going out too fast with all of these breaks.

Rolling into Pretty Horse (not feeling good!) with a veteran VT100 runner going for #11.

Rolling into Pretty Horse (not feeling so good!) with Prasad Gerard; a veteran VT100 runner going for #11.

Apart from my bathroom needs, the legs, lungs and mind were all feeling great. “How am I feeling?” was the question I would repeatedly ask myself. This could be to do with anything from drinking, getting calories down, salt pills, blood glucose levels or my effort level. The various topics were the same from mile 1 to mile 100. It was like the wheel of fortune landing on a different number (in my case, topic) each time. Doing so took focus and is why I didn’t care when I read in the pre-race literature that music was banned from the course. To not have any music as a distraction for me over 100 miles would be a first but my assumption of the rule was that running alongside horses was probably deemed a fairly dangerous situation! That’s right, this race was run alongside horses!

Not your average 100 miler!  Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

Not your average 100 miler! Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

Sidenote: For those not in the know, this 100 mile malarkey that I can’t seem to get enough of came about 41 years ago because of a 100 mile horse race gone wrong for a guy called Gordy out in California. His horse went lame so the next year he ran the distance on foot and finished it in just under 24 hours. The next year more runners showed up and that race became known as the Western States 100. I talk about it from time to time!

This was my (and likely many others) first time ever running a race alongside horses. It took some good communication skills from both the rider and runner how to let the four-legged guys go by without any ugly mishaps. When the first horse ran up behind me (their race started an hour or so behind ours), I shifted to the left of the trail slowly and let them by while still running. The guy in front of me took a slightly different approach leaping off the trail and then standing still, looking petrified! Either he was in for a long day of this or I was doing something very wrong and about to find out about it.

To my surprise, I caught back up to one of the handful of horses that passed when descending a somewhat steep stretch and passed them back. “Oh. Think you’re getting away from me do you?!” heckled the rider to me. I assured her my ego was not that big that I thought I was going to beat her horse, I just wasn’t much enjoying standing behind a big horse.  These were the only occasions you would (if dare) rarely pass them. The other time would be when they were drinking from their troughs on mandatory 45-minute breaks. While we ate gummy bears, M&M’s and gels, our four-legged friends were more into grains, carrots and apples (I am not a horse expert – a rider kindly filled me in on all this info).

Taftsville Covered Bridge at mile 15

Taftsville Covered Bridge at mile 15. Photo credit: Vermont 100

One of the highlights of the day came early descending a long hill to Stage Road aid station. The runner ahead turned as I approached and said “Oh, I thought you were a horse!” In any other scenario, I would have taken being called a horse as highly offensive but this was one of the highest compliments I think you can say to a runner on the Vermont course! All I was doing was letting the grade take me downhill swiftly refusing to break to try to save my quads. It resulted in quite the fast pace, definitely nothing manageable for a long period of time.

At 30 miles in, the legs began to finally get that tingly sensation in them, the kind all ultra runners know. At this point I had caught up to Keila and Karen (running together) and felt a bit more assured when Karen mentioned her legs felt the same way. All three of us ran into Stage Road aid together and saw a bunch of our friends there. It was like Cayuga 50 all other again, so fantastic to see so many friendly faces.

Cranking through the miles and loving it once more!

Cranking through the miles and loving it! Photo credit: Nanci Photography

Rui ushered me over to the crew area like I was a plane needing fuel which wasn’t far from the truth. My blood glucose was now 98 and it was time to get some carbs in to push that number back up. My crew had everything ready spread out on a blanket (I heard later kids looked enviously on at the goodies on display).

This was a bit smoother than the first aid station at Pretty Horse ten miles earlier. Tom (Elaine’s fiancé and crew chief) had asked me if I wanted my drop bag. “Drop bag?” (I didn’t have any) I said, “No. Where’s Tiffany?” I then turned to my right to see a very stressed and fast approaching Francis and Rui charging towards me. I got a good chuckle out of it, they didn’t find it so funny as they were about a minute from missing me.

While Tiffany was getting more ice into my bandana and cap, Rui was grabbing me foods and drink that I requested for my pack which left Frankie rubbing Aquaphor on my legs.  Bug spray, sunscreen, by whoever was free next and then off again. What may sound like chaos was fairly well controlled, everyone with a job to do. All hands were on deck at aid stations but these interchanges were definitely the highlights of the day for me. Giving them a review of the last X miles, how I felt at that given moment and then normally me making an awful joke about something. This was what it was about, having fun with my friends while doing something crazy because after all, 100 miles is crazy. I’m fully aware.

Through the second and final covered bridge (Lincoln) of the day at mile 40 took me towards the hardest climb yet up to Barr House. I had asked my buddy Tony Carino a week before for course knowledge (he ran a sub-20 in 2013) and he said everything was runnable until 70. I forgot to remind myself that Tony is a monster climber!!! I happily put my head down and hiked the steep pitch up until finally reaching an unmanned table with water and Gatorade – the sign that the climb was over.

By now, I had discarded my heart rate monitor. I was well into my groove so had no need to risk chafing my torso for some almost irrelevant heart rate readings going forward. As the sun was now up, my concern was more on staying cool with ice, hydrating smart and getting calories in constantly. My stomach pains were coming and going but now they were more to do with the running. Luckily, my palette was taking well to Honey Stinger waffles so I went through a good few of those which clocked up 160 calories each time. I knew by keeping some sort of food in my hand as much as possible, it would remind myself to keep grazing. As for now, this food plan was working like clockwork.

Walking out of Camp 10 Bear with words of encouragement from Tiffany and Rui.

Walking out of Camp 10 Bear with words of encouragement from Tiffany and Rui. Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

I arrived at Camp 10 Bear, mile 47 (the main aid station which doubled as mile 70 where I would pick up my first pacer later) expecting a carnage of people and cars, much like you get at Winfield in Leadville. But this was Vermont and although one of the major four 100 mile races in the States, this was not what I call a big aid station. The welcome and energy from other crews made it great regardless. I hopped on the scales and hoped to see no weight loss from my Friday medical. One pound up in fact. I blame those waffles!

Shy of halfway, all was going well. How did I know? Because I asked myself “How are you feeling?” and all that mattered was my answer to that question time and time again. My crew brought me lunch as we had discussed the importance of real food as much as possible. A toasted bacon and cheese panini sandwich with arugula. Remember tip 1 for new 100 mile runners? Get awesome crew! I took half of the sandwich with me, restocked the bag and rolled on. Tiffany and Rui checked in with me as they were more aware than me that I was moving well and well under the taboo time of sub-20 but I assured them I was running my own race and was feeling good. The sandwich was a challenge however. It took me well over an hour to eat it. My stomach could handle waffles but this was a different story. My body was beginning to fight back, that darn stomach of mine.

At the halfway point according to my GPS ‘during my lunch hour’ I caught up with Otto climbing up to Pinky’s. Otto is quite simply a nut job. He runs more 100’s than I run training runs and is incredibly funny, I just can’t figure out if he means to be funny! He was in shock to see me coming from behind when I welcomed myself. “What are you doing here?!” he said in shock seeing me behind him. Otto is famous in our ultra circle for starting out fast and crawling home, but always making it home. I don’t think he has ever quit any of his many races. My response was simply “What are you doing here?!” He then questioned the situation “Either you are slow today or I am doing something wrong”. We laughed about it and pushed on ahead wishing him luck, not that he needed it. He just needed to pace himself and would be on for 21-22 hours. I knew where I was too now. I was just over 9 hours on the clock and my mind started to drift ahead to a sub-18 goal. This was probably a bit suicidal but I knew I was in that mix, especially if I could get to my pacers feeling OK. I remembered my strategy quickly though going back to the present “How am I feeling?” and continued on up the hill.

Restocking at Seven Sees with the crew.

Restocking at Seven Sees with the crew. Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

At Pinky’s aid, I wasted no time passing a weary looking Kevin Shelton-Smith looking to feast on all the goodies to get out of his low. He had bombed off the front with Brian Rusiecki (the race favorite), something Kevin likes to do. I wasn’t just passing my friends from NYC though, I was clipping off new friends too and having great conversations or small talk with all of them from Megan running solo to Dave who I recognized from Western States last year to high-fiving Jimmy Dean who I had barely met a few hours earlier when we small talked about his podcast. I love the interaction in this sport because the respect for one another is honest and we truly care for each other out there no matter how much we want to beat the other to the line.

A long ascent got me to mile 58 and the Seven Sees aid. It was the last crew meet up before pacers as they would skip Margaritaville because Francis had to get ready to pace me back at Camp 10 Bear. I knew he of all people was sad to miss out on that aid station! As rumors had it, this pace was decked out to the nines and would be my number one place to volunteer at in the future. They turned me down for an ‘adult drink’, not because I didn’t have ID but because I was too early the volunteer told me! 38 miles with a margarita on board might not have made the most sense anyway.

Back on the scales at Camp 10 Bear. Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

Back on the scales at Camp 10 Bear. Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

I had definitely taken a cut back on my calorie intake the last 20 miles. My stomach was struggling to accept anything. What drove me forward with momentum was the excitement of getting to run with my pacers soon. Up and over a climb, I ran strong into Camp 10 Bear. At 70 miles, it was the furthest I had ever run solo (Tahoe 200 will have the same rule in effect). Back on the scales for the public weigh-in, I had now lost my one pound from mile 46 and was back to square one. Tiffany offered me the other half of the sandwich from lunch to which I almost vomited just thinking about real food. My stomach was definitely my weakest link. I pretended to myself this wasn’t an issue but I knew it was or would eventually be. With the sun going down, I decided to ditch the hat and neck bandana which had been my ice holders all day long in the sun. But I kept the pack on, kept the same shoes and socks on. I wanted to simulate Tahoe as much as possible.

30 miles to go, now with my trusty pacers. First up, Francis.

30 miles to go, now with my trusty pacers. First up, Francis. Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

Mile 75 and feeling good! Photo credit: Francis Laros

Mile 75 and feeling good! Photo credit: Francis Laros

My only change was a fresh shirt and I was set for Francis to be my companion for the next 7 miles. We had decided as group to flip pacers more than normal. Francis would get a 7 and a 6 mile leg (mostly uphill) and Rui would get a 12 mile stretch and the last 5 (both mostly down) suiting their strengths (Tiffany unfortunately just found out the week prior to the race, she has a serious hip injury so had to work the crew chief full-time shift. I know it was tough for her to be there around all these runners and not get to pace. She is a tough cookie and I’m so happy she could put on a brave face at a very frustrating time for her. She is amazing and I love her so much for everything she does for me.)

First off, we had what I was told was the hardest climb of the day back out of Camp 10 Bear. To be honest, I barely recall it. We talked easily and hiked efficiently. It was an absolute blast to have company and for those that don’t know Francis, his company and endless stories are second to none. With a couple of winding single track downhills thrown in to the section, we moved well. Francis was almost giggling to himself during one stretch because it was so effortless. My watch had long died since mile 60 so I was completely running by feel. He told me we clocked a 7:35 mile at one point. I did not believe him but he insisted it was true.

Entering Spirit of 76 aid after 7 fantastic miles with Francis.  Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

Entering Spirit of 76 aid after 7 fantastic miles with Francis. Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

A fifth and final climb took us over a road and up to the welcoming aid station of Spirit of 76. The volunteer at the top pretended to pull us up with some rope while we demanded to use the ski lift. All stupid stuff but it shows you how much fun we were having out there on Saturday night, now with over 76 miles in my legs.

Spirits are high at Spirit of 76.  Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

Spirits are high at Spirit of 76. Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

My buddy Jun was departing the aid station as I approached. We smiled and waved (it took me until the next day to realize he was running solo – no crew, no pacers, the same as Otto – RESPECT!). At every aid station, I really had two crews. Mine and Keila’s (Heidi, Benny and Denie) because she was always a few minutes behind since halfway. It was so great to have a handful of friends always there for me ready to do anything I needed. But no one got Francis’s Aquaphor job!

Rui’s turn and little did I know but this segment would be the hardest yet by a stretch. It was the old duo back together. Rui and me have great memories of bombing down Hope Pass two years ago, maybe too fast in reality and we were out to seek some more great downhills now. For the first five miles everything was working out that way, moving good, power hiking ups, never really walking anything. And then at mile 83 on a flat road, that all changed.

I felt my skin go pale, my head go faint and I started to stumble around with no energy whatsoever. My stomach hurt once again and almost immediatley I was dry heaving onto someone’s lawn (sorry!) with my fingers down my throat. There’s not anything much more painful than being sick I find. Unfortunately, because I had been failing to put solids in well the last 25 miles or so, I was failing to bring anything decent back up. Jimmy passed me by and gave me some encouragement, “suck it up bro” or similar words. It was kind of a blurry low in my race so forgive me for not remembering  it exact but I appreciated it. He was right, suck it up. This was really my first low of the race at mile 83. Not bad really!

I gingerly stood up, took a couple of deep breathes and then we continued. Really slowly at first. Rui insisted on me getting in some S-caps and i washed them down with Tailwind (it was the best I could do for calories at this point). Within minutes, I was back to running and we caught up to Jimmy and his pacer Scott. He was in a bit of shock to see me but we joked I was back from the dead! I explained to him while we ran as a group of four my last few hours of running. Amazingly, Jimmy completely nailed what had happened to me because it had happened to him before. By removing my cap and bandana full of ice (at Camp 10 Bear) because I deemed the evening time not necessary to use them anymore, I had begun to overheat. The humidity had very subtly got higher as the sun went down. He had ice-cold water in his bottle and I sprayed the back of my neck and felt the difference. Now I just had to get to Bill’s aid (88) and get the ice back on! We ran together for a couple of miles before I had to back off the pace again. But before I reached Bill’s, I noticed my insulin insert had fallen off my stomach due to the sweat and ice dripping down it all day long.

Our pace went back to a hike and I had to drag my ass to Bill’s having now, my second low point in the span of five miles. Rui put his headlamp on but I stubbornly refused. I had set a new goal to get to Bill’s headlamp free and did that although barely. I knew Rui was concerned but he kept me moving. At Bill’s, I wandered over to the medics at the barn and got on the scales. I was down to 176, a 4 pound loss. “How do you feel?” the medic asked me. It was a great question, one I must have been failing to ask of myself for a few miles now because I felt awful. My grumbled response of “OK. Tired” wasn’t my best ever performance of faking the good life but she understood. I was at mile 88, my weight was steady enough and so they let me go over to my crew to proceed.

I walked over to the crew area set up at a section of grass and decided enough was enough and  lay down on it. It was my first time off my feet in 88 miles. I had beaten my previous best of 80 miles at Western States.

My crew grabbed me hot noodle soup that I had been craving for about 7 miles now but was only available for the first time now. As they got my headlamp ready for me and some food into my backpack (just in case I could miraculously eat anything else for the last 12 miles) I checked my glucose which was now higher than planned due to the insert incidence. Perhaps another factor why I had probably had a really rough patch. I made some adjustments with my insulin, had yet another bathroom break and then I was back on the trail with Francis. It had been the longest aid stop by far today.

As soon as we left, my walking very slowly increased and Francis made it a point to tell me. After a half mile or so, we reached the next downhill and just like that, I began to run again. All the way down and then all the way back up to Polly’s aid (95), Francis kept me going strong. It was as if the sickness, the long aid station stop at Bill’s belonged to a different race. That’s the magic of ultra running right there. Those miles seemed so straight forward so soon after a chaotic five-mile stretch.

When we approached Tiffany and Rui for the last hand off, we already knew what we needed to do. Be efficient. Francis announced to them, this was going to be a quick aid stop. Blood test, refill of water and electrolyte drinks and go. It was all business mode again now and I caught Rui off guard by this turn of events.

No time to stop with 5 to go as Francis and Rui do a Garmin exchange.  Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

No time to stop with 5 to go as Francis and Rui do a Garmin exchange. Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

I looked over at Rui as we left the aid, realizing he was wearing three layers. “What are you wearing Rui?” I asked him puzzled. “Well, you looked pretty bad back there so I put some layers on”. You have to realize that Rui got given the last leg at Leadville too where we army marched 10 miles home between 4am and 8am in the freezing cold. He started to shed layers as it soon became apparent that we were about to kick the last 5 miles apart together pretty efficiently. I asked him where we were for time. I wanted to know if we were over or under the 20 hour goal time. He did the math and knew we had to run 14 minute miles to go under.

Running a gradual descent, this was exciting news. We were both so pumped, we knew it would take a real curve ball now to screw that up. And then, we came to the end of the road, looked left, looked right and couldn’t see anymore of the green glow sticks. We kind of just wandered around looking for them and then Rui told me to wait while he ran back the way we had come. I just stood in the dark and waited for what seemed a very long time……..”Come back!” I ran so hard back up that hill to find him by a huge arrow on the ground and two yellow plates ushering us off the road to the left. “Better make that 13 minute miles I guess?” I said to Rui. We both laughed our heads off and got moving.

We ran everything, yes everything all the way in. He pushed me home taking two more spots up the last big climb along the way. We weaved around single track the last half mile as hard as possible and then turned a last corner to see the red neon ‘finish line’ sign crossing it in 19 hours 37 minutes. A new 100 PR for me by almost 3 hours. Yes, a different course, temperature, terrain, I know all of that. What I was most happy with was to nail sub-20 without having that as my focal point all day long and getting caught up in the numbers. The plan had worked and worked really well. I also just found out this week that I beat a horse! A few dropped out so I won’t count those guys but I beat a horse on my own two feet!

19h 37 minutes, job done. Thanks to everyone in this picture a thousand times over. #VT1002014 Photo credit:  Heidi Tanakatsubo

19h 37 minutes, job done. Thanks to everyone in this picture a thousand times over. #VT1002014 Photo credit: Heidi Tanakatsubo

At the awards with Jimmy Deen Freeman (3 down, 3 to go for him, amazing!)

At the awards with Jimmy Dean Freeman (3 down, 3 to go for him, amazing!)

Work in Review and Looking Ahead

I asked myself at mile 99, could I keep running if I had to (thinking ahead to Tahoe 200) and I’m pleased to say with confidence, the answer was most definitely yes. I wanted to finish the race tired but not screaming for medical treatment and I achieved that fine line of effort perfectly. Overall, I was very satisfied with the whole race. Tiffany, Francis and Rui were outstanding. Their support and care for me is impossible to repay but I’ll try my hardest too. I am forever grateful to them.

I know where I made mistakes but I also know where I made good decisions, solved problems and ran smart. I will use all of this information to my advantage in a few weeks time. Excited to go beyond the 100 mile mark and explore a new chapter in my ultra running journey. Thank you all for your love and support. Roll on Tahoe 200!

My third 100 mile buckle and bib for the archives. I can happily call VT100 a success.

My third 100 mile buckle and bib for the archives. I can happily call VT100 a success.

The 2013 Finale: ‘California Dreamin’ at The North Face 50 Mile Championship

tnf BANNER

I first saw images of The North Face 50 mile championship race held in the Marin Headlands of San Francisco a few years ago. My jaw literally hit the floor watching a video of the race. Single track cut into grass hillsides off the Pacific Ocean, glimpses of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge, not to mention a packed field of elites, made this race an absolute ‘must do’. This course offered some of the finest trails in the US and I wanted in.

I put it onto my 2013 calendar as my closing race. It was to be my C race for the year after Boston (=B), Western States (A) and UROC (=B). Am I even allowed to have such a thing? Well, my rules, so I guess so. My training for it was far from specific since UROC 100K. I had run 4 marathons in 8 weeks. Two as pacer and two for myself but relatively little trails (does the Central Park bridle path count?) or elevation runs.

Last race bib of 2013. 18 for the year and what a year!

Last race bib of 2013. 18 for the year and what a year!

Excuses over, I was excited to be a part of this race. I’m not sure if the prize purse increased this year ($10K for the winner of both male and female races) but the elites flocked onto the entry list in the last few weeks of the build up and not just from the US. Ryan Sandes was coming in from Cape Town, Emilie Forseberg from Norway and her pacer was a guy called Kilian Jornet. The US elites included Rob Krar, arguably the ultra runner of the year (URY) even prior to this, Max King, Dakota Jones, Mike Wardian, Mike Wolfe, Dylan Bowman etc etc. It was easier to say who wasn’t running it.

The course profile - no altitude worries but....

The course profile – no altitude worries here but relentless climbing nonetheless.

It dawned on me how lucky I am as an amateur, to get to have these amazing race experiences with the best of the best from across the world. It’s the equivalent of the weekend golfer teeing it up with Woods, or rallying with Federer. But with trail running, the difference is, it’s the real deal. Of course, these guys who I have the utmost respect for, make fewer headlines than professionals in main stream sports, but running is my sport and I love everything about it. It is an honor and more importantly darn fun to be able to race with them.

TNF50 Course Map

TNF50 Course Map: luckily the course is well-marked!

After a few hiccups pre-race that included forgetting to pick up the rental car, forgetting to bring music and no batteries for the headlamp (at least I had my insulin), I made it to the start area in the dark and cold conditions at 4:30am (thanks Joe and Fick for driving me so early!). I met up with Joe Del Conte, a fellow NYC ultra runner pre-race and we shared the same excuses that this was to be a fun race, with a firm emphasis on fun. My blood glucose was a touch above my target at 225. I had a now watered down Gatorade in my handheld, a few gels and was set, ready to explore what this course was all about.

Departing for the adventure at 5am. The sea of headlamps begins.

Departing for the adventure at 5am. The sea of headlamps begins.

We left the now very familiar red bubble North Face arch just after 5am. The course started flat which then wrapped to the right and downhill across a road and over a footbridge onto Rodeo Valley Trail. The pace was way faster than I needed to go but I figured I would run what I could, the climbs throughout would slow me down anyway.

I climbed the first hill to the top of Bobcat alongside Joe as sunrise began to break. The view ahead and behind of the string of headlamps was breathtaking. It took me back to the sight at Turquoise Lake in the opening miles of Leadville. The climb was longer and harder than what I had studied on paper; probably not a great omen for the next 47 odd miles.

We descended down a wide and rocky fire road which was way too fun. I knew this descent would be repeated at the end of the race so tried my best to remember certain memorable spots or turns which may or may not help hours later. The only issue was, I was doing this observant task in the dark.

Along a flat section, we ran through the first aid; no need for anything much here. A quick gulp of water and I kept going. Along this road allowed more time to pound out some good speedy miles. So far, so good with my planned sub-9 hour goal.

At the next aid station (Tennessee Valley), I had climbed and descended a similar hill, this time rapidly  down on switchbacks. I met up with Tiffany, Joe and Fick, did a blood test  which was important (79), refueled my bottle and gels and gone. I hadn’t processed the idea until now that it was still too dark to hand off my headlamp to them. As I had no drop bags, I would be hanging onto this beauty until mile 28!

The third climb would bring about the best reward thus far. Once up on top, we were greeted to some brave souls swaying in the wind, pointing us over the ridge line and down a single track. This was the start of Pirate’s Cove.

Pirate's Cove. Photo credit:

Pirate’s Cove. Photo credit: Ultra Sports Live TV

Single track sweeping along the coastline. The ocean waves were breaking on the beach and smashing into a solitary rock which gave the postcard view the final touch of aesthetic beauty. Yes, this course was living up to its reputation alright and now it was daylight, I would not miss anything else. It was a gem of a trail. The fun descent meant only one thing and that was back up and over the north side of the cove. I re-caught Joe who had not stopped at Tennessee Valley. We ran side by side down a fire road. A runner ahead was less than impressed walking down to the aid.  I stopped myself offering him a gel when I recognized it was Karl Meltzer. A gel wasn’t going to make his day any better. He was about to drop and I saved myself getting yelled at for trying to help.

The aid station at Muir Beach was an important time to stock up. The biggest climb of the race was ahead. I ran across a farm field which just seemed so strange like I was back in XC days. Those trusty ribbons pitched in the soil ahead reassured me this was correct. The ribbons lead us towards a hillside and the start of coastal trail. I looked up to see dozens of runners hiking switchbacks above me. I looked above them and saw even more runners!

I was prepared to hike all the ups today but because there were so many switchbacks, the grade never seemed to become an excuse to slow the pace down to hike mode. I enjoyed the back and forth twists and the ability to keep running for the most part. Note to self, don’t study the course profile so much! I was now running solo, Joe took the climb easier than me.

The climb was pretty relentless. It was 1,500 feet of up. I ran what I could but now 15 or so miles in, my body wanted to rest a bit more on these uphill sections. Perhaps the year of racing was catching up with my legs. Ironically, I was moving ever closer to Cardiac. The aid station name, not my physical condition. Through the aid, the terrain changed dramatically; weaving between trees and hopping over roots in a shelter of greenery. It was a nice change of environment. This was the fringe of the Muir Woods.

Although my surroundings were different, the elevation gain continued. I left the woods to find a marshal directing me right where the trail splits, pointing almost unknowingly towards five guys who all appeared to have on neon yellow tops. I waited to let them pass and realized it was the lead pack coming back from the out and back of McKennan Gulch.

The neon effect: Vargo, Wolfe and Krar bomb past me at mile 25. Photo credit: Trail Porn.

The neon effect: Vargo, Wolfe and Krar bomb past me at mile 25. Photo credit: Trail Porn.

Dylan Bowman, Mike Wolfe and others bombed passed in silence and made the turn down the hill. I think I was just blown away by how deadly silent they all were like assassins yet not trying to kill others, each other. The pace was a different league.

I marched onward and upwards along Coastal Trail single track around ‘wrecked car’ –  a landmark of the trail which is exactly as it is named. The story of how the car got to lay somewhere so remote from back in the 1940’s apparently remains a mystery. This section was a not a great spot for an out and back being single track and all but I did get to see almost every elite runner I know over the next ten minutes from Ryan Sandes to The North Face favorite, Mike Wardian.

Single track leading out to 'wrecked car' and the turnaround point. Photo credit: Strava

Single track leading out to ‘wrecked car’ and the turnaround point. Photo credit: Strava

It made for some interesting exchanges. Some would just bomb straight past as I dove into the hillside (lead runner gets right of way) and others would give me a “good job” shout which felt wrong as they were ahead of me but that’s just what we say this side of the pond. The views of the Pacific high above Stinson Beach were just fantastic. The single track headed north to the furthest point north on the course. I was greeted at the aid with an offer of some hot broth. It wasn’t in my plans but it was windy and cold up  top on the exposed hill at almost 2,000 feet so I gladly accepted. I stayed for a refill while small talking with the volunteer about the day and other random ultra stories.

But as more runners came into the aid, I knew it was time to get going south again. I caught up to and then passed the women’s UTMB champion Rory Bosio. I had no doubt she was having a bad day or was just burnt out from the year and didn’t dare ask her for clarification of my theories. I think she may have even dropped at the next aid. When I ran back the way I had come and saw who was coming towards me, I knew this race was definitely an end of season affair for most; Dakota Jones was about 4 miles back from me. I almost took a double take to make sure it was him. I found out later that he was running with the flu and taking it easy. Who runs 50 miles easy with the flu?! Check his humorous encounter of the race out; http://www.irunfar.com/2013/12/the-mid-packers.html.

Stinson Beach view. Photo credit: mountainrunningdventures.com

Stinson Beach view. Photo credit: mountainrunningdventures.com

I descended fast down part of the famous Dipsea Trail to Stinson Beach aid station where Tiffany, Fick and Joe were waiting for me. I put on a brave face to say everything was going well although in reality I was hurting pretty bad. First things first, I made them take my headlamp off me! My blood was good but not safe enough at 83. Tiffany said do you want me to jump in later for the last few miles. I jumped at this offer. I was without doubt no threat to the $10K winner’s purse and decided this would be a fitting end to the year. Tiffany has been with me every step of every race, none more so than through the night at Western States. Her enjoyment on the trails is forever growing so it feels great for me to see her have such fun out on them too sharing these races and places with me.

I left Stinson Beach and immediately had an uphill through the moors of Dipsea. I suffered all the way up that hill to Cardiac aid just as I had coming the other direction earlier. But now, 50K in, I was rethinking my 9 hour time goal. I was walking runnable stuff, my body was just trashed. The reality of being overly aggressive in the first half now spoke to me loud and clear.  When a group approached from behind in relaxed conversational mode and took me down with me ease, I knew I had to start digging deeper to get the wheels back on.

I knew the game though. Bad patches happen. You are meant to suffer out here at some time or another. 50 miles is 50 miles. But when my suffering dragged on and on and more runners passed, I knew this was not a normal bad patch. For this race, I was not monitoring my glucose every minute. I was going off feel and my occasional blood tests when crew could reach me. What was actually happening was, I was heading south  geographically and physically speaking too. I popped a Clif Shot gel and then another immediately after. 48 grams of simple carbohydrates to fuel the system back up.

Back up to Cardiac Aid Station

Back up to Cardiac Aid Station Photo credit: Mountainrunningadventures.com

Within a few minutes, I was moving better again. Run the downs, hike the ups, repeat. On a sharp right turn downhill, a couple of Dads watched with their boys. “Alright! Changing diabetes. I have diabetes!” shouted a Dad lifting his shirt to enthusiastically show me his pump insert. I gave him the thumbs up and continued along the trail.

This small interaction with another diabetic that I will never see ever again kick started  my race both physically and mentally. That reminder that wearing the Team Novo Nordisk shirt across the country all year long touches people and shows them what is possible is a very powerful tool. It’s the ultimate win-win for both the spectator and the runner.

I reached Cardiac aid, refueled smartly and got going. My head was back in the game but my legs were still like lead, screaming for a walking break. I knew better though. The scenery changed again, I was immersed in big redwoods descending through the Muir Woods. Single track switchbacks winding steeply downwards and crossing over large trunks as bridges was another major highlight of the course, even with wrecked legs. To get to run on some of the famed Dipsea steps was just plain awesome.

I was behind on time and this next leg between aid stops was short and gradually down or flat all the way back to Muir Beach. I locked my brain into a fixation that I had to run this whole section, even if it killed me. I could reward myself with some walking later on but not here.

At Muir, the aid station was packed. It was a merging point for 50M, 50K and marathoners all coming and going different directions. I changed my focus from running to orienteering through here. All I cared about was making sure i followed orange ribbons, not red, blue or any other color out here.

I hiked up Coastal Trail along with the 50K’ers. Grinding out miles now. It was nice to have more runners around albeit ion a different race. There were a couple of guys around me from the 50M though that we ended up playing the cartoon car race game where the lead continually goes back and forth. Ultimately, we were helping each other push ourselves without talking much about it.

Mile 40 - another surge uphill.

Mile 40 Coyote Ridge Trail: another surge uphill with glorious views among the Marin Headlands.

The climb had many false summits. My GPS was in no way accurate and I had long given up guessing the mileage I was at. The pain throughout my body spread but the views to my right of the Pacific took the edge off no doubt. I continued to fight for position with my competitors although way back from the front. This race was not about placing or even time anymore, just about giving it everything I had until the end.

Tiffany was all smiles waiting for me at mile 44, ready to go. Glucose 102 called for some fuel which I digested on the last hike up of the day. We spoke about her college friend Peter Hogg who was not only well ahead but actually finished. He had run a great race and competed against and beaten the likes of Mike Wardian and David Riddle out there. I was looking forward to meeting him later at dinner.

At the crest of the hill (Alta aid), I knew it was all plain sailing now. We were now back at the mile 3 section of the course and about to repeat the very first descent done in the dark hours ago.

Last few miles on this great course!

Closing miles on this great course! Photo credit: Tiffany Carson

I glanced my watch and realized a 9:15 finish time was possible. It was not the sub-9 goal but it was a hell of a lot better than the 10 hour mark I had feared may come into play when things weren’t going so pretty after Stinson beach.

The Golden Gate Bridge peaking out behind the Marin Headlands. Photo credit: The North Face.

The Golden Gate Bridge peaking out behind the Marin Headlands. Photo credit: The North Face.

Down the jeep road we went. I wasted no energy now. This was a new race. A 5K race starting now. The Golden Gate arch peaked over the headlands to my left. I had almost forgotten where I was running for the last few hours. This location was so close to San Francisco but yet so tucked away. I could see the draw of the city to the athletic yet also driven career types.

Home stretch pushing as hard as possible for 9:15. Photo credit: Tiffany Carson

Home stretch pushing as hard as possible for 9:15. Photo credit: Tiffany Carson

I knew 9/minute miles would do the trick. This was UROC heading down Vail Mountain all over again. I hammered the hills and Tiffany ran alongside. She worried I would go too fast for her but I assured her, I was not going to finish without her. This race was merely another excuse to be outside, travel somewhere new and experience the great trails of the west coast. My training did not quantify this as a race and therefor my time be it sub-9, sub-10 or now on the verge of 9:15 was all irrelevant numbers in the grand scheme of things.

We crossed the road which I knew marked the final mile. The sweeping left hill took the pace off my plan and we power hiked as my exhaustion kicked in one more time. I felt the 9:15 was gone as the hill seemed to never end but then I saw a glimpse of people in a field on the horizon. We ran hard again on the flat, turned right and through the arch together. My time? 9:15 and change. Not spectacular but an honest and great run. I was happy. Isn’t that ultimately the goal of anything we do in our lives?

Post-race with soon to be crowned URY Rob Krar who won the race. #thatbeardisawesome

Post-race with soon to be crowned URY Rob Krar who won the race. #thatbeardisawesome

I saw the winner, Rob Krar limping in my direction immediately after and grabbed a few words with him. If there is a more humble ultra guy out of the elites on the scene right now, I don’t know who it is. He is a great inspiration and great guy too.

I hobbled my stiff legs over to a tent hoping to get warm. A circle of chairs surrounded a heater with a couple spare. I sunk into one, did what all diabetics should do first, a blood test (113) and then changed into warm clothes while making new friends and recapping what we just experienced.

We met up with our friends, Joe and Fick, grabbed some food and a beer, mingled with some of the other elites like Kilian Jornet, Rickey Gates and Anna Frost from the Salomon team and then headed back into the city to celebrate this race and all the others before it from 2013. What’s not to love about this crazy world of ultrarunning?

Post-race festival at Marin Headlands.

Post-race festival at Marin Headlands.

 

Surviving the UROC 100K

UROC logo horizontal

The early crisp morning light in Breckenridge was filled with stars. Not so much in the sky but more around the start line; Kilian Jornet, Sage Canaday, Dakota Jones as well as runners not even running; Geoff Roes and Anton Krupicka to name a few were everywhere. Yes, “Call them and they will come” was proving a true statement for UROC, an abbreviation for Ultra Race of Champions, which boasts one of the largest purses in the sport of ultrarunning.

Breckenridge morning

Breckenridge daybreak

My reason for being here was certainly not to grow my bank account. I know my place. With 70 pro bibs and about 100 regular, I knew I would be a mid-pack runner today, privileged to be running behind such great athletes on this beautiful and testing course between two giant ski towns; Breckenridge and Vail. The course consisted of four big climbs over 100k (or 62.2 miles), an ultra distance not yet on my resume.

UROC 100K elevation profile

The UROC 100K elevation profile

The starting line was located at the Vertical Runner Store (the country’s highest elevation running store at 9,600 feet). We could see the Tenmile Range mountains all covered in snow in the distance. Soon, we would be up there, playing in the snow – not what I had expected or particularly wanted. A police car led us out of town at 7am along the empty streets of Breck (lets face it, not many care about the Ultra Running World Championships and that’s actually how most of us like it!) before we beared right onto an uneven gravel surface and began our first asccent.

Some familiar faces lead us out on the adventure!

Some familiar faces lead us out on the UROC adventure!

Over a bridge and already you could see Sage in the lead with Kilian close behind higher up. It was now time for me to start hiking. My good friend Carlo, also from New York, had informed me this climb was no joke. It was 1,500 foot of straight up. He had trained on this climb so shared his knowledge and said this was absolutely a walk all the way part of the course.

First climb; 1,500 feet up to Vista Haus

First climb; 1,500 feet up to Vista Haus

Me and Carlo climbed the path, sprinkled in snow from yesterday’s storm. I was now getting passed by more conservative starters from the street start. My glucose was at 220 and that was OK. It would decline with the effort so I held back on the Gatorade intake. The climb was one of patience. I didn’t like losing so many spots but it was so early in the race, I had to let that go. We never did summit the mountain which was a slight disappointment but got close and made a right turn at Vista Haus. Now at over 11,000 feet, the entire ground was caked in snow. You could see the town below amid the sunrise and surrounding white-capped mountains. Views like this were a huge factor why I wanted to be back here in Colorado. It would at least distract me from the effort that would be required to get through this course. The wide path of the uphill was now replaced with single track. I followed a group of four on the packed snow back down the mountain.

The sun was beaming in our faces and the snow was bright so I flipped my shades resting on the back of my head to on my face. We descended the switchbacks of Peaks Trail northbound. It was slow-moving at times. No one in front seemed to want to step aside and no one behind seemed urgent enough to scramble around so we stuck together as one twisting train through trees and open spaces. One guy decided to make his move only to fall onto his ass as he slipped on ice. Eventually, there was room to pass at a safer place and we descended at a better speed.

Descending down from Vista Haus

Descending down from Vista Haus

I rolled through the first aid station (Grand Lodge) before I knew it, just after the 5 mile mark. I didn’t check my watch but knew I was well ahead of my 12-hour target finish I had set myself. My water bottle was still half full (of Gatorade) and I also had two gels with me. I decided that I didn’t need anything so I kept going. My glucose was 114 and dropping. Wait, what? It was too late. I was already beyond the aid station. What was I thinking? Sadly, I wasn’t. I reduced my basal rate and grabbed a gel to save the low. It had started to freeze slightly so was a lot more work than I was used to over the Summer consuming them. I realized that I had 7 miles until the next aid in the town of Frisco. One gel and half a bottle of Gatorade was by no means reassuring to get me there. I had to pay closer attention to my glucose level from now on. That drop came out of nowhere.

Luckily, the terrain from here to Frisco was rolling trails. Me and Carlo had never drifted far apart on the descent and regrouped again for this section. We decided we liked the pace (albeit ahead of schedule) so worked together passing people and taking turns leading. My glucose issue proved not the main worry though. That would have been the hidden ice and the bridges covered in the snow. We both had a couple of ‘Bambi’ moments. The bridges were made of skinny trunks compacted together and a few pieces were missing on them showing us the icy stream below. We made sure our feet stayed dry and slowed when we had too.

We ran at a clip, about 8/min mile pace, knowing 11:30 average would get us sub-12. The last couple of miles before the suburbs of Frisco were all down and we let gravity do the work for us. Pulling into Frisco though was a different story. No matter if we ran east, north or south, headwinds seemed to get us in every direction. We laughed at the ridiculousness of this. The hardest part of the course so far was Frisco!

Frisco aid station

Frisco aid station

We turned left on Main Street and ran up to the aid station together. Tiffany gave me my hydration pack in exchange for my handheld bottle. Now the real climbs began and I needed to carry more fuel as the times between aid stations would increase. My good friend Doug Masiuk was there and put some great words in my head about how children with diabetes were watching me. It struck home instantly. I wasn’t feeling great for just covering 14 miles at this point but this helped keep my focus. I was doing this for more than just me.

I caught back up with Carlo as we left Frisco heading west. Asphalt road turned to dirt road and we got ready for the big climb of the day up and over the Continental Divide. Initially, I felt OK and ended up being a few yards ahead of him. This was the point we had agreed to do our own thing. I felt he was suffering a bit so just went my pace as he went his. But as we rounded Rainbow Lake, the climbing really got going. Effort increased, grade increased and my pace decreased. Carlo went tip toeing by in his style I still cannot master and off he went. He was closely followed by another runner who appeared from nowhere. I wasn’t surprised to witness this. From our training runs together, he has impressed me immensely with his climbing. I stuck to my much slower hiking pace, stretching the legs out as much as I could.

Before I knew it, my pace was no match for anyone. I felt like I was running the ultramarathon of Boston; in over my head and slowly being humbled by much better equipped competitors. But I reminded myself, this race was between myself and the mountains, nobody else. I was still early into this long 7 mile climb up the Colorado Trail through the pine trees. Eventually, the tree line broke and I got to catch my bearings to an extent.

Climbing the vast mass of land up and over the Continental Divide.

Climbing the vast mass of land up and over the Continental Divide.

I found myself in a wide mass of open mountain covered in a thick fresh layer of snow. I looked upwards and saw a trail of people switchbacking higher and higher until out of sight. I wasn’t sure if I preferred the heavy trees hiding my fate or seeing what was left to do! My lungs were piercing. My movement was slow going but onward I went dredging my feet through the packed down snow path. The snow required more and more energy expenditure as the air got thinner. I began to feel sorry for the leader rather than myself. Imagine leading the charge through fresh snow which was up to 18″ deep in places. No thanks! I was almost grateful how much my climbing sucked!

Climbing up to 12,300 feet in the snow. Hard work!

Climbing up to 12,300 feet in the snow. Hard work!

At a false summit, about 12,000 feet up, the Colorado Trail took us around the side of Wheeler Pass (the point we would cross at 12,300 feet) rather than directly to the top. To our left was Breckenridge, now just a tiny town from up here and every step I took, I slipped slightly down. My whole body was working to keep me upright. A couple of slips meant I slid down a couple of feet off the trail but this was all fun, right? I wasn’t exactly smiling, more gritting my teeth out of determination that I would soon see the peak at change the muscle groups up.

View from Wheeler Pass at 12,300 feet

View from Wheeler Pass at 12,300 feet

A couple of cheers ahead meant that moment was iminent. While others stopped to grab pictures of the 360 degree views of beautiful snow-capped mountains, I had more interest in descending so I could a) get some time back b) get some oxygen. The climb had knocked me sideways. I’ve never climbed anything that long before, let alone amidst cold temperatures and 30 mph winds through the snow. My hat is officially off to all the real climbers of the world.

My viewpoint from up above was firmly fixated on the many colorful dots lining the trail which gave me hope that I wasn’t the only one who was slow climbing to the top. I knew my strength was downhill single track and this was exactly what we had next. Albeit in the snow which made it tougher but it was fun and this time I meant it. As I ran back down to tree line, the snow turned to muddy and icy trails and I did my best to keep the legs going fast without making any fatal landings. I moved up several spots here and my confidence begun to come back knowing I could always catch the majority of good climbers on the way back down.

The view ahead; the long descent to Mountain Creek.

The view ahead; the long descent to Copper Mountain.

Noise from the bottom of the trail was a really welcome sound. Rather than a false summit, this proved to be a false base. It was two women directing us over a temporary bridge which I soon found out was not for running on. The bridge moved a couple of feet up and down so I quickly grabbed the railings to stay dry. Note the word temporary. Now that I was safely across, I looked for the aid station but there was nothing. This was not it. I followed two other runners who didn’t seem so disheartened as me that this wasn’t time to stop, refuel and go again. I didn’t no the course and it was messing with my head.

Mile 27; running into Mountain Creek

Mile 27; running into Mountain Creek

A long stretch later of rollers, I heard more noise. The trail ascended towards a few people and then from nowhere, Copper Mountain Ski Resort appeared. I put on my brave face and ran down to the aid station. Tiffany virtually jammed the blood tester onto my finger to make sure this time I did a test. My CGM had me going great; mid to high 100’s all the way down from the mountain but my tester was the real deal and said different; over 300. I was mad. This explained a lot of my exhaustion. I was probably high for the majority of the climb and descent. I wasn’t even halfway through the race, yet I felt like I had run 90K. My first thought was to empty out all the extra gels, chews and bars I was unnecessarily carrying in my pack. My second thought was do some insulin! I’m not sure why the weight of my backpack was a higher priority than getting some insulin in the system. I’ll just have to blame that on cloudy judgement. I checked my water bladder and realized I was not doing great at hydrating. Hydrating would also help bring my glucose down and clear my head.

I left the aid station feeling defeated. My eye caught a pro runner sitting in a chair telling his friend why he had decided to quit the race “I don’t want to be out here for 15 hours like these guys”. I had to bite my lip not to say anything. He wasn’t injured as far as I could tell, just decided it wasn’t his day. Well guess what. It wasn’t particularly my day either. I had fallen almost an hour behind my schedule after having a cushion the other side of the previous mountain and my glucose was not where it should have been. I get everyone has their own agenda. I guess mine is never quit. Being diabetic, you don’t really have a choice so I take this philosophy into my races too.

But just to contradict all of that, as I climbed a really steep climb away from Copper Mountain, I took pause on a mini-plateau to try to catch my breath. I bent over my knees and stood there for far longer than I had planned. Tiffany was just a few hundred yards below getting in the warm car, I was way off my plan goal pace, felt exhausted and I still had two big climbs down the road. I am not a “why me” type diabetic. Those days and emotions are years and years in the past. But, for the very first time in a long time it did just feel like too much to handle all at once. I wanted to throw in the towel so bad. But I knew I wasn’t a quitter, I was a fighter. I didn’t enter the race to fall short. I wasn’t injured, I wasn’t being ill. I just felt like a complete mess. It could have been worse.

I stepped up the hill. I got two or three paces only and again put my hands on my knees and contemplated how simple it would be to just turn around and get in the car. I thought of my uncle, my Dad, my family and friends that believe in me and have my back, Tiffany for unrelenting support on all of these crazy adventures I find and enter. I had to dig deeper than I already was.

Then, a runner passed by and tapped me on the back. “Stay strong brother, it will get better”. Words, I normally pass along to others were coming directly at hopeless me. I said “You promise?”. I asked him if this was the climb up to Vail mountain with dread in my voice. He gave me a funny look and said “No. This is a mile of single track and then the bike path”. Bike path? Why didn’t I know about this. I’m usually so fixated on the race course and here I was not knowing what was coming next. The whole exchange gave me life. I shuffled behind him on the single track and then descended onto the start of the asphalt bike path running parallel with the main Colorado expressway of I-70. I realized I had less than six miles of this slowly ascending bike path until the next aid stop. The asphalt felt funny on my feet after over a marathon on trails of mud, ice and relentless snow. It started flat and I moved along at such an awfully slow pace, I realized I was as good to walk as run so that’s what I did.

Bike path

Bike path; the groomed asphalt leg towards Vail Pass

What was happening? I had perfectly groomed Vail Parks and Rec. asphalt with not a slither of snow, ice or rock in sight and I was walking! I could feel the mini daggers stabbing my lungs. I was now on a low part of the course, well below 10,000 feet but for all I cared, it felt the same as Wheeler Pass minus the temperature and wind. I tried my hardest to run anything flat and had to play games with my brain; run to the bridge, run to the next red flag. I did whatever I could to speed up but for all the games I thought up and tried, I was a tortoise and the hares were whizzing by my every few minutes. To add to my growing woes, my CGM had packed up. It had obviously had enough of the cold weather. It then dawned on me that I wasn’t carrying a blood tester in my pack. I was now somewhere between a high 300 and a low but wouldn’t know it until it hit me. I had to hope I made a good judgement call with my shot of insulin back at Copper Mountain.

I reached a car park and saw a couple of guys I recognized. They had been watching the race in both Frisco and Copper so my brain process thought they were working and therefore this was the aid station. I was adamant this was the top of the 1,000 foot climb to the aid station. False alarm. Through the car park, I went and down on a nice gradual descending road with a lake to the left. I saw a runner ahead and wanted to keep the same gap on him. I had no desire to catch him, my expectation levels for the race were evaporating. I just didn’t want to let him go like many others had today.

I saw some Hoka One One flags and a couple of cars ahead but I was so tired, it didn’t add up until I saw Tiffany. Now, I had finally made it to the aid station. It had taken me forever to cover the straightforward terrain to get here. I was a train wreck already off the tracks.

Geoff Roes aid station (Vail Pass)

Vail Pass; the Geoff Roes celebrity aid station

“What do you want?” asked Tiffany. “To sit” I said. She didn’t like the answer and tried to warn me of my favorite cheesy ultra line ‘Beware of the chair’. (Yes, I have taught her well!) Ultra running legend Geoff Roes was manning the aid station with his buddies. He did not seem too impressed with my performance as he didn’t even speak to me! Instead his friend fed me three cups of ramen soup which did me the world of good. It was early afternoon but my body was still really cold. I took my gloves off and did another blood test; 160. Fantastic, even more so considering I was guessing my levels the last couple of hours.

I was quite happy sitting there. Tiffany less so and she couldn’t hide her concern for how I looked or how I was faring. “Can you pace me from Minturn?(mile 52)” I said exhausted. Let me stress, I am not a fan or believer of pacers for less than 100 miles but I was pretty desperate and drained. Only the elites were not allowed pacers. I was fairly confident at this point I wasn’t one of them or going to catch ones that were.

Up I got from the chair. I had the easiest miles of the course ahead; 6.6 miles of gradual downhill back on the asphalt. I waited until the gradual became a slope to kick-start my running motion. My legs were holding up OK but my chest and head were not. I told myself to run to a certain marker but this eventually was reached and I kept on going. The key was keeping it at a steady pace, nothing heroic but no more walking except for the few uphills.

The path ducked under the I-70 and turned right, away from Vail. Nobody was around (I had passed one person since the aid station). I was convinced this was wrong. To go wrong and add on mileage seemed like the last thing I could handle. I was not living in Kilian’s mindset of “more miles, more fun” which he said while getting lost at Lake Tahoe.

The path eventually twisted back west and widened. I ran over big chalked words; TEJAY and VOIGT. I knew were I was instantaneously. This was the end of the USA Pro Challenge bike time trial stage that occurred here a couple of weeks ago. The use of watching dome rare TV was now helping me in my ultra!

I ran down a long right bend and saw an even better site. Two runners ahead and an aid station. I didn’t expect either things to be possible in my very off day. I was catching people and I had reached an aid station sooner than anticipated?! This aid station was situated just before the second biggest climb; up to Vail mountain. The volunteer told us it was 4.2 to the top and we all looked great. I believed the first part only. My glucose had dropped to 98 so I was pretty wary of my energy needs. I had some Coke and Clif blocs and got the hike going. I wasn’t eating well and knew it. I had a Clif bar in my bag but literally couldn’t stomach myself to even try a bite. I should have eaten this or similar way earlier in the race before my stomach decided to disintegrate.

I was convinced we were going to enter Vail village which in part would have been nice but also a tease as this race still had 20 plus miles to traverse. We did not. Up we climbed by a small waterfall and followed the stream over and under big fallen pine trees. I noticed a big difference from the morning climbs. No snow, well at least none on the trail itself. The sun had worked its magic and cut me some slack for the final third of the race. Switchback after switchback we went up. My view was of pine trees and a solo runner ahead. I had been slowly catching him, not because my climbing had improved but because he was violently throwing up or at least trying to every few minutes. I offered him whatever I had in my pack but he just needed to press the restart button before he could think like that. As much as my nutrition wasn’t good today, I was grateful to not being feeling like him.

Looking back down the climb up to Vail Mountain

Looking back down the climb up to Vail Mountain

When the tree line stopped, I was greeted to a grand mountain view of open yellow field with many more switchbacks going up. A couple of runners who I had not seen for hours were just above me but struggling. It was reassuring to know others were in the same discomfort as me.

After these switchbacks and me catching up to them, the climb plateaued. I kept checking my elevation numbers on my watch as I knew Vail mountain was about 11,000 feet. We seemed to have climbed that but alas, no aid station was in site. I felt confident on Vail mountain. It was the only part of the course I had been to from my previous trip here last Summer. The view of the famed Vail ski bowls to my left looked the same but I could not see the main gondola house that I was familiar with.

I had my eye on two more runners ahead who I had reeled on running along a muddy but beautiful ridge line of the mountain. They slowed to descend a technical rocky section and for some reason I tried to pass one of them here only to lose my footing and begin crashing to the ground. I tensed all of muscles, ready for the hard impact of flesh on rocks when an outstretched arm hooked under mine and reduced the fall to barely nothing. What a Godsend. Ultrarunning competition sure beats the sharp elbows of a 5K! I thanked him over and over. He got the idea. He literally saved my ass!

I skidded along more muddy trail and spotted asmall Scott Running set up in the distance. Relief once more, time for a break. MY glucose was still on the lower side of safe; 102, so I reached for a fresh can of mountain cold Ginger Ale and consumed it in a flash along with a contradicting warm cup of ramen soup. I talked with the guys volunteering about who had won, where all the main elites had placed etc. It was mind-boggling to me they were all done. How do they cover the course in such a frenetic pace, especially with all the snow and wind conditions. Before, I got too comfortable talking about everyone who had finished, I decided I better get moving to follow suit. I had a two more descents and a climb to go. It sounded better than saying over 16 miles!

The sun was on its way down but as the descent to Minturn was only a few miles to go, I wasn’t concerned. Tiffany would be there ready to pace me and hand me my headlamp in time for the last two or three hours of what was left. My sub-12 pipe-dream would not have called for such use but such is life and here I was just trying to finish at this point. After a mile of running a relatively flat section, I started to become a little nervous. I really hadn’t descended much at all yet where as the sun had.

Red flags signaled a turn off the wide dirt road onto single track. This led to a set of switchbacks through long yellow grass. I didn’t count them but heard later there were 38 switchbacks in total. I was hammering down the mountain here playing a game against the sun. Who would get done first; me to Minturn (aka headlamp HQ) or the sun behind the mountain range. I pushed and pushed the pace. I truly believed that any minute now, I would catch a glimpse of the small ski town below and it would all be fine.

Racing against time; the descent to Minturn started pretty until I ran out of light.

Racing against time; the descent to Minturn started pretty until I ran out of light.

I did catch a glimpse of some early evening lights below. Unfortunately, I estimated the distance at about two miles downhill, an impossible distance before the sun would set. I looked up and saw the sun nestling behind the dark mountain skyline and knew my fate was almost sealed. As I got lower, the trees around me increased. More trees equalled less light. My eyes were fighting hard to see the path, the rocks and roots ahead and to make sure I kept seeing a red flag every once in a while. But then ultimately my fate was sealed for me. I planted my left foot down but it never landed as expected. It kept on going into a hole for another foot or so and my knee gave way slightly to the shock of the landing.

I steadied myself to check my leg hadn’t fallen off. A bit shaken from the surprise hole in the ground, I decided there and then that this was just not my day. I had been hopeful of getting to Minturn by 7pm or at least 7:30. It was now approaching 8 and it was pitch black with no one around. I walked down the trail with no headlamp. I couldn’t tell a long blade of grass from a red flag anymore and was adamant if I came out of this trail head in the wrong place, I would be calling it a day. The course had mentally and physically abused me all day in many different ways.

Walking down the trail in the dark was a bit depressing at first. Why where there no glow sticks or reflectors? I felt like the race was for elites and I had crashed there fast party and didn’t belong. This course was laid out for runners finishing before dusk. Enough of the violins though. I had to think how I could make this joke of a scenario better. I had a MacGyver moment and realized I had the next best thing to a headlamp, the backlight of my watch! I pressed the button and got some minuscule light showing me the way (as long as I kept the watch low to the ground). After 15 seconds my watch blacked out so I had to press it again. In all, I ended up walking down the trail which of course got more and more technical and must have pressed that darn button over two hundred times! I had to laugh at how badly wrong everything was going. A light finally shone from behind me. It was a runner I had passed back at the top of Vail Mountain. He said “How are you doing?”. “Great” I said, “I haven’t got a headlamp” in my most sarcastic tone. And he just flew down the hill! This happened another couple of times. I was the hitch hiker that nobody wanted to acknowledge existed. Then I got a shout. “Do you want to share my light?” “Um, sure.That would be great” I said taken aback. Someone was helping poor old me out. Who else would it have been than my ass saving rock friend. This guy was my guardian angel today!

We walked down the trail together. My new ultra hero Ben (not Kilian anymore) was feeling out of it from the altitude. He was stopping at Minturn. I tried my “But you have X more hours to make it X miles” line but it was of no use. He was physically done for the day. We laughed how we were both having a rough go of it at 10,000 above our usual habitats (Ben lives in Chicago). A flashlight came streaming towards me and Tiffany followed jumping on me. She had decided than rather wait (she had been waiting a while) in Minturn, she would walk up the trail to me and give me my headlamp. This was awesome! Talk about waiting for a bus and then two come along at once. I signed off with my guardian angel Ben and walked with speed and my own light down to the bottom of the trailhead with my favorite pacer.

First things first. I needed warmer clothes. We detoured to the car and I put on another jacket. I did my blood test in the car. The car wasn’t even on and it was so much warmer compared to the outside temperature. My glucose was a perfect 157. Everything was better. We jogged through the main street of Minturn and checked into the aid station. I was looking forward to some soup. No soup. OK, some Coke then. No Coke. The volunteer kindly told me they had both at the next aid station. The next aid station was five miles up the mountain though! OK, everything was not better! UROC was not rocking but I wasn’t done with it.

We left Minturn not very happy. I made do with some Oreo’s. My headlamp was no way near as bright as Tiffany’s and I asked if it had new batteries in it. We stopped at her new-found friends house who were having a campfire watching the race. They knew me and her like we were family! We sat by the fire and changed the batteries. Time was ticking by but right now, my only goal was to finish. I soaked up the heat of the fire while I could and bonded with strangers that seemed to already know everything about me! It would have been as much fun to hang out with them but the job was not over; five miles of up and five miles of down to go.

We climbed the same trail we had just come from. That wasn’t too exciting as I hadn’t forgotten how rocky it was. The five-mile climb was no joke, it was straight up. No switchbacks, no plateaus, a relentless grind up to Eagles Nest aid station at over 10,000 feet. I was making all kinds of weird noises, digging deep to keep a solid pace going. I wanted to get to the top by 16 hours. I knew I still had the smallest of chances of breaking 17 hours and therefore getting a belt buckle to go alongside a finisher’s medal. I hadn’t particularly cared for the sub-17 buckle (finishing before midnight) as I have far more treasured metal from Leadville and Western States. I wasn’t convinced before the race, a buckle was a deserved prize for ‘only’ 100K but now living in the moment of this race I had changed my mind. This was as hard, if not harder than either of my 100 mile races. Being so close to the buckle cut off time gave me a desire to push and go after it.

After a few miles, I saw ahead on the right a handful of yellow lights. I was convinced this was the aid station and made a big fuss out of it to Tiffany. She wasn’t sure. I was almost at the 10,000 feet mark so it made sense. Just a bit more of up and the road would level out and lead to the lights. It was soup time!

I saw a big metal sign up ahead which was a good indicator that it was the beginning, or in my case the end of the trail head. I walked by it and was now standing on an access road. No flags pointed towards the light and neither did they point the other direction. The red flags pointed straight up the steep mound in front. I couldn’t believe my (lack of) luck. Tiffany marched on while I stood there defeated. I was mad at the people in the hut/house, whoever they were and whatever it was. Did they not know their was a 100k death march going on tonight?!

I sulked up the steep grade, one step at a time. I knew as soon as I saw the real aid station it would mean no more climbing. And then on a plateau, far in the distance we could see the lights ahead of Eagles Nest aid station. No. More. Climbing!

We ran towards it and I jumped in a chair. Ramen soup was in my hands moments later. I glanced at my watch to see how things were shaping up; ’16:10′. “We have to go” I called to Tiffany just as she was grabbing some food herself. We were informed it was 4.7 to go, better than 5 I guess. I needed all the help I could get. We would have to average 9-minute miles and if so, I would just make it under 17 hours.

Off we went. Luckily it was on a wide red-clay dirt road that winded down the mountain. Tiffany ran on my left and we both looked for red flags to make sure we didn’t make any wrong turns. A wander off course now would have ended my buckle plan in an instant. I felt like we were really hammering it. “Are we going 7:30 do you think?” I asked her. She kindly made it obvious we were not. Darn my legs must have been trashed because it sure felt like it! Whatever the pace was, it was still hard work even though we were going down.

Winding switchback after winding switchback but no sign of the village lights. Luckily, we both did have some course knowledge (finally). We had been two sevenths of the participants in yesterday’s fun 5K. We knew a blue gate was a 1-mile to go landmark. We passed an area by a gate and Tiffany was sure that was it. I stopped to see what cushion I had to do the final mile in; 22 minutes. I knew we had been flying! We kept going, winding down the road, shouting out when we saw a red flag or when their was a batch of rocks to avoid. But one problem remained. I caught a glimpse of the lights below and knew instantaneously that the finish was well over a mile to go. We had called the finale too early. I guessed it was at least two miles. If I was right, I was still OK but barely.

We ran and ran harder. I didn’t want to miss out by a minute. What hadn’t mattered to me a few hours ago now meant everything all of a sudden. We saw the blue gate ahead; ’16:50′ on the watch she I hit the backlight. A ten-minute mile and it was done. We started passing houses that were now above us rather than below us. We were so close. And then with not much warning, was the finish arch. I turned left and saw the digital clock. The numbers 16:57 beamed at me in neon red.

I crossed the line to the crowd of two. A timekeeper staying warm by her laptop and a guy handing out medals. He gave me my medal and then paused for a long time as I looked at him and wondered if the rumour of sub-17 hours was in fact correct for the buckle. “Oh, and you get one of these by the skin of your teeth”. Man, no need to tease me like that!

I ended up being the very last runner to get a belt buckle from the race. Even though it felt like I had come in dead last, I had most definitely not. The finish rate was 55%. To be on the right side of that felt like its own triumph. I was proud to have finished, to stay in the game even when everything seemed to go wrong for me all day.

Exhausted yet triumphant; my 100K finishers medal.

Exhausted yet triumphant; my 100K finishers medal.

I leave UROC knowing I was under prepared for the race. Kilian Jornet used a great quote after his sub-par Western States debut in 2010. “I think when we win a race, we don’t learn so much because everything is perfect. It’s important to lose because that’s when you learn.” I fully appreciate where he is coming from. I never came here to win but I did set lofty goals on myself and fell way short.

All in all, I am proud of my race. It was an absolute sufferfest. I can confidently say, it was the hardest race of my life. It tested me to my maximum and then some more. I have never quit a race and will continue that streak as long as I’m not about to come away from it seriously injured. I want to keep showing the world that you can do anything you want while having diabetes. Even climbing five mountains in the snow at altitude over 100K. It’s a crazy life but someones got to do it!

The sub-17 hour bling!

The sub-17 hour bling!

Small Victories; Western States 100 (0-62)

I didn't make it to the Olympics Nana and Grandad but I'll take this!

I didn’t make it to the Olympics Nana and Grandad but this is pretty cool! #WS100

At first I was really confused, but then I grabbed my phone to switch off my alarm. Wow. I had done it. I had actually slept! I thought to myself ‘OK let’s go. Western States in two hours. Sweet’. Sleeping was a small victory.

I grabbed my blood tester so I could get my breakfast going. I wanted to scoff down my 600-800 calorie breakfast with a two-hour window before the gun. I knew a heavy breakfast would not be an issue, it would be my last normal meal for at least a day. Plus, the first four miles of the course are straight uphill to the highest point (8,750ft) from Squaw Valley (home of the 1960 Winter Olympics) which meant hiking not running so my stomach could handle this. My glucose was 165 mg/dL, a good start. My nurse and me had decided to bolus 75% of the insulin required for this carb heavy meal of two bagels, a banana, a yogurt and a cereal bar.

Hanging out in the warm with my crew prior to the start.

Hanging out in the warm with my crew prior to the start.

My crew of Tiffany and Team Novo Nordisk team-mates, Benny and Matt worked like clockwork loading the car and checking out of the hotel at 4am sharp. All I had to do was eat all those carbs and get dressed. We got to Squaw and I went off to grab my bib and ankle chip. I surprisingly had to go through a mini-medical again. My weight shot up 5lbs but I was now wearing my backpack and running shoes. I didn’t understand this process. Maybe it was because of the heat and Craig Thornley (RD) was covering every base? Afterall, it had been announced late yesterday that this would be the second hottest Western States in its 40 year history with a high of 102. It definitely was not hot yet though. We lingered inside the main building until five minutes to go. The start area was electric. Although dark, the sun would rise soon which was a positive only in the fact I wouldn’t need my headlamp until the evening.

I said goodbye to my crew and  squeezed my way to the front of the pack (just to get out onto the course efficiently more than anything else). I looked up and there high above me on a three-step painters ladder announcing the crowd in his skimpy blue shorts and white cotton t-shirt was the man who started it all forty years ago to the day, Gordy Ainsleigh. I shook his hand and am fairly sure I told him I loved him in all of my excitement. Come on. I mean, how can you not love Gordy? His horse was too weak to compete in the 100 mile race so he decided to run it instead and so he did, in under 24 hours by the way. No crew, pacers, water, aid stations, nothing. Just sheer guts and determination. That’s Gordy.  Needless to say, I was now really buzzing and just like that we had the ten second countdown and away we went, everyone screaming and whooping at 5am.

Mile 1 - up we go!

Mile 1 – there is no concern about going out too fast at Western States 100!

After 90 seconds, I stopped running and started my power hike up the fire road towards Emigrant Pass. AJW had mentioned at the veteran’s panel discussion pre-race “Only the sub-17 hours run the climb and those who believe there is a bank”. I did not fall into either of those categories. My plan was simple, strict and potentially hugely successful. I was following the sub-24 hour race times per aid station. I had 55 minutes to climb 3.5 miles which worked out at a 16-minute mile hiking effort. I was adamant I was going to stick to my pace so I would not blow up. I had pacers from mile 62 (Foresthill) to the end; my girlfriend Tiffany and team-mate Benny. They would kick my ass so hard if they needed too, because they knew how much I wanted the ‘one-day’ silver buckle. That was honestly my one and only goal for the race and for the course and temperatures, quite the goal to still strive for.

A flood of people passed me as I dropped back to what felt like the middle of the pack as we climbed the early morning light. Occasionally, the climb flattened and I could run a short spurt. As we passed  the waterfall S-bend section, I realized my shoes were not tight enough. I found a rock to address this and lost a minute or two of time. I reminded myself of Ellie Greenwood’s tip; don’t panic. So, I had lost time to tie my shoes better. So what? It was mile 2! I stayed calm and kept hiking. I hit the Escarpment aid station one minute early. Just like I had been encouraged to do, I had hiked so far on just half a bladder of water to conserve every possible piece of energy. I now filled it to the very top, grabbed some bananas and continued on up the last half mile to Emigrant Pass.

Climbing between Escarpment and Emigrant Pass.

Climbing between Escarpment and Emigrant Pass.

We passed some photographers at the top of the climb and spectators. I had kept turning to my left all the way up to watch the sunrise behind Lake Tahoe. This view was absolutely mind-blowing. I thought at the time ‘I have never run in such a beautiful setting’ and a week later, that statement remains true. AJW said “saviour the moment, soak up the Western States experience (being a lottery, you never know when or if you will do this again), thank the volunteers, enjoy time with your crew and take in the views, look back before descending the mountain for one more look at Squaw and Lake Tahoe”. I did and would do all of these things.

Emigrant Pass sunrise.

Emigrant Pass sunrise.

Follow the yellow *ribbon road.

Follow the yellow *ribbon road.

I followed the Montrail yellow ribbons down the single track the other side of the mountain. The highest part of the course was already over. With seven miles before the next aid, the thing to do now was to eat, and eat often and run at a very easy pace. The course here had zero snow on it compared to previous years. Holding back the legs took some serious discipline on my part. My pace was 10:45’s and I used my Suunto Ambit to guide me as best I could as I descended in the wilderness section of the course. I knew nothing of my place or cared. “Run your own race” said everyone at the panel. It’s true, you have to do this your own way, it’s 100 miles!

This was a rugged section of rocks with the added factor of amazing views of near and far mountains in high alpine country of the Granite Chief Wilderness. Supposedly, you could see thirty miles away here where the Robinson Flat aid station was. Looking up too much could cost you a fall so I tried to save my curious eyes when we had slight uphills to look around.

Towards the end of the section, I had joined part of a congo line; tight single track up a rocky stream. Keeping your feet dry was not really an option here but being patient was. Some people around me dug an elbow in here or there to jump ahead a whole place at mile 9. This seemed beyond ridiculous to me. I stayed calm and decided now was the time for my earphones.

Running the wonderful Granite Chief Wilderness

Running the wonderful Granite Chief Wilderness section.

When the course flattened out, I started running again. I wanted to hit the aid at 2h 10 and thought I only had a few minutes to cover some serious ground if I was going to make it. I must have lost a chunk of time in the congo line. But I turned a long right and then I saw people. Here I was at Lyons Ridge aid, two minutes ahead of time. A quick fist pump. Small victory. I checked my CGM and was around 150. Fist pump, small victory. You get the idea now. It was time to eat some more and not hold back as I could tell my BG number was dropping off. An old guy with a hose asked me if I would like some of Foresthill’s water. He said it with such passion, it felt rude to decline. It was only 7am and I thought, this seems early to be cooling off but the moment he sprayed my torso I felt a big difference. Everyone was right, dry heat (although not that hot yet) is deceiving.

Lyon Ridge

Lyon Ridge

Running along the ridge line on my way to Red Star Ridge (mile 16) was another spectacular section. The congo line had split up before the aid station and I got to run this part solo. My music was blaring out some 90’s British Indie; Placebo and Radiohead I recall. I was officially in my element. Life was good, real good. I sang (no one heard), smiled (no one saw) and ran with happiness. I even had a really fun pee break on the ridge. I’m ranking it number one on my ‘most scenic pee of my life’ list! On a more serious note, peeing was great as it meant i was hydrating well (my glucose level was steady). The ridge line went directly over a section of rocks and the trail then descended into wooded pine lined switch backs for a mile or so.

Scrambling up a section on the ridge line.

Scrambling up a section on the ridge line to Red Rock Ridge.

Running through a foot-strike scientific experiment (Western States is used for a host of sport science data) screamed ‘aid station approaching’ which was pretty darn sweet as my watch said 15 miles when in fact the aid station was officially mile 16. Reaching these check points before I expected too was a real plus mentally. Small victory, yes. Too add to the plus column, the aid station was really loud. It was in a really remote spot so no crew were here but it was a non-issue, the volunteers were simply awesome. I had a personal volunteer right on me saying “What do you need?”. She grabbed my backpack off my shoulders, refilled it with water and I topped up my hand-held with the GU electrolyte drink. Both drinks were packed with ice. I even spooned my hat in a bucket of ice and threw some more down my back for good measure. It had only just turned 8am but all of this was completely necessary to keep my core temperature as cool as possible as the outdoor thermostat was going up fast. I had already gone through 80% of my gels, chews and fruit bars – a good sign I was eating and eating often. I loaded my backpack with more and off I went. I walked out of the aid munching on a cereal bar. I kept saying to myself ‘eat early and often and run easy’. I was doing both textbook style.

From mile 16, it was more gradual downhill running into Duncan Canyon where I would get to see my crew of Tiffany, Benny, Sean and Matt for the first time since Squaw. That was almost five hours ago. The goal pace on the section was 11:30’s but I was definitely going sub-11’s. It was tough to hold back, sometimes it felt like I was doing more damage than good, by braking at that pace. Some parts of the trail were now very exposed, so I played a continuous on/off game with my Oakley’s. Running in the sun was a sure-fire way to keep me drinking regularly. I was more or less a robot anyway; take an S-Cap every 30 minutes, drinking water every 5 minutes, consuming 300 calories of food/liquid an hour. But a quick reminder from the sun didn’t do me any harm to keep at it.

Tiffany helping me refuel and Matt about to prick me!

Tiffany helping me refuel and Matt about to prick me!

After hours of steady relaxed running, I entered into an army of people at Duncan Canyon aid. I caught a glimpse of “Changing Diabetes” ahead on a shirt. My team-mate, Ryan Jones was just leaving the aid station. I locked eyes with Matt. He guided me off to the left like I was a plane looking to park at a vacant gate. He did a great job too. Away from the mass of spectators and into our own shady spot. The crew knew the drill here; towel (to wipe my fingers), blood test (result = 211), sunscreen (Tiffany slapped it on, she was not stingy) refill drinks with ice and a refill foods for the backpack. And go.

Tiffany and Sean - food display 10/10 : )

Tiffany and Sean – food display 10/10 : )

All the food I had bought from REI was carefully displayed on a blanket and I picked out what I wanted efficiently. The ‘piece de resistance’ though was the Anton Krupicka style bandana neck scarf supplied by Tiffany. This was not going to win me any style contests but with a chunk of ice wrapped in it, this would cool my neck and torso all day long. I hadn’t tried this out before but I couldn’t think of any negative reasons why not to try it. The one aid station hiccup we did have, was not having the Aquaphor on hand. I lost a load of time in Leadville due to chafing so this was potentially a big deal although I was not feeling any skin irritation yet. The crew would be back at Dusty Corners in 14 miles and I was confident it would be on everyone’s mind there.

I peaced out and descended a steep section of trail, focusing not too fall in front of all the spectactors. I entered the aid happy and left happier. It was really great seeing the gang. Everyone was in high spirits. I walked a small uphill and then decided to get going again at running speed. And DOWN I went like a sack of spuds! I had got my left big toe stuck under the smallest rock and fell down onto a section of dirt. On the positive, I found no traces of blood to wipe off. Small victory? Absolutely! At first, I didn’t want to clean myself up feeling like I was wasting water but the reality was, I now had 70 fresh ounces of the stuff to get me up to Robinson Flat aid at mile 30.

At mile 25, Ryan came into sight again. I caught up to him and we checked in with each other. He was feeling the heat and had decided he was going to change shoes up ahead to his more cushioned Hoka’s. He was only carrying one water bottle on his hydration belt which concerned me as it was only going to get hotter and hotter for the next several hours, especially in the most feared part of the course; the canyons. We hit a big stream crossing. There was no chance of keeping your feet dry here. We waded through knee-deep, grabbing big rocks as support. Upon, reaching the far side I almost forgot to dunk my hat in the cold water. I felt like Indiana Jones grabbing his hat at the very last-minute. The option of a cool wet hat versus a hot dry one for a few miles could make a big difference. Every opportunity to get cool, I took it.

Crossing the stream before climbing up to Robinson Flat.

Crossing the stream before climbing up to Robinson Flat.

The climb up Robinson’s was long and slow. A volunteer back at Duncan Canyon had told me six key words as I left “2 miles down, 4 miles up, looking great” describing this section, so I was mentally zoned in pretty good.  I had to do a bit of basic math for pacing as these miles called for 15-minute pace. I went with 12-minute downhills and 17-minute uphills or thereabouts. Ryan led the climb all the way. Conversation distracted us from thinking too much about the heat or the climb. I thought I would go past him here but he set a good pace and I tucked in behind. As Ryan had already decided he would need some more time than me at the aid to change his shoes, we agreed we would see each other down the road.

All smiles rolling into Robinson Flat with team-mate Ryan Jones.

Mile 30; All smiles rolling into Robinson Flat with team-mate Ryan Jones.

I hopped on the scales at Robinson Flat, the first major aid station with medical and more spectators than usual. We were just under 30 miles and my weight had dropped only 1lb. It got rewarded with a “great job” by the doc and so I walked over to regain my backpack from a volunteer who had been filling it with ice and water. Whether it was my constant weight in the heat or something else, I really did feel overall really good. The quads were my achilles heel however, tingling slightly at this point so I got a volunteer to sponge them down with ice-cold water that helped wake them up. What really woke me up though was seeing Jeff Le, a really inspiring Brooks ID runner whom I have known for years but never met until now. Jeff went on a life transformation by shedding 160lbs and is now an incredible role model for many; an ultra runner himself over the last few months. He gave me a nice distraction from my quad discomfort. Maybe so much so that when I started running out of the aid station I actually had to turn back! I had forgotten to put ice in my hat and down my back. Losing a minute to do so may have saved me ten by not doing so, who was to know? Now finally ready to roll, I sheepishly tried exiting again, running through a tight yellow marked path with people either side cheering me on.

Before I knew it, I was climbing again, now up on Little Bald Mountain with the most sun exposure thus far. Good call on the ice. The positive of the climb was that I knew the elevation profile. It was only a mile and change up, before four miles of all downhill into Miller’s Defeat. Just before I descended, I checked my pace chart and focused on easy 11-minute miles. I was technically now in the second phase of the course “the canyons” but that didn’t mean start going any faster. The downhill here would be over 1,000 feet and very runnable terrain on dirt roads but I had to save my legs for the canyons. Miller’s Defeat was a tiny aid station. It was an efficient cold shower here, more ice and bottle refill only which would easily see me through to Dusty Corners where my crew would be for the second time.

Mile 38; Running in the sun to Dusty Corners.

Mile 38; Running in the sun towards Dusty Corners.

I was eating good, really focusing on the caloric intake per hour and sipping water regularly. Glucose was overall, really good. If it dropped below, 120, I ate immediately but that was all. My pace stayed steady at 10’s (although I knew it should have been 11’s). I told myself, any slower and I would be doing quad damage. Whether or not I was right, I was doing 10’s and I knew I had gone from hitting aid stations on the money to now building up a few minutes ever since I left Lyon Ridge. I was breaking my strict plan of no faster than sub-24 pace before 62. What was wrong with me? Why can’t I ever stick to a plan? I hoped the great feeling I was experiencing would still be the there at Foresthill when pacing duties commenced. I did not want this to be a zombie march home like Leadville and waste the energy of Tiffany and Benny because I got greedy up front.

Yes. Pour more water on me.

Yes. Pour more water on me. I will not complain.

I flew into Dusty Corners with a twenty-three minute lead on sub-24 pace. Laura and her friend Geri had arrived direct from the airport in time to crew and pace Ryan. I gave her a sweaty hug, she didn’t seem to mind. Everyone was asking me how I was feeling and I couldn’t pretend I felt anything other than amazing. I truly did. The irony is, after the same time on my feet in DC four weeks prior I was crossing the finish line of my 50 mile race and was absolutely beat. And here I was, OK, a few miles less on my feet but in hotter conditions with many many miles to go and I just felt incredible. My glucose had raised into the mid 200’s (slight overcompensation on the carbs between Duncan Canyon and Dusty Corners) so I took a unit, filled my handheld up with Powerade Zero (no carbs) rather than Gatorade and took gels/chews in my pack for down the road. As it was almost noon, I decided now was a good time for some lunch. I have never really thought in this kind of mind sight before but it made sense to me. I had been grazing on gels, cereal bars and fruit since the start and now was time for something more substantial.

Everyone's happy at Dusty Corners with Laura and Tiffany

Everyone’s happy at Dusty Corners with Laura and Tiffany

I left the aid with a chicken caesar wrap. I purposely walked the next half mile so I could consume ‘lunch’. I soon got into my stride again and ran through the breathtaking Pucker Point that gives you a glimpse of what’s to come next; the hot and deep canyons. If I was here for a leisurely hike or training run, I would have appreciated the view far more but I was pretty happy not looking over the ledge to see how deep it went. My mind didn’t want to know, my body said, just get me there and I’ll figure it out.

Pucker Point. Don't look down unless you want to see how far you have to run!

Pucker Point. Don’t look down unless you want to see how far you have to run!

Around mile 40, things turned ugly and quickly. I started to get into some serious discomfort with cramping in my hamstrings and IT band areas. Stationary agony took over. To add insult to the situation, I was stuck in an exposed section of trail as the sun beamed down on me. An S!Cap, a slow walk, a brisker walk and finally some sort of shuffled running ensued to get me going again. But within yards, the same pain occurred in my other leg. This was not good. How many miles to go? Too many to count. I had to switch that off straight away. What did Ellie say again? Don’t panic. OK. Focus. I had too just put one foot in front of the other and so that’s exactly what I did.

I finally made it to a sign that read “single file runners”. I felt guilty that I was walking towards people conducting another gait analysis study and here I was, walking towards them about to be a useless statistic! So I put on a brave show and miraculously found some perfect form (heavily biased opinion) and passed their low fixed camera, even exchanging some pleasantries acting as if my legs had never felt any better!

Last Chance aid really was just that. Not my last chance to bail before the canyons (DNF is not in my DNA) but my last chance to really cool off the legs with a soak. I topped up all my water supplies and put ice in every possible place worth carrying it. Of all the course, you did not want to run out of liquid here before the next 4.5 miles. It would take (on paper) 80 minutes to descend 2,000 ft into the super hot Deadwood canyon and then up the steepest climb the other side; 1,500 ft in 1.7 miles with thirty something (I try and forget) switchbacks to Devil’s Thumb. A lack of fluid here would be a disaster.

Left appears a good option.

Left appears a good option.

As I descended the first of many switchbacks down, I instantly recognized the point where Kilian Jornet took off from Geoff Roes and Anton Krupicka in the 2010 race (this was caught on camera for the inspiring documentary “Unbreakable” by JB Benna). As my quads stung with each downhill footstrike, my head shook in disbelief he actually could and did do that. If you want to be humbled as a runner, I encourage you to watch any of Kilian’s videos. Moments later, a runner in his mid 60’s came flying past me down the switchbacks without a care for saving his legs or any of the roots or rocks in his path. Double humble pie! And I thought I was a good downhill runner!

I ended up descending with a girl a few feet in front of me; Traci Falbo. She was pretty badass. I had no intention of taking the lead from her. I found out she is not only friends with my friends (Kino, Jackie etc), but this was only 25% of her Summer racing. She was one of the thirty-two going after the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (Western States, Vermont, Leadville and Wasatch in the space of three months!) Triple humble pie for me down the first canyon!!

Suspension bridge I purposely avoided at first to cool off in Deadwood Canyon's river bed.

Suspension bridge I purposely avoided at first to cool off in Deadwood Canyon’s river.

As I had learned from the course talk, I was instructed to go down the trail and cool off in the river at Deadwood before crossing the bridge. The temperature was supposedly 10-15 degrees hotter down there than the rest of the course which made it 117 ish (?!). Yes, it was hot but I won’t pretend it actually felt that hot. I scrambled down rocks into the clear water where other runners were soaking below. I lifted my insulin pump from my shorts and soaked in the clear water up to my chest. I didn’t really gage the time I relaxed here but as soon as Traci left, that was good enough for me. I scrambled out, crossed the bridge and got my power hike on still dripping from the river.

I checked my GPS for current mileage and added 1.7 to it so I would know when this climb of climbs would be over theoretically. Steady climbing to Devil’s Thumb, that’s all I could do. I guess I had my strengths and weaknesses wrong this whole time with trail running. I’m actually a climber, not a descender because I took no prisoners getting out of this canyon! I’m pretty sure I gobbled up ten spots on the climb. Most competitors were not enjoying the ride up, some were top ladies having rough days outside of the top 10 spots.

Devil’s Thumb aid station was booming with energy for the middle of nowhere. We were welcomed with open arms which was clearly just a trick to get us directly on the scales again. They had me at 174 and I bartered with them that it looked more like 175. My CGM was vibrating and beeping at me which is never a good sign. I double checked the score with my glucose meter I was carrying on board. Yep, I needed some glucose to push me back up. The next aid station was at the bottom of El Dorado, one hour away. I chugged some Coke and Sprite but my stomach was cringing that fizz now (I had been sipping on those all morning).

I saw a runner with an ice pop and asked him where he got it. A volunteer gave me the choice of three flavors. I took all of them. Ice and sugar together? Perfect. I still wasn’t convinced I was carrying enough sugar supplies in my pack to get me down the next 5-mile stretch safely when my eye caught a half drunk Gatorade bottle on the ground behind the aid station. “Can I have that?’ I asked boldly. “Um…well” and before I could get the long excuse why I couldn’t, a lady interupted “I have a frozen one in my car”. An angel at Devil’s Thumb! As she ran off to her car, I iced my legs, refilled my hat and bandana full of ice and then there it was, the coldest frozen best ever Gatorade I had ever held! I knew I was carrying 34 grams of carbohydrate, 34 grams of sugar in my right hand like the nerd that I am (have to be) and off I went. I had lost weight and time at Devil’s Thumb. But it was important to try to eat and leave fully stocked up on carbs to make sure I didn’t go hypo in the canyons.

A gradual descent pre-canyon

Moving along between canyons; sometimes one step at a time was better than nothing

Before the drop off into El Dorado, I ran some easy flat trails but was struggling once more with cramping. I decided after a lot of choppiness; run, cramp, walk, repeat, to just walk at a brisk pace on the borderline of cramping up but not quite. This kind of sucked because I knew doing this for long enough was eating into my time I had accrued (it was now down to about 15 minutes post-Devil’s Thumb). As the descent begun; the long 2,600 ft drop into El Dorado Creek, a runner passed at what looked like a nice controlled pace. I jumped on board, at first from a distance and mimicked his pacing. Could I hold this? Um…yes. For a minute? OK, sure. How about two? Yes, why not? My glucose felt good, right where it should be in the mid 100’s again. I kept going. “Hey man, hot as balls right?” he shouted back to me. “I guess. I’m more concerned with  cramps right now” I replied. “Double up dude” referring to salt capsule intake.

I try my best to take two per hour as per instructions but maybe he was right. Do the instructions know I’m cramping non-stop in the middle of the Western States canyons at 115 degrees? Jessie was his name and he proved to be my next saviour. More S!Caps in the system and me and Jessie were now descending this canyon like it was a 10K trail race. We joked the weather should be killing us. A London and Portland boy used to rain and clouds running sub-24 pace at the 2nd hottest Western States on record. We smiled and laughed at that one. We had unknowingly crossed the halfway point of the race on the descent and rolled into the aid station at the bottom. An aid station in the bottom of a canyon. God bless those volunteers.

Ice cold sponge showers were free of charge, so I took two. Jessie went ahead as I picked up some fruit and chocolate for the climb. At least three runners sat in chairs looking defeated. So far, I had avoided the chair like the plague. I was not planning on using one until Green Gate (80 miles). “Beware of the chair” one of many great ultra sayings. The chair doesn’t get you anywhere, you’re better off keeping the wheels turning, especially down in a hot canyon! Needless to say, I didn’t spend too long looking at the chairs and off I went on the 1,800 foot climb up to Michigan Bluff where the crew awaited me for the third time. Knowing that, put a rocket on my back. I soon and surprisingly caught Jessie again and this time passed by. My climbing strength shock me again as I passed several more people on the up. Was I being too aggressive? Absolutely not. My heart rate remained well in range, I just stretched my legs fully and kept the pace steady.

A famous Western States landmark sign (and shoes). 56 miles were behind me.

I reached a flat on the red sandy trail which spelled the climb was over. A few spectators hung out sunken into their $8 Walgreens foldaway chairs to my right. “Welcome to Michigan Bluff!” an older gentleman yelled at me. I smiled and responded “Great to be here!” It really was. One last ‘mini’ canyon and then it was pacer time, all the way to Auburn. Matt Patrick was the first person I recognized at the frenzied aid station with bright carnival flags lining the route. I think he said I looked great and if he didn’t, I remember, I definitely did. I had picked up some more time thanks to Jessie being my slingshot of energy when I was having a real tough time only a few miles back.

Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

Michigan Bluff; Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

Blood glucose was back at a safer 200 (it beat dropping off from 100 back at Devil’s Thumb). All the crew were there for both me and Ryan. They were, as per norm, on top of it  all, each with their own job to do; refill bladder with ice and water, refill handheld with ice and Gatorade, bandana with ice, ice packs on my head and shoulders, refill backpack with food etc etc. Race car crews should be asking for tips from my crew. I cannot and will not ever be able to thank them enough for their energy and support. It was beyond awesome.

One more canyon (Volcano) to go and then Tiffany would begin pacing me. That felt great to know. The stretch of trail before the canyon descent was straightforward. I tried to eat some more real food here. A swiveled around a metal gate and that gave me enough of a clue that this was now business time once more. The quads were hurting, getting numb almost but the worse pain were my Latin buddies; left and right sartorius that wrap diagonally form the lateral hip area to the medial knee (longest muscle in the body science fans). Those were killers and known to get painful with chronic downhill activity. Yes, that box was firmly ticked!

But my head was strong, I knew I was having a great race overall. I followed another super strong female runner down this final canyon. I shamefully asked her (Abby) if she thought the river was much further. We agreed it couldn’t be anymore than a mile. I felt better knowing she lived and trained in Colorado because she was flying! Eventually it (the river) appeared almost out of nowhere. Back in the drink up to my chest just for a minute or two. This was such a lifesaver to bring body temperature back down, a great tip from the veteran’s on Thursday. Abby was all business and climbed out the river and up the other side, never to be seen again (Spoiler alert; she finished F10 – the only female without a sponsor. Amazing.)

The climb up to Bath Road was standard procedure power hiking. I felt like I was ahead of pace here but didn’t bother to check. I have climbed Bear Mountain, NY enough times (the same climb in elevation change) that this one was definitely the easiest, plus it was the last one which helped in the head. The sign saying ‘Auburn Running Store aid station 1/4 mile’ though was not mentally good for me because it was way further!! Me and another runner playfully harassed the aid station for their false advertising sign! I didn’t hang here for even a second. Foresthill aid was in 1.4 miles where the crew would be waiting. I had everything I needed so kept going.

I didn’t know I had to keep climbing beyond Bath Road aid though but that’s exactly what I had to do. It was all asphalt which was a nice break from trail (normally I crave the opposite). Pacers and crew cars were coming down to meet their runners, so I had some nice camaraderie with them to keep working up the climb. I turned hard left on a pine trail parallel with Foresthill Road so I knew I was close. More and more people came into sight, my favorite one though had her new backpack on, cap back to front with pigtails and a huge smile on her face. It was great to see Tiffany so excited, about to pace me during Western States. What an experience for us to share.

The scales had me back up to 177lbs. Small victory. I was ahead of schedule by thirty minutes or so but felt great, not worn out. Small victory. 62 solo miles done, 38.2 to go, ALL with pacers now. Small victory. If you don’t build the puzzle one piece at a time, you never complete it. This was exactly how I was getting through the distance, managing the experience and adventure as best I could. I was enjoying it tremendously. Now I just had to keep it all together with the help of pacers and this would be a huge personal victory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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