The lottery gods are good to me. I am humbled to announce I get to go back to my favorite race, and there have been many. The original 100 miler, the Western States Endurance Run in sunny California. It was my fourth year in the lottery since my 2013 race when I somehow got pulled to run with one single ticket. This year, I had 8 tickets (your ticket number doubles ever year not selected). To get to run it twice so close together is magical. I am extremely grateul and take none of this for granted. My Hardrock dream however continues to make me wait. Looks like it is going to be a speedy and heat training kind of training cycle (I also have my 6th Boston to look forward too). The rest of my year is TBD. The Grand Slam looms and I will decide on that or something else equally epic very soon. #ws #seeyouinsquaw
Tag Archive for Western States 100
New year, new goals and luckily for me, new gear! I’m excited to announce that I have been selected to be a member of the ‘Pearl Izumi Champions Team’ for 2015.
Pearl Izumi (originally a cycling brand) have been making great trail and road shoes for well over a decade from the brains and nohow at HQ in Louisville, Colorado.
More than 50 years ago in Tokyo, a father produced Japan’s first bicycle racing apparel for his son, a promising racer. Today, Pearl Izumi USA, Inc. has evolved into the world’s foremost line of technical-performing and quality manufactured sports apparel.
The name Pearl Izumi is derived from the gem “pearl” and an area of Japan known for its clear water “Izumi.” Literally translated, our name means, “fountain of pearls.”
I love the simplicity of the shoe names; N1, N2 etc. The N stands for neutral and the number means the amount of cushioning or midsole thickness as PI likes to say. The higher the number, the thicker the shoe. But I also love all of the good stuff I’ve heard about Pearl Izumi as a company both from friends that work for the organization and elites that have had sponsorship deals with them over the last few years. Timmy Olson winning Western States 100 in some N1 trails didn’t hurt get the name out further, I’m sure.
I plan to be toeing the line in a pair of road N1’s for my 2015 debut race on March 1st; the USATF 50K championships in Long Island. I’ve just picked up two pairs of them for some hardy tempo workouts and a pair of N2’s for some easy miles and so far so good. Looking forward to picking up some trail shoes next and some apparel to boot. Lucky me indeed. It’s truly an honor to get this kind of opportunity as an amateur runner and I don’t take it lightly. Thank you Pearl Izumi!
Tiffany and I ran out of Foresthill side by side, stride for stride. We politely turned down all requests to refill my water and eat the aid station food. We had all those options and more at the car, which was parked a quarter-mile down the course. I had increased my cushion from Michigan Bluff to thirty minutes ahead of sub-24 and felt pretty good, as was always the plan. The cushion was not but I was hoping it was here to stay.
At the car, I finally relieved my shoulders of the backpack and picked up two hand-held water bottles, perfectly prepared by Benny and Sean; one ice and water in the blue bottle, the other ice and Gatorade in the grey bottle. My glucose had dropped a lot to 99. I reduced basal again and grabbed some gels for the next stretch. I changed tops from T-shirt to singlet. What a difference all of this made. I felt lighter and fresher. I did however refuse to play the new socks/shoes game here. With Rucky Chucky river crossing in 16 miles, I was likely going to change them there anyway so I was reluctant to waste time and go through this process twice. We had what we needed; headlamps, gels and the last section of my wrap sandwich.
We took a left onto a dirt road. We would not see Benny or Sean until the end of Tiffany’s pacing at Green Gate (mile 80). The trail turned remote again almost immediately. We walked as I tried my best to eat the wrap. Not to my surprise, Tiffany had lots of news to tell me about from the day. But to my surprise, she told me she had been scheming a master plan all week with family and friends for this very moment at mile 62. She had gotten everyone to write a personal message to me that she then proceeded to read out as we moved along the trail. It was awesome!!! Everyone, that did that, thank you so much!!!
As I fought with my sandwich to go down, I listened to all the messages; a mixture of humor and seriousness wrapped (no pun) into one. The timing could not have been better as I was now feeling a bit rough around the edges. This was more than just cramped legs, my body was slowly shutting down. It was a huge lift to know I had the full support of everyone back in NYC, Hong Kong and of course England.
After a mile of fighting, I finally tossed away the food. My stomach had just shrunk too much that it was not happening for me. It was a long descent into the next aid so we ran sections of gorgeous single track at a pretty good clip. I let gravity take me down and rolled with that pace until the effort hurt or a climb appeared so walking made sense. This was going well for a while but after a few miles, I kept having to stop after a few minutes of running. I threw my hands on my knees, bent over and had to regroup. And then I would slowly start to walk until I was ready again. Luckily, Cal 1 aid station (Dardanelles) put a break to this stop start motion. Ice, refills and some fruit to go. Some cups of Coke pushed the glucose up and perked me up.
We hiked the majority of the next five miles to Peachstone. It was two separate climbs and the power hiking felt good as I had got tired of running. Tiffany made fun that she had to run to keep up with my long stride up the hills. But the humor was short-lived. I was, for the first time, sensing that five miles seemed really far away. I had been working aid station to aid station off my map with a certain pace to keep. That map got left behind at the Foresthill aid so we were now working with less information for better or worse. Was that why it seemed harder? Or was it that I wasn’t eating? Or was it that the sun was slowly setting and I was not looking forward to nighttime running? (I moved really slow during Leadville in the dark). Whatever the reason, I was hurting.
Aliens marked the entrance and exit of Peachstone. Either that or I needed some more Coke. (You find the craziest themes at aid stations, especially at night that this was fast becoming). We left Peachstone fairly quickly. I ate some fruit but not much else. My glucose was fine, my stomach wasn’t, so I had no great incentive to eat much. I was starting to feel sick so food wasn’t going to help that situation out too much.
I ran hard again on the descents down to Fords Bar(Cal 3) but kept stopping again. This scenario played itself out countless times so I was now being ‘that guy’ that would pass someone only to be passed back moments later. When I was just walking easy, Tiffany tried her best to get me to run in her comforting tone. I stubbornly refused. But the comment did not go away. It lingered and weighed guilt on me as the clock was ticking. I knew I had to keep moving, keep running the flats and downhills, walk the uphills. Just keep going while we still had sunlight. And most times after a delay, I would start running again. I told her “No sitting down at Green Gate, no shoe change”. I had planned to do both but was so fixated on time, I didn’t want to be stationary more than I had too, even in this numbing pain. I felt like I was losing time here although I wasn’t.
My pacing was not smart. When I ran, I really ran but the slumping over and walking were not doing me any favors. It felt like the right thing to do because the faster pace felt comfortable. That was the only defense I gave to Tiffany. I knew a slower but more consistent pace was more textbook but I couldn’t fathom doing that all the way to the river crossing.
This was a major mental pit full for me. I had stopped working on the small victories and now wanted the medium ones, this being the river crossing. Tiffany asked “What do you want?” “The river” was my smart reply. I only had the river to go off as a landmark, everything else around me was now feeling old. I needed the river crossing and was growing increasingly impatient. We saw it from high above in descending the mountain but it was the crossing, I craved for.
Leaving Cal 3, we passed a DNFing Jennifer Benna walking towards us with her pacer (husband). He said “Great job, get to the river before it’s dark”. What a great idea I thought. Imagine if I could make it to the Rucky Chucky crossing in daylight? And just like that, I made it my goal to see the famous crossing in daylight.
But my stomach was really in knots, shrinking by the mile, intestinal pain on the rise. I tried to force myself to be sick several times in a row. “Are you sure you should be doing that?” came from Tiffany. “Ann Trason said making yourself sick is sometimes the best thing you can do!”. I couldn’t have felt any worse by not doing it so it was worth a shot. Dry heaving is not fun mind and I eventually gave up.
I called for the headlamps to go on with about four miles to go before the river. I didn’t want to fall because we were being stubborn that the light was fading fast. I felt defeated that I had missed this ‘small victory’ opportunity. It was ridiculous. I was never meant to get to the river until 10:40pm but I had forgotten that and instead sulked that I missed out on a new small victory that I hadn’t even planned for!
My whole body language changed immediately. We heard screams and laughter down below on the American river but could not see who or where. “It had to be the crossing, right?” Tiffany agreed. We begun to climb higher but I wasn’t concerned with this. I had heard from the course meeting that you think you are at the river and then you tap on some miles. This was obviously what was going on, wasn’t it?
As we walked further away from the noise, I begun to get desperate “When is the course going to swing hard left?” (as if it must). A slight left ahead got my hopes up but that wasn’t it. Was it a hard right up the mountain side instead? That didn’t make too much sense but I would have taken it. My obsessive focus was river, river and river as if it would solve my energy low.
We walked almost for miles continuously on easy flat trails in search of Rucky Chucky. It felt aggressive for a walk (I have been informed since, it was not). This was my low and I didn’t even want to register it. I wasn’t eating right or drinking right. I managed to take down a Powerbar fruit smoothie but even that was tough going. Baby food was tough to consume? This was not pretty!
Finally, and I mean finally, lights and noise appeared. I got ushered onto the scales. I stepped on and half stepped off. Somehow, none of the medics made a fuss of this wobble. My weight was 173. Four pounds lost since Foresthill. “Do you want to sit down?” said a medic. It was a question, not a statement so I had a get out. “No. I’m fine” I responded.
I had changed my mind about not sitting at Green Gate (mile 80). I knew I had to and I would solider on for two miles more before doing so. I walked to the food selection at Rucky Chucky. I looked at everything and was convinced whatever I would have picked up would have quickly come back up. The low was getting lower. I needed Green Gate badly.
Lights guided us down some steps to the river bed. I got halfway and then it finally happened. After miles of wanting to, I was now a real ultra runner, I had been sick!! Just like Ann Trason, had said, I immediately felt (slightly) better. “Do you want to go back?” asked Tiffany. “No, let’s go.” Green Gate was so close, why sit down when I could crawl?
Grabbing the rope, volunteers with waders and powerful headlamps guided us across the hip deep water. There were lots of big rocks to climb up or around. I didn’t expect this. I joked to anyone that cared to listen “Even the river crossing is difficult”. A young volunteer replied “This is Western States”. I liked his reply. It was smart and true, something I would have said to a runner half complaining myself! So, I was having a rough few miles. Go figure. What did I think was going to happen? 100 miles of glorious trails hitting all my time goals, keeping my weight, staying cool in 102 degrees? This was all just part of the adventure. I had to embrace it more!!
I looked at the positives. I was still ahead of sub-24 pace, blood glucose under good control, about to get to sit down and then just twenty miles to go. Oh, and I had just run 18 miles with my badass girlfriend during the Western States 100. Time to make the glass half empty again! Life was definitely better than it felt!
I steadily (OK, really slowly) crossed the river. My body now felt somewhat refreshed from the cool river water. I contemplated dipping my body in more at the far side (like I did in the canyons) but realized I had taken forever to cross the darn thing, I had better just get out!
After a mile plus of hiking the canyon road up to Green Gate, Benny and Matt came towards us to join in for the last mile up. Tiffany gave Benny the lowdown on my state of mind (not great!). I knew they were discussing how I was doing but purposely switched off and spoke with Matt. Maybe he had some magic energy that would get me out of the rut?
I wanted to be an hour ahead of schedule for the last twenty with Benny. That one hour cushion would have been a godsend to know I would break 24 hours. I wasn’t sure if I was there. In fact I knew I was shy but not just not by how much (I was 33 minutes ahead). Regardless, Tiffany had been awesome as I knew she would be. She saw me at my worst going through the motions and just helped me patiently and calmly keep moving forward. Relentless forward progress. I think she may have even joked after the weigh-in, I looked better at 173lbs!
My Brooks ID friend Katy Gifford was running the Green Gate aid station. She was there to greet me with a big smile, a hug and a much promised grilled cheese sandwich. Was this to be the magic energy? I slouched into a chair. I hadn’t sat down for 18 hours!! Needless to say, it felt like heaven.
As I looked at my grilled cheese sandwich figuring out how on earth I was going to actually eat it, I thought to myself ‘I feel…OK’. Not great, but a few gears up from being sick at the river two miles ago. Nearing 11pm, I decided to put on arm sleeves as the temperature would perhaps drop slightly, or maybe I just still feared my pace would and they would be useful for that. I reminded myself that my feet were already a mess and seeing them now would not do me any favors, so I pursued with the same pair of Grits for the last stretch.
After a couple of cups of hot soup and nibbles out of the sarnie, it was time to head out. We got about a minute into the journey and I asked Benny if he had the pacing map. He said no. I wanted it. I wanted to know my cushion. Benny assured me he knew exactly what time to be at each aid station, pace etc, so off we went. We had already spent longer than planned at Green Gate but it was important to regroup and get some energy back.
I had eaten about three mouthfuls of grilled cheese sandwich at the aid. Benny was holding it as he was more hopeful than me that I would eat more. We quickly got into a very easy running pace along flat single track. Real easy. I surprised myself that I no longer wanted to stop and have any breaks.
Benny ran behind (as was custom for the pacer) and we talked. Well, he talked. I was a good listener for the most part. When an incline came, Benny passed me the sandwich. “Eat” was the instruction. He wasn’t even asking me! One small bite and then some water to make sure I could actually swallow it down. The simple task of eating (what humans do to stay alive) was significantly harder than putting one foot in front of the other. These miles were all about eating, not running to stay on track for a successful result.
The ascent ended and I happily returned the sandwich to Benny. Back to running. But surprisingly, this repetitive task of climbing equals sandwich worked out. A few miles later and Benny had achieved his goal (largely against my will – could you tell?) and I had consumed the sandwich over five miles between aid stations.
Just before we entered the aid station, Benny made me stop for water. Not just a sip. Ten seconds of continuous drinking. “How many what…seconds?” I was not happy with this rule. Benny reminded me about my weight. So, we stood still in darkness on the trail at midnight and I chugged back ten seconds of water. As much as Benny was correct, I didn’t appreciate stopping anymore as starting again was the most painful exercise.
We rolled into Auburn Lake Trails aid at mile 85. This time, my name was called out over the MC. Things were getting personal and I liked it! But we hit a scales block. Dislike! I jumped on. “177”. I was back at starting weight. Like! And cue high fives between me and Benny. I sat in a chair. I hadn’t planned on this but was getting pretty exhausted and felt I deserved a minute or two off my feet. Benny didn’t show any major panic in his eyes so I assumed my time was good. I had given him full control of my pacing and ultimately my final time.
My CGM sensor had fallen loose so I was now working off blood tests only at each aid stop. Volunteers were eager to help me refuel but I had to politely tell them to hold tight while we drew some blood and saw where my numbers were. I was just above 200. So-so. Benny and me discussed basal rates and what to eat. Lots of broth and noodle soup was all I could take so that’s what it was. Some of the volunteers dropped their jaws to see two diabetics out here doing the numbers, figuring out carbs vs insulin vs energy. They had lots of questions for us! It was pretty awesome. I guess that’s a prime example of Team Novo Nordisk’s global mission of #changingdiabetes right there.
Off again. Benny was not saying much about my time cushion other than “you’re good”. As me and my team had discussed hours ago on the shore of Lake Tahoe, if I could control my pace in the first half of the race, Tiffany and Benny could motivate me and drive me on as my body tired for the last 38 miles. I trusted them completely. We also knew this tactic would mean passing runners who were now falling apart towards the end of the race.
Sure enough, this was happening. Seven spots had been taken in a few miles since Green Gate. Our pace was nothing to blow anyone’s mind but to me it felt great, to others around us it, it probably looked great, and that’s all that mattered. I knew I wasn’t going to see any of these people again until after the race. I knew the pacing for the last twenty miles had to be between 15-18 minute miles from memory and we were running most of this, so I figured we were going 10’s. If that was right, we were banking loads of time.
Brown’s Bar aid station could be heard from far away. These guys were here to party first, volunteer second! The speakers blared out The Killers as we crossed a tiny bridge decorated with Christmas lights (yes, really, this one topped the aliens – I was not hallucinating!) to the aid. I sat in the chair. The chair was fast becoming a mini reward for making the next aid station. Benny and a volunteer grabbed me more chicken noodle soup and cups of broth. Lots of them, my appetite was back to an extent.
The station was sponsored by Rogue Valley Runners from Ashland, OR. Owner (and WS racer) Hal Koerner was probably tucked up in bed at this point (he probably was but unfortunately with a DNF at the river). I talked excitedly about my upcoming trip out there in August. Benny was probably wondering why the hell I was talking about a future trip to Oregon during my Western States race! It didn’t make sense to have a random conversation about Oregon, where to go, what to do etc but that’s how relaxed I felt about my race at that time. I was definitely on the upswing.
Benny was anything but freaking out that I was sitting down and taking my time. I didn’t know it at the time but I had more than doubled my cushion time since Auburn Lake Trails. The only thing I needed to do better was get my glucose lower. As if 88 miles wasn’t enough to wear you out, now my sugar wasn’t coming down below 200.
Benny and me discussed the numbers again and took a bolus of insulin. We ideally wanted this number back at 150 range ASAP. The route to Highway 49 aid would be a mix of descending, flat and ascending. The pace remained steady with some confidence to it. And why not? Ten miles to go and Benny kept reassuring me the silver buckle was locked up, no matter how many times I asked him!
We crossed the road into Highway 49. US flags led us into a cheering frenzy. It was 2:30 in the morning but you wouldn’t have guessed it. Sean grabbed me a chair. Blood test. Glucose was back on target with 130. This was surely diabetic runners high right? I had iced water and iced Gatorade in my handhelds in no time. We were about to leave and I asked Sean, “Where’s Tiffany?”. “Um..you wore her out. She’s sleeping in the car” he said. We smirked although I knew she would be upset she missed me here. I would see them at mile 99 for the final push. 6.7 miles to go and the silver buckle was safe. Dream locked up!
We marched out of the aid. “OK, Benny” I said. “We have 6.7 miles to go. I have an hour and a half to do 6.7 miles right for sub-23, correct?”. Benny paused. I don’t think he wanted to tell me what he had already been planning since Green Gate. “Yep, that’s right” he said. “So, are we going to do this or what?!!” I said. It hadn’t crossed my mind until then, that I was cutting myself short with a sub-24 goal!
Before I could get too excited though, we had to climb a long hill but from that point on, it was gradual downhill all the way through grasslands to the famous No Hands Bridge. We didn’t mess around! I almost tripped a couple of times on some rocks and had to slow it down to avoid a potential wipe out. My fear came from cramping up rather than actually taking a layer of skin off. The legs were really stiff and heavy, the earlier mountains had done their damage on them. The section to No Hands Bridge was only three miles long but the last mile seemed to drag as the bridge just wasn’t coming into sight. When we did eventually catch a glimpse of it, we shouted out a couple of “woots” of pure excitement.
We had already discussed en route here, no more blood tests at any of the aid stations, refill bottles at No Hands Bridge and go. Time was precious if we were going to break 23 hours. Tiffany and Sean were there to our surprise. It was awesome. I told her, we were going to try to break 23 hours. She kind of already knew by the clock and the urgency Benny was putting on me to keep going. We ran off over No Hands Bridge, the lowest point of elevation of the course but with runners high. 3.3 miles to go. We were on a mission!
I still had lots of work to do. Benny and me discussed it plenty. We knew a 14-minute pace would seal the deal. Easy right? Well, we had to climb all the way up to Robie Point aid (where Tiffany and Sean would meet us for the final mile) which would leave 16 minutes of time remaining to cover the last 1.3 miles. If I only had 10 minutes, I was going to go for it I told Benny, but I would rather work at almost maximal effort now and relax for the last mile and enjoy mile 100 with everyone.
I didn’t mind changing my technique as running was really exhausting but the power hiking was losing me time (or so I thought). We caught six more runners and powered on through them. They were all pretty toast. I was close (to toast) but my new-found goal of sub-23 was driving me on like no tomorrow!
We heard cow bells at the top of the climb. Robie Point. In and out, without stopping. I checked the watch. 24 minutes to cover 1.3 miles! My body relaxed, I felt euphoric. We hiked the asphalt road following the orange spray-painted feet that I’m sure are for Western States? (we had been following yellow ribbons and glow sticks up to now). Tiffany and Sean met us at the crest of the hill and we did a mini-celebration. I think this is when Benny told me he had the pace sheet the whole time but didn’t want me to see it!!
We walked fast but didn’t need to. All the work had been done and this was now the moment to enjoy the occasion. I thanked everyone again and again for all their hard work. If I didn’t have such great friends who were organized and committed to the race, the sub-23 wouldn’t have even been a talking point. The bonus of going under one more hour is credited to them and I include my other team-mates, Matt and Laura in that as well.
We ran a section of the mile. I knew from watching countless Western States videos, you turn left and then a second left, through a narrow gate and onto the famous Placer High School track to the white finish arch wrapped in flags from across the world. In between left turns, I wanted to see the next left so bad. Marshall’s were there to show us just that turn I wanted along with a few die-hard locals who were staying up all night to cheer us home.
Onto the track we went for the 250m finale. I looked across the field and saw the famous white arch with my own eyes. It seemed surreal. Was this really happening?! This moment was special, really special. It turned the bend and ran down the final stretch and across the line shouting in celebration. 22 hours 53 minutes. I had believed in my dream that sub-24 could happen and achieved it. The sub-23 was just the icing on the cake to without doubt, the run of my life.
Tim Tweitmeyer was working the ‘graveyard shift’ handing out finisher medals. It was great to meet him. A true legend of ultrarunning winning 5 of his 25 sub-24 finishes at Western States. What a great person to receive my medal from!
I celebrated with the crew and crawled into a white plastic chair at the finish line. My glucose was 110. Nailed that too. Will someone please wake me up now?! A couple of others snuck-in under sub-23 which was awesome to witness. I went off to do some heart rate testing with the John Moores Sport Science team. Within minutes of the tests starting, my body just broke down completely; shivering and cramping everywhere. The new goal for my crew was to get me to bed! And so we did just that.
I found out later that day I came in the top 50 men spots (60th overall). It took a few days for everything to sink in and while hobbling around NYC with two banged up blistered feet, it finally hit me how perfect everything went, how precious health is and to stick your neck out there and try to achieve great personal things, not matter how small and inconsequential they are to others.
I’ve had days and now weeks (yes this blog is very late) to reflect on everything from Western States. I’ve had conversations with Tiffany, Benny, Matt and others about what’s next and when. What does this all of this mean anyway?
For starters, my confidence has sky rocketed. I knew I could do it. Even with the hot conditions, I was adamant it could be accomplished, but I still had to execute the plan. I’m a few hours (8 to be precise) shy of winning the thing, but I know I can do better. Not just in Western States or 100 mile races, in everything. I know I can work harder, work faster and keep pushing the limits. Because all that limits do are hold you back.
I already know that my diabetes doesn’t limit me. I’m excited to explore this “no limits” attitude in life and future races starting with my first 100K distance race in Colorado at the end of September. I’ll probably have a dream about it soon and hope to make that one come true too.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
The start of the week leading up to departing for California were fueled with lists, packing and re-packing. I really had no idea what the weather would be like at midnight or 3am during the run so was packing every item of running clothing from spare singlets to a winter hat and gloves. I’m an over-packer regardless but this trip was not the one to be stingy on any one single item I might crave (you can read that as cry for) at mile 80. The one really worrying piece of clothing not packed, not even in my possession still, were my running shoes! A couple of fresh pairs of Brooks Pure Grit 2 were clearly going the scenic route from Seattle, WA to NYC. Thanks FedEx, just what I didn’t need!
My toy store (REI Soho) proved my saviour. The sales rep confirmed slightly confused I really wanted two pairs of the same shoe on Tuesday evening. When I confirmed and said it was for an upcoming race, he replied “Huh, must be some race”. I smiled, agreed and went home to pack them.
I had a great appointment at Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center Wednesday morning. My nurse Emily and I discussed the upcoming race in detail and compared my results from Leadville for guidance. We agreed on one main change. Reduce the basal level of insulin less than for a normal 8-mile run or marathon. This is due to two facts. My energy expenditure level is far less over 100 miles and I needed to make sure my BG levels were not too high so I could eat along the way to bring in calories. I would need to intake 250-300 calories per hour. To top off my visit, my A1c had dropped again; 6.3. Could life get better? Yes, I was flying out to Western States!
Tiffany and I flew out to Reno, NV that evening. It would give us two full days to get settled. But once at La Guardia, we heard immediately of our delayed plane. It was back to being anxious again (just like those shoes!). We questioned if we would get stuck in Denver for the night (our transfer city) and looked at other flight options to get us out to California direct. As per usual with flying, we really didn’t have any control over this. The biggest stress and question was, when would we now get to Squaw Valley?
We landed in Denver over two hours late. Luckily, we’re both runners. A two-minute dash through the Rocky Mountains airport and a delayed second flight equaled a couple of delighted travelers high-fiving at gate 38. We would make it to Reno. We sat on the plane and I cheekily asked Tiffany if she enjoyed her first ever time in Colorado.
We landed in Reno at midnight, 3am east coast time. It had definitely been an ultra just
getting here. Yes I was tired but Reno-Tahoe airport is like a crazy dream. You get off the plane and immediately step onto wildly dated Aztec carpet with more slot machines than waiting seats. My highlight though was the taxidermy display of ram goats. OK, it was definitely time for bed. This idiot was delirious.
We woke up early, I inserted a new CGM site (so it would be at its most accurate for the race) and tried to bring my blood glucose down slightly. Stress, traveling and time zones play some games with blood glucose. We departed Reno on four wheels. A quick trip to Walgreens to get some water for the 90 minute road trip to Squaw Valley turned into a mass assault for anything and everything we would need for the race; fold away chairs, bug spray, Gatorade, Coke, Red Bull, an ice cooler, chips and chocolate! In a way, we were pleased it was done before we got over excited with all the build-up to come at race headquarters.
We chose a more scenic drive west which added thirty minutes (and probably thirty photos). We winded up Mount Rose and descended the other side to the north rim of Lake Tahoe. Neither of us had ever been here and we were uncontrollably excited with the beauty of the Californian great outdoors; huge pine trees, mountains with snow caps and of course, Lake Tahoe. The “vacation” had now firmly begun.
We drove through the vacation town of Tahoe City (where we would stay) and drove the five-mile stretch of gradual incline to Squaw Valley ski resort. Our plan was to be at the peak of the mountain for a Western States opening ceremony at noon. We had the option to hike the four miles up (2,550ft) or take the tram which would save the legs. I used my head and saved the legs. Even after we reached the top of the tram ride at High Camp, we still had to hike another mile (550ft of gain) to get to the ceremony at Emigrant Pass – the highest part of the WS course at 8,750ft elevation. I felt a slight lack of oxygen on the climb but really quite minor. The views were as warned, epic. It felt like I was back in Colorado. I feel relaxed on the mountains in the summertime. I cannot explain how or why I find such joy. I don’t need to analysis it in detail, I just know I am happiest here. Tiffany ran most of the mountain up and tested out altitude for the first time. I dared her to run a big section of uphill thinking she would bail and of course she did not just to prove me wrong! Two peas in a pod.
The ceremony was packed full of Western States veterans, today’s best (Andy Jones-Wikins, Ian Sharman and Ellie Greenwood I spotted) and many first timers and their families. We could see the huge alpine country to the west and Lake Tahoe to the east. We were standing in between large patches of snow, still clinging onto their last few days. Seeing the snow seemed weird to me. It was the end of June and the temperature was in the mid-90’s.
Tiffany got a workout in by running the four-mile stretch down the mountain to Squaw. I hiked back the mile to the tram casually. I was definitely jealous but knew I had to be smart. She even beat me to the bottom! We spent the afternoon off our feet at some really important and worthwhile meetings. Cue, Walgreens fold away chairs.
A ‘crew’ clinic helped confirm our team plan for where to go to on the course and where not too. Tiffany scribbled notes as I tried to not stare too hard at the veteran talker’s silver belt buckle. She had it all worked out anyway; where to drive, when to be there and of course she knew her pacing leg from Foresthill (62) to Green Gate (80) by heart. She let me relax, she was fully on top of this. My other two crew members were Benny Madrigal from Team Novo Nordisk. A Californian who I regard as one of the fastest 5K to marathon runners of our twenty-something team. He has run trails all his life and would be my pacer from Green Gate to the finish. Sean McPherson and I met during The North Face DC 50K race in 2012. We placed 1st and 3rd but didn’t know we were both type 1 diabetics until months after the race. He would be a key crew member for me as he knew the course inside out (his parent’s live near Auburn). The third person also meant, they would all get some sleep.
The course meeting gave me some great tips, I otherwise would not have thought of/known. 1) don’t carry a full hydration pack of water up the first four miles, you can top up at Escarpment (first aid station). 2) run the first 30 miles to Robinson’s Flat super super easy and eat often. 3) put ice everywhere! The forecast was showing 101-102 degrees. Put ice in your bladder, bottles, cap, neck scarf, down your back etc and do it often. 4) cool off in the rivers of the canyons. Rather than cross the bridges and climb straight out of the 115+ degree canyon, go down the trail a bit further and cool off for a couple of minutes. I also got various stats on how long climbs were, where medical weigh-in’s were, where most people drop from the race (I ignored this part) etc.
The final meeting (Veteran’s panel discussion) of the day was one not to miss. It was a gem. The host was Andy Jones-Wilkins (AJW), a seven time Top-10 WS finisher. The panel consisted of Gordy Ainsleigh (the grandfather of ultrarunning), Tim Twietmeyer (25 time WS finisher, 5 time WS winner), Ellie Greenwood (2 for 2 at WS and current course record holder) and Ann Trason (14-time WS winner amongst many other women’s records).
The advice was priceless. Well, Gordy kept talking about wanting beer on the course which I think is probably a no-go by the lawyers but it definitely loosened up the audience. The main subject was “heat”. We all had this fear now that we were not only going to be running the most famous ultra race of them all; Western States (many for the first and only time), but we were going to have to do it in fiercely hot temperatures, especially down in the canyons around the middle of the day. I had been on the fence about how to hydrate for the race; with two hand-held bottles or my backpack. Ellie talked hydration and sealed the deal for me saying “better to have too much water than too little”. I would run with the pack (50oz bladder and a 20oz bottle) for the first 62 and then switch to two 20oz handhelds with my pacers for the evening/night-time running which would cool off a little.
Tim warned about personal goal times and now was the time to adjust those. It felt like Boston Marathon ’12 heat wave all over again. “Don’t adjust your times by 10-30 minutes, adjust it by three hours” he warned. I looked over at Tiffany and said “I’m not adjusting my goal (sub-24)”. She look slightly concerned for my well-being. I knew in my head, if the conditions had have been cool, let’s call them ‘perfect’, I could perhaps run the course in 21 hours. That is a huge perhaps, as I only have one 100 under my belt and that was 28 hours. I used this completely irrational unknown fact to ignore Tim’s advice (sorry Tim). Let me emphasize my mental state; I did not come here for anything less than the “one-day” silver WS buckle.
Ann Trason, shamefully urged runners that when they would go through a rough patch (which we all would) vomiting could actually be a good idea to reset the ‘stomach button’. Some cringed, some laughed. I took note, although, I have never been sick while running. The general advice though was, never stop moving forward. Just keep going. I left Squaw glowing. We drove back to Tahoe City to check-in at the hotel and relax. This would be my last chance to get one more decent night of rest.
WS-eve. We grabbed breakfast on the lake before driving back to Squaw. Benny and Matt fro the team were now in tow having arrived late Thursday evening. I met up with the Sports Science department from my old university (Liverpool John Moores) as a volunteer for a heart study they were conducting at the race. Pre- and post-EKG analysis and ultrasound studies. I have always been interested in the heart and it was great to have a chat with some fellow Brits, seeing who still worked at the university from my time there. I would see them again at the finish line in a completely different state!
A ‘fun-run’ was kicking off at 10am. Being WS, this was a bit more than your 5k local town race though. Montrail (the WS sponsor) were putting on the 2nd annual 6K Uphill Challenge which follows the WS course. Benny and Tiffany picked up their numbers and were going to race it hard. I went back and forth on whether this was such a good idea to do but Matt reassured me “Do it with me, we will hike it at the back of the pack real easy”. Done deal. And I didn’t regret it.
Being the first few miles of the WS course, it helped me understand what pace I would need to do this at tomorrow to hit Escarpment (3.5 miles) in 55 minutes, which is 24 hour pace. We walked, hiked and ran small sections of flat, making many new friends along the way. I even bumped into Nick Polito (a fellow Brooks runner) as he was descending the mountain. Running is such a small and oh so friendly world.
We never saw Benny. I think he sprinted the whole thing and came top 10! Tiffany was ecstatic at the top too. She had come 3rd or 4th woman and loved it. I feel some more trail running is around the corner for her! Me and Matt made it in 45 minutes. My 6k PR!! So, it told me, I could hike this ten minutes slower tomorrow and be on pace. That was really good information to have without wearing myself out. We grabbed the tram back down and met up with Ryan Jones (my team-mate also running WS) and his wife Robyn for lunch.
I did my pre-race check-in which was super fun. I bumped into ultra legends Hal Koerner, Mike Morton and Timmy Olson who are all great guys and super approachable. As Matt reminded me, name any other sport where you get to compete with the best in the world? I even snagged an official pre-race bib photo with Timmy which was awesome! My weight was 177lbs and that got marked on my yellow wristband. This stat was an important one. Just like blood glucose levels need to be steady so does your weight in ultrarunning. I would need to eat and drink smart to stay around 177 and therefore increase my chances of having a great race.
We split from Squaw mid-afternoon and did the famous grocery store run for last-minute food items and breakfast. One last team meeting on the shore of Lake Tahoe and a ‘final supper’. A grabbed a beer to try to take the edge off what was about to unfold. I was hopeful I could get some sleep but I wasn’t convinced.
I was tucked up in bed by 9pm but not done quite yet. I ran the numbers one more time for each aid station arrival, calculating average pace per section. I’m very scientific, maybe too much so, but it comforted me to know my pacing variations over the course I would need to hold for sub-24. I wrote these notes on my elevation graph print out, taped it (to waterproof it) and put it in my race shirt side pocket. I would carry this with me and focus on the numbers to a) try to hold my pace back and b) to ultimately achieve a dream of mine for a long time – to complete the Western States 100 with a one-day buckle. Lights were out by 10pm. Time to dream.
Walking under the start/finish blow-up North Face arch at Algonkian Park ( a few miles upstream of DC) brings back fond memories from last year. I surprisingly won the 50K event here, by far my biggest “W” and was back. This was to be no defend my belt day though, I was cranking it up a notch to “the big boys” 50 mile race as my running friend Kino would say. I needed a second 50 mile race in my legs for Western States 100 and with four weeks to go, this made a lot of sense.
I had a plan for the race. It was fairly straight forward. 9/min mile would get me in at 7 hours 30 minutes and a top 5 place based on previous results. Midweek leading up to the race, DC (and New York for that matter) got hit with heat wave temperatures in the 90’s and humidity sky-high to boot.
Knowing this didn’t throw me off my time goal but I did begin to toss around different ideas with people of how to run in such heat. I hate the heat but part of me was secretly happy. Western States 100 will be hot, probably hotter so in terms of ‘training’, the conditions were going to be a great test for me out there. The best advice came from my Novo Nordisk teammate, Matt Patrick. “Run em while you can” he said on the plane ride down their meaning run your miles before it gets too hot you have no choice but to walk. The race begun at 5am so I had at least two or three hours of cooler temps (if you can call 70’s-80’s cooler!) before the sun was to rise and the sauna was to kick in.
My new plan was to run 8/min miles early for as long as possible, maybe to the Great Falls aid at 19 miles. By the time the sun was beaming down on us, I would have a gap on competitors who would have to work really hard to catch me. If I was out of sight an albeit a mess, I still might pull off a good time and placing.
Now, most of my friends disagreed with this plan calling it borderline suicide or not saying anything and just pulling me the ‘ug face’. I think part of their disagreement made me want to experiment with this kamikaze idea even more. Something is definitely wrong with me!
My BG was a shy over 200 at 4:45am. I had been managing it closely since 2am when I gave up on sleeping and got the pre-race routine going. I diluted my Gatorade hand-held bottle down slightly. No backpack today – another experiment, also a big risk because of the heat but after the back pains I got during Bear Mountain lugging around 70oz rather than 20oz (a handheld bottle weight) I wanted to feel as light as possible, especially with my aggressive start. )The DC race course is set up far better for refueling with the biggest gap between aid stations being a shy under 7 miles compared to Bear too).
My other teammates (Matt, Ryan and Benny) were still asleep at the hotel with later start times for the 50k and marathon races. I did not mind one bit getting going so early though. I would have taken 4am if I could! I stood at the front of the start line near Michael Wardian (The North Face athlete with too many accolades to list here) He was being announced by the MC, a clear favorite to win the race in my eyes.
We blazed out of the start into the field. Down a dip, up a dip, along flat grass surrounded by waist-high grass – it felt very Cross Country like. I ran on the heals of the leader. The pace felt really easy. I think it was 7 minute miles.
Wardian came by. I re-introduced myself after we had briefly met at JFK50 (my first 50) in 2011. We begun too small talk, dead easy guy to talk too. We ran the long flat section south and the leader joined in the conversation as we now ran as three with several others hanging behind.
A lollipop extension around a pond was a new part of the course to me. (This is not part of the 50K course). As we returned to the main stretch we passed the first aid stop. I struggled to find the water section rather than sodas (way too early for that!) and immediately I fell off the back with no one else stopping to refuel. I knew carrying water bottles I would have to stop more but didn’t expect everyone else to blaze ahead and wait until mile 8.5 aid.
At first, I thought they were gone but within a few minutes staying at a good pace and not trying to run anything but my pace, I had jumped back on to them as we went up and down the banks along the golf course. No golfers were up this early to see the shenanigans of our race. Last year, I remember we got some funny looks during the 50K!
The more people spoke, the more I got to know my company. In the lead, a guy who had just paced David Riddle (JFK50 2011 champ etc etc) to a 50M win, Michael Wardian, Nikki Campbell’s (The North Face athlete) pacer and then a quiet, serious runner decked out in North Face gear, arguably the most intriguing of the four. He was all business. For that, I decided to call him Ivan Drago, the Russian nemesis from Rocky! And then there was me. What was I doing here?! Well, it felt great and I was having fun so I stood my ground and went with the plan.
We reached the first climbs around mile 10. This would be the end of the road for the gang of five. Instantly, the top 2 ran the hill. I knew my endurance level and hiked it hard instead. Nikki Campbell’s pacer (who I later found out to be Dennis Ball- we have several mutual friends) tried to keep up, saw I was right behind hiking and quickly followed suit. Rocky’s rival followed.
Several short but steep up and downs followed as we hiked and ran south, the Potomac River on our left, water flowing down towards the capital. This was a fun section, possibly my favorite. A stream crossing was ankle-deep. the same crossing was waist deep the prior year. What a hugely different experience this was on the exact same course.
I now sat in clear third but had lost sight of the front two. I was clipping off 7:15’s and that was definitely better than I had hoped for. The sun was rising fast and he heat too. I ran through six-foot tall grass, turned a corner and saw Wardian to the side of the trail ‘watering the plants’. I ran by. Whoa. Hold that thought. I ran by Michael Wardian.
I’m a big advocate of saying race yourself, not others. Your placing is merely determined by who does or does not turn up on any given day. But, this was Michael Wardian. I had to pinch myself that I was ahead of him running in 2nd place a third of the way into the race.
I ran through an open field and used the space to have a quick look back to see what was going on. Rocky’s arch nemesis was there but not Mike.
On a flat and then long descent I stretched my legs to try to get a nicer gap on the rest. I ran into the Great Falls aid station (mile 18) in 2nd. I met my girlfriend there. I think she wanted to tell me I was going too fast but instead smiled and said I was doing great. Like clockwork, we wiped my sweaty hands down, did a blood test (144) and refueled for the first of three Great Falls loops. But just like that, I was back in 4th. Both North Face runners were really efficient at Great Falls aid and were off.
I climbed the long hill road steadily as I watched Wardian pull away slowly. By the time we hit the top, I was back on my own. On paper, the Great Falls loop looks like a maze but in reality if you just follow the arrows, it’s not rocket science.
At the first of two turn around points, I saw a teenager sitting by a traffic cone with earphones in showing little interest of the race. Probably the son of a super keen runner/volunteer Dad I assumed. He pointed at the cone and mumbled. I paused and looked at him and said “This is the turn around?”. He nodded. “Really? Are you sure? Positive?” It felt wrong “Did see two runners ahead?” He jumped off his perched rock and ran off to find them.
I turned back and felt like I had cheated my placing back into 2nd. But this was not my fault. Within a mile, Wardian was back. He joked he wasn’t having he best day with a long pit-stop and then this mis-hap. The gap on first was already quite large at mile 23, he had a lot of work to do. Off he went again to push on. I just felt great to be running almost up to a marathon with someone of his caliber. I was waiting to blow up but really enjoying being up front that my confidence was growing and my body followed suit.
After the second turn-around point (people marked your bib as proof you made it, EMT was there and a full aid station – quite the contrast!) a fun descent followed with a few tricky rocks at the lowest point. This led us back to the river and to the most scenic but also treacherous part of the course – the Great Falls cliffs. Diagonal dagger rocks spread the trail and the use of hands became important. My hand-held went subconsciously back in my right hand in case of the worst happening. Tip-toeing through the rocks, I chose a safe controlled pace. This helped my heart rate lower as I slowed the intensity.
One loop done and back at the aid station. Blood glucose steady and off again. My Rocky friend nipped ahead of me pushing me back to 4th just like last time I was here. The climb was tougher but almost all runnable still.
The turn around point was now greeted with three mounted bikes, three adults and a sulky teenager who had clearer got an earful for letting two of the lead runners go past the cone and up the hill off the course! It was a pretty amusing site.
On the return to the spine of the loop you pass all the competition. This is all mind games stuff, looking at each other straight in the eyes to see if they are tired, broken or just god damn having a great day. I opted for the latter every time I had this opportunity. I hiked/ran sections now but was wary not to do so much of the hiking near my competition.
A shirtless duo were working well behind me and I feared them for a few miles since I first spotted them earlier on loop one. By the time I had clocked a marathon under my feet, they were heading on by and looked strong. I now lay in 6th.
Coming back to the aid for the final loop, I felt OK. I was running well, albeit loosing a couple of places. My glucose continued to sit tight, right in the mid-100’s. The course was now busy with two races, mine and the 50K. I overtook some of the back of the pack runners up the climb, who were not enjoying the long hill and complaining to me! I just shrugged and said “almost there”. Why complain? Negative thoughts won’t get you very far.
Wardian ran by me fully in the zone, followed by the silent assassin who still didn’t want to even say hello to me and then there were the twins looking very comfortable working as one. The turn around (for those interested) was now decorated with a natural road block (tree branches!) and an again lonesome and still sulky teenager. I kind of wanted to do a bonus loop for the next display!
I noted I had about three guys behind me but my gap was definitely a few minutes on each of them. The initial nods of heads from the first loop were now replaced with more fiery stares looking for any sign of weakness in me. But I knew they had to now push up a gear to get me and the heat was now my friend and their foe.
I was drinking really smart. 20oz (my entire hand-held water bottle) between every aid station. This worked out to be about every 30 minutes. Just to make sure I was cool enough, I was grabbing the water out of the volunteers hands and pouring it over me. The only negative of being this wet meant my CGM sensor fell out of my stomach so I was now reliant on actual blood tests for the remainder of the race.
I caught up with Ryan towards the end of the final loop. He was not having his best day with the heat really getting to him. Sensibly, he chose to run it in easy and save his energy for Western States down the road.
The idea of being paced for some of the race had been tossed around and I wasn’t that keen. I’m extremely stubborn and don’t ask for help very much I guess. But when Tiffany gave me a fresh bottle of Gatorade, more food for the umpteenth time at Great Falls with a pacer bib on standby should I want her help, it was an easy answer.
Off we went, 18 miles to go back to Algonkian Park. We ran along the riverbed getting cheered on by the Great Falls spectators. We soon took a left and cranked up a tough climb.
Benny flew by us in first place of the marathon as we had all predicted. He was a white blur of awesomeness. Tiffany and me counted minutes between him and 2nd. It took the distraction away from my pain and race for a few minutes at least. My whole body was worn out. No cramping and my lungs felt great but my limbs and torso just ached tremendously.
We reached the open field and walked sections that I would run on any other day. Was now the time the wheels were going to fall off and drop back twenty places? I did my best to keep my mind from such negative thoughts. I didn’t want to be thinking like the runners who were complaining earlier.
Running became less and less an option in the mid-30 miles. Downhills and sunshine spots, without a doubt were running territory but flats were becoming a real issue. Luckily, we hit the climbs next so I could break up the pacing between hiking and letting gravity take me back down into the valleys.
We caught up to some 50K runners. Every time I spotted someone, I hoped it was 5th but by now, I knew what and who they were. We reached my teammate, Matt and he was having an OK day but nothing heroic for him. We talked for a while in single file as I happily slowed to his pace to regroup. Tiffany departed back to Great Falls before she got stuck too far along the trail. Her surprise pacing section really helped keep me going strong.
After half a mile, walking and talking with Matt, I had decided that I had recovered enough and didn’t want anyone to gain too much time on me.
I shot off and wished Matt well. I had about 12 miles to go and all I could focus on was where the next aid station was. For what felt like miles and miles, I was hoping it was the next corner or the next or I would hear voices. My memory from 5:45am was faint, the same as how I felt. I was walking way more than I would have liked. I kept knocking back more water, kept throwing in the S-caps (salt capsules). I was holding up but it was a real fight five inches between my ears.
Finally the aid station came. I grabbed the water and gave myself a shower. Grabbed some chews and received my bottle back from a volunteer. And out. I had not been that efficient at an aid stop all day. My watch told me I was still ahead of my goal time. My average pace was around 8:45’s now. Having not seen 5th for miles, I was content with my place. I was even so wiped that if 7th had made a go at it, they could have taken it.
At the lollipop loop with 4 to go, the sun blazed down on me by the lake and I was pretty much done for the day. Then, Benny calls from behind and catches up to me. He’s still leading the marathon but not looking as good as he had done on his way out to the turnaround point.
Without much thought, I caught back up trying to go his pace. Even, if it was just for a few hundred yards. The fire came back, we started working together. I knew I had to dig deeper to stick with him through to the finish. And then, Benny stopped. He walked, he groaned in his own agony. Good to know he is human. I was now the one telling Benny to keep going, encouraging him to dig deep.
We came back to the main stretch of the lollipop and saw 5th running towards us. He asked where to go, clearly lost and panicking. He followed me and Benny. (I was less than convinced he had run the lollipop at this point).
At the turn by the aid, we had 2.5 to go. Benny was still struggling and took in more fluid than me at the aid. I was ready to go, he wasn’t and now I had 5th place up for grabs. He was staring at me in the face! 5th ran ahead. It was a tough call but I waited for Benny. We had agreed to help each other home without really saying it verbally.
A long, long straight followed. Benny put on his after burners and caught up to the guy ahead. I’m not sure where he found that energy but I had to try to do the same.
I took off and gave everything. I recall seeing 6:30’s on my watch. I passed 5th and this time with utter purpose. The problem with this, was I got so pumped that I blew past Benny too! I kept going at that pace all the way down the straight. I pretended to myself that the finish was right at the end of the straight. It was lactate threshold excruciating! I didn’t dare turn to show 6th my worry but I really wanted to make sure Benny was coming right behind.
I reached the end of the straight, an absolute mess. Definitely sub-6’s down that stretch. I stopped, turned and prayed Benny was close and not 6th place. Why did I doubt him? As Benny got to me, I looked back and saw an orange dot that signaled game over. It was almost in the bag, a top 5 place.
We stayed side by side on the golf cart down to the car park, crossed the road and made the sharp left under the finish chute. I let Benny have his moment. He had crushed the field and the marathon course record too.
I cruised in behind and was ecstatic to take 5th in the 50 miler, a year after winning the 50K. There’s something about DC racing (my marathon PR is still from Marine Corps down the road).
Benny and me celebrated, completely exhausted. Tiffany dragged me off. I knew I needed shade and found some in a tent. I collapsed there for a while, my body was in bits. I had really hammered those last four miles with Benny but to grab another place and see him win was well worth it.
This was a great race. A real moral boost for me after a disappointing 50 at Bear. I didn’t like the heat at Bear but this heat and humidity was way higher and I coped really well in it. I thought I didn’t like the heat. Maybe I just do well in bad conditions? This is all good feedback, looking forward to ‘The Big Dance’ in California. Temperatures are predicted to be in the 100’s and likely hotter in the canyons.
I say “Bring.It.On!” Another fantastic weekend with my Novo Nordisk teammates. We shall all regroup in 4 weeks at Squaw Valley, CA and do it all over again, just a few miles more with a bit more heat. Can’t wait.
P.S. Wardian won. I’ll get him next time ; )
Ice was the news we heard from Rick McNulty, Race Director and owner of NJ Trail Series. “Add 20-30 minutes onto each loop (10 miles)” he wrote on the Facebook group page. Jeez.
A midweek detour to Paragon Sports saved the day with the swift purchase of some Yaktrax for me and Gary. Gary asked me “Are we going to really come 1 and 2?” To which I responded “We’ve got Yaktrax!”
After walking the mile from the Maplewood train station in rural New Jersey to the 2,110 acre South Mountain Reservation we were completely spent! Our Achilles were on fire. We were not warned the walk was uphill the whole way. Warm up; done!
We checked in and watched the fellow, more hardcore runners doing the 50k and 50m who had already started. I was observing everyone. We’re runners wearing Yaktrax or spikes? How many layers were they wearing? Hat, no hat? Gloves no gloves? I could go on but I’ll spare you!
I asked the RD his view on Yaktrax. He thought about it for a while. I was kind of hoping for a confident quick answer. He shouted to a female runner in Yaktrax “Hey, Yaktrax. Good idea?” She replied “YES!” Case closed. On they went and we lined up at the start with 60 or so other 20 milers.
The guy next to me crouched down waiting for the “go” as if he was running the 800m! And then he took off like it too. Our group followed and questioned whether he knew it was 20 miles rather than meters. But the really crazy thing to me was, he wore no spikes or tracks, not even trail shoes. He wore Brooks Pure Connects, a shoe I would choose for a road race.
We ran the first mile on road. I told Gary this was the worst trail race I had ever run! And then we turned left.
A steep descent on a single track trail with patches of ice and rocks and roots. This was what is all about. We then climbed out of the valley and started crossing cold streams, tip toeing through technical sections of rock and ice packed ground. Some ascents and descents were covered in a smooth layer of ice. The Yaktrax were a dream on this. I was so grateful we had these.
Someone was on my heals as I followed Gary through the wooded trail. I didn’t like this feeling. Either pass or back off because I refused to go any faster in case of adding a new war wound to my legs. Finally he passed and went quickly ahead just like the 800m runner did at the very start.
Me and Gary observed, took note and then shared ” We’ll see him later”. We climbed a long hill. It got steeper but felt wrong to walk. This wasn’t an ultra after all. But the hill kept going and the incline increasing.
I begun to walk. We could go the same pace as running it but keeping our heart rate a lot lower so at the crest we would be ready to run again. If anyone wanted to run past here, it would be hugely likely that when the course became runnable again we would pass them by with ease.
We ran back to the start finish in even 3rd place, 4 miles in. Now we had the bigger 6 mile loop to get us halfway. We descended a hill, very runnable with much less ice. We got faster and faster really enjoying the chance to stretch out legs and get some time back.
We then realized that there was nobody around us and more alarming, we hadn’t seen an orange arrow in the snow or pink ribbon on a tree for a while. It felt wrong to stop and question it but we had to ascend to find the last marker. We climbed the hill we had just bombed down briskly searching like two golf hackers looking for the little white ball amongst trees and shrubs. Finally I saw a pink ribbon ahead and then we saw a couple of runners turn off down a different path, one we never knew existed.
The key here was not to panic. We had 15 miles to correct our mistake so sprinting now was pointless. We caught them over time. One guy we passed was all “what? how? huh?” towards me. I pointed the finger ahead giving Gary full blame for getting us lost! In truth, it was an equal mistake. We missed what was actually about five pink ribbons and ten orange arrows in the snow telling us to go right!
After a very icy descent the trail flattened out. It become very runnable for long sections with manageable smaller climbs. We turned right into an open field and passed the other aid station. I had just popped a gel and had no interest in any liquid so stayed on the dirt path towards the next wooded area. We saw a new face look at us wearing all grey. He left the aid station like he had just stolen something! I said to Gary that’s 3rd place ahead. He wasn’t having it. I was convinced. There was no way that was a 50K runner and the 10 milers hadn’t even started yet. We lost one more spot than we thought from our mistake.
He never left our site for the next few miles. I could sense he was working hard to stay ahead. We passed an amazing frozen waterfall over a bridge and then climbed again. I caught him and passed by. Then the Yaktrax started to malfunction. I was slipping every left foot strike. I was convinced I had lost a Yaktrax. I looked down preparing to see my biggest fear of the day but it wasn’t that bad. It had hiked up my foot over my toes. I found a rock to perch over and adjust it back. 500 yards later, I felt a slip, looked down, same problem. I stopped a handful of times to fix this but knew I was in trouble. For starters, now it was happening on the right foot too. And secondly, I had 11 miles to go!
Grey guy and Gary both passed. They weren’t too far ahead and I knew Gary wasn’t going to take off anyway. We came through halfway in 4th and 5th in 1:24.
We re-hit the asphalt mile and discussed the game plan. We knew 1st place was gone, 2nd possibly too after all. But we could see third way ahead pushing the pace. Gary had no desire to pull him in, content that this was going to be a great 20 miler training run towards Boston. But I couldn’t resist the urge. Maybe it was the feeling I got from placing 4th last weekend. I didn’t want 4th again, I wanted 3rd. So we split here.
I kept my pace in line with the guy ahead. My Yaktrax were up to their old tricks but I decided at this point to fix them, only if I slipped, I couldn’t afford to stop every few minutes. We hit the steep descent on trail and I caught him almost immediately. I could hear his breathing and see his panic in his movements to stay ahead.
We shared pleasantries as I passed. He wasn’t even going to try to hang on and said “See you at the finish”. Was he serious? We had 8 miles to go here! Regardless if he was genuine or playing a game, I pushed on hard which was the right thing to do but most definitely in the wrong place. I was back in the most technical part of the course with ice, rocks, roots and streams to jump over. At one stream I fell in and almost crashed my legs onto the rocks as I crawled out the other side. And then there was an icy turn with a nice 40 foot drop off into some serious trouble.
14 miles in and I was back to the start/finish area again. I used the angle of a sharp left to glance quickly to see what was going on behind. The guy I had passed was still around. I had 300 yards on him. I knew the next section was fast and knew I needed a bigger gap so decided now was the time to go up a gear. Luckily I also knew to look for about five pink ribbons and ten orange arrows pointing me right!
I was catching the back of the 10 milers and had to wind my way through them respectfully. Running around people was fun. I encouraged them and vise versa. I love that about trail running, something road runners rarely do. I kept the effort high; running where I could and power hiking sections of the steeper hills. I kept some gas in reserve, in case I needed it for an attack from behind.
I ran passed the 15 mile aid station. I didn’t need any gels and had no urge to hydrate (a mistake really. Hot or cold conditions, my muscles would have appreciated some liquid in them). Down a long stretch and I passed a few more 10-milers enjoying the trail in flowing conversation. But this was a stark contrast to what I saw beyond them. A runner in red going pretty hard. I had caught up to second place.
I cranked the pace that much more on the downhill and swallowed him up. Thinking he may see me and jump on for a fight until the finish, I ran passed him hard. At the bottom of the stretch we turned a tight left over a narrow bridge. I looked left and saw he wasn’t going to be a factor. As I crossed the bridge, out of nowhere I saw my Team Novo Nordisk team-mate Ryan Jones (also training for Western States 100) coming the over way. We yelled some noise to each other and high-fived (I later found out he was telling me 1st place was only slightly ahead!).
I ran past the frozen waterfall one last time and climbed up the stretch of hill pretty confident I had 2nd in the bag now. After seeing how the leader had sprinted off at the start, I could only imagine he had finished and changed into dry clothes at this point.
I crossed a road which I recalled was approximately one mile of flat easy trail to go. I kept the pace up all the way home to finish in 2:44. A solid 20 mile run which felt like 25-26 on my legs due to the difficult conditions. I immediately bumped into the winner and congratulated him. I was surprised to hear we had the same finish time. I assured him (twice) he was wrong! But it was true. I lost out by 34 seconds but never saw him. I looked at his shoes and quickly reminded myself, he would have lapped me in Yaktrax! I had no feelings of defeat like last week.
I waited for Gary who came in only a couple of minutes behind in 4th. He didn’t care about his place, a smart runner that doesn’t get the urge to race just because he has a bib on. My blood tester wouldn’t immediately work post-race because the temperature was too cold! Changing proved a slow and skilled process with cold fingers and standing on a single shoe to avoid the mud. Yes, more core work trying to stay upright after 20 miles of it! Our clothes were absolutely drenched, so it was important to do so.
Ryan finished soon after and won the 50K. A great start to his 2013 campaign. I expect nothing less from him though. I hope we can run sections of Western States together in late June. We packed up and headed off. Another 20 miler locked into the training books (albeit a little different from Central Park). A good day at the running office. I was sure I was going to feel a few aches in my body the next day in places I didn’t knew existed. End note; I was right but it was oh so worth it!
I have spent a few more weeks than I had planned in my off-season; my right ITB told me to roll more, rest more. It’s given me time to reflect on an amazing 2012, appreciate being 100% healthy and like most runners in December-January; plan for an even more amazing 2013.
My “A” race stands out like a sore thumb, in a very very good way; Western States 100. As a first time entrant to the lottery system to the oldest and most prestigious 100 miler in the world, the chances of actually getting a place were between slim and none. I somehow got in. What is it with me and raffles in 2012? I don’t know but I need to be buying Mega Millions too. I’ll be rubbing shoulders with the best in the sport; Tim Olson, Ryan Sandes, Ellie Greenwood to name only a few. I will be fortunate enough to share this awesome experience with my Team Novo Nordisk teammate; Ryan Jones (a fellow LT100 finisher in 2012).
My second major race falls into a new distance. The 100K race is something yet to be tackled on my resume. I’ve seemed to found a fairly successful race distance between 50K and 50M; the “W” from The North Face in DC and my 16th place at JFK (both 2012) are my highlights to date. I was unable to enter the Ultra Race of Champions (UROC) event last year due to the date being a week apart from the Chicago Marathon. This year, no such marathon dilemma, it is fully on my radar. It will be my “A2” race if you will. The event, in it’s third year now, attracts the best athletes going after the biggest prize money in ultra running (not that I think I will get anywhere near the pot of gold!) It has moved from Virginia to Colorado for 2013. I don’t think I can resist the challenge of some thin mountain air on a great point to point course beginning in Breckenridge and finishing in Vail.
But, back to the start. I”ll kick things off with some winter training with a great and smart training partner; Gary Berard, and give Boston a good effort. It’s time to shave off some time from my PR of 2:45. Then, it will be full on trail season with a return to Bear Mountain for 50 miles and DC for the same distance (key fitness tests for Western States). I’m dabbling with Pocono Marathon in mid-May purely from a downhill elevation perspective (specificity training). Remaining races will no doubt happen on a whim to add the year. I haven’t figured out a half-marathon yet towards Boston for starters and I’m keen to tackle a Half-Ironman maybe towards the end of the year. I am really excited and ready to race alongside my team mates at Team Novo Nordisk and make this year the best one yet.
Here’s the calendar to date (bold=registered);
February 16th: Martha’s Vineyard 20-Miler, MA (tbd)
April 15th: Boston Marathon, MA
May 19th: Pocono Marathon, PA (tbd)
June 29th: Western States 100, Squaw Valley-Auburn, CA
July 20th: 20in24 Relay, Philadelphia, PA
September 28th: UROC 100K, Vail CO (tbd)
In September, I was honored to be asked by Will Sanchez to be on his show; ‘Gotta Run With Will’. Previous guests have included some local celebrities of the NYC running scene; Nicole Sin Quee, Francis Laros, Deanna Culbreath, Jonathan Cane and Terence Gerchberg. I had a great time being his guest discussing my running resume, managing diabetes and of course the Leadville 100 in honor of my Uncle Dave!
Will is a true part of NYC running. He has been a member of New York Road Runners since 2003, worked as a mentor with Team in Training (Leukemia and Lymphoma Research) and attends the famous NYC Run Club; where I have met 99% of my New York friends! Thank you Will and the team at Gotta Run with Will.
I mentioned in my last post that my key training consists of back-to-back workouts. Since getting Leadville training in full swing since February, I decided to divide the 6-1/2 months build up into two phases. Both phases have a 50 mile race incorporated into the plan. Phase one peaked with one such race I had my eye on for a while. I’ll talk phase 2 another time.
On May 5th, I took part in The North Face Endurance Challenge Gore-Tex 50 Mile race at Bear Mountain, NY. A grueling test, exactly the sort of stuff I go after!
It was my first time back to Bear, a year since I had jumped into ultra running with a memorable 50K (even if I did break my toe). This time around I was going after the biggest challenge possible; 50 miles. It was much the same course as the 50K, just another 19 miles to make sure you were really beat up and deserving of the medal.
I woke up at 3am with a glucose of 231. I ate my bagel, cereal bar and banana on the drive up north from NYC, ironically 50 miles. I lowered my insulin intake for this meal to 75% which helped keep my reading high pre-race. It was 264, 20 minutes before the gun. Technically greater than 180 is perceived as hyperglycemia but with 50 miles of upcoming exercise this would not be an issue.
The 5am start required a mandatory headlamp. I picked up a Black Diamond Storm from REI (think Toys R Us for outdoor adult junkies), the only weatherproof one without breaking the bank or weighing a ton. This headlamp shopping was all new for me learning about lumens and battery life, weight, to wear or not wear a hat as well. This preparation was ideal as the Leadville 100 will require me looking like a miner not once but twice come August.
Bear is as technical a course as I have experienced. When you have to use your hands as well as your feet, you know why they label it the Endurance Challenge. I went to The North Face pre-race panel discussion on Friday night to listen to Dean Karnazes, Leigh Schmitt and Tracy Garneau; all three world class ultra runners and dead nice people too. I picked Leigh’s brain afterwards. The best advice he gave me was to walk the uphills, it was going to be a long day and it would pay off.
Although this was not a huge ultra trick, I definitely focused on this more because it was fresh in my head. Other runners would pass me up the hills, breathing heavy only to see me again at the summit when I began my running again and passed them by. I also used the advice of Scott Jurek about hydrating and refueling on the downhills as the body can digest far easier while descending. This scenario played out countless times over twenty miles from mile 5 through halfway. I regained about 30 spots going from 50th to the top 20 with discipline. I continued to run steady for the next twenty miles getting random cramps throughout both legs. I gobbled down saltstick capsules to fight this off praying it wouldn’t cause full on cramping as happened at JFK50 last November.
I was now trotting along keeping my blood sugar in a good place (well I didn’t have any hypo or hyper symptoms anyway). I was consuming about 80 grams of carbohydrates per hour from a mix of gels, chews and Gatorade and also sipping the H20 from my backpack every mile. Just before the toughest climb of the day (Timp Pass at mile 45) I noticed a pacer bringing up the lead woman fast behind me. I was about to lose a place and get “chicked” as Dusty Olson (Scott Jurek’s pacer) likes to say in the process!
My fear however did not really come from her sex. Ultra women are hardcore. I was more bummed about falling out of the top 20. I ascended and descended Timp Pass at a really aggressive pace. As hard as that climb is, the descent is equally tough to stay upright. Any mistake here on the big loose rocks and I was going down hard and collecting some trail tattoos.
I came out unscathed and reached the last aid station where a lot of the 50K and marathon runners were taking some stock for the last 3 miles. I had no time for such luxuries, anyway I had my backpack on which still had enough gel and chews stored away to get me another 30 miles if necessary. I ran straight through in all business mode clipping off 8:30’s that felt like sub-6’s.
After all my fears of being kicked out of the top 20, I never did get caught and came in 19th anyway. I had a one spot cushion I never knew about! Over 9 hours on my feet. The longest run of my life by over 2 hours and the best thing about it all was that I felt pretty good! I later found out the woman closing in was a previous Western States 100 champ. My post-race glucose was 147 at 3pm. That was great but I also knew to get a good meal inside me before that kept going south. I happily did just that.
Post-meal, I got the chance to catch up with Leigh Schmitt again and thank him for his advice. He came in 2nd place and seemed remarkably fine about it. A real class act and down to earth guy. He really extended his advice to me by exchanging numbers and putting me in touch with his friend, Hal Koerner (a double Western States 100 champion).
How can you not love this sport when you get to run the same course and then hang out, get advice and share stories with the top guys? How many amateur golfers get to mingle with Tiger Woods after 18 or small talk with Roger Federer in the Tennis Pavilion? Although the Leigh’s and Scott’s are out of sight during the race, the egos of the best ultra runners are just not their and for that, everyone wins.