July 12, 2015

The Ring of Fire

Fires are a fact of life here in California. There are more than 2,000 wildfires per year here on average. Last month a forest fire scorched 31,000 acres in the San Bernardino Mountains. The Forest Service has not determined the cause and has closed the entire area until October. The fire, dubbed the Lake Fire, started on June 17 near Barton Flats and pushed high up the side of the mountain, nearly reaching the 11,500’ summit of San Gorgonio. 

I'm definitely noticing forest fires more these days, probably because they are wreaking havoc on my little running world. The Lake Fire, for instance, scorched some of my favorite trails near Big Bear, CA. It also forced me to scrap my plans to the run nine peak challenge in the mountains this summer.

It is also the fourth forest fire in several years to pummel my running plans. The first was the Westville Fire in 2008 (and dozens of others that burned nearby) that forced the cancellation of the Western States 100, which would have been my first 100 miler. The second was the Santiago Fire that burned 28,000 acres in the Santa Ana mountains and caused us to divert our annual Saltwater Course due to closed mountain trails. And the third was the 2009 Station Fire that burned more than 400,000 acres and forced the cancellation of the Angeles Crest 100 miler. Even though I wasn't signed up for Angeles Crest that year,  my training partner was and I felt his pain.

So what does all this mean? This is a question I've been asking myself a lot lately and will continue to ask unless I get a lobotomy or start drinking the cool aid. In the mean time, I'll leave you with this graph which I find interesting if not revealing.

  Check this out. Half a million acres just went up in smoke in Alaska in one day. 

June 25, 2015

My Instinct

I’ve been writing in this blog for nearly 8 years now. I started with the idea that I would transcribe some details about running ultras that I thought might be of interest to someone out there. I’ve written things that I regret, but mostly I’ve written things that I really felt on my journey along the way. As much as I try, I don’t always write about running, and when I don’t, I can only suggest that running really isn’t about running. It’s more about what happens to me when I do it. If you are a runner, you will know what I mean. If you’re not, I hope you have something similar, anything that releases you from the tentacle.

This is the first time in 8 years I’m not signed up to run an ultra. My instinct has wandered from a yearning to submit myself to the test of running 100 miles as well and as fast as I can, on someone else’s course following someone else rules, to just running for the experience of being somewhere I want to be, like high in the mountains, possibly when the weather is turning harsh. Where I only have myself to rely on.   

It’s been a whole year since I began the first of the four grand slam events last summer. There isn’t any peculiar day that I can recall.  In fact it was many days that melted together that kind of became one. I think about it now as if it were just one day. Because it feels that way. Like when the tide goes out. I don’t really notice it, but when I do, it seems so obvious. To see all things when they happen is impossible, I suppose, particularly when I’m not looking for them. 

June 15, 2015

Doping Wars - Enter Distance Running

I used to think that distance running was immune from doping. But after reading the news this last month, it appears my naiveté has been exposed.

Apparently Alerto Salazar, former University of Oregon star, three-time winner of the NYC marathon and current head coach of the Nike Oregon Project (NOP), has been gaming the system. In this article by Pro Publica and the BBC, Salazar is accused of pushing a doping rigged training program on his athletes with a “win at all costs” approach to coaching.

I won’t go into the details here because they are well laid out in the article. There are also interesting interviews and comments from former coaches and athletes of the Oregon Project, including this interview with former NOP coach John Cook, who describes the sport as essentially tainted and beyond repair. He thinks the honest coaches are "fooling themselves" if they think they can outwork the doping plague with old fashioned hard work.

Seems Nike is in the middle of all of this. Wait, who was Lance Armstrong’s biggest sponsor?

May 19, 2015

The Grand Canyon - I Will Remember

There are times when people ask me why I run. Heck, there are time when I ask myself the same thing. Then I remember...

April 29, 2015

10 Songs I Remember Listening To In the Moment

Most of these are live performances, so take some time and pull up on your big screen and really listen. Let me know which ones you like best!

1. Banco De Gaia - Desert Wind (Sunset Mix) – (Sitting in my car after finishing a long run to the top of Saddleback Mt.)

2. Robin Shulz - Prayer In C Radio Edit (during long run listening to Banco De Gaia radio. Song came on...what a cool beat!)

3. Chevelle – The Red (on my elliptical after blowing out my calf and trying to blast my family out of house and home)

4. System of a Down – Spiders (Driving home after my last long run with Larry R and Travis C before AC 100 in 2011)

5. New Order – Ceremony (driving home from work to a party at my house in Washington DC in 1988 while singing at the top of my lungs).

6. Foo Fighters – Everlong (The final miles of my second 50 mile race in 2007 that qualified me for WS 100).

7. Neil Young – Cowgirl in the Sand (laying on my back on a concrete bench at University California Irvine after working on my presentation to investors sometime in the mid 90s).

8. Radiohead – There There (Climbing Coyote Canyon during long run. Inspired me to write There There).

9. Kitten – Cut it Out (solo mile repeat workout at Orange Coast College track on a cloudy autumn weeknight in dimming light).

10. Doves – Kingdom of Rust (roaming the mountains of Colorado before and after the Leadville 100 in 2014).

April 18, 2015

Why I Love the Mountains

Mountains are magnetic, and we are drawn to them. Maybe it’s because of what they force us to do, or become. We gaze upon them, we exalt them, then we climb them. On their paths we face hardship, but these we welcome because hardship helps us discover things we didn’t know or understand before, about ourselves.

On their summit we feel inspired, because we see how far we have come, and how much we have endured to be there. In that moment, when we stand in the sky, everything we see is surreal and far away. But what we feel is raw, and we are present.   

To climb a mountain, we can’t just want it. We have to hunger for it. When we want to climb a mountain but don’t hunger for it, we are easily distracted. Every mountain is different, and each presents different hardships and opportunity to discover. We are drawn to certain mountains at different times, and we can't control which mountain we are hungry for. But we need to recognize when we are truly hungry, or only just wanting. 

I’m beginning to realize I’ve been climbing the same mountain for a long time, yet there is another mountain that beckons. One that will undoubtedly bring a new set of challenges, but one that makes me hungry again.

I think it is time for me to explore.

March 31, 2015

Interview with World Record Holder Zach Bitter

On a cold winter morning in Phoenix, Arizona, some of the fastest ultra runners in the country lined up on a track at Central High School. The year was 2013 and the event was the Desert Solstice Invitational Track Meet. One of the athletes was a little known high school teacher from Madison, Wisconsin, Zack Bitter.

As the day progressed, and the miles ticked away, there was one runner who seemed to be moving faster than all the others. It was Zack Bitter, who continued to move through 70, 80 and 90 miles on pace to set records. In the end, Zack delivered, setting a new American record by running 100 miles in 11:47:21 and a new world record by running 101.66 miles in 12 hours. 

Zach is a believer in the OFM diet and Vespa, which was developed to maximize the body’s ability to burn fat for fuel. I caught up with Zach via email recently during his busy training schedule. Here is the conversation, unabridged.

Q: Zach, tell me a little about yourself. Where did you grow up? Were you competitive as a child? What sports did you compete in?

I guess I grew up in the Midwest. At a young age my family moved from Nebraska to Wisconsin while I was in elementary school. I have lived in Wisconsin ever since. I competed in any sport I could when I was young. I found out in middle school that I could either get my butt kicked in sprints or win/podium in distance races. In high school and college I wasn’t spectacular by any means. I did well as a D3 athlete in high school, and was what I would call an average runner amongst athletes in a top tier DIII collegiate conference (WIAC Conference) when running for the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point.

Q: Looking back, how did these experiences shape you as a runner today?

It has taught me the power of setting goals and working hard for them. I wouldn’t say I am overly talented, so I’ve always put in the time to reach my full potential.

Q: How long have you been running and why did you get into it?

I got into distance running in middle school. I found out when doing the Presidential Physical Fitness challenge in PE class that I was much better at distance than sprints. Like most middle school age boys, I wanted to win, so I gravitated towards distance.

Q: I know you are a teacher. Do you have a family? How do you balance running with your career and family life?

I am single, but am pretty close to my parents and three sisters. Balance is key to any training plan, but I certainly make sacrifices to be able to put in upwards of 20 hours of training per week. I strongly believe that you need to pursue your passions in life regardless of what they are. For me, that is running and challenging myself through endurance. When you really respect your passions it’s much easier to make time to fully dedicate. I think lots of people forget how to rationally detach from their job or other “obligations” in life. That is something I’ve gotten really good at. With training and racing being my biggest passion hitting the roads, trails, track, etc. becomes easy even after a long day.

Q; Its been said runners, especially ultra runners, are a little nuts. Are you?

Haha, I suppose so. I think “being nuts” is somewhat of a relative term. Personally, I think it would be nuts not to chase your passion. I guess my passion is obscure enough yet that most people would consider it a bit crazy.

Q: I’ve heard you say you are better at longer distances, which is why you gravitated to ultras. How much of your talent is mental strength vs physical strength?

I think that people range significantly in their margin of depreciation over distance. Some of this is probably genetic, but also training the systems differently. I really love training my aerobic zone, so simply by doing what I love most probably would cause me to gravitate to longer races. Mental strength or keeping a positive attitude are key in ultras. Nutrition is huge as well. The ability to push through rough patches, and keep your digestive system from limiting you is very important in the latter stages of ultra-events. I guess I am not sure if one or the other is stronger than the other. I definitely spend lots of time working on both. I think there is something to be said about practicing positive self-talk in all areas of life. It makes a good habit to remain positive even through tough times.

Q: Can you explain your training philosophy?

It is based on feel. Obviously, there are key workouts that I research, try, and morph in a way that works for me, but ultimately it comes down to listening to your body. Training really hard does you no good if you can’t recover. This differs from person to person. It’s a growing process. As a person gets stronger and more adapted to the rigors of training there training regimen can also change. This makes it best to listen to your body. If you are dialed in nutritionally, with sleep, managing stress, respecting your easy days and going hard on hard days; your body will tell you what you can do.

Q: How many hours per week do you train? Can you (briefly) break this down by workout type (base, hills, intervals, long run, cross training etc)?

I do approximately 20 hours a week when I combine cross training activities; like strength training. I really couldn’t say that there is any specific routine I follow consistently. I base my training on my A races. This usually averages out to be between 100-150 miles per week; with a bit less on taper and recovery weeks.

Q: How do you stay motivated?

Motivation is easy, because it is my passion. Finding your passion in life is big. I’m blessed to have discovered mine. It kind of makes motivation a non-factor.

Q: Do you train mentally?

Indirectly, yes. I don’t do any really in-depth meditation or anything like that, but mental strategies develop themselves throughout the whole training process.

Q: What one or two things do you believe separate you from other runners, things that give you an added edge in competition?
It’s hard to say, because I don’t always know what makes everyone else tick, or if it is similar or different than me. I definitely follow a unique diet that would be considered amongst the minority.

Q: You’ve been an advocate of the Optimal Fat Metabolism (OFM) diet and Vespa. There is a lot of literature on OFM, but can you briefly explain what this is and how this and Vespa have impacted your running?

In its most basic sense, OFM is finding a way within your person specific lifestyle to train your body to recognize fat as its primary source of fuel. It can take patience to find what each person’s specific ratios are, and planning carb use strategically throughout varying training phases, but the end result is the same. A much greater ability to metabolize fat. Vespa is nature’s catalyst in promoting the metabolization of fat. It helps you with the process of making fat as your primary fuel. Vespa allows me to optimize my fat metabolism and minimizes the negative impacts of the few carbs I do eat.

Q: Does your training diet differ from your racing diet? Please explain.

It depends how you look at it. On paper it differs greatly. I go from eating mostly fat to mostly carbs. With that said, I am taking in a significantly lower amount of carbs on race day than I needed to when I followed a high carb approach. I follow the principal of “strategic carb use” whether I am racing or in training. Obviously, when I am running all day long, my caloric demand is much different than a typical day, so the strategy of carbs usage changes.

Q: Do you ever take time off from training and racing? For how long, and how does this fit into your overall plan?  

I listen to my body completely. Because I don’t generate tons of inflammation and oxidative stress by metabolizing carbohydrates constantly; I am able to recover much quicker. Baring on 8 day stint where I had a bit of hamstring injury, I have not taken a full week off in years. If you respect your easy days you have much less need for long bouts of off time.

Q: Looking back, what has been your ultimate achievement as a runner?

I would say Desert Solstice 2013. Breaking an American and World Record was pretty exciting. It also really opened my eyes to the road and track ultra-world. Consistent environment gives you the opportunity to measure yourself against time and history.

Q, What would be your ultimate achievement looking ahead?

I definitely want to find my ultimate limit in the 100 mile distance. I would love to be able to say that I know for sure I went as fast as my body would allow at that distance.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve been given?

Follow your passions in life. Forcing yourself into things you do not want to do; whether it be a job or activity is not worth it.

Q: Who do you draw your inspiration from? Why?

I don’t think I draw inspiration from any one person. Inspiration comes from all experiences. I have been blessed to witness and meet tons of people doing really inspiring things and following their dreams. All those experiences add up to what inspires me. 

March 22, 2015

Thank You Alto Vista Peak – You’ll Do Just Fine!

Alto Vista - The One

Being bitch slapped by the mountains is kind of a double-edged sword. On one hand, you have a plan – meticulously crafted by the ego – that choreographs your grand summit. Here simple alpine fundamentals take a backseat to visions of self, standing high upon a pinnacle overlooking mankind. Then there’s reality. Or all the little details that spring-up while you dwell in fantasy during your trek. Wait, what? Oh, I didn’t think of that.

For us Southern California flatlanders, San Gorgonio is kind of a Grand Teton. Even though we can’t see it from Orange County (unless standing on Santiago Peak), it’s always beckoning. So when I signed the day hike permit, the vision was simple. Get to the top. The pinnacle. What else is there?

I began to look a little more into the details. My route from South Fork to the summit and back was 21 miles with around 5,000 feet of ascent. No big deal. Hell, I’m an ultra runner, I thought. I’m invincible!

San G - The Elusive One 
The first couple of miles were amazing. Meandering single track with some great glimpses of San G. I was so sure to bring my Olympus Pen camera that I hung it around my neck so I could get the best shots without having to dig into my pack. The pictures I was getting were amazing! I’m not sure if was the 10th or 11th shot when I noticed something blinking in the view finder. “NO CARD.” “NO CARD.”

Santiago Peak - The Flatlander's Vantage Point
Whatever. Since I didn’t have my GPS, I was calculating my distance by landmarks along the way. Two miles, four miles. What I didn’t calculate were the snow drifts. A step here. A slip there. A contorted epileptic move here and there. Finally I reached Dollar Lake Saddle at 10,000 feet, 7.4 miles in. It was covered in snow. Hell, I thought, this is where the real climbing will begin! After taking a few shots with my phone, I moved further up the snow to get to the trail. Wait, what?

From Alto Vista Peak
No trail? I looked around feverously. For footprints, snowshoe tracks, coyote droppings, anything. But there was nothing. Then it hit me. The two and a half mile trail to San G summit was completely buried under several feet of snow. Details.

Wait. What? 
At this point my vision of pinnacle grandeur was fading into just bagging any old summit I could find. So off I marched, heading due west, the opposite direction of San G, but toward the many peaks along the 10,000 foot ridge. I finally found one. Alto Vista Peak. I stood on the “pinnacle” for a few minutes, soaking in everything I could.

Thanks Alto Vista Peak. You'll do just fine.