July 24, 2014

Vermont 100 - Silencing The Voice

I only had one question when I reached Polly’s, the last aid station of the Vermont 100 mile endurance run…“how far is it to the finish line?” I calculated around 3.5 miles, but after running for 19 straight hours, I knew my numbers were a little fuzzy.

The man behind the table didn’t hesitate. “It’s exactly 4.8 miles to the finish,” he barked as I reached for my third cup of Mountain Dew. It was now 11 p.m. and his words were a punch to the gut. I thought I only had 3.5 miles to go, but it was really 5 more miles. All I could do was shake my head, and reach for a chocolate chip cookie. Then I grabbed a cup of warm broth and continued down the trail.

I’ve written that running 100 miles is like living a lifetime in one day. The ups and downs that it brings, the elation and disappointment, the pleasure and pressure, they are all there, strung together from hour to hour, even minute to minute, on a neural continuum. What I feel right now, I’ve come to learn, is altogether different from what I’m likely to feel after taking a few more breaths, or a few more steps, toward my destination.

The challenge now wasn’t whether I could make it to the finish. Heck, I had already run 95.2 miles and I wasn’t about to quit now. The challenge was whether I could finish in under 20 hours. I had kept the thought of this in the back of my mind, hoping that if I had a good day and ran smart, it could pull it off and have a new personal record. But was it within my grasp? With only an hour left, 4.8 miles to the finish and a big climb still to come, negative thoughts began to flood into my head.

I started to hear a voice. It was telling me that I had no chance. That I might as well not even try, because making it nearly 5 miles in less than an hour would be impossible. Then came the coup de grace…knowing I’d been running for 19 hours, the voice asked, didn’t I deserve to take it easy now?

There is an element about Vermont that is historic in the world of ultra running – and it involves horses. The concept of horses racing 100 miles is nothing new, and in fact dates back to 1955. Now in its 60th year, the Tevis Cup is an endurance event where horses and their riders cover 100 miles in one day in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Back then no one had ever thought of a person running one hundred miles. Then, in 1974 a young equestrian by the name of Gordy Ainsleigh showed up at the Tevis Cup with his horse to ride one hundred miles. But his horse got sick and was unable to compete. So Gordy chose to run it by himself. Thus began the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, and the hundreds of 100 mile races that followed.

Like Western States, Vermont is one of the few 100 mile races where humans and horses run on the same trail. At Western States they run on different days. At Vermont horses and humans all run together - at the same time. To state the obvious, it makes for an interesting event. There is something primal about running side by side with horses along rugged trails in the middle of a forest. It is as intimidating as it is intriguing, and it is all sewn together with a stitch of adventure.

There is only one mile marker on the entire 100 mile course at Vermont. It is at mile 99. When I reached it, I stole a look at my watch. I had just 12 minutes remaining to finish under 20 hours. I knew I could run one mile in twelve minutes, as long as there was no more climbing to come. But there was more climbing to come. So I climbed. And climbed. Up the side of a hill that seemed to have no end.

By now the voice had gone quiet, and I was moving over the countryside without the burden of hearing what I can’t do, or what was impossible. Now I simply listened to the sounds all around me, my own footsteps, the distant voices of the finish line. I was now just a passenger moving along this dark Vermont trail, destined to take these final steps that would carry me to the end of this long journey. I turned the corner. I saw the lights of the finish line.  I saw the clock. 19:58:08, :09, :10, :11.

I raised my arms. I did it.

July 18, 2014

Vermont 100 Live Link

Another year running through Vermont’s green mountains, on a deceptively challenging trail, on my way to a destination somewhere in the mountains of Utah. I promised myself to take this one as it comes to me, and not to go at it like a raging bull. It is, of course, only number two of the four, so patience and staying in my zone will be my mantra for the first half. Then we see what happens. To all of you running and riding tomorrow, have some good fun out there. I hope to see you at the finish line!

Click here to link to 2014 Vermont 100 live race results. My number is 66. 

July 12, 2014

Sugar: Safe or Suicide?

It kind of snuck up on me. And it wasn’t the first time, so I should’ve known better. But the best lessons are learned on the trail. In the grasp of the elements. In Nature’s laboratory. So I promised myself. This time I won’t forget.

Do you believe everything that you read in the newspapers or magazines? What about TV? If you’re like me - a bit of a skeptic - you probably struggle to find the truth from the media and advertising. There is so much information out there, so much of it conflicting, it’s hard to discern fact from fiction.

This is one reason I like to train for and run ultra’s. To learn. From my own experience, about my body, and what works for it, and what doesn’t. What I can trust, and what I can’t.

There is a little lie I recently discovered since running ultras. It’s a lie most of us believe, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes ignorantly, but a lie nonetheless. And now that I know it is a lie, every time I doubt myself, and believe it again, it bites me. It happened as recently as Western States. Fortunately I caught myself, and was able to pull away from its damaging ways.

Here is a little factoid I want to put on the table: In 2010, the average American consumed 132 lbs of sugar per year, more than ever recorded. In the same year, 35.7% and 16.9% of adults and children, respectively, were obese. Again, more than ever before. Is it just a coincidence, or does the fact that refined sugar is linked to diabetes, obesity, hypertension, fatigue and depression have anything to do with these trends?

Big Sugar, or the companies that contest the danger of sugar to human health, have (to date) convinced the federal government that sugar is “generally recognized as safe.” However, Nature, one of the most prestigious journals on the topic of science, published an article in 2012 entitled Public Health: the toxic truth about sugar. The article reported that sucrose and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) are not only addictive in the same way as alcohol and cigarettes, but they are the cause of a worldwide epidemic in obesity and type 2 diabetes. Remember the big tobacco lie?

Why does this matter to us ultra runners? Because we too consume too much sugar when we run and even when we aren’t running. Have you had any pasta lately? A bagel? Call it what you want, it’s all sugar. I recently witnessed an ultra runner eating a frosted waffle coated in syrup. And yes, I’ve been known to down a few donuts and pancakes in weaker moments (let alone post workout beer or wine). Yes, carbs are just a couth term for sugar. Once it hits your gut, its all sugar.

But here is the thing. The body does what we ask it to do. Ask it to burn sugar as it’s primary source of fuel, then feed it sugar. But there is a down side to the high carb/sugar diet, and it is complex.

Unlike a diet rich in saturated fat and protein, the high sugar/carb diet will teach your body to rely primarily on sugar, or glycogen, which is stored in your liver and muscles, for fuel. The problem with the sugar/carb diet is that your body can only store enough of this stuff to keep you going for a couple hours. So what happens when you want to run for 5 or 6 or 24 hours? Well, you have a couple choices. One choice is you can keep sucking down sugary gels and blocks every thirty to forty-five minutes, and hope your stomach can process this junk so it makes it into your blood stream and your muscles. But what happens if your stomach doesn’t cooperate, which is very likely at some point during the long hours of an ultra. Have you ever seen someone dry heave? There is one other choice when relying on sugar/carbs for fuel. Bonk.

My Favorite Ultra Cuisine
When I reached the aid station at Michigan Bluff, mile 55 at Western States, I made the mistake of refilling my hydration pack with Gu Brew instead of water. Until that point I had been eating high fat and protein sandwiches mixed with water and Vespa. But the Gu tasted so good! So subtle and sweet, it went down like, well, sugar water, which is what it is. I liked it so much I stopped drinking water and found myself drinking just Gu Brew.

Well the fun didn’t last long. Here is the email I wrote the next day to Peter Defty, GM at Vespa Power, maker of the supplement I’ve used with lots of success at 100 mile races:

Around Michigan Bluff, I started drinking Gu Brew instead of water. This is where I noticed a material disconnect from the Vespa [fat burning] zone. Normally when I’m in the Vespa zone I feel that ember-like energy flowing through my body, so that if I come upon an climb or section that requires extra effort to keep running, I just keep grinding through it. However, after taking all the sugar in the form of GU brew, the ember was almost extinguished. I found my self struggling to stay focused mentally while my energy fluctuated. Finally, when I realized what was happening, I dumped all the sugar water and went back to water. The ember started burning again as I entered the evening section of the race.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand and trust my body more than any other source of information. And when it tells me things, all I have to do is listen. Because it always speaks the truth.

Keep it real runners. 

July 1, 2014

Western States 2014 - The Thread that Runs Through

Photo courtesy of Bob Szekeresh
Sometimes it takes longer. No, it always takes longer. But when it comes, it is all that I need. All that I reach for. And more. But it isn’t easy. To wait, patiently, with my head down, doing the hard work.

When I started writing this post, I just had to get up and walk away. The words weren’t there. Then I remembered. And how could I forget? I just completed Western States 100. This time, finally, on my third try, the lesson was learned. What did I remember? That if I really want something, I cannot go to it. It has to come to me. And when it does, I best be ready.

It wasn’t until I saw the lights of No-hands Bridge at mile 97 that I realized it had finally come to me. And, this time, I was ready. I ran with a single plan. One purpose. To get through this menacing trail without letting it consume my spirit like it has in the past. To run into all its elements, its traps, its deceptive descents, and then run out of them, on my terms, all the way to the finish line.

I chose to run Western States solo this year, which is without a crew and a pacer. I’m glad I did it this way, because of the volunteers. There was an older man at the Robinson Flat aid station, his name was Perry, and he took me to a chair so I could sit for just a minute or two. He helped me with my drop bag and told me that he too had run the race several years ago. He was proud of that. We talked for a while as I fiddled with my supplies. Then he sent me on my way. And I thanked him. There were many other moments like this one.

To put yourself into the hands of others, people you’ve never met before, and let them help you when you are at your weakest, with no other motivation than to just help you, well that is really something. And to see an acquaintance you barely know waiting for you at the finish line at 3:30 in the morning, who stays with you for several hours to make sure you are ok, well that is really something too. It is this thread—to help others—I’m finding that runs through our sport. This is what I will remember the most about Western States this year.

As I ran toward the finish line, I raised my arms into the air. It had to come the hard way. It always comes the hard way. But when it came, it was all that I needed.

Thanks to all you out there who helped me.

June 27, 2014

June 26, 2014

Will's Quest - Running the Grand Slam to find cure for rare disease

Abby and Amelia - my nieces 
To My Blog Readers:

I’m asking for you help. Last week I launched Will’s Quest – my commitment to run the Grand Slam of Ultra running while raising money to raise awareness and find a cure for a rare disease my nieces suffer from. It’s called Tuberous Sclerosis, or TS for short.

If you don’t already know about TS, here is a snapshot:

It’s a genetic disease that affects 50,000 people in the United States, and even more around the world. TS typically means having noncancerous tumors in the major organs of your body – your brain, skin, eyes, lungs and kidneys. Tumors that form in the brain are the greatest challenge to quality of life and can cause uncontrollable seizures, autism, epilepsy, developmental delay, intellectual disability and depression. TS is also a progressive disease, which means that it can become more severe later in life.

Here is the thing. Running gives so much to us. More than we runners can really imagine. Once in a while it is important that we give back. I’m asking you to help me with whatever contribution you can make. My goal is to raise $15,000 from as many donors as possible. It’s not the amount that matters, it’s the thought that you took the time and made the effort. Click here to watch Julianne Moore Video describing TS. Click here to donate.

Lets help these kids and adults. The good news is research has uncovered new medications that can control the growth of these tumors. 

The TS families say they will “give everything but up.” And that is what I plan to do this summer running the Grand Slam on my quest for TS.

June 15, 2014

Bring it on vols. Let's get'r done!

Volunteering w Dev. C at Finish Line OC Marathon
This morning a glanced at my phone and noticed a friend request from the legendary Stan Jensen. Stan founded and still maintains one of the oldest and informative websites for ultra runners, www.run100s.com. The request was to join the Grand Slam of Ultra Running 2014 Facebook group. I started reading – or rather devouring - Stan’s site many years ago, well before running my first ultra. The invitation got my attention – shit, this Grand Slam thing is a big deal.

It’s taken several months, and now I’m officially qualified to run in the Grand Slam. The final qualification coming after submitting my $80 check to the director and seeing his email that my application was received. Wow. Now, as they say, the fun begins.

I’m not exactly sure why, but I’ve decided to attempt the Grand Slam without any crew or pacers. It just seems like the right thing to do. Maybe I’m being a little naive, but aren’t the hundreds of volunteers out there the real crew for us runners? I don’t know how this will play out, but I’m determined. And excited. And a little nervous,  but in good way. I need it to be this way. To rely less on others. And more on myself.

It was interesting to see the Vermont 100 just added a “solo” classification just in time for my GS. It allows no pacers and no crew. It’s also interesting that the European races generally are all solo races with no pacers permitted and crew highly discouraged. I got my first taste of this at UTMB in 2012, and came away with mixed feelings. Not so much because of how it impacted me as a runner, but more because of the impact it had on my family, who came a long way to see me run. The race officials were not accommodating to say the least.

I’ve come to learn in the months leading up to the GS that UTMB was a bit of a harbinger. Getting family, crew and pacers to four separate events taking place four different weekends throughout the summer some thousands of miles apart is, well, a bit daunting. And I need to take every ‘daunt’ I can out of the GS which is already daunting to begin with.

So, for the summer, it will just be me...and all my volunteers, or vols, as I'll refer to them in the coming months. What else is there to say? Bring it on vols, lets get’r done!

June 10, 2014

The Past Is Always Tense, and the Future Perfect

It’s now down to a matter of days. And the Grand Slam begins. Thing is the only race I’ve been able to think about is the first, Western States, which starts in two and half weeks. It’s kind of hard to think beyond this one. After all, it is the course that has yanked me around harder than a pit bull chomping on a rag doll. The descents, oh those descents. I cannot describe how they abused my body. And I went so willingly! Like a lamb to slaughter. I’m not going so willingly this time. Not this time.

Then Vermont. Yes, the deceptive little 100 miler in the Green Mountains. After getting lost twice last year and starting too too fast, I have learned my lesson. Right? No hammering down the 3 mile paved road. No coming in an hour faster then my plan in the first half. Not going to happen this time. Not this time.

I’m going to leave it at that. Leadville and Wasatch are taking place in another season, or so I am thinking. August? Way too far away to chatter on about. We must take these things on one by one. Live in the moment, because, as they say, the past is always tense, and the future perfect.

Keep it real runners.

June 1, 2014

Apples, Bodily Functions, and a Garden of Eden

Can you find the apple?
It’s called chunder, but when the natives say it it sounds more like chundah. In certain quarters it’s simply barfing, ralphing, yaking or even spewing.

Whatever the term, this bodily function is no stranger to ultra runners. The challenge for us, of course, is trying to identify all things that contribute to tossing our cookies, and avoid these things at all cost.

Of all the fruit in Eden, who among us would’ve guessed that the apple would be the forbidden one? The one fruit that describes the larynx in our throat (was it stuck in Adam’s throat?). Forgetting the religious connection, the apple has a metaphorical reputation that is, well, a little concerning. A reputation that became all the more concerning last weekend.

We were standing on the top of Mt. Baden Powell at the highest point of the Angeles Crest 100 mile endurance run, and we could see forever. When I looked around, everything seemed so surreal.  A gentle wind blew, and gliders soared in and out of the mountain’s contours. It was, at least from my perspective, our own momentary Garden of Eden.

That was the time Howard, one of the runners, pulled out an apple. Apparently not a good idea, as said by Rob M who remembered suffering by way of the apple on a run 40 years prior. But that bit of knowledge didn’t save the apple. It didn’t save Howard either. Eating the forbidden fruit in our momentary Garden of Eden had its consequences (please refer to the first sentence in this post now...).

Ok, lets forget the Garden of Eden for a minute. That apple was there just to lure poor old Adam to prove we humans are weak and will forever need redemption. Right? But why was Howard treated so poorly after eating an apple? Could it be the high fructose content in apples? Or could it be their high sorbitol content? Or could it be the fact that sorbital restricts the absorption of fructose, which can cause stomach issues even in people sitting on a couch at sea level?

One thing I’ve learned in the sport of ultra running is that there exists a tree of knowledge. Each branch on this tree is actually the knowledge of every individual runner. There are times we need to tap this tree of knowledge, and take notes. And there are times when we don’t. Which reminds me of a something Mark Twain once said: “man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.”

Don’t eat what doesn’t fall far from the tree!

May 22, 2014

The Essence of Why

I've written recently about the why factor. Why it is that we do these things that we do. Things others might (and do) hold in utter despair and view as absurd. Now, well, I've recently stumbled upon a quote that kind of sums up what I've tried and failed to put into words. If you can look beyond the literal reference to Everest, and see that the author (Sir Edmund Hillary) is talking about life itself, well, then you will understand.

"If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go."

Edmund Hillary

May 3, 2014

Grand Slam By the Numbers

The challenge: run four one hundred mile races with three to four weeks between each one. Western States 100 (June 28), Vermont 100 (July 19), Leadville 100 (August 16) and Wasatch Front 100 (September 5).

The good news is I’ve run three of the four races already so I have some idea of what to expect on those. The not so good news is I have not run the hardest of the four, Wasatch Front. That this one is the very last of the four could be a blessing in disguise. I figure if I make it through the first three alive, someone will have to shoot me to keep me from the finish line at Wasatch. I might have to carry knee pads on this one. If have to get down on all fours to finish I’m not holding back!

Cumulative elevation gain of the four races is 74,611 feet. Cumulative elevation loss is 78,796 feet. These are just numbers, right? Not to be confused with things that are more important like.....umm.....well....maybe....nutrition! Or attitude. Or fear. I wasn’t a math major, but from what I can piece together on the internet it looks like I will be climbing a lot this summer. It turns out that, if I just kept going up, this would be enough climbing to put me 22.7 kilometers above the earth (14.1 miles up). Folks, the stratosphere begins at 18 kilometers. Everest tops out at 8.85 kilometers.

Another turd in the punchbowl is having to run 78,796 feet downhill. Have you ever run downhill for hours, or days, on end? This will be the hardest part of all.

Please, keep your fingers crossed for me, so this 51 year-old body can hold it together.

Keep it real runners.

April 20, 2014

Trail Running Becoming Too Commercialized?

Work with me on this. I’m trying to find an angle on the topic for this post, and I’m struggling. So I’m just writing now. It isn’t something I do often, but it seems to be working right now, to just start writing. The Banco de Gaia Pandora station playing on my headphones is helping, but the topic seems to be too big for my current lack of creative perspective. Ok. Whatever. Let’s just see what flows...

Let me start by continuing the conversation of a fellow blogger at nomeatbarefeet.com about commercialism and trail running. Where this is going I haven’t a clue, but it seems to be top of mind for me right now.

The question is real simple. Is trail running becoming too commercialized? If only the answer could be so simple. If the question elicits an increase in your heart rate, you have an opinion. This is good. No, this is great. Keep reading and, please, leave a comment at the end of this post.

First of all, “trail running” is a broad term that includes many types of running. Starting with the sport of cross country which has been around for over 100 years to the more recent and sometimes mass produced mudder, adventure and xterra type events, the sport attracts a broad range of participants. Throw in ultras and the spectrum now includes events of just a few kilometers to more than 100 miles.

Back to the question. Is trail running too commercialized? I don’t think it is possible to answer the question without identifying a specific type of trail running. Cross country, for example is huge high school and college sport. Is cross country too commercialized? I don’t think so. I think the sport has retained its well-deserved tradition of flying under the commercial radar where the big three – football, basketball and baseball –have flown for decades. I don’t think there will be any big money shoe or skivvy contracts for cross country athletes any time soon.

My only comment on the mudder, adventure and xterra type of events is that they are, in large part, nothing more than a commercial endeavor, with a profit motivation driving the proverbial boat. Whether this is good or bad isn’t for me to judge. The fact is we live in a capitalistic society and I have no qualms about people starting a business with the objective to make money. The entrepreneur spirit is, after all folks, how we became the most powerful country in the world. What we leave in our wake can be troubling, however.

This leads me to ultras, and whether “ultra” trail running is too commercialized. I’m on record of supporting the Leadville 100 which has fallen out of favor with ultra “purists” due largely to its bulging size and related challenges race organizers really need to fix. Leadville is probably one of the most “commercialized” ultras in the US. Is it over commercialized? It is getting close. But if race organizers follow through with their commitment to fix the challenges runners and crews have experienced, Leadville could set the standard for “commercial” races.

Here is the real beef. As long as trail running remains a sport you don’t regularly find on ESPN, CBS Sports or even your local news channel, chances are the sport will not become too commercialized. Will companies continue to bring new products to the sport? Will new events continue to sprout up around the country? Will races continue to fill up within hours or even minutes of opening? The answer to all of these questions is – absolutely. Blame it on the book Born to Run, Ultra Marathon Man or the internet, this is what happens in a growing industry.

As long as people are willing to write a check there will always be someone there to cash it. Welcome to the free market, for better or worse.  

April 17, 2014

Looking for Why

Why is an illusive word, especially for ultra runners, at least this ultra runner. It bubbles up at awkward times, only to fade away when I think I have found it. Then, out of nowhere, it jumps back up and slaps me in the face. That is when I wonder if I will ever learn why.

Though it hides from me when I’m on a solid run. Like last night, when I started my run wondering why. Then after 10 minutes it simply slipped away as I scampered 12 miles over one of my favorite trails.

As I neared the end of my run, and looked across the horizon and saw the sun setting. I was sure I had found why. But, as I learned later that night, it wasn’t to be.  

Whether I ever find it, I will just have to keep on looking for it. Maybe that is all there is to why

April 6, 2014

March 23, 2014

The Road Less Traveled (by humans anyway)

Mountain Lion Print - Limestone Canyon today

When the gov said he didn't like running by himself out in these hills, I reminded him that when the cougar is in full chase mode all I have to do is run a little faster than him and its all over anyway. We turned north, toward Limestone Canyon, and came upon a prominent do-not-enter-trespassing-violators-will-be-prosecuted sign. It was the warmest welcome that I've seen in a while so we invited ourselves into a very remote and unused trail in heart of Orange County's Park system. This was virgin trail for me and I was loving every step!

photos courtesy of the gov

So much so I had to launch a roller just to make a point to gravity that we had climbed a pretty monster hill despite its stubborn resistance. "What are you going to do with that video?", my daughter Devon C asked me as I was writing this. "Its just a rock rolling down the hill," she says. "Yea, but it's a big rock," I replied. It felt good just to see gravity gobble this bad-ass rock up as the gov and I stood there wondering how much further we would wander into this scat riddled odyssey.

We continued into this lion's abyss and were reminded who's playground this really is. Apparently the big cats that roam these hills are not bashful about leaving their mark on trail. The gov kept his distance. 

Not our playground

The rest is just some really cool views by two runners seeking the road less traveled. 

Keep it real runners. 

March 17, 2014

This Thing Called Energy

It’s strange. This thing called energy. There are times when it enters you without warning, and bursts forth with all the power and resolve to lift you up and into a deep, icy river. Then there are other times. When it sits precariously near you. Watching you. Waiting for you.

It wasn’t something I could really predict. And if it were, it probably wouldn’t have happened on that day, when I was just like any other college boy foraging for a moment, a reason, to feel alive.

The door hadn’t even closed all the way when I started running. “Where are you going?” my friend yelled from behind me. But I couldn’t turn around to answer him. I just kept running. Away from the classroom where I had just completed my last final. I ran to release energy. I ran to gain energy. I ran because it just felt really good. I couldn’t stop smiling. I lifted my arms into the air and ran through the campus. I felt like a prize fighter who had taken the title from the champ. Now I was the champ! It was building up inside of me all semester. Now the energy wanted out.

So I talked my friend into driving down to the Potomac River. It was November in Washington, D.C. and the autumn days were turning colder. We got into his Ford Bronco appropriately nicknamed “Dino” with its bulging tires and gun racks. When we drove up to the side of the river I jumped down from Dino and ran to the seawall. It was a strange moment, to be overcome by pure exuberance like that, then to step off a ledge and into that dark brown river, fully clothed, not knowing the strength of its current or the temperature of its water.

There are certain moments in life that will never leave us. Moments when everything moving into and out of our conscious minds simply stops, and we find ourselves alone, with nothing else but the company of what is happening to us right then, right there.

The air in my lungs disappeared. And the muscles in my arms and legs went limp. The seawall that beckoned me just seconds earlier was now getting smaller as I drifted down the cold, dark Potomac River. It wasn’t fear or despair that had overcome me. It was just shock. My body had been reduced to a numb piece of flesh so quickly that I was just about helpless. Fortunately some of the energy that lifted me into this careless situation was still lurking somewhere, waiting. Enough, thankfully, to snap me out of the hypothermic stupor and get me back to that seawall.

Strange. This thing called energy.