September 13, 2014

Wasatch Front 2014 - Giving Everything But Up

I stood at the starting line of the Wasatch 100 mile endurance run, and questions of doubt kept pinging my brain. Can I do this? Will I make it to the finish line? I knew Wasatch would take me longer to finish than any other race I had done before. I estimated 30 hours. I didn't have much choice in the matter. With over 26,000 feet of cumulative climbing in the mountains, this was going to be (by far) the most difficult race I had ever done.

It turns out that getting to sleep the night before the most difficult race I’ve ever done was, well, not the easiest thing. After tossing and turning for hours, I finally looked at the clock. I shook my head. I still hadn’t dozed off and my alarm was set to go off in 45 minutes. What the hell, I thought, why not just get up and start getting dressed now? It must have been at that moment - when I finally stopped trying to fall asleep - that I finally did. For all of thirty minutes. This would be the only sleep I would get for 51 hours.

Wasatch Front is in a league of its own. Heat, cold, elevation, vertical gain, technical trails, it has it all. In the first 10 miles runners must climb more than 4,000 vertical feet, from 4,900’ elevation to 9,150’. It is here where the infamous "Chinscraper" summit presents itself and forces runners to get down on all fours to scale its peak. But this is just the first 10 miles. To go the distance, runners must climb and descend more than 26,000 cumulative feet over this 100 mile course, much of which is in the high country of Utah between 8,000 and 10,500 feet.

I don’t know if it was due to the lack of sleep, the difficulty of the course, or the fact that this was my fourth hundred miler of the summer (maybe all of the above?), but my energy levels were unusually low during the first half of Wasatch. I kept wondering if I would be able to make it through 51 hours with no sleep. I began to think about taking a brief nap at some point, something I have never done during a 100 mile race. Instead, I just continued running, hiking, eating and drinking. I consumed my standard cuisine of Vespa with turkey and cheese sandwich pieces heavy on the mayonnaise, with a handful of Jolly Ranchers thrown in for some quick energy on the climbs.  

I’ve written that getting through the ups and downs is one of the greatest challenges of ultra running. There are times when I feel invincible. The miles, the hours and the mountains, they make me feel strong. Then there are times when I feel beaten down. These same miles, hours and mountains cut right through my strength. What I’m learning is there are times during 100 mile races when I have to have a conversation with myself. Not the rambling schizophrenic type, I’m talking a real dialogue between my mind and body. These conversations can make or break me out there.  

During the first half of Wasatch I watched lots of runners pass me. It was frustrating because I was losing ground. If you don’t know me by now, you should know I don’t like losing ground. I hate losing ground. But I had the conversation. I asked my body. Can I stay with them, by running a little faster, by expending a little more energy? I waited for the answer. I didn’t have to wait long. We can go when we are ready, my body told me. And right now we are not ready. Be patient, it told me. There are many more miles to run, and more mountains to climb. I could hear my ego in the background, trying to find its voice. But I knew it was the last voice I should listen to. I continued at my own pace.

Complicating things was my decision to run Wasatch (and all four Grand Slam events) with no crew and no pacers. For those unfamiliar with 100 mile events, a crew provides 100 mile runners with special food, drink, and motivational support on the long course. Pacers run alongside runners in the later stages of the race, usually at night for safety reasons, but also to keep runners focused and motivated to get to the finish line. Most 100 mile runners run with a crew and pacers.

Drop Bags...Essential with No Crew
I don’t care how fast or slow you are, when running 100 miles all hours through the day and night, the shadows of pain and doubt eventually take their toll on you. The strength that you start out with and need to rely on – your energy, your focus, and especially your motivation, all these things begin to fade. I’ve run with the assistance of a crew and pacers many times, and they can help you stay in front of these shadows. But on this day, on this quest to conquer Wasatch and the Grand Slam, I chose a different path. I needed to confront these shadows on my own.

When I looked up at mile 75 in the middle of the night, all I could see was the distinct outline of a mountain ridge, and the slow-moving, distant lights of runners making their way to the summit. The scene was illuminated by a brilliant moon, a waxing gibbons, high in the night’s sky. It was my final climb and it would take me to 10,500 feet, above the ski resort of Brighton, Utah.

There is something about moving through darkness, by yourself, under a cold night sky, that just feels alive. The bright moon, and bright stars, they simply pull you along, through fatigue, over doubt, into the unknown. Every step, every breath, difficult, but forward. As I began to hike to this final summit, I knew I was approaching the last segment of a very long journey. A 400 mile journey. The cold wind, the thin air, the steep climb, they all began to fade into the background. Into the forefront came something pretty special. Something I didn’t expect. Something I hope I can hang onto for a long time.

How does one describe the feeling of finishing one, let alone four 100 mile races? As I made my way down the mountain, I could feel the invisible pull of the Wasatch finish line. I could see it in the distance, and it seemed with every stride that moved me closer, I moved a little faster. Images of all my races began to flood my mind. Then, like that, after 400 miles, 93 hours and 30 minutes, I raised my arms and took my last step, across the final finish line, and out of an amazing chapter in my life.

Buckle, Number, Plaque and Certificate - it's official

To climb a mountain. To run 100 miles, four times in four months. To climb a total of 74,000 feet. To embrace 32 days of training and racing in solitude. Away from my family. To sit down while climbing a mountain knowing I have nothing more to give. To get back up knowing I can’t give up. To simply remember why I’m out here. To confront this beast. So others might see how families affected by a certain disease called Tuberous Sclerosis suffer, in obscurity, but who are willing to give everything but up.

That, I now know, is pleasure. Something I hope I can hang onto for a long time. 

September 4, 2014

Wasatch Front 100 Live Race Coverage

Tomorrow I will embark on my fourth and final 100 miler of the Ultra Running Grand Slam of 2014. To follow the race on line, click here. My number is 116. 

August 24, 2014

Leadville 100 - My Reptilian Brain

A young lady asked me a question the other day. “What was it like to run the Leadville 100?” It was a simple question. But when I started to answer I caught myself. How do I compress 23 hours into one or two sentences? I thought a better question would be to ask her how much time she had...

There is nothing more primitive than the reptilian brain. We all have one. It’s what makes us breathe, sweat, shiver. It controls more of us than you are probably aware – our urge for food and water.  For safety. For sex. Oh, I forgot. We don’t want to be associated with lizards or animals. We are human. Right?

There are always moments. Those that we don’t forget. Certain drops of reality that become lodged in our memory. What causes these moments to be captured I do not know. But they are there.

I captured one of these moments on the backside of Sugarloaf Mountain. Around mile 82, after hiking, sweating, gasping, hydrating and running for 18 straight hours. My feet were rubbed raw and I could feel the skin slowly disintegrating between my toes. But at this moment I ran alone. Under a cold night sky filled with brilliant stars. Above the trees was a crescent moon, gleaming.

Wrapped tightly around our reptilian brain is the more celebrated limbic brain which gives us emotions, values and judgments. Further removed is the neocortex, a blessing and a curse for us humans and the part of the brain that gives us abstract thought. Advanced as these uniquely human sections of the brain might be, they are also the nurturing ground for some of the baggage we tend to carry, like anxiety, frustration and doubt.

My eyes surveyed the ground with each stride, finding the space to step between every stone, every rut. At that moment I could just as well have been a passenger rolling through that Colorado forest. I glanced down, and then all around me, seeing each rock, then letting it disappear beneath me. Every tree, then feeling it pass above me. I moved over the ground without a passing thought or the baggage that thoughts might bring.

What was it like to run Leadville this year? Let me just say this. It was primitive. It hurt. It felt amazing. It was animalistic. It was connection. With the forest beneath me, and the star studded sky above me. It was disconnection. From my limbic and neocortex, and my baggage.

More than I’m probably aware.

PS: I finished a little less than one minute faster than last year (23:43), which was about where I wanted to be with two previous 100s this summer and another 100 miler in three weeks. Not too fast. Not too slow...said the neocortex. 

August 15, 2014

August 14, 2014

Janji - Run for Another

Hey runners, did you know that you can help people by buying clothes…for yourself? That’s right. Part of every dollar you spend will go to help people around the world that are suffering. Yes. Every dollar. To those suffering.

It goes like this. Not every company that makes apparel has to feed shareholders’ never ending need for profit. Some companies actually put profit behind other objectives. Like helping people who need help. One of these companies is Janji.

The word janji means promise in Malay. The company Janji means run for another. The company Janji was founded by two runners, Mike and Dave, who recognized a global water crises. They saw this scourge that is afflicting so many countries around the world, and set out to do something about it. They formed Janji.

They focus on places like Haiti, where 40% of the people lack access to clean water. And Kenya, where 17 million people lack access to proper sanitation. Or Rwanda, where women walk 7 miles a day to fetch unsanitary water. And even the United States, where certain Native American tribes are 67x more likely to live without running water or a toilet.

How can you help? Just buy their clothes and your money will help pay for clean water to those around the world who need it. You can even direct which country you want it to go to. It works like this:

Every piece of apparel you buy will:

pay for a full year supply of water for a person in Haiti, or
provide for a year supply of water to a local Kenyan community, or
supply four months of water to a family in Peru, or 
provide one year of clean drinking water to a person in Rwanda, or
pay for a one year supply to a person in Tanzania (one piece of outwear provides three years); or
pay for one week of water to a family in the United States.

So, please put these guys on your shopping list. Buy their clothes, wear their clothes, sweat in their clothes, and help others while you are doing it!! 

August 10, 2014

Climbing My First 14er

I climbed my first 14er today, Quandary Peak, elevation 14,265 feet, located in the Ten Mile Range in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Quandary Peak is one of fifty-three peaks in Colorado that rise above 14,000 feet (14ers). Although the 13th highest, it is considered one of the easier 14ers to hike. I wonder if that is why it felt like a shopping mall at the peak? Total distance was 6.5 miles with a 3,500 foot elevation gain. 

 Crowds or not, it is pretty amazing to stand on top of a 14,000 foot mountain and just look out over the horizon. I’ve read some banter about which mountain range is sweeter, the Rockies or the Sierra Nevada. I don’t think it is really a debate because they are so different. The one thing to me that separates them is the sheer size. The Rockies span 3,000 miles from New Mexico into Canada. By comparison, the Sierra range is only 400 miles in length, but is home to the highest peak in the contiguous United States, Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet, as well as the world famous Yosemite National Park.

Oh yea, another cool thing about today’s hike was being able to hang out with the local mountain goats!

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.