December 31, 2012

Saltwater 2012 - The Final Assault

Santiago Peak 5'600 feet at 2:47 pm Sat. December 29
This was a hard one to write. Not because the topic isn't meaningful. No. On the contrary, the final assault was freaking awesome. I think it was hard because it's hard to cram 11.5 hours of so much into so little.

Our first attempt from the ocean to the top of Santiago two weeks ago ended in mixed emotions. Naive about the possibility of the access road closing, we had to turn back with only 2 miles to go to the top. But we weren't prepared. No crew access and eleven runners without water or warm clothes in what would have been 12 more miles and a 45 mile run.  

So why attempt it again? It seems absurd. It was one of the coldest days of the year with rain starting at 9 am and snow starting at 4'500 feet. No vehicles to meet us on top. It was absurd, I think...which I guess is why we did it. But what ensued was really why we did it. 11.5 hours of joking, gasping, sweating, shivering, posing, falling, slipping, sliding, drinking, pissing, eating, crapping, hiking, climbing, worrying, flailing, kneeling, laughing and....oh yea...running. What else are you going to do on a cold winter day in Orange County? Yes, we made it from the ocean to the top of Santiago peak and back down the mountain without vehicles. It wasn't pretty. It wasn't easy. I was just really cold.   

Leading up to the 11.5 hours was, of course, the fact that we haven't failed to reach the summit of Santiago in 9 years. Why let this be the year of infamy? I couldn't bear the thought. 

Thanks Rob M, Bino, and Chris "Cracker" C for sharing my sentiments about this tradition, and for spending those 11.5 hours with me. It was worth every wet, freezing minute. There simply wasn't enough time to coordinate schedules and rally all eleven runners and required crew and transportation for this one. I hope you guys and gals understand. And thanks Jen C and Trina M for dropping and fetching us.        

Pacific Ocean at 5:25 am Saturday Dec 29

"Don't those pants come with big red shoes?"
"Wake up turtles"

"I just texted Padilla...asked him if he's in the mood"

"Smile numb nuts"

My Original Running Family!

Lemon toss tradition....

Jack and the Box. A new tradition? 

Rain Begins at 9 am. Weatherman said 6 pm!

Guys...what else would you be doing today?

Near Old Camp

"I can't feel my fingers!"

"This is colder than I thought it would be"

"Why did we do this?"

"Holy crap, are your lips stuck?"

"Now....both hands on my shoulders..."

"What time did you say we'd be at Cooks Corner?"

"Lets see....I've fallen 5 times and I still have to run down the mountain"

Finally down the mountain. 5:01 pm.

December 22, 2012

Saltwater 5000 v.9.0

"Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face"

Mike Tyson

Call it a lesson learned, a hard knock, a SNAFU (situation normal: all-fucked-up). Whatever you want to call it, Saltwater V.9.0 was a little bitter-sweet. Bitter from not reaching Santiago peak.  Sweet from a great day on trail with some awesome people. Eleven runners started, ten runners ran 41.2 miles. Two runners completed approximately 20 miles. No official course on this day. Only time on foot.

Pre Dawn Start

There were many exceptional moments. A few that stand out are Bino rambling incoherently at the top of Joplin while making his way to his hands and knees...begging for the niceties of a crew. Shivering, chips nearly exiting his upper orifice, but not to be. Tracy D outing Joe R for violating Saltwater's culture by "racing" ahead, only to see Bino flush it down the toilet as he separated from the group up Santiago trail. Dave B et al running on "pizza boxes" through El Moro and Whiting Ranch. Lincoln's dive on the divide. Jeff D and Kevin S shameless ride down the mountain with Uncle Sam. Rob M thinking like and falling apart like the Scarecrow on the top of Joplin (food? layers? what me worry?). Tin Man Kevin S putting the Scarecrow back together. Jeff P not being in  Larry R not complaining once the whole day!

Skate Park

But without the crew the day would have been much different. Locked out of the access road by forrest rangers, they waited at the bottom of Maple Springs road with a half gallon of Meyers Rum. Apparently feeling no pain and hearing some emotion from Tracy D, they ordered forrest rangers up the mountain to save us. Why USFS didn't have the gates open to the public still puzzles me. The website showed the gate was open (see my redemption below) but we are talking the federal government here...

Screen Shot - Open Gate!

A mighty thanks to all the runners of Saltwater 5000 this year, for putting up with my misguided adventure, for sticking to Plan A when the vehicles weren't there, and for getting through it despite the lack of crew, water and revery at the top of Joplin. Also, thanks to all the crew: Dawn, Trina, Eric, Marshall, Ernie, John John, Kevin, and most importantly after nine consecutive years, Al. You guys and gals are what make this event what it really is...a good time with good friends.

Santiago Truck Trail head

Keep it real Saltwater runners and crew!


Larry, Moi, Chris 

Weird Love Affair

Chris and Larry

McNair's Step

Tracy and Eric D

Larry R

"I set the course record in 1993 on....."

We're done!

December 1, 2012

Note to Self...

Just another visual on a day's run. 

Running is a very measurable activity, if you want it to be. Hell, if you're a runner, you might even keep track of your daily miles, weekly miles, PRs, goals, long runs, minutes per mile, heart rate, maybe even your VO2 max . You might even write these things down in a journal somewhere (ok...I'm guilty of some of these, but not all!). But is this a good thing? 

During my run today I told myself to stop and look around once in a while. As soon as I did, I stumbled upon a few things. It was worth the 2 minutes and 45 seconds added to my run. Note to self...try to remember the journey is the reward.  

Maple Leaf Ball?

November 12, 2012

Veterans Day Tribute

Prior to running UTMB last summer, my family visited the Dday beaches and the American Cemetery and Memorial in Normandy, France. The following is a short video of our experience. Double click to enlarge.

Normandy from Will C on Vimeo.

November 4, 2012

New York City Marathon - How Big Is Too Big?

Today I watched an interview with Mary Wittenberg, President of New York Road Runners (NYRR), saying that cancelling the New York City Marathon was an “extraordinarily tough” decision. She also said that it was “extremely difficult news to share with the city and with runners from around the world who are here.” Wittenberg said the decision was made together by NYRR and Mayor Bloomberg’s office. The decision to cancel was made two days before the start of the race and was a reversal from the Mayor’s original decision earlier in the week that the marathon would indeed be run.

I’m struggling to understand why this decision was “extraordinarily tough.” A decision is tough when the outcome of such decision is not clear; when one path becomes two, and you have to decide which path to take, but you’re not sure where either leads. In this case, however, the outcome of the decision was very clear. Run the race and divert critical city resources away from the victims of Hurricane Sandy, or, alternatively, cancel the race and put those resources toward people suffering.

In her interview Wittenberg said  that “the whole idea was come Sunday, for the marathon to bring everybody together, uplift everybody, and help us both honor those hurt and lost in this really difficult tragic storm and also really move the city forward.” She went on to talk about how it was “sad” that the marathon became a matter of “controversy” and “division” in the city which was so opposite of what the marathon is all about.

I understand in normal times how a marathon can bring people together. Volunteers come out to help support the race. Spectators and families come out to cheer for the runners. But after a major natural disaster? When people are without homes and are trying to figure out how to put their lives back together? Is a marathon going to be uplifting to or honor these people? I don’t see it.

How Big is Too Big?

The marathon brings in an estimated $340 million to the city of New York. People travel from all around the world to run this event. They rent hotel rooms. They eat out at restaurants. They buy souvenirs, tee shirts, posters, key chains and hats. They also raise an estimated $34 million for 200 charities. With over 40,000 runners, it’s the biggest of the big city marathons. How big? The biggest in the world. Bigger than the marathons in London, Paris, Tokyo, Chicago and Boston.

The decision to cancel the race wasn’t made until Friday, four days after the mega storm slammed into New York and New Jersey. Of course by that time runners from around the US and oversees had made the trip to New York. It’s no secret Mayor Bloomberg and NYRR’s original decision not to cancel the race generated outrage from local politicians, residents even runners.

Unfortunately, in listening to Wittenberg, it sounds like the Mayor and NYRR made the decision to cancel the race not because it was the right thing to do, but because they faced so much “controversy” and “division.” I would have hoped they reached the decision to cancel the marathon on their own without the pressure from others.

When things become too big they can take on a life of their own. Companies, banks, governments, institutions. Sometimes they can become too big, outgrow their purpose, become self-serving rather than serving their community or constituents. Their leaders talk and act accordingly. When I hear the leader of the organization responsible for the NYC marathon say it is “sad” that the marathon has to be cancelled because people are voicing their concern for the victims of a devastating natural disaster, I can only wonder...has the NYC marathon become too big? Has it taken on a life of its own? Has it become self-serving rather than serving the community?

Turns out that many runners decided to take matters into their own hands. They went door to door to give supplies to the victims of Hurricane Sandy. That is what I call serving the community.   

October 17, 2012

An Open Letter to Lance Armstrong

This letter was posted October 17, 2012, two months before Lance confessed on the Oprah Winfrey show.

Dear Lance:

I don’t know you, but I feel like I know you. Maybe it’s because we share a love for endurance sports. Or maybe it’s because I’ve watched and read about you for so many years.

I remember watching the Tour de France in 1995. Your teammate Fabio Casartelli was killed that year in the Tour when his bike crashed on a dangerous mountain decent. A few days after Fabio’s death, you rode away from the peloton by yourself to win the stage. That day you rode with Fabio. That day you rode with your heart.

The next year you were diagnosed with cancer. At the time, I had no idea how serious your condition was. I later read that you were given a 40% chance of survival. From a world class athlete to a sick patient staring death in the face, you fell into a chasm most humans will never fall. But then you fought back. From that very dark place, you fought back with all your heart.

Your fight to climb out from that dark place is what people care about. Maybe it is because, as human beings, we all need hope. Maybe it is because hope transcends so many things we experience as humans beings. Weakness, fear, passion, success, regret, even death. Hope transcends them all. You should never forget that you have given people hope.

But there is one thing that hope cannot transcend. That is truth. In fact there can be no hope without truth. For a patient to have hope to survive a life threatening illness, he first must know the truth of his condition. For a young athlete to have hope to be a champion one day, she first must know the truth about the rules of her sport. Hope without truth is denial.

Thoreau said “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” But who was Thoreau? Some cast him aside because he lived in the woods as a hermit, away from society and all its pressures. We all know society and its pressures. Sometimes it can make us lose perspective on what is really important.

Just as hope needs the truth to exist, the truth needs nothing at all. The truth exists even when there is no hope. Maybe that is why it is very difficult for us humans to embrace the truth all of the time. For we humans need hope, and when there is no hope, we struggle, and sometimes we turn away from the truth.

Lance, now is the time for you to embrace the truth. When you do, an abundance of hope will be waiting for you. Hope for the continued success of Livestrong. Hope for millions of cancer patients that look to your strength above all else as a cancer survivor. Hope for forgiveness and your own piece of mind. Even hope for the sport of cycling to find its own path to truth.

October 6, 2012

Watch Your Thoughts; They Become...

I'm now officially seeking motivation for another endurance endeavor. With some 17 ultras behind me,  I'm torn between yet-another-100-miler-commitment and something more ethereal, unknown. In the process I came across this quote. It kind of makes me want to explore... 

Watch your thoughts; they become words.

Watch your words; they become actions.

Watch your actions; they become habit.

Watch your habits; they become character.

Watch your character; it becomes your destiny

Lao Tse

September 27, 2012

1,000 Days!

Stopping Near the Wedge
A couple of pics from yesterday's run with Bino who completed his 1,000 consecutive day of running 5 miles or more! That would be a minimum of 5,000 miles, but actually a lot more since he has been doing 10, 20 and 100 milers during this time to get him somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 miles in 1,000 days. Good work and keep it up Bino! It's time to visit the Raven!

Pickled Eggs at Blackies Bar
Jeff P, Bino, Me and Trina M.

September 17, 2012

Riding the Donkey

Eric, a friend of mine from New York, recently posted on his blog that setting numerous short term goals is a great way to "getting back on the horse" and begin working out after a hiatus. I think this is really sage advice.

When I was a kid of about 11 years old, I mounted a pony and it took off in a full sprint. I couldn't stop the stubborn thing. It ran straight for a fence and then abruptly turned just before hitting it. I was thrown to the ground with no debilitating injuries, except the one to my ego.

I hate riding horses.  So I'm glad we're speaking metaphorically here. The point Eric makes is that riding a horse, like committing to and training for a big race or event, can be intimidating. Difficult. You have to be ready for the unexpected and prepare for physical and mental challenges. Once you commit, you're in - or on - to keep the metaphor going. And when you get thrown off (and laughed at - I was with two 5th grade girls), you have to dust yourself off and get right back on.

So let me bring this full circle while I meander through the roundabout point I'm trying to make here. If you want to set a lofty goal and keep your eye focused on "the bigger prize," by all means go out and get on a horse! Hell, visualize yourself as Genghis Khan or Don Quixote and set forth on your journey. Mount your beast and ride it hard. Set your sights on something big. Something that will consume your every weekend. Something that will disrupt the ordinary in your life.

But wait! What if you're not ready to "eye the big prize?" What if you don't want to be Genghis Khan and give up your weekends for conquest? What if you don't want to be Don Quixote teetering between dream-like madness and sanity? Hell, what if you just want to be Quixote's sidekick Sancho Panza and ride a donkey?

What I'm trying to say here is there is a time for a horse and a time for a donkey. That's right, a jackass. You can't always ride a horse (they need rest too). Donkey's are pretty stubborn and slow, but they are steady.

I think there are two good times to ride a donkey. The first is when you're not ready to get back on a horse, but you want to ride something. Something slow and safe that will keep you closer to the ground. Like when you finish a "big prize" event and you're body just isn't ready for another rodeo.

The second time to ride a donkey is when your metaphor is beating a dead horse.

September 4, 2012

Ultra Trail Mont Blanc - 2012 Race Report and Commentary

The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) takes place in the awe inspiring European Alps. A place where majestic white capped peaks rise poetically from quaint villages and green valleys. A place so beautiful that when I arrived I wanted to break into the song The Hills are Alive from the Movie the Sound of Music.

But when I found myself backsliding down a muddy ski slope during UTMB all I could think of was trying not to kill myself. When I finally grabbed hold of a tree stump to stop from shimmying right off the mountain, I righted myself, took one more step, and went down again. There was no singing Doe Ray Me now. It was a night out in the pouring rain and snow.
Family Before the Start
This year’s UTMB was 104 kilometers with 20,000 feet of elevation gain, a shorter version of the traditional 100 mile course with 30,000 feet of gain. Race officials decided that the high mountain passes on the traditional 100 mile course were too dangerous from the rain, snow, fog and ice. Was I disappointed with the change? Absolutely. It’s always difficult to spend months preparing for something specific, like a 100 mile race in the Alps, travel half way across the globe, then learn that you are running a different event.

Ready to Start

When the gun went off some 2,300 runners from around the world scrambled through the narrow streets of Chamonix. It reminded me of a big city marathon, with supporters along the streets cheering loudly and kids reaching out for high fives. With such a large number of runners and fans in the streets there wasn’t much room to run. I got stuck pretty far back in the pack at the start and it took around 15 minutes before I was able to really run my pace.

There were so many runners that I very rarely found myself running alone on trail. Despite the crowded conditions, particularly in the early stages, runners were very focused and deliberate about where they were on the trail. I found Europeans to be very considerate and mindful of other runners, which was different from what I heard. There were times when the trail was so crowded I had to watch every step in order not to trip the guy in front or me. This was more impressive given most runners (including myself) used trekking poles.

The Cold

My disappointment with the course modification quickly faded once I started experiencing the conditions. The race started at 7 pm in the rain with snow around 6,000 feet. Race officials sent a text to the runners before the start advising of the inclement weather. They suggested we carry four layers of clothing. It turned out to be good advice. With the snow, rain and fog, by the time I hit the 18 mile aid station my fingers were numb and I was beginning to shiver when I stopped.  

Thankfully my fearless wife and daughter were there waiting for me in the rain with dry clothes (all wrapped in plastic bags). I quickly changed into dry layers and new gloves. It turns out that wrapping my spare clothes in plastic bags was a life saver. I met some other runners who didn’t use plastic bags and their clothes were soaked when they got to the aid station. They had to drop.

The Mud

The closest I’ve come to running in this much mud was in Washington State at the Capitol Peak 50 miler in April. I wasn’t equipped for the mud then and I wasn’t now. One thing I’ve learned is that real mud and Hoka One One shoes don’t work well together. As much as I love my Hoka’s (I’ve raced my last six ultras in them), they’re dismal in slime. I would liken them to hover crafts when they touch slippery terrain. I was on my ass so many times I was afraid to stand up, opting for my hands and knees like a toddler learning to walk.

The Climbs

There were times when I just shook my head and wondered if the person who designed this modified course was angry or simply masochistic. Did we runners do something wrong here? We would climb up several thousand feet of technical, steep trail, then descend, then climb again. The climbing was different than what I’m used to here in California. These weren’t long gradual climbs like you find at Western States or Angeles Crest, these were steeper, longer and more technical. The kind you put your head down on and don’t look up for an hour or more later, and when you do, you regret it because you still can’t see the top.

Makeshift Race Profile

In the early section of the race we followed the traditional UTMB course. Around mile 23 we veered onto the alternate course and into the unknown. The trail was marked well, but I was never sure of the distance we had travelled. There were no distance markers along the trail. The day of the race I traced a copy of the race profile to carry with me to give me a sense of the timing and severity of the climbs. I’m not sure this helped much because I remember being surprised very often - by the number and size of climbs. I think I was just beat up and exhausted. And probably in denial.

At one point I asked a few spectators how far it was to the finish line. I was physically and mentally done. Two kilometers I was told. Thank god, I thought to myself. So as I came off the mountain and into the village I could feel the energy building inside of me. My pace quickened. I removed my headlight to prepare for the finishing photo. Then I rounded a corner and ran into an aid station tent. What?  “Is this the finish?” I asked another runner. “No the finish is in Chamonix!” he replied. I felt like a dope. We still had 5 miles to go!

As I approached the village of Chamonix, my body was spent. But I could hear the people cheering and see the kids raising their hands to me. My pace quickened. Then I saw my family. My two daughters jumped out to the street and ran on both sides of me. As we made our way through the next few turns toward the finish, the crowd grew louder. I reached out for my daughters’ hands. I looked at both of their faces and knew they were in the moment. They smiled back at me. Then, 17 hours and 56 minutes after beginning this trek, we raised our arms and stepped across the finish line, together. 

As always this event was only possible with the support of so many volunteers and my crew. Thanks to the volunteers at UTMB who worked hard throughout the night in difficult conditions. And a special thanks to my crew including my wife Jen C, my two daughters and our cousins Steve and Clare P. They braved the bad weather to make sure I had what I needed for this difficult journey.

Beat Up and Glad to Be Done! 

Will I Return?

Maybe. There are a lot of great things and not so great things about the whole UTMB experience. Let me lay out some of the positives and negatives.

The Good

First, the spectators are stupendous. They were out all night in the rain chanting silly chants and singing silly songs. They have so much passion compared to spectators in the United States which, outside of friends and family of the runners, are pretty scarce.  The volunteers were also very cheerful and helpful, even with the language barrier.

Second, the European runners are amazing. Over 2,300 runners entered UTMB, a significant majority being European. What I noticed about them was when we were climbing up these endless hills in the middle of the night under the cold rain and snow, or groveling in the mud like pigs, I never once saw anyone complain or appear distraught. No one really even talked (language barrier?). I’m thankful that most of them didn’t speak English because I threw quite a few pity parties out there; and they just looked at me and shrugged. The European runners might just be a little tougher than us American runners, well, at least this American runner. 

Chamonix and the Alps are not to be missed. My family spent six days in the village. Even with the challenging weather during the race, there is something storybook about the whole experience. You walk through the village with thousands of ultra runners, sit down for a beer and a Cuban cigar, look up at the jagged mountains, then have some cheese and foie gros. Not exactly a pre race ritual you want to make a habit of, but you’re in France!

The Bad

First, when you enter UTMB, unless things change, there are strong odds that you won’t be able to run the 100 mile distance. The race has been held for ten years and shortened twice due to severe weather. Why UTMB race officials haven’t devised an alternate 100 mile course (i.e. Western States) in the event of poor weather conditions I don’t understand. There are so many trails in the Alps! The 2012 course included a climb up several thousand feet on paved road. I’m confident race officials can figure out an alternate “snow course” at a lower elevation but with trails of similar quality as well as similar distance and elevation gain as the traditional 100 mile course.

Second, crew support. This one is inexcusable. When my wife and 13 year old daughter were waiting for me at the aid station there were no places for them to seek shelter from the cold rain in the middle of the night. When they tried to duck under a race tent, they were scolded by race officials and asked to leave. Because of the cold rain both of them struggled to stay warm throughout the night. My nine year old daughter waited for two hours in the rain with her aunt and uncle to catch a bus back to Chamonix.

Chaotic Start
UTMB bills itself as a “semi-autonomous” event with crew support limited to one person per runner. The Official UTMB program talks about “adapting oneself in the conditions of the country in which one is situated”. But UTMB goes overboard here. While still trying for a man versus nature right of passage, it has become a mega marketed event catering to 6,000 runners, their families and friends from around the world. It’s time UTMB wakes up an realizes it is now the New York City Marathon of ultras. Putting up some shelter for the families and crew when it is pouring rain would be a good start.

Lining Up to Receive Race Packets
Third, I chose to start running ultra’s because of the low key, down home atmosphere these races offered. Unlike big city marathons, which are marketed to the masses and are designed as mega events, I believe ultra’s should get us away from the crowds and into nature. The Ultra Trail Mont Blanc is an incredible event, but it does not get you away from the crowds. It started “from a meeting of friends to make the tour of Mont Blanc by path, individually, in a single stage”. But with so many runners and support crew, there is no making the tour of Mont Blanc individually. Unless you are a front runner, you are surrounded by people nearly every step of the way.

UTMB describes itself as an event of “liking and practicing the mountain and respecting it.” My question to the race directors is how large does this event become before one should question their respect for the mountain?

Having not run the full 100 mile trail of the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, I think it is impossible for me to draw a fair conclusion on this event. To do this would require me to come back to Chamonix for another bite at the apple.