Sunday, November 22, 2015

2015 Rio Del Lago 100 Race Report

Beards: fashion statement of ultra-runners and homeless
It's always darkest before the dawn

You know you've hit rock bottom when you find yourself drinking beer on a park bench in the wee hours of the morning, shivering cold and unable to remember when you last showered or had a warm meal.

A scraggly homeless-looking man with a long disheveled beard that would make a 17th-century pirate proud shuffles past. The wind whips at his beard like a tattered flag that's been left hanging outside for a few too many seasons. His face is covered with what appears to be a mixture of equal parts dirt, dried snot, and food crumbs (possibly cookies, but it's too dark to tell).

He's wearing two garbage bags that have been fashioned into some kind of makeshift hooded windbreaker. He limps past in slow motion, each step seeming to take an eternity. As you look into his dead eyes you can feel the weariness of his soul. You begin to question your own life and to lament the decisions you've made that have lead you to this point.

"Why did I click that damn 'Register Now' button on," you muse to yourself. You're an ultra runner and you've just finished a grueling 100 mile race. As you take a sip from your fancy bottle of expensive Oregon craft-beer -- and a myriad of juicy citrus hop aromas and flavors envelope your mouth -- the throbbing pain of the giant blister on your big toe fades into the background.

"Hey Brendan, good race," you shout to your red-bearded compatriot as he hobbles past, clutching his finisher's belt buckle tightly, the metal glowing, almost magically, in the first light of the breaking dawn. A bird begins to chirp and you close your eyes and drift off to the sleep, the comforting smell of freshly-cooked bacon wafting through your dreams.

UFO preparing to abduct us?
What the fuck am I doing out here?

"Seriously, what the [bleep] [bleep] [bleep] am I doing out here Jeff?" I ask my pacer Jeff Clowers, only somewhat rhetorically, for probably the hundredth time as we make our way over a brutal section of the course that's known affectionately, and for very good reason, as the "Meat Grinder". We are eighty-seven miles into the race and I am so ready for it to be over already.

But Jeff knows the drill; he's no newbie to this pacing shit. He spent nearly 20 hours slogging through the mountains with me during the last 50 miles of my Tahoe 200 race last year where he had to explain to me, on more than one occasion, why it probably wasn't a great idea to lay down and take a "death nap" on the top of a 8,500 mountain at night during a freezing rainstorm. So I had relatively "full confidence" that he'd get me to finish line again this time despite any bonehead antics that I may or may not attempt.

"Hey, what the fuck is that up in the sky," I say, pointing up at the white beam of light that appears to be an alien spacecraft hovering above us, undoubtedly fidgeting with their tractor beam as they ready their instruments for a series of exploratory anal probes.

"Oh, it's probably just one of those searchlights that car dealerships shine up into the sky," Jeff tries to reassure me. "Or maybe Mattress Discounters is having an end of the month sale." This last notion intrigues me; a soft pillow-top mattress would be amazing right now. But, like Robert Frost wrote in Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, "But I've got promises to keep / And thirteen miserable more fucking miles before I sleep."

That time I abducted Steve Patt the night before the race

Steve Patt suddenly realized he'd made a terrible mistake. As I peeled out of his driveway, squealing tires and burning rubber down his quiet residential street, Steve immediately regretted his decision to carpool with me up to Rio Del Lago. Out of the corner of my eye I saw see him surreptitiously text his wife. Something about alerting the authorities if she didn't hear back from him every hour. It was difficult to read over his shoulder, especially at such high speeds.

Eventually, after several unplanned stops for potty breaks (where Steve had ample opportunity to escape and flee I might add) we arrived safely at our hotel in Folsom. We drove over to the race headquarters and picked up our race bibs and listened to the mandatory race briefing. [I should write "listened" in quotation marks, because I spent more time chatting with Quicksilver teammates than actually listening to the briefing. But let's assume the briefing contained a bunch of super useful stuff that I would later regret having missed.]

Steve generously invited me to join him for dinner after the briefing at the local brew-pub, but I reluctantly informed him that I was on strict diet of cocktail peanuts and Greek yogurt, which pretty much limits my dining-out options. So yeah, I ate a bag of peanuts alone in my room like a weirdo and then got ready for bed. It wasn't even 7 o'clock yet and was out for the night.

Nine hours later I popped up out of bed, made a surprisingly decent cup of instant coffee, and successfully managed to correctly put my right and left running shoes onto the respective feet.

Hey, at least he's "sponsored"
What the what???

"Don't do anything stupid. Don't do anything stupid. Don't do anything stupid," I repeated like a mantra to myself over and over as we stood in the dark waiting for the race to start. But "not doing anything stupid" has always been a challenge for me. I'm known for my erratic pacing and proclivity for making bold race moves at tactically questionable times. Like earlier this year at FatDog when I attacked on the first climb of a 120 mile long race... and ended up dropping at mile 78.

Speaking of stupid things, I couldn't help but laugh as I looked over and saw a shirtless dude (note: it was so cold that the rest of us were all wearing shirts, jackets, hats and gloves) who had his sponsor's name written on his bare chest... with a sharpie. Talk about low budget. LOL. But hey, at least he's got a sponsor (I guess).

Also, perhaps more amusing is that his sponsor is a company who markets "high-end luxury lubricant" that promises to "transfer sensation while reducing friction". So naturally I had to Google this stuff. Let's just say that the company's homepage could easily be mistaken for a soft-porn website. (Side note: I wonder how one goes about getting sponsored by anal-lubricant manufacturer anyway?)

I definitely was not surprised when this guy immediately bolted off into the lead in the first hundred yards of the race. Similarly, I was also not surprised when somewhere around mile 45 we passed him and then never saw him again. But I don't want to sound too dismissive; I'm grateful for the sharpie-chested gentleman. For the first time ever, I wasn't the shirtless jackass who went out in the lead and then blew up :)

Cold morning race start
The "conservative-yet-fast" pacing fallacy

I had told everyone who would listen (and even some who wouldn't) that I wasn't planning to actually "race" this race; instead I was just going to take it easy and make sure I finished. Having dropped out of my only other Western States qualifying race back at FatDog, this was my last chance to get my name into the Western States lottery (Rio Del Lago is literally the last race on the 2015 calendar of Western States qualifiers).

Instead of hammering the first half of the race and then trying to hold and survive, which is my typical race strategy, I decided that I would run at a "conservative-yet-fast" pace -- as if that's an actual thing. So when Luke Garten, and the anal-lube-sharpie-chested guy, and a couple other of the early leaders charged off out of sight, I checked my ego and resisted the urge to do anything incredibly stupid -- which took a surprising amount of will power.

There I was, running my patent-pending "conservative-yet-fast" 7:30 minute-mile pace for the first twenty-mile section of asphalt bike path from Beal's Point down through Folsom and back. The addition of the hard unforgiving asphalt loop was a new "improvement" for this year's race, and unfortunately an "improvement" that I neither approved of nor prepared for. I can tell you that my poor quads -- or what's left of them -- certainly didn't approve!

I definitely would have gone a bit slower on this section if I had been alone, but I found myself running alongside Quicksilver teammate Ricky Russel, who was making his hundred miler debut. Ricky is a much faster runner than me and the sensible thing for me to do would have been to ease up and let Ricky run off ahead on his own. But no one's ever accused Big Johnny of being sensible!

After the bike-path purgatory section of the course, we thankfully got to finally run on actual trails. I was struggling a bit with some mild GI issues, but I managed to keep moving pretty well despite a few impromptu visits off trail to the bushes. I was surprised to learn that Ricky and I were in 4th and 5th place, which was higher than I expected (or wanted) to be at that point. My "conservative-yet-fast" strategy was tilting a bit more toward "pretty-fucking-fast-and-not-quite-so-conservative".

Which should I drink: this stuff or my pee?
It was only a matter of time until I did something else stupid

Ricky had been moving well all morning, but then suddenly around mile 26 or so he fell back mentioning that a lingering toe problem was throwing his gait off and causing quite a bit of muscle tightness. I wished him well, hoping that maybe he would loosen back up at some point. But unfortunately I didn't see him again after that, and I later learned that he dropped at Rattlesnake Bar at mile 36.

Left to my own devices, I started to slow down a bit. That's when I was caught and overtaken by another runner, Dominick Layfield, moving me from 4th down to 5th place. Even though I supposedly wasn't "racing," I never like being passed, and I instinctively picked up the pace in order to keep Dominick in sight. The change of pace actually felt quite good as my legs had been getting a bit tight. At this point I was moving efficiently and everything felt great...

... And then suddenly I was completely fucked. I'd made a questionable tactical decision earlier that morning to not wear my running vest (which holds two water bottles) and to instead just carry one handheld bottle (you know, to save weight or some silly shit). This proved to be a very poor decision on the 9 mile long, exposed section with no aid between Granite Beach (mile 24) and Horseshoe Bar (mile 33). Only 5 miles into this segment and I had completely drained my bottle.

As I thirstily eyed every muddy little slime-filled puddle on the last 4 miles of that hot exposed section of the course, I began seriously debating the pros and cons of drinking my own urine. Pro: it's probably rich in vitamins and electrolytes. Con: it probably tastes like piss. Pro: it's probably more more sanitary than a bacteria filled mud puddle. Con: it probably tastes like piss.

#Showboatin' #Stuntin' #Flossin' #OnFleek

You can't fix stupid with more stupid

What happens out on the trail stays out on the trail. But I can at least tell you that I made sure to bring an unopened can of Coke with me as I left every aid station after that, just to avoid running out of fluid again. And for some reason, I also avoided drinking Mountain Dew or any yellow-colored sports drinks at the aid stations for the remainder of the race.

After just a short three mile jaunt between Horseshoe Bar (mile 33) and Rattlesnake Bar (mile 36), we began a long climb up to Last Gasp (mile 42) and Auburn Horse Assembly (mile 45). It was on the base of the steep climb up to Last Gasp where I caught back up to Dominick and another runner, thus leapfrogging up from 5th to 3rd place.

 At this point, for reasons that are still not completely clear to me, I decided to show off by running (rather than power hiking) the steep mile-long climb. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. That superfluous bit of showboating, while rather amusing, was probably ill-advised so early in the race. Several miles later Dominick caught back up to me again on the long descent down to the iconic No-Hands bridge.

Dominick and I bridged up to the previously mentioned shirtless-sharpie-sex-lube dude, who apparently claimed to have just had a "life-changing encounter" with a bear on the side of the trail! I didn't catch all the details, so I can't speculate as to whether any high-end luxury lubricant was involved. Dominick and I were now running together in 2nd and 3rd place, but still quite a ways back from the leader Luke Garten.

My pacer Jeff, kilted up for battle
Jeff Clowers to the rescue

Dominick and I backed off the pace a bit and started chatting on the climb up from No-Hands bridge to the Cool Firestation (mile 52). He entertained me with a great story about his epic battle with Jesse Haynes for 2nd place at the Bear 100 in September. I reciprocated by launching into a detailed account of all my hard-won Strava CRs at the local park near my house.

Dom told me about the time he held off Timmy Olson at a race in Europe. I told him my story about almost getting run down by Timmy Olson at Hardrock. By the time we arrived at Cool it felt like we were old friends. And then the bastard dropped me! LOL. He got in and out of the aid station like a Nascar pit crew, while I screwed around posing for selfies, signing autographs and chatting with my fans -- all three of them.

I really struggled on the next section, an 8 mile loop on the Olmstead Trail through Knickerbocker canyon. Even though I made sure to bring an extra can of coke with me in addition to my water bottle, I still ran out of fluids pretty early into the warm exposed loop and ended up hiking most of the last few miles. About a mile or so from the turnaround at mile 60 I got to see the two race leaders -- Luke and Dominick come running back out past me. Luke was still in the lead, but Dominick was only a minute behind and closing fast.

When I got back to the aid station at Cool, my pacer Jeff Clowers was standing by in his kilt -- apparently ready to lead us into battle on the Scottish Highlands. Just having somebody to run and chat with again did wonders for my morale; we made great time on the second reverse-direction loop. This was also my first chance to see all the other runners behind me. Everyone was looking pretty strong, including women's race leader Erika Lindland, which was great -- but which also meant I would not be able to slack much if I wanted to hold on to my podium spot.

Jeff and I made quick work of the second loop and powered up the paved road back into Cool at mile 68. It was pretty chaotic with hundreds of people standing around cheering. Everyone kept yelling that I was only ten minutes back of the leaders and that I was looking stronger than those two guys.

I heard a few people yell my name, but everything was kind of a blur. I did manage to pick out my friend Jessi who is hard to miss with her cowbell and big red hair! I also briefly spotted my buddy Karl Schnaitter who helped pace me last year at Tahoe 200, but then I got distracted my the smell of a grilled cheese.

I'll take that can of coke to go please!
And then things start to go downhill (in more ways than one)

The three-mile descent from Cool back down to No-Hands bridge (mile 71) was pretty awesome. I was surprised to see quite a few runners still coming up on their way into Cool as we headed down. It was at that point that it really started to sink in just how well I was doing. Everyone was so friendly and kept shouting out encouragement. I felt a bit like a celebrity. It was so cool to have a small taste of what it must feel like to be an elite runner.

After the fun descent down to No-Hands, Jeff and I started the long hike up Robie Point back toward Auburn Horse Assembly (mile 75). Somewhere along this section the sun went down and my shirt and headlamp came out. It got surprisingly cold, surprisingly quickly. I felt bad for the runners we passed who were still coming from the opposite direction, already some 25 miles behind us with a long cold night in front of them.

We made great time on descent from Auburn Horse Assembly down the paved road to Last Gasp (mile 78) . But then everything started to go downhill (figuratively) for me as as soon as we (literally) stopped going downhill. I'm not sure if I fell behind on calories, or if maybe the early conservative-but-probably-too-fucking-fast pace on the asphalt bike path was finally catching up to my quads? Jeff did his best to keep me motivated and moving, but that section of technical rolling single track along the American River back toward Rattlesnake Bar (mile 84) seemed to take forever.

I spent a few minutes at the Rattlesnake Bar aid station refueling and tending to business in the bathroom. Suddenly, to my horror I heard everyone start cheering again while I was in the bathroom. I safely assumed that they weren't applauding my bowel movement (as spectacular as it might have been). Shit, that must mean another runner had just arrived. So much for my 3rd place podium spot. I didn't know who it was at the time, but I later learned it was fellow Bay Area runner Ray Sanchez closing strong.

The rest of my race from this point on was basically a colossal shit show. While I had been previously averaging 10 minute miles for most of the race, the miles that followed were in the 16 - 18 minute per mile range. I walked any slight incline that even remotely resembled a hill. I stepped carefully over every rock and pile of horse poop as if there might be a hundred foot drop off on the other side. It got real ugly, real fast.

Run. Forest. Run.
I'm not quite dead yet

As Jeff and I slowly shuffled along the interminable 9 mile section of horse trails from Rattlesnake Bar (mile 84) back toward Granite Beach (mile 96), I kept looking back, wondering who was going to pass me next. I was thankful that Ray Sanchez had already passed me and taken over 3rd place so that I no longer had the pressure of having to defend a podium spot. Now I could saunter back as leisurely as I liked.

And then, inconceivably, I saw two lights of a runner and his pacer up ahead of us on the trail. Who could possibly be moving slower than me? Surely it must just be two random hikers or equestrians out in the woods in the dark of night in the middle of nowhere (yeah, because that makes sense). But no, it turns out it was former race leader Luke Garten whose legs had given out on him and who was now just trying to hike it in for his first 100 mile finish.

"Fuck," I whispered to my pacer Jeff. "We're back in third place again. Looks like we'll actually have to do some running," I sighed as we broke into what felt like a fast gallop or canter, but which probably more resembled a slow trot. When we finally arrived back at Granite Beach (mile 96) I was so happy to almost be done that I nearly started crying. I confidently assured my buddy Jeff, "It's all downhill from here."

"Where the fuck did these hills come from," I shouted in disbelief as we made our way over several stupid uphill sections that I swore hadn't been there this morning. I gave up mentally and decided to just hike it in. And with that decision, I slipped from 3rd place to 5th as two sets of runners and their pacers ran past me in the last 4 miles.

"Don't worry Jeff," I said, "We're got less than a mile to go. There's no way anyone else is going to catch us now." Of course, the very second I finished saying that, we looked behind us and saw another light approaching fast. "Fuck. Shit. Son of bitch," I mumbled quietly. As we crested the final climb and emerged onto the levy I could see the finish line just two hundred yards away. "No one can beat me in a 200 yard sprint I proclaimed," as I took off in an all-out sprint, desperately trying to hold off the hard-charging headlamp behind me.

I think this is slightly uphill; let's walk!
Trying to out sprint the undead

Unfortunately, while the physical finish line itself was only 200 yards away, I discovered, much to my fucking dismay, that we still had to run a half mile superfluous loop around the damn parking lot.

"Motherfucker. Cocksucker. Son of bitch," I mumbled again as I continued sprinting around the perimeter of the parking lot trying to outrun the headlamp behind me that I still hadn't managed to shake.

"How can this guy still be running so fast at the end of a 100 miler," I wondered incredulously in complete disbelief. "And wait a minute... it looks like he is taking a shortcut across the parking lot. What the fuck," I protested silently as I continued my all out sprint towards the finishing chute.

As I crossed the finish line in 5th place, over 6 minutes ahead of the next finisher, I later learned that the phantom headlamp chasing me through the parking lot was actually my very own pacer Jeff!  Rather than just stopping at the finish line when we initially passed it, he decided to continue chasing me the entire way through the parking lot. I can only assume this was to pay me back for my earlier post on social media saying that I planned to try and drop him.

In retrospect the silly sprinting nonsense was pretty funny -- especially since I had been joking with my buddy Matt Ward, who has making his 100 miler debut, that I hoped he and I finished together so I could out sprint him in the chute. So yeah, I guess the lesson here is to be careful what you wish for because you might actually get it :)

Despite all my whining during the last 10 miles of the race, I was still very pleased with my performance. Not only did I finish 5th overall and qualify for Western States, but I improved my previous 100 mile PR by over two hours with my 18:36:54 finish! Yeah!

Here's a link to my Strava data and here's the official race results.

Shout outs

First and foremost, a big shout out to JC who gave me the strength and faith, even in my darkest hour, to carry on. I'm talking of course about my pacer, Jeff Clowers. Thanks again dude. You're the best!

Congrats to Dominick Layfield for his impressive victory. He ran a smart, strong race all day and definitely deserved the win. And congratulations also to Erika Lindland who won the women's race in 19:24:24 despite getting off course and running some bonus miles!

Big ups to Matt Ward, Dave Moore, Lisa Decker, and everyone else who kicked butt and finished their first 100 miler!

And congrats to Quicksilver teammates and veteran 100 mile runners John Brooks, Bjorn Flatt, and Veronica Fujisawa who each brought home another buckle for their collections!

Condolences to Quicksilver teammate Steve Patt, who fought valiantly, and who will hopefully git er done next time. He should hold his head high; just surviving a three-hour car ride with Big Johnny is something to be proud of in itself!

And of course, crazy-mad-props to all the wonderful volunteers, crews, and pacers who gave up their day (and night) to help out a bunch of crazy, sleep-deprived, stinky runners. Special thanks to Jessi Goldstein for bringing me bacon and beer when I was too stiff and sore to hobble over to the food tent!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

2015 Skyline to the Sea 50K Race Report

I hope they don't drug test

As I stood at the start line of the race -- disoriented, dizzy and sweating -- I immediately regretted taking those drugs earlier that morning. No, not the performance-enhancing kind of drugs that fall out of the back of Lance Armstrong's jersey pocket when he rides over a pothole. And no, not even the hey-that-cloud-looks-like-a-cat-riding-on-a-unicorn recreational kind of drugs that I "accidentally" ingested, quite frequently, back in college. No, I'm talking about the hardcore kind of drug that will put you on your ass... grape flavored Dramamine for kids.

Why would I intentionally ingest a handful of children's motion sickness pills hours before a big race you ask? Other than the fact that I really like the grape flavor. Fair question. Well, it has to do with the time I ended up swallowing a mouthful of my own vomit after getting sick on a twisty mountain bus ride to Stinson Beach. Basically, there's a reason why I'm not a jet fighter pilot. Or a high-seas pirate captain. Or why, even now as an adult, I'm still not allowed to ride a merry-go-round.

So, knowing that I'm more prone to motion sickness that even young children and pregnant women, I was dreading the morning bus ride from the parking lot at Waddell Creek Beach up the winding mountain road to the race start on Skyline Boulevard. Rather than risk getting sick, I decided to pop a few of the children's Dramamine pills I keep in my car for my son.

But having no idea how many of the children's pill I would need as an adult, I ate the whole box. That should do it, right? The warning label cautioned about "possible drowsiness." It  should have said, "Ha. Good luck keeping your eyes open."

The bus ride was supposed to be about an hour-and-a-half long, but I only remember the first few seconds. And then I woke up, groggy and befuddled, when my pants around my ankles. How had I gotten off the bus and into the port-o-potty? How long had I been here. Had I already used the bathroom, and had I (hopefully) remembered to wipe? And then I I fell back asleep again for who knows how long.

Nice views from the mountain top
photo by Thomas Neubert

Off and running... way too f'ing fast

Eventually, after my impromptu port-o-potty power nap, I made my over way to the start line and said hello to my friends and Quicksilver Running Club teammates -- some of whom were running the marathon and others of whom were doing the 50K. Familiar faces included Andy Belk, Jill Cole, Loren Crannel, Will Gotthardt, Keith Lubliner, Jeff Pace, Jamey Slaton, Zack Steinkamp, and probably a few others who I am forgetting. I even got a chance to catch up with "Australian ultra-running legend" Marty Hack, with whom I'd run Tahoe 200 last year.

The race started and everyone immediately took off flying down the trail. One of the tricky things about this race is that both the marathon and the 50K start at the same time and essentially run the exact same course (except that the 50K runners do an extra five mile loop in the middle of the race before rejoining the marathon course). So it's not always easy to ascertain whether a runner ahead of you is in your race or not. Also, it's easy, as a 50K runner, to get drawn into going out at the slightly faster marathon pace.

So there I was, tucked in behind Marty, cranking out sub 7 minute miles for the first 10K. [Note: I would later regret this]. At some point I decided that the pace was probably a bit too aggressive for me, and I dialed it back a bit. Nonetheless, I was still moving fairly well and I caught up to a couple of other runners who had gone out faster than me including down-hill phenom Andy Belk who seemed to be paying for his early efforts as he was already power hiking the first gentle uphill section.

Andy and leapfrogged a bit for the next few miles until we reached the turnoff at mile 13 where Andy and the other marathon runners got to proceed straight ahead while myself and the other 50K runners had to turn right and run a grueling hot and hilly 5 mile loop. I want to complain about how much that loop sucked and how much of it I was forced to hike instead of run. But I think I might have actually caught a couple other runners during that loop, so maybe I should just be grateful.

Practicing my corpse pose... just in case
Photo by Thomas Neubert

Hiking and playing in the river

After I finished the hot, hilly five mile loop, the aid station volunteer mentioned something about it getting hotter and being a long eight miles to the next aid station. I should have paid more attention. I should have panicked and asked if anyone had a second water bottle I could borrow. What I should NOT have done is just run out of the aid station as quickly as possible trying to chase down the next guy ahead of me. But of course that's what I did.

Several miles later, completely out of water and struggling to even swallow my own spit because my mouth was so dry, I began eyeing stagnant pools of green brackish water. I even had a few Mad Max type fantasies about catching another runner and then mugging them for their water. But unfortunately every other runner I caught up to was also out of water. Finally I came to a river where I jumped and started lapping water up with my tongue like a dog.

For whatever reason though, it never occurred to me to also refill my empty bottle in the river. So, things went OK for the next couple miles. I caught and passed a few other runners, most of whom like my teammate Thomas Anderson Zack Steinkamp were running the marathon. But then I started getting thirsty and overheating again, and with no water to drink, my pace slowed.

I knew that there were probably only 2 or 3 more miles left in the race, but I wasn't sure if there would be another aid station before the finish or not. Finally I saw a little trickle of water coming down off the hillside and flowing out of a metal drainage pipe. I climbed down through the blackberry bushes (that upon closer inspection looked suspiciously like poison oak) and refilled my bottle from the natural-spring (sewage drain?) pipe.

Two hundreds yards later I turned the corner and saw an aid station. So I dumped my water of questionable potability over my head and refilled with some presumably clean water (though who knows, maybe they got it from the same pipe). Unfortunately, the dehydration had already set in and I was suffering. It was right about this point that I got re-passed by another runner, Stewart Ellis, who I had passed about a mile before.

I had no idea what place I was in at this point, but I assumed probably somewhere between 4th and 6th. Though honestly I didn't care. I was way behind my A-goal and B-goal finish times of 3:59:59 and 4:15:00 respectively. At this point I wasn't interested in killing myself trying to chase anybody down for 4th or 5th place, or whatever. So I jogged it in and crossed the line in 4:33:32 in what turned out to be 6th place overall. Live to fight another day.

Marathon runner Hongjing Du
photo by Thomas Neubert

A few beers later

After the race I caught up with my Australian mate, Marty Hack, who had finished half an hour ahead of me in 3rd place, less than a minute behind 2nd place runner, Ryan Woodhouse. I guess, like myself, Marty was also running on fumes for those last few kilometers. Finishing about 10 minutes ahead of Ryan and Marty was the men's 50K winner, Erik Sorenson, who was the only runner to break 4 hours today.

The women's 50K race was won by Jennie Yeaman who finished 8th overall in 4:47:28. Second place went to Raelene Bendall of Australia who finished 9th overall -- and who claimed family bragging rights by "chick'ing" her husband Gavin Bendall who finished a bit later in a respectable 19th place overall. I hung out with Marty, Raelene and Gavin after the race and was happy to introduce them to a few West coast IPAs.

I guess some people also ran the shorter, wimpier marathon race instead of the 50K. But since those bastards skipped the hardest part of the course (the hilly 5 mile loop of doom) they get no love from me. LOL.

Here's the official 50K results, and here's my Strava data, which is obviously not completely accurate unless you believe that I am capable of throwing down a few 3:00 minute miles in the middle of a 50K.

Friday, October 2, 2015

2015 Dances With Dirt 50K Race Report

A Speedo and a Bow Tie?

Dirty Brides relay team

You know that nightmare where your friends invite you to a costume party and you show up in a Speedo and a bow tie... only to discover it's not actually a costume party and you're the only one dressed up? That happened to me this past weekend at the Dances with Dirt 50K in Hell, Michigan.

I decided to run this race at the last minute, just a couple of days beforehand. I was initially considering running the 100K relay with some friends. However, I had some work commitments later that afternoon so I figured it was wiser to just run the shorter, individual 50K race, which started earlier in the morning so that I could be done in time to get back to work.

My friends had talked about how crazy this race was, how everyone dressed up in wild costumes, and (perhaps most importantly) how much beer everyone drank during the event. If you know me, you know there are three things I love: running, drinking beer, and running while drinking beer (in my underwear). So this race seemed like the perfect storm!

Standing in the dark before the 6:15 am race start, I slipped out of my sweatsuit and stripped down to my stars-and-stripes Speedo and matching American-flag arm warmers and bow tie. Feeling a little self-conscious, I glanced around at my compatriots, to see what other crazy costumes people were wearing. You know, maybe some sexy nurses or sexy cops. Perhaps a Chippendale's dancer or two. My heart immediately sank into my stomach.

"Oh fuck. I'm the only one dressed up," I gasped as I glanced around at all the serious-looking runners in their serious-looking singlets and actual running shorts. No one else is dressed like a jack ass. "What the hell is going on," I wondered. Well, as I would later find out... While the relay race, which starts later in the day, is basically a drunken costume party, the 50K is a serious race for the more serious runner. Well, fuck me.

"Allow myself to introduce... myself."
And then I was in last place.

So the race starts and I immediately find myself in a pack of three other, much more seriously dressed, runners. We're moving pretty fast, flying through the first mile or two of technical single track in the dark with our headlamps and flashlights. Then suddenly the lead runner comes to an abrupt halt and we four all crash into each other. We look down at a sign in the middle of the trail that says, "Wrong Way". Shit, we're off course already?

We all immediately start shining our lights into the woods, wondering if perhaps this is the start of one of the infamous off-trail sections through the forest that we'd been warned about? Suddenly the other runners behind us start arriving and everyone is trying to figure out where to go. It's starting to become a real cluster fuck. Panicking a bit, I make an executive decision and start running down the trail to my right, which though unmarked, seems like it must be the right direction. [Spoiler alert: it was the completely wrong fucking direction].

Jim Harbaugh and staff are everywhere these days!
Several minutes later I come to an unmarked intersection where the trail diverges into three different, equally unmarked directions. Fuck me (again). Defeated, I turn around and run back to the intersection with the "Wrong Way" sign. Apparently the wrong way was actually the right way. What the fuck? Anyway, I'm now in dead last place with about a hundred runners in front of me on the narrow single track. My race is over. I decide to turn around and head back to the car.

On my way back to the car, something occurs to me: I'm acting like a whiny little bitch. Sure, I've lost any chance at winning. But so what? It's a long race. We've still got four or five hours of running. That's a lot of time to make up a lot of ground. If I put in a hard effort, who knows how many people I can reel back in. Maybe I can even end up winning my age group!

So... I step on the gas and start flying down the narrow trail at break-neck speed, catching up to some other runners. I feel like a bit of an ass sprinting around people through the bushes in my tight little shorts with my butt checks hanging out. I'm sure I look like an ass. And I'm pretty sure at least one other runner must have muttered, "what an ass!" Though I guess that comment could be taken a couple of different ways ;)

Anyway, I continue flying down the trails in my tight little bun-huggers, occasionally catching up with another runner or two. However by now things are really starting to get spread out. As I reach the little out and back turn-around at mile 17, I realize that everyone else ahead of me must have a pretty good lead since I didn't see anyone running back on the inbound section of my out-and-back. Oh well. I guess I'm just going to finish in whatever place I'm currently in. What place am I currently in anyway I wonder???

Oddly, this is one running costume I don't own... yet!
Running through the woods drunk

Things got relatively uneventful after that. Well except for the beers I chugged at the aid station. And running through the forest, completely off trail while slightly buzzed. Oh, and the "stripper pole". And also that section of the course where, after crossing back and forth over a river a few times, we then had to run waist-deep down the middle of the river for a quarter mile. You know, just your typical run-of-the-mill lunchtime run for Big Johnny.

One minute I was running along on a well-maintained trail day-dreaming about who-knows-what (probably my upcoming PowerPoint presentation at work) when suddenly the course markings went off into the woods and down a steep game trail. Then, the next thing I know, we're not even on an established trail anymore, but just following ribbons hanging from branches as we weave through the forest.

I like that they're running with bottles of beer :)
photo courtesy Shane Angove
At some point we came to a ridiculously steep nearly-vertical hill which has apparently been dubbed "the stripper pole". I was somewhat disappointed to learn that there weren't any actual strippers here. I guess 9 am on a Saturday morning is considered off-peak hours. Anyway, after the stripper pole we continued meandering aimless through the woods. There seemed to be only one rule-of-thumb guiding whoever marked the course: when in doubt, go uphill; if there is no nearby hill, go over any fallen tree you can find.

Oh wait, I take it back, there seemed to actually be two rules-of-thumb guiding whoever marked the course. The other rule was: why just run along next to the river on a the trail when instead you can crisscross pointlessly back-and-forth across the river... and then run straight up the middle of the river for a quarter mile for good measure.

OK,  but enough whining about the course. Let's talk about beer! Imagine my surprise and delight when I arrived at an aid station where the volunteers asked me, "What can I get you... whiskey or beer?" Several minutes (and several beers) later, I stumbled out of the aid station with a decent buzz.

That bitch is wearing my outfit!
Ugh, I can't believe I forgot my body glitter!

The last few miles after that were all a blur. I may have passed another runner or two. I may have taken a nap. Who can say really? Finally I emerged out of the forest and sprinted across the grassy field towards the finishing line... past Jim Harbaugh and Michigan coaching staff, past the sexy nurses and the dirty brides, past the Chippendale dancers and the American presidents and first ladies waving their huge three-pound floppy polyurethane penis.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I'd finished 3rd overall in the 50K and first in my age group! Though, full disclosure, there were at least one or two 50 Mile runners who came through the 50K checkpoint ahead of me on their way to running the full 50 miles. #Badass #Gangsta

After the race I got a chance to briefly catch up with some old friends including a few of my old high-school training buddies: Jesse Sweeney, Marty McLaughlin, and Ramon Hernandez. Sadly none of them were in costumes of any kind. Would it have really killed them to put on a wedding dress or some leather S&M gear? Come on! Luckily I met some folks from the Motown Ann Arbor Hash House Harriers who were wearing kilts and drinking beer. My kind of peeps.

And then, inconceivably, I ran into not one, but five other dudes also wearing matching American flag Speedos and bow ties. And their Speedos were even smaller and tighter than mine. And they were covered in red, white, and blue body glitter. And they had a giant rubber penis. I've never felt so inadequate or emasculated in my life. Immediately I vowed to return one day -- with a tighter Speedo and enough body glitter to make Lady Gaga and Ke$ha jealous!

photo courtesy Shane Angove

Here's a link to the official results. And here's my Strava data (note: my GPS inexplicably turned itself off about a mile or so before the finish line).

Congrats to Andrew Bucci, who won the men's 50K race, as well as second place Matthew Zigich. And kudos to the women's 50K winner Melissa Davies who finished only 15 minutes behind me in 4th place overall!

Big ups to Jonathan Hastings and Steve Barber who finished 1st and 2nd in the 50 Miler, and who, as mentioned, both came through the 50K checkpoint ahead of me. And congratulations to Michele Magagna, who won the women's 50 Miler, finishing 5th overall!

And of course, props to everyone who ran; everyone who finished; and everyone who crossed the line carrying a bottle of beer ;)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

2015 Ohlone 50K Race Report

For once I'm not the shirtless jackass in the team photo :)
photo courtesy Agnes Pommier
Turn up the heat

If you read my (heavily profanity laced) Silver State 50K race report from this May you will recall that my annual birthday race, the Ohlone 50K, was inexplicably cancelled due to bad weather... or rather to the threat of bad weather... or more accurately, to the threat of a possible light sprinkling of rain -- which never actually materialized. Nobody really understands what the "brain trust" at the East Bay Regional Park District were thinking.

But long story short, the race was moved from May to September this year to avoid "bad weather". Ironically, the originally scheduled race date, May 18, turned out to be a beautiful day with clear skies and perfect 68 degree temps. Whereas the rescheduled date, September 18, fell in the middle of a record-breaking heat wave where mid-day temps topped out at well over 100 degrees.

Don't get me wrong though. I'm not complaining. After all, I am the same guy who publicly posted a Facebook prayer asking God to deliver a heat wave of epic proportions for Western States two years ago. "Dear merciful and compassionate Lord, please turn up the thermostat on race day so as to burn my rivals to smithereens. May the sports drink in their water bottles boil over. May their shoes melt into small puddles of rubber and/or other synthetic chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm." Yes, I'm an asshole.

So race morning rolls around and we all show up at the starting line. Well, most of us show up. Apparently around 60 of the 200 registered entrants had the good sense to stay home rather than even attempting to run 31 miles through the drought-stricken Ohlone Wilderness over nearly 9,000 feet of hills in 100+ degree temperatures.

I'm not sure how hot it actually got on the course. The temperature at the start of the race in Fremont at 8:00 am was pretty mild. And although it certainly warmed up as the day progressed, it never felt particularly hot or uncomfortable to me. Though, full disclosure, I sometimes sit in my parked car in the hot sun with the windows rolled up and the heater on listening to podcasts during my lunch break -- wearing a wool sweater. And a scarf.

Anyway, depending on who you ask, the high temp of the day was somewhere between 101 and 108 degrees Fahrenheit. However, I'm going to guess that it was at least 103 degrees (Celsius) out on the course -- which is the temperature at which sucrose melts. I say this because I had an open package of uneaten Cliff Shot Blocks in my pocket, but when I reached into my shorts to grab one, all I found was a handful of hot, wet, sticky goo.

The good news was that the temperatures were so hot, that all the rattlesnakes that usually hang out sunbathing themselves on the course also decided to stay home and call in sick. I didn't have to jump over a single rattler this year, which kinda takes some of the fun (and challenge) out of the race.

Slowly making my way up Mission Peak
photo courtesy Ellen Taylor
Off and... hiking?

In previous years I'd hammered the first climb up to Mission Peak as if there was a cash prem for the first person over the top of the hill. It's actually not a terrible strategy -- if you've got the fitness to pull it off. One year it worked well for me as I finished 2nd overall in 5 hours and 1 minute, just 6 or 7 minutes behind my Quicksilver teammate, and race winner, Jean Pommier. But this year my heart wasn't in it.

I'd pushed myself pretty hard at the North Country Run 50 Miler in Michigan a few weeks ago, just one week after racing 78 hard miles through the Canadian Rockies at FatDog 120. So I wasn't sure how much more my legs had left, and I decided to play it safe and  take it easy at Ohlone this year.

I knew going into the race that it was going to take a miracle (or an act of God, like a record breaking heat wave) for me to get onto the podium. According to the rankings, I was predicted to finish 15th overall. But I wasn't worried. Looking at the (long) list of fast young guys ranked ahead of me, I figured that at least half of them would probably go out hard and detonate in the final ten miles, giving me some roadkill to pick off on my march toward what would hopefully be another top 5 finish.

As the race started, I watched a blur of about a dozen guys take off ahead of me charging up the hill. Among them was Quicksilver teammate Ricky Russel as well as my neighbor (and Strava nemesis) Mike Helms and his buddy Chris, who were making their ultra racing debuts. But instead of running the climb with the leaders like I've normally done in past years, I decided to power hike the steep sections. I was pleasantly surprised to see Jean doing the same.

My strategy was to just take it easy for the first 20 miles, hiking the hills and running the flats and downhills. I figured that the real race wouldn't start until the last 10 miles. That's when the heat and hills would be taking their toll on anyone who had pushed too hard in the early miles. So I just focused on keeping my heart rate and breathing steady and under control. As much as it pained me to do, I avoided throwing in any of my patented Big Johnny style berserker attacks.

One of the rare sections where I did some actual running
photo courtesy Ellen Taylor
Slow and steady wins the race lands you on the podium

There's really not much to say about the race itself other than I kept steadily plugging away, occasionally catching up to and passing some of the early leaders who had started to fade. Somewhere just after Sunol, around mile 10 or 11, I came across my neighbor Mike's friend Chris, who had apparently blown a gasket and was sitting in shade under a tree. I tried to cajole him into continuing with me, but he wasn't having any of it.

A few miles later, heading into the next aid station at Goat Rock, I caught up to Mike who, as I mentioned, was making his ultra debut. Although his early break-neck pace had obviously slowed, he was still moving relatively well and appeared to not be in any real distress; yet I would later learn that he'd seen the writing on the wall and decided to call it a day and jogged back down to Sunol rather than trying to push on into uncharted territory and risk severe bonking and cramping.

Just as I was about to leave and head out of aid station, out of the corner of my eye I spied a giant bowl of bacon. I instantly shot my wad in my shorts The cliff block shots in my shorts pocket immediately melted. I love bacon. I'm the founding member of the Strava Bacon Runners Club. I grabbed two slices and thanked the aid station volunteers profusely. It was so yummy.

Getting "big wood" at the finish line
photo courtesy Ellen Taylor
Fueled on by the magical powers of bacon, I caught up with a few more runners over the next miles, gradually improving my position. I got occasional spotty reports that I had moved up to 7th, 6th and then 5th, and that the next runner was just a few minutes ahead. However, I wasn't particularly motivated to try and chase anyone down for 4th place. I mean, no one wakes up in the morning and says to them self, "I'm racing for 4th place today. It's 4th place or the infirmary".

However, I was, for some reason, oddly motivated to hold on to my 5th place spot. But, unfortunately, every time I glanced behind me I could see a runner in a long-sleeve gray shirt charging up the hill, gaining ground on me. This went on for hours. I started to wonder if it was perhaps just a heat-induced hallucination. If he was real, why hadn't he actually caught up to me by now? It was very bizarre.

Then suddenly with only about 4 or 5 miles to go as I was descending down the switchbacks in the only section of shaded forest on the course, I saw my Quicksilver teammate Ricky (who had been leading the race earlier) sitting down on a log in the shade. I poured a bit of water from my bottle over his head and neck hoping it might revive him a bit. He jumped up and started running down the trail with me. I knew that the gray-shirted runner/apparition was chasing, so I unfortunately couldn't afford to slow down and jog it in with Ricky.

The last few miles went by quickly and uneventfully until, with about a mile to go, a got stung in the ass by a wasp. But not to worry, I've been stung in much worse places, so I just laughed and kept on keeping on. When I arrived at the finish line I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I'd actually finished 3rd overall and that teammate Jean had won the race (his 5th win at Ohlone).

A few minutes later the gray-shirted phantom, who I learned was actually 52 year old Jeff Boutte, came sprinting in shirtless (or rather with his shirt tied around his waist), which momentarily confused me. We were excited to later see teammate Ricky come across the line in 5th place, thus giving our Quicksilver team 3 of the top 5 places. Also cracking the top 10 overall was teammate Stuart Taylor! The full results are here.

Ricky, John, Jean, Yujung, and Stuart
photo courtesy Ellen Taylor
Beer (and other stuff)

As soon as I crossed the finish line and collected my "big wood" award, I sprinted to my car hoping that the ice in my cooler hadn't all melted and that my beer was still cold. Thankfully, the beer was still ice cold despite the 100+ temps. And somehow, to my amazement, race director Larry England had successfully talked his son into standing over a hot grill on an already hot day, grilling some burgers and sausages. The food was amazing. Even the yellow jackets, who tried to fight me for my burger, seemed to agree).

Jean, Ricky and I kicked back and cheered on the other finishers including Quicksilver teammates Stuart Taylor, Yujung Wang, and Tim Thompson (who finished just in time for me to hand him my last beer before I had to take off to drive Keith Blom back to his car at Mission Peak).

Congrats to all the other runners who persevered out there in the heat and made it to the finish line!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

2015 North Country Trail Run 50 Ultra (50 Miler) Race Report

Flavor Flav approved: World's largest finisher medal!
It's all about the bling...

This was my third year running the North Country Trail Run 50 Miler in Wellston, Michigan. I first ran it back in 2012 where I managed to finish 3rd overall despite pushing myself so hard that my whole body cramped up in the last few miles and I ended up peeing blood afterwards. Here's my 2012 race report. I did slightly better the next year in 2013 where I managed to finish 2nd overall and 1st masters (and more importantly, avoided peeing blood or being hospitalized with rhabdo this time). Here's my 2013 race report.

I really love this race. I can't say what it is exactly that draws me back every year. Maybe it's the course features miles and miles of forested single track on the famous Big M mountain bike trails. Maybe it's the post race feast or the beer. Mmm, beer. Or maybe it's the camaraderie and the chance to spend the afternoon hanging out with all my ultra-runner buddies from Michigan who I don't get to see as often as I like. Though, if I'm honest, it's probably for the finisher medal.

In case you haven't seen it, North Country has the biggest ultra-marathon finisher medals in the world! And I don't mean that figuratively. I mean literally. The finisher medal this year measured 7 inches wide and weighed nearly half a pound. I couldn't initially figure out why my neck was so sore the morning after the race. And then I realized it was probably from walking around for hours after the race with that giant hunk of metal hanging from neck. Which really makes me wonder, how does Flavor Flav do it?

When in doubt... attack like a mad man!
A series of questionable decisions...

Conventional wisdom holds that you should cut back your mileage in the weeks leading up to a big race. I kinda did the opposite though. Instead of taking it easy and relaxing the weekend before North Country I ran 78 miles through the Canadian Rockies as hard as I could. Am I an idiot you ask? Well, yes, probably... but that's beside the point. Let me explain.

My big A race of 2015 was going to be FatDog 120, a grueling 200 kilometer race through the Canadian Rockies just North of Vancouver, British Columbia. I wasn't actually planning on running North Country this year as it fell just 7 days after Fat Dog. But shit happens. Unfortunately I found myself dropping out of FatDog at mile 78 after leading the race for much of the first 100 kilometers. So when a last minute opportunity to run North Country presented itself, I said, "what the hell, why not."

I had hoped to arrive in Manistee the night before the race in order to meet up with some friends from Midland who were camping including my buddy Bill Pritchett who had paced me at North Country in both 2012 and 2013. This year Bill was pacing another buddy of ours, Matt Frazier, who had finished 2nd last year at North Country. But due to some unforeseen circumstances (namely me getting drunk off my ass at Rare Bird Brewery in Traverse City), I wasn't able to arrive at the start line until race morning.

Unbeknown to me, the race organizers had apparently moved the race start up an hour. This was fine except that now the race started before dawn (while the trails were still dark) and I hadn't brought a headlamp with me. Luckily for me, I was able to tuck in behind our buddy Matt for the first few miles who hadn't brought a headlamp either (but who had managed to borrow one from our buddy Bill).

My plan was to be patient and not to do anything stupid for at least the first 25 miles. Then, if I was feeling good and the opportunity presented itself, I might try to attack on the downhills of the second 25 mile loop. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. Suddenly, only four miles into the race, I found myself sprinting past Matt (who lead the first four miles) and bombing down the first descent like a complete nut job.

Some of the Midland gang: Maggie, Chris, Bill
Could have been worse...

I'm not sure what exactly I was thinking when attacked so early in the race. Maybe I was hoping that no one would be ballsy enough to go with me and I could open up a decent lead and then stay out of sight for the rest of the race. Maybe I was hoping to shake things up and test the field to see was capable of responding. Or, most likely, maybe I wasn't thinking at all and just doing what I do best: crazy incomprehensible shit.

Things pretty much played out as you might expect. I did manage to open up a bit of a lead for the first 18 miles or so. But I eventually got caught. And then I eventually got dropped. And then I eventually got caught, and dropped, again. But thankfully I did manage to hang on for 3rd place overall. And more importantly, I held off all the other "old" dudes and manage to win the Master's division championship, taking home a nice little piece of hardware.

My official finish time of 7:17:26 was only about 7 minutes slower than my PR on this course of 7:10:46 which I ran in 2013 when my buddy Bill paced me. Considering that I ran solo this year without a pacer, and that I'd raced 78 hard miles the weekend before, I was pretty pleased with my performance. Maybe next time I'll run smarter and skip the silly antics. Maybe.

Congrats to Jordan Lafreniere, who ended up winning the 50 miler, as well as to 2nd place runner Kyle Kiel who was finished just 3 minutes later. And a big shout out to our fellow Midland runner Maggie Mae Retelle who won the women's master's division finishing 2nd woman overall behind women's winner Angela Carron. Here's a link to the official results. And here's my Strava data

And while I normally would not bother to mention the results of the children's fun run or any other sub-ultra distance, in this case I must make an exception and offer congratulations to another Midland buddy Michael Barrows who not only won the marathon race, but destroyed the course record with a ridiculously fast 2:47:13. #WhatTheWhat #AreYouKiddingMe #ThatsReallyDamnFast

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

2015 Mountain Madness Fat Dog 120 Race Report

A cold and wet Fat Dog
photo by Team Riccardo
Short summary of my DNF at Fat Dog 120

OK, if you've purposely sought out this race report you are probably either: a) my mother, who is legally obligated to read anything I write, b) some weirdo who enjoys reading about other people's epic failures, or c) a concerned friend who wants to know how I managed to fuck up yet another race. In which case, definitely read on. 

Or perhaps you are a runner who is thinking about signing up for the Mountain Madness Fat Dog 120 Trail Race next year and you are scouring the Internet for race reports hoping to gain some nuggets of wisdom -- in which case, you're shit out of luck. The only thing you're going to learn from my race report is what NOT to do. However, you might enjoy this race report from Nickademus Hollon who won the race and broke the course record this year, or this report from my buddy Riccardo who finished 4th.

Or check out this spectator report from Mitch Leblanc or Mitch's race report from 2014 where he finished 2nd.

Or maybe you are just a beer geek looking for reviews on "Fat Tug" IPA from Driftwood Brewery in Victoria, BC. Which means you apparently typed "Fat Dog" instead of "Fat Tug". In which case... you're drunk, go home. But buy me a bottle of Fat Tug if you see it at the store. It's fucking amazing and we can't get it out here in California.

In any case, here's a short summary of what happened at Fat Dog this year. Basically, I tried to slip quietly off the front of the race early when no one was looking. I hoped that if I got out in front and then hammered the first two downhill sections like a crazy fucking nut job, I might be able to open a sizable enough lead to hold off the inevitable late charge of the speedy elites like Nickademus Hollon, Jeremy Humphrey, Chris Calzetta, Nick Pedatella, and others. 

But, as you probably guessed, it didn't work. Nickademus Hollon caught me around the 100K mark. We ran the next 18K together, which was awesome (he's an amazing guy). But I had been stumbling and falling on the tails all day, including a hard fall where I'd injured my hand. Then, approaching the Cayuse Flats aid station with Nick around mile 72, I inexplicably lost my balance and fell off a log-bridge crossing over a river bed. I narrowly avoided impaling myself on a bunch of sharp sticks in the river. That's when I decided to DNF. 

But the good news is that I got to join the crew of my good friend Riccardo Tortini who was in 6th place at the time and running strong. Riccardo eventually moved up to finish 4th! I can't say that I was a particularly useful or helpful member of "Team Riccardo". Mainly I just sat in the back seat of the Jeep, stinking to high heaven, and eating handfuls of Jujube candies in between naps. I sincerely apologize to Riccardo's girlfriend Tanya and her friends Jessica and Brett who had to endure the death-stench of my socks, shoes, and shorts (all of which I was forced to burn later as even boiling hot water and soap proved ineffectual in removing their horrible odor).

Sent home from work by HR again today
Where it all went wrong, part 1 (super-hero complex)

My greatest strength as a runner, and perhaps ironically also my biggest weakness, is my unwavering, unbridled, unmitigated, unrelenting, undying... and probably unfounded (if not utterly irrational) belief in myself. No matter how ridiculous the challenge, how miserable the conditions, or how absurdly stacked the starting field, I always feel that I can overcome the odds and win!

I might be ranked as low as 15th or 20th in the race predictions, and I will look at the names of all the elite runners ranked way ahead of me and think to myself, "Oh fuck. Holy shit. I've got this motherfucker! This race is mine". It defies all common sense really.

Why, you might reasonably ask, does a guy who's never won a major race, go into every race thinking he can win? Excellent question. And like most excellent questions, the person answering the question is usually best served to just hem and haw for a few seconds before deftly deflecting the question by breaking into a peripherally-related anecdote.

So... did I ever tell you about that time at Hardrock where I shattered my finger into five pieces, almost got struck by lightening, and held off a late-charge from Timmy Olson? No? Well... sit down and make yourself comfortable while I start from the beginning. Actually, never mind. You can read about it here if you're interested. 

The point is... yes, there actually is a point... is that sometimes all it takes is just one small taste of modest success to make you start questioning your preconceived limitations. And nothing -- nothing in the world -- is more powerful (or more dangerous) than a person who believes that anything might be possible!

But irrational and unfounded belief in one's self -- no matter how powerful it might be -- is not enough to explain some of the ridiculous things I sometimes attempt in races. For example, there was that time I went out hard in the first half of the inaugural Lake Tahoe 200 Mile endurance run opening up an almost 5 hour lead on the field before my body shut down in the last 10 miles and I slipped from 1st to 3rd place. Or that time, more recently, when I decided to launch a mad-crazy-bust-your-shit-open attack just four miles into a 50 mile race (where I also ended up eventually slipping to 3rd place).

So there's definitely another factor in play in explaining my questionable race tactics (antics?). I think perhaps the other part of my issue is that, in addition to believing that I can accomplish anything if I try hard enough, is that I'm not particularly afraid of failure. I don't mind going for broke and coming up empty. I have no problem with taking a shot at glory and going home with a DNF when it doesn't work out. Other people, my wife in particular, find this infuriating. I can't count the number of times I've called her on the phone while she's in the car driving to see me at a race, telling her to turn around and go home because I've dropped out.

Cat napping cut into my training time
Where it all went wrong, part 2 (beer and cat naps)

Those of you who read my 2015 North Shore Knee Knackering 50K race report know that I have a score to settle with Vancouver (and British Columbia in general) after I got completely "knackered" by the brutal North Shore trails back in July. I shrugged off my lackluster performance at Knee Knacker blaming it on the humidity and/or a lack of early-summer fitness. But I'd be ready for Fat Dog in August I vowed! 

I'd intended to train for Fat Dog. I'd intended to train hard with months of 120 mile weeks. But... you know, shit got in the way. We adopted a cat from the shelter this summer; and every time I got dressed to go running she'd hop up on my lap and lay on my chest, preventing me from training.

Beer brewing/drinking also cut into my training
And then there was my ill-fated attempt at home brewing that after a month of hard work, resulted in about a gallon of remarkably unremarkable beer that compares favorably to a flat glass of Blue Moon or Shock Top that's been sitting out all night. Though in its defense I will say that what my brew lacked in body and mouthfeel, it made up for with a surprisingly high alcohol content. 

So... instead of training like a mad man for Fat Dog, I basically just sat around for a month getting drunk and petting my cat. Good times. As far as training goes, since I obviously didn't have time for long runs or high-volume training (due to my previously mentioned beer and cat-related commitments) I decided to focus almost exclusively on high-intensity interval workouts -- particularly short downhill sprints. Whether this would prove to be a good training strategy for a 200 kilometer race would remain to be seen.

Where it all went wrong, part 3 (quite possibly going out "slightly" too hard)
My pre-race plan was, as I mentioned in the intro above, to try and slip off the front of the race on the first climb and then slowly build a solid lead by hammering the shit out of the first couple of descents. But as soon as the race started I immediately found myself bottled up on the opening single-track in about 20th place, well behind the front runners. So much for my plan.

Since there was nothing I could do about the situation until the trail later widened, I just took it easy and chatted with my buddy Riccardo. We also struck up a conversation with elite pro runner Nickademus Hollon who was running near us. Nick is a talented young runner who is making a name for himself on the international ultra scene. I enjoyed our short chat, but as soon as the trail opened up I made my move and threw in an acceleration.

Me, Riccardo, and Nickademus at mile 1
photo by Team Riccardo
The problem was that, although I was slowly making my way up through the field and passing other runners, I had absolutely no idea of how many people were still ahead of me, or in which place I was. After about 9 miles of steady uphill running, we finally got to the top of the first climb and started descending. I stepped on the gas and bombed down the mountain, hoping to reel in some more of the front runners ahead of me.

Sections of the descent were fairly sketchy. At one point, I was legitimately wondering if perhaps I had missed a turn and strayed off the official trail and onto a deer path. But I was moving too fast to safely stop or slow down, so I just kept flying recklessly down the cliff side hoping that I was still on course. And then it happened. I lost my balance and began a long slow-motion fall off the side of the trail. Luckily I landed on a log. It hurt like hell, but it broke my fall. I was worried that it possibly also broke by hand, which immediately started hurting and swelling up. 

At this point I still had no idea in what place I was. I hadn't seen another runner in at least an hour. I figured that I was probably in the top 10, maybe 6th or 7th place. But I was worried because even though I was recklessly flying down the mountain out of control like a complete jackass, I wasn't catching or passing any other runners. No one else could possibly be stupid enough to run this descent this fast, so it didn't make any sense to me that I wasn't making up ground or passing anyone else. What the hell?

As I rolled into the first aid station at the bottom of the mountain I saw Tanya, my buddy Riccardo's girlfriend. She said something very confusing. "He's only two minutes ahead of you". She couldn't be taking about Riccardo, because he was behind me. "Who are you talking about," I asked with a puzzled look on my face. "The guy from Idaho," Tanya said, referring I gathered to Jeremy Humphrey. "What place am I in," I asked. "Second place," she replied! "Oh shit, that's not good," I blurted out, somewhat surprised to find myself so close to the lead so early into the race.

Tanya informing me that I'm already in 2nd place
photo by Team Riccardo
Then, in an adrenaline-fueled stupor I hammered the next mile of flat(ish) fire road and caught up to Jeremy just as he was turning off onto a the start of single-track climb. And it's a good thing I saw him or I very well might have missed that hard-right turn! We ran/hiked together for the next few miles. Well, sorta. I basically just power hiked the whole climb. Jeremy alternated between slow hiking and fast sprinting (or at least that's how it seemed to me). Every time I would catch up to him, he would throw in a burst of running and open up a bit of a lead. I found this strangely amusing and it helped pass the time.

Eventually we both finally settled into a compatible rhythm and we were able to chat while running/hiking together. He's a great runner and I was glad to be be able to share a few miles with him. Then suddenly he abruptly stepped off to the side of the trail and told me to pass, explaining that he often struggles a bit around 4 or 5 hours into races. 

I had no doubts that he would eventually catch back up and blow past me. But oddly, I never say him again. I later heard an unconfirmed account that he took a hard fall and possibly dislocated his shoulder and that, even though he wanted to continue, medical staff pulled him from the race. I hope he is OK. Unfortunately at the time of this writing, he hasn't yet updated his blog.

Outdoor Research Helium II waterproof jacket
and Montane waterproof pants :)
Shortly after taking the lead I started hearing rumbling in the sky behind me. The rumbling quickly turned to lightening. My next move was crucial; what should I do? Although I did have a thin light-weight nylon shell in my pack, I hadn't packed an actual raincoat or any warm clothes. And I was only wearing a sleeveless tee shirt. I knew that if I kept moving at my current pace and the storm caught up to me, I would be cold and miserable -- and likely end up DNFing with hypothermia.

My other option was to pick up the pace run like fuck with complete reckless abandon down the mountain and try to outrun the storm. This would be a foolhardy and risky choice with several negative potential outcomes including falling and injuring myself and/or completely trashing my legs on the long descent. Only a complete fool would try to try to out sprint a lightening storm down a mountain. So naturally that's what I opted to do.

Where it all went wrong, part 4 (falling off bridges and stumbling towards stupidity)

I won't go into all the minutiae of the next 10 hours. But basically I stayed one step ahead of the storm and made it safely to the Bonnevier aid station where my waterproof pants and jacket were waiting for me in my drop bag. Unfortunately, many of the other runners behind me got caught in the storm without warm gear or waterproof clothes and ended up DNFing due to hypothermia. My Bay-area friends Dan Decker and Franz Dill were among those unfortunate casualties.

Unfortunately for me, but I guess fortunately for him, Nickademus Hollon was not among those taken out by the storm. Despite the 40 or so minute lead that I had built going into the Bonnevier aid station at mile 40, I was worried that it wouldn't be enough to hold off Nick who is a notoriously strong finisher. And, as it would turn out, [spoiler alert], I was very right to be worried.

In the interest of time I will summarize the highlights of miles 40 - 60 as follows:  
  • Jessica made me a delicious industrial-sized grilled cheese sandwich that was probably at least 1000 calories and took me almost three full bottles of water to wash down.
  • My legs were getting very cold and wet from brushing up against all the wet plants on the overgrown trail from Bonnevier to Heather aid station when I suddenly remembered that I had a pair of light-weight waterproof pants in my pack. I stopped and put them on and instantly went from feeling cold, wet and miserable to feeling magically happy and warm. I imagined that I was on a tropical beach drinking giant buckets of Sangria.
  • My sunbathing and sangria fantasies were suddenly interrupted when I spotted a very large, very black bear on the trail in front of me. Without thinking, I instantly let out a loud blood-curling yell. In retrospect, this was a risky move that would likely have one of two effects: the bear might perhaps be startled and run off, or equally likely, the bear might turn and attack me. Luckily, the bear scampered off into the bushes. Then, for reasons that are still not clear to me, I decided to use the emergency whistle that the race organizers insisted we carry on our person as part of our mandatory gear. This tiny plastic whistle produced the most pathetic wimpy sounding tweet in the history of the world. I was immediately embarrassed, and more importantly worried that the bear might come back out of the bushes laughing at my feeble whistle and dismember me.
  • After refueling at the Heather aid station on top of the mountain, where it was very cold and windy as the sun was starting to set, I said goodbye to the aid station volunteers and wished them good luck. I was fairly certain that they would either all freeze to death in the night, or be eaten by the bear. It suddenly got very foggy leaving the Heather aid station just as the sun was setting. I was having problems seeing the trail in front of me. Turning on my headlamp proved useless and actually made things worse as it simply reflected off the fog causing a terrible glare. So instead I ran down the rocky, technical mountain in the dark fog. Not surprisingly, I started tripping and falling. I rarely, if ever, fall during a race. But I must have taken at least a dozen spills on that descent, some of them pretty hard. There was lots of profanity. A few death threats against the race organizers, and Canada in general, may have been uttered.
Finally it happened, as I feared. Nick caught me. Just as I was heading out of the Nicomen Lake aid station at around 100K, Nick came running in. My hopes were dashed. I guess I mumbled something passably complimentary to him like, "Hey Nick, you're moving well." Although what I was actually thinking was probably something more like, "Fuck, you're alive! I was hoping the bear had eaten you."

This isn't me (I crossed at night), but this is the log-bridge thing that I fell off
photo by Brian McCurdy

Even though I had been fairly certain that Nick would eventually catch me at some point, I had hoped that point would come later -- ideally sometime after mile 100. The race profile indicated that miles 80 - 100 were supposed to be relatively flat and runnable (at least compared to the rest of the course). And since Nick is a much faster flat runner than me, I knew he would be able to cover that 20 mile section much faster than I could. So my only chance of winning would have been to hit that section with a decent lead and try to hold him off on the last climb and descent.

So now I had to regroup and re-calibrate my goals and aspirations for the race. Instead of thinking about the win and/or course record, my new goal would be to hang on for 2nd place. I left the aid station a few minutes before Nick and it took a while for him to catch back up to me even though I stopped to pee at least twelve times on that section. When I finally heard him and saw his light approaching from behind and I stepped aside. To my surprise he invited me to run along with him. This was really cool of him as he could have easily blown by me. We spent the 18 kilometers running together and chatting. It was a bit surreal as he is a runner who I really admire (hell, the guy finished Barkley, a race that only a handful of people have ever finished). Anyway, that was definitely the highlight of my race!

Also not me (I wish I was that graceful). Overhead shot of the log I fell off
photo by Brian McCurdy

Unfortunately, my race would come to an abrupt end. Just as we were approaching the next aid station together at Cayuse Flats, we had to cross over a river on a fallen pair of logs that had been converted into a makeshift bridge. While Nick just trotted effortlessly across, I really struggled with my balance and coordination. Every step I took was tentative. And then, trying to duck under a small tree branch, I inexplicably lost my balance and toppled off the side of the log into the river.

Somehow I avoided getting impaled on any of the hundred or so sharp sticks pointing up in every direction. But my confidence was shook. That fall scared the shit out of me. I decided then and there to DNF. I was legitimately worried about my health. It may also have had something to do with the fact that I've suffered a couple of serious running related health injuries in the past few years. 

Three years ago I suffered a bad case of rhabdomyolysis after running myself into the ground during a hot and humid 50 mile race in Michigan. My kidney and liver both shut down and I peed blood for days afterward; it took me almost six months to resume racing again. Then last year I ran my body down during the Tahoe 200 and ended up struggling with adrenal fatigue syndrome which took me another five months to fully recover from.

Although I had already made my mind up to drop out of the race, I knew that I still had to get down off the mountain to the next aid station at the Cascades parking lot down by the highway, which was still 8 kilometers away. I didn't say anything to Nickademus about my plans to drop as he might try to talk me out of it. More importantly I was worried that he might do something overly generous like volunteer to slowly hike down with me instead of running, which would of course affect his chances of breaking the course record.

So I made an excuse about wanting to eat some soup and sent Nick on his way. He yelled back, "You've got 5 minutes. Don't stay at the aid station longer than 5 minutes." I smiled and waved. 

Riccardo taking a moment to savor the finish
photo by Team Riccardo
Second guessing?

It's easy to DNF. There are plenty of convenient excuses you can come up with to convince yourself that did the right thing by quitting. I'm looking after my long-term health. I didn't want to risk injury. I had terrible blisters. I had terrible chaffing. I was "border-line hypothermic" (i.e., I was kinda cold), I was tired. I wasn't having fun anymore. They all sounds good in the moment.

The true test is whether those excuses still satisfy you in the days after the race. Once you've taken that warm shower, slipped into clean dry clothes, stuffed yourself with food, and fallen asleep. When you wake up the next day are you still content with your excuse, or are you kicking yourself for having taken the easy way out?

In my case, you could rightfully point out that when I dropped at the Cascade aid station at mile 78 the hardest part of the course was already behind me. I done the worst of the technical descents. It would be daylight soon. The next 20 miles were all supposedly "flat and runnable" (well, relatively speaking anyway). And the last climb and descent would be in the daylight instead of the night, and was far less technical than the other descents I'd already done. Hell, I could have just jogged the flats, power hiked the climbs, and carefully walked down the descents and still probably finished in a top spot. 

But I didn't want to. I wasn't willing to put in the effort, endure the suffering, or risk the potential repercussions. I wasn't sure why I was stumbling and falling, and that really worried me. In retrospect it might just have been that my legs were fatigued from all the hard running early on. But whatever the case, it wasn't something I was willing to risk. And, a month later, as I write this blog I am still OK with my decision. Maybe I'll go back to Fat Dog some year and give it another shot. And maybe things will work out better. Or maybe I'll do all the same dumb shit all over again. But that's my choice. And I'm comfortable with it ;)

"Team Riccardo" from left to right:
Riccardo, Tanya, Jessica, and Brett
Shout outs!

Congrats to Nickademus Hollon for winning the race and breaking the course record -- and for doing it with grace and amazing sportsmanship.

I of course want to give a big shout out to my good friend Riccardo Tortini who ran a smart and controlled race all day (and night, and morning, and day) moving up from 6th place to finish 4th overall! 

Thanks also to Tanya, Jessica and Brett who drove hundreds (or perhaps even thousands?) of miles through the mountains, with little to no sleep, to cheer us on and keep our bellies full of warm delicious grilled cheese sandwiches, quesadillas, and guacamole-bean-rice tacos! You guys are the best!

And of course, thanks so much to all the amazing volunteers who spent the weekend camped out in cold, wet, miserable conditions. You rock! And to the folks on top of the mountain at the Heather aid station, I hope you weren't eaten by that bear!

Here's a link to the official race results. And here's my Strava data for the first 100K as well as the rest of my Strava data before I dropped at mile 78.