Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sometimes When You Shoot for the Stars... You End Up on the Couch (Crying Under a Blanket)

Lake Tahoe... my favorite place on earth
Half-way through the drive home from Lake Tahoe I started sobbing. Tears welled in my eyes and dripped down my face as the realization hit me with full force: I'd lost the fucking race. A race that I had lead for over 140 miles. Seriously, who leads a race for over 140 miles and loses? It's inconceivable.

Well, another question might be, who the hell even runs a footrace that is over 140 miles long? In this case there were 90 of us brave and foolish souls who signed up, and then even more amazingly also showed up for the inaugural Tahoe 200 Ultra organized by Candice Burt and Jerry Gamez.

And quite surprisingly -- at least to me -- is that 60 of the 90 starters actually managed to finish. That's a finishing rate of 66.6% percent on course with somewhere between 202 and 215 miles (depending on whom you ask) and with somewhere between 40,000 to 53,000 feet of elevation gain.

Mad props to all 60 of us finishers!
There was a lot of discussion on social media sites about what type of finishing rate this race would have. Most experts, Internet trolls, and Las Vegas bookmakers put the odds somewhere around 30%.  Others had it as low as 10% - 20%. I have to admit that when I was out on the course suffering, cursing the race directors and trying to find any legitimate excuse I could think of to drop, I began to doubt that ANYONE, myself included, would be able to finish this thing.

So I take my dirty, sweat-stained hat off to all 60 bad-ass mofos who spent 3 to 4 days trudging 200 plus miles across rocky jeep roads, overgrown single track, unmaintained access roads, and freezing cold mountain passes. Special congratulations to the overall winner, Australian, Ewan Horsburg who ran me down somewhere around mile 180 during a strong late charge to take the lead. And congrats to fellow Bay Area runner Victor Ballesteros who also passed me toward the top of the last climb to claim 2nd place.

And although I didn't have the opportunity to speak with her or see her run, I also want to give kudos to women's winner Gia Madole who led for all about 15 miles of the race. I feel a bond with her knowing the kind of pressure it takes to be out front-running for most of the day... and night, and next day, and night, and next day, and night, and next day.

And for that matter, congratulations to everyone who refused to listen to the voices of doubt in their heads, who refused to stop when their bodies started to quit on them, and who refused to say "this is far enough" until they actually crossed that damn finish line.


"What the hell were you thinking?"

In the days after the race more than one person has said something to me like, "That was an aggressive first 100 miles you ran." And I'm never sure whether it's a compliment. More often than not, they just stand there and stare at me as if waiting for me to provide some kind of explanation. And that's when it occurs to me that, "That was an aggressive first 100 miles you ran" is really code for "Dude, what the hell were you thinking?"

Bay Area home boys, John Burton and Victor Ballesteros
Well, to be honest, I wasn't thinking; I was just running. I didn't come into this race with any type of real plan or strategy other than perhaps to try and run it as fast as possible in order to hopefully finish before I got so tired that I had to sleep. Two hundred miles is such a long distance that I figured there was no point in really having a plan anyway. Whatever your plan, something was bound to happen and turn it all to shit -- probably sooner rather than later.

Fellow Bay-Area runner Victor Ballesteros and I were chatting before the race and he mentioned that he wasn't familiar with the first 60 miles of the course and might want to run it together for company and to keep from getting lost. That's when something came out of my mouth that was a surprise even to me, "Yeah, we can run together, but I might go out hard and run the first 100 miles pretty aggressively". Whoa! Apparently some region of my brain had already formed some sort of plan, even if just subconsciously.

"Look at that idiot running up the first climb. He's insane. He's going to crash and burn!" Thankfully, they weren't talking about me. I hiked the entire first four mile climb. Rather the other runners were talking about Alexander Kaine who took off flying up the mountain and had opened up a 55 minute lead on me by mile 30.

And they're off... only 202 more miles to go!
So no, I didn't charge out of the gates like a complete rookie. I took it easy on the first climb chatting with fellow runners like Kent Dozier, JB Benna, Martin Hack, and Johan Steene as I made my way up through the field.

Eventually, somewhere around mile 24 I caught up with 2nd place runner Hassan (Sammy) Lotfi-Pour who I had wanted to meet and talk to. Sammy is the two-time champion of the Fatdog 120, a race -- described as the Hardrock of Cananda -- which is on my bucket list. In addition, Sammy has also represented Canada in the 100K at both the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games. The guy is legit! 

Sammy and I ran a couple of miles together and chatted about various topics. But mainly our conversation focused on the fact that we were both completely out of water and would probably die if we didn't find some kind of water source soon. Luckily we came across a campground at Loon Lake. My plan was to drop down on my knees and beg the campers for a beer or two. But instead we found a water spigot and made do without beer.

After chatting with Sammy I moved on ahead and started trying to bridge the gap to the race leader, Alex. A few miles after the Wrights Lake aid station I came across Alex sitting on the side of the trail fumbling with his shoe laces. He complained of having gotten off course. And while I expected him to jump up and run with me, he stayed behind and I never saw him again (and the results oddly show him dropping earlier at mile 30).


Miles 60 - 90 (drinking out of a rusty pipe, chasing off a bear, and other ridiculous stuff) -- Starring Peter Rabover

After pulling away from Sammy and passing Alex I found myself running alone at the front of the race. It was kinda cool. It's not very often that I find myself in the lead of any race. Things went pretty smoothly and uneventfully except that I kept running out of fucking water. 

Sunrise selfie with pacer Peter Rabover
I'm no stranger to drinking out of rivers, creeks, lakes, natural springs, or whatever. I have even been known to fill my bottles from small trickles of water dripping down cliffs. But somewhere on the climb up to the Sierra at Tahoe aid station I became so thirsty that filled my bottle up from some rather sketchy-looking water leaking out of a rusty pipe beside the trail.

I shined my flashlight into my bottle and saw that it was full of leaves, bugs, debris and other assorted stuff. "Extra calories" I said, trying to reassure myself that I probably wasn't going to die from drinking this water -- at least not right away anyway! And luckily, Giardia spores are invisible and generally take a week or two to incubate. So if I was going to come down with crippling stomach cramps and diarrhea, it would be well after the race was over.

My friend Peter Rabover, who I met at Hardrock, was supposed to pace me from mile 60 to mile 90. But when I rolled into the aid station at Sierra at Tahoe (60.4) with a two hour lead over the next runners, my crew chief Jeff Clowers informed me that Peter hadn't made it in time and would instead meet me at mile 80.0 at Big Meadows. I would be on my own for the next 20 miles through the night.

It actually wasn't a big deal though as I was moving great and had some kick-ass Taylor Swift tunes stuck in my head on repeat. "But I keep cruising / Can't stop, won't stop grooving / It's like I got this music / In my mind, saying it's gonna be alright."

Not a terrible way to start the morning!
Suddenly the Taylor Swift concert in my head was interrupted by a bear cub running across the trail in front of me. The bear was apparently investigating a camper's tent, but when he saw my headlamp he took off running. It's tempting for me to talk smack now after-the-fact and say something like, "Yeah, it's a good thing he ran, because I had something for his punk ass". But in reality, I was pretty nervous and threw down a couple of fast miles to put some distance between me and him (and his mother who I assume was also nearby).

Eventually I made it to Big Meadow and picked up Peter at mile 80. It was great to finally have some company after 17 hours of running on my own with Taylor Swift's greatest hits stuck in my head. Peter was able to distract me with some good wilderness survival stories about starving to death in the woods and outrunning forest fires. I filed away the information for future use, hoping that we wouldn't necessarily have to call upon those skillsets this weekend.

Peter set a really nice pace up the climb with the goal of trying to get us up to the top of the mountain before sunrise. We timed it pretty well and were treated to some pretty amazing views up on top as the sun was rising over the lake. Not a terrible way to start the morning. If only Peter had thought to bring some gourmet coffee beans, a battery-powered grinder and a French press... Oh well, no one's perfect. Before we knew it we were already at Armstrong Pass where my friend Karl was eagerly waiting to take over pacing duties.


Miles 90 - 120 (breaking my broken finger, bonus miles, trying to convince my pacer to let me sleep in the bushes) -- Starring Karl Schnaitter

My buddy Karl Schnaitter has obviously never run 200 miles before as he took off out of the aid station setting a ridiculously fast pace that I wanted no part of. "Slow down dude" I yelled, "no need to hammer". Karl looked down at his watch, shook his head and mumbled something disparaging about 17:00 minute mile pace. And it would all go downhill from there (well except for the trail of course, that unfortunately would mainly go uphill).


Pacer Karl Schnaitter who would go on to win
Headlands 100 the following weekend!
Fresh-legged Karl proceeded to bound along down the trail, hopping effortless over rocks and fallen trees. Meanwhile I stumbled along like a man who had already run 100 miles. Oh wait, that's right, I had already run 100 miles. Why did I sign up for this race again? Suddenly things went from bad to worse as I slipped on a log over a creek and smacked my broken finger pretty hard.

"Oh !@%$#%. I think I just re-broke the finger that I shattered into five pieces at Hardrock 100 back in July. It was finally just starting to heal up too" I yell. The searing pain was  excruciating, but as I recalled from last time, it should probably start to numb up within 10 minutes or so and then be fine for the rest of the run. At least I hoped so.

Eventually the finger did finally numb up and I forgot about it and started to worry about other things... like the fact that I was completely out of water again. Although our GPS showed that we had already gone the advertised 17 miles between aid stations, the Google Maps app on Karl's phone showed that we still had 3 more miles to go the Spooner Summit aid station. Damn you Candice Burt.

Sampling the wares at Spooner Summit aid station
Later, my pacers and I would come to refer to this phenomena as "Candice miles". In general, we discovered, any given section of the course would have somewhere between two and five additional "Candice miles" beyond the advertised distance. So, for example, what was supposed to be a 13 mile segment could actually be anywhere between 15 and 18 miles.

As I stumbled across the rocks on the top of the ridge, I desperately tried to convince Karl that I should curl up under a tree and take a nap. But Karl kept declining my requests with sensible responses about how the aid stations would probably have better sleeping facilities and that I should probably get some warm solid food in me before going to sleep. Leave it to an engineer to use logic and sound arguments to win a debate against a sleep-deprived Zombie with a broken finger and an intestine full of incubating Giardia spores.


Mile 120.7 to 149.4 (refusing beer, going in circles, dumb-stupid-evil hills) -- Starring Jeremy Johnson

After Karl and I eventually made it to the Spooner Summit aid station, thanks more to his Google Map iPhone app than to the almost non-existent course markings. I immediately jumped in the back of my friend Jeff's truck and tried to take a nap. At this point I had opened up a four and half hour lead on the rest of the field, but it was definitely starting to take its toll on my body. I wasn't actually able to fall asleep, but it sure felt good to just lay down for a few minutes and rest my legs.

The URP Golden Shower
There are very few times in my life when I have ever turned down a cold beer. In fact, I can count those times on two fingers. And both times involved  a golden shower. I'm referring of course to Eric Shranz's URP (Ultra Runner Podcast) home-made "Golden Shower" mist cooling machine. The first time in my life I ever turned down a beer was while spectating at Western States earlier this year a couple of weeks before Hardrock. I was trying to drop some weight before the race so that I wouldn't look so fat standing next to Kilian at the starting line.

Now, here I was at the Spooner Summit aid station telling the aid station captain Krista Cavender that I would have to skip the beer and take some water instead. Thankfully, to her credit, Krista refrained from rolling her eyes and shouting "pussy" as I half expected her to do. Right about this time I looked over and saw Eric Shranz and the URP golden shower. Hmm, was it a coincidence or is that golden shower some sort of kryptonite device that takes away my beer-drinking super powers?

I hiked out of the Spooner Summit aid station (completely sober) together with my fresh-legged pacer Jeremy Johnson who had also paced me on some of these same trails during the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) 100 back in 2012. Jeremy is a great guy with a positive attitude, a ton of patience, and a cool head. So I knew that if anyone could put up with my whining, complaining, and second-guessing it would be him. Still, I'm pretty sure that after a few hours of listening to me constantly question whether we were still on course, he probably wished he'd brought a beer or two (or three).

Jeremy Johnson, who despite what the paranoid voices
in my head say, was not actually leading me in circles.
And then, I don't really know how to explain what happened next. After going several hours without seeing any course marking I became increasingly nervous and agitated. I somehow got it in my sleep-deprived head that Jeremy had been leading us in circles. Every tree stump or rock we passed looked familiar, as if we had already passed them several times before. Finally I sat down on the trail and called my crew chief to tell him that we were lost and that my race was over.

Jeremy, who was a few yards ahead, yelled back "Dude, we're at the Tunnel Creek intersection. There's a bunch of course-markers here. Who are you talking to?" I quickly apologized to my crew chief and hung up the phone, "Oh nobody" I yelled back, lying. That was embarrassing.

As we hobbled into the Tunnel Creek Café aid station at mile 137.7 we were greeted by the familiar faces of fellow Bay Area runners Chris Jones and Ace Ewing who informed me that I had built a five and half hour lead! They sent me on my way with talk about a glorious flat paved bike path, which my sore legs and feet were desperately looking forward to.

"Hey Jeremy, is that a Taco Bell ahead?
Oh, I'm just hallucinating again?"
However Chris and Ace sort of glossed over this terrible thing called the Powerline "trail" which wasn't really an actual trail, but rather a steep 22% grade, sandy, overgrown, monstrous climb up a thorn-infested mountain side. Check out the Strava segment. We averaged 50:34 minute per mile pace for the 1.2 mile climb. What the !@#$.

Anyway, after several more hours of similar ridiculous never-ending climbs, I resigned myself to the fact that I must have died somewhere out on the course and was now apparently in Hell. As punishment for my sins in life, I would be condemned to keep hiking uphill for the rest of eternity, never reaching the peak. However, if somehow I actually was still alive and we did ever make it to the top, I vowed to get a tattoo of Sisyphus (the dude from Greek mythology whose fate was to roll an immense boulder uphill and then watch it roll back down, forever) on my arm after the race. Note to self: call the tattoo shop to set up an appointment this week.


Mile 149.4 to 187.2 (more hallucinations than a college acid trip) -- Starring Jeff Clowers

When Jeremy and I reached Martis Peak, I was pretty wrecked. I'd been hallucinating non-stop for the past 12 hours since Spooner Summit. Nothing major, just your normal run-of-the-mill, non-drug induced visions including: a 1965 Pontiac GTO, several Asian super models, a house cat lying in the middle of the trail, and bears (lots of bears).

Waking up after a refreshing nap at the
Martis Peak Road aid station!
In order to make sure I would be able to finish the race my crew and I decided it would be smart for me to take an our nap at the aid station. With a 5.5 hour lead, we figured there wasn't any danger of anyone catching up to me anyway. Spoiler alert: we figured wrong.

The folks at the Martis Peak Road aid station were amazing and treated me like a celebrity asking me to pose for pictures and sign autographs. Ok, they didn't actually ask me to sign autographs but we did all pose for some photos together. It was really cool! Thanks guys. But unfortunately, as much as I wanted to stay and hang out, I still had 50 more miles inbetween me and the finish line. So my crew-chief / pacer Jeff Clowers and I set out to git er done.

Eight miles later Jeff and I ran into Chris Jones and Ace Ewing at Watson Lake who informed us, much to our surprise and horror, that second-place runner Ewan Horsburgh had come flying through the last aid station only two hours behind me. Fuck! Shit! Damn! This was not what I wanted to hear. Still, I figured that Ewan must have pushed himself pretty hard to close that distance, and that as long as I picked up the pace a bit and ran the flats and down hills my lead should hold up. Spoiler alert: Surprise, I figured wrong again.

Jeff and I picked up the pace, determined to hold on to the lead. We rolled into the Tahoe City aid station at around 1:00 pm on Sunday. I had now been out on the course for over 51 hours. Yet somehow I was still alive (at least temporarily) and in relative possession of my faculties. However, as I would later learn, Ewan was still closing hard and would charge through the Tahoe City aid station exactly one hour after me, cutting my lead down to just one hour!

Pacer Jeff Clowers suggest we rock hop across
the lake to make up lost time. LOL
I pushed the pace as hard as I could on the next section, clicking off quite a few "fast" 12:00 minute miles. My legs were feeling good, my strength had returned, and there was no way I was going to let anyone take this race away from me. If Ewan wanted to beat me, he was going to have to kill me!

But as Californian novelist John Steinbeck correctly noted, "The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry". Or perhaps as pugilist and philosopher Iron Mike Tyson once quipped, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." Well, the sun came out from behind the clouds and the trees and it definitely punched me in the mouth, sapping the last of my dwindling strength. And then, just as I was giving it my best Monty Python's Black Knight, "I'm not quite dead yet. It's just a flesh wound", a little 5 mile 2,000 ft., climb put me out of my misery.

Resting against a tree at the top of the mountain and catching my breath, I looked back and saw what I had been dreading: Ewan and his pacer running up the mountain like madmen. I figured I still had a 45 to 60 minute lead, at best. Fifteen minutes later they came flying down the mountain past me. Like a true gentleman Ewan stopped his assault briefly to congratulate me on my effort and to shake my hand. And then, like my many vivid hallucinations, he suddenly vanished as if he was never there at all.


Mile 187.2 to 202 (this is where everything really goes to shit)

Jeff and I hiked down into the last aid station at Rideout, my feet too beat up to do any actual running. I contemplated taking another nap, hoping it might quell my hallucinations, which at this point were basically nonstop. But Vajin Armstrong and the other upbeat aid station volunteers warmed me up with some heat lamps, feed me soup and grilled cheese, and sent me on my way. I guess I will sleep at the finish... if I make it.

Fumbling toward stupidity... dead man walking...
The last section was brutal. It started with a nice flat paved bike path followed by some more flat(ish) back country roads. But it was all a trick to lull you into thinking that you were going to be able to make it to the finish. Then, just as you are getting your hopes up, it hits you in the mouth with the worst climb of the day, a relentless 2,000 ft., ascent directly up to the top of Ellis Peak.

About two-thirds of the way up this climb I looked back and saw headlamps approaching quickly from behind. It was my buddy Victor Ballesteros making a late charge. He pulled up next to us just long enough to give me a high five and then he and his pacer disappeared ahead into the darkness.

It was freezing on top of Ellis and even though I was wearing a warm insulated long-sleeve shirt and two different jackets, I was still cold. Luckily one of the other items that we were required to carry in our mandatory kit was a mylar space blanket. I took the blanket out and went to work with my origami skills, folding it into a beautiful kimono (which my pacer Jeff kept mistakenly referring to as a "dress").

Flying down the mountain in my kimono like a fearsome samurai headed into battle... Wait a minute, who am I kidding. Hobbling down the mountain in my iridescent mini-skirt like a drag queen with a broken heel who's had one too many Margaritas... Jeff and I eventually made it to the finish line where I thought about jogging it in for the last hundred yards. But I figured, why bother. I'd walked the last 20 miles, now was no time to start running. "You gotta dance with who brung ya," as they say. Anyway, I was finally done. And boy was I done.


Afterthoughts and aftershocks

I ended up finishing 3rd place in 65:02:33, over 3.5 hours behind the winner Ewan Horsburgh and a good hour and twenty minutes behind 2nd place Victor Ballesteros. Clearly, not the finish I was hoping for after having opening up a 2 hour lead at mile 60 and then having built it to over 5.5 hours by mile 137.

Race Director, Candice Burt congratulating me.
"That shit was easy... too damn easy!" Just kidding!
In retrospect it's easy to say that perhaps I should have held back more early, or that I shouldn't have pushed quite so hard during the heat of the second day. Yes, it's easy to second guess after the fact. But I don't have any regrets about my race. I saw an opportunity and I went for it. It just didn't quite work out. I was ready to keep pushing, but my body (perhaps wisely) decided to call it a day and shut down on me.

I experienced a few health concerns toward the end of the race that would make me question whether I would ever want to attempt something like this again. In addition to the normal stuff that I was expecting (blistered feet, black toenails, bloody chaffed thigh and crotch region, broken fingers, etc.), I also experienced some other pretty scary conditions that caused me some alarm including fluid in the lungs (possibly a bit of pulmonary edema), oxygen desaturation, and extremely elevated breathing and heart rate. Some pretty scary shit.

Also, in the days immediately after the race my body was wrecked. I spent most of the next days sitting in bed wrapped in blankets fighting off an intermittent fever. At night I would wake up drenched in pools of my own sweat. After I soaked the bed sheets the first night, my wife kicked me out of the bedroom and I've since been sleeping on an inflatable air mattress.

And perhaps the most disturbing side effect of running 200 miles is that my body's hormonal system has been completely out of whack and I've been experiencing these strange non-manly feelings that my wife tells me are called "emotions". Let me tell you, "emotions" suck. One minute I am sitting on the couch reading a nice comment from Victor Ballesteros on my Facebook page, and the next minute and I am huddled under the blanket sobbing like baby. What the hell! There's no crying in ultra running!


Thank yous!

First of all, I would like to thank my wife Amy Burton for allowing me, albeit reluctantly, to participate in this event, even if as she says, I snuck this one past her when she wasn't looking. Someone has to stay home and walk the dog, water the kid, and fight off the invasion of ants trying to take over the kitchen and bathroom.

Secondly, I would like to thank my crew chief and pacer Jeff Clowers. He was invaluable in so many ways, and there is no chance I would have made it anywhere even close to the finish line without him. In fact, I'd probably be resting peacefully (in the eternal sense) under a tree on top of a mountain if he hadn't talked me out of the "death nap" I desperately wanted to take.


I'd also like to thank my elite team of pacers, Peter Rabover, Karl Schnaitter, and Jeremy Johnson who all put up with varying degrees of interminable whining, complaining, and second guessing of their pacing skills. Sorry guys. All I can say is that the brain does funny things after you've been running for two days. Hopefully I can make it up to each of you and return the favor someday.

Big thanks to Rich de Borba, the Senior General Manager of the Sports Basement Campbell for hooking my team up with some great Ultimate Direction gear. You da man Rich.

And of course, I have to give mad props to all the aid station volunteers. You guys rocked! Thank you so much for giving up you weekend to help a bunch of dirty, stinky, zombie runners achieve our dreams! You're the best. Thanks again folks!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Introducing the New Welterweight 12K "State Champion" of the World...

A proliferation of "championships"
Parade of Champions

Boxing fans are familiar with the ridiculous alphabet soup of different "official" sanctioning bodies each promoting their own championship. At any one time there can be several different boxers in the same weight class each holding up their shiny bedazzled gold belt and claiming to be the champion.

As I've recently discovered, we have a similar situation in mountain/trail/ultra running. While USATF is probably the most well-known and prestigious organization, there's also a handful of other race series and magazines such EXTERRA, Trail Runner magazine, and Ultra Running magazine who bestow their own championships and runner-of-the-year awards.

And then there's my favorite... the Road Runner's Club of America (RRCA). I love these guys. I really do. They offer a "championship" for almost any/every distance imaginable including some rather odd non-standard distances like 20K, 12K, 8 mile, and 4 mile. I'm pretty sure they must hand out hundreds of "championship" medals each year. If you personally haven't won one of their championships, chances are that your spouse, neighbor, dog, or training partner has!


Big Johnny Brings Home the Gold!

Running down a dream...
All my life -- well at least since high school -- I have dreamed of winning a state championship. In high school I was a decent wrestler, a mediocre runner, and a sub-par tennis player. While I won an occasional tournament, race, or match, my only experience at a state championship involved purchasing a ticket in the sitting in the stands with my brother.

So when I heard that a local favorite race of mine, the Bill Flodberg Mt. Madonna Challenge, was hosting the RRCA California 12K Trail State Championship, I got pretty excited. This was a race that I have always run well at in the past. I even won the race outright in 2009. The super steep 40% grade of the opening mile-long climb really suits me well.

I figured that unless a bunch of super fast guys from out of town showed up to contest the event, I might have a decent shot at winning again this year. And if I didn't win outright, I should hopefully at least be the fist guy over 40 to cross the line -- which would give me bragging rights as the master's champion. In fact, master's champion sounds more impressive than just regular champion. I imagine people whispering, "Wow. He's not just a regular champion, he's a Master-Champion." Ha ha.

As I picked up my bib before the race I ran into fellow ultra-runner Rickey Russel who has edged me out in every race we've even run together including beating me by 14 minutes at Quad Dispsea last November and finishing 18 minutes ahead of me at Miwok 100 this year. I also saw another fast looking guy warming up, who turned out to be San Jose State City College runner Bihama Vedaste.

Lovin' my new Scarpa TRU trail shoes
As I expected, Rickey and Bihama took the race out hard, immediately opening up a slight lead over myself and Travis Finucane of Gilroy, with the rest of the field already well out of sight just a few hundred meters into the long opening climb. I tucked in behind Travis for the first mile or so as he set a really nice pace. Then as soon as the climb leveled out a bit after the first mile I made a surge and accelerated past Travis, trying (in vain) to bridge up the two leaders.

Rickey and Bihama slowly extended their lead and eventually pulled away out of sight by the top of the two mile climb. I hammered the rest of the course as hard as I could, trying desperately to catch up to the leaders. But as I would later learn, despite my best efforts they continued to pull away from me, eventually opening up a four to five minute lead by the finish. Still, I managed to finish in 3rd place, and most importantly I was the first old guy to cross the line earning me the coveted Master's State Championship!

While I didn't witness the battle at the front myself, I later learned that Bihama pulled away on the final downhill mile to take the win away from Rickey who had lead the entire race. Bihama came home with both the winner's trophy (which my wife Amy describes as looking like a giant cookie jar) and the RRCA state championship. And while I took home the master's championship, poor Rickey who lead almost the entire race before being outkicked came home empty handed in second place. But I suspect he will be back next year looking to take home that cookie jar!

Have I shown you my medal? Oh, I have?

Afterward

Many people have asked me how winning a "state championship" has changed my life. (Ok, no one has actually asked me that...but damn, I wish that they would!). In truth, not as much has changed as you might expect. Much to my surprise and dismay there is no State Champions Only Parking at the grocery store nor any special Sate Champions discount at coffee shop. I still put on my pants one leg at a time each morning much like you ordinary schmucks and muggles who don't walk everywhere around wearing a State Champion medal dangled around your necks.

Yes, of course I wear my medal everywhere I go including to the office and customer visits. Is that even a serious question? Though I admit that I do take it off to shower as I'm not sure if it's rust-proof or not and I plan to wear it for many more years to come.




Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Skyline 50K: The Oldest Race You've Never Heard of

The oldest race you've never heard of...
The Skyline 50K trail race is much like an 80's John Cusack cult film that everyone else loves, but that embarrassingly you've never seen...

"I can't believe you still haven't seen Better Off Dead" your friend admonishes you, shaking their head in a mixture of amazement and disapproval.

"Well, I've seen Say Anything and The Sure Thing" you offer proudly, hoping that will impress them, or at least let you off the hook.

"But dude, you've got to see Better Off Dead. It's a classic. That film that put John Cusack on the map!"

OK fine. You promise to rent it on Netflix next weekend just to shut them up. Skyline 50K is like that. It's a classic, low-key race with a big cult-like following. And while it doesn't have the notoriety of larger races like Firetrails 50 that are run on many of the same trails around Oakland's Lake Chabot, it does have a very storied tradition.

Skyline 50K has been around for quite a while. UltraSignUp.com lists results for the past 33 years going all the way back to 1982. It's arguably one, if not the, longest continuously-run ultra trail races in the country. If you want to learn more about the history of the race, check out this great nostalgic piece from Sarah Lavender Smith on TheRunnersTrip.

And for a good general description of the course including maps, elevation profiles, and photos definitely have a look at this year's race write up from Scott Noak at DirtyTrailShoes.


The actual race report (sort of...)

I won't bore you with all the details of how poorly I ran, how shitty I felt, how many times I swore and cursed under my breath, or what a colossally stupid idea it was to run another race only 3 weeks after finishing Hardrock 100. Nope.

Let's just say I spent a lot of time during the race trying to think up creative ways I could drop out while honorably acquitting myself. I had fantasies of being mauled by yellow jackets, going into analeptic shock from stinging nettles, or being gored and dismembered by grazing goats. None of which came true unfortunately. So I ended up having to run the entire 31 stupid miles.

I spent the first half of the race trying to keep up with my buddy Jason Reed who runs for a rival racing team (whose name I must not speak). Jason ducked into the restroom at the turnaround point at Skyline Gate and I never saw him again. I spent the rest of the race in tight battle with three other runners including Lance Doherty, Jeff Koranda, and Terence Hurley. All four of us would all finish within two minutes of each other!

Lance caught and passed me with about 10 miles or so to go. Jeff and Terence were never more than a few switchbacks behind. I didn't particularly care whether they caught me or not. My main concern was actually whether the beer that I left in a cooler in the trunk of my car (which I parked in the shade) would still be cold or not when I finally finished.

Thankfully, I eventually crossed the finish line in 4:20:05 for 10th place. And while not anywhere near my amazing 3:55:55 performance at Way Too Cool 50K earlier this year, this was apparently somehow my 2nd fastest trail 50K ever (and almost an hour faster than the 5:19:10 I ran at Skyline back in 2005). And, most importantly, in case you were wondering, the beer was still ice cold. And delicious!

On a side note, my wife Amy (who also ran Skyline this year on only 2 weeks rest after finishing 3rd woman at Tahoe Rim Trail 100) had a similar experience out on the course that involved a comparable amount of cursing and swearing. But she held on to finish on the podium as 3rd woman. And like me, she also took solace in a cooler full of cold IPA afterwards.

If you want to read a more detailed (and less whiny) race report that describes the exciting back-and-forth action among the speedsters at the front of the race, check out this race report from my Quicksilver Running Club teammate Jean Pommier on his blog, Running, my second job and passion.... And here's a link to the official results. Congrats to all my Quicksilver teammates who ran strong and finished!


Beer, Burgers, and Hot Sausages

While I publicly stated that I signed up for Skyline 50K in order to try and score a few points to move up in the PAUSATF Grand Prix standings, my real reason for running the race had more to do with: a) being able to show off my Hardrock belt buckle and shirt/jacket, and 2) stuffing my face with finish-line kielbasa, burgers and beers. And I accomplished both of those objectives quite admirably.

Showing off the Hardrock bling with Amy

Choking on an overcooked hamburger

Team photo (with Ballast Point Sculpin IPA)

Post-hamburger, post-Sculpin spicy kielbasa

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

2014 Hardrock Race Report

Feeling cautiously optimistic
photo by Hardrock Endurance Run
We Probably Won’t Die

My pacer Marc Laveson and I crouched down in the rain at the bottom of Handies Peak wondering how long it would take hypothermia to set in and kill us. We had both curled ourselves into fetal positions, trying to make our bodies as small as possible to avoid the lightning flashing around us.

 Although we didn’t know it at the time, fellow runner Adam Campbell and his pacer had just been struck by lightning on top of the mountain. The blast knocked him off his feet and short-circuited his headlamp.

Marc and I had only been huddled for about five minutes, but I was already starting to get unacceptably cold. I briefly contemplated asking Marc if he thought perhaps we should spoon each other to stay warm. You learn a lot about yourself in a situation like that.

And what I learned was that I would rather risk having my internal organs fried by 1,000 Giga Watts of static electricity than to have Marc’s beard nuzzling against the back of my neck. Instead I suggested that we press on, explaining that the storm was actually moving away from us up the mountain at a faster pace than my tired legs would allow us to hike.

We had just spent the better part of half an hour running for our lives, racing down Engineer into Grouse Gulch dodging lightning bolts in the dusk. We’d been afraid to turn our headlamps on for fear that it might attract the lightning or somehow make it easier for the bolts to see and find us. I’m not sure if that’s really how lightning works. Maybe I should have paid more attention during physics class in high school.

Now we were leaving the safety and warmth of the aid station behind and climbing towards certain doom up a 14,000 ft. mountain into the heart of an electrical storm. I guess this is one of those stories about smart dudes who do stupid things when a shiny belt buckle is on the line.

Scouting the course with Kristina
photo by Kristina Irvin
How Hard Can Hardrock Really be I Wonder?

I first heard about Hardrock 10 years ago from my friend (and ultra-running mentor) Kristina Irvin who has 7 Hardrock finishes along with an unofficial finish where she completed the course just 3 minutes over the 48 hour cut off.

Listening to Kristina describe the rugged course, off-trail route finding, and unrelenting endless climbs I knew that I would one day find my way to the San Juan Mountains. Little did I suspect that it would take me 10 years to finally reach Silverton and the starting line.

I arrived in Silverton, Colorado on Monday evening a few days before the Friday start of this year’s Hardrock 100. This was definitely going to be the hardest thing I had ever attempted. Yet I was cautiously optimistic.

I now had a decade of ultra-running experience under my belt, along with a collection of buckles to go with it from Black Hills 100, Tahoe Rim Trail, The Bear, Western States, and Pinhoti. I’d also fine-tuned my training, nutrition, and race-day pacing strategies. I’d even been sleeping in a Hypoxico altitude tent for the last 3 years in hopes that I would one day get selected in the Hardrock lottery.

There I was, hiking the last 9-mile section of the course on the Tuesday before the race with Kristina, soaking it all in. It was finally happening. I was about to run my dream race! Suddenly panic set in. Oh shit, I was about to run my dream race!

Everyone back home was going to be watching, staying up late into the night and waking up early in the morning to track me online. Bryon Powell  had even given me a shout out as “Other Men to Watch Out For” in the irunfar Hardrock Preview. What if I didn’t live up to all the expectations? What if I had a bad race? Ugh.

Luckily I managed to convince me friend and Quicksilver Running Club teammate Marc Laveson to come out and pace me. Marc is a super-fast and experienced runner who has run 18:47 at Western States and finished on the podium at San Diego 100. I knew that he had put his name in for Hardrock and he hoped to run it one day, so I figured this would be a good way for him to see the course in a relaxed low-pressure situation.



Running down Grant Swamp Pass
photo by Gary Wang
Super Hard, it Turns Out

“Fuck, I just broke my finger” I scream. I’d just taken a hard fall on the top of Oscar’s Pass at mile 20 and shooting pain was sheering through my bloody finger. Luckily I had just passed fellow runner and Veteran Hardrocker David Coblentz who was right behind me. “Stick that thing in the snow for 5 minutes or so to stop the bleeding and numb it up” he wisely suggests.

Five minutes later I pull my now frozen right ring finger out of the snow and shove it into a tight fitting neoprene glove. Time to get moving again. It hurts like hell but nothing is going to stop me from kissing that rock in Silverton.

“Did you kill a deer or something” the aid station volunteer asks I as show up with my shirt and bib number all covered in blood. “No, I just fractured my finger” I explain nonchalantly as I refill my water bottle and scarf down a turkey wrap. Any other race would have probably pulled me out and called the doctor. But this is Hardrock, so they just nod and say “OK. Only 4 miles until the next aid station, but it’s all uphill with a 4,000 ft. climb”. “Cool, thanks” I reply and head off with pockets stuffed with ginger-snaps.

The hike up to Virginius Pass sucks and I periodically blurt out obscenities and loudly threaten the lives of the Hardrock Board of Directors. Luckily my idle threats are only heard by a marmot who seems unimpressed. I catch and pass a few other runners in the section including Shigeru Furuta, David Coblentz (who wisely advised me to ice my broken finger in the snow), and Eric Lee (who completed the grueling Nolan’s 14 in 2012).

Eric later catches back up to me as we summit Virginius Pass arriving together into Kroger Canteen. However Eric descends down the three snow fields on the backside of Virginius like a mountain goat disappearing off into the distance while I stumbled down trying not to fall and bump my broken finger.

Thankfully once we arrive at Governor Basin aid station I learn that we have 8 miles of easy downhill running into Ouray. This is where I go against every piece of advice anyone has ever given about running Hardrock and I drop the hammer and throw down a bunch of 7 minute miles on the road down into Ouray.

Conventional wisdom holds that running this long downhill section hard will trash your legs and leave you unable to climb strong on the long 9 mile ascent out of Ouray up Engineer. But like I always say, “hammer now, worry later”.


Running Bear Creek Trail
photo by Marc Laveson
There’s a Reason They Don’t Make Bacon-Flavored Gels

“I think that bacon was a bad idea” I tell my pacer Marc as I pick him up in Ouray. I’m feeling a bit nauseous. “Well, you’re looking better than most of the guys in front of you” Marc offers. “Timmy Olson looked like he was really hurting. I think you can catch him”. I smile and laugh at such an absurd suggestion. But Marc is following the golden rule of pacing: lie your ass off and tell your runner whatever they need to hear.

After overshooting a turn and getting slightly off course for the second time today (I also made a wrong turn leaving Telluride) Marc and I start the long climb up Engineer. Even with two water bottles in my Ultimate Direction AK 2.0 vest, I quickly run out of water shortly into the long exposed climb.

Marc and I refill our bottles in any creek, trickle, or muddy puddle that we come across. Mark is skeptical and cites the danger of Giardia from drinking untreated water. I laugh and recite my mantra, “drink now, worry later”. After all, Giardia takes weeks to incubate and by then I will have finished the race and flown home where I’ll be sitting on the couch drinking beer and polishing my finisher’s belt buckle.

“Hey, there’s a runner ahead” Marc gestures as we catch up to and then overtake Stuart Air from Great Britain who had been profiled as “Ones to Watch” on the TalkUltra.com’s race preview. We are moving well and I am really starting to feel good.

A few minutes later Marc gestures again, “Timmy Olson”. I nearly shit my pants. But it’s true. Timmy does seems to be struggling (I later learn he was fighting a tough bout of nausea) and I offer what encouragement I can, advising him to gut out the finish in order to improve his chances of getting back in the lottery again next year. I suspect this won’t be the last I see of Timmy in this race.


http://photos.denverpost.com/2014/07/11/hardrock-100-endurance-race-telluride-colorado/
Bracing for the storm
photo by Daniel Petty/The Denver Post
Cold. So Damn Cold!

As we slowly navigate our way up the long, steep, treacherous wet climb to the top of Grouse American Pass and then up and over to Handies Peak, Marc and I both curse under our breath. It seems like hours ago that we left the warm aid station at Grouse Gulch where Scott Jurek made a point of getting my attention and telling me that I was kicking butt. It was an amazing moment, almost like a dream.

But this climb feels more like a nightmare. I worry that it will never end. The good news is that the rain and lightning have cleared up. The bad news is that the rain has now turned to icy hail. Fuck! Finally after what seems like an eternity we reach the top of Handies Peak at 14,058 ft, the high point of the course. It is windy and cold and we decide against wasting time taking romantic moonlight selfies.

Unbeknownst to either Marc or I at the time, we have moved up another spot as we pass front runner Jason Koop who apparently has had enough of the cold weather and climbed into a tent with some hikers who had – for reasons that are still quite unclear to me – decided it was a good idea to camp on the top of Handies Peak in the middle of a crazy electrical storm.

As we make our way down the 3,200 ft. descent to the Burrows Park aid station I adopt an over-exaggerated arm swing to try and generate additional body heat. Even with my long-sleeve cycling jersey and waterproof windshell I am still on the verge of turning into a ice sculpture.

Finally we make it down to Burrows where we refuel and say a quick hello to Bay Area runner Tawnya Dozier who is working the medical tent. She offers to tape up my bloody broken finger but I assure her that there is no need as I am pretty sure it is already frozen solid and quite immobile. We head out and descend another couple thousand feet to Sherman aid station.


Relentless forward progress
photo by Marc Laveson
“Marc, Are We Still on Course?”

“Hey Marc, are you sure we’re still going the right way” I ask for at least the 200th time. It is dark and we’ve been climbing Pole Creek (or at least what I hope is Pole Creek) for miles and I haven’t seen a single trail marker or ribbon in the hours since we’ve left Sherman. (Side note: Sherman aid station has the most delicious banana cream pie).

“Yes, we’re still on course. There’s nowhere else to go” Marc repeats over and over again like a metronome. He is right of course. But after having gotten this far and survived a broken finger, a lightning storm, and deluge of hail, I don’t want to mess it all up by getting lost now.

Marc leads the way through the dark of night, skillfully spotting the sparse course markings and guiding us through the swamp land between Sherman and Pole Creek like a modern-day Lewis and Clark. Without his invaluable assistance I would probably still be out there wandering in circles through the bog well after the last runners have finished and flown home.

Unfortunately Marc, who has been struggling with a variety of issues all evening, finally has to bow out at Pole Creek at mile 80. He sends me on my way with a hug and his infectious enthusiasm. The section from Pole Creek to Maggie Gulch is relatively straight forward and well-marked, and doesn’t present too many challenges in the day light.

And much to my surprise, Matthew Curtis, one of the aid station volunteers whose shift is over offers to keep me company for a bit as he hikes back out to Maggie’s from Pole Creek. Once I arrived at Maggie’s, I knew that I have just one more 5 mile section until Cunningham Gulch. From there I will be golden as I have already scouted this 9 mile section with my friend Kristina Irvin earlier in the week on Tuesday.

Unfortunately, without Marc’s company (and Sacagawea inspired navigational skills) I find myself stumbling slowly up-down-and-around Maggie-Pole Pass, Buffalo Boy Ridge, and Green Mountain in a daze.  I feel a bit like Amelia Earhart who set out to cross the Atlantic and was never seen again. And although I catch a glimpse of Darcy Africa Piceu ascending Maggie-Pole Pass, by the time I reach the peak over a half hour later Darcy is nowhere to be seen.

After what seems like hours of searching for course markings I have an epiphany! It dawns on me that these little piles of rocks I occasionally see (technically they are called “cairns”) point the way. Apparently, whoever marked the course must have run out or markings and just used piles of rocks instead. Damn, I wish someone had mentioned that to me at the 3 hour-long “trail briefing” I attended on Wednesday!


Emotional at the finish line
photo by Bryon Powell / irunfar.com
Please God, Don’t Let That be Timmy Olson! Oh Shit, it is Timmy Olson!

Once I finally make my way around and down Green Mountain to Cunningham Gulch I am overcome with joy. Now I know that I’ve got this thing in the bag. Kristina and I had done this same section in about 4 hours on Tuesday and that included a bunch of time spent goofing around taking pictures, eating lunch, and chatting with hikers. Plus, we hiked the downhill (which I plan to run today). So I figure that even on tired legs I should hopefully be able to knock this last section out in around three hours or so.

The aid station volunteers at Cunningham are super friendly and helpful, and they send me on my way up the last climb feeling like a celebrity. But my 15 minutes of fame is short lived as only 3 or 4 minutes later I hear those same bastards (who I thought were my friends) cheering for another runner. Those traitors!

I pick up the pace as best I can hoping that my short 3 or 4 minute lead will hold out at least until I reach the top of the climb. If someone passes me on the climb I won’t have any chance to stay with them as I am already moving as fast as my tired legs will permit. But if I can somehow hold on to the top I know that I can find another gear and crank things up on the downhills which I have been running strong all race.

I glance back down the mountain and see that I only have about a five-switchback lead. There’s a male runner and his female pacer down there closing hard. He kind of looks like Timmy Olson! Wouldn’t it be funny if that was Timmy Olson? Oh shit, what if that really is Timmy Olson?

I look back again and now my lead has been cut to four switchbacks. That guy who looks a lot like Timmy Olson is really moving. I look back again and he’s only three switchbacks behind. Shit, I think that really is Timmy. He must have worked through his rough patch and picked up the pace. He’s making a late charge. Part of me is cheering for Timmy – who after all is my favorite ultra runner and a hero of mine. "Go Timmy! Run that guy down" I cheer.

Oh wait, I’m the guy he’s running down. That’s not cool. “Stop cheering for Timmy you idiot” I tell myself. “Come on Big Johnny, one last push to the top and then time to drop bombs on this mother f’er” I shout. “You got this. You’re the man. Nobody can run as fast as you. Nobody’s as handsome as you…”. As I hit the top of the climb I accelerate and bomb the steep technical downhill single-track.

Earlier in the week on our recon “recce” Kristina and I had hiked down this section with our poles, moving very slowly and cautiously down the steep slippery scree. But today I don’t have time to tip toe. I’m running for my life, so I ski down the scree like Kilian. At least I imagine that I look as smooth and graceful as Kilian. In reality I probably look more like a baby deer trying to walk on ice, legs splayed out and flailing in all directions.

As I hit the rocky boulder-strewn jeep road I pick up the pace even more, hammering the downhill as if I were running a 10K rather than a 100 miler. Occasionally I step on a sharp rock and scream out in pain, but for the most part I do a good job of dancing around the rocks and scree.

All of a sudden people start to cheer. I assume that I must be hallucinating. We are still at least 5 miles from the finish in Silverton. Who in their right mind would hike all the way up here spectating. “Hey, that looks like Buzz Burrell” I mumble to myself. “Hi Buzz” I yell just in case I’m not actually hallucinating and it really is him and not a figment of my imagination.

I keep sprinting all the way down the jeep road, across the creek, and into the last single-track section along the beaver ponds. I have no idea whether Timmy Olson is still chasing me or not. But I’m not about to take any chances of getting passed in the last two miles. I keep the hammer down and fly through the twisty, winding single track. I feel transported back to my high school cross country days. Suddenly I’m a teenager running through the woods without a job or a care in the world.



Kissing the rock
photo by Noé Castañón

The Big Wet Kiss (no Tongue)

As I finally pop out of the forest into the edge of town I see my friend Noé Castañón jump out of his car with his camera. He starts snapping pics. My body feels like I’m dying and I desperately want to stop running and walk for a minute to catch my breath. But now there’s another person running next to me with a professional looking video camera. Is that JB Benna?

I am starting to get hypoxic and feel my blood filling with lactic acid. Finally as Noé and the film crew peel off I quickly look back to ensure that no one is chasing me and then allow myself to walk for a block or two to catch my breath. As I turn left from 14th Street onto Green Street Noé and the film crew are back. Just two or three more blocks to go to the rock. I can do this. I start running again. And then for some reason I start crying. I’m running AND crying.

I turn the corner and enter the finishing chute. There’s the rock. I did it. Holy shit, I did it. I finished Hardrock. I come screeching to a halt and lay a wet kiss on the rock. It’s official. I still can’t believe it. I glance down at my watch and am surprised to see that I ran just over 30 hours (12th place in 30:03).

I hadn’t even bothered to look at my watch while I was running the last section from Cunningham. All my blood is in my legs rather than my brain so it makes math calculations a bit difficult, but I think I just ran a 2:31 split from Cunningham. Wow!

Suddenly I am overcome by emotion. Hardrock has been my dream race. I’ve thought about it, obsessed about it, for years. I’d given up beer (which I love almost as much as Hardrock) and put myself on a Greek yogurt and fruit-and-nut diet for a month to get lean and fit for Hardrock. I’d logged over a quarter million feet of vertical gain this year in the months leading up to Hardrock, much of it off-trail on steep game paths and semi-dry mountain river beds.

I’d shed blood for Hardrock – quite literally – when I fell while climbing up a river-bed waterfall and busted my eyebrow open. I probably should have gone to the ER and had it stitched up but I just super glued it shut at home instead. All of my training. All of my sacrifices. It was all worth it. I was now a “Hardrocker”!

Bonus: Click here to listen to my interview on UltraRunnerPodcast.com.
 
Bonus: Click below to watch my training montage and race highlight video.



P.S. I want to give special thanks to the following people and inanimate objects: My wife Amy Burton for being my biggest fan and believing in me, Kristina Irvin for sharing her course knowledge and experience with me, Marc Laveson for keeping me moving and on course for thirteen hours over the toughest part of the course, SCORE Clinic San Jose for fixing my gimpy knee, and my Hypoxico Altitude Training Systems for giving me the altitude acclimitzation of a Himalayan Sherpa.


Bonus pic: Here's the X-Ray showing the tip of my right ring finger shattered into five pieces!