Monday, January 11, 2016

A Bunch of Drunks on a Mountain (Part 2)

Chikara unable to hold his Root Beer

Chikara Omine lay on the ground puking after drinking one too many Not Your Father’s hard root beers. While this might sound like the aftermath of a high school party, Omine has just competed in a serious sporting event, contested by grown adults, that involves chugging cans of beer and sprinting a mile up a steep mountain. We’re talking of course about the second-annual, Big Johnny’s Vertical Beer Mile Inter-Galactic World Championship as featured last year in this Trail Runner Magazine article.

Chikara is one of our planet's top ultra-marathon runners. He has won dozens of races and has represented the United States in international competition, most recently at the 100K World Cup. Yet he also has a fetish for participating in strange and novel events that many people might reasonably characterize as “somewhat odd, if not completely bizarre”.

For example, there is the “Swedish Meatball 100 Yard Dash” which – while the rules are not completely clear – apparently requires stuffing a bunch of meatballs into your mouth and then trying to keep them all inside your mouth while sprinting down the track. Chikara has also competed in other eating-related contests, including speed-eating hot dogs, pancakes, spam, pot stickers, and even fried asparagus. He’s also a five-time winner of a race called the “Donut Dash” that involves sprinting two miles, engulfing four donuts, and then sprinting two additional miles.

I guess you could say that Chikara loves to eat and run. He doesn’t care how far or long he runs (he’s won everything from 5Ks to 24-hour timed events), on what surface (he fares equally well on tracks, roads, and mountainous trails), or even in which direction (he occasionally likes to participate in local 5K races while running backwards). Heck, he even once ran a race on crutches while recovering from a broken toe. And did I mention that he's even run while dressed as Cookie Monster?

Karl, "The Man to Beat"
Karl Schnaitter

While lesser men might be intimated by the prospect of racing one of the world’s most feared legends in the running and/or eating circles, Karl Schnaitter fears no one. And this isn’t mere false bravado; Karl returns this year as the defending vertical beer mile champion and pre-race favorite after having convincingly won the inaugural Big Johnny Vertical Beer Mile Championship last year in dominating fashion. 

Karl is no stranger to winning races. He has an impressive resume that includes wins at Nisene Marks Marathon, Ruth Anderson (50 Mile and 100K), Headlands (50 Mile and 100 Mile) and San Francisco New Year’s Eve 6 Hour. Perhaps more impressively, among his nearly one hundred Strava course records include two of the most prestigious and sought-after segments: the Western States 100 – Hwy 49 to Finish segment, and of course, the Big Johnny’s Uphill Beer Mile Challenge segment.

Big Johnny Burton

Speaking of "Big Johnny" Burton, no one can ever be quite sure what to expect of this highly-unpredictable, yet highly-entertaining athlete. “His race strategies and training methods are unorthodox, if not incomprehensible,” remarked one competitor. He is truly, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” mused another. “He has a penchant for doing the unexpected; so much so that he is – rather ironically – almost predictable in his unpredictability,” explained one other. [Ed: Who are these anonymously quoted sources, and why do they all talk like Winston Churchill?].

Left to right: "Big Johnny" Burton,
Chris "Big Wiener" Eide, Donnie Blameuser
No one knows for certain from whence the nickname “Big Johnny” originated. One report claims that the title was conferred upon him by a Native American Indian chief in acknowledgement of an amazing act of heroism and bravery far too lengthy and convoluted to be recounted here; another legend says the name was whispered to Big Johnny by a Tibetan monk on top of Mount Everest. Others think the moniker is perhaps a stage name from Big Johnny’s brief – albeit highly successful – career as an exotic male dancer.  Skeptics suggest that the name was most likely self-bestowed. 

The one thing pundits can agree on however, is that whenever “Big Johnny” shows up at the starting line of a race, two things are almost certain: 1) He will likely disrobe moments before the start of the race revealing a risqué and garish costume whose tightness is rivaled only by its skimpiness, and 2) It is highly probable that at some point (usually sooner than later) he will launch an explosive, excessively flamboyant attack that – in more cases than not – he will be unable to sustain.

Chris Eide

One runner who no one seems to ever talk about is Chris Eide. He’s always the forgotten man in the pre-race rankings.  Much like Seth Swanson, who finished 2nd in his first Western States race and was then overlooked the following year in the pre-race predictions by the experts (and went on to finish 2nd again that year), Eide – who finished second at last year’s Big Johnny Vertical Beer Mile – isn’t being talked about as one of the favorites to make the podium again this year.

One can only wonder if perhaps the reason people avoid talking about Eide is because no one is quite sure how to pronounce his last name.  Is it pronounced “I’d” like in the contraction of “I would”? Or is it pronounced more like “eddy” in fluid dynamics parlance. Or should we add a silent (and invisible) “s” to the end as in the “Ides of March”?  Who the heck knows!

Amy Burton (top-left), Jenny Lockwood (top-right)
Liz Louie (bottom-left), Tehani Nishiyama (bottom-right)
Women to be reckoned with

On the women’s side of the race, the pre-race favorite has to be Amy Burton who won the women’s two-beer Powder-Puff division last year. However, the word on the street [Ed: I guess more appropriately, the word on the trails] is that Amy hasn’t been doing much training (or racing) due to an Achilles tendinitis injury. That could potentially leave the door open for one of the new women’s entrants toeing the line this year: Jenny Lockwood, Liz Louie, or Tehani Nishiyama – all three of whom are flirting with the idea of eschewing the two-beer Powder-Puff division and mixing it up with the big boys in the full four-beer version of the race!

They’re off and… puking?

At approximately 10:00 am on the morning of January 2, 2016, seventeen brave-and-foolish souls gathered at a remote trail head in the 22,000-acre wilderness of the Diablo Mountain range south of San Jose, California. Towering above them, as they stood in the parking lot clutching their carbonated cans of malted beverages, was a mile-long 1,100 ft. climb with a steep 25% average gradient.

“Oh no. Oh $#*!,” more than one competitor could be heard muttering. And this was before Big Johnny disrobed, revealing the world’s skimpiest and tightest pair of Lycra faux-denim shorts, so snug and form fitting that they appeared to be painted on. At this point several competitors already began suppressing their gag reflex and fighting the urge to hurl, well before any actual beers had been opened or chugged.

And it begins....

A few seconds later the pop-tops were popped and the runners began chugging their beverages and sprinting/hiking/slowly ambling up the mountain. Karl Schnaitter took the early lead, followed immediately by Big Johnny. Slightly further back was a small chase group of a few other runners including Chikara and Chris Eide – who regardless of how you pronounce his name, was dressed in a giant hot dog costume and will henceforth be referred to simply as the “Big Wiener”.

Karl Schnaitter continued leading through the second and third beer “aid stations”, always shadowed closely by Big Johnny who was never more than a few seconds behind. Karl later confessed that his front-running strategy had less to do with race tactics, but more with wanting to avoid having to look at the back of Big Johnny’s ass-tight booty shorts.

The race heats up
Chikara and the Chris “Big Wiener” Eide slowly clawed their way up to the two race leaders, creating an exciting four-man race. Further back, a battle was also brewing in the women’s race. Amy Burton, who was running solo in the two-beer Powder-Puff division, seemed to be in a race of her own [Ed: Technically she was in a race of her own, literally as well as figuratively]. Meanwhile, the three women behind her were steadily chugging and slogging their way up the mountain in a too-close-to-call race for the women’s four-beer division.

Sprint for the finish

As the runners left the final beer station, Karl Schnaitter was still in first place followed closely by Chikara (who had moved up into 2nd place) and Big Johnny in third. Meanwhile Big Wiener seemed to struggle with his last beer (or perhaps he was just overheating a bit in his costume) and slipped slowly back out of contention for the podium. As Karl, Chikara and Big Johnny approached the steepest section of the course with only a few hundred meters left to go, it looked like the race had been sorted out and the finishing order had been determined.

But then inexplicably (or perhaps all too predictably), Big Johnny launched an epic attack, rocketing up past Chikara and Karl into the lead – all the while showboating and celebrating ostentatiously and voraciously as he strode past race camera man, Sean McPherson, who was filming the action. The race was over!

"Big Johnny" launches a virulent attack

Or… was it? Not fazed by Big Johnny’s antics, Karl and Chikara kept their cool and pressed on, suspecting perhaps that Big Johnny may have kicked a bit too soon. Only mere seconds later, clearly gassed out, Big Johnny slowed dramatically and then stepped off to the side of the trail, letting Karl and Chikara pass. Conceding defeat, Big Johnny jogged it in, screaming unsolicited (and generally unhelpful) advice to the two remaining combatants: “Put him in a choke hold Chikara,” and “Use the Force Karl. Use the Force!”

It’s all over but the pukin’

As they approached the finish line at the top of the climb Karl could taste victory. Or maybe it was the Moose Drool brown ale coming back up that he was tasting? Trying to hold off a hard-charging Chikara only steps behind him Karl closed his eyes and sprinted… right past the finish line and championship belt hanging from the tree. Luckily Karl heard Big Johnny call out to turn around and he reversed course just in time to clinch the belt (and the victory) in 17 minutes and 10 seconds.

Chikara crossed the finish line 3 seconds later, seemingly no longer able to even run in a straight line, and immediately collapsed onto the ground… emptying the contents of his root beer-filled belly into the drought-stricken earth. Chikara would later explain that it wasn’t the 5.9% ABV content of his Not Your Father’s Root Beer that caused him to puke, but rather the quick glimpse of Big Johnny’s tight Lycra shorts in his peripheral vision.

Big Johnny sauntered casually up the hill for third place in 17:28, seemingly more concerned with re-adjusting his teeny-tiny shorts (which had steadily ridden up higher than any levels of comfort or public decency would permit) than with his actual finish time. In addition to winning the “Tightest and Most Inappropriate Shorts Award” Big Johnny also laid claim to the Master’s Title (i.e., first old dude). Additionally he also was awarded (Ed: technically I think he awarded himself) the “My Beer is Stronger than Your Beer Award” for his impressive choice of 7% ABV Sculpin IPA.

The aftermath!
Chris “Big Wiener” Eide stumbled across the finish line a minute later in 4th place, after spending some time on the trail pondering to himself the time-old existential-drunk question: “What am I doing with my life?” He later came to terms with himself after realizing that this race was actually perfectly in line with his recent New Year’s Resolution to focus on “quality miles” over quantity. 

Matt Ward, who finished 5th was the first completely sober runner to reach the top, having won the Club Soda category as well as the award for “Best Mullet on a Bald Guy”. Matt too was wondering how his life had come to this. He thought he’d hit bottom years ago, ironically due to chugging too much beer; yet here he was – of sound and sober mind – binge-drinking seltzer water for bragging rights. It really came full circle for him as he watched Chikara vomit while Larry remarked, “look he’s filling a gopher hole.”

Winning the Super Master’s Division (i.e., “First Really Old Dude” Award) was 50 year old, sub 3-hour road-marathoner Larry Neumann. For a roadie accustomed to gentle asphalt bike paths, Larry acquitted himself remarkably well on the steep and rugged dirt trails. Feeling understandably proud of his achievement, he posted a photo – an action shot where he could be seen in the distance behind the leaders battling up the final hill – to the road-runner’s club that he belongs to. Their response was, “So you’re saying you got smoked by a guy in a hot dog suit and a lady walking her dog?” Man, tough crowd!

Amy Burton ran/hiked/walked away with the women’s two-beer Powder-Puff division title with no other woman in sight. This was partially due to her amazing performance and perhaps also partially due to the fact that she was the only woman in the two-beer division. She regrets ever listening to her husband [Ed: Don’t most women regret ever listening to their husbands] Big Johnny who talked her out of attempting the four-beer race. However, she bows to the drinking prowess of Liz Louie, Jenny Lockwood and Tehani Nishiyama, and looks forward to challenging them next year!

King and Queen of the Mountain

In the women’s four-beer division, Liz Louie was the first to cross the finish line, narrowly edging out fellow competitor Jenny Lockwood. There was a moment of confusion and controversy after the race among the “official judges”, all of whom were quite drunk, and none of whom were actual judges in any sort of capacity – official or otherwise. The point of contention was whether the hard strawberry-apple cider consumed by Liz was actually “beer” or not. 

After conferring, the judges ruled, quite decidedly, that strawberry-apple cider is indeed beer – or at least some distant second-cousin-in-law-of-beer-from-another-marriage. And so Liz was awarded the women’s Championship Belt. However, the judges also decreed that – if feasible and time-permitting – an additional women’s championship belt shall be constructed out of empty Budweiser beer cans and presented to Jenny at some nebulously vague future date.

The second annual Big Johnny’s Vertical Beer Mile Inter-Galactic World Championship was a resounding success.  Nobody died (which is always good). And much more importantly, no one had to run a penalty lap for puking during the race [Ed: puking after the race is considered a faux pas but is not penalized].

On top of the world!


“The vertical beer mile was simultaneously the most glorious and the worst idea of my life.” – Liz Louie

“The quote that will stick in my head is Liz Louie saying ‘is this poop or not?’ while batting around a lump of something on the ground with her hand that was most definitely poop (I think).”
– Chikara Omine

“I'd really like to know how exactly Big Johnny found this trail.  With the millions of acres of parkland in the area, he managed to find a segment that was a) crazy steep, b) exactly a mile, c) right off the road.  Does he have a job?” – Zack Steinkamp

"I like the remoteness and difficulty of the course. You could smell the last belch of the competitor in front of you much longer than on a flatter course." – Loren Lewis

“Never had more fun running up a steep trail while getting my ass kicked.  What’s worse than consuming pamplemousse flavored French sparkling water?  Oh yes, getting beaten by a wiener...”
– Thomas Anderson

“I’ve been training for this all year… I embraced the belch and improved my total beer drinking time by almost a minute.  Improving at this rate means I’ll be ready to vie for the podium in about 4 years, if I’m not a raging alcoholic by then.” – Jeff Pace

“I decided to take on this challenging with the joke of going sub 26 minutes.  Well the joke is on me with sub 30 minute mile and DFL.  That was one crazy hill.  I ran maybe 10%, hiked 80% and burped 10%.” – Sam Louie

Click below to watch the race video courtesy Sean McPherson

Vertical Beer Mile Official(ish) Results
Place / Award
 Karl Schnaitter  17:10  Overall Champion
 Chikara Omine  17:13  (Hard) Root Beer Champion
 John Burton  17:28  Master's Champion / IPA Champion
 Chris Eide  18:20  "Biggest Wiener" Award
 Matt Ward  19:16  Club Soda Champion / "Best Mullet" Award
 Zack Steinkamp  20:09  "Loudest Belch" Award
 Larry Neumann  20:17  Super-Master's Champion
 Amy Burton  20:43  Power-Puff (2 Beer) Champion
 Thomas Anderson  22:26 "Most Cutting the Switchbacks" Award
 Jeff Pace  23:43  "Most Improved" Award
 Loren Lewis  24:25  German-Non-Alcoholic-Beer Champion
 Liz Louie  24:44  Women's-Hard-Strawberry-Cider Champion
 Jenny Lockwood  25:12  Women's Actual-Beer Mile Champion
 Dan Nishiyama  25:56  "First Nishiyama Finisher" Award
 Tehani Nishiyama  28:17  "Most Colorful Tights" Award
 Donnie Blameuser  29:xx  "Least Improved" Award
 Sam Louie  29:xx  "Most Room to Improve" Award

Big thanks to official race photographer /
videographer, Sean McPherson

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

In Defense of Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong went for a jog in the woods this weekend with a friend at a small relatively non-competitive local trail race that no one has ever heard of... and the Internet flipped the fuck out! You'd think he took the last vanilla Gu at the aid station or something! Various trail running "experts" and "spokespersons" wrote angry blogs saying that Lance shouldn't be allowed to compete in trail races because of something he did 10 years ago in a completely unrelated sport.

Lance Armstrong -- in case you have been living in a yurt in the mountains of North Korea (or some other place without Internet access) for the past 20 years -- is this totally bad-ass motherfucker who won the Tour de France, the world's hardest endurance event, seven times in a row... after nearly dying of cancer and losing a testicle. He's a real life fucking super hero. Chuck Norris, the Internet meme, probably doesn't masturbate to posters of other men; but if he did, it would certainly to be a shirtless poster of Lance Armstrong. And who could blame him?

So even though he's like super-fucking awesome and stuff, a lot of people don't like Lance anymore because it was revealed that he took a shit-load of performance enhancing drugs en route to crushing his competition -- most of whom were later busted for also having taken a shit-load of drugs. Those other guys all got to continue racing after serving piddly little suspensions, but Lance got suspended for life. Presumably, because he was so fucking awesome.

Santa Claus ins't real; cyclists take drugs.

The fact that cyclist take performance drugs isn't really much of a secret. Cyclist have been doping, and dying of drug use, since the 1880s. In fact, doping in cycling wasn't even made illegal until somewhat recently, back in 1965. Up until then cyclists openly took drugs.

In fact, in the 1930's, the Tour de France guidebook for competitors informed riders that they should remember to bring their own drugs, as the Tour would not be providing any. Two-time Tour de France champion from the 1940s, Fausto Coppi, joked that he, only took drugs when absolutely necessary, which is nearly always. Similarly, five-time Tour de France winner Jacques Anquetil famously said that only a fool would imagine it was possible to ride Bordeaux–Paris on just water.

You have to be somewhat naive to think that normal human beings can ride their bicycles several thousand miles over some of the hardest and steepest mountains in the world averaging 25mph for weeks on end without taking a fuck-load of fucking drugs. I mean, come on man!

In any case, hundreds of top riders, including 23 of Lance's Armstrong's top 25 competitors have all been busted at one time or another for using performance enhancing drugs. It's on the Internet, so it must be true. But yet Lance is the guy that everyone hates. Again, because he's so fucking awesome.

People don't hate Lance because he cheated; they hate him because he's an asshole

Ok, let's be honest. Lance Armstrong is a major asshole. He's a complete fucking dick. He's a world-class douche bag. I mean for fuck's sake, he crashed his car while drunk driving and then made his girlfriend take the blame with the police. He's the kind of friend who would sleep with your wife while you're out of town on business and then drink all of the beer in your fridge (and not even bother to replace it). That's some cold-ass shit. Like I said, major dick.

I don't think most people are actually too bothered by the fact that Lance took drugs. Hell, at least half the trail runners I know have smoked weed -- some of them even during a race. Keep in mind that marijuana is on the WADA banned substance list; yes Mr. Speed Goat, I'm talking to you. No, I think the reason people hate Lance so much is because he ruthlessly went after anyone who tried to expose him, and didn't stop until they were destroyed, discredited and penniless. To which I reply, "Well, duh".

What the fuck did they expect? You go after one of the richest and most powerful athletes on the planet, a guy who is famous for stopping at nothing and doing whatever it takes to win? You try to ruin his life and take away everything he's achieved? And then you're surprised when he comes out shooting to kill? You didn't think that one through very well did you?

Hypothetical situation: If I see a rabid pitbull foaming at the mouth and angrily pacing back in forth at the end of a dark alley, I might think to myself, "Hey that pitbull isn't actually bothering me but... maybe I should pick up this stick and attack it". I might think that... if I was a complete fucking moron. Or, more reasonably, I might think, "He's not bothering me. Let me just mind my fucking business".

I'm not actually justifying what Lance did, or how he treated people. His actions were dispicable. And he's admitted as much in recent interviews. Whether he is truly remorseful or merely going through the motions is anyone's guess. But if start banning everyone who's ever made mistakes or acted like a dick at some point in their lives, we won't have many people out on the trails.

Shut up, smoke your weed, and let Lance run

There are quite a few people who think that Lance shouldn't be allowed to compete in trail running and/or ultra-running because he took drugs ten years ago in sport where everyone else was taking drugs. I'm not saying these people all a bunch of whiny-ass-bitches. Not all of them anyway. Some are merely well-meaning but pretentious hypocrites. Others are jealous haters. And most are probably guys who are mad because Lance banged their wives and drank their beers. Dudes, get over it.

I think one of the most common misconceptions about drug cheats is that they are somehow trying to "take shortcuts" because they aren't willing to put in the work. Though it's actually the exact opposite. Athlete's don't take drugs because they are afraid of putting in work; they take drugs so that they can put in even more work.

I don't think that they aren't necessarily looking to cheat their fellow athletes; rather they are looking to cheat the laws of physiology that say, "dude, you've just put in two killer workouts today; there's no way you can go back out tonight and hammer another one". They look down and say, "shut up legs". Which by the way was the mantra of another famous, now retired cyclist, Jens Voigt, who I might add, much like Lance Armstrong never failed a drug test ;)

In truth, I sheepishly admire the dopers. They're fucking committed, I'll give them that. They're all in. While you or I might kick back and enjoy a beer after a race or long run, these guys go out and hammer another grueling workout after a race. They never rest. They are willing to do whatever it takes to improve, even if that means sacrificing their long-term health and risking death. And this isn't mere hyperbole; recall that dozens of riders inexplicably dropped dead in the 80's when EPO usage first became widespread.

Full disclosure: I don't consider myself a "doper" as I've never taken EPO, steroids, or any of that kind of stuff. But I have inhaled or ingested various things (always out of competition) that do appear in the WADA list of banned substances, which includes some fairly innocuous items like over-the-counter cough syrup, vitamins/supplements from GNC, and the occasional recreational stimulant and/or barbiturate. I could claim some weak shit like, "I didn't inhale," or "I didn't ingest," but I'm not going to try and pull a Bill Clinton on you.

Now obviously Lance wasn't just taking a little cough syrup to get some sleep at night, or smoking a joint on the weekends with friends. He systematically took a pharmacy full of crap, most of which I can't properly spell or pronounce. But so fucking what? So was everyone else. That was years ago. And that was in another sport. How does his running today, presumably clean, in a small-time trail race harm anyone else? How is he "cheating" anyone?

Elite dopers aren't hurting mid-pack runners

No disrespect to the average midpack or competitive age-group ultra/trail runner (myself included), but Lance doesn't need any drugs to kick our asses. He was beating the world's top professional triathletes when he was 14 (and presumably clean) while those guys were grown men at the top of their sport (taking who knows what). So the notion that Lance is somehow cheating everyone he beats at a local trail race today is absurd, bordering on completely butt-fucking-ridiculous.

Look, I may suspect Kilian -- and the rest of the entire Salomon Europe trail racing team of doping. Allegedly. [My lawyers made me write that last bit]. But I know that even clean, Kilian would still clean my fucking clock. So maybe instead of beating me by 6 hours at Hardrock, he might only beat me by 3 hours. And honestly, what do I care? It's not like his using (or not using) EPO somehow detracts from my experience or my enjoyment of the mountains.

If the elites want to shoot themselves up with all kinds of crazy-ass shit, maybe we should let them. Ultrarunning and trail running don't have any governing body for most races -- with the obvious exception of USATF championship events, which let's be honest, are few and far between. And most races don't have prize money or even trophies at stake. So yeah, maybe our ranking might go down another fraction of a percentage after some doped up elite sponsored runner beats us by 5 hours. But, so what?

Watching doped up elite runners battle each other is actually kind of entertaining. It's like watching two superheros battling on screen. One punches the other through a brick wall. And then the guy climbs out of the rubble, brushes the dust off his shoulder, and smashes the other guy through a steel door. Are we not entertained?

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 ;)