Monday, August 3, 2015

2015 North Shore Knee Knackering 50K: A Lesson in Humility... and Humidity

Knee Knackering 50K race start
Perhaps you've heard of me, Big Johnny Burton. Not to brag, but I'm kind of a big deal. Beer two-mile American record holder. 2015 Oakland marathon master's champion. 2014 RRCA California trail 12K State Champion. One of only twelve people in the world who have ever finished in front of Timmy Olson at Hardrock. And perhaps most impressively, custodian of approximately four hundred Strava course records. [Drops the mic and walks off stage].

So if you've told me that it would take me almost 6 whole hours to run a race that wasn't even 50K long, I would have scoffed. If you'd suggested that it would take me over 31 minutes just to run a single mile, I would likely have slapped you. And if you'd had the audacity to hint that I would finish outside the top 20 overall, I would have rolled my eyes and told you to lay off the drugs.

"What the hell have I gotten myself into," I mutter to no one in particular as I sit down on a rock and let twenty or so others runners – including a half dozen women – stream past me. I’m only four miles into the 2015 Knee Knackering North Shore Trail Run, a point-to-point 50K(ish) race that traverses Vancouver’s North Shore Mountains along the infamous Baden Powell trail. I say 50K(ish) because, according the website, the race is actually only 30 miles long. My GPS measured it as only 28.4. Canadians and their silly metric system.

Finally some fucking downhill!
photo by Clement Cheung
Side note: I’m not sure who the hell this Robert Baden-Powell fellow was, but he must have been quite the jackass if he pissed off so many people that they decided to punish him posthumously by naming this nasty death-trap of a trail after him.

I’ve just ascended straight up the side of a mountain, climbing over scree, talus fields, and giant boulders. At no time did I see anything that even remotely resembled an actual trail. Perhaps there was a trail there once… Before it got buried under several tons of rock by an avalanche (Note: one US ton equals about 907 kilos for all you metric fans). For comparison, this climb was by far, much harder than anything I encountered at Hardrock.

"Remind me to kill Riccardo," I grumble, adding his execution to my list of things to do later that afternoon – preferably after showering and getting drunk (though not necessarily in that order). I'm of course talking about my good friend this guy I used to know, Riccardo Tortini. "Come up to Vancouver in July... run our fun little local race... have a few beers afterwards," he says. "It will be a great tune-up for FatDog 120 in August,” he says.

Runner enjoying well-groomed section of ttrail
photo by Ron Nicholl
What he doesn't say, but definitely should have, is that this is hands-down the hardest 30 mile race in the known universe. It's got more stairs than the Dipsea, more rocks than Hardrock, and more roots than Hurt. Oh yeah, and a healthy sprinkling of yellow jackets. “Something for everyone,” as they say.

Just 12 hours earlier Riccardo and I had been sitting around drinking craft beer and talking smack, entertaining his girlfriend Tanya and her friends Claire and Jessica with stories of our ultra-running exploits. Now here I was, slumped over on a rock with my head between my legs, sweating like a junkie in the midst of a detox. "I'm fine. Move along, move along. Nothing to see here," I say with a wave of my hand, assuring the other runners that I'm not going to die.

"Fuck, I’m dying,” I mutter quietly. “It must be this damn humidity. It has to be the humidity," I repeat, reassuring myself that I'm probably not actually experiencing a combination of myocardial infarction and acute renal kidney failure. "It's just the humidity. You suck in humidity. It's your kryptonite. It's like peanut butter flavored Gu. That shit will kill anyone."

Riccardo carefully descending
photo by Clement Cheung
Inspired by my little pep talk I get back on my feet and start trudging along. "The rest of the course is all downhill! Well, it’s mostly downhill,” I lie, trying to offer myself whatever encouragement I can. In truth, while the worst climb is indeed behind me and the next few miles are mainly downhill, there's still about 5,000 feet worth of climbing to go over the next 26 miles. But what you don't know can't hurt you (OK, maybe it can hurt you; but at least can't intimidate you).

In retrospect, looking at my Strava data, I now see the fucking problem. Or at least part of the fucking problem. Mile 3 has nearly 1000 feet of elevation gain, followed by mile 4 with almost 1,500 more feet of elevation gain. Add to that my apparent humidity intolerance (the initial climb begins on the windward side of the mountain directly next to the ocean) and you have a recipe for a spectacular implosion.

"Just keep moving and get over the peak. Hopefully things will be less humid on the leeward side of the mountain,” I proffer optimistically. Finally, after cresting the peak and heading down the descent I start feeling better and begin passing a few runners. When I hit the first spectator-friendly aid station and see Riccardo’s crew – Tanya, Claire and Jessica – It's obvious that I am still pretty far back in the pack. Although they smile and try to sound positive, they have that "why the hell is he way behind so many women and old dudes" expression on their faces.

My brand new shoes got "knackered"
The last half of the race is just a blur of roots and rocks, broken up by the occasional fallen tree. I'm not sure if Canadians are just lazy and abhor trail work, or if they actually enjoy running across crazy shit like this (I'm guessing the latter). But I don’t care. I’m having a blast and ever so slowly reeling in other runners. “If only this race were another 70 miles long,” I chuckle, “I might be able to claw my way back up to a respectable finish." But alas, I’m running out of miles (I mean, kilometers).

Finally, I emerge from the forest into a residential neighborhood and sprint down toward the finish line. I see my good buddy the jerk who talked me into running this race, Riccardo, standing there nonchalantly, having finished 24 minutes ago. (Did I mention that the dude is seriously fast? He ended up placing 6th overall!)

All-in-all this race was quite a humbling experience. I came into the race thinking that if I had a good day I might be able to finish in around 5 hours and crack the top 10, or maybe even the podium. But instead, I got “knackered” as they say. I ended up finishing 21st overall in 5:57:46, barely good enough for 3rd in my age group.

Done at last. Thank God almighty, done at last!
photo by Mike Jones
Several hours (and several beers) later, all was forgotten. I showered, changed into warm clean clothes, and stuffed my face with a strange-but-delicious, fried honey doughnut thingy, which is apparently a delicacy among the local inhabitants. I recommend it highly! The doughnut that is. Oh yeah, and the race; I highly recommend the race too!

You might need a little luck getting in though as the race is so popular among the folks in Vancouver that there's a lottery. Take a look at this amazing video and you will see why!  And here's a bunch of great photo albums if you want to see the suffering in more detail.

And be sure to stick around for the post-race BBQ and beer garden. I probably shouldn't admit this publicly, as the race organizers might not invite me back ever again, but I think the race actually lost money on me as I ate several hundred dollars worth of sausages (Canadians apparently call them "smokies") and brownies at the BBQ. Oh yeah, and you very well could run into ultra-running celebrities like Ellie Greenwood or my buddy Sammy Hassan Lotfi-Pour, who I hadn't seen since we both nearly died of dehydration during the Tahoe 200 Mile last September. Ah, good times.

Ok, here are the official race results, and here's my Strava data.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

2015 Santa Cruz Firecracker 10K: That Time I Almost Got Beat by a 15 Year Old Girl (And a 60 Year Old Man)

As a grown man, in decent shape, who has finally started to be able to grow a small (albeit patchy) mustache and goatee, and who considers himself a not-too-shabby runner... there's nothing worse than getting beaten by a 15 year old kid. Especially if that 15 year old kid is a girl. That's what almost happened to me a few weeks ago on the 4th of July at the Santa Cruz Firecracker 10k.

My buddy and long-time training partner Joe Bistrain invited me to come over to his neck of the woods to challenge him in his local race on his side of the mountain. Joe used to live here in San Jose, but a few years ago he bought a house in Capitola near the beach. As a result, we don't get too run together as much as we used to.

And so, even though it had been years (many, many. many years) since Joe had beaten me in a race (of any distance), I humbly accepted his challenge, ready to dispense another ass-whupping to remind him of the pecking order in our running microcosm. [Note: all this cockiness and bravado should immediately raise some red flags in your mind. This is what they call "foreshadowing".]

I knew that Joe had been putting in a lot of speed work and track workouts lately as he prepared for his A-race of the year, the Wharf-to-Wharf in Santa Cruz. But I figured that my ultra-running endurance and my sporadic Strava course record poaching efforts would see me through to victory. I knew I didn't have a shot at winning the race outright, but I figured I should probably be able to crack the top 10 overall, win my age group, and hand Joe another beatdown.

As I stood at the starting line, I saw the familiar faces of Quicksilver Ultra-Running teammate Bill Holmes and his son Mac Holmes, a talented 16 year old runner who I had barely managed to outkick two years ago at another race, the Santa Cruz Turkey Trot 5K. Mac had gone out way too hard at that race and faded badly. But I figured he had learned his lesson, and now older and wiser, he would go out more conservatively and run a smarter race. [Note: this is more foreshadowing].

The starting gun fired and I took off at what I thought was a pretty decent, though somewhat controlled 10K pace. I was immediately swamped by about 30 runners or all ages and sizes. "What the fuck's wrong with these idiots," I though to myself. "Don't they know this is a 10K, not a 5K? Don't they know what a tough, hilly course this is?". I settled in to my somewhat pedestrian pace, unfazed, assuming that the majority of the runners would come back to me in the next miles.

I didn't sweat the fact that my buddy Joe was a already a good 100 feet ahead of me. Or that at least 3 women had gone out in front of me. Or that I was getting passed by what appeared to me a man in his late 50's or early 60's. "It's a long race; you'll reel them all in," I told myself, "No need to panic just yet".

"Oh shit, it's time to panic," I realized when at mile 3, about half-way into the race, when I was still well behind my buddy Joe, the three lead women, and the 60 year old. "Fuck, it's definitely time to panic." The first couple miles of the race had been on paved roads, but now we were entering the hardest part of the race, a dirt fireroad section that climbed up steeply through Harvey West park.

Knowing that the last two miles would be downhill and paved, I figured that this off-road section would be my best chance to make up some time on the other runners, many of whom were presumably road runners not necessarily accustomed to navigating ungroomed dirt trails. I dropped the hammer and made my move. I reeled in a few runners including my friend Bill Holmes' son Mac. Then I flew past the three lead women. I was closing in and about to catch my buddy Joe!

And then the lights went out. "What the fuck? Why are you walking," I asked myself. "Because this fucking hill is fucking steep as shit," I answered myself rhetorically. "Dude, Joe is pulling away from you! Dude, that girl you just passed is passing you back."

Finally we reached the top of the hill and I picked the pace back up. I hammered the last two miles, which were mostly downhill, as hard as I could. I was certain that I was going to be able to reel by buddy Joe back. But oddly, no matter how hard I ran, I wasn't making up any ground. Every time I looked, there he was, about 100 yards ahead of me. And to make matters worse, I couldn't seem to shake that 15 year old girl. She was still tucked in behind me, probably hoping to hang back and outkick me in the final stretch.

As we approached the finish line I realized that I wasn't going to be able to catch my buddy Joe. "Shit. Well, at least don't let this girl outkick you," I pleaded with myself. "For God's sake, don't let everyone see you get run down by a 15 year old girl!" A female spectator on the side of the road yelled encouragement, "Go girl! Catch that guy!" That was all I needed. I unleashed a furious sprint. The sprint of my life. Everything went silent; everything went dark. I crossed the finish line in glory, one second ahead of the 15 year old girl. Total victory!

I have to give mad props to my buddy Joe for running a strong, amazing race. He went out hard and held me off the whole way, finishing 22 seconds and one place ahead of me. He now has bragging rights until our next head-to-head battle. And who knows when that will be.

And of course, mad respect to 15 year old Marielle Friedman of Santa Cruz who pushed me the whole way and who convincingly won the women's race by over two and a half minutes. Watch out for this girl. She's going to be kicking a lot of ass and chicking a lot of dudes! And let's not forget about 60 year old Robert Coyle of Fresno who came in less than a minute behind me and Marielle. That's one fast old motherfucker! And I mean that in the most respectful way possible. Talk about being an inspiration!

And last but not least, I would like to point out that I am now 2-0 against my buddy Bill Holmes' son Mac :)

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

Sunday, July 5, 2015

2015 Squaw Valley Half-Marathon Race Report

Race leaders at mile 2
Photo credit Lefrak Photography
It was a beautiful, albeit somewhat warm, morning on the Truckee river. The sun was out already. The wildflowers were in bloom. Jogging along the bike path next to the river I decided to take a dip. I took a few steps off the path towards the river. "What the fuck are you doing," I screamed at myself. "You're in the middle of a race. You're in 3rd place... with 4 miles to go. You can't go fucking swimming! What the fucking fuck!"

These are the types of conversations that I have with myself. Or that myself has with me? Or whatever. You get the idea. Dueling voices in my head. One voice wants to sit down in the river and have a beer. The other voice thinks we should probably at least finish the race before cracking open a pre-noon beer.

I'd woken up at 3:00 am in order to make the three-and-a-half hour drive up to Tahoe from San Jose in order to run the Tahoe Trail Running Series: Squaw Valley Half Marathon. Despite drinking several gallons of coffee on the way, I still found myself a bit sleepy. But I figured once the race started my adrenaline would kick in and I'd be fine. And I was right. At least about the adrenaline bit.

Despite knowing better, and despite promising myself I wouldn't do something crazy like attack the field and jump out to an early lead... there I was leading the race out of the parking lot. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Do I ever learn?
Getting dropped and thinking about sitting in the river
Photo credit Lefrak Photography
Somewhere around mile two I found myself breathing hard and getting passed by two other runners. They opened up a bit of a gap on me, but I was able to keep them in sight. Oddly though, after slowing down a bit and getting my heart rate and breathing back under control, I started slowly reeling them back in.

And then, at mile 5, I did something stupid. As the two lead runners slowed down at the aid station to grab cups of water and gatorade, I attacked! Carrying my own water bottle, I didn't need to slow down at the aid station. Instead, I sprinted through the aid station as hard as I could, trying to open up a gap.

The good news is that I did indeed manage to open up a small gap. The bad news is that little surge aggravated a nagging injury in my right calf. I hit the turnaround still in the lead, but the pain in my calf was getting worse and I knew that I wasn't going to be able to hang on to this pace, or the lead.

The other two runners rocketed past me as I was reduced to a shuffle. Watching them pull ahead and out of sight, my thoughts shifted from winning the race to just trying to hold on to a podium spot. Luckily the three of us had opened a rather sizable lead over the next runners, so even with my drastically reduced pace I figured I still had a good shot at holding on to third place as long as I kept running and didn't do anything stupid... like sitting down in the river.
Running scared and looking back
Photo credit Lefrak Photography

"That river looks so invititng. We should go lay down it. Just a minute," I plead, trying to convince myself. Thankfully myself ignores me and I keep running. This happens 3 or 4 more times on the way back. Ocassionally I step off the trail towards the river. But each time, thankfully, I correct course and start running again.

Finally, after what seems like an eternity, myself and I all cross the finish line.  We take 3rd place. We shake hands, with ourselves and with the other runners. We drink some beer. We start running up the escarpment towards the top of the 8,500 ft ski slope as a "cool down" before realizing what a terrible idea that is. We sober up part-way up the hill and say, "fuck this." We turn around and run back down to our car and drive home.

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

Saturday, June 20, 2015

2015 Silver State 50K Race Report

The EBRPD cancels Ohlone 50K due to a few raindrops
photo credit Jean Pommier
They cancelled my birthday???

"Those bastards cancelled my birthday this year?" I ask incredulously. "I can't believe those fuckers cancelled my birthday." By "bastard-fuckers" I am of course referring to the board of directors of the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD). And no, they didn't cancel my actual birthday itself. It's not like they issued a decree or proclamation stating that all birthdays falling on or near May 19 this year would be rendered null and void.

No, those infidels did something far worse and insidious. For reasons that still baffle me, this group of desk jockeys decided to cancel the Ohlone 50K -- a race that falls on or near my birthday every May, and one of my favorite races of the year. And they cancelled it just two days beforehand because... wait for it... because it rained a little?  California is in the middle of a drought mind you.

But apparently these over-zealous politicians were worried that people might get wet. Or that shoes might get muddy? I still don't quite understand what exactly they were thinking.

Meanwhile Silver State 50 proceeds in snow and mud!
photo credit JenelleP @JPChronicles
I think I've made a terrible mistake (part 1)

Anyway, there I was, several hours and several litters of beer later, fairly drunk and pissed off. And then I hatched a plan. "What if...," I asked my wife Amy, "we drop John Paul off at your mom's and hop in the car and start driving North to Reno? If we leave now we might be able to make it there in 5 hours, plenty of time to get a few hours of sleep before Silver State 50K starts in the morning!"

I'd never run Silver State before. I'd never even considered running it as it always falls the day before Ohlone. But hell, I was drunk. And I was on the Internet with my credit hard in my hand. Minutes later Amy and I were both signed up! What could go wrong, we thought? How could this not end well?

Several hours later I was driving through the winding Sierra Nevada mountains, in the dark at night, in the middle of a snowy blizzard. I can't read the road signs because they are covered with sticky white snow. "Fuck. I think I've made a terrible mistake," I mumble. Luckily Amy is asleep in the passenger seat completely oblivious to the fact that we are hydroplaning slowly down the mountain.

[Spoiler alert: We didn't slide off the mountain and explode in a spectacular fireball]. No, while that might have been preferable, we instead found ourselves in a smoke-filled run-down casino in Reno at 1:30 am with the realization that we have to wake up in 4 hours. Fuck, I think we've made a terrible mistake.

Lots and lots of hills
photo credit Drew Cortright
I think I've made a terrible mistake (part 2)

I probably should mention another small-but-important detail. I was a bit under the weather at the time of the race, fighting off some kind of terrible viral infection. I think it was a combination of swine flu, bird flu, Ebola, SARS, and tuberculosis. Whenever I would start coughing on the trail, parents would grab their children and dive off into the poison oak for shelter.

As I stood on the starting line, I didn't necessarily have any aspirations of winning the race. Amy and I had just done a hard time-trial workout the day before (I was planning to take a rest day Saturday and go into Ohlone with a one-day taper). And then there was this Bubonic plague thing I was dealing with. Still, I thought, I should be able to crack the top 10 without really running hard or getting my heart rate up too high.

"Fuck, I think I've made a terrible mistake," I mumbled to no one in particular as at least twenty or so runners charged off the starting line ahead of me, leaving me behind, and gasping for air. We were only at 5,000 ft., elevation at this point with a long climb up to 8,000 ft., ahead of us and I was already out of breath. Which is odd... because I sleep in a Hypoxico altitude tent set at 11,000 ft. each night. And I felt fine climbing over Handies Peak at Hardrock last year at over 14,000 feet. So that the fact that I was out of breath at only 5,000 ft., definitely had me concerned.

I decided to take it easy for a while and I settled into a nice rhythm beside fellow Bay Area runner Jason Reed. We were also joined by ultra-running legend Nikki Kimbal (3-time Western States champion, multi-time US 50 Mile road/trail national championship, 2014 Marathon Des Sable champion, etc., etc., etc.,) and local female standout Roxanne Woodhouse (2015 Zion 100 Mile winner, 2014 Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Mile winner, etc.).

The four of us gradually made our way up the mountain to the snow-frosted peak, which was very cool looking. It was also very cool in general. I thought about stopping to take the lightweight jacket out of my pack. But I decided against it for two reasons: 1) It seemed like a lot of hassle and I figured/hoped it would get warmer again as descended to lower elevation, and more importantly, 2) I didn't want to look like a wimp in front of Nikki Kimbal.

Nikki and I eventually pulled away from Jason and Roxanne on a long descent and found ourselves running together and chatting for a few miles. We shared some great stories. We talked about our dogs, past and present (mine had just passed away weeks before). I told Nikki how much my wife Amy and I had enjoyed her film project, Finding Traction, documenting Nikki's FKT (fastest know time) attempt on Vermont's 273 mile Long Trail. Things were going well. We  This isn't so bad, I thought...

Post-race beers and BBQ
photo credit Drew Cortright
The mud pit of despair! The mud pit of joy?

"This is terrible," I yelled, as I tried to navigate my way through a long stretch of deep sticky mud. Every time I lifted my foot up, several pounds of heavy mud came up with it, weighing me down like I was wearing concrete shoes. Nikki, who now looked several inches taller than she had a minute ago thanks to the mud caked to the bottom of her Hoka shoes, made a joke about not having much experience running in high heels.

That last point is critical. This is where I gave up mentally on the race. And this is where Nikki made her move, dropping me and beginning a strong push that would see her catch several more runners over the last 10 miles. Nikki would go on to finish 11th, while I would drop back to 15th. Nikki made the conscious decision to embrace the suckiness of the mud pit and to let it energize her. I made the subconscious decision to feel sorry for myself and give up.

I guess this is what they call a "teachable moment". The takeaway for me is that, while some things are out of your control (like the weather and/or the course conditions), you are in control of how you choose to respond. You can get depressed and give up. Or you can accept the conditions, embrace them, and use them to motivate yourself.

3rd place woman Amy Burton
photo credit Big Johnny Burton
Time to grab a burger and a beer!

While I wasn't necessarily happy with my performance at Silver State, I was glad that fate (i.e., the complete ineptitude of the East Bay Regional Park District board of directors) presented me with the opportunity to run this race. If you've never run Silver State before, definitely consider giving it a shot. They have both a 50K and 50 Mile option. And it's a really fun, laid-back, old school style race. For more information check out this article, "The Legacy of the Silver State 50/50" by race director John Trent. It's a great read!

Also, kudos to the men's and women's winners of the 50K: Quicksilver Running Club teammate Stephen Wassather for the men, and the legend herself, Nikki Kimbal for the women. Also, a shout out to my wife Amy Burton who finished 3rd woman and 22nd overall, just 10 minutes behind second place women Roxanne Woodhouse. It's worth noting that all three of the women's podium are master's runners in their 40s and 50s. Way to go ladies!

Here's a link to the official results. And here's my Strava data including course map and elevation profile.

And last but not least, the post-race BBQ at Silver State is not to be missed. They've got soups (lots of them). They've got burgers and hot dogs. They've got "shitty tacos", which reportedly are actually quite delicious; full disclosure, I erred on the side of caution and abstained. They probably even have some green leafy stuff if you're one of those vegetarian/vegan/fruitarian wackos. And they even have people walking around handing out ice-cream Twix bars! Yum.

The only thing they don't have is beer (WTF, I know!) so remember to BYOB! I certainly did :)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

2015 Kalamazoo (Borgess) Marathon: A Litte Running, A Lot of Beer!

Kalamazoo Borgess Marathon start
Hey, are you OK?' the race volunteers asked as I collapsed to the ground on the side of the road at mile 18 of the Kalamazoo Borgess marathon. "Yeah, I'm good," I replied, "I've been doing this every mile or so," I explained as I attempted to get back up on my feet.

"Have you had anything to drink?" they asked, concerned about the heat and humidity that had been steadily rising all morning. "Oh yeah, I just chugged a giant mimosa that someone handed me,"I proudly exclaimed. They did not seem impressed.

"We're going to need an ambulance at mile 18," I overheard one of the race officials mutter into his radio. "Wait! No, I'm fine! Hold on. I just need to lay down for a second," I protest in vain.

A minute later they are helping me into the ambulance. But, to save face, I refuse to sit in the back "with all the sick people" and demand to ride shotgun in the front seat with the EMT. I think he senses that I'm not going into the back without a fight, and so he shrugs and opens the front door. Several minutes later I'm sitting in the post-race beer tenting fussing over some fine local craft beer.

Big Johnny taking it out hard!
But let's go back to the beginning.

In the Beginning

My buddy Bill Pritchett who lives in Michigan talked me into doing the Lansing marathon. Or maybe I talked him into doing it. Or maybe we talked each other into it. Who knows. In any case, it seemed like a good idea. I grew up in Lansing. It's where I first began running at age 10 with my father. But alas, like most things associated with Lansing, the has race fallen on hard times lately and was cancelled this year.

But luckily (or perhaps not-so-luckily) Bill found another race in Michigan being held on the exact same day that the Lansing marathon was supposed to have taken place. So, a quick change of venue and there we are, wandering through the deserted aisles of the Kalamazoo Marathon race expo the night before the race, hurrying to pick up our bib numbers so we can head to the local brewery to do some pre-race carb loading!

Kalamazoo has no shortage of great micro-breweries, so it took us a couple of hours to wade through all the Yelp reviews. In the end we decided on Latitude 42 Brewing Company, mainly so that my buddy Bill could have his precious Lil' Miss Sunshine Ale (or whatever it's actually called).

He offered me a sip and I can attest that it was just as refeshing and delicious as your would expect from a 4.8% "chick beer". I on the otherhand of course went for the strongest most-manly beer on the menu, the 9.5%  Flavor Savor Imperial IPA. Go big or go home!

Bill's go-to pre-race beer, Lil' Miss Sunshine Ale
And We're Off

Bill and I had both decided at some point (probably after a few 9.5% ABV beers) that rather than taking it easy and running a smart but boring race, we were going to run agressively, if not even a bit recklessly, right from the get go.

So, true to my word, I hammered the first 3 miles in 6:20 pace (whereas I realistically should have been doing no faster than 6:40 pace). And the rest as they say is history.

Somewhere around mile 10 I found mysel muttering, "I think I've made a horrible mistake". Three miles later I was laying on the side of the road in a shady grassy spot debatting whether it would be faster to turn around and walk back to the start or to continue jogging slowly toward the finish in hopes of finding a second wind.

Bill won his age group!
Spoiler alert: I never found a second wind. However I did find a group of spectators drinking mimosas on the corner around mile 17. I don't recall if somoene actually offered me their mimosa, or if I just helped myself, but I will say, nothing hits the spot on a hot day like a really, really, big fucking cup of mimosa. Ahhh.

A mile later I was down for the count, lying in the grass beneath a shady tree thinking about what might have been. Bill had just blown past me.

I momentarily thought about trying to stay with him so that we could run the last 8 miles together and get our finish line photos taken. But, it seemed like a lot of work. The heat of the day and the hills of the course had fried my legs and I didn't have the willpower (or the sobriety) to solider on.


Bill paying the price for a hard effort!
It's easy to say that I should have done this, or that I shouldn't have done that. Sure, hammering the first 3 miles of a hilly course at a suicidal pace probably wasn't the recipie for success. And very few race winners have ever got up on the podium and credited their victory to a super-sized mid-race mimosa.

But what the hell... you can't win em all. And if you're going to fail, you might as well fail spectacularly. Go big or go home, right?

My buddy Bill held on to finish the race in a very respectable time of 3:17. While about 8 minutes off his personal best, his time was fast enough for a 15th place overall finish, and more importantly, he won his age group!

And how did young William celebrate you ask? Well, by puking out his guts in the beer tent of course! I guess he should have stuck with the Lil' Miss Sunshine Golden Ale instead of trying to pound IPAs with Big Johnny!

Running into ultra-runner buddy Scott VanLoo
So, in conclusion... Even if a race doesn't go the way we hope it will, you can generally salvage some teachable moment or life lesson.

In this case I re-learned a valuable lesson, one that I have re-learned many times before: if you go out hard like a reckless jackass you will likely end up walking back to the start/finish line in shame (or if you are luck, riding back in the shotgun seat of an ambulance playing with the lights/sirens while the EMT driver yells at you).

Beer... Of course!

Come for the race, stay for the beer!
Aside from the ambulance ride, the other highlight of the race was the beer. Arcadia Brewing Company hosted a beer garden at the finish line where Bill and I enjoyed a couple post-race beers.

As we were leaving (to head over to Bell's, another local brewery) I ran into ultra-runner buddy Scott VanLoo who was disguised as R2D2.

Bill a I drank a couple of Bell's Hopslam beers, which Bill had been saving for a rainy day, in the parking lot of Bell's brewery (which was closed unfortunately). Then we headed over to Bell's Eccentric Cafe, which was thankfully open, for some more beer... and a little food.

So if you're ever in Michigan in early May, I definitely recommend the Kalamazoo marathon (which by the way is surprisingly hilly and quite challenging) and of course, the post-race beer!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

2015 Oakland Marathon

2015 Oakland marathon race start
photo from Oakland marathon Instagram page
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Sixteen miles into the 2015 Oakland marathon and I had a comfortable lead in the Master's (40 and over) competition. Yet, I was feeling anything but comfortable at the moment. My legs were really starting to hurt and I was paying the price for having gone out way too hard... yet again. Now here I was, on one of the most mentally challenging sections of the course, the very place where I had quit and dropped out last year in 2014.

"Never make a decision when running up hill". That's the advice I routinely dole out to other runners, usually muttered in my best Yoda zen-master voice. Quite literally it means don't decide to quit when you're suffering on a tough uphill climb. Wait until the downhill section of the race; then, if you still feel like quitting... yeah, you're totally screwed and should probably throw in the towel.

This advice  is similar to other nuggets of wisdom like "never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach" or "never text an ex while completely drunk off your ass". Cliched, but true. I could probably add to that list, "never go out so hard in a race that your first mile is your fastest mile". Unfortunately I'd ignored that advice... yet again.

"Running into" fellow ultra runner Chihping Fu at the expo
photo by Chihping Fu (obviously)

Oops I did it again

As I stood at the starting line, about two hours earlier, waiting for the race to get underway I keep repeating to myself out loud, "Don't go out too hard. Do NOT fucking go out hard." I got more than a few strange looks from other runners, along with a knowing nod or two. Yet, just a few miles into the race I found myself doing just that.

I had been tucked in behind another runner who, based on his salt and pepper hair, was clearly also in the men's Master's (40+) division. He was running strong and I knew that if I wanted a chance to win the Master's title I would need to stay with him. "Just be patient," I told myself. "Tuck in behind him. Let him do the work. Whatever you do, don't attack yet." And then, suddenly, I was attacking.

Flying along early
photo by Noé Castañón

It wasn't my fault. At least not completely. Another runner, though clearly not in our 40+ master's division, accelerated past us. I should have just let him go. He wasn't in our age group; there was no point in trying to go with him. Yet, there I was, speeding up and tucking in behind him.

After a couple of miles we began chatting. His name was Sasha and he had read my Oakland race report from 2013. He was a fellow ultra runner with a comparable marathon PR to mine. It was nice running with someone and the miles flew by as we powered up the long climb from Temescal up to Claremont and Montclaire.

Running on empty
Hitting the wall (already at mile 16)

Unfortunately as we reached the top of the climb it became clear that Sasha was too strong for me. Despite stopping to pee in bushes, jogging a hundred yards with his young son, and making a wrong turn, he still pulled away from me. Luckily I found another guy named Don to run with.

Don wasn't much of a conversationalist. During the 6 miles or so that we ran together he only spoke one word. And that word was "Don", after I asked him his name. In that respect, Don reminded me a bit of the character Groot from the movie Guardians of the Galaxy.

But I'd been in his shoes before and I know how annoying it can be when the person you are running with insists on trying to hold a conversation while you are at your breaking point. One time on a training run with my friend, Caitlin Smith, in the Marin Headlands I found myself trudging up hill and gasping for air while Caitlin bounded along effortless trying to chat me up. I think I faked an ankle injury and excused myself that day, sending Caitlin on her own.

Eventually Don dropped back and I was left running by myself for the rest of the race (with the brief exception of when the second place woman Kimberly O'Donnel came rocketing past me). I looked afterwards but didn't see Don's name in the results list; I fear he likely dropped.

But I really am thankfully for his company, as he helped me get through what I consider to be the most mentally draining part of the course -- a boring two mile long completely straight and flat section along International Blvd. That's where I dropped out in 2014 and found myself prancing through the heart of Oakland in boy shorts and super-hero cape.

Big Johnny putting on a show
The final push

I was really suffering in the last 8 miles of the race. The voices in my head were engaged in a lively conversation. I don't consider myself crazy per se... well, at least not clinically. But I do have a bit of a split-personality alter ego who takes over when things get too tough for me to cope with. His name is Big Johnny. And he's one bad-ass motherfucker. He doesn't quit... ever. If you shoot him, you better kill him. He's a G like that :)

"I can't do this anymore. I want to stop," I feebly muttered. "Shut up bitch!!!" Big Johnny retorted. "We 'bout to get paid my ninja. Check yo'self before you wreck yo'self. #ThugLife #WestSide" Big Johnny quipped, referring to the $150 prize money on the line for Master's champion (Yes, Big Johnny seems to think he is a '90's rap star). At this point, I was willing to write myself a $200 check just to be allowed to quit. Thankfully Big Johnny wasn't hearing it.

One of the most annoying things about the Oakland marathon, as a runner in the full-marathon division, is getting passed by a stream of fresh-legged relay runners in the last few miles of the race. Somewhere around mile 24 I got passed by a at least 5 or 6 dudes hammering 6 minute miles. I tried not to let it devastate me, but still it was quite demoralizing.

Thankfully right about this time I saw my friend Sarah Lavender-Smith who was out on the course to cheer along some of her coaching clients. Seeing a friendly face gave me just the boost I needed to gut out the last two miles.

As I rounded the final turn and headed up the hill to the finish line I unleashed everything I had, which at this point was admittedly not much, and sprinted to the tape. I was pretty sure I had the Master's win sewn up, and I could have just as easily jogged it in and savored the moment. But Big Johnny was in the driver's seat and being the total ham that he is, he decided to put on a show.

With sweat flying everywhere he dove across the finish line and collapsed to the ground. Several race officials and medical personnel came over to see if he was OK, but Big Johnny just waved them off and asked for directions to the beer tent. Such a clown.

Where's the beer tent?

Here's my Strava data for the race. My official finish time was 3:04:31, which is actually 8 seconds faster than the 3:04:39 that I ran in 2013. I think I was 18th overall. But most importantly, I won the men's Master's title! Now if I can just just keep whittling off 8 seconds a year, I might be able to break 3 hours in 28 more years... when I turn 70 :)

Posing post-race with Sasha, his son, and my trophy!
Me and the Mayor!

Shout outs

I would like to give shout-outs to the following people:
  • Sasha Waring, who I has the pleasure of running with for much of the first 11 miles.
  • Silent Don, man of few words, whose company got me through the toughest part of the course.
  • Chris Jones, a fellow ultra-runner who finished 23rd overall in 3:12:01.
  • Ethan Veneklasen, another fellow ultra-runner, who brought the 3:20 pace group home on target and somehow ended up finishing 3rd in his age group.
  • Chihping Fu, yet another fellow ultra-runner, who races more than any man I know.
  • Shiran "Shir Kahn" Kochavi, for shouting, "I'd recognize that body anywhere" as I ran by.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Hoka Challenger ATR Shoe Review

Hoka Challenger ATR 
I'm not going to lie to you. I'm a running shoe whore. I'm a running shoe slut. If there's a shoe out there, I've taken it home.

I just can't help myself. When I see a sexy pair of new running shoes sitting on the shelf of the local running store looking all demure and alluring,I have to have them. I've run in Altra, Adidas, Asics, Brooks, Hoka, Mizuno, Montrail, New Balance, Nike, Pearl Izumi, Puma, Salomon, Saucony, Skechers, Sportiva, and Vasque. I've run in shoes you've never heard of like Scarpa and Topo Athletic. I even did the minimalist thing for a while and ran in Vibram Five Fingers and Luna sandals.

Over the years I've found a few shoes that have really worked for me, namely the New Balance MT110 (the old now-discontinued version) and the Montrail Fluid Flex (again the old now-discontinued original version). Everything else has ranged from "Meh, OK" to "Ugh, this shit sucks" or somewhere in the middle. Today I will review the new Hoka One One Challenger ATR trail shoe.

I wanted to love the Hoka Challenger ATR as, at least on paper, the shoe had everything I was looking for in a trail shoe: namely something super lightweight and fast, but with a decent amount of cushioning to protect my feet.

First Impressions

There are certain things in life that will always make anyone feel self-conscious, like wearing a leopard-print speedo when everyone else is wearing knee-length board shorts. No matter how much you tell yourself, "I bet this suit is all the rage Europe right now" it doesn't make you feel any less like a pervert as you walk past families trying to shield the eyes of their children at the neighborhood pool or beach.

Wearing Hokas out in public is kind of like that. As much as you tell yourself that no one is going to care or even notice that you wearing fluorescent orthotic clown shoes, you can't help but feel like a cross between a young Forest Gump in knee braces and a psychotic circus clown.

I waited until dark to sneak out for my first run. Still, even in the pitch black of night, it was hard not to notice the eerie bright fluorescent green glow emanating from my feet. Also, I felt like I was wearing shoe lifts. Even though I am only 5' 10", I felt like I should duck when walking out my front door to avoid banging my head on the door jam.

What they lacked in style and appearance, the Challenger ATRs were made up for in comfort -- I'll give them that. If felt like I was running on a soft track made from ground-up Styrofoam peanuts. I wouldn't necessarily call them "mushy", as they still felt pretty responsive for such a cushioned shoe. But it was definitely a strange sensation. But in a good way. I think.

The Pros

After putting in several runs over various terrains from super-technical steep downhill single track, to paved roads, to rubber all-surface tracks, I have to say that I found the shoe to be very comfortable (as you would probably expect), but also surprisingly fast and responsive! I was able to run PRs on a variety of surfaces, including some fast intervals on the track. Not bad for a shoe marketed for technical trails!
  • Very soft and cushioned, even over rough terrain
  • Fairly comfortable with a roomy toe box (although somewhat narrow in the forefoot)
  • Surprisingly fast and responsive (even on the roads and track) for such a cushioned shoe


Compared to the more minimalist shoes that I log the majority of my miles in (such as my all-time favorite New Balance MT110s), the Hoka Challenger ATRs definitely took some getting used to. I found myself rolling my ankles once or twice per run, something that rarely if ever happens to me in other shoes.

Missing top shoelace hole!
The shoes were relatively comfortable with a fairly roomy toe box, but I immediately noticed that they were rather tight across the widest part  of my forefoot. Granted, I have fairly wide feet -- which, as an aside, is one of the things I loved about my New Balance MT110 which came in size 2E extra wide). If you have narrower feet, the Hoka Challenger ATR might work better for you. But for me, they started to blow out and fall apart after only 150 miles (see photos).

Which brings me to my next concern about the Hoka Challenger ATR. They seem to be very cheaply constructed. As soon as I got them home from the shop were I bought them, I noticed that one of the shoes had a minor defect: the holes for the two top laces didn't go all the way through the shoe. You could thread the lace in but it never came out anywhere. I had to grab a pair of scissors and and a screwdriver and make my own holes. Not the end of the world, but... come on man!

After surgery with scissors/screwdriver
Also, I noticed some weird loose threads sticking out of the shoe. Again, probably nothing that was going to slow me down and cause me to lose a race. But when you pay $130 bucks for a shoe that was probably made in China for $30 in materials, you don't expect a bunch of loose threads and half-assed shoe lace holes.

My biggest complaint about the quality of the shoes is that both the uppers and the tread on the bottom started falling apart around 150 miles. The material on the uppers (on the medial side) started pulling apart and disintegrating. This happened on both the right and left shoe. Around the same time, I noticed one of the lugs on the bottom of the left shoe near the toe started falling off. 

I know that some shoe company these days "recommend" that you replace your shoes every 250 miles (though it seems like just a few years ago the recommendation was every 500 miles). Both my wife and I routinely get up to 1,000 miles out of most of our running shoes. So for a shoe to practically disintegrate in less than 200 miles, especially a shoe as expensive as the Hoka Challenger ATR, was quite a disappointment!

  • Felt clumsy on technical terrain, caused me to roll my ankles often
  • Narrow forefoot not comfortable for people with wide feet
  • Poorly constructed; lack of attention to detail (missing shoelace holes, loose threads, etc.)
  • Cheaply made uppers started to disintegrate around 150 miles
  • Lugs on bottom of shoe started to fall off around 175 miles

Mesh upper starting to disintegrate
The Verdict

Light-weight, well-cushioned shoe that performs well on various terrains. 

Not ideal for runners with wide feet. 

Poorly constructed with cheap materials; tend to fall apart very quickly. 

With such a limited lifetime, these shoes provide poor value for a rather expensive shoe.