Tuesday, August 5, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The actual race report (sort of...)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beer, Burgers, and Hot Sausages

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

Showing off the Hardrock bling with Amy

Choking on an overcooked hamburger

Team photo (with Ballast Point Sculpin IPA)

Post-hamburger, post-Sculpin spicy kielbasa

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

2014 Hardrock Race Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bracing for the storm
photo by Daniel Petty/The Denver Post
Cold. So Damn Cold!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kissing the rock
photo by Noé Castañón

The Big Wet Kiss (no Tongue)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Returning to Ohlone 50K as Mere Mortal

Did I Ever Tell You the Story about that One Time...

Runners ascending Mission Peak
Last year I ran the race of my life at the 2013 Ohlone 50K where I was utterly immune to the effects of gravity and flew effortlessly up the hills enroute to finishing 2nd overall behind my Quicksilver teammate Jean Pommier. This year however I got to again experience what it feels like to run Ohlone as a mere mortal. I found myself hiking up hills with hands on knees, breathing hard and thinking, "this sucks". Ah yes.

Last year I came into Ohlone in the middle of my Western States ramp up, having several 100 - 120 mile weeks under my belt. I was in amazing shape: veins were bulging out of my muscles and erythropoietin (the natural stuff, not the junk you buy from your cycling buddies) was coursing through my blood.

This year unfortunately Ohlone feel during a down period in my training where I was recovering from my Spring racing campaign (Way too Cool, Boston Marathon, and Miwok 100K) and resting up before my ramp-up for Hardrock 100 in July.

Off and Running

Ohlone Wilderness
Initially I though I might have a shot to win Ohlone this year after I found out that defending champion Jean Pommier would miss this year's race in order to attend his son's graduation from Yale. But my dreams were dashed when I saw local stud Lon Freeman's name on the registration list. In fact, looking at the list of fast guys who were running this year, I suspected that I might not even be able to crack the top-three.

Standing at the starting line seconds before the start of the race, I was still debating which strategy to employ. Should I go out ridiculously hard on the first climb like a maniac and try to get an early lead, or should I hang back a bit and run conservatively saving my energy for later in the race? As usual, I opted for the ridiculous/maniac approach. Unfortunately for me, so did Lon Freeman.

Lon jumped out to an early lead and I had to work harder than expected together with George Torgun from Berkley to slowly bridge back up to Lon. Together the three of us crested the first mile and a half climb together. Unfortunately that would be the last I would see of Lon as he eventually pulled back away, running away with the race in a winning time of 4:52:30.

George, who would eventually finish second in 5:08:32, showed an act of great sportsmanship when he stopped several miles into the race to try and help another runner/hiker (who had taken the early start option) who had gotten stuck waist deep in a mud-pit sinkhole! Unfortunately, even with four or five people helping, they weren't able to extricate the runner. Hopefully he managed to get out at some point! Otherwise the mountain lions may have gotten a tasty treat later that night.

Cruising and Cursing

5th overall and 2nd in my age group
With Lon and George safely out in front, the rest of a race became a four-man fight for third place between me, Kevin Sawchuk, Erik Wilde, and Remi Delille -- all of whom would finish within minutes of each other. At one point on the hike up out of the river with only 3 miles to go, Erik, Remi and myself all pulled even with each other for a brief moment. It was pretty cool. But we were all still a minute or so behind Kevin. If one of us wanted third place, he would have to make a move now!

My hopes for third place were dashed when Erik mad a strong move and pulled a few seconds ahead. I knew that this would be the deciding the move and that if I wanted a chance at third place I would need to stay with Erik now and hope to bridge up to Kevin together. But knowing and doing are two different things and I just didn't have the will power to push hard. I watched somewhat apathetically as Erik pulled away, leaving me alone in 5th place with a slight 30 second or so lead over Remi.

Crossing the finish line in 5th place at 5:15:33, I shrugged mile shoulders and smiled as if to say, "I just didn't have it today... but don't worry, I'm saving myself for Hardrock". Of course, my shrug could have also been interpreted as, "Oh man this race sucks. I'm never going to run it again". Both interpretations could be equally valid.

The Women's Race

I had a nice front-row seat to the women's race as I got to witness the battle for first place first hand at the turnaround point on top of Mt. Rose. As I was running down the mountain I saw women's leader Darcy Africa (a Hardrock veteran and hero of mine) followed only seconds behind by local legend Prudence L'Heureux. And although I didn't catch a glimpse of her at the time, slightly further back was Quicksilver teammate Lisa Hughey who was running a strong steady race.

Darcy Africa held off the competition and come home with the win in 5:27:35, good for 8th place overall! Teammate Lisa Hughey finished 2nd about 8 minutes later in 5:35:50, just outside the top 10 in 11th place overall. Prudence, who struggled with leg cramps, still managed to hang on to 3rd place in 5:57:32.

Other Facts, Figures, and Weirdos

Women's winner Darcy Africa
photo by Joseph Swenson
Karl Schnaitter, who many felt would be a threat to win or at least finish on the podium, had a rare off day and finished 10th in 5:34:45. Having just run the grueling Quicksilver 100K the weekend before, he probably wasn't fully recovered and never was able to tap into his energy reserves. However, he will hopefully be recovered and ready again for Western States in late June.

The surprise break-out performance of the race goes to buddy Andy Belk who shocked the world by running shirtless (albeit with a liberal dose of 100+ SPF sunblock) and cracking the top 10 with a 9th place finish in 5:32:34 just ahead of Karl.

Also of note were a couple of brave/crazy/misguided souls who ran the Ohlone 50K on Sunday after having raced the Silver State 50 miler the day before on Saturday! Congratulations and/or condolences to teammates Toshi Hosaka and Sophia Shi for their amazing acts of bravery/foolishness.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A Tale of How I Almost Cracked the Top 10 at 2014 Miwok 100K

Miwok 100K logo
Indians are Terrible Navigators

"Native American Indians must have been terrible navigators" my friend (and Quicksilver Running Club teammate) Loren Lewis likes to jokingly proclaim. He's referring of course to two local ultra marathon races, the Miwok 100 and Ohlone 50K, both of which traverse mountain trails named after local Indian peoples who once inhabited the San Francisco Bay area.

Both of the races, Miwok and Ohlone, contain ridiculous amount of elevation gain (12,000 feet for Miwok 100K and 8,000 feet for Ohlone 50K) and both seem to go out of their way to traverses the most difficult and direct (albeit beautiful) routes possible rather than taking the easier, longer way around. And both of these races are held in May each year, just weeks apart.

Being part Indian myself, I identify closely with these indigenous peoples who ran these same footpaths, hundreds and even thousands of years before I was even born. Sure, we may have some differences. My diet probably consists of fewer grasshoppers and acorns, and more beer and pizza. But even so, as I find myself flying down these treacherous rocky trails, I can't help but picture myself running shirtless, long hair flowing, in my moccasins.

This year in 2014 will be very special for me as I am running both races, with just two weeks rest in between.

Miwok 100K Race Morning

Amy and I woke up at 2:00 am on race morning, somewhat apprehensive -- not just about the long grueling day ahead, but also about the long grueling drive through the twisty mountain roads. Luckily, thanks to my Mustang GT, an awesome selection of driving music, and a pot of black coffee, we were able to make it up to the starting line in Stinson Beach in record time, making the hour-and-a-half drive in under an hour.

In prior years Miwok 100K had been one of the most competitive 100Ks in the country, drawing top professional ultra runners from around the country and the world. However, with the advent of new races like UROC 100K (Ultra Race of Champions), this year Miwok had more of a local feel drawing mainly top California and Washington based runners from the Pacific Northwest.

Looking a the start list before the race I counted about five people who would certainly beat me no matter what kind of day I had, and then about another five or so who would probably finish ahead of me unless I ran the race of my life. Nonetheless, I decide to hope for the best and shoot for a top 10 finish!

I self-seed myself right up at the front of the pack along with familiar faces Gary Gelin, Chris Wehan, Joe Sanders, Thomas Reiss, Bree Lambert, Mark Richtman, Ricky Russel, and others knowing that the race begins with a long single-track uphill where it will be difficult, if not impossible, to pass anyone for the first few miles. I definitely don't want to lose valuable time getting stuck in a long conga line.

Running John
photo by Marc Klemenic
Heat of the Battle, Heat of the Day

The first 25 miles of the race, which is basically an out and back section along the Bolinas Ridge after the initial climb up the Matt Davis trail, go very smoothly. I go out rather aggressively on the opening climb in about 11th place overall, but quickly realize that I am pushing too hard to sustain for 62 miles. So I back off a bit on the climb back out of the turnaround on Randal trail. A few people pass me, including Quicksilver teammate Joe Sanders and LaSportiva runner Thomas Reiss, causing me to slip back to 16th place overall.

As the sun comes out and the temperatures warm up, several of the runners ahead of me start cramping up and slowing down a bit, opening the door for me to move up into 13th place by the first pass through the Cardiac Hill aid station. I am also starting to hurt a bit by this point, but trying my best to hold it together. However, I really start to struggle on the next section down to Muir Beach which involves quite a bit of road running on hot flat pavement. Call me a trail snob, but I hate road running.

Somewhere just before the Muir Beach aid station I really begin hurting and overheating and have to sit down in Kent Creek to cool off and regain my composure. The icy cold water feels great on my cramping legs and sore feet, and it definitely helps lower my body temperature which had been gradually creeping up. I could have (and perhaps would have) sat in that river all day, but I am shamed into getting back on my feet as at least 3 or 4 runners ran past me during my ice bath and give me scornful and sympathetic looks as if to say, "I feel sorry for that poor dude. Put a fork in him, he's done already".

Now back in 16th place I do my best to focus on guy in the yellow shirt in front of me. Eventually I bridge up to him and strike up a conversation as we enter and exit the Muir Beach aid station at the 50K mark in 15th and 16th place. His name is Joe Ziegenfuss, a veteran ultra runner from Colorado. We start chatting about anything and everything -- from the fact that we both have six-year-old sons, to his adventure pacing Troy Howard to 2nd place at Hardrock 100 last year.

We work together helping each other up the long Middle Green Gulch Trail climb, an insidious climb that while uphill, is not quite steep enough to warrant power hiking, forcing tired runners to actually run much of the climb. Oh the horror!

We then have a close call on the Miwok Trail descent when we initially overrun and almost miss a barely marked right turn. (Note: while I have a lot of great things to say about Miwok, I definitely have issues with the course markings as I would later almost miss another turn on the return to Tennessee and then actually make a wrong turn coming back out of Tennessee). Thankfully I spot the one lone ribbon out of the corner of my eye and this particular potential crisis is averted.

Minutes later, while telling Joe about my adventures pacing my friend Marc Laveson at The North Face 50M Championships last year (where Marc got chick'd my both Michele Yeats and Magda Lewy-Boulet) we actually run into Marc hiking up the trail. He, like many others (myself included), seems confused and perplexed as to why I am wearing a shirt -- as I am famous for dismissively eschewing upper-body garments and the lamentable "hobby joggers" who wear them. Being an elitist snob, I often remark that real runners don't wear dorky tee shirts, baseball caps / trucker hats, or fanny packs. Note: friend and fellow runner Karl Schnaitter, who violates all of the above fashion guidelines, proves that there is an exception to every rule.

Big Johnny Starts Going Downhill Fast

After power hiking the long climb out of Tennessee Valley up Marincello Trail and Bobcat Trail, I suddenly start feeling an excruciating stabbing pain in my knee cap. I tell Joe to run on without me and I start walking, hobbling, and hopping trying anything to modify my form to alleviate the inexplicable pain. Luckily it is only another mile or so until the mile 41 aid station at Bridge View where Franz Dill and the good folks from Coastside Running Club hook me up with some good drugs (i.e., Mountain Dew and Advil).

Stoned out of my mind on a terrific caffeine and ibuprofen high, I quickly catch back up with Joe and run the next few downhill and flat miles together. As we approach the start of the long climb back up Rodeo Valley Trail I see Thomas Reiss up ahead. Joe tells me to go ahead since I seemed to be feeling good. I catch up to Thomas and we chat for a while as we power hike the climb together.

Eventually toward the top of the climb I pull away and open a bit of a gap on Thomas and Joe. This is where things start to get a bit fuzzy. I'm not sure if it is the climb, the heat of the sun, or the Advil and Mountain Dew cocktail, but suddenly I start feeling a bit dizzy and nauseous. I think I passed another runner somewhere around this point, but then again I might have hallucinated the whole thing. One thing I am sure of however is that Quicksilver teammate Sean Lang's brother Jesse Lang comes flying past me at this point sprinting at least 30 miles per hour up the hill. #BeastMode

Luckily, just as I am about to continue straight (and go horribly off course) I see Jesse veer to the left up the Miwok trail. This intersection was not marked and there was no volunteer stationed here to direct people. I am certain that numerous runners probably missed this turn later. I wanted to yell up and thank Jesse for his assistance, but he was now just a tiny figure receding off into the distance.

Unsuccessfully trying to drop my pacer Dr. Joe
photo by Glenn Tachiyama
My Pacer Joe Bistrain Saves the Day

I stagger into the Tennessee Valley aid station at mile 49 in bad shape, secretly hoping that my pacer Dr. Joe Bistrain won't be there and that I will be free to just shuffle-walk the last 13 miles at my leisure. Son of bitch, there he is -- holding my cold bottle of Mountain Dew and exuberantly bouncing around ready to go. Fresh-legged bastard.

I immediately do a little expectation setting, "My knee hurts, my legs are cramping, I don't care about top 10 anymore, I just want to finish this motherfucker." Like a good pacer, Joe smiles and  ignores everything I say. "Ok, let's start running and catch Sean's brother; he's just ahead." I nod while silently thinking to myself, "fuck you asshole." Hell hath no fury like an exhausted ultra runner.

Amazingly Dr. Joe somehow gets me moving. Unfortunately, less than a half mile into our journey we come to an unmarked intersection where the runner ahead of me (who I have been chasing since before Tennessee Valley) turns right. So I follow him and run for about a quarter mile before getting worried and yelling ahead to ask whether he sees any ribbons. Then to my dismay he turns around and yells no, but that he's not in the race. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Mother fucker. I turn back around. #BonusMiles.

The little detour only costs me a few minutes, but now I am suddenly back behind my new buddy Joe Ziegenfuss whom I had pulled ahead of earlier. Oh well, that's what I get for not studying the course maps better. And honestly, it could have been a lot worse. But still, I'm pissed. I do my best to harness that energy and power hike up the Coastal Trail Climb.

I am suffering like heck and certain that we are absolutely flying uphill. I glance over at my pacer Joe hoping to see him sweating and breathing hard. But no, he's walking comfortably and typing on his phone. Fresh-legged bastard.

Joe and I keep moving. I am able to glance back and see a group of 3 or 4 runners a ways behind me. Although I am holding them off, they are still moving well and I'm definitely not gaining any ground. As we drop down the steep descent to Muir Beach I am a bit worried that they will catch me on the flat paved road section after Muir Beach where I tend to struggle mentally.

I'm still in 14th place, (or so I think), but with no one insight ahead of me and a pack of runners chasing me, I've given up on my dream of top 10 and am just trying to keep moving well and get this torture fest over with. Around mile 56 we cross back over Kent Creek again where I had taken my ice bath earlier. Much to the dismay of my pacer Dr. Joe, I plop back down into the river again and lay there like a dead man. It feels wonderful. I decide to make the best use of my time and do a little multi-tasking by peeing my pants while I float on my back.

Finally another runner comes flying down into the river, so I get up and start running again out of embarrassment. Luckily, I think he stops to cool off in the river as well. Hopefully he didn't sit down in my "warm spot".

Just let me die, please...
The Final Push

After a sucky mile of running on the stupid paved road we finally reach the trail head for the start of the last long climb up Muir Woods Road that parallels the Dipsea Trail back up to Cardiac. Joe futilely tries to convince me to do some running, but I am having none of it. "Fuck you, I'm not running any hills" I scream over and over like a mantra.

After several miles of power hiking we reach the top of the climb at Cardiac aid station. Now it's only 2.8 downhill miles to the finish line in Stinson Beach. Thank goodness. I drop the hammer, throwing down my first sub-10 minute mile in the past hour. Joe employs every trick he can think of to drive me on faster. "Uh oh, I hear someone behind us" and "Hey, I think I see someone up ahead". I know he's probably full of shit, but just in case he's not pulling my leg I speed up a bit more. Surprisingly, we actually catch another runner, 53 year-old Kevin Rumon of San Rafael with about a mile to go.

Somebody tells me that I am now in 11th place! I doubt there is anyone else up ahead who I can still catch in the last mile, but just in case I give it everything I have. Joe is shouting encouragement and driving me on. Finally the finish line comes into sight and I break into my 5:30 minute/mile pace sprint. I cross the finish line in 11th place in a time of 10 hours and 20 minutes which is about 9:59 minute/mile pace average. This is my fastest Miwok 100K ever, and in fact my fastest 100K ever. Of course, it is also the first Miwok 100K (and the first 100K in general) that I have ever finished after DNF'ing at Miwok in 2009.

I'm not quite dead yet... I think I'll go for a walk
As soon as I cross the finish line, pain comes crashing down on me. Everything hurts. I'm dizzy, disoriented, and out of breath. My wife Amy congratulates me and takes my picture. "Oh no" I exclaim realizing that Amy must have had a bad day and dropped out. But she is in good spirits and seems OK. I stumble around in circles for a while looking for a cool, comfortable place in the shade to pass out and die. But Dr. Joe, being an ER doctor and all, finds a cold garden hose and helps me get my core temperature back down.

Surprisingly, I don't actually die as I half expect. Rather I spend the next few hours slumped over a table in the shade feeling like crap and binge eating sausages and potato chips hoping they will resurrect me. Aside from half a glass of Pliny the Elder that I split with my buddy Tony Lafferty, I can't even will myself to drink any beer! That's how I know I was hurting!

All in all, not a bad day though. Despite having a bad day I gutted out the finish, ran a PR, and punched my ticket for the 2015 Western States lottery by running a qualifying race. And I got to hang out with all my Bay Area ultra running friends including Quicksilver teammates Gary Gelin (1st place), Lisa Hughey (1st woman), Bree Lambert (2nd woman), Jean Pommier (3rd), Clare Abram, Kat Powell, Stephen Wassather (8th), Harris "the Younger" Mason, Harris "the Elder" Goodman, Stephen Strauss, Loren Lewis, Andy Benkert, Jeremy Johnson, Chris Wehan, and Melanie Michalak. What a day!