Friday, February 3, 2017

2017 Third-Annual Big Johnny's Vertical Beer Mile

“Who are these people?”

Sixty-seven year-old Steve Patt – a Silicon-Valley software entrepreneur and Harvard PhD chemist – doesn't immediately strike you as the type of lowlife who wakes up in the morning and slams a few beers before breakfast. Yet, there he was, sitting alone in his car in a deserted parking lot on Saturday morning, several cans of beer in his lap, staring expressionlessly out the window at the rain. “What am I doing?” he muttered.

Outside Steve’s rain-covered window, a conspicuous-looking man with a large, full-back tattoo was pacing back and forth across the parking lot, talking loudly to himself. The man was not wearing a shirt. Or pants. His black Speedo showed off a hardened physique that Steve imagined likely came from years of lifting weights in a crude prison yard rather than a pristine, climate-controlled suburban gym. Steve was careful to avoid eye contact.

Loitering on the far side of the parking lot was a bearded, excessively muscular man dressed like a giant hot dog. It was the kind of outfit you’d expect to see worn by the mascot at a rec-league slow-pitch softball game where everyone, the mascot included, is drunk. The costume was wrinkled and splotched with what appeared to be dried mustard… or perhaps some form of bodily fluid – possibly, but not necessarily, vomit.

Another man, dressed as a giant banana, walked over to the guy in the puke-stained giant hot dog costume. The two oddly-attired individuals gesticulated wildly, and appeared to be discussing something of significant importance. Perhaps, Steve mused, the men were upset that their friend, possibly dressed as a giant stalk of asparagus, was running late for their strange food-fetish convention?

Pimpin' ain't easy
Steve’s attention then shifted to a pair of flamboyantly attired gentlemen sauntering in his general direction. One of the men was clad from head to toe completely in purple velvet with leopard-skin trim, including a ridiculously over-sized matching Fedora. The second man was decked out in an even gaudier ensemble – a three piece suit that appeared to have been fashioned from left-over Christmas wrapping paper – red, white, and blue patterns featuring snowflakes and reindeer.

“Who invited the pimps,” Steve chuckled to himself, “or who knows, maybe they’re just off-duty TGI Fridays’ managers?”

Steve looked down at his watch and then looked up to see a Giant Panda bear (well…technically a man dressed as a Giant Panda – which depending on whom you ask, is either a type of bear or a very-fat, very-distant, cousin of the raccoon). In any case, the Panda man was standing next to guy with eerie florescent day-glow green hair that illuminated everything within ten feet of him in the otherwise pitch-black predawn parking lot.

The radioactive-haired man was wearing a “jacket” that had clearly been fashioned out of a black garbage bag. The letters “B E E R” had been spelled out in in gray duct tape at a rakish angle across the front of the garbage-bag garment. “Who are these people?” Steve wondered.

“Everybody run!”

A pick-up truck with government plates and flashing lights came bouncing into the dirt parking lot spraying mud in all directions as it slid to a screeching halt. “It’s the authorities! Everybody run,” Amy Burton shouted loudly. People scattered in all directions running toward their vehicles with unopened beer cans in one hand and fistfuls of dollars in the other.

“Hurry up and pay for parking! It’s six dollars if you don’t have a State Park’s annual pass” shouted the race director, Big Johnny Burton, the man with the back tattoo and black speedo, encumbered by neither shirt nor trousers. “The third-annual BJB’s Vertical Beer/Club Soda Mile starts in two minutes.”

Note: For those readers unfamiliar with the concept of the beer mile, and the vertical beer mile in particular, you may want to read this Trail Runner Magazine article that covered the first annual BJB Vertical Beer Mile. You may also want to read the 2015 BJB VerticalBeer Mile race report and/or last year’s 2016 BJB Vertical Beer Mile race report.

Or… if you just want the Cliff Notes, the beer mile is a race that is traditionally run on a standard 400 meter track where the participants drink a 12 ounce can/bottle of beer before running each of the four laps, resulting in the consumption of 4 beers over the course of the mile race. The vertical beer mile employs a similar format, except that the participants run/hike up a steep mile-long hill (on rough dirt trails) while stopping to chug a beer ever quarter mile on their way up the mountain.

“Three… two… one…” click, click, click, pop, pop, pop. The air was suddenly filled with the sound of twenty cans of beer (and a couple cans of club soda) opening in unison. The chirping of birds was drowned out by the loud cacophony of guzzling, gasping and burping. The vertical beer mile had official(ish)ly begun!

The race is on!

Big Johnny dashes off to an early lead
Big Johnny sucked down his first beer in 3.91 seconds and muscled his way through the crowd of slower sippers. “Amateurs,” he smirked dismissively as he sprinted through the knee-deep icy river that marked the start of the 1200 foot mile-long climb up the mountain. This was going to be the year that he finally defeated his arch-rival and nemesis, the two-time defending champion Karl Schnaitter.

“I want that belt,” Big Johnny growled to himself as he pictured Karl standing victorious atop the mountain last year, triumphantly holding the diamond-studded golden championship belt above his head as the sun shone through the trees, highlighting the fake rhinestone and gold-colored plastic of the children’s toy belt Big Johnny so deeply coveted.

The chase group: Big Banana, Big Winner, Big Wiener
Big Johnny was on a hot streak lately, having recently won the Javelina Trail Beer Mile in Arizona in October and the Silicon Valley Beer Mile Championship in November. He’d been training his ass off with two-a-day beer-chugging sessions. Losing wasn’t an option this year, much less even a possibility.

Suddenly Big Johnny heard footsteps behind and looked back to see fast-approaching chase group of runners led by a seven foot tall banana, a muscle-laden hot dog, and an out of place very serious-looking guy wearing actual running clothes who seemed to be under the impression that this was some kind of legitimate race; He’d apparently brought his own timing chip and had a bib number pinned on his shorts. He had even been spotted doing dynamic stretches and strides beforehand.

"You're doing it wrong." Needless to say
these guys did not podium. LOL.
Adam Schroeder apparently didn’t get the memo that this wasn’t a USA Track and Field sanctioned event; that there would be no chip timing, no aid stations, and no smiling volunteers with medals at the finish line. It seems that he was tricked into participating in this “historic, prestigious, iconic South Bay race” by his friend Liz who just needed a designated driver and convinced Adam to enter the club-soda division.

Adam, sober as sandwich, seemed not to notice nor care that he was racing a banana, a hot dog, and an exotic male dancer. He closed his eyes and imagined he was in the Olympic 5000 meter finals, surrounded by thousands of cheering fans while he and Mo Farrah furiously chugged cans of Safeway club soda on the backstretch of the track.

Adam put his head down and charged up the mountain to victory, “prancing off into the distance like a mischievous pixie,” as described by fellow racer Peter Battaglino, the "big banana".

It’s all over but the pukin’

1st Overall and Club Soda Mile Champion
Adam Schroeder
As Peter watched Adam flit up the mountain to victory, Peter abandoned his own dreams of glory and resigned himself to second place. He was so light-headed (from his strategy of hyperventilating for 10 seconds before opening each bear so that he could hold his breathe while drinking) that he hadn’t realized that Adam was chugging club soda rather than beer, and thus running in the separate, “lesser-but-kinda-equal(ish)” club-soda division for which the mostly-indifferent race director had yet to commission a separate championship belt.

“At least I’ll be the first banana,” Peter consoled himself, not realizing that he was leading the actual beer mile division. “I wonder if they have a trophy for first oversized food-stuff item? I better stay ahead of the "Big Wiener" just in case,” he thought determinedly.

Peter summoned all his strength and concentrated on one thing: not letting anyone pass him. Well, two things actually: not letting anyone pass him, AND not puking all over himself (and/or anyone else). Because, despite what his high school cross country coach used to say, puking on a competitor isn’t actually good sportsmanship.

As he stumbled across the finish line at the top of the hill, Peter looked up and saw Adam already finished, showered and dressed, and sitting with his feet up in a lounge chair drinking a kale smoothie. “Where the heck did he get a smoothie from,” Peter wondered. Some of life’s greatest mysterious remain forever unsolved!

Meanwhile, thirteen seconds behind Peter, an epic battle was “brewing” for second place (yes, that’s a beer pun). The suspiciously muscular hotdog – who, at least according to the nutritional-facts-label, was 100% Angus beef and completely hormone and steroid-free – was chasing down the male stripper over the final quarter mile.

Beer Mile Champ "Big Banana" Peter Battaglino
with buddy Vitor Rodrigues
“You better move that ass. I’ve got a pocket full of dollar bills and I’m ‘bout to make it rain up on this mountain,” shouted the "Big Wiener," Chris Eide, completely oblivious to the fact that it was actually already raining – quite heavily.

Big Johnny looked back over his shoulder and laughed, “Sorry Sweetie, that wiener’s not getting anywhere near me. You’ve got no relish! No onions! Come back next year with some real game.”

And with that, Big Johnny sashayed across the finish line, 3rd place overall and 2nd in the beer mile division. Chris crossed the finish line seconds later in 4th place overall, securing the final of the three beer-mile podium spots. And, perhaps more impressively, he was 2nd overall in the silly-food-mascot division and 1st place overall in the smoked/cured/processed meats sub-category!

Immediately after crossing the finish line Big Johnny ducked behind the nearest tree and shouted, "It's OK to vomit now; you're finished". And he did. Quite gloriously.

The “Club Soda” Club

"Not sorry in advance for crashing your
podium. Hugs and kisses -- Loren Lewis"
There was an unusual amount of pre-race smack talking going on this year among the entrants in the non-alcoholic / club-soda division of the race. Most – if not completely all – of that smack talking came from one man: Loren Lewis. “Is anyone else planning to compete in the non-alcoholic division this year? Because I don’t want an empty victory,” Loren quipped in one of his many, many, many Facebook taunts.

One day Loren posted a picture of his new Innov8 shoes with the captions, “These are the shoes that will be standing atop of the podium.” Another day he posted a close-up shot of his well-oiled calf muscles with the disclaimer, “Objects are much larger than they appear on camera”.

At one point he even published an 87 page thesis about why it was scientifically impossible for him to lose a liquid-chugging contest. Unfortunately Loren lost most readers on page 3 in the middle of a lecture about inviscid fluids and dynamic (shear) viscosity.  I guess not everyone is read up on their Newtonian versus non-Newtonian fluids?

Sadly for Loren, calf-muscle porn and new shoes don’t win championships; mullets do. Wait…what??? Defending non-alcoholic beer mile champion Matt Ward was certain that the key to a repeat victory this year would be to again rock his patented “skullet” haircut – which improves upon the standard mullet (short on the top, long in the back) hairstyle by going completely bald/shaven on the sides and top for greater aerodynamics.

Matt Ward rocking the headband "skullet"
with Big Pimp Larry Neumann
Last year Matt rocked his sweat-band and skullet to first place in the non-alcoholic division and 5th place overall finish. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fx it,” one supposes. Or perhaps more appropriately, “if it hasn’t fallen out, don’t cut it.” But even the most iconic hairdo can have an off day, and it seemed that the rain and humidity had gotten to Matt’s mullet this year. Much like the Biblical story of how Delilah once emasculated the mighty Sampson by giving him a pin-curl perm and colored hair extensions while he was passed out drunk, the low barometric pressure and relative high-humidity rendered Matt’s mullet powerless.

Before the race Matt was heard boldly proclaiming that, "Nobody chugs club soda and runs up a hill faster than me! Nobody!" After the race, “except that Adam guy, he's pretty fast!" But to his credit, even without the aid of his performance-enhancing skullet, Matt was still able to hold off every other sober runner not named Adam, earning Matt a respectable 5th place overall finish and 2nd place in the club-soda division.

Rounding out the non-alcoholic/club soda podium place was trash-talker extraordinaire, Loren Lewis, who took over four minutes off his PR from last year and managed to crack the top 10 this year with an 8th place overall finish. And one can only imagine just how fast Loren could ultimately become if he commits himself to training with the same enthusiasm, passion, and long hours that he has dedicated to shit talking on the Internet J.

Girls on the Run

Amy Burton trying to close the gap
Meanwhile in the women’s race, beer-mile rookie Suzie Farrell found herself on the losing side of an animated argument with her Pabst Blue Ribbon. Unable to finish her third or fourth PBRs, Suzie threw in her chips (which is of course preferable to throwing up her chips) and jogged it in.

This nicely set the stage for a two-woman battle between last year’s defending women’s beer-mile champion Liz Louie, and last year’s two-beer “powder puff” division champion Amy Burton who was looking to move up in distance this year.

Liz Louie works as a school teacher… but she chugs beer like a college frat boy. Liz broke into the national beer-mile running scene last year after her narrow victory over Jenny Lockwood at the 2nd annual Big Johnny’s Vertical Beer Mile. However, her win was not without controversy. Specifically there was some debate about whether Liz’s choice of beverage – a hard strawberry cider – was truly “beer” or not. Eventually the judges ruled in Liz’s favor that hard strawberry cider is in fact a type of beer – or at least a distant second-cousin by marriage.

This year Liz wasn’t taking any chances. She left the strawberry hard cider at home and came armed with four cans of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. She walked up to the starting line with a chip on her shoulder… and her diamond-studded championship belt around her waist. She was looking to silence her critics, and to become the first woman ever to win back to back vertical beer mile titles. But in order to win, she was going to have to defeat a woman whose name is revered on the Strava leader boards.

The women's race comes down to a sprint finish
Amy Burton is a small-business mogul who runs an extensive pet-care empire. She is highly feared and respected in the dog-walking (and cat-sitting) world. But she’s also a formidable cyclist and runner. At last count, she held over 500 Strava course records. And, after taking a year off running to rehab an inflamed Achilles tendon, Amy made her triumphant return to ultra-running last year with a strong performance at Rio del Lago 100 miler where she finished 3rd woman and 16th overall.

The bookies in Las Vegas were offering even money as to who would prevail between Amy and Liz. It was hard to pick a favorite. And, as expected, the race came down to the wire. Liz went out hard and opened an early lead over the first ¼ mile. But Amy didn’t panic and closed down the gap over the next ¼ mile. They arrived at the ½ mile beer stop together and cracked their third beers open in unison.

The women chatted cordially as they ran/hiked the next ¼ mile up to the ¾ mile beer stop for their fourth and final beer. Experts say that it takes about 30 minutes for alcohol to hit the blood stream for men, and as little as 20 minutes for women. Unfortunately for Liz, it had been about 20 minutes since her first beer.

An emotional Liz Louie after a hard fought battle
Suddenly the alcohol hit her. And it hit her hard. “Oh my gosh Amy, you’re such an amazing runner. I love you so much. I hope you win. Isn’t this championship belt so beautiful! Look how shiny it is. Oh look, a rainbow,” Liz started gushing uncontrollably, clearly no longer sober.

“Run! She’s right behind you. Run!” the crowd of runners on top of the mountain who had already finished screamed down at Amy as she approached the finish line in the lead. “Liz is right behind you! Run!”  Liz was running hard and giving it everything she had, but she was noticeably starting to weave back and forth across the trail… and then down she went. Amy coasted across the line to victory... whereupon she celebrated by throwing up.

The best laid plans of mice and Panda bears

24/7 film crew gets cozy with Marty Strassen
Unfortunately proper training alone doesn’t always guarantee success. Marty Strassen trained his ass off for this event this year. Our 24/7 film crew followed Marty around in the weeks leading up to the big event, giving us unfettered access to his daily life. When his boss at work called him in for his annual performance review, we were there! When he headed into the bathroom with some reading material, we followed.

As captured by our imbedded film crew, we were able to bring viewers an exclusive shot revealing one of Marty’s secret training workouts. Weather forecasts were predicting torrential rain storm on race day. So, in order to prepare himself for the extreme rigour of chugging beer outdoors with a twenty mile-an-hour wind blowing rain directly into his eyes and mouth, Marty trained in the shower to try and simulate race-day conditions.

Sadly, despite his training, Marty just didn’t have it on race day and found himself in a three-way battle for DFL (dead fucking last) place with fellow runners/drinkers Jeff Clowers and Stephen Strauss. Each man seemed absolutely determined to lose… at any cost. Jeff, wearing an impractically tight-fitting holiday-themed business suit that severely restricted any movement, had his eye on last place. But Steven Strauss, who finished DFL two years ago, was back to this year re-claim his title, and not to be outdone, was running in a Panda Bear costume.

Much like the 2012London Olympic's scandal in which eight female badminton players were disqualified for deliberately trying to lose their preliminary matches (to avoid having to play higher ranked teams in the later rounds), Jeff Clowers made no effort to win. After apparently finding himself way too far up in the pack for his liking after the initial river crossing, Jeff stepped off the trail and let everyone else pass. 

Jeff Clowers tries to take a dive but
Stephen Strauss calls his bluff
Not to be outdone, Steven and Marty both daintily nursed their beers, sipping politely as if they were having noon tea with the Queen of England. As the three men made their way to closer to finish line, each slowed to a crawl, daring the others to take the lead. Finally, no longer able to tolerate the excruciatingly slow pace, Marty broke down and reluctantly pulled ahead.

It was now a two-man battle for last place, each contestant desperately wanting to avoid actually beating anyone. It was now or never for Stephen Strauss. He pulled out all the stops and shifted down into the lowest, slowest gear he had. Jeff Clowers, unable to physically move any slower, was forced to take the lead.

Jeff, not yet willing to concede defeat, gave it one last shot and feigned a dramatic last-minute series of slow-motion stumbles and tumbles. But Stephen wasn’t falling for it. He slowed his roll further still, and tip toed up the mountain like a Panda Bear wearing two-sizes too small ballet slippers. Victory was his!

Age-Group Records

Steve Patt sets new American age-group record
Sixty-seven year old Steve Patt has raced many distances in his life including 100 milers. But he’d only ever contested the mile once – almost 30 years ago back in 1997 where he ran a 6:24. Sadly, Steven did not improve his mile PR this year Big Johnny’s Vertical Beer Mile. In fact, his finishing time for the mile this year was 30:31 seconds, nearly 24 minutes slower than his last attempt. I guess it just goes to show that unlike bottle-conditioned beer, runners don’t improve with age J. That being said, remarkably it appears that Steve may have actually set a new national age-group record for the vertical beer mile. The race director is considering looking into it... someday.

Sixty-two year old Stephen Strauss, who successfully re-claimed his DFL (dead fucking last) title from two years ago (after not competing last year), somehow found himself on the second step of podium in his 60 – 70 year old division, finishing second in his age group behind Steve Patt. Technically there were only two runners in the 60 – 70 age group. But hey, sometimes it’s all about showing up and gutting out the finish!

Fifty-one year old Larry Neumann easily won the Super-Master’s (50 – 60) category. Granted, he didn’t have any real competition – nor even any imaginary competition for that matter, as he was the sole competitor in his age group. But hey, he ran the entire race in a heavy non moisture-wicking purple velvet suit. It was unclear whether Larry had come directly to the race from his second job as a pimp… or if he is just a really big Prince fan.

Totally Unofficial (Sorry I was Drunk) Results

1) Adam Schroeder, 17:47, Club Soda Mile Champion
2) Peter Battaglino, 18:38, Beer Mile Champion,
3) Big Johnny Burton, 18:51, 2nd place Beer Mile, 1st Master's (40+)
4) Chris Eide, 19:00, 3rd place Beer Mile,
5) Matt Ward, 19:20, 2nd place Club Soda Mile
6) Karl Schnaitter, 19:47
7) Vitor Rodrigues: 20:00
8) Loren Lewis, 20:11, 3rd place Club Soda Mile
9) Patrick Rabuzzi, 20:32
10) Larry Neumann: 22:11, 1st Super Masters (50+)
11) Thomas Anderson: 22:20
12) Jamey Slaton, 22:43
13) Allen L: 26:00?
14) Jason Wimmert, 26:20
15) Amy Burton, 26:40, Women's Beer Mile Champion
16) Liz Louie: 27:08, 2nd place Women's Beer Mile
17) Suzie Farrell, 30:12
18) Steve Patt, 30:31, 1st Super-Duper Masters (60+), new American age-group record
19) Marty Strassen: 31:00
20) Jeff Clowers, 31:30
21 ) Stephen Strauss: 32:30, DFL

Thursday, August 18, 2016

2016 Mountain Madness Fat Dog 120 Race Report

Just a walk in the park... Manning Park
photo by Riccardo Tortini
The night before the the longest "100 miler" of my life

"The beer here sucks," my pacer Riccardo and I blurt out in unison. We stare blankly at the meager list of macro-lagers, periodically flipping the menu and then turning it back over again, hoping a decent craft brew will magically appear. But no luck. In an act of total desperation, I even try turning the menu upside down... and then shaking it vigorously. I throw it on the ground and stomp on it. Still not a single IPA or Saison.

Finally, when it seems that our waitress is losing her patience and thinking of calling the manager over to ask us to leave, I sigh and just order a fucking Peach Sangria. Riccardo flashes me a look of surprised disapproval that says, "Dude, that's a chick drink". I throw him a defiant glance that snarls, "Shut up homie, or I'll shank you with this spoon I've been sharpening under the table". And so, at the pre-race dinner the night before the race, the quintessential battle between pacer and runner has already begun.

Riccardo, who finished 4th last year at Fat Dog and has the 6th fastest finish of all time on the course, has offered to pace me this year. The hope is that he can keep me from repeating the same mistakes I made last year when I went out an hour ahead of course record pace in the first 50 kilometers... a strategy which proved hilariously disastrous. You can read more about my folly here in my 2015 Fat Dog DNF Report.

As our food arrives, Riccardo tries to immediately establish dominance in our pacer-runner relationship by putting on a defiant show of force at the dinner table. He stuffs slice after slice of pizza into his mouth, wolfing down three quarters of his pizza while I struggle with just my second slice. Clearly he is a not a man with whom to be trifled. I bow my head in acquiescence, silently agreeing to follow his race strategy and instructions.

Shout out to my "sponsor" Astroglide.
#Asstrordinary #Sexicitement
Riccardo takes his role of crew-chief and pacer very seriously. Not only has he thoroughly studied and memorized every paragraph of the entire 28-page race guide, but he's also arrived carrying several dozen color-coded binders containing everything we would possibly need -- and if I am to be honest, probably lots of stuff we probably wouldn't.

He has maps and driving directions in multiple language including English, French, Italian, and Inuit; detailed local weather reports of historic high and low temps, rainfall and barometric pressure from the last 100 years; splits from all the past years' winners; and Ultrasignup results and rankings of all the runners in the race. I'm pretty sure I even saw several classified government documents.

Whereas my main race preparation had consisted of watching this YouTube video. But hey, we all have our part to play. I didn't want to get bogged down with studying "trivial" information like the race elevation profile, course markings, aid-station names, distances between aid, or how to stay alive in a lightning storm. Nope, no time for any of that.

My main job was just to be ready to run/hike/slowly-stumble 120 miles of steep, rocky terrain across the Canadian Cascades mountain range with a cumulative elevation gain of around 29,000 feet -- the equivalent of climbing to the top of Mt. Everest. I'd shown up with some decent fitness, two socks and a pair of running shoes. Oh, and a giant tube of Astroglide sex lubricant. Because, you know, chaffing.

Taking it (relatively) easy and taking the lead

As we stood around at the starting line, I decided to do a set of pull-ups on the rafters of the bulletin board to try and psych out my competition. I'm not sure that it really had the desired effect. People probably just thought I was an idiot; Or maybe some cross-fit bro who wandered out of his box and got lost in the woods. But speaking of fit folks, I also got a chance to talk at the starting line with super-fit looking Angela Shartel, who [Spoiler Alert] would go on to win the women's race.

My pacer Riccardo had made me promise to go out more conservatively this year than I had last year when I charged off up the mountain like a complete lunatic. So I did my best to restrain myself on the steep, long first climb up Red Mountain, hanging just outside the top ten. My time up this 8-mile section (with an average grade of 10%) was 14 minutes slower than last year -- over a minute and a half slower per mile!

Lame effort to intimidate competitors with pull-ups
However, despite my best efforts, I wasn't able to restrain myself quite as well on the downhill and I ended up passing a few other runners and moving up into 6th place by the time we hit the Ashnola River aid station at the bottom of the descent at mile 18. I wasn't really trying to move up or run hard, so I can only speculate that perhaps gravity has a much stronger effect on me, as an American, since my weight of 160 pounds is nearly double the 75 kg average weight of my Canadian competitors :)

Somewhere on the descent I smacked my knee into a huge rock. I remember seeing the big rock in the middle of the trail and thinking, "that's a pretty big rock; I should probably run around it." Yet instead I ran smack into it. Warm sticky red liquid immediately started seeping out of my knee and dripping down my leg. "That's probably not good," I remember thinking.

When I got down to the Ashnola aid station, my pacer Riccardo informed me that I was in 6th place. He also started giving me a bunch of "intel" about the guys ahead of me including how far ahead they each were, what their Ultrasignup scores were, what city they were from, their favorite color, whether they were gluten intolerant and/or had any shellfish allergies, etc. I filed the information away for later in case there was going to be quiz or something.

As I left the aid station, Riccardo told me, "just take it easy." [Spoiler Alert]: I did not take it particularly easy. In fact, just four miles later, somewhere around Trapper Lake, I had suddenly caught and passed all the other runners and found myself in the lead. "Shit, Riccardo is not going to be happy about this," I muttered to myself as I inhaled a couple of delicious HoneyStinger gels, figuring I better stay on top of my calories now that I was in the lead.

Running scared

I hadn't intended to push hard on this section because I still have nightmares about chasing Jeremy Humphries up this climb last year. So instead, this year I just settled into a comfortable, steady pace and power-hiked up the hill. I even stopped at one point to dump some rocks out of my shoes. So I was quite surprised when I caught up to the leaders.

Not quite Rucky Chucky :)
photo by Brian McCurdy
I exchanged some quick pleasantries with each of my fellow runners in the lead pack that included Bryan Hitchcock, Ullas Narayana, Patrick McAuliffe, and Gennadii Tertychnyi. But I didn't want to stick around and chat.

My motto is that if you are going to bother taking the lead, you should do it decisively -- with an awe-inspiring, soul-crushing, completely-excessive, superfluous show of force! When you pass someone, you want them to know that they've been passed for good; that they're never going to see you again... until the award's ceremony :)

As I finally crested Flattop Mountain, I looked back to see if I could ascertain how much of a lead I had over my competitors. Although I could see at least one person in the distance, I couldn't tell if he was one of the 120 Miler runners who I had passed, or maybe a relatively fresh-legged relay runner making up ground?

I must have some shampoo in this pack somewhere!
Photo by Brian McCurdy
At bottom of the descent, just before the Pasayten River, I was caught by the runner I'd seen behind me, who thankfully turned out to be in the relay. We then caught another relay runner, and the three of us crossed the river and ran the paved road into the Bonnevier aid station at mile 41.

My pacer Riccardo seemed surprised to see me in the lead. He paced me up the hill and gave me a pep talk which basically consisted of, "don't do anything stupid; and try not to get eaten by bears."

Trying not to get eaten by bears

As I mention in my 2015 Fat Dog DNF Report, last year I ran into a large black bear on the course, a couple kilometers before the Heather aid station, while running alone in the lead -- in the dark. It was a pretty funny encounter (at least in retrospect) that involved me trying to scare the bear off with the world's smallest, most feeble-sounding, tiny plastic whistle.

This year, right around the same spot, I looked down on the trail and saw a bloody deer leg, or at least part of a leg. It had clearly been chewed off just above the knee. And it was laying right in the middle of the trail. I thought about picking it up and potentially using it as a weapon in case I was attacked by whatever had killed and eaten the rest of the deer. I imagined the newspaper headlines: "California man bludgeons grizzly bear to death with severed deer leg."

Yeah. Happy party time. 
However, I figured that whatever had eaten the rest of the deer was probably -- hopefully -- already quite full. And I wasn't particularly excited about the prospect of fighting a grizzly, especially after having just recently watched The Revenant. So I continued on up to the peak and then down the out-and-back descent down to the Heather aid station. I did take some solace from that fact that at least one or two of the relay runners were ahead of me, so if the bear / wolves / mountain lion / Sasquatch got hungry again, there were a couple of tasty hors d'oeuvres trotting along the trail ahead of me.

The folks at the Heather aid station were in great spirits, completely unaware that just a mile above them, something was running around the forest ripping limbs off woodland creatures. I decided not to mention it. Instead a devoured a quesadilla, which tasted absolutely f**king amazing. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Canadians make decent Tex-Mex. I had been worried, quite needlessly, that Canadian quesadillas might contain something odd like maple syrup, peameal bacon, or poutine!

I also narrowly avoided disaster when the volunteers almost filled my bottles with Tequila when I inquired if they had any sports drink. Apparently "sports drink" means something quite different in Canada than in the US! Anyway, climbing out of the Heather aid station, sans Tequila, I ran into 2nd and 3rd place runners Ullas and Patrick who were just starting the descent. I estimated that I had about a 30 minute lead over Ullas and a 35 minute lead over Patrick. While it certainly felt good to know I had a decent cushion and some breathing room, I also knew that I still needed to keep moving strong as the race wasn't even half over yet!

Trying not to get eaten by... porcupines?

Somewhere along the trail down from Heather to Nicomen Lake I spotted two large black animals on the trail ahead of me. I instantly came to a halt. "Shit, bear cubs!" I exclaimed. Not that I was terribly worried about the cubs themselves, as I think I could probably take a couple of furry toddlers in a fist fight. No, I was more concerned about the whereabouts of the mother.

Thankfully, I quickly realized that the two animals were not actually bears but rather giant (possibly mutant) porcupines -- enjoying a romantic evening rendezvous in the moonlight. [Sidenote: I'd always wondered how porcupines make love without the male limping off afterwards with penis full of quills.]

Random porcupine pic from the Internet
The rest of the descent down to Nicomen Lake was pretty uneventful. Whereas last year I had taken several hard falls on the rocky, technical section in the foggy rain, this year the weather was perfect and I managed to stay (more or less) on my feet. Arriving at Nicomen lake at mile 62 (i.e. only the half-way point), I could already smell warm pierogies cooking on the skillet. I am happy to report that the they were quite delicious and were not stuffed with poutine or moose hearts or anything odd.

The next section, a long 18K descent from Nicomen Lake down to Cayuse, brought back some memories. This was the section that Nickademus Hollon and I had run together last year, chatting and sharing stories, en route to his win and course-record. This year I had no one to talk to -- except for a handful of frogs who didn't seem particularly interested in hearing my story about how I once held off Timmy Olson at Hardrock.

Eventually I arrived at Cayuse and avoiding falling off the log-bridge and injuring myself and DNF'ing like I did last year. After a quick bottle refill I headed out and began trudging up the series of super steep climbs up to the Cascades aid station. I tackled each of these mini-Mt.Everest climbs with everything I had, which at this point mainly just consisted of me shuffling along and mumbling a chain of non sequitur curse words under my breath. But what is it they say, "work with what you've got," right?

My pacer Riccardo tries to make me do some actual running. #WTF

Runner John (left) and pacer Riccardo (right)
Several thousand creative curse words later I shuffle into the Cayuse aid station at mile 80. My pacer Riccardo is in good spirits, smelling slightly of Tequila [but I don't ask]. He's excited and ready to go.

In my head I imagine that Riccardo is one of those loud, yappy, excitable little Chihuahua jumping all over the place and ripping the stuffing out of pillows; whereas I am a tired old Labrador or Newfoundland with hip dysplasia and arthritis, and callused bald patches on my elbows, who just wants to nap in the shade with his bone.

Riccardo: "OK John, here's the plan! We'll run this 10 mile section pretty fast, and then we'll really hammer the next 10 miles after that! Yeah, yeah, yeah! What do you say!"

John: "Fuck you Riccardo."

That's pretty much the conversation that we had, on repeat, for the next 10 hours. Riccardo, to his credit, is an amazing pacer. He knows when to push a runner, and when to back off. And more importantly, he knows when to gently stretch the truth a bit, and when to outright lie.

"The next turn is just a kilometer up the road," Riccardo proclaims optimistically at one point. While I desperately want to believe him, we are on a straight flat stretch of highway that we can both clearly see goes on for at least several more miles. Still, I decide I might as well play the game and mumble, "Ok, thanks [asshole]."

Boo. Sad head-down hiking time.
"The next aid station is just around the corner; I can hear the volunteers," Riccardo bluffs somewhat convincingly. Meanwhile we are still in the middle of nowhere, miles from the next station. The only noise I hear is the buzzing of mosquitoes as they drain the last of my blood as we fumble toward Shawatum.

"This is definitely the last climb," Riccardo blatantly lies after we summited only the third of the final "seven false summits" that the race director warned us about at the pre-race briefing. Still, I start to doubt myself and my math skills. Maybe I lost track? Maybe I was so distracted by the view and/or the pain from my blisters that I miscounted? But nope. It was all just a clever ruse to keep me plodding forward.

"You've definitely got the win; Nobody is going to catch you now," Riccardo confidently assures me. "But just in case... we better hammer this last section," he waffles nervously, looking back over his shoulder down the mountain behind us. Unbeknownst to us, the 2nd place runner, Ullas, has gradually whittled my lead down from a high of 42 minutes to just 20 minutes at the final aid station at Skyline Junction with 7 miles to go.

Sprinting down the mountain (in slow motion)

"Pouring like an avalanche, coming down the mountain..."
Photo by Brian McCurdy
As we make our way down the ragged mountain, my foot catches a rock and I go flying head first, arms stretched out in front of me, crashing to the ground. I'm fine, but I lay there motionlessly enjoying the brief respite, wondering how long I can milk this before Riccardo makes me get up and resume running. A second later, I hear, "You're fine. There's no blood. Get up." Damn, he's on to me.

Riccardo and I gingerly tiptoe down the rest of the steep rocky descent, trying to avoid another fall. Finally we reach the treeline and the trails becomes more runnable, switching from rocky scree to hard-packed dirt. For the first time all day, I start to let myself believe that I might actually win. Fueled by adrenaline I start bombing down the mountain at what feels like at least 6:30 minute-per-mile pace, but which Riccardo's GPS later reveals to actually be 9:30 minute-per-mile pace. LOL.

In my head I'm already picturing myself crossing the finish, visualizing different potential celebratory antics. Maybe I drop to the ground and roll across the finish line like Scott Jurek? Or maybe "brush my shoulder off" and thump my chest like one of those 100 meter sprinters who run with three gold chains and diamond earrings? Or maybe... Suddenly my foot catches a tree root and I'm launched head first into the ground again -- but much harder than any of the previous times.

"Making their way, the only way they know how..."
Photo by Brian McCurdy
I wait to hear Riccardo's familiar voice informing me that nothing's wrong and chastising me to get up. But there's only silence. Shit, that must have been a really bad fall if even Riccardo is worried. After a second or two my breath returns and I stumble back to me feed and slowly start hobbling down the hill again. My knee is bleeding and hurting, and my shorts are full of dirt and pine needles, but we've probably only got another 2 miles or so to go. I can do this.

As the Lightning Lake and the finish line finally come into sight, I'm overcome with emotion. I turn to Riccardo and thank him for everything. After ten and half hours of running side-by-side in lockstep I feel that we are now connected by an invisible bond. That we are one. I stop and turn to high five him, but he reaches in for a hug and we both miss awkwardly. I try to salvage the moment and offer him a fist bump, but he's already coming in with a high five and slaps my fist. The whole thing is embarrassingly comical. I'm just hoping that no one's getting any of this on film.

With women's champ Angela Shartel
Photo by Brian McCurdy
Seconds later I cross the finish line in 28 hours and 21 minutes, teary-eyed and exhausted. We'd done it! I've won. While I've had a couple good races in the past including 3rd place at Tahoe 200 and 12th at Hardrock, this is the first time I've ever won a major ultra. I'm beside myself. I'm on top of the world. I'm feeling invincible! And then suddenly I'm laying down in the medical tent covered in blankets being spoon-fed warm broth. Ah yes, welcome to ultra running :)

Here's a link to the official results. Although I was initially disappointed that my winning time from this year was much slower than the times from last year, I should add the course was extended this year and included an additional 2 miles and an extra 800 foot climb. And while my time is hours slower than the course record time of Nickademus Hollon, I did manage to just bump my buddy Riccardo out for the 6th fastest time ever on the course. Sorry Riccardo. He he.

It's [not] all about the buckle

After the award's ceremony Sunday afternoon, a few of us were sitting around sipping on some beers and decompressing. It had been a long, hard weekend -- for runners, volunteers, and race directors alike. The volunteers had already taken down the inflatable finish line banner, tossed out the last of the post-race BBQ food, and started packing up the chairs and trash.

With bad-ass Clifford Matthew!
Suddenly across the lake we saw another runner approaching. He had missed the 49 hour cut-off by at least an hour. There were no cheering crowds. There would be no shiny buckle waiting for him at the finish line. Heck, there wouldn't even be a finish line waiting for him at the finish line. But he didn't care. He had an ear-to-ear smile on his face as he ambled toward us.

I was immediately overcome with admiration and respect. This is what ultra running is about. Testing yourself against the mountain. Testing yourself against yourself. I immediately ran over and introduced myself and congratulated him on his finish -- officially recognized or not. And, although I'm sure I'll probably get in trouble by the race organizers for this, I happily presented him with my own finisher's buckle.

So congratulations Clifford Matthews of Albuquerque, New Mexico for inspiring us all. Speaking with Cliff afterwards, he mentioned that if others are as inspired by him as I was, he would urge them to get involved with their local Search and Rescue organization and/or Team RWB -- two causes very near and dear to him. So please do consider those. Thank you.

More shout outs and thank yous!

Winning relay team, The Lost Planet Trailmen
  • Congrats to women's champion Angela Shartel whose late-race surge capped off an amazing come-from behind victory! And for that matter, congrats to everyone who suffered out there all weekend and challenged themselves on this amazing course!
  • Congrats to relay team, The Lost Planet Trailmen, a group of former UBC Thunderbird track runners who came just seconds away from breaking the course record, despite the longer and tougher course!
  • Congrats also to my Bay Area homeboy Chris Eide who completed FatDog120 only five weeks after having to drop out of Tahoe Rim Trail 100 with a stress fracture in his foot. Chris, you are one bad hombre!
  • "Big ups" to my buddy, crew-chief and pacer, Riccardo Tortini, who put up with over 10 hours of me being grumpy and giving him the silent treatment. Best of luck at your race in Pine-2-Palm next month my friend!
  • Special thanks to my wife Amy, my mom, and the rest of my family for supporting me and making it possible for me to skip town and head off into the mountains of British Columbia for a "fun little vacation".
  • Thank you so much to all the race volunteers who gave up days/weeks/months of their time to make this race possible: sawing and removing hundreds of fallen dead trees from the course; hiking thousands of liters of water up the mountain; standing around for hours at night in the cold to feed and cheer on tired, grumpy runners; fending off armies of biting flies and mosquitoes on top of the mountain; and standing over a hot stove cooking hundreds of post-race burgers. You guys are the best in the business. Thank you so much!
  • And finally, thank you to HoneyStinger Nutrition for hooking me up with some great-tasting all-natural energy. Mmm, yum. Good stuff

Monday, May 30, 2016

Getting Older and Slower, but not Quite Dead Yet: 2016 Ohlone 50K Race Report

Ohlone 50K
photo by Nina Giraudo
Poets, drunks, and ultra runners

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas certainly had a way with words. "Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight... Do not go gentle into that goodnight." Ah good stuff! But my man Dylan Thomas (D-Thom for short) also had a way with Whiskey. And sadly, at age 39 he was dead.

I turned 43 this month -- already somewhat of an old man compared to D-Thom who never had to suffer the indignity of sitting across from a birthday cake with 40 or more candles on it. And, as has been my tradition for much of the last 12 years, I chose to commemorate this milestone by running-hiking-stumbling through the grueling, exposed, rattle-snake infested hills of the Ohlone Wilderness.

I'm not exactly sure why I choose to celebrate my birthday in such a masochistic manner each year despite the annual protest from my poor legs. (Shut up Legs, no one asked you). Perhaps I relish the pain, struggle, and suffering as poignant visceral reminders that I'm still alive and, "raging against the dying of the light." Or maybe I just lack common sense. Or perhaps a bit of both.

Team Quicksilver
photo by Agnes Pommier
In any case, since I'm not quite dead yet, I decided I might as well continue the tradition and run Ohlone again this year even though I'd been injured and unable to train properly most of the year; even though up until a couple weeks ago I hadn't done a run longer than 12 miles all year; and even though I just raced 62 miles at the Quicksilver 100K the week before, from which my legs still hadn't even begun to fully recover. Sorry Legs :(

However, I took comfort from the fact that I wasn't the only fool attempting to run the Ohlone 50K only 8 days after having run Quicksilver 100K. My Quicksilver Running Club teammate Jean Pommier, who finished just ahead of me at Quicksilver was toeing the line at Ohlone too. If that wasn't crazy enough, Pamakids runner Chris Jones had not only run Quicksilver 100K but had also run the Silver State 50 Miler the day before Ohlone and was now attempting his third ultra-marathons in 8 days!

Big Johnny leads the pack while Jean wisely hangs back
photo by Zack Steinkamp
Getting older; trying not to get too much slower

This past weekend marked my 9th time running the Ohlone 50K in the past 12 years, with my first finish being back in 2005. While my finishing times have varied considerably over the years depending on the weather and my wildly oscillating fitness levels, I've always finished between 5 and 6 hours.

My slowest race was in 2007 where I finished 24th place in 5:57:57, while my best performance was in 2013 where I finished 2nd in just over 5:01:15. But typically, on most years, my finishing time is usually between 5:25 and 5:35. That's pretty consistent, especially when you consider my erratic racing strategy and tendency to, more often than not, fly up the mountain in the lead on the first 4-mile long steep climb of the race.

Coming into the race this year severely under-trained and still somewhat beat up from Quicksilver the week before, I was naively hoping for the best, but realistically bracing myself for an epic-suck-fest. Surprisingly, I managed to finish in 5:25:19, which was actually my third fastest race ever at Ohlone. Thanks Legs!

Year Time  Place
2005 5:54:39 11
2007 5:57:57 24
2009 5:35:06 16
2011 5:30:12 10
2012 5:28:45 7
2013 5:01:15 2
2014 5:15:33 5
2015 5:35:00 3
2016 5:25:19 7

Five-minute summary of a 5+ hour race...

I won't bore you to death with all the excruciating details of the race, which basically consisted of me repeating over and over to myself under my breath, "f**k, this sucks" and "f**k, I should have trained harder". Occasionally during the less-hilly, less-sucky sections of the course I would think, "This isn't so bad," followed almost immediately by "Oh never mind, this definitely sucks," again as soon as the trail turned back up hill.

I like to think of Ohlone as consisting of three distinct 10-mile long sections: 1) the initial stupid climb up to Mission Peak and descent down into Sunol, 2) the long, stupid 10-mile climb back up to Rose Peak, and 3) the final ten stupid miles of rolling hills and steep descent down into Lake Del Valle. They key to doing well at this stupid race is to make sure that you hold back a bit in the first 10 miles so that you are really able to move well over the last 10 miles. But, like anything else that's easier said than done... it's, um, a lot easier to say than to actually do.

Jean Pommier and Mike Helms tangled up in blue
photo by Vladimir Gusiantnikov
This year I can into the Sunol aid station at mile 9 or 10 just a few feet behind a few others runners including my neighbor Mike Helms and my teammate Jean Pommier. Yet, over the next 20 miles they both put 25 - 30 minutes on me by the finish. So, while I felt like I held back on the first section and moved well over the last two sections, clearly I must have pushed harder than I thought during the first section if they were both able to put nearly a mile per minute on me over the rest of the race. Thanks for nothing, Legs.

Still, I did at least manage to catch one other runner. And I held off two more runners (including Erik Wilde who ran me down in the final miles of Ohlone two years ago in 2014) as I managed to put over 10 minutes on the two pursuers during the last half of the course. So the race wasn't a complete disaster. While I was disappointed to finish off the podium and outside the top 5, I did at least kinda-sorta-technically win my 40 - 49 age group (43 year-old Troy Howard finished in the top-3 overall). And thus I came home with "Big Wood" again for a 6th time.

Women's winner, Nina!
photo by Big Johnny Burton
Shout outs

Amazingly, a pair of rookie ultra runners won the men's and women's races at Ohlone this year, Scott Trummer from Livermore, running his first 50K, ran away with the race, finishing in 4:24:10, which is one of the fastest times ever on the modern course. And huge congrats to Quicksilver teammate Nina Giraudo, who not only won the women's race, but finished 18th overall among the men.

If Nina hadn't stopped to take so many pictures along the course she might have even caught her Quicksilver teammate and training partner, Zack Steinkamp, who finished just a minute or so ahead of her. But congrats to Zack, not just for avoiding getting chick'd, but for improving his PR at Ohlone by around 40 minutes! Way to go Zack!

Congrats also to my neighbor and Strava-nemesis, 2:31 marathoner Mike Helms, who completed his first official ultra this year at Ohlone finishing 5th overall and redeeming himself for his DNF last year. Mike, you'd really look good in Quicksilver blue ;)

Big Johnny gets Big Wood
photo by Keith Blom
I'd also like to thank all the volunteers who made this race possible. One of the unique things about Ohlone is that it's a point-to-point course through the wilderness with very limited means of access to the remote aid stations in the middle of the course. That means that volunteers have to hike out the day before with all the water and supplies and then camp overnight in the wilderness among the rattle snakes, mountain lions, coyotes, and sharp-fanged carnivorous bunny rabbits!

At the finish line, my legs threw a bit of a temper tantrum and plopped themselves down in a chair in the shade, refusing to get up for several hour. However, that actually worked out nicely because, while my legs were pouting like a toddler, I got a chance to catch up with fellow runners John Brooks and Chris Jones, as well as Jessi Goldstein (who was supporting her friend Monique Winkler). And big thanks to Jessi for fetching me chicken-apple sausages and beer. Mmm.

Ok, well I guess that's a wrap. I'll probably be back again next year for another birthday jog -- assuming that I can again trick my stupid legs into it. And perhaps next year I'll look into this whole "training" thing that I've heard so much about.

Results and other links

Saturday, May 21, 2016

2016 Quicksilver 100K Race Report: A Guide to Racing 62 Miles with Almost No Training

New 2016 finisher's buckle
photo by unknown
As a general rule of thumb, if you’re planning to attempt to run one-hundred kilometers through the mountains, you should probably do a fair bit of training. A lot of training! A metric shit-ton of training! You should put in months of high-mileage weeks. You should do obnoxiously-long emphatically-slow runs on the weekend. Maybe even a few back-to-back long-slow runs where you trudge along, on tired legs, so slowly that even your own shadow says, “f**k this, I’m gonna sit down and check my Facebook messages”.

Or… you can do what I did and wait until just a month before the race to start training, and go into the race having not run longer than 12 miles all year. And instead of doing a bunch of long runs, you can keep all your runs under an hour and toss in a bunch of random sprints of varying distances. Yes, I’m completely serious. I didn’t even start training for Quicksilver until April, and my longest run all year was only 11.8 miles. And most of my workouts involved short sprints. “WTF,” you ask? Rightly so!

Ok, full disclosure. I’m not some cross-fit wacko who thinks cardio is worse for you than an all-bacon diet (though, damn, I do love bacon). Similarly, I’m not trying to promote a controversial new training book with some oxymoronic title like, “Zero-Running is More Running: Run Farther, Faster with No Training.” My rather counter-intuitive training approach wasn’t by design; it was by necessity after I found myself injured and unable to run (or even hike/walk/hobble) earlier this January after inflaming the bursa sac in my hip. I can’t guarantee that my approach will work for you. In fact, I’m still somewhat surprised that it actually worked for me. But in case you’re interested, here are the details.

First, it’s probably a bit disingenuous of me to say that I didn’t do “any training” before April. True, I was injured and unable to run. However, my particular injury (Greater Trochanter Bursitis) thankfully still allowed me to ride my bike. And so I rode my bike – a lot! Every day. Sometimes twice a day. Two to three hundred miles a week. With most of those rides involving high-intensity intervals and mad-crazy-lung-busting hill sprints.

When I was finally able to slowly resume running in early April, my fitness was thankfully already through the roof. I knew however that I still needed to put some miles on my feet to harden up my legs to handle the stress and pounding of running all day in the mountains. However, I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to ramp up my weekly volume very quickly or spend too much time on my feet without risking re-injury.

That’s when I decided that if I didn’t have time for the traditional long, slow “junk miles” that most ultra runners build their training plans around, I would instead focus on my “secret weapons” of thirty-second strides, short-steep hill sprints, and long-fast downhill repeats. The strides would improve my running economy and leg turnover; the short-steep hill sprints would build muscle and power; and the fast downhill repeats would harden my quads and calves to withstand the rigors of mountain running.

Early morning on the mountain
photo by I-Tao Tsai
Race Start: Obscenely Early, Hours before Sunrise

I woke up obscenely early on Saturday morning and started driving over to the park for the 4:30 am race start, carefully avoiding all the drunks still driving home from their Friday night festivities. I’m not a fan of pre-dawn race starts, though I certainly understand the rationale behind them. 

An early start not only gives the mid-pack and back-of-the-pack runners a better shot of finishing while it’s still daylight, but it also helps the front-runners avoid having to run the hardest part of the course in the afternoon heat. Though if it were up to me, I would start the race at dusk and make everyone run with a raw sirloin steak tied around their waist to better incorporate the native mountain lion population into the race. He he.

As I stand in the Port-O-Potty line chatting with my Quicksilver Running Club teammate Chris Calzetta, I hear a whirring sound above my head and notice that some jackass is flying his drone over our heads. Oh wait, never mind, that “jackass” is actually my buddy – and pacer – Jeff Clowers. He’d mentioned to me the day before that he was going to film the start of the race with his drone to try and capture the stream of runner’s headlamps making their way up the mountain in the pre-dawn dark. Shit, does that mean the race is about to start? Shit, I’m still in the line for the bathroom, really needing to… you get the idea.

Luckily I make it back to the starting line while Quicksilver Running Club president, Greg Lanctot, is still wrapping up his pre-race talk. Thankfully Greg is a very prolific talker. Finally he concludes his pre-race remarks (something about mountain lions having recently stalked a local mountain biker). And with that happy news we are off and running up the mountain – into mountain lion territory – in pitch blackness. This makes me rethink my usual strategy of taking the early lead. Instead, I figure it’s probably wiser to hang safely back behind the leaders, at least until the sun comes up and the mountains lions go home to sleep.

I spend the first dozen or so miles running and chatting with a small group of runners including Bill Clements, Chris Eide, and Matt Ward. Although we are running just outside the top ten or so lead runners, by the time we hit the out and back section on top of Bald Mountain, I’m surprised to see how far we’ve already fallen behind the race leaders who have already opened up a mile or so lead! Texan, Paul Terranova, is out front with about a three minute lead over a chase group that includes  a number of other speedy runners. As we head back out of the turnaround I spot, and wave hello to, women’s race leader Krissy Moehl who isn’t far behind.

Early morning cloud cover keeping temps cool
photo by Nina Giraudo
Special Guests “Big Johnny” and the Mountain-Lion-Thing

John Burton is mild-mannered business software professional who enjoys hiking in the mountains, photographing wildflowers, writing poetry, and playing chess. Big Johnny, if you’ve never met him, is John’s alter ego who shows up, unannounced and uninvited, where he is least wanted or expected. Big Johnny is high strung and highly competitive and will often mistake even the most innocuous mundane remark or greeting as an affront to his manhood and a declaration of war. Experts advise that if you ever spot Big Johnny in the wild, you should avoid making eye contact and back away slowly while making yourself appear as small and non-threatening as possible.

Somewhere in the hills of Sierra Azul, Big Johnny decided that the pace was too slow and decided to take things into his own hands. Suddenly I found myself passing several other runners on the descent down to the Lexington Aid station. Luckily I was able to temporarily distract Big Johnny by claiming to have seen a ninja death squad hiding in the trees above. As he began scouring the tree line for ninja assassins I was able to subtly reduce the pace without him noticing.

As I pulled into the Lexington Reservoir aid station at the bottom of the descent, I was greeted by cheers and smiling faces of my family and teammates. My wife Amy scooped some ice into my hat and into the rear mesh pocket of my hydration pack, a trick that I had successfully used a few years back during the second-hottest year ever at Western States. My eight-year old son John Paul, sitting on a chair in the shade, nearly almost made an effort to quickly look up from his phone. LOL.

Dreading the long steep climb waiting for me around the corner I procrastinated a bit at the aid station, pretending to search for some imaginary – but certainly very important – item in my drop bag. But sensing that the aid station volunteers were on to me, I reluctantly zipped up my bag and dramatically sprinted out of the aid station. As soon as I was safely out of sight around the corner though I immediately began walking. My plan was to continue walking, for the next six miles, all the way to the Kennedy aid station back on top of the mountain.

Alas, just as I was settling into a nice relaxing pace, Big Johnny re-emerged from the woods, his hands and face covered in blood, having apparently successfully slain dozens of imaginary ninja assassins in the Manzanita bushes. Big Johnny ratcheted up the pace, and we caught and passed a couple of more runners including Mike Hirst and Dario Zea. Finally, off in the distance, we saw the prize we had been hunting all day – our arch-rival, Karl Schnaitter, two-time defending Vertical Beer Mile Inter-Galactic World Champion.

Normally a strong and fluid climber, something appeared off today with Karl. His normal tall, upright gait had been replaced with a strange, bent-over list. Perhaps he was drunk? Or maybe he’d been mortally wounded by ninjas? Or perhaps just a bad case of menstrual cramps [that was supposed to say “leg cramps” #StupidAutocorrect]. 

Just as I was catching up to him, about a third of the way into the section of rolling hills on top of Kennedy, some kind of wild animal ran across the trail right between us. It was much larger than a bobcat (and had a longer tail than a bobcat). But it seemed too small and svelte to be a mountain lion (and its color appeared too grayish to be a mountain lion). Whatever it was, I decided now would be an ideal time to pass Karl just in case whatever-it-was was hungry and looking for a snack.

"Taking my time, I'm just moving along..."
photo by I-Tao Tsai
The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner

I trotted off ahead, running the last of the rolling hills, leaving Karl behind to do his best impression of a wounded Gazelle in the African savannah. Upon reaching the Kennedy aid station for the second and final time, I politely demurred as the self-proclaimed “Sierra Azul’s Most Attractive Aid Station” volunteers attempted to ply me with alcohol. 

They also presented me with an award for “World’s Second-Sexiest Pair of Calves”. [First place apparently went to the aid station captain Loren Lewis, though I’m currently petitioning for a recount of the votes due to suspected bribery of the judges.] In any case, me and my second-rate calves trotted on alone for the next few hours without another runner in sight.

Looking at my watch, I had cranked out the first 50K in 5 hours and 13 minutes, just slightly over 10 minute per mile pace. Woo hoo! After descending the 5 mile stretch down off the mountain alone I rolled through the Hicks aid station where got to see a few familiar faces of Quicksilver Running Club volunteers Scott, Claire, Sean, and company. Then it was back to solitude and open dirt road as I continued dropping down Woods Road, Yellow Kid Trail, Mine Hill, and Deep Gulch. 

#pushps challenge
photo by Qi Song
Near the bottom of Deep Gulch I came across two people walking their dogs. One of the dogs lunged at me and attempted to take a chunk out of my leg, but I swiveled my hips like I was dancing for money. Lesser men wouldn’t have survived. I trotted away with G-string full of dollar bills.

As I emerged out of the woods into the Hacienda parking lot aid station I was happy to see my elite team of pacers ready to go.  Thomas Anderson had agreed to pace me for the three mile section from Hacienda to Mockingbird. Then Jeff Clowers, who paced me at both the Tahoe 200 and Rio del Lago 100, was going to attempt to pace me the last 20 or so miles. And just in case we needed to go to the bullpen for a relief pacer, Jeff had also lined up our friend Tim Thompson to step in if necessary.

At the aid station they informed me that I was now in 7
th place and that the next runner, teammate Jean Pommier, was about 20 minutes ahead of me. With only 23 miles left to run, there was realistically no way I could catch up to him (unless I ran every single mile a whole minute-per-mile faster than him – which probably wasn’t going to happen). 

And sensing that I had put a bit of time on Karl and the other runners behind me, I hoped I could take it somewhat easy for the rest of the race without risk of anyone catching me. Not feeling a great sense of urgency, I even took a minute to crank out 22 pushups for my friend and massage therapist Kirra who was volunteering at the Hacienda aid station.

My pacer Jeff pretending to let me drop him
photo by Tiffany Trevers
My Pacers Both Pretend to Let Me Drop Them J

Thomas and I jogged out of the aid station and made quick work of the next three miles. Occasionally I would pull a bit ahead of Thomas on the steep climbs thanks to my strong power hiking, but he was able to catch back up to me on the down hills. And so ended my hopes of being able to claim that I dropped my pacer. As we made our way up the final climb approaching the Mockingbird aid station at mile 43, Thomas fell back a bit to text Jeff that I was arriving and that I had requested ice for my hat and vest. Although I’m sure he could have kept up had me pushed the downhill harder, I certainly appreciated Thomas’s gesture of letting me drop him to boost my ego.

As we left Mockingbird and made our way up toward the Bull Run aid station on top of Mine Hill, I was expecting to start suffering. We were now over 7 hours into the race and the run had finally broken through the clouds and started to really heat things up. However, instead of starting to feel tired, for some reason I started feeling stronger! Suddenly, no longer hearing the footsteps of my pacer, I looked back to Jeff falling a bit behind. 

“Hey, stop messing around and get back up here,” I laughed, knowing that he was only goofing around and pretending to let me drop him in order to boost my morale. Even when he announced that he was going to skip the next little loop and meet me up ahead so that he could catch his breath, I rolled my eyes, still certain this was merely part of his act to boost my confidence.

Act or not, it was definitely working; I was moving well and feeling on top of the world. Until suddenly I wasn’t. Expecting it to be a warm day, I’d decided to try and ward off any potential stomach issues by avoiding solid food and relying solely on gels and soda. My go to fuel source for the day had been Mountain Dew. But those bastards up at the Bull Run aid station didn’t have any Mountain Dew and they instead tried to poison me – somewhat successfully – with a can of Sprite. 

I spent the next 6 miles burping up foamy sprite and desperately trying not to puke. This is where my prior beer mile training and race experience definitely came into play. Although I knew that I was getting behind on calories and should probably eat a gel or two, I just couldn’t risk putting anything else into my stomach until I got the Sprite wet burping situation under control. 

Eventually I finally decided that it didn’t really matter if I couldn’t take in calories anymore. At this point there was only about 8 miles left to go in the race. So I decided to switch over to ice water and make sure that I at least kept myself cool, figuring that over-heating would probably be more potentially devastating to my race than bonking a bit.

Enjoying a well-deserved post-race beer with Jeff
photo by Amy Burton
Running on Empty

Tiffany and David and the folks at Tina’s Den aid station tried to fire me up by telling me that I was now only a three minutes behind teammate Jean Pommier. But a few miles later as I approached the dam at the bottom Guadalupe Reservoir I could see the blue shirt of Jean Pommier making his way up Mine Hill. He was at least 5 minutes ahead. 

And more importantly, he was still running (while I had been looking forward to power-hiking that section). I knew that Jean would fight to the death to prevent letting anyone pass him in the last miles. And since I wasn’t particularly interested in contributing to the death of either of us, I decided to back off and try to save what was left of my legs for the Ohlone 50K coming up in just 8 days!

When I next saw Jean as he was coming back up from the out-and-back section down to the Enriquita, his lead over me had extended to nearly 15 minutes, and he was still running strong. Confident in my decision not to try to chase him, I was content to coast in as long as no one tried to overtake me from behind. 

The last report I’d received from my pacer Jeff was that Krissy Moehl had overtaken Karl, but that she was still safely 20 or more minutes behind me. Krissy is an amazing runner – having won numerous races including UTMB and Hardrock, including having briefly owned the course record at the latter. However, as fast as she is, with only a few miles left to go, as long as I kept cranking out 10 minute miles for the rest of the race, she would have to run sub 4 minute mile pace to catch me.

As my pacer Jeff and I crested the final hill of the course with just a half-mile of downhill left in front of us, Jeff jokingly yelled up, “this is what you trained for,” – a reference to the fact that I’d run this last section eight times in the previous two days as part of my last-minute “training” on the course. 

At the bottom of the descent I turned the corner and saw Amy and John Paul. I threw in one final sprint for good show, crossing the finish line in 10 hours, 29 minutes, and 2 seconds for 7th place overall. Not a bad training for run Ohlone 50K just 8 days away, And I was pleasantly surprised to see my split for the second 50K of the race was only 3 minutes slower than my split for the first 50K!

Here’s a link to the official race results. And here’s my Strava data. And here’s a link to teammate Jean Pommier’s race report.

Race elevation profile