Monday, December 17, 2012

The Marathon That Took an Entire Week to Finish!

I'm unfortunately not a particularly fast marathoner. And while I am convinced that I should be able to crack 3 hours, my current marathon PR is actually only just 3:09 or so. Nonetheless, I was shocked when it took me an entire week to finish my latest marathon! Here's the catch... I ran it on the installment plan.

On Saturday, December 8th, I ran the Summit Rock half marathon in Saratoga. The following Saturday, December 15th, I ran the Hoover Dam half marathon, outside Las Vegas. So, two half marathons... a week apart. Combine them, and I it took my an entire week to run one (relatively slow) marathon.


Summit Rock (Trail) Half Marathon

Beautiful Sanborn Skyline County Park
The Summit Rock trail half marathon, put on by Brazen Racing, takes place at one of my favorite trails in the San Francisco Bay Area -- Sanborn Skyline County Park. This place is a real hidden gem. The park is hidden away among the Redwoods at the foot of the Santa Cruz mountains, on a little traveled road just outside downtown Saratoga.

I have a season parking pass to the park, so I try to run there as often as possible to recoup my investment. However, to be honest, unless you go on a weekend you rarely need a pass as the park is usually completely empty during the week with nobody working the entrance booth. So I was pleasantly surprised two years ago when Brazen Racing announced that they would be holding an event at the park.

Trying to intimidate the competition with my physique

I ran the inaugural 1/2 marathon at Summit Rock in 2010 and finished in second place, with a time of 1:50:05, a few minutes ahead of the third place guy, but over ten minutes back of race winner Lon Freeman. I didn't run the race in 2011 due to a scheduling conflict, but looking at the results I noticed the first and second place runners from 2011, both of whom ran faster times than me, were also on the entrants list for this year. Considering that I was just getting back into shape and not yet in peak form, I knew it was going to be difficult to try and get up on the podium this year.

Trying to muster "good form" for the camera

I decided to go out conservatively, reasoning that if I restrained myself on the first four miles (which were all uphill), I would have more energy left to run the last four downhill miles hard -- and hopefully reel in as many front runners as possible. It was a great plan... but the execution fell a bit short. I did manage to pass several other runners during the last few miles but ultimately I ran out of real estate (and energy), finishing in 4th place just off the podium. My time of 1:50:49 was 46 seconds slower than my PR from two years prior, but not too shabby for a guy who has only been running an average of 15 miles a week.


Hoover Dam (Trail/Train Tunnel/Bike Path) Half Marathon

Hoover Dam
Having never seen the Hoover Dam before, I was excited when I learned that Calico Racing was going to be running a race from Lake Mead to the Hoover Dam and back the same weekend that I was going to be traveling to Las Vegas!

Looking at the course profile, I had no idea what kind of finishing time or average pace to expect. The course seemed to be comprised of a combination of grades and surfaces including a few miles of hilly paved bike path, several miles of wide dirt road that passed through six or seven mountain tunnels (that used be part of a railway line), with a few flights of winding concrete stairs and some parking lot loops thrown in for good measure.

As the race started, I went out with the front runners for the first uphill section. However two strong-looking runners soon went off the front. I glanced down at my watch to see what kind of pace we were doing. Seeing that we were already doing 6:30 pace (for a tough uphill section) I wisely decided not to pick up the pace any further and eased off a little, letting the two front runners go.


Running in the desert

Somewhere around mile 2 I got passed by one runner, and then another. If I wanted to try and finish on the podium with a top 3 spot, I figured I better try and hang with these two guys. And I did. At least for a few miles. However as we approached the mile long uphill climb to the turn-around point at the Hoover Dam, I decided to ease off and run a bit more conservatively. I wanted to make sure I saved something for the way back.

Tunnel vision!

I ran the return section pretty hard, assuming that I was probably gaining on the front runners. So I was quite surprised when another runner caught me from behind, moving fast. I tried to jump in behind him and stay with him, but cranking off a sub 6 minute mile I decided the pace was a little too rich for me.

Just as I was starting to bonk in the last mile I heard the furious horn honks of a passing car and looked over to see my brother Erik and his son Tony cheering me on. I gave everything I had trying to catch a runner about a hundred yards in front of me, but I came up short, finishing 7th overall. However, I did manage to squeeze in just under an hour and a half with a time of 1:29:44. Not bad for a course with over 2,000 feet of vertical gain!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Return of Running John


As I look back, 2012 was an amazing year for me in terms of my running. Working together with my new coach, Caitlin Smith, I basically achieved (and exceeded) every goal I had set for the year! Some of my highlights included:
  • 1st place at Ruth Anderson 50K (shaving nearly 13 minutes off my 50K PR)
  • 7th place at Ohlone 50K with my fastest time ever on that course
  • 3rd place at North Country 50 Mile (taking 20 minutes off my 50 mile PR)
  • 9th place at Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Mile with a sub 24 hour finish time
  • 1st place at a couple of small, local 10K races
Yet despite all my success, I felt I needed to take a little break this winter as the ultra racing season wrapped up in the fall. While I managed to finish the Bear 100 in October, it was quite a suffer fest and my heart really wasn't in it. Similarly, I pretty much felt the same about Dick Collin's Firetrails 50 mile a couple of weeks later. I ran respectably, but didn't really feel motivated or strong.

After talking with my coach Caitlin I decided to take some time off from structured running and racing, and let my body heal up. I must admit, I hit the beer, ice cream and pizza pretty hard. And I put on a few pounds. I didn't stop working out completely though. I was still running 10 - 20 miles a week. And I was biking 100 - 200 miles a week. But it felt nice, like being on vacation.

However, all that came to an end when Caitlin asked me if I would be willing to pace her for the last 25 miles of her 50 mile race at the The North Face Challenge championship in San Francisco. I was honored! But I was also scared shitless. Caitlin is FAST. She qualified for and ran in the US Olympic marathon trials in 2012. And she won almost every road race and trail race she entered, often setting the course record as well. If I was going to stay with her, much less provide any useful assistance, I needed to get back in shape -- quickly!

Luckily, all the bike riding had kept my cardio fitness in decent shape. I just needed to drop a few pounds and get some leg speed back. I modified my diet, added some track workouts, and did hundreds of push ups and pull ups every day. My life started looking a lot like a Rocky Balboa training montage.

I showed up at the race feeling nervous but hopefully. Caitlin had won this race in 2009 and she was hoping to repeat in 2012 after being away from the sport for the last two years while focusing more on the Olympic trials. I knew it was going to be tough as an elite field from around the world had been assembled in San Francisco this year, all hoping to take home the $10,000 prize for first place.

Pacing Caitlin at The North Face 50
photo courtesy Brett Rivers

I'm not going to write an actual race report since it wasn't my race. Caitlin had a tough day but hung in impressively for 4th place. I was incredibly proud of her for gutting it out. While she didn't win and ended up finishing just off the women's podium, she still ran an amazing race and finished ahead of many of the top names in an international field of elite ultra runners. You can read all about the race on Caitlin's blog here.

Silicon Valley Beer Mile Championship

Each year at Thanksgiving I like to sit down and give thanks for the blessings in my life. The Universe has bestowed many gifts upon me including great friends, a loving family, and a fulfilling career that lets me put food on the table.

I've also been blessed with a few rather peculiar physical talents including the the endurance to run stupid long distances, the leg strength to propel myself on a bicycle at super high speeds for super short distances, and the surprising ability to consume large quantities of alcohol in rather short periods of time. While the first two skills have come in useful for bike racing and ultra running, I never imagined the latter talent would prove useful outside of a college fraternity setting.

However, I firmly believe that God does not play dice with the universe. We are given our gifts for a reason. And when I saw a post in my Facebook feed about the upcoming Silicon Valley Beer Mile Championships on Nov 21, it suddenly became clear that this is why I was put on this Earth. Here was an event that combined my two greatest skills -- running fast and chugging alcohol. My destiny had found me!

In order to make sure I didn't embarrass myself on race day, I did a couple of practice test runs on the street outside my house. I got a few odd looks from my neighbors as I set up a table with four cans of beer on the curb and then proceeded to take my shirt off and chug beers and sprint up and down the block. But luckily no one called the cops. In return, I graciously made an effort not to puke on anyone's lawn.

On race night I showed up at the track with my four cans of beer, wondering how fast I could run and hoping to finish in the top 3. My goal was to run break 7:00 minutes, and hopefully to go under 6:45. This includes drinking time (four beers) and running time (four laps around the track). I'd run a 7:09 in one of the practice attempts outside my house at 80% effort. So I figured that on race day I should be able to run close to 6:30. I figured that this would give me a shot to win, depending on who else showed up, and would at least put me on the podium.

The race officials gave us our instructions and then sent us on our way. I popped open my first beer and slammed it down in seconds. As I tossed the empty can and started running down the straight-away I assumed I was first out of the blocks and in the lead. But I noticed a guy about 50 yards ahead of my on the track. Was this guy in the race? And how the hell did he get so far in front of me so quickly?

I slowly reeled him in during the each lap, but then he would regain his lead during every beer. Apparently he was slamming his beers much more quickly than I was. I had met my match. After finishing the race in 2nd place with a 6:39, I learned that the guy who won -- in a blazing time of 6:14 -- was 2010 former beer mile champion Chris Weiler.

I left feeling both ecstatic and disappointed (as well as a bit tipsy). I'd run a PR and thrown down an impressive time, but I'd come up a bit short. Perhaps, as my wife remarked, "if you're not puking afterward, you're not running hard enough". Did I run too conservatively? Should I have spent more time polishing my beer chugging technique? In the end, I was left with only questions. Questions that will haunt me for 365 days until next Thanksgiving.

Dick Collins Firetrails 50 Mile - Race Report

A mere two weeks after running the Bear 100, I found myself standing at the starting line of Dick Collins Firetrails 50 wondering what the hell I was doing.  Was it really wise to try and race 50 miles so shortly after having suffered through one of the hardest 100 milers I'd ever run? Would my legs, (which seemed fairly well recovered) hold up for the entire race, or would they fail me on the second half of the hilly course?

Conventional wisdom, as well as previous experience, both suggested that I should probably skip Firetrails and take a couple of more weeks of rest. But my ego had a different opinion. My ego suggested that conventional wisdom and prior experience were a bunch of pansies who should mind their own business. And so, on race morning, I stood shivering (shirtless), in the front of the pack, armed with only my ego and a handheld water bottle.

The starting gun sounded and I took off with the lead pack, running fast -- faster than I had any business running. As I tore along the trail with the front runners in "attack mode" I started having fantasies of a top 10 finish. However, somewhere around mile 4 those fantasies came crashing down. Suddenly my legs started complaining and I shifted from attack mode to survival mode. It was somewhere around this time that my Quicksilver teammates Toshi and Jeremy blew past me, as did women's front runner Jenny Capel. They would all go on to run great races!

Somewhere around mile 8 I decided to call it quits and drop out at the next aid station, Skyline Gate at mile 11. It just wasn't my day. My pace was slowing down and I was feeling like crap. A group of 5 to 10 runners flew by me like I was standing still. Yep, best to call it a day.

But then a funny thing happened at about mile 10 on the uphill section approaching Skyline Gate. I looked ahead and saw that I was gaining on the group of 5 to 10 runners that had passed me earlier. They were all walking the uphill, looking rather ragged. And I was somehow running it -- and rather effortlessly in fact. I was a bit annoyed. I wanted to DNF. But one of my golden rules is to never drop from a race if I am moving well and passing other runners. So unfortunately I had to continue on.

And so it continued for the rest of the race. Every time I came to an uphill where everyone else was walking, I somehow managed to run it. For some reason, the uphills felt easy and runnable. I didn't have any leg speed or turnover and would lose a bit of ground on the flats, but every time the course turned upwards I would regain the lost ground.

photo by Brett Rivers

As I approached the last aid station before the finish line I knew that I only had about 5 more miles to go, and much of it downhill. I had been running a bit conservatively and saving some energy for this last push home. Now was the time to unleash it! I glanced back to see if anyone was behind me and was surprised to see Quicksilver teammate Clare Abram, who had moved up into 2nd place in the women's race. I gave her a quick shout of encouragement and then hit the gas, hoping to reel in a runner or two in front of me.

In retrospect I probably stepped on the gas a bit too hard, and a bit too early. With about 1 mile to go I found myself out of energy and walking the last little uphill section of the paved bike path. I coasted into the finish in 20th place overall, running on fumes and just thankful to be done. My finishing time of 8:23:33 was about 5 minutes slower than my previous best at Firetrails. But all in all, it turned out much better than it could have!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Making Friends with the Bear

The Bear 100 - Logan, Utah to Fish Haven, ID
This isn't one of those blogs! I'm not going to spend thirteen paragraphs boasting about what a bad-ass I am or recounting how I had to dig deep to overcome insurmountable odds. Nope, that's not how it went down.

While finishing the Bear 100 was perhaps the hardest thing I've done, oddly there was no epic struggle. No fierce battle between man and elements. No fight to the death. Rather, it was just a matter of  punching the time clock and putting in a full day's work.

Yes, it was a brutal course with somewhere between 23,000 and 27,000 feet of elevation gain. Yes, it got warm during the day and cold during the night. Yes, I was ridiculously tired and actually fell asleep on my feet several times. Yes, it would have been easier if I'd had a crew and/or a pacer. Yes, I probably should have asked for coffee at the aid stations or packed some 5 Hour Energy. Yes it took me nearly 29 hours to complete!

But part of me didn't care. It had been a long racing season already. I'd trained hard and raced strong at Tahoe Rim Trail 100 in late July. I'd gone "all in" at the  North Country 50 Run in Michigan in August and nearly hospitalized myself. I just didn't have much left, physically or mentally, to go hard at the Bear.

So I gave myself permission to take it easy. Permission to jog instead of racing. Permission to walk whenever I felt like it. Permission to sit down on a rock and take in the views without worrying about how much time I was losing.

No crew. No pacer. No GPS. No headphones. No trekking poles. No performance enhancing drugs. No cell phone. No bullshit.

It was nice! Well, it was nice for the first 50 miles. And even later when it started to really suck, like in the middle of the night when I was stumbling along the trail barely able to stay awake, I always knew I would get the job done. Even when I started to have fantasies about how nice it would be to DNF and curl up in a sleeping bag, I knew I wasn't actually going to quit.

I was cold. I was tired. My feet were shredded. And I still had 25 miles to go. It sucked. And I knew there would be more suckiness to come. But I knew I could handle it.

A brutal yet beautiful course

Finally, at the last aid station with only 8 miles left to go, I decided to break all my rules. I downed an energy drink, popped a pain pill, and actually put in a bit of strong running. I hammered the last section of the course like I was running a 10K. Clearly I had a lot left in the gas tank.

When I crossed the finish line there were no tears of joy. I didn't let out a primal scream or high five anyone. I just sat down under a shady tree and quietly enjoyed a cold bottle of water. I had earned it!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

North Country Run, 50 Mile Race Recap


Sometimes 100% Isn't Enough: A Tale of How I Gave Everything but Came Up Short

I said, "No comment!"
I've run hard before, occasionally. Relatively hard anyway. Not, make-myself-piss-blood-afterwards hard. But hard enough. After all, this is ultra running. We can't suffer at the same intensity for a 50 miler as we can for a 5K. Well, perhaps we can. But really, who the hell would want to? That's a lot of suffering!

This past weekend I travelled to my home state of Michigan to take part in The North Country Run 50 Mile in the Manistee National Forest. I won't lie: I was hoping to win!

You never know who's going to show up at one of these things, or who's going to have the race of their life. But I figured that unless some Midwestern bad ass like David Riddle, Zach Gingerich, or Zach Bitters showed up, I should have just as much of a chance as anyone of bringing home the win.

Spoiler: I didn't win. I did however manage to claw my way (albeit briefly) up into second place with just two miles left in the race. But then I promptly fell back to third place in the last mile when both of calves decided to stage a work protest. Note: In case you haven't tried it before, running with fully-seized calves doesn't work well. It also makes one look rather ridiculous.

As I hobbled toward the finish line (in what felt like ultra slow motion) with my legs flailing in all directions, my left arm pinned to my chest (my left bicep and pectoral muscle had cramped as well), and my face contorted in a twisted grimace, I couldn't help but wonder if all the teary-eyed, overly-supportive spectators cheering their heads off were thinking, "Oh my goodness, look at that special-needs guy! If he can finish a 50 miler anyone can. How inspiring! Way to go little buddy!"

But I've gotten ahead of myself. Let's regress a bit...

Pre-Race Game Plan

John (right) and pacer Bill Pritchett (left)
My pacer looked me in the eye at dinner the night before the race and asked, "OK, what's the plan for tomorrow?" Plan? What? Huh? I'm supposed to have a plan? Oh shit!

My buddy Bill Pritchett had agreed to pace me for the second of the two 25 mile loops that I'd be running during the race. Bill and I met years ago at an SAP conference; we had both brought running shoes to the conference in hopes of slipping quietly out of a session or two to sneak in a run.

We've been "conference running buddies" ever since, logging runs together at SAP conferences around the world (by "world" I generally mean the greater Orlando Disney area of course).

Bill works for Dow Corning in Midland, Michigan. He's an accomplished marathoner (and triathlete) who has run the Boston Marathon several times. When I told him that I was coming back to Michigan to run a 50 mile race, he was excited about the chance to run the last 25 miles with me.

I casually mentioned that the course would be "a bit hilly", while conveniently neglecting to mention that there would be about 2,500 ft of elevation gain per 25 mile loop. Whereas Bill's hilliest road marathon, the Boston marathon, only had 783 ft of elevation gain. This would later prove to be rather important!

First 25 Miles: Wee, What Fun!


He's won Badwater (4 times) and climbed Mt. Everest
For reasons unclear to me at the time (and never later explained) our 50 mile trail race included an additional gratuitous "bonus mile" on an out-and-back section of parking lot and paved road. I can only assume that this was done in order to allow guest race official, ultra-stud Marshall Ulrich (driving an off-road ATV) to lead us on a ceremonial opening mile along the road.

Unsure of where we were going or why we were running down the road AWAY from the trail, I decided to hang back conservatively in the lead pack until we figured out what the hell we were doing. There was a lot of mumbling and confusion.

No one seemed overly concerned when a stocky young woman, who looked more like a Rugby player than a long distance runner, charged off the front and opened up a huge lead. I would later learn that it was 3:07 marathoner Megan Rieger -- and yes, she went on to win the women's race and finish 8th overall, just 15 or so minutes behind me.

Confusion at the starting line
After we hit the trail and started the first long climb, I made an on the fly decision to back off the pace and let the lead pack of 8 or 9 runners go. I felt everyone was moving at much too fast a pace to maintain for 50 miles. My plan (loosely formed and rather impromptu) was to run the first loop at a comfortable pace, while ideally staying near the top 10, and then to reel in as many people as possible on the second loop once I had picked up my pacer Bill.

At the half-way point of the first lap I came across Jesse Scott, who I had run with at both my Tahoe Rim Trail 100 and the North Fork 50 in Colorado. Small world! Jesse was running the marathon race, and then pacing a friend and client of his for the last 14 miles of the 50 miler. All this after having just run Leadville 100 a couple of weeks prior. Dude is crazy!

I kept moving along at a decent pace, slowly moving up in the field and catching a couple of runners on the second half of the first loop. The last few miles were rather hilly and I was able to run all the hills without too much effort. Note: this would not be the case later during the second loop!

Second 25 Miles: Ugh, Help!

As I finished the first loop and came into the start/finish area I was happy to see my pacer Bill waiting and ready to go (and not stuck in the port-o-potty line or otherwise occupied). Bill, with his fresh legs, set a good pace on the first long climb. In fact he set too good a pace. So good that I watched with admiration as he effortless ascended the hills, getting smaller and smaller in the distance as I slipped behind.

I yelled up at Bill to hold on for a minute, fabricating some story about need to stop and pee. Actually I did pee. I didn't know it at the time, but it would be the only time I would pee during the nearly eight hour race. It would also be the last time I would pee normal looking clear fluid that didn't look like used engine oil or coca-cola mixed with blood. I guess it's called Rhabdomyolysis. Whatever.

Eventually Bill's adrenaline wore off and he slowed down a bit. We were still moving at a nice clip though. Suddenly we came up on the back of a group of three shirtless runners. I had prepped Bill the day before on my strategy for passing other competitors during the race. I like to pass decisively with such force and acceleration that people don't even think about trying to go with you.

I flew by the group of runners at what felt like 5K pace. I heard a bunch of groans and expletives. More importantly, I didn't hear any footsteps. Just the way I like it. But to be sure, I stayed on top of the pace for another half mile or so, just to make sure that I opened up a big enough gap to keep me out of sight.

Bill and I continued running steady and moving up in the filed. We caught a couple of more runners. Things were looking good! And then things hit the fan. I'm not sure how exactly it happened, but at some point Bill and I found ourselves with empty water bottles miles out from the next aid station. Bill offered me his last sip of Gatorade. I felt like Chevy Chase in that desert scene in The Three Amigos.

The dehydration, combined with the 90 degree heat and the hills, took away our will to run. We started walking the hills. Eventually we made it to the next aid station. I drank what seemed like a good 5 or 6 liters or water and sports drink before moving on. Oddly though, I still felt thirty. But I rationed my water and kept moving forward -- walking the hills and running the flats and downhills.

The Finish


World's largest finisher's medal?
I assumed that I was moving pretty slowly and probably slipping back in the field. So I was quite surprised when I caught two more runners. Then people at the aid stations started telling me that I was in third place and that the lead runner was just ahead. My pacer Bill had stopped to use the bathroom and had lingered at the last aid station to eat some watermelon. So I made the decision to push on alone and try and catch the runner in second place.

Finally I saw him. He appeared to be in almost as bad shape as me. We were both walking an uphill. I dropped the hammer and shifted into a higher gear, cranking the speed up to 3.5 mph. I blew by him, hobbling up the hill like... an 80 year old man with a broken hip trying to navigate an icy sidewalk. It wasn't pretty.

However, my glory was short lived. Eventually the uphill ended and we had a mile of downhill and flat. I simply couldn't run. Both calves knotted up. Then, just for good measure, my left bicep cramped up. And so did my left pectoral muscle. WTF!

John representing California
I limped the last mile in agony, cursing and laughing intermittently. Finally the finish line came in sight and I launched my finishing "sprint". The last 100 meters probably took me over a minute. I don't know. And I don't really care.

On the one hand, I was disappointed that I didn't win. This was a race that I had been looking forward to all year, and one that I had invested a lot of time, money, and emotional energy into. On the other hand, 3rd place isn't too shabby I guess.

And apparently I ran a 50 mile PR. My finishing time of 7:54:43 is about 24 minutes faster than my previous best of 8:18:16 at Dick Collins Firetrails 50 in Oct, 2010.

Click here for Strava data.


Note: Special thanks to my pacer Bill Pritchett to getting me to the race (it's a long story) and doing a great job pacing me the second lap!


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

2012 Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) Race Report

Short version: Fuck Yeah!!! After two previous DNFs at the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Mile Endurance Run, the third time was the charm. This year I made it to the finish line (with help from my coach Caitlin Smith and my pacer Jeremy Johnson) and brought home a Sub 24 hour belt buckle with my Top 10 finish!

"A glimpse of heaven, a taste of hell"

Long Version: 100 miles is never easy! Of the four 100 mile races I had previously attempted in the past, I had only successfully ever finished one (Black Hills 100, 2011), while DNF'ing at my first three 100 miler attempts including Umstead (way back in 2005), and two recent fails at Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) in 2009 and 2011. Yet here I was taking another crack at TRT, hoping that the third time would be the charm. The good news, I suppose, was that I was on a finishing "streak" having finished 1 out of 1 of my last 100 mile attempts!

Dragging myself to the finish line at Black Hills 100 last year in South Dakota was perhaps the most difficult thing I have ever done, and one of the things in my life that I am most proud of. I flew out to the race with no crew or no pacer. Just me (and the voices in my head). Even when a vicious hail and lightening storm caught us on top of the mountain and caused 70 or the 100 starters to drop out, I refused to quit. Even when my Garmin GPS showed 107.5 miles and the finish line still wasn't quite in sight, I hobbled on.

So while I know that I am capable of enduring extreme suffering when necessary, to be quite honest, I was hoping to try a different strategy this year at TRT. Rather than coming in under-trained, under-recovered, and under-prepared, I thought I would do things a bit differently. Like actually train! Like hire a coach, and not just any coach, but a bad-ass ultra-stud coach like Caitlin Smith. Like taper for 3 weeks beforehand instead of coming in with trashed legs. Like bring a jacket. And sunscreen. And an extra water bottle. Etc.

The first 50 miles (i.e., the easy part)

Unlike previous years, I actually got a good full-night's sleep before the race this year. I was in bed by 8:00 pm and asleep by 9:00 pm. So when my alarm went off at 3:00 am, I actually felt fairly well rested. I coffee'd up, calorie-loaded with a banana nut muffin, and lathered myself up with various lotions, potions, powders, and sunblocks.

Standing at the starting line, I felt good. Nervous as fuck, but good nonetheless. My coach Caitlin had written up a plan of attack for the race that had me going out at a fairly aggressive pace with a target of running the first 50K in about 5 hours and thirty minutes, and the first 50 miles in around 10 hours. This would be significantly faster than last year when I jogged into the 50 mile mark just over 11 hours.

At the start, next to eventual race winner, Matt Hart

One big advantage I had in my favor this year (besides having a coach) was that my wife and I purchased a hypoxic altitude tent that allowed us to sleep (and work from home) at a simulated 11,000 ft elevation for several months leading up to the race. It made a HUGE difference. Unlike previous years when I immediately found myself sucking wind and in oxygen debt as soon as the race started, this year I effortless hung with the race leaders during the first long climb.

Working from home in the elevation tent

At one point I even found myself running in second place, just ahead of race favorite Victor Ballesteros (who would unfortunately later drop at mile 50). While I felt fine, I figured I better back off the pace a bit since it was going to be a LONG race. As soon as we got off the single track and onto the fire road, I dropped back to about 10th place and let the lead runners go. It would prove to be a wise move.

I settled into a groove and started clicking off the miles. Everything was feeling great. It was a nice cool morning, perfect running weather (note: it would later get much hotter and much less perfect). I was treated to an amazing sunrise and  some breathtaking views of Marlette Lake. So far, so good!

Sunrise over Marlette Lake

Somewhere around mile twelve I was surprised to hear a woman's voice call out "on your left". WTF? I just got chick'd. It was Argentinian studette, Sofia Cantilo (who would later crack and finish 5 hours behind me). Seconds later another female voice. This time the familiar face and voice of Quicksilver Running Club teammate Bree Lambert. I gave her the thumbs up and a gentle reminder her that it's a 100 mile race, not a 12 mile race (Bree would unfortunately later DNF due to medical issues).

Argentinian runner, Sofia Cantilo, running strong early

Teammate Bree Lambert keeping Sofia in sight

Two dudes from Michigan, John Burton and Jesse Scott

At one point I looked behind me and wondered to myself, who is that weirdo running in a cotton "where's waldo" tee shirt and American flag shorts? I would later learn it was fellow Michigander, Jesse Scott (aka "Captain America"). He and I ran together through the first Red House loop. And apparently, even though I never saw him behind me afterward, he and I both came into the first Diamond Peak aid station at the same time. However, that's where his struggles began. He would eventually finish much later after a long, tough day. You can read all about it on his blog, In Search of Solid Ground.

Climbing out of Red House loop with Jesse Scott

The section from Tunnel Creek to Diamond Peak is my least favorite part of the course. It's a rather desolate section where you rarely see another living soul. I always tend to struggle on this section of trail. This year I got so bored on this section that I was almost hoping another runner would catch up to me so that I would have someone to talk to. At one point I even found myself musing that it would be neat to run into a bear, or a mountain lion, or a rattle snake. Or anything for that matter. But no, it was just me and a bunch of dumb rocks on the trail.

Finally I saw the sign for the turn onto the Flume Trail. Although this trail would be a lot of fun on a mountain bike (with its banked turns, ramps, jumps, and other obstacles) it kinda sucks to run. But whatever. I hunkered down and got er done. I got a bit dehydrated (I probably should have carried two water bottles for this 8.5 mile section) but luckily I was able to refill my bottle in a nearby creek.

After a brief stop in the bushes to take care of some personal business, I started to feel a little better. And then I got a huge mental lift at mile 30 as I exited the wilderness and approached the Diamond Peak ski resort where Amy and John Paul were waiting to cheer me on! I came in at 5 hours and 15 minutes, just as planned. A quick change of socks and I was off, ready to "attack" the 2 mile black diamond ski slope.

John Paul learning about the importance of dry socks



Diamond Peak, steep 40% grade in sand kinda sucks!

The climb up Diamond Peak is definitely the hardest part of the course. The first mile is fairly easy, but the last kilometer is ridiculously steep (over 40% in some sections). And to make it worse, the loose sand makes it nearly impossible to get good footing so you slide backward occasionally. Two steps forward, one step backward.
After reaching the summit of Diamond Peak the rest of the course seemed quite runnable in comparison. I put my head down and plowed forward trying to ignore the fact that the sun was getting stronger and the temperatures were getting higher! While I was still making good time, I could already feel my body starting to weaken in the heat.

And then the hallucinations set in. Although I knew I must be imagining it, I was certain that I saw both an angel and a devil at the aid stations. It must have been the heat frying my brain!

Devil wears The North Face

A taste of heaven? A glimpse of hell?

After some steady running/hiking I reached the top of Snow Valley Peak, the highest point on the course at just under 9,000 ft. This is where I had been hit with elevation sickness back in 2009. However this year I felt fine (thank you altitude tent!). My legs were feeling a bit sore and stiff, so I popped a blue pill and hammered the seven miles of downhill running back to the start/finish area. I arrived in almost 10 hours exactly, just as planned!

The second loop (aka my pacer Jeremy Johnson saves the day)

Hammering that seven miles of downhill felt great at the time, but I probably should have run it a bit more conservatively. I had promised my pacer Jeremy that I would run the first loop conservatively and leave him "something to work with". But as I came into the start/finish area and saw him eagerly standing ready to go with fresh legs and a clean shirt, I immediately thought, "Oh shit, what did I get myself into".

I told Jeremy that I was going to need 5 or 10 minutes to change my socks and shoes and to re-tape my feet. While completely true, I was secretly also hoping it would buy me some time to catch my breath.

The second loop involved lots of walking with short bouts of running sprinkled in, inordinate amounts of whining and complaining, and numerous pleas to let me sit down and take a nap. Thankfully Jeremy was having none of it. He was a model of patience and encouragement. He ignored all my whining and complaining and told me I was doing great. He basically treated me like a small child, which was exactly what I needed at this point. Jeremy has four young kids at home, so he is quite skilled at dealing with children (as well as adult ultra runners who behave like children).

John and pacer (safety runner) Jeremy Johnson "running all that shit"

I'll spare everyone all the details, but basically the second loop was the same as the first except much slower and much more painful. In addition, as the temperature climbed into the mid 80's my stomach became less and less happy. I guess it's called nausea. I wasn't able to eat any solid food, or even think about solid food without gagging. Choking down energy gels even became difficult.

I discovered that if I held my breath and gulped them down with a mouthful of water I could usually get gels to go down the hatch. There was however the occasional "rejection". In particular, my stomach did not seem to appreciate the Vanilla flavored ones. Sorry to any runners who stepped in any sticky Vanilla flavored "puddles" on the trail!

I was hoping that my stomach would return as the day wound down and the temperatures fell back down. But unfortunately, my stomach never really got better, even when night fell. At one point I was able to eat a small piece of quesadilla that my teammate Noé Castañón handed me at an aid station. But aside from that and one or two small pieces of banana, I basically ran the whole race on energy gels and soda!

Jeremy kept prodding me on, refusing to let me lie down on the trail and take a nap. It felt like we were barely moving, but on the other hand no one had passed us. And then it happened. With about 15 miles to go another runner (Dalius Kumpa) and his pacer caught up to us. We let them go, but kept them in sight. At one point we passed them, and then at another point they passed us back. And then we passed them again.

With 6 miles to go, I heard voices and looked back. It was Darius and his pacer again. My legs were feeling dead, I was exhausted, and I was having trouble catching my breath. Jeremy and I stepped off to the side of the trail to let them pass and to have a quick energy gel. At this point I knew I had slipped from 8th place to 9th, but I was content to just jog it in for a sub 24 hour, top 10 finish.

The last 6 miles were mostly downhill or flat, with a couple of small rolling hills. However, I just couldn't bring myself to run more than a minute or so at a time. I tried everything. "John, just run to the next tree." "John, just run to the next rock". It was a suffer fest. My pacer Jeremy was very understanding. He kept me moving and even got me running again for a while by claiming he heard voices behind us. I think he was full of shit, but hey, it was exactly what I needed at the time.

As we approached the finish line with just a mile or two to go, I could see the headlights of Dalius and his pacer ahead of us. It looked like they only had a minute or two lead. Yet the will to fight had gone out of me. I didn't have the heart to switch into "predator" mode and try to reel them in. Plus, it would have been kinda "douchey" to try and run someone down in the last few hundred meters of a 100 mile race. Plus, I was tired as hell. So we just coasted in, content with 9th place and an epic sub 24 hour adventure through the mountains!

Looking like crap, but feeling on top of the world!



Finally able to sit down after 23 hours and 19 minutes on my feet!

Thanks again to my wonderful coach Caitlin Smith for getting me ready for this race, and to the world's greatest pacer Jeremy Johnson for keeping me moving and helping me achieve my two goals of a sub 24 hour finish and a top 10 placing! Thanks guys!

See you next year TRT!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

North Fork 50K (Pine, Colorado) Race Report

"Dude, in case you haven't heard, Colorado is on fire!" At least a half dozen well-meaning passengers must have uttered this to me last weekend as I sat in the airport holding my plane ticket to Denver. I was starting to second guess my decision, or at least my timing, to run the North Fork 50K Trail Race in Pine, Colorado.

As it turns out, everything was fine. I flew into Denver and drove 40 miles South/West into the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains without incident. No smoke. No fires. Just miles of beautiful windy mountain roads and fresh mountain air.

The North Fork 50M/50K Trail Race is organized by Janice O'Grady, who with her husband Tom O'Connell, was previously the race director of the Quicksilver 50 in San Jose, California before they moved to Pine, Colorado. After a few years of running the gorgeous trails of the Buffalo Creek Recreation Area, Janice realized it would be a shame not to share this hidden gem with the rest of the ultra-running community. So she started a race!

This year would be the third running of the North Fork 50M/50K. I had originally signed up for the 50 Miler, thinking it would be ideal preparation for TRT (Tahoe Rim Trail) 100 since it has a similar elevation and terrain. However, my coach Caitlin Smith told me I was an idiot (she phrased it much nicer of course) and demanded that I downgrade to the 50K. Apparently, it's not a good idea to race 50 miles just three weeks before a hundred miler. She starting saying something about a long "taper" but my mind drifted.


Based on the elevation profile, and the fact the course record for the 50k was only 4:41:39, I expected a tough hilly course with lots of steep climbs and bouts of hiking. However, much to my surprise the course as actually completely runnable. The climbs were all gradual enough that you could run them without needing to stop and hike. Unfortunately for me, I did need to stop -- at least a half dozen times -- though not because of the hills. Rather it was my unsettled stomach that caused me spend about 10 minutes in the bushes and port-o-potties during the race.

My coach Caitlin had instructed me too take the first 20 miles easy, and then, if I was feeling good, to pick up the pace and run the last 11 miles hard. Normally I have a hard time forcing myself to take it easy early on. But with my stomach problems, I had no choice. Amazingly, somewhere around mile 17 my stomach started to calm down and I was able to pick up the pace. I closed hard and passed as many runners as I could, but I ran out of time (and energy) and had to settle for 4th place overall (and second in my age group) with a time of 4:56:41.

The race was won by experienced mountain-runner John Anderson (who has previously finished 12th at Hardrock and 14th at Leadville); his amazing time of 4:21:51 lowered the old course record my 20 minutes! Second place, in a time of 4:53:37, went to 25 year old Lauren Tomory, a marathon specialist running in her first ultra! And 51 year old Corky Dean claimed 3rd in 4:54:55, giving many of the youngsters a clinic on trail running.

Beers with Evan Kimber
Overall I was extremely happy with the event, and with my performance. Stomach problems do happen (though I wish I knew how to magically prevent them) so it was good to see that I could keep moving at a decent pace and eventually get things to settle down.

Also, with temperatures somewhere in the high 80's, I was pleased to see that neither the high temps (nor the high elevation) really slowed me down much. That's good news for my upcoming race at Lake Tahoe in 3 weeks!

 If anyone ever gets the chance, I would highly recommend North Fork to anyone from the Bay Area looking for a weekend getaway in the Colorado mountains. The course is beautiful. The volunteers are amazing. And the post-race BBQ and beer are both damn good!




Here's the Garmin stats:

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Ohlone Wilderness 50K

Photo courtesy of Tanford Tahoe
"I'll never run this damn race again!" That's more or less what I said back in 2005 after finishing the Ohlone 50K for the first time. That's also what I said after finishing the race in 2007, 2009, and 2011. It's a brutal course – rugged and exposed with around 8,000 feet of elevation gain. On a hot, sunny day there's little shade and no place to hide. And then there's the rattle snakes!

Yet somehow I keep returning to this race. There's just something about this incredibly punishing yet exceptionally beautiful course – which runs point-to-point through the Ohlone Wilderness from Fremont to Livermore – that calls out to me. Perhaps as an American Indian myself, I'm drawn to this area where the native Ohlone people once lived. Or maybe it's just because the race date falls on, or near, my birthday every year. In any case, this is one of my favorite races each year!

This year however I wasn't sure whether I would be able to run Ohlone. I'd been injured, unable to even walk without pain for the past three weeks (much less run), due to a sciatic nerve issue in my piriformis (glute) muscle. I'd been forced to sit on the sidelines as my friends and teammates ran the Miwok 100K on May 5th, a race that I had been looking forward to running. And now, here I was about to miss Ohlone – one of the two or three "A" races on my calendar this year.

Luckily, the running gods took mercy on me and restored my leg to working order just in time for the race. I had started feeling better a few days before the race. I did a 1 mile test run on the treadmill, which went fine. Then after taking a day off, just to be safe, I did an easy 4 mile run on a flat dirt path next to a bike path near my house. That also went OK. So, with only one day to go before the race, I went out on my birthday and hammered 8 miles in the hills at race pace to test things out. And everything felt great!

Normally I wouldn't do such a hard workout the day before a race. But on the other hand, one of my teammates (Toshi Hosaka) had just raced 50 miles the day before. So I figured what the hell! While I wasn't 100% confident that my leg was going to hold up for the whole race, I was willing to give it a shot.

Quicksilver Racing Team
After posing for a few team photos and making numerous visits to the restrooms, I was ready to rock. The race starts out with a very aggressive 2 mile climb that immediately tests your legs and your lungs. I figured that at the top of the climb I would know, one way or the other, whether my leg was going to be up to the task. My plan was to run the first hill somewhat conservatively, but to push hard enough to stay within the top 10 runners.Thankfully my leg felt great and never bothered me at all.

The rest of the race is kind of blur. I just kept moving at a nice steady pace, trying to stay ahead of the train of runners behind me. Aid station volunteers and hikers would occasionally give me updates. "You're in 8th place and there's another guy just 3 minutes ahead". I was thrilled to know that I was running strong, yet I could feel some cramps sneaking up on me in my left calf and left quad. And then around mile 22 the cramps attacked with full force and I had to stop and sit down on the side of the trail to massage my legs.

From that point on, the cramps would come and go. I tried to drink as much water as possible. And I swallowed salt pills by the handful. I even broke my own general rule of not taking ibuprofen during a race and popped a couple pills at mile 27. At this point I was "all in". I was willing to risk a little kidney renal failure to secure my top 10 finisher position.

During the last 5 miles I managed to catch up to Gary Wang (who had passed me around mile 22 when I was cramping), only to later fall back behind him again during another bout of cramping. He and I worked together to hike up a steep climb out of the canyon that some people affectionately call "Satan's Pit" due to the extremely warm temperature.

Photo courtesy of Noé Castañón
After letting Gary go ahead, I eased off the pace a little to ensure that I would be able to finish and not get stuck 2 or 3 miles from the finish line with bad cramps. While I would have liked to have been able to push harder and contend for a top 5 spot, I was more than happy with my 7th place finish!

And, as an added bonus I again this year experienced "big wood", finishing 2nd place in my age group and receiving the coveted 4x4 inch wooden trail post award (as opposed to the "small wood" 1x4 inch award given to all finishers). Also, I managed to take 2 minutes off my PR for this course, finishing in 5:28:44.

While I had an amazing race, I was reminded of the dangers of ultra trail running when a teammate and friend of mine collapsed half a mile from the finish line with heat exhaustion and had to be airlifted out to the hospital via helicopter. Our thoughts are with him and his family as he recovers!

Monday, April 23, 2012

2012 Ruth Anderson 50K

Finishing Strong! Photo Courtesy of Joe Swenson
This Saturday I had the pleasure of running in the Ruth Anderson 50K in San Francisco. This is a race I am quite familiar with -- having run it myself a number of times, and having also served  a short stint as co-race director (together with my wife Amy) before the current RD, Rajeev Patel, stepped up and graciously took over.

My previous best time at Ruth Anderson 50K, which was coincidentally also my 50K PR, was a sub 4 hour effort (3:59:37) that I ran in 2009 together with Quicksilver teammate Andy Benkert.

This year I wasn't sure what to expect. My training and fitness were both better than in 2009, but unfortunately I was just coming off of three weeks of inactivity due to a bad bout with type A influenza and a secondary sinus infection. My coach Caitlin Smith had given my the OK to run, but with the caveat that I should take it easy for the first 25 miles and then hammer the last 10K.

As we lined up for the start of the race I was feeling somewhat lackluster and apprehensive. My coach had given me a pep talk recently, reminding me that much of running is mental and ensuring me that I probably hadn't lost much fitness during my illness; and that if anything the time off was probably good for my body. I wanted to believe her, of course! Though I was still a little worried. I guess it must have showed on my face because fellow runner Charles Blakeney turned around and said, "John, wake up!".

The gun went off! And while my mind was still hemming and hawing, trying to figure out what it wanted to do, my legs showed no hesitation, quickly pulling me up to the front of the pack with the race leaders Jean Pommier, Victor Ballesteros, and Toshi Hosaka.

Toshi and John Working Together. Photo courtesy of Joe Swenson
Ruth Anderson is actually a unique race in that there are three separate races (50K, 50M, and 100K) all being run simultaneously with the option for a runner to choose which distance they want to run and any point in the race. When a runner reaches the 50K finish, the runner can either stop at 50k or decide to continue on to 50M; after crossing the 50M finish line the runner can similarly stop at 50M, or decide to proceed on to 100K.

I knew from talking to the runners before the race that Victor and Toshi were aiming to run the 100K and Jean was targeting the 50M. So while I found myself trading back and forth with Toshi for third place in the early miles, in the back of my head I realized that I was potentially in 1st place for the 50K (assuming that Jean and Victor, who were ahead of me, would continue on past the 50K finish).

To be honest, I was a bit intimidated to be running so far up in the front of the pack. And it didn't help when I looked down at my watch I saw that I was cranking off 7:15 miles (while I had averaged 7:45 pace in my 3:59:37 PR in 2009). On the otherhand, I was feeling great. If anything I felt that I was perhaps holding back too much. So I made a snap decision to turn off the pace/mileage/time function on my watch and only look at my current and average heart rate. My new goal was to keep my heart rate under 150, which is a pace I can comfortably hold during long training runs.

The miles quickly clicked by and found myself running past the 26.2 mile mark in 3:09 (3 minutes faster than my marathon PR of 3:12). Here I was jogging a new marathon PR! I remembered my coach's orders about trying to hammer the last 10K if I was feeling good, so I picked up the pace a bit. But due to the heat (it was warming up each hour as the day progressed) I was feeling the slightest twinges of cramping in my legs. So I decided not to drop the hammer completely and to just maintain a nice tempo pace for the last few miles.

Finish Line Celebration! Photo courtesy of Joe Swenson
I crossed the finish line with a winning time of 3:47:06, shattering my old 50K PR of 3:59:37 by over 12 and a half minutes! What a great day!


Here's a link to the Garmin stats:

A Tale of Two 10K's

It's been over a month and half since my last "Running John" blog update. And quite a lot has happened since then! I wish I could honestly say that I've just been way to busy to post anything, but I think it has more to do with the fact that I'm getting old and absent minded and completely forgot that I have a blog.

Anyway, here's an interesting tale of two 10K's, both of which I happened to win! Full disclosure: they were both small, low-key local races without highly competitive fields. Nonetheless, a win is a win. And one of them I ran with the flu (which by the way, in case you were wondering, is probably a really bad idea).

Base Camp 10K, Mar 18th (Orlando, Florida)

I generally travel to Orlando at least two (and sometimes three) times a year for work conferences. I always bring my running shoes with me and sneak in a few workouts between presentations with other hardcore running nuts like my buddy Bill Pritchett from Dow Corning. This year, since I had to arrive on the weekend in order to present at a "jumpstart" session on Sunday afternoon, I thought I would check Active.com to see if there were any 10K or 1/2 marathon races going on that weekend.

As luck would have it, there was a nice little local 5K/10K race being held not too far away. The 10K course was basically two laps around on a paved bike path around a scenic little lake (Lake Baldwin).

I made sure to get to the starting line extra early so that I could familiarize myself with the course and get a little warm up in before the race. Imagine my surprise when, being one of the first people to arrive, I found the port-o-potties already overflowing and the street covered with empty plastic cups? Was I late? Had the race already been run? No, as it turns out, St. Patrick's day was the night before and the race start line was located directly next to an Irish Pub. LOL.

As I stood on the starting line sizing up the competition, I only saw one serious-looking competitor who seemed like he might be able to give me a run for my money. He was a young, local triathlete named Jaelin Funk from nearby Celebration, Florida. As soon as the gun went out, he charged out into the lead at sub 6:00 pace. I had to quickly decide whether to let him go, or whether to try and stay with him. Instictively I sprinted up to and tucked in behind his shoulder.

Thankfully he slowed down a bit after the first few hundred yards and we hit the first mile in a comfortable 6:03 pace, followed by 6:09 for the second mile. I noticed that Jaelin was starting to let off the gas (and was breathing considerably harder than me) so I decided to attack. I put in a slight surge and immediately got some separation. From that point on, I ran comfortably in the lead by myself with only the lead bicyle as company. After running 6:07 for the third mile, I shut things down a bit and jogged a 6:16 and a 6:18 for miles four and five, before finally picking it up a bit with a 6:07 last mile.

My winning time of 37:57 (6:07 average page) was a new PR and the first time I had ever run under 39 minutes! Needless to say, I was stoked!


Asha 10K, Mar 25th (Sunnyvale, California)

Just one week after my 10K win and PR in Florida, still high on victory, I decided to race another 10K. This was a race where I finished 2nd overall the prior year, so I figured that with my new found fitness level, I should have a reasonable shot to win, or at least to make the podium.

Unfortunately, the Burton household had just come down with the flu the day before the race. I toe'd the starting line with a bit of body ache and a slight fever thinking that while I wasn't going to be running a PR, I should at least be able to tough out 6 miles and hopefully fight for the win.

Asha is a pretty small low-key event where both the 5K and 10K runners start at the same time and run the first 1.55 miles together (before the 5K runners turn aound). So it can make it a bit confusing at the start of the race as you are never sure who is running which distance. And the start is always a bit of a madhouse as they have quite a few young kids running the 5K who invaribly go out hard at 6:00 pace for the first 200 meters (then abruptly slow to 10:00 pace for the rest of the race).

The first half mile (and last half mile) of the race was on a muddy single track.So to avoid the clutter and confusion I decided to go out hard and take the lead. That way, if anyone passed me, I could try to at least ask them if they were doing the 5K or the 10K.

After holding the lead through the muddly first half mile, I eased up a bit when we hit the paved road and let two runners pass me. One was a rather serious (and fast) gentleman who was thankfully only running the 5K. The other runner as a highschool kid wearing soccer shorts who looked like he was probably going to blow up and slow down by the end of the first mile.

Predictably, the soccer-runner abruptly slowed down and was never seen or heard from again. I jumped in behind the 5K guy and drafted as he did the work and pulled us to the 5K turnaround. After that I was on my own for the rest of the race, trying to keep the lead pace bicycle in sight. I ended up finishing with a winning time of 38:27, which was 30 seconds slower than my PR the previous weekend (though not bad considering that I would spend the next 3 hours laying on the couch at home wrapped up in a blanket with a fever).

Sunday, March 11, 2012

What Happens in Vegas...

Two words. "Vegas, baby!"

I got totally hammered this weekend in Las Vegas. But before you get the wrong idea, I'm not talking about binge drinking, pill popping, or staying up all night with Elvis impersonators. No, I am referring to the Red Rock Canyon 1/2 marathon race that I ran this Saturday just outside of Las Vegas in Red Rock National Park.

The course was brutal, at least as far as road races go. The course had about 1,500 ft of elevation gain, including some nasty climbs in the first few miles. The race started out at 3,700 and gradually climbed to over 4,770 by mile 5.

I hadn't planned on running hard. I assumed that it was just going to be a casual local event with a small field -- perfect for a comfortable Saturday morning tempo run. Imagine my surprise when a pack of about 10 runners took off from the gun at sub 6:00 pace.

I let the lead pack go, hoping I would be able to reel some of them in later after the hills and elevation took their toll. And things did take their toll -- on me. Somewhere around mile 5 as I struggled up a nasty hill at 9:00 per mile pace, I started seriously thinking about walking.

Thankfully everyone else seemed to be suffering as well. Finally we reached the turnaround point and finally got some nice downhill running. Somewhere just after mile 10 my mother drove by in her car and waved, giving me just enough of a mental boost to pass the lead woman and her male pacer who I had been slowly reeling in. Luckily my two brothers, Marcus and Erik, were stuck on a slow-moving scenic bus tour and never got a chance to witness just how badly I was suffering.

I ended up finishing 10th overall, and second in my age group. Here are the official results. The times listed on the website appear to be a couple of minutes faster than what I recorded on my Garmin. I think I actually ran 1:35:47, which is about 7:15 pace. Not as fast as I would have liked, but hopefully I can run faster next month at the much flatter Santa Cruz 1/2 marathon -- which will thankfully be at sea level rather than the high desert.

Anyway, here are the Garmin stats:

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Wow, I Finally Ran a Decent Race Without (Completely) Falling Apart

"Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength." -- Arnold Schwarzenegger

Well, when I was studying English literature at the University of Michigan I would have never guessed that I would one day be quoting "The Terminator" in a blog. But what the hell, it works. Let me explain (eventually, a bit later in the blog).

But to get us started... This past Saturday I had the pleasure of running 31 miles in the mountains of Pacifica, California on a beautiful sunny day. The weather was perfect. The ocean-cliff views were breath taking (or maybe it was the 7,000 feet of uphill running that took my breath away). And the camaraderie was surprising, and quite enjoyable.

Usually in this type of small, local 50K trail race I find myself running alone for most, if not all of the race. However this weekend was unique in that I ran the first 20-something miles in a pack of four runners including The North Face sponsored runner Leigh Schmitt as well as Dan Rhodes from Half Moon Bay and Jason Perez from Brentwood. It was a lot of fun running together and chatting. It definitely helped pass the time. And it definitely helped me run faster than I would have otherwise run on my own.

My previous personal best on this particular course was 4:48:22 (4th place finish), but I'd also run a 5:08 (1st place) last year on a very cold, windy, rainy, muddy day. My goal going into today was to win the race, and if possible to improve on my previous time.

I didn't win.

But I exceeded my most ambitious "best case scenario". I held on to finish 2nd, just 3 or 4 minutes behind Leigh Schmitt -- a guy who has a 98.1% ranking on UltraSignUp.com, and who finished 7th at Western States in 2009 and who has won dozens of races including Vermont 100. And I took over 21 minutes off my personal best on this course, finishing in 4:27:10. That's an 8:37 per mile pace over a tough course that has over 7,000 feet of elevation gain.

Granted it was a perfect day for running. And I had some great company out on the course. And my wife Amy was there cheering me on! But what I am really proud of is that: a) I ran hard the whole race, 2) I didn't do anything stupid, and 3) I didn't ever "quit" on the race, even after Leigh opened up a nice lead and had things pretty well wrapped up.

In the past I would have likely just shut things down and coasted to the finish, content to hang on to second place. But I didn't quit, and I didn't coast. I kept running (OK, it was probably more "shuffling" than running as I lumbered up the last 2 miles of mountain switchbacks) and I didn't stop fighting until I crossed the finish line. Sure, I felt like I was going to vomit. And yes, I collapsed at the finish and had to be revived with a cold beer. But hey, I raced like I meant it.

And that brings me back to the above quotation about strength not coming from victory, but from struggle. Say what you will about his acting skills, or his fiscal policy as California Governor. But clearly the guy knows what he is talking about when it comes to strength. So hopefully the next time a race isn't going the way I hoped, I will resist the urge to DNF and remember that strength comes from resisting the urge to surrender.

Here's a link to the race results. And here is the Garmin GPS data and stats:


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Thursday, February 16, 2012

My First Bike Race this Sunday!

This Sunday I will be racing in my first ever real bicycle race, the Pine Flat Road Race (62 miles) down in Fresno. And I'm terrified. But I'm not worried about the usual stuff like getting a flat tire or being attacked my an army of rival ninjas. No, mainly I'm just scared that I will do something incredibly foolish and impetuous like attacking in the first mile.

Ideally, if I can keep my ego and excitement in check, I hope to stay relaxed and conserve my energy until the last 9 miles of the race where the big mountain climbs start. And then I'm gonna go all "Andy Schleck" on their asses.

I don't want to sound (too) over confident, but I've been training like a deranged nut job. And I'm not driving 8 hours to race for second place. So if someone wants to beat me, they better be willing to suffer for 3 hours and they better also have one heck of a finishing sprint.

And now if you will excuse me, I have to get some work done. I do also have a day job after all. And my "work" I don't actually mean that I'm just going to sit here and watch this youtube video of Andy Schleck over and over again all day.