Sunday, December 15, 2013

2013 Summit Rock 1/2 Marathon

Sanborn County Park in Saratoga, CA
Shhh, I'm going to tell you a secret. But let's just keep it between you and me. While I've run some amazing trails all over the country -- including the canyons of Western States, the Keewenaw Peninsula in Michigan, and the Tahoe Rim Trail in Nevada -- one of my favorite places to run is just 15 minutes from home.

Welcome to Sanborn County Park in Saratoga. It's a little-known, seldom visited hidden gem nestled away off a small one lane road that most people drive right by without ever realizing. Sometimes when I'm in a hurry or just too lazy to drive all the way up Highway 9 to Saratoga Gap, I pull off at the bottom of the hill and drive a mile through the woods to Sanborn.

While the park boasts miles and miles of beautiful shaded single-track trails that cut through stunning redwood forests -- most of those trails go straight up the mountain! Steep, steep, steep with an average grade of about 12%.

I remember being surprised  a few years ago when I learned that Brazen Racing was going to hold a half marathon trail race on this course. Brazen is an amazing company who put on top-notch races. They really nail all the details and add special little touches like personalized race bibs with your name on them. And I love that they not only post the race results online the very next day, but they even post pictures from the race that runners can download -- for free!

I ran the 1/2 marathon at Sanborn in 2010 and 2012. Both years my finishing times were nearly the same. I ran a 1:50:05 in 2010 for 2nd place, and a 1:50:49 in 2012 for 4th place. This year I came into the race feeling stronger and faster than ever. 2013 had been a great year for me with numerous PRs and break-through races.

Not happy to be behind a dude in shorts-over-tights!
I'm not going to lie. When I glanced around at the starting line before the race and noticed that course record holder Leor Pantilat was absent I did a little dance of joy. While there were definitely a few fit, fast-looking guys at the starting line, I was thankful not to see Leor or any other elite studs like Lon Freeman, Sam Robinson, Alex Varner or Sergio Reyes. Maybe I would have a shot to win this year!

We took off and I found myself running in second place just off the shoulder of a dude wearing running shorts over tights. I consider this a major fashion faux-pas and was infuriated and ashamed to be behind him. So I turned on the jets and accelerated, intending to take the lead. But he suddenly started sprinting so as to not let me pass. He kept this up for a good 1/2 mile before inexplicably slowing down and dropping way off.

Briefly in the lead
Just as I thought I was about to move into the lead and run away with the race, two other runners moved past me and took the lead. I quickly discerned that thy were European based on their fashionable attire, lithe build, and of course their heavy French and Swiss-German accents. They were working together and moving well. And they were pulling away from me on the climb. I was already planning my "third overall... but first American" race report.

But then something interesting happened. While I was losing ground on the long opening four mile climb (which was supposed to be my strength), I found myself making up chunks of ground on the short downhill sections. As we approached the top of the climb and hit the flatter rolling section of the course I caught up with Fran├žois, the runner in second place. As  I surged past him I could see the race leader, Christian, hanging about 100 yards ahead.

2nd place is so painful!
I finally caught up to Christian and briefly moved past him into the lead on a rocky, technical downhill section. I was in the lead! I was surely going to win! I was already planning my finish-line celebration dance! But then Christian passed me back on the very next climb. Ugh, this was definitely going to be a battle.

Christian reached the half-way turn-around point only a few seconds before me. I had him in my sights. But that would unfortunately be the last I ever saw of him. He stepped on the gas and opened up a minute lead on me over the next mile and I would never see him again... until he congratulated me at the finish line when I sprinted across in second place, still a minute behind.

Nonetheless, I was thrilled with my performance and my finishing time of 1:45:33 which was over five minutes faster than either of the 1:50:xx times I ran in 2012 and 2010.

But my five minute PR was nothing compared with my buddy and Quicksilver teammate Jeff Clowers (who I have been coaching this year) who took 50 minutes off his time from last year, finishing 36th out of 191 runners with a 2:19:48. Now that's a PR!

Monday, December 9, 2013

My Quads Survived the Quad Dipsea

The race starts up these stairs!
The 28 mile Quad Dipsea trail race has a little something for everyone -- whether you prefer stairs, hills, or more hills. The race starts in downtown Mill Valley before quickly ascending up 688 stairs to the Dipsea trail. Then you basically run up a mountain to the top of "Cardiac Hill" before running down the other side and descending another couple hundred stairs to Stinson Beach. Then you turn around and run back! And then you do it all again. WTF!

Thankfully I'd never run the Dipsea trail before, so I had no idea what exactly I'd gotten myself into. But then some know-it-all standing next to me casually mentions that we're about to gain 9,276 feet of elevation (and descend another 9,276 feet) in what is basically just a mile or two longer than a marathon.

People complain about the Boston marathon being hilly with it's 783 feet of elevation gain. We are about to run 8,500 feet more! According to the race website, "within a few hundred yards the course heads up three flights of stairs as tall as a fifty-story building." Again, WTF!

I think I've made a terrible mistake

I'm the moron with no shirt and racing flats!
"I think I've made a terrible mistake" I say to my wife at the starting line as I look down at my skimpy 2.8 ounce Mizuno Wave Universe 5 road racing flats. Everyone else is wearing rugged trail shoes with armored rock plates, lugged soles, and waterproof Gortex shells. I'm wearing 1.4 ounces of mesh with a thin strip of rubber on each foot. My shoes weigh less than most other people's socks. What was I thinking?

I frantically start looking around for an escape route. Maybe if I duck behind that first tree I can sneak back to the car without anyone seeing me. Unfortunately the gun fires and we are off and running.

And some more stairs...
This isn't an "A" race for me and I didn't necessarily plan to race hard. But then I learn that the first twenty or thirty finishers get seeded bib numbers for the following year. So if you finish first, you get bib #1. If you finish 10th, you get bib #10.

My goal had originally been to try to finish in the top 10. But now I realize that no one is going to be intimidated by a double-digit bib number like #10. If I want to strike fear in the hearts of the other runners at the starting line next year, I'm going to need to finish at least 9th or better. Shit.

The race is off and we're flying up the road towards the world's largest flight of stairs. I'm huffing and puffing my way up the first stair case trying to keep the four or five guys in front of me in sight. Oh shit, I suddenly realize that I am already in 6th place. Usually I like to go out a bit more conservatively and try to reel in as many people as possible in the last miles. Also, I am certain I hear the familiar breathing of my wife Amy just a few steps behind me. I guess she's not taking it easy either!

Stairs, hills, and more hills

Running for my life!
Five or six miles into the race quickly learn that while I excel at running hills (both uphill and downhill), I apparently suck at running down stairs. As I am tip toing down the treacherous mossy stone stairs down into Stinson beach I get passed by two runners flying with reckless abandon. I almost yell something like, "watch it you whippersnappers" before thankfully catching myself. Well, welcome to the 40 and over age group I tell myself.

After reaching Stinson beach in 1:03:24 I turn around and head back. The return is slightly harder and takes me 1:08:19 but I pass a couple of guys and move back up to 6th place. Unfortunately, as soon as we turn around and start the whole thing over again, I get passed going up the stairs by my buddy/arch-nemesis Karl Schnaitter who has beaten me in every race we've ever run together.

Karl starts to pull away from me. In addition, two other guys catch up to me on the climb up to Cardiac. Suddenly it looks like I might slip to 8th place. Which would be fine. But then I can only afford to let one other person pass me or I might lose my tenuous grip on a coveted top 9 finish.

It is in moments of doubt and despair that I call upon a higher power, a source of inspiration that always guides me safely through the darkness and into the light. Beer. I turn my thoughts to the cold Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA waiting for me at the finish line. Suddenly I am flying and the two guys behind me and getting smaller and smaller. I hit the final turnaround in 1:12:40, slower than my first two legs but still respectable. Now it's just one last 7.1 mile leg back home.

Going for broke...

Running on empty
The last leg is the hardest and I am really starting to suffer. However, much to my surprise I keep getting reports from other runners going in the opposite direction that Karl is only 20 seconds ahead. "That's odd," I say to myself. I thought he was long gone.

After cresting Cardiac for the final time I find myself inexplicably flying down the mountain at 7:00 minute pace over treacherous rocky, rooted terrain. Oh hey look, there's Karl.

I fly by politely, almost feeling the need to apologize for running so fast. In the back of my mind all kinds of warning bells and alarms are going off. Surely I shouldn't be running this fast. Surely something very bad is bound to happen. And it does.

Two miles later, as we approach the last uphill before the stairs down to the finish, both of my legs seize up. I went for broke and I lost. Karl is going to pass me back. Those other two guys are going to pass me. Heck, I don't even know if I will be able to make it to the finish line. Ugh.

Sorry D-Bo, I need a beer!
Time to trouble shoot. I quickly take stock of my supplies. Two remaining salt pills, one PowerBar gel packet, and 3/4 of a bottle of sports drink. I swallow everything in one gulp and hope for the best. Somehow I am able to at last jog slowly, so I begin the death slog up the final hill.

I keep expecting Karl to pass me at any second, but when I reach the top and look back, he's still not in sight. My Quicksilver teammate Greg Lanctot is standing at the top of the hill cheering wildly. "Podium, 5th place, blah-blah-something-else-or-other, hold on let me get a picture". Did he just ask me to stop and pose for a picture? WTF dude!

As I awkwardly make my way down the last 688 stairs to the finish, I am still expecting Karl to come flying by me. But finally I see the last flight of stairs and start to realize that I'm going to hang on for 5th place. Whew! What a day.

I sprint across the finish line in a very respectable 4:41:34 despite running a 1:16:57 final leg, my slowest of the day. But I don't care. I'm done, and I know there's cold beer in the cooler!

Mr. and Mrs. Burton
Suddenly, elite Pearl Izumi runner Dylan Bowman appears out of nowhere and wants to congratulate me. He finished 5th at Western States this year and is a personal hero of mine. But I can't be bothered to exchange pleasantries just yet. He's standing in the way of me and my beer. Five seconds later after pounding a bottle of Lagunitas life is all good again.

A few bottles of beer later my wife Amy comes sprinting into the finish, 3rd woman and 30th overall in a time of 5:20:27, her fastest time ever of her three finishes on this course!

Shortly after crossing the finish line I swore to myself that I'd never do this race again! But then I remembered that because I finished 5th place this year, next year I will receive the super-intimidating #5 seeded bib number. Oh yeah. I'll be back. And maybe next year I'll wear real shoes. Nay, probably not.

And maybe next year I will try to win my age group. I will only need to take about an hour off my time in order to beat that Dave Mackey guy who nearly lapped me. Apparently he broke Leor Pantilat's course record or something :)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Where Eagles Don't Soar: The Beer 2 Mile!!!

Captain Beermerica
Some sports enthusiasts call it the ultimate test of athletic ability. It requires speed, stamina, mental fortitude, an iron gut, and above all else, the ability to chug beer faster than a college frat boy. Meet The Beer Mile. In order to win, contestants needs to be ale to slam four beers in about six minutes. Oh yeah, and they have to do it while running a mile. No event in the world is harder.

Well, except of course, for the allusive The Beer 2 Mile!

Last year I finished 2nd at the Silicon Valley Beer Mile Championships with a respectable -- though not world class -- time of 6:39 for the mile. Two-time repeat winner Chris Weiler ran 6:14. So I knew that I was going to have to step my training up this year if I wanted to dethrone the man that beer milers reverently call "Der Kaiser".

My training was going great, thanks to two-a-day beer chugging training workouts, and I felt like this might be my year to bring home the coveted Beer Mile Championship trophy. Five days before the race I got together with some friends my running club -- Quicksilver Running Club of San Jose -- to attempt a beer mile practice session.

Mock Beer Mile Training Run

I was joined by teammates Marc "Eagle Dick" Laveson and Harris "The Younger" Mason, both of whom were beer-mile virgins, having not yet broken their beer-mile cherries or tested themselves in the ultimate arena of battle. We met a small dirt track in an undisclosed top-secret training facility in San Jose (fine, it was actually a middle school).

Mock Beer Mile with Marc and Harris
Here is the race report from team race co-captain Toshi Moshi "Pimpin' Chick'n" Hosaka:

The starters were John Burton (the reigning champ), Marc Laveson (beer miler rookie), and Harris Mason (also a beer miler rookie). To be fair, all the participants had run earlier in the day (John ran a 5K and a 10K race in Santa Cruz, Marc had just ran a hilly 16-miler in Sierra Azul, and Harris had also ran in the morning).

While John had a clear advantage and experience in a beer miler, Marc is known to finish Das Boot as a warm up and Harris was the dark horse - he seemed comfortable with his choice of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, the highest alcohol by volume (ABV) at 5.6%, while John and Marc went with the safe choice of Coors at 5.0% ABV.

In the end, the reigning champ, John Burton would take the title at 5:38, followed closely by Marc Laveson at 5:59 and then Harris, comfortably going sub-7 at 6:48. This is a great accomplishment by the rookies and we have real potential to become the next beer miler champion in the PA series (Note: the actual distance was about 0.8 miles).

Lap 1: John slammed the first can in 5 seconds followed closely by Marc who took a little over 10 seconds. They were neck and neck for the first lap. Harris had a malfunction with his beer can (the pull tab came off) and had a late start, but that did not seem to faze him. We noted a bit of beer left in John's 1st beer can. To prevent this from happening again, we will have each runner turn the empty beer upside down on their head after finishing each can.

Lap 2: As John finished his second can in less than 10 seconds, it took a little longer for Marc to finish his. A neighbor peeked in from his backyard at the event in wonderment.

Lap 3: The gap widened between John and Marc, but Marc still has not given up. John seemed relaxed in his strides.

Lap 4: John took it easy and savored his 4th beer while Marc and Harris both struggled with theirs. It was painful to see them finish the last beer.

John was drinking another bottle of IPA after the miler because he was thirsty.

An Already Bad Idea Gets Worse...

The world's fittest athletes alcoholics
For the last couple of years people had started talking -- mostly in hushed whispers -- about whether it would be possible for anyone to run not just one, but two back-to-back beer miles! Eight beers and eight laps around the track. Could it be done? Sure, there was a video floating around the Internet of some guy claiming to have done it in on a grassy knoll while his mom filmed with a shaky video camera. But like the alleged US landing on the moon, it looked like it was likely faked.

Last year a couple of guys talked a lot of smack in the days preceding the race about possibly attempting the beer 2 mile, but in the end it proved to be just that -- all talk. However, this year, the whispers grew louder. After brainstorming with my buddy and Quicksilver teammate Greg Lanctot over a couple (dozen) beers, we both agreed that we would put fear, sanity, sobriety aside, and attempt the impossible -- the Beer 2 Mile.

The Beer Mile(s) Championships

Greg and I each arrived at the track with eight cans or Coors. While carrying my bag of beer from the car to the track, I couldn't help but notice just how much eight cans of beer weighs. It felt like about five pounds! Suddenly I realized just how stupid of an idea this was. I about to try to chug five pounds of beer. Oh no! But oh well, it was too late to quit now. Well technically it was too early to quit now, as how we hadn't even started yet. But you get the point.

Beer chugging is all about good form!
Realizing ahead of time that we would probably be in no shape to drive home (or to even walk home), Greg and I each brought our own designated drivers, who would also function as our crew chiefs and cheering section. In Greg's corner was fellow Quicksilver Running Club teammate Dan Decker, a highly accomplished beer drinker in his own right. Dan and Greg have been known to close down bars. Heck they once even closed down a brewery!

In my corner was my wife Amy and our six year old son. Yes, I brought my son to an event that involved grown adults running around in their underwear and puking in the field. More on underwear in a minute. Also, helping out in my corner was fellow Quicksilver Running Club teammate Jeff Clowers, who I have been coaching this year. I often tell him that if he doesn't feel like puking after a workout, he isn't running hard enough. I assume he always thought I was joking. But now he probably doesn't know what to think.

So, about the underwear. I guess it was just me who was running in underwear. And in my defense, it was really more of a speedo than underwear. And, most importantly, it was part of my "Captain Beermerica" costume, designed to intimidate my competition -- or at least confuse and disorient them. Who can concentrate when some guy is flexing in front of you with his "junk" clearly visible?

Thankfully the race finally began and I was able to get moving (it's COLD standing around in your underwear at night -- even with arm warmers!). Tim Reynolds and Chris Weiler both slammed their first beer in under 5 seconds and took the race out hard. I tucked in behind them for the first 100 meters but then grew impatient and decided to up the ante. I moved past them into the lead -- which was probably a foolish, impetuous move.

Beer Mile Champion Tim Reynolds with trophy!
I held the lead for the first 3 laps and was starting to think that I might actually win the Beer Mile race en route to hopefully also winning the Beer 2 Mile! That would have been quite the accomplishment. But alas, Tim Reynolds slammed his 4th beer before I was even half-way done with mine. Chris Weiler and I gave chase, but Tim had already opened up a 20 meter lead and he was flying. Tim ended up winning with an amazing time of 6:04 while Chris finished just a few seconds behind him in 6:08.

Once I realized that I wasn't going to be able to catch Tim and win the mile, I backed off the pace to conserve what was left of my strength for my second mile. I think I crossed the line in around 6:13, but there was some confusion (mainly mine) as I stopped to grab my 5th beer before proceeding to the start finish line. So I think I was officially listed as having run a 6:23. In any case, it was significantly faster than my 6:39 from 2012!

The second mile proved far more difficult than the first mile. Shortly after chugging my 5th beer I was forced to make a brief pit stop on the side of the track where I deposited the contents of my stomach in the grass. I also made several more pit stops after my 6th, 7th, and 8th beers. As per the official beer mile rules, I also had to run an additional "puke penalty lap". Thankfully I managed to run the 9th and final lap without any unscheduled stops.

Beer 2 Mile Champions -- Greg and John
Staggering across the finish line, I became the first person to ever complete the Beer 2 Mile event at the Silicon Valley Beer Mile Championships in a time of 18 minutes and 10 seconds. But I was not the only man who made history that day. Less than 3 minutes later, my teammate and partner and crime, Greg Lanctot also crossed the finish line triumphantly -- also after having run an additional penalty lap.

I am not suggesting that Greg and I are the two baddest men on the planet. But we're definitely a close third and fourth behind Chuck Norris and that Dos Equis beer guy. Stay thirsty my friends!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

2013 Pinhoti 100

Megan at North Country Run 50M Michigan

Meet Megan Rieger

This isn't your usual race report. Rather, this is a story about how I spent a wonderful Saturday morning/afternoon/evening running 100 miles through the woods with a friend across some of the most beautiful trails in Alabama.

I met Megan two years ago at a 50 mile race in Michigan. She definitely made the quite the first impression. I had lined up at the front of the pack at the race start figuring I had a good shot to win or at least place in the top three.

Those of you who know me, know that I like to go out fairly hard to get clear of the early crowds. So you can imagine my surprise when a young woman came flying by me and opened up a couple hundred yards lead in the first half mile. That was Megan!

After leading the race -- including all the men --for quite a few miles, she eventually slowed down. But she didn't slow down that much. She still hung on to finish 1st woman and 5th overall, just 15 minutes or so minutes behind me.

This year Megan and I both again ran the same 50 miler in Michigan. And just like last year Megan went out hard -- leading the race (including all the men) for the first 25 miles. And like last year she faded a bit, but still managed to hang on and finish 1st woman and 5th overall. And she ran about 30 minutes faster this year than last year!

50M women's and men's master's champions!
However, what impressed me the most was how fresh Megan seemed after the race. While I was barely able to hobble up to the beer tent, Megan sprinted effortlessly through the park, hurdling a parking lot fence on her way to her car to get changed. When I later asked her, "you don't even look sore" she laughed and said that her legs never get tired. It was about that time that a light bulb went off in my head and I thought, "hmm, this girl could win Western States one day with a little coaching."

I asked Megan if she had ever thought about running Western States or any other 100 miler and she said that she was definitely interested. I offered to help coach, mentor, pace, or just support her in any way that I could. It was already late August, so she chose Pinhoti, held in early November for her first 100 miler attempt. This would only give her two months to get her mileage up, but that was fine since she wasn't necessarily looking to win the thing, but rather just to finish within the allotted time and qualify for Western States.

Spoiler alert: she did end up winning the thing :)

The Game Plan

Pinhoti is a point-to-point race held in the fall in the Talladega National Forest in Alabama. It contains about 16,000 feet of elevation gain and traverses miles of rocky leaf-covered single-track with numerous river and creek crossings. While it's not the hardest 100 miler out there (as it's not run at elevation), it's not one of the easier ones either!

Originally I had offered to pace Megan which meant that I would be able to run the last 60 miles with her. But at the time, it didn't appear that she would have any crew (her boyfriend David later convinced to drive down from Cincinnati to crew her) and we weren't sure how I would even get out 40 miles into the wilderness.

To make it easier and avoid any problems with logistics, we decided that I would just register for the race and run the entire thing. That way I would be right there with her at mile 40 and be able to start pacing without having to ask a lot of questions like, "how much have you been drinking", "what have you been eating", or "how many times have you fallen". As you can probably tell from her photos with dirt and blood-stained knees and elbows, Megan has a very close relationship with the earth and tends to reacquaint herself with it from time to time during her run :)

So the plan was that neither of us would have an actual pacer. Rather we would just stick together and try to run 100 miles as a team. We were hoping that this would work well since I am strong uphill runner and Megan (coming from a track/sprinter background) has great leg turnover and can really fly on the flats and downhills. And hopefully her boyfriend David would be able to successfully navigate through the forest roads at meet us at some of the crew-accessible aid stations. I gave him my GPS system and wished him luck!

There we are... tiny specks in the way, way, way back!
The Early Easy Miles

Megan and David had missed the pre-race briefing the night before as they ended up exploring some of Alabama's less-known roads while trying to skirt rush-hour traffic. So I spent some time on the morning bus ride to the start briefing Megan about the course. While I really wanted to make sure that Megan didn't go out recklessly hard like she had done in her previous three ultras (this would only be her 4th ultra and her first 100), I was also concerned about us going out too slow and getting caught in a conga line in the early single-track miles.

Unfortunately things don't always go as planned and Megan found herself just coming out of the bathroom as the race started. What a rookie! We were officially now in last place and only had 1/4 mile to pass as many people on the open fire road before we hit the conga-line single-track where we would potentially be stuck for hours.

Luckily we were able to pass quite a few of the 265 starters and moved up somewhere in the top 40 or so. We got a bit bottled up in the narrow early single-track sections for the first 7 miles but we were able to improve our position by running straight through the occasional early river crossings while the other runners slowed down and queued up trying to keep their feet dry by rock-hopping.

Beautiful Lake Morgan
By the first checkpoint we had moved up into the top 20 and Megan was in 2nd place among the women with UROC race director Francesca Conte just behind us and an unknown first-time 100 mile female runner just a minute or so ahead. I told Megan that this was the perfect spot to be and that she should just stay calm and take it easy until at least mile 40 before even worrying about her place or time. Put it on cruise control!

As we approached the Lake Morgan aid station at mile 27.66 we saw the lead woman head out just as we approached. But we spent quite a bit of time at the aid station and Francesca came in and quickly headed back out while we were still stuffing our faces with food. I told Megan not to sweat it though as it was still very early in the race.

On top of the world (or at least Alabama)
The Middle Muddled Miles

Much to our surprise, not too long after the 50K point in the race Megan passed both Rachel (the woman who had been leading the race) and Francesca within a span of just a few minutes. Francesca seemed to be having some issues with her shoes or shoelaces, and Rachel had simply dramatically slowed down, almost inexplicably. We would later read in her blog that she had hit a bit of a mental low spot at this point (but she would eventually recover and hold on to finish 5th woman).

Around mile 38 or so we began the climb up to Bald Rock, the highest point of the race (and in fact the highest point in all of Alabama). This was really the first time we took a break from running and did some good power hiking up to the top. It felt good to switch gears and mix thing up a bit to give the muscles a little break. But unfortunately we hit the top of the hill in no time at all and had to start running again :(

Unlike this guy, we ran down Blue Hell
But wait, have I told you about "Blue Hell"? Just a mile or so after cresting the Bald Rock we found ourselves no longer able to run and instead forced to do actual scrambling down a rocky cliff. This was far more difficult than anything I had ever personally encountered in any other 100 miler (though I am sure Hardrockers would have loved it).

After escaping from Blue Hell we got into a pretty good groove sharing stories about our childhood and teenage years (note: my childhood stories were a bit more dated and Megan is probably still wondering what the heck a "VCR" is).

Eventually we started to run out of stories and sunlight and we found ourselves running in silence in the dark, appreciating the beauty of the stars under God's sky.

The Late Sucky Miles

The last twenty miles were, as you might expect, the most difficult of the race. Running at night in the dark is always challenging. And to make things worse, Megan's right knee was really starting to bother her. It had actually been bothering her all day since she tweaked a pre-existing injury very early on in the first 10 miles. She had been soldiering on through the pain, fueled on by her faith (and a fair bit of Advil). But now she was having trouble even putting weight on it, much less running.

Pretty nice hardware!
But she dug a little deeper and we pressed on. We walked the hills, but we flew down the descents! At one point, when my flashlight was almost dead and barely putting out any light, I was having trouble keeping up with Megan as she absolutely bombed one of the descents. But I didn't dare slow down or else I would have found myself running alone in the dark.

Finally we popped out of the forest and onto the paved road that would lead us to the finish at the local high school track two miles away. Everything seemed a bit surreal. I couldn't believe that Megan was not only about to finish her first hundred miler, but that she was going to win it! We joked a bit about what kind of celebration dance she was going to do when we crossed the finish line.

Megan and David at the award's ceremony!
After what seemed like 5 miles and several false sightings of the finish, we finally made it to the school. It was around 3:30 am in the morning so there wasn't much of a crowd, but Megan's boyfriend David was there cheering her on, and I am sure that was enough for her. As soon as we crossed the line the race director congratulated us and handed us our buckles. Talk about prompt service!

Megan used her high school track sprinter speed to edge me out in a photo finish with a 21:22:39 for 13th place overall while I clocked 21:22:40 for 14th place -- my second fastest 100 miler ever. More impressively, we ran pretty even splits with 10:30 for the first 50 miles and 10:52 for the second 50 miles!

To sum things up, it was a beautiful race on some of the best single-track I have ever run on. The weather was perfect. The volunteers were amazing and the food -- oh, man I could have written a whole blog post just on the food: fried egg and ham sandwiches, pigs in a blanket, potato soup, venison, meatballs, and much more. And Megan, running her first 100 miler ever, got the win showcasing her incredible talent and toughness. I can't wait to see what she does next!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

I Feel the Need, the Need for Speed!

Morgan Hill Marathon
Well, my ultra-marathon season is finally winding down for the year. I just have the Quad Dipsea left, and at only 28 miles long it's closer to a marathon than a 50K. So now it's time to cut back the high-volume LSD and start focusing on speed again. My wife Amy and I are both running the Boston Marathon in April, and I'm hoping to not only PR, but to go sub 3 hours for the first time ever.

"So what we'll be calling on is good ol' fashion blunt force trauma." Yeah, I stole that line from a Rocky movie :)

In order to assess exactly where I am, and just how slow I am, I decided to run the local Morgan Hill Marathon last weekend. It's a hilly course, with somewhere between 900 and 1200 feet of elevation gain, so it's much more hilly that what I will encounter at Boston. But I figured if I could run a respectable time of 3:05 - 3:10 on this course, then it should set me up well for a shot at sub 3 at Boston. At least that was the plan.

But, spoiler alert, things don't always go as planned.

Free tickets to the gun show :)
With two minutes to go before the race started, I found myself still in the port-a-potty line. But I knew from past experience that if I held firm the majority of people in front of me would bail and head to the starting line when the clock dipped under a minute to go.

Sure enough, I suddenly found myself at the front of the line. After quickly taking care of business I jogged over to the starting line, discarded my shirt, and elbowed my way to the front of the pack with twenty seconds to spare.

I went out conservatively, or as conservatively as I could stand, which meant that I tucked in behind the 1:30 half-marathon pace group leader for the first mile. But when he turned off (the marathon and half marathon courses diverged) I slowed own a bit more and settled into about 7:00 pace.

I found myself basically running all alone for the first 13 miles in about 5th place overall with no one directly insight either in front or behind me.

I hit the half marathon mark in about 1:33 and was still feeling pretty good. I was already thinking of clever titles for my blog and Strava upload. Things like, "Get ready Boston, I'm coming for yo' ass". There was no way I was going to fail. A top 10 placement and sub 3:10 finish were mine. Nothing could stop me.

Well, almost nothing. Except a calf cramp. Ugh.

John and Hermann
Suddenly, at mile 19, I was in a world of hurt. My right calf kept locking up, forcing me to slow my pace. And then, for good measure, my arms starting cramping up as well (making it difficult to even lift my water bottle to drink).

Things were looking bad. And then I heard footsteps behind me. It was my co-worked and good friend, Hermann Lueckhoff! Hermann was running strong and would go on to finish 7th overall with a 3:06 finish.

The last 7 miles were pretty miserable for me. I desperately wanted to drop out. But having already DNF'd twice at this race, I knew I had to at least grind it out and get the finish this time -- no matter how slow.

Eventually I finally made it back to the start finish line with a time of 3:11:30. Several people had passed me in the last 3 miles and I ended up finishing 12th overall. But somehow I still managed to win my age group (thankfully my buddy Hermann was in the 45 - 49 age group).

Will run for booze!
Although I was pretty disappointed with my performance it's hard to stay too grumpy when you get called up to the podium and presented with a bottle of champagne for winning your age group :)

Obviously I have a little more training to do before Boston if I want to achieve my goal. But I've still got plenty of time. And first things first, I have a bottle of champagne to pound!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Headlands 50 Mile; Just Another Day at the Office

Headlands 50 Mile
photo by Gary Saxton
Best Laid Plans...

Wake up. Glare at alarm clock and mumble incoherently. Drink coffee. Drink more coffee. Car pool to the "office". Punch in and zone out all day. Eight hours later, kick feet up and have cold beer. That pretty much describes my day this past Sunday at the Headlands 50 mile race up in Marin.

I signed up for the race a few months ago. I have no idea why I thought it would be a good idea to schedule two hard 50 mile races so close together at the end of a long hard season -- having just run a fast 7:10:23 fifty miler three weeks prior. Probably it had something to do with the fact that my training partner and good friend Joe Bistrain had signed up and would be attempting his first 50 miler (having previously only run two 50Ks). In any case, it was a bonehead move on my part.

Luckily I realized my stupidity, and rather than risk running myself into the ground or getting seriously injured, I made the decision to just use this event as a long training run. Rather than racing all out and pushing myself to near exhaustion for seven to eight hours, I decided not to even bother trying to battle pre-race favorite Karl Schnaitter for the win (it would have been a tall order anyway as he is faster than me and finished about ten minutes ahead of me at the Quicksilver 50 miler back in May).

Instead I planned to go out easy for at least the first twenty miles and then see how the day unfolded. If I was feeling good, perhaps I would pick it up a bit for a few miles and see how many people I could reel in. I definitely wanted to finish in the top 10, and I was hoping for at least a top 5 finish. If I could crack the top 3 and finish on the podium that would be ideal. But I wasn't willing to kill myself and try to outsprint someone down the mountain at the end of the race to do it.

Whoa! 10K of elevation gain in 50 miles!

What Actually Happened...

Thankfully (and somewhat surprisingly) I managed to keep my ego in check and execute my game plan quite well. I held back a bit on the opening steep climb, letting four or five guys run off ahead of me. Then, even more surprisingly, I didn't panic when another ten runners or so passed me during the next ten or twelve miles. I even kept my cool when teammate and buddy Adam Blum pulled up beside me (even though he was supposed to be taking it super easy and saving himself for The Bear 100 coming in two weeks). And I didn't even panic when Joe (who was attempting his first 50) pulled up beside, and then passed me!

I had warned Joe numerous time in the preceding weeks to take it easy on the first loop and to save his strength for the second half of the course, as this race would be 19 miles longer than anything he had ever run before. So when he passed me, breathing relatively hard and sweating profusely so early in the race, I assumed that his race was over and that he'd end up dropping at the end of the first loop at mile 25. Thankfully however Joe eventually settled down a bit and eased off the gas into a more sustainable pace. Nonetheless I was worried that the damage may have already been done.

A perfect day for running
photo by Gary Saxton
After mile twelve people finally stopped passing me and I settled into a nice pace. I wasn't sure exactly what position I was in, but I assumed I was probably somewhere around 15th overall. But I knew it was going to be a long day, and with around 10K of vertical gain during the race, I expected a good number of the front runners to become road kill by the end of the day.

Somewhere around mile twenty, as we made the turnaround at the bottom of the Golden Gate bridge and began our climb back up to the mountain ridge, I began passing other runners rather steadily. Admittedly I had picked the pace up slightly, but I wasn't working that hard and was surprised to be passing so many people so quickly. By the time we hit the turnaround at mile twenty five I think I had moved up to around 5th place!

A Brief Moment of Drama & Despair

As I came into the turnaround point at mile twenty five I got a fairly excited and probably pushed the pace a bit harder than I should of trying to reel a few other runners in on the only real sections of flat runnable road on the course. And suddenly to my dismay, my right calf starting hurting -- really bad. I briefly thought about dropping out and calling it a day. I think the only thing that kept me going was that in case Joe was struggling I didn't want to give him any additional incentive to drop. So I decided to just slow down a bit and see if my calf would feel better (or at least not get any worse). And luckily, dialing back the pace helped and the pain subsided a bit.

Karl Schnaitter and Jean Pommier tearing it up
photo by Gary Saxton
Somewhere along the next ten miles I caught a couple of more runners and moved up into 3rd place. Karl had predictably moved into the lead and was looking strong. He was putting distance between himself and the guy in second place who seemed to be fading hard. While the 2nd place guy still had at least a mile or two lead on me, I was fairly confident that I would reel him in.

On a side note, while I had moved up into 3rd place in the 50 mile race, I was actually still well behind two of the 100 miler runners including fellow Quicksilver teammate Jean Pommier who leading the 100 miler and on course record pace! Jean, who will be moving up into the 50 year old age group next year, is an absolutely amazing runner and I was only slightly embarrassed of the fact he was running twice as far as me and was still kicking my butt!

The Anti-Climatic Conclusion

I kept moving well and eventually reeled in the second place guy, Armando, on the downhill into Tennessee Valley at mile 37. He seemed to be struggling a bit with leg cramp and fatigue. I was still feeling great so I knew that I didn't have to worry about him catching back up to me. At the same time, I also knew that Karl had an insurmountable fifteen minute lead so there was no point in running hard to try and catch him. That was actually fine with me! It was so nice and mentally relaxing to be able to jog the last 13 miles with no pressure to run fast and no fear of getting caught.

Thirteen miles later I crossed the finish line in 8:03:25, securing 2nd place overall, about 16 or 17 minutes behind Karl. I bowed to the crowd at the finish line, collected my winnings, and then lhobbled off to the car in search of my camp chair and ottoman and my pint of Pliny the Elder waiting for me on ice. Not a bad way to relax after a long day of work :)

Friend Joe Bistrain finishing his first 50 miler!

My buddy Joe triumphantly sprinted across the finish line in 9:16:23, knocking down his first 50 miler (and qualifying for Western States if he is interested in putting his name in the lottery)!

Our other buddy Adam Blum got in a good training run but wisely called it a day at mile 37, saving himself for The Bear 100 coming up in just two weeks!

And special congratulations to Quicksilver teammate Mark Laveson who won the children's fun run (i.e., marathon) race!

Additional Reading

For a very thorough and detailed account of his 100 mile victory and new course record, check out teammate Jean Pommier's blog and race report here:

Monday, August 26, 2013

2013 North Country Run 50 Mile Race Report: To Piss Blood or Not to Piss Blood?

North Country Run: Finish With Heart
You're not coughing up blood yet. Hell you're not even pissing blood yet," I mumble encouragingly  to myself. "Come on Big Johnny, pick up the pace. They're coming. It's go time. Drop the f**king hammer! We have to move. We have to move NOW!!!"

It's only mile thirty or so into the fifty mile race, and I hadn't planned to launch my attack for another 10 miles. My original plan was to run the first twenty-five mile lap nice and easy, saving my legs and energy for the second lap when I would pick up my pacer, Bill. Then I hoped to tuck in behind him and cruise for the next fifteen miles of fairly flat runnable trail until we hit the hills. That's where I planned to make my move and unleash everything I had, reeling in the leaders and taking the win!

But things rarely go as planned -- especially when your plans have been thrown together at the last minute in a car ride to the race while running late after having missed your turn and gotten lost. But there I was, jumping out of a moving car as Bill, my buddy/pacer/chauffer/tour-guide/host, honked and swerved his way through a panicked crowd in front of the port-o-potties.

Megan Rieger and the "red shirts" lead the opening charge
I jogged nonchalantly up to the starting line (toilet paper still stuck to my shoe) with fifteen seconds to spare, trying to downplay the beads of sweat on my head and my elevated heart rate and adrenaline levels. I only had a few seconds to glance around and survey the competition. I quickly recognized a few familiar faces from last year, including Megan Rieger who had won the women's race last year and finished fifth overall after leading the early miles. The gun went off, and as expected, Megan sprinted to the front again leading the pack into the woods.

I found myself running in fourth at a pace that already felt too hard. I recalled from last year that Megan liked to go out strong but would probably slow down, at least a bit, later. But I didn't recognize either of the two guys -- both wearing red singlets -- and I had no idea if they were legit threats to win or just rookies who let their pre-race adrenaline get the best of them. I decided to let them all go, gambling that I would hopefully be able to reel them in later, perhaps in the second half of the race.

The motley chase group
I was initially joined by two other runners, Jesse Aukeman from Grand Rapids and Martin Schumacher from Chicago. The three of us ran together for a few miles until Martin slipped back, leaving Jesse and I to chase on our own for the rest of the first lap. As we completed the first lap and arrived back at the start/finish area loop I spotted my pacer Bill who was luckily all set and ready to run -- even though I had arrived almost thirty minutes faster than I had predicted!

I caught a glimpse of Megan and one of the two other red-shirt guys heading out of the one kilometer loop just as Jesse and I were rolling in. I wasn't sure if the other other red-shirt guy was further ahead in the lead, or if he was behind the other two leaders somewhere on the short loop we had to run before heading out on the second lap.

Bill was waiting at the end of the short loop and helped me slip into my Ultimate Direction AK vest (with two water bottles) which I swapped out for the one handheld bottle I had been carrying. I remembered from last year that it warmed up dramatically during the second lap in the afternoon, and I didn't want another repeat performance of last year's visit to the Emergency Room after getting dehydrated and being hospitalized with Rhabdomyolysis and kidney/liver failure. My goal this year was to not pee blood again at the end of the race.

Bill ran in front and set a strong pace, quickly pulling us past one of the redshirted guys and his pacer, and up even with Jesse and Megan. The four of us ran together for a while with Jesse setting the pace. I was a bit winded from the chase and dropped back a few feet to collect myself and catch my breath. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Megan launches a devastatingly beautiful attack, flying down the trail and ripping open an immediate sizable lead over Jesse and I. Bill looks back at me as if to confirm, "That just happened!" Yup.

Losing an argument with myself
So here I am, hurting, just trying to keep Jesse in sight with Megan now off the front and nowhere to be seen. And then to make things worse, I hear the other redshirted guy and his pacer flying down the switchbacks gaining back ground on us. Oh no! Ugh, it's decision time. Do I let them pass me and bide my time, sticking with my original plan to wait until the last ten miles to attack? Or do I just say screw it and go all in, launching an earlier than planned attack and risking everything for a shot at the win?

"If you're not coughing up blood, or at least pissing blood, you're not running hard enough," I remind myself! Ok, that settles it. Solid logic that I can't argue with. I step on the gas and start accelerating, tapping my buddy Bill on the arm as I fly by him to let him know that it's show time. We fly by Jesse (who is probably wondering what the hell is going on as people keep sprinting by him at full speed in the middle of a 50 mile race) and then catch up to and pass Megan exchanging a few friendly words.

After about a mile of hammering we take our foot off the gas and settle into a steady pace. We've suddenly moved up from fourth place to second, with only one remaining runner in front -- though who knows how far in front? Things are looking good! And then suddenly they are not. Just as Bill and I are leaving an aid station we hear cheers and look back and see the other red shirt and his pacer pulling into the aid station only second behind us. They look determined and are moving fast. Minutes later they pass us. Now we're back in third place. Boo, hiss.

I'm demoralized and really starting to hurt. Negative thoughts are creeping into my head. "Maybe I should just give up and jog it in instead of racing? Maybe I should lay down and take a nap? Maybe I should waylay one of the aid station volunteers and steal their shirt, then hide the body in the bushes, so I can get a ride back to the start/finish area." If I was on my own, who knows what I would have done.

World's best pacer, Bill Pritchett
But luckily Bill is there with me, and he is running ahead setting an semi-aggressive yet runnable pace. I lock my eyes on him and just keep moving forward. Miles pass. Hours pass. And then suddenly we are there -- the middle of the grueling last few miles of hills. Ah, this is what I have been waiting for. This is what I do. I can run hills in my sleep. I have run hills in my sleep (but that's another race report).

Unbeknownst to me, Bill has been quietly struggling with GI issues for the past couple of hours. But like a loyal lieutenant, he has kept his problems to himself -- quietly ducking into the woods every few miles -- not wanting to burden me with additional stress. But now, sensing that I am back from the dead and ready to hammer the last five or so miles of hills, Bill knows his work is done for the day and lets me run off ahead, now finally able to tend to his own issues.

Women's winner Megan Rieger, "first old dude" John Burton,
and men's winner, Jason Barhorst
At this point I'm moving well, but I'm still in third place and I have no idea how far either of the red-shirt guys are in front of me, or whether I will be able to catch one or both of them. I stay focused and keep grinding. Finally it pays off, I see one of the red shirted leaders and his pacer just ahead. I hammer down a steep hill and pull into the last aid station just a second or two behind them. I quickly refill only one of my two bottles, knowing that it's only three miles to the finish line. As I head out and run up a hill I look back and notice that the runner and his pacer are still at the aid station and don't appear to be planning to leave anytime soon. Huh?

I keep hammering, but I'm starting to run out of real estate. I'm at the top of the last climb with less than a mile of down hill to go and the other runner, the race leader, is nowhere to be seen. For all I know he has finished already. It was great effort, but I came up short. Still, second place isn't too shabby and glancing down at my watch I notice that I am at least 30 minutes ahead of my PR pace. I'm going to shatter my 50 mile PR as long as I don't trip and break a leg on this last steep tricky descent.

Masters trophy (I guess getting old is kinda cool)
I hear cheering as I emerge from the tree line and enter the finishing chute. It's finally over. Second place, a 35 minute PR in a time of 7:10:45. I'm exhausted, but ecstatic. The red-shirt race winner, who actually has a name, Jason Barhorst, comes over and graciously congratulates me. He finished 5 or 6 minutes ago but looks remarkably fresh, as if he probably could have run a lot faster if he had been pressed.

Several minutes (and several beers) later, Bill jogs out from the forest and joins me and some new friends (they offered me a beer and I am now in their debt) for a post-race burger and beer. Ah, life is good.

And while I didn't win the race outright, I was consoled to find out that I am now apparently considered a "master" having turned 40 earlier this year, and was therefore crowned the master's champion! Perhaps this getting old stuff isn't quite so bad after all.

Click here for Strava data.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Run the Keewenaw: A Festival of Trails (Copper Habor, Michigan)

Copper Harbor, Michigan, Keewenaw Peninsula
A couple of weeks ago I travelled back home to my motherland, Michigan's Upper Peninsula (U.P.). However this was not a relaxing sight-seeing trip or beach-volleyball family reunion. No, this trip was strictly business. I was there to run!

Though I was born and suckled on the shores of Lake Superior, spending my early toddler years and many a childhood summer on a small Indian reservation called Bay Mills, I'd never really seen much of the Upper Peninsula beyond the 3 acres where my grandmother (a transplant from Austria) raised chickens and goats, baked fresh bread from scratch, picked and ate wild mushrooms (some edible and some semi-poisonous), and canned every manner of fruit or vegetables (she may have even canned Viennese Schnitzels, but that's neither here nor there).

So I was excited when I learned about a trail-running stage-race called the Keewenaw Running Fesitval, held each year on the Northern-most tip of the Upper Peninsula in the old mining community of Cooper Harbor. The Keewenaw is famous for many things -- though mainly for snow, of which they receive around 20 to 25 feet per year.

However, the Keewenaw is also known for a few other things including: mosquitoes and biting flies, Cornish pasties, saunas (and all things Finnish), craft beer, and world-class mountain biking trails. Quite an eclectic collection of "must see" attractions. And I was eager to experience them all!

"Run The Keewenaw: A Festival of Trails" is a weekend stage race consisting of three individual races: a 8K hill climb on Saturday morning, a hilly 12K trail run on Saturday afternoon, and an even more hilly 25K trail run on Sunday morning. Each race offers prizes for the top 3 overall and the top 3 in each age group. In addition, for competitors doing all three events, your finishing time is added up from all three events and awards are given to the top-five runners with the lowest cumulative times.

My new friend Riccardo
I was originally planning to travel together with another Bay-area runner, Caitlin Smith, who is also originally from Michigan. However, when Caitlin wasn't able to go, I reached out to the race organizer to see if I could catch a ride from the Houghton airport (40 miles away) with a local runner as all the car rental places close promptly at 5:00 pm (even though the second of only two daily flights into town doesn't land until 6:11 pm).

The race director put me in touch with a great guy -- Riccardo Tortini, an Italian PHd student studying at Michigan Tech. Riccardo also happened to be the defending Keewenaw Festival champion from last year! Riccardo picked me up from the airport, put me up at his place, introduced me to the local runners, and showed me the town. We even managed to sneak in a quick 5 mile run Friday evening at the "Tech trails" at the university.

The trails were quite impressive -- clearly designed for mountain biking with high banked curves, big ramps, and technical boardwalk stunts. I must say however, after the short 40 minute run at 8:00 pace in the Michigan heat and high humidity, I was sweating profusely and breathing much harder than I would have liked. In the back of mind, I was already worrying about how the race would go tomorrow. Not to mention the fact that I had just run Western States only two weeks before.

Luckily my mind quickly shifted from running to beer as Riccardo drove us over to the local microbrewery, Keewenaw Brewing Company (KBC), who was serving up $2.50 pints of delicious craft beer. Twenty dollars later, I no longer had a care in the world! I was ready to run.

Mt. Baldy 8K Hill Climb

Riccardo and I miraculously managed to wake up and make it on time to the starting line on Saturday morning with no ill-effects from a long evening of Cascade hops "carbo loading" at the pub followed by only a few hours sleep.

Race headquarters at an old school house
Photo @Gowtham
The race headquarters were located in an old school house, which really gave the race a warm, quaint small-town feel. However, while the field was relatively small with only 67 runners, I knew the competition would be intense as the field included a number of really fit looking runners including Riccardo (last year's champion and a 2:48 marathoner), Scott Vanasten (winner of the Ice Age 50K), William Holbert (a young college track runner wearing the most brightly-colored ridiculous pair of running shorts I'd ever seen), and a number of other really fast-looking guys.

The race began and a group of runners went out hard including Riccardo, Scott, William, and a few others. I held back, lingering toward the rear of the ten person lead group. The first kilometer was on a slightly uphill paved road before making a left turn and heading into the woods on a wide fire road. Riccardo and Scott were already opening up a big lead on the rest of the field, and we would unfortunately never see them again until the top.

I waited patiently until the first steep sandy section to make my move. Riccardo had described the course to me in pretty vivid detail, so even though I had never set foot on it, I felt that I knew it well. Once we hit the steep sandy climb I attacked and quickly passed a group of 4 or 5 other runners. I could see two more runners just 20 or 30 yards ahead of me, but it took me forever to reel them in.

"Where eagles fly!" on top of Mt. Baldy in Eagle Harbor
I caught up to William (the young track star in the silly shorts) on a steep technical section about a mile from the top just as he abruptly stopped running. I kept pressing and reeled in the other runner, a guy in a white shirt, just before the final steep section before the summit. As we approached the make-shift finish line on top of the wind-swept barren summit I wasn't sure I was going to make it without collapsing. Thankfully my heart didn't explode and my legs didn't seize up with lactic acid.

I crossed the finish line in 3rd place, seven seconds ahead of the 4th place runner, but a good minute behind Scott and Riccardo, who took 1st and 2nd respectively. While officially billed as an 8K, according to my Garmin the course was just shy of 6K (about 3.6 miles) with over 1100 feet of vertical gain. With that kind of elevation profile, I was quite happy with my 27:54 finish time which averaged out to about 7:36 pace.

Still, if I hadn't realized it before, I knew now that I was definitely going to be in a tough battle if I wanted to come home with a podium place for the three-race series!

Cooper Harbor Trails 12K Challenge

After the morning hill climb (which requires runners to jog back down the mountain to the start), Riccardo and I decided to grab some lunch and a beer at a local restaurant and brewery called the Fitzgerald (or "Fitz" for short). While the food options were quite limited -- especially for Riccardo who is a vegetarian -- the beer menu was about 20 pages long, with at least 4 or 5 pages dedicated to local Michigan-brewed craft beer.

"Recovery drinks" between races
I ordered the pull-pork sandwich and nice light summer brew (Whitsun wheat ale). Excellent choice on the beer. Questionable choice on the lunch fare, which I would still be burping up hours later at the starting line of the afternoon 12K. Well, you can't win 'em all.

As we lined up for the start of the 12K, I wasn't feeling particularly confident. The morning hill climb had been much more painful than I expected, and now I was a bit terrified of how much this race was going to hurt. The gun went off and as expected Riccardo and Scott shot off to the front and were quickly out of sight.

I found myself in third place, running harder than I would like, trying to protect tenuous lead over the two or three person chase pack behind me that included young William the track star (who had traded in his obnoxious multi-colored running shorts from the morning for an equally questionable pair of zebra/cheetah print shorts) and Simon Carn (who was in my age group and had finished only 45 seconds behind me on the opening hill climb).

Sweet biking trails, but scary to run on!
The course was challenging, but beautiful, taking us through the forest on some amazing mountain biking trails. The terrain was rolling, with lots of banked turns and wooden boardwalk sections that would have been awesome on a mountain bike, but which were actually quite frightening to run. I kept worrying that one of my toes was going to get caught between the loosely spaced wooden planks, or that my foot would break through.

I basically ran the entire 12K at my all-out 10K race pace, constantly glancing behind me to see how much of a lead I had on my pursuers. I felt like I was constantly running on the edge, flirting with a disastrous blow up. Yet somehow I managed to keep it all together. Just as I was coming out of the woods and on to the last half mile homestretch of mowed lawn, I heard footsteps behind me. Ugh. I turned my head, hoping it wasn't Simon as he is in my age group and I at least wanted to hold on for the age group win.

Finishing sprint!
Photo @Gowtham
Luckily it was young William, the track star, flying by me in his zebra/cheetah shorts. I briefly tried to surge and go with him, but my legs were having no part of it. I watched him pull away, finishing ten seconds behind him in 4th place, but 33 seconds ahead of the next runner, Simon. Although the race was officially listed as a 12K, my Garmin again showed as being shorter -- only about 10 or 11K or 6.6 miles. But I wasn't complaining. And I was quite happy with my 49:27 finish time, which averaged out to about 7:31 pace.

After catching my breath, I learned that Riccardo had edged Scott out this time, by 18 seconds, putting them in a virtual dead heat for the overall lead after two races. William and I finished 3 minutes behind Riccardo and Scott, pretty much ending any hope I might have had of winning the series. But I was still in 3rd place, and I was ready to give everything I had left on Sunday to hold on to my podium spot!

Carl Olson Memorial 25K Adventure Run

Sunday I woke up with a feeling of dread. Normally I wake up on race morning excited and eager to run. But after racing twice on Saturday at a pace significantly faster than I normally run on my little 50 and 100 mile jogs, I wasn't particularly looking forward to more 7:30 pace suffering. Luckily I think everyone else was feeling the same way, as the 25K race start was much slower and more mellow than Saturday's hill climb and 12K.

Holy humidity, it's hot!
Photo @Gowtham
Riccardo and Scott took off together, chit-chatting at a leisurely 6:30 pace on the relatively flat opening mile before the first long four-mile hill climb began. A young twenty-something year old named Andrew with fresh legs (who hadn't raced either of Saturday's races) went out in third place, while young William and I ran together in 4th and 5th.

Not too far behind us we could occasionally catch sight of the 3 or 4 person chase group that included Simon, the other guy in my age group who I only had about a minute lead over in the standings.

William and I worked together for quite a few miles, trying to keep Andrew in sight. We were running strong and moving well. But then somewhere around mile 8 or 9 on the second long 3 mile climb, William abruptly fell off the pace and disappeared. He would fade quite a bit, but hold on for 7th place. I was also struggling a bit on this climb, partially perhaps because I was now suddenly running alone without company and definitely also because I had run out of water.

As I approached the aid station at the top of the last climb, I could see that Andrew (the guy in 3rd place) had a fairly significant two or three hundred meter lead on me. With only 5K to go to the finish, all of which was downhill, I doubted that I would be able to reel him in.

Trying to outrun the various biting bugs
Photo @Gowtham
So I was quite surprised when only minutes later I saw a figure running on the trail head of me. Alas, it turned out to be my buddy Riccardo who had apparently fallen and then cramped up. He was still moving, but no longer running at his normal speed. I handed him my water bottle (which I had just refilled at the aid station) as I passed by and told him to drink it. I pressed on, now in 3rd place, hoping that I might catch Andrew and/or Scott.

However it was not to be and I never saw either Andrew or Scott until after I crossed the finish line. I finished 3rd on the day in 2:03:14, about 1:18 behind Andrew and almost 4 minutes behind Scott. My Garmin once again showed the course to be short, though this much closer to the stated 25K distance, measuring almost 24K or 14.8 miles. But who knows how well GPS technology really works deep in the woods of Michigan on winding switchback trails in a town whose claim to fame is that they don't have (and don't want) cell phone coverage.

In any case, based on my 3rd place finish in the 25K, knew that I had locked up 3rd place in the overall standings. The question was now whether my buddy Riccardo would finish in the next 4 or 5 minutes to preserve his overall lead over me. Otherwise, if he took too long out there, he could slip to 3rd overall and I would move up to 2nd overall in the standings. Tick, tick, tick... no sign of him yet.

The Dramatic Final Conclusion...

Until next time my friends... stay thirsty.
photo @Gowtham
Luckily for Riccardo he managed to keep it together and came in with 18 seconds to spare, good for 5th place on the day and 2nd overall in the three-race series. I was happy for him... though slightly jealous of the free pair of Salomon shoes he took home for 2nd place. But I didn't go home empty handed either as I won a bar of home-made soap! And a bunch of other cool stuff including a Salomon waist pack, a framed photo of the Porcupine mountains, a pair of trail socks, a hand-made necklace, and three jars of homemade jam. Not too shabby!

After the race, Scott (who won the 25K as well as the overall series) had to take his wife to the hospital for surgery on her finger which she had severely dislocated during a hard fall on the trail (note: the surgery went fine and she was released later that day).

Riccardo and I joined Mark, Phil, and Tom (friends of Scotts who had all driven in from Madison for the race) for rehydration and calorie replenishment (i.e., beer and pizza) at a bar across the street. After lunch and beers, we debated what to do next and eventually decided, quite wisely, to walk over to the local microbrewery for another pint or two. Work hard, play hard!