Tuesday, September 22, 2015

2015 Ohlone 50K Race Report

For once I'm not the shirtless jackass in the team photo :)
photo courtesy Agnes Pommier
Turn up the heat

If you read my (heavily profanity laced) Silver State 50K race report from this May you will recall that my annual birthday race, the Ohlone 50K, was inexplicably cancelled due to bad weather... or rather to the threat of bad weather... or more accurately, to the threat of a possible light sprinkling of rain -- which never actually materialized. Nobody really understands what the "brain trust" at the East Bay Regional Park District were thinking.

But long story short, the race was moved from May to September this year to avoid "bad weather". Ironically, the originally scheduled race date, May 18, turned out to be a beautiful day with clear skies and perfect 68 degree temps. Whereas the rescheduled date, September 18, fell in the middle of a record-breaking heat wave where mid-day temps topped out at well over 100 degrees.

Don't get me wrong though. I'm not complaining. After all, I am the same guy who publicly posted a Facebook prayer asking God to deliver a heat wave of epic proportions for Western States two years ago. "Dear merciful and compassionate Lord, please turn up the thermostat on race day so as to burn my rivals to smithereens. May the sports drink in their water bottles boil over. May their shoes melt into small puddles of rubber and/or other synthetic chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm." Yes, I'm an asshole.

So race morning rolls around and we all show up at the starting line. Well, most of us show up. Apparently around 60 of the 200 registered entrants had the good sense to stay home rather than even attempting to run 31 miles through the drought-stricken Ohlone Wilderness over nearly 9,000 feet of hills in 100+ degree temperatures.

I'm not sure how hot it actually got on the course. The temperature at the start of the race in Fremont at 8:00 am was pretty mild. And although it certainly warmed up as the day progressed, it never felt particularly hot or uncomfortable to me. Though, full disclosure, I sometimes sit in my parked car in the hot sun with the windows rolled up and the heater on listening to podcasts during my lunch break -- wearing a wool sweater. And a scarf.

Anyway, depending on who you ask, the high temp of the day was somewhere between 101 and 108 degrees Fahrenheit. However, I'm going to guess that it was at least 103 degrees (Celsius) out on the course -- which is the temperature at which sucrose melts. I say this because I had an open package of uneaten Cliff Shot Blocks in my pocket, but when I reached into my shorts to grab one, all I found was a handful of hot, wet, sticky goo.

The good news was that the temperatures were so hot, that all the rattlesnakes that usually hang out sunbathing themselves on the course also decided to stay home and call in sick. I didn't have to jump over a single rattler this year, which kinda takes some of the fun (and challenge) out of the race.

Slowly making my way up Mission Peak
photo courtesy Ellen Taylor
Off and... hiking?

In previous years I'd hammered the first climb up to Mission Peak as if there was a cash prem for the first person over the top of the hill. It's actually not a terrible strategy -- if you've got the fitness to pull it off. One year it worked well for me as I finished 2nd overall in 5 hours and 1 minute, just 6 or 7 minutes behind my Quicksilver teammate, and race winner, Jean Pommier. But this year my heart wasn't in it.

I'd pushed myself pretty hard at the North Country Run 50 Miler in Michigan a few weeks ago, just one week after racing 78 hard miles through the Canadian Rockies at FatDog 120. So I wasn't sure how much more my legs had left, and I decided to play it safe and  take it easy at Ohlone this year.

I knew going into the race that it was going to take a miracle (or an act of God, like a record breaking heat wave) for me to get onto the podium. According to the ultrasignup.com rankings, I was predicted to finish 15th overall. But I wasn't worried. Looking at the (long) list of fast young guys ranked ahead of me, I figured that at least half of them would probably go out hard and detonate in the final ten miles, giving me some roadkill to pick off on my march toward what would hopefully be another top 5 finish.

As the race started, I watched a blur of about a dozen guys take off ahead of me charging up the hill. Among them was Quicksilver teammate Ricky Russel as well as my neighbor (and Strava nemesis) Mike Helms and his buddy Chris, who were making their ultra racing debuts. But instead of running the climb with the leaders like I've normally done in past years, I decided to power hike the steep sections. I was pleasantly surprised to see Jean doing the same.

My strategy was to just take it easy for the first 20 miles, hiking the hills and running the flats and downhills. I figured that the real race wouldn't start until the last 10 miles. That's when the heat and hills would be taking their toll on anyone who had pushed too hard in the early miles. So I just focused on keeping my heart rate and breathing steady and under control. As much as it pained me to do, I avoided throwing in any of my patented Big Johnny style berserker attacks.

One of the rare sections where I did some actual running
photo courtesy Ellen Taylor
Slow and steady wins the race lands you on the podium

There's really not much to say about the race itself other than I kept steadily plugging away, occasionally catching up to and passing some of the early leaders who had started to fade. Somewhere just after Sunol, around mile 10 or 11, I came across my neighbor Mike's friend Chris, who had apparently blown a gasket and was sitting in shade under a tree. I tried to cajole him into continuing with me, but he wasn't having any of it.

A few miles later, heading into the next aid station at Goat Rock, I caught up to Mike who, as I mentioned, was making his ultra debut. Although his early break-neck pace had obviously slowed, he was still moving relatively well and appeared to not be in any real distress; yet I would later learn that he'd seen the writing on the wall and decided to call it a day and jogged back down to Sunol rather than trying to push on into uncharted territory and risk severe bonking and cramping.

Just as I was about to leave and head out of aid station, out of the corner of my eye I spied a giant bowl of bacon. I instantly shot my wad in my shorts The cliff block shots in my shorts pocket immediately melted. I love bacon. I'm the founding member of the Strava Bacon Runners Club. I grabbed two slices and thanked the aid station volunteers profusely. It was so yummy.

Getting "big wood" at the finish line
photo courtesy Ellen Taylor
Fueled on by the magical powers of bacon, I caught up with a few more runners over the next miles, gradually improving my position. I got occasional spotty reports that I had moved up to 7th, 6th and then 5th, and that the next runner was just a few minutes ahead. However, I wasn't particularly motivated to try and chase anyone down for 4th place. I mean, no one wakes up in the morning and says to them self, "I'm racing for 4th place today. It's 4th place or the infirmary".

However, I was, for some reason, oddly motivated to hold on to my 5th place spot. But, unfortunately, every time I glanced behind me I could see a runner in a long-sleeve gray shirt charging up the hill, gaining ground on me. This went on for hours. I started to wonder if it was perhaps just a heat-induced hallucination. If he was real, why hadn't he actually caught up to me by now? It was very bizarre.

Then suddenly with only about 4 or 5 miles to go as I was descending down the switchbacks in the only section of shaded forest on the course, I saw my Quicksilver teammate Ricky (who had been leading the race earlier) sitting down on a log in the shade. I poured a bit of water from my bottle over his head and neck hoping it might revive him a bit. He jumped up and started running down the trail with me. I knew that the gray-shirted runner/apparition was chasing, so I unfortunately couldn't afford to slow down and jog it in with Ricky.

The last few miles went by quickly and uneventfully until, with about a mile to go, a got stung in the ass by a wasp. But not to worry, I've been stung in much worse places, so I just laughed and kept on keeping on. When I arrived at the finish line I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I'd actually finished 3rd overall and that teammate Jean had won the race (his 5th win at Ohlone).

A few minutes later the gray-shirted phantom, who I learned was actually 52 year old Jeff Boutte, came sprinting in shirtless (or rather with his shirt tied around his waist), which momentarily confused me. We were excited to later see teammate Ricky come across the line in 5th place, thus giving our Quicksilver team 3 of the top 5 places. Also cracking the top 10 overall was teammate Stuart Taylor! The full results are here.

Ricky, John, Jean, Yujung, and Stuart
photo courtesy Ellen Taylor
Beer (and other stuff)

As soon as I crossed the finish line and collected my "big wood" award, I sprinted to my car hoping that the ice in my cooler hadn't all melted and that my beer was still cold. Thankfully, the beer was still ice cold despite the 100+ temps. And somehow, to my amazement, race director Larry England had successfully talked his son into standing over a hot grill on an already hot day, grilling some burgers and sausages. The food was amazing. Even the yellow jackets, who tried to fight me for my burger, seemed to agree).

Jean, Ricky and I kicked back and cheered on the other finishers including Quicksilver teammates Stuart Taylor, Yujung Wang, and Tim Thompson (who finished just in time for me to hand him my last beer before I had to take off to drive Keith Blom back to his car at Mission Peak).

Congrats to all the other runners who persevered out there in the heat and made it to the finish line!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

2015 North Country Trail Run 50 Ultra (50 Miler) Race Report

Flavor Flav approved: World's largest finisher medal!
It's all about the bling...

This was my third year running the North Country Trail Run 50 Miler in Wellston, Michigan. I first ran it back in 2012 where I managed to finish 3rd overall despite pushing myself so hard that my whole body cramped up in the last few miles and I ended up peeing blood afterwards. Here's my 2012 race report. I did slightly better the next year in 2013 where I managed to finish 2nd overall and 1st masters (and more importantly, avoided peeing blood or being hospitalized with rhabdo this time). Here's my 2013 race report.

I really love this race. I can't say what it is exactly that draws me back every year. Maybe it's the course features miles and miles of forested single track on the famous Big M mountain bike trails. Maybe it's the post race feast or the beer. Mmm, beer. Or maybe it's the camaraderie and the chance to spend the afternoon hanging out with all my ultra-runner buddies from Michigan who I don't get to see as often as I like. Though, if I'm honest, it's probably for the finisher medal.

In case you haven't seen it, North Country has the biggest ultra-marathon finisher medals in the world! And I don't mean that figuratively. I mean literally. The finisher medal this year measured 7 inches wide and weighed nearly half a pound. I couldn't initially figure out why my neck was so sore the morning after the race. And then I realized it was probably from walking around for hours after the race with that giant hunk of metal hanging from neck. Which really makes me wonder, how does Flavor Flav do it?

When in doubt... attack like a mad man!
A series of questionable decisions...

Conventional wisdom holds that you should cut back your mileage in the weeks leading up to a big race. I kinda did the opposite though. Instead of taking it easy and relaxing the weekend before North Country I ran 78 miles through the Canadian Rockies as hard as I could. Am I an idiot you ask? Well, yes, probably... but that's beside the point. Let me explain.

My big A race of 2015 was going to be FatDog 120, a grueling 200 kilometer race through the Canadian Rockies just North of Vancouver, British Columbia. I wasn't actually planning on running North Country this year as it fell just 7 days after Fat Dog. But shit happens. Unfortunately I found myself dropping out of FatDog at mile 78 after leading the race for much of the first 100 kilometers. So when a last minute opportunity to run North Country presented itself, I said, "what the hell, why not."

I had hoped to arrive in Manistee the night before the race in order to meet up with some friends from Midland who were camping including my buddy Bill Pritchett who had paced me at North Country in both 2012 and 2013. This year Bill was pacing another buddy of ours, Matt Frazier, who had finished 2nd last year at North Country. But due to some unforeseen circumstances (namely me getting drunk off my ass at Rare Bird Brewery in Traverse City), I wasn't able to arrive at the start line until race morning.

Unbeknown to me, the race organizers had apparently moved the race start up an hour. This was fine except that now the race started before dawn (while the trails were still dark) and I hadn't brought a headlamp with me. Luckily for me, I was able to tuck in behind our buddy Matt for the first few miles who hadn't brought a headlamp either (but who had managed to borrow one from our buddy Bill).

My plan was to be patient and not to do anything stupid for at least the first 25 miles. Then, if I was feeling good and the opportunity presented itself, I might try to attack on the downhills of the second 25 mile loop. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. Suddenly, only four miles into the race, I found myself sprinting past Matt (who lead the first four miles) and bombing down the first descent like a complete nut job.

Some of the Midland gang: Maggie, Chris, Bill
Could have been worse...

I'm not sure what exactly I was thinking when attacked so early in the race. Maybe I was hoping that no one would be ballsy enough to go with me and I could open up a decent lead and then stay out of sight for the rest of the race. Maybe I was hoping to shake things up and test the field to see was capable of responding. Or, most likely, maybe I wasn't thinking at all and just doing what I do best: crazy incomprehensible shit.

Things pretty much played out as you might expect. I did manage to open up a bit of a lead for the first 18 miles or so. But I eventually got caught. And then I eventually got dropped. And then I eventually got caught, and dropped, again. But thankfully I did manage to hang on for 3rd place overall. And more importantly, I held off all the other "old" dudes and manage to win the Master's division championship, taking home a nice little piece of hardware.

My official finish time of 7:17:26 was only about 7 minutes slower than my PR on this course of 7:10:46 which I ran in 2013 when my buddy Bill paced me. Considering that I ran solo this year without a pacer, and that I'd raced 78 hard miles the weekend before, I was pretty pleased with my performance. Maybe next time I'll run smarter and skip the silly antics. Maybe.

Congrats to Jordan Lafreniere, who ended up winning the 50 miler, as well as to 2nd place runner Kyle Kiel who was finished just 3 minutes later. And a big shout out to our fellow Midland runner Maggie Mae Retelle who won the women's master's division finishing 2nd woman overall behind women's winner Angela Carron. Here's a link to the official results. And here's my Strava data

And while I normally would not bother to mention the results of the children's fun run or any other sub-ultra distance, in this case I must make an exception and offer congratulations to another Midland buddy Michael Barrows who not only won the marathon race, but destroyed the course record with a ridiculously fast 2:47:13. #WhatTheWhat #AreYouKiddingMe #ThatsReallyDamnFast

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

2015 Mountain Madness Fat Dog 120 Race Report

A cold and wet Fat Dog
photo by Team Riccardo
Short summary of my DNF at Fat Dog 120

OK, if you've purposely sought out this race report you are probably either: a) my mother, who is legally obligated to read anything I write, b) some weirdo who enjoys reading about other people's epic failures, or c) a concerned friend who wants to know how I managed to fuck up yet another race. In which case, definitely read on. 

Or perhaps you are a runner who is thinking about signing up for the Mountain Madness Fat Dog 120 Trail Race next year and you are scouring the Internet for race reports hoping to gain some nuggets of wisdom -- in which case, you're shit out of luck. The only thing you're going to learn from my race report is what NOT to do. However, you might enjoy this race report from Nickademus Hollon who won the race and broke the course record this year, or this report from my buddy Riccardo who finished 4th.

Or check out this spectator report from Mitch Leblanc or Mitch's race report from 2014 where he finished 2nd.

Or maybe you are just a beer geek looking for reviews on "Fat Tug" IPA from Driftwood Brewery in Victoria, BC. Which means you apparently typed "Fat Dog" instead of "Fat Tug". In which case... you're drunk, go home. But buy me a bottle of Fat Tug if you see it at the store. It's fucking amazing and we can't get it out here in California.

In any case, here's a short summary of what happened at Fat Dog this year. Basically, I tried to slip quietly off the front of the race early when no one was looking. I hoped that if I got out in front and then hammered the first two downhill sections like a crazy fucking nut job, I might be able to open a sizable enough lead to hold off the inevitable late charge of the speedy elites like Nickademus Hollon, Jeremy Humphrey, Chris Calzetta, Nick Pedatella, and others. 

But, as you probably guessed, it didn't work. Nickademus Hollon caught me around the 100K mark. We ran the next 18K together, which was awesome (he's an amazing guy). But I had been stumbling and falling on the tails all day, including a hard fall where I'd injured my hand. Then, approaching the Cayuse Flats aid station with Nick around mile 72, I inexplicably lost my balance and fell off a log-bridge crossing over a river bed. I narrowly avoided impaling myself on a bunch of sharp sticks in the river. That's when I decided to DNF. 

But the good news is that I got to join the crew of my good friend Riccardo Tortini who was in 6th place at the time and running strong. Riccardo eventually moved up to finish 4th! I can't say that I was a particularly useful or helpful member of "Team Riccardo". Mainly I just sat in the back seat of the Jeep, stinking to high heaven, and eating handfuls of Jujube candies in between naps. I sincerely apologize to Riccardo's girlfriend Tanya and her friends Jessica and Brett who had to endure the death-stench of my socks, shoes, and shorts (all of which I was forced to burn later as even boiling hot water and soap proved ineffectual in removing their horrible odor).

Sent home from work by HR again today
Where it all went wrong, part 1 (super-hero complex)

My greatest strength as a runner, and perhaps ironically also my biggest weakness, is my unwavering, unbridled, unmitigated, unrelenting, undying... and probably unfounded (if not utterly irrational) belief in myself. No matter how ridiculous the challenge, how miserable the conditions, or how absurdly stacked the starting field, I always feel that I can overcome the odds and win!

I might be ranked as low as 15th or 20th in the Ultrasignup.com race predictions, and I will look at the names of all the elite runners ranked way ahead of me and think to myself, "Oh fuck. Holy shit. I've got this motherfucker! This race is mine". It defies all common sense really.

Why, you might reasonably ask, does a guy who's never won a major race, go into every race thinking he can win? Excellent question. And like most excellent questions, the person answering the question is usually best served to just hem and haw for a few seconds before deftly deflecting the question by breaking into a peripherally-related anecdote.

So... did I ever tell you about that time at Hardrock where I shattered my finger into five pieces, almost got struck by lightening, and held off a late-charge from Timmy Olson? No? Well... sit down and make yourself comfortable while I start from the beginning. Actually, never mind. You can read about it here if you're interested. 

The point is... yes, there actually is a point... is that sometimes all it takes is just one small taste of modest success to make you start questioning your preconceived limitations. And nothing -- nothing in the world -- is more powerful (or more dangerous) than a person who believes that anything might be possible!

But irrational and unfounded belief in one's self -- no matter how powerful it might be -- is not enough to explain some of the ridiculous things I sometimes attempt in races. For example, there was that time I went out hard in the first half of the inaugural Lake Tahoe 200 Mile endurance run opening up an almost 5 hour lead on the field before my body shut down in the last 10 miles and I slipped from 1st to 3rd place. Or that time, more recently, when I decided to launch a mad-crazy-bust-your-shit-open attack just four miles into a 50 mile race (where I also ended up eventually slipping to 3rd place).

So there's definitely another factor in play in explaining my questionable race tactics (antics?). I think perhaps the other part of my issue is that, in addition to believing that I can accomplish anything if I try hard enough, is that I'm not particularly afraid of failure. I don't mind going for broke and coming up empty. I have no problem with taking a shot at glory and going home with a DNF when it doesn't work out. Other people, my wife in particular, find this infuriating. I can't count the number of times I've called her on the phone while she's in the car driving to see me at a race, telling her to turn around and go home because I've dropped out.

Cat napping cut into my training time
Where it all went wrong, part 2 (beer and cat naps)

Those of you who read my 2015 North Shore Knee Knackering 50K race report know that I have a score to settle with Vancouver (and British Columbia in general) after I got completely "knackered" by the brutal North Shore trails back in July. I shrugged off my lackluster performance at Knee Knacker blaming it on the humidity and/or a lack of early-summer fitness. But I'd be ready for Fat Dog in August I vowed! 

I'd intended to train for Fat Dog. I'd intended to train hard with months of 120 mile weeks. But... you know, shit got in the way. We adopted a cat from the shelter this summer; and every time I got dressed to go running she'd hop up on my lap and lay on my chest, preventing me from training.

Beer brewing/drinking also cut into my training
And then there was my ill-fated attempt at home brewing that after a month of hard work, resulted in about a gallon of remarkably unremarkable beer that compares favorably to a flat glass of Blue Moon or Shock Top that's been sitting out all night. Though in its defense I will say that what my brew lacked in body and mouthfeel, it made up for with a surprisingly high alcohol content. 

So... instead of training like a mad man for Fat Dog, I basically just sat around for a month getting drunk and petting my cat. Good times. As far as training goes, since I obviously didn't have time for long runs or high-volume training (due to my previously mentioned beer and cat-related commitments) I decided to focus almost exclusively on high-intensity interval workouts -- particularly short downhill sprints. Whether this would prove to be a good training strategy for a 200 kilometer race would remain to be seen.

Where it all went wrong, part 3 (quite possibly going out "slightly" too hard)
My pre-race plan was, as I mentioned in the intro above, to try and slip off the front of the race on the first climb and then slowly build a solid lead by hammering the shit out of the first couple of descents. But as soon as the race started I immediately found myself bottled up on the opening single-track in about 20th place, well behind the front runners. So much for my plan.

Since there was nothing I could do about the situation until the trail later widened, I just took it easy and chatted with my buddy Riccardo. We also struck up a conversation with elite pro runner Nickademus Hollon who was running near us. Nick is a talented young runner who is making a name for himself on the international ultra scene. I enjoyed our short chat, but as soon as the trail opened up I made my move and threw in an acceleration.

Me, Riccardo, and Nickademus at mile 1
photo by Team Riccardo
The problem was that, although I was slowly making my way up through the field and passing other runners, I had absolutely no idea of how many people were still ahead of me, or in which place I was. After about 9 miles of steady uphill running, we finally got to the top of the first climb and started descending. I stepped on the gas and bombed down the mountain, hoping to reel in some more of the front runners ahead of me.

Sections of the descent were fairly sketchy. At one point, I was legitimately wondering if perhaps I had missed a turn and strayed off the official trail and onto a deer path. But I was moving too fast to safely stop or slow down, so I just kept flying recklessly down the cliff side hoping that I was still on course. And then it happened. I lost my balance and began a long slow-motion fall off the side of the trail. Luckily I landed on a log. It hurt like hell, but it broke my fall. I was worried that it possibly also broke by hand, which immediately started hurting and swelling up. 

At this point I still had no idea in what place I was. I hadn't seen another runner in at least an hour. I figured that I was probably in the top 10, maybe 6th or 7th place. But I was worried because even though I was recklessly flying down the mountain out of control like a complete jackass, I wasn't catching or passing any other runners. No one else could possibly be stupid enough to run this descent this fast, so it didn't make any sense to me that I wasn't making up ground or passing anyone else. What the hell?

As I rolled into the first aid station at the bottom of the mountain I saw Tanya, my buddy Riccardo's girlfriend. She said something very confusing. "He's only two minutes ahead of you". She couldn't be taking about Riccardo, because he was behind me. "Who are you talking about," I asked with a puzzled look on my face. "The guy from Idaho," Tanya said, referring I gathered to Jeremy Humphrey. "What place am I in," I asked. "Second place," she replied! "Oh shit, that's not good," I blurted out, somewhat surprised to find myself so close to the lead so early into the race.

Tanya informing me that I'm already in 2nd place
photo by Team Riccardo
Then, in an adrenaline-fueled stupor I hammered the next mile of flat(ish) fire road and caught up to Jeremy just as he was turning off onto a the start of single-track climb. And it's a good thing I saw him or I very well might have missed that hard-right turn! We ran/hiked together for the next few miles. Well, sorta. I basically just power hiked the whole climb. Jeremy alternated between slow hiking and fast sprinting (or at least that's how it seemed to me). Every time I would catch up to him, he would throw in a burst of running and open up a bit of a lead. I found this strangely amusing and it helped pass the time.

Eventually we both finally settled into a compatible rhythm and we were able to chat while running/hiking together. He's a great runner and I was glad to be be able to share a few miles with him. Then suddenly he abruptly stepped off to the side of the trail and told me to pass, explaining that he often struggles a bit around 4 or 5 hours into races. 

I had no doubts that he would eventually catch back up and blow past me. But oddly, I never say him again. I later heard an unconfirmed account that he took a hard fall and possibly dislocated his shoulder and that, even though he wanted to continue, medical staff pulled him from the race. I hope he is OK. Unfortunately at the time of this writing, he hasn't yet updated his blog.

Outdoor Research Helium II waterproof jacket
and Montane waterproof pants :)
Shortly after taking the lead I started hearing rumbling in the sky behind me. The rumbling quickly turned to lightening. My next move was crucial; what should I do? Although I did have a thin light-weight nylon shell in my pack, I hadn't packed an actual raincoat or any warm clothes. And I was only wearing a sleeveless tee shirt. I knew that if I kept moving at my current pace and the storm caught up to me, I would be cold and miserable -- and likely end up DNFing with hypothermia.

My other option was to pick up the pace run like fuck with complete reckless abandon down the mountain and try to outrun the storm. This would be a foolhardy and risky choice with several negative potential outcomes including falling and injuring myself and/or completely trashing my legs on the long descent. Only a complete fool would try to try to out sprint a lightening storm down a mountain. So naturally that's what I opted to do.

Where it all went wrong, part 4 (falling off bridges and stumbling towards stupidity)

I won't go into all the minutiae of the next 10 hours. But basically I stayed one step ahead of the storm and made it safely to the Bonnevier aid station where my waterproof pants and jacket were waiting for me in my drop bag. Unfortunately, many of the other runners behind me got caught in the storm without warm gear or waterproof clothes and ended up DNFing due to hypothermia. My Bay-area friends Dan Decker and Franz Dill were among those unfortunate casualties.

Unfortunately for me, but I guess fortunately for him, Nickademus Hollon was not among those taken out by the storm. Despite the 40 or so minute lead that I had built going into the Bonnevier aid station at mile 40, I was worried that it wouldn't be enough to hold off Nick who is a notoriously strong finisher. And, as it would turn out, [spoiler alert], I was very right to be worried.

In the interest of time I will summarize the highlights of miles 40 - 60 as follows:  
  • Jessica made me a delicious industrial-sized grilled cheese sandwich that was probably at least 1000 calories and took me almost three full bottles of water to wash down.
  • My legs were getting very cold and wet from brushing up against all the wet plants on the overgrown trail from Bonnevier to Heather aid station when I suddenly remembered that I had a pair of light-weight waterproof pants in my pack. I stopped and put them on and instantly went from feeling cold, wet and miserable to feeling magically happy and warm. I imagined that I was on a tropical beach drinking giant buckets of Sangria.
  • My sunbathing and sangria fantasies were suddenly interrupted when I spotted a very large, very black bear on the trail in front of me. Without thinking, I instantly let out a loud blood-curling yell. In retrospect, this was a risky move that would likely have one of two effects: the bear might perhaps be startled and run off, or equally likely, the bear might turn and attack me. Luckily, the bear scampered off into the bushes. Then, for reasons that are still not clear to me, I decided to use the emergency whistle that the race organizers insisted we carry on our person as part of our mandatory gear. This tiny plastic whistle produced the most pathetic wimpy sounding tweet in the history of the world. I was immediately embarrassed, and more importantly worried that the bear might come back out of the bushes laughing at my feeble whistle and dismember me.
  • After refueling at the Heather aid station on top of the mountain, where it was very cold and windy as the sun was starting to set, I said goodbye to the aid station volunteers and wished them good luck. I was fairly certain that they would either all freeze to death in the night, or be eaten by the bear. It suddenly got very foggy leaving the Heather aid station just as the sun was setting. I was having problems seeing the trail in front of me. Turning on my headlamp proved useless and actually made things worse as it simply reflected off the fog causing a terrible glare. So instead I ran down the rocky, technical mountain in the dark fog. Not surprisingly, I started tripping and falling. I rarely, if ever, fall during a race. But I must have taken at least a dozen spills on that descent, some of them pretty hard. There was lots of profanity. A few death threats against the race organizers, and Canada in general, may have been uttered.
Finally it happened, as I feared. Nick caught me. Just as I was heading out of the Nicomen Lake aid station at around 100K, Nick came running in. My hopes were dashed. I guess I mumbled something passably complimentary to him like, "Hey Nick, you're moving well." Although what I was actually thinking was probably something more like, "Fuck, you're alive! I was hoping the bear had eaten you."

This isn't me (I crossed at night), but this is the log-bridge thing that I fell off
photo by Brian McCurdy

Even though I had been fairly certain that Nick would eventually catch me at some point, I had hoped that point would come later -- ideally sometime after mile 100. The race profile indicated that miles 80 - 100 were supposed to be relatively flat and runnable (at least compared to the rest of the course). And since Nick is a much faster flat runner than me, I knew he would be able to cover that 20 mile section much faster than I could. So my only chance of winning would have been to hit that section with a decent lead and try to hold him off on the last climb and descent.

So now I had to regroup and re-calibrate my goals and aspirations for the race. Instead of thinking about the win and/or course record, my new goal would be to hang on for 2nd place. I left the aid station a few minutes before Nick and it took a while for him to catch back up to me even though I stopped to pee at least twelve times on that section. When I finally heard him and saw his light approaching from behind and I stepped aside. To my surprise he invited me to run along with him. This was really cool of him as he could have easily blown by me. We spent the 18 kilometers running together and chatting. It was a bit surreal as he is a runner who I really admire (hell, the guy finished Barkley, a race that only a handful of people have ever finished). Anyway, that was definitely the highlight of my race!

Also not me (I wish I was that graceful). Overhead shot of the log I fell off
photo by Brian McCurdy

Unfortunately, my race would come to an abrupt end. Just as we were approaching the next aid station together at Cayuse Flats, we had to cross over a river on a fallen pair of logs that had been converted into a makeshift bridge. While Nick just trotted effortlessly across, I really struggled with my balance and coordination. Every step I took was tentative. And then, trying to duck under a small tree branch, I inexplicably lost my balance and toppled off the side of the log into the river.

Somehow I avoided getting impaled on any of the hundred or so sharp sticks pointing up in every direction. But my confidence was shook. That fall scared the shit out of me. I decided then and there to DNF. I was legitimately worried about my health. It may also have had something to do with the fact that I've suffered a couple of serious running related health injuries in the past few years. 

Three years ago I suffered a bad case of rhabdomyolysis after running myself into the ground during a hot and humid 50 mile race in Michigan. My kidney and liver both shut down and I peed blood for days afterward; it took me almost six months to resume racing again. Then last year I ran my body down during the Tahoe 200 and ended up struggling with adrenal fatigue syndrome which took me another five months to fully recover from.

Although I had already made my mind up to drop out of the race, I knew that I still had to get down off the mountain to the next aid station at the Cascades parking lot down by the highway, which was still 8 kilometers away. I didn't say anything to Nickademus about my plans to drop as he might try to talk me out of it. More importantly I was worried that he might do something overly generous like volunteer to slowly hike down with me instead of running, which would of course affect his chances of breaking the course record.

So I made an excuse about wanting to eat some soup and sent Nick on his way. He yelled back, "You've got 5 minutes. Don't stay at the aid station longer than 5 minutes." I smiled and waved. 

Riccardo taking a moment to savor the finish
photo by Team Riccardo
Second guessing?

It's easy to DNF. There are plenty of convenient excuses you can come up with to convince yourself that did the right thing by quitting. I'm looking after my long-term health. I didn't want to risk injury. I had terrible blisters. I had terrible chaffing. I was "border-line hypothermic" (i.e., I was kinda cold), I was tired. I wasn't having fun anymore. They all sounds good in the moment.

The true test is whether those excuses still satisfy you in the days after the race. Once you've taken that warm shower, slipped into clean dry clothes, stuffed yourself with food, and fallen asleep. When you wake up the next day are you still content with your excuse, or are you kicking yourself for having taken the easy way out?

In my case, you could rightfully point out that when I dropped at the Cascade aid station at mile 78 the hardest part of the course was already behind me. I done the worst of the technical descents. It would be daylight soon. The next 20 miles were all supposedly "flat and runnable" (well, relatively speaking anyway). And the last climb and descent would be in the daylight instead of the night, and was far less technical than the other descents I'd already done. Hell, I could have just jogged the flats, power hiked the climbs, and carefully walked down the descents and still probably finished in a top spot. 

But I didn't want to. I wasn't willing to put in the effort, endure the suffering, or risk the potential repercussions. I wasn't sure why I was stumbling and falling, and that really worried me. In retrospect it might just have been that my legs were fatigued from all the hard running early on. But whatever the case, it wasn't something I was willing to risk. And, a month later, as I write this blog I am still OK with my decision. Maybe I'll go back to Fat Dog some year and give it another shot. And maybe things will work out better. Or maybe I'll do all the same dumb shit all over again. But that's my choice. And I'm comfortable with it ;)

"Team Riccardo" from left to right:
Riccardo, Tanya, Jessica, and Brett
Shout outs!

Congrats to Nickademus Hollon for winning the race and breaking the course record -- and for doing it with grace and amazing sportsmanship.

I of course want to give a big shout out to my good friend Riccardo Tortini who ran a smart and controlled race all day (and night, and morning, and day) moving up from 6th place to finish 4th overall! 

Thanks also to Tanya, Jessica and Brett who drove hundreds (or perhaps even thousands?) of miles through the mountains, with little to no sleep, to cheer us on and keep our bellies full of warm delicious grilled cheese sandwiches, quesadillas, and guacamole-bean-rice tacos! You guys are the best!

And of course, thanks so much to all the amazing volunteers who spent the weekend camped out in cold, wet, miserable conditions. You rock! And to the folks on top of the mountain at the Heather aid station, I hope you weren't eaten by that bear!

Here's a link to the official race results. And here's my Strava data for the first 100K as well as the rest of my Strava data before I dropped at mile 78.

** UPDATE ** After DNF'ing in 2015, I came back to win the race in 2016! Click here to read my 2016 race report.