Saturday, April 27, 2024

Pinnacles National Park: Trip Report 2024

"Umm... hey guys. Condors don't eat people... do they?" our friend Loren asks nervously, looking up at the sky.

Several large California condors have started circling ominously overhead, their 10-foot long giant wingspans blotting out the sun. An eerie "whoosh... whoosh.... whoosh" fills the air as a giant black shadow shrouds us in darkness.

"Oh shit! Oh shit! I know how this ends," I exclaim, "I've seen Game of Thrones. Drogon is about to deep-fry our asses! Run everybody, run!" 

I must say, I certainly did not have barbequed by dragon breath on my bingo card for 2024.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's back up a bit. Last weekend, my wife Amy and I decided to undertake a pilgrimage to Pinnacles National Park -- about an hour and a half south of our home in San Jose -- to try and spot the elusive California Condor, a bird that nearly went extinct in the 1980s when its numbers were reduced to only twenty or so individual birds left in the wild.

Thanks to the efforts of the US government (wow, that’s a sentence I never thought I would find myself typing) today there are now several hundred California condors living in the wild across California, Arizona, Utah, and Mexico's Baja California.

"I never knew my mother or father. I was raised by a hand puppet named Shelia."

In 2003, the California condor was reintroduced into Pinnacles National Park, and the park is now part-time home to a flock of around a hundred or so condors who split their time between Pinnacles and the nearby Ventana Wilderness, which is only about 30 miles away as the crow flies  as the condor soars. Apparently this is "light work" (as the kids say) for the high-soaring condors, who can travel up to 200 miles per day in search of food. [Ed: I don't even like to drive that far.]

Pinnacles, if you have never been, is a remote, rugged park, with steep, unforgiving terrain that involves trekking through tunnels, ascending rock ladders, and tip toeing along exposed cliff edges. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart or anyone afraid of heights. So, for reasons that are still unclear to me, we thought it would be a great idea to invite our buddy Loren, who suffers from Vertigo and is deathly afraid of heights.

"Don't look down Loren!"

“Don’t look down Loren. For God’s sake, whatever you do, don’t look down!” I shout. Predictably, Loren turns his head back and looks down. Instantly his knees begin to shake and his face suddenly becomes three shades lighter. Amy and I briefly consider leaving Loren behind, but then we remember that he drove and has the car keys. “Come on Loren, you got this,” we lie. Loren definitely does not look like a man who’s got this.

"You got this Loren!"

We've been hiking for over an hour at this point. We've already overcome numerous obstacles, not the least of which was finding a parking spot. It's worth mentioning that while Pinnacles is one of the least visited US national parks (at least in terms of total number of annual visitors), it's paradoxically one of the most crowded national parks, especially on weekends in the Spring when the temps are mild and the wildflowers are in full bloom. 

If you arrive after 8:30 am on Saturday in the Spring, good luck finding a parking spot or even gaining entrance to the park. Luckily we had gotten an early start and arrived at the park just after dawn. Our early start also meant that we didn't have to contend with much foot traffic on our way up the mountain, passing the occasional other hiker or two, but otherwise having the trails mostly to ourselves.

Amy and Loren trying to keep their feet dry, but definitely getting their feet wet. LOL.

"Oh look, a condor" Loren exclaims excitedly, pointing off to the side of the trail.

"Dude, that's a Swallow" I burst out laughing, "You really should see an optometrist! Condors are huge. They're the largest North American land birds. With their wings spread, they're bigger than human. Whereas that little Swallow could literally fit in your pocket!"

"Ah, okay. But what about that bird over there. That's definitely a California condor, right?" Loren proclaims confidently.

"Ugh! That's a California scrub jay,"  I sigh, exasperatedly.

"I knew it was from Cali though, bro," Loren beams. "You can tell by how chill he is. Just soaking up some rays. Probably about to smoke a bowl and crush a burrito."

"Are we there yet?"

Having been hiking for over an hour and a half already, and just having successfully navigated one of the more precarious sections of the trail, we're all relieved to finally be approaching the summit. As we turn the last corner, a large shadow suddenly blots out the sky.

"Holy crap, what the hell is that!" I exclaim.

"That's a California Condor!" Loren shouts excitedly. 

On cue, a large condor flies right in front of our faces, just a few feet above our heads, its large not-particularly-handsome bald head on full display. It's definitely no scrub jay. And based on it's large pink/orange head, it clearly not a vulture either. It's unmistakably and unequivocally a California condor. Mission accomplished! We've managed to spot one in the wild. Woohoo!

Condor or not condor, that is the question. Whether tis nobler in the sky...

Suddenly, we look up off to our right and notice a group of at least a half-dozen more condors resting atop a rocky crag above us.

"Hey, what do you call a flock of condors?" Amy asks.

"I don't know, what do you call a flock of condors?" I respond good-naturedly, assuming that Amy is setting Loren and I up for the punchline of a joke.

After a few seconds of silence I realize she's asking earnestly. "Oh. Uh. Um. I don't know. A murder? A committee? A kettle? A rookery?" I respond, rattling off random words I've picked up from the New York Times crossword puzzle.

"Actually, a flock of condors is called a condo, while a flock of California condors is referred to as a scarcity..." an annoyingly familiar voice chimes in. 

"What the fuck Siri, no one asked you! For hell's sake, I thought I disabled you!?" I yell, furiously fumbling with the settings on my iPhone.

"You're welcome. Happy to be of help," Siri interjects cheerfully.

cacophony of condors?

Resigned to the fact that Siri refuses to be silenced, I decide go with the flow and inquire, "Hey Siri, do condors eat humans?"

"Condors are scavengers, often eating remains left by careless hunters..." Siri begins lecturing.

Siri goes on to explain that part of the reason California condors nearly went extinct was due, in large part, to the usage of lead bullets by ranchers and hunters. Condors end up eating the leftover gut piles of the carcasses of the animals that had been shot, resulting in lead poisoning. 

Siri then over-cheerfully relays that between 1992 and 2019, nearly 100 wild condors across the West and Mexico died from ingesting lead. Thankfully, however, California has taken steps to ban the use of lead ammunition, which has helped contribute to the growth of the condor population in recent years.

"Okay, thanks Siri. And -- just asking for a friend -- do condors breath fire like dragons?" 

Siri groans and audibly rolls her eyes, but otherwise doesn't bother to verbally respond.

Pro tip: Dark tunnels are great place to pet sleeping dragons

An hour and a half later, safely back down off the mountain and on the road back home, we take turns Googling fun facts about California condors. 

“Did you know condors can live to be over 60 years old,” Amy asks? 

“Ah, I guess that explains why they are all bald,” I reply, smirking.

"Did you know that a condor can eat three pounds of carrion in one feeding?" Siri blurts out, joining our conversation unprompted.

“Speaking of carrion… who’s up for some Smash Burger,” I inquire, suddenly very hungry. 

“I could smash a burger,” Amy replies. 

And so we set our compasses north, having successfully adventured and lived to tell the tale.

Show up after 8 am and this will be the "pinnacle" of your Pinnacle's experience

Additional Reading:

Friday, September 29, 2023

IMTUF 100 Race Report

"The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected" -- Robert Frost


Full disclosure: this isn’t your typical race report. I’m not going to bore you with all kinds of factual information about the race and the course. If you want to know about each creek crossing and the exact GPS location of every rock on the route, I’m guessing that information is included in the 47-page-long race guide available on the race’s website (which I definitely plan to read… one day).

No, this “race report” is more of a “love letter”. A love letter written by an aging runner who has accepted the fact that his body has begun to slow down, and that his fastest days are likely behind him now, but who is immensely grateful – grateful to still be able to do what brings him joy, grateful to be able to move through the mountains with some grace, grateful for the people in his life (both past and present). Grateful. Full stop.

To pole or not to pole, that is the question…

It’s the day before the IMTUF 100 miler and my buddy Loren – who is going to be pacing me for the last 46 miles of the race – swings by my house to pick me up on our way to the airport. As I climb into the passenger seat, I glance at his race gear, tucked neatly in the back.

Dude, “Where did you find those hiking poles… at a garage sale… in 1970?” I jokingly ask, ogling his huge, aluminum hiking poles – the kind with the with big rubber safety tips on the bottom to help the elderly avoid slipping on wet floors at Bob Evan’s.

“Did you buy those at CVS, next to the Metamucil and reading glasses,” I continue teasing? “I’m surprised they don’t have tennis balls on the bottoms,” I toss in for good measure. “What else did you pick up at the pharmacy?” I inquire. “Does Ensure even make sports gels?” I blurt out, now laughing uncontrollably.

Loren's poles. LOL!

“These poles have been to Mt. Everest base camp I’ll have you know!” Loren exclaims defiantly.

“Oh, did you take them off a dead climber whose body had been frozen on the mountain for 50 years?” I quip.  “Who made those things anyway… Spaulding?” I jest, naming the oldest sporting goods brand that comes to mind.

I then proceed pull out my lightweight, carbon-fiber, Black Diamond Z poles that conveniently fold down into a third of their full size, allowing me to neatly stuff them into the Salomon custom quiver attached to the back of my hydration pack. “You need to get yourself a pair of these bad boys,” I instruct. “Look at the sharp carbide tips,” I exclaim while wielding my pole like a fencing epée, dangerously close to Loren’s face.

Loren and I proceed to spend the remainder of the 45-minute car ride to the airport discussing the pros and cons of whether to bring our poles to the race or not. Neither of us are huge fans of poles. But, having recently sustained a rather severe injury to my left ankle, which is still painful, swollen, and unstable, I’m hoping that poles – along with my ankle brace – with provide some degree of stability and give me a better shot at completing this exceptionally difficult course.

Plus, I figure using poles may help spare my legs by shifting some strain away from my legs to my upper body. Having been sidelined by my torn ankle for over two months, I’ve only recently been able to start running again, putting in just one week of solid training. I figure my quads are going to need all the help they can get.

Loren however, decides he’s going sans poles. Part of his concern is that his ridiculously large poles are too large to stow away when not in use, meaning he will have to carry them the entire time during the race, making it difficult to free up his hands for things like scrambling over rocks, stuffing quesadillas into his face at aid stations, and high fiving other race participants and spectators. “Jesus. How much high fiving are you planning to do out there,” I ask, bemused.

Hopefully Loren will upgrade to these!

Loren then reveals that his primary concern is that TSA won’t allow him through security with the poles, which could be perceived as a weapon. I try to assure him that no one has ever tried to highjack a plane with a rubber tipped walking cane. Loren and I start laughing at the mental image of him waving his poles about while shouting, “Turn this plane around. I need to go home. I forgot my arthritis medication.”

While we joke about old age, I am acutely aware of the fact that, having recently turned 50 and 51 respectively earlier this year, Loren and I – while in damn-good shape for our ages – are technically no longer young men. I don’t want to call it a mid-life crisis, but I have recently accepted – albeit somewhat begrudgingly – that I’m not getting younger, or faster. And, unfortunately, much like sands in an hourglass, so too is the cartilage in my knees.

I’m not sure how it happened, this getting-old nonsense. One day I was in my mid-forties, at the peak of my powers, winning races and collecting Strava KOMs, the way a four-year old collects candy on Halloween – exuberantly, by the handful, stuffing it in his face as he skips down the sidewalk. Then suddenly, the next day I’m looking in the mirror at a fifty-year old man with graying hair and growing laugh lines. But as they say… getting old sure beats the alternative.

The trouble with training

They say you should train for races. You know, long runs on the weekend and that sort of thing. And I was really hoping to put in a dedicated training block for IMTUF. I even rented a condo up in Tahoe for a high-altitude training camp, which I pitched to my family as an impromptu summer vacation! “Yeah guys, we’ll do lots of fun family stuff together. Like have breakfast together. And then say good night to each other at bedtime when I return from my epic all-day hike. You know, family fun!”

But unfortunately, the training camp / family vacation was cut short when I took a hard fall running down the mountain one evening and tore every ligament in my ankle, including a grade 3 “complete” tear of my ATFL. As I hobbled out of Urgent Care on crutches with my foot in an air cast, I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to run trails again. Certainly, there’s no way I would be running IMTUF in just over two months.

Modeling the latest in footwear fashion

I did some research and then spoke with a podiatric surgeon who laid out my options. “Option A: We can surgically remove a section of muscle tissue from your leg, and then transplant it into your ankle. Recovery time will be 4-6 months. You’ll need to be in a full cast for the first couple of months, and then a walking boot…”.

“Sorry to interrupt Doc, but what about option B: Go f*ck yourself!” I shouted defiantly, intending to make a quick, dramatic exit out of the office. Unfortunately, I completely underestimated just how difficult it is to open the hospital exit doors while using crutches and trying carry a handful of medical paperwork. Several minutes later, as the entire lobby watched in amusement, I finally managed to hobble out of the building.

And so, I made up my mind that instead of having surgery to repair the torn ligament, I was going to start doing 10,000 calf raises a day to strengthen all the surrounding muscles and ligaments in my foot, ankle, and calf in order to compensate for the missing ligament. “Time to pick up the slack, fucker!” I shouted in the general direction of my fibularis longus muscle, not knowing exactly what the fibularis longus is, much less precisely where it is located.

With only a couple weeks to go before the race, I still wasn’t completely sure whether my ankle was battle-ready or not. So, I decided to head back up to Tahoe for a week to hike the steepest, craziest, most technical routes I could find. At the end of the week my ankle still hadn’t exploded or fallen off, so I figured what the hell, let’s give this a shot.

Tis but a flesh wound

Mandatory reading…

Having completed over 100 ultra marathons at this point in my life, I tend to read race descriptions with a bit of healthy skepticism, skipping over the hyperbole and overly detailed turn-by-turn directions that I’m never going to remember anyway. “Crap, I forget, am I supposed to turn left after the small Aspen tree by the large rock, or after the large Aspen tree by the small rock?”

Now I just skim race manuals for any interesting nuggets. After all, most races are essentially the same. They all have aid stations every 6 – 12 miles or so. And the aid stations all provide some kind watery-liquid, sugary gels, and carbohydrate-laden snacks.

The biggest mystery is how stale the P&B sandwich bites will be, and how many yellow jackets you’ll have to battle for the last turkey-avocado wrap. Oddly, race manuals very rarely address these two critical pieces of information.

I’ve yet to run a race that was like, “No, sorry. Didn’t you read the race manual? We don’t have water at our aid stations. Just driveway gravel and cornstarch. Which can we fill your bottles with?”

The race manual for IMTUF was 47 pages long. “Eff that! I’m a busy man. I work full time. I have a family. I don’t have time to read the Atlas Shrugged of race manuals,” I thought to myself, quickly flipping through the manual with one eye, while doom-scrolling through cat videos on my phone with the other eye. “Ha, ha, ha. The cat just stole that dog’s bed. Look how utterly confused that poor dog is. I think he might cry! OMG!”

As I was scrolling through the guide – which presumably contained all kinds of important information like the start time of the race, the location of the starting line, the tricky sections of the course where you might get lost – my focus started to wane. “Oh look, that cat just got stuck in a ceiling fan! Hilarious!” But then, something in the race guide caught my eye.

“Holy shit! This race has a vicious bird that attacks runners and steals their trucker hats. The bird even dive-bombed the RD and knocked him unconscious. How friggin’ awesome is that!” Also, “Hey Siri, what’s a goshawk? And – just asking for a friend – is it legal to own one in California?”

Griffin the goshawk, is that you?

Who needs sleep anyway?

I usually sleep pretty well before races. Not because I possess a Zenlike ability to clear my mind and turn off all my thoughts. No, it’s mainly because I drug myself. I’ve suffered from insomnia most of my life, and early in my ultra-running career I would find myself tossing and turning in unfamiliar hotel-room beds, unable to fall asleep until an hour or so before my alarm was set to go off at some ridiculously early hour.

However, at some point in the past few years I discovered the miracle of medical-grade THC gummies, and now I generally don’t have any problems falling asleep on race night… unless I happen to be extremely stressed. However, going into this race, a couple of things were indeed weighing on my mind. It would be completely understandable to be stressed about my ankle injury and relative lack of training. But oddly, I wasn’t really worried about that. In fact, one could argue that I was irrationally overconfident about my fitness and training.

However, my mother was recently diagnosed with invasive squamous cell carcinoma, which has spread, and which needs to be treated with radiation therapy. I know there are far worse cancers and that my mother will probably – hopefully – be okay. But “probably” and “hopefully” don’t provide the assurances you crave when the life of someone you love is hanging in the balance.

And then there was this silly thing at work.

Last Fall I was laid off from my job at work after essentially being with the same company for 23 years. It took me nearly five months before I finally received a couple of offers and accepted a new position. The whole ordeal was incredibly stressful, and so I’m naturally doing everything I can to be as successful as possible in my new role.

So, when I was asked by my new company if I would be willing to moderate a webinar at midnight on Sunday night – only hours after finishing IMTUF and having been on my feet for over 30 hours – I quickly said, “Sure no problem.” What could possibly go wrong?

As I lay in bed the night before the race, I began to make a mental inventory of all the things that could in fact go incredibly wrong. What if the race ends up taking closer to the 36-hour cutoff than to my planned 30-hour-ish finishing time and I miss my Sunday evening flight home? And, even if I do finish in time and make the flight, am I going to be able to stay awake and alert during the webinar after having been awake for nearly 48 hours?

And so, I spent most of the night restlessly rolling around the bed performing pillow origami, twisting and folding my hotel-room sheets and pillows into various configurations. Oh look, it’s a swan! No wait, it’s pterodactyl.

Pillow origami

Hotel room coffee

I slid out of bed at 4 am and began my usual pre-race ritual. Two cups of questionable-provenance hotel-room coffee, black, prepared using my buddy Loren’s proprietary brewing technique (something about optimal water volume, temperature, and bicarbonate hardness). Lube the toes. Lube the undercarriage. Sacrifice live pigeon, burn incense, pray for the death of my enemies. Fill soft flasks with diluted Gu Roctane mix. Go time!!!

Of course, no race report is complete without an overly detailed account of the morning’s bowel movements. Sadly, I had nothing to report at the time. But no worries, I was relatively sure that there would be porta potties at the start line. But not completely sure, because – well you know – the whole not reading the race guide thing.

Getting to the race starting line proved to be a bit of an adventure. It probably would have been useful to have read the race guide that explained how to get there without driving across the fairway of the golf course that was hosting the event. “Loren, watch out for the sand trap,” I scream as he shifts the rental SUV into all-wheel drive just before plowing off the green into the rough, narrowly avoiding the 18th hole.

We hadn’t arrived in time the night before to pick up my race bib from packet pickup – or to attend the pre-race briefing – due to “logistical complications”, which is another way of saying that I mistakenly thought the packet pickup ran until 7 pm when it actually ended at 6 pm. Maybe reading that race guide might not have been a terrible idea after all.

But the upside was that, not having to spend time driving to packet pickup, Loren and I had time to finish listening to Taylor Swift’s Midnights album in its entirety… multiple times. Loren is a dear friend. And who doesn’t love TayTay? But do I really want to have Anti-Hero stuck in my head for the next 30 or so hours? Yes, of course I do; that was a rhetorical question. “It's me, hi, I'm the problem, it's me…”.

After signing in and picking up my race bib on race morning, I had an hour to kill before the start, so I made a couple more unproductive trips to the porta-potties before resigning myself to the fact that it was apparently a bank holiday, and that I would not be taking care of any business this morning.

Typically, I am quite nervous before a big event, especially when I’ve put in a big training block and invested a lot of time and emotional energy. But, as I came into this event with only a week of solid training and a gimpy ankle, I hadn’t put a lot of pressure on myself to perform. I wasn’t approaching this as an actual race. I was here with one goal, and one goal only – finish under the cutoff and punch my ticket to try to get back to Hardrock.

Unleash the glow worm!

Other runners who read the race guide informed me that the RD was going to blow an elk bugle to start the race. “He’s going to blow an elk?” I asked somewhat groggily, hoping for clarification. “That’s legal in Idaho?” Thankfully no elk – or bugles – were blown, and the race started uneventfully with a chorus of cowbells and line of headlamps quietly snaking their way up the pre-dawn mountain, like a sleepy glowing worm.

Not wanting to go out too hard and possibly roll my ankle in the dark, but also not wanting to get stuck too far in the back of a slow-moving conga line and be forced to walk the runnable sections of the opening climb, I settled in toward the back-of-the-front of the race. The pace was rather enjoyable, and the opening miles passed by pleasantly.

After an hour or so we emerged out of the woods onto the ridge, just in time for sunrise on Jug Mountain. I turned off my headlamp and stashed my poles into my quiver, freeing up my hands for what – according to those people who had read the race guide – was going to be a treacherously steep, rocky descent that would require both free hands for scrambling.

(Note: apparently the race guide was also very clear that all runners were required to walk this section and that anyone who attempted to run it would be disqualified; what the race guide probably should have also mentioned is that the disqualification would be issued posthumously – as anyone who tries to run this section would likely die).

At this point, those of you who know me may be wondering… you ran it anyway, right John? Embarrassingly, I must confess that in fact I did… not. Also, there may have been some whimpering involved.

@Cary Johnson Photography

Oh look, another postcard

As I cautiously made my way down the mountain, carefully picking my line to try to avoid re-injuring my ankle, I laughed to myself thinking about what my surgeon had said a week prior when I’d asked him if it was okay for me to resume some light running again. “Yes, of course. Just take it easy. And try to avoid trails or any uneven surfaces.” LOL. Sure thing doc!

As I picked my way down off the ridge, I suddenly I caught a whiff of something delicious wafting through the mountain air. Bacon! And just like that, I was flying down into the Louie Lake Dam aid station where moments later I would be stuffing my face with a makeshift sandwich fashioned using two pancakes and handful of bacon. Mmm.

Leaving Louie Lake, the course continued up and down along the ridge. These next miles of the race were absolutely breathtaking. Panoramic, mountain-top views of alpine lakes for miles and miles. It was like nothing I have ever seen or experienced. Other races, like Hardrock 100 and Teanaway 100 have a signature alpine lake that greets runners at some point in the race. But IMTUF was one signature alpine lake after another. It was comically beautiful. Almost bordering on absurd. The best way to describe it is as a series of one amazing postcard photo after another. It is hands down the most beautiful course I’ve ever run!

@Alex Marshall

I would have been content to stay up there forever, just soaking in the views. But I knew I needed to keep moving if I wanted to make my flight home on Sunday evening. So, I pressed on and followed the course as it began plummeting down the mountain several thousand feet to the Lake Fork aid station.

But I would first have to pass through an area of trail patrolled by Griffin the Goshawk, the notoriously viscous bird with a documented history of bird-on-human violence! Luckily, Griffin had recently acquired himself a lady-bird acquaintance and was apparently in a luvin’ mood rather than a fighting mood.

And so, I arrived at the Lake Fork aid station unmauled with all my appendages intact. I’d only brought two drop bags for this race, as I wanted to avoid having to check a bag at the airport to save time. So, I had decided to put one bag at Lake Fork as we would run through this aid station twice – once at mile 22 on the way out and then again at mile 80 on the return loop.

However, it was still early in the race, and I didn’t actually need anything from my drop bag yet. I momentarily considered taking off my headlamp and stashing it in my drop bag so that I wouldn’t have to carry it in my pack all day, but I decided it might be smart to keep a headlamp on me – you know, just in case. This decision would turn out to be clutch – but more on that later.

Speaking of good decisions. As I was perusing the aid station offerings, trying to decide between the grilled cheese bites and the quesadilla wedges, my eye drifted over to a plate of warm grilled peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches. Holy shit! Best decision I made all day. They were so good!

Chasing UTVs

The climb out of Lake Fork was what I would politely describe as, “extremely spirited”. That is to say, using the formula y = mx + b, where m is the coefficient of x representing the slope of the line… m was definitely not equal to zero – if you know what I mean. Wink, wink.

We would gain nearly 2,000 feet over the next two miles, with much of the climb being rather rocky and technical. I relied heavily on my poles during this climb and felt that I was able to move quite well, while hopefully conserving some energy and leg strength for later in the race (Spoiler alert: I had neither strength nor energy later in the race. LOL.).

Don't fall in!

I was feeling pretty good at the top of the climb, so I decided to take off the handbrake and let it rip on the downhill, throwing down what felt like a 7-minute mile – but which Strava later indicated was closer to a 17-minute mile. Oh well.

In fairness, the descent was not ideal as the trail was covered in several inches of powdery dirt with each foot-strike producing huge clouds of fine dust that irritated my lungs and my eyes. I experimented with a couple of different dust-mitigation strategies, none of which proved ideal.

First, I tried not breathing. While that did solve the initial problem of inhaling dust, it also resulted in a few undesirable side effects including dizziness, blurred vision, and extreme hypoxia. So, I reluctantly resumed breathing again.

I’d wished I’d brought a bandana that I could have tied around my nose and mouth. I briefly considered taking off one of my socks and/or my compression shorts and trying to fashion some sort of mask. But that seemed like a lot of work. Also, I was worried what the volunteers might think when I rolled into the aid station, bare bottomed and sockless with my underwear in my mouth. I pictured the locals explaining to each other, “He’s from California… near San Francisco,” and then all nodding in unison, “Ah, that explains it.”

Towards the bottom of the descent, I managed to catch, and eventually pass, two side-by-side UTVs, who were kicking up quite a bit of dust as they made their way down the steep, rocky section.  At first, I was unsure of the proper protocol for overtaking motorized vehicles on the trail. Do I yell “track” and pass on the inside lane using track-and-field etiquette? Or do I signal my intent to pass using my headlamp as a turn-signal?

Eventually I just spoke up and asked if it was okay if I ran by. Both drivers were extremely accommodating and pulled over to let me pass. Grateful, I tried my hand at a little humor, inquiring where one could find the nearest Telsa charging station. Sadly, the joke bombed. Or maybe they just didn’t hear me???

Goats hiking supplies in to 45th Parallel aid station

The petting zoo

I came into the South Crestline aid station at 50K feeling reasonably good, considering I’d already been on my feet for over 8 hours already. However, I was starting to feel like I was falling a bit behind on my calories. I realized that aside from the aid station sandwiches, I’d only eaten a couple of gels in between aid stations.

With a long uphill hiking section in front of me, I figured now would be a good time to take in as many calories as possible, as the extended hiking break would allow my body time to digest. “Matre’d, I’ll take a bottle of your finest cola,” I requested. “In a glass, if it’s not too much trouble,” I added, still hoping that one of my jokes would land.

“Tough crowd,” I mumbled smiling, as I headed out of the aid station, ready to get my hike on.

When people ask me what kind of running I enjoy most – flats, hills, technical off trail, etc. – I typically respond, only half-jokingly, “walking.” Or to be more accurate, power hiking. When the trail gets so steep that it becomes impractical and inefficient to run, I can generally out hike everybody else. It’s kind of my superpower. 

@Cary Johnson Photography

According to the course profile – which I had printed out and laminated (and by “laminated” I just mean that I stuffed it into a Ziplock snack bag) – the next ten miles would be completely uphill.  Much to my horror however, the trail turned out to be much less steep than I was expecting.

“Oh crap, this trail looks runnable,” I muttered. “What the heck. Nobody told me there was going to be actual running involved!” I grumbled. I made a mental note to take up this up with the RD later.

And so, I spent the next hour doing this weird little shuffle-dance thing that was neither quite walking nor quite running. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to imagine someone who really has to use the bathroom and wants to get there as quickly as possible but doesn’t dare run for fear of wetting themselves. That was me. Doing the pee-pee shuffle for 6 miles.

Suddenly, about halfway up the mountain, the 45th parallel aid station came into view, and I instinctively broke into a trot, perhaps even a light canter. Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement in the bushes to the right of the aid station. Surely some apex predator was about to pounce, descending upon the aid station and dismembering everyone in sight. The only question was whether it was a grizzly bear, a mountain lion, a saber-toothed tiger, or maybe a velociraptor?

“Run! Run for your lives everyone,” I shouted. “It’s a pack of vicious… goats???” I trailed off. Apparently, the goats were part of the aid station, having helped carry the aid station supplies up the mountain. Seeing a couple other runners taking selfies with two of the goats, I reached my hand out to pet a goat who was tied up to a tree off by himself.

“No!!! That one bites!” shouted one of the aid station volunteers. Too late to react, I braced myself for impact. Instead of searing pain, I felt a warm licking sensation on my arm. Apparently, I was a human salt lick. Minutes later, after being thoroughly tongue bathed and de-salted, I continued my journey.

Human salt lick!

Ups and downs

The next section of the course consisted of a series of climbs and descents. I had spent most of the day running by myself, aside from one downhill section earlier in the day where I briefly chatted with a runner named Mike from Arizona who was nursing an Achilles injury. While I’m used to being alone with my thoughts, it is sometimes nice to pass the time chatting with other runners.

Leaving the 45th Parallel aid station, I found myself moving at the same speed as a couple of other runners including Alison from Alaska, an IMTUF veteran who had completed the course two years ago, and Tim from British Columbia, who I noticed was wearing a FatDog120 shirt – a race that I have fond memories of having managed to win it back in 2016.

We spent the new few hours chatting and before I knew it, we’d arrived at the North Crestline aid station! Looking at my watch, I realized that I was way behind my projected splits. It was going to get dark and cold soon, well before I made it down to the next aid station at Upper Payette Lake, where my headlamp and warm clothes would be waiting, along with my pacer Loren.

Thankfully, I had held on to my headlamp from the morning, so at least I would have some light when it got dark. But I was a bit worried about the cold, as I had only brought a light windbreaker in my pack. While I would have liked to wait for Tim and Alison, I told them that I better get moving.

@Di Wu

I quickly caught up with a couple of other runners on the gravel road descent, including a guy named Daniel from Southern California with whom I would end up running much of the rest of the race off and on. Daniel and I started chatting about everything under the sun… from blisters, to blister prevention, to blister care. We were so enthralled in our talk of all things blisters, that we didn’t notice that it had gotten dark… or that we had completely overshot our turn and gone over a mile off-course down the mountain.

Some light profanity ensured. But eventually we retraced our steps up the mountain and found our missed turn. I put on my headlamp and tried to do my best to point out any potential obstacles to Daniel who didn’t have a light of his own. Miraculously, we made it down the overgrown, rock-strewn trail, aptly named “Terrible Terrence” without incident.

This is the part where John throws a temper tantrum

As I rolled into Upper Payette Lake aid station at mile 56, I apologized profusely to my pacer Loren, who was shivering in the dark, having been waiting in the cold for many hours. “Don’t worry, you’ll warm up on the upcoming climb!” I offered optimistically. [Spoiler alert: Loren would not warm up. Not on the climb, not ever!].

“I just need a few minutes to reset and get my shit together,” I explained as I fumbled around in the dark, trying to swap out the battery in my headlamp... “First, I need to pop these blisters and put on clean socks. Then I need to find my warm gloves. I also need to use the bathroom before we head out. And where’s that Mountain Dew that I asked you to pick up?” I spouted in a stream of consciousness.

“The hotel vending machine didn’t have Mountain Dew, so I got you a Red Bull…” Loren started to explain.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” I screamed in horror, having just heard a loud cracking noise while trying to insert the battery into the connector of my headlamp. “Fuck, I just broke my headlamp!”

Loren tried his best to be helpful, offering completely logical, rational advice such as, “It’s okay. Maybe someone has a spare headlamp you can borrow. Let me go check.”

But I was having no part of it. Some not-so-light profanity ensued. As I continued unleashing a stream of F-bombs, Loren politely excused himself. “I’m going to give you a few minutes,” he said, slinking away.

“It’s okay now Loren, I think I managed to MacGyver it! Let’s go!” I shouted excitedly moments later, completely forgetting to pop my blisters or change into my warm gloves. I did, however, remember to use the outhouse on the way out.

Speaking of outhouses, normally I try to do my business and get out of vault toilets as quickly as possible due to the less than Spring-fresh smells. But I must say, this was one of the nicer ones I’ve encountered. It had great ambience. Someone had decked it out with an air freshener and a soft reading light. And it was nice and warm in there. I really didn’t want to leave. I laughed out loud thinking about how I was going to explain to people that I DNF’d because I sat in an outhouse all night.

Upper Payette Lake aid station

Skipping ahead to the good parts

We’re now over 75 miles into IMTUF and Loren and I have just climbed one of the toughest “trails” I’ve ever encountered in a race. I put the word “trail” in quotes, because to be honest, I’m still not sure it really was an actual trail. I’m told the race guide simply describes it by saying, “climb the ferocious mountain slope above with only a few switchbacks for help.” You’ll notice that there’s tellingly no usage of the word “trail” in that description.

“Hey John, do you think they made this trail just for the race?” our new friend Daniel asks.

“Dude, I’m not even sure this is a real trail,” I respond. “I think we’re basically mountain climbing at this point. I wish I’d brought my chalk bag and cams,” I mutter.

Now we are at the top of the climb, having just gained 2,000 feet in less than two miles, staring down at a steep, rocky, precipice.

“Hey, do you want to borrow one of my poles for this descent,” I ask, looking back at Loren who suffers from vertigo and whose facial expression indicates that he is clearly apprehensive about falling off this cliff to his death. Like any good pacer, Loren knows the correct answer to this question is always, “No, that’s okay John. You keep both your poles. I’ll be alright.”

Yet, without hesitating for even a second, Loren blurts out, “Yes! Yes, I do want one,” snatching a pole straight out of my hand.

Courting elk

“Loren, what the heck are you doing?” I ask, watching as he stands with his hands on his hips, pointing his pelvis into the woods while gyrating rhythmically, performing what appears to be some kind of primal mating ritual. “Are you trying to court an elk?” I ask?

“No, my headlamp ran out of batteries,” Loren offers, as if some kind of satisfactory explanation.

“Huh?” I mutter.

“So now I’m using my backup waist light. But the problem is that when I turn my head to locate the course-marking ribbons, the waist light doesn’t turn. So, I have to point my hips where I want to see,” he explains.

And so, we spend the next few hours hiking through the woods, letting Loren’s crotch lead the way.

The coldest hour is just before the dawn

“Bro, I can’t feel my fingers,” Loren announces, trying to tear open the plastic wrapper on one of those Hot Hands air-activated hand warmers. “I think these things are expired,” he says, squinting at the package labelling.

“Well, I can’t feel my fingers, my nose, or my penis!” I add, commiserating. “But sunrise is in less than an hour and it will hopefully warm up soon.”

Loren, who is notorious for getting cold easily, is wearing five separate layers of clothing. “Dude, what are you going to do with your sweater when the sun comes out and it gets hot later this afternoon?” I ask. “We’re not going to finish until like 2pm, right?” I say, struggling to perform basic math calculations.

Loren and I then proceed to spend the next two hours in an embarrassingly futile effort to do “ultra math”.

“Well, using the equation V = d/t, where V is our velocity, d is the distance remaining, and t is the time…” I begin.

“But is t the current time, our elapsed time, or our finish time?” Loren interjects.

“Umm, good question I say, throwing my hands up in defeat. I guess I should have paid more attention in physics class. “I just hope we finish in time to make it to the airport, so we don’t miss our flight home!”

@Cary Johnson Photography

On top of the world

“Hey Loren, I think we’re almost to the top of this last climb,” I announce excitedly, pulling out my “laminated” course profile just to verify. “Hmm, that’s odd. According to the chart, we’re only halfway to the top. That can’t be right, can it,” I mumble, hoping it’s just a typo. [Spoiler alert: It’s no typo].

An hour later Loren and I reach the actual top, cresting Boulder Peak at a little over 8,300 ft. We’re greeted by amazing 360-degree panoramic views of the mountains, lakes, and wildflowers. “Best seat in the house,” Loren sighs, gazing off into the distance.

The hills are alive with the sound of... Loren?

We spend a few minutes on top of the world, quietly taking it all in. I then draw a deep breath and brace myself for the last twelve miles. "I’ve got this. I’ve fucking got this!" I whisper, giving myself a little pep talk.

My right foot is completely covered in giant blisters by this point and every step is excruciatingly painful. And my left ankle, which has miraculously held up thus far, is finally starting to complain loudly. Looking down, I notice it has doubled in size since the start of the race. I speculate that perhaps with the increased swelling, the ankle brace is now cutting into my foot. So, I decide to remove my brace and hope for the best.

No longer encumbered by the brace which had been slowly cutting off circulation to my foot, Loren and I fly down the gravel road into the last aid station. They’re serving breakfast! As I make myself another delicious bacon-pancake sandwich, I’m suddenly cognizant of the fact that a full day has come and gone, and that the only constants in this world are apparently blisters and bacon.

It's all downhill from here

While I would have been content to sit there all morning, eating pancakes and exchanging profundities, we have a race to finish, and flights to catch. “It’s all downhill from here,” the aid station captain announces cheerfully, sending us on our way.

“What the actual fuck!!!” I sigh exasperatedly, looking up at a hundred-foot hill that has appeared in front us. “All downhill my fucking ass!” It’s not lost on me that my speech has been steadily deteriorating and becoming more and more profanity laced with each passing hour.

Loren on the other hand, seems to have caught his second wind. He’s sprinting off into the distance, shrieking with delight as he runs through the wildflowers flailing his arms with glee. I later learn that he surreptitiously downed a Five Hour energy shot at the last aid station.

The last few miles seem to take forever. I keep checking my watch every few minutes, but it feels like I’m hardly making any progress. 1.7 miles to go. 1.6 miles to go. 1.5 miles to go. Will this ever end?

Eventually we crest one last hill, and the finish line finally comes into sight below. We did it! We f'ing did it! I stop in my tracks and turn to Loren. “Bring it in bro,” I say, extending my arms for a hug. “Thank you! Thank you so much!”

I'm not crying, you're crying! LOL.

Link to Strava activity: 

Link to UltraSignup race results:

Link to IMTUF 100 website:

Saturday, July 7, 2018

2018 Western States

photo by Keshav Dahiya

How to finish Western States on just 17 miles a week training

“Personal trainers and coaches hate him! This 45-year-old man ran a sub-22-hours Western States on just 17 miles a week training using one simple trick! Click here to learn his secret!”

Sorry guys, there’s no shortcuts, gimmicks, or tricks. You can chug proprietary blends of pickle juice and apple cider vinegar. You can wear neon compression socks and breath-rite strips. You can run in sandals… or clown shoes with carbon-fiber springs hidden in them. You can attach electrodes to legs and shock yourself while watching Ginger Runner Live wearing your Altitude Mask. You can do all that nonsense. But it’s not going to do anything.

But here’s what you can do. You can bust your butt. You can make every workout count… no matter how pressed you are for time. You can sprint up hills like a psychopath. And then you can sprint down them even more psychotically. 

You can do push ups, sit ups, planks, and box jumps… in a sauna… on top of a ski resort at 8,000 feet elevation. And after you get out of the sauna, you can hop on your bike and do hill sprints until you puke. And then you can get back in the sauna.

World-renown ultra-runner, Karl “Speedgoat” Meltzer, is famous for his catchphrase, “100 miles is not that far.” And I think we all agree… the guy is completely full of shit. One hundred miles is that far. It’s hella far. I can’t even drive that far without stopping to pee (yes, I have the bladder of a three-year old).

I got 99 problems, but ta a taper ain't one
photo by Vitor Rodrigues
And so, it was with some trepidation that I stood at the bottom of the ski slope at Squaw at the start of the 2018 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, looking up at the giant snow-capped mountain before me, hoping that my 17 miles a week training would be enough to see me through to the finish line in Auburn.

I’d intended to train for Western States. Really. It was on the top of my list of things to do – right along with picking up my dry cleaning and getting my car smog tested. But life gets in the way. Injuries, work trips, afternoon snuggles with my cat Lily. Suddenly Western States was just weeks away. And so I had to go all “plan B” on it.

My wife Amy joked that I’d probably put in the least training of anyone in Western States this year. I only ran 9 times in the entire month of May, for a total of 84 miles. Not 84 miles a week. Just 84 miles for the month. And nearly half of those miles came during a single run, a 100K race that I dropped out of at mile 37. So not necessarily the most promising build up.

Anyone following my training on Strava probably raised your eyebrows at my short runs ranging from 1.6 to 3.4 miles long with titles like, “Easing back into yogging”. But if you drilled into the details of those runs, you noticed something interesting: they were essentially all intervals workouts with bouts of really hard running… including 35 Strava CRs (course records).

Now granted, some of those Strava CRs are bullshit – obscure segments that I created myself. Like the off-trail, poison-oak covered, tick-infested scramble up the spine of Mt. Umunhum that only four nut-jobs have ever completed. Or the masochistic 10X repeat up the Winfield Cell Tower Hill that only a deeply troubled soul would even attempt.

But mixed in with cherry-picked bullshit are a few stout Strava records that I’m legitimately proud of… and that I had to bust my ass to obtain. The “rocky staircase climb” up Buena Vista trail in Quicksilver has been run hard by some fast dudes including local-legend Mike Helm, wunderkind Thomas Braun, and Italian ultra-running legend Riccardo Tortini. Yet, I am the only nutjob to ever average sub 9-minute pace up that ascent. 

But enough about how awesome I am. (Don’t worry, we’ll probably circle back to that again at some point).

Race bandit, 2Pac
How Do U Want It?

Standing in the predawn darkness at the starting line of Western States, close friend (and race bandit) 2Pac and I remind each other of our race plan: don’t do anything stupid. “If you feel you may be about to do something stupid, ask yourself this question,” Tupac suggests, “Is this a dumb-shit decision that I’m going to regret later? If yes… don’t do it.”

“No problem,” I think, “How hard can it be to not do anything stupid?” As it turns out… pretty fucking hard! You see, I have this thing where I have a problem letting anyone pass me. Especially if the person has a bit of a beer belly, or chunky legs. Or if they’re noticeably pregnant. Or old enough to be collecting social security. Or wearing basketball shorts?

“Fuck, I just got passed by a chick wearing basketball shorts!” I gasp. “You must unlearn what you have learned,” 2Pac chides, in his best Yoda impersonation. “But Pac, I’m wearing technologically-advanced, aerodynamic Ruhn Co compression shorts made from patent-pending space-age fabrics (I assume the same material that the space shuttle is coated with), and I just got passed by someone wearing Chris Webber’s old basketball shorts.”

“Don’t do anything stupid!” I silently chant to myself. “Don’t do anything stupid, fucker!” 2Pac loudly chimes in.  And so, I take my foot off the accelerator and watch as the woman in two-sizes-too-big basketball shorts sails effortless up the mountain, floating up towards the horizon like a hot air balloon.

“Johnny, I’ve got a something for you,” my buddy Vitor Rodrigues excitedly yells, waving a beer in my face as I crest the escarpment at the top of the climb. Instinctively my hand reached out to grab the can. Hmm, chugging a beer at 9,000 feet altitude just a few miles into the race probably qualifies as “something stupid.” And so sadly, I abstain.

Picture Me Rollin’

Everyone has a favorite aid station at Western States. Some people look forward to Michigan Bluff, where you can grab a popsicle after surviving the grueling climb out of the canyons. Others anticipate being able to see their families and crew at the spectator-friendly Foresthill school. For some it’s the ice-cold river crossing at Rucky Chucky, or the dance-club atmosphere of Brown’s Bar. 

For others it’s No-Hands-Bridge, with its promise of glory awaiting just four miles up the road at the finish line. Heck, I’m sure some people even enjoy the remote, low-frills aid stations along Cal Street, which 2Pac refers to as, “the shit-hole aid stations”. Just kidding Dardanelles, Peachstone, and Ford’s Bar – we love you guys too – even if you don’t have port-o-potties… or Hennessey.

My favorite aid station is, of course, Duncan Canyon at mile 24. And I don’t just say that because my running club (Quicksilver Running Club of San Jose) hosts it, and because I received my club’s automatic entry to Western States this year. I mean, even if I wasn’t contractually obligated to say Duncan Canyon is the best aid station, I would still rank it right up there – in the top fifteen or twenty for sure.

It’s always a party at Duncan Canyon. While aid-station captain Kristina Irvin quietly keeps things running smoothly behind the scenes, self-proclaimed “Loudest Man in Ultra Running” Greg Lanctot cranks up the atmosphere (and the amps) to 11 with his own eclectic – and sometimes indecipherable – antics. “Hey bro, do you dance?” he once famously yelled as he stepped in front of a dazed runner who just wanted to get his hydration bladder refilled.

Duncan Canyon aid station hall of fame
photo by Tonya Perme

In past years, Duncan Canyon has historically played up the Western/Rockabilly theme – with cowboy boots, hats, and buckles. This year however, we switched things up a bit with a Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame theme. As I run into the aid station, I legit laugh out loud as I weave past Prince-of-Darkness Ozzy Osbourne, Young-Skinny-Asian-Cowboy Elvis, and Non-Descript Aging Glam Rocker (who could be either Axl Rose or Bret Michaels… or just some random homeless dude from Truckee).

Acting a bit like a rockstar myself, I proceed to have a small meltdown when my crew hands me my new bottles which aren’t perfectly in line with my expectations (which I had never actually bothered to communicate to anyone). “Water? Lukewarm water! What the fuck am I supposed to do with warm water – cook some fucking Ramen noodles? Where’s my mother-fucking Grape Gu Roctane John Paul!” I scream at my ten-year-old son.

After much fuss, I eventually manage to sort thing out. I fill two large 24-ounce bottles with sports drink and put them in the front of my vest. I also grab a third bottle (handheld 21-ounce insulated bottle) and fill it with ice water for spraying on my head to combat the heat in the canyons. Finally, I have the aid station volunteers fill the large mesh pocket in the back of my pack with as much ice as possible. “Don’t skimp with the ice,” 2Pac shouts, “it’s so hot out here my gold chain is melting.”

After making a scene and berating my friends and family, I recompose myself and calmly trot out of the aid station. 2Pac flips everyone off on the way out, upset that we had to spend longer than planned in the aid station. With around 20 aid stations at Western States, if you spend even just 3 minutes in each aid station, you’ve suddenly added over an hour to your finishing time!

My one-man-crew, Peter "Russian Bear" Rabover
2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted

Who is Peter Rabover? I don’t actually know him that well, and I’m not even sure how we originally met. But for some reason, he keeps showing up at all my races and telling everyone that he’s my crew. “John, I’ve got your fresh bottles” he yells, holding up two bottles, as I run past with my already full bottles at Robinson Flat aid station.

“How about a foot massage?” he offers, making an enticing hand gesture. “I’m good. Thanks though…. Big Guy” I spit out, trying to remember his name.

All I really know about Peter is that he is apparently wanted by the law in Placer County resulting from a used-mattress-negotiation gone terribly wrong a few years back. Words were said. Mattresses were untied from car roofs and left on front lawns. It was a messy affair. It made all the papers.

“See you at the next aid station John,” Peter yells as I run off. “OK, I guess?” I shrug. “That’s my runner, John Burton,” Peter explains to the uninterested spectator next to him. “He likes Grape Gu Roctane, slightly diluted, with lots of ice in his bottles…”.

Impressed, I spin around and shout, “You just got yourself a job!” And so, I make a mental note to let my son John Paul know that his half-assed water-bottle refilling services will no longer be required.

Leaving Robinson Flat, 2Pac and I fall into a quiet rhythm. The hours fly by as we discuss everything from the socio-political influence of rap music on white suburban soccer moms, to who would win a fight between a robotic shark and a bionic panda bear. “What if the robot-shark was drunk, and the bionic Panda was high as fuck?” 2Pac asks. “Shit, that’s deep,” I sigh.

I’m still pondering the various possible outcomes of the hypothetically shark-panda cage fight when fellow Bay Area runner Franz Dill pulls up alongside me. “Sup white bread, you better check yourself before you wreck yourself…” 2Pac shouts. “Shhh,” I whisper, stuffing 2Pac out of sight down the front of my shorts.

Franz and I exchange pleasantries and jog along, chatting about white people stuff… like whether Mayonnaise or Creamy Dijon Mustard goes better on breakfast croissants. Finally, however, 2Pac can’t take it any longer and pokes his head out of my shorts infuriated. “Come on BJB, let’s bust a cap in this motherfucker’s ass.”

I turn and assure Franz that there won’t be any cap busting. “Not until mile 82 anyway. But if we see your punk ass at Green Gate, it’s on n****,” 2Pac shouts, making a vaguely-threatening gesture with his plastic fingers. Franz runs off head, looking equally concerned and perplexed.

Peter showing John Paul the lost art of bottle filling
California Love

After several hours alone with 2Pac in the 100-degree canyons, I’m happy to finally see everyone at Foresthill. As my son John Paul and my wife Amy hand me two new bottles, I nervously take a sip, hoping it’s not something bizarre like lukewarm pickle juice. But they nailed it this time – ice-cold Grape Gu Roctane.

“Ok guys, fill me in on what’s been going on all day!” I excitedly ask my pacer Loren Lewis and my newly-hired crew chief Peter as we trot down Cal Street. “Well, the investment fund that I manage doing well; we’re looking at 19.6% a year net after fees for 3 years with 25.6% gross…” Peter begins.

“And several people recognized me as ‘Toby’s Dad’ from the tattoo of my cat on my leg,” Loren interrupts excitedly.

“No fuckers, I mean what’s going on with the race? Who’s leading up front?” I ask. Silence. More silence. “Fuck. You’re both fired!” I sigh exasperatedly.

For the next nine hours Loren and I jog along in relative silence, punctuated only by an occasional cat anecdote. “Did I tell you about the time Toby…” Loren begins before I interrupt him. “Yes, you literally just told me that story two miles ago.” More silence.

After an awkward initial few miles where Loren bounds off head of me, sprinting out of sight while I slog behind mumbling profanities, Loren and I eventually come up with a system that works. Basically, it involves me trudging along slowly in front, cursing under my breath every time I kick a rock, while Loren jogs behind amusing himself.

“I spy with my little eye something green,” Loren chirps. “Let me guess... Is it more fucking poison oak?” I grumble, referring to the large branch of poison oak that just wacked me across the face. 

“Yep, how’d you guess?” Loren beams. “I guess the good news is that Western States didn’t raise entry fees this year,” he begins. “The bad news is that they saved that money by not doing any trail maintenance on this 18-mile-long section of poison oak.” 

“I can’t wait to get to the river!” I shout.

“You want to try and wash the poison oak off?” Loren asks.

“No, I just have to pee really bad but don’t want to stop. So, you might want to make sure you cross the river upstream from me!” I say, half-jokingly.

Loren wading through a "warm spot" in the river
photo by Faschino Photography
As we exit the river – me with a much lighter bladder than when I entered – I briefly pause to grab my headlamp from the one-and-only drop bag that I bothered to pack for the race (because as 2Pac rightly points out, “Mo’ drop bags equal mo’ problems").

Suddenly we see Peter sprinting down into the aid station, out of breath and drenched in sweat. “You doing hill repeats or something?” I inquire?

“No… I just slammed a beer!” Peter exclaims. 2Pac nods, apparently satisfied with the explanation, while Loren and I look at each other confused. Together, we all start making our way up the two-mile long climb from the river to Green Gate, with Peter eagerly filling us in what’s been going on.

“So, Sears is closing another twenty stores in a further sign of mounting problems…” Peter begins.

“Motherfucker! What’s going on with the race? Has Walmsley finished yet? Did he break the course record?” I scream.

“Oh yeah, he finished half an hour ago.” Peter says, checking his phone. “According to social media, he’s on his second margarita, and is enjoying some chips and guac.”

And so, I put my head down and resign myself to the painful reality that I’ve still got another six hours of yogging ahead of me before I can enjoy any Tex-Mex.

I Ain’t Mad At Cha

Due to the heat, my stomach has been running on auxiliary power all day, only able to process liquid calories. And so, aside from a handful of Honey Stinger gels, I’ve been fueling myself exclusively with Mountain Dew and gummy bears. Exhausted, overheated, and perhaps slightly delirious from the sugar, I begin to drift toward the dark side.

“Loren, are we still on pace for sub-24?” I ask, no longer able to do even basic mathematical operations in my head.

“Yeah man, we may even crack 22 hours if you keep this up. You’re moving steady. Just keep doing what you’re doing. You got this!” Loren assures me.

But I’m already in a dark place. Negative thoughts are creeping into my head. The weeds of despair are wrapping themselves around my ankles, trying to pull me into the forest of misery. (Never mind, that’s just poison oak.) If I don’t do something soon, my race could be over. And so, I draw on the one thing that I know can pull me out of this funk and reinvigorate me.

Duke Hong and his spirit animal Spot (Ed: What
kind of self-respecting man runs with a doll?)
“Do it for Duke Hong! Do it for Spot (the stuffed children’s toy that Duke talks to as if it is a real person... like a weirdo)” I tell myself. “Duke and Spot will probably never get into Western States. Do it for them.”

“Yeah, do it for the duke!” 2Pac shouts encouragingly.

“It’s just ‘Duke’. Not ‘the duke’” I correct 2Pac. “He’s not royalty. It’s not like he’s not marrying Prince Harry or something.”

For weeks leading up to Western States, Quicksilver teammate Duke Hong has been sending me daily messages asking if I’m planning to drop out of Western States so that he can have my spot. “John, looks like you had a rough run yesterday. You fell off the pace a bit there in the last mile. You should probably just drop out of States!” he advises.

“Fuck you Duke! You know Spot isn’t real, right. He’s a children’s toy. A doll, technically.” I would often find myself typing before 2Pac would talk me down.

“Fuck it. Let’s do it for the duke!” I shout. “Shit, I'm with you. I ain't mad at cha. Got nothing but love for ya. Do your thing boy.”

Gangsta Party

As Loren and I trudge up the last climb from No-Hands-Bridge toward Robie Point, the lights on the top of the hill start getting bigger and brighter. We’re getting closer. Suddenly I see two figures running toward us. “Hey, I recognize that goofy stride and exaggerated cross-body arm swing,” I exclaim as my son John Paul (who has inherited my ungainly stride mechanics) and my wife Amy greet us at the top of the climb.

Together, we all shuffle down through the neighborhood toward the finish line at the high school track. Several other runners (and their crews) are already on the track and it’s a bit of a clusterfuck. I don’t want to be the jackass dude who outsprints a woman in the finishing chute, but I don’t want to get caught by the guy coming up fast behind me either. Somehow things work out and nobody has to risk pulling a hamstring trying to sprint.

Amy, Loren, Peter, and 2Pac all peel off to the side as John Paul and I weave our way through the traffic on the track, trying to give ourselves a little space to experience the moment. I look up at the clock and see 21:53. Loren was right. Sub-22! Hell yeah.

Future Western States silver buckle winner?
photo by Faschino Photography

As John Paul and I cross the finish line together, I realize that it is the first time he has ever seen me finish a hundred-mile race. Hopefully it is a moment he will be able to look back on and fondly recall someday. I know I will.

As I lay on the infield next to the finish line, I close my eyes and try to pretend I don’t stink worse than a dead skunk baking in the sun on the side of the highway. My feet are throbbing with pain and I can’t wait to take my shoes off and throw them away.

“Who wants a beer?” 2Pac asks? “I’ve got Mickey’s. I’ve got St. Ides. I’ve got Colt 45!"

But I’m already asleep, dreaming of vanilla bubble baths and terry-cloth slippers. “Thug life,” I mumble softly. "Thug life...".

~ The end.


There are many other stories besides my own from this year’s race. Some of them inspiring. Some of them heartbreaking. One in particular has been weighing heavily on my mind. My Australian friend, Martin (Marty) Hack was hospitalized this year immediately after he finished Western States. His liver and kidneys had both shut down and he needed to be put on dialysis. His blood work revealed life-threateningly high levels of CPK (over 300,000), potassium, and creatine. His doctors told him that he was literally only seconds away from death. Thankfully Marty is one tough bastard and he pulled through after spending over a week in the hospital. Way to get that buckle... but please don't do that again :)

Shout outs and thank yous
  • Thank you to Quicksilver Running Club for the race entry!
  • Congrats to fellow Quicksilver teammates Bob Callahan and Nick Kunder on their finishes!
  • Gracias to Quicksilver teammate Loren Lewis for pacing me from Foresthill to Auburn. 
  • Kudos to my one-man-crew, Peter Rabover, for spending all day driving through the 100-degree mountains in a truck with no A/C just to make sure I didn't need anything. 
  • Special thanks to Ruhn Co clothing for keeping all my manly parts chafe-free.
Big congrats to Quicksilver teammate Nick Kunder who finished with six minutes to spare!

Results and Strava data

Slowly moved up from 73rd to 55th place with 21:53:21 silver-buckle finish

Stuff I used
  • New Balance Men's 10v4 Trail Shoe
  • Ruhn Co compression shorts
  • Ultimate Direction Anton Krupicka (AK) 2.0 race vest
  • Haglöfs three-quarter zip tee
  • Honey stinger gels
  • Gu Roctane sports drink