Thanks for visiting my blog. This is where I document and share all of my running adventures with my friends and fellow runners. The good, the bad, and the unquestionably painful. All for your entertainment! Enjoy!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

2015 Zion 100: Ultra Running 101

This was my fourth running of the Zion 100, and the fourth iteration of the course. I really enjoy this race, but that's not why I keep coming back. I return every year because I've never run this race in a satisfying way. It's a nagging little pain that returns every spring, prodding me to go back to Zion and try to figure this thing out. And every year, I fall a little short.

To be fair, I've never run this race on rested legs. I always show up feeling a little battle worn and banged up from some other race that just had to be run. This year was no different.

I decided I would run this race as an easy training run and I planned to nab a sub 24 hour finish. I wanted to take some time and play with my 100 mile nutrition strategy, mess with my pacing, and work on my gear selection. I didn't feel any pressure to do well or make an attempt to compete. I just wanted to enjoy the journey and learn a few valuable lessons along the way.

It was return to the lessons taught in Ultra Running 101. We all need a refresher sometimes.

After a quick race briefing, we lined up at the start and were sent into the desert at 6:00 AM. Sunrise was 40 minutes away, so we ran into the darkness, heading for the first big climb.

As I said earlier, this is the fourth iteration of this course. Every year, Matt Gunn, the Race Director, has made changes to improve the course. He's deleted road sections in favor of trail, he has changed the sequence of the trail sections to take advantage of daylight running in tricky areas, and this year, he eliminated an entire section of the course in favor of a series of challenging trail loops in the desert valley. All of these changes have consistently improved the course and the race. It's always exciting to see what Matt has in store each year.

For the first mile, the runners messed around trying to fall into the right place in the pack of bobbing headlamps. I placed myself deeper in the pack than I normally would and coasted down the trail at an easy pace. I fell into place alongside Danny Widerburg, a friend from the Wasatch Front. Danny and I frequently fall into place together in races and I was happy to see we had found each other again.

Danny is a great running companion because he cracks me up and we feed off each other through our inappropriate banter, salacious commentary and seemingly believable lines of BS. I like to think we provide a tremendous amount of entertainment for those around us. Either that, or we deeply offend those around us. It really depends on your sense of humor. I like to think we're hilarious.

Flying Monkey is our first big climb. We hit it and settled into the conga line, moving up to Smith Mesa. Danny and I were in full banter mode by now, putting on an impressive, impromptu comedy display for each other. Several times, I was forced to stop to catch my breath. Not from the climb, but because I was laughing myself into a fit of hysteria. I think my abs were getting more of a workout than my legs during the entire ascent.

Near the End of Flying Monkey

Historical Fact:

Flying Monkey gets its name from a very literal source. During the Cold War and through the development of the American War Machine, the mesa above Virgin Utah was used to test ejection seats for fighter jets and spacecraft being developed by the US government. They had developed a rail system that they used to launch these devices off the mesa to ensure that the designs were effective and kept our pilots and astronauts safe. Because pilots and astronauts were expensive, they used live monkeys to simulate the occupants of these devices. So yes, they literally launched monkeys off the mesa, hence the name "Flying Monkey".

Legend suggests the monkeys didn't like this practice, but would be quite compliant for their first test run. Assuming the monkey survived, they were rarely interested in any subsequent tests and would frequently beat the crap out of their handlers before relenting for another ride over the cliff.

Coming UP Flying Monkey

We hit an aid station near the top of the mesa. We grabbed some supplies and pushed on.

When we topped out, we ran a 6 mile loop of rolling jeep road. Danny and I were still running side by side, finding new people to offend with our banter as we slowly worked our way further toward the front of the pack. I think people were letting us pass just to be rid of the sound of our voices.

After finishing the loop, we hit the same aid station for a second time, then started back down the Flying Monkey trail to the valley floor.

The descent was really more like a "somewhat controlled tumble", mixed with a few calculated footsteps. We've always come off the mesa on a paved road, so this was my first descent on Flying Monkey and it was....exhilarating? That sounds appropriate.

After hitting the valley floor, we headed across the desert, working our way to the Dalton Wash aid station, which is where Jo would be waiting for me.

Danny had fallen behind me a bit, and I assumed he was giving English lessons to one of the foreign runners. Providing them with his broad vocabulary in English slang and treating them to a series of his best body fluid stories. Or maybe just explaining why the American government used to fling monkeys off the cliff behind us. Either way, I was somewhat concerned about foreign relations at that moment.

 Rolling Into Dalton Wash

Jo handed me a fresh pack, loaded with my gear and race fuel, as I handed off my depleted pack. I gave her a quick update, a kiss and we were off again, headed to Guacamole.

Getting to Guacamole requires a long, tedious climb on a dirt road. It's a big piece of vertical gain, but it comes easier than the other big climbs. We ran, walked and shuffled our way to the top.

Top of the Mesa

We're greeted by the Guacamole aid station as soon as we top out. The aid station was manned by friends, so I took an extra minute to talk and laugh with these great people before pushing out onto the slick rock trail around the top of the mesa.

The Guacamole loop is 7.5 miles of aggravating rock and sand. It's an impossible trail to get a rhythm going and you're constantly shifting gears to cover the variable terrain. It's mentally and physically frustrating.

Danny and I got separated at the beginning of the loop for reasons beyond my control, so I ended up running the loop solo. I caught back up with him at the aid station before making the descent back into the valley.

Leaving Guacamole Aid Station

Leaving Guac, we headed back down the dirt road to Dalton Wash, where Jo would be waiting for me. This is a LONG gradual descent, which made for easy running and an opportunity to share a few more laughs along the way.

Dalton Wash Aid Station

Danny and I coming into Dalton Wash

Again, Jo and I swapped packs, kisses and a few words before I headed back to the trail.

Leaving Dalton Wash, I crossed the highway and headed toward Gooseberry Mesa. The path to the base of Gooseberry takes a rolling trail across the desert floor. This is mostly jeep road all the way to the start of the climb, also known as Goosebump.

Danny and I had got separated during the desert crossing. While I would see him a couple more times during the race, we were destined for different paths for the rest of the race. (imagine sad face here).

The Goosebump climb has officially reached "Legendary Status". Trail runners will frequently measure other climbs based on how it compares to the Goosebump. If it's "as difficult" or "more difficult" you know you're in for a tough day.

 Dragging my Butt to the Top of the "BUMP"

The Goosebump Aid Station marks mile 35 of the course. It was getting HOT and I was tired from the climb. I took time to fuel up and hydrate before heading out on the 12.5 mile slick rock loop across the mesa.

Introducing an Australian Runner to the Idea of Race Day PBR. He Approved of the Idea. Reaching Across Hemispheres to Make Runners Happier. 

Like I said earlier, I was using this race to play with pace and fueling. I was taking in slightly more calories while maintaining a slower pace. I felt really good, even after the biggest climbs and despite the heat.

Gooseberry Mesa slick rock would put a dent in that.

I had forgot how much I disliked this 12.5 mile loop. The undulating terrain frustrates me to no end and the constantly changing surface demands intense focus. This is hard to pull off with a beer in your hand.

After 5 miles, we hit an aid station and then do a quick out and back to the Gooseberry Point. The point has a ridiculously awesome view, that I totally ignored because all I wanted to do was get off this mesa. I punched my bib with the hole punch (tied to a bush) and headed back out to the aid station whence I just came.

I loaded my pack up with ice at the aid station, chatted briefly with a few runners, then headed out to finish this frustrating loop.

Gooseberry is designed to be a mountain biking trail, which means that the trail is designed to take the rider over every rolling, twisting, technical natural feature available. The fastest or most efficient path is never a consideration. The only consideration is complexity. As a runner, it's a maddening burden.

But on I went. Cussing mountain bikers the entire way.

View Heading Back to the Goosebump Aid Station

Coming to Goosebump at Mile 47

I came and went from the aid station quickly because that loop had taken longer than I had hoped for. I had built in plenty of extra time into my race plan, but I didn't want to eat into it this early.

Leaving Goosebump, we run down a 6 mile stretch of dirt road, heading to the Grafton Mesa Aid Station. This road is an easy run, with some gentle rollers scattered throughout, but it's a challenge because of the vehicle traffic. The dust is tough to deal with and the traffic not associated with the race tends to be less than interested when dealing with the runners o the road.

Coming Into Grafton Mesa Aid Station

Jo was waiting for me at Grafton Mesa. We made a quick pack swap and I headed down the trail toward a descent to the Grafton Cemetery Aid Station.

This trail is pretty runnable and somewhat shaded for a while. The trip to the Cemetery Aid Station was enjoyable and it felt fast. I didn't need anything when I arrived, so I checked in and headed right back out.

From the aid station, we make a daunting climb back to the top of Grafton Mesa. By now, I had been running alone for a while. I was picking up spots, but none of the people I passed felt like chatting, so I pushed on.

I missed Danny.

The sun was fading fast on my return to the Grafton Mesa Aid Station. Jo had packed a headlamp for me when I last saw her, so I dug it out and strapped it on.

I was looking forward to a cold night of running.

My fueling and pacing strategy was working out well. I felt good as Jo handed me a fresh pack, so I just rolled right on through without stopping. I glanced at the aid station and realized I must have just gained 5 positions as I headed down the road toward the Goosebump Aid Station for the final time.

It was cooling off fast as the night settled in. When I got to Goosebump, I met Jo at our truck and made a few wardrobe modifications for night running, grabbed a fresh pack and headed off the mesa.

I was at mile 68.5 and was feeling strong.

The descent off Gooseberry is a monster at night. It's too steep and technical to run and the dust is so thick, it obliterated my vision in the beam of my headlamp. It's faster than the climb up, but not by much.

When I reached the bottom, I began a 7 mile trek through the desert valley, headed for the Virgin Desert Aid Station.

I've been on this rolling trail before, but never when I had 70 miles on my legs. The constant climbing and downhill pounding was deeply frustrating and exhausting.

My mantra devolved to "This is Bullsh**!!!".

I managed to pick off four more runners before getting to the aid station, so that helped the pain to subside.

I checked in at Virgin Desert and started out on the first of three loops that I had to run before heading to the finish line.

Each loop was color coded. Red, White and Blue. Before heading out to do a loop, we had to check in and get a bracelet that matched the color of the loop. This was helpful for those of us who have already lost our ability to reason.

The Red loop was the shortest and easiest, only 5ish miles of decent terrain. It went pleasantly fast and I stopped back in to the aid station, got my white bracelet and head back out again.

The White loop was a bit more challenging and slightly longer. The only encouraging thing was that I passed two more runners along the way. I was fantasizing about the end of the race and just wanted this to be over.

I proudly finished my loop and grabbed my blue bracelet. I had plenty of fluids and Hammer gels to get me through the loop, so I didn't waste any time.

The Blue loop was the longest and definitely the most challenging. A lot of that challenge was probably mental, as it usually is at this point of a 100 mile race. I powered along, running when I could and walking when it was the only sound choice.

I checked into the Virgin Desert aid station for the final time, handing off my blue bracelet with a big grin.

I ducked my head into the aid station and saw Danny. He looked relatively decent and I was happy to see he had made it off the mesa alive and well. We exchanged a few words and I pushed on.

Danny MAY have been crying when we parted ways. I can't say for sure, but it's highly likely. The separation anxiety was tough for both of us.

I had a 6 mile jaunt through the desert before reaching the finish line. Again, this was a familiar trail and I felt right at home as I cruised along.

My watch told me that I would definitely make it under 24 hours, but not by a very large margin. But enough of a margin that I could go as easy as I wanted. I just needed to keep moving in the right direction, which isn't always a guarantee.

I left the trail and hit the highway for the final mile to the finish. I was feeling great!

Crossing the Finish in 23:39:39

It was close to 6:00 AM when I finished and the 50k runners were lining up to start their race. This provided a large and enthusiastic crowd to cheer me at the finish. It was a nice touch.

It wasn't my fastest time at the Zion 100, but it was the best I ever felt and I had the most fun. The course is better than ever and Matt is doing a great job of nurturing this race along.

My increased fueling and reduced pace taught me a few valuable lessons. My education isn't complete, but I took a few big steps in the right direction.

I was also testing out my new trail shoes from Topo Athletic. The Runventure is a brilliant trail shoe that proved to be perfect for this terrain. They worked flawlessly for this 100 mile race and I plan to employ them extensively in future races. I urge people to keep an eye on this brand and give them a try. They're becoming the premier trail shoe on the market today.

Once again, I need to thank my beautiful and tireless wife for crewing me through another LONG 100 mile trail race. She's the reason I can do what I do and I wouldn't even bother with it without her. She's simply awesome.

And I want to thank all my sponsors for their continued support. Especially Hammer Nutrition, Topo Athletic and Gear:30. It's great to have the confidence of good people and good companies!

Next stop...Manitoba Canada to conquer the Great White North and 100 miles of trails in the wilderness!

Happy Trails!

Monday, March 30, 2015

2015 Pickled Feet 24 Hour Race: The Impossible Win

Every now and then, at purely random intervals, every runner has the perfect run. Your legs feel great, your heart rate is low, your breathing is smooth and you feel like you can run forever.

This race had none of those things.

I was registered for the Pickled Feet 48 hour race and was eager to run this event. I had run the 24 hour the previous year, and managed to pull off a tough win. Now I had my sights set on the same thing for the 48 hour race.

And...that wasn't meant to be.

Jo and I returned home from vacation a few days before the race and the only souvenir I brought back was a deep chest cold. The only "welcome home" I got was an enormous pile of paperwork on my desk. I knew I didn't have the time OR the physical well being to contend in the 48 hour race, so I dropped down to the 24 hour and hoped for the best.

Please allow me to set the stage:

This race course is a 2.5 mile loop, mostly trail and dirt road, with a tiny bit of paved surface near the timing station and aid station. There are some small amounts of shade, but because the leaves haven't come in yet, the course is largely exposed. With the exception of a couple of small "hills", it's dead flat. The scenery is pleasant enough, but mostly for the first 50 or 60 miles of looping through it. Then it gets a bit stale.

The 24 hour race has a 6:00 PM start, which presents a challenge in itself, because it prolongs the number of hours the runners will be awake before the finish. I'm not sure if this done because of timing and logistics, or just to be cruel.

Jo and I arrived a couple hours early to set up a tent, chairs, and to get my gear situated in our crew station along the course, near the timing station. It was ridiculously hot and I felt like death.

Some of the other races were already underway and I saw several familiar faces as they ran past, heading to the timing mat. Among those was Davy Crockett. He was running the 100 mile race, which had started at 10:00 that morning. Davy was looking excellent and moving really well, especially considering the heat. We chatted briefly as he made his way to be counted for another lap.

After a short race briefing, we lined up at the start and got ready to be sent off. Because I was sick, I had very modest expectations. To be honest...my only expectation was to be miserable for as many miles as possible, then go home with my tail between my legs.

At 6:00 PM, we were off.

I started the race at my normal pace for an event like this and almost immediately realized that I was in over my head. I couldn't breathe, my heart rate was through the roof and I wanted to puke. But I wasn't ready to slow down yet. A small part of me thought it would be temporary, but that was just wishful thinking.

You Can ALMOST See the Other Runners Behind Me

After about 1/4 mile, we come to the fork at the beginning of the loop. We have a choice in which direction to run and we can change it up any time we want. It's a small thing, but it really helps with the mental side of the race.

I habitually go left on this course and almost everybody else goes right, and this time was no different. Except for one other runner. I could hear the footfalls behind me, as they got closer and closer. I was tempted to look over my shoulder, but it's way too early for that type of paranoid behavior. After a few more minutes, a tall female runner pulled alongside me, glanced over and said "Hello" in a very calm and relaxed manner. To which I replied "Heh (gulp of air) LO!".

Now...this has happened to every runner at some point. I'm running my ass ragged trying to keep up with this woman and she's just coasting along, chatting, happy as hell. Because I can't breathe, I'm limited to one word answers, which launch from my face with a blast of exhaled air before sucking in lungful of life sustaining oxygen. I look and feel like an idiot!

In a clever ruse, I fall in behind her and drop a few feet in hopes of focusing more on survival than conversation. But we keep "chatting".

And just when I thought things couldn't get worse, we got off course!! This goes to prove that I can get lost on virtually ANY course, ANY time. We got back on course, after losing several positions, and headed to the timing mat to complete our FIRST 2.5 mile loop.

"Don't Pants Your Poop!"

As I was heading out for another loop, I slowed my pace trying to settle my breathing and my heart rate. They wouldn't calm down. It was sweltering out, I was sweating profusely and I felt terrible. I wasn't even 3 miles in and I was already feeling like I should pack it in, go home and pretend this never happened.

I ran the second loop at a very slow pace but I never recovered. My chest cold was destroying my race and trying to kill me in the process. When I got back after my second loop, I plopped in a chair and announced that I was going to drop from the race. Jo was chatting with Jim Skaggs as I made my proclamation and they both turned to look at me in my pathetic state. Neither were very impressed.

I sat for 15 full minutes, working on cooling down and regaining my heart rate. Once I settled down, I decided to go out for a few more laps and see how I felt. I was noncommittal on the topic of finishing, but I was here, so I may as well log a few miles.

I ran the next few loops slowly, feeling sorry for myself and mumbling self disparaging comments under my breath. I felt like I was running for all the wrong reasons and I just wanted to save the embarrassment and go home. I was fully dejected and disengaged.

Farthest Reaches of the Course

I made my way around a few more loops and decided I was going to stop whining and stick it out for 100 miles, even if it took all 24 hours. I was just going to keep running and deal with it.

Awesome Aid Station

As the sun began to dip lower in the sky, the temperature dropped rapidly. I was still running pretty slow, but the cooler weather felt great. I tested my pace a bit by speeding up, and I felt pretty decent. My mood immediately began to shift.

I don't mean I suddenly got perky, grinning from ear to ear like an idiot. I mean I just hated life a little less. Let's maintain perspective here.

I was still relatively slow, but I wasn't nearly as miserable as I had been in the early miles. In a better mood, I was able to chat with other runners more and focus on enjoying the night as the hours, and miles passed on by.

I really enjoy running at night and I was hoping that I would make some modest gains as the night wore on.

My pace was terribly slow, but I was hoping I could fall back on my endurance and carry myself through with a relatively decent run. At least something to avoid embarrassment. Only time would tell.

Once the sun completely faded, it got cold. REAL cold! I was stopping at our tent every couple of laps to add another layer of clothing to try to ward off the freezing temps. I did this until I was wearing every piece of running gear I brought. I was still cold!

This Picture Pretty Much Sums it Up

I was keeping a steady, but still slow pace as I worked around and around the course. I was ignoring my mileage and lap count and didn't even want to know where I was until sunrise. After that, I would develop a plan to finish the race. I was still shooting for 100 miles and then a hasty exit from the race. Followed by a HOT shower and WARM bed.

As the sun began to rise, the winds picked up and some intermittent rain started to fall.

And then it got biblical!

As I was making my way to the timing mat, a headwind was working to push me backwards down the trail. I was relegated to a walk, leaning my entire body into the oncoming wind. Tree branches were snapping off trees and were sent flying through the air. Sand and rock was being blown into my face. It seemed like a good time to see about that shower and bed.

As I came to the aid station, I saw two large canopy tents as they were launched into the air and thrown back to the ground, totally  destroyed. The total count would be six tents ruined before it all died down.

Hands down...the worst weather I ever ran in.

I had started the race in brutal heat and was now working hard to keep from freezing to death. Fortunately, I had the chance to generate some body heat while running, a benefit that the volunteers and crew member did NOT have.

My Poor Crew Trying to Stay Warm

Eventually, the wind died down, the rain stopped and the day began to turn for the better. Things were finally looking up.

I was still moving slow, but the good news was...I was still running. I checked the leader board to learn that I had moved up to 2nd place overnight.

Learning this changed my perspective entirely. While I had been focused on a 100 mile finish followed by a quick retreat, I was now energized by the idea of possible win. A thought that had escaped me by mile 5 the previous day.

I began to keep a close eye on Ryan Lund, the first place runner. He's a solid ultra runner and pretty great guy. As the race wore on, it was becoming obvious to us both that one of would walk away with the win.

Aside from keeping tabs on my own race, I found distraction watching the 12 hour race, where Jim Skaggs (Buffalo Run 100 RD) was working on a win and a possible course record. I've run with Jim several times, but never raced with him and I was in awe of the work he was doing. Jim would go on to win the 12 hour race and set a course record. A first time for him on both accounts. It was awesome to watch it unfold and I enjoyed cheering him along the way.

Jim Skaggs Working Hard

The weather was improving steadily and we were transitioning into a beautiful spring day. The weather was warming and the sky was cloudless. Perfect running weather.

At 11:00 AM, I had taken the lead. I was feeling better than I had the entire race but I still had seven hours to try to build a gap between me and the 2nd place runner.

I truly HATE leading races because it adds a huge burden and a tremendous amount of stress to the run. I tried to remind myself that I almost dropped out at mile 5, so whatever I leave with will be an absolute gift. 

Ryan and I were fully aware that the race was between us and we chatted frequently in the remaining hours of the race. On a couple of occasions, we ran together and exchanged stories while we got to know each other a bit.

This is one of the cool things about this sport. While we're actively competing with each other, we can still interact without ego or malice. I was deeply enjoying my time running with Ryan and I think he's a fantastic person. At that point, I would have been happy for either of us to win.

I mean...if I HAVE to choose, I guess I would be happier if I won. But you get what I mean.

As the clock continued to wind down, it became more and more obvious that Ryan wasn't going to be able to catch up. He was struggling through a rough patch and trying to bounce back while regaining some lost ground. At this point, I was just trying to manage my lead, keeping him far enough back to hopefully win without killing myself in the process.

Ryan and I met on the trail, running in opposite directions and we stopped to talk for a minute. He was still feeling rough and decided to stop his race at 100 miles, collect a buckle and call it a day.

Ryan was essentially conceding the race which would hand me the win.

We parted ways and I thought about this for a while, deciding what to do next. I now had the option of stopping and still collecting the win, which was pretty damn appealing right then. I had 107.5 miles logged, which wasn't impressive at all. I decided to push on for 120 and just try to relax and enjoy the remaining hours.

A Toast From the Crew

With the pressure off, I walked more, talking with the runners that I had been sharing the course with for the last day. Everyone's mood was lifting as the race was drawing to a close and for the first time, I was actually enjoying myself. I was still sick, and now totally exhausted, but I was happy.

Heading to the Timing Mat to Log 120 Miles, PBR in Hand!

I hit 120 miles with about 30 minutes remaining. Near the end of this race, the RD opens a small loop for us to run on so we don't get caught on the big loop when the race time runs out. I was happy with 120 miles, but decided to go log some additional distance since I had the time, and easy access to beer.

Long Loop, Short Loop, Arrow, Arrow, Arrow, Arrow. Not at all Confusing

After drinking a beer, I rolled out onto the short loop, still running. I immediately ran into trouble. The short loop runs in a circle around the BBQ that was busy grilling up food for the runners. It was simply more than I could handle. After running 120 miles, I was hungry! I finished one loop and headed right to the food.

Forget This...I'm Over This Running Thing

I ended my race with 120.28 miles, collecting my second consecutive win at the Pickled Feet 24 Hour Race. It's a long ways from an impressive total, but I was happy enough, anyway.

I took the next hour to rest, eat, drink beer and wait for the awards ceremony. Emily Berrichoa, the Race Director, takes time to recognize every runner as they come up to collect their finishers award. It's a pretty fun ceremony and I always enjoy cheering for all the unique accomplishments.

The Men and Women of the 24 Hour Podium. All Smiles and Laughter!

I love this event and all the great people in the Boise running community. Kindness, generosity and good spirits make this a pretty incredible event. The excellent race organization just ties it all together.

It was an unbelievable struggle for me to go from immanent DNF at mile 5, to the overall race win. It was an excellent lesson in patience and persistence for me. At the time, I saw it as stubbornness, but it was a bit more than that. I was elated with how things turned out.

I was also very pleased with my shoe choice. This is my second race and second win the Topo Athletic Fli-Lytes. They're super comfortable, very light and offer excellent protection over the long run. A simply amazing product!

Topo Athletic Fli-Lytes

I want to thank Topo Athletic, Hammer Nutrition, Gear:30, and my beautiful wife for all the support and encouragement. I think 2015 is going to be an incredible year!

Thanks for reading!