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, June 9, 2013

2013 Adrenaline Night Run 65K: Spending The Night Under the Stars

The Adrenaline Night Run 65k represents my third ultra in three weeks. That's a nifty little fact, but what it really means is that I'm a bit tired.

I was originally scheduled to run the Laurel Highlands 70.5 mile trail race the weekend, but had to change my plans due to logistics. Getting from South Africa, then back home, then out to rural Western Pennsylvania was just more travel than I was going to be able to manage. However, I could take a quick flight to Phoenix on Saturday, run this race through the night, and catch a quick flight back home on Sunday morning. In and out like a thief in the night! PLUS!!!! Being a night race, I could use this to my advantage because my body would still be running on African time! Now if my legs would run on African time....

Customized hydration pack, ready to do some damage!

I would like to thank my buddy, Leon Lutz, for hooking me up an awesome headlamp after mine suffered a terrible mishap! Thanks buddy!

The Adrenaline Night Race is part of the Aravaipa Running group of races. These are the same guys that put on the Javelina Jundred and the Coldwater Rumble. I've run several of their races, so I was pretty enthused to be running this race too. Nobody does a better job of throwing a trail race/party!

Jo and I love running in Arizona and we seem to find ourselves down here quite a bit. Jo would also be running the 13k race before spending the rest of the night keeping me fed and hydrated. I love it when we run together, even if it's not technically "together".

Speaking of traveling to Arizona for races...

We were last down here in January so I could run the Coldwater Rumble 50 mile trail race. While we were here for that race, we totaled our Hertz rental car. It wasn't our fault, but when I returned the car, the right fender was ripped off, the bumper was dragging on the ground, and it was barely recognizable. So admittedly, we were a bit surprised when Hertz handed us the keys to a brand new Camaro. I had rented an SUV as a crewing vehicle. What self respecting trail runner shows up for a race in a BRAND NEW CAMARO?!?! And more importantly, why would they trust US with it. Our track record is spotty at best.

Given the right circumstances, we can destroy this one too!!!

 The 65k race begins at 7:00 PM and Jo wouldn't start her race until an hour later. Like most of the Aravaipa Running events, this is a loop course, which I really like. This loop is 13k and I'll run it 5 times. I like this format because it allows me to run the first loop while making mental notes, then I can improve my game plan as the race unfolds. I usually do very well on multiple loop courses.

 Pretending to wander around while sizing people up

Getting my bib and SWAG before the race

It's important to mention that it was HOT at the start of the race. It wasn't warm. It wasn't "sunny". It was a ridiculous and oppressive heat that would force most sane people to stay indoors with an ice pack soothing the warmest, sweatiest parts of their bodies. I would say it was AFRICA HOT, but I was in Africa a few days ago. This was MUCH hotter.

It was 106 degrees at the race start. This should have been a huge concern for most people but I felt like I was the only person that even noticed it. The heat was a concern because I've suffered with dehydration symptoms a few times this year. If anything was going to derail my day, dehydration had the greatest chance.

Jo and I getting ready to get this thing done!

Listening to pre-race BLAH BLAH BLAH...

We got started promptly at 7:00. I had planned to go VERY easy on the first loop because the sun would be beating down on us for another hour or so. So, as usual, I went out with the leaders.

I have so little self control

Chasing skinny people. It's a compulsion!

Almost immediately, a small pack broke away from the rest of the field. I was in it. We created a huge gap between the front 6 and the rest of the field. In my defense, it was a pretty comfy pace, but maybe not smart for a 40 mile race and definitely not smart for 106 degree weather. No need to let logic and common sense get in the way of an epic display of self destruction though.

After a mile of hauling ass, the leader evidently got tired of toying with us and totally checked out! Now we were a 5 person pack, following the skinniest of our original group. I'm not exaggerating when I say this dude left us in his dust. At first I thought he had lost his mind and would eventually blow up. Little did I know I would spend the next 7 hours hunting him down.

Desert at Dusk

As we were running in a tight pack, I started to size these guys up. They were all chatting and laughing and seemed to be out for a casual little jaunt through the desert. Meanwhile, I was dead silent. Just watching. It struck me that I didn't like what was happening and in an unusual moment of maturity, I slowed my pace and let the remaining runners pull away from me. This is much harder than it sounds. If you're a competitive person, it's excruciating to watch your competition put distance on you. But this is what I did.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch....

Jo got started with her race at 8:00. This put her an hour behind me. My race plan assumed I would be finishing my fist loop not long after she got underway. I had planned to eventually catch up to her, run a while, and then pull away to finish my second loop. It didn't work out quite like that.

Jo managing to look sexy even during a hot trail run through the desert. Only my wife would do a trail running "selfie"

This 8 mile loop has one aid station near the midway point. I planned to blow right by it all night long. As we neared the aid station, I was still catching glimpses of the lead pack but I was running all by myself. I had a huge gap on the people behind me.

Sun is almost gone. Thankfully!

I finished my first loop in about 1:20. I felt good and decided to keep that pace for the rest of the race. I assumed I would eventually pass most the field if I could hold myself together and stay focused on that slow pace.

The second loop proved to be a challenge because we now had people from two other races clogging up the trails. The majority of the course is technical single track, so passing people can sometimes take time. The other alternative is to shove them off into the Chollo cactus so I could ease on by. I decided to reserve that option for the later miles if needed. This race was going to be an exercise in patience, so I used this congestion to my advantage.

It was fully dark now and we didn't have an kind of moon. The Arizona desert is a beautiful place to run at night but I had never seen it so dark. I was passing people, keeping an eye out for Jo, but I never saw her. I eventually finished my second loop without ever seeing her, and I hoped she had already finished. When I crossed under the start line, I scanned the crowd but she wasn't there either. I refilled my hydration pack, grabbed some Perpetuem and headed off into the night.

My third loop was where I made my biggest gains. People were falling apart and the carnage was almost absolute. I was passing people that were in total survival mode. The total fatigue caused by the heat and trail conditions was taking a huge toll.

In addition to the fatigue, people were literally dropping all around me. I've never seen so many people trip over rocks in my life. I witnessed dozens of painful crashes that made me cringe and shudder. It was painful to watch. Thankfully, I stayed upright all night.

Just as I finished my third loop, the power went out at the start line. We went from full illumination to total blackout. When I was blinded by a flash, I realized it was Jo taking a picture of me. I was happy to see her again and in one piece. We had a quick exchange while she took care of my hydration pack.

I had been battling a few tummy cramps, so I decided to duck into a nearby portable toilet at the start line. I instantly had flashbacks of the Antelope Island 100 miler, where I had lost my lamp in the blue water, so I quickly took my lamp off and held it in my hand. I scanned the inside quickly before taking a seat...and then...CRAP!!! Literally....CRAP!!! Somebody had somehow managed to crap all over the toilet seat!!! I didn't have time for housekeeping duties (doodies) so I abandoned this effort and headed out.

I asked Jo to let me know my race position when I returned for my final lap. With the power out, we had no idea where I stood in the race. We exchanged a quick kiss and I was off!

The fourth loop was lonely. The other races were done and the ultra field was heavily scattered. I saw almost nobody. I ran straight through the aid station and returned to the start line once again.

I had been holding my pace almost perfectly so far. I had passed a lot of people but didn't know if they were in my race or a shorter race. I was blind to my position but was a little curious.

Coming in to finish the 4th loop

Jo immediately met me when I crossed the start line and told me I was in 2nd place overall. I wasn't completely surprised but I hadn't seen some of the early front runners and didn't know what came of them. It turns out, they eventually dropped, which was exactly why I stopped chasing them in the early miles.

All my loops had been between 1:20 and 1:27ish. I really wanted to finish in under 7 hours, so I headed out as quickly as possible.

I was pretty beat up by now and I felt like my pace was slipping. I focused on the night while I ran, noticing shooting stars and the listening to the coyotes howl and yap off in the distance. I lost myself in the desert as I ran and it helped the miles slip by.

Once again, the trail was a lonely place. I wasn't passing and I wasn't being passed. Unlike most my races when I'm up front before the finish, I wasn't even bothering to look over my shoulder. I just ran through the night and enjoyed the peace.

I met my goal and crossed the finish line at 6:59:10, solidly taking 2nd place.


Smiling like an idiot! Loving what I do!

A well deserved post race beer!

This was a dangerous race for me because I frequently forget to hydrate while running. I know it sounds stupid, but it's a fact. I get so immersed in the run that I tune my body out until it begins to fail me. I've been working on this.

During this race, I remained focused on hydration and nutrition from the start. I ingested ample amounts of Hammer Endurolyte Fizz and Hammer Perpetuem. I maintained an intelligent pace and stuck to my plan. While it's frustrating to see the leaders pull away, ultras have a way of correcting that issue in the later miles if we can be patient.

Chatting with the race management

 I have dozens of pictures like the one above. I seem to have an uncontrollable compulsion to give blow by blow details of the race course and conditions to the people that created it. Maybe I view myself as the Siskel and Ebert of trail running. You're race is meaningless unless I give it "two thumbs up"!!!

I was really happy with the course and it played into a lot of my strengths. It's not an easy trail and it has never ending rolling terrain. There are several long, runnable flat sections, but the up and down is constant. I decided early on the walk every climb and run the flats and the descents. That's exactly what I did and it probably made the biggest difference in my race. This is a slow course due to the terrain, so I embraced it and managed my race accordingly.

I have loved every Aravaipa Running event that I've entered and this was no exception. Nobody does it as well as these guys and I've become addicted to their races. If you haven't yet, you should check them out.

Jo also had a great time and as always, she did an amazing job of managing my race and taking care of me. I don't know how other runners can handle it without having somebody as skilled as Jo to help them get it done. She's definitely my secret weapon!

We're taking it easy for a few weeks as I rest and prepare for the Black Hill 100 mile trail race in South Dakota. It's time to regain focus and get mentally prepared for another adventure!

Thanks for following along. I hope to see many of you out on the trails very soon!

Monday, June 3, 2013

2013 Comrades Marathon: "Never Limit Where Running Can Take You"

"Never limit where running can take you"...this is a famous quote from my friend and inspiration, Bart Yasso. I've heard him say it hundreds of times and it's a meaningful statement to me. When Bart says this, he's talking about the spiritual and mental benefits of running as much as the physical locations of where running can take us. 

It was Bart Yasso that sold me on the idea of going to South Africa and running the Comrades Marathon. He spoke about it with enthusiasm and passion. I was hooked by his sales pitch and I blame him for my misery. 

To say that the Comrades Marathon is a big deal in South Africa would be understatement. Comrades is a big deal on a global level. The Comrades Marathon is the oldest and largest ultra marathon in the world and is heavily steeped in tradition. Simply put, there is no other race like it.

Comrades is approximately 54 miles long and changes directions each year. The "downhill" course is run in even number years and the "uphill" race is run in odd number years. I would be running the uphill course.

To compound matters, this race is run entirely on roads. While I have been known to run the occasional road marathon, it's not something I work into my routine with any frequency. In fact, I've recently come to the realization that road running is not a strong suit for me. Nonetheless, I would be heading to South Africa so I could see what all the excitement was about.

To remove the forthcoming speculation and suspense...I DID finish the race. I was pleased that the race officials had the foresight to create a medal that complimented my race shirt so well! 

My diminutive finishers bling!

Side note: The Comrades finisher medal is among the smallest medals given out at races and is a big part of the race history and tradition. This medal has not been altered since the race began.

First off, getting to South Africa is an amazing chore all by itself. It requires four flights and about 27 hours of time in the air. Our route took us from Salt Lake City to Minneapolis, which is a typical layover spot for me anyway. From there, we flew to Amsterdam and enjoyed a long layover before flying to Johannesburg. We had to stay the night in Johannesburg before making our final flight to Durban in the morning.

Needless to say, we were exhausted when we finally arrived.

Within a few hours of getting to Durban, we headed to the race expo which was being held directly across the street from our hotel. The expo properly reflects the race and is an enormous affair.

Gotta love a race expo with a bar in it!

Experimenting with one of the many local beers.

The Comrades Marathon goes out of their way to cater to the international runners. We have our own area for packet pickup and they make it as simple and painless as possible. While we only make up about 5% of the race participants, we have the same sized area for packet pickup and just as many people to help us through the process.

Race SWAG!

After picking up our packet on Thursday, we had a few days to relax and enjoy the area. Because we're in the Southern Hemisphere, it's winter in South Africa but it didn't feel like it. The weather was perfect so we were able to walk the streets of Durban and enjoy the city.

Durban Skyline from the beach

A lot of surfing this time of year

The picture below was taken while we were in a local marketplace. Apartheid has been over for a full generation, but like most cities, there are well defined white areas and black areas. It's not a function of racism but merely a result of different cultures. This photo was taken in a marketplace and we were the only white faces in the crowd. We really enjoyed the dancing and drums and the overall enthusiasm of the crowd. It's just not something we could ever witness inside our own country.

Young boy dancing for the crowd

The race started at 5:30 AM on Sunday. The start line was only a few blocks from the hotel and I had planned to sleep in for a while before the race started. Due to jet lag, my sleep patterns were still screwed up so I ended up crawling out of bed at 1:30 AM. 

I wasn't nervous or anxious leading up to this race. There was nothing to suggest that this would be any different than other ultra I've run, and after all, it's only 54 miles. When I woke up and opened my window, I began to worry a little because the air was far warmer than the forecast had indicated. It was balmy and humid, already hovering around 67 degrees. It was only going to get hotter. 

My gear is ready to go!

Me and Jo in the lobby before the race

As I said before, Comrades has a lot of tradition, and along with tradition there are dozens of rules. One rule prevents me from wearing clothing with sponsorship or corporate logos on them. Never mind the fact that this race puts the REEBOK logo on all their swag and the NEDBANK logo on the race bibs. They want me wear their sponsors logo, but I am threatened with disqualification if I wear my sponsors gear. 

However, runners are encouraged (almost mandated) to run in their local running club gear. Fortunately, I was able to run in my Happy Utah Mountain Runners (HUMR) shirt and I was thrilled be representing them in South Africa. 

Spectators are discouraged from coming to the race start due to issues with crowding. Jo and I walked down to the start together and she planned to return to the hotel so she could get ready to catch a bus at 7:00 AM that would take her to the finish line in Pietermaritzburg, which is about an hour drive from the start line and our final destination. I wouldn't see Jo again until I crossed the finish line and I would have no crewing or support along the route. This was an unappealing thought.

Where Jo spent her entire day waiting on me to arrive

This race places runners in corals based on established marathon finish times. The corals go from A-H and I was placed in coral "C". Standing in that coral was a surreal experience. I was flanked on all sides by tall, lanky, speedy looking Africans. They all seemed to know each other and I was the lone white face that had nobody to interact with. When Africans are together, they almost never speak English, so I didn't even have the benefit of passing the time by eavesdropping. I was truly alone amongst a sea of humanity. 

It was hot and I was already beginning to sweat. Hydration was going to be an issue and I forced myself to revise my race plan. I decided I would have to go slower than I had intended so I could gauge the proper pace and output of energy. It was definitely going to be hot and if I got overzealous, I would run the risk of a DNF. I would rather go home with a slow finish than no finish at all.

Waiting to start the biggest ultra on the face of the planet!
Photo Credit to: Em Gatland Photography

When they played the South African National Anthem, I was surprisingly moved. It's a lengthy song and the entire crowd was singing. It's primarily sung in the African language, but whites and blacks sung it in breathtaking unison. I had no idea what the words meant, but the emotion in the crowd was running high and it was an incredible experience.

Shortly after the anthem, we were on our way. Like any race with 17,000 runners, it was a slow start but the field opened up quickly. It was still dark when we got underway, but the street lights provided ample lighting until the sun came up.

Sunrise as we leave Durban
Photo Credit to: Em Gatland Photography

The race started off fairly flat and rolling for the first few miles. I once again realized I was a foreigner when a cascade of beeps starting to sound all around me. These noises were marking the end of the first kilometer. It would be a while before my Garmin made a similar sound.

We eventually began to climb the first major hill, flatten out a little, start a minor descent, then climb again. This is a process that would literally last for the entire 54 miles. This race tackles the five highest peaks in this part of Africa and that's why the "up year" is so challenging.

Passing through an early aid station

This hill lasted for 2 miles. Not steep, but still crushing.

I hit the 26 mile mark in good time. I was hoping for a sub 9:00 finish and I arrived at the marathon mark in 4:09. We were still hitting some major ascents and I knew I was going to continue to slow down as I went. I hit the 50k mark at 5:12 and knew I would be revising my race plan again.

Fueling and hydration were tricky because I was forced to rely on the aid stations more than I would normally. Without crew support, it's just too challenging to carry all my nutritional needs with me for that distance.

Comrades is famous for many things, and the crowd support is high on that list. The streets were lined with thousands of spectators and they were only absent in areas where access was nearly impossible.

Cheerleaders and media near the middle of race

Not a typical sight at an ultra

It was at mile 35 that things got really challenging. As the heat of the day began to reach its peak, the wind began to blow. It was a nice respite at first, but it soon ballooned into an unrelenting 30 mph headwind. This is a point to point race that runs in the same direction with very little deviation. The wind was blowing from the direction of our destination. There was no way to avoid it or combat it. We just had to deal with it.

If a 200 pound man faces a headwind, he can muscle on fairly well. When a 131 pound man is dealing with that same headwind, it's a different story. The wind was literally pushing me off the race course. I simply don't have the body mass to fight it off as well as a bigger person. I was in a desperate struggle and losing precious time. This is a fight that I had all the way to the finish line.

Most people really appreciate the crowd support and I totally understand that. As a trail runner and introvert, I would rather be left alone with my thoughts. I don't need external encouragement and frankly, I found it to be a distraction. By mile 40, I was tired of all the people along the course. I just wanted to sink into my own world and turn my brain off. They refused to allow that to happen.

Children begging after the aid stations for cookies and sweets
Photo Credit to: Em Gatland Photography

By mile 45 I resigned myself to a finish time around 10 hours. My battle against the heat and the wind was mentally devastating. I still felt pretty good but was struggling to get any kind of decent pace going in these elements. I was deeply frustrated and just wanted to get this race over with. I lost all interest in having a good finish and focused on ending the misery.

From mile 45 to the finish, I witnessed massive amounts of carnage on the race course. Runners were dropping to the ground, being drug off by medics and a massive evacuation was underway. Ambulances were hurrying up and down the race course, dodging between runners and spectators with a load full of victims packed tightly inside. I had never witnessed so much human suffering in a race of any distance.

I crossed the 50 mile mark at 9:25 and felt hopelessly defeated. To make matters worse, I had two of the steepest and most brutal climbs to face before the finish. During the climbs, I was somewhat shielded from the wind but was unable to run the steep ascent. Once I crested the top of the climb, I was instantly battered by the headwind, so getting a decent pace on the downhill was equally difficult. Nothing was working in my favor.

Entering the long parkway to the Cricket Field and the finish

I had been hunting for a beer for the last 6 miles and was coming up empty handed. There were big crowds all along the course and they were grilling food, partying and enjoying the race. Yet, I couldn't bum a single beer from any of them. My final hope was the long chute on the way to the finish. Again, I was totally skunked. At that point in the race, it's the only thing I had to look forward to (oh...and seeing Jo too!).

Coming to the finish

Sometimes, at the end of a particularly challenging or iconic race, I can get a little emotional. I've even shed a triumphant tear or two as I crossed the finish line. That didn't happen at Comrades.

100 meters to go and damn happy about it

I crossed the finish line in 10:19:01. Far from what I expected, but I was happy to have completed it.


As I said earlier, the carnage was rampant. About 30% of the field DNF'd. It was amazing to see so many athletes literally drop to the ground and not be able to continue. It was unlike anything I had ever seen and I have no interest in witnessing it again in the future.

Here are a few pictures to illustrate it....

 Photo Credit to: Em Gatland Photography

Photo Credit to: Em Gatland Photography

Photo Credit to: Em Gatland Photography

Photo Credit to: Em Gatland Photography

After finishing my race, I finally got the beer that I had been craving for so long. I relaxed and mingled with other runners in the International Runners Tent. Everybody had similar stories to share and it evolved into a sea of commiserating.

As stated, Comrades has a lot of tradition and I wasn't leaving for the hotel until I witnessed the end of the race where the most brutal piece of their history shatters the hopes of so many runners.

This race has a strict 12 hour cutoff. At exactly 12 hours into the race, an official goes to the finish line, turns his back on the remaining runners and fires a pistol signifying the end of the race. At the exact same time, a throng of burly men block runners from crossing the finish line. It's a crushing blow to many runners that fought it out all day long, and it's almost as hard to watch as people are streaming toward the finish with the last bit of energy and resolve, only to be stopped just as the gun goes off.

The photo below shows a few runners that arrived one second too late. They won't collect a finish time or a medal for their efforts. Several hundred runners continued to arrive with tears streaming down their faces and a look of total crushing defeat.

Photo Credit to: Em Gatland Photography

South Africa is a beautiful and diverse country. I'm extremely grateful to have had a chance to come here and experience the race, the local culture and interesting countryside. It's unlike anywhere else I've every traveled.

I'm also glad I got a chance to run the Comrades Marathon. However, I sincerely doubt that I would ever run it again. I had heard so many amazing things about this race that it was impossible to ignore its calling. I also witnessed the fanaticism first hand in the days leading up the event. This may be one of the most popular ultras in the history of running. This can't be denied.

This is the clearest distinction between trail runners and road runners that I have ever seen. This is a road race and it finds very wide appeal amongst that particular crowd of runners. This is THEIR ultra. A trail runner won't find any of the qualities in this race that would excite or impress them. But this race has every exciting quality that can be found in a modern road race.

I am in no way disrespecting this amazing race. It, like American River and JFK, simply do not represent what I love about my sport of ultra running.

I'm happy for the experience and I'm even happier to able to check this one off my list. Jo and I are eager to be heading to Arizona next weekend for a trail ultra on familiar trails. After a short string of road races over the last four weeks, it will be a very welcome homecoming.

Happy Trails!