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, September 28, 2014

2014 Bear 100: The Anatomy of a DNF

Less than four years ago, my greatest athletic aspiration was to finish my first marathon. This was well before I knew anything of substance about trail running and I knew even less about ultra running. I perceived the marathon to be the pinnacle of athletic achievement and having a shiny finishers medal became an obsession for me.

On October 16th, 2010, I finished the Baltimore Marathon and got my medal. Largely in part to running with an injury, my finish time was 5:51:01. I was happy because I was officially a MARATHON RUNNER! Being really slow and a little pathetic was just fine.

All I wanted was the finish.

Killing Myself for a 5:51 Road Marathon Finish

A lot of things have changed in those 4 years, and the value of the finish is one of the biggest differences.

BTW...If you stumbled across this blog, searching for a step-by-step account of the Bear 100, follow the link below. It tells a story of a much better day for me.


I had run the Bear 100 the previous year and I loved everything about this race. The scenery is as beautiful as the course is brutal. It's a legit, high altitude mountain race that leaves you with an undeniable sense of accomplishment when you finish it. I had performed well at the Bear in 2013 and was looking for another great run in 2014, despite having run the Wasatch 100 three weeks prior, and the Leadville 100 three weeks prior to that. None of this is really new to me because I'm a "Bend it till it breaks" kinda guy.

3 Minutes Before the Start of The Bear

I felt good leading up to the race, but I knew my real physical weaknesses wouldn't be exploited until my body was really challenged on some of the major climbs. My summer mountain races had taken a heavy toll on my climbing legs, so I was entering into the unknown.

Or to put it differently...I was planning to do my last long training run for the Bear, while I was running the Bear.

I ran and climbed well on the first ascent, which comes immediately after the start. My legs felt tired but I pushed through it and climbed hard. Near the top, I began to feel a subtle burn in my left hamstring. I ignored it, but made note of it as I made my way up the mountain.

The first downhill felt great and I was on the same pace as I had run the previous year, which was really the best I could hope for.

As we ran the next ascent, the nagging in my hamstring returned, and was a bit more pronounced.

This is where I would normally write, "But the pain was outweighed by the beauty of the course and the intensity of the endeavor"...or something similar. But that's not true. My leg hurt and I felt it. The beauty was of no use in subduing it and the intensity of the endeavor was causing it.


I began to get a little worried about my leg after the first aid station at mile 10 because the situation was deteriorating. It's not unusual for me to have some kind of pain early in a race, only to see it fade as my body warmed up and got into the rhythm of the run. Not the case this time.

I ran several miles with different friends and shared with them that I was having an issue. As expected, they all brushed it off and encouraged me to work it out and focus on the finish. This is what we always tell each other and we do it for all the right reasons. We want to help each other and see each other succeed. The support we give each other in this sport is one of the things that makes it special and it's something that I genuinely appreciate.

When I came into the Leatham Hollow aid station at mile 19.6, I would see my wife for the first time. As soon as I saw her, I expressed my concerns, but I was still hopeful this would be something I could work out. She helped me through the aid station and I was headed back down the trail trying to sort things out, both physically and mentally.

Coming into Leatham Hollow

Leaving Leatham Hollow was a tricky decision because I knew I would have another 10 miles of hard climbing and running before I had crew access again. If I had a legitimate injury, getting out of the mountains was going to be a real problem.

Side note: Have you ever had one of those moments in a race when you begin to ponder the actual cost of a rescue helicopter? Where you say to yourself, "If things go south way up here, this is going to cost me about $35,000 to get my dumb ass out of here."

Coming into Cowley Aid Station at Mile 29.9

I came into the Cowley Aid Station with a sense of desperation. I explained to Jo that things needed to improve DRASTICALLY if I was going to go another 70 miles. I fueled up and was getting ready to head out when I told her that my decision to continue would be made before the next aid station. If things stayed the same, I would drop from the race.

And this is the beginning of the big debate...

Deciding to DNF, regardless of distance or terrain, is a very personal decision and every runner processes this differently. After a few years, and 90 finishes at the marathon distance or beyond, I've decided to employ a tiny bit of logic when calculating the benefit of continuing on a bad day.

The decision to DNF is directly proportionate to the level of importance we place on the race. That may seem obvious, but in the moment, I think that sentiment is sometimes lost.

When I finished my first marathon, injured and slow, I only did so because the finish was more important than any potential damage or serious injury. If asked at that moment, I probably would have forfeited my ability to walk again, just to have a chance to cross the finish line.

And that's just a marathon! Throw a BUCKLE into the picture and the deep desire to push on is intensified by 372%...according to recent scientific studies. I wouldn't make that up. You can google it.

Additionally, there's a tremendous amount of pressure on ultra runners to NEVER drop. We're supposed to be tough and push through the pain without concern for consequences. Some people see a DNF as a sign of weakness rather than a calculated decision. That's a dangerous and irresponsible attitude. Another fact, fully supported by science.

Who Hasn't Heard an Ultra Runner Say This?

If you cut through all the crap, it boils down to your priorities. Here's a list of things that inspire fear in people when they ponder a DNF:

1. I really, REALLY want that buckle!
2. My friends will pretend it's ok...but deep down inside, they'll think I'm a douche nozzle.
3. Literally, every runner here that finishes...will beat me. How embarrassing.
4. They have blueberry pancakes at the mile 84 aid station. I love blueberry pancakes.
5. I'll never get that deal with Altra if I drop because they're the ZERO DROP SHOE!! Damn!
6. People will keep telling me that I made the right choice. Until I punch one of them. Then it'll stop.
7. Did I mention how badly I want THAT buckle?!
8. I won't be able to write an EPIC blog post!
9. It'll be an entire YEAR before I can redeem myself.
10. I'll never be able to wear the race shirt in public.
11. I'll have 12 months of people asking me, "Hey, you gonna take another shot at the Bear?"

Fortunately for me, none of these things were a concern.

I had run this race before, and I ran it pretty well. I had nothing to fear and nothing to prove. I have a long track record of finishing 100 mile trail races and I even have a few wins.

Why in the hell would I subject myself to a miserable time, slugging it out all the way to the finish of a race that I have already defeated?

The answer to that question is...PRIDE. While pride has a place in this sport, I suggest you use it sparingly.

While kicking all of this around in my brain, it came down to one final question that I kept asking myself:

"Are you having fun?"

"No. No I am not having fun."

Thus...These are my final strides at the 2014 Bear 100

I run long distance trail races for two reasons:

1. To have fun in beautiful places with awesome people.
2. To prepare for the zombie apocalypse.

Another eye opening, scientific fact for you:

So, let's face it. If I'm not having fun and I'm just going to die at the hands of the undead anyway, then calling it quits seems entirely reasonable. 

My logic works for me because I run a lot. Dropping from a 100 mile race, even a race as incredible as the Bear, becomes easier after having completed so many great races. And it becomes even easier when I consider all of the cool things I'll be doing in the coming months. It's not a pressing issue when it becomes a fairly normal activity.

The opposite is also true. Dropping from your first 100 miler, or one of the very few that you've attempted, becomes a menacing, if not terrifying thought. That fear pushes people to different places. Sometimes it's good and other times it's disastrous. 

My only advice is to know where your priorities lie, and what your values are, before making that irreversible decision. There's never a rush to decide your own fate on race day, so take the time to truly analyze your thoughts, your physical condition and your options for saving the day. Then balance that against the things that truly matter to you and your decision will be obvious. That's what I did in this case and it led me to the best answer. 

It's soothing to live your life large and to feel the comfort of no regrets. 

Jo and I have a lot of big things coming up in the next few months and that's where my attention lies now. Thanks for reading my sad story from the Bear. If the mood strikes me, I might go after another buckle from that race. If not, I can move on...with no regrets.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Wasatch Front 100: An Abundance of Vert and Hurt

Getting into the Wasatch Front 100 lottery is typically followed by two conflicting, and immediate, responses:

1. "WooHoo!!! I got in!!!"

Then, only moments later...

2. "Oh no!! I got in!"

Please allow me to admit this publicly...I am NOT a good mountain runner. However, I love running in rugged places at high altitude because that's what I find to be challenging. I was nervous.

My nervousness was compounded by the fact that I had pushed myself pretty hard a few weeks early, in pursuit of the famed "Big Buckle" at the Leadville 100. I was nowhere near recovered or prepared for Wasatch, but why should I let a small detail like that get in the way of a perfect opportunity for an epic crash and burn?

Pretending to be Prepared at the Start

Heading into the Mountain at 5:00 AM

The race started out simple enough. We meandered down the rolling trail, choking on dust, while we warmed up. I was having a lot of fun chatting with runners and I felt good. When we made a turn to begin the first climb, those feelings of "fun" and "good" became a distant memory.

This ascent covers about 4200 feet of climbing in approximately 4 miles and is capped off by summiting the aptly named "Chinscraper Summit". Sounds exhilarating!

First Light on the First Climb
Photo Courtesy of Kendall Wimmer

In the middle of the climb, I caught up Kendall Wimmer, another local runner that I never fail to meet up with whenever we run the same race. Kendall and I are so similar in pace and finish times that I stole his split data from a previous Wasatch finish so I could estimate my own run times. It was no surprise that we found each other on the course.

Kendall Wimmer Heading to Chinscraper

Looking DOWN Chinscraper

Looking UP Chinscraper

The climb was working me over, but I kept reminding myself that this is the biggest climb on the course and once I got through this, things would get easier. This notion shows my own ignorance of the Wasatch 100 course. Things NEVER got easier.

I eventually scrambled over the top, tried to fill my lungs with air, and pushed on down the trail in search of the easier parts of the Wasatch course.

View at the Top of Chinscraper

I was greeted with the realization that once we topped out on Chinscraper, we would just run on over the tall peak to the South and climb that next. I wasn't expecting that, but off we went!

Up Next? Another Stupid Mountain to Climb!

After grunting my way to the top of the next climb, I enjoyed some leisurely running while we traversed the ridge lines for a while...until we had to climb over the next ridge...

Climb, descend, traverse...repeat!

Photo Courtesy of Kendall Wimmer

The first aid station on the Wasatch course comes at mile 18, just after descending Francis Peak. It's unusual to wait that long for an opportunity to whine about the race course to aid station volunteers, but what choice did I have?

Francis Peak

At mile 17, I began to feel sick and sluggish. My stomach was churning and I realized I hadn't taken in any calories yet. I was so busy scrambling around the mountains that I had completely bailed on my nutrition strategy. I sipped some water and gobbled down a Hammer gel trying to fix the situation. From a caloric perspective, I was in a deep hole and needed to dig my way out before my race was ruined.

A few weeks before the race, I had told a friend that the only thing that would prevent me from finishing Wasatch would be a mental error. This was that error.

I came into the Francis Peak aid station and took a few minutes to collect myself and get some useful calories in my gut. When I was fed, I walked my way out of the aid station hoping to recover along the way.

I wasn't going to see Jo until the Big Mountain aid station at mile 39. I decided to DNF at Big Mountain if I couldn't get my body back on track. I kept a slow pace and focused on fueling my body.

I eventually caught up to a group of local runners from the Wasatch Wranglers and decided to stay with them for a while because they seemed to be having a lot more fun than I was. As we approached mile 27, I saw an unusual sight in the distance and realized somebody was sitting on the edge of the trail in an overstuffed chair. Then I could hear the music playing from a radio...then a huge sign with my name on it appeared. I knew immediately who it was.

Our friend, Matt VanHorn, had set up a portable living room on the side of the trail so he could cheer for his friends in the race. His presence was well timed because I really needed a boost at that point and his classic antics helped to remind me to not take this too seriously.

VanHorn Just Relaxing in His Living Room in the Wasatch
Photo Courtesy of Kendall Wimmer

In another mile, we reached the Sessions Liftoff aid station. I had worked this aid station the previous year and was given a warm welcome by my fellow volunteers. They seemed excited that one of their own was running the race. Their enthusiasm continued to boost my spirits.

I loaded up at the aid station with ice, ate some gels and drank a few cups of Coke before shaking hands and moving on. I felt like I was beginning to feel better, but I was still in a bad place physically. However, mentally, I was doing great.

It took me nearly 20 miles of concentrated fueling before I began to snap out of my physical funk. By then, I had lost a tremendous amount of time.

Big Mountain Aid Station

Running into Big Mountain

By the time I got to Big Mountain, I was on the mend and feeling better. Jo got me into a chair and started to go to work on me. She handed me a new pack, fully loaded with everything I needed and brought me some food from the aid station. I gave her a quick update on the grim reality of my race and she hurried me off down the trail.

The climb out of Big Mountain was hard. I had lost contact with other runners and was working through these miles all alone. Part of me wished I had DNF'd at Big Mountain. I even stopped once and looked back down the mountain toward the aid station wondering if Jo was still there. Maybe I could catch her before she left and we could just go home? I shook that thought out of my head and pushed my unwilling legs up the mountain.

A Rare Example of Smooth Trail on the Wasatch Course

Over the next few miles, I began to feel great and was running with renewed ambition and energy. I was fueling and hydrating well, and knew I only had about 13 miles to cover before getting to see Jo at the Lambs Canyon aid station. I just needed to hold it together along the way.

Unfortunately, that didn't happen.

As I approached Alexander Ridge, I began to feel overheated. I kept drinking heavily to stave off dehydration, but my body was boiling under the sun. There was no escaping the heat because the trail was totally exposed. I began to feel dizzy and nauseous as I ran toward the Alexander Ridge aid station. I started to walk so I could reduce the workload on my body and hopefully cool off. Nothing seemed to help.

When I got to the Alexander Ridge aid station, I was wrecked! I kept myself pulled together because I was worried they would pull me from the race if they knew how damaged I was. I loaded up on ice and tried to cool off. I was pointed in the direction of a kiddie pool that they had set up as an ice bath. Excited, I ran over to it only to realize there was no ice in it and the water was warm from sitting in the sun. Just like me.

I headed out of Alexander Ridge, disappointed and worried.

Out of Alexander, Headed to Lambs

About a mile down the trail from the Alexander Ridge aid station, I began to feel pretty desperate. I staggered off the trail and dropped myself in some shade under a tree. I just laid there trying to cool off while deciding my next move. I dug my phone out and sent a text message to Jo, telling her I was in trouble and probably wouldn't be able to continue.

I laid under that tree and weighed my options. A DNF sounded delicious, but the sting of failure seemed like it would be too much to bear. I eventually decided to get up, get back on the trail and head toward the Lambs Canyon aid station. I could make up my mind along the way.

Here are the four thoughts that probably kept me from dropping:

1. I had pacers waiting for me and they took time out of their lives to be here.
2. I didn't want to spend the next 3 weeks listening to people telling me I "did the right thing".
3. I had cleared my social calendar for this race and nothing else to do later.
4. If I dropped, I would have to come back next year, and that was probably enough to keep me going!

As I was heading toward Lambs Canyon, the sun began to dip and the air temperature dropped. I began to feel much better and started to run again. Then I ran faster. For the first time in about 50 miles, I started to think there was a chance to actually finish this race.

Being Greeted as I Came into Lambs

When I arrived at Lambs, I was greeted by my crew and several friends that were were waiting for their runners. Jo and my pacer, Jen, went to work on me to get me cooled off, fed, and geared up for the next long push into the mountains.

I had planned to make it to Lambs Canyon in 12 hours. It took me 14.

I was overwhelmed by the care and attention I got as well as the encouragement that came my way. I was beginning to feel like I was fully back on track. Again.

Yeah...That's a Flower in My Hair, Cuz I'm Cool Like That

Getting Ready to Leave Lambs

Jen would be pacing me from Lambs Canyon to Brighton. In my mind, this was the most important part of the race. I knew if I could get to Brighton, and was still somewhat mobile, I would make to the finish.

As soon as we left the aid station, Jen and I began a long, grueling ascent toward Upper Big Water. I was happy to have company again and we chatted, whined and whimpered our way up the mountain.

Admittedly, most of the whining and whimpering came from me.

Jen had printed out the detailed course description and kept me totally informed regarding whatever impending misery was headed my way.

The sun eventually faded entirely and we continued our run under the glare of our headlamps. We pushed through Upper Big Water and headed toward Desolation Lake.

Jen and I were running down the trail making small talk when I heard something thrashing in the brush near the trail. I shot my headlamp in that direction and caught the gaze of an enormous bull moose, chewing on some brush. I slammed on the brakes and showed it to Jen. Then my headlamp caught a second bull moose. Were we surrounded? They were staring at us pretty intently while we stood there and stared back. Enlisting an age old defense mechanism, Jen began to speak to them in sweet sounding, slightly hushed tones. In English, because it was obvious these moose were local. As Jen kept them entranced with her words, I led us in a wide arch, off the trail and around these beasts. Once we were far enough away, we ran.

Jen and I made it into the Desolation Lake aid station where I fueled up and rested my legs for a few minutes. Four minutes to be precise, because Jen was dragging me back out of the aid station before I got too comfortable. She was pretty demanding.

I was feeling better at this point of the race than I had at any other time. Jen and I made the big climbs, hurried down the descents and did everything we could to make good time through the mountains.

Before I knew it, we were rolling into the Brighton aid station at mile 75.

Coming into Brighton

I lingered in Brighton for a while because the aid station was filled with friends and bustling with activity. I ate some food and chatted for a bit before heading out. I didn't want to linger too long, because Brighton is often referred to as "The Morgue".

Jen was done pacing and I was picking up my second pacer, Jason Brockman. We suited up and headed into the mountains together.

Me and Jason Heading Out of Brighton

Things didn't get off to a great start. As soon as we left the aid station to begin a long climb, we were lost. There were no course markings at the first trail junction and we had no idea where to go. I had no interest in wandering around the mountainside lost, so Jason ran back to the aid station to get directions.

When Jason returned, we headed up the mountain, hopefully in the right direction.

Despite our best efforts, we did get off course. Fortunately, a group of trail runners saw our bobbing headlamps as we bumbled around in the woods and got us redirected. Back on track, we continued the climb.

The climb wasn't terrible, but the descent was. We navigated the steep terrain and loose rock for an eternity as Jason got a lesson in the depth of my vocabulary.

The next several miles were much the same. A big climb on rough trail, followed by a steep descent on an even rougher trail.

As Jason and I made our way down the trail, I began to feel sleepy and I had to keep the conversation going just to stay awake. I was completely drained and only focused on getting this race finished.

The sun eventually made its appearance and I turned my headlamp off and stowed it away. I've run a lot of 100 mile trail races and this is only the second time I've ever seen the sun come up while I was running. It served as a reminder of how long and hard I had been working at this.

To save time, Jason and I had stopped visiting the aid stations. I was relying on the Hammer products I was carrying in my pack. I was so eager to be finished, I didn't want to waste any time at all. Jason would run into the aid station, give them my number and then hustle down the trail to catch back up to me.

We rolled through the Decker Canyon aid station and stepped out onto the gravel path that would eventually take us to the finish line about 6 miles away.

That was the longest 6 miles of my life. This is a multi-use path that winds into canyons as it hugs the side of the mountains. Every time we emerged around a corner, I expected to see the finish line. Every time, I was met by disappointment.

I was trying to push the pace as hard as I could but eventually got discouraged when the finish line continued to elude me. I was deeply frustrated.

The gravel path eventually made way for a paved road with trail markers on it. After rounding a corner, I could see the finish line and I gave one final push with everything I had in me.

I crossed the Wasatch Front 100 finish line in 28:37:09.

Being Greeted at the Finish!

She Makes it Happen for Me!

Driving home from the finish of the Wasatch 100 takes us up the freeway, along the route that I had just finished running. It wasn't until that drive that I realized the magnitude of that run. It covered a tremendous amount of terrain in some of the most rugged country out west. From that perspective, it seemed almost impossible.

I was delighted with the finish, but disappointed in the errors that slowed me down. In every small failure, lies a lesson and I think I have learned mine.

I need to thank Jen and Jason for their selfless efforts to get me through this difficult race. It takes special people to commit to something like that. You guys are incredible!

I'm taking a few days to enjoy the accomplishment before turning my focus to the Bear 100, which is only three weeks away. Time to learn more lessons.

Thanks for reading.