Thursday, December 29, 2011

The ultrarunning gear I use

I’ve had this blog for almost two years now yet have never written about gear.  I know I often scour other running blogs looking for advice before I buy since, let’s face it, good gear isn’t cheap.  But it’s worth it.  I remember working an aid station at mile 22 of the Bear 100 one year, and a young runner came into the station looking for some gear repair.  He had taken a normal plastic bottle and fashioned his own bottle holder using only duct tape.  Unfortunately, it lasted less than 20% of the race.  As he left the aid station with our flimsy repair job, I thought it would be a shame if thousands of hours of training and tons of money went to naught just because he didn’t have the right gear.  Good gear won’t make you faster, but it shouldn’t slow you down.  With that intro, here is some of my favorite gear:

Water bottles- Nothing beats a Nathan Quickdraw Elite bottle.  I own 3 and use them all the time.  Good size pocket, tough as all get out (survives multiple wipeouts), and the handstrap with thumb-hole makes it so you don’t have to grip the bottle.  It’s worth the money, esp. since I have seen them as cheap as $16 recently. 

Hydration pack- I own multiple, and find myself using the Nathan HPL 020 the most.  I haven’t seen the newer Nathan vests, but love my 020.  Can fit 70-90 oz of water plus moderate amount of gear.  Comfortable and light.  I don’t like the bite valve on the bladder though (leaks when open, real hard to open/close), so swapped it with a Camelbak Antidote reservoir.  I also own an Nathan Krissy vest (HPL 028)- it’s like a small version of the 020, but with a single open pouch in back that can fit 2 bottles.  I use it mainly for racing when I need more than 20 oz of water but don’t want to double fist.

Gaiters- Dirty Girl Gaiters.  Light, tough, cheap, works great.  I got the bright green to match my shorts.  Really.  I know, I’m lame.


Photo- sporting my favorite running gear after a 50 mile Grand Canyon R2R2R.  Visible in this photo: Nathan bottle and vest, Dirty Girl gaiters, Drymax socks, S-caps, Brooks Shorts, Pearl Izumi shoes, and EFS Liquid Shot.

Socks- Drymax Maximum Protection Trail.  Expensive.  Durable.  Absolutely blister-proof.  Made in America.  I wear these for every long run and ultra and have never had blister issues.  You won’t regret buying these- I own 4 pair.  If I had to choose my favorite gear, it would either be these or the Quickdraw Elite bottles.  I also like my Thorlos, Darn Tough, and Smartwool socks, but not as much as Drymax.

Food- I’m not too partial, though mainly stick to gu’s even for 100 milers.  If I bring my own, I use First Endurance EFS Liquid Shot.  I really like that it comes in flasks so you don’t mess with opening and getting sticky fingers from gu packets.  I like Clif Bloks for the same reason- no sticky fingers… but sometimes a pain to open.  If I’m doing gu’s, I like the Powerbar and Clif Shots and Gu’s more than Hammer, just cause I don’t like the big Hammer packs.  Due to race day availability, I have probably eaten the most Vanilla Clif Shots this year and never gotten tired of the taste.  For my money, though, I don’t buy the Gu Roctane, since I just don’t think it’s worth the extra $$$.

Electrolyte- Succeed S-caps.  3x the sodium of Endurolytes, none of the fizz of Nuun.  And the most inexpensive of the choices by a long shot.  S-caps get me through 100+ deg humid days in South Carolina with no cramping.

Shoes- I think these are too dependent on the person to make recommendations.  I have wide feet and have had good luck with New Balance, Pearl Izumi, and Salomon for many years now.  I’m also trying some new brands that seem promising, such as Hoka, Scott, and Altra.

Other gear I like- Petzl Myo RXP headlamp, Under Armour Coldgear Mock top, Sporthill XC pant, Brooks Infiniti shorts, Body Glide anti-chafe, Blistex lip balm, and Charmin toilet paper.

[Disclaimer: I’m not sponsored by any of these companies and am not benefiting in any way by posting this.  And I bought all the gear with my own money.]

Monday, November 28, 2011

Best. Race. Preview. Ever.

Not that there is a single ultrarunner on earth who reads my blog but not Mr. Roes', but I had to give props to him for writing the most humorous race preview post ever. Even funnier than some of Dakota's stuff. And sadly, I blog lurk enough that I think I understood every joke in that preview.

Thanks, Geoff. And good luck to you and all the NF50 runners this weekend. We'll be tweet-lurking on Saturday.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Foothills Trail 76 mile run

Before anything else, I need to thank the people who helped with this endeavor.  At any race, there is an RD and numerous volunteers at multiple aid stations assisting hundreds of runners.  A solo undertaking such as this, however, is fully dependent on a few friends and family generously giving their time to help just one runner.  Barry Burns spent 14 hours on this endeavor, including 33 miles pacing on the longest run (time and distance) of his life.  Justin Cole spent 13 hours, including 22 miles pacing on the longest run (time and distance) of his life.  Ken Sturm waited many, many hours and paced for 2 hours.  And last but not least, my Dad spent 23 hours, including 1.5 hours pacing, all to help me finish.  Thanks a million for your time and help, guys.  And thanks to my family for supporting me in my time away.

The Foothills Trail traverses the Cherokee Foothills of the Southern Appalachians in North and South Carolina over some of the most rugged terrain in the SE.  It reaches the highest point in South Carolina, crosses numerous rivers and streams alongside dozens of waterfalls, has suspension bridges up to 50 yards long, and can claim such notable landmarks as the Chattooga River (filming location of Deliverance) and Whitewater Falls, the highest waterfall in the East.  The trail is 76 miles long, more or less, with approximately 16,500 ft climbing and 15,900 ft descending, though the exact amounts have been the subject of much discussion on the FHT listserv.  One unique challenge is the thousands and thousands of wooden stairs, which tend to change fast downhills into slow, careful descents.  The crux of the trail is the remote 33 mile Laurel Valley portion that does not have any road crossings or opportunities for aid and is the cause of most DNF’s for the trail.  There entire trail has only been run 16 times in under 30 hours, with twice as many DNF’s.  It is a worthy challenge for any ultra runner. 

FHT track

Toxaway River sign 

I first learned of the FHT when I ran the Dan Hartley-organized, unofficial Bad Creek 50k on the course last spring.  Over the course of the year, I ran the entire trail in portions.  Thanksgiving week worked well for my first attempt as we were off work and my father would be in town.  My primary goal was to finish, with a secondary goal of breaking Matt Kirk’s Fastest Known Time of 16:52 (I made pace charts for 15:15, 16:30, and 18:15).  My Dad and I left home just after 5 am on Nov 21, reaching the entrance to Table Rock state park at 6 am.  I had to run in about a mile to the trailhead, where I started at 6:22 am.  It had been raining the night before (more on this later) but the weather was warm and humid, near record highs- low of 55, high of 76- T-shirt weather the whole time with lots of sweating.  The steep climb to Sassafras went well as I ran easy, stopping to enjoy the gorgeous sunrise from Bald Knob overlook, with low-lying fog enveloping the blue mountains.  The trail was leaf-covered the entire 76 miles, which made seeing the rocks, roots, and stairs challenging, and water on the leaves soon had my shoes soaking wet.  I reached the Sassafras aid ahead of schedule (2 hr 7 min, including aid stop), swapped bottles, and ran the next leg to Rocky Bottom at mile 14.5 (52 min) where Barry was waiting to pace me.

FHT sunrise

Rocky Bottom

FHT sunrise (top) and Rocky Bottom aid (bottom)

The 33 mile Laurel Valley section with Barry was enjoyable.  It is a long, long section with a wide variety of terrain and numerous climbs and descents.  I tried to maintain a steady pace, but we found that the wet wooden stairs and bridges were extremely slippery and reduced us to slow, slow, cautious sidestepping down the (literally) thousands of steps.  I would estimate that the slick stairs and bridges slowed us 30+ min over this section alone.  We saw very few people, enjoying the hours of solitude.  Long stretches would pass with neither of us wanting to break the silence.  We filtered water once, but carried the rest of the supplies for the entire leg.  We both went through some ups and downs, but steadily moved onwards while trying not to think about how far we still had to go.  Highlights included a refreshing thundershower, amazing views, not too many spiderwebs, and seeing a pack of 10 wild boars.  Good times.  The last mile to the WWF aid is perhaps the hardest of the run, with some boulder scrambling, a steep climb, and a very technical traverse.  We reached an anxiously-waiting Dad and Justin, where I changed shoes and clothes and swapped gear.  Counting the stop, the leg was 7 hrs 53 min, an hour slower than Matt’s FKT split.  I knew the record was out of reach so stopped worrying about the time.  I knew I would finish, so just kept moving forward, knowing we would reach the finish which we reached it.  Quitting was never an option.

FHT leaves Laurel Valley stairs

Stairs hidden under the leaves

Justin paced me from Whitewater Falls to Sloan Bridge as the sun set.  The darkness combined with the leaf-strewn trail and my fatigue to slow the pace more than anticipated, but we reached the aid in 69 min.  Then followed the Fish Hatchery and Burrell’s Ford sections, taking 48 and 61 min, respectively.  I can’t recall many specifics other than being wrapped in the small cone of light on a never ending trail with Justin, and slowing to a walk for almost every obstacle or semi-technical trail portion.  Justin asked once if I thought I would get a second wind and run faster, which I found humorous since I was actually feeling good and felt like I was running fast at that time.  Justin learned just how far every mile can be running at night over technical terrain while tired.  My dad met us at Burrell’s Ford (mile 60.1) for a refill before the long Chattooga River section.  The first half was slow, as the technical trail generally follows (and briefly enters) the river, but we began to have faster stretches when the trail would smooth out.  We were cruising up a long uphill when a headlamp was coming the other way- it was Ken, running to find us after hours of waiting.  The 3 of us ran the last miles to Cheohee and the final aid after a (slightly) faster than expected sub-2:45, 10.4 mile stretch.  Justin bowed out at this point while my Dad joined in for his first-ever night trail run.  The last 6 miles went fast, even if we weren’t on the long uphills.  There were some nice views of the lights in the distance (one benefit of running after the leaves have fallen) with lots of jovial chatting.  The finishing trailhead in Oconee State Park soon arrived after 1:16 for the last stretch.  It was 12:16 am, for a final time of 17 hrs 54 min, the second fastest FHT time ever.  We were finished.  After jogging the 1 mile road out of the park, we met Justin at the car.  With congrats and photos all around, my Dad drove everyone back to their cars while we enjoyed the donuts and chocolate milk my Dad had wisely bought, finally arriving home at 3 am. 



Barry, Justin, and Jon (top); Jon, Justin, and Ken with no flash (bottom)

I really enjoyed running the entire FHT.  It is an awesome trail and I had great company along the way.  Thanks again to my great crew and family- I couldn’t have done it without you guys.  Justin asked if I thought it was as hard as a 100 mile race, as some have said.  Personally, I don’t think it is.  For me, nothing compares to the last 20-30 of a 100, and I would say this stopped just as I was physically reaching that point.  It was no tougher for me than the first 75 miles of the Bear 100, for example, and not as hard as the entire Rocky Raccoon 100.  But it’s still a tough trail and all finishers should be proud of their accomplishment.

One final thought- running the FHT is a big undertaking requiring lots of planning and support.  If I ever run the trail again, I would again go for the record, which I think is doable.  Here are a few items I think would help, some pertinent to me and some to everyone:

  • Best time of year would likely be March or April.  Temps are still cool, but the leaves would not be as significant on the trail.  And the extra 2-3 hours of light would make a huge difference in maintaining the fast pace before the darkness comes.  I would rather have more daylight, even if temps were warmer.
  • I started 45 min before sunrise.  Next time, I would probably start 90-180 min before sunrise, so I would reach Sassafras just as I turned off my headlamp.  Darkness slows me more at the end when fatigued.
  • Fueling and water was great for me.  40 gu’s (~250 cal/hr) and 20-25 oz water/hr, plus S-caps.
  • I need to be in better shape and well-rested.  I am probably in 80% racing shape right now, having peaked for UROC two months ago.  My training since then has been sub-par for a true FKT attempt, plus I wasn’t fully recovered from Mountain Masochist.  A record on this trail requires a full-up race effort.
  • Most important, I would not go for the record unless the trail was dry with no rain forecast.  Slick footing on stairs/bridges slows the final time 30-60 min, I would say.
  • I would not change a thing about pacers and crew- they were great.  I lingered a bit at the aid stops once the record was gone, and probably spent ~35-40 min stopped the whole time.  That could be cut in half.

Given this admittedly-ideal scenario, I think a sub-15 hr time is possible by me or someone else.  Since I am running Umstead 100 next March, my next attempt is likely at least 16 months away.  In the meantime, good luck to all other FHT runners and have fun!  Go add your name to the finisher’s list!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Mountain Masochist Race Report

A Tale of Three Races- a short story

Working title: 33 miles is an awfully long way to walk


When a race is in its 29th year and has a shoe named after it, you know it is a classic. With that in mind, I eagerly registered for the Mountain Masochist Trail Race 50+. It’s a classic Horton race, with 9200 ft climbing, 7200 drop, and a few extra “Horton miles” included. I had heard nothing but good things about it.

MMTR profile

While UROC was my focus race of the fall, I still wanted to do well at MMTR, though a few niggles and a slow recovery from UROC somewhat tempered my expectations. Nonetheless, I felt a 7:15-ish time was doable. Unfortunately, that changed when my daughters kindly shared some kind of flu bug with me a few days pre-race. I felt moderately achy and fatigued, mainly in my legs (a first), though I hoped it was either just a taper phantom pain or would pass quickly. However, I felt sick enough during the drive up Friday that I seriously considered turning around, but chose to see how I felt Sat morning. The already-long pre-race briefing and dinner felt even longer with my throbbing head, though I enjoyed some good conversations with a group of Raleigh runners. After, we headed to JB’s (Jonathan Basham) in-law’s house, where they were kind enough to give me a bed. There were 5 of us, and I was the only one of the group who hadn’t done or seen the race at least 5 times. One was Alyssa Wildeboer, the second-seeded woman with bib 102. Seeing as I was bib 2, we joked that hopefully the “2’s” would kick some butt (more on that later).

Race morning came early and cold, but I felt just good enough to give the race a serious go. There was some stiff competition, including a few guys I met earlier this year (Eric Grossman, Jeremy Ramsey, JB, amongst others). I was eager to start.

Part 1: The Race

The first 3 road miles were enjoyable, with a bit of chatting. I found myself in 7th, at the back of the lead pack, though I decided to let them go after 4 miles due to concerns about my health. They were a minute or two ahead at aid 1 (7 miles, 49 minutes), though a long stop due to bottle issues backed me to 10th. I had heard MMTR had lots of dirt road, but was pleasantly surprised to find that much of it was actually more like doubletrack or closed ATV trails that were at least somewhat technical and very fun, rather than passenger-car gravel roads. The next few miles passed quickly and I felt reasonably good as we ran up and down trails. I really enjoyed the trail, the cool temps, and being outdoors. After a few creek crossings and Aid 4, a long, gradual uphill found me in 6th place with three guys just behind. I was pleased to find myself slowly pulling away and was climbing strong. I reached Aid 5, mile 19, in 2:35. Unfortunately, my day was about to change.

Part 2: 33 Miles is an Awfully Long Way to Walk

Reaching the top of the hill at mile 19, we started a 3 mile decent to Irish Creek aid. However, it quickly became apparent that my body had just taken a turn for the worse. Interestingly, the first thing to fail when things turn south is my downhill legs (a la Logan Peak 2010 at mile 24), not my uphill legs. JB and the two other runners behind me passed and steadily pulled away as my pace uncontrollably slowed from 6:30 to 8:30 per mile over the course of a few miles. I knew I was toast, and my first thought was, “Egads, 33 miles is an awfully long way to walk.” My body told me my race was over and shifted into slow, long run pace, with a lot of walking interspersed. Two more runners passed me. A bit of humor did arrive in the form of David Horton, who came sliding up in his truck, waving me over. He pointed at me and loudly exclaimed, “Hey! Hey! You’re 11th place. Do you know what that means?!? You’re the First Loser! Now go catch someone to get top 10!” I just shook my head, muttered a low, “Okay,” and plodded onwards as he screeched away. I was shocked how long it took for anyone to appear behind me, despite my laborious pace. When I was finally passed, I mentioned to the runner that he was now in 11th spot and only needed one pass to be top 10. I was surprised when he gave me a couldn’t-care-less” look and just said, “It’s a long race.” Truly, there was a steep dropoff- outside the top 10 runners that day, none of the remaining guys seemed to particularly care about specific times or places, just wanting to finish. It was a different mindset than the competitive, push hard and beat the other guy mentality at the front.

I had a few conversations with myself regarding if I would drop at Long Mtn, the halfway mark. I am glad to say that, partly shamed by my OD DNF, partly cause I needed a qualifier for Western, and partly cause I just wanted to keep going, I resolved to finish as long as I could walk. And walk I could. If I was stubborn enough to start the race regardless of how my body felt, then I was going to be stubborn enough to finish the race regardless of how my body felt. It served me right and seemed fitting. My mantra the rest of the day was simply, “Onwards.” I repeated this to myself time and again.

I leisurely changed shoes and swapped gear at Long Mtn (mile 28.3, 4:05), then teamed up with law student David Kirby to finish the climb up Buck Mtn. Although I felt I could essentially run the whole mountain on a good day, I was content to relax and see if my body could recover at all. David and I chatted, which certainly made the climb pass quickly. Before I knew it, we reached the top with the Rocky soundtrack blaring from some jeep speakers (I can’t imagine how the aid station workers can endure the same song for 4+ hrs). The next 12 miles were a physical roller coaster of small ups and big downs, though it appeared my struggles were common to all the racers in my vicinity. I reached the loop, downed some delicious ramen noodles, and joined a twosome of runners to venture around and over the mountain. The leaf-strewn trail, surrounded by bare trees and with no wildlife in sight, gave a bit of a surreal, desolate, and forlorn feel to this portion of the course. I was surprised at how technical some of the trail was, and unsurprisingly struggled with some of the very technical descents, walking sections. The loop eventually ended (mile 40, 6:34), though, and I paused briefly for my only star of the day.

Part 3: Pseudo-pacer

Returning to the road, I found Alyssa bounding past me, looking strong but a bit tired as the second place woman. Feeling marginally better and moving at similar paces, I decided to try to stick with her and maybe even assist if possible, acting as a pacer of sorts. We settled into a routine, amiably talking as we ran. I was again reminded how much easier things seem when you have someone to talk to and distract you from your misery. There were a few times I struggled to keep up with Alyssa, and a few times I easily could have pulled away, but we were generally even. Across the gravel roads, up and over more technical, very leaf-covered singletrack, we pushed as we tried to reel-in her unseen foe, somewhere ahead of us. She listened to all my ramblings and both of my corny jokes and I picked her brain for knowledge of the course. We even decided that the race should be a team competition, seeing as we were numbers 2 and 102. If Eric (bib 1) didn’t finish with Sandi (bib 101), then we would win! Up and over one last 4000 ft mtn, then to the last aid station, where we learned first woman was 28 min ahead. With little chance of winning, Alyssa still wanted to beat her husband’s fastest time ever of 8:41. Running strong on the long downhill, the finish line finally appeared after a long 51.5 miles. She finished in 8:33:58, with me right behind. I finished 16th overall, 14th male- it was my first chicking since the Rocky Raccoon, and a double chicking at that. Horton shook my hand and immediately told me to come back to see what I could do when I wasn’t sick.

Eric won the race, clocking a sub-7 hr time. JB and Jeremy were 5th and 6th. I had a good time at the finish line, eating and talking with Clark, Horton, and all the racers. The post-race dinner/awards was likewise enjoyable, and I was intrigued by the fact that 30% of The Barkley Marathons finishers were present, with JB, Andrew Thompson, and David Horton all within 10 feet of me. Now that’s a crazy race- if you don’t know about it, google it. A few hours sleep courtesy of JB and Hillary’s parent, and I drove home early Sunday morning.


Physically, it probably would have been wise to not run. But, I wanted to experience the race and knew beforehand that it would likely be a slogfest. I gave it my best, but just didn’t physically have it to compete that day the way I am used to. I attribute my sub-par performance to 30% lack of UROC recovery/undertraining, and 70% sickness. I still believe I could run a 7:15-ish or faster. The race has lots of history, though it may change routes next year due to Forest Service issues. That would be a real shame. It’s a great course and well-run race with lots of great runners and volunteers.

Personally, I had fun and I’m very glad I did MMTR. Now, I also had many hours of suffering, but there is something enjoyable and rewarding about pushing yourself and completing a daunting task when it is definitely an off-day. It’s hard to beat a day running and walking trails in the beautiful mountains. And I also enjoyed trying to help Alyssa meet her goals- nothing forces you to get over your own bad day like trying to help someone. It was a hard, fun day, and I finished what I started, even if it took me a little extra time.

I have to thank my wife, Marci, and 3 kids for providing the best support a guy could ask for from a family. And for my parents and friends for caring. There are a lot of races on the East Coast I want to run, and likely won’t be repeating any races for a while, but this would definitely be one of the first that would draw me in again. Good times.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Freeloading and an open invitation

Like many runners, I'm frugal. So, I'm always up for freeloading- free rides, places to stay, food, warm showers, whatever. And, thanks to the generosity of fellow runners, I've been able to meet many new, generous, awesome people while keeping my money out of the hotel business and in my pocket. I have invited myself to people's houses many times, and never had a bad experience. The single best example of generosity was during the cancelled Pocatello 50, when someone gave me a ride, a shower at their condo, their clothes to wear, and drove me around for an hour trying to find a locksmith after I locked the keys in Cody's car- that was quite the adventure, and the help was sincerely appreciated. And, in return, I've had some people stay at my house on a number of occasions and given many rides (disclaimer: I have said "No" once. There was a good reason, though- a 39 1/2 week pregnant wife who was having labor pains. Sorry, Mr. Grossman).

And so, if you see a race on my calendar in your neck of the woods coming up, please invite me to stay at your house if you're so inclined. It will save me the trouble of inviting myself!

And, while there aren't a ton of races in the Greenville, SC area, the same invitation is open to any of you. My car gets great gas mileage. And we have a spare bed and some good cooking, so, if you're coming our way, our door is always open. Literally- try as I might, I just can't get my 3 and 5 year old daughters to close the darn thing.

Let's all work together to save our money for the important things like race entry fees, shoes, and food! Probably in reverse order.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Ultrarunning and Your Toes (Warning: Gross)

This is what ultrarunning does to your feet.  I’ll often have a black toenail, but UROC did a particular number on them, for some reason.  So for any of you non-runners who are thinking of taking up the sport… well, just be aware that you might get some extra looks when you wear your Chacos.  You have been warned. (Don’t click on the picture unless you want to see a large version)


And in case you’re wondering what it feels like, take a look at this photo:


(I’ll let you decide for yourself if I’m yelling in pain or shouting for joy)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Ultra Race of Champions (UROC) 100k race report

[Warning: Like all my focus-race race report, this is a long one]

“It has something to hurt everybody… For the technical guys, it’s got the road to pound you into submission. And for the fast guys, it’s got the brutal climbs and the rocks and the water and the mud. So I think there’s going to be something to put just about everybody down.”

-Eric Grossman, speaking about the course at the pre-race panel

After the Bear 100 last year, I didn’t have any firm running plans. I did a few low key races, but kept feeling the urge to test myself against more stout, nationally-recognized runners. When I read about UROC, I almost immediately requested and received entry as an elite runner. My summer training cycle was aimed to peak at UROC, with only a few untapered races mixed in. June and mid-July weren’t quite up to par, training wise, but the last 7 or 8 weeks was my highest two month mileage ever. My few injury niggles seemed to resolve themselves during the taper, and I was excited and felt ready. I wanted to run hard with the true elites of the sport (i.e. the one name guys- Geoff, Mackey, Wardian, etc), go fast, have fun, and see what happened. I believed I could compete, and set A and B goals of top 5 and top 10.

The week before the race was uneventful. Well, except for the minor occurrence of my wife giving birth to our third child, a boy. A brief NICU stay even had me questioning my participation in the race, but then everything cleared up and I received the green light. The normal pre-race nerves had me looking forward to just starting the darn race so I could stop thinking about it. All the UROC pre-race festivities were really enjoyable and a new experience for me- an interview with the indomitable AJW, some pre-race chatter with Eric Grossman, Jason Bryant, Anne Riddle-Lundblad, amongst others, and the elite panel Q&A. I slept terribly, as always, and just wanted to run. My family was at home, but was excited for the live coverage- UROC had videos posted on race day while the race was still going… find them all here.

Cool video of some of the elite runners- my family liked the 1:33 mark

The weather dawned perfect on Saturday. Temps were between 60-70 all day with no rain. The small group of elites lined up, and finally the relief of running arrived. The initial pace seemed reasonable, and I wanted to stay near the front group, if possible. However, I somehow found myself near the back of the conga line on the technical descent, somewhere around 14th place after the 600 ft drop. Troy Shellhamer took a nasty spill right in front of me, landing hip-first on sharp rocks- it looked like a fall that would knock some people out, but he popped up and kept moving (as a side note, several people noticed a strong resemblance between Troy and I, although his beard was more neatly trimmed. Beard Power!). The first climb was rather steep, and I felt like we were running a 10k more than a 100k (which would be a common theme all day). We reached a brief stretch of road, and I slowly passed Ian Sharman, Jeremy Pade, and Michael Owen on a gradual uphill as they were wise enough to walk some steeper portions. Ian later commented to iRF that the frontrunners seemed to be running a 50k rather than 100k, which I think may have resulted in some of the eventual DNF’s. I reached the first aid station at the summit somewhere around 10th place. I thought of making a charge for the front group, but held back knowing there were many miles to run [in hindsight, Good Move #1]. The subsequent singletrack descent resulted in more position changes, as technical specialists like Jason flew by while pre-race favorite Dave James came back. I wasn’t expecting as much singletrack at the start, so enjoyed it until we reached some road downhill before the steep climb to aid 2 around mile 9, which I reached in 8th place.

When I signed up for UROC, the course had about 50 miles of trail. Later changes resulted in almost a 50-50 split of road and trail, which disappointed me. While I can hold my own on the road, trail is more enjoyable and reduces pounding injuries. Leaving aid 2, the course runs on the paved Blue Ridge Parkway. Admittedly, if you have to run on road, this is a pretty nice one- rolling ups and downs, good views, and little traffic. Even with the later heavy fog, the traffic was respectful and seemed to give us wide berths (except for one particular jeep, which swerved towards 4 runners in succession). Much to my surprise, though, the trail-road-trail-road changes, with corresponding pace shifts, seemed to only add to the course difficulty, rather than making it easier. I was alone on the BRP, though I could see a group of three runners several minutes ahead. The pace was quick- in fact, the next 13 miles flew by in under 90 minutes, even though 8 of the miles were trail. After 4 or 5 miles of road, the trail turned onto the delightful singletrack descending to the Lake Sherando, the low point on the course. I tried to run smooth and easy, making sure to save my quads, while enjoying the trail. While the temps were nice, I was drinking water faster than expected, so I asked the aid station at the lake to grab my second bottle from my dropbag for the coming climb [Good move #2]. They had it ready after my quick lake loop, and got me on my way. Every aid station stop consisted of refilling 1 or 2 bottles and grabbing 2 or 3 Clif Shots, and I found all the volunteers very helpful in speedy turnarounds. Thanks, all- you were great, and we appreciate it. A special thanks to the RD’s and Clif for giving enough Clif Shots to last the whole race.

I hadn’t seen anyone on the out-and-back to the lake, so knew the leaders were less than 10 minutes ahead. The 1700 ft climb from the lake up to Slacks Overlook passed quickly for me and I felt reasonably strong, passing Eric Grossman at mile 24, just before the nasty yet short, Massanutten-ish rock garden. I drained the last of my water just as I pulled into the aid station, grateful I had both bottles to stay hydrated. The next 8 road miles to Whetstone flew by, including a couple on a dirt road. Clouds moved in, enveloping the mountain and generally limiting visibility to 50 yards. It seemed to create a mystical feeling, and I rather enjoyed it. I reached Whetstone aid at 34 miles just ahead of Ian, who had been slowly reeling me in for over an hour. As it would turn out, he and I would run within a minute of each other for the next 4+ hours. Neal and Gaby Gorman were working the aid station and quickly had me onto the Dragon’s Back trail to the race turnaround. The trail was very runnable, with minimal technical challenges and elevation gain, and I was looking forward to seeing how far ahead the leaders were.

Dave Mackey appeared soon, slowly walking to the aid station. He looked done for the day, which he said was due to some recent illness. Ian caught me just as Mike Wardian passed us the other way, 30 minutes ahead. Geoff followed a few minutes later, apparently having passed 4 runners in the last hour. Scott Gall, Matt Flaherty, and Jonathan Basham (JB) were 5 to 15 minutes ahead. We briefly speculated that it was likely we would see Matt later in the race, as the fatigue of his 6-hr, 50 mile run the weekend before would likely catch up to him. Ian jumped ahead after the turnaround at mile 38, with me slowing slightly to nurse a twisted ankle. Other than the ankle, I felt fine at the turnaround thanks to my three Clif Shots per hour routine. The return trip was uneventful, except for passing Scott who had drastically slowed and stepped aside as I went by. His battle with Mackey had apparently taken its toll, and he dropped at the next aid. I was now in 6th place and eager to move further up. Eric was 6 min behind me, and looking good.

I returned to Whetstone with Ian just ahead, 42 miles and over 6 hours into the race. I had some hot spots in my feet and my legs were feeling sore, so Neal had already dug out a change of shoes and socks from my dropbag [Good move #3]. 90 seconds later I was back on the road, grateful for fresh cushioning. I left my extra bottle with Neal, and he had insightfully reminded me how simple the rest of the race really was, telling me to, “keep eating and keep running.” Those words would echo in my head the rest of the way. Ian maintained his one minute lead on me for the 4 miles of paved and dirt road to the self-serve Spy Run Gap aid. After filling my bottle, I turned onto the BRP to see Ian walking up the road, disappearing into the cloud. Now, any good sports bookie would put his money on Ian beating me, but, having stayed within 200 yards of him for over an hour, I was determined to give him a run for the money. Literally, since he was in 5th place, the last podium and money spot. If he beat me, it wouldn’t be for a lack of me trying. For the next 3 hours, a single mantra kept repeating in my head: You Can Walk When You’re Dead. I started running up the hill. Within seconds, Ian glanced back and saw me chugging along. It almost seemed that he shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, and started running. And so, we ran every step up and down the rolling hills through the fog. It felt like a side-by-side race, just 200 yards apart. Even when the thick fog prevented me from seeing him, I knew Ian was still just ahead. The rest of the race was simply a battle with him and the other racers- pace didn’t matter, only place.

3.5 rolling, cloudy miles later found us in the exact same relative position as we pulled into Bald Mountain aid to start the last and most technical singletrack of the day. The aid workers told me that JB was also just ahead. I caught JB around the 50 mile mark (7:16, just 5 minutes slower than my admittedly soft PR), and he was struggling. I moved past him and was now in a podium place. The rock garden soon appeared and I picked my way down it. Seconds later, a seemingly rejuvenated JB came flying by with long, thumping steps. Boy, talk about a resurrection, again putting me out of the money after less than a mile in it. The guy is one of only ten Barkley 100 mile finishers (yes, that Barkley), so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I picked up my pace and caught him as soon as the trail evened out. After a few minutes following him with the usual exchange of pleasantries, he suddenly stopped and pulled to the side. Not questioning my fortune, I ran on, passing the fateful junction that saw Wardian make a wrong turn, then emerging to cross the BRP and start another technical descent.

No sooner had I started the new trail then I once again heard thumping footsteps. Gaining on me. Thinking it was JB yet again, I glanced back to see the source of the thumping was actually Ashley Arnold from Trail Runner magazine. In non-running apparel. Running down technical singletrack. Gaining on me. Flummoxed, I immediately caught a toe and took a digger [Bad move #1]. Ashley evidently decided she was at risk of injury anywhere in the same area code as this limb-flailing mess of a trail runner and turned around, mumbling something about needing to give something to Wardian. This made even less sense to me than no explanation, since, to the best of my knowledge, Mike was at least 30 min ahead.

My bruised bum and dignity somehow propelled me to run faster, and I soon caught and passed Ian. Although, for the life of me, I have no memory of passing him, which seems a strange memory to lose as it’s not every day one passes the fastest 100-miler in the country. For all I know, the USS Enterprise beamed me directly in front of him. Or maybe I ran through a wormhole. Time travel? Whatever the method, I found myself just ahead of Ian. We raced hard down technical singletrack. We were so engrossed in our duel that we flew right by a (very well-marked) turn [Bad move #2]. Fortunately, the trail dead-ended 100 yards later at a waterfall. Spoiling the tranquility of some hikers, we asked them where the trail was, with no response. Ian looked high, while I scrambled down wet rocks seeking the familiar orange flags [Bad move #3]. Ian soon ran back on the trail and I heard him yell something. I somehow avoided falling as I pulled myself back up the rocks onto the trail, backtracking and soon finding the missed turn and its dozen flags. Doh. Just like that, I had lost 3 full minutes and went from 4th place to 6th. I consoled myself that at least I still had 10 miles to rectify my mistake.

I again caught JB and opined that he had missed seeing a very lovely waterfall. Then I resumed the familiar task of chasing Ian. I caught a glimpse as he crested a hill (“I can walk when I’m dead” “I. Can. Walk. When. I’m. Dead”). We reached the second to last aid station, and faced 9 final miles on the road. I left the aid station just 10 seconds behind Ian as we ran up yet another hill. The hill ended and I kicked the pace to 6:45-7:00 minutes per mile on the flat and gradual downhill. Unfortunately, Ian had one more gear than me. Slowly, oh so slowly, he inexorably pulled away. 10, 15, 20 seconds per mile- the gap slowly yet steadily grew. Jason and Alison Bryant and Dave James had been helping at aid stations ever since their DNF’s, and they now kept driving along in their car, cheering and giving updates in the fog. Jason told me that 2nd place was 3 minutes up. I didn’t believe him (would you, when you knew Geoff Roes and Michael Wardian were both up there?). Then, at mile 58 on a half mile straightaway, the clouds briefly lifted. I could clearly see Ian about one minute ahead of me. Sure enough, another minute in front of him was Matt Flaherty, and, yet further up, Michael Wardian, back on track after his detour. Here we were, 8.5 hours into the race, and only 3 minutes separated 2nd from 5th. It was a beautiful sight. I picked up the pace even more, straining to get every ounce of speed from my legs. And still, the gap widened.

In ultras, if you see someone ahead of you in the last quarter of the race that you previously hadn’t seen, it almost always means that person is slowing and you will catch them. The exception? Matt Flaherty. The dude must have cajones and guts of Teflon and Kevlar-coated steel with an unobtanium core and diamond coating, powered by the Energizer bunny. AJW said Matt had whiplash from looking back so often, but never faltered. And remember, Matt ran a sub-6 hr 50 miler last weekend! I hit the last aid station at mile 60 at 8:50. Jason told me that Ian looked strong, but Matt was still really hurting. Visions of 4th or even, maybe, possible, 3rd place flittered through my mind as I started on the homestretch.

Now, since UROC is a new race, I need to describe the finish. Imagine, if you will, a steep, steep paved road winding its way straight up a mountain. 15% grade. So steep I had to downshift to 1st gear while driving up it the night before. Now, run down that road for a full mile. After already running 60 miles. And do it as fast as you can. Next, just when you can’t take it anymore and would do anything to stop running downhill, the road mercifully turns uphill. The quivering mass that used to be your quads are grateful… for about 10 yards. Then you realize that you now have 2.5 miles and 1200 feet of unrelenting uphill. Yes, that is UROC’s gift to you, my friends. You can thank Gill.

I reached the bottom and caught a quick glimpse of Ian and Matt. Just enough to tease me. Repeat after me- “I CAN WALK WHEN I’M DEAD.” And so, I plodded upwards. Head down, one foot in front of the other. Running. Don’t think about how far you have left. Ignore the demons in your mind saying that you’ve already run for 9 hours, surely you can’t run 25 more minutes up this beast of a hill. The garmin somehow said I was doing 9:30-10:30 pace, though it felt more like 15 to 20 min pace. I could tell I wasn’t gaining, though, cause Jason, Alison, and Dave stopped giving me updates on the race ahead and just tried encouraging me. And so, I asked how far back the next person was. I thought they said “5 minutes” (Jason actually said, “At least 5 minutes”, which is how long they left the last aid station behind me- I actually had a 30+ min lead, which would have been very nice to know. Or not). I’d like to say I ran every step. I didn’t. I walked for a minute, and my watch said 18:00 pace. That meant someone 5 minutes back would catch me in a mile if they ran. I glanced back, just to make sure JB or Eric wasn’t in sight, then ran again. Everyone repeat after me- I can walk when I’m dead. Actually, I was repeating a new mantra for the climb- “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” I can honestly say I have never hurt so much nor pushed so hard. Not even at the end of the Bear 100, going up and down Ranger Dip. I ran about 90% of the hill, using the word “ran” in the loosest sense possible. I have never hurt so bad, and it felt great to be reminded that my mind could make my body do things it didn’t want to do, and that my body would actually do them. Usually, the mind is weaker than the body. This time, they were equally strong, and so equally suffered. After an eternity, the summit mercifully appeared. A half mile of downhill later, so did the finish. I was exuberant, letting out a yell and (for some reason that even I don’t understand) chucking my bottle into the fence (see some pretty scary photos of it here...). 5th place, 9:26:33 for 63.75 miles with about 10k climbing. 3 minutes behind Ian, 4 behind Matt, 6 behind Michael, and 30 minutes behind Geoff.

UROC race summary- my overly-excited finish at 4:46

Jon Allen UROC finish

UROC men's top finishers

Photos courtesy of iRunFar

Everything after was a blur. I remember talking with Geoff, Mike, Matt, and Ian, then cheering in JB, Troy, and Eric, plus others. Then the top women, followed by more amazing finishers. Eating lasagna and mac & cheese. More talking with great runners and people. Dense clouds at the finish such that you couldn’t see 20 yards. Showering at Matt and Mackey’s condo. The awards ceremony was fun, with Gill saying that there was probably no one more excited to be there, to finish, and to finish where he did than me. I just felt humbled to stand among such great, great runners and to associate with them. A relaxed dinner at a restaurant with runners, sponsors, and magazine editors. Crashing at JB and Scott McCoubrey’s condo (thanks a million, guys!). Somehow staying awake on the drive home.

UROC men's podium

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Loewus-Deitch

I am obviously very happy with how the race turned out. Top 5 was my stretch goal and didn’t really seem plausible given the competition, but I gave it my best and it worked well. Although we hardly talked during the race, I can say that Ian pushed me to run better than I would have if I had been alone- it seems competition does that to people. Like Eric said at the start of my post, this was a tough race- the fast road miles and slow/fast transitions were challenging, and there was more technical singletrack than I expected. I think the course played to my strengths, though, since I’m kind of a “jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none ultra/trail runner.” I definitely learned that I can push harder for a longer time than I previously had, especially up hills at the end. In terms of pure race performance, I would say this is among the best half-dozen races of my life (interestingly, most of those weren’t wins). When you include the high-profile and deep field at UROC, it would have to rank as one of the best ever. Hopefully the start of many more like it.

Of course, you can’t please everyone. I had won 4 or 5 trail races earlier this year, and my wife was telling my 5 year old daughter afterwards that, “Daddy did really good in his race today”, to which my daughter asked, “Did he win?” My wife repeated that I did well, but my daughter again inquired, “But Did He WIN?” Marci replied, “He got fifth.” My daughter dejectedly concluded, “So that means he didn’t win.” Her face showed disappointment, and she lost interest and wandered off. Nothing like kids to keep you humble! I do have to sincerely thank my wife, kids, parents, and friends for their support- you guys are great.

I would highly recommend this race. Gill and Francesca are experienced RD’s, and it shows. I can’t think of a single flaw in the race. They really catered to both elites and the open field. Good course with a variety of terrain to really keep it an Ultra race, not just trail ultra race. Good aid stations with great volunteers. Lots of swag and prize money. Awesome trophy to the winners (it even has a name- the Flame of Endurance). I hope and fully expect this race will grow both among the elites and the open runners. I would return in a heartbeat. The only thing I would change is just having one start, rather than a separate elite and open start. Oh, and Gill, can you get rid of that hill at the finish?!?

[If you actually read this whole thing, you can’t say I didn’t warn you ahead of time. It’s a novel. Sorry. But I want to remember it.]

UROC elevation profile

Monday, September 19, 2011

Ultra Race of Champions

Well, the big week has finally arrived. Or, more accurately, two big weeks. Last week was a big one for my family, with our number increasing to 5 due to the arrival of little Zachary. Big Zachary, actually- 8 lbs 8 oz. We had a few exciting days with a brief stay in the NICU, but everyone is healthy and at home now.


This coming weekend, I will be competing at UROC. It should be a blast, and I feel fit with almost no niggles. I'm excited to line up against some of the real big boys in ultrarunning (i.e. the one-name guys like Geoff, Mackey, Wardian, etc).

I'll update this blog throughout the week with info about the race, but there should be a number of ways to follow the race as it happens. It looks like the first one is to follow iRunFar on twitter, something I have done in recent years during Western, UTMB, Leadville, Wasatch, etc. Hitting refresh hoping for updates has never been so mesmerizing.

You can also follow results live at, where they will also be posting 2-hr delayed streaming video of the race. Should be fun.

Anyways, check back later this week for any other race updates. It should be fun.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Sore back and other joys

Most years, I reach peak mileage of 80-105 mpw and hover around there for 5-10 weeks. I can tell when that time has arrived simply by how I feel. Generally, my legs feel fine, other than a few spectacularly-unenergetic runs every so often. Instead, the muscles in my back and neck get sore. Real sore. All the time. In Utah, my shoulders and neck were the worst, probably from my desk at work, which I would treat mainly with monthly massages. In South Carolina, my mid-back is the worst, from the middle all the way to the very sides over my ribs. You wouldn't think you have enough muscle to have a huge knot on your ribs under your arm, but, yowzaa! It hurts! I haven't had a massage in a year, but will be getting one before UROC. It seems strange to tell the masseuse to focus on my back, rather than my 100 miles-per-week legs, but that's what I do.

There are a few other symptoms of high mileage for me, though. I can't sleep- I'm tired in the evenings, but wake up very early in the mornings, even on days I can sleep in. My previously-increasing appetite tends to level off, resulting in me losing a few pounds. On top of this, my running clothes seem to always stink (especially in this hot, humid climate- imagine that) and hair always seems to appear on my face, coinciding with my key races.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Xterra Table Rock 15k race report

The inaugural Xterra Table Rock 15k is the first race ever held in the delightful Table Rock State Park. I have never done back-to-back races of any significance before, but couldn’t pass up what promised to be a challenging trail race near my home. I got a ride with co-worker, Aaron, and his friend, Tom- thanks, guys. The pre-race briefing was long but provided a nice overview of the race- the first 0.8 mile would be on road, then climbing over 2200 ft on trail for a giant loop up and over Pinnacle Peak, the highest stand-alone peak in SC. The course director promised beautiful views, life-threatening cliffs, minimal aid stations, extremely technical climbs and descents, and good course markings. He was correct on all accounts.

My primary goals for the race were to get a good workout, with an emphasis on running the uphills, even the steep stuff, and to try to win. I found myself in the front of the race immediately, with only one runner near me once we reached the trails, though he was gone by mile 2 (or, as the course mile-markers said, “Mile 2-ish”). Miles 3 and 4 were the crux of the climbing, each with over 700 ft gain. My Achilles was twinging a bit and my legs weren’t overly energetic, but they were responsive and felt good despite the never-ending ascent over rocks and roots. Best of all, they recovered very quickly any time the trail leveled off. After climbing 6 false summits and 2000+ ft in 3.3 miles, I reached the top of Pinnacle Peak at 3425 ft around mile 5.3. Giving my regards to one of the many park rangers spread throughout the course (often directing us away from cliff faces or yellow jacket nests), I threw myself down the other side of the mountain. The initial descent dropped over 1000 ft in the first mile over steep, overgrown, thorny terrain. Not the fastest downhill running, and I was content to run within myself. One very nice surprise was seeing a hiker coming up the other direction with a 4 foot long stick held in front of him- he had just cleared all the spider webs for the rest of the race!


I paused at Bald Knob Overlook at mile 6.3-ish for a minute to switch bottles (aided by another helpful volunteer) and enjoy the view. It is one of the few locations where visibility is not blocked by all the foliage. After a short descent to a creek, I started a small climb and was surprised to hear voices behind me. I glanced back to see another runner, Jeff Dixon, inquiring of a volunteer how far ahead I was. Surprised to see someone within 15 seconds of me, it really lit a fire under me. I had twisted my ankle rather severely twice during my last run on this trail, but threw all caution to the wind and ran with abandon. Down a rutted, rooty, rocky, winding trail with obstacles and constant 18 inch dropoffs, I pushed hard and the footsteps behind me quickly faded. But I continued my kamikaze descent, especially once the grade and technicality mellowed. I put 2-3 minutes on Jeff in 3 miles. Reaching the road, I upped the pace to 5:30 speed, glancing back to make sure my competition was not in sight. I ran the final .75 hard, crossing the finish line to a large crowd of cheers (for a trail race) in 1:43:28. My garmin put the course just over 10 miles with 3300 ft climbing/descent, and I finished feeling great. 2nd place, Jeff, was 5 minutes back, having lost several more minutes on the road. Marci and the girls had driven up- I always love seeing them at the finish and appreciate their support. After enjoying the post-race snacks and talking with other runners, all of whom finished with a smile on their face (even the ones with blood and dirt on their knees), I took a quick shower in the nearby campground and spent the rest of the day with the family swimming, picnicing, playing, and hiking in the park (during which I discovered Kinley loves hiking and hates, **hates** to turn around without seeing “what’s up there on the trail”- she even caught her toe on a root and did a full Superman face plant but still insisted on hiking higher and higher). The hiking was particularly interesting as I rarely move at a walking pace on trails, so noticed many more details of the lush surroundings. Park maps suggest it takes 10+ hrs to cover what I ran in 90 minutes, so I substitute slow observation for mass quantity. Fun day.

I really enjoyed this race, and was very impressed with the organization for a first time event. The course is picturesque and challenging, the markings were great (loved the “-ish” mile markers), there were lots of enthusiastic volunteers, and the finish line was enjoyable. My only feedback would be that putting a course map and elevation profile on their website and having a poster-size copy at the start could have answered a lot of questions ahead of time and greatly reduced the time of the briefing. But, if it fits in my schedule for next year, I would sign up for this race again without hesitation and encourage the RD to start more like it.

My Activities 8-20-2011, Elevation - Distance

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Laurel Valley 35 mile race report

Entrants in the Laurel Valley 35 mile race can’t say they weren’t warned about what to expect. The race site is on Claude Sinclair’s “Runner from Hell” homepage, complete with burning flames graphics and the words, “Some Runners are Tough, Some Runners are Insane, Some Runners are Both.” The race qualification requires a 50 mile race completion, and the waiver clearly states that this will likely be the toughest run you will ever do and may cost you your life. It also strongly suggests taking a light and blanket, because you very well might end up sleeping on the course. And the last pre-race email includes these words:

If you are allergic to Yellow Jacket stings then please don’t even attempt this run.  You will get stung and probably more than once.  That is just part of the pain that the course has to offer.  

Despite this, the race sells out every year with a who’s-who of the area's hardcore ultra runners- the CR holders are Clark Zealand and Annette Bednosky.

It’s very apparent that this is a unique race. First of all, no one agrees how long it is- in fact, this was a 15 minute point of discussion at the finish yesterday. It’s generally accepted the race is somewhere between 30-40 miles. Ish. All we know is that it follows the Foothills Trail (FHT) from Rocky Bottom, SC to Whitewater Falls, NC. Garmin’s don’t due well due to lush foliage, switchbacks, and the steps (more on those later). Ground track puts it at 35.7 miles, so that is the “official” distance on the finisher plaques. Will Brown tells how Claude attempted to have the sweeps (the safety runners who bring up the rear) wheel the course one year. They very carefully push the measuring wheel the entire way, gingerly navigating rocks, trees, and the steps (more on those later) for 12 hours. They finally arrive near the finish, ascending the last 500 steps, as Claude waits in anticipation. With just a few stairs to go, the counter on the wheel suddenly falls off and is lost, along with any hopes of knowing the true length. I think the course just doesn’t want us to know.

Aside from the unknown length, it’s generally obvious why this race is so difficult. Primarily, it is run across the Foothills trail, traversing the most technical terrain of South Carolina. In the middle of August. With no aid stations. None. And there are no signs of civilization, other than the bridges and steps (more on those later) that were surely built by some primitive civilization, probably aided by aliens. Other than the start and finish, you are never closer than 5 miles to a road. Once you start, you cannot DNF- you have to finish or turn around and go back to the start. You are very isolated- you are as likely to see bear and wild boar as people. But this race reminds me of the Grand Mesa 50, in that there are just a bunch of small, almost intangible things that add up. The heat. The humidity. The endless false summits. Running 4 hours without seeing a single person. Boulder scrambling. Dramatic drop offs. The first course marking is within a mile of the finish line. And, the smallest thing, the stairs (more on those right now).

The Stairs

LV35 starts at the base of some steep stairs. And I mean that literally. Right at the base- no 100 meter run first to work out position. Claude shoots his shotgun to start the race (again, literally, except this year cause his shells were wet), and you immediately start stepping. Although, being the south, everyone is polite and lets others go first, so we all stood there for 5 seconds, trying to figure out who would go first. Then, over the next 30-40 miles, you will climb and descend somewhere around 5000 steps. That’s a whole stinking lot of stairs. Up and down mountains. You don’t realize the wide variety of steps until you run LV. Some steps are very even with nice handrails (left photo is the starting line).

Starting line stairs Horsepasture river stairs

Some are a bit steeper and more challenging.

Finish line stairs more stairs

And some are so dramatic that it almost seems as the Creator himself must have put them in, for surely no man could have been crazy enough to build steps up that steep of a mountain…

Cane Brake stairs Thompson River stairs

Photos courtesy of Jason Sullivan, Barry Burns, Psyche Wimberly, and Google Images.

I have a spreadsheet I use to predict split times at races based on distances, elevation change, temperature, etc. However, I found my spreadsheet is wholly inadequate for LV. Following the laws of trail running and physics, it assumes that running downhill is faster and easier than running uphill. Indeed, this is generally true. However, when the downhill consists of carefully picking your way down uneven, huge steps on 45 deg slope, the law of Laurel Valley trumps the laws of physics, rendering downhill the slowest direction of all. Especially when the steps are wooden, moss-covered, and wet.

The Race

I continued my pre-race tradition of restlessness Friday night, only sleeping about 3 hours. I left at 4:20 am for the 70 min drive, arriving to find the parking lot bustling with the activity of about 40 racers (the 5 am starters were already gone). After the usual preparations, we were ready to go. The only item of note was that 5-time winner Brian Kistner would not be running. Right at the 6 am signal, 2010 winner John Dove was the first one up the stairs, followed by 15-time finisher and local legend Byron Backer, with me right behind. The temperatures were mid-60’s, 10 degrees cooler than the past month, but the 100% humidity had my shirt soaked within the first mile. I quickly removed it and carried it the rest of the way. Byron and I talked for the first 45 minutes, up and over the first climb and descent as the sun slowly rose over the mountains.

Sunrise on the FHT

We hit a flat stretch, and I passed him and pulled away just as we caught the 5 am sweeps. Miles 4-7 are generally fast as the trail follows a river past the beautiful Virginia Hawkins Falls and Laurel Fork Falls. Reaching Lake Jocassee, the trail then climbs for several miles and passes into North Carolina. I passed more 5 am starters, then John Dove. Shortly after the top, 10 miles and 1:45 into the race, I passed the front 5 am starter, who informed me I was now in the lead. Even if he hadn’t told me, I would have immediately figured this out due to the pleasure that only the lead runner at LV35 can experience:

Spider Webs

The LV spiders are some of the most industrious on earth, capable of building webs that can span any distance. 1 foot gap between 2 bushes and a singletrack trail? No problem. 3 foot span between handrails on 3 dozen bridges? You bet. 4 foot gap between a tree and a rock with a doubletrack trail in between? Can do. 8 foot gap between 2 trees and a fireroad? We’re on it. Fortunately, they are also very fertile, taking quite seriously their duty to multiply and fill the earth, or at least the FHT portion of it. Finally, in order to catch the huge South Carolina insects and even the stray bird or mammal, they have perfected the industrial strength web. NASA consulted with the spiders to ensure maximum adhesion and tensile strength. But the spiders want to test their strength, and so recruited Claude to put on a race for the sole purpose of having a hapless runner test the strength of hundreds of the webs, at ankle, leg, hair, chest, and (best of all) face-height. I would estimate that I encountered at least two webs each minute (this is likely an underestimate- there were sometimes 4 webs in a 20 foot span). Multiply this by 4.5 hours in the lead and… well, you get the picture. When I was lucky enough to see the sun glinting off them or a HUGE spider in the middle, I would often stop, find a stick, and swipe until the path was clear. I probably did this at least 50 times. But when I didn’t see them, or by the end when I was too tired to care, I just plowed right through. The best is when they hit right in the open mouth- by the end, you just swallow the web, hoping the spider is there for extra protein. Who needs gu?!?


Spider web on the Foothills Trail

(The bottom photo is an actual FHT spider web)

The Race (cont.)

The course proceeded up and down the steepest climb of the race just after Rock Creek (300 ft down the lovely stairs in about .2 mile), the crosses the huge Toxaway suspension bridge above the lake before climbing back up the mountains. The air was getting warmer, hitting mid-80’s, and I had to slow on the uphill to not overheat. After several miles of long ups and downs, I reached the much anticipated BAS at mile 17.7 and 3:13.


BAS, also known as the Barry Aid Station, was how I dealt with the lack of aid on the Leaving Aid Stationcourse. Rather than risk sickness by drinking straight from the streams, and unwilling to carry 180 oz of water or stop to filter, Barry generously volunteered to backpack 7 miles through Gorges State Park while carrying 2 gallons of water, camp overnight (in the rain with only a hammock for protection), then hike back out. The sole purpose: to refill my water and gu’s and offer a change of shoes and clothes. I arrived at the BAS to the barking of the two dogs, but Barry was no where to be found. He quickly came sprinting from the other direction, jumping into action. In less than 150 seconds, he had refilled my 90 oz of water, reloaded my gu’s and S-caps, and sent me on my way with encouraging words. By my estimate, Barry spent 25 hours (including 3.5 hiking) just for those 2.5 minutes of helping me. Friendship in its truest form- thanks, Barry. He even managed to snap this action photo of me pulling away.

The Push

After the BAS, I started doing the math in my head and realized that my 6 hr goal would be increasingly difficult. I pushed hard for the next 2 hours. Very hard. I had no idea where the next runner was behind me, though I doubted anyone would catch me. But I could not have run any harder even with someone right on my heels. This was a race, and I was determined to race it. I kept the 6 hour goal in the front of my mind, urging myself to go faster and faster. I ran up long climbs and bombed descents. My legs ached from the 90 miles I had already run that week, but they churned onwards. I crossed Horsepasture River at 3:48, estimating the last 11 miles would take about 130 minutes. The trail along Bearcamp Creek provided a relatively flat, if particularly spider-infested, break from the many climbs. It is one of my favorite sections of the trail.

Bearcamp Creek singletrack 2011-08-13_08-03-58_496

By the time I reached Thompson River at mile 26.6 at 5:02, I had accepted that my sub-6 goal had slipped away. Disappointed, I pressed up and down the trail to Bad Creek access point, just trying to hang on (and also trying to outrun my own overpowering stench). The relatively flat trail followed the Whitewater River upstream for 1.5 miles across another stretch of beautiful, soft trails. Finally, the trail crosses some boulders and a bridge before the final 600 ft climb to the waterfalls overlook (complete with several hundred more stairs, of course).

Whitewater falls bridge and boulders whitewater-falls

Tourists crowded the platforms and steps, with one even asking why I was sweating so much (I replied it was because I had been running for the past 6 hours). I reached the top and ran down the paved trail to the picnic shelter, where only Claude, his wife, and one volunteer, Stephen Morris, were waiting. Final stats were about 31-32 miles in 6:05:50 with about 7600 climb/6700 descent (or 10,300/9600 per SportTracks).

Other racers’ family members trickled in, with Barry showing up at 12:30 with a jug of my post-run favorite chocolate milk in-hand (again, thanks). We waited another 30 minutes, with Claude jokingly asking if I had removed the (non-existent) course markers or set booby traps that stopped all the following runners. I finally went to the bathroom to wash up a bit and change clothes. I returned to find that 6 runners had arrived in that 10 minute period (including 2 ladies), led by Byron in 7:17:09. After a bit of the usual post-race chat with the finishers, Barry drove me back to my car. Thunderclouds turned to a downpour on the way, which I’m sure added some adventure for the many racers still on the course. The 2+ hr drive saw me return home at 4:30 pm, 12 hours after leaving. I was relieved that Marci hadn’t gone into labor during that time, a real possibility since she’s in her final month (thanks for letting me go do another crazy run, babe). And when told of my win, McKinley excitedly said that I am “super-duper fast!” In an interesting fact, I have entered 4 trail runs this year, winning 3 of them and DNF-ing the other. I think that is my most wins ever in one year.

Overall, the Laurel Valley 35 mile ultra is a great run. Very challenging, but very rewarding. If you want lush vegetation, picturesque waterfalls, swinging bridges, wildlife, and self-supported solitude, with just a few stairs along the way, then come try it. And let’s face it- if you read this entire novel of a race report, then you’re obviously interested! I’ll probably do this race every year I am in SC, and maybe I’ll even taper one year to give myself a decent shot of breaking 6 hrs or even 5:30. But, Clark’s CR of 5:02 is out of reach- of all the trail races I’ve ever done, I would call that the most untouchable CR ever.

Course track

Laurel Valley elevation profile

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Some motivational interviews

I don't often post to outside links, but found some recent interviews by Paul Petersen, my good friend and Utah training partner, that I wanted to share. Paul is an amazing runner (2 time marathon OTQ, and he was the 3rd overall American at Boston this year in 2:17). He is one of the most patient runners I know training-wise. And he is perhaps the nicest guy you will ever meet. I'm very glad for the time I spent running with him- I feel you really get to know someone while running, since all pretenses seem to disappear, and I have nothing but good things to say about Paul as a runner and person. I know my other Utah running buddies, Cody and Joe, would agree. My own training is modified from a schedule that Paul took the time to make for me many years ago, drawing heavily on the teachings of Tinman. I have modified it for trail ultras, of course (Paul is a fan of 2-3 hr fast long runs, not 4-6 hr slow long runs).

Anyways, I hope you read his interviews here and here.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

2011 Old Dominion 100 race report

I’ve had 3 weeks now to mull over the race, and still have people asking where my report is. So here is a brief summary of the race, some thoughts, and some pictures.


"I went to the well, and the well was dry."

-Scott Jurek, after 2009 Western States 100 DNF at mile 48

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Barry and I drove 7 hrs to Woodstock on Friday. Met Eric Grossman and talked to Neal for a while. Felt pretty good, and actually slept 3 or 4 hours. Mixed feelings on the starting line- excited to finally be going, but for some reason I never felt as confident at this one as previous ultras. But I felt fit and was determined to compete for a top 3 spot. The first climb and descent went quickly as I chatted with nearby runners in the dark. The race is 60% gravel road, 40% singletrack, but the singletrack is generally pretty technical and sometimes brutal. The Boyer singletrack was a nice wakeup after some fast road miles. Pulled into the first major aid (mile 19.6) at the end of a train of the first 7 or so runners (Eric, Neal, , where I found Barry improvising as my drop bag wasn’t there yet. He did great and quickly got me on my way. My stomach got pretty unhappy around mile 25, and I almost puked a few times. Some walking and ginger drops brought it around within 5 miles, though I had lost precious time on the leaders and was about 6th place. Jon Loewus-Deitch ran side by side for awhile. A random car drove by and yelled, “Go Jon”- we were unable to determine who it was for, so decided they were cheering for both of us. Reached Four Points 1 (mile 32.6) at 4:39, 12 min ahead of schedule. Barry gave me a second water bottle, had me in and out, and onto the first tough section of the day.

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I did not particularly enjoy peach orchard. Ok, I hated it. There was a technical climb, where I kept leapfrogging David Ploskonka and was passed by Karsten Brown (putting me in 5th, with Neal and Eric in front), then a steep paved descent, followed by a very long, gradual, very rocky climb. The only break over almost 11 miles was one dirt biker who had some water in his pack for us. The trail was longer than expected and very rocky. Extremely rocky terrain tends to frustrate me, since I feel my leg speed is for naught. Plus the trail was exposed and it was getting hot. I finally reached the high point of the course and was again miffed by the extreme rockiness on the downhill (it was at this point that I resolved to never run MMT 100). Jon caught me again, though I quickly pulled away down the rocks. I finally reached the aid station where the weight check showed me .5 lb heavy (so well hydrated). The next 4.5 miles were a steady drop on gravel road, and it felt good to stretch my legs again. For a while- then the pounding hurt a bit, though I was still able to pass David and move into 4th. I earned my second star here and pulled into Four Points 2 (mile 47.7) at 11:20 am (7:20 race time), 3 minutes behind schedule. Barry put a handkerchief with ice under my visor (I may patent the Ice Visor- it was great), swapped bottles, and had me on the way.

2011-06-04_19-08-55_589 2011-06-04_19-09-22_725 2011-06-04_19-26-14_363

This is the trail. Honest. See the flag!?!

The ice on my head and in my bottles gave me energy to run most of the Moreland Gap uphill section, passing the 50 mile mark in 4th place and at 7:53. Other than a 3rd pit stop, I felt pretty good for a while and ran strong. I pulled into Edinburg gap (mile 56.6) at 8:50, still 3 minute behind schedule. Barry was ready for a shoe change, which only took 3 min (including washing my feet)- the aid volunteers commented on Barry’s efficiency. He told me I was 30 min behind Eric and Neal, but only 10 behind Karsten. Determined, I blazed out. Unfortunately, it would be my last blazing of the day. The trail was rocky, technical ATV trail that climbed 700 feet. By the top, I felt terrible. After 2 more pitstops and a water refill at a jug, I didn’t feel better. Instead I slowly walked downhill. My quads weren’t shot, and I was fine on hydration and calories, but I just felt terrible. Depleted. Tapped. I walked and walked, occasionally jogging for short spurts. The next 5 downhill miles were between 10-17 min pace and I was expecting the whole field to pass me. After what seemed like forever, Jeremy Pade flew by, asking to stop if there was anything he could do for me. Finally, I reached the aid station (mile 64.3) at 10:43. I had just lost 33 min in about 6 miles.

Barry went into overdrive. For the first time ever in a 100, I just sat down to rest. Collapsed, actually. Barry put bags of ice all over me and kept bringing me food and drink. 20 minutes later, he somehow talked me out of the chair and back onto the trail, side by side with Keith Knipling. After 10 min of walking, we reached the top of a long downhill. I started feeling a bit better and broke into a jog, soon pulling away from Keith. Then he passed as I had yet another pit stop (sign of internal distress?). I passed him back and started the long trail into Elizabeth Furnace at a trot. As the trail went on, I started feeling very bad again. Even worse than before. Keith flew by me as I walked down yet another hill, reassuring me Elizabeth Furnace aid (mile 75) was near. With my watch reading 13:15, I walked into the aid station, 75 minutes behind schedule. The past 18.4 miles had taken me 4:25 rather than the planned 3:08, a 41% slowdown.

I again collapsed, burying my head in my hands. I didn’t have the energy to do anything for a long time. Runners came and went- Jon Loewus-Deitch later asked me if I even knew he was there. Barry and the volunteers did their best to get me moving, with Barry particularly emphatic because he was supposed to pace me the next 12 miles over Sherman’s Gap. I pondered the situation in my head, aware that I could slowly walk the last 25 miles in what would likely be 7-8 hrs. However, I had shown up that day to compete for a win, not to limp in 4 hours behind my goal. And I had no desire to continue feeling the way I did for 25 more miles- completely tapped. My well was dry. 40 miles was a long way to slog rather than run. So I threw in the towel. Barry didn’t believe I was quitting until I actually stopped my watch at 14:15. I had covered 75 miles in 13:15 with about 9000 ft climbing.

I convinced Barry to go run the course while I got a ride to Veach West. I actually felt pretty good, walking around, talking to crews, hauling gear, etc. Barry finished the section and I had a “crew chair” set up for him, reversing our roles for the day. He was amazed at the number of rocks and thought running a 100 over them was nuts. We went to the hotel, slept, and attended the awards the next day (just for kicks). I was very excited to see that Neal had won- congrats. Then we drove home to our waiting families. On the good side, much like stopping a marathon at mile 20 instead of 26.2, I had very minimal soreness from my 75 mile jaunt.

Closing thoughts and lessons learned:

  • Do I wish I had finished? I’d be lying if I said no, though I’ve debated this endlessly and don’t think there is a “correct” answer. But I don’t think my weakness was in the DNF. Rather, I think my weakness was in not deciding ahead of time to finish. My only goal was a great time and competitive finish. Once that was gone, I had no desire to continue. Like I say, “go big or go home.” In retrospect, though, finishing is still important to me. A bit of a sore spot still.
  • Is there anything Barry or anyone else could have done to make me finish? No. They were amazing. And I didn’t quit on a whim. I weighed and decided, even knowing I would have a few regrets. I run because I enjoy it and for the challenge. That day, my body couldn’t give me the performance I wanted and I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. It isn’t near as much fun to run drastically slower than you are capable. During peak training, I abort about 1/3 of my Big Workouts because I just don’t have “it” that day. I have been very lucky in almost never having bad races. I wouldn’t say this was a terrible race- I just didn’t have “it” on a day I wanted to. Some may not understand this (like the incredulous volunteer at mile 75 as I DNF’ed while still top 10 and with 14 hours of race time remaining to travel 25 miles to the finish), but I think most of you do.
  • Will I run more races where I “go big or go home”? Will this result in more DNF’s? Probably yes. Maybe at UROC later this year. One self-observation is that I run within myself, perhaps too much. I run hard, but never push far outside what I know I can do. But, I’ve now reached the point where I want to find out just how fast I can be, how hard I can go, and how much I can hurt. I want to race against better competition and see what happens. Bigger reward, bigger risk. This was just the first. The DNF hurts, but I think this is a consequence of pushing harder. Hopefully I can have bigger success in the future, and maybe some more glorious flame-outs.
  • Do I think I was in great shape? Honestly, I think I was in better shape in April at SweetH20. I had a few good weeks since then, but think I had lost the razor edge of my fitness. I was in 90% shape, not 100%. The biggest weakness, though, was a lack of long training runs. I think I needed a few more 5-6 hr runs, plus at least one 50 mile race. I’ll have to incorporate more in my next pre-100 build up.
  • Will I run more 100’s? I would have said “no” for the first week, of course. And right now, I think I am better suited to 50k to 100k’s and will emphasize those more. I need more experience to rock at 100’s, which means running more 100’s. And I don’t run races for experience, I run them to race, which requires appropriate time and mileage. A big commitment. So, will I run more 100’s? I won’t do MMT or any “nutso technical/Hardrock-ish” 100 for now. I enjoy running fast too much, plus cannot currently train on sufficient technical trails to be prepared. But I’m already considering some for later this year or early next year. And, I’ve got a bone to pick with the Old Dominion course now. I don’t like anything getting the better of me, which it did. So, I’ll be very surprised if I don’t seek my revenge eventually. And next time, it’s for for keeps.