Avenue of the Giants Marathon – May the 4th be with you

Ever since visiting Redwood National Park a few years ago, I’ve wanted to run the Avenue of the Giants Marathon. This year, on May 5th, the day after Star Wars day, I finally got to.

If you aren’t familiar with the Avenue of the Giants, it’s a road in Northern California that weaves through some old growth Redwoods – the really big, really old trees that NorCal is famous for. They are beautiful You may also remember them these trees from the Ewok scenes on Endor in Star Wars; they filmed those very close to where this race took place.

I drove up the day before to pick up my packet and get situated. I stayed with my friend Austin at a motel / campsite about 45 minutes south of the race. It was very cute – secluded in the woods between the road and a river (which I definitely took a dip in when I arrived).

Race morning was perfect running conditions – a little chilly but not freezing. The first part of the course was an out-and-back half marathon, and I fell into step with a couple of women who were running about the same pace – Jordan and Karen. Jordan and I ended up running the first half of the race together – it was fun to get to make a new friend on the course.

Jordan and I running amongst Giants

The second half of the race was an out-and-back as well, along a different road. This part of the course was shared with the half marathoners, so I got to see Austin on his way to the finish. I also saw Karen again briefly too! This part of the course is the more famous stretch – if you’ve driven along Avenue of the Giants, you’ve probably seen this part – it’s right near the visitor center.

Trees everywhere

I finished in 3:47 – not bad, considering the rolling hills on the course, and that I’d had a pretty rough and sleep-deprived couple of weeks at work leading up to the race. Karen, Jordan, and I had a quick celebration before parting ways.

Image may contain: 3 people, including Karen Bird and Lisa Donchak, people smiling, people standing, shorts, sky, outdoor and nature

Karen and I at the finish

I didn’t bring my phone, so I don’t have useful splits to share. I had my watch but wasn’t really watching the time. It was nice to run without a phone – those monsters are getting bigger and bigger.

Hardware

Tall trees

Overall, this course was probably top five for me for scenery, and I loved how intimate it felt. Couldn’t have asked for a better race day.

 

 

 

Austin and I at the finish

 

Austin and I headed back to the hotel to shower, then grabbed some pizza on the way back to civilization. It’s so amazing to live so close to such a gorgeous part of the world – a very fun weekend jaunt.

Tree huggers. Pretty sure we walked into poison oak for this photo.

As a reminder, I have a discount code for the San Francisco Marathon – use “AMBOLISA25” at https://www.thesfmarathon.com/ for 25% off. 

New Year’s One Day 2018/2019

On New Years Eve for the past few years, I’ve run a race in San Francisco called the New Year’s One Day. It’s a timed race, which means you run as many miles as you can in a set period of time. The course is a one-mile loop around Chrissy Field. You’d think it feels like running in a hamster wheel, but it’s actually a really fun course – you get to see the Golden Gate Bridge every ten minutes, and watching the light change over the course of the day is a gorgeous thing to behold.

The first two years I ran this, I tried for the 24-hour version, with varying degrees of success, stopping at just about 8 hours in 2015 and after 17 hours in 2016Last year, I ran the 6-hour version came in 3rd, which was pretty neat!

This year, however, the race moved to January 5th, which sort of defeats the purpose of the activity – e.g., running it on New Year’s. So, instead, I went to Zurich and ran a marathon at midnight there.

But I just couldn’t stay away. I love this race. So I came back to SF and ran the 6-hour race on Jan 5th. And it was awesome.

At the start line with Ingrid and Cyndi. You may be able to tell that it was cold.

Part of the motivation to run this year was that a couple of amazing ladies I know were also running. Ingrid, of Lake Cabot 50k Fame, had signed up for the 24-hour race, because she is a beast. Cyndi, who ran her first ultra at Burning Man, wanted to run her birthday miles, so she signed up for the 6-hour as well. So it was a pretty easy decision to join them both.

Last year, I came in 3rd at this race, with 34.1 miles run in 6 hours. This year, my goal was to run between 36-40 miles in six hours, which would put me somewhere between a 9-minute and 10-minute pace. Given that I’d just run a marathon four days earlier, I wasn’t sure how possible it would be, so I “recovered” and tapered hard for in the intervening period.  I did a three mile tempo run two days before the race, and nothing else – I felt well-rested when I got to the start line.

Start line

The forecast was for torrential downpour. I wasn’t too concerned since it would be a short-ish race and I’d be moving the whole time, so I planned to wear a short-sleeved shirt and shorts for the whole race. I showed up to the start line with an umbrella and warm jacket, though.

When I got to the start, it was drizzling slightly. My Pokemon umbrella was immediately put to good use. My drop-bag was well-waterproofed – and by that, I mean that I put some extra clothes in a plastic trash bag. I stashed it in the drop-bag area, under the designated tent-covered picnic table, and went in search of of Ingrid and Cyndi.

I immediately found Ingrid, who was bundled up like she was headed to Alaska, but had absolutely no other gear that I could see, despite prepping for a 24-hour run (she’s a real badass – did I mention that she accidentally won a 100-mile race last year?). Cyndi arrived a few minutes later, and the three of us all sat in Ingrid’s super warm car to catch up for a bit before the race started.

We headed over to the start line about five minutes before the start of the race, which was pretty luxurious. I stripped off my own Arctic gear and was immediately freezing. Our intrepid race director, Wendell, counted us down, then we took off.

Beginning

When I think I’m going to run a fast race, I like to speed up for the first minute or two in order to scope out the field and see who else is thinking about going fast. Because a lot of folks running this race would be on the course much longer than I would be, it was pretty easy to break from the crowd to accomplish this. About a quarter of the way through the first lap, I had a decent idea of what was going on. Specifically, a girl with super long hair was already way ahead of me. But she was pretty much the only one, I thought!

In order to measure how far we run, we wear these grey, Velcro-clad ankle bracelets with chips in them. The chips are triggered at a timing mat, which beeps every time we run across. The mat is set up at the beginning of the mile loop (or, mile-ish – this year, the course was 1.0275 miles long, I think, which is shorter than previous years). The mat-and-chip combo keeps track of the number of laps we do. The ankle bracelets are pretty unobtrusive and don’t chafe at all, although they do look a bit like the kind that ex-cons under house arrest wear.

Run Happy

I ran a few laps at a pretty good pace – about 9-minute miles. At the end of lap three, I realized I hadn’t heard the timing beep when I crossed the mat, so I spent the next mile planning to pay closer attention. At the end of mile four, I realized that the timer had definitely not beeped. So I stopped for a minute to validate that this was an issue. Wendell gave me another anklet, and I did another lap. For a few miles, I made sure to call out what lap I was on (“Starting lap six!”). By lap eight, it was all sorted out, and we were back in the game.

Around lap seven, I saw Ingrid, who was looking great and cruising.

Middle

Around mile 10 or 12, I found Cyndi. She has a super fast base pace – faster than me for sure. She likes to take breaks at aid stations though, so it often evens out. She was a lap or two behind me, but we fell into pace together for a solid eight or nine miles. It was awesome to get to chat with her and catch up on life. Alex, her boyfriend, who also ran Burning Man 50k, came to cheer us on for one lap – it was awesome to see him on the course. It started raining quite a bit during the stretch Cyndi and I ran together – we were drenched for a few laps!

Alex pretending he’s running with us, but actually being an awesome cheerleader

Around mile 19 or 20, I was struggling a bit (but, on the plus side, had dried off from the rain). I ran another lap or two with Cyndi, then let her go ahead while I did a few laps of refueling. I popped my caffeine Gu and grabbed some PB&J sandwiches and those delicious peanut-butter filled pretzels at the aid station. I was hoping these calories would help, but I still had about two hours of running to go. I was not feeling super great about my prospects of hitting my 36-40 mile goals – I felt like I had started out too fast, and my hamstrings were really beat. However, I hadn’t brought a watch and there was no timer on the course, so I wasn’t totally sure how much time had elapsed.

Around this time, it really started raining again. I was completely soaked in about sixty seconds. It rained like this for probably 20-30 minutes. It was so unexpected – this downpour – that it was super energizing in ts absurdity. The rain provided a much-needed boost of energy and excitement for me, and I picked up the pace quite a bit. I’m also very excited to see the photos from this part of the race – I do not photograph well while running, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how much my running form could be confused for that of a wet sea lion during these laps.

End

At some point, I asked someone how much time had elapsed. We were about four and a half hours into the race. I think I was about 27 or 28 miles into the race. Whatever it was, I knew that if I kept up around a ten minute pace, I could probably hit my 36-mile goal.

Running hard in a rare moment of sunshine

I was at a bit of a decision juncture. I wasn’t in a great headspace – I had a lot of negative thoughts in my mind during this stretch. Here’s what I was thinking:

  • I’m tired and my leg muscles hurt.
  • I didn’t taper for this race, so really didn’t have any right to think I could go fast.
  • I haven’t run a distance longer than a marathon since August, so my preparation for this race was … sub optimal.
  • I don’t know how far ahead that one girl from the beginning of the race was, or if there were any other women in front of me.
  • I feel bad for trying to use a podium-finish as a motivation – there’s a bit of a weird stigma against “racing” / running for competition in ultras, and I’ve never really gotten past that. I’m also not a super fast / competitive runner, so I always feel weird using that as motivation, since I don’t feel like I have a right to it because I’m not that fast.
  • I only have 90 minutes left of running, so I’m a slacker for even thinking about slacking, and I should just muscle through.
  • Speaking of muscles, I’m tired and my leg muscles hurt …

Someone once said that the definition of intelligence is being able to hold two contradicting ideas in your mind and still be able to function. When I think about all of the gifts that running has given to me, I think about this one the most. Running has given me a very powerful ability to be zen in the face of difficulty. I can hold two opposing ideas in my mind – the fact that this running is hard and I want to stop, and the fact that I really don’t want to stop because I want to be proud of my effort – and still function. Or, as I really learned at Mountains2Beach – this is hard, and I can do it.

So I kept running.

At some point, I asked for the time – we had about 50 minutes left. I’d just finished my 31st lap. I was feeling optimistic – I could run 12-minute miles and finish 4 more laps, which would get me to 35 laps, or about 36 miles. So I’d be right at the bottom of my range – a good enough finish! I could also run about 10-minute miles and get one more lap in.

So, I asked myself – what’s it gonna be?

I ran another lap, then had 40 minutes lap. I told myself if I finished my 35th lap with more than 9 minutes on the clock, I’d sprint it out for the last lap. So I ran another lap and had 30 minutes left. I found a guy with a feather in his baseball cap – Rickey – who was finish up, so I ran this lap with him. Then I ran another lap with Rickey and had 21 minutes left … I was running faster than a 10-minute pace! While Rickey got a quick beer, I ran another lap and had … 12 whole minutes left?! I ran my last lap and finished with a few minutes to spare.

36 laps … 37 miles! I was ecstatic. That’s about three more miles than I ran in the same time last year, which is a pretty great accomplishment.

Afterwards

Cyndi met me at the finish line – she had run her farthest distance ever, about 33 miles. Not bad at all for her 2nd ultra. I think she’s got the bug …

We finished!

Why did we do that!

I hung around for the awards ceremony, and was excited to learn that I’d come in 2nd! The girl ahead of me had only run one more lap than I had, which was a meaningful distance, but not as much distance as I’d thought based on her pace for the first few laps. I didn’t think I had another lap in me, so I didn’t have any regrets. 2nd place is not bad at all.

Cyndi and I stayed for a few extra minutes to cheer Ingrid on for one more lap, then Cyndi and I went to get quesadillas at a Mexican place nearby. I went home and showered, then headed out – I was going to visit a friend and spend the night at their place.

That night, I couldn’t stop thinking about Ingrid, who was still out there, running in the rain. I woke up a few times and almost got out of bed to go check up on her. It was a strange feeling – I think I just have developed an extreme appreciation for how hard those early hours of the morning are in this race – they are cold and lonely and exhausting, and I knew it was raining. When I woke up, after a quick coffee with my friend, I went back to the race to see the last hour of it. It turned out that she’d stopped around 77 miles (an insane distance) and headed home because the cold and wet was really unbearable. I’m pretty sure she still came in 3rd overall, which is an incredible accomplishment. It was not an easy day on that course.

All in all, this was yet another fun New Year’s One Day. I loved getting to see my girlfriends running, and I was proud of my own accomplishment as well.

I’ll post race photos when I have them. Look forward to the wet seal running pose …

Adding the coaster to my collection

CIM: fun with friends

Every year, I think a bit about what I want to focus on in the upcoming year. It’s a bit like New Year’s Resolutions. My theme for 2018 was “community.”I chose it because I wanted to build one this year. In December, I really feel like the efforts of this focus came to fruition, in a number of ways, and this particular weekend felt like one of them.

CIM – California International Marathon, in Sacramento – is a theoretically fast course, although I think it’s deceptively difficult due to the early downhill. Because it’s considered fast, it’s also very popular. So I knew a lot of folks who would be there this year, including Andrew and Patti (from Antarctica), Mike (of Badwater fame), and Eric (a friend I met while his company was a client of mine).

The race was fun (3:38, which is my 3rd fastest time). The rest of the weekend was even better. Here are some highlights, in chronological order:

  • Sharing a weirdly luxurious motel suite with Patti (who drove all the way up from San Diego) and Andrew (who flew in from Nashville to hang out, despite his broken arm) in a medium-sketchy neighborhood in Sacramento
  • At the race expo, meeting Scott Jurek,who is famous for setting the Appalachian Trail speed record and winning a bunch of hard ultras, like Badwater, Hardrock, and Western States. He signed my bib, and we got copies of his book!
  • Thrift store shopping for throw-away pre-race sweaters
  • Wandering around Old Town Sacramento and buying matching knee-high socks
  • Meeting Mike for coffee and discussing insanely difficult races, most of which he’s done
  • Having drinks and snacks on an old riverboat with Eric and his running buddy
  • Seeing all the holiday decorations in downtown Sacramento, including the huge tree, light shows, and great Christmas stores
  • Returning to a favorite Safeway of mine (I used to live in Sacramento, and we got up to some shenanigans at this Safeway)
  • Watching Indiana Jones with Patti, who had never seen it before, and Andrew, who had definitely seen it before
  • Running with Tim Twietmeyer in the 3:35 pace group. Tim has won Western States 100 five times, and has finished in under 24 hours … 25 times.
  • Seeing Mike as he headed towards the finish of the race (and running like … four steps with him)
  • After the race, touring the capitol building
  • Going back to the finish line – long after everything had been taken down – and seeing a couple of the final runners finishing. Patti somehow involved herself in handing out medals to these super dedicated folks. We think she also may have handed out a medal to some random jogger who was unaffiliated with the race.
  • Eating dinner at some hole-in-the-wall bar and people-watching aggressively
  • Visiting The Diplomat bar for a drink, because we’d heard that a senator had gotten drunk and punched someone there, although none of the staff could verify this.
  • Accidentally staying at The Diplomat long enough to be included in an election celebration event for one of California’s elected officials, and running into a woman who knew my mom

Overall – super super fun weekend. Running has transformed from something I do just to do it, to something that keeps me connected with people who I care about. I’m looking forward to more of the same next year.

Here are some photos:

 

The crew reunites! Love these guys

Three of the people in this photo ran a race in Antarctica. The other one is Scott Jurek.

Scott signed my bib!

Sunset over the river from an old riverboat

Run Happy. Mainly I was just happy to see Andrew and Patti (who still holds the title of best cheerleader ever)

I just liked how my calf looked in this picture.

Finished the race!

Best team ever

Burning Man 50k (Or: A Run Around the Desert)

Burning Man is a 70,000-person hippy gathering in the desert of Nevada, in summer. There’s cool art, funky music, and fun activities to do. It’s a bastion of hippy values: love, sharing, and friendliness. Most of all, it’s summer camp for adults – where you have no plans and no obligations, other than to have fun. So basically, you get to do whatever you want.

For me, doing whatever I want often means … running.

Background and Course Info

I’d heard about the Burning Man 50k a few years ago. For a variety of reasons and despite having tickets, I hadn’t gotten around to actually going to Burning Man. So when Cyndi, my friend and colleague, mentioned she was going to Burning Man for the first time this year and invited me along, I couldn’t say no. Later, she also mentioned she was going to run the 50k, and I knew I’d found the right group to camp with.

The Burning Man 50k course goes through some of the major landmarks of the city, which is laid out a bit like a clock (see below). The course starts somewhere near the middle of the city, heads out to the perimeter, goes about a quarter of the way around the edge, then comes back in. It’s about four laps of running, plus a little bit at the end, to get to the full 50k. The course is flat (it’s a desert). The race itself starts early – around 5:30am – to avoid the desert heat. Dust storms are a very real consideration, so appropriate apparel, such as dust masks and goggles, are required.

This is a map of the course. You run the pink dotted line four times, then a little bit more, going clockwise. Pink Lightning is the name of the camp that organized the race. It’s also where the race starts and finishes.

 

A few things surprised me (in a good way!) about how the race was organized:

  • There’s no registration fee. That’s because everything at Burning Man is “gifted” – e.g. created by another participant and then shared, with no exchange of money, goods, or services
  • It’s chip-timed, which is really impressive for a race that’s so far out in the desert and affiliated with a bigger event
  • There’s even swag: T-shirts, finisher medals, and start medals
  • It’s BYO aid-station – all participants were asked to bring some aid station snacks to donate, as well as 1-2 gallons of water each. We brought some salty crunchy snacks (I can’t remember exactly what). We also made a little aid station box for our camp, which consisted of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, peanut butter and nutella sandwiches, and peanut butter and honey sandwiches. You might be picking up on a theme here.

The Start Line

The race was supposed to start at 5am, so we headed over to the start line around 4:30am. Most Burning Man activity happens at night, so as we were waking up to get ready for the race, it felt like the city was still in full-on party mode. About a hundred runners were at the start (it felt like more), and it was clear some of them hadn’t actually gone to sleep the day before. They’d just rolled right up after staying out all night.

Almost all runners were in some kind of costume. Most costumes included illumination of some sort, such as LED-encrusted headgear, or jackets lined with electroluminescent wiring. These light-up clothes serve a dual purpose: they both look cool, and make sure people can see you at night. Lots of folks wore tutus, capes, or headgear. One woman had a mirrored disco-ball sports bra!

We said hi to a few folks – there were one or two other people I knew who were running as well – and stashed our camp’s aid station out of the way of the hoards.

For reasons that remain unclear to me, the race didn’t actually start until 5:30am. That said, this is pretty typical of Burning Man – things start late, or not at all. Timing is pretty flexible.

After a brief group photo, we lined up at the start, and the race began.

 

Two other folks from my camp, Alex and Cyndi, also ran this race – it was their first 50k! We wore matching unicorn headbands.

I made this cape a lot of years ago for the relay race around Lake Tahoe! It made a comeback for this costumed event

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All the runners at the stat line

Before Sunrise

Cyndi, Alex, and I had planned to run a few miles at the start together, but it became very quickly apparent that they wanted to set a much faster pace than I wanted to. I also didn’t want to push my pace too much to start, since I’d been rehabbing an ankle injury (posterior tibial tendinitis – it’s healed now, but it was a long road this year). So they took off within the first few minutes and I settled into my pace.

For the first mile and a half or so, we ran along the Esplanade – the innermost ring of the city. Along this road, there were lots and lots of non-running revelers in various stages of intoxication, all wearing lit-up clothing. Once they figured out what we were doing, they cheered us on, with calls of “You’re crazy!” ‘Here, have a shot of vodka!” and “F*ck your burn!” (Which is actually a nice thing to say, even though it doesn’t sound like it). The atmosphere was very much charged with energy.

We turned left at the end of Esplanade to the 10’o’clock branch of the city. We ran by the ill-fated and now notorious 747 airplane – the first of four times we would pass it that day – around which a party was still commencing.

Then we headed out into the desert.

The desert of Burning Man – away from the center of civilization – is called the Deep Playa. It has this mysticism about it, as if it takes a monumental journey to get there. In reality, it’s just a short walk – maybe 10-15 minutes – away from the main camp areas – but it does have a weird, isolated vibe. The desert is an empty place, and you realize it as soon as you leave the bustle of center camp behind. There’s nothing out there.

That said, we runners could still hear the thumping music from the fleets of art cars crawling about the Playa, and we could still see the laser lights cutting through the persistent cloud of dust over the festival. We were still part of the party, even as we ran away from it.

The course turned to the right at the trash fence – an orange, plastic perimeter constructed to keep festival trash from blowing into the desert. You can see it in a few pictures below.

At about four miles in, or halfway through the lap, we hit an aid station. I didn’t stop, but it was great to see the volunteers, including two of my good friends, Natalie and Mikaela! You can see their photo below – they were the most enthusiastic cheerleaders, and it was so awesome to see them.

Image may contain: one or more people, sky, ocean, outdoor and nature

My friends Natalie and Mikaela happened to be at the trash fence aid station – here they are in a white hoodie and black dress, respectively. It was so awesome to see them out there!

 

The next four miles are a mirror image of the first – continue along the trash fence, turn right at the gate, then back to camp. This stretch was our first introduction to the non-official aid stations, which consisted of folks who just randomly set up aid stations to offer things to runners. These offerings were diverse, and included the obvious – like water and oranges – and the less obvious – like pigs in blankets and rum.

At the end of the lap, we passed through Pink Lightning’s camp and crossed the timing mat.

The second lap was gorgeous, and when the sun rose. Seeing the sun rise at Burning Man is a bit of a rite of passage, usually because it means that you’ve stayed up all night to see it. In this case, we got to see it coming up as we were running. It was beautiful, and ethereal to be running in the desert as the sun rose.

Image may contain: one or more people, sky, ocean, twilight, outdoor, nature and water

Someone running as the sun is coming up. One of the most beautiful photos from this day.

After Sunrise – the Middle Miles

I fell into step with a couple of guys, including one – named Natron (real name) – who was wearing some crazy bouncy shoes. The shoes had some complex spring contraption on the bottom, which gave Natron a literal bounce to his step (as well as a little squeaky noise). He was already tall, and this added a few more inches to his height. He told us he was trying to set a Guinness world record for “Fastest Marathon in Bouncy Shoes,” but Guinness kept telling him that bouncy shoes aren’t a universally accessible piece of gear, so they wouldn’t take it.

I ran with him for a few miles before we caught up to Cyndi and Alex.

Lisa, Natron, Alex, and Cyndi running in the desert (thanks John for the photo! You can read his race report here)

 

Running along the trash fence in the morning with some new friends

Probably my favorite runner costume: two guys dressed in checkered shirts and pants carrying a banner that said “finish.” They ran all the loops in reverse, so I got to “cross the finish line” about eight times! I loved seeing these guys, even if it never meant I was actually finishing.

Not the finish line

 

In terms of food, since that’s a common question – I didn’t partake of any of the race-organized aid stations, and I also didn’t partake of any of the non-race-organized aid stations. I carried a handheld water bottle, which I filled up every loop or so at our camp’s aid station, and I ate the PB&H we had prepared as well. I made this decision for a few reasons: First, the race-organized aid station food wasn’t laid out in a way that made it easy to grab, so the little bit of added friction made me less interested in trying to figure it out. Second, the non-race-organized aid stations … well, it’s Burning Man. You don’t always know exactly what you’re gonna get from strangers, no matter how well-meaning they are.

A non-race-organized aid station. I think these guys were pretty innocuous - handing out coconut water.

One of the more benign non-sanctioned aid stations. I think they were just offering coconut water.

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One of the race gates at the trash fence. We would turn right at this one to continue along the course.

The after-sunrise vibe is a little different on the Playa. Revelers start going to bed, so it quiets down quite a bit. The early risers wake up, and they tend to be a more peaceful, thoughtful bunch. They were more genuinely curious about what we were doing, and asked us questions (as much as possible when you’re running by) about the race, rather than shouting encouragement. We also saw a lot of folks doing morning yoga.

The Last Few Miles

After the fourth lap, we had to do another short out-and-back to round us out to the full 50k distance. I had held a pretty consistent pace so far, and it had felt pretty good. I was happy about this, as I was just coming back from that injury and hadn’t been doing a lot of running.

As I passed the timing mat, I heard a guy on the sidelines asking if anyone wanted a pacer for a bit. I said sure – one of my goals for the week at Burning Man was to say “Yes” to people offering gifts, and this was an opportunity to do that! So this guy and I ran the last little bit together. He was a super nice guy – lots of ultrarunning experience – and I think it was his first time at Burning Man as well. I think he was disappointed I wasn’t doing more miles before finishing, but I was very happy to have the company. (When I finished the race, he found another runner who still had another lap and went off with her – what a cool guy!)

The Finish Line

I crossed the finish line with a time of around 5:40 / 5:45. Slow for me, but great for not having run any meaningful distance for a few months, and my ankle didn’t hurt! Cyndi and Alex came in about twenty minutes later, and it was so awesome to see them cross the finish line of their first 50k together. Our camp mate Cliff came to cheer us on at the finish, too.

Hanging at the finish line. Love these guys.

We gifted our remaining camp sandwiches to a runner who was just about to leave on her fourth lap – she hadn’t eaten anything for the first 22 miles of the race (!) so we were happy to share.

We headed back to camp, took the Burning Man equivalent of shower (e.g., leveraging lots and lots of wet wipes), and had some breakfast. I think the other two took a nap – I got on my bike and went out exploring.

Afterwards

I took the rest of the week off from running, because I was still pretty skittish about further injuring my ankle. Posterior tibial tendinitis isn’t a joke, and can turn into a permanent injury if not treated. I was still pretty nervous about it.  Honestly, taking that week off may have been what got me over the hump in terms of recovery. The ankle felt much, much better when I got back to the real world.

I am so glad to have gotten a chance to run this race. I was happy and smiling the entire race, for probably a few reasons.

  • I hadn’t run for a long time, and it felt so good to get back out there, even if I was going slow.
  • I’d been wanting to run this race for a number of years, and finally getting to do it was a real treat.
  • The scenery and the environment were completely amazing. The desert is an incredible place, and getting to see the art and people of Burning Man in this way was very special
  • I got to run with two of my favorite people – Alex and Cyndi – and they were running their very first 50k! I love running with new ultrarunners.

In terms of the race itself – the winning woman ran an average of 8:09 minute pace or so for the entire race.  You may remember that, just a few months earlier, I ran my fastest marathon ever, averaging … 8:07s. So, I’ll just leave that there. All I’ll say is … my tendinitis is healed. I’ll be back in Black Rock City next year, and I’ll definitely be running again.

 

—-

Make sure to read John’s race report – I ran a bunch of miles with him!

Some photos in this post courtesy of Samuel-Christophe Tedjasukmana

New Year’s One Day: Fresh Start Effect

Not bad, GG bridge. You’re looking good today.

I’ve attempted the New Year One day a few times: once in 2015 and once in 2014. In this race, which takes place on December 31st, you run around in a circle for as many miles as you can in a certain period of time. The previous two times I’ve attempted it, I took on the 24-hour version. Turns out, I’m not great at running around in circles for 24 hours, because it is boring and it gets cold.

Me running this race a few years ago

These last few months have been fairly tumultuous from a personal perspective. I’ve gotten promoted, gotten married, gotten divorced, and finished an Ironman. So, as the new year came around, I was really looking forward to a fresh start. I wanted to do some running, but maybe not 24 hours of running. I signed up for the six hour version of this race about two days before the race.

This was some of the best running I’ve ever done, and not because of any particularly fast running that I did during the race. I was happy – super happy – for pretty much the entire race.

There are a few races that are great not because they are particularly hard or easy, but because you’re in a positive state of mind when running them. For six hours, during this race, I was the most content I’d been in a long time, for all the reasons that make running great. I was running for myself, propelled by myself, relying on the skills and capabilities I had built. I got to catch up with some old friends I’d met in previous races. I got to push myself just a little outside my comfort zone. I got to see some pretty scenery. And there was nothing that could stop me. It was me and this perfect little mile of 60% asphalt and 40% dirt, with iconic views of the Golden Gate Bridge every 10 minutes. I was paying homage to my city, my running, 2017, 2018, and my own strength.

All in all, this was an extremely uneventful race. I ran fast, consistently, and happily for six hours. I ran in the opposite direction for a little bit, then ran the original way again. Then at the end, I stopped running. And I felt good the whole time. And because of that, it’s one of the races I’ll keep close to my heart for a years to come.

The new year is a turning point, and even though it’s a made-up milestone in the scheme of civilization, sometimes that’s okay. For me, this race was a return to my roots.

Bring it on, 2018.

San Francisco delivers.

 

I am $25.00 fast

 

Zion 100 – Race Report

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Tl;dr: ran 100 miles in Zion. Course was gorgeous, challengingly vertical, and extremely muddy. They pulled us off the course at the end due to weather and mud, shortening the official race to ~90 miles, so I ran another 10 on my own in Zion National Park. I’m feeling great today, and proud of my effort on this very difficult course.

This Friday, Will and I ran the Zion 100 mile race, just outside of Zion National Park in Utah. This felt like my first “real” ultra hundred, because it was deep in nature and on punishing terrain. Featuring four massive climbs, here’s what the course profile looked like:

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Four major climbs

Leading up to the race, we received a series of very scary emails from the race director.

There is a high likelihood that we will be receiving rain during the race this weekend. Of all the races that we put on, this one has always been my biggest worry of inclimate weather due to the potential safety hazards and nasty trail conditions that would accompany it. Approximately 80% of the course is run on soil with a high clay content that turns slippery and sticks to the bottom of your shoes when a sustained, heavy rain ensues.

The race director even allowed runners to defer their entry to next year’s race, which is an option that is generally only offered in cases of very extreme weather.

Understand that there is a chance you will be running in a muddy slimy mess with 5 pounds of clay stuck to the bottom of your shoes and slipping all over the place and you could be putting your life in danger on the steep climbs. If you are not up for this challenge, please consider NOT starting the race so that we are not left with a large number of runners stranded at remote aid stations waiting for rides. Due to the conditions, we are offering a full rollover towards any Ultra Adventures race through next year’s Zion event

As you agreed to when you signed the waiver during the registration process, you are running at your own risk- And we could see extremely risky conditions this weekend.

I was already paralyzed with anxiety about this race due to the amount of vertical climbing we’d have to do. These emails from the race director did not help allay my fears, and in the week prior to the race, I was very nervous.

A couple of friends helped me work through these pre-race nerves, saying things like “It’s not like you’ve never run in the rain before” and “what about [your strategy of] not checking the weather until [they day of] and then making a game time decision?”

It wasn’t until a day before the race, when Will and I were in Zion and driving around in the beautiful scenery, that that anxiety finally translated to excitement. In Adam Grant’s new book, Originals, he explains that reframing anxiety as excitement will improve performance, for example, on math exams or in public speaking engagements, so I also employed this technique for my own nerves. As Adam summarizes, “labeling an emotion as anxiety reduced [singing] accuracy to 53 percent [off of a baseline of 69 percent]. Calling [the emotion] excitement was enough to spike accuracy to 80 percent.”

My parents came to crew me for this race, too, which I was very much looking forward to. We had dinner with them the night before, and they joined us at the start line.

The start line was one part expo, one part camp site. Fire pits dotted the area. I found a chair and moved it as close as I could to one of the fire pits to stay warm.

The start of the race was delayed for five minutes to allow a few late shuttles to arrive. Then the race director counted down and said “Go!”- no gun, no timer, literally just when he felt like it. We all wandered through the chute and onto the trail.

Unlike shorter races, there are very few people who take off at a gallop at the start of a 100. There’s a long way to go, so there’s no reason to expend extra energy. We hit a small hill about 300 yards after the start. Most of us walked it.

The cadence of the race was unlike others that I’ve run. Specifically, the terrain would be flat or rolling, then we’d shoot up a vertical trail on the side of a mesa, run around the flat part of the mesa for a bunch of miles, descend the same steep hill, and be back on the flat or rolling areas. We’d repeat that pattern several times.

Flying Monkey – the first big climb

Within the first few miles of the race, the trail narrowed to single-track, and we started up the side of our first mesa on an ascent called Flying Monkey. We could see the trail of headlamps behind us making the climb in the blue pre-dawn light.

This climb was the first of four major ascents, and nobody was running. It wasn’t a challenging climb, because we were full of energy and it was early in the race.

Partway up the hill, everyone slowed to an even slower walk due to a traffic jam at a particularly tricky and rocky section of the trail. A rope had been installed here to help runners ascend a ten foot sheer rock face. I gripped my water bottle with my teeth and, feeling like a pirate, scrambled up the rock, pulling myself hand-over-hand up the rope and mentally appreciating the weight lifting I’d been doing prior to the race.

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Runners heading up the rope. Photo credit: Will Mroz

Once we reached the top of the mesa, we hit an aid station – our first – and started on a loop around the top. The sun had mostly risen, and the reds of the mesa’s sandstone were vibrant.

I was waiting for my body to ‘wake up’ properly – I still felt sluggish. Everything just seemed to be moving a little slower. I wasn’t too worried – there was a long ways to go – but I did notice it.

Until about five miles in, I’d been ahead of Will – a rare phenomenon! He stopped to say hi before passing me here.

We headed back down the same way we came and started towards our next climb.

Guacamole

At mile 15, we crossed a river and arrived at Dalton aid station for the first time. I saw Will coming out of it, just a few minutes ahead of me – that was the last time I’d see him on the course until about mile 80.

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Runners crossing the river before Dalton. Photo credit: Will Mroz

After leaving the aid station, I found my parents at an intersection not too far away, making a surprise appearance. Mom had co-opted a bunch of random spectators to cheer for me, which was energizing. When I talked to runners in the next few miles and introduced myself, they’d say “Oh, you’re the person they were cheering for!” I had to explain that I didn’t know most of those people – just my two parents.

Dad took some great pictures here. This is one of them:

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Cruising a downhill! Photo credit: Andrew Donchak

The trail widened, becoming a dirt service road that wound between horse paddocks on its way to the next mesa. This climb, retrospectively, also didn’t seem too tough, although we did see a few runners coming back down, which meant they were about ten miles ahead of us.

The circle around the top of Guacamole Mesa was beautiful, and one of my favorite parts of the course. The views were stunning, featuring sweeping vistas of the valley below and more mesas in the distance. The trail itself was rocky, and very close to the edge of the mesa, so our views of the mesas and valleys were unimpeded.

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This was our trail and view. Photo credit: Will Mroz

This was our first introduction to the “white dot” trail tracking system, which was polarizing amongst the athletes. We’d been following pink and silver reflective ribbons to this point, and those ribbons were much more sparsely spaced at the top of this mesa. Instead, runners had to intuit that we would follow spray-painted white dots on the rocks, which were not always easy to find, and did not always coincide with the trail that the pink ribbons suggested. Trail finding was a big challenge in this part of the course, and continued to be later on.

After this loop, we headed back down to Dalton aid station, hitting it for the second time. We’d done 30 miles and were about a third done with the race.

Goosebump

After leaving Dalton, we began a very long, straight run to our next mesa. I started running with a woman from Sacramento for a bit, and we shared stories about our training and the running trails there. After about a mile, we were in a wide-open field with huge mesas looming in the distance. They seemed very far away. It turned out that we were heading towards the massive one directly ahead of us. It seemed really, really far. Once I realized that we also had to climb it once we got there, I sunk into a tough period of demotivation, and let the woman from Sacramento run ahead.

I still wasn’t feeling physically great. The mesa was really far away. We were only a third of the way done with the race. And, to top it off, I was questioning my training; I wasn’t sure that it had prepared me for the race. Naturally, I spent the next several miles mulling over my (perceived) poor training choices in the past few months.

In previous hundred-mile races, I’d done a lot of my training runs as trail races, which were fun and had the added benefit of introducing technical terrain for speed. For this hundred, I’d followed a specific training plan, which didn’t involve racing, and I spent a lot of training time running far on flat concrete. Now that I was out on these rolling hills, approaching our third climb, I was frustrated at what I perceived to be a terrible, urban, training plan, since it didn’t give me nearly enough preparation for hills or trails. I was angry at myself because these concrete 30s now felt like “junk” miles, or useless training, which had done nothing other than waste time and make me tired.

(In reality, as part of my training, I’d done 30 miles of hilly altitude in Tahoe, 26 miles of trail hills in Big Sur, and a fast trail 50k, so the demotivation was partly in my head here. But no less real and difficult in the moment.)

Also, I usually added in some longer races – like 50 milers – but this training plan didn’t call for any of those. The longest I’d run in the last four months was 70 miles, and that was in early January – about three months ago, so in my mind, it didn’t count. My training runs since then had all been about 30 miles. Now that I was running miles 31, 32, and 33 of the race, I had run farther than I had in the last several months, which was tough to handle mentally so early in the race.

In short, I was grumpy.

When I arrived at the base of the toughest climb on the course, I realized I had to do something to fix my mental funk. Although I’d promised myself no music until mile 40, I knew I had to get up this hill somehow. I picked a song – one that had motivated me on my first 50-miler – and set it to play on repeat. And started charging up the hill.

The music helped a lot. It set me into a rhythm of climbing – one foot, another foot – and it felt like I was flying up the hill.

To top it off, there was a beautiful red and pink striated rock formation on our right. I got to see it from many different angles during this climb. It was in this moment of the race, more than any other, that I felt that I was appreciating the uniqueness of the environment as it should be appreciated.

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My favorite rock formation. Photo credit: Will Mroz

This section also reminded me of a particularly difficult stretch of the Inca Trail Marathon. During a tough ascent in that race, I used the “take twenty steps, appreciate the view for twenty seconds” approach. At Zion, give myself permission to stop for a few seconds when I needed to – between repeats of my song – to appreciate the view.

Once at the top of this climb, I was feeling energized again. Three of the four big hills were behind me, and the immediately upcoming sections were flat, similar in nature to what we’d experienced at Guacamole.

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Runners on top of the mesa. Photo credit Ryan Weidert

I switched audio gears to podcasts. I’d preloaded two in particular that I wanted to listen to, both from TED Radio Hour. One was about courage, and one was about endurance. Listening to both helped me realize the ridiculousness of my particular endeavor, and how it paled in comparison to the impact that others were having out in the world and the challenges they were facing. Perversely, this minimization of my own efforts was motivating. If other people could do incredible things like fly into warzones or save hundreds of community members from asbestos poisoning, surely I could trot around, selfishly fulfilling a personal goal that benefited nobody else, for another 60 miles.

Onward.

Grafton – I’ll stay until I’m fired

After hitting the Goosebump aid station a second time, we left for a lollipop loop – we’d come back to Goosebump again after another 20 miles.

This stretch, to Grafton aid station at mile 52, was tough, for several reasons.

First, we were back on flat service road, which is boring and uninspiring. Will likes these because he can run fast. I dislike them because they are not technically or visually inspiring.

Second, it had started to drizzle, so the mud was beginning to get tricky, just like our race director had predicted. I started playing through all of the worst-outcome weather scenarios in my head, which did not help.

Third, it was becoming increasingly clear that I was far behind the estimated pace I’d given my parents. I was worried that they would be worried, and also that they’d be waiting unnecessarily for me at aid stations. Prior to the race, my mom had reassured me that it wouldn’t be a problem if she had to wait for me at Virgin (mile 76), where she’d be pacing me, but I was still anxious, because she was going to have to wait a while. Also, I was looking forward to possibly seeing my dad at Grafton, at mile 52, but I would be at least two hours behind the time I’d given him.

As part of that, I also started thinking that I was going to get pulled off the course because I was going to miss a cutoff. In races like this, runners need to reach certain aid stations before certain times to ensure they’re on track to finish before the total time expires. In my mind, during this stretch, I somehow was convinced that I was really close to missing a cutoff and was going to be stopped from continuing.

I addressed the possibility of this negative outcome by remembering something that someone had said at a recent work training: “I’ll stay until I’m fired.” At the time, this philosophy resonated with me. I interpreted it to mean that my colleague was going to stay at the company as long as he could, putting in his best effort and learning everything he could, and not leave until he was kicked out. I resolved to do the same with this race. I’d stay until they kicked me off the course.

Fourth and lastly, it was getting dark. I’d been on the course for 13 or 14 hours, and the sun was very much setting. I wanted to get to Grafton before the sun set, and I also thought there was a chance my dad would be there, so I kicked my pace up for the last two miles of this stretch to get to the aid station.

On my first of two passes through Grafton, an aid station volunteer assured me that I was far ahead of the cutoff time, and was kind enough to let me text my parents and Will with a quick update. This helped alleviate a lot of my tension. Dad wasn’t there, which was initially disappointing. I found out later that the mud was so bad on the road to this aid station that he couldn’t get his car up, and that other cars had actually gotten stuck in the mud there, so I was glad he decided to skip that aid station.

There were a number of runners sitting in this aid station tent looking pretty demotivated. I checked in on my body, and despite the tough prior stretch, I realized it was mostly mental, and physically I felt pretty good. My spirits buoyed, I left the aid station and started the steep descend to Cemetery.

The next ten miles would take us down to Cemetery aid station, then right back up to Grafton, on our last of the four big climbs. On the way down, I fell into step behind a runner named Mindy, and her pacer, Rick, who were generous enough to let me tag along for a while. Both ultra veterans, they had fun stories to share, and it was great to have some companionship as it got dark and we descended together down a steep, rocky grade.

At the bottom of the hill, an aid station volunteer gave me a note – from Dad! I was excited to have a special delivery – a message of encouragement – and kept it in my backpack for the rest of the run.

The climb back up to Grafton was challenging, although I was energized again by this point. I put another song on loop and charged up the hill. I passed a bunch of runners, most of whom would pass me back later. I didn’t want to let this burst of energy go un-utilized.

Another runner tucked in behind me, and together we did some extraordinary trail finding on this section. This section was longer than anticipated and not well-marked. We didn’t speak much – a true runner camaraderie, I thought at the time. I found out later he as from Slovakia and didn’t speak English. Once we reached out second pass through Grafton, we gave each other a high-five and parted ways for the time being.

I didn’t spend long at Grafton – I was excited that the last big climb of the course was over. I headed out into the darkness – along the flat service road – again, back to Goosebump.

The darkest hour

It had started raining again. The next few miles were the hardest of the race for me. In these darkest hours, I learned a lot about myself.

I found myself becoming increasingly delirious, and recognized the symptoms of exhaustion that I’d experienced at Pine Creek 100 two years ago. On the trail, I saw a fluffy white and orange cat (a.k.a. a rock – I was hallucinating) and a purple bedazzled skull and crossbones (a.k.a. a bush). I also saw two people creepily standing off-trail (a.k.a. two trees).

All I wanted to do was lie down and take a nap, so I started investigating nearby trees that looked sheltered from the drizzle. I sat down under two or three of them for a minute or so at a time, wishing I didn’t have to and knowing it was a bad choice to do so. But I was really exhausted.

I literally had no idea how I was going to make it back to Goosebump aid station for our third pass through. While I wasn’t as exhausted as I had been at Pine Creek, I was still really, really tired, and the next several miles seemed insurmountable.

I’d read an article a while ago that extreme distance runners often experience brain shrinkage after lots of distance running. One possible explanation proposed for this is that the scenery is so dull and visually not stimulating that the brain has nothing to process. I found this to be particularly true on this flat, featureless stretch of service road, especially now that it was dark. All I could see was flat gravel, just in my circle of light. It was mind-numbing.

To solve this problem of severe lack of stimulation, I’d point my headlamp at the side of the road to look at bushes, and that helped a bit. I also switched from music back to podcasts, hypothesizing that the intellectual storylines would give my mind something to focus on and rally around. This helped a bit as well.

Ultimately, I was still weaving on the road and had a ways to go.

I was saved by Mindy and Rick, my buddies from the Cemetery descent. They caught up to me (I’d passed them on my charging climb) and let me jump in with them. I have no idea how I would have gotten through this stretch otherwise.

The three of us made it to Goosebump – our third pass through. Mindy loaned me a long-sleeved thermal – again, saving the day, as I was freezing (I later repaid the favor in ibuprofen and a flashlight. Runners have a weird exchange rates).

Virgin

The next eight miles would feature a steep descent in the dark and in the rain. This was the reverse of the climb we’d done around mile 35, with the ropes and the pretty white and pink rock feature. Except now it was dark, and we were going downhill, and it was wet.

One of the podcasts I’d listened to earlier that day provided a statistic that, on Mount Everest, eight times more climbers die on the descent than on the ascent. With that in mind, we took our time down this very steep hill, and I made sure to stay with Mindy and Rick.

Two notable wildlife encounters occurred during this section. The first was a very large black cow standing just off the trail. We didn’t notice it until it was directly to our left. Mindy saw it first, and thought she was hallucinating until Rick and I confirmed that it was there.

The second wildlife encounter was a huge black snake, which turned out to be a 20-foot long hose and not a real snake.

Physically, I was still feeling fine. I had some sand in my shoes and one of my toes hurt, but otherwise, everything was still moving and I was in good shape.

Psychologically, I was anchoring my entire mental state on the fact that my mom would be at the next aid station, which was just a few miles away. She’d stick with me for about 18 miles, the sun would come up, and I’d be on my way to the finish line after that. If I could just get to Virgin, mentally, I’d be as good as done, even though I would have nearly a marathon left to run at that point. If I could get there, I knew I would finish.

This stretch of trail was demotivating for many. It was the longest stretch without aid, at eight miles. Rick’s GPS ended up saying it was at least a mile longer than the eight miles advertised. Also, it was dark and the path was winding, so there was no way of knowing how far away from the aid station we really were. Later, Will also told me he really struggled with this stretch, and considered dropping out because of it (he didn’t).

During this part, Mindy, Rick, and I lay down at one point and looked at the stars, trying to regather some energy and enthusiasm. At one point, later on Mindy was angling for another mini nap; I remembered that when I was tired, I liked to talk, so I started asking her questions to get her to talk. That seemed to get us both over the hump, and the three of us made it to the last aid station at Virgin.

End of the line

When I arrived, I asked the volunteer checking bibs if he’d seen my mom. This sounds like a dumb question, and he clearly thought so, because he responded “No, I haven’t seen your mom,” somewhat bemused. I thought maybe my mom had been talking to people at the aid station and they’d know there was a mother-daughter pacer-racer pair, and where to direct me to find her.

Since my first attempt clearly didn’t work, I instead just shouted “Mom?” into the aid station. Hilariously, this worked, as she materialized from around the fire pit. I was really excited to see her and have a buddy for the next 18 miles.

I emptied out my shoes of sand again, got some food, and mom and I took off.

We’d pass Virgin four times, completing three loops in the area, before heading to the finish line. She’d stay with me for those three loops, then let me finish the last six alone and meet me at the finish.

The second loop ended where the first loop began, so we ran into Will finishing his second loop as we set out on our first loop. He didn’t recognize us at first, but after he realized who we were, we said hi quickly then continued on our way.

Mom and I were moving quickly at the beginning, and I passed a few people. I led to set the pace and find the trail. Finding the trail was really challenging, still, and that unfortunately distracted me from our conversation (or I was exhausted an unable to coherently have a conversation. Both are possible.) In my mind, because I had done so much trail finding already, I was well-equipped to recognize the ribbons. In reality, mom may have been better at finding the trail, because she was fresh, she still let me lead.

The end of the loop retraced the same last 1.5 miles from that eight mile stretch, which was disheartening. I was also hungry, and the sun was coming up, so I slowed down a bit here. I knew once I got food, I’d be ready for the second loop.

As we approached Virgin for the second time, I briefly noticed that there seemed to be far fewer people there than on our first pass. I didn’t think too hard about it, because it could have just been my perception, and it didn’t really affect my race plan.

When we checked in, I was ready to grab food and head out again quickly, but we were stopped before we got into the aid station. At first I thought I’d missed a cutoff, but I knew I was in very good shape in that regard.

What we found: they’d closed the last two loops of the course due to weather and mud. All runners were to proceed straight to the finish line. We wouldn’t be running 100 miles that day.

I was stunned for a moment, then I was frustrated.

I *knew* at this point that I was going to finish the race. It was in the bag (proverbially – it would still be hard). I was being robbed of a 100-mile finish, instead running something like 88 or 90 miles. Which was not the goal.

Also, I’d only gotten a measly 4.7 miles with my mom. I was really looking forward to more than that.

At the aid station, Mindy and Rick were just about to leave to head to the finish. With no other choice than to run to the finish line, I followed them out, saying goodbye to my mom.

The last six miles (which, again, ended up being closer to eight) were just terrible. The trail was rolling, muddy, and gross, which is a demoralizing way to finish a race.

While we understood the rationale for the shortened course, we complained that the race committee hadn’t found a workaround to let us get our miles in. For example, they could have measured out a few out-and-back miles on a less-muddy road for us to finish on.

To make matters worse, a few other races were starting that morning, and those runners were about two miles into their runs. They looked fresh, fast, and excited. We looked like wet dogs. They kept telling us how amazing and incredible our accomplishment was. We kept staring ahead like zombies. They galloped up the rolling hills. We slide down them, sometimes falling in the mud.

Mostly, I felt like a failure for not finishing my hundred. 90 miles was not 100. All of their congratulations – of which there were many – seemed like salt in the wound.

Even though we wouldn’t get all the miles in, officially, we’d still receive all the trappings of finishing a race. We’d get the buckle, we’d avoid a DNF, and the race was still a qualifier race for other, harder races, even though it ended up being shorter than advertised. Still, that didn’t make any of it better.

We got to the finish line, and I was grumpy and mean to my parents, which I regretted. They gave us hugs and began their drive back to Orange County.

A few minutes later, after I was in the car, I called them and apologized and said thanks. It really was cool that they came out to support Will and I, and I wanted to make sure they knew that.

Zion National Park

Will didn’t get to finish all 100 miles either – he was cut off before the third loop, so just a few moments after we saw each other. He’d had a challenging race and was glad that it was cut short. A lot of other runners felt the same way.

After he and I took a nap and got food, I was still feeling frustrated about the whole situation. Including getting lost and some longer-than-advertised stretches, I’d run about 90 miles. I was ten miles short of a full century. And it seemed dumb to just let it go. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life saying “Yeah, I *almost* ran 100 miles.”

So after we got back to the hotel, I laced up my shoes, put on my still-dirty race clothes, attached my bib to my Camelbak, and hit the road for ten more miles.

In high school, each student got to customize a small section of our senior yearbook. Most of my peers mushed in collages of pictures, of memories from school and times they wanted to remember.

I left my section Jobsian-white, and included only this quote: “You cannot control the wind, but you can adjust your sails.”

I could not control the course or the weather at this race, and I couldn’t control the final judgement to shorten the course. But I was still going to get this run done. They may have pulled me off the course, but I wasn’t finished yet.

Our hotel was close to Zion National Park, so I thought it was only appropriate to finish the run by going through the park.

The last ten miles of my personal 100-mile run were peaceful and calm. I ran as much as I could and walked the rest. I saw a beautiful rainbow, a turkey with its feathers all out, and a pair of deer. And it rained, and it grew dark, and I was happy, because I finished 100 miles.

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Rainbow on my last ten miles.

Epilogue

Immediately after we finished the official race, Will was furious and forcefully declared that he never wanted to run a 100 mile race again. I agreed immediately, relieved. Training for something like this takes over your life. Mentally, it’s anxiety-inducing for weeks leading up to it. The race itself is really bad for your body and it can take weeks to recover. Parts of the race are miserable and challenging. Afterwards, you don’t feel energized – you feel emaciated and exhausted. I’ve never felt proud or accomplished immediately after finishing a 100-mile race. Just glad that it was over.

A few days later, we’re feeling less forceful about our decision. Maybe we’ll run another. But this was a really hard race, and we’re not going to run headlong into another one without some serious consideration.

Physically, though, I feel phenomenal. I don’t have any muscle or joint pains other than one toe hurting. I attribute this to the variety of terrain –Rocky and Pine Creek were fairly flat, and it took quite a while to recover from those because the same muscles were used. But I feel great after this race, probably because of the climbing we did.

Overall, I’m really glad I ran this race. A long race like this is mostly about troubleshooting, and I felt like I did that well. I was able to manage myself mentally, and I gave myself permission to go slow and walk without beating myself up about it. I encountered difficult situations and knew how to handle them.

And the course was just amazing. Being out in nature like that is a very rare opportunity.

To summarize:

  • It’s okay to walk.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  • Stay until you’re fired.
  • You cannot control the wind, but you can adjust your sails.

Until next time.

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Will and I at the finish line (after a shower and a nap)

Getting past the burnout – 2nd place at Redtail Ridge

This is a race report about the Redtail Ridge 50k at Lake Chabot, put on by the illustrious Inside Trail Running.

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On Saturday, at 8:05 a.m., I was sitting in a car in the parking lot of a park. My race started at 8:30. I hadn’t put on my shoes, and I hadn’t picked up my bib. I was not motivated or excited to run this race. I was feeling burnt out.

Last week, I posted a depressing call for help on a running message board. Here it is:

Hi runners,

I’m training for my 3rd 100-miler. Race is in early April. I’m running 28-30-milers almost every Saturday, plus whatever the training plan says for the other days. Between work and training for this race, I feel really burnt out – if I’m not working, I’m running, and there’s no time for anything else. I’m starting to dread my workouts [even non long-run days], and that hasn’t really happened before.

I haven’t felt this way when training for my past races, which I did primarily by running some 50s and 50ks [fun!] and then just running the race. This time around, training seems like an inescapable slog. I’m wondering if a) I’ve hit my limit of interest for the sport b) I’ve been overtraining or c) training is hard and I wasn’t doing it right before.

Help me out, guys – another four weekends of 30-mile Saturdays just seems daunting, miserable, and not worth it, but not doing the training seems like a bad option too.

Suffice to say, the last few weeks have been rough. I was tired, overwhelmed, and not excited to run. And in the car on Saturday morning, I wasn’t excited at the prospect of another run. It just seemed like so much work.

I thought about my options. I could either get out of the car and run the race. Or I could let Will run and go do literally anything else for five hours. Anything. I could go read a book or visit with friends or just wander around and explore the area. I was really grasping at any reason to not run this race.

But, ultimately, I was basically at the start line already, and I’d already paid. Two really uninspired reasons to run. So I got out of the car, picked up my bib, and started the race.

I’d run a couple of races in this park before, so the trails were familiar. The first few miles were along a lake – flat and forested, before we started a steep climb to the first aid station.

I wasn’t pushing it too hard at this point in the race. I’d gotten food poisoning on Thursday, so wasn’t sure how much energy I had in the tank. This race was also supposed to be a training run, so it was more about the miles and less about the speed. As such, I hadn’t tapered at all, and had run back-to-back ten-milers on Tuesday and Wednesday. I was moving slow, and I was okay with that, because I wasn’t motivated to run anyway.

That said, I was watching the color of the bibs around me. The 30k race had started at the same time as we had. They had green bibs instead of our yellow ones. Even though I wasn’t going for speed, I definitely looked at a racer’s bib color any time one passed me, which happened frequently, and hoped their bib was green. Runners going shorter distances should be running faster, so it doesn’t feel completely devastating when someone running a shorter distance scoots ahead. For a while, I didn’t see many yellow bibs at all, which was motivating.

After the second aid station, we ran along a rolling, wide dirt road in verdant green pastures. The trail was sloppy with mud from recent rain, made worse by the … generous … presents that grazing cows had left us along the way.

I took a quick pit-stop in the bushes and retied my shoes before the trail plunged back into the forest.

I hadn’t brought my watch on this race. Sometimes, looking at your distance during a race can be more depressing than helpful. At the beginning of the race, I felt like I had so much going against me mentally already. It didn’t seem worth it to add to the misery by knowing how many millions of miles I had left to go.

So, I’m guessing when I say it was somewhere around mile 10 when I picked up the pace a bit, for no reason other than it seemed like a good idea. At some point, I caught up to another runner, and fully intended to pass her, but she opened a conversation as we rounded a corner and stuck with me.

I’m really glad she did. We spent the next six or eight miles together. I learned about her running past [she used to live in Hopkinton, where the Boston Marathon starts!] and we chatted away a few hours of running.

I felt like I could have gone a little faster at this point, but I was more excited to have company and someone to talk to. Finding kindred spirits is one of my favorite parts of long races.

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My new friend and motivation for the middle stretch of the race

When we reached a downhill stretch, she and I parted ways; I’m a strong downhill runner and was feeling good.

The 50k course included all of the 30k course; we headed back to the start line with the 30k runners, then turned around and went out for another 12 miles after that.  As I headed back to the start line, I was feeling pretty good, energized by running with my new friend and excited by the prospect of running another 12 miles on the course. I would see her one more time on the course as I headed back out and she reached her finish line.

I like courses that have little stretches of out-and-back. Some runners don’t, because it can be demotivating to run in the opposite direction of where you’re ultimately headed, especially when part of that is at the start/finish line. However, I think  it’s fun to see the other runners on the course who are ahead or behind. It’s also an easy way to figure out how well you’re doing relative to other runners, because you can count who’s ahead of you. I hadn’t seen that many women with yellow bibs, and none that had passed me.

With just a few miles to the turn-around at the start, I started looking out for runners coming the other way. I saw one – she was moving pretty fast, and she was about 2-2.5 miles ahead of me. I saw one more, but she had made a wrong turn and wasn’t running the 50k anymore. And then … I reached the turnaround.  There weren’t any other women ahead of me.

I was in 2nd place.

And, even better, I was feeling good, both physically and mentally.

Neat. I turned around and took off, trying to widen the gap between myself and whoever was behind me. I quickly saw two women neck-in-neck, both 50k runners, about a mile behind me. So that meant I had to not lose a minute per mile to them, approximately, over the next 12 miles. It was 2nd place or 4th place.

I was glad I had left some gas in the tank, because the next few miles were back up that first hill again. I paced myself, running the hill where I could and taking walk breaks on the steep parts where I needed to, and made it to the first aid station in good shape.

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Cruising up a hill

There were three aid stations in this stretch, and I knew that if I made it to the 2nd one without getting passed, I could defend my position and sprint the last six miles to the finish. So the next few miles were somewhat anxiety-filled. Every walk-break, I was second-guessing whether or not I was wasting time by walking. This strategizing was kind of fun, too – not something I normally did in races, because normally I don’t compete for any meaningful prizes in races.

I made it to the 2nd aid station – another out-and-back – and hadn’t been passed yet. As I left the aid station, I saw one of the other women behind me. She was still about ten minutes back. I was pretty confident that she wouldn’t catch me, but I didn’t want to take any risks.

The last six miles were great. My legs had started to fatigue a little bit, but I knew I could go this last stretch without hitting the wall. These were the miles where I could feel my long runs paying off. I felt strong and prepared for the distance.

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Flying

After the last aid station, it was all downhill, and I flew all the way down to the lake. The last mile or so was little rolling hills along the lake, and I really pushed hard. At this point, it wasn’t because I was worried about getting passed, but because I was feeling good and I wanted to leave it all on the course. Will came back and ran with me for the last couple of minutes too, which was motivating and fun.

I crossed the finish line at 5:41, which was my 3rd fasted trail 50k time. And – I came in 2nd!

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Will pacing me to the finish

 

I had a really great time out on the course. I had been feeling really burnt out on running. A fun race – which turned into a competitive race – ended up being just the thing to get me back on track. Training for a 100-mile race is hard work, and it was nice to take a mental break and see some of that training pay dividends.

Sometimes we forget why we do the things we do, and it’s hard to get over the hump. This race helped to remind me about the reasons I run.

Running is a very multifaceted activity, and it draws people in for a variety of reasons. Some people love structured training, getting lost in the wilderness, racing competitively, or breaking PRs. As for me, I’ve always loved showing up to a race with no agenda, knowing that the time doesn’t matter, and also knowing that all I have to do is have a good time in nature. I don’t have to worry about the distance or about getting lost or about making sure I get home in time for something. All of that is taken care of, and all I have to do is relax into the trail, maybe make some friends, and appreciate being outdoors in a body I’ve worked hard to make strong.

 

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Swag. Bottom middle is the 1st-place age group medal, which is what they were giving out instead of 1st-2nd-3rd prizes. Also, what a great bib number.

 

Quick reminder: I’m still fundraising for the SF double marathon. Check it out: https://www.crowdrise.com/sanfranciscodoublema/fundraiser/brbrunning