Golden Gate 50K (and a little extra) – Race #4 of 2019

Last weekend was the Golden Gate 50k, with my favorite Coastal Trail Runs. I ran it with my friend Ingrid, who you may remember from Lake Chabot last year (where we tied for third!). We decided to run this race together – she is currently training for a 100-mile race, and I was recovering from my Surf City Marathon six days earlier, so neither of us were planning to go fast for this race (which ended up being a good thing, since it was a hard course!).

The course consisted of a half-marathon loop, which we did twice. On the first loop, we would add on another, smaller loop for an extra 4.9 miles, which theoretically would bring a total of 31 miles (or 50k). It has about 7,000 feet of climbing.

Lap 1

Climbing up the first hill – we are so happy!

The first lap was good – we started slow up the first major hill, then descended into Tennessee Valley before starting on the 4.9 mile loop. This 4.9 miles was probably the most beautiful part of the course – running south on single-track trail along the cliffs, overlooking the ocean. The light was beautiful as well, with the rain clouds holding their distance and the sun streaming through them.

We hit the Tennessee Valley aid station again at the end of our 4.9 mile loop, then started up the second major climb – a slow ascent of about 1.5-2 miles, which we mostly walked.

The weather in NorCal had been pretty bad the last few weeks – lots of rain. I was optimistically banking on having a brief respite during this race. Which we did, for the first three hours or so. It was around this time that it started hailing. Hail hurts on skin, I learned, but sounds cool on hats.

We reached an intersection at some point on this loop – a fairly significant decision juncture, we’d learn later. It was super clearly marked to go to the left. This surprised Ingrid, who has run these trails a bunch of times – most of the races she’s done have gone to the right at this intersection. So, without even thinking about it, she had veered off to the right. We paused for a moment and looked at the markings together, and decided left was correct – and another runner behind us agreed, so we headed left.

The trail to the left took us down to a road, then up that road a ways (if you’re familiar with SF, it’s the road you’d take to get to Hawk Hill). The course was really well marked the whole way along this stretch, and all other runners had taken this same route. When we got to a roundabout (by Slacker Hill), we crossed the street, hit the aid station, and ran back down to finish off the loop. So far, so good.

As we hit another road, the course took two not-super-fun side trips up steep, very muddy trails to the left. There was … a lot of mud. Going down these hills felt almost more like skiing than like running. We took it slow.

 

Coming down these muddy hills was no joke!

Runners who were just finishing shorter distances (e.g. 30k) were pretty grumpy about this side trip, and kept saying “just one mile to go!” I knew that, from where we were on the trail, they definitely more than just one mile – maybe like 2.5 or 3 more. However, there’s a lot of sensitivity in ultras around talking about distances. While racing, thinking about distances is such a psychological game – one that people approach very differently. Giving wrong information (or right information at the wrong time) can be very demoralizing for a runner. So, I didn’t correct them.

End of the first lap

As we passed by Ingrid’s car, I picked up my rain jacket. This is the second time ever I needed my rain jacket during a race (the first being this awesome race in Philly). It was pretty cold, and still raining intermittently, so I was glad to have it on the second lap. I was also glad to have an aid station attendant just up ahead, as my fingers were to cold to operate the zipper. Thanks, aid station guy!

Lap 2

We climbed up the first hill again, then down into Tennessee Valley. The folks at the aid station made a very jokingly-serious attempt to get us to head out on the 4.9-mile loop (not required for the second lap), and we jokingly considered doing it.

It was raining on and off for pretty much the rest of the race, at this point.

Up the second big hill, then along the ridge again. Then we got to that turnoff that had caused us to pause last time around – remember the one, where we all went left? This time, it was clearly marked to the right. Like, no ambiguity here – go to the right.

So we shrugged and headed to the right, coming up to that next aid station much more quickly than on the first lap.

Ingrid had a GPS watch and was kind of looking at it periodically, but not saying anything. Remember how knowing distance is a bit of a psychological game? We have an agreement that she doesn’t tell me the total distance we’ve run – I don’t like to know during ultras, usually, since the hills just throw off the pacing, which makes thinking about the total distance very depressing at times. She finally said, laughingly, that she wouldn’t tell me the distance – but we were definitely going to be doing a little extra today.

We headed up the two little hills on our way to the finish. During this stretch, we saw a little rainbow – a bit of recompense for the not-great weather that this day had provided.

We finished the race in just under 7 hours – definitely towards the slower end for both of us, but right in the middle of the pack for this race. It was a hard day on a hard course.

We done and we cold!

Afterwards

We immediately headed to the car and pumped the heat up as high as possible. Neither of us could really feel our extremities, so we sat in the car and held our hands to the vents for a few minutes before heading out.

Ingrid uploaded her watch data to Garmin, and you can see it here. I’ll give you a preview, though – this was not a 31 mile race. We ended up running 33 and some change.

Remember that left vs right intersection? My theory is that they mismarked the course at this point. See below for the route that we ran (and you can see on her Garmin). The first lap is a takes this detour, adding … just about two miles.

Just to be clear, Ingrid and I are pretty great at following trail markings – this was not a case of runners misreading the signs. We both have run a lot of races and did not misinterpret the course markings. Also, all the other runners went this way, too! So this is a mystery that may forever remain unsolved.

You can see the different routes – specifically, on Lap 1, we definitely ran an extra two miles.

 

We wrapped up the day with some sweet, sweet, post-race Mexican food at Tacko in San Francisco (where Cyndi took me after we ran New Year’s One Day!)

This wraps up my early 2019 racing season – four races this year so far. It’s been a lot of work, but I feel like I’m in really good shape, and running faster than ever. My target race is still about 7 months away, so as long as I stay injury free, there’s a lot of opportunity to get even faster.

As a reminder, I’m also an ambassador for the San Francisco Marathon (Sunday, June 28). I’ll be running the ultra again, which I really enjoyed three years ago. I also have a discount code for the race (all distances!) so let me know if you’re planning to sign up and I can share it!

Surf City Marathon (3:39)

Finished! Cool medal too

A few weeks ago was my third race of the year – Surf City, in Huntington Beach. I chose this race for a few reasons:

  • I was looking for a fast marathon
  • A friend suggested this one
  • It was close to my parents’ place, so I’d have a place to crash.

I’d been feeling pretty good about the race until the week leading up to it, when I got a light version of the flu. My sleep, nutrition, and hydration were pretty bad for the week ahead of the race, so I didn’t know what to expect on race day.

Also, California has been getting a lot of rain recently. The forecast for this one didn’t look great either.

The Day Before – Packet Pickup

This deserves its own section. As context:

  • The race is quite large – I want to say something like 25,000 people run some distance that day, with the vast majority – about 90% – running the half marathon. So, a lot of people were trying to pick up packets.
  • The race expo is in a tented structure in parking lot at the beach – near the start line. This makes access to it very challenging, since there’s pretty much only one angle of approach to get there.
  • To top it off, the weather was pretty nasty. Rain was coming down in buckets. Californians are not great drivers in the rain.

So we have a lot of people trying to get to an inconveniently located destination in really bad weather.

After narrowly avoiding a traffic ticket, I secured a place to pack in a nearby parking lot and headed to the packet pickup tent. It was windy and wet – I was holding my umbrella at a 45-degree angle to keep at least part of myself dry.

Inside the tent, everything was a little bit wet. The tent was set up directly on the concrete, so water was cascading through the structure in wide rivers. I blasted through as quickly as I could, picked up my bib, grabbed my shirt, snagged a taste of some decent-looking granola bar sample, and booked it back to the car. I really hoped the weather wasn’t going to be this bad the next day.

Pre-race

After a nice evening with my parents and my cat ZigZag, I woke up pretty early – maybe around 3:30 – and headed up towards Huntington Beach. I left plenty of time to park, since we needed to take a shuttle to the start. The weather was looking okay. Only a few little drops on the windshield on the way. I left my umbrella in the car and got on the bus.

I was fully prepared to freeze at the start line for a while, which is one of those painful rituals that doesn’t get better with time. I’d brought a lot of extra things to stay warm, such as chemical handwarmers and plastic bags to wear. However, I met a super nice woman on the bus who had run the race a number of times before, and she let me in on a secret – the hotel next to the start line opened up their bottom-floor conference center for runners to hang out in. So I hung out in a warm, carpeted conference hall until about seven minutes before the race started. Pretty luxurious, and I wasn’t freezing.

Start Of The Race (Miles 1-15)

My goal is to run a 3:30 marathon one day. I was pretty sure that it wasn’t going to happen this day, but you never know unless you try. A strategy I like to use is to start with a slower pace group, then try to catch up to my goal pace group. That way I know I have between several seconds and several minutes of buffer time to spare if the pace group is going slow and I fall back.

I started with the 3:40 pace group, and promised to not overdo it – I would stay with them for the first mile, then try to track down the 3:30 pace group. This was actually pretty challenging, since I felt like I had a lot of energy – staying with the 3:40 pace group really made me modulate my pacing quite a bit for that first mile.

After that mile, I picked up the pace, and I found the 3:30 pace group around mile 5 or so. I tucked in with the two pacers and cruised. I didn’t know if I’d be able to hold it, but it was fun to chat for a bit with them, and I was moving pretty quickly.

Around mile 9, we turned onto Highway 1, which goes right along the ocean. We’d run up north a ways, turn around and run back south towards the finish line, then make another hairpin turn, run up north along a beach trail, then turn around and head to the finish line. One of the pacers called this stretch “the treadmill,” as it’s supposed to be very boring. I didn’t think it was that boring – at least it was flat – but the view could have been better, since it was still quite overcast.

Around mile 11, we started getting some droplets of rain. We were a little nervous that the skies were going to open, like they had the day before, and we’d be drenched, but this was about as bad as it got that day.

At mile 13, the pacers started debating whether or not we were on track for a 3:30. One of them thought we were, and the other one thought that we were behind.

At mile 15, we went up a slight incline, and I couldn’t keep up – I fell back a bit. I think I knew at this point that a 3:30 was not in the cards. However, I did track my race on Strava this time, since I needed to bring my phone anyway. When I looked at the splits later, I saw there were a couple of 7:40/7:45 miles in this stretch. I’m pretty sure the pace group picked up the pace quite a bit here, and that could be why I fell off. Whatever the reason, I knew that 3:30 wasn’t going to happen this time.

Strava splits. Fast miles in here.

Middle Of The Race (Miles 15-22)

The course continued south, and around mile 17 or 18, we made our second hairpin turn and headed back north. I was going pretty slow at this point.

When we reached the next hairpin turn to head down the final south stretch, that’s when things got really hard. It turned out that, during that couple of miles of northward-facing running, a wind had picked up from the south. So now, as we headed back to the finish, we were facing a stiff headwind.

This was not awesome and I didn’t feel great about it. I also didn’t have a lot of gas left in the tank by this point.

End Of The Race (Miles 22-26.2)

Around this time, a woman caught up to me who wasn’t going that much faster than I was. I picked up my pace and tried to stay with her. We went through a couple of aid stations together – she would stop for water, then come catch me, and I’d keep trucking along. We didn’t say anything, but we were definitely pacing off of each other for a while.

Running towards the finish- you can kind of get a sense for the weather in this picture.

With about a mile to go, the 3:40 pace group – my original buddies – finally caught me. By this time, the crew had dwindled to one pacer and about three runners. I picked up the pace again to try to stay with them – I knew if I could finish with the pacer, I’d at least be under a 3:40. So that was the goal, and I basically sprinted the last mile (at least, if felt like that). I finished at 3:39 and some change.

Left hand side: me finishing (lower corner). Right hand side: half marathoners finishing (remember when I said there were a lot of them?)

After The Race

Even though it wasn’t a PR, or even a top three time for me, I felt pretty good. I’d worked hard on the course, and if my health/nutrition the prior week had been better, and I’d fueled better on the course, I probably could have gone faster. I worked hard and was proud of the outcome.

My Strava splits are here.

Close up of the medal – it was pretty neat!

There was a second race this day – the race to the airport. I finished my run around 10:30 or so, and I had a flight at 1:45. so I took a picture at the finish line, jumped on the shuttle, got in my car, and headed to the nearest 24 Hour Fitness, which I’m strategically a member of just for situations like this. (NB: Not a shill, just really appreciate how convenient this gym is). This particular one also happened to have a hot tub, and since I was actually a little ahead of schedule, I jumped in for a few minutes before heading to the airport.

Overall, this was a fun race. I’d probably run it again – next time with better preparation the week before!

Just after finishing

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

New Year’s Eve Marathon in Zurich

Before the race, repping Antarctica shirt!

 

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 first two years 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 2016. Last 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, I was left without a clear idea of what to do on New Year’s Eve. Independently of that, while I was home for the Christmas holiday, I also developed a strong urge to burn through some of those airline miles and hotel points that I’d been accumulating. After a little bit of hotel searching and points optimization, combined with a non-zero amount of race trawling, I found the perfect solution: The Neujahrsmarathon in Zurich.

The race takes place just a little bit west of Zurich. It’s a four-loop course along the Limmat River, starting on the south bank and heading east, then crossing to the north bank and circling back, for a lap distance of 10.55 km (or, a quarter of a marathon). It’s run on fairly flat dirt trails – my jam.

And, the best part? It start at midnight on New Year’s Eve. What a cool way to start the new year.

Image result for neujahrsmarathon

This is what the start line looked like last year (source)

 

The Swiss are experts at how to do things in the cold and in the dark – maybe because of the long winters and the nearby Alps. They understand how to keep warm. This race was no different – they cleverly began the race inside a gymnasium. While this may not seem like a massive innovation, runners will appreciate how humane this actually is. Standing at the cold at the start of a race is easily one of the worst parts of the overall experience. However, starting indoors made hanging out at the start of the race much more tolerable, since we didn’t have to shiver in 38*F weather outside.

About 1,000 participants ran the race. There were a bunch of distances folks could choose to do, from the 1/4 marathon (one 10.55 km loop) all the way to the full marathon, as well as several relay options. So, the start was quite crowded.

With a few minute to go until 2018 ended and 2019 began, we all squished into the start corral. The lights dimmed, and finally, the countdown began. 10 … 9 … 8 … 7… couples shuffled closer together to get ready for a pre-race kiss … 6 … 5 … 4 … right hands positioned themselves over GPS watches on left wrists … 3 … 2… 1 …

“FROHES NEUES JAHR!” and we were off.

We trotted out of the gymnasium and into the cold, and this was where the magic happened.

All around us – literally 360* – fireworks were exploding. Municipal fireworks, fireworks from people’s back yards, sparklers – you name it. The whole sky, both near and farther away, was completely lit up by fireworks. Everywhere we looked, rainbow flowers of light were bursting in the air. I couldn’t stop craning my neck in every direction – it was all I could do to not trip or run into my fellow athletes.

Church bells rang through the cold night air, creating a beautiful aharmonic symphony. It was overwhelming. I was so happy to be experiencing this moment. It was the perfect way to start 2019.

 

At the start of a lap. Still smiling.

 

Running with a fellow expat

The race itself was easy. I was smiling the whole time.

I’ll summarize the loop, since we did it four times:

  • Take a short jog out of the gymnasium to the river and turn right.
  • Run east along the river, heading upstream. Duck under a few bridges.
  • Around 4.5 km, turn left at the flaming tiki torches and cross the footbridge.
  • Run through the aid station and hang a left onto some slightly more tricky terrain – somewhere between single- and double-track trail.
  • Pass behind someone’s house? A bar? Not totally clear. Either way, it had FANTASTIC holiday lights, including green lasers and penguins. (Edit – I looked it up. It’s actually a monastery next to a restaurant?!)
  • Cross over the Werd Bach river, which was illuminated by more sparklers and tiki torches.
  • Cross back over the Limmat around 10km, and head back into the gymnasium.

In terms of how each lap went, here’s a summary of that.

  • Lap 1: Magical, overwhelming, gorgeous and glorious. (time: 51:47)
  • Lap 2: Cruising cruising. Found a fellow ex-pat halfway through this lap and got to talking. (time: 53:07)
  • Lap 3: Hung with my new friend for a lap- he kept me moving. (time: 55:33)
  • Lap 4: Popped a caffeinated GU and finished her up. I think I could have gone faster here if I had better light – my handheld flashlight was pretty weak. (time: 1:01:02)

I finished in 3:41 – not bad for a trail race at midnight in the dark.

On a side note, I gotta say that the jetlag certainly helped. I’ve never been more awake while running between midnight and 4am – the race started at about 2pm PST, which is what time my body clock was thinking it was.

 

Just before the 10th kilometer in one of the 10.55 km laps

 

At the finish line. This weirdly looks like I photoshopped the pose from the previous photo, but this is just how I run I guess!

After finishing, I hung out for a little bit and waited for my new friend to cross the finish line. It was actually quite cold, so I bundled up and popped in an Uber fairly quickly afterwards, heading back to the hotel just after 4am.

In addition to not bringing a strong enough headlamp, I did make one other mistake. In my day-to-day life, I typically don’t consume caffeine. I like to save it for races – since I don’t have a tolerance to it, it gives me a little bit more of a kick, which I took advantage of around mile 19. My plan for this evening was to finish the race, go home, take a shower, and immediately go to sleep, with the theory being that my body would have worked the caffeine out of my system by the time I finished the race and did all that other stuff. This was … massively incorrect. I got back to the hotel, took a shower, got under the covers … and stayed awake until breakfast. Then I got breakfast. Then I headed out to a church service (completely in German) at Fraumünster Church, which is famous for its Chagall stained glass windows. Then I wandered around Alstadt (old town) for an hour or so (everything was closed – because it was New Year’s Day – including a chocolate chop I wanted to go to). Then I went to the Thermalbad thermal baths and spent some time in the steam room and pools (spoiler alert: SO MANY COUPLES). Then I got a massage. Then I ate dinner. Then I did some reading. I didn’t end up actually sleeping until about 6pm that day. I was awake for about 20 hours. So – I probably didn’t need the caffeine.

All in all, this was a really fantastic way to spend New Years. It was a spontaneous trip, which made it a little bit more of an adventure. I got to do a few of my favorite things – running, exploring, learning about a new culture, traveling light (just a backpack!) and getting stuff for free (thanks points!). I would definitely do this race again.

Happy New Year, everyone!

[Spoiler alert – remember the New year’s One Day in SF? I got to run that too! Stay tuned for more …]

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Happy New Year from Zurich! Photo courtesy of zuerich.com

 

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.

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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.

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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

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)

Chasing the Unicorn … but not very fast

Somehow still running at the finish

I ran a race on Sunday called Chasing the Unicorn. It’s supposed to be a fast, flat course to help runners achieve a PR or qualify for Boston. The Unicorn is a reference to the Boston logo.

It was a fun race, but I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped. I finished in 3:53, which was pretty far off from my BQ time of 3:35. Here are a couple of reasons I think it didn’t go so well:

  • My first half was really strong – maybe too strong. I needed to run 8:12 minutes/mile to get to my goal time, and I did 8:02s for the first 6.5 miles. I was still on pace at the half marathon – just around 8:15s, which is close, but going so fast early on may have cost me later.
  • It was really, absurdly hot. You might remember this excellent analysis on what it would take to run a 2-hour marathon (if you haven’t read this, do now). Optimal race temperature for elite athletes is 35*F, and for amateur/middle pack athletes is 45*F. When we started, it was 71*F. When finished, it was 84*F. The humidity in this race, especially in the second half, was really challenging.
  • I probably wasn’t recovered from my ultra two weeks ago. Apparently you need longer than two weeks after a 36-mile race to get back to peak running form. I wasn’t feeling super strong the week leading up to this race – nothing like I’d felt the week leading up to Moosalamoo – so I’d had an idea that Unicorn wasn’t going to be as fast as I’d liked. That said, it’s always important to push hard – no excuses.

The results: 3:53 finish, as mentioned. Pretty miserable splits. I came in 85th out of 179 finishers, and 21st out of 58 women, which is surprisingly non-terrible for how terrible my performance was. 23 runners (more than 10% of the field) did not finish, so it was a tough day. I feel good about my overall effort level during this race, even if the results weren’t what I would have liked.

I’m using this race as motivation for the next one. I’ve got New York coming up in Novemeber, then Northface 50-miler in SF in December, and possibly one more before the end of the year. I’ve never used a training schedule before – a legitimate one that I didn’t just make up on the fly – so I may try that for the next 10 weeks. Let’s see how it goes …