Wednesday, July 9, 2014

2014 Western States 100 Recap

Running is a weird sport. It can crush you or make you incredibly happy without much of an obvious reason. Thinking back on my 18:09 run at Western States, I can't say that I definitively know how or why my race transpired as it did. All I have are loose theories that are mostly ambiguous interpretations of a largely un-scientific part of ultra running (adrenal glands and the secretion of adrenaline and endorphins).

I'll start with the basic stream of consciousness I had on race day. As I climbed up the Escarpment I thought it was an amazingly easy pace. Lots of runners were nervous, but I was breathing comfortably. After Lyon Ridge, I had to go to the bathroom as the lead pack strided on. I felt tired and sleepy as I ran along with Chris Price. We both were surprised by how easy the pace was, but it seemed like the easy pace was the right thing to do. We were running with a pack slipping back off the lead pack, but my body felt devoid of energy: no adrenaline, no endorphins, no joy. I rolled along trying to get excited on the way to Duncan Canyon at mile 23.

My mind wandered back to a run I had done in early May on the first 30 of AC that felt very similar to today. I was moving slow and feeling heavy and sleepy. Nothing felt good, but I was stubborn about getting miles in. Along that run, I ate and tried to fuel my body to perk up, but nothing changed. As I slowly tumbled down into Duncan Canyon, I wondered how it was possible that I could be having such a bad day right now. I'd tapered for three weeks, and let my body sleep and rest as much as possible. I was really confused about how inconsistent this exhausted feeling was: a few bad days in May and some good days in June, and then a bad day on race day? This must just be a small weird phase in the race.

As we entered Duncan Canyon, Chris mentioned how his central governor felt stubbornly set on a low effort. It's as if the body and mind are in agreement that it's too early to endure any excessive pain. In my head, I did and I didn't agree that mile 24 was the place to be jogging. My body felt worse as I tried to run more of the climb out of Duncan Canyon, so I guess the central governor won.

Robinson Flat Approach (photo by Stephanie Devau)

I finally made it to Robinson Flat, and I looked bad (mostly because I want to take a nap and I feel exhausted). I sat to change shoes and to take in protein mix and Red Bull, but behind my sunglasses I was depressed. My bib number reminded me of my Dad saying "I know it's not fair, but that's life in the big city." So with a heavy heart I got up and hiked out of the aid station as the concoction in my stomach bubbled out onto the trail.

Over Memorial Day Weekend, I flew up the Bald Mountain trail. I ran so fast, I missed the turn and had to back track 10 minutes and run like a wild man down to Last Chance to catch up with a group of Bend runners (King/Howe/Arbogast) to share some miles with them. I felt alive and my legs snapped back comfortably and casually all the way to Foresthill. On race day, I crawled and tried to take in more caffeine and salt to snap my body back to life. Things started to get a little better by Dusty Corners, but I still was far from being back in the saddle. My crew wouldn't listen to any of my complaints about energy, they just tied an ice bandanna around my neck and shoved me off.

The difficult miles continued down to Swinging Bridge. The climb up to Devil's Thumb was a relief because my slow pace felt sufficient on the steep grade. The aid station (featuring a tactical OOJ) at Devil's Thumb was fiercely committed to getting my pack and bandanna filled as fast as possible and getting me out. I started to find a rhythm on the downhill to El Dorado Creek, but it was all for not as I left the aid station missing the single track and losing 5 minutes on the fire road.

One problem I was having all day was absorbing salt to help raise my blood pressure and energize my muscles but not too much to gain water weight. I would stubbornly stop drinking and eventually slow down and succumb to drinking more and sweating out the salt (which caused my cramping and muscle fatigue to come back). So, the climb to Michigan Bluff was embarrassingly slow, and I looked trashed again in Michigan Bluff. Volcano Canyon wasn't kind to me, and I stumbled along wondering how bad the day would end. Twenty hours seemed like the likely outcome in my current state.

Foresthill (Photo by Katie DeSplinter)

Guillaume greeted me at Bath Road and started pumping my head with ideas of a revival. I strided slowly up Bath Road and onto the main drag in Foresthill. The energy in that small town on race day is enough to bring you to tears. I was choked up so much that I regurgitated my protein drink (twice) for all the town to witness.

Foresthill reset button, pressed.

As bad as this story sounds, this was where things got good. My adrenal glands were kick started, and I slowly got back to racing. A few folks passed me on the drop into Cal Street, but I steadily started passing them all back.

As my revival started to feel good, the sage veteran Scott Wolfe came by and said "Dom, you were 40 minutes ahead of me at Dusty Corners, WHAT are you doing here?" He and his pacer flew by, putting down a blistering pace in hopes of establishing a relationship of veteran and rookie. Guillaume was with me last year when Ruperto blew past me at mile 71, and he was here again at mile 69ish. We both knew the game plan to hustle and keep the pressure on. It paid off as we arrived at Cal 2 as Scott was pulling out. A quick gulp of coke and the race was back as my legs relaxed and slid down the switchbacks to let me pass Scott back with ease. Seven minute hill came and I hiked/ran up it putting time and space between us.

Things were looking good, but this was a very atypical fueling plan for me. The problem with relying on excessive amounts of caffeine and salt is that it puts you in a dangerous place; a place where for no reason, you poop blood at mile 77 as the second place woman runs by. It was very concerning, and I eased up a bit on the pace and focused on taking in more water and less caffeine and salt.

Ruck-A-Chuck Crossing (Photo by Katie DeSplinter

I crossed the river and jogged most of the way up to Green Gate. Another "brilliant" protein and Red Bull cocktail had me on the side of the trail dropping my shorts a few hundred yards outside the aid station. I walked back into the run with Eli, and I started to click off some good miles again. Katie had been telling me that there was no one else ahead of me at aid stations, but I kept reeling in carnage.

Green Gate (Photo by Katie DeSplinter)

I think of Green Gate to Hwy 49 as a slightly more technical version of Cal Street (which is not really technical). My body was tense trying to get as many miles in before sunset, and my knee started to tighten up too much forcing me to walk a few steps every quarter mile. Another bathroom break at dusk, left me vulnerable to the surprise passing by Scott Wolfe again around mile 88. This was not going to be an easy fight. Eli and I rolled into Brown's Bar just a minute behind Scott and another runner, and before I could ask Hal Koerner where his red dress was, he was yelling "WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE? GO CATCH THEM!" I gave a quick hand salute, gulped down some Coke and took off out of control reeling in the first runner and then tumbling onto the Quarry Road with no sign of Scott.

We caught another runner and kept moving firm and quick. We finally saw Scott and his pacer hiking up the singletrack to 49, and I alternated a run-hike until we passed him and put a minute or two on him. Scott was moving really well on the downhills, so I rushed through the aid station and made the resolution with Katie to push hard up to the Cool meadow and do my best on the descent to No Hands. We caught Jorge Maravilla, and I grunted through the occasional technical sections to No Hands. The finish felt magically close, and we ran nearly every step to Robie Point. I caught David Laney and rubbed mustaches with him before moving onto the streets of Auburn and crossing the finish line, ecstatic to finish the day on my terms.

Done! (Photo by Stephanie Devau)

First mustache, first unicorn! (Photo by Steven Ingalls)

So, if you didn't read all that, I basically struggled from mile 15-64, and then surged home.

I had too much of a good training cycle. I achieved training goals for consistency and mileage, I achieved PR's on routes that I might have never hit, and I built up a lot of mental toughness for enduring bad days. The problem is that my body wasn't really good at doing anything after that training block except... training. Give me 7 days, and I cover 100+ miles quickly. I'll need 1-2 easy days, 2 workouts, and 2-3 long runs. Typically, one of those workouts or long runs featured me breaking down and crawling along, too stubborn to quit because of the sincere belief that I would be stronger on race day for it. Well, that worked for helping me finish the race no matter what, but it didn't work for keeping my adrenal glands healthy.

From my limited experience with myself and other runners with adrenal fatigue, adrenal glands (which secrete the essential ultra running elixir of adrenaline, endorphins, and testosterone) are kind of like a really high class woman: they'll hold a grudge a long time if you piss them off, and they'll make you feel weak and worthless without them. I think my training cycle is at best 3 months, but mentally I like to train for races for 5-6 months. There's something about my engineering mind that enjoys long term, high investment, high return projects. Running a 100 miles just feels like it should be something that you prepare earnestly for months and months.

In hindsight, it's really something that you have to train for similar to the racing strategy: easy for the first 30, strong for the second 40, and fast for the last 30. I should have done less mileage and been more structured in February. Then towards the end of April, I should have been ready to do some strong/fast climbing. Through May and June, it should have felt easier to do some fast long runs to build confidence and simulate race effort. Instead, my build up had too much mileage in February, workouts that were too slow in April and early May, and then very few strong long runs in late May and June. I think for the modern sport we have right now, mileage numbers are a very relative thing to your lifestyle, ability, experience, and rest that you can get.

Mileage has a negative effect when you do a long run and can't relax and recover properly. Though I loved our trips to Auburn and the Sierras, I have to admit that I was too greedy on those long Sunday runs that put me back in the car for 6 hours, traveling back to LA at 1 AM to go into work the next day at 8 AM. I only was injured once for 2 weeks, and I still was running 50+ miles (while traveling), so my adrenals never got a good chance to reset fully. Once States rolled around, I was physically rested, but not hormonal-ly. I was nervous, worried, and on edge. The first 10 miles of the race probably drained my body just due to the sheer excitement of finally getting to race. The quick pace over rocky terrain required another surge, but they instead slowed down and went into "survival mode" for 50 miles. On race day I thought, "this is such bad luck!" but now I see a clear pattern of asking for too much out of life and my body.

Piute Pass in May (I was already overtrained, but still did a 33 mile run)

Running 100 miles really feels exponentially harder than a 50 miler. There has to be patience and stubbornness in the exact right places to prepare the body to not just survive, but also perform. Our sport today is full of talented runners discovering trails and endurance in ways that very few ever did before. My 18:09 time would have won the race a few years ago, but on a nice day with a field of savy and talented runners, it's a 19th place finish. That's something that's going to continue to be a trend around the world as the sport keeps expanding. This weekend at Hardrock, there will be a dozen "winning times" run, but only one very fast, talented, well trained, and smart individual will pull off the men's win.

Looking forward to AC, I'm planning on being more patient and thoughtful on race day. It's a course that I've run fast, ok, and slow on in every section multiple times, and the depth of experience I have should allow me no fueling or pacing mistakes. If I feel good at mile 17 on top of Baden-Powell, I won't hold back on chasing down a PR or the CR.

My Dad's final PHD thesis paper started off with the Goethe quote "Enjoy when you can, and endure when you must."


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Pre Western States Thoughts

I'm on my way to Reno, and eventually to Squaw Valley to run in the 40th annual Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. I've tried to figure out a way to explain my relative outlook on Western States, and why it finally feels natural and right in my 9th 100+ mile race.

My Dad's final PHD thesis paper started off with the Goethe quote "Enjoy when you can, and endure when you must." These are obviously good words for a number of challenging endeavors in life (and life itself), but I think that the application to running 100 miles has been especially calming. I'm wearing bib number 55 in honor of my Dad being born in 1955. My Dad was a hardworking Jewish man, who studied hard, and worked hard to achieve everything he did in life. Yet, he maintained a certain daily joy to engage in all the daily pains and joys. I think that I'm finding my stride in life and running, where I'm working hard to attain large goals, but I'm finding joy in all the highs and lows along the way.

Finding my fore-foot at Shadow of the Giants 50k - photo by John Magnussen
The way I read the Goethe quote, I think that it's not a flat "either-or" statement; rather more of decree to enjoy as much as humanly possible, and to endure what you must in life. On Saturday, my plan isn't just to suffer and destroy my body in hopes of beating the competition, but rather to enjoy the beautiful challenge to run from Squaw Valley to Auburn as fast as I can. I've put down some significant mileage, and my body is hardened and ready to endure the load. Whether my best effort wins the race, goes top 10, or just squeaks by under 30 hours is not important in the grand scheme of things. The main focus is rather to enjoy the opportunity I have.

Timmy's 2013 finish

I've gone up to Auburn almost a dozen times in the past few years, and I've come to realized that it's the Endurance (hospitality) Capital of the world. I've stayed with strangers in Auburn who have no clue who I am, but have become friends simply because they want to support my goal of running States. On top of that, there's proud locals manning the aid stations along the course because they love the race and they love supporting anyone trying to live the same incredible dream that Gordy lived out 40 years ago. The stands at Placer High School have a couple hundred people out each year, but that's just a small part of the community spread out over the Sierras at aid stations and checkpoints. Auburn is a town where most of the community cares and supports runners, I can definitely feel the magic from my visits. At the end of the day, it makes the opportunity to get to pin on a bib in this world class race is very special to me.

So, when the going gets tough, and the enjoyment turns to enduring, I'll be grateful for it all, and I promise to do everything possible to push myself to the finish as fast as I can.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Un-Obvious Western States 100

After a weekend of running long fartleks on the Western States course, I have to admit that secrets to running well on race day are.. Not obvious. The qualities are clear: titanium quads, great heat acclimation, intimate course knowledge, an ability to overcome low points, etc. etc. However, the questions of where to push, how hard to push, what the other runners are going to do, and how much pain is sustainable is not obvious.

My strategy this weekend was to pinpoint my limiting factors by running fartlek (varying fast and less fast pace) to simulate intense pain in various sections of the course and study my physical and mental reactions. Here's what I gathered:

-Little Bald Mountain to Last Chance is a great place to run a half marathon PR.. And blow your quads for Devils Thumb. I never felt too much pain on the downhills, but the climb up out of Deadwood canyon is way harder than it needs to be on dead legs.

-Turnover and control on sudden technical terrain takes discipline. Down south, AC doesn't have a ton of sections that let you open up your stride and then force you to break (or maybe I've already memorized them all). On Saturday I ran from the pump into El Dorado Canyon and got rather carried away before realizing I was coming into random rock gardens too fast and loose.

-The climbs have few sections where a hike will hold 16 hour pace, most of the climbs require a run for a super fast time. However, hiking does generate less heat and lets you take in more fuel than a run. I have to be patient but tough on myself to not lose time in the canyons when hiking can save a race or give up several minutes.

-Timmy took risks in both 2012 and 2013 that no one else would take. Place yourself at the base of all the climbs in the canyons, and imagine running almost every step- three canyons in a row in 100 degree heat. That's like playing Russian Roulette three times in a row, and putting an extra bullet in each time. Each canyon climb is smaller, but the risk of going too hard for three climbs in a row as the heat rises and the legs break down is very real. Fortune obviously favors the brave, but starting the race at 43 instead of 62 or 80 is really tough to comprehend. (Alex Varner, if you're reading this, the race actually starts in Squaw). Bottom line: fast times are really risky to chase after, and which risks to take is tough to tell.

-Speed is relative on this course. I'm not famous on Strava for blistering speed work, but I ran 1:59 on the Cal Loop on Sunday on tired legs with moderate effort. On race day, NO ONE will break 2:10 (ask race veterans). The heat and the fatigue of 62 miles will hold back every speedster. I feel like Sunday validated my training of doing tempo-interval double days, and long fartleks. I don't need to run my college 5k PR to be a competitive runner on Cal Street. I just need to endure and take the punches with a good attitude and a decent turnover.

-The course requires courage. You can't expect to train so hard that you won't have to take a punch on race day. Unfortunate things will happen for "no reason at all" and you have to be okay with feeling awful, stabilizing, and attacking the course again and again, all the way to the finish. 

That's about what I think of the race. I'm going to go out and run another good week of training and start a small taper 3 weeks out with the dramatic taper starting 10-14 days out. 

April 21-27: 51.2mi, 7:39, 8,000ft+: Recovery week from gashing my shin on a fall

April 28-May 4: 63.3mi, 11:41, 10,750ft+: Still recovering my Peroneus Longus

May 5-11: 120.6mi, 18:36, 23,115ft+: Back in, good long runs on the AC course

May 12-18: 100.9mi, 16:23, 15,000ft+: Good downhill quad hammering and heat on Sat in Bishop, nice PR up Mt. Wilson on tired legs on Sunday

May 19-25(26): 83.3mi (105.2mi), 12:14 (15:12), 16,500ft+ (20,000ft+): Took Monday and Friday off to rest and travel. 7 day total was okay, I learned a lot of stuff about States (see above). Happy with building confidence and exposing weakness concurrently.

RAC is making some great original sounds, I love this new release:

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Why I wear Injinjis

The air was dead still and I was dead tired. I was standing at Shortcut Saddle, looking North towards Charlton Flats; gazing upon a torn up, overgrown, hot, rough, mean section of the Angeles Crest 100 Course. I planned to run six and a half miles back to Chilao Picnic Area and then run back hard. I was about to relive the last 6 years of my ultra running career.

As I dropped down to the creek, I was flustered by a severely overgrown trail of flowers, shrubs and poison oak. The descent bothered me, which drove me to run faster and faster to escape the suffocating feeling. I reached the bottom and began the exposed climb to Charlton Flats. Almost every water bar had failed and my feet were wedged inward in the trough in the middle of the trail. My ankles yelled out for freedom to flex naturally, but the shape of the rut and the narrow trail were completely constricting. Upon reaching the top of the bluffs, I cruised down to the fire road and climbed over several downed trees. Every quarter mile featured a different maze of branches to weave through. When I finally reached Chilao, I was debating even running back.

For me, trail running has become about the freedom to move through terrain without any feelings of constriction or limitation. What I described above is a good metaphor of my first year of running long distance trails. When I first started, I wore heavy trail shoes, carried too much gear, and wore tight synthetic "running socks" that constricted my toes. I remember distinctly thinking that every run in the mountains was a risk, that I had to protect myself from the dangers of the mountains. As I developed as a trail runner, I started to wear lighter shoes, carry only what I needed, and wear Injinjis. Gradually I began to look at trails as a blank canvasses for my free-spirited legs. The only rules were to use whatever works: nothing more and nothing less. Though the lightest shoes felt great at first, I still needed some level of protection. Occasionally I tried to run without socks, but blisters would eventually form. Injinjis were (and still are) that perfect blend of freedom and protection. I can run 100 miles races with my Injinji Performance 2.0 with natural toe spay and no blisters. It's a beautiful thing to figure out your gear and connect perfectly with the terrain. Ultimately, that's why I have so much loyalty to the brand: the socks support my pursuit of freedom in the mountains.

After I stopped for a bit and ate, I turned around and took off flying out of the campground. I checked my watch a couple times as I negotiated all the hazards that would slow my progress, but I eventually forgot about time and ran free and hard. I leap over trees instead of slowly climbing them, quickly danced over the gaps in the trail, and drove headfirst into the brush overgrowth. By the time I reached Shortcut Saddle, I had ran my fastest time by some 13 minutes: 55:45-pure freedom in rough terrain.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Merits of the Full Blarney

I have to admit, I have a problem:

I can't take anyone's word for it; "it" being defined as any truth about life, running, work, relationships, etc. I have to empirically prove it to myself multiple times to thoroughly know the truth inside and out.

My training is an especially true testament to this; I can never accept truths that I haven't dramatically proven to myself. I have to put stress on my body in every possible way until I understand what's really going on. So, when I read that former pupils of Jim O'Brien had done blocks of ten 100 mile weeks*, I had to try it for myself. (See Larry Gassan's article, Bruce Hoff's comments, page 3)

Before this, I had only done blocks of 3 weeks above 100 miles before succumbing to the stress and needing a step back week. In all fairness, during this block I did have relative step back weeks with either less speedwork and climbing, or the relative ease of a 100 mile week after a 120 mile week. So, to be perfectly honest, this was just about sustaining a high minimum mileage, and noting the benefits and shortcomings.

The main benefit I felt was a deeper base during the periodization cycle. A base is the concept of doing so much consistent mileage per week that you can consistently hold a level you previously could not. Ultrarunning at its core is about handling more stress (yes there's strategy, experience, and other factors, but being able to go deeper into the pain cave is a BIG part).

Through December and January I felt like I was just getting back into shape. I didn't feel like I was in great shape at Sean O'Brien, but I at least know that I wasn't peaking early for Western States. From Feb 10-April 20, I've felt distinct signs of the consistency affecting my body as a whole.

First off, I feel like I've become more accustomed to pushing back 100 miles a week, and if I delay the usual runs for one reason or another, my legs feel hyperactive. Early on in the cycle, I had to put in a little extra effort to get my weekly miles in, but later on, it felt like I had the energy regardless of what I had going on at work or socially. In week 9, I went to Joshua Tree with friends and did less mileage than usual, but when I came home and went for a 30 mile run at 5 PM, it felt right (not easy, but right, like the balance of energy in my body was what it should be).

I also feel like I have gotten more efficient while struggling during tough parts of runs. I noticed one day that I was clicking off sub 7 minute pace near the end of a long run even though it felt like I was just plodding along. I associate this feeling with races I've had where I've been in pain and reeled other runners in or put time on them. It's not glamorous, it doesn't look pretty, but somehow I'm in just as much pain as another runner but moving faster. It's akin to two drunks arguing, and neither one is making any sense, but one seems to barely be putting together slightly more coherent thoughts and winning the argument. I think this is the gritty part of 100 milers where no one is running brilliant, but someone just has a little better "death run form."

-Not feeling good, but running 6 minute pace and taking selfies

The 3rd thing I noticed the most, is how my hormones have held steady levels better than before. Work, traveling, distractions, traffic, and everyday stresses have not defeated my energy levels as they normally have. I might be missing some glycogen in my brain from sleep deprivation and my legs might be sore, but my adrenal glands still fire up and respond after a few miles and a quickened pace. It's a big x-factor: how many hormones can your body secrete to keep you in a race when everyone else is lagging. The consist build through December and January likely contributed to this success.

I'd be lying by omission if I didn't talk about the hardships. As encouraging as it felt to see improvement, I did feel the limits of different body parts straining. Because I had a decent amount of steep and technical terrain mixed in, I felt on and off nagging pain in my achilles, knees, and shoulders. I did various stretching and strengthening to keep things on track, and I noticed I stick to my yoga and core work to keep my body together.

-Relaxing even though I'm behind schedule

It was not psychologically easy to put my shoes on and get extra miles in during inopportune times. In my head, I had some really hard mental workouts trying to avoid problem counting, and focusing on the good things that were happening. It's something I preach, but it always is easier said than done. Last night, I went out for my final 6 miles and I had far more reasons to go to bed. My calves were sore, my stomach was revolting against the Mexican food occupying it, the streets had speeding cars with blinding headlights that grazed my beard hairs, I had no endorphins flowing because the run was so short, and I had to go poop. There literally was nothing good about this run, but I made up things like "I'm flying, 8 minute pace feels like 11 minute pace!" or "I think there's less cars, is there a curfew in Santa Monica?" or "a tiny part of my stomach doesn't hurt". This was probably one of my best mental workouts I'd done in a long time.

All in all, I'm glad that I stuck to it. It did get a little easier as it went on, and I'm feeling really good about my last training block in May. I appreciate the empowering feeling and physical benefit of lots of good, hard miles and I feel ready to handle more of them. This combo of increased speed and distance gives me the most rational optimism for my summer goals.

 Sun and Moon share the sky, distance and speed share my legs

  1. 102.4mi, 15:35, 16,079 (fast first week)
  2. 102.1mi, 19:01, 27,742 (steep week)
  3. 100.6mi, 16:17, 18,074 (storms, long road run)
  4. 108.7mi, 17:42, 20,530 (a little increase, a little knee pain)
  5. 120.3mi, 20:02, 24,618 (peak week, a good mix of speed and distance)
  6. 101.7mi, 18:25, 16,814 (recovery/taper week for Gorge Waterfalls)
  7. 102.2mi, 15:34, 15,816 (Gorge Waterfalls 50k)
  8. 100.4mi, 16:17, 22,143 (Fastest splits on last 25 of  AC)
  9. 100.4mi, 15:35, 15,595 (Good long quick run in the Santa Monica's, and Joshua Tree vacation)
  10. 100.1mi, 16:38, 22,090 (relative recovery week)
1038.9 mi, 171:06, 199,502ft and 159,951 calories in 10 weeks

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Why and How of My Western States and Angeles Crest Double

For the past 5 weeks I've been in training for Western States 100 and Angeles Crest 100. The plan is to train with semi-structured, higher-than-ever high mileage, and peak for Western States with enough endurance to race well again at AC in 5 weeks. Historically, this has been the undoing of the majority of runners who ran a summer hundred (or a few) before AC in September. AC is now in August, so how can I have such optimism for such a difficult double?

For me, this is what life's all about. Though I'm a mere 27 years old, I've been around the sport for 6 years, and thoroughly enjoyed the accelerated and compacted self discovery. There's more to this sport than long miles in the mountains; there's friendships, opportunity, cathartic meditation, inspiration, crushing pain, accomplishment, encouragement, and a lot of really bad jokes. I think of my years at each of these two races and feel like I've crammed in a ton of living in the past 5 years.

AC100, August 28 2010

In the San Gabriels, I first laced up my MT100's in 2010 with a humble, talented, patient, hard working, and courageous man named "Chivo Loco" or Jorge Pacheco. I ran into him after we had both ran Badwater, and we happened to both be running Baden-Powell. I respected him immensely, and he acknowledged my enthusiasm for competing in the sport by sharing more and more miles with me (albeit, I was gasping for breath/bonking/crumbling, and he was gently encouraging and patiently waiting for me). I grew more as a runner in the last three and a half years with Jorge and the San Gabes than I did in the 10 years before that. To say AC is special is a huge understatement; the race (and Jorge) have made me grow so much and I've found so much happiness in it that it's impossible not to feel its magic every year.

AC100, Aug 29 2010

Like many other ultrarunners, I got into the sport reading stories about Western States and "dreaming desperately" of getting a chance to race through the High Sierra in the crisp morning air, sweat through the scorching canyons, and turn my body inside out over the last 40 miles. Though I wanted to get into the race the second I heard of it, I learned of the talent level the race amassed and am glad I've had to wait this long to join the competition.

Pacing Timmy Olson, Western States, June 29 2013
It's a very surreal feeling because in my very first ultra, the PCTR Sequoia 50k in 2008, I ran against the 2006 WS champion Graham Cooper. An aid station worker told my Mom and Dad that I was doing well because I was within 10 minutes of him at the first aid station. For a few years, that was the closest I got to running near a champion of the race, and I always held those "Cougar Hunters" on a very high level. It might sound silly, but I haven't believed I could train hard enough or race hard enough to even break the top 10 at Western States until this year. For whatever reason, my mind doubted my body so much that I honestly thought it was impossible.

Yet, as I pile up miles and vertical feet, I feel like I have more of a structured and proven training plan that makes me believe I do belong amongst those "M#" bibs. I feel like I've started to understand high mileage training for 100 milers, and that I am getting ready to uncork my best 100 miler performance on the best stage in the trail ultra world. Jim O'Brien coached AC100 runners in the 90's to hit 10 straight weeks of 100+ mile weeks to build a "Full Blarney" base. I actually have never done this, and am starting to see the training as more than just a physical demand on the body, but also a mental demand on the mind to find creative ways to get miles out of a sore body. It's similar to how a ninja's fist must be hardened before it breaks a wooden board.

As far as tactics go, everything I've got to witness in 4 years of pacing at Western States has taught me lessons on nutrition, training, mental strength, and race tactics. Jimmy, Erik Skaden, Katie, and Timmy all ran Western differently, and all exposed the dangerous parts of the race and the required antidotes. I feel I am staring far deeper into the race than the first time I read Dean Karnaze's account of his first run at Western.

The first mile of Western States, 2013

So, as I look forward to the next two months of hard training, I'm eager and excited. There's not a whole lot of doubt about what I need to do. I've been blessed with great training partners here in the local mountains surrounding Los Angeles. I rarely run alone or uninspired to push the pace. The goals are reinforced daily and the imperfect work-training-life balance is pushed to its limits. I work 45+ hours a week at work, and I run 15-25 hours a week on the trails. They feel equally challenging, and I am learning to put more passion into each to get more out of each. If there's a perfect week, it's a week that I run farther, hit faster times on Strava, get more parts shipped at work, make people smile, and get enough food and rest to do it again next week. I don't live from week to week with unrealistic expectations, but rather an optimism to build from week to week, strive for the best, and accept what happens with the silver lining of lessons learned.

Timmy and Eric last Friday at Sam Merrill
The last 5 weeks of my Full Blarney (10 weeks above 100 miles, a la Jim O'Brien):
  1. Feb 10-16: 102.4mi, 15:35, 16,079ft+
  2. Feb 17-23: 102.1mi, 19:01, 27,742ft+
  3. Feb 24-Mar 2: 100.6mi, 16:17, 18,074ft+
  4. Mar 3-9: 108.7mi, 17:42, 20,530ft+
  5. Mar 10-16: 120.3mi, 20:02, 24,618ft+
Overall, it's been much more stable and positive than last year. I'll be training through Gorge Waterfalls 50k, and holding the 100 mi/week standard ;)

The new Chromeo album is looking really, really good. It's so good, even the remixes are sick:

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sean O'Brien 50 Mile Recap - Western States/MUC Manifest Destiny

Mile 24, Photo by Jayme Burtis

This story starts on Sunday, December 8th, 2013 at San Francisco Running Company. In the back of the store, Scott Wolfe and I were listening to Topher Gaylord's presentation for the Ultra Trail World Tour and after a few minutes, Scott casually asked if I was excited about running Western States in 2014. I muffled a shocked "WHHaaaatttt?" and Scott chuckled realizing that no one had told me that I was going to be running Western States through a sponsor spot from Injinji.

The truth of the matter was that I was not likely to place in the top 3 or 4 spots in the any of the highly competitive Montrail Ultra Cup (MUC) races, and that this was going to be a gracious thank you for the 4 years of pacing I'd done at Western. A few weeks later when I talked to Russell (Injinji), he conceded that it would be unlikely for me to out run a slew of talented runners signed up for Sean O'Brien 50 mile, and that he'd rather me focus for Western States training than peaking too early to win my way in. As luck would have it, I ended up doing just that (unofficially, but more on that later).

Chris, Jesse, Jorge, Jonathan, and I met with a bunch of runners for a training run in the first week of January to run the 22 mile Kanan-Zuma lollipop loop. I felt good that day, and in my arrogant endorphin high, I told Chris that if I was in 4th, that I would wait for him at the finish line to get him a Western States spot if he was in 5th. It was more of a joke, as I had never beat Chris in a 50 mile before, and I had no reason to believe that I could beat him and a list of other elites growing by the day. However on race day at mile 42, it became less of a joke.

The race started off with freezing temperatures on the east side of the ridge, that quickly turned to 50's as we climbed up out of Piuma. Jokes were exchanged for a mile or so before the pace quickened heading onto the fireroad. Chris Vargo, Mike Aish, Josh Arthur, Mike Wolfe, Dylan Bowman, and Jorge Pacheco floated up along the climb as Chris Price, Jesse, and I settled back and struggled to keep within a couple minutes of the leaders. I couldn't keep up with Chris, and found myself living out my worst fears of getting dropped on the first climb.

Mile 6, Photo by Monica Morant

I had done a photo shoot a couple days before for New Balance, and the 50 x 10 yard sprints had left the legs feeling a bit flat. It was frustrating to run alone so early in the race, but at the very least it was a beautiful morning to suffer in the Santa Monica Mountains. The dead feeling persisted from miles 2-22 as I ran along feeling slow and labored while the lead pack was cruising along conservatively. When I left Bonsal at mile 22, I puked, re-affirming my fears that today was not going to be a good day. I had two long climbs in 8 miles to run on one water bottle; yet for some reason I didn't worry about it.

I put my head down and chipped up the long climb up to the fire road, avoiding hiking anything more than a couple yards. I caught Jesse, Jorge, and Josh Arthur who had fallen off the lead pack. On the way down to the bottom of the second climb, I was encouraged by the idea that maybe the lead pack wasn't running so easy, and that maybe I was going to place better than the suggested 9th place on irunfar's race preview. Still, I had a long 20 miles back to the finish, and I had to find a way to speed up and commit to running hard with a sensitive stomach.

Climbing douche grade, Photo by Jayme Burtis

I jogged over Buzzard's Ranch, slowly reeling in William Tarrantino, but I lost time once I crested and felt nauseous again. I stopped and ate some Tums and ran conservatively down to the singletrack at mile 33. As I cruised through the station, I heard a cheer for Mr. Timmy Olson who was running only to get his legs ready for Trans Gran Carnaria. He had already climbed around 30,000ft of vert since Sunday, so the extra 11,000 feet of climbing at Sean O'Brien was supposed to slow him down a bit. I was so shocked and astounded by him running on tired legs and still stalking me like the freak of natures that he is, that it made me want to run hard to at least justify being in his presence.

The race still hadn't turned around for me, and I told him how frustrated I was with it. Timmy suggested that this terrain that was extremely similar to Cal Street and that it was a good place to build some character and push myself hard just for the sake of adding some extra training for Western States. I felt weak and convinced that my legs had nothing left to offer, but I refused to look weak in front of someone that tore through bullshit excuses like a Grizzly. So, I picked up my stride and I started pushing dirt back a little faster.
Photo by Katie DeSplinter

We talked a little bit, but we mostly just focused on committing to that pure ultra running ideal of "running hard when you're tired." We flew into Kanan at mile 36, and saw Vargo in his warm-ups and William in the aid station. Timmy and I quickly refilled, packed gels, drank cola, and left the aid station; 2 places gained in 30 seconds. Timmy hammered like he'd taken in an IV of soda, and I jogged up the hill burping a bit as I settled my stomach. I ran with Jamil who was sick and having a tough day in the 50k. I started to feel much better and I caught back up to Timmy. We rolled through Encinal with reports from Bryon Powell that we were now only 1:50 behind Chris Price who was in the last Western States spot in 4th. Another few cups of soda and some watermelon, and we were off diving into the canyon.

I contemplated settling with 6th for a moment, but I was genuinely having fun, and decided to keep working with Timmy for as long as I could. The climb to Castro Motorway went smooth and as we entered Upper Solstice Canyon, I spotted Chris and let out a yell. The trail was a mix of technical switchbacks and smooth straightaways, and Tim and I flew through the narrow Chaparral Tunnel enjoying the old Chumash trail like it was a proper hunt.

Photo by Nadia Ruiz

Tim paused to pee, and I continued on reeling in Chris on the douche grade ascent out of the canyon. When I caught up to him, I reassured him that I was not going to Western States without him and I'd wait to cross the finish line for him. He said it wasn't the way he wanted to get into Western States, but he really didn't have a choice as I sang (badly) to him "I'll stand by you, I'll stand by you, won't let nobody hurt you" by the Pretenders.

Timmy, Chris, and I came through Coral Canyon together at mile 43. The long downhill still was a little less than 3 miles away, and I tried to pull Chris along, but he didn't want anymore singing of the Pretenders. I ran ahead with Tim who was still enjoying being exhausted and hammering. We eventually caught up to Krista and Bob who were finishing up the 50k. Timmy elected to finish with the family, and I elected to run a little ahead of Chris to make sure that he didn't let William catch up. We met up on the downhill, and we worked together to click off some 6's into Piuma. Cruising past Jayme, he let out a "hell yeah, SoCal!!" and I felt a big surge of pride for all the hard work Chris and I had done in the past few years, manifesting in this moment of endurance at mile 47.

I pulled us along over the last tiny prison camp hill, and onto the road. We ran the last third of a mile side by side, and I paused a few feet from the line to give Chris a second to notch 4th place and a ticket to the big dance in Squaw with Jesse and I.

Photo By Katie DeSplinter

Photo by Ivan Buzik

Strava Results

The day was about as good of a day as I could have hoped for. I think my fitness was around 6:45 for an A+ race. However, after all the throwing up/nausea, flat legs, etc. etc. getting to share that WS qualifier with Chris and nab the 4th/5th spots was really special. Both of us can go to Squaw and know that we belong there, that we truly are some of the best runners in the country, and that sunny Southern California is rising up on the national ultra stage.

We're going to Western States! Photo by Katie DeSplinter

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Why Train?

I spent Sunday running around Mt. Wilson with Timothy Olsen. Like many world class ultra runners, he speaks very vaguely about his training in public, in hopes of not coming off as boastful. He's a humble and hard working guy, and he sees his high volume training as justified and relatively normal for his goals of winning big races. As we clicked off miles running up Kenyon Devore, we talked about what I was planning on doing for training for Western States. A gradual, ambitious, planned ramp up to a 175-200mi peak in May got him excited and got us talking about how we were both inspired by Anton Krupicka's blogging of peak weeks of hitting 200+ miles in preparation for Western States or Leadville. We more or less learned from Tony's blog, that there was a pathway to epic performances, indulgence of the soul, and an understanding of the body's true endurance capabilities.

I got to pace Timmy last year at Western States and it was the most amazing running performance I have ever witnessed: hammering every single mile down Cal street in 100+ degree, humid, stifling heat. Rob Krar had much faster PRs them Timmy, but Timmy's huge training block before Western made him invincible on race day. We talked about the training he did to get to that point, and it was really, really, really hard stuff: Steep and fast treadmill runs, mid-day runs, lots of sauna time, lots of long runs, lots of hard miles, lots of "long tempo", lots of bonking, lots of struggling. It resulted in a level of performance that more talented runners couldn't match.

We hammered down the Rim Trail, and cruised onto the Gabrielino Trail into Sturdevant. The indulgent pace caused me to bonk on the climb up Sturdevant as Timmy flew up, enjoying the steep grade and the scent of Jeffery Pines. In an instance, I'd gone from enjoying the technical and scenic route to feeling weak and lightheaded. I had another thousand feet to grunt through on fumes before I reached the top. As I begun to curse myself for foolishly showing up hungry and low on calories, I caught myself in the realization that this training in struggling was what we really loved and what made us grow as runners.

Forcing the body to find metabolic efficiency is a nice term for bonking, which is never a nice experience, but serves as a valuable tool. It trains the body to respond to low points in races not with rest, but with persistent determination to switch fuel sources quickly and push on. This is a huge part of the reality of ultrarunning; lows are unavoidable, and they're defining moments in races. It's a problem solving that isn't of the mind, but of the body and soul. Every bonk in training is a chance to become a little bit better at taking lows on stronger and faster.

I believe my specific reason for training hard, is fairly rational. It feeds my need to get the very best out of myself. I got into the sport because I thought it would fulfill my need for challenge in life, and I've found it challenges every aspect of my life. For me, ultrarunning is 95% training. Race day is just a display of what you've really accomplished thus far, and how well you've trained your mind. I go out and train hard because my real limits will never come out in races if I don't train with a purpose. Everyday is a chance to achieve and to supersede perceived limits; anything else is short sighted. I say this because I know the feeling of joy from training well and racing to my limits, and I also know the feeling of not training hard enough and feeling regret on race day.

Below are two huge tracks from the "Into the Mind" soundtrack.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

New Balance 1400v2 Trail Review

A big perk of running for New Balance is that they have a lot of really good shoes, both on and off the trail. The volume of new designs that come out of 20 Guest Street is impressive. They've taken so many risks and done so many experiments over the past 5 years of re-invention, that there's a real precision to specific shoes they're putting out now. Few other shoes have as much dialed in fit, function, and performance in as light a weight as the 1400v2s.
New Balance 1400v2, Sulphur with Blue & Race Red

The essence of the shoe is, a soft stable yet flexible heal, a dialed in Japanese last, a snug fit, and a firm toe off, all packed into a 6.3 oz (178g) package. To understand this, you've got to try it on. The experience is something like "hmm, these feel pretty light in my hand, ok, *lace it up* nice arch wrap, *walk around* pretty comfy *jog around* WHOA, that's LIGHT!"

The upper is built on the NBJ last (New Balance Japanese) that has been constantly perfected to deliver a shaped fit. By shaped, I mean, it's curved precisely around the foot, with the upper sewn in under the foot (see below) to better hug the foot. There's no baggy-ness and no slop between the foot and the sole of the shoe. However, at the same time I find the toe box wide enough to let my foot splay naturally. It's still a precise fit for slicing up single track on the balls of my feel, and it gives me a lot of confidence in any terrain. The fit is improved upon from the 1400v1, and it performs much more like a shoe with a 4mm drop. In fact, I'd argue it's better than most 4mm drop shoes with sloppy uppers (it's a 10mm drop, but it doesn't feel like it) when you're in them.

The upper wraps the foot because the upper is stitched in the middle, go ahead and check if your shoes are constructed like this (they're probably on the sides). 

I know many low-drop aficionados have not read my irunfar article on why drop is a relative thing, but I'll still try to explain why this shoe performs like a low drop shoe. Runner's World has tested the shoe in their objective shoe lab for raw data on what's in the shoe. They found that the heel was rated a 98 (meaning, it's softer than 98% of the shoes) and the forefoot is a 17 (meaning it's firmer than 83% of the shoes). So, if you stand in the shoe, you'll sink 81% lower in the heel than in the forefoot. What's the effective drop? I'm estimating 5-6mm, but you have to try it to understand it. If you compare this to the 1400v1's ratings of 80 and 18 on a 11mm drop, you'll see that we're in the same ballpark, but the 10mm drop and the softer heal make this edition's effective drop, significantly lower. Coincidentally, it's the same stack height as the Adidas Adios, which has been worn by many ultra runners over the years (most notably Hal Koerner) except it's an ounce lighter.

Sometimes you need stability, sometimes you need flexibility, and sometimes you need cushion. The diamond cutout pattern was kept, and the soul of what makes this shoe so lethal on the trails was kept. In general, most running shoes have a hard time giving runners flexibility, support, and cushion without adding weight and sacrificing one for the other. What the diamond cut out allows, is for medial and lateral cushion on the edge of the foot and arch, while still allowing for torsional flexibility when a technical piece of trail requires it. The diamond shape is a perfect design because it gives limited torsion until the edges collapse on each other and stop. I find it to be a natural extension of my foot while still protecting me in rocky conditions.

The rubber seams to wear very well, and is definitely not a weak spot on the shoe after 400 miles. It's not toothy, but it's soft and grips well enough for most trails. As the shoe gets broken in, the forefoot might seem less protected, but it still can handle 30+ mile runs for me. I'll have more info after I race 50 miles in it in a couple weeks.

The shoe might run small and feel too snug at first (you might need to size up), but as you break it in, it becomes a perfect, lightweight extension of your foot. The 10mm drop is a lie, because once you put it on, the drop is much lower. The upper is tighter than before, but still seamless and durable. It's not quite a mountain running shoe, but it's very, very fast on trails. For $100, it's much cheaper than the Sense, and worthy of competitive trail runners' time.

New Balance 1400v2, Sulphur with Blue & Race Red

Friday, January 3, 2014

2013 Recap

This has been a year of growth. Mentally, physically, emotionally, I feel a sizeable difference in the way I look at the world and myself. I wouldn't say there's a dramatic difference, but I specifically feel like a stronger runner, a smarter engineer, and a more confident and cogniscent human being. Early in the year, I started a new job in LA, moved in with Katie, and started running with a pack of runners (Guillaume, Andy, Josh, Elan, and few others) that fed growth. Contrastingly, my life in Costa Mesa was in a job with little room for growth, distance and time between me and Katie, and uninspired weekday runs.

My job as a junior product engineer was basically sustaining designs with little creativity, mechanical understanding, or initiative required. It laid a critical ground basis for sound engineering organization and paperwork, but it held me back from deeper design and manufacturing experience. Moving to my new job as a Manufacturing Design Engineer and then Director of Manufacturing threw me into a hands-on world of assembling complex products and designing tooling. This shift felt like going from knowing the parts of a car to actually physically knowing their direct function, criticality and method of production. I think I learn much more when I actually put my hands on a part, assemble it, take it apart, reassemble it, and ship it.

The responsibility as the D.O.M has made me appreciate how hard leadership really is, and the duality of how critical teamwork is with a large group of people. I understand how engineering companies work and also have a healthy respect for how hard it is to run a successful one. Shipping a quality part and making money is not something to take for granted. This is a larger metaphor for the interactions of our economy as a whole, and how vast human ingenuity is. Sometimes my head just spins for hours about how amazing an airplane is.

Similarly, my running with good friends has increased my daily running dialogue and helped me learn a lot through sharing experiences. I don't know what aspect of ultra running we haven't talked about yet, but I think we've got a good grasp of the key facets of a good runner after picking apart race performances. What's more, I've ran through more sunrises this year than I've slept through, and I've gotten some really rich moments on the trail.

As I go through building my base up again for 2014, I'm excited to push some Strava CR's to their proper times. The idea is very clear that the daily 10-40 minute climbs in the southern Santa Monica Mountains have a lot of potential for building power and speed, and the 1-2 hour climbs in the San Gabriels will develop my strength for my goal summer 100's. I'm exactly where I need to be to push myself to the next level.

Going into 2014, I'll be in my 6th year of ultras. If I had to explain the essence of the sport to anyone, it wouldn't be about being tough or just doing a lot of running, it'd be about knowing yourself really well. I think those brilliant moments of high performance are the result of knowing how to train yourself to a level of fitness and mental confidence to take successful risks. There isn't doubt or fear, but a pure indulgence of the body and mind that leaves a lasting mark in the form of a smile that you can't wipe off for days.

My goal in 2014 is purely to know myself: physically and mentally.

I'm motivated for 2014 because I this is a clear directive that is greater than just a time goal or a place goal. I've proven that I can compete in 2013, and I doubt my main goal of knowing myself won't be accompanied by some strong performances. My two goal races are Western States 100 and Angeles Crest 100, and I can guarantee they'll be the best races I've ever run.

Oh, and..
I ran 3,454mi and climbed 755,671ft in 2013

"oh I'll be better.."
Shakey Graves - The Many Man