Saturday, January 24, 2015

Lazy Man's Gear Guide, But Only Stuff I Use(d)

Basically, this is not a comprehensive gear list, but rather some short blurbs regarding products I have used the most in the past couple of years. These are not full reports on each item, but simply quick recaps of my thoughts after using them. On the plus side, everything I will mention has been already put to use, so you'll actually be getting a post performance review of everything. Also, I am not a sponsored athlete, so other than being a fellow runner, I have no biased agenda in favor, or against any brands. As far as product pricing, I bought most of my items online, so they were most likely bought at a significantly discounted price compared to retail. So prices are unlisted. Lastly, there may be some items that are discontinued, but you never know, I have had some good finds on ebay.

First off, some size referencing. Below is a photo of myself and Dean Karnazes. Dean is listed at 5'8" and 154 lbs. I typically tell people I am about 5'8" to 5'9" and between 150-155 lbs. Essentially, based on those stats, Dean and I should be almost identical in stature. Interesting... Moving on. My shoe size is typically 9 or a 9.5 and most of my athletic attire is men's medium. As for speed, I am a middle of the pack runner.


Quick note on pack selection: In 10 years of running, like many people, I have probably gone through a half dozen hand held bottle designs and just as many for hydration packs. My preferences seem to change from one month to the next and I have gotten frustrated trying to figure out what to use. Today, I have a more refined methodology of choosing my hydration and it really comes down to a four questions to ask yourself before going for a run.

1. How long will you be running? This is not a matter of distance, but rather time. On a 40 degree road run, I might carry 10 ounces of water for a 15 miler, or none at all for distances under 10 miles. However, a 15 miler on a 95 degree day in the mountains might require a 40-50 ounces of water, as you will be losing fluids at a higher rate and for a longer time.

2. Will you have access to water? Self explanatory. If you are on trails, is there a reliable source of clean water available like a stream, or natural spring to refill? If you are in a city, or town, are there water fountains, or bathrooms you can use? If is is during a race, how often are the water stops, 3 miles between, or 10?

3. How much weight do you really need to carry? I see this scenario often. A race has water stops every 5 miles, but people still wear 70 and 100 ounce hydration packs. I understand for some it is easier not fuss around with refilling, but in reality, the amount of energy and you are using to carry the extra weight will slow you down more than stopping to refill. Also, consider this. When you carry too much water, you will work harder, sweat more, and thus require more liquids. It's a cycle that ultimately leaves you more fatigued and has you keeping excess weight on your legs. Carry less, sweat less, and work less. Sounds easy, but it can be tough to find a balance.

4. Other than liquids, will you need to carry other items? Common sense. Bigger packs with additional storage will weigh more than minimal packs with less storage. The question is what will you need to carry? Is there a need for rain gear, or additional clothing if the weather changes? Will you need to carry a headlamp, extra food, a cell phone, or even a camera? If it is a race, will there be access to drop bags, so you don't need to carry everything all at once, and will you be able to discard any items you no longer need?

(Salomon Skin Pro 10+3)

Pros: The pack was lightweight and held tons of gear and also durable. It had straps for poles and the mesh side pockets were easily accessible, even for someone with poor range of motion in my shoulders like me. The pack could also hold a 50oz bladder, and/or two 20oz bottles in the front pockets like the Ultimate Direction packs. If you chose to just use bottles in the front, the storage capacity in the rear could be expanded so you could stash extra gear. The pack had a secondary compartment, so even if a bladder was used, you had another place to stow things. Salomon packs do an amazing job with having a more vest like fit, which is very snug, yet comfortable.

Cons: The price. Salomon stuff ain't cheap. I had issues with the strap clips coming undone, loose, or sometimes falling off completely. Also, adjusting the Velcro shoulder straps was a chore, and not fun if it came lose during a race. Thankfully, it never did, but adjusting for added clothing layers took some time. Wearing bottles in the front pockets can also get really uncomfortable after a while. I had bruises on my ribs after a few races because the tightness needed to keep the pack from jiggling too much was too tight for the round contour of the bottles pushing against me. Salomon and Ultimate Direction need to pad the part of the bottle holder on the chest side, and also come up with a better ergonomic bottle design, so a round bottle isn't pushing against your chest. Lastly, nothing on the pack was waterproof.

Best uses: Longer runs over 15 miles, trail running, and mountain running. Good for races, especially if you need to carry extra gear/clothing, where you might have 2+ hours between aid station.

Score: 8 out of 10

(Out There AS1 day pack)

Pros: Tons of features for a day outside, or a 47 mile day in the Grand Canyon. It has places (some waterproof) specifically for mountaineering gear and can hold a tent, helmet, axe, and more with room to spare. The pack's frame balances well and makes use of both the shoulder and hip straps for added storage. Most packs sadly neglect this opportunity. The AS1 easily holds a 100oz bladder, perfect for when I did rim to rim to rim in 110 degree heat, and has slots for 6 additional 20 ounce bottles. The small waste pockets are removable, but also big enough to hold a lot of food, and also something heavier like a camera. Even with a full pack, the weight distribution is great, and I found my shoulders and hips still felt good after 15+ hours in the pack.

Cons: Hard to find. I got lucky and saw this on a clearance rack in Telluride for $25. It retails for $170. Getting the right fit takes a little while, and I don't know how well it would work for someone with a smaller build and narrow hips and shoulders. It's also comfortable enough to run in, but wouldn't recommend it for more than a couple miles at a time.

Best uses: Longer day hikes of 20+ miles, or multi day hikes.

Score: 9 out of 10

(Ultraspire Kinetic)

Pros: Really innovative design and light weight. The pack moves with your body and is one of the most comfortable packs I have ever worn. Maybe more so than my old favorite the Nathan HPL20. The two bottles hold 25 ounces each, which nice in place of a 1.5 liter bladder, but also nice if you want just water in one bottle, and a sport drink in the other. I like bladders, but you have to commit to only one kind of fluid. Probably the best feature of the Kinetic is the use of storage on the waste strap and shoulder straps. Again, I don't know why companies don't utilize these places more for pockets. Essentially, you can access all your food and hydration without ever having to take off the pack. Also, after some experimentation, I found you can put little 10oz bottles in the top two shoulder pockets, still have the hip pockets available, and use the empty bottle slots in the back for additional storage. Finally, this pack breaths incredibly well with the open shoulder area, and the lesser known fact the fabric is stitched in a way that leaves a nice gap at the small of the back for air. You can also run with just one bottle if you aren't going as far.

Cons: Bottles are hard to access, especially for someone like me who does not have a great range of motion in their shoulders. I have to use two hands and twist the pack to make it work. I would have liked to be able to retrieve and put back the bottle with one hand. Maybe if they placed the bottles higher, like the Orange Mud Hydraquiver packs, access would be less an issue? Also, a slightly larger back pocket would be nice, or at least one big enough for a jacket in case the weather turns.

Best uses: Runs up to a marathon, or 50k in cool weather, and 20 miles in warmer temps (half those distances is using one bottle). Good for day hikes of 20 miles in the cold, or 15 in warm weather. Also well suited for races where aid might be 1 to 2+ hours apart and specifically 100 milers where carrying extra food is necessary.

Score: 8.5 out of 10

(Amphipod RunLite)

Pros: I used to only run with hand held bottles, but stopped after realizing that years of running with 20 ounces of water in one hand was probably causing some issues with my mechanics, and perhaps leading to injury. The RunLite offers a nice hands free alternative, which I like especially on technical trails where I can balance better, but also to have less hindered running mechanics, as stated above. The RunLite can also be accessorized with add ons like additional bottles and storage pockets. It's great to have access to everything you need all on your waste. Grabbing water and food on the go is probably the easiest with this belt than any other option.

Cons: The bottles slid around the belt too much and sometimes were a pain to get back into position. The belt as a whole also slid around a lot and sometimes only stayed in place if I was sweaty, or the belt was secured too tight to be comfortable. As the bottles age, mine are less than 11 months old, even when they "click" into place, they can still come undone. I recently lost a bottle, and never even noticed it had dropped off my hip, and it's not like I was wearing headphones, or zoned out. It was just that unnoticeable. Finally, though one "pro" is that the belt can hold 5-6 bottles, anything more than 3 of the 10 ounce bottles is too heavy and jiggles too much. No storage for clothing, but obviously a waste belt won't have much, or any.

Best uses: Two bottles: Runs up to 20 miles in cool weather, or 10-15 in warm weather. Good for races with aid every 45 minutes to 1 hour and for when you want to run faster with less weight.

Score: 7.5 out of 10

(Nathan Firecatcher)

Pros: Incredibly lightweight at 10.6 ounces. It is essentially an improved version of the Nathan Minimist vest, which had less storage and where using a 1.5L bladder was less practical than advertised. The Firecatcher is better designed for compatibility with a 1.5L bladder and also has 2 straps, instead of one on the Minimist, for added support. If you choose to only use the two 10 ounce bottles, the empty bladder pocket is big enough to stow a jacket, and you still have an electrolyte pocket and mesh pocket surprisingly big enough for 4-5 gels.

Cons: The breathability of the back area, especially with a bladder, isn't great, but still better than the Nathan HPL20. Not sure how well it will fit smaller runners. It does not come with a bladder and it might have been nice to move the electrolyte pouch up and have a second mesh pocket underneath it.

Score: 9 out of 10

Best uses: If using just the two small bottles: Runs under 15 miles and races with access to aid under 45 minutes to 1 hour. With 1.5L bladder: Urban runs up to 50k, mountain runs up to 20 miles in warm weather, and races where access to aid is 2+ hours. Good for ultras where you want to run faster and carry less weight.


(North Face Ultra Trail Guide)

Pros: Only 9.6 ounces, but they have held up well on rugged terrain. I wore these for rim to rim to rim, and although my quads were shot from 11,300 feet of climbing and just as much descent, my feet felt good, even while carrying a days worth of supplies. The traction is good and the gusseted tongue provided some comfort and help keep debris out. I see these lasting beyond the average 300 miles for sure, and after 150+, they still feel new.

Cons: Not super comfortable on roads, but they are not a road shoe anyway. If you use them in a trail race where you transition onto a section of road for a while, these will do the job, but not ideal.

Score: 9 out of 10

(Pearl Izumi E-motion N1 Road)

Pros: Pleasantly lightweight at roughly 7.7 ounces and very breathable material. The low profile and 4mm drop encourages a nice forefoot landing. Use of firmer rubber that runs length wise down the outsole allows for a nice natural roll through each stride.

Cons: The outsole is very stiff and the shoes definitely slapped around too much for my liking. The N1 reminds me a lot like a wider version of the first generation New Balance Minimist Road, and it just doesn't cushion the way I would have liked. Also, the super soft fabric in the toe box makes the N1 feel bigger than it really is, or maybe it actually does run a half size too large. Normally, I don't mind firmer shoes as long as you feel like the energy is being given back, but I don't sense that in the N1. I want to like these, but honestly, I don't.

Score: 5 out of 10

(Nike Lunaracer 3)

Pros: A classic lightweight and well cushioned road shoe. I wore these and set back to back marathon PR's in 2014. The cushion is light, but also provided substantial relief from 26.2 miles of pavement. Nike states they are 6.3 ounces, but they don't feel much lighter than my 7.7 ounce Kinvaras. After 3 marathons and roughly 300 miles, I expected the lightweight sole to wear out and the upper to start ripping, but they held up.

Cons: Laces could be better, and I felt like I had to adjust them too much for a good fit. The shoe also tended to run a little narrow, which was fine for me, but maybe not for others.

Score: 9.5 out of 10

(Adidas Energy Boost 2)

Pros: Fairly lightweight at 9.7 ounces and ideal for a half marathons to ultras. The "Boost" foam, which at a higher heel stack height, actually absorbs enough to create a nice forefoot strike. Very efficient forefoot strikers, however, probably won't see much return on energy. The flexible upper is very comfortable and literally seamless. The Energy Boost is one of the most comfortable shoes I have ever worn and both of my pairs are holding up well after 100+ miles on each.

Cons: Expensive. Sometimes the arch feels a bit narrow and the shoe can get a little tight near the toes due to the thicker, but stretchy fabric in the upper. Heel to toe drop is a bit high, and the shoe does not have a low grounded feel. Though light, the Energy Boost is probably still too heavy to use for shorter road races like 5k and 10k's.

Score: 8 out of 10

(Hoka One One Clifton)

Pros: Very light weight, and a nice deviation from the heavier clunky Hoka models. Even the Bondi B Speed, which was once advertised as Hoka's "fast" shoe felt cumbersome and unsuitable for faster runs. Thankfully, the Clifton can be used for fast runs as well as long casual runs. While the cushioning isn't like the original Hoka designs, it is still surprisingly good for a 7.7 ounce shoe. It reminds me a lot of a Saucony Kinvara on a slightly higher and more plush platform. The rocker design offers a nice stride transition and although the shoe looks like it has a massive heel, it's merely an illusion from the design, and the actual heel height is fairly reasonable.

Cons: Expensive. Questionable durability with the soft foam outsole. I am already seeing wear on the heel, and I don't heel strike, and things like small pebbles are starting to wear out the bottoms. While my Bondis and Stinsons easily eclipsed 600 lifetime miles each, I am doubtful these will see even half of that, and less if you attempt to use them on trails. Also, the lacing is very narrow and lacks a top lacing loop, which I fixed by simply added two new holes at the top. The ink on the tongue will also bleed onto your socks after the first few runs.

Score: 8 out of 10

(Montrail Rogue Fly)

Pros: This shoe is actually what I had hoped for in the Rogue Racer. At 7.7 ounces it's one of the lightest trail shoes on the market. The hex shaped lugs provided better traction than expected and the cushioning feels more like that of a road shoe. Actually, it's pretty much a road shoe with a slightly more traction friendly sole. It's even quite comfortable for road runs as well. The Rogue Fly was my go to shoe for 2014 and I wore them for three 50 milers, a trail marathon, and a 100k. It wasn't until after the 100k that the shoes developed a tear in the side that ultimately led to their retirement. The Rogue Fly is versatile enough for a 10k cross country race, or even a 100 miler. Probably my favorite trail shoe since the discontinued Pearl Izumi Peak 2.

Cons: Not good on rocks, wet, or heavily technical trails. The cost of the light weight is at the expense of foot protection. Though they lasted through races like the Hellgate 100k, they would not be ideal for something like the Massanutten 100.

Score: 9.5 out of 10

(Brooks Ravenna 4)

Pros: Not much, other than they are a generic stability shoe that can be used as a fill in when I don't want to put mileage on my other pairs. The Ravenna is probably better suited for heavier people, or for use as a cross trainer.

Cons: Poor cushion given the thickness of the heel and forefoot. The shoe is advertised as 11.1 ounces, but my guess is that they are at least an ounce heavier. The shoe is clunky and the higher stack height has no benefit other than added weight. Not a good shoe for running faster and honestly it felt uncomfortable even jogging in. If the additional weight provided more cushion, I could see using the Ravenna for recovery runs, but it doesn't, so it's been designated only for walking, casual wear, and going to the gym. Honestly, it's built up shoes like these that weaken people's feet and led to the minimalist post Born to Run craze of a few years ago. They also run a half size too big.

Score: 2 out of 10

Coming soon, a review on clothing n such.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

My First 5k

Yup, you read that correctly! After 102 marathons and ultras, I completed my first official 5k race on New Year's Day 2015.

Given that my race reports for ultras don't end up that long, one could rightfully assume a report for a 5k would be a mere handful of sentences. But, instead of a five sentence recap, I added some flavorful details to what would otherwise be a bland story of a 3.1 mile slog on pavement. So, without further adieu, here is a 5k race report. Drum roll please!

My first ever 5k was the Hair of the Dog 5k in Virginia Beach. The race, however, offered a formal wear division that meant we could race in typical New Years attire, or pajamas. Anytime I can dress like an idiot, or in this case a very stylish idiot, and run at the same time I jump at the opportunity. I figured the option of wearing pajamas would be too much of a cop out for a "formal wear" division since most pajamas are fairly lightweight and pretty easy to run in. No, no, no. I had to be Formal if I wanted to stay true to thine self and thy formal wear division.

Pre-race day I paced back and forth through my wardrobe. So many choices, so little time. Ah, I spotted a black suite that I hadn't worn in years, but it still fit and looked brand new. "007 reporting for duty", I rehearsed to myself in the mirror. No time for games though as I paired it up with a white and blue striped Ralph Lauren dress shirt and a Sponge Bob tie. The pairing was indeed odd, like Simon and Garfunkle, peanut butter and jelly, Elaine Page and Susan Boyle, but it said I'm fashionable, and I live in a pineapple under the sea. Everything looked good, but it was not yet complete. I added the razzle dazzle of a striped tie, some leftover Christmas spirit with a Santa hat, a jazzy pink plastic wine cup, and some cool shades that declared "For those about to rock, we salute you."

The race itself went by quick. When you are used to running up to 10 hours at a time, 20 something minutes goes by quicker than the flutter of a hummingbird's wings. The first quarter mile was way too fast, and I discovered just how much a pain in the ass running in a suite is. The scarf blew into my face, my suite jacket slid off my shoulder every 3.8 steps, and wearing 4 lbs of dress clothes is akin to running with 500 helium balloons. All of that while running half the race into a 10-20 mph headwind and trying not to look like an ass clown sliding over patches of frozen bike path. Still, I managed to persevere and pass runner after runner that each echoed the similar sentiment "Damn, I just got passed by a guy in a freakin' suite!".

(Photo credit Mettle Events. Passing yet another overwhelmed and unsuspecting victim despite wardrobe malfunctions that would make Janet Jackson proud)

The miles wore on and I swear I spent more energy trying to constantly adjust my wardrobe than on actually running. There was much waling and gnashing of teeth. "Crap, this stupid Windsor knot is coming loose!". At mile 2 a strong gust of wing sent my scarf flying off 100 feet behind me. For a split second I wondered whether to run back and get it, or just to let it go, let it go (insert Idina Menzel cameo, or as John Travolta would say, Adele Dazeem). I made up my mind and ran back to salvage my beloved wool partner in crime. 20 seconds lost. Not much if running any other distance, but cataclysmic in a 5k. At 2.5 miles we hit a wall of wind, crossed a raging 5 foot wide puddle, and veered into the final home stretch.

With one final push, one last adjustment of my outfit to look good for finish line photos, I crossed the finish line with glorious purpose. The sky opened up, a beam of golden sun poured through the clouds, and cherubs showered the earth with the manna of victory. First place in the formal wear division. All my wildest dreams had come true, and out of a whopping 8 people in the formal wear division, I rose from the ashes like a great Pheonix and indulged in glory.

Yeah.....So, that's kinda how my first 5k went. Oh, and I got a medal and a t-shirt. Booyah!(R.I.P. Stuart Scott)

(The spoils of victory)

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Last Loop Around the Sun- A Look Back at 2014

2014 was a good year, but not without it's sobering reminders that life is both short and fragile. After the Boston Marathon bombing rocked the global running world in 2013, the deaths of Meg Menzies and Cameron Gallagher created waves that rippled through local communities and expanded to unfathomable distances. In death, as in life, we remembered why living life to the fullest is essential in a world where tomorrow is never a guarantee. I was also reminded that running is just....running. A mere part of life, but never life itself.

2014 was the year I decided not the pursue anymore 100 mile races for foreseeable future. As part of my desire to be a better steward of my body and be able to run 40+ years from now, I made an ultimatum about the quantity of races I do, but more importantly the distances of said races. Too many 100 milers, in my opinion, are the gateway to many preventable future injuries. In the past five years I have literally watched healthy runners decompose into people that are either barely able to finish races they once did with ease, or not finishing at all.

This past year I also made a conscious decision to disconnect from the ultrarunning scene. What I mean by that is this: In the past I have found myself too caught up in what others are doing, whether it was reading race reports, blogs, facebook, or just wasting time looking at ultrarunning websites. In doing this, I found myself comparing and contrasting my life as a runner too often, and eventually coming to the realizing I was losing touch with my own personal convictions for running. Some might think I've been giving the ultrarunning community, which I was very involved in at one point, the cold shoulder and I am just being unfriendly. It might also seem hypocritical that I still ran 5 ultras in 2014, but alas, most of them were well off anyone's radar. In recent years, I've also witnessed a huge increase in the number of running clubs, teams, cliques, and subgroups that make trying to find a seat at a pre-race dinner feel like trying to find a seat in a middle school cafeteria. My only issue with all these groups is that for every person that gains a sense of family, inclusiveness, and comradery from a group, someone else probably feels exactly the opposite. This observation would only be mere assumption, except for the fact I know people who feel excluded and unwelcome for those same reasons. It used to be that just being an ultrarunner was enough to feel like part of the family, and I hope that hasn't been lost. Of course, I still like to chat and catch up with friends if I see them at races, but hours and hours of ultra/running talk probably won't happen. These days I'd rather just enjoy the experience of being out in nature during a race, calling it a day, and then going home to relax and have a beer before bed.

In 2014 I stepped out of my comfort zone and tried some new things. Becoming an Ironman was a huge bucket list item, and it's something I am very proud of. With essentially no experience in the water, or on a bike, it took a different kind of focus to shift from 9 years of just running to working my way into becoming a capable, albeit not fast, cyclist and swimmer. Four months of hard work paid off, and now I can officially call myself an Ironman for the rest of my life. In addition to the Ironman, I also mustered up the nerve to attempt my first road marathon since 2009 and also successfully lead my first marathon pace group. Who knew that going into the year with a 3:33 marathon PR that I would be pacing a 3:45 group by November as a fairly relaxed effort.

In total, 2014 will end with nearly 2,600 miles of running (well short of a PR), a marathon's worth of swimming, and almost 1,000 miles of cycling. For comparison, prior to this year, in 32 years of living, I had probably not swam more than 5 cumulative miles in my life, nor ridden more than 150 total miles on a bike. I also completed 8 running events I had never done before and completed an epic 47 mile Rim to Rim to Rim double crossing of the Grand Canyon. One of my unintentional, but frequently reoccurring themes of 2014 was to try new things. In doing so, I think it's helped enable me to enjoy running and sports it a more complete capacity than I had in a while. There were also some big milestones this past year. I completed my 100th ultra/marathon and also celebrated the 10th anniversary of my first ultra. Putting into words and thoughts what I have learned in just over a decade of running and life brings me to what next year might look like.

So, what goals do I have for 2015? Historically, coming off the exuberance of a good year, I have overtrained, overraced, and ultimately had a bad year. This pattern, sometimes affected by a series of freak injuries, has been fairly consistent since 2009. With so many interesting races popping up I need to be wiser about listening to my body and letting go of temptation to run every cool event that piques my interest. I also need to remember that our bodies don't have much more than 4-5 full out race efforts (tops) in them per calendar year, especially when the races are 26.2 miles or longer. Following my own advice, I will probably run at most two harder efforts in the spring and fall, and maybe one during the summer. Any other event will just be for fun, but even just for fun events will probably be limited to a handful of 50k, or shorter races. That being said, I have nothing of note committed to my calendar for 2015. I may try to achieve a few running goals like a sub 4 hour 50k, or qualifying for Boston, but again I am not putting pressure on myself.

Speaking of myself, I am planning on focusing much less on me in 2015 and much more on others. I hope to volunteer, cheer, crew, or do photography at more events than I actually participate in. For a good solid year, I'd like to not making running all about my goals, my running successes and failures, my training, but instead lifting up others to be the kind of runner/person they want to be. This will also mean another big list of "firsts" in that I will be immersing myself in the world of "shorter" local road races. While I have mostly dwelled in the subculture of trail ultrarunners, I am excited to be a part of a different subculture of the sport I love. While in previous years I have increased the amount I volunteer and crew/pace, I really want 2015 to set a precedent for the future.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Make a Wish- Hellgate 100k

When you see a shooting star, it is usually tradition to make a quiet wish to yourself. The Geminid meteor shower, caused by debris from object 3200 Phaethon, gave runners on a certain magical night plenty of opportunities to make such wishes. Of these, some included just wanting to finish the Hellgate 100k, finishing the Beast series, wishes to the family of a fallen soldier and friend, or the simple wish to make it through another journey. Like Cinderella once said, a dream is a wish your heart makes.

It was a late autumn eve, and one could say it was the kind of night that could bring back the nostalgia of childhood campfires, scary stories, and smores. The time was moments after midnight in a silent stillness that only a secluded mountain forest could provide. It was chilly, but not cold, and actually a bit warm compared to other years. The only noise to be heard was the frantic and excited clammering of 148 hearty souls and a cluster of volunteers and crew people. Though being dropped off in the middle of the night, in the middle of Nowheresville, VA could be hauntingly ominous to some, for me it was a warm homecoming to the Blue Ridge mountains that I called home for over one third of my life.

I've run over 100 marathons and ultras, but none of them were the Hellgate 100k. I've been a sweeper at Hellgate, a crew member and pacer at Hellgate, and I've even applied twice and been accepted twice to run. However, twice I've had to withdraw before even starting the race. Deep in my gut, I knew 2014 would be the now or never year for running this fabled race, and so for the third time I mailed in my entry. My mail in application was initially the standard 8x11 form from the website, but was noticeably closer to an 8x9 when I actually mailed it. What happened to those bottom two inches of my application, you ask? Simple. I cut them off. In hopes of beefing up the possibility of getting selected to run, I originally wrote that I wanted to run sub 12:30 and claim a men's top 10. Then, the reality of several things occurred to me which changed my mind. One, I have not run a mountain trail in over a year, and two, I live in arguably the flattest part of Virginia. I could run 20 miles in any direction from my apartment and never gain more than 100 feet total. Not the best training for a race with 13,500 feet of climbing and technical running. I've also never even come remotely close to a top 10 in any of Horton's races, so that part was also a bit of a reach. So, instead of reprinting my application, which I couldn't do at home anyway, I got out the scissors and removed any delusions of grandeur from my application. In my personal opinion, Dr. Horton had no good reason to let me into the race given my two previous Hellgate withdrawals and the fact I haven't done anything in a while that suggested I could finish. Much to my surprise, for the third time, my entry was accepted.

If you wanted a race report full of details about what food was eaten, what clothes were worn, or what the splits were, this probably isn't the report for you. I'm sure in the ensuing weeks plenty of other runners will share their stories in the kind of detail that will cover all these bases.

As an aside, this year's Hellgate started on what would have been my grandmother's 95th birthday. Her inspiration exactly 10 years ago, while she was battling cancer, is what pushed me through my first ultra. She was the first inspiration that allowed me to dig deeper than I ever physically thought I could. Her spirit is much of what I believe the spirit of Hellgate, ultrarunning, and to a greater degree running the good race is about.

I will say that my Hellgate experience was much like the pursuit of a beautiful woman. A beautiful woman named top 10 male that is. At first she was the unapproachable beauty across a dimly lit ballroom. We exchange quick flirtatious glances. Surely she's out of my league, but I've never been one to shy away from a challenge. However, the crowd between us was far too dense and there were far too many eligible suitors to make any kind of move plausible. I could only admire her from afar as I became a second tier bystander to the symphony of roots, leaves and rocks. Behold, a serpentine trail of lights leading up to Petite's Gap. This orchestra is just tuning up. The dances and partners were many and the element of the dance floor ever changing. With the bitter windy chill of Floyd's Field she takes a step back. A brisk Paso Doble over leaf strewn rocky trails, a slow Mambo with the a gentle climb, and a Rumba with the dipping and sweeping trails entranced by the curvature of the mountain. 37 miles in and the sunrise reflects a familiar twinkle in her mysterious gaze. "13th male" she whispers to me, but laughingly taunts with a "But, you are still a distant arm's length away." I work to find the footing, to find a groove, and never once unlock eyes with the dame so close.

Sacrebleu!? What dost appear before thine eyes but the beauty herself. 46 miles into this dance and she has shrugged off not just two, but three bachelors. From far across the room she has made her way through the masses and into my arms. I finally have her. 10th male. For the next hour we float along in a harmonious Tango. Up close she's more beautiful than I had previously pictured, but, something was off. I could see it in her eyes that their was a vacantness, a lack of empathy, and she was beginning to distance herself from me. Though we continued to Waltz hand in hand, I knew I was losing her. Over 11 hours on our feet, and just as swiftly as she swooped into my arms, another man had just as easily stolen her away. Beauty can be both cold and fleeting, and perhaps more so when so unceremoniously left for another.

And just like a banshee in the night, the mystical temptress of a men's top 10 dissipated into an ephemeral mist. The multitudes came and went, and by multitudes, I mean 9 people. My energy was still surprisingly strong, but the legs had grown weary. Up a final mountain and down a final hill. The orchestra was now playing its final notes. One last stretch of road into Camp Bethel and into the outstretched arms of the composer himself, Dr. David Horton. The dance was over.

As I looked back at the night and day, I realized that like Cinderella at the royal ball, it was only a matter of time before my chariot turned back into a pumpkin. I also realized that while I was momentarily enamored by the deceptive charm of a top 10, that the only dance that really mattered was the 66.6 mile duet with myself and the Hellgate 100k. She was the real beauty on that Van Gogh(esque) starry night, and one that never left my side no matter what mountains were crossed, what streams were waded, or what cold mountain roads traversed.

But who was she? Who is Hellgate? I'd like to believe she is many things. She's the culmination of a year's worth of running, races, life, and the people who make it. She is the reminder of why we push ourselves, why we keep doing what we do, and what it takes to dig deep. She serves as that reminder for all those who finished, as well as all those who could not. In future years I look forward to spotting Hellgate at the royal ball and asking for another dance.

Bonus Question. Did I get lost during the race? Answer...sorta. I Had some trouble finding the trail in the deep woodsy section after Floyd's Field. I chose to wait and run with another runner, rather than go ahead and get super lost. I also got turned around during a potty break just before Bear Wallow and ran backwards on the course a few minutes before I realized I was back at a creek I just crossed. Small mental error due to lack of sleep, but thankfully no major blunders. Hellgate was a course so well marked even I could follow it with 99.7% accuracy.

(Photo credit Frank Probst. Finishing my first, but not last, Hellgate 100k)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

10 Years- There and Back Again

Today marks the 10th anniversary of my first race/ultra. Wow. Part of me clings to the notion that it feels like it was just yesterday, and part of me knows just how much life has happened in those ten years. Where does the time go my friends?

On November 20, 2004 I completed the JFK 50 miler having never run more than six miles. Though it occurred exactly one decade ago, I remember the day quite vividly. In all honesty I had no idea what I was doing, or getting myself into. My freshman college roommate, Matt, dared me to do the race with him in September of 2004, and a few weeks later, for reasons still unknown, I signed up. This gave me, a beginner recreational jogger, a whopping two months to prepare for running 50 miles. Gulp. Matt had already been training for six months at that point, with 20 mile long runs, and in the past year I had only just started running a couple miles per day.

In October, my grandmother, whom I was very close to, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. The news was both numbing and blindsiding, as well as the fact the doctors said she had about a month to live. On that timeline, she would be lucky to still be alive on race day. For obvious reasons running took a back seat to frequent trips to help take care of my grandma, in addition to working over 50 hours a week at my stressful first post college job. Every now and then I would make it out the door to run, but it provided more therapy than training. Eventually, I did manage to build up to one six mile run, which took me a sluggish 67 minutes. Needless to say, I was as physically and woefully underskilled and untrained as one could be. My co-workers semi jokingly and semi seriously placed bets on how far I would make it on race day. The overall consensus was if I made it more than 25 miles they would be pleasantly surprised.

When race day finally arrived I was relieved to have the wait be over. My grandmother was still alive, but just barely hanging on at this point. What started out as a silly dare to run 50 miles became a solitary mission of dedication. Race morning was a bit of a blur, but I do recall never feeling so out of place as I did at the start of JFK. It was cold and I had on a long sleeve shirt with black fleece sweatpants and $40 running shoes. I didn't even know to carry hydration and food. I remember being told to walk the first big climb and then running out of pure excitement to be doing my first ever race. I recall how surprisingly light and fresh I felt for the first 10 miles as myself and Matt found ourselves passing many people on the Appalachian Trail. Then, I also recall how reality hit as I reached the C&O Canal towpath in 3:17 and began to feel a heaviness that my legs had never felt before. My hydration and nutrition started to fall behind from not carrying anything, and rapidly my easy jog turned into walking with intermittent spurts of running. My body was hurting and I was in over my head. Mile 25 came and went, and soon I reached the "marathon" distance of the race in 5:16. "Holy sh*t" I thought to myself. I just ran a marathon!? Normally, the completion of such a bucket list item would be accompanied by celebration, but not when there's still 24 more miles to go.

By mile 30 my body and mind started to slowly descend into the deep dark pain cave. That's when I started thinking about my grandma and her battle. I realized nothing that I would experience on this day would hold a candle to the hell she was currently going through. My mantra became "She fights, so I fight. I am enduring, but she is enduring more." One foot in front of the other. Though I was surrounded by fellow runners, much of my time on the 26.3 mile portion of the C&O Canal was spent alone in thought. For some reason the physical pain I was experiencing created a spiritual bridge to my grandmother. In this brief place in time, on this chilly November day, we were united in our suffering, yet in a way that was emotionally and inexplicably empowering.

42 miles had gone by and the night was ushered in by a bitter cold rain. The soft flat towpath turned back onto rolling country roads signifying the final chapter of the race. Oh the sheer brutality of the sensation of hard pavement under weary legs. I had now gone seven times farther than I ever had and each step ached that much more than the previous one. My body was no longer just in the pain cave, but deep into its darkest bowels and depths. The darkness of nightfall balanced harmoniously with the battle raging in my mind. Just. Keep. Going. All I wanted to do was be done, but the torment of the final miles were not done just yet. My grandma occupied my mind as much as she could, but even so I could not block out the stinging numbness in my hands and swelling in my feet and calves. The mile markers counted down to the finish in a most mocking fashion. 5 to go. 4. 3. 2. Oh, thank the heavens, just ONE more mile.

I turned right. I could hear a voice over a loudspeaker in the distance. Cars filled with cheering friends and family members became more plentiful. This had to be it! I crested one more small hill before seeing the illuminated finish line. After 49.8 miles of the worst beating my body has ever taken I found myself accelerating. My lungs and legs engaged and for the briefest of moments my body felt no pain. I was grimacing, floating, my heart pounding towards that clock. 10:39:32.

My brain could barely assess what had just transpired. I had just run, walked, slogged, and sprinted my way through 50 freaking miles. The elation was short lived as my body started shutting down to a nearly catatonic state. My mind was buzzing, but my body now hardly able to move. It didn't matter though. I was a marathoner. No, I was an ULTRAmarathoner and my grandma was with me the entire time. WE did it.

A week later, during Thanksgiving, I saw my grandma and showed her my/our finisher's medal. I thanked her for being with me, both in spirit at the race, and in person for one last holiday season. She passed away two months later, but survived three months longer than the doctors said she would. That is what fighting the good fight looks truly like. That is real endurance.

After my 2004 JFK 50, I swore I would never run another ultramarathon ever again. Apparently, never again means 85 more ultras and 15 more marathons in the following decade. In 2010, I returned to the JFK 50 and ran over three hours faster than my time from 2004. I have to admit, when I showed up to that starting line in 2004, little did I know what a wild and crazy adventure that was beginning.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Richmond Marathon- 3:45 Pace Leader

This has been a big year for firsts, and leading the Richmond Marathon 3:45 pace group was again another great new experience. Overall, I must say the Richmond Marathon is one of my favorite races and it has really enabled me to reconnect with a city that was a big part of my youth. Having grown up near Richmond and now revisiting it as a runner, this particular marathon was the ideal place for my first pace leading gig.

The objective of a pace leader is simple. Get as close to your goal time as possible without going over. At the fastest, we would not want to run quicker than 3:43, and at the slowest nothing over 3:45. If our runners wanted to qualify for Boston or get safely under 3:45 for other goal purposes, it was communicated that it was up to them to run ahead of us. That being said, while the ultimate goal is 3:45, we also had to make sure our mile splits also remained consistent throughout the day, as pacing is as much in the process as it is the end result. In my two previous Richmond Marathons, 2010 and 2012, I ran with a friend and my sister, both attempting their first marathons. They would go on to finish in 4:44 and 4:19 respectively, and though I was there to guide them, they were very much in control of the pace.

Race recap:

Despite an ominously chilly forecast, race day weather remained on the more favorable side. It was 18 degrees when I woke up at 5:15am, 27 degrees at the start, and 46 and sunny at the finish. Personally, I was very excited and honored to be a pace leader, and all the e-mails exchanged with runners and my co-pacers really built up some quality energy for race morning.

The start was a little crowded as expected. I stood in wave 2 with an Olaf balloon that had two 3:45 signs on either side of him. I was thrilled to have found him the night before since the character, who is from the movie Frozen, was super appropriate for a chilly race. Unfortunately, Olaf didn't fare too well and began rapidly deflating in the frigid air. It slipped my mind that Olaf loves summer. Though I was able to have Olaf with us at the start, I sadly had to "let him go, let him go" and left him near the start to get gorgeously tan laying against the burning sand......*big operatic finish*.....Innnnnn Suuuummmmeeerrrr!!!

Um, where was I going with this? Oh, yes, the crowded start. Yup, the first mile was a bit slow, something like 8:45, but we flowed into a nice groove thereafter. We had to pull back a bit on the big downhill at mile 6, and then crossed over the James River. Along the scenic Shore Drive, I asked who was trying to qualify for Boston and a surprisingly large number of hands went in the air. To that I responded with a "Awesome! Today is your day!", but also realized many people's goals and dreams came down to how well I performed as a pace leader. Mile 10 came in 1:25, at an exact 8:30 pace. Originally, our goal pace was supposed to be an 8:35, but since the Richmond course always registers at least 26.4 miles, we made sure to build an extra time cushion of a few seconds per mile. Shortly after, we crossed the halfway point in 1:51:32, again exactly where we said we would be. Our goal was to run the first half in 1:51:30 and the second in 1:53:30, or less.

The crowds along Forest Hill avenue brought a nice little boost, though some of the hills caused a few of the runners to fall back. I tried to keep the energy of our group high and would encourage those who came out to watch to make some noise for our runners. It's amazing to see how much a cheering crowd can give a group of runners a little extra bounce in their stride. Throughout the day our hodgepodge of runners became a marvelously mixed medley of faces and personalities. For each runner we lost several more would fall back into our group, or catch up. Then there were a handful of hearty souls that held tight and stayed with us the entire day, or at least until they broke away for strong finishes.

Mile 16 brought the infamous and exposed Lee bridge. I encouraged our runners to stay close and work together to block out the chilly wind that was now hitting us head on. The Lee bridge is where runners start to separate and carnage of unforgiving concrete, wind, hitting the wall all come into play. Of the handful of potential cruxes at the Richmond Marathon, getting the group over the Lee bridge and up the hill to Cary St was probably the most significant. The next few miles provided respite from the wind and hills as runners were given a little time to recover on the pastel streets of Cary Town and the Boulevard.

Just after mile 19 we hit the last significant hill on the course as we passed by the Richmond Diamond. Our runners were now decidedly more quiet as they were reserving energy for the closing stretch, though some started to have doubts whether they could keep up and whether we were still on 3:45 pace. At this juncture, being a pace leader becomes more like being a counselor as I discovered having a reassuring bedside manner can keep your runner's heads in the game. After all, at this point, the marathon becomes a mostly mental endeavour. We hit mile 21 in exactly 3 hours, or right at 7 miles per hour. Still a solid 8:30 pace. We urge those still with us trying to qualify for Boston to run ahead and remind them that our goal is 3:45, not the 3:44-3:43 they will likely need to gain entry in Boston. Everyone was working so hard at this point I couldn't help but watch my runners in admiration.

We reached mile 25 in exactly 3:35, which gave us 10 minutes to run the remaining 1.2 miles. I did some quick math and realized we'd have to drop down to an 8:20 to get it right at 3:45. The only thing I was genuinely worried about was if the course ran longer than 26.4 miles, and sure enough it looked like it would measure closer to 26.45. While an extra 0.05 miles does not seem like much, it is actually a difference of about 20 seconds. I had been systematically calculating every mile, and every bit of "bonus" distance, so that we could cruise into a 3:44:30 finish. That extra 0.05 miles meant we had to drop down from the 8:30 pace we had done all day to an 8:20, which doesn't seem like much, but anyone will tell you it is very hard to do after 25 miles. Thankfully, the last 0.3 miles of the race were a generously fast downhill, so we did not have to push the pace nearly as much as expected. We cruised across the finish line in 3:44:55. Success! (note: Most courses run "long" due to the fact we rarely run the exact tangent lines needed to get a perfect 26.2 mile measurement. No error on the part of the marathon. It's just the name of the game).

Our 3:44:55 also meant we ended up being possibly the closest pace group to their target time. At the finish there was the usual mix of fatigue, reunions, adulation and mixed uncertainty. Among the hugs and hive fives there was one runner who ran with us from start to finish that wasn't sure she if she qualified for Boston, though her watch read 3:44:57. I had certainly hoped she got her BQ given how much trust she put into our hands to get her to that finish line in under 3:45. In the few days after the race, I looked up the results of the runners in our group, and was thrilled to see that everyone made their BQ's, including the woman who wasn't sure. That alone, among many other things made the whole experience worth while. A big hats off to my fellow pace leaders Christopher and Matt for doing an awesome job and keeping our runners happy. I already can't wait to do this again next year.

Monday, October 20, 2014

100 Marathons and Ultras in Perspective

I will start by saying, I'm not taking any of this too seriously, and neither should you. I'm also not saying that reaching 100 marathons/ultras isn't something to be proud of. It is, but on the grand scope of things, running statistics, key word statistics, are trivial. It's like asking someone on their birthday if they feel older.

At an age of 33 years 119 days, I have now officially completed 100 running events of marathon distance, or longer. To the best of my knowledge, I am also the 12th youngest American ever to reach the 100 marathon milestone. My first marathon/ultra was on November 20, 2004, a 50 miler, and my 100th on October 18, 2014. It took 9 years, 10 months and 29 days. The moment came to fruition on a beautifully verdant, albeit unseasonably warm autumn day at the Medoc Trail Marathon. The race was a delightfully fun, smaller, and yet incredibly charismatic event. In retrospect, it was a far more fitting setting than some larger race venue.

Per statistics from the 100 Mile Club of North America, there are currently 450 North American runners who have completed 100 marathons, or more. However, the actual number of people is a bit more, since I know a handful of others who qualify, but probably don't know, nor care, to be in the group. Safe to say there are probably closer 600 people who have run at least 100 marathons.

I will also note that a majority (86 out of 100) of my marathons occurred while completing ultra distances of 31 to 103 miles. Only 14 were actual races of 26.2 miles, whereas many of the 100 marathon club members totals are soley from marathons. Based on the statistic of having ultras comprise over 50% of total races, only Ian Torrence and Keith Knipling completed their 100 faster. That's pretty good company.

Another crazy statistic is that in 100 marathons/ultras I completed a total of 4,198 miles, or an average race distance of nearly 42 miles. What is the significance in that? If I had run exclusively marathons my 4,198 miles would actually be equivalent to running 160 marathons. Since 100 marathons, for most folks occurred at 2,620 miles (26.2 x 100), I was curious to figure out when I may have reached that total.

As it turns out, to the exact mile, I unknowingly reached 2,620 miles at the Crooked Road 24 Hour on December 6, 2011. The funny thing is the distance I chose to do that day was completely arbitrary, and I chose to run 62.7 miles because I had never done a 100k. Thus, I completed the equivalent of my "100th marathon" at age 30 years 168 days, which in 2011, would have made me the 5th youngest American to 100 marathons. Subsequently, after 2011 a handful of younger runners hit their 100 marathon milestones, hence why I am now 12th on the list.

I will say for certain that running as many marathons and ultras as possible has NEVER been my objective, nor ever will be. I simply run to have fun like anyone else, sometimes to push myself, and other times just to enjoy the freedom of the outdoors among friends. If I had really wanted to, I could fairly comfortably run a marathon, or two, every week like the Marathon Maniacs and be somewhere around 400-500 total finishes.

In all honesty, not that it isn't a big deal to do something like 52 marathons in 52 weeks, but most fit and experienced distance runners could trudge through a marathon any given day or weekend, but choose not to. Like me, they have a life outside running, and can't afford, or don't want to spend that kind of money constantly traveling and paying entry fees. They would probably also rather select a few focus races per year and keep the emphasis on quality over quantity. I also don't encourage, believe it is healthy, or admirable to run too many races. Running too much will no doubt lead to unforeseen health risks years down the road, but if somebody wants to run a marathon every day for a year, more power to them, but it's their choice to risk long term health for extreme short term goals. Personally, I'd rather start cutting back now, at age 33, and sacrifice reaching other mega race milestones at a younger age, but be able to enjoy running 30 and 40+ years from now.

That being said, I've had tons of fun along the way and shared the miles with many cool characters. I'm looking forward to the next 100, but alas, as I alluded to before, I am in no rush and it is JUST running ;-)

The top 12 list of youngest Americans to 100, and the age they reached it, currently looks like this. I am sure in the next few years the list will expand, but there haven't been many younger folks recently, until myself.

1) Brenton Floyd (18)
2) John Lui (24)
3) Laura Skladzinski (28)
4) Ian torrence (reached 100 ultras by 29, probably much younger to 100 marathons/ultras)
5) Justin Gillette (29)
6) Gary Krugger (29)- I was told he has over 200 marathons to his resume
7) Matt Jenkins (30)
8) Hideki Kinoshita (32)
9) Leslie Miller (32)
10) Jonathan Young (32)
11) Keith Knipling- I have no idea where he would rank, but I'm fairly sure he's in the top 5-6
12) Me (33) But alas, this list is not infallible, and I may be missing some names.