Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Rock Creek Trail Races

With every job there are things you have to do and there are things you get to do. Directing the Rock Creek Trail Series falls into the category of things I get to do. The joy I have received from putting on these events at Lake Perry over the past three years rivals anything I have accomplished through my own running.

Although I am older, I didn't start running until I was in my thirties, so I am still able to recall the sense of accomplishment I felt after finishing my first 10K, just outside of Washington DC. I also remember the adrenaline rush and total exhaustion that accompanied my first trail race, The Afton Alps 50K, run on the bluffs of the Mississippi River just east of the Twin Cities. While running has certainly helped me battle a genetic weight issue and has given me a slew of health benefits, it is racing that has shaped my life more than anything else apart from my faith and my family. The confidence gained from running races, not to mention the insight it has given me into all aspects of my life has been profound. I am certain that if it were not for finishing the Leadville Trail 100 in 2005 , I would have never had the confidence in myself to open Great Plains Running Co in 2006. The archives of this blog are filled the many things I have learned about myself, my faith and the many roles I assume in a given week... husband, father, friend, encourager. This is why I love Rock Creek. I love the stories, the stories of people who are doing things they never thought possible. For some that might mean running their very first 5K or maybe their first trail run, for others (some of whom have never even ran a marathon) it could be the end of a long journey towards their first 50K. Getting to be there when they finish, and seeing that look on their face is worth any cost associated with putting on an event such as this. I would trade neither time or money for the privilege of being part of their accomplishment. It is pure joy and this past weekends final event did not disappoint.

After months of prep work and a week of grunt work complicated by cold, wet, windy weather, Saturday finally came, and with it sunny skies and warmer weather. While all three races head down the trail at the same time, the day really has three distinct "vibes". Almost before you know it, the 5Kers return, followed later in the morning by the Half Marathoners and eventually the 50Kers arrive one by one throughout the afternoon.

In past years I have completely missed the 5K due to setting up aid stations. This year however, MK Thompson assembled an awesome team of aid station volunteers that allowed me the opportunity to catch the final few runners and post race fun. Thanks to Ben Holmes and the KC Trail Nerds, Gary Henry and the Lawrence Trail Hawks, Greg and Zach Pruett as well as Ruth and Fred Fox for providing such experienced leadership at our aid stations and taking such good care of our runners. Races don't happen without people like this!

At our Rock Creek Podiatry night just three days before the race, Dr Chris Brodine encouraged Half Marathoner Corey Bandal to step down to the 5K to avoid complicating a foot that was already bothering him. Now as we all know, runners very seldom listen to doctors, especially when they tell us not to run, but Corey, in an unprecedented move for a trail runner, listened to Dr Chris and then went on to win the 5K just seconds ahead of Jim Beiter, proving to the Rock Creek world he is both wise and fast. In the women's race Kristi Mayo showed us all that Rick isn't the only speedster in the family, as she finished first amongst the ladies and fifth overall.

Speaking of Mayo, Kristi's hubby Rick "blistered the 14+ Mile Half Marathon course in a time of 1:43:43 (that's a 7:18 pace on rocky, rooted and leaf covered trails) That was just 3 minutes off his 13 Mile Half Marathon time last May, which by the way was leaf free. Coming in second, just 1:40, was hard charging Dave Wakefield in his final tune-up before next week's Ozark Trail 100. Best of Luck Dave, I look forward to seeing your new Belt Buckle. In the woman's race race, Mud Babe Shelley Flones cruised the course in a time of 2:25:08 comfortably winning her second Rock Creek race of the year! Second to the line in the woman's half was Dena Phillips, who along with husband Kyle (who ran the 50K) keeps getting faster and faster. At just past noon came my first "moment" of the day. Throughout this year I have watched Dianna Brodine fall in love with trail running. She set a goal last winter to run each of our races and finish up with our Half Marathon in October, she did exactly what she set out to do! At the 4:24 mark on the clock, Dianna came down the Skyline trail for the final time of 2009, when she reached it's end, she was a Half Marathoner. Congratulations Dianna for being courageous enough to set a big goal and tenacious enough to achieve it.

Once the Half Marathon awards are over and the first few 50Kers are in, the day begins to take on a different tone, as one by one 50Kers arrive back, tired and perhaps a bit bruised, but full of emotion over what they just accomplished. Christopher Farney lead the way, running the second fastest time ever on this course, winning in a time of 4:34:37, an impressive 8:52 pace under any conditions. Sixteen minutes back was Kyle Amos, who by the way, was just two weeks removed from a "smokin'" finish at the Heartland 100. The women were lead by Kim Deckert, who completed her sweep of the four "long"events that make up our series competition. Kim's exceptionally strong second lap helped bring her home in a time of 6:21:01. Kim's consistently strong performance throughout the year also earned her the top spot for the 2009 Rock Creek Trail Series, Series Championship, awarded each year to the man and woman who perform the best over the course of our four "long" events.

As the day wore on, we came to my favorite part of the entire year. The time of the day when the 50Kers who were fighting their way through their first 50K, return triumphantly to the finish area, where I get to welcome them home and place their finishers medal around their neck. While the afternoon was filled with plenty of inspirational stories, there were four special moments that will stick with me.

Although this was certainly not his first 50K finish, it was the end of a long year for Greg Burger, a year where Greg rediscovered his speed, running well in a number of races including his first finish at Leadville. Greg has been a big supporter of this series and has always done well here, but in 2009 Greg finished in the top four of each of our four races and claimed the series championship. It was well earned, and a pleasure for me to give such a great guy (and strong supporter of our series) this award. Next came Becky Collins. Becky had volunteered for a couple of our events last year and decided this trail running thing looks like fun. I remember getting an email from Becky last winter saying she was thinking of running the 50K and was working through the amount of training involved. Throughout this past year no one trained harder than Becky, she ran all of the Rock Creek events as well as a number of other local trail events. All this on top of a heavy training load. Becky was right behind Kim Deckert for the series championship heading into our night run in July, unfortunately nutritional issues forced Becky from the race and contention for the series championship. Not to be detoured, Becky kept her eye on her original goal of running a 50K in October and went back to work. At the 6:45:35 mark, Becky rounded the last corner with tears in her eyes as she came across the finish line. When I asked her if she was OK, her reply was "I'm fine, I'm just so happy" I'm sure as she was surrounded by family and friends, she was relieved it was over and proud of what she had done. I am confident here will be more to the story as her accomplishment will no doubt inspire others to dream big. Almost an hour after Becky had finished, a large crowd, inspirational signs in hand, gathered near the finish line awaiting the arrival of good friend Bret Deardorff. After running the Half Marathon at last year's finale Bret laid down the goal of running the 50K this year. While Bret was an experienced cyclist, he was newer to running and fully aware of the enormity of his goal, and went to work immediately. It has inspired me to watch Bret chase after this throughout the year. He has run in each of our events and made steady improvement all year. Bret showed he had the toughness needed to run a 50K when at our night run he resisted the urge to drop at the 20K mark and battled the last 10K to finish just after midnight. Bret was also one of two guys who fought the cut offs with me all day at Western States only to pick up my pieces after a disappointing DNF with just 15 miles to go. So when Bret crossed the finish line I could not have been happier for someone. While he didn't look so good at the half way point, he now looked great, fully aware of what he had just accomplished. Way to go Bret! At the 9:18 mark Tom Detore crossed the finish line leaving just one runner on the course, GPRC's own, Tina Askins. A former bodybuilder, Tina had started running last year and was attempting to finish er first 50K (as a matter of fact, it would be her first finish of anything longer than a half marathon) Working with Tina has given me the opportunity to understand first hand both her struggles and successes with her training. So while coming into Saturday's race Tina had some long runs under her belt, I knew it would take a "Herculean" effort on her part to finish in under the allotted ten hours. Thanks to great volunteers (all of whom were doing everything they could to help Tina around the course) we knew she was around three to four miles out. We also knew she was running with MK Thompson, who was pacing her in for the final five miles. Minutes later a phone call from Gary Henry confirmed she had left the final aid station and was on her way. At the 9:50 mark a phone call from MK alerted us to the fact that they were about a half mile away, one more rocky climb and then flat, smooth trail the rest of the way. Knowing Tina was in earshot, the 15 of us still there started cheering and ringing the cowbell trying to usher Tina home before the clock ran out. With just over three minutes left on the clock Tina came into sight and seconds later was across the finish line. We all took turns giving her a hug and congratulating her on what she has just done, there was not a dry eye in the place. Fifteen of us had the privilege of seeing Tina finish and being part of her moment in the sun, but perhaps even more-so, we had a glimpse of what makes this sport so special. It was the punctuation point at the end of a day filled with moments like this.

As I drove home that evening, thinking about all I had witnessed throughout the day, about Dianna and Becky, Bret and Tina, as well as a hundred and one other stories, I was reminded of one of my favorite running quotes...

"It's very hard in the beginning to understand that the whole idea is not to beat the other runners. Eventually you learn that the competition is against the little voice inside your head that wants you to quit".

-George Sheehan

Thank You from both Karen and I to all the runners and volunteers who made Rock Creek such a success in 2009. It has been a year full of memories that we will not soon forget. We look forward with anticipation to what special moments 2010 will bring. Have a great winter. Hope to see you all at Psycho Wyco in February, then back out at Perry next March.

For more great photos from Rock Creek please visit Dick Ross'

Monday, October 19, 2009

Heartland 100/50

Ultra Marathons are often held in dramatic locations such as The Rocky Mountains, The Sierra Nevada, Death Valley (in July) and the Ididirod Trail (in February) In contrast there is a race held in Kansas that is unlike any other, as it is run entirely across historic tall grass prairie in a county where cattle outnumber people 40-1. The Heartland 100, held each October through the Flint Hills of Eastern Kansas, is what I once imagined all of Kansas would be like when I first moved here from Washington DC 15 years ago. The desolate nature of this land is hauntingly beautiful and it's weather... harsh.

For runners, EXPOSURE is the key word at Heartland, as there is no place to hide from the elements. Another key word here is SOLITUDE. Although you can see for miles in every direction, there is very little to look at other than the ever present tallgrass prairie, which is inevitably blowing in the wind.

Heartland is special to me. I ran my first 50 here in 2002 and my first 100 here in 2004, and although I have been at Heartland for each of the past seven years, four times running, and for the past three years, manning the Battle Creek Aid Station, this year would be different, as this year I was planning on doing both. My plan was to run the 50 Mile and then join Karen and the rest of the team at the Battle Creek A.S. and support the hundred milers on their way to Cassidy throughout Saturday night and Sunday morning. My hope was to gain the perspective of both runner and volunteer in the same race, in the same year.

Our weekend started Friday afternoon as Karen, the girls and I, along with good friends Bret and Theresa Deardorff, and their daughter Hannah, headed to Cassidy to grab "a meal like no other", at the pre race dinner, before heading out to Battle Creek to set up the aid station. The challenge with Battle Creek is that it is both the first and the last aid station runners encounter in both races. That means servicing runners from 7:00 AM on Saturday until 9:30 AM on Sunday. Once we had things ready to go for Saturday morning and spent some time star gazing, it was time for some sleep.

After a VERY COLD night in the back of the van, it was up at 4:00 for the 6:00 start. Bret was kind enough to shuttle me to the start before heading back to get the aid station ready for visitors. It was great to see so many good friends at the start, but especially exciting to see three friends from Topeka who were each about to start their first 50 miler. Then, right at six, with headlamps lighting the way, we were off.

From the very start I felt good. After all the the steep climbs and vertical descents of Superior, it felt good to run. My goal was to hit the turnaround somewhere near the 5 hour mark and then decide (based on how I was feeling) what to do on the way back. Fueled with little more than VESPA and PERPETUEM I hit the turnaround in about 4:45, and much to my surprise, felt pretty good... so, I decided to push it a little on the way back. With the unexpected, but much appreciated help from Dena Phillips and Christy Knowles, I was able to get through the first two aid stations quickly on my way back. Then shortly after my antique I pod (which had been serenading me with a little early 80's "new wave") went dead in the middle of an extended dance mix of DEVO's "Whip It", and just as I was getting tired, I arrived at Battle Creek to the cheers of family and friends. This was a huge emotional boost when I really needed it. Karen got me what I needed (800 mg of Ibuprofen) and back on my way, confident I had a legitimate shot at finishing in under 10 hours, something I had only done once before (at the 2004 Ice Age Trail 50 Mile). After power hiking up the last big climb, I knew it would be flat the final 6 miles into the finish, so I went into a run 8:00, walk 2:00 cadence. This worked well and actually helped me to pass the one runner I could see in front of me. At the 9:45 mark, as I neared the final turn about a quarter mile from the finish, I knew I was going to finish in under 10 hours, but now I realized I might actually get in under 9:50 (my previously fastest 50 miler). As I ran the final quarter mile and neared the finish I could see the clock and quickly realized I was going to make it in under 9:50. As I crossed the finish line to the most awesome sound in Ultra Running, Jim Davis' cowbell, I was taken aback, as a PR was not what I was expecting just four weeks after Superior. Unexpected, but fitting in a way that it was here, at Heartland, a race that has provide me with more than it's share of special moments had once again lifted my spirits at a time when I so badly needed it. Perhaps that's what they mean when they refer to this race as the

As I caught my breath, I was greeted by John Knowles (a good customer, and local trail runner) who was running his first 50 Miler. I knew John had had a good race as I saw him running strong near the turnaround and received updates from his wife at the aid stations. He certainly did have a good day, and finished in ninth place for his 50 Mile debut in a time of 9:31:15. Congratulations John!

Oh, but the fun was just beginning!

I returned to the aid station with Bret a little before 5:00 PM, just as one of the last 50 Milers was coming through. He grabbed a Coors Light from his drop bag, drank it down, and was off (you gotta love ultra runners). On our way back we had the opportunity to run across Kyle Phillips, another friend from Topeka, who like John was running his first 50 Miler. When asked about the race on Thursday, Kyle had told me his plan was 6:00 to 6:00, but when we passed him about a half mile from the finish, although he was obviously in a lot of pain, it was only 4:15 PM. After a quick high five, Kyle pressed on and crossed the finish line in 10:23:10. A remarkable effort from a genuinely likable guy and strong runner. Way to go Kyle! As we continued down the road back to the aid station we came across Jenn Franklin, one of our GPRC team members. Like Kyle, Jenn was also talking about a 12 hour finish, but here she was, still going strong 48.5 miles into her first 50. Jenn would be the fifth woman across the finish line in a time of 10:42:51. A little further down the road we came across Ruth Fox from Manhattan, who volunteers and runs a number of our races and who went on to finish in a time of 12:08:36.

Of course their were many others, each with their own story, each pushing forward. In all, 43 of the 44 starters made it back to Cassidy, but none faster than 52 year old Phil Sheridan who finished in a time of 7:33:45, before, like me, heading off to an aid station to spend the night "working".

As always, the night provided it's share of excitement, as weary and very cold 100 milers came through our aid station situated just 9 miles from the finish. While it is always fun to see good friends such as Kyle Amos, Darin Schneidewind, Paul Schoenlaub, Gary Henry and Adam Monaghan roll through, two stories from this years Heartland 100 stand out.

Just after 11:00, Amy Palmiero-Winters of Hicksville, NY came through our aid station. Amy was the first woman through and was moving well. Little did we know that as she came through, she was on her way to a historic finish. You see, Amy had one of her legs amputated earlier in life and was about to become the first female amputee to run 100 miles. Her positive attitude and tenacious efficiency were sobering, her accomplishment, inspiring. Amy finished in a time of 18:54, eighth overall, she was the top women in the field.

Almost eleven hours later, Kevin Fredrickson of Lawrence, KS came visited our temporary home. I didn't realize until later the enormous mental challenge Kevin had to overcome and manage these past twenty seven hours. Anyone who has ever run an Ultra Marathon knows that a huge part of the game is mental, so you can imagine when you have car trouble and arrive an hour after everyone else has left, the mental aspect becomes even more complicated. Kevin, who was running his first 100 Miler, had to overcome several emotions including frustration I'm sure, not to mention holding back the temptation to go out too hard in an effort to "catch up". Somehow Kevin held it all together under circumstances that would have unraveled the best efforts of other runners, including myself. Kevin went on to finish his first hundred in a time of 28:52.

It is stories such as these that are the reward for volunteering at events such as this. While running an ultra can certainly bring personal satisfaction and perhaps other deeper self discoveries, volunteering at an ultra delivers a totally different experience, as you begin to experience the event through the eyes of others and are drawn into their struggles as well as their triumphs. I can't help but believe that at some level this makes us more sensitive, more compassionate and more aware of those around us. If we all lived out our lives and treated others with the same servant mentality "ultra" volunteers have treated us in the past, how much better of a world could this be? I would challenge anyone who has never had the opportunity to do so, make a point to volunteer at an Ultra in 2010. I promise you, you will never view an aid station the same way again.

Congratulations to Jim Davis and Randy Albrecht for another perfectly executed event under some trying circumstances. I believe I heard this was the coldest Heartland ever! Thanks also to Gary Henry and others for some great photos. See more at

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Superior Sawtooth 100

One of the benefits of not finishing Western States, the first of the three races that make up the Grand Slam, is that you are free from subjecting yourself to the pain of the Wasatch 100. The Wasatch 100 is run in the mountains east of Salt Lake City and considered by most to be the toughest of the four races that make up the Grand Slam, her 36 hour time limit would seem to support that claim. So with any hope for the Slam now over, I made the easy decision to steer clear of Wasatch and head north instead, to the Superior Sawtooth 100 (actually 102.6) I'm still not exactly sure why, but for some reason the 38 hour time limit, the 21:42 course record, or the fact that in the last three years only 4 people had finished in under 25 hours didn't seem to concern me, after all, this is Minnesota.

I knew the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT)was rugged from having lived up there, but it was the beauty of Minnesota's North Shore I had remembered. Picturesque rivers cutting their way through granite and birch on their way to Lake Superior, Loons, the Northern Lights! It is always amusing to me how the mind seems to hold onto, even embellish the good memories, but so quickly forgets those which were painful. Even after the reminders from twelve time finisher (the guy who took these photos) and fellow Kansan Stuart Johnson, I failed to fully recall the brutal nature of this trail, not to mention the 42,000 feet of elevation change and the impact that might have on pace.

Good buddy Dave Wakefield (who was running the 50) and I arrived Two Harbors Thursday night for the pasta dinner and pre race meeting, a low key affair after the Hoopla of Leadville. No weigh in, no med check, just a few comments from RD Larry Peterson followed by self introductions and we were back in the car, headed to Lutsen and the Cliff Dweller Hotel.

The SS100 is a point to point race. Most runners sleep near the finish in Lutsen, before being shuttled to Gooseberry Falls SP Friday morning for the 8:00 AM start. The 50 Milers start at 6:00 AM on Saturday at the half way point near Finland and will catch us (blow by us like we were standing still) one by one throughout the day on Saturday. The cut off time for both these races is 10:00 PM Saturday night...Piece of cake, right? In addition 100 or so Marathoners will start their race from around the 75 mile point later that morning. These are folks we will never see!

After a good night's sleep and a peaceful trip to Gooseberry Falls SP we were ready to go. Stuart along with wife Deb, were also running, Stuart going for his thirteenth finish at Superior and Deb, like me, her first. As we were all planning on running about the same pace, I hoped I would see quite a bit of Stuart and Deb throughout the race as I had no pacer and after the first few aid stations, no crew.

There were no shotguns, no rifles, to be honest I'm not sure if anyone even said go, but at 8:00 sharp we were off. No one seemed in a big hurry to be the first to the trail head, but one by one we all started moving down the trail anticipating what lay ahead for us over the next day and a half.

Ultra Marathons, especially hundred milers, are as much about enduring the distance mentally as they are about enduring the distance physically. Stuart had told me that at SS100 it was the mental aspect one really needs to manage if you want to finish. There is plenty of time to get it done but more than likely you're going to use most of it. As we made our way out of Gooseberry Falls SP I was still trying to come to terms with this fact and that I was planning on running (or whatever my movements might be called by late in the day on Saturday) for 36 hours when the longest I had ever run previously was 29:17 at Leadville.

While many hundred mile courses are broken up and remembered by distinctive sections of trail that are unique when compared to other sections of the same course, this one did not. The SHT keeps coming at you with a rugged consistency that for me makes recalling specific sections of the course difficult. Yes the course is beautiful and to a certain degree varied, there are lakes early and rivers late, but more memorable are the many characteristics of the trail that constantly annoy you, demanding your attention throughout, allowing you very few opportunities to relax once you venture beyond the friendly confines of the aid stations.
  • To say the course has rocks and roots is like saying the Sahara has sand. The roots that criss cross the SHT are more like the toes of some giant T-Rex, that in many cases don't allow your foot to find earth, leaving running on top of the giant roots, step by step as your only option. If this wasn't enough fun, it really got interesting once the roots got wet compliments of an afternoon thunderstorm.
  • The rocks that litter this trail are numerous, but even worse they are huge, often times used as steps to scale the steep ascents. When the ascents turn to descents the giant rock fields become downright scary.
  • Speaking of ups and downs, for some reason the SHT was built without the use of switchbacks, so most of the 42,000 feet of elevation change are either straight up or straight down....I know, I'm exaggerating again!
  • What else?... Oh yes, there are the 2x6 planks you get to run on throughout the race. Again very fun when wet, especially when falling off puts you in deep muck at best, deep water at worst.
It is hard to convey with words the "epic" proportions of Superior's rocks , roots and steep grades. Even individually these features would slow down the best runner's pace, but when thrown all together the result lacks proper adjectives, and when thrown all together in the becomes the stuff Ultra Nightmares are made of.

So hour after hour we all do our best to just keep moving forward as one by one runners drop from the race as a result of Superior's brutal nature and above average temperatures.

At some point on Saturday Dave was the eighth 50 miler to come by me. I remember asking him how he liked the course, and as he quickly moved down the trail I heard him answer back "it's kicking my ass." Later that afternoon Dave would finish the 50 miles in 10:02, three hours slower than his usual 50 mile pace, but good for an impressive third place finish (and third fastest time ever recorded on this course) against some of the best ultra runners in the upper Mid West.

My race continued on throughout the day on Saturday very uneventfully, very few highs or lows, just the never ending work and concentration associated with staying vertical on this trail. I had lost touch with Stuart and Deb but I was doing well both physically and equally as important mentally. My only scare came late in the race at the final aid station which I arrived just before sunset of the second day. Stuart had warned me to put a headlamp or flashlight in this final drop bag, knowing from experience it could be late in the day when you arrive, and with over seven miles to go, it could be dark before you finish. I was smart enough to heed Stuart's advice but not smart enough to hang on to my regular glasses earlier in the day when I swapped them out for my prescription sunglasses. So after 97 miles and almost 33 hours, it was once again dark, and although I had a light, I literally couldn't see more than about three feet in front of me. Ironically, although I love running at night, I am as blind as a bat without my glasses so this little lack of foresight was going to cost me some time as I was reduced to a fear induced shuffle, afraid that if I pushed too hard I would risk twisting an ankle or perhaps a face pl Not long after dark as I was feeling my way around Moose Mtn, much to my surprise I ran into Stuart and Deb. We were all glad to see each other and glad we were all still "in it". As the three of us were making the final push into Lutsen I started to get some anxiety about how little time I felt we had, and what would happen if I did injure myself in someway...not finishing at this point was not an option. Somehow my mind concluded the best way to deal with this fear was to run, never mind the fact that I couldn't see, just I did. Soon after that, and again due to my lack of vision, I somehow convinced myself I was lost, or in some way running in circles. This little personal freak out session lasted for maybe a mile before I came up on another runner who assured me that right around the corner was a bridge and once across that we were less than a mile from Caribou Highlands Lodge and the finish line. Once I actually crossed the bridge, eliminating my concern the other guy was delusional, all my fears lifted and I was able to run most of the dirt road into Lutsen to become the 29th runner to finish. When all was said and done 33 of the 70+ runners finished in under the 38 hours allowed. The winner, Angus Repper, crossed the line in 26:31:47. Just five runners finished in under 30 hours.

As I ran the entire race using only the time of day feature on my watch, the race clock hanging near the finish line was the first time I had really thought about elapsed time since Friday morning. So almost instantaneously as my eyes connected with the numbers 37:13:56 the tears began to flow. It had been a long race and representative of what had been a long year. The finish at Vermont had been little consolation to the near miss at Western States, and another DNF at Leadville had hit me hard. The economy had been hitting retailers hard for a year now and we were no exception. Personal issues had been weighing heavy on me and spiritually I was angry. Everything about this year has been tough and for the most part unresolved. So to reach the end of the race for me was hugely symbolic. Something in me needed to see a battle won, a conflict resolved. The resolution that has been so elusive in other parts of my life had presented itself on the Superior Hiking Trail and deep inside it was more than I could bear. As I sat there with my face in my hands I could only hope that perhaps this might provide me with the courage and motivation to keep up the fight and see through to the end the other battles that continue to rage.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Leadville 2009

It was a month ago today and it's still hard to find words. Last week's finish at Superior took the edge of the pain but did not eliminate it. The thing I find hardest to move beyond is that it was 100% avoidable, all I had to do was drink. To do poorly here hurts. Leadville has always been, and I suppose will always be that "special" race, the one I really focus on, every runner has one, for most it's probably one they do well in... as for me, I am 1 for 6 at Leadville? But it's that one finish, just weeks after my Dad had passed away, that I suppose keeps me coming back. While in someways every DNF makes that finish, and the memory of my Dad carrying me through the night, that much more special., it is more than just a little frustrating to come here year after year and go home empty handed. Until this year my only DNF's came on these trails. And so I finally bring myself to document this year's effort if for no other reason than to move on.

In 1969 a young Mario Andretti won the Indianapolis 500 and for over 40 years now he, his son, Michael and his grandson Marco as well as nephew John have tried to get the Andretti name back to victory lane. Every year they come with quality cars and high hopes that this will be the year. Every year they go home frustrated, certain there is some sort of "Indy" curse that has been cast on their family.

Since my only Leadville finish in 2005, I have been back four times, each of those times my race against the clock in the mountains near Leadville came to an early end. This year was perhaps the most disappointing of the four. Struggling from almost the very first step, running out of water twice and eventually watching my wristband get clipped along the Winfield Road at 6:05 Saturday evening. It was perhaps the least enjoyable race I had ever run. A day that lacked everything I enjoy about this sport. A meltdown that could have been avoided.

The race started at 4:00 AM, the same as every other year, the only difference was this year we started in short sleeve shirts. This was a stark contrast to last year when runners lined up with sleet falling and 34 degree temps. The unusually warm weather we were enjoying had been forecast all week giving all of us ample warning to re think our gear selections and fueling plans. Despite the forecast I decided to stick with my plan of carrying two bottles, providing me with 20 oz of water and 20 oz of electrolyte (NUNN) drink every 2.5 hours or so. (One of the complexities of Leadville is the distance between aid stations. With aid stations distanced every 10 miles, there is little room for error)

The day started off like most other "Leadvilles" however it was even before the sun came up I could feel the impact of the warm thin air on my respiratory system, none the less I arrived May Queen just five minutes behind schedule.

Now heading up Sugarloaf with the sun overhead I began drinking more than normal but found it hard to keep my breathing under control (this aspect of my day frustrated me enormously and really began to work on me emotionally. At great expense I came to Leadville two weeks before the race, hoping the extra week would prove significant in my bodies ability to acclimate to the high altitude of Leadville's 10,152 ft. when it became obvious that the extra week had meant nothing in terms of my bodies ability to adapt I could feel myself grow agitated) I struggled more through this section than any previous attempt and arrived the Fish Hatchery aid station 25 minutes behind schedule and very down with myself.

The next 17 miles really became the race, or should I say the end of the race, for me. I became so hot and so dehydrated through these two sections I could hardly even run the downhills without feeling like my chest was going to explode. I ran out of water 45 minutes outside of Twin Lakes and arrived at the aid station a complete basket case over an hour behind schedule. I really felt bad for my crew. Karen, Zach, Dave, Jessica and Anthony did everything they could do, but I was a mess. It took medical personnel over 20 minutes to get my respiratory rate down as they pumped over a half gallon of liquids down my throat. I now had cut offs creeping up on me and had to get moving, unfortunately the only direction to go out of Twin Lakes is up, 3,500 feet straight up Hope Pass to 12,600 ft, not the best environment to recover in.

I headed out of Twin Lakes now with 70 oz of water on my back and another 20 oz in my hand. It was obvious this was the set up I should have had since May Queen if not the start. Had I gone with the Camelback the entire way how would I feel now? This is obviously a question that can never be answered, but I would have to think I would be far better off and much farther down the trail. Instead I was dragging my overly depleted carcass up a mountain. A mountain that usually forces you to bundle up a bit, but not today. The climb was hot and steep and dry, with not even a slight breeze offering relief. Although I drank almost the entire 90 oz between Twin lakes and the Hopeless aid station, I was too far behind with my hydration and my body was slow to catch up. Although I made it through Hopeless ahead of the cut off it had become obvious I wasn't going to be so lucky at Winfield. I struggled over the top of Hope and down the other side. It was here, as I made my descent off Hope, passing friends that were on their way back up and then on to Leadville, that I finally started feeling better. Too little, too late as they say, but still, it felt good to breath. It also felt good to see so many people I knew.

Congratulations to Paul Schoenlaub on his seventh Leadville finish and to Greg Burger on his first. Congratulations also to Coleen Voeks on a "gutsy" finish, persevering through the night, overcoming her demons and crossing the finish line with just twelve minutes to spare, and to Nick Lang who came back from the dead, sneaking out of Winfield just before the cut off, then finishing in a strong 28:51. And a special congratulations to Gary Henry who is now one up on me, collecting his second Leadville buckle with a sub 29 hour performance. All in all seven Kansans finished this year's Leadville Trail 100. I believe that's a record!

So another Leadville has come and gone and left me empty handed and broken hearted. This should have been the year. I was in great shape and injury free. I had two full weeks to acclimate and plenty of time to get focused on the task at hand. I had a decent weather and a great pacer (Dave Wakefield) waiting for me at mile 50...I never got there! I made a stupid mistake on something as basic as hydration, and while there are races where you can make a mistake and still sneak by, Leadville is not one of them. Leadville has a way of making you pay for you mistakes.

As I allow myself to think about 2010, a hiatus from Leadville is probably in order. Perhaps this race has taken on an unhealthy importance in my life. Perhaps a year off might bring perspective.

So on to Minnesota where I started running trails. Northern Minnesota has always been the place I feel most at peace. Although I know the Superior Hiking Trail is brutally rugged and times at this race are slow (The Superior Sawtooth has a 38 hour cut off), it will be good to be back home.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Leadville Plan

On August 22 I will go to the starting line of the Leadville trail 100 for the sixth time. In my previous five attempts, I have finished it only once. It was my second attempt and just weeks after my Dad had passed away from Pulmonary Fibrosis, a decease brought on by years of smoking. It was sadly ironic to me to be running a race in an environment that is starved of oxygen, when just a short time ago, I watched my Dad live out his finals days struggling for the stuff. I ran the race that year full of his memory and sure of his presence. I view my finish that year as a gift, not just from him to me, but from me to him as well. Other than that one special year, the other four attempts have ended early for a number of reasons, the most painful was last year when I missed the time cut off at mile 87, after battling some of the most epic weather I have ever experienced for over 26 hours.

This year I head to Leadville as confident as ever that I will "find my way back to Leadville" on Sunday morning. One of the reasons I feel so good about this year, is Pacer Dave Wakefield. Dave is a great friend and a great runner and I know he will do everything he can to get me through. To that end Dave has asked me to put down my "race plan" on paper so that he can help keep me on track. So although this is predominately for Dave, and focused primarily on the last 50 miles, I am posting it hear for the benefit it might provide someone running Leadville for the first time and perhaps help my non running friends understand how one approaches running this sort of a race.

SATURDAY MORNING: Up at two. Eat breakfast first thing. Sausage, egg and cheese biscuit along with some scrambled eggs on toast. Start nursing a bottle of Nuun. Forty five minutes out down a VESPA, and thirty minutes out down a VERVE as we walk to the start. Remind me to go out slow, not push too hard up the mini powerline, and step out of any "conga lines" I don't like the pace of. Check in, pray and right at 4:00 away we go.

LEADVILLE TO MAY QUEEN: 13 Miles; I will try to run this in about 2:40, a little slower than past years, hoping to keep a little in reserve for later in the race. I will begin with the following nutritional plan and will plan on following it the entire race unless something goes wrong. Keeping on this plan for the full 100 miles is the key. Every time I leave an aid station I should have a 3 hour supply of these products and every time I come in one, someone should be checking to see if I'm taking an appropriate amount. Dave, late in the race you tell me to eat, drink, etc...just make sure you see me do it so to be sure I'm not lying about it)
  • VESPA -1 every 3 hours
  • MTN BERRY SHOT BLOKS - 1 block every 20 minutes
  • S-CAPS - 1 every hour
  • NUUN - 1 bottle along with one bottle of water between every aid station.
MAY QUEEN TO FISH HATCHERY: 10 Miles; Again, I need to maintain a controlled pace. I personally believe the first 23 miles of this race are critical for "low-landers", if you push too hard, either on the trail to MAY QUEEN or up and over SUGARLOAF, you expend a lot of oxygen early on that you will wish you had later in the race. Remind me not to bomb down the other side of SUGARLOAF, I'll need those quads later. Hope to arrive Fish Hatchery in 9:15 AM (5:15 hrs)

FISH HATCHERY TO HALFMOON: 7 Miles; If I controlled myself in the first 23 miles this should be a more enjoyable section than in past years when I tried to run it on legs I had just thrashed bombing down SUGARLOAF like an idiot. My goal is to run the first mile, then walk and eat for a few minutes before running again all the way to TREELINE. From TREELINE to HALFMOON, the grade will somewhat determine pace, but hope to move through this dusty road section fairly quickly and get to HALFMOON by 10:45 AM (6:45 hrs)

HALFMOON TO TWIN LAKES: 10 Miles, First two miles are still on dirt road, followed by 7 miles on the rolling COLORADO TRAIL (although near the beginning there is about a .5 mile section of very steep up-hill that will get your attention) followed by a 1 mile steep descent down a rutted out fire road. Need to maintain momentum through this section. The Aspen grove near the Beaver Ponds seems to suck the life out of me every year. Plan on arriving by 12:45 PM (8:45 hrs)

TWIN LAKES TO WINFIELD: 10 Miles; I Must leave this aid station focused and strong for what lies ahead. Remind me to run the field section and keep my spirits up as I climb HOPE. This is where the race begins, after a 1.5 mile run through the field and across the river the course climbs 3,000 vertical feet up to 12,600 feet and HOPE PASS. It is all on trail and kicks my butt every year. This is where I hope running a more controlled pace early on will help me maintain pace and stamina. Once up and over, it's 2,500 feet straight down to the Winfield Rd. I always push too hard here as I love running down hill, but feel if I run with more control this year I will have more left for the second crossing. from there it's a little over two miles into WINFIELD and the half way point. I plan to arrive by 4:30 PM (12:30 hrs)


through.WINFIELD TO TWIN LAKES: 10 Miles; As we head back the other direction along the Winfield Rd we want to make sure that we have everything we need, we should start with a run/walk strategy to get moving again and to give you a chance to assess where I'm at. This will also conserve energy for the second pass of HOPE. Start with run 2/walk 3/walk 4/walk 2...etc...this should get us down the road to the trail head in around 25 minutes. This side of HOPE is shorter (2.5 miles) but steeper. The bottom half is the worst, but the top half has less oxygen so really the whole climb is just awful. Make sure to keep me on my a fore mentioned nutrition plan as we climb and just keep talking. Keep me focused on anything you can think of other than running. Walk in front, but don't loose me. Once above treeline give me short range goals for us to work towards, with very quick rest in between. Once we cross over the top let me lead down unless I start acting stupid. We need to quickly get in and out of the HOPE PASS aid station when we get there, a quick cup of RAMEN and some COKE and off we go. The run down HOPE should be fun if I have run a smart race to that point. The top half is very runable and the air fills with oxygen the lower we get. As we get near the bottom it becomes quite rocky, you may want to take the lead through here as you will be in better shape to find a "good line" down. Once off the trail, it's through the field and across a very cold river and on into TWIN LAKES. Don't let me get lazy here as I will be feeling a bit beat up from the double crossing. Even if we start the run/walk through the field we will still come out ahead. Once we hit pavement we want to run all the way to the Firehouse that is home to the TWIN LAKES aid station. If we're on our game we should be there by 8:00 PM (16:00 hrs)

TWIN LAKES TO HALFMOON: 10 Miles; Karen knows exactly what to do here and will take care of me, so you can get whatever you need. This is a slightly longer stop (7-8 minutes) as I will eat my most substantial meal of the day here, change into warm clothes for the overnight and try to get focused on the last 40 Miles, with HOPE PASS now thankfully behind us. As we leave TWIN LAKES we are greeted by a huge climb up an old rugged fire road. It will be important to keep up a good pace even though we are walking. Once to the top we have rolling terrain for the next 9 miles, 7 on trail and 2 along the Halfmoon Road. My goal through here would be to run all the flats and downhills and power walk the ups. This is pretty good trail, if I'm still feeling good let me lead through here until we hit the road. Once on the road it's side by side into the HALFMOON aid station. It would be awesome to be there by 11:00 (19:00 hrs)

HALFMOON TO FISH HATCHERY: 7 Miles; No crews at the HALFMOON aid station so you will need to get my drop bag. (Even though I have a crew that will help me tremendously throughout the race, I still use drop bags for the absolute essentials. Anything can happen on race day, not only to the runner but to the crew as well. Our first year in Leadville the power steering on our Suburban went out at 5:00 in the morning on the road that winds around Turquoise Lake. Having drop bags is like insurance for the runner and less to carry for the crew). In it, there will be a small zip lock bag with my nutrition stuff. There will also be some spare batteries and warmer/dryer clothes if I am needing them. The sooner we get out of this aid station the better as a lot of people linger here huddled around a propane heater. That is not a good idea and I suppose a number of these folks never end up leaving. OK, back on the Halfmoon Rd. Start out with the same run/walk strategy as on the Winfield Rd. We need to keep moving through here as this is where it can start getting cold. This is especially true once we pass our crew at TREELINE and enter a VERY EXPOSED section of the course where it can be cold, damp and windy. Grabbing a very light shell from our crew along with some caffeine might be a good idea. Just keep me moving through here even if it is telephone pole to telephone poll. We get through this section in good shape and it's only 23 miles to go, and if we get to FISH HATCHERY by 12:45 AM (20:45 hrs) we will have 9:00 hours to do it in!

FISH HATCHERY TO MAY QUEEN: 10 Miles; We will be well served to make sure I am in control and focused before leaving this aid station as the last major climb is before us. A large dose of caffeine would also be an excellent idea. As we leave the aid station we will want to run as much of the 1.5 miles of paved road as we can before turning left onto the infamous POWERLINE trail, up to the top of SUGARLOAF. This section of trail is steep, long, rutted and has at least three false summits. If that's not enough, last year MK and I found ourselves in a complete white out (yes, a blizzard in August). This is perhaps the climb that makes everything that comes before it (conserving energy, keeping up on my calories, electrolytes and hydration, keeping warm and dry, etc...) so critical. If not, we will both pay the price for it here, me physically and you mentally. The job here is to just keep me moving up the mountain. If we're on pace, we have four hours to go 10 miles, that's 24 minutes a mile. Other than that there's not a lot of strategy at this point. This is for many, the time of the race Ken talks about during the Prue race meeting, this is the time to dig deep and find that inexhaustible well of grit, guts, determination and courage. This is the section to remind me how hard I've trained all year, and reinforce how badly I want this. Remind me of what happened here last year and how its not going to end that way this year. Whatever you do DON'T TELL ME WE HAVE PLENTY OF TIME. Keep me eating and keep me drinking (again, don't take my word for it as I quite possibly will lie to you, see me eat, see me drink, remind me about VESPA when it's time) Once over the top, we should try to run a little of the downhill, once we get to the COLORADO TRAIL section you should lead and help me find a clean line down as it is kind of rocky. Once off the COLORADO TRAIL we have just a half mile to go before we hit the final aid station MAY QUEEN. Hopefully it's around 4:30 (24:30 hrs)

MAY QUEEN TO LEADVILLE: 13 Miles; This is no place to dilly-dally. There are lots of runners who never left for one reason or the other filling the cots that line the far side of the aid station. If it is still dark, we are in good shape. If we see light on the horizon....well, let's just plan on getting there while it is still dark. We have about 8 miles of trail ahead of us followed by 5 miles of road, 3 of which are uphill. The first section of trail (to the TABOR BOAT RAMP) is rolling and moderately technical, we can run the downhills through this section. After TABOR it's all pretty runable, and would be a section to push a little if need be. Once off the trail, it's down the mini power line before turning east and heading towards Leadville. After 1 mile of very flat runable road we hit the BOULEVARD, 3 miles of chunky gravel, all uphill. Finally, we hit pavement, and after another hundred yards or so we will make our final turn and there before us a mile away is Leadville. Our strategy for this section will be largely based on two things, one, what kind of shape am I in, and two, what time is it. If we are in good shape on both counts, use the carrot. If we are in trouble on count two, use the stick. If things go our way, it should be right around 8:00 when we hit the red carpet and Merilee.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Midsummer's Night Dream

I remember it like yesterday. It was 2006 on an unusually warm December afternoon. As I recall it was near sunset and I was doing everything I could to keep up with Dave Wakefield and Matthew Rodriquez as we pushed hard down the Blackfoot trail, hoping to get back to our cars before dark. Although I had lived in Topeka for the better part of twelve years, it was my first time out on the trails of Perry Lake State Park, and I was taken aback by its rugged beauty. As we ran, the subject of putting on a trail race came up, or maybe even a series!? All three of us loved running trails and felt, given the opportunity, others would too. At that time the closest thing to what we were talking about was the Topeka to Auburn Half Marathon and interestingly enough it was one of the largest drawing races in Topeka year after year. But would people actually drive out to Perry Lake and run a race up and down on rocky, rooted trails? They were already doing it in Kansas City, Ben Holmes and the Trail Nerds were seeing tremendous growth in the number of runners participating in trail events. But this wasn't Kansas City, this was Topeka, the town where members it's own business and banking community told us we'd be better off opening our store (Great Plains Running Co) somewhere else, because "people don't run in Topeka"

Although our first trail clinic drew only five runners, the Rock Creek Trail Series has enjoyed steady growth since our first race in May of 2007. We have been blessed not just by the growth, but more so, by the positive feedback we have received from so many runners, and the privilege of watching so many we now call friends, doing things they never could have imagined. The best part of my job is getting to stand at the finish line and congratulate people who I know just accomplished something they never thought possible.

So with that as a backdrop, the timing seemed right for a new challenge, for both runner and Race Director. I love running trails at night. I love how your senses are alive as you become totally immersed in the process of what you're doing, and wanted to give others the opportunity to share in that experience and to make it part of the Rock Creek Trail Series. While the race received a lot of initial curiosity we had no idea how many people would actually show up and do it and with early registration numbers so low I was concerned we had made a mistake. In the end however registration gained momentum and we headed into our big night with eighty runners from eight states (including Alaska, Ohio and Colorado) ready and willing to take on a new challenge.

Race week preparations were going as planned and then came Saturday. Without going into detail, I'll just Saturday challenged us in ways no other race had. This would be a good time for a well deserved shout out for Lee Crane and MK Thompson. Without the two of them I have no idea what might have happened that night. They truly saved the day, or should I say night.

The race went off with only a few "hitches" created by an overly tired race Director and some new timing/results software. The weather was beautiful and the trails were in great shape.
It was hard for me to take it all in as the runners started to arrive. Headlamps bobbing down the trail, marked with glow sticks, runners totally charged up about what they had just done, Norma manning "mission control", tiki torches and paper lanterns lighting up an awesome post race party organized by Karen and Co. and I would be remiss if I failed to mention our male volunteers sporting the latest in mermaid lingerie (you had to be there). Channel 49 had called the store and said they couldn't make it out, but if we took a picture on my cell and sent it to them they would try to mention it. I don't know why but that totally cracked me up. There was no way to capture what was happening with a picture, it was much bigger than that. The dream Matthew, Dave and I shared that December afternoon had been realized beyond my wildest expectations. I hope those who were there felt it, and claimed it as their own. It is awesome to see what is happening in the Topeka running community and throughout North East Kansas.

I hope you all walked into work Monday morning with just a little more swagger in your step than you did the week before. If not you should!

I hope you can join us on October 24th for our big year end finale, the Rock Creek 50K, Half Marathon and 5K. See you then.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Vermont 100

It's hard to believe that it has almost been two weeks since Vermont, yet the preparations for Rock Creek's first ever night race caused last week to scream by, climaxing in an unforgettable night on the trails of Lake Perry (more on that later)

If not for the commitment I made to raise funds for Family Service and Guidance Center I probably would never have even gone to Vermont. Any hopes of a Grand Slam finish for 2009 had been forfeited last month at the Auburn Lakes Trail aid station just 15 miles from the Western States finish line, and as Karen and I prepared to head off to Vermont I found myself less enthused than I had ever been prior to an event of this nature. The DNF at Western States had obviously taken more out of me than I was willing to admit. My confidence was shaken and life wasn't doing anything to ease the pain. I was afraid I had "lost it" and felt like an ultra running "poser". How would I now move on and finish Vermont, let alone Leadville or Wasatch? Suddenly coach Donnie Palmer's humorous battle cry used last season by his championship T-West XC team was reverberating through my mind..."No Expectations" So with that as my mantra we headed off to Vermont, as I also knew that if nothing else, five days in Vermont with just Karen would do us both a world of good.

As anyone who has spent much time around ultra running's great races will tell you, the town's that play host to these events are generally of a rough and tumbled variety. So when our rental car pulled into the picturesque little village of Woodstock, VT, I'm sure Karen thought I had made a wrong turn somewhere. Woodstock is the quintessential New England town that looks as though it was the model for a Courier and Ives Christmas Card. After just ten minutes at the Deer Creek Inn B&B, our base camp for the week, I was sure that for the first time I had stumbled into a race weekend that would be enjoyed as much by my "non running spouse" as it would be by me, the runner.

I had run Vermont last year and knew that even though the hills are relentless, this was a race that I could finish, and "to finish" was my only goal, hoping to gain confidence and maybe a little momentum heading into Leadville. Last year's race was run in 90 degree temperatures with very high humidity causing me stomach problems all day long. Although this year's forecast looked much more promising, my plan was to simply get me home in the same 26:25 as a year ago.

After a Thursday and Friday filled with touristy distractions and good food, race day finally came. Vermont, like Leadville has a 4:00 AM start time which necessitates a 2:00 AM wake up call, a somewhat cruel way to start a very long day. With cool temps and light rain, the race starts on time. After a short stretch of dirt road, the race race then hits it's first section on trail, muddied by recent rains. Just as runners are finding their "groove" around sunrise, you begin to hear "it",the clip clop of horses. That's right horses. Vermont is the last and only ultra where horse race is run concurrently with the run. Although somewhat odd at first, this quickly becomes "no big deal" apart from the smell that spices up the course the rest of way.

As the race unfolded from there things became quite uneventful as my splits were almost a carbon copy of last year's race. Things stayed this way through mile 47 and Camp Ten Bear. Although my legs were feeling better than I had even hoped for just three weeks after Western States, it was my feet that were troubling me. I had traded conventional laces for the stretchy "Yanks", no tie lacing system worn by a lot of triathletes and other people who can't tie their shoes (just kidding). I had thought the elasticity of the Yanks would eliminate the discomfort of tight shoes associated with the inevitable foot swelling later in the race. What I failed to foresee was how little stability or security these laces would provide on uneven terrain, which there was plenty of. My feet were sliding all over the place and eventually began to hurt worse with every step, hills were the worst and unfortunately the hills just kept coming and coming. After "gimping" my way through to mile 70 I changed my shoes and headed out in my Salomon XAPro 3D Ultras, a good shoe for softer terrain, but on the hard packed dirt roads of Vermont they felt like bricks on my already bruised feet. Fortunately it was shortly after this that I met up with a young guy who played football at Connecticut who had been pacing, but recently lost his runner. Perhaps it was an age complex or the fact that he was built like a house, but something stirred in me to work a little harder through this section, and before I knew it we were at "Bill's" and the mile 88 aid station where Karen had my Mizuno Wave Ascends waiting for me. Although these felt infinitely better, it fell into the category of too little too late as now every step was an opportunity to expand my pain tolerance. More than anything, it just made me mad. Here I was owner of a running shoe store, running a race where the only problem I was having was with my shoes!!! (kinda pathetic) When I saw Karen at the 95 mile aid station I knew a sub 24 or 25 hour finish was not going to happen, I only hoped I might get in in under 26 hours (what happened to my no expectations plan). It didn't take long to realize that wasn't happening either, my feet were killing me and causing me to slow down and by mile 96 my only goal left was to beat last year's 26:25. Finally after pushing the pace as hard as I could on the final ascent, I crossed the finish line in 26:10 and found my way to the nearest chair.

Vermont was in the books and I now had a pair of finishes there to go along with a set of buckles from Arkansas as well as Heartland. Would this also be the year I get my second at Leadville?

I was happy to be done and even more happy to shed my shoes, yet truth be known, I was still unfulfilled. My goal at this point in the summer was to be half way through the Grand Slam, 200 miles down and 200 to go, yet as I sat in my little chair I'm reminded of the reality that I am still 15 miles short, and will be all summer. I contemplate how might I feel on September 12th if I have covered 385 of the 400 miles? It becomes obvious that the fact I fell 15 miles short of a finish at Western States will haunt me a little more with each of the other three I finish.
On the other hand the one thing running has taught me is if we allow ourselves to be teachable there is always something we can gain from our experiences, and that alone is reason enough to press on.

If the lesson from Western States was about the need we all have for friendship and the support that a community can provide. Then the lesson from Vermont is even more personal. The DNF at Western States and the fact that I had finished this event before, removed a lot of the pressure that I place on myself, and allowed me to enjoy the other aspects of the weekend more than usual (wow, isn't that why we have hobbies) In the end my memories from this year's Vermont 100 will be more about my time in Vermont with Karen and the fun that we had throughout those five days, than it will be about the actual race. So as I look forward to Leadville on August 22, my hope is to put the race in its proper perspective, relax and enjoy those moments with family and friends I am sure I have allowed to slip by in the past.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

2009 Western States - Chasing the Cutoffs

It had been almost eighteen months ago that I started training for this day, and now the wait was finally over. After a years hiatus due to wildfires in 20008, the 35th running of the Western States 100 was finally at hand. High in the Sierra Nevada of California, 400 runners lined up at 5:00 in the morning to begin a journey that would hopefully deliver us to the town of Auburn, some 100 miles away by 11:00 the following morning. Along the way the course would wind its way over high altitude mountains passes, through blazing hot canyons and across the fast moving (and butt cold) American River before finally spitting runners out onto the track at Placer High School. While every runners is determined to finish this race before the thirty hour cut-off, four of every ten will not. After 26 hours and 85.2 miles my race came to end at 7:03 AM Sunday morning when myself and pacer Lee Crane arrived at the Auburn Lake Trails aid station three minutes after the 7:00 cut off. While in school, an 85% would generally garner you a solid B, Ultra Running is not so kind and anything less than 100% is considered an incomplete. Although the shiny silver and bronze belt buckles that serve as rewards are reserved for those who finish in under 30 hours, the experience (as well as the memories, images and lessons that come with it) of running this magnificent trail is a prize unto its own.

The race starts straight uphill, 2800 vertical feet in three and a half miles before spilling over into the Granite Chief Wilderness Area and the "alpine" section of the Western States Trail. This entire section of the race was much more difficult then I had anticipated and the altitude, which is generally not a problem for me complicated things even further. While the elevation profile for the trail would imply fairly consistent downhill progress in these early miles, the reality is the section from Emigrant Pass to Robinson Flat (30 Miles) is an intense roller coaster that makes getting into any sort of rhythm difficult, while the thin air inflicts damage that would have both short term and long term consequences. The final insult is the heat through Duncan Canyon and the climb to Robinson Flat. It is here that I first began to come undone, with the heat and the altitude each taking their turn beating me down with nausea and light headedness, my progress slowed to what ultra runners refer to as a death march. When I finally arrived the aid station I immediately let my crew (Bret Deardorff and Lee Crane) know I was in trouble and they went to work. After about 15 minutes of getting me cooled off with numerous ice packs, re hydrated with water and NOS Energy drink and nourished with a few bites of watermelon I was off, just a precarious 20 minutes ahead of the cut off, but I was still in the game.

The next section of the trail begins to drop runners into the section of the course known simply as "the canyons". This section can be very exposed, very hot and very steep and at times all three. It is in this section the two most notorious climbs can be found, Devil's Thumb (1,400 vertical feet in just .65 miles) and Michigan Bluff (1,700 vertical feet across 2.7 long miles) While I certainly had my share of struggles through this section of the course, it was anticipated and I was certainly not alone. Even seven time winner Scott Jurek succumbed to the canyons this year dropping at Devil's Thumb when "the well ran dry". With daylight running out and my crew and headlamp waiting at Michigan Bluff (Mile 55) I continued to move as quickly as I could fearful of navigating these trails in the dark. Although my arrival at Michigan Bluff was much later then I had originally planned due to some soul searching atop Devil's Thumb, I had made up valuable time and was now a full 45 minutes ahead of the cut offs. Even better, from this point on Lee would be running along with me, helping me maintain the pace needed to reach Auburn, still some 45 miles away.

As we left Michigan Bluff and headed for Forest Hill, it was now dark. While we now had headlamps I was unfortunately without my "regular" glasses which I had placed in the drop bag we would find in Forest Hill, seven miles away. While this made me a bit uneasy, as I am quite blind without them, we were blessed with very "good" trail all the way, and as we moved through this section my confidence began to build that we might actually pull this thing out. Once in Forest Hill it was time to eat the first "real" food of the day. Bret had gone and gotten what was quickly "the best pizza of my life". After a couple pieces of pizza and another can of NOS we were off, feeling good that the toughest part of the course was now behind us and some gentle downhill was just ahead.

Over the next fifteen miles Lee and I moved fairly efficiently through the course, maintaining our 45 minute lead over the cut-offs. Although it was now the middle of the night and my energy (along with my mood) was ebbing and flowing, the VESPA I had been taking every three hours was working well and I was very aware of where we were at in relationship to the clock. My feet also felt good, still in the same shoes (Brooks Cascadia) I had started in almost 23 hours ago. The only distress signals my body was sending me was some serious pain in my quads as well as what was quickly becoming a very serious chaffing issue.

At 4:15 AM we reached the Rucky Chucky aid station. It was here, that after almost 24 hours of running we would now cross the fast flowing American River. After securing our packs and water bottles we grabbed hold of the one hundred yard long cable and stepped into the ice cold river. As we worked our way across the massive underwater boulders, illuminated with glow sticks we were greeted by some of the most dedicated volunteers I have ever met. Every ten yards we were greeted by a volunteer in either a wet suit or fishing waiters who were there to help us negotiate the tricky river bottom. Without these folks in place this experience would have moved from surreal to nightmarish. Once on the other side of the River we met Bret and began the long slow climb out of the river valley up to the Green Gate aid Station just before sunrise.

It was now 5:15 and we had now been at it for over 24 hours. As we started our on the 5.5 mile trek towards the Auburn Lake Trails aid station, I was counting on the energy from the sunrise to help move us along. This was a section of trail I knew was mostly downhill and very runable. Although the seven o'clock cut off would be tight, I was confident we would make it. Then it happened! After making up some good time through the first long downhill of this section, my quads called it a day. As we started down the next descent it wasn't as though they hurt, they just wouldn't hold me up, the only way I could run was in what might best be described as a modifies sumo wrestler position, using my "glutes" to keep me from falling. While certainly quite comical to watch, it was not very efficient and my pace slowed to a death "waddle". Then just before 7:00 we first heard, then saw the Auburn Lake Trails aid station and with energy that could only have come from above (as within was on empty) Lee and I gave it one last push. Surely if we're there within a minute or so they'll let us keep going I thought as the horn blew signalling the top of the hour, but as we rounded the corner into the aid station we were informed that the aid station was closed and that our race was over.

I'm sure it seems silly to some to put so much into a race that in the end matters very little, but after all that we have been through this past year, and all that we are still going through, I was badly in need of a little good news and was counting on a finish to reassure me that in some things hard work does pay off, that effort really does equal success, and perhaps signal an end to what has been a really hard year .....Once again however running has reflected the realities of life rather then redefining it; There are no guarantees, hard work does not always insure success. Although at times life can be a great adventure, much of the time it can be, at best drudgery and at it's worst painful and unfair. Whether we cross our finish line at 100 or 85, the question that remains is, were we authentic and did we whole heartedly apply ourselves without reserve to those things we are led, called or created to do. Finally,we are reminded that everything works better when we invite others into the process. It is this, that in the end is my take away from Western States. A reminder about our need for people. Without them victory is hollow and struggle insurmountable. To outsiders running seems a solitary sport, and for some it is, but as I moved down the trail this past Saturday I was constantly aware of all the people who ran with me; my late father who I'm sure gets a kick out of watching me torture myself, my dear wife and awesome kids who don't just tolerate but support and encourage this crazy hobby of mine, the crew at Great Plains Running Co who are truly the best group of folks anyone could ever hope to work with, friends Rick Mayo and Gabe Bevan (along with their families and crew) who also ran, and finished in under 24 hours (way to go guys) family and friends who prayed for me throughout the day and of course Bret and Lee who without their presence I still might be sitting in a chair at what was the Robinson Flat aid station.

So although I won nothing that might help me hold my pants up, I can hold my head up and look forward to Vermont, now just two weeks from Saturday. If between now and then you see someone running down the road looking like a Sumo wrestler, that's me.

I hope to add pictures in a day or two!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


For those unfamiliar with endurance running, a runner's "taper" is the final two or three weeks of training before the big race. A time when all the hard training has finally come to the end and is replaced with a period of less intense workouts as well as rest, allowing overworked muscles to recover and repair in time for their ultimate test. It is also a time when commitment to the goal is replaced by worry as to whether or not one has done "enough" to achieve it. Suddenly the hours that seemed to be in such short supply only a week ago are now moving ever so slowly, and finally the calories that were so easily burned up during heavy training, now need to be carefully considered.

This is where I am. The heavy lifting now done, I find myself at the mercy of the calendar and the clock. Waiting for the opportunity to start up that first major climb out of Squaw Valley, the opportunity I along with 370 other runners were denied last year due to wildfires that burned throughout Northern California. Any taper will test your patience, but when you've waited this long to run a race it'll drive you nuts, especially when there is no guarantee it won't happen again. I suddenly find myself checking California's emergency management web-site nightly.

So I will count my blessings and try to wait patiently, thankful for the health and the opportunity to be part of such an event. Thankful for my wife Karen who not only accepts this part of me, but encourages me as well. Thankful for friends such as MK Thompson and Lee Crane who have lessened my load as Race Director of the Rock Creek Trail Series and (along with Rock Star UltraRunner Dave Wakefield) have encouraged me through the many miles of training. Thankful for Lee Crane who will pace me the final 38 and Bret Deardorff who will crew me throughout. Thankful for the growing trail and Ultra running community of NE Kansas, a community that I am proud to be part of. Finally I am thankful to God, not just for all of this, but for what He will teach me this summer. Some people read "inspirational" books in search of learning something of God. I have done the same and through the process I have read many great books, but ultimately I run, and when I run, I ultimately will run into a God who has something he wants to teach me (which is good cause I have a lot to learn) What will be the lessons of 2009?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Almost time for dessert

Someone once said "Training is like the main course and the race is like the dessert". Well the main course is almost over, Western States is four weeks from today.

It has been almost two months since my last post just a few days after the Rockin' K 50 Miler and these past eight weeks can be described as nothing other then insane. The impact of a tough economy continues to weigh heavily on our family business, Great Plains Running Co. While we are surviving better then others, it has been tough and tiring work. In addition, our race race season (the ones that we direct) shifted into high gear with three events, three weekends in a row. Somewhere in there the Free State 100K which was intended to be my final tune up race was abruptly ended when lightning and tornadoes forced RD Ben Holmes to pull runners off the course ten miles from the finish. At home, May, which is always a busy month was exceptionally hectic with two Birthdays (Zach & Cassie), Mother's Day, an elementary school graduation (Cassie) and a middle school graduation (Molly). Oh yeah, this is also supposed to be the highest volume training period in my preparation for June 27th's Western States 100. While all of this has somewhat taken a toll on me physically, mentally and spiritually, I am encouraged by the fact that life seems to be getting somewhat back to normal and in a week the heavy training will be over and I can begin tapering.

With April and May then behind us, I can begin to focus on the actual race. As I assess where I am at physically I am feeling surprisingly confident, not just as it relates to Western States but for the other three races that follow. My foot problem appears to be fixed, I have been much more race specific in my training this year, and with parenting challenges becoming less "dire" then a year ago I should have the opportunity to be better prepared mentally as well. And so, as I prepare for the final week of hard training, the list of things I worry about is thankfully short;
  1. Wildfires: Last year's race was canceled for this reason, a repeat would be a real drag as I now have committed two year's of training to this race.
  2. My Quads: To quote Rick Mayo after his return from the WS100 training camp, " There is no way in the Midwest to prepare for the intense downhills that can be up to four miles. long".
  3. Snakes: Rattle snakes are common at Western States, and after two near misses with Copperheads this spring, I'm a little spooked!
  4. Staying Healthy: This is not the time to get a summer cold.
It has been a long road to get here. A road so full of emotions that at times it has seemed insignificant and silly. Still I am drawn to it because in so many ways it parallels the struggles we have faced as a family. Struggles that have been painful and scary, and struggles that at times I feared would destroy us, yet by God's grace we have been able to keep moving forward. That is my prayer for this summer; that our store, our daughter, myself, we all keep moving forward, for there are lessons to be learned along the way, lessons that will make us stronger if we allow them to.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Rockin' K

I remember a song, maybe from an old musical, I think the name was "They call the wind Mariah" I have no idea what made me think of that song or who they are, but at last Saturday's Rockin' K 50 Mile Trail run I was coming up with a few names of my own for the 40-50 mph winds that blew throughout the race. Now Rockin' K (like the Heartland races) is almost always going to have wind, but this year it reached "epic" proportions with gusts clocked at over 50 mph by the NWS out of Salina. I know sometimes we here in the Heartland can feel our trail running venues lack the romance of the mountains with their heart pumping climbs and lung searing altitude. Although I'm not a mathematician, I'm pretty certain that running into a 45 mph headwind across open prairie on one of the first 70 degree days of the year, is about as difficult, if not more so, then ascending most trails through the mountains.

While certainly the hardest parts of running in wind like this is staying hydrated and pushing against the resistance (when heading straight into it) or the feeling of being pushed (when running across it)... Funny, it never really seemed to be at our back? But the other maddening aspect was the noise, that kind of wind is loud, and after nine, ten hours of it, the noise starts to get to you. I remember how quiet it was when I was finally finished and got in my car and shut the door. So quiet it was kinda eerie.

When all was said and done that Saturday about 58% of the starters made it through the entire 50 miles, I was thankful
to be among them. Several stopped after the first loop,
tempted by good food, a cold drink and a place out of the
wind. Special congratulations to Salomon/Great Plains Running Co team members Rick Mayo (2nd in a time of 9:19:21) Paul Schoenlaub (3rd) and Stuart Johnson (5th) Way to go guys!

All in all, a great day at the "K". Phil and Stacey put on a great race and for Kansas, the scenery is pretty darn good. Whatever "conditioning" my legs loose out on by not getting to climb big hills, they more then make up for in resistance training compliments of a stiff Kansas breeze.