Friday, October 14, 2016

Grindstone Runners and the Blustery Race

The rain rain rain came down down down in rushing, rising riv'lets ...

(Runners at the 2016 Grindstone 100 -- Disney)

In the days leading up to Grindstone, I went back and forth on handhelds or a vest. I prefer handhelds, but was afraid I wouldn't have enough storage for my nutrition, spare headlamp battery, and Houdini jacket. So I settled on my vest. Despite the added weight, I'd have the advantage of having my hands free to power climb with hands-on-quads. Why does any of this matter? Well, because I wanted to set the stage for my ridiculous attempt at seeing if my rain jacket would fit over my vest:

(My Michelle Jenneke moment?)

Now that we've got that ridiculousness out of the way, let's get into the race report.


I came into Grindstone equally confident and terrified.

I completed it last year for my first Hundo. I reconned over 60 miles of the course 3 weeks prior. I'd raced well all Spring and early Summer. Anything less than a Top 10 would be a major letdown.

On the other hand...

7 weeks prior I DNF'd Eastern States 100 because of hip pain. I'd spent the last 6 weeks solely devoted to physical therapy -- 1 to 3 hours of stretching and strength work every single day. 3 weeks before the race, I tested out my hip with back-to-back 6 hour runs on the course and everything felt good. But a few days later the hip pain returned. I shut down running completely, betting entirely on physical therapy. The pain only fully subsided in the week leading up to Grindstone. I was just hoping my endurance hadn't deteriorate too much.

So ... that's how the race started ... feeling like a good day would translate into a stellar performance and yet still fearful that hip problems would lead me to hobble for hours on end towards a depressing finish.

As for the race day conditions, it looked like Hurricane Matthew, which was rolling up Florida and the Carolinas, would be forcing a separate storm cell to get stuck in position right over the race course. The Forecast: 60 degrees and Rain, Rain, Rain beginning just as the race started ... and it wasn't expected to taper off for nearly 24 hours.

Oh, and when I checked in before the race I was surprised to find out I was seeded 4th. Somebody was clearly having fun at my expense!

Nutrition Plan

My Nutrition Plan has stabilized over the past year. I dialed into something that really worked at Western States. I kept the plan the same as for Western States -- 250 calories per hour, 100 from an hourly Huma gel and the rest from EFS Liquid Shot and Tailwind. I would dial back my hydration to around 3.5oz per mile instead of the 4+ from Western States.

I planned to start with a whopping 1,700 calories so my wife wouldn't need to meet me until North River Gap (TWOT lot) at Mile 37. Then, I planned on restocking with an appropriate amount of nutrition again at the Turn Around (Briery Branch) Mile 51, North River Gap at Mile 65, Dowell's Draft at Mile 80, and Dry Branch Gap at Mile 87. I'd come in, swap out my 2 bottles, restock on Huma gels, and head back out. Simple and easy!

The Race

I'm an extreme overplanner when it comes to races. I have spreadsheets and formulas to determine appropriate race pace, nutrition, hydration, etc. Since my hip was a bit of a question mark, I vastly simplified my planning. I came up with a crude plan for a 20:40 finishing time, complete with intermediary crew meetup times. I knew that the weather could slow my pace a bit, and my hip was a major wildcard, but I thought that was a legit time goal for ideal conditions. I just left it at that and figured I'd roll with the punches on race day.



Awkward foam rolling in the back of the SUV and even more awkward pigeon stretch.

Am I the only ultra runner out here stretching? I feel like such a noob.


Routine hip mobility exercises ... doctors orders!

Again, I feel like a roadie who walked up to the wrong starting line.


Chat up some running buddies at the starting line. Set myself up right at the front.

Start to Dowell's Draft


The gun goes off. No adrenaline rush like last year. I've done this before, no big deal!

Get in the front. You need to avoid the dam bottleneck 1/4 mile into the race.

0:05 (Mile 0.5)

I quickly pair up with John Andersen and Aaron Saft. John and I ran a few races together this Spring and seem to be nearly identical in terms of fitness; he's joked that I've become his new "Nemesis". At the end of the day, one of us would have bragging rights, but for now it made sense to stick together. As for Aaron, he's an otherworldly runner who was a solid 40+ minutes ahead in the Beast Series standings. Despite it being his first 100, only a miracle (or an insidious trip) would have me finishing ahead of him today.  We three, and some others, run in a pack over the early miles.

0:50 (Mile 5) -- Falls Hollow Aid Station

Easy 5 mile warmup! Falls Hollow is a useless aid station ... should I stop? No, keep going.

1:30 (Mile 8)

Deep into the 4+ mile, 2,000' climb up Elliot's Knob.     It's getting steep: 20% grade.     Hiking feels good, not too laborious.

Rain is picking up, better throw on my jacket.

2:10 (Mile 12)

Stupid Altra insoles! I love these new Lone Peaks, but I really should've glued the insoles down before the race. They're waterlogging and sliding around, folding over in the front and putting strain on my toes.

I'm gonna have some fugly toenails when this day is done.

I vocalize my frustration. John chides me for my pre-race oversight.

SPOILER ALERT: This is what my piggies looked like after the race ... I don't think toenails are supposed to be that color!

(Ultra runner toes / Altra insole toes ... yuck!)

2:20 (Mile 13)

That jerk Aaron Saft nefariously distracts me with talk of life and family. I lose focus.


I bite it on the slick, unstable rocks that pepper the trail. Blood runs down my arm, but nothing is broken. More importantly, I didn't fall onto the bad hip.

2:37 (Mile 14) -- Dry Branch Gap Aid Station

Our group is hovering around the Top 10. There's about 7 of us that roll through together. Aaron is clearly taking it easy, and I'm sure there's a couple overeager runners up ahead.

What was my split supposed to be? I think I'm making good time. Nevermind. Doesn't matter.

What?! I have to wait in line to fill up my bottles with water?! THIS. IS. THE. WORST!

2:50 (Mile 16)

We proceed up the Crawford climb with a mostly manageable pace. John tries counting off the 5 false summits along the way, but I can't make heads or tails of any of them.

3:13 (Mile 17)

We crest Crawford and start our second major descent. These damn insoles better not get in my way!

3:30 (Mile 19)

Stomach is feeling a bit off. I pull off to scratch in the woods.

Last year I spent way too much time going to the bathroom. I sure hope my stomach settles today.
That Imodium better kick in soon...

3:45 (Mile 20)

After a mad dash at an unsustainable clip, I catch back up with John and Aaron. That was too fast ... might have been a bad idea! It's probably better to catch back up than be stranded on my own.

3:50 (Mile 21)

We cross HWY 250 and come across Caleb Denton -- Golden Ticket winner at Georgia Death Race this year.

... Both he and Aaron will be running it next year. After my respectable showing at States, I made the rash decision to sign up as well. Running with both of them here at Grindstone could be a glimpse into the suffering I might expect if I'm to compete for a Golden Ticket next year. SPOILER ALERT: Don't put your money on me!

Caleb is battling a bum hip from getting checked by a car earlier in the week. Despite all that, he looks like a friggin gazelle bounding up the climbs.

We all put in an honest effort in the mile-plus stretch from HWY 250 to Dowell's Draft.

This section isn't nearly as flat as the blip on the elevation profile suggests. The first hint of fatigue is setting in...

4:02 (Mile 22) -- Dowell's Draft Aid Station

As our remaining group of 4 rolls in, everyone but me peels off to their crew just before the Aid Station tent. I've got a new bag of Tailwind ready and I throw it in my bottle, top everything off, and head on out.

Clark, the RD, is there and shouts, "Hey, looks like you've moved up a lot!" I respond with a joking, "I wish! Everyone else is right over there."

I'm feeling good. I'm a few minutes up on my planned pace. The race is about ready to start sorting itself out!

Dowell's Draft to North River Gap

4:20 (Mile 23)

John, Aaron, Caleb, and I regather our little posse and begin the climb up Hankey Mountain. After a couple of miles I start to feel the strain of keeping up with the top dogs. I happily let Aaron and Caleb effortlessly bound up the mountain. It's just me and John now.

4:22 (Mile 23)

John and I have a bit of a pity party after the posse breaks up. We were running slightly out of our comfort zone to stick with the others and now, over 4 hours into the race, we're close to paying the price for it. Why'd we try to keep up with those guys for so long?! What a rookie move!

We meander up the mountain, taking it easy and regaining our composure.

I suddenly notice how soaking wet I am.

5:00 (Mile 27)

Ugh! My mouth is SOOOO SALTY! I'd kill for some water right now! Why do I have to run with 2 mixed bottles?! WHYYYY!

5:34 (Mile 30) -- Lookout Mountain Aid Station

Despite the rain, we make good time on the climb up Hankey and the descent into the Lookout Mountain AS, managed by Charlottesville folks.

I bump into Bob Clouston and shine my headlamp right into his eyes like a total jerk.

Water! Oh my god, it's water! I squat down under the water jug spigot and take in a few big gulps. Salty mouth is vanquished!

6:10 (Mile 33)

The miles are ticking by effortlessly.

6:35 (Mile 35)

I almost detour on a spur trail, but John knows what's up. We just passed a lookout spot near the TWOT Lot ... The beginning phase of the race is coming to an end.

"Hey John, I remember this from my training run! It's only a mile to North River Gap ... Or maybe a mile and a half ... Something like that ... I remember because on my training run I got out here and had to turn around cuz I forgot to lock my car and I ran a mile and a half before turning around ... Wait, did I turn around right here or somewhere else? ... You know what, No, I don't remember ... I'll shut up now. Good story though, right?!"

6:47 (Mile 37) -- North River Gap Aid Station

We cross the bridge and cruise along the flat section of trail before hopping onto the FR95 blacktop and strolling into the TWOT Lot.

I'm damn close to my projected arrival time!

My wife swaps out my bottles and helps me restock my gels. My focus is sidetracked when I decide I want some water. My wife's bottle is nearly empty. Despite there being literal jugs of water in the back of the SUV I head to the Aid Station tables, hoping to use my wife's bottle as a cup. Why must both of my bottles be mixed?! She trails along but without the bottle -- cuz, you know, I never told her to bring the damn bottle. Grindstone is supposed to be cupless, so a moment of panic ensues. I really, really want a swig of something without sodium! Luckily, there's a couple cups of ginger ale out, so I down two and head out.

Crap! I forgot to say goodbye to my wife ... oh well, I'm sure she'll understand!

... And whaddya know, despite swapping out shoes, John has magically managed to hit the trail before me. What the heck?!

Okay ... One third of the race down! Now it's time to climb!

North River Gap to Briery Branch

7:40 (Mile 40)

John and I are well into our assault on the 7mile and nearly 3,000' climb up Chestnut Ridge to Little Bald Knob. We hike anything remotely steep.

I'm itching to jog a bit more on the steep parts, but my body is welcoming the modest pace.

8:00 (Mile 41)

John: "This one time ... at Bighorn ..."
Chris: "This one time ... at States ..."

8:20 (Mile 42)

A headlamp comes careening down the mountain towards us.

NO WAY! There is NO WAY that's First Place! No. No. No No No!

The runner stops. It's Andrew Simpson. He seems a bit confused. We decide he got turned around at a clearing a couple hundred yards up ahead and unknowingly made a U-turn.

We stick with him up to the clearing to confirm, and then he bounds off into the distance.

8:50 (Mile 44)

The Summit! Finally!

I check my watch. The climb took about 2 hours even. 5 min slower than I'd hoped for, but the miles just felt so easy, especially when sharing them with a partner ... and it's hard to beat feeling refreshed after a 7 mile climb less than halfway into a race!

We're in the High Country now! 3 miles of smooth descent, 3 miles of climbing, and 2 miles of descent to the Turn Around ...

8:55 (Mile 44)

The rain becomes very noticeable. The single track of the TWOT Loop provided a good deal of coverage, but now there was a lot of exposure to the rain and occasional wind gusts.

John: "Where's the Aid Station?! It should be right here!"
Chris: "Nope! It's about a 20 minute jog past the summit. The course description says less than 8 from North River Gap, but it's really almost 9 miles! Isn't this fun?!"
John: "That's so stupid!"
Chris: "My training run clocked North River to North River right at 30 miles, but Clark says it's only 28! Hooray!"

9:13 (Mile 45)

We finally made it to the fabled Little Bald Knob Aid Station. We spot Andrew at the aid station.

I top off a bottle and get ready to head back out into the rain.

The bonfire looks warm and inviting! ... But I have work to do ...

9:18 (Mile 45)

After catching up with Andrew, he rapidly bounds ahead.

Chris: "What is he doing?!"
John: "I don't know. He keeps gapping us and then wasting time at aid stations!"
Chris: "There's no way he can maintain that. He'll wear out, it's only a matter of time."

10:10 (Mile 49)

After some smooth miles along the jeep trail and a couple miles of climbing, we're at Reddish Knob. We've been making okay time, but we're very much keeping our pace in check.

At the top we find a confused Andrew. He's been there a good number of minutes, exposed to the wind and rain in a t-shirt, searching for the bib punch. We all look quickly and then bolt back down the road.

Someone must've snagged the punch. Oh well, nothing you can do about it!

10:15 (Mile 50)

A headlamp! ... And another! The first few runners come trickling by as we make our way down the 2 mile blacktop descent to the Turn Around at Briery Branch Gap. The leaders are probably 45 minutes and 4 miles up on us.

It soon becomes apparent that we've missed 2 or 3 runners while we were up at Reddish Knob -- Aaron and Caleb were nowhere to be seen.

The rain is really picking up now. I'm wet. I'm cold. Am I really delusional enough to think this is fun?!

10:30 (Mile 51.5) -- Turn Around at Briery Branch Gap Aid Station

Taking it easy down the pavement, I finally roll into the Turn Around. I'm 15 minutes behind schedule now, but who cares! The last 30 miles felt like a breeze!

I trade in my shirt and rain jacket for a long sleeve and a new Houdini. I need some dry clothes for the return journey.

I complain about a cold, stiff knee so my wife hands me some Ibuprofin. I don't usually take pain killers but it's cold and I don't want to worry about my knee and my hip. I fumble the handoff and one plops into the mud. I reach down and pick it up anyway. Mmmm, muddy pain killers!

As I make my way out of the Aid Station, I pass a guy who bites it, slipping on the wet pavement. But he's alright. Again, somehow John makes it out of the Aid Station before me. I pride myself on efficient Aid Station visits, but this jerk is putting me to shame!


Briery Branch to North River Gap

11:03 (Mile 53)

We make it back up the 2 mile climb to Reddish Knob. We had passed Andrew again at the Aid Station, but he's long since bounded past us up the incline. Come on, Andrew, BONK! Don't let me down!

Last year, this section was a disaster for me. I got passed by so many people I lost count. It was embarrassing. It takes a couple minutes longer than I'da liked, but we hike up the whole thing comfortably.

John falls behind. His stomach has been off-and-on for most of the run together. I jokingly yell back that I'm not waiting for him, fully expecting him to connect back up in a few minutes. In reality, that was the last I saw of him all day.

11:20 (Mile 55)

I'm back on the jeep trail now. It's completely flooded. The tire ruts are streams and the berm in the middle is barely runnable at times ... and then there's the occasional 20' puddle. So this is what happens when it rains for 12 hours straight!

More runners start to flow past on their outbound journey. Some of them look miserable. And they all keep muddying up my jeep trail!

11:45 (Mile 57) -- Little Bald Knob Aid Station

I've meandered along the jeep track at a consistent pace. I find Andrew at the Aid Station and, again, leave ahead of him. Come on, Andrew, just BONK already! You're gonna implode, I just know it!

12:15 (Mile 59)

I reach the top of Little Bald. It's still dark out ... and raining. Andrew has passed me for good. It turns out I'll never see him again. He ends up gapping me by a whopping 40 minutes. I definitely called that one wrong! Congrats to him!

Last year I careened down (in the daylight) into North River Gap at an unsustainable pace. I thought I felt good the entire time, but I bonked immediately afterward. That wasn't going to happen this year. I easily descended in 70 minutes on my training run, I wanted to dial that back to 80 or 85 minutes right now.

Okay, 7 miles of descent! Take it easy! Don't be an idiot!

12:30 (Mile 60)

Damn it! I've really got to pee!

12:45 (Mile 61)

Damn it! I've really got to pee ... again!

13:00 (Mile 62)

I'm staying well within myself, just floating down. I keep running into back of the packers on their way up. Those poor souls! These guys are over 12 hours into the race and still have around 60 miles to go. A lot look like zombies. I have nothing but respect for the ones who were able to gut it out through that wet night ... and the next ... battling many more hours of rain and nighttime than I had to deal with. I honestly can't imagine how difficult that would be.

13:15 (Mile 63)

Damn it! Why do I have to pee every friggin mile now ?! This is wasting so much time!

13:37 (Mile 65)

Seriously?! The aid station is RIGHT THERE! Why am I stopping to pee again?! This is THE WORST!

(This goes on roughly every 15 minutes for the rest of the race ... apparently in the cold, wet conditions I wasn't sweating out nearly as much water as I had expected. And despite dialing back my liquid intake, I had drifted into a frustrating realm of always-full bladder. I literally stopped 30 times in the final 40 miles.)

13:39 (Mile 65) -- North River Gap Aid Station

I roll into the North River Gap Aid Station. I nailed my descent time, but I'm more than 30 minutes off my planned pace. Who cares! I'm having fun and feeling great!

I've had enough of the Lone Peak insoles, so I swap them out for Pearl Izumi N1s. I even swap out my Injinji socks. I don't want to cuz they'd just get wet again, but I overhear Horton saying some dry socks would feel good, so I change my mind. I'm afraid they'll be a time suck but I miraculously get them off and on in no-time. And boy oh boy do they feel wonderful.

I am told 2 guys are no more than 10 minutes ahead of me and that I'm in 7th place ... maybe. I head out hoping I can catch them, but not dead-set on pushing the pace.

As I leave, I hear John's wife, Michelle, yelling. John's rolling in, only a couple minutes behind me. And he's picking up a pacer (cheater!). Is this going to turn into a drag race?!

North River Gap to Dowell's Draft

14:00 (Mile 67)

Knowing John is hot on my tail sparks the competitive juices. I'm not usually all that competitive, but at the moment my thoughts aren't awesome, we'll all run together and have fun, hooray! They're more like, if that S.O.B. passes me, I'ma be pissed!

I try pushing the pace. I'm working hard for the first time in over 40 miles.

... And then ...

I start to feel my hip. Not hurting, not stabbing, not causing problems. I'm just ... aware of it. Whenever I try running uphill I notice the slightest hint of irritation.

Enough racing for me!

At this point I say screw it, and vow to not push the pace. I'll run within myself the rest of the way. No drag racing, no hard efforts, just calm and collected running.

Afterwards, I ran no more than a couple dozen strides on the inclines for the rest of the race.

Never-the-less, I still hear John and his pacer right behind me. So I happily push the power hiking ... and whaddya know ... absolutely no hip irritation!

15:04 (Mile 71) -- Lookout Mountain Aid Station

I've pushed the pace power hiking and just as I'm getting to the Lookout Mountain Aid Station, I pass a runner. Awesome!

At the Aid Station I refill my bottles. Then proceed to head out.

But before I do, Bob Clouston stops me in my tracks and reminds me its nearly 9 miles to the next aid station ... with another couple miles of climbing.

I nod. In my head I'm thinking: So what?! It's mostly downhill and it's only gonna take me 90 minutes. I'm good to go!

He presses the matter again.  Geez, Bob, get out of my face! I don't say that, but I feel like saying it.

Here's the thing, when it gets to the tougher sections of a long race, I tend to get a bit pale. I also just want to hurry through aid stations ... I'm only there to fill up with water, I carry all the nutrition I need. Right now, the endless hours of rain aren't helping matters. When Aid Station workers -- especially veteran ones -- see someone like me -- looking pale, nonresponsive, hurrying through -- red flags pop up. Bob was just making sure I was okay, and I did a terrible job of communicating that I was fully prepared to tackle the next section of the course. I need to do a better job of looking happy at Aid Stations ... and communicating. You know what, that probably applies to life in general, but I digress ...

15:50 (Mile 74)

This climb is taking FOREVER!

Last year this climb back up Hankey was utterly miserable. I'm feeling good now, just starting to get tired ... feeling a bit like I've been racing for nearly 75 miles ...

I want to run some of the climb, but I've made a promise to myself. Operation Protect The Hip is in full swing.

16:39 (Mile 80) -- Dowell's Draft Aid Station

After I got to the top of Hankey Mountain, I began a steady, smooth descent into Dowell's Draft. I don't push the pace because I'm more concerned with assessing how my hip handles these descents. Luckily, my quads are feeling great.

I roll into the aid station and pass another runner who is hobbling noticeably. I tell him to stay strong but I'm silently ecstatic.

I spot Michelle, who's still waiting for John. I tell her I have no idea how far back he is.

At the Aid Station, I'm informed I'm in 5th place. Fifth Place! Holy Cow! Don't screw this up, Chris, you're in Fifth Freakin Place!

My wife helps me restock supplies. Horton is there again and tells me I need to eat something. I protest. He doesn't care. He thinks I'm looking pale. My wife agrees.

I relent and begrudgingly grab a couple hot potato wedges. As I head out, I throw them in my mouth ... and ... they're delicious. That was just what I needed! ... But I'm not gonna tell them that!

On my way out I hear a Whoop! Whoop! Either an overeager volunteer was cheering me on, or John was just now rolling in. I panic and speed off down the trail.

Dowell's Draft to The Finish

17:10 (Mile 82)

I somehow survived the tricky section between Dowell's Draft and HWY 250, but now I feel like I'm running through a tar pit along the creek bottom just before the Crawford Mountain ascent. It's a mile or 2 of slightly uphill running. After so many hours of running, the incline is just enough to make me want to walk. ... But John's right behind me! (maybe) So I stumble on, doing everything I can to keep from walking.

17:30 (Mile 83)

I'm at the steep stuff now. Man, this is exhausting! I turn around every couple of minutes, expecting John to be right there, effortlessly bounding, ready to take my Top 5 away from me. I desperately want to run a little, but it's also steep, and I'm tired, and Operation Protect The Hip, and I'm tired, and it's steep ... It's soo steep, why is it so steep?! WHY?!

17:50 (Mile 84)

The Top! Finally!

18:21 (Mile 87) -- Dry Gap Aid Station

I cruise down the descent, again, not pushing it too hard. Don't race, just cruise! Stay within yourself. Don't screw up your hip again!

My wife greets me. Says I'm looking better. Horton says I've "bounced back!" Man, he really must've wanted to count me out back at Dowell's!

Off I go! Only one more climb!

Fifth! Fifth! Fifth!

19:00 (Mile 89)

This climb is taking FOREVER!

Why are all of these rocks so unstable?! Someone should really do something about this! This is dangerous!

I'm so tired!

I don't care if John catches me. Good for him. He'll get 5th, I'll get 6th. No big deal. That jerk Clark Zealand probably only gives awards out to the Top 3 anyway, so it's not like 5th place even matters!

I'm not competitive, I'm not here to race, I just want to finish and keep my hip safe. I'm gonna get caught. I'm gonna get caught ... Seriously, why haven't I been caught yet?! Just pass me already!

19:30 (Mile 91)

This section is THE. WORST.

After climbing up Elliot's, you get to a relatively flat, but slightly uphill, section. It wraps around the edge of the mountain for at least a mile. And it's strewn with rocks. It sucks. It goes on forever. FOREVER! And whaddya know, it's even worse this year because the whole damn thing has been transformed into a flowing stream.

Why do I run? What's the point of all of this?!

19:41 (Mile 92)


I get to the dirt road on Elliot's. Four miles of sweet, sweet downhills await!

I take off. Quads are feeling good!

19:53 (Mile 94)

I turn off of the steep road and onto single track. Man that was steep! But it felt waay better than last year!

I check my watch. It took me 12 minutes to cover those steep 1.75 downhill miles. What pace is that? ... Nevermind, too tired to do math ... Just keep falling down the mountain!

20:19 (Mile 96) -- Falls Hollow Aid Station

No time to stop now! Almost there! I bet John's right behind me.

This Aid Station is useless ...

21:00 (Mile 99)

If the section that skirts the top of Elliot's Knob at Mile 90 is the worst, this section near the Boy Scout Camp is runner-up.

Why are there so many hills?! I don't remember any of this!!!

Seriously, where the hell is the lake? Where is the Mile To Go marker? Where am I?

Please, please, please, don't let anyone pass me.

I'm running much easier than last year -- when I desperately tried (and failed) to get in under 24 hours. Now though, this doesn't feel so bad. ... If only I weren't so tired ...

21:15 (Mile 101)

I get to the lake. I turn around about a dozen times, expecting someone to be right behind me. No one there.

Okay. I'm done. Fifth Place!

21:19:56 (Mile 101.85)

I cross the finish line. Feeling strong. But also tired. ... And cold ... And wet. Seriously, I'm really cold and wet right now!

Fifth Place! That feels incredible!

(Too tired to hug the Totem Pole. Off camera: Horton entirely too entertained by my exhaustion.)


So yeah, that pretty much covers it!

I went out there, had a blast in the rain, kept my hip in check, and miracled my way to a Top 5 finish. Andrew ended up 40 minutes ahead of me, and John ended up roughly 45 minutes behind me, so it's good to know that even if I'd pushed the pace or if I'd bonked, I would've likely ended up in 5th no matter what. I played it safe and Operation Protect The Hip was a success.

My second Grindstone was incredible! My strong showing is all the more meaningful given the lousy months I had after Western States trying to sort out my bum hip. But now, it looks like everything is healed and ready for the rest of the Beast Series. I still plan on taking it easy throughout the rest of the year, focusing mostly on recovery, stretching, and hiking. I just cannot afford to aggravate my hip again.

Did I mention I got 5th?! Seriously, how the hell did that happen? Also, turns out Clark isn't a total tightwad and does give out awards to the Top 5 ... more swag!

(Courtesy of Clark Zealand)


I've got to give a shout out to my amazing wife for crewing me in downright miserable conditions. She was a trooper! I'm so lucky to have her supporting me through this ridiculous hobby of mine, through the training, and the racing, and the injury, and the complaining.

Thanks to my mother for flying in and watching the kiddo while her daddy abandoned her to go traipsing through the wilderness in the rain for an entire day.

Thanks to Clark Zealand for putting on yet another fantastic Grindstone. And a huge thanks to all of the volunteers who suffered through the rain alongside all of us runners.

Thanks to David Horton for randomly appearing at all of the Aid Stations and offering up support and sage advice ... even if it's generally laced with wit, sass, and sarcasm!

And finally, Thanks to all of you back-of-the-packers. I'm not gonna sugar coat it, you guys looked miserable out there! Watching the final handful of finishers Sunday morning, after 2 nights of traversing that difficult course, was so inspiring. I bow down to your dedication!


1 Hour After Race

This shower is soooo amazing. I'm never leaving, ever!

Oh my god! My toenails are hideous! Ten bucks says I loose seven of them.

4 Hours After Race

I'm in my hotel room. It's 7pm, and ... yup ... there goes my ability to regulate my body heat! Hooray!

Thankfully my wife made us get a hotel room. A great call considering I'd forgotten how miserable I was last year -- shivering and shaking for hours on end, my wife piling blankets on me in the tent to no effect.

Do I have the flu? I'm getting sick ... do I even have an immune system right now?

Why do I do this to myself? Is this worth it?

7 Hours After Race

I've been struggling to sleep because my big toenails are throbbing. I curse you, Altra insoles! ... Also, the rocks, I curse the rocks!

I have to pee. But I'm not sure I can get out of bed. Is this what it feels like to be 90?

2 Days After Race

I head to the National Arboretum with the family on a beautiful day. I "chase" my 2 year old around for a couple of minutes. I contemplating documenting that herculean effort on Strava.

Sleep! Sleep! Sleep! I need more sleep!

3 Days After Race

I just walked down a flight of stairs without having to hold onto a railing ... it's the little things in life!

4 Days After Race

I just jogged down 2 flights of stairs. I am superman!

I can't wait to run another 100 Miler!

5 Days After Race

Legs don't really hurt doing basic daily activities.

Physical Therapist is glad the hip held up. She gives me an easy hour of stretching and such. I try to balance on a Bosu ball. I get laughed at. We stick to the kind of workout an 80 year old invalid would do. When I get home, my body feels exhausted.

Gear List, Etc.

  • Altra Lone Peak 3.0s -- would've been amazing if I had remembered to glue the damn insoles in
  • Pearl Izumi Trail N1 V2s -- felt great but tight on pinky toes at end of race ... those nails are gonners!
  • Patagonia shirt
  • 2 Patagonia Houdini jackets
  • Patagonia Strider Pro Shorts
  • Injinji trail socks
  • Salomon pack and Ultimate Direction bottles
  • Petzl headlamp
  • 2015 Grindstone Boco Trucker Hat (seriously, the best hat ever)
  • 20 Huma gels (2000 calories)
  • 20 oz of EFS Liquid Shot (1700 calories)
  • 1600 calories of Tailwind
  • 12 oz ginger ale
  • 2 delicious potato wedges


Saturday, August 13, 2016

Accepting Failure

Right now I should be over 75 miles into the Eastern States 100, moving my way up through the Top 10, but I'm sitting at home writing this post instead. For the first time in my life I Did Not Finish. I DNF'd, Dropped, Tapped Out, Threw in the Towel ... Failed. Two important questions come to mind. 1.) How did this happen; and more importantly, 2.) How can I learn from this and move forward?

In running, ultra running in particular, there's always some kind of adversity to overcome. Whether it be a sluggish day on the trails, a poor result, finding your way through the pain cave at Mile 80, a bad season, an injury, and yes, even a DNF. What's important in facing these obstacles is that we take the time to rationally assess them and to use them as a chance to learn and grow, so that we can move forward and face our future goals with more confidence and better preparation.

So, what in particular happened to me? And what lessons are there to be had?

Before the Race

Seven weeks before Eastern States, I had the best run of my life at Western States (race report here). It was The Perfect Day, one of the best days of my life, and it gave me a level of confidence in my running abilities that I'd been lacking for years. I made sure to recover carefully. I ran here and there, but always easy and with plenty of rest days. One thing I didn't do much of that I should have was STRETCHING. I'm notoriously inflexible and I fully admit to being lazy, resting on my laurels after States, and not taking the time to keep up the flexibility I worked hard for in the first half of the year.

Twenty One days after States, I went on my first long run: 3 hours of easy trails. It felt comfortable and I walked away from it knowing it was time to get back into my training. Still, I made sure to not overdo any of my runs. A few days later, on a whim I decided to hit the track and try my hand at 4x1600m to see if my speed-legs were back yet. The workout went about as well as I could expect. Nothing noteworthy occurred. But the next morning I had a tightness in my left hip ... the back of the ball of my femur was tender. I likely strained my gluteal tendon, but I'm not quite sure how. Oh yeah, full disclosure: I didn't stretch before those repeats! Full Disclosure #2: It was my first speed session in 3 months.  I can be an idiot sometimes.  So ... I was cautious and took a couple days off.

After some rest and then a pain-free run, I ran a local 50K as a hard long run. It wasn't an all out effort and I made sure to dial back in the latter miles and not overdo it -- it was hard convincing myself not to chase down First Place, only 30 seconds ahead of me with 5 miles to go, but I did, and it was the right thing to do. My hip felt a bit tight at times, but it was never limiting or painful. Never-the-less, I took a couple days off afterwards. More importantly, I started stretching and doing hip strengthening exercises every day.

My next week of running was 3 uneventful runs, followed by an entire weekend off. Then the hip pain returned, seemingly randomly, on a short Monday run. That began a stretch of 11 days with only 2 runs. And the second run was only a mile long, with stinging pain in the hip from the get-go. Suddenly, I was questioning my ability to complete Eastern States.

I did nothing but rest the 4 days before Eastern States...

Race Day

I had no pain in the 2 days before race day so I was cautiously optimistic. I toe'd the starting line feeling fresh and ready to take on a long day of running in sweltering heat and humidity on technical, cambered trails. It was go time!

Over an hour in, I was feeling good. I was in the Top 10, I wasn't working hard, the humidity didn't look to be an issue for me. I had tackled the first 2 climbs and descents with ease. More importantly ... NO HIP PAIN!

About 2 hours in, things started to change. My hip started to tighten ... then ache ... then sting. I was having to work to drive my knee, my stride was shortening, and I was having trouble pushing through my stride on steep climbs. Things were turning sour quickly. WHEN I would finish was now IF I would finish.

No one should be battling with stride problems 2 hours into a 100 miler! Ugh!

By 14 miles it had gotten even worse. My left leg felt like it was just being drug along for the ride, and worse, my hip was losing the ability to prevent lateral movement in my knee. I couldn't climb, the flats felt like I was running in water, and I was reduced to a hobble on the technical descents. I got passed by 3 runners like it was nothing, then another, and another. Then the hip problems started to infect the rest of my leg -- my hamstring started to feel weird, my knee started to stiffen, and the stabilizer muscles in my lower leg were occasionally feeling funny.

At this point it occurred to me that a finish would get me a coveted Buckle. I thought about it for a hot second ... and ... I didn't really care about this buckle. My first 100 -- Grindstone -- I would have done anything to finish, because of what it meant to snag my First Buckle. And Western States, well, that's self explanatory! But this race ... I just couldn't find the value in finishing at the cost of a potential serious injury. I had come to Eastern States not for a buckle, but to compete. I wanted to have fun out there, but hobbling and walking my way to a 30 hour finish, just for a buckle, seemed like a bad decision. My second Grindstone was 8 weeks away and I wasn't willing to potentially sacrifice a good showing there. IF I would finish became WHEN to throw in the towel.

For about a half hour I debated with myself. Do I try to make it to the halfway point? 25 miles? The next Aid Station? All the while, my stride kept devolving into a painful hobble. I made my way up to the Aid Station about 18 miles in, threw down my bottles, and hung my head in shame.

... But ... only a few minutes later I was over it. I had made the right call. This DNF wasn't a reflection of my fitness, it was the result of a weird kinetic chain problem that came out of nowhere (kind of...). Continuing on would've served no valuable purpose. It would've left me banged up and uncertain of how I'd be able to handle my Fall lineup.

For the first time in my life I wouldn't be crossing the finish line. And that's okay.

The DNF is official, now it's time to figure out how I can learn from this experience.

The Lessons


I didn't stretch much at all for an entire month after Western States. If I was Gumby then maybe that'd be cool, but I'm not. I NEED TO STRETCH ... DAILY! I'm not a kid anymore, I need to take care of my body and that begins with making sure my muscles and tendons are long and flexible. It's probably not just coincidence that my failed hip is absurdly inflexible -- last year I had a PT gasp in horror at my left hip's limited range of motion.


I have a decent amount of strength, for a runner. But not necessarily in the ways that matter for a runner. I need to do all of those little tedious exercises to strengthen my core, my legs, and most importantly, my hips and glutes.

Picking My Training Battles

I run ultras. There a time and place for speed work, but I don't do it enough to be able to just jump into a random set of 4x1600s without risking injury. Speed work belongs in its own Training Block, and when I do speed work outside of that Training Block, I need to make sure I've at least been maintaining a speed session every week or so, that way my body isn't shocked by the effort. I can't just pop into speed work right after my multi-week recovery from a 100 mile race!

I Can't Race All The Time!

This spring I had 5 ultras and a marathon. Then I ran Western States. And for the rest of the year I had lined up Eastern States, Grindstone 100, Mountain Masochist 50M, another marathon, and Hellgate 100K (if Horton lets me in!). That's A LOT of racing. My body clearly can't handle that load AND still get in valuable Training Blocks. So for next year ... less racing and longer stretches of training.

What's Next?

Take these lessons to heart.

Head to a physical therapist.

Do whatever it takes to get to Grindstone healthy.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Western States 2016 Race Report

(It's all mine!)

Have you ever had a Perfect Day?

June 25th, 2016 was a perfect day for me.

Western States 2016 was, by all accounts, the most perfect run of my life. Everything went according to plan, I had no low spots, no bonks, no slow-downs, no nutrition problems, no self-doubt.  While I greatly exceeded my expectations, I have to caveat all of this and say that I can’t consider my performance a perfect “race”. Instead, it was just a “run”. But boy was it a great run.

From the moment I learned I made the lottery (with my single ticket!), I knew I was going to have to put together a solid training plan in order to show up to Squaw Valley ready to perform. I executed my plan well, and was improving beyond what I had anticipated. But I came down with a stress reaction in my femur in mid-April and was forced to spend weeks doing nothing or aqua jogging. The likely culprit … a drastic increase in treadmill time while I spent a week single-parenting my toddler, and topping it off with an entirely unnecessary sub-3:00 virtual Boston run-along on the treadmill. As a result, even when I built my mileage back up to my first ever 100-mile-week before the start of the race, I was unable to train with the intensity I had wanted – namely, I was unwilling to pound the downhills in my training or do any sustained 6-12 mile treadmill downhills for fear of screwing up weeks of carefully planned recovery.  Instead, I made sure I was building my endurance, sorting out my nutrition, and getting in some good heat training.

So, I was showing up in Squaw Valley fairly fresh and confident, but also a bit hesitant. As a result, I crafted a race plan that could be best described as cautious. I would take it easy in the high country and use my heart rate monitor to make sure I kept my effort in check and my quads feeling fresh; then I would try and survive the canyons as best I could; and finally I would hopefully have taken enough care of my legs to take advantage of the runnable miles after Foresthill.

I showed up in Squaw Valley on Thursday, partook in the pre-race festivities, hiked up to Watson’s Monument, rested, and tried to settle my nerves. I met up with my wife – my crew – on Friday after she flew into Reno. We soaked in the incredible views of our drive along Lake Tahoe from Reno back to Squaw Valley, had a nice lunch, went over my final race plan, and tried to rest as well as we could. I carefully managed my food intake on Friday and then hit the hay early. I tossed and turned a bit here and there, but remarkably managed to get a decent amount of sleep.

(Picturesque Squaw Valley, complete with some JJ Abrams lens flair)

I awoke around 4am, checked-in and picked up my bib, and got myself ready for the race. As I stood in front of the start line moments before the shotgun blast, I soaked in the moment … a mere 14 months after my first ultramarathon, and only 2 years after getting off the couch and starting to run again, I was about to make the pilgrimage to Auburn! This was really happening!

(Obligatory "kit pic")

Squaw Valley to Robinson Flat

As AJW made the countdown, I lost myself in the moment and don’t even recall the shotgun going off. I heard “Three … Two … One …”, started my watch, and blended into a sea of runners.  As I made my way up to the Escarpment in the pre-dawn light, under the glow of the lit-up ski lifts, I reminded myself to stay calm and take it easy.  It wasn’t long before I found my pack of runners – I had no idea if I was in 30th place or 90th, but everyone around me was putting in an effort I felt comfortable with, and I saw a couple of F bibs so I knew I was in good company (part of my race plan was to run in the women’s front pack).  Between the Escarpment and Watson’s Monument, I must have glanced over my shoulder a dozen times to catch a glimpse of the sun rising over Lake Tahoe. The scene was a mere glimpse of the beauty I would encounter over the course of the day, and it was a perfect way to start the race. I was overcome with a sense of calm.

I crested the first climb and noted that I was 5 minutes ahead of schedule. I didn’t really care about keeping to a schedule this early in the race, but it served as a reminder that I should be taking it easy throughout the early miles and that there was no need to rush things.  As I hopped over rocks and rough terrain on my way to Lyon’s Ridge, I frequently checked my watch to make sure my heart rate wasn’t reacting poorly to the high altitude. My legs felt good, my effort felt smooth, and my heart rate was generally reading 150, well below my red flag of 160.  As the miles ticked by, I carefully maintained that heart rate. I also took care to hike most of the uphills, even if they were runnable. I cruised through Lyon’s ridge still a bit ahead of schedule, so again I reminded myself that the day was long and had only begun, and accordingly controlled my pace. The early miles were so easy that my mind frequently wandered and I honestly can only remember a select few things: 1.) the scenery was jaw-dropping, 2.) my heart rate was well in order and altitude wasn’t going to be an issue today, and 3.) I desperately wanted to run much faster.

At Red Star Ridge I picked up a small drop bag of 2 gels and a Tailwind pouch. The volunteers were amazing and had the contents of my bag waiting for me when I rolled in. They helped me mix my drinks and refill my bottles, and just like that I was off! I rolled through the following miles, into Duncan Canyon and on my way up to Robinson Flat. I drifted around a small group of runners that included a few men aiming for roughly a 20hour finish – my A Goal – and a handful of top females. I rarely ran alongside anyone else, often finding that my climbing pace was quicker than those around me, but my flat and downhill pace was more conservative, owing to the fact that my race plan was to baby those quads like nobody’s business.

I came into Robinson Flat after traversing Duncan Canyon. I remember thinking to myself, that was a “canyon”?! Piece of cake!  As I made my way through the aid station I had a slight moment of panic because I couldn’t find my wife.  Eventually I found her about 100 yards after the aid station in a mass of humanity. I looked at my watch and saw that I had arrived right on schedule for my planned sub-20 finish … 5:30 (10:30am) on the dot. I handed my wife my empty bottles and she gave me my refills: a bottle of Tailwind and a 500 calorie slurry of First Endurance Liquid Shot and powder. I also filled up my shorts with a few more gels and donned my homemade ice bandana. And with that, I was off!

(Ice bandana worked wonders ... complete with hand-stitched ice pouch)

Robinson Flat to Last Chance

As I departed Robinson Flat, I tallied up my water and calories – about 4oz per miles and 250 calories per hour. My nutrition was right on schedule! Not long after Robinson Flat, I began the transition into steady downhill miles. My run through Miller’s Defeat and Dusty Corners felt great – my stride felt smooth and perfectly constrained, my heart rate was low, my energy levels were terrific.  All that said, I felt like I was getting overtaken by runners left and right.  At one point, I jumped off into the woods for my only hole digging of the day (a great improvement over my 7+ stops in my first 100 miler last Fall … thanks a lot, Imodium!). Next thing I knew three women and a man flew by me … and I mean flew by me. Was I really going that slow? From Robinson to Dusty Corners I averaged roughly 10:30 miles, perhaps a bit slower than I should have been running. That said, those miles felt like an easy family hike, not a daunting race. I just knew that being so easy on my legs was going to pay dividends. It was going to be a great day, I could just feel it!

I picked my pace up quite a bit heading into Last Chance ... those miles from 38 to 43 were very runnable. When I got to Last Chance, I grabbed some spare Huma gels and a Tailwind pouch from my drop bag, and downed a tasty cup of pears, my only substantial “real food” of the day. After working with the volunteers to load up my arm cooler sleeves with ice and to restock my ice bandana, I was off into the canyons.  I took a quick look at my watch in the aid station and saw 7:45 (12:45pm). I felt like I had barely broken a sweat and I was still on PERFECT PACE! The warm-up had ended and the real work for the day was just beginning!

Last Chance to Foresthill

After Last Chance, I carefully descended into Deadwood Canyon. As I made my way towards the bottom I again made sure to baby the hell out of my quads. As would be a theme over the next 4 hours, I frequently mumbled to myself: aren’t these canyons supposed to be hard?! I had never stepped a foot on the Western States trail before so I was pleasantly surprised to see a plethora of foliage and shade in the canyons. When I hear “canyons”, I usually think of exposed, dry, hot desert canyons. These canyons were a piece of cake in comparison to the ovens I was expecting to find myself in.  Over the course of the canyons I never once felt the effects of the heat, despite the temperatures undoubtedly climbing up into the high 90s and perhaps even the low 100s.

At the bottom of Deadwood Canyon I crossed the bridge and stopped to douse myself with water in the spring 100 yards after the creek crossing. It was the only time along the course that deliberately stopped outside of an aid station to douse myself with water. Then began the fabled climb up to Devil’s Thumb. I was already in high spirits having realized that these “canyons” were just run of the mill valleys … and things only got better.  As I made my way up the steep 1.7mile climb I found runnable stretches of trail at nearly every single switchback.  I had read a race report / words-of-wisdom article from AJW and recalled that in his heyday of never-ending Top 10s he routinely climbed Devil’s Thumb in 33-35 minutes. I had a suspicion I could hit that mark. About halfway up the climb I came upon a man and two female contenders. I quickly jogged past them as they hiked up the switchbacks and was elated to hear them lightheartedly cheering me on.  As I labored, I reminded myself of a 26 mile run I had done 3 weeks prior, running up and down the 1700’, 1.6mile trail along Robertson Mountain in Shenandoah National Park … that run had felt like a piece of cake, and this one would too! Towards the top of the climb I started to feel a bit taxed, but I knew I was nearly there and that I’d have a long descent into El Dorado Canyon to recuperate.

I finally reached the aid station and tried to get in and out as quickly as possible. I was in high spirits. I had made the dreaded climb in 34 minutes and it had felt easy. Sadly, this aid station visit felt like the most discombobulated of the day and kicked off a small funk. The volunteers, as much as I appreciated their presence, took a heck of a long time to top off my bottles and get more ice into my bandana. I felt like I was ushered one way, then another, then another, without ever getting anything accomplished. At one point I had to rush over to a table to find a place to fill and fold my ice bandana myself because a volunteer couldn’t get the hang of it. Then, one volunteer practically blocked my advancement through the aid station, asking questions and telling me I looked pale. I continually tried to let him know that I was feeling great, that I was nailing my hydration, and that my nutrition was nearly perfect for the day. Still, I was somewhat forcibly moved along to the food table and repeatedly told to get some food. Unwilling to keep arguing with them, I grabbed a handful of grapes, mumbled a thank you, and finally escaped.

After that escapade, I continued to the crest of the climb just past the aid station, when, all of a sudden, everything went to shit!  Well, not really, but I felt a slight twinge in my right quad.  I kept running for a few strides and it happened again.  Great! I took all of this time to baby these damn quads and they’re already acting up! At the top of the climb I found a stump to hold onto and squatted down to stretch out my quads.  I spent a good two minutes working on them. A couple of the runners I devoured on the climb passed me and asked if I was okay – the tone of their voice seeming to imply more head shaking than concern … that idiot tore ass up Devil’s Thumb and now look at him, tsk tsk! After the stretch I was overcome with a sense of doubt. But as I made my way into El Dorado Canyon, my legs began to feel better.

As had been the theme thus far in the race, I took it easy on the 5 mile descent down El Dorado Canyon, perhaps a bit too easy. The downhill pounding massaged the tightness out of my quads, which was quite the relief. I got to the bottom of the canyon and began my trek up to Michigan Bluff to see my wife for the second time.  The climb to Michigan Bluff was more taxing than Devil’s Thumb. It’s not as steep and there are plenty of runnable sections, but you’re a bit farther into the race and the length of the climb is longer.  That said, I still didn’t think it was that big of a deal. And the heat … where the heck was this heat everyone was talking about?!

When I reached Michigan Bluff I looked at my watch and, again, I had nailed my sub-20 arrival time. My wife handed me new bottles and we made sure I had enough gels, then I gave her a kiss, told her I was feeling great, and that I would see her again in just over an hour.  I quickly stretched my quads to be safe and then I worked my way through Volcano Canyon, thinking about a 67 minute split from Michigan to Foresthill that I read Pam Smith was able to hit when she won in 2013. I don’t remember much of Volcano. I had no problems, it didn’t feel difficult, it was just smooth and comfortable running.  At Bath Road I saw a handful of people waiting for their runners so they could escort them up to Foresthill. It was the first time that I felt a bit out of place in the race … all alone.  Though I felt I could have jogged up the entirety of the Bath Road climb to Foresthill, I made sure to mix in some quick walking spurts to keep my effort in check. Despite that, I still passed a couple runners and their crew in this short section.

I finally popped out into Foresthill and made my way down the side of the road into town. There I again greeted my wife, swapped out my bottles, stocked up on gels, and got stuffed full of ice. My watch read 11:45 (4:45pm) … a 69 minute split … good enough! I had made it 62 miles and again had nailed my sub-20 split to the minute. Fantastic!  What was even better was the fact that it felt like I had only run 20 miles, and an easy 20 miles at that.  My legs were feeling good and I didn’t think I’d be needing to stretch them again, my hydration and nutrition were spot on, and I was feeling in the zone. As I gathered myself to leave Foresthill I told my wife that I was feeling amazing and to throw out my timetable. I was going to aim to finish before midnight and get in sub-19, a full hour ahead of planned and a true “100 Miles One Day”.

My run was just getting started!

(Cheesing it up at Foresthill)

Foresthill to Green Gate

I told myself to try and take it easy to the river, and then let loose after Green Gate. So I started my way down to Cal 1 at a comfortable pace. I quickly realized that everything I’d heard about Western States was true … make it to Foresthill and you’ll be rewarded with runnable trails.  When I rolled into Cal 1, I had just passed up Devon Yanko, who was looking strong. I filled up my bottles and restocked my ice bandana as I watched Devon jump ahead of me onto the trails.  Seeing how well she looked got me wondering what my place was, so I asked a volunteer as I was heading out and was surprised to find that I was in 34th place, with 4 women ahead of me. That lit a fire in me because I knew that I’d be finishing strong and had a shot at Top 25 – an achievement I had considered when crafting my race goals, but never harped on because it seemed so otherworldly. I picked up the pace and forged through the 15 rollers – I tried counting them but could never figure out what exactly constituted a “roller”. At one point I got to a steep descent and about halfway through it realized I had happened upon The Elevator Shaft. I’d heard about how daunting it could be, but I hopped my way down the steep descent with ease. This is my kind of playground! By the time I rolled through Cal 2 I had picked off another runner and my legs were really starting to feel good.

By Cal 3, my stride had really opened up. As I made my way along the river road towards the River Crossing, I was pretty sure I was dipping below 9:00 miles. And I was picking off runners left and right.  The 5 mile stretch before the River Crossing was probably my best running of the day. I was working hard, but not too hard, my legs were cooperating, and I had steamrolled over something like a half dozen runners … so many that I lost count. At this point in the race I had crafted a short-term goal to catch Devon as quickly as possible. I knew she was a tremendous athlete and currently a Top 3 female, so catching her was a way for me to keep my pace up to meet my new sub-19 goal.  I’ll be honest, I was a bit confused when I got to the River Crossing without passing her … she was clearly feeling good along Cal Street!

When I got into the American River, my legs immediately felt refreshed. I made quick order of the crossing, thanked the volunteers along the way, and then continued my onslaught up to Green Gate to see my wife once again. It was a solid climb with a mixture of running and hiking – I’d typically run for about a minute and then hike for 15-30 seconds on the steeper sections. After the race I took a peek at Aid Station splits and saw that from the River Crossing to Green Gate I was faster than all but maybe 4 runners on the day. I obviously didn’t know that at the time, but I had a feeling that my climbing was as strong as ever. It was something I had worked hard on over the past 6 months, knowing how much of a weak point it was in my Grindstone 100 performance the previous Fall. Devils Thumb, and now Green Gate, were an affirmation of all the hard work I’d put into my training.

Upon reaching Green Gate, my wife helped me swap out bottles and exclaimed “You got here 30 minutes early!” My sub-20 race plan had me losing some steam in the later sections of the race, but that clearly wasn’t the way things were working out. I had just gained nearly 2 minutes per mile on my planned race pace from Foresthill to Green Gate, and I wasn’t done yet!  My wife told me that Devon had just flown by and that she was looking good.  I know! I’ve been trying to chase her down for the past 15 miles!

I continued the climb up past Green Gate and ran into David Horton, whose brief words of encouragement meant a lot to me. After all, his difficult Hellgate 100K and Promise Land 50K races that I ran in the past 6 months were a big part of my training. I also ran into Sophie Speidel, who was there waiting to help out Bethany Patterson. She snapped a quick photo of me, and sent me off down the trail with even more encouragement. And with that, I was ready to drive it home and snag my new sub-19 race goal.

Green Gate to Auburn

The next miles really did fly by for me.  I just ran, and took everything as it came to me. The daylight was waning, but I was pretty sure I could make it to ALT before turning on my headlamp. I flew by a couple of runners on my way to ALT and while I didn’t notice at the time, one of them was David Laney. I’m pretty sure that if I had processed that I was passing David Laney, my body would have gone into shock, seized up, and I would’ve collapsed right then and there on the trails.  Seriously, how often do you get to say, “Yeah, I passed the top American finisher at UTMB, no big deal!”? Anyways, I finally rolled into ALT with barely a ray of light left in the sky. I filled up one bottle of water, then wasted entirely too much time situating my headlamp.  Only 15 nighttime miles to go!

I continued making good time as I approached Brown’s Bar. I kept crunching numbers in my head, trying to convince myself that I’d be making it in before midnight. At the same time, I hesitated to push the pace much harder even though I felt I had a lot left to give. I was so fixated now on breaking 19:00 that it didn’t matter to me if it was 18:30 or 18:59. I mean, I wasn’t making Top 10, so I just had to prove to myself that 6 months of hard work had paid off … anything under 19:00 was going to be proof enough. Not pushing the pace continued to be my insurance policy, even this late in the race. At one point I came upon a female runner. It was Devon! I finally caught her! It took me 25 solid miles of running to do so, but I finally did it.  I wanted to let her know how much motivation she gave me over the last few hours of running, but all I could muster was "Keep it up! See you at the finish!"

At one point I could hear a bunch of chatter ahead of me, and I knew I was coming up on Brown’s Bar. I shook my bottles and decided that stopping for a top-off would be pointless, so I pushed on through the aid station without breaking stride.  As I ran through, I surveyed the station and it felt like a war zone. I didn’t have time to differentiate runners from pacers, but it felt like there were a lot of people sitting down or standing there like zombies. That’s when it hit me, I’m owning this race right now!

The carnage of Brown’s Bar gave me even more motivation, and I ratcheted up the effort level a bit.  My quads had felt stiff and achy for a few hours by now, but there were no cramps or spasms, so I kept pushing. I made the climb up to HWY 49 in short order and was greeted by my wife for the final time before Auburn. I had moved up enough in the standings that she was one of only a handful of crew waiting for runners, a far cry from the middle-of-the-pack chaos back at Robinson Flat … I felt like we had the whole aid station to ourselves.  She gave me one last bottle of Tailwind and I opted to keep a second bottle of water so I wouldn’t have to fill up again before the finish. I gave her a kiss, thanked her, and told her I’d see her again in just over an hour.

For the next few miles, I focused on crunching numbers again … 90 minutes, 6.7 miles, just keep up the pace and you’ve got this! I felt great coming down to No Hands Bridge and was overcome by the eerie traverse through the light fog. I was in such a groove that I don’t even remember calling out my bib number or checking in and out. I just ran through and started mentally preparing for the final climb up Robie Point.

I passed through the Meadow and wondered how beautiful it might look in the last moments of daylight ... of course, that’d imply I’d be competing for Top 10 … maybe someday … soon?  I skirted along the trail and occasionally glimpsed a headlamp climbing a hill up ahead. I guess that’s Robie Point! The light was easily 10 minutes ahead of me, so there’d be no way I’d catch them. And I had put in enough effort over the last 30 miles that I was confident no one would be running past me. So I eased off the pace and began to reflect on the day of running. Thinking of all the miles I’d traversed up to that point distracted me from the sometimes steep climb up to Robie. When I hopped off the trail and onto the road at the aid station, I just kept running. But I was soon brought to a hike-jog, not knowing that the aid station was nowhere near the top! So I labored on, running as much as I felt appropriate, all the way up the road. The entire time the only thought in my mind was why am I still climbing?!

When I reached the top, I worked my way down the dark neighborhood road. I couldn’t see any reflective streamers or anything of the sort, so I followed the painted footsteps on the ground, which were sometimes obscured by a car parked over them. I came upon an intersection and saw no signs, no streamers, nothing at all … except for some painted arrows pointing left. I stopped, looked around, couldn’t see the stadium lights, and let out a frustrated What the fuck! 99 miles of successfully navigating trails and I’m stopped dead in my tracks in a darkened neighborhood?! After about 30 seconds of wondering what the hell to do, a car drove up and told me to keep heading down the road. My pace had now slowed considerably, and there was no chance of a desired sprint to the track since my eyes were cautiously surveying the road for any sign of course markings. In the daylight I’m sure it was totally obvious where to go, but in the dead of night, after over 18 hours of running, with no one around, it was rather frustrating.

I finally glimpsed the White Bridge and the glow of the stadium lights. I picked up my pace as I approached the track. In front of me was a group of joggers that got in my way as I was coming onto the track. My legs were feeling good and I wanted to push it to the finish, so I jumped past them as I hit the track and resumed my faster pace. As I did so, I flew past a cameraman, not fully processing what was happening until I was clear of him. I looked over and saw Jim Walmsley. What the hell is going on?! Wait, is he just now finishing? What happened? Nevermind, keep pushing to the finish. In the commotion, my ears tuned in to John Medinger on the loudspeaker describing Walmsley’s woes before interrupting himself with “…and now on the track, Chris Roberts.” I pushed on, a bit overwhelmed by my surroundings. As I crossed the finish, careening towards a slew of cameras, I noted the time of 18:45:07 and mustered a single, definitive thought: I’ve got to run this again! Western States may not have been quite as difficult as I had hoped for and expected, but it was an absolutely beautiful course with incredible volunteers and an unrivaled race atmosphere.

(A little dusty, but not too bad!)


In the two weeks since Western States, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the day. And more reflecting inevitably means more writing, so this blog is way longer than I had wanted it to be. Oh well!

Western States was an incredible experience. I'm still not quite sure how exactly I've gone from a lazy bum to 19th overall and 18th male at Western States in the span of 2 years. Crazy! I had a great performance. I ran the race smartly and efficiently. Of the top 30 or so runners, I believe that myself and Kyle Pietari (8th Overall) were the only ones to improve our pace from Foresthill through to Auburn. That’s quite an achievement to hang my hat on.

But, despite crushing my A Goal, I know I left a lot on the table early in the race. It’s not unreasonable to think that had I been more comfortable with a race strategy of pushing the pace a bit, I could have finished closer to 18-flat. Each race is another learning experience, and this was just my second 100-miler. I now have confidence going into the second half of 2016 that if I keep up my training I may very well have a shot at a Golden Ticket for 2017 and a chance to crack the Top 10 (especially if it’s an absurdly hot day!). It’s a massive longshot, but then again, thinking I could finish the 2016 Western States in the Top 20 was an absolute moonshot.

I’m excited to keep training, to keep pushing myself, to keep discovering what I’m capable of, and to keep having fun out on the trails.  Now, onto Eastern States in August!

I’ve got to thank my wife for supporting me through my training and for her willingness to hang out in the middle of nowhere for hours on end just waiting to see me for 2 minutes at a time. Then again, I think our trip to Napa and San Francisco after the race was a pretty good Thank You in and of itself! And Thanks to my in-laws for looking after my little kiddo while her daddy was off gallivanting around some California trails. And a huge Thanks to Craig Thornley, the race management, and the hundreds of volunteers who made this amazing race possible!

(Random swag and purchases)


  • Altra Superior 2.0s -- my go-to race shoes. A couple times a month I wear non-Altra running shoes just to remind myself of how lucky we all are to have Altra in our lives!
  • Injinji trail socks -- Injinji + running = blister-free
  • Patagonia Strider Pro shorts -- When a 10L rucksack and a pair of running shorts have a baby
  • Boco trucker hat from Grindstone 100 -- my new favorite running hat
  • Goodr sunglasses -- I used to hate running with sunglasses, but these are amazing ... and stylin'
  • Homemade ice bandana -- worked like a charm
  • Random buff -- for when the ice bandana was overkill
  • Columbia arm coolers -- felt amazing all day long stuffed with ice or just wet down
  • About 16 Huma gels -- omm nom nom
  • 1800 calories of First Endurance Liquid Shot and EFS powder -- my "slurries"
  • 1400 calories of Tailwind
  • 1 cup of diced pears
  • 1 handful of grapes
  • 2 insects

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

2016 Promise Land 50K Race Report

I could go running and racing and dancing and chasing ...

Now I'm not religious ... at all. But the notion of a Promised Land was not lost on me as I found my self traversing the Blue Ridge Mountains of David Horton's Promise Land 50K.

... oh, what's that? You're wondering, what the hell is Rapunzel doing in this race report?! Well, I could opine about how the lyrics to the song When Will My Life Begin in the 2010 Disney instant classic Tangled embody the pure joy I feel when I'm traversing mountain single-track.  But, really, this obnoxious song just so happened to be THE song stuck in my head during Promise Land (for those interested, Winnie the Pooh's The Rain Rain Rain Came Down Down Down drove me crazy for the 7+ hours of Bull Run). Why? How? Well, I've got a 2 year old daughter. That should be explanation enough.  It's better than Let It Go, I suppose.

... Anyways ...

The first third of the race is mostly uphill as you make your way from roughly 1300' to just over 4000'. Then there's a good number of miles of pummeling downhill on steep single track and even a bit of road, flinging you headfirst into The Dark Side of the race. As you make your way to roughly the Marathon mark, you just hope and pray you've saved your legs enough for the brutal 3+ mile and 2000' climb AND the swift final 4 miles that sends you careening to the finish 2200' below. If you've trained right, if you bided your time in the first half of the race, you'll be rewarded with strong legs for the final climb and a swift stride down to the finish line at Promise Land Camp. If not, well, then it just wasn't your day!

Here's the obligatory Keith Knipling elevation profile:

Personally, this race was also an affirmation of my acceptance into the Promised Land of Ultrarunning. My first ultramarathon was almost exactly one year ago -- The North Face DC 50 Miler last April. I went into that race under-trained and still trying to recover from a multi-month bout of PatellaFemoral Pain Syndrome (PFMS) ... who knew you couldn't rush from couch to Marathon to weekly 30 mile runs! I limped my way to the finish in 9:22. A year later, here I was, toeing the line at the Promise Land 50K, already having shaved 2 hours off my 50 Mile effort, having won my first ultra, and having taken the podium in my 2 previous races.

PL50 would be my last of 5 ultras (+ 1 marathon) in 3 months. It would mark my transition from dipping my toes in the ultra waters to being a full-on legit runner, from a year of struggling and learning to a future of opportunities and accomplishments. I was hoping it'd be the final bit of racing confidence I'd need before heading off to Western States. I intended to race this bad boy all out, pedal to the medal.

... But ... 

in the immortal words of David Horton, I was "STUPID!" In my training 2 weeks prior, I ran along with the Boston Marathon live coverage on my treadmill ... ONE WEEK after running a solid 50 Miler. STUPID!  I was cocky and full of myself. I got bored with my casual 7-flat miles and after 20 miles, I said screw it! and kicked up the pace. I ran a sub-18:30 final 5K to finish in a few ticks under 3:00. If that wasn't enough, my treadmill belt got loose at the end, but instead of getting off and tightening it, I started stomping and pushing the belt into place while running sub-6 miles. STUPID! STUPID! STUPID!  For the week and a half between that fiasco and Promise Land, my left femur and quads ached like crazy. I could hardly walk some days. Runs were pain-filled and limp-tacular. I even resorted to drastic measures and went a full 72 hours without running!

... So instead of grabbing life by the horns at Promise Land, I resigned myself to hoping and praying that:
  • the pain wouldn't be too bad
  • I wouldn't cause enough further damage to jeopardize Western States
  • I could still muster a Top 10 (to redeem myself for my painful 11th place finish at Holiday Lake)

I started the race off with a comfortable climbing pace, surrounded by a handful of C-ville / Crozet runners and Clark Zealand (all decked out in his spiffy Patagonia kit ... jealous!).  I was pleasantly surprised that my bum leg only ached instead of sending stabbing pains through the depths of my femur and soul. I made sure to stay well within myself. I didn't climb too hard at the beginning and I was extra cautious on the downhills.

Before I knew it, I was 12 miles into the race, crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway a few seconds back of Ryan Paavola, greeted by the uplifting sound of Horton's voice: "...and ... FIRST LOSER!" I was in 11th place. I just shook my head and shouted that I'd make sure to catch a few guys.  "Be patient, some of those guys are going to die. Just be sure you don't die, too!"  I know, Horton, I know!

I flew through AS3, passing Clark and a runner I felt didn't belong up front. And just like that, I was in 9th!  On the long descent to AS4 I hit some steep, technical single track and found myself running too aggressive ... bounding this way and that, and nearly running right into Ryan Paavola. He kindly offered to let the lunatic by, but I apologized and said I needed to dial it back a bit ... I had a bum leg to be mindful of.

At one point, I got one of my Altra Lone Peak's soaking wet in a stream crossing and just like at Bull Run, the saturation caused my insole to slide around and fold over on itself, forcing my toes into a quasi-hammertoe position. It took an unnecessary amount of wriggling and sliding and pounding to work the insole back into place. I had worn the Lone Peaks instead of the Superiors for the extra bit of padding to protect my leg and I knew I'd run the risk of an insole slip. Going forward, I'll have to glue that sucker down if I run anything other than dry desert ultras with them.

Making my way through AS4, I still found myself behind Ryan, but well within sight of him. I chased him along the painfully hard, paved road for 2 miles before jumping onto the trails of Colon Hollow. I had taken it easy on my legs, making sure to not overexcite myself earlier and give chase to Ryan, and I quickly found that I had a spring in my step when we got back onto the trails. I jumped past Ryan and began to make my way through the rolling single-track and overgrown double-track for the next 6 miles.  I came upon another runner and just like that, I was in 7th.

I was feeling good when I got to AS5 at Colon Hollow and was told that 6th was only "a minute up".  Okay, it's clear my leg isn't going to fall off, so let's pick up the pace!  I thought I had to be making up ground, and then I started to run out of steam. I had mistakenly thought that this section was flat with rolling hills, but in actuality it was rolling hills on an 800' pitch ... I was climbing from 1200' to 2000' in 4 miles AND running rolling hills. It wasn't long before my will-power started to go out the window. This was supposed to be the easy section! I'm supposed to be strong and making up ground here! I kept looking back as I skirted along the densely forested hills ... at least I can't see anyone behind me ... I've got to be increasing my lead over everyone behind me. At one point I reached for my 4th and final gel in my pocket to find it wasn't there. Did I eat it already? Did it fall out? Did I even have 4 gels to start the race? Am I losing my mind?!

When I hit the 200m out-and-back section of trail that led down to AS6, I was hoping to see 6th place. Instead, all I saw was whole bunch of 'nothin. Ugh! And to make matters worse, coming back out of the aid station I passed by FOUR runners -- John Andersen, Clark Zealand, Ryan Paavola, and another runner I didn't know but he looked mighty fresh.

Seeing those guys was like a punch in the gut. Great, I'm running out of energy and instead of growing a lead over the past 5 miles, there's FOUR runners right on my tail and at least three of them scare me! Keeping Top Ten suddenly felt impossible. And to boot, John looked like he was on a mission -- "I'm coming for you and your broken leg!"

I frantically tried to keep running as I began the steep climb up past Apple Orchard Falls, but all that work felt futile. I was quickly passed by the mystery runner ... he was booking it! I thought that at any moment the other three would roll past me. I felt sapped of energy. The panic and fear of getting steamrolled by a hoard of hungry runners was a competitive feeling I'd not felt since high school. I loved it momentarily, and then hated it the rest of the race.

My legs were limp noodles, not high octane pistons. I thought that calories would help so I tried out the Picky Bar I had in my pocket for just this circumstance. I'd never tried Picky Bars before, but figured they sounded good and was hoping to try them out in a race environment. One bite ... my mouth filled with saliva ... and the taste of iron. I tried to choke that single bite down, but it wasn't happening. So much for that idea! (Post-race I ate the rest and it was delicious ... go figure). Then my stomach started to turn. I frantically pulled out my ziplock bag of TP and started searching the side of the trail for a place to go digging in the dirt. I'm running out of steam, there's 3 guys right on my tail, and now I'm going to lose 5 minutes going to the bathroom. Fan-freakin-tastic!

Luckily, my stomach settled and I never needed to stop.  By some miracle, I finally made it through the gauntlet of way-too-steep steps, past the waterfall, and up to the final AS, but I honestly couldn't say what the scenery was like on the way up. I hear it's beautiful, but I was busy hunched over, staring at the ground, hoping my legs would keep pumping.

This is what the internet says I ran past:

I wouldn't know ... I was too busy contemplating collapsing into a heap and weeping like a little baby.

I passed through the final AS and stumbled my way to the top of the climb. Then, the cramps kicked in. Fantastic! I hadn't experienced cramps in my previous 4 races this spring, so it was clear that something was up with my legs.  My right leg was the worst, likely from slightly overcompensating all race to protect the bum left leg. I stopped for a moment to stretch out. Then I stopped for another moment.  Was I going to survive this race at all?!

"Oh don't do that!" John had caught up with me as I was stretching out my quad cramps and offered up some sage advice.  I started to run with him but it was clear I wouldn't be able to keep up. After a few minutes of chatting, he ran on down the trail. I, on the other hand, limped along at pedestrian pace ... And then I bit it! My leg threw a cramp mid-stride and I was flung headlong onto the trail. After a quick roll and pop-up, my legs surprisingly felt better, probably from a quick shot of adrenaline. I picked up the pace as I careened downhill along the final stretch of single track.  As I popped out onto the road to the finish, I could see John in the distance.  I picked up the pace to the point of pain, but not hard enough that I was going to blow out my legs. I had really wanted to run in the neighborhood of 5:30 miles on the way down, but that wasn't going to be happening today.

I kept my eyes fixated on John as I flew down the mountainside at 6-flat pace, breathing calmly, and ever mindful of my weakened legs. 10 seconds back ... still 10 seconds back ... still 10 seconds back ... I'm gonna catch you! 15 seconds back ... One Mile To Go! ... 20 seconds back ... Cramp! Cramp! Cramp! ... There's someone behind me?! How the hell did that happen? Just dig deep ... Almost there. 

And finally ... there it was ... The Promise(d) Land!

I ended the race firmly in 9th place with a time of 5:15. Except, well, actually, it was 8th place!  The would-be 2nd place runner took a wrong turn after cresting the final climb and ended up retracing an earlier section of the race ... his loss, my gain. While I was 15 minutes off of my original goal, I was only 5 minutes back of my pre-race adjusted goal of 5:10, and more than all of those 5 minutes were lost on the final climb and descent. At the end of the day, it was a solid effort that I could hang my hat upon. I was nowhere near 100% physically, yet I stayed within range of many runners I'm now beginning to consider my equals and no longer those lead guys waaay up ahead.  And I snagged a Top 10 to redeem myself from Holiday Lake ... with some sweet Top 10 swag -- an insanely comfortable Patagonia hoodie (I always need a new hoodie!). It was an incredible race and an amazing experience. I can't wait to come back next year -- healthier, stronger, determined.

... and now it's time to go see a doctor about that leg!