Monday, October 14, 2019

5X Grindstone - More Than a Race

"A million suns won't fill you up if you can't see the wine flowing over your cup." -- Brand New

Look at that sexy elevation profile!

Some races are just that, a race, an event, something you sign up for and then move on from when it's over. Other times they're more, they're something special, something you connect with. For me, the Grindstone 100 is a very special race. The beautiful setting in the mountains of Virginia. Its 23,000' of substantial and varied climbs and descents. Its sections of smooth and runnable trail, and its other sections of rocky hellscape. The unique 6pm start on the first Friday of October that forces some runners to spend 2/3rds of their race running in the dark. There's no other way to put it, Grindstone is an incredible, classic 100 miler.

For me, personally, Grindstone is also something much, much more. It's family, it's coming home after an extended absence, it's a weekend I look forward to all year long. Grindstone is the race that made me fall in love with ultra running. It was my very first 100 miler, and for the fifth year in a row I'd be towing the line. This time was different, though. 5-timing at Grindstone awards you a big honkin' buckle, something I was very much looking forward to finally earning; in a way, it would signify I'd become a veteran, an elder of a race that had come to define much of who I am as a runner. I intend to keep running Grindstone in the future, but I knew coming into it this year that it'd be my last time starting for a while -- there were other fall 100s to experience, and I wanted to start spending time volunteering at Grindstone and helping other runners achieve their goals. Moreover, after moving from DC to St. Louis a few months prior, the mountains of Virginia were no longer in my backyard, and I was very much looking forward to seeing them again. In a way, too, I was coming to Grindstone this year not just to run it, but to say good-bye to trails that I'd come to know and love, trails I was unlikely to run again for some time.

Grindstone weekend was everything that I hoped it could be, and more.  After Summer had been stubbornly over-wearing its welcome, Fall finally rolled in mere hours before the race start, and runners were blessed with undeniably perfect race conditions. The daytime was sunny and warm, but not too warm. Humidity was low. The mountain peaks and ridgelines embraced runners with crisp, light breezes and the rustling of leaves. The nighttime was cool and clear and pleasant. This was not a year of soupy humidity or never-ending downpours, it was a year for PRs and a high finisher rate.

I'm Number One!

As one of the more experienced and accomplished returning runners, Clark Zealand -- the RD -- honored me with my first-ever Number One seed. I viewed it mostly as a joke, but I was nonetheless moved and appreciative of the distinction. There was good, healthy competition at the front of the field, particularly for the men. Positioning for the Top 5 runners was still being decided coming into the final aid stations. And due to some nearly unfortunate luck on the part of this year's winner, I was mere minutes away from stealing the victory. Despite taking a wrong turn on an unmarked section of trail after the final aid station, Paul Jacobs corrected his mistake in the nick of time and secured the overall victory.

There's a 19 on that clock! Photo Credit: No Clue.

Apart from running, I soaked up my Grindstone weekend chatting with old running friends and enjoying their company before and after the race. I was grateful to see many friendly faces volunteering at the aid stations. I shared tales of the trail. I cheered on other runners. I soaked in the atmosphere of one of my favorite weekends of the year. And then, after I received my 5X buckle, I said my good-byes, and began my 700 mile trek home from Camp Shenandoah. On the way, I reflected on the weekend, finding myself nearly in tears, but also earnestly looking forward to spending a long weekend next year manning aid stations and helping other runners achieve their lofty dreams.

The infamous Wicked Good Grindstone cookie. The real reason we sign up for this race.

Here is a more detailed accounting of my race for anyone interested:

My race was, all around, a fantastic experience. After coming so close to breaking 20 hours in 2017, I was laser-focused on achieving that goal this time around. Moreover, I wanted to make amends for my disappointing 6th place slog-fest last year and hopefully break into the Top 3. While my training leading into Grindstone was nothing to write home about, I felt that after 5 years of running I finally had a reliable base to hold me up in longer races.

For the first 100K, I diligently adhered to splits that would secure a 20 hour finish, and my effort always felt calm and controlled. I unexpectedly moved into first place around Mile 17, only realizing it after repeatedly being gifted with spiderwebs to the face. But it didn't last long because I got swallowed up by a hole soon thereafter -- sinking waist-deep into a leaf-filled depression on the edge of the trail formed by a recently upended tree. I was going downhill and travelling fast, so the experience was rather jarring. I laid there, momentarily dazed, and a gaggle of runners flew by. Next thing I knew, I'd ceded 7 or 8 places. After regaining my composure, I kept at it, maintaining my own effort, and not worrying about the seemingly unsustainable pace of those front runners.

Around Mile 30, along the rocky, technical descent into North River Gap, my mind flowed into a state of utter upheaval.  Usually, it takes more than 80 miles before I'm overcome with emotions, sobbing while fast-hiking up an absurdly steep mountain trail. This time was different. I had begun to reflect on how much Grindstone meant to me, on how great it was to see so many of my East Coast running friends, on how this was my final time racing Grindstone for a while and that it felt like I was somehow, along every single mile of the course, saying good-bye to a close friend. It became too much to bear. The emotions were too high. It was nearly impossible to properly focus on my running. Despite being perfectly positioned for a great race, I gave up all competitive aspirations. I'd be happy to just phone it in the next 70 miles, taking it easy, enjoying saying my good-byes to every stretch of trail along the way.

Accurate representation of me running down Lookout Mountain.

I thought about how Horton would've called me a sissy and that I'd need to suck it up and run, but I didn't care. Trying to cast aside those powerful emotions would be to discredit them. I wanted my 5th Grindstone to be a "meaningful experience", but how could I ever achieve that if I were to stubbornly suppress all of those feelings that were welling up inside me? How could I expect to look back fondly on this day if I spent the bulk of it fighting off emotions that powerful? So there I was, stumbling down the trail, in the dark, ugly crying like Claire Danes. It took everything I had to resist the urge to just sit down and let it all out. After nearly an hour of this headspace, I rolled into North River Gap, and at one point I just stood there, blankly staring off at the drop bags, choking back tears. I found Clark, muttered something about being a little emotionally overwhelmed, then reached for a handshake as I fought off the urge to give him a hug and bawl onto his shoulder.

For the first miles of the nearly 2 hour climb out of North River Gap, I was still an emotional wreck. But then, in an instant, something changed. Just after the top of Grindstone Mountain, I stopped and closed my eyes, focusing on the feeling of the crisp autumn breeze against my face and the mesmerizing sound of shaking leaves in the surrounding trees. I experienced a freeing fullness of being. I was a part of the trail, and the trail a part of me. I was grounded, focused. I didn't need to cast aside my emotions, I could embrace them and still run with purpose. And, perhaps, too, I now fully understood Spinoza. But no time to add philosophical musings to the fray, I had to get back to running!

I calmly rolled into the Turnaround, feeling fresh and collected. I made note of how far ahead the other runners were, but stayed the course and felt no urgency to attack. I was on 20-flat pace and there was no way more than a couple of those runners would be able to keep it up. Instead of frantically bombing the 3000' descent back into North River Gap at Mile 65 like I did two years ago, I took my time and took care of my legs. And just before the aid station, after more than 30 miles of solitude, I finally overtook a runner. I made quick work of the aid station just before the break of dawn and energetically climbed the technical trail back up Lookout Mountain. In years past, this section of the course had always, without fail, crushed my spirits. But my legs felt great this time around and I just floated along. Lyrics from Brand New and Janelle Monae danced in my head and put a pep in my step. I went back and forth with 5th place for a bit, before he flew down the next descent to Dowell's Draft at Mile 80, clearly at an unsustainable pace. I didn't panic because I knew those legs would be trashed by the time he got to the final miles. I rolled along, doing my own thing. And ... I felt amazing! Suddenly, Alicia Keys was blaring inside my head -- This Girl Is On Fiyaaaahhh!

I overtook another runner. Then I calmly cruised up and down Crawford Mountain and stumbled upon two more runners at the Dry Branch Gap aid station at Mile 88. Less than a mile into the final four mile climb, I made my move and blew past them. Despite the steep, rocky sections up Elliott's Knob, and the fact that I was 90 miles into the race, I never stopped to hike. I was flying. I went from dancing right on 20-flat pace to suddenly being 10 minutes ahead of pace. As I turned off the top of Elliott's, I could see 2nd place -- the presumptive dead legs guy -- no more than one minute ahead of me. I descended with purpose, but remain controlled. I blew through the final aid station with 5 miles to go and knew without any shadow of a doubt that I was finally going to break 20 hours at Grindstone. Now, I wanted to see how much lower I could go.

I kept on charging, soon working my way into 2nd place. I didn't let up, all the way to the final mile of the course. I normally run this section as hard and fast as I can, but the way I was running was putting my old efforts to shame. Then, as I turned onto the dam, mere minutes from the finish, I heard something odd: cheering. I didn't know what to make of it since I was in 2nd place and only two aid stations prior I was told the leader was 30-40 minutes up and looking good. I rolled into the finishing chute at 19:47 elapsed. The emotions of the day came bubbling up, but somehow I held off the tears, shook Clark's hand, took my buckle, and had a well-deserved seat just off the finish line.

Paul Jacobs was there, having finished literally 3 minutes ahead of me. I was 3 friggin minutes away from a victory at my favorite 100 Miler! Oh well! It didn't matter. I was over the moon. I ran a perfect race, negative-split the course like a beast, had an absolute blast, PR'd, demolished my sub-20 goal, and secured 2nd place by passing three runners in the final 10 miles. I could not have asked for a better race. It was the perfect end to my 5 consecutive years at Grindstone. I will cherish the memories of this weekend for the rest of my life.

My cup runneth over…

It's okay, you can be jealous of my amazing buckle.

Top Finisher handshake!

Muchos Gracias:

An especially big THANK YOU to my wife and in-laws for letting me disappear for 4 days straight and for looking after my kiddos. I really missed having my wife and daughter crew me this year, but was so thankful to now live nearby Mimi and Poppy, who willingly shouldered some of the parenting responsibilities in my absence.

Thank you to all of the volunteers at Grindstone! This race wouldn't be possible without you. I am so excited to start volunteering alongside y'all next year.

And thank you to Clark, for always putting on a great race, hosting an incredible weekend, and giving hundreds of us runners memories that will last a lifetime.

Post Script:

As of last year, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries disallowed trail markers on a 3 mile stretch of the course. Despite having run the course 4 previous times, I missed a critical turn off of a gravel road at Mile 4. It was badly overgrown and did not look like the picture I had in my head of the turn ... and Horton wasn't there like usual to help everyone out. So, really, it's like 50% VA DGIF's fault and 50% Horton's fault, with no remaining fault allocated to myself or my fellow runners! After a few minutes I convinced myself we'd missed the turn and I rounded up the front pack to retrace our steps. Along with another 2 or 3 groups of runners we picked up on the way back, I'd say 50+ people missed that turn. Ouch! All told, it cost the front of the pack 12 minutes, but had zero impact on the top finishers since all of us made the mistake together.

I negative-split the course in 10:02/9:45.

I was the only runner to go under 10 hours on the back half of the course.
I was the only runner to run the "Final 50K" from NRG under 7 hours (6:46).

This is totally not a thing, but I seem to now hold the record for fastest 5x finishes: 107:40:35 (21:32:07 average). The previous best looks to have been Keith Knipling with 111:11:41 (22:14:20 average). Who's gonna step up and better that mark?!

Me and fellow 5X-ers, Nelson Hernandez and Brian Hulbert.

After a couple years suffering through palate fatigue with my Huma gels, I had zero problems with Science In Sport gels. I probably had 14 of those, along with 2 Huma gels early on, and a few Clif Blocks. The rest of my nutrition came from a steady supply of Tailwind, aid station potatoes, and strategically placed Starbucks Frappuccinos in my drop bags.

As always, I did my best Jeff Browning impersonation, dressing in Patagonia gear and sporting Altra Lone Peaks. And I rocked a sweet pair of knee-high Injinji stars and stripes socks, cuz 'Mericuh!

Also, I drove a total of 23 hours to and from the race ... the sub-20 hour race. Ugh.

And finally, here's a homemade Flyby chart showing how, according to Horton, I "should have run faster!"
Race FlyBy.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Old Dominion

Here's an answer to the question: "What do you think about when you run?"

WARNING: Much of this race report attempts to accurately convey my mental state during the 2019 Old Dominion 100. Know that I was pissy and moody much of that time, and combining that with my natural predilection for being a sarcastic ass yielded many thoughts that were perhaps comedically dark and possibly offensive. So … if you get easily offended or have no taste for dry, sarcastic wit, or find the occasional F-bomb to be in poor taste, then just click that little "X" at the top of this window and go on about your day. If you wanna know what really goes on in the mind of a runner mid-race, then read on!

Before you conclude that I'm a cranky, angry little man that hates everyone and everything, I have to say upfront that I am incredibly grateful to the race organizers, the volunteers, and all the crew/spectators I saw along the way. The Old Dominion 100 is a truly unique race with an incredible down-to-earth and family feel about it. Despite what you might read down below, I am thankful for having participated in the race and respect the hard work and dedication of everyone involved. Also, though I continually rail on the race for being flat and on roads, it does have a surprising variety of grades and terrain in the undeniably beautiful Fort Valley, which is nice … that said, they took the gravel and paved roads up to an 11 and I'd really like them to be way down at a 1 or 2. Personal preference, but there it is.

Okay, so why was I running Old Dominion? Well, it's the closest "mountain" 100 miler to DC. I wanted to run one of the old, classic hundred milers out here before I packed my bags and headed back to Missouri later in the year. Massanutten would've been a better fit for me, most likely (despite the ungodly amount of rocks), but it came only a few weeks after Hellbender's 25K feet of climbing. So, I opted for the tamer Old Dominion a few weeks later in the calendar. Plus, the buckle is downright glorious!

I knew heading into the race that it was unlikely to be my cup of tea. There's a lot of gravel and a lot of running and not nearly enough climbing and descending. The race claims 14 "significant" climbs over 14K total vert, but no, just no. There's maybe 6 or 7 non-hills, and even then only a couple of those are real climbs. Having previously run Vermont, which also was not my cup of tea, I knew what I was getting into. Like it or not I was going to be doing a lot of flat running all day, so better get used to the idea!

My ultimate goal was to finish without a headlamp. I came oh-so-close at Vermont a couple years ago. Given that the last few miles of the race were in the town of Woodstock, I could comfortably achieve that by finishing somewhere in the vicinity of 9-9:30pm. That'd give me a 17:00-17:30 finishing time. It seemed doable. Secondarily, I wanted to podium, but really, I just wanted to run 100 miles without a headlamp. I ended up finishing in 18:06, with a headlamp, taking 3rd place. It wasn't what I wanted, but whatever. It is a bit of a dick thing to say I wasn't pleased with an 18hr podium finish at Old Dominion when plenty of people out there would give their swollen right nut to have that kind of performance. Oh, sorry, did that little turn of phrase catch you off guard? Well, it'll come up again in a little while, I promise!

I started the race at 4am, one of the few runners without a light. Despite there being no moon in the sky, it didn't bother me at all along the pavement out of town. As I crested the first climb of the day -- the Woodstock Tower road climb -- at roughly 5am, the day's first light was just beginning to creep into the mountains. My legs felt stiff and heavy and my stride a bit clunky, so I was hoping the next couple miles of trail would clear things out. Only, it was mere miles into the race and I already had an upset stomach. At the top of the second hill along the Massanutten Trail, I'd finally had enough and deposited my offering to the trail gods. Suck it, Orange Blaze! Sadly, this did not alleviate the pain in my gut and I spent the entire first 50K of the race with an uncomfortably tight lower intestines that was bad enough it noticeably impacted my stride, to say nothing of my general demeanor.

Somewhere around Mile 20, steps after a photographer snapped my picture, I sucked down a fly and it stuck to the soft tissue at the back of my throat. I spent 2 minutes standing there, hacking and coughing and gagging and downing an ungodly amount of liquids to try and clear it out. I've never thrown up in a race before, and that was a close one!

I lumbered along to Mile 32 running all but roughly 1/2 mile of the course thus far. My legs didn't feel right, my stomach was a mess, I was sick of running, and the gravel roads were starting to piss me off. One of the aid stations I lolly-gagged into had nothing but gatorade, fun size snickers, and pringles. God Damnit! What do I have to do to get some fresh sushi or organic pesticide free berries around here?! On to the next aid station.

Just before the first drop bag at Four Points -- Mile 32 -- my stomach had had enough again and I was forced to dive over a guardrail on Camp Roosevelt Road and relieve myself in what I later observed to be a small patch of stinging nettles. Excellent! At least I didn't wipe my ass with those leaves! Nevertheless, for the next half hour my butthole itched to holy hell. Ultra running! Huzzah!

I strolled into Four Points just before the 5 hour mark, over 20 minutes back of what I'd hoped for. My stomach accounted for some of that time, but it was clear that my legs just weren't up to the challenge today. I chugged a frappuccino and headed off to tackle the middle section of the race having already admitted defeat on the day.

I hiked most of the next hill as an FU to the race. Make me run non-stop for 50K, well I'll show you! As I ran back down yet another non-trail section of the course I vowed that I would despise everything about this race from here on out. I came across a snake and instantly thought, "if that thing bites me, maybe I can quit, wouldn't that be nice." On the one hand, I was actually hoping for an excuse to be done for the day, and on the other hand I knew that my body was fully capable of making it to the finish of this candy-ass flat hundred. A ways down the road I straight-up kicked another snake so that it'd get off the road. You're welcome, fellow runners, I just saved your life with my bravery.

I then entered the Apocalypse Now section of the course -- the bombed out, fire-damaged, logged section of Duncan Hollow -- and began repeating the mantra: this is stupid, I hate this. It was slow going, but at least I was on a trail for a little while. And, at some point my stomach finally stopped making me want to keel over in pain. The trail fucking sucked because it was filled with bullshit Massanutten rocks and there were 75 horseflies attacking me every step of the way. I fucking hate horseflies! It started getting warm enough that I was needing to douse myself with water at every creek crossing to fight off the heat. At some point I came up to one of the 752 aid stations along the course, which was literally a couple old folks and two mules with some cases of water bottles along the side of the trail. Bonus points for originality and for the dedication!

Then, it was back to the horseflies … and a healthy dose of taint chafing. Yeah, I knew you wanted to know about that.  A little later on, I stopped for a legit two minutes because … my shoulder hurt. No, seriously. That's how much I stopped giving a shit. Somehow my shoulder -- it wasn't even my arm that was holding my bottle -- started hurting. Like, stabbing pains. I let it just hang there to try and minimize the pain. Every footfall, especially downhill, was excruciating. And so I stopped mid-race to massage my god damned shoulder. Fuck my life. Eventually the pain subsided, but the shame remains to this day.

After a long and not at all steep road descent back to Four Points -- Mile 47 -- I found myself 40 minutes behind schedule. Terrific. I knew that there was a quasi-climb up ahead but I had no real understanding of what it would be like. It ended up being an exposed 6 mile dirt road climb in the heat of the day. Right at noon I got excited because it was Jarmans O'clock and I was climbing a shitty exposed road. That excitement quickly dampened and I ended up just being plain sick of it all. It was a total "douche grade" climb, but I ended up walking entirely too much of it because I just Did. Not. Care. Around the 50 Mile mark I transitioned into my no-gels phase of running, where the mere thought of consuming a gel made me want to hurl. In the first 8 hours of the race I downed maybe 500 calories of gels and a few hundred calories of Clif Blocks. Afterwards: zero. Perhaps an epic calorie deficit was swiftly coming my way!

Around this point in the race I also started developing an odd hitch in my stride. Why? Because, my right testicle was painfully swollen. Actually, it wasn't the testicle itself, but rather the epididymis. Oh, you don't know what the epididymis is? Did you miss that day in 7th grade health class? Well, Google states that it is "a highly convoluted duct behind the testis, along which sperm passes to the vas deferens." Fun Fact: Epididymitis, inflammation of the epididymis, is often caused by a bacterial or sexually transmitted infection. You're welcome for that thrilling health lesson! But yeah, let's just stick with describing the situation as a swollen right nut (I told you we'd be revisiting this subject!). It hurt. So bad. For miles. And miles. And miles. All told, I'd say there was about an hour of extreme discomfort, then another hour or so of much more tolerable pain, and then it just kinda sorta dulled out into nothingness and the inflammation went away. I'm really glad we had this opportunity to sit down together and talk about my testicles, it's been a lot of fun!

Anyways … I walked into the 51 Mile aid station, "Mountain Top", which is not at the top of the damned mountain, feeling cooked, and frustrated at having to look at green mountains yet being stuck on a glorified logging road. After downing a dozen strawberries and a bunch of coke the volunteers convinced me to take a freeze pop for the road. It was magical! That is, until a mile later when I couldn't get the sugary residue off my teeth. I was told I was 17 minutes back of the next guy, which I thought was Rich Riopel in 2nd place. I figured if I caught him then I caught him, but I wasn't going to bother myself with actually working hard to do so. My pity party was just getting started!

After cresting the mountain, I continued to run along a god-forsaken road for hours and hours. This bit was particularly frustrating as right fucking next to me was a trail. I literally ran along a road for multiple miles while staring off to a trail not more than 10 yards to my right. At one point a gaggle of dirt bikers putzed along said trail and I momentarily felt glad that I was on a road. Dirt bikers are the worst with their loud, obnoxious douchebaggy vehicles spoiling every decent quality about the natural forest they are riding in. Ugh!

At the next station, Edinburg Gap -- Mile 56 -- I downed an entire watermelon, then proceeded to the "ATV" section of the course. I knew I was going to hate this section before I even saw it. It was a 10 foot wide scar in the forest, meant for lazy ass losers to have "recreation" time in their dumb CO2 spewing vehicles. Scores of rednecks and bros, hobbling along in their Jeeps, thinking they're all cool as they replay images of decades worth of Jeep commercials in their minds. Whoever designed these trails put mountain bikers' absurd trails to shame.

At one point along the ATV, sorry "OHV", trail I came upon a freshly washed Faux-Jeep Baby Cherokee. It was so cute! It putzed along the 2% grade descent at a comfortable 5 mph. The guy literally had to stop and let me pass. He was going so slow. This runnable section of trail actually perked up my spirits a bit, but the prevalence of cars still had me feeling pissy and mean spirited. Right then and there, I decided to make up a story of how that cute little Baby Cherokee ended up getting passed by a runner in a national forest, and here is that gripping tale:

Dad: "Hey family, who wants to head to the forest for the day?"
Kid #1: "Me, me! Are we going to go hiking?"
Dad: "Nope."
Kid #2: "Mountain biking! Hooray!"
Dad: "Nope."
Mom: "Are we going to go on a picnic where you assume all responsibility of the kids and I can just sit in the shade and guzzle a bottle of cheap Rose and read a book?"
Dad: "No way. This is going to be so much better! Let's take our glorified crossover out on the trails and go off roading! Who needs to enjoy nature with exercise or a picnic when we can take our cliché suburban airconditioned non-SUV and pollute the beautiful forests of our National Parks System with our internal combustion engine. It'll be so much fun you guys! We'll roll along at a blistering 5 miles an hour, because I'm too afraid of messing up my delicate crossover suspension system. Then, eventually, a runner will pass us by, rendering me totally emasculated and insecure, eventually bringing about an era of familial discontent that will inevitably lead to divorce and the dissolution of our family. And I'll spend the rest of my days hanging out, alone, at Dave and Busters, getting shitfaced every night on Coors Light while trying to hit on college girls half my age and uncomfortably staring a bit too long at the bartender's breasts. Then I'll stumble to my depressing 1-bedroom bachelor pad, reeking of stale pizza and dirty socks, and cry myself to sleep and dream of better days. … So, who's with me?!"
Kid #1: "That sounds awful. I'd rather go over to Billy's house and play Fortnite. See ya."
Kid #2: "Yeah, you suck dad. I'm gonna go hang out in my room and do homework or something, anything to get away from you."
Mom: "Sorry, honey, but that's the stupidest idea you've ever had. But you feel free to go out there by yourself if you really want to. I'll just head over to my coworker Kyle's place and hang out. You remember Kyle, right? Tall, handsome, muscular. God, I could ride that all night long. … Shit, did I say that out loud?"

Ok, back to the running bits! I rolled into Little Fort -- Mile 65 -- actually feeling pretty good. I was still bleeding time, but I had actually spent some quality miles on trails. Granted, they were trails for cars, but whatever, I guess I'm at that point where I'll take what I can get. I'm an optimist at heart.

I spent some time lazily hiking up a lame 300 foot road climb, then ran along some more gravel roads that I'd seen earlier in the day and tried to not get run over by redneck families on their 4-wheelers.

I eventually popped out on the Mudhole Gap Trail. I was told by an anonymous source that Keith Knipling loves this section of trail and wants to have babies with it. It was like 3 minutes of real trail, and then a few miles of quasi-trail … but covered in bits of fucking gravel. With the Old Dominion, even the trails are gravel! So yeah, apparently Keith Knipling has atrocious taste in trails. Gross, Keith, gross.

Okay, I have this theory. The Botts family, that started and maintain the race, are secretly Virginia gravel kingpins. They have backroom deals with politicians all over the place to get their overpriced gravel strewn out throughout the region, even in the forests. Directing the Old Dominion 100 Mile Cross Country Run is all a ruse to prematurely wear out the gravel roads and trails they maintain so that they can come back in and lay more gravel at a hefty profit, compliments of John Q. Taxpayer. I'm sure there are plenty of off the books money exchanges with local politicians. These folks are raking in millions with their gravel racket!

At one point, dropping down the ridge above Elizabeth Furnace, I spied the Shenandoah Mountains off to the East. Look at those majestic sons of bitches! Real mountains! Two to three thousand foot climbs! The Real Deal. Not like this shitty midget Massanutten Mountain crap. Please, just get me out of here, I hate this place, I want to run over there!

After some more gravel trail, I finally hit the legit trail just outside of Elizabeth Furnace and rolled into the aid station -- Mile 75 -- nearly an hour behind schedule. However, it was now 5pm, the heat of the day was gone, and I had some real climbs ahead of me to look forward to. 75 miles of boredom and worthless running to finally get to the good stuff. In a way, the Old Dominion is a lot like this allegory that I whipped up whilst running:

Dad: "Hey sweetheart, do you wanna go catch that new movie you've been wanting to see?"
Daughter: "Gee willikers! That'd be great, dad. I love you so much! I'll go get my jacket."
Dad: "Well hold on there, sport. I didn't say we'd go right now! First, I need you to write a 5,000 word essay arguing that mountain bikers are objectively better trail stewards than runners and hikers. When you're done, we can go see that movie."
Daughter: "God damnit, dad. You're the worst! I hate you! I wish mom had given me up for adoption when I was born!"
Dad: "Me too, kiddo, me too."

Okay, so I was at Elizabeth Furnace, working through my drop bag, getting ready for the long anticipated fun part of the course, when who strolls over? None other than Jack Kurisky! I was doing the whole solo schtick but decided I'd allow him the opportunity to fill my bottle with some ice, you know, keep him busy, give him something to do, make him feel special. Good thing Old Dominion doesn't have a real Solo category, or else some stickler might've reported me … for a non-volunteer putting a handful of ice in a bottle. (Enter Hardrock joke here, if you're into that sort of thing). Anyways, it was great to see a friend after nearly 13 hours of not loving life. As always, he was extremely supportive and upbeat, and he sent me off in a much better mood than I'd come in with. And to top things off, I was told the guy in front of me "just left one minute ago". Oh man, I'm only a minute behind Riopel and I'm just now entering my comfort zone.

With a fresh state of mind, I hit the trails leading up Sherman Gap. I heard it was steep and a little gnarly, and that it'd be friggin awesome! Only, I had to run through 2 miles of bullshit rollers to get there. What the hell?! I want steep climbs and I want them NOW! Finally, I got to the gritty section of Sherman Gap and slow-hiked my way up for nearly 30 minutes. It was heavenly. No more running for me, just hiking up and falling down … the way it should be. I wish Shermans was twice as high!

As I flew down the other side of Sherman Gap, I quickly overtook Riopel. Only … it wasn't Riopel. It was some random old dude. Random old dude, where the hell did you come from? I could've sworn there were only 2 people ahead of me. Nevermind, you're going slow downhill, you must not be in the race. Moving on.

At the bottom, I hit a 2 mile stretch of rolling road. Ugh, more friggin road. But it leads to another steep climb. I'll take the bitter with the sweet right now. Life is all about compromise, that's what the Buddha says. I cruised into Veach East -- Mile 83 -- and exchanged some sass with the VHTRC volunteers who kept trying to push their idea of a fun time: soup and broth. It's 80 fucking degrees out dude, get that shit away from me! As I left I heard cheering. Damn it, random old dude is an actual runner. I really don't wanna race right now.

Random old dude caught up with me. We exchanged pleasantries. Then he went off ahead of me up Veach Gap. I, on the other hand, lazily hiked. Why? Because I'm a slow hiker. But most importantly, because I'd been running all damn day and I deserved this, so leave me alone! After the crest, I went flying down the hill. I quickly overtook random old dude, who was hobble jogging his way down the mountainside. Into Veach West -- Mile 86 -- I went. More coke, more fruit. More sass about broth. No, kind volunteer, I don't have a drop bag, it's friggin Mile 86, who has a drop bag this far into the race, leave me alone! Onward to more fucking gravel and pavement!

My legs were feeling good and by the next aid station -- Mile 91 -- I was ready for the final climb. I was going to no walk this non-trail bastard. I got to a stretch of road I'd already visited back at Mile 65. I'd lazily walked it that time, but the sun was setting now, the race was almost over, and I was feeling great, so I sprinted all the way up. Well, not a sprint so much as a shuffle jog, but you get the idea. I ran right on by the little aid station up there just as nautical twilight was beginning, begrudgingly turned on my piddly little Petzl Bindi, and started tearing ass down the mountain into Woodstock. It took me 61 minutes to get to the top in the morning and I'd be damned if I wasn't going to get back to the finish in less than an hour. I heroically flew down the pavement for 1000 vertical feet, crossed the North Fork Shenandoah River, sprinted at a blazing 10 minutes per mile along the rolling asphalt, kept running along the rolling asphalt, ran some more … still more running … Jesus Christ when the hell can I stop running … okay, sweet, Downtown Woodstock, only 2 miles to go … aaaand, FINISH!

Riopel was there. He finished less than 20 minutes before me. And he had this to say about the race: "I liked the roads!" God damnit, Rich, you're a disappointment.  Also, there was no Top Finisher Patagonia schwag … what bullshit!

That first 75 miles was terrible. That last 25 was much better. I was faster than everyone else in that stretch, so suck it, fellow competitors! Never in my life have I had so little fun running a 100 mile race.

And for the record, no, I'm not coming back. I got my buckle, I'm done. Those valley roads and all that pavement and gravel will haunt my memories until the day I die. There's mountains right friggin there, so why in the hell are we running on these god forsaken roads?! Next time I get into States, you won't be hearing me talk about a Grand Slam, nope nope nope.

I'd like to thank my wife for solo parenting for 2 days, dealing with a sick kid, and for having to clean up kiddo car seat vomit all by herself. She puts up with a lot just so I can go run for a long time in an angsty, pissy mood.

The End

P.S.: Hugs and kisses, rainbows and unicorns!

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Fare Thee Well, East Coast

As I was driving to the airport at 4am last week, working on less than 4 hours of sick-kiddo-interrupted sleep, I found myself tearing up. Why? Because I had some dirt in my eye, duh. No. It was because the events of the next few weeks were suddenly sinking in. And just like with my emotionally compromised state at Mile 80 of nearly every 100 Miler, slightly salty water for some reason began to form at the corners of my eyes.

In two weeks, I'll be moving from DC, a region that I've called home for the past decade, to St. Louis, in order to raise my children closer to family. I sat there, in my car on I-95, with quick-fire images of my favorite trails popping into my head. And then, more importantly, thoughts of all the folks I've met over the past 4 years of ultrarunning, and all of the friendships I've found along the way.

After many years of hardly running, I finally got off the couch and committed myself to the sport 5 years ago. By early 2015 I had finally run my first ultra, and not long after that my first hundo. I started out knowing nothing about the sport. I knew nothing about Happy Trails. I knew no other runners. My initial ignorance is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that, for my very first ultra, I chose the North Face DC 50 Miler over BRR.

Right from the beginning I knew I wanted to run longer, harder races. Starting out, though, I just thought that I'd be doing it all by myself, in my own little introverted bubble. In that first year, I finally learned about VHTRC, and I started to find "my people". Now, nearly every race I go to turns into something more akin to a family reunion. In the years to come, as I struggle to seek out the most rigorous 100 foot "climbs" that St. Louis has to offer, I will no doubt longingly yearn for the comforts of Rock Creek Park's endless miles of single track mere minutes from my front door, and for the killer climbs and descents of Shenandoah. More than that though, I'll miss the Virginia ultrarunning community -- the training runs, the volunteering, hanging out at a race every couple of months. Sure, St. Louis has its own ultra club, but it won't be the same.

I've met too many people to call out individually, but I'd like to take a moment to call out some of the Beast Coast folks that have had a particularly strong impact on me these past 5 years.

First of all, I'd like to thank my favorite race directors: David Horton, Alex Papadopoulos, and Clark Zealand. It's not by accident that over half my races have been ones you've put on. Every runner is indebted to the race directors and volunteers who make our favorite races happen, but the atmospheres that you've developed and nurtured, each different in their own ways, are second to none. Your races are clearly labors of love, and each of those races has strengthened my love for this sport -- excluding Holiday Lake and MMTR because, well, nevermind, I won't get into that here! Someday down the road I hope to give back to the ultrarunning community and direct a race of my own, in no small part because of the impact Horton, Clark, and Alex have had upon me.

You don't have to look too far in this sport to find admirable runners and personal heroes. You can have your Walmsleys and Dauwalters, but for me, two runners I look up to most are VHTRCers. Though I'd never say it to their faces for fear of turning bright red right there on the spot, you'd be hard-pressed to find more admirable people than Sophie Speidel and Jack Kurisky. I look up to the two of you more than anyone else in this sport. You are genuinely kind people who strengthen this community of oddball athletes with your dedication to the sport itself and to your fellow runners. And it doesn't hurt that you guys are straight-up studs! You keep putting in the work, showing up, and killing it on race day. It's clear that you guys love "the process" that gets you to the starting line year after year after year. I wanna be like you when I grow up!

And finally, I'd like to give a huge shout-out to all of the CRUT and C-ville runners out there that I've bonded with at races, of whom there are too many to call out individually. Right from the start I seemed to gravitate to y'all; and not unlike an awkward new kid at school, you were kind enough to invite me over to the lunch table where the cool kids sat. Half the fun of racing has been to see you all, swap stories, and suffer together. Sadly, I was unable to convince my wife that we should relocate to Crozet so that I could live out my days blissfully running up and down Jarmans.

And though I may be moving, many might not even notice. I still plan to take the 700 mile drive down I-64 a few times a year for races and such. I have to return to Grindstone this year to snag my 5X buckle, after which I'll likely keep coming back to volunteer and to help many of you finish my favorite 100 mile race. And the only way I'll ever miss Hellgate is if the Race Committee bars me from entering. I'll probably be at Promise Land most Aprils, and I hear the first Saturday in August is a lovely time to visit Crozet.

If anyone finds themselves in St. Louis, don't hesitate to reach out. And for anyone that makes the trek west for the big mountain races, St. Louis makes for a great pit-stop and I'll have spare beds ready to go! I'll also be that much closer to those races, and with extra hands around to help with the kids, it's all the more likely I'll be available for some crewing and pacing duties -- so when you make it into Hardrock, please take me with you! Oh, and if anyone is interested in a meet-in-the-middle group run, just know that my closest publicly accessible 1000' climb is in Frozen Head State Park … it's 7 hours away from St. Louis, but whatever.

It has been an absolute pleasure to be a part of this community of runners, and I'm counting down the days until I get to share miles and stories with many of you again.

Thursday, February 7, 2019


So there I was. Standing at the finish of another 100 miler. Panting, grasping for air. Hands on knees. Mumbling semi-incoherently. Overcome with emotion. Pretty typical, right?

Well, not exactly. Those emotions, they weren't your standard feelings of elation, pride in your accomplishment, gratefulness that you don't have to take another step. No. I was overwhelmed with a sense of intense shame. How did it come to this?

I'll spare you the intense details and cut right to the chase. But, for those interested in wasting an hour of your life, feel free to jump ahead so you can start from the beginning, and then retrace your steps to finish the thrilling tale of a guy that ran a race.

Anyways, back to that whole cutting right to the chase thing ...

I embarked upon my final lap at the HURT 100. I had secured 5th place and was fairly confident no one behind me was in striking distance. So I set out to enjoy myself and the peacefulness of the pitch-black jungle on the outskirts of Honolulu. My 24 hour goal, sadly, had slipped away, but I was confident I'd finish before sunrise / 25 hours, so I intentionally took it easy.

Halfway down the descent to the first Aid Station of the loop (the Pirate hangout, Pirate Cove, Manoa, whatever other name it goes by), I overtook 4th place. He was hobble-walking. It was his first 100 miler and he said his legs felt shot. But he was upbeat and excited to walk it in for the finish. Kudos! I knew the top 3 runners had been battling it out all day and they were far ahead of me, so it seemed like 4th place was my destiny. Not too shabby!

This has nothing to do with the race, but check out this view from my hotel room. Not pictured: primates in the zoo making adorable sounds.

After exiting the Aid Station and heading back the way I came, I bumped into fellow DC area runner Keith Knipling. As this happened, a Japanese runner with poles came screaming down the descent. I was a bit confused because I didn't remember lapping him and he seemed to be rather reckless for a person only on their 4th lap. I made mention to Keith of how I just slipped into 4th, overtaking the shirtless 5th place guy with the jell-o legs who also just ran by us. Keith, completely confused, said "No, I'm pretty sure that was Tomo. He's really good." And so it was confirmed, Japanese pole guy, AKA Tomo, AKA Tomokazu Ihara, was hunting me down and my 4th place position was in jeopardy. He was maybe 10 minutes behind with 14 sloppy, muddy, rooty, dark miles to go. And he looked strong. Like, really strong. My reaction: I can't compete with that, so yeah, I'm fine with 5th! And I casually worked my way along to the next Aid Station, patiently awaiting the inevitable.

I made it up the next climb and back down to the very, very, very sloppy 10-15 minutes of riverbank running before the Jackass Ginger (or Nu'uanu) Aid Station. Miraculously, I hadn't been passed yet. So I exited my final Aid Station of the day and kicked it into overdrive, busting my ass to slog back through the muck as quickly as possible and climb back up the hill I had just come down. I had my eyes peeled. 5 minutes ticked by, then 10. At 13 minutes without running into Tomo -- which would've amounted to a roughly 26 minute gap -- I was frustratingly confused. Not a moment later, I look back and there he is, right on my tail, levitating over the mud with his poles. We must've unknowingly crossed paths at the creek beside the Aid Station. We exchanged pleasantries for a moment and then he shot off like a rocket up the final climb. I, on the other hand, admitted defeat and resumed a more casual pace. 5th place. Good enough for me! Let's enjoy it!

When I climbed up to the ridge, I sat down on a bench, gazed up at the full moon, looked out over the lights of Honolulu, and took it all in. Perfect running bliss!

About 10 minutes later, and just before the final descent began, I finally lapped 12 time finisher and fellow DC area runner Alex Papadopoulos. I slowed to chat for a few minutes when he let me know "Tomo is 12 minutes up on you". For reasons that will become apparent momentarily, I now question the accuracy of that statement. It was nice to catch up with him and spend a few minutes sharing his home turf.

Not relevant to the race either, but look at that bright moon!

With my legs feeling rather sprightly after 23 hours and 40 minutes, I decided I was going to cap off this wonderful race with a no-holds-barred death-defying descent and utterly destroy my quads, because, well, why the heck not! I had no illusions of recapturing 4th place, I just really like hard downhill running at the end of a race. I recklessly flew down the muddy, rooty, rocky, often winding, and pitch black trail. I was having the time of my life. Towards the end, the skin on my feet felt like it was being shredded by the impact forces on the rocks. I didn't dare distract myself by trying to drink from my water bottle. I was risking death to simply blink my eyes. My breathing was uncontrolled and erratic. It was the fastest I'd run all day. I had no higher gear, this was as fast as my legs could possibly carry me.

I careened into the Nature Center at full speed, crossed the small bridge that signified the start of the race, hit the few feet of pavement before a final hairpin turn on a handicap ramp that led to the finish and … WAIT … WHAT THE HELL IS THAT? A headlamp. A runner. The uncanny likeness of the runner that had passed me less than 2 hours ago. 4th Place turned his head, then seemed to try and pick up speed. Literally 2 seconds later we were both at the hairpin turn of the handicap ramp. 4th Place tried making the turn a split second before me. I lost control on the concrete trying to reach for the hand rail and make the turn myself. The full force of my body going at top speed collided with 4th Place, sending him reeling in the opposite direction he wanted to go, and me, the beneficiary of the madness, bounced perfectly into position. Overwhelmed with adrenaline, I secured my footing and shot down to the finish. I quickly kissed the sign, rung the bell, and turned around to watch the other runner jog in.

The scene of the crime.

Instantaneously, I was overcome with shame. It just felt so incredibly wrong. A volunteer awkwardly handed me the finisher hat and belt buckle and stared at me with confusion as I kept mumble-panting.

I ran into him. It was an accident. Oh my god, what did I just do? Is he okay? Why did I keep running?

I literally felt like throwing up. The volunteer and my wife, from their vantage point at the finish, were completely unable to see what had just transpired and couldn't understand my incoherent rambling. Another volunteer had been manning the Ultrasignup tracking app at the bottom of the handicap ramp, and had the benefit of seeing half the story through an obscuring hedgerow. He came over to talk to me. There was pantomiming of Tomo being pushed out of the way, hands flung up in the air. Words were thrown out, like unsportsmanlike. Dizzy, exhausted, confused, on the verge of throwing up, and coming off the craziest adrenaline spike I've ever experienced, I tried to make sense of it all. And I could not shake the shame.

I went over to Tomo, grief-stricken, and apologized. He shrugged and said it was no big deal. You were going faster. I wouldn't have been able to catch you anyways. Did he really believe that? Was he just saying that to make me feel better? I have no idea. But I just felt worse and worse.

I tried to compose myself. My head was swimming: unsportsmanlike, impeded, accident, my fault, unsportsmanlike. Do I hand in my buckle? Do I request to be disqualified? How did this even happen? I don't even like the notion of "racing" in ultras! After 24 hours of running, do I deserve to be disqualified for a panic-stricken, adrenaline-laced, piss-poor judgement clusterfuck of a finish? What would happen in a 1500m race? Yup, DQ.

Take a break from this sad story and check out this panorama of the beach from Lost!

I went over to the RD, John Salmonson. I tried to explain myself. I pled my case to have our places switched. All the while, I felt the shame continuing to wash over me -- you just asked to have places swapped?! You should be DQ'd! Turn in your buckle! How are you going to be able to look yourself in the mirror?!

I lost control. I ran into him. I impeded another runner. I impeded him! He deserves 4th place, not me.

John's response was quasi-apathetic. "I didn't see everything. It doesn't sound pretty. I know Tomo, he's a friend, he's not going to care." THIS ISN'T ABOUT CARING, THIS IS ABOUT JUSTICE! More half-explanations, more urging, more attempts to hold back a flow of tears. Eventually, he pulled up the Ultrasignup tracking app, looked at Tomo's finishing time, then went over to my time and rolled it back to exactly 1 second after Tomo's. And then, "There. Done." Which sounded more like, "Fine, anything to get you to stop harassing me!"

I walked over to Tomo, let him know again how sorry I was, and that I had our finishing places switched. Then I hung my head and walked over to my wife so she could take care of her husband, who instead of being elated with a strong showing in difficult conditions at another big 100 mile race, had transformed into an angsty, moody adolescent.

This view from my pre-race dinner reminds me of a simpler time, a time before hulking out and tackling a fellow runner.

The guilt, the shame, the disappointment. It stuck with me. I was in paradise and borderline depressed. The next day, a buddy texted me and let me know I'd made the pages of iRunFar and that they were seeking an explanation to the 1second difference between 4th and 5th place. I composed myself as best as I could, did my best impersonation of a PR Manager, and crafted an explanation. Most unexpectedly, it was quickly followed with praise, support, and various other attaboys. I pretended to be a linebacker at the finish line of one of the most difficult 100 mile races in the world, and now I was being applauded for my actions -- well, not my actions, but you know, rather, my attempt to save face and accept responsibility. Either way, it felt, and still feels, very odd.

Even now, weeks later, I can't help but feel the slightest twinges of those same painful emotions when I look at my hard-earned buckle. It's my 9th one. Some, I look at and beam with pride. Others, an ambivalent shoulder shrug. Not this one. Not my first HURT buckle. It has a unique story. And with it come emotions that will be forever burned into my memory. Emotions I'm still coming to terms with.

Many thanks to my wife for sitting around at a race aid station for 16 hours on her vacation, to the grandmas for looking after our kids, to my fellow VHTRC runners for their companionship, to the volunteers and all the other runners I bumped into over the course of my 24 hours and 21 minutes of jungle fun, and most especially to Tomokazu Ihara for his grace and civility (and for not tackling me in return).

While I do take 100% responsibility for the entire finish line fiasco, I'll just say it right now: that finish was stupid. Here's what it looks like on Google Maps (red line), complete with proposed "alternate routes":

That hairpin turn is stupid.

Granted, this isn't a World Majors Marathon or something. And there's only like a maximum of 70 people that even finish the race each year, across a span of 14 or so hours, so the odds of a tight finish are absurdly small. But still. Why is there a glorified finishing chute with a hairpin turn?!

P.P.S.: Check out Paul Encarnacion's video to get a feel for the Hawaii gnar!

Oh, what's that, you wanted to waste away even more of your time?! Well then, here you go!

The Full Story

I signed up for the HURT 100 kind of on a whim. The race had intrigued me since I started running. Steep, muddy, technical, rooty, slow. Sign me up! But flying 5000 miles for a race seemed like a bit of a financial extravagance, not to mention the complications that arise when you've got 2 young kids.

The quirky lottery selection process is based upon accumulating kukui nuts (points) that increase your chances, but let's be honest, it's probably just you are selected to run at the pleasure of the race committee. I made the mistake of name-dropping local DC runner / RD and bajillion time HURT finisher, Alex Papadopoulos, in my lottery application. And next thing I know, my wife and I are planning a luxurious kid-free Hawaiian vacation!:

Chris: Hey honey, wanna go to Hawaii?
Kristin: Uhh, duh!
Chris: … to crew me in another 100 mile race?
Kristin: Damn it, Chris! I didn't sign up for this crap when I agreed to marry you!

I found out I made it through the lottery in August, where I was midway through a disastrous training block, culminating in a rather pathetic showing at Grindstone. With the amount of time and money this race/trip was going to eat up, I didn't want to half-ass it. I ended up putting together the best 3 months of training of my entire life. Over 40 hours per month while averaging over 60,000' of climbing per month. I even threw in a couple of weeks where I climbed Everest (>29,029' in 7 days). Speed was nowhere to be found, but my legs were strong, and ready to tackle whatever Hawaii threw my way.

Prerace fireworks, just for me!

Lap 1

Lap 1 of 5 went off without a hitch. A group of about 10 guys jumped out front and tore ass up the initial 0.7mi 20% grade climb, and I quickly found myself in the gap between the frontrunner/morons group and everyone else. 20 minutes in, the only sign that anyone was in front of me was the unmistakably sad click-click sound of a scared little runner extending their poles (it was Mike Wardian!). Much of the first climb up Hogsback was rather tame, though steep, and I spent much of it hiking to keep my energy in check. After some rolling, rocky, windy running, and some more climbing, I reached the Pauoa Flats … a couple hundred yards of flat ground absolutely covered with roots. My legs were fresh and the obstacles didn't seem to daunting. Reader, file this away in your memory, okay!

Running down to the first aid station at Mile 7 brought about my real introduction to the HURT course -- perfectly runnable stretches for like 300' and then roots, and uneven dirt steps held together with slick bamboo or wood or metal, and 3-10' rocky "step-downs", and random boggy sections of trail, and literally climbing across a field of tangled roots that formed a trail with a 45-degree camber. Oh, and you're doing this in a friggin cloud so it's damp and humid and slick. After a couple miles of this insanity, I was greeted by a beautiful waterfall. I spent a moment oohing-and-aahing at it before cannonballing down the steep, rocky trail to the Pirate Aid Station (Manoa).

 … and then I turned around and retraced my steps all the way back up, ducking and weaving my way through 120 of my fellow runners. One of them, oddly, was Wardian who'd apparently made a wrong turn already (how? HOW?!) and lost an impressive 40 minutes before the first aid station! Epic!

I ate acia bowls on my vacation. Yummy!

After a couple miles of retracing my steps, I hung a right and worked my way along a ridge to what would become my favorite stretch of the entire course: a meandering, runnable segment that leads to a high point overlooking Waikiki before painfully plunging straight friggin down. It's so steep in places that some benevolent soul tried digging out marginally useful steps in the dirt to help control your descent (and handholds for the subsequent ascent?). You're literally staring off the edge of a steep ridge, falling down the trail, using a couple of random trees on the side of the trail to brace you.

Then came a perfectly runnable, but steep, downhill to the 2nd Aid Station at Mile 13 -- Jackass Ginger (Nu'uanu), and back up the way I came. On the climb back up, I passed Alex and mentioned how groomed the trails seemed. He said a lot of time was spent rehabbing this section ahead of the race, and it showed. They had been smooth, runnable, not at all technical. Runner, file this away in your memory, okay!

I careened down to the main Aid Station to complete my first lap in just under 4 hours, arriving at the tail end of the Top 10. Race conditions seemed pretty good and I cautiously believed I could score my ambitious A-Goal of a 22:30 finish -- an ambitious goal I'd put together after much research on prior top race times.

Lap 2

I slowly hiked my way back up the rooty, steep Hogsback climb, this time finding a relatively root-free path on the far left edge and following that most of the way. The hill was dry and I kicked up enough dirt that I regretted not having something to cover my mouth. But it had me guessing that today might not get all that muddy, further reinforcing my faith in a 22:30 finish. By the time I reached Puaoa Flats, I was singing a different tune. The flat, rooty stretch of trail was coated in mud. The ground was an array of boot-sucking mud pits. The roots, mud-slickened booby traps. I walked nearly the whole stretch, going one mile an hour pace, maybe two.

And things only got worse heading back down to the Pirate Aid Station. After navigating 2 miles of muddy, technical trail, I popped out to the beautiful waterfall and was greeted by an endless sea of tourists. The foot traffic, combined with the water flying off the waterfall, the moisture in the air, and the rocky ground, turned this section of the course into a muddy slip-n-slide. I weaved through the day adventurers -- bros in friggin flip-flops, women in friggin white jeans and heels, friggin purse dogs yip-yapping and darting left and right, and even friggin babies with pacifiers and soggy diapers stumbling around the muddy rocks. I frequently came to a complete stop to get around people. It was … so weird. And slow … so effing slow. And when I got down to the Aid Station, guess what I got to do next?! That's right, turn around and work my way back through that mass of humanity!

Flowers in Hawaii are pretty!

… And then back through the muddy flats. But the run down to Jackass Ginger was going to be awesome -- that groomed, runnable descent!  Only, nope! The trail had slickened, and the bottom portions were mucky as hell. Oh, and there were also tourists down here, too. Damn it! Damn it! Damn it! Another tap of an aid station and back the way I came, into the depths of muddy despair. Along my climb back up, I ran into Alex again and instead of talking about how well groomed the trails were, I got this: "The course hasn't looked this messy in a decade."

I finally strolled back into the main aid station a full 30 minutes slower than my first lap, despite feeling like I had worked harder. I met up with my wife and let her know to throw out the timesheets -- I'd still try for sub-24, but who knows.

Oh, and it was 2:30pm and it was 80 degrees out. My heat training seemed like it was taking hold, but I was surprisingly not interested in eating any candy bars, sushi, sandwiches, or even having a frappuccino. The heat had me only wanting easily digestible gels, blocks, and simple liquids. Lap 3 was gonna be not only about surviving the mud, but also making sure my calorie intake didn't nosedive. Another thing to deal with, hooray!

Lap 3

Lap 3 was pretty simple. Take the previous 2 laps, make them muddier and slower and that pretty much covers it!

I moved along at a snail's pace, stuck in a low gear. It frustrated me at first, but the heat and humidity wasn't bothering me and it was clear that my legs could handle the steep climbs and descents, so I just accepted the course for what it was and enjoyed myself. HURT had become more of an adventure run than a race.

At some point in the lap, I was finally able to pass Paul Terranova. He'd been minutes ahead of me for nearly 30 miles. Every aid station I'd come in as he was coming out, and I'd make some sarcastic remark about how he needed to slow down, or that I was gonna pass him and poach his pacer, Nick Pedatella, whom I'd ran with a bit at both Grindstone and Hellgate. Mind you, I'd never met Paul before, so I'm guessing he just kept thinking to himself who the hell is this annoying little kid?!

As I came out of the 2nd Aid Station, I realized sunset was approaching, so I tried booking it to get to the top of the ridge overlooking Waikiki. And lucky for me, I got up there right in time. I stopped to watch the sun set for a bit. It's not every day you get to perch yourself on a ridge top to see a sunset over a beautiful ocean-side city in the middle of a race! Definitely a moment I'll never forget.

There are a lot of yard birds roaming around Oahu.

And then, another moment I'll never forget. As I methodically made my way down to the main aid station to complete Lap 3 in the dark, I came to a road crossing and a race volunteer. He let me know "there's a runner just ahead of you without a headlamp, but I can't help." I found this all very confusing. 1) the race starts in the dark and there's only 11 hours of daylight before the sun sets, so why the hell is there a runner out here without a headlamp? 2) Why can't the volunteer help, isn't that what volunteers do?

I couldn't recall if the volunteer even had a light of his own … but why wouldn't he … he's volunteering at a race and it's dark out. Weird. So weird. I was running with a back-up light (a Petzl Bindi) since I was so close to the main aid station, where I'd soon dig out my legit headlamp. I could easily make out the profile of a person slowly staggering / weaving along the pitch-black trail. I told her she was going to take my back-up headlamp and that she needed to get my main one out of my pack. For about 6 hours, she tried and failed to unzip my pack, so I had to rip it off myself and get my lamp out. Then onward I went.

When I got back to the main Aid Station, it had cooled down enough that I was in the mood for some frappuccino and various solids. I checked my watch and saw it'd taken nearly 5 hours to complete Lap 3 -- another lap, another 30minute slowdown. I was bleeding time due to the race conditions, but I was still making up ground, having recently moved into 6th place. So I calmly took my time and prepared mentally for the overnight hours … and then I took even more time to hit up a porta-potty … I got to poop mid-race using a bon-a-fide toilet. Mud be damned, this was an amazing day! It's the little things!


Lap 4

I spotted Paul and Nick in the Aid Station as I started Lap 4. I was in no rush to climb Hogsback so they caught up to me rather quickly. We hiked and ran along together for maybe 2 miles. When the trail flattened out I seemed to be opening my stride up more than Paul, so I took off into the night to finish my race alone.

Lap 4 saw the course conditions continue to deteriorate. But there was one bright spot: no more tourists to dodge! I greatly enjoyed this lap, just cruising along in the dark by myself. Aside from the litany of technical hazards whose complications only increased in the dead of night, it was a peaceful, stress-free bit of running. Well, except for some folks' lights. I'm not sure what the deal is, but there's apparently a new trend in trail running that includes strapping a row of 10,000lumen light bulbs to your waist/chest. I saw entirely too many runners with these odd contraptions, and as a result, I and dozens of other fellow runners are now legally blind from the damage they've caused to our retinas. Every time I encountered one of these over-illuminated weirdos, I'd freak out, avert my eyes, nearly fall off the edge of a trail into the abyss below, and after miraculously surviving each encounter I would promptly wish bodily harm upon them and their entire family as I stumbled down the trail with half my vision obscured by colorful halos that approximated the temporary searing of your eyeballs you experience after getting absolutely drunk and on a dare attempt to stare at the sun for 60 seconds straight (yes, in this hypothetical scenario I am black-out drunk and it's midday … your point?).

Lap 4 clocked in at roughly 5:30 -- yup, another lap, another 30minute slowdown! My big toe had been sticking to my insole, leading me to think I had a burst blister of some kind, so I swapped out my socks, yet kept the same mud-caked LonePeak4.0s. I found no blister so it must've just been mud-saturated socks. I didn't need to change them out, but I wasn't fighting tooth-and-nail for every second, so whatever.  Another frappuccino and I was off!

I got to see a lunar eclipse, and I didn't even have to stay up late!