Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Scenes From A Rivalry

Scenes From A Rivalry: A Brotacular Ultrarunning Love Story


The Meet-cute:

2015. 2nd Saturday in December. The Glenwood Horse Trail.

It was my first Hellgate. I knew nothing about Hellgate. At the finish line of my first 100 miler 2 months before, some weird old dude handed me a sheet of paper: 2015 Hellgate 100K Application.


So I figured, why not.


I knew I wanted to take it easy. It was my first year of ultra running and I wanted to simply use this race as a way to celebrate how far I'd come. A couple of miles in, I found myself running alongside a chatty dude.


"Hi, I'm John Andersen. I'm kind of a big deal."


This loquacious fellow gathered up a few more runners into a posse and proceeded to fill every second with chatter. I kept up for a while, but somewhere on the climb up to Petite's -- or was it all the way at Camping? .. No matter -- I lost connection and never saw him again.


In the succeeding weeks, I started planning the next 6 months of training. I'd gotten into Western States on my measly 1 lottery ticket and was going to cram as many races into the Spring as possible to try and get my legs ready. I signed up for the Beast Series, and then pored over race results from the previous years. I immediately identified 1 runner whose race times I thought I might be able to emulate…if I could run his times, I knew I'd be well on my way. The runner, none other than John Andersen.


At Terrapin 50K, near the top of the first climb, I found myself in the vicinity of a chatty cathy. And, of course, it was John. A bit awestruck at his effortless running ability, I did my best to keep up with him. We proceeded to run together, chatting along the way, as I mostly let him lead me through the race course. He was the well-worn veteran, and I, the ingenue. By the end of it, it was clear we were both running comfortably at similar abilities. There was … a connection. Neither of us wished to part the other's company, so we cruised into a tie for 3rd place, literally holding hands across the finish line. That was it. I knew. I had found the yin to my running yang.


The Courtship:

We raced a total of 5 races together that year, sharing well over 100 miles of trails with one another. 4 of those races ended with us tied or finishing back-to-back. For all of our differences, our age, our training, it seemed as if the universe wanted us to be together, to support one another through the tough times, each time we ventured out into the deep, dark woods. We shared in multiple Top 10 finishes together, collecting matching swag along the way. Each race was a chance to reconnect, to share with one another -- stories of who we were and where we came from, of our families, and of our hopes and dreams.


At Bull Run, we ran together in the pouring rain. At Promise Land, John cheered me on as he passed me near the top of the final climb, and welcomed me to the finish mere seconds after him. The end of the year was Hellgate again, and this time, we ventured together for the first 4 hours. I fell behind, but nearly caught back up at the finish. And again, there he was to welcome me in, 4 minutes after his finish. It was my first Top 10 at Hellgate. We were so proud of all that the other had achieved. Throughout the year, we went back and forth in wins and losses, and by the end, our special rivalry was flourishing … a relationship built on mutual respect and admiration, with, dare I say, a hint of disdain and contempt.

2016 Hellgate. Happy beginnings.


Equal Partnership:

We only raced each other 4 times throughout 2017 and 2018. I took 3 of the victories: a solid trouncing at Promise Land and slim victories at each Hellgate. For those Hellgates, we spent many a merry mile together. In 2017 we separated mid-race but rejoined by Mile 53, and then lazily walked it in together because we falsely believed we'd be unable to secure our desired sub-12 finishes … furthering our special bond. The next year, we worked together to crush our expectations and went well under 12 hours. We worked together for nearly the entire race, only for me to pull away in the final miles.


It may seem as if I were beginning to secure the upper hand … the full-length tights, as it were, in our relationship. And to add fuel to the fire, I outperformed expectations at Western States in 2016, whereas my success gave John a false hope, inevitably leading to a very embarrassing implosion when he had his shot in 2017. And yet, the scales remained even, as John absolutely annihilated me at Grindstone in 2018. His run was epic, and he trounced me by over 90 minutes. I truly believe that he was happy for my success, just as I was happy for his … for a time.

2018 Hellgate. The Golden Years.



In 2019, I pursued a better quality of life with my family by moving from the East Coast to St. Louis. The tough decision was made for John and I to pursue a long-distance rivalry. I made a promise to John that we would still have our annual Hellgate together. And I had hoped that would be enough. I came back to Camp Bethel and reigned victorious, again, the third Hellgate in a row. Not only that, it was the largest defeat yet at Hellgate as I persevered through hellish cold rain to beat John by over 7 minutes. With distance between us and my continued success, the seeds of division were sown.

2019 Hellgate. Hoodie puffies for everyone!


It pains me to admit, but I truly believed I was the more important one in this special thing we had together. But 2020 was a wake-up call. At the 2020 Sissygate, John and I found ourselves together, yet again, leaving Bobblets Aid Station. But John left me and by the next aid station he was out of sight and I was lost in self-doubt and misery. In my moment of weakness (needing to take a dump at Mile 55), John abandoned me and he never looked back. As a result, his course PR to this day is better than mine. I should have been happy for him, but I felt betrayed, humiliated. To add fuel to the fire, John expertly ridiculed me in his race report that year with a parody of Taylor Swift's 'Exile'. The balance of power had shifted.

2020 Hellgate. John Andersen is an asshole.


In the summer of 2021, we tried to move past our petty fighting. Couples therapy, if you will. We ran the Black Hills 100 together, every step of the way. We cheered one another on, we waited for the other when necessary, and we looked out for one another during an overnight rain storm. Our reward was a matching pair of podium awards: badass bison skulls. Rather than bonding through competition, we worked to rekindle the flame that brought us together at the beginning of it all … recognizing each other's value as a runner through the most admirable of race outcomes, a selfless tie.

Black Hills 2021. Bison Skullz.


But, I must admit, I began to grow bored. I sought to strut my colorful feathers in the Backyard arena, seeking out the attention of others. By October, a whole new world was opening up to me, a world that was so much bigger and brighter than little John Andersen of Crozet, Virginia. I was becoming so much more than simply John's rival, his nemesis, his frenemy. I never meant to hurt John. But his jealousy grew exponentially, and he got back at me the only way he knew how, in the most painful of ways, by abandoning me on Hellgate's grassy road near Mile 16, and running away with a 15 minute victory. I had begun to dream big, to find value in my own achievements, apart from him. And he put me right back in my place. It was, dare I say it, textbook emotional abuse.

2021 Hellgate. Look at that smug son of a bitch just standing there, well rested.


I knew that I was not yet strong enough to leave him, so instead, for 2022, I vowed revenge. 2 straight years of losing to John, and by the widest margins in our Hellgate rivalry. It was more than I could stomach. Any mutual respect in this relationship was long gone by now. All I wanted in life was to hurt him, to make him suffer! October rolled around and I ruptured my achilles at Big's, threatening my chance for redemption. But I played it smart at Hellgate and took care of my body and minded my pace. John and I came into Bearwallow together, like so many times before. But this time, I chose to lay down the hammer and crush his soul. When the dust settled, John was so broken he couldn't even finish under 12 hours, whereas I had been waiting patiently at the finish for nearly 30 minutes. Never has there been a victory as sweet as this!

2022 Hellgate. Suck it, loser!


The Last Dance:

By 2023, it felt like it was the end of the line for our special little rivalry. My trajectory was upwards, still in my 30s and with bright possibilities on the horizon. John, on the other hand, could feel the cold, unflinching grasp of old age dragging him down. Everything just felt harder for him. A DNF at The Bear, 3 months before Hellgate, was the universe's way of telling him to let go, to finally concede that his best days were in the past.


But we both still had our one shared goal for Hellgate: 10 straight Top 10s.


It was a silly, random goal, but it drove the two of us for years. John was already at 9. This year was going to be his crowning achievement, after which he could limp off into the sunset with his head held high. I was at 7 and had spent the past 2 years racing terrified of losing out on my Primary Running Objective due to the physical toll the ridiculous Big's Backyard race took on my body every Fall. To make matters worse, exactly 7 days before Hellgate this year, I wrapped up  the 24 Hour World Championships, half a world away from Camp Bethel, in Taiwan. 7 days to travel and recover from a 24 hour race, to find the will to eek out yet another Top 10 at Hellgate. The task felt insurmountable, perhaps Quixotic. Though, to be fair, no less so than John's own quest -- with each passing year, his dream felt closer and closer, but creeping old age kept reducing the likelihood of achieving that dream.


Could I Top 10? Could I crush John, yet again?...Should I? How would it all shake out?

As I reflected on our near decade-long rivalry, the movie Marriage Story came to mind (but who is Adam Driver, and who is ScarJo?). The special thing we had together was coming to an end. Deep down, I believe we both knew it. In a divorce, there's effectively 2 paths to choose: a hippy-dippy "conscious decoupling", and a knock-down drag-out legal battle, dragging each other through the muck and mud. Consciously or not, we took the high road together.

As in the merry early days of Hellgate, we ran together all the way to Bearwallow. Most of the time, John led with confidence. Whenever I wavered mentally, afraid my body would crap out on me at any moment, John was there to support me. That's not to say it was all kumbaya vibes. Elements of our rivalry inevitably cropped up: when I stopped to go to the bathroom and then had to spend an hour desperately trying to catch back up because John refused to take it easy, or when I made a power move to sprint into Jennings Creek just ahead of him. But we ran together through the night in search of our common goal.


After dawn, we were at Bearwallow together. How fitting. How poetic. Our shared years of experience told us breaking 12 hours was in the bag, yet again. In the history of Hellgate, no one had ever broken 12 hours and not been in the Top 10. And yet, 12th and 13th place. We'd been praying for carnage all day long and it never came. Our chances of Top 10 were effectively dead. Lifelong dreams shattered. All because Horton invited too many damn young, fast kids.


The bickering started. I bungled the drop bag stop. John left me behind. Horton ridiculed me. Enraged, I took off. Soon after, I caught back up with John and rapidly left him in my wake. Perhaps that was it then, the unceremonious end to years of battle, right there, on an insignificant turn, amongst the rhododendron of Hellgate's Pretty Trail.


I pushed, desperately trying to crack the Top 10. But a Top 10 without John? Could I do that to him? It felt wrong. In the end, I approached Day Creek with no one in sight. Watson was there and told me 10th was 9 minutes up. 9 minutes in 6 miles, on legs that had covered more than 200 miles in the past week? Impossible. I pushed hard, for a time. But climbing Blackhorse Gap can be brutal, and my body was done. And so my attention drifted from what was ahead of me to what was behind. My lifelong dream of 10 straight Top 10s had died. I repeatedly looked back for a sign of my rival, my friend. I was in need of solace, and, likely, so too was John. But he was nowhere to be seen. So I ventured on, slowly, with dead legs carrying a deadened soul, to Camp Bethel, all alone, amidst a cliché of cold rain.


I crossed the finish in a blur and was whisked inside to crash on a couch. My body and mind on the verge of failure. 5 minutes later, John approached. I stumbled outside to greet him. As was the case last year, he laid himself bare before all in attendance and humbly kowtowed to my superior athletic prowess. His presentation felt genuine. I was conflicted. Unequivocally, I reigned supreme in our rivalry. But this rivalry had now reached its natural conclusion. There was nothing left to prove to the world. John is only getting older and slower, and I just beat him a mere 7 days after running a 24 hour race. If this thing drags on any longer, it will only continue at John's expense. It has to end. This is the end. And I must take the bitter with the sweet. I will miss our rivalry. I will miss him. I will miss … crushing him.

2023 Hellgate. I will always be better than you, John. Always.


Will John return to Hellgate to nab that 10th Top 10 at Hellgate? Perhaps. I sure hope so. If he does, we will undoubtedly share some miles … early on … before he runs out of steam, falls behind, and openly proclaims to everyone in his vicinity that he wishes he were half as talented as me. And I will cherish those shared miles. But it won't be the same. Our rivalry has ended. This chapter of my life has concluded, of our lives has concluded. And so we must each move on; I, inevitably, to bigger and better things, and John, to consolation age group awards and arthritis. I'd like to believe I can find another rival to duke it out against, to share with in suffering. But it's unlikely. There will never be another rivalry quite like ours. There will never be another John Andersen. … unless I get fast enough to start keeping up with Jordan Chang again …

The Rivalry, in numbers. (Note: 2015 Hellgate omitted because the rivalry had not yet begun, despite John frequently adding his "win" to the tally)

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Chris Goes to Taipei



America! PC: Senor Stern


There's a short(er) report at the beginning, and then A BUNCH of crap at the end. It wasn't just a race, it was a week-long trip, so I had to document a bunch of pointless crap.  Moving on…



Howie has a knack for capturing the essence of Chris Roberts.


Race Report:


Halfway around the world, there I was, over 17 hours into a race. Not just any race. The 24 Hour World Championships. Little ole me, representing the United States of America.


I limped my way around yet another 2 kilometer loop, resigned to speed walking most of it. As I dragged my non-responsive legs around the final few hundred meters of that loop, I started tearing up. Then I stumbled into the Team USA tent and immediately broke down crying. No. Not crying. Sobbing. Uncontrollable sobbing. Without a solid performance from me, Team USA was completely screwed. I just lost any chance of a podium for the team. I fucked up. I let everyone down. I let my country down. I don't belong here. I'm a fraud.


Grief, despair, self-hate … absolutely overwhelmed with every shitty feeling imaginable. I can only think of 1, maybe 2, other moments in my life that I have been that far-gone emotionally. It sucked. IT SUCKED!


Pam Smith and Bob Hearn, our team coaches / leaders / unifying forces of awesomeness, immediately came over to figure out what was happening, and then quickly transitioned to consoling me. They did their best, as I worked to regain some semblance of composure. I was laid bare emotionally, bawling into my hands, and they were there for me, immediately, kneeling beside me, wrapping their arms around me -- I could feel them holding me, protecting me, caring for me -- I can't quite put into words how truly meaningful that was. A kindness, a compassion, that I will never forget.




Within the weird running sub-culture of ultrarunning, there is this tiny little niche corner for timed events. The grand-daddy of that microscopic sliver of the running world is the 24 Hour event … run as far as you possibly can in 1 day. Simple. Straightforward. Dare I say: elegant. But also: unrelenting and cruel.


Oddly enough, there is a bon-a-fide World Championships for 24 Hours, typically held bi-annually, where some of the best (dumbest) runners from all over the world come together to act like hamsters in a cage in representation of their country. It's kind of like the Summer Olympics … in much the same way dual credit from a community college is kind of like getting a PhD from Berkeley.


The latest 24 Hour World Championships were just held in Taiwan, and somewhat miraculously, I found myself there, representing Team USA. 5 years ago I tried qualifying for the team -- basically, you post one of the 6 best men's or 6 best women's 24 Hour distances during a 2 year qualifying window and you're in -- but I failed miserably (here and on a black track in the middle of summer). This time around, I eeked out a performance good enough for the 6th and final spot on Team USA (at The Dome). It should be noted that by making the team, I kicked off Harvey Lewis. Take that, Harvey! You may have bested me (and my janky knee) at the Big's Backyard World Championships in 2021, but who's got the last laugh now, huh!?!! (oh, it's you? With the backyard world record? And it's, what, a full 24 hours more than what I did? Damn it….)


Can't wait to abandon these kiddos for a whole week!

I've been known to rail against flat running (honestly, if a 100 Miler has less than 20,000' of vert, why bother?!), and I have practically zero experience with the specialty, but I was beyond elated to have the opportunity to represent my country in international competition. I don't have the skills, mentality, dedication, or genetics to be an Olympian. And race distances for the World Mountain Running and Trail Championships are too short (aka: I can't keep up with young, fast whippersnappers). So my only options to compete with a big ole "USA" across my chest were to give it a go at 24 Hours or, I dunno, go work on my mini-golf skills (World Minigolf Sport Federation, it's a thing…). And so, I was off to Taipei to run around a 2 kilometer loop over and over and over again for the Red, White, and Blue.


I joined Team USA for all the Nike swag.

The whole experience was beyond anything I could have imagined. For me, it was all about being a part of the team. I had the chance to meet and get to know an amazing group of runners, and, when the going got tough, bond through our dedication to and support of one another. Plus … sightseeing adventures! Plus Plus … the guilt of abandoning your spouse with your two progeny for an entire week!


When the race ended I honestly wasn't sure if I wanted to try to be a part of the team again. I'm just not sure I will ever have the right skills to succeed at a flat 24 Hour race in a way that is needed to help the team compete for a podium position at Worlds. But the camaraderie and the memories of Taipei have me convinced that I owe it to myself and to the team to give it another go. So we'll see if I can get some good training in, and put together a better race plan, and secure a position for 2025. Bonus: it's in France next time around!


Freezing my butt off after the race, with Chad and Stella. PC: Bob Hearn?


Post-race team bonding, crammed into an Uber, desperately trying to get to the airport on time.

I just wrote a bunch about how I cried a lot in a race, so that should suffice for an obligatory race report. But for people looking to waste more of their time, here's a somewhat random run-down of my 24 Hour World Championships Experience (aka: that time Chris abandoned his family for an entire week to fly halfway around the world so he could eat weird food and run in circles while continuously shouting "America! Fuck Yeah!")


But before that, the thank you's:

  • First and foremost, to Kristin, for supporting me in pursuing this silly little dream of mine. I truly do not know what I'd do without you by my side. You should probably go book yourself a week-long solo trip to Europe, you've earned it!
  • Thanks to the family and friends who reached out about donating to support the team financially. It really meant a lot, to everyone on Team USA.
  • Thanks to my nutrition sponsor, Hyle Hydration. Man, whoever came up with that product is a genius!
  • Thanks to Squirrel's Nut Butter for keeping me well lubed.
  • Thanks to my teammates for their incredible support and for making the trip an all-around awesome adventure that I'll never forget!
  • Pam and Bob, you guys were incredible. We were beyond lucky to have you leading the team.
  • Nicole, thanks for taking care of my poorly conditioned muscles and tendons and for being such a cool person to chit chat and explore with!
  • Howie! Thanks for the awesome shots, and for being a cool dude that puts up with me.
  • Bill! It was so great getting to spend some time with you away from an oval. Thanks for all of the nutrition hand-offs!
  • Tracy and Dobies – hanging out with y’all is so much different than when I’m feeling like crap at Big’s. It was a welcomed change of pace!


Behold, the Jade Cabbage!
Seeking out dirt, prerace. I'll take the one on the left, thank you very much.

Temple lanterns.


  • Something like 10 of the Team USA members were on the same flight from SFO to TPE. That felt pretty cool, all hanging out in the airport terminal with our team gear on!
  • The team race kit is sponsored by Nike and USATF, so it's literally the same stuff "real" athletes wear at the Olympics and whatnot. Pretty freakin cool. Well, not getting financial support from USATF is pretty freakin un-cool, but I digress…
  • I backed out of Big's to make sure I was "fresh" for Worlds. I still feel that I have unfinished business with the backyard format, but my next backyard failure will have to wait another year. Also, my favorite race in the world, Hellgate 100K, was 7 days after Worlds, so I gave up any chance at a good performance there, all for the glory of the U S of A. I just need you, dear reader, to know how much I sacrificed for my country. It should bring a tear to your eye. And if you'd like to acknowledge my sacrifice with a tiny violin, then so be it.
  • I grew a mustache for Worlds, as one should. My mustache was 20x better than Harvey's Big's mustache. This is a fact.
    • In the lobby of our "hotel" (it was a youth hostel), Andrii Tkachuk of Ukraine (eventual 3rd place finisher) pointed to my mustache and said "You look like a Ruski". Interpret that however you'd like.
  • A majority of the 250+ runners were staying in this crappy youth ho(s)tel, and they served breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But it was fun cuz our food options were either bland "Chinese food" (fried rice, noodles, soggy vegetables) or a super fun spin on Western Cuisine (who doesn't love spaghetti and chicken nuggets for breakfast?!). Most of the westerners complained voraciously about the food situation. One day, I broke down and went to a nearby Subway for a mostly normal sandwich. And the beds were basically just a sheet of plywood. Yeah, it was so awesome!
  • I got all Cultured As Fuck out there. 2 days before the race, I went with some of Team USA to the National Palace Museum to check out buddhas and calligraphy and what not. Then I opted to be a loner and walk back to the ho(s)tel by myself. Along the way I stumbled upon a massive Chrysanthemum Flower Festival. In the days after the race, I checked out some more sights with the team, happened upon a random Reading Festival, and also got to see a parade in honor of some god's birthday at a temple (I think).
  • The day before the pancake flat race, I had to scratch my itch, and went for a hike up along a ridgeline in the city to seek out some dirt trails and good views. Specificity be damned.

Team USA Shakey Shake. PC: Pati Coury?


The beautiful Palace Hotel behind our youth ho(s)tel... some of us did book a room there for the final night of the trip, and it was glorious!

Race Stuff:

  • As the 6th place qualifier for Team USA, I fully anticipated being in a supporting role -- racking up miles for as long as possible to serve as insurance since team scoring only accounts for the total distance ran by the top 3 runners. I had no real race goals other than to help the team, but I settled into a somewhat comfortable groove that I thought might get me somewhere between 152 and 155 miles.
  • Somewhere in the evening, everything changed. 2 teammates -- Jake Jackson and Jeff Urbanksi -- had resigned to the tent after problems arose for them. I came into the tent for a minute and dawdled around, then asked how Scott Traer was doing. I got a look of sheer confusion from Coach Pam, who then informed me that Scott also ran into trouble some time ago and was sleeping in the back of the tent. I was now a scoring member of the team. A sense of panic came over me and I hastily shot out of the tent, awkwardly apologizing for pissing away a couple valuable minutes.
  • I soldiered on for some time, but had really weird stomach issues between 12 and 15 hours. My body seems to want a different nutrition plan for these flat races than what I've typically utilized for trails, and I still don't have that locked down. Or … maybe my body hated whatever the heck I'd been eating at that weird ho(s)tel buffet lately. At any rate, I got to spend quality time with the port-a-potties -- some of which were "Turkish style", which was fun!
  • After I got my gut back under control, I cleared 100 miles unceremoniously and felt like I was plodding along pretty well. But then the wheels came off. In the span of an hour I went from feeling perfectly fine, to having multiple joints aching in pain, to having full-on quad failure. And somewhere in there I got really queasy too … I faintly remember having a half-coherent discussion with Nick Coury's crew about mashed potatoes, maybe…
  • I then limped around the course and cried like a baby for an eternity, but you, dear reader, are already well aware of that scene.
  • Once I composed myself, I could see and hear Nick in the tent, discussing whether he should continue or not, due to problems he'd spent hours failing to remedy and with genuine concern he was on the verge of limping his body to competitively meaningless result at risk of prolonged injury.
  • Basically, Jeff joined Nick and I in a fun little self-pity circle now that there was only 1 remaining American dude still out there doing his job. Then I had our amazing team doc, Nicole Yedlinsky, give me a bunch of random drugs and try to "fix" my quads. Then we sat around some more. Then Nick and Jeff said "screw it, let's go mall walk!", so I threw on some warm clothes and joined them for a very, very sad lap of slow walking where we all complained about how awful we'd done and blah blah blah. Then we sat down in the tent for an eternity, ate a bunch of warm food, and continued the parade of self-pity. We ventured out once again onto the race course for another sad stroll in the middle of the night. Only, this time, at some point I decided I would try to shuffle jog. And I'll be damned if my legs didn't feel normal again. A miracle!
  • So I ventured on for the rest of the race, about 4.5 hours, logging a somewhat respectable pace, doing my best to let Chad Lassater know that he wasn't the only American out there suffering anymore. My mileage was nothing stellar, and without a 3rd runner out there putting in consistent miles too, we were completely unable to compete for a good team position.
  • But I'll be damned if it wasn't amazing to be out there in the final hours of that race. It was something special to be a part of.
  • Chad Lasater was grinding, putting in the work. He ended up with 155+ miles and 2 age group national records.
  • Nick, Jake, and Jeff frequently popped out from the tent to walk more laps and cheer on Team USA, and when they were in the tent they were helping with nutrition and cheering.
  • In the final hour or so, Jake even got back out there to help pace for a couple laps, which was friggin awesome to see.
  • Scott, honestly, looked like a bombed out shell of a human being, but when he arose from his mummified state, he did his best to provide emotional support for the team.
  • And the women. Good grief, the women! Absolutely inspirational!
  • Marisa Lizak flew half way around the world to be a part of the team, despite having a stress fracture and hobbling around in a boot. She put in a couple of ceremonious laps in the beginning and end, and spent the rest of the 24 hours up front in the tent being the world's most supportive teammate: cheering, crewing, working problems.
  • Mandy Holmes was dead and gone in the tent after her day went south. But then she revived in the final hours and started blasting out laps left and right.
  • Jenny Hoffman just finished running a transcon in record time and still found a way to pull her body to nearly 140 miles. Honestly, not a one of them looked easy. But she was persistently grinding it out, hour after hour.
  • Stella Springer was working her ass off towards the end. I finished the race pretty close to her and had the pleasure of seeing one of the most adorable scenes ever when her kids ran up to greet her with great big hugs.
  • And Aly Allen was on fire! For the first 18 hours of the race she just kinda seemed like she was doing her thing, nothing special. But at some point in the final hours, watching her go around those laps, it became apparent that she was really putting in the work and racking up the miles. She ended up with 148 miles and 10th place. Awesome!


Post-race temple explore.

More Non-Race Stuff:

  • Some of us were still in Taipei the day after the race. We made Chad and Aly walk up and down a bunch of stairs. Like, A LOT of stairs. They looked so miserable…1st time marathoner miserable.
  • I got to meet Laura, a member of the Canadian team, who lives a couple hours away from me in Missouri. I hope I can carve out some time for a long run with her one of these days.
  • Stinky Tofu smells like rotting garbage that's being cooked in an oven. That smell will haunt me for the rest of my life.
  • Bob tried ordering "drunken chicken" at lunch, but was forcibly told "no, you want the duck!" instead. Post-race duck … delicious!
  • After a week of salty, cliché chinese food, I was dying for a fresh fruit smoothie. The night before our flight out, I had to make due with sharing a few rounds of daquaris and margaritas with the team. That was pretty freakin awesome.
  • I upgraded to "bougie seats" on the 11hr flight back stateside. United calls it "Premium Plus" or something dumb like that. I didn't realize until I got on the plane that it was legit 1st class -- not business class fancy, but fancy enough that I immediately felt guilty for splurging when I've never, ever shelled out for first class seats for my wife. That guilt quickly receded after I slipped on my complimentary slippers, noshed on my superior meal, and stretched my legs all the way out.


Tracy knows *exactly* what he's gonna get. Bob thinks he's getting chicken...

Teammate selfie at Liberty Square.

Chang Kai-shek doing his best Lincoln impersonation.


Final Etc:

  • I called an audible and went with a new pair of shorts for the race. I've worn Patagonia Strider Pro's for years. I wore a pair of Rabbit FKTs for like 1 hour a week before the race and thought, "hmm, maybe I like these…". For about Hour 2 through 12 I repeatedly thought "these shorts don't feel right, they're going to ruin my race!" But they ended up working out just fine. I dunno…
  • I've only ever worn 3 types of shoes in races: Altra, Topo, Pearl Izumi (obligatory Rest In Peace). I went with Saucony Endorphin Pro at Worlds. I've worn them for most of my speedwork in the past year, but never tried them on long runs. I was afraid the toe box was too small, but that fear was more than made up for by the 8mm drop to support my achilles -- I've pretty much given up on Altra because I'm now convinced they've wrecked my achilles at Big's. The Sauconys definitely required a bit of a biomechanical change at slower paces while tired, but I mostly figured it out. Pretty sure I'll be using them or Topos in any flat races going forward.
  • Bidets with heated seats!
  • It’s possible to fit 3 people and 4 full-size suitcases in a compact sedan.
  • I'm forgetting a bunch of stuff. Oh well...


Fancy toilet!

Fancy balcony view.

Forcing teammates with trashed quads to walk up and down stairs for no reason.


Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Team America Application

(PC: Tuan Nguyen)

What Would Joyce Do? …

That was a precept offered up to the friends and family of my wife's Aunt Joyce less than 24 hours before I was to start my ridiculous day-long journey on a track around an indoor ice rink. Joyce was a singular character, full of life and love and happiness and acceptance. I can't say that I knew her well, primarily due to the fact that at family get-togethers I have an almost perpetual need to melt into the background so as to not be overwhelmed by the inevitable cacophony of livelihood and fun (yes, I hate fun, I am a curmudgeon). But in the multitude of get-togethers and holiday parties over the years, she always made me feel welcome. Aunt Joyce's sudden, unexpected loss, days before my race, sent shockwaves of sorrow through my wife's family. The memories of her hugs, her smile, and her laugh will be cherished by all who knew her.

In the days before my race I had the opportunity to run with my wife's uncle (who often cruises the magical trails of northern California), my brother-in-law (a former D2 stud), and Aunt Joyce's grandson (a local high school runner). Though the circumstances were far from ideal, I felt a strong sense of honor and belonging to share time on the roads and trails with them. I rarely run with others, maybe only a handful of times a year. Yet here I was, twice in one week, being brought together with family, to share in something that I love to do, because of Aunt Joyce.

So … What Would Joyce do? I mean, she sure as hell wouldn't go running around an indoor track for 24 hours straight … she wasn't an idiot! But I am pretty sure she'd follow her own path, put her best foot forward, and find joy along the way. So that's what I sought out to do.

… But first, there was the family fellowship, a glass or two of wine, and then a 6 hour drive from St. Louis to Milwaukee, to crash in a hotel bed after midnight, mere hours before my attempt to knock out a bunch of miles around a boring indoor track. Why do this? Well, in the hopes of being added to the USATF 24 Hour Team so that I could don the Red, White, and Blue and represent my country at the World Championships in Taiwan in December. And yeah, there is an official USA Track and Field 24 Hour Team … yes, it's a thing … and yes, it is very weird and very random … but whatever.

In 2018 I was in really good shape and I tried qualifying for the team. Twice. The first time, it was 40 degrees and raining and I probably had a bit of hypothermia before tapping out. The second time, it was 80 degrees and sunny on a black track, so, yeah, you can guess how that turned out. If I was gonna finally do this, I needed to mitigate the biggest uncertainty: weather. And that's what brought me to a 443.4552 meter indoor ice rink in Milwaukee in the middle of June.

Team USA Qualifying List

After a good bit of research and a conversation with Mike Dobies (timed ultrarunning data extraordinaire), I crafted a plan for 154 miles. Team USA consists of 6 members, and 153+ would put me firmly in 3rd place right as the qualifying window drew to a close. Technically, 148 miles would be enough to get on the list for this go-around, but I wanted to have a cushion, especially since I only planned for a couple hours of light crewing by my wife and kids (they have better things to do than watch me circle a track for a day straight, like explore Milwaukee, or go to urgent care for an emergency prescription of erythromycin). Also, despite my lack of structured training in the past 6 months (or 16 months for that matter), I felt mid 150s was in my wheelhouse if there were no major hiccups.

Race Plan

The "race" began much as expected. I settled into a smart pace of ~8:40/mile as I watched others feverishly lap me again and again and again. Despite some random stomach discomfort -- too many dark chocolate oreos? -- I hit the 12 Hour mark spot-on my plan: 80.75 miles, 3.75 miles "banked" ahead of a 154 mile finish.

My simple Aid Station setup

At 100 miles, things got … weird. Not long before, I'd started sweating profusely. Which was odd because I was doing relaxed 9:00-9:30 miles in 50 degree temps. I don't know if it was adrenaline or what, but the lap after I cleared 100 miles, I stopped to go to the bathroom in one of the on-track porta potties and then nearly passed out inside. For a minute or more, I leaned my head against the plastic wall, trying to make sense of what the heck was going on with my body. Once I stumbled out, I walked for a couple laps and sucked down a few fruit cups and cold water to try and right my body. About an hour later, my stomach went haywire and I had to go to the real bathrooms (in the building's lobby) twice in 1 mile. Instead of gently slowing down, as planned, I'd suddenly ceded over 2 miles of my banked mileage.

Action shot (PC: Tuan Nguyen)

I was able to compose myself and carry on for a couple more hours. As with latter stages of my Backyard races, I temporarily reduced my liquid intake and focused on dry solid foods (cheese-its, nilla wafers, bread, etc.) … along with a helping of imodium and tums … to shore up my randomly failing gut. Sadly, it did not work, and I found myself drifting into The Shit Spiral stage of my race. I stopped 3 times in 5 laps to visit The Porcelain Throne. I travelled less than 1.5 miles in nearly 40 minutes. Each time that I stumbled into the bathroom I'd sit there, do my business, then keep sitting there … completely exhausted, drained of energy, and 110% regretting my poor life choices. If I fall asleep in here, that'd be an awesome excuse for my inevitable failure! All the while, my banked mileage completely disappeared and I found myself 6 miles off pace and in extreme jeopardy of not hitting a qualifying distance.

For the next hour or so I pretty much resigned to failure and accepted that I might not even clear 145 miles. I stumble-walked some stretches. I stopped at my table when I didn't need to. I was making progress, but with no haste, and without any determination. But my stomach stabilized and I felt comfortable enough to suck down my Hyle Hydration and nosh on solid foods again. It was time to find some joy. It was time to secure that qualifying spot!

Random pre-race photo, failing at taking a cool SNB shot.

So with a little more than 3 hours to go, I started playing around with "intervals". I did the math and wasn't confident I could maintain the stable, focused pace required to break 150 miles … it just seemed way too daunting. I would need to run around 23 miles in 3.5 hours, despite my race plan only calling for about 20 in that same time frame. But I thought, well, hoped, that periodic pickups might help me claw back some mileage and still give me time to rest/recover. So I'd run a mile-ish at or faster than my beginning-of-race pace, then cool it back down and recover. These little intervals of hard efforts and recovery time helped me mentally break down the remainder of the race into manageable chunks. 4 laps, each 40 seconds faster than planned pace, that's a quarter mile I just reclaimed! With each successive hour, I was clawing back at least 1 mile on my race plan. And before I knew it, the end was in sight and I was all but assured a 150+ day.

As the time wound down, folks all around the track offered their support, my wife was there to ensure I had whatever I needed to accomplish what I set out to achieve, and even my kids were cheering me on (well, they were playing Minecraft or something, but close enough). As I rounded the track for the final time, I shouted words of encouragement to the next day's cohort of runners, "Good luck! But you better not beat my distance!", then stopped a few seconds early to watch the clock tick over with my wife by my side.

Before we get to the end of the story, enjoy this disgusting photo. Friends don't let friends become ultrarunners

I ended up with 150.48 miles and rose to 5th on the qualifying list with 2 weeks to go for the qualifying window. There's always the chance that a couple stout runners could come along in the last minute and bump me, but right now I'm feeling pretty confident I'll have the opportunity to represent the USofA at the World Championships. Despite fashioning myself more of a trail and mountain runner, and despite the fact that I never really had an elevated heart rate, I can honestly say that this 24 hour effort is the hardest thing I have ever done. Flat running is not my thing, mentally or physically. I dreamed of endless climbs that I could hike, and long descents that I could cruise down. Instead, I was on the clock for a day straight, plodding one foot in front of the other in the exact same motion, lap after lap after lap, being greeted with my lap split over 500 friggin times. The mental stress of it all was absolutely overwhelming.

But here I am! I didn't pass out in the porta potty. I managed to escape The Shit Spiral. And I finally achieved something I'd been dreaming of for the past 6 years … putting in a running effort worthy of a super sweet Team USA race kit! It was hard. It sucked. I'm exhausted. My achilles is jell-o suspended in pounds of inflamed tissue. My calves and quads are completely wrecked. But, I put my best foot forward, I forged my own path, and, somewhere along the way, I was able to find a bit of joy.

"Dobies Curves", showing planned race vs actual, with a 150 mile baseline

As always, I could not have done this without my wife, Kristin, by my side. She elected to go on this stupid "vacation". She drove there for 6+ hours after spending a day mourning with family. She had to occupy our kids' time while I ran (which included a random kiddo pink eye flare up). She had to sit alone in the hotel room at 3am and worry about me, seeing my splits deteriorate, having no idea what was going on with my Shit Spiral. She had to help me remove and patch up multiple blistered toenail beds post-race. And she had to spend the next 2 days of "vacation" watching me hobble around, wholly incapable of providing any meaningful parenting contribution. What a saint!

A huge shout-out to my Hyle Hydration concoctions which, as always, get the job done.

And thanks to SNB for always keeping me properly lubed!

Thanks to Mike Melton and Bill Schultz for the wonderful race atmosphere. Thanks to all the folks who followed along. And thanks to those of you who gave me words of encouragement and support while I was crafting this idea to qualify for Team USA.

Post-race at the Brewers game. #PoorLifeChoices

Random Stuff:

  1. A few weeks before the race, my Morton's Neuroma flared up. Nothing builds pre-race confidence quite like being unable to walk without hot, stabbing pains in your foot! Luckily a cortisone shot did the trick, along with wearing a ball-of-foot pad for the whole race.
  2. My legs got sore and stiffy after 2-3hours, likely due to my lack of real training. But over the course of the day they got better and better. I'd like to think it's due to the slow drip of amino acids from my Hyle Hydration Endurance Fuel and the occasional protein bombs of my Recovery Formula. (News Alert: Product Designer Claims Product Is Miraculous!)
  3. I always dream of a poop-free hundo. A couple of times I've come close. If I didn't have so much random stomach issues at this race, there's a chance I could've cleared 156 miles. On a good gut day, after a few months of real training, I don't see why I couldn't clear 160.
  4. My left hip is total crap. My wife says I should stretch and do yoga and stuff. Whatever. Well, after only 2 hours of going counterclockwise at the start of the race, my TFL was a dense ball of pain. The moment we switched to clockwise at the 6 hour mark, the pain immediately went away.
  5. I noticed that I instinctively curl/grip my toes slightly during the toe-off phase. I think it's from uphill trail running. Totally unnecessary during a flat race around a track. After 6-8 hours I could tell I was building up toe blisters from all of that unnecessary movement. I ended up with 2 "toenail blisters" -- where the entire nailbed becomes a blister and the whole toenail is just sitting there, wiggling around like a ring of pineapple on the top of a 1970's jell-o mold.
  6. I had planned on 12-13oz of liquid per hour, given the 50 degree temps. But I ended up closer to 10oz.
  7. Factoring in time periods where I was trying to avoid food to right my stomach, I only took in around 4500 calories instead of a planned 6500. That put me at a roughly 12,000 calorie deficit for the race.
  8. We went to a Brewers game afterwards. The race ended at 9am. The first pitch was at 3:10pm. The parking lot was 15 miles long. I bought upper deck seats 5 rows from the top. I am an idiot.  But. In my defense: cheese curds and a brat at a ballgame is a hell of a way to celebrate a race.
  9. My Topo Specters worked like a charm. They're a newer high-cushioned trainer. They have the fancy foam but no carbon plate -- I'm of the opinion that pebax foam provides 80% of the benefit in the new-fangled race shoes and that carbon plates are pointless at slower speeds (and can even cause gait issues). These shoes will definitely be my go-to for any future backyards or the World Championships.
  10. If I go to Worlds, Hellgate is exactly 1 week later. I'll have to find a way to get fit enough to run well in international competition, then fly halfway around the world, recover in under 7 days, and miraculously drag my ass to an 8th straight Top 10 at Hellgate. My #1 Running Goal is 10 straight Top 10s, but I honestly think I'm totally screwed. I'll never hear the end of it from John Andersen...