Thursday, May 2, 2019

Lessons Learned on Mt. Diablo

In my ramp up to Miwok 100K (which is now in 2 days!) I wanted to get a good 50K effort in a few weeks out from race day.  The calendar and my schedule matched up best with Brazen Racing's Diablo Trails Challenge, taking place on April 13th.  I was excited as I've only run on Diablo once, back in 2015, and I knew it offered longer climbs and descents than we have here in Marin.  And even though this would be my 23rd ultra, many of them in the Bay Area, I'd never run a Brazen event.  I've met Sam (the RD) here and there, but was glad to finally be toeing the line at one of his events.

I'll admit I took this race a little casually.  It was just a training race, after all, and I've run a bunch of 50Ks at this point.  So my race-specific prep was pretty minimal.  Which meant I wasn't as prepared for the day as I should have been.  Which meant I was bound to learn some lessons, sometimes the hard way.

Still green after a wet winter in the East Bay

  • Race morning went fine with coffee, UCAN bar, and an easy hour drive over to the East Bay.  I arrived at 5:30 AM to give myself an hour to check in, hit the bathrooms, etc.  And of course I had the thought that I should grab a headlamp for that hour (sunrise was 6:35) but forgot, so like a newb I'm walking around using my iPhone flashlight.  It was about a 10 minute walk from the parking lot to the registration area, so I headed down there, got my bib, hit the bathroom, then went back to my car for 15 minutes or so to chill before walking back down and doing my dynamic warmups.  A quick talk from the RD, and the 150 or so of us doing the 50K were off.  Lesson:  Think through your gear not just for the race but for before...and do it before race morning.
  • About 1/2 mile in we hit a creek crossing.  People are starting to do the rock hop to get across without getting wet feet, and I figured I'd do the same.  Luckily someone who knew the course said there were 10 more just like them coming, so we might as well get wet.  So I just started plowing through the 6"-2' crossings.  After about the 7th or 8th one I had so much sand and little rocks in my shoes I had to stop to empty them out.  Lesson:  You bought them for a reason so just wear your gaiters for an ultra, even if they don't look cool!
    Running through some wildflowers.  Really was a beautiful day out there (pc Jay Boncodin)
  • Otherwise the first 12 miles or so were going fine. Other than all of the water crossings this section wasn't very technical with mostly doubletrack, and then right after the first aid station dumping us onto a section of really nice and shaded singletrack.  Of course this is where the poison oak was, and I hadn't replenished my supply of poison oak wipes in my trunk gear box before the race.  I cleaned off the best I could post race, and got dodged a bullet with that one.  Lesson:  Keep your car stocked with what might you need after the race!
    Why do the photographers hang out at the top of the little climbs?  (pc Jay Boncodin)
  • Right after aid station 2 we start the long climb to the summit - 2,836' over 6 miles.  It starts off fairly mellow, but then just goes straight up the damned mountain.  I had changed my Garmin to show just time, distance, and average pace, as current pace is really irrelevant.  But I don't normally have it that way in training, and at one point I kept looking down thinking I wasn't getting anywhere because I keep seeing 13:xx, and I was thinking that was the distance.  I knew I was going slow but come on!  But of course that was my average pace.  Lesson:  Practice everything in training that you're going to do on race day, including Garmin settings.
  •  I obviously signed up last minute for this one and while I read over the website, course description, elevation profile, aid stations, etc, I didn't really internalize it.  So we come off the climb and descent to the second peak and go through a gnarly, rocky, overgrown section with lots of branches grabbing you.  It was really warm now, and I had gone through a lot of my fluid already on the climb and recovery coming down from that peak.  It was slow going as even the downhills were too steep and technical to move very quickly (15-17 minute pace).  About an hour into this section my bottles were dry, and I did remember that there was one more climb coming, which turned out to be about 1000' over two miles.  With no fluid, I can't take a gel.  So now I'm getting both dehydrated and bonking as I slowly worked up this hot, totally exposed fire road. Forty-five minutes after running out of fluid I finally stumbled into the aid station at the top and drank a whole bottle of GU Brew, filled up both bottles again, doused myself with water, and headed back down the trail.  Lesson:  Always figure out how long it might take to get from aid station to aid station and plan water capacity accordingly.  And bring S-caps, not every race has them!
    Aid stations and volunteers were great (pc H.Dallmann)
  • From there it was another really steep descent, 2,300' over 3 1/2 miles.  My quads were getting tired by then, and it's just too steep in sections to really run.  Poles would have helped here as they're as important for the steep downs as they are the ups.  But I knew I was in the last 6 mile stretch and was going to get this thing done.  I did get passed by a few people through here that had been behind me the entire race, which shows I'm still better climbing than I am descending.  Then we were back to the initial 2 miles of multiple creek crossings, which at this point were great as I was able to dip my hat and arm sleeves to help keep cool, and ran it in for the finish.   Lesson:  You have to specifically train the downhills more.

The day was a great reminder that I'm still relatively inexperienced at this ultra thing, and there are always lessons to be learned.  One of my favorite things about this sport is the planning and the prep, and I let that slide here.  Lesson learned....hopefully!

I finished in 7:27:16, 5th out of 13 in AG and 52nd out of 151 total finishers.  Props to Sam and the Brazen crew and all the volunteers, a really well run event.  It may have been my first Brazen Racing race, but I don't think it will be my last.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

2019 Way Too Cool 50K

(I obviously haven't posted here in about a year, since before my first DNF at AC100.  But I have written a couple of race reports for other forums, and want to post them here just for my own archival purposes - I have no illusions that anyone reads this stuff but me.  But I'd like to "catch up" so that I can post some reports from this year, which I hope to be a big one!  This is from March 3rd, 2019.)

This was my fifth time at this race, so I know the course and how it runs pretty well.  The first 8 mile loop starts with about a mile on road, a little double track descent down to the first creek crossing, and then rolling single track until you get back to the start.  I've learned to start a little further up in the "corral" than I normally would, and to run the road section just slightly faster than comfortable for me for the start of a 31 mile race as if you get caught too far back when you hit single track the conga line is just going too slow.  In drier years there is a huge backup at the first creek crossing about two miles in as people try to tip-toe across and stay dry.  About year three I learned to just go around it and plow through.  This year there was no trying to stay dry as it was 3' deep, so while it slowed down as people crossed there wasn't a big line.  The conga line I ended up in after that was just about right, if anything maybe 10 seconds/mile or so faster than I wanted to go so I stepped off a couple of times to let people by.  There were six or seven creek crossings that hit from mid-calf to over the knee, and that obviously slowed things down.  And some sections were just super sloppy and you had to pick your way through the muck.  Imagine the wettest, muddiest trail you've been on, and then add almost 300 runners going through right before you mucking it up even more.  That was the first loop.  But I was happy with how it went, according to Strava it was my second fastest loop with an 11:09 pace (behind only a 10:38 pace in 2015 which was a dry year).  The only official timing split on the course was at the end of the loop, and I was 282nd out of 641 starters at that point.
Most of the Knickerbocker Creek loop was like this (pc Facchino Photo)

We then headed through a meadow and start a pretty good drop down to Highway 49.  I got passed by 5-10 runners on the somewhat technical downhill (which was pretty much a creek in parts), which was a little disappointing.  Downhill isn't necessarily my strong suit, but I was taking it more cautiously than others.  I think the IT band issues I've had over the years have made me tentative and less willing to attack them, but I'm to the point now that my ITs are usually good until sometime after mile 50 so I shouldn't be such a wuss.  I also just need to practice technical downhilling more than I have been.  This two mile section drops about 800', and I ran it in 10:23 pace.
We crossed the highway where Western States legend Tim Twietmeyer and URP's Eric Schranz were cheering on the runners, and then dropped down on fire road to run above the roaring Middle Fork of the American River.  The rain even let up for the first time, and it looked like it might turn into a nice day as I took off my rain shell and stowed it in my pack.  The fire road rolls along here for about 6 miles with a couple of 150'-200' climbs mixed in.  I passed a few, got passed by a few, and chatted up a few runners.  This section was just another reminder that if I really want to cut my time on a course like this, I need to get faster on the runnable sections.  If I can comfortably run along at 9:00 pace instead of 10:00-10:30 on the flats, that will make a big difference.  With those little climbs mixed in, I ran a decent 11:19 pace through here.

Feet were wet from the start to the finish (pc Facchino Photo)

I was looking forward to starting the climb out of the canyon, as that is my strong suit relative to most other mid-packers and I knew I'd start making up some ground.  Sure enough, I started chewing people up.  I even got three separate comments about how fast I was power hiking as I plowed past.  This section starts with about an 800' climb over four miles, rolls along for a bit, and then ends at almost exactly 26.2 miles with Goat Hill,  1/4 mile with a 20% grade.   I covered this 10 mile section in 2:09, a 12:53 pace.
Going into the race I had beating my PR of 5:54 as an A goal, and sub-6:00 as my B goal.  But with the weather forecast and trail conditions I decided to just take the day as it came and see where things stood when I got to the top of Goat Hill.  I didn't print out the pace chart, didn't even look at my watch for the first time until the end of the first loop, and rarely checked it throughout the day.  I hit the aid station at the top of the climb in about 5:10, filled a bottle and drank some coke, and kept going.  With five miles to go including the 450' climb from hwy 49 back to Cool still ahead, I knew it wasn't too likely that I could get in sub-6:00.  But I remembered that the course had measured closer to 30 than 31 miles on my GPS in the past.  "So you're telling me there's a chance!"  I decided to just charge on and see what I could do. 

After another quick climb it was a pretty steep technical descent, losing about 400' in a mile or so.  I did my best to pick my way through the rocks, mud, and water as it started to rain again.  I'm checking my watch as the traffic noises of Highway 49 start to pick up, but it always takes longer than you think it will to finally come out of the clearing and cross the road.  This is the final aid station, and I knew it was over a mile to the finish - and my PR time was already gone, as was the chance at sub-6:00.  So what, let's finish this thing!  I skipped the aid station and kept charging, and began the final climb up to Cool.  I passed another couple of runners on the 250' rocky climb, and then stomped through the mud in the meadow up top.  As I approached the finish I could hear someone splashing behind me, and I kept running hard to try and stay in front.  Around the corner, splashing through the mud while trying not to fall in front of the gathered spectators, and across the line in 6:06:08 chip time.  That was the fastest I've run that segment in my five times here, so I was happy to finish so strong even with my pre-race goals out the window.  This time the course measured the full 31 miles (it's shown exactly 30 miles twice before), which shows how far off gps can be during trail races.

Just trying to finish the last 100 yards without slipping (pc Keather Kehoe)

I finished 238th out of 641 starters which means I moved up 44 spots from mile 8 to the finish, almost all of that on the climbs.  In looking at how I did relative to the rest of the field, this was actually my best finish at 37th percentile, with my other finishes ranging from 43%-67%.  So I'm pretty happy with that.  I stuck to my nutrition plan of gels, electrolyte drink, and coke, and had no issues there.  My knee and my achilles held up. I somehow managed to not fall even once, although I did almost lose it during a late creek crossing.  Afterward it was some chili, burritos, and a couple of IPAs with fellow racers while we commiserated about the conditions out there and tried to get warm.  Good times.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Welcome to the Beast Coast - Grindstone 2018

(I obviously haven't posted here in about a year, since before my first DNF at AC100.  But I have written a couple of race reports for other forums, and want to post them here just for my own archival purposes - I have no illusions that anyone reads this stuff but me.  But I'd like to "catch up" so that I can post some reports from this year, which I hope to be a big one!)
Early Sunday morning, October 7th, 2018, somewhere outside Staunton, VA:

Net net is that I limped, literally, into the finish in 35:46ish. My feet completely fell apart - blisters, macerated, likely black toenails and possible broken pinky toe. damn near half the course was rocks. Big rocks, small rocks, pointy rocks, round rocks, stable rocks, rocks that move. And those rocks ate me up. 
Of course I think this is all true. The last three hours out there I was hallucinating and paranoid. Still not really sure what is real, other than I know I’ve been awake since Friday morning.

Trying to get some rest before the evening start
Going in I knew that the biggest challenges were going to be the course itself and the evening start.  I had never run on the Beast Coast, but knew that it would be rocky and technical, along with the advertised 23,200’ of elevation gain.  And the evening start guaranteed I’d be running through a night at the beginning with another night coming in the latter stages of the race.  But it would turn out that I severely underestimated the impact of both factors.

A whole lot of up and down

The first few miles were uneventful.  I forgot to start my Garmin until we were a couple of minutes in, no big deal.  After jogging for a half mile or so we came to a stop as we funneled onto a creek crossing and then singletrack, but I was in no hurry with 99 ½ miles to go.  A mile or two in we leave the camp and are on state property, which the race isn’t allowed to mark so we follow white blazes. It’s all one big giant conga line so I just follow along, waiting for things to open up and allow me to do my own thing.  It turned out I probably should have paid more attention through this section, more on that later.  It was probably just the excitement and buzz of the beginning of such a big adventure.  After about 5 miles we hit the first aid station, and it’s so crowded that there is a line of people waiting to get water.  Since I knew it was about 9 ½ miles to the next one I wanted to top off my bladder with Tailwind, but the jug was empty and the volunteer didn’t know where the Tailwind was (“this isn’t our aid station, I’m not sure”)!  She was holding a pitcher of ice so I asked her to just pour all of it in my bladder, and hoped that would give me enough fluids to get to that next stop at mile 14.6.  A this point only a bit over an hour in I was already drenched, with sweat dripping down my legs.  They had warned us during the pre-race meeting that the lows would only be down around 65 with highs 75-80 and high humidity, so to take care of ourselves out there.  And while I didn’t feel it was affecting my perceived effort, that humidity was pretty stifling.

I’m no geologist, but my understanding is that these mountains were formed hundreds of millions of years ago and are among some of the oldest in North America.  It’s thought that at one time parts of the Appalachians were as high as the Rockies or the Alps, but that they have been eroded down over millennia into not much higher than 4-5,000 foot peaks.  Where did the rest of the mountains go?  They were broken down into rocks.  Millions and millions of rocks.  And that’s what would make up much of the course.  We reached the top of the initial 2,500’ fire road climb and summited up the peak of Elliot Knob, punched our bibs to show we made it to the top, and then descended back down a bit and turned off onto singletrack.  After a mile or two winding through the woods we hit the rocks.  Much of the trail in this section were flat rocks that slid and moved around on top of other flat rocks.  It was an odd sound hearing the rocks slide around as the dozens of runners ahead and behind me ran and hiked over them.  I was with a group moving at a comfortable speed, which was good considering there was no way to get around anyone – this trail made up of loose rocks was about a foot wide with a huge drop-off of a hundred feet?  A thousand feet?  I had no idea because it was dark, as it would be when I would come back up this hill the following night.  But I was feeling fresh and after about six hours hit the Dowells Draft aid station around mile 22.

Hey look!  More rocks!

I had worked out a pace chart for a 32-hour finish and included a column lining up with just making the cutoffs.  I had no idea what to expect, and the 32-hour pace was just about staying far enough ahead of the cutoffs to not worry about them.  But at this point I was close to that 32-hour pace, and happy with how things were going.  As I left the aid station I was told it was a big climb followed by rolling downhill, so pulled out my trekking poles for the first time and geared up.  I’d never run a race with poles before, having bought them earlier this year and trained with them just a handful of times.  But it turned out to be a pretty benign climb, much of it “runnable” under normal circumstances, so I ended up just carrying them in my hands before finally stopping to stow them away again.  This section of trail was smoother than the last, and we hit the top and descended into the Lookout Mountain aid station at mile 31 in 8:19, about 25 minutes up on that 32-hour pace.  I knew it was pretty much downhill from there to the North River Gap aid station at mile 37, but as I headed down the hill I would find that the rocks were back in full force.

There are lots of mishaps that can happen when trying to move quickly across rocky terrain.  I started giving them names.  The Roll (ankle roll).  The Stub (toe stubbing).  The Point (painfully stepping on a pointy rock).  The Flip (one foot flipping a loose rock up into the ankle bone of the other foot - that’s my favorite).  I started trying to keep track of how many times each of these happened, but I couldn’t keep up.  I do know I swore out loud several times, cursing the eons of erosion that had led to the creation of all these damned rocks.  Downhill mile splits of 18:00-20:00 miles.  Ouch.  Literally, as my feet were starting to really hurt, not blisters, but a pain across the toes and the bottoms of the feet.  I started thinking about ultra/trail runners gearing up for a road marathon talking about “hardening the legs” by getting in some road running prior to the race, and wondering if it was even possible to “harden the feet”.  But I knew it was, as evidenced by all of the (presumably) locals flying by me on the downhills.

Before the race I had reached out to local runner Andy Jones-Wilkins, a legendary member of the ultrarunning community whom I’ve crossed paths with a few times at Western States and Hardrock, to get intel on the race.  He graciously answered my questions and confirmed that this was one tough course.  As I sat down at the North River Gap Aid station with my drop bag to attend to my beat-up feet, I saw AJW next to me and introduced myself again.  “Sean!  Great to see you, how’s it going out there!”  I mumbled something about rocks, and he told me that when he crewed Western States RD Craig Thornley at this race a few years ago, Craig had come into this very spot cursing those same rocks.  So at least I was in good company.

Keep it Simple, Smart Guy
In almost all the 100K and 100M races I’ve run, I’ve had stomach issues.  It’s cost me lots of time in many races, and finally led to my first DNF this August as I was pulled by medical at mile 52 of Angeles Crest 100 after throwing up for 2-3 hours.  This has been exacerbated by the heat in most instances, and the hope was that an October race in Virginia I wouldn’t have to deal it.  But that wasn’t the case – it wasn’t Western States hot, but warm with humidity was taxing enough.  So my plan was to simplify things as much as possible at this race, and stick with just Tailwind, Bonk Breakers, and gels for as long as I could, and avoid the “real food” at the aid stations besides Coke and broth.  I also think I’ve tried to force too many calories at times in the past, so the plan was just to keep drinking Tailwind and supplement with at least one gel an hour, but not more than two – the combo should give me at least 250 calories, which should be enough.  To this point I had stuck to the plan, and things were going great.  But it was now almost 4:00 AM, I hadn’t eaten dinner, and I was hungry.  As I got ready to leave the aid station I saw AJW grab a handful of tater tots, and they looked so good that I grabbed a handful and chomped on them as I headed out into the night.

This next section would bring both the steepest and longest climbs of the course, about 2,600’ over 5-6 miles, beginning with a 1000’ climb in a little over a mile.  Now was definitely the time to break out the trekking poles, and I started grinding my way up the mountain.  For really the first time during the race, I was working hard.  And, of course, I started to feel nauseous.  It was such a rookie move, not only going against my plan that had been working but even more so taking in food right before a tough part of the course where the effort level would be high.  I had a few moments of panic, considering what had happened to me in August.  So even though the effort felt sustainable from an aerobic and muscular standpoint, I decided to dial it way back to try and get my stomach in check.  I had no choice.  Instead of passing people, I slowed down and people started passing me.  But I knew I had to get some blood back to my gut to get that food moving.  After about an hour the nausea was gone, and I made that mental note to stick to the plan going forward.

Happy to see this, and turn off the headlamp
I finally reached the top and ran along rolling, open terrain as the sun came up.  I remember noting it was just past mile 40 that it began to peak through the trees, and it was so nice to not be limited to that circle of light cast by my headlamp and be able to look around.  I finally hit the Little Bald Knob aid station at mile 45, and they pointed out the ridge line we’d be running along and down to the Turn-around.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but in looking at the map it appears we were effectively running along the border of Virginia and West Virginia through this section.  It was warming up again a bit, but I continued to just keep drinking Tailwind and taking in that gel an hour, and everything was feeling pretty good.  I moved pretty well through here with miles in the teens, building up more and more cushion against the cut offs and staying within an hour of the 32-hour pace, and got to the turnaround in about 15:50.

Despite changing my socks at each of the previous drop-bag aid stations, between the humidity and multiple muddy spots my feet had been wet since the start.  I sat down and peeled off my shoes and socks, and my feet were just white, wrinkly, and macerated.  So I decided to let them air out for 10 minutes to try and keep them from falling apart any more than they already had.  The rocks had taken their toll, I had several hot spots (but no blisters….yet), and they just hurt.  And I had the return trip through all those rocks still to come.  I sipped some broth and enjoyed a couple of minutes off my feet, only the third time I’d sat in about 16 hours.  Then it was time to go and I lubed up, got my socks and shoes back on, and headed back out to start the second half of this thing.
The only picture of me.  And West Virginia (I think)

A Foggy Day 
With the evening start, I fully expected to be exhausted on night two.  What I didn’t expect was to start feeling it mid-day on Saturday.  But as I ran back along the rolling terrain from mile 50-59 it moved into early afternoon, and I was beat.  I’d been moving for 18 hours and awake for almost 30, so the exceedingly tired feeling that often hits in the wee morning hours of a typical 100 miler were hitting me mid-day.  I zoned out for hours at a time.  I spent an hour or two writing in my head an amazing blog post on the “10 Things I Learned at Grindstone”.  On occasion I’d snap out of it and realize I should be moving quicker, but then I’d zone out again.  And of course I can’t remember any of what I came up with while out there (maybe I should record myself next time on my phone – I just know it was great stuff!).  It was surreal, moving through the peak daylight hours of a beautiful day but feeling like I was in a fog. 

At about mile 61 we started heading back down the hill in earnest, 19 hours in at around 1:00 PM.  I felt like I was moving ok at the time, but looking at my splits they were all 20-30 minute miles.  I survived the steep downhill and arrived back to North River Gap at mile 65 in a little under 21 hours, and while I sat for a few taking care of my feet (and not eating tater tots) I began dreading the incredibly rocky climb facing me, but kept thinking at least I’d be hitting it in daylight hours. And to be honest, it was a little bit better going back up as the expectation of decent splits wasn’t weighing on me at that point and it's almost easier to tackle rocky terrain going up than going down.   Two and half hours into it came the Lookout Mountain aid station at mile 72, which I reached in 23:28.  I was now almost two hours off the 32-hour split times, but still over two hours ahead of cutoffs so I was somewhat satisfied with my progress. 

The climb continued from there, and as the sun went down the low light, both in angle and intensity, started playing tricks on my senses.  “What are those three cars doing parked in the woods?”  Oh, there’s nothing there.  “I don’t remember a building out here.”  Because there isn’t one.  “Look, campers around a campfire, roasting s'mores.”  Nope.  And a lot of turning around to see who the runner was I could hear coming up behind me, only to find nobody trailing me.  All just signs of my mind starting to slip and slide into the grips of sleep deprivation, something that would only get worse as darkness set in and I tackled the final 25 miles.

The Downward Spiral
I wasn’t looking forward to staring into the circle of light of my headlamp for several hours, so I stalled on turning it on as long as I could.  But as I hit the peak of the short climb out of Lookout Mountain and began the descent, I had to pull it back out of my pack and turn it on.  I hit the bottom of the hill at Dowell’s Draft at mile 80, and my final access to a drop bag.  My feet had gone from a few hot spots to a few blisters starting to form between toes, on the side of my heels, and on the outside “ball” of my left foot below the little toe.  In retrospect I should have spent a little more time here addressing these, taping them, popping a few, but I think at the time I was just happy to clean and lube them up and get a pair of dry socks on.  I also decided to switch shoes here, going from the Hoka Torrents I’d been running in from the start to a pair of Altra Olympus, the model I’d worn for most of Western States and for those 52 miles of Angeles Crest.  The Altras have more cushion, which I thought might help with my destroyed feet, and with more room in the toe box I thought the change in where the shoe was rubbing might give some of my problem spots a break.   As I got up to limp out of the aid station I was so hungry, but with the final two big climbs coming I just drank a couple of extra cups of broth and Coke and headed back into the night with a pack filled with Tailwind and gels.  Damn those quesadillas looked good….
I couldn't see them in the dark, but they were still there

Going in I expected these next 10-12 miles to be a huge key - back-to-back 1500’-1600’ climbs with a short descent in between.  As I began heading up I passed several groups of runners, some with pacers, some just running together.  I felt encouraged to be moving better than those around me, and after about 20-30 minutes I found myself alone.  The trail narrowed and got rockier, and it was those flat, sliding rocks again which while tricky from miles 10-20 the day before now just seemed downright treacherous.  I just kept thinking, “grind it out, grind it out,” while pushing off on the trekking poles which I hadn’t put away since the steep descent back at mile 58.  My left thumb had started to go numb, as the strap of the pole pushing into the soft flesh between the thumb and finger apparently irritated a nerve.  And the climb just kept going on and on, slowly working our way up Crawford Mountain. 

Every once in a while I would catch my toe, or a rock would slide under my foot.  On occasion one would fall off the side of the 1-2’ wide trail, and I’d hear it tumble down into the darkness below.  Was the drop off 50, 100, 1000 feet?  I had no idea, and it really didn’t matter.  I was by myself in the middle of the night in middle of nowhere Virginia, and I’d been awake for going on 40 hours and moving on this damned trail for 28 of them.  I really started doubting myself and why I was doing this, and at one point said out loud, “What are you doing out here?  You have a kid!”  I had no choice but to keep grinding away, reaching the top and then moving down the other side – there was no way out other than forward.

I started the final climb at mile 87, and the pain in my feet was getting unbearable.  I realized I had been leaning slightly to the left, into the hill and away from the drop off (Subconsciously?  Consciously?  Was there a difference at this point?), so the blister on the outside ball of my left foot was killing me.  And the roomier Altras had turned out to be a poor choice on this uneven terrain as my feet just slid around, slamming back and forth into the sides of the shoes.  After 2 ½ hours or so of being alone, I thought I saw a light up ahead of me finally.  But it wasn’t moving, and it would disappear or fade, so I figured I was imagining that as well.  But as I got up close I found it was the one other runner from Northern California that was out here, leaning against a tree throwing up.  I paused to check on him then kept on going, alone again. 

After a few minutes I caught up to a group of 4-5 runners moving together up the trail.  Finally, some company!  It wasn’t that I wanted to talk or anything, I just hadn’t felt very safe being out there by myself on that trail.  So I happily fell into the little conga line as we made the final push up Great North Mountain.  My mental state started to turn around a little, as for the first time I allowed myself to think about the finish of this beast.  I remembered from nearly 32 hours earlier that the trail would eventually dump us out onto a steep fire road, although a runner near me said he didn’t think so.  I started questioning myself but sure enough, right around mile 91 we hit that fire road.  I took off down that thing, leaving everyone I’d been with behind.  Of course I look at my splits now, and it was 22:xx for the next two miles!  But at this point, that felt like I was moving.

The Home Stretch?  Or Just a Descent Into Madness?
In my head it was a few miles down to the Falls Hollow Aid Station, then a few miles through some state land near the finish.  But after about two miles on the fire road the markings took us off onto a singletrack trail to the side.  Hmmm, I didn’t remember this at all.  I caught two other runners here, and together we crossed a creek…then crossed it again….then crossed it again….wtf, were they messing with us?  I realized that they must route us through a different section here, instead of running all the way down the road to the aid station, and seemingly remembered some reference to this in the pre-race meeting that hadn’t made sense to me at the time.  The former RD is known for that kind of thing, and adding bonus miles, so I figured it was a Horty Special.  I said something to the guys I was running with about it and cursed myself for not studying the course more beforehand.  They were talking to each other, and as they pulled away I became convinced that this was all a big practical joke on me, and they were in on it!  My mental state continued to slide as I realized instead of having a couple easy hours left, it was going to be more like four.  This part of the course wasn’t difficult compared to what we’d done, but it wasn’t just running down a fire road. 

I finally arrived at Falls Hollow Aid Station, mile 97, in 33:17.  I had less than 5 miles to go (yes, the course is measured at 101.85 miles) and almost 5 hours to finish before the cutoff.  I had told myself once I got here I would allow myself some real food for the first time since those ill-fated tater tots the day before (or was it two days before?), and I downed three quesadillas with some broth.  Could I finish in 90 minutes and be done with this thing before 5:00 AM?  Sure I could!  The aid station volunteers reminded us that we’d be entering state land so we’d be following white blazes for the next three miles, with no other course markings.  It sure hadn’t been a problem on the way out, so I limped out ready to finish this thing.

But that little burst of quesadilla and “let’s finish this thing” energy would quickly fade, and the sleep deprivation had now officially taken over.  From here to the finish I honestly can’t be 100% sure of what happened.  But here’s what I remember……
I came out of the trees to find railroad tracks, and a runner ran by me and seemingly disappeared into the woods.  I saw a couple of headlamps in the trees on the other side and headed that way.  But I couldn’t find the trail.  I was a few hundred yards out of the aid station and already lost!  I back tracked to the other side of the tracks again, and this time went straight across and found a small opening with a little white square painted on a rock.  Ok, it was going to be like this, then.  It was largely fire road for the next mile or so, with the white squares painted on trees on the side of the road.  I was alone again, and stopped every several hundred yards to shine the light ahead, looking for the next blaze. The markers then led me off the fire road and onto a trail, and I caught up to a runner and pacer who were struggling with navigation as well.  The runner was limping worse than I was, with an audible grunt or moan that I was all too familiar with whenever his feet would hit a rock or root in the wrong way.  And we kept trying to find those white blazes, which seemed to be getting smaller and more hidden.

The pacer pulled out a phone or walkie talkie and started talking to somebody that was coming from the other direction who could help us find the way.  We dropped down into a creek, and together tried to find where to cross, all the while the guy on the other end trying to talk us through.  We eventually came upon someone, and they teamed up and began to quickly pull away, the light from their headlamps disappearing.  I stopped, looking for a marking, but could find none.  I called out to them, “which way do I go?”, but got no answer.  I back tracked a bit, found another marker, but was basically moving through a drainage of some sort.  I think it was at this point that I started thinking that none of this made sense, and that I must be asleep on the side of the trail somewhere, imagining all of this.  I remember thinking that I hoped I wouldn’t fall off the trail I was sleeping on, that I had found a safe, flat spot.  But what if I hadn’t?  I needed to wake up…..

Two runners that I had dropped when we first hit the fire road several hours ago then caught up to me.   One of us would find a blaze, we’d get to it, then we’d look for the next.  That went on for another mile or so, but this just wasn’t making sense.  I couldn’t believe they were having us run through creeks so near the finish, and that markers were so hard to find. 

We finally came out onto a wider road, and there were the familiar pink markings we’d been following all race.  Thank god!  But how do we get back to the start/finish?  We were all confused, and as we kept trying to find the next marker the confusion grew.  I was convinced we had gone in a circle, and told them as much.  But I also said, “my mind isn’t working right now.”  A few runners passed us, and some of them seemed confident we were going the right way.  I just kept feeling like we were looping around and around on ourselves.  What if I got lost, a mile from the finish, and wandered around for 4 hours missing the cutoff?  My unfortunate mantra became, “This just doesn’t make sense.  This just doesn’t make sense.”

We were passed quickly by two runners saying, “this is it!” and sure enough I recognized the dam we had crossed about a quarter mile from the start all those hours ago.  Up the gravel road, onto the Boy Scout Camp lawn, and finally across the finish.

35:52:54. 180th out of 257 starters, 208 finishers. 

It was a surreal state I was in at the finish, like a daze but also mostly aware that I was in a daze and just deeply sleep deprived.  I pondered whether I should get medical attention, but knew I was going to be alright with a nap.  I limped to my car, limped back up to the camp showers where the chaffing covering most of my back and groin area made me scream a bit, and then limped back to the car again where I climbed in the back and finally laid down at about 7:00 AM and closed my eyes.

Later that morning I drove to a CVS, bought a cooler, Epsom salts, and a couple of gallons of water and soaked my blistered, torn up feet.  I held that belt buckle in my hand and the emotion of it all hit me in a wave.  There I sat, by myself in a CVS parking lot across the country from home, feet in a cooler, exhausted and crying. 


Post script
Recovery has been decent.  Mentally, I was in a brain fog until at least Wednesday, despite multiple naps each day.  As for my legs it was such slow going, even downhill, that my quads weren’t that bad at all.  My feet were another story, and it was a few days before I could get shoes on.  I have two black toenails on my left foot, and all of the toes are a little numb but feeling is coming back.  The same is true of my thumb, which I literally couldn’t feel at all until about Wednesday after the race (it’s a weird sensation not knowing how much pressure you are putting on something you are holding), but feeling is coming back day by day, it's just kind of tingly now two weeks out.

It was really an experience unlike any other race I’ve done, including the three other 100s I’ve completed.  Being out there that long, on that terrain, over two nights…..I definitely don’t want to do that again without a pacer.  But despite the slow time I’m as proud of this as anything I’ve done in this crazy sport, no doubt.  I'm not sure what's next, although I've started looking into possibilities for next year.  Of course the Western States and Hardrock lotteries on December 1st are first, but with selection in either highly unlikely I'll have to figure it out from there.
On Wednesday after the race I finally looked at the Strava entry, to see specifically where the course had been different on the way back in those last few miles that caused me so much confusion.   Turns out, it wasn’t!  I was just so mentally screwed that I didn’t recognize any of it and convinced myself it must be different. Mind blown. 

Friday, April 20, 2018

Gnarly - The Napa Valley 50K

gnarl·yˈnärlē/NORTH AMERICANinformaldifficult, dangerous, or challenging

I signed up for this a few weeks back as I was looking for a 50K three or four weeks out from the Canyons 100K coming up on April 28th.  I didn’t know anything about it, and hadn’t run on the trails up there at all.  But I could see from the elevation profile and 7,500’ of elevation gain and loss that it would be a tough one that should give me a good opportunity to get some climbing and descending in.  It also was an out and back course with the start/finish in downtown Calistoga, so instead of telling Heather I was taking off for an entire Saturday for a race I got to tell her I was taking her to wine country for the weekend….but I’d be gone for a “few hours on Saturday”.
7,500'  of ups and downs

A few days before the race I came across a link to a race report from last year’s inaugural event.  It was written by the female winner Penny Macphail (so by definition a bad ass) and included the following:

 " ....just fantastic, weird ' is this a trail?' running. You are leaping and bounding and slathering around rocks and creeks.  At times you are in dark, cool shadows, diving though rocky caverns, ducking around and under achingly beautiful twisted trees......stunning high drama vistas of craggy mountains stretching for miles should you dare to look up and take your eyes off your feet for a second....It's interesting how exhausting this stuff is mentally, I had to remind myself to breathe and unclench my teeth now and again I was concentrating so hard..."

That description of how technical portions of the race were got my attention, so I started looking at the finish times from last year and digging into to compare those runners’ times to other 50Ks they’d run.  Across the board, it was considerably slower.  This thing was going to be tough.  Instead of a six to seven hour day (pretty much the range of my previous 50Ks), I was looking at eight to nine hours!  A little more than I bargained for, but too late now.

First ten miles

After a few words from the race director we were off for about a half mile on the streets of Calistoga before heading up the trail.  My goal for the day was to 1) finish healthy and 2)…well, that was pretty much it.  Keep the real goal in mind, a 100K race (and Western States qualifier) in three weeks.  My calf has recovered pretty well but I’ve been fighting some mild plantar fasciitis, so that was the major concern – do no harm.  I settled in to a power hike as we headed up a fire road that after about three miles became more of a rocky doubletrack trail.  It continued to get rockier, and then we took a turn on to the “Palisades Trail”. 

Old school, low key start
It began innocently enough, some technical sections, mud, and while we got a break and the forecasted rain had stopped Friday night, the 3”-4” that had fallen the previous day was absolutely pouring down the trail.  I guess that’s what the RD meant by “these trails drain well”.  I might have said “these trails are the drain”, but that’s just semantics, I suppose.  We got to the first aid station at mile 6 or so and it was perched up on the edge of a cliff, and there was the previous-year’s winner, Penny.  She cracked jokes, took pictures (with her rubber chicken in frame), and sent us off on a section of trail that I can only describe as “gnarly”.  Barely-there muddy trail carved into the side of the mountain.  Crawling around boulders and trees.  Rocky sections that required lots of careful foot placements.  Waterfalls.  You know a trail is technical when your fingernails are dirty.  But the views were just incredible, as several times I came to a stop, in complete awe. 

Starting to get rocky

Having fun at the aid station, and a rubber chicken.  pc Penny Macphail
There's a trail there?

Hard to race and take pics, but those views!

We then came upon a section of huge lava flows, weathered by centuries of wind and water, that you had to pick your way across.  A final descent led us down to the aid station around mile 10 and the base of the major climb in the race.  It had taken me 3:15 to cover the 10+ miles, and I was starting to worry that this was going to be a 9-10 hour effort out here!

Working my way down the lava

The middle ten

But this section of the race turned out to be the easy part, as after a short technical climb we were on fire road for most of the 5 mile climb to the top of Mt. St. Helena. It was a nice and steady grade made for power hiking (or running for those beasts a few hours in front of me), so I just geared down and grinded the thing out.  A quick pic at the top, with unfortunately no views to speak of due to the (cold) fog, and then it was a long downhill run back to mile 20.  It’s the longest, easily runnable descent I’ve experienced in the Bay Area, and I may have to work it in to future quad-toughening training sessions.  Thanks to some 9-10-11 minute miles the middle ten miles was a full hour quicker than the first 10, putting me back at the aid station about 5:30 in, a time in a “normal” 50K that would have me in the final few miles. 
Proof I made the summit.  

Great runnable downhill section on Mt. St. Helena.  pc Chihping Fu

...and that first ten miles again

That just left another 10-11 miles of the gnarliest trails in the Bay Area.  But after that strong middle section I was in a pretty good mental space, and I just tried to embrace it.  It wasn’t even “the suck” I was embracing, as I just decided to have as much fun as I could out there, which was much easier knowing exactly what I was in for.  It was some slow going (23 and 24 minute miles????), but after getting through the mile 25 aid station and completing the final climb, it was back on to the fire road.  I hooked up with a runner named Scott who was also running Canyons in three weeks, and we settled in to a nice rhythm and knocked out the descent back down on to the streets of Calistoga, and finished strong.  Final time 8:35:29, 36th/50 finishers.
She asked for a flip, I managed a skip.  pc Penny Macphail

All the water
I came out of it feeling pretty good, probably because even though it was such a long day, there was so much hiking.  My foot hurt a few times, mostly during awkward foot plants as I picked my way through the rocks and mud, but it definitely didn't get worse.  The quads had that "good sore" of a solid effort the next day.  So other than the gnarly poison oak I have on both legs and arms, I accomplished exactly what I wanted to with my first big race of the year on the horizon.

All in all a really fun race, on some of the most scenic and challenging trails I've run on in the Bay Area.  Scena Performance put on a great event, the volunteers were amazing, and the beans and rice at the finish were some of the best I've ever had.  This isn't the race to try and set a 50K PR, but if you want to challenge yourself with a great long day on the trails, this is the race.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

2017 Western States - Not as Tough as I Thought

No, no, I'm not talking about the race itself.  Sure, I had heard from ultrarunners I respect that I'd already run "tougher" 100 milers in Cascade Crest and Pine to Palm.  And those races are tough, no doubt.  But Western States, the supposed "easier 100" was in no way that.  I have never had a better training block.  My diet was as good as it's ever been, I followed the Jason Koop plan of intensity earlier in the year and then had my most consistent volume and vertical ever in the two months leading in to Statesmas.   I took into account my racing over the past five years, what I had learned over four years of pacing and crewing this race, analyzing the Ultrasignup and Ultrasplits data, and I just knew I was capable and ready for a finish around twenty-seven hours. I was ready.

"Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." - Mike Tyson

And then the race started.  Fifteen miles of snow and ice bridges and mud that pulled the shoes off your feet.   It wasn't just me.  All 369 runners got punched right in the mouth.  Any buffer you had against your goals, whether that was a course record, silver buckle, staying ahead of the cutoffs, or my twenty-seven hour goal was simply gone by Red Star Ridge at mile 15.8.  So I found myself in a situation I really didn't imagine, fighting the cutoffs from the start.  But I didn't stress, just like I knew I was in shape for twenty-seven hours, I knew I was tough enough to get this done.  After all, I'd never DNF'd a race.  I've fought wrecked IT bands, trashed quads, a shut down stomach, heat, mud, smoke, and the mountains themselves.  And I'd always made it to the end before the cutoffs.


The University of Kent's Samuele Marcora has published multiple studies that show a common theme - fatigue largely isn't a muscular issue, it's a mental one.  From a December 12, 2014, New Yorker article titled What is Fatigue
"Marcora believes that this limit is probably never truly reached—that fatigue is simply a balance between effort and motivation, and that the decision to stop is a conscious choice rather than a mechanical failure......Considerations like heat, hydration, and muscle conditioning, Marcora says, “are not unreal things, but their effect is mediated by perception of effort.” In other words, they don’t force you to slow down, as happens with the failing frog muscles in the petri dish; they cause you to want to slow down—a semantic difference, perhaps, but a significant one when it comes to testing the outer margins of human capability."
I'd say 100 mile mountain runs in 100+ degree heat qualify for "testing the outer margins of human capability," especially mine.  Thanks largely to the tough conditions in the high country, my goal of a 27 hour finish, one that would have me comfortably ahead of the cutoffs the entire race, was out the window before I hit the fifteen mile mark.  I was behind the average 30-hour finisher splits all day long.  By the time I got to my first pacer, drained from puking on the climb up to Devil's Thumb and another tough climb to Michigan Bluff, I was almost exclusively walking.  I just couldn't run much, I was spent.

With my final pacer.  PC Richard Walstra

But as almost always happens, that external push from Jim got me running a bit more. "Dude, you have to run this part."  I switched pacers at Foresthill and Wally used cajoling and constant pace reminders in an effort to keep me moving faster that I wanted to.  And then Jim picked me up again at the river telling me, "you're probably going to hate me for awhile." He knew he was going to have to push me.  He negotiated, bargained, pleaded, ridiculed, distracted, joked.  Whatever it took to keep me moving faster than I wanted to.  And of course I could.  Oh I was physically fatigued, but my muscles weren't shutting down. "You can puke, but you have to walk while you do it," said Jim at one point Sunday morning near mile 90.  So instead of sitting (again) on the side of the trail, walk I did.  And then I ran, and ran a little more.


Tim Noakes first put forth the Central Governor theory back in the early-2000s.  From an iRunFar article written by Joe Uhan:

"Noakes’s model, the Central Governor Theory, proposes that it is the brain that dictates exercise intensity and duration in order to ensure its own survival.
The brain is inherently selfish: it only cares about itself. It will do anything necessary to ensure it gets a steady flow of oxygen and sugar, and a reliable mechanism for transport. That said, any physical effort that might jeopardize those values will be tightly regulated. If not, the conscious brain might team with the body to literally run itself to death by either destroying skeletal or cardiac muscle, or by starving the nerve tissue of sugar and oxygen."

I feel like I haven't yet shown in a 100 miler that I'm tough enough on my own to overcome my brain, my Central Governor.  So while I'm extremely proud of all of my race finishes, I want to test my own mental toughness, to prove to myself I can push through.  I'm not talking about putting my health at risk, just finding a way to keep moving, keep running when my brain is trying to convince me otherwise.

So with some first-time lottery luck, a few months back I got in to the Angeles Crest 100, solo division.  No crew. No pacer.  Just me and my Central Governor, battling it out.  I'm looking forward to the fight.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Run Baby Run - 2017 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run

It's all downhill from here
Find out who you are before you regret it
'Cause life is so short there's no time to waste it
So run my baby run my baby run
Run Baby Run, Garbage

On my last long run before Western States, I switched to the "Run You Fools!" playlist on my iPod, a collection of songs that inspire me and get me going.  I rarely listen to music while I run, I'm much more of a podcast guy, but the mood hit me.  As I was cruising down single track trail in the Indian Tree Open Space near my home in Novato, trying not to focus on the knee pain that had come out of nowhere during the Memorial Day Training runs, one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite groups came on.  The song isn't about running at all, of course, but the chorus and many of the lyrics taken out of context really hit home and seem fitting.  I had been thinking about Western States the entire run (and many of my waking hours for months), and I started to tear up thinking about what was to come in a few short weeks, my vision blurring as I moved down the trail.  Ever since my first experience with States in 2012, crewing and pacing my buddy Jim Hammond, this race has been an obsession.  A five year journey to the start line was nearing an end, and the real adventure was about to begin.

Excited?  Scared?  Yes.  PC Luis Escobar
Twenty days later, I'm lying in bed in Tahoe City, trying in vain to get some sleep.  Tomorrow is the day I've thought about, dreamed about for so long.  Hearing that shotgun blast and starting to climb up to the Escarpment, and seeing the sun rise on the way up.  Running through the high country, the 30 miles of the course I'd yet to experience.  Suffering through the heat and climbing of The Canyons, but persevering.  Having some quads left to run well on Cal St, and crossing the river in the night ready to hit the last 22 miles.  Crossing No Hands Bridge and climbing Robie Point and running through the neighborhood down to and onto the track at Placer High.  Hearing Tropical John say my name as I rounded the home stretch.  As it had so many other nights, the visions are bouncing around in my head, keeping me awake.  A few hours of fitful sleep, and at 1:30 AM I give up and listen to some Ultrarunnerpodcast interviews, maybe I'll pick up some more last minute tips. Then it's time to get up, fuel up, gear up, lube up, and drive up to Squaw.

A 20 time finisher, two time top-10 female, and nine time sub-24 finisher.  Pretty good people to get advice from
The day before had been a bit of a blur - check in, catching up with friends, and searching for last minute advice.  Dave Mackey helped check us in. Nikki Kimball put the wristband on me, the one that, if cut off, would signify the end of my race.  And I hung out in the Ultrarunning Magazine tent for awhile, getting advice and even sitting down for a quick interview - which I totally choked because I forgot to mention Heather, Kylie, and my parents!  Hey, it was my first interview, but for a total ultrarunning fanboy like me it felt like a bit of a dream.  But now, Saturday morning as 5:00 AM approached, it was a reality.  And I was a little scared.

This might be a....bit of sh*t show!  It's gonna be awesome!
I connected with my buddy Surf who is running for the third time in four years, and when the gun goes off we begin the climb together.  The atmosphere is electric, the lights glowing above us, the crowd full of family, friends, spectators, and the ever-growing ultrarunning media surrounds us.  We stay together for the first two miles or so, and I tell him to take off whenever he is ready (he's a low 2:50 marathon guy with much faster goals than me).  We hike steadily up until we hit the first snow, and then he gives me a fist bump and takes off up the road.  The scene is amazing, everything I had imagined with the sun beginning to rise and everyone excited as we hike up and up to 8,713'.  We're on snow now, slipping and sliding a bit which is just a precursor of things to come.

Worthy of a selfie as we approached the Escarpment.  SO.MUCH.SNOW!

Once we are up top and things level off a bit, the opportunity to start running is supposed to present itself.  But as we had been warned about in the pre-race briefing, things were just so sloppy up top.  Snow fields and snow bridges that runners ahead of me had broken through led to miles of slipping and sliding.
Just after Red Star, 11 miles in
When not on the snow there was so much water from the rapid melting caused by a week of 90 degree days that the mud was a foot deep in places, making that sucking sound as I moved through it, threatening to remove my shoes from my feet.  When we did hit sections of trail, water ran down it like a creek.  It was just impossible to move quickly, at least for most of us mere mortals.  At times, it was hard to even find the trail - the markings were buried in snow or mud, and several times I found myself several yards off course and then would see a flag in the distance to work back towards.  Jamil Coury from Run Steep Get High posted a great video that captures the conditions pretty well. The impact was that whether your time goals were a course record, sub-24, or to stay ahead of the cutoffs, any buffer was just gone before we even hit the first aid station at Lyon Ridge.  I just "knew" that my training and preparation had me in position to run around 27 hours, and that cutoffs wouldn't be an issue.  And that was all gone before I hit the Red Star Ridge aid station at mile 15.8.  Seventeen runners DNF'd there, many missing the cutoff.  Seventeen people that had qualified and trained their asses off and showed up ready to go, and it was over almost before it started.  This was going to be a battle.
Mile 15.8, 4:25.  252nd out of 354

Cougar Rock on Lyon Ridge.  pc Facchino Photo

After a final 30' slide on my butt down a snow drift, the conditions finally started to improve.  But the altitude was getting to me more than I expected.  Being up around 7,000' for much of the first 30 miles just made the effort so much harder.  I just wanted to get to Duncan Canyon (mile 24.4) to see my crew for the first time, and get a fresh pair of shoes and socks.  The aid stations in the first half of the race straddle a canyon with no road through it, so you need two separate crews if your're going to have one at each possible spot.  I was honored and blessed to have my family with my girlfriend Heather, daughter Kylie, and parents Dave and Sharon serve as one crew; and my college buddies Jimmy, Rob, and Jared along with iFriend Wally that flew out from Chicago as my other crew.  This sport can be so selfish in so many ways with the long training on weekends, travel away from home for races, and dragging your significant other along to trail running film festivals and local running store events.  That is only magnified on race day with a crew and pacers when you consider my parents and two buddies all drove down from Oregon and Wally flew out from Chicago, all to help me achieve this goal.

I think the knee pain I had experienced that led to a sharper taper than I'd planned was related to some issues in my glute and hip.  Thanks to a few emergency sessions with Dr. Chappy Wood in the two weeks going into the race I didn't have any knee pain the entire race, but I did have a dull ache in my left glute, and I must have stubbed my left foot on rocks a dozen times in the high country.  That was new, although it ended up going away about 40 miles in.  But I never actually tripped, and more than six hours in I finally rolled into the Duncan Canyon aid station, already well behind the 30 hour pace for the first quarter of the course and with not a lot of time on the cutoffs.
Coming into Duncan.  PC Tonya Perme

Rob and I had spent a few moments chatting the night before the race, and I told him that regardless of what happened out there on race day I just wanted to be ahead of the cutoffs enough that I didn't have to worry about them.  I've been there before (2014 Pine to Palm), and it's just so stressful.  Thanks to the conditions in the high country, that was already gone and it was going to be part of my experience all day and night.  The fellas knew I needed to get out of there, so they went to work like a Nascar pit crew, getting my shoes and socks off, cleaning my feet, lubing them up, and new socks and shoes back on.  A volunteer apparently asked if they needed some nail polish to complete the pedicure they appeared to be giving me!  But it was so awesome how efficient and ready they were to get me out of there and back on the trail.
Mile 24.4, 6:18.  246 of 344

From there it was around six miles to Robinson Flat and seeing my family for the first time.  I had hoped to be there a little after noon, but didn't arrive until 1:11, less than an hour before the 2:00 cutoff.  We were still up around 7,000' and my effort level was so unexpectedly high on the climb up to the aid station, the temperature was rapidly rising (90s by then?) and my discouragement was growing.  As I finally crested the last bit of the climb and saw the tent, I tried to get myself in a positive space before I got to the crew - fake it until you make it, I guess.  I spent about 10 minutes there getting cooled off, restocking my pack, and updating them all on the challenges of the first 15 miles.  I asked about Surf, and they said he was also way behind his pace, and reported that he felt "worse than he ever had" at that point in the race - and he's struggled each year coming into Robinson.  The conditions were taking a toll on everyone.
Mile 30.3, 8:11.  254 of 328
Thanking the A-Team for waiting around for me for so long at Robinson Flat.  PC Kylie Grove
The amazing volunteers doing everything they can to keep the runners moving toward Auburn
I left Robinson knowing that from there we would finally start to lose elevation, telling myself that things were about to get a lot better for me as we finally moved down from the mountains.  After a short road climb the downhill began, and I think the mental boost kicked in before the increased atmospheric pressure boost did.  Sure enough, I had my best stretch of the race through here, including my best between aid stations split with a 13:36/mile pace from Miller's Defeat to Dusty Corners.  I cruised in there with a positive mindset again, excited to once again see the fellas for another pit crew style sock change.  The volunteers at both Dusty and Miller's were just incredible - at times I had 3-4 people at once working on me, filling pockets and arm sleeves with ice, refilling my bladder, sponging me off.  I had actually clawed my way back to being right on the 30 hour pace and over an hour ahead of the cutoffs here, and tried to prepare myself mentally to head into The Canyons.
Mile 38, 10:02.  249 of 331

I had started to feel a little soreness in my quads on the final descent into Dusty, and that began to get a little worse as I continued the descent down into Deadwood Canyon.  This was pretty discouraging as all of the downhill running I had done during training was to try and condition my quads so I could hold that off that feeling until as late as possible so I'd be able to move well down Cal St.  I was running with another guy who was moving pretty well and we were chatting a bit so I stayed with him down the road and onto the singletrack.  But when someone else caught up to us I backed off and let them go, deciding to take it easy down to Swinging Bridge - I had to try and conserve the quads as much as possible.

As I approached the bottom of the canyon I recapped in my head my plan for the climb up Devil's Thumb, one I'd come up with as a result of already done the climb twice this year, once during The Canyons 100K and once during the Memorial Day Training run.  I'd decided the key was to get a gel in as soon as I heard the rushing water below on the descent, as that would give my stomach 15-20 minutes to process it before heading up the other side.  I was also going to lay in the creek a few hundred yards on the other side of the bridge to try and get my core temperature down, figuring that would also help ensure the calories were through my gut before the hard work of the 36 switchbacks climbing 1,800' up to the top.  Check and check, and I started up the steep stuff hoping to just grind this thing out.

Get wet, stay wet.  pc Facchino Photo
What's that saying about the best laid plans of mice and men?  Even though it was late enough in the day that we weren't in direct sun, it was still really hot and a little humid.  Within a few minutes my effort level felt much higher than I'd hoped, and shortly after that my stomach started to turn.  I would stop and grab my shorts, giving myself five deep breaths to try and get everything under control before continuing up, but it wasn't really helping.  I was taking little sips of electrolyte drink trying to keep up my hydration.  But it was a spiral I couldn't pull out of, and about half way up I found myself sitting on the side of the trail puking.  I had ginger chews, pepto, tums, and a few other things with me, but with the stomach often goes the mind, and I sat there, helpless for a few minutes, emptying the calories and hydration I'd been trying to force through.  After a few minutes another runner came by and offered me a ginger chew, and I eagerly accepted.  She told me it was her last, but she had more up top at her drop bag - a great example of the spirit of this sport.  I finally got up and struggled to the top, puking a couple more times along the way.

"It's the day you got"
I finally got into the Devil's Thumb aid station and plopped into a seat.  My head was in my hands, facing the ground, trying to figure out how to continue on.  I heard a soft-spoken voice asking what I needed, and I didn't have to scan upward very far to know who it was - Dave Mackey, who I had met the day before at check in, volunteering here at one of the key spots of the course.  I asked for some broth and water, and told him I just needed a few minutes to try and pull myself together.  "Sounds good, but you don't have long - you need to get moving again soon," he said.  I had arrived about 45 minutes ahead of the cutoff, so spending too much time here with two canyons still to traverse would have been fatal.  After about 10 minutes I thanked him and the rest of the volunteers and headed off down the trail toward El Dorado Canyon.
Mile 47.8, 13:11.  261 of 314

Too late for solutions to solve in the setting sun
So run my baby run my baby run
-Run Baby Run, Garbage

My stomach wasn't great, but one of my favorite mantras "it never always gets worse" came into play here, and I was able to just keep moving.  Down into the canyon, up the long and often exposed climb to Michigan Bluff I trudged.  Just keep moving.  Get to your crew.  And, in what was somewhat bittersweet, I knew that I'd get a pacer starting here - something only allowed at Michigan Bluff after 8:30 PM, and going into the race that was just inconceivable - I was thinking closer to 7:00.  I shuffled down the hill into the aid station, happy to see my family, Jimmy, and Robbie again, and saw that Jim was ready to run.  I sat in a chair, frustrated at being now less than 40 minutes ahead of the cutoff.  It was time for a full on pity party as I complained about what had been going on.  I stopped talking for a minute, then yelled out, "DAMMIT!  This is NOT the day I planned for!"  Robbie, an experienced (and bad ass) triathlete instantly and calmly responded, "But it's the day you got."

That snapped me out of my funk a little, and a few minutes later Jim and I turned on our headlamps and marched out of there and up the road toward Volcano Canyon.  This was the exact same spot I had picked him up back in 2012, and I was a little behind his time here, a scary thought considering how close he cut things.  He kept stressing we were going to have to run, keep moving, hike with purpose, pick it up, and a bunch of other ways of saying the same thing - move your ass, or you're not getting to Auburn in time.  My quads were feeling it even more through here, but we were able to move ok down the road, and onto the more technical singletrack leading to Volcano Creek.  Even though the sun was down it was still hot, probably 90ish, and I took a moment in the creek to repeat what I'd been doing whenever I'd had the opportunity over the past 17 hours dipping my hat, arm sleeves, splashing water on my face.  We started the climb back up out of there, and he would point out someone ahead of us, "there's your next target,".  Pretty sure I told him to shut up more than once, I'd catch them when I caught them, but I knew he was right in pushing me.  We hit the pavement of Bath Road, and he told me once we reached the top we were going to run the mile or so into the Foresthill Aid Station so run we did, passing 2-3 runners along the way.

Foresthill is the biggest aid station along the course, as it's really the only one in civilization (no offense, Michigan Bluff residents!).  There are cars parked all along the main frontage road through town, and the runners move through for almost a mile before making the left turn onto Cal St. and heading back onto the trail.  Well, I should say earlier in the day there would have been cars parked all along - by the time I got there just after 11:00, it was mostly deserted.  Guess that's what happens when you are 30 minutes behind 30-hour pace and only 40 minutes ahead of the cutoff.  Jimmy and I were met by Robbie and Wally, and after a quick stop in the actual aid station we headed down the road to were Heather was set up, and Wally and I got prepared to head down into the iconic Cal St. trail into the American River Canyon.
Mile 62, 18:04.  268 of 288

Cutting it close
Wally and I had never run together before, and he had never experienced anything like this I'm sure.  I took the lead, and he did his best to keep me moving and distracted, chatting and telling stories.  Of course within a mile or so we were so distracted we missed a turn and went a hundred yards or so off course. Thankfully another runner and pacer came along and saw us and called us back, as that could have ended the effort right there about 63 miles in!  I had planned to put on my Garmin charger and wear it through the night to keep it going, but after it died on the way into Michigan Bluff I just took it off and gave it to Heather, so I was reliant on Wally to let me know how we were doing.  Being a numbers guy, he was throwing them out there!  Net net was that just to stay even and 30 minutes ahead of the cutoff at the river, we had five hours to cover the 16 miles.  It's almost embarrassing to look at that now - 18 minute miles on a largely downhill section of trail!  But my stomach had never really recovered so I was struggling to get calories down, my quads were sore, my IT band was acting up a bit.  And I was just damned tired, mentally and physically.  I think we moved pretty well down to the first aid station at Cal 1, the first 4 miles or so.  Just having the chance to share some miles with him, chatting away, got me running a bit more than I had been.  But when we left Cal 1 I hit another mental and physical low point, not helped by the fact that much of the uphill on this Cal St. occurs during this 5 miles, and we pretty much just hiked.  I wasn't doing the math well, but I'm sure Wally was getting nervous as I slowly moved along.  And for good reason, as we stumbled into Cal 2 at 2:15 AM, with just 15 minutes to go on the cutoff.

I got some soup down and I think that combined with just straight up fear got me moving a bit more again, and I was able to run more on the way down through Cal 3 and to the river.  It's always so much longer than you think to get there, as you run just above and along the river for a good three miles before the final short climb and descent into Rucky Chucky aid station.  Wally just kept encouraging me, telling me I was moving at an ok pace when I was running, and keeping me moving forward.

Crossing the American River, 78 miles in, 22 to go.  Jim is obviously fired up and ready keep me moving.
pc Facchino Photo

So you're not gonna crack
No you're never gonna crack
Run my baby run my baby run
-Run Baby Run, Garbage

"I'm going to be mean"
I had hoped to be at the river around 1:00 AM, but it was almost 4:30 when I actually arrived.  Jim was back to pace me again, and Robbie was still awake as well helping me to get in and out of there quickly.  24 hours after check in, and these guys are still awake and out here for me.  Amazing.  I sat on the ground for a few minutes to re-lube my feet and change socks, as I'd started to feel some more hot spots during the last 16 miles of mostly downhill.  And then it was down to the river and onto the rafts that were to take us to the other side - this winter's atmospheric river has just had too much water to allow crossing on foot.  I actually was kind of happy about that as I had done that three times before as a pacer, and it was kind of nice not to have to worry about wet feet.
Mile 78, 23:26.  262 of 270 (yes, that means 99 runners were out by this point)

Jim had warned me during the stretch from Michigan to Foresthill that he was going to push me, and that I probably wouldn't like him very much.  He's pretty much the most affable, likable guy ever...yet I knew he was right.  I was glad we had the two mile climb up the road to Green Gate to start, as I was still hiking pretty well.  But once we got through there and back on to the rolling single track heading towards ALT I knew I'd have to run as much as I could.  We passed through Green Gate still about 30 minutes up on the cutoff, and onto the trail we went.  He led the way and told me I had to keep pace with him as much I could, so I tried to just shut up and grunt through it.  This had been such a great section of trail during the Memorial Day training runs, so runnable.  I kept trying to remind myself of that as we alternated running and walking as fast as I could.  We had figured we had to do 15 minute miles to the finish to make it, and Jim set his watch to beep every mile and every 15 minutes, and would reset it regularly - that gave the audible signal of whether I was ahead or behind.  But I also started to figure out he was probably fudging the numbers here and there to try and keep me moving quicker, some things just weren't making sense.  But considering I'd been on my feet now for 25 hours, I didn't argue.  I also knew I couldn't afford to give up any time, this was going to be close.

Jim was also on me to keep trying to eat and drink, as he knew I was way behind there.  My stomach, which hadn't been happy but had kept things down since the climb up Devil's Thumb the day before (yes, the day before!!!) started to get worse as the effort level and temperature increased.  At aid stations I was strictly drinking broth and Coke, hoping that would give me enough to keep trudging forward, and Jim would encourage me to try and get down a shot block or gel between.  Somewhere around mile 84 I tried to take a salt tab, gagged, and puked again, emptying everything I had choked down for the past hour or two.  We finally got to ALT a few minutes later, and I tried to start over with more broth and Coke.  But we were back down to 20 minutes against the cutoff here, so it was chug them down as quickly as possible and get out of there.   Only three other runners made it out of there after me and before that 7:00 AM cutoff, while 11 others saw their epic efforts end here.
Mile 85.2, 25:40, 250 of 253

It was starting to warm up again quickly at this point, and I tried one more time to get down a shot block.  As I tried to chew it my stomach let me know it was simply not welcome, and I puked again.  Jim said if I was going to puke, I couldn't stop to do it anymore but had to do it on the move!  At that point I realized I had some ginger gummy candies, and I was able to keep one of those in my mouth to dissolve, which kept me from puking any more.  Ok, maybe once more.  Who pukes on the second day of a 100?

More Nut Butter!
The other big issue I had been having was, well let's just call it chafing in the undercarriage.  Every aid station I was applying more Squirrels Nut Butter, but after 27 hours of salty sweating my compression shorts had the texture of 80-grit sand paper.  As we finally pulled into Quarry Road at mile 90.7 I saw Hal Koerner there running the aid station, and chuckled at the thought of the story of his epic UTMB bonk, complete with similar chaffing that had him use a ziploc bag to try and alleviate the issue.  I was going to ask him if he had one (I had a little sense of humor left), but didn't get the chance - Jim had told me I had 1 minute to sit, then it was out of there.  Every step was painful, but no time to worry about that.  We had one big climb left, up to Highway 49, and we knew we were going to give a couple of minutes back to the course and the cutoffs there.

And what a climb it was.  Of course it's nothing like what we had done the day before in the canyons, maybe 900' over a couple of miles, but after 91 miles it was such a struggle.  Jim kept up a power hiking pace that would have been oh so easy on a training day, yet he kept having to slow down to keep me in sight.  I knew once we finally crossed that road there'd be just one more short climb up to the meadow at Cool, and then the final climb to Robie, so I just kept focusing on that.  One foot in front of the other, you're almost there.

We crossed over the highway where the aid station used to be, and started up to Cool.  We heard someone yelling out in pain, almost crying, and came upon a runner cramping up hard on the trail.  Her pacer was cajoling her to keep moving, but her legs weren't having it.  Jim said under his breath, "you're doing better than her.  Let's go!"  She ended up crossing the finish line about 10 minutes after the cutoff, what a display of guts and determination.

"You've got this"
I've had several people tell me that the meadow in Cool is their favorite part of the course.  In almost all of those cases they were either hitting it as the sun was going down on their way to a top 10 finish, or as the sky was just starting to brighten as they headed in for a sub-24.  When I got there at 9:15 AM, it was just hot.  We saw Mike Hernandez, the volunteer who had been such a big part of Jim's 2012 Western States, and he recognized us as "the Oregon guys".  He looked at his watch and told me, "you've got this, you'll finish in about 29:50, but you have to get out of here."  Time in to the aid station, 9:15 AM.  Time out, 9:15 AM.
Mile 94.3, 28:15, 247 of 251
Near Pointed Rocks aid station, feeling the pull of the track

I'd been so stressed for so long, pushing for what my mind could convince my body to give that I don't think I really let myself dwell on the very distinct possibility of not finishing.  It was like a cloud hovering over me, or maybe considering my physical appearance more like the cloud of dirt hovering around Pig Pen from Peanuts, but I had just tried to ignore it.  I just kept telling myself there was no way I could let down my parents, Heather, Kylie, Jim, Rob, Wally, Jared, and everyone else rooting for me through all the years of training.   My dad had repeated to me in the days leading up to the race, "you're doing this for you, nobody else."  But that just wasn't true.  And those words from Mike just led to that cloud finally lifting. It was this huge feeling of relief - I was going to do this.  We were going to do this.

Down the trail to No Hands Bridge we went, hikers and dog walkers giving "good jobs" and "almost there's" as we came across them.  My legs were pretty much done at this point, and my "running" down the hill was probably a little comical, but I was doing what I could.   We hit the aid station there, and as the heat was picking up and I knew the rest of the trail was pretty exposed, I loaded up one more time with ice - in my arm sleeves, in the front pockets of my shirt.  I probably should have tried some down my shorts to quiet the fire going on down there.  Then it was up toward Robie Point, more hikers and people just starting their days, some aware of the race and knowing what they were seeing when they looked at this wreck of a man, others with confused looks.  I asked Jim what time it was.  "We have to keep moving," he said, and I snapped back, "WHAT TIME IS IT?!?!".  I think (I hope) that was the only time I snapped at him out there.  I got a little more water over my head with a double, walking sponge bath at Robie Point aid station as the volunteers moved with me, dousing me while I hiked up the hill.  Then it was into the neighborhoods of Auburn, people out on their lawns, on the street, cheering runners on.  Cheering me on.  I tried to acknowledge everyone, but I kept getting choked up.  Up the final climb, and then left onto the final downhill to the track.

Add caption
A few hundred yards into it we see Wally(!), who had come up so he could alert the rest of the crew of my impending arrival.  After the race, I read through the over 100 texts that my crew had exchanged during the event.  I've read those over and over again in the past two weeks.  I know from 2012 with Jim how that felt, waiting on the road for him to show up, time ticking down.  And then there it was, the track.  I had taken pictures three years in a row after lottery disappointments of that entrance, of those WS100 emblazoned footprints painted on the asphalt.  It was finally my turn.

I came down the ramp and saw my friends Eric (Ultrarunnerpodcast) and Karl (Ultrarunning Magazine, and again a 24-hour finisher here), and high fived them.  And then I saw Rob, and there was Kylie waiting for me to run with me and finish this thing out.  I'm glad she had the GoPro going, because I honestly don't remember much after that.  I asked how she was doing, and where my parents were.  I saw another local Marin runner on the bend of the track who gave me a big "right on man!".  And I finally heard Tropical John's voice, but with the clapping and cheering and, really, the tears welling up in me, I couldn't hear what he was saying.  I think I heard, "from Novato, California, Sean Grove" at some point.  And then it was done.
No words.  pc Facchino Photo
Mile 100.2, 29:47:41.  244 out of 248 finishers, 369 starters.

I was in a bit of a daze for the next few minutes.  I shook hands with board member Charles Savage, who had given me some advice at check in on Friday, and a few others.  Medical asked if I needed anything.  And then I found Heather and we shared the biggest hug.  I stumbled out into the infield of the track, and finally collapsed on the ground, and was again overwhelmed with emotion for a moment.  The crew all gathered, my parents made their way over from the bleachers, and we were all together again.  These special people that had sacrificed their time to help me reach this crazy goal.  I'll be forever grateful to all of them.

After a few minutes, Heather asked if I needed anything.  I realized it was 10:56 AM, the final few minutes of the race and replied "help up, so I can go see the last finishers."  I really didn't expect that I'd personally be a part of "The Golden Hour", the greatest time and the greatest place on the planet - the Placer High track from 10:00-11:00 AM on the last Saturday in June.  No matter, I wasn't going to miss witnessing the end of it myself.