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October 17, 2007

Firetrails 50 Race Report

“Oh, father of the four winds, fill my sails, across the sea of years -
With no provision but an open face, along the straits of fear … “
- Led Zeppelin, “Kashmir”

Before we get to the Firetrails recap, here’s some free advice I learned last Saturday: if you’re ever looking for a good steady guitar riff to echo through your mind during a long run, it’s hard to do much better than Led Zeppelin’s classic “Kashmir.” That song was playing on my friend’s car stereo as we drove into the parking lot on race morning, and those repetitive chords bounced around my head for most of the next nine hours.

Now on to the race report – but first, some background as to why exactly I was running this ultra in the first place.

As I’ve said many times, 2007 was all about triathlon for me. And if I hadn’t done any other race besides Vineman, I would have considered it a successful year. But I never relinquished my longtime desire to compete in the event that passed me by this summer: the Western States 100-Mile Run.

The catch, as any ultra runner knows, is that you need a qualifying race in order to enter the WS lottery – and if I didn’t do an ultra this year, I couldn’t apply for the 2008 WS race. So Firetrails was basically a means to that end for me – nothing more, nothing less.

Truthfully, I knew I probably wouldn’t have a great race. I was fairly lazy in the weeks after Vineman, dragging myself through a lot of uninspired workouts, trying to coast on the aerobic fitness I had built up over the summer. I banged out a few long trail runs, but otherwise did very little in the way of focused preparation for this event. I figured that my residual fitness combined with a smart, conservative race strategy would get me through Firetrails somewhat comfortably, and earn me the WS qualifier I needed.

At least, that’s what Smart Donald figured. Unfortunately, Idiot Donald had a different plan.

I’m not sure how to explain it, other than to say that whenever I put on a race number, there’s some crazy transformation that takes place, like Bruce Wayne putting on his Batsuit. I get this unshakable urge to push myself as much as possible, to test the limits of my ability on that particular day, regardless of whatever sensible plan I had come up with beforehand.

It wasn’t really the idea of running fast enough to qualify for Western States that screwed me up; I was fairly confident that I could come in well under the 11-hour standard. Rather, it was the fact that I had done this race before that caused me to throw my sensibilities out the window. On some level, I knew that if I ran slower than I had two years ago (8:56), it would feel like a disappointment, whether justified or not.

So that was the story of the day: it wasn’t one person against 50 miles, or against a WS qualifying time, or even against several weeks of laziness - it was Smart Donald vs Idiot Donald.

(OK, we’re getting to the race report now, I promise … )

When I did this race two years ago, I intentionally walked just about every incline on the course, including the first several miles. My plan was to do the same thing this year – but it only took about 10 minutes before Idiot Donald started trying to get a few minutes in the bank by jogging up some of the hills I had walked in the past. I kept what seemed like a conservative pace, but pushed into slight discomfort at times in hopes of lowering my overall pace when averaged with the larger climbs and slower miles that lay ahead.

The first realization of my overexuberance came at about mile 10, as I was alongside one male and one female runner who each had “the look” – you know, the type of bodies you notice at the start line and think to yourself, that guy (or girl) is the real deal. A brief conversation confirmed my guess that they were both top-10 caliber ultra runners. Then we had the following exchange:

Girl: OK, so I know if I’m pacing well … what time are you guys aiming for today?

Guy: I’m thinking sub-8 – going real easy now, and I’ll crank it up after about 30 if I’m feeling good.

Girl: Yeah, that sounds right - I was hoping for 7:45 to 8:15.

Me: Um … it’s been nice running with you two. I’ll be fading back now. Have a great race.

In hindsight, that little conversation was probably the best thing that could have happened at that point of the race - because as I compared my effort level to theirs, I realized there was no way I could hang at that pace for 6 more hours. I guess humility is a good thing sometimes.

I purposely slowed my pace, and shortly found myself in a group of 6 or 7 similarly-paced guys who stretched out and regrouped like cyclists over the next 10-12 miles. But even after my early warning, I found myself running harder than I wanted to, just to hang with the group.

Here’s how ridiculous I was acting: on any portion of the course that wasn’t singletrack, I tucked in as close as possible behind whichever guy was ahead of me. That’s right – I was drafting. In a 50-mile race. Is my idiot moniker making any sense yet?

The net result of this effort was that eventually, I started to feel terrible. Beginning at mile 22, there is a 4-mile downhill stretch to the turnaround point of the race, and it was all I could do to keep jogging through this section of the course. My muscles were aching all over, and there were long sections of mucky mud that made it feel like I was wearing ankle weights. The wind was completely out of my sails, and I couldn’t muster any forward momentum. Additionally, all of the people I was pacing with seemed to glide away from me, and I was feeling discouraged and frustrated about my foolish approach to the first half of the race.

In other words, Idiot Donald was kicking Smart Donald’s butt.

I finally made it to the turnaround point aid station, and spent nearly ten minutes there trying to drum up some enthusiasm to return to the course. I really wasn’t in the mood to run another 24 miles (the turnaround is at mile 26), but I somehow resigned myself to heading back up the long hill I had just descended.

I walked almost all of the 4-mile hill, and felt certain that people would start passing me in droves. This was the darkest stretch of the course for me – so bad that I even started questioning my rationale for being out there.

I have always told myself that I want to run Western States. But as I was struggling up that hill, the thought of doing another 75 miles on top of what I had already traveled so far seemed absolutely impossible. And if this was the way it was going to feel, I didn’t want any part of it.

In the midst of all this frustration, the two Donalds had an internal dialogue that I’ll probably look back on as a turning point if I ever decide to run 100 miles:


Idiot Donald: This sucks. Why are you doing this?

Smart Donald: So I can get into Western States.

ID: What makes you think you want to run Western States? That will suck worse, and for more than twice as long.

SD: Because it’s a challenge.

ID: Yeah, well, so are getting a law degree or rebuilding a car – but you don’t have any interest in those things, right?

SD: But I love trail running.

ID: You love THIS? This sucks! You feel like crap!

SD: Yeah, but … for some reason I think it will be different. It won’t be like this.

And that’s when my mindset shifted – when I realized that if things were going to be different, I was the one who had to make it that way.

The key question I pondered was, how would I run Western States if I ever got the chance? I certainly couldn’t survive the “damn the torpedoes” approach that I left the start line with this morning. I’d have to slow way down, parcel my effort out much more incrementally, and stay focused on the long term task instead of collateral developments from one hour to the next. I would need a complete mental overhaul - and the second half of Firetrails seemed like a pretty good place to start.

Basically, I set everything aside during that long climb: my finishing time, my overall place, my expectations of what parts of the course I should run and who I should be able to hang with. With no provision but an open face, I let it all go, and decided to simply enjoy the day.

(I know, I should have come to this realization about 30 miles sooner, but really – this is what it takes for me to practice common sense sometimes. Remember this if you should ever feel like envying me.)

Before I knew it, I had crested the hill, and broke into a little jog towards the Steam Trains aid station at mile 30. From that point on, the race became more enjoyable with each passing step. I was still aching, and I was still tired, but I was completely in the moment, and blissfully ignorant of all the other concerns I had carried to that point.

My sails were filled again, and I was in a much brighter mood when I rolled into the mile 33 aid station, which is where I heard the following exchange between two volunteers – one of whom was making PB&J sandwiches:

Sandwich guy: Hey, do we have any tri-berry Gu over there?

Other guy: No, but we’ve got a bunch of others – does someone over there need them?

Sandwich guy: Nah … it’s just that I’m out of jelly. I was thinking I could use Gu instead, and they’d never notice the difference.

I couldn’t help laughing out loud, for the first time all day. And that laughter at mile 33 was one of the best feelings I’ve had in a race for a long time. It was like an affirmation of the positive mindset I now possessed, despite feeling like a dead man walking just a couple of hours earlier.

(But for the record, I declined the PB&G sandwich – that just seemed a bit too strange, even for an ultra.)

Whether coincidence or not, miles 33 through 47 were the best miles of the race for me. The course passes through beautiful single track trails, then underneath a redwood canopy that provided shade for most of the day, and I spent most of these miles running in quiet solitude. In other words, it was everything I love about trail running.

The race didn’t suck anymore. And Smart Donald was having a great time.

That’s not to say I didn’t want to reach the finish line as soon as possible, though. The miles gradually wore me down, and the last few miles were a struggle against a body that was loudly protesting the continued effort I was asking of it. But eventually I crossed the line, unlaced my shoes, and sat down in the grassy sunshine of the finish area to watch some other runners come in, and to take in the scene around me.

I was satisfied with my effort during the race, and my ability to come through a pretty rough patch – but the lingering question in my mind was whether I would ever want to go out and run another 50 on top of what I had just done.

It was a frequent topic of conversation for me at the post-race barbecue, as I picked other runners’ brains about making the jump from 50 to 100. (Predictably, everyone there was in favor of it – let’s just say that common sense isn’t in abundant supply among a group of ultra runners). It was discussed among the three other Monterey County runners who traveled to the race with me (two will probably apply, the other won't).

But what freaked me out the most was when I couldn’t sleep the night after the race. After driving three hours to get home, taking a shower, having dinner and watching some TV, I finally crashed into bed, but was too tired and sore to even fall asleep. Sometime after 1AM, I glanced at the clock, did some quick math, and suddenly realized: Wait – if I were doing 100 miles, I’d still be out there! At that point, the whole idea seemed unfathomable.

And yet, the following morning, I printed an application to Western States that now sits blank on my desk. Whether it ever gets filled out and mailed is still somewhat uncertain. Of course, Idiot Donald now thinks it’s a great idea, while the rational side of me says I should probably find something better to do with my time.

I haven’t officially decided yet … but if you know me at all, it should be a foregone conclusion about which side will prevail.


Dan Seifring 10/17/07, 11:02 AM  

Great race report and I hope you decide to fill out and send in the application. That is easy for me to say since the furthest I have ever run was 13.1 miles.

Danielle in Iowa 10/17/07, 11:09 AM  

PB&G? I think I just gagged!

Deene 10/17/07, 11:25 AM  

hmm, pb & gu? pb & stinger honey would definitely work.

it's the best feeling of recharge once you get past those mental/emotional barriers during any challenge. glad you enjoyed the rest of your run.

Zach 10/17/07, 11:45 AM  

Nice job - 50 freakin miles - it takes a long time just to drive that far!! Looking forward to reading your Western States report. :)

angie's pink fuzzy 10/17/07, 1:07 PM  

pb&G = total ultrarunning, love it

and i liked the led zepplin playing while i read, awesome touch. and lz is waaay better to having playing in your head for nine hours than better than ezra, although bte wasn't bad for pemberton. it's just the lz would have been better. (than ezra) (ha!)

and of COURSE you'll be sending in your application!

this post is a fanTAStic write-up of a classic UR experience.

Thomas 10/17/07, 1:10 PM  

Anyone who can say that miles 33 through 47 were the best miles of 1 50 mile race had a decent race.

And I'll eat my hat if you don't send in your application!

Taryn 10/17/07, 1:47 PM  

I love that you caught yourself "drafting." That's so funny... please share your technique as I might need it in my next marathon ;).

Very inspiring person you are Donald. I know you'll decide what's best for you regarding the Western States, but if you do decide to sign up for it, know I'll be here excited to hear how the training goes!

matt 10/17/07, 2:34 PM  

all i can really say, donald, is thanks for this. i have a great deal of respect for you and allowing me to tap into your mind while out there is a big help as i try to establish race goals and future plans. knowing that you had to really tough it out there for such a long stretch and accessing how you did it is quite invaluable to me.

thanks for this report.

Addy 10/17/07, 3:13 PM  

great race report Donald :) Glad your smart side was able to show up and help you have a great rest of the race! I still can't really fathom anyone being as fast as you were, even after slowing down, but I guess it's good to make sure you don't let that desire for speed keep you from remembering that having a fun time is what this sport is all about!

Makita 10/17/07, 3:35 PM  

Nice report - great race... you battled with yourself and prevailed... and got a PR! Congratulations!

miki 10/17/07, 5:40 PM  


miki 10/17/07, 5:40 PM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Backofpack 10/17/07, 5:46 PM  

Dear Idiot Donald,
Of course you should sign up for the race. It will be fun, it will be a challenge unlike any other - even Vineman - and it is something you need to do. Why? You need to do it because you've wanted to for so long - you can't let go of that now. Sign up Idiot!

Dear Smart Donald,
Since we both know Idiot is going to sign up, here's the deal. Not that I have experience in this matter, other than sharing my life with an ultra runner, following him around, helping him plan and stuff. It's very true that it's going to be tough, really tough. It's very true that you'll be on the trail at 1:00 am. But it's also very true that you will have trained for it. Smart Donald, you know how to do this - you did it for Vineman. You're gonna run another couple of 50s, a 100k, and a night trail run or two. You are going to be so prepared. Just do it!

Sarah 10/17/07, 7:35 PM  

What Michelle said. : )

rick 10/17/07, 9:05 PM  

It will be different if you get in to WS100. Your mindset will be different, your training will be different, everything will be different. You will prepare for it like you did Vineman, be better tuned to your body and all that good stuff that comes with being in peak condition.

And don't forget. If you do get in, there will be some really nice races to pound you into ultra-running shape in the Spring; American River 50, Ohlone 50k, Diablo 50k, Miwok 100k, Quicksilver 50m just to name a few.

Lastly, WS will continue to bug you until you put your name in the lottery.

21stCenturyMom 10/17/07, 9:38 PM  

PB and Gu? mmmmmm..... deee lish.

I don't know if this will help or not but I will be working the aid station at mile 85 of Western States so if you run the race I promise I will not hand you a PB&G sandwich. I won't even try.

Nice race report!

Darrell 10/17/07, 11:21 PM  

I love the report and the turmoil that is Donald. Will you send in that application. If one of you doesn't the other one will.

I know I've said this before but that Michelle is a very wise woman. She knows things.

Michael Boudreaux,  10/18/07, 4:06 AM  

Donny B!

Michael Boudreaux here - you found my wife's blog. Frankly I assumed you were still pissed at me for letter your dog crap all over your bedroom 20 years ago. I figure ultra marathoners hold grudges for a long time.

Ultra marathoning?! Clearly, your out of your mind (and I'm a REGULAR marathon runner). But you know that already. In any case, I'm impressed! Your standard marathon times are super speedy.

Enjoyed reading this race report, and I'll check in later. My wife Andrea and I will post news about our upcoming trip through the Middle East and East Africa at www.glory-ho.com or my vanity site at www.michaelboudreaux.com (under construction).

Till Soon,


Spokane Al 10/18/07, 12:18 PM  

You are an inspiration to the rest of us as you roll along on your fifty miler. I sure hope you send in the WS app - your race report will be one for the ages.

olga 10/18/07, 2:05 PM  

I think your Batsuit suits you rather well...I often wished I had one on hand. So that said, and as Rick pointed out, I NEVER-EVER think of 100M race as 100 miles to go. Only to next AS, no longer. And funny, but I completele accept the fact that the night comes - and I am still moving on...and sometimes the morning comes, and I am still moving on (not likely to happen to you, but shit happens). And you hate it while going, in periods, not all the time, and I yell - hwo was that idiot who made me sign up for a 100 miler? - and I am loving it at the same time. You'll be fine, Donald:)

As for your comment on back about those marathons - now with the controversy about Chicago I totally agree. I am actually quite torn between "lets get people away from couches" and "find something else to do if you're not that great in running distance, it's not safe and loosing credibility". I could go on longer, but won't take space. Basically, I was doing a favor to whomever emailed me. I decided not to do such things lately, when I had been sent a product to test and disliked it a lot, for what I sent a personal email to a person/company, but not blogged about it. I better stick with promoting my favorite races:)

Eudemus 10/18/07, 3:25 PM  

Great race report. I love the inner dialog. As for states, you gotta send in the app. If you get in, you'll have plenty of time to plan for going from 50 to 100. If you don't get in...well, then you'll just have to pick a different race :-)

andyb 10/18/07, 3:33 PM  

Sounds like you glimpsed the abyss there at Firetrails and came through stronger. It also sounds like you will eventually fill out that application for WS100. As others mentioned, your mindset and attitude towards training will be different for that, and I'm sure you will come out similarly.

Thanks for the great read and race report. And good luck in the lottery! ;-)

craig 10/18/07, 8:12 PM  

If you don't run WS you'll probably always wonder if you could. You don't strike me as a guy who can be content with wondering.

Tri-Dummy 10/19/07, 7:02 AM  

loved the race report...great job with it. Really good.

The best part...
"let’s just say that common sense isn’t in abundant supply among a group of ultra runners"

A lot of people would agree with that statement! Absolutely hilarious!

momo 10/19/07, 9:54 AM  

so, you have had a few days. did you decide?

i'm generally miserable during a race, but afterwards - something usually kicks in and i remember it as the best time i've ever had and i want to do it or another again. immediately. i've counseled all my training buddies to stop listening to me after a race. that's how we got signed back up for cda. that's how we signed up for the ultra portion of the relay we did last year.

i'd love nothing more than to be able to cheer you on through ws. i think you should do it!! if you do - maybe i'll try the 50. :-)

oh, wait is that a challenge??

Laurie 10/19/07, 11:54 AM  

I love your race reports. You have an amazing ability to let us inside your head a little bit. It is hard to capture those thoughts and remember them clearly enough to convey them to others. Your ability to do this makes you a great read.

Congrats on your race! I can't even fathom 50 miles, let alone 100. But if anyone can do it, you can.

Annette 10/19/07, 12:41 PM  

Peanut butter and Gu sandwich? Now, that's creative! :)

I'm sorry the two Donalds weren't on the same page for this run, but you did it, despite the "idiot." I can't wait to see what your future holds. Will he or won't he? :)

the Dread Pirate Rackham 10/19/07, 2:49 PM  

disregard the guy who challenged you not to sign up and he'd eat his hat. Really he needs to improve his nutritional strategy.

Wow - so I can't believe you're gonna sign up! That's cool!

Yes, I read my crystal ball today. It said, you know the kindred spirits.

the Dread Pirate Rackham 10/19/07, 2:52 PM  

p.s. With Kashmir in your head for 9 hours I'm surprised you didn't go completely insane.


isn't signing up for WS100 insane?


Now I'm not sure where to point the finger...chicken or egg? music or listener?

robtherunner 10/20/07, 2:16 PM  

Wonderful race report, Donald! I must admit that the most enlightning moment was reading about the PB and Gu sandwich and wondering to myself why I had not thought of that before. I must get a case of Tri-Berry Gu. Thanks for the tip.

Send that application in! You do not want to spend your life wondering if you could have done it. You're more than capable.

Dying Water Buffalo 10/20/07, 2:29 PM  

Absolutely riviting race report!

Some thoughts:
1- kashmir is a great song, although I can NOT listen to it without thinking of that scene in "fast times at ridgemont high" anymore

2- loved the duality conversations...

3- I bet a PB&G sandwich would actually be good

4- been too tired to fall asleep before myself


6- send in the application


Thanks again for an awesome report!

Fe-lady 10/20/07, 4:33 PM  

The best part about this story was the peanut butter and gu sandwich...well, not really the best part was that you qualified and that you have a WS entry sitting there waiting for you! When do you have to decide by?
I attended this event in 1982 I believe...accompanied a friend from Tucson. I wasn't his pacer, but did actually run with him a bit and met up with him at certain aid stations.
My longest trail run was a double canyon crossing which is 40 miles...but lots of elevation gain and loss.
I toyed with the 100 mile distance for about a year.
And tho I love trail running still, it wasn't in the cards for me! Best of luck with your decision!

Downhillnut 10/21/07, 3:04 PM  

I'm with Michelle on the next step advice.

I would have tried the sandwich, myself, but we back-of-the-packer, short distance runners will try anything :)

LOVE how you were able to totally change your attitude that far into the race. Some folks just don't understand that one can do that. Great job.

Bruce 10/22/07, 1:57 AM  

Nice report Donald, pleased that SD won out over ID. Looks like you'll be sent in your WS application.

Journey to a Centum 10/22/07, 6:49 PM  

Let me know when you send your application in and I'll send mine. Smart Eric is thinking "What are you thinking" while Idiot Eric says "I must get that buckle!" Damn it! Why do we always listen to the Idiot?

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) 10/23/07, 9:54 PM  

Nice satori-like resolution, an "emotional negative-split." I hope you run States just so we can get another great conflicted inner dialogue report. Consider submitting the PB&Gu dialogue to (the new and improved) Ultrarunning or something.

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