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April 29, 2008

Big Sur Marathon Relay Report

One of the nice things about maintaining a regular training habit is that you can change your plans on short notice in order to jump into an event you weren’t otherwise expecting to participate in. That’s exactly what happened to me last weekend.

Three days before the Big Sur Marathon, a co-worker asked if I’d be available to take the place of a relay team member who had to back out. Basically, I’d have the opportunity to do a little speedwork during my leg of the race, then stay out on the course to jog some easy miles for as long as I wanted. On scenic Highway 1. In the midst of one of the best races in the world. On what was forecast to be one of the most beautiful days of the year.

In other words, he had me at hello. I gladly accepted the invitation, even though the last minute notice meant I didn’t have time to properly shave my legs beforehand. When you’re on a team, you have to make sacrifices.

On the plus side, I thought it would be a fairly casual run for me, and you know what that means … I brought my Nikon!

My leg of the relay started at mile 9 near the base of Hurricane Point, so I had some time to watch the taiko drummers and take the video from yesterday’s post before warming up and waiting for the lead runners to come by. Otherwise, I spent my sunrise looking at this:

I can think of worse places to start the day.

My teammate soon arrived, and I flew past the taiko drummers and charged up the 2-mile climb to Hurricane Point. There are also several powerwalk events during the race, so a few hundred people were already making their way up the hill.

If you ever want to feel really fast, try this: start a run someday blasting up a steep hill with a bunch of walkers, or marathoners who have already run 9 miles. I almost felt guilty hearing people say “whoa!” or “great job!” while I blew past them - so I slowed down a bit and started offering help to any marathoners who might benefit from a minute or two of drafting behind me.

It wasn’t very long before I found the main person I was looking for: a friend of mine who was doing the marathon, and looking to break 3 hours for the first time. He caught me about a half-mile up the hill, and I spent the rest of the climb keeping his pace, until we finally found ourselves cruising down the backside of the hill.

We ran together for the next few miles, clocking 6:30s or 6:40s on the uphills, and 6:10s-6:20s on the downhills. I soon got to wondering just how long I might be able to keep that pace, so - you knew this was coming - I decided to find out.

After 7 miles (Mile 16 on the course), we reached the end of my relay leg, and I made my formal handoff. Thereafter, I was officially “off the clock” and free to run wherever I wanted - so naturally I tried to continue along with my friend some more. It was during those miles that I remembered a couple of things:

First, taking pictures is much harder when you’re running 6:20 miles on a crowded road than when you’re standing on the side of a trail and actually looking through the viewfinder. This was the best self-portrait I could manage. It's, um ... not flattering.

The other thing I remembered is just how difficult it is to run at sub-3 hour pace – especially when you haven’t specifically trained your body that way for almost 12 months. Needless to say, the miles were becoming quite a grind, and my speed was running out.

We stayed together until mile 22 in Carmel Highlands, at which point I wished him well and hoped he’d finish strong. Then I dialed my speed down, and decided to double back and forth a few times to log some extra mileage. Since I’m always looking for more hill training, I figured the Highlands would be the perfect place to hang out for a while.

The other thing I wanted to do was start taking some better pictures. Have I mentioned before that Big Sur is a beautiful course?

A few miles back down the road, I saw Eric coming towards me. He was part of our dinner group the night before (separate post sometime), and I was hoping to run some miles with him on Sunday. I was especially glad for his company when we got here:

The strawberry aid station! Of course, I had already stopped here once my first time through, and again on my way back – but Eric didn’t need to know that.

It occurred to me recently that some people might suspect I was making up these stories of the strawberry station, like it was a figment of my glycogen-depleted imagination when I’m in my most delirious state. But Eric saw them – so he’s a witness now. And here’s another picture:

I mean … how awesome does that look? I can assure you, they tasted even better – even after my 6th stop there later in the morning.

Once Eric passed the “free hugs” station at mile 24 without stopping, I figured he wasn’t in need of significant emotional support, so I left him to continue, and doubled back again to find another friend (after making another stop at a certain aid station, of course). I eventually found him struggling through mile 21, and accompanied him the rest of the way in – and I also kept taking pictures.

You know, if there were 9000 horses running together somewhere, you can bet that any people close by would be interested to watch. When the roles are reversed … not so much. This seemed like some kind of Far Side situation to me.

This monastery (click to enlarge) is almost 100 years old, sits on a majestic piece of land, and overlooks a beautiful beachfront vista at mile 25 … yet most people have never heard of it. The Carmel Mission totally hogs all of the “historic Catholic” attention around here, but it’s not even on the marathon course. Score one for the nuns.

The final mile begins at the base of a long, frequently spirit-crushing climb for weary runners – and this band plays uptempo, carefree music all the while. It always reminds me of those Titanic musicians defiantly playing amidst the chaos and destruction of their final minutes. But maybe that’s just me.

We finally crossed the finish line, and I was in for a rude discovery – I couldn’t get a massage! Apparently they’re only offered to “real” marathoners, not clowns who run around for three and a half hours just for fun. Not only that …

We had a separate food tent as well. It was a fraction of the size of the marathoner’s tent, and I had to pile up the strawberries by hand, instead of carrying a whole crate out. What an indignity.

In the final analysis, though, I didn’t have much to complain about – because the day turned out to be wonderful on virtually all accounts.

By the time I was done, I had racked up almost 24 miles for the day, and got a chance to participate in an event I thought I’d be sorry to miss. My friend broke 3 hours with plenty of room to spare, and I got to share some miles and experience the race through other people’s eyes for a change.

There was only one thing to do before heading home …

Power size Jamba Juice. You can guess what flavor. It just felt like the perfect way to end the morning.


April 27, 2008

Hurricane Drums: Listening Post

Guess where I was this morning! ...


I've written about the taiko drummers at the Big Sur Marathon before; on Sunday, I had the pleasure of watching them for several minutes, part of which is shown above.

It was an unusual day for me, but a good one - as I'll explain in my next post.


April 24, 2008

Hi, Nuun!

You might recall – but if you don’t, I honestly wouldn’t blame you – a post I wrote last month describing a brief non-conversation I had with a cute girl at our local running store. In that post, I mentioned that I was stocking up on Nuun tablets and Sport Beans, which have become staples of my training.

The following week, I received the following e-mail to my blog inbox:

hey donald,

you’re exactly the kind of athlete we love to support! you’re sporty, passionate about what you do, and, obviously, very smart about managing your hydration effectively. plus, you have just the look we’re after… it looks like you’re going to have a ton of fun this year and we’d love to get you set up with some nuun for the season, so here’s what to do …

Once I overcame a temporary blindness caused by the lack of capitalization or any other discernible punctuation (I’m kind of a grammar wonk, which reminds me – it’s Spelling Bee season! More on this later.), I realized what I had before me: a sponsorship offer!

Truthfully, it’s a very, VERY limited sponsorship offer – primarily an opportunity to buy discounted products from the Nuun website. They do have a sponsored ultrarunning team, but in order to be on that, you have to actually be, you know … good. Like these two.

(And before we go any further, allow me to put a question to rest: according to the website, the name of the product is pronounced like the time of day when it’s 12 O’clock, and not like the term for a woman who lives in a monastery. No need to thank me – I’m here to help.)

I’m fully aware that the e-mail I received was a complete copy and paste job probably sent to hundreds of other athletes - but occasionally it’s nice just to be noticed, even if it’s in an arbitrary, “throw a handful of darts at the wall and see what sticks” manner. Plus, they called me sporty, passionate, and obviously smart – and I’m very easily flattered sometimes.

Besides - as I explained earlier – I was already buying and using this stuff anyway, so grabbing myself a discount seemed like a no-brainer. I ordered my products from the website - for the record, my favorite flavor is Kona Kola - and also received some water bottles and stickers with the delivery. (I was supposed to get a visor, too – but apparently that got lost in the mail or something.) Ever since then, Nuun has been my primary means of hydration during workouts.

In light of that, I thought I’d offer a very quick primer on its use – as well as a couple of quirky drawbacks.

Nuun is basically a calorie-free electrolyte replacement supplement that is added to plain water. The tablets are effervescent, and dissolve within a minute or so after being dropped in a water bottle.

The zero-calorie thing threw me initially; after all, one of the primary reasons I used sports drinks was to replace calories burned during exercise. Or so I thought.

After using Nuun for several weeks, I’ve realized a couple of things: first, for shorter runs (less than 2 hours), I’m really more concerned about replacing fluids than calories. Whereas dehydration would definitely impact my workout, calorie depletion in this amount of time is somewhat negligible. (Eliminating caloric intake during workouts would theoretically enhance weight loss as well, but since I can’t seem to lay off the cookies or ice cream this month, I’m not really in a position to make that observation yet.)

The second thing I’ve found is that during longer runs, I prefer to take in calories by eating food rather than relying on a sports drink. I kind of always knew this, as I invariably grow sick of the taste of Gatorade by the end of a 6-hour bike ride or 10-hour trail race.

On my long training runs, I’m partial to Clif Bars, Sport Beans, peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, and so on. It’s worth noting, though, that my intensity level during these runs is fairly low – obviously, I wouldn’t try eating a sandwich in the middle of a hard bike ride or an 8-mile tempo run. But for what I’m doing now, it works quite well.

At the Diablo race, I carried a tube of Nuun tabs in my waist pack, and popped one into each of my two water bottles at each aid station, then filled the bottles with water. I ate sandwiches, potato chips, and cookies at the stations, and drank Coke at each station during the second half of the race. Even though it was a hot day, and even though I was losing a lot of salt (remember this picture?), I never felt overly dehydrated on the course.

In fact, my biggest error was not bringing enough tabs with me: I only carried one full tube of 12, but didn’t figure that I’d go through two whole water bottles (44 oz total) per hour between aid stations, so I ran out of tabs at the mile 37 aid station. Carrying an additional tube wouldn’t have been a big deal – I just didn’t think of it. Next time I’ll know better.

Now for the drawbacks I’ve found – both of which are logistical in nature, not performance-related.

First, the tablets are formulated to provide perfect electrolyte balance in 16oz of water. Now … what size bottle do you normally carry? It’s probably either a 20/24oz bottle that fits in a bike cage, or a set of 8oz bottles used on Fuel Belt-type holsters. So you have the same problem as when hot dogs are sold in packs of 8, and buns in packs of 10: the math doesn’t work out in any compatible manner.

The solution I’ve employed is to use 20oz bottles filled just below capacity, but I still wonder if I’m making it too diluted for the intended electrolyte balance. As for the Fuel Belt users, I suppose they could buy and use one of those pill-cutter things from the geriatric section of their local pharmacy – but that seems like an awful lot of trouble to go through just to get a workout in. (Not to mention … is sharing equipment with nursing home residents really how you Ironmen want to roll?)

The other downside I’ve found is that the “fizziness” of the tablets can be an annoyance. When the mixture is bouncing around in my waist pack, it’s somewhat like shaking a can of soda before opening it for a drink. If your bottle has a very firm seal, it’s not that big of an issue – but if there’s any minor air leak in the valve (like on the first bottles I used), pressure inside the bottle will push water out of that opening throughout the entire run.

Overall, though, I have to say that I’m pretty satisfied with using the Nuun tabs recently. I don’t think I’d use them in shorter, more intense workouts or races; during a marathon or Olympic tri, I’d probably just grab whatever drink is offered on the course and blow through the aid station. However, for the ultra training I’m doing, it’s really a great product.

Finally, on a similar note: this whole sponsorship thing started with a blog post I wrote – so if there is anybody reading this who is affiliated with Sport Beans, be on notice that Nuun is totally making you guys look bad. It’s not too late to make amends, though. My mailbox is always open.


April 21, 2008

How We Got Here (Western States Diary)

A few random notes before today’s post …

*I got hit by
Thomas to do the 6-word-memoir post that’s going around – but seeing as how I haven’t followed through yet on the last tag (in particular, my promise to do a random post about a well-known comic strip), I’m going to file this one under “things to do later”, and come back to it when I run out of things to say. In other words, it could take a while.

*It’s neither here nor there, but … everyone realizes that the little Archuleta kid is going to win American Idol, right? He’s not the one I originally predicted in January (that would be Kristy Lee Cook, who’s now hopefully riding her old horse again somewhere in Oregon), or the one I’m currently cheering for (David Cook, who seems to have compromised himself the least throughout this whole silly process) – but it just feels like there’s an inevitability about this season. Don’t ever underestimate the power of millions of preteen girls armed with cellphones.

*Finally, on the sidebar … The Bravery. For no reason other than I’m digging this song a lot lately. Besides – doesn’t a song called “Believe” by a band called The Bravery seem like the perfect accompaniment to an ultrarunner’s blog? I thought so, too.


On the same day I ran Diablo, the Monterey Herald printed the second installment of my Western States training diary – but since I was in such a hurry to post a race report, I felt like I had to let the WS article sit on the blog’s back burner for several days.

Until now. This one is subtitled “How We Got Here”, and was written to address the predictable choruses of “100 miles? Are you crazy?” reactions that the first article triggered among my everyday acquaintances who didn’t know I was doing Western States (as I’ve said before, I typically keep these things pretty close to the vest.)

My goal here was to explain in general terms how it is that someone evolves into an ultrarunner, but it turned out to be a nice recap of my personal training and racing over the past several years as well. I also managed to sneak in a couple of analogies about Britney Spears and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which really shouldn’t surprise anyone by this point. The last few paragraphs might sound familiar, as they're basically a retelling of a post I wrote immediately after the WS lottery in December. And of course, I spent far longer than I should have getting all introspective - I swear, sometimes I can’t help myself.

Journey of 100 Miles: A Western States Training Diary
Part 2 – How We Got Here

“Any idiot can run a marathon … it takes a SPECIAL kind of idiot to do an ultra.”
- Popular ultrarunning expression

A guy doesn’t just wake up one morning and decide he wants to run 100 miles. That would be crazy.

Instead, the decision evolves gradually. It’s a succession of minor goals that become progressively more ambitious from year to year, as each small accomplishment lays the foundation for a larger one to follow. Keep this up long enough, and actions that once seemed unthinkable eventually enter the realm of possibility.

Think of it this way: even Britney Spears was normal once. She was simply a cute girl who sang catchy songs and became famous for her, uh … precociousness. Then she started making questionable life decisions, her behavior grew increasingly irrational, and before we knew it, she was shaving her head and flunking out of rehab. It seems obvious now that she went completely off the rails – but we forget that it took her quite a while to get there.

In other words, craziness is very much a slippery slope - one I’ve been sliding down for a number of years. And now I’m the special kind of idiot who thinks that running 100 miles seems perfectly reasonable – but it took me a while to get here, too.

Sure, I was normal once. In my younger days, I started running to lose some weight, and soon thereafter thought that a marathon would be the ultimate challenge I could set for myself.

One marathon turned into several per year, which eventually became more than 40 overall. For the last decade I’ve also branched into triathlons of increasing length, including the ironman distance. My marathon habit slowly gave way to 50K and 50-mile trail races, which I’ve done on a regular basis for the past few years.

So while entering a 100-mile race seems like the athletic equivalent of a pop star shaving her head, to me, it just seems like the next step. (I almost used the phrase “logical next step”, but didn’t think I could sell it there. See? I haven’t totally lost it.) I’ve known about the Western States Endurance Run for many years, and always knew that I’d try to enter it one of these days.

Having said that, there were two other critical criteria I used to determine whether I was ready to enter Western States. They are decent guidelines for anyone to use as a general rule of thumb.

First and foremost is that you have to enjoy trail running. This sounds obvious, but it’s absolutely essential. In fact, I should emphasize it better: you can’t just like trail running, or even love it – you have to LOVE it. Here’s what I mean …

Picture your favorite activity. Maybe it’s golfing, or playing cards, or watching TV – it really doesn’t matter. Chances are, the longest continuous duration you’ve ever done this activity is somewhere in the neighborhood of several hours. In those situations, you’d probably take short breaks for meals, or (if it’s an outdoor activity) turn in when it gets dark outside, or call it quits when you feel like grabbing a few hours of sleep.

100 miles of trail running takes most people somewhere between 24 to 30 hours. Those hours are straight through - taking meals on the go, adapting to nightfall and whatever extreme weather conditions you encounter, and without sleeping. There will undoubtedly come a point (more likely, several) where any rational person would decide to simply call it a day - unless he is doing the one thing he would rather be doing than anything else in the world. And that’s where love comes into play.

Over the past few years, trail running has gently crept its way into my soul. There’s almost nothing I enjoy more than experiencing the beauty of nature while testing the capacities of my body on a remote, secluded trail through the wilderness. On the trail, I feel an inner peace and serenity that make each run a spiritual revival. It’s addicting, compelling, and empowering - and hopefully, it’s the kind of love that will get me through 100 miles.

By comparison, the second criterion for running 100 miles is much simpler, and much more trivial: namely, you have to pass the laugh test.

Politicians use this to determine whether they have a realistic chance of winning public office. They mention their plans to a casual acquaintance, then gauge that person’s response. If you tell somebody “I’m running for President,” and his first reaction is to laugh, you probably shouldn’t consider yourself a legitimate candidate.

As I described, I’ve participated in endurance events for many years. I’ve built up my activity tolerance to the point where 50-mile runs are relatively unthreatening. And to my delight, when I finally started discussing my Western States aspirations with my training partners, none of them burst out laughing. So I took that as a sign that maybe the time was right to give this thing a shot.

Obviously, it took an abundance of preparation over an extended period of time to convince myself that I was ready to enter Western States. However, even after all those pieces fell into place, I still needed to tackle what is becoming one of the greatest challenges of all in regards to the event: getting selected in the race lottery.

With a handful of exceptions, everybody who runs Western States gets in by the same method: their name is selected in a random drawing held on the first Saturday in December. However, two issues have become increasingly problematic over the years: 1) the race is limited in the number of runners it can allow (typically about 400), and 2) each year, more and more people enter the lottery.

Consequently, a runner’s odds of being selected grow smaller every year. So I wasn’t really surprised when my first attempt to enter the race (for 2007’s edition) was unsuccessful. Then once I learned that over 1300 runners had applied for the 2008 race, and after a friend of mine calculated my chance of acceptance at roughly 16% (factoring in a number of automatic entrants), I didn’t exactly have high hopes this time around, either.

Somehow, my name was pulled from the hat – and now I feel like Charlie Bucket holding Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. After years of waiting, this summer I’ll finally get to see the place I’ve heard so many magical stories about.

Have you ever had something happen to you that was so great, you halfway expected to find out that there was some sort of mistake? In the aftermath of the Western States lottery, that’s exactly how I felt.

Even after seeing my name on the online list, I must have hit the “refresh” button at least 20 times over that first weekend, just to make sure there hadn’t been one final update where I got bumped in favor of somebody else. It hadn’t quite sunk in yet that this whole process was actually starting.

Those thoughts were quickly put to rest the following Monday, when a large envelope from the race committee arrived on my doorstep. Inside it were a little bit of swag (a pair of arm warmers), and the race participant’s guide.

It was less than 2 days after the lottery. I guess no one will ever accuse the race committee of procrastination.

As far as the participant’s guide goes, it’s a 42-page affair with trail descriptions, pacer and crew guidelines, and about 100 different variations of saying, “This is a very dangerous race.” Some of the topic headings include Altitude Sickness, Getting Lost, Signs of Renal Failure, Leaving the Canyons on a Medevac Helicopter, and How Will I Know If I’m Getting Heat Stroke, as well as the overly descriptive title Why Can’t I Stop Puking?

All of this in addition to the race logo displayed prominently on the front cover: a mountain lion perched on a rock, as if waiting for the next weary runner to drop.

Well ... OK then. Message received. It’s a dangerous race.

If nothing else, flipping through the participant’s guide helped reassure me, finally, that this thing is actually happening.

Yes, it’s a crazy event, and it puts the fear of God in me, but there’s no turning back now – I’m fully committed.

Now all I have to do is train like a lunatic between now and race day.

Read Part 1 of this series here.


April 14, 2008

Diablo 50M Race Report

“And if you hold on tight to what you think is your thing -
You may find you're missing all the rest ...

See you and me have a better time than most can dream of -

Have it better than the best, so can pull on through
Whatever tears at us, whatever holds us down,

And if nothing can be done, we'll make the best of what's around.”

- Dave Matthews Band, “Best of What’s Around” (video after post)

At some point, I’ll have to scale back on these endurance races.

Not because my body can’t handle them, but because they take too darn long to report on afterwards. It seems like the longer the event, the more I’m compelled to write – which results in ridiculously bloated posts like a 3000-word Wildflower recap, or a 3-act drama from last summer's Vineman.

That Vineman event took only 11 hours – but at Diablo last Saturday, I was on the course for almost 12 hours. So my challenge for this post is to keep the race report shorter, even though the event was longer. I can’t say that I’m optimistic, but we’ll just see how this goes.

As usual, there’s a backstory before we get to the actual race – which I’ll keep as brief as possible. If you’d rather skip straight to the race, just scroll down until you start seeing pictures. You won’t hurt my feelings. Otherwise, top off your drink and settle in for a long one.

My Diablo preview featured lyrics from Metallica’s “Frantic”, which described to some degree how I felt in the days leading up to the run. It also fit in nicely with my typical M.O. of listening to high-octane music in advance of major races.

Thankfully, it didn’t take me long to realize that this approach probably wasn’t the best mindset to have before an all-day event. So when I was combing through the CD drawer for some driving music, I reached past Metallica’s St. Anger, and grabbed the DMB’s Live at Red Rocks collection instead.

In concert, the Dave Matthews Band plays in whatever manner the spirit takes them. They establish familiar rhythms, then take off on whatever grooves feel comfortable, extending them far past their customary boundaries. Before you know it, a 4-minute single may evolve into a 15-minute jam that seems almost effortless. It was that kind of irreverence that I wanted to channel on Mount Diablo.

I knew going into the race that I needed a different psychological tactic than I usually employ. Normally, I hold on tight to what I think is my thing: my competitive drive, especially as it pertains to my race time and my relative standing overall. But I also knew that if I tried that at Diablo, I’d find that I was missing all the rest – all of the reasons I was doing the run in the first place, and all of the ways to find enjoyment in what some might consider difficult circumstances – as I’ll explain more once this report is all over.

So this time around, I was committed to try something unusual, but it still seemed more complicated than that. I didn’t want to give an all-out race effort, but I also didn’t want to disregard this as just a training day to get through on my way to Western States this summer. I wanted to appreciate this step of the journey for what it really was: the journey itself.

However, I didn’t quite trust myself to let those competitive instincts go, so I enforced one final rule: whenever I felt the urge to reel somebody in, make certain split times, or strain to keep up with somebody else’s pace, I had to stop and take a picture of something. It was the only way I could think of to force myself to slow down and savor the moment.

I took almost 100 pictures on race day.

Before you click away: no, I won’t make you sit through all of them – but I’m incorporating some of them to emphasize certain details of my Diablo experience. This is the type of photo essay I hope to assemble for Western States this summer – so just think of this as a tune-up race report for the big one 11 weeks from now.

Race directors Wendell and Sarah at the start of the race. One of Wendell’s first announcements on the bullhorn was, “This run requires some effort”, which might go down as one of the greatest understatements I’ve ever heard. But by this point, he probably wasn’t going to talk any of us out of it.

About 10 seconds into the race, the trail makes a very noticeable turn in the direction of "up". The hills don’t exactly sneak up on you on this course.

The first 8 miles are a nearly continuous climb to the summit, traversing a rocky ridgeline en route. It’s gorgeous, but there are a lot of bottlenecks as marathon runners and 50M runners are all crowded onto the same skinny trail.

For very long stretches of those first miles, here’s the view you enjoy: single-file runners in close proximity on narrow single-track surrounded by dense foliage. It’s definitely not the most scenic stretch of the race. It’s also in situations like this that you discover many ultrarunners have, um ... how should I say this politely? Some odor issues.

Finally, almost an hour into the race, the course hits some nice wide fire roads, which enables runners to spread out – and allows us all some breaths of fresh air again. We need all we can get, because we’re still climbing to the summit.

This is the main summit trail, which we would travel twice by the end of the day. I wasn’t certain what this white stuff all over the hillside was – but since this trail is called the Juniper Trail, and since Juniper Campground sits at the base of the climb, I took a wild guess that it must be some type of juniper.

Even after you reach the summit, your climbing isn’t finished, as the official course requires you to walk up the stairs to the observation deck. They don’t want the course to seem too easy, you know.

The trip up the steps is definitely worth it, though – because the views from the top are awesome.

Heading down from the summit is almost 5 miles of continuous descent, which sounds like it would be fun. And with the exception of the 4 miles of it that were so steep that I felt like my kneecaps were exploding, I would agree – it was a lot of fun. I also found a lot of pretty flowers to look at.

So I’m sitting at the side of the trail snapping pictures of some poppies, and guess who comes barreling down the hill past me? It’s Rick!

He and I ran in close proximity for the next 7 or 8 miles, which was kind of a good news/bad news thing for me. On the one hand, he’s a great guy, and I enjoyed talking and sharing the day with him as we rolled along. On the other, he and I usually finish very close to each other in the standings – and when he caught me this early in the race, I knew that I’d probably finish far behind him on this day.

I can’t honestly say that it bothered me ... but I did seem to be taking a TON of pictures during those miles with Rick.

We went through some very pretty areas in miles 15-20, some of which reminded me of Monterey County. By this time, it was mid-morning, and I could start to feel the heat of the day pressing down upon the open sections of trail.

Rick and I came into the next aid station (North Gate) together, where I was apparently having some salt issues. It was very shortly after this picture that I wished Rick well, and told him to have a great race ... and then I took about 10 more pictures.

I did a lot of walking to the Rock City aid station that marked the halfway point of the race, and got passed by a lot of people on the way. On the plus side, I got some beautiful shots of the scenery.

Leaving Rock City, the course consists of a 6-mile out and back (12.5 total), moderately rolling section of trail. I had snapped out of my funk by this point, but my mind started doing funny things. For example ...

Take a look at the peak in the distance here. We came over that hill to get here. And at mile 28, knowing that by the end of the day I still had to go up and over it another time, that hilltop just seemed incredibly far away. Even looking through the zoom lens of my Nikon didn’t make it appear any closer. Also ...

See those rocks? Do they kind of look like faces to you? And do those faces seem to be laughing? At mile 33, that’s exactly what I was seeing in the hillside.

Returning to Rock City at mile 37 was one of the highlights of my day, in that I got to meet 21st Century Mom for the first time. She had started her volunteer shift at the aid station, and was incredibly friendly and encouraging. She kept trying to convince me that I looked a lot better than I felt, but I didn’t quite believe her.

Immediately after this picture was taken, she and I turned to each other – almost simultaneously – and said the exact same thing: “It happened.” Bloggers are so weird sometimes.

Continuing away from Rock City started the second ascent of Mount Diablo. By this time, the heat was becoming a major factor, and the trail was almost completely exposed. But just as I was second-guessing my ability to stay focused all the way up, I saw this ...

A local Boy Scout troop was coming down the fire road after hiking to the Juniper Campground, which was a strangely reassuring sight for me. I mean ... none of those Scouts (or Scoutmasters, for that matter) looked like they’d ever be mistaken for ultrarunners. I figured that if they all made it up the hill, perhaps the climb wasn’t as demoralizing as I was making it out to be.

Eventually, I made it to the top again, and even talked some stranger into taking this picture – which actually turned out a lot cooler than I imagined. Sometimes you get lucky like that.

The remaining 8 miles were mostly downhill – but as I’ve explained, “downhill” doesn’t equate to “easy” on this course. Much of the trail was like this: narrow, slippery, technical, across rocky footing that started to chew my legs up after an hour or so. In fact ...

Less than 4 miles from the finish, my legs were hurting so bad that I had to sit down on this rock to let them recover somewhat. I was only here for a few minutes before another runner walked past me ... and I started snapping pictures like crazy.

Eventually, I got my legs back under me, and gradually made my way through the final miles. Once the footing became smoother, I started to feel strong again, and started catching up to the guy who had passed me – but not before I took a picture of this pretty tree for good measure.

I ultimately passed him, and several minutes later I cruised to the finish, feeling very smooth and strong as I crossed the line. In fact, it took me about 20 minutes to remember that I hadn’t taken a picture of the finish line yet (explaining the time discrepancy in the photo).

By this time, the sky was growing dark, the temperature was cooling down, and I honestly felt like I could have gone out and done some more mileage if I had to. I had paced the run well, and restrained myself to the point where I didn’t completely self-destruct from the force of my own effort.

In other words, I had done exactly what I set out to do.

Ultrarunners will tell you all day long that success in the sport is more dependent on mental willpower than physical stamina, and on some level, I’ve always understood this to be true. What I hadn’t really done until Diablo is put that notion into practice.

It’s easy to look at a rugged 50-mile run with 13,000 feet of climbing on the hottest day of the year and fixate on all of the negative elements. In fact, that’s probably what normal people do. But true ultrarunners have somehow – either by natural predisposition or by practiced reinforcement – instead learned to see the same scenario as the best of what’s around.

For the most part, being able to spend an entire day running around on a mountain is a better time than most can dream of. Especially considering that most of these challenges take place in the most beautiful locations in the world, it’s a privilege to merely participate. There are countless people who would love to have the time, determination, ability, and resources to do the same. Truthfully, we have it better than the best - and I think that’s precisely how we pull on through.

Whatever tears at us, whatever holds us down or batters our bodies or bruises our spirit – those are the things we actively seek, if for no other reason than because we hope to be fortunate enough to find them. And when that is our mindset, all those hours on the trail aren’t primarily about trying to tick away the miles as quickly as possible (although make no mistake, I'll always prefer to go faster. I may be Zen, but I'm not a masochist.) Rather, they are about simply enjoying each mile as it comes, and realizing that - as I wrote in the last post - each and every step of the journey is the journey.

It seems like such a simple lesson - it's too bad I had to wrestle the devil to learn it.

Dave Matthews Band, "Best of What's Around" (click to play):


April 13, 2008

Diablo Summary

"Each step of the journey is the journey."
- Zen expression

I'm back from Diablo - one of the longest, hottest, hardest journeys I've taken in quite a long time.

I finished the course in 11 hours, 50 minutes, and felt pretty good about the day overall, accomplishing the goals I discussed in the previous post. More importantly, this race also signified a mental change of sorts for me, which I'm hopeful will carry me all the way through Western States later this summer.

On a related note, I recognize that it's a significant shift to go from the Metallica lyrics that introduced the previous post, to a Zen quote today. That was done for a reason - one that will hopefully make more sense when I post a full race report later this week.

For now, I'm off to play some board games with my kids, and to try catching up on some rest.


April 10, 2008

Dancing With Diablo

“I've worn out always being afraid - an endless stream of fear that I've made -
Treading water full of worry - this frantic tick tick tock of hurry -

Do I have the strength to know how I'll go? Can I find it inside to deal with what I shouldn't know? …

Keep searching, keep on searching - this search goes on.”
- Metallica, “Frantic” (on sidebar)

When I signed up for the Diablo 50-Mile race at the beginning of the year, I knew it would be a good gauge of my preparations for Western States. The challenging course would test my hill training and allow me to practice various strategies (such as with hydration, gear and pacing) that I could later lock into place as the main event drew closer.

I also remember thinking that I’d have plenty of time to prepare before the race, because it was way off in the distance – like, not until springtime. And back in January, it was still the middle of winter. Plenty of time.

So, um … where did all of that time go?

For the most part, I’ve used the days wisely. Over the past several weeks, my weekly mileage has bounced between 55 and 75, with most weeks landing in the mid 60s. About 90% of that mileage has been on the rolling terrain of Monterey County, and a handful of runs have stretched out over several hours. I’m injury free, only slightly overweight, and generally happy with my progress to this point.

And yet, whenever race week comes along, my first instinct is to become somewhat frantic. No matter how much preparation I’ve done, it never feels like enough to make me confident about the task ahead. But I’ve worn out feeling afraid like that – so this year, during this particular buildup, I’ve decided to do something completely different.

Part of the anxiety I typically feel stems from my competitive nature - concern about how quickly I’ll finish, how many people will be ahead of me, and so on. My rational side – the one with the long-term plan of doing well at Western States – knows this is an insignificant worry, and that I should instead be focused on being in the moment, passing the time and miles as comfortably as possible.

Unfortunately, it takes a lot of effort to keep that competitive dog at bay. So this week, I’ve made a concerted effort to stifle that inner drive – mainly by running a lot of pre-race mileage.

I figure that if I go into Diablo feeling fresh and strong, I’ll be tempted to race against the field or the clock, and make myself miserable like I did at Firetrails last fall (see report on sidebar). So I’m purposely not tapering for the race, and maintaining very close to my normal mileage before heading to the start line – just think of it as a reverse taper.

By Friday morning, I’ll have logged 50 miles in the 6 days prior to the race. Hopefully, knowing that I’m starting a monstrous 50-miler at the end of a 100-mile week will be just the stimulus I need to tread cautiously on the hillsides of Mount Diablo. And even if my adrenaline somehow overrides my brain, my legs won’t be able to supply the horsepower.

So here are my two primary goals for Saturday: 1) start out conservatively and maintain a steady pace throughout the 50 miles, and 2) enjoy the day, without feeling like I need to hurry along as quickly as possible. I’d also like to say I’ll disregard the clock and my finishing place, but I realize that’s a fire I can’t completely extinguish – and that’s why I’m hoping the dead legs will keep it merely simmering on the back burner all day.

If nothing else, I’ll find out exactly what kind of strength I have at this point, and how to approach the remainder of the training season. Saturday’s race is simply the first checkpoint in a search that will go on for another 11 weeks, until I’m on the start line at Western States.

I anticipate that I’ll look back on this weekend’s strategy as either brilliant or moronic – but right now, I’m not positive which one it will turn out to be. Check back after the race, and I’ll be sure to let you know.


April 8, 2008

Sleepless in Carmel Valley

My original intention this week was to lay low for a few days, then post a Diablo preview on Thursday in advance of the race this Saturday. But a couple of other thoughts had been on my mind since the beginning of the week – and then something happened yesterday that seemed to bring a whole post theme together.

Namely, I fell asleep in my dentist’s chair.

I had some dental work done in the afternoon, and as the procedure was drawing to a close, my dentist initiated the following conversation:

Him: Let me ask you something … how much sleep do you get at night?

Me: Not very much.

Him: Would you say like, seven hours? Six?

Me: Um … I’m lucky if I get five.

And that initiated a long lecture from my health care professional about all the dire risks associated with sleeping any fewer than eight hours per night. Nevermind the fact that none of this specifically pertained to the health of my teeth - or that the drill, hose, and vacuum inside my mouth put me in a somewhat compromised position to mount a counterargument. His point was very clear: I'm placing my long-term survivability in serious jeopardy unless I immediately start sleeping at least 3 additional hours every night.

His impassioned stance echoed something I had read a few days earlier: a somewhat ridiculous New York Times article detailing the impending 21st Century pseudo-epidemic of time-constrained computer junkies literally blogging themselves to death.

The short story is that over the past few months, three high-profile bloggers have suffered heart attacks, two of which were fatal. All three were slavishly devoted to publishing a certain number of posts per week, and employing necessary collateral tactics to grow their readership. Nevermind that one of them was 60 years old, and another was 50 – it was the sleep deprivation and nonstop blogging that killed them.

The premise was shocking enough, and the source reliable enough, that mainstream TV media picked up on the story – and by yesterday, CNN was examining the health risks associated with overzealous blogging. And – adding the ridiculous to the absurd - CNN decided to solicit none other than Perez Hilton (the self proclaimed "Queen of Celebrity Gossip") for expert commentary on the issue.

I mean … this all seems more than a little sensational. Didn’t CNN used to be a news station? When did it turn into US Weekly on cable?

My dentist doesn’t have any idea that I’m an ultrarunner or triathlete, and I’m pretty certain that he doesn’t read my blog - although I can’t be absolutely positive about that last one. (Honestly, you never know who is out there. Maybe if he had asked me about Panic at the Disco dropping their exclamation point, I would have been a little more suspicious). All I know for sure is that he’s yet another presumably respected authority who is bugging the heck out of me with this whole sleep deprivation hysteria.

(Besides - you'd think he wouldn't mind my dozing off. If you were a dentist, which would you prefer - a patient who is screaming and squirming, or somebody who holds perfectly still but occasionally snores? Me too.)

As to the reason why all of this “serious concern” bothers me, I can sum my feelings up in two words: necessary evil. And I'm willing to bet that just about anyone reading this can identify with me.

Of COURSE it’s good to get 8 hours of sleep per night (and, on a side note, does this come as breaking news to anyone? It's right up there with "eating more vegetables" on the list of things that everybody knows, but nobody does.), and of course I’d like to get more rest than I currently do. But I can’t honestly say that the required tradeoff is something I’d be happy doing.

Putting it more directly, here are the reasons why I get so little sleep: 1) I wake up early in the morning - sometimes VERY early – to train. 2) I spend a lot of time on the computer at night, whether it’s blogging, writing e-mails, or just cruising the Web. And 3) My wife and I try to spend some time actually talking to each other for a while between the time our kids go to sleep and the time we crash exhausted into bed for the night.

That’s not even counting the evenings when I have to work late, or we attend some school concert or science fair or church gathering as a family. In other words, life is busy. There’s simply not a lot of time for sleep.

But on the whole, it’s a compromise I’m willing to live with, especially when I ask myself which of those things I’d relinquish.

I could give up (or scale back) my training and racing, but that would take away one of my primary joys in life, and might simply open the door to an assortment of other health risks associated with inactivity. Is it healthier to sleep for six hours and run for two each day, or to sleep for eight and run none? An argument could be made either way.

I could decrease my computer time, but eliminating writing would deprive me of my favorite outlet of expression, and the absence of e-mail and the Internet (which has become my main news source) could potentially isolate me from the outside world. Besides, how else would I be able to find cheap trail running shoes?

And option #3 – cutting out on quality time with my wife and family – is a nonstarter. So the question shouldn’t be whether increased sleep is good for you – it should be whether that benefit is worth forfeiting any of those other things that carve away from that sacred 8-hour block.

In my case, falling asleep in my dentist’s chair, drinking 4 Diet Pepsis per day, or dozing off while the rest of the family is watching American Idol is a tradeoff I’m willing to make in order to do the other things I enjoy. Yes, I'm tired a lot - but under the circumstances, that's the way things have to be. And if my dentist, or the New York Times, or CNN (or God forbid, Perez Hilton) don’t approve, I can’t honestly say that it makes no difference to me.

Actually, the whole concept of exhaustion dovetails kind of nicely into my Diablo preview - which I hope to post here Thursday. But now if you’ll excuse me, I’m headed off to bed. I'm due on the trail at 5:30 tomorrow morning.


April 7, 2008

Garzas Creek: Listening Post

(click to play)



April 4, 2008

Strawberry Runners Forever

A few random notes before we get to today’s post …

* Has anyone else noticed that Panic At the Disco got rid of their exclamation point? They used to be called Panic! At the Disco, but with the release of their new album, the exclamation point has vanished. It’s like Elaine Benes became their agent or something (an old Seinfeld joke, sorry … ). I’d love to hear the thought process and/or discussion that accompanied the change – I imagine it was considered as seriously as when Federal Express changed its official name to FedEx. There must be a reason - and now I’m intrigued. And I’ve spent way more time than I care to admit wondering about this.

* Also, I swam nearly 40 yards underwater yesterday: a full lap, a push off the wall, and almost 6 lanes (out of 8) across the opposite direction. You’ve probably forgotten this post, but the 50-yard thing is still a goal of mine – one that I’m inching closer to with each passing week.

* Finally, because some people have asked: I’m not saying another word about a certain athletic tournament that concludes this weekend. I showed my cards a few weeks ago – and now I’m going to leave well enough alone.

That’s it – the random stuff is short and sweet today. As for the post … not so much.


I’ve frequently mentioned my strawberry passion in this blog – and with strawberry season upon us again, it was fairly easy for me to combine that topic with a snapshot from the Big Sur Marathon to create a Monterey Herald article.

If you were a reader of my blog a couple years back, parts of this piece might sound vaguely familiar, but I reworded most of it in a more general fashion to appeal to anyone preparing to run Big Sur. Because - just to remind you – this year, I’m not a participant, but merely a neutral observer of this fantastic race.

The article is also an olive branch of sorts, extended to our local agricultural industry (a VERY heavy hitter in the Salinas Valley), many of whom were angered by this article I published last summer describing some of the conditions field workers encounter on a daily basis. Hopefully they’ll remove me from their most wanted list, and take my mug shot down from my favorite produce stands, so I can buy strawberries with a clear conscience again.


Running Life 3/30/08 “Strawberry Runners Forever”

It’s springtime in Monterey County, which means one thing for local runners: an abundance of fresh strawberries.

OK, that’s not entirely true – it also means warmer temperatures, extended daylight hours, and making final preparations for the Big Sur Marathon in April. But runners also have plenty of reasons to celebrate the local strawberry bounty.

Strawberries are one of most prominent crops of the Salinas Valley from April through September. They’re also a nutritional superfood for athletes, with many restorative benefits that help us with our training. And if that wasn’t enough, they play a starring role in the most beautiful marathon in North America.

Nutritional Benefits

Each serving of our local strawberries provides a full day’s supply of Vitamin C, and powerful antioxidant protection to help the body heal and repair. Strawberries are a rich source of phenols that help strengthen cell structures in the body and prevent cellular damage in all of the body's organ systems. Distance running typically causes chronic, microscopic damage to muscles, ligaments, and other soft tissue structures in the body; the antioxidants found in strawberries help to counteract this.

The phenol content of strawberries has also been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer – but the most remarkable medicinal quality is their role as an anti-inflammatory agent.

Healing properties of strawberries include the ability to lessen activity of an enzyme called cyclo-oxygenase. This enzyme is usually referred to as COX, and is responsible for causing inflammation and pain, especially in people who suffer from arthritis. Strawberry phenols naturally inhibit production of this enzyme.

If this sounds familiar, it should: most COX inhibitors are better known by their pharmaceutical name – non-steroidal anti-imflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – or by brand names such as Advil or Motrin. So the next time you’re feeling sore after a hard workout, a tall, cold strawberry smoothie may be the perfect concoction to decrease soreness and help your muscles recover quickly. (Not to mention, they taste fantastic.)

Marathon Refreshment

It’s a fitting combination then, for Monterey County’s finest crop to team up with its finest road race – the Big Sur Marathon, on the last Sunday of April. The wonderful strawberries make a most welcome appearance at the most difficult point of the race.

Experienced Big Sur runners grow to dread one portion of the Marathon above all others: miles 21-24 through Carmel Highlands, where the road rises and falls mercilessly, and when runners are in their most fragile mental and physical state. It’s the stretch of road where enjoyable or successful marathons can quickly unravel.

There is, however, one outpost of comfort and relief during this daunting stretch of the race: the strawberry station at mile 23. A group of Highlands residents stand alongside race volunteers to hand out fresh strawberries to weary runners struggling towards the finish line.

Runners who know of the strawberry station speak of it in reverential tones, like travelers journeying towards a holy shrine. Those who don’t know the station is coming feel their hearts leap with joy and hope when they come across it. Afterwards many runners report that the strawberries were one of the most pleasant experiences of race day.

Of course, some marathoners feel too hurried to stop for the berries. They may be wary of eating something unfamiliar, or paranoid about losing precious seconds by slowing down to indulge. Or maybe they’re fearful that if they stopped, they might enjoy the moment so much that they’d decide to kick their feet up and stay a while.

Those runners are missing something truly special. Almost everyone who has stopped at the strawberry station considers it one of the highlights of his or her race. The thought of fresh berries in the distance helps keep them moving through the hardest miles of the race, and once they recharge their batteries with nature’s superfruit, they have more energy to conquer the final 5K.

Thankfully, runners who skip the aid station won’t completely miss out on the strawberry bounty at Big Sur – because one of the things awaiting them at the buffet table in the finisher’s tent is an enormous stack of strawberry crates. So in addition to bagels and water and energy bars, all runners leave the course with a full basket of Monterey County strawberries.

The strawberries are usually the first items I consume, and they never fail to be absolutely delicious. Maybe it’s the circumstances of complete exhaustion or post-race satisfaction, but those post-race strawberries are always among the best things I’ve ever tasted.

So this spring - whether you’re racing a marathon or not - be sure to incorporate this powerful little berry into your running routine. I’m certain that you’ll be happy with the results.

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