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June 28, 2009

Bronze Buckle

I've occasionally claimed that certain races tried to break me; Western States is the one that finally did it.

This race absolutely wrecked me, in about 20 different ways, including some that I didn't even know existed. I somehow managed to finish in 27:52, but that outcome was in doubt for about 95% of the duration of the event.

Some of you know that I was aiming for a sub-24-hour finish, and that clearly didn't happen. Very early, this race hammered me with worst-case scenarios in almost every manner you can think of, which continued throughout the day and night. In that regard, this was one of the most disappointing days I've ever experienced, but also one of the most rewarding. If that doesn't make sense, I guess you'll have to wait for the race report.

On that note ... I'm hoping to have a report posted by Tuesday night, but I'm in seriously bad shape right now, and it could take some time for me to lick my wounds enough to sit down and write a report. Plus, my calendar's pretty jammed for the week, which may cause a further delay. I'll get to it as soon as possible, I promise.

But for now, I'm going to try and get a quick nap in before picking up my bronze Western States buckle.


June 24, 2009

Go Time!

“Got your mind set on a dream -
You can get it, though hard it may seem now …

You can get it if you really want –
You can get it if you really want –
You can get it if you really want –
But you must try, try and try, try and try –
You'll succeed at last.”
- Jimmy Cliff, “You Can Get It If You Really Want” (video after post)

It seems only fitting that as I’m gearing up to spend an entire day dancing under the scorching sun, a classic reggae song should serve as my sendoff.

Western States, here I come.

Obviously, I have no clue what lies in store for me over the 24 (or more) hours of race weekend. It could be epic, it could be crazy … or it could be epically crazy. I might have a fantastic day and night, or I might come completely unraveled (have I mentioned my lack of heat training?) far sooner than I anticipate. Surprises may lurk around every bend in the trail, and I have no idea what my reaction will be.

What I do know is that I’m looking forward to every minute of it.

There’s simply no way you can anticipate a race for almost two full years and feel anything but excitement when the time finally comes. I’m not scared, or anxious, or nervous … just bouncing off the walls ready to actually DO this thing. Whatever happens, happens – but I’ll be grateful to finally experience race day instead of just carrying the idea of it in my head every single day.

On a related note: whatever does happen to me out there, you can follow along in something fairly close to real time on the Western States 100 webcast. Each runner has his or her own page, and mine is right here. You can also check out the main webcast page to get updates on the race that develops in the front of the pack while the majority of us are struggling just to stay upright and maintain forward motion.

The race starts at 5AM on Saturday. If you drop in on me online, send some good vibes my way through the computer screen – because I might need every manner of assistance I can get.

I want this race. I really really want it. I’ll try and try and try to make it as great an experience as possible. By Sunday morning, we’ll find out if I succeed at last.

Jimmy Cliff, “You Can Get It If You Really Want” (click to play):


June 23, 2009

On Inspiration

(Admin note: I’ll have one final post on Thursday with a link to the WS webcast and other final details for this weekend. As for today’s post, it’s on the theme of motivation … )

I’ve never been one to need much of a pep talk before races. When it comes to rising to the occasion for a big event, I tend to be fairly self-reliant.

From my experience - in both the endurance sports I currently enjoy, and the team sports of my youth – if you have to rely on a motivational speech to accomplish the result you’re looking for, your chances of actually attaining it are probably pretty slim. Rather, the confidence that emboldens me on the starting line comes from the body of training I’ve done in the months leading up to the event.

I’ve put myself through enough difficult miles, and tapped into my inner reservoir of resolve enough times this spring to know that I’m ready to roll at Western States this weekend. Whether or not I actually make it to the finish, or whether I finish anywhere near my goal time remain to be seen. But if for some reason I don’t make it to Auburn, it’s certainly not going to be for lack of resolve.

That’s not to say that it’s going to be easy – in fact, I’m on record describing the race as a 100-mile tightrope walk. Or, as I wrote last year:
There are certain to be times when my body feels battered, my spirit feels broken, and I’ll question both the sanity and the necessity of doing the task I’ve given myself. Hard times are as much a part of the race as good ones – in fact, if those difficulties weren’t encountered along the way, the whole process wouldn’t mean nearly as much.

What I’m counting on to pull me through is a positive mindset, and a resolve to deal with whatever hardships come my way. There will be a thousand little things that could potentially discourage me – but somehow, I’ll figure out a way to get through every last one of them.
Thankfully, after an extended period of questioning and wondering in the wake of 2008’s cancellation, I can honestly say that I’ve forged the same mindset now as I did before last year’s race.

So it was more amusing than inspirational when I stumbled across the following video of “40 inspirational speeches in two minutes” – it’s a clever assortment of film snippets that are equal parts somber and humorous, compiled into one contiguous speech that actually flows together surprisingly well. If you’re in the mood for an unorthodox pep talk, click and enjoy:

One final note: just because I don’t need an inspirational speech to keep me motivated, that doesn’t mean I don’t carry inspiring thoughts along the way with me during events like this. One of my favorites, which I have a feeling I’ll be reciting to myself many times on Saturday, is the following:

“Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
They will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

- Isaiah 40:31, NIV

Really now … what more reassurance do I need?


June 22, 2009

Book Review: Born to Run

One of the nice things about tapering is that decreasing your activity and increasing your rest for several days leaves you with time to catch up on some reading. It’s a great opportunity to get lost in a book that might quell some nervous energy, and perhaps take your mind off of the fact that very soon you’ll attempt to run 100 miles.

Of course, I had to go and pick up a book about ultrarunning.

The advance buzz for Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run was unlike any other running book since Dean Karnazes’ Ultramarathon Man, and the folklore surrounding the Tarahumara Indians of the Copper Canyons of Mexico is almost mystical in ultra circles – so I grabbed a copy of this book thinking that it would be one for the ages.

In most respects, I was correct. The first 100 pages or so read like the greatest running story ever told. There are vivid descriptions of the notorious Copper Canyons, a detailed primer on the Tarahumara culture, and a stirring account of the three years that the Tarahumara participated in (and dominated) the Leadville 100. It’s also something of a who’s who of the ultrarunning community, with in-depth biographies of Ann Trason and Scott Jurek, shout outs to “Young Guns” such as the Skaggs brothers and Anton Krupicka, and even a mention of a noteworthy blogger or two. If you make it through the first half of the book without itching to lace up your running shoes and disappear into the wilderness, someone might have to check you for a pulse.

The narrative revolves around one Anglo - nicknamed Caballo Blanco by the locals - who assimilated into the Tarahumara culture, and his desire to stage a 50-mile race in the Copper Canyons between the top ultrarunners of all time and the best Tarahumara runners. His efforts are largely futile, with one notable exception: Scott Jurek was all for it. Soon thereafter, a handful of Americans (including Jenn Shelton, one of the best young runners around) make their way south of the border, and the game is on.

For the most part, the account is a gripping one, culminating in a race that justifies the 250-page buildup to it. The primary drawback I found was that along the way to telling us about the race, McDougall takes several very looooong tangents to discuss all manner of things only peripherally related to the event at hand. Many of these detours crop up right as the action is getting good – in the middle of the Leadville reports, or right as the gun’s about to go off for the final race.

Granted, some of the tangents will change the way you perceive the simple activity of running: whether it’s understanding man’s anthropological origin as a species engineered to run just as often and efficiently as deer or coyotes, eliminating the modern-day distractions that hold our inner (and super-athletic) souls captive, or improving your speed by adopting a philosophy of love and acceptance (yes, really). There’s also an extended treatise about the evils of running shoes, with a very convincing argument that we should be asking for less from our running gear instead of more.

The side dissertations are very interesting (I’m actually quite intrigued by the notion of barefoot trail running), and McDougall is an excellent writer, so they are generally a smooth read – but the placement became a bit frustrating after a while. I finally decided to read this book in pieces: I tore through the narrative that built to the climactic race first, then backtracked and took my time with the biomechanics and anthropology lessons. This way, I satisfied my impatience with wanting to know how the race came out, but still absorbed the larger lessons that I would have otherwise hurried past.

One other minor quibble is that there aren't any pictures included. Most hardbacks will include a few glossy black and white pages with photos of the characters involved; this book doesn't, and it's a glaring omission. Although McDougall's writing is very descriptive, I found myself craving a real-life glimpse of Caballo Blanco, or the Tarahumara tribal robes, or even the Copper Canyon terrain that figures so prominently in the story.

All in all though, Born to Run is a very solid book. I anticipate that it's going to be one of those that carry well through the years; one you can read several times and still pull some new insight from each time. (Of all the running books I’ve read, there are perhaps two or three about which I’d claim that.) It will engage your spirit of adventure, compel you to push your physical boundaries, and – in the same way that the American runners are given Tarahumara monikers prior to the final race – it might even make you want to have a nickname (I’m thinking of Caballo Gordo for myself). If you’re looking to inspire your training or just searching for some smooth summer reading, put this book towards the top of your list.


*update 8/21/09: Christopher McDougall was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart recently; the interview is embedded below.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Christopher McDougall
Daily Show
Full Episodes
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June 21, 2009

Subject D

(Admin note: the Western States 100 is practically here, which means that my nerves are so frazzled that I can barely think in coherent sentences, let alone string multiple paragraphs together for a respectable blog post. So this week will feature a few quick entries, with some final race details [including my bib number for the webcast] on Wednesday or Thursday before I head to the hills for the big show.

As for that noise you may be hearing in the background … that would be my heart pounding away like a sledgehammer. I’m trying not to let it distract me.)


Most ultrarunners will tell you that our activity is an inherently self-centered one. We constantly steal time away from friends, families and jobs in pursuit of goals that are significant to only us; we spend countless hours chasing dreams of individual meaning and questionable importance to the larger world we inhabit.

That’s why many of us like to seize opportunities to share the experience, or to somehow help others benefit from this obsessive passion of ours. We volunteer at races, we invite pacers to participate in events with us, and we return the favors as pacers and/or crew for those who have served us.

And at the Western States 100, we subject ourselves to medical studies.

I’ve written before – quite extensively, in fact – about the symbiotic relationship between ultrarunners and medical researchers. Since much of my professional life has revolved around clinical healthcare, I’m especially sympathetic to the plight of desperate scientists in search of test subjects within a very narrow set of criteria.

That’s why I’m always willing to subject myself to whatever poking and prodding and body analysis that researchers want to inflict upon me. This weekend, I’ll be a participant in two studies: one looking at exercise-associated hyponatremia, and another examining the impacts of a 100-mile run on cardiac function. At various times on race weekend, I’ll give blood samples, have EKGs and a body composition scan, and possibly, um … pee in a Ziploc bag. Don’t ever say I’m not committed to science.

It actually feels kind of cool to participate in medical research during Western States weekend. It’s another small opportunity for all my years of compulsive quirkiness to actually provide some value to someone other than myself.

Besides, I long ago accepted the fact that – like most other ultrarunners - I’m something of a freak; however, if I’m a freak that contributes to the advancement of medical knowledge, that makes my condition feel a little more justified.


June 18, 2009

Through a Child's Eyes

For the first time in the history of this website, I'm handing a post over to a guest blogger.

Technically, that statement may not be 100% accurate, since I'm still the one whose fingers are working the keyboard - but given the occasion of this weekend, I figured I'd turn to my 5-year-old daughter for some thoughts about Father's Day. The best part is, I didn't even have to ask her; her kindergarten teacher did the heavy lifting for me, resulting in a card that I received at the end of my daughter's school year last week.

The inside inscription reads:

My daddy's name is Donald. Sometimes I call him funny names. He has brown hair. He just got a haircut. He's taller than Mom. He looks good. My daddy is nice and fun. He likes to run, to get the exercise. I don't know why. When I'm in school he misses me and I misses him. He makes me happy. I like best to play with him and be with him. When I'm in his arms it feels good and happy. He loves me because I'm special. I am special. Thanks daddy for everything you have done. He's the best daddy. I love him.

If there's anyone out there who questions why having kids is the greatest experience in the world, what you read above is probably the best answer I can give. And if that still doesn't make sense ... I guess nothing else will.

Have a good weekend everybody. Remember to call your dad.


June 17, 2009

Hydration 101

I know, I know … you thought I was finished talking about hydration packs.

One final stipulation of this whole hydration pack series was that I would incorporate some of the information into my Monterey Herald column, which often targets a different audience than this website does. The companies would benefit from the variety of public forums, and it was also an opportunity for me to do a little cross-promotion from the newspaper to the Internet.

It didn’t exactly play out the way I originally intended, however. When I approached my editor about doing a two-part, 2500-word piece on hydration, he (somewhat predictably) replied with something along the lines of “You’ve got to be kidding me.” The compromise we settled on was that I’d do a very basic, very general review of hydration devices for the paper, then refer readers to part 2 – my summary review of all the hydration packs – on the Herald site and my own websites.

So what you see below amounts to a prequel of sorts; it’s an introductory piece that explains the fundamentals of hydration for runners, and explains the difference between various means of transporting fluid. It appears in Thursday’s Monterey Herald.

Additionally, I’ve adapted this online version to include examples of each of the products I’m referring to, plus links to product pages for anyone interested in shopping. Most of the links are from Wilderness Running Company, with whom I’m starting to forge something of a working relationship. I’ve talked them up before, and I'm really impressed with some of the steps they’re taking to become involved in the trail running community.

If you decide to buy from them, remember to use the coupon code on my left sidebar to get a 10% discount on all orders. You also get free shipping on orders over $50, so you can potentially save a decent amount of money.

Sorry if I’m starting to sound like a QVC host; today’s Herald article is below.


Running Life 6/18/09 "Hydration Pack Basics"

Summer is nearly upon us, which means that runners need to pay attention to hydration needs when exercising in warm weather. In recent years, hydration devices have become a multidisciplinary science, with several options available. We’re reviewing the most common types here, along with recommendations for use of each kind.

As a general rule, unless you’re exposed to extreme heat or humidity (upper 90s for either category), you probably don’t need to take in fluids during your workout if you’re exercising for 30 minutes or less. If you are exercising for less than an hour, you can probably do just fine with water instead of sports drink.

When your body is working for more than one hour, make sure that you drink small amounts of fluid on a regular basis during the activity. There are a few different ways to carry fluids on the go:

Hand held bottle carriers: of course, before hydration accessories were invented, everybody did it the old fashioned way: by carrying a bottle of water in your hand while you run. Hand-held bottle carriers are little more than a comfortable elastic strap that fits around the bottle and the back of your hand; this way, you don’t have to grip the bottle to keep it in contact with your palm.

Most hand-held carriers support a 20-oz bottle, and many have small pockets on the backside to stash things like keys or an ATM card. Some runners find it awkward to carry bottle holders at first, but before long you’ll hardly notice a difference.

(For web readers: some examples are the GoLite HydroClutch and the slightly more advanced Nathan QuickDraw Elite)

Waist packs: These are probably the most common option, and come in several varieties. Most packs hold a 20- or 24-oz bottle on your backside, often angled one way or the other for easier access. Waist packs also have larger pockets with storage space for cell phones or energy bars.

(Web readers: two very good models are the Ultimate Direction Uno and the GoLite HydroDash, which comes in both a men's and women's version.)

Variations on this design include packs that hold two full-size bottles, and others with several smaller bottles distributed all the way around your waist. In my opinion, the single bottle option is the simplest and most convenient, and should suffice for activity in the one to two hour range.

If you are running or hiking for more than two hours, a single bottle won’t be enough to sustain you – and that’s where the next category comes in.

Hydration packs: These lightweight packs are typically worn like a backpack, but contain a fluid reservoir that can hold up to 100oz of fluid. Models that are marketed towards runners typically hold about 70 oz.

Since they are designed for longer activity, hydration packs also feature a lot more storage space for food, clothing, or other gear. Modern materials and designs make these packs quite comfortable to wear, even when running at high speed.

Fluid reservoirs are slightly more high-maintenance than a typical water bottle - they’re a bit more difficult to clean and dry after each use – but they’re generally very easy to use, and the benefit of having adequate fluids during a long run is usually worth a little inconvenience afterwards.

Hand held bottle carriers and waist packs can be found in both of our local running stores. If you’d like more information about hydration packs, I did an extensive review of five different models this spring; check them out here.

Whichever method you choose, be sure to take care of your hydration needs so you can enjoy a healthy and safe summer of running.


June 15, 2009

Misty Mornings

“Misty morning … don’t see no sun –
I know you’re out there somewhere, having fun.”
- Bob Marley and the Wailers, “Misty Morning” (video after post)
There’s a guy in Carmel Valley who has run the Western States 100 several times; he’s a mutual acquaintance of just about every local ultrarunner, and something of a sensei when it comes to dispensing advice about the event.

I bring this up because last week, my pacer sent me an e-mail that essentially said, [Sensei] is concerned that you’re not getting enough heat training. Apparently they had been discussing my preparation in the midst of a trail run. It was a somewhat off-the-cuff remark that probably wouldn’t have fazed me – except that it happens to be completely true.

In fact, this isn’t the first time the subject has come up. Over the past several weeks, a handful of runners have asked me how much heat training I’ve done; the only variability in my response is how many seconds I pause before saying “none”.

I’ll never complain about the surroundings I live in, or the wonderful trails and open spaces for training that I have at my disposal. However, the primary drawback – at least as far as training for Western States is concerned - of living on the central California coast is the preponderance of fog and overcast skies that amass offshore before drifting down our local valleys almost every morning.

Here’s a typical scene from my Carmel Valley trails just after sunrise last week:

And here’s a shot from the Fort Ord trails that I wrote about in my previous post:

Keep in mind, these are color pictures – it’s the landscapes that come across in palettes of gray. Under any other circumstances, these areas are a trail runner’s Nirvana:

Rolling hills, miles of trails, the scent of strawberry fields in the air, and the beautiful Salinas Valley in the background. There’s only one thing missing: where’s the sunshine?

In June, the Salinas Valley sun is like a petulant teenager: very slow to rise, sometimes appearing for only a few hours before retiring again for the night, other times not bothering to make an appearance at all. Since I do most of my training in the early mornings, I’ve long since finished my run for the day by the time the fog burns off in the afternoon Consequently, I very seldom experience the hot conditions that will almost certainly come into play on the journey from Squaw Valley to Auburn.

It’s often said that the heat, even more than the mountains and the canyons, is the distinguishing characteristic of the Western States course. As far as my own training is concerned, it will be the biggest X-factor at this year’s race. Aside from the 12 hours I spent on Mt Diablo this April, I haven’t really faced the conditions that I’ll spend the better part of a day dealing with at the end of the month.

(I’ve also been a bit unlucky in this regard: the Quicksilver 50M didn’t heat up until late in the day; Western States camp saw cooler conditions than usual; my Tassajara run featured overcast skies instead of customary heat. And we haven’t had a real heat wave yet this year, which is unusual. I can plan the runs, but I can’t plan the forecast.)

I know that if I were truly dedicated, I could figure out some way to enhance my heat preparation. Some folks have told me to run with extra clothes on everyday, or drive around town with my car heater on full blast. Our sensei’s advice was to sit in a sauna for a couple of hours per day. Unfortunately, I haven’t brought myself to employ any of these strategies.

As a general rule, I like to push the boundaries of physical training as much as I possibly can, but avoid some of the detours that veer into the realm of the ridiculous. Running is a simple pleasure for me; I’m able to log a ton of training miles mainly because I enjoy the experience. The fewer extraneous details I have to tend to, the more content I feel.

So I’m not doing anything unconventional to better prepare myself – and I fully realize that such an approach could prove to be a liability at Western States. However, I’m considering this one of those situations where I’ll seek the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. I suppose the heat could be my undoing in two weeks – but if spending hours in a sauna or driving around with my heater on is the margin that determines success or failure, perhaps I’m not suited for this event after all.

It’s too late for me to change anything now – and even if I could, I don’t know if I would. I’d rather just appreciate my cool misty mornings, then roll the dice when I get to Western States.

And to reinforce just how irie I'm feeling about this whole issue, here's some classic Bob Marley to click and enjoy:


June 11, 2009

The Bullet Collector

During this year’s buildup to the Western States 100, I’ve been spending more hours and logging more miles than ever before in the Fort Ord Open Space.

The 7200 acres of public land feature countless (almost literally – some websites and maps put the number at 50, others as high as 85) miles on both fire roads and single track, over rolling terrain and long, grueling climbs, through dense vegetation and open plains. You can run for several hours there with minimal backtracking on any particular trail.

Fort Ord is also the local Mecca for mountain bikers – one of whom is my 10-year-old son. Over the past year, it’s become his favorite spot for our weekly ride, which in turn has become his favorite method of recreation. He can’t throw a spiral, hit a baseball, or sink a free throw – but put this kid on a saddle, and he can pedal up a 1000-ft climb like he’s cruising through the neighborhood park.

Although he does well now, my son was somewhat slow in warming to the idea of riding in Fort Ord on a regular basis. In fact, he might have given up the practice entirely if it weren’t for a couple of bullets.

Before it was an ultrarunner’s and mountain biker’s paradise, Fort Ord was an entirely different kind of training ground. For nearly 80 years, this landscape was used by the United States Army as a troop maneuvering area and field artillery range. Basically, it was a practice battleground for soldiers preparing for war; in its prime, almost 50,000 troops were stationed on the adjacent military base honing their skills for use on far more dangerous theaters that awaited them across the ocean.

In the years since the base closure in 1994, most of the Fort Ord land has been converted to public use trails, but remnants of its previous occupants are visible from nearly every fire road and hilltop. Abandoned foxholes remain protected by low fences; concrete bunkers defiantly resist exposure to the elements despite years of neglect; wooden posts stand lonely sentry from lookout towers.

There’s also leftover ammunition on the ground. A whole lot of it.

In fact, munitions cleanup is the biggest challenge facing the Bureau of Land Management, who are today’s caretakers of the open space. I mentioned that most of the land has been converted to public use; what I didn’t say is that the areas that remain off-limits still contain unexploded ordinances: potentially deadly stuff like trip wires and land mines and other things you definitely want to avoid.

So when you see a sign like this in Fort Ord, you should take it absolutely seriously.

Thankfully, most of the ammunition you come across is harmless – such as the bullets that my son collects. They’re littered on nearly every trail in Fort Ord – the public areas as well as the closed ones – left behind as a reminder of a time when the notion of exercise on these hills was taken quite seriously.

During one of our first bike rides here, my son spotted a couple of bullet casings, and slammed on the brakes so he could gather them up. He thought it was about the coolest thing ever. On every ride since, he keeps an eye out for more shells – and more often than not, he finds them. I generally don’t mind stopping with him, with one notable exception.

Fort Ord is also the site of a mountain bike race series, and this spring my son wanted to test himself against some other riders. Since he’s usually the youngest rider, and since he doesn’t know his way around the course very well, I get to ride the races alongside him.

He’s not the most competitive kid in the world – truthfully, he’s probably in the bottom 5% - so I have to lock up my inner racer whenever we do these events together, but I’m not always so good at it. So when he braked to a stop during his first-ever race in order to could pick up a bullet shell, let’s just say that I went, um … what’s a good word? … ballistic.

In the end, the Race Day Bullet Incident wasn’t that big of a deal. It certainly didn’t make any difference in his overall place or time, but it did prompt a nice discussion afterwards about the distinction between recreational riding, and stepping up to plunk down some money to put a number on your bike and race. By that time I had settled down, and I think the lesson went as well as I could have hoped for.

We’ve even worked out an understanding: during races, we don’t stop to pick up bullets anymore. But when we’re riding around Fort Ord for fun on our own time, he can stop for as many shells and casings as he wants to – just as long as can fit them in his own pockets.

I suppose if picking up a few pieces of ammo is all it takes to keep him coming out for these rides, I’m more than happy to oblige.


June 10, 2009

Dancing With Who Brung Me (Vespa Update)

So - remember a few months ago, when I did a product review for Vespa Sports Supplement?

Here's a short recap: Vespa is an amino acid supplement derived from wasp extract that’s designed to stimulate metabolism of fat stores instead of glycogen during aerobic exercise. It has steadily grown in popularity among ultrarunners and triathletes, although it has many detractors who are skeptical of the physiological basis for such claims.

Personally, I was on the fence about using it on a regular basis. I felt some benefit during my long training runs, but in many ways it seemed too problematic to use consistently over the long term. It didn’t taste great. It was expensive. It was designed to go along with a diet plan (the Paleo diet) that I had no hope of maintaining (No peanut butter? Yeah, right.). And it was hard to tell sometimes whether or not it actually made any difference.

Basically, it seemed awfully high maintenance. I called it Princess Vespa, and figured we’d have a whirlwind romance before I settled down with something more manageable.

It was a great plan, except for one thing: I never officially broke the relationship off.

I’m still using Vespa, and I’ll continue to use it through Western States at the end of this month. The weird thing is, I can’t really explain the product any better now than I did a few months ago, and I have all the same issues and questions about it that I had before. Not to mention, I’ve completely given up on the Paleo diet. But I feel like I’m in one of those situations where I just need to dance with the one who brung me.

At this point, I’m not going to deviate from what’s been working for me. My training buildup has been great this spring, and I’ve used Vespa all along the way. Sure, there’s a possibility that it’s all just been a placebo – but I suspect that on some level, it does provide some benefit, however intangible or immeasurable. It’s clearly not a miracle product, but I don’t think it’s snake oil either. And I’ll certainly feel better knowing that I have it in my race pack.

The bottom line for me is that I’ll take any added benefit (at least, any legal one) to help me get from Squaw Valley to Auburn - and that’s why I’ll keep Vespa as another weapon in my arsenal on race day.


June 8, 2009

Zen and the Art of Ultrarunning

With only three more weeks until Western States, I wanted my last long training run to be something both interesting and memorable. Knowing how burned out I get towards the end of a long training period, I knew that my final big training day had to entice me as the date drew nearer – otherwise I’d probably find some weak rationale for blowing it off in favor of sleeping in for once.

Luckily, I didn’t have to look far to find my inspiration: the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, located in the heart of the Ventana Wilderness area between Carmel Valley and Big Sur. It’s an honest-to-goodness Zen monastery about as far removed from the modern world as you can get nowadays (at least, in California).

For nine months per year, the retreat is closed to the public to allow the monks to practice – according to the website – “intensive Zen training”. (I’ve since learned that Tassajara is renowned for its rigorous practice – in fact, it’s where Zen masters come to receive their own instruction. In other words, in Zen circles, this place is a big deal.) However, during the summer months, it’s open season at Tassajara, and guests are welcome to spend a few days or weeks cohabitating with the monks – you can join them for meditations or work assignments, or take a dip in the natural hot springs that run through the secluded canyon.

Getting there is no piece of cake, though – it’s 14 miles from the nearest point of civilization on a rugged jeep trail that rises over one of the highest ridge lines in the area, traverses the highland briefly, then plummets down for several miles to the remote outpost. The website recommends that only 4-wheel drive vehicles attempt driving the road, and the Zen Center provides an eight-passenger ATV known as the Stage that shuttles skittish travelers to and from the retreat twice per day.

Or, if you’re with a group of crazy ultrarunners, you could just run it.

I recruited a handful of companions to join me on this adventure run, looking forward to a morning of strenuous physical exertion and - who knows? – maybe a little spiritual enlightenment as well. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I also brought my Nikon.

This is the parking area in the one-building (no exaggeration – as you’ll see later) town of Jamesburg, where most normal folks wait for the Stage. It didn’t quite look like this when we got there, because it was still dark outside at our 5AM start time.

After a few miles and a couple thousand feet of elevation, the sun started peeking through the fog to light our way a bit better.

By the time the sun was fully awake, we were well above the fog line …

… enjoying some killer views in the Ventana Wilderness.

After bobbing up and down for a few miles on top of the world, we began a steep five-mile descent down and down …

… and down some more, until we finally arrived at Tassajara.

Apparently Zenshinji means “Zen Mind Temple”, and not – as one of our group suggested – “May you rest peacefully with your shin splints”. But after 3000’ of constant downhill, it was hard for us to disprove him.

Inside the Zen Center, everything is angles and light – and since we were arriving there right as the sun was spilling over the mountain, there were some cool perspectives from which to take it all in.

There are also a lot of knick-knacks (not a proper Buddhist term, but you know what I mean) all over the place to make sure you know you’re not in Carmel Valley anymore.

This is a zendo, one of the main meditation rooms. When we got there, the day guests and monks were exiting the zendo and forming a circle on the grass outside it … so the six of us wearing shorts and trail shoes and hydration packs tried to blend in as inconspicuously as possible. Or not.

Here’s how you tell which ones are the monks: they’re usually the ones with shaved heads, wearing the robes. In case you were wondering.

Rickshaws are the only way to travel around the Zen Center – when day guests arrive, they load their stuff in these carts for transportation on the grounds. On the plus side, you don’t have to worry about having enough cash to tip a luggage boy.

Rumor has it that the monks are CRAZY about bocce ball – who knew?

All around Tassajara are little rest spots and alcoves that seem to pull you in for quiet contemplation. I was intrigued - so when no one was looking …

… I tried to soak in a little bit of Zen myself. I didn’t come away from this moment as enlightened as I was hoping; maybe my hands were positioned wrong or something.

Or maybe I just needed some of this stuff! I’m going to give the monks the benefit of the doubt that this is a simple, legal garden, and not something designed to cultivate enlightenment by artificial means. But I didn’t snoop too closely, just in case.

This is called an echo han – it’s used to wake the residents up in the morning, or call them to prayer or work sessions. From the looks of it, it’s been very well-used over the years.

Near the exit of the compound is a parable come to life in this stream: water wears down stone; through softness we overcome hardness, or something like that. It was an opportune reminder, because as we left Tassajara …

… we started the steep 5-mile climb that kicked off our return trip home. You know how suffering brings enlightenment? Let’s just say there was lots to get enlightened about on this climb.

This is my friend Brian, interlocking pinkies with his wife Sophia as they made their way up the huge grade. Since she’s going to be his pacer at Western States, our group spent about a half-mile debating whether or not this would be considered physical assistance – and since Brian is way faster than us, we decided that we’d totally narc on him if they tried this.

A backward glance at the hill we were climbing, from about the halfway point. Eee-yikes.

Fortunately, the views from the top were just as scenic on the return trip as they were in the morning – perhaps even more so, as some mottled clouds started rolling across the sky with the warmer weather.

About halfway down the final 6-mile descent, guess what we encountered?

What’s my rule? If there are cows, they’re in the report. Simple as that.

Finally we made it back to the town of Jamesburg, which I previously called a one-building town. Here’s the building, which doubles as the waiting point for the Tassajara Stage:

Welcome to downtown Jamesburg. Food and refreshment available on occasion. Pull up a chair and stay awhile.

The little chair looked welcoming – but since it was already more than seven hours and 30 miles (counting a couple of double-backs along the way) after we started, I was more than content to get in the car and drive home. The run was everything that I had hoped for – and even though I didn’t have a spiritual awakening to speak of, I think some of that Zen stuff actually might have rubbed off on me.

After all, there’s a lot to be said for being highly disciplined, but also living in the moment. For putting your mind and body through a consistently demanding regimen, but also leaving time to pamper yourself and relax. For appreciating life for what it is, but always striving to make it – and by extension, yourself – better all the time. These are the things these monks do every single day; I’ll bet they could teach us ultrarunners a thing or two about how to get the most out of our experiences.

Hopefully I’ll return to this run another day and ponder these things further – but for now, it’s time to focus my energy on Western States, which is rising over the horizon like the sun spilling over the mountain, now less than three weeks away.

Between now and then, I have a feeling I’m going to need all the Zen I can possibly get.


June 5, 2009

Gear Review: Hydration Packs - Summary

Thanks to everyone who has indulged me this extended product review on hydration packs, and especially to those who sent comments or e-mails sharing their own experience with various models. If you still haven’t made up your mind based on the individual reviews (linked at the end of this post, and on right sidebar), hopefully some comparisons and summary thoughts here will help you decide.

Before we get to the recap, however, one clarification: attentive readers will note that I originally promised reviews of six hydration packs, and only ended up publishing five. That’s because The North Face initially committed to provide a pack for me to review, then backtracked due to budget concerns. Perhaps we’ll revisit the North Face product review at some point in the future – or maybe that was just their polite way of blowing me off. Time will tell, I guess.

Regardless, the level of quality and innovation in this group of hydration packs was very impressive overall. Let’s start comparing:

The lineup: CamelBak Octane XC, Inov-8 Race Pro 4, GoLite Rush, Nathan HPL 020, Ultimate Direction Wasp.

We’ll begin with the easy part: numbers. They don’t lie. At least, that’s what I’m told. (Unless you consider them statistics, in which case, they’re even worse than damn lies … confused yet? Let's just keep moving.)


Nathan: 6oz
Inov-8: 7oz
GoLite: 1lb, 4oz
CamelBak: 1lb, 5oz
Ultimate Direction: 1lb, 5oz

There’s a pretty big gap in this category between the ultra-lightweights - Nathan HPL 020 and Inov-8 Race Pro 4 – and the others. It’s worth noting that the two lightest styles are non-traditional designs: a vest (from Nathan) or waist pack (Inov-8) instead of the backpack design of the others.

Cargo capacity

GoLite: 900 cubic in.
Ultimate Direction: 390 cubic in.
Inov-8: 244 cubic in.
Nathan: 100 cubic in.
CamelBak: 90 cubic in.

This one is no contest – GoLite wins by a mile. If you need to carry a whole pile of gear, the Rush can’t be beat. What’s even more impressive is that the Rush is the same weight as the other backpack styles.

Another noteworthy point is that the CamelBak is one of the heaviest packs reviewed, but has the lowest amount of cargo space. However, CamelBak redeems itself in the next category.

Best Bladder (Sorry … that sounds like an award given out at nursing homes, doesn’t it? Let’s change this one to … )

Best Reservoir

This is clearly the area where CamelBak excels – the Omega reservoir seems to be the gold standard for fluid carriers. Its simple shape, wide opening, durable construction (with a lifetime warranty), antimicrobial features, and efficient bite valve make it a top choice, even among runners who use different packs.

This came as a bit of a revelation to me, but apparently there’s a lot of reservoir swapping going on out there. Several people reported something along the lines of, “I really love X pack but use it with a CamelBak bladder.” I used this reservoir with my GoLite Rush pack (which doesn’t have its own), and it was perfect.

CamelBak is also the only company in this grouping with a specialized reservoir cleaning and drying kit. It includes a very thin little scrub brush to clean your drink tube – which may be one of the best inventions ever made for high-volume hydration pack users.


Now we’re getting into some subjective assessments, so I can’t argue too strenuously if someone’s opinion differs from mine. Overall comfort of a pack is a perfect example.

I love how the Inov-8 Race Pro 4 carries 70oz of fluid without feeling any more cumbersome than my 20oz bottle waist pack, and keeps your entire upper body free. If you don’t want anything to do with shoulder straps and harnesses, you could definitely fall in love with this pack.

Among the shoulder/vest models, I wouldn’t say there was a significant difference one way or the other – with the possible exception of the Nathan HPL 020, due to its very low weight, being more comfortable in extreme heat. I was pleasantly surprised to find that none of these packs gave me any problems with rubbing, chafing, or other unpleasantries.


This is another category where the GoLite Rush shines; it’s a true hybrid for ultrarunning, day hiking, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, or any ourdoor endurance activity. From a hydration standpoint alone, there are several different setups to suit your individual needs.

Of course, the opposite side of this coin is …


If simplicity and minimalism are your thing, the Nathan HPL 020 keeps you light and streamlined, while still providing the basics to get you through a 100-miler. The Inov-8 RacePro 4 is nearly as light as the Nathan vest, and has double the storage space as the Nathan. Between these two, it’s pretty much a coin flip as to which will allow you to run like a maniac with minimal encumbrance.


I’m basing this one on ease of access to your stuff during a multi-hour run: grabbing gels or salt tabs on the run, going in and out of the same pocket for a camera 10 times per hour, stashing gloves and headlamps after the sun comes up. Obviously, having pockets on the front of the pack makes a huge difference here – and that’s why the Ultimate Direction Wasp and the Nathan HPL 020 get high marks.

Price (two divisions here: 1. retail and 2. best online price)

Nathan: $80 retail, $56 best price at Amazon.com
Inov-8: $70 retail, $70 best price
GoLite: $70 retail, $63 with my coupon code (see sidebar) at Wilderness Running Company
CamelBak: $60 retail, $55 best price at Amazon.com
Ultimate Direction: $80 retail, $75 best price at Zombie Runner

CamelBak has the lowest retail price in this category – and since it is comparable to the other packs (more on that in a second), that would appear to make it the best value.

A couple of notes to pay attention to while shopping online: the purchase price of a GoLite Rush doesn’t include a fluid reservoir, so you’ll incur the extra cost of a reservoir (probably from CamelBak) with that one. The Inov-8 Race Pro 4 is often listed at $45, but that price doesn’t include the reservoir which is charged separately.

And now, our final category …

Western Statesability

OK … I made that term up (but really, it’s no worse than drinkability) – but one of my ulterior motives in doing this review was to find the ideal pack to use at this month’s Western States 100. I figured that I’d try several models and discover the one that would make my journey to Auburn as manageable as possible.

So which one will I be using? The answer is, I honestly don’t know. I have a favorite I’m leaning towards, but I’m not going to say which one, because I think that would be unfair to the rest of this group of packs. Truthfully, I feel like I could use any one of them at Western States, and it would serve me perfectly well. So if you want me to declare an overall winner in this review, I’ve got bad news for you.

The good news is that in making your own decision, there’s not a question of quality to worry about. It all comes down to what your own preferences are, which features you value over others, and how you see yourself getting the most value out of your pack. I’d be happy to answer direct questions about any one of these packs by e-mail if you’d like; otherwise, use the individual reviews to help make your own selection.

Here they are again:

CamelBak Octane XC

Inov-8 Race Pro 4

GoLite Rush

Nathan HPL 020

Ultimate Direction Wasp

*See previous product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.


June 3, 2009

Ultimate Direction Wasp Hydration Pack Review

In an earlier review, I mentioned that the hydration pack count at ultras seems to be a two-horse race, with a slight edge to Nathan.

Well … remember this year’s Kentucky Derby, when Mine That Bird stormed back from about 30 lengths behind to cruise to victory in the homestretch? That’s the analogy I’d use to describe the Ultimate Direction Wasp right now – making enormous strides on the field, poised to charge ahead at any moment. Whether or not the lead has officially changed hands is still up for debate, but regardless - this product has caused quite a stir in the world of ultrarunners.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising that Ultimate Direction is a leader in this market; they’ve been in the hydration game as long as anybody. (On that note, a possible retraction: I previously claimed that CamelBak, which began in 1993, invented the hydration pack - but on UD’s history page, it says “Ultimate Direction designs the first water reservoir and begins incorporating them into back packs, 1992”. Were they actually the first to go to market, or just an early designer? Can anyone clarify this? There must be someone besides me who’d be interested to know.)

Ultimate Direction is also a leading innovator in hydration equipment, responsible for creations like the screw-top flask, gel flask, quad buckle (for hip packs), race belts, and the kicker valve (which is almost too erotically shaped and textured for me to use in good conscience … but that’s a separate story).

In that regard, the Wasp pack might be considered a combination of every feature that works well in other packs, with a few added tricks to distinguish it from others in this category. The end result is a very solid entry that’s tough to find any fault with (but of course, I’ll try).

One distinguishing characteristic of the Wasp is evident as soon as you put it on: namely, the hydration reservoir sits higher than any of the other models. The Sport Vest harness system keeps the fluid pack between the shoulder blades regardless of how much weight it carries, and prevents it from sliding down to the mid-back area. I found the positioning of the pack to be ideal, but this might be a personal preference issue for other folks.

The harnesses of the Sport Vest system are ergonomically contoured for improved comfort, and there are two strap adjustments on the front of the pack to help with variable positioning, with lateral straps that can be adjusted if necessary (I didn’t need to). The overall result is that the pack feels comfortably snug, like you’re wearing another layer of clothing.

In field testing the Wasp, I was quite impressed with how stable the fluid pack sits during long runs, no matter how full. The Sport Vest managed to virtually eliminate any bouncing or lateral movement on all kinds of terrain, even when running downhill. This is clearly one of the product’s strengths.

Better still, pack stability doesn’t come at the expense of comfort. The back panel features 3D AirMesh pods which create an air channel for ventilation and moisture transfer. Basically, despite the snug feel of the pack, it sits slightly raised off your back to dissipate heat and improve comfort. This is the pack I wore at the Quicksilver 50M last month; over the course of 9 hours, I had absolutely no complaints or discomfort from the pack on what grew to be a fairly warm day. The overall weight of the pack is 1 lb, 5oz, which is middle of the road for this review, but light enough to not be a problem over long distances.

Cool and comfortable at Quicksilver

The hydration reservoir uses Ultimate Direction’s patented rolltop open/close system. The opening is very effective for creating a tight seal, but it might take an extra second or two to close effectively compared to screw top reservoirs. In particular, on one occasion when I was trying to fly through an aid station quickly, I wasn’t paying close attention and rolled the top crookedly; a few minutes later, I felt my drink leaking from the top, and I had to stop and re-roll it. (This story probably speaks more to my ineffectiveness at aid station transitions than the pack itself, but I thought it was worth noting.)

Fluid volume of the reservoir is listed at 64 oz, which places it slightly below the 70-oz standard for this category – but honestly, I couldn’t tell a difference. On a few occasions, I filled the pack a little bit past the 64-oz line without any major repercussions (you know … as long as I closed the rolltop properly).

Lots of reservoir features – click here for a larger view

Two other features of the reservoir are worth noting: first is a grab loop that keeps the top of the reservoir positioned at the top of the pack, no matter how much fluid is drained. In other words, the pack doesn’t compress downward as it gets empty. Better still, you don’t have to disconnect the loop in order to refill the reservoir.

Another unique feature of the Ultimate Direction reservoir is the neoprene insulation that runs the length of the drink tube. It’s a unique feature among this group of packs, and works remarkably well. During the Quicksilver race, whenever I dumped ice into the reservoir, the fluid that came out of the tube was immediately cold – I didn’t have to sip through a few ounces of warm drink that had been exposed to the sun before reaching the contents of the main pack. This is one of those “why doesn’t everybody do this?” features that is simple but highly effective.

The front of the Wasp has four mesh storage compartments: two smaller elastic holsters, one zipper pocket, and one drawstring pocket. The larger pockets are angled slightly laterally, and at first glance, I was worried that my arms would brush against them when they were full. My worry proved to be unfounded – I’ve used the drawstring compartment for my camera, and had the zipper compartment filled with gels and snacks, and never had any issue with my normal arm swing. And since they’re all in the front of the pack, convenience couldn’t be any better.

The Wasp provides 390 cubic inches of total storage space in a variety of locations. Two large compartments on the back of the pack – one in a full-length compartment that sits above the fluid reservoir, another in a separate lateral compartment that also contains a key-holder pouch – are big enough to stash extra layers of clothes. The outside of the pack has a large mesh elastic compartment, and a bungee cord to secure bigger gear. There are also Velcro straps for trekking or ski poles – but not being much of a pole user, I can’t say I got excited about those.

It’s really hard to find a drawback to the Wasp pack; thus far it has met every demand I’ve asked of it. Some summary bullets:

  • Higher positioning of fluid reservoir
  • Virtually no movement of fluid reservoir or pack in general
  • Comfortable, ergonomic fit of vest and harness system
  • Front storage areas provide quick access
  • Ample rear and lateral storage areas
  • Insulated drink tube
  • Gender specific models (see below)
  • Rolltop opening may require a couple extra seconds of attention if you’re in a huge hurry to get through aid stations – but unless you’re trying to keep up with Scott Jurek or Nikki Kimball, you probably shouldn’t be worried about this, anyway.
  • It only comes in one color scheme: gray and red. And I’m more of a blue/black person.
OK, so that last one is nitpicking – but like I said, it’s difficult to find any complaint with the Wasp. This is an outstanding product on all counts, and it’s easy to see why it’s gaining in popularity among the ultra crowd.

Ultimate Direction makes a women’s version, called the Wink, with a slightly different harness and strap system. Both models typically retail for $80, and I haven’t found haven’t found any huge discounts lately. The Wasp is available for $80 at Amazon.com.

*If you’ve used this product, please weigh in with a comment to agree, disagree, or share your experience.

**See other product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.

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