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July 31, 2009

If There's a Heaven ...

... I hope it looks something like this:

Picture of Lake Alpine (elev. 7300'), taken from Inspiration Point (elev 7920') in the midst of a trail run earlier this week.

I've spent the past 8 days in one of my all-time favorite playgrounds: the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Alpine County, CA. Our family enjoys an annual summertime excursion here, and each time we visit, it feels harder to say goodbye.

This year, the trails above and around this lake also served as an ideal field testing laboratory for several pieces of gear which I'll review in upcoming weeks; throw that in with a couple of photo essays from the trip as well as the ongoing barefoot running experiment, and we're looking at a busy beginning of August in Running and Rambling Land.

I guess that means the vacation is officially over. They just never last long enough.

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July 30, 2009

Running Tweets

I’ve made an observation to several friends recently that bears repeating here: I would SUCK at Twitter.

All it takes is one look around this place to know that brevity isn’t exactly my thing – so living in a “140 character or less” world would be something akin to the tenth circle of Hell when it comes to my writing proclivity.

However, it’s impossible to ignore the impact Twitter is having on modern athletics – most notably, in the form of high-profile athletes (such as Lance Armstrong or Shaquille O’Neal) who dispatch several tweets per day to hundreds of thousands of admirers who subscribe to their feed. Amateur athletes – including a fair number of bloggers - have embraced the trend as well, using the medium for both rapid, spontaneous communication and to bolster their social networking prowess.

So while I’ll never embrace Twitter, I certainly recognize its impact on the endurance sport community – which was the idea we applied to our latest Monterey Herald column.

My friend Mike and I sent an e-mail to every local runner we know – including coaches, current and former Olympians, and a whole lot of regular Joes – and asked for their best “Twitterized” running advice. (And since we told them it was for publication, I feel OK including their names here.) The result is the article that follows.

**
Running Life 7/30/09 “Running Tweets”


First things first: We’re not on Twitter. We’ve never tweeted. We’ll never make anyone’s top feed list.

However, we were curious as to whether Twitter has any value when it comes to dispensing sage running advice – so we asked many of the best local runners and coaches to tell us how to be a better runner. We only gave them one rule: their answer had to be 140 characters or less.

Here are our favorite responses from the experts …

Former Olympic marathoner Nelly Wright from Pacific Grove: “It is all about attitude. Be positive. Be a good sportsman. Be consistent. Be passionate. Don’t let setbacks get you down. Have fun.”

Professional triathlete Alexis Smith from Seaside: “Set a goal. Write out the training plan. Follow through with your workouts; consistency plays a major role in becoming a better runner.”

North County coach Gus Ibarra took the team approach: “Everyone is a winner. Running takes work. Expect the best. The Team/Family concept overrides any individual achievement.”

Chris Zepeda, Hartnell College coach: “As you get older focus less on the mileage and go back to your youth and hit the track. Train like you did in high school and college.”

Jeff Magallanes from Marina was very specific: “Get Fast! Mon. do 3 to 7 one mile repeats at 10K pace. Weds. do 16 one minute “pulls” at 5K pace. On Sat. a four to 10 mile tempo run at half marathon pace.”

Jim Scattini from Salinas showed impressive versatility, as his answer qualified as both a tweet and a rhyme: “You want to run fast? Just get off your behind or you will place last!”

Matt Clayton, a former 2:14 marathoner from Salinas: “There are no secrets or shortcuts in this sport. Train hard, but be smart enough to listen to what your body is telling you. Don’t let your ego get in the way.”

Some local runners didn’t even need the full 140 characters to dispense their wisdom …

Olympic Marathoner and former Runner’s World Magazine runner of the year Maria Trujillo: “Run fast and work hard.”

Patty Selbicky, former winner of the Big Sur Marathon: “Intervals, intervals, and more intervals…..and listen to Glynn Wood.”

Of course, we then went straight to Glynn Wood, the dean of local runners, with over 65 years of competitive running and coaching experience. His tweet? “Run Run Run!” It’s kind of eloquent in its simplicity.

We were actually fairly surprised to discover some valuable lessons in these short bursts, and considered our Great Twitter Experiment a bona fide success. Each individual tweet is interesting on its own, and when we put all the recommendations together, an ideal overall strategy emerges:

* Be positive and optimistic.
* Be consistent in your training.
* You have to be thoughtful and have a plan.
* To be fast you have to practice running fast.
* There are no secrets and there is no substitute for hard work.
* Enjoy the process and every part of the running life.

Sounds like great advice.

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July 28, 2009

The Barefoot Files

Before we get to today’s post, a quick reminder: you’re running out of shopping days to get great deals on La Sportiva Wildcats, La Sportiva Crosslites, or Injinji socks at Wilderness Running Company. All of the items are on sale for 10% off, plus an additional 10% by using coupon code R&R10 – and if you buy either pair of La Sportivas, you’ll also get a free pair of Drymax socks. These deals end on July 31 for the shoes, and August 3rd for the Injinjis - so get a move on if you want to grab them.

As for today’s post, we’re moving away from shoes in the most fundamental way possible …


**

“And what about those shoes you’re in today?
They’ll do no good … ”
- Jack Johnson, “Gone” (video after post)

*
I mentioned in my Injinji sock review that there’s a notable progression towards a “less is more” philosophy regarding trail running footwear, and I hinted that the idea has been quite compelling to me recently. Truthfully, it’s not just minimalist footwear that has me excited; it’s the thought of running with no footwear at all.

That’s right … I’m starting to run barefoot.

Although this is a brand new direction for me to travel, the idea has been percolating in my head for many years – in fact, almost as long as I’ve been a runner. When I was a novice marathoner nearly 20 years ago, I was enthralled by the story of Abebe Bikila, who won the 1960 Olympic marathon while running barefoot (he did it again in 1964, this time with shoes), and who remains one of my favorite symbols of everything that is admirable about running (I even wrote an article about him way back then, comparing his story to the lessons of the Christmas season. It's a novice effort, but you're welcome to read it.)


As a child, I watched the infamous Zola Budd-Mary Decker race at the 1984 Olympics – and what struck me most wasn’t the fact that the two runners collided (it happens all the time in track, after all), but that Budd regularly mixed it up in a pack of spike-shod athletes with no protection whatsoever to her own feet. And in recent years, I’ve admired the penchant of my favorite elite ultrarunner for logging several barefoot miles each week on high country trails in Colorado.


All three of these athletes have competed at the highest level of their sport, on every running surface imaginable (Budd actually won back to back world cross-country championships in bare feet). So I’ve never really questioned whether somebody could succeed while running barefoot – rather, I just wondered whether it was something I’d have enough patience and discipline to try.

While the notion has always appealed to me, somehow over the course of my progression from marathoner to triathlete to ultrarunner, the timing never seemed right. This summer, a couple of factors have finally persuaded me that there’s no better time than now to make a foray into the world of barefoot running.

The first factor I’ve described in some detail already: I read (and reviewed) the book Born to Run. In addition to being a great page-turner about one of the most fabled ultramarathons ever contested, it’s essentially a 300-page manifesto on the virtues of running barefoot. I won’t rehash all the details here – check out my review if you’re interested – but suffice it to say that I was inspired.

I’ve also mentioned the other factor that plays into this decision: namely, I don’t have anything else to do. My race season is over; there’s nothing on the calendar to distract my attention, and I don’t have to worry about maintaining a certain number of miles per week or pace per mile from one workout to the next. In other words, from a training standpoint, I’ve got nothing but time on my hands.

That last point isn’t insignificant – because from everything I’ve learned, going down this road is a very lengthy process. You have to start with baby steps, progressing from week to week by minutes instead of by miles, and always as the smallest percentage of your overall mileage. The handful of runners who run entirely without shoes build up to that status over a period of several years, not months. I’m going to make every effort to avoid having this become “The Injury Files” once we get fully underway.

It also bears emphasizing that my goal isn’t to become an exclusively barefoot runner (especially since I have a few more shoe reviews lined up - that would be awkward); it’s to incorporate barefoot running as a regular component of my trail running regimen, and get in touch with some of the unique physical, psychological, sociological, and seven spiritual aspects of kicking off my shoes and running free.

So this post is mainly an introduction, and a roadmap of sorts for some topics I’ll be exploring in separate posts intermittently over the next few months. I don’t have a real specific framework in mind, but here’s a sampling of some things I have in store:

* A basic explanation of the biomechanical/anthropological theory behind barefoot running – which, ironically, has recently been embraced and promoted by some of the wealthiest shoe manufacturers in the world.

* A beginner’s guide to barefoot training, based on my own experience plus guidelines from more experienced practitioners. I've done a couple of very short barefoot runs so far, and I'll try to provide specific details about these sessions as they develop.

* A review of the Vibram Five Fingers “shoe”, a brilliant product that straddles the two worlds of barefoot running and high-tech athletic gear, and may be – depending on who you talk to - nothing short of revolutionary, or nothing more than a gimmick.

* A brief foray into the support network of barefoot runners; if you thought ultramarathoners were a crazy fringe element of the sport of running, just wait until you meet some of this crowd.

* Finding the right balance between barefoot running, training shoes, and everyday footwear that optimizes the training and (presumed) health benefits while dampening the “freak factor” that inevitably occurs once people notice my absence of shoes.

I may work some other angles in there as warranted, but this certainly gives me enough to chew on for a while. I’ll also be open to any suggestions for topic ideas as we get further along in the process. Just understand that I don’t really know where this little experiment is going to lead – but I’ll be glad to have some company to share my results with.

*
It’s turning into a Jack Johnson theme week around here – but since we’re in the middle of summer, there’s really no reason to avoid it. Here’s one of his classics, which was later remade by the Black Eyed Peas: “Gone” (click to play)

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July 26, 2009

World Keeps Spinning

"Who's to say -
What's impossible, well they forgot -
This world keeps spinning and with each new day -
I can feel a change in everything ... "
- Jack Johnson, "Upside Down" (video after post)

*
This is a fairly well-known landmark in the Fort Ord open space:


It’s affectionately known as “Hurl Hill” by the local mountain biking community; a short, steep, choppy quad-buster that lies near the end of a 5-mile single track loop through an area called Couch Canyon.

The hill is physically and technically challenging, but just forgiving enough that dismounting to walk your bike seems like a cop-out. Consequently, Hurl Hill doesn’t really give you a choice: your pride says you have to ride it, but your legs and lungs (and maybe, considering the moniker, your digestive system) will hate being worked to shreds while you’re doing it.

So I wasn’t expecting great things from my 11-year-old son when I took him there for the first time last week.

We were halfway through a 10-mile ride, and I had been telling him about the challenge of Hurl Hill at the end of the canyon. As we approached, I gave him encouragement, while at the same time lowering the bar of expectation, so that he wouldn’t be too disappointed if he had to walk: OK man, here we go … it’s a tough one, but just do the best you can … work hard and see what happens … just go as far as you’re able to.

His response: OK, and he rolled off toward the hill while I hung back to take another picture.


I took one frame, then refocused and took another, and was zooming in for a third when the realization hit me: He’s riding a lot further than I thought.

I kept watching … and he kept riding. And riding. And riding some more.

By the time I hopped on my bike and sped into the hill to catch up, he was more than two-thirds of the way to the top; the bike was swerving and wobbling and moving in slow motion, but moving nonetheless. Constant motion, one slow pedal stroke after another, until I had to take my eye off him to make sure that I navigated the hill properly myself.

Once we finally crested the hill, I let out a big “Woo hoo!!”, and asked the question I already knew the answer to: You rode that whole hill, didn’t you?

His response: Yeah. In the midst of very audible hyperventilation – and a very visible smile.

We stopped for some water, took in the view around us, and let the moment settle for a few minutes before finishing off the loop and eventually returning to the car. Aside from the three or four minutes spent on Hurl Hill, it was just like any other bike ride.


Shortly after he got his bike last summer, I wrote in a joking fashion about how the only difference between his performance and mine was the relative strength of our engines. No longer could he use the excuse that his bike wasn't good enough to keep up with me; in fact, his ride is far more advanced than my 20-year-old Rockhopper, so he’s actually working with an advantage. Tagged onto that post, a friend left a comment that has become one of my favorite analogies: dropping your dad on a climb is the new arm wrestling. It's outward evidence that the strength and determination of the pupil has finally surpassed that of the teacher.

I’m not foolish enough to think that my son would never outclimb me – but I figured I had at least 10 or 15 more years before having to deal with such an indignity. However, those few minutes on Hurl Hill made it clear that the time may be coming far sooner than I thought. Our worlds keep spinning, and there's no more time to waste. I suppose I should embrace this revelation as good news … but you’ll forgive me if it feels a little bittersweet as well.

And lest my kid starts getting cocky, there’s one final point that deserves mentioning: I’m not going down without a fight. When our changing of the guard finally comes, that kid’s going to know that he earned it.

"This world keeps spinning and there's no time to waste -
Will it all keep spinning spinning round and round and upside down ...
I don't want this feeling to go away."
-Jack Johnson, "Upside Down" (click to play):



(In case you were wondering, the song and video are from the delightful Curious George soundtrack.)

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July 23, 2009

Injinji Performance Socks Review

Before we get to the review, let me clearly state my bias for the record: when it comes to socks, I’m completely, head over heels, ‘I’d get down on one knee and offer my final rose’ in love with Drymax. Having said that, I’m aware that there are other fish in the sea … and in my evolving role as a product guru, I’m more than happy to try other brands to see how they measure up.


Injinji is a fairly well-known commodity among ultrarunners. They enjoy a devoted following, and the company is affiliated with many high-profile events – such as a little race I completed in Auburn last month. The company sponsors four separate teams, in adventure racing, triathlon, ultrarunning, and regular running (although the distinction between running and ultrarunning seems quite blurry, as the running roster features a very popular blogger who has also become a fantastic ultrarunner). In other words, Injinji is out there, supporting endurance athletes and events in growing numbers since their inception about ten years ago.

As the official sock sponsor of the Western States 100, Injinji sent a pair to all entrants in advance of the 2008 non-race. This spring, when Wilderness Running Company sent me another sample, I figured that receiving two free pairs was some sort of sign that I should sit down and write a formal review. So away we go.

Obviously, Injinji are distinctive for their patented tetratsok design, which is a cool (if hard to spell) word they invented to describe the separate toe coverings; it’s the foot equivalent of putting your fingers into a glove instead of a mitten. This design has several intended benefits: it enables your entire foot to perform in a more biomechanically natural manner, and prevents the moisture buildup and “toe on toe” friction that leads to blisters.


(On a completely unrelated note, the tetratsok design has another fringe benefit: on summer mornings when I want to roll out of bed and slide into a pair of shorts and flip-flops for lounging around the house but my toes feel kind of chilly, I can put on a pair of Injinjis and still wear the flip-flops while warming up my toes. Sure, I look like a nerd - but the rest of my family has long since made that conclusion, so my overall rep is pretty much unchanged.)

Sock nerd in the house!

Injinjis are also very comfortable to wear, which was one of my concerns before trying them out. The individual toe sleeves are seamless, and the fabric blend feels very nice against the skin. The performance sock (the model I tested) features wicking CoolMax on the skin side and nylon on the outside, which help moisture transfer during long, hot activities. The double-layered welt top holds the shape of the sock and keeps all the parts positioned where they’re supposed to be.

Nevertheless, Injinji’s primary marketing strategy isn’t related to the sock’s comfort – it’s in how the sock helps your foot perform more naturally while running.

This “natural running” idea is one that’s gradually gaining traction in the fitness world, and one that’s been especially intriguing to me in recent months. I’ll explain more about my own interest in a separate post next week – but it’s important to note that Injinji has historically been way ahead of this curve. The company was founded with the primary intention of maintaining the foot’s natural anatomy and function in a way that traditional socks couldn’t match – basically, to mimic the feel of running barefoot.

There’s a difference you can feel with your very first run in a pair of Injinjis: instead of just rolling over the ground as a single cohesive unit, your toes immediately start shifting, adjusting, and gripping differently in response to each footfall. It feels a bit odd at first, but once you realize what’s going on, it’s kind of a cool thing to experience – it’s like your toes are waking up and saying “Hey! We can do whatever we want in here! This is great!”

From a biomechanical standpoint, this makes perfect sense: the toes were created (or possibly, evolved by mutation and completely random happenstance – that’s a separate discussion) to facilitate balance, stability, and forward propulsion of the foot. Injinji socks allow this process to happen, but how much functional benefit you actually gain is difficult to assess – which leads to the primary drawback I found with Injinjis.

If your intent is to replicate the function of the human foot while running, the socks you’re wearing can only go so far. A vastly more important factor in this regard is the type of footwear you use; if you’re wearing Injinjis in a pair of motion-thwarting stability shoes, or with artificial arch supports, or in bulky shoes with an elevated heel and hugely cushioned midsole, the normal mechanics of your feet are so stringently diminished that the socks you’re wearing probably can’t make up for it.

Fortunately, there seems to be a clear “less is more” revolution taking place with trail running footwear - as evidenced by the lightweight yet durable La Sportiva models (the Crosslite and Wildcat) I reviewed recently, and by other brands of footwear that strip away as many impediments to the natural function of the foot as possible (spoiler alert – this is also a HUGE hint for an upcoming review I’ve got on deck this summer).

One other small criticism of the Injinjis is the lack of variability in fit. More specifically, the toes of the tetratsok get progressively shorter from big toe to pinky toe – but my 2nd toe (would that that my index toe?) is longer than my big toe, so the fit of the sleeves feel slightly irregular on either side. It’s not enough of a problem to keep me from wearing them – just a little something else for me to gripe about.

No freak toes, please

Overall, the Injinjis are an interesting option if you’re looking to explore the possibilities of running with a more natural feel. They’re also comfortable enough to wear with your regular trail shoes for moisture management and blister prevention.

Injinji performance socks retail for $12, but Wilderness Running Company has them at a 10% discount through August 3rd, and if you use coupon code R&R10, you get an extra 10% off. It’s a good opportunity to start using your toes again.


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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July 21, 2009

The Moment: American River Crossing

How do you compress a 4,000-word race report with more than 40 pictures into a 600-word newspaper column with zero allotted photo space? That’s the question I faced in writing last week’s Monterey Herald article.

Here’s the back story, in case you’re unfamiliar: last year, in addition to my regular running column, I did an extended training diary series in the months leading up to the Western States 100. It built up a fair degree of anticipation within the community (especially, for some reason, in retirement homes – I’ve got a HUGE following in the over-80 demographic), which of course led to some public dismay when the 2008 race was cancelled.

This year, I kept my training relatively low profile. I didn’t really mention it in the Herald column – and since much of the octogenarian crowd can barely use e-mail, let alone search for a blog on the inter-web, most of my fan base who followed along last year had no idea that my candle for Western States still burned, or that everything finally came to fruition at the end of June.

So I wanted to write again about the Western States 100, to bring everybody up to speed, provide a description of the event, and give a sense of the overall experience - all in about one-sixth of the space that I used for my official race report. And as everyone around here is fully aware, brevity isn’t exactly my strong suit.

In my final entry of last year’s training diary, I waxed philosophic about why ultrarunners do the things they do. This year, instead of psychological analysis, I tried to capture a solitary moment; a snapshot of the race that could somehow encompass everything that was good, bad, and crazy about the act of running 100 miles.

And I knew immediately what moment I’d pick.


The American River crossing at mile 78 was the segment of the course I was most looking forward to before the race, and remains the most indelible impression in the aftermath. Cautiously stepping through waist-deep rapids (assisted, as always, by generous support crews), nervously clinging to a guide rope that I could barely wrap my fingers around, when by body was simultaneously blowing up and shutting down, with my race goals long since obliterated, knowing that I still had almost eight hours ahead of me but uncertain if I could actually do it … that’s my Western States experience in a single moment.

It was great, it was terrible … and I knew I had to include it in the Herald article. But instead of trying to make sense of it all, I left it somewhat inexplicable – either a “you get it or you don’t” kind of thing. For the newspaper crowd, I figured that would be enough - however, I made sure to steer people toward the full blog report if I somehow piqued their interest.

One postscript to this story: the day after the article ran in the paper, my 89-year-old grandmother called me to report that the maintenance man at her retirement complex spent his lunch break reading the column out loud to a small audience of listeners. She said I’m some kind of folk hero at the hacienda now … so I’ve got that going for me, I guess. The Monterey Herald article follows below.

(And if you’re really looking to kill some time, the whole training diary series remains on my right-hand sidebar.)

*
Running Life 7/16/09 “Surviving the Western States 100”

Last year, I wrote several articles about training for the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, only to have the race cancelled due to wildfires. Don’t worry - I won’t take it personally if you’ve forgotten.

I, on the other hand, never forgot about the race – if anything, my desire to participate grew even stronger during the fall and winter. This spring, I trained my tail off, and finally toed the line last month with the best ultrarunners in the world.

Western States took me to some unbelievable places, both physically and psychologically. Some were wondrous and exciting. Others were dark and terrifying. A few were just plain bizarre. The end result was a journey that was both humbling and empowering, discouraging yet ultimately uplifting.

The race begins in the former Olympic Village of Squaw Valley, where you rub elbows with the superstars of ultrarunning, see the Olympic rings displayed everywhere, and gaze at the tall mountains you’re about to climb. You can’t help but be inspired - and more than a little bit intimidated. By the end of the race, 160 of the roughly 350 runners at the start line would drop out at some point along the way.

Over the course of 100 miles, I completed 18,000’ of climbing, and 21,000’ of descent traversing one rugged canyon after another en route to the finish line in Auburn. In the two steepest and tallest canyons, temperatures reached 105 degrees on race day. Fortunately, there were river crossings at the bottom of each canyon, where I soaked in the water for several minutes in order to lower my body temperature enough to survive the heat.

The river crossings continued throughout the race – in fact, the biggest one came in the middle of the night. It’s situations like this – standing waist deep in class 3 rapids of the American River at 1:30 in the morning, after running 78 miles with another 22 still to go, so fatigued that you have spasms in every muscle of your body and so sleep deprived that you start to hallucinate – that make you either fall in love with ultrarunning or realize just how crazy the sport is. Or, if you’re like me, both these things happen.

During the 28 hours I was on the course, I battled sore feet, muscle pains, dehydration, mild renal failure, and severe nausea. I danced on the razor’s edge of medical stability, needing several minutes of observation at some mandatory health checkpoints. I was so debilitated that I could barely walk at times, and so discouraged that I wondered why I wanted to.

There’s a popular saying that the person who crosses the finish line of a 100-mile race is far different than the one who starts it – and at Western States, that’s especially true. The course breaks you down in every conceivable way - physically, spiritually, psychologically - and makes you question every aspect of your being. It strips you of all pretense and reveals the very nature of your soul.

Sure, it’s not the most pleasant place to be, but surviving such a gauntlet instills an unbelievable feeling of accomplishment, as well as a sense that anything is possible. All from the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other.

If all this sounds insane, believe me – this summary barely scratches the surface. There’s a very detailed race report and photo tour of the Western States 100 on my website which may give you the full measure of how crazy and amazing ultrarunning really can be.

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July 20, 2009

La Sportiva Crosslite Shoe Review

This review won’t be as lengthy as the previous one – I’ll refer you to my Wildcat review for a brief overview of the La Sportiva company – but it’s every bit as enthusiastic. I’ve put about 100 miles on my La Sportiva Crosslites, and I’ve found it to be a truly remarkable shoe.

Truthfully, I’m a little late to jump on the Crosslite bandwagon: the shoe has already won a handful of “best in category” awards, including a Best Buy award from Runner’s World magazine and a Gear of the Year designation from Outside magazine. So it’s not exactly a secret that the Crosslite is outstanding; the only question is what type of mountain running this model is best suited for.

On that point, it’s worth noting a few differences between the Crosslite and the Wildcat, and from other shoes in the La Sportiva line. While all of the classic La Sportiva characteristics that I described in the Wildcat review – lightweight, low-profile, slipper-like comfort right out of the box – are present in this model, the Crosslite also has some distinguishing features to set it apart from the rest of the line.

The primary difference is on the underside of the Crosslite. La Sportiva’s patented FriXion AT rubber is still utilized, but the lugs are much larger than the ones on the Wildcat, and spaced further apart. The wide spacing helps the sole shed mud more easily – which, combined with the outstanding traction of the soft, sticky FriXion rubber, make this model ideal for mucky, sloppy, muddy conditions.

The sole also features La Sportiva’s Impact Braking System, which is the official designation for the layout I described in my Wildcat review: namely, the outsole lugs are oriented in opposing slanted directions. The result, according the La Sportiva website, is a 20% increase in braking power and a 20% decrease in impact forces. It also helps explain why La Sportiva shoes have a nicely cushioned feel even without the thick midsole that most trail shoes rely upon for shock absorption.

Having said that, the Crosslite isn’t quite as well cushioned as the Wildcat (despite being very similar in weight, at roughly 12oz), and therefore may not be as well suited for super-long duration runs. The La Sportiva rep explained to me that the Wildcat is recommended for distances from 100K to 100M, and the Crosslite is recommended for anything shorter. (More on recommended uses in a minute.)

Another unique feature of the Crosslite is the external scree guard on top of the AirMesh upper, which is like having a gaiter on the top of your forefoot. La Sportiva’s even-torsion lacing system is used on this shoe, but only the top two eyelets are visible on the forefoot. The scree guard also keeps the lacing and the upper snug against the top of the foot, enhancing the fit of the shoe.


The Crosslite has a 2.5-mm composite shank in the midfoot to help with torsional stability, but it lacks the heel stabilizer device seen on the Wildcat, so the disclaimer in my Wildcat review about transitioning gradually from a more stable trainer is especially pertinent with the Crosslite. This difference, plus the slight disparity in cushioning, are likely the rationale for using Wildcats instead of Crosslites for longer distance racing.

Like other shoes in the La Sportiva line, the Crosslite is meant for running fast; they’re built for elites to win races, and for regular schmoes to feel swift and light on the trail. My training group does a weekly 12-miler on hilly fire roads, which often double as long tempo runs for the marathoners among us. It’s the one run each week where I know I may be fighting to keep pace right from the gun – and it’s the one where I’m most grateful for having a pair of Crosslites to help me keep up.

Obviously, all the mainstream fuss over the Crosslite is very well-deserved. Here are the conditions where I think it would be an exceptional choice:

* Wet, muddy, messy technical conditions where traction is especially important.

* Racing distances up to 50M.

* Fast training days where you want to push the pace with intervals, tempo work, etc.

Retail prices for the La Sportiva Crosslite are pretty consistent at $90 from multiple vendors, but Wilderness Running Company has once again agreed to hook my readers up with a sweet deal between now and the end of July. They’re currently listing the Crosslite at a sale price of $80 with free shipping, and if you use coupon code R&R10, you’ll get an extra 10% off that price, and a free pair of Drymax socks, just because they’re extra special awesome.

The Crosslite is a sleek, comfortable shoe that can handle any trail condition you encounter in training, and help you lower your PRs on race day.

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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July 16, 2009

La Sportiva Wildcat Shoe Review

If I told you that you should buy trail running shoes from a company that specializes in wooden clogs and lumberjack boots, would you be interested? At first glance, probably not.

But if I went on to tell you that the company has a long history of producing durable mountain gear, and that they’ve expanded their original focus to include footwear for rock climbing, alpine hiking and adventure running, you’d be a bit more curious, right?

What if I continued to explain that the company has become one of the biggest supporters of ultrarunning over the past several years, sponsoring multiple race series and a team of elite trail runners? Or that they provide exclusive gear for the most hardcore mountaineers and high-altitude athletes all over the world? Or that the company’s shoes were worn by winners of this year’s Western States and Hardrock 100-Mile races? You’d definitely pay attention then, wouldn’t you?

Readers, meet La Sportiva.

Considering that the company is relatively novel to many trail runners out there, it’s remarkable to learn that La Sportiva has been around for more than 80 years. They originated, and are still headquartered, in a small mountain town at the foot of the Dolomites in northern Italy. (Reflecting their origins, it makes sense that La Sportiva very seldom uses the words “trail running” for their gear – they prefer the phrase “mountain running”.) It has remained a family business that passes expertise down from one generation to the next, while collaborating with its sponsored athletes to push the boundaries of innovation for high performance.

They’re also a very generous company, as reflected in their extensive sponsorships (check that roster for this year's Western States women's champion and the Hardrock men's winner), promotional efforts (they even have two blogs!) and race series awards – especially at a time when many other companies are withdrawing or limiting financial support of amateur athletes. I’ve wanted to establish a relationship with LaSportiva for quite some time, so I was thrilled when I got the opportunity to review two different shoe models from their current line.

Today’s review features the Wildcat, which is billed as a stable, neutral shoe – and the most cushioned shoe in the LaSportiva line.

That description doesn’t mean the shoe is bulky – in fact, the immediate observation I had about both models (the Wildcat and the Crosslite, which will be reviewed next time) is how sleek and light they feel straight out of the box; they’re the shoe version of an Italian sports car. And it’s probably not a coincidence that LaSportiva shoes are endearingly nicknamed “Sporties” by runners who’ve used them. They trigger a primitive reaction of sorts - you put them on your feet, and you instantly feel like running fast.

The Wildcat weighs just 12oz, with a low profile around the ankle, and a slipper-like feel through the forefoot aided by an even-tension lacing system and a thin, breathable sockliner. I felt like I could run a 50K in these shoes right out the door – they were instantly comfortable and responsive without any breaking-in period. Adding to the lightweight feel of the shoes are AirMesh uppers, through which you can literally feel air moving with each stride. The AirMesh provides this cool ventilation while preventing dirt and debris from getting through to your socks.

Fortunately, being lightweight doesn’t sacrifice the shoe’s toughness. There’s a molded piece called a Transkinetic Heel Stabilizer at the back of the shoe to help with stability on rugged surfaces, and some rubber-dipped mesh for extra protection in vulnerable areas like the tip of the forefoot to keep clumsy runners from injuring themselves too often.

LaSportiva prides itself in its outsole traction, and the Wildcat uses their patented FriXion AT rubber which maximizes grip and responsiveness on the most slippery and treacherous terrain. Basically, the rubber is softer and stickier than the outsoles of most other shoes, but die-cut and angled in various directions throughout the sole to enhance braking and minimize slippage while also adding to the cushioned feel of the shoe.

In practice, the traction control of the Wildcat is quite remarkable. I used these shoes during the first 30 miles of the Western States 100, on high country terrain featuring lots of loose rocks and long stretches of trail that were submerged in spring runoff. I didn’t have any missteps, and I felt so confident going through slick, rocky sections of trail that I frequently charged right down the middle of extended water channels that many other runners slowed to tiptoe around.

Overall, I was very impressed with the performance of the Wildcats, with a couple of caveats. The first is that, given my size (6’2”) and pronation tendency, the neutral support and low profile of this shoe takes some getting used to. I transitioned to the Wildcats from a pair of Montrail Hardrocks, and at first it felt like the foot equivalent of climbing out of a Hummer and into a Ferrari – you can definitely move faster, but you’re going to feel like you’re rolling all over the road for a little while. If you’re accustomed to a sturdier shoe, LaSportiva has a model called the Lynx which is built up slightly more than the Wildcat and marketed toward heavier runners.

The other drawback I found was that on the steep downhill sections of the Western States trail, I had a bit of contact on both sides of the toebox. Sporties use a narrower cut through the forefoot than most other brands (especially compared to Montrails), and although that slipper-like fit is generally very comfortable, it might be an issue on steep slopes if you have fat toes like me.

I was confident enough in these shoes to lace them up for Western States, but I was wary that the toebox situation might become a problem, so that was the reason for the shoe change I described in my race report. I had my “old reliable” Montrails waiting for me at Robinson Flat (mile 30) just in case I needed them - and when I arrived there, I didn’t have any blisters or major problems, but the concern was noticeable enough that I didn’t want to risk the next 70 miles and much steeper canyons that awaited. However, I’ve continued to wear the Wildcats since race day without problems – it’s only on those super-long, super-steep days that I might think twice about them.

Pricing for the Wildcat is fairly consistent: they sell for $100 at REI, $100 at ZombieRunner, and even $100 at Amazon, who can seemingly discount just about anything. However, my friends at Wilderness Running Company have put together a pretty sweet deal: the Wildcats are on sale for $90, with their usual free shipping - and if you use coupon code R&R10, you get an additional 10 percent discount, and they'll even throw in a free pair of Drymax socks - my favorite brand, and typically a $12 value - as a bonus. Trust me, this is definitely the best deal you'll find, and it's good until the end of this month.

(On a related note ... have I mentioned how much I'm loving Wilderness Running Company lately? Give them your business, people - they're working hard for it.)

If you’re looking for a very comfortable, durable, all-purpose trail running (oops – I mean mountain running) shoe that makes you feel like a speedster, and interested in supporting a dynamic company that invests time, effort, and money to the world of ultrarunning, the La Sportiva Wildcat will make an excellent addition to your gear closet.


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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July 13, 2009

Vail Mountain Biking

Some runners spend time at high altitude to get in shape; I do it to get fat and lazy.

The mountains have always been my favorite place to kick back and escape the concerns of everyday life – so when our family had the opportunity to vacation in Vail, Colorado shortly after last month’s Western States 100, we jumped at the chance.

Vail had everything we could ask for: over the course of nine days, we spent a lot of time reading books, relaxing in hot tubs, eating burgers and pizza, and becoming excessively skilled at dual-paddle, two-puck air hockey. In other words, it was completely nonproductive – and completely awesome.

Here’s another reason I knew it was going to be a killer vacation: less than one mile from our condo was a Safeway store, and in that store, 20-packs of bakery chocolate chip cookies were on sale all week long. I mean … you can’t even plan for something that great. By the 4th time I returned, I was on a first-name basis with most of the Safeway bakery staff.

They even had an ideal form of exercise for slackers like me: downhill mountain biking. This turned out to be my favorite activity, and one I was able to enjoy for a couple of days with my 11-year-old son. By the time we were finished, we both agreed that this is just about the coolest thing ever invented.

Here’s how it works: you load your bikes in the gondola at the base of Vail Mountain …


… then let the gondola carry you 2300’ up the mountain, to a dropoff point called Eagles Nest, about three-quarters of the way to the summit. If your kids are too young for mountain biking, there are a lot of activities at the top like bungee trampolines, rock climbing, and a dinosaur dig they can enjoy before taking the gondola back down.


Outside Eagles Nest (at roughly 10,350’), you have a killer view of the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the most distinctive of Colorado’s 54 “Fourteeners” (mountains over 14’000’ – although at 14,005’ this one barely qualifies): if you enlarge the above photo, you can make out the namesake formation on the left-hand face, created by two rocky shelves that retain snow far longer than the surrounding slope.


From this point, you can saddle up and ride upward to the 10,980' summit of Vail Mountain, or into its beautiful back bowls … or if you’re in slacker mode like I was, you point the bike downhill and start rolling.


The biking trails are generally separate from the winter ski runs, although a few of them are shared. There are separate signs to guide the bike riders, and the trails are categorized the same way ski runs are: green circles for easy, blue squares for challenging, and black diamonds for experts.


This fire road doubles as a catwalk for snow machinery during the winter, and it’s the most gradual route up and down the mountain. If you wanted to avoid paying 20 bucks for the all-day gondola pass, you could ride this catwalk 7 miles uphill to get to Eagles Nest. Sounds like a great workout, doesn’t it? In fact, we passed a lot of riders doing exactly that.

I briefly considered riding to the top, except, um … did I mention that I was on vacation? And since using the gondola enables you to ride down the mountain four or five times in a single day, you get a lot more value for your slacker dollar this way.


Most of the blue trails are single track that wind through very pretty aspen groves …


… or crisscross the regular ski runs in and out of the evergreens.

This ride actually proved to be an antidote of sorts to my son, who suffered his first major downhill wipeout several weeks ago, and still has road rash scars on his elbows and knees as a constant reminder. Ever since the crash, he’s been understandably cautious on any downhill slope, overcompensating with the brakes on hills that he used to bomb. His two days on the mountain were like an extended rehab session, as he gradually remembered about picking the right lines through technical sections, keeping his balance off the saddle, shifting his weight into turns, and – most importantly - learning to trust the bike again.

(Of course, he probably got sick and tired of my constant instruction to “Let the bike roll!” every time I sensed hesitation. I did everything short of jump on his back like Yoda – but I think the message eventually got through.)


"Roll, the bike should ..."

In fact, the ride was such an intensified downhill experience that by the end of the second day, my son was complaining of his hands and forearms being sore from working the brakes so much. Actually, “complaining” might be a strong word; there wasn’t really a negative connotation to his report of soreness – it was more a point of observation after what he described as a very cool experience on the mountain.

As for me, I got a huge kick out of two full days enjoying 100% of the fun of mountain biking, with 0% of the difficulty. It probably didn’t help to offset the four cartons of Safeway cookies, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. That’s another worry for another day.

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Something Like That

Although I’m moving forward with the blog, there are bound to be occasional backwards glances at Western States over the next several weeks – one of which is the subject of today’s post …

Actual exchange between me and the massage therapist that my awesome wife hooked me up with two days after my completion of the Western States Endurance Run …

*
Therapist: So tell me your situation – what can I help you with today?

Me: Well, I spent most of the weekend running on trails up in the Sierras, and I’m pretty sore now.

Therapist: OK … so what are you, training for some kind of marathon or something?

Me: Um … yeah. Something like that.

*

And later, after the massage was over …

*
Therapist: You know, something happened during that massage that I took as a compliment.

Me: (immediately thinking to myself, “Oh crap – did it move?”) Really? What?

Therapist: You fell asleep during the massage. That tells me you feel very relaxed with me.

Me: Oh, right. You betcha.

*

I’m fully aware that in both of these exchanges, I could have taken an extra 30 seconds to explain my situation in a way that would have clarified things a bit better … but honestly, I just didn’t feel like it. It’s not that I ever mind talking about my running – but the thought of triggering another “Wow, you’re crazy!” discussion at a time when all I wanted was to chill out was more than I was looking to deal with. Sometimes, things are simply best left unexplained.

On the plus side, it was a nice massage - and I'm fairly certain that it DIDN'T move.

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July 10, 2009

Now What?

Whenever I finish a big race, I spend quite a bit of time thinking of the tank gang from Finding Nemo.

In particular, I replay the final scene where the fish from Dr Sherman’s dental office make a daring escape by first clogging the tank’s filter, and - once placed into individual plastic bags for tank cleaning - rolling themselves across the table, out the open windowsill, across four lanes of traffic, and over the pier to finally find their escape in the big blue Pacific. They cheer their amazing accomplishment, then float silently for a few seconds, at which time Bloat the porcupine fish voices the question on all their minds: Now what?

(And if by some chance you’ve never seen the movie, or forgotten the scene, just click and watch the first 80 seconds of the video below.)



So that’s where I’ve been mentally for the past couple of weeks: celebrating my achievement, in some ways marveling at how I was able to accomplish it in the first place, and trying to answer the quiet question growing steadily louder in the back of my mind: now what?

I indicated earlier that I don’t have any race plans for the remainder of the year, or any huge event on my radar for 2010. The situation is like this by design, but I admit that it feels a bit foreign. Normally my motivation for training comes from anticipation of one challenge or another; without anything tangible to work towards, I’m guessing that compulsion will be greatly diminished.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s hard to explain the weight that is off my shoulders now that Western States is in the books; I feel like I have all kinds of time to refocus on other areas of my life that have suffered in the process of averaging 80 miles a week for five straight months. It’s one of those balance issues, and I’m making a course correction to steer myself closer to the midline I frequently claim to straddle but veer away from more often than I like to admit.

Perhaps another great adventure will capture my attention someday, but I’m not going out of my way to seek it for a while. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the freedom of training as much – or, in some cases, as little – as I want to, whenever I want to, as a secondary endeavor behind the other priorities in my life. (You know … just like normal people do.)

As far as the blog is concerned, it’s full steam ahead. I have a handful of product reviews on tap*, a vacation report featuring a cool mountain biking story, and the rest of the customary nonsense that pops into my head during whatever miles I spend on the trail.

After all, just because I don’t know where I’m going, that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the journey.

**

*on the subject of product reviews, a couple of updates …

1) The Drymax Lite Trail socks that I tested and
promoted during the Western States training camp are now available to the general public, and you can get a sweet deal on them from Wilderness Running Company, who have a a special introductory price of $7 through the end of the month. Believe me: when you can get Drymax socks for seven bucks, you should grab them by the handful. The lite version is ideal for hot summer trail running.

2) I raved quite a bit during
my review of the GoLite Rush pack, and since that post was written, my recommendation would only grow stronger. In the past several weeks, I’ve used it for running, hiking, biking, travelling, and as a basic day use pack, and it’s served all of those purposes wonderfully. The Rush is also available from Wilderness Running Company, and you’ll get a 10% discount by using the coupon code (R&R10) on my left sidebar.

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July 1, 2009

Western States 100 Race Report

“Congratulations! Today is your day.

You're off to Great Places! You're off and away!”
- Dr Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

If the quote above sounds familiar – aside from the obvious fact that it’s from the greatest children's book ever written - it’s because I used it last summer, in what was supposed to be my final post prior to the 2008 Western States Endurance Run.

Of course, that race never happened, so I didn’t want to use the same quote prior to this year’s Western States for fear that I’d trigger some kind of last minute bad juju to threaten the race again this year. However, Dr Seuss’s flowing verse to a bold, starry-eyed child embarking on the adventure of a lifetime turned out to be the perfect description of my race weekend.

The Western States 100 took me to some unbelievable places – both physically and psychologically. Some were wondrous and exciting. Others were dark and terrifying. A few of them were just plain bizarre. The end result was a journey that was both humbling and empowering, exhausting but energizing, discouraging yet ultimately uplifting.

With that in mind, here’s the race report – with excerpts from the book to help guide us:


Squaw Valley

“You'll be on your way up! You'll be seeing great sights!
You'll join the high fliers who soar to high heights.”

It seems quite appropriate that the check-in and start areas for the Western States 100 are in the former Olympic Village of Squaw Valley – because the first thing that strikes you when you arrive here is how everybody around you is the real deal.

Everywhere you look at Squaw, you see somebody from the cover of Ultrarunning magazine, or match faces to names you’ve seen at the top of race results all over the country. Collectively, they’re the highest fliers of the sport. Yes, there’s a lottery system that keeps a lot of people out of Western States, but the race has other means (by points series and guaranteed entries to previous top-10 finishers) to draw top runners – and the result is a constellation of ultrarunning stars hobnobbing with regular folks in the days leading up to the race.

Even the “regular” folks in this race look hardcore – after all, it's not like there's a half-marathon option at this event – after doing the necessary training to complete 100 miles. As you’re walking around this crowd, seeing Olympic rings all over the place, and gazing at the high heights you’ll be climbing on race day, you can’t help but be inspired. (And probably more than a little bit intimidated, but you try not to think of that.)


Squaw Valley to Escarpment: miles 0-3.5

“You're off the Great Places! Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting. So...get on your way!”

In case you hadn’t guessed by now, the above pics were taken on the day before the race, because on race morning …

All was dark on the start line. And with only 13 minutes to go before the race, where was everybody? …

Oh, here they are. I figured it was best to stay away from the mob as much as possible at the start, so I wouldn’t get sucked into foolishly trying to keep pace with anybody.

Sometimes you’ll hear people say that they want to establish position before the trail turns to single track (where it’s tougher to pass other runners), but the majority of this first steep climb is on wide open fire roads, so fighting for position seems largely unnecessary.

The fire roads eventually turn to single track near the top, but at this point, I was more concerned with trying to not slide off the mountain than with trying to pass people.

Besides, I was primarily interested in enjoying the great sights after soaring (well, OK … mostly walking) to these high heights.

At the top of the Escarpment (elevation 8700’), with snow behind me, and Lake Tahoe in the background.


Escarpment to Red Star Ridge: miles 3.5-16.0

“It's opener there in the wide open air.
Out there things can happen, and frequently do

To people as brainy and footsy as you.”

From the top of Escarpment, the next several miles roll gently – and mostly downhill – through some of the most beautiful wide open scenery you could ever ask for.

The air is filled with the scent of pines, the trail meanders through forests and across rocky outcroppings, and it’s still early enough that most people are feeling pretty good. In other words, this is the part of the race to savor.

Unfortunately, this is where I started having a few minor troubles, but I was fairly certain that they would be short-term problems. I penciled myself in for a shoe change at Robinson Flat (a longer story that I’ll explain in an upcoming shoe review), and figured I’d just work my way through the unusual muscle cramping I was experiencing.

However, I have to admit that while absorbing as much of the majestic surroundings as possible, a small thought was taking shape in my head: things that shouldn’t be happening to my body – at least, not yet - were starting to happen. It wasn’t the most comforting thought to carry with me through the next several miles.


Red Star Ridge to Robinson Flat: miles 16.0 – 29.7

“And then things start to happen, don't worry. Don't stew.
Just go right along. You'll start happening too.”

Obviously, it’s not unusual to go through some dark places during an ultramarathon … but it was unusual for me to go through them so early in the race. By the time I reached the Duncan Canyon aid station, I felt like the race had already thrown me a knockdown punch, and I needed to pick myself off the mat.

I was having foot issues. And muscle issues. And stomach issues (more on that later). And the heat was just starting to become a major factor - by the afternoon, it would approach 100 degrees. Suddenly, gentle stretches of trail like this didn’t seem so gentle anymore.

That’s why it was great to see this sign after leaving the Duncan Canyon station. Would my pain stop getting worse? I honestly had no idea. What I decided, though, was that whatever things kept happening, I’d just go right along.

And then I started happening, too. I was able to run much of this stretch of formerly burnt (and rerouted, in past years) forest feeling fairly comfortable.

I always love seeing these burnt-out areas in their early stages of repair. The symbolism of it is simple and profound: life prevails. No matter what devastation has been forced upon it, the drive to recover and prosper is always greater. It’s a nice metaphor for ultrarunners, I think.


Robinson Flat to Dusty Corners: miles 29.7 – 38.0

“I'm sorry to say so, but sadly, it's true
That Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you.”

I finally made the long climb out of the canyon to Robinson Flat, promptly grabbed my drop bag and found a chair. Within about 10 seconds, I received some foot care assistance from a wonderful volunteer, and felt newly confident as I headed into the long downhill stretches that awaited us.

My feet were much better, but the rest of my bang-ups and hang-ups were just getting started. My body was doing strange things: even on easy stretches like this one, I was getting sharp spasms in almost every muscle group. Sometimes the pains were so severe as to stop me in my tracks, and forced me to adjust my normal stride in hopes of finding a more comfortable gait.

With more than 60 miles left to go, the truth of the situation slowly sank in: this could turn out to be an extremely long, difficult race.


Dusty Corners to Devil’s Thumb: miles 38.0 – 47.8

“On and on you will hike, and I know you'll hike far
And face up to your problems whatever they are.”

I’ve gone through enough difficulty in ultras to know that your mental outlook is the most important weapon in your arsenal to overcome adversity; therefore, what distressed me the most was how miserable I was feeling about my plight through the second quarter of the race. Basically, my attitude was terrible, and that meant big trouble.

Fortunately, since I attended the training camp this spring, I knew what lay ahead: a long descent to Deadwood Canyon, with a river crossing at the bottom. I immediately knew how to face up to my problems: I’d head down to the river, and let the water wash all the negative energy off of me.

This borders on corny spirituality, but it’s absolutely true: at the bottom of Deadwood Canyon, I took all of my worries into the river, and submerged myself in the living water. I stayed underwater for about 20 seconds, rubbing my face and head, feeling the current sweep the physical and emotional dirt of the first 46 miles away from my body – and when I broke the surface, I had a renewed spirit. It was like being born again, right in the shadow of Devil’s Thumb.

From that point forward, I made a commitment that no matter what else happened, I’d stay positive and focus on whatever needed to be done to get me to the finish. It was good thing I did … because the worst was yet to come.


Devils’ Thumb to Foresthill: miles 47.8 – 62.0


“You can get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch.
And your gang will fly on. You'll be left in a Lurch.”

After climbing Devil’s Thumb without problems, I made my way to the bottom of El Dorado Creek enjoyed another dip in the cool water. This photo could be my last happy moment of the race – because it was shortly thereafter that the wheels of my wagon started to completely collapse.

(And a brief warning before we continue: this storyline could get kind of gross.)

On the long climb to Michigan Bluff, several body systems seemed to abruptly shut down – chief of which was my digestive system. I became terribly nauseated, and pulled over on the side of the trail to deal with it. About 5 minutes later, I did it again.

By this time, I must have looked pretty bad – each of the runners who passed me through this section asked if I was OK, and one even gave me a handful of Tums to help settle my stomach down.

Five minutes later, the Tums were on the trail as well.

When I finally staggered into Michigan Bluff, I saw concern in the eyes of the medical volunteers. I was 5% below my starting weight, feeling lightheaded, and battling the toughest heat of the day.

As luck would have it, the absolute best person in the world for such a situation was right there: Gretchen, who had been volunteering and spectating throughout the weekend, and just happened to be at Michigan Bluff in time for my meltdown. After the medic guided me into a chair, Gretchen gave me a back rub and slowly nursed me back to life. She was every bit the guardian angel I needed at that moment.

I spent more than 25 minutes at Michigan Bluff, watching countless other runners come and go as I sipped on broth and nibbled ginger sticks, took about 10 swallows to eat a single Gu pack, and attempted a couple of false starts that were derailed by dizziness. Eventually I regained my composure enough to take a few tentative steps away from the aid station, and decided to continue on down the trail.

Incidentally – remember that slowly-consumed Gu pack? It would be the last food to stay in my stomach for the remainder of the race.


Foresthill to Dardanelles: miles 62.0 – 65.7

“You can get so confused that you'll start in to race
Down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
And grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space.”

Given the amount of time I burned at Michigan Bluff, and considering how lousy I was feeling, I knew at this point that my hopes of breaking 24 hours were fairly remote – but I also knew that I had one wildcard left to play that might change the game: when I rolled into Foresthill, I’d be joined by my pacer Brian, which might be the spark I needed to bounce back.

I was doing all sorts of crazy math in my head, realizing that I’d have to make up as much time as I could, starting as soon as possible. I was able to first jog, and then run down into Volcano Canyon, and I picked up my pace again within a mile of the Foresthill aid station (where, miraculously, Gretchen was there to say hi again. At least, I think it was her – I’m pretty sure I didn’t start hallucinating until much later.)

When Brian joined me, I wasn’t thinking clearly at all. All I could talk about was getting back on the trail and making up time, and started barking orders about how much ground we had to make up (on a related note – from this point forward, suffice it to say that I wasn’t exactly a pleasure to be around. My pacer deserved combat pay for his work shift during the night – more about him a bit later.).

Shortly after leaving Foresthill, I made a desperate last stand of sorts, trying to see what I was still capable of, and if I still had any prayer of staying on my goal pace. I raced down the long wiggled single track trails, trying to gain as much ground as possible in the daylight. The plan worked fairly well, as I rolled into Dardanelles with my best average split of the entire race.


Dardanelles to Ford’s Bar: miles 65.7 – 73.0

“You'll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump.
And the chances are then, that you'll be in a Slump.
And when you're in a Slump, you're not in for much fun.
Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.”

Of course, it didn’t take long for my already depleted body to go into complete shutdown mode after that kind of effort – and the first major hill out of Dardanelles proved to be the unpleasant bump that sent me spiraling into a capital-S Slump.

Suddenly, I couldn’t walk uphill without hyperventilating, and I couldn’t hyperventilate without becoming extremely lightheaded. I emptied my stomach out a few more times – and now, in addition to not taking solid foods, I couldn’t keep any fluids down, either.

That’s when I knew that all bets were off in regards to finishing within a goal time, or even finishing at all. I also knew that the rest of the evening definitely wouldn’t be very much fun.

Ford’s Bar to Rucky Chucky: miles 73.0 – 78.0

“The Waiting Place ... for people just waiting …
… waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
Or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
Or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
Or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.”

I walked the rest of the way to the Ford’s Bar aid station, and began what would become my aid station routine: crash into a chair while Brian brought me a cup of some kind of liquid - either broth, soda, or water – drink the fluid in small sips, then hold completely still to let my crippled stomach try to process it.

I drank, then waited … then drank a bit more, and waited some more. Each aid station stop grew longer and longer, which was completely fine by me. My main concern was to simply to maintain some sustenance for the continued journey ahead.

To my dismay, that kind of rebound wasn’t happening; instead of getting better, I was getting worse and growing weaker as the evening wore on. And these waiting places became the darkest places of all.

Rucky Chucky to Green Gate: miles 78.0 – 79.8

“There's a very good chance -
You'll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.
There are some, down the road between hither and yon
That can scare you so much you won't want to go on.”

Prior to race day, the part of Western States I was most looking forward to was crossing the American River in the middle of the night – but now, as I hobbled to the rope line that guided me through the waist deep water, that anticipation was mixed with more than a little bit of fear.

I wasn’t in much condition to keep my footing in the moving rapids, but pulled through with the help and encouragement of a whole line of volunteers. Beyond the river, we walked all the way up the 2-mile climb to the Green Gate aid station.


Green Gate to Auburn Lake Trails: miles 79.8 – 85.2

“You'll get mixed up, of course, as you already know.
You'll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go.”

This is probably a good time to mention something else about my pacer: he was absolutely perfect. Especially in comparison to some of the strange birds we saw out there – the drill sergeant type, the enthusiastic cheerleader, the fawning boyfriend/girlfriend, etc - I felt like I hit the pacer lotto.

Brian let me travel ahead of him on nearly every trail; he walked when I walked, shuffled when I shuffled, and ran when I ran, all without question or complaint. He made small talk at the right times, gave me course information when I needed it, and knew when to shut the heck up. He never questioned whether or not I should continue through the night, and – perhaps most noble of all – he didn’t make squeamish faces during all the times I was throwing up.

He also didn’t make fun of me when another strange thing started happening: namely, I started seeing things. Small animals, in particular.

More than a few times, we had an exchange that went something like this:

Me: Hey, look at that – be sure to take a picture of it.

Brian: What? Where?

Me: Those two prairie dogs over there … they’re standing right on the trail.

Brian: Um … that’s a fallen branch.

Me: Really? OK. Nevermind then.

Perhaps the strange bird out there was actually me – but at least I had a great companion bird by my side. And for that, I’m forever grateful.


Auburn Lake Trails to Brown’s Bar: miles 85.2 – 89.9

“Somehow you'll escape all that waiting and staying -

You'll find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing.”

Miraculously, at the tail end of the darkness, I was actually able to maintain a steady jog while keeping my stomach contents on the inside. We rolled into the Auburn Lake Trails aid station, where we spoke with Pamela (the aid station captain) and started my usual sit-sip-puke routine, and a funny thing occurred: the puke part never happened.


We started out of ALT at a walk, but eventually broke in to a jog, as the first gray traces of dawn started spilling onto the trail. Shortly before we arrived at Brown’s Bar, Brian told me that we had run each of the four miles faster than the one before.

Brown’s Bar is a crazy place – there were Halloween decorations, cross dressers, and classic rock blasting from loudspeakers in the middle of the forest. Sitting there taking it all in, I started to feel like I was finally escaping all my waiting and staying, and at long last heading toward a brighter place.

Brown’s Bar to No Hands Bridge: miles 89.9 – 96.8

"With banner flip-flapping, once more you'll ride high!
Ready for anything under the sky.
Ready because you're that kind of a guy!”

After a backbreaking climb to Highway 49 (at mile 93 – quite cruel), I continued running almost all the way through rolling pastures and a long descent to another place I’ve waited forever to see, No Hands Bridge.

By this time, the sun was fully risen, and it was starting to get warm again – but the morning heat wasn’t going to weaken me any further after I’d come this far. With just over three miles to go, I felt ready for anything … I only wish I had felt that way about 10 hours earlier.


No Hands Bridge to Placer High School (Finish): miles 96.8 – 100.2

“And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)”

The final two miles include a long climb to Robie Point and through the neighborhood surrounding Placer High School - but by the time I hit the streets, it didn’t matter one bit. For the first time in 28 hours, I was absolutely certain that I would make it to the finish.

It’s one thing to have the confidence and willpower to succeed at all costs, but it’s something else to actually know with certainty that it would happen. Despite all of my determination, I always felt – beginning very early in the day - like I was just one more mistake or problem away from being unable to continue. But then I was stepping onto the track, and charging towards the finish line.

A friend of mine is on the Western States board, and he was there to give me my medal. He looks happy to see me here – but not nearly as happy as I was to see him. Besides, I really needed somebody to help hold me up.

Post-Race

“So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact
And remember that Life's a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.”

After that, things became kind of a blur. I grabbed a quick shower at my hotel, returned to Placer High School to receive my belt buckle at the awards ceremony, and was halfway back to the car before I thought, “Hey, maybe I should take a picture of this thing.”

It wasn’t that I was ambivalent about the award (or the fact that it was bronze instead of silver), but I had already received everything I could ask for from the Western States 100. What initially felt like disappointment at not running a sub-24-hour time quickly evolved into immense pride and satisfaction from staring down more demons and dangers than I ever imagined, and coming through them in one piece. I have more than enough memories and good feelings to last me quite a while.

Truthfully, I’m not the kind of person who can do this sort of thing all the time; I need to play both sides of life’s Great Balancing Act throughout the year, which means that I need to throw a lot of weight on the other side of the scale when an adventure like this one is all said and done.

So that’s what I’m doing now: I’ll take a brief blog hiatus for a while, then ease back into the training and writing as time and other commitments allow. It took me two years to finally run this race – so I’m definitely looking forward to having nothing looming on the calendar for a while.

That’s not to say that there aren’t any more places to go; it’s just that I’m going to take my time in getting there.

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