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April 28, 2012

Spirit of Big Sur; Random Shots of Beauty

Going back to the old days for this weekend's topic, in honor of Big Sur Marathon weekend on the Monterey Peninsula this Sunday.  Big Sur used to be the end-all, be-all race for me ... but then triathlons and ultramarathons came along, and nowadays it seems like just another race.

However, it doesn't take much for me to recall just how amazing the race experience can be, and just how incomparable the Big Sur coastline is as a backdrop for a race.  It was these kind of recollections that formed the topic of our Monterey Herald column this week, which follows below.

And we may as well stick with the theme for our Random Shot of Beauty:

Bixby Bridge at mile 13 of the Big Sur Marathon course, as photographed for my 2009 race report.

To anyone who is running this Sunday: be sure to savor the experience, because it's truly one of the best you'll ever have.  And to anyone who hasn't run Big Sur yet: be sure to put it on your list someday.  You can thank me later.

Running Life 04/28/12                                 “Spirit of Big Sur”

Can a race be a religious experience?  The question often comes up when we talk to Big Sur neophytes, because we're reminded of the awe and wonder of the marathon experience through unfamiliar eyes.

We often have opportunities to support friends who have taken on the challenge of running the Big Sur Marathon. This year a relatively talented newcomer named John has joined us for several training runs, and has been enthusiastically following our advice.

After John’s last long training run he invited us to his house for a beer, and started asking questions about his taper. (Which should have started with, "Why are we drinking beer?")  When Mike headed to the refrigerator for another Anchor Steam, he noticed large “John 3:16” signs displayed prominently on the door.

When Mike returned he commented, “I didn’t know you were religious.”

John replied, “I’m not particularly religious - why do you ask?”

Mike said, “Because you have John 3:16 signs on the fridge.”

John remarked, “Oh, that’s funny - I didn’t even think of that. You guys told me to motivate myself by putting my goal marathon time where I could see it, so I picked the fridge.  I think I can run 7 minutes and 30 seconds a mile, which works out to 3 hours and 16 minutes.”

The exchange triggered an interesting discussion of running and religion - or perhaps running AS religion.  Along the way we touched upon some great pieces advice for anyone running the Big Sur Marathon, regardless of their ability level.

The most important point is this: whether you are running Big Sur for the first time or the 27th; whether your goal is breaking 3 hours, setting a personal best time, or just reaching Carmel before they tear down the finish line; whether or not you are religious, you have to realize that on Sunday, you will be doing something absolutely magical. 

This race and this place are special.  The magnificence of the shoreline, the crashing of the surf, and the tranquility of pastoral hillsides - regardless of whether you believe God created them, can be used to enrich your journey up the coast.  Beautiful music will provide a soundtrack to the splendor at multiple locations along the way.  Be sure to savor all of it on race day, and don't let yourself just stare at the white line on the road

Channel the excited energy of the doves released at the start as they fly in serpentine patterns, framed by hills and redwoods on their journey home.  Feel the camaraderie of 6,000 feet echoing through the redwood groves of Big Sur. Greet the breeze that awaits you at Molera State Park with a smile; it's here that you'll see your first glimpse of the beautiful Pacific Ocean.

Be envigorated and challenged by the two-mile climb up to Hurricane Point, and capture a memory for a lifetime as you cross Bixby Bridge and hear Michael Martinez on the Grand Piano.  

In the "lonely miles” from 16 to 21, when the spectators disappear, ponder what a gift it is to be able to run a marathon.  Yes, you'll be uncomfortable - but that's part of the experience.  Keep taking step after step to prove how strong you are in both body and spirit.  

After you finish (and we KNOW you will), keep your finisher’s medal as a constant reminder of the magic of the Big Sur Marathon and its power, like a religious revival, to uplift your very soul. 

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April 25, 2012

Once in a Lifetime: Mokelumne River 50-Mile Race Report

"You may ask yourself, 'Well, how did I get here?'"
- Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime" (video after post)

Even though I plan things out ahead of time, sometimes I have no idea how I get myself into these race situations.  A great example is last weekend's Mokelumne River 50-Miler, where I found myself in one of the most unpredictable places I could ever imagine: crossing the finish line first in an official race.

But before you start throwing me in the conversation with Roes, Krupicka, or Jornet, allow me to fill you in on some details.  The most important one is this: it was a very small race. 

How small, you ask?  Well, this was a shot of the entire race field about 2 minutes before the start.  The group above includes marathoners and 50K runners in addition to 50-mile entrants.  Although it isn't a new race, I suspect turnout for the Mokelumne events may have been low for a couple of reasons: 1) race day temps were forecast in the mid-90s, and 2) Maybe people don't like to sign up for a race they can't pronounce.

(For the record, it's Mo - KELL - um - knee, but I had a lot of trouble with it at first too.  To make things easier, you can just do what the locals do and call it the "Moke 50".)

The more legitimate, not to mention tragic, reason this race flew under the radar is that it wasn't officially on the race calendar until a couple of months ago.  The Moke 50 was formerly part of the Ultrarunner.net series operated by Robert and Linda Mathis, the husband and wife co-race directors who were struck by a car and killed last New Year's Eve.  Many Northern California ultrarunners who enjoyed their races experienced profound sadness through the winter ... and then as spring approached, suddenly realized there weren't nearly as many races on their calendar anymore.

Into that void stepped Jimmy Gabany, owner of Nevada-based Elemental Running, who took over the vast majority of the Ultrarunner.net series.  Unfortunately, the permit process for the Moke 50 wasn't finalized until just a handful of weeks before race day, which is a fairly short period of time to spread the word - and results in a fairly small crowd lining up on the start line.

It's really kind of a shame, because the Moke 50 course is downright brutal - and it's just the kind of thing hardcore ultrarunners would love.  The trails are rough but beautiful, there's an insane amount of climbing (although there's no official measurement, Jimmy estimates 13K to 15K of climbing), and the heat was relentless.  It's also a little bit long - 51.4 miles according to the pre-race e-mail - which is just the kind of poke in the eye that ultrarunners find endearing. 

And with that, let's continue the report - as usual, you can click any photo to enlarge ...

The vast majority of the course is an out and back route along the Mokelumne Coast to Crest Trail, an incomplete network that will eventually connect the high Sierras to the San Francisco Bay.  The sections around Mokelumne are mostly fire road, which allows plenty of space for the *huge* crowds of runners to thin out.  (Incidentally, this shot was less than a mile into the race; jostling for position wasn't exactly a problem out there.)

The hills start right away as well, which helped to keep everybody honest about setting out too quickly - that, plus the air temperature was already in the 70s at 6:30AM.

About four miles into the race is one of the prettiest sections of the whole course, as fire roads give way to singletrack ...

... and views of Camanche Reservoir in the distance add a nice touch of scenery.  I was with a small pack of runners at this point, and it was early enough in the race (and we were all mellow enough) to stop and pose for some photos.

The trail soon enters a pastoral setting with cows in the distance; a few miles further down the trail, our group was stopped by a couple of cowboys on horseback who asked if we saw their cattle ...

... um, yup, we saw them - about a mile earlier. They had even caused a roadblock before we eventually scared them away.  By the way, what you can't see in this photo are two girls who are scared of cows hiding in the bushes to the left.  Ultrarunners: we're tough as hell, but not always the bravest folks around.

This is the Wildermuth House, which dates from the 1860s and used to be situated between two heavily used mining areas; today, it's the only house for miles around, and is also the approximate turnaround point for the marathon runners, where we lost a few of our already small pace group.

A few miles later, we'd lose the 50K runners to another turnaround point, which made the long descent down to Pardee Reservoir seem even lonier.  At this point, I had no idea how many runners were in front of me, but I figured that since I started near the back of the group, any 50-milers would still be well ahead somewhere.

The trails around the reservoir were very lush, which is nice from the standpoint of having something pretty to look at, but often challenging in terms of actually being able to follow the trail.  A lot of this section was spent just following a pair of footprints in the tall grass and hoping they belonged not just to a runner, but to a runner who wasn't lost.

A handful of tiny little creek crossings like this one may not look significant, but they provided great opportunities to rub of the sweat from your face and hands on the outbound trip - and on the return, they would prove to be invaluable.

Remember my rule?  If there are cows on the course, they're going in the report.  These cows weren't particularly happy about giving up the trail - but at mile 21 and 95 degrees, I wasn't exactly thrilled to deal with them either.

This is a place called Patti's Point, which is the summit of an absolutely brutal climb between two low gulches.  This climb would be a turning point later in the race - but on the outbound leg, it just seemed like a nice spot to rest and take some timer photos.

On the descent from Patti's Point lies a signpost indicating "The Longest Mile", which is a very steep, technical descent down stone and wooden stairs ...

... before bottoming out at a bridge at Spanish Gulch and going up an equally tough climb on the other side.  This also was near the end of a nearly 8-mile stretch between aid stations, which in the mid-day heat on the hardest part of the course seemed completely diabolical.

As I mentioned, I believed almost all of the 50-mile runners were ahead of me at this point - so when I rolled into the Gwen Mine Road aid station at mile 23 and was told there was only one runner in front of me, I figured that some people must have gotten lost ...

... which wasn't too far-fetched, as I went off course a number of times myself, either because turns weren't clearly marked in the high grass, or because I was starting to get dizzy from the heat.  Probably a combination of both.   Regardless, I never saw the leader come back from the turnaround point, possibly because I wandered away somewhere near this bridge on my way there.

At the turnaround aid station, I asked about the lead runner, and they said, "She just left about 10 minutes ago!"  This was when the competitive juices percolated a bit, because in the world of ultrarunning, making up 10 minutes over 25 miles is really nothing. 

Did I say over 25 miles?  Make that over four miles.  I finally got my first glimpse of the leader back at the Gwen Mine aid station (3 miles from the turnaround), as she left while I was checking in.  Approximately one mile later, I caught her on the climb to Patti's Point, and I found myself in the lead.

I slowed down to talk to her for a few minutes, and she was very friendly and gracious, despite having some clear distress in the heat of the day.  And in case you're wondering: no, I didn't take her picture.  I figured the last thing she wanted was some idiot posting a photo of her struggling in an ultra while being passed by a dude in moccasins.  A short time later, however, I did take a self-photo that kind of summed up my reaction to being in first place:

This is my Oh my gosh, I'm in first place in an ultra!  Dear Lord please don't let me screw this up - there are a ton of things that can go wrong during the last 20 miles on a hot day face.  I don't get to use it very often.

As soon as I overtook the lead, there was only one thought in my mind: I want to win this thing.  It's worth mentioning that despite racing for more than 20 years, I've never won any race outright.  And it didn't take a genius to realize that I'd probably never get another opportunity to do so; this was a once in a lifetime chance that I really didn't want to screw up.

So when I got back to the top of Patti's Point, there was no time to pose for pictures, because I didn't want to give up too much of my lead, and I knew I still needed to set aside some time for a key strategic move:

Cooling myself in every possible creek I could find.   On the return trip, these stops weren't the "splash your hands and face" variety - they were the "lay as flat as possible and completely soak your body and clothes" kind that gave me some measure of relief from the heat, which by now was probably well over 100 degrees in the canyons.

At the mile 35 aid station, I filled two water bottles full of ice (and sports drink) and took off running.  And with the race finish finally seeming manageable, I became more and more paranoid about how far back the second place runner was.  The ice in my waist bottle was making a clunking noise, which I kept thinking sounded like footsteps ... but whenever I had a chance to look over my shoulder for a long backward glance, I couldn't see anybody.  That didn't stop me from imagining I was being reeled in ...

... but it did allow me enough peace of mind to keep dunking myself in every little puddle I could find - such as this one after I got all soaked up and ready to take on the last 13 miles.

With about 12 miles to go the course returns to the pretty single track I enjoyed so much on the way out.  Whether it was the single track, the prospect of winning, or the fact that I just left another aid station, I really got a second wind through this section ...

... and even paused for a couple more photo ops along the way.  What - you're not supposed to pose for timer photos when you're in the lead of an ultra?  Obviously I'm not familiar with the protocol for this sort of thing.

The only downside of the single track was that I couldn't see very far behind me, so of course I kept imagining that someone was gaining.

Reaching the last aid station, I knew there were approximately 4 miles to go, and I felt like I had enough in the tank to move steadily toward the finish line ...

... but just to be sure, I loaded up with a healthy supply of Pepsi and ice to bring me home.

The final miles were hilly, but at least they finally afforded some shade - which was nice, because the temperature was still 90 degrees at 6PM.  Truth be told, I was completely cooked by this point, and it was all I could do to keep a steady pace ...

... until finally - almost 12 hours after I started - I saw the finish area in the distance, took one last look over my shoulder, and staggered across the line to collapse onto a bench for a long-awaited rest.  I made it all of about 30 seconds before trying to confirm what I wanted to know, though - so almost as soon as I sat down I asked the RD, "So, um ... have any other 50-milers finished already?"

Nobody had - and that's how I got my once in a lifetime first place award.  Don't worry, though - I don't have any false pretense about my ability relative to anybody else out there.  As soon as I lace up my moccasins again, my place in the grand pecking order will go back to being the same as it ever was, but I have to admit that it was cool to think of myself as a winner for a few hours out there.  And anytime you can feel cool in blazing hot conditions on a brutal ultra course, that goes down as a very good day.

When it comes to all-time most iconic music videos, this one has to be on anyone's top 5 list, right?   It's also a nice song to have in your head when rolling through the final miles of a long race.  And a reminder for next time: same as it ever was.

Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime" (click to play):  

*See other race reports under tab at top of page

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April 23, 2012

Luna Leadville Sandal Review

Among all of the minimalist shoe companies out there, perhaps none has a more impressive pedigree than Luna Sandals.

The company is the brainchild of Barefoot Ted McDonald, one of the most experienced and accomplished barefoot runners in the word, who the vast majority of minimalist fans first met via Christopher McDougall's landmark Born to Run.  McDonald helped fuel Vibram's meteoric rise to success, introducing FiveFingers to the road running world at the 2006 Boston Marathon, and to the ultrarunning community a few years later (with KSO Treks this time) at the Leadville 100.

Barefoot Ted and Manuel Luna; photo by Luis Escobar, taken from Luna website

One interesting side note to the now-legendary pilgrimage described in Born to Run is that while in the Copper Canyons, Barefoot Ted spent a great deal of time with a Tarahumara elder named Manuel Luna, who taught him the art of making huarache sandals.  Upon his return to the United States, McDonald experimented combining Luna's old world design and craftsmanship with modern day materials - and the result was his own brand of footwear, named after his Tarahumara mentor.

I was initially somewhat hesitant to review a Luna product, because I've never really preferred running in huaraches over more conventionally styled minimalist footwear.  However, all it took to change my mind was one single word: Leadville.

Luna Leadville sandals

Leadville, as in the place where the Tarahumara showed up and provided the inspiration for the modern-day minimalist renaissance.  Leadville, as in the race where Barefoot Ted debuted his first pair of Luna sandals in 2010, and where no fewer than five members of the Luna team - who refer to themselves as "Luna Monkeys" - wore their huaraches during the event in 2011.  Leadville ... as in the 100-miler I'm going to attempt later this summer.  (I still get shivers whenever I type that, in case you're wondering.)

So when I learned that one of Luna's 2012 models was called the Leadville, and that the website describes it as a "rugged sandal designed for hardcore trails," I figured I pretty much had to give them a test run.  At the very least, I was running out of rational reasons to avoid them.

A short description of the Luna Leadville is that it's a modern-day huarache with just enough protection underfoot to use in rough trail conditions.  With a 10mm Vibram neoprene rubber platform, it actually has a higher stack height than FiveFingers, as well as the Soft StarRunAmocs I typically use for ultras.  There's more than enough thickness to take the sting out of sharp rocks, but enough flexibility to maintain outstanding ground feel.  You can also order an optional suede layer (as pictured on mine) that adds approximately 1 extra millimeter of height along with a significant amount of comfort.

The outsole features one of the most aggressive tread patterns I've seen on minimalist footwear (I wish my RunAmocs used this), and holds my foot in position quite well on most types of terrain.  This is a particularly critical point with huaraches, because ...

... for obvious reasons, there's not much structure on top to keep your foot from moving around.  I'd suspect that most huarache users will tell you the biggest challenge with any pair is getting the fit just right: making them tight enough to hold your foot in place, but not so constricting that they are uncomfortable.  There's a lot of customization in adjusting the tension over the top of the foot or the back of the heel, and it takes a lot of trial and error that can often times become frustrating.  

To help address this, Luna sandals can be ordered with three different lace styles: traditional leather straps like the Tarahumara use, elasticized laces that are easy to slip on and off after you get the right positions dialed in, or the company's new ATS (all terrain strapping) lacing system, which is a hybrid of elastic and nylon. 

My Leadville sandals came with the ATS system, and I initially had a lot of difficulty getting the heel tension just right; the strap kept sliding down off my heel, and when I tightened it enough to stay in place, my toes were pushed too far forward on the footbed.  One of the Luna Monkeys gave me some tips to try, and I eventually figured out a setting where the straps are comfortable and stay in place well - but if you'll notice on the picture above, I had to move the elasticized portions of the heel strap pretty far out of their standard neutral alignment to find the right balance.

I have my lace system dialed in well enough that there's very little separation of the footbed from the underside of my foot while running.  One of my pet peeves about running in sandals is when small pebbles get between your foot and the footbed, but once I figured out the best lacing system, this wasn't a big issue for me with my Leadvilles.  They also give me much better lateral stability than I've experienced with other huaraches, so that was a nice surprise. 

Toes creeping over the front edge
The fit issue did come into play again when running on downhills, where my toes slide forward on the footbed, at times to the point of contacting the ground.  I suspect this might be an inherent issue with any huaraches, but I'm still tinkering with mine a bit to see if I can improve the situation.  I'm also told that the footbed contours to your foot after extended use, but I haven't logged enough miles in my pair to attest to that.

One other point on the fit is that Luna sandals can be selected from "off the shelf" last sizes (although each pair is still hand-cut), or custom ordered based on your specific foot measurements.  I tried a standard last that is closest to my US shoe size, and it's a pretty accurate fit - I don't think I could have done any better by custom ordering.  However, since fit is such a crucial issue with huaraches, if you have any sort of size irregularities, you're probably better off doing a custom order. 

While I'm not entirely converted to using huaraches for my long-distance training, I have to say that I'm very impressed with the Luna Leadville.  They are more comfortable and protective than I anticipated, and they inspire a similar kind of primal feel that I love so much about my moccasins.  They would be a great option for someone like me who is considering building up to more frequent huarache use, as well as for experienced users seeking to push the limits of distance and terrain.

Luna's Leadville sandals retail for $85 from the company website.

*Product provided by Luna
**If you have a product you'd like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.

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April 21, 2012

New Balance Minimus Zero Trail Winners; GU Sampler Pack Winners; Random Shots of Beauty

Getting right to the point since I'm completely cooked from a long day on the trail ...

New Balance Minimus Zero Trail winners: Keith Gates and Louisa

GU Energy Performance Sampler Pack winners: Jacob and Pre Lives On.

To the winners: e-mail me your contact info and shoe size if necessary. To everyone else: thanks very much for your participation!

 Our Random Shot of Beauty comes from the aforementioned long day on the trail:

Pardee Reservoir in Calaveras County, as seen during the Mokelumne 50-Mile Ultra. Full race report to follow this week.

One more photo from the day: we'll call this a Random Shot of "How the Heck Did This Happen?":

Team Soft Star gets the win! That would be me, holding my first place award. Just don't ask how many people were actually in the race.  Seriously ... Just. Don't.

Hopefully the race report will clear things up - assuming, that is, that I can make sense of it myself.

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April 19, 2012

Team Soft Star Heads to the Hills

Admin note: if you haven’t done so already, be sure to enter the two giveaway contests currently underway, for the New Balance Minimus Zero Trail, and the GU Energy sampler packs. Winners of both contests will be announced Saturday night, but not until late, because …

 It’s race season! Somewhere in the midst of all those training miles, winter turned to spring – and spring brings with it the first major tests of the year. I have two of them coming up in short succession, beginning with a 50-miler on Saturday in the Sierra foothills. That’s why I was excited to see the following box arrive last week:

Team Soft Star gear! Actually, the brown slippers aren’t part of my sponsorship deal – they’re a replacement pair of insanely comfortable Roo slippers that my wife forced me to buy, because apparently after nearly three years of wearing a pair almost every single day (usually without socks) they start to develop an odor. Or something like that.

 As for the swag: the gray piece on the right is the first-of-its kind Team Soft Star jacket! Last year I did two ultras in pouring rain, so I didn’t get to “flash the logo” nearly as often as I wanted to – so the company responded by springing for a jacket I can wear in similar race conditions this year. Predictably, the weather for tomorrow’s race is supposed to be in the 90s, so I suspect the jacket may wait for another day.

 The other item, of course, is a race-ready pair of original RunAmoc Lites, which will most likely be my gear of choice for big events throughout the racing season. There’s nothing like the smell of new leather and the feel of a freshly knobbed outsole to get me excited about trail running. And if you’re wondering about the paper in the background:

Here’s what distinguishes companies like Soft Star and guys like me from the big-name players in ultrarunning. Real athletes are sponsored by companies like Montrail and The North Face, and have shoes named after them or glossy ad campaigns built around them. I get a handwritten good luck card from a workshop of Elves – and honestly, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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