The Grand Ridge 50k – Racing to Win

With a week’s distance to catch my breath, it’s time to reflect back on last weekend’s Grand Ridge 50k, organized by Evergreen Trail Runs. It was going to be a special day regardless of the result, signaling a major milestone: a return to racing after my longest break ever.

For years I’d raced frequently. During a twelve month stretch in 2011-2012 I raced three 5- to 11-mile trail races, 8 road races of 5k to 10k, a 24-hour team relay, a marathon, my first four 50ks, and my first two 50-milers. It was exciting. That stretch of racing continued on even after that, but the drive within me started to fade. I’ve written about this before, but in review, I would still get “up” for every race, but with the constant tapering and recovering, I hadn’t put together a solid training block in years. My fitness was surprisingly low, and so I’d turn up to a race, put out a disappointing performance, and then start getting ready for my next race.

It came to a head in January, 2013, at the Bridle Trails 50k. I was running a 31-mile race after training a total of 14 miles in the previous month. I was suffering, and I realized that this just wasn’t worth it. At that point I decided that, with the exception of that summer’s White River 50, I was done racing until the drive was undeniably back.

Finishing the 2013 White River 50-mile Endurance Run. Photo by Gordon Naylor.

Finishing the 2013 White River 50-mile Endurance Run. Photo by Gordon Naylor.

Fast forward to Summer, 2014, and I’m in the middle of my longest racing drought ever…and my best training ever. I was having so much fun, motivated beyond measure by Jordan, my roommate at “The Summit House.” Not only was I getting out for long trail miles, but I was also finding opportunities to redline, pushing that VO2Max for the first time in years. We spent the Summer racing each other and the clock up and down all the mountains Seattle has to offer. With a previous personal record of 22,000’ vertical climbing in a month, I racked up totals from May to October of 33, 23, 23, 46 (46!!!), 22, and 36 thousand feet. I broke personal records on every single trail I attempted, up and down. We were having so much fun pushing each other, and my competitive juices were pumping hard again, dueling with Jordan and trying to climb the Strava leaderboards.

At the summit of McClellan Butte with Jordan.

At the summit of McClellan Butte with Jordan.

I was ready to race.

I hadn’t run more than 23 miles in over a year, but I decided on the Grand Ridge 50k. The timing was perfect, a week after my coaching duties with the high school cross country team ended. I knew I wouldn’t be specifically trained, but I was fitter and stronger than ever in my life.

Now of course I take to heart the oft-lauded ethos of trail running. Everyone out there on the trails is a friend, and everyone deserves respect, especially at the ultra distance. I’d never want to succeed at the expense of a competitor. That being said, trail running media and social media can at times be a bit saccharine. Sunshine and rainbows, everybody wins. There’s a place for that. I’m friendly on the trails, and everyone’s family at the finish line, but a race is a race.

I’m being honest about it. I came to race. I’m racing to win.

Before the race, I’d looked through the 42 pre-registered entrants. Gaming. Some were nowhere to be found online, others were unlikely to pose a threat. But I knew there would be at least one name likely favored over mine. Richard Kresser: not many results at the 50k distance, but some damn respectable times at 100 miles, and a recent speed record unsupported on the Wonderland Trail. Okay, this won’t be a cake walk; I’m gonna have to show up.

Grand Ridge 50k Course Map from Evergreen Trail Runs.

Grand Ridge 50k Course Map from Evergreen Trail Runs.

Grand Ridge 50k Elevation Profile, from my Suunto Ambit Altimeter.

Grand Ridge 50k Elevation Profile, from my Suunto Ambit Altimeter.

The course was almost entirely out-and-back. Maybe 7.5ish miles out, 5.5ish miles back. That’s the half marathon. Repeat. Then after finishing that marathon, with the finish line and its hot food and warm clothing beckoning, turn around and run the 5 mile race course. A mental challenge for sure, but opportunities at every turn-around to gauge gaps in front and behind to competitors. Interesting.

Race morning arrives and it. is. cold. I’m bundled in layer upon layer at the starting area, hands tucked deep inside mittens, breath frosting in front of my face, frozen ground crunching underfoot. 30º? Sounds about right. I get in a 10-minute warm-up run, doff my layers, and await the shared marathon-50k start.

3…2…1…GO!

I take off at a slow, comfortable jog. Nobody goes with me. The first half-mile follows a broad gravel bike trail. We hit the single track and up I go, cautioning covert glances only at switchbacks. Gaming. A mile in and I probably have 30 or 45 seconds, but slowing down won’t really save any energy, so I keep rolling. A few miles in and I can see across some drainages that nobody is within a minute or two. I’m running alone the whole way, but I usually do in training anyway, so no sweat. I hit the first aid station in 42 minutes, 10 minutes ahead of my pace from the course preview a few weeks earlier. I know that the northern turnaround has some self-service water and nothing else, but stopping there would be a waste of time, so I top off my water bottle, grab some Clif Shot gels, and move on. 19 seconds, in-and-out: not bad.

On-course at the Grand Ridge 50k. Photo by Takao Suzuki.

On-course at the Grand Ridge 50k. Photo by Takao Suzuki.

I keep trucking interminably northbound, when I think I see a flash of white behind me. Nah. A biker passes me headed southbound, and shortly afterwards I hear voices behind me. He must be talking to another runner. A quick glance over my should and sure enough, there’s that white shirt. We’re headed downhill, and although I can bomb the steeps with the best of ‘em, I’m preserving myself on this long, gentle grade. He comes up behind me absolutely flying on the downs. That’s when I look back to read his bib. 944.

“YES!” I think. When I checked in to get my bib I was able to read the entrants list. Bibs 915-956 are in the marathon, 957-998 in the 50k. Gaming. No worries. He’s a marathoner. We share a few words of pleasantry and encouragement, he confirms he’s in the marathon, I wish him well on the descent, he compliments my climbing and promises to see me on the uphill, and then he flies off ahead.

I hit the turnaround and am only 15-30 seconds back, but overtake him almost immediately as we begin the climb back up what we just descended. He’s hiking and I’m running. Wait. Am I really running? What’s the longest I’ve ever run on trails without hiking, even for a few steps? 8 miles? Maybe less. And this trail isn’t flat. Somehow the douche-grade* is just coming easy today.

(*Douche-grade: trail at a grade flat enough that every step of it is runnable taken alone, but added up over time eventually forces you to hike. That trail is a douche. That trail makes you feel like a douche for needing to hike what you know you should be running. The guy who goes running by you when you’re hiking is such a douche.)

3.5 minutes after the turnaround I see a pack of four guys. That means they’re 6-7 minutes behind me. Solid gap. I read three of their bibs: marathoners. The other bib is obscured. He’s a burly dude with a big beard, looks like a hundo-man. Is that Kresser? Maybe. I see the next runners 8 minutes after the turnaround, giving me a 15 minute lead, and they’re definitely in the 50k, but for now not worth worrying over. Just run my own race, stay comfortable, and see what happens. It’s far too early to get uncomfortable.

I blow right through the aid station on the return, knowing that it’s only about 20 minutes back to the start-finish, and there’s no sense wasting time now to top off my water bottle. I hit the bike trail and reach the half marathon turnaround aid station. Another quick top-off, some more gels, and I’m out. 22 seconds. Perfect.

I’m feeling smooth and strong. The cold weather is really feeling perfect now. The trail is firm and not muddy, I’m barely sweating: absolutely ideal conditions. I’ve sucked down a gel every 25 minutes like clockwork and my stomach’s still feeling good. Holy crap, I just ran that entire half marathon course, over 2000’ vert, and I literally ran every step with not a hint of a hike break. That’s definitely a PR right there! And I’m still rolling.

I see Jean-Gael, the white-shirt marathoner and I’ve probably got 3 minutes on him, plus any time he takes at the table. I hit the single-track again, switchbacking up the climb and finally see the bearded guy’s bib: 973. Should’ve looked his number up at registration, but that’s gotta be Kresser. Well that’s about 7 minutes after I left the table, giving me about 13 minutes of a lead in the 50k race. Gotta love that.

Onward and upward, I’m now retracing my earlier steps. I finally hit the one significantly steep climb on the course and start hiking. 2 hours, 30 minutes in and I take my first hiking step. Holy shit. 30 seconds later, I’m running again and won’t hike again for another hour+. This day is unreal. Can I seriously keep feeling this good?! 15 seconds at the aid station and I’m out again.

The course is crowded with half-marathoners now, going both directions. The leaders are flying south towards me with just a few miles to their finish, and I’m constantly passing the back-of-the-packers northbound. Their encouragement propels me onwards, and my well-wishes to them take my mind away from my own efforts. I’m still all alone in my race.

After I hit the northern turnaround for the last time, I see I have a 3-minute gap on Jean-Gael, still comfortably the marathon leader, and about 15 minutes on Kresser, with no other 50k runners challenging the two of us. Still far too early to celebrate.

Memories flood back of the 2012 Horseshoe Lake 50k in the Bay Area. I went out hard, leading the marathon and 50k early. It was also a half marathon + half marathon + 5 mile course. After 15 miles the marathon leader passed me. Then at 18 miles my calves started cramping up on me, my energy faded, and my body started to give way. Two runners passed me, and although I rallied to close gaps in the last 5 miles, the race was lost and I finished third. With the growth in the sport in recent years, I thought that would be the only shot I’d ever have at winning an ultra.

Don’t let that happen again. No lead is safe.

I hit the aid station southbound and top off for the first time with Nuun electrolyte drink instead of water. I take the first sip and, for whatever reason, get super light-headed. Fight it off. Don’t fade. I roll down and just as I’m hitting the bike trail with a half-mile to the marathon finish and my final turnaround, Jean-Gael catches me. He’s clearly hurting, but motivated to finish strong. The two of us run in together before I congratulate him and make my turn.

With my bottle still nearly full and plenty of gels on-board, I make the turn without even a glance at the aid table. My appetite for gels has waned, but I’ve still forced them down every 25 minutes. After my twelfth at 4:35, I’m done with them. Maybe that was a mistake.

After making the turn, I see Kresser and realize I’ve probably still got 13-15 minutes on him. I’m starting to hurt. I make sure to look strong when we pass each other. Gaming. He looks strong. With hundred-milers in his legs, I know he won’t fade. I’ve just got less than 5 miles to go now, but I’m hiking the climbs. I want to hike the flats. I want to hike the downs. But I will myself to run the downhills fast. Too much time to lose there. In 5 miles, a 15-minute lead can disappear in a heartbeat. If I’m hiking fast at 15 minutes per mile, all he’d need is a pedestrian 12 minutes per mile to catch me. And I’m not hiking 15 minutes per mile. Gotta keep running.

My hamstrings are getting those faint spasms, the early signs that at a moment’s notice, they’ll go into full tetany. The sun’s out now and I’m starting to feel hot. The hat’s come off, and now so do the gloves. I’m thirsty but rationing my drink. I don’t want another gel without enough drink to wash it down. Is this race really unraveling now? The mental anguish is even worse knowing that I so easily could have won the marathon had that been my finish line. Instead I kept going and now may win nothing.

Just. Keep. Running.

I hike when I have to, which is quite a bit, but I know that I have to keep running. There are a few spots on this bit of course with a good 2- or 3-minute view across drainages and switchbacks. I know that if Kresser sees me for even a second, I’ll lose. Not only does that mean he’s closed over 10 minutes on me, but it means that he knows it and can start pushing even harder. I don’t have the strength to answer any move he could throw at me. Every time I hit one of those sections, I push myself extra hard, just to get out of view as quickly as possible so he won’t be motivated to find that extra gear. Plus, on the offchance that he does see me, I’ll be running fast, looking good. Gaming. Racing to win.

I finally hit the high point and begin the descent. My tired legs can barely pick my feed up off the ground, but I’ve gotta keep running. Gotta keep running. Gotta keep ru–OOFFF!!! I’m on the ground. Caught my toe on a rock. The wind’s knocked out of me and the sudden loss of rhythm sends my hamstrings into full cramps as I’m sprawled on the trail.

Get up.

I’m going again. Gingerly running down the trail, fighting the cramps and I finally hit the bike trail. I’ll be furious to lose now, with half a mile to go after leading the 50k from the gun. I start running on the bike trail, but it’s ever so slightly graded uphill. Can’t hike, gotta keep running. I mentally prepare myself to kick and outsprint Kresser to the finish if necessary. I dare to send a few glances back over my shoulder and see nobody coming. I’m gonna do it. I see the line and run through it.

Finishing the Grand Ridge 50k. Photo by Gordon Naylor.

Finishing the Grand Ridge 50k. Photo by Gordon Naylor.

Wire-to-wire, I got the win. The last 5 miles took 1:10, and Kresser closed the gap considerably, but I held on just enough, a 5.5-minute gap. It’s my first ever competitive* win, but all I can think about after crossing that line is sitting down, drinking some Gatorade, and hugging my dad, waiting there at the finish.

(*Not counting team relays, high school JV races, and a 5-miler when I was behind four 10-mile racers.)

Once I catch my breath, layer up, and recover enough to get moving, I grab some of the amazing, hot chili at the finish, take a seat, and get to know Kresser. What an awesome guy and super fun to chat with at the finish. I’ll hang my hat on the win, but it’s obvious just how strong he is, finishing looking easy and comfortable. We talked a bit about the race and other things ahead. We’re fairly convinced the course was 33-34 miles. After all, at 5:48:41 this was by far my slowest 50k ever, but despite the late-stage blow-up, I doubt I’ve ever run the distance faster, especially with only 1:25 spent at aid stations total (I’m particularly proud of my aid time). I probably hiked a total of less than a mile, and that should definitely translate to a sub-5 finish. Nevertheless, if I wanted a perfectly-measured 50k, I’d head to a track. Trail running’s all about more miles more fun. 29 or 35 miles, the race is what the race is. Everybody covers the same course, and the first one to the finish wins.

On this day, that happened to be me.

Thank you so much to race director Jerry and all the fantastic volunteers; to my dad for being there; to Richard, Jean-Gael, and all the racers for the extra push; to Jordan, the SMRG, and all my friendly Strava rivals for the motivation all year; to the MI cross country team athletes and coaches for endless inspiration; and to all my friends and family that support me in this crazy sport.

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Friends

Those who know me now the degree of my introversion, the strength I gain from time alone, and the enjoyment I find in hours of wilderness solitude. Recently, though, I’ve been rediscovering the power of companionship in sport.

My roommate of three months, Jordan, is an avid cyclist and speed hiker, and through his implicit motivation I’ve found myself inspired to get to the mountains more frequently and, more importantly, to push myself harder once there. For too long had my trail runs degraded into relaxing and slow, albeit physically and emotionally valuable, jaunts through the forest. Now I’ve found myself red-lining and testing limits consistently for the first time in years, remembering the pleasure that comes from fully exhaustive effort and the consequent improvements in fitness.

Summit of Granite Mountain with Jordan. Photo by Chris.

Summit of Granite Mountain with Jordan. Photo by Chris.

A few weeks ago, the Seattle Mountain Running Group gathered for one of its largest events, a group run through the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Five of us chose our route past Pratt Lake and Lower Tuscohatchie Lake en route to Kaleetan Lake. The energy of the group helped those four hours pass like two as we traversed the miles.

Alpine Lakes with SMRG crew - Ben, Steven, Sudheer, and Stan. Photo by Ben.

Alpine Lakes with SMRG crew – Ben, Steven, Sudheer, and Stan. Photo by Ben.

Without doubt, one highlight of the year so far was a run/hike up Granite Mountain with Jordan and my oldest friend, Chris. Growing up nearly as brothers from age four, the outdoors was never a cornerstone of our friendship, but having the opportunity to join each other at the 5600′ summit was, I’d like to the think, the beginning of a new chapter in our relationship even as he prepares to move to Los Angeles.

Me and Chris on Granite Mountain. Photo by Jordan.

Me and Chris on Granite Mountain. Photo by Jordan.

Yesterday I joined what had to be 40 other runners to preview the last 23 miles of the White River 50, a race I’ve run the past two years. I carpooled down with an old high school teammate, her dad, and her husband for a very fun car ride; ran over 2.5 hours with Roger, making his 50 mile debut in three weeks at WR50; and thoroughly enjoyed sharing mountain time with so many new and old friends on a gorgeous route I’d be unlikely to travel alone.

White River 50 Training Run. Photo by Eric.

White River 50 Training Run. Photo by Eric.

Perhaps the greatest constant reminder of the power of camaraderie in sport is my time coaching the high school cross country team. Summer training began last week, and seeing some 20 kids showing up two months prior to the season, falling into groups of 2 to 6, and training hard with smiles on their faces always brings me back to my days running on a team. It’s easy to forget to appreciate what an amazing experience it is to be a member of such a team at the time, but in my years and years of individual training since, I pine for the days of showing up six days a week and always having a whole slew of your best friends there to train with and motivate you.

I still love my mountain solitude, and surely the majority of my big mountain miles will still be completely in the silence of nature, but I am certainly enjoying that extra kick to get off the couch and the happiness that comes from sharing beautiful experiences with friends.

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Big Vert – Training Update

Wow what a couple of weeks it’s been! Over the past 14 days I’ve run 5 times, racking up over 19,000 vertical feet in about 35 miles. Last week’s 10,700′ was my personal record for vert in a week, and this week I hit 8,500′ as an encore. I’m also over 15,000′ for May already, with 21 days to go, closing in on my personal record of 24,800′ in a month (June 2012, measured by GPS notorious for grossly overestimating vert).

That being said, this morning’s “run” up the Old Si trail was an absolute sufferfest. I wasn’t even breathing hard but could barely run a step, thanks to thoroughly fatigued jelly-legs. With these amazing, unprecedented two weeks behind me, I’ve promised myself to take this coming week off of big-vert running and get in some quick, cardio-building road miles. With 80º sunshine in the forecast, it’ll be hard to resist hitting some summits, but I know I need the break. Hopefully some flat running will give my climbing muscles a chance to recover and will help build up some of the  true running muscles I’ve been neglecting with all this steep speed-hiking work.

 

Sunday 4/27 – Mailbox Peak with Jordan

4.8 miles, 4060′, 2:14 (pics in last ‘blog post)

1:22:30 up, 51:30 down

Elevation Profile, Mailbox Peak

Elevation Profile, Mailbox Peak

Thursday 5/1 – 2X Chirico Trail (Tiger Mountain)

6.7 miles, 3260′, 1:39

31:25 up, 20:42 down, 30:23 up, 16:51 down (my 2nd best descent all-time)

Elevation Profile, 2X Chirico

Elevation Profile, 2X Chirico

Saturday 5/3 – Old Si Trail (my first time!) with Jordan

5.5 miles, 3370′, 1:37

1:03:26 up, 34:00 down

Elevation Profile, Old Si 5/3

Elevation Profile, Old Si 5/3

Tuesday 5/6 – 3X Chirico Trail (Tiger Mountain)

9.9 miles, 4940′, 2:30

31:38 up, 20:04 down, 30:52 up, 19:35 down, 30:50 up, 17:04 down (each repeat faster than last)

Elevation Profile, 3X Chirico

Elevation Profile, 3X Chirico

Saturday 5/10 – Old Si Trail (+ a bit extra along summit ridge) with Jordan

6.1 miles, 3580′, 1:56

1:08:36 up, 38:18 down

Elevation Profile, Old Si 5/10

Elevation Profile, Old Si 5/10

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A New Start

Spring has come, and with it the promise of miles in the Summer high country. Although my volume has remained low, averaging only one run per week this year, motivation to train and enjoy the mountains has returned in earnest. A big change in my life, moving into Seattle with a new roommate, has certainly helped, as I see him heading to the mountains for hiking training every weekend. He’s also inspired me to start using Strava more regularly, and despite all of the issues I have with that site, trying to climb those leaderboards can give an extra kick in the pants.

Highlights of the past few months include a new PR descending Mount Si (34:04 first outcrop to sign), a big new PR descending West Tiger #3 (18:08 summit to parking lot), my first long run (>10 miles) since August (17 miles, 4500′ vert on Tiger Mountain from Chirico to the East Peak), and just this morning my second ever ascent of Mailbox Peak, getting an opportunity to wear my new Microspikes for the first time (pics below).

More than anything, though, I see the long days coming and want to do what’s necessary now, training in the Issaquah Alps, so that when Summer arrives I have the fitness and preparedness to get into the high country, still blanketed in snow, and spend countless hours exploring the wilderness in solitude. Last year I got up to the Pass three times for an 16-mile loop through the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, and 18-mile out-and-back on the PCT, and an 8 mile run to summit Granite Mountain. Those were three of my favorite runs in years and the promise of more and longer runs got me up that mountain today and will hopefully continue to get me out the door for the remainder of Spring.

With 80º temps in the forecast, there’s no reason to not stay after it!

Looking up the final pitch to the summit.

Looking up the final pitch to the summit.

Jordan powering up the incline.

Jordan powering up the incline.

The snow is steadily uncovering the mailbox!

The snow is steadily uncovering the mailbox!

Lots of awesome mountain dogs on the trail today.

Lots of awesome mountain dogs on the trail today.

So happy I went for it despite the abysmal forecast!

So happy I went for it despite the abysmal forecast!

View down to the valley through a cloudbreak.

View down to the valley through a cloudbreak.

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Motivation

Sitting here writing is a poor substitute for running. A very poor substitute. But it’s dark out, I’ve run twice in the last three weeks, and I’d hate to be sore from a run tonight for my more ambitious trail run tomorrow.

Wait, that sounds familiar.

I didn’t run on the 31st because January 1 would be the perfect day to head to the mountains for a good run and solid vert. I woke up at 9am on the 1st and sat around in bed for a few hours until it was late enough that I no longer had time to drive to the trailhead, run, and get back in time to watch the Rose Bowl, which I told myself I couldn’t watch delayed (probably more as an excuse to delay running than anything). The thought of instead just heading out for a short run from home bored me. January 2 was booked solid and I knew I couldn’t run, but hey, Friday the 3rd would be another superb day with beautiful weather. Well I woke up at noon, leaving me 4 hours before sunset to get out for a run. I didn’t.

Rewind. I spent 10 days in Carlsbad, CA, for Christmas and brought along my running gear and the promise of summer-like running, reading to enjoy the sun on my bare skin and sweat dripping from my face. I ran once for 4 miles.

In September and October I spent so much time coaching the high school cross country team that my own running, though nearly daily, suffered a lack of any trail running and very low total mileage, vertical gain, and intensity, instead just jogging a few miles at most around the high school while the kids worked out. That was totally worth it. The happiness I got from coaching was unparalleled, and taking an off-season of that sort from my own training would only help make me stronger and healthier. I emerged from the season motivated to get back into it as winter approached.

Instead I see my training log showing 29 miles in November and 36 miles in December. Sure, there are 4 trail runs in there, but nothing like the at least weekly trail running I was doing last winter and foresaw for myself this winter. Why haven’t I been running. I don’t know.

It seems that every night I go to bed with dreams of adventure, only to wake with apathy and lethargy. As time passes and the sun sets I lose the opportunity to achieve my ambitious goals and instead of then getting out and moving my legs for even 15 or 20 minutes around town, I stay put.

I know that hope isn’t lost. Last Autumn as I recovered from injury, I ran with similar frequency and was able to turn that into a few months of my best running every come February through May. What I do know is that the fitness I’ve lost over the last 4 months will mean that if I do finally manage to get myself off of my ass and out the door, running will not be as easy and carefree as I know it should be. I’ll be slow, I’ll be sore, and I won’t be able to do the things I want to do. I also risk injury with too quick and foolish a return.

Here I sit tonight and, as usual, I see tomorrow as a great opportunity. I hear the trail up Mount Si is clear and glorious. I want to do that. I promise myself I’ll do that tomorrow, but I’ve learned in recent weeks that that’s a promise all to easy to break. No matter what, I HAVE to run tomorrow, even for 2 miles from my door. This is unacceptable. The thing of it is that I haven’t lost my love of running. Every run I’ve done recently has been great, and the trail runs especially have filled my with so much joy. So why the hell can’t I get out the door? I don’t know but this has to change.

As busy as I was with classes the last few months, I couldn’t wait for winter break to come so that I could get to the mountains a few times a week. I blew that and wasted the opportunity. I start up with classes again on Monday, but I need to make sure that at least every other weekend I get out on the trails, and at least twice during the week I run a couple miles on my way home. I’ve failed motivating myself, so if you’ve read to here, please help me do this. I know I’ll be happier when I’m running regularly again. If you’re in the area, come and join me for a run some time! Fast or slow, I don’t care, as long as we can be out moving through the world on our own two feet, life will be good.

I remind myself today of the etymology of this ‘blog’s name and have to ask myself sincerely: why not?

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2013 White River 50-Mile

Up from the depths of the “better late than never” abyss, I present my long ago promised race report from the White River 50-mile Endurance Run. Sure it was four months ago, but the memories are as fresh now as ever. The long weekend started with some time away from work and a family excursion to a cabin in the woods. I was so fortunate to have my parents and grandmother with me as race crew and general support. One highlight was definitely our Friday afternoon trip on the gondola to the summit of Crystal Mountain before packet pick-up. Gorgeous.

Runner and crew on Crystal Mountain.

Runner and crew on Crystal Mountain.

Playing around on a bit of trail at Crystal's summit.

Playing around on a bit of trail at Crystal’s summit.

That night it was time to finish off my prep: get clothes in order, drop bags prepared, and crew briefed on expected arrival times and desired gear/food. Follow that up with dinner, a soak in the hot tub, and an early night’s sleep. Perfect.

Drop bags prepped for three aid stations without crew access.

Drop bags prepped for three aid stations without crew access.

Bib #1, ready to get after it!

Bib #1, ready to get after it!

Race morning went off without a hitch. 4:45 wake up, relaxing breakfast, nice early arrival to the start, and perfect weather for the gun. Wait, there was no gun. I mean race director Scott saying “go.” Despite the largest field in the event’s history, over 350 starters, you’ve got to love the old-school, laid back vibe Scott McCoubrey and all the other organizers have continued to foster over the years.

And they're off!

And they’re off!

The first little loop around the air strip was comfortable. Although it was certainly frustrating getting stuck walking in a bottle-necked conga line just a mile into the race, I knew I’d be happy later that I’d held back in the early going.

Approaching Camp Sheppard aid station, mile 3.4.

Approaching Camp Sheppard aid station, mile 3.4.

After Camp Sheppard, the larger of the two main climbs of the day started. Despite objectively being in worse shape than at the race last year, I’d done much more vertical and significantly improved my climbing and power-hiking throughout the winter and spring in the Issaquah Alps, and the climb up from the valley felt far easier than before. Just one foot in front of the other, always moving forward. It’s easy to keep pushing when you have such amazing views awaiting you.

Nearing the Corral Pass aid station, mile 17. This photo by Glenn Tachiyama was from last year's race (I haven't purchased the distribution right's for this year's pics, but trust me, it was just as stunning).

Nearing the Corral Pass aid station, mile 17. This photo by Glenn Tachiyama was from last year’s race (I haven’t purchased the distribution right’s for this year’s pics, but trust me, it was just as stunning).

There were minutes at a time that I lost all sensation of effort and exhaustion and simply lost myself in the expansive, unadulterated views from my ribbon of singletrack along meadowed ridges. It was glorious. Even as I descended back into the forest, I was completely and thoroughly happy with no qualifications of any kind. When you’re out doing what you love in the beauty of nature with the only evidence of man the 12 inches of dirt beneath your feet, how could you feel anything else?

I finally dropped back into the valley and approached the start/finish area, the Buck Creek aid station. There I got to see my family for the first time in over 4 hours, eat anything and everything I wanted, sunscreen up for the upcoming exposure, and change my shoes to a more plush ride with the more technical descending behind me.

Using the last of my water to cool off, rolling into Buck Creek aid station, mile 27.2.

Using the last of my water to cool off, rolling into Buck Creek aid station, mile 27.2.

Help from the crew.

Help from the crew.

Gorging on the smorgasbord.

Gorging on the smorgasbord.

After leaving Buck Creek I began the climb up the east side of the valley. I knew what was coming, but that trail will still work you. It was hot. Much of the trail was harshly exposed to the midday sun. Stretches were dusty enough to feel the grit in your teeth. As the heat beat down and fatigue mounted, my stomach started to turn. It didn’t turn like it has in the past; no nausea or gas or cramps. Rather, I just completely lost any semblance of an appetite. I’d been struggling getting my calories in all day, far below my 300 calories/hour goal, but now it had dropped to darn near zero. I forced a bit of watermelon and a gel down at the mile 32 aid station, but I just wasn’t wanting to eat.

I was still running great, trucking up the climb at a good consistent clip of mixed run/hike, and I was gliding along the beautiful ridgeline. I finally hit the Sun Top aid station, mile 37, feeling great. From there to the finish last year was a formality, and this year I hit Sun Top 13 minutes ahead of last year’s pace and feeling much better with none of last year’s knee pain. The 6.4 miles from Sun Top descend 3150′ down a nice gravel road. You can fly here.

I didn’t.

Pretty much right after leaving the aid station I started to absolutely crash. Hours of calorie deficit caught up with me. It was my first true and proper “bonk” since my first marathon back in 2007. It was bad. Going down a nice non-graded gravel road where I’d clicked off 7-minute miles on my recce training run, I was jogging. Then walking. Then jogging a little bit, and walking a lot more after that. I even took a couple of stand-there-and-catch-my-breath breaks at the side of the road. I finally hit the bottom of the hill and pulled myself along the long, straight, agonizing mile to the Skookum Flats aid station.

Trying to stay positive on the approach to Skookum Flats aid station, mile 43.4.

Trying to stay positive on the approach to Skookum Flats aid station, mile 43.4.

I was able to see my family for the first time in nearly 4 hours here, and they were certainly pained to see my complete lack of energy. My joints and muscles were fine but I just had no mental energy to keep going. I stayed there at Skookum Flats for 12 minutes as my family forced me to eat, if only a little bit. Oranges, Coke, whatever else I didn’t protest too heartily. Eventually I rolled out for the final 6.6 mile stretch to the finish. After leaving Sun Top 13 minutes ahead of last year’s pace, I left Skookum Flats on 6.4 miles later a full 17 minutes behind, losing about 5 minutes per mile on a stretch that I didn’t exactly crush last year either.

Slightly refreshed and ready to tackle the last 6.6.

Slightly refreshed and ready to tackle the last 6.6.

The final stretch along the Skookum trail is gorgeous. It’s the most technical stretch as you root-hop along the banks of the aptly-named White River. I was still struggling and taking my time, but I made myself enjoy it. I don’t know if it was just the adrenaline of the finish, but over the last mile or so I started to get energized again. Time to roll. When I left the forest and hit the gravel road on the last quarter mile to the finish, I was thrilled. This was arguably the biggest mental hurdle I’ve overcome in a race, and I was so happy to have survived it and come out the other side.

I couldn’t have done it without the support of my amazing family, all the volunteers out there, and the fantastic race organizers. Two years, two wonderful events.

Finishing after a wonderful day and a trying final few hours.

Finishing after a wonderful day and a trying final few hours.

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White River 50 Training Update (and 2013 first half review)

(If you want to skip all the training talk, just read the last paragraph. Boy am I excited!)

Today marks the end of a big training weekend and my last major effort before July 27’s White River 50. This morning I joined a crew of well over 20 other runners to preview the second loop of the WR50 course, a 22.8-mile route with over 4000′ of elevation gain, some hot dusty trails, and more stunning views than I can count. I felt quite sluggish and actually ran a few segments slower than in 2012’s race, but considering my Saturday (5.2-mile fairly quick morning run followed immediately by a 12 mile hike on the PCT to Kendall’s Katwalk) and all that that took out of my legs (hiking really does work your body differently than running and I’m not used to it), I’ll take it…somewhat.

I’m not sandbagging when I say that I’m worried. This has been among my favorite six months of running ever (more on that below in my 2013-so-far review), and I’ve done more technical trails and more vertical than ever. However, I’m worried that my fundamental engine isn’t what it was last year. Entering last year’s WR50 I’d done very little specific training, but I had well over 12 months of solid, consistent training over 100 miles every month and occasionally over 200, my longest months ever, with lots of faster road running with the Stanford Running Club. Despite record vertical month-in-and-month-out, last month, June, was my first over 100 since last July. Over a six month span from early August to early February, I ran a TOTAL of 300 miles, struggling for many months with injury and subsequent lack of fitness. My training from February on has been very fun and enjoyable, my main goal over that time, but it’s also been very slow. Spending so many hours on Cableline, Chirico, Si, Mailbox, Rattlesnake, etc. means that I’m doing most of my miles at 12-20 minute/mile pace, and when I do get a chance to cruise on the roads, I find myself really pushing hard to hit 7:30/mile, a pace that just a year ago was my comfortable, go-to junk mile pace. All that said, barring injury, I’m confident that I’ll complete White River this year, and that I’ll probably feel better through the middle miles than last year. However, I doubt I’ll finish with as much energy, and I’m not so sure I can improve my time despite thinking over that past year, “if my knees didn’t hurt I could’ve taken at least 30 minutes off.”

Hopefully I’m unknowing sandbagging and on race day I’ll come out and kill it with a 9:30 or something, but my running’s been about enjoyment not “training” all year and I’ll deal with however that manifests in my first race in six months. Enough whining, on to the positive!

2013 so far has been fantastic. Since January’s Bridle Trails 50k, when I went into a dark place emotionally, I readjusted my priorities and my outlook and started just getting out and enjoying running for its own sake. What did this mean? TRAILS! Technical trails, snowy trails, steep trails, long trails, and many many new trails. Despite a January still plagued by injury with only 44 miles and 2400 vertical feet, I ended up by June’s end with a half-year tally of 433 miles and 89,500 vertical feet. That mileage comes nowhere close to first-half-2012’s 800 miles, but the vert is insane, averaging over 200 feet/mile including ALL runs, not just trail runs. Trails runs total 249 miles with 82,000 vertical feet, 330 feet/mile, up AND down! Yeah this isn’t humble-bragging, it’s just bragging, but it’s truly because I’ve enjoyed it so much. Like I said, I’ve gotten slower and slower, but getting out on these steep techy trails has been so much fun and has reinvigorated my love of running.

I’ve explored Tiger for the first time ever (beyond the hugely popular T3 route that MIXC does), finding some of my favorite trails around. My six repeats on the Chirico Trail set a new personal record for vert in a day, racking up 10,300′ over 21 miles. My descents of Cableline allowed me to really hone my ability and mostly improve my confidence and recklessness descending steep technical trails, improving my PR from 28 minutes the first time to a near-suicidal 16:40. I explored the winding rolling trails of the eastern flanks, seen bear tracks in virgin snow, slip-slided down Poo-Top in the snow, and tagged four peaks for the first time.

I ran Mt. Si for the first time…and second and third in a relaxed double. I “ran” Mailbox Peak, which quickly and unquestionably surpased Cableline as the most challenging trail I’ve ever run. 4000′ in 2.5 miles and high technical, so much so that my descent, which I thought felt pretty darn fast and impressive, ended up averaging something like 18 minutes/mile…for the descent! Beautiful views greeted me atop both. Oh, and of course there was my Stanford to the Sea run; I literally almost forgot to mention that! You can read all about that here.

Now as I look forward to the rest of the year ahead, I’ve got three weeks to White River. I’m sure I’ll be happy to run it, but at this point I’m regretting my return to racing. Stanford to the Sea was a major interruption to my mountain adventures for a couple weeks on either end, and White River certainly means no more challenging trails for the next three weeks. Unless I REALLY enjoy the race and that whole atmosphere, I foresee myself returning to an indefinite racing hiatus. I’m hoping that August can be a month unlike any other. I’ve been exploring the trails of the I-90 corridor (Cougar, Squak, Tiger, Rattlesnake, Si, and Mailbox; still never been up Teneriffe). All I want to do right now is get into the Cascades and enjoy some trails through passes and lakes and cirques and glaciers and with no views of towns and cities anywhere. The PCT; The Alipine Lakes Wilderness, The Enchantments, The Wonderland: all await me with their rugged wildness. I got a taste yesterday on the PCT and I cannot wait to answer the call!

Summit of West Tiger #1, February

Summit of West Tiger #1, February

Summit of East Tiger, Early March

Summit of East Tiger, Early March

Bear tracks near Middle Tiger, late March. My footprint's there for scale and there were NO other prints around.

Bear tracks near Middle Tiger, late March. My footprint’s there for scale and there were NO other prints around.

Descending the Chirico Trail during the Chirico Tenpeat (I did six repeats).

Descending the Chirico Trail during the Chirico Tenpeat (I did six repeats). Photo from UphillRunning.com

Descending the Chirico Trail during the Chirico Tenpeat again, a little later this time.

Descending the Chirico Trail during the Chirico Tenpeat again, a little later this time. Photo by Jerry Gamez.

Second summit of Si on the day.

Second summit of Si on the day.

View from Rattlesnake Mountain's upper ledge during my misty, previously-torrentially-rainy double-traverse.

View from Rattlesnake Mountain’s upper ledge during my misty, previously-torrentially-rainy double-traverse.

Summit of Mailbox Peak for the first time.

Summit of Mailbox Peak for the first time.

The namesake mailbox on a gorgeous day.

The namesake mailbox on a gorgeous day.

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