Saturday, August 9, 2014

Straigthenin' the Curves & Flattenin' the Hills: 2014 Western States Pacer Report

It's nearly dark. Adam shuffles through the opening in the trees. I follow. Then, without warning, he stops abruptly and doubles over. Wretch. Red liquid comes out, then again, and once more. And, as quickly as it happened, he's up.

And then, we're off again. Faster than ever.

I say nothing. A grin silently covers my face. And on, we go.

Just like old times.
Surreality typifies the ultrarunning experience, and this year's Western States was no exception. It played out like a bizarre dream:

- waking up on BGD's couch at 5AM, instead of Squaw Valley
- bottoming out a borrowed Toyota Prius on dusty canyon double track en route to Devil's Thumb
- icing, wetting, and lubing some of the world's best runners
- chasing vainly after tiny-but-mighty, indefatiguable, 92.1-pound pixie beauty with ninja tendencies
- spending the night, enveloped in a dark, hot canopy: singing, drinking, and puking
- a triumphant celebration under the lights

However, absurd, it is all eerily familiar. 

NerbleFest 2014?

I first met Adam Condit in 2001. Our initial interaction was, well, inauspicious: an email pissing match about our cross country coach. I graduated from Wisconsin-Eau Claire in the spring of 2001. Adam was a freshman there that fall. I carried a lot of bitterness after three frustrating years of running there, and - as fate would have it - my first memories of Adam were of him putting me - the disgruntled alum - in my place, via email, after I was complaining about his new coach.

Things eventually warmed between us as the years passed, and, as fellow alums, we shared our first special night together: NerbleFest 2005.

is an annual post-season cross country tradition.  Nobody knows what "Nerble" means. To Eau Claire cross country runners, it means slamming a bottle of cheap wine as fast as possible, then  - if you're wise - going outside to regurgitate as quickly as possible. It is as heated - and tradition-rich - as any competition in team history:

NerbleFest Hydration.

Adam REALLY knew how to party back then...

As former Eugene resident and now Race Director Craig Thornley says, "The job of the pacer is to console the puking runner with a pat on the back"
I never partook - one of many regrets from those undergraduate years - but Adam did.

Fast forward a few years: Adam and I reconnected about three years ago, after I'd delved into ultras, having just finished my first Western States in 2011.  Adam was bitten by "the ultra bug", and by 2012 he had full-blown ultra-fever: he wanted to run Western States. When I needed a pacer for my '13 race, it was only logical that I'd ask him.  Knowing his energy and passion, I knew he'd be a great guy to have on the crew and at my side.

He came out to pace Cal Street for me in 2013, but, of course, I fouled up those plans.

But Karma rewarded his commitment with a lottery win in his first attempt

 "I guess it's ON!"

True to his nature, he was methodical and detail-oriented in his preparation, and - most importantly for an Iowa resident - committed the time and resources to come to Placer County for the Memorial Day Training Runs. I came down for that terrific weekend, and BGD and I had him drinking from the fire hose of all things WS - or at least all the things we knew. 

He ran well then: tentative on that first day, which featured all four of the major canyons (after having voluntarily run to the bottom of Duncan Canyon on the first day as "extra credit"). That worried me a bit, but I realized - after a phenomenal Green Gate to the finish run two days later - that he was merely pacing himself. I told him, 'The most important thing we do this weekend is create positive memories" -- those good vibes return to you on race day.  So when he was whooping and cheering his way down to No Hands at the end of a strong run on Memorial Day, I knew he was in a good place.

It was amusing irony that, nine years later, we would reprise those roles, once again, on ultrarunning's greatest stage: Adam vomiting red, and "TRAN" chaperoning, sympathetically. 


Going into this year's Race, I was excited, with only the slightest amount of sadness. I anticipated it would be tough to be there and not race, but - until Race Day arrived - I didn't know how I would react.

Once thing I was mindful about was to avoid over-imposing: my energy and my opinions on those friends who did have bib numbers. While I wrote a rather exhaustive dissection on the Race, I had run only three times, and finished only two.  I'm hardly an expert and I didn't want to misdirect my passion and "fear of missing out" onto the runners. As such, I wanted to take in the energy, but otherwise keep a low profile - other than to encourage those runners and contribute positive energy.

The Medicine & Sports in Ultra-Endurance Symposium was a terrific way to start the week. Amongst nearly a hundred eager students of the sport, I absorbed the latest research and theory on training, racing, nutrition and medical issues related to running a hundred miles in a day. t

It also provided a terrific opportunity to connect with many dedicated volunteers, many of whom have been tirelessly giving to this race for decades.  Kudos to Marty Hoffman for organizing the event, and to new Medical Director Bob Wiess - a terrific addition to the WSER family and the exact leadership the race needs to continue to lead the way in race day medical knowledge and innovation.

After two days, the brain sponge was full. On Thursday, I headed downhill the hill to spend some time with BGD - who, after last year, was in the same boat as me. I returned on Friday morning to take in the scene, touch base with "Team Condit" and otherwise mingle in the pre-race excitement.

Perhaps the highlight was spending a few hours catching up with Sam Jurek, my 2011 Green Gate-to-the-Finish Pacer, great friend, and overall terrific guy.

Jerker's new addition. #GoMinnesota!

Clarkie stops by to off-load some gear for me to deliver to BGD.  Jerker smiles in amusement at grab bag, which included a dirty sock of unknown cleanliness. 

Sneaking away from the intense hype that typifies Race Week Friday, we shared a few beers and some great conversation on Friday night, covering all the usual subjects: the real world, relationships, and running.

Before heading down the hill for the final time, I paid one last visit: to the pre-race lair of The Pixie Ninja, Kaci Lickteig.
Kaci and I connected earlier this year when she was - beyond deservingly - added to the Pearl Izumi Ultrarunning Team. I watched with intrigue as she crushed race after race in the spring, including a second place finish at Rocky Racoon 100, which earned her a Western States entry. 

I hold special to me any Midwesterner who runs Western States for the first time. Living in the flat lands of Middle America makes running a hundred miles in the Sierras all the more unfathomable - for both runner and their families. So when we first met at Lake Sonoma, I had a keen interest in her preparation.

That memory, too, was inauspicious. The way I like to tell it, it went a little something like this:

OOJ: "Hey, you're running Western States, that's awesome!  How will you train for it, in Nebraska? Will you be able to get out to the course for the Training Runs?"
PN: "I don't think I'll be able to..."

I can't quite remember what I said, but it went a little something like this:

I spouted quite the attitude for a guy who'd finished a mere dozen minutes behind me.

Perhaps it shouldn't surprise then, when - during the Uhan-Vargo Shit-Talk Sessions this spring - she began to chime in on social media, shit-talking me!

That got my attention.

"Who is this girl?"

Clearly I'd under-estimated her.  And that would not be the last time I asked myself that question.

I stopped by Kaci's suite in the village for a pep talk, but I think it was me who was on the receiving end of the pep. Nevermind that she was at the cusp of the biggest race of her career: Kaci is never short on joy; she is a consummate giver. After sharing a little banter, teasing and - ultimately - encouragement and resolve, I rolled down the hill.
Race day was a blur. It felt like three, or maybe four days, really.

This was my first race-day volunteer stint at Western States, and it was memorable. As long-time aid station captain Dennis Zylof addressed the group, I began to fully understand just how much energy - and humanity - goes into this race. The enthusiasm and humanity of that group was inspiring, and, multiplied by twenty-five, demonstrates the true power of the event:

Welcome to The Thumb!

AS Capt. Dennis Zylof addresses the scores of volunteers at Devil's Thumb.


Future ultrarunner?

Awaiting the leaders...

Here comes Max King...

...with krinkle-cut pickles awaiting him!

The Aid Station Namesake, to the Right.
My role at Devil's Thumb was Medical...but, it turned out to be everything. When runners came in, I knew - from experience-turned-instinct - what they needed: soda, gels, ice and sponge? Lube? Salt?

It was nothing special, but I had a blast doing it. Perhaps knowing - either personally, or in recognition - the bulk of the first hundred or so runners that came through made it special.

Seeing Adam come in in good spirits - and physical integrity - was a relief.  He was running strong, and told me so: "Legs feel great, stomach's good!", and after a quick recharge, he was out.

Kaci trudged into the aid station, uncharacteristically distressed. She is a fierce competitor and mighty for her size, but, predictably, the rolling green hills of Nebraska didn't prepare her for rugged high country the first of several deep canyons thus far. She was worn and worried, but had her wits and a secure place among the top five women. And after a recharge of fluid, calories, ice and encouragement*, Kaci was running toward El Dorado. 

(*that might've included an "ass-out hug")

Kaci rolling along, before the treacherous canyons and Devil's Thumb. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama.
 I continued to work another hour, watching time tick by and wondering how Adam was faring.  The top ten men all looked worn; the second ten - which included several of last year's top ten, all of whom are "crafty veterans" - looked better.  I wondered how they all would fare in the next, crucial section to Foresthill.

After the first hundred-plus runners charged through, I bid adieu to Medical Captain Alene Aldrich and headed down the hill to Foresthill.

The little city on the ridge was brimming with excitement. I quickly parked, but not before driving past BGD, who was jogging down the path beside the road. I didn't expect to see him. That meant Nick Clark wasn't doing well. "He almost dropped at Michigan Bluff!", BGD yelled, as he waved me off for a ride to the school.

Team Condit was set-up just west of the aid station, and I touched base with them for the first time all day. Adam was still doing well at Michigan Bluff and should be here shortly. I ran back up to the aid station, where I saw BGD and Nick heading in and out.  "I might see you later", BGD said under his breath.

I jogged toward Bath Road and, while getting an update from Meghan Hicks, along came a little girl bedecked in Pearl Izumi. I ran toward her. Kaci was worn, but still intact. And still smiling. Like all the runners who have ever emerged from the high country and triple canyons to civilization, she greeted me like a shipwrecked survivor. We - including her pacer Miguel, who would take her to Auburn - ran along into the aid station. She made quick work in there, and stopped just long enough to refuel. I tied the ice bandana around her neck one last time and wished her well.  And, as quick as she appeared, she was gone.

Adam was next. Over the hill he came, accompanied by Joel Fredricks - another Eau Claire alum, and his brother-in-law - who would take him down Cal Street.  Adam was in good spirits, but I could tell - based on the amount of time he spent in the aid station - that he was wearing down.  Joel and I tried to get him rolling toward his crew.

Adam recharging the ice at Foreshill.  Joel (L) sporting his classic "WTF?" smirk, with good cause.
The Condit Crew helps Adam ready for Cal Street.
Adam and Joel hit the road.

Heading down Cal St. (L to R): me, Adam, Joel. Photo: Condit Crew
 The runners continued, but I chose to rest a bit in the shade.  Then I drove to Driver's Flat and took a rickety rafting bus down to the near side of the Rucky Chucky River Crossing.

One of my personal worries going into the day was the building fatigue - on me! - as the day wore on: of working, waiting, and - possibly - walking into the wee hours of the morning.

But it simply never happened.

Once at the river, it was a steady flow to familiar faces and fun: getting a competition report from Twietmeyer, saying hello to Chris Thornley, mingling with the aid workers, and awaiting the runners to come through.

The sun had left the steep river valley, leaving behind a pale twilight as the hour passed seven. Based on his departure time from Foresthill - and watching the minutes tick away - I began to anticipate what shape Adam would be in.  Cal Street can be a place of suffering, and it did not disappoint. BGD's mom Karen was also there, waiting to hand-off a forgotten headlamp for Jake.

But was it really forgotten? Truth be told: coming into the race, Clark (with Tim Olson) is one of only two runners to break sixteen hours, twice. Simply put, Jake didn't think he needed one.

The pair finally emerged on the dirt road descent to the river crossing. Clarkie was in his Pain Cave. I caught up with Jake: both Adam and Kaci, running together, weren't far behind.

"I might see you later", Jake said forebodingly, as he and Clark descended toward the river.

Minutes later, two figures appeared on the hill: a white shirt, and a neon yellow.  It was Adam and Joel. Behind them, a tiny figure in a white visor. Kaci.

The fellas rolled in. Joel was sporting the same bemused smile he wore in Foresthill. Adam was a little worse for wear. He weighed in with medical - with whom I'd been chatting for nearly an hour. Adam's weight was down nearly seven pounds and he was "feeling low": "lightheaded and dizzy", he said.

Medical: "I think you should sit down for a while!"
Me: "No, you're gonna be fine, let's get some calories in and keep moving!"

The medical volunteer, frustration scarcely veiled in sarcasm, replied, "WELL, GOOD LUCK!"

Rather than point out that I wore the same brown shirt as his a few hours ago - and possessed a modest pair of Silver Buckles in my collection - I directed Adam to the feed table. The order: soda. Lots of it.

As he shuffled to the aid, in came Kaci. She straggled behind Adam, having walked part of the downhill into Rucky Chucky.  Her despair had no veil:

"My hip hurts really bad and I can't run!"

I didn't believe it. Not from her. I scanned around. Gordy's colleague's chiropractor table stood in the distance, unmanned.

"Do you want me to work on it?"
"No...I don't know..."
"C'mon, let's go work on it real quick."
"Are you sure?"

We scrambled through the collection of empty folding chairs to the table. It was sturdy. When Kaci laid prone upon it, I worried she would fall into a ball of cramps. She did not.  A champ.

I pushed on a couple things: pelvis wasn't moving. I put my hands on her. I told her to push, while I pulled. Again, then once more. Something popped.

"I felt that!"

I stretched her once more, and then - after less than a minute - she was up.

I whipped my head around. Where's Adam? Brief panic that I'd abandoned my runner washed away when I saw him, still at the aid station, nursing Sprite, with his crew in a semi-circle around him.

"I feel better!", Kaci exclaimed, as she scampered away. I wished her well - or I think I did - and I have a vague memory of her and her pacer, Miguel, hopping down the bank to the river.

A strange feeling enveloped me. "I'd like to see her again, but I really hope I don't".

Back to Adam. He had dutifully put down a half-liter of Sprite. My mind raced with the Terry/Thornley Doctrine. I asked about salt: he'd taken several S!Caps during the day.  Check, and check.His stomach was still iffy, so we'd avoid food for the time, being.

He was already coming around, and it was time to saddle up.  With a bottles of soda and water, we descended to the river.

It was thrilling to start pacing, and what a way to start, then by dipping the "NP" in the brisk waters of the American River?  I giggled like a little girl as Adam and I gingerly crossed the Middle Fork to the other side.

Right behind us were two of my favorite Oregonians: Denise Bourassa and her hubby/pacer, Ken Sinclair. Together we began to hoof it up the road toward Green Gate.
I had a few things up my sleeve for Adam of the next several hours. Pacing is coaching, only you have the luxury of playing alongside your athlete. Gauging exactly what your athlete needs requires experience, insight and individualization.

I recall my experience at Western States in 2012, when Jacob so artfully paced me. He did a phenomenal job. Why? Because he's a tremendous coach, and because he's one of my best friends.  He knows people, and he really knows me. 

Central to my success were three things: stride cues, faith and positivity...and pop music.

As such, those would be hold-overs for my experience with Adam.

Prior to this year's race - when I thought there was still a chance I would run it - I thought about the idea of prayer. My beliefs on religion - and what, exactly I belief - change with the breeze, it seems. But there's a certain power to prayer. It is vocalized gratitude, and it strengthens resolve.

In 2011, before my first Western States, I had traveled down to the course for a final long training run. I'd been injured for two months, and had just begun to run again. I needed experience. I needed faith in my ability to cover a hundred miles in a day.

And so, fifteen days before the race, I covered half that: fifty miles, through the crux of the course. I began at 9AM, with Jake's help, at Michigan Bluff. From there he and I ran to El Dorado. He would turn back, but I would continue to Last Chance, reverse course, then go all the way to the River and up to Driver's Flat.  A full fifty.

Just before sundown, I reached the river. As I walked the final four kilometers to my car, I was awash in gratitude. And so, without thought, I began to vocalize everything I was thankful for: this day, the ability to run, my health, my friends and family.  It was an enormously powerful experience.

Had I run Western States this year, and had Jacob paced me yet again, I would've asked that he pray with me between every aid station. What better way to tackle yet another segment - another hurdle in a seemingly endless string of obstacles - than with gratitude and resolve, joy and strength?
 Adam and I hiked our way up toward Green Gate.  He was feeling better. I chatted a bit, then spat my first form-cue: The Finch Cock-Walk.  Imploring the value of a wide, expansive step with a strong hip push-off, I told him he needed to power-hike the same way as our old teammate, Jason Finch (and, as it were my 2011 Cal Street pacer). Finchy is "cocky", indeed, and those words - and my demonstration - alone were enough to put a smile on his face and an extra zip in his hips.  We powered on.

Then, I just began to talk. I'm not sure who I addressed it to - God, maybe? - but I spoke of gratitude - for Adam to experience this day, for me to be there with him, and for our ability to share this experience with his family. It was difficult to avoid getting emotional - I've been there - but those words, that feeling had power.  We continued on, silently.

We reached Green Gate and stopped only briefly: more soda, and an S!Cap.  Adam was feeling his best since Foresthill. Denise and Ken had gotten in before us, but we got out in front of them.  And so began a fun see-saw game that would last the next few miles toward Auburn Lake Trails.

K&D got in front of us on the descent to the singletrack, as I unsheathed another cue from my holster, the "Hungry-Hungry-Hippo Stride" to "gobble up" the downhills and stretch out the legs.

It worked well enough, but K&D remained in front as we hit the singletrack together.

Adam was moving great, and before long, we'd pushed beyond K&D on the first uphill climb. But just as soon as we'd get out front, Denise' superior flat stride would reel us in, and back in front they'd go.

I was having a blast, just grateful that Adam was running. I knew if we could roll with Denise - a crafty veteran surely moving her way up the women's Top Ten - he'd do great.

Just like that, the first of several songs popped into my head. And, I felt like I had to share them.

"...Hey know what song is in my head?", I said, baiting them to get me singing.
"Last Friday Night".


But it didn't last long.

I began. Tim Twietmeyer and Ann Trason talked about the elusive Flow state, but I'm not sure they were referring to lyrics. But the entirety of the first verse flowed from my windpipes. Ken outright laughed at my falsetto:

" of - last - night! Ended up - on - line! I'm screw-ewed! OH WELL!..."

I was having fun. I hoped Adam was, too.

Once again, we hit a small climb, and Adam and I snuck past K&D. He was rolling well, but I knew he needed more calories. I spied the Clif Bloks in his hip pockets.

I thought about what Bruce LaBelle had told me earlier in the week: of how he and Trason would suck on Jolly Ranchers during the race, letting them stay in their cheeks, slowly dissolving down into a steady sugar stream.

"Hey, Adam. I'd like you to try some of those Clif Bloks. Don't chew them, just keep 'em in your mouth and suck on them."

He did.  But then, inexplicably, he was doubled over.


And there we were.

K&D zoomed past. Adam's quick rally was a relief, but now he was flat-out charging.  He needed to back off, especially since he just dumped God-knows how many calories.

"Let's ease off a little bit. We need to keep things a little more even..."

With K&D out of sight, we floated along.

"...just Straighten the Curves and Flatten the Hills..."

And, like that, another gem emerged:

I couldn't help myself.  It was perfect:

"...making their wayyyyyyyy...the only way they know how!...."

And make our way, we did.  Adam rolled along, through both creek crossings and up the slow climb toward A.L.T.  I kept up the Waylon impression, and a voice ahead said, "Is that Joe?"

It was Jake and Nick. They were walking. Nick, buried in The Cave, with Jacob behind.  It was good to see Jake, but not a positive development for Nick. Knowing his penchant for humbuggery, I silenced the human jukebox as we sidled past Nick and continued on our way.

Jake relayed one vital bit of great news as we passed:

"Kaci just flew past us. She said that you fixed her!"

My smile stretched across the trail.  I couldn't wait to see her, at the finish.

Adam was running well, and fast. I monitored the progress of his Sprite. I was now gone, but we were close to ALT. After the vomit, I worried about a possible deficit.

Once at the aid station, my worst fears were confirmed: he had run himself low. Similar to the River, Adam suffered when he stopped. He was dizzy and more nauseous than ever. We would have to fix this.

Nothing looked good. The aid station workers tried everything to revive him.  In fact, I think it looked a lot like this:

 ("You F###ED UP!  You trusted me!")

While the beer cans and bottles were spared, everything from chips to candy were offered. But the only thing that stuck was chicken broth. Adam - doubled over, hands stuck on knees - sipped the broth, with a few precious saltines crumbled in to provide vital carbs.

Before long, Jacob and Clarkie arrived. Jake was shocked to see Adam. He looked at me, and I smiled flatly. We chatted amongst ourselves about our runners - as if they were both toddlers who were oblivious to our words.  "Adam got low on energy", I said.

I was legitimately worried. We hadn't taken enough time at the River, and we didn't do enough to get volume back on board, and now he's really paying for it. 

I did not want him to sit down.  It just didn't make sense. I figured, you don't need to sit down to take in fluid.  Yet, the consequences of sitting were dire, especially for a inexperienced runner.  Would he get up again? And would his legs be the same?

We got Adam another cup of broth ("My advice to you is to start drinking heavily!"). Jacob was off, finding a chair for Nick. But we had to get moving.

"We gotta go, Adam, let's just walk".  

And, for some reason, he listened to me.  We took more broth, more crackers, and bottles full of soda and water.  And we walked out the aid station.

Walking is a slight exaggeration. It was a stagger. Adam's steps were wider than they were long: Finch's cock-walk was nowhere to be seen. "I'm dizzy", is all he said.  Yet he continued on. 

We walked, and we walked slowly. I nearly held my breath, hoping to God that he would stay on his feet.  And hope to God, we did: we once again prayed: with gratitude, for strength, resilience, and, as I put it, "the privilege to suffer like this when so many others cannot."

Adam trudged along.

We were now on the trail toward Brown's Bar (mile 89.9), known for the smoothest, fastest trail in the whole second half.  Yet we were barely moving; forward progress hanging by a thread.

I wasn't sure what to do. He was truly in the Pain Cave. How would he respond?

"Hey Adam...would you mind if I told you some Blugold Cross Country stories?"
"No, that'd be great", he replied, with the faintest hint of enthusiasm.

And so it went. The Blugold Tales of Lore. They included:

- Regionals, '98: Langer, the pee pants, the gear heist, and "That's Homer for ya!"
- Gluing a toilet to the front porch of the 226 house
- Bert getting naked at the cross country party on eight consecutive weekends (and the Christmas Part '97 with the UW-La Crosse guys)
- Breezy streaking Water Street at the peak of Saturday night Homecoming in '98, and getting thrown - naked - in jail.
- Breaking the floor performing "KBD" at the Niagara Street House

Adam chuckled a bit, and began to interject. He told the story of Tom Anderson's 21st Birthday and "The Cheddarwurst".

Waves of relief began to flow between us both. His hiking pace quickened.

We were both quiet for a while.

And then, without warning, Adam began to shuffle, gingerly.  I literally held my breath.  Then, he broke out into a run.

I looked at my watch, which read a single-digit pace for the first time in over an hour.  We were rolling again.  He was back online.

It had been pitch dark since ALT, and we snaked our way in and out of the horizontal canyons toward Brown's.  With all the walking in the dark, I wasn't sure how far we had to go.  That was, until, we heard the music.  We were close.

Most people get frustrated with the music from Brown's Bar.  Truth be told, you can hear it from nearly a mile out, but that sort of input - after an hour of darkness and silence - was welcome. It was energizing. Adam ran strong, and before long, we'd hit the sanctuary.

The adoption of Brown's Bar Aid Station by Hal Koerner's Rogue Valley Runners has been one of the brightest - if not overlooked - developments in the race in the past three years. The Ashland ultra community brings an enthusiastic, dedicated group of aid station workers each year, headed by The Man himself.

It really buoyed Adam's spirit to be waited on by the two-time Western State champion. Forgetting all about his suffering - and what still laid ahead - he gushed with Hal about the day, the competition, and all things ultras while refilling on broth and soda. I was happy, too, and chatted with Hal and Joe Chick, among others, soaking in the jovial atmosphere.

But we had business. It was time to move.  The barn was in smelling distance.

Down the rutted trail we went, gingerly stepping. I implored Adam to move his feet, to dance his way down the hill. He needed some moves.  And the jukebox hit again:

"...Baby it's hard, when you feel like, you're broken and scarred!...Nothing feels right...But when you're with me...I'll make you believe..."

We came upon a runner and pacer - two Aussies, with which Adam had started the race.  He was having a tough time descending and we made quick work, as Adam's legs showed the most energy since Green Gate. We danced our way to Quarry Road.

Quarry is always tough, but Adam ran most of it. It was impressive. We were so close.

Adam knew what was in store on Quarry Trail - the rocky, relentless climb to 49 - but he also knew the reward. He got his "Cock-Walk" going again, and we aggressively gobbled up the terrain.

To date, all of my jukebox songs were extemporaneous.  But I had one on deck, waiting for this moment.

Highway 49 is special. It marks the first time crew - family and friends - get to see their runners in over fifteen miles. A lot can happen in those miles, and it did.  But we were going to make it.

In each of my finishes, I blew through Highway 49, scarcely aware of what my family was going through, and what a gift it was to have them there.  But I knew now, and I knew it would be hugely important for both they and Adam to share a slice of it together.

I wanted him to get excited for this "gift", and I was actually nervous to perform.  But when I spied two headlamps just behind us closing in, I let 'er rip.  My opus:

The words could hardly be more apropo:

"I heard you're feeling...nothing's going right
Why don't you let me stop by?
The clock is ticking...running out of time
So we should party, ALL night!

So cover your eyes,
I have a surprise!
I hope you got a healthy appetite!
If you wanna dance,
If you want it all
You know that I'm the girl that you should call..."

The runners closed in as I was about to "bring out the big - BIG - BIG - BIG - BALLOONS!", but - either because, or in spite of, the serenade, Adam pushed harder over the top, past the Quarry, and toward the lights and sounds of the Highway.

Before we descended, I told him, "I'll fill your bottles. Go see your family, they'll be pumped to see you."

We rolled into 49, a full minute ahead of the mystery runner.

The buzzing of lights and generators were muffled by the cheers of the crowd, which included an six-some of neon-bedecked Condit Crew. Adam hung with his family - this time, standing tall - while I readied his bottle: just one for the final 6.7 miles.  I ditched mine, outright, and, with great joy, off we went.

Adam and I shuffled up toward Cool Meadow. He was energized, and - thankfully - back on the soda. We made great time on the steep, rugged climb to the meadow, and were richly rewarded with some of the best end-of-the-race running in the sport.  The meadow - in complete darkness with a new moon - sported chest-high grass. The beams of our headlamps pierced the blackness as we swam through the grass toward No Hands.

Silently, our brains each conjured up that last day of camp: the jubliant downhill romp, when Adam flat-out dropped me to the Bridge. I held my own this time, but he was rolling with leg speed I hadn't seen all day.

Then, things got fun: we came upon runners.  Lots of them!

At this point in the race - in this position, somewhere in the mid-40s places - there featured a group of runners mostly suffering from the same fate: dead quads.  They were fast enough to get this high, but - with the clock nearing one in the morning - they simply lacked the leg integrity to move well.

This was not Adam's problem. We made quick and merciless work of these runners.  My competitive juices began to gush. And another song loaded:

I spared no volume with this one, being sure the other runners and pacers got to enjoy the tune with us.

We rolled along, and my watch flashed some 7's.

"One more shot, another round! End of the night, it's goin' down!"

Cars zoomed along below us on 49. No-Hands Bridge Aid Station was close.  I made a gusty call.  We would not stop at No Hands.

In my two runs at Western, I'd never stopped. In 2011, I was trying desperately to break twenty hours, and with full bottles, it simply wasn't necessary. The story was similar the next year, though this time I was climbing my way up the Top Ten.

I knew what happened when Adam stops: his momentum collapses, and he goes into a hypotensive funk. I looked at his lone bottle: it was two-thirds empty. I thought about having him continue while I stopped to refill it, but that would be against the rules and in poor form.

So I made the decision:

"Hey Adam.  Did I tell you Rule Number One of Western States: You do not stop at No-Hands Bridge Aid Station."

And rule #2:

"You DO NOT STOP at No Hands Bridge Aid Station."

And once again, against his better judgment, he listened to me.  We rolled through the flashing lights of the aid station, across the Bridge. We were so close.

We rolled along, and I wondered just how much gas Adam had left. Once again, memories of camp flashed back:

"You were an asshole and pushed it through here", Adam said, out of nowhere.
"That's because YOU were an asshole for dropping me on the descent!", I retorted without hesitation.

Our brains were in the same space.

We passed one, then another runner/pacer duo as we shuffled in and out of the trio of horizontal canyons, toward the last trail climb.  I remember, as we hiked up the switches toward Robie, when I had given up on myself and sub-twenty hours.  I thought about Adam, and how he said that, after this finish, he would give up competitive running for his family.

As we climbed hard toward Robie, I said to him, in between breaths:

"You know, you're not done with running, or with Western States. You're going to come back here, when your boys are older, and they're going to crew and run with you, and you're going to teach them about this race."

Maybe that was my goal, but I knew what family meant for Adam. And, perhaps more than he realized, I knew what tremendous impact this race had on families.

He didn't argue.  We pushed along.

There are only three points that I simply could not run over the final twenty miles of my Top Ten run in 2012: a ten-second section of Quarry Trail, the rugged, rocky climb to Cool Meadow, and this final push to Robie. It's just so damn steep.

Running was completely out of the question, as we both worked hard to simply hike to the doubletrack.  But we made it.  And once there, I spurred Adam in the side once more:

"Okay, at this sign, we run, let's do it".

And for the first time, he did not respond. I'd just about run him ragged. So we hiked.

I said one last prayer: a thank you for the strength to push to this point, for this incredible day, and the experience we were sharing.

Once at Robie, we both grabbed a quick nip of courage, then turned our way up the pavement.

That final 1.3 miles was brutal on Adam. He was wiped out. All the precious sugar we'd pumped in at Browns and 49 was gone. My No-Hands gambit was too costly. I would spur Adam to run; he would make it ten strides, then revert to a slow hike.

Lights emerged behind us.  We were about to crest to the Mile 99 party, yet we were still walking.  For the first time all day, I got out front of him, and - when the Aussie passed us back - "The Athlete" in me got frustrated.

Aussie blew past us - once again, doing better on the ups than the downs - while Adam struggled to conjure one last unit of energy to get him that final mile.

He began to bargain: "I just want to walk it in with Alicia".

Bullshit.  "She doesn't want to walk it in with you, she wants to run!  And besides, we have to get to them, first!" 

Now on the flat, downhill Marvin Way, we were barely shuffling. Another headlamp approached.  Ugh!  I think I got a good ten meters in front of Adam and thought I might have to start whipping his ass with my visor, but he picked it up.  The runner, perceiving Adam's newfound strength, fell back.

Miraculously, we crested to Lubeck Road - "the last uphill!" - and rolled up and over to The White Bridge.  Adam was moving again.  We were utterly close.

Around the corner - cutting the tangent - were two neon shirts. Joel and Matt were waiting to bring us in.  "Alicia's at the bottom by the track!".  She was ready to run, and - with tremendous joy and relief  - so was Adam.

The buzz of the lights cut the early morning darkness.  Adam, then Alicia tiptoed through the gate, and I followed.  A booming voice burst through the buzz: the welcoming baritone of Tropical John.

TJ introduced Adam as we covered the back stretch.  A shot of adrenaline - and a bit of emotion - coursed through me when I heard, "Olive Oil Joe".  We rounded the track and the applause grew.

I stepped off, then watched Adam and Alicia roll through.

It.  Was. Awesome.

And just like that, it was over! 

And, like it has been the two previous times I've crossed that line, it was a surreal moment.  What just happened? Where are we, and where have we been?

A lot of hugs and a lot of emotion, of course. Damn, it felt great to be done.  I was so relieved he'd made it.  A lot of chances were taken out there, but we'd toed the line to perfection. Adam trusted me, he trusted his fitness, his abilities, his preparation and - above all, he had the faith to withstand every challenge thrust upon him.  It was a gift for me to be a part of it.

I was ecstatic, and best of all, I had but five-plus hours on my feet!  I felt great! 
Adam was surrounded by his family, and I began to survey the scene. AJW and Monkey Boy were in sleeping bags beside the track: Andy soaking in the emotion of his tenth (and likely final) Buckle; Monkey Boy, with pacer Lewis Taylor, was savoring yet another crafty, hard-charging Top 20 finish - notching a 40-minute personal best in the process.

Then, at the end of the track, surrounded by a small crowd, was a little girl in a red sports bra and white visor.

A little something stirred in me. I hadn't stopped thinking about her. The moments we shared - before the race, early in the day, and that pivotal connection at the River - replayed on and off in my mind - and painted an unwavering smile on my face - as Adam and I made our way toward Auburn. I looked forward to celebrating her triumph, and now, there she was.

It was a surreal - if not awkward - moment. Like two people who'd emerged from a dramatic, hundred-mile-long wreck: stunned, bewildered, a little roughed up, but otherwise unscathed.  But most of all: inexplicably, yet powerfully, connected.

I cut through the crowd, perma-grin securely in place. Through the fatigue of what she would call her "toughest race ever", she conjured enough pixie dust to smile my way and embrace. Despite ongoing hip pain (on both sides), Kaci had held on for F6, finishing nearly a full half-hour ahead of us. And while she was utterly worn, she stood there amongst her fans, without a hint of post-hundred suffering or melodrama. Onlookers might wonder who amongst us had actually run the whole thing.

She might be small, but she's mighty.

As for me, I wasn't that tough. With Adam in the safe hands of his family and medical staff, I turned toward myself, and what I considered to be poison oak-soaked legs.  I quickly washed and rinsed beside the track, and felt peace of mind, knowing I wouldn't suffer a few days from now.

I checked in on Adam, who was now under a blanket in medical. I returned to the rest of his family: mom, dad, his sister and her husband; Joel and his wife, Dusti.  They had a look in their eye: of the type of deep impact that comes from absorbing what they'd seen and felt that day. And they looked to me as the one who took care of Adam when things got really tough.

We hugged and they thanked me endlessly.  But I stood there, sheepishly, unable to articulate what I knew deep-down: I was in his place just a few years ago, and now I'm the expert? I was so incredibly lucky to have the mentors and support of some of the greatest legends of Western States. All I was doing was passing it along.  Now I'm the kid who copied the answers off the answer key and passing them off as my own.

They retreated: to Adam, and at last to their beds. I looked over again, to see Kaci, still standing there, without jacket, and nothing but what she'd been running in the past twenty hours.  It couldn't have been more than sixty degrees out: downright frigid.

"Can I get you a jacket? You need to put some more clothes to on!" 

She demurred, of course (a tough Midwestern gal that she is), but friends scurried away to her car for warm layers.

I looked at her dusty legs, then remembered a social media post of hers after Sonoma.

"You get poison oak really bad, right?"
"Oh, yeah."
"Okay, well we have to get it off you!"

She sat up on the retaining wall, as I went to work, removing her shoes and socks. I felt sheepish - and a little embarrassed - for going so far as to rinse of her legs.  Isn't this a little over the top?, I thought. But I didn't care.  Nor did I mention to her that, two years before, I had required the assistance of three men in undressing, bathing and redressing me after finishing. 

The fact is, I felt a strong need to take care of her.  So I did. A quick tecnu wash and rinse and she was ready to go.

When her friend returned with clothes, I turned to equally important things: a Sierra Nevada, courtesy of Chris Price, who'd run a masterful Western States debut, just outside the top ten.  The beer tasted phenomenal, but it sent me into a shiver-fest.  It nearly two AM and it was time to go.

Nick and Jake had finished, and Jake and I shared a brief moment past the finish line. We both shared special experiences (Jake's being more painful than mine, as Nick came alive and devoured the finals, outright dropping him on the way to the track), but what was implicit in that moment was that, next year, we need white numbers.

Jake and I at the finish.  "White Bib Numbers next year".  Photo: Karen May.

Finally, it was time to leave.  I bid a good night to the growing crowd of finishers and support crew, then I found Kaci once more.  I drew her close once more.  And then we were gone.

Post-race Sunday had its usual fill of fanfare.  Lots of things to celebrate. BGD and I took in the final finishers of the day while mingling with friends. We got a load of good news from "Dark Chocolate" Jorge Maravilla: he's going to be a Poppy soon!

Nearly as grand was the successful - and safe - finish of Gary Bennington.  We'd visited Gary in the hospital after last year's race.  No drama this year: he got his buckle.

Gary, with his hard-earned medal.

Then, of course, it was awards. Cougars, silvers and bronzes abounded. Kaci got a nice drop in her pay bucket, courtesy of a Montrail Ultra Cup win!  She sat under the stifling tents for a while, and when it was time to leave, we made plans to hang out later in the afternoon.

Three fellas with La Crosse, WI, connections (L to R): Adam, me, and Brian Condon (UWL alum)

...but it's REALLY about the Blugold Power: me, Adam and Joel.

Joe and Matt. Tough to say who looks cooler. 

KacR with her bling. That trophy looks a little flimsy, but there's a cool three grand behind it! 

 Adam, of course, got his buckle:

Adam shakes hands with RD Emeritus, Greg Soderlund.

Alicia makes that look good..

...and so does that little girl inside! 
Before his crew headed west to enjoy a proper vacation, we hugged and he thanked me one last time.  It was emotional.  I've been there. I know it.

Jake and I made the traditional stop to the Ale House, post-race, and caught up with Vargo and Jimmy Dean, then headed to Rocklin.

Ethan Newberry (L - "The Ginger Runner") and Vargo....

I'm not sure what he was saying, but safe to say, he was talking shit. 

Only Jimmy Dean Freeman could make this scene better. 

The day was capped off with a relaxing, fun get-together at Boneshaker with me, Jake and Sara, and Kaci and her pacer Miguel. It was great to get away from the frenetic race and toward a relaxing hangout, and I was pumped that Sara and Kaci got to meet each other.

The day - and the race experience - was drawing to a close, and we bid farewell to Kaci and Miguel, as they drove back east to Tahoe.

But damn it, I'm a pretty selfish guy who doesn't know when to quit.  I wanted one last dose of Pixie dust before I headed north, and by God, I was gonna get it!

So on Monday morning, I rolled up the hill once more and met a little brown-haired girl on the main drag of Tahoe City for a peaceful walk along the lake.  Then we sat there along the shore and, between gleeful kids and the occasional plumber's butt, were finally able to just talk: no bustle, no excitement. Just a couple of weirdo kids, hanging out.

KacR getting educated.

"Avast, ye, matey!"

Trying to make this beach look good.

"CANT-STAND-YA!"  Is this the Stink Eye, the Evil Eye, or the Crook Eye?  I forget. 
All I know is that she hates me even worse than Vargo! 
It was an utterly special close to an incredible week.

And then, finally, I bid farewell to the Little Brown-Haired Girl, and the Race, and I drove north. 

Even now, a month-plus removed from the race, I'm at a loss to fully comprehend what it is about that race.  Even ten thousand words fail to articulate it. It will always be special - no matter what role I play.  In fact, the more roles I play, and the more lives that touch mine in the process, the more valuable it becomes.

I tell people, "This year was, by far, my most enjoyable Western States". And it's true, mostly because of the many different experiences...and the simple fact that I didn't have to suffer.

But that does nothing to weaken my resolve to return as a racer. I want another White Bib, and I think - I know - that I can set foot on that course and, yet again, run with joy - and SPEED -  to Auburn.

Until then, I patiently await that chance, and will relish the incredible experience I had this year.

A hearty congrats to Adam, and the other finishers, and all of those who make this race happen, and one of the important events in my life!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

House of Cards - 2014 Lake Sonoma Race Report

The beauty of ultramarathon running is the juxtaposition -- and swift vacillation -- of community and solitude: utter aloneness for minutes or hours, then the clamor of spectators and aid, and then - just as quickly, aloneness once again.  And that was the only thing swift about this year's Lake Sonoma 50: the speed at which I was whisked between community support and utter solitude. And it was a gift.

But I would've preferred to be near some folks. And up front.

But I was alone: just me, and my thoughts.

Two nights before race day, I had a dream that I was at the Western States lottery.  I did not get in.  And I wept.  I cried so hard in my dream, I awoke, nearly crying.

It was fitting, therefore, as I rolled along, alone, in the later depths of the race, that I found myself thinking about that dream, and about the reality of the day: of coming up short, again, and possibly missing out on the best day of the year.  I thought about the moment I'd cross the finish -- so egregiously far removed the podium that I'd be lucky if the finish area was still standing when I got there -- when I'd see my mom and my supporters:

"I'm, sorry, maybe next year..."

That thought, which recurred several times in the last fifteen miles, was sufficient enough to obscure my vision with moisture and force me to put it away.

It's been a fascinating personal journey since last June. After prioritizing speed and paying for it with serious overtraining and an epic crash-and-burn, I committed myself to rebuilding: focusing on true aerobic strength and power, and becoming the best fat-burning machine I could be.  The idea was to build the strongest - and most sustainable - overall fitness possible.

It was a simple plan: run at max aerobic pace only for...a long time: a Maffetone-inspired notion that training at fat-burning pace, however slow that may be, will develop more fat-burning enzymes to allow higher-intensity running with the same energy.  This notion is implicit to all distance training -- build a base, then go from there.  But too often corners are cut (or omitted) in the base-building process. Easy runs may feel easy, but if fat is not used and promoted as fuel, true aerobic conditioning won't happen.

So after Western States, I used the Maffetone Formula to find my max aerobic heart rate, and from the end of July through most of February, that is where 99% of my training was spent.  Using the formula, my estimated fat-burning heart rate was 150.

But there was a problem: I actually wasn't burning much fat at 150.  In fact, none at all.

At first, I made some fitness gains, going from about 7:30 pace down to 6:40 pace at 150 HR.  But then I plateaued, and numerous other events - including a broken heart rate monitor and a flu virus - precluded further monitoring or testing.

Finally, after Bandera, and after testing scores of folks on our metabolic system and grasping the technology, methods and results, I tested myself.  The results were shocking: I was burning precisely 0.0% fat at 150 heart rate.

Even worse, to get a "big chunk" of fat-burning - the desired 30-50% fraction, about which the Maffetone Formula aims for - I had train as low as 105-125 heart rate!!


But it made sense.  In the 180-Formula, there are myriad of qualifiers.  Besides 180 minus your age, other qualifiers include:
  • If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease, any operation or hospital stay, etc.) or are on any regular medication, subtract an additional 10.
  • If you are injured, have regressed in training or competition, get more than two colds or bouts of flu per year, have allergies or asthma, or if you have been inconsistent or are just getting back into training, subtract an additional 5.
  • If you have been training consistently (at least four times weekly) for up to two years without any of the problems just mentioned, keep the number (180–age) the same.
  • If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed above, and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.

In my estimation, I had cheated.  I had taken 180 minus my age (35) and - by virtue of "training without problems" and "making progress", I added 5.

However, I was overlooking several factors, and indicators that I was training too high:
  • My allergies - even in the fall and early winter - were worse than ever.
  • I was sick more often in November, December and January than I have the past five years, combined
  • I had the worst flu infection I'd ever had in my life, right before Bandera.
And just like that, a MAF of 130 - or lower - seems pretty reasonable.

So, beginning in mid-February, I committed to a max heart-rate of 130 for all running.  It was tough!  My easy pace immediately plummeted to about 8:00 pace...on a treadmill.  Hills?  Forget it: 12-minute pace, or I was walking.

But I knew - from everything I'd read and studied - that I had to commit to it.  Because I had, by this point, so many examples of other runners - and my own patients - who'd committed to the process of disciplined fat-burning, that took their pure-aerobic pace from embarassingly-slow to insanely-fast.  And I knew, based on how fat-burning affected health and how the alternative - high-intensity sugar-burning - deleteriously affected health, performance, and career longevity.

So, with 8 weeks to go before Sonoma, I was running #slowasshit.

It was a major gamble: could I run that slow, that easy, and still perform well at Sonoma: a favorite event of mine, a race that I've run very well at the past two years, the premiere "old school" ultra in the country, and now, a vital shot at a Western States spot?

I'm a stickler for tradition: for the third consecutive year, I left for Sonoma on Thursday night, lodging in Ashland. I rolled in just before ten o'clock, just in time for a good night message from my good buddy, Chris Vargo!

A typical pre-Sonoma exchange between Chris and I. I was eternally grateful for that tuck-in from Chris' mom, "The Sue"! 
The banter (read: "shit-talk") between Chris and I pre-race was quite a hoot, and was only going to get better.  But more on that, later.

As noted, I slept well - other than my Western States lotto dream - and awoke rested.  My day-before run through downtown Ashland, up Lithia Park, and to Prickly Pete's pasture felt strong, and I relished in the cool, dry, sunny Southern Oregon weather.  After breakfast, I hopped in the car and made my way to Healdsburg.

Once there, I had a bit of business to attend to - a little more shit-talk, this time for The Media. I met up with The Boss at the front desk of the Best Western as folks trickled, including The BGD.  We milled around while Bryon interviewed the legit talent: Krar, King, Canaday, to name a few.

Then it was our turn. What a blast that was! We had some fun shit-talking back and forth - though it took Vargo a bit to "warm-up", but once he did, it was a hoot.

Me, Bryon Powell, and Chris Vargo.  $hit's about to go down!  Photo: iRunFar. 


Some obvious Photoshop-ing: how are we the same height? Vargo's like 4'8"! 
Vargo and I pummel one another. 

When we finished, BGD and I chatted with Alicia Shay, who traveled from Flag with Vargo, and Krar for a bit, before heading to the course.

I had a great talk, catching up with BGD, on the way to the the overlook, then hiked out a half-mile and had a seat along the trail.  There, I had another great talk: "to the mountain". I sat there, as I did before Bandera, and talked it out: what my intentions were, my focus, my gratitude and perspective. Any nerves I might've had were put to rest until race morning.

Race morning came quick, but not too early. The race directors do a phenomenal job - and ahead of the curve - at elite runner hospitality. Jake and I were holed up in our own suite on the Soda Rock Winery, just a few miles outside town.

The view from our suite at Soda Rock. "So Romantic!" :-P
The "His & His" robes, ala "Dumb & Dumber", will have to wait...
BGD looking "Buff".
We slept well and had plenty of room - and quiet - to prepare on race morning.

We arrived at the overlook to darkness and a light, misty fog: perfect running conditions.  And, characteristic of the event and Tropical John Medinger's attention to detail, the sun rose just in time for the opening horn.

Lots of familiar faces on the line and the mood was light for what would surely be among the most competitive 50-milers in the world this year.

Flexin' at the start.  Look at all that annoying neon!  Photo:
"AAAAAAAY!  JAAAKE RYYYDMANNNN!  What's goin' on, man? How you doin'?
Good to see you again, what's up?"  Photo: Meredith.
Then, it was time.

The race...went exactly how it should've gone: tough.

The opening road miles - and the pace set up-front by the Nike BoyZ and others - was remarkably subdued.  Yet, characteristic of the day, I struggled to keep up on the climbs.  My race-nerves sent my HR into the 170s and I had to work hard to relax, breathe deeply, and run easy on the ups to get it in the 160s.

And that would be the theme of the day: slow, sluggish climbs, tip-toeing beyond anaerobic threshold.  All day.

I was probably in tenth place when we hit the trail descent, then gradually relinquished at least a half-dozen places over the next two miles before Island View (31:33).  Thematic of the day, the effort felt strong, but I was a good two-plus minutes slower than a year ago.  But the HR was in the mid-160s - the Yellow Zone - and there was simply nothing else to do.

So I shuffled along.

I had some pleasant chats with several folks, including Jesse Haynes, Josh Brimhall and Brian Tinder - all of whom I'd see later in the day.

Then I was alone.

And I loved it.

The lake shore was enveloped in a shroud of fog all morning. It was utterly peaceful, and the beauty tempered the frustrating sluggishness felt on each of the relentless climbs.  I felt slow and heavy.  But...I felt strong.

The Sonoma Basin wrapped in fog. The view from above Madrone AS. Photo: Meredith.

As I loped along, it occurred to me the folly of what I was undertaking:  "I've done literally NO running on hills at this intensity...for months...what do you expect??"  There was a part of me that believed that my strong aerobic power would supercede that lack of experience, the requisite leg strength, and lactate clearance, necessary to run fast.  But it simply wasn't there.

What I had was essentially a House of Cards: the appearance - or at least the building blocks - of actual fitness, but not the real thing.  And, presented with a challenge such as this course, it wasn't long 'til my limitations were completely exposed. 

But I kept at it, my new mantra was "Slow, but Strong".

I hit Warm Springs AS slow again, in 1:32 - a whopping 8 minutes slower than a year ago.  I must've been dwelling strongly on this notion to miss the gigantic, creepy presence of The Vargo off my left shoulder, because it didn't register in the slightest!  At least I was focused!

Refueling at Warm Springs AS, with to-scale representation of Chris Vargo's gigantic ego.  Well-played Eric Schranz.  Photo: Meredith

"Stop starin' at me, SWAN!"  Photo: Meredith.
I was just behind Brimhall as we hit the aid, and as we left, he asked about the splits:  "VERY SLOW", I spat, when asked about our times compared to a year ago.  He remarked about getting out too hard a year ago; I agreed, but eight minutes?  Ugh.

I shuffled along, and Josh ambled out of sight.

And I was alone again.  More shuffling, but now, some gut-rot. The stomach hadn't taken well to the influx of sugar, which prompted the first of two pit-stops.  Ugh.

Just before Wulflow #1 (48:20, 2:20), I caught a glimpse of Michael Versteeg (who I would later find out is a good friend of one of my favorite "Tall Dickheads", James Madson!).  I would run right behind, then right in front, of him for the next dozen miles.  Having him around helped snap me from my doldrums, and I posted my best (or closest to ideal) split of the day to Madrone #1 (15:04, 2:35).

The Queen was there.  Her face betrays all; she'd be a horrible poker player.  "How ya doin'?".  She knew how I was doing. "Slow but strong", I said, as I pounded the first of several cans of Coke.  I shuffled out.

I heard big cheers only a minute out of the aid station.  The first woman was close.  Of course.

Shuffling up the steep dirt road, I tried to run as much as I could - or at least when spectators were around - but I otherwise hiked.  The HR spiked above 170 and I struggled to keep the legs moving.  My support crew was at the summit and I smiled and waved weakly as I dropped down over the hill.

The descent to the lake before the Big Climb took forever. The gut protested further as I pitter-pattered my way along, and I stopped once again to fertilize. Versteeg floated by and it took until the next aid to catch back up.

By this time, falling so egregiously behind my goal splits, I began to dread just how soon into the climb I'd see the leaders when they doubled back upon us.

That's one of many beauties of Lake Sonoma 50: the double-back, and the first of two critical competition checks.  I was a mere two-thirds up the vertical to No Name when Zach Miller flew past.  Minutes later came Krar, with Vargo and Sage in tow, then King a minute or so behind them.  Seeing those fellas gave my running a spark, yet I continued to struggle up the teasing rollers that littered the approach to No Name.  I came across BGD a few minutes from the lollipop -- meaning he was a good ten minutes-plus in front.  He had a look of focused intensity and blew past so fast all I could get out was, "Execute!"

I hit the Lollipop, which was guarded by several folks, including Tropical John. I tried to bribe my way straight into the aid, but he wasn't having it.  I got past Versteeg and pushed to the aid.

No Name is the halfway point, and by the time I rolled in, I was quite late (55:00, 3:30 - 3:10 in 2013), so it was all I could do to poke a little fun when I saw my good friend Jorge Maravilla there amongst the crowd.  He wisely chose to rest from LS50, but I gave him a little $hit, anyway, for the DNS, before I grabbed a fresh bottle and hit the trail.

The double-back on the rest of the field was uplifting: the constant exchanges of well-wishes, and running past good friends helped buoy the spirits and lighten the load as I shuffled back down to the lake, but once I bottomed out and had to climb my way out, no breath was available for further greetings - a simple wave was all I could muster.

About this time, Emily Harrison, the women's leader, began to reel me in. I'd felt her presence for miles, but here she was.  She got past me about a half-mile from the summit, just in time for the media.

Emily leading me up to the dirt road above Madrone 2 (mile 30). You can't get anything past Connor Curley, whose timely comment really made this photo.  It's "F2" (sort of like "F U"), Connor!  Photo:

Emily stopped for aid from Ian Torrence at the hilltop and I snuck past, but my lead was short-lived.  After Madrone #2 (47:54, 4:18), she got past me again, seemingly for good.

By the time I got to Wulflow #2 (18:16, 4:36), I was feeling gassed.  I'd been red-lining all day: with the HR consistently in the mid-160s.  My legs had no power.  I was resigned to shuffling it in.

But at least I had entertainment.  As planned, I got out my iPod and put in the buds.  And for the first time all day, I started to have some fun.

Because of alphabetical order, my race playlists always open with this song.  And it's a good one.  While I certainly had nothing to "smack", I danced along with a smile on my face.

From there, on, it was all about making the most of the day: I focused on efficiency: using the hips and pelvis, a strong arm swing, and - my greatest deficit - a quick turnover.  And it worked to keep me moving pretty well. 

I felt OK and, once again, at peace: not simply with my surroundings, but with the day itself: where I'm at -- today, this year, and my place in the community.  I was OK with being slow, being behind, and not being competitive.  But when I began to think about the implications - of missing out on this year's Western States - it was truly sad. I got emotional several times and had to force it down and put it away.

Finally, after nearly five hours, the fog had burned away.  The sun appeared, in full force, and the trail slowly warmed to a simmer.

Or maybe it was the reflected aura of SoCal Boy Jesse Haynes, who came within view just before dropping into Warm Springs #2 (49:52, 5:26).  It was good to see him, and my hearty crew, at the AS, and I felt a surge of competitiveness in my otherwise gassed legs as we shuffled out together. 

My Beer Mile Training Run on Tuesday pays off.  Photo: Meredith.

After the river crossing, Jesse was hiking a lot.  I knew I could get past him and, eventually, I did.  I remember vividly the cramping that began at this point - nearly twelve miles out - a year ago.  I took solace in the fact that, while gassed, at least my thighs weren't seizing.  I got passed Jesse and another fellow ("Red Jersey", who was walking even the flats) and pushed along.

The HR, especially in the sun, was spiking well over 170, forcing me to walk a great deal. I put some distance on Jesse and got out of sight, but the going was slow, and each climb - however small - was punishing to my unprepared legs.  I pushed along, knowing full well the possible consequences of this aggressive workload.

But I was still in good spirits.  The music helped a ton, and when I caught up to Josh Brimhall, I felt compelled to remove one of his earbuds and insert one of mine, so he could hear the solid gold of Pitbull and Ke$ha. A sugar-deprived brain will do some crazy things...

I felt like I was running well, but the splits don't lie: I was nearly ten minutes slower on this section than a year ago.  Yet, as feared, the legs began to cramp as I approached Island View #2, the pivotal final stop. 

Had it  been any other race, I likely would've mailed it in.  But at Sonoma, runners are gifted with one final - and extremely timely - competitive glimpse.  The Island View #2 AS sits a quarter-mile off the main trail, providing for one final out-and-back upon which to lay eyes on any competition - in front or behind - that is close.

"Tough Tommy" Nielsen used to say, "At the end of a race, run like there's a runner three minutes ahead and one three minutes behind".  At Sonoma, there is no need to imagine.

Just as I turned toward the aid station, out came Brian Tinder.  I tried to look tough, strong and fast as I floated past, and - just meters from the aid - I did the same to Emily Harrison.  Once there, I got a final water fill, some Coke and a single gel (they were running low, in large part to BGD who took THREE of them for the final 4.7 miles!), then jetted out, just before Jesse came in.

I was cramping badly by then: first the adductors (both), then medial quads, with hamstrings and calves chiming in, intermittently ("Hey, at least it's symmetrical!").  I ran into Red Jersey just as I got back on the main trail.

I took stock: two runners in front, two runners behind - all within five minutes each direction.  And cramping like crazy.

Last year's Lake Sonoma, as well as Western States, taught me that while cramps seldom go away without stopping, the fuse was pretty long before a blow-up.  So I pushed.  Hard.

I knew better mechanics would decrease cramping, so I all-out hammered the ups: aggressively swinging arms and engaging the abs to help drive up the hills and reduce the adductor load. And, after some inital protests, it worked.  I was OK.  But the heart rate soared above 170 and stayed there.  Was it sustainable?

I pushed, and gobbled the downs with big, loping strides, making legitimately good time.  And, soon enough, Emily was in sight.  I gutted one last gel for good measure and pushed past, knowing full well her speed potential, but noting that her stride appeared to be pretty bottled-up.

The last 4.7 to the finish is phenomenal trail: just enough ups to keep you honest, but fast, rolling, singletrack.  While there are a few choice climbs, it almost seems like it's a net downhill from Island View.  I pushed as hard as I could, but wary of a blow-up, as the cramping worsened.  I was motivated more by staying ahead of Emily than catching Tinder, who couldn't have been more than a minute or two up front.

I hit a Mile to Go with a smile on my face.  And, like a year ago, my playlist ran out.  I flipped threw a few songs 'til I found some rocket fuel:

 I want a pink sportcoat like Pitbull has in this video!

I pushed hard to the finish, hoping I could "yell, Tinder", but it was too late.  I finished strong, not nearly as triumphant as a year ago, but almost as happy.  I popped out the earbuds to take in the applause, most of it coming from my and Jacob's large support group.

Finishing Shot. Trunk alignment is a little wonky, but not bad for 7:24.  Photo: Rachel Ekberg.
I finally crossed the line in 7:24:32, good for 14th place.

I was too damn tired to be emotional as I hugged my mom and thanked the rest of the crew.  I was grateful for their support and I did the best I could do with what I had. 

Hugging it out with mom. I think Tropical John needs some Hawaiian pants.  Photo: Karen May.

I yelled, "Tinderrrr!" but he got away from me.  Next time!  Photo: Karen May.
Jorge was there right away with encouraging words, and it meant a lot to have his support, once again.  He could've crushed it out there, but chose to save it for when it really counts: the last Saturday in June.

Me and the Dark Chocolate, looking fine.  Photo: Meredith.

Me and Dark Chocolate.  I'm flexing HARD, trying to look as good as him.  Photo: Meredith.
I caught up with BGD, who by then was into his second or third beer.

BGD and ME, in one of the worst, ass-out bro-hugs ever.  Weak, dude, weak.  Photo: Meredith.
BGD: "Do these shorts make my ass look big?" 
Sara: "Turn away!  Turn away!"
Photo: Meredith. 
Jacob ran incredibly well at Sonoma.  And the best part is: he's really not that fit right now.  At all, really. But for the first time since I've known him, he's run a complete race, start to finish.  Though so full of faith in the rest of his life, he's often raced without a lot of faith in himself: self-doubts amplified bad patches, causing a lot of inconsistency in how he performed.

But not today.  He executed.  He ran with confidence and faithfulness all day, and that's been the case in the three ultras he's raced in 2014.

In addition to being mentally strong and even, his technical skills have improved significantly: his downhill (and uphill) running has improved and is on-par with his contemporaries (and well beyond mine at this point), and his overall stride is the best I've seen it.

WHEN he adds brute fitness, he's going to be a contender in every race he's entered.  Watch out.  And as usual, I can only hope I can keep up, on all fronts.  

Post-race was the usual Sonoma fanfare: friends and food, sun and suds. Jake and I hung out 'til nearly 5, then hooked up with my family for dinner and more celebrating.  It was a good day.

Got a whole lotta love in this group, showing off the custom shirts Meredith made. 

Some assorted shots from the rest of the weekend:

My support crew from back East (L to R): Mike, Teri, Meredith, and Chris.

A view of Sonoma with the fog lifted.  Photo: Meredith.

He sure cleans up good! And this is at least nine hours into his work day!  Photo: Me (via Meredith).

Sunday's Wine Tasting at Mazzocco.  Tropical John tells me where I can score some primo Olive Oil.  Photo: Meredith.

"...SO HOT right now....OOJ".  Photo: Meredith.

BP: "Think you could drink all that?"
Clarkie: "It'll be gone by tomorrow".
Photo: Me.

The Grades:

Mechanics: A-.  There were few performance brights spots to this year's race, but my stride was terrific.  I'd put in a ton of work with my PT, Mike Baum, in February, once and for all(?) re-establishing my trunk stability and improving my push-off on the right hip.  It wasn't perfect, but it was the most symmetrical my stride has ever felt in an ultra.  A big silver lining in a gray race.

Pacing: A-.  I could do no better than I did.  I toed the Red Line all day and, only when I knew I could survive, blasted beyond it.  For the first time ever, I ran all day with a HRM.  The details:

Numbers don't lie.  I was tip-toeing that line allll day. 
My anaerobic threshold has been measured at 158-162.  That I averaged 165 for nearly seven-and-a-half hours - and pushed it to 172 over the last five miles - is remarkable, and - I think - an indicator of exactly how hard I can push at this distance and duration.  Any harder and I likely blow up much worse, and cramp much earlier. 

Fueling: A-.  Fueling was solid, and energy consistent all day.  My stomach did rebel early but rebounded.  It's tough to get used to sugar when you so rarely have any (and really, zero in training). My approximate fuel intake:

- 32 oz of honey water (6% solution - so about 200 kcal)
- ~10 gels (1000 kcal)
- 3 cans of coke (400 kcal)
- two small banana chunks (50 kcal)
TOTAL: <1700 calories

This is pretty terrific: 1700 calories for 7.5 hours of running: just over 200 cal/hr.  I never felt like like I was "down" because of either water or calorie deficit.  I felt even all day, and that - I feel - is a testament to my enhanced fat-burning, even at this high intensity.

Mental Toughness: A-/B+. I ran as strong as I could, and I pushed hard at the end.  I take a lot of pride and optimism that I can still hammer with the best of them, even when I'm not well-trained.  My :45 split over the final section is on-par with the majority of the top ten (outside Krar's completely insane :38 he threw down trying to catch Miller).  But lulls and slow-downs mid-race were costly to the clock.

Joy: A-. Though not up to my potential, I felt a lot of joy out there.  I forced myself to be happy.  What really kept me going - especially as the slow splits compounded - was thinking about Terry Rhodes.  Terry is a fixture in the NorCal ultrarunning community.  Though I've never met her, she and her husband John have been an inspiration to me since I first saw them on "Race for the Soul", the 2001 Western States documentary (where it is noted, famously, that they "met on the trail, got engaged on the trail, and were married on the trail"!).  She's so incredibly positive and joyful during that race.

Terry Rhodes with - as always - John in tow - at an unknown race.  Photo (gleaned from the FB account of): Chihping Fu.
Just days before Sonoma, Terry experienced a freak injury while vacationing in Mexico, resulting in a serious spinal injury. That, and my recent experience working with inspirational neurological patients a week ago in Portland was more than enough to be grateful for the gift of running fifty miles - and all those folks out there in support of me.

I'm happy to report that, despite the gravity of her injury, Terry is doing well and - "Slow, but Strong" - recovering! Awesome! 
It didn't take long before The Question arose: "Are you gonna run Ice Age?".  It's the final Montrail Ultra Cup qualifying race, the Last Chance.

And, of course, I said, "No".  To be asked that so soon after finishing fifty miles is like asking someone if they want to go to another party when they've got a raging hangover.  No way.

But now?  I'm interested.

While I believe things are meant to be, I also feel like the clock is ticking, and life is short: you have to go get what you want, and risk failure.

That said, the next week will be telling: how quickly I can recover and, far more importantly, can I get in the requisite fitness - namely hard, rolling trail running at threshold - to have a chance at Ice Age.  That a couple of fast sonofabitches (hint: their names rhyme with "Glitter" and "Fart-Hurt-y") have recently been added to the start list makes the task even more daunting. 

I will make my decision in a week.  But whatever happens, I'll be there.  I won't miss it. 

HUGE thanks to my many supporters:
  • to John Medinger and Lisa Henson, for the extreme hospitality and support all weekend long.
  • to sponsors Pearl Izumi and my newest supporter - Portland's own Trail Butter!  This is simply phenomenal stuff - 100% natural, high-fat, low sugar, perfect fuel - that I first came across a year-plus ago at Hagg Lake 50K.  I'm ecstatic about what they have to offer, and their generous support of Team Trail Butter!  Check it out!
Great stuff!  Thanks for the support, Boggess Brothers! 
  • and to my incredible friends and family, who go to great lengths to support my running and the community.  Thank you!  
See you...soon?...