Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Lost & Found: Waldo 100K & The Path to Sustainable Running

Preface
The running blog is dead. At least the first-person, military-style report is. No one wants to read it. Oh, perhaps those who want a dry, course-specific play-by-play in hopes of aiding their preparation.

People want insights. They want perspective. They want honesty.

They want a story.

Well, here's a decent one.

I've held onto this one for a while, my procrastination borne from equal parts demand (the paid gigs come first), and the necessity of reflection. But it is necessity – to remember – that requires I write this “race report”, three months, post-haste.

It's been a long fucking road from the spring of 2013 – truly the last time I've raced well – to now. And here's how it all went down.

Burnt to the Ground: Failure, Burn-out, & the Aerobic Ground Zero
Even prior to the 2013 Western States, I became intrigued by the notion of true sustainability: a pathway where improvement is a continuous process, borne not from relentless stress and pushing (or forcing) the body farther and harder, but from a slow-but-steady flow of fitness, strength, and intelligence that collects in a vast reservoir.

This model is akin to building a multi-story, stone-and-brick building sitting atop a foundation of solid rock. In contrast, I feel a lot of runners in the sport – myself included – extract performance the opposite way: by undermining the precious (and finite) minerals of physiological strength and resilience, then – most haphazardly – throwing together a hastily-designed structure over the top of the very hole they continue to mine. It's a recipe for collapse that we see far too often – if we choose to pay attention.

For me, reading the annuls of some of the greatest endurance athletes in modern history, the answer seemed to lie in the notion of true aerobic fitness: the ability to enhance fat metabolism to the ultimate degree, the solid rock foundation for peak – and sustainable - performance.

Fat metabolism is the solid rock of performance for the following reasons:
  • it is an utterly low-stress metabolic pathway, utilizing lots of fats, lots of oxygen, and with minimal stress (physical, or chemical)
  • it is a process that creates maximum fitness gains with the bare minimum of systemic physiological stress: minimal stress hormones, cytokines and tissue stress
  • it is a process predicated upon holistic health: to maximize fat-burning, one MUST maximize rest and recovery (including sleep), nutrition, and minimize stress outside running.
  • it requires periodization, whereby high-intensity training – while critical to performance – must be limited – and complete rest utilized – in order for the “slow drip” of overall fitness gains to continue, unremitting.
It is a system of operation that requires a degree of personal responsibility to live one's entire life well – not simply be a runner committed to the numbers game of training and racing. That this process is so much more than numbers – and force – that gave the notion its power.

My spectacular flame-out at Western States a few months later only steeled my resolve to jump feet-first into the fat-vat, my own fountain of running youth that, just maybe, might save me from another flame-out.

Step one was determining where to start. Noakes' Lore of Running and Maffetone's Big Book were the starting points: Noakes analysis of Mark Allen's other-worldly performance at the 1989 Ironman Triathlon – only possible through enhanced fat metabolism – caught my attention, and Maffetone provided the 180-Formula as the concrete target.

As such, I got to work in July of 2013, dead-set at doing all of my training at the magical “Max Aerobic Function” (MAF) heart rate.

The only problem was, I got it wrong.

Even after Western States, apparently I wasn't done lying to myself. Maffetone's Formula for max fat-burning is, quite simply: 180 minus age.

With some caveats:
  • minus five for: minor to moderate injuries, a recent illness, and/or allergies
  • minus ten for: major illness or injury
  • plus five for: two years or more of sustainable, continuous training without injury or any of the above issues.
Of course, I chose 180 – 35...plus five (150). But I neglected to accept that, “Oh yeah, I've had chronic back pain for two years...oh, and allergies...oh, and I've also had a recent burn-out and various life stresses!”

I am lucky to have access to my own metabolic testing equipment, so before Waldo 100K in 2013, I tested myself and found, well, yes, I do burn some fat at 150 heart rate. But only about ten percent. Lacking a full understanding of what “Max Aerobic” meant, I kept running with it.

From July through October, I did nothing but exercise at 150 heart rate, with occasional cheats into the mid 150s – but absolutely no true “workouts” - to tempo runs, track sessions, progression runs or – most notably – moderately hard hill climbs. I began to see some improvements: where run paces went from high-7s and low-8s early on, gradually creeping into the low-7s. But it never felt good. In a strange way, the runs felt like a grind, and it felt difficult to develop the volume I felt was necessary to get fit for the 2014 season.

In November, I commenced harder training, which included modest end-of-long-run hard finishes and increased vertical work. And while the race season crept closer, so did a range of issues: minor aches and pains (including a pesky left “hamstring” issue), and more minor colds that fall than I remember having in the several years preceding. But I ran a strong training race in mid-December that I thought would set me up well for a ticket-punch at Bandera and a return trip to Western.

Then I traveled back to the Midwest and promptly got the illest* I've ever been, a mere ten days before Bandera. And like that, any shot at an early ticket was, well, shot.

In retrospect, that I got so ill, and so physically drained just days before the race was a convenient explanation as to why – ultimately – I was completely unprepared to run at the level required to earn a Montrail Cup ticket.

In reality, my true aerobic fitness was terrible. A metabolic re-test in mid-February – and a lot more knowledge later – confirmed that, well goddamn, I'd hardly burned any fat at all at 150 beats per minute. Not only did I fail to improve, but my aerobic fitness worsened (down to 6-8% fat burning at 150).

What a cruel joke this had been. I'd sacrificed all specificity – hard mountain climbs, grinder-long runs, and standard “strength speed work” - in hopes of laying a foundation, and the “rock” was nothing but a shoddy, brittle Plaster-of-Paris...

It's six weeks out from Lake Sonoma 50, and I'm now in a bigger hole than I was eight months ago.

Sonofabitch.

The Psychology of Desire: “What are you running from, and what are you running toward?”
In the hours prior to the thirteen running of the Waldo 100K, anxiety was at a low simmer. But instead of the usual, “Gosh, I hope I make it!” – hoping to run fast, to triumph, to be a Fast Dude – it was replaced with a deeper worry: “Do I still have it? Will my body be able to respond? Do I even like doing this?” Those aren't quite the thoughts of a champion on the eve of a 62-mile race, but after the year-plus of frustrating rebuilding, that's where I was at.

With great reluctance and guilt, I backed out of Gary Robbins' Squamish 50 – held in the Vancouver area, the same day as Waldo. I'd committed to running (and presenting) at his race, but as the race crept closer, so did reality: I needed a lottery qualfier for Western. Gone were the delusional thoughts that I could claim a Montrail spot, and it was time fo face reality. Western States is my favorite race, and, goddamnit, I want to race it again. Robbins – a veteran Top Tenner – got that, and graciously released me from my obligation.

The other motivating factor was my great friend Jacob Rydman was making the trip to Lane County – the lone visit of his busy year – to do the same. And quite frankly, I couldn't stomach the absurdity of him coming up here to relive his 2012 triumph, while I was out of the country.

Having Jacob in town helped calm the nerves; so did the large group of Eugene ultra runners, who were either racing, pacing, or volunteering. It's my home race, and it was comforting to have that support.

The night before, at the pre-race meeting, I chatted and joked lightheartedly with Ryan Ghelfi – the latest in a new generation of Ashland-area ultra speedsters – and Andrew Miller – the teenage mountain slayer from Corvallis that, despite been barely legal to light a cigarette, was already fast enough to smoke a whole field of adult contemporaries.

Standing there, I thought to myself, “Well...this is the podium, right here...”

*****
In the fall of 2013, I came to the realization that part of the holistic preparation – perhaps the greatest – was my psyche.

What drove me to train the way I did for Western States? What caused me so much anxiety that I almost certainly got no sleep the night before? What drove me to ignore a heart-rate monitor that was flaming 170 for nearly five consecutive hours, in a screaming warning siren of demise?

At that point, I began to wonder why I run? And it drove me to ask the following question:

What am I running from, and what am I running toward?”

Properly harnessed, those motivations and desires could be powerful fuels. Because if either motivations were too incendiary and uncontrolled, they can no doubt push the body over the edge. And that's where I went.

I needed help answering that question.

*****
Mandatory Patience – Square Pegs go in Square Holes
At 4AM, I was fully awake, but strangely serene. I dressed, ate, drank, and geared up amongst dozens of other excited runners in the Willamette Pass Ski Shelter.

Unlike most pre-race moments, I felt both relaxed and positive. I wasn't sure I could trust that feeling, but I was happy to have both. Some great pre-race coffee really put me in good spirits, and the recognition of gratitude for the chance to run in the woods all day, in the company and assistance of friends – was ever-present.

My strategy for the race was, well...simple: to run relaxed and sustainably, to keep the heart rate absolutely under 170 through first two-thirds, and to otherwise keep the effort under 160 at all times. All of these things required great patience, and a disconnect between my own body and the other competitors.
*****
Patience has always been my hardest lesson, but 2014 served up a mighty dose, early on.

Retesting at the end of February revealed that 150 bpm wasn't even close to Max Aerobic. Maffetone's max aerobic estimates correlated to roughly 25-40+% fat-burning of those I personally testing in the clinic. 

For me? I had to drop nearly 130 to achieve a mere 25% fat-burning, and an abysmal 110 bpm for the bulky 40%. Running suddenly got much, much slower.

Yet this made sense to me: why the runs felt so sluggish the previous fall, the marked uptick in aches and pains, and minor head colds and, perhaps, why the influenza virus hit me so damn hard before Bandera.

So, it was truly back to ground zero. And despite being seven weeks out from Lake Sonoma, it was time for another lesson in patience.

Maffetone's classic five-mile fitness test – which consists of a warm-up, followed by five continuous miles at MAF heart rate on a set, outdoor course – seemed too unwieldy. My first test was in 90 degree conditions; the next in heavy wind.

This time around, I'd keep it indoors, and to make the assessment more feasible, I cut the test to three miles. The treadmill – without wind resistance, with a fast-spinning belt that forces forward progress – is invariably faster. But it also allowed a total precision: with a heart-rate monitor build into the unti, I could watch it like a hawk. At my first test, after a good warm-up, set out at a heart rate ceiling of 130. I allowed a leeway of up to 135, but anytime it stayed above 133-134 for more than 10-20 seconds, I dropped the speed a tenth of a mph. It was precise as I could do it, with minimal cheating.

My first tests – on the fast treadmill – were unimpressive: roughly 7:30 to 7:50 pace for three miles. Ugh.

But I was committed. Yes, Sonoma was coming up, and yes, I needed specific work, but I was committed to the long-term: I had to build a true base; without it, there will only be more fits-and-starts: temporary fast running, followed by problems.

So there I was: lighly hiking up the thousand-foot Mount Pisgah and (only moderately) jogging down, doing everything I could to keep that heart rate in the 130s.

That was the Lake Sonoma preparation.

The final bits of my ultramarathon delusion were unceremoniously blown away with a mediocre 13th place, 7:24 performance: nearly a minute-per-mile slower than the year before.

Clearly, I wasn't ready. Yet I hadn't completely surrendered...

Keeping Perspective: “Act like you don't need the shit, and they'll give you the shit for free.”
When the horn sounded for Waldo, we were off into the pre-dawn darkness, up the ski hill. I was dead-set on an easy pace, and, much to my surprise, so were the young guys from up and down I-5. Andrew ran beside me from the get-go, and while Ghelfi crept a few meters ahead, by the time we began the long, round-about shoulder summit, he fell back with us.

I chatted lightheartedly with Andrew, asking about his year, what else he was up to, and otherwise pretending that running up this hill wasn't all that hard. It was, but it wasn't nearly as hard as the year before. We shuffled a bit, hiked a lot, and, in no time, we'd made our way up to the backside of the ski hill.

On the way down the backside, which would take us west toward our first true mountain summit of the day, there was more easy chatter: Andrew and I continued our chatter, while Ryan chimed in as we talked about the goings on of the late-summer racing scene. The pace felt effortless but legitimate. I didn't fret about splits, or “getting out”. I was relaxed and enjoying myself. Heart rate: 140.

*****
I'm not sure I can speak for every competitive ultrarunner out there, but this is how my mindset as evolved in the three-plus years of ultrarunning, culminating at Western States in 2013

Early 2010: Ultras? Holy shit, they do this?
Late 2010: Ultras! Holy shit, I did that...and did pretty well!
Early 2011: I wonder if I'm actually good at this?
Late 2011: I think I could be GOOD!
Early 2012: Can I be in the same room as the fastest in the sport?
Late 2012: Yes! Now I want to be the fastest!
Early 2013: I HAVE TO be the fastest!

Drive and desire can fuel just as much on delusion as ability. “If you give a mouse a cookie...”. I'd been feeding myself the cookie – and “drinking my own Kool-Aid” - that not only could I be the best, but that – in order to have a place, to be of value in this community – I had to be among the best.

That's what I was running toward. I was filling a void – a past void, filled with failure, shame and regret of my previous athletic ineptitude – and a present void – where I felt that the best way to be accepted and loved was the be The Man atop the podium, or at least among the very top.

There's nothing wrong with desire, or letting emotions – past and present – drive your running and training. But that's a dangerous fuel mixture that can lead to poor decisions, and throw an otherwise healthy, nurturing community pursuit into an imbalanced, destructive one.

Before and during the 2013 Western States, I lost perspective. I trained relentlessly and unsustainably, and my most vivid memory of race day – besides the outrageous cramping for 26 miles – was of me racing the entire first fifty miles! Pushing and pushing, forcing it, rather than going with the flow. It was an unsustainable path that ended with a thud at Michigan Bluff.

It was time for a change.

The irony is, the more you care – the more you need to run fast – the more problematic and wrought with problems that end becomes. However, sustainable, balanced running – when kept in perspective to the Big Picture – tends to wind up being the fastest!

To get back up, I had to let go, and be okay with falling down.

*****
As we rolled into Gold Lake AS, I was utterly relaxed and present. I stopped to drop off my headlamp, now superfluous at daybreak, and got a bottle fill. Andrew and Ryan pushed on, and I fell back to third. I didn't care.

Up the trail a ways, the course crosses Waldo Lake Road, which bisects the course. Several spectators were there, and Monkey Boy Scott Wolfe acted as course marshall...and heckler.

“Did y'all get lost out there?”, he chided, in his faux-southern Virginia accent he reserves especially for talking shit.

We were a good five minutes-plus slower than a typical opening split, but I could care less. We were running smart.

I tailed behind Ghelfi and Miller as wel started the long grind up Fuji, the second of four major climbs of the day. I kept things well under 160 bpm, but quickly caught Andrew, who encouraged me to go around. I did. Before long, I locked into Ghelfi, and along we went.

Finding Joy: With or Without a Number On
An important lesson in perspective from 2013 was the notion that balanced running isn't always about actually running. To learn that, I had to travel south and spend a little more time with some real Original Gangtas of Ultrarunning.

In September of last year, I spent two quality outings with a couple legends of the sport. On a warm pre-Labor day evening in Davis, California, I shared a burger and a Pliny pint with Bruce LaBelle – ten-time Silver Buckler, who, at the young age of, well, “mid-50s”, is still out there, running long and fast. Two days later, it was a easy canyon run and coffee with Tim Twietmeyer. I think his driveway is paved in sterling silver.

Both men have been running competitively for over thirty years. And both impressed upon me the values of balance and perspective: that running, while perhaps central to their being, was only part of it. Logistically, neither man trained hard, year round. They picked their battles, but prepared well for each. Moreover, each invested in the running community in other ways: through race volunteering, trail stewardship, and mentorship of younger runners.

For every runner, this makes sense. But for most of us, the sticking point lies deep down: can we possibly fill ourselves – filling the void of “The Question” - by giving, rather than taking? Can giving back to a race, to the community, be as fulfilling as the reward of finishing medals, buckles, prizes, and accolades?

Indeed, for the up-and-coming ultra star, this is a tough sell.

But the ironic message – received loud-and-clear from Bruce and Tim – was that finding that balance – between taking and giving – was the only way to sustain the hard-running and its rewards.

But beyond that, the more one gives – the more helpful it becomes to hard racing. Giving develops relationships, good memories and connections on and off the trail, and in all dimensions of the sport. It is sowing seeds that reap even greater performance benefits come race day.

How much do you think Tim benefited from having good friends every five miles along the race course at Western States? Those were good vibes he earned by giving: working along those volunteers, all year 'round.

Give – sacrificing your own running for others – and you shall receive. Ironic, but simple.

*****
Ghelfi and I floated along toward Fuji. I hung behind him, perfectly content to glide along behind him. I felt fantastic. The heart rate, even for this prolonged, high-altitude climb, hovered in the 140s to 150. I focused on form and nutrition and bided time.

To keep things light, I asked Ghelfi about Beer Miling. We chatted about some of his fast Southern Oregon teammates and their beer mile experience, before the trail pitched a bit steeper upward. Any conversation that distracted, early, was a good one. We were ten miles in, but still way too early to get competitive.

I was just happy to be running up front, and feeling so effortless.

...until there was a Patagonia Puffy Jacket up for grabs.

Since the race's inception, there has been a special preme for the first runner to “Find Waldo” - or summit Mt. Fuji, the first place for a view of the namesake lake. With Ghelfi and I solidly out front, I knew I'd have a chance. Then I realized he hadn't stopped for water, as I had, at Gold Lake, so when he pulled into Fuji AS outbound, I pushed again, putting on a legitimate surge to gain some space.

To my dismay, despite jacking the heart rate to nearly 180, Ghelfi quickly caught back up. I continue to pushed at a legitimately hard pace, weaving in and out of the early starters on this out-and-back summit, to maintain my lead and make him work really hard to get past. Indeed, he would've had to aggressively push past me – including likely asking permission to get by – if he wanted that preme. So I kept pushing. I felt good and strong, but with my heart rate hitting 180, it was a risky move.

I stayed in front and made it to the top first. I stayed just long enough to catch a few breaths, and Ghelfi to summit – before heading back down.

Little did I know – and I wouldn't til the awards - that this year, for the first time in many years, the preme would not be a puffy Waldo Patagonia jacket (which likely retails for $200-300), but a High Desert Drop Bag: a fine product, indeed, but...in retrospect, not nearly as enticing for such an aggressive effort. The race directorship had changed the premes the night before, and I hadn't taken notice. That the “Wet Waldo” runner – the first finisher to jump in six lakes along the course – would get a puffy jacket and not the first Fuji summit, would be a significant point of...er, irksomeness...for weeks to come.

But onward, and upward. Or, downward.

The out-and-back summit was a good opportunity to survey the field. Andrew wasn't far behind us, but after that, things thinned out. BGD was holding his own, running a conservative effort on minimal fitness this time around. Lots of cheers and fives from the outbound runners as we made our way down, and I tried to tamp down my heavy heart rate.

A quick stop-off at Fuji AS allowed Ghelfi to get out front, but I made no efforts to reel him in. I would gently descend back toward Waldo Lake Road. 

Surrender Without Giving Up
The section between the top of Fuij (13 miles) and Charlton Lake (30) just may be the toughest part of the race. On paper, it's easy: downhill, then gradual uphill. But it is a mental grind: after two tough uphills, one is lulled into a relaxing-yet-taxing downhill, then forced into a gut-churning, relentless grind that saps one's will to continue. Many a DNF happens at Charlton for this reason.

I was wary of this, and as such, kept the effort to a bare minimum as we descended toward the road. This allowed Andrew – smart beyond his barely-legal years – to catch up with us. He ran the Fuji climb with utmost patients and now he was right back in it. Our trio hit the road and Mt. Ray AS (20 miles) in a pack.

I took a bit of time in the aid, snacking on a banana, and getting a fill. Both Ghelfi and Miller had crew, so neither stopped. And like that, I was a minute back.

My energy was good, but something was amiss. The calves – namely my right – were sore. Tight. Painful. Pre-cramping.

What the hell?
*****
When you lose perspective, two painfully dangerous things happen: first, you tend to push too hard, too soon. Without balance, one invariably forces things. The “I have to's” take control of the wheel, often with bad consequences. Second, you tend to not see the big picture. Little issues that pop up early on are ignored. These inconvenient issues – often red flags of major problems – are swept aside and denied. But just as often, they blow up.

This is as true in life and relationships as it is in running.

Little cramps in the thighs and calves coming out of Duncan Canyon at Western States were ignored. “Everything else is great, so who cares?”. But twenty six miles later, on a table at Michigan Bluff, they made me care.

Balanced, sustainable running requires a present-centered awareness: being tuned into the reality, both good and bad. Ignoring truths because they're incompatible with your expectations or vision of ideal is a sure-fire way to get really lost: on and off the trail.

*****
Running out of Mt Ray, just seconds out of the lead, my calves inexplicably panged.

Why? At the time, I wasn't sure. I slowed, but that didn't seem to help. I could no longer ignore them.

I stopped. I stretched and massaged them, namely the medial right calf, that felt a few strides away from explosion. It helped. I continued on, just as fourth place (Ryan Tockstein) approached.

I got a little negative: “Damn. I'm running great, but these damn calves!” I saw the day slipping away, as I was clearly now far behind. I ran on, alone, up the relentless grind to Bobby Lake Trail. The calf stabilized, but continue to be sore and painful. I did what I could: ran form-focused, drank, and ate.

Gradually, the calf improved and seemed runnable, as I turned north onto the PCT toward Twins 1.

Then a strange thing happened: I caught sight of Andrew and Ryan.

Wow. OK.

The minute I'd lost at the aid station, and the additional minutes spent slowing down and stopping to work my calf, were neutralized. I was back in it.

Yet, once I got to Twins 1, it was sore as hell again. So once I was topped off, I stopped yet again for another minute or so to stretch and massage. Damnit!

Extrapolation is a dangerous thing. It is how our brain ensures survival, and makes our lives easier: here we are now, so in theory, this is where we're going. In ultras as in life, it is a short-cut that is almost always wrong. And extrapolation is likely responsible for more DNFs than any other factor. Feel like shit now, well, how much worse will it be many miles from now?

My brain was in extrapolation mode from Twins 1 to Charleton: “I'm not even halfway through and my calf is about to blow up. I've stretched and massaged, and I'm barely hanging on”. I tried to put it out of mind. I stayed form-focused, and I kept fueling. One step at a time.

I problem-solved: “My form seems OK, could it be my back?” My low back was a bit sore, and I thought that maybe some nerve pain might've been short-circuiting the muscle. I would stop at Charlton to work out the back this time.

Then, just a mile out from Charlton, it happened again: there were Miller and Ghelfi! Another lost minute or two, yet, once again I caught 'em! “Wow, this is great!” Reeling them in, yet again, buoyed the spirits.

With minimal extra effort, I rolled past them, knowing I'd need some cushion to stretch out at the aid station. So with great fanfare, I rolled into Charlton in first place.

My first half split – 4:46 (and Miller's 4:47) – would be among the slower leading splits in the race's recent competitive history, but, as time would tell, put us in position for a hard, even second half.

It must've been strange for the onlookers to see the race leader roll into the aid station...then roll onto the ground! I first got on my knees and pushed hard, through my abdomen, onto my low lumbar vertebrae. They were stiff. Then, I rolled onto my back and hugged the knees to chest. While doing so, I asked for my drop bag, where I had a ten-ounce “OOJ recovery shake” – protein powder, Udo's Oil, heavy cream, and some Endurox. A good 200 calories of mostly fat and protein. I hammered it in-between back stretches. Pam Smith – there to volunteer and spectate – is no stranger to doing crazy shit at aid stations – and was nonplussed at my actions.

I waved off my hydration pack and chose to maintain my single bottle, which I'd kept in my waist band. I grabbed a new fuel belt and was out the aid station, at least two minutes behind Ghelfi and Miller, who again ran through without stopping.

My back – and my calf – felt better. But then I had an epiphany:

The ###ing water bottle!

I'd been carrying the waterbottle in the back of my waistband. On the right side. For years, I've been deficient in my right hip extension. Perhaps the damn waterbottle was blocking a full push-off, overloading the calf?

I immediately stitched the bottle to the left side, where it would stay for the rest of the race. And, for one reason or another, the calf was a non-issue for the rest of the race.

Lesson learned: It pays to take care of little issues, no matter how “pressing” the competition, or personal goals.

But once again, I found myself in a hole – well behind Ghelfi and Miller. But once again, with little additional effort, I reeled 'em in. I came across Ghelfi – with pacer – midway between Charlton and Road 4290 AS and made quick work around them.

As in years past, there was heavy emphasis on efficiency and heart rate control, knowing the brutal section ahead.

I rolled into 4290 ahead of Ghelfi by a minute-plus, but behind Miller an equal amount. It was getting warm, so I pounded water, soda, and another banana hunk, and pushed on.

Striking a Balance Between Physiology & Specificity
The balance between physiology – doing what's best for the body's basic exercise physiology – versus specificity – the need for the body and brain to experience the specific demands of competition – is a delicate one, and not for the weak of heart.

Current sport – across the board – over-emphasizes specificity. Wanna run hard? You have to run hard! A lot! Right? Wanna be good at football? Gotta scrimmage, full-pads, full-contact. A lot. Right? Wanna be a great mountain trail runner, you gotta run hard up mountains, a lot, right?

Specificity is vital. The brain needs to know how to do something, then believe it can do it. As such, we emulate in practice as close to the real thing as possible.

But specificity had a steep price tag.

The danger of the specificity approach is the stress. The extreme demands of maximal performance aren't sustainable to practice, routinely. High-intensity activity, too routinely, causes multi-system stress that can break down the system in multiple ways. Conventional runners know this: milers can't run mile pace on every run; marathoners can run a long run every day.

On the opposite end of the training spectrum is what I call, physiology: doing what's best (and minimally stressful) to all body systems. The entire concept of periodization – of a different focus per training cycle – is based on this premise: that the body works best through a foundation of low-intensity work, with finite moderate-intensity work, and lastly with a relatively sparse amount of high-intensity training. For runners, this means a huge chunk of slow, easy running at the beginning of each season, and liberally interspersed amongst the intense work.

If physiology didn't matter, what's to stop us from doing nothing but high-intensity training, all the time? Pure specificity would win out. But it doesn't.

On the other hand, the Maffetone Method – doing the vast majority of training at Max Aerobic Pace – is at the extreme of the physiological approach: It is pure physiology, giving the body exactly what it needs to maximize endurance performance – maximum aerobic conditioning (via fat-burning) and nothing else. No other specific training. Specificity, Maffetone implies, will come as a result of getting better at fat-burning...when your max aerobic pace eventually approaches race pace. Your only cheats in the system include occasionally racing hard (beyond MAF pace), as your lone specific work.

This may work well for triathletes – who can keep their HR in check in the water and on the bike, and who run mostly flat, road marathon courses – but is a wholly different beast for a trail runner.

The specific demands of trail ultras – including altitude and steep climbs – require a gear that goes well beyond a maximum aerobic zone. Thus, when trying to develop the aerobic system, you're left with a choice: prioritize aerobic work by shuffling – but usually walking – hills, or risk compromising the foundation by repeatedly pushing too hard, well beyond aerobic physiology.

I chose the former. I was committed to running easy, and as slow as it took, to adequately develop that system. So, after years spent developing a strong uphill running technique...I stopped running uphill. I walked, or it was a slow, slow shuffle. Or I avoided hill, entirely. This went on for months – from July of last year, clear until March, just before Lake Sonoma.

As a result, the years spent developing a strong uphill stride – one that was pivotal in my successes at ultras like Bandera, Lake Sonoma, and Western States – was gone. The '14 Lake Sonoma was proof of that: when tasked to run hard uphill, I simply didn't have it.

But here's where insults adds to injury.

My fundamental stride efficiency went to compete shit.

Running slow – then really slow – is easy. Too easy. It's easy to get into a shuffling, inefficient rhythm that goes unnoticed in the early days, weeks and months of MAF training. All the muscular strength, neuromuscular patterning, and – well, habit – of faster running evaporated. I'd lost my stride.

Lake Sonoma '14 was proof of that. Besides having no climbing strength, my flat stride was too long, and too inefficient: I was over-striding, over-rotating...even my footstrike was painfully inefficient.

In effect, by taking apart the machine, I'd lost a few pieces. And the pieces that remained, I'd forgotten how to put 'em together.

Lake Sonoma was painful, and the weeks between that and Ice Age were even worse. Finally, at the end of May, I hopped back on the treadmill and flipped on the cameras:

“Holy hell! My stride looks awful!” My stride was a slumpy, twisted, loping mess. It's no wonder I ran slow as shit, and hurt like hell. Dear, Lord.

It was time to go to work. Again.

My approach to regain stride was two-fold:
  • One, to re-establish efficiency: hip hinging with a neutral trunk, cleaning up the arm swing, and – most importantly – getting my pawback on. These central concepts saved a ton of energy, turning pounding into propulsion.
  • Two, to regain the strength to maintain good mechanics, namely through a ton of glute and hamstring work, along with liberal core and arm strength.
Between June and mid-August, I did at least a hundred bridges a day, totalling well over three thousand a month. Once again, Convict Conditioning was a central part of my work, and both short and straight leg bridges were clutch in shoring up those pushing and pulling muscles. Pull-ups and rows helped my arms, but admittedly: I had to get on the treadmill at least once a week and watch myself run, to make sure I wasn't over-rotating.

It was tough, at first: anytime you lose stride efficiency, getting it back is like rolling the boulder uphill. But once the strength kicked in, that boulder kept rolling.

Still, I didn't entirely trust my stride, especially on hard days. So for the two months preceding Waldo, every speed day was done on the treadmill, with the cameras on: watching my stride in real-time. I did 800 and mile repeats, and multi-mile tempos at five-minute pace or faster, all the while keeping a close eye on what I was doing. It was a bold strategy – especially preparing for a mountain ultra.
*****
The stride, which I'd worked so hard on the past few months, was truly paying off: all day long, I'd had no trouble keeping up – then later catching up to – both Ghelfi and Miller. The early pace felt very easy, and then – even losing minutes at aid stations, and stopping to work the calf – I was easily able to regain contact by the time we would reach the next aid station.

This buoyed my confidence as I rolled along toward the penultimate – and pivotal – climb of the race. The section between 4290 (35 miles) and Twins 2 (44 miles) is a long, grueling section that breaks a lot of runners. It's the dreaded third lap of a painful mile race: far too soon to be “almost done”, with a lot of work left to do.

Ghelfi seemed to be safely in the rearview, but Miller was still somewhere up front. But I was running so well, it seemed, that it would only be a matter of time 'til I caught him. And then, as the course crawls up the shoulder of the Twins (~7000'), there he was, at twelve o'clock.

Neither pushing nor slowing, I gradually reeled him in. Talkative all day, he still had a pleasant greeting as I shuffled past him. We were about a mile from the top, and three from the aid station.

My strategy was thus: to put some distance on him in the climb, hammer down to the aid, and get out of sight before the last big climb up Maiden Peak. With no more calf-massage stops in my future, and a fantastic stride, nearly 45 miles in, I figured I'd put him behind me and finally build a lead into the final push.

But somehow Andrew didn't get the memo. Up and over the Twins, halfway down the to the aid station, he'd reeled me in. Damn. We ran into Twins 2 AS together.

And then, like he had all damn day, he rolled in and out of the aid station without stopping, his mom shoving a bottle in his hand without breaking stride.

I took my time, yet again, gulping soda and a banana hunk, clinging to the notion that a bit of time – less than a minute – to rest at the aid station is worth two minutes on the trail. I thought, “He can't keep this up”. But by the time I'd slammed a second glass of Coke and turned up trail, he was long out of sight.

The Periodization Short Course: Specificity is the House on the Rock
The two months between Memorial Day and Waldo was a crash-course in specific preparation for Waldo. The aerobic systems was adequately established; now, it was time to get ready.

When speaking with Bruce last summer in Davis, he talked about drawing a line between two points: “Where am I, now?” and, “Where do I need to be?”. From there, you fill in the spaces, and put the pieces in place.

Most mountain ultras – Waldo inclusive – require three things:
  • Race-pace work – usually trail tempos at threshold effort
  • Prolonged vertical work, to develop climbing strength and technical descending skills
  • The long runs – on-feet time focused on brain and body preparation for the race distance
June and July featured heavy doses of tempo work: both on the treadmill, to work flat-out efficiency in the high-end gear, and at the end of long trail runs. A mid-week speed session was pared with an end-of week trail run with a fast finish. In between was a focused vertical day, and, of course, the long run.

Things were no doubt rushed, but in a six to eight week span, I put in some great work, cemented with very easy (MAF pace) recovery runs and days off. But admittedly, I shorted a few areas, namely prolonged mountain climbs, and the extra-long (>3 hour) runs. Between July and mid-August, I'd run only a single run over four hours, and no climbs over a thousand feet.

That said, given my experience in 2013, I was going into Waldo knowing that it's better to be rested and under-prepared, than over-worked. I'd done what I could. But would it be enough?

This notion creeped into my head as I rolled the gradual descent toward Maiden Peak Aid, at the base of the toughest – but last – climb of the race. The quads were pretty thrashed, and both the thighs and calves felt a little blippy – as if a cramp might be around the corner.

I rolled into Maiden Peak Aid: no Miller, but word was that he had just left. Still, I took my time again, pounding more sodas and taking one more snack. Ghelfi's dad and fiance were at the aid station...a sign that he was still in the hunt.

While restocking, I fiddled in my pocket for my iPod. I'd been saving some fire-up tunes for this final twelve-mile push. But the damn thing wouldn't turn on. Damn.

There was no time to lament. I grabbed my bottle and pushed on.

The final climb of the Waldo 100K, the Maiden Peak summit, is a brutally-tough climb. It ascends nearly two thousand feet over three miles and change, topping out at 7800 feet, the high-point of the course. It features relentless incline that gradually worsens – in grade and footing -as you near the top. I shuffled along, truly feeling the effort of the day. Though I continued to move well, thoughts of the win were fading. Andrew was a good climber and, as I found out, still had descending legs, to boot. Midway through the climb, it occurred to me that it hurt more to walk than run, so I shuffled along, until reaching the steep, straight-up pitches that made even hiking difficult.

The Maiden climb is the signature of the race, but what sets it apart from nearly every other ultra (save Lake Sonoma), is the summit out-and-back. After three brutal uphill miles, the course hits the top shoulder. From there, it's a mile or so out and back to the summit, before descending, the steep, rugged “Leap of Faith” toward the final aid station.

Like Sonoma, the out and back gives you a glimpse of the competition. Anyone with ten minutes of your position will be in view. I hoped for the best as I shuffle-hiked my way up the rugged, painful volcanic scree, hoping I'd see Andrew as close to the top as possible. But, scarcely up the climb, there he was, coming back down.

Damn.

I kept on, trying my best to run the path paved with loose, baseball-sized lava rock. Finally, after some bittersweet views of Waldo yet again, I gave a fist-bump to the omnipresent Monkey Boy before turning to descend.

My focus now turned to getting off the mountain before Ghelfi saw me, but sure enough, just before I reached the junction, up he came.

And like that, you had three guys within ten minutes.

Sonofabitch.

My descent was...mediocre. Footing was poor and, let's face it, my technical descending is mediocre when fresh. I did my best to pick my way through the steep rock before lowering to the runnable dirt, descending over switches to Maiden Lake aid.

When I got to the aid station, I was struggling. Dizzy and glazed-over, I pleaded for Coke. “Pour another”, I said, before I was even done with the first. The cola was warm, and it felt like I was on the last lap of a brutal beer run. I must've looked like shit, because I felt like it.

“Do you want to sit down?”

“No!”


I didn't ask where Andrew was, but I knew he was at least five or six minutes up. My lack of specificity – big climbs and big descents – was exposed. But now, with seven miles of flat running in front of me, could I put it together for one last push?

After a quick sponge douse, with bottle topped and stomach sloshing with Coke, I took off.

I ran maybe a hundred meters before I was reduced to a stagger.

Sonofabitch. I was low.

Balance & Perspective Create Dispassionate Execution & Peak Performance
A year ago, after I flamed out at Western States, I realized I need to change, and I needed help. Besides Tim Noakes and Phil Maffetone, I needed insights about me. What makes me tick? What is it about me that drive me to run all day, to begin with? And what was it that drove me too far, so far out of balance?

What am I running from, and what am I running toward?”

I needed more help.

At the end of last year, I contacted my psychologist. It was time for a check-up.

I sought to learn what it was that connected my anxiety level – before and during a race, and day-to-day – with my running. I did not want a repeat of 2013, where I put so much pressure on my running, and what a good day would mean to me.

I first learned of Scott Pengelly when I moved to Eugene in 2009. He's among the very best pain psychologists, and as such, has been instrumental in helping my toughest chronic pain patients get better. Indeed, the brain decides what hurts.

When I sought someone to work with a year later, he was the obvious choice. Besides being a great pain therapist, he has a storied background in sport psychology, with experience at the Olympic level going back over three-plus decades. Indeed, his guidance was pivotal in my ability to overcome injury and finish my first Western States in 2011.

We got to work in January of this year, spending an hour together each month. Interestingly, we didn't talk about running, at all. Like old friends, we caught up on the last year or so. I shared with him what my goals were, and what I was up to. I'd just entered into a serious relationship, so we talked about that.

A lot.

As it turns out, my relationship history with romantic partners closely mirrors my relationship with running. So when that relationship ended in March, it was pretty clear to me the connection.

There is a part of me that believes that, “This [relationship, or race] is so special and great, that if I achieve it, then I'll really have it made!”. Somewhere along the line, I developed the belief that I needed something – or someone – to be 100% happy. That I was just that one thing away from something great, and the next level.

Classic “One-itis”.

Besides the novelty of teaching a sectegenarian the term one-itis, it was a great epiphany to realize that I was putting so much pressure on running (and relationships) to somehow make my life that much better.

One-itis is, however, a deadly condition, for two reasons. First, the overzealous drive to achieve with that one thing creates a type of blinding effect, where you fail to see the big picture. Reality escapes you, and you're unable to perceive, believe or react to what's really going on. Second, the intense pressure one puts on himself (to “really nail it!”) is such that he inevitably blows it.

This was as true with relationships as it was with racing.

Wow.

Scott talked about where that comes from: having an alcoholic father, enduring a divorce when I was only eight years old, and the measures – even as a six year old – to try to “fix things” in my family. What emerged from that – only multiplied when my father passed away when I was ten - was this relentless drive to fill a void.

Looking back at my experiences – in athletics and relationships – this pattern has been fairly consistent for decades, now: when I put too much meaning on any one thing (or person), bad things happen. I blow it. Time, and time again.

But...when kept in perspective - with full awareness of reality and minimal anxiety - dispassionate analysis and execution are possible.

Yes, running is important, and hell yes, running well again at Waldo was very important, but how I performed there would neither make my life great, or make it miserable. It was only an experience that would add value – and further perspective – to life.

*****
As I stumbled along, only a few minutes past the final aid station, but a good seven miles from the finish, I was in need of some serious perspective.

For the first time all day, I felt fucking terrible...
...yet I'd run a nearly flawless race up to this point.
I felt like I could barely run...
...I was still in second place, with Ghelfi stalking somewhere in the shadows.
I might blow this race...
...but fuck that, I need to pull my shit together.

I'd just hammered nearly a can's worth of soda at the aid, yet something was low. I wasn't sure what, but I didn't think it was calories. I thought about it. I'd been on a single water bottle all day. And although I'm well fat-adapted, I still need water. Lots of it. And I think I was low.

Just a mile out of the aid, I was shuffling, but I still had nearly a full water bottle. I hammered it, tossing down another gel and an S!Cap, just in case. And I pushed on, going all in to prevent Ghelfi from sneaking past me.

I gradually felt better, as the trail leveled out along Maiden Lake. The bulk of the final miles are downhill, but punctuated early on by some gut-busting short climbs that, unless you've got the legs, will reduce you to a walk. I pounded the rest of my water and pressed on.

And...just like that, I felt better. A lot better. Crazy thoughts entered my mind, such as, “Holy shit, maybe I can still catch Andrew!”

I pushed hard. I ran every climb, every step from Maiden Lake, back to the PCT, where a sustained down and flat section would await.

I was running hard, and fast. In the back of my mind was concern. Pushing hard can cause the sugar stores to plummet. But I was buoyed by the notion that I was low on water, and, although by bottle was empty, I could fill it (at my own risk) in one of the three Rosary Lakes that dot the final four miles.

Hammering hard to lake level, I opened the stride as big as possible, throwing every bit of coal into the fire, breaking stride only once to dunk the bottle into the creek that emptied the Lower Rosary. Now filled with water, I hammered my final gel and S!Cap.

I was topped off, and it was time to go.

I honestly believe that – when my stride is on, and the body is intact – there's no one in the sport that can run faster than me at the end of an ultra. There's plenty of folks that can really hammer, but...for some reason...when push comes to shove, I have what it takes to run really hard when it counts. That's what got me a Golden Ticket in '12, and it's ultimately what got me into the Top Ten at Western States.

Just a couple miles from the highway and civilization, it's common to run into hikers and campers along that final section of the PCT. Just leaving the Lower Rosary, I came across a hiker, who told me, “He's just a quarter-mile up!” Such reports are always dubious, but I took it as good news and pushed as hard as I could.

I hammered: big, long, spinning-sawblade strides. The legs felt...well, fine: no cramps, no heaviness. I pushed as hard as I could. I really do think I was running six-minute miles. But that section is long, and - even with buttery, downhill single track – it drags on. And on. I spent the time focusing on different aspect of the stride - “left elbow”, “right foot push-off...” - and counted them to a hundred. Anything I could do to get closer to Andrew, and to the finish, I did.

And while I didn't see Andrew again, I did see the finish. I pushed hard off the PCT, to the clearing toward the ski lodge (the longest visible ultra trail finish in the sport!). I felt great, and – according to The Queen – looked great.

As I got closer, I saw that I was still under 9:30, so I really pushed it, and – as a nice icing on the cake of a great day – leaned at the line for 9:29:59, good for second place.

*****
Andrew, beset on all sides with his family-slash-crew extraordinaries – were still at the line when I crossed. He ran a hell of a race, running 9:23:28. I closed on him...but not much.

Ghelfi came in several minutes later, in 9:38:45.

There's your top three, after all.

*****
The Grades

Pacing: A. We, as a top three, nailed it. Smart, early, then pushing hard at the end. More on the specifics, below.

Mechanics: A-. Fantastic stride all day, especially when it counted in the last seven miles. Slight deductions for whatever causes my calf malaise, and my general lack of preparation for skillful descending. But ultimately, I did what I could.

Hydration/Fuel/Electrolytes: B+. Really great all day...'til I got low. That low point might've cost me...but I don't think I would've won on nutrition perfection, alone. The low-point was obviously from water, as I rebounded rapidly when I pounded two whole bottles after Maiden Lake.

Calories: here's my approximate calorie count for the day:

Gels: ~6-8 → 600-800 kcal
Soda: ~4-5 cans → 600-700 kcal
Banana: 1 → 100 kcal
“OOJs Recovery Brew”: 10oz → 200 kcal
GU brew: ~100 kcal
----------------- Total: ~1800-2000 kcal (~200 per hour)

Average heart rate: 159 BPM. 
Of note: a year ago I ran 10:35...also averaging 159 BPM.

Mental Toughness: A-. Huge points for keeping it together and problem-solving early on. Negative for losing the winning edge going up Maiden, and the self-doubt after Maiden Lake AS. But some good bonus points for using my “Power Pose” psychology. I wrote of this in the October Issue of Ultrarunning: that smiling, or adopting power poses, not only improves mood, but improves the brains perception of well-being. Even in the depths of the Maiden Peak climb, me doing my best “I'm the WIZ!” impression made me feel better.

Joy: A-. Had a LOT of fun out there. I wasn't doing ninja moves, or singing Bon Jovi, but I had fun.

*****
Race Fun Facts:
  • Looking back on the results, Andrew, myself, and Ryan ran the 4th, 6th, and 8th fastest times in the thirteen-year history of the race*. By far, this was the deepest and closest field, ever.
(*admittedly, Tim Olson and Jacob Rydman's 2012 results on the fire-lengthened 65-mile course bear mentioning here, as their times would like be in the 9:2x to 9:3x range).
  • Andrew Miller ran the fastest second half (Charlton to the Finish, roughly 32 mile) in the history of the race. His 4:36 split ranks ahead of previous course-record holders David Laney (4:40 in 2013), Dave Mackey (4:41, 2011), and Erik Skaggs (4:42, 2009). I ran 4:44, good for 5th fastest finishing split.
  • Despite my struggles early on, I ran the fastest closing split in the history of the race: roughly 57 minutes for the final seven-and-a-half miles. Andrew was right there, splitting roughly 57-and-a-half minutes to stay in front. Behind us include Mackey's hard finish in 2011 (58 minutes), Tim Olson in '12 (58), Ian Sharman in '11 (60), Skaggs (61), and Jacob Rydman (62, in 2012).
    *****
So, what's next? Well, back to the aerobic drawingboard. Based on the foundations of Maffetone and Allen's physiological model, this time of year – the fall and early winter – is the time to maximize aerobic. In short:
  • with the exception of a few runs, I took nearly three weeks completely off, post-Waldo
  • the entirely of September was easy running (again, save a couple early runs)
  • October was entirely easy, except perhaps four long efforts approaching threshold
  • November, in order to prepare for another Montrail Cup assault, featured the addition of speed work for the first time: mostly downhill repeats, and longer, harder weekend effforts
Again, periodization with focus on maximum aerobic development is the foundation and cornerstone. But implicit in ultra trail preparation is the specificity: I continue to do strength training, stride efficiency work, and put in the requisite climbing runs to not only maintain those, but continue to improve them.
*****
What I Learned.
This thing is thousands of words. I hope I learned something. Here's what I think I've learned:

Specificy versus Physiology. In ultrarunning, as in all sports, the needs of basic physiology – what's best for all body systems, long-term – must be balanced with the specific demands of the task. These things aren't always mutually exclusive, but – like all things – there must be a balance between the two.

Physiology is the key to sustainability. ...but at the end of the day, after the year-plus of interviews, research, and personal experimentation, honoring physiology – doing what's best for our holistic health – is the key to sustainable running. Balanced, holistic training and preparation involves maximizing those things that do not stress physiology, including: mobility, strength, biomechanics, nutrition, and stress management. If mastered, these elements are “free speed”.

Periodization and its Phases. For me, what works best – and what I will continue to employ and recommend as a medical professional and coach – is the following progression: a disciplined (and meticulously executed) Aerobic Phase, where 99% of all work is at Max Aerobic Effort; a Strength Phase, where moderate-intensity work (long hill climbs, tempo runs) are introduced; then, what Mark Allen called a “Push Phase”, which includes much higher-intensity work, possibly including track sessions and or trail-specific sprints, longer/harder runs and races.

Avoid the Curse of One-Itis: Keep perspective, keep your eyes open, and act accordingly. The most crucial moments of Waldo were the six-plus minutes I spent...not running. I've heard from countless veteran runners who say, “solve problems early”. That's easier said than done...because you first have to admit there's a problem. Before this year, as it was at WS in 2013, it would've been difficult to accept that straining, cramping calves were a problem. A year ago, I simply would've denied it (“Cramping? That can't be right; it's too early for that”).

In a race, or in life – work, family, or a relationship – it can be very difficult to perceive, believe and act on a problem...especially when “everything else is going right, and exactly as planned”. I was in the lead of this race when this happened. Everything else – energy, stomach, brain, stride – was fantastic.

But life doesn't care about your Plan. I had to stop, those three different times, and fix it. And while those stops very likely cost me the win, the alternative – not stopping – might've prevented me from finishing, or caused a serious injury.

Perceive, believe and act. But to do those things, one ultimately must...

Know your answers to The Questions, and don't forget them. In order to keep perspective, and stay true to what's best for you, one needs to know: “What are you running from, and what are you running toward?”

For me, in 2013, it was:
  • I am running from the disappointment, shame and rejection of past failures: as an athlete, and a person
  • I am running toward acceptance and self-esteem through performance success
A year later, I can't say those beliefs no longer exist. But they've been over-ridden by more important ones:
  • I am running from complacency, weakness, and selfishness
  • I am running toward sense of belonging as a contributing member of a nurturing community, toward camaraderie through cooperation, mutual respect, friendship and love, and toward a feeling of joy and self-exploration that I get from the sport of ultramarathon running
And at the end of the day, I always have to realize that:
  • No great race will ever make my life complete
  • No terrible race will ruin the fantastic life I already have
Now, I feel that if I really am true to my New Answers, only good things will come from running; and truly negative experiences will only happen if allow my Old Answers to overcome me.

...and that was the beauty of this year's Waldo: that I was able to share it with so many great friends. Nearly the entire “Eug Crew” of ultra trail runners was in attendance: either running, pacing, crewing, or volunteering. Being able to share and celebrate that day with them was symbolic of the success of that day, and of the winning formula I think I've found for sustainable, joyful running.

Let's keep it going, everyone.

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.

NerbleFest
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?"
"Yes."

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

Silence.

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:

"...pictures 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."
"Okay."

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

Oops.

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!