But I would've preferred to be near some folks. And up front.
But I was alone: just me, and my thoughts.
Two nights before race day, I had a dream that I was at the Western States lottery. I did not get in. And I wept. I cried so hard in my dream, I awoke, nearly crying.
It was fitting, therefore, as I rolled along, alone, in the later depths of the race, that I found myself thinking about that dream, and about the reality of the day: of coming up short, again, and possibly missing out on the best day of the year. I thought about the moment I'd cross the finish -- so egregiously far removed the podium that I'd be lucky if the finish area was still standing when I got there -- when I'd see my mom and my supporters:
"I'm, sorry, maybe next year..."
That thought, which recurred several times in the last fifteen miles, was sufficient enough to obscure my vision with moisture and force me to put it away.
It's been a fascinating personal journey since last June. After prioritizing speed and paying for it with serious overtraining and an epic crash-and-burn, I committed myself to rebuilding: focusing on true aerobic strength and power, and becoming the best fat-burning machine I could be. The idea was to build the strongest - and most sustainable - overall fitness possible.
It was a simple plan: run at max aerobic pace only for...a long time: a Maffetone-inspired notion that training at fat-burning pace, however slow that may be, will develop more fat-burning enzymes to allow higher-intensity running with the same energy. This notion is implicit to all distance training -- build a base, then go from there. But too often corners are cut (or omitted) in the base-building process. Easy runs may feel easy, but if fat is not used and promoted as fuel, true aerobic conditioning won't happen.
So after Western States, I used the Maffetone Formula to find my max aerobic heart rate, and from the end of July through most of February, that is where 99% of my training was spent. Using the formula, my estimated fat-burning heart rate was 150.
But there was a problem: I actually wasn't burning much fat at 150. In fact, none at all.
At first, I made some fitness gains, going from about 7:30 pace down to 6:40 pace at 150 HR. But then I plateaued, and numerous other events - including a broken heart rate monitor and a flu virus - precluded further monitoring or testing.
Finally, after Bandera, and after testing scores of folks on our metabolic system and grasping the technology, methods and results, I tested myself. The results were shocking: I was burning precisely 0.0% fat at 150 heart rate.
Even worse, to get a "big chunk" of fat-burning - the desired 30-50% fraction, about which the Maffetone Formula aims for - I had train as low as 105-125 heart rate!!
But it made sense. In the 180-Formula, there are myriad of qualifiers. Besides 180 minus your age, other qualifiers include:
- If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease, any operation or hospital stay, etc.) or are on any regular medication, subtract an additional 10.
- If you are injured, have regressed in training or competition, get more than two colds or bouts of flu per year, have allergies or asthma, or if you have been inconsistent or are just getting back into training, subtract an additional 5.
- If you have been training consistently (at least four times weekly) for up to two years without any of the problems just mentioned, keep the number (180–age) the same.
- If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed above, and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.
In my estimation, I had cheated. I had taken 180 minus my age (35) and - by virtue of "training without problems" and "making progress", I added 5.
However, I was overlooking several factors, and indicators that I was training too high:
- My allergies - even in the fall and early winter - were worse than ever.
- I was sick more often in November, December and January than I have the past five years, combined
- I had the worst flu infection I'd ever had in my life, right before Bandera.
So, beginning in mid-February, I committed to a max heart-rate of 130 for all running. It was tough! My easy pace immediately plummeted to about 8:00 pace...on a treadmill. Hills? Forget it: 12-minute pace, or I was walking.
But I knew - from everything I'd read and studied - that I had to commit to it. Because I had, by this point, so many examples of other runners - and my own patients - who'd committed to the process of disciplined fat-burning, that took their pure-aerobic pace from embarassingly-slow to insanely-fast. And I knew, based on how fat-burning affected health and how the alternative - high-intensity sugar-burning - deleteriously affected health, performance, and career longevity.
So, with 8 weeks to go before Sonoma, I was running #slowasshit.
It was a major gamble: could I run that slow, that easy, and still perform well at Sonoma: a favorite event of mine, a race that I've run very well at the past two years, the premiere "old school" ultra in the country, and now, a vital shot at a Western States spot?
*****I'm a stickler for tradition: for the third consecutive year, I left for Sonoma on Thursday night, lodging in Ashland. I rolled in just before ten o'clock, just in time for a good night message from my good buddy, Chris Vargo!
|A typical pre-Sonoma exchange between Chris and I. I was eternally grateful for that tuck-in from Chris' mom, "The Sue"!|
As noted, I slept well - other than my Western States lotto dream - and awoke rested. My day-before run through downtown Ashland, up Lithia Park, and to Prickly Pete's pasture felt strong, and I relished in the cool, dry, sunny Southern Oregon weather. After breakfast, I hopped in the car and made my way to Healdsburg.
Once there, I had a bit of business to attend to - a little more shit-talk, this time for The Media. I met up with The Boss at the front desk of the Best Western as folks trickled, including The BGD. We milled around while Bryon interviewed the legit talent: Krar, King, Canaday, to name a few.
Then it was our turn. What a blast that was! We had some fun shit-talking back and forth - though it took Vargo a bit to "warm-up", but once he did, it was a hoot.
|Me, Bryon Powell, and Chris Vargo. $hit's about to go down! Photo: iRunFar.|
|Some obvious Photoshop-ing: how are we the same height? Vargo's like 4'8"! |
Vargo and I pummel one another.
When we finished, BGD and I chatted with Alicia Shay, who traveled from Flag with Vargo, and Krar for a bit, before heading to the course.
I had a great talk, catching up with BGD, on the way to the the overlook, then hiked out a half-mile and had a seat along the trail. There, I had another great talk: "to the mountain". I sat there, as I did before Bandera, and talked it out: what my intentions were, my focus, my gratitude and perspective. Any nerves I might've had were put to rest until race morning.
*****Race morning came quick, but not too early. The race directors do a phenomenal job - and ahead of the curve - at elite runner hospitality. Jake and I were holed up in our own suite on the Soda Rock Winery, just a few miles outside town.
|The view from our suite at Soda Rock. "So Romantic!" :-P|
|The "His & His" robes, ala "Dumb & Dumber", will have to wait...|
|BGD looking "Buff".|
We arrived at the overlook to darkness and a light, misty fog: perfect running conditions. And, characteristic of the event and Tropical John Medinger's attention to detail, the sun rose just in time for the opening horn.
Lots of familiar faces on the line and the mood was light for what would surely be among the most competitive 50-milers in the world this year.
|Flexin' at the start. Look at all that annoying neon! Photo: iRunFar.com|
|"AAAAAAAY! JAAAKE RYYYDMANNNN! What's goin' on, man? How you doin'? |
Good to see you again, what's up?" Photo: Meredith.
The race...went exactly how it should've gone: tough.
The opening road miles - and the pace set up-front by the Nike BoyZ and others - was remarkably subdued. Yet, characteristic of the day, I struggled to keep up on the climbs. My race-nerves sent my HR into the 170s and I had to work hard to relax, breathe deeply, and run easy on the ups to get it in the 160s.
And that would be the theme of the day: slow, sluggish climbs, tip-toeing beyond anaerobic threshold. All day.
I was probably in tenth place when we hit the trail descent, then gradually relinquished at least a half-dozen places over the next two miles before Island View (31:33). Thematic of the day, the effort felt strong, but I was a good two-plus minutes slower than a year ago. But the HR was in the mid-160s - the Yellow Zone - and there was simply nothing else to do.
So I shuffled along.
I had some pleasant chats with several folks, including Jesse Haynes, Josh Brimhall and Brian Tinder - all of whom I'd see later in the day.
Then I was alone.
And I loved it.
The lake shore was enveloped in a shroud of fog all morning. It was utterly peaceful, and the beauty tempered the frustrating sluggishness felt on each of the relentless climbs. I felt slow and heavy. But...I felt strong.
|The Sonoma Basin wrapped in fog. The view from above Madrone AS. Photo: Meredith.|
As I loped along, it occurred to me the folly of what I was undertaking: "I've done literally NO running on hills at this intensity...for months...what do you expect??" There was a part of me that believed that my strong aerobic power would supercede that lack of experience, the requisite leg strength, and lactate clearance, necessary to run fast. But it simply wasn't there.
What I had was essentially a House of Cards: the appearance - or at least the building blocks - of actual fitness, but not the real thing. And, presented with a challenge such as this course, it wasn't long 'til my limitations were completely exposed.
But I kept at it, my new mantra was "Slow, but Strong".
I hit Warm Springs AS slow again, in 1:32 - a whopping 8 minutes slower than a year ago. I must've been dwelling strongly on this notion to miss the gigantic, creepy presence of The Vargo off my left shoulder, because it didn't register in the slightest! At least I was focused!
|Refueling at Warm Springs AS, with to-scale representation of Chris Vargo's gigantic ego. Well-played Eric Schranz. Photo: Meredith|
|"Stop starin' at me, SWAN!" Photo: Meredith.|
I shuffled along, and Josh ambled out of sight.
And I was alone again. More shuffling, but now, some gut-rot. The stomach hadn't taken well to the influx of sugar, which prompted the first of two pit-stops. Ugh.
Just before Wulflow #1 (48:20, 2:20), I caught a glimpse of Michael Versteeg (who I would later find out is a good friend of one of my favorite "Tall Dickheads", James Madson!). I would run right behind, then right in front, of him for the next dozen miles. Having him around helped snap me from my doldrums, and I posted my best (or closest to ideal) split of the day to Madrone #1 (15:04, 2:35).
The Queen was there. Her face betrays all; she'd be a horrible poker player. "How ya doin'?". She knew how I was doing. "Slow but strong", I said, as I pounded the first of several cans of Coke. I shuffled out.
I heard big cheers only a minute out of the aid station. The first woman was close. Of course.
Shuffling up the steep dirt road, I tried to run as much as I could - or at least when spectators were around - but I otherwise hiked. The HR spiked above 170 and I struggled to keep the legs moving. My support crew was at the summit and I smiled and waved weakly as I dropped down over the hill.
The descent to the lake before the Big Climb took forever. The gut protested further as I pitter-pattered my way along, and I stopped once again to fertilize. Versteeg floated by and it took until the next aid to catch back up.
By this time, falling so egregiously behind my goal splits, I began to dread just how soon into the climb I'd see the leaders when they doubled back upon us.
That's one of many beauties of Lake Sonoma 50: the double-back, and the first of two critical competition checks. I was a mere two-thirds up the vertical to No Name when Zach Miller flew past. Minutes later came Krar, with Vargo and Sage in tow, then King a minute or so behind them. Seeing those fellas gave my running a spark, yet I continued to struggle up the teasing rollers that littered the approach to No Name. I came across BGD a few minutes from the lollipop -- meaning he was a good ten minutes-plus in front. He had a look of focused intensity and blew past so fast all I could get out was, "Execute!"
I hit the Lollipop, which was guarded by several folks, including Tropical John. I tried to bribe my way straight into the aid, but he wasn't having it. I got past Versteeg and pushed to the aid.
No Name is the halfway point, and by the time I rolled in, I was quite late (55:00, 3:30 - 3:10 in 2013), so it was all I could do to poke a little fun when I saw my good friend Jorge Maravilla there amongst the crowd. He wisely chose to rest from LS50, but I gave him a little $hit, anyway, for the DNS, before I grabbed a fresh bottle and hit the trail.
The double-back on the rest of the field was uplifting: the constant exchanges of well-wishes, and running past good friends helped buoy the spirits and lighten the load as I shuffled back down to the lake, but once I bottomed out and had to climb my way out, no breath was available for further greetings - a simple wave was all I could muster.
About this time, Emily Harrison, the women's leader, began to reel me in. I'd felt her presence for miles, but here she was. She got past me about a half-mile from the summit, just in time for the media.
|Emily leading me up to the dirt road above Madrone 2 (mile 30). You can't get anything past Connor Curley, whose timely comment really made this photo. It's "F2" (sort of like "F U"), Connor! Photo: iRunFar.com|
Emily stopped for aid from Ian Torrence at the hilltop and I snuck past, but my lead was short-lived. After Madrone #2 (47:54, 4:18), she got past me again, seemingly for good.
By the time I got to Wulflow #2 (18:16, 4:36), I was feeling gassed. I'd been red-lining all day: with the HR consistently in the mid-160s. My legs had no power. I was resigned to shuffling it in.
But at least I had entertainment. As planned, I got out my iPod and put in the buds. And for the first time all day, I started to have some fun.
Because of alphabetical order, my race playlists always open with this song. And it's a good one. While I certainly had nothing to "smack", I danced along with a smile on my face.
From there, on, it was all about making the most of the day: I focused on efficiency: using the hips and pelvis, a strong arm swing, and - my greatest deficit - a quick turnover. And it worked to keep me moving pretty well.
I felt OK and, once again, at peace: not simply with my surroundings, but with the day itself: where I'm at -- today, this year, and my place in the community. I was OK with being slow, being behind, and not being competitive. But when I began to think about the implications - of missing out on this year's Western States - it was truly sad. I got emotional several times and had to force it down and put it away.
Finally, after nearly five hours, the fog had burned away. The sun appeared, in full force, and the trail slowly warmed to a simmer.
Or maybe it was the reflected aura of SoCal Boy Jesse Haynes, who came within view just before dropping into Warm Springs #2 (49:52, 5:26). It was good to see him, and my hearty crew, at the AS, and I felt a surge of competitiveness in my otherwise gassed legs as we shuffled out together.
|My Beer Mile Training Run on Tuesday pays off. Photo: Meredith.|
After the river crossing, Jesse was hiking a lot. I knew I could get past him and, eventually, I did. I remember vividly the cramping that began at this point - nearly twelve miles out - a year ago. I took solace in the fact that, while gassed, at least my thighs weren't seizing. I got passed Jesse and another fellow ("Red Jersey", who was walking even the flats) and pushed along.
The HR, especially in the sun, was spiking well over 170, forcing me to walk a great deal. I put some distance on Jesse and got out of sight, but the going was slow, and each climb - however small - was punishing to my unprepared legs. I pushed along, knowing full well the possible consequences of this aggressive workload.
But I was still in good spirits. The music helped a ton, and when I caught up to Josh Brimhall, I felt compelled to remove one of his earbuds and insert one of mine, so he could hear the solid gold of Pitbull and Ke$ha. A sugar-deprived brain will do some crazy things...
I felt like I was running well, but the splits don't lie: I was nearly ten minutes slower on this section than a year ago. Yet, as feared, the legs began to cramp as I approached Island View #2, the pivotal final stop.
Had it been any other race, I likely would've mailed it in. But at Sonoma, runners are gifted with one final - and extremely timely - competitive glimpse. The Island View #2 AS sits a quarter-mile off the main trail, providing for one final out-and-back upon which to lay eyes on any competition - in front or behind - that is close.
"Tough Tommy" Nielsen used to say, "At the end of a race, run like there's a runner three minutes ahead and one three minutes behind". At Sonoma, there is no need to imagine.
Just as I turned toward the aid station, out came Brian Tinder. I tried to look tough, strong and fast as I floated past, and - just meters from the aid - I did the same to Emily Harrison. Once there, I got a final water fill, some Coke and a single gel (they were running low, in large part to BGD who took THREE of them for the final 4.7 miles!), then jetted out, just before Jesse came in.
I was cramping badly by then: first the adductors (both), then medial quads, with hamstrings and calves chiming in, intermittently ("Hey, at least it's symmetrical!"). I ran into Red Jersey just as I got back on the main trail.
I took stock: two runners in front, two runners behind - all within five minutes each direction. And cramping like crazy.
Last year's Lake Sonoma, as well as Western States, taught me that while cramps seldom go away without stopping, the fuse was pretty long before a blow-up. So I pushed. Hard.
I knew better mechanics would decrease cramping, so I all-out hammered the ups: aggressively swinging arms and engaging the abs to help drive up the hills and reduce the adductor load. And, after some inital protests, it worked. I was OK. But the heart rate soared above 170 and stayed there. Was it sustainable?
I pushed, and gobbled the downs with big, loping strides, making legitimately good time. And, soon enough, Emily was in sight. I gutted one last gel for good measure and pushed past, knowing full well her speed potential, but noting that her stride appeared to be pretty bottled-up.
The last 4.7 to the finish is phenomenal trail: just enough ups to keep you honest, but fast, rolling, singletrack. While there are a few choice climbs, it almost seems like it's a net downhill from Island View. I pushed as hard as I could, but wary of a blow-up, as the cramping worsened. I was motivated more by staying ahead of Emily than catching Tinder, who couldn't have been more than a minute or two up front.
I hit a Mile to Go with a smile on my face. And, like a year ago, my playlist ran out. I flipped threw a few songs 'til I found some rocket fuel:
I want a pink sportcoat like Pitbull has in this video!
I pushed hard to the finish, hoping I could "yell, Tinder", but it was too late. I finished strong, not nearly as triumphant as a year ago, but almost as happy. I popped out the earbuds to take in the applause, most of it coming from my and Jacob's large support group.
|Finishing Shot. Trunk alignment is a little wonky, but not bad for 7:24. Photo: Rachel Ekberg.|
I was too damn tired to be emotional as I hugged my mom and thanked the rest of the crew. I was grateful for their support and I did the best I could do with what I had.
|Hugging it out with mom. I think Tropical John needs some Hawaiian pants. Photo: Karen May.|
|I yelled, "Tinderrrr!" but he got away from me. Next time! Photo: Karen May.|
|Me and the Dark Chocolate, looking fine. Photo: Meredith.|
|Me and Dark Chocolate. I'm flexing HARD, trying to look as good as him. Photo: Meredith.|
|BGD and ME, in one of the worst, ass-out bro-hugs ever. Weak, dude, weak. Photo: Meredith.|
|BGD: "Do these shorts make my ass look big?" |
Sara: "Turn away! Turn away!"
But not today. He executed. He ran with confidence and faithfulness all day, and that's been the case in the three ultras he's raced in 2014.
In addition to being mentally strong and even, his technical skills have improved significantly: his downhill (and uphill) running has improved and is on-par with his contemporaries (and well beyond mine at this point), and his overall stride is the best I've seen it.
WHEN he adds brute fitness, he's going to be a contender in every race he's entered. Watch out. And as usual, I can only hope I can keep up, on all fronts.
*****Post-race was the usual Sonoma fanfare: friends and food, sun and suds. Jake and I hung out 'til nearly 5, then hooked up with my family for dinner and more celebrating. It was a good day.
|Got a whole lotta love in this group, showing off the custom shirts Meredith made.|
Some assorted shots from the rest of the weekend:
|My support crew from back East (L to R): Mike, Teri, Meredith, and Chris.|
|A view of Sonoma with the fog lifted. Photo: Meredith.|
|He sure cleans up good! And this is at least nine hours into his work day! Photo: Me (via Meredith).|
|Sunday's Wine Tasting at Mazzocco. Tropical John tells me where I can score some primo Olive Oil. Photo: Meredith.|
|"...SO HOT right now....OOJ". Photo: Meredith.|
|BP: "Think you could drink all that?"|
Clarkie: "It'll be gone by tomorrow".
Mechanics: A-. There were few performance brights spots to this year's race, but my stride was terrific. I'd put in a ton of work with my PT, Mike Baum, in February, once and for all(?) re-establishing my trunk stability and improving my push-off on the right hip. It wasn't perfect, but it was the most symmetrical my stride has ever felt in an ultra. A big silver lining in a gray race.
Pacing: A-. I could do no better than I did. I toed the Red Line all day and, only when I knew I could survive, blasted beyond it. For the first time ever, I ran all day with a HRM. The details:
|Numbers don't lie. I was tip-toeing that line allll day.|
Fueling: A-. Fueling was solid, and energy consistent all day. My stomach did rebel early but rebounded. It's tough to get used to sugar when you so rarely have any (and really, zero in training). My approximate fuel intake:
- 32 oz of honey water (6% solution - so about 200 kcal)
- ~10 gels (1000 kcal)
- 3 cans of coke (400 kcal)
- two small banana chunks (50 kcal)
TOTAL: <1700 calories
This is pretty terrific: 1700 calories for 7.5 hours of running: just over 200 cal/hr. I never felt like like I was "down" because of either water or calorie deficit. I felt even all day, and that - I feel - is a testament to my enhanced fat-burning, even at this high intensity.
Mental Toughness: A-/B+. I ran as strong as I could, and I pushed hard at the end. I take a lot of pride and optimism that I can still hammer with the best of them, even when I'm not well-trained. My :45 split over the final section is on-par with the majority of the top ten (outside Krar's completely insane :38 he threw down trying to catch Miller). But lulls and slow-downs mid-race were costly to the clock.
Joy: A-. Though not up to my potential, I felt a lot of joy out there. I forced myself to be happy. What really kept me going - especially as the slow splits compounded - was thinking about Terry Rhodes. Terry is a fixture in the NorCal ultrarunning community. Though I've never met her, she and her husband John have been an inspiration to me since I first saw them on "Race for the Soul", the 2001 Western States documentary (where it is noted, famously, that they "met on the trail, got engaged on the trail, and were married on the trail"!). She's so incredibly positive and joyful during that race.
|Terry Rhodes with - as always - John in tow - at an unknown race. Photo (gleaned from the FB account of): Chihping Fu.|
I'm happy to report that, despite the gravity of her injury, Terry is doing well and - "Slow, but Strong" - recovering! Awesome!
*****It didn't take long before The Question arose: "Are you gonna run Ice Age?". It's the final Montrail Ultra Cup qualifying race, the Last Chance.
And, of course, I said, "No". To be asked that so soon after finishing fifty miles is like asking someone if they want to go to another party when they've got a raging hangover. No way.
But now? I'm interested.
While I believe things are meant to be, I also feel like the clock is ticking, and life is short: you have to go get what you want, and risk failure.
That said, the next week will be telling: how quickly I can recover and, far more importantly, can I get in the requisite fitness - namely hard, rolling trail running at threshold - to have a chance at Ice Age. That a couple of fast sonofabitches (hint: their names rhyme with "Glitter" and "Fart-Hurt-y") have recently been added to the start list makes the task even more daunting.
I will make my decision in a week. But whatever happens, I'll be there. I won't miss it.
*****HUGE thanks to my many supporters:
- to John Medinger and Lisa Henson, for the extreme hospitality and support all weekend long.
- to sponsors Pearl Izumi and my newest supporter - Portland's own Trail Butter! This is simply phenomenal stuff - 100% natural, high-fat, low sugar, perfect fuel - that I first came across a year-plus ago at Hagg Lake 50K. I'm ecstatic about what they have to offer, and their generous support of Team Trail Butter! Check it out!
|Great stuff! Thanks for the support, Boggess Brothers!|
- and to my incredible friends and family, who go to great lengths to support my running and the community. Thank you!