Friday, July 20, 2012

Hal Koerner - the David Puddy of the Ultra World

I don't have cable.  I don't even have broadcast TV.  I don't even have internet at home.  And no Netflix either. 

All I've got are a few movies.  And Seinfeld.

That's all I watch.  Mostly just Seinfeld: Seasons 1-9, I'll pop in a DVD and casually watch while I go about my business - before and after work, and running.

AJW recently wrote an insightful piece about the ultra icon and 2012 Hardrock Champion, Hal Koerner.  In it, he and others reflect on their first encounters with Hal, and of his place in the ultrasphere since he began racing, over a decade and a hundred-plus ultras ago. 

But in the ensuing comments, the discussion turned to his place in the Community: "under-rated", "maybe now he'll be noticed".  Indeed, even our discussions over post-run beers after the "Tuesday Night Hunt" in Eugene turned to the same topic.

I began to reflect, myself, on Hal's place in ultrarunning, past and present.  Indeed, he's a star...but not as hyped as others.  He's talented, but is he as talented as the "Young[er] Guns"?  He's accomplished, but do those accomplishments shine as brightly as others (who, arguably, have acommplished much less)?

Who is Hal?

It hit me: Hal is David Puddy.

David Puddy, played by Patrick Warburton - the consumate chill.
A youthful Hal Koerner, Chill-Plus, at Rogue Valley Runners.  Photo credit: Ashland Daily Tidings.

Anyone who's watched more than one episode of Seinfeld knows David Puddy: the tall, dark and handsome auto mechanic (who later progresses to saleman) love interest of Elaine.  Played admirably by Patrick Warburton, he is described as such:

"...Unflappable and calm, yet can be a surprisingly passionate individual at times"

(*courtesy Wikipedia)

A spot-on description of Hal Koerner.  Some other comparisions:

Honest and conscientious.  In Seinfeld, David Puddy is referred to as "the only honest mechanic in New York".  Hal as a runner, business man, and ultra community member, is equally honest and noble.  Hal would be willing to give you the shirt off his back (as, it seems he might've, during Hardrock).

Hal, sans shirt, but warmed by the skull wrap, at the 2012 HRH.  Photo credit:
The emobodiment of cool, counterbalancing those around him.  David Puddy was the perfect contrast to the silly, high-strung characters around him.  So is Hal.  In a sport comprised of both attention-seeking showmen and repelling introverts, Hal is the perfect balance of friendliness and casual.  The consumate "chill". Even in the heat of an ultra battle, Hal is eternally cool, sharing the same blood lines as predecessors like Trason and Twietmeyer.

Prone to the outrageous that, with the backdrop of his cool, only multipies the effect.  Because he's so laid back, when David Puddy does get excited or acts out, its effect is tremendous.  And for both Puddy and Koerner, those acts are typically in the realm of fashion:

Carly: What is that?
Hal: My visor is tilted egregiously to one side.
Carly: (still in disbelief): You're tilting your visor?
Hal: Yeah.
Carly: Why?
Hal: You know, support the team.
Carly: Well, you can't walk around like that!
Hal: Why not?
Carly: Because it's insane?
Hal: Hey, you gotta let them know you're out there, this is Western States!

Whether it's visors, or color-coordinated racing outfits complete with matching "leg panties", or the post-race khaki capri pants, Hal does what he does. Not to garner attention, but because...well, that's Hal. And so it goes with David Puddy.

Can Hal rock the sideways cap/visor better than anyone?...  Photo Credit: Craig Thornley/Facebook

..."All signs point to YES!"
Talented and skilled at many things, yet not driven by ambition.  David Puddy, besides being an honest professional, is extremely skilled - among the best auto mechanics in NYC.  And only when he tires of the garage does he move into the showroom to become a car salesman.

Hal has talents that go beyond simply running fast or far.  He's proven successful as a businessman, community organizer and race director.  Yet his persona belies those talents.  Hal, I believe, does what he does - not because he can, or should, as self-promotion - but only if and when his interests and passion are sparked.

The consummate Every-Man.  What draws the viewer to "man-love" Puddy as much as they do is his persona of The Every-Man: talented and charismatic, yet incredibly approachable. 

I don't think many folks in the ultra community really know Hal Koerner very well.  Neither do I.  That's because you don't need to in order to engage with him.  Ultra runners - from the DFLs to the very top - frequently comment on how approachable, friendly, and - surprising to almost all - how familiar he is of them! 

I think, that combination -- his talents, his relaxed personality, his lack of self-promoting ambition, and his degree of approachability -- what makes Hal who he is - and isn't - in the Ultra Community. 

Will he ever be the most hyped runner character?  Probably not.  But I don't think Hal wants that.

Ultimately, Hal wants what he wants: a place as a giver in the community, an accomplished ultra resume, and the ocassional skull wrap and mango-colored arm panties.  :p

A Champion's embrace. Photo credit:
Cheers, Hal, to a tremendous HRH victory.  Keep it up. All of it.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Post-WS: Afterglow & Aftermath

Meteorological Afterglow. Photo credit:
Has it been three weeks since Western States?  Time flies.  But it also seems like a long time ago.

Recovery from the 2012 edition has been slow and measured; it took at least ten days until the bulk of the orthopedic damage to heal, namely from the perpetual left leg overload.  Indeed, I still feel significant tightness in the left quad when I deep squat.

The neurological fatigue is always fascinating; my energy level in the days post-race was better than the carnage of 2011; however, I still felt tired and "jumpy" until just recently. 

My overall running legs and energy are gradually improving; I've run perhaps 30 miles in the past week (and no more than twenty the week before).  My legs are feeling heavy, which make me hesitant to ramp up miles. 

The relative slowness of recovery is okay; I plan on it.  Western States is the end of my spring season.  Indeed, I don't really have a summer season (which, compared to most outdoor sports, is an odd concept).  Instead, I use this time to rest and reboot - in both body and brain - for the "fall season", which kicks off with Waldo 100K on August 18th.

However, I do feel the tug of "FOMO" when I hear about Jorge running "back to normal" within three days post-race, or when I see the fellas cover some amazing ground outside Silverton.  But I'll be the first to admit, my talents as a runner end at "recovery time"; I just take forever. 

That said, rather than lament the snail's pace of restoration, I lounge in it: more beers, more sleep, more golf (three times in the past three weeks, after zero times in the past two years), more writing, more catching up with non-ultra friends.  I'm also branching out into some other athletic avenues, including my first-ever yoga class at a terrific studio in Eugene.  Felt good to touch my toes!  I've also returned to the gym for the first time in months - in hopes of trying to shore up weaknesses in my core and hips...and to try to reverse the egregious upper-to-lower body asymmetry!

In "Deep Survival", Gonzales talks about the brain's need to "relinquish the survival struggle" for periods of time.  For the acute situation, this ocassionally means sleeping, or self-distraction.  For me, it means a period of time where I'm not logging big miles, where I'm not grinding up mountain trails, and where I'm not thinking a lot about training or competition (or at least trying).

BUT...I do continue to here's some interesting reflections, three weeks out:

...The front guys ran FAST.  Why?  Maybe because conditions were historically cool.  But last year was also cool.  Here are some interesting stats between 2011 and 2012 Western States:

For how much cooler 2012 was - eleven degrees - the sifferences between 2012 and 2011 are relatively small: finishers and rate are nearly the same, the field as a whole ran 25 minutes faster (1.6% improved).  The "fast end" was relatively similiar in the "near-top": 35 vs 29 in the sub-19, 15 vs 14 in the sub 17. 

The most substantial difference was in the top ten: 15:48 versus 16:11 a year ago, 2.5% faster than 2011. 

Why were the top ten 2.5% faster in 2012, compared to 1.5% across the whole field?  Two reason, I believe:

1.) The Montrail Ultra Cup.  Faster folks wanna run WS, and they're being drawn to the MUC races.  The MUC races, themselves, are seeing a surge in competitiveness and depth.

But perhaps more notably:

2.) No one was afraid of each other in 2012. 

Since...forever?...there have been dominant runners at Western States: Jim King, Tim Twietmeyer, and Scott Jurek in the "Pre-Boom" era.  Then there's the "Unbreakable Era":  Hal Koerner, Geoff Roes and Kilian Jornet between 2007 and 2011. 

There were always these guys - only a handful, sometimes only one - that dominated the field, both on the clock and in our heads.  They took off and no one went with.  It was suicide for the rest of the field to try to run with these guys.  So often times, they didn't. 

But in 2012, with the absence of the Unbreakable guys, namely the late DNS of Kilian, blew things wide open.  Though steeped in mutual admiration and respect, there was fearlessness: of the pre-race favorites, Tim Olson and Mike Wolfe didn't fear Nick Clark or Dave Mackey,  Dave, Nick and Ian Sharman didn't fear Tim, Mike or Ryan Sandes.  Of the up-and-comers, Jorge, Dylan, and Zeke laid it all out there, with [only relatively reckless abandon. 

And so it was: everyone ran fast as hell.  That they ran as fast as they did was more a testiment to their pure desire and fearlessness than the weather.  And the numbers tell us that.  If it was just "the weather", you'd see the entire field run an hour faster, and 175 silver buckles. 

I wonder if you would've seen the fast times up front if Killian raced.  If he pushed out front early, would the entire top ten have gone with him, or let him go, out of respect for his abilities and resume?  But he wasn't there, and suddently there were at least ten guys in the field with thoughts, dreams and the ability to win that race, outright. 

I hope that continues, because it made for one hell of a race.

...It pays to DOPE!  "DOPE"...amine, that is!  It's notable that Jimothy listened to music over the last twenty miles this year.  As it turns out, he was doping!  Research has shown that listening to your favorite tunes releases significant boosts of dopamine in the brain, which results in "boosts" to both brain and motor function! 

I've known that music plays an important role in "giving the brain something to do" -- that pattern of neurological "play" that makes "having a song in your head" so pleasurable.  But given this new insight - the research and Jimothy's experience - is highly motivational, and is worth a try in future long ultras.

Moreover, listening to an iPod Shuffle will avoid having to be at the mercy of the "Jacob Rydman iPod", which includes some less desireable tracks (see below). 

...Here was my "playlist" for Western States.  As stated before, I never run with an actual music player; rather, I have my "Brain iPod", where I get certain songs "in my head" that'll play over-and-over - usually with some degree of self-control.  I often have an idea of what songs I want to "listen to", but others will pop in - and get stuck - at random.

Here what was on tap, and when:

Into the Wild - LP# - (Start - mid-Lyon Ridge)
Walking on the Moon - The Police (mid-Lyon Ridge - Robinson Flat)
Payphone - Maroon 5 (Robinson Flat - Foresthill)
Drive-By - Train* (River - Brown's Bar)
Give Your Heart a Break - Demi Lavato* (Brown's Bar - Finish)

# aka "the Jimothy Song"
*courtesty of Jake, who would sing these, on and off, non-stop over the course of our 38 miles together. 

As you can see, some good song, some randomly...not great.  But they all helped, and now, they're all memorable.  Next year, I'll have a Shuffle in the drop bag at Green Gate...

...Putting in a lot of attention and time into my mechanics. can be an experienced physical therapist who specializes in running mechanics, and have such brutal form at the end of the race?  That's a pessimistic view point.  The flip side is:  I've never been "really good" at running, so I've used my amazing PT prowess to "clean up" my mechanics enough to be competitive.

Either way...they sucked at WS.  Here's my laundry list of issues that I have to work on, going forward, and how I plan to work on it:

Lateral trunk shift.  This has been an issue for >4 years.  I've tried a lot of things, but I'm now going to try using some kinesiotape on my trunk (L shoulder to R hip) to see if that'll give me some instantaneous feedback when it happens, because right now it's damn hard to perceive until it's too late.
Michigan Bluff - getting out-run by both Nate and Monnnnnty.  Obvious trunk-left.  Notable that my left quad felt completely trashed out by this point.
Flexed trunk.  I've tweaked a lot of things during the last two years, and one of them has been my overall posture.  Unfortunately I went overboard, from "too arched" to that all-so-attractive "crippled old guy" look.  Sheesh.  I'm planning on doing less "form focus" and more work on my core stability, which really tanked this spring.

Lateral foot strike.  This is Public Enemy #2, behind the left trunk.  Since starting to trail run, I've started to land on the outside of my foot, quite excessively.  It causes a myriad of problems: sore, achy feet, blisters, tib anterior pain, ITB/quad trash, and overall power loss.  I've been making great strides on this in the past three weeks, via: 1.) barefoot running on the fake turf fields in Eugene, and 2.) literally cutting off the outer soles of my running shoes. 

The new Asics "This Little Piggy Gets None"
Both techniques have been effective at adopting a more "whole foot" strike pattern, which should save me a lot of pain and suffering, and hopefully make me faster. 

Floppy arms.  I've had this problem....for ever!  For some reason, I don't move through my shoulder blades; instead, I "flop" up and down at the elbow.  So rather than gain leg power and propulsion with a firm scap plus elbow back, all my upper body energy is lost with a forearm flopping up and down.  I'm trying to correct this with some new exercises in the gym ("runner arm" using the cable pulley) and focus. 

While dismayed at these issues, I'm excited about the idea that, if I can fix even one of them, my potential to run faster is great...

...Looking forward.  Waldo 100K is coming up quick.  I'd love to run well there, and look forward to spending some trail time with Jake again.  Looks to be another barn-burner, with the recent additions of Ian Sharman and Jimothy to a field that already has Hal, Yassine and others. 

Best keep resting so I can start working!  Speaking of...time for a beer...

Sunday, July 1, 2012

M9 - 2012 Western States 100 Race Report

I told myself I wouldn't but...I was horribly anxious pre-race: starting Wednesday, and on and off through Friday night.  A year ago, it was whether or not I would survive.  This time, it was whether or not I would run to my potential...

I'd thought of Western States every day for at least six months (and....six of seven days, over the past year?).  After a minor injury speedbump post-Sonoma, I went nuts in May: 500 miles, total, including a seven-day span on the WS course where I covered 195 miles.  I covered every bit of the course from Duncan Canyon to Placer least twice.  

The better prepared one is, the easier it is to feel pressure.  I was fit and healthy; I was ready.  

Race Day
At the start, I stood beside Jorge, who was already dishing out heaping portions of smiles and positive energy to the runners around him.  A year ago I was nestled far in the rear; this year, I toed the starting line.  With seconds to go, I bent down and did some stretches.  I stopped at eight.  Then, I said in my own head, “I’m gonna get eighth place today”. 

I was wrong, but I was close.

Dr Lind fired the shotgun, and the 2012 edition was finally underway. 

High Country
A little birdie told me a couple long-hairs were going to push the pace up to Escarpment.  I’m not sure that they didn’t; while the pace didn’t feel fast, it was work to keep up with a compact lead group consisting of Jimothy, “Como Neek”, Wolfe, Sandes, Sharman, and others up the gravel road that switchbacked up the ski hill.  Even two ladies joined in the fun; LizzyHawker was right in there with the fellas, with Ellie only a few strides behind.  I ran between them, until Ellie said, “too fast” and backed off within the first mile.  Soon, that lead pack began to pull away.  I suspect each of those guys were altitude-acclimatized (which also correlates with extraordinary fitness), as guys like me, Dave Riddle, and Mike Wardian were hanging off the back end as the road ceded to trail at high camp.

I felt hints of wind as we wound up the road, but once on the plateau, it was a gale.  Sweat that formed on the climb suddenly froze.  My liberal coating of olive oil on limbs and trunk were a godsend; yet the extreme chill still necessitated a dolup of vasoline lube for “more sensitive areas” once I reached Escarpment AS (5:41:34AM).  A steep hike and a jeep road shuffle got me to the top of Watson, right behind Wardian.  A couple others were in sight along the ribbon of trail dumping into the Granite Chief.  I cooled it behind Mike for a bit until I tiptoed my way around him. 

The High Country section of the course – from Watson Monument to Robinson Flat – was tough and unforgiving when Jake and I ran it in October. I was amazed at its good condition on race day; loose rocks, debris, logs and ruts were replaced with a smooth, runnable tread.  I ran in sight of a guy wearing a black garbage sack as a jacket, with only one other runner passing us before exiting The Chief.

As we popped out of the Chief, I was feeling strong but not ambitious enough to push the pace.  With Lyon around the corner, I wondered how far back of the lead group I’d be: five minutes? Ten?  At that moment, a throng of runners appeared from stage right, merging onto the jeep road beside me.  What a nifty-gifty it was to see the fellas again: Jimothy, Mackey, Sandes, Jorge, DBo, Tiernan.  They all gradually worked their way past, with Tim the last to do so.  He seemed a bit haggard already, so I tried to pep him up with some timely Jimmy quotes.  That evidently fueled his fire and by the time  we reached Lyon Ridge (6:40:33AM/58:59), he’d moved past me. 

With the pack ahead of me, climbing hard up the ridge – and garbage bag guy behind – I was alone for the bulk of Lyon Ridge.  The wind had died down, but was replaced with light mist and intermittent sleet. I ran nearly all the climbs; hiking only the famed Cougar Rock.  My energy was good and I was dumping gels into the system, one every 19 minutes on the repeater watch.  However, my stomach was already growing tired of them, only hours into the race.

Along the high country, I had occasional flashbacks to our October run, including where we missed the trail right before Red Star and ran an extra kilo uphill.  The trail was well-flagged and manned this time, and I zig-zagged my way happily into Red Star AS (7:34:27AM/53:54)) with a single runner in view behind me – Thomas Crawford.  At Red Star, re-upped on both gels and vasoline and checked the watch: 2:34.  I asked the AS folks of my position: 12th!  While happy to be in “prime” position, I was also shocked.  Jake had told me that, in 2007, Hal had split 2:34 en route to his first victory.  That certainly tempered my efforts when Yassine blasted up from behind and got past both me and Tom – who also passed me as I fumbled with my pack outside Red Star.  When Yassine’s feeling good, he runs hard; it wasn’t long til he disappeared in the fog ahead.
Tom and I plugged along Red Star amidst rain, wind, and fog.  Despite the conditions, my body felt solid and warm, and the tread was shockingly smooth.  Sections that were pure rock had clearly been raked pre-race, and we reaped the benefits with quick and effortless running.  I caught and passed Tom on the two-mile descent into Duncan AS (8:42:20AM/67:53), descending happily, knowing I would soon see my crew. 

My stomach had started to rebel from the gels, and the protest spread to the lower GI.  When I saw Britt and Jimmy at Duncan AS, I picked up my new jet pack as well as paper towels.  I also sensed a bit of salt would calm my stomach.

“Do you have any broth??”

The aid workers, perhaps alarmed at the speed at which the top ten-plus had arrived, had not yet finished the broth.  A woman frantically stirred bullion paste into a foam cup for me.

I grabbed it, then, with typical Uhanian franticism, dumped a nearby ice water into it, downed it quickly and rolled out, just as Tom was rolling into the AS.

I shuffled along the Duncan trail toward the creek, fumbling with my pack, as gels were falling out onto the trail.  I ran along for a mile or two until the urge to go was too strong; I stepped off trail and discharged some “gel paste”. I was mid-business when Tom caught back up to me.  We ran together down to a shockingly low-flowing Duncan Creek before I pulled away on the climb away.  We chatted a bit on that initial climb: about how I thought the climb to Robinson was among my least favorite of the course, and how great it would be to close the book on the High Country.

Those thoughts, and that of seeing my crew – which included my cousin and his wife, who I hadn’t yet seen – fueled my climb to Robinson.  I caught glimpses of Yassine’s orange coat on the ascent, and when I finally hit Little Rob Flat, I finally saw the skort of Lizzy Hawker.  I looked at my watch, which was still well before 5 hours.  “Wow”.  I thought that for me, a sub-five hour split was ambitious, if not borderline suicidal.  Yet there were at least ten men and one woman in front of me. 

I rolled into a cold and foggy Robinson Flat with great fanfare, running through a wide path roped off on either side, with spectators at least two deep..  I was met at the med check by none other than AJW and LB.  They were excited about my position, and spat information on position and status of the eleven runners in front of me.  I weighed in about four pounds down, ran through the aid, and grabbed my new jet pack from Nate and Steve.  There I saw my cousin’s wife Megan, gave her a hug, then asked, “Where’s Monty??”.  He was on the other side so I gave him a hug, got some enthusiastic “chopper claps” and continued on my way down the trail, across the creek bridge, and up Little Bald.

Los Canyones
I shuffled up Little Bald, working through my vanilla Ensure as I wound my way up the wooded switchbacks that, a month ago, were covered in snow.  No more than a kilo out did I come along to Jake, who was taking in the action amidst the conifers.  He gave me more info on the field, including my second report in as many minutes about how bad Zeke Tiernan looked (they were so bleak and frequent, by the time I got to the Michigan Bluff, I was expecting to see his grave marked beside Tonto).  Jake said I looked the strongest of the group, but the only problem was, I wasn’t feeling strong at all.  I was flagging. 

I churned my way up Little Bald and back onto the WS trail proper.  The exposed canyon rock gave free reign to the cold winds; the fog rolled across the ridge as thick blankets, obscuring all but the immediate tread ahead.  I focused on what I felt was crucial for me: “I’m not working hard” – the notion that I would be efficient as possible in stride, and in taking and drinking in every descent as effortless as possible.  I was completely alone.  It was peaceful, but intimidating.

Off the ridge and onto the jeep roads approaching Miller’s Defeat, my gut began to rebel once again.  I needed to stop, but I had not paper.  I nearly went but had the will to hold it until Miller’s (10:29:51AM/42:16), which was mercifully closer than in 2011 by a full mile.  There I picked up some paper towels for the impending business.  But I also had to get off the gel habit; I grabbed PB&J tortillas and some mini-candy bars and hit the trail.
My will to hold it lasted only a quarter mile, before peeling off and taking care of things.  I ran along, alone, along the logging roads, feeling somewhat better but enormously flat.  I was worried.  “Am I shot? Did I blow it all in the High Country?” Thoughts of a 15-minute-mile shuffle to the finish crept into mind.  It dawn on me that it was time to take some salt.

Some background: I agreed to review a new medical book for  “Waterlogged”, by Tim Noakes, MD, addresses the serious problem of over-hydration in endurance sports: how sports drink companies like Gatorade changed the face of sports nutrition – going against all past and present research – on the amount of water, salt and energy we require for endurance performance.  It’s a very provocative text with exhaustive research findings.  Among the many dogma-shattering recommendations is the notion that we do not require supplemental sodium, even for 24-hour endurance events.  This is based on the notion that the body has automatic mechanisms to maintain blood sodium concentrations – regardless of hydration level.  Hyponatremia, therefore, is an issue of simply drinking more than the body actually needs.

With regards to sodium, Dr Noakes points out several sodium-deprivation studies with endurance exercise that showed a steady maintenance – if not increase – in blood sodium levels when athletes are “forced” (in the study) to exercises for several hours a day, for consecutive days, without any sodium intake.  Moreover, he argues – with both theoretical and empirical evidence – that ingestible sodium does not cease or prevent muscle cramping.

These concepts were hard to stomach.  Yet the research presented was difficult to argue.  Moreover, I had the opportunity to personally e-mail Dr Noakes and clarify: even though we’re running for nearly an entire day, we do not need supplemental salt – even dietary sources.

That said, my experiment of one was to run Western States without supplemental salt. 
The experiment ended about a mile out from Dusty Corners.  I got out an S-Cap from my emergency pouch and bit down.  It tasted good.  I descended toward Dusty.
Dusty Corners AS (10:59:42AM/29:51) had a nice pack of spectators, including James and Britt.  I swapped out packs, and grabbed a handful of potatoes for fuel and quickly departed, but not without a quick peck from Britt (a selfish pick-me-up, for sure).

The Pucker Point trail connects Dusty to Last Chance.  A year ago it was here that we first felt the heat; this year, it was still cool.  I ditched my gloves at Dusty but continued on wearing my PI jacket and winter hat.  My gut was still in bad shape; I grabbed potatoes in hopes of calming my stomach, downing hunks every five minutes or so.  Less than a mile into the trail I came upon a guy peeing in the woods – I wasn’t sure who it was at the time, but I believe it was Neal Gorman.  I passed him going slowly – still battling the gut and the potatoes – so when he finished up, he was quickly by me and down the trail.  A re-adjustment of my jet pack and he was completely out of sight.

Pucker felt so-so until I took my second salt tab, about midway through.  Then, two things happened: my energy vastly improved and my gut quit churning.  So I pressed a bit, hoping to reel in Neal. 

Temperatures were still cool, with overcast skies, when I rolled into Last Chance (12:41:55PM/42:13).  Ever since my first trip to “Los Canyones”, I’ve loved being at Last Chance: the gateway to the canyons and the first true gauntlet of the race.  I weighed in at Last Chance: 160!  Assuming zero error in scales (which is obviously untrue – it could be as much as +/- 5lb between each), I had gained five pounds since Rob Flat.  I grabbed a handful of S-Caps, more potatoes, and bee-lined out of the AS.

My goal for Los Canyones was to “preserve the vessel”: for me, that was to maximize my strengths – flats and ups – and to mitigate the weaknesses – descending.  I pushed the flats and gentle downs to Pacific Slab, then picked my way conservatively down to Swinging Bridge. 

The plan for Devil’s Thumb was to hike most and run a little.  I break it up into three sections: the rocky bottoms, the sandy middle, and the “teaser summit”.  The most runnable section is the sandy middle, so I hiked somewhat hard to the midpoint, ran several big chunks, then hiked the upper reaches to the AS.  Just before, I “hiked into” a group of folks that included Bryon, LB, and AJW.  They were supportive but I could tell they could perceive my struggles; offering more encouragement than excitement.  I asked about the competition, but no one was particularly close. AJW implored me to “descend well” and, after more potatoes and some soda, sent me on my way. 

Leaving Devil’s AS (12:35:51PM/23:01+31:55) it occurred to me that my left thigh was trashed.  What? I had perceived nothing until that moment; but it was clear that my left thigh – namely my medial quad and adductors – were severely overloaded.  The minor descent to the logging area, then to Deadwood, was uncomfortable.  I didn’t panic, but I was deeply worried – did I do irreparable damage to the quad, or is it just cramping out?  Either way, it was the result – yet again – that my trunk had been wandering left.  I focused on keeping it right as I picked my way, somewhat gingerly, down to El Dorado. 
My descent was lackluster – nothing remotely “well”, as AJW implored.  I split a 43:25 (1:20:17PM) to El Dorado AS, grabbed some Coke, potatoes, and salt, and hiked my way out.  The hiked out of El D is much like Devils, in that it’s also a three-section ascent with a very runnable middle.  I hiked as quickly as I could through the switchbacks, then began to pick my way up the ascent.  I was climbing poorly, feeling tired and sore in both legs.  S###.  I did more math.  A 50 split would be crappy, but a 47 would still equal a 90-minute Devils to Michigan.  I plugged along, running as much as I could.  I remembered what AJW had said at the Ale House in May: “Don’t run the top end of Michigan too hard; you have to save some to push it through Volcano Canyon”.  His words echoes in my fatigued nerve tissue as I shuffled upward, past “ten minute creek”, the switchbacks, and finally – with a fair amount of running – to the dirt road into Michigan.

An enthusiastic crowd met me at the corner of Carol Hewitt’s house in MB, but I was unable to reciprocate.  I felt cooked.  My weight was back to normal (155). I exchanged packs with Nate. 

“How you doin’?”
“Not great, but I’m still moving.  My splits are still OK”

I turned down an Ensure and exited the AS (2:02:09PM/41:52).  I was buoyed slightly by my respectable climb…and by my cousin Matt sprinting up to me from behind, clapping his choppers loudly in enthusiasm.  “You’re stride looks a lot better than mine right now, Matt!”.  I thanked him and my crew and did my best to open up the stride down Gorman Ranch Road. 

Down the dirt road, then up again – mostly running, but not very fast.  Both quads felt cooked; I tried to stay positive, and focused on quick turnover down to Volcano.  I popped another S-Cap after crossing a Volcano, nearly inhaling the powder.  A few coughs and, surprisingly, I ran most of the climb out to Bath Road.  More soda, and a gel – which I was able to start taking again on the climb from MB.  I hammered the coke, then shuffled uphill, walking only a few times, until I encountered Britt, who ran with my from the midpoint up to Foresthill Road, where my sister was waiting.

I should’ve been excited and happy to see them both – especially my sister Brandie, with whom I’d never run with before that moment – but I felt like I was barely hanging on.  I ran as quickly as my legs would allow toward the elementary school, again focusing on stride mechanics that I knew were filthy.  Soon after, Jimmy met us and gave me a quick run down on the competition, and told me that Jake was waiting at the AS.  I felt like I was going to disappoint him; he’d been so pumped about pacing me, and about my prospects while at Robinson, but now I was a mangled mess on the verge of a meltdown. 

Hobbling into the AS (3:00:20PM/43:22+14:48) under a blanket of supportive cheers, quickly weighing and exiting after a quick swig of Coke and grabbing a cup of ice.  Jake met me there, took my jet back, and led me out to my crew.  I stopped briefly on the corner of Church St and the main drag to a huge crew.  I thought about a Tecnu rubdown but decided against it; instead I took the cube ice and rubbed it vigorously against my left quad.  I tried to put on a happy face.  “How’s everyone doing??”

Turning down the Tecnu wash, I grabbed a filled jet pack and shuffled away with Jake.

“My form is total shit, Jake.  My left quad is totally overloaded.  I need your help to fix my stride.”

Jake went to work. “You’re braking hard on your left side.  OK, well let’s get the cadence going, and pull that left foot beneath you…”

And so we rolled downhill, left on Cal St, and onto the trail.

“Your splits have been great – you made it to Foresthill in ten hours.”
“Yeah, but it won’t mean shit if I fall apart now.”

We made a decent descent down the jeep roads to the trail.  Jake gave terrific cues for maintaining a quick turnover, getting my feet beneath me, and being sure I wasn’t braking.  He also kept a mindful eye on my trunk alignment.  Within minutes I began to feel better – in both leg feel and energy.  I was also back on gels with a solid stomach. 

“I don’t feel like talking, but you can fill me in on the race so far.”

Jake gave a good recap of the day: who was out front, who was looking good, who wasn’t.  We had some intel that a couple guys – Yassine Diboun and Neal Gorman – were together about six minutes ahead of us.  That in mind, we pressed when possible, Jake being sure I hiked as little as necessary on the odd hill and got me going at the slightest slowdown.

Cal 1 came quickly (3:33:07PM/32:46 – this included our two-minute stop with crew); Cal 2, as always, took longer than I remembered.  Jake did a great job of keeping me moving and hiking hard, especially on the steep double-climb between 1 and 2.  The longer we ran, the more the confidence and strength began to trickle back.  The famed “Elevator Shaft” came and went quickly; Jake implored “quick feet” and celebrated our disposal of the steep, technical ascent.  We rolled quickly in and out of Cal 2 (4:21:22PM/48:14).  Besides being on top of my nutrition needs, Jake was also on top of getting competition info; we hadn’t gained on Yassine and Neal, but we were feeling good so we rolled.

Cal 2 to 3 went quickly; I felt stronger.  I verbalized to Jake an important concept: “Even though it hurts, you have to run with normal mechanics, or else you run slow and destroy your legs!”.  I pumped the legs hard on the downs – hip extension, knee drive.  The downs began to feel good, but I still feared the ups.

As we approached Six-Minute Hill – the steep, triple climb away from the rushing river that can demoralize even the strongest runner – Jake declared, “We need to do six minute hill [named for the approximate time it takes to power hike] in five minutes!”
The trail dumped us onto the road and the start of the climb.  “I’m gonna run as long as I can”.  I picked my way slowly, running nearly two-thirds of the climb to the switchback.  More hiking, then more running.  A short hike, then more running.  We crested Six-Minute hill…in five minutes. 

We were officially rolling.

In and out of Cal 3 (4:47:49PM/26:26) – slightly slower due to filling the jet pack – we encountered our only bit of heat of the day in the unshaded north canyon wall.  I slowed only slightly – as much as Jake would allow – but otherwise ran quickly to – and through –“Sandy Bottoms”.  Jake kept up the positive encouragement and constant form cues.  He was being my brain, and it was working.  I felt strong, but I also felt on the edge.

Sandy Bottoms ceded to the home stretch – the jeep road approached Rucky.  “We’ve got to be getting closer to them”.  Sure enough, I looked up and a shot of andrenaline hit me before my brain made sense of it – it was Yassine and his pacer.  I popped another gel, swigged some water, then got after it.  “I’m not going to push to catch them, there’s too many damn miles left”.  Jake agreed, but we plugged along, anyway, gradually reeling them in, despite Yassine’s pacer’s efforts to keep his runner going – we could see his pacer turn around frequently, and spurts of speed that followed.

Less than a mile from the AS, we reeled in the fellas.  We all exchanged hellos, including a fist-pound between Yassine and I.  He’s a terrific person and competitor.  He’s also a tough runner, and was definitely still “in the game” when we caught up.  But I was climbing better than he, so I pulled in front and away on the final climb and descent into Rucky. 

Now we were racing.  And running fast.  “You’re gonna split a sub-2:30 Cal St!”, Jake declared. 

Rucky (5:31:22PM/43:33) was ruckin’ with excitement: loud music, excitable crew, and and ecstatic AJW!

“You just ran a 2:28 Cal St! Neal is just ahead!  Zeke and Nick Clark aren’t looking good!”  I got my pack quickly from Jimmy, scarcely acknowledging my crew, as both Jake and AJW were escorting me quickly through. LB was there with equal encouragement and smiles.  “You’re taking boats across!  Go!” 

Down to the river, we popped on lifejackets and hopped into the raft.  With us came Yassine and his pacer, who’d caught back up.  I doused like a mad-man (“Yeah, douse! Douse!”, screamed AJW from across the river).  I felt hot and longed for a full dip – a veritable baptism – that Jake and I thought I had coming, via a rope crossing.  So when we docked on the other side, I quickly laid down in the “bathtub” and submerged. I quickly counted to 20.  I barely made 15 before I heard, “Get going! Get going!” from across the river.  Jake agreed; we had to go.  Yassine and his pacer were hiking, then running uphill. 

Out of the water, I grabbed my jet pack and my last Ensure and powerhiked uphill.  Yassine and his pacer began to ran.  I wanted to be patient, but Jake had other thoughts. He implored me to run, so I ran.  Though my baptism felt refreshing, it’d stiffened up my legs; running felt terrible.  I hiked.  Thankfully Yassine hiked, as well.  I did my best to reel in the pair, but I struggled.   Finally, we drew equal to Yassine, just in time for a steeper grade; we both hiked.  Once again, my hiking proved inferior, as the trio quickly pulled away.  The road leveled again, and we began to run.  And I kept running – albeit quite slowly.  Jake and I slowly pulled away as we approached the final steep grade to Green Gate.

The River
With a fresh jet pack and a belly full of “old lady shake”, I needed nothing from the AS (5:52:40PM/21:18 – including bathtime) so we blew straight through.  Having put Yassine behind us, I gained confidence and strength heading onto the “home 20”. 

And it felt like home. Ever since 2011 – when I ran Green Gate to the finish blindly, in the dark, clueless and miserable – I vowed to return and learn every corner, canyon, creek and tree.  Between March and May I ran that section six times: frontward and back, hot and cold, daylight and dark.  So by the time Jake and I set foot toward Auburn Lake Trails (ALT), I felt like home.  “This is just like a training run,” I told Jake, “Green Gate to the high school, then we get a beer”.  We made excellent time down the jeep road and onto the trail.  GG to ALT has several rollers; I ran all of them.

Just when Jake and I were speculating on where M10 was running, we came up on a blue, orange and white North Face jersey, walking on the trail.  “I think that’s Mike Wolfe!”, Jake whispered.  Walking along the flat, Wolfe looked to be struggling.  I stayed quiet as we approached. Jake broke silence. “Hey Mike, you feeling OK? Do you need anything?”  He declined, ceded the trail and we glided past.

We were now M10.

Rolling along quickly, our momentum built, but I didn’t feel safe.  M10 is a precarious position until you hit Placer HS – just ask Dan-O – so we pushed at every opportunity, looking to put valuable time on both Wolfe and Yassine to prevent a resurgence.  Moreover, we knew Neal Gorman was still somewhere up front, as we’d been chasing his shadow since Cal St.  We’d crossed our first stream and were approaching the second – and the short climb onto the “Way Too Cool” course when Jake and I – from across the little canyon – saw a guy peeing in the woods. 

“Are you a runner or a pacer?”, Jake said.

Climbing past him, we ran into who must’ve been his pacer. The four of us shuffled uphill through two switchbacks. “Who is that guy?” I whispered to Jake. 

“What’s your name?” Jake asked.
“Neal Gorman.”


We chatted briefly – I introduced myself, Jake chit-chatted about passing Wolfe, and Yassine’s status.  Despite my deteriorating mechanics, I was climbing stronger than ever, and we slowly pulled away.

“Joe…you’ve ‘out-Nealed, Neal'!”

I chuckled at this excellent Seinfeld reference as we rolled along toward ALT.  It was glorious to do this section in broad daylight, scarcely six in the evening.  I worked hard to open up the stride, maintain hip extension and fast, “big”  turnover.  I felt legitimately good for the first time since the high country.  Cruising along, Jake chattered extemporaneously, mixing form cues with movie and Seinfeld quotes, and ocassionaly singing his favorite – or perhaps most annoying – poptunes.  And just like that, we popped into ALT (6:44:12PM/51:31).

It was still relatively warm, and with my smaller jet pack, I gambled with a “quick fill” of the hydration pack at the AS – which always takes longer.  Our transition was a bit slow, closing the pack, stuffing the gels.  After crossing the creek, we heard distant cheering.  Jake didn’t acknowledge it, but I knew it was a Neal resurgence.  We moved along.
ALT to Brown’s Bar is perhaps my favorite section of the entire course: smooth, fast single track, gentle, runnable inclines and fast, effortless downs.  I worked hard to “keep the stride open”, and Jake was on top of my mechanics at every opportunity.  I was absolutely driven to hammer these last sections; I knew that if I ran “my splits”, that no one behind us could catch up. 

I ran into a couple issues en route to Brown’s: my lower GI began to grumble, the result of taking an S-Cap whole on my climb up from Green Gate; and, about two miles from Brown’s, a large, developing blister (in the same place as Sonoma – the result of my excessive lateral foot strike), ceremoniously burst, sending waves of searing pain beneath my left foot.  “Oh, F###!”  That freaked out Jake a bit, but I didn’t break stride.  I didn’t care.  We pushed on.

Jake and I, like AJW, have mental tendencies to make “mini-splits” based on geographic landmarks.  As some say about AJW, “He knows the split time between every tree”.  Rolling along, we reached yet another horizontal canyon and stream crossing.  Jake said, “OK, we only have about twenty five minutes to Brown’s”.  I said nothing, but I thought, “Nope, that’s not right.  That’s ’14-minute creek’…”.  Running Robie to the River this spring, I’d counted canyons from Brown’s Bar: there was “7-minute”, “14-minute” and “21-minute” creeks.  We’d just hit the penultimate canyon. 

Jake took splits along the half-mile marked trail: “Eight minutes!”.  We pushed along, Jake peppering the positively and more pop tunes; though not my favorites, my 100-mile brain gobbled them up and bandied them about, playfully.  Within minutes heard the music of Brown’s Bar AS (7:27:44PM/43:31).  I rolled quickly in and out, only a quick Mountain Dew swig and I was down the hill.

More excellent stride cues: “Tap-tap-tap! Move the feet” as we picked our way quickly down the steep grade, across two creeks, and quickly bottoming to Quarry Road.  My quads felt a bit cooked, and the steeper Quarry Road descents were difficult.  I hit a minor blip on the climbs up Quarry, but Jake kept me moving, nervously looking back several times, knowing that Neal couldn’t been too far behind.  I focused on using the pelvis and hips to pick my way up the road.  Below us were terrific, sunlit views of the American River.  “It’s so awesome to be here in the daylight”, I said.

We hit the Quarry Trail – the most rugged, formidable climb since the High Country.  I’d run hard to Brown’s Bar and Quarry, knowing that it’d be a slow ascent.  The trail is so rocky, and just steep enough, that it’s nearly impossible to run consistently.  Again, having memorized these sections, I knew the climb to the creek was runnable, so we shuffled our way up, then hit the rocky “trail”. 

I knew that my hiking was inferior to nearly everyone, so I ran: a slow, medthodical “low gear” shuffle using my hips and pelvis. With Jake’s cueing for quick feet, I put my head down and just ran. And ran. And ran.  I ran nearly the entire climb – walking perhaps only twenty seconds – until we crested out of the rocky trail and into the woods.  Our excitement built as we heard the sound of zooming cars along Highway 49.

We spat out of the woods into broad daylight and the cheers of a rauchous crowd at Highway 49 AS (8:05:33PM/37:48). I was so excited to see my “OOJ Crew”, knowing it was still daylight and, Gods willing, could remain that way to Placer HS.  I “sprinted” across the highway, dropped the jet pack, and quickly weighed in.  I deliriously scanned the aid table for my needs; I needed nothing.  I waved to the crew and ran off. 

I did need something, but I’d forgotten it: paper towels.  I needed to go, and I didn’t want to hold it any longer.  “I gotta go, Jake”.  I stepped off the trail about a kilo uphill from the AS and let it go.  I had no wipe aids…so I didn’t.  We rolled along.

For months, I’d had fantasies of running the entire way from 49 to Placer.  I did my best but was forced to hike chunks of the rugged uphill to Pointed Rocks.  Near the top, I started running again.

“I choose not to walk!”, I declared.  And off we went.

Pointed Rocks meadow in the evening sun was incredible – cool breezes and cooler views.  We pushed the pace through the grasslands and into the descent toward No Hands.

For the first time all afternoon, Jake was silent.  It was welcome for us both.  I leaned into the descent and rolled along.  Just another training run.

In and out of No Hands (8:36:04PM/30:31) without a stop, still plenty of daylight.  The notion of finishing, and being M9, began to sink in.  But there was still business to attend to.  Three creek crossings led to the penultimate climb, and to the spot where I’d given up on myself and Sam in 2011.  “I choose not to walk!”  We shuffled up the switchbacks, over the final creek crossing, before powerhiking up the steep grade to the jeep road.  Light was fading and glow sticks were visible.  “No headlamp!”, I told Jake.  We shuffled up the Jeep road to Robie.

I grabbed my last shot of soda at Robie Point (9:00:30PM/24:25) and we took off.  I ran up Robie Point…and ran.  Not fast, but I ran, and I didn’t stop.  The road was dark beneath the canopy of trees. Without a headlamp, we surprised the rocking “Mile 99 Party”, which only added to their excitement as Jake and I, “The M9 Contingent” ran through.  Screams, and cheers – people lined the road on both sides, three deep.  I gave high fives as we ran through.  My most vivid sense was smell: the scent of glorious malted hops and barley, as we ran through.  Incredible.  One mile to go.

We ran along, and only then it occurred to me how positively awful my feet felt; as if it were nothing but bare bones pounding the unforgiving pavement.  I shuffled along, down the hill from Robie to Marvin Way. 

A booming voice of a lone figure approached.  AJW!  He’d run out from the track to see us.  Running along, he peppered us with congratulations and encouragement, and finishing reports: Jimothy in sub 15, Clark Bar and Mackey finishing strong.  “You’re M9!  Enjoy your lap on the track – savor it!”  And off he went, to run in with fellow Virginian, Neal. 

We shuffled up the final uphill and picked our way downhill, across the White Bridge.  I wanted to be excited, but I hurt so badly.  Onto Finley, with a half mile to go, Jimmy was there to escort us to Placer HS.  Jake gave his final form cue, and we burst into the light of Placer HS. 

I wish I would’ve felt – and looked – better on that final lap.  The voice of Tropical John on the PA were warm and welcoming, “Is that Olive Oil Joe?”.  A fist pump, and high-fives to spectators on the homestretch.

16:13:14 (9:13:14PM/12:46). M9!  I doubled over, hands on thighs.  LB presented my medal.  It was over.

The intial post-race was a blur – I wasn’t sure what to do.  I hugged my mom, then made the rounds, thanking anyone who looked familiar: my crew, Jake’s parents and in-laws.  Nick Clark (15:4x) sat in a chair.  “I made solid contact”, I told him, in reference to his pre-race comment of, “You’re ready to hit it out of the park!”.  A hug to Jimothy, who absolutely obliterated the course record, and the bulk of the field. 

Got a couple glamour shots from Larry Gasson: with the effervescent Jorge Maravilla, and with my incredible pacer and friend, Jake.  By the time I’d had blood drawn, I was shivering and miserable.  The post-race shower at Placer HS was a production: thanks to Jimmy and Nate for physically assisting me to the school and helping disrobe and dress me! 

Showered and clothed, the “OOJ Crew” enjoyed Nate’s home brew, “Placer High School Finish Line IPA”. 
The Grades
Pacing: A-.  I had hard when I could, I eased off when needed.  I took it too easy in the Canyons, alone.  But I was struggling.  A conservative canyons led to a hard-charging Foresthill to the finish: 6:13 over the last 38 miles, the 5th fastest of the field.  Jake, of course, was an invaluable part of that…

Mechanics: C.  Not…great!  What happened to my left leg?  A week later and I can still barely flex it.  Major overload, major braking.  My number one goal was, “No braking!”, and I did exactly that.  In addition, I was lateral striking horribly, and – once again -  got into flexed trunk, losing valuable hip extension.  My finishing mechanics were the worst of the top ten.  I have a lot to work on.  On the bright side, I was able to use my trunk and pelvis marvelously, allowing the late-race climbing that I thought wasn’t possible.  All credit for the second half mechanics goes to Jake: he kept me together, giving me valuable cueing every ten seconds. At least.
In spite of those significant inefficiencies…I was still M10.  Fixing those things – which is quite doable – bodes well for my future potential.

Hydration/Fuel/Electrolyes: B.  In short: I spoiled my stomach early with too many gels and not enough real food; I went low on calories having only eaten potatoes for twenty miles; I went low on salt, having taken none for the first 37 miles.  Once corrected – adequate salt and a happy stomach – I was able to run.  Late-race my stomach got a bit upset (from whole S-Caps), but otherwise good.

Hydration, drinking “ad libitum”, was perfect.  I drank when thirsty.  And I never had any deep “downs”, characteristic of hyponatremia.  My post-race blood sodium was 140 mmol. 

Mental Toughness (Me/Jake): A-/A++. 
I stayed strong a fairly positive early, but was down for much of the second half.  Jake absolutely kept me going.  His enthusiasm and joy for the event – and knowing the true meaning behind what we were accomplishing – was contagious, even for a grump like me.  His encouragement and helpful tips powered me those last 38.  As a result, I was most competitive when it counted: in the last 20+.

Pacer: A++.  Jake was marvelous all weekend: keeping me chilled and organized, pre-race, encouraging amongst the trees at Little Bald, then beside and behind me in the last 38.  If it weren’t for his form cues and positive encouragement, I’d still be lying in a ditch between Cal 1 and 2.  He communicated something useful – mechanics, encouragement, or information – about every 5-10 seconds.   Infectious energy. 

The only negatives?  “Drive-By”, by Train?  “Give Your Heart a Break”, by Lovato?  Really, Jake?  Were you jamming to the soft rock station on your way to Foresthill?  Where was the “Party Rock Anthem”?

Joking aside, his presence, indeed, “gave my heart [and brain] a break”.  :)

Joy*:  B.  This is an important factor worth grading.  I stayed positive for much of the day, bringing positive energy into Robinson for AS workers and my crew; I “put on a good show” at Foresthill, staying positive, even though I was in my deepest low.  But, I have a lot to learn from the likes of AJW and my new friend (and role model), Jorge Maravilla.  AJW was in his element: huge smile, loud and boisterous; infectious excitement. As for Jorge, though I’ll likely never do any karate moves or “The Worm” going into Aid Stations, his smile - and maybe some “Party Rock Shuffle” moves of my own – is quite doable. 

(*new category for 2012)
Kudos go to many, many people:
  • To my family, Meredith, Brandie, Nate, Evan, and Steve: for sacrificing your time and resources to be there for me. And to Matt and Megan, who traveled the farthest and were the loudest of anyone there.  Great choppers, Monnnnnnnnnnty!
  • To my family friends, Chris and Frankie: so great to see you guys, and your smiles around every corner – pre-race, during and after. 
  • To my BEST friends, Brittany, James, and Jake: you sacrificed your entire day – and many days before that – as well as time with your families, to be by my side.  I can’t fully repay you, but I’ll try. 
  • To my ultra friends and supporters, namely LB, AJW and Bryon: you’re the “crafty veterans” and role models for us “younger” guys.  Your love of the sport, the event, and each other inspires us to run fast and run with joy. 
That’s it.  7000 words; 70 words a mile. 

Thanks for another great year
- “M9” 

Coming into Robinson Flat, happy to see friends and family!  Photo: Brett Rivers
Shuffling out of El Dorado Canyon, trying to look good.  Photo: Brett Rivers
Hobbling out of Foresthill with Jake.  Photo: Ultra Runner Podcast
Savoring a cool bath, despite many protests, at Rucky Chucky.  Photo: Glenn Tachiyama
The last lap at Placer HS felt like this looks: a blur, and awesome.  Photo: Karen May
"The Odd Couple" - me with the effervescent Jorge Maravilla at the finish.  Photo: Larry Gassen.
Top Ten Fellas.  Nice group of guys.  Photo: Shahid Ali.