Trail running and ultramarathons have taken me to beautiful locales and introduced me to new friends, colorful stories, and welcome surprises. Spending the weekend in Bozeman, Montana to run the Devil's Backbone [Pictures], also known as the Gallatin Crest, certainly opened my eyes wide to how majestic the Big Sky country can be. The people were warm and friendly, and they are blessed to live among such a dramatic landscape.
I flew into Bozeman on Friday and immediately headed to the Community Co-op to buy some vittles for the weekend. Great store - nutty, crunchy at its best - serving a grateful community.
Then I headed over to the new public library to use the computers, internet and email. Sarah's company helped fundraising for the library. It's stunning and has lots of space inside making it serene both to read or just hang out in.
At dinner with the other runners at the RDs house, we heard that the normal course could not be accessed since the snow still hadn't cleared from Hyalite Peak and its approach. Instead we were going to start at the turn around, tackle much of the crest, and add some miles on an additional loop.
My ultra-brief race report: I postholed into the snow at mile 7 and hyperextended my right ankle. Not bad. But at mile 8 I postholed really deep with my left leg and harshly sat down on my right ankle hyperextending it again. Bad this time. I packed some snow around it for a few minutes and then just made my way forward walking as best I could. Eventually it loosened up, but I never felt comfortable running on it until the last mile into the aid station at mile 25, where I dropped. It's the only aid station, and the only place to drop. There is being unlucky and being extremely unlucky. In a run like the Devil's Backbone you don't take unnecessary chances. There is no easy way off the ridge. You either leave on foot or in a helicopter.
All in all, I had a most humbling (sea-level creatures at 10,000 feet feel this way) and thrilling time. I'll be back next year to do the traditional course.
A special thanks to Tom and Liz, the RDs for their hospitality (the run hosted a pre-race dinner and a post-race breakfast) and on-the-fly planning. Great job in a difficult situation.
I'd also like to thank Ali and Roman who hung out with me on the trail when I was going slow. Ali continued on when Roman and I stopped at the Windy Pass Cabin - mile 25. He finished with the sweep, the RD Tom, at 1 am in the morning. The course is simply that tough. 19 hours for 50 miles. Heck, the winner, a mountain goat himself, Matt Hart, took 9:49 to complete the course, with the second place finisher, John Hallsten, coming in about two hours later.
This course is hands-down the most beautiful course I have run in the last five years. It's also the hardest. It is right to call it a mini-Hardrock. Except Hardrock has course markings and aid stations. If you're going to Bozeman next July, sign up early, there are only 35 runners permitted for the 50 mile course. Then again, it was only $30.
A few years ago I was celebrating a friend's birthday dinner, and the discussion turned, as happens with ultrarunners, to the summer's upcoming races. Stan and Lisa mentioned that they were going up to Montana to run a race outside of Bozeman - minimal aid, no course markings and all at altitude. Since I had finished the Bighorn 100 earlier the year before in Wyoming, I had been looking for another run to explore some of the vast, gorgeous country up in the Big West that I had only recently discovered.
The Devil's Backbone 50 Mile seemed like just my kind of run. Only 30 people are allowed to run. You only get aid at the turn around, mile 25, and it's a self-guided course mostly all at 10,000 feet. When I saw some of the pictures from the race, I was set. So this year I made it my main traveling 50 miler in summer.
The website describes the DB50 as "a graduate level run (yes, like Hardrock)". In fact, it's often referred to as a mini-Hardrock, run the same weekend in Silverton, CO. You must carry all of your own gear, food and hydration with some opportunities to fill your bottles/hydration pack with snow or stream water. They recommend you carry a water filter, and -- yes -- bear spray since there are grizzly bears often seen on the course. You're out in the very wilds of Montana after all. Here's a race report from 2007.
July 2008 Snow on Hyalite Peak
The route takes you up Hyalite Creek and its valley, steeply ascending Hyalite Peak before settling into the long ridge that makes up the Devil's Backbone. Crusing along at 10,000+ feet, the going is noticeably slow, especially for us coastal folks. The air is thin, but the views are rich.
I have a small issue with running at altitude. I tend to get cramps and an upset stomach if I go out too fast. As such, my plan was to go slowly and consciously pace myself to a meager start up through the peaking of Hyalite Peak. Then I could assess my adaptation and set a more settled pace for the rest of the race. I was hoping to finish the 50 miles in 13 hours, which on a normal year would put me in the top third of runners. I should mention that I have never run a 50 mile race that slow, but given all the factors this would be a slow and steady run for any but the fittest, best acclimated runners.
In the last few days the runners have received emails from the RD, Tom McGoff-Hayes, telling us that the route up to Hyalite Peak has too much snow still covering the ascent access. They are still working out alternative routes for the run. I trust they'll come up with something worth while.
On Friday I'll be flying out to Bozeman, Montana to join the other runners. I'll let you know how things go. It should be a wonderful run with panoramic views and great adventures. More pictures to come.
At the 50k half-way mark, Jean Pommier was a minute or so ahead of Jasper Halekas, who in turn was just a minute or so ahead of Graham Cooper. Jean finished third in 5:11:21 and Graham finished second in 5:05:04, which itself broke Andy Jones-Wilkins previous course record of 5:10. Kim Holak ran strong to finish fifth overall.
It was a warm day out at Diablo with temperatures upwards of 90 degrees on some sections of the mountain.
A nice half marathon trail race in the East Bay hills is the Lake Chabot Trail Challenge. This year is the 25th year of the event, and the fourth year I've run it. When I first ran it in 2003, in 2:01:27, I had never run 13.1 miles up to that point. Now I use the race to see how my training is doing, and how fast I can run the loop around the lake.
In past years, I have run as fast as 1:48 on this hilly course. Since I regularly run around the lake, often on Tuesday night runs, I felt I could pull off a better time this year, even though I don't technically do any speed work. And since a friend gave me some grief for going out slow at Miwok 100k, and then passing dozens of runners the last 40+ miles, I thought I would properly warm up with a few miles before the race, go out at a strong pace, and run as fast a time as I could manage. Well, it worked fairly well. I finished in 1:41:10, or 7:43/miles. I haven't seen the results, but that's sometimes good for top 5 in my age group. Not bad for a lllloooonnnngggg distance runner.
Perhaps I'll come back another year and see if I can get under 1:40.
Update: Here are the results. I guess my run was good enough for 24th place out of 243 runners, and fourth place in my age group.
It's obvious I haven't been blogging for some time. I have discussed why with various friends, and will now explain the reasons briefly here.
At heart, I am a private person, so I don't have a desire or need to expound on my experiences. I didn't realize this about blogging until I did it for awhile. So I'll blog in the future, but quite infrequently.
After Crossing the Sierra in Winter, I realized I don't care much for writing about my ultra experiences, if only because what I experience in traveling long distances on foot just doesn't come through in the written word. This is true almost universally, whoever is writing. If you want to know what it's like to run 100, 50 or how ever many miles, running it and reading it are wholly different understandings. One is visceral and somatic, the other cerebral and reflective. Some runners/writers spin wonderful tales of their adventures. I particularly like some of Scott Dunlap's and GarettGraubins' (often found in TrailRunner Mag). It's just not where I get any satisfaction. Perhaps I should take up haiku race reports.
I write most all day long: reports and letters for work, emails to friends and family, and a personal journal. I struggle for time for everything in my life, so I just didn't need one more task to keep up on. Like a lot in running, you don't realize some things don't work until you try them.
I enjoy running and the adventure. There are plenty of blogs that will give 51 flavors of the experience. As a friend said, if you don't have fun at it, don't do it. Or More Fun. So I'll focus on my adventures, and if I feel like sharing some of it, I will. If not, well, I won't.
Stay tuned if you wish. It may be a sporadic ride.
My next organized run is the Diablo Marathon on April 12. This affords me the excuse and motivation to run my weekend long runs out on Mt. Diablo, near where I grew up. With the early and sustained rains this season, the sprouts of green have lushly appeared, and now the small flowers have begun to appear. In the best of years, this burst of color will peak just in time for the Diablo Marathon and 50 Mile Runs.
The next six to eight weeks are my favorite time to run on the mountain. It reminds me of many childhood memories, and, with stunning views, the blessing we have to live in such a majestically beautiful area with an abundance of trails.
On March 8th, Wendell Doman and I set off from Squaw Valley to cross the Sierra on snowshoes. We were going to follow the Western States Trail to Robinson Flat and then head to China Wall where Sara Spelt and Aaron would meet us. It was there on the Foresthill-Auburn Road that the snow-plows stopped their plowing. It would be almost 40 miles of snowshoeing and take us over 17 hours.
Not many have crossed the Sierra in winter - only a few in the 20th and 21st centuries. People often think of the Donner Party debacle in 1846, which took place in fall, not winter. Still, if you’re well prepared, in good shape, and know what you’re doing, it can be an enjoyable, safe, and memorable trip. It was for us.
We arrived in Squaw Valley around 4:30 am on Saturday, March 8th, and prepared our gear. After I filled my bottle at Plumpjack, we headed to the bottom of the ski-lift and started our ascent for Emigrant Pass at 5:18 am. Even though the first four miles were straight up the mountain, an elevation gain of 2,550 feet to 8,750 feet, it wasn’t that difficult since we followed the well-groomed service slope. It started out dark, but by the time we reached the pass the early morning light had cracked the black sky. Lake Tahoe lay below decked out in grays and blues. The weather seemed like it would be quite fine during the day (it would reach a high of 50 or so), but at the pass the strong wind made it very cold. We looked over the pass and saw the snow covered mountains in the distance. It looked daunting and inviting. It promised a whole lot of fun.
We descended the steep slope, heading right toward the saddle where we would join the Lyon Range. It was here that the angled slope would torque our ankles continuously for the next few hours. It tripped over my snowshoes a few times in this section, but other the frustration, it was rather soft falling in the snow. It just took a lot of effort to get up in soft snow.
One of the truly comforting aspects of our trip was that I didn’t really have to consider directions or know where I was going much. I simply followed Wendell’s tracks. He has done the crossing twice before and is a stellar orienteer. Even when I lost a sense of how we were getting from Lyon Ridge over to the Red Star Ridge, I knew Wendell did. We stayed fairly close to the Western States Trail, but often we struck through trees and I lost sight of Wendell. Still I could simply follow his tracks. It was peaceful, quiet, and still. The snow was only broken by rabbit or deer tracks.
Having been out in these mountains in summer it was a real treat to see them in winter. Especially memorable was when we approached Cougar Rock, a distinctive Western States 100 landmark. The pictures below show me ascending it. That last ledge was quite an effort. It’s the one area that’s harder in winter than during the race. And later we headed up Elephant’s Trunk, which was probably the steepest and longest soft-snow ascent of the entire trip.
Another treat was getting five bars of reception on our cell phones from Cougar Rock and eventually Robinson Flat. I was able to call Sarah and Pete to tell them where I was. It’s good to share, after all.
We reached Robinson Flat at about 5:00 pm. From here it’s a 14 mile haul down a snow-covered paved road. Snow-mobiles and back-country skiers had been down the road in the last few days. So we set out, still not seeing anyone in the next five-plus hours. I especially enjoyed walking in the dark of the night, looking at the bright stars fill the sky. On the hill-rises you could also see the bright lights of the Sacramento.
As much as I enjoyed myself the whole trip, I was so glad to see Sarah and Aaron – and the car. I needed to get out of my snowshoes and sit down for a bit. The last few miles down the long road I thought about how lucky I had been that day to have such an adventure with such fine weather. Thanks to Wendell for leading it, and taking all the pictures posted here.
Sorry for the sporadic nature of posts the last few weeks. I've had both technical difficulties and a busy schedule.
The technical difficulty centers around my tweeking the way my posts display, only to find that I totally screwed up the way pictures and video show up. Essentially, not at all. And since I'm more likely than not to have my eyes glaze over when I'm looking at HTML code, I tend to make the situation worse when I try to move code around. Yet, I finally got it straightened out.
Lastly, two months of posting daily has shown me that I don't wish to do so anymore. I was creating most posts on Sunday, and then posting them throughout the week. Sundays just don't afford me that much time anymore. I'll post around the weekend, when I have an adventure to report on, or some comments to make about my training.
"Life is a limited time offer. The best thing is that you get to choose how to use it. It's like a gift certificate that you can spend on anything you want. I, for one, choose to spend mine running in the mountains... noticing wildflowers... sharing good food with good friends... laughing as much as possible... When I look back at my life in those final moments, I sincerely hope (and I believe) I will have gotten WAY MORE than my money's worth." - Lisa Butler
Saturday I went out to run the PCTR Skyline Ridge 50k. I was trying a new salt product and misjudged the amount I should be taking and how regularly. At 37k I called it a day as my legs were mildly cramping and I felt more comfortable walking it in. There was no training benefit to going out and slogging through 13k.
Skyline Ridge is a wonderfully beautiful course. It winds its way along the ridgeline above Palo Alto, so at times you see the Pacific Ocean and other times the Southbay. It was a warm, sunny day for the most part.
I felt fairly well for the first 3 and a half hours. As my friend Tom has said with a wry grin, "Only you can say you only ran 20-plus miles and make it sound like an under-achievement."
I was very happy to receive an email the other day informing me that Ruben Cavazos of Hawaii, presently stationed in Kuwait, received the honor of being named the US Army Male Athlete of the Year. Keep in mind that Ruben is 48 ! In the US Army there have to be some fairly amazing athletes.
I'm always intrigued in how the mainstream media portrays the sport of ultrarunning and ultrarunners and what motivates them.
ESPN did a good article recently, which had this telling quote by Scott Jurek: "Nature reminds us that there's a greater force out there, and you have to respect that. It makes you feel pretty small." He means that in a good way. An ultrarunner would get it right away. It's not like you'd hear Barry Bonds or Shaquille O'Neal say such a thing about their sports.
What I didn't like about the article was the title: "Are these runners ultra-tough ... or ultra-crazy?" I meet less crazy people at ultras than almost anywhere else in life.
"Above all, train hard, eat light, and avoid TV and people with negative attitudes." - Scott Tinley
I am often asked by non-runners "Where do you find the time to run so much?" I tell them I don't watch TV, which frees me up to do all kinds of things. Sure I couldn't tell you anything about "American Idol" or whatever else people are watching TV, but I also get to avoid all the negative POVs that inundate the TV.
My first milestone race in 2008 is the Miwok 100k in Marin. I hope to improve on my 2007 time of 10:51.
My training essentially follows a simple weekly pattern.
M - Easy - 4-5 miles Tu - Tempo or Hilly - 7-11 miles W - Easy - 4-5 miles Th - Tempo or Hilly - 7-11 miles F - Easy - 4-5 miles Sat - Long Run Sun - Rest
With variations throughout the week, I can increase my miles gradually, and get in a good solid long run, generally where I'm going to run my next target race.
For the next 10 week period, I'll use this formula to work on my endurance and speed. A few of the weekends I'll be out at Mount Diablo preparing for the Diablo Marathon, then train a few weeks on the Miwok course.
On the third day, the morning greeted us with clear blue skies and deep snow, since the storm that passed through had dumped almost two feet of new snow and had cleared the Sierra. It was a cross-trainer's dream, although avalanche blasts could be heard all day long.
Here is a panoramic view from Emigrant Pass. It doesn't format well in a blog, but if you click on it, you'll see a larger version.
On the second day of cross-training it snowed heavily as shown in the pictures. Visibility was very poor and they didn't open the top of the mountain. We called it a day at 3 pm and hoped to get a jump on the weekenders heading home. It wouldn't turn out that way. Highway 80 was closed at Donner Summit for the evening. We'd have to brave one more day of cross-training, and this time with more and deeper powder. Oh, well.
Cross-training can be boring if it's something you don't like to do, or it can be a blast. Even if it's not really cross-training, you can make it into it by a liberal use of your imagination. Such is snow-boarding. The way I look at it, it's a great way to work out your hip flexors and hamstrings, and develop your core. After all, you're doing squats all day long as well as using a controlled twisting motion to control your turning. And if you've ever fallen in deep powder, trying to get back on your feet is harder than any set of sit-ups or crunches I've ever experienced.
So for the weekend, I went up to Squaw Valley with my friend Tom. Here are some pictures of our first day.
At the bottom of the ski lift near where the Western States 100 starts
Tom at the top of Emigrant Pass with Lake Tahoe in the background
I have used various wool and polyester gloves over the last few years. They're cheap, so I don't care if I lose them, but they don't fit very well. Often they are a tad too small, or there's a bit more room in them than a key and a gel need (I put them in the palm).
Recently, while visitting my favorite running online store, ZombieRunner, I came across the Injinji Performance gloves. I use their socks on 50 and 100 mile runs, so I thought I'd give a pair a try.
Yowza!! With a very thin fleece lining, and a structure that conforms with the relaxed curve of a runner's hand, these gloves are perfect. I now run with them even when it's not that cold in the morning, just because they feel so comfortable on the hand and stash so easily in my hip pack.
They run a little small, so order the larger pair if you have medium-sized hands. Or use the online-chat feature at ZombieRunner and chat with a Zombie for help.
First Endurance did a fairly good interview with Karl Meltzer about ultrarunning, altitude tips, and fueling and hydration strategies. As an athlete who struggles with these issues when significant altitude is involved in a race, I found it informative (even though it's a bit promotional for FE products) to see how a top runner deals with them. Karl has certain other advantages like living and training at a higher altitude, but he certainly gives me some ideas about how to better prepare for my races at Devil's Backbone in Montana and the Ultra-trail Tour du Mont Blanc in the Alps.
One of my favorite running books is by George Sheehan, often called the philosopher of running. I came across Running and Being in my second year of running, so I had some experience to reflect back on. Many of the references to marathons and road races were somewhat lost on me, as well as the discussions of the running boom in the 70's.
What I did find very rewarding were the discussions of why we run, the different states of being when running, and how running shapes us as people and our lives. I'll admit that I majored in philosophy at UCLA so I have a philosophical perspective in general. Although I considered it, I don't think Dr. Sheehan's book took its inspiring title from Martin Heidegger's Being and Time, which I had read a bit of in college. Certainly, I had a lot more fun, and gained significantly more insight into "Being" from Dr. Sheehan than I did from the stodgy German existentialist philosopher. Nothing against Heidegger. He just probably didn't run.
One of my favorite quotes from Dr. Sheehan's book is "Happiness is different from pleasure. Happiness has something to do with struggling and enduring and accomplishing.” So much else in life follows from this simple precept. It is similar to another favorite quote of mine from Marcus Aurelius, found in his notebooks which eventually were published as The Meditations - "The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, in so far as it stands ready against the accidental and the unforeseen, and is not apt to fall." He I surmise was once a runner.
"Determine that the thing can and shall be done, and then we shall find the way. "
-- Abraham Lincoln
Many who know me know also that ol' Abe is my favorite American. He serves as a great example of determination and persistance in the face of magnificent adversity. This quote was one I pasted on my water bottle for my first 100 mile run at Western States.
Abraham Lincoln was born 199 years ago on February 12.
If you've ever wanted to run a multi-day event in a beautiful country, The Coastal Challenge would be a good candidate. I had lived in Costa Rica for a short time in the late 1980's. It's a gorgeous, peaceful, friendly country.
Congratulations to Jean on his second place finish. He's already back to running marathons.
I had the pleasure of volunteering at the PCTR Sequoia runs in Redwood Regional and Joaquin Miller Parks. While it is a bit chilly in winter in the bowl where the start and finish is (it’s quite shady, which comes in handy in summer), the day was full of sunshine, blue skies, and warmth throughout the course.
When volunteering it helps to get to the race really early as there is always something you can help out with. You also get a little extra time to see old friends you haven’t seen in a while. I got a little time to talk with Eddie O’Rourke, who I met years ago when we were both nursing broken clavicles. I was also able to help direct runners down the path to pick up their numbers. Race day registration with Marissa Walker was at the top of the hill, and there were plenty of runners signing up throughout the early morning.
My main task for the race was to set up and run the aid station in Canyon Meadow at the Redwood Regional entrance, just where the Stream Trail hits the Owl Creek picnic area. I was partnered up with Brian Wyatt, a coach for PCTR, and one of my regular training partners. His daughter, Hiya, ably supervised us. After hauling the gear, food and water from our cars, we set up all the bowls of pop tarts, goldfish, potatoes, chips, pretzels, M&Ms (peanuts and plain), cookies, orange slices, PB&J sandwiches, trail mix, etc. Knowing that our first runners would be coming in at 10:00 plus, we hurried to get all the water, electrolyte drink, Coke, and Sprite cups filled. From past experience, we knew that once the runners started coming in there would be almost no time to refill anything, until some short and much-needed lull. The front runners are quick in and quick out, needing very little. But soon the trickle would become a deluge with runners coming in fast, needing a quick turn around, and tossing out some unexpected requests – band aids or ibuprofen, the latter which it turned out was best to simply announce to the gathering crowd “Anyone got ibuprofen?” Bingo, two seconds and it was resolved.
Good tips to remember when volunteering at an aid station is the miles the runners have traveled so far, how many miles to the next aid station, and where precisely to go when leaving the aid station. Other than that, simply being willing to do whatever a runner needs to put it all back together and get back out on the trail, whether it’s helping patch a blister, putting their powder in their bottle while they graze the buffet, or simply encouraging them as they leave. On a hot day, which it wasn’t, it’s also good to remind the runners to keep drinking and taking salt. Since we were about mile 9 into the run, and wouldn’t see anyone again during the race, we didn’t have many problems. Everyone was in a great mood and enjoying the redwood trails and sunshine.
When we closed up the aid station, Brian and Hiya took the remaining food and gear back to the start, while I swept the ribbons up Stream Trail, down Bridle, then up Golden Spike and Toyon up to West Ridge. From there I was on the pink section until I turned down Tate taking a different route back to Golden Spike, over to Joaquin Miller, down the Sunset Trail, and back to the finish. What’s interesting about sweeping is you really notice how many ribbons are used and how well marked the course is. I have gotten lost on PCTR runs more than a few times, but it was always because I wasn’t paying attention. I just wish Wendell wasn’t so tall because I had to jump for some of the ribbons.
If you’re a veteran trail runner, would like to see more how the front runners use the aid stations (not much), or just want to help out on a trail run to see the great variety of people participating, volunteering at a PCTR event is a great way to make a contribution and have fun in many of the Bay Area’s beautiful parks. You’ll also feel the warm gratitude of all the runners as they thank you for coming out. Lastly, if you’re working the finish line, you get to see a lot of happy people feeling blissfully satisfied with what they’ve accomplished that day. Perhaps that’s best part of volunteering – you get to help others achieve a big, wild goal.
Just outside of Anchorage, Alaska this weekend, a group of intrepid runners will head out into the harsh snow to run 100 miles in The Susitna 100. This is a race that even ultrarunners consider as "a little nuts."
Since I got into ultras somewhat on the inspiration of Ernest Shackleton, I've always found this race quite appealling. Perhaps next year I'll get it on my calendar.
Good luck to all those heading out into the ice, crossing frozen rivers and lakes, and braving the bitter cold. It looks to be a balmy 6 degree Fahrenheit this morning in Anchorage.
And no, you are not allowed to use dogs to pull your sled. You are the dog!!
The benefit of recovering from a strenuous race is you get a keen physical sense of your body’s weaknesses.
Before running ther HURT 100, I visited a highly-recommended physical therapist who, after giving me a thorough evalutation, found that I had a weakness in my gluteus medius. These muscles, right and left, are responsible for keeping the body in balance when the weight is on one leg, something which occurs continually for a runner. Additionally, when they are weak they put additional pressure on the Ilio-tibial Band. I had this condition diagnosed the year before when I was recovering from some ITB issues, so it wasn’t a surprise. I had worked on the muscles the year before, but I now sensed that after my race I would have to focus on strenghtening them some more.
So off I went to run HURT. After slipping in the mud for many hours late into the evening and morning, I have come to believe that I aggravated the muscle on my right side. I didn’t’ realize this right away, if only because almost everything hurt after the race. The first week of running (three weeks after the race) I was a bit stiff, with some discomfort in my feet and ankle tendons. After trying to run uphill on my morning route, I’m noticing my gluteus medius muscle weakness and soreness. Well, that’s what all this recovery/self-assessment is about – finding where you need to put attention in recovering, stretching and strengthening.
I have taken three days off from running and, lucky for me, used the neighbor’s hot tub to stretch in. My physical therapist gave me some strenghtening exercises to slowly regain the strength in the medius and hip flexor muscles. Key to recovering the strength will be assuring that each side gets complimentary workouts. Then I’ll again assess how they’re doing, before charging hard into the hills. Still, I’m able to run as long as I keep it easy and focus on stable, non-technical foot plants.
This is all fairly normal for me. There is always a weak point. As a mentor at work once mentioned to me “Knowing your weakness is a strength. It allows you to guard against it failing you, and keeps you from being blind-sided where you’re vulnerable.”