Sunday, February 26, 2006

Ultrarunnings New Boy Wonder - An Interview with Chikara Omine

In 2005, 23-year-old Chikara Omine exploded onto the ultrarunning scene. After a successful collegiate career running for SF State, Chikara found a new challenge in the hilly California ultras. He started 2005 with a sub-4 hour finish at the Skyline Ridge 50k (the first ever sub-4 finish on that course, even breaking the 37km course record at his split), then went on to set age group records at the Golden Gate Headlands 50k/USATF championships (4:03, 4th overall), the Firetrails 50 miler (7:04, 2nd overall, his first 50-miler), and at the Helen Klein 50 miler (2nd overall) with a screaming fast 5:47 (think about that – that’s like two sub-3 hour marathons back to back!). In addition, Chikara placed 5th in the San Francisco Marathon, clocking 2:38. With a clean sweep of age group firsts in some of the area’s most difficult ultras, Chikara won his PA/USATF age group championship at almost a 2x margin his first year out.

(Chikara leads out the pack at the Jed Smith 50k;
photo for purchase from the amazing
Don Charles Lundell

I caught up with Chikara as he trains for the 2006 season, where he has already won the Angel Island 50k (3:57) and the Jed Smith 50k (3:22!). He’s now setting his sites on the Way Too Cool 50k and Western States and any fun race in between.

First, congratulations on an outstanding season! Did you have any idea you would do so well in your first year in ultras?

Thanks Scott! I actually had no idea how my season would go. All I knew was that I love to run long and that I enjoy trails. Like many ultrarunners in my area, I set my goal to run Western States in sub 24 hours; but first I had to worry about running a qualifying time and getting through the lottery. After finishing my collegiate running, I actually started my 2005 season with the Mt. Diablo 50k, put on by Pacific Coast Trail Runs (PCTR). I can’t say that I had a great race there, but I still had “serious fun.” I also got my butt kicked by Andy Jones-Wilkins, who was running it as a training run, 3 weeks before his outstanding performance at Western States.

Your name is very unique. Is it a family name? What is your heritage?

It is a Japanese name. Both my parents are Japanese. I was born and raised in San Francisco though. Being only 120 pounds, I usually feel embarrassed letting people know that “Chikara” means “strength.” Strength to run maybe? I definitely don’t have physical strength my parents wanted me to have when they named me. It’s at least kind of neat to have a name that stands out.

You ran for SF State, yes? What events did you compete in?

Yes I did. Cross-country was my favorite but I also ran track. I competed in the events that are 1500m and longer. My training was focused on the 10k, but my favorite event is the steeple. Even though I am no good at hurdling barriers, I love how the race requires variation in pace. Unfortunately SF State lost its men’s track program last year. At least on my final year for cross-country I got coached by arguably the top (distance) runner in San Francisco at the time, Chris Lundstrom. He was a great role model and I learned a lot about training from him. He moved to Minnesota last June.

How has your training changed since switching to ultras? Do you still do the speed training required for those shorter distances?

Yes it has changed. I have been focusing on longer runs and less on speed. During my 2005 season, I mostly did long runs for endurance and entered some road and cross-country races to maintain some foot speed. The few speed workouts I did were usually fartleks, tempo runs, or mile repeats (can also be repeats of ½ mile to 2 miles). Hardly anymore 400 meter repeats for me anymore. Most of the time I am forced to do slower runs to recover from one ultra and get ready for another one.

I am now realizing that long runs are helpful, but they leave me too tired to put in quality workouts. Some speed workouts are necessary in order to feel comfortable at a good pace. I plan to have some weeks where I back off the mileage to do workouts and other weeks where I don’t do workouts and focus on longer runs.

(An exhuasted Chikara thanks volunteers after his 2nd place finish at the Fire Trails 50;
photo for purchase from the amazing
Don Charles Lundell

When did you start running? When did you do your first trail runs?

I started running on my junior year of high school when I was 16 (1998). Before that, the only running I did was the mile or 2 mile for gym class or a race down a block or blocks against my friends. I usually did better in the 2 mile than the mile (compared to others who are also untrained), and the energy and excitement I displayed on my races down a block made people believe that I can run forever. I was encouraged to join cross-country, but it turned out that the “forever” was only 5 miles when I first started. After I learned about marathons and later about ultramarathons, I set new goals.

My very first ultra was the Distance Classic hosted by the Dolphin South End Running Club when I turned 17. It was a 12-hour run around a ¾-mile flat dirt field (now it’s only a 6-hour run). The concept of doing circles sounds boring but completing each lap brought excitement, as I realized that I am advancing further in distance. By mile 35 I injured my knee and had to walk often. Later I received many more injuries. Near the end I was so beat that on the last 3 hours I only completed 5 miles. After the race ended, my only thought was, “I can’t wait to come back again and try to beat my mark.” The cross-country practice 2 days after however, was not pleasant.

Later that year I ran my first trail run at the Double Dipsea (13.7 miles) also hosted by the DSE. I used to do most of the DSE races back then. I arrived at the race 30 minutes late, struggled on the hills/stairs, and finished close to last, yet I had a blast.

What is it about ultras and trail running that makes it so enjoyable for you?

I can’t say that running is always enjoyable. There are many days where I realize that it’s tough to be motivated to run everyday, and get tempted to skip a training run. Yet I run anyways, reminding myself that if I don’t train, there will be fewer days where it feels good to run.
I loved running ever since I started. It’s a great way to release all the stored energy. I believe that the longer I run, the longer I get to enjoy it. Races are fun, but I feel that some end too quickly. That’s not a problem with ultras. Later, I gave hilly trails a try and found something that made running even more enjoyable. The terrain on trails makes me constantly change pace, which I believe is more fun than trying to keep a steady pace on a road or track race. On top of that, the scenery on trails is much more enjoyable. Combine ultras with trails and that creates an ultra-fun event! After exhausting myself to complete an ultra, it feels unbelievable good to just relax and eat. I still like the short road races too, but ultras on trails are my favorite.

What inspires you to keep up the training?

One night during the winter I remember it was raining hard and it was cold and windy. From the window I looked into the dark night and saw that some of the streets are flooded enough to completely soak the shoes. I wanted take a day off, until I thought about what my coach (Chris) would do. I told myself “I bet that Chris would be running out there right now,” and off I went. Sure enough the next day, I found out that my coach was out running at around the same time. Runners train hard and I’m pretty sure many of my rivals are no exception. Some runners I’ve met hammer on their runs/workouts then come back the next day to do it again. Those types of runners get me motivated and give me inspiration. Sometime the hardest workers I’ve seen are not the fastest, but I am always more inspired by the efforts people give than their natural ability to run fast.

Do you train with a running club, or have a group of other ultrarunners you train with?

I run with the New Balance Excelsior. The club’s focus is not on ultra running so I don’t really train with other ultrarunners. On weekdays I usually train on my own. The club has some weekend trail runs that I like to do. Occasionally the club has workouts on Tuesday and Thursday, and I join them on those as long as my schedule allows it. Mostly I just like to run road and cross country races with the club. It makes running a lot easier and a lot more fun when you run for a team.

Do your workmates think you are crazy? What kind of work do you do?

At work I am always eating junk food and my workmates thought that my eating habits were crazy. When they found out I run ultras, they were more like, “oh, now your diet makes sense.”
Currently I am a student at SF State and only work part time as an accounting assistant. I plan to stay in the accounting field after I graduate.

Lastly, a few training questions. What’s a typical training week look like for you? How many miles? Is your ’06 training different than ’05?

During my base training, I like to run between 100-110 mile weeks with some 60-80 mile weeks to back off. I do it off of daily runs of 13-18 miles. I usually like to spread my mileage evenly through the week. Every once in a while I will run a week higher than my usual range.
Once I start adding some workouts I lower my mileage anywhere from 50-80, but at a faster pace. I do long runs on weekends and usually 2 interval or tempo/fartlek workouts during the weekday with easy runs for recovery. Half of the time the workouts are done on the track or flat road, and half the time it’s done on hilly courses. If I have a race on the weekend, (non-ultras) I finish off with a long cool down. The week after and before an ultra, I usually back off training with a 40-50 mile week.

(Chikara in the front pack of the Jed Smith 50k, along with
quad-monsters Mark Lantz [4th overall], Kevin Sawchuk [6th],
and Erik Skaden [2nd]; photo courtesy of Pete Zinsli)

What are your favorite foods/race snacks?

When it comes to favorite foods, I am a junk food maniac. My favorites are pizza, hot dogs, bacon, burgers, various potato chips, nachos, krispy kreme donuts, chocolate bars, sodas, energy drinks and most things that are high in sugar. I usually cut back on my junk food a couple of days before a road race. I don’t know if it’s just my superstitious belief, but pasta and baked potatoes seem to be the magic pre-race meal for any race. However, I’ve had some good races (usually not the road races) eating pizza the morning or the night before the races. Junk food is the easiest way to get the calories I need.

For foods during ultras, I like potatoes, the pb&j pieces, chips or pretzels, and gummy bears if available. Ideally I would grab as many of those finger foods as possible, but I take GU gels if I want to save time. My favorite aid stations so far are the ones at the PCTR races. They have all my favorites for refueling during a race.

One of the best parts of ultra running is the post race meal. If you’ve never run an ultra, you can’t imagine how good food tastes right after you finish. You can eat all your favorite foods to replenish your energy. My recommendation: A slurpee from 7-Eleven and lots of pizza!

Another pizza maniac like me! I agree, few things taste better. A lot of the blog readers love to hear about “lessons learned” (ie, things that didn’t go right that perhaps they could avoid). Any you would like to pass on?

Mt. Diablo, my first 50k race, made me learn my lesson the hard way. I knew that trails are difficult and would make a 50k seem much longer; yet it’s amazing how easily I forget when I actually run the race. I pushed the pace too hard too early thinking that I’ll be fine as long as I go easier than my marathon pace. I also skipped many aid stations thinking they were unnecessary. Of course, I bonked and could not run a minute without walking. Before long, I couldn’t even walk straight and just had to sit. Luckily the food at the final aid station saved me and allowed me to finish.

The only good thing about learning a lesson the hard way is that it is the most effective way to learn a lesson. Two weeks later I had a better idea about pacing and taking advantage of every aid station. I ended up running well at the Skyline Ridge 50k.

Any tips you would like to pass on to somebody trying their first ultra?

The usual tips are to eat right and train hard. I ‘d also like to add, “go out there and have fun.” Think of “having fun” as the main goal, and placing well or running a fast time as bonuses. You aim for the bonuses, but you make sure you satisfy your main goal first. Achieving your goal is easy so you can relax and run a smart race. If you still run a bad race, as long as you had fun you will be eager to continue with ultras. Another tip I’d like to mention is to remember to thank the volunteers. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to run these great races.

What’s next on the race/run agenda? Do you plan on doing more/less races next year, or try different races?

I kind of like to enter races on impulse and never really have a set schedule. Sometimes I decide to run a race the night before. The only races that are set for me this year are Way Too Cool 50k and Western States 100 (I got in this year!). My plan is to run fewer races to prepare for Western. I plan to enter other ultras for hard training runs. The rest of the races I will be doing are the PA road races (marathon and shorter After Western I plan to make my racing schedule similar to 2005.

Best of luck in your Western States debut! Thanks for a great interview!


Thursday, February 23, 2006

A Run On The Wild Side (LA Times)

The LA Times wrote a big article this weekend on trail running, including quotes from the 2005 TRM Marathon-and-Under Series Champion, Dale Reicheneder. A few of the interesting tidbits include:

"A 2002 study by researchers at Ithaca College compared the moods of college students who ran indoors with those who ran outdoors. The report, published at a conference of the American College of Sports Medicine, found the outdoor runners not only had brighter moods but ran faster than the indoor runners."

"Trail running is one of the fastest growing outdoor sports...the average runner hits the trails nearly 30 times a year, one of the highest participation rates of any outdoor sport, according to the foundation survey."

Also, links to the "5 best trails in Southern California" and local running clubs. Kudos to Hugo Martin for a great article!


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Trail Runner Magazine Trophy Series Schedule Is Up

For those of you eagerly awaiting the 2006 Trail Runner Magazine Trophy Series schedule, it is now posted here. It looks like many of the favorites are back (including some 2004 races that weren't there for 2005), plus some new races. Colorado (12) and California (11) have the most races, with Washington/Oregon (15 combined) also being a hot spot.

You may also see the notice to racers for the 2005 series posted here on their main page about the dozen races who were disqualified (due to RD's not submitting results). If you are making a serious run at this Series, you may want to check in with your RD's beforehand to make sure they intend to send results, and afterwards to remind them.

Happy racing!


Monday, February 20, 2006

The Best Send Off A Runner Can Have (South Whidbey Record)

When Whidbey Island-based runner Matt Simms received 12 days notice that he was going to be shipped to Iraq, he made sure to make enough time for his favorite 30k run. But what started as a solo run turned out to be a surprise farewell as his friends joined him mile-by-mile.

From the story:

“To have one of those (30k) runs fresh in my mind three or four days before I depart was critical to my well being. I would not have missed that run for anything,” Simms said.

Simms said he was humbled by the group’s goodbye. “The energy I draw from the group is incredible, and it was nice to have that as a send-off to carry me forward for the 354 days I’ve got left (on duty).

Read Brian Kelly's whole story here.


Saturday, February 18, 2006

Uli Stedl and Scott Jurek to run the Austin Marathon

Best of luck to all you marathoners running the Freescale Austin Marathon. As Uli says in this article from the Austin Statesman:

"Marathons hurt more than ultras"

Totally true! Be sure to check here for the results on how these two did on Sunday morning.


Saturday, February 11, 2006

Jones-Wilkins and Pacheco Rock the US 100 Mile Championships, and other stories

A couple of headlines for all you trail runners:

Wilkins And Garner Win USA 100 Mile Trail Titles

Andy Jones-Wilkins rocked the Rocky Raccoon 100 to finish 2nd in 14:56:55, good enough to win the USA 100-Mile Trail Championships. His teammate Jorge Pacheco (from Mexico, although he frequents Southern California) came in first in an amazing 13:16:56 - just seconds off the world record. Connie Gardner from Medina, OH, clocked an amazing 17:04 to clinch 1st female, and the women's US title.

(Click here for the full story)

The "Running Man" of Baltimore

The Baltimore Sun did a great article on Keith Boissiere, a local ultrarunner. I don't get the impression he runs a lot of organized ultra races, but his solo 50-mile one way runs to Washington, DC (and a bus ride home) definitely shows he has the ultra spirit. He sounds like a great guy.

(Click here for the full story)

Scott Jurek, the King of Ultramarathoning

A write-up on Scott's back-to-back wins at Western States and Badwater last year. A good one for those of you who just finished the Death Valley Marathon. So much for "I don't do roads"!

(Click here for the full story)

Happy training!


Monday, February 06, 2006

Running the Desert at the Death Valley Marathon

Last weekend, Christi and I headed to Furnace Creek, CA, for the Death Valley Marathon and as much sightseeing as we could fit in. Death Valley is an extreme place - 110 miles of desert, mostly below sea level, often recording no annual rainfall, and temperatures topping 130 degrees - commanding a serenity and beauty that is other-worldly. Needless to say, we enjoyed ourselves tremendously.

(Sunrise at Death Valley, photo courtesy of Christi Dunlap)

Death Valley in February is quite nice, with temperatures in the mid-60’s. This is much more manageable than the 115+ degree heat of the Badwater Ultra or Furnace 508 that is held here in August. But that doesn’t mean Mother Nature doesn’t flex her muscles. The original marathon course through Titus Canyon had to be diverted for a third year in a row (first from snow, second from flood, and now from rock slides), meaning we were going to race across the desert plain instead. One could tell from the tone of the Envirosports e-mail message saying the hefty $80 entry fee would not be refunded that this routine was getting old for everyone. But what could you do? If fate says “run the desert”, you run the desert.

Christi and I checked into the Furnace Creek Inn a few days before the race so we could check out the expansive drifts and dramatic couloirs of the mountains. Titus Canyon was deep and mesmerizing – one could imagine the crazy marathon of a thousand zigs and zags that almost awaited us. Scotty’s Castle (a very entertaining tour), Ubehebe Crater, Zabriskie’s Point (best sunset), Artists Palette, Dante’s Peak, and the 20-Mule Canyon were all fascinating. Christi’s camera soaked up the synchronous ribbons of sand and mineral at every stop, and the sunrises and sunsets drew amazing contrasts. By the time we ate dinner at the Furnace Creek Inn the first night (good fine dining, with a surprising array of vegetarian food), we were exhausted. Who knew there was so much to do in a place with nothing to do?

(The winding roads of Titus Canyon, photo courtesy of Christi Dunlap)

On race morning, I joined 300 other runners (222 marathoners, ~70 30k runners) at the Furnace Creek Ranch to sign up and get our numbers. The Ranch is a classic cowboy saloon (vs. the Inn, which is more of a spa), and we later enjoyed pancakes, beers, and steak in this casual spot. Since we no longer had a one-hour bus ride ahead of us, everyone had some time to kill before the 8:15am start. Christi and I decided to head down to Badwater for one last tourist stop before the race.

(Warming up at the salt flats of Badwater, 282 ft below sea level; photo courtesy of Christi Dunlap)

I had some trouble figuring out what to carry on the race. It was flat and fast, so best not to carry too much. But it was the desert, so I didn’t want to get caught without water. I ended up settling on no belt, and carrying one 8 oz Fuel Belt water bottle and one flask of Hammer Gel. My gear was as light as possible - singlet, shorts, Injinji tsoks, Inov-8 Flyroc 310's, and a couple of salt tablets. I got my iPod ready to roll, but heard the Envirosports people announce a “no headphones” policy as part of the race rules. News to me, but hey, I’m happy with nature’s soundtrack too.

In the crowd, we had about 20 first time marathoners, a barefoot runner named Chris Runyan, and Paul Piplani, who at age 58, was about to finish his 668th marathon. Steve Mader was one of the first time marathon runners, excited that no matter what his finishing time, he was going to set a PR for the distance. As we all lined up, we could squint and see the whole out-and-back course winding down across the desert…so close, but yet, so far.

The first three miles were at a slight downhill grade, and I tried to take advantage of it by letting my strides go longer than usual. There were no mile markers (standard for Envirosports), but I knew the first aid station was going to be around 3.1 miles so I figured I would get my time check there. The dirt road was deceivingly difficult footing, due to a drainage pattern that had created a gravel washboard to run across. I couldn’t quite stretch to my “road running” stride, but was still faster than my “trail running” stride. But we all got used to it within a few miles.

I hit the first aid station in first place and looked at my watch – 17:50. Oops. Looks like I came out a bit too fast. I turned around and saw 3-4 runners not too far behind me…or were they? The desert was playing tricks on me! I filled my water bottle, noticing that I was drinking quite a bit to battle the dry air. I headed out again, this time across the flatter section of the course, and tried to slow my pace just a tad. For a long while, I felt like I was the only runner out there. I couldn’t see anything but desert, and had only my steps and breath to fill my ears. Then I realized all the runners were probably experiencing the same sensation. You don’t realize how aural the woods are until you feel the calm serenity of the desert.

(The road to nowhere - aid volunteers await runners who headed out into the desert;
photo courtesy of Christi Dunlap)

I hit the turnaround in 1:27, so my pace had slowed some. I was surprised to see that 3-4 runners had gained ground on me and were within a few minutes. By mile 15, Jason Beehler (a very tan 2:34 marathoner and Ironman triathlete from Indianapolis, IN) passed me up, sucking on the new hydro pack he got for Christmas. He refilled his pack at the 16-mile aid station, so I caught up with him again briefly, but it was clear that his fastest miles were ahead of him. He was a great sport, joining me in cheering on everyone coming the other way and giving high fives. My pace had slowed to 7:15/mile, but I was still feeling good.

At about the 21-mile mark, Peter Courogen (a 2:44 marathoner from Portland, OR) came blazing by me. He was smiling wide, asking where the “backpack guy” was. Peter had come up to Death Valley after a business trip in San Diego and was thoroughly enjoying himself. We estimated that Jason was nearly a mile ahead at that point, so Peter kicked it into high gear to catch him, but not before shouting a few words of encouragement to the last few 30k runners. I looked at my watch, and guessed I was on about a 3:02 finishing pace, as long as it didn’t get any hotter. We passed a few people grooving to their iPods, so perhaps the “no headphones rule” was more of a suggestion.

At mile 24 or so, my water bottle was empty, and I felt like I was dying of thirst. I could see the finish line (but then again, I had been “seeing” it for the last hour). I knew the thirst was just dry air coupled with the no-breeze stale heat, but it made the tunnel vision creep in. How in the world anyone could run here when it’s over 100 degrees is beyond me. But I grouped together with a rag tag bunch of 30k runners who were talking about that first post-race beer, and together our visions of Corona helped us grind up the last hill to the finish. I finished 3rd in 3:05, Jason Beehler had won in 2:57, and Peter Courogen almost caught him, finishing in 2:59. Larry Emerson of Bishop, CA (whom I believe had one of the bigger cheering sections) had an impressive 12th place finish in 3:27, showing that 51-year-olds can rock the desert too. Carol Silvera from San Jose, CA, won the women’s event in 3:33. Steve Mader clocked a marathon PR in 4:04 (as expected), good for 77th place. We all relaxed with snacks and Gatorade, commenting on the similar salt lines between the runners’ faces and the Badwater basin, and that shared feeling on being the only runner out there.

(Sunset from the Furnance Creek Inn, photo courtesy of Christi Dunlap)

Despite missing Titus Canyon, we had a great time at the Death Valley Marathon. The Furnace Creek Inn is a wonderful retreat (particularly from busy Las Vegas), and there is definitely enough to do to fill a weekend visit. Fine dining at the Inn did not disappoint, and we enjoyed the more casual setting of the Café/Saloon/Steakhouse at the Ranch too. In retrospect, I should have carried more water for the race, and would recommend you err on too much (the winner DID have a hydro pak after all). It you’re looking to break out from the mountains and roads, this race is definitely worth checking out.

Peace, SD

PS – Congrats to Bev Abbs for rocking my home course (Woodside 50k) in 4:23 for 1st overall!

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