Thursday, December 24, 2015

Running with Lance Armstrong at the 2015 Woodside Ramble 35k

(Me, Eric Byrnes, and Lance Armstrong at the start of the Woodside 35k)
[paraphrased text exchange a few days before the race]

Lance (Armstrong): Dude, I'm in your neighborhood this up for a long run on Sunday? 

Scott: Absolutely! Likely raining cats and dogs, so how about some Woodside trails?

Lance: Sounds good. I am craving a fast run, maybe 20 miles. Cool? 

Scott: Hellzya. Want to do a local race then? Inside Trail Racing is super fun, and the Woodside Ramble is right in my backyard on Sunday. Pretty close to the same route I would take us on. 

Lance: Are you sure that's cool with the RD? 

Scott: I'll check...yup, they would love to have you. See you at 8am on Sunday!


That was it. No master plan, no conspiracy to infiltrate the trail running community, no proactive lobby on the state of doping in trail running...just a friend wanting to go for a long run, and it just so happened Inside Trail Racing (ITR) had a race that fit the bill.

You wouldn't think that 24 hours later, when the megaphones of trail running took to the Interwebs in a barrage of opinions, then articles about opinions, and then opinions about articles about opinions, all building faster than a storm-enhanced 80-foot wave at Mavericks. Should Lance be allowed to run? What about doping in the ultra community? All the voices were there - Joe, Sage, Ethan, Roche, Mario, Ian, Ken, Schranz, John, Vanessa, Sam, Sarah, Burton (funniest by far), Trail Running Magazine, Competitor Magazine, Runners World, and literally thousands more comments and posts behind that.  I understand that Lance is a polarizing figure (no matter what he does these days), but WOW. Everybody grab a soapbox and shout!

For what it's worth, I would like to share a little bit about what actually happened when Lance toed the line on Dec 13th at the Woodside Ramble 35k, in all its glorious honesty. Mostly because the day was a ton of fun, and for every person I spoke to at the event, having Lance there made it better. But I would also like to share the facts because I find it strange that none of the people listed above actually reached out to understand the facts beforehand (David Roche being the one exception). Which is fine, btw...this is America after all. Nobody has to defend their right to defend their passions, and let's face it, it feels good to shout from the rafters. But just to clear the air, and in case it makes a difference to anyone, here's what actually happened.

Per Lance's suggestion, I checked with Tim Stahler and Will Gotthardt (ITR Race Directors) a few days before the race, and they had no hesitation to have Lance come join the fun. As far as they were concerned, he was just another outdoor lover looking to challenge himself (Tim and Tanya Stahler would later eloquently explain this philosophy more thoroughly on Facebook). They did warn me that the weather was forecast to be insane - wind, heavy rain, and no sign of a break. It would be epic.

"Dude, new twist," said Lance in a call an hour before the race, "I played golf with my friend Eric (former Major League Baseball player and now commentator Eric Byrnes) yesterday, and he's joining us for the 35k. We have a gentleman's bet carrying over from our battle on the golf I have to beat him by 30 minutes in the 35k. So get ready to crush it."

Oh, FUDGE! Except I didn't say FUDGE (per the movie/play, The Christmas Story, which I had tickets to see at noon on race day, requiring me to stop at 10:30am no matter where I was on the course). Instead I said the worst, mother of all F-dash-dash-dash swear words. Thirty minutes is a HUGE fudging spread for 35k. Lance is a solid runner, if not a permanent demigod of aerobic capacity, but who is this Eric guy? Please tell me he has put on the Barry Bonds poundage. Please tell me his knees are totally fudged from squatting behind the plate. Please tell me he's got three ex-wives and a 90th percentile alcohol intake like so many former Bay Area pro athletes. Oh, Lord, give us something!

Nope! Sorry, Scotty. Eric (or "Byrnesie" as everyone was calling him) showed up at the starting line, head to toe in Salomon gear and looking seriously fit. He was not only a former professional athlete, but also a multiple-time Ironman finisher who had a ticket to the 2016 Western States 100m (that he got it on his first lottery attempt). Yeah, he's 6' 3" and a decent 190 lbs, but he knows what he's doing! Darn. Drat. A 20 minute spread we could cover, but 30 minutes left little room for error. Lance would need to go right off the front, as soon as possible. FUDGE! Except I didn't' say FUDGE!!!!

I jogged the three miles to the race start, where Lance and Byrnsie were standing in the pouring rain getting their numbers on. A few folks recognized Lance, and a few recognized Byrnsie, but most were focused on the downpour that was now so big you had to raise your voice to talk to the people right next to you. T-minus ten minutes to start! We stripped down to the basics and got ready.

Quite honestly, I was a little freaked out. Two professional athletes in a "gentleman's bet" is a seriously scary thing for any amateur stuck in the middle, even if I've run these trails a thousand times. These guys can push themselves on a daily basis more than my toughest training day, and a little eye-to-eye machismo takes it to a whole new level. Make no mistake, I was thrilled to be a part of it. But there was no doubt this day was going to hurt. I guess I should have had some breakfast!

As Tim counted down the start, the three of us stepped up near the front with the 35k and 50k runners. I felt bad that we didn't have a chance to get a selfie with the RD that gave us this opportunity, but he was busy working with volunteers to keep people dry and fed. The gun went off, and so did we!

We settled in with the first six runners, with 50k racers Chris "Da-Nooch" DeNucci and Ryan Neely out front, and the rest of us in a small pack. I told Lance that most people mess up the Woodside race by going too hard in the 2,000' climb in the first six miles, so he held back a bit once he was out of sight from Byrnsie. It was conversational pace for Lance, but Strava was telling me I was setting new PR's for segments left and right. Perfect! That's what competition is for - to strive together to reach new bests. We chatted like most runners do, catching up on kids and family, and me playing tour guide for my favorite park between gasps for oxygen.

As we reached the top of Huddart Park (mile 5), one of our fellow runners, Roger Montes, realized it was Lance and came up to shake his hand. Roger was super cool, and also helped with the pacing like the former cyclist he is, and the three of us pounded through the puddles to the first aid station. The weather was far the biggest storm I have seen in years. Lance praised the volunteers for braving the mayhem, shaking hands and patting backs while gulping down a gel, and then led us out towards Wunderlich.  I pointed out that Kings Mountain is the same road he descended in the first Tour de California, and he said "yup, I remember the weather". Ha!

DeNucci and Neely were out of sight at this point (both on a 4-hour finish pace for the 50k), so the three of us traded off the lead. Lance is a phenomenal climber, and his mud skills are excellent, but Roger and I were faster on the descents. I slipped off the trail twice, trying to uselessly get around the massive puddles, but the Lance and Roger freight train kept the pace around a 7 min/mile.  It didn't take long to get our rhythm and charge to Wunderlich (mile 9), where Will Gotthardt was cinched down in Gore-Tex and smiling like the ray of sunshine he is. Lance said "let's turn and burn this aid station...I want Byrnsie to be worried when we see him on the out and back. Wow, these volunteers are seriously bad ass." With that, we charged back down the hill.

Lance gapped Roger and me by 20 seconds as the climbs began, but he was happy to slow for the runners coming the other way. Lots of high fives and atta-boys, and I could tell by the looks on a few faces that some were recognizing his famous mug. Byrnsie was running in 6th place, only 16 minutes back, and Lance quickly did the math in his head. FUDGE. We need to go FASTER. With that, Lance flew off the front and gapped me by a minute. It was fun to get the cheers from runners coming the other way - "one guy just in front of you", "don't let Lance beat you on your home turf!", "you've got Lance Armstrong in your crosshairs!". Lance Armstrong in my crosshairs? There's a phrase I never thought I would hear in my lifetime.

I gave Lance one last wave from the final aid station (my driveway) before dropping to get ready for my theater commitment at mile 16. I confirmed with the volunteers "yes, that was Lance Armstrong", and they were all smiles, chuckling and saying they couldn't wait to tell their friends. I loved that they had this little story of their own after braving the rain for hours. As I hung out a few minutes to cheer the other runners, I felt that same sense of delight from the soaked and smiling athletes. Roger said he was definitely going faster than planned, and then a couple more runners told me they only signed up for the race because they heard Lance might be there. Byrnsie barely stopped at all, now in 4th place and putting it all on the line. It was going to be close!

In the end, Lance won the race in 3:00:36, Roger got second (3:02:27...he gained on him!), and Byrnsie came in 23 minutes later for 4th, winning the gentleman's bet. Lance and Byrnsie had to hustle off from the finish in search of warm, dry clothes, but they both asked me to be sure to thank the RD and volunteers again for an adventurous day. I just hoped their chafing wasn't nearly as bad as mine, which turned out to be enough to ask the theater staff for a first aid kit at the intermission. Whoops. But in the back of my head, all I could think was "I could have caught Lance in that last fun would that have been". Love that!

So that's it. That's the simple story of racing with Lance Armstrong. It was stormy, it was exciting, fun and fast, and I believe the race was better for having him there. I loved that the volunteers and fellow racers got such a thrill shaking his hand, and the ear-to-ear smiles he left behind in the blustery storm. It meant the world to me that Inside Trail Racing welcomed him with open arms, without hesitation, embracing the inclusiveness of our sport at the risk of criticism that was sure to come. But I'm also proud of my friend, Lance, for just getting out there and giving it his best on the day.  I hope we get a chance to do it again soon.

I'm sure some of you have thoughts you would like to share, and there is certainly a ton of dialogue already in progress where those can best be expressed. I'll be screening the comments this time around, and please ask that you keep the Hate on Hatebook if you feel it is necessary.

Happy holidays, everyone!

- SD

Monday, December 07, 2015

The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young (Movie Review)

Most people think running an ultramarathon is pretty crazy, but even among us ultrarunners, there are a handful of races that redefine insanity. Near the top of that list is the Barkley Marathons, that five-loop-through-uncharted-backcountry in Frozen Head State Park that boasts over 54,000' of vertical climbing in terrain so difficult it has had less than 10 finishers in its first 25 years, even with a 60-hour finish cutoff.

Most of us only find out about the race through rumors, trail stories, and Ultrarunning Magazine articles from the few survivors that keep going back. The lore is rich, and as true to ultrarunning culture as any race could be, so I was thrilled to hear about a new documentary film that does an incredible job capturing all of it - how it was devised as a mockery of James Earl Ray’s historic prison escape gone awry, backstory from the charmingly idiosyncratic co-founder Lazarus Lake, the goofy secret application process (and $1.60 entry fee), the unknown start time announced by a blowing of the conch, and many more unique features that has created the cult-like status around the race. After watching the movie, I am not surprised that is has already captured many awards. Available on demand on December 8th, this one is a definite thumbs up!

I had a chance to ask the Co-Directors Annika Iltis and Timothy Kane a few questions about this great film, which is touring the country as we speak: 

1. So why a documentary about the Barkley Marathons? Certainly there are easier documentaries to create. ;-) 

 We read Leslie Jamison’s essay, “The Immortal Horizon” in The Believer Magazine in the winter of 2012 and could not believe that we had never heard of the Barkley or the statistic of only 10 finishers in 25 years. We both wanted a creative challenge and it was fortuitous that we happened to read the article when we did. Shooting the documentary posed its own set of challenges due to the nature of the terrain, its vastness, and the likelihood that no one would finish. We went in without much thought to what the narrative would be, we only knew that we wanted to capture the spirit of the Barkley the way that Leslie did in that article. We also knew that we wanted to make a true documentary with a narrative; something that would be interesting for not only the running community, but also for filmgoers who enjoy a unique story.

2. For an ultrarunner like me, my reaction was “that looks awesome”, but I suspect most people will just scratch their heads and wonder what is wrong with us. What do you think creates that difference?

After 4 years of working on this film and meeting so many ultrarunners, we do think there must be something unique in the brain or the genetic makeup for those that look at the Barkley, or any 100-mile run for that matter, and start salivating. We WISH we had that special something that allows for this, but alas, we do not. We do find it especially inspiring when someone in their 40s or 50s starts running ultras. We have to ask, what changed? What flipped that switch? It is truly fascinating and seems to be a unique answer for those individuals.

3. What are your favorite quotes and characters? 

 Well, the quote from the film that always gets the biggest laugh is probably not printable here, but it is said by one Naresh Kumar, who is one of the most kind, inspiring, and joyous people we have ever met; which is probably why his quote is so funny. We’ll leave that one for the audience to see themselves.

 In terms of “characters,” Lazarus Lake is the anchor of the film and the venerable co-founder of the race. We could listen to him for hours, and we did! We never wanted to cut the camera around him for fear of missing out on something.

4. What was the hardest part of making the film? Anything really surprise you? 

 It’s actually almost impossible for us to pick just one thing that was the hardest part because pretty much everything was hard. Seriously. If we had kept track of every stumbling block or difficulty, from Tim getting lost in the park on the first day of shooting, to re-renting cameras we had used to recover pivotal footage that had not been downloaded, to the 4-year long process it would take us to actually get the film out in the world, we probably would have stopped a long time ago.

 In terms of surprises, certainly the events that transpired that first year we were there we never could have expected. For those, you'll have to see the movie!

So cool! Check it out here on December 8th!

- SD

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