Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Good Times at the Marin Ultra Challenge 50k, Lance Armstrong's First Ultra

Arriving at Rodeo Beach for the sold out Marin Ultra Challenge 50k on Saturday felt like entering the eye of a storm. For five days now, Mother Nature has pounded the rugged hills of the Marin Headlands, soaking the trails, wind-whipping branches to the ground, and rolling boulders into the Pacific with glorious patience. Enough so that Race Director Tim Stahler and the team from Inside Trail Racing (ITR) had to shuffle the start to find enough dry ground to hold the fifth version of their epic 25k/50k/50-mile event. Yet as the minutes approached the 6am start, it was eerily calm beneath the ominous dark grey clouds. She was saving something good for the race itself, I suspect.

 Personally I love it when the weather gets a little crazy in the Marin Headlands. Nothing gets your adrenaline going like zero visibility on a muddy trail with steep drops on both sides, particularly while the crashing waves rattle your eardrums. One can also expect plenty of wicked fast locals to help, on the trail racing with you, and braving any weather conditions required while manning the aid stations. I was feeling healthy, the volunteers had my back, and the new course promised a one-of-a-kind adventure. The epic stage was set!

(Lance is stoked and ready for his first ultra, photo courtesy of Liz Kreutz)
 I was also excited for my friend, Lance Armstrong, who was here to run his first ultramarathon. Although the world knows him as one of the greatest endurance athletes of all time, and he is no stranger to trail running or road marathons, the unique challenge of a first hilly 50k is guaranteed deep spelunking in the pain cave. And Lance loooves to dig deep! He was ready to roll, and was going to go out fast, hills be damned. I hoped he would find his limit, then jump up and down on it until he could kick it down the trail. This was going to be good.

(Shaking hands with the man, RD Tim Stahler, photo courtesy of Liz Kreutz)

(And we're off! Photo courtesy of Liz Kreutz)
 We had just a few minutes to chat before Tim sent ~320 runners off into the dark (190 in the 50k, 130 in the 50m). It was great to see so many locals out today – Mark Tanaka, 50k course record holder Ryan Neely (here today for the 50m), Sarah Lavender Smith, Ron Guttierez, Michael Jimenez, Bree Lambert, Ezra Becker, Alex Ho – and even some not-so-locals like 2016 USATF 100-mile Champion Paul Terranova, Ironman Van McCarty from San Luis Obispo, Oregon’s Tyler Stewart, and Jamie Aarons from Great Britain. We chatted our way up Mitchell Road (mile 2) with just enough sun to get by without lights.

(The gorgeous Headlands, photo courtesy of Let's Wander Photography)
 I paced along with Sean Handel from Moss Beach, one of my favorite ultradads on the circuit, complimenting him on his frequent night runs up Montara Mountain. Like many passionate runners juggling parenthood and start up careers, Strava is the lens we view most into each other’s lives, so we could now skip the “how’s the training going” questions and get onto the meaty “how’s life” stuff. He was here for fun today, but knowing Sean and the power of his smile when he’s healthy, that was likely a Top 10 finish. We powered through the first loop (mile 5) and dropped our last layers before heading back up.

(Lance goes for round 2 on Hill 88, photo courtesy of Liz Kreutz)
 Lance came into view on the second climb, but was moving fast enough I would have to go anaerobic to catch him so I hung back. I thought about the typical 1,500 thumbs up he gets on Strava for doing a 10-miler in pancake flat Austin, TX, and wondered how many thousands he would get for this beast (turns out, about 4,100). How fascinating that must be! As I entered Tennessee Valley (mile 10), I was in the wake of awestruck Lance fans, as well as die-hard trail runners telling me YOU BETTER CATCH HIM. Lance is here to compete, not just run, and the energy level was elevated across the board.
(Coming out of Pirate's Cove with Andrew, photo courtesy of Let's Wander Photography)
 The plunge down to Pirates Cove was slick and slotted, making for some tricky footing and slow downhills for me. Luckily I had Mill Valley local Andrew Lie as my tour guide, and he picked the perfect line so we didn’t spend too much extra effort slipping around. By Muir Beach (mile 14), we had caught up to Lance and a fast-moving Ryan Woodhouse, and soon wished our best to the 50-milers heading out towards the Dipsea Trail while we climbed again.

(50-milers got a taste of the big trees, photo courtesy of Let's Wander Photography)
 The Miwok Trail was a muck-filled creek, and we splashed our way through 6” of water and fallen trees, crawling up trails that were indistinguishable from the creeks beside them. Now THIS is a trail run! I felt like an idiot for hopping over so many puddles earlier in the race, for now we were soaked. Ryan found a fast gear, so I stayed with him up the climb and back down to Muir Beach (mile 21) just as we caught Lance one more time.

(There's a trail in there somewhere, right? Photo courtesy of Let's Wander Photography)

 The fourth climb was a beast called the Green Gulch Trail, one I had never seen before (although it could be I had run it in the fog at some point). Lance was definitely slowing now, but was hanging tough with Ryan and me up the 15%+ grades. As the peak came in sight waaaay up the hill, Lance took that fateful first walking step and gave me a slap on the ass as I went by. That would be the last I would see of him until the finish.

(Up in the clouds, photo courtesy of Let's Wander Photography)
 Ryan blazed across the Miwok Trail, taking some impressive calculated risks in the slick mud. My old brain had different math (I swear my formerly broken collarbone pulses ghost pains every time I refactor) so I bid farewell and enjoyed a few licks from passing dogs. Gary Gellin (sick today, so he couldn’t race) and Chris DeNucci (fresh off a killer result at Way Too Cool) sent me up at Tennessee Valley (mile 26) and pointed me to a few slowing runners on Marincello, the “decider” climb for the day. Who saved enough in their tank to run the whole way?

(Having fun! Photo courtesy of Liz Kreutz)
 Apparently I did, and I picked up three spots on the climb, but was unable to catch Ryan who had found yet another gear. Just when I was ready to chest thump, the purple streak of David Roche came flying by leading the 25k. Wait…didn’t he just WIN the Way Too Cool 50k on Saturday in 3:19?!? Yes, but there was $1,000 on the line for the 25k thanks to the La Sportiva Cup, and you could see the fire in David’s eyes. In a flash, he was gone on what was easily a course record pace.

(David Roche sets a mean pace in the 25k, photo courtesy of Let's Wander Photography)
 As I hit the peak of the last climb (mile 28), my ITR teammates Daniel Metzger and Craig Schmidt flew by like two Spitfire planes in hot pursuit, and I got to watch them soar down the hill with their long strides. So cool! I leaned into the hill and kept the pace around 6 minute/mile, and soon crossed the finish in 4:09:58, good enough for 5th place. Hey, not bad!

 Alex Ho had won in 4:01:37, with Skip Crockett (4:03), Van McCarty (4:04), and Ryan Woodhouse (4:05) in the first group. Sean Handel (4:15) came in behind me for 6th, smiling as big as he had at the start, and Emily Peterson (4:23) came in later to win the Women’s division. (all results) David Roche had set a CR for the 25k (1:33), with Daniel Metzger (1:34) and Craig Schmidt (1:35) keeping him honest, while Santa Barbara’s Daniella Moreno (1:46) and Bellingham, WA’s Maria Dalzot (1:48) duked it out for the Women. Ryan Neely (6:39) would go on to set a new CR in the 50-mile, with Nicole Kalogeropoulos (8:16) winning the Women's division.

(Lance takes a moment with a future Billy Yang, photo courtesy of Liz Kreutz)

 Just as we were all speculating where Lance might come in, he rolled in as the clock hit 4:19:46 for 12th place. 4:19?!? Who does that in their first hilly trail ultra? Seriously impressive. Lance was gracious enough to give a local 8th grader a video interview, complete with post-race shaking legs, before taking a seat and massaging the quads that had given up an hour ago. With the wind picking up, we all had to hustle to our cars for warmth.

 My mud-caked body shook dirt piles on the floor of the bar as I shared post-race brews with Lance, his friend Mark Higgins (who had an impressive 25k debut in 2:39), and photographer Liz Kreutz who got some amazing shots while braving the weather. Although Lance swore there was no reason to run farther than 50k ever again, it didn’t take long for him to compare Strava records and pick out where he could improve “next time” (downhill training, pacing, food/water, etc.). If he follows the pattern that we all do, he will pick his next ultra before he can even get normal shoes on or walk down stairs without the hand rail. Funny how that pain cave calls you back before you can even get out.

(Great MUC swag, and 2nd AG!)
 My thanks to the Stahler’s, the great volunteers, my ITR teammates, and fellow runners for getting out there and making a great day happen! My soul feels full once again. And a big congrats to Lance on completing that first ultra. As Tim and ITR reminded us, you are welcome back anytime!


  1. Holy smokes! Almost 2km of climbing in just over 4 hours, you're a beast

  2. Scott, I am posting the Facebook thread you had with Jasper here since I think it's helpful. Not all of us are on Facebook, believe it or not!

    Jasper Halekas: Scott and I don't necessarily see eye to eye on every single issue, but overall I know that he is a smart and reasonable guy. I therefore give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he has a well thought out rationale that goes well beyond blind fanboy-ism. Personally, I'd like to hear it from him directly rather than guessing or reading between the lines.

    Scott Dunlap: For you Jasper, happy to comment. This may be hard to believe, but posting this story and the last one was not intended to "poke the hornet's nest" on the subject of PED's in ultrarunning. But I could see how people would feel that way though, since I've posted controversial things in the past (guilty as charged). The truth is I've been a friend with Lance and his family long before his rise to fame (and subsequent fall). He was a big influence on leading me towards a healthy active lifestyle at a time when I really needed it. I've since watched and led a number of people into this great sport when they are at major crossroads or crisis, and that healing combination of Mother Nature, adventure, and like-minded warriors in ultrarunning never fails. Whether you are first or last, ultrarunning is uniquely healing to the body and soul, rejuvenating, chock full of transformative powers. Now a friend comes out a colossal shitstorm, and connects with the trails in a way that brings out the best of himself, and many of those around him, family, friends, and strangers alike. It's a story I have seen before, and I don't think of Lance any differently than any other friend that way. I really am trying to write the stories that way too. So by default of where my heart is on the matter, I guess that means I fall on the side of "all are welcome in this sport as the RD's for each race sees fit". I don't like a world where anyone is denied a second chance or told they can't rebuild themselves around a new passion, and am pleased that the folks at ITR think similarly. I couldn't give less of a shit about a persons previous careers and how that ended, and I've met far worse than cycling dopers and cheats on the trails (pedophiles, murderers, rapists, embezzlers...you name it). But I still welcome them all if they are on a positive, healing path. Do I support testing for PED's in ultrarunning? Sure, happy to if that's what the RD asks, what my sponsors request, or in some cases (like an American Record attempt) just to prove it to myself. Is the sport ruined if 100% of RD's don't screen for PED's? Well, that seems ridiculous. But I understand the desire to protect a sport that is the foundation of so much passion. For many, this sport is core to their identity, and it is those who most define their identity by the status quo that will go the farthest to defend it against all odds. Aka, haters gonna hate. But I have lost no respect for any of the commenters here, and applaud any dialogue that is respectful. Hope that is helpful, Jasper.

    Jasper Halekas: Well written. That really helps me and I'm sure many others understand where you're coming from. I may reply with some more thoughts later, but for now I'll just say thanks for the very clear and thorough response.

    Scott Dunlap: Miss you, Jasper! I hope you are enjoying dad-hood.

  3. Congrats on your 5th place on the 50K! I too ran the 50K placing 7th (my 1st trail ultra with only 3 weeks of training after running 75th at the LA Marathon). You passed me at the start of the last climb...i held my spot nice and tight even though seeing those 25Kers fly by didn't help my spirits after putting 25 solid miles of running in.

    Awesome article as well. Cool to hear that Lance also ran in his first 50K. I didn't realize he was running it until Chris Denucci told me at the last Aid Station (again right before you passed me) that I was ahead of him. I awestruck by hearing this happen during my first trail ultra. Come to find out you put up Liz Kreutz picture where she gave Alex Ho (50K winner) and Franz Van Der Groen (2nd in 50M) a shout on Instragram. Not going to lie, bit jealous you got talk post-race experience with Lance over food and adult sodas (beer).

    I'm new to running, 7 months in to competitive running, but I can tell you that I'm hooked to pushing time and distance. While I'm happy with my accomplishments, running has become a passion because of the amazing/cool people I've met along the way and the picturesque places I've seen. This run was no different...so thank you for posting this blog!

    I'm a local runner from East Palo Alto and I now you are from Woodside. I usually run solo, but I'm trying to run with some locals. Give me holler if you ever want to go run. #RelishYourRide!


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