Thursday, June 30, 2016

Redemption at the 2016 Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run

For nearly 40 years, the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run has been the most iconic race of American ultrarunning. Its rugged and hot course, its humble origins from a crazy horse event made crazier by mountain man Gordy Ainsleigh when he ran it on foot (sub-24!), and the heroic performances from runners, volunteers, and race directors that have astounded us each year since. It's hard not to get drawn into the lore and lunacy of it all. I am no exception, so it was with great pleasure I joined 353 fellow warriors for the 2016 edition last Saturday in hopes for some a little redemption. Thanks to a great crew, an amazing pacer, and the help of hundreds of volunteers, I got far more than I imagined.

(Ready to roll!)

The first test of the Western States 100 (WS100) is having the patience to get in. I've lost the lottery for entry a record eight times, but in the process have been able to run it once in 2009 (back in the "two time losers get in" days) as well as joyfully participate as a pacer, crew, and volunteer on many occasions. Plus the requirement to run a qualifier race each year has been a great excuse to travel to races such as UTMB, Wasatch, Pine to Palm, Rocky Raccoon, and more. Patience can be rewarding! For 2016, I was lucky enough to get a sponsor ticket from Scott Roberds and the great team at Microlumens, the same folks who ensured every runner got an awesome customized WS100 BigTruck hat in their swag bag. The previous year Scott gave the ticket to Gundhild Swanson, resulting in her epic finish just seconds under the 30-hour cut off to become the oldest female finisher of all time. Big shoes to fill!

(Quick selfie with the guy who started it all, Gordy Ainsleigh)
My goal for the day was simple - get that sub-24 hour silver buckle. My race in '09 was a zombie-staggering journey that I still consider one of the most defining spiritual experiences of my life. Failing every weigh-in for 45 miles, having the face of God in the starry night lead me to the river crossing, that second sunset as the forest awoke around me...I will always be grateful for that day. But a 28-hour finish isn't good enough for silver, and my original trail running bucket list specifically says "Western States - silver buckle". Could I go faster, maybe 20 hours? Probably. Was it worth screwing up and waiting another eight years to get in? Hell, no. So my crew and I built up a plan for 23:30 and got ready. HERE. WE. GO!

(T-3 minutes! Let's do this)
My brother-in-law, Brian Drue, returned to captain my crew as he did in '09, this time with his 14-year-old daughter Ryann as his right hand. My Dad, Larry Dunlap, was also down to assist, making it three generations of family giving support. How lucky am I? The ace up my sleeve for this year was super pacer Whit Rambach, a friend and 7-time silver buckle finisher who volunteered to pace me from Foresthill (mile 62) to the finish. My fitness and health were good...I'm officially out of excuses!

(With Chris DeNucci, who went on to an amazing 17:07 finish for M9, photo courtesy of Chris Jones)
As the excitement built up for the 5am start, I was blissfully serene. This hasn't always been the case on race morning, but over the years I have built a deep appreciation for why we do mega-adventures like the WS100. They are a gift of rediscovery - a rare opportunity to seize something so epic, it is guaranteed to strip you down to the core of your being and recast yourself in a completely different light. Sucker punch that ego right off its self-appointed pedestal, and laugh out loud as it desperately tries to climb back up. Humility by the truck load, whether you need it or not. When you understand this deep seated purpose, the calmness centers you. Combine this with the knowledge that your team has your back, and you feel infinitely powerful. I have never felt more alive than I do as the clock ticks down.

(And we're off!)
My smiling eyes met their counterparts in my fellow sinewy warriors, all in peak shape for this glorious day. Their family, crew, and volunteers filled the starting area with electricity, equally up for the challenge of "no sleep 'til Auburn". We don't say "good luck" or "I hope you finish", only "have an epic day" and share a wide-eyed smile that says we are here, and we are ready for anything the day delivers. The elites were up at the front, a deep field of both experienced WS100 runners (six-time top 10 finisher Ian Sharman, super masters Jeff Browning and Paul Terranova, France's Thomas Lorblanchet sporting the M5 bib, world champ Amy Sproston, Magdalena Boulet and Kaci Lickteig who were F1 and F2 last year, and many more) and some wicked fast runners taking on their first States (sub 15-hour 100-miler Devon Yanko, CR-setting Jim Walmsley, sub-2:20 marathoners Sage Canaday and Chris Mocko, 20-year-old phenom Andrew Miller, the ever fast YiOU Wang, etc.). With a primal yelp, we were released into the mountains with the sun in chase. I will see you in Auburn, Mr. Sun, but only AFTER I cross that finish line. ;-)

(Erika Lindland, Eric Byrnes, and Karl Hoagland head up the hill)
(The sun catches up as we near the top)
(Amy Sproston greets the sunrise, photo courtesy of Paul Nelson)
Within a few miles, the runners spread out on their way up the first 2,100' climb to Escarpment (mile 4). Now that the race is away, we gleefully focused on the simpler task of one aid station at a time rather than the dizzying magnitude of 100+ miles. I found a nice fast hiking rhythm along with Karl Hoagland (Publisher of Ultrarunning Magazine) and Erika Lindland (F9 last year), only later realizing the planned weddings they both talked about was the same one to each other. We soon join Eric Byrnes, a former Major League Baseball (MLB) player and now sportscaster for MLB networks, enjoying every minute of his first 100 (and Instagramming most of it in real time). The pace was easy to the top, where Eric Schranz (of Ultra Runner Podcast fame) greeted us in full lederhosen and tooting his 10-foot alpenhorn. How did he get that thing up here?

(Eric Schranz sounds the horn!)

(Cheering team crazier than the running team)
The high country was exploding with flowers, and a flurry of butterflies joined our conga line of runners as we jumped over the few remaining snow fields towards Lyon Ridge (mile 10.5). I could hear the conversations around me...for one runner, the WS100 is a lifetime goal, yet for another it's training for Hardrock in a few weeks. This is a crazy group! I took long, appreciative glances at the mountains ahead until I caught a toe and went down on the rocks. Bloody hand, but likely a blip on the pain radar given the next 20 hours. We pressed on to Red Star Ridge (mile 16), where the medical tent was happy to patch it up.
(Here comes the heat!)
The heat turned up as we made our way to Duncan Canyon (mile 23), but Mother Nature was kind enough to keep that cool morning breeze flowing from the valleys. I was surprised to find my Dad at the aid station, and chuckled knowing he pushed his little Prius to the limit to get there in time. We loaded me up on ice - a familiar theme for the rest of the day - packing it into my sleeves, hat, and neck bandana. I might leave the aid station numb, but within 20 minutes the ice would be gone!
(Jeff Clowers has been a friend for almost 40 great to see him at Duncan!)
I had some solo miles at this point, and relished in the solitude. My steps synchronized in rhythm with my heartbeat like a jazz-inspired DJ...a simple breakbeat for the wind and songbirds to lay their melodic solos.  New leaves burst from the soil-rich base of forest burnt stumps, filling my nose with charcoal, sage, and honey. Life is everywhere, and it is thriving!

(Pic from '09, but looks the same!)
Brian and Ryann had a NASCAR pit stop ready for me at Robinson Flat (mile 29), and said I was right on the 24-hour mark. It was such a thrill to have Ryann there - I had forgotten how fun it is to see this aid station party in the middle of nowhere for the first time. I was clearly in good shape, so we loaded up on ice again, and I headed out with a smile.

As we made our way down Little Bald Mountain, the runner behind me said "you're Scott Dunlap, aren't you?". He then pointed out that we ran this exact section together in '09, when both of us were listening to Michael Jackson right after the performers death. He said, "there was another guy with us too..." and I told him, yep, that was Whit Rambach, who is my pacer today. Deja vu!

(Somewhere, out there, is an aid station!)
(Getting some love from the Last Chance car wash, photo courtesy of Allen Lucas)
The trek to Last Chance (mile 43) was burning well into the 90's, so I stopped and had the car wash team soak me up as much as possible. I caught up to Eric Byrnes just in time to climb Devil's Thumb, and with his comraderie, we got it done without pause. This was where the wheels came off last time, so I was sure to take a seat and get my core temp down with some ice and popsicles. Beverly Anderson-Abbs was my assigned volunteer and perfectly mixed the "here's what you need" with "time to get out of the f'ing chair" advice. Ha! Thanks, Bev!

(Still having fun! Photo by Chris Jones)
The canyons proved to be as challenging as I remembered, but this time my body was holding up really well. A few twitches indicated I could use more hydration, but overall still able to keep a 9-10 min/mile pace. All of my crew was at Michigan Bluff (mile 55), and we took a few minutes to assess. Whit stopped suggesting and went right to prescribing - finish that burrito, I want both of those water bottles done by Volcano Creek, let's get to Bath Road within the hour. The crew was all nodding with crossed it! They are calling the shots now.

(Love this shot of Sarah Lavender Smith surprised to find her family at the aid station)
(Power up!)
Whit was right about the hydration, and after a kajillion small sips I came flying into Foresthill (mile 62) feeling good. We were slightly under the 24-hour pace, but Whit was more concerned about continued hydration. "Until I see you pee, I'm not going to talk about finish times". Love this guy! We cruised down to Cal 1 (mile 65) and Cal 2 (mile 70), and at Cal 3 (mile 73) put on our headlights. Soon after I finally had to take a bio break, while Whit yelled out to the river "YES! My racer is peeing!! I am the greatest pacer of all time!!!". Ha, ha! He's doing a great job in his first pacing gig, that's for sure.

(Love this photo of a supportive, but tired family, from Chris Bragg)
(Brian Morrison gets some TLC from his wife, and later finds that finish)
As we approached the river crossing at Rucky Chucky (mile 78), I secretly missed the hallucinatory face of God that had pulled me here in '09, but knew she was smiling up there somewhere. Bryan and Ryann were ready for anything, and then relieved to hear I was doing fine. They told me the story of Jim Walmsley showing up an hour ahead of course record, and then losing his grip on the rope across the river and getting swept downstream. Wha?!? That's nuts! Apparently he got back on track. They also let me know Kaci Lickteig had a healthy lead for the Women and looked good (Magda had dropped due to stomach issues), while Devon Yanko had come back from the dead to gain ground on Amy Sproston for F2 and F3. Wow, it's on! I got across the river, complete with a hug from super volunteer Tony Nguyen, and joined my Dad on the night hike up to Green Gate (mile 79). Apparently my Dad had gotten lost, only to find Kathy D'Onofrio in the dark and she made him jog to Green Gate. Work him, Kathy!

(Kaci Lickteig crosses the river, photo courtesy of Luis Escobar)
(Jim Walmsley was an hour ahead of course record at the river)
We arrived at Green Gate with local Auburnite Matt Keyes, who had a small army of teenage pacers helping him get to his 10th finish. Matt unlunched at the aid station with crazy proficiency, saying he usually doesn't do that until Auburn Lake Trails (mile 85). I got some fresh socks and shoes, some grilled cheese sandwich and flat Coke, and we all hit the trail together.

I felt amazing in the next section, running so fast I even dropped my pacer for a stretch. But as soon as I stopped at ALT (mile 85), I didn't feel so good. Whoops...perhaps went a little too hard? I surprised Whit by projectile vomiting just past the aid station, and we just shrugged our shoulders and kept moving. It would have to be nothing but butterscotch hard candy for the next couple of hours. When Matt Keyes passed us, I let him know I technicolor yawned ALT in his honor and he gave me a high five. There's something very, very wrong with us. ;-)

(Jeff Browning is hauling ass, photo courtesy of Luis Escobar)
Whit was a master at tracking the time, and as we got through Brown's Bar (mile 90) and Hwy 49 (mile 93) he would tell me we were just under the 24 hour cut offs. He had this great way of reminding me to keep moving, saying "your pace is know what that is? That's silver running right there, as in 'silver buckle'". Whit was right - if we were running, silver was within grasp, if we were walking, maybe not. Just then Clare Abrams went by pacing Sarah Lavender Smith running everything. Yes! Sarah is crushing it!!! Whit and I donned huge smiles, and we pulled in right behind them through No Hands Bridge (mile 96.8). We were going to run everything now.

In the last climb to Robie Point (mile 98.9), I allowed myself to believe this was actually happening. The lump in my throat was likely visible at this point, and as we exchanged congrats with a few runners now easily cruising under 24 hours. I wanted to hug everyone. The track at Placer High came into view, and the tears welled up. My crew was there, my pacer was stoked, and we crossed the finish in 23:43 for 95th place. We did it, you guys! We did it!!! Craig Thornley gave me a big hug, and I took a seat to donate some blood for the medical tests before relishing the last few minutes of dark.

(The finish! We did it!)
Per usual, there were stories galore at the finish. Andrew Miller (15:39) became the youngest winner ever after Jim Walmsley took a wrong turn, then fought his way back to 20th place. Norway's Didrik Hermanson (16:16) took second, and super master Jeff Browning (16:30) crushed it for third. Kaci Lickteig (17:57) ran the 4th fastest Women's time ever to claim the win, with Amy Sproston (18:54) and Devon Yanko (19:10) finishing a tight race for the podium. (all results) Despite the heat in the high 90's, the finish rate was an astounding 79%. Well done, everyone!
(Our winners!)

(Wally Hesseltine gets it done)
My runners high has been off the charts for days now, particularly as I ponder the deep camaraderie it takes to do what we do. Yes, the race is about rediscovery. But it's also about surrounding yourself with heroes, and letting their inspiration fuel you. I stare over the mountains and smile thinking about all those who have filled my soul this weekend. Craig Thornley and the race crew who puts on this gold standard event. Tropical John Medinger, John Trent, and the Board of Trustees who pave the way for generations to come, while board member Karl Hoagland collects another silver buckle. 72-year-old Wally Hessletine crossing the finish thirty-two seconds after the cut off, only to declare he will return next year when another runner donates his entry to him. Lifelong friend Jeff Clowers at Duncan Canyon, and seeing Tony Nguyen braving the river for us. Meghan "The Queen" Arboghast and Matt Keyes getting their 1000-mile buckles. Jim Walmsley fighting back to 20th when he could have easily dropped. The incredible performances of faces I know, and faces I just met. The smiles and tears of runners and families that roll all morning long on that Auburn track. Endless inspiration, all in one day.

But most of all, I am inspired by my crew and pacer who helped me execute that perfect plan for silver. Their love, friendship, and support means the world to me. Sometimes it takes 100 miles in one day to remember that. I've already arranged to have their names engraved in my silver buckle next to mine, as they deserve to be. They have my eternal gratitude.

(This silver buckle seems to go with all my outfits this week!)
Congratulations, all you Western States runners, pacers, crew, volunteers, supporters, and family. You are all crazy! And I love you for it.

- SD

Friday, June 17, 2016

Tribute to An Angel at the 106th Dipsea Race

Last Sunday, I had the great pleasure of (finally) joining 1,500 trail runners for the 106th running of The Dipsea Race, the oldest trail race in the USA. This perennial local favorite race has been in my relative backyard for over a century, but it took an angel to finally get me to the starting line. I am thankful for the divine intervention - it was an amazing experience, and I am now seriously swept up by the lore of this iconic race. I shall return!

Honoring Ray Morris, the 17-time Dipsea Finisher

The angel in question is my late great uncle, Ray Morris. I had reconnected with Ray last summer after a 40 year hiatus, only to find he was more of a trail running nut than I am. Plus he was doing it back in the 70's and 80's right here in Silicon Valley...a true pioneer in the shortest of shorts. Unfortunately, Ray was also in the terminal stages of pancreatic cancer, and it was this reason he had reached out to reconnect about our shared passion. I happily made a few personal visits, swapping stories of trail adventures that magically cut through his dementia and struggle, always lighting up his sunken face with a big smile. He passed just a few weeks later.

(Ray Morris, complete with Dipsea singlet)
For Ray, there was no race bigger than "The Dipsea". It was the event that anchored his training year-round, and connected him to fellow trail enthusiasts from all over the world. He was a 17-time finisher, and even had two of the coveted "black shirts" given to the top 35 runners, so he was no slouch. More importantly, Dipsea runners were "his people", and he loved everything about the race  - the handicap system that evened the odds for all runners, the ability to choose a trail less traveled if it fit your strategy, and the roots of the race stemming from a dare among Bay Area athletes. Every chat about The Dipsea would raise him out of his chair, animating each story with wild gestures that inevitably exhausted him. I got the sense it gave him great comfort knowing this race was here long before he was, and would be there long after he was gone.

When I told Ray I had unsuccessfully tried to bribe my way into the race for years (settling for the Double Dipsea and Quad Dipsea, naturally), he just smiled. He had an Ace to slip up my sleeve - a letter from his death bed, asking if I could do the race in his honor. The Dipsea Committee happily obliged, and it was clear from their emails that honoring past runners was a big part of the spirit of the race. And just like that, I found myself at the starting line for 2016, grateful and humble.

The 106th Dipsea Race

I had plenty of time to kill on race morning, given my "Runner - Group W" starting slot. The Dipsea has a double handicap system - one handicap for your age (so 7 year olds and 70 year olds start first), and one handicap for first-time runners ("Invitational" runners start 27 minutes ahead of "Runners"). That put me in about 1,400th place at the start line (42 minutes behind!), so there was zero chance of placing. The best I could hope for was finishing in the top 750 so I could get "Invitational" the following year. But that meant passing ~700 people in 7.4 miles of trails...that just seems rude, doesn't it? Well, Ray would go for it, so I figured I should.

(The Dipsea course)
As I pulled into Mill Valley, I ran into Julie Nye and her friends suiting up, and they did the math and said I should have no problem getting Invitational if I'm under 1 hr and 10 minutes. But how to factor for the 700 runners in the way? Julie just laughed..."you'll see, you'll see". Hmmm....

(Meeting Julie at the start)
The start area felt like a local 10k, as announcer Bob Cullinan sent off wave after wave. Kids as young as five would toe the line right next to their parents and grandparents. Very cool! And as the waves got down to the "scratch" runners, speedsters such as Rickey Gates (fastest actual time last year, 49:11), Galen Burrell (back from Colorado!), and Alex Varner (fastest actual time of 47:59 in '13) would have to go sub-50 minutes to catch the likes of defending champion Brian Pilcher and his age 59 head start, or the many wicked fast 50+ athletes such as Roy and Jamie Rivers, 2-time winner Diana Fitzpatrick, or the incredible 76-year-old Hans Schmid who is known to clock an hour and change here. Every second would count!

(And they're off!)

(Rickey Gates and Galen Burrell sport the awesome Pelican Inn Track Club shirts)
Bob sent off my wave, and only one other runner came with me to catch the previous wave on the 671 Dipsea steps. It was nearly impossible to pass people, but I counted them off...5,10,15,20 runners passed...680 to go! But once it opened up on the road sections, I could pass dozens at a time and the math became too challenging. Julie was right...this might be doable!

(Here come those steps!)
(Jason Reed among the younger competition)
I heard lots of "Go Dunlap!" shouts as I took the Suicide route (mile 2) and charged up Dynamite (mile 2.25), and there were a few runners passing me as well. Ray had recommended some shortcuts to me, but I secretly feared taking a left and ending up in a ditch that wasn't there 30 years ago. I did take the fire roads to get around a bunch of runners on Cardiac, who seemed to get younger and smaller as I found my way to the top. Then suddenly, at the top of Cardiac, there were almost no runners ahead of me. What is this? Maybe the gap between Invitational and Runners? I needed people to pass, darn it! But it was nice to open up the stride and kick up the pace.

(Alex Varner taking on Cardiac, photo by Steve Disenhof)
A spectator said "you're can take it easy now", but we all know better than to trust the math of strangers. I charged down the glorious canopy of "The Swoop" and into Steep Ravine (mile 6), laughing that I was somehow finding sections of trail I had never run up here in decades of racing. The red glistening poison oak leaves on both sides were a tad scary, but my inov-8 X-Talon 212's made sure I didn't get too out of control.

(Coming down the hill, photo courtesy of Chris Blagg)

(It can get a little crazy out there)

I cruised the last section of road, and picked off a few more runners in the chute as long-time announcer and Hall of Fame inductee Barry Spitz called out my name. My watch said 1:02:53, which was going to slot me in 610th and 20th in the Runner section. Made it! Next year, I guess I'll have to get serious and find 5-6 more minutes to cut.

(Awards galore, and the coveted black jerseys)
(2016 winner Brian Pilcher shares some tips)
(Good stuff!)
(Hanging with Nakia Baird, Eduardo Vasquez, and Chris Jones)
(Video of top finishers)

(Samir Shah grabbed an iced tea and ran back to the start!)
(The fastest of the fast!)
The warm weather was perfect for hanging out, where I saw Willem van Dam (thanks for the beer!), Chris Jones (did the San Diego 100m last weekend, crazy bastard), Samir Shah (who ran back to the start), Jason Reed (best bloodied injury), Victor Ballesteros, Bill Dodson, Rickey Gates (5th!), Galen Burrell (6th!), Erika Kikuchi, and dozens more watched the award ceremony. It was clear this was so much bigger than a race, and a defining part of this community. I was already eager to do it again!

I know Ray would have loved every second of it. The familiarity, the adventure, the celebration of endurance and longevity. I can see why, in his last few days, it was memories of The Dipsea that remained as clear as spring water while the world faded to black. Perhaps it will be the same for all of us, and we secretly know it, so we toe the line again and again.

Thank you, Ray Morris, race directors, volunteers, fellow runners, and the great people of Mill Valley. I will see you again next year!

- SD

My gear for this race:
inov-8 X-Talon 212 Trail Running Shoes
inov-8 AT/C 6" Short
Injinji Trail Midweight Mini-Crew Socks
Injinji Visor

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

What Causes The Runner's High? More Evidence of Endocannabinoids...

I've always been curious about the root causes the "runner's high", that feeling of mild euphoria and pain cessation we feel after a long run. I love it...I long for is perhaps my greatest personal vice. But what exactly is happening in the body to produce this amazing feeling? It has been a topic of debate for quite some time, and one I have watched with great interest.

Business Insider recently updated a great article that dug into a 2015 study where scientists tested mice to isolate the effects of endorphins and endocannabinoids, the two chemical systems thought most largely responsible for the "runner's high". The result? At least in mice, it appears that endocannabinoids are more closely related to the effects of pain cessation, a clam feeling, and less anxiety.

Ultrarunners will appreciate some of the other insights into the study, in particular the test mice had to run 3 miles on their little wheels to get the full effect. That's a lot of mice miles! Eat your heart out, Michael Wardian.