Monday, May 21, 2018

Full Circle at the 2018 Quicksilver 100k

3am has a special stillness in the mountains. It's as if the earth itself takes a breather from its perpetual spin to float in the dark expanse, and as gravity eases for just a moment, we all get a bit closer to the cosmos above. I had forgotten what that felt like - that connection to nature and the universe all at once. But its one of the many unexpected gifts that await us when we shake up our world with an adventure like the Quicksilver 100k near Los Gatos, CA. As the world sleeps, we are gearing up for a full day romp in this wonderful playground. I hadn't taken a single step yet, but was already happy and humbled.

(Boss says it's time to roll!)
(We are crazy, we are ultrarunners!)
(Plenty of smiles at the start)
Those first few steps could go either way today, honestly. I hadn't run a step in two weeks after a gravity-assisted marathon PR that reduced my quads to hamburger. But the QS100k wasn't on the agenda to race, it was just to finish, nab a Western States qualifier and some UTMB points, and share a sunny day in the mountains with ~200 fellow warriors. Another ~180 runners would tackle the 50k a bit later, and tempt us to drop as they dished out the world famous BBQ at the finish (aka, mile 41 and 62 for us 100k runners). All in all, a great excuse to enjoy every minute of this day.

(Catching up with my friend, DJ)
As retiring Race Director Greg Lanctot and Co-RD Stuart Taylor assembled us at the start, I could see there were plenty here ready to race. This is a perfect check point for Western States in June, with 12,000' of climbing and plenty of long hikes and downhills on exposed terrain in Almaden Quicksilver Park and the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve. Defending Western States champion Cat Bradley was here, as was 100k Road Masters champion Thomas Reiss, Lake Tahoe Triple champ Gaspar Mora Porta, perennial favorite Jean Pommier, and a handful of 20-somethings that look like they could crush this course before lunch time. The 50k had legend Rob Krar up against Team inov-8's Coree Woltering, Chris Denucci, Montana's Rhea Black, the never-aging Cliff Lentz, and Helen Galarakis from Flagstaff...that race was going to be fast for sure! We all flipped on our headlights, and at 4:45am the 100k runners headed into the indigo hills.

(The sunrise glow greets us at the top)
The air was already warm (~65F), so it didn't take long for us to shed all of our gloves and sleeves. I paced along with Mark Tanaka and Ray Sanchez, joking that between the two of them and Jean Pommier up ahead, they had over 650 ultra finishes on ultrasignup. How do they do it?!? Well, they just race all the fact, all three had finished the equally challenging Miwok 100k the previous Saturday. Mark did point out to me this would be my 100th ultrasignup result, so perhaps I am no slouch. Thanks, Mark!

(A few more minutes of shade!)
(Chris Eide and I get a smile boost)
(Feeling good!)
The trails were immaculately marked, so it was easy to go on cruise control and enjoy the scenery and company. There would be five big climbs today, and the first one went down easy like a nice lemonade. As the sun crested the hill, we could see bunnies and quail darting back and forth between the shrubs. We were a bit more cooked on the second climb, where the aptly named "Dog Meat" brought most of us to a hike. My quads seemed to be holding up well as long as I took it easy.

(Dog Meat cooks us up!)
On the next descent, we saw the leaders coming back, with local Ben Eysenbach and Jean Pommier a few minutes ahead of a group of five. Cat Bradley looked good around 10th place, and all were running the climbs with ease. I got to the aid station at the bottom (mile 25), likely around 35th place, and fast hiked the return.

(Cat Bradley is all smiles)
San Jose's Qi Song was my trail mate as we covered the rolling hills back to the Wood Road aid stations (mile 31). We compared stories of the crazy Boston Marathon this year, running life in our late 40's, and admired the rattlesnake sunning just off the trail. She was a much faster climber than me, but I had one more gear than her on the flats. We had two or three others with us, all trading off and giving high fives.

(Chihping Fu!)
(Chihping and I have been dueling cameras for over a decade...this time we draw at high noon!)
(Wise hat choice)
At Hicks Road (mile 38), I noticed I was already trying to catch up on hydration. It was in the mid-70's now, but more so than the heat was the reality that I hadn't spent much time training for these super long runs. Reaching for the water bottles was a reminded thing, not an instinctual thing, and I had fallen behind by 30-40 ounces. My new pal Eduardo Nunez (we had met at the Marin Ultra Challenge 50k earlier this year) seemed to be a similar state, regrouping but not giving up yet.  I chugged down as much as my stomach would handle, and headed out.

(Second half excitement!)
(Watch your step!)
We passed through the finish chute (mile 41 for us, but we'll be back!) and I got a selfie with Coree who helped me refill my bottles. He had taken a fall at mile 8 of the 50k, but rallied to get 2nd behind Rob Krar. Amazing! The BBQ smell was tempting, so I just hustled out to commit to the last third of the race, knowing it would be waiting for me.

(Coree helps me out after getting 2nd in the 50k!)
My form was getting sloppy as I warded off twitchy calves, and just as I worried about my shuffle on the single track, I caught a toe and took a digger that left my hands bleeding. Whoops! Well, not much to do about it now, so I pressed on solo for the next 90 minutes. By the time I reached the 4th peak (Bull Run aid station, mile 48), my quads were in way worse shape than my hands. Luckily there were plenty of Quicksilver Club runners to get me seated, eating, washed, and sucking down popsicles. Eduardo joined me for a break, and with an inspiring calf-cramping dance, got us off on that last loop.

(Still smiling!)

(Last loop means lots of smiles)
The turkey/avocado sandwiches were just the trick for both Eduardo and me, and we had enough energy to run and walk our way to McAbee (mile 54). I tried the same recipe there, but it didn't stay down, so it would have to be the zombie climb back up the hill. The scenery was a nice distraction though, as the Lexington reservoir shimmered below us. In the suffering, I found that calm that reminded me that yesterday is gone, and tomorrow isn't to make the most of right here, right now. I could see runners dotting the hills in front and behind me...I was solo, but not alone!

(The hills are filled with runners)
(Keep it moving...)
(Gravity is good!)
(Super volunteers get me rolling again)
Eduardo rallied me one more time at Bull Run (mile 59...almost there!), and we shuffled our way through the relentless up and down to the finish. So many runners passed me, but it was inspiring to see how they had so much energy and words of encouragement. I soon found the finish in 14:04, good enough for 58th place.

(BBQ time)
(Sport that buckle all day!)
(Excellent swag includes a glass, reusable cup, Patagonia shirt and hat, and buckle with frame!)
Once my stomach returned, we enjoyed some great BBQ and shared stories as the sun went down. Ben Eysenbach (9:53) had led end-to-end for the win, with Jean Pommier (10:22) and Ian Driver (10:54) filling out the podium. Cat Bradley (11:15, 7th OA) handily won the Women's division, with Wendy Staniker (12:11), and Ken Huang (12:35) finishing soon after. Overall, 166 runners (75%) made it under the cutoff. (all results) One other runner reminded me I was here for the 50k in 2007...11 years ago! I had come full circle.

I donned the excellent swag, and let out one last cheer as I headed home. My mind was clear and present, and my body was happy to sink into a week long break. Happiness earned is the best kind!

My thanks to the RD's and fabulous volunteers for such a great race!

Monday, May 07, 2018

A New Marathon PR (2:39) At The 2018 Mt. Charleston Marathon...Thank You, Gravity!

Can you improve your marathon PR with a course that has 5,100’ of net vertical descent? Perhaps finally nab that elusive Boston Qualifier (BQ) time? Or does the promise of going fast down a hill for hours simply end in a quad-killing DNF? That’s the challenge of the fast growing REVEL Series of road marathons/half marathons, now in its fourth year, and one that I set out to test on my birthday weekend at the 2018 Mt. Charleston Marathon. The result? A new PR marathon time of 2:39:35, and a week on the couch trying to recover. It was fast, but it definitely wasn’t easy!

I first noticed the Mt. Charleston Marathon last year when fellow ultrarunner, Ian Sharman, clocked an outstanding 2:20 to win the race, a solid 11 minutes off of his personal best. It was no surprise Ian would do well on a downhill course – if you’ve ever watched him at Western States or Leadville, you know that he is one of the most gifted downhill runners in the sport. But 11 minutes off an already speedy PR?!? That’s insane. Then again, so is the Mt. Charleston course – net 5,100’ descent in a 20-mile stretch of road down Kyle Canyon in the Red Rocks area outside of Las Vegas, then a flat sprint across the desert to the finish. A perfect course for Ian, perhaps a nightmare for the rest of us. But only one way to find out!

My previous marathon PR stood at 2:43:54 going into the race, set at the 2016 Camarillo Marathon thanks to a flat course and perfect weather. In truth, my workouts would indicate I am in 2:48 shape right now, and I just comfortably ran a 2:53 at the stormy Boston Marathon. I’ve always dreamed of breaking 2:40 (my personal “four minute mile”), so I’d need a solid 8-9 minute gravity advantage to do that. I got some great advice from top coaches on downhill running technique, and made some modifications to my training plan to be ready. As ready as possible, anyway!

My bib said “birthday boy” (it was my 49th bday…new age group coming soon!) so there was plenty of conversation in the plush buses that took us up the canyon. Most of the runners were already on their second or third Revel Race, and had great stories about the beautiful downhill courses of Big Bear, Cottonwood, Canyon City, Mt. Lemmon, and other locations. These are all fast downhill courses, but they are also just well run road races in beautiful parks and canyons. For about half the runners, this was a focused BQ attempt. For the rest, it was a great time with friends. In particular, there seemed to be a lot of former regular Rock n’ Roll Marathon runners who were “moving on” now that those races have lost some allure. That would explain the fast growth rate – the Mt. Charleston Marathon is 4x bigger this year, and sold out in just a few weeks.

(Chilling in the Lodge)
The Mt. Charleston Lodge and Visitor Center opened their doors at the start, so we had a nice cozy place to get ready and watch the desert sunrise. It was already warm (low 60’s), and would hit the 90’s by noon, so not quite the ideal snow flurries at the beginning last year. I ran into defending champion Ian Sharman while warming up, who planned to go out at 2:20 pace again and hope for the best. I knew Otter Pops would begin at mile 19 for all of us.

(Ready to roll!)
The gun went off, and 1,500 of us made a short loop in the thin mountain air before beginning the long descent. Ian and a handful of fast runners quickly disappeared into the horizon, and by mile 2, I found myself trading a 5:40 min/mile pace with the lead woman, Selina Sekulic. Selina’s long strides were amazing (I later found out she was a former Wake Forest Cross Country All American), and I did my best to keep her in sight. Miles went by quickly, and it seemed like I was racked up PR’s left and right at the 5k (16:40), 10k (36:40), and half marathon (1:15:40) before pulling off for a quick bio break. I couldn’t see anyone but Selina for miles.

(Trading off the pace with Selina, who got her own bike escort! Also, free photos for all runners)
(Canyon runs provide a beautiful venue)

When we pulled out of the canyon and onto the flat desert roads of mile 19, I passed a walking Selina and a jogging Neil Galvez, and got my first sense of how much those hills had taken a toll on our collective quads. Ruh-roh! I’ve heard the phrase “blown my quads” before, but honestly I have never been sure what that meant. Now it made sense – first I was having trouble stabilizing each stride, which in turn became a numbness that shortened my stride to a shuffle, and by mile 22, it was involuntary walk breaks every half mile. Add to this that the thermostat was climbing into the 80’s, this was going to be a struggle to the end.

(Loneliness of the sub-elite runner...get 'er done!)

Luckily there were plenty of half marathoners on course, and we cheered each other along. A few said “you’re number 3!” as I walked, which (true or not) was more than enough to get me going again. Otter Pops were a godsend, both as hand coolers and quick bursts of energy. I didn’t look at the clock until I turned into the final chute, and seeing 2:39’ish, sprint hobbled across in 2:39:35 for 3rd overall. My new downhill-adjusted PR!


As I cheered in Selina (winning the Women’s division in 2:43:31, her first road marathon ever), we stumbled our way to refreshments before crashing onto the grass field. Wow! This course really took a lot out of us. Ian Sharman (2:24) had repeated as the winner, with Preston Gardner (2:35) taking second. Kristen Thorne (2:49) and Sarah Bard (2:50) came within a minute of each other to take the last two podium spots for the Women. (all results)

(Great day all around!)
Once I regained my ability to shuffle, I hung out in the Lagunitas beer tent and heard all the stories of PR’s (most around 6-8 minutes, some as much as 30 minutes), and finally getting that BQ (roughly 30% of the runners would qualify). It was clearly an all or nothing bet for many – Jessi Goldstein took 8 minutes off her best half marathon, and went into sub-1:40 territory, while John Burton flew for 14 miles before coming to a complete stop. For many of the finishers, this race was about the wonderful experience of watching the sunrise in the beautiful canyon as Spring took hold, and a great party at the end.

I might need a wheelchair, and might have to forever put an asterisk next to my new PR, but I am really glad I came out to experience this new race format. After hearing how others prepared, it was clear if I had done more long runs (10k+) downhill and held back a minute more on the first half, I could have found another 3-4 minutes off my time. For those of you looking for a fast and beautiful challenge, I’d highly suggest it! A PR may be waiting for you…

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Wet and Wild 2018 Boston Marathon

Courage in the face of great odds.

Triumph over adversity.

When the prepared overcome the unexpected.

When we, the endurance warriors, toe the line at a race, this is the shared and unspoken dream we hope unfolds. We don’t train so it all goes easily; we train to be laughing at the top of our lungs when the shit hits the fan at Mach 2. If it doesn’t, we just sign up for a new race and go longer, higher, harder, and in more extreme conditions until it does. It is the perpetual pursuit of the real.

And when “the real” delivers? Ooohh man, that’s the good stuff. Ambrosia for the soul. Stripped to the core, ditching our self-imposed ego baggage along the way out of sheer survival, the finish line cleanses us in unexpected ways every time. We dig deep to get there, unearthing pockets of courage, persistence, and humility that powers us beyond our own high expectations, then cross that finish line forever changed. For days afterwards, every moment has a perfect beauty...a glow that hums from the bruises, chafe, and lactic acid-filled muscles that scream in harmony with every handrail-gripping step down the stairs. Those around us may question why we do this, but we know why. It is nothing short of glorious.

(Runners tackling the weather at the 2018 Boston Marathon, photo courtesy of The Boston Globe) 
The 2018 Boston Marathon delivered big time. In 14 consecutive Bostons, I have never seen anything like the nonstop weather calamity of this one. From this day forward, “I ran Boston in 2018” is instant legacy and permission to tell the tale of snow drifts and mud fields at the start, the relentless 20-30mph headwinds that kept the wind chill below freezing, and the endless sheets of rain that sent thousands to the medical tents along the course. A coach at the finish line summed it up perfectly for me - if you made it to Boston 2018, you are a hero. If you finished, YOU ARE A GOD.

(Yes, that's snow along the tent, and enough mud to soak every foot)

(Layer up!)
I arrived at the start layered up like I was trying to avoid an airline $25 luggage fee by wearing all of my clothes at once. Inov-8 shirt, vest, sleeves, gloves, cashmere hoodie (that the moths got to), peacoat (a gift two sizes two big), jeans, a homemade garbage bag hoodie that a homeless guy showed me how to make, extra shoes to toss at the start, and a big roll of contractor garbage bags to hand out (they lasted 15 minutes). My fellow warriors were similarly clad, with extensive use of grocery bag-wrapped feet, shower caps, and hazmat suits. The snow was piled up along the tents in the athlete village, and three inches of mud faced anyone trying to enter, yet there were plenty of smiles and cheers of encouragement once you got in. You don’t come to Boston and not run. You come to eat up everything it has to offer. It was good to have some playmates!

(Layered up and ready to roll!)
I was in Corral 2 this year (#1644…gotta work on that), but had no visions of PR’s today despite being fit. Pictures were also a no go, so the focus would be on “just don’t get hypothermia”. We all yelled out a cheer as the elites lined up at the start – once again, it was the best runners in the world, with a particularly deep field of Americans in the Women’s division (Shalane, Des, Huddle, etc.). I found comfort knowing they were right in front of us, all in for the big dance, come hell or high water (and a forecast for both).

As we sang the national anthem and did the final countdown, I stripped down, but couldn’t get myself to shed the warmth of the soaked cashmere hoodie cinched tight around my face. It may not be fashionable, and the sleeves were already hanging to my knees, but dang, it was comfy! So be it. My first Boston in a cinched cashmere hoodie with seal flipper sleeves. Let’s roll!

(And we're off! Photo courtesy of The Boston Globe)
It only took a mile before the waves of rain came like the apocalypse, but we got strength from cheering Bostonians who lined the streets in their duck shoes and umbrellas (and a few semi-naked just for fun). The speed of the clouds felt like time lapse thanks to the headwind, and you could see each black cluster of rain and sleet soar through the sky before pelting us with half frozen evil delight. There were some groans, but if it got too bad, you could count on yet another runner doing a Bill Murray Caddyshack impression saying “I don’t think the heavy stuff is going to come down for quite a while”. Yup, still funny!

(Fa, fa, fa, fashion! Photo courtesy of USA Today)
By the 10k mark (40:52), the temperature had dropped again (felt about 35 degrees), and I tucked in with a group of runners that were moving fast. The fog of their charging breath whipped past my head, and the puddle stomping made it feel like rain was coming in all directions. Intros were short, using first name and city/country for brevity, but I soon found “Jamie, Buffalo”, “Rolf, Switzerland”, “Michael, Indianapolis”, and “Rico, Sao Paulo” to be just the right pace. I felt warm enough to chuck the hoodie, just before getting a photo with Santa and having my GoPro die.

(The ever-enthusiastic women of Wellesley)
(...except for that hot shower!)
The women of Wellesley (mile 11) were sparse this year, but those who showed made up for it with soaking, screaming enthusiasm. I swapped wet sloppy kisses on the cheek with my favorite sign holder (“blue lip kisses rule!”), then pushed on through the halfway point (mile 13.1) in 1:24:22. Although I wasn’t paying attention to time, a quick pace was required to keep hypothermia at bay!

(Only the bravest would courtesy of The Boston Globe)
The temperature picked up a well-needed five degrees once we hit the hills of Newton, but Mother Nature made up for it with a relentless wind that tossed us back and forth. The medical tents were all full of runners at this point (mile 16-20), and we were still in the first 1,500 runners! I would later learn that nearly 2,500 were treated for hypothermia symptoms. The critical error seemed to be slowing to a walk and not being able to warm back up, so I kept on my food and hydration and stuck to the quick pace.

By mile 23, my hands and feet were permanently numb, and my hearing started to go (this happens when I get super cold) so I grouped with a few more runners. “Daniel, Denver”, “Brian, Texas”, and I encouraged each other to the final stretch then went bananas for the finish line. Boylston gave us a welcome tailwind for about a half a mile, and I finished in 2:53:22 for 819th. A cold but controlled race, feeling good at the finish, so I was quite pleased with the result.

(Des Linden decisively captures the win)
(Yuki Kawauchi, the nicest elite there is, takes home the win)
It wasn’t until I jogged back to my Airbnb rental and jumped in a hot bathtub fully clothed that I learned that Yuki Kawauchi (2:15) had won, and Des Linden (2:39) had won the Women’s division (American women took 7 of the top 10 slots), both breaking 30+ year firsts. Des had her full jacket and mittens on at the finish, and had once again run a nearly perfect split in her sixth attempt. I was so stoked for her! In her post race interview, she recommends to everyone else to just “do the hard work, and keep showing up”. Yup, so true, and something all of the finishers today can relate to.  It was extra special that two of the most humble athletes in our sport came out on top in the most dramatic conditions.

(A little pub fare to get warmed up again)

(A finish worthy of celebration!)

I warmed up enough to hit the Boston pubs and relish my favorite part of the weekend, which is hearing the stories of triumph for all the other runners. The veterans among us assured the first timers that this was an epic year, and it couldn’t possibly get any worse. Or maybe, just maybe, it will! Either way, you have to come back. ;-) The tales poured out from Miami, Colorado Springs, Mexico City, Dublin, Tokyo, Auckland, Nashville, Milton (MA), all with camaraderie and a renewed sense of passion. We were all aglow.

My thanks to the great city of Boston, the race directors, and the hearty volunteers and cheering crews who stayed out there all day for us. You are the reason this is one of the greatest races in the world! Also a big thanks to inov-8 for keeping me fast, and Injinji for miraculously leaving my feet with no blisters after 26.2 miles in the rain,  I will see you again next April, if not sooner!