Sunday, December 27, 2015

Looking Back to Look Forward: Taking My Own Advice

As 2015 comes to a close, it is a good time to reflect on the year of running (and life) and think about goals and plans for 2016. It starts before 2015 though. When I ran my first "Ultra" in 2008 (The Mystery Mountain Marathon put on by the Georgia Ultra Trail Running Society) I never really thought I'd get into running as a thing. I was just there to hang out with Reeve and spend some time on the trails with him. He'd gotten me into distance running as a cool way to see the mountains. We went out for long days together to just explore. It was a lot of fun, but I hadn't considered myself someone who would make running a major part of my life. I was into climbing, kayaking, and riding bikes. But, Reeve wanted to run a lot, and I wanted to hang out with him, so that's what we did.

Fast forward to 2010 when my Marine buddies and I decided to put on 100 Miles for Swisher.  I started running every day and figured I'd run a 100 miles to honor my friend and that would be it. Along the way, I ran my first 50K, 50 miler, and eventually in August of 2011 my first 100. I was hooked.

Even then, though, racing wasn't really on my radar. Running was just a way to get out in the mountains and explore. I never thought I'd be fast enough to really race. The following year, I ran Rocky Raccoon 100 and still I didn't see myself racing. I just didn't think I was "built for racing" and just decided it was a fun way to meet people and challenge myself. I had always seen myself as someone who's just good at enduring. Here's the "life" part. I had gotten in the habit of encouraging people and telling them they could do things they didn't think they could do. But, I wasn't really taking that advice. I was just running and doing things that I liked because they were hard. I didn't think I was capable of going "fast" on those long runs. It really wasn't until Umstead last year that I began to see the potential that I wasn't seeing in myself.

Ginger was a huge part of helping me unlock this and access my own advice. Jordan and Brett were also instrumental in helping me push past the limitations I was placing on myself.

Ginger and I decided to do the "Whole 30" diet in April, and that's when things really started to change for me in terms of running. I wrote about that here. 2015 was an incredible year in terms of racing for me. Here's a little recap of my gradual progression from "happy to finish" to "exploring what's possible" in terms of running.

January- Lakeside Trail Race 15 Miler: 10th Overall 2:21
February- Dirty Double Trail Marathon: 11th Overall 5:11
March- Umstead 100: 55th Overall 22:51 (Over a 2 hour PR)
June- Eastern Divide 50K: 14th Overall 5:23
August- Draper Mile: 5:16 (huge mile PR)
September- Iron Mountain 30 Miler: 7th Overall 4:59
                   Barkley Fall Classic: 22nd Overall 10:49
October-New River Trail 50K: 2nd Overall 4:00 (50K PR)
              Pacing Reggie and to the boys at the Always Brothers 100 (the night after New River)
November: Richmond Marathon: 135th Overall, 11th in AG 3:09 (BQ and 26.2 PR)
December: Frosty 5K 6th Overall, 1st in AG, 19:03 (Fastest 5K since 1999)

Getting a huge PR at Umstead and breaking 24 hours was a big day for me, but the biggest highlight for me in terms of my own running this year was New River Trail 50K.

I never thought I would find myself on the podium at an Ultra. I just didn't think it was possible for me. But, here's the thing about taking your own advice: You gotta do it. Ginger, Brett, and Jordan really helped me see that I'm capable of more than I think. Chris Larson really pushed me that day to run hard, and my friend Pawel has helped me immensely in terms of learning to run smart races. I am grateful for that support. It really carried over at Richmond where I was able to smash my 26.2 PR and run well under my BQ time requirement.

Better than all of those results, though, was watching Ginger have a great year running. She hit a huge Marathon PR at Richmond, and she had a great race at Eastern Divide. She's running so strong and it's been fun to see.

Right along with that was watching my friends achieve their goals. I was able to see Jordan have a great race at San Diego 100 and help Nelson gut out an amazing finish at Eastern States 100.

Sean and Amy ran their first marathons at Richmond, and seeing them accomplish this goal was awesome.  Sharing the trails with my friends all year long was such a gift.

Finishing the Catawba Runaround with Jordan was another major highlight.

Hanging out with Ginger at races and on the trails is just about my favorite thing to do.

Exploring the mountains with Josh, Jordy, Brett, Pawel, Sean, Royce, Robbie, Chris, and the rest of the crew makes living in Blacksburg even better than it would be otherwise (and that's pretty damn good).

So, what did I learn from a year of racing and watching my friends push themselves? We can ALL do more than we think we can. I'll take that lesson with me into 2016.

I've set a few goals for 2016 in terms of racing. I plan to race a little bit less in order to focus on a couple of goal events. #1 will be Umstead 100 in April. I'd like to improve my time there. #2 is Grindstone 100 in October. I'll do Lakeside in January because it's fun. Holiday Lake 50K in February because it's now a fun family tradition, and Eastern Divide 50K in June because it's probably my favorite 50K. But, all of those races will be done with an eye towards my two goal races. Grindstone has been become a special race to me after pacing last year and working an aid station (Reddish Knob Rave Station with Captain Jordan Chang) this year. It's a Hardrock 100 qualifier and that's a serious bucket list race for me. I hope to make to to the starting line of Umstead and Grindstone healthy and well-trained. I plan to take my own advice and believe that I can go faster than I once thought I could.

But, I'll remember the what my friend Doug Geiger said about white water kayaking back in the day: "It's just a hobby. Like model trains or something."

Running is, after all, just a hobby. It doesn't pay any bills. The results don't matter in the grand scheme of things. But it IS an important way to stay healthy and share new experiences with Ginger.

It's also a great way to build relationships with my friends, give back to my community, and challenge myself. So, I'll keep that in mind. Family will always come first, and friends will always be a major priority. Running will just be what it always is: a way to explore and be part of an amazing community.

 So, as 2015 ends I'll go into 2016 grateful for Ginger's support (thanks for encouraging me and helping me be a better person and a better runner).

I'll also be  thankful that I have an amazing group of friends to share the trail with.

Happy Running my friends.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

New River Trail 50K and Always Brothers 100 2015

 Last weekend was one of my favorite weekends we've had in quite some time. I'm always trying to figure out how to do ALL of the things that are important to me and not miss anything. I'd say this weekend was  pretty big success in that regard.

I have been wanting to get back to the New River Trail 50K for a couple of years. Ginger and Chris have both been keen to toe the line at this race this year, and Sean was game to run farther than he ever had before, so we all committed to heading down to Fries on Saturday. In that sense, I would be able to do one of the most important things to me: enjoy a fun day with my awesome wife and friends at a race. The rub was this: It was the same weekend as the Always Brothers 100 this year.  The Always Brothers event is one of the most important things I do each year, and I didn't want to miss that. I knew it would take some doing, but I figured there was a way to do it all. So this is the story of trying to get it all done.

First Things First: New River 50K
The New River 50K is a great trail race in Fries, NC that gives you the opportunity to run a flat, fast 50K. They even give a certified Boston Qualifier split at the marathon point. This made the race particularly attractive to me because I've always thought it would be cool to qualify for Boston even though I am not really a marathoner. I always prefer to run longer because I'm not fast. I'm more of a grinder. I've been focusing on speed more lately to try to get faster at Ultras. I felt like I had the speed to have a good 50K and still be at least close to a BQ time. I've never actually tried to run a fast marathon before. I figured this time was as good as any to try.

We all showed up Saturday morning cold but ready to roll. Ginger has been running strong, so  I was excited to see how she could do. Chris is crazy fast and I was just hoping to keep him in sight all day. Jim Trixler (one of our new BBurg buddies) was ready to test out his legs on his second 50K. Sean was fit and ready to crush the 25K.

This was a great collection of folks to have a fun day with.

Here's Ginger and me ready for the big day.

The 50K Start to the Turnaround. 
Chris and I started off at the head of the pack and we were both hoping to ease into the race-- being careful to not go out too hard. Pawel has been coaching me on actually racing with a plan, and I intended to stick to it. I figured I would ease into a 7:28 average pace for the first half, which would leave enough in the tank to push it in the last miles before the marathon split if needed. From the gun, Vladimir Bannas went out hard, and Chris and I just let him go. I knew he had run 16 hours and change at Umstead in the past, so I figured if he wanted the win he would have it. There was no reason to chase him down and blow up. Chris and I kept him within a minute for the first 10 miles, but he put 3 minutes into us by the 16.5 mile point. No worries. We were solidly in 2nd and 3rd place so we just ran a pace we were comfortable with. It was great to see Ginger and Jim on the out and back sections. They both looked happy and comfortable. After seeing Julia at the turn around and swapping water bottles, Chris and I headed towards the marathon split and the finish line. Right in line with my race plan, the average pace at this point was 7:28. Nearly perfect.

The Turnaround to the Marathon Split
Chris didn't feel like he had the legs to go hard and run sub 3:10 for the marathon, so he stayed with me as I was hoping to still snag a 3:15 at the 26.2 mark. We tried to ramp up the pace and we were doing well until mile 22. Then, I just couldn't get the legs moving fast enough to get under the 7:28 pace without burning matches that I didn't have. I knew, at this point, I still had 9 miles of racing left and I didn't want to risk losing 2nd place in the 50K. I had been running there all day, and a podium spot in an ultra was too big a carrot to give up for a fast marathon time. Still, I did what I could and figured I'd just go as fast as I could without blowing up until 3:15 passed. Miles 25 and 26 proved to be my undoing for the BQ split. I passed 26.2 at 3:17:26. Good for a 10 minute PR, but not good enough for Boston. I wasn't worried though. The A goal was a podium spot in the 50K and I knew that was possible if I saved enough energy to hold off any last minute challenges. Running at the head of a race was something I've never experienced before. I LOVED IT!

26.2 to the Finish Line
Once I crossed 26.2 split, I waited up for Chris who had fallen a minute behind. I knew I would do much better in the last 5 miles if we were together. We had run together all day, and I wanted to finish with my buddy. Chris and I encouraged each other to keep going until we finally had the finish in our sights. I was flagging a bit at mile 30, but 2nd place was in the bag and I was pushing to get as close to 4 hours as possible at this point.

Here's me learning into the finish. Photo: Sean Raines

I finished in 2nd place at 4 hours and 40 seconds. Chris was right behind me in 3rd at 4 hours and 50 seconds. I'm so grateful to him for running with me all day. He's such a talented runner and a good friend. I also owe a big thanks to Jordan, Brett, Royce, Andy, and Pawel for training with me these last few months. Pawel's advice on pacing and planning have been crucial. Thanks to these guys and to Ginger for all of the love and support. My first ever ultra podium spot is due to all of you. THANK YOU!

Chris and I had a good time catching our breath at the finish.

Soon after, Ginger came flying across the finish line. 3rd female! 14th OVERALL at 4:49:08

She is running so strong lately, and I'm so proud of her. She is beyond a doubt the best wife in the world and my best friend!

 I also want to throw a shout out to Sean Raines. Sean has joined our crew of bad idea lovers lately, and he crushed the 25K race. He won his age group, and will be running ultras before you know it. Jim Trixler had a great day with a 5:24 finish.

Sean and me chilling at the finish.

New River Trail 50K Final Thoughts
I am very pleased with how the day went. For the first time ever, I went into a race with a really solid plan for racing. Not just finishing or finishing inside a time goal. I paid attention to my splits and ran smart. When the BQ was slipping away, I told myself to just race the race I was racing. Or as my friend Jeff Goodman would say, "Just do what you are doing." It worked. Here is a link to my Strava data for the race. I'll be looking for the BQ at the Richmond Marathon in November, and I'm confident that I can pull it off. I'll be leaning on Pawel for good advice on how to pace it out. 

Always Brothers 100: The 2nd Thing but Really the Main Thing
Those of you who know me know that I really got into Ultras as a way to honor my fallen brothers. Captain Tyler B. Swisher was the guy who inspired it all. I served with him at Camp David longer ago than I really care to admit. He died 10 years ago today in Iraq. Tyler lives on with us each day because he inspired a community. I will always be grateful to him for this among many other things.

In 2011, my buddies and I ran from Thurmont, Maryland to his grave in Arlington. Here's a link to a documentary about that run. The boys from Always Brothers and I have done 100 mile event each year to honor Tyler, the boys from Lima Co 3/25, MSGT Aaron C. Torian from my old unit (2nd Recon, later MARSOC, and now once again the Marine Raiders). These runs mean more to me than any race I could ever run because they are an attempt to show the families of these men that we love them and value their sacrifices. Our event this year was a run from Columbus Ohio (home of Lima Co.) to Mariemont, Ohio (Tyler's home). So, once I finished New River and went home to shower, I got back in the car and drove to Ohio to join my brothers for the last portion of our 100 mile event. The Always Brothers crew, especially Dan, Paul, Ky, Ivan, Brian, and Gary did some amazing work to make this year's event happen. Reggie O'Hara and GYSGT Gene Bryant ran like men possessed. 

I arrived around 11 pm in time to join the boys and pace Reggie O'hara (a beast of a man) through the final legs of the event. I got there in time to lace up my shoes and join Reggie around mile 77.

I ran about 15 miles with him though the night, and then took a break to finish the last 3 miles with the Reggie, the boys, and some of the family members. At the finish, we celebrated the lives of our friends and honored them with our normal ceremonial whisky. Only this year, we had some special whisky that Bob Derga had arranged for from the good folks at Makers Mark. Bob is an inspiration. He lost his son Dustin and has been a steadying hand in our organization for over four years now. I love Bob, and we would not have had a successful run in any of the last 4 years without his support. He has driven a chase vehicle behind us every step of the way in each of the last 4 years. He has provided us with invaluable guidance and support in so many ways. We love you Bob!

The drive to and from Ohio was worth every minute. Getting to spend time with my Brothers, honor my friends, and spend time with their friends and families is a gift that I am lucky to receive. When I think about what running means to me, at the top of the list is that it makes all of those things possible. I know we can never really ease the burdens these families are carrying, but we try. Semper Fidelis and Semper Fratres.
Wrapping It Up

I am so grateful that I can do the things I love to do and share running with Ginger and all of my friends. I'm lucky to have a supporting wife who encourages me to be me and do the things that make me happy. I'm grateful that my friends and family support the cause that I love and push me to explore what I am capable of. I'm looking forward to the next adventure, but I'm always treasuring the adventure I'm presently pursuing. Thanks to everyone who makes that possible. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Barkley Fall Classic- Escape From the Hole: Survival First

I feel a bit like a kid who has just put his hand on hot stove for the SECOND time. You know, that kid who wandered up to a stove burner and curiously grabbed it to see what would happen. The kind of kid who, after his hand has healed, sees a stove burner again and decides to grab it a second time to see what would happen. Only this time it was a gas stove instead of just an electric burner. That’s how I would describe running the Barkley Fall Classic for a second time. But, I am getting ahead of myself here, so let me back up.

I did the Barkley Fall Classic (BFC) last year. It's the training wheels version of the Barkley Marathons, which is an epic 100 mile (plus?) race put on by the King of Suffering Gary Cantrell aka Lazarus Lake. That race is a PhD in suffering that only 14 people (I think that's accurate) have actually completed since the race began back in 1986. Many years, like this year, no one actually finishes the race. It's a race so hard that the world's most experienced ultra runners vie for spots in knowing that simply completing a single lap on the course would be a serious accomplishment. The race is 5 loops. Here's a link to a cool documentary about the Barkley Marathons

Last year, Laz and Steve Durbin managed to get permission from the officials at Frozen Head State Park to run a short version of the race that allows up to 300 people to toe the line and get a glimpse of the Real Barkley. This race is called the Barkley Fall classic-- or BFC-- and it's a fundraiser of the park and the local schools. It's a great cause and the community does a great job of supporting the event. Athletes from the local school, their families, and other folks from the area volunteer on the course and they are amazing.

I've had a morbid facinaction with The Barkely for years now, so I happily threw my hat in the ring last year for the Fall Classic. I completed the BFC last year in 12 hours and 14 minutes. You have 13 hours and 20 minutes to complete the course, which sounds totally do-able. Easy even. If it wasn't a Barkley event. It was billed as a 50K, but most people agreed was around 35 miles with about 10K in gain. It sounds reasonable. It's not. 

I never imagined a race of that length could push me to such depths of pain and effort to complete. I felt that running it was harder the 100s I've run because so much of the race requires you to stare failure in the face. It's not just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other until the trail leads you to the finish. The trail is often non-existent, and you have to find your own way in many places. You have to navigate and push on when all your sense and reason says: "This is stupid. Go home and have a day on the couch." But, I persevered, finished, and (even though I LOVED it) I planned avoid that race in the future.

Until fellow bad idea aficionado Josh talked me into going back with him this year. I talked Royce into it, and we joined forces with Josh's buddy Joe and went over to Frozen Head to dance with the Devil again this weekend.

We arrived in Oak Ridge, TN Friday afternoon in time to check into a hotel, hit packet pick up, and eat the last meal of the condemned. We prepped our gear and went to bed early. When the alarm went off at 5, we ate some breakfast and drove over to Frozen Head so we could embark on this wonderfully terrible idea. 

The sun was just starting to illuminate the dark field where the race begins as we made our way to the start line in time to get a good spot near the front of the pack. There was nervous chatter as we all waited for Laz to light his cigarette, which is how he likes to signal the start of the race.

The first part of the race is an easy mile on the road where you pass through the campground and hit the Yellow Gate where the Big Boy Barkley loop begins. The BFC gives you little tastes of the REAL Barkley. Just little ones, mind you. After getting some encouragement from the VT Ultra crew who showed up to watch the show, Josh, Joe, Royce, and I powered up the first climbs staying near the front of the pack and keeping our heart rates in check. We needed to bank time here to make up for the crazy climbs later in the day. I took the lead and tried to measure out our effort based on my recollection from last year. Just enough to bank time without going into the red. 

The first climbs are really just appetizers for the real part of the race, which began after we climbed Deja Vu Hill and headed off towards an interesting out and back called "Testicle Spectacle". We had stayed mostly together though the first few hours of the race, but we lost contact with Josh just before the "Spectacle" decent and climb. Joe, Royce, and I went down the first pitch of what felt like a double black diamond ski hill covered in briars, and we could see the leaders way off in the distance at the bottom where they looked like little ants on a hill. We all thought: Ugh! We have to get to the bottom (fighting our way through briars since there is not real trail here) and then retrace our steps up this insane climb?! Of course we do.

We had to do it all of that knowing that this was not the hardest climb of the day. Our trip down and back up "Testicle Spectacle" was hard. It was hot, slippery, and required some serious scrambling though the briars, but we made it.
Note: that this section replaced a much easier out and back climb from last year's course. 

After we got back to the top, we had a nice trip down "Meth Lab Hill" which brought us to the old Brushy Mtn Prison. Much of this section (Not Meth Lab, of course) was an oddly runnable section that I suspect Laz and Steve included to give the field a fighting chance at finishing. You have to be able run fast somewhere to make it ahead of the cut offs. I was grateful for this chance to bank some time. The prison came into view. It's eerie- even in the daylight- and spectacular. I can't imagine coming into this place on a cold, foggy night like you have to do several times during the REAL Barkley.

Once there, we ran through the actual prison checking out the cells, we got our bibs punched when we made our way down into "The Hole" which was a dank solitary confinement cell. Pictured below is just a normal cell on the tour. There was no light in The Hole. 

After leaving the prison, we got to experience ALL of the Rat Jaw climb. Last year we only did the final two pitches of it. This climb was insane. Seriously. I'm not kidding. It is truly Epic in it's steepness. You literally had to kick steps into the dirt to scramble your way up the first 25 feet. 

If I remember correctly the bottom of the pitch is called "gunnysack hill" because you look like you climbed out of a gunny sack filled with cats when you emerge onto the road at the top of the hill. I have the cuts on my arms and legs that prove that description to be an accurate one. I'm serious. At work on Monday morning a colleague looked at my arms as I sat down in a meeting and said: "Did your cat do that?" I smiled sheepishly and said, "Nah, I had a race this weekend." I am fairly certain they think I'm a few eggs short of a dozen. They're not wrong. 

Anyway, back to Rat Jaw. Joe and I lost contact with Royce on the 2nd pitch up the climb. This climb requires you to just move as fast as you can. It was hot and water is at a premium. You want to get out of the sun (it's very exposed and humid because you're tunneling through briars), so we knew we might get split up. I had made sure that Josh, Royce, and Joe knew the key navigation moves required to find the top of the mountain, so splitting up was all good at this point. 

When Joe and I reached the top, we got our bibs punched at the top of the Fire Tower, and then pushed on towards the mile "22" (not really. I can read a map and it's longer than 22 but that's the beauty of this race. Mileage doesn't matter. It's all relative anyway). Joe and I still had dreams of a sub 10 hour finish at this point, and we ran hard to get to the start of the final loop on the Chimney Top Trail, which holds the final climbs of the day. I stopped to grab my trekking poles out of my drop bag (so kind of Steve and Laz to allow this) and put on some dry socks. This stop meant I lost contact with Joe here. He would have dropped me anyway because I was feeling like I was going to throw up and needed to slow down to recover a bit on the climb. I dug deep and got myself right again by eating slowly and forcing myself to drink some more tailwind as I worked my way up the climb. The 10 hour goal was slipping away, but I was resolute to finish this thing in under 11 hours. Heck, I knew just finishing would be an accomplishment. The finish rate last year was like 50%. 

I pushed on and felt better at Chimney Tops. From there it was just a nice 5 mile trail run back to the finish. I pushed at hard as a I could and managed to make my last mile go very quickly. I ran past Laz at the final aid station and yelled my thanks for another amazing day. (Laz and Steve, if you happen to read this: Thanks for a great event and a chance to see the park again. You put on a top-notch event. Please tell everyone who made it possible that we are grateful.) 

So, how did it turn out for this crew of Bad Idea Club members? We made it. 

Joe finished first and was just a bit over 10 hours for 20th overall. I'm grateful that I had Joe to push me for so much of the race. He's a talented runner, and he did a great job of breaking trail on Rat Jaw.
Then I finished in 22nd place at 10:49. Last year, I was in 115th place at 12:14:55. I'll take it.

As I was recovering, Royce rolled into the finish looking strong. He finished 36th overall at 11:16. Great job, buddy! 

As Royce, Joe, and I were rehashing the race, Josh came rolling in. He looked amazing for someone who had to fight off some dehydration (the serious kind). Josh finished 67th at 12:18. Amazing! Josh is a beast, and he is going to crush Pinhoti this year. 

It was really cool that we all managed to finish. Of the 219 starters only 101 made it to the BFC finish line in under 13:20 minutes. I'm proud of our crew. And this was our reward: 

But, we got WAY MORE than a trinket that shows we were stupid and hard enough to suffer through this race.

We got the satisfaction of staring failure in the face and succeeding. This race is a true test of fitness, resolve, navigation, and dedication. It's also a hell of a lot of fun (the Type 2 kind).

I'm really happy to have cut almost an hour and half off my time from last year, especially because the course was longer and harder than last year. When I finished, Steve Durbin mentioned that folks who finished both years generally took 1 and 10 minutes LONGER on  to complete the course. That makes for a pretty big swing for me in the right direction. I'm really grateful that Ginger has been such a huge help in my efforts to improve as a runner. She's running quite strong these days too, so look for a great result from her at the New River 50K next month. I'm also in debt to all my friends who run with me and push me on a regular basis. I'm mostly just grateful that I have the ability to go out and challenge myself like this and do it with such great friends. 

Will I grab the burner a 3rd time. I'd love to say no. I said no Saturday night. But Frozen Head State Park has a unique pull. Kind of like the Bermuda Triangle. So, who knows? We will see what life brings over the next year, and we can all decide if we want to dance with the devil again and stare into that abyss another time. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Iron Mountain 30 Miler: Burn the Ships

I have been wanting to run Kevin Townsend's Iron Mountain race for the last couple of years, but i just hadn't managed to work it out until this year. I'm really glad I did. Kevin and his merry band of volunteers put on a great race over in Damascus, VA on the Iron Mountain trail. He offers a 16, 30, and 50 mile option. Since I have the Barkley Fall Classic coming up in a couple of weeks (Ouch), I opted for the 30 mile version since I didn't want to burn too many matches so close to a return trip to Frozen Head to dance with the devil (Laz) again this year.

Ginger was doing the 16 miler along with Linda, and fellow Bad Idea Club member Josh was doing the 30 miler with me. Jordan was defending his title in the 50 mile race (He won again! He is a human terminator).

We camped out at Bear Tree Friday night after packet pick up, and then got up Saturday morning to head down to the Start/Finish for check in at 6:45. It was nice morning, and the temps were warm but comfortable. I had taken a couple of days off leading up the race, so my legs felt fresh. I  have been feeling strong since Eastern Divide and have managed a couple of nice, long training runs in the mountains the last few weeks, so I was feeling great about Iron Mtn. My strategy was simple. I was going all in on this one. The mantra for this race: Pack your coffin and burn the ship. For once, I wanted to be as close to the head of a race as I could get. My goal was sub 5 hours and a top 10 finish. I wanted to either get that or explode into a million pieces and at the very least have a very hard effort to prep for the BFC in a couple of weeks.

The race begins with 4ish nice, easy miles on the VA Creeper trail as you head up towards Straight Branch and the access trail to the Iron Mountain trail. Josh and I started at a conservative pace to get warmed up, and then I slowly started ramping it up as we got closer to Straight Branch. Once I got to the top of the Straight Branch climb, I started pushing myself to close the gap as much as I could to the lead group that went out a little faster than Josh and I wanted to go. As I worked my way along the Iron Mtn trail, I moved up through the crowd and managed to catch up with some of the 50 milers who had started 30 minutes before the my race did. (Not Jordan, of course. He was long gone).

I was feeling great, and sticking to my plan of eating a Vespa or gel every 45 minutes and refilling my  hand bottle at each aid station. I went with Tailwind in the hand bottle to get some liquid calories to make sure I stayed topped off. Even though it was warm, I figured one hand bottle would be enough since the longest stretch between aid was 7 miles. I did stash another bottle in my drop bag at the turn around (16 miles) in case this gamble didn't pan out and I was running out of fluid.

I moved quickly through the second aid station, grabbing a couple of PB&J square as the awesome volunteers refilled my bottle for me. I normally try to be self-suffient, but they were so nice that they insisted on filling it for me. Then, I took off toward the turn around. Coming into the last two miles on the out, the leader flew past me on the return trip. He was quickly followed by Leif (one of the amazing vast VT Ultra guys). I kept counting runners who were in front of me. I reached the turn around in 8th place. So far, my strategy was paying off. When I came in, Hannah and Jonathan were at the aid station cheering on all the VT runners and they were such a huge help fixing me up with more tailwind in my hand bottle and getting me back out on the course in less than a minute. It was a fast aid stop, which I was grateful for when I started back towards the Finish line and was able to see that I was only a couple of minutes in front of the 9-11 place runners.

Being content with 8th place was not in the plans. I wanted to push this race as hard as I could, so I kept repeating the mantra and pushing as hard as I could. Truth be told, I was thinking of trying to finish in 4:45 instead of just sub-5. At this point, it was a stretch, but possible, so I kept hammering. Around mile 20, I passed the guy who had been in front of me. As I caught him, I ran with him for a few minutes, chatting and sharing encouragement, and then when I had recovered a bit I started pushing to put some time into him and make sure he couldn't catch me right back up.

I started to flag a bit on the final climb before the aid station around mile 22. I looked at my watch and saw that I was moving too slowly. I started playing the mind games: Is someone coming from behind? Am I going to lose a spot. I knew Joey Turner (another local guy in my age group whose time in his previous races I'd used a gauge to know what would get me top 10) was only a few minutes behind at the turn around. Instead of focusing who was behind, I reminded myself that you can only move up if you focus on who is in front of you-- not who is behind you, so I picked up the pace. When in doubt, pin it. So I did.

The last aid station was another blur as the volunteers (thanks, Tammy and the crew) helped me quickly get though the aid. I slammed a cup of Mtn Dew, a coke, and grabbed a few PB&J squares and a banana and took off again. When I got back to the Straight Branch junction, I grabbed a water jug from the stash there and topped off my hand bottle. Sub 5 was looking possible. Sub 4:45 was slipping away, but I kept racing like it was still a possibility. My strategy with time hacks is to run like they are possible until they actually pass. It seems to work really well.

When I got to the final decent, which is a two mile section that is crazy steep and littered with baby skulls, I just kept pushing as hard as I could. Finally, I got through that section, still feeling strong, and hit the last mile marker that appears when you hit the pavement and leave the woods. 1 mile to go. I had 7 minutes and change to cover that last mile if I wanted to get in under sub 5. At that point, I just decided to run as hard as I possible could. I gave it all I had. I snuck a glance at my watch. The pace: 6:35. But, sub 5 was right there for the taking, so I dug deep and took it.

I came into the finish at 4:59:34. 7th place. I made it. And not without the help my awesome VT Ultra friends and the great volunteers. My aid station time for the race was 3 minutes. I could not have done that without the help, so thank you so much!

Here's a link to the Stava data if you want to see the course. Note: my Garmin consistently reads short on mileage:

It felt great to achieve the goal and have a great race. I owe Ginger a great debt for helping me train and for making sure that we have been eating so healthy lately. Her support is so important to me and I am so grateful.

I also am really grateful to my friends (like Jordan, Brett, Royce, Josh, and the whole BBurg crew) for pushing me to get faster. The VT Ultra crowd has been such an inspiration and has really made me have new love for racing.

Ginger had a great race in the 16 miler and she came in 7th female. She is a beast! She is such a great runner and the worlds most awesome wife. She got me registered for Umstead when she finished!!! She rocks!

It was another fun weekend, and I (as always) feel like the luckiest guy in the world to have such a great family and amazing friends. Now, it's time to get back to work, finish prepping for the BFC over in Frozen Head, and continue enjoying life.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Draper Mile: A Blacksburg Tradition

Since we moved to Blacksburg last summer we've found no shortage of cool events. Last year, Ginger and I tried our feet (ha ha) at the Draper Mile. It's a one mile foot race that starts near our house and ends one excruciating mile later downtown at the Stepping Out Festival. We don't typically run in races that short because Ginger and I tend to favor longer distances where you can measure out your effort and enjoy the scenery of the woods (read: ultras). But, we like hanging out with friends and enjoying local traditions, so the Draper Mile has become a bit of a tradition. Last year was our introduction to the crazy race, and we had a a lot of fun. Ginger even placed in her Age Group last year. This year, she did even better!

Lois came into town for her now traditional Stepping Out Festival visit on Friday afternoon. It was great to see her and catch up before we headed downtown for the race. I left the house for a little warm up run around the neighborhood while Ginger and Lois parked the car downtown with some fresh clothes so we could enjoy the festival after the race. I met Ginger at the Start/Finish just before the race after she'd had a little warm up too.

The race was as painful as I expected it to be. My goal was to see how much time I could shave off from last year, and, hopefully, find my way onto the Age Group podium for a race. I lined up at the start and just took off running as fast I could. It was a little crazy with people getting their feet tangled up in front of me, but I managed to stay out of the chaos and work my way to the side of the road so I could have some room to maneuver. At just past the halfway point, I heard a volunteer calling out splits and I was somewhere around 2:40. My lungs were burning and my chest was really yelling at me: "What are you DOING?!!" it screamed while my legs protested. In true Jens Voigt fashion, I said, "Shut up, legs. Do what I tell you!" and pushed on with my face crinkled up in a mask of pain. I was, as the commentators on the Tour De France might say, unpacking my suitcase of courage all over the road. I was keeping my eye on Ryan, a quick guy from VT Ultra community, and just hoping to close the gap between us before I got the finish line.

I stopped my watch as I crossed the line at 5:16.

This was good for about 20 seconds faster than last year, and second in my Age Group. I'll take it.

Ginger's race (women's elite) went off about 5 minutes after my race did. So I had a couple of minutes to try to start catching my breath and then try to see her come across the finish line. I wasn't able to get to a good spot to see her finish, but I found her as she was walking away from the finish line after running an impressive 6:11!!!!
The girl is quick! Quick enough to be first in her AG. Yeah, she's awesome!

After catching up with Lois, Jordan, Kristen, Heather, and Ryan for a few minutes, Ginger and I did a little cool down jog before joining Lois for a slice of pizza from Benny's. So good!! If you haven't had some, don't sleep on it! Then we enjoyed an evening of walking around taking in the festival and catching up with Lois.

Saturday morning Ginger and I had a nice run on the Huck and then we went up to Floyd to see the Farmer's market and enjoy a little tourist time.

Sunday was another great day as we took Lois on one of our favorite hikes: The Cascades in Pembroke. I was so proud of Lois for making this tough hike look easy.

After the hike we went to the Palisades for brunch. If you haven't eaten brunch there, you'll want to remedy that ASAP. IT. IS. AMAZING. Naps were in order after brunch before we had a great dinner with Jordan and Kristen.

It was a great weekend. It's always nice to have family in town and hang out with friends. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Catching up: New River Trail 50 Mile Meeting of the Bad Idea Club

A few weeks ago the boys and I decided it was time to act on a bad idea that Brett floated last winter when we were getting ready for Umstead 100: Running the length of the New River Trail all at once. He figured it would be a good way to knock out a 50 mile training run. We couldn't get it together prior to Umstead, so it kept floating around in the background. Royce has been wanting to make the jump to running 100s, so we decided an all night training run was something that he needed to get under his belt. This created a perfect mix of ingredients for a great bad idea. With nothing pressing on anyone's calendar this summer, we've all been itching for a little adventure. Jordan was all recovered from San Diego 100, Royce has been killing it mileage-wise lately, Brett has been wanting to get out for a good long run, and Chris has fully invested himself in the world of bad ideas after the Eastern Divide 50K and Sundown 5K nonsense we did back in June, and I'm always up good time on the trail with friends. So, we decided to set a date and make it happen. Friday July 17th seemed like as good a time as any.

The boys assembled at our house on Friday after work, and Ginger saw us off as we loaded up the cars around 6 p.m.

First, we drove down to Pulaski to drop off a car at the Northern Trailhead, then we headed on down to Galax to get started.

Our journey began at 8:23 Friday night. It gave us a little time to get rolling before we had to break out the headlamps. The temperature at the trailhead was 86 degrees. We all thought it would cool off over night. But we were sooooooo wrong. It seemed like it only got hotter as the night went on.

The miles ticked off as the sun went down, and we jogged along having a good time. Somewhere around mile 2 someone said, "48 bottles of beer on the wall" in the sing songy tone of the 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall. We all had a good laugh and hoped someone would remember to bring that back at mile 49. We didn't. But we did have a lot of fun suffering our way through a lot of chaffing and what felt like a night of running uphill on a course we figured would be flat or totally down hill since we were following the New River downstream (It flows south to North). The lesson there: 50 miles is 50 miles and it's going to hurt no matter how "easy" you think the course is going to be.

I had the worst chaffing I've ever had on a run in my life. The heat caused me to feel pretty ill for a couple of miles and I even considered dropping out at one point. But, Jordan, Chris, and Royce all made sure I knew that dropping wasn't really an option. I also thought a lot about Travis Macey's book and the idea that no matter what happens: It's all good mental training. I vividly remember thinking: Would you drop at Leadville or Western States if you were chaffing? The answer is certainly not. So, I pushed on and decided it was a good lesson in pushing through the discomfort that you encounter when doing something that is difficult.

The sunrise was worth every bit of discomfort that I was feeling:

It was a wonderful sight to see the sun peaking above the horizon as we made our way to Pulaski in the early morning hours. We arrived at the northern trailhead in Pulaski happy to be back at the car and ready for breakfast. With 9:23 of moving time and 10:23 of total time since we left the trailhead in Galax, we all felt good about our effort. Here's the link to our Strava data if you're interested:

We were hoping to eat breakfast at the Draper Mercantile store on Saturday morning, but we finished too early. I won't complain about that. We decided to hit the IHOP in Dublin since it was open. They had a buffet. We dominated that buffet and amused our waitress and all the patrons as we shuffled into the restaurant looking like we'd been on a bender. I was walking with a hilarious gait because my legs were so chaffed (should have worn compression shorts), and I'm sure I was a sight to behold.

We couldn't find anyone's data on having completed the trail before, so we are thinking we have the FKT for the New River Trail from Galax to Pulaski at 10 hours and 23 minutes. Of course, someone else may have done this and not published the data. We weren't trying to go fast, and I'm certain someone will run it faster as soon as they have the idea to go knock it out. Plus, Jordan could have easily bolted off and finished hours before we all finished together. The FKT thing is just a funny side-note here, not the goal or the plan. Our goal was to have a fun 50 miles of communing on the trail with good friends. We accomplished that for sure.

My final thoughts on the adventure:
1. Running with friends for long distances in the woods is always worth it.The stories you have to share afterwards are always worth the price of admission.
2. If you're going out to run 50 miles, don't forget to plan for chaffing.
3. The New River Trail doesn't offer much in the way of water resupply. Plan for that.
4. I'm pretty happy with my fitness level. My legs weren't sore afterwards, and I'm pretty happy about that.
5. Big ups to Chris for running 50 miles for the first time in his running career.
6. Bad ideas are the best ideas. I'm looking forward to the next one already.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Eastern Divide 50K: A Weekend Full of Classicly Awesome Decision Making

It's been a fun filled summer so far. June began with a cross country road trip to crew/pace my friend Jordan at the San Diego 100. Jordan CRUSHED the race finishing an impressive 11th overall.

It was a great trip. I was able to visit friends all across the country, hang out with my cool cousins in San Diego, do some exploring in Zion National Park, and get some running done in my favorite place (other than Blacksburg) in Leadville. I spent 3 days running in Pbville and was very happy to see some real progress in terms of my ability to run the Pb100 course. Check out this view from the top Hope Pass.

Getting to the top of Hope feeling good was a real confidence builder, and I'm hopeful that I'll have better luck getting a lottery spot in the race next summer. After two weeks on the road, I was ready to be home. I was missing Ginger, YD, Seamus, and Mookie. It was good to get home.

Last weekend was one of my favorite weekends we've had since Ginger and I moved to BBurg. If you've seen the movie Highlander, you know about The Quickening. That's what this weekend was like: Some of my favorite people assembling in one place to epic things. Jim (Turbo) rolled into town on Thursday, Chris, Josh, and Jill arrived on Friday night. Having a houseful of good friends is one of my favorite things in the world. Brett and Michele officially moved back to town this week, and then a whole host of awesome BBurg folks (Looking at you Royce and Linda) joined us for the Eastern Divide 50. We got an added bonus as Nelson and Robin showed up at the start line.

After a packet pickup Friday night, we had good dinner at our house and then got some sleep to prepare for Eastern Divide 50K Saturday morning. We all slept as well as you can sleep the night before the race, and then arrived at the start line pumped for a big day.

As the gun went off, Josh, Royce, Brett, Chris, and I began the first climb of the day at a reasonable pace.

Ginger, Turbo, Linda, and Nelson began the climb at smart, measured paces, which enabled all to have great races.

Eastern Divide is one of my favorite races. Kirby (the RD) does an amazing job and the course is great mix of hard climbing and very runnable sections. I had a really rough day last year there, but I knew I was trained and ready to have a good race this year.

I had a good strategy and a solid goal. My goal was to get finished in under 5:30. A reasonable goal given the changes in diet and training since last year. My strategy was to hopefully stay with Josh, Royce, and Brett without going too hard in the first 9 miles. After that, I'd begin to open it up and see what would happen. At mile 6, Brett, Royce, and Chris began to pull away. Josh and I stayed with the plan of a conservative start, so we just watched them head up the trail feeling confident in our plan. The aid station at mile 9 is where the course turns to a very runnable, mostly downhill section until the climb that begins around mile 16. I was feeling great and began to open it up. I was able to pull Brett back (his life has been crazy lately so he was basically running from the couch). During the mile 16-18 climb I was able to start reeling in people and gain some time. The climb felt easy, so I keep pushing. I was careful to be quick through the aid stations. In fact, when I got to the aid station at mile 24ish that Jordan and Kristen were running, I was so focused that I forgot to partake in the awesome freezy pops they were handing out. Jordan looked surprised when I showed up before the usual suspects, and he encouraged me to keep pushing. So I did. After Jordan dumped water on me to cool me off, I took off chasing the three people I could see cresting the hill at the end of the open field past the aid station. I was able to catch and pass this first two people and create some space. The third runner proved more difficult. I was able to pass him, but I couldn't shake him.

In the end, he was able to catch me back up and pass me again. No matter, I was having a great day, and  a lot of fun. The sub 5:30 goal was pretty much in the bag at that point. I kept pushing though. I was thinking that going sub 5:20 would be cool. In the end, I settled for 5:23 and a 14th overall finish.   (Almost 2 hours faster than last year)

Michelle and Jill were a little surprised to see me at the finish. They weren't expecting me yet. Chris had come in at 5:11, which is AMAZING considering it was his first ultra. He is a talented runner, and I was so happy to see him do so well.

After resting and stretching for a few minutes, the buddies started rolling in. Ginger came in at a very strong 6:23 looking fresh and very happy to have beaten her goal by more than 30 minutes. She is awesome, btw.

Linda, Nelson Josh, Brett, and Turbo also had successful days. It was Linda's first ultra, and she turned in an incredible time beating her goal by half an hour.  She is a strong runner, and I was very proud to see her knocking this distance out for the first time. Nelson, always an inspiration, came cruising in with his classic smile. Josh, had some knee trouble (a nagging injury), but he still took 20 minutes or so off of his time from last year. Brett pushed through all that got thrown his way from a tough spring of moving back to town and finished like a beast. Turbo wins the guts and courage award hands down. Being from Dallas, TX means that hill training is not very possible for him. He fought through cramps and big climbs to crush his goal of finishing in under 7 hours. It was such a fun day of watching my friends explore the edge of what's possible.

We all relaxed, recovered, and headed back to the house to get showers and clean up before the SECOND RACE OF THE DAY.

That's right: the 2nd race of the day was the Downtown Sundown 5K. We took Jordan's "More Miles More Fun" mantra to heart. Well, it wasn't really a race for us. It was really a way to just have more fun. Chris ran an impressive time while the rest of us cruised it together enjoying our silly outfits, glowing gear, and embracing the foolishness of doing a 5K after a 50K. We all decided to wear the Eastern Divide race shirt (great job on the shirts this year, Kirby) in the "Wear Your Concert T-Shirt to the Concert" goofy mindset.

All in all, it was a great weekend. It was great to see so many friends and have such a great sense of community around the house. Blacksburg is truly a special place, and Eastern Divide is a great race. Check it out next year. Here's a link to my Strava data from the race if you want to check out the course: