Well the correct term would be “oxygen deprivation tent,” as the unit pumps out O2 at a concentration less than we breathe at sea level. Either way, I bought a frickin altitude tent!
Some friends and great local runners, the Dube’s, told me about the Hypoxico tent they had purchased in an effort to better prepare for Western States (the initial climb to the Escarpment tops out over 8,000ft). Living in San Luis Obispo, we’re privileged to have access to an absolute paradise with everything to offer the avid outdoorsperson, unless you’re training for a high altitude ultra (early miles of Western States, Leadville, Wasatch, Hardrock, etc.). Sleeping in their “altitude tent” for the past several months, both Eric and Tera were proponents of the results they’d seen… easier to run at a higher elevation, stronger on normal runs and no issues with altitude.
In preparing for Western States, we’re trying to prepare for all the variables present in the race:
– Early climbing miles at high elevation
– A fast start by the majority of runners
– Extreme heat in the canyons
– Over 23k of downhill running
– The high potential for blowing out the quads early
– Late, very runnable miles
– Nutrition and hydration issues
Nearly all of the abovementioned variables can be targeted in training and race prep (heat management, packing freaking salt tabs, food choices, training plan modification, etc.), except the altitude. Not having raced an ultra significantly higher than sea level, I’m stumbling into uncharted territory, which fittingly breaks the first rule of ultrarunning…
Don’t try anything new on race day!!!
To best prepare for racing at a high altitude, the most effective option is to live and train at a high altitude. Since we reside in San Luis Obispo and we’re not moving anytime soon, if ever, living and training at a high altitude isn’t likely going to happen. Another option for preparing for altitude is to “Live High, Train Low.” This approach requires runners to live at a higher elevation, and then perform their training at a lower elevation. Again, please read the first sentence of this paragraph to determine if this is a viable option. The altitude tent is the third option.
There are a few different versions of this tent. The most popular option is a thick plastic, tarp-like material that covers the entire bed. When initially asking Alejandra about sleeping in this type of tent, I can’t recall her exact words, but we’ll paraphrase it as, “No chance in hell.”
Some of you may have seen the picture of Michael Phelps’ bedroom, as it’s a fully contained glass structure surrounding his bed. This is another option for the Hypoxico system, albeit the most expensive. Can’t remember my exact thoughts on this system, but we’ll paraphrase it as, “No chance in hell.”
There is also a slimmed down version of this system that utilizes a mask, similar to a C-pap machine. Trying to get a solid night of sleep with this ridiculous mask covering your face, sounding like Darth Vader looked like a challenge, so I went with the fourth option.
The “Head Tent” a term coined by Hypoxico, is essentially just what it sounds like. With several poles creating a frame of approximately half the width of a California King, 18ish inches high and about the same depth, a thick plastic tarp folds over the structure, with a chain weaved into the bottom to keep the tarp in place. Placed inside the tent is a filter connected to a hose that plugs into a rolling compressor. This is the engine and brains of the device, as it determines the amount of oxygen to distribute to the user. Hypoxico did a great job designing this compressor, as there is chart on the unit which has a number that corresponds to a given altitude. As an example, a setting of 8.5 would equate to sleeping at an elevation of approximately 10,000ft. Unfortunately, these types of systems can’t mimic the pressure of higher altitudes, but lowering the amount of available oxygen has a few effects.
Physiologically, when you breathe in less oxygen than what is normally available (i.e. living/sleeping at altitude), the oxygen saturation or amount of oxygen in the body starts to lower. In order to compensate, the respiratory and heart rate increases to extract and supply as much oxygen as possible to vital organs. The body also begins to develop more red blood cells, as these guys transport oxygen throughout the bloodstream. Over time, a person living at altitude will develop an increased amount of red blood cells, making them able to theoretically function at a higher capacity than that same individual living at sea level.
So how the hell do I sell this to Alejandra???
– Being the Super Bowl of ultrarunning, Western States is a race that is incredibly difficult to get into, and this system could help in preparing for early altitude issues
– The head tent looks super small in pictures, so they’ll be plenty of room in the bed
– The compressor would be nearly silent… barely white noise
– It wouldn’t bother Omar… our cat
The last point sealed the deal.
With only one picture that I could find of this head tent, as I didn’t know the specs before ordering the system, it truly made the unit look small. After looking at the picture, Alejandra thankfully didn’t banish me to the guestroom, and allowed the tent as long as it met the topics we discussed.
Arriving a few days later, the UPS driver asked what the hell was in this giant box he carted up to the house. Uh oh!!! I sure hoped there was a lot of packaging material in this behemoth, or the whole “small” debate I’d used when describing the system wasn’t going to hold much water. Thankfully, I had beat her home from work, so I was able to set the unit up before heading out for a run.
Returning home a couple hours later, Alejandra “greeted” me at the door. Normally Carly and I hear, “how was your run?” Not today…
“This thing is huge!” Unfortunately I don’t hear those words too often. Stumbling through my earlier selling points, I promised it wouldn’t be that loud. Shit, I haven’t even turned this thing on yet!
In talking with Dylan Bowman, Hypoxico’s rep and also an absolutely ridiculous ultrarunner, before purchasing the Hypoxico system, my first question was “Seriously man, how loud is this thing?” Dylan explained that his layout was similar to mine, and that it didn’t hinder sleeping. His exact words were, “it’s like a white noise.”
Ok, let’s fire this thing up…
Thankfully the house didn’t rattle when we started up the unit, Carly wasn’t too scared and most importantly, Omar didn’t mind.
So 8 weeks later, I’m still sleeping in an altitude tent and Alejandra hasn’t banished me to the guestroom… yet.
What I learned:
– Before purchasing something that will be in your bedroom, meticulously check the specs
– Don’t trust pictures when trying to determine size
– Altitude tents get warm… really, really warm, so plan accordingly
– Building red blood cell volume requires a lot of iron, so if your numbers are already low, supplementation is a necessity
– As with running, taking your time to acclimate is essential. Firing up the tent to 8,000ft out of the gates isn’t the smartest move if you want to breathe
– Maybe it’s a placebo or more likely the oxygen deficit to the brain, but I sleep like an absolute rock and have some vivid dreams in the tent
– If higher oxygen saturation levels and a lower resting heartrate at the same elevation is a sign of the Hypoxico tent working, then we’re on the right path
All ultra’s are tough! Between juggling all the variables that go into racing (nutrition, hydration, weather, pacing, cumulative fatigue, proper lubing, etc.), most people find comfort in trusting their training.
Working with Thomas throughout the training block for CIM and now into preparing for Western States has been great. With no previous formal training, all of these quality workouts have been new to me. Although I’m still incredibly slow compared to the guys winning high profile races like North Face 50, Lake Sonoma and even Way Too Cool, I’m starting to feel the benefits of training fast. Also, having an actual daily plan makes it much easier to lace up for 5:00am runs.
The four weeks leading up to Way Too Cool were the four largest volume weeks I’ve ever completed (90, 90, 100 and 100), and all had significant amounts of vertical gain. Let alone worrying about WTC, I was nervous how my body would hold up from increasing the volume of training. With no taper and the 100 mile week before WTC having an 8 mile tempo and 3×2 mile workout, there was some definite doubt as to if this was the right training plan for me.
Taking a half day on Friday, I made my way up to the Auburn Running Company to pick up my WTC packet early, so I could sleep in and take my time on race day. Completely forgetting about traffic… that’s right, there is actually traffic outside of San Luis Obispo, I was forced to race the clock barely making it in before the 6pm cutoff. Aside from the usual Friday evening traffic, the pouring rain probably didn’t help much either.
After a quick race packet pickup and dinner at the Royal Thai restaurant in Auburn (the spicy eggplant was incredible), I made my way back to Roseville to crash for the evening.
Staying so close to Cool with a race start at 8:00am, I was able to sleep in until 6… damn, I can get used to this! After a quick shower, breakfast and coffee to go (fully caffeinated on race days), I made my way out to the Cool Fire Station to find a parking spot.
Making the same mistake I made in 2014, I pulled into Cool around 7:00am, and was forced to park just shy of the 1 mile mark. Next time I definitely need to find a better spot.
WTC would be the first ultra that I’ve raced more than once. With perfect weather conditions and a solid race in 2014, I was able to run a 4:17. Being fitter than I was two years ago, I felt confident in running a faster time, but the conditions wouldn’t be so ideal in 2016.
With an hour to go before race time, I went through my usual pre-race routine:
– Top off the water bottle… check
– Lube up everywhere… check
– Pick out the right pair of mud shoes… Icebugs… check
– Make sure my bib is fastened and actually wear a shirt this race… check
– Pick out a pair of shorts to race in… North Face Better than Naked… check
– Put a couple of gels into my shorts… check
– Have I ever raced in these shorts holding gels before??? Oh well… check
– Salt tabs… Oops!
I made my way up to the starting area about 20 minutes before race time to warm up and make one last potty stop. With over 900 runners racing this year, Julie Fingar really has this race dialed in, with frequent and well staffed aid stations along with plenty of toilets situated right next to the start. I sneaked up to the 10th or so row of runners a couple minutes before go time. With a quick countdown, we were off!
Passing my car and the first mile in 6:30 (The first 1.5 miles of WTC are on a paved road), I was sitting somewhere in 50-75th place. There were a ton of speedsters smoking the road, but I knew we’d be hitting single track soon and didn’t want to get stuck behind the slow train. Moving up the pack a few positions before hitting the trail, thankfully the group in front wasn’t afraid to move.
The next several miles were relatively fast, considering the slop we were forced to make our way through. There’s a waist high creek/river crossing in the first few miles, and then multiple water crossings scattered throughout the next few miles. Thankfully it wasn’t raining on us at the start, but the overnight downpour had left its mark with puddles, slippery mud and some heavy creekflow. I settled into a pack behind Brian Purcell, one of the guys I ran against in Point Pinole during a 6hr timed race in 2014. With 800ish runners behind us and a lot of people that wanted to move up, there was a significant amount of jockeying throughout the first few miles.
After moving past Brian, I settled in behind Mark Richtman, a ridiculously fast 60 year old that recently set an age group 50k record, a bulky dude with a HUGE back tattoo rocking headphones and a speedy Amy Leedham that was running as 4th female. We made some good time trudging through the slop from miles 4-8, but the back tat guy kept flying on the down hills, and then slowing down dramatically on the flats and climbs. His breathing was also pretty labored, so I didn’t assume he’d hang around for very long. Unfortunately, he did…
Mr. Back Tat would sprint the down hills past Mark, Amy and I, and then fall back behind us when we leveled out. This wouldn’t have been much of an issue on an open trail, or even this single track in good conditions, but trying to fly past other runners on wet, sloppy single track is a recipe for disaster.
Somewhere between mile 6-7, Mark was leading our pack of four. Back tat was sucking wind but hanging relatively close in second. Amy and I gave Back Tat some room, as neither of us wanted to be in his way when we hit the down hills. Passing through another water crossing as we hit a steep downhill into VERY narrow single track, Back Tat opens up like usual but Mark had absolutely no where to go. Instead of pulling up like any normal runner would do, Back Tat decides it best to try and run right through Mark. Not expecting to get a forearm into his back, Mark turned around and shouted something, likely laced with a few four letter words. Instead of apologizing and asking if it’s ok to pass, Back Tat goes into a rampage cursing and hollering at Mark. All of this is occurring as we’re running low 7 minute miles through some nasty single track, leaping over mud puddles and trying not to slip and fall on our ass. Thankfully for Mark, Amy and I, we hit a decent climb and Back Tat had finally blew his load. He disappeared into the pack, and I took off with Mark.
Mile 8 is the first aid station, where runners cross back through the starting area. Mark and I passed through together in 56 minutes. We spent the next 3-4 miles running together and chatting about upcoming races. We’re both racing Western States this summer and Mark is going after the 60+ record of 20ish hours. Assuming he stays healthy, I think the record is his to lose. Pulling into the 11-12 mile aid station after a solid descent, I stopped to fill up my water bottle and grab another gel. Mark kept moving and I planned to settle into my own pace.
Running by myself for the first time all race, it was nice to focus entirely on my own pace. I kept Mark in my sights, but I wasn’t checking my watch or worrying about pace, and trying to run by feel. Assuming Mark was proficient in his pacing, considering he’s been racing for 30 years, I tried to relax through miles 12-18 before we started to climb. Also somewhere during these early miles, I started to realize that I should have practiced some faster running with gels in these shorts. Even after frequent tightening, these damn things kept riding down!
Miles 18-19 are climbing miles. Runners gain 1,000ft+ in this short distance, after several miles of downhill. Hopefully the quads aren’t too blown, because they’re going to get some work over the last third of this race. This year’s climb felt much more tolerable than 2014, as I recall getting passed by several runners during this section.
Nearing the top of the climb, I heard a loud “WOOHOO,” and turned quickly to see two runners climbing towards me. As we began to level off, one runner passed, then I settled into the middle, in front of Lindsay Tollefson. For the next several miles, we ran together making good time towards Goat Hill, as I pulled my shorts up every few strides.
Goat Hill is the steepest climb of the race, starting at mile 26, that forces most to power hike. After pounding the quads for 18 miles on relatively flat and/or downhill terrain, a couple miles of climbing is followed by another 6-7 miles of rolling singletrack. I was doubly humbled on Goat Hill this year, as I had to hike the main portion of the climb, and I started to feel some cramping coming on. Forgetting to pack salt tabs, I didn’t think much about it until my legs started to seize up after cresting Goat Hill.
We made our way into the aid station at the top of the climb, and I rummaged through the supplies unfortunately unable to acquire any salt. In hindsight, I should’ve took an extra 30 seconds to pound some pretzels or something with salt in it, but I merely topped off my bottle with an energy drink and assumed that I could power through the last 5 miles with no issues…
I shouldn’t assume!
Shortly after leaving the aid station on top of Goat Hill the cramping got worse, and I was forced to hobble/shuffle through the last few miles. With an early plan to push the pace after Goat Hill, I definitely shot myself in the foot with a rookie nutrition mistake. The last several miles were an exercise in finding the right pace that didn’t result in my legs locking up, and trying to hold back expletive after expletive… after expletive.
Pissing off at least a minute per mile over the last 5, I stopped feeling so sorry for myself as I passed a runner on our last climb. Hobbling past this guy, I realized that he must’ve been dealing with something worse than my self-induced lack of sodium.
Finishing in 4:04, but feeling pretty damn “salty” due to my nutrition mistake, I made my way over to the finisher’s area to have some water and hopefully track down a beer. After reading an article in Trail Runner Magazine on two ultrarunners that started Sufferfest Brewing, I was stoked to see the owners braving the elements and pouring their gluten-ish free IPA. With the weather turning sour, I decided to hobble the mile back to my car so I could track down some damn salt tabs .
Like magic, five salt tabs cured all cramping issues, and I made my way back to SLO to relax and get some sleep.
What I learned:
– Salt prevents and fixes a lot of cramping issues, and I will not forget to pack these magic pills again!
– Running by feel worked well, as the course was anything but fast, and trying to hit target times would’ve only forced me to push an unnecessary pace
– Although Icebugs destroy my feet as there’s not a millimeter of protection on them, they work wonders on muddy, slippery, wet trails
– I need to practice running with gels in my shorts before trying to race with them in
– Beer always tastes better after a hard run… even if it’s gluten-free!
Coming off a rough showing at CIM in December and now having Western States on the calendar for June, I was ecstatic to get back onto the trails! Aside from less than a handful of short runs, the three month training block leading up to CIM was the longest amount of time I’ve been away from the trails in three years of ultrarunning.
Since my body wasn’t entirely destroyed from CIM, thanks shitty marathon performance, the one benefit was being able to hit the trails and get back into training earlier than expected. With La Cuesta Ranch 50k only a few weeks away and since it’s a Luis Escobar event, I had absolutely no idea what to expect in regards to terrain, vertical gain or actual distance. If La Cuesta Ranch was to be like most Allwedoisrun events, my previous three months of road running with little to no climbing, was setting me up for an epic ass kicking!
Taking some advice from Ian Sharman, considering he is the record holder for the Grand Slam (four of the most iconic US 100 milers completed in one summer), I decided to recover and start preparations for La Cuesta Ranch with a lot of hiking. Granted Ian’s advice is hiking with a weighted pack, unfortunately I didn’t have enough luggage space to bring my fastpack to my work trip to Baltimore, immediately following the marathon.
For the few weeks leading up to La Cuesta Ranch, in addition to A LOT of treadmill hiking in week one (15-30 degrees depending on the type of treadmill), I increased gym workouts to three times per week. Knowing it was highly unlikely that my climbing legs would come back in less than four weeks, I hoped that the increased gym time would somewhat makeup for three months of flat, road running. Maybe it sounds counterintuitive, but I also feel that strength training helps dramatically with recovery after a race. With a few weeks of trail running, increased gym workouts and a quality, albeit self-imposed shortened fastpacking trip to Big Sur, I felt relatively fit and ready to tackle this upcoming 50k.
Thomas and I connected to discuss my less than stellar CIM performance and preparations for Western States. Thankfully, he agreed to develop a training plan and prepare me for Squaw, as I assumed I may have been dumped to the curb after wetting the bed in December. In talking through a race calendar through June, we decided to downgrade from the 50k to the 25k at La Cuesta Ranch, so we could transition into training right after the race. Luis was great, as he usually is, with switching races and honoring Alejandra’s comped entry that she won at the Trails in Motion movie night at the Running Warehouse in July.
La Cuesta Ranch Trail Race, along with the SLO Ultra Series, was initially designed and operated by Josue with Fuego y Agua events. Luis was asked and agreed to take over race director duties, and partnered with private ranch owners to create a 10k, 25k and 50k course, ran primarily on private property. If you’ve ever spent anytime exploring West Cuesta Ridge (Shooter’s, Morning Glory, the Euks, Pick and Shovel, the What trail, etc.), you know how beautiful this area is. With views of the Seven Sisters (SLO-to-Morro Bay’s iconic peaks), countless rolling green hills and an ocean view to die for, there aren’t many better views in San Luis Obispo than from West Cuesta Ridge.
Luis designed an incredibly beautiful, rugged and relentless loop course, with 50k racers responsible for navigating two, 15ish mile loops, with over 7k of vertical gain. Being a private cattle ranch, outside of the fire roads connecting a decent amount of the course, Luis and Co. were forced to create their own “trails.” Reading several articles on Fell racing, runners in England will race a course with essentially no trail. There are course markings, mas o menos, but runners are free to create their own lines as they blaze up and down some seemingly treacherous terrain. Outside of HURT, although the HURT course is incredibly marked and still ran on trails, I’d never experienced a race quite like this.
Alejandra, Carly and I made the long 5 minute commute to the La Cuesta Ranch on Saturday morning. We caught up briefly with Jeff Zahn, as he was helping to direct traffic and made our way up to the staging area. Ben Holmes and Beverly were manning the check-in booth, and we were able to catch up on the end of his fire season and the 80ish mile charity run that he participates in annually. Unfortunately Ben wasn’t racing, as it would’ve been fun to tackle the course with, or properly stated, behind him. Michelle and Bobby made the trip up, as did Mauricio who was volunteering and tapering for HURT
Luis gave his customary race day instructions, which pretty much boil down to taking responsibility for yourself, the course, and not being a dick. Starting an hour later than the 50k, the 140ish 10k and 25k runners were sent off at approximately 8:00am, after reciting the Oath. If you haven’t had the opportunity to recite the Oath, you need to get your rear out to an Allwedoisrun event.
We headed out for a fast, relatively flat first half mile, before taking a right turn onto a fire road with a moderate incline. The beginning of the course was quite damp, as SLO had received a lot of rain in December and early January. Thankfully we didn’t get dumped on mid-race, but the course would soon provide evidence of El Nino’s wrath.
There were a group of five of us running in the front, although I had no idea what race anyone was in because the 10k and 25k runners started together. Mile two was a giant climb up the face of a hill, forcing many runners to use “all fours” to make their way to the top. I was passed by three runners heading up the climb, and started having early doubts about my climbing ability. One of the runners that blazed passed was leading the women’s race, although I wasn’t sure which one. Considering she had a hydration pack on, I assumed we’d be battling it out for another 13+ miles. After cresting this climb, we worked our way back down to a fire road, after losing the “trail” for a short while.
Brett Atkinson, a local runner and fellow hasher was leading the group, and I managed to settle in behind him after a short technical downhill section. We caught up briefly over the next uphill mile, and found out that he was running the 10k.
The first aid station was also the split for the 10k and 25k race. Some awesome volunteers came out to battle the elements and offer assistance, and both Brett and I said thanks to the aid station captain before wishing each other luck and heading out on our separate ways. Thankfully, the gal with the hydration vest also took a left and would eventually catch and pass Brett, winning the 10k overall.
Three of us were left from the original group of five, and we headed down towards Stagecoach rd and aid station 2. At the bottom of a long descent was the second aid station, but to get there runners had to make their way through hundreds of meters of swampy, sticky, high-ankle deep clay. Thankfully, I decided on wearing Icebugs, but wasn’t sure how they’d hold up since I hadn’t wore them since they destroyed my feet at HURT. The shoe choice definitely made a difference, as they shed the thick mud well, and actually stayed on my feet. This is more than I can say for others, as there were stories of the swamp eating several pairs of shoes. Some runners used strategery, as I saw one in football cleats and another with ductape wrapped around their foot.
On our descent through the slog, we also came across our first 50k runners, as they had made the turnaround and were starting their 1,000ft+ climb up towards Cuesta Ridge. Hitting aid station 2, it was great to see Tera and Jody, and now two of us were running together up Stagecoach road, for a completely undetermined amount of time.
Stagecoach road is 2.7 miles of an unpaved ascent of nearly 1,000ft, which is the original “Grade,” or road connecting San Luis Obispo to north county. The first mile only has a slight incline, so the majority of climbing happens in the last 1.7 miles. I introduced myself and started chatting with Tyler, as we had spent the last couple miles together, and assumed we would be fighting it out over the last 8-10. Tyler is an ultrarunner from Visalia who had traveled out to run the 25k with his buddy in third place, Mathew Morales and Matt’s dad, Al. Looking up Matthew’s recent results before the race, I found out he was a mid-2:30 marathoner, that previously won the City-to-Sea Half and placed 2nd at American River 50. This guy can flat out fly, and just as Tyler and I were talking about his leg speed, Matthew catches up to us clicking off a very easy sub 6 minute mile, considering the comfort in his voice. We made a u-turn heading back towards the aid station, and Matthew began to pull away.
Hearing from the guys that they were training for an upcoming marathon and that they lived in Visalia (flatlanders), I decided that the only remote chance I’d have to hold either of them off would be to try and out climb them on the 1,200ft. ascent to Cuesta Ridge. Knowing Matthew’s speed, even if I was stronger than him on the climb, I’d have to hold off his ass from pouncing on me as we’d have a long runnable descent before the finish.
Just as we passed the aid station and made our way back up through the muck, I put my head down and tried to surge up the climb. Hoping like hell to put some distance between us, thankfully Matthew and Tyler held back likely assuming they’d reign me in on the descent. The 2.5-3 mile climb up to Cuesta Ridge was very runnable, outside of the several hundred meters of early devil clay.
Passing and shouting words of encouragement to Terry, Josue and some other 50k runners on the out-and-back climb, I was really interested in how close Tyler and Matthew were after hitting the turnaround. Tyler and I crossed paths first, and I only had a couple minutes on him. Matthew was very close behind Tyler and looked really strong climbing up to the Ridge. Knowing this would likely get ugly, I tried to lean on the marathon workouts and treat the last several miles like a hard tempo run, as it was only a matter of time before Matthew would use his speed to hunt me down.
The descent (miles 9-12.5) was relatively uneventful, and after a quick hill, we ran through aid station 1. The volunteers were awesome and after thanking them for coming out, I tried like hell to generate some turnover as I had no idea what the last several miles would bring. This race definitely solidified for me that I’d rather hunt than be hunted…
With a couple miles to go and a relative certainty that Speedy Gonzales had me in his sights, I came across my own oasis in the desert… a big, nasty, off-trail climb! Normally you don’t look forward to climbs where you have to use your hands on trails that are nonexistent, but I sure as hell did. This addition to the race was the only way I’d have a chance to fend off this speedster, so I smiled ear-to-ear as I slipped and tripped up the 300ft. climb.
Upon cresting the last hill, if the trail could disappear anymore, it did. Luis used pink flags to mark the route down this 750ft. descent, which forced runners straight down a rocky, slippery, ankle breaking downhill. With the South Hills as my backyard, thankfully I’ve spent a lot of time in very similar terrain, so I tried to relax and move as efficiently and as unstupidly (yes this is a word today) as possible. With all my parts intact, I made it down to the driveway which comprises the last half mile of the race. Taking a quick glance back after hitting even footing, I didn’t see Matthew on the descent, so I breathed a HUGE sigh of relief and enjoyed the last couple minutes.
Arriving into the finish in approximately 2:11ish… remember it’s a Luis Escobar event… after ringing the bell and downing a shot of fireball, I managed to squeak out the win in La Cuesta Ranch’s inaugural 25k. Matthew was close behind after passing Tyler, but thankfully that last hill saved me! Another local runner and Physiophyx athlete, Van Mccarty, pulled out the win in the 50k.
After receiving an incredible custom mug made by Tracy Thomas, I went back to the car to change and fill my new stein with its rightful beverage. Alejandra, Carly and I spent the next hour catching up and cheering on the 25k finishers.
As to be expected at a Luis Escobar event, amazing trails… amazing views… better people!
What I learned
– Downhill racing without a trail is really, really, really fun!
– Albeit a rough performance in Sacramento, marathon training definitely helped with increasing turnover and feeling comfortable moving at a faster pace
– Hiking and gym work definitely helps with climbing
– Beer always tastes better out of a mug that’s won!
Can’t believe it’s already been a year since I’ve created this blog! A lot sure can happen in a year…
Completed two, 100 milers (HURT and Santa Barbara)
Got my ass kicked at the CIM marathon
Got a new kitten that is absolutely fearless, hunts and kills everything, and we’re fairly certain beats up Carly when we’re not around
Started a new position with my company
Watched Alejandra compete in her first trail races
Partnered with Physiophyx
Picked up the “W” at several beer miles
Spent countless hours on the trails, and roads, with a ton of amazing people
Starting off the first post of 2016, I thought it would be fun to recap my second attempt at fastpacking the Pine Ridge trail in Big Sur. For anyone that read my first post about attempting the 46ish mile out-and-back trail from Big Sur to China Camp, you’ll know that Carly and I threw in the towel after day one. Actually, Carly would’ve easily handled the trip… I pussed out! Having a fancy Ultimate Direction fastpack doesn’t mean squat when you’re carrying a $10 dollar sleeping bag rated for 60+ degrees (30 degree nightly temps), no pad and 5-10lbs of needless junk.
Hoping that the fairly expensive trip to Mountain Air Sports immediately following our first Big Sur debacle solved the gear issue, Carly and I planned for a successful two day trip to China Camp and back.
Making our way to the same trailhead as a year before, I was sure to bring my checkbook, as there was no way I was going to pay that damn $70+ parking fine again! We hit the Pine Ridge Trailhead at approximately 10:00am, which I thought would give us plenty of time (7 hours) to make it to China Camp before dark.
The first 10 miles to Sykes was uneventful, as Carly and I made great time covering the trip in approximately 2.5hrs. The weather was definitely cooler this time around, as I contemplated a long sleeve at several points throughout the trek. I rocked a tank top in 2014, and was pouring sweat by the time we hit Sykes. After a short break to refill our water and have some snacks, Carly and I made our way up the Pine Ridge trail for the final 13 miles of Day 1.
Never before venturing past Sykes camp, I spent the prior night scouring the internet for any reviews of the Pine Ridge Trail, past Sykes, to China Camp. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much information available, but all the posts regarding the trail had one common theme… “Overgrown”
If you’ve ever made the trip from Big Sur to Sykes, you’d know that the trail is VERY well maintained. Hats off to the Ventana Wilderness Group for caretaking this 10 mile stretch, because it’s relatively wide and very easy to navigate. Looking back after our second attempt at the Pine Ridge Trail, I’m assuming the vast majority of hikers, if not damn near all of them, travel only from Big Sur to Sykes…
Carly and I had approximately 4.5 hours to make the 13 mile trip from Sykes to China Camp. Considering we knocked out the first 10 miles in 2.5hrs, I assumed we were an absolute lock for making it before dark… I shouldn’t assume!
I’ve encountered some fairly rugged trails in my three years of ultrarunning. Hawaii’s root infested jungle… Santa Barabara’s remote back country… Even San Luis Obispo has its fair share of technical terrain. Big Sur’s Pine Ridge Trail humbled the hell out of me in less than 8 miles!
In reading the topo map, I knew we’d have a 3-4k climb out of Sykes, from mile 10-20. On paper this didn’t look terrible, as we had already climbed 2,500ft. in the first 10 miles of the day. Unfortunately, topo maps don’t show trail conditions. Within 400 meters of starting the trek from Sykes to China Camp, the lush single/double track that we enjoyed for the first few hours turned into 6 miles of hell!
The term “overgrown” used by many to explain the 6+ miles between Sykes and Pine Ridge camp was definitely not the word I’d use to explain the trail. “Wild”…“Deserted”… “Neglected”… ”Ridiculous” would be more fitting. Hanging machetes at the Sykes camp might be a better idea for keeping the trail usable, than the plan currently in place by the forest service.
The vegetation lining the trail must have been hardened by years of drought, as it was extremely sharp and unforgiving. I cursed myself multiple times for not bringing some gear that would’ve combated the shrubbery. Thinking that 5 hours would be plenty of time to make the 13 mile trip from Sykes to China Camp may not have been the wisest assumption. Miles 11-14: 2,150ft. of vert and an average of 19:30/mile. Miles 15-17: 1,700ft. of vert and an average of 27:20/mile. Considering the pace for the first 10 miles was 15:00/mile, unless my math was VERY wrong, there was no way we’d make it into China Camp before dark.
Passing mile 13ish, for the first time in our leg since Sykes camp, we ran into some fellow hikers taking a break from the rough climb. They were a group of six making their way through a multiday hike, and they were also hiking with a dog that wasn’t too fond of Carly. We briefly caught up on how atrocious the trail was and asked each other if it was going to get any better. They were hiking into Pine Ridge camp for the night, which they thought would take another 1-2hrs.
Carly and I reached mile 16 around 2:45-3:00pm, after hiking for nearly an hour on some ground that felt like rock. There was a sign that read, “Pine Ridge Camp” and someone had etched “Water” with an arrow into the sign. Considering we had used up more than half of our water and we weren’t even halfway through our 13 mile stretch to China Camp, we decided to take a quick break and try to find this water source.
The Pine Ridge “camp” is a pretty desolate, but absolutely beautiful location, 6 miles and 3,300ft. up from Sykes. After trekking down .3 miles through some “overgrown” foliage, you arrive at an open space able to comfortably sleep 6-10. Aside from a fire pit that hadn’t seen much recent use, and a bear-resistant storage bin that didn’t seem too resistant, there wasn’t much else in the area.
We started searching for this supposed water source, and followed several narrow trails from the camp. I guess the fifth’s time’s a charm, because we finally stumbled into water following the last trail from the site. Someone had literally tapped into a spring, as water was trickling out of the side of the mountain through a small pipe. After filling up all our bottles and drinking till full, Carly and I made our way back to the Pine Ridge Trail.
Shortly after cresting 4,000ft., I realized why the ground had been rock solid for the past couple of miles… it was frozen! We were very surprised to see snow on the trail, and the amount exponentially increased as we climbed the next 500ft. With a “trail” that we could barely follow before, this new variable was sure to make things interesting. Losing the trail on multiple occasions, taking over 30 minutes to climb 1 mile and inching closer to sunset, I decided to pull the ripcord and make our way back down to the Pine Ridge camp for the night.
Hiking for the second time down to the Pine Ridge camp, Carly and I ran into the fellow hikers that we met earlier in the day. Their dog nipped at Carly again, so we decided to set up camp far enough away to keep the peace.
Knowing that we were only a couple miles from snow, I assumed we were in it for a cold night. Setting up our camp under the stars, I laid out my pad and sleeping bag next to the backpack. Flipped over on its back and using a windbreaker and jacket as blankets, Carly had a comfortable bed right next to mine. Cracking some portable wine saved from recent United flights, we hunkered down for the evening finishing an awesome book, “Running with the Buffaloes.” If you’re ever in the mood to get humbled at the level of effort you’re putting into training, please try this book out as it chronicles the 1998 University of Colorado’s cross country season. Although it was VERY cold, thankfully the new gear held up well as we hit the sack for the evening.
Once the fellow hikers called it a night, it was eerily quiet at camp. Normally I sleep like a log, so the rustling near my head must’ve been pretty loud to wake me up in the middle of the night. Not knowing what the hell was outside the sleeping bag, I turned on my headlamp and peeked outside to see a field mouse staring me right in the face. The little guy wasn’t afraid of me in the least, so I physically had to shoo him away. Probably not the smartest idea to have our food right near my head.
The suspicions of a cold night were proven true as we woke up to all our water bottles frozen. Packing up camp quickly and thinking it wasn’t going to be any easier to find the trail to China Camp in the morning as the afternoon before, I decided to head back towards Big Sur. After getting scraped and stuck through 6 miles of “overgrown” foliage, we made great time from Sykes back to Big Sur.
After a 2+ hour drive home and a monster meal, we relaxed for a bit before Alejandra made it home from work. I could get used to this not working thing…
What I Learned
The 3,000ft climb from Sykes to Pine Ridge Camp (mile 10-to-mile 16ish) is absolutely breathtaking! The pictures attached to this post don’t give it justice, and if you’re ever thinking of making the trip, please let me know as we’d love to join you
Allow much more time than you think you’ll need for fastpacking on a trail you’ve never hiked before
Better to call it an early day and hike back to relative safety, than attempt to follow an unmarked “trail” past dark
4,700ft doesn’t seem too high, but it’s high enough to get real once the sun goes down
Leaving a water bottle or two in your sleeping bag overnight might be beneficial if you’d like to drink something before noon
If “overgrown” is used to describe trail conditions, bring some damn clothing that protects from sharp vegetation
I’ve ran more road miles over the past three months, approximately 1,000, training for CIM than I’ve ran over the past 3 years training for ultras. Putting in 80-100 miles weeks in the mountains was beginning to feel somewhat normal, until we uprooted my “training plan” and actually built one that made sense.
So, how did my first marathon go?
If we take the entire results of the weekend into account, then CIM weekend was a success.
Leading up to CIM, I had a busy work week with a Tue-Thur trip to Dallas. Thankfully this was taper week, so my mileage was peeled back and didn’t have to worry about finding a route for a quality workout. I also had a mild groin niggle that popped up after my last track workout on 11/24, but the 10 day taper provided ample time to rest.
Excited about the potential results from three months of hard work, I made the five hour trip up to Roseville on Friday evening, checked into the Hilton Garden Inn too damn close to the freeway (thanks Hilton points), and called it an early night.
After a quick shakeout run on Saturday morning, I washed up, downed a quick breakfast and made my way up to the Placer High School auditorium in Auburn for the Western States lottery. With 3,500 entrants in this year’s lottery (2,500 in 2014) and only 270ish spots up for grabs on Saturday morning, my chances were even slimmer than I assumed (13%). Western States modified their lottery system recently, implementing a 2n process, where runners are allotted tickets based on the number of years they’ve entered the lottery. A first year entrant received one ticket in the lottery. Two year entrants received two tickets. Three years receive four tickets, and the numbers jump up from there (4th year – 8 tickets; 5th year – 16; 6th year – 32 and 7th year – 64 tickets). Yes, there were actually five individuals that were in their 7th lotter year, but thankfully they all made it in.
With new standards implemented in 2014, now recognizing only 100k or 100 milers for lottery qualifiers completed within the past calendar year, I assumed the entrant numbers would remain flat or even shrink compared to 2014 (only recent year where entrant numbers dropped). Granted there were over 2,200 first year qualifiers, the total number of lottery entrants exploded to 3,500. Considering today’s need for instant gratification, I’m interested in watching these lottery entrant numbers over the next several years. My theory is that the number of first year qualifiers will continue to increase, but the numbers for 2-7 year entrants will remain relatively flat or even shrink.
The Placer High Auditorium was absolutely packed, with many people being forced to stand near the exit. Upon arrival, all attendees that had registered for the lottery were issued two identical playing cards that they were to write their name on (mine were the king of diamonds). Entrants were given one card and the other was entered into a separate lottery, with three individuals from the audience being chosen for WS after the conclusion of the regular lottery. There was also a booth selling raffle tickets ($5 for one, or $20 for five). Five raffle ticket winners would be chosen at the conclusion of the lottery, and these winners were offered a free entry into the 2017 WS 100.
Tim Twiettmeir, 20+ sub-24 WS finishes, multiple wins and countless top tens, was the officiator. A multitude of individuals were introduced, primarily members of the WS board, and then specific individuals were asked to pick out 30 numbers/entrants at a time. Ann Trason started off the lottery, as she needs no introduction, but I’ll provide one for the non-ultra readers actually making their way through this blog post. Ann Trason is a 14 time winner of Western States, many times finishing in the top ten overall. She holds countless course and distance records, and is arguably the best ultrarunner, male or female, that has ever raced the trails.
As each number was pulled, Tim attempted, and epically failed on multiple occasions with the international names, to state the number of years in the lottery, the location and name of the runner chosen. The runners name would be immediately populated on a giant screen behind the stage, and would eventually scroll down as others were picked. If someone from the audience was chosen in the lottery, and there were a multitude of attendees picked this year, they would undoubtedly hoot and holler, and then make their way down to the stage to high five and hug the board members, get some WS shwag and then have their picture taken.
The very first name pulled was Scott Tate, a local runner from Santa Barbara. Over the next 45 minutes, Patty Bryant was also added to the list. Patty, another local from Santa Barbara, is one of the most accomplished ultrarunner on the Central Coast. She started the SB Nine Trails race and has finished countless ultras over her career.
At around 9:45am and after 75ish runners had been chosen, all the tea and water from the morning had started to kick in. Entrant upon entrant was receiving their ticket to the big dance, and also being updated onto the screen, as Ann Trason was replaced with several other “pickers.” There didn’t seem to be a break in sight so I snuck out to take a quick leak. I asked my neighbor to watch my seat, as the auditorium was jam packed and I was trying to stay off my feet in preparation for the race.
Heading back from a quick bathroom break, I thanked my neighbor for holding down the fort, and settled back into my “comfy” high school auditorium seat. Not thinking much of my 13% chances, I glanced up at the board and saw the following info, “Jadd Martinez, San Luis Obispo, 3 years” populate on the screen. Pretty sure I had to read this four or five times, and I even asked my neighbor if they had in fact called out my name. She confirmed and said, “You’re in! Go up on stage!”
With Tim Twiettmeir ripping off names and after just reading off several women in a row, I wasn’t sure if howling and sprinting down to the stage was the appropriate response, unless I wanted everyone to think I was in the middle of a sex change procedure. After awkwardly making my way down, I talked with one of the board members, pointed up at the screen and said, “That’s me.” The gentleman stopped Tim and told him we have another attendee picked. Tim looked down and all I could muster was, “Sorry Tim, I was taking a piss.” I was rushed onstage, picked up a cool WS visor, and ushered to the back where a cameraman was waiting to snap a shot.
The rest of the lottery was a semi-blur, as another 200 runners were chosen, a lot of audience members were picked, unfortunately no other SLO or SB runners were chosen, and some notables like brother combo’s and husband wife combo’s were picked. One of the most interesting attendees chosen was a first year entrant and one of my favorite former A’s players, Eric Burns. Mr. Hustle was a great A’s player for a few seasons before being traded to the Diamondbacks. He was so much fun to watch because he never quit on a play, and you could tell he was giving 110% in every game… great qualities for an ultrarunner.
After the audience lottery and raffle drawing were completed, I made my way back down to Sacramento to check-in and relax before the race.
Not certain if I’ll ever race CIM again, but if I do there is no doubt I’ll be staying at the Marriott Residence Inn on L street. Centrally located across the street from Capitol Park, the Residence Inn is only two blocks away from the convention center, which is the packet pickup site. The convention center was also the shuttle location for the next morning, so I knew the commute wouldn’t be bad. Not entirely sure what the cost was for the night (thanks Marriott points), but from a conversation with a fellow runner, I’m glad I booked this hotel in advance. After dropping off my gear and buying a pass for the Marriott’s pasta feed on Saturday, another perk for those interested in a CIM hotel location for 2016, I made my way over to the convention center to check in.
Over the years, I’ve visited the Sacramento convention center a few times for work. Outside of the SLO marathon and Western States, I hadn’t attended a race that warranted a vendor fair. Not realizing that there were nearly 14,000 people racing on Sunday, I wasn’t sure what to expect at check in. Walking into the convention center, I was amazed at how packed it was with people and vendors. Multiple booths were set up marketing their own races. There were several local vendors selling everything from shoes to Gu’s, and they even had an anti-gravity treadmill to try. On my way to the treadmill, Erdinger a German brewery that I remember from my school days in Deutschland, was onsite providing free samples of their non-alcoholic beer, touting its recovery properties. After hanging out for awhile at the vendor booths, I made my way back to the hotel to catch up on some work, grab an early dinner and hit the hay.
Waking up at 4:00am isn’t something I’d recommend on a Sunday, unless your house is on fire. A last minute shoe and sock removal decision, shit and breakfast were the only things I had to tackle before the ride to Folsom. After an uneventful shuttle ride from an Elk Grove School District bus, I made my way over for one last potty break before the start. Squeezing my way in between runners with less than five minutes to race time wouldn’t be difficult in most ultras. Doing it with 14,000 people in front of you is a wee bit more difficult. Thankfully, the weather had relatively held up and hadn’t started poring yet.
After a quick countdown we were off…
The first couple miles were choppy, as I started several hundred runners back, and had to fight for a decent line to move into a comfortable pace. Hitting the first few miles in 6:17, 6:20 and 6:10, I felt confident about starting conservatively and hoped to keep the same consistency for the next 23. The next few miles were uneventful as we moved through Folsom on our way towards the Capitol.
Crossing the 10k mark right at my target pace, I tried to stay comfortable and get into a rhythm. Mile 7 passed with relative ease, and then came mile 8. If you’ve ever had that “dead leg” feeling during a workout, where no matter what you do your legs can’t get moving, this is what hit me at mile 8.
How the hell were my legs dead???
I’d tapered for 10 days, got a sufficient amount of rest, had been eating clean with no caffeine or alcohol during the ramp up, and now my legs were shot less than a third into this race. My mind went right into ultramode.
Was I dehydrated? No, I’d been peeing clear for well over a week.
Glycogen issues? It’s mile freaking 8!
Was the early pace too quick? Negative, my breathing was comfortable and the several months of heart rate training helped to guestimate I was in the 160-170 range.
Body scan… anything hurt? Nope, but the legs feel like lead.
Ok, now I started getting worried. How am I going to push this pace for another 18 miles, with legs that feel like they’d already gone 100? Slowing down by 15-30 seconds per mile from 8-12, I made frequent surges to try and hold on and hopefully wake up the legs. That didn’t work. I slammed a couple gels and downed 15 ounces of water in a futile attempt to curb any nutrition or hydration issues. This obviously didn’t work, but I was scraping for anything to help.
Crossing the half marathon mark in 1:24 expecting a 1:20-1:22, on paper this wouldn’t look too bad. The 10k splits tell an entirely different story. I had slowed down by nearly 30 seconds per mile, and it wasn’t looking pretty for the second half. After several minutes pondering a drop, considering I wasn’t going to finish anywhere near my time goal, the main reason I stayed in the race was because this was a point-to-point marathon. I was 13 miles away from the finish, without any means to make it back to my hotel other than foot. Funny what keeps you motivated at times, but I decided to suck it up and finish.
Crossing under a sign that read “The Middle Miles,” I knew immediately that the backend of this race was going to get ugly… really ugly.
For any runners reading this post, we’ve all been in racing situations where we get passed. Hopefully, we’ve got something in the tank to respond and hopefully it’s an acute event. For nearly all of my races over the past three years, I’ve made an effort to start conservatively, knowing that I race better as a hunter. This marathon was no different, as I expected to pick people off slowly as the race progressed.
From miles 13-26, I would be passed by 200+ runners, literally passing only two people; a guy that stopped to walk and a blind racer with his guide.
The second half of CIM takes runners on a beautiful journey to the state Capitol, passing various cities and towns along the route from Folsom. The volunteers are awesome and plentiful, there’s live music blasting all along the course, and there are more people out cheering on the route than any race I’d ever ran. The Sacramento Running Association puts on one hell of an event, and I encourage anyone reading to plug this race into the calendar.
Finishing in 2:57ish (1:24 and 1:33 splits) spewing no less than a thousand expletives along the backside of this course, I was really happy to see Farrah, Nelson and Nina at the finish line. My face likely didn’t show it and thankfully I was all cussed out, but we caught up for a bit after the race.
After a short walk back to the hotel, a quick shower and call to Alejandra, I made my way back to SLO in time for Tolosa’s pickup party. At least the wine helped to numb the kick in the nuts I’d just taken.
What I learned:
Whether it’s a difficult workout, a project at work or a personal issue, I try to practice a bit of “not quitting” each day, and this definitely helped at CIM
I’ll wear socks when racing anything longer than a half marathon, and ANYTIME when it’s raining
Marathons put a pounding on muscles that I wasn’t entirely expecting. The consistent pace, except for in my experience, along with the hard surface sure does put a hurt on the body
2Toms silicone-based body gel is the absolute best anti-chafing product I’ve ever used! Hopefully, someone from the company is reading this blog because their product isn’t cheap and I’d love to be an ambassador. Maybe they can take a before and after pic of my inner thighs with body glide vs. 2Toms. Maybe this isn’t a very good idea…
Yes I wet the bed big time at CIM, or at least my legs did, but I’m very happy with the work I’ve put in over the past three months and am SO EXCITED to get back on the trails and implement these quality workouts in preparation for Western States
The City to Sea half marathon is a point-to-point race starting in downtown San Luis Obispo, and finishing at the Dinosaur Caves Park in Pismo Beach. The largest fundraiser of the year for the Cuesta Cross Country team, this is a great event that usually draws crowds of a couple thousand. I was super excited for this race weekend, as Alejandra and her brother Herbert were running, along with my Dad and Kris.
Herbert, my dad and Kris all arrived on Saturday afternoon. Earlier in the day, I had made my way over to the Running Warehouse to attempt a check in for all of us. They are usually pretty stern with check in policies, making it mandatory that you either pick up in person or have a copy of the racers ID. Since I had none of these for my Dad and Kris, I was a bit nervous relying on my baby blues and Casanova style approach. Fortunately, my volunteer could care less about the ID’s or especially my baby blues and suave personality.
We had a nice Salmon dinner at the house on Saturday evening and hit the sack early, as we had a 5:00am wakeup call.
Stuffing in a quick breakfast and the fam into my car, we made our way downtown to attempt to find a spot relatively close to the starting line. Fortunately, we passed a cop and asked where he thought we should park. He directed us into the bank parking lot on Higuera, right across the street from Spikes. There was plenty of parking and no issues with leaving the car for a few hours. Definitely know where we’re parking next year!
We made our way up Higuera, ran a quick warmup, took a couple of quick pre-race photos and made our way to the starting line. Having a couple minutes to spare, I caught up briefly with a few SLDC runners. Prashant, an excellent local runner that has improved dramatically over a short period of time, was someone I planned to stay with. Not knowing a time to shoot for, since my pacing duties at the SLO Marathon were definitely not a good indicator of goal time, I was glad to see Prashant toeing the line. Unfortunately, the first words out of his mouth were, “I’m injured and am just going to take it easy today.”
DAMN, who was I going to run with?
Didn’t have to worry much about who I was going to run with because the lead packs took off like bats out of hell. Sitting somewhere in 20-50th place after the first couple miles and clicking off two 6:03’s, I felt comfortable but didn’t want to push it so early into the race.
For anyone thinking about doing City to Sea in the future, aside from the beautiful ocean views over the last 5k, running down SLO’s main street with no cars around really is a special experience. Aside from Farmer’s Market, which makes you feel like the last unlucky sardine stuffed in the can, there aren’t many opportunities to experience the heart of our city solely on foot. The course was also nicely modified this year, with the race director removing an out-and-back section, and replacing it with a mile of the Bob Jones trail.
Miles 3 – 6 were fairly comfortable, as I attempted to stay in the 6:00 minute per mile range and find a group to run with. There were 20+ racers steaming ahead, and I settled into a group of four runners that seemed satisfied with a 6:00 minute pace. We worked diligently to reel in several others over these middle miles, as many of the early trailblazers were starting to come back to us.
As is common in ultras, I tried to strike up a conversation with my newfound chase pack. Unlike most ultras, this group wasn’t too keen on chit chatting, so I shut up and trudged along with the group.
The first climb of the race occurred at mile 7 as we took a sharp right onto San Luis Bay Dr. Immediately after cresting this hill, there’s a moderately long descent that brings runners onto the Bob Jones trail. Our pack had stayed together for this climb and descent, albeit some of us hit the climb harder than the descent, and we managed to move into the top ten.
The Bob Jones trail takes runners several miles from the Biddle Ranch Winery tasting room, out to Avila Beach. A popular hiking, jogging and biking path that runs parallel to the creek and passes the Buddhist temple and golf course, the Bob Jones trail is a must for anyone visiting Avila.
Making our way onto BJ’s trail, one runner began to separate himself from our pack, gapping the rest of us by a few seconds. Now a pack of three, one of the runners from our group was really starting to labor.
Heavy panting… overextended strides, flaring arms… all the signs of an impending shit storm!
As we passed the 8 mile mark, smack in the middle of the Bob Jones trail, the abovementioned panter abruptly stopped and walked off the course. Now I’ve seen some epic DNF’s in ultras, from broken bones, severe dehydration and hyponatremia, to never-ending cases of diarrhea. However, I’ve yet to see someone essentially say “Fuck it,” and walk right off the course without at least a little complaining or relative attempt to fight on.
Not understanding if stopping in the back end of a half marathon because your tired is a normal occurrence in road racing, I asked the other runner what the hell was going on.
“That’s my pacer.”
Sure, we’re all competing for the best time we can muster on this course, but to recruit a pacer for a local half marathon that you’re definitely not going to win seemed a bit much for me. Hell, I don’t even think the Kenyans do it when they drop sub 1:00’s.
Still shaking my head in disbelief, we made our way up the second and largest climb of the race, which takes runners past the Avila Ridge and drops them onto Shell Beach Rd. With approximately three miles to go and a long straightaway, this was a great time to see the runners ahead. Not knowing where any frontrunners were relative to our group for the past 6+ miles, we could now see another pack of three that were starting to splinter .25-.5 miles ahead.
Mr. now sans pacer made a surge up the hill, as he likely assumed I’d spend the rest of the race berating him.
We made our way down Shell Beach Rd. passing the Cliffs and nearing MMMMMMMM road. One of the runners that had splintered from the pack in front of us started to slow dramatically. Not certain if he was injured or just blowing up in epic fashion, but I’ll give him credit that he fought to stay with all three of us as we passed him one-by-one.
Turning right on MMMMMMMMMMMM road at mile 11.5ish, racers are rewarded with 10 blocks of beautiful ocean view running. We continued past the 12 mile marker, completing these 10 picturesque blocks, and took a sharp left to head back up to Shell Beach Rd. The last mile is full of twists and turns as the race stretches to meet its 13.1 required distance.
The last mile was relatively uneventful, as I finished in 7th place in 1:20ish.
Before picking up the drop bag and diving into my premade 30 ounces of Physiophyx, I congratulated the runners from our pack and BS’d with the “Official Pacer” (Greg Scott led out on a bike and likely would’ve won the race outright if he decided to run and not bike). After a quick stretch and clothing change, I made my way back to the finish line to wait for my family.
Herbert finished with a PR at under 2 hours and Alejandra finished shortly afterwards. We caught up with Joannie, Trish and V, and I jogged backwards out on the course to find my dad and Kris. With a three hour cutoff, I was nervous the race would shut down and they wouldn’t know where to meet us. Running back a half mile, I was ecstatic to see them both looking strong and making their way towards the finish. We covered the last half mile together, and they finished a hair over three hours, earning their medals!
After some quick showers and an awesome lunch at Taqueria Santa Cruz, the best Mexican in SLO, we said our goodbyes to Herbert, Kris and my dad, and spent the rest of the day with Carly and Omar.
What I learned:
Yes I’m making a BIG generalization, but trail runners tend to be looser and seemingly happier to chat than road runners
Road running definitely hurts, and the constant pounding with little to no variation in terrain or grade compounds the hurt exponentially
Consistency in pace is seemingly more important when road racing, as our group was within 5-10 seconds of 6:00 min pace throughout the majority of the race
Time (pace, splits, etc.) is the main determining driver for road runners to pull value from a race. Effort level is added to time when determining the driver for trail runners to pull value from a race
The pain in a shorter race is amplified and screams for the body to slow down. The pain in an ultra comes on slowly, and then screams for the body to jump off a cliff…
The first nine weeks of marathon training have been interesting, to say the least. Starting this post on a flight back from Baltimore, I just finished talking to a buddy Jeremiah about how training was going. “Sporadic” is the only word I can muster, as workouts have literally been all over the place. Fortunately, I’ve been able to complete every workout thus far without any injuries or significant issues. Unfortunately, my expectations for quality workouts have been far from reality.
Damn, whatever happened to just running a lot in the mountains???
Thought about pasting the training plan for the past few weeks, but didn’t want to bore you to death in the first three paragraphs of this post. Provided below is a snapshot of a typical training week:
Monday – Easy/Recovery run; 10ish miles, up to 1,000ft vert; strides
Wednesday Easy/Recovery run; 10ish miles, up to 1,000ft vert; strides
Thursday Easy/Recovery run; 10ish miles, up to 1,000ft vert or day off, if needed; strides
Friday (AM) Tempo run; 10-16 miles total, 6-12 miles at marathon-ish pace, flat
(PM) Gym workout; 1.25-1.5hrs
Saturday Easy, Long run; 20-24 miles, last three miles hard on occasion, up to 1,000ft vert
Sunday Easy/Recovery run; 10-15 miles, up to 1,000ft vert; strides
Weekly Totals: 70-90 miles; up to 5,000ft vert; two strength training sessions
Maybe I’m getting old, maybe it’s the constant pounding on pavement or maybe I’m just a big puss, but I’ve required much more sleep and have not felt 100% for most workouts throughout this training block. Welcome to marathon training…
Since Thomas or I have no idea what pace I should be running and since I don’t have any PR’s on the roads, it’s been a bit difficult to attach target times to workouts. We discussed a loose marathon goal of 2:45, but it would likely change due to how my body reacted to training. Thomas thought a 10k race or time trial would be a good early indicator of fitness, and give us a base to build workout times off.
Finally cashing in on their 2014 Xmas present, Alejandra and I traveled up to the Bay to take my Dad and Kris to an A’s game. Looking at the training calendar, the 10k time trial/race fell on the same day as the game. Assuming a time trial was imminent, I did one last quick internet search for a 9/26 road race in the Bay Area, and the SoFitCity 10k popped up.
Vacaville is about 30 minutes from Pinole, the race started at 8am and we had planned to leave for the game at 11:00am. I planned on arriving an hour early to leave ample time for checking in, a long warmup and a chance to check out some of the course.
Not checking the exact location of the start but knowing the address, I assumed my impeccable navigation skills would lead me right to the check in. If you believe the abovementioned sentence, you’ve obviously never rode or ran much with me. I got lost… driving in circles around the Vacaville Mall, thankfully there was a cop who was setting up cones. He pointed me in the general vicinity of the start/finish and thankfully I found my way into the party.
Vacaville’s SoFitCity event is a celebration of health and wellness, with food trucks, a main stage for music and festivities, and a random assortment of vendors (Jamba Juice, Kaiser Permanente, the local fire station and some guy slanging tasers and stun guns). Being Vacaville, the taser salesman was the least surprising of the group.
After checking in and before heading out for a quick warmup, I glanced over to the main stage and dancing around to some pretty gangster beats, was what could only be described as an extremely weird mix of Tina Turner from Mad Max, wearing Janet Jackson’s super bowl wardrobe “malfunction” outfit, bouncing around on a pair of Oscar Pistorious’ “legs.” I hustled off as quickly as possible to warmup.
After a quick warmup and some strides, I made my way back towards the creepy lady on the main stage. Thankfully, the runners were all leaving the check in area to head down to the start. I tucked in with the herd and made my way over to the starting line.
A nice volunteer rounded up the group and gave some last minute race instructions. He also asked that the 10k runners start at the front of the starting line, and the 5k runners start several feet behind. Without a staggered start and without a timing mat at the starting line, I wondered if they would botch finish times for the 5k runners. Someone from the crowd shouted out my exact thoughts, and the volunteer said not to worry about it. Pretty sure this race wasn’t attracting elite athletes and wasn’t worrying too much about being USATF certified, so I didn’t say anything and got ready to run.
With absolutely no idea of a goal time, Thomas thought that a 5:50 pace wouldn’t be too difficult to start with and hopefully try to maintain. As we took off and clipped off the first mile, we came through right at 5:50. There was a group of 4-5 runners in front of me, with a random assortment of runners that I was with that looked to have started a wee bit too fast. Sucking wind and sounding like death is approaching isn’t the spot you want to be in after mile 1.
We came through the second mile a bit faster than the first, and most of the runners that went out too fast had started to fade. There were several racers moving well in front of me, along with a guy wearing a nor cal racing team jersey, so I assumed this wasn’t his first rodeo and probably a good guy to stick with. We ran together through mile three, eventually passing the group in front of us and I felt relatively good, so decided to push a bit into mile four. We had separated from the rest of the runners and I assumed we’d battle it out over the last couple of miles.
After passing mile four, I had a small lead on the racing team jersey guy but wasn’t sure if he was waiting to reel me in over the last two. Mile four has a relatively significant climb for a short road race, so I tried to keep a 5:50 pace, but definitely fell back heading into the last mile. A multitude of 5k walkers had also entered the course at the start of this climb, so we had to unfortunately dodge a lot of people, trying to stay within the cones. The cop on the motorcycle leading the race thankfully didn’t bust my chops too much as I stayed a few steps outside the cones.
Fortunately, the last mile is all downhill or flat, but unfortunately we had run right into the heart of the 5k walkers. Running without running into this group was getting dodgy and I was a bit too tired to say, “excuse me” every three seconds. Thankfully there were no accidents and we made our way back into the mall parking lot. Taking a quick glance behind me, I couldn’t see the racing jersey guy, so I was thankful we wouldn’t have to sprint it out to the finish.
Coming through the chute in 37ish minutes on a longer than 10k course, the overall time was ok, but I felt confident having something left in the tank. A 37 minute 10k is definitely not fast, compared to collegiate, post collegiate or good high school runners, but thankfully I’m not training to race 10k’s. My lack of speed was definitely apparent and a weakness that needs some serious focus, but I left the SoFitCity race and that crazy Tina Turnerish lady happy feeling strong throughout the race.
The fastest marathoners in the world run around 2:03-2:04… that’s 4:40ish/mile. Most runners would be happy running one mile at this pace, let alone 26.2. In December, I’ll be racing my first marathon at CIM in Sacramento. Will it be anywhere remotely close to 2:03… HELL NO!!!
I stumbled into the ridiculous sport of ultrarunning because of a good friend that is an incredible endurance athlete. After completing my first 50 miler in August 2013, I was pretty sure it would be my first and last ultra. Not being able to walk for several days and hurting EVERYWHERE, I couldn’t fathom going through that pain again. Weird that the brain has the ability to file those memories into folders that you don’t access too often. Two years later, I’ve completed 14 ultras (3, 100 milers; 2, 100k’s; 3, 50 milers; and 6, 50k’s) and thankfully no race has hurt more than that first one. Not sure if it’s part masochist, attempting to learn what I’m made of or just plain stupidity, but I’ve truly stumbled upon my passion in life.
Spending countless hours in the wilderness logging long, hilly miles definitely has its benefits. Mental toughness, increased endurance, lower resting heart rate and an excuse to drink good beer afterwards are all great reasons to train big, long and slow.
Unfortunately, training only long, slow distance has its drawbacks… Decreased speed, shortened stride and lack of explosiveness. The elite ultramarathoners today (Rob Krar, Max King, Sage Canaday, Ellie Greenwood, etc.) have not only built huge endurance bases, but also have kept focus on what made them competitive on the roads… speed!
Can Ryan Hall win Western States???
(For any nonrunners reading this post, Ryan Hall is the fastest American marathoner of all time with a 2:04ish PR)
The better question would be, “Can Ryan Hall get into Western States” considering the ungodly amount of people entering the lottery every year, but it’s a question worth debating. Barring significant injuries, which unfortunately have plagued Ryan’s recent marathon career, and a year or two of consistent ultra-training, and I’d bet the farm on a Western States win.
Granted, a 100 mile race has many more variables to juggle than a marathon… Nutrition, hydration, elevation, heat management, stomach issues, lack of sleep, hyponatremia, night running, technical terrain, massive climbs and time on the feet are merely a few of the obstacles runners must tackle and/or manage throughout an ultra. However, we cannot discount the benefits of being able to crank out countless 5 minute miles with ease.
Running fast is a trained skill that takes years of focus. Technical downhills, climbing ability, endurance, intestinal fortitude, etc., are tools that fast runners use to become better ultrarunners. Yes, Kllian Jornet is absolutely incredible at mountain racing! He is fearless on downhills and has the climbing ability of a mountain goat. He’s also won Western States, which is a very runnable 100 mile race that benefits ultrarunners with speed.
Could Killian win Western States in 2016???
If Rob Krar, Seth Swanson, Dylan Bowman, Alex Varner and David Laney toe the line for WS healthy next year, Killian has no chance in hell. Runnable courses, whether a 5k or 100 mile race, benefit runners with speed.
“So why train to get faster when you race ultra marathons?” My dad asked this question a couple weeks ago as we were heading out to watch the highest scoring baseball game I’ve ever seen in person (Giants 14, A’s 10). Weird how that happens when you put Zito and Hudson on the mound 10 years past their prime.
Let’s take a quick look at the results of elite and sub-elite marathoners after their first 100 miler?
Rob Krar; 2nd at Western States in 2013, 1st at WS in 2014, 1st at WS in 2015; 2:25ish marathon PR; 65 minute half-marathon PR
Max King; 4th at Western States in 2014; 2:14 marathon PR
Magdalena Boulet; 1st at Western States in 2015; 2:30ish marathon PR
David Laney; 7th at Western States in 2015 and 3rd at UTMB in 2015; 2:17 marathon PR
Alex Varner; 7th at Western States in 2014; 2:25ish marathon PR
Habitually, faster runners perform better at longer distance events than slower runners. I’m no scientist, say’s every GOP candidate in the past 5 years, and the statement above definitely won’t disprove Einstein’s theory of relativity, but the faster a runner is, the higher ceiling that runner has for long distance performance.
How does this relate to me?
Considering the “blistering” pace of 11-18 minutes/mile that I’ve thrown down in 100’s, there’s no way I can compete with elite or sub-elite ultrarunners without increasing my speed. Outside of a very mediocre four years of running high school cross county, and a couple of years slogging around the mountains for hours on end trying to figure out which gel won’t make me puke… as much… after mile 80, I’ve yet to formally train for running.
Will I ever win Western States? You’d be better off putting your money on the Cubbies to win the World Series. Will training to get faster benefit my ultra racing? Absolutely!
“So what the hell does training look like for a marathon?”
This is one of the many questions I peppered Thomas with as we ran a hilly 20 miler back in June.
Thomas Reiss, one of SLO’s most decorated runners, has agreed to help me prepare for CIM. Thomas won his first 7 ultra’s, after years of successful road racing. He owns a PR of 1:09 for the half, and ran a 2:36 marathon at age 45. This guy can flat out fly, and definitely knows a thing or two about training.
From 8/31-12/6, I’ll be diving in headfirst into marathon training. Granted, I’ve completed a couple marathons, but using one as a back-to-back after a 4-5 hour day in the mountains doesn’t provide for those peppy legs that roadrunners talk about. There are also a lot of new words I’ve been learning like Tempo Runs… Interval Training… Lactate Thresholds… VO2Max…
I’ll provide some updated posts along the way to getting my ass handed to me in December.
Disclaimer… The following tongue-in-cheek opinions and statements are mine and mine alone. No CrossFitters, Ragnar-ians or color run participants were injured in the creation of this blog post. Virtual races… Obstacle course 5k’s… Color runs… if these events make up the vast majority of your racing calendar, this might not be the blog post for you.
Any event that encourages people to get off their butt and exercise is fine by me. I wholeheartedly support organizations working to better the health of our ridiculously unhealthy society. Obesity rates are at catastrophic levels, chronic and mainly preventable diseases kill more people in 1st world countries than all other types of death combined, and this is the first generation estimated to live shorter lives than their parents.
Now that I’ve gotten off my soapbox and you hopefully understand that I support events like Ragnar for getting fat asses off the couch… and yes, I have absolutely no problem calling someone a fat ass if they are, I’ll try to explain what a Ragnar trail relay race is in the context of an awesome running weekend with great friends.
So what is a Ragnar trail event?
If an overpriced non-technical trail run had a creepy threesome with participation trophy sports and Crossfit, sans athletes, Ragnar would be the offspring.
On Thursday evening after work, I started the 6+ hour trip from San Luis Obispo to meet my running buddies in Truckee. We were signed up for the Ragnar Trail Relay, taking place at the Royal Gorge cross country ski resort in Soda Springs, on Friday and Saturday. For the past two years, and the past three for a few of the runners on our team, we’ve competed in the Tahoe Reno Odyssey. This 180ish mile relay race circumnavigates Lake Tahoe, starting and ending in Reno, with a loop around Virginia City. I’ve had an absolute blast participating in this event the past two years, and was really excited to race a trail relay where we wouldn’t have to drive around in vans for 20+ hours, in between legs.
The drive to Truckee was relatively uneventful until receiving a text from Nick about 15 minutes away from his house. Driving down into Truckee from Donner Summit, there is a long descent that forces drivers to ride their brakes, or else fly at around 140mph. I chose somewhere in between the two, and didn’t think much about moving with the speed of traffic, even it was a bit fast. About 10 miles outside Truckee and six hours into the drive, I pass three… THREE highway patrol cars waiting for speeders. They must have smelled blood, and popped me right as I passed them. Pretty sure that I was flirting with the speed limit, I immediately pulled over before the officer even flipped his lights. As the officer was walking up to the car, my cell phone beeps with a text from Nick… “Don’t speed going down the summit. CHP everywhere.” The officer was really nice, albeit not so nice as to give me a warning.
I should’ve stopped to pee in Sacramento… would’ve got that text before blasting past the Po Po’s.
Pulling into Nick and Angie’s around 10ish, Dave whips in before I hit the door. We exchange hugs and he says, “Dude, I just got pulled over 15 minutes outside Truckee. He let me off with a fixit ticket.”
I should’ve shown some more skin…
Nick comes outside to greet us and we tell him about our CHP adventures. After unpacking, BS’ing for a while, and letting Tux (Nick’s two year old lab/heeler mix) lick my feet for 30 minutes, we decide to hit the sack an hour-ish after arrival.
Waking up early, we decide to go for a quick “shake out” run to see the local trails and knock the dust off from a long drive. Nick and Ang literally have a trailhead less than .25 miles from their front door. We cruised around for a few minutes watching Tux chase squirrels. This dog is really, really fast and literally jumps several feet high when catching balls, greeting guests and whenever generally excited. After packing up Nick’s Trailrunner and fighting back Tux from joining us, as there were no dogs allowed at the race, we made a quick grocery stop for last minute provisions and then headed out to set up camp.
Pulling into Royal Gorge around 11am, we assumed we’d be some of the first campers to show up. Assuming wrong, we were literally one of the last groups to arrive. Frantically looking for a decent campsite to house 9 runners and all our gear, we decide on an uneven but shaded area right next to the trail. With Nick’s vehicle parked 800 meters from the site, we needed to figure out how to haul our two fully packed Yeti’s. Fortunately, these coolers keep ice for several days without melting. Unfortunately, these damn things weigh 347 pounds each.
This wasn’t Ragnar’s first rodeo…
There were 10+ giant Rickshaws circulating throughout the Royal Gorge parking lot/campground. We finally tracked one down, easily packed up all our gear and made the half mile trek to our site. Quickly unpacking, Nick reminded us that we had to be at the race check-in site by 11:30am for volunteer duties.
One of the interesting parts to a Ragnar event is their volunteer policy. Ragnar requires that each team donate 3 hours of time or pay an additional $100+ registration fee. With several hours to burn before the rest of the team showed up and two coolers full of libations, spending a few hours helping out didn’t seem too bad.
I took the first shift, and was sent to the parking lot entrance with a yellow vest and orange flagstick. After being given detailed directions, literally being told to let people in the parking lot, I was released to the wild for an hour of fun. Traffic hour ended up being a good time, as I met a ton of runners, ran into Christina, an old short-term roommate from SLO and had fun making up answers to various race questions.
After being relieved by Nick, I cruised around the campgrounds to meet the vendors and check out the site decorations. We definitely didn’t receive the memo, as EVERY campsite was decked out in a different theme. There were the Tahoe Trailer Trashers, Third Leg’s the Hardest, Fourplay, etc. Some sites had outdoor kitchens, others had sleeping cots, and one rocked a fully stocked bar. Maybe these teams didn’t come here to run.
Around 2:30 our team started to show up. Angie arrived first with Mikey and Bruce. Abe and Mone arrived next, bringing a huge tent and two fold out beds. These beds were awesome, super light, but took up nearly the entire tent space. Thinking ahead, Nick brought an additional tent so we’d be able to catch a couple z’s in between legs, while Abe and Mone slept in their mansion. The wind also started picking up in the early afternoon, and with it came loads of sweeping dust. Setting up camp next to some trees and surrounded by vegetation, we were semi-protected, but the campers in the main site were not so lucky.
Our start time of 4:00pm was approaching, and Abe would be leading out the TRAIL MARKERS!
This relay is comprised of three, color-coded loops, varying in distance and difficulty, but all starting and finishing at the same location at the main camp. The green loop (easy) is 3.2 miles with approximately 400ft. of elevation gain. The first mile is downhill and/or flat, and mile two takes runners up a climb, before sending them back down into the finish.
The yellow loop (medium) is 5.4 miles with 800ft+ of elevation gain. Fortunately, there are only two climbs on this loop. Unfortunately, both climbs are 400ft+ and steep as all hell. For the majority of racers, the first mile of the yellow loop is the most difficult because of the grade.
The red loop (difficult) is 7.2 miles with 1,200ft+ of elevation gain. This loop has a gradual, single track climb for 2.5 miles, before taking runners down a relatively technical descent. The last 1-2 miles of this loop is on asphalt, which can be a reprieve for runners tackling this loop at night.
Our team would be rotating through these loops starting with green, and ending 23 loops later, taking runners on each of the trails totaling approximately 16 miles and 2,400ft of elevation gain. Ragnar also staggers start times, with slower projected teams starting closer to 10:00am, and the faster teams starting closer to 5:00pm. This allows for teams to finish relatively close together, and hopefully allows all teams to finish within the 32hr cutoff.
Considering our start time of 4pm, we were considered one of the faster teams, probably expected to finish somewhere within the top 20-30. Out of 250+ teams, we were excited to have some healthy competition for the next 22ish hours.
Now many ultrarunners are planners. Most of us spend copious amounts of time reviewing course maps, race instructions and building a detailed game plan for each race. Nick puts every ultrarunner I’ve met to shame when comparing race prep. Before starting, Nick busts out his captain’s clipboard full of maps, estimated split times, color-coded loops broken down by person and elevation gain. Pretty sure he had personally marked the course, did a fly by with drone and raked off all loose rocks, but couldn’t confirm.
Trying to decipher the contents of Nick’s clipboard, I determine my starting leg was 6th and I’d get the red loop, likely at night. With plenty of time to relax before racing, we made our way to the starting line to cheer on Abe. Tackling the green loop first and starting the race with 15+ other runners, we were excited to see how Abe would hold up against the other racers. After a short countdown, Abe shot out of the gates hard… really hard!
Heading back to our campsite, we relaxed while waiting for Abe to finish up his loop. We tried our best to guestimate the finish times for each runner, and then send the following racer down around 15 minutes early. The first several legs went quickly as everyone was fresh and we still had daylight. The second legs would be challenging, as everyone will have had several miles under them, they’d likely be ran in the middle of the night and the majority of our team was from sea level. Jay also arrived around 7ish, making his way up from Oaktown in that wonderful Bay Area afternoon traffic.
Really hoped our team would exceed Captain Nick’s estimates, so I could get a few miles of the first loop in daylight. Unfortunately, the course was a fair bit tougher than it looked on paper, and we were a few minutes behind on most legs. After a quick warmup, I made my way down to the starting corral to meet Angie. She finished strong, having to run her last few miles in the dark. We exchanged bibs quickly, as Ragnar has chip timing with each team bib attached to a belt, and I made my way out towards the red loop.
From everything I’ve heard about the red loop, the views from the top of the ridge after the initial 2-3 mile climb are amazing. Going out a bit too hard and definitely feeling the elevation on the first climb, I wasn’t in much of a mood to take in the view, so thankfully didn’t miss out having to use the headlamp all leg.
After cresting the top of the climb and passing what seemed like a ridiculous amount of people walking, the next 2-3 miles were filled with semi-technical downhill. What made the night running difficult for all runners was the amount of dust being kicked up. The wind had died down from the afternoon but considering our drought and the 250+ teams trampling around, there was a perma layer of dust sitting 6 inches off the ground that made it very difficult to see where to place your feet.
Shortening the stride, trying to stay light on the feet and crossing my fingers that it wasn’t too technical, I tried my best to move swiftly down the trail. There were a ton of runners walking down this section, and it made it difficult to pass without slowing down, as not only were we on singletrack, but we’d also started into the switchbacks.
After spitting us out onto the road with approximately 2 miles left, I assumed we’d enter the trail at another section. Assuming wrong, we ran the next 1.75 miles on asphalt before meeting up with the other trails on the quarter mile stretch to the finish. Coming into the finishing chute, I passed off to Jay and Nick, who was also planning to run the green loop.
Nick, an incredibly gifted runner, has been battling some foot/arch issues for several months. He’s done all the right things trying to figure this issue out, but running pain free hasn’t been an option. Excited to participate as he’s been spearheading this entire event, he planned to run the green loop, and cross his fingers that his foot didn’t fall off. To all our surprise, he absolutely smoked the loop looking awesome on the climb past our camp. We weren’t sure if he was sandbagging the whole time, but either way it was great to see him moving again.
With the amount of dust and sweat caked on after these first 7+ miles, I tried my best to take a wet wipe shower, and do a quick face wash to get some of the gunk off. After downing a late night (10pm) pasta meal supplied by Ragnar, I settled in with the team to cheer on some runners and hopefully take a nap. Abe and Mone had brought an area rug which was awesome for sleeping on the ground, as it was freaking huge and thick enough to suppress the rocky terrain we settled upon.
After BS’ing for a while with the team, most of us tried to catch a few minutes of shuteye, unless we were preparing to run. I snuggled up next to Jay and Mikey, about 3 feet from the trail. Most racers walked up the incline past our camp, so we weren’t too scared of being ran over, but they still kicked up an extreme amount of dust. Since this layer sat 6 inches off the ground, perfectly at head level, sleeping with a buff over my face was the only way to breathe.
Finally settling into sleep, I had set an alarm based on the approximate time I felt we’d be moving at to prep for the next leg. Being awoke by Angie, knowing that I was following her each leg, I nearly jumped out of my sleeping bag thinking I’d missed the exchange. Can’t remember what the hell she told me after realizing she hadn’t ran yet. Hope it wasn’t too important.
The yellow loop was uneventful, except for the first mile which climbs at a very steep grade. This loop is very runnable, with wide jeep roads on the descents. Again, there were what seemed like too many people walking throughout this leg, both on the ascents and descents, but at least the dust they kicked up didn’t matter much because the terrain was a nonissue.
Finishing up the yellow loop at around 4-4:30am and cleaning up again as the dust accumulation was exponentially worse, I tried my best to tidy up the campsite as the sun would be rising soon and it didn’t make sense to try and sleep for 30 minutes. Just as I was finishing tracking down all the random shoes and sandals spread throughout camp, a walker making his way towards the finish, no more than .25 miles from being done, stops at our site.
Panting like a dog in 100 degree heat and wearing a green wristband signifying the brutal 3.2 miles recently conquered, he barely gets out… “Do you have anything to drink???”
Considering it was still dark and that he was likely unaware of the distance, I responded encouragingly, “Hey man, you’re only a quarter mile from the finish.”
Assuming he’d be excited and steam off towards glory, I returned to tidying up camp. Feeling that creepy feeling of someone staring at me from behind, I turn around.
“Do you have anything to drink???”
Now I totally get it if you’re trashed. I’ve seen many runners, and have definitely been that guy on occasion that’s absolutely wrecked from countless hours on the trail or after a very difficult effort. Being 100% certain that this guy didn’t even remotely meet one of these qualifications, I nearly told him to “suck it up sugar tits,” but really just wanted him to leave.
“Uhhhh… ok man, do you have a bottle?”
Really guy??? Let me clean off one of my champagne flutes for you…
“Uhhh… ok man. Let me try to find something.”
With only water bottles around and unfortunately mine not in sight, I grab the nearest one and top it off with about 3 ounces of fluid. He commences to pounding it, thankfully not wrapping his lips around the bottle, and then takes off without a thank you. In the two minutes of this absolutely ridiculous exchange, numnuts could have easily finished his damn loop.
Abe was the first of our group to finish around 6-7am. One after the other… Abe, Dave, Mone, Mikey, Angie… our runners were finishing up their legs and starting the celebration.
Taking off on the green loop, I was super excited not to need a headlamp for the first time all race. Mile 1 was fast as it was nearly all downhill. There were a few runners moving really quickly on this portion of the leg. Once we began the climb however, all of them started walking. This climb was no longer than 300ft, and maybe it was the lack of sleep and multiple loops under the legs, but we only had 2-2.5 miles left. After cresting the hill and starting the descent back to the finish, the last 1-1.5 miles was filled with countless people walking it in. Knowing this was the last leg for a lot of runners, I tried to be encouraging but there was no breaking through to these zombies.
After finishing the last leg, I was excited to clean up and have a celebratory pint. Jay and Bruce were our last two runners, and we estimated having about 2-2.5 hours before they completed their legs. After cleaning up camp and packing up most of our gear, we settled into our chairs and spent the last 90 minutes BS’ing about the race, cheering on runners and waiting to run it in with Bruce. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, the excitement from being finished or the several pints, but Dave and I saw it fit to push these racers outside their comfort zone.
Being fed up with the constant walking and the gear kits these racers were wearing… In all seriousness, racers wore less gear at HURT, we made a pact not to let anyone walk past our camp. Armed with a cow bell, blistering banter and a promise of warm beer for finishers, we successfully forced about 75% of racers to do what they hopefully came to do… RUN!
Thankfully Bruce showed up before they kicked us out of the race, and we ran it in with him. After packing up the remaining gear, we made our way over to an awesome burger joint in Truckee for a well-deserved meal.
We finished the night hanging at Nick and Angie’s, watching Unbreakable and recapping our favorite parts of the race. Great trip, great 5th place finish, and great times spent with an amazing group of people!
What I learned:
Ragnar racers wear more gear than 100 mile mountain runners… hands down, end of discussion!
Most ultras with big climbs involve a significant amount of hiking, interspersed with a majority of running. It is a scientifically proven fact that there is a 98.7% chance of spotting a Ragnarian walking at nearly any point of the race.
The trails were well marked, the views were ridiculous and the Ragnar event wasn’t all that bad.
Bruce and Jay are awesome guys! Bruce and I graduated high school the same year and he went on to dominate in Track & Field at Cal. Made sense that he was able to smoke that guy after we lit into him on his second leg.
Time spent with awesome friends, good beer and a fair amount of encouragement/semi-heckling is definitely good for the soul.
Not getting into Western States or Leadville, I spent a lot of time searching for a summer 100 miler. Coming off of HURT in January and Nine Trails in March, I felt relatively sufficient at climbing and thought that a race with a significant amount of vert would be a smart option. I also wanted to choose a race that would be accessible for crew as I hoped Alejandra, my dad and Kris would be able to join. After looking at several options, I decided on the Santa Barbara 100 as it’s close to home, I’m familiar with portions of the trail and the scenery is absolutely breathtaking.
The Santa Barbara 100 is big… really big! With well over 24k of ascent/descent over 101+ miles, the SB 100 is not your beginners 100 miler. An out-and-back race taking runners through the Santa Ynez mountain range, the SB 100 is a relentless beast that hits you with over 13k of climbing over the first 50 miles. Thankfully, most of the trail is semi-runnable. Although there are plenty of rocky patches, steep grades and a few miles of waist high briars to add to the party.
The SB 100 was the first ultra I’ve raced where the start time was at night. With temperatures in the back country known to climb into the 90’s-100’s, the race directors were smart to move the start time to 6:00pm on Friday.
My dad and Kris decided to rent an RV, as they’ve been toying with the idea of purchasing one when pops retires. They drove down on Thursday evening, picked up the rig and met Alejandra and I back in SLO. We went out for an early dinner and spent some time at the Farmer’s Market dodging the throngs of people out on a beautiful evening.
On Friday, Alejandra had to work a half day, so my dad, Kris and I ran errands and picked up last minute items for the trip. For all you RV owners out there, no store in San Luis Obispo carries toilet paper for your bathrooms… literally NOT ONE!
I traveled down to SB at around 12:00pm to provide for plenty of time to check-in, ask some last minute crew questions and catch a quick nap. I was able to meet one of the race directors, Robert Gilcrest, along with Errol “Rocket” Jones. Listening to the Rocket on Ultra Runner Podcast, he’s known to tell a story or two. As I approached the check-in booth/bench, Rocket was talking about his Badwater experience being crewed by Tropical John Medinger and Ann Trason… what a legend!
The afternoon was uneventful, as I parked in a quiet spot and napped for a couple hours. My dad, Kris, Alejandra and Carly arrived around 4:15, as we had a mandatory crew/racer meeting at 4:30. We made our way over to the start area and I caught up with Joannie as she would be manning the Gilbratar/Romero aid station ALL NIGHT AND DAY. Recent 200 miler Born to Run Finisher Tiffany Guerrero was also in attendance, and we were able to catch up on her recovery. I also BS’d with fellow Physiophyx athlete Bryan Toro, as he was taking pictures that evening and would be racing the 100k on Saturday.
All the crew, pacers and racers congregated at the Lower Oso campground at 4:30pm to listen to race director Robert Gilcrest give course details. Robert was very detailed, and it seemed as if a lot of time and effort had been put into preparing for this big race. After finishing up the talk, we had a few minutes to lube up, loosen up and sneak in a last minute potty break.
At 6:00pm, we were off.
Nearly a quarter of the runners were close for the first few miles chasing Eric Clifton. Eric is another ultra-legend that took off like a bat-out-of-hell, and I wasn’t sure if he would blow up or set a new course record. I led a lead pack that consisted of Dean Karnazes, the eventual women’s winner Rachel Ragona and SB 100 veteran Marshall Howland.
The first few miles of the race run parallel to Paradise Rd., before turning into single track and climbing up towards Buckhorn, the first aid station. Leading the chase pack and spending a little too much time BS’ing with the fellow racers, I burned right past a well-marked right turn and started heading up a big climb. About five minutes into our ascent, we hear someone shouting from a distance, “HEY, YOU’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!” Thankfully, some fellow racers saved our asses, and we flipped around to get back on track.
Apologizing profusely to our group and definitely well into the mid-pack, we made our way up the climb to the first aid station relatively unscathed, with an extra mile or so under our legs. This aid station was pretty remote, and manned by two awesome volunteers. I asked if they had seen the lead runner, as I was nervous Eric had made the same mistake we did. Fortunately, he doesn’t share my sense of direction.
Quickly making my way out of the Buckhorn aid station, I took another wrong turn and starting heading out toward God knows where. Thankfully the aid station crew shouted, “HEY, YOU’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!” I really hoped this wouldn’t be the theme of the race.
The next five miles to aid station #2 (Falls) were relatively uneventful. We climbed and descended back onto Paradise Rd. and made our way onto asphalt for a short time before seeing my crew. My dad, Kris and Alejandra had set out gels and had a headlamp ready. I tried to make quick time through the check-in, as I was irritated about getting lost so soon and nervous that it might happen again.
Heading back out onto the soft sand before starting another series of climbs, I made a right turn which looked to be correct. About 5 minutes later I hear, “HEY, YOU’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!” I couldn’t freaking believe it! This time I was fairly certain I was on the correct trail, or just too damn stubborn to turn around, so I took my time following the trail and identifying all the markings. Thankfully, they must have been either yelling at someone else or lost themselves.
The sun started setting on the 7.25 mile climb and descent between Falls and aid station #3 (Live/White Oak), and by the time I made it into Live Oak it was pitch black. Checking in and out quickly and meeting the team, I packed in an extra headlamp battery, put on a shirt and apologized for being irritated so early after getting lost. Not worrying about racing so soon into the 100, I was still interested in how the front runners were doing so I asked my dad how everyone in front looked.
“You’re the only runner to come through…” “HOLY SHIT!!!”
Although not 100% positive on my choice of expletive, you could replace it with any four-letter equivalent, and it would still likely capture my surprise. I’d definitely passed some runners after getting the group turned around, but had no idea I’d passed them all. Excited and definitely shocked, I “sprinted” off completely forgetting my water bottles. Thankfully, the weight of the pack was a quick reminder, and I met my dad halfway back to refuel. The next 5 miles from Live Oak to aid station #4 (Red Gate) runs on the same route as the Santa Barbara Red Rock 50, so at least I was 25% sure I wouldn’t get lost on this section.
Running through the night is an experience I highly recommend for those that haven’t had the privilege of watching the sun set and rise on the same run. The scenery is muted, the normal daylight sounds are replaced with the occasional chirping or buzzing of nocturnal insects and it requires a runner to remain continually focused on the “Now,” as you’re a misstep away from a fall or worse.
Making my way towards the Red Gate aid station at around 10:00pm, I heard music blasting and saw what looked like a house in the distance lit up like Christmas at the Griswold’s. Not entirely sure if this was the aid station, I made my way closer to what definitely was a home. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much aid at this station, unless your choice of nutrition during an ultra are jello shots and keg stands. This was a full-on raging house party in the middle of the damn forest! Looking back, I should’ve took a beer for the road…
Moving quickly through Red Gate (mile 22), I started an 8-9 mile stretch of trail with over 3,300 feet of climb. This is the longest section between aid stations, and the last 2,500+ foot climb to aid station #5 (Cold Springs Saddle) is nasty.
Finally cresting the climb to Cold Springs, I was very excited to see my crew after a tough 13 miles. Unfortunately upon arrival, there was no crew to be found. I checked all the vehicles parked on Gibraltar, but couldn’t find our rig. Nervous as my dad and I definitely do not share my sense of direction, I hoped everything was ok as E Camino Cielo is a very windy road and difficult for cars to maneuver through, let alone a big ass RV. After checking in with the aid station, asking if they had seen my crew, and asking that they have the team meet me at Romero Camuesa, I packed in several VFuels and declined a very nice sweatshirt offer from Tiffany. She sure was moving well between aid stations.
What goes up must come down!
The six miles from Cold Springs to aid station #6 (Montecito) take runners down a massive 3,000ft+ descent. Trying not to pound my quads too soon or fall off the damn mountain, I increased my cadence, focused on picking up my feet and tried to slow down. This is a fun section of trail in the daylight, but definitely posed a challenge at night.
Pulling into Montecito (mile 36), I felt relatively strong coming off the descent and didn’t want to waste much time. After checking in and thanking the volunteers, I topped off both bottles, grabbed a couple VFuels, and took off. These volunteers were great, manning a remote aid station throughout the night!
The next six miles require a 2,000ft+ climb and a short descent dropping runners off at the Romero Camuesa aid station. After checking in at Romero and not hearing any updates on my crew, I was so excited to see my dad in the distance. We all caught up briefly, as we hadn’t seen each other in 24ish miles, found out they had made a wrong turn and ended up in Santa Barbara, arriving a Cold Springs right after I had left the aid station. We also decided the VFuels were working very well, and I was going to go sans Gu for the remainder of the race. The Physiophyx also came out at Romero, and the protein was a nice addition to the 8+ hours of sugar I’d been pounding.
The 8-9 miles from Romero (mile 43) to Lagunita Cielo is primarily uphill, and a brand new trail I’d never taken. The trail markers on this section were also replaced with traffic cones, really adding to the assurance of my navigation skills. The first 5 miles of this ascent was the most difficult thus far, not because of technicality or grade, but because of my non-familiarity of the trail. My heart would start pounding after each cone spotted, and unfortunately they were staggered by upwards of a half mile. With a few miles left before the turn around, at literally 3:30am, I spot a guy in the middle of the trail.
“What the hell are you doing out here?”
After briefly chatting about his plan to photograph runners heading up to Launita Cielo, he tells me there’s only one way to go on this trail. No more worrying about finding these damn cones!
The Lagunita Cielo turnaround at mile 51ish was manned by three guys and a dog, and that really had to trek to get up to this aid station. These guys were awesome, as anyone willing to spend an entire night and day taking care of battered runners is more than great by my definition.
Heading out of the aid station at 4:10am, I was really looking forward to some sunshine and dropping off my headlamp. The benefit of an out-and-back race is being able to see the runners in front and behind. Not thinking about racing at all to this point, I was interested in where the other runners were. Less than five minutes after leaving the aid station, and after fiddling with my replacement headlamp battery for a few minutes, I spotted Ken Zemach heading towards Lagunita Cielo. We both said “Good Job,” and I continued the descent. Ken looked to be in good spirits and was running well up the climb, so I assumed we would be battling it out over the next 10+ hours.
Heading back towards Romero Camuesa, I ran past multiple runners, some looking much better than others. As long as I’m not crawling, cursing or puking, I try to say something short and positive to each racer. We all suffer for a significant amount of time in an ultra, and I truly respect anyone willing to lace up and tackle challenges of this magnitude.
Checking back into Romero Camuesa (mile 59ish), the sun started to rise and thankfully I was able to dump my headlamp. Only having experienced a sunrise on race day once before at HURT, it was an absolutely amazing feeling to be able to see the ground without a spotlight… the little things! Descending back down towards the Montecito aid station was great with sunlight, and it was a fairly uneventful six miles.
The climb from Montecito back up to Cold Springs was downright abusive! With nearly 3,200ft of ascent over six mostly exposed miles, this is by far the most challenging climb of the race. Although only around 7-8am, the sun was starting to bake in the canyon. I felt sorry for the runners having to suffer through this during the heat of the afternoon.
Finally arriving to Cold Springs after a brutal climb (mile 70), I was very happy to see the crew had made it. We quickly replaced bottles, took off the charger from my watch and put down another 30 ounces of Physiophyx before heading out on the long section to Red Gate.
The 8-9 miles from Cold Springs to Red Gate was definitely easier on the return, as the first several miles was a descent. Unfortunately, there was approximately 1,200ft of climbing on this section, and we had to make it through the couple miles of briars again. Pretty sure not being able to see these damn things made it easier.
Arriving to Red Gate (mile 78) knowing there were only two more significant climbs was very refreshing. I made my way past the party house from Friday night, weird that no one was out-an-about in the morning, and headed out towards Live Oak. The last few miles before Live Oak are either downhill or flat, so it was nice to open up the legs for a few minutes.
Pulling into the Live Oak aid station (mile 84ish), it was nice to get hosed down as it was starting to get warm. I was also definitely starting to get cranky, and tried to move through as quickly as possible so I didn’t say anything I’d regret later. My crew was awesome moving quickly to replace water bottles and find some ibuprofen. I don’t recommend taking anti-inflammatories during a long race, but all of the climbing and descending had taken a toll on my quads, and I was feeling pretty beat up at the time.
Leaving Live Oak, we had a 1,500ft climb and descent before making our way into the Falls aid station. This 7.25 mile section was a lot more difficult than I recall it being 15 hours earlier. Although a fairly runnable course, the SB 100 has a significant amount of rocky sections and plenty of toe smashing rocks lined throughout the trail. I’m pretty sure my foot found about 95% of these damn rocks, as I stubbed every toe and had countless close calls catching myself right before impact. Up until mile 89ish however, I hadn’t actually taken a spill.
A mile outside the Falls aid station, I was running on a fairly flat, buttery section of single track when my mind started to wander. Pretty sure I was day dreaming about taking off my shoes and sitting down, as I hadn’t done this since Friday afternoon. On one of the most groomed parts of the race, my right foot got caught under a rock and I went headfirst into the trail. I was too damn exhausted to move my hands up, so I face planted/belly flopped right into the ground. Thankfully there were no other big rocks around, so I merely ended up with a face full and mouthful of dirt. Normally after a spill I’ll jump right back up and get moving, but there wasn’t much adrenaline left in the system, so I stayed down in the dirt for a while. I thought about a lot of things in the minute or so laying in the middle of this trail.
What the F@$% am I doing out here?
Why the hell did I pay for this?
Can I teleport home?
Would it really matter if I just took a nap right here?
Thankfully, I was able to shut my mind down for long enough to get up and start moving again.
Pulling into Falls (mile 91ish) was the last time I’d see my crew until the finish line. We hosed down one last time getting the trail off my face, pounded another 30 ounces of Physiophyx, replaced bottles and picked up some VFuels. Heading out relatively quickly, I wanted to get this last climb over with.
The nearly 1,500ft climb to the Buckhorn aid station was pretty tough with 90 miles on the legs. I tried to intersperse running with hiking, but my hiking speed was likelier faster than my uphill running this late into the race. Not knowing where 2nd place was at any time since the turnaround at mile 51, I ran scared for too many miles including this last climb to Buckhorn.
Checking into the Buckhorn aid station, the volunteers were again absolutely awesome. Having a little less than 6 miles to go, I asked if they could quickly check on the location of 2nd place. They radioed in and it came back that Ken was about an hour back. Pretty sure I hugged and tried to kiss one of the volunteers, as now I could feel relatively comfortable with the final few miles.
Minus one very short climb out of the aid station, the last 5 miles are all downhill or flat, which is normally a relief. Unfortunately, the cramping set in with about 4 miles to go. I pounded an entire water bottle, took several salt tabs and hit an extra VFuel to fight back, but my legs were pretty beat up at this point. I would’ve liked to enjoy the last couple miles before my first win, but it was pretty fitting that I had to suffer for all 102+ miles.
Passing the finish line in 20:50, I was absolutely spent! Between the climbing, lack of sleep and chronic fatigue, this race beat me up like Ike Turner. After hugging my dad, Kris and Alejandra, Robert placed me in a chair that I didn’t move out of for about an hour. Cheering on Ken as he came in under 22 hours, we chatted for a while about how brutal the course was, but how well the race was organized. After thanking Robert and Jakob for putting on an outstanding race and eating an awesome piece of salmon (Thanks Linda), I tried to shower and change out of the filth I’d been running in for nearly 21 hours. We decided to head back to SLO so everyone could cleanup and get some well deserved rest. I went into a coma for 10 hours.
Strength training was an integral part of the buildup for this race. I’m no Arnold Schwarzenegger, far from it, but it’s helped tremendously for climbing and keeping together late
I’m so lucky to have a supportive partner in Alejandra! It’s not easy on a relationship traveling 75% of the year for work and being out 5-6 hours each Saturday and Sunday leading up to a race. I’m so thankful that she still likes me!
Be nice to your crew, thank them constantly, and remember to prep them beforehand that you WILL get cranky late in a race.