On Fumes – Bryce 100 2013-05-31

One of the strange and scary things about hundred milers is how quickly even these monumental undertakings can start to seem routine. Bryce 100 was my third such race, and the third in only nine months, and I went into it excited, yes, but without any of the existential terror that accompanied my first two. Fortunately, all I had to do to cure this condition was run the thing.

I expected Bryce to be the easiest of my three hundred milers by a fair margin. Headlands had been my first, and I’d packed a number of big rookie mistakes into a rugged course with 20,000 feet of climbing and eked out a 32.5 hour finish just under the time limit. I’d been much better prepared for HURT, but it’s an extremely technical course throughout that never stops rising or falling, with a total of close to 25,000 feet of uphill gain. There were different estimates for the elevation gain at Bryce – not only was this the inaugural running, but there had been several late course changes – but the consensus seemed to be settling on the neighborhood of 19,000 feet, which I was sure I could handle well under the 36 hour cutoff.

More interesting would be the actual altitude of the course. The first eighty miles were all above 8,000 feet, with a peak elevation of around 9,500. I’d done some recent training runs at around 8,000 feet in Yosemite, and I knew the thin air could slow me down on long ascents, already a weak point in my running. If that was the worst of it, though, I figured I’d be in good shape, and hoped to finish in around thirty hours.

When race morning arrived, we gathered at a parking lot for an ATV trail about fifteen miles from Bryce Canyon National Park. For most of the race, we would be running above the park, farther west on the Paunsagaunt Plateau. Due to limited space at the actual starting line, we’d be shuttled up from the parking lot. However, there was only one school bus (that I saw) running up the bumpy dirt road, and more than two hundred runners who needed a ride.

With forty of my closest friends, I jumped into the back of a twenty-four foot U-Haul for the trip. I clambered up onto “Mom’s Attic” to make room for more runners, and threatened a quick stage dive. The truck started its way up the dirt road, and immediately filled with dust, looking for all the world like a crappy Burning Man art car. Fringe sporting event or conceptual art prank, on those trails my lungs would be full of dust by the next morning regardless.

Most of the first sixty miles were single track forest trails, so it took a while for the 210 or so starters (including forty 100K runners) to spread out. As soon we started to get some space between us, traffic backed up as runners all stopped to take pictures where the Thunder Mountain trail opened up to views of nearby pink rock hoodoos and the sweeping pine forest of the lower plateau. I commented to another runner that my time would only be improved by the fact that my phone’s battery had died overnight, but in truth I never stop to take photos during a race anyway.

I rolled my ankle coming into the first aid station at mile ten. I don’t know if it was here or later on that I hurt my foot, but by the next morning it would be a major problem.

Although I felt like I was pacing myself well, it only took a few hours for my legs to start feeling fatigued, which I attributed to the altitude. I never had trouble breathing, headaches, or worse symptoms of altitude sickness, but I simply wasn’t sucking in enough oxygen to give my my muscles all the energy they needed. Worse, after the first 50K we climbed to above 9,000 feet and stayed there for about five miles, and here is where I really felt the effects. Although the terrain was pretty easy, I slowed to a crawl and started to fall asleep on my feet, a feeling I’ve never had before so early in a race. I resorted to caffeine at the next aid station, far sooner than I’d planned, which meant I’d be stringing myself along on stimulants for closer to twenty-five hours than the maximum of twenty I’d hoped for.

Another descent, another climb, and before long I was summiting Pink Cliffs, the high point of the run. At 9,500 feet, I expected to have more problems with altitude, but the ascent and descent were short and sharp, which I dealt with better. In the meantime, I did my best to savor sweeping views across the plateau, Bryce Canyon, and on beyond Zion.

Coming into Pink Cliffs at mile 45. From the Bryce 100 Facebook page.
Coming into Pink Cliffs at mile 45. From the Bryce 100 Facebook page.

Ten miles later, coming back up to the Pink Cliffs aid station after the turnaround, the sun disappeared and the temperature on the ridge plummeted in fast winds. The high school class out volunteering would spend their night not only making soup for us, but struggling to keep their shelter from blowing over. Shivering, I changed into a pair of tights, a long shirt and a light jacket, and made the mistake of changing my shoes. The first pair still felt good, but I thought a new pair would feel even better – two miles later I regretted it, but I was stuck with them for the rest of the race. Maybe that’s what put my foot over the edge from aggravated to injury, but it’s hard to tell. Certainly, they were less comfortable and left me with a couple of raw spots.

As soon as I started moving again and dropping down from the ridge, I warmed up and didn’t have any more problems with the cold that night, even as the wind continued. Now and then it would pick up and send a dust devil skittering off like a trail spirit in the glow of my headlamp.

Shortly after sunrise I came up to the last familiar aid station before splitting off on the twenty mile finish leg of the course. I was handed a hot banana pancake and a cup of foul instant coffee (manna nonetheless) to eat on the go as I made my way up a dusty dirt road before beginning a long descent toward the next aid station, the King Creek campground where I’d spent the previous night.

Toward the end of this long dirt road descent, my foot finally gave out. I’d been feeling discomfort or occasional pain from the front of my left ankle now and then for I didn’t know how many hours, but as long as I was careful to land on the front of that foot it seemed okay. Now it was overtaking me, and I was slowing to a walk even on gentle downhills. By mile 85, the morning was heating up, and I found myself presented with an unexpected climb up the (beautiful, but in the moment resented) Keyhole Arch trail. For the first time in a hundred miler, I found myself doubting my ability to finish the course. I spent some time sitting on a log when I knew I could have been climbing, just waiting, for what I don’t know – for my foot to heal, for endorphins to go back to masking the pain, for myself to start caring again as much as I had only an hour before.

Once I started moving again, all I needed was to crest the hill for my problems to sort themselves out. I was able to really start running downhill again, free from pain and full of energy, excited by the familiar location of the campground and the knowledge that it signified the final leg of the course. Eleven more miles. After the day and the night I’d already been through, I could crawl eleven miles if I had to.

Except that the day was getting ripe, and hot, and the rest of the course was almost nothing but dusty dirt roads, free of shade. When I finally found a good downhill stretch, I started running hard again, but found at the bottom a water stop I’d forgotten was on the course, which meant I still had five miles to go. I pressed on slowly, resting a couple of times in the rare spots of shade, pouring out a little bit of water over my head as I went elsewhere.

Finally, when it seemed I couldn’t possibly be more than a mile from the end, I picked up and started running again. It must have been fairly slow, but to remember the actual mechanics of running after so much time on my feet is always amazing. Only that one mile stretched into two, then three. Thanks to the last course change, the final leg of race had turned out to be thirteen miles instead of the planned eleven.

No matter. I kept running until I saw the finish, and then I even managed to pick up speed, crossing that arbitrary line in the sand with everything I had left in me, arms wide in celebration.

Every time I run, after all, that’s the real point: everything I’ve got. In running all day, all night, and into the next day, I keep learning more about what that is.

It turns out sometimes that being hurt, being tired, feeling like the world and the sun are coming down on top of me aren’t so bad. I’ve just got to know where I’m going and remember to breathe.

How to Finish a DNF: MeOw Marathons, 2013-05-11

It was no surprise that the MeOw Marathons would be an unusual event. The first clue was that it was billed as a “West Coast tribute to the Barkley Marathons,” generally considered the world’s hardest trail race – only 14 entrants out of somewhere around 1000 have ever finished Barkley. MeOw wouldn’t be that hard, but any race borrowing from Barkley almost by definition can’t be doing so for the comfort of the runners.

Held in the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, RD Mark Swanson had estimated the race would involve around 8,000 feet of climbing per marathon. However, his estimates were suspect, since it quickly became clear that he had no interest in making each “marathon” loop marathon length. At the end of the event, runners’ estimates had it triangulated to about 32 miles per loop, but considering that no one managed to run the course without getting lost or doubling back at least once, all of our mileage counts were rough.

All ten of us dumb enough to attempt the double marathon started the day on the shore of Whiskeytown lake with a map of the park on which Mark had sketched, roughly, the course, and a sheet of directions that would take us through about the first ten miles. Along the way, there would be the occasional checkpoint where we pick up souvenirs to show we hadn’t cut the course, as well as further directions. Both in order to find the souvenir drops and the unmarked trails not shown on the map, the directions would be essential.

The directions would also prove maddening. Written in the style of a children’s book with more than a hint of Lewis Carroll, it would sometimes prove necessary to read ahead another paragraph to discover that you were following the tale of the character who had taken the wrong path. Or that you were reading about an optional shortcut – you know, the one completely overgrown with poison oak. Worse yet, Mark would occasionally get his left, right, east and west reversed. I might have been the only runner not to turn right at the top of the trail, when the directions told us all about how Beverly Anderson’s Abs avoided all temptations to turn left and continued rightishly like a good Republican when she reached the top of the trail, and was therefore possibly the only runner not to get lost at that junction (Beverly Anderson-Abbs was the favorite for the race, and the eventual winner).

The course began by running along the lakeshore, then straight up the mouth of Brandy Creek, where the water was up to chest high. I thought I’d have a decent advantage in this brief section of rock hopping and stream navigation with all the technical running I’ve been doing in the Sierras lately, but in this badass crowd I hardly made up any time at all. If any. In a small cache on the shore of the creek, we grabbed our first souvenir – a Hello Kitty valentine.

Almost two miles up the trail, after checking the directions at a junction, I realized I’d somehow already managed to drop my first souvenir. Trying not to let it get to me, I turned right around, hoping to see it dropped on the trail, resigning myself to last place. I would have to go all the way back to the cache for a fresh Kitty.

Worse yet, on the way back up with my new valentine, I would discover that the front food pocket of my pack was empty. I had managed to let it dump its contents on the floor of my car without noticing before the race. I would have enough food to get me through the first loop in the main compartment, but just barely.

Only a couple miles into the race (with a few extra for me), we climbed the 5,000 up a steep, sandy jeep road with few switchbacks to the summit of Shasta Bally. The views of Mount Lassen, Mount Shasta, and the Trinity Alps were memorable, but if you ever visit Whiskeytown this is not the day hike you want to make. Near the top Sean Ranney surprised me by catching up with me on the last leg of the relentless ascent – he’d gotten turned around at Sheep Camp, the beginning of the climb, and put on some of his own extra miles.

Sean and I ran together for a while to the summit and down around the back side of Shasta Bally, help to keep each other on course, but he was too fast for me. After a while I came upon Aaron Sorenson, a name I knew from the roster of hardened Barkley non-finishers, moving slowly down a long fire road. He said he was having trouble with the heat and was ready to drop. It was only 11am, and poised to climb into the 90s. From what I heard later, Aaron would go on to get badly lost and spend many hours finding his way to where he could get a ride back to the start.

On top of Shasta Bally, Whiskeytown Lake below. Photo by Sean Ranney.
On top of Shasta Bally, Whiskeytown Lake below. Photo by Sean Ranney.

After picking up my second sheet of directions, getting only briefly lost, and picking up a souvenir at Boulder Creek Falls, I realized that while I was just finishing up a marathon under the nine hour cut off for the first loop, I still had another “chapter” of directions to go. I was disappointed, but I decided to push myself to bring it in with the best time possible, ideally proving to myself that I would have made it had I not dropped my first souvenir.

After a frustrating couple of miles on a steep trail choked with deadfall that made for very slow going, the course met back up with the steep Shasta Bally jeep road, and I bombed back downhill into Sheep Camp, where I was shocked to see a big circle of people waiting for me by the dropbags. Bull Dozier and Tina Ure had needed a full hour to recuperate between loops, and when I pulled up to the semi-aid station Mark told me I could keep going as long as I left when or before they did.

I pushed the temptation to drop out of my mind and refueled quickly, making a few mistakes in my haste. I shoved too much food from my dropbag into my pack, hoping to make up for my calorie deficit but only adding to the weight on my back. After the heat of the day, I hardly had any appetite for the rest of the run. I failed to apply bug spray, which would turn me into a feast on legs any time I stopped running for even a second once night fell. No matter, I was off, feeling a strange sense of relief and dread all at once.

I was joined by Josh Ritter, who had volunteered to sweep the course. This meant I suddenly had a pacer, and better yet since Josh knew the course I didn’t have to put as much energy into finding my way. We started slowly along the trail from Sheep Camp to one of the most memorable parts of the course, the slick rocks of Brandy Creek Falls, which reminded me of HURT.

Shortly after, we reached the dreaded Salt Gulch Trail. I knew this because this was how the directions referred to it. I remember this because the grade was 30% or more for the better part of a mile. The good news was that my evening dose of caffeine was starting to take effect, turning my shuffle into something vaguely resembling a jog. The bad news was that now was when the mosquitos were coming out in force, coating the back of my neck any time I paused to catch my breath.

When we reached the next checkpoint, we became worried. On the second loop, runners were not only collecting directions or souvenirs but signing in at each location. Bull and Tina had been ahead of us since shortly after the falls, but they hadn’t signed in. Josh found a signal and got in touch with Mark to let him know before we moved on toward the next check point at the top of Kanaka Peak. They hadn’t signed in there, either. Josh sent me on ahead while he waited for them, but with his fresh legs it didn’t take him long to catch up.

Eventually we learned that Bull and Tina had gotten lost following the direction to turn at the fallen pine tree at the side of the trail, having chosen the wrong pine tree. An amateur mistake! They lost enough time on this that they gave up and took a shortcut back to the finish.

As Josh and I continued on, it became clear that I wouldn’t make it by midnight, the official time limit. As it became clear just how much more course there was to get through, 2am started to look like what we’d be pushing for. At the second to last checkpoint, I declined a ride back from Mark, opting to run it in the last few miles the shortest possible route along the road.

After cresting the last hill, I picked up speed and barreled down toward the lake running 8:30 miles. I had run 59 miles with at least 14,000 feet of climbing in 18 hours, but I was at least 8 miles short on the official course. No matter. I ran as hard as I could for the lake, the actual finish line, and washed myself clean of a hard, beautiful, glorious failure of a day.

And that is how I finish a DNF.

We Wouldn’t Want it to be Easy: HURT 2013

There’s no way to understate this: the HURT 100 is hard. I ran it well, and up to a certain point I think I ran it smart, and it’s still only due to the help of the amazing race volunteers and fellow runners that I was able to make it through to the end. If it had been a hotter year, I might not even be able to say that much, and most of us who started the race this year couldn’t.

I came in knowing it would be hard, and I was neither disappointed nor underestimating the task. That wasn’t exactly the same as being prepared for how hard it would be. No matter how much I’d read, how many videos and photos of the course I’d looked at, the true relentlessness of the run wouldn’t sink in until I’d run at least one full lap.

It was also one of the most intense experiences of my life, maybe least of all physically. People who talk about ultrarunning being a mental sport but haven’t run HURT might just be repeating filtered wisdom from someone who has. Esthetically, it was beautiful and haunting and unforgettable. Emotionally, it was deep and raw and tough and sweet, and I’ve cried less over break-ups than I did over finishing successfully.

In brief, the HURT 100 is run on five loops of a 20-mile course which climbs Honolulu’s Mt. Tantalus three times on each loop. If you’re familiar with Honolulu, Tantalus is due north of Waikiki, and you may have been there as a tourist to see Manoa Falls or Round Top Drive (both on course). If not, just know that Tantalus is steep as hell and covered in dense Hawaiian rainforest. In total, there’s just a few feet shy of 5,000 feet of vertical climbing per loop. This means the average grade on the course is close to 10%.

That’s not what makes it hard.

A couple days before the race, I went out for a preview with Ken “Running Stupid” Michal and co. We hiked and ran the shortest of the three legs of each loop, from Paradise Park through Pauoa Flats to Nu`uana-Pali Drive. Even though Ken, like me, was only in town for race week from the Bay Area, he was able to give me a lot of good tips. This year would be Ken’s fourth attempt at finishing the full hundred miles, so there might not have been a better source of info on what could go wrong at HURT and how to persevere.

Each of three legs of the course finishes a 12 to 1600 foot climb at Pauoa Flats, a roughly quarter-mile section of trail that flips open the dictionary to the word “gnarly” and asks, “Are you sure you really wanted that? Because I can keep going.” True, there are a few spots where the ground isn’t literally coated in Banyan roots. Yep. There are a few.

That’s not what makes it hard.

By the time we made it to Nu`uanu (the end of the second leg) I had a better understanding of what I’d be up against, and of all that Ken had pushed through over the past three years’ runs, but still no true grasp of the weekend ahead.

I showed up on race morning rested and excited. The run starts at 6am, which in January means more than an hour of darkness still lay ahead. I waited at the back of the pack, which would help force me to take it slow up the first climb, a steep hill just around the corner from the starting line called Hogsback. When we topped out at Round Top Drive (just before Pauoa Flats), I took advantage of my better downhill running speed to pass more than a dozen people, landing solidly in the middle of the pack by the first aid station.

On the climb back up, almost half of those people would pass me again, since I tend to be a slower uphill runner. This didn’t matter much to me, since I would overtake them at the Flats or coming down the other side by the time we got to the other station. In some cases, we would leapfrog each other this way predictably for as much as 80 miles. The majority of the trail is technical, requiring close attention to your footing if not the copious roots[1], slick rocks, and dangerous drop offs, with occasional scrambles or two-foot high step ups. This hits everyone in their weak spot, whether it’s ascending or descending or just staying upright.

No, that’s not what makes it hard either, but we’re getting closer.

I caught up with Ken at the top of a steep scramble (coming up to Bien’s Bench) after the second aid station. I was a little worried that I was going out too fast on the first loop, but my pace felt comfortable there, so I took his encouragement to pass instead of running with him for a while. I’d be seeing plenty more of him, anyway. On our way up we met another repeat attempter Jennifer-Anne on her way down, already, as she put it “puking out.” She’d get back to the start and spend the rest of the weekend volunteering. Some of it in a giant cockroach costume.

I finished my first loop in 5:15, refilled my bottles and turned around for another climb up Hogsback. Now in the daylight, without the big crowd at the back and the excitement of the early going, I could learn to hate this hill. Between the heat of the day and the encroaching fatigue, I still felt generally good but my ascents were already getting much slower. All told, the second loop would take me about 75 minutes longer. With 40 miles done and the night about to begin, I was starting to worry that if my time kept dropping off, in the end I would too.

This is precisely what makes HURT so hard.

No other mountain hundred I know of has such aggressive cutoff times tuned precisely to chase down mid-packers like myself. I have no doubt that Hardrock is a tougher course, considering it climbs an additional 8,000 feet and summits the odd 14,000 foot peak for a lark, but with 48 hours to finish most runners never need hurry just to meet the time limit unless something goes wrong. HURT, however, has a 36 hour time limit, with hard cutoffs throughout the last loop starting at 29 hours in.

This means that even if you make all the cutoffs with time to spare, you never really get a chance to stop worrying about them. You can’t rest for longer than you absolutely need to. You can’t slow down, zone out, and coast along one of the few relatively easy section of trail. You have to stay focused on running your best for as long as 36 hours [2].

Although I didn’t get to enjoy as much scenery, the nighttime portion of HURT might have been my favorite. Things cooled off enough on the third loop to offset most of my encroaching fatigue, and the rainforest has its own kind of beauty by headlamp. I’ll never forget the sound of wind picking up in the giant bamboo groves high above Manoa Falls. My third loop took 7:43, or again about 75 minutes longer than the previous loop.

On loop four, I deployed my Caffeine Strategem. I’d stopped drinking coffee a month before, and quit caffeine altogether a week after that. I cracked a 24-Hour Energy and mixed it into one of my bottles of electrolyte drink, and sipped it on my way up Hogsback. By Pauoa Flats I was flying over the roots and crooning along with my iPod at top volume (my apologies to any delicate eardrums I may have passed on the way). I refilled that bottle with Coke at the bottom. All told, I moved up 15 places and ran my fourth loop ten minutes faster than my third.

Early on loop five, though, the wheels came off. I took it slow up Hogsback as the second day of the race began to heat up. By the second half of the first leg’s climb, I was feeling a little queasy, but I took some ginger and tried to push through it. I let another runner and his pacer push me to run the rest of the climb faster than I usually would have, and just before the top I pulled over and insisted they run on. I tried to force myself to vomit but nothing would come up. Well, that was dumb.

With four miles left to the first aid station of the loop, I was dehydrated. I had some water in my pack’s hydration bladder, but for whatever reason it wasn’t tasting good to me and I could only get small sips in irregularly. Neither electrolyte drink nor Coke was at all palatable, and I did my best to force as many sips of water as I could, and maintained my pace for the rest of the leg, finishing with a good downhill run into the Paradise Park aid station.

Where I asked for water, and collapsed on the pavement.

The HURT volunteers jumped to my aid and saved my run. I was given cup after cup of cool water (the first of which I couldn’t keep down). A cold towel was placed on my head. Someone sat with me and rubbed my back and shoulders while someone else got me a cup of cold vegetable soup and refilled my pack. After maybe ten minutes when I was ready to try moving on, two of them walked up the road to the trailhead with me. I was still unsteady for another mile or so, but I absolutely owe my finish to them.

Photo from @HURThawaii Twitter stream.
Photo from @HURThawaii Twitter stream.

Shortly thereafter, a runner coming into the aid station who had already timed out and was just completing her 67-mile “fun run” handed off her trekking poles to me. I don’t know what difference they made for my overall time since I’m not used to running with them and they interfere with my fast downhill style, but they were great for that uphill section while I was still shaky after letting myself get so low. I owe another big thanks to #55.

The next leg was by far the slowest of the race for me, at barely over two miles an hour. It was the only time I dropped more than a couple places. At the final aid station, I was fairly sure I’d make it as long as I kept pushing, but I had an eye on my watch climbing back out again and was just as worried about the few runners left behind me. At one point, ten minutes after leaving the station where the cutoff would be coming up in twenty, I remember bellowing up the trail, “Ken! You’d better be up there and you’d better be running hard!” Not two minutes later he and his pacer came running down past me, looking as determined as I’ve ever seen anyone.

After I met Franco Soriano sitting on a rock, timed out a mile above the last checkpoint, I cried thinking about how hard he’d fought and how close he’d come. Many runners quit at mile 67 if they think the cutoffs will be too close. Franco made them chase him down.

Shannon MacGregor caught up with me on the steepest part of the last climb, and we pushed each other along. He ran on ahead to Pauoa Flats, where I limped in thinking I was alone and stopped to stretch. I stretched one quad, and screamed. I stretched the other, and screamed. I leaned against a root to stretch each calf, and screamed twice.

From thirty feet down the trail, I heard, “Fuck!” It was Shannon, sitting on some roots. “My blister just popped!”

We pushed each other along a little bit more, to the end of the last extra bit of climbing up to Manoa Cliff, and Shannon ran on down ahead. I didn’t have the legs for it yet. I packed up my poles, and shuffled along for most of the descent, until the last mile, and suddenly I was off. It seems to happen to me for the last mile of every run – I just smell the finish and remember how to run. I tore down the last bit of trail, over the bridges, and into the Nature Center right behind Shannon. There was still a big crowd hanging around to cheer for me as I reached the finish sign, which I touched, kissed, hugged, and sobbed over.

Photo from @HURThawaii Twitter stream.
Photo from @HURThawaii Twitter stream.

We wouldn’t want it to be easy, indeed.

I guess I passed Patrick Castello on my way in, and he finished another minute behind me. I never saw him.

Eight minutes later, Ken crossed the bridge and rounded the corner into the Nature Center. I have never seen an ultrarunning crowd go wild like it did for him as he successfully completed his fourth attempt at the HURT 100 with fifteen minutes to spare.

What makes HURT so hard is not just the distance, the terrain, the course, the footing, and the heat, but the fact that it’s meant to be nothing less than the hardest challenge it could be. What makes HURT possible to run is not just the dedication and the passion of each runner, but of the entire network of HURT runners and volunteers, all 300+ of them.

Mahalo. `Aole makou e ho`ohikiwale kela.

[1]: I know this may sound like a lot of other trails, but let me put it another way: there are actually brief sections where the trail itself goes over roots. The footing includes no dirt, rock, gravel, or artificial walkway, just a mass of gnarly uneven toe-stubbing fascia manglers.

[2]: Of course, if you’re a faster runner you have to spend the whole run worrying about running your best while focusing on your footing. Unless there was one I didn’t hear about, this may have been the HURT 100’s first year without a broken bone.

Running to O’ahu

I’m writing on the plane to Honolulu. In five days, I’ll be running my second hundred miler, the HURT 100. This one has a reputation. It’s been a long, fun, and sometimes ill-advised journey to get here.

I don’t know what it was exactly that possessed me to sign up for this race. I’d recently completed my first fifty miler, and I was pretty sure I wanted to try a longer distance someday, when I saw an email announcing that sign-ups would be open soon. Maybe that timing was enough. Deciding to take on the HURT 100 was bad enough, but deciding to take in on as my first?

People often roll their eyes when I mention it’s a hard hundred miler, as though running a hundred miles is already such an impossible feat, there couldn’t possibly be much delineation. Among ultrarunners, though, HURT has a reputation, and not just because of its cutesy intimidating name. It never stops climbing or descending, and by the time you’re done you’ll have climbed 25,000 feet. It’s in the Hawaiian rainforest, which means tricky terrain full of roots, rocks, river crossings, and endless mud, not to mention heat and humidity. If all that weren’t bad enough, the time limit is set tight at 36 hours. I’ve talked to people who have squeezed in finishes close to 48 hour cut off at Hardrock 100 in the high San Juans of Colorado, bagging 14,000 footers and struggling for air as they go, but timed out at HURT. One of them repeatedly on both counts.

So it sounded hard, sure, but it sounded amazing. The rainforest would be beautiful, and my favorite kind of running has always been on gnarly technical trails. I’d just have to get better at climbing. Endlessly.

Sign-ups opened at the end of July, and I surprised myself by forgetting to hover nervously before clicking “Submit.”

When they ran the lottery two weeks later, I only landed a spot on the waitlist anyway. Worst of all, I was #28 on the list. Judging by the last two years’ waitlists, I was just on the cusp – I’d probably get in, but I might not, and I had about four months of uncertain traning to slog through until I’d know for sure.

I lasted about three weeks. I didn’t stop training, but I found another race. Last year’s (2012) Headlands Hundred has been cancelled, then out of the blue reinstated under new management. It was only a week away, but I signed up and got my gear together.

Okay, sure, I was probably undertrained and hadn’t really tapered, but I figured whenever I ran my first hundred miler, it would be hard, it would be impossible to fully prepare myself for, and to some degree it would just have to suck. I was right on those counts, and fortunately it was also amazing. I learned a lot from Headlands that I don’t think I’d have any hope of getting through HURT without. Like that you need more than a week to prepare for a hundred miler.

Headlands left me with a little bit of ankle pain that I took too long to get diagnosed. Specifically, I waited until after Firetrails 50 a month later. Rather, I waited until after a few weeks of recovery from Firetrails 50. Oops. No damage done, but I might have missed out on some good training time.

Finally, in December, I moved off the waitlist to the entry pool. I ramped up my hill training, and started using the steam room or heading out for long runs with extra layers of fleece. Even in California, heat training takes work in the winter.

I joined a few other HURT runners and like minded fools for a forty mile nighttime training run in the mountains the weekend before Christmas. It all had a bit of a Tolkien feel as the eight of us set out into the woods at dusk. Two would turn back before it was (okay, got) too late. One would be separated from his companions and become horribly lost. Of course, I was that one.

At a certain junction where the trail apparently crossed the road, I was just a little bit behind another runner. I thought I saw his headlamp bounce off down the logging road which went down the hill off the road to the right instead of crossing. Something about it didn’t look right to me, but I couldn’t find where the trail was supposed to go, and I was pretty far ahead of the pack behind me, so off I went instead of waiting. Oops.

The problem with logging roads at night is that they are in fact a maze of twisty passages all alike. That there were no trail markings on any of the intersections was my second sign that I’d gone wrong. That I hit a dead-end at the stream with no crossing that didn’t involve a twenty foot drop was about my fourth. That I tried to backtrack to the road and ended up in someone’s backyard was actually pretty funny, but when I ran back down the road to where I’d gone wrong I still couldn’t see how I went right. So I went back down the logging road. Like a boss.

Eventually I figured out that if I gave up on finding the trail and ran along that road, I’d find the main park entrance, which also happened to be our next major landmark on the trail. I lucked out and managed to pick up the trail from the road sooner than that, only two miles up, but all told my foray in logging added six miles to the run and I no longer had any hope of catching up with the group.

We’d had a lot of rain that weekend, so the stream crossings were high. The majority had footbridges or were still small enough to feel quite safe, until I got to one about five miles from the end of the trail where the bridge was out. I didn’t know the area well enough to trust that I’d be able to backtrack and use another trail to get out (as half the group did), and backtracking all the way to where I could thumb a ride or otherwise find help could have meant risking hypothermia. Instead, I pulled out a perfect example of don’t try this at home, and crossed hip-deep white water solo at 4:00 am five miles from the trailhead.

The first step was cold, but protected and still. The second step was into rushing water that wanted to suck me down stream, so I plunged my foot all the way in until I could wedge it into the rocks below. From there I could grab a boulder that was just submerged, and leverage my way up onto an exposed rock for steps three and four. Step five was onto a mossy boulder on the far shore, but I only had a one-inch ledge. I grabbed the top of the boulder at my full armspan with my fingertips, grateful for some rusty rock climbing experience, and, fatigued from forty miles of night running but terrified of falling backwards, hoisted myself over the top.

Five more miles of easy running, some urgent I’m-okays from the stupid smartphone and a nap in the back seat, and I was starting to feel better about my chances of getting through this HURT thing.

All I’ve gotta do is run smart. That shouldn’t be so hard, right?

Missing the Turn: Yosemite 11/23/2012

The day after Thanksgiving, while many of countrymen apparently were lining up to fight over consumer electronics, I took advantage of the extra day off work to wake up at 4:30 AM and drive straight to Yosemite National Park. My plan was to run that day, camp that night, run the next day, and then drive home. Depending on how much time I had on Friday, I would either go for a long but gentle run on Friday followed by a short but steep run on Saturday, or vice versa. Yosemite had a few tricks up its sleeve for me, and things did not work out exactly as planned, but for such a loosely planned solo trip I have no real complaints.

I made it to Hodgdon Meadows inside the park boundaries and had my camp setup by around 9 AM, but with one key element missing that would come back to haunt me later: no firewood. I figured I’d either swing down through the valley for dinner or stop at the Crane Flat gas station after my run to pick some up since gather wood at such a heavily used campground is a bit of a fool’s errand. Judging by the temperature at that hour, it was going to be a chilly evening, and I was definitely going to want a fire to sit by before crawling into my tent.

The good news was that with such an early, I’d be able to get my long run in that day. The route I had picked out would take me from the Foresta trailhead on Big Oak Flat Road up and over the sub-alpine shoulder of the north valley wall to the summit of El Capitán ten miles out, where I would have my lunch and turn around.

I started my day heading up switchbacks at 5,000 feet, through scrubland that was burned out twenty years back, with views of the eastern side of Yosemite Valley and the snowy mountains beyond. A couple miles later I was weaving through dense pine with a couple of trick stream crossings. cruising along but struggling a bit with the thinner air.

At four miles I came to the only major junction on my map. The trails here were clearly marked, both on paper and in the real world. I took the right branch, which was marked El Capitán. Unfortunately, there was another turn off to the left which I never saw (even on the way back, when I knew to look out for it) and the more obvious path I stuck to is not marked on any of the four maps I looked at that day, so I didn’t know to watch out for a second junction. By the time I realized I was headed toward the base of El Cap rather than the summit, I was worried about how long it would have taken to backtrack and finish out the run rather than continuing on and turning back at a good halfway point.

I had hoped to run on the North Rim Trail, but instead found myself descending 2,000 feet on Old Big Oak Flat Road, once the main route into the valley. As it has been so thoroughly abandoned, it looks as though the park service is trying to encourage reclamation of some the upper sections of the paved road. For me, this meant jumping and climbing over downed logs and whole trees for more than a mile, which look as though they will be left to mulch.

The reason Old Big Oak Flat Road can’t be used anymore is that most of a half-mile section was completely buried in rockfall in 1945. This doesn’t make for good hiking, let alone running, and seems like a good invitation for a permanent road closure. This is probably why they don’t bother putting it on any of recreational maps, which is why I wasn’t watching out for my turn off to the North Rim Trail.

Old Big Oak Flat Road
Can you spot both trail markers?

Even with all the downed trees and the growing suspicion that something wasn’t right, I had a great time cruising down the busted old road until I hit the wide, exposed, somewhat unnavigable and slightly terrifying talus field. I’ve been rock climbing and boulder hopping before, but this wasn’t clearly stable. There were occasional ducks to mark the general direction across the slope, but they were very hard to pick out in the monochromatic jumble. When I finally emerged from the rockfall, I popped out about sixty feet uphill from the road.

Old Big Oak Flat Road
I generally prefer trail running to road running to running sixty feet above the road.

On the way back I tried a different tactic, sticking with the road and ignoring the markers, which seemed to get me through with far less boulder hopping. However, it quickly became clear that I must have skipped the biggest section of scrambling by emerging into the woods below the road. After scrambling up a steep embankment, it seemed I was off by at least 100 vertical feet.

After all the unexpected climbing, both on my feet and all fours, the last leg of the run was harder and slower than I’d hoped for, and I finished the last two miles in the moonlight. I quickly changed into warmer clothes and headed back in the direction of my campsite, stopping only at the Crane Flat gas station. They were closed – there would be no firewood for me.

I was uninjured. I felt accomplished, but also exhausted. Yosemite and I had fought each other to a draw. Did I really need another day of this?

By the time I got back to my campsite it was 6:30pm, dark, and getting cold fast. I quickly broke camp, packed up the car, took some caffeine and drove back to Oakland. This might not have been the best decision at that moment, but at least I knew where all my turns would be.

Redefining Hard: Headlands Hundred 2012

On Saturday September 15th, 2012, I finished my first hundred mile run. I can summarize the experience for you in three words: it was hard. I never expected it to be easy, but I was blown away by how much of it actually was easy for me, and by how many unfamiliar and unexpected ways it was just so difficult.

The Headlands Hundred was a last-minute sign-up for me. It wasn’t until the Monday before the race I was sure I’d be able to take the following Monday (the day after I would finish) off work and that I wouldn’t be interfering with outside plans. I’d been training pretty hard for the last few months, both for the Dick Collins Firetrails 50 and my waitlisted entry to the HURT 100 next January, and I’d finished strong at the Marin Ultra Challenge fifty miler in June, but a last minute sign-up to a hundred miler is no joke. I had five days to get my shit together, which meant no time to even think about picking up help in the form of a pacer or a crew. It was just me, a drop bag, a brand new pair of shoes, and the world’s best aid station volunteers.

Headlands is not the hardest hundred-mile course out there[1], but it’s probably on the harder side, and a number of people commented on how ambitious (or worse) I was to make it my first. The trails are mostly non-technical fire roads, but they can get nasty in their own way with plenty of loose rocks, ruts, and some severe camber. The four-lap course makes planning easy, but passing through the Rodeo Beach start/finish area at the halfway and three-quarter mark is a severe psychological challenge. The Bay Area weather was characteristically mild this year, but the nighttime fog was thick, cold, and made headlamps almost useless at times (think high beams). Toughest of all, the total vertical gain of over 20,000 feet is distributed almost evenly across five climbing sections per lap, with only about two miles of flat running.

I started out trying hard not to worry about making time or passing anyone, and focused on keeping a slow and steady pace. I did a better job of this than on any previous race or even training run, with my guideline being not to ever let myself feel like I was working. I finished the first twenty-five mile lap in 5:40, which was a bit faster than I’d hoped for, and the second after about another seven hours, which put me about fifteen minutes behind June’s (steeper and poorly paced) fifty miler. This was when most people picked up their pacer[2] (or their first of two), and was almost exactly when the sun finished setting.

I’d heard plenty about how much nighttime slows you down on hundred milers, and I’d done some recent nighttime trail runs that I thought would help me prepare, but I was shocked by how quickly it made such a huge difference. The first problem was that I could no longer make up much time on the downhills, since my speed was limited not by downhill running skill but by the range of my lights, which was only compounded by the fog. I was able to overcome some of the visibility issues with my backup handheld flashlight, but by about mile sixty I started feeling pain in the front of my right ankle on descents unless I was very careful about maintaining a forward posture, which is hard to do when you’re going slowly and carefully.

What I was least prepared for was how tired I got, and how quickly. I’m normally more of a night person, but being out there in the wilderness with few electric lights quickly put me on a different rhythm, never mind that I’d been awake since five A.M. and running since seven. At every aid station I came to, the first thing I asked for was caffeine. Then I checked my water.

Nonetheless, I was amazed at how well it was all going and how easy it all felt, right up until it wasn’t. I can pinpoint fairly well when this run became the hardest thing I’ve ever done: somewhere between mile 62 and mile 63, climbing up the Marincello Trail for the second time[3]. It was after one A.M., it was dark, it was foggy, it was getting cold as I neared the ridge, and I felt like I was falling asleep on my feet along what always feels like an endless rise. For the first time, I was moving slowly enough that I started to worry about making the cutoff times.

A few miles out from the start/finish area, I heard a wild cheer go up when the winner came in. Julie Fingar came in after 21 hours 20 minutes, setting a new women’s course record and proving that she’s following in the legendary Ann Trason’s footsteps not only as a race director but as a woman who can take the overall crown. I literally only saw her out there in flashes.

I made it to Rodeo Beach for mile 75 with 75 minutes to spare, poetically, but that certainly wasn’t enough time to set my mind at ease. I just had to hope that when the sun came up I’d be able to pick things up a little. To make heading back out on my fourth lap that much harder, the second place finisher and first-place man Karl Schnaitter came across the line as I was changing my flashlight batteries.

Sunrise did very little for me. It was on the first big climb after daybreak that I hit the lowest point of the race, and seriously considered turning back. I had no caffeine left on me, and Rodeo Beach was still a little closer than the next aid station at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge[4]. Finally, I figured out how to set a five minute alarm on my stopwatch, and curled up in the ditch at the side of Bobcat Trail. It didn’t make all the difference, but it made enough to get me through the rest of the climb.

That was the only sleep I got, but the rest of the course felt pretty much the same. Each of the four remaining climbs just got harder and slower, with more pauses while I leaned over on my knees to recoup. About halfway through the lap – mile 87 or so – was when the weird, tough, and somehow good emotional stuff started to come.

I’ve been through these rolling endorphin surges on some of my hardest runs before, but this time I started figuring out a little bit about how to use them to my advantage. When I started to grind to a halt during the climbs, I would visualize some detail about finishing, and sometimes – not reliably – I would find myself bowled over in a surge of emotion. Sometimes I would start cackling, sometimes sobbing, but it was almost uncontrollable and it was just incredibly good. Best of all, it made my legs feel like new and gave me enough energy to get through a good chunk of steep hiking.

Coming out of the last aid station at Tennessee Valley at mile 96, I had about 90 minutes left on the clock, and only one more climb to go. At this point there was no reason to doubt I could do it, but I was just moving so slowly, and nodding off so often, and the trail was so much longer than I remembered… At one point I picked up a stick from the side of the trail and beat the crap out of my quads and calves for a minute as I walked along.

Finally I found myself back on Wolf Ridge, and I knew I was home free. All the exhaustion and even the pain in my ankle melted away and I started really running, faster than I had at any time in the last 98 miles. As I made my way past Fort Cronkhite to where I could see the finish line tent, I started hurtling down toward the beach below. I ran like my life depended on it, and I ran with tears of joy streaming down my cheeks.

I finished in 32:34:01, twenty-six minutes ahead of the final cutoff of thirty-three hours. I placed sixteenth out of seventeen finishers. I was sad to see Nadia Costa miss the official finish by only eight minutes – she impressed me immensely by making up a lot of time on her last lap after technically missing the cutoff at mile 75 – and inspired by Alex Mares, who just kept hiking after his knee gave out at mile 40 to come in with nine minutes to spare. There were twenty-seven starters in this year’s hundred mile run.

Although I did it alone, I owe an immense debt of gratitude to the new operators of PCTR who scrambled to put this event on so well, and even more so to the sleepless volunteers they rounded up. To whomever went out and marked the trails with glowsticks to counter the fog, I owe you a debt of gratitude and the drink of your choice. I’m also very thankful to the encouragement I got from the group at Run 365, from Lauri who was out there crewing Julie Fingar, and from my indescribably awesome partner Robynne. I’m not entirely sure where I got the overconfidence to do a stupid thing like this, but I’m sure you all helped.

[1] If I end up doing HURT, some would say that one is in contention. Sure, it sounds tough, but then there’s always Hardrock. And we don’t even talk about the Barkley Marathons in polite company.

[2] Now that I know how rough those late, exhausted hours can be, I see the value of a pacer. Everyone running past me with their own made me think of that old Simpsons episode where Bart sells his soul and everyone else gets to play with theirs, but poor Bart has to row his own boat in circles alone.

[3] The Headlands course follows “washing machine loops,” sending you back out in the opposite direction each time, apparently for ease of high-fiving.

[4] The course may be tough, but it’s nothing if not scenic. And tough.

Some Days There’s Nothing in the World but Running – Marin Ultra Challenge 50 Miler

I’d been looking forward to this year’s Headlands 50, with some trepidation, as a good choice for my first 50 miler. It was a steep course, sure, but I’d run a few events on those trails before, and a September event gave me plenty of time to train for it.

Then I found out that, with the unfortunate demise of Pacific Coast Trail Runs, the Headlands 50 would not be happening this year after all, and I started looking around for another event to take its place. The Dick Collins Firetrails 50 is a classic, and it uses many of the same East Bay trails I train on every weekend, but waiting until October seemed like putting things off just a little bit too long. Everything else I could was either booked up long ago (*cough*Tahoe*cough*) or too far away to commit to without adding vacation planning into the mix. Then I found out about this brand new event, the Marin Ultra Challenge.

So what if it was only two weeks away?

Only two weeks before signing up, I’d set a 50K PR running at Canyon Meadow. I might have been running fewer miles than I should have since then, but I felt like I was in the best running shape of my life. Why wait? The only problem was having to sign up and immediately go straight into both nervous anticipation and my taper period.

As tradition would have it, I was struck with a nasty cold less than a week before the race. If nothing else, this had the benefit of making sure I got enough rest, but it didn’t look good for a little while there. On Thursday, I wouldn’t have been able to run. On Friday, I might have gone for it, but it would have been a shit show. When I made it out to the starting line on Saturday morning, I felt great.

I’m used to running at events where the distances range from 5K or 5 miles – occasionally as long as a half marathon – at a minimum per entrant up through a full marathon or 50K. It was delightful knowing that none of the participants planned to run less than 50K that day.

For the first time in four months or so, I even got there before the race began. This gave me time to get my bib, pin it on properly, check my drop bag in, change my mind about bringing my windbreaker twice (I left it behind in the end, for which I was glad), and hear a course walkthrough from course designer Jim Vernon. Basically, if you could think of a scenic trail in western Marin County below the very top of Mt. Tam, we’d be running it.

We started with a deceptively easy nine mile warmup loop around the Headlands and back to the starting line. We climbed the normally picturesque SCA trail, from which countless postcards of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco skyline have been shot, in a bank of morning fog so thick you couldn’t see anything but the trail either side, the drop-off or the hill climbing above us.

“How about that view?” I heard one runner comment to another, just ahead of me.

“It’s perfect,” I called ahead to them. “Some days there’s nothing in the world but running.”

I ran alongside Andrew Guitarte for a little while, and we talked about hill running. He does a lot of running on Mount Diablo, and prefers to work on downhill speed, which I think is also my biggest strength. “When it’s late in the day and the sweeps are coming up behind you, that’s where you can make up your time.” As we came to the first real downhill section, I pulled ahead, but undoubtedly let myself cut loose too much. My split timing for mile six was 7:30, and while it felt great and easy, I’d be surprised if it didn’t take its toll later on.

After crossing back over the starting line, we began the first steep climb of the course, up the Coastal Trail to the old World War II gun emplacements. From there it was over and down to Tennessee Valley, then back up and around the long way to Muir Beach, crossing over into Mount Tamalpais State Park where we picked up the Dipsea Trail around mile 23 and cruised over to Stinson Beach. Shortly before the Stinson Aid station, I set what would have been a new marathon PR for myself in 5:27, making me worry again about my pacing.

Miles 28 through 30 were spent on the Willow Camp Trail, also known as Hell. There were plenty of tough hills on this course, but this one in particular climbs 1800 feet in under two miles. It wasn’t just brutal, it wasn’t just brutal after I’d run a full marathon, it destroyed me for the three other climbs that would come later, dropping my average climbing pace to just over two miles per hour.

A little bit past the top of Willow Camp, more than seven hours into the run, I got hit by a couple intense surges of endorphins. The first one came on when I pictured myself walking away from the finish line that evening, and I almost burst into uncontrollable tears of joy.

Shortly after that I began the fun, fast, technical and tourist-clogged descent of the Ben Johnson Trail into Muir Woods. When I reached the bottom and saw the beautiful Redwood Creek running through the park, I was hit by another intense endorphin flood.

One of the steepest climbs of the course, but not at all one of the tallest, was shortly after the second to last aid station above Muir Beach around mile 42. This was certainly my slowest section, and those endorphin surges were hitting me frequently and hard. It was a strange and incredibly intense experience. It didn’t feel very much like running. It felt a lot like drugs.

Somewhere around mile 47, I could smell the finish line, and it was amazing the way my legs just started to work again. Once I crested the top of the last hill and running down toward Rodeo Beach, I really felt like I was flying.

A woman whose name I didn’t catch, and who is much faster than I am, was coming up behind me. She’d passed me around mile 10, and I’d heard that I’d passed her again at mile thirty-something when she went off course. She started to sprint in to overtake me to the finish line, but I didn’t know she was there until she passed me. I dropped my racebelt, tucked in, and did my best, but it was hopeless. She came in at least five seconds ahead of me.

So there I had it: my first 50 miler in twelve hours, twenty-six minutes, and change. My undying gratitude to Inside Trail Racing and their legion of enthusiastic volunteers for an amazing event and an accomplishment I will always be proud of.

How to Run Your First 50Km Ultramarathon

On Sunday August 8th, after sleeping in and lounging about the house until noon, I decided to take on my first ultra-distance trail run.

I’d run one marathon back in April, the beautiful Skyline to the Sea, but taken on only two twenty-mile plus runs since then. Immediately following SttS, I’d also begun the process of completely rebuilding my running style with a forefoot strike, trying to be kinder to my knees. I started my running career less than a year ago altogether.

How did I do? Horribly, and wonderfully. My time was terrible, and I wouldn’t have made the final cut-off at many 50K events. Nonetheless, I got out and there and did it all by my lonesome, just curious to see if I could, and the day was beautiful, and nothing hurt too badly by the time I was done.

How did I do it? If you’re looking for advice on how to run ultra-distances well, you’ve come to the wrong place, but if, like me, you care more about distance than speed or grace, read on. Please note that I am not a particularly experienced runner, I am not a fitness or nutrition expert, and I am only discussing what worked well and what I think I could have worked better for me.

1. Run a Marathon First

This might sound obvious, or even patronizing, but it’s got nothing to do with how you increase your mileage. If you can run 23 miles, you can probably handle 31, and adding another three to your prior trials won’t tell you a whole hell of a lot. The simple fact of the matter is that both 26.2 miles and 50 kilometers are completely arbitrary distances, but they’re both major milestones in running culture (even if it’s only trail runners who seem to care so much about 50Ks). Don’t rob yourself of the chance to celebrate both.

2. Slow Down

Don’t just pace yourself, slow way the hell down. It was easy to congratulate myself on running mile two at my overall target pace, but mile two was uphill. The same went for mile three, and some of mile four. What was I thinking, exactly?

I should have been walking every hill. If I’m going less than about fifteen miles in a day, I like to try to run everything, but this was the time to be as conservative as possible, keeping every spare erg in reserve. If you have anything left on the way back, great, those hills will still be there. Otherwise, you should only be running them if you’re training to be competitive at this distance, and if so, turn back now; there’s nothing in this blog post for you.

This is also where a GPS or pedo-watch comes in handy. If you’re down in the single digits for minutes per mile when you aren’t going downhill, you’re setting yourself up for a world of hurt. That is, an extra world of hurt on top of the one you volunteered for.

3. Start Fresh

Make sure that marathon wasn’t three days ago. It’s also nice to sleep in, but I’m a lazy bastard, and you’ll note that I finished up in the dark.

4. Don’t Bore Yourself

This is especially important once you get a handle on point two, slowing down, and considering how long you’re likely to be out there. You don’t need to scale Pike’s Peak this time out, but if you like running hills, run some hills.

I’m sure I could have run 50Km months earlier in my running career if I’d tried going around the block 60 or 70 times instead of traversing the ridges and gullies of Lake Chabot and Redwood Regional Park, assuming I didn’t pass out from the dreariness, but the only part I would have enjoyed would have been stopping when I was done.

5.Bring Extra Fuel

If you normally go through x liters of water and y ounces of energy goop per z miles, throw that formula away. Feed yourself based on time, not mileage, bring about half again as much as you predict you’ll need, and make sure dehydration won’t be a factor at all. I used a 1.5 liter hydration pack, but I had ten miles before the first water fountain. Don’t forget electrolytes, whether they come in the form of salt capsules or a sports drink mix; you’ll sweat out more minerals than you might have thought humans could carry, even externally, and failing to replace them is not just unpleasant but, in rare cases, fatal.

Bring along a little variety, too. I mostly suck down packets of caffeinated slime every hour, myself, but at about three hours in I started throwing some arbitrarily flavored protein chews into the mix. It was nice to get a bite or two (but no more) of solid food into that roiling void of a stomach.

6. Bring a Headlamp

This is less of a concern if you’re one of those bright-‘n’-early weirdos, but you might be out there a lot longer than you expect. Even if you’re not, a lightweight light source is a comforting thing to have on you when the shadows start to get long, and if things go really wrong, it could be a life saver. Be sure to test that it works and has fresh batteries before starting out, and store so that it won’t get doused or switched on accidentally.

If you are out past sunset, get the headlamp ready, but I suggest not actually using it until you’re fully uncomfortable running without it. There might come a time when you’re forced to rely on your night vision out on the trail, so it’s not a terrible idea to get a bit of practice. Be careful, though, and remember how much easier it is to misjudge things when you’re fatigued.

7. Bring Shoes

For most runners, this probably seems obvious, but I’m mostly talking to the barefooters out there. If you haven’t run close to this distance unshod before, bring something with with a sole, and I’m not talking about the Five Fingers. If you mostly run in toe shoes, you might consider a lightweight backup pair.

I run on my toes and the balls of my feet, and after about twenty miles, I needed to change things up a lot of the time in order to keep moving forward. Sometimes this just meant walking (and towards the end, sometimes walking was faster even on the flats), but sometimes this meant heel strikes. Even though I don’t normally run that way these days, it helped to take some pressure off my calves when they needed it most.

8. Pick Up All Your Damn Trash

Or I will find you and hurt you.

9. Run 25K, Then Turn Around

This is the real secret to running your first 50K.

It might sound like a joke, but charting a straight out and back course is the easiest way to keep yourself on target for a new, daunting distance, especially when you’re not running in a group. Running in loops makes it too easy to stop early, and running a complicated course makes it too tempting to cut mileage on the way back. On the other hand, if you’re struggling before you even get to the turn-around, it’s a clear sign that you should consider heading back early after all. There’s always next weekend.

10. Enjoy the Hell Out of It

With any luck, you’re doing this because you love trail running, not because you’ve got some macho chip on your shoulder. Don’t forget to take in everything the trail has to offer you; if it were only about running, a treadmill would be easier.

After some number of hours, you will have run more than a marathon, farther than most runners will ever even try to make it in a day, and you won’t be done yet. If the thought of passing that point doesn’t make you smile, you’re going to need to find something pretty powerful to keep you going out there.

It’s worth taking a moment to note how privileged you are in terms of health and leisure time to have had the chance to make it out here. Don’t be afraid to talk to people about what you’ve accomplished – their reactions will be diverse, fascinating, and universally encouraging – but do try not to brag. It’s surprisingly easy to cross the line from inspiring people to making them feel bad about themselves.

Most of all, remember, you’re not just a marathoner, you’re an ultramarathoner now. Hell the fuck yeah.

Zero Per

Heading down a narrow switchback through the tall brown grass this evening meant suddenly and utterly commanding the attention of a beautiful blacktail buck…

Heading down a narrow switchback through the tall brown grass this evening meant suddenly and utterly commanding the attention of a beautiful blacktail buck. Oddly enough, my first wish was for a camera, and not for any other sort of point-and-shoot. Sport hunters may always confound me; I’m pretty much OK with that.

The meadow around the bend was so thick with fauns and doe that I gave up my run and crept along on tip-toe for a good half mile. Jogging back uphill along the park’s most out of the way paved road, I spotted another young six point buck, maybe ten feet out into the brush, who watched me warily as he grazed and guarded two smaller family members. It wasn’t until I’d been standing still and watching silently for a few good minutes that I noticed the two older males, big and gorgeous creatures, seated in the tall grass, absolutely still. None of us moved until another group of humans came up from behind me, making a racket. As the last of the deer turned tail, I bolted uphill too, along the road instead of following them into their copse. I’d been just fine with my previous pace of zero per, but the run had to end sometime.

On the other end of the scale, something clicked on a short downhill section about a mile later, and I found a new top speed at 13 mph (albeit unsustained, to say the least), but I did so while feeling stable and without stressing my knees. A common mantra in trail running is to go for “LSD” (because we’re all, apparently, easily amused hippies) – Long, Steady Distance – and I won’t claim to know of anything better when it comes to building up pure endurance, but even without interval drills and fartleks, there can be great joy in the extremes.

Trail running, at its best, is hardly all about the speed, but we do come out here for the trail, and we come out here to run, after all.


Five years ago, I underwent knee surgery that kept me on crutches for three months.

Three years ago, I quit smoking, a steady thirteen-year habit that had sometimes burned through as many as three packs a day.

A year and a half ago, I was effectively housebound with daily headaches.

Six months ago, after a lay-off, I took up running the trails of Lake Chabot near my house. I would charge through a two mile loop, spend the next two days hacking up my lungs, then head back for more on day three.

Yesterday, I ran a marathon.

The Skyline to the Sea Trail Run was a wonderful, if ambitious, choice for my first run of this length. The course was absolutely gorgeous, winding down from the crest of the Santa Cruz mountains through Castle Rock State Park and Big Basin Redwoods State Park to finish just off Highway 1 along the Pacific coast north of Santa Cruz. Sometimes the only thing that kept exhaustion from overtaking me was looking down the embankment, through the redwoods, to the rushing, sunlit, jade river below.

Trail runs are harder than road runs in general, as hiking trails mean paying careful attention, navigating obstacles, mud, and stream crossings, working with steeper grades, and limiting your speed. Thanks to recent storms, this time we were dealing with washed out paths and downed trees, including a hundred year-old plus redwood that had fallen with its roots dead across the trail. I haven’t run very much on pavement, but every time I do I’m surprised by the contrast: despite being harder on my body in the long run, it’s deceptively easy, and five miles can feel like what I’m used to from three.

In spite of being a downhill course, there were 2200 feet of climbing involved (the Boston Marathon’s infamous Heartbreak Hill, for comparison, rises all of 88 feet). And while being able to go with gravity so much might have improved my overall time, by about the fifteen-mile mark it had pretty well trashed my quads, the frontal thigh muscles needed for every kind of stride a runner takes. I had no illusions or intentions of being able to run every step, as I had in my previous races, and walked the steepest hills from early on.

The last five miles or so weren’t pretty, but then, I hadn’t really expected them to be. Even though the course had flattened out considerably by this point, I was spending more and more time walking.

It’s common on these runs to hear, as you’re being passed, “Good job,” or other words of encouragement. This becomes increasingly true as the day wears on, you continue to slow down, and the bulk of those passing you are the ultramarathoners who have run an extra five mile loop. It seems to be commonly recognized that the newer you are at long distance running, the worse your time, the sloppier your form, the harder you’re working to finish and the bigger the accomplishment when you do. True, the winner of the 50Km (a marathon is about 42Km) might have set a new course record in just over half the time it took me to run my marathon, but for him it was probably closer to the experience of a great workout. He already knew he could do it, the only question was probably quite how fast. That’s impressive as hell, but it’s got to be a different kind of challenge altogether.

Somewhere around mile 22 I drifted to the side of a flat, easy trail to catch my breath and stretch my thighs for a few seconds. As I stopped, the woman who passed me said, smiling earnestly, “You’re awesome.” At that moment I could only smile back, but I can’t remember giving such a heartfelt smile to a stranger. It helped.

Not much farther down the path, I realized I’d run farther than I ever had before, and that I was going to finish a marathon. Tears came to my eyes. I pulled off my sunglasses to wipe them away, but couldn’t find anything that wouldn’t just make them sting with sweat and trail dirt. I jogged on, amazed that I could still manage better than five miles an hour between my walking breaks.

When I heard the cheers from the finish line around the bend, I just picked up and ran. I have no idea how fast, for how long, or how much of a train wreck it looked like.

I crossed the finish line in 5 hours and 56 minutes.

Most of all, I crossed the finish line.

I don’t know what’s next for me as a runner. One day after an experience like that, I won’t lie and say I’m raring to live through it all again, let alone to train for longer distances or faster times. I know now that I can run 26 mountain miles, however, more than I’ve ever even hiked (save a four-day backpacking trip), and no matter how arbitrary the marathon length might be, that’s a hell of a thing.

Oh, and I know one other thing: I’m taking next weekend off from running, thank you very much.