Monday, December 19, 2011

Lookout Mountain 50 Miler

This year's Lookout Mountain 50 mile race took place on December 17, 2011. Lookout Mountain is in Georgia, just across the border from Chattanooga, Tennessee. This wasn't a race that I had ever thought about running until the beginning of October, although I had been plotting to get down to Chattanooga sometime to run one of their trail races. After running the Vermont 50 at the end of September, my brother Jim (Vermont was his first 50) wanted more fun before ending the year and suggested we do Lookout Mountain. It didn't take much to convince me so we entered.

Waiting for the start.
The race starts and ends at Covenant College so I quickly got us a room in a guest house at Covenant. The travel distance necessitated an airplane flight, which I am not wild about, but some things are worth it. A race this late in the year also meant that I needed to keep my mileage up longer than I normally do but I have felt fairly good this fall so it wasn't a big problem.

Our flight into Nashville was an hour late so we hustled into our rental car and headed south to Chattanooga. We made a stop at a little Italian restaurant to carbo-load on some spaghetti and then continued on. As we approached Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain was an impressive sight. It isn't nearly as tall as some of the other mountains in the East but it still rises pretty far and steeply from the valley floor. We arrived at our cottage after 9:00pm, I think (we crossed time zones so many times I got confused). The race start wasn't until 7:30am and we were only half a mile from the start so we were able to get a decent amount of sleep.

Saturday dawned fairly cold (temperature in the lower 30s) and windy but no rain in sight. A bonfire near the start was much appreciated. The starter said "go" and we were off into the dawn. The start is on top of Lookout Mountain and the course basically took us down into the surrounding valleys and back up again twice, with some partial climbs in between. So we started running across campus and then plunged down the other side of the mountain. One woman behind me said in a southern drawl "It is butt a$$ cold out." I said I didn't think it was too bad and she, obviously recognizing that I wasn't from these parts, said that it may not be so bad for a northerner but it was cold for Georgia.

In the river.
I expected steeper descents and ascents but for the most part everything was gradual. The trail was technical in spots, but not nearly as bad as most of the Pennsylvania trails, so it was very runnable. We made the descent to the valley floor and then came across the first fun part of the race. They had some significant rainfall in the last few days and the streams were swollen. The trail was supposed to be beside the one river but we ended up having to go in the river for a stretch of about 50 yards. The BAC woman (from the fourth paragraph) was behind me again and when she saw the river she said (in a southern drawl) "Holy f###in' a$$ s**t, this is ridiculous" over and over again in various combinations. Then she said "When we finish, I'll hold the race director down and you can kick him in the nuts." I actually enjoyed the wade in the water, but she did add some color. The water was thigh deep in places and I had my camera out to take some pictures. That is when I stepped into a hole and went in to my chest. I held my camera up as I was losing my balance and fortunately another runner grabbed me before I completely lost it.

After the river, the ascent back up the mountain began. Part way up Jim started to bonk badly. I gave him some of my Gu and realized I had not stayed after him to eat at the aid stations. I started to feel a little off also and downed a Gu. We walked more than I would have liked going up, but there isn't much else you can do in the middle of a good bonk. We finally summited the mountain and cruised into the aid station at the start/finish line (mile 22). We made sure to eat well, grabbed headlamps and some more Gu from our drop bag, and headed back down the trail.

Restocking my stomach.
After a little while when the calories started to sink in, we were able to make some better time. There was a nice section by Rock Creek with a good waterfall thrown in. The trails this day were mostly single-track, with an occasional jeep trail thrown in, but overall they were really nice. We went through one section that we later found out had been struck by a tornado. There was total devastation of trees across a wide stretch of forest. It probably took weeks to cut the trail out after the tornado because there were massive trees laying everywhere. I've never seen anything like that.

Somewhere in here Jim had his second bonk and we had to back off again. I think lack of quality sleep in the preceding week was as much responsible for his issues today as lack of calories were. The next few aid stations had Ramen so we loaded up on noodles and soda as much as we could. We hit the last aid station as the sun started to set and we had six miles to go.

We made some good time now, even though we were heading back uphill, because Jim felt better. After a mile or two, it got dark enough that we strapped on the headlamps. Shortly thereafter Jim hit his third bonk (it was a bit of a tough day for him). We were reduced to walking as the air started to cool off. I was ready for the finish as my fingers started to really get cold. Eventually we summited the mountain for the last time and ran across the finish line. Our time was 11:41. They gave us huge hamburgers and we ate them while walking the half-mile back to our cottage. I was really cold by this time (and my feet were still wet from all of the water) and fortunately I had arranged with the hosts to use the showers in our room, even though we weren't staying there that night. We took hot showers, jumped in the car and headed to Nashville. We stayed at my cousin's house in Nashville and flew home in the morning.

Although it was a tough day time-wise, it was a beautiful run. Nice trails, decent weather and good company made for a good day. It was well worth the trip for me. I had a little video from my camera, including the river section where I went in deep, so I put it up on Youtube at

More water.

Waterfall on Rock Creek.

Stream crossing at night.
Finished at last.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Harrisburg Marathon

The Harrisburg Marathon was this past Sunday and I had planned on it being my last long race of the year. My niece, Laura Kanagy, was running it in an attempt to qualify for the Boston Marathon. This was her third marathon. I ran Philadelphia with her in 2008 and then ran Harrisburg with her last year, along with another niece, who was running her first. Laura ran a 3:45 at Philly and I knew she had a good time in her, after that one. I just wasn't sure she would ever make running Boston a goal.

She finally made the commitment and put Harrisburg on her schedule so I said I would join her. I find it hard to turn down any run with good company. As the day approached, it was looking to be nearly perfect weather, 40 to 50 degrees and overcast. They were calling for about a 10mph breeze by the end, and we definitely felt it, but it wasn't too bad. We both drove into town the morning of the race and met an hour before the start. We registered, got a little warmup jog in, and lined up. The horn sounded and we were off.

The Harrisburg course starts and ends on City Island, an island in the middle of the Susquehanna River, and the first few miles take you over the bridge and through downtown Harrisburg. Then the course offers a little bit of dirt trail before crossing back over to City Island for a loop and then back out to the north side of town. Many miles of the course are on paved path right beside the river. We were aiming for about a 7:55 per mile pace, which would get us to the finish in under 3:30. Her qualifying time for 2013 will be 3:35, and I wanted to try to get her there five minutes under that.

Our first miles were in the 7:45 range, and I was a little concerned that we were starting too fast, but I also was interested in banking a little time. She was trying to run faster and I had to hold her back. Marathon pace is always so easy those first few miles that it is difficult to be disciplined. Our pace gradually increased a little as we got close to the halfway point. She was running really well, but I have seen people blow up after the halfway point, so I felt cautiously optimistic.

The Harrisburg course is fairly flat except for miles 18-20. The course follows a rolling paved path through the woods at this point. The hills are short but kind of steep so they get your legs just at the point of the race when it is becoming hard. It was here that I started to see her struggle a little bit. I had to "stretch the rubber band" a little to keep her moving. I tried to keep slightly in front of her to pull her along because she was definitely slowing. We made it through the trail, however, without losing too much time (the three miles were in the 8:00 to 8:05 range). I stopped at a portapot as we left the trail and discovered when I came out that she must have put the hammer down. I finally caught her but she was moving really well again. We were down in the 7:45 to 7:50 range. We started scoping out people to catch, caught up with them, and then chose a new victim. This worked quite well.

I did not tell her where we were, time-wise, those last 7 miles and she didn't ask. I figured I would just keep trying to pull her along at 7:55 as long as I could. We headed down by the river again for the last few miles and she was definitely struggling. Miles 25 and 26 were up above 8:10. When you can see City Island again, it is still a deceptively long way off, and seems to take awhile to get there. It is mentally a tough spot on the course. When we got within half a mile, however, Laura put the hammer down again, and we surged to the finish in 3:28 and change.

Laura ran well this day and definitely put in a gritty performance. After struggling a little through miles 18-20, she turned it on and put in really good miles at a time when most people are really slowing down. We passed a lot of people in those last five miles, including relay runners.

This was an excellent way to spend a quality three and a half hours with my niece. I was just hoping that I would have the legs to keep up and not let her down. I've put a lot of miles on these legs this year (this was my ninth race of 25 or more miles since March) and my weekly mileage is always down in the fall. I've already ended up in a wheelchair after a slower race (Boston three years ago after a hard bonk) so I know I can't just take it for granted that I will be fine. The distance must be respected. This day I felt good. As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, this was supposed to be my last long run of the year. Well, my brother convinced me to do one more 50 mile trail race in mid-December near Chattanooga. How could I turn that down?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Tiadaghton Trail Half Marathon

The fall version of the Tiadaghton Trail Half Marathon was run on October 30 this year. I had run the spring version for the first time this year at the end of March and the trail was covered with 3 inches of snow. I was hoping to see what I could do on a dry version of the course and thought I should have good weather in October. So much for that. The day before the race an early season storm moved through the area and covered the course in 6-8 inches of snow. I wasn't sure how the driving would be, as I've got to go over a few mountain ranges to get to the trail, but I figured I would get up early in the morning and check the conditions.

I woke up in the morning and it hadn't snowed much at night so I decided to go for it. I did take the long way around so I wouldn't have to travel the back roads over the mountains. When I got there, it was actually about 10 degrees warmer (mid-30s) than in the spring so that was a good thing. For the fall race, they reverse the course direction, except for the last half mile, which includes 40 yards through a concrete spillway with 6 inches of water in it (they keep that part at the end, thankfully).

There were about 100 runners that started the race. Other than the 1/2 foot of snow, conditions were decent. We started off on a dirt road for about 1/4 mile before taking the trail into the woods. The first mile and a half of this race features some of the rockiest trail I have ever run on. The rocks are mostly the correct size to be ankle-breakers. I started onto the trail in second place and, after a stream crossing, the guy in front of me slowed down when he got to the rocks so I passed him. I am more confident on rocks after this year than before and have gotten to the point where I can actually pass people. I didn't expect to be in first at this point (or ever) but it somewhat energized me and I pushed it a little through the first few miles. About 4 guys stayed right on me until we hit the first aid station. I stopped to get a drink of water and they all went by me. The next half mile to mile was on a dirt road so I caught them again and we ran together on the road. Soon the trail ducked into the woods again and went downhill. I made a dash for the lead and pushed the descent. One guy stayed on my tail and the other ones were not as fast descenders.

The snow was deep and we were breaking new trail part of the time. I didn't necessarily want to be breaking the trail the whole time but it wasn't too much extra work (the snow was powdery) so I kept doing it. We got to another dirt road section and I started talking with the guy I was running with. He looked familiar to me and I knew I had seem him at other races. It turns out it was David Lister, who had just won the Megatransect a few weeks ago. We carried on a good conversation most of the rest of the way.

At one point, David tore down a steep descent that found me sliding on my butt on a number of occasions and I was not ready to keep up with him. I'd like to blame it on me being in my mid-40s and he in his mid-20s and I'm just not ready to take chances like I did at his age. In fact, I'll buy that argument. At the bottom, however, the trail made a "T" and he wasn't sure which way to go so he was still there when I arrived. I remembered the direction from the spring so we took off again. This inability to see trail markings was a problem at numerous places. The tree branches that were marked with marking tape were covered in snow or weighted down so that you couldn't see all of the markings. We got lost at one point and the two guys behind us caught up and none of us could find the trail. We spread out and wandered through the woods looking for it. We had a general idea of where it went, but we couldn't find it. Finally, the one guy found it at the top of the ridge, yelled to us, and took off. The rest of us got back on track and were chasing him.

David and I caught back up to him and followed him for a little and finally I decided I still felt good and I passed them both and went to the front again. After another downhill section through the trees, we were alone again. We got to the last aid station (3 miles to go) and I stopped for water again and he went flying past and put 50 yards on me before I started again. I kept him in sight for awhile but when we got to the rocky part again, he was definitely putting some time on me. There is no doubt he is the better runner but I was just trying to keep it somewhat close. I went through the water spillway again (it was actually colder in the spring) and caught site of him as he turned to run through the finishing chute. I finished in second, a little over a minute behind.

I was very happy overall with how I ran. I haven't led a race in over 20 years so it was kind of cool to be in the front for about 9 miles. I felt good and had fun running and chatting with Lister. I love the course, even with the rocks, and even in the snow. I think I also like the half marathon distance on trails. It is a nice distance where you don't really have to worry too much about bonking and you can go pretty hard. I'll definitely be back to Tiadaghton. This stuff is just too much fun. I dislike asphalt more and more, with every race I run.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tussey mOUTaiNBACK 50 Mile Relay

This year, instead of participating in the 50 mile ultra version of this race on October 23, I chose once again to run in the relay portion. The Nittany Valley Running Club has been having a draft to pick relay teams (Draft Challenge Relay (DCR)) for this event for many years. It is a fun, competitive, atmosphere that really brings the club together. Everyone throws their name in the figurative hat, sends in a bio of race times and other information, and then captains are chosen and a draft night is held at a local watering hole. I had done this a few years ago when they ran with 7 person teams.

This year it was decided to run with 6 person teams. Unexpectedly, I got chosen as one of the captains (some of the faster runners were not participating this year) and had to take on the task of pouring over bios and choosing a team. Draft night came, we chose our teams, and then the teams got together and chose which legs they would run. The captains, of course, get stuck with the toughest legs, which this year was the leg 4/10 combination, two long uphill legs.

After the normal trash talk (although it seemed to be down a little this year), race day came and we were off to the woods. It is a beautiful course, mostly in Rothrock State Forest south of State College, and a beautiful time of year to be running. It is almost all on dirt roads in the woods. Our team was doing well and running about fourth out of 10 teams for most of the race. I felt fairly good on leg 4 and managed to pass a couple other captains on the climb.

Then tragedy struck. As we were traveling in the van to the leg 9 transition zone, we passed the three other teams that were in front of us. The first place team had a sizable lead and their leg 8 runner, Ed Thompson was running well when we passed him. As we waited at the transition zone, Ed was not the first runner to show up. The other teams started to come in and they brought word that Ed had fallen by the side of the road and there were people trying to help him. We did not know what this meant at the time, but since there was nothing we could do about it, we did what we could, which was to keep running.

I didn't feel quite as strong on leg 10 but held my own, I guess, and then our leg 11 and 12 runners finished strong and I believe we ended up in fourth place amongst the DCR teams. Afterwards we were waiting at the finish line, watching the other teams finish, when the word came that Ed had a heart attack and had died. We were all stunned by the news. He was having fun and had looked so good not very long ago. The joy of the run and the competition was now tempered by sadness.

The emails were flying around, especially amongst the captains, about what to do with the situation and the appropriate way to handle the team results and how best to memorialize Ed. A number of the teams had to forfeit because runners couldn't get through as the ambulance had blocked the road for awhile. I disagreed somewhat with the prevailing opinion that we shouldn't publish the results on the club web site and all the teams should forfeit and we shouldn't compile stats (there is always weeks of rehashing the results). I think there is an appropriate time to mourn but then I think we need to get on with life. That is how I would want it to be for everyone else if it was me lying by the side of the road. I wrote the following email and sent it to the captains. I spent a lot of time editing it because I certainly didn't want to be dismissive of the tragedy.

I will go along with whatever the group wants to do. Yesterday was tragic and I think it is appropriate to somehow memorialize Ed. I do like what Mike is willing to do on the Tussey web site with the memorial to Ed. I do agree that we shouldn't be concerned with winners or losers or order of finish, given what happened. I like Tom's idea about not listing the results on the NVRC web site but just listing the teams and a memoriam to Ed. I'm not sure, however, that we should try to wipe away everything about the day.
Given my family history, I wouldn't be too surprised if I would die someday out on a run. I tend to think that running will increase the quantity and quality of my life, but I understand that there are risks. Quite frankly, I can't think of many better ways to go, doing something that I enjoy. If that happens, feel free to have a memorial but don't let it get in the way of living and enjoying life. I really won't care anymore. I would sooner that you take a run in the woods with some friends and breathe the air a little deeper and enjoy what you have left, including the rivalry and competition that makes you all smile and drives you to thrive. My father died this spring so I've had some time to ponder this stuff in the last half year, and I think he would agree with me. Celebrate life and the lives of those who have passed away, but don't stop living because of death.

I don't have the opportunity to run with you all every day and work some of this out so I don't know what all you talked about today. I really don't care about the DCR finishing order, or whether we all DNF or not, although I must admit that I was looking forward to all of you geeks cranking out the spreadsheets and the chitchat that would ensue. For me, yesterday started out as a beautiful day in the woods and ended up as a very sad, but still beautiful day in the woods. I did not know Ed and only chatted with him briefly, but I think he enjoyed being part of the event. 
I do think that an appropriate gesture would be to buy flowers on behalf of the NVRC for the funeral (or do something in lieu of flowers if the family has requested it). I would certainly be willing to put some money towards that. Again, I will defer to what the group wants to do and am okay with whatever you decide. I'm sorry about the rambling email and I certainly don't mean to lessen at all the magnitude of the tragedy that occurred. These are just some of my thoughts and what I would want you to do if it happened to me. 
It might be nice to organize a run from Colyer in the next few weeks, and run leg 9 and half of leg 8, out and back, and remember Ed and the joy of running.

We did indeed have that memorial run and it was nice. A few people had already arranged a memorial on the spot and it was a beautiful place in the woods. In the end, life goes on for the rest of us and we must carry on. We run with the memories of those who have gone on before us. We try to learn from them and remember them but we live with the realization that we can't outrun death. When it comes, a little spot in the woods on a run wouldn't be that bad.

Saturday, October 1, 2011


The Megatransect trail marathon (approximately 25.5 miles, but I'm counting it as a marathon) takes place in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. This race is about 10 years old and has become extremely popular in the area. Registration opens the beginning of January and it sells out within a week. This was my first year running in it, but it certainly won't be my last. This may be my new favorite local trail race.

There were about 600 runners/hikers that showed up on race day this year, with the temperature in the upper 40s and calls for rain throughout the day. The race starts early (7am) but is only about a 45 minute drive for me so I didn't have to get up too early. The pre-race staging area is a picnic grounds with a large indoor hall so it is possible to stay relatively warm until the race start.

I had no idea how my legs would react coming into this race, because of running the Dam Full trail marathon two weeks earlier and the Vermont 50 mile trail run six days earlier. I figured my legs would probably go dead about halfway through and I might have to struggle to get home. I felt relatively good on race morning, however, so I decided to give it a pretty good run and see what would happen.

The first three miles are on paved road (one of my least favorite parts of the course) so I went out at a pace close to 7 minute miles. It was drizzling at the start but not raining too hard. There was a stream crossing to gain access to the first trail so my feet got soaked. I figured there would be more so it wasn't worth trying to stay dry. I hit the trail in about 14th place in a group of about 5 runners. The first climb was steep and I tried to settle into a quick walking pace. I was able to pass everyone in the group pretty quickly and my legs felt good. I hit the downhills pretty hard and started to put some distance between me and those behind me.

At about 6.5 miles I came to the signature climb of the course, a long scramble over boulders, straight up the mountain to the highest point on the course. It is a visually intimidating sight. I had heard about this, however, and thought it was towards the end of the course, so I was actually quite pleased to be encountering it this early when my legs were still good. It takes awhile to get up this and the rocks were wet so it was a little treacherous. Occasionally I would turn around and take in the view of the Susquehanna River below, which was quite impressive. I passed one runner on the way to the top.

After the boulder field, the trail took me across Rattlesnake Ridge, which was definitely treacherous. This was under tree cover and it was raining harder now and there were a lot of lichens on the rocks. It was basically a long horizontal traversal of boulders, and then suddenly there was an arrow pointing over the edge. After scrambling down I was finally on a runnable section again. At mile 16 or so, I caught up to another guy and quickly passed him and put him behind me. I was still feeling good and running well.

There are definitely a lot of rocky trails in the Mega. It is as technical as any other central PA trail run, if not more so. There aren't many flat sections either. I felt pretty good and kept knocking off the miles. At the beginning of the race, I had decided not to carry a water bottle, because it was cool and they had water about every 5 miles. This is the first trail race that I haven't carried water. I just took 3 gels with me for sustenance and hoped I would be okay. Up until about mile 19, I felt fine. In the next mile-and-a-half, however, I began to feel woozy and became concerned about staying vertical. I'm not sure that carrying Gatorade would have made a difference, but who knows.

The last aid station at mile 21 could not have come too soon. The stretch into it was downhill, which was a good thing, because I had no energy left to expend. I needed calories quickly. I hit the aid station and never have I ate so much junk food at an aid station. M&Ms, Peanut Butter cups, chips, pretzels, Gu, Gatorade, water: I just started stuffing it in. I knew I may pay for it in my stomach later but I needed the calories.

About a half mile out of the aid station the final brutal climb began. It was steep and then another boulder field began. The good thing was that this allowed me to walk and I could digest the sugar and started feeling better. At the top of the boulder field, the trail headed down and I began the last descent. I was drenched and cold at this point and ready for the finish. My least favorite part of the course was ahead of me, however. There were three flat miles to the finish and I knew I didn't have the legs to hammer them out.

The last three miles basically mirrored the first three, except that they went off the road and onto a grassy section along the highway. The grass was about a foot high, and there were only five people in front of me, so the grass was not worn down and it was difficult running. I could barely manage a sub-9:00 pace at this point. I was still gripping a banana from the last aid station, just in case I would need it, but I threw this into the bushes a half mile from the finish.

I ran across the finish line and went straight to the food line and loaded up on pulled pork barbecue, macaroni salad, a Sheetz smoothie, and then Hot Chai. I was looking around for pizza but they were out of it. I talked to a few of the other guys that finished in front of me, watched a few more guys cross the finish line, and then started shivering and chattering my teeth. It was time to go home. I grabbed some cookies for the road and headed out.

I was pleased with the way my legs held up. I finished sixth overall in about 4:51. The race was well supported and the pre-race and post-race food was very good. I will be back. The next time I will try to avoid running a 50-miler the week before and hope to improve my time in dry conditions.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Vermont 50

Sonya, Jim, me and Jason pre-race.

Sept. 25 - My brother Jim wanted to get his first 50 mile ultramarathon in this year, when he turned 50. After joining me as my pacer last year in the Burning River 100, he really enjoyed the trails and wanted to make his first 50 a trail race. He chose the Vermont 50 so we signed up for it this summer, along with my nephew Jason and a friend, Sonya. They were all first-time ultra runners so my plan was just to stick with them and do what I could to help them finish.

On the drive up to Vermont we got a good look at the devastation that Hurricane Irene brought to the area. There were still road closures and much work being done to repair stream banks and washed out roads. The race director said that the trails were in decent shape but they did have to do some re-routing of the original course. The weather forecast for the day was decent, although on the warm side for this time of year, 60 degrees at the start and a high of 79 degrees.

Entering an aid station with
really muddy shoes.
This race is also run concurrently with a 50 mile mountain bike race, on the same course. It gave it a little different vibe than a normal running race. The mountain bikers went off in a number of waves before the runners finally got started at around 6:30am. This course was much like the Vermont 100 course (there was less than a mile of overlap although it was in the same area) with constant uphills and downhills, steep in both directions. The course was beautiful throughout, with the leaves changing colors. The majority of the race is on trails, although there is also a significant amount on dirt roads.

We settled in after the start with the basic strategy of walking all of the uphills and running comfortably on the downhills and flats. We had already talked about eating early and often and staying hydrated so everyone stuck to that plan well. For the first half of the race, all four of us felt fairly good, albeit with the legs getting heavier. The Vermont hills do make it more challenging (especially for Jason who lives in flat northern Indiana).

I felt good throughout the race. It was a bit of a slower pace than I probably would have run on my own and I think the extra walking really helped to keep my stomach feeling good and my energy levels good. When we got to downhill single-track, however, I let it rip. It felt so good to float over the trail. I've really come to enjoy this stuff. After I would get to the bottom, I'd just wait for the others to catch up.

Jason started to have some kind of musculo-skeletal issue at around 30 that made it harder for him to breathe for the rest of the race. This slowed his pace considerably, but otherwise he felt fine. This was the most major issue that any of us had, fortunately, and was not enough to cause a DNF. We were all together into the mile 40 aid station and kind of decided to finish together. With about two miles to go, we hit some really nice single-track, and I decided to hammer it and just wait before the finish line for the rest of them. I got within sight of the finish, and then waited, and we all ran across the line together. It was a good day on a beautiful course. We finished in just under 11 hours.

Jim, Sonya and Jason finishing.
We did pass many mountain bikers during the day. We passed our first at about mile 9 and passed a bunch in the 30-40 mile range. The winning mountain bikers finish about 2 hours faster than the winning runners, but many of the novice class bikers are passed by runners. I wouldn't want to have navigated some of the single-track on a bike. It definitely requires a lot of skill. The course was very muddy in spots but overall in pretty good shape for having 1000 bikers ride over it before we got there.

This is definitely an ultra that I would recommend to anyone that is interested. The support is good, the area is beautiful, and it is a nice time of year.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Vermont 100

Well, I just woke up after sleeping for three hours after the Vermont 100 and I can't go back to sleep so I might as well write about it. The Vermont 100 is the race that I almost didn't do. After the failure at Laurel Highlands, I couldn't imagine trying something again where I might feel that bad at the end. After a few days to think about it, however, I had already shelled out the money and I figured I might as well see it through.

Most of the Crew.
I would never run something like this without having a crew and pacer so I assembled those first. My wife and two youngest kids offered to accompany me and drive around all day and all night to provide encouragement, food and friendly faces to look at in my darkest hours. Marvin Hall, a friend of mine and fellow Nittany Valley Running Club member, generously agreed to pace me at the end and be my rock through the dark night.

Saturday, July 16, started early for Marvin and I as he drove me to the start at Silver Hill Meadow at 3:00am. Race time was 4:00am and the start/finish line was about 15 minutes from our motel, at Silver Hill Meadow. The start of an ultra, like any race, carries an air of excitement and a bunch of nervous runners. The difference is that these runners are gathering well before dawn with headlamps on their heads and have agreed to try a run that gives them 30 hours to complete it.

At 4:00am the race director said "go" and 300 of us were off in the night, under a beautiful full moon. The moon was bright enough and the road we started on was smooth enough that many didn't even use their headlamps. During the first mile I met some of the people I would be see-sawing with for the next 100 miles. One particular person who fate would find me swapping places with until the very end I noticed first by odor and quickly dubbed him "shirtless body odor guy" (SBOG, for short). No offense is intended as he was a strong runner who seemed quite friendly in my short conversations with him and he did ultimately finish.

The Vermont 100 course traverses mostly dirt roads, with a significant amount of double-track trail, a little single-track, and very little paved road. We quickly hit some double-track after the start and had our first climb. The other thing about the Vermont 100 course is at seems like you are always running either up or down. There is very little flat road or trail on the whole thing. The ups and downs are often very steep, rendering everyone to some kind of run/walk combination going uphill and knee and quad crushing descents coming down. The ups and downs are also very long, in general.

My goal was to try to make the first 25 miles of the race feel like nothing. That may sound silly, but it is possible with some gentle running and lots of walking mixed in. The miles do, of course, add up anyway. I averaged about a 10 minute per mile pace during this stretch, which is about where I wanted to be. I knew I would gradually lose pace during the race but my ultimate goal, other than just finishing the thing, was to finish under 24 hours. I though that if everything went well I would be capable of finishing under 20 hours, but I was not going to be disappointed if I didn't hit that, as I figured that it probably wouldn't all go well.

My plan for nutrition/hydration was to take a Gu and electrolyte pills every hour, eat sandwiches and watermelon at aid stations, and eat Cheerios and drink chocolate milk when my crew had access to me.

Somewhere around 30 miles we took a long climb and came out on top of the mountain into this beautiful meadow that was the highest point in the area. There was a commanding view of everything around. It almost made the climb worth it. It was here, on the technical and steep descent that the SBOG and I changed places many times. He seemed to enjoy the technical descending as much as I did and he was quite good it. He was also still quite odiferous at this point. I eventually pulled ahead toward the bottom and this is the last I would see him for awhile.

From about mile 37 to the first medical check at mile 47 it began to get fairly hard. This included running through the noon hour and the high for the day was supposed to get into the upper 80s, although fortunately the humidity was low the whole day. The heat makes a huge difference in pace and how one feels overall and I was just hoping to get through the stretch from 11am to 4pm without too many problems.

Didn't really feel that way.
At mile 47, Camp Ten Bear, they weigh all the runners and will pull anyone who loses more than 7% of their weight (they weighed us at check-in the day before). For me, I could lose up to about 11 pounds before me day would be done. Before I got into the aid station, my crew was waiting and I had some Cheerios and chocolate milk and felt kind of bloated so I thought I would be okay. Much to my dismay, I had already lost 8 pounds, according to their scale, and the medical guy told me I would need to go sit down for a while and try to hydrate more. I headed towards the food table and just kept on walking. Fortunately, he was quickly distracted by other runners. I had already sat down for a few minutes before I got to the aid station and I didn't see what good it would do to sit down anymore.

The next medical check would be back at Camp Ten Bear, after a 23 mile loop in the heat of the day, and I was worried. I didn't see how I wouldn't lose another 4 pounds. I just tried to keep hydrating and taking electrolytes during this loop and avoided any excretions. This was a tough loop, with some ridiculous technical vertical, and it was hot. My stomach started to feel a little iffy, although I was able to keep it together. At my only other 100 mile race last year, I had really suffered during this stretch and ended up throwing up twice and passing out once. I was really hoping to avoid this.

Just before coming in to Camp Ten Bear for my next medical check, I had tried to take some electrolyte pills and and gagged on one of them. I knew that would be my last one and I would need to find another way to get my electrolytes for the last 30 miles. My daughter came running out to me before I got into the aid station and I had her run back and get me a chocolate milk so I could get something down before I got there. They were quickly pulling runners in to weigh them and I was very worried they would pull me from the course and my day would be done. I stepped on the scales and got the verdict. I had gained three pounds during the last 23 mile loop and was out of the danger zone, for now. The last medical check would be at mile 88.

My daughter paced me from mile 70 to 76, as Marvin didn't really want to do 30 total miles. She talked my ear off, just like last year, and I didn't say a whole lot as I was applying all of my energy to the run. It was a tough stretch for me but she was great. At mile 76, I picked up Marvin and we were off. I was spending some time at each station now, because I seemed to feel better after I sat awhile. While my pace was still under the 12 minute pace that would get me to a 20 hour time, I knew I would have to give that goal up. My stomach was not allowing me to run too fast and I was spending too much time at the aid stations.

We ticked off the miles as it got dark and we switched our headlamps on. At times, I was putting in some good miles but I just felt on the edge, stomach-wise. I stopped eating Gu somewhere around 60 the sixty mile mark and wasn't eating much or getting many electrolytes. At mile 83, the last aid station before the medical check, I tried to take a little bite of watermelon and felt a wave of nausea hit me. I quickly ran for the bushes and promptly emptied the entire contents of my stomach. I immediately felt better but knew I could be in trouble with the medical check coming up. I was able to get down some chicken broth (good sodium content) and we moved on.

We notched some fast (relatively) miles in the next five miles as there were some good downhills and flatish sections. We pulled into the mile 88 aid station and I went directly to meet my fate on the scales. I didn't bother trying to prehydrate and was scared that they would try to pull me at this late hour. The medical volunteer had to keep nudging the weight to the lighter end of the scale. I couldn't see the numbers but she finally got it to balance and she looked up at me with a disapproving and evaluative look. She said I was down 8 pounds. I thought to myself "Yes!" and she asked me if I was okay. I said "yes" and got the heck out of there before she could say anything else.

My knees, especially my left knee really started to bother me during this time. There were a few times I tried to run and couldn't. I was limping when I did run. I thought I might have to just walk it in from here, and was disappointed. I massaged it a little and ended up pulling up my one compression sock so that it covered my left knee and this seemed to help. I was able to keep running at that point.

After a few more aid stations (Vermont has a lot of them), we got to see my crew one more time at mile 95. I didn't sit down this time or take much because I could smell the end of the race. No, I didn't smell the SBOG, although we had started to see him again. We would pass him on the course and he would pass us while I was in the aid stations. Funny thing, he didn't seem to smell bad anymore. Either he sweated it our or my own stench was so powerful that I couldn't smell anything else anymore. I'll go with the "he sweated it out" theory.

There was one more aid station but I didn't stop for this one as there was only 2.3 miles to go. I told Marvin I felt like I needed to finish as quickly as possible. We entered single-track again, which would take us to the finish. I was worried at this point because I hadn't been processing fluids for awhile (not enough electrolytes) or putting many calories in. All I knew was that I had to get to the finish line as quickly as possible. I started running like a man possessed. The single-track always picked up my spirits but now I was running up and down the hills. I pulled from an energy source that wasn't dependent on calories or hydration. I can't explain it. I dropped Marvin (sorry Marvin, I felt bad, but I knew you would understand) and was just blowing by everyone. I think I passed at least 12 runners in those last two miles. Most of them were doing the death march to the finish. I even blew by the SBOG one last time. I flew across the finish line at 1:08am with a gigantic fist pump and headed straight to the medical tent.

I was worried about hyponatremia (too much water, not enough electrolytes) so I wanted to make sure they thought I was okay. They told me to lay down for 10 minutes so they could observe me, which I did, but I was very talkative and excited. There were others laying on the cots in a somewhat less effusive state. Sounds of vomiting filled the air. After 10 minutes, it was time to get out of there. They gave me their blessing and my crew took me back to the motel where I took a shower, downed a vanilla milkshake, and went to bed.

My final time was 21:08 something.What a day (and night). It is a long time to struggle with your thoughts, fears and body. There are people that run a lot of these things, and I don't know how they do it. It is thoroughly mentally and physically exhausting. Thanks again to my pacers and crew. I may never need to do another 100 miler. I know better than to make promises, but I'm pretty sure I can find plenty of challenges at shorter distances.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Laurel Highlands Ultra brings me to my knees...again

Well, the beautiful 77 mile Laurel Highlands Trail brought me to my knees again yesterday. It was supposed to be a story about me avenging last year's failure to finish with a strong run to the end, but instead it ended up at the same aid station that last year's run ended at, mile 52. It has made me question my desire to ever run another race over 50 miles, or 50K for that matter. Quite simply, I would rather not ever feel that bad again.

The first 12 miles were fun. The race left Ohiopyle State Park at 5:30am and began with an 8 mile climb up to the top of the ridge. Around mile 15 my legs started to feel hammered already and my energy levels were weak. I understood the hammered legs because of the hard race I had run the previous Saturday, but the energy level was a concern. Perhaps a contributing factor was that I had only had 4 hours of sleep the night before because it was my son's high school graduation and we didn't get into Ohiopyle until 11:30pm. Who knows? Anyway, I felt a bonk coming on and it was way too early for that. 

I tried to get some food in me right away and was able to hold off the bonk and keep a decent pace going. Before I got to the mile 32 aid station, however, I was really thirsty and hating the Gatorade that I had in my hydration pack. I was craving chocolate milk that I had packed in our cooler, but I had told my wife the night before that she didn't have to provide aid until mile 39. I was hoping I would get lucky and she would be there, but she was not. Anyway, I took a PBJ and some fruit and started to walk away from the aid station. About 50 feet into the woods I felt like I was going to pass out. I turned around and headed back to the aid station and decided to lay down in the grass for awhile. I lay there for at least five minutes and decided I needed to get up and move on. I downed two cups of Mountain Dew (the nectar of the gods) and started walking down the trail again. I felt better and was soon running again.

At this point my stomach was feeling full and sloshy and I did not want to drink or eat anything else. I forced some liquid down occasionally but realized I should probably be hydrating more. In spite of this, I was running well again, and actually passing some people. The dreaded detour was on this leg (the trail bridge over the turnpike is being repaired so the trail makes a 7 mile detour on roads down the ridge, over the turnpike on the road, and then back up the ridge) but I felt much better than last year and actually ran fairly well and felt good (other than my stomach). I got up to the mile 44 aid station, full of confidence and believing that I was going to finish this thing this year (last year I felt terrible here and sat in a chair for 15 minutes). My stomach was still not right and I wasn't able to eat or drink much but I thought that eventually my stomach would start to process what was in it and I would be able to take in stuff again.

After about two or three miles of running on this section, the nausea hit. I stopped running and started walking because the jostling was just too much. I also began to feel lightheaded like I might pass out. At the 18 minute per mile pace that I was walking, I figured it would take me 90 minutes to get to the next aid station. I was just hoping that I could make it. What I probably needed to do was to purge and then start over from scratch. My tendency to pass out when I throw up, however, makes this a little bit of a risky proposition, so I was trying to avoid that. I walked nauseously the whole way to the next aid station, not sure if I was going to make it upright the whole time, especially near the end. The darn trail just went on and on. I tried using my go to ultra mantra, "if I can walk, I can run," but my stomach would always reply, "if you can run, I can throw up and you will pass out."

I decided to lay down at the aid station for a few minutes to see if I would feel any better. I did not. I just felt really, really bad. The next aid station would have been 12 miles away, almost 2.5 hours running or 4 hours walking, and then the finish would be another 13 miles after that. I decided it just wasn't worth it. I wasn't interested in putting my family through it either. I signed my number and my daughter ran it over to the aid station captain and I did the walk of shame to the car and went home.

Darn, darn, darn. This was not the storybook ending. On the way home I told my wife that I never need to do another one of these and I was probably going to drop out of the Vermont 100, which I am already signed up for this July. I just felt so terribly lousy. Shorter races can be challenging and fun; why would I want to put myself though this?

A day's perspective does make a difference. I'm still not sure where I am at with this, but I am still considering doing the Vermont 100. I'm definitely in for the Vermont 50 this fall, which a group of us are planning on running together. Even though I felt bad before mile 50, a 50-miler is much more manageable. When you feel bad at mile 45, you only have 5 miles to go, not 30 or 55. I have some more soul-searching to do to figure out what it is from ultras that attracted me and whether I can get that from shorter races and adventure runs. I tend to be risk-adverse and there is definitely more risk involved in the longer races. There is definitely something appealing, however, about the challenge and the adventure that the day holds. If I could just conquer the stomach issues and I didn't have the nasty passing out issue, it would be so much easier.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Rothrock Trail Challenge

I am completely flummoxed. Yesterday was the Rothrock Trail Challenge in State College. This is a 30K trail race that certainly lives up to the "rock" in it's name. It is a very technical, rocky course and even a little scary (to me) in the area of the Shingletown cliffs. This year the locals won the day again, beating numerous sponsored runners in the process. Jacob Loverich repeated as the men's champion, while Meira Minard repeated as the women's champion. It was good weather for racing, and while the course was muddy in spots, it wasn't nearly as bad as it was two weeks ago.

The first half mile of the race is on the road, before it hits the relentless mile climb that is Spruce Gap. This climb is not all runnable for most mortals, definitely including me. About halfway up while I was walking, Meira Minard passed me, and I was determined to stay with her as long as I could this year. Even though I had publicly stated that I would never try to beat her in a trail race again (after Hyner), because she is so good on trails, I had secretly harbored ambitions of doing just that if I could put together a good run some day. I did no trash talking this time, but it was on my mind.

At the top of Spruce Gap, I was about 10 yards behind and managed to keep that distance on the downhill on Kettle Trail that followed. I caught up with her on the flat section at the bottom and we ran together through the first aid station until we started to encounter the mud around Bear Meadows. I passed her on a particularly muddy section at about mile 4.25 and actually started to put ground between us in the continuing mud. I thought at that point, "Well, at least I had the lead over her momentarily, through mile 5." Surprisingly, I soon couldn't hear her anymore. I was running well, uphill and down, and felt good. I was at least going to try to make it hard on those behind me to catch up.

At the second aid station (mile 8), I saw Meira and another runner coming up to the aid station as I was leaving. I knew I had maybe a minute gap, at most. There was a lengthy climb after the aid station and my legs continued to feel good and I was able to run most of it. When I trained in this section, I had walked most of it, so I was quite pleased to be running, and by how little time it took me to get up the mountain. As I didn't hear my pursuers, I thought that I must be putting a little time on them, or at least holding my own.

After aid station #3 (12 miles), the climb of the Shingletown cliffs commences. I was able to pass a runner and felt good at the top. Last year this is the point at which I bonked and had to walk a lot of the ridge. My strategy this race was to take a gel at every aid station and my fueling level felt good so far. I passed another runner on the ridge and caught sight of a runner as we were descending to the final aid station (mile 16). I got within about 20 yards of the runner in front of me and was able to hold this on the final ascent up to Little Flat. I ran the downhill pretty hard, but I didn't push it, because the descent is kind of technical and I didn't want to lose it all at this point. The runner in front of me hammered the descent and I lost time on him. At this point, I didn't care. I finished the descent cleanly, finished the last half mile on the road, and broke the line feeling good.

So why am I flummoxed? I put in a performance that I don't understand. Perhaps it was a fluke, an outlier. I was aiming for a time in the 3:30s, about 20 minutes faster than last year, but instead ran a 3:06, almost 50 minutes faster than last year. I would not have believed I could have run that fast on that course. I kept expecting to be overtaken by the runners behind me, but instead I was passed by no one after the first mile, and I passed numerous runners. It was truly one of my best races, certainly the best one I've ever had on trails, and I don't know why. I just ran and kept pushing myself, but not too hard. I wanted to be steady and not blow up like I had last year. I think part of the reason for the good day is that I truly have gotten better at the uphills and downhills of technical trails.

I finished in 8th place overall, second master's runner. There's nothing like a good race to make you feel full of confidence. I'm sure I'll run into trouble again, maybe even in the next race, but for now I'll enjoy the good feeling.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim

The Planning
I hatched the idea for our rim-to-rim-to-rim excursion two years ago when my family visited the Grand Canyon on vacation. I had decided to run down to the bottom the one morning. It turned out to be the best run of my life to that point, even though I bonked a little on the way back up. Afterwards I shared about the experience with my brother Jim and nephew Jason and told them they had to do it. After doing a little research on canyon runs, we decided on doing rim-to-rim-to-rim, recruited a friend, Terry, and set a date. Rather than doing the entire round trip in one day, we decided we didn't want to rush it and would do it in two days.

There are many logistics to consider when running in the Grand Canyon. The first one is the timing of the run. It is recommended that you plan your run in spring or fall, because the floor of the canyon (at 2400 feet) reaches temperatures well over 100 degrees in the summer. We decided to run May 15 and 16, which this year is the earliest that the North Rim lodges are open (they can have snow on the rims into mid-May as the rims are at 6800-8200 feet).

The next consideration is lodging. The south rim has a lot of lodging available but the north rim does not. Both rims fill up quickly, but especially the north. As soon as reservations became available for those dates (13 months ahead of time), I booked rooms on both rims.

A third pre-run consideration is transportation. We decided to fly into Phoenix and rent a car to the canyon, about a four hour drive from there. Las Vegas is also a popular airport to use and the drive is about the same.

The final preparations include which trails to use, what to wear on the run, what to pack, what hydration method to use and what to plan to eat. For trails, we chose to use South Kaibab for our departure from the south rim and then to return on Bright Angel. On the north side of the Colorado River, the only main trail up to the rim is North Kaibab. Clothing is a bit of a trick, as it really depends on the weather you will encounter those days. For us, they were calling for mid-30s in the morning on the south rim, mid-90s on the floor, and mid-60s on the north rim. That is quite a temperature swing. I decided I would be okay in shorts and a t-shirt the whole time. I chose to use a hydration pack that had some pockets so I packed an extra pair of shorts, socks, a t-shirt, a granola bar, a couple gels, a flashlight and multi-tool (you never know), a camera, and my cell phone (little coverage in the canyon but some on the north rim). For lunch, I reserved a couple sack lunches from Phantom Ranch, the main civilized presence on the floor of the canyon.

All that was left was the fun part: months of anticipation, crazy emails flying around amongst the participants, and the run itself. Email subjects included logistics, training, general trash talking, and the dangers of the canyon. As we got closer to the date, Terry struggled with leg injuries, Jim realized he would have to seriously face his fear of heights, and all of us worried about canyon rattlesnakes (including what to do if we got bitten in awkward places), scorpions, mountain lions, dehydration, and squirrels (apparently it is more likely to be bitten by a squirrel than a snake).

Once arriving at the canyon on Saturday evening and looking at the expanse we would be running across, it looked like a formidable task. The scale of the canyon is just incredibly large. With binoculars, we could see the north rim lodge perched on the edge of the rim a long distance away and at an incredible height.

At the South Kaibab Trailhead (thanks for the jackets Todd).

The Run - Day 1
We got up before sunrise on Sunday morning, finished packing, ate breakfast and caught the 6:00am hiker's express shuttle bus to the South Kaibab trailhead. The temperature was in the mid-30s and very windy so I decided to take a jacket. We started down the trail by 6:30am and I quickly realized it was going to be a long day. The trail averages about 6 feet or so across and Jim was having some serious difficulty with the heights from the start. There would not be much running until nearer to the bottom of the canyon, as he stayed on the inside edge and took it cautiously. The trail was great and the views are magnificent. There certainly are sheer drop-offs, sometimes on both sides, and you really don't want to trip. It is a steady and relentless decline down through the different colors of rock of the canyon. South Kaibab is less heavily traveled than Bright Angel trail but we encountered hiker's coming up the trail and a few other runners.
Terry and Jason crossing the Colorado River.

Once we got nearer to the bottom and the drop-offs weren't so steep and deep, we were able to get a nice running pace going. It felt good to move at a running pace and descend towards the river. Soon we were at the river and crossing on a narrow suspension bridge. The sites from the bottom of the canyon are as spectacular as the sites from the rim. The Colorado River cuts a deep canyon within the canyon. About half a mile on the north side of the river (just over 7 miles from the South Kaibab trailhead) we came to Phantom Ranch. We sat for awhile and ate lunch and refilled our hydration packs. The ranch has small cabins that can be reserved for lodging, a campground, and a camp store/restaurant. Everything is supplied by mule trains from the south rim so there isn't an abundance of stuff available. They do, however, have the best lemonade I ever tasted, made all the sweeter by the journey it takes to get it.

After half an hour in the shade of the ranch, we got up and headed out for the remaining 15 miles to the North Kaibab trailhead. While it was all uphill from here, the first 8 miles are so are a relatively gradual incline and we were able to run a lot of it. The North Kaibab trail follows the Bright Angel Creek in the Bright Angel Canyon. The water is rushing and the vegetation is lush, even though you are in a desert environment. The presence of water makes a huge difference in the area. The Bright Angel Canyon is at times very narrow with high rock walls on either side of the creek. The trail is also much narrower than the main trails on the south rim.

Jason on North Kaibab Trail.
After awhile the trail started to get steep. Terry's injured calf was bothering him and Jim was starting to slow again, due to the precarious nature of the trail, so Jason and I decided to run ahead. We ran for awhile until Jason was ready to stick with hiking. For some reason I felt good and wanted to keep running, so I struck out on my own. I was able to keep running until the trail got very steep, and then I reverted to a hike. After awhile the trail got a little less steep but I discovered that I was done running as the altitude was starting to affect my breathing. I was probably somewhere above 6000 feet at that point and I was just not acclimated to the altitude. I soon realized I just needed to put my head down and get it done. There were a few water stops on the way up and I refilled my hydration pack but I didn't linger long. I knew I was getting near the top but the switchbacks seemed to continue forever. Finally I heard clapping and turned a corner and there, 50 yards away, was the blessed trailhead. Some lady was standing there and clapping for people as she saw them finishing. It was about 2:00pm. I got a long drink of water, put my jacket on (it was cold, in fact there were still some piles of snow around), sat down and waited for Jason.

After 25 minutes, Jason emerged, and then Jim and Terry finished half an hour after that. The harsh reality now set in that it was 1.7 miles uphill from the trailhead to our final destination at the lodge and there was no shuttle bus. Our legs were pretty cooked so we started to trudge up the road. I volunteered to run ahead and get checked in and Jim wanted me to try to secure a ride for him and Terry for the next day on the shuttle bus that makes the 4 hour drive from the north to south rim every day. I "ran" ahead and checked in and got the shuttle information. There was a little deli there so I also got two pieces of pizza, a large Coke, and a large dish of ice cream to go and tried to balance this in my hands while eating the ice cream and walking down the road to meet the rest of the group. Fortunately I only had to go about a quarter of a mile before I met them. I handed out the grub and we walked to our cabin. As we walked through the cabins my brother mentioned that he sure hoped we didn't have a rim side cabin, at which point I smacked my forehead. In my infinite wisdom, 13 months ago, upon realizing that a rim-side cabin was only $10 more than a regular cabin and thinking that it would be cool to have a canyon view, I booked the rim-side cabin. Fortunately there were curtains on the rim-side windows.

Room with a view (and curtains, fortunately for Jim).
We showered and changed and relaxed, as I had dinner reservations in the lodge for 5:30pm. The north rim has a different atmosphere than the south. There are fewer people and it is a little more rugged but the main lodge itself is very nice. Most of the accommodations are in little cabins. Ours had two rooms and had a queen bed, a queen futon, and a set of bunk beds. As we were waiting for supper, Terry emptied the contents of his stomach (probably a result of exertion and altitude, as he felt okay afterwards) and decided not to join us. After a nice meal for the rest of us we headed back to the cabin and turned in. Terry and Jim did decide to make the return trip via bus rather than by foot. Jim was mentally exhausted from confronting his demons all day and Terry's injuries and resulting lack of training made the return trip by foot unwise.

The Run - Day 2
Jason and I got up before sunrise, ate some cereal, and were out the door by 6:00am. It was another cool, brisk morning. We ran the 1.7 miles to the trailhead and plunged down it. It was a good morning to run. I like the North Kaibab Trail better than the other trails. It has more variety. It is heavily wooded at the top, with huge Ponderosa Pines, and follows a rushing stream, complete with waterfalls, most of the way. This morning we got lucky and met a young Desert Bighorn Sheep on the trail. It took one look at us and scrambled up a sheer rock face with ease. We made pretty good time and got to Phantom Ranch by 9:30am (about the same time as yesterday, even though it was 17 miles instead of 7). We ate lunch/second breakfast, tanked up on 40 ounces of lemonade each, and headed back out.
Me taking pictures near the top of North Kaibab Trail.

Leaving Phantom Ranch, you pick up River Trail, which follows the river for a ways before becoming Bright Angel Trail. This is a rolling, sandy, mostly runnable, section of trail with nice river views. As soon as you get on Bright Angel it starts climbing away from the river and is fairly steep in sections. After a few miles of this we arrived at Indian Gardens, a campground near the base of the south rim's canyon walls, where we filled up with water. As we left Indian Gardens, there is a short stretch that isn't too steep before the assault on the canyon wall begins. Once the switchbacks started, the running was basically over for the day. It was hot and windy and relentlessly up. After one more stop for water, we finally neared the top. A little more than a half mile from the top, there was Terry running down to meet us. I phoned my brother and told him I would love to have a large Coke waiting for us at the top. With a quarter mile to go, we broke into a run again and exited the canyon to end the journey. Ice cold Cokes were waiting for us.

It is a long, gorgeous trek. Jason on Bright Angel Trail.
Each of us had a different experience in the canyon. Making the crossing once is an amazing accomplishment. I thought it would be a lot tougher the second day but it actually wasn't. Perhaps the slower pace the first day saved my quads for the second day. As far as effort and time on the feet go, it is definitely more difficult than running a road marathon. The actual mileage for us was about 24 miles on day one and 26 miles on day 2 (Bright Angel Trail is about 2 miles longer than South Kaibab). You could do it without ever having run a marathon. You would just need to be in good hiking shape and have worked on verticals. I did enjoy staying a night on the north rim, but I'm not against going back and doing R2R2R in one day the next time. There are people who do R2R2R in one day without running any of it. It takes persistence and good hydration and nutrition management.

Of all the running that I have done, this is definitely the highlight. I would encourage anyone who loves to run trails to go do it. Do make sure that you take it seriously and have trained and prepared properly. This run contained the best of all of the things that have caused me to fall in love with trail running: the feel of the earth under my feet, incredible scenery, wildlife sightings, good company on the trail, and the experience of getting completely caught up in the experience of the run. Who has an idea for the next epic adventure?

I put together a video of the run at

Phantom Ranch.

Tunnel on South Kaibab.

North Kaibab, up Bright Angel Canyon.

Jim and Terry on North Kaibab.
I think this was Jim's favorite part.

Jim and Terry finishing day 1 at North Kaibab Trailhead.

At Indian Gardens on Bright Angel Trail. I was very thirsty
at this point but not quite ready for toilet water.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Hyner Mountain Kicked My Butt (and Meira crushed my soul)

The Hyner View Trail Challenge is approximately 16.25 miles of beauty and brutality. Today, mix in 42 degree temps, rain and sustained winds over 20mph to make it an interesting day. This was my first attempt at Hyner, and after pulling a hamstring earlier in the week, I was just hoping to survive. The Meira that I refer to in the title is Meira Minard, an excellent local runner who won the women's overall last year at Hyner. I had been trash talking her recently (our road race times are fairly close) so this race was a showdown (although I knew she would kick my butt).

I spied Meira through a crowd of runners at the starting line and waved congenially, while secretly plotting to take her down. The first 1/4 mile was downhill and I ran gingerly until we got to the flat road, after which I caught up with Meira. We exchanged pleasantries as we passed runners for the next mile and a half until we hit the single track and the climbing began. Now it was on.

I was hoping to at least keep up with her on that first climb, and for the most part succeeded. She did get about 50 yards on me towards the top. The view from the top is amazing. If you haven't been to Hyner View, you should check it out someday. I turned around at the top and just stood there and enjoyed the view for a few seconds, before turning around and starting the almost immediate descent.

I run down mountains scared, especially when it is muddy. People blow by me. I lost site of Meira quickly and just worried about my own footing and not getting run over. Near the bottom of this first descent, the eventual female winner blew by me and I knew Meira was going to have a race of it. I did catch site of Meira as we started to ascend again and yelled "Minard, I'm going to get you" after which she started running again and that was pretty much the last I saw of her.

The next climb highlighted Hyner's foot-soaking features. The trail followed a stream up the mountain and must have crossed from one side to the other 20 times. At the first crossing, the guy in front of me went upstream looking for a log to cross on and I decided to just get me feet wet. Within a couple hundred yards I realized this was the correct decision, as cold as it was, because it was inevitable. Then, I just had to laugh. After awhile, instead of criss-crossing the stream, the designers of the trail decided the heck with it and literally just made the stream the trail. We were just running up the stream, and this was not the only time.

The last ascent was again steep but utilized switchbacks until the trail crossed a gas line cut towards the top of the mountain. I took a switchback across the cut and couldn't find the trail until I looked behind me and straight up the cut. There it was, straight up. I started up and was actually worried about falling off the mountain at this point because it was so steep. Once on top, the trail followed the ridge for a few miles and it was relatively flat. My legs were too trashed by this point to take advantage. To add to the misery, it started raining harder at this point.

Not bad for a Pennsylvania race.
A final cautious descent got me back on the road across the west branch of the Susquehanna. Their was a fierce head wind across the bridge, but then it wasn't long to the finish line.

I finished in 2:55 and I imagine Meira was at least 10 minutes in front of me. I haven't seen the results yet. I have learned my lesson. Don't trash talk Meira about trail races. I might be able to keep close on the roads, but there is no chance of that happening on a course with that kind of elevation change.

All in all, it was a fun run and I'd highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys running in the woods. There are over 1000 runners/hikers for this thing. Hopefully the weather will be better next year, because this year's weather did admittedly add some misery to the morning.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

2011 Garden Spot Village Marathon

This was the third running of the Garden Spot Village Marathon and I have done it every year so far. Because I was born and raised not far from New Holland, the site of the marathon, my current plan is to run it every year. This was my main goal race for the spring this year. It has been two years since I have attempted to run a marathon at a fast pace and I was curious to see what I could do at 45 years of age. Last year was all about running slow for a long time in preparation for my 100 mile attempt. This year I wanted to see if I've still got speed (I do still have a 100 miler on my schedule). I'm happy to say that I've still got it.

My plan was to go out at a 6:40 pace and see what would happen when I hit the hills. Garden Spot is a relatively hilly marathon (definitely tougher than my two sub 3 hour marathons) and I didn't think I would PR, let alone get really close to under 3 hours. My stated goal was 3:10, but I felt that if I hit 3:05 it would be comparable to sub 3 on a flatter course and I would be really happy with that.

After the first mile, I found a running buddy. Richard, a 52 year old from somewhere in Virginia, and I seemed to fall in at about the same pace. I wanted to religiously keep 6:40s with my Garmin but we got to talking and I lost track of pace here and there and had a few slower miles. The hills were not slowing us down, as we made up for the slower pace uphill with a faster pace on the descent. As the miles rolled by, I found my legs to continue to be responsive and our ongoing conversations helped to pass the time.

I passed my brother about halfway through (he was coming towards us on the out-and-back part of the course) and he told us we were in ninth and tenth place. We were still cruising when we got to the biggest hill of the course at around mile 22. We both walked briefly at the steepest portion. Before we got to the hill, I told Richard that he would probably lose me because by this point it was clear that he was a stronger climber than I am. He did start to drift away. My legs were heavy going uphill at this point. When I got to the top of the hill, he probably had 45 seconds on me. Going downhill and then on the flat road for the last 2.5 miles I found my stride again and was putting in a 6:40ish pace, without having to really strain.

There was a gradual rise in the last mile that slowed me down again by about 15 seconds. At this point, I  knew I would be close to 3 hours but figured it would be closer to 3:01. I did not push it. I now wish I would have. When I rounded the last bend with 100 yards to go I saw the time at 2:59:52, laughed out loud, and knew I was just going to miss another sub 3. I finished in 3:00:08.

Richard and I. Richard won the Grand Masters category.
I am not too disappointed in being just over 3 hours, because I have been under before. If I hadn't done it before, I would be more upset. Considering the tougher course, my effort this day was the best I've ever done. On a flatter course, it would have been a PR. I felt the best I've ever felt for the entire race. I never hit the wall, bonked or any other bad thing. The only negative thing is the time I lost on the hills towards the end. I guess I need more hill workouts.

The key to being in shape this early in the year was the purchase of a treadmill this winter. I would not have been able to have done this without that purchase. Yes, I know I am a wimp. I hate the cold and wind and won't put in enough quality workouts outside in the winter. Oh well.

All in all, I am excited that I haven't lost anything in the last two years and believe I can still reach a marathon PR in the next few years. I believe I could go out a little faster. I probably won't get the chance to try a fast one again this year because I have too many other races this spring and the fall is a tough time to train for me.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Tiadaghton Trail Half Marathon

March 26, 2011 - The Tiadaghton Trail Half Marathon is a relatively new race (second year) that takes place near Lock Haven, PA. This is the first year that I ran it but I was really looking forward to the run; and then it snowed and got cold. The race did not start until 10am, but it was only 21 degrees at the start, according to the thermometer in my car. It was also windy, but at least it was sunny. As it turned out, with the cover of the trees and appropriate garb, it was actually a nice day. There were about 275 runners that braved the conditions.

The snow did make the running challenging at times. Some of the snow was powdery while other times, on top of the ridges, it was crusty and icy (which is the most annoying snow to run in, in my opinion). There was three inches or so on a lot of the trail so it wasn't too deep.

My mantras for this race were run "comfortably hard" and "don't get injured." I've got too many other runs that I want to do this spring that I didn't want to mess something up on this run. At the same time, I wanted to try to be competitive.

At the start, the trail quickly turned uphill and then started crossing streams. My feet were wet within the first two miles, but it could have been worse. The first half of the race was mostly uphill. There were only a few really steep sections, however, so most of it was runnable. Around mile 8 or 9 was the toughest climb of the trail. Although it wasn't terribly technical, it was steep and long.

After the steep climb, there was a more gentle climb to the top of the ridge, and then a long, fast descent that joined the same trail that the race started on. Then came the unique twist of the race, that I believe was just added this year. With less than half a mile to go, the course actually went into the stream for about 40 yards under Route 80. This was a tunnel, with about 6 inches of water in it, and it was impossible to avoid. With the air temperature in the mid 20s, this was a frigid little jaunt that left my feet numb for the final 1/4 mile uphill climb to the finish.

I felt good this day and finished in tenth place in 2:01. I may have been able to push a little harder in some sections but the trail was slick in spots and I stayed injury free, one of my goals. This was a well organized race with great volunteers and well-spaced aid stations. I would definitely recommend it and will probably be doing it again next year.