Wednesday, January 23, 2013


Any day where I can be outside during the majority of the hours of the day is a good day. And any weekend I can get to the mountains is a good weekend. And any weekend that is a three day weekend is bound to be good. This weekend ruled.

Saturday Katie and I took off to meet my parents at Massanutten to do a little skiing where my dad is part of their volunteer ski patrol. The temperature started off cold so the mountain was a bit icy but as the day warmed it always does in Virginia, the icy stuff got pretty soft, and made for some decent conditions. Katie and I took a picture at the top of the mountain and realized we had a picture like that when we were young before we were dating.

This is us now. 

This was us then. I've known her for a long time. 

Sunday I went out to the VHTRC's Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 training run. 85 people started! I love that so many people come out and run in the mountains just for fun. I got there with about 30 seconds to spare so as the group left the parking lot, I was still putting on my pack. I ran with a mountain-biker named Kyle, AJW and a girl named Emily. AJW is an incredibly accomplished ultrarunner completing Western States in the top ten 7 times. But, as he is returning from a knee injury, we continued up the first climb without him. When we got to the top Emily told us about how she is also training for Western States and after asking her about her qualifier, turns out she came in 2nd at the JFK 50 last year. She too, was under the old course record. Yikes. 

This "fun run" attracted two pretty big named people. It was a bit intimidating but they were both very nice and Emily and I ended up running the whole thing together because neither of us were 100% sure on where to go at certain spots and Kyle bolted off as soon as we got to the top of Kearns mountain because he runs up there all the time and said he knew the trail really well. We didn't see him the rest of the day. 
The view off of Bird Knob
Emily and I meandered through the woods the rest of the day and ended back at the same parking lot we started in just as they were lighting the fire. Everyone who had cut the run a bit short was hanging out, there was food, beverage, fire and dogs. Good times. 

Crocs are a thing....

Monday I met up with my friend Scott and his dog, Henry, at the Buck Hollow trail to get some miles in on MLK Day. I had never done that trail before, but it turned out to be a great day as well. 

The highest little bump of rocks up there is Mary's Rock. My mom and dad used to take us up there for hikes. My dad would pack this giant red backpack full of food and a camp stove and cook us eggs and bacon up there.

Scott and Henry leading the way. 

When we got back to the car, after 17 or 18 miles Henry promptly fell asleep on the ground. Scott had to wake him up and coax him into the car with treats. 

All in all, solid weekend.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Willis River 50k

First race of 2013 I thought I'd have some fun at a race I'd done before. In fact, Willis River is the changed name of Swinging Bridge 50k with slight course modifications. Swinging Bridge was my first ultra, so this race has some sentimental value to me. That being said, I felt terrible during the race.

A lot of my friends were there and when I showed up, we started visiting and I may have forgotten to pack even close to enough gels for the run. We started off down the trail in about 50 something degree humid weather and quickly realized that it was going to be hard to stay on course. Myself and three other guys led the race and as we came around one corner about 3 miles in, we saw all these runners up ahead entering the trail from a side trail! So we went from top 4 to 15th or so. They didn't realize they were off course. That time we realized that we were right, and everyone else was off course, but that's just the way it goes sometimes. So we all sped up a bit and caught back up, and then the same thing happened in another spot where we were 99% positive we were all going the right way only to have people scooting in from a side trail and us having to catch back up. We got lost or off track, or stayed on track while everyone else wasn't on 3 more times on our way to the 10 mile turn-around. It was a little bit frustrating and we may have burned up a little bit more energy than we should have trying to catch back up to everyone who had passed us.

BUT! As we were running along after leaving the first aid station the four of us heard a jingling behind us. A husky that we figured belonged to one of the aid station workers had followed us. Then a few minutes later another dog, this time a white pit bull mix caught up to us and joined our pack. At one point he was following me so closely I accidentally caught him in the jaw with my foot. I just heard this little clap and when I looked back he was licking his lips and smiling at me while wagging his tail. 

At the turn around we were down to three in the little front pack and we retraced our steps back to the beginning only getting off trail once. At least that was an improvement. On our way back, one of the guys dropped off the back shortly after passing the 5 mile aid station and the other guy dropped off about 2 miles from the 35k mark. I got back to the beginning first ahead of the 35k runners and started the last out and back section. 5 miles out, 5 miles back - roughly. I wish the dogs would have stayed with us, or just me.

I was feeling pretty crummy at the start of this section and just tried to relax and run everything. I was pretty close to being out of Hammer gel in my little flask so I just tried to ration that out in smaller increments. The trail was undulating so it was a little hard for me to get into any kind of rhythm during the short little kickers and descents. Though, just before you get to the turn around, the trail gets beautiful. It was dull gray and hazy all day - just stomping around the leaves, not really on any sort of trail, just blindly following streamers and markings - and then out of nowhere it was like running on a trail in the Pacific Northwest. I haven't been there but I've seen pictures and there were lots of ferns and moss. It was very strange but not entirely unwelcome. I hit the turnaround and filled my hand bottle and looked at my watch to see how long I had on the 2nd place guy. I passed him after running for 5 minutes, so I had 10 minutes on him. I figured as long as I didn't take any naps or pull the old tortoise and the hare, I could grab first.

The way back, I didn't really feel like running anymore so I just kept running so that I could be done sooner. I was chilly and wet with sweat and just not in a great place mentally. But I crossed the finish line in 4:25:03 in first. Not my fasted 50k, but definitely my fastest on the course by about 35 minutes. Last time I ran it I was first in 5:11 in -2 Fahrenheit. I'm proud to say that it was the slowest winning time in course history.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Horton Ultra - for the first-timer

I know quite a few people currently training for the Holiday Lake 50k so I figured I'd toss this out there so you know (a little bit) of what to expect. As anyone who has run one of the legendary Dr. David Horton's races can attest, it is not your standard ultramarathon. Ultras are different from marathon's for several reasons, most of them not relating to the actual  distance at all. The sense of community and belonging for one is overwhelming at times as everyone, I mean everyone, is very welcoming and genuinely happy at the event. People may be out there for different reasons, some to simply finish, some to race hard, and some to overcome other obstacles in life, yet everyone respects whatever your reasons for being out there.

Even between ultras, races are very different. Some have a very hyped feel to them with huge banners and inflatable sponsors signs, camera interviews with the "elites" of the sport, and prize money. But the vast majority of them have a down-home feel. There might be a banner, or just a spray-painted start/finish line where at the end there is a barbecue or family cooking for the racers.

Horton's races are closer to the latter but with an incredible feeling of fun professionalism about them. They have killer finishing awards, great volunteers, amazing locations and guaranteed fun courses. They always start with the national anthem and a prayer and finish with a hearty smile and a firm handshake or hug.

Holiday Lake is no different.

Step one, getting to the race: Driving there is not unlike most ultras as it starts at a camp ground where cell service may or may not be present, so don't rely on your phone's GPS. There are several miles of gravel road where it looks like you're driving to the middle of nowhere where you may or may not run into a young boy playing a banjo. Just follow the directions, you'll get there. Don't eat before you go to the pre-race meal unless you hate good food.

Step two, the actual race: The race consists of two loops, one clock-wise, one counter clock-wise. The race starts in the dark, so I'd recommend bringing a small headlamp that will fit in a pocket because you won't need it for very long and probably won't want it squeezing your head for the first 16.ish miles until you get back to the start/halfway point. It is possible to get through without a headlamp but you'll have to rely and latch onto someone else's light and they might be going faster/slower than you want to go. Plus, as I learned last year, if you do rely on someone else's light, depth perception is compromised and tripping is more likely. Aid stations are only about 4-5 miles apart so it is doable without a handbottle, but if you want to get through the aid stations a bit quicker and only stop at every other one, you can use one bottle. Two is over kill. The aid stations are stocked with the usual ultra food. Sandwiches, candy, chips, cookies, potatoes etc.

The following main race description was largely copied from the website. But before you read the course description, know that there may be a lot of turns but Horton's races are marked the best out of any race I've ever done. If you run for more than 3 minutes (less if you're running fast) without seeing a streamer or chalk, or some other blatantly obvious marking, you're going the wrong way. He marks turns for the directionally-impaired. If you get lost, you will get made fun of. Letting you know now.

For only about .6 miles you run up a hill on the road. This little kicker will make you wonder whether the friend who told you that "it is a course for fast times and road running marathoners" was lying through their teeth. They weren't chill out. Then you turn right on the Lakeside Trail ( LT ).  This trail is not very technical and is just rolling hills. Not "Horton hills" they really are just hills. Follow the LT to a small bridge at the end of Holiday Lake at 1.78 miles. Turn right and follow the trail next to the edge of the lake and cutting across the park next to the sandy beach and picnic tables picking back up the LT after crossing the road at 2.05 miles. Just before the trail, there is a little bathroom, last year it was open for emergencies. Continue on the LT next to the lake. This is a great rolling hills trail that you can have a lot of fun on. Really scenic. At 2.44 miles you will pass a wooden lookout on the right side of the trail. Last year, this is where it started to get light enough for people to stash their lights. At 3.36 miles the LT cuts right across a stream.  The course takes a left turn at this point onto the CTT. The CTT goes uphill at this point on to Aid Station ( AS ) 1 at 4.04 miles. The hill may be steep, but it's not long. This AS is at a wooden gate in a small pull out adjacent to Highway  ( HWY ) 692.

Continue on the CTT which runs adjacent to HWY 692 until mile 5.71 where it crosses HWY 640. At 6.03 miles the trail turns right. This part is flat. Remember it for the way back as a part you can really get rolling on it if you're feeling good. At 6.52 miles the course turns right on Rinehart Road.  At 7.07 miles the course crosses Holiday Creek, the big creek crossing that we have had in previous years. You will get your feet wet. Fact of life. Continue on this road to the intersection of Rinehart Road and Richmond Road and AS 2 at 8.23 miles. There is no crew access at this aid station.  

Turn right on Richmond Road going gradually downhill. At the bottom on the long gradual downhill, you cross a small bridge.   After crossing the bridge, you turn right on the CTT at 8.78 miles. At 9.37 miles you cross HWY 636.   The course runs parallel to 636 crossing 636 again at 10.53 miles. At 10.72 miles the course takes a right on Walker Road  as you continue to follow the CTT. After going  down a small hill you reach AS 3 on HWY 614 at 12.14 miles.

Take a left on 614 for about 30 yards and then turn right back onto the CTT.   At 12.96 the CTT makes a very sharp right hand turn.  At 13.71 miles, the course makes a sharp right hand turn still staying on the CTT (this is in a group of large old oak trees). The course then goes through the woods  for a short distance then down a very steep little hill. It really is very steep, and feels steeper going back up on the way back. At 14.14 miles, there is a bridge on your right side that goes across the small stream.   At this point you rejoin the LT staying on the LEFT side of the lake. Continue around the lake on the left side. At 15.97 miles you will cross the dam. It can be very slick in spots. At 16.43 miles you cross a small footbridge.   Turn right and follow the trail on the right side of the tennis courts back to the start/finish line at 16.63 miles and the end of loop one. For loop two, reverse directions and go back the way you came and run the loop in reverse order ending loop two for a total distance of 33.26 miles.   

I will warn you, it's easy to get to the turn around and feel like you can smell the barn but...of course you can! You just left the barn! You still have a whole loop to do, if you feel good, by all means, pick up the pace, but don't turn on the burners. The reverse loop can get a little bit hairy because everyone is doubling back on the rest of the field. But this can also be a good thing because you can see how far or close the people just in front and just behind you they are. The trail along the lake can get narrow so just be polite about passing everyone.

(I'm not in the picture and I stole it from Rachel Corrigan's blog even though I don't know her but it epitomizes Horton and Holiday Lake...Rachel, I'm sorry, I'll buy you an ice cream cone.)

This race is not like his others mainly because the distances on the website actually are true. A lot of people choose Holiday Lake as their first ultra. It's understandable, the distance is manageable, the terrain is tame, and because of the loop and reverse loop, it's like you only run 16 or so miles and you know what's coming up in the second half. But a little hint for ultras in general, the second half always feels a little longer, and there are spots that you totally forgot about. The biggest mistake you can possibly make in any ultra, or any race for that matter, is getting discouraged. Stay in the present and look ahead only as far as you can see. There really isn't any point in worrying about mile 28 if you are on mile 6. Besides, Horton gives the same hug to the first place person as he does to the last place.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Goals for the new year

Goals are an important part of running. There's no way around it. And I guess it's a big part of life as well. Everyone needs goals to keep moving forward and bettering yourself. Right...?

And then there's the other side of the tracks where there's a group of folks who "keep expectations low - this way you're never disappointed." Though this thought process is the epitome of the slacker mentality and often lends itself to not quite the respect that the other camp of thought - there may actually be some truth to it.

Everyone wants to lose 10 pounds, qualify for the Olympic trials, Boston, or get chosen by the lottery for whatever race you're trying to get into, PR in every race you run, or maybe get that promotion at work and make more money. While in theory all of these things or events might make you happier or more comfortable financially. These goals may or may not happen for whatever reason outside your control. Each of these kind of goals require work. Without work, it's not a goal at all - it's just a want or a hope. Goals require devotion of a certain amount and a desire to put forth the kind of effort needed to achieve the outcome. So why don't we just set a goal like - I will work harder on ________ in the new year?

The goal is the ultimate target that the work will be geared toward.

I would love to run a 2:05 marathon. Truth. I'd love to break 12 hours for a 100 miler. Also truth. My problem is that I have a difficult time coming up with reasonable goals for myself. Sometimes my goals of the past have been too lofty. Like breaking 20 hours at Western States in 2010 when I had spent the first 4 months pounding pavement skipping across the country. I blew up, I wasn't recovered from the cross country run, and ultimately (basically) crawled across the finish line. Other times my goals haven't been ambitious enough. Take Promised Land 50k this year for example. I went out way too slowly to be competitive and ended up having to catch up 15 places in the last 10 miles of the race barely reaching the top 10.

So where is my happy medium? I'd love to set some goals but with the wedding coming up and a possibility of a drastic scene change shortly after, I don't want to schedule too much for fear that once again, I'll set lofty goals and falling short. So this weekend I have the Willis Creek 50k (formerly Swinging Bridge), the the 8 Hour Adventure Trail Run in February, Terrapin Mountain 50k in March and Massanutten at the end of May. Massanutten will be my main goal for the year as I don't know what the rest of the year will hold for me, and I'd like to do well there. I don't want to publicly state my expectations but I will be training hard for it.