Tuesday, February 19, 2013


This weekend I had the pleasure of running in the snow-capped mountains of the Massanutten course. It was the 2nd “training weekend” that the race organizers put on in order to show the entrants the course ahead of time. This run was nothing short of magical. As weird and some-what hippy as that sounds, the flawless symphony of the crisp, cold, and humid Virginia air, the smooth transitions between damp lower part of the mountains to snow-blanketed upper portions and the company of other runners out there humbled me far more than I could do on my own.

Humility is an interesting trait; especially for this day in age when the entire world seems to be in a constant cycle of proving themselves better for no reason in particular. All it takes is one look around the streets: people flaunting wealth with expensive cars and jewelry. The majority of reality shows have people just bragging how awesome they are, (most) sports stars' interviews are chock full of self-praising anecdotes. It’s quite saddening to say the least.   

The beauty of the ultra running community, aside from being a great group of like-minded-people who enjoy the mountains, is the fact that everyone’s humility is overwhelming. Standing around before the run in the Short Mountain/Elizabeth Furnace parking lot there was chatter about various people who had just completed some incredible running feats in preparation for other great running feats. I won’t name names mainly because I think they wouldn’t want me to. One guy just finished The White Oak Trail 100 (TWOT) last weekend. Solo. They actually changed the course so it turned out to be roughly 108 miles with 28,000 feet of elevation gain. There were rumors of the winds over-night gusting to 70 mph along the ridges. The organizer pointed this out. His response as he aimed his gaze downward while fiddling with his heart-rate monitor? “It wasn’t a record, but thank you.” He did, however, come within 15 minutes of it on an 8-mile-longer course. Impressive to say the least. He did this in preparation for the Barkley Marathons next month. If you don’t know about Barkley, look it up.

I ran with a friend for the whole 30 miles on Saturday. He is an accomplished ultra-runner, though of course, he’d never admit to it. Part of what makes his success remarkable is the fact that he has a rare condition that causes seizures multiple times per month. Once, he was in the middle of a 100k race where there was a 50k going on at the same time. The 50 and 100k were on the same course for the first half and on the way to the 50k turnaround he had a seizure. He decided to switch to the 50k vs. the 100 and still won the race. Of course, I didn’t get this from him. His comment? “I was lucky the race directors were nice enough to let me switch mid-race.” He considers himself lucky because though he may have some trouble sometimes and is not able to drive, he can still run. His mom and dad have difficulty at times as well, who have MS and rather severe scoliosis respectively and ran a 50 miler together recently.

At the finish line parking lot, a group of us hung out while people trickled in. There was a guy getting ready to run the Iditarod 350 mile foot race. (Yes, that is the race the sled dogs run.) He has already run the Arrowhead 135 (all in snow) and one other long snow race (that I forgot). He answered questions very matter-of-factly about the sled he has to pull with all of his gear but never once did he seem egotistical about his answers.

Of course, pretty much everyone there has a rather impressive background. There was the woman who finished Western States 100 and then 2 weeks later finished Badwater...more than once. There was the rather accomplished old ultra runner who rode his bike 30 miles that day (one way) just to bring his friend apple-sauce. And there was a guy who has finished Massanutten twice, both within 5 minutes of the cut off.

Normally, the beauty of the mountains humbles me enough. But I left on Saturday feeling extra refreshed and with a new sense of respect for our whole mountain-running culture. Maybe it was the 30 beautiful mountain miles, but I think it was the refreshing personalities that this sport tends to attract. I think the rest of the world could learn a few things from the ultra running community. 

picture by Tom (VHTRC)

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

How to make mistakes and lose a race

Saturday I ran the ICY-8 Hour race put on by Alex and Scott. The race consists of an 8 mile loop or a 4.7 mile loop. And racers run any combination of the loops to try to maximize your mileage in the 8 hour time limit. Every time you come to the aid station you shout out whether you did a long loop or a short one and then at the end they tally it all up. Really, the only rule is you have to finish the last loop before the end. No partial laps will count.

In the few days before the race I had dissected the past results, records and the course to see what it would take to win it and what it would take to beat the course record of 54.1. I thought the course record was well within my potential and that I’d give it a try. If I ran 7 large loops, I’d do that no problem. Simple enough.

The weather lived up to the name of the race, and I had icicles in my beard throughout the entire race. Alex sent us off at exactly 7:30 am and a group of 6 or 7 of us ran pretty much the entire first loop together. Everyone opted for the 8 mile. We had to run the first loop clockwise but after that it was a free for all. Any loop, any direction. Also in the lead group was a kid named Brian Q who is friends with my little sister and wanted to get into ultrarunning. He’s 18 and a senior at Brooke Point. He’d never run further than 20 miles before and thought he’d come out and see what he could do.

When we got back to the aid station I grabbed some gels and left within about 10 seconds. I ran alone the rest of the day never knowing what loop anyone what doing, who was leading, where I was in the standings, etc. I’d pass people throughout the day, sometimes going the same direction, sometime crossing paths, but the entire day was a mystery. All I could do was run hard for the allotted time, stick to my plan and hope it worked.

I finished 4 long loops adding up to 32 miles in about 4:17 and came into the aid station feeling good. I shoved my face with a bit of pb and j so I didn’t get hungry and bolted back to the trail. About a half a mile from the aid station I realized I hadn’t grabbed any gels. It was a stupid mistake and I shouldn’t have made it, but I wasn’t about to run back to the aid station and sacrifice that time. I had to decide whether I would still run the 8 mile loop and risk getting behind on my nutrition or if I should just run a short loop and then get back to the aid station sooner. I opted for the short loop.

The whole time I was running that loop I was doing math, trying to figure out in my head if I stayed on the current pace, what I’d have to do to still run the mileage I wanted. I figured that upon finishing the short loop I was on, it would be about 12:30, meaning I’d have 3 more hours on the nose until the end. If I could run two more long loops and one more short loop, I’d snag the mileage I needed.  

Everything seemed to be falling into place. I wasn’t fatiguing, I was running steady, the weather was cold, but not bitter.

The last long loop took a few minutes longer than expected but at that point I had run 52.7 miles and had 35 minutes to cover the last 4.7 mile loop. I reached the aid station and bolted without grabbing any more water or gels. I wanted to go as light as possible for a final push.

After running pretty hard all day, the mid-section of the loop was difficult for me, and as I started to calculate what I’d need to do, I knew it was going to be close. At the “one mile to go” sign, I had 4 minutes before 3:30. I’ve never run a 4 minute mile and quite frankly, I’m not sure I ever will…especially after running (at that point) 56.4 miles. At 3:30 on the dot, I realized that lap wouldn’t count so I stopped sprinting and even walked a bit, finishing the last lap 4 minute over the cut off.

I had a fun day out there and cannot say that I didn’t try hard for it. 57.4 miles in 8:04. 52.7 of those miles counted landing me in second to a guy who’d done mostly short loops and ran 53.6 miles. Should’ve stuck to the plan. It’s bitter-sweet but in all it was a good day and a good training run for Massanutten…even though it was pretty flat comparatively and not technical. Alex and Scott put on great events and I’ll definitely be back for more.
Plus! My friend, Brian Q, ran 38 miles for his first ultra-distance event! He seemed to have fun too, which is even better.