Tuesday, December 8, 2009

2009 CIM Race Report and a Western States Christmas

Simply put, my goal was to break 2:50. While I envision trying to take 10 minutes off per year for the next few years (which is pretty out there), I felt like my fitness had grown so much over the last 7 months that it was worth putting myself out there. Even with some minor setbacks at each race, I had been putting together some well-run races at the Angel Island 50k (4:25, 5th place), Badwater (31:33:13, 16th place), Firetrails 50 (7:25, 5th place) and the Javelina 100 (20:31, 8th place). More importantly, I was putting myself in better position in these races to challenge for top spots going into 2010 with my established endurance base. CIM has become my go-to end of the year race over the past 3 years with the opportunity to run a terrific, faster marathon course that helps to propel me into an off-season filled with grinding, base-building runs and hours of cross-training. With 2:50 representing close to the upper limit for the wide marathoning ability range of top competitors and winners of many 100k/100 mile events, I knew it was important to try to set a good leg speed standard for 2010.

It was about 30 degrees at the start, but it surprisingly felt alright to me; it must’ve been those cold San Francisco nights recently. It remained in the 30s throughout the race, which caused me to keep my $1.99 CVS gloves on as well my arm warmers. While the cold weather was ever present, it never seemed to get so uncomfortable that it detracted from my running out there.

Even with a 3:00:32 PR, I knew I wasn’t taking too big of a risk to go for a 2:50:00. My tempo runs and speedwork was progressing well and put me almost exactly on target. While I didn’t have the breadth of runs that one usually has in a marathon-specific training cycle, I had 4 or 5 specific workouts in the last month that were spot on target. Perhaps the biggest variable was weather, which you can’t control and you just learn to live with. I didn’t fret the potential wind prior to the race, leaning on my year of intense long distance ultra races where weather varied from freezing cold and rain to scorching heat and wind. I find focusing on things outside of my control tend to distract me from my goals and make me less likely to focus on taking of the things I could control.

While not a pure 100% downhill course (as if one could ever expect that at any race), most of the uphill sections of the rollers are preceeded by downhills. Uphills and downhills tend to favor me relatively speaking due to my experience on the uneven trails. I tended to take a relatively aggressive approach to downhills while . Even with the heavy wind taking off seconds on various uphills, I found that my experience on steep trails allowed me to get lower and drive through the hills allowed me to gain on those around me during these sections. While taking an aggressive approach, it was worth it to me considering my relative strength on those 1st half miles.

While spending quite a bit of time pacing with another running friend, Larry and a couple of his friends, we moved along briskly at a 6:20-6:22 minute/mile average while chatting it up on and off. One of the spectators at mile 5 who caught me joking with another runner yelled jokingly, “No talking. You should be running.” I jokingly said to the runners around me, “Like that’s going to cost me the 1-2 seconds I miss my goal by in the end.” Beyond that, there wasn’t much that was eventful till mile 7. Yes, there were ups. Yes, there were downs. In the end, though, the only surprise was that the gap between my pace on the downhills and my pace on the uphills was 30-40 seconds per mile rather than the 20 seconds per mile that I originally intended.

The really strong headwinds came between miles 7-9 and another one after the half way mark for a few miles. I believe that I usually don't feel headwinds much since I tend to run lower to the ground with shorter strides, but this one was very noticeable. Runners formed small packs to try to blunt the impact of the wind. The problem with these packs was that even with wind slowing things on these hills by as much as 30+ seconds per mile, they eventually slowed even more. At that point 7-8 miles into the race, I said goodbye to this pack running; this was going to be my race to do it or not. They were beginning to run a much different race which didn’t play into my relative strengths as a runner. With runners occupying the right side of the road (or the “west side” next to building and trees) to try avoiding the wind, I moved towards the middle by myself to keep chugging along.

I hit the 10 mile mark in under 1:04, smiling as I passed my wife Wilma while she snapped a picture. I eventually hit the halfway mark in 1:23:33, which was 1:27 under my goal pace. I felt good, in spite of beginning to feel a mild heaviness in my legs. What worried me most at this time was that I was hitting a pleateau as far as hitting my per mile paces. A good indicator of my running prowess in the later stages of a marathon is often the point at which I start to pleateau. If I can get to mile 19 or 20 before using some of that “time in the bank”, then it’s usually a good sign that I can take it all the way. Still, I was planning on going big for that 2:50:00 and was willing to let it all the anxiety and inhibition go at that point, replacing it with a laser-like focus and a one-track mind. It was still “my race to lose”.

With the upcoming headwinds for the next few miles, the cushion under my goal pace dwindled to 1:00 at the 18 mile mark. I was beginning to lose time at a 10 second/mile clip. More importantly, I was losing time at a clip that had potential disaster written all over it. My mind was wandering, with thoughts of what a disaster could look like. 2:55? 2:58? 3:00? I kept trying to do the math in my head, trying to use whole minute paces to conjure up just how bad I could fall. The only thing I could do to keep myself on target was try focusing on the rest of the course yet to come. It was time to pick up the intensity, crank up Metallica’s “No Leaf Clover”, and get to work.

I remember a running friend of mine, Ron, reminding myself and others that the mostly pancake flat final 10k was a good place to let it loose. Passing under the inflatable wall overhang on the course, I continued to remind myself of that in my head. It felt like it couldn’t just be “my race to lose”. I still had to assert myself with the attitude that this was “my race to win”. Like the song “No Leaf Clover”, I imagined myself as a “freight train coming”. It took another ¼ mile to get started up, taking 3 tries to grab a GU packet from the volunteers lining the GU station around mile 20.5. Once I got GU down the hatch sans water, the surge was on.

As I pressed the gas pedal, the per mile pace fluctuated between the high 6:20s and the 6:40s. At the 22 mile mark, I was still even with a 6:30 pace and a 2:50:26 marathon. I continued to lose some ground against the pace goal over the last few miles, but was pleased that as I consistently pushed and was still able to hit mostly 6:45 min/mile on the Garmin while passing a few more runners. The flat, smooth run winding westbound through the residential areas of downtown Sacramento had a pleasant feel to it, with the tree releasing their leaves onto the pavement below and the spectators, U.S. National Guard officers and Police Officers ushering us towards the finish with smiles and hand claps.

To keep my intensity and pacing up, I would intermittently yell “Come On!” to myself out loud. I’m not sure if I scared any of the spectators, but it seemed most of them just kept cheering knowing that I was just trying to push until the end. I tend to keep most of the motivation internal, not wanting to expend too much energy to get myself going. In this case, I was close enough to the finish to let loose a little bit.

I dipped to 7:15-7:25 min./mile after the 25 mile mark due to spasms in my left calf which I first began to feel around mile 23. My right hamstring was also twinging and at this point I didn’t want to jeopardize the huge race I was having irrespective of the 2:50:XX. It was going to be a huge personal best marathon. To keep my mind off of things, I started considering what I was going to do at the finish line. At this point, it was a given that I would probably come in around 2:51 to 2:52 for the race, which was a huge accomplishment. Letting that fact sink in, a wide grin began to show on my face for all to see. I was at the end and I was enjoying it at this unspectacular, but steady pace. Even some rather serious war protesters on one of the final blocks, who seemed somewhat misplaced among the cheering crowd, couldn’t get me down.

Normally, I’m so intent of just getting it over with that after a quick point to the sky, I just stick my head down and drive towards the finish without looking at the crowd too much. It can sometimes lead to awkward faces on finishing photos. This time, though, I was pretty proud of the race I had run under the weather conditions (heck, under any conditions). Rounding the final 2 turns before the finishing chute, the huge grin stayed plastered on my face. I made a quick point with both index fingers upwards while looking towards the sky, always aware that it’s the One who makes it possible for me to run period.

As I barreled down the finishing chute, I soaked in the cheers and claps from behind the barricade. With only about 5-10 feet before the first mat, I stopped. In a continuous motion, I crossed my arms to mug for the photographer. Right after I started, with my weight now shifted completely back, my right hamstring suddenly seized up. That ended my attempt at hot-dogging quickly. I quickly hobbled across the mat and fell over just past it to finish just under 2:52. After the medical volunteer tried to help me up, both hamstrings seized up due to a lack of electrolytes over the final 10k. I was on the ground rolling over with a cinched look on my face and a as I tried to stop it. They ended up bringing over a wheelchair to take me to the medical tent.

Being taken to the med tent in a wheelchair wasn’t exactly the ending I envisioned. On the way over to the tent, they stopped to allow one of the volunteers to slip the finisher’s medal around my neck. I smiled over at my wife behind the barricade partly because I was really pleased with the race, but now dealing with the implications of my hot-dogging. Oh man! What a way to end my race.

After exiting the tent, I stopped to take pictures with wife as well as my friend, William Kasiyre and his family. William is a native Ugandan who is the president of World Harvest Mission, the charity I work with to build the water wells in Uganda. He and his wife Olivia graciously allowed my wife and I to stay with them at their house less than 10 miles from the starting line in Folsom. It was great to see them at the finish area outside the Capitol building and thank them in person for their contribution to my successful race effort.

When I started at Marathon #1, I ran a 3:47:XX. I had fun, but I was also young and undisciplined both as a runner and as a person. As much as I eventually wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon, I never had the training or discipline to do it. I also never had the open resources we have today with the rapid expansion of information on the Internet. It wasn’t until, ironically, that I decided to give myself a mental break from marathons by delving into ultramarathons 4 years ago that I began to develop the discipline which ultimately made the difference in developing myself as a knowledgeable, disciplined and more passionate runner than I ever was before.

If I made a mistake in a marathon, I suffered for ½ hour to an hour. If I made a mistake in a 50-100 miler, I could suffer for hours on end. Even as I made errors over the first year or two of the “ultramarathon experiment”, it forced me to take responsibility. It made me a better person because it forced me to dig deeper and really ask the question of “how badly do you want it?”, which in turn made me a better long distance runner. By plugging away, the gates finally opened and this past 7 months has yielded a complete break though at all distances at a variety of courses, and hopefully a whole slew of new break throughs in 2010.

Now, I am training and attacking the dream of seeing just how low my marathon PR can get by doing the antithesis of every major training program out there: by going longer and longer. Sometimes, I train well enough to finish, but more often than not, I want to train to finish well. I still commit myself to some of the basics of marathon training such as the long run, the tempo run, and the track work. However, by mixing in the types of never-ending, undulating ultramarathon trail and road runs that most programs avoid, I hope to prove that the physical and mental endurance/perserverance required to sustain oneself for that long can translate into major success/improvement at the marathon level. The marathon is my 10k, the 50 miler is my half-marathon, and the 100 miler is my marathon. I work from the top down and from the bottom up. I don’t know how low this marathon PR can go, but I plan to take it all the way. For now, I’m content to take my guaranteed entry into New York City and get myself ready to go after a sub-seeded entry to the Bay to Breakers. I’m also content to begin the process of gorging myself for the next 3 days and savoring a job well done before moving on to the next adventure which will be getting ready for Western States 2010! Even as I move on, I salute God, my family and all of you my friends who support me in all ways no matter what time I get. You free me from the burden of failure so that I can find success on and off the course.

Here are my key splits, based on the race’s mile markers:

Mile Split

5 31:46

10 1:03:38

Half 1:23:33

18 1:56:00

20 2:09:34ish

Final 2:51:59
124th place overall out of 7500 runners (registered)
1:23:33 1st half, 1:28:26 2nd half

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Coming down from Javelina 100 and ramping up for CIM

Post-Firetrails 50, the preparation for the Javelina 100 didn’t involve too much in the way of running. Firetrails was a harder effort, which took a few days afterwards to physically recover from. Instead of running too long, I focued more on the tempo runs and speedwork that are the staple of my marathon training. It would allow me to push my body in shorter, focused efforts to get ready for CIM in December without taxing myself too much and compromising my fitness for Javelina.

What I ended up with, race-wise, is a hodge-podge of a lot of things. I enjoyed the warm weather in the desert north of Phoenix and ended up with a race that I can build upon. 20:31:45 and 8th place out of 250+ starters ain’t that bad.

Since I don’t have time to post a full report, I do want to touch on the positives and lessons from the race.

Positive 1: As always, the "crew" and pacer were awesome. Thanks to my wife Wilma, Rick and Lori for putting up with me. They got me what I needed in a timely manner and kept me smiling. Lori also had to put up with my stupid dry heaving 2-3 times over the final 20 miles. I sounded awful but hey, great ab workout!

Positive 2: My first 4 laps were right on target. I planned to come in at the 10:25 mark and ended up coming in at the 10:32 mark. I had banked a little bit of time over the first 3 laps and used it to slow myself on the 4th lap when the heat was at its most intense bearing down on people. While I think a change of clothing (going long sleeve to limit sun exposure or desert hat) and a little better electrolyte management on the 3rd lap could’ve yielded much better results, I was still able to clock a 3 hour lap (+6 min. break at main aid station). I allowed myself the space to slow down during the most intense sunlight, which resulted in a much faster 2nd half of the lap than 1st half.

Positive 3: My placings at the end of each of the first 4 laps were 20th, 16th, 12th and 9th. You can’t always use placing as a measure of strength, but consistently moving up the board in a race which always has folks blowing up later on was a good indicator that I was on the right track. I left myself more than enough room to make a run at 2nd or 3rd place based on my pacing and the eventual final times.

Positive 4: Even in a distressed physical/mental state, I still finished in 8th place. This is probably more a function of survival and grit than it is anything else. Battling most of the day with some top notch runners (and people), it’s good to outlast some of those folks (including some well-known names) even if it was a struggle. Top runners learn how to grit it out when things don’t go right.

Lesson 1: My NUUN tablets go everywhere with me. There is such a thing as not being flexible enough as far as food/drink, but considering the results of this race, a consistent flow of NUUN could’ve kept my GI from getting distressed. Instead, I allowed myself to go out there and take in the Gatorade mix they had at the aid stations. The beauty of using NUUN is the ability to accurately control electrolyte intake. While the aid station volunteers do a great service by providing electrolyte mixes, it may ultimately do a disservice by not giving you what you, the individual, properly need. The distress ultimately increased my lap times on the crucial 5th and 6th laps, where I should’ve made a good push for 3rd place instead of floating in 7th through 9th place. By itself, that should’ve gotten me back in the 18:xx:xx range. The constant flow of NUUN throughout Firetrails is definitely a big difference between the stronger finish there and the grinding finish that Javelina became.

Lesson 2: Now that Javelina is over, I think there are positives as well as key areas of improvement that I’ve already identified as I look at what kind of running goals I have for the next 12 months. I haven’t raced much as far as volume since the San Diego 100 slogfest, but each time I have raced has been a good result: Angel Island 50k: 5th place, 4:25. Badwater: 16th place, 31:33:13. Firetrails 50: 5th place: 7:25. Javelina 100: 8th place: 20:31:XX. Good, but not great. If my closing at Badwater (final 12.2 mile climb to Whitney Portal) and Javelina had been more on par with the rest of the race, the finishing places and times could’ve been much better. But, the fact is that at the time, maintaining a good time by not having a bad blow up and setting the foundation for ’10 was more important. I’ve done that and considering the brutal 2.5 month stretch with shin splints earlier in the year, I can be happy about that. I chopped 6 hours off my time in ’08 at Badwater and 5 more hours off my time in ’09. If I do it in ’10, what should I shoot for? Not sure.

Now that ’10 is fast approaching, it leads more into a discussion about what I need to do in the next 6 months to make ’10 the best year yet:

1) First Things First: Running 2:49-2:52 at CIM is clearly the first priority. 2:50 is around the upper marathon time limit for winners of 100 mile races as far as having sufficient leg speed to pair with top-level endurance in order to compete well. It will be tough, but some of my most recent tempo runs and interval times grade out on target in this regard.

2) First 100 Mile Race of ’10: The Rocky Raccoon 100. I’ve internally debated this quite a bit over the past few days. Admittedly, Rocky is not exactly a scenic course and with some course alterations put in place this past year, there are less and less of the clear views to enjoy the night sky. In addition, there is less of the “race course straight” trail which has been replaced by some much windier sections. This should lead to a relative increase in times for those pushing the envelope. BUT, I seem to respond well to resting the last half of December and getting off my butt in January to train. Plus, I owe this race a much bigger effort than I’ve had the 2 times I’ve run it. Because of the very real possibility of running sub-18 hours on this course, I would probably judge my performance on some different time metrics as well as overall placing. Still, I can’t accept setting my sights on anything slower than 18 hours. It would be a good opportunity to work on the racing aspect of ultra-running.

3) Miwok 100k: Regardless of whether I get into Western States, I will go all-out there (assuming I get into Miwok). It will be Firetrails^n as far as the intensity with which I plan on racing. I have never done Miwok but considering that the race is run on trails that I frequent all the time in training, I should be able to test myself against pre-defined small sections of the course prior to race day. Course knowledge should be valuable as far as understanding how to best use my energy. I’ve already started studying splits for the race and will test those splits to get a better idea of just how low I can drop it at this race. Right now, a rough baseline would be sub-9:45 hours, although that’s my starting point which can be adjusted accordingly.

4) 0 DNFs: This one is the most important goal of all, because even if I blow up at any race, I can not quit. I can’t let “I was going for it” be an excuse for mailing it in ever. Granted, if the injury was bad enough that a doctor/nurse seriously told me to stop, I would.

Monday, October 12, 2009

2009 Firetrails 50 Recap

The details of the days prior to the race mostly consist of the same old, “I trained, I carbed up, and I showed up”. However, one of the more interesting things that played into my approach to this race was the cancellation of the Angeles Crest 100 in mid/late September. Without a race since Badwater in July, I saw Firetrails as an excellent benchmark race going into the Javelina 100 on Halloween and CIM in December. With the three week gap between Firetrails and Javelina, it was more than enough time to recover fully from a 100% effort.

In support of my effort, I got Uncle Andy to handle crewing until Skyline Gate (mile 37 aid station) where my wife Wilma and brother-in-law Wilfred would take over. Wilfred ran his first marathon in January and since then, has added two other marathons to his “running resume” including a PR at the San Francisco Marathon of 3:55 in August where I ran with him the final 10 miles. Uncle Andy has crewed me at numerous races and although this race doesn’t require a crew, his and Wilma’s services to pre-prepare water bottles with NUUN water as well as GU tucked into the bottle holders would prove invaluable at helping me shave precious minutes off of my final time.

The morning of the race, Uncle Andy and I arrived at Lake Chabot just before 6 am for a 6:30 am start. Having been up since 4:15 am with 5.5 hours of sleep the night before, I was surprised with how energized I felt in the morning. Usually, I’m a sleep-walking zombie clamoring for that last few minutes of sleep. I didn’t want to speak to many people before the race because that would eventually lead to conversations about what I’m shooting for and what’s my game plan. I didn’t need to rehash what I had been obsessing about for a week and I felt like most of the pre-race small talk would take my focus away. I just wanted to start running and start hitting those time splits I had printed out onto my homemade pacing band on my right wrist.

Going into Firetrails, I talked about using the previous year’s splits of another runner; that runner was Ron Guiterrez. I wanted to use as a starting point the splits of someone who was consistent in their performance. Even though I felt like he’d be a better climber than I based on sharing a short segment of one of my runs on the Headlands trails with him, I felt that my performance on the flats and downhills would even it out. Even though I wasn’t sold on using Ron as my “standard-bearer”, I felt I at least had a decent shot to hit them based on 2 key double-digit mile runs on key segments of the course to gauge my fitness against the splits. It also sounds rather weird to be using someone’s ghost from 2 year prior as my performance guage without telling them. Hehe. Oh well. I’m sure there’s a more calculated way to predict performance, but this is a start. :)

With the ultimate ultramarathoning couple Ann Trason (14-time women’s champion at Western States including 10 consecutive) and Carl Anderson (record holder on numerous ultra courses) to set us on our way, we would be in good hands with experienced volunteers to greet us ever step of the way. Just to boot, there was incredible swag and BBQ spread awaiting us at the finish to look forward to. I tucked myself into the third row of runners at the beginning of the bike path around Lake Chabot, inconspicuously blending away in the sea of headlamps. I turned the iPod on softly to keep tabs on the countdown. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, go! We were off into the coming dawn, a sea of humanity released from behind the dam.

I tried to keep myself from getting sucked in to the plethora of runners who always seem to push forward in the first couple of miles before settling in. After the first half mile, I started to quietly wade through the crowd. Up ahead, in a red and white singlet, was my good friend and training buddy Rick. Rick is known to be deliberately slow in the first ¼ of races only to surge ahead later in races. I had been in races past where I’d gone out too fast, only to be passed by Rick later in the race. While I probably have greater linear speed, Rick’s discipline and strength late in races are to be desired. I parked next to him briefly before he said the one thing I think I needed to hear. “Kill it.”

Two simple words that seemed to release me from going out too slow and emboldened me to take my 2009 surge to a new level, which started at the Angel Island 50k in late June and continued at Badwater in July. I can’t completely put my finger on it, but I’d compare it to an experienced competitor putting on the stamp of validity on your own race plan. I like to pride myself on running my own race and having my own internal fortitude, but even the recent successes came with the asterisk of not pulling all the way through at the end which relatively detracted from the overall result. I felt like I had never run a full race. Crazy, huh?

With that, I was off but still patient in my approach. I moved swiftly through the flats and downhills while employing the standard intermittent run/walk on the hills. The greater the grade, the more power walking to be done. Approaching the second aid station Bort Meadows at mile 7.9, I passed a couple more runners on a mild grade climb who came out of the chute wayyyy to hard. My band had 1:03; I came rolling through at 1:01:30. Right on target.

The next section takes a long, methodical 1.2ish mile uphill followed by a short 0.3 mile flat section before a mile-long screaming downhill. It was here that I started to settle in, passing a few more folks before beginning the day long duel with Greg Katzbauer, better known as “Red” to me for his red cutoff technical shirt since I didn’t know his name until after the race. He was moving slightly better than me on the downhills while I was faster on the ups. After hitting McDonald Gate at mile 10.5 at 1:23 still 2 minutes ahead of the band, about a mile worth of rolling ups and downs before opening up on a larger fireroad leading to Stream Trail in the valley of Redwoods behind the Oakland Hills. With Red out in front of me and Victor Ballesteros (who finished 11th at Western States, 2nd at Miwok 100k and winner of numerous 50k events) a little ways past, we continued to make good time. We passed one other runner, Ron Guiterrez, who I chatted with briefly before creating some separation focusing solely on Red and Victor in the distance. This was probably the first time I realized I was really in The Race. I figured Victor was probably running 3rd with Chikara Omine and Dave Mackey off like banchees out of sight since the start. In my head, I did the math placing Red in 4th place and myself and Ron tied for 5th place. However, the competitive aspect was still about hitting splits rather than chasing individual runners. I merely using these other runners to help pull me along as long as the pace felt sustainable.

Red and I passed each other before the final mile long climb to the Skyline Gate aid station off of Skyline Blvd. along the Oakland ridgeline. Knowing that I would get into the aid station at 15 miles below my pacing split of 2:03, I relented a bit on the final 0.25 miles of climbing to come in at 2:00:30. While Red went off to the left to the aid station table, I grabbed a fresh water bottle of NUUN water with gels loaded in the carrier and gave him my empty one as I scooted off.

We continued to trade places through Sibley Preserve (mile 18.4) and then the Tilden Park Steam Train aid station at mile 21.7. Each section was marked by a shaded downhill into a green valley before gradually climbing back up again. The cool morning mist kept things rather comfortable while waiting for the impending sunshine. I met Uncle Andy again at Tilden Park, quickly swapping water bottles with carriers and barely glancing at the aid station volunteers before announcing my number while leaving. I was 5.5 minutes ahead of the pace band at about 3:00:30 and still feeling solid in spite of a little stomach instability caused by the gel only approach. Popping a few Pringles and a quick switch to the Chocolate Outrage GU instead of Vanilla helped to settle it down quickly.

A windy 0.5 mile climb up a paved road gives way to another 0.5 mile downhill before opening up on fireroads which wind quickly downhill with a couple gradual hills to Lone Oak campground and the 26 mile aid station. At the top, I even tried to make small talk with Red with a “Getting Hot” comment while smiling as the sun started to shine overhead. The lack of response was like, “Ok, guess he’s not the talkative type”. About this time, we also encountered the marathon runners who started from Lone Oak 2.5 hours after we started the 50 miler. I gave a few of them “Good job”s and gave my running friend Joe Kelso a fist bump and a smile as I descended and he ascended a cruising rate of speed. He knew I was having a good day already, ready to keep rocking the course. At times, I even let myself go while aligning my arms like the wings of an airplane. I hit the 26 mile mark (which ended up being the turnaround on this mostly out n' back course (except for a slightly modified finish as compared to the out bound starting section) at just a shade under 3:35 and still 5 minutes ahead of schedule.

After an unusual 1 minute long pit stop due to a refueling issue, I finally got back on the trail back up to Steam Trains. One of the interesting features of the race is that with an out and back, you get to see all your pursuers come towards Lone Oak while you’re climbing the hill back to Steam Trains and guesstimate your gap on them. Ron came by about 1 and a half minutes after leaving Lone Oak, which represented approximately a 2.5 to 3 minute gap (considering I was going up at a slower pace than they were going down). I briefly lamented taking the full minute at Lone Oak, but didn’t dwell on it further while focusing on getting up the hill and hitting that next split.

About the time I got to the top of the hill along the ridge and began the windy 0.5 mile descent to Steam Trains, I started thinking about Red again. 30 miles into the race, I gave myself a minute to think about the what ifs. Before this race had even begun, I thought a 7:25 would be good for a top 10, but even I had told a couple co-workers that a top 5 was a stretch. Here I was with 20 miles to go, 5th place in hand and 4th place up ahead a little ways. This felt good; this felt really good. I was just going to keep cranking the tunes and trying to hit the splits. After meeting Uncle Andy at Steam Trains for one last exchange, I was still only 4:22:30 into the race, 4.5 minutes ahead of the pace split. The split difference was tightening, creating a dual race against the clock and Red.

At Sibley, I found out I was about 10 minutes back of Red and 3.5 minutes ahead of the pace split before narrowing the gap with Red to 8 minutes at the 37 mile Skyline Gate aid station and expanding my lead over the faceless pace split to around 6 minutes at 5:23ish on the clock. I came down the 0.15 mile road leading to the aid station on the ridge with a big grin on my face, cognizant that for once, I was doing what I set out to do. I told Wilma and Wilfred I’d be there by noon and it was now coming to pass. I switched to a full water bottle/carrier with NUUN and Chocolate GU with Wilma while grabbing a couple of GU Chomps to chow on from her hands. I shouted to my ultra running friend Steve, who was working the aid station, “What place am I in?”

“Fifth”, he replied with a smile. “You’re doing awesome”. I gave him my thanks and let out a “Let’s Go!” as Wilfred and I descended into the redwood forest below. Wilfred and I methodically moved through the valley floor, clocking sub-8:30 minute miles as we cruised along. I just needed to keep moving and keep seeing sub-9:00 min/mile paces on my GPS watch, that is when I actually got signal. The Garmin kept intermittently going out of GPS signal, but that feeling of constantly moving well kept me from feeling that I might be off-pace. The need to be reaffirmed by a GPS was no longer there. The quick hitting intervals between aid stations gave me all the feedback I needed.

I smiled broadly, chatting briefly with Wilfred as the miles ticked away. I balanced the desire to push with the desire to maintain a constant pace. I wanted that finishing time more than I wanted that chase. Ignited by that constant motivation to “Kill It” and the mix of Gospel, Hip-Hop and Hard Rock blaring through my iPod, I knew I needed to finish strong. At times, Wilfred fell behind my pace but was still able to catch up. There was no time to wait; it was "GO" time.

I ended up maintaining the 6 minute cushion on the pace splits with an average 9 min/mile pace going into the 41.5 mile McDonald Gate aid station (and 8.5 miles to go) while again chopping Red’s advantage on me to 5 minutes. I just had to keep pushing with the final monster mile long, several hundred foot climb waiting to tear me down. With 2.6 miles total until the next aid station at Bort Meadows, I just wanted to keep moving.

The climb to the top of the hill out of McDonald was long and hot. The weather in the East Bay was heating up into the 70s and the highly exposed fire trails allowed the sun to bear down. Wilfred quickly fell behind but continued to encourage me to keep pushing forward. The pace splits called for an almost 11 minute/mile average in this section, about the same as the section from Lone Oak up to Steam Trains. I knew if I could just keep my feet moving, I still could move swiftly enough over the last 1.5 miles. I mostly power walked, with small sections of running. I kept looking back, for both Wilfred as well as Ron. I had done well to keep moving up to this point, but I knew I was leaving time on the course by intermittently walking some uphill sections of the smaller roller hills. I kept encouraging some of the marathoners I passed by, blasting "Remember The Name" by Fort Minor on the iPod. This was the 5% pleasure and 50% pain.

Before I knew it I was at the top of the hill 15 minutes later. I quickened my turnover and pace as soon as the hill flattened and the terrain took on a greater and greater downhill slant. 10 minute miles, 9 minute miles, 8 minute miles, 7 minute miles. On tired legs, I use downhills as a way to overcome inertia and generate the energy needed to lengthen the stride and get moving faster. I only looked back a couple of times without seeing Wilfred. Just focus on what's ahead, forgetting what is behind is all I told myself.

Slipping through the cow gate to the parking lot aid station at Bort Meadows at the 6:32 mark of the race, I saw Wilma there waiting for me with a new bottle and GUs. The aid station folks let me know I was still a number of minutes behind Red (they never said exactly). Still, I had a 6 minute cushion on my pacing splits and the end seemed closer than ever with only 5.9 miles to go! After chopping down on a few more Pringles for a couple of seconds, I began walking backwards away from the aid station. I was ready to go but there was no Wilfred.

Just as I thought that, Wilfred was slipping through the cow gate and getting a refill on his bottle. I quickly pipped in, "Come on", waving my hands for Wilfred to come. I wanted to go! I laughed briefly before he came over 20-something seconds later. One of the aid station volunteers briefed me on the race up front so far, walking with Wilfred and I for 45ish seconds as we left the aid station. Soon, we were off and running. This section was shorter on the way to the finish than on the way out, with mostly flat and downhill terrain. The trail quickly closed to a lush, moist area covered in vegetation. Once at the final aid station with 3 miles to go, it would open up to a fire trail with 3 miles to go and then to a bike path over the last couple of miles to the finish on the lawn at the Marina.

I only needed to average sub-9:00 minute miles to achieve the 7:25 finish, and 8:00 minute miles would get me a 7:19-7:20 finish. If I could do either of these things, I would probably maintain my top 5 finish. I kept eating the GU and felt like I was moving briskly, but still the GPS was only giving me readings of 9:00-10:00 minute miles. It even went as high as 12:00 minute miles, which I thought was probably an aberration due to the vegetation cover. Minutes ticked away as one turn lead to another, only to lead to yet another turn and more trail to run. Wilfred was now gone, a ghost runner pushing me forward with the mere idea of his presence. He had gotten me through the hardest hill and although he planned on making it through to the end, I had completely out run him with only the end driving me forward.

I kept glancing at my watch as the minutes ticked away. 6:42, 6:47, 6:52, 6:57. Closer and closer, I kept hoping that the next corner would be the aid station, only to be greeted by more trail and another blind corner. 6:58, 6:59. Then, there it was. 7 hours and 30 seconds on the race clock and the aid station personnel 50 feet ahead. rounding the corner, I shouted my race number, "108!", before kicking it into gear to the last 3 mile stretch. I was now only 1.5 minutes ahead of the pacing splits.

Out of the dense foliage, I popped out onto the fire trails and soon I saw Lake Chabot once again. Just hang on, I thought. Just hang on. I wasn't thinking much about Red, who I hadn't seen in almost 20 miles. I was still chasing 2007 Ron and that 7:25 goal, while being chased by 2009 Ron. Once on the road, my stride opened with 2.5 miles to go and the miles kept clicking off as I crossed the dam and followed the path adjacent to the lake's west edge.
I must've watched every 0.2 miles on my watch go by, but with the end so near the pain had subsided to a mere annoyance. 7:10, 7:15, 7:20. With every 0.2 miles to go by, the threat of 2009 Ron catching me faded and the closer I was getting to 2007 Ron. With about 0.7 miles to go, I still needed a strong finish.

Bearing down with my eyes forward looking for the grass ending, I thrust my arms while moving faster and faster. Sub-8:00 min/miles, sub 7:30 min/miles, and then sub 7:00 min/mile pace. More and more people appeared, letting me know how close I was. Elation and soreness overcame my body, each one pushing me further. I was so close to tasting a job well done and ending the perpetual soreness that was enveloping my leg muscles.

Then, it happened. To the left came the green lawn and the large race clock came in view. "7:25:35". I thrust my arms wildly in a full sprint with my chest and head forward from my torso. Go, go, go. With hands raised, I crossed the finish line in 7:25:58. A couple steps beyond the finish, I collapsed to the grass. I had done it. Officially, 5th place overall out of 231 starters. I ended up 5 minutes out of 4th place. It was by far my most complete race effort ever from beginning to end. Not a bad day's work and hopefully it portends of more to come as I get another step closer to my goals and dreams.

"Are you OK?", people asked.

"Yeah, I'm OK", I replied.

"He does this at every ultra. He's OK", Wilma quickly chimed in. I turned over and smiled.

Friday, October 9, 2009

2009 Dick Collins' Firetrails 50

With a few weeks since our successful "Running For The Wells" run in the Headlands (click the photos link below), it’s time to return to racing. Tomorrow is the Dick Collins’ Firetrails 50. The race is an out and back course held in the East Bay up here in Northern California. It’s a favorite of veterans and rookies alike for its nice mix of extremely runnable single-track and fire roads, as well as some challenge climbs as you work your way from the valley by Lake Chabot all the way to Skyline Gate and the Tilden Park area ridgeline. The race is scheduled on the same weekend as Fleet Week in the San Francisco Bay, meaning runners can also expect loud fly-bys by the Blue Angels as well as reasonably warm early October weather (typically Indian Summer here).

In developing a plan for this race, I started with a friend and fellow ultrarunner Rick Gaston’s 2008 race as a baseline. While I spent last year’s race pacing a friend of mine through her first 50, Rick was racing it. His running style of waiting it out early before turning it on late is definitely one to be mimicked, reflecting the patience and discipline that for me was part of my own relatively successful race at Badwater this year. However, the 50 mile distance is a much quicker race which challenges me because it is much closer to the marathon as far as that feeling of always “needing” to be in motion. After that, I went lower, looking at times that seemed to be good approximation of stretch goals. I took the splits from one performance in particular out to the course itself on some key segments to see how they felt to me and to give myself an approximation of where I needed to be on the course (away from aid stations) at various times. After a couple of extremely solid runs, I came up with this: a 7:25 goal for the race.

Since many trail courses aren’t the evened out, flat-ish races expected out on the roads, it leaves many of us in the dark about what we should expect of ourselves. This is particularly true when we race a course for the first time. We have relative expectations based on elevation profiles, but the option to run on a course is not always available for a more accurate representation of our capabilities. Having run on the course over the past couple weeks, I really honed in on whether this was even possible in my shorter runs out there in comparison to previous racers. Throwing away all the placings from previous years (which are more a product of who shows up and in what condition they’re in), I wanted a goal that will stretch me and cause me to work hard. With Javelina 100 in 3 weeks, I have the perfect opportunity to race as hard as I want without compromising that race. With CIM on 12/6, I have the perfect opportunity to continue add strength and endurance to the speed I’ve been working on during my weekly tempo/speed workouts.

Races are a great opportunity to stretch ourselves, particularly because their competitive nature tends to bring about a higher level of performance that can rarely be duplicated in the sterile, solitary capsules we often train within. For me, I’m looking forward to a course PR, killer training for the 100, and a good indicator that the speed and mental stamina is there to take it all the way at CIM to big PR. For all the other runners out there, I wish you the best in going after your own goals on that course. At minimum, we’ll all have some great weather to do it in.


Photos: "Running For The Wells"

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Race Recap: Running For The Wells 11k- Marin Headlands

It’s been a crazy month of September so far with the Angeles Crest 100 cancelled by the wildfires in the Angeles Crest forest. I’ve never had a race cancelled due to natural causes, even if this fire was caused by arson (which is abhorrent in light of the consequences and deaths resulting). The one nice thing was that it gave me some time over the past 2 weeks to really hone in on putting the finishing touches on the 1st annual Running For The Wells 11k- Marin Headlands which was a major undertaking(http://www.seegundyrun.com/Running_For_The_Wells.html). We ran the event as a fun run starting at the Rodeo Beach Picnic Area near the lagoon. Runners ran about 0.7 miles to the Miwok Trail before going another 0.6 miles to connect with Bobcat Trail. Then there was on a gradual 2 mile uphill leading to Alta Trail. At the peak of Alta Trail near the intersection with Morning Sun Trail. On a clear day, Alta trail offers picturesque views of Mt. Tamalpais, Corte Madera, Tiburon, Belvedere and Angel Island on towards the East Bay. Runners then began a gradual descent on Rodeo Valley Trail, which normally offers views of the Golden Gate and San Francisco. The trail levels off at the bottom before reconnecting with Miwok and the run finishes right where it started.

Well, to say the event was a success was an understatement. Considering the dry lightining and thunder from the night before and the grey clouds in the sky on the morning of the event, we still had about 30 runners at the event and over 10 volunteers who helped setup, cook breakfast for the runners and cleanup afterwards. I had quite a few family members there helping out with my wife Wilma, my parents and Uncle Andy helping out with the preparation and at the start/finish, and Uncle “Mambo” Jose heading up the aid station. In addition, I had Steve, a director from work at Abbott Vascular, and his daughter joining Uncle Jose at the aid station. Sky and Pete, friends via the Runner’s World Forum helped man the grills and Alice, a friend of Wilma’s helped with the food preparation. Rick, an ultrarunning friend and training partner, was busy marking the trail earlier that morning (starting at 6:30 am) while Mike Lim was sweeping it at the end to ensure everyone got back alright. I couldn’t have done this alone and I hope I didn’t forget any of the volunteers.

While the sky never quite cleared and the light storm intended for Monday came a couple days early to intermittently drizzle on our run, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves out there. While most of the participants aren’t regular runners and those that are don’t always venture off-road, it was great to see everyone stretch themselves beyond their normal comfort zones in a place that has been home to many of my own training runs. I really wanted people to see it in all its beauty and although the weather didn’t fully cooperate, I was pleased beyond compare with how everyone brought a great attitude along with their great generosity. No injuries, no shortage of good food (chocolate chip pancakes…mmm) and no shortage of good company.

The best part of the run? Combined with other off-line contributions, we have raised over $3,000 which means one well will get built soon and we’re on our way to building a second well. To those that know me, East Africa and Uganda in particular are places that are deep in my heart. I loved seeing the faces of these villagers last year when I was there as they expressed the gratitude for those who’ve supported World Harvest Mission’s well-building in the past. Some will say that their problems are too much for one person to overcome, but we’re proving that with a little bit of teamwork we can steps to move things from “impossibility” closer to “reality”. I really believe that the Lord endows us with the ability to stretch beyond what we can imagine and having the runners and volunteers help to do that through this event was an inspiration for me. I am encouraged even more to consider making this an annual event and I will be consulting with folks in the Los Angeles area about an event down there in early November. We’ll see….:) Either way, feel free to support the well-building effort by making a donation via the PayPal at http://www.seegundyrun.com/ or at http://www.seegundyrun.blogspot.com/.

A huge thank you also goes to Injinji who helped me provide a pair of Injinji socks to all the runners who donated and all the volunteers. They have always responded to my calls for assistance with a helping hand, so I definitely thank them for that. Maybe some day I can come up with a race performance worthy of their support of my various running endeavors.

Good times, indeed. There’s only one thing left to say on this post: Thank You for your generosity in the past, generosity in the present and generosity in the future. God bless.


Pics to Follow Soon!

Friday, August 21, 2009

2009 Badwater Ultramarathon Picture and Video Montage

YouTube - Uploaded Videos:

"This is a photo and video montage of Jonathan Gunderson and his crew's run at the 2009 Badwater Ultramarathon. The crew included Andrew Safont, Peter Day, Kevin Chuck, Nick Garcia, Mike Lim and Wilfred Yun. Thank you to God, the crew, family and friends for being there with me through thick and thin. I also thank Injinji, Brooks, NUUN and GU for all their support, including their products which helped make this race a success. For more information about Jonathan's fundraising for wells in Uganda and to donate, visit Jonathan's website at www.seegundyrun.com. The race website is www.badwater.com, with the 2009 edition webcast archive available."

Friday, August 7, 2009

Running For The Wells

This website has been a little hard to manage, but I'm finally getting ready for a major upgrade. Until then, I've got a great race report from a fantastic race at Badwater this year. We'll get the picture slideshow up soon and all the videos up on YouTube. I hope you enjoy reading the report; it was almost as long as the training and race itself....hehe.

Also, we're still doing the fundraising for the wells in Uganda. We're trying to get to $18,000 to build 6 wells in Uganda for about 7,500 people affected. We'll be fundraising continuously this year, so feel free to donate anytime. We build a well everytime there's $3,000 in the bank to do it. Also, if you'd like to join us for our "Running For The Wells" run in Marin County on September 12th, go to the following link for information and registration instructions: Running For The Wells. Click on the "WHM and Donations" Tab on my website, www.seegundyrun.com, for information on the organization we work with, World Harvest Mission. If you want to donate, click on the "ChipIn" icon to the right. Affecting the lives of those who can never repay you is always a good thing.

God bless,

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

2009 Badwater Race Report

Since some of you were following the race, I thought I'd share some of my experiences. I was running this year to raise money to build wells in Uganda. For those interested in supporting it, you can go to http://www.seegundyrun.com/How_To_Give.html
*******************Pictures to Follow in Another Post Tomorrow***********

Coming down from the top of Townes Pass and into Death Valley once again, it was like coming back to the scene of the crime. I know every straightway, every curve, every incline and every elevation sign. Every inch of pavement and every foot to be climbed are ingrained into my memory. Every place that we passed conjured up images of me hunched over with my mouth wide open and pain in my stomach. This climb had come to epitomize the agony of races lost at the last two Badwaters. This is where the bully took my lunch money, leaving me with nothing but the clothes on my back. If this year was going to be different, it would have to start here.

It’s hard to look at this race and not first be intimidated by the first 42 miles, which stay mostly at or below sea level while hemmed in by the towering rock plateaus which form the side walls of the Valley. It stays consistently above 120 degrees F most years, peaking at temperatures above 130 degrees F near the sand dunes just before Stovepipe Wells, the 41.9 mile time station. But for me, the valley was no longer as intimidating, having long lost its mystique as a place of death in my mind. My preparation based on my previous experiences, my training and my equipment, like my Injinjis or my Brooks road shoes, had created the best possible circumstances from which to expect success.

Instead, the intimidation came principally from the 16.8 mile, 5000’ ft. climb from Stovepipe Wells (41.9 miles, sea level) to the top of Townes Pass. While my misery on this climb was probably predicated by some lack of discipline or lapse in taking in the proper electrolytes or water in the first 42 miles, the combination of the climbing and a ferocious headwind on an exposed highway have been more than sufficient to tip my stomach over the edge and into a cycle of trying to recover and perform at the same time. Most experienced ultra marathoners recognize nausea as a part of races this physically demanding, although I think they’d all agree that boot n’ rally isn’t the ideal way to maximize performance.

I had built my entire race strategy on being in the right condition in order to be able to hammer this hill with my stomach intact and ready to fly down the other side with an over 3300’ drop over 9.4 miles before a 330’climb into Panamint Springs (1940’ elevation). Each of the last 2 years, I’ve been unable to take full advantage of the drop to help generate the speed and momentum to get out of Panamint and climb up to Father Crowley’s Point (4000 ft. elevation). I had no choice but to be disciplined through Death Valley if I was going to expect a result any different than last year’s race.

I had the right crew assembled in order to beat that theme of discipline and pacing into me. With a couple late replacements, our crew consisted of 4 veterans and 2 rookies. My co-crew chiefs Uncle Andy and Pete had crewed for me at 3 and 2 Badwater races respectively, while Kevin and Nick had crewed in 2007. Our 2 rookies, Mike and Wilfred were both fairly enthusiastic role players who had some experience with marathons. Each of them was either a close friend or family with whom I had pretty established relationships. While apart from Pete I could not expect too much pacing from most of them, they were all athletic and they all brought a passion for helping us (and me individually) succeed. Their personal race experiences were primarily running half-marathons and marathons. As successful individuals in their own right, they were all willing to subjugate their own desires and comforts which humbled me as I trained and would hopefully humble me as I raced. They committed themselves to supporting me as a runner, in my well-building in Uganda and in my dedication to representing God, my family and myself with the best race possible.

Going into the race, we had prepared a spreadsheet detailing expected paces and pacing responsibilities through various sections of the course. I would pick up my first pacer, Wilfred, at the 35 mile mark in the Valley. From then on, I would have a pacer with me except for a 5 mile downhill stretch starting at the top of Townes Pass. During certain sections like the climb from Stovepipe to Townes Pass, we put multiple pacers so that guys would feel comfortable switching in and out while continuing to support me as I ran.

The best thing about these guys was their attitudes. They came prepared to execute the plan. Thanks to Pete’s wife Kimi, we were armed with data from each of the three previous Badwaters from previous checkpoint times to comparisons with the Top 10 from 2008 to a 2009 pacing strategy. In consultation with the crew chiefs and the rest of the crew, we set a pacing strategy that capitalized on my running strength of closing strong and utilized the best pacers for each section. Two primary areas of improvement were to be from Stovepipe Wells to Panamint Springs and from Darwin to Lone Pine. We would slow down somewhat compared to last year between the start at Badwater to Stovepipe Wells (mile 41.9) in order to stay in the proper physical and mental condition to attack the climb out of the Valley.

Of course, no plan can be executed without the proper training. I had been hurt with shin splints for almost 8 weeks between March and May after the Napa Valley Marathon, which severely limited the amount of running during that time. In addition, my impending marriage in May further limited my training. One key race I ran as I gradually started getting better was the ultra hot Diablo 50 at the end of April. I kept it at a slow pace, finishing in just under 12 hours in the 90+ degree heat with over 12000’ of climbing. The difficulty of the race gave me a hint that in spite of the limited miles, I still had a good base to work from. The road back began just before the wedding and picked up steam throughout the month of June.

With 100+ miles per week, I made sure to do quite a few long gradual hill runs to simulate the long climbs associated with Badwater. I even had the opportunity to run with various crew members in order to encourage them in their own training. All in all, it was a successful month as evidenced by a 4:25 5th place showing at the Angel Island 50k. Running at 85% effort, I shaved 28 minutes off my time 2 years ago when I also used it as a tune-up race for Badwater. The runs I was doing and the weight I was losing were starting to pay some dividends. I would be around 171 lbs. by race day, a full 10 lbs. lighter than the year before. With the new found confidence, we had set forth one race plan for finishing just under 30 hours and that was what we were going to roll with.

After arriving in the Valley at 11:00 AM, Pete and I went for a short 2.5 mile run before I checked-in at the Death Valley Museum in Furnace Creek. The crew finished preparations on the van after lunch. Gathering the crew at the vans, we used the same process as last year to split up the supplies between the main crew van and the support van. The main van would have all of the main medical, food and water supplies. It would have a round cooler with just ice, a 100 qt. cooler with drinks and food for both runner and crew, and a third cooler with “grey water” for use with the ice towels being draped on my neck every couple miles. In the back next to the hatchback, there would also be a small Rubbermaid container with a sampling of all the “most used items” including electrolyte tabs, a couple bags of chips, a Clif bar, and small trail mix bags. This would allow for quick and easy access on the fly. The support van would serve a dual purpose by holding the ice coffin/cooler I would soak in periodically during peak heat as well as keeping all the extra water and food supplies that would not fit in the main crew van. We did an initial load of ice into the coolers to cool down the drinks while planning on a refill the following morning prior to the race. We also left 2 seats and a 2nd row seat bench remaining in the main van since that would fit the maximum number of crew members we would have on duty at all times.

As part of their initiation, Mike and Wilfred went to the pre-race meeting later in the afternoon. I’m only required to have one crew member with me and with a repeat of many of the crew instructions, going to this meeting has become a rite of passage for any new crew members. After dinner, while I left for a photo session with a photographer for My Midwest Magazine (in-flight magazine of Midwest Airlines) for an article on the race later this year, the crew continued preparations and relaxed in the room.

Upon my return, I made it in time to finish watching “Dodgeball” with the team while they prepared final food and got some block ice to put in the coolers. We mostly joked around before I finally went to bed around 10:30 pm. While most years, I have a desire for more picture-taking and bonding time with the crew, this year was about simply taking care of business. We’d been here before and been through all the formalities; what we needed was to simply focus and go out have a great race together. I always have a hard time getting sleep the night before a race, particularly because I’m regularly so much of a night owl. This time, though, after a brief personal prayer time, I was fast asleep within 15 minutes dreaming about what tomorrow would bring.

I was up at 5:45 am and ready to go. The 7 hours of sleep had done me well and I felt alert and ready to get ready. After a warm shower, putting on my clothes, strapping on the Garmin watch and turning on the Ipod, I relaxed over by the van while listening to some tunes. One of my favorite pre-race songs is “Stomp” by Kirk Franklin. It’s a mix of gospel and hip-hop with a lot of energy to get me going. Believe me, I’m a really slow riser so anything to get the blood flowing is a good thing.

I let the crew take care of all the other details and after a quick fuel up, we were off to Badwater around 20 till 7 in the morning. Uncle Andy, Pete, Wilfred and Mike were taking the first shift to Furnace Creek with Nick and Kevin taking care of checking out of the hotel room. At 7 am, 1 hour before my start, I ate 2/3 of a Cliff Bar and a small piece of banana to get my stomach going. 20 oz. of G2 washed it down and I was ready to go. Finding the right amount of food and fluid to eat before a race can be a complicated thing since everyone has their own opinions and their own routines. In an attempt to refine my own routine beyond just empirical evidence, Pete had sent me a New York Times article with the advice of an exercise physiologist recommending a fist full of food and 20 oz. of fluid 1 hour prior to a race. This would give the body enough time to digest and process it prior to the race. Having tried this a couple times during the week prior to the race and considering how small an appetite I have on race mornings, it seemed like a solid strategy.

Arriving at Badwater, I went through my routine that I had adopted last year. Use the restroom, get weighed in with the medical staff and go pray silently by myself out on the salt flats. Alone at this point, I kneeled and silently prayed to the Lord. I thanked him for humility and grace in our journey, that we would be safe and that he would take my ambitions and give me a race that he would be proud of. I needed to set aside the past and look only at the present: 135 miles of road and only one way to get to the finish.

After dispensing with the formalities of photos, speeches and a rather beautiful rendition of the National Anthem, it was time to go. Positioned at the right in front, I did not care about anything more than getting this race started. People would tell me later that it looked as if I was zoned out with my “game face” on, whatever that is. With my headphones on and music playing softly, my eyes gazed squarely in front of me. Chris Kostman, the race director, kept looking at his watch until the final countdown begun. “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5”. I planted my feet in anticipation of the start. “4, 3, 2, 1, Go”.

From my outside front position on the start line, I quickly moved towards the front. After being in front for the first mile and a half, 4 to 5 other runners moved out in front of me. Like last year, we targeted a 9 min./mile average during this section, which would eventually drop to 12 min./mile between Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. I was surprised with the number of runners who were out in front of me at this point, since I would generally consider my pace to be aggressive and most of the frontrunners still to start at 10 am.

The 17.2 mile section between Badwater and Furnace Creek is generally the least exciting of the race. It mostly rolls with a few long rises and a few long descents. For the most part, it’s a good time to develop a routine with the crew as far as servicing me as I went. Drop the water bottle to the side and hand the ice towel around the neck to the 1st person. Take the hat off to start getting sprayed down with ice water by the 1st person running along side me. Let the 2nd person place the ice towel around the neck as I jog by. Self-adjust the ice towel before the 3rd person puts ice in my cap and hands me a new bottle, gel or food if needed. Finally, self-adjust the cap and keep on running till we do it all again in a mile. It’s not something that you do at any other races, so doing it while continuing to maintain forward motion is somewhat of an art form that can actually save quite a bit of time and momentum. After 2 or 3 stops, we had a good rhythm going which allowed me to continue to maintain focus on establishing a good hydration, electrolyte and fueling base early on.

For hydration and electrolyte needs, we would stick primarily with NUUN in water supplemented by S-caps if necessary. For this first section, we alternated the NUUN water with regular water every mile. In another New York Times article Pete had sent me, the author espoused taking large gulps of fluid every so often rather than sipping the bottle. This was in line with what Uncle Andy had also been trying to get me to do for over a year. Apparently, the gulping gets the stomach going quicker to process the fluids rather than sipping which allows traces of fluids to continue to slosh around in the stomach and can upset the stomach. The only difficult thing for me in this section was just finding the appropriate intervals to take these gulps. Sometimes it was 1.5 minutes, other times it was 3 minutes and other times it was 2 minutes. With a bit of practice, every 2 minutes seemed to keep my mouth continually satiated while not leaving much fluid to slosh around in my stomach.

About half-way through this section, a nagging pain made it became apparent that a couple of Aleve would be necessary to keep my comfortable throughout this first day. I quickly signaled my needs to the crew who responded by the next mile with a couple of blue pills for me to take down with some Lay’s potato chips. Beyond that, I just kept looking at my watch and continuing to keep track of my pace which I was able to gradually bring back to our goal pace from an early, quick start.

By the time we reached Furnace Creek, all but one of the runners in the wave were in front of me as the others who had been in front of me began to fade back. I cruised on in at 2 hours, 36 minutes, which was dead-on with what we had targeted. Although it was 9 minutes slower than last year, I continued to feel refreshed and ready to hit the heart of the Valley.

Kevin came on board at this point with Pete and Mike departing to help prepare the ice baths in the second vehicle, a cargo van. The next section between Furnace Creek (mile 17.2) and Stovepipe Wells (mile 41.9) puts most runners at the least amount of ease. Temperatures are continuing to rise and you feel the most isolated with the salt flats, rock formations and rolling san dunes among many natural geological barriers keeping you from seeing ahead very far. Many areas appear to be picture perfect doubles for other areas creating the illusion that as much as you are running you are not really “going anywhere”. Today, with the temperatures topping out officially at 127 degrees and unofficially near the sand dunes at the low 130s degrees, the weather would more resemble what it was in 2006 during my first year.

With an average of 12 minute miles as the goal for the section and 2- 5 minute ice baths
planned between Furnace Creek (mi. 17.3) and Stovepipe Wells (mi. 41.9), I looked to keep my pace steady around 10:30 min/mile. This was difficult at first, but after a brief nauseated moment at mile 20 forced me to take an S-cap to rebalance my electrolytes, I was easily scared straight. We quickly moved away from giving me straight water and went exclusively with the NUUN. Continuing to slow my pace, I finally was able to maintain 10:20 min/mile about 7-8 miles into the section. The uphills were always slower than the downhills, but in the end it all averaged out. After that brief scare, I found a terrific running rhythm while continuing to take large gulps every 2 minutes. The constant need to keep checking my pace and monitor my fluid kept my mind occupied, with the crew keeping me relaxed with their music, dancing and upbeat attitudes. I kept the tunes rolling on my Ipod, using the space to focus on each small section of road I ran by. As I continued to most all of the 6 am runners and the remaining 8 am runner, I sometimes had trouble telling our van apart from the rest until I started using Kevin’s yellow Cal basketball shorts as a sign of which crew was mine.
The best times during this section were the two ice baths. We scheduled them for miles 25 and 35, but also tried to gauge my general condition to adjust if necessary. I always preferred to do them in the middle of a downhill so that when I finished, I would still have some downhill running to get my legs going again. I ended up getting in the “ice coffin” at miles 26 and 35 for slightly more than 5 minutes at a time. The “ice coffin” is essentially a 165 qt. cooler filled with water and ice on the bottom. I submerge my upper body and mid-region into the cooler before a layer of ice and more water is poured on top of me. As an added bonus, we used a block of ice to keep the back of my head cool as well as support my back and head better than last year. Although I never seemed to feel overheated or wanted to pop in the van for a few minutes while I was running, the “ice coffin” sufficiently kept me from getting close to that breaking point. At times, I even felt too cold when in there. But it was enough to keep me lucid and keep me moving.

At around the 35 mile mark, Wilfred came on as a pacer. Since this was his first visit to Death Valley, I was a bit concerned about his well-being. Every few minutes, I chimed in and asked him if he was good. He was just happy to be out there, supporting me in this desolate pace. Wilfred continued to say that if he could run in this place, he could finish the upcoming San Francisco Marathon well. In less than a year of more serious running, Wilfred had come a long way as far as getting himself into better running condition. His two previous marathons in 2009 were a good training for this experience and he seemed to run with ease behind me at our 10:30 min/mile clip. It was nice to turn off the music and just run free by the Sand Dunes. It was close to 2 pm and the temperatures were still fairly warm, although the occasional wind gusts felt cool to my body.

After 3 miles, Wilfred left me and went back to the van a little dizzy. From there, it was Uncle Andy pacing me for 1.25 miles. Before the race, Uncle Andy had trained diligently to return from injury by running consistently at Lake Merced. He also joined Mike, Pete and I for some of our training runs, doing shorter distances than we were but long enough for his purposes. His training showed as we were humming along at 10:15 min/mile pace when he predicted prior to the race that he’d probably only be able to run at a 13:00 min/mile pace. From there, Pete took me the final couple miles into Stovepipe Wells, clocking us in at 7 hours, 13 minutes. While we were two minutes slower than last year, we were light years ahead as far as my physical condition was concerned. We were also 30 minutes ahead of my expected time according to our time chart. My running posture was still very upright and I had no major pain in my body to slow me down. It had been a good day so far although the climbs lay in wait.

After a final 10 minute ice bath 0.2 miles ahead of the Stovepipe Wells time station, we would finally begin the climb up to the top of Townes Pass with a goal pace of 16:00 min/mile. Mike and Kevin would be pacing me in this section, which begins with a rolling first couple of miles before settling into a long, slow graded climb. Powerful heated wind gusts often blow directly at or to the side of the runners. The key to this section is to keep moving consistently. The temperature drops as the elevation rises, so the higher up I can get the cooler it will feel to me.

Starting out, I had to continue to remind myself that I had no reason to celebrate or get too overjoyed yet. This is where I was going to make up huge amounts of time as compared to last year’s 36 hour, 21 minute performance, so there was nothing to get too excited about getting through the Valley. Humility was the order of the day and anything could still happen. Starting out, Mike and I walked for a couple minutes to get the legs moving. With the first couple miles not as steep as the rest of the climb, we then proceeded to get into a pattern of running 1 minute and walking 1 minute. Even though Mike had threatened me with bodily harm if I didn’t stick to the pacing, he was becoming the most enthusiastic crew member about me getting up the mountain as quickly as possible.

By sticking with a pattern of 1 minute running and 1 minute walking, we were able to easily time my gulps of NUUN water every 2 minutes to coincide with the immediately conclusion of the running portions. At times, we shift the pattern to include more power walking as the grade got steeper. The most walking we did was a 1 minute of walking and 4 minutes of walking pattern. We adjusted the pattern accordingly if there was a long enough flat or downhill that I could convince my pacers to run with me or if there was a runner ahead who was close enough to pass.

I would find out later talking to others that there was a big headwind coming down the mountain, but I don’t feel it at all. For the most part, the pattern kept me disciplined going up the hill and I felt good enough that I could power walk anywhere from sub-15 min/mile to 16:30 min/mile. By adding in the running, I was able to keep a consistently strong pace up the hill. Mike and Kevin kept close tabs on our pace, but I still had my own Garmin on just to make sure. Kevin brought the same enthusiasm as Mike to pacing, but he also put the clamps more on my attempts to run too much. Unlike Mike, Kevin had personally witnessed my stomach meltdown on this hill in 2007.

For the most part, the climb was rather uneventful. Walk, run, walk, run, walk, pee, run, walk. Mike had never been a crew member or paced at an ultra marathon event before, so it was interesting to see his shocked reaction that I had perfected the technique to peeing while walking at the same time off to the shoulder. There wasn’t much talking, but the miles seemed to go by effortlessly as the sun waned in intensity overhead. Each few hundred feet up in elevation brought with it a coolness that made walking and running more and more tolerable. I continually relayed back to the van my condition, which was still totally lucid and aware. It allowed me to better communicate my needs, whether it was some more gel, more potato chips or a fresh ice towel.

The closer we got to the top of the Pass, the more excited I grew inside. Even as I tempered my enthusiasm with the continued prayer to God that continue to have grace and mercy upon us in our journey, I couldn’t help but be pleased that this climb would no longer “own” me. And then I saw it. The road sign signifying the top of Townes Pass and almost 5,000 ft. of elevation. The parking lot was less than 0.2 miles ahead where the van was parked. I crossed the road and ran towards the van, a big grin on my face. 11 hours and 33 minutes into the race and 4 hours and 10 minutes after my ice bath at the outset of this climb, I was at the top and feeling good. I took a short 3 minute break to relax, get my leg muscles rubbed and chow down on some hot home fries from the Panamint Springs grill courtesy of Uncle Andy. It was a shorter break than we planned, but Pete was good to let me go with my legs still feeling fresh and not wanting my legs to get tight.

I slapped the Ipod back on again and started rolling down the hill. I ramped up quickly from an initial 11:00 min/mile pace with the descent getting steeper and steeper. At one point at the end of the first mile downhill, I was hitting sub-7:00 min/mile pace. While it sure feels good and looks good on the watch, it wasn’t sustainable in the long term and I began to make a more conscious effort to moderate my pace as best I could. Eventually, I slowed to between 8:00 min/mile and 9:00 min/mile, which allowed gravity to do most of the work for me while helping to preserve my quads by braking as little as possible.

To see Panamint Valley during the day for the first time in 4 Badwater races was a thing to behold. Although I was not looking forward to warmer weather at the bottom of this valley, I reveled in the soft glow that the setting sun created around us. The freedom of simply letting gravity was unmistakable; I even allowed myself to make airplane wings with my arms as I maneuvered around the turns and took some moments to simply let my eyes wander. This was what I was supposed to feel like the last couple of Badwaters. This is what I was missing when Panamint Valley was dark and the only thing on my mind was whether my stomach would revolt against me once more. This felt incredible.

After the first few miles, Pete and Uncle Andy let me know that Wilfred would be coming on to pace me at the 5 mile mark of the descent. Wilfred’s value in this section was not so much on these screaming descents, but in keeping me moving once the road bottomed out at around 1600 ft. elevation at mile 68.1, about 9.4 miles into this small section with 4.2 miles left to go. The elevation rises by over 300 ft. just before the Panamint Springs resort and the time station.

I continued to move briskly, barely able to keep my safety vest on which was flapping in the breeze. 10 minutes later, Wilfred came on and away we went. It was still light out, although the sunlight was fading fast. Towards the bottom of the descent, the grade began to start leveling out which allowed my quads to rest even more. At this point, I noticed my Garmin had lost power. It was not unexpected since my Garmin Forerunner 305 unit has about 13 hours of battery life. The downside was that I was missing the check and balance that kept me on target as far as my pace was concerned. I was more than capable of pacing myself, but with 68 miles on my legs I didn’t feel like I could totally trust a feeling.

While Wilfred kept me moving, I had no idea how fast I was going and Wilfred had no GPS watch on. We had an extra Garmin in the crew vehicle, but my interest in just getting the section done overrode any desire to force him to put one on with such a small distance left to Panamint Springs Resort. I ultimately ended up slipping to an over 12:00 min/mile pace for these last 4.2 miles. While it was almost 2 minutes over my minute per mile pace for this mini-section, he was able to keep me moving continuously with a smile on my face. As I came up on Panamint in a cool 13 hours and 54 minutes for the 72.3 hours so far, I let myself grin again upon seeing “Death Valley” Jack Denness and his wife Mags smiling at me. I was over 4 hours ahead of last year’s time into this time station when vomiting kept me off the course for 45 minutes and more importantly, I hadn’t much of a hint of major nausea. I was in the driver’s seat and this race was beginning to feel special.

3 years ago, Mags was there at my first Badwater working the same time station. She took care of me as I came into the station and most of my veteran crew members from that race always remind me of her words which still make me smile: “You did this to yourself”. While her words were most appropriate during times of struggle, they still applied now. As much as I had been responsible for my times of severe stomach struggle due to not getting my nutrition and electrolytes right, I was also partly responsible for the success of executing a terrific race strategy. While much of the credit for the race strategy belongs to my crew chiefs and my crew who helped keep me to it, I did play a part in not allowing my stubbornness and anxiousness to keep me from executing well. I also executed my training as well as possible under certain limitations so that I could come into this race with a more realistic shot at being at this place in this time. Could it have been a better time with certain tweaks? Of course. Could it have been better considering my history? If so, not by much.

Now that I was seated by the roadway, Pete brought me my microwavable Chef Boyardee “Spaghetti and Meatballs”. Our plan called for a 15 minute break, opening with eating some more complex carbohydrates and finishing up with a short nap with muscle rub down. While the pasta sounded good during planning, I looked at my meal with a slight frown on my face while continuing to mix pasta in a tomato sauce. “Gundy, this is what we planned going into this. You were going to eat some pasta now so you don’t bonk later.”

“I know, I know,” I replied, even if I really didn’t want want it now.

The appetites of ultra runners can sometimes switch on a dime, with cravings coming and going along with one’s physical condition. One minute Lay’s potato chips can seem like heaven and the next minute, it’ll be a frozen fruit bar. I finally relented and began to dig into the mini-dish, which had over 200 calories of energy. I mostly picked at it for a couple minutes while sipping at the tomato sauce before finally making the plunge to eating the spaghetti and small meatballs. About half-way through the dish, I handed it back to Pete. “I finished half of it and it’s got over 200 calories.” At that point, I just wanted to be done with it and get it away from me.

Pete and I went off to the cabin near the roadway so I could lie out and let my legs relax. We had been on break for almost 5 minutes, which left me about 10 more minutes in my planned break. The minute my head hit the pillow, I quickly dozed off while Pete worked to rub out the backs of my legs. Those 10 minutes felt like 10 seconds, because the next thing I knew Pete was tapping at me to tell me it was time to go.

Honestly, I can get pretty groggy when first waking up from a deep sleep and this definitely wasn’t one of those light cat naps. I spent the first half a minute turning myself around and looking around the room to get my bearings straight before walking out of the cabin and back towards the highway 100 ft. away. The van was parked down the road another 100 ft. where the crew was assembling, but I did not want to waste my energy going down only to come back up again. I waved back at them before beginning the long 7.8 mile, 2100 ft. climb up to Father Crowley’s point. I knew my pacer Nick would catch up with me shortly; I wasn’t going anywhere that quickly to start out.

For the first time in the race, I felt my food sitting heavy in my stomach. The best way to describe it is a small lump near the belly button that isn’t painful, but is definitely not digested. After running a wonderfully executed first 72.3 miles, I wasn’t about to let this hiccup get in the way. The first 2.9 miles of this small section climbs 1,000 ft., making it wiser to power walk most it while waiting for flatter sections to run. As far as my stomach was concerned, I started out slow with the hope that I would eventually be able move faster as my stomach emptied. I worried less about that pace of the climb at this point considering that I had built up a now 45 minute cushion against the 29 hour, 40 minute pacing plan we had developed.

After a few minutes, Nick finally caught up to me, taking my water bottle so I could focus solely on knocking out some miles. I don’t remember too much from our conversation, in part because of the irritation in my stomach. My stomach was starting to feel gassy and the only thing I really wanted to do was pass the gas so I could feel better again. Finally, 3 miles into the climb I felt it coming. I sat down on the road barrier on one of those steep, narrow turns and took one of the most enjoyable restroom breaks of my racing life. Nick ran back to the van to grab some toilet paper me as I relished the moment. Suddenly, I felt well again with my body purged of excess pasta and excess gas. All of that pressure inside of my GI system was gone as well as the excess “weight”; I was ready to roll once again.

Even in flats where I wanted to run more than I did, I backed off due to the extreme camber of the roadway. With little shoulder to run on, it made it difficult to get too much momentum going when cars passed by going down to Panamint Springs. I was in the middle of a more gradual uphill section, sandwiched in between two steep climbs. Even though I didn’t run much, I was power-walking at a rather brisk pace. I chose not to ask Nick for very many pace updates, confident that even with some of my cushion used up I would do well on the section from Father Crowley’s Point to Darwin’s Turnout (mile 90.1) while saving the energy for big race from Darwin to Lone Pine.

With Uncle Andy, Kevin and Mike working the crew van, I kept hearing references to the Spirit of Badwater which only made me smile. It was a term used by someone at the race in 2007 to describe the bright lights of the cars ascending and descending into Panamint Valley from Townes Pass. While the lights themselves are a cool sight, the term was in no way an accurate description of this man-made phenomenon. When the crew used this term, I smiled more for how it reminded me of the crazy quirks of the individual who “coined” it.

Nick and I didn’t see very many lights ahead of us, which was very different from previous years. I often used other runners as benchmarks to pass on the climb but with our terrific performance so far, we were left with quite a bit of empty, dark space to inhabit. I would occasionally look down to the left of the roadway only to see large drop-offs leading to open plateaus below which were illuminated by the bright moon above. This was in sharp contrast to the sharp climbs, during which we were often hemmed in by the peaks or sheer drop-offs which had seemingly no end.

Mile after mile went by with ease as the night sky brilliantly lit up by stars overhead on this clear night. The lights behind me on the road were still at least a mile back with the twisting landscape obscuring any view of potential runners in front of me. My goal pace was 17:48 min/mile and although I was losing time to that goal pace, I was still moving well and feeling well. The final 2 mile climb to the top of Father Crowley is always the toughest with the narrow shoulder and multiple false summits. Even with the previous experiences to draw from, I was still fooled by the sheer number of twists and turns in the roadway.

When I describe Father Crowley’s lookout, it may sound like I’m describing a small town or waypoint with gas station. In reality, it’s a small dirt parking lot overlooking Panamint Valley down below. There is a small monument in the middle dedicated to the real Father John Crowley who served in the area and became the first priest to celebrate mass on top of Mt. Whitney. With a slight downhill tilt to the lot, it’s always important to put the vehicle in park or risk watching your van plummet a thousand feet before ending up in some rock crevasse.

With our crew van parked at Father Crowley with only a ¼ mile left to run, we finally saw Jamie Donaldson’s crew van pull up and park just off the roadway. It turned out she wasn’t too far behind me, although she did have an almost 2 hour cushion on me due to the staggered start times. Since it had very little to do with the race I was running, I brushed it aside in my head as I ran over to our van 25 ft. off the roadway. During the three minutes I spent in the van, I failed to ask the crew about exact pace as compared to the schedule, but the crew assured me that I was doing fine. It was somewhere around 1 in the morning, which meant to me that I still had a considerable amount of time to run sans the sun. I didn’t feel a need to press further, comforted more by the fact that I couldn’t see a scenario where I had lost the whole 45 minute cushion in that one climb.

Unlike last year, I didn’t feel a high amount of fatigue coming upon me at this point in the race. I took the opportunity to sit in the van as a chance to eat some more Lay’s potato chips and keep gulping on the NUUN water. Mike was in the van with me, checking in and making sure I felt alright. After about a minute in the vehicle, I was anxious to go and asked the crew to move the van closer to the road before I got out again. I know, it seems like a rather silly request to move 25 ft. back to the road before I started running again. While it would seem incredulous even to me if I made the request 20-30 miles into the race, I was now at a point where I wanted to spare my muscles having to do any extra work beyond the 135 miles.

A minute later after some quick maneuvering of the van, Mike and I were off. Although there is 1000 ft. of climbing in this 10 mile section, it is barely noticeable to the runner apart from a couple big rolling sections. The weather had cooled considerably at 4000 ft. elevation, relatively speaking. It’s all relative when you’re talking about a temperature drop of probably at least 40 degrees from the peak temperature of 127 degrees (in the shade) during the daytime.

Mike and I walked portions of the uphills starting out while waiting for the first rolling downhill to pick up momentum to start moving quicker. Still, we were maintaining a brisk sub-13:00 min/mile jogging pace going up the hills which helped to offset the intermittent walking. About a mile into this section, Jamie came up behind us with her pacer. We offered each other greetings and then I let her go on her way.

Jamie continued to jog the uphills rather than walk certain sections and jog/run others. She slowly pulled away from us, which again did not concern me in the least bit. I wanted to keep her in our sights to allow myself to be pulled into her pace, but it wasn’t necessary. A mile and a half after she passed, we finally passed Nick Hollon, the final runner from the 6:00 AM wave. He was moving slowly at the time but continued to chip away. I looked around to see if Akos Konya, one of his crew members and another runner who I’m friends with, was around but didn’t see him before moving onward.

The course took a big left turn at this point before entering a gorgeous plateau inhabited by numerous Joshua trees. Looking left and seeing the outlines trees set against the dark background allowed my mind to continue to wander off when necessary. This is the beginning of a five mile stretch with a few long, sloping hills before taking another left turn onto the top of the plateau that leads straight towards Darwin’s turnout. It is a “no man’s land” portion of the race course; not quite close enough to consider letting loose but definitely far enough into the race to feel the build-up towards finishing.

Kevin and Mike took turns pacing and my legs started to loosen up again on the long, 0.25 mile downhill sections. We would run 1 minute and walk 1 minute on the uphill sections, saving ourselves for the continuous running stretch when we were atop the plateau. Once we reached the plateau, I could no longer see Jamie’s van in the distance. Mike started to lite somewhat of a fire under me when he mentioned that we needed to pick it up if we wanted to stay on schedule. I ran as much as I can but still insisted to walk some on the uphills. I was starting to run low on energy and was struggling to battle through the fatigue. I tried to eat more GU and take a couple of Enlyten Energy strips, which seemed to perk me up temporarily. But, I was still fighting and still struggling against the mental games of being so close on this plateau but knowing that the time station would only appear in the distance ½ mile away.

Eventually, I saw it and told Mike, “There’s the time station”, in a relieved but trailing voice. We surged a bit in the final mile and I immediately ran over to the van to take a seat in the front for a few minutes. My total time at the 90.1 mile mark was 19 hours, 20 minutes, 4 minutes behind the pacing schedule. It was 3:20 AM and not a soul in sight, although Jamie and her crew had come through 7 minutes earlier. I was exactly where I needed to be, considering the pacing schedule also was for 29 hours, 40 minutes which was 20 minutes faster than the goal sub-30 hour race. I told Pete I needed a nap for 5 minutes before we started up again. Of course, before I knew it, Pete opened the door exclaiming, “Alright, it’s been five minutes.” I immediately replied, “I need 10 more,” conking out again.

At that point, I started to shiver with the relatively cool air hitting my skin. I was beginning to mentally and physically unravel, simply overcome by the fatigue in my body. Upon awaking again, Pete exclaimed, “Ok, we’ve gotta go now if you want to hit the sub-30 goal.” I was a little bit disoriented, but the stern tone of his voice meant business. This is what we came here for and it was time to suck it up and get moving. It was for moments like this that Pete was here; to get me out of the low points, treat me like a whipping boy and back moving again. I explained to him that I was freezing and he arranged get me my lightweight windbreaker out of my gear bag. It’s a little bit crazy when you think that I was actually going to use the windbreaker. I brought more in case I needed it going up Whitney portal, but with the winds gusting and temperatures in the 70s (from what I found out later) it was too cold for this runner.

At the 19 hour, 45 minute mark, we finally left Darwin’s turnout with Pete now pacing me all the way into Owens Valley to Lone Pine. After he instructed me for the first minute to walk, I was able to slowly work my way into a jog for the next couple of minutes before finally starting to run again. For this 32.2 mile stretch, I would need to finish it in about 6 hours and 30 minutes to have a shot at going sub-30 hours. That translates into around a 12 minute/mile pace, which can get more difficult if the winds turn towards you. The portion of road from Darwin to Keeler (mile 107.8) is a mostly smaller rolling net downhill, although you really need to gain momentum on the downhills to get up and over the uphill portions effectively.

Pete would read off my paces every few minutes, getting faster and faster. Within the first mile, my 25:00 min/mile walking pace had become a 10:00 min/mile running pace again with the wheels beginning to turn. The first few miles of this stretch are primarily a low grade, flattish downhill which is great for a runner like myself looking for momentum. Pete continually reminded me that Scott Jurek refers to downhills and the pull of gravity as “Free Speed”. “Free Speed”, huh? I really liked that analogy and kept repeating it in my head as we moved on through. Pete knew that the last 10 miles into Lone Pine can be a grind with the rising flats and ferocious headwind that tends to characterize it. With a small tailwind helping to propel me, I needed to take advantage of the “Free Speed” wherever it was being given to get me off to a good start.

I made a conscious decision to let Pete continue to monitor my pacing and nutrition for this section, only taking opportunities to look at my watch every few miles. I needed to let go of that responsibility and only focus on my strides and continually gulping down my NUUN water. Pete is as meticulous a person as they come, always concerned with the details. With Uncle Andy the lawyer and Pete the law student at the helm, details were always emphasized. Although his expertise is more tilted towards swimming, he and his wife Kimi were at the forefront of designing this race plan and studying the racing patterns of other top runners. He understands sports nutrition as well as anyone on the crew and is a great athlete to boot. Most importantly, he is a great friend and having paced me at Badwater and other ultra events previously, I was more than willing to trust him to pace me well and keep me moving towards my goal.

The miles seemed to fly by like magic. Nick and Kevin manned the crew van, putting a smile on my face while they bumped the tunes every time they went by. They would even stop to dance at some points, It was mostly hits from the 80s and 90s like “Living On A Prayer”, but I was hardly complaining. I let Pete handle all the exchanges of water, GU or any food and instead focused completely on the road. Pete would simply hand me what he wanted me to eat at the correct time intervals. I was also continuing to go without the ice towels around the neck or ice in the cap, hoping to forego the need for major cooling until we were close to Lone Pine. Not having to slow to allow the changing of caps or the towel to go around the neck kept me in a constant rhythm. The only major adjustment I made was to get rid of the windbreaker after the first 5 miles, having warmed up sufficiently.

About 6 or 7 miles into the section, Pete mentioned that we were doing sub-10:00 min/mile and asked me if I wanted to slow down. I replied, “Nope. Let’s keep this train moving”. I knew the terrain would naturally slow at various points during the long run to Lone Pine, but I wanted to take advantage of this “Free Speed” I had in front of me. Right around this time, I remember being amazed that we were actually “doing it”; that we could actually come in with a plan and see it unfold as we had planned. I also felt invigorated, like I was part of this other race; the competitive race. It created this atmosphere that seemed to feed my running right now. Even though I was also going after this time goal, I was now chasing something more than just a ghost.

The road snakes through an open, desolate plateau marked by random gravesite markers. Eventually, it drops down through narrow openings in the hillside to a dry lake and the town of Keeler below. The narrow openings are not natural and were probably blasted open with TNT many years ago to create a more gradual downhill grade for the roadway.
It is in this section around the 100 mile mark that the road swings up and down much more, requiring the runner to get sufficient momentum on the down swings before powering back up again. I called out to Pete, “There’s Burberry Hill”, which was important for two reasons. One, it was a section Pete had named Burberry Hill after my wife’s love of Burberry purses. Two, it meant we were fast approaching mile 100 and the big 3 to 4 mile drop towards the flats just before Keeler.

Every time we ramped back up a rise, Pete would remind me, “Swing your arms”. It got to the point where I would try and pre-empt him, calling out, “Swing the arms” just as the rises began. Kevin and Nick continued to jam in the crew vehicle, keeping everything loose out there while. They even took photographs of me taking a short minute to squat to go Number 2 next to the roadway, which we all laughed at together.

We passed the 100 mile marker a little before 6:00 AM with almost 22 hours elapsed in the race. Once through the narrow opening in the hillside, the view opens up to Owens Dry Lake and Keeler in the distance. This is by far one of the cruelest views of the race, with Keller still over 6 miles away and Mt. Whitney far off in the distance. You tell yourself you’re still an hour away and yet your eyes make it seem like it’s 20 minutes away. Every mile you travel seems like a waste of time when it seems like you’re still 20 minutes away. Hurry up and get there already!

What then transpired around mile 102 was by far the one thing I never expected to happen. About a half-mile in the distance, there was Jorge Pacheco walking with his pacer. Jorge Pacheco?!?!?! The defending champion?!?!??! The one everyone expected would make a run at the record. Granted, he was still 2 hours ahead of me based on his start time. Still, it was a bit shocking to say the least. Then off a half-mile to a mile further down on the next rolling rise in front of Jorge was a runner that looked like Jamie.

Off to the shoulder, Kevin and Nick were parked a quarter mile short of where Jorge was running. Just off to the side and out of view, Kevin was jumping up and down wildly which brought a short-lived smile to my face. I don’t take pleasure in anyone’s misfortune, but I think having seen me struggle before and to see me running so strong at that moment, it reinforced how far I had come from races past and how much more I was starting to enjoy being part of the “other race”.

As we passed by Jorge, I gave him a fist bump and tried to encourage him. “It’s all good. We all have bad days. Keep moving.” Shortly thereafter, I passed by Jorge’s crew van saying hello to an ultra running friend, Jimmy Freeman, who was crewing for Jorge and was now encouraging me to keep running strong. I acknowledged him with a short word and smile while continuing onward. After that, I was gone with my eyes fixed forward and no turning back.

Upon reaching the bottom of the hill and the main intersection of the 190 freeway and the 138 freeway, there was still 4 miles of flats and gradual uphill to go until Keeler. About a mile out, I stopped to walk briefly and get my bearings straight. Pete and I were continuing to plug away, even if our eyes continued to tantalize us with thoughts of being closer. Even with all the downhill portions of the last section, the uphills and a couple brief “nature breaks” had taken enough time that I still needed to average 13 minute miles the rest of the way to Keeler.

Once past Keeler, there is a gradual rise and fall before hugging the hills to the east going northward towards Lone Pine. Nick and Kevin went back to Lone Pine to get ready for the final climb while the other guys came back on to run the crew vehicle. As we started this final section towards Lone Pine, the back of my heels started throbbing more and more. I reached down to try and get what I imagined was a pebble at the back of each foot. What I got was a layer of dead skin from broken blisters. My shoe laces had been a bit loose for much of the race to accommodate for any foot swelling, which left small gaps between the back of the heel and the back of my shoes. While it made for a more comfortable ride, it also created a situation where sliding in the shoe was bound to cause some friction at the back of the heel and at the front of the toes. The front of the toes were fine for the time being, although I did feel some pressure on top of my right little toe. You often don’t think about this type of pain for a great majority of the race when you are concerned with everything else going on. But with the pressure on and the pain somewhat amplified, it’s hard to ignore from both a physical and mental standpoint.

This was really the beginning of this 14.5 mile section that was turning into a grind. I alternated between a brisk walk and running. Pete kept imploring me to dig deep and reminding me that I would have to keep moving quickly if I was to have any shot at a sub-30 hour finish. There was little humor and very little smiling with so much at stake. I kept moving briskly, but suffered from lapses in my physical and mental fortitude. Once, I insisted Pete pop the blister on my right small toe due to the discomfort even though it was clear he wanted me to keep pushing and keep moving. That was a few minutes there that I could ill-afford to lose.

The first 9 miles lacked the ferocious headwinds of previous years, allowing me to keep moving at around a 11:00 min/mile to 12:00 min/mile pace. You could see the direction of the headwinds by looking at the nearby grasslands. At times I surged in response to coming up to the crew. With the time now past 8:00 AM and the temperatures expected to hit 100 degrees F in Lone Pine, the crew once again started giving me ice towels. Although I accepted, I also limited the frequency of changing the towels to keep my momentum moving as much as possible. Also, with us running low on my tried and true Chocolate GUs, they sprinkled in some other more fruity flavors much to my dislike.

This was another road which appears to have no end, although at some point 9 miles into this section, you take a 90 degree turn towards large rolling flats and the main freeway running through Lone Pine. I could finally see the turn up ahead although we had another 3 miles to get there. Pushing and pushing, all I wanted was to make the turn. The mind games played by every false summit, false turn or false ending can cause a man to go insane. All I was focused on was that turn, using the crew van which would go ahead 1 mile after each stop as a gauge for the exact distance. Cars and big rigs kept whizzing by to run supplies out to crew vans, go back to one of the small outposts or simply passing through Death Valley. Each pass brought with it the residual blow back from the displaced air that would’ve knocked my hat off if I wasn’t holding on to it each time.

Once we reached the turn, Pete just kept pounding into my head that I had to keep moving. I knew that every rise and every downhill was getting me that much closer. Find the crew van, make it to the crew van, and then repeat. I was dejected that it was already 9:30 PM and we still had over 4 miles to go, but Pete kept me moving. 3 miles, “There’s the freeway”. 2 miles, “Time to make the turn onto the 395.” Once on the 395, we alternated between walking and running with the camber of the roadway slanted at a 45 degree angle for the first mile of the home stretch. Once on the sidewalk, we started jogging once again, cruising towards the Dow Villa, and finally the Lone Pine time station. I could see Uncle Andy up ahead; I was dejected and relieved. Don Meyer was out in front waiting for me with his familiar yell for every runner that passes by: “Elite runner coming in”.

Unaware of my elapsed time, I was finally told that we arrived at 10:19 AM, or 26 hours, 19 minutes elapsed. Honestly, I was a bit shocked by this expecting that the intermittent walking had knocked me down time-wise a little harder. I kept apologizing to the crew profusely, my head drooped somewhat from the total exhaustion I was feeling and the feeling that I had let them down. I even apologized to Pete who had been pushing me so hard. Pete responded, “Are you kidding? I’m so proud of you.” The rest of the crew responded in kind, letting me rest with Wilfred stopping across the street at McDonald’s to bring me back a few fries.

The irony of my apologizes was that in reality, I actually still had a shot at going sub-30 hours considering a 3 hour, 30 minute final 12.1 mile climb was not out of the question. After a 12 minute break last year, I climbed it in almost 3 hours, 45 minutes. But at this point, I was completely beat and was unable to muster the mental or physical strength to keep going at that kind of pace. My uncle let me know, “Hey, just go at your own pace.”

After 20 minutes of lounging and trying to get un-sore, I finally headed out slowly with Kevin at my side. We began at a walking pace, making the turn half a block from the Dow Villa Motel and onto Whitney Portal road. It was hard to get my legs going again; sometimes a break can re-energize you and sometimes it only compounds the soreness in your muscles. This time, it was the latter which let me know right then and there that this would be a long walk up. Unlike last year, where I had Dave Horner racing near me to push me faster up the hill, there was very little company around. I walked, pulling my broken body towards a finish.

About a mile into the climb on the initial flat section of the road, I pulled over to do a “Number 2”. After finishing, I felt a queasy feeling in my stomach. Before I could go any further, I hunched over in a squat and puked the McDonald’s fries. Some how, extra grease and fat didn’t seem to sit to well at that moment. I followed it up with a few dry heaves before pulling myself upright to begin moving slowly again. At that point, it just merely exhaustion rather than a full-on revolt by my body. I would have to slowly rebuild my electrolytes and put some calories in me, but even that was a bit painful. I wouldn’t eat my staple of Lay’s potato chips because my mouth was incredibly dry, the GU didn’t appeal to me a whole lot and the bananas were causing me to use Nature’s Restroom too much for such a small section of the race.

The rest of the climb was predictably slow and a bit painful at times. If I had been climbing as usual, no one would have passed me. But on this day, I saw a few of 10:00 AM starters from Pam Reed to Jorge Pacheco (again). I didn’t care too much in the moment. I tried to follow on their coattails as they went by to power walk faster and even jog, but it was often too brief to make a negligible difference. A parade of crew members assisted in pacing me at various points: Kevin, Nick, Mike, Uncle Andy and finally Wilfred. They continued to remind me of what a great race we were having, but I was having none of it. I just wanted to end. About the only thing keeping me going was the electrolyte water, the Enlyten Energy strips and a little bit of heart. The crew seemed ecstatic to be finishing early on Tuesday and kept great attitudes and more great music playing on the way up to Mt. Whitney Portal.

I had no watch on, but I clearly recognized all the physical landmarks of where the finish line was. With 2.5 miles to go, I picked up the walking pace to a relatively brisk 18:00 min/mile pace for a few minutes before dropping down slightly. I knew we’d be slightly over 31 hours, but just wanted it all to end. After the final switchback, I put a little smile on my face and little more effort into my feet. The finish line approached and everyone on the crew joined me for the final 200 ft. “sprint”. I was able to put some more pep in my feet and break out into a jog before finally crossing the finish line at 1:33 PM on Tuesday, 31 hours and 33 minutes after we started. It felt good to be back.

Maybe if I hadn’t stopped at Lone Pine, I would’ve regained my composure and broken that tape in under 30 hours. Heck, what if I hadn’t lost 2 months of training to shin splints? My crew put in such a tremendous team effort and made me feel like I had nothing else to worry about except running. Who knows? They might as well call any 100+ mile race the “What If?” Ultra marathon since races that long often leave you with as many things to nitpick about what you did wrong as they do answers about what you did right. I lost a few places during that final climb, but it didn’t matter much. I will still probably look back at this race and remember how incredibly lucid and physically together I was. I will remember that most of the places that had haunted me in the past became merely points on the road on the way to my destination this year. It made me believe that so much more is possible for my ultra racing if I can keep running with the kind of discipline I was able to maintain. 5 hours is still a very nice improvement, even if I’m still left with the feeling that there remains unfinished business. We’ve improved every single year and if I do it again, I intend to see us take an even bigger leap forward. I do know that if I run this race again, there will be no more stopping at Lone Pine. There will be no more lagging after Keeler. There will be no more stopping at Darwin. There will be a smaller break at Panamint Springs. I will be faster up Townes Pass and faster through the Valley. I will be 5 lbs. lighter than this year. There will be no lingering weaknesses mental, physical or spiritual left not dealt with. I will pray more, run more, train more and raise more for Uganda. Ora Et Labora, meaning “Pray and Work”. If I run this race again, I already know what my goal will be and what my ultimate goal will be. But that I’ll keep to myself because sometimes my goals aren’t God’s goals. The most important goal is to represent God well so that at the end of the day it can be said, “Job Well, Done”. For now, I leave you with this small memoir of my experiences….Time to exorcise some more memories at Angeles Crest.