Trails of Glory
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Thursday, July 10, 2014
I had planned to spend a light summer of trail running while cross-training on the bike and focusing on corework. You know, all the stuff that most of us ultra-runners seem to ignore. Around mid-July the realization that I no longer have a Hardrock qualifier for next year's lottery means that my quest to run Hardrock 100 has come to an end. After talking with my long time friend and equally unsuccessful HR entrant Chris Fall, he convinced me to reconsider. Here is my thought process about the possibility of pulling off a 100-mile trail race in time to qualify for the Hardrock 100 lottery for 2015.
I have entered the lottery the past four years. I had 8 tickets in the 2014 lottery and next year would have 16 if I had a valid qualifying race. I could have started trying sooner and bettered my chances of getting selected to the point that I probably would have been drawn by now. My first 100-mile finish was Western States in 2006 which was considered a qualifier at that time. I was afraid of Hardrock in 2007 and 2008. I only had two hundreds under my belt, the second one being Wasatch in 2007. Hardrock is considered a post-graduate run and I was only in my second year of school preceded by an early dropout at Angeles Crest in 2003. I couldn't fathom trying something that difficult that early in my 100-mile career. Then I read some race reports and eventually traveled to Silverton, Colorado to help Bob Bachani with his race in 2009. Last year I paced him for the last 40 miles during his third finish whcih awarded him his Post-Doctorate of Distance. I've also trained on many of the trails and seen about 65% of the course. I'm not afraid anymore.
After last year's Leadville finish I should have had two years of eligibility in the lottery good through 2015. The HR Board determined that Leadville would no longer be a qualifier and allowed those of us who finished in 2013 to use it for only one year. Kind of a bullshit move if you ask me. I don't have a problem with removing Leadville but to take away a year of lottery eligibility was unnecessary. My quandary is that I would need another qualifier this year instead of backing off for a year and taking it easy; which is what I've been doing so far this summer. I basically had written off the HR post-graduate accomplishment and decided to move on although it still bothered my soul.
Now as Hardrock weekend approaches and I am sitting it out in Tucson it has occurred to me that I have put too much effort and sacrifice into making this happen to let it go. To throw it away just to start over with one ticket a couple of years from now makes no sense. How can I accomplish the seemingly impossible task of running an HR qualifier between now and December 1st?
First of all, there are very few qualifying runs left. My only two options are on the same weekend of September 27th. Bear 100 traverses the Northern Wasatch Range near the border of Utah and Idaho north of Salt Lake City starting in Logan. I finished Bear in 2009 coming off a torn hamstring four months earlier. I power hiked all of my training and had a goal of 34 hours, 2 hours under the 36 hour cut-off. I managed some light running on downhills but stuck mainly to the hiking plan and finished in just over 30 hours including a 30-minute nap. Bear is a beautiful course especially in the fall when the leaves are turning color and only one state away from Arizona for travel purposes.
The other race is much closer to home and starts in Pine, Arizona north of Payson. The Mogollon Monster is run along many of the Mogollon Rim trails and is actually 106 miles in length. A good portion of the route is on trails that I have run during my 5 Zane Grey 50-mile finishes. The race cost is $235 and I would have to complete 8 hours of volunteer work between now and then. The major plus to this option is that I can drive up there and not incur nearly the travel costs of going to Utah. Plus I could more easily get a pacer to go with me. I believe the obvious answer is to stay nearer to home and hug the Monster.
My biggest conundrum is how I get ready to attempt this feat in two and a half months with some level of confidence that I can finish in the 36-hour cutoff. Another problem is convincing my wife Trish that this is something that makes any sense at all. We've had some recent discussions and determined that running 100 miles maybe isn't the best thing for one's health. I can't deny that I have looked like death warmed over for up to a week after some of my 100-mile finishes. I think that after learning some lessons about taking care of myself during the event I have fared much better afterwards. I believe that being realistic about my current ability and accepting that 3 miles an hour from the start is the proper thing to do will lead to a successful finish.
For now I am going to plan a couple of longish (30-40 miles) mountainous trail run/hikes between now and Labor Day weekend. That gives me 3 available training weekends. I have National Guard drill on two other weekends between now and then so those are out. I could go back-to-back days on a couple of weekends and plan one overnighter. The whole goal here is to finish the 106 miles with no time goals except meeting the cut-offs and gaining my qualifier. I would have to try and not only stay awake all night but for another 12 hours the next day; excellent Hardrock training by the way.
I have to admit that the mountains are a part of who I am. The challenge of getting out there all day and night in the weather and amongst the natural beauty is something I cannot just walk away from. I am going to give myself until after Labor Day weekend to make my decision on this. Any thoughts…encouragement…stupid…crazy…impossible...are greatly appreciated.
Tuesday, April 29, 2014
The 2014 trip to Boston would be my first. I had never been to New England or run the famous Boston Marathon. I have completed over 50 marathons and ran Boston qualifying times in almost everyone of them. I had been continually asked over the years by fellow runners, family, and co-workers, "Are you going to run Boston?"
"No...why would I?" The travel costs and logistics of finding a place to stay, and the horror stories of standing around in corralled waiting areas for hours prior to the start of the race; none of this sounded fun to me. Another major factor against running Boston for me and my Guard team running compatriots is the fact that the National Guard trials marathon is only two weeks after the Boston race. Who would run Boston and expect to run a fast enough time 13 days later at Lincoln, risking not making the team for the upcoming year?
Well, after the tragedy of the Boston Marathon finish line 2013, I and every other marathoner that could qualify wanted to be in Boston April 21, 2014 to help support the event and community by displaying our presence in defiance of terrible acts of wrongdoing. I ran a minus 20 minute Boston qualifier and was reasonably certain I could attain a spot in this year's expanded field of 36,000 runners. The Guard team was also eager to represent so I traveled with a small contingent of the team. I showed up for the first time in 24 years of running marathon races.
Trish and I flew out of Phoenix on Saturday two days before the Monday race. We found a non-stop 5 plus hour flight into Logan Airport. As soon as we boarded the plane I recognized Shalane Flanagan sitting in the first row of first class. She is currently the best female marathoner in the U.S. and was heading to Boston to run her own amazing race (7th place and 3-minute PR in 2:22). The flight was filled with runners all making their own pilgrimage to the running Mecca of Beantown. The entire flight experienced abnormal turbulence. The flight attendants had their hands full trying to keep a hundred hydrating runners in their seats and out of the aisles standing in bathroom lines.
We stayed at the Constitution Inn in Charlestown, northeast of downtown Boston. The Freedom Trail right outside our door led us past the USS Constitution and the Bunker Hill Monument. Saturday evening we walked over to Warren Tavern and enjoyed a pint of Harpoon IPA. The tavern dates back to 1780 and is known for George Washington's visits for "refreshments."
On Sunday I went over to the race expo to get my race number and packet. Luckily this was the third day of the expo and many runners had already been there. It was still very busy and was abuzz with excitement and energy. Later that afternoon we stopped for lunch at a brewpub downtown next to TD Garden where the Bruins and Celtics play. There happened to be a hockey playoff game that afternoon and downtown was filled with fans wearing jerseys and pre-lubing for the game.
Finally the day of the race arrived. Boston Marathon starts unusually late in the morning compared to other races. This year they developed a 4-wave start, each 25 minutes apart with the first wave starting at 10am. Each wave was separated into 9 corrals all according to your qualifying time. I was in wave 1, corral 7, number 6433. We got dropped off by our support people at the final bus transport to Hopkinton Village. At 9am the first wave was allowed to leave for the .7 mile stretch to the start line. I spent a long time waiting in line at the port-o-johns and eventually jogged to the start around 9:30. Plans were made the previous week to meet my friend Tim Vandervlugt at the start so we could run together. He had the same wave and corral as me and with only 1,000 people in each corral I didn't think it would be that hard to find him. We agreed to meet one-third of the way back on the left hand side. I got there and looked around until less than one minute before the start when he showed up.
The weather turned out to be perfect. It was a sunny day in the low 50s with a light tailwind and a predicted high of 65 degrees. There were already hundreds of people outside of the corrals cheering for runners and offering last minute support in the form of Vaseline, band-aids, and water. There was even a group of college students offering beer, cigarettes, and donuts. A vibration of excitement filled the air as the Star Spangled Banner was sung followed by a 4-ship Blackhawk helicopter flyover. The start-gun went off and we began to walk toward the start line. It would take 5 minutes to reach the actual start before we clicked on our watches and the chip on our race bibs gave proof we had crossed the line.
My plan was to run 7:15 mile pace with Tim for 13-16 miles. Tim expressed that from there he wanted to pick-up the pace and see what he could do. I knew that I needed to purposely slow the pace after the halfway mark in order to save some energy for Lincoln in two weeks. We started out easily amongst a throng of screaming spectators. Shortly the course was lined in trees instead of people and many runners peeled off to relieve themselves after standing in line too long holding their water. This looked like a good idea and was the perfect time to take care of business. With the pit stop our first mile clocked 7:41.
Our pace quickly settled in around 7 minutes as the first part of the race course is slightly downhill. The pack did not thin out as we ran elbow to elbow and had to keep an eye out not to step on heels. The spectators along the course were like nothing I had ever witnessed. The entire route was lined with cheering and screaming fans. They were shouting, "U..S..A.., U..S..A..," and singing "Sweet Caroline," by Neil Diamond. The runners joined in on the chants and sang along with the chorus. It was incredible! I have never experienced this before, it was spiritual and motivational.
After 8 miles the pack had still not thinned out very much. My right ankle was aching a bit probably from wearing lightweight trainers instead of the Hokas I had been training in. Occasionally it seemed that the temperature was getting warmer and it might become hot but then we ran through a shady stretch and a light breeze cooled us off again. Tim and I decided to keep up the 7 minute pace until after the famous Wellesley College section of screaming female fanatics at mile 13. Around mile 12 I could hear the girls from a half-mile away. Many of them were holding signs describing their ethnicity or special talents that could be transferred to a runner by giving them a kiss. I watched many male runners zip over to the side and get a smooch. I ran by low-fiving their outstretched hands and grinning ear to ear as the high pitch of frenzied excitement continued for almost 2 miles.
After Wellesley Tim kept up the pace and I slowed to 7:30 miles. My feet and ankles were feeling the effect of pavement pounding so I lessened my pace to that of a comfortable long run. This would last until Heartbreak Hill. Never running the course before and hearing stories I could only visualize Heartbreak Hill on an elevation map. It didn't look like much but then again you have to run 20 miles to get to it. There was a hill right after the 19-mile marker that I thought was Heartbreak but it was too short. Shortly after the 20-mile marker I experienced the Heartbreak. Due to the hill it turned out to be my slowest mile split of the race at 7:50. I managed to run every step and not give into the temptation to take a walk break. At this point in the race there were dozens of people walking on the sides of the street. Whenever the desire to slow down to a walk occurred I moved over to the right side of the road and slapped hands with the multitudes of children waving their hands out for high-fives. The influx of energy and emotion from the crowd kept me moving.
With 10K to the finish my legs were tired and I searched for each mile marker. The crowds lining the course were three to five rows deep and the cheering was deafening. There were people standing on mailboxes and milk crates. At mile 24 it began to sink in that my journey on the historic Boston Marathon course would be over in 15 minutes. Part of me didn't want the race to end but physically I was aching to cross the finish line and stop and find my wife Trish.
I passed the "1K to go" marker which is just over half of a mile and then shortly after that made a left turn onto Boylston Street where last year's tragic events unfolded in the form of a terrorist bomb. Last year's horrific human-caused tragedy resulting in hundreds of injuries and three deaths would be transformed this year into a determined celebration of life. At this time the thoughts and scenes from last year did not surface as I went by mile 26 and surged for 2 tenths of a mile in order to cross the finish line amidst a screaming mob of cheers. Shortly after I stopped and walked a couple hundred feet on painful feet, ankles, and knees I collected my finisher's medal. I finally found and captured the elusive unicorn.
My finish time of 3:11:51 hopefully would prove that I saved a little for the trials in two weeks. At the 13.1 mark I was at 1:33 so my second half was 8 minutes slower than the first half. This is typical but the closer the gap is for the better. It indicates a more even paced race throughout. When the difference is over 10 minutes it usually means that you crashed and burned somewhere after 16 miles and much suffering took place. This wasn't the case for me as I managed to run every step of the way. Every finisher was provided with a lightweight poncho to keep warm and then walked through a gamut of food and drink giveaways.
The pain of running 26.2 miles slowly dissipated as I found Trish and other friends who had already finished their race. It turned out to be a beautiful afternoon in Boston on Victory Day. As we walked the 2 miles back to our hotel we noticed all of the pubs and restaurants were filled with people watching the marathon on television and enjoying libations. For the Boston Marathon, community, spectators, and runners around the world, they got their city and their marathon back. This is one day that I will never forget.
Thursday, April 10, 2014
April 5th is the 11th time that I have run to Crown King from the floor of the Phoenix desert valley. I did the 50K 10 times and the 50-mile once. Like the back of the race shirt says, "Spines to Pines." I wasn’t sure I would publish a race report this time simply because my traverse, time, and finish place aren’t unusual or amazing. The fact that I started doing CKS in 1997 and am still doing it 17 years later tells a different story.
Trish, me, and the dogs (Rangas and Reo) drove up to North Phoenix Friday night and got a hotel room 40 minutes away from the start at Lake Pleasant. The weather prediction for Saturday called for a cooler than normal day in early April. Last year was in the high 80s and this year didn’t get over 70 and was maybe 55 degrees at the finish with a 10mph breeze.
Many times in the past I only carried two hand-held 20 ounce water bottles. This is usually enough except for the warmest days. But since I’m not concerned about blazing times and a little extra weight I opted to wear a 70 ounce Nathan’s hydration pack. I knew I would only need to refill this one time but it was convenient for carrying other supplies as well; gels, e-caps, bandana, etc.
We arrived at the 6am start with 15 minutes to spare. I quickly checked in and donned my hat and sunglasses and jogged over to line-up. It’s always fun to see everyone for a minute or two before take-off. I found Scott Modzielewski (Mojo) running for his 12th plus time and shook hands with many others like Rich McKnight, Joe Galope, and Nick Coury. James Bonnett did the countdown and we were off. I don’t think I ever seen anyone take off as fast as shirtless Dave James. I thought he was in another race at first the way he sprinted off into the distance.
The first mile and a half is on rolling pavement and then onto dirt roads. The next several miles are scenic and casual cruising along at long run training pace jacking jaws with friends. I started running with Mojo and then sidled up with Paul Bonnett for awhile. The sky was partly cloudy as the sun came up in the east over Lake Pleasant. It was turning into a gorgeous morning.
As far as 5 miles into the race I ran with Bret Sarnquist for a bit. He won Mesquite Canyon 50K two weeks earlier and was using CKS as a trainer for Zane Grey 50-mile in 3 weeks. I was impressed with the way he held back and started conservatively in order to better tackle the late hills.
Like I stated earlier this is the 11th time I’ve been out here but this time I felt totally in tune with the beauty of the Sonoran Desert combined with the history of the area in the Bradshaw Mountains. I chose once again not to look at my GPS watch although I could hear the beeps every mile. I took short walk breaks on the early steep hills and pushed the pace on the long gradual downhills. The first 8-mile Cow Creek aid station came and went quickly and before I knew it I reached the 15-mile French Creek aid and hunkered down for the real challenge that lay ahead.
Miles 15-19 are probably the toughest part of the course but it’s early enough that you still have energy coming out of 15 to take it head on. That kind of strategy backfires for most people except the super strong or completely naïve. The steepest hill on the course is approaching mile 19. The best advice I can give here is to walk up it slowly. The sun is beating down on you and your legs are burning from lactic acid. Better to get to the top undamaged, fill your water bottles at the 19-mile aid at Silver Mountain, and take advantage of the very runnable next four miles into Fort Misery.
I set off on a downhill from 19 and maintained a decent clip coming into mile 23. Normally this is where the heat can be unbearable. Today was nothing but cool breezes and a moderate sweat when chugging up a hill. The aid station volunteers have a nice set-up at Fort Misery and were dressed in super hero costumes. Leaving 23 is uphill for a half-mile but has some decent runnability after that until around mile 26 when the deception takes place.
Oro Belle aid station mile 27 sits in view from way down below a couple miles away. You will lose sight of it every once in awhile as the road curves back and forth into a mountain draw. It comes back into view again and somehow isn’t any closer. You always know you’re getting nearer when you see Linda Van’s joke signs coming up the last climb to 27. Example: "This Hill Might be Easier if you Were Younger." As a bonus once you reach the long sought-after aid station there are still 2 more miles of ascent to top-out. Most people are pretty much blown at this point and end up walking to 29. It was no different for me. I got my arm swing going which helped pick up my walking pace.
With a half-mile to top-out the road turns sandy and you are in the pines. One last short climb and there sits the radio vehicle signalling the top of the hill. Here comes your reward, what you’ve been waiting for the entire day – two miles of soft dirt road in shady pines all the way to the finish, albeit in the company of several ATV riders. I breakdown the last 2 miles into three sections; first I look for the heliport sign; then the left-hand split to town; lastly I look for the cabins coming into sight on the left and you are less than a minute away – total relief!
As I mentioned I never looked at my watch and was concerned that I was much slower than last year. When the clock showed 5:25 I was surprised to be only one minute behind. I really enjoyed the course and am glad I decided to throw the clock out the window much earlier in the day.
This year Aravaipa Running lined up a new finish area which had lots of room to spread out for runners, family, and supporters. There was a band playing on stage, cheap beer specials, and an awesome spread of food catered by The Mill restaurant. It was great fun talking with the first and second place male finishers from Tucson, Gabe McGowan (4:13) and Dennis Pollow (4:19). I also ran into Mike Wilke, an old comrade in previous ultra boondoggles, who had just finished his first CKS.
After a 5-year hiatus Crown King Scramble 50K made a comeback in 2013 and is just as healthy this year. All of the new people that ran this year need to bring two friends next year. At one time in the late 90's and early 2000’s CKS was the fifth largest 50K in the United States. The main allure to come out to this race is the camaraderie everyone shares trying to conquer the climb and then join the party at the finish. You really can’t turn around and quit. It may take all day but you will get there.
Thursday, March 27, 2014
I woke up at 3:30am the morning of the race to drive to White TankMountain Regional Park in Waddell, Arizona, 173 miles from my house in Vail, Arizona. The 50K start time is at 7:30 so leaving the house at 4:15 was necessary to arrive there by 7am and get ready. The sun started to rise on the White Tank Mountains while I was still driving west on I-10 near Avondale. I had never given much thought to that big range west of Phoenix during past trips to California. Now those same mountains held many mysteries as to what I should expect over the next several hours of trail running.
One of the coolest things about being part of Team Aravaipa this year, besides my awesome teammates, is that I have experienced several new mountain trails that I never knew existed in the Phoenix Valley. I pulled into the overflow parking lot just in time to pin on my race number and stash my after-race bag. The temperature at the start is already in the low 60s with a forecast high of 82 degrees. I line up next to Jane Larkindale and her husband Jim Holmes, both of whom also drove up from the Tucson area. Jane won the 50-mile event last year. She like many other runners are here to get a good training run in for Zane Grey 50M in 5 weeks. I'm here to ramp up my race distance in preparation for Crown King 50K in just 2 weeks.
My plan was to do a training 50K on this semi-mountainous single-track trail. I use the word semi because the highest elevation is around 3200 feet and the toughest climb on the course is 1700 feet over 3 miles. No drop in the bucket but definitely not alpine. One logistical factor of note is that there are 9 miles without aid or water between miles 4 and 13 and returning from 13 to 22. This prompted me to use a 70 ounce hydration pack. I also carried a 20 ounce hand-held for electrolyte fluids. I did notice several runners only carrying 2 hand-held bottles. I’m not a big hydration freak but knowing that the course is exposed on a sunny 80 degree day made my decision easy. Luckily there were light breezes up on the higher trails as well as some wispy clouds to take the bite out of the direct sunlight.
I have been regularly training in the Hoka One One Rapa Nui trail shoes and wore them during the race. They seem to be holding up well at over 300 cumulative miles. The week prior I used the Rapa Nui on the 21 mile Esperero Loop in Tucson, gaining 5,000 feet in 8 miles and then mainly descending over the next 13 miles. My quads were abnormally sore for four days after that run and I was concerned the Hokas were losing their magic. It turned out that it was just Esperero being difficult.
I clicked my Garmin on but made a conscious decision to not look at my time during the entire race. I started off at a conversational pace for the first two miles. After reviewing the elevation profile I knew somewhere around mile 3 would be the start of a 7-mile 1600 foot gradual ascent. The profile looks worse on paper than it feels while actually running. After some initial short steep sections the trail is very runnable even on the gradual uphills. I don’t mind walking up hills when needed but the majority of the uphill through Mesquite and Slick Rock canyons is doable even if only in granny gear.
(Aravaipa Photo Gallery)
By mile 5 the field had thinned out and I focused on bodily feedback while enjoying the beautiful desert views. The trail ascends along canyon walls and as you get higher the views of the surrounding valley are expansive. Thankfully we got a good soaking of rain a couple weeks ago; the wildflowers were in full bloom and very fragrant. Jeremy Dougherty caught up with me on the last mile of ascent on this section. We chatted about how great the day was turning out. After topping out at 10 miles the course drops precipitously for 2 miles through an obstacle course of ankle twisting rocks. Jeremy’s ability to negotiate the downhill was better than mine and he quickly disappeared ahead of me. The first 30K runners coincidentally were halfway up their ascent from the Black Canyon aid station.
(Aravaipa Photo Gallery)
The descent into Goat Canyon is a preview of the climb back up from the 13-mile Black Canyon aid station. By the time I reached the turaround and aid the temperature at 1500 feet elevation was noticeably warmer than up on the higher trail. This was especially evident running through the sandy sections on the way back into Goat Canyon and climbing out to the top-out at mile 16. Occasionally as I passed other runners on the uphill I noticed several were sweating profusely and taking breaks. This served as a good reminder to ingest a couple of electrolyte caps.
Speaking of nutrition here’s how my day went. I carried 5 GU salty caramel gels and only used 3 of them. These are delicious by the way and have 20mgs of caffeine. I drank three 20 ounce bottles of Gatorade and a small cup of ginger ale. At the 13-mile aid station my 70 ounce hydration pack was still half full and only needed another 20 ounce refill at mile 22. So in total I drank 60 ounces of electrolyte fluid and another 70 ounces of water over 5 hours. I used 4 e-caps and 600mgs of liqui-gel ibuprofen. I also had about a half-dozen Tums and a single ginger capsule to settle any stomach issues. Oh yeah, I had a small handful of peanut M&Ms at mile 5 and a half of a tortilla wrap at mile 13.
(Aravaipa Photo Gallery)
After topping out at mile 16 on the return to Mesquite aid station, the course gradually descends for 6 miles providing excellent single-track running. Through here I struck up a conversation with Andrew Heard. We both shared our positive experience with the Rapa Nui Hoka shoes. It seems we both found some form of nirvana with the Hokas. After the aid station at mile 22 the next four miles of trail undulates through Willow Canyon. I was amazed by the beauty of multitudes of wild flowers and classic Sonoran Desert vegetation in all of its spring greenery. Then all of a sudden the real adventure began – Ford Canyon.
“Fear the Ford,” I had heard many say before the race. “It gets hot in there.” Ford Canyon is 2.5 miles of gradually descending wash and boulders. It reminded me of hiking through a riverbed and getting to places that you have to backtrack in order to find better passage. Except on Ford Canyon the trail keeps going. I managed to shuffle as much as possible in between climbing boulders and jumping down off of rock ledges. Through 27 miles of the course I had yet to see water until Ford Canyon. There were stagnant pools from previous rainfall. A couple of times I had to splash through pools of water getting my feet wet for the first time.
(Aravaipa Photo Gallery)
(Photo: Giridar Gajapathy)
(Aravaipa Photo Gallery)
Eventually the trail scrabbled up the side of the canyon and continued for another mile to the Ford Canyon aid station. I thought I had around 3 miles remaining but the aid station volunteers said 1.9 miles to go. This was joy to my ears. I pushed the pace into the finish and for the first time looked at the clock to see 5:19. I ended up in 9th place overall. The first master runner had just finished one minute ago unbeknownst to me.
Overall it turned out to be a fabulous day. The trail had mostly pristine single-track with lots of runnability and an interesting diversion through Ford Canyon. I finished the run feeling great physically, no cramps, nausea, or overheating. Unfortunately I still needed to drive 173 miles home.
Aravaipa Running really does a tremendous job organizing their races; from sign-up to the start line; course marking and aid stations; and the finish line and post-race festivities. Mesquite Canyon is definitely a race to put on your list of adventures.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
What makes you want to go back to the same races year after year, especially when there are are countless opportunities to do something different? Is it the scenery, the challenge, camaraderie, or maybe the great post-race party? Looking back I recall making the comment that I don’t care to do the same things over and over again. But as time has passed I haven't always lived up to that claim. To start with, I have been employed at the same job for 20 years. I have served in the military for 29 years and counting. I did a 100-mile trail race that involved going around the same loop 6 times and I once ran around a quarter-mile track 369 times in 24 hours. Maybe I am a creature of habit.
Repetition is built into our nature. The sun rises, we brush our teeth, drink our coffee, and drive to the same job on the same roads at the same time everyday. These are the type of activities that can make life mundane until we learn to identify the subtle nuances. What most often alters our experience are different
flavors and toppings, cloudy versus sunny, rain or snow, beer or wine, wisdom and knowledge, and meeting new people.
I discovered certain running events to be so attractive that I found myself signing up for them year after year only realizing several years later, “Hey! I’m doing the same thing over and over again. What gives?” Upon reflection I remember what drew me back; the changing conditions, the new friendships, and hoping to improve my time. That’s what this article is about; those repetitive events in life that I went back to more than 3 times and what it was that made me want to go back.
1. Air Force Marathon, Dayton, Ohio, 4 times – This race is my least favorite of come back races. So why did I continue to go back? The inaugural Air Force Marathon started in 1997 in celebration of the Air Force’s 50th anniversary. They gave finishers a really cool medal displaying a different aircraft every year. The medals are big and the first one had the Wright Brothers aircraft on it. The race was held in mid-September and it turned out to typically be warm and humid. It is a road course with many long straight-aways and a circuitous 10K journey around a very flat airfield. There are a couple nasty hills between miles 21-24 and then you can see the finish line 2 miles away.
That year I was in my marathon running prime and I ran a fast race and finished in the top 5 and won some nice gifts. The weather killed me though and after the race was over I nearly collapsed and spent a half hour laying in the grass and the shade of a vehicle, eliminating the contents of my stomach. Being that the race was new and I had never participated in an inaugural event I thought it would be neat to try and go back every year. You always see these people raise there hand to proclaim they have run all 37 years. And I always wondered how in the world they pulled that off? Well I thought this could be my event. I went back the next two years and battled the humidity of central Ohio in late summer. I finally gave it up but did end up revisiting the race 9 years later when they changed the course to eliminate some of the nasty hills in the late part of the race.
2. Marine Corps Marathon, Washington, D.C., 5 times – Marine Corps will always have a special and historical place in my heart. It was my first marathon and I was serving in the Marine Corps when I ran it. There are also painful memories associated with that race. I was 19 years old in 1986 and not very prepared for the marathon distance. Previously I had run two half-marathons going back to my junior year of high school. Those were my longest runs. I had been running 5 miles 4 times per week in the two months leading up to the race but had no real long run training. Race day came and after 13 miles I ran into uncharted territory. I made it to 20 miles and hit the wall. I was bonking and my legs began to feel like washcloths being wrung out of moisture. I walked most of the last 10K and eventually finished. I took a hiatus from running after that and never got serious about running again until 5 years later. I revisited the race in 1992 and took nearly an hour off my time.
Marine Corps is held in late October and the weather can be unpredictable; some days are really windy, others hot, and oftentimes very cold. The leaves are changing color and the course runs a circuitous route through many of the Capitol Mall monuments. The finish is up a short steep hill that takes you to the base of the Iwo Jima Memorial. I ran the course 3 more times over the next decade with my last race in 2003. In 1997 it started to rain after the gun went off and never stopped. I always enjoyed walking the Mall the day after the race to get the blood flowing in tired legs. Marine Corps Marathon has become one of the largest marathons in our country capping registration at 30,000 participants.
3. Zane Grey 50-Mile Trail Race, Payson, Arizona, 5 times – I first ran Zane Grey in 2000. I had 3 other 50-mile races under my belt as well as a few 50Ks and felt I was ready for what was arguably considered the toughest 50-mile race in the country. You had better be prepared when going to ZG; this course will eat you alive and spit you back out if you’re not careful. My first adventure on this course that runs just under the Mogollon Rim involved getting lost off course two different times. I finished in 11:30, the longest time that I had ever run in racing or training. The trail has everything that a trail runner can imagine; undulating hills, rocky unrelenting trail with washed out sections, pine forests, and beautiful expansive views of the desert below. The other thing ZG can have a lot of too in late April is 90 degree heat which makes a recipe for nausea and cramps.
It took me a couple of years to get the gumption to go back and try ZG again after the first time. I ran the race in 2003 when Bob Redwanc first directed the race. He succeeded in making the race nationally recognized as part of the Montrail Trail Race series. Many of the top trail runners of the day showed up and the day turned out to be highly competitive. I ran what would prove to be my best time of 10 hours, suffering from debilitating leg cramps out of the 44-mile aid station. I used ZG as a trainer race in 2006 prior to my first 100-mile finish at Western States two months later. I truly believe that anyone planning to run a 100-mile race can benefit from what ZG has to offer as far as mental conditioning and body fueling lessons. I actually chose to run ZG two years in a row, 2011 and 2012. I opted to take 2013 off. This is one tough course.
4. Pemberton 50K, Fountain Hills, Arizona, 6 times – Pemberton has become one of those great races where you will find everyone you know. It is held in early February before it gets warm and usually doesn’t snow. The Pemberton loop in the McDowell Mountains has become very familiar to many people especially since Javalina 100 began several years ago. The race is a two-loop route of 15.5 miles with very little hill climbing all on dirt single-track trail. The race date is perfect as it is a good early year trainer for Old Pueblo 50-mile and Zane Grey later in the spring.
I first met Brian Wieck, the race director, as a local ultra-runner before he moved to Helena, Montana. Every winter he visits his family in Fountain Hills and directs the 50K. If you are looking to set a personal best or make the jump from the marathon to the challenging distance of 31 miles then this is the course for you. Brian’s mother makes several crock pots of delicious chili to eat at the finish.
5. Crown King Scramble 50K and 50-mile, Lake Pleasant to Crown King, Arizona, 10 times and counting – Crown King is where I cut my ultra-running teeth in 1997. I had been getting burned out running road marathons and often times during the winters in Tucson I ran the back country trails with my running buddies. One day on a long run a friend of mine, Darryl Wagner, started telling a story about an adventure he had earlier in the year 1995. He spoke of a race that starts on the desert floor at 2,000 feet of elevation at Lake Pleasant northwest of Phoenix. From there he ran up and down dusty roads for 15 miles where the race became drastically more difficult for the next 14 miles. The route turned into rough jeep roads with steep climbs and searing sunshine. At mile 29 he topped out on the course near 7,000 feet of elevation at which point he stumbled downhill for two miles into the town of Crown King and collapsed. This sounded intriguing.
I signed up for CK in 1997 as my first attempt at a distance beyond the marathon. There are some logistics to consider as this race is point-to-point. My wife Trish dropped me off at the start and then went back to the hotel with the kids and dog before driving to Crown King to see me finish. The race was difficult as advertised. I ran it like a marathon and paid later on the hills. Due to a bit of ultra-running naivety I managed to finish ahead of all other runners but collapsed in a state of bodily shock after the finish line. I vowed never to do that again until the race director Mike Sheedy offered to compensate my entry for next year’s race. The game was on. I went back 8 years in a row.
After 5 CK finishes, I fast-hiked the entire course in combat boots due to a high ankle problem. Another year I decided to do the unthinkable and take on the 50-mile course. The 50-miler starts at 3am on a dirt road outside the town of Wickenburg. After 21 miles the course joins the 50K course and then the real fun begins. I outran the early water stations that morning and ended up going 10 miles without fluids between miles 7 and 17. Apparently I didn’t suffer too greatly as I managed to win the race that year.
Crown King became an annual party for many of our running friends. Every year a few more people would come up and run or just go to Crown King for the socializing afterwards. We rented cabins in the pines and relaxed for one or two days in the mountains. Trish ran the race 5 times and we managed to convince many of our friends to do their first ultra at Crown King too. The race was discontinued after 2007 and just last year in 2013 was resurrected by the Coury Brothers and James Bonnett. This is really cool to see as James has been a top finisher at the early age of 15 and even outkicked me coming down the hill to the finish. I went back last year and am signed up for April 2014 for my 11th scramble to the town of Crown King.
6. Kauai Marathon and Half, Kauai, HI, 5 times and counting – Kauai is one of those experiences that grow on you. We had the good fortune to be able to visit the island for the first time in 2009. I had just healed from a hamstring tear a few months earlier and could only safely run the half-marathon. Kauai is nicknamed “The Garden Island” and deserves its moniker. The race starts on the southern part of the island at Poipu Beach and runs a circuit through the Tunnel of Trees at sunrise. Most mornings at 6am there is light rain and a gentle breeze to help you coo off before the warmth of Labor Day weekend.
2009 also happened to be the inaugural Kauai Marathon and Half-marathon race. It was special to be able to be a part of something new. I ran the half-marathon the first year coming off of a hamstring tear. We traveled again in 2010 when I completed the full marathon distance. Once the course splits off from the half-marathon at 11 miles the marathon course enters into a hilly part of the island away from the coastline. I encountered long gradual hills, short steep hills, and long steep hills. The course goes through small communities on the island and the aid stations reflect a very local flair. After experiencing the full marathon I was hooked. By the way, you can count on adding about 10 minutes to your current marathon time due to the hills and sometimes muggy weather if the clouds break too early in the morning.
When I say Kauai grows on you I mean that after spending the winter in Tucson and experiencing the dry heat of summer, I begin to dream of tropical breezes, cool waves, salt air, and pina coladas. Thus we made the trip back in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Last year’s race came two weeks after completing Leadville 100. It was my slowest Kauai marathon but I still managed to win my age group. The race organizers bestow a repeat medal for those runners who have entered and finished every year. In 2014 I am going for the Six-peat. This really could be the race that someday I can say I ran all 25 years of the race.
7. Lincoln Marathon, All-National Guard Trials, Lincoln, Nebraska, 18 times and counting – How to tell the story of Lincoln? I think that all of the details on that one will have to wait for the book. Suffice it to say that nobody does something 18 times unless there is a very compelling reason. Mine was the fact that since I renewed myself as a runner in 1991 I discovered that the National Guard has a marathon running team and that to be a part of the team you have to go to Lincoln every May and compete against all of the top National Guard marathoners in the country. The team selection is renewed annually thus the need to update your status on the team by running the marathon every year.
The benefits of team participation are many; like traveling to events around the country and representing the team and the military at expo booths and wearing the Guard team uniform in races. After making the team the first time in 1992, my third marathon and my second since October of 1991, I couldn’t wait until next year to go back. It became a family affair where my best friends have been made. Trish has traveled with me many times and ran the half-marathon at least a half-dozen times. I went to Lincoln for 9 straight years before I missed a year. I ran with the Minnesota team for 3 years before moving to Arizona where I eventually became the State coordinator.
I DNF’d in 2004 due to an injury and missed 2005-06 due to other military training. I revisited the team in 2007 and haven’t missed since. 2014 will be my 19th finish in 23 years. A lot of people think that traveling to Lincoln every year for over 20 years is a bit strange and I couldn’t argue. It is the Midwest and the weather isn’t usually pleasant and unpredictable in the early springtime. It is middle-America though and a good central point for the all of the states to include four territories to travel to. The race course and organization is top notch as well. You won’t find a better supported race anywhere with the community out in full force as well as the Nebraska Army and Air National Guard setting everything up and taking it all down.
As long as I am a member of the National Guard I will go to Lincoln in order to see if I can continue to make the All-Guard team. Quite honestly, it’s really the main impetus for me to stay in the Guard.
As you can see, what makes me go back is the camraderie, the scenery, the renewed challenge, and the friendships. What makes you want to go back?
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Matt Chamberlain carries the primary blame for the initiation of the following boondoggle. On the 19th of October, Matt sent an e-mail to the TTR group with the idea of a double range crossing of the two major mountain ranges surrounding Tucson, the Rincons and the Santa Catalinas. We have all been running up and down and around these ranges for decades and telling stories. What hasn’t happened except in pure idea and speculation was how to traverse both ranges in one day. I recall speaking of a similar plan in 1998 involving something like starting in Happy Valley at Miller Creek and ending up at Catalina State Park at the end of Romero in the vicinity of 48 miles. Sure, anyone could pull this off with enough help and the right weather and maybe another runner in the same physical condition and mindset. I have heard others chat about such things but the chatter never went beyond a dream and then the subject was dropped.
I responded to Matt’s e-mail and then waited for the proposition of trail routes. In the meantime I drummed up other parties that are known for their boondoggling abilities. Jerry Riddick is always good for a double or triple range attempt. I know this by hearing him talk of Santa Rita, Patagonia, and Huachuca crossings. Chris Fall and I drew up a plan called the “Four Headed Monster” four years ago involving the ascension of all four major peaks surrounding Tucson in one day. We had finished Mica and Wrightson on the hottest day of that year so far and scratched. Matt completed his first 100 mile last summer at Lake Tahoe on a double out and back 50 mile course. Mike Wilke and Matt have both attempted the double range crossing in previous years and were held up by snow and injuries. I had just finished my first 100 mile at Western States this past summer after a DNF at Angeles Crest in 2003. Raoul Erickson said he was in. I had never met Raoul until now but he looked like he was capable of doing anything he set his mind to.
We got together one week out to finalize logistics and the route. We had determined to start no later than 7am on the 25th of November. I went home and told my wife Trish what the plan was and it might involve 18 to 24 hours. Since Thanksgiving is a four day weekend I could afford to kill a day. She said “Why don’t you guys quit planning and talking, and finish something for once.” Good point.
We showed up at Raoul’s “DON’T EVER PARK IN FRONT OF” door by 4th Avenue Saturday morning at 5am for transportation in his Suburban out to Happy Valley on the eastside of the Rincons. Steve Olsen from Oro Valley showed up for the first half of the run as well as Jerry Riddick. Those two both agreed to wear dresses because of the shortened route. Chris then showed up and said he was only going halfway so we let them off the hook because we didn’t have a third dress. Raoul had “company” from out of town drop in late so he had to opt out completely. He also had to arrange last minute transportation due to the Suburban being unserviceable.
We headed out in two pick-up trucks being driven by Raoul and his friend Oscar. We made it to the Turkey Creek trailhead at 6:40am. You can start at the 6.2 miles to Deer Head Spring sign or drive 4WD into the 4.6 mile option. We drove in. By 6:55am we had donned our packs, took photos and were up the trail before sunrise.
Basically a run of this magnitude, whether stopping at Molino Basin or going the whole way to Oracle involves early caloric intake and continuous hydration. All of us were well stocked with 100+ ounces of water and energy drink and plenty of snacks, gels and energy bars. The plan for aid was as follows: At the 5 to 6 hour mark Tom Kittle was meeting us at Redington Pass at FR 37 with drop bags and water as well as Ross Zimmerman with water and Gatorade. Ross wanted to come out and scout around on his mountain bike for next weekend’s 50K. From here Tom, and it turned out Ross and Pam also, were to drive over to Molino Basin Campground with more drop bags and water. Jerry’s wife Cathy was also scheduled to pick himself, Chris and Steve up for a ride back to town and home. Mike, Matt and I had drops ready for Tom to leave at the fire station at the Control Road at mile marker 25 on Mount Lemmon. That was our assisted plan. We had back-ups like chemical treatments for spring water and the old dependable spigot at the Palisades bathrooms. Also, we were still uncertain of a ride home from Oracle that night or next morning or Sunday afternoon.
As I write this I know Matt is putting together a more technical description of the route and splits so I won’t go into as much detail. (At this point in time none of us owned a GPS watch, we did have cell phones though). I’ll give a brief overview of the route and describe the highlights of the day as I witnessed them. Like I said, we started at Turkey Creek TH and climbed up to Deer Head Spring and went north toward Spud Rock then through Mica Meadow and on to Italian Spring Trail. We decided not to go through Manning Camp or over the actual top of Mica Mountain. Steve and Matt have never been to the peak so we took a short break before heading down Italian Springs while they took the detour to bag the peak. The temp at the start of the run was near 50 degrees and the skies were clear with light winds. By the time we reached the top the temps were near 40 and the scenery was the best I have ever witnessed in my several trips to this mountain. There was some frost in the shady areas and Deer Head Spring was green and beautiful. The trail conditions were quite immaculate in comparison to others we would cover later that day.
After a short rest while Matt and Steve looked at the 8,666 sign on Mica Mountain we headed down the Italian Springs Trail. So far most of the trails we covered were virgin to me. I had never been on any of the trails on the east and north side of the peak before so this was a real treat. The views from Italian Springs upon first descent are expansive to the east and west. The rock formations along the trail a couple of miles down are similar to Texas Canyon east of Benson. The trail is rough in spots but it appears that the Forest Service is in the process of working on many areas. As we got to the lower elevation we had to go through a couple of different gates. Trying to figure out accurate mileage through here is like taking the average of several different stories. Anyway, as we ran toward Redington Road I looked to the northwest at the immensity of the Catalina range in the distance and realized that we had a very long way to go.
We hit Redington at five hours, almost an hour earlier than we estimated. Ross was here already on his bike and met us on the trail. He had water and Gatorade at the Trooper. We filled up and ate food out of our packs. Tom was expected around six hours so we figured we had enough water that Ross could give him the message to go to Molino. Just as we crossed the road to the trailhead Tom came driving up. At least now we could grab some more food and change into t-shirts. The portion of trail through Redington and Bellota Ranch is very runnable as it gradually descends for six or seven miles before coming to West Spring Tank. From there the trails climbs steeply to East Saddle before dropping over the north side 1.2 miles into Molino Basin. The entire section from Redington to Molino is advertised at 10 miles.
The pace and banter through the mid-day was very casual. The temperature never seemed to get above 70 degrees and there were wispy clouds to take the bite out of the sun. Every couple of miles we stopped and snacked and talked. Someone mentioned that the reason they had decided not to run the whole thing is that they hadn’t done enough training to get ready for it. I said “This is what you do to get ready for other runs.”
The 10 mile section took us about 3 hours. The climb up to the saddle was slow going but the reward was you could see the world below on both sides of the saddle. We arrived at Molino before 4pm and ate dinner.
Dinner for me consisted of a thermos of still warm mashed potatoes and bacon, a cold chicken burrito, cantaloupe, salt and vinegar chips all washed down with an Ensure. I really felt good after that. Chris, Steve and Jerry were elated to be finished while Matt, Mike and I were watching the sun drop by the minute. We spent 45 minutes or so socializing and packing warm clothes and flashlights for the night traverse. Eventually we walked out to the trail and ascended our way to Prison Camp.
By the time we reached the Sycamore Reservoir TH the sun had set with a pale glow in the background of the Arizona Trail sign. With the wispy clouds the sunset was awesome as a backdrop to the many rock formations in the front range of the Catalinas. It was still dusk as we descended to the reservoir and luckily just light enough to manage our way up to the Bear Canyon intersection without turning on our lights. We began the descent to Palisades with adapted night eyes but nothing could prevent some trepidation crossing the landslide ruts that crossed the trail. Maybe the drop-offs below looked worse because of the darkness. Right after crossing the first slide Mike slipped off the trail and I thought he was going down. Just as I was reaching down to grab his hand he caught a foothold and steadied himself. Hmmm, good time to pull out the flashlights.
We reached the Palisades junction sign and discovered there was a washout right at the bottom where trail used to cross. We climbed up over the boulders and searched for signs of trails in the bushes and overgrowth. Matt turned out to be the best route finder in the night and once again was on while Mike and I were getting poked in the head with sticks and Cholla branches. Here again maybe the darkness exaggerated the poor condition of the trail but I found it to be overgrown so badly that our pace became a slog. It wasn’t pitch black due to the city lights which became lighter as we got higher. The moon was unsubstantial at about less than a quarter darting in and out of light clouds. We finally reached the bench rock overlook and took a snack break and broke out some warmer clothing. The trail from here to Mud Springs never improved except through the large boulder section where the weeds are less. As we approached the gully leading up to Mud Springs we could look off to our right and see the black abyss of Pine Canyon. I felt like we were headed into the belly of the whale as we crawled through the rocks and trees in the gully. Except for several matchsticks across the trail after the springs, the trail was easy to follow on up to Showers Point Campground. About a mile from the campground is where I began to feel chilled as the wind whipped up.
We stopped for a bite to eat just before the dirt road leading to Mt. Lemmon. I had already donned my light shell jacket over my long sleeve Coolmax shirt. Due to the Camelbak making my back wet from sweat I couldn’t get warm sitting there. This is the first time the thought crossed my mind about hypothermia. Oh, I wasn’t even close, but conditions would get worse being it was only 10pm. Doubt crept in so I got up and moved out briskly to the restrooms at Palisades. Palisades is where our run plan first encountered a symptom of failure. The water spigot was capped. We had gone the last five and a half hours without a refill. Due to the extraneous weight carried in our packs it is hard to accurately determine how much water remains in the bladder as you are going along. Each of us pulled our bladders out of our packs and were reminded of a bad dream during Christmas. We each had around 20 ounces to carry us five miles up the road to the fire station. This was doable. Unspoken thoughts start to occur when fear creeps in. I went into the bathroom out of the wind and put on my pants and stocking cap and wondered if it made any sense to call Trish to ask her to drive up and get me. It felt good in the bathroom with no wind and I could sip my water but I was low on food. I knew we had our food and water drop five miles up a paved road. How long could it take; an hour? Mike was in the other bathroom and Matt seemed just as calm as ever. We rallied up and fast hiked up the hill till we got warm. The wind was blowing at our backs as we watched the city lights. Once we topped the hill above Spencer Campground there was renewed motivation to shuffle down to the Butterfly TH.
One drawback to wearing pants to stay warm is that when sweat is generated through body heat then all the cuts and scrapes from earlier shiggy get reinvigorated. This happened several times through the night. We reached the fire station at midnight and found the stash that Tom dropped earlier in the day. There was light from a lamppost to see so we huddled behind the building to avoid the wind and eat our dinner. I had a Rockstar Juiced in my bag which provided the equivalent of about four cups of coffee. I also had a chicken chimichanga and more cantaloupe. We finally realized we had better get our butts off the ground and get moving to stay warm. Unspoken thought number two occurred as I watched Matt and Mike putting on more warm clothes. “Why didn’t I pack more clothes?” “I wonder if they have anything to spare?”
We reached the Oracle Ridge TH and read the sign that said 12.5 miles to Oracle. At three miles an hour we’ll be done by 4am, cool. Not quite. I never realized there could be so much uphill on a gradually descending ridge. There were several other criss-crossing road options and since the route used the road at times it was sometimes uncertain where we were. At times we would veer off trail onto cattle trails until they died out and we backtracked to the real trail. At least twice I felt sleepy and wanted to fall down into the weeds near the barbed wire fence and take a nap. I occasionally wondered why it looked like Mike and Matt never got sleepy. Maybe they were but I just couldn’t tell. Unspoken thought number three occurred at this time. “Do you guys want to stop and take a 10 minute nap?” But then I thought, “What if we wake up and the sun is shining overhead?” “Trish will definitely be worried because I didn’t call.” I last talked to her at East Saddle and joked that I would either be home in time for dinner if I opted out at Molino or in time for breakfast if I went all the way. It had been twelve hours since I talked to her last so I figured she was already wondering where we were; so the nap was out of the question.
There was not much talking. We took turns leading trail depending on when one of us would get off and the one behind became the new leader. After 5 hours we finally reached the AZ trail intersection that drops to Cody Loop Road in 1.8 miles or Mt. Lemmon Highway in 2.4. We had our hearts set on the 1.8. I called Steve Olsen at home to give him a heads up and his wife answered the phone and said he was already at the trailhead. I called his cell and he answered and said he was at the end of the 2.4 mile section. Luckily he was amenable to finding the other trail and we shuffled our fastest 1.8 mile split for the entire night. Steve was there when we finished and took our pictures. It was just after 6am and there was distant light in the sky. Steve took us to Circle K for cappuccinos and then brought us back to Raoul’s place to our cars. We grabbed our stuff from Steve’s truck and exchanged congratulations. I told Matt, “I’m not crazy; you’re the one who’s crazy." "Wait at least a month before announcing the next boondoggle so we have time to reminisce about this one.”
In the end we spent 23 hours and 12 minutes traversing 60 miles on ‘pointless, unnecessary work.’ Thank you to Tom Kittle for spending his day with his kids driving around the mountains; Ross and Pam for being out there especially at Molino with cheerful faces; and especially to Steve for his generosity and sacrifice early in the morning to help out our wayward souls. For future double range crossers who want to raise the bar I would suggest an extra jacket and start two to three hours earlier as you will still have light up to Mud Springs on Palisades. The extra daylight would enable a Box Camp trail option letting you out further up the road past Spencer Canyon. Another idea would be to start in Oracle and get Oracle Ridge and it's myriad option of trails done first. If anyone is up for an adventure let me know, I am an official boondoggler.