I was on a roll with this blog for a couple of years. I enjoyed writing about my triumphs and difficulties, and helping others locate quality races to run and where to run in various cities. I’m not proud of the fact that it’s been 9 months since my last post. As much as I love running and the running community, things went sideways for me late last year.
I suffered a nasty back strain in early December that reduced me to shuffling with trekking poles just to make it from one room of my home to the next. The pain of my spinal column crushing nerves and muscle tissue each time I tried to rise from bed is something I would never wish on another living being. I finally returned to walking, and, in late January, I ran a few miles.
Through work layoffs for my wife and I, a move from Portland to Bend, family bereavement, and enduring illness, maintaining a positive outlook on a day-to-day basis has been difficult. I’ve struggled mentally and emotionally with my physical limits, while trying to return to form after my back injury. I was buoyed by a visit from my parents, who cheered me on to my first race finish of 2017, the Bend Half Marathon. I felt slow, but optimistic as I thought I was progressing at a good clip at the time.
I struggled to break through the 15 mile barrier on subsequent long training runs. Eventually, I entered the Under Armour Mt. Bachelor 50k on the weekend of my 38th birthday, and suffered my first DNF, dropping out at Mile 22 after my body decided to stop accepting food at mile 10, and stop sweating soon after. On a hot, dusty day on the mountain, I realized for the first time that I might not regain that level of endurance and fitness I prided myself on for the last couple years.
As usual, running and the running community have supported and encouraged me. Throughout the summer, I’ve worked hard on core strength, hip flexibility, and hill workouts. My wife and I started attending Max King’s Tuesday Performance Group runs to improve our speed and meet more locals. I’m a long way off from where I want to be, but I’m getting there. And I’m proud of the progress I’ve made, despite setbacks that include a 3 week period in August where I couldn’t run because of another back strain. Over these last 9 months, I’ve felt distance between myself and the running community. Distance from the like-minded folks who made my last few years so great. I was excited to celebrate in the triumphs of my fellow runners, but to not be able to join in the shared efforts has been a hard pill to swallow.
But just 11 days ago, something happened that pulled me back into the running community entirely. An irresponsible kid with a smoke bomb lit a fire on a popular trail in the Gorge. My home turf. The place where I learned to run trail. The place where I learned to love the green forests of Oregon. The place where so many people have achieved incredible things in their running careers and have learned to love the trails. I was heartbroken; devastated.
My coping mechanism for the wildfires decimating the Gorge was supposed to be running in itself. Alas, the smoke in Central Oregon is so bad from wildfires, that I’ve been reduced to spending time on treadmills, putting in long, boring miles while staring into a parking lot and wishing I could time travel to one year ago.
But some good has come from the treadmill sessions. With so little to distract me, my mind wandered endlessly. I considered the sadness of the Eagle Creek fire in the Gorge and the people who are working hard to prevent the fire from getting worse. I considered the people who worked so hard to save the Gorge from corporate interests in the first place and how their work might just be starting all over again with opportunistic companies looking to profit from the lost beauty of the Gorge.
I came to a conclusion. I have web development skills. I have running skills. I’m going to organize a virtual race as a fundraiser for the original defenders of the Gorge: Friends of the Columbia Gorge.
Putting this race together has been extremely cathartic for me. So many people have joined in to help. From promoting the race, to donating, to registering, I’m thrilled each time I receive a notice that someone else has contributed or wants to be a part of it.
Crafted by Grant Garrett
And so, Race for the Trails is a reality. 100% of the proceeds are going to Friends of the Columbia Gorge. Promotional partners are coming on board. People from the other side of the globe have gotten involved. People I’ve never met are joining the cause and showing what this community is made of. We’re going to make a difference. We’re going to put the Gorge trails back together again. And we’re going to make sure that this never happens again, so future visitors can discover the forest, the trails, and learn to love trailrunning the same way I did. The same way so many people in the PNW have. Thanks to those of you who have already contributed and registered. Thanks to those of you who will in the future.
As of the writing of this post, the Eagle Creek fire is only 13% contained. We have a long road ahead of us, but the collective rolling up of sleeves is something to behold. Let’s get to work.
I was going to write up a long post about the challenges, successes, trials, and tribulations of 2016, but I decided to do something a little more fun instead. Click here to see my statistics and feelings about 2016 and a little bit about my plan for 2017.
The race had just begun and I was already arriving at my first water crossing. Ten or fifteen feet of water cut across the beach. There was no avoiding it. As I leapt forward toward the hard sand of the shoreline, I brought my knees higher to blast through the water. I felt it coming on, but either didn’t want to or couldn’t stop it: my idiotic grin exploded into maniacal laughter.
This is how the Oregon Coast 50k started for me. My first race with Rainshadow Running was meant to be the Gorge Waterfalls 100k in Spring, but after a winter of difficult training and minor injuries, I decided to pull out of that race. The good people at Rainshadow Running were kind enough to allow me to transfer most of my entry fee to this race. I ran several other races this year. I attempted some things that were outside of my comfort zone and well outside of my abilities. To say this year provided me with more running disappointments than triumphs wouldbe an understatement.
Leading up to this race, my training had hit more snags. I was originally hoping to run a sub-6-hour race, but I had difficulty fitting in my training runs. My largest setback came during a 10-day trip to Iceland in which I only managed to sneak in a single 7-mile run. Less than two weeks later, I would be at the starting line, nervously questioning what in the world I was thinking. Before the race, I had told my wife and several running friends that I didn’t expect much. I planned to enjoy the coast, enjoy the camaraderie with other runners, enjoy a long jog next to the ocean.
Packet pickup on the morning of the race was laid back and easy. I loaded onto the first bus and chatted with other runners around me during the 10-minute ride to the starting line. It seemed like every single runner used the restrooms and we made our way down to the beach. Race Director James Varner dragged a starting line in the sand and fired off a few reminders and instructions through a megaphone. He looked down at his watch for a couple seconds. I was surprised moments later when, without a countdown of any type, he shouted, “Go!”
Immediately through the water crossing and onto the hard sand of the coast I ran. After hearing about the terrible weather the last two years at this race, I was pleasantly surprised to find hardly any wind and super mild temperatures greeting me. I kept a steady tempo and occasionally splashed through shallow water crossings and waves. I had a smile on my face for most of the beach section and caught myself staring at the ocean on several occasions. I moved about 30 seconds per mile faster than I intended to on the beach, but the weather was so great and my body felt rested. I wasn’t concerning myself with pushing or holding back. I was following my plan to take it easy and enjoy.
A little over six miles later, I pulled off the beach and ran along the Coast Trail. A short time later I found my way to the Adobe Resort, which was the first aid station at mile 7 and would also be the finish line. I saw my awesome crew (wife) there and swapped out my road shoes for trail shoes and slipped into some dry socks. I also swapped out my handheld water bottle for my hydration vest. I enjoyed a slice of gluten-free tortilla with peanut butter and jelly from the aid station. I have to note that it’s really unusual to find such a thing at any aid station at any race. I had read that Rainshadow Running provided such things, but didn’t believe it until I saw it.
For nutrition, I would mostly rely on Tailwind. Additionally, I planned to eat a Gu packet every hour and if something looked good at an aid station, I would eat that too. I’ve acquired a habit lately of not eating enough calories. Complement that with a strange new habit of allowing myself to get super dehydrated, and I was determined to stay on top of things from the start.
Soon after leaving the first aid station, I found myself running through a neighborhood on the coast. I rounded a bend and there was a man outside working in his yard. He was yelling at his cat, who had climbed most of the way up the screen of a sliding door. A woman inside the house was running over to pull the cat down from the screen. I had a good chuckle at Theo the cat’s antics. After a couple miles running around on coastal roads and along the 101, I crossed the highway and entered into the trails in earnest. I caught and passed a couple of other runners as I moved through the first couple of undulating trail sections. There are three main climbs in this course. They appear roughly at miles 9, 16, and 24. The first and third climb are the same trail, but out and back, featuring nearly 1,000 feet of gain each time. The middle climb is the killer at 1,500 feet. I looked forward to the elevation profile of this race because I like to get into an uphill or downhill rhythm. The frequent ups and downs of many races can break up your pace badly as you’re never sure if you should be holding back or pushing your pace. As I approached mile 9, I knew exactly what to expect.
I jogged on the gradual inclines and power hiked the steep portions. I passed several groups of runners during this portion. I’m not especially fast on downhill or flat surfaces, but I can move well uphill. I knew most of the runners I passed would catch and pass me later, but I was determined to push my way up the inclines. As I wound through the well-marked trail system, I occasionally would smell the ocean. I could hear waves crashing in the distance. As I came out to the overlook at the summit of the first climb, I took a moment to eat some Gu and look out at the winding coastline. A whole bunch of other runners passed me at this point, but I wasn’t concerned. They would have likely caught me on the downhill portion anyhow.
Coming down off the first summit was difficult initially. The rocky, slippery footing was challenging to me. Eventually the trail became mostly dirt and the only challenge was maintaining control while dropping nearly 1,000 feet over the next mile and a half. At the mile 14 aid station (anybody with a GPS watch insisted it was only mile 13) I enjoyed a handful of grapes before pushing back out onto a moderately hilly portion of the trail. Around mile 15, I swallowed another Gu packet for good measure. It only took a minute of running again to realize I was now overfed. As much as I hoped the next climb was a ways off, I knew it was around the corner.
I exited the forest trail onto a service road and started working uphill. The initial incline was very gradual, but I had no choice but to hike as my stomach was quickly devolving into pain and chaos. Up to this point, I had been drinking Tailwind every 10 minutes, but I held off for about 20 minutes. The road exited onto a trail. Though there were some steeper sections, the trail was very gradual and runnable. Had I felt better, I probably would have tried to run nearly all of it. I began to feel marginally better and ran about one-third of this section before I noticed another sign directing runners to another trail. It was obvious that this is where the real climb started. I started pushing it again and began to reel in several runners in front of me. Nearly 400 feet into the climb, I was beginning to feel sick. Approaching mile 19, I had to stop completely and close my eyes.
When I opened my eyes again, I was totally alone. I had lost contact with the runners in front of me and had pushed well beyond the runners I started the climb with. I took a moment and marveled at how even on a course with hundreds of other runners, you can be completely alone in these magical environments. I took several deep breaths and got myself together for the final push to the summit. I even passed a few other runners as I summited and started my way down to the next aid station. I was surprised to find Portland’s very own Wy’east Wolfpack handling aid station duties. Loud dance music, full-on pirate outfits and an incredible energy brought me back to life. I filled my soft flasks with plain water that I knew I would want for the final push. I ate a few more grapes and took a couple for the road. With less than ten miles to go, I knew I couldn’t stomach another Gu packet. I left the aid station feeling good vibes and a renewed vigor.
I conserved a little energy as I entered the major elevation loss for the day. The further I dropped down, the more comfortable I felt. Again, I was catching and passing other runners. A couple times I could feel that I was approaching that ragged, uncontrollable edge and had to reel myself back in, and as I exited the forest into a parking lot area connecting the trail back to the lollipop portion, I was shocked to find my wife waiting for me on a picnic table. She had been exploring the area and checked Apple’s Find Friends app out of curiosity. She discovered that I was less than a mile away and waited for me. It was a great surprise and once again I was feeling motivated and inspired as I moved into the final climb of the race.
At mile 24, I had another handful of grapes from the aid station. I had been saving a Bounce Nutrition coconut macaroon to celebrate conquering the major climb of the race. I took one bite and tossed the rest. It was immediately apparent that the macaroon was much heavier than I thought it would be. Eating the entire thing would have destroyed my digestive system at this point. I moved into the final climb of the day and, once again, started power hiking to the summit.
I felt sluggish, but I was still moving well. I passed several more runners on my way up the climb, and once again enjoyed the overlook. This was also the first climb of the day where I was passed. A couple blew past me like I was standing still at one point. I have no idea how they had the energy, but they were just chatting away like they were completely fresh. I crashed the final downhill, worked through the coast trail, and emerged on the 101. I had to wait a few minutes for car traffic to pass before I was finally able to get moving again.
I was so motivated to make my time back up from the road crossing that I missed a ribbon and wound up on a dead end street. Stupid. That mistake cost me a few minutes and took the wind out of my sails. I got back to work. I didn’t really have any goals for this race other than to finish before the 8-hour cutoff and to have fun. But in the back of my mind, I was hoping to at least come close to my 50k PR of 6:35. I would be satisfied finishing under 7 hours. I moved quickly through the final couple of miles on the road and worked my way to the back side of the Adobe Resort.
As I made the final turn, I could see the final hill, the chute with the flags, and James Varner waiting to welcome me back. I heard my wife cheering me on and crashing waves, and the sun was shining, and I realized I was grinning again. I crossed the line, hugged James, and clicked my watch. 6:54:49.
This was my final race of 2016. It’s been a long and difficult road. From my longest distance ever (American River 50 Mile Endurance Run) to a failed attempt at running around the Timberline Trail on Mt. Hood to nagging injuries to a general lack of inspiration throughout the year, this was the race I needed right now. The attitude I brought into this race allowed me to open myself up to the joy and fun that only running on trail can provide.
Some notes on the race:
We were incredibly fortunate with the weather. It was perfect. In fact, until mile 27 or 28 when I was exposed to the direct sun on a cliffside, I hadn’t thought about the weather even once. That’s rare for any race in any climate.
We stayed at Silver Surf Motel. The staff could not have been friendlier or more helpful. When I told them I was coming to town for the race, they immediately offered the upstairs room all the way in the corner because it would be quiet and have the fewest neighbors. It also had a kitchen in it with small stovetop and oven, which came in very handy.
After the race, there was a great party. Bluegrass music, food, kegs, and happy people everywhere cheering on every single finisher who worked their way in.
Gluten-free stuff all over the place. Tortillas at the aid stations, cider in the keg, and best of all: wood-fired pizza! Only a Rainshadow Running event would have wood-fired gluten-free pizza.
Did I mention that the race photographer was none other than Glenn Tachiyama Photography? I don’t usually purchase race prints, but come on. Even I look good in Tachiyama photos.
It might not get a lot of love as a runners’ destination, but Iceland offers a lot to like. Varying terrain for trail runners. Long, sweeping paths that stretch for miles for endurance aficionados. And incredible scenery in nearly every direction. While I didn’t get to do much running while I toured around the country, I took a few great hikes and enjoyed exploring Reykjavik by foot on a windy day.
I visited Iceland during a shoulder month, when the main scenic attractions were less busy, but some of the trails and viewpoints were closed for the year. I was still able to check out some great trails. There are two trails that I highly recommend to trail runners, even though I only got to do short hikes on each.
First, Skogafoss is a well-known, beautiful waterfall located just off the ring road in the south of the country. If you climb the steps to the top of the waterfall, you’ll find a small ladder that takes you over a sheep fence. From there, you’ll find a spectacular trail that winds along a beautiful river and waterfalls that never seem to end. Every turn and hill crest rewards runners and hikers with a new surprise. We saw hikers, runner, and mountain bikers. We made a short hike out of it, but you can extend it to 55km via the Laugavegur Trail. This trail was the best part of the entire 10-day trip for me. Strava data for this hike is below.
The next trail begins at Dettifoss, a mind-bending, powerful waterfall that will make you feel very small. You can take the trail on the west side of the falls more than 30km to Ásbyrgi in the north. While we were able to do a small loop here, we were rebuffed due to the seasonal trail closure and didn’t get to run this spectacular river trail. There are some great views and beautiful waterfalls on this trail. If you go in summertime, take advantage of it.
Finally, I got a run in on the second to last day of the trip, while staying in Reykjavik. The wind in Iceland can really get whipping sometimes, and this was one of the windier days of the trip. I was staying in downtown on the main strip, Laugavegur. From there, I was able to make a short jog to the waterfront. Despite the wind, it was a beautifully sunny day. I ran along the water and soaked in the sights of the fishing and trading boats that line the docks. There is a path along the water. I ran it nearly to the lighthouse on the far West tip of Reykjavik before returning on pretty much the same route. The city opens up to the North Atlantic Ocean here and the views are striking. Mountains across the water on another peninsula, seabirds, the city that seems to rise up out of nowhere amongst the harsh landscape.
On a final note, if you’re looking for gluten-free food in Iceland, you can do pretty well in just about any restaurant. They understand gluten intolerance and I ate so much amazing seafood. There is a chain called Joe and the Juice. There are two locations at the airport and one in downtown. I’m sure there are more, but those were the three I came across. Try the spicy tuna panini sandwich. For finer Italian eating, try Rossopomodoro. Sure it’s touristy, but the gluten-free pasta was very well done. I encountered several restaurants, especially pizzerias, who advertised gluten-free online, but had no idea what I was talking about when I called or visited. If you’re really hard-up, there are a couple Domino’s locations. On Route 41 on the waterfront, look for Icelandic Fish & Chips, where you can enjoy a reasonably priced fish soup. Finally, if you’re looking for gluten-free beer, good luck. The only place I found it was a great little underground place called Micro Bar. As luck would have it, they had two gluten-free beers I’d never had before from Mikkeller and Brewdog.
If you’d like to see more of Iceland, have a look at the video below and see if you’re inspired to plan a running vacation.
Each year on the weekend of my birthday, I look forward to a new running challenge. This year, two friends were getting married at Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood on my birthday. I was excited to spend my birthday on the mountain. My friend Grant and I made an audacious plan to run all the way around the 40-mile Timberline Trail, including it’s nearly 10,000 feet of elevation gain in a single day. The wedding was beautiful, by the way. Thanks for asking.
We planned thoroughly, trained hard and prepared for the big day. Leaving early in the morning from Portland, we got started on the trail as the sun came up. We started out strong. We fell off the pace early, but we still had confidence that we’d finish the trail throughout most of the day.
In the end, neither one of us had our nutrition planned out well and jumping the rivers and creeks throughout the day took a toll. In addition, crossing the Elliot Washout had me completely on edge. The snowfields had me slipping and sliding and holding on for dear life. We also wound up going off track and losing a whole mess of time. As of 2017, there will be a new addition that goes around the Elliot washout. It will add 2 miles and some elevation gain and loss to the overall trail, but it will allay the stress and fears of crossing that super sketchy traverse and climbing out with a rope.
We wound up hitchhiking out around mile 26, and were fortunate to flag our friends down on Highway 26, while they were en route to the wedding lodging. Despite the brutal day, we had an incredible time and learned a lot. Not only are we planning another attempt, but Grant finished a successful solo loop of this trail not long after our dual attempt. You can experience our entire day in the video below.
I recently had the pleasure of traveling to Kentucky to stand up in a friend’s wedding. We like to go for a run on those rare times we get to see each other and I was happy to get in one of my Louisville runs with a little company. To my knowledge, Louisville isn’t known as a runner’s city, but I certainly saw plenty of runners while I was there.
The waterfront seems to be changing all the time. Green spaces are popping up more and more. And you can run right into Indiana if you like, which I did a couple of times.
Beautiful Ceiling at the Brown Hotel Bar
I stayed downtown at the Brown Hotel. From the hotel, it’s a quick trip to the riverfront. Head north on 4th Street and make your way through the very strange Fourth Street Live! area. It seems like this area transitioned a few years back and they want it to be a hip, appealing area for shoppers and visitors. It was mostly plugged up with chain restaurants, which didn’t appeal to me, but I suppose they would to some people.
Moving along, I stayed on 4th Street and headed past the convention center until I got to the stairs that led down to the waterfront. I turned right (East) when I got to the river. This is a pretty area with lots of historic things to look at and a nice view across the Ohio River into Jeffersonville, Indiana. I took my time running past the Belle of Louisville sternwheeler and underneath the Clark Memorial Bridge.
Eventually I came to the Louisville Waterfront Park’s Great Lawn. Kitty corner from here, you can see the famous Louisville Slugger Field. I continued under the I-65 highway bridge until I got to a beautiful bridge simply called The Walking Bridge or The Big 4. There is a long, sweeping, circular ramp to get up to the bridge, which is a nice challenge. Once on the bridge, there are historical markers and great views. I took this bridge into Indiana and enjoyed exploring Colston Memorial Park and Big Four Station. There are a few waterfront routes to run on this side of the river, although I didn’t run on them. There are restrooms and drinking fountains in this park. Strava data for day 1 run is below.
This was the midpoint of my run and I explored some other areas on the way back, but the riverfront was the highlight. If you go to Louisville and you’re a runner, be sure to check out the waterfront, the fresh green spaces, and this terrific bridge. Strava data for each day 2 run is below.
One of the more interesting races I’ve run this year has to be Ragnar Trail Zion Utah. A few months ago, I suggested to my office running club that we get together and run a relay as a team. We agreed on Zion. I created a training plan and most of the team stuck to it. We’d need to prepare for running on trail, running at night, and running on short rest. We had 8 volunteers, perfect for a traditional Ragnar team. The owners of the company not only paid the entrance fee, but they also covered most of the supplies for the weekend and sponsored a bonus night in Las Vegas at the Bellagio Hotel. In addition, the owners are avid runners who joined the team.
Most of the supplies were shipped to me in Portland, as I planned to road trip to and from the event. The remainder of the team was flying in from Chicago and renting a van. Max, one of my teammates, flew out to Portland and road-tripped with me. We drove up to Timberline Lodge to spend some time on Mt. Hood on the way out of town.
We stopped by Smith Rock on the way out and ran the Summit Loop Trail. The long-sweeping ascents and descents and dusty climate would provide solid race preparation for Zion’s elevation changes and sandy trails. You can see more of our Smith Rock Summit Loop run in the video below.
We slept a couple hours at a Nevada motel before hitting the road again and making it to Zion by early evening. We met the rest of the team and set up our camp along the trail. We would be about 1/4 mile from the start/finish line and staging area – great for cheering on runners throughout the weekend.
We made camp in a quiet area and were kept up all night by a family who decided to bring their two very young children along. After a poor night’s sleep, we awoke to race day.
For this race, everybody would run about 15.5 miles. There was a 3.1 mile easy loop, a 4.3 mile moderate loop, and an 8-mile hard loop. Each person would run every 8th loop. Teams had 30 hours to finish. The race elevation is entirely over 6,000 feet and the elevation gain and loss ranks among the most difficult in the entire Ragnar Trail catalog.
I chose to run the easy loop first. Based on our pace estimates, that would have me running my longest loop in the middle of the night, where I could enjoy the cool air and crisp, clear skies. The easy loop turned out to be anything but. I started out too quickly and soon discovered the severe lack of oxygen compared with my sea level training. The sudden and frequent elevation changes added to the difficulty. I was frustrated with my first loop, but I learned a lesson about going out too fast at elevation.
On my night run, I got into a nice rhythm and never pushed until the end. The moon was bright, I could hear animals yipping and moving about, and I met several wonderful people, as you often do on the trails. At one point, I saw a woman running off trail and realized she had made a wrong turn. I yelled to her and she turned around just before she would have been out of earshot. Night running is not without it’s perils. I finished the “red loop” strong and slept very well after. In the morning, I headed out and put in my fastest time on the moderate loop. This loop featured extended altitude gain on sandy trails, followed by a long, sweeping drop down hard-packed horse trails. My previous hill training kept me in control throughout and I was thrilled to finish strong.
The venue for this race was terrific. From showers between runs, to great food, to a climbing wall and collective party area, this event supported everyone comfortably.
After the race, we drove to Las Vegas for a celebratory dinner and a night out. In the morning, I pointed my car back toward Oregon and made as much time as I could. The drive was beautiful and I only wound up stopping for about one hour at a rest stop for a nap before getting all the way home. As a team, we’re working on lining up another relay for 2017, as Ragnar exceeded everybody’s expectations for adventure, excitement, and fun.
Just one month removed from my poor showing at the Salmon Falls 50k, I found myself back in the Sierra Nevada foothills for my first attempt at 50 miles. A lot changed in the previous month. I made the switch to liquid nutrition with occasional solid food to supplement. My long run pacing was now all about consistency and not spiking my heart rate. And I ran my longest run to date, 36 miles. Because this race would feature so much asphalt, I trained more on road than usual. My wife, Julie, and I drove down from Portland once again. This time, we took an extra day at the beginning and end of the trip so we could relax a bit. It turns out that all of these steps combined for a much more successful race.
The night before the race, we stayed at the Hampton Inn in Folsom. I’m pretty sure this is a new hotel. It was quiet, wonderfully appointed, and very clean. Compared with the screaming kids in the hotel room next door at the Best Western before the Salmon Falls 50k, this felt like the Ritz Carlton.
I set out all my gear and went over my nutrition and pacing plan with my wife, who would be my crew for the race. I set alarms for 3am, 3:30am, and 4am, just in case. I jumped into bed around 9pm, but my heart was racing and it was hard not to think about the race the next day. I managed to get about 5 solid hours of sleep, which isn’t bad for me on race day. Breakfast consisted of a banana, a bite of a Pro Bar and a handful of dark chocolate-covered espresso beans. There was a shuttle bus from the Hampton, but Julie insisted on coming along to see me off. She was a trooper, considering how long of a day we were expecting. I was grateful to have a cozy car and seat warmers to relax with before the race.
Brown’s Ravine Marina provided the race start. There were fairly long lines for the restrooms, but things moved pretty quickly. As was the case with my previous race in this area, I was shocked to find that so many people knew each other. The running community around here is something else. I swallowed a Gu packet and we watched the first wave take off right at 6am. These were the runners expecting to finish the race in under 10 hours. Naturally, I was in wave 2 as I tend to drift toward the middle and back of the pack. I liked being able to start in a smaller wave where it would be easier for me to find my pace without being in anybody else’s way. My goal for the day was to finish under 12 hours. I would need to average 14:24/mile, including all aid station stops.
After a brief countdown, wave 2 slowly left the starting corral at 6:15am. Right off the bat, I recognized that I was getting caught up in the moment. Several times over the first mile, I reminded myself not to follow people who passed me and to reduce my speed. As we slipped off the asphalt onto trail for the first time, I eased into a comfortable pace. Recognizing that the first half of the race is mostly asphalt and generally flat, I targeted a pace around 12:30/mile for the first 25 miles. I got a sense of deja vu in this section. The first trail portion was the final trail portion of the Salmon Falls 50k. Dropping off the trail and onto the nearly mile-long dam section, I started chatting with a man named Eric from Livermore, CA. We would wind up chatting and running together for the next 20 miles.
My nutrition plan for the day revolved almost entirely around Tailwind. I had 2 bottles of Tailwind with caffeine for the start of the race, and I would use regular Tailwind for the remainder of the race. Ever since I started using liquid nutrition, I’ve found that I drink more frequently, even late in races. I have a bad habit of not eating anything at all until it’s much too late, so Tailwind has me covered. I planned to drink every 10 minutes and supplement my nutrition with boiled potatoes dipped in salt, occasional glasses of Coke, and a potato chip or two at aid stations. Julie surprised me with seedless red grapes at the aid stations she had access to.
20 miles in and feeling great.
There were aid stations at miles 5, 12.75, 17, and 20. Mile 20 was the first time I was able to see Julie. Up to this point, there was very little elevation gain. Eric and I had similar plans for the day and helped each other keep our pace in check. We both have a tendency to rush a little bit early on in races. Between miles 20 and 24, I started to feel a nasty pinch on the inside of my left knee. I never get pain there, so I attributed it to so much road running up to this point. From here on in, I shortened my stride and ran on gravel and rocks alongside the road, wherever I could. There were some nice trail sections between miles 24 and 29 and my knee seemed to appreciate the change in terrain. By the time I hit the Granite Bay aid station at mile 29.45, my knee pain had subsided.
Enjoying the view at Beal’s Point, mile 24.
Eric picked up a pacer at mile 24 and I was feeling strong, so I left that aid station on my own. At this point, the course was mostly hard-packed single track with small hills and some rocky technical spots. I was happy to run in the shade of the trees, as the heat of the sun was starting to make things uncomfortable. At one point, I started chatting to a local guy named Martin, who also wasn’t enjoying the sun. The more we chatted, the faster we seemed to go and we clicked off some pretty quick miles together. We eased into the Granite Bay aid station, where Martin warned me to fill up on calories and top off all my fluids. We were about to hit some of the gnarliest terrain of the day, during one of the hottest periods of the day, and our next aid station was nearly 9 miles away. I was appreciative of his advice and took it to heart. Julie topped off all the bottles in my hydration vest and filled up the bladder with Tailwind. She shoved some grapes and potato chips in my mouth, followed by a couple espresso beans. Out of solidarity, she had a couple too. Neither of us was too excited about the taste and both spit out about half the beans. They were tastier first thing in the morning.
About to enter the Meat Grinder with Martin, mile 29.
Martin and I headed off together past a small sign identifying this next trail section: “The Meat Grinder.” I was surprised I hadn’t heard that monicker thrown around previous to the race. I braced myself for the worst, and headed in at a comfortable pace, averaging 13 to 14 minutes per mile throughout. Perhaps this is where my hilly, muddy Oregon trail training kicked in. I didn’t find this section overly difficult. I moved through methodically, shortening my stride on long uphills and dropping softly on long downhills. Other than a few technical, rocky sections, I was moving well. I turned around when I hit mile 30.1, to let Martin know we had just crossed the 50k threshold, and he was nowhere to be found. I looked around for him as I went around bends in the trail, but didn’t see him. I passed quite a few people in this section and a few who were really struggling with the heat.
I spiked my heart rate for the first time while climbing a hill a little too briskly at mile 34. I spiked it a second time during the same mile. And a third time as I entered mile 36. I reminded myself that it was a very long race and slowed down a bit to take some deep breaths. I also took a moment to acknowledge that every step beyond this point was a new distance record for me. I quickly popped in and out of the Horseshoe Bar aid station at mile 38, knowing Julie would be waiting for me with cold water and fresh Tailwind at mile 41.
The next couple miles were brutal. The heat and terrain made it difficult to maintain my pace. I wavered from 15 to 17-minute miles during this 3-mile stretch. The entrance to the Rattlesnake Bar aid station is an out and back trail where you drop off the trail and then have to climb back up to it. It was a bit of a pain avoiding other runners in each direction, but even more annoying that there were spectators sitting, standing, and walking on the parts of the trail where it was steepest and most narrow. I did my best to avoid them, but I know I bumped a few who I couldn’t get out of the way of. After 41 miles, I didn’t have the patience or ability to stop and turn on a dime. Hopefully, this gets roped off or something in the future.
Dodging spectators at Rattlesnake Bar, mile 41.
At this point, I was a wreck. Emotionally, I was swinging wildly from elation to overwhelming gloom. My mind was still functioning, but my body was starting to feel weaker and weaker. I ate a couple potatoes with salt, and Julie topped up my fluids. I ate a few grapes and stopped for a second for some encouragement from Julie. I needed the reassurance at that point that I was going to make it and I headed back up the trail, knowing I wouldn’t see her again until the finish line.
The next couple of miles were a blur. There were some wide expanses of tall grasses separated by a deep horse trail, completely bathed in sunlight. It was somewhere around mile 42 when I heard something that shook me wide awake and fired me back up. A rattlesnake rattled a warning at me and rustled past me in the tall grass, just a few steps to my right. I immediately broke into a run and didn’t stop until the aid station at mile 44, where a nice volunteer filled up one of my bottles with ice water and another dunked my hat in the coldest water I’ve ever known. They must have recognized that I was beginning to overheat and needed the refreshment. A couple minutes after I left this aid station, I heard another runner coming fast. This would be the first and only time I was passed during the second half of the race. “Who in the heck could possibly be gaining on me?” I stepped off the trail and turned around to see a grinning Martin howling as he blasted past me. He yelled, “Back from the dead!” and disappeared into the forest, laughing maniacally. “He must have accidentally dunked a potato in cocaine at that last aid station,” I muttered to myself.
When I finally regained my composure in the last forested trail section, I was back to passing other runners regularly. I suppose the combination of the rattlesnake, the ice cold water, and what seemed at the time to be a figment of my imagination, but was simply a renewed Martin, pulled me back from the brink. Several runners were being nearly dragged along by their pacers. Others had simply decided to walk to the finish line. At mile 40, I had given up my hope of a sub-12 hour race, but with 3 miles to go, I felt renewed.
The last 5k of this race features nearly 1,000 feet of elevation gain. I have long legs. I hike regularly. I train on hills. And this was going to be my moment. Steadily, I worked my way up the hill. Varied terrain awaited. Some asphalt, some dirt, some loose rock. Each time the elevation became less steep, I started running. I passed a couple dozen runners on this home stretch. At one point, a woman walking past encouraged me to listen closely to hear the voices of people cheering at the finish line. I told her that I’d been hearing voices for miles.
With one mile to go, I saw a discarded Maple Bacon Gu packet on the ground. I wondered, “What sort of maniac would reach for that flavor of Gu so close to the end of this race?”
With 3/4 of a mile to go, I reeled in a man who looked like he was struggling. I tried to encourage him.
Me: If we finish out this last mile at an 11:30 pace, we can still finish in under 12 hours!
Man: I was wave one.
Me: 12 hours and 15 minutes!
My embarrassment complete, I started running uphill. I crested the final climb, turned two corners and found myself on the home stretch with a raucous, cheering crowd. I pushed hard across the line, feeling strong. 11:54:45. 14:18/mile. I had reached my goal, finished strong, and still felt great. A medic asked if I needed anything. I asked, “Is this where we donate toenails?” He laughed and I enjoyed the thought that I still had a functioning brain at this point.
Approaching the Finish Line, mile 50.
I received a medal, a fleece, and then a terrific greeting from Julie. We spent a few minutes admiring some of the professional athletes who stuck around after the race, including 3rd place female Nikki Kimball. Gordy Ansleigh had been telling stories and announcing finishers. I told my wife that I had a good feeling about Chris Denucci that morning and he did indeed win the race. It turns out that Martin finished 5 minutes ahead of me (he wasn’t a figment of my imagination after all), and Eric reached his 13-hour goal as well.
Dirt, dust, and a job well done.
This race goes down as my most successful run to date. I could have gone faster. I could have pushed myself more in the middle and late stages of the race, but I finished 5 minutes ahead of my goal time. I have a new nutrition strategy that works for me. I kept a balanced heart rate nearly the entire time. Julie was a rock all day. She texted me to remind me when to prepare to remove my vest to refill it at upcoming aid stations and kept me informed of upcoming restrooms, should I need one, and any tips she thought might be helpful as I headed out for each section. The race featured some beautiful views. I would have liked to spend more time on trail than on asphalt, but that’s part of what makes this race so unique. My only real complaint is that I would have liked to see a few more blazes. There were definitely times when I was running by myself for long stretches and didn’t see any flags for what seemed like forever. I never made any wrong turns. It would have been difficult to make wrong turns for the most part. I’m just a guy who likes occasional reinforcement after he lets his mind wander a bit while running. Ultimately, race director Julie Fingar and NorCalUltras do a great job with this event. I’m not surprised that this is the biggest 50-mile race in the country. Every aid station was well-stocked with great food and the volunteers were enthusiastic, helpful, and encouraging. I look forward to running in this area with these great people again soon.
Check out the video and Strava map below to see some photos and videos from the race along with the GPS data for the American River 50 Mile Endurance Run.
During the recent Salmon Falls 50k race, I had a fun interaction with a couple older runners. These two guys were teasing me on the trail that I had blocked them out of the group photo at the race start. I’m 6’3″ and that does tend to happen. I chastised them back by mentioning that the race director (RD) asked me to stand tall to improve the handsomeness of the photo and block some of the riffraff. A little later on in the race, these guys confidently jogged past me as I was struggling to power hike a low-incline hill. Again they gave me grief about blocking them out of the photo. This time I told them I was about to take a nap, but I’d catch up to them later on. I mentioned that the RD also asked me to spend some time at the finish line to improve the race finish photos for all the old guys. We shared a laugh and away they went. That was around mile twelve. I never saw them again.
In January, I was running around the Willamette bridge loop. An old guy caught up to me and seemed to slow for a moment. He gave me a glance and then took off. I recognized the challenge and stayed on his heels. I managed to keep up with him for three full miles before we went our separate ways. A quick wave and I headed for the Hawthorne Bridge and home. Throughout the run, I was watching his stride. It seemed effortless. He didn’t bounce with each step like I did. He never seemed to take a quick breath. Just long, slow breaths and the most consistent pace ever. No headphones. No distractions. Just blasting around the river and taking me to school. I felt fortunate to recognize his fluidity and effortless stride and consistent gait.
That’s the same thing that struck me about the old guys at the Salmon Falls race. Super consistent and effortless. They joked with everybody they passed. The last time I spoke to them, I was nearly gasping.
Now, a qualification. I say “old guys” with utmost respect. These men were all in their upper 50s or lower 60s. At 36 years old, I’m still referred to as “kid” by a lot of old guys I see on the trail. When I say old, I don’t mean it in any derogatory way. Having just started my running habit fewer than three years ago, I know I’m still a beginner and have much to learn. I am hungry to improve and I read books and blogs constantly looking for any tips. I study my successes and failures on race day in order to remedy nutrition and hydration errors. Every training run and every race is an opportunity to get better.
Without further ado, here are the running lessons I’ve learned from old guys. To be fair, some of these lessons have also been reinforced by older women I’ve met on the trail. Running wisdom obviously isn’t exclusive to one gender.
Set a comfortable pace and stick with it. I have a terrible habit of going out really strong on race day, only to hit a wall. I wind up walking as much as running during the second half of many races. When I get skunked by old guys in races, it’s because they have their pace dialed in. They’ve been training on long runs at that same pace they’ll use on race day. They don’t get caught up in the moment. They don’t spike their heart rate trying to separate from the pack on a long uphill. They don’t see people passing them early on and panic. Old runners stick to the plan. The endurance running adage goes something like this: start out slow and then go slower.
Move efficiently. This was a difficult lesson for me to learn. It took months of physical therapy to iron out my erratic running motion. I bounced when I ran, wasting precious power vertically that could have been used to propel me forward. I never fully extended my legs behind me, which was robbing me of the power of toe-off and stunting the forward continuous rotation of my legs. I wasn’t twisting my hips at all, which was forcing my legs to land out in front of my torso and making balancing more difficult. A proper stride should feel natural and somewhat effortless, but it doesn’t come easy for many of us. From heel strike to slouching at the shoulders, so many of us are guilty of allowing bad habits to rob us of speed and endurance.
Never deviate from your nutrition and hydration plan. At the second aid station I arrived at during a recent 50k, an older volunteer asked me if I was eating enough. He had the build of a runner, but I just assumed he was being silly. I was only an hour into the race. How many calories could I possibly have consumed so far? It turns out that my nutrition was way off. I should have been taking in more than 200 calories per hour on race day. Up to that second aid station, I had taken in nothing but water. It sounds like such a rookie mistake, but when you feel good at the beginning of a race, you can get caught up in the moment. I didn’t want to slow down to take in a gel or stop for a handful of potato chips at the first station. I bonked hard in that race, even though I felt that my training had been perfect. It wasn’t my fitness level. It was my terrible nutrition choices on race day. I’ve recently been working with liquid nutrition, like Tailwind. Sip every 10 minutes, supplement calories with gels or potatoes. I’m excited to try it out on race day.
Train with a partner. Or two. Or ten. I rarely see old guys running by themselves on the weekend. Perhaps they do during the week. But when it comes to long training runs, they run in pairs or groups. And on race day, there they are. Running together at an agreed-upon pace that they know will work. They check each other’s effort and nutrition. And sometimes, they talk about where they like to go for pancakes after a run and they make your stomach growl during a 50k race. It’s harder to shorten a training run when you have a partner who will push you. It’s easier to make it through a difficult training run or race when you have someone who will joke with you and provide encouragement. During my most recent race, I listened to two older women discussing their running group. “Danny is in Mexico, but Ray is around. He’s still dealing with a quad issue from that 25k run.” They went through the rundown of their entire running group. It was clear that they cared about those other runners and wanted to see them succeed. That kind of encouragement on a regular basis is priceless.
Leave the ladies alone. This lesson is one that I never struggled with, but one I felt obligated to call out anyhow. I’ve been in multiple races where groups of guys were running together and they had something to say to everybody who ran past. It’s all fun and games with other men, generally. But for some reason, every woman that ran near them got a fair share of mysogynistic nonsense. Comments about looks, short shorts, tight clothing and even sexual overtures make you sound like an idiot. Whether this is a generational thing or just a small cross section of morons who have infiltrated the running world, don’t be one of these jackasses. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about endurance running, it’s that distance levels the playing field. The longer the race, the more likely that women will finish as well as men. My massage therapist recently noted that of her husband and wife clients, men are the babies and women are the ones with higher pain thresholds. Let’s stop eyeing women as “the fairer sex” when we’re out running and start seeing them for what they really are: hardworking competitors who deserve respect. Let’s keep the catcalling out of our sport.
Those are my top five lessons learned from old guys. I’m sure there are way more lessons that I’ll come to recognize in time. What did I miss in this list? Have you picked up any nuggets of wisdom or helpful advice from an older runner? Comment to let me know.
A couple weeks ago, my wife and I woke up to an unexpected sunny day. Taking full advantage of the weather, we went looking for a new trail to run. After so much time spent on the Wildwood Trail in Forest Park this winter, I felt eager to branch out. I love the Wildwood, but after running it almost every weekend for two months, I needed a change of scenery. Spring-like weather led us to Henry Hagg Lake southwest of Portland. Neither of us was familiar with this area, save for the 50k and 25k Mud Runs that take place here every winter. Our run happened to fall on the weekend before the races.
An unusual stretch of several dry weather days left the trail in pretty good condition. There were pockets of slippery, mucky mud. For the most part, we ran easy over soft dirt and rolling hills. This trail is also well-known as a mountain bike trail. We felt fortunate to take advantage of the trail before the bikers and runners tore into it later in the season.
We paid the park entry fee ($4 or $5) and parked at the dam. Starting off, we entered the forest right away and enjoyed the intense green of the flora. Though we trudged along at times, we put together some quick segments as well. From time to time, the trail blasts out of the forest and into wide open expanses with no shade of any kind. We welcomed these areas and soaked in the sun whenever possible.
Our final mileage total was 13.7 miles. In the end, we realized this was my wife’s longest distance and mileage run ever. I’m not a huge fan of lake runs. But the hills around Henry Hagg Lake were more gradual than most and the scenery was terrific. All told, we only saw a one or two other runners and fewer than ten hikers. It turns out that a warm winter day when the weather is dry is the perfect time to enjoy this trail.