Friday, April 8, 2011

Umstead DNF...

I was not in a good place from the start. I was toeing the line and viewing the race as another item to cross off the list. I’ve always been a bit of an over-achiever, but the balancing act of writing my dissertation, finishing out experiments (which never seem to end) and submitting papers, finding a job, selling the condo, attempting to be a supportive husband to my expecting wife, and training for a race was pushing the limit. But somehow when the gun went off, everything was serene, as if I could finally breathe. I started amongst friends, many of whom I’ve shared hundreds of miles of trails with, and life seemed okay.

My plan for this race was to run my style – lots of fast hiking during the first half to save the running muscles for the second half. I planned to hit the 50-mile mark in 9:30 with the hope of a second half in 10:30 to break 20 hours. I had meticulously planned my nutrition for each loop (8 x 12.5mi) down to the last calorie. Six miles into the race, I was miserable. I was running through beautiful woods, but on a groomed crushed limestone trail that felt much like a four-lane highway. This would not be a race to enjoy, but one to just put my head down and run. I finished the 1st loop in 2:10 (10 min faster than planned) but the legs felt calm and relaxed. I grabbed another bottle of heed/perpetuem mix from my lovely wife and headed back out.

The 2nd loop would prove to be a major turning point. Early on I realized my nutrition mix was too thick and I wasn’t getting enough water with the calories. I also hadn’t peed, which is strange for me. My feet started hurting, and while I may be used to finishing with banged up feet, this was really early. But again, this wouldn’t be a race to enjoy, but to put my head down and run. I finished the 2nd loop in 2:15 (5 min faster than planned) and rolled through the aid station. I tried stomaching the same rice burritos that had served me so well at Grindstone, but couldn’t choke them down. So I grabbed a handful of pretzels and oranges and headed out.

The 3rd loop is when the pain set in. The tendon sheath that crosses the high ankle/shin area (anterior tibialis tendon) was starting to protest loudly. The problem is, these tendons are engaged with every flexion of the foot; thus, their use is unavoidable. Five weeks prior to the race I took some time off to let this heal, and really hadn’t had any problems since (despite a few long runs and high-mileage weeks). But this was just another issue to put my head down and run through. I was also worried about hydration, despite drinking nearly 80oz of fluid per loop – I peed for the first time at mile 35, and it looked a bit radioactive. Nevertheless, I finished loop 3 in 2:20 (5 min faster than planned).

I was getting really emotional. I teared-up a few times on the trail for no apparent reason. I think I just felt a bit overwhelmed. Katie and I weren’t looking at each other in the eye because I think we both knew the consequence. She is so amazing and supportive and feels the fall of every step. I still couldn’t stomach more than a bite or so of the burritos, so I grabbed another handful of pretzels and as many orange slices as I could carry and headed out. I was amazed the 2-3 gels per loop and light snacking were still powering my legs.

Loop 4 was uneventful, except the increasing pain in the ankle. Mercifully the feet hadn’t gotten any worse. I had my IPod shuffling through my running mix, which was allowing my mind to disassociate. The Zeidner’s had driven down from Columbus, and Steve would begin pacing me at the end of this loop, so that was something to look forward to. Other than the ankle, my legs felt great – freakishly great. I finished loop 4 in 2:25 (5 min faster than planned) for a 50-mile split of 9:06. I spent a minute or two at the aid station fueling up, and then headed out with Steve.

Loop 5 rolled along. I bitched about the airport spur. We caught up with Patton and stuck together for much of this loop. I didn’t say much of anything. The ankle pain was increasing and I had gone to that place where anger was pushing me forward. We finished loop 5 in 2:30 – exactly as planned. 62.5 miles in 11:40 – something was clearly wrong with me, but my muscles felt amazing and I didn’t have so much as a mild complaint from the knees (which tend to be my issue). It was just that damned tendon. I was worried about the decreasing flexibility in my footfalls and the increasing pain, but we headed out for another loop.

Loop 6. Loop 6 would prove to be my undoing. The transitions from running to walking to running were met with screaming complaints. Steve and I spoke very little. I must have been horrible to pace. I finally peed again. Count it – twice in 70+ miles. I think I saw the plant die. I was getting loopy (no pun intended). I was having trouble recognizing people and my thoughts were cloudy. I needed calories. We finished this loop in 2:45 (10 min slower than planned). 75-miles in 14:30 – the muscles still felt great, but it was time to reassess. A blessed man with a goatee and British/Irish accent worked with me to get some calories back in. I came around quite quickly. Another aid station worker grabbed my hand to lead me to my crew and was startled by its chill. The temperature was dropping. Katie got a coat and gloves on me and we talked briefly. Steve needed a breather so I headed out on my own…

I’m afraid the few minutes of standing and the dropping temperatures locked up the anterior tib tendon. I hobbled along to the airport spur and broke into run – no go. I could no longer flex the foot. I tried some alternative running styles to simply lift the foot and let the knee and hip do all of the work, but 25 miles of this was a recipe for serious injury. I determined if I could maintain 20-min miles I could walk it in and still finish with a respectable time (~22 hrs). The problem is, as I soon realized, flexing the foot is required for both walking and running. Game over.

I apologize for the self-centered nature of this race report. I saw many of my dear Ohio friends on the trails and at the aid stations and am so proud of each of their accomplishments. It was a great representation of a team – runners, pacers, and crew – all working together. I am honored to have witnessed it all first hand.


It is now five days later and the realization of my first DNF still stings deep. I’ve played the scenario at mile 75 over and over in my head. What if I had kept moving and didn’t stand still for three minutes? What if I had plopped a bag of ice on the tendon for 20-minutes to calm the inflammation? What if I had popped a handful of Advil and then just sucked it up and ran? At this point, I’ll never know. I know the swelling and pain that still plagues me right now suggests that no good could have come from continuing...but it that just an easy justification? I did wind up with credit for a 50-mile finish in a time of 9:06:11…hardly a consolation prize.

As I think back over the race, there are a number of positives that both excite and disappoint. The fact that I was capable of running the first 75 miles in 14:30 still blows my mind. Additionally, my muscles felt great and my knees held up beautifully (all those PT exercises did something!). This is equally disappointing in the fact that my day came to an end short of the finish due to some other ridiculous ailment… But I now know I am capable of running a strong race.

I used to be terrified of a DNF because I thought it would make me weak, or more likely to DNF in the future…but if anything, this DNF has made me hungrier and given me a deeper determination to train and succeed. The Wasatch Front 100 is in 153 days…and when the injuries heal, I’ll be back at it harder than ever.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Grindstone 2010 Race Report

Grindstone 100 – October 1-3, 2010; Shenandoah Valley, VA.

Where, oh where to begin…

I’m afraid this race report is going to lack the edge-of-your-seat, will he or won’t he finish, epic struggles contained in my last two 100-milers (Mohican 2009, 2010). Spoiler alert - I finished! Instead, this is a story about nearly everything going right (finally!). It is also a story about singing, laughing, and the beauty of Creation. So grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and enjoy the adventure as if it were your own. Because whether or not you run 100-mile races, we can all relate with the human experience.

Grindstone – what a name for a race. Travel to the website and you will find the following description:

“Grit, endurance, and temporary loss of sanity. You might need all of these if you want to attempt Grindstone. If you want to finish, well, just keep in mind this is, without a doubt, the hardest 100 miler east of the 100th meridian.”

Take a look at the elevation profile (23,200’ gain/23,200’ loss); add in technical rocky sections, and the course lives up to this description. In reality, the course follows a simple theme:

1. Climb a mountain.
2. Run along the ridgeline.
3. Descend a mountain.
4. Repeat

I decided to approach this race a bit differently from my other 100’s. My pace chart (see below) simply had aid stations and distances, NO times. With a 38-hour cut-off, I knew I needed to run based on feel and not worry about going too fast/slow. I had rough estimates in my mind and thought if everything went well I’d be able to finish in 30-32 hours. Somewhere in the back of my mind I wanted to PR (break 28:16), but I also knew this was highly unlikely on a course this difficult. My general plan was for a 14-hour out and 16-hour back. But if disaster struck in the second half, I might literally be looking at 20+ hours for the second half of the race. Wow…

Aid Station Dist/Total
Falls Hollow 5.2/5.2
Dry Branch Gap 9.5/14.6
Dowells Draft 7.5/22.1
Lookout Mountain 8.4/30.5
North River Gap 5.4/36.0
Little Bald Knob 7.8/43.7
Reddish Knob 4.5/48.2
Gnashing Knob © 3.4/51.5
Reddish Knob 3.4/55.0
Little Bald Knob 3.8/58.7
North River Gap © 7.8/66.5
Lookout Mountain 5.5/72.0
Dowells Draft © 8.4/80.4
Dry Branch Gap © 7.5/87.8
Falls Hollow © 8.8/96.7
Finish!! 5.2/102

Michael Patton and I drove down to Staunton, Virginia on Thursday evening and arrived at our hotel shortly before midnight. I slept surprisingly well for the night before a race. I woke up at 7am, ate some breakfast, then slept for a few more hours. After showering and meticulously taping my feet using the Shane Sampson method (thank you!), we headed to the start for the pre-race meeting. The pre-race meeting began promptly at 1pm. Race director Clark Zealand gave some basic directions, and handed out lots of great prizes. I won a pretty sweet trucker-hat from Patagonia.

One thing that makes Grindstone a bit unique is the 6pm start time, ensuring that every runner traverses one night, and many deep into the second. The other thing this ensures is that everyone sits around for many hours thinking about the race and working his or her nerves through the roof! After the pre-race meeting, we had 4 hours until the start. I lay in my tent and tried to sleep, but this was impossible. My anxiety was increasing as I stared at the roof, so instead I passed the time by reading a book about the 2008 climbing season on K2. This helped take my mind off the slowly moving clock, and also provided some inspiration (thankfully I was at the part where teams were summiting the mountain and before the part where people started dying on the way down). At 4:30pm I started getting ready. I put on a Brooks nightlife shirt and then my lucky running shirt, put body-glide in all the appropriate places, filled my camelback with Heed and my hand-held with Perpetuem, laced up the shoes with gaiters overtop, put on my bandana, and adjusted my headlamp. To kill the remaining time I chatted with the Ohio peeps about a random assortment of topics. It was fun hanging out with Shaun Pope, David Peterman, Sandi and Rachel Nypaver, Regis Shivers Jr. and Michael Patton over the course of the weekend.

Runner check-in was at 5:30pm. By 5:55pm we were all gathered at the start line. I glanced around and drank in the magnitude of what we were all about to endeavor. After a prayer by Horton for safety and strength, and the singing of the National Anthem, we were off. The race began by circling a lake, and then took us deep into George Washington National Forest. I always seem to feel sluggish at the beginning of 100’s. Maybe it is because I tend to taper really hard (I only ran ~40 miles in the two weeks leading up to the race). This race was no different. But by the first aid station at mile 5.5 I had settled into a comfortable pace. I had lost contact with my three Ohio friends that were racing (although I expected this to happen since I was the slowest among us) but chatted with a few individuals I had met in August at the Grindstone training weekend.

Climbing, climbing, and more climbing – and I loved it. As darkness fell, the next section took us to the summit of Elliot’s Knob (4463 feet). As I ascended there was a noticeable drop in the temperature and the wind picked up. I was questioning my decision to leave warm clothes in my drop bag at mile 22. But for now, I was working hard enough to stay warm. I passed a number of people on this climb, only to be over-taken on the descent. This was a long 9.5-mile section between aid stations. I arrived at Dry Branch Gap (mile 14.6) feeling comfortable with my effort at 9:18pm and elapsed time of 3:18.

The next section started by climbing to the top of Crawford Mountain. I powered up Crawford, passing a handful of people along the way, and was bestowed the nickname “Mountain Lion” by a fellow runner. I was disappointed to be leaving behind the company, but I knew I couldn’t get sucked into a slower pace on the climbs. After summiting Crawford, it felt great to start running again along the ridgeline to loosen up the legs and give the climbing muscles a break. But now I was all alone. My existence was defined by my headlamp piercing the darkness. I have spent a lot of time in the backcountry on both the east and west coasts, but I have never been so aware of the magnitude of the forest. The wind rushed through the trees dropping leaves in bunches. Animals scurried about, crunching leaves beneath their paws. Then the next moment everything was peaceful – still and quiet. I stopped, turned off my headlamp, and stared up into the sky. The stars were breathtaking. I thanked God for my existence in that moment. But alas, I was in a race, and needed to move on.

After a mile or so along the ridgeline I started a gradual, but extremely technical descent. The entire descent was rocks of all shapes and sizes, and featured many flat, shale-like rocks that teetered back and forth as my feet precariously picked their way down the mountain. The terrain eventually flattened out and I cruised along until I saw another runner weaving side-to-side, head low, struggling to walk. I saw a familiar shirt – Mohican Wilderness 20th Anniversary it said. And my heart dropped a little. I didn’t want it to be true.

“Patton? Is that you?”


“You okay?”

“No…Something I ate. Last aid station. Just started throwing up. I’m done…”

I offered to walk to Dowell’s Draft (mile 22.1) with Michael, but he told me to keep going. He also passed on encouragement, told me I was running well and to keep it up. Despite my desire to stay with Michael and make sure he got to Dowell’s Draft, I moved on. In 15 minutes or so I was at the aid station. 11pm. Exactly five hours in. A volunteer asked me what I needed. I needed a new stomach for my friend… But I stared blankly at her for a little while, and then managed to say: “My drop bag….and water.”

The cold was setting in, my head was a big foggy, and my fingers were quite swollen. Uh-oh I thought...too many electrolytes. I had been drinking lots of sports drinks, but wasn’t sweating much since the temperature was so cool. I hadn’t peed yet either. I needed to fix things, and in a hurry. I left the aid station with a handful of food, my long-sleeve shirt, and a growing nausea.

The next section featured one of the tougher climbs – 2.4 miles going up up and up onto Hankey Mountain. Things started turning for me on this climb. My stomach settled, I started peeing, and my legs felt powerful. The climb is broken into four pieces, with a slight leveling out in between each rise. The first two felt great. By the middle of the third I was starting to slow. By the time I hit the fourth I started laughing. Laughing at the insanity. Laughing because somehow climbing for an hour straight seemed comical. Every time I thought I had reached the top, the trail would bend and I’d have another climb as far as the eye could see. Finally, after an exhausting hour, I was at the top.

There is a lot of debate about whether an eastern ultra can rival the big races of the west (Western States, Wasatch, Leadville, Angeles Crest, etc). In my mind, they both present unique challenges. Out west, you have the thin air at altitude to deal with. The climbs are long, but switchbacks typically make the grade more manageable. I learned at Grindstone that in the east they don’t believe in switchbacks. You are lucky if you get one while ascending a mountain. It is just STRAIGHT UP.

The ridgeline running at the top of Hankey Mountain was beautiful. Once again I stopped, turned off my headlamp, took deep breaths, and stared at the stars. I was rejuvenated, and ready to catch the person whose headlamp I could now see in front of me. It took me just a few minutes. I had caught the second place female. We ran together for a while until we reached the Lookout Mountain aid station (mile 30.5). This was probably my favorite aid station for one reason – the dog. As I ran into the aid station, a dog (lab maybe?) ran up to me as if to say, “can I get you something?” Despite my desire to stay with the dog and sit by the warm fire, I quickly moved on.

The next section was very runable with minimal climb. The descents were starting to aggravate my knees a bit. This was slightly worrisome since I still had a long way to go. One particular descent was really agitating, so I started singing. The song that popped into my head was She’s Electric, by Oasis.

She's electric
She's in a family full of eccentrics
She done things I never expected
And I need more time
She's got a sister
And God only knows how I've missed her
On the palm of her hand is a blister
And I need more time…

Before I realized it I had arrived at North River Gap (mile 36). 2:16am. 8:16 elapsed. I knew I was well ahead of my 30-hour pace, but realized there were also lots of miles yet to cover. I was also getting excited at the prospect of seeing my crew at mile 50. At North River Gap I also had to weigh in. I was down just one pound. Nothing to worry about.

The next section covers 4000 feet of climb in 7.8 miles. This section was SO SLOW. 2 hours and 45 minutes slow. For 7.8 miles! But I climbed and laughed and climbed and laughed some more. I also saw the front-runners coming towards me on this stretch. The leaders were neck and neck. A couple miles later I saw Sandi, and knew she had a huge lead on the second place woman. Finally I arrived at the aid station leading up to Reddish Knob (mile 48.2). David Horton was sitting in his truck at this aid station and injected some energy into my soul. He told me I was running well. Really well. If you don’t know the name, Horton is an ultra-running legend that at one point held records for both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. He also has been instrumental in building the ultra-community in Virginia. So these words coming from him meant a lot to me. After dropping off my camelback, I carried a bottle the half-mile out-and-back section to the summit of Reddish Knob (4397 feet). Reddish Knob lies just over the border into West Virginia. I had initially thought I would be summiting Reddish as the sun rose over Virginia to the east. Now I stood at the top in darkness, looking out over the distant city lights. It was cold – just 35 degrees with a wind-chill in the upper-teens. I left Reddish, knowing that in just two miles I would see my crew.

Over the next two miles I began wondering how exactly I was going to find my crew. I was nearly an hour ahead of my “best-case scenario” pace, and they were supposed to be sleeping in the car since they wouldn’t get much sleep over the next 20+ hours. As I looped down towards the crew-access point, I wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of calling out names and banging on car windows… But there they were. I nearly ran right by them.

My crew consisted of three main people – Katie, my crew chief, is the best person I can imagine for the job. She knows how to get things done, and knows what I need, often times before I even know it myself. Even before race day, she spent long hours in the kitchen preparing soups and burritos and sandwiches so I would have anything I could imagine. She has grown as a crew person much faster than I as a runner. Leigh, videographer/crew, had a multi-faceted role both filming and helping Katie. Steve, my pacer, was there to keep me safe, provide company, and give me a kick in the ass when it was necessary out on the trail. I also had two unexpected people waiting to greet me. Michael and Jen were there with great moral support and encouragement. Even after Michael dropped, he stayed on the course to help those still racing. Helluva guy.

I was still 1.5 miles from the turn around point at the top of Gnashing Knob (mile 51.5), so Steve joined me for this out-and-back section to catch up on the events of the previous night of running. Shortly into this section, we passed David Peterman running towards us. I knew I was running well if he was less than 3 miles ahead of me. He’s a beast at these Virginia races. We hit the turn around slightly before 7am. The initial plan was for Steve to only start pacing at this point if I was struggling. But after a night of many many solo miles, I wanted the company. Besides, Steve had run two 100-milers this year. Fifty should be no problem.

We headed back through the Reddish Knob aid station (mile 55) and on towards Little Bald Knob (mile 58.7). One thing Michael and I had talked about before the race was staying competitive. The last two years at Mohican I lost my competitive edge, went into survival mode, and simply wanted to finish before the clock ran out. But this race was different. I was still running really well and my energy level remained high. My next goal was to catch Peterman (and his pacer Jay Smithberger, aka Skinny Beast). Steve and I moved well on this section. As we approached Little Bald Knob I yelled, “How far ahead were the two tall skinny guys?!” Turns out, they were standing right there! They headed out of the aid station as I was filling up my camelback. We quickly caught up with them and I enjoyed the few minutes of conversation.

“Hey Jay? Can I get by you?”


After we were out of earshot, Steve joked that this would probably be the only time in my life I will ask Jay to get out of my way in a race.

The next stretch was a long 7.8 miles spent mostly descending, with just one small climb up and over Grindstone Mountain. The steep descents I was definitely slowing on, but I was able to still run well on the gradual portions. We hit North River Gap (mile 66.5) at 10:48am with 16:48 elapsed. Katie was waiting with another great rice and bean burrito (my new favorite ultra food!). I weighed in again and was down just two pounds – still nothing to worry about. I took a minute here to get rid of my long-sleeve shirt and Brooks nightlife shirt. Now I was down to just my lucky running shirt. The sun was warming the earth, and the weather was perfect! A quintessential fall day with a warm sun, cool breeze, and the beauty of the changing leaves. Steve and I left North River Gap in great spirits. Not only was I two-thirds of the way done and still feeling great, but we’d see our crew at all but one of the remaining aid stations.

Mathematics. Nearly everyone will tell you not to do math early on in ultra-races. It can be quite depressing when you’ve run 35 miles to think about 65 more. Besides, the race doesn’t really get interesting until past the halfway point. This is extremely difficult for me. I’ve always prided myself on my math skillz. I can add and subtract with the best of them (particularly over beers). Calculus wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but I’ve never felt the need to find integrals out on the trails. I did a little bit of math at the halfway point, but had mostly avoided it. But now, at 67+ miles, the wheels were turning. Click, click, click...

“Hey Steve, we’ve just got a little bit more than a 50k left…just about 35 miles. I think we can definitely shoot for a 30-hour finish.”

“Sure Dave.”

I think Steve was purposefully letting me set time goals at this point and not interjecting any of his own. In reality, at this point, we could have walked it in and still hit 30 hours. But as a good pacer should, Steve didn’t encourage my math skillz. He just encouraged me to run.

Pacing is not an easy thing. In fact it is down right hard. Something about being marooned in the wilderness with a half-conscious runner who lacks the strength to continue but refuses to quit puts a lot of stress on an individual. I’ve paced two times in my life. The first was on a mountain range not far from where we currently stood. The second was with Steve at Burning River. In my mind, the hardest part about pacing is remembering to take care of you while being completely focused on someone else.
The next stretch took us up to Lookout Mountain (mile 72) and once again my doggie friend was there to greet me. We also met up with Regis Shivers Jr. Regis has completed Grindstone the previous two years and was the first person to tell me about this race. Crazy to think two years later I was now running it. I grabbed a few muffins, refilled the handheld, and continued on. We enjoyed some ridgeline running, and then climbed to the top of Hankey Mountain. We ran another nice and easy descent along the ridgeline. But now we were peering down a brutal descent. We were set to drop nearly 3000’ in just 2.4 miles. All the down-hill running was really starting to take its toll. Mercifully the trail here was wide, grassy, non-technical and leaf covered. But it was steep. STEEP. As we started off, I imagined I was skiing down as I zig-zagged back and forth, barely lifting my feet out of the leaves. This took me back to autumns when I was a kid.

I grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania in the little town of Chadds Ford. Our backyard was lined by oak and maple trees, and every autumn we would rake up large leaf piles and have fun jumping into them to catch the football (of course after we removed all the sticks to prevent anyone from being bludgeoned. Thanks mom!). That sound of crunching leaves is imbedded in a very special part of my memory. The funny part of this is also that after we had cleaned up our yard, our neighbor’s leaves would blow down the hill and fill our yard again, so the fun would begin all over again!

Before long, Steve and I hit Dowell’s Draft (mile 80.4) at 1:41pm with an elapsed time of 19:41. Just over 20 miles left. Despite the brutally steep descent, we had made good time over the last section. We had been passing one or two people between every aid station and slowly working our way up the field. I thought I was probably somewhere in the mid-20’s. It was also really good to see the crew again. It still amazes me how much this rejuvenates me. Leigh had the video-camera in hand. Katie had another rice and bean burrito waiting, and I poured a bit of espresso into my handheld bottle to provide a caffeine jolt. I was beginning to get a bit tired. Michael filled my bottle and he and Jen provided lots encouragement.

As Steve and I left Dowell’s Draft, the math wizardry was in full swing. At 2.8mph with 21.45 miles left…

“Hey Steve, I think I might be able to PR. Let’s shoot for 28 hours!”

“ *chuckle chuckle* Sounds good Dave.”

In hindsight I think Steve was laughing because of how completely attainable 28 hours would be if I just kept moving forward. At no point was I moving just 2.8mph. My slowest section had been an even 3mph, and that was the toughest section on the course. That was way behind us now. We started the climb up Crawford Mountain. While not steep, this is a long and extremely technical climb. The rocks are reminiscent of Massanutten. The consistent one-foot-in-front-of-the-other was lulling me to sleep. My eyelids drooped. If only I could lay down for a nap…I would be o…k….a….y…..

“Dave! Stay with me here.”

I was too tired to realize how treacherous this section was becoming. To our right was a drop off, and I was barely lifting my feet enough to get my toes over the rocks. I think Steve was silently freaking out about the possibility of me tumbling over the edge and cracking my head open on a rock on the way down. And this is why he was there. Up until this moment, I had been running well and able to push myself. But now Steve transformed from company to pacer. He began asking me questions to make my mind work, to try to lift the fog. I wish I could remember the details. I think the dialogue would be quite comical. But I remember talking about fishing. And we climbed. I remember talking about my grandfather. And we climbed. I remember talking about my dad. And we climbed some more. As we hit the summit the worst of the sleepiness was behind me. The descent was mostly gradual, very runable, and got the blood flowing. With Steve’s help, I had shed the sleep-demons, and my adrenaline flowing. We hit Dry Branch Gap (mile 87.8) at 3:47pm with a time of 21:47 elapsed. I resisted tears of joy when I saw my crew. I needed to focus on the next 14 miles before celebration. Michael kept telling me how much I was killing the course. He even offered to pace me if Steve needed a break. Like I said earlier, helluva guy.

Steve and I left Dry Branch Gap and started the climb up the backside to Elliot’s Knob. In my head I knew this way was not as steep as the ascent the previous night, but it sure felt just as steep. Steve’s stomach was starting to revolt. Like I said, pacing is not easy. So I did more math, and we passed two more people.

“27 hours Steve. I think I can break 27 hours.”

We eventually spit out onto the familiar gravel road. I was afraid this descent would break me. People say the first half of this race is harder than the second, but I disagree. Sure, the ascents on the way out are much steeper, but that means you have to come down them on the way back when you legs are trashed. I went sideways the majority of this descent. The pain was no better if I went slower, so I reasoned if I went faster it would all be over sooner. Down, down, down. Finally, there it was – the streamer directing us back onto the trail. But even now, this flatter section seemed difficult. There was over-grown grass with hidden ankle-grabber rocks, and I was having some difficulty with blurred vision. We decided just to walk to avoid face-planting. Eventually we hit some runable sections and made good time. Before long we were picking our way down a rocky streambed, and I knew the next aid station was close.

“Steve, I think I can hit 25:30 if we hurry.”

I ran into Falls Hollow (mile 96.7) as fast as my legs would take me. I was a man on a mission. I dropped the camelback, grabbed another handheld bottle, and left for my final push to the finish. I was just over 24 hours in and with only 5.5 miles left was gunning for 25:30. Steve called it a day at Falls Hollow. He had gotten me through my toughest section by helping me fight off the sleep demons on Crawford Mountain. Michael offered to run with me to the end, but my adrenaline was pumping so hard it didn’t matter. I passed another runner immediately out of the aid station. I was still climbing strong, but then I hit some technical descents, and my pace slowed. The runner I had just passed ran right by me. He actually offered to stick with me to the end, but I told him to run his own race and not let me slow him down. I fought the urge to walk. As I entered the outskirts of the campground I knew I was getting close. So I ran. Then I saw the sign – 1 mile to go. I had 16 minutes to run that last mile. I ran it in 11. As I ran the last 100 feet to the finish line I would like to say that I became philosophical and reflected over the previous 101.8 miles. But instead, my mind was filled with nothing but exhaustion. I was leaving it all on the course. Clark announced my name and my crew cheered. After 101.85 miles and 25 hours, 24 minutes, and 42 seconds I was back where I started, in 14th place. I had finally run a good race. Clark has a tradition where every finisher hugs the totem pole to represent the cumulative shared experience. I stumbled around and Katie came over to support me and guide me to the totem pole.

Afterwards I sat in a rocking chair, waiting for Peterman and Skinny Beast. I reflected over the whole experience, and the question of why came back to mind. I also thought of something Star said to me. Sometimes the answer is simply – because.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

9/29/10 - The final chapter

48 hours. 48 hours with a 7-hour car ride in the middle. That is the small gap between where I currently sit and the start line…a very subtle line nestled in the Shenandoah Valley under the shadow of Elliot’s Knob. That first major climb up Elliot’s Knob covers 3500’ of elevation in just 4 miles. It is a steep climb with extremely poor footing. It is a climb that will occur as darkness engulfs the mountain…

It seems that I’ve fallen behind on my writing as of late (well, that’s not entirely true). I’ve got bits and pieces of clever material and partial posts that just never made it to completion. I’ll blame it on being busy, but in reality I don’t think I’m ever not busy. The last time I remember not being busy was when I was about twelve years old. So maybe it is as much a product of football season starting, which always entices me to watch at least a few games a weekend (damn you fantasy football!). Or maybe it was my recent obsession with perfecting my resume and CV as I begin to figure out where the next stage of life will be (this week the list includes San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Research Triangle Park, NC). I see the writing on the wall that I’ll have to get a real job soon…

This weekend, there is one focus – Start slow. Drink like a fish. Eat like a horse. Run like a turtle (ala Roy Heger).

Tapering is not something I do well. I get cranky. My legs get achy. I don’t sleep well. I’m impatient. My mind is not as sharp. I get distracted easily. And I take everything out on Katie. She spent hours last night preparing specific foods that I requested during the race and I had the audacity to complain about something. This was after she spent a week trying to figure out exactly what I would be craving and planned a whole menu (vegan soups, burritos, bagel-sandwiches, etc) and outlined which aid stations she would have things ready for me. She is no amateur at crewing. She knows what I need and when I need it. She knows full well I’ll most likely be an ass during the race. She knows afterwards I’ll lie on the couch and whine and complain for a week. But she takes this all in stride. Some people see love in words, or that special look or touch. This is how I see love.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the simple question every ultra-runner has been asked – “Why?” 100-milers are not fun. They are an experience. Somewhere around mile 96 of Mohican this year, as I fought off the knee-demons and foot-monsters and cut-offs, I posed that question to Star – “Why?” I asked Rob Powell this question over beers at Oktoberfest this past Saturday – “Why?” I’ve been asked many times by family, friends, complete strangers – “Why?” The honest answer is I’m not really sure. I’ve been very blessed in my short life. I’m only 26. I have friends that are only 26 and have lost parents and siblings. I have friends that are only 26 and struggle with life-altering illnesses. I’ve seen such heartache in both my immediate and extended family that it keeps me up some nights hurting for people. But somehow, in the midst of all of this, I have escaped such tragedy. Maybe I run to see how I respond to hardship (even when it happens to be self-inflicted). But I’m still not really sure. This is a question I’m going to work on this weekend…

Is the third time really a charm? Will my lucky #13 race number come through? Will I finally have a race that lacks the “epic” nature my first two have had, and I simply run well? All of these questions will be answered in just a few short days.

I am tapered.

I am rested.

I am ready.

Excerpts on the Erie Marathon

7:17, 7:20, 7:13, 7:17, 7:15. Those were my times for the first five miles of the Erie Marathon at Presque Isle. My next three miles – 7:25, 7:37, 7:55…and that was when I decided to call it a day. With 160 miles on my legs in the previous 14 days, the fatigue set in quickly, and I just didn’t have the mental toughness to keep pushing. So I settled back into 8:30 pace and enjoyed the cool breeze coming off the lake.

The Erie Marathon felt a bit more like an ultra-event than a typical road marathon. The field is small and spectators sparse. The course winds through beautiful forests and along open sand beaches. The aid stations had Hammer products. And the results are still not posted. Although this was my first marathon without a new PR (but what did I expect with all the Grindstone training?), I enjoyed myself immensely. I finished feeling some disappointment, but the minimal soreness in my legs made me realize this was probably the best outcome.

Katie and I also enjoyed a wonderful weekend with Shane and Lori Sampson. Shane once again talked me into another 100, and potentially a larger adventure this summer...

Thursday, September 9, 2010

9/6/10 – Grindstone training week #7 – The “Skinny Beast Trifecta”

I know I know. I disappointed everyone (all four of you) last week by failing to post on my widely acclaimed blog. But last week was a “step down” week (~50 miles) in my training before the final push for Grindstone. So this week I’ll try to write something spectacularly entertaining to make up for it. Okay?

Well this week’s post finds me sitting in a bathtub full of icy water with my laptop teetering precariously on the edge of the tub, smelling strangely of horses, and hoping that when I emerge the soreness will have subsided from my legs (and our tub will drain properly...). This week was the best training week I’ve ever had. Period. It was a combination of speed-work early in the week, and the Skinny Beast Trifecta (aka. the triple skinny) to conclude it. The Skinny Beast Trifecta is a training technique used by Jay Smithberger where one runs three consecutive long runs as the last workouts before the tapering phase begins leading up to a 100-miler. I’ve been getting a steady dose of back-to-back long runs, so the trifecta seemed like the perfect peak to training. I also knew I’d have company Saturday at Mohican and Monday at Hocking Hills, so what better way to enjoy a holiday weekend?

Tuesday I met with Michael Patton and Steve Z. at Antrim for a BQ marathon-paced run. I wanted to see how it felt and if holding that pace this upcoming weekend at the Presque Isle Marathon in Erie, PA is a reasonable expectation. After a bit of warm-up, we heading up the trail clicking off 7:15’s. It was hot. It was really hot. But about two miles in I started getting into that groove where your body feels fluid and the pace is comfortably hard. “Passing on your left.” This was no problem at all. Lots of bikes had passed us with courteous notifications of their intentions. “PASSING ON YOUR LEFT!!” she yelled into our ears. We all seemed to chuckle a bit figuring this was someone we knew just giving us a hard time. After all, we were clearly on our side of the path. But no, someone had forgotten to attend her anger management class, and decided three sweaty runners looked like an appropriate target. When we realized she wasn’t joking (F-bombs and middle fingers tipped us off), we replied with a few creative lines. Michael responded, “why don’t you try enjoying yourself like the rest of us out here!” I think I made some sarcastic comment about whether she could see the line in the middle of the path. But nonetheless, it was the most outrageous thing I’ve seen in a while. We all looked at each other with that “did that really just happen?” expression. Then a Garmin beeped and we had logged a 6:55 mile – nothing like a bit of adrenaline to push the pace. We soon settled back into pace and finished with a 7:12/mile average. Not too shabby in 94 degree heat. But also not so sure I can hold that pace for the necessary 26.2 miles.

This brings up some inner turmoil I’ve had the past few weeks. Grindstone is my target race, no doubt. But I’d really like to run a solid marathon at Erie this weekend – but not at the expense of pushing too hard and going into Grindstone less than 100%. With my current training being geared towards ultras, my gut tells me I’d be pushing into the red zone for a Boston qualifier. I just don’t possess that natural speed. So despite the urging of those wanting me to join them in New England this spring, I’m afraid it will have to wait another year. But we shall see how the day unfolds…

Wednesday I ran a comfortable 9 miles on the “Junior Trail” that follows the bike path.

Thursday I biked to and from lab on account of the OSU football game traffic that would make leaving in the afternoon a nightmare. It always amazes me how relaxed I feel after biking in as opposed to driving. The dripping sweat is a definite downside, but cruising along next to the Olentangy River certainly has a calming effect on me.

Friday came with a decision – to run, or not to run. The holiday weekend meant I would be able to complete the Skinny Beast Trifecta on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Katie was busy, the weather was gorgeous, and I didn’t run Thursday, so I decided to head out for a few easy miles. It was one of those perfect early evening runs with a cool breeze, and before long I had clipped off nearly 12 miles at a decent pace. The legs felt great, but I decided to stop with so many miles in store over the next three days.

Saturday I headed up to Mohican with Steve Z. for 25+ miles on the trails. I had sent out a blast e-mail to see if any other runners wanted to join us, and the only response was a feeble “maybe” from Terri L. We arrived at the covered bridge at 8:15am (a bit later than our anticipated 8am start time) and saw the Lemke-mobile sitting there vacant. What was I thinking!? Of course a “maybe” from Terri when it involves running is a definite YES! Moments later Mark L. pulled up and informed us Terri was only a little ways out, so he drove off and directed her back in our direction, and a few minutes later we all headed out. We ran from CB to Hickory Ridge and back for 11 miles. Mark met up with us again and joined us on the 9-mile trek to the Lodge and back. The four of us rolled along enjoying the great weather. At some point, Steve and I both saw a furry creature scamper up a tree. After a few days of deliberation (and lots of Google images) we have decided it was a wolverine. Pretty freaking cool, right?! First time I’ve ever seen one in the wild. On this stretch I also get the award for the worst leader. We came upon a section of trail leading towards the lodge that Terri warned us was a bit overgrown. “Eh, doesn’t look too bad,” I thought. About 100-feet in we were covered in briar scratches and those little burrs that relentlessly stick to your clothes and leg-hair (for us fellows). Poor Steve had them all over his shorts in between his legs – let your mind wander a bit (but not too much) and you’ll understand the problem with this. So after 5 minutes of picking the little buggers off us, we continued on.

Sunday I had aspirations of getting up early before church and pounding out a 20-miler. After doing some math and realizing that I would need to start by 5am, I decided this was simply out of the question. So Sunday afternoon rolled around and I scraped myself off the couch and headed to Antrim. As I was stretching, I ran into a friend from the lab next to me, and we ran a few laps around Antrim together before I headed down the trail towards campus alone. About 12 miles in I was struggling. I didn’t carry quite enough fluid, and my legs were really feeling the 37 miles from the previous two days. By the time I arrived back at Antrim, I had lost the desire to continue and called it a day at 17 miles. I now had 54 miles in the books over three days, and was wondering how I’d find the energy for a Monday morning marathon down at Hocking Hills.

Monday the Zeidner clan picked me up bright and early for the drive down to Hocking Hills. It took a while for me to emerge from my morning fog. After some brief instructions from Michael, we were off in a few packs. I had a lot of fun the first half running with different folks and enjoying lively conversation. The legs were tired and my energy level was really low though. I actually thought about calling it quits at the halfway point. Then after a quick bathroom stop…okay, this is a funny story so I’ll include it. I duck into a quiet souvenir shop to use the bathroom. I walk into the bathroom and it is equally quiet and there is no fan...great. Needless to say I got a few funny looks as I exited. Anyway, after the halfway point I began to feel better and better. I held back the urge to push the pace and enjoyed the scenery. As we moved onto the bridle trails we encountered a number of horses and lots of fresh droppings. The trails were so dry and dusty from the lack of rain that it felt like you were eating horse-crap flavored dust being kicked up by the person in front of you. Lovely, right? At about the 20-mile mark I started yo-yoing a bit and ran a few more of the hills. When we hit the 22-mile mark it was time to find out what was left in the legs. Darrin Bright and myself starting pushing the pace to try to catch Steve, who had turned it on himself a few minutes earlier. Unfortunately after a few miles we found ourselves at a cross-roads with three trails to choose from. None of them looked familiar. We even walked a little ways up each one to determine familiarity. After waiting around for about 10 minutes, we caught sight of Michael in the trees to the left of us. Apparently none of the trails were correct and we had made a wrong turn somewhere earlier. We connected back with the group and I decided to still run hard the remaining 4 miles. At this point I had totaled nearly 80 miles for the weekend and 25 that day, but I felt great. Those last 4 miles were very encouraging.

I am ready to run a good race at Grindstone. I’ve had a great training cycle these past 7 weeks and feel physically and mentally better than ever. The hay is in the barn, as they say. Now I just need to execute a quality taper and race well.

On a side note, I found out this week that I got into both Ancient Oaks 100 (Dec. 18) and Umstead 100 (Apr. 2)! So we shall see how things unfold…

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Prose and Pacing

My wife told me I need more creative prose. My PhD advisor told me to be more direct. Ah, the life of the man caught in the middle. It’s funny how life becomes so segmented…

I logged a lot of solo miles this week – all except Thursday’s mile repeats with Steve (and I’ll complain about that later) and ten miles with Star on Sunday. I’ve spent so many miles with others lately that I had forgotten how much I enjoy being alone on the trails with my thoughts. I also realized how lousy I am at pacing…and I realized this extends beyond running.

I took Monday off to recover a bit from the Grindstone training weekend. Tuesday I wanted to get up to High Banks, but due to time constraints settled for a run on the bike trail, which is just a stones throw from where I park each morning. This was intended to be a nice and easy 8-miler, but every time the Garmin beeped I had logged a mile 15 seconds faster than the previous. I even tried to slow down, but somehow kept speeding up. I even stopped and did a bunch of push-ups and sit-ups to tire myself out, but when I started running again I was still speeding up. Like I said, I’m really bad at pacing.

Wednesday I left the lab a bit early and hit the treadmill to hike 3.5 miles at a 15% incline. Following this I entered into the weight room for the first time in forever. It felt strangely familiar and comforting…the floor to ceiling mirrors, the smell of iron, the guys with bulging arms, the scrawny kid looking completely out of place...oh wait, that’s just me looking in the mirror, a puny version of my former weight-room frequenting self, pounding away on the leg press and leg curl machines. After sufficiently fatiguing my quads, I looked at the bench-press and thought about trying to rip off a few sets, then thought better of embarrassing myself, so I exited the gym and did something I feel confident in – I ran.

Thursday I met Steve at Antrim for mile-repeats. We ran a warm-up lap, stretched a bit, and then headed out for our first mile. The idea was to run 6:45’s, but with me pacing this first lap we came in at 6:10…like I said, I’m really bad at pacing. Steve led the next three laps and we came in within about 8 seconds of 6:45’s each time. Maybe this is what makes him a good drummer – that ability to tune out distractions and stay consistent (distractions mostly being my panting and whining). And this is when I realized how much I enjoy running with others. This is when I realized how important it was to have people in my life. Because sometimes we need those consistent personalities to keep us in check when we want to dash ahead or fall behind.

So I’ve been trying to listen to my body more recently. I eat when hungry, sleep when tired, wake without alarms, etc. But this too has made me realize how lousy I am at pacing. The life of a grad student is, well, not a great life. The life of a grad student in the sciences is, well, kind of like running 100 miles. You work and struggle and mentally sweat to find that discovery that will propel your career forward and you experience the highs and lows that come with it. One day, what you thought was your big discovery is trashed and returned to you in a red massacre by the brilliant minds you seek approval from. The lows are very low. So you work even harder and finally, the e-mail comes: “Congratulations! Your article is acceptable for publication!” And oh how sweet are the highs. But my real point in all of this is that piling up 80-hr weeks only to be followed by a summer of burnout and a strong desire to sleep and think about anything but science seems to somehow be related to bad pacing. This seems to happen too much. Although the coolness of fall has been in the air as of late, and I’m hoping with it comes a change in my motivation – and perhaps my ability to pace. But alas, I digress… Oh yeah, this is supposed to be about running.

After unsuccessfully trying to put together a group run at Mohican on Saturday morning, Katie decided to join me on my journey with the plan of hiking while I ran. I attacked the orange loop (100-mile direction) and soon found myself flying along, thoroughly enjoying pushing my limits and the solitude of it all. I soon met up with Katie along the river and we hiked a mile or so together before I took off for the car at Covered Bridge to refill my aid. I had drained my bottles a few miles out and was promptly in the midst of a severe bonk. I stumbled onto the purple loop and struggled quite a bit until I had rehydrated and consumed enough calories. After getting my legs back I passed through CB and took off up towards the Fire Tower. I again passed Katie as she was on the return trip from the Fire Tower. Let me just say how impressed I am that she hiked 14 miles at Mohican in about 4 hrs. When I mentioned this was on pace to beat the cutoff at the Forget the PR 50k she promptly shot down my idea…but the seed has been planted =). I wound up with about 25 miles and was completely exhausted at the conclusion. If only I had paced myself… It was fun lounging around the house Saturday afternoon with both Katie and I feeling the satisfaction of a draining workout. Life is better together.

Sunday I wanted to get in a 20-miler, so I shot out a few quick texts to some highly talented pacers. Turns out Star (my rock star Mohican pacer) was lacing up her shoes for a 20-miler, so we met up on the bike-path, and instantly I realized how much I enjoy running with people. We discussed what pace we wanted to settle in on, and I mentioned something about staying between 8:30 and 9:00’s on account of my tough run at Mohican on Saturday. Sure enough, nearly every time the Garmin beeped we had logged another 8:40ish mile. But then it got hot, and we struggled. So after a water and popsicle break at the half-way point, I headed out solo for a few more miles before calling it quits at 16 miles and change. And as I thought about it, I concluded that running alone every once in a while is refreshing, but running with others is nearly always superior. I also realized that this applies to the broader strokes of life as well.

Sunday night Katie and I joined Steve and Leigh for Steve’s birthday celebration and had an absolutely wonderful grown-up time enjoying good food, wine, and conversation. The night ended with a special pre-screening of Leigh’s documentary on the 2010 Mohican 100. What a haunting experience to watch. Job well-done Leigh! If you haven’t seen the video, check it out at:

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Grindstone Training Weekend

Friday I was disappointed in how little I ran during the week.

Saturday as I climbed and descended mountains I was thankful.


Friday afternoon five of us piled into a rented SUV in Columbus, OH and drove down to George Washington National Forest in Virginia for the official Grindstone training weekend. Between Saturday and Sunday we would run the entire course in one direction (~52 miles). We arrived at Camp Shenandoah around 10pm and settled in. Michael Patton and David Peterman set up beds in the SUV, Jay Smithberger set up a tent, and Steve Zeidner and myself decided to sleep under the stars. Unfortunately a thick layer of clouds separated us from the stars and an hour into sleep rain forced us to put up the tent (this was after disturbing the SUV-sleepers three times…sorry guys).

“We are heading out in eight minutes.” What?! Alarm didn’t go off? We all scrambled to get things together for the 5:15am caravan that would take us to the opposite side of the course. Then we sat in the parking lot for twenty minutes waiting for a driver. Lovely.

The trip to the far end of the course took an hour and forty-five minutes. We drove up up and up to a small clearing on the top of a mountain where we literally stood in the middle of the clouds. After a few minutes of directions from the race director, Clark Zealand, we were off. A pack of runners took off rather quickly. It was hard not to get sucked into their pace on the gentle downhill, but I knew I would need to hold back if I was to survive the next 52 miles.

Within a few miles we reached the summit of Reddish Knob (4397 feet). This peak lies on the border of West Virginia and Virginia with spectacular views in either direction. Unfortunately standing in the middle of a cloud prevented us from seeing any of this. The day unfolded something like this: hike up a mountain, run along the ridgeline, run down a mountain, repeat. Jay kept reminding us it was only two hills the first day, which featured about 5000 feet of ascent and 7000 feet of descent. After covering the 29.1 miles, we headed back to camp, showered, and made our way towards dinner in Staunton with the rest of the runners.

After dinner we had the pleasure of sitting around listening to David Horton tell stories about running the Appalachian Trail (and setting the record), running the Pacific Crest Trail (and setting the record), and running across the USA. Horton has contributed greatly to the ultrarunning community over the past three decades. It was also fun to hear him go back and forth with Jay about training and reaching ones maximum potential.

The evening closed sitting by the pond with a Sierra Nevada in hand.

Sunday morning all alarms went off as planned and we hit the trailhead by about 7:00am. We immediately starting climbing, climbing, climbing. This was the first of only three hills Jay reminded us. The day was a bit clearer and we enjoyed some spectacular views from the ridgeline. We were not so lucky with our second hill – summitting Elliott Knob (4463 feet). It was blustery and cold and visibility was non-existent (see picture below). After taking a few minutes to take some pictures we headed down a long descent and off towards the last hill of the day. This second day featured about 7000 feet of ascent and 5000 feet of descent for a total of 12,000/12,000 over 52 miles in two days.

I was encouraged that each day I felt an energy boost with about five miles left and finished without feeling like I had emptied the tank. I attribute some of this to finally being fully recovered from the Mohican 100, and the rest to my consistent attention to caloric intake. Both days I took a Hammer-gel every 30 minutes and sipped diluted Perpetuem. I also had handfuls of pretzels and chips at each aid stop.

My current thoughts of Grindstone: This course demands respect and careful attention to details. I need to start conservatively and reach the halfway point without being completely trashed. I need to save my quads for the steeper descents in the second half of the race. I also need to maintain consistent calorie intake. If I execute, then I have a chance to finish.