Sunday, May 7, 2017

If You Ain't Pukin', You Ain't Tryin': My 2017 Revel Mt. Charleston Marathon Race Report

Net downhill, but not all downhill
“You need to learn to puke while running,” my buddy Keith recently chided me after I’d posted on Facebook that I’d stopped to puke at mile 12 of my latest marathon. And Keith wasn’t necessarily wrong.  

That unscheduled puke stop had wasted valuable seconds. Thankfully this time it hadn’t cost me, as I still managed to PR by almost two minutes (thanks to a 5,000-foot net downhill course and a 30-mph tailwind… more on that in a while). But next time… those precious lost seconds could potentially make all the difference.

There is little margin for error in the marathon; Every second counts. This is strikingly different from the longer, slower ultra-marathons that I'm accustomed to running. In an ultra-marathon – which can take up to a full day, and sometimes longer – runners can afford to lollygag along… stopping at aid stations to nibble on M&Ms, chat with friends, change socks, or even take a quick power nap.

An in-shape marathoner can knock out 26.2 miles in just a few hours or so. For comparison, that’s about the same amount of time that Donald Trump spends fashioning his “hair” each morning, searching for his errant golf balls all afternoon, or watching cable TV each evening while eating the most beautiful pieces of chocolate cake.

In a race as short as the marathon, even one short detour to the porta-potty can make the difference between achieving one’s goals (i.e., running sub 3, qualifying for Boston, setting a PR) and returning home empty handed and sad-faced like Hillary Clinton.

I know firsthand the importance of not wasting precious time during races with frivolous things like bodily functions. Several years ago, during an epic battle with local running phenom Chris Wehan, I finally managed to do something most runners only dream about but never actually accomplish: I successfully pee’d my pants while running without breaking stride. #HeDidWhat #WhyDidHeDoThat

Contrary to what you might expect, you can’t force your body to pee while running; rather you must cajole it. The trick is to relax your muscles, clear your mind, and enter a Zen-like state of meditation. Only then, when your bladder thinks you aren’t looking, can you coax yourself into releasing a warm torrent of salty, golden (Salted-Caramel-Gu smelling?) liquid down your shorts and thigh into your (previously dry) socks and shoes.

Please note that peeing yourself while bombing down a mountain trail at sub 6-minute pace should not be attempted by amateur hobby runners. Peeing yourself takes years of practice. Peeing yourself takes extreme focus. Peeing yourself takes a complete disregard for social norms and decorum. Disclaimer: please consult your doctor or medical professional to find out if peeing yourself is right for you!

But enough about how awesome I am, and how easily and effortlessly I can pee my pants while running. Let’s get back to the importance of being able to puke while running, and the even more advanced skill of being able to re-swallow mouthfuls of your own vomit after puking – without breaking stride. But first, let’s go back to the beginning and set the scene.

Who thought this was a good idea?

The Revel Mt. Charleston marathon is a point-to-point net-downhill road marathon held just outside Las Vegas. Revel (whoever/whatever they are) actually put on a series of four similarly-themed races (Las Vegas, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles) all being point-to-point downhill races with around 5,000 ft. descent each.

These races are presumably ideal for runners looking to PR or who need to shave a few minutes off their times to qualify for Boston. More on that later, but spoiler alert, “it’s all downhill” is often followed by, “it all went downhill”.

The Mt. Charleston race starts at a ski lodge surrounded by snow-capped mountains at 7,633 ft. It's always beautiful up there, but it's usually also cold and windy. When the shuttle buses dropped us off at the start an hour before the race, it was so cold and windy  out that I refused to get off the bus. Eventually the security guards arrived and I was "re-accomodated".

Everywhere I looked, people were huddled together trying to keep warm. As I pranced shirtless around the starting area, my nipples going slightly numb, I almost regretted my decision to go sans shirt. However, I received numerous offers to be "the little spoon", whatever that means. The only notably-odd thing about Mt. Charleston was that it was so cold that our urine froze midstream before hitting the ground; I’d never had to deal with pee icicles before.

Aside from the pee icicles, the race morning unfolded much like any other race morning: Five minutes before the official start of the race I found myself back in the porta-potty line for the third time with several dozen people still ahead of me. I frantically tried to calculate various non-linear regression models in my head to predict how many people would likely drop out of line as we got increasingly closer to the race start. But with a minute to go I panicked and stepped out of line myself and headed over the starting line, suspecting I would later regret my decision.

Although, as mentioned, Mt. Charleston is a net downhill course with over 5,000 feet of descent –most of which comes in the first 21 miles – there are actually a few uphill sections in the course including one at the start and another at mile 13. The last few miles are relatively flat-ish but contain a couple of small – but entirely unwelcome and completely unappreciated – hills. #TheySaidItWasAllDownhill

I don’t recall exactly what about this race originally caught my interest, or what I was potentially hoping to accomplish by running it. Perhaps I was wistfully thinking of running Boston next year and wanted an “easy qualifier”? Or maybe I wanted to log some hard, fast downhill running to toughen my legs up for Hardrock? Or hell, who knows… maybe I had delusions of sprinting full speed down the mountain (shirtless) for 26.2 miles to become the first man ever to run a sub 2-hour marathon… in a speedo?

In any case, for reasons that will likely never be known, I signed up for the race… and then of course completely forgot about it until a couple weeks beforehand when I received a reminder email from the organizers. Oh crap! You know those dreams where you are back in school, and show up for the final exam and realize you haven’t attended class all year… and you are in your underwear? Yup!

When someone has a bad race it’s completely natural to look back afterward and try to pinpoint where exactly things started to go wrong. People sometimes point the finger at something they ate for dinner or breakfast. Or maybe they ran in the wrong shoes. Or they packed the wrong color compression socks. Or they went out too hard in the early miles.

It’s certainly true that you can sabotage your chances of having a good race by running too aggressively in the early miles – or, of course, by forgetting to pack your lucky pink compression socks. But in my experience, most bad races usually have less to do with bad race-day execution, and more to do with improper training and poor race preparation.

In my case, knowing that I was signed up for a fast, downhill marathon on paved roads, it might have been a good idea if I had done some long tempo runs or perhaps even some actual road running in the months and weeks leading up to the race. But nah, that’s not how Big Johnny rolls. Instead, most of my training was devoted to short, .3 mile all-out, puke-inducing sprints at my local park in a quest to capture some Strava CRs. Speaking of puking…

That heel strike though :(

So, there I was, just twelve miles into the Revel Mt. Charleston marathon, suddenly feeling slightly dizzy and nauseous as I crested a small uphill – on what was supposed to be an “all downhill” course!  “Why am I feeling so crappy,” I wondered as I let out a small, slightly-wet burp. The initial burp was followed by a larger, much “wetter” burp, which was followed by a third burp that was, for all intents and purposes, essentially just a mouthful of vomit.

Somewhat surprised – and more than somewhat dismayed – I quickly stepped off the road and deposited the contents of my stomach into the bushes – taking care to avoid puking on any endangered federally-protected Desert Tortoises which, we had been warned by race officials, would result in immediate disqualification. We were also warned not to pee on the Desert Tortoises, which I didn’t realize was such a common problem that they needed to send a pre-race warning (seriously, I’m not even making this up).

Prior to the unplanned puke stop, things had been going well and I’d been averaging around 6:34 pace, which included two emergency visits to the porta-potties (I told you I'd regret not staying in the bathroom line before the race). During my three stops I’d given up two minutes of precious time and lost over a dozen places, slipping from 47th to 64th overall.

Still not sure what was wrong with me, but hoping to avoid DNF’ing again like I had earlier in the month at the American River 50 Miler, I wisely dialed back the pace, running mile 13 in slightly over 8 minutes. Several times during that mile I burped up additional mouthfuls of warm, not-great-tasting froth. But in the interest of expediency (and decency) I decided to just swallow it back down and keep moving.

Over the course of the next few miles I started feeling better again. Desperate to make up lost ground, I picked up the pace and threw down a couple of 6:21 and 6:22 minute miles – two of my fastest miles of the race. I began flying past other runners and moved up from 64th to 42nd place. 

As my favorite British television sports commentators might say, my legs were full of running. But as the Brits also might say, I probably overcooked it a bit. Suddenly, at mile 22, the wheels began to come off the bus… or I guess in this case, the lorry.

"Can I get a little Goose in my OJ?"
It’s all downhill from here

“Oh bollocks. The wheels are coming off the lorry. His race is going all to pot. It’s turning into a proper cock up. Quite the damp squib. He looks completely knackered,” I imagined my imaginary British commentators announcing with reserved excitement.

The temperature had been slowly rising as we made our way down the mountain onto the outskirts of Northern Las Vegas. The sun had come out, and I was now sweating heavily and unapologetically. With every heel strike, sweat flew off my body in a three-foot radius, flying into the eyes of other runners and temporarily blinding them. Using this controversial technique, I moved up a few more spots from 42nd to 34th place.

As badly as I was suffering, other runners seemed to be suffering more. “At least I’m still running,” I thought encouragingly to myself as I jogged at 7-minute mile pace past several cramp-struck runners who had been reduced to walking. I was cramping up as well, but oddly in my arms rather than my legs.

Still, the arm cramps presented a problem. Every time I tried to lift my water bottle up to my mouth, my biceps would cramp up as soon as I attempted to squeeze the bottle. This meant I was unable to take on any fluids for the last few miles outside of the aid stations. 

I began to question if I was even going to be able to make it to the finish line. Thankfully I wasn’t carrying my cell phone so I avoided the temptation of having to place an embarrassing call asking my mother to come pick me up two miles from the finish line.

Mile 24 was my slowest of the race in just over 8 minutes. I began doing calculations in my head (and on my fingers) trying to figure out exactly how slowly I could jog the last two miles and still go sub 3 and break my previous PR of 2:59:52. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, disaster struck!

I have somewhat eclectic taste in music and my running playlist has a diverse collection of artists and genres including bluegrass, alt-country, gangster-rap, death-metal, techno, and even a smidgen of teen-pop. I love me some Taylor Swift and Ke$ha as much as the next cross-fit bro. But occasionally I causally add a song to my playlist that I later come to seriously regret. When “Bass Down Low” by Dev came on and she squealed, “It's like one, two, three, okay / Can I get a little Goose in my OJ,” I about lost my shit.

No problem, I thought, I’ll just reach up behind my ear and press this convenient little ‘next track’ button on my mp3 player. Unfortunately, much to my horror, every time I tried to press the button my arm would spasm and completely cramp up. So, I spent the longest three minute and twenty-three seconds of my life listening to Dev ask repeatedly if I’d like to get my mitts in her oven.

“Just make it to the next song,” I kept telling myself, in a slight adaptation of the time-tested, “just make it to the next mile marker” runner’s mantra. I tried to amuse myself and pass the time by thinking of songs that would potentially be even more demotivating at this point. Certainly R.E.M.’s ‘Everybody Hurts’ and Johnny Cash’s cover of NIN’s ‘Hurt’ both came to mind. Or for that matter, anything by Coldplay.

Leaning for the tape... about 10 feet too soon
Hobbling to Glory

Finally, just as I was debating whether The Cure or The Smiths would be more depressing, the finish line miraculously sprung into view! I put my head down and unleashed what was possibly the world’s slowest, most awkward sprint of all time – which I’m pretty sure included me "leaning at the tape" at least ten feet shy of the finish line. But whatever, I was done.

I crossed the line in 2:57:46, good enough for 6th in my age group and 35th overall. Immediately after finishing I dramatically collapsed to the ground and grabbed at my chest. “Don’t worry, I’m not having a heart attack,” I reassured the volunteers, “my pectoral muscle is just completely cramped up.” After thrashing around on the ground for what I deemed was an obligatorily sufficient amount of time, I got up and hobbled over to the pizza table. And thus ended my Mt. Charleston marathon debacle.

While it wasn’t a perfect race, or even an especially good race, I did still manage to run under 3 hours, and I shaved a full two minutes off my previous marathon PR. And all it took was a 5,000 ft. net downhill course and a hurricane-force 30 mph tailwind for most of the run. LOL. Who knows, maybe I’ll be back next year and maybe I’ll look into doing some of that actual “marathon training” stuff that people are always yammering on about.

My brother Marcus, who was at the finish line cheering for me, managed to capture my slow-motion finishing sprint on his phone. It’s pretty amusing.


Here's my Strava data.

And here's a link to a much more serious and helpful race report from this year's winner (and new course record holder), fellow ultra-runner Ian Sharman.

Friday, February 3, 2017

2017 Third-Annual Big Johnny's Vertical Beer Mile

“Who are these people?”

Sixty-seven year-old Steve Patt – a Silicon-Valley software entrepreneur and Harvard PhD chemist – doesn't immediately strike you as the type of lowlife who wakes up in the morning and slams a few beers before breakfast. Yet, there he was, sitting alone in his car in a deserted parking lot on Saturday morning, several cans of beer in his lap, staring expressionlessly out the window at the rain. “What am I doing?” he muttered.

Outside Steve’s rain-covered window, a conspicuous-looking man with a large, full-back tattoo was pacing back and forth across the parking lot, talking loudly to himself. The man was not wearing a shirt. Or pants. His black Speedo showed off a hardened physique that Steve imagined likely came from years of lifting weights in a crude prison yard rather than a pristine, climate-controlled suburban gym. Steve was careful to avoid eye contact.

Loitering on the far side of the parking lot was a bearded, excessively muscular man dressed like a giant hot dog. It was the kind of outfit you’d expect to see worn by the mascot at a rec-league slow-pitch softball game where everyone, the mascot included, is drunk. The costume was wrinkled and splotched with what appeared to be dried mustard… or perhaps some form of bodily fluid – possibly, but not necessarily, vomit.

Another man, dressed as a giant banana, walked over to the guy in the puke-stained giant hot dog costume. The two oddly-attired individuals gesticulated wildly, and appeared to be discussing something of significant importance. Perhaps, Steve mused, the men were upset that their friend, possibly dressed as a giant stalk of asparagus, was running late for their strange food-fetish convention?

Pimpin' ain't easy
Steve’s attention then shifted to a pair of flamboyantly attired gentlemen sauntering in his general direction. One of the men was clad from head to toe completely in purple velvet with leopard-skin trim, including a ridiculously over-sized matching Fedora. The second man was decked out in an even gaudier ensemble – a three piece suit that appeared to have been fashioned from left-over Christmas wrapping paper – red, white, and blue patterns featuring snowflakes and reindeer.

“Who invited the pimps,” Steve chuckled to himself, “or who knows, maybe they’re just off-duty TGI Fridays’ managers?”

Steve looked down at his watch and then looked up to see a Giant Panda bear (well…technically a man dressed as a Giant Panda – which depending on whom you ask, is either a type of bear or a very-fat, very-distant, cousin of the raccoon). In any case, the Panda man was standing next to guy with eerie florescent day-glow green hair that illuminated everything within ten feet of him in the otherwise pitch-black predawn parking lot.

The radioactive-haired man was wearing a “jacket” that had clearly been fashioned out of a black garbage bag. The letters “B E E R” had been spelled out in in gray duct tape at a rakish angle across the front of the garbage-bag garment. “Who are these people?” Steve wondered.

“Everybody run!”

A pick-up truck with government plates and flashing lights came bouncing into the dirt parking lot spraying mud in all directions as it slid to a screeching halt. “It’s the authorities! Everybody run,” Amy Burton shouted loudly. People scattered in all directions running toward their vehicles with unopened beer cans in one hand and fistfuls of dollars in the other.

“Hurry up and pay for parking! It’s six dollars if you don’t have a State Park’s annual pass” shouted the race director, Big Johnny Burton, the man with the back tattoo and black speedo, encumbered by neither shirt nor trousers. “The third-annual BJB’s Vertical Beer/Club Soda Mile starts in two minutes.”

Note: For those readers unfamiliar with the concept of the beer mile, and the vertical beer mile in particular, you may want to read this Trail Runner Magazine article that covered the first annual BJB Vertical Beer Mile. You may also want to read the 2015 BJB VerticalBeer Mile race report and/or last year’s 2016 BJB Vertical Beer Mile race report.

Or… if you just want the Cliff Notes, the beer mile is a race that is traditionally run on a standard 400 meter track where the participants drink a 12 ounce can/bottle of beer before running each of the four laps, resulting in the consumption of 4 beers over the course of the mile race. The vertical beer mile employs a similar format, except that the participants run/hike up a steep mile-long hill (on rough dirt trails) while stopping to chug a beer ever quarter mile on their way up the mountain.

“Three… two… one…” click, click, click, pop, pop, pop. The air was suddenly filled with the sound of twenty cans of beer (and a couple cans of club soda) opening in unison. The chirping of birds was drowned out by the loud cacophony of guzzling, gasping and burping. The vertical beer mile had official(ish)ly begun!

The race is on!

Big Johnny dashes off to an early lead
Big Johnny sucked down his first beer in 3.91 seconds and muscled his way through the crowd of slower sippers. “Amateurs,” he smirked dismissively as he sprinted through the knee-deep icy river that marked the start of the 1200 foot mile-long climb up the mountain. This was going to be the year that he finally defeated his arch-rival and nemesis, the two-time defending champion Karl Schnaitter.

“I want that belt,” Big Johnny growled to himself as he pictured Karl standing victorious atop the mountain last year, triumphantly holding the diamond-studded golden championship belt above his head as the sun shone through the trees, highlighting the fake rhinestone and gold-colored plastic of the children’s toy belt Big Johnny so deeply coveted.

The chase group: Big Banana, Big Winner, Big Wiener
Big Johnny was on a hot streak lately, having recently won the Javelina Trail Beer Mile in Arizona in October and the Silicon Valley Beer Mile Championship in November. He’d been training his ass off with two-a-day beer-chugging sessions. Losing wasn’t an option this year, much less even a possibility.

Suddenly Big Johnny heard footsteps behind and looked back to see fast-approaching chase group of runners led by a seven foot tall banana, a muscle-laden hot dog, and an out of place very serious-looking guy wearing actual running clothes who seemed to be under the impression that this was some kind of legitimate race; He’d apparently brought his own timing chip and had a bib number pinned on his shorts. He had even been spotted doing dynamic stretches and strides beforehand.

"You're doing it wrong." Needless to say
these guys did not podium. LOL.
Adam Schroeder apparently didn’t get the memo that this wasn’t a USA Track and Field sanctioned event; that there would be no chip timing, no aid stations, and no smiling volunteers with medals at the finish line. It seems that he was tricked into participating in this “historic, prestigious, iconic South Bay race” by his friend Liz who just needed a designated driver and convinced Adam to enter the club-soda division.

Adam, sober as sandwich, seemed not to notice nor care that he was racing a banana, a hot dog, and an exotic male dancer. He closed his eyes and imagined he was in the Olympic 5000 meter finals, surrounded by thousands of cheering fans while he and Mo Farrah furiously chugged cans of Safeway club soda on the backstretch of the track.

Adam put his head down and charged up the mountain to victory, “prancing off into the distance like a mischievous pixie,” as described by fellow racer Peter Battaglino, the "big banana".

It’s all over but the pukin’

1st Overall and Club Soda Mile Champion
Adam Schroeder
As Peter watched Adam flit up the mountain to victory, Peter abandoned his own dreams of glory and resigned himself to second place. He was so light-headed (from his strategy of hyperventilating for 10 seconds before opening each bear so that he could hold his breathe while drinking) that he hadn’t realized that Adam was chugging club soda rather than beer, and thus running in the separate, “lesser-but-kinda-equal(ish)” club-soda division for which the mostly-indifferent race director had yet to commission a separate championship belt.

“At least I’ll be the first banana,” Peter consoled himself, not realizing that he was leading the actual beer mile division. “I wonder if they have a trophy for first oversized food-stuff item? I better stay ahead of the "Big Wiener" just in case,” he thought determinedly.

Peter summoned all his strength and concentrated on one thing: not letting anyone pass him. Well, two things actually: not letting anyone pass him, AND not puking all over himself (and/or anyone else). Because, despite what his high school cross country coach used to say, puking on a competitor isn’t actually good sportsmanship.

As he stumbled across the finish line at the top of the hill, Peter looked up and saw Adam already finished, showered and dressed, and sitting with his feet up in a lounge chair drinking a kale smoothie. “Where the heck did he get a smoothie from,” Peter wondered. Some of life’s greatest mysterious remain forever unsolved!

Meanwhile, thirteen seconds behind Peter, an epic battle was “brewing” for second place (yes, that’s a beer pun). The suspiciously muscular hotdog – who, at least according to the nutritional-facts-label, was 100% Angus beef and completely hormone and steroid-free – was chasing down the male stripper over the final quarter mile.

Beer Mile Champ "Big Banana" Peter Battaglino
with buddy Vitor Rodrigues
“You better move that ass. I’ve got a pocket full of dollar bills and I’m ‘bout to make it rain up on this mountain,” shouted the "Big Wiener," Chris Eide, completely oblivious to the fact that it was actually already raining – quite heavily.

Big Johnny looked back over his shoulder and laughed, “Sorry Sweetie, that wiener’s not getting anywhere near me. You’ve got no relish! No onions! Come back next year with some real game.”

And with that, Big Johnny sashayed across the finish line, 3rd place overall and 2nd in the beer mile division. Chris crossed the finish line seconds later in 4th place overall, securing the final of the three beer-mile podium spots. And, perhaps more impressively, he was 2nd overall in the silly-food-mascot division and 1st place overall in the smoked/cured/processed meats sub-category!

Immediately after crossing the finish line Big Johnny ducked behind the nearest tree and shouted, "It's OK to vomit now; you're finished". And he did. Quite gloriously.

The “Club Soda” Club

"Not sorry in advance for crashing your
podium. Hugs and kisses -- Loren Lewis"
There was an unusual amount of pre-race smack talking going on this year among the entrants in the non-alcoholic / club-soda division of the race. Most – if not completely all – of that smack talking came from one man: Loren Lewis. “Is anyone else planning to compete in the non-alcoholic division this year? Because I don’t want an empty victory,” Loren quipped in one of his many, many, many Facebook taunts.

One day Loren posted a picture of his new Innov8 shoes with the captions, “These are the shoes that will be standing atop of the podium.” Another day he posted a close-up shot of his well-oiled calf muscles with the disclaimer, “Objects are much larger than they appear on camera”.

At one point he even published an 87 page thesis about why it was scientifically impossible for him to lose a liquid-chugging contest. Unfortunately Loren lost most readers on page 3 in the middle of a lecture about inviscid fluids and dynamic (shear) viscosity.  I guess not everyone is read up on their Newtonian versus non-Newtonian fluids?

Sadly for Loren, calf-muscle porn and new shoes don’t win championships; mullets do. Wait…what??? Defending non-alcoholic beer mile champion Matt Ward was certain that the key to a repeat victory this year would be to again rock his patented “skullet” haircut – which improves upon the standard mullet (short on the top, long in the back) hairstyle by going completely bald/shaven on the sides and top for greater aerodynamics.

Matt Ward rocking the headband "skullet"
with Big Pimp Larry Neumann
Last year Matt rocked his sweat-band and skullet to first place in the non-alcoholic division and 5th place overall finish. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fx it,” one supposes. Or perhaps more appropriately, “if it hasn’t fallen out, don’t cut it.” But even the most iconic hairdo can have an off day, and it seemed that the rain and humidity had gotten to Matt’s mullet this year. Much like the Biblical story of how Delilah once emasculated the mighty Sampson by giving him a pin-curl perm and colored hair extensions while he was passed out drunk, the low barometric pressure and relative high-humidity rendered Matt’s mullet powerless.

Before the race Matt was heard boldly proclaiming that, "Nobody chugs club soda and runs up a hill faster than me! Nobody!" After the race, “except that Adam guy, he's pretty fast!" But to his credit, even without the aid of his performance-enhancing skullet, Matt was still able to hold off every other sober runner not named Adam, earning Matt a respectable 5th place overall finish and 2nd place in the club-soda division.

Rounding out the non-alcoholic/club soda podium place was trash-talker extraordinaire, Loren Lewis, who took over four minutes off his PR from last year and managed to crack the top 10 this year with an 8th place overall finish. And one can only imagine just how fast Loren could ultimately become if he commits himself to training with the same enthusiasm, passion, and long hours that he has dedicated to shit talking on the Internet J.

Girls on the Run

Amy Burton trying to close the gap
Meanwhile in the women’s race, beer-mile rookie Suzie Farrell found herself on the losing side of an animated argument with her Pabst Blue Ribbon. Unable to finish her third or fourth PBRs, Suzie threw in her chips (which is of course preferable to throwing up her chips) and jogged it in.

This nicely set the stage for a two-woman battle between last year’s defending women’s beer-mile champion Liz Louie, and last year’s two-beer “powder puff” division champion Amy Burton who was looking to move up in distance this year.

Liz Louie works as a school teacher… but she chugs beer like a college frat boy. Liz broke into the national beer-mile running scene last year after her narrow victory over Jenny Lockwood at the 2nd annual Big Johnny’s Vertical Beer Mile. However, her win was not without controversy. Specifically there was some debate about whether Liz’s choice of beverage – a hard strawberry cider – was truly “beer” or not. Eventually the judges ruled in Liz’s favor that hard strawberry cider is in fact a type of beer – or at least a distant second-cousin by marriage.

This year Liz wasn’t taking any chances. She left the strawberry hard cider at home and came armed with four cans of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. She walked up to the starting line with a chip on her shoulder… and her diamond-studded championship belt around her waist. She was looking to silence her critics, and to become the first woman ever to win back to back vertical beer mile titles. But in order to win, she was going to have to defeat a woman whose name is revered on the Strava leader boards.

The women's race comes down to a sprint finish
Amy Burton is a small-business mogul who runs an extensive pet-care empire. She is highly feared and respected in the dog-walking (and cat-sitting) world. But she’s also a formidable cyclist and runner. At last count, she held over 500 Strava course records. And, after taking a year off running to rehab an inflamed Achilles tendon, Amy made her triumphant return to ultra-running last year with a strong performance at Rio del Lago 100 miler where she finished 3rd woman and 16th overall.

The bookies in Las Vegas were offering even money as to who would prevail between Amy and Liz. It was hard to pick a favorite. And, as expected, the race came down to the wire. Liz went out hard and opened an early lead over the first ¼ mile. But Amy didn’t panic and closed down the gap over the next ¼ mile. They arrived at the ½ mile beer stop together and cracked their third beers open in unison.

The women chatted cordially as they ran/hiked the next ¼ mile up to the ¾ mile beer stop for their fourth and final beer. Experts say that it takes about 30 minutes for alcohol to hit the blood stream for men, and as little as 20 minutes for women. Unfortunately for Liz, it had been about 20 minutes since her first beer.

An emotional Liz Louie after a hard fought battle
Suddenly the alcohol hit her. And it hit her hard. “Oh my gosh Amy, you’re such an amazing runner. I love you so much. I hope you win. Isn’t this championship belt so beautiful! Look how shiny it is. Oh look, a rainbow,” Liz started gushing uncontrollably, clearly no longer sober.

“Run! She’s right behind you. Run!” the crowd of runners on top of the mountain who had already finished screamed down at Amy as she approached the finish line in the lead. “Liz is right behind you! Run!”  Liz was running hard and giving it everything she had, but she was noticeably starting to weave back and forth across the trail… and then down she went. Amy coasted across the line to victory... whereupon she celebrated by throwing up.

The best laid plans of mice and Panda bears

24/7 film crew gets cozy with Marty Strassen
Unfortunately proper training alone doesn’t always guarantee success. Marty Strassen trained his ass off for this event this year. Our 24/7 film crew followed Marty around in the weeks leading up to the big event, giving us unfettered access to his daily life. When his boss at work called him in for his annual performance review, we were there! When he headed into the bathroom with some reading material, we followed.

As captured by our imbedded film crew, we were able to bring viewers an exclusive shot revealing one of Marty’s secret training workouts. Weather forecasts were predicting torrential rain storm on race day. So, in order to prepare himself for the extreme rigour of chugging beer outdoors with a twenty mile-an-hour wind blowing rain directly into his eyes and mouth, Marty trained in the shower to try and simulate race-day conditions.

Sadly, despite his training, Marty just didn’t have it on race day and found himself in a three-way battle for DFL (dead fucking last) place with fellow runners/drinkers Jeff Clowers and Stephen Strauss. Each man seemed absolutely determined to lose… at any cost. Jeff, wearing an impractically tight-fitting holiday-themed business suit that severely restricted any movement, had his eye on last place. But Steven Strauss, who finished DFL two years ago, was back to this year re-claim his title, and not to be outdone, was running in a Panda Bear costume.

Much like the 2012London Olympic's scandal in which eight female badminton players were disqualified for deliberately trying to lose their preliminary matches (to avoid having to play higher ranked teams in the later rounds), Jeff Clowers made no effort to win. After apparently finding himself way too far up in the pack for his liking after the initial river crossing, Jeff stepped off the trail and let everyone else pass. 

Jeff Clowers tries to take a dive but
Stephen Strauss calls his bluff
Not to be outdone, Steven and Marty both daintily nursed their beers, sipping politely as if they were having noon tea with the Queen of England. As the three men made their way to closer to finish line, each slowed to a crawl, daring the others to take the lead. Finally, no longer able to tolerate the excruciatingly slow pace, Marty broke down and reluctantly pulled ahead.

It was now a two-man battle for last place, each contestant desperately wanting to avoid actually beating anyone. It was now or never for Stephen Strauss. He pulled out all the stops and shifted down into the lowest, slowest gear he had. Jeff Clowers, unable to physically move any slower, was forced to take the lead.

Jeff, not yet willing to concede defeat, gave it one last shot and feigned a dramatic last-minute series of slow-motion stumbles and tumbles. But Stephen wasn’t falling for it. He slowed his roll further still, and tip toed up the mountain like a Panda Bear wearing two-sizes too small ballet slippers. Victory was his!

Age-Group Records

Steve Patt sets new American age-group record
Sixty-seven year old Steve Patt has raced many distances in his life including 100 milers. But he’d only ever contested the mile once – almost 30 years ago back in 1997 where he ran a 6:24. Sadly, Steven did not improve his mile PR this year Big Johnny’s Vertical Beer Mile. In fact, his finishing time for the mile this year was 30:31 seconds, nearly 24 minutes slower than his last attempt. I guess it just goes to show that unlike bottle-conditioned beer, runners don’t improve with age J. That being said, remarkably it appears that Steve may have actually set a new national age-group record for the vertical beer mile. The race director is considering looking into it... someday.

Sixty-two year old Stephen Strauss, who successfully re-claimed his DFL (dead fucking last) title from two years ago (after not competing last year), somehow found himself on the second step of podium in his 60 – 70 year old division, finishing second in his age group behind Steve Patt. Technically there were only two runners in the 60 – 70 age group. But hey, sometimes it’s all about showing up and gutting out the finish!

Fifty-one year old Larry Neumann easily won the Super-Master’s (50 – 60) category. Granted, he didn’t have any real competition – nor even any imaginary competition for that matter, as he was the sole competitor in his age group. But hey, he ran the entire race in a heavy non moisture-wicking purple velvet suit. It was unclear whether Larry had come directly to the race from his second job as a pimp… or if he is just a really big Prince fan.

Totally Unofficial (Sorry I was Drunk) Results

1) Adam Schroeder, 17:47, Club Soda Mile Champion
2) Peter Battaglino, 18:38, Beer Mile Champion,
3) Big Johnny Burton, 18:51, 2nd place Beer Mile, 1st Master's (40+)
4) Chris Eide, 19:00, 3rd place Beer Mile,
5) Matt Ward, 19:20, 2nd place Club Soda Mile
6) Karl Schnaitter, 19:47
7) Vitor Rodrigues: 20:00
8) Loren Lewis, 20:11, 3rd place Club Soda Mile
9) Patrick Rabuzzi, 20:32
10) Larry Neumann: 22:11, 1st Super Masters (50+)
11) Thomas Anderson: 22:20
12) Jamey Slaton, 22:43
13) Allen L: 26:00?
14) Jason Wimmert, 26:20
15) Amy Burton, 26:40, Women's Beer Mile Champion
16) Liz Louie: 27:08, 2nd place Women's Beer Mile
17) Suzie Farrell, 30:12
18) Steve Patt, 30:31, 1st Super-Duper Masters (60+), new American age-group record
19) Marty Strassen: 31:00
20) Jeff Clowers, 31:30
21 ) Stephen Strauss: 32:30, DFL

Thursday, August 18, 2016

2016 Mountain Madness Fat Dog 120 Race Report

Just a walk in the park... Manning Park
photo by Riccardo Tortini
The night before the the longest "100 miler" of my life

"The beer here sucks," my pacer Riccardo and I blurt out in unison. We stare blankly at the meager list of macro-lagers, periodically flipping the menu and then turning it back over again, hoping a decent craft brew will magically appear. But no luck. In an act of total desperation, I even try turning the menu upside down... and then shaking it vigorously. I throw it on the ground and stomp on it. Still not a single IPA or Saison.

Finally, when it seems that our waitress is losing her patience and thinking of calling the manager over to ask us to leave, I sigh and just order a fucking Peach Sangria. Riccardo flashes me a look of surprised disapproval that says, "Dude, that's a chick drink". I throw him a defiant glance that snarls, "Shut up homie, or I'll shank you with this spoon I've been sharpening under the table". And so, at the pre-race dinner the night before the race, the quintessential battle between pacer and runner has already begun.

Riccardo, who finished 4th last year at Fat Dog and has the 6th fastest finish of all time on the course, has offered to pace me this year. The hope is that he can keep me from repeating the same mistakes I made last year when I went out an hour ahead of course record pace in the first 50 kilometers... a strategy which proved hilariously disastrous. You can read more about my folly here in my 2015 Fat Dog DNF Report.

As our food arrives, Riccardo tries to immediately establish dominance in our pacer-runner relationship by putting on a defiant show of force at the dinner table. He stuffs slice after slice of pizza into his mouth, wolfing down three quarters of his pizza while I struggle with just my second slice. Clearly he is a not a man with whom to be trifled. I bow my head in acquiescence, silently agreeing to follow his race strategy and instructions.

Shout out to my "sponsor" Astroglide.
#Asstrordinary #Sexicitement
Riccardo takes his role of crew-chief and pacer very seriously. Not only has he thoroughly studied and memorized every paragraph of the entire 28-page race guide, but he's also arrived carrying several dozen color-coded binders containing everything we would possibly need -- and if I am to be honest, probably lots of stuff we probably wouldn't.

He has maps and driving directions in multiple language including English, French, Italian, and Inuit; detailed local weather reports of historic high and low temps, rainfall and barometric pressure from the last 100 years; splits from all the past years' winners; and Ultrasignup results and rankings of all the runners in the race. I'm pretty sure I even saw several classified government documents.

Whereas my main race preparation had consisted of watching this YouTube video. But hey, we all have our part to play. I didn't want to get bogged down with studying "trivial" information like the race elevation profile, course markings, aid-station names, distances between aid, or how to stay alive in a lightning storm. Nope, no time for any of that.

My main job was just to be ready to run/hike/slowly-stumble 120 miles of steep, rocky terrain across the Canadian Cascades mountain range with a cumulative elevation gain of around 29,000 feet -- the equivalent of climbing to the top of Mt. Everest. I'd shown up with some decent fitness, two socks and a pair of running shoes. Oh, and a giant tube of Astroglide sex lubricant. Because, you know, chaffing.

Taking it (relatively) easy and taking the lead

As we stood around at the starting line, I decided to do a set of pull-ups on the rafters of the bulletin board to try and psych out my competition. I'm not sure that it really had the desired effect. People probably just thought I was an idiot; Or maybe some cross-fit bro who wandered out of his box and got lost in the woods. But speaking of fit folks, I also got a chance to talk at the starting line with super-fit looking Angela Shartel, who [Spoiler Alert] would go on to win the women's race.

My pacer Riccardo had made me promise to go out more conservatively this year than I had last year when I charged off up the mountain like a complete lunatic. So I did my best to restrain myself on the steep, long first climb up Red Mountain, hanging just outside the top ten. My time up this 8-mile section (with an average grade of 10%) was 14 minutes slower than last year -- over a minute and a half slower per mile!

Lame effort to intimidate competitors with pull-ups
However, despite my best efforts, I wasn't able to restrain myself quite as well on the downhill and I ended up passing a few other runners and moving up into 6th place by the time we hit the Ashnola River aid station at the bottom of the descent at mile 18. I wasn't really trying to move up or run hard, so I can only speculate that perhaps gravity has a much stronger effect on me, as an American, since my weight of 160 pounds is nearly double the 75 kg average weight of my Canadian competitors :)

Somewhere on the descent I smacked my knee into a huge rock. I remember seeing the big rock in the middle of the trail and thinking, "that's a pretty big rock; I should probably run around it." Yet instead I ran smack into it. Warm sticky red liquid immediately started seeping out of my knee and dripping down my leg. "That's probably not good," I remember thinking.

When I got down to the Ashnola aid station, my pacer Riccardo informed me that I was in 6th place. He also started giving me a bunch of "intel" about the guys ahead of me including how far ahead they each were, what their Ultrasignup scores were, what city they were from, their favorite color, whether they were gluten intolerant and/or had any shellfish allergies, etc. I filed the information away for later in case there was going to be quiz or something.

As I left the aid station, Riccardo told me, "just take it easy." [Spoiler Alert]: I did not take it particularly easy. In fact, just four miles later, somewhere around Trapper Lake, I had suddenly caught and passed all the other runners and found myself in the lead. "Shit, Riccardo is not going to be happy about this," I muttered to myself as I inhaled a couple of delicious HoneyStinger gels, figuring I better stay on top of my calories now that I was in the lead.

Running scared

I hadn't intended to push hard on this section because I still have nightmares about chasing Jeremy Humphries up this climb last year. So instead, this year I just settled into a comfortable, steady pace and power-hiked up the hill. I even stopped at one point to dump some rocks out of my shoes. So I was quite surprised when I caught up to the leaders.

Not quite Rucky Chucky :)
photo by Brian McCurdy
I exchanged some quick pleasantries with each of my fellow runners in the lead pack that included Bryan Hitchcock, Ullas Narayana, Patrick McAuliffe, and Gennadii Tertychnyi. But I didn't want to stick around and chat.

My motto is that if you are going to bother taking the lead, you should do it decisively -- with an awe-inspiring, soul-crushing, completely-excessive, superfluous show of force! When you pass someone, you want them to know that they've been passed for good; that they're never going to see you again... until the award's ceremony :)

As I finally crested Flattop Mountain, I looked back to see if I could ascertain how much of a lead I had over my competitors. Although I could see at least one person in the distance, I couldn't tell if he was one of the 120 Miler runners who I had passed, or maybe a relatively fresh-legged relay runner making up ground?

I must have some shampoo in this pack somewhere!
Photo by Brian McCurdy
At bottom of the descent, just before the Pasayten River, I was caught by the runner I'd seen behind me, who thankfully turned out to be in the relay. We then caught another relay runner, and the three of us crossed the river and ran the paved road into the Bonnevier aid station at mile 41.

My pacer Riccardo seemed surprised to see me in the lead. He paced me up the hill and gave me a pep talk which basically consisted of, "don't do anything stupid; and try not to get eaten by bears."

Trying not to get eaten by bears

As I mention in my 2015 Fat Dog DNF Report, last year I ran into a large black bear on the course, a couple kilometers before the Heather aid station, while running alone in the lead -- in the dark. It was a pretty funny encounter (at least in retrospect) that involved me trying to scare the bear off with the world's smallest, most feeble-sounding, tiny plastic whistle.

This year, right around the same spot, I looked down on the trail and saw a bloody deer leg, or at least part of a leg. It had clearly been chewed off just above the knee. And it was laying right in the middle of the trail. I thought about picking it up and potentially using it as a weapon in case I was attacked by whatever had killed and eaten the rest of the deer. I imagined the newspaper headlines: "California man bludgeons grizzly bear to death with severed deer leg."

Yeah. Happy party time. 
However, I figured that whatever had eaten the rest of the deer was probably -- hopefully -- already quite full. And I wasn't particularly excited about the prospect of fighting a grizzly, especially after having just recently watched The Revenant. So I continued on up to the peak and then down the out-and-back descent down to the Heather aid station. I did take some solace from that fact that at least one or two of the relay runners were ahead of me, so if the bear / wolves / mountain lion / Sasquatch got hungry again, there were a couple of tasty hors d'oeuvres trotting along the trail ahead of me.

The folks at the Heather aid station were in great spirits, completely unaware that just a mile above them, something was running around the forest ripping limbs off woodland creatures. I decided not to mention it. Instead a devoured a quesadilla, which tasted absolutely f**king amazing. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Canadians make decent Tex-Mex. I had been worried, quite needlessly, that Canadian quesadillas might contain something odd like maple syrup, peameal bacon, or poutine!

I also narrowly avoided disaster when the volunteers almost filled my bottles with Tequila when I inquired if they had any sports drink. Apparently "sports drink" means something quite different in Canada than in the US! Anyway, climbing out of the Heather aid station, sans Tequila, I ran into 2nd and 3rd place runners Ullas and Patrick who were just starting the descent. I estimated that I had about a 30 minute lead over Ullas and a 35 minute lead over Patrick. While it certainly felt good to know I had a decent cushion and some breathing room, I also knew that I still needed to keep moving strong as the race wasn't even half over yet!

Trying not to get eaten by... porcupines?

Somewhere along the trail down from Heather to Nicomen Lake I spotted two large black animals on the trail ahead of me. I instantly came to a halt. "Shit, bear cubs!" I exclaimed. Not that I was terribly worried about the cubs themselves, as I think I could probably take a couple of furry toddlers in a fist fight. No, I was more concerned about the whereabouts of the mother.

Thankfully, I quickly realized that the two animals were not actually bears but rather giant (possibly mutant) porcupines -- enjoying a romantic evening rendezvous in the moonlight. [Sidenote: I'd always wondered how porcupines make love without the male limping off afterwards with penis full of quills.]

Random porcupine pic from the Internet
The rest of the descent down to Nicomen Lake was pretty uneventful. Whereas last year I had taken several hard falls on the rocky, technical section in the foggy rain, this year the weather was perfect and I managed to stay (more or less) on my feet. Arriving at Nicomen lake at mile 62 (i.e. only the half-way point), I could already smell warm pierogies cooking on the skillet. I am happy to report that the they were quite delicious and were not stuffed with poutine or moose hearts or anything odd.

The next section, a long 18K descent from Nicomen Lake down to Cayuse, brought back some memories. This was the section that Nickademus Hollon and I had run together last year, chatting and sharing stories, en route to his win and course-record. This year I had no one to talk to -- except for a handful of frogs who didn't seem particularly interested in hearing my story about how I once held off Timmy Olson at Hardrock.

Eventually I arrived at Cayuse and avoiding falling off the log-bridge and injuring myself and DNF'ing like I did last year. After a quick bottle refill I headed out and began trudging up the series of super steep climbs up to the Cascades aid station. I tackled each of these mini-Mt.Everest climbs with everything I had, which at this point mainly just consisted of me shuffling along and mumbling a chain of non sequitur curse words under my breath. But what is it they say, "work with what you've got," right?

My pacer Riccardo tries to make me do some actual running. #WTF

Runner John (left) and pacer Riccardo (right)
Several thousand creative curse words later I shuffle into the Cayuse aid station at mile 80. My pacer Riccardo is in good spirits, smelling slightly of Tequila [but I don't ask]. He's excited and ready to go.

In my head I imagine that Riccardo is one of those loud, yappy, excitable little Chihuahua jumping all over the place and ripping the stuffing out of pillows; whereas I am a tired old Labrador or Newfoundland with hip dysplasia and arthritis, and callused bald patches on my elbows, who just wants to nap in the shade with his bone.

Riccardo: "OK John, here's the plan! We'll run this 10 mile section pretty fast, and then we'll really hammer the next 10 miles after that! Yeah, yeah, yeah! What do you say!"

John: "Fuck you Riccardo."

That's pretty much the conversation that we had, on repeat, for the next 10 hours. Riccardo, to his credit, is an amazing pacer. He knows when to push a runner, and when to back off. And more importantly, he knows when to gently stretch the truth a bit, and when to outright lie.

"The next turn is just a kilometer up the road," Riccardo proclaims optimistically at one point. While I desperately want to believe him, we are on a straight flat stretch of highway that we can both clearly see goes on for at least several more miles. Still, I decide I might as well play the game and mumble, "Ok, thanks [asshole]."

Boo. Sad head-down hiking time.
"The next aid station is just around the corner; I can hear the volunteers," Riccardo bluffs somewhat convincingly. Meanwhile we are still in the middle of nowhere, miles from the next station. The only noise I hear is the buzzing of mosquitoes as they drain the last of my blood as we fumble toward Shawatum.

"This is definitely the last climb," Riccardo blatantly lies after we summited only the third of the final "seven false summits" that the race director warned us about at the pre-race briefing. Still, I start to doubt myself and my math skills. Maybe I lost track? Maybe I was so distracted by the view and/or the pain from my blisters that I miscounted? But nope. It was all just a clever ruse to keep me plodding forward.

"You've definitely got the win; Nobody is going to catch you now," Riccardo confidently assures me. "But just in case... we better hammer this last section," he waffles nervously, looking back over his shoulder down the mountain behind us. Unbeknownst to us, the 2nd place runner, Ullas, has gradually whittled my lead down from a high of 42 minutes to just 20 minutes at the final aid station at Skyline Junction with 7 miles to go.

Sprinting down the mountain (in slow motion)

"Pouring like an avalanche, coming down the mountain..."
Photo by Brian McCurdy
As we make our way down the ragged mountain, my foot catches a rock and I go flying head first, arms stretched out in front of me, crashing to the ground. I'm fine, but I lay there motionlessly enjoying the brief respite, wondering how long I can milk this before Riccardo makes me get up and resume running. A second later, I hear, "You're fine. There's no blood. Get up." Damn, he's on to me.

Riccardo and I gingerly tiptoe down the rest of the steep rocky descent, trying to avoid another fall. Finally we reach the treeline and the trails becomes more runnable, switching from rocky scree to hard-packed dirt. For the first time all day, I start to let myself believe that I might actually win. Fueled by adrenaline I start bombing down the mountain at what feels like at least 6:30 minute-per-mile pace, but which Riccardo's GPS later reveals to actually be 9:30 minute-per-mile pace. LOL.

In my head I'm already picturing myself crossing the finish, visualizing different potential celebratory antics. Maybe I drop to the ground and roll across the finish line like Scott Jurek? Or maybe "brush my shoulder off" and thump my chest like one of those 100 meter sprinters who run with three gold chains and diamond earrings? Or maybe... Suddenly my foot catches a tree root and I'm launched head first into the ground again -- but much harder than any of the previous times.

"Making their way, the only way they know how..."
Photo by Brian McCurdy
I wait to hear Riccardo's familiar voice informing me that nothing's wrong and chastising me to get up. But there's only silence. Shit, that must have been a really bad fall if even Riccardo is worried. After a second or two my breath returns and I stumble back to me feed and slowly start hobbling down the hill again. My knee is bleeding and hurting, and my shorts are full of dirt and pine needles, but we've probably only got another 2 miles or so to go. I can do this.

As the Lightning Lake and the finish line finally come into sight, I'm overcome with emotion. I turn to Riccardo and thank him for everything. After ten and half hours of running side-by-side in lockstep I feel that we are now connected by an invisible bond. That we are one. I stop and turn to high five him, but he reaches in for a hug and we both miss awkwardly. I try to salvage the moment and offer him a fist bump, but he's already coming in with a high five and slaps my fist. The whole thing is embarrassingly comical. I'm just hoping that no one's getting any of this on film.

With women's champ Angela Shartel
Photo by Brian McCurdy
Seconds later I cross the finish line in 28 hours and 21 minutes, teary-eyed and exhausted. We'd done it! I've won. While I've had a couple good races in the past including 3rd place at Tahoe 200 and 12th at Hardrock, this is the first time I've ever won a major ultra. I'm beside myself. I'm on top of the world. I'm feeling invincible! And then suddenly I'm laying down in the medical tent covered in blankets being spoon-fed warm broth. Ah yes, welcome to ultra running :)

Here's a link to the official results. Although I was initially disappointed that my winning time from this year was much slower than the times from last year, I should add the course was extended this year and included an additional 2 miles and an extra 800 foot climb. And while my time is hours slower than the course record time of Nickademus Hollon, I did manage to just bump my buddy Riccardo out for the 6th fastest time ever on the course. Sorry Riccardo. He he.

It's [not] all about the buckle

After the award's ceremony Sunday afternoon, a few of us were sitting around sipping on some beers and decompressing. It had been a long, hard weekend -- for runners, volunteers, and race directors alike. The volunteers had already taken down the inflatable finish line banner, tossed out the last of the post-race BBQ food, and started packing up the chairs and trash.

With bad-ass Clifford Matthew!
Suddenly across the lake we saw another runner approaching. He had missed the 49 hour cut-off by at least an hour. There were no cheering crowds. There would be no shiny buckle waiting for him at the finish line. Heck, there wouldn't even be a finish line waiting for him at the finish line. But he didn't care. He had an ear-to-ear smile on his face as he ambled toward us.

I was immediately overcome with admiration and respect. This is what ultra running is about. Testing yourself against the mountain. Testing yourself against yourself. I immediately ran over and introduced myself and congratulated him on his finish -- officially recognized or not. And, although I'm sure I'll probably get in trouble by the race organizers for this, I happily presented him with my own finisher's buckle.

So congratulations Clifford Matthews of Albuquerque, New Mexico for inspiring us all. Speaking with Cliff afterwards, he mentioned that if others are as inspired by him as I was, he would urge them to get involved with their local Search and Rescue organization and/or Team RWB -- two causes very near and dear to him. So please do consider those. Thank you.

More shout outs and thank yous!

Winning relay team, The Lost Planet Trailmen
  • Congrats to women's champion Angela Shartel whose late-race surge capped off an amazing come-from behind victory! And for that matter, congrats to everyone who suffered out there all weekend and challenged themselves on this amazing course!
  • Congrats to relay team, The Lost Planet Trailmen, a group of former UBC Thunderbird track runners who came just seconds away from breaking the course record, despite the longer and tougher course!
  • Congrats also to my Bay Area homeboy Chris Eide who completed FatDog120 only five weeks after having to drop out of Tahoe Rim Trail 100 with a stress fracture in his foot. Chris, you are one bad hombre!
  • "Big ups" to my buddy, crew-chief and pacer, Riccardo Tortini, who put up with over 10 hours of me being grumpy and giving him the silent treatment. Best of luck at your race in Pine-2-Palm next month my friend!
  • Special thanks to my wife Amy, my mom, and the rest of my family for supporting me and making it possible for me to skip town and head off into the mountains of British Columbia for a "fun little vacation".
  • Thank you so much to all the race volunteers who gave up days/weeks/months of their time to make this race possible: sawing and removing hundreds of fallen dead trees from the course; hiking thousands of liters of water up the mountain; standing around for hours at night in the cold to feed and cheer on tired, grumpy runners; fending off armies of biting flies and mosquitoes on top of the mountain; and standing over a hot stove cooking hundreds of post-race burgers. You guys are the best in the business. Thank you so much!
  • And finally, thank you to HoneyStinger Nutrition for hooking me up with some great-tasting all-natural energy. Mmm, yum. Good stuff

Monday, May 30, 2016

Getting Older and Slower, but not Quite Dead Yet: 2016 Ohlone 50K Race Report

Ohlone 50K
photo by Nina Giraudo
Poets, drunks, and ultra runners

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas certainly had a way with words. "Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight... Do not go gentle into that goodnight." Ah good stuff! But my man Dylan Thomas (D-Thom for short) also had a way with Whiskey. And sadly, at age 39 he was dead.

I turned 43 this month -- already somewhat of an old man compared to D-Thom who never had to suffer the indignity of sitting across from a birthday cake with 40 or more candles on it. And, as has been my tradition for much of the last 12 years, I chose to commemorate this milestone by running-hiking-stumbling through the grueling, exposed, rattle-snake infested hills of the Ohlone Wilderness.

I'm not exactly sure why I choose to celebrate my birthday in such a masochistic manner each year despite the annual protest from my poor legs. (Shut up Legs, no one asked you). Perhaps I relish the pain, struggle, and suffering as poignant visceral reminders that I'm still alive and, "raging against the dying of the light." Or maybe I just lack common sense. Or perhaps a bit of both.

Team Quicksilver
photo by Agnes Pommier
In any case, since I'm not quite dead yet, I decided I might as well continue the tradition and run Ohlone again this year even though I'd been injured and unable to train properly most of the year; even though up until a couple weeks ago I hadn't done a run longer than 12 miles all year; and even though I just raced 62 miles at the Quicksilver 100K the week before, from which my legs still hadn't even begun to fully recover. Sorry Legs :(

However, I took comfort from the fact that I wasn't the only fool attempting to run the Ohlone 50K only 8 days after having run Quicksilver 100K. My Quicksilver Running Club teammate Jean Pommier, who finished just ahead of me at Quicksilver was toeing the line at Ohlone too. If that wasn't crazy enough, Pamakids runner Chris Jones had not only run Quicksilver 100K but had also run the Silver State 50 Miler the day before Ohlone and was now attempting his third ultra-marathons in 8 days!

Big Johnny leads the pack while Jean wisely hangs back
photo by Zack Steinkamp
Getting older; trying not to get too much slower

This past weekend marked my 9th time running the Ohlone 50K in the past 12 years, with my first finish being back in 2005. While my finishing times have varied considerably over the years depending on the weather and my wildly oscillating fitness levels, I've always finished between 5 and 6 hours.

My slowest race was in 2007 where I finished 24th place in 5:57:57, while my best performance was in 2013 where I finished 2nd in just over 5:01:15. But typically, on most years, my finishing time is usually between 5:25 and 5:35. That's pretty consistent, especially when you consider my erratic racing strategy and tendency to, more often than not, fly up the mountain in the lead on the first 4-mile long steep climb of the race.

Coming into the race this year severely under-trained and still somewhat beat up from Quicksilver the week before, I was naively hoping for the best, but realistically bracing myself for an epic-suck-fest. Surprisingly, I managed to finish in 5:25:19, which was actually my third fastest race ever at Ohlone. Thanks Legs!

Year Time  Place
2005 5:54:39 11
2007 5:57:57 24
2009 5:35:06 16
2011 5:30:12 10
2012 5:28:45 7
2013 5:01:15 2
2014 5:15:33 5
2015 5:35:00 3
2016 5:25:19 7

Five-minute summary of a 5+ hour race...

I won't bore you to death with all the excruciating details of the race, which basically consisted of me repeating over and over to myself under my breath, "f**k, this sucks" and "f**k, I should have trained harder". Occasionally during the less-hilly, less-sucky sections of the course I would think, "This isn't so bad," followed almost immediately by "Oh never mind, this definitely sucks," again as soon as the trail turned back up hill.

I like to think of Ohlone as consisting of three distinct 10-mile long sections: 1) the initial stupid climb up to Mission Peak and descent down into Sunol, 2) the long, stupid 10-mile climb back up to Rose Peak, and 3) the final ten stupid miles of rolling hills and steep descent down into Lake Del Valle. They key to doing well at this stupid race is to make sure that you hold back a bit in the first 10 miles so that you are really able to move well over the last 10 miles. But, like anything else that's easier said than done... it's, um, a lot easier to say than to actually do.

Jean Pommier and Mike Helms tangled up in blue
photo by Vladimir Gusiantnikov
This year I can into the Sunol aid station at mile 9 or 10 just a few feet behind a few others runners including my neighbor Mike Helms and my teammate Jean Pommier. Yet, over the next 20 miles they both put 25 - 30 minutes on me by the finish. So, while I felt like I held back on the first section and moved well over the last two sections, clearly I must have pushed harder than I thought during the first section if they were both able to put nearly a mile per minute on me over the rest of the race. Thanks for nothing, Legs.

Still, I did at least manage to catch one other runner. And I held off two more runners (including Erik Wilde who ran me down in the final miles of Ohlone two years ago in 2014) as I managed to put over 10 minutes on the two pursuers during the last half of the course. So the race wasn't a complete disaster. While I was disappointed to finish off the podium and outside the top 5, I did at least kinda-sorta-technically win my 40 - 49 age group (43 year-old Troy Howard finished in the top-3 overall). And thus I came home with "Big Wood" again for a 6th time.

Women's winner, Nina!
photo by Big Johnny Burton
Shout outs

Amazingly, a pair of rookie ultra runners won the men's and women's races at Ohlone this year, Scott Trummer from Livermore, running his first 50K, ran away with the race, finishing in 4:24:10, which is one of the fastest times ever on the modern course. And huge congrats to Quicksilver teammate Nina Giraudo, who not only won the women's race, but finished 18th overall among the men.

If Nina hadn't stopped to take so many pictures along the course she might have even caught her Quicksilver teammate and training partner, Zack Steinkamp, who finished just a minute or so ahead of her. But congrats to Zack, not just for avoiding getting chick'd, but for improving his PR at Ohlone by around 40 minutes! Way to go Zack!

Congrats also to my neighbor and Strava-nemesis, 2:31 marathoner Mike Helms, who completed his first official ultra this year at Ohlone finishing 5th overall and redeeming himself for his DNF last year. Mike, you'd really look good in Quicksilver blue ;)

Big Johnny gets Big Wood
photo by Keith Blom
I'd also like to thank all the volunteers who made this race possible. One of the unique things about Ohlone is that it's a point-to-point course through the wilderness with very limited means of access to the remote aid stations in the middle of the course. That means that volunteers have to hike out the day before with all the water and supplies and then camp overnight in the wilderness among the rattle snakes, mountain lions, coyotes, and sharp-fanged carnivorous bunny rabbits!

At the finish line, my legs threw a bit of a temper tantrum and plopped themselves down in a chair in the shade, refusing to get up for several hour. However, that actually worked out nicely because, while my legs were pouting like a toddler, I got a chance to catch up with fellow runners John Brooks and Chris Jones, as well as Jessi Goldstein (who was supporting her friend Monique Winkler). And big thanks to Jessi for fetching me chicken-apple sausages and beer. Mmm.

Ok, well I guess that's a wrap. I'll probably be back again next year for another birthday jog -- assuming that I can again trick my stupid legs into it. And perhaps next year I'll look into this whole "training" thing that I've heard so much about.

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