The 105th Dipsea Race

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Ah, Dipsea Sunday. Arguably one of the most challenging and fun days of the year. This was one of the first years I wasn’t really nervous about the race in the weeks and days heading into it. I think that was mostly due to the fact that it fell directly between the race in Annecy and Western States this year. I had 15 days to recover from Annecy and I was feeling pretty good come race day, save for a nagging shin issue that began a bit before I left for France. It’s not debilitating in that I can run on it with just mild discomfort, but it’s been going on long enough and is present enough that I’ve been dreading runs. Not a fun place to be. So that, combined with the fact that I knew I would likely feel some residual fatigue from France, really put me in a mindset where I was just going to run and see what happened. Rickey Gates was back and I knew Gus was in decent shape (Galen was unfortunately dealing with some injury issues himself), so it seemed like a good a year as any for my streak of fastest time awards to end. I was ready for that for the first time since the streak started 2009 and I think that also contributed a lot to the unusual sense of calm I had heading into the race.

On race morning, I was up fairly early and ran the mile up to Equator coffee in downtown MV to grab a cup. I bumped into several folks I knew, exchanged pleasantries and well-wishes, and headed back to my apartment to poop. Then I headed back to downtown to meet up with Gus and Lucas before we started.

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Scratch Men’s Start (Credit: Mill Valley Patch)

The start line is always a fun place to be on race day, as you get to watch each group head off and the Bob, the announcer, gives you some sort of fun fact about someone in each group. At 8:54am, we watched the Z runners head off and at 8:55am we were on our way. Gus and I were close through the top of the stairs, with him being about 10 meters in front of me all the way through Windy Gap. Heading into Muir Woods, I took Suicide while he took the longer route, but we ended up with the same gap between us, as he was able to open up since the longer route was completely empty and Suicide was packed. We hit the creek in around 15:10 with little incident and headed up Dynamite. People were, for the most part, accommodating, with the inevitable one or two folks who don’t know how passing works in this race or just refuse to move. Gus maintained his 10m lead on me through halfway rock, where I moved ahead. I caught Galen in the rainforest and knew he wasn’t having a great day, but he was still moving pretty well. I crested Cardiac at 33:20 (18:10 for the climb which is pretty decent for race day), about 30 seconds ahead of Gus as I would later learn. DBo and Harmony and Claire were all up there but I didn’t get the split to Rickey as I think they were busy cheering (YOU HAD ONE JOB :-P). At least they made it there in time this year. Baby steps…

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Top of the stairs (Credit: James Norton)

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Grinding to the top of Cardiac (Credit: Steve Disenhof)

Anyways, over the top of Cardiac and onto the open, sweeping turns heading into Swoop. I tried my best to move as well as I could, but my legs just didn’t have that top end gear that I’ve had in the past. I made it down to Swoop passing a couple of people and I think I was in around 15th at that point. I could hear Gus’s handheld bike horn coming down behind me and realized it was just a matter of time before he was back on me, as he was clearly descending much better than I. I managed to hold him off and nip a couple more folks through Door 1 and Kiernan’s crossing, but Gus was right behind me in the Grotto and made his move once we got onto Highway 1, saying, “Don’t take this personally, baby,” as he went by. I think he knows this, but he’s the last person who needs to say that to me in this race. Again, I felt a complete and total lack of speed on the pavement heading into the finish, and I knew that even if I managed to run faster than Rickey, Gus would get fastest time as he finished about 3 seconds in front of me. As it turns out, we were about 25 seconds slower than Rickey, finishing in 49:33 and 49:35 to Rickey’s 49:10. Gus was 8th, I was 9th, rounding out the scoring for the Pelicans (Matias 2nd, Rickey 3rd, Alan 7th, Gus 8th, me 9th), and Mark McManus rounded out the top 10. Pretty impressive to have 6 out of the top 10 and I think that’s what it’s going to take to win the race going forward. The Pelicans repeated as team champions, which completely eased any disappointment I had about losing the fastest time award. I also want to say huge congratulations to George Torgun and Mike Broom, who finished 34th and 35th respectively, to earn their first black shirts. And I want to acknowledge Lucas Agricola for his great run to finish 36th (argh!) and Victor Ballesteros for finishing 40th. May you both be in the black next year! The rest of the afternoon was spent eating and drinking at Roger’s and watching the Warriors at the Deuce.

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Pelican Inn Track Club – Team Champions: Matias, Alan, me, Gus, Rickey (Credit: Paul Wais)

I woke up Monday morning tired, but not really sore, indicating that I definitely had not left it all out on the course. That top end speed was severely lacking, but it wasn’t surprising, even in the moment, as I haven’t trained that gear for months. That’s something I need to remember heading into next year, if I want to get that fastest time award back (which I do). My run on Monday felt ok except for the shin issue rearing its head again. It gets better as the run progresses, so I don’t think it’s anything too serious, but it’s really damn annoying. I saw Hal for some work on it on Tuesday, but only ran a mile because it was still uncomfortable. Same thing happened yesterday – only made it a mile before calling it quits. It did feel better/different though, which was good. I’m nonetheless quite frustrated as I’d like to be able to run, but at least it’s close enough to race day that I’m not missing out on any fitness gains. If anything, I’ll be well rested and over-tapered, but I’m hoping that it will clear up soon and I’ll be able to taper via running. We’ll see what comes. The most important thing right now is to get it taken care of and get to the start line of Western as close to 100% as I can.

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2015 IAU Ultra Trail World Championships

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Whoa… I did not realize my last post was over a month ago after Boston. Time flies when you’re having fun. Anyways, following Lake Sonoma and Boston, I was pretty fatigued, so I made sure I was fully recovered before getting back into workouts and ramping up for the IAU Ultra Trail World Championships. However, about 2 weeks later, I came down with something and slept from 8:30pm on a Friday to 3:30pm the next day. Rachelle and I had been talking earlier that week about going for a hike over the weekend (and I was planning to propose during said hike), so when I woke up and she got home, we went on our hike and I proposed on the 2nd flight of the Dipsea steps. She seemed fairly surprised, but had known it was coming because her father called her immediately after I called him back in March to ask for his permission. Oh well… despite having time to think about it, she still said yes and now we have a wedding to plan (don’t ask when).

Anyways, with that settled, I was able to get back into training. Unfortunately, the timing was not great, as that was 3 weeks out from World’s and I had been scheduled for a couple of solid workouts/long runs, but I was able to make up for them the following week (for the most part), with 5 workouts in 7 days (including the West Valley centipede at Bay to Breakers which is always a great time). Then it was time to start backing off and the taper was happening.

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Coming off the Hayes Street Hill (Credit: unknown).

I traveled to Annecy, France on Tuesday, arrived Wednesday evening, and spent the next 2 days running a bit, but mostly relaxing and preparing for the race, and getting drug tested. When I was asked to represent the USA at this race a couple of months ago, I jumped at the opportunity. I know it might leave me a bit fatigued for the Dipsea and Western States, but the chance to run in a USA jersey was too good to pass up. I’ve been dreaming about this for a couple of years now, so it really wasn’t a hard decision. The other members of the team were David Laney, Tim Tollefson, Alex Nichols, and Yassine Diboun on the men’s side. For the women, we had Krissy Moehl, Cassie Scallon, and Amy Rusiecki. They’re all great people and I had a wonderful time hanging out with them during the trip. Most of us were wearing the red, white, and blue (well, really just red and white on the singlets) for the first time, and that really became a theme of the trip – of just how much it meant to us to run for the USA at an international competition. Running as part of a team really adds another level of accountability and motivation that is lacking in other races. You want to run well not only for yourself, but also for your teammates and country. That played a big role in all of our races. Despite this, however, as Alex Nichols also said, the hours before the race were filled with a sense of dread. I’m not sure if it was the course or the weight of some internal and external expectations, but I was not particularly looking forward to racing. Still, I knew I had to give it my best and got myself ready accordingly.

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View from the hotel

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Annecy-Le-Vieux / Venice of the Alps

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I lost to Laney in the blood race and the real race (is that a banana in your pocket?!) (Credit: Richard Bolt)

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Opening Ceremonies (Credit: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks)

On race morning (night), we were up at 1:30am for the 3:30am start. We’d been awakened during the night by torrential downpours, but they had stopped by the time we left the hotel. Coffee and Picky Bars were consumed (Smooth Caffeinator and Cookie Doughpness before the race http://pickybars.com/shop/) and we arrived at the start about 45 minutes before the gun. The start of the race was unlike anything I’d experience. Tons of people cheering, flares, and loud music stood in stark contrast to the unremarkable pistol or whistle that graces most US races (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQirVC3rTqw). It amped me up and the first mile was accordingly covered in something like 6:15. We definitely startled some of the late-night revelers still out along the lake, as they didn’t know quite what to make of 300 runners bearing down on them with headlamps and poles.

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The start (Credit: unknown)

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Laney and I nearing the top of the first climb – 4,000ft in 11 miles (credit: iRunFar/Bryon Powell).

The first climb of the day was the longest (~11 miles) and took us to the highest point on the course (around 5,500ft for 4,000ft of climbing). I found myself picking my way through the technical parts more slowly than I would have liked. The combination of dark and heavy rainfall the night before left me a bit cautious, but whenever the route opened up, I was able to move up several places and basically maintain my position in what came to be the second group on the mountain. Tim was up ahead in the lead pack, but I figured we had a long day ahead and I wasn’t rushed. My legs felt good and I was ready to run well. David found his way up to me during that first climb and we hit the top together with more flares and music. It was still dark so I kept my headlamp on me, which was very useful when we dropped down the first descent and went through some really dark, forested patches. If I’d been cautious on the uphills, I was downright timid on these descents. I don’t have anything like this to train on Mt. Tam and it showed. I lost a couple of places and was running pretty solo early on. David and I went back and forth a bit, but he eventually gapped me and would stay ahead until the finish. On the 2nd major descent, I was having a really rough go of it. It was really slippery and despite being light out, I managed to go head-over-heels but luckily no major damage. It was during this descent that Alex Nichols came scampering past me and was quickly out of sight. I was in 4th for the team and was slowly realizing that I was in for a long day. I began to wonder how I would cover 30 more miles of similar terrain and basically just had a little pity party for myself.

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Nearing the 2nd aid station in the midst of a pity party (Credit: iRunFar/Bryon Powell)

Coming into the 2nd major aid station, I was finally able to open up and run a bit on the flat roads. I saw Bryon Powell (http://www.irunfar.com/) who was encouraging, but I basically informed him that this was feeling like a training run (which I’ve never really felt in a race before). I got some coke and headed back out. The next climb was about 7 miles long and part way up it, I came across Tim who was walking. He said he’d hit a rock with his foot and was going to have to drop. I was suddenly the 3rd guy for team USA and my mentality was forced to change. I knew I had to do my best for the team. The climb had a couple of false summits and ended with a nearly vertical scramble up (48.5% grade at one point according to Strava) through a goat herd which was one of the most absurd and amazing things I’d ever experience in a race.

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Pain Cave about 50km in. But LOOKIT HOW PRETTY (Credit: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks)

Roc Lancrenaz 1650m (km 57) – 2nd to last climb. We headed up through the herd and then over to the left where you can see those folks at the top (Credit: Pelloche)

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More goats and rocks (Credit: Pelloche)

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Luis Alberto Hernando (finished 2nd on the day) braving the goat herds (Credit: Kirsten Kortebein)

The views were beautiful which helped with the pain. On this climb, I’d made my way into the middle of a group of 4-5 guys (2 Spaniards, a Fin, a Canadian, and an Italian). One of the Spaniards I recognized as having been a pre-race favorite for a podium finish and he looked like he was having trouble, but as soon as we started the descent down the most interminably steep fire road I have ever encountered, they all dropped me like a bad habit. My legs were in a lot of pain, to the point where I was forced to stop and recover on the downhill, which I did not like. When it finally leveled out, I saw the Spaniard sitting on the side of the trail. Continuing into the 3rd aid station, I saw Meghan Hicks who said that we were in silver medal position and that the Spanish were imploding.

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Me and a Spaniard heading up to the goats. I would pass this guy at the base of the final climb only to be re-passed during the final descent (Credit: Pelloche)

I didn’t know how many guys they had in front of me, but resolved to get back to the guy who had slipped away during the descent. Sure enough, as I turned the corner into the aid station, there were 3 guys exiting. I took a quick stop, got some more Coke, and headed back out. I was informed by Tim that we were in bronze position (clearly he and Meghan weren’t communicating :-P) and that I was in around 18th, and all I knew is that I had to run my ass off to try to secure a podium finish. I didn’t want to be the guy to let us down. Alex and David seemed to be having great races and I wanted to bring it home for us.

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Coke at the 3rd aid station. Learning that we’re in medal contention (Credit: Richard Bolt)

In the first couple miles of the climb, I passed a few guys (that Spaniard, a Brit, and 2 Frenchman, 1 who had dropped) and found myself and an Italian scrambling up to the top for the 2,700ft / 3 mile descent to the finish. I was absolutely dreading this descent because my quads were absolutely shot, but I thought I had put a decent amount of time into the other guys that I might be able to hold my position. Wrong. I passed the Italian who was walking the initial part of the descent, but was passed by a Lithuanian, then the Spaniard, then the Italian again who refound his legs, and finally an Irishman. Each step stabbed at my quads and the descent never seemed to end. It was all I could to stay upright on the flat 1.5km into the finish and almost fell over the little platform they set up across the line (one guy actually did). I ended up finishing in the exact same place I was heading into the final climb. Gotta work on those downhills… All in all, this was easily the toughest and most beautiful course I’ve ever run. The views were stunning, which kind of made the pain more bearable. I was unprepared for the damage that the descents would do to my quads and paid the price. However, there really wasn’t anything I could do to prep for them, as the highest mountain nearby is Tam, at 2,500ft, which makes it impossible to prepare for 4-5-6 mile descents that drop several thousand feet. Oh well… lesson learned and I’ll do what I can next time I race something of this nature.

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Views (Credit: unknown)

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Top of the final climb. Not sure what was worst, the climb or the descent (Credit: unknown).

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Laney tackling the final descent of 2,700ft in 3 miles (Credit: Trails Endurance Magazine).

At the finish, we were told almost immediately that we had placed 2nd as a team. Alex was 6th, David 12th, and I had finished 18th. The scoring was done by time, and we were second to the French by a couple of hours, and ahead of the Brits by about half an hour. We were ecstatic. Coming into the race, the French and Spaniards were heavy favorites, and we knew we’d have to have some really strong performances to even get on the podium, as there were several other countries with good teams in the fight as well. That result really made all of the hard work worth it. I wasn’t terribly pleased with my own race, but in the context of the US team’s finish, I couldn’t be happier. The French were simply dominant on the day, sweeping the men’s and women’s team and individual titles (felicitations!). The women also had less than ideal days, but they all persevered and finished strong.

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Team Silver! (Credit: iRunFar/Bryon Powell)

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Precious medals, precious rum, and Meghan and Bryon of iRunFar. Thanks for the support and updates and coverage! Bryon really kicked my ass into gear at one point. #pewpewpew

We savored the awards ceremony and I made sure to really soak it all in. Who knows if we’ll ever get an opportunity like that again. Then, just like that, it was over. We celebrated a bit on Saturday night, but the fatigue ultimately won. I took the TGV up to Paris on Sunday, stayed with my cousins there, and flew home Monday morning. It’s had more of a chance to sink in now that a couple of days have passed, and each day I get more and more proud of what we accomplished as a team. Alex (http://team.inov-8.com/alex-nichols-why-ultra-running-is-not-always-a-selfish-sport/), David (http://davidlaneyrunning.com/2015/06/02/iau-world-trail-championships/), and Krissy (http://krissymoehl.com/blog/2015/6/2/team-usa-world-50-mile-trail-championships-thoughts) have already touched on this a bit, but the feeling you get being part of a team, especially one that is asked to represent your country, is unparalleled. It easily transcends sponsorships, geography, and personal ambitions/rivalries. There’s an enormous sense of pride and responsibility, and you feel more connected and accountable to your teammates than you do at other races. Everyone knows the stakes are high and doesn’t want to be the person to let the others down. No one did that on Saturday. I know Tim, Yassine, and I aren’t particularly pleased with our individual races, but the team silver easily banishes those demons and is something we all will cherish for a long time. Congrats to Alex and David for monster performances. They really carried the day.

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More precious medals

On a final note, I’d like to thank everyone who made this possible – USATF/MUT/Ultra Running, Trail Butter for creating that awesome flavor, and all of our individual sponsors for allowing us to take this opportunity. A huge thank you is also due to Richard Bolt, who was our manager extraordinaire and, despite it being his first time crewing an ultra, performed amazingly. He was at all of the aid stations with everything ready to go (no small feat), coordinated all of the trip logistics for us, and basically just made everything run smoothly. Otherwise, we’d still be at the front desk arguing over how many nights we were being billed for.

Next up is Dipsea in 10 days and then Western States in 23 days (!!!). Time to get rested.

Strava Data: https://www.strava.com/activities/315262976/overview

Shoes: Nike Zoom Kiger 3 (custom US colorway)

Fuel: 2 Picky Bars before the race, 3 during the race. 12-13 Gu’s.

A few galleries/results links:

http://www.irunfar.com/2015/05/2015-iau-trail-world-championships-results.html

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ski-run/402179249794434?sk=photos_stream

https://www.facebook.com/claude.eyraud.7/media_set?set=a.10203111459107148.1073742068.1826677317&type=1&pnref=story

https://plus.google.com/photos/115310154814901140749/albums/6154968680750020993

https://plus.google.com/photos/+RichardBolt/albums/6155477200345867281?authkey=CKHxz-GCnKXytQE

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2015 Boston Marathon

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Boston. There’s really not much else you need to say to most people, runner or not. There’s something about it that captures a marathon runner’s imagination, as it’s become somewhat of a gold standard for marathoners. Before I ran marathons, people would ask me what my marathon time was. When I didn’t have an answer, they’d ask what I did, and I’d try to explain that I ran local cross country races and road and track. They didn’t understand. So I ran a marathon and had an answer to their question. But it was always followed up with, “Have you run Boston?” So as soon as I qualified for Boston, I signed up and ran it. This year was my fourth time traveling to Boston for the race and my third time finishing it (dropped out in 2012 due to an injury).

Each of the past 4 years, I have become more familiar with the race, the course, and the spectators. I have never ceased to be amazed by the support that the crowds show to ALL runners. It’s fantastic and I look forward to enjoying it for years to come.

Heading into the race this year, I was more focused on simply not doing something stupid and hurting myself. My legs were pretty thrashed after Lake Sonoma, so I took it very cautiously. I avoided all hills in the 9 days between the races. I flew out to Boston on Saturday, met up with Duncan, Jenn and Kim for dinner before joining some of the Nike folks for a bit. On Sunday morning, a group of us (Jonas, Duncan, Jenn, Malcolm, and Taylor) did a shakeout around Boston, and I was surprised to find that my legs felt really good. That left me feeling optimistic that they might feel good on race day. After the shakeout, I wandered around the expo with (a different Jenn), Russell, and a few others before meeting up with some West Valley/SFRC folks for dinner in the North End. Before I knew it, my alarm was going off and it was time to head to the buses.

Once we got to the runners’ village, we milled around, and found our group of Ezra, Jonas, DeNucci, Marion, and Bobby. We all walked over to the corral together. The weather was cool and overcast. It rained a bit before the race, but the start was dry and I hoped it would hold off while we were on course. The gun sounded and we were off. I had talked to Koop going into the race and we agreed that I’d start out at an earnest effort and see how it felt for the first several miles and if I felt good, I’d continue to push. If I felt bad, I’d slow it down and have a nice long fun run. Well, long story short, my legs felt much better than I thought they would. Much like New York, the wind was constantly in my face. I have no problem running at the front and was content to do so and break the wind for some other guys, because it allowed me to dictate the pace. My first couple miles were very conservative, so I ended up catching a decent amount of guys in the first half, and not far into the race, found a good group to run with, including an old college teammate Johnny Baker. There were probably 8-10 of us rolling along through Wellesley and the half (1:14:05). Around mile 14, I stepped off the course to go pee and gave up 20-30 seconds on that group. I knew that would happen but still held out hope that I’d be able to regain contact. I slowly worked my way back up to them and ended up moving on past them on the Newton Hills, bringing a couple of guys with me. I felt really strong on the hills which I appreciated, as last year I really suffered there. My hip flexors held out and the only fatigue I really felt during the race was in my calves.

Heartbreak? (Photo Credit: Jim Rhoades)

Heartbreak? (Photo Credit: Jim Rhoades)

After the hills, it was just a steady grind into the finish. I made sure to enjoy myself as much as possible, saw Sayles out cheering (thanks!), and basically just couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. My butt and hamstrings started to get a little tight in the last couple miles, but they held it together quite well and I felt like I finished strong. My time was 2:28:14, not quite good enough to get Wardian, who ran 2:27:xx. He’s off to run Big Sur this weekend, which does not sound like fun, as my calves are still pretty wrecked. I was really pleased with how well I executed. I was able to keep my pace despite the wind, the hills, and a pit stop and ran basically an even split of 1:14:05/1:14:09 (so a negative split if you remove the bathroom stop). My body felt strong basically the entire time and I can honestly say I had fun the whole race. The worst part of the race was after the finish, where we had to walk something like ¾ of a mile to pick up our clothes. The wind and rain picked up considerably and the space blankets they gave us to keep warm weren’t all that effective. Eventually, I made it to my clothes, changed, and headed back to the hotel.

Monday night was composed of celebrating, seeing old friends, and making new ones, and my alarm sounded a bit too early on Tuesday morning. I got home Tuesday night, immediately sat on my foam roller, and started working on my calves, which are still recovering. Other than that, I feel surprisingly good, although I have yet to try to run. We’ll see what happens today…

Next up are the IAU Ultra Trail World Championships in Annecy on May 30. Between now and then, I have a feeling I will be doing a lot of powerhiking, as the course has around 17,000ft of vert in 53 miles. I’m excited for a new challenge, as I’ve never raced in Europe, and I can’t wait to toe the line with my teammates.

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Lake Sonoma 50

Thursday, April 16, 2015

I don’t think my race at Lake Sonoma has sunk in yet. I look at pictures and watch videos but can’t seem to put myself back in the moment. It’s probably because I was so wiped when I crossed the finish line that my state of consciousness was questionable at best. Either way, I keep telling myself it happened, but for some reason it remains a little hard to comprehend.

Last year Lake Sonoma was my first 50 miler and I learned A LOT. I was fortunate enough to get a ticket to Western States, where I learned even more. Then, I didn’t race an ultra until the TNF 50 Mile in December where I was thankfully able to put some of that knowledge to work. I didn’t race Way Too Cool in March as I just wasn’t feeling it. I can’t really put my finger on why I wasn’t feeling it, but my gut told me to leave it be and train hard so that’s what I did. My training leading up to Sonoma went very well (aside from a minor quad issue in early February) and I knew I was fit coming into it. Koop reiterated as much on the phone the week before and that gave me a nice confidence boost as well. Race week passed interminably and I had the usual symptoms of a taper tantrum – sleeping poorly, being a bit more on edge, etc., etc. However, I did notice that I was not feeling quite as squishy early on as I had in past tapers. I wasn’t sure what was up, but for some reason, my body acted a little differently in that regard. I finally got a bit of it the night before the race after eating 3 plates of pasta, pizza, and salad at the race dinner (which was fantastic and I highly recommend it).

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Waiting at the start with Burrito Gary (Photo Credit: Chris Jones)

On race morning, I was up early, had some coffee (new pre-race ritual #getthingsmoving), ate 2 Picky Bars (Smooth Caffeinator and Cookie Doughpness) and before I knew it, Tim and Lindsay were picking me up and we were on our way to the starting area. After milling around a bit, it was go time. The first couple miles were pretty uneventful. However, as we approached the transition onto the trails, I purposely positioned myself up near the front of the pack. In my previous 50 and 100 miler races, I had started out rather conservatively and worked my way up the field as best I could. I realized that one constant was that the last 10-15 miles of every race just plain sucked. About a week before Sonoma, I figured I’d try a new tactic and go about a bit more aggressively, try to keep myself near the front, and hang on as long as I could because those last 10-15 miles were going to suck no matter what and I might as well be near the front if I could. Also, at Lake Sonoma, much of the course is singletrack which makes it harder to pass, so while the front and back of a group are moving at the same pace, if there are 4-5 guys in the group, there’s still a big gap and someone can go off the front and you can’t cover because you can’t get there if you’re the caboose. I hit the singletrack in 2nd place, behind a guy I didn’t recognize but was later informed was Jim Walmsley. The only thing I really remarked about him was that he had a really, really high knee kick which looked like it belonged more on the track than on the trails. But I knew the name and that he had won JFK and so deserved some respect. Anyways, he promptly went off the front as soon as we hit dirt and was 30-40 seconds up on us before I knew it. It definitely crossed my mind that perhaps Lake Sonoma was again going to be won by an early move off the front by the JFK winner (Zach Miller did that last year). Behind me, Ryan Bak and Mike Aish settled in, with Rob Krar, Seth Swanson, Jared Hazen, Tim Tollefson, and Jorge Maravilla following them along with a few others.

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On the road at the start. Tim’s shades are protecting his eyes from our uniforms. (Credit: Myke Hermsmeyer)

Bak and I exchanged the lead a couple of times, but no one was really pushing and we ran very comfortably into Warm Springs. I had my shorts laden with Picky Bars and Gu’s and in the first couple hours of racing, downed 2 Picky Bars before switching to Gu’s for the remainder. At Warm Springs, we were told Walmsley was up maybe 1-1.5 minutes on us, but before too long, we began to catch glimpses of him around corners and at the tops of climbs. He definitely came back to us more quickly on the climbs but each time we’d gain some ground, we’d crest, and he’d push it back out. We finally got him on the big climb up out of Madrone and he looked like he was cooked (He would end up finishing 5th, proving that thought wrong). Bak, Aish, and I continued to work together to the turnaround, where DBo was waiting with several Gu’s for me. I tried to put them in my pockets, but they fell straight through my shorts to the ground. I tried again. They hit the ground again. So I grabbed them and stuffed them in my waistband. As a result, I was a bit behind Bak and Aish coming out of the aid station, and decided I might as well pee and get all of the time loss at once that way if things heated up later on, I hopefully wouldn’t have to stop to pee. After peeing, I could see them only 20-30 seconds ahead of me and gradually made my way back up to them. We ran together for a bit before Aish started to fall off and on one of the climbs, I found myself pulling away from Bak. It wasn’t a conscious move, but I had kind of been waiting for it to happen as I was still feeling really strong. I put some ground on Bak up the climb to where Schranz and Dom Grossman were waiting. The URP Golden Shower was quite welcome, as we’d been running for several hours now and Dom’s yelps of encouragement made me chuckle. Cresting the climb and heading down the road to Madrone, I didn’t see Bak behind me, but when I made the turn onto the singletrack and headed towards Wulfow, I saw him coming down, less than a minute back. I committed right then to run for the win.

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Coming into Warm Creek with Bak and Aish (Credit: iRunFar/Bryon Powell)

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Heading towards the URP/Schranz’s Golden Shower with Dom yelping (Photo Credit: Dom Grossman)

All the way back, through Wulfow, and to Warm Springs, I felt pretty strong. My legs were fatiguing, but they were doing better than they ever had this far into a race and I was confident that I would be able to run well to the finish. I kept having visions of Krar passing Sage in the last kilometer last year, which was a huge motivator to put my head down and push since I did not want that to happen to me. It was great seeing several familiar faces on the way back, and I did my best to exchange pleasantries, but I was starting to grind, so I apologize if I came off as short. I saw DBo again as I dropped down that final descent into Warm Springs (12 to go!) and he said I had at least 3 minutes on the next guy, which was reassuring, but I didn’t know who the next guy was and basically just assumed whoever it was was rolling on me. I got a few more Gu’s from the Picky Bars crew who had made the trip down (thanks Angela and Sarah!) and as I crossed the stream and dug for another Gu in my pocket, it fell out of my shorts. Not just the Gu, but the entire pocket. In the shorts/Nike’s defense, these were shorts that I’d raced in at Western States that had the pockets heat sealed (not sewn) in and I’d also used them in almost every race since. They lived a good life and I was sad to see them go, especially in the middle of a race, but I didn’t really have any other options. So I picked up the pocket (Gu still in it), stuck it in my waist band, and kept trucking. About a mile later, I was brought to a complete stop  as my left hamstring almost cramped. You can see it in the big downward spike on the pace chart right around mile 37.5 on my Strava data (link at bottom). I took a step. It almost cramped again. Tried to stretch. Almost cramped. Panic. Repeated 4-5x. Realized that I might be walking it in. Ate a Gu. Cramps immediately stopped threatening. Started running again. Got scared again.

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Alone on the way back (Photo Credit: Myke Hermsmeyer)

I managed to make it into Island View in one piece, although my quads had started threatening to cramp along with my hamstrings. I couldn’t stretch one or the other really well because whichever one wasn’t being stretched would start to cramp. My goal coming into Island View (which is 0.2 miles out and 0.2 miles back) was to get in and out of the aid station and around the next corner before anyone behind me saw me. Mentally, that would help me, as I would have at least 2-3 minutes on the next person. If they saw me, they’d know I was close and it would motivate them to chase. Ideally, it would also motivate me to push, but my legs were close to completely cooked. Just around the bend out of Island View, I had to stop and manage my quads and hamstrings again. I managed to get things in good enough order and pushed on to the finish. I was walking many of the hills, but found that once the terrain flattened out or descended, I could run well. The pain in my legs was pretty bad, but only in the sense that my muscles were threatening to cramp. As long as I could keep the cramps at bay, I could run. The last couple miles dragged on forever, and finally I hit the 1 mile to go sign. I hadn’t seen or heard anyone behind me for quite a while and it slowly started to dawn on me that I was going to win, assuming I didn’t cramp or fall. I came around a corner with about ¾ of a mile to go and there was Billy Yang with his camera and my friend Paul. (Check out Billy’s teaser video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9d0JBSuFJ5w) For some reason, I was pissed. Not because they were there, but because that’s arguably the rockiest part of the course and it climbs up a bit to the parking lot and they were running it like it was nothing (in reality, it is nothing. At the end of a 50 miler, it’s Everest). I could hardly pick my feet up at this point and it took all of my concentration and strength to navigate the trail. They urged me on, said something about the course record (I swore at this point), and cheered. Eventually, I made it up that last hill and headed down into the parking lot to the finish line. I managed to actually run through the finish and heard Tropical John say that I’d broken the course record. I ran 6:09:39, a little over a minute faster than the record set last year (and each year the race has been run (8x) has seen a new CR). I hardly remember any of it, but I do remember vaguely crossing the finish line and collapsing almost immediately. I was on the ground for several minutes before I got helped up (thanks again, TJ!) and staggered around. As soon as I was coherent, I did an interview with Nike teammate Ryan Ghelfi who was doing coverage for USL.tv https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8Xk9LZH59c. They’re hoping to bring live tracking to the Canyons 100k in May and maybe even Western States!

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Managing to pick my feet up nearing the finish (Photo Credit: Paul Wais)

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Spent. (Photo Credit: Jenny Maier)

Finishing in 2nd was Nike teammate Ryan Bak, who ran just about the same time I did last year (6:23) and now gets to decide about Western States (no pressure). Krar, Aish, Sharman, and Victor (among many others) had dropped. As I recovered a bit more, I changed, ate, drank some beer, and milled around the finish watching people cross. Jorge had a tremendous run, finishing 4th and may get a spot at Western depending on Bak’s decision. Nike teammate Tim Tollefson was 7th overall, gutting it out to the finish (https://timtollefson.wordpress.com/2015/04/13/lake-sonoma-50-recap/). The women’s winner was Stephanie Howe who absolutely demolished the course record by about 15 minutes and looked much better than I did at the finish. Her interview here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxyJcXGOqNE

As the afternoon wore on, there were more and more folks to swap war stories with. Bryon and I did a 26-minute interview (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JZDcp8g15Q) which didn’t feel that long, probably because he made me wait until I was on my 3rd beer, but it was fun as always. The Nike women, Kaci Lickteig and Lindsay Tollefson (in her first 50 miler!), finished 5th and 6th, respectively, so it was a strong showing for the team all around. Some of the Nike folks took off while a few of us waited around for our friend Jess to finish. While she was punishing herself on the course, we ate and drank more and didn’t move very much. Once she got in, we headed back to Healdsburg, showered, and got dinner at Bear Republic where we saw many other runners and had several beers. Angela and Sarah from Picky Bars had even waited around for us, and hanging out with them was a ton of fun.

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Hans! The dude is incredible. #Dipsea (Photo Credit: Chris Jones)

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Some of Team Nike: Ryan, Tim, and me. Feeling a bit more recovered (Photo Credit: Jarret Tong? – pulled from IG).

If you made it this far, thanks for sticking with me. Reflecting on this race, I think it’s easily the best I’ve ever run. Not because of the time, but also because of the execution. I knew I was fit, but there’s only so far that can get you. You have to be confident in your ability to win and you have to be willing to put yourself in a position to do so. Something Bryon said to me in the pre-race interview kind of stuck with me throughout the race. It was something along the lines of, “You haven’t really won anything since your 2nd ultra (Bootlegger in Nov. 2013).” I took no offense to it, because it was true, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t provide a little extra motivation on Saturday. It was something that I was aware of before he said it, but having someone else say it to your face makes you realize you’re not the only one thinking about it and adds a level of accountability to the whole thing. So while I was out there, I was constantly telling myself to go for it. It’s much better to go for it and fail then to never be in a position to go for it at all and I raced that way on Saturday. Even before Bryon said anything, I found myself thinking during some of my training runs, “What if I can never win a big one? What if there’s always someone else who shows up who’s faster than me? Top 5 isn’t so bad. Maybe I’m just a top 5 runner.” I hoped and certainly didn’t want that to be the case, but was definitely wrestling with the thought. Thankfully, I was able to get that self-imposed monkey off my back and it feels great. I may never win another race, but at least I’ve shown I can.

Realization dawns... (Photo Credit: Bob MacGillivray Drymax Technologies Inc )

Realization dawns… (Photo Credit: Bob MacGillivray Drymax Technologies Inc )

Gear: Nike Zoom Kiger 1, Nike team kit, Amphipod Hydraform Handheld 20oz. with surgical rubber, Suunto Ambit 2

Fuel: 2 Smooth Caffeinator bars (ate half at a time – they’re 200 calories, so 100 calories per half), then somewhere around 10 Gu’s (not sure of exact count). I tried to eat something every 3-3.5 miles and was pretty good about it, which was nice because my stomach never revolted.

Strava Data: https://www.strava.com/activities/283626139/overview

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Another Year, Another Mile

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s been a while. Mainly because not a ton has happened racing-wise since 2015 began and I usually focus my posts on races. I got back into running workouts, still under Koop’s guidance, and recently finished up a VO2 max phase which involved many rounds of grinding up Marincello, up to Coit Tower, and around the track 3 minutes at a time. That phase left me a bit more beat up than I had anticipated, and I felt as though I was constantly dealing with little issues that were cropping up one after another. First it was the area above my left knee, which forced me to take a couple days off following the Kaiser Half Marathon in early February. I ran a PR (1:07:56) there and 2 days later had a very strong 10 x 1,000m workout on the track but had to take 2 days off following that due to the pain in my leg. I was able to get it under control, thankfully. But then just a couple days later, two new areas started voicing their displeasure. My upper left leg and lower right leg (Achilles/Calf, specifically – felt like someone had their hand wrapped around my Achilles at times – lots of fun) posed minor problems through the last week of VO2 max, and once I had a couple of easier running days before breaking into the current tempo phase, I was able to control them too and they’ve held since (knock on wood). So now I’m about a week into the tempo phase, and I don’t know how long that will last, but I’m fairly certain it will take me at least through Lake Sonoma (April 11) and Boston (April 20).

Before moving forward, I want to touch on Kaiser. I was really happy with the way my race played out. I wasn’t sure of the kind of shape I was in coming into it, but figured it couldn’t go much worse than last year, when I attempted to pace a teammate (did a terrible job of it), my calf decided to shred itself about halfway through, and on the limp back down the Great Highway, I had to dive into a port-a-potty as I almost had to stop and poop on the highway itself. Not my greatest race, but it was PR at the time (as the only half I’d run prior to that was the Brazen half with 4,000ft of climbing yielding a slower time). So I was ready for a PR, I just didn’t know what it would be. I started out running a bit behind the lead pack and basically just stayed there. I was with a couple of others and was content to lead/be lead whenever we happened to shift places. I pulled away from a couple of guys when we turned on to the Great Highway and ended up running the next 4-5 miles with one guy. He gapped me by about 10m around mile 11 and I was content to let him go on ahead, but then someone from the other side yelled “Varner, you’re running too easily!” and I saw Jonas and his wife and they were cheering and I decided “No, I want to beat this guy.” You can even see where I made the decision on the Strava file as my heart rate ticks up right around mile 11.7 (https://www.strava.com/activities/249209907/overview). I ended up making a decisive move past the guy (don’t know who he was) and almost closing on Crosby (fist shake). At least he was running scared, or at least that’s what I heard from someone ::cough::Larissa::cough::

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Kaiser Half after the move (Photo: Jonas Oppedal)

Looking later into spring, I’m really excited to open up 2015 at LS50. The competition will be strong and already having a spot in Western, I can do what I need to do and focus on learning more about the 50 mile distance. That will definitely come in handy in May, as I was picked to represent the US at the Ultra Trail World Championships, which will take place on May 30 in Annecy, France. It’s an 85k (53 mile) race with around 16,000 feet of climbing (close to what Western has in half the distance), so we’ll be out there for a while. My teammates will be Tim Tollefson (https://timtollefson.wordpress.com/) , David Laney (http://davidlaneyrunning.com/   ), Alex Nichols (http://negativesplit.net/wddf/index.html#!/page_Home), and Yassine Diboun (http://yassinediboun.com/) on the men’s side and Krissy Moehl (http://krissymoehl.com/), Amy Rusiecki (http://runningrusieckis.blogspot.com/), and Anita Ortiz (https://twitter.com/ortizrun) on the women’s side. I think we can do some damage and look forward to putting it all out there with these folks. More info here: http://trailrunner.com/trail-news/u-s-team-trail-world-championships-announced/. In case it wasn’t evident, I am freaking pumped to have made a US team. It’s been a long-time goal of mine (and I know the same goes for a couple other members) and I am also rather excited to get some more time in France, as this makes 2 trips there this year (CCC is still on).

I think the race will be a good springboard to Western States in late June, kind of how the NYC Marathon worked as a jumping point for TNFEC back in the fall. The biggest downside is that I withdrew from the Canyons 100k (http://www.runcanyons.com/) on May 2, simply because I think it would be too much racing this spring. I hope to run that race one day, as the course looks fantastic and the race organizers have been incredibly gracious with my decision.

And speaking of Western, I’ve got my crew/pacers all lined up for this year. Since Magda decided to go and qualify herself (congrats on the SOB win!), she’s going to be my pacer for the whole thing! Just kidding, but that would be awesome. No, my crew will be Rachelle (she did such a fantastic job last year without knowing what to expect, so this year will hopefully be easier), Vargo (who was my crew/pacer last year so he knows how to deal with the bullsh*t I’ll throw at him later in the race), and Tim Tollefson (who will be warned by Vargo what to expect when you’re expecting I get ornery). So get excited, kids. Time for round 2!

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These two idiots (the one covered in mud on the left and the mug on the right) have volunteered to pace me at Western. The guy on the right even wanted to do it again!

                And finally, since my last post was a look back on 2014, here are a few resolutions I made at the beginning of the year, but forgot to share:

  1. Listen to my body. I’ve done a good job of this so far, namely with the minor issues I mentioned that I experienced during the VO2 max training phase. Hopefully I can continue to do so and nip problems in the bud before they become larger issues.
  2. Thank more volunteers. Admittedly, doing so verbally is a bit harder in shorter, faster races when breath is harder to come by, but a smile, nod, or wave/thumbs up can go a long way in showing a volunteer that you appreciate their time.
  3. Be less obsessed with mileage (kind of). I mean this in a larger context, as in not pushing to get 9 miles on an easy day rather than 8 so that my weekly mileage is higher, or needlessly extending a tired cooldown in search of the same goal. If I can do that, I’m totally fine with letting myself run a couple of circles around a parking lot at the end of a 13.9 mile run to bring it up to an even 14 (like at the end of this run: https://www.strava.com/activities/239917350 ).

So I think that’s about it for now. I will be cheering/spectating at Way Too Cool in just over a week, so for those running, good luck! And if you’re so inclined, stick around Auburn Saturday night. Should be a good time ;-)

And just for jealousy’s sake, here are a few photos from a couple runs this year:

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View from the top of Tam en route to Pt. Reyes

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Looking back at Coastal Trail en route to Pt. Reyes.

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The French saying: Il pleut comme les vaches qui pissent (it’s raining like cow piss) is quite apt.

2015-01-01 MV to MHBB

New Year’s Day Run to MH Bread and Butter (a staple in all Marin ultra runner’s diets).

2015-02-22 Northside Shred

Northside of Tam with the SFRC dudes this past weekend (Credit: Mario Fraioli)

2015-02-22 Sunny Side

Rounding a corner on the sunny side of Bon Tempe this past Sunday (credit: Mario Fraioli)

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2014: A (probably) Disrespectful Retrospective

Thursday, January 08, 2015

I’m rather late in getting this year-end post out, but I regret nothing. Between TNF and now, I’ve done no hard running. It’s been great. All recovery/endurance runs per Koop’s instructions. Christmas and New Year’s were fun, as Rachelle was here for a couple of weeks. We built a LEGO Death Star.

LEGO DEATH STAR #pewpew

LEGO DEATH STAR #pewpew

PROOF.

12 building hours later.

We also spent Christmas at my parents’ house and New Year’s at The Deuce (can’t get enough). Between the two, we ventured up to Mt. Baker (45 mins east of Bellingham, WA), to meet up with some of her friends from Vancouver who rented a house. I didn’t run a step during the 4 days we were in Baker, which was pre-planned, but also fortuitous, as the day before our departure, I slipped in some mud about a mile into my run and slammed my left foot against a tree trunk lying along the trail. I ran the remaining 7 miles in moderate discomfort, but was concerned I’d broken at least one toe, as my foot looked like this that evening:

12-26-2014 Toe Stub

Toejammed but not quite broken. No, my foot is not pretty. I know that.

Thankfully, the swelling and discoloration decreased pretty quickly and I was able to resume running last Wednesday, right on schedule, with relatively little discomfort (it’s now basically back at 100%). In the meantime, however, I managed to pick up a lovely little illness that saw me sleep 31 of the 33 hours between Monday night and Wednesday morning. This setback forced me to postpone my plans to start my workouts for 2015 on Tuesday, but I’m feeling almost 100% today and will start up tomorrow. Time for some VO2 max-type stuff. Anything but tempo :-P

Anyways, enough with the chit chat. Similar to last year, here are some highlights, lowlights, and lessons learned from 2014 (in no particular order):

  1. I like ultras even more than I did a year ago. I’m not sure what my favorite distance is, because I’m still relatively new (plus I haven’t yet raced the 100k distance), but I can’t wait to race more and find out.
  1. If I want to improve at the longer distances, I need to race more of them. This might seem obvious, but it’s still good to hold one’s self accountable by writing it down as a reminder. Nutrition, motivation, pacing, and training all need to be honed even more specifically for the longer races and any sort of gap in preparation will becoming glaringly evident in the later miles.
  1. The Nike Trail Team. Getting to run for Nike is a huge honor. The team members never cease to amaze and inspire, our manager Pat is the man, and the company is more supportive than I thought possible. I am very fortunate to have this opportunity and can’t wait for 2015 to unfold. Big things are in store.
XC-style start at an ultra (credit: unknown).

XC-style start at an ultra (credit: unknown).

  1. 6th straight fastest time at Dipsea. This year saw the additions of Galen and Rickey to the invitational field, and I certainly had my work cut out for me. I think my past experience may have been the only difference in recapturing that honor this year, as it was both of their first times running the race, and anyone who’s run it can tell you there’s a big learning curve.
Top 4 at Dipsea 2014

Top 4 at Dipsea 2014

  1. 7th at Western States. This finish is probably the one of which I am proudest. I trained hard (albeit somewhat blindly), ran hard, and it paid off. Surely some luck was in there to contribute, but I don’t think you get any of the luck if you don’t put in the hard work first. I will never forget coming on to the track in Auburn and rounding the final bend.
The finish line was most welcome at this point. (credit: Matt Trappe)

The finish line was most welcome at this point. (credit: Matt Trappe)

  1. People are everything. Crew members, teammates, friends, volunteers, and even strangers – everyone plays a role. Let’s dive deeper…

a. Crew members: My crew from Western States sticks out the most to me this year. Rachelle, Vargo, and Magda all selflessly volunteered to do a pretty thankless job, namely, getting me to run 100 miles. Rachelle did an amazing job getting everything I needed, being wherever I needed her to be, and putting up with more than her share of petulance along the way from yours truly (“No, this ice pack is too big!”). Vargo and Magda put up with my surliness and gel-induced peaks/troughs as I was dealing with my IT band/knee pain in the 2nd half of the race, but never let me falter and kept me moving towards the finish. Thank you. This experience truly showed me how a good crew can make a race and I’m beyond excited to have 2/3 of it back in place for WS 2015.

team varner 1

Best. Crew. Ever.

b. Teammates: As I already said, being on the Nike team is fantastic. The support we receive from Nike is phenomenal, but the teammates are what really give it a spirit. It’s reminiscent of being back on a college team, with stupid inside jokes, off-color humor, basically everything except the communal showers. It keeps competition fun.

Nike train on Old Mine (that's Zach's left elbow) (credit: iRunFar/Bryon Powell)

Nike train on Old Mine (that’s Zach’s left elbow) (credit: iRunFar/Bryon Powell)

c. Friends: Similar to crew, they provide unfaltering support, although less cajoling is usually involved. One of my favorite moments of the year came just after crossing the finish line at Lake Sonoma, when I got one of the best hugs ever from Jorge, during which Matt Laye came up and said that I’d gotten a spot to Western. So here’s to the friends I’ve made, ones I’ve become closer with, and ones I’m yet to meet. Hard to believe a year ago, the #TamBros were barely a thing.

Hugs. Hugs for everyone.(credit: Tanner Johnson)

Hugs. Hugs for everyone.(credit: Tanner Johnson)

TamBros at #TheDeuce (credit: I don't remember).

TamBros at #TheDeuce. Thank goodness that beard on the right is gone.

d. Volunteers: More of the most selfless people you’ll meet. They choose to spend their day handing out electrolytes, salt, and various snack foods to runners in all manners of spirits. Race directors and racers alike rely on them for free, mostly cheerful labor and our sport wouldn’t be possible without their generosity.

e. Strangers: Generally, stranger danger is a good term to stick to, but sometimes it isn’t true. Volunteers are often strangers, for example. So are the thousands of people who line the streets/trails of a major (ultra)marathon to cheer for the runners. They provide an unending source of energy to the participants and can make a world of difference.

  1. Undoubtedly, I experienced some of the lowest lows I’ve ever had while racing this year. At Lake Sonoma, the last 8-10 miles were interminable. I was in new territory and had no idea what to expect and it was rough. That prepared me somewhat for that I found at Western, but it was nowhere near enough, as at times it felt as though I would be running forever. I never thought of stopping, but it did seem as if I would never reach the finish line. The recovery time post-Western was also a low point, because although I was not “injured” per se, it certainly seemed like it, as my knees hurt and I was unable to run as I wanted to. Long after the fatigue was gone, my IT bands still refused to cooperate, and I realized I have a lot of learning to do about recovery.
Remember: Recovery isn't all bad.

Remember: Recovery isn’t all bad.

Edit: 9. Being named male rookie of the year by AJW and finding myself at #10 on the UROY list are hugely unexpected honors. I’ve got big shoes/expectations to fill in 2015, and will do my very best to do so.

Finally, some stats from 2014:

Total Miles: 4,001 (Strava has more, but I round my spreadsheet down)

Miles Raced: 409.4

Highest Week: 124 (Western States week)

Days off: 50 (compared to 12 last year)

Weekly Average: 77.8

Daily Average: 12.7

Feet climbed: 436,934

Tam Summits: 21

Lifetime total (that I know of): 27,008

Here are a few charts for the stat people out there:

Yearly Totals Miles by Month Annual Mileage Totals Miles Raced

I think that’s about it. Cheers if you’ve read this whole thing, and here’s to a most excellent 2015. Best of luck with your upcoming races and maybe I’ll see you out there. Speaking of races, here’s my tentative 2015 schedule:

April 11 – Lake Sonoma 50

April 20 – Boston Marathon

May 2 – Canyons 100k

June 27 – Western States 100

August 28 – CCC

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North Face 50

First of all, a disclaimer: this is a long one.

This past Saturday, several hundred people lined up for arguably the most competitive 50 miler of the year, The North Face Endurance Challenge. Starting and finishing in Rodeo Valley, in the Marin Headlands, the course runs all over the southern part of Marin, and reaches as far north as McKennan Gulch (above Stinson Beach). 2 years ago, a large storm caused the several permits to be pulled at the last minute and the course ended up being six 8-mile loops. The result was that it was an absolute slop-fest and was very much on the minds of the racers, as several wet fronts came through Marin the week leading up to this year’s race. Sure enough, the night before the race, 2 course changes were announced. One was very minor, but the other was big. The section after hitting Cardiac for the second time that was made up of Ben Johnson-Lost-Redwod-Sun-Dipsea-Dynamite-Redwood Creek was cut out. We would run the Bobcat-Alta-Rodeo Valley loop twice and come back down Coast View-Heather Cutoff and head straight to Muir Beach. I was a bit bummed because I love the Ben Johnson descent and it meant that we would miss Muir Woods, which is exceptionally beautiful. I was getting all of these course updates during the day on Friday and we discussed them at dinner that night, with Vargo, Tim, Dan, Zach, Ethan, Billy, Alicia, DeNucci, and a few others. Another change came over the airwaves, indicating that we’d be taking the road to McKennan Gulch instead of the trail, which was pretty inconsequential, but still a change. After a nice team dinner, we hit the sack and were up before I knew it at 3am. I had a couple of nice nervous dreams that night about missing the start. The dreams progressed from me not even being on my way to the race when the gun went off to not being dressed at the start (but at least I was at the race), so I figured things were heading in the right direction at least.

We arrived around 4:15am after blasting some music (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfWlot6h_JM) in the parking lot (much to the chagrin of a few runners, from what I gathered), and soon enough, we were at the start line. I wasn’t paying much attention to what was said by the race director because I was trying to jostle my way up towards the front. After a few minutes of standing, the gun sounded and we were running.

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The start (credit: iRunFar/Bryon Powell)

The first loop was relatively uneventful, with people talking and laughing. The group was huge. Probably 20-30 of us, which wasn’t a surprise as anyone who looked at the elite start list would have seen 20-30 guys who were capable of finishing in the top 5. We kept it nice and easy on the first loop. I had used the bathroom a couple of times before the race and had taken an Immodium about an hour before the gun so I was optimistic that I would be ok, but on the second loop up Bobcat, my stomach started asserting itself. I’d consumed one Picky Bar by that point (not the culprit), and with the 1st half of the second bar, I knew I’d have to stop. Looking at my Strava data (http://www.strava.com/activities/226904893), I stopped during mile 10. I quickly went from near the front of the pack to off the back, which I didn’t mind so early in the race, but I was still hurrying to get things out in a timely manner. But then, not a mile or two later, I had to stop again. Clearly I hadn’t gotten everything out in my rush to get back on the trail. I elected to stop just after the 2nd Bobcat aid station, right before the climb up Miwok. I was still near the back of the pack, but had been running with Tim Olson and Rob Krar and talking about fences, so I wasn’t worried. I’d run several repeats up Miwok in training with Koop and knew I could make up some ground without too much effort. At the top of Miwok, we turned down towards Tennessee Valley and it was totally fogged in. I switched off my headlamp at one point before noticing the guy in front of me had taken his off and was carrying it in his hand. I copied him and it made a world of difference coming down Old Springs. Towards the bottom, I was catching back up with the lead group, which had strung out a bit on the single track. In the aid station, I was delighted to see a couple of the kids I help coach on my high school team (Lizzie, Campbell, and Nye) who had gotten up to see me race. It was awesome to hear them yelling for me and was easily one of my favorite moments during the entire race.

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Seeing friends at TV (credit: iRunFar/Bryon Powell)

Heading out of the TV aid station, I found myself running with Jorge. Just before we started the climb up Coastal over to Pirates Cove, he and I both had to take pit stops (my third of the day). It was quick, however, and I didn’t lose much time. Amazingly enough, despite TV being fogged in, Pirates Coves was basically completely clear and we hit it just as the sun was beginning to lighten the sky, so it was pretty magical (as evidenced by Matt Laye’s, Nate Dunn’s and iRunfar’s photos galleries here: (https://www.flickr.com/photos/natedunn/sets/72157649611906916/ ; http://i-rn.fr/14TNF50-Photos). I could see the rest of the guys up ahead of me and was completely content on where I was at that point. Jorge and I ran down to Muir Beach together before separating a bit heading into Heather Cutoff. It was on the way into Muir that he asked what I thought about yet another course change. I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You didn’t hear the RD at the start line announce that we’re taking Steep Ravine up to Pantoll instead of Dipsea?” No. Dammit. Steep Ravine is beautiful but drags the climb out a lot longer than Dipsea, which becomes runnable at the top of the stairs coming out of Steep Ravine. This threw a wrench into my race plan, which had been to make a move (wherever I might be in the pack) at the top of the stairs on the Dipsea Trail out of Steep Ravine (side note: everyone refers to the stairs on the original course that you hit coming out of Stinson heading up Dipsea Trail to Cardiac as the Dipsea Steps. These are not, in fact, the true Dipsea Steps. Yes, they are steps on the Dipsea Trail, but the real Dipsea steps are those that lead up out of Mill Valley, in the first mile of the Dipsea Race and are not on the course at all). With that change looming, I figured it would be best to wait and see how things shook out. I still held on to a glimmer of hope that he was mistaken, though.

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Jorge and I post-race (credit: Chris Douglas, Presidio Sports Management)

On the climb up Heather/Coast View to Cardiac, the longest (timewise) on the course, I steadily made my way back up to the leaders and crested Cardiac with them. At the aid station, several guys stopped to refill their bottles. I didn’t and moved up a couple spots as a result. Then, heading through the Pantoll parking lot, Zach and Tim and Dakota went about 10 yards out of their way, and I passed them crossing the road onto Matt Davis. I was suddenly in 3rd or 4th, behind Sage, Aish, and a Salomon guy. I’m very familiar with Matt Davis and so was able to push a bit more than the other guys, knowing the turns and rises/dips. Dakota came up behind me shortly thereafter and he and I put a gap on the others. Little did I know, that would be prove to be the decisive move of my race. On the out and back to McKennan Gulch, I saw Topher, Kim, Max, Jenny, and Matt taking pictures and cheering (thank you!). We moved well down the road (new section due to aforementioned course change) and hit the aid station maybe 30 seconds back of Sage, who had gone off the front a bit. On the way back, we were able to see where guys were and get a better feel for the gaps. There were several guys near Dakota and I, but the closest was probably a minute back (DBo and Aish I think?).

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Datkota and I on the way back from McKennan Gulch (credit: iRunFar/Patrick McKenna)

As we made our way down towards Stinson, Dakota went by me and I stopped to pee right near the top of Matt Davis. On the descent, I kept thinking people would catch up, but never heard or saw anyone. I could hear people clapping for Dakota head of me but no one behind, which I took as a good sign. My legs were holding up pretty well despite the pounding descent and I entered the Stinson Beach aid station alone. A friend was supposed to meet me there with my Gu’s for the rest of the race, but I guess I got there too fast and when I yelled her name twice and got no response, everyone went dead silent. It was awkward, so I said, “Balls!” loudly and just moved on – nothing I could do about it. I had a drop bag at Cardiac with Gu’s and was still holding out hope that Jorge had been wrong about the Dipsea/Steep Ravine course change, and that we would indeed be going up Dipsea and not Steep Ravine. No dice. Up Steep Ravine I went. Having run up this deep in the pain cave during my first 50k at Headlands back in August 2013 helped a lot as I knew pretty well what was coming and where to push. I caught a glimpse of Dakota a couple of times but didn’t seem to be making up any ground on him. I couldn’t see anyone below me. My legs were starting to get tired at this point as well, as we were past the 50k mark, and I was worried that the 2 Gu’s I had remaining wouldn’t last me to the finish. I must have simply forgotten about the drop bag at Cardiac, as I went in there, grabbed a handful of salt, 2 cups of Coke, refilled my bottle (used half Clif electrolyte drink/half water the whole time), and was on my way. Lisa was up there, along with Allen and a few others who I’m sure I’m forgetting (thank you for your efficiency). I bumped into Ethan (aka The Ginger Runner) here and we high fived. I absorbed his power and started cruising down Coast View. The hardest part about this section was that there were 50 mile and 50k runners coming up towards me, as well as 50k runners going in the same direction as me (their turnaround was at Cardiac). Most were quite courteous and I saw several familiar faces (Greg, Ashley, Olivia to name a few). I’m sure they said things to me, but I was pretty concentrated on what I was doing and didn’t process their words (apologies, especially to Davidson College track/xc teammate Greg who apparently yelled at me: “IT’S A GREAT DAY TO BE A WILDCAT!!”).

Coast View was a bit muddy and slick at times, but it was nothing compared to Heather. If it wasn’t 2 inches of running water, it was 2 inches of mud. I was tip-toeing at times, avoiding runners coming up at me, passing runners heading in the same direction, and trying not to go down. It was very telling that at the end of the race, almost everyone I talked to who fell did so between Cardiac and the bottom of Heather. On the descent, I didn’t notice Dakota or Sage, although I’m sure they were in view at times, and I didn’t see anyone behind me. I began dreading the 2 climbs left and just wanted to be done. I took my 2nd to last Gu on Redwood Creek trail and hit the Muir Beach aid station (mile 40 – 2 cups of Coke and 2 cups of water plus a bottle refill) alone. I was told that Sage was 5 minutes up and Dakota was 2. Good to know, but I had a feeling I wasn’t going to be picking either one off unless they blew up majorly. I was immediately reduced to a powerhike heading up Coastal. I ran when I could but that climb is steep and never seems to end (probably because I don’t know it well enough). I finally made it on to Miwok and down to Tennessee Valley (Sage 5, Dakota 2). Marincello was all that remained. Again, I was forced to alternate between running and powerhiking, picking little elements out on the trail and using them to pull myself up bit by bit. I finally crested Alta and turned onto Rodeo Valley (Sage 5, Dakota 2). I could see Dakota about 600-700m out in front of me but knew that I wasn’t going to be able to close. I had been continually checking behind me since Muir Beach to see if anyone was closing on me, and no one was (or at least not that I could see). Heading down Rodeo Valley for the third and final time, I was just relieved. I came up on Travis, who was running the 50k, towards the bottom and he and I ran together for a bit. Sam was also down on the turn off of Rodeo Valley cheering, which was greatly appreciated. I turned onto the road and made my way to the finish, making sure to soak up the moment. I crossed in 6:14:06, about 2 minutes behind Dakota and 7 behind Sage.

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Happy to be done (credit: Matt Trappe)

As I watched the other guys come in (DBo was 5th, Jorge 7th, Tim 8th), we greeted each other with muddy hugs. The camaraderie at the end of these ultras never ceases to amaze me. Everyone is happy and proud to be done, but also overcome with fatigue and a tremendous sense of accomplishment. In this case, everyone was also rather muddy. I was interviewed by Eric Schranz (http://ultrarunnerpodcast.com/) who was working with Ultrasportslive.tv  (http://www.ultrasportslive.tv/alex-varner-nfec-california-2014-3rd-male/). He kindly gave me a beer, asked me a few questions, and then booted me out of the interview area in favor of DBo (gotta make way for the future mayor of Mill Valley). We milled around for a bit and I got a chance to catch up with Chris Douglas and Michael Stricklan, who represent me (and DBo and Jorge and YiOu) at Presidio Sports Management (http://www.presidiosportsmgmt.com/), as well as Eric Senseman and Sarah Lavender Smith who were helping out with iRunFar and USL’s coverage, respectively. Chris was out on the course cheering, taking pics, and crewing a bit for me as well, which was greatly appreciated and Michael ran the 50k but had to drop due to a bum hip (get it healed!). I was also interview by Bryon Powell of iRunFar.com (http://www.irunfar.com/2014/12/alex-varner-post-2014-tnf-ec-50-mile-interview.html), which is always a blast. After the awards, we headed back to my place, showered, and made our way to the 2AM Club. The Deuce was a blast. Team members from North Face, Nike, Salomon, Montrail, Hoka, and everything in between were there alongside many, many people who raced or cheered earlier that day. It was a great end to an amazing day of competition, as everyone unwound and rehashed their races and either toasted their success (SAGE BUYS A ROUND!) or their bonk. I think the night was best summed up by a regular local who asked The Big Stapler: “What’s with all the puffy jackets?” Thanks to everyone who came out. It really was a special evening and I hope we can do it again next year.

Me, Chris Douglas, DBo (5th overall) (credit: unknown)

Me, Chris Douglas, DBo (5th overall) (credit: unknown)

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Tim got his money’s worth (8th overall) (Credit: unknown)

Podium (credit: unknown)

Podium (credit: unknown)

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#TheDeuce (Credit: Billy Yang)

On another note, I’ll likely have one more post up here before 2014 comes to a close. It’s fun to do a post looking back at the year that was and I’ll also reveal what I’m thinking about in terms of racing for 2015. So keep an eye out for that, if you’re so inclined.

And finally, here’s the gear I used at TNF50:

Shoes: Nike Kiger 2 http://store.nike.com/us/en_us/pd/zoom-terra-kiger-2-running-shoe/pid-1488481/pgid-1488482

Other Clothing: Nike Team Kit (sorry, not available for retail)

Headlamp: Princeton Tec Fuel http://princetontec.com/fuel

Hydration: Amphipod Hydraform Handheld (but I removed the strap and instead used a piece of surgical rubber to hold it which worked great and had the added benefit of keeping it from slipping down my crack when I stuffed it in my shorts) http://www.amphipod.com/products/hydration/bottles-handhelds/handhelds/hydraform-handheld

Food: 2 Smooth Caffeinator Picky Bars, 8 Gu’s (Espresso and Vanilla), Clif electrolyte drink (available on course) cut with half water.

GPS: Suunto Ambit 2 (Strava data here: http://www.strava.com/activities/226904893)

To those who made it this far, best of luck with your training and racing in the coming months!

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