Monday, June 28, 2010

6 more weeks of hard training for the Leadville 100

I think this is the toughest part of the 100-mile training cycle. I have just six more weeks of getting ready for the Leadville 100 before the well-deserved taper begins. The taper officially begins Monday, 8/2, when I start to gradually reduce mileage. Two weeks out, the mileage takes a big dip and then the week of the event the mileage is non-existent as I emphasize rest, hydration and colories. But right now I'm not really thinking about the taper--I'm thinking about what I need to do in the next six weeks.

On the heels of a very tough March and April when we were in the process of ripping up our roots in Ohio and planting new ones in Colorado, things are going well. I think those two months had to be about making the transition, not about running--and so my running output dipped a little (but not a lot). My training log clearly indicates that by early May, when I finished 5th overall at the Greenland Trail 50K, I had it going again. Here's what the weekly mileage since the week of 5/3-5/9/2010 has been: 90.2, 95.2, 102.9, 90.6, 84.3, 90.1, 105.1 and 93.4. I plan to top out at 110-115 miles by the end of July and will hopefully go well over 400 miles for the month. Between now and then, I have the Leadville Trail Marathon on 7/3 and the Barr Trail Mountain Race on 7/18. This week, having done 93.4 miles last week, I'm tapering for the Leadville Marathon and trying to get this nasty case of plantar fasciitis under control. I can't say what my expectations for the Leadville Marathon are as it's run entirely at elevations of 10,000-13,000 feet. I'm going to go pretty hard and see what happens.

I think when all is said and done, I will have run more miles and many more hours preparing for Leadville than I did in preparing for my win at the Mohican 100 in 2009. And these are far tougher miles. I think that when you're training at elevations of anywhere from 6,000-12,000 feet (with the potential for 14,000 feet), running 100 miles in a week is no easy task.

I'm seeing signs that I'm in good shape. While I don't feel super fast, I do feel quite strong. Yesterday, after a 16-mile morning run, I did a second afternoon run--a 5.25 miler on a treadmill at 6,000 feet. I ran a third of a mile at a 0% grade and then abruptly moved the grade to 7.5%. Over the course of the next 4.5+ miles, I increased the grade until finally I ran the last mile at a 10% grade. I was running anywhere from 6:58-7:30 pace--and I felt very strong though I was working hard. Again, this was at 6,000 feet--more than a mile in the sky.

I know I'm training hard because it's obvious in my hunger. I'm eating all the time! Yesterday for lunch I had a huge (homemade) salmon and spinach salad with balsamic vinaigrette that hit the spot. Lately we've been having to eat a little more red meat than I'd like to (once a week now versus the previous once a month) because Noah's iron level is a tad low. But, honestly, I think training at elevation requires more iron in the blood and so maybe red meat isn't necessarily a bad thing?

With six more weeks of hard training, this is where the rubber meets the road. I've put in a lot of hard work up to this point and now it's time to amp it up even more and have my mind and body totally ready for Leadville.

Fortunately, I'll have a crew! Some members of my immediate family will likely make the trek to Leadville to crew for me. Anne will also be there but her top priority will be Noah (as he should be). I don't yet know who in my family is coming to Leadville, but I do know maybe two will be coming--either my mom, my dad or my brother. They have never seen a 100-mile race and will be in for a treat. Leadville and Western States are the two premier 100-mile races. I've heard Leadville could have upwards of 800 runners. As far as a pacer, a local runner has reached out to me and she and I are going to connect soon. I'm very excited that she's offered to help.

Run hard and run happy!

Monday, June 21, 2010

This is what ultrarunning is all about

My misadventure at Pikes Peak really changed me--I think forever. Although I successfully summitted the peak, it was a very hard journey (thanks to the snow) that left me pretty humbled and hobbled from a badly sprained ankle (that is improving). Unless you've been all by yourself above treeline on a huge mountain with snow more than waist-deep in areas, it's hard to describe what the experience of summitting a 14,000-foot peak is like. That high up in the air--well above the clouds--you come to learn a lot about yourself and what's really important in life. I now know what's important and I'm trying to walk the walk.

This past week (6/14-6/20) was one of my better weeks in a long, long time. I logged 105 miles, covering 64 miles from Friday to Sunday. That included 26 miles on Friday on part of the Leadville 100 course with Jason R. and Matt C., both of whom are doing Leadville. Matt is a childhood friend--we've known each other for nearly 30 years and our parents are very close.

As far as the Leadville course, all I can really say is that it's very challenging, as the sign above would indicate. We ran from Twin Lakes to the Fish Hatchery, basically staying above 10,000 feet the whole time. In a few weeks I intend to do the Hope Pass and Sugarloaf Pass sections, which constitute the course's four mountain crossings. There was a point on Friday where I was cruising along at 11,000 feet and it hit me--I'm running strong at over two miles in the sky, not really breathing hard up the hills. I'm getting into good shape and, while Leadville will be the ultimate challenge to date, I feel like I'm doing what I need to do to be in shape. This was especially apparent on Sunday as I was in the midst of a ferociously intense 17-mile tempo run in the Parker hills (elevation 6,000+ feet).

Jason, Matt and me at Twin Lakes. Matt and I have known each other for literally 30 years--since we were kids.

I've seen enough of the Leadville 100 course to know it commands your full attention and focus. As I look at what I'm doing runningwise for the next 6 weeks, all roads lead to Leadville. Both races I have coming up--the Leadville Marathon on 7/3 and the Barr Trail Mountain Race up Pikes Peak on 7/18--are about getting ready for Leadville.

I think one of the most important components of successful training for a 100-miler is knowing who you are as a runner and person. As a runner, I know that while I have decent speed, I'm not a super-fast guy with optimal efficiency of stride. At 6'2", 168 lbs., I'm a big, strong runner with a powerful stride and maybe not lightening fast turnover. I'm going to use my strength and power at Leadville, just as I did for my Mohican win. This is not a course where you let it rip. This is a course requiring strength, fortitude, gobs and gobs of endurance, and courage. Courage is who you are as a person, and it's what carries you to the finish line of a 100.


I want to recognize a very good friend of mine, Ted Friedman, who is doing something amazing. I've known Ted for a long time. We met through our wives in 2005, shortly after Anne and I moved to Cleveland. When I first met Ted, he'd done a few races and enjoyed running. I sensed a distance runner in him and over time we became better and better friends. I learned a lot about Ted, including the fact that in high school he and a friend biked across Ohio. He was a good friend throughout the very painful process of moving from Ohio to Colorado.

Ted paced me at the 2007 Burning River 100 (my first 100) and the 2008 Mohican 100, where he helped me get through severe knee and GI problems to finish 4th in a race I was winning when disaster struck. He finished the Mohican 50-Mile in 2009, when I won the Mohican 100, but he and his wife, Tami, were of course there with Anne, Noah and me to share in the moment when I collected my winner's plaque. Ted has been a big part of my running life and a good friend for five years and counting. I really miss running with him, Tim and the others at South Chagrin Reservation on Saturday mornings.

Over time, I have seen Ted undergo an incredible transformation as a runner that reminds me a lot of the transformation I underwent in the spring of 2007. Like me way back when, he was a guy who ran 40-50 miles a week. And then, with a few marathons and 50Ks and a 50-miler under his belt, he set his sights on the ultimate test of one's strength and endurance--the 100-mile race. Ted is running in the 2010 Burning River 100 on 7/31-8/1. He has been bitten by the ultrarunning bug.

Ted has taken the challenge of the Burning River 100 very seriously, gradually building up to weeks of 80, 90 and 100 miles. He just completed his first 100-mile week and is holding up very well. He is not content to just finish the BR100. If he were, he'd just do 60 or 70 miles per week. Ted wants more than a finish and a buckle. That's why he's training like a crazed man. In fact, his commitment has inspired me to train even harder for the Leadville 100. This past week he completed 101 miles. I, too, was at 101 miles when he shared the news of his first triple-digit week. Inspired, I went out and ran 4 more miles to end the week with 105. That's not rivalry; it's friendly inspiration.

Ted's drive to train hard may appear to be about a man taking a challenge as seriously as could be and putting his whole heart and soul into it. But it's about more than that. Ted lost his dad, Howard, to cancer in May 2000. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of his dad's passing. By all accounts, Mr. Friedman was a very good man and a devoted husband, father and member of the community who taught for a living. Ted is honoring his dad's legacy by raising money for The Gathering Place, a renowned cancer-support community, through the Burning River 100. You can learn more about Ted's "100 Miles for Life" and contribute to The Gathering Place by clicking here. The last I heard, he's close to $5,000! Anne and I have committed to a gift and I hope you will, too.

Ted has taken what is often a selfish endeavor--training for a foot race--and turned it into a vehicle for helping a lot of people in the community. I admire Ted and believe he represents what is so good about ultrarunning. Good job, Ted!


As a final note, I have been thinking a lot about my next writing project. You may remember that my last publication was an article about my experience at the 2007 Burning River 100 that ran in Marathon & Beyond magazine back in 2008. It's time to start work on another story--maybe about the Leadville 100 and my experience in acclimating to elevation here in Colorado. I'm giving it some thought.

I think people are fascinated with long-distance running--even people who aren't runners themselves. Our society admires runners because running is about dedication, never giving up and laying it on the line. There is a reason books like "Born to Run" and the Karnazes tales are national best sellers. It's because so many people today feel empty inside and long for adventure that will help them feel alive again. You can't experience adventure on the TV. You have to live adventure, and this takes effort and time. There are many people out there who are sitting on the sofa and don't even own a pair of running shoes, much less realize they are runners deep within. If I can make even a small contribution in turning people into this great sport, then I feel like I've done at least a little good in this world.

If you're a hardcore ultrarunner, here's a video to leave you inspired (as it's inspired me many, many times since Yiannis is one of the ultrarunning heroes):

Monday, June 7, 2010

Pikes Peak kicked my ass

Note to Reader: What you are about to read is a personal account of my Pikes Peak summit adventure on June 6, 2010. I'm sure in areas there are factual inaccuracies. Please be assured these inaccuracies are unintentional. This is a personal accounting.

My Pikes Peaks summit adventure on June 6, 2010 was a disaster. It was a disaster because I expect so much of myself and I push myself very hard, and I am often able to will myself to achieve an objective, and yet on Sunday at Pikes Peak I fell far shot of my goal. A lot of people might be very proud to summit this incredible 14,115-foot mountain and call it a day. Not me. Yes, I am glad I made it to the top, grateful I had the opportunity to embark on this adventure, and blessed to have experienced such beauty (I mean, it was at Pikes Peak that "America the Beautiful" was written). But I feel very defeated knowing it took me 4.5 hours to summit the mountain and, with a bum ankle, I had to take the Cog Railway back down.

Have you ever gone into an adventure just kind of having maybe not the best feelings, like maybe this isn't your day? That's how I felt when I went to sleep on Saturday night and was driving in my car on Sunday morning down to Manitou Springs. Maybe it was due to a lack of sleep. The night before, we had a vicious thunderstorm that had our dog, Sophie, barking late into the night with every clap of thunder and every lightning strike. Then Noah woke up at 2something in the morning and it took us a lot of time to comfort him and get him settled back down. I woke up at 4:20 and was in the car by 4:50 a.m., zipping down I-25 south groggy but pretty excited. My goal was to start running by 6:15.

For the most part, everything went really well all the way up to treeline (about 12,000 feet). I started at 6:25 a.m., wearing a tight base layer shirt and a singlet, along with compression shorts, my Raceready shorts (for the pockets in which to store food), my Salomon Speedcross 2 trail shoes, a hat, and my 70-ounce Camelbak which I also had packed with extra Cliff bars, gels, etc. I also carried a water bottle and sported some protective gloves. I got a couple of delicious pancakes at Barr Camp ("paid" for via a donation), about 6 miles up, and went on my way, trudging along and enjoying the many incredible views that Pikes Peaks offers.

About 2-3 miles beyond Barr Camp--elevation of about 11,500 feet--I encountered a huge amount of snow that either covered a switchback or was beyond the trail--I'm still not sure. It took me about 20 minutes to get back on course and I'm not even certain how I found the trail. I was pissed--I had wasted precious time trying to find the trail.

After getting back on the trail, I realized that snow was going to be factor in my summit bid, and I knew that I had to pay very close attention to the trail or else I risked missing one of the many switchback you encounter on your way up. I kept trudging along, hitting all the switchbacks, and then finally came to the treeline elevation at about 12,100 feet. By now I was above the clouds and had just passed the famous A-frame house (photo below), which offers shelter.

When you get above treeline, you're at an elevation where the oxygen is definitely very thin. I mean, trees can't grow here! At Pikes Peak above treeline, there's tundra, huge boulders, rocks and unGodly deep snow all around you. But at this point in the journey the most profound thing you see is the peak itself--a mammoth rocky mass with huge patches of snow all around it right there in front of you. It's gargantuan, and the summit is still so far up there. As you're now confronted with the specter of oxygen deficit, you don't know how you're going to get there. I think the Skyrunner, who passed me at about 13,000 feet to my amazement, is right--in a very profound way--when he says he doesn't look at the summit as he's going up; he just takes it one switchback at a time. If you focus too much on the summit with all those switchbacks and snowy areas in front of you, you're going to lose.

The snow above treeline was brutal. It was in isolated areas, making it kind of bizarre. When you weren't trudging through icy snow that felt like razor blades cutting through your skin, you were running in a stream caused by the snowmelt on the trail. You'd be running along a nice rocky section of the Barr Trail and then come upon a huge snowy patch you have to traverse. In some areas it was beyond waist-deep. My legs are very cut-up from the icy snow. It was also in the snow that I sprained my ankle. It didn't feel like a terrible sprain at the time, but as I was navigating the snow it hit me that I sustained a decent sprain. I wished I had trekking poles for this part of the journey.

Going across snowy ridges on a huge mountain that reaches nearly 3 miles into the sky is a little on the frightening side. The photo above doesn't do the amount of snow on the mountain justice. The peak in the photo looks small. But it's huge and heavily textured with rocks and boulders and if you've been there, especially in May or June, you know EXACTLY what I mean. It's hard for me to admit it because I like to think I have some mojo, but there were areas above treeline where I was scared. I don't think I'd have been scared if there was no snow. The struggles through the snow unnerved me. At one point my phone came loose and tumbled down the snowy mountain. I nearly panicked because I was going to call Anne when I got to the top, and if I had no phone she wouldn't hear from me and might get worried. Then she'd start calling and would get no answer. What would she think then...that I was dead? I thought about how worried she'd be. I slid down the "hill," looking for my phone, and finally saw what I thought was my LG. It was just the leather case. I searched for my phone for about 5 more minutes--again, time wasted--and finally gave up. I crawled back up the snowy, icy "hill" to get back on the snow-covered trail and by some miracle found my phone in the snow on the way back up. I brushed it off and put it in my Camelbak, where it would be safe. Rookie mistake: When wading through snow at Pikes Peak, don't have your cell phone exposed. Pack it up!

Notice the reservoir.

I felt better when I came upon another runner who was also struggling mightily. He had bonked and was also having a hard time in the snow. This was his third Pikes Peak summit. I asked him how he was getting back down and he said he was hitchhiking Pikes Peak Highway (the road that traverses the mountain all the way to the summit). By now I'd figured I'd run down the road, thinking it was just 15 or so miles. I felt that the trail was too snowy to get back down with my bum ankle and that the road was the safer, more doable option. But, in the more immediate term, I had to focus on getting to the top and then I'd worry about getting back down. By this time, Skyrunner was long gone, but I'd seen that he too had to stop and navigate carefully through the snow.

(In case you're wondering where photos of the snow are, I didn't take any. I was too busy trying to keep going and stay safe to stop and take photos. Also, by this time my camera was in my Camelbak and not possible to grab without taking off my pack--a risky proposition in high altitude situations where you're dizzy and your head is spinning, as mine was.)

Sitting in the comfortable confines of my house, it now occurs to me what the biggest factor was during these final 2 miles of the adventure. Snow was a factor, indeed. But the biggest factor was the elevation. The elevation is what made the snow possible in June, and it also totally messed up my mind. I was lightheaded and not thinking straight. The snow seemed almost insurmountable, and it was hard to navigate, but in a more lucid state I would have done much better. I mean, I'm from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where it snows 100-150 inches a year! I've gone on 20-milers in snow 12-18 inches deep. But Colorado isn't Ohio. At over 13,000 feet on a huge-ass mountain with more than 1,000 feet to go, it's hard to think straight and you can get rattled easily.

Probably the day's most dramatic photo.

I stayed with this other runner, whose name escapes me, for the final half mile. We "waded" through snow that went up to my armpits and used the rocks to pull ourselves out of it. On one occasion I got stuck in the snow. I pulled on a boulder and got myself out. Coming out of the snow, we'd encounter a clear section of trail and feel pure joy. Then, boom, more deep snow! It was exhausting. I think the last 2 miles took me 2 hours.

Finally, at about 11:07 a.m., we were at the summit. There the summit house stood--at 14,115 feet. The Cog Railway, which had just sounded its horn, was about to leave and I realized then, with my bad ankle, that I might need to inquire about the train, but I also thought I could handle a 15-mile run down on a dirt road. The ticket guy told me the road down was 20+ miles. A ticket on the railway down would cost $20. I had the money and they had a seat, and so I paid my way onto the train. This marked the first time ever I've aborted a major run. But I felt like I had no other choice. I had a sprained ankle that was popping with every step, the trail the last two miles was treachorous to say the least, and this was a mountain where you could lose your life if you weren't at your best. Pikes Peak is no joke, and it is to be respected and even feared.

At the summit house, a smiling though defeated man.

Riding the train down, I felt like I'd failed. I've always loved challenges and usually come out on top. Not today. Pikes Peak kicked my ass. Yes, I made it to the top and, yes, I summitted my first 14'er, but not without great struggle and a defeated spirit.

It wasn't until later in the day that a friend told me I'd summitted Pikes Peak too early in the year. The best time to summit is July or August, when the trail isn't covered with snow.

So there you have it. Without doing enough research, I summitted the mountain too early in the year and paid the price for it. I can barely walk right now from my bum ankle and I feel like I got my ass kicked by a big mountain. I need to focus on getting my ankle healed before the Leadville Trail 100 on August 21. Lick your wounds and then get back in the fight.

I'm a warrior and always will be. Pikes Peak beat me on Sunday, but it will not beat me again. I will return and achieve my goal of summitting and running back down from that mountain in one piece. But next time I'll wait until July or August. July is only a few weeks away....

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

My Pikes Peak adventure

On Sunday, I did the hour-long trek down to Manitou Springs (perhaps the most charming town I've been in since we left Chagrin Falls) to run with the Incline Club. The route for the day was the Barr Trail to Barr Camp (elevation 10,200 feet) and back. My goal was to get to at least 11,000 feet on Pikes Peak. Here's a photo of the members of the Incline Club signing in at Memorial Park, right on the outskirts of downtown Manitou Springs, before our run:

We left promptly at 8 a.m., with the temperature at about 50 degrees and the sky very much overcast. I heard a few members talking about the conditions, with one saying he felt the sun would "burn away" the clouds soon enough. He was right. Within an hour of the start the clouds disappeared and for the rest of the morning and day we were blessed with blue skies. In anticipation of the sunnier conditions and rising temperatures, I wore a tight, thin long-sleeve base layer and short-sleeve technical tee-shirt, complete with thin mittens to keep my hands warm. I also wore my brand-new, 70-ounce Camelbak--definitely preferred gear when you're running on mountain trails in dry conditions.

Now for the box score for the day: I made it past Barr Camp, elevation 10,200 feet and about 6-point-something miles up the trail, and proceeded about 2 additional miles past the camp to 11,200 feet--about 8 miles up the trail. That's the highest I've ever been not counting airplane trips. For the day, I logged 18 miles over about 3.5 hours on the mountain. I was the third one into Barr Camp, running fairly aggressively up the mountain with only a few very brief walk breaks.

I was very pleased with how I handled the vertical and how I was running. I actually felt like a mountain runner and kept thinking a lifelong flatlander shouldn't be able to do this like I was doing it. It wasn't until I got above 10,000 feet that I really started to feel the elevation and remember that only two months ago I was an Ohioan who could barely comprehend 10,000+ feet. By the time I was back down from the mountain, I had logged 91 miles for the week, capping it all off with the single greatest trail running experience of my life on a mountain many dream of visiting...and I hadn't even gotten to the top!

It's hard to put into words my thoughts on and feeling of Pikes Peak, because it is such a magnificent natural wonder that is full of surprises. Pikes Peak soars to 14,100 feet. From where I live in Parker, it looks like a huge mountain out there by itself. The photo directly above kind of gives you an idea of what I'm talking about. But Pikes Peak isn't alone. Pikes Peak is located amongst many mountains and on the edge of the Rockies, but it is the biggest in the immediate area and probably the most celebrated and famous of Colorado's 14'ers. On sunny mornings, it practically glows. The Barr Trail forms the longest base-to-summit trail in Colorado. You can read a short history of Pikes Peak here, but the foremost authority on Pikes Peak as a big playground for runners and outdoor enthusiasts is none other than Matt Carpenter, co-founder of the Incline Club who has written the most detailed description of the trail that you'll ever come across.

To get a sense of the challenge of the Barr Trail, here's the sign that greets you at the trailhead:

I've posted this photo before and am re-posting it for effect. Intense, yes?

The Barr Trail affords the most spectacular views I've ever experienced and delivers the ultimate trail running experience. The first few miles up the Barr Trail are totally vertical as you navigate challenging switchbacks on Rocky Mountain. There are some fairly flat sections after Rocky Mountain where you can catch your breath and prepare for the next climb while appreciating the aspen forests, meadows, rock formations and views all around you. At a number of points you can see the peak itself--a breathtaking site. Here's one such example:

At 10,200 feet you come upon a welcome site--Barr Camp. Barr Camp has been there since 1921 and is operated by a very nice couple, Teresa and Neal Taylor. When I arrived there I felt like I'd come home. As I didn't have cash to buy a few pancakes and make a donation (though I'm sure they'd have given me a pancake if I asked, but I didn't because I wasn't that desperate), I didn't stick around long--just long enough to say hello to the Taylors, quickly converse with another Incline Club runner and head back to the trail. With my Camelbak backpack still quite full and two gels, I didn't need to refuel at Barr Camp, though pancakes would have been nice. Here's a photo of the Barr Camp sign that greets you:

The journey became increasingly challenging after Barr Camp as my breathing became more labored and I encountered very rocky, technical trail, especially near the Bottomless Pit area. (Next time I'm on the trail I'm going to check out Bottomless Pit for the views. It is also the unfortunate site of a number of suicides.) Here's a photo showing what I mean by rocky and technical:

I continued for a little while longer and then decided to turn at 11,200 feet as I didn't have limitless time and I wanted to get home to be with my family. Part of me wanted to push for the summit but I realized that I didn't have quite enough water or calories on me to do it. And so I ran back down the mountain. And did I run hard. I made it back down in about half the time it took me to climb to 11,200 feet. Along the way I snapped a few additional photos and tried to really take in what was all around me. I also worked hard on my downhill running form, trying to be aggressive and run confidently. The last few miles my quads were fatigued but I stayed strong and had a wonderful time every second of this epic journey.

This Sunday I plan to return to Pikes Peak and make a summit push. I want so badly to stand at the top of the mountain, to run above treeline and really experience Pikes Peak. There is something about this mountain that has gotten to me--even as early as our first trip to Denver in January to figure out if this place was where we wanted to live. But now I see Pikes Peak everyday and feel pulled to it everyday. I wish we could live in Manitou Springs, which feels so much like home and is the ultimate mountain town, but it's too far from our jobs. I'm sure it's this way with many others, because don't we all want an adventure that will change our lives?