Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Recovery, Inside Trail and the Get 'er Done Award

First, the interesting stuff.

One of the things ultrarunning has lacked for so long is really good commentary on all that's going on in the sport. Ultrarunning Magazine is a wonderful resource for following race results, etc., but it really doesn't provide much hard-hitting analysis of what's happening in the sport, such as the current dominance of Team Salomon, which has pulled off huge wins in the biggest 100-milers in the world this year: Western States (Kilian Jornet), Hardrock 100 (Julien Chorier), Leadville 100 (Ryan Sandes), and most recently Mont Blanc (Kilian, once again). The domination from Team Salomon has been breath-taking and it's introduced a new model the sport's never seen--team-based racing kind of like what you'd see in professional cycling with domestiques.

Anyway, I don't want to get off track here. The point is that you can read about all of this and much more on a new website called Inside Trail. If you love ultrarunning and are looking for thoughtful but hard-hitting analysis, cool interviews with some of the sport's biggest stars, and wrap-ups of the premier races, then Inside Trail is required reading. Check it out now by clicking here. It's daily reading for me. Maybe for you, too?

Props to Tim and Matt for putting blood, sweat and tears into this labor of love, which, for ultrarunning junkies like me, is really good stuff.

Now for the sizzling-hot stuff. Regarding my last post on quitting, I'm thinking about creating the "Get 'er Done Award" for tough-ass "elite" runners who grind it out in 100s-gone-bad and really show passion and courage in the process. In other words, elite runners who refuse to take the easy way out and DNF when races get hard. If this award comes to fruition, I'm thinking Hal Koerner, the two-time champion of the Western States 100 who grinded out a nearly 40-hour time at Mont Blanc (which had to be tough for a guy who usually scorches courses), would be the first recipient. Hal is now one of my ultrarunning heroes. His Mont Blanc performance shows that he's about more than gunning for the win and then bailing when stuff goes bad. Good job, Hal! You picked up a lot of new fans last weekend!

Hal ripping off a 16:24 at the 2009 Western States 100.
Get 'er done.


Now for the boring, ho-hum stuff. My recovery from the Leadville 100 is going pretty well. Last week I was as tired as I've ever been in my entire life. By tired I mean barely able to stay awake at my desk tired. I honestly don't remember a whole lot about last week. Yes, it was that bad.

My legs are feeling pretty good. Last week I had the classic post-100 mile dull ache in my legs. My hips were a little sore, too. I didn't go on my first run until Thursday, and it was then that I discovered I have a little case of runner's knee in my right knee. I've had runner's knee before and I'm not too worried. The inflammation just needs to settle down and then I'll be good to go. I'm actually still running, but have backed off the mileage a bit (5-7 every morning) and am using ice and arnica to accelerate healing in my knee. I haven't done any long runs since Leadville and won't resume those until my knee is close to 100%. If I feel the need to go long, I'll get on my bike, like I did last Saturday, and ride 30 or 40 or more miles. This is just a game of patience. It's all textbook stuff.

I'm thinking about what I want to do for the rest of the year. Options include the Moab Marathon, a trail race, in November and/or the Las Vegas or California International (Sacarmento) marathons in early December. The next time I step foot on a road marathon course, it will be to once again try to lower my PR, which is 2:58. I simply cannot at this point in my Leadville recovery, while I'm nursing a sore knee, know whether or not I can put in what it takes to PR in early December (lots of track work, etc.). Which means the Moab Marathon and maybe a few other trail races look promising.

Actually, part of me wants to do the Bear 100 in September, but I have a huge scheduling conflict that weekend, which means Bear isn't possible. Probably for the better. But Bear is on my radar, as is Wasatch.

I'm also thinking about 2012. A spring marathon PR effort is definitely in the cards--maybe a return to to the Eisenhower Marathon in April. I'm also definitely returning to the Leadville 100 in August to once again gun for a sub-20-hour time. I'll also do the Leadville Trail Marathon (June 30 or July 7?), as always. It looks like the Jemez 50-mile course was pretty much destroyed by wildfires earlier this summer, which profoundly saddens me because it's such a beautiful area. That means a return to Jemez in 2012 may not happen at all, or, best-case scenario, the course will be different. So Jemez is doubtful for me. Which means I might enter the San Juan Solstice (6/23), said to be the toughest 50-miler in the nation, though many give that honor to Jemez. San Juan might be a little too close timing-wise to Leadville. We'll see.

The wildcard in all of this is whether or not I get into the Western States 100. I plan to enter the lottery and realize the odds are stacked against me. I think the chances of getting selected for the 2011 race were around 10%. If by some miracle I do get into Western States, my schedule will likely focus on three big races in 2012: Marathon PR in the spring, Western States in June, and Leadville in August.

It's all very fluid right now.

Monday, August 29, 2011


The closest I've ever come to DNF'ing (note: DNF stands for "did not finish") at a race was the 2010 Leadville Trail 100. I've already recounted what happened in the Mayqueen inbound tent last year, so I won't go into it again. Anyway, as I lay in the cot at Mayqueen sick as a dog, the thought of one day explaining to my son that I quit Leadville because I felt bad just didn't sit well, and so I got back on my feet and got 'er done.

To date, I've raced 32 marathons and ultramarathons, including six races of 100 or more miles, and I've finished every one of them. The 2010 Leadville 100 wasn't my only race gone bad. In 2008, I limped into the finish of the Mohican 100 with a severely blown-up knee and wicked GI distress. In 2009, I ran a 3:46 at the Lt. JC Stone 50K with a respiratory illness that, frankly, should have left me in urgent care or, at least, in bed.

That said, I'm sure one day I'll DNF in an ultra. Maybe I'll break a bone or sustain a concussion on a fall. There are some good reasons to DNF and many tough runners have had to call it quits because of very bad circumstances that left them unable to continue despite their toughness.

One bad reason to DNF, in my opinion, is when you know you're not going to win a race or achieve some lofty personal goal. A lot of the elites choose to DNF when they know they're not going to win, or get on the podium, so to save themselves for the next race. That's understandable, for sure, since ultras are so physically demanding. But it still doesn't sit well with me, and I question what kind of example it sets for others. For that matter, in the mind of the heavily sponsored athlete with the pressure of performance constantly on them, does example even matter?

But not every elite DNFs when things go bad. In 2004, Matt Carpenter walked the last 30 or 40 miles of the Leadville 100 after blowing up and was ridiculed. Guess what? He came back to Leadville the next year to set a record that will stand for years to come. What am I getting at? Maybe a bad race can actually be good for you in the long run. But you have to stay in the game; otherwise you won't grow as a runner. On the topic of elites and DNFs, there's some great commentary going on at Inside Trail.

At Leadville this year, about 45% of the field didn't finish. It was about the same for the 2010 race. I know there were lots of runners out there who gave it their all but missed a cutoff, forcing a DNF. A few of these runners, like the CEO of Lifetime Fitness (which owns the Leadville Race Series), still hung in there for their own finish. But I'm sure there were far more runners who just chose to call it a day because the race was too hard.

I'd like to put the following question out there for some healthy dialogue. Barring significant injury, of course, is it ever OK to DNF in a race?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Digging Deep at Leadville; 2011 Leadville 100 Race Report

"Ken (Chlouber, Leadville 100 founder) had never run a marathon himself, but if some California hippie (Gordy Ainsleigh, Western States 100 founder) could go one hundred miles, how hard could it be? Besides, a normal race wouldn't cut it; if (the town of) Leadville was going to survive, it needed an event with serious holy-shit power, something to set it apart from all the identical, ho-hum, done-one-done-'em-all 26.2 milers out there. So instead of a marathon, Ken created a monster. To get a sense of what he came up with, try running the Boston Marathon two times in a row with a sock stuffed in your mouth and then hike to the top of Pikes Peak. Done? Great. Now do it all again, this time with your eyes closed. That's pretty much what the Leadville Trail 100 boils down to."

--Born to Run

Running 100 miles is really hard. Running 100 miles in the Colorado Rockies, with every step between elevations of 9,200 feet and 12,600 feet and with four mountain passes and 32,000 feet of combined elevation change sprinkled in, is just downright epic and beyond "really hard." The Leadville Trail 100 Mile Run takes every ounce of your energy and resolve and pushes you to the edge. If you are to finish the Leadville 100, you have to believe in the race's motto deep in your heart, with no reservations:

"You are better than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can."

If you don't believe in those words and what they mean, you are never going to make it. If Hope Pass doesn't do you in, Powerline will break you in half. Believing in those words is your only way through the dark moments and your only ticket to the finish.

Anne and me at the pre-race meeting
I kept saying those words to myself when I was climbing Powerline with about 80 miles on my legs, and when I was digging deep in the last 10 miles, barely able to keep my eyes open and my legs functioning. I crossed in 22:35 and in 29th place overall. This was a marked improvement over last year's 24:47 and 92nd-place finish, but I'm still not satisfied. I believe in my heart I can still break 20 hours at Leadville...and I will!

First Half Goes as Planned
The first half of the race was mostly fantastic! I got to Mayqueen (13.5 miles) in 1:48, a 12-minute improvement over last year, and felt really good. For the first 7-8 miles, I was running with guys like Ryan Sandes (winner), Timmy Parr (previous LT100 winner), Duncan Callahan (previous two-time LT100 winner), Dylan Bowman, Neal Gorman (2010 Grand Slam winner), Michael Arnstein (Vermont 100 winner) and Jeff Browning. Finally, I asked myself, "Should I be up here with these fast guys so early in the race?" Realizing I had no business up front with these high-altitude studs, I backed off a bit and wound up running into Mayqueen with Brandon Fuller and another guy, but still clocked a very respectable 1:48.

Fish Hatchery (23.5 miles) came in 3:34, with some nice climbing up Hagerman Pass and, of course, the famous Powerline descent mixed in. As I entered Fish Hatchery, I was greeted by Anne with Noah on her shoulders. They ran after me as I made my way up the driveway and into the tent. Seeing them and my parents for the first time in the race was wonderful. This day would bring us all closer. I am so grateful for their support and send my heartfelt thanks.

Leaving Fish Hatchery outbound
The Half Pipe aid station (~29) came in 4:43, with a brief stop at Pipeline (a crew-only point). The big goal splits I had were for Twin Lakes (39.5 miles) and Winfield (50 miles) and I nailed them both. I got into Twin Lakes in 6:15, cruising pretty much the whole way and just feeling amazing. The trail and jeep road dropping into Twin Lakes, with spectacular views of the lakes, are just incredible. You can really fly on this stretch. From Twin Lakes, I got to Winfield in 9:15. Having crunched the numbers for a sub-20-hour finish, I knew that 9:15 into Winfield was critical.

Leaving Pipeline outbound
Wrong Shoes on Hope Pass
Unfortunately, I forgot to change into my Salomon Crossmax trail shoes after Twin Lakes outbound, when you cross the Arkansas River and climb and descend 12,600-foot Hope Pass. It's a 3,400-foot climb followed by a 2,600-foot drop into Winfield. So I was forced to run Hope Pass, which has some rocky, steep sections, in my Hoka One One Bondi B's. The Bondi's, while excellent shoes, offer very little (read: no) lateral support. As I was descending the mountain, my feet were shifting around and my toes were pressed against the front. I was in agony. And, of course, as almost any LT100 runner would attest, Winfield Road, which connects the Hope Pass trailhead with the turnaround aid station in Winfield (a ghost town), just sucks with all its dust and traffic. When I arrived in Winfield (mile 50), my crew went right to work on my feet and I got into my Salomon Crossmax trail shoes. I was in Winfield for about 9 minutes--a very long stop.

Llamas at the Hope Pass aid station

Descending Hope Pass.
With my pal Lance, an accomplished runner and mountain biker, pacing me (he also paced me in 2010), we climbed the very challenging backside of Hope Pass, not far behind Lynette Clemons, the eventual women's winner. From Winfield to the summit of Hope Pass, you're climbing 2,600 feet of steep trail with hundreds of runners coming down the mountain in the other direction. I had a few bad moments going up Hope and told Lance not to worry about me; once at the summit it would all be downhill into Twin lakes (60.5 miles). Unfortunately, the descent wasn't much better. My legs were really tired and non-responsive and I had a difficult time navigating a few rocky sections. This was probably due to the fact that I didn't train enough at 10,000+ feet this summer. But I never feared a DNF as I knew once I got back "down" to 9,200 feet (Twin Lakes), I would feel better.

When I arrived at Winfield my feet were really messed up.
Here's a photo of Jane helping me get some new shoes on.

Leaving Winfield new and improved...and with Lance by my side.
Sure enough, by the time we got into Twin Lakes, I was feeling much better. I was strong as we crossed the meadow, the river and the five or six "puddles," though the dark clouds forming above were indeed a concern. Unfortunately, my time into Twin Lakes was about 12:20 (4:20 p.m.), which meant a sub-20-hour finish was now doubtful. Simply put, my Hope Pass double-crossing time (about 6 hours flat) put me in a hole that would be tough to get out of. My goal all along had been a double-crossing of about 5:40. I didn't let it discourage me. I changed shirts and got into my Salomon XA Pros. My crew made me leave with my North Face rain jacket, which I tied around my waist. I didn't have a pacer for Twin Lakes to Pipeline, but that was OK.

Lance with his girlfriend, Debbie, at Twin Lakes.
Strong Leaving Twin Lakes
Leaving Twin Lakes, you have a pretty hefty, but gradual, climb and then get onto beautifully smooth, single-track trail under heavy tree cover with a gradual drop into the Half Pipe aid station. This was one of my better sections, though I had to make a pitstop about 3 miles out of Twin Lakes and got passed by two runners (who I was able to catch up with after my stop). I arrived at Half Pipe (~70 miles) in 14:34 feeling mentally upbeat and physically strong. Just a few more miles and I'd once again meet up with my crew at Pipeline (~mile 73) and also pick up Jane, an Ironman triathlete who would pace me to Mayqueen.

By the time I was closing in on Pipeline, it was about 7:15 and sunset was coming. I'd forgotten to take a precautionary headlamp at Twin Lakes and was hoping the daylight would hold until I got to the crew truck at Pipeline, which is a crew-access-only point (not an aid station). I was also hoping the dry weather would hold. At a few spots between Twin Lakes and Pipeline I felt some drops of rain and a few gusts that signaled an approaching storm, but a downpour never came, thank God. The night before, we'd gotten a horrendous thunderstorm that kept me up (more on that below), and as I was making my way to Pipeline I hoped and prayed for dry conditions as the temperature would surely drop with darkness, creating a nasty combination of cold and wet.

At last, Pipeline...where I got my headlamp, put on a light vest and my sleeves, and met up with Jane. Anne and Noah weren't there--she'd taken him back to the cabin for bed, and so my crew consisted of my mom and dad, who took care of all of my needs. The next segment would be a short one; from Pipeline to Fish Hatchery you're on dirt and paved roads that are mostly flat. It can be a grueling section for many, but I welcomed the change of scenery, even if it meant an annoying game of leapfrog with a really impressive female runner who I *think* finished fourth in the women's division. She wasn't concerned about me, though. Bearing down on her was a gal who was also a Hardrock 100 finisher. They were duking it out for the third woman spot. The last person you want to duke it out with is a Hardrock finisher; they're as tough as they come.

By the time Jane and I arrived at Fish Hatchery (mile 76.5), it was fairly dark and my mood was decent. The time was about 7:55. I got a second headlamp and refueled (with some awesome potato soup my mom made), and off Jane and I went with the Powerline climb looming. My mom was going to head back to the cabin to relieve Anne, who was watching Noah while he slept, and then Anne and Dad would be there at Mayqueen to help get me to the finish.

Powerline...what else to say about it except it's really hard mentally. It was here about 17 years ago that Juan Herrara passed Ann Trason en route to his incredible win (as told in Born to Run). Last year I missed the turn into Powerline, adding an extra two miles to my race that mentally crushed me. This year I nailed the turn, which still wasn't marked quite the way it should have been, and we got right to work on the ~3-mile Powerline climb, which comes at a time in the race when you're just wasted. This is when you have to tell yourself you can do it. Bad thoughts swirled through my head, and when I saw the 20-miles-to-go sign I about lost it. Here I am trekking up this steep bitch of a climb, in the pitch-black dark, when I get a reminder that I have 20 more miles to go. Talk about a slap in the face. Jane heard me utter all kinds of negative words and did her best to keep me positive, even as we were running low on water and my Perpetuem had long-ago started to taste pretty awful. She'd run Powerline only a few weeks before and remembered all the false summits, and so she was able to coach me up the climb.

After Powerline, you descend Hagerman Pass and then enter a ~2-mile section of fairly technical single-track trail that never freaking ends. It was here that we caught up with Oz Pearlman and his pacer. I hate this section of the course so I wasn't in the greatest of moods. The best that could be said of me was that I was quiet. Really quiet. Actually pretty introspective. Oz, a really good runner from New York with a sub-20 at the 2010 Western States 100 on his resume, was fairly talkative and upbeat. I really admired his spirit.

Nausea at Mayqueen
Nausea set in as we approached the Mayqueen aid station (mile 86.5). Last year at Mayqueen I started puking and wound up in a cot for 40 minutes with a serious case of the chills--while several dozen runners passed through. With my stomach churning as we got near Mayqueen, I felt like it was deva-ju all over again, as they say. We entered Mayqueen at around 18:45, or 10:45 at night. I sat down in a chair while my crew refueled my bottles and attended to my needs. My dad stood in front of me, encouraging me to battle through the final 13.5 miles. I was so nauseous that I told Dad to move or else he might get ralphed on. So he moved to the side a bit and I began drinking this incredibly salty broth that about did me in. The watermelon at Mayqueen was far more enjoyable. Luckily, I didn't puke (yet). Lance and I then headed out of Mayqueen, with the finish being our next stop unless I needed to take a break at the Tabor Boat Ramp (93), where Anne and Dad would be waiting for me.

Fighting to Stay Awake
From Mayqueen to the finish, I mostly walked and fought hard to stay awake despite Lance's fantastic motivational techniques and friendly needling. I've never had such a difficult time staying awake late in a 100. I think the storms on Friday night, which literally shook our cabin and kept me up until past midnight, did me in. I got maybe three hours of sleep despite the fact that I was in bed by 8:30. The storms were that nasty, and I admit they freaked me out because I kept wondering what the trails would look like the next day and what I'd do if it stormed while I was out there. By the time I really fell asleep, my alarm clock went off at 2:50. Unlike many 100s, Leadville starts at 4:00 a.m., not the usual 5:00 a.m.

Things got a little nasty at Tabor Boat Ramp. I was in desperate need of caffeine and asked Anne to fetch me some Coca Cola from the truck. As she ran off, I leaned against the gate and literally fell asleep. Somehow I woke myself up and we left with me sipping on the Coke. Within seconds, it all came back up when I started barfing and dry-heeving. All kinds of stuff came up--from watermelon and Coke to gel, etc. It was a nasty mess, and after a sip of water there I was again dry-heeving as I walked down the trail along Turquoise Lake. Lance took the Coke from me and I was glad to give it up regardless of how much I needed carffeine. Yeah, even though Turquoise Lake is amazingly beautiful, this section of the race sucks. The trail is just technical enough to really slow you down when you've just run over 87 miles at 10,000 feet.

From Tabor Board Ramp on, the story was simple: I fought hard and dug deep to stay awake and keep moving forward. I wanted desperately to lay down on the side of the trail and, later, the side of the road, but with temperatures now in the 30s, that was just a really bad idea. Lance and I were both very cold.

The Finish
At last, the finish line at 6th and Harrison was in sight, but I was so tired that very little joy came over me until I literally crossed the red carpet and broke the tape. About an eighth of a mile before the finish, Jane joined Lance and me and we ran to the finish together. Dad and Anne were there cheering me on. After crossing, I walked up to a man I thought was my dad but couldn't figure out why he wasn't hugging me. In my foggy state, I looked closely at him and realized he wasn't my dad. I also couldn't find Anne. Finally, there they appeared and we all embraced. Dad walked me over the medical tent for my final weigh-in.

I forgot to hit my watch as I crossed but someone told me my time was 22 hours and 35 minutes--an improvement of 2 hours and 12 minutes over the 2010 race. The next morning I learned of my 29th-place finish--an improvement of 63 places over 2010.

Another Leadville 100 in the books!

Bottom line: This is a really hard race. When we lived in Cleveland, any run was good training for my 100s (Burning River, Mohican, North Coast). When you're training for the Leadville 100, the runs that really matter are the ones on mountain trails at high altitude, with monster climbs and descents. It's not enough to put in mega mileage around the 'burb, even if you live at 6,100 feet like we do in tame Parker, Colorado, which lacks anything resembling a hardcore trail. As I learned in May after the Jemez 50 miler, you have to train in the mountains to perform well in the mountains. Mega mileage isn't going to mask sub-par mountain trail fitness. With a full-time job, family and house that is 45 minutes from the mountains, mountain training isn't easy for me schedule-wise, but I did my best (got to the mountains usually twice a week) and am proud of my finish. I will once again gun for a time under 20 hours next year and will once again make it a point to get to the mountains as much as possible.

You are better than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can!

Lessons learned to come!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Leadville 100 Thoughts

The big race is now four days away. My neck, which I somehow strained last week, is much better but still not quite 100%. What I thought was a cold is probably allergies, which is kind of a relief (update: It's a cold!). The caravan leaves for Leadville in a few days and I'll have about 48 hours to make the transition from 6,100 feet to 10,000+ feet. There is a chance I may go up on Wednesday for some extra time at altitude.

It's hard to say where I am as far as fitness. At this stage in the game, it's easy to start second-guessing how you trained, etc. I've done enough 100s to know that there's nothing one can, or should, do the week of the event except chill out and get the final preparations done. Back to my fitness. My total miles for this Leadville 100 training cycle are the fewest I've ever put in for a 100. I've averaged about 5 miles less per week than I did in 2009 for the Mohican 100, when I think my fitness was pretty darn good. In case you're interested, I've averaged 76 miles and 12-13 hours per week for the past 18 weeks this year, getting ready for Leadville.

Other measures I look at are total runs per week and average mileage per run. Last year for Leadville my per-run average was 10.4 miles, which I blame for my foot injury that had me sidelined until January. This year my per-run average is 9.4 miles, which is nearly identical to my per-run average for the 2009 Mohican 100 (which I won, by the way). Also, this year I averaged 8.4 runs per week; in 2009 for Mohican I averaged 8.9 runs.

Another factor I can't overlook is the quality I've put in. My quality isn't as much as many other runners but, for a guy who has a busy full-time job, busy wife and young son at home, I'm pretty proud of what I've done. I got in some good miles at places like Mount Falcon, Mount Herman, Bergen Peak and Deer Creek Canyon. Most of my trail runs have been between 7,000-8,000 feet. Limited time has made it next to impossible to get way up there, though I did manage a new PR at the Leadville Marathon on 7/2 and did the Mount Evans Ascent, too. Day in and day out (read: Monday-Friday), I'm running at between 6,100-6,300 feet. Through it all, I've maintained a commitment to tempo running, yoga stretches and core strengthening.

One of the big changes I've made this year is lengthening my taper. I started cutting mileage 4 weeks out, though I kept my hours up 4 weeks out by incorporating cross-training. Looking at training in terms of hours and not mileage is a change I'm still dealing with. Being a native East Coaster, it's hard to look beyond just the miles and see value in time on your feet, but I'm getting there.

At this stage, numbers are kind of meaningless. In 100s, it's what you do in the last 40 miles that makes the difference. My plan is to run my own race, stay focused on the task at hand while the elite guys and gals take off and burn up the course, and try to be super-strong in the final 40 miles. I'm not concerned about placement, but, yes, I would love a time under 20 hours if that's even remotely possible for a slightly above-average Joe like myself.

Get 'er done.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Movie Review: Into the Wild

Last night I watched the film, "Into the Wild." Released in 2007, "Into the Wild" was directed and written by Sean Penn and adapted from the critically acclaimed book by Jon Krakauer. The acting, screenplay, and cinematography are excellent. The story is compelling and deeply touching.

McCandless sitting in front of the now-famous Bus No. 142.
"Into the Wild" tells the tragic story of Christopher Johnson McCandless, played by Emile Hirsch. After graduating from Emory University, McCandless (February 12, 1968 – August 1992) sold off his possessions and ultimately became a wanderer, winding up in the Alaskan backcountry where he met an untimely death after nearly four months to himself. Calling himself "Alex Supertramp," he had entered the backcountry with little food and scant equipment, content with "living off the land." He chronicled his adventure in a journal and left a camera with several undeveloped pictures (some of which are in this blog post). His remains, weighing approximately 67 pounds, were found in an abandoned bus near Lake Wentitika Denali National Park and Preserve by some hunters. He had found the bus and made a shelter of it.

When he died, McCandless was known by no one except his family (who he had effectively cut off) and the few who he had crossed paths with during his trek. Today, he's viewed by many as a hero and modern-day Thoreau and his life story has been told in a best-selling book and major motion picture. (Only Chris, unlike Thoreau, doesn't seem to have been self-indulgent.)

There are many theories about McCandless. I'm only beginning to understand his story and the details of his life and death. Some say he was "crazy" or, at best, arrogant, misguided and just plain stupid. Some say he had a death wish and sought his own demise when he entered the unforgiving Alaskan backcountry. And yet others claim he was just an idealistic young man full of passion who was willing to take the great leap few of us would ever dare. Krakauer's book, Penn's film and other accounts have their own variations of what exactly happened. The net effect is that we're left with a story riddled with fill-in-the-blanks, but yet enthralling enough to capture our imaginations and force us to take a good, hard look at what it means to exist in today's world.

The last picture of Chris McCandless before his death. He's holding a
message that says, "I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK
McCandless' story really touches my heart for a variety of reasons. First, from what I've read about him, he seems to have been a genuinely good person. Unlike some, I do not believe he was "crazy." He believed deeply in truth and had faith and his drive and passion were incredibly strong. He found happiness in what he did. Indeed, his last message to the world before dying was, "I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!" Second, I understand his love of the outdoors. While I would never enter the backcountry without a compass, map and other essentials, as was the case with McCandless, I certainly admire his courageous passion for rugged adventure. Third, my heart breaks for his parents and family who only wanted the best for Chris. As a father, I want so badly for my son to live out his dreams, but there can sometimes be a fine line between pursuing your dreams and living recklessly. McCandless crossed this line and never lived to tell about it. His mom and dad live in anguish--their son effectively disappeared for a long time, was never heard from again and, little more than a skeleton, was found dead in a bus in the boonies of Alaska. Finally, there is something deep inside me that is so disenchanted with this world and just wants to disappear for a few months and live in the Colorado high country with my family.

McCandless was a history and anthropology major at Emory. I, too, majored in history, as well as political science. It's clear he, like Thoreau, was idealistic and disenchanted with the world. My suspicion is that, sometime while at Emory with law school looming, he took a look at the world and didn't like what he saw. Or maybe he had rejected the world much sooner than that and during the Emory years was just going through the motions. He couldn't bear the thought of being a working stiff, caught in the rat race and traffic jams so many of us are stuck now in. He knew he couldn't live in that world, and so he escaped. He burned his money (literally) and ditched all of his worldly possessions and hit the road. His dream was Alaska, and, by God, he was chasing that dream.

Few among us haven't been guided by idealism at one point in our lives. In college and graduate school, I saw the world through the lens of John Locke, Socrates and Lincoln. There were definitive moral lines that easily distinguished morality from license and defined the way forward. I saw the world not as it was, but as it should be, and I believed that truth was all I needed. I wanted not to be a high-priced lawyer, but rather a small-liberal arts college history professor who taught, researched and wrote for the love of knowledge and in pursuit of truth. I collected books, because I thirsted for knowledge even if it came from the dusty pages of a seemingly irrelevant, long-forgotten work.

And then one day the realities of life set in. I had a mortgage to pay, a future to plan, a job to worry about, an employer to whom I was accountable. It was the slow-boil effect. I landed in the real world still an idealistic young man. But, just as water can be boiled on low, life slowly, gradually distracted me from idealism to the point that living had become a daily grind. Before I knew it, hours I had spent at the library were now spent on the interstate commuting to and from work. Books about Lincoln or Socrates were now books about corporate success. Dollars I had spent on books were now spent at Jos. A. Bank on suits and ties. I look at my wife and our son and they're all I need to be happy. And yet existence today is rigged so that we spend more time in the grind of work than with those who matter most in our life.

McCandless, I believe, saw the grind in his future. He saw a world that would eventually consume his life and he rebelled against it. While most of us dream but never do, McCandless illegally rafted the Colorado River, traveled by hopping trains, hiked beautiful trails, touched the lives of virtually everyone he met and set off for Alaska to live his dream. Along the way, he held down a few jobs--one as a grain worker and the other as a burger flipper.

What exactly happened before his death we may never know. It appears McCandless reached the point where he was ready to leave, but was trapped by a raging river that he crossed only a few months earlier when it was still iced over. Unaware that the river was crossable only 1/4 of a mile upstream, McCandless decided to bide his time and live off the land a bit more, remaining stationed in Bus No. 42. Only he made the mistake of accidentally poisoning himself, rendering himself too weak to hike out or seek help beyond an SOS message on the bus where he stayed...and died.

We are left with our own vision and perception of McCandless--a story that speaks to the human condition and the calamity of modern-day life. Some day he was crazy. Others day he was idealistic and a hopeless dreamer. Labels and judgments abound. Me? I say he was Christopher Johnson McCandless, a man unlike any other today.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Leadville Taper / 8/1-8/7

The taper for the Leadville 100 is on. The week ending August 7th was my first taper week. I ran just north of 70 miles and for about 9 hours and took Monday completely off. I did no trail runs and did zero in the mountains--maybe a mistake? Instead, I chose to stay close to home and hit the dirt roads in the Parker hills. On Friday I had a great tempo run and felt fast, strong and light on my feet.
  • Total miles for the week: 70.2
  • Total time running and cycling: 9 hours, 15 minutes
  • Total vertical: ~7,000 feet
  • Total runs: 7
  • Average mileage per run: 10
  • Yoga stretches, core strengthening and push-ups
Total miles for the year: 2213.61

This week I'm planning about 50 miles and 7-8 hours of running, including an outing to Mount Falcon of about 1.5 hours in duration--probably on Saturday. It will be nice to hit the trails and get in some nice vertical one last time before the big race the following Saturday.

You know, in 100s it's really difficult to know how things are going to go. Even in the marathon it's sometimes hard to predict how you're going to fare despite how hard you trained. Cramping, stomach issues, dead legs and other ailments can get you when you least expect it. The chaos factor goes up dramatically when you're running 100 miles, especially at 10,000+ feet in the Colorado high country. Sometimes we ultrarunners forget how hard it is to cover 100 miles. The task at the Leadville 100 is insanely hard and requires a highly conditioned body and mind.

From here on out, my focus is on staying healthy, resting well, getting my gear in order and hydrating. Anne and I learned a bug is making its way through our son's school. Just the news I wanted to hear! I guess I'm going to be washing my hands a ton for the next 11 days.

I've always liked this clip from Rocky III.

Get 'er done!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Training Week 7/25-7/31

The week ending July 31 was unlike any "final" week of 100-mile training I've ever had. Ordinarily I would have cranked out monster miles in one final push for optimal fitness going into my big 100-miler (a misguided approach). Instead, I decided to give my legs a bit of rest by incorporating some cross-training in advance of an intense weekend of trail running in the mountains.

Monday - Cycled 8 miles. Super easy and very fun. No running.

Tuesday - Ran 10.3 miles easy.

Wednesday - Ran 9.7 miles easy and then later in the day cycled 8.25 miles.

Thursday - Nice tempo run in the Parker hills. 6 miles at tempo pace, 10.85 miles total. Last two miles of the 6-mile tempo were my fastest (6:23 and 6:20). Again, this run was in the hills.

Friday - Ran 9.8 miles easy.

Saturday - Headed to Boulder, where I summitted South Boulder Peak and Bear Peak. Total run was 3 hours. 3,900 feet of vertical.

Sunday - Headed to Mountain Falcon for 16 miles on the trails. 3,000 feet of vertical. Later that day I ran 3 miles easy just to loosen up the legs. Total running time for the day was 3 hours, 6 minutes.

  • Total miles for the week: Running: 71.5; Cycling: 16.25
  • Total time running and cycling: 12 hours, 17 minutes
  • Total vertical: 11,000 feet
  • Total runs: 7
  • Average mileage per run: 10.2
  • Yoga stretches, core strengthening and push-ups
Total miles for the year: 2143.41

I've achieved a first--for the first time ever, I've training for a 100-miler without running a single 100-mile week. Back in April, I did have at least one 7-day stretch of 100+ miles, but there have been zero calendar weeks of 100+ miles. I have hit 90+ a few times, though. We're just going to have to wait and see whether this revised approach to training is the right one for me. I really believe 100-mile weeks at elevation are far harder on the body than at sea level.

Here are my monthly running mileage totals for the year:
  • July - 370.5 (1 race - Leadville Trail Marathon)
  • June - 344.5 (1 race - Mount Evans Ascent)
  • May - 327.3 (1 race - Jemez Mountain 50-Mile)
  • April - 275.4 (2 races - Eisenhower Marathon and Cheyenne Mountain 50K)
  • March  - 321.4
  • February - 298.8
  • January - 207.8 (coming back from foot injury)
Total 2011 race mileage to date: 148.9 (Cheyenne 50K was actually 32 miles)

Pretty consistent, if you ask me. I also like the build-up in mileage and the fact that my best race of the year so far was my most recent race--the Leadville Trail Marathon (13th overall). Reading between the lines, in June and July I hit the trails and mountains hard, getting in some serious quality and building my climbing muscles. The numbers tell only part of the story.

So the taper is now on. My goal this week is about 10-11 hours of training with some cycling mixed on. No runs over 2 hours and no hard efforts in the mountains. This is most welcome. I can't tell you how hard it's been spending a huge chunk of Saturday and Sunday away from my family. After Leadville, I need to think long and hard about whether I want to do this again in 2012. At some point, time away from family comes at a cost.


Also over the weekend, I bought some new Hoka One One Bondi B's. This is my second pair of Bondis. My first pair are a little short and consequently not good for runs over 10 miles. My new pair are a half-sizer larger than what I'd normally wear and should be able to accommodate my feet at Leadville. In case they don't, I'll have several pairs of shoes on hand.

I like Hoka One One Bondis, which are road shoes, because they're very soft and super comfortable. I also like the Hoka One One Mafates, which are trail shoes, but unfortunately they don't accommodate my orthotics. The Mafates have rubber banding around them that simply make fitting my orthotics in them impossible. Besides, since Leadville is a pretty runnable course, the Bondis should work well for me.


I've been thinking a lot about my goals for the Leadville 100. This will be my sixth race of 100 miles or more and my second Leadville. As with any race of this distance, and especially a race like Leadville, where I was humbled last year, my #1 goal is to finish. The next goal is to once again get the big El Plato Grande buckle for a run under 25 hours. My third goal is rather ambitious: a time under 20 hours. To run a sub-20 at Leadville, I need to reach the Winfield aid station (50 miles/turnaround) in about 9 hours. Breaking 20 hours at Leadville is incredibly difficult. Not many runners can hold that kind of pace over the course of 100 miles between 9,200 and 12,600 feet with a total of four mountain passes to navigate.

The danger of Leadville is that you never know when the altitude is going to bite you. It happens fast and, when it does, it hurts you badly. Many runners get through Leadville without altitude-related problems, and yet others get squashed under the fast-dropping hammer. You have to respect the course, the elements and the environment in which you're running 100 miles.

Ever since the Jemez 50-mile race in May, my perspective on climbs has changed dramatically. The steepness of the Jemez climbs is such that Hope Pass just doesn't look that scary. I very much respect Hope Pass and think it's a difficult trek for sure, but if you've done Jemez you know what I'm talking about. The climbs, descents and technical terrain at Jemez are off the charts. You won't find this at Leadville except for one steep section after entering Hope Pass from the backside. With climbing, I've found that a good attitude and experience are key. I have developed both since last year's race.


Leadville...inch by inch....

Get 'er done.