Thursday, December 26, 2013

2013 in Review, the Future of Badwater and a Plug for Zack Bitter

Wow, 2013 is coming to a close. The years fly by! All in all, this was a good running year for me. Personally, it started out horribly; I was in an awful job situation, stressed out and unhappy and then half of my department (including me) got laid off—a blessing in disguise. Fortunately, 2013 is ending on a great note; I started a new job in August and I’m happy with my work for the first time in a few years. Over the summer, as I was out of work, I ran a ton, putting in some big miles on the trail pretty much every day as I prepared for the Leadville 100. The average month saw 60,000 feet of vertical and 400+ miles. As much as I love to put in that kind of volume because I am, after all, a volume junkie (sometimes to my own detriment), I know that it won’t happen again so long as I’m working full-time and fulfilling my responsibilities as a husband and dad. But that’s OK. In many respects, the summer allowed me to get some things “out of my system” and come to grips with who I really am.

It’s hard to describe with words, but I’ve changed as a runner over the past few months. It used to be that I liked the attention I got as a runner. The “oohs” and “ahs” of what I did with my running kind of felt good deep down even though I've always tried to act humble. But recently it’s gotten uncomfortable. I’ve reached the point in my running life where I don’t need to really “feel good” about it, and I don’t need external validation or adulation. It’s not that I ever needed validation—I didn’t. But on a certain level I enjoyed it when people complimented me on my endurance, and I do believe people who run ultras have a real feather in their cap in terms of workplace advancement (running shows discipline, grit, determination, goal-setting and commitment—qualities that most employers like). Nowadays, with over a decade of “serious” distance running under my belt, I find myself more and more uncomfortable with people knowing what I do in my spare time. Running is part and parcel of my personality and I’m finding that it’s nice to be known for something other than the miles I log. I run not only because I enjoy it, but also because I need it and it’s just what I’m supposed to do. Does that even make sense?

Back to 2013…. It started off on a shaky note when I ran a 3:04 at the Rock ‘n Roll Arizona Marathon in January. That whole experience in Phoenix revealed a great deal to me. Hitting the wall big time at mile 21, I learned that I need volume. For my Phoenix training, I was hitting about 65 miles a week, but logging a lot of really good quality. Though certainly the heat played a role (it was over 70 degrees and sunny when I finished), clearly I’m a runner who needs volume and not just quality. So, for my next big go at the marathon, my mileage will be up in the 80s and the volume will be there, too.

Incidentally, a lot of people assume I would find the marathon easy. You may hear the same thing in your own circles. I tell people that it’s not the distance that’s necessarily hard (though I wouldn’t call 26.2 miles easy); it’s running those 26.2 miles at a good clip that’s freaking hard as all get out. I truly believe that the road marathon is the hardest distance of all, with the possible exception of 50 miles and 100K on the road; you have to perfectly pace the event. Every second counts. Whereas in an ultra you can stop to pee or whatever and not really lose ground, in a road marathon if you stop for anything you’re losing precious time and that PR becomes harder to achieve.

Anyway, after Phoenix, I hit the weights and ran at MAF for three months. Those three months helped me recover and establish a solid aerobic base and the strength to hold up through the racing season. I credit MAF and weights for my being healthy and injury-free (save a sprained ankle) throughout the year.

Then in April I ran the Cheyenne Mountain 50K, really struggling throughout the race but still managing a respectable finish. I had no trail strength and bonked big-time 20 miles in. I managed to pull things together, after getting a few Hammer gels in me, and finish decently strong. That whole experience revealed to me that there’s a huge different between road legs and trail legs. Going into Cheyenne, I had the former, but not the latter (yet). And so I hit the trail in the weeks and months to come trying to get my trail legs back.

A week after Cheyenne, I suddenly found myself out of work and with loads of free time. So, when I wasn’t applying for jobs, networking and hanging out with my son, I was running trails every day. I ran at places like the Barr Trail (Pikes Peak), Grays and Torreys Peaks, Elk Meadow Open Space, both Green Mountains (the one in Boulder and the one in Lakewood), Roxborough State Park, and of course Mount Falcon and Deer Creek Canyon. I even managed to set a new PR on the Incline with a 26:04. It sure felt good tallying up the numbers at the end of each week and seeing huge vertical!

It all paid off big time at my next race, the Leadville Marathon in late June. I ran a 4:19, despite no real taper, being sick with strep throat and losing 3-4 minutes after severely spraining my ankle on the descent into town at the end of the race. My time was a full 20 minutes better than my PR, signaling that I was getting in really good shape for the Leadville 100 thanks to all the MAF, weights and trail running. The problem was that I could barely walk on my mangled ankle. After taking it easy for a few days and getting the swelling down, I got back on the trails and was pretty compromised for a few weeks as my ankle improved. Prior to the sprain, I was running hard down rocky trails and my confidence was sky high. When I sprained it coming into town, I was hammering it down the trail. In retrospect, that ankle sprain really put a dent in things, even as I continued to log huge miles and vertical going into the Leadville 100. I just wasn’t the same after the sprain.

And then there was the 100 in mid-August. The race can be summed up quite easily. The first 65 miles were horrendous. I puked 15 times on Hope Pass on the return trip and just ran flat. I think the 2012 DNF was really playing with my mind. But then not far out of Twin Lakes inbound I got a burst of energy that carried me to the finish in 22:40. The last 35 miles were amazing—I ran almost every step, including the Powerline climb, and passed dozens of runners. Coming into each station, I was howling like Billy Idol and totally pumped up. I credit my wife for giving me a huge 20-ounce Coke at Pipeline—it really got the juices flowing. I feel like in many ways I made a mental breakthrough at Leadville, and I can honestly say I enjoyed the entire experience. While the physical training is critical, so much of successful 100-mile racing at altitude is about the mental game.

The year ended with really solid efforts at the 5K and half marathon distances.

I’m now ready to close the book on 2013 and think about 2014. The year will once again revolve around the Leadville 100. Though I expect I won’t be able to get in the trail miles I did this summer due to limited vacation time and work, I do think I’ll be mentally stronger and the overall volume will be there. I’ll certainly be able to log some quality miles on the trails, but not on a daily basis. I’ll make do with what I have and just enjoy the experience.


In closing, I want to make a plug for Zack Bitter’s recent100-mile time at Desert Rats. To run under 12 hours for 100 miles and, in the process, set a new American record and go on to beat Yiannis Kouros’ 12-hour world record is just crazy. Though I’m not big on awards, I really hope Zack wins Ultra Performance of the Year honors—because he deserves it. And I say that knowing that what Tim Olson did at Western States this year was almost just as crazy, as he held off two monsters in Rob Krar and Mike Morton.


A final note: As many of us already know, the Badwater Ultramarathon and other Death Valley races face an uncertain future due to the new superintendent of Death Valley National Park instituting a "safety evaluation" that means no permits for events, even long-standing events like Badwater, will be granted. No good reason for the review was provided, and no prior notification to the Badwater organizers was made--which is patently absurd. Such a situation is totally unacceptable, given Badwater’s track record of good organization and runner and crew safety, and it reveals the very frightening nature of what government is becoming. Then there's this disturbing perspective on what's really going on--high radiation levels in Death Valley.

Whatever the case, if runners want to race 135 miles across the desert in the dead of summer, then so be it (unless, of course, there are grave safety issues stemming from deadly radiation, which at this point is pure speculation). My hope is that an organization to challenge this edict by some appointed bureaucrat will quickly emerge--or at the very least we'll get some answers--but sadly the clock is ticking on Badwater and other events. All of us in the ultrarunning world should be alarmed by this situation, because it could set a dangerous precedent for other national parks in which races are held.


  1. What, you are going back to Leadville? ;)

    All the best Wyatt.

    1. George: There's too much change in life. Sometimes tradition is a good thing. I like to think of Leadville that way, at least for now. But I do really want into WS.