The 2015 Mt. Disappointment 50k: Race Report

Not the result I was hoping for, but a great day in the mountains...

Not the result I was hoping for, but a great day in the mountains...

“I can’t believe we’re going to be late!” I mumbled, half to myself and half to my wife, as she pushed our Prius C up the windy road toward the summit of Mt. Wilson. On our right was a sheer rock face, to our left the San Gabriel Mountains stretched out toward the horizon, undulating across the vastness. 

I glanced at the clock on the dashboard, then at my watch. Yep, it was 6:38am.  Race check-in ended at 6:30am and the Mt. Disappointment 50k started at 7am.  She was giving the Prius just about as much as it could handle on these tight mountain roads (when you’re getting 55 miles to the gallon, you sacrifice a bit of top-end climbing power).  We came careening around a bend, just over a mile from the summit when a boulder the size of a small refrigerator came crashing down 25 feet in front of the car as we skidded to a stop.   

A dense dust cloud— way too thick to see through— plumed up across the road like a mini mushroom cloud.  We both sat back in our seats, mouths agape, processing the scene in front of us, wondering what might have been had we rounded that corner 10 seconds earlier.  When the dust cleared, the exploded pieces of boulder were still to big to drive the Prius over, so I rushed out to move them, hoping there wasn’t a second boulder coming down on top of my head… 

We were a little shook-up as we pulled into the parking lot atop Mt. Wilson (5,712’).  Not exactly the most auspicious beginning to a race day.  It was 6:44am.  Luckily, I was able to get checked-in, get dressed and hit the port-o-potty just in time to hear the awesome Gary Hilliard give his pre-race briefing.  Without much time to think, let alone get anxious, we were off, leaving the Summit of Mt. Wilson, only to return 31 miles later.  

Unbeknownst to me, the race began with a two-and-a-half mile downhill stretch of asphalt road.  There wasn't a shoulder, but there also wasn’t any traffic so we all just bombed down the middle of the road.  The majority of the Ultras I have run typically begin with climbing and and end on a decent.  The Mt. Disappointment 50k started with a sustained downhill and ended with a three mile, 2,600’ climb up the Kenyon Devore trail back to the Summit of Mt. Wilson and the finish line.  

The course record for this climb on Strava was over 40 mins.  And presumably that person was fresh, not 28 miles into a run.  I could easily see myself getting to this final climb depleted, on the verge of bonking, with the full heat of the day upon me and getting buried, taking 2 hours to make the summit and effectively destroying my time.  I wanted to avoid this result at all costs.  It had been over a year since I finished a race (a couple DNFs and stress fracture had made sure of that) and I wanted to get a good finish under my belt. 

I resigned to go out slow, force myself to get a bunch of calories down and have plenty left in the tank for the final climb.  Looking back at my splits on Strava after the race, I ran my first two miles at 6:45 and 6:30/min pace, respectively.  Not exactly the “slow” pace I was looking for at the beginning of the race and probably the reason why, as I write this four days later, my quads are still sore as hell.  It’s hard to hold back on a downhill section of road, especially right after the gun went off, with a couple hundred runners all around you, everyone’s adrenaline spiking.  

We got off the road soon enough (to never return, thank god) as we arrived at the Eaton Saddle and continued up toward the Markham Saddle.  Leaving the Markham Saddle we were provided with our first of several stunning views, a panoramic shot of a handful of San Gabriel peaks, including Mt. Disappointment herself.  I was continually awed throughout the race and spent a good deal of time chastising myself for not spending more time in this mountain range. It’s too close to my house, I gotta get out there more.  But I think this experience sealed my 100-miler fate. My first attempt at running 100 miles will be the 2016 Angeles Crest 100.  It’s in my backyard and it’s GORGEOUS.  Only makes sense.  

Sorry, I've got no good photos for you, I should have brought my GoPro.

Sorry, I've got no good photos for you, I should have brought my GoPro.

I pulled into the Red Box aid station (mile 5.2) at 44 mins elapsed feeling good. I filled my bottles, drank a couple dixie cups full of coke, said a quick hello to my wife and our dog Frank and I was off. I wasn’t really sure where I was as far as placement at this point but I kept myself from asking any of the volunteers about the runners in front of me.  I was determined to run my own race, listen to my body and not worry about where I finished.  

I headed down the Gabrielino Trail toward the Switzer Falls trailhead, turning and climbing a fireroad a few hundred feet up to Highway 2 and the next aid (mile 10.3).  I arrived here just under 90 minutes and I felt really good, surprised that the weather was staying so mild.  I had fully expected 95-degree temps by 10am, so the breezy 70-degree weather we were now experiencing was most welcome.  I filled my bottles, drank a few cups of coke and stuffed the back pockets of my Patagonia Strider Pro shorts with Cheeze-Its and Pretzels and took off again, munching my way up the 1,500’ climb to the next aid station only a couple miles away (mile 12.8).

From this aid we were looking at a 7.8 mile stretch that circumnavigated Strawberry Peak (6,164’), back down to the Red Box aid station (where I knew my crew was waiting).  I drank a lot of water at this station, filled my bottles, put a handful of ginger snaps in my shorts and decided that if I was going to make a move in this race and improve my position, now was the time.  I bombed the single-track down toward the Josephine Saddle, keeping my pace hovering right around an eight minute mile, picking off a couple of runners here and there, falling in to chat with some before running on by.  

The next section of the race was amazing.  We began to round Strawberry Peak on a exposed stretch of single track with huge granite faces— at least 1,000’—on one side and 5,000’ drop down to the valley on the other.  The whole Northwest side of the peak was amazing, as I ran on this little silver of winding trail carved into the side of the mountain, beautiful views all around as I ticked off the ridges wrapping Strawberry.  Not really that hungry, I forced myself to get a couple Justin’s Maple Almond Butter packets into my system (I’ve never been one for gels or GUs, my stomach doesn’t seem to handle them well) and continued to feel really good. 

It started to get a little hot during this section and with my slightly increased pace, I drained both my 20oz bottles of water with about three miles still to go to the next aid station.  Luckily the views kept my mind off both the heat and my burgeoning dehydration as we ran right past Mt. Lawlor and dropped back into the Red Box aid station at mile 20.6 (3:42 elapsed).  From this point, I was looking at five downhill miles to West Fork, the final aid, before beginning the roughly five mile, 3,500’ climb back to the finish, including the final push up the Kenyon Devore trail to the summit of Mt. Wilson.  

I handed a bottle to my wife (who, as an ultra vet by now, was savvily posted in the shade in her comfy chair, next to the cooler, reading a book) and asked for coke and ice before I made my way over to the table and started eating potato chips.  I knew if I was going to leave this aid station with only one bottle of water and the other full of coke (I wanted calories for the final climb) I had to get a lot of water in me here.  I slammed six or seven cups before my wife made me slam a couple more and I left the aid with a full stomach, feeling good, ready to attack the last 10 miles.  

The five miles down to West Fork went by quickly.  I was able to keep my pace sub-8/min for the majority of this section and drank almost my whole bottle of coke.  I passed one more person on this section, chatting for a moment about the climb looming ahead, before I pushed on and arrived at the West Fork aid station alone (4:18 elapsed).  

It took a lot for me not to ask the volunteers about the runners ahead.  I knew I was somewhere in the top ten, but I had no idea how close I was to the people in front of me.  I still didn’t want to know.  I kept telling myself I was running my own race. They didn't matter.  How I felt was what mattered.  I filled my bottles, stuffed my pockets with pretzels and, for the first time all day, dumped a cold cup of water on my head.  I had been holding off dumping water onto myself up until this point— we’re in one of the worst drought cycles in history in the state of California— but I figured one cup could be justified at this point, so I stood over some plants and emptied a dixie cup onto my head.  It felt awesome.  

The final climb ended up being somewhat anti-climactic.  I had been thinking about it for almost five hours, effectively scaring myself into sticking with my race strategy. When I finally hit it, I was feeling good, had plenty of energy and was able to stick the Strava section in under an hour (58:44).  Despite maintaining a running cadence and a decent pace, I never saw the runner in front of me, and looking back down the switchbacks at least 1,000’ below me, no one was in sight.  My position was pretty much locked in.  I just kept moving, pushing as hard as a could, hoping I would miraculously catch someone in front of me.  It didn’t happen.  

When I finally hit the parking lot and thought I was done, I realized I still had to run up the observation deck to the finish line.  It was probably only 50’ of elevation gain but it seemed like about 500.  Running through the finish line I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed (5:38 elapsed).  I finished in 7th place, nothing short of respectable, and from a management standpoint, I did a great job: I was never on the verge of bonking, I consumed a proper number of calories and kept myself decently hydrated.  

It always feels good to cross the finish line... In-n-Out time!!

It always feels good to cross the finish line... In-n-Out time!!

The problem was that maybe I didn’t suffer enough.  If there was never a point where I considered quitting, does that mean I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough?  Part of the reason I run these races is to go to those dark places, find out a little something about myself, and then push through to the other side, becoming a stronger person in the process.  I didn’t feel like that happened here. Did I hold too much back?  Did I really give my best effort? 

At the end of the day, I think it was a good thing.  My last few races I’ve been way on the other side of the whole bonking spectrum (i.e. trying to drag my cramping ass through the dirt because my quads are so completely locked up that I can’t flex my knee), so I think this was a great learning experience.  I’m starting to learn how to execute a race properly.  I’m learning to listen to my body and give it what it needs.  I’m beginning to become less reactive and starting to stay on top of things.  I’m growing as an ultrarunner.  

All in all, it was a great day and a great race.  Gary Hilliard and his wife did a great job.  There were awesome volunteers all over the course, the race was well marked, the course is gorgeous and the atmosphere was perfect.  High energy and fun all around.  I highly recommend this race.  

One day, it’s all going to come together for me.  I’m going to find the perfect balance of calorie consumption, hydration and race effort.  I’m going to deftly toe the line between redlining and bonking and come out victorious.  It’ll probably only take me 40 or 50 more races to get it all figured out.  

Movement Monday: The Pistol Squat

If you're a runner you've heard it before in some capacity: Running is essentially jumping from one foot to another, you're never on both feet together, so your cross-training should reflect this.  

This statement, while probably overused, does hold a lot of truth.  There are plenty of great exercises for runners with both feet on the floor, but utilizing a unilateral stance will always emphasize stability, go along way to protecting your knees and be especially helpful for a trailrunner's preferred variable terrain. 

In my humble opinion, the Pistol Squat is the granddaddy of all unilateral leg exercises.  If you can do a full range of motion Pistol (as shown in the video), you're strong, stable and flexible. As a runner, you're going to be balanced and WAY less prone to injury. I think all runners should be doing Pistol Squats and that holds doubly true for the trailrunner.  

The problem with the Pistol is usually where to start.  If you can't do a full range of motion squat, sitting your butt all the way down on top of your heels, you need to start there.  Keep both feet on the floor and work on a full range of motion.  Just the act of improving your squat motion will have a ton of other beneficial side effects, like increased flexibility and joint elasticity, but it will also start to show you the benefit of this position (a position we evolved using and completely went away from as a species with the invention of the chair (total speculation but it can't be that far off)).  Dr. Steve Gangemi (the sock doc of Trailrunner Nation Podcast fame) even advocates spending as much as 15 minutes per day down in that position meditating.  Its good for you.  I promise.  

After you've mastered the full range of motion squat, it's time to move on to the Pistol.  There are a number of different ways to modify this exercise to make it easier.  In my experience, using a box/bench/chair to sit on is the easiest, most effective way to learn the Pistol and quickly progress.  Simply stand in front of a chair, pick up one foot and hold it in front of your body (just like in the video) and then, in as controlled a manner as possible, slowly lower your butt down to the chair, sitting down fully before returning to a standing position using only the single leg.  

Try to complete your entire set (6-12 reps) without putting your off foot on the floor.  Let your hip stabilize at the top and bottom of the motion.  As it gets easier, you can work toward not committing weight to the chair, just touching lightly before raising up.  Then, once you've developed the strength and stability for that, lower your surface.  Keep moving it down until you can remove it all together.  

This movement takes time to master.  It is difficult, engaging and will have you ecstatic over even the smallest of gains.  It will make you a much better, more balanced runner... and, if nothing else, you can use it as a party trick.  Give it a shot.  

As always, we'd love to hear your feedback!

Movement Monday: The HSPU

It might seem a little ridiculous but the handstand push-up is an effective movement for a trail runner for three reasons: 

A) It's an amazing core exercise.  People tend to place most of their focus on the push-up portion of this movement, but just the act of being in a handstand is a great core exercise. Your abdominal muscles are the muscles stabilizing you as you stand on your hands (not to mention the muscles that raise your legs into the handstand position).  This stability translates well to the trail, where the variable surfaces can put large amounts of stress on the lower back if the abdominals are unable to absorb the instability created by the trail/mountain/scree field/etc. 

The HSPU forces you to use your core muscles from an inverted position, stabilizing a heavier load than they normally do (your legs should weigh more than you torso), causing an over-recruitment of motor neurons, helping your core become better equipped to deal with the stress of the surfaces you're moving on when you're standing on you feet again. 

B) The HSPU is great for your shoulders, especially from a postural standpoint. Raising almost the entirety of your body weight up on down with your deltoids as the primary mover is always going to be great strength work for your shoulders but beyond that, it promotes a retracted shoulder blade position. It's almost impossible to do a HSPU with your shoulders rolled forward. This protracted position is one that life puts you in the majority of the time; were constantly sitting and driving or typing or staring at our phones in our hands in front of us. 

One of my general rules is that when you're cross training, you should be undoing the negative effects that life can have on our bodies. You'd be surprised how many people play into these imbalances when they work out. You don't want to be one of these people. You want to correct imbalances. Not exacerbate them. This movement goes a long way toward doing just that. 

C) You can do it anywhere. On a tree, on a wall, on the side of a big boulder... And if you get really good at it, you don't need anything at all. Give it a shot! You might be surprised how fun you think it is. And hard! 

Run Steep, Be Humble: Y Mountain Via Slate Canyon

View into Utah County from the summit of Y Mountain.

View into Utah County from the summit of Y Mountain.

Entry #2- Y Mountain Via Slate Canyon

I'm just going to be upfront about this- I did not find flow on this run. Not even close. I did find a bunch of hot snow, streams where trails are supposed to be, two lost hikers and the first sunburn of 2015! Overall, it was pretty rad.

The map view makes it look pretty sweet. Don't mind my horrendous splits.

The map view makes it look pretty sweet. Don't mind my horrendous splits.

I live right at the mouth of Slate Canyon and I count the ability to tag a bunch of peaks from my doorstep as a reason for never wanting to move. It's pretty great. So I took off from the house and started up Slate Canyon. Slate is pretty undeveloped and doesn't see a lot of traffic, maybe because it is super steep and pretty technical. I fell into power hiking for the first little while to get out of the steeps. At mile 3.75 there is the turn off to Boardman Springs on your right, if you are headed to Y you gotta stay left and head up the backside of Maple Mountain (Anybody reading this from the Utah County area knows that there is also a Maple Mountain in Springville. There is some debate which is the "real" Maple but in my opinion, the Springville version  has a better claim and we should rename this one Cougar Mountain.) The trail here is faint and is rarely used as there is no trail to the top of Cougar Mountain, although there is some killer glade skiing on the southeastern face if the weather is right. As you reach the saddle of Cougar you get a pretty great view northwards towards Cascade and Timp. Provo Peak also looms directly east.  Reaching the trail signs, continue north and down into the grove of aspens. I ran into some hikers right after dropping into the aspens and asked where they we going. They were headed to the Y summit from the traditional route, I pointed out that they had missed the turn by about 3/4 of a mile. They were pretty bummed out but at least got a great view.

Just about to drop into the aspens on our way down to the Y trail

Just about to drop into the aspens on our way down to the Y trail

After coming out of the aspens the great butt crack that is Y mountain will appear. It literally is like a huge butt crack and to get to the top there is only one way to go, straight up! The trail to head up to the Y summit is to the right if you are headed west down the trail. Technically, BYU owns most of Y Mountain and they have not done trail maintenance yet this year. Lots of fallen trees all over the trail. This is where the snow almost became unbearable, it was like walking on a slushy that had been left in the car too long. Kiki wasn't very happy about it.

After tagging the summit, its a cruiser trail all the way down until you connect with the traditional Y Trail which is always packed on Saturdays. Kiki received some funny looks as she was covered in mud and snow, also some lab owners giggled at her because she was so small. Well, she might be small but she'll out run your fat lab any day! At this point she had done 4x the amount of vert it takes to hike the "Y" (to the big Y painted on the front of the mountain, about half way to the summit.). I am pretty protective of her.

Hop on the BST for a quick 2.62 miles and you are back to Slate. All said and done it totals up to 12.5 miles and 4,754 feet of vert. It was a fun day, next time I'll find Flow.