Mountain Running 101: Five Lessons Gleaned on Race Day

Almost two years ago, on October 20th 2012, I ran my first race.  I had never toed the line before—not even a 5k—before running the Foothills Frenzy 50k in Boise, ID.  My longest run to date had been a 14-mile training run.  The results were mixed (I finished in 49th place clocking in just over six hours) but it was a great experience and I’ve been hooked on trail running and racing ever since.

This weekend, almost two years later, I’ll be running the Foothill Frenzy 50k again.  A lot has changed in that relatively short amount of time, most of which has been lessons I learned out on the trail and in the mountains.  Looking back at the things I learned the past two years has led to a couple conclusions: a) I really, really didn’t know what I was doing back in 2012 and b) despite being a completely different runner now, chances are I still have no idea what I’m doing.

Electrolytes are good.  I had never even heard of an S! Cap back in 2012.  I had no idea that anyone supplemented with electrolytes.  As I came into the final aid station at mile 27.5 one of the volunteers asked me if I had been taking any salt and after I gave him an exhausted, blank stare for a couple of seconds, handed my a couple S! Caps and sent me on my way.  Now I toss back three of those bad boys every 30-45 minutes depending on the weather.  Yeah, I sweat a lot.

Soda is a lifesaver during an ultra.  In 2012, I got to the aid station at the top of the first big climb and I was feeling pretty dehydrated.  I snatched a cup of Mountain Dew off of the table that I thought was yellow Gatorade and almost spewed it all over a volunteers face when it hit my taste buds.  Soda has never been a part of my diet and I couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to drink it—ever.  Until I started to realize that when your stomach is upset and you’ve been running for hours and can’t handle any more gels, soda can be the perfect way to get some sugar into your bloodstream while giving your digestive system a break and possibly settling your stomach with a little carbonation at the same time.  I went from spitting out soda to almost solely relying on it for fuel during some races. 

You can’t run fast on technical trails in Vibram Five Fingers.  Yeah, I ran my first Ultra in Vibrams.  Back then, I was fresh off of reading Born to Run and I had been romanticized by Chris McDougal’s endless touting of minimalist footwear.  Sure, it sounds good and wearing those Vibrams probably helped me establish much better running form than I had previously but the fact of the matter is, if you wanna run fast downhill and there’s rocks on your trail.  You’re going to need some more cushioning.  Most of my training runs back then were ended by aching feet or bruised heels—not exactly the most efficient way to build your fitness. 

Fanny Packs aren’t cool.  I referred to my fanny pack as a “lumbar pack” back in 2012 but we all know what those things really are.  I carried my water sloshing around on my lower back for the full 31 miles that day—and it was only one 20 ounce bottle.  At least now I know there’s at least three better ways to carry that bottle.  We’ll all be spared the fanny pack. 

You don’t need all those clothes! At the race start in 2012 I was superbly overdressed.  Sure, it was like 40 degrees but I was actually wearing Nike Hyperwarm running tights with 9” running shorts over the top of them, three layers on top with cotton gloves and a beanie.  I probably would have been comfortable on Denali in March.  This year, I’m planning on wearing some Patagonia baggies and a buff.  

The unfettered joy (and pain!) of the hard-earned finish. 

The unfettered joy (and pain!) of the hard-earned finish. 

On the Other Side of the Aid Table

During races I try hard to be grateful for the aid stations and the people that work them. Often times I had considered volunteering at one of these events. It wasn’t until the owner of the dog kennel that I use asked me to volunteer after I commented on his Wasatch 100 shirt that I was truly dedicated. I ended up volunteering at the Desolation Lake aid station last week at Wasatch 100. I learned some stuff being on the other side of the aid station table.


1.     Most runners are super grateful. I would say about 85% of the runners that made it through our id station were very grateful for us as a crew. They all realized that the nearest road was at least 4 miles away in any direction and we had packed a ton of stuff in. I have always been someone who is thankful at aid and it was nice to see that others are as well.

2.     Some runners are assholes.  Some runners just aren’t feeling well 66 miles in on a brutal course at high elevation. Some just suck. I was making instant mashed potatoes for people and this was one runner’s response, “These potatoes taste terrible, way too much salt.” Then he dropped the cup on the ground and walked away. Hike your own potatoes in and make them at 3:30 AM next time…Dick!

3.     The bigger the crew the better. As the night goes on aid workers get tired too. We had a pretty solid schedule of working, resting and goofing off going on. It led to higher morale for the crew, allowing us to give the runners the best service possible.

4.     If you are going to bring a hammock to sleep in bring a sleeping bag. It was really cold.

5.     Ultrarunners are weird. We participate in a crazy sport. We eat odd crap while we run. We double dip Vaseline and rub it on our balls, nipples and other unmentionable places. We ALL double dip from the same bottle with grime-covered hands. This is a socially acceptable practice. We convince our friends to come and run with us in the middle of the night in the mountains. We make sure they know not to let us lay down at aid stations, they yell at us if we try to. We run and run until our bodies refuse to eat and we start breaking down. We convince our significant others to allow us to spend sizeable amounts of time and money on training and races. We are miserable more than half the time during each race and we keep coming back for more. All of this was apparent at the aid station. By the end of the night I couldn’t wait for my next race.

6.     Aid workers need to be chemists as well.  The amount of crazy requests for different mixtures of water, broth, GU brew, Coke, ginger ale and other stuff was amazing. 4/16ths full of water, 3/16ths full of GU brew, 5/16ths of coke and 4/16ths with broth. Runners actually requested stuff like that. OK, that was an exaggeration; they didn’t give us exact measurements. Which actually made it harder.

7.     If you are a run ultras and haven’t volunteered at one, do it! It is a cool experience and a different way to get involved in our awesome community. There has to be some good karma coming my way now too. 

Win or Bonk Trying

I came bombing into the aid station at the halfway point covered in sweat.  It was dripping from the bottom of my Patagonia baggies onto my shoes.  One of the volunteers actually asked me if I had been swimming.  I wanted to say, “No, I actually just ran 18 miles with 7,500ft of vertical gain in 3:12 minutes.  Just off course record pace.  It’s also unseasonably humid and the trail is totally exposed.”  But I decided a forced chuckle and a smile was more in the spirit of the event.  I started chugging the coconut water that my (amazing) crew of one put in my sweaty palm as she fished the two empty hand-held bottles out of the back of my shorts and started refilling them. 

I felt good enough at this point.  Plenty of energy.  The rising temps were slightly disconcerting.  It wasn’t even 9:30am yet and I could feel the heat rising off the dirt beneath my feet.  I felt like I was somewhere on the brink of dehydration but I could be sure.  The runner in 4th place was coming into view.  I needed to get moving…  I’d been in this aid station for a solid 90 seconds now.  Tick tock, tick tock.  The clock waits for nobody.  My two 20oz bottles refilled and back in my hands, 36oz of coconut water consumed, my left pocket full of jelly beans, I charged back up the trail just as my closest competitor (behind me) came running in.  Nine miles to the next aid.  Only 5 minutes separating me from first place.  Let’s get after it. 

Luis Escobar—a great guy, race director and trail runner—promised to deliver a “minimal experience” today in Santa Barbara.  35 miles, almost 11,000ft of vertical gain and only three aid stations in the August heat (it was clipping a cool 105 in some of the canyons) certainly fit the “minimal” bill.  This was the type of experience I was looking for:  rugged singletrack, lots of climbing and a test of my self-reliance.

I left the aid feeling confident; I’d already done about 75% of the climbing, I was ready to charge the last climb and coast in to the finish (and by coast, I mean careful pick over the huge sandstone boulders consistently peppering some of the most technical singletrack I’ve seen in California). 

Three miles later, both of my bottles sucked dry, I was posted on the side of the trail staring in disbelief as I watched huge craters form across my quads, the first time I have ever experienced visible, cavernous cramps in one of my muscles.  I tried to grab my foot and perform a simple quad stretch and immediately found myself on the ground writhing in pain from the simultaneous hamstring/calf cramp that my stretch induced.  I sat down on a rock and started trying to massage the cramps out of my quads.  They didn’t want to let go.  It seemed the muscle fibers were bound together like a knot.  Tied by an over-ambitious Eagle Scout. 

As I sat on the side of the trail, not even a marathon into the relatively short race, I started retracing my steps.  What had I done wrong? Had I gone out too fast?  Should I have hiked some of that vert?  Should I have held my pace on the downhills and saved my quads?  Should I have sat in the aid station and drank 120oz of water and let six or seven people pass me in anticipation of the long slog to the next water? 

As another runner passed me without a word (yeah, I live in California, even most of the trailrunners here are assholes… as the lead runner passed me on my way into the aid station, my first chance to see a runner coming back at me, I started talking to him, letting him know how impressed I was with his performance and he literally didn’t even look up at me, let alone offer a word of encouragement.  I would have been happy with a head nod of acknowledgment but apparently that was too much to ask for, it’s not like were in the same boat out here or anything…) I felt decidedly good about all the decisions I had made up until this point.  I had laid it all out on the course.  I didn’t save anything for later.  I ran all out at any given point. This wasn’t a training run.  I ran to win.   

If I want to go on a training run and dick around out there, I’ll save my money and do it on my own.  If I’m going to sign up for a race, my attitude is never going to be, “I just want to finish” or “I just want to get through it”.  That’s an attitude for a training run.  If I want to try to get through a certain distance or a certain course, I’ll keep my money and do it unsupported.  If I sign up for a race, I want to win.  I want to give it everything I have in pursuit of the podium, blow-up or not.  

Sure, it might not be the popular point of view.  I hear a lot of folks out there talking about the amazing “community” that represents the trail runners that come together at a race.  Maybe at some point I’ll be able to experience that… but up until now, it hasn’t happened.  Trail running for me is a solitary sport (unless I’m with Wasatch).  It’s my escape, my refuge.   I don’t want to pollute my favorite activity with a bunch of unnecessary people if I don’t have to.  If I sign up for a race, I want to test myself against the competition.  I want to see how my training has paid off.   I want to hunt for the win, or bonk trying.    

The Air-Conditioned Nightmare: Injuries, Running & Priorities

Hat's been on the hook for almost three weeks...

Hat's been on the hook for almost three weeks...

Injuries hurt.  Literally.  But they also hurt in a non-literal sense.  When I try to list all the positive effects that running has on my life, it becomes hard to believe that people exist who don't run at all.  Put simply, running makes me happy.  It makes me happy in a sort of unquantifiable, visceral way.  But it also provides me the proper brain chemistry to actually be happy, in a very scientific, quantifiable way (i.e. dopamine and serotonin release).

I ran for the first time today in almost three weeks.  It was a blissful, glorious release after 19 days of pure hell.  My injury kept me from running, hiking, biking—essentially experiencing the mountains in any way possible.  It even kept me from commuting to work via road bike.  I spent an inordinate amount of time sitting behind the wheel of a car.  Sitting inside.  Breathing putrid, conditioned air.  A lot of time spent just staring at the mountains longingly; an absurd amount of time spent foam rolling.  Not writing.  Barely reading. Languishing in my sorrow... Oh, and way too much beer.  What can I say? I was depressed. 

My excitement and joy up on the trail today was palpable.  It felt so good to be outside, moving through the mountains, feeling the sun on my skin, letting the sweat pour off my body onto the dirt beneath my feet, testing my agency against the mountain.  Basically just doing what I am supposed to be doing—what this endurance machine I call a body is designed for.  To be outside, moving efficiently through the natural terrain, felt doubly amazing after such a long hiatus (relatively speaking).  

Despite my elation, I wasn’t going to let this injury be forgotten without learning all that I possibly could from it.  By nature, overuse injuries (as opposed to an acute injury) usually point to an imbalance somewhere in the body.  Something isn’t working properly in relation to something else.  In my case, a weakness in my right hip (namely glute medius and my TFL) was causing my left leg, which was already much stronger, to overcompensate, particularly coming downhill.  I kept trying to run through my weakness issues that were beginning to manifest in the form of a knotted IT band after the Zion 100. 

It was something of the perfect storm for me:  A 100k (which was also loaded with super steep downhill sections) that I failed to fully recover from and Suunto partnering with Strava.  Sure, Strava has its redeeming qualities, but promoting rest isn’t one of them.  Suddenly all of my runs—complete with segment splits, pace information and vertical gain data—were being posted online and compared with all the other runners on Strava (which in Southern California seems to be a crapload).  I was pushing the pace when it didn’t feel right.  I was running when I should have been resting.  It wasn’t just me anymore on my runs; it felt like I was dragging the whole Strava social media network along with me on my back.  I needed to be faster! I needed more weekly volume!  And I needed it now!  So my body shut me down.  As much as I hated to hear it, I need to rest and I really needed get my hips figured out. 

What can I say?  I love it...

What can I say?  I love it...

Tony Krupicka was writing about being injured recently, “An unsolicited bit of advice: don't construct your coping-with-life mechanisms around something as capricious and physically abusive as running up and down mountains.”  When I first read that line, I wasn’t hurt and I was getting up in the mountains everyday.  I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself at the facetious nature of the comment.  Obviously, Tony wouldn’t have it any other way.  Then, thinking back on the quote a couple weeks into my own interruption from mountain running, I couldn’t help but completely agree.  I went to a dark place.  It wasn’t fun for me and I probably wasn’t any fun to be around. 

 Then today, grunting up the side of the mountain, a surprising amount of spring in my under-used legs, taking in the scenery and actually feeling like a runner again for the first time in almost three weeks, I had an epiphany.  Life is all about balancing priorities.  There comes a time when we all have to decide what’s important.  Then we have to make sacrifices to support that decision. 

 To me, just being outside, moving efficiently and exerting myself is what matters.  It doesn’t matter that someone might look at my Strava profile and see that I only ran 50 miles this week.  Or that I took a day off.  Worrying about these things puts my first priority in jeopardy. There needs to be a balance.  Time needs to be sacrificed doing meticulous, boring exercises in an effort to balance things out.  More speed work on flat terrain, more barefoot running.  More activities that support my continued ability to run my choice of terrain, as much as I can.  

 I’m done taking my ability to run in the mountains for granted.  Never again. Sure, it may be a capricious and physical abusive act, but I love it.  I will sacrifice to keep it a reality.  I will learn from my mistakes.  Priority number one.