Trail and Ultra Running in the Post-Krupicka Climate

Jim Walmsley Paul Nelson
Photo: Paul Nelson

 

There seems to be somewhat of a distinction forming— a line being etched across the dirt.  The community as whole seems unusually divided.  The comment sections of seemingly every article slowly gestating toward the inevitable.  Even places normally reserved for congratulations and respect, like Strava runs, are seen exploding into 40 comment arguments.  I haven’t been running for very long so I’m not exactly a historian when it comes to the cultural swings and relative zeitgeist of the mountain ultra community, but I’m starting to feel like we’re at a crossroads.  

I’m a bit ashamed to admit, when I first got into running it was really because of Born to Run.  I was in a post-college basketball funk where I hadn’t figured out what I was going to do athletically and was getting incredibly sedentary, bored and fat.  I was primed and ready for somebody like Chris McDougall to tell me that I was designed by evolution to run, so I should probably be running.  It made sense to me.  I don’t have any problem doing things that make sense. Plus, it felt really good and it got me outside in the mountains— at first I didn’t even think about running on the road, it wasn’t even an option, I wanted the romanticized spiritual experience that McDougall was selling along with a pair of minimalist shoes.  

Pretending I was a tarahumara certainly kept me running everyday and was getting me into great shape and calming me down and having tons of other positive side-effects, but I seriously doubt I would have tried to push my running as far as I have without Tony Krupicka. The runners that I knew about at the time were people from Born to Run, like Scott Jurek, but I had yet to even pick up a running magazine or look at an ultra running website.  I really didn’t know much about the culture of the sport at all.  

Then I ran my first ultra and the race director put a three-month-old issue of TrailRunner Magazine in the swag bag.  The big story inside was the 2013 Speedgoat 50k matchup between Anton Krupicka and Sage Canaday (where Anton gets beat by 90 seconds and they run the fastest two times ever on the course).

So then I get introduced to these guys and it’s already very apparent how different they are: Sage is wearing maximal shoes, a fanny pack, long(ish) and a sleeveless tech shirt.  Anton is wearing some New Balance Mt100s that he probably whittled the heel down on and the smallest pair of shorts he can find.  He’s got long hair and beard.  Sage is clean shaven with a stupid hair cut.

Speedgoat podium 2013
2013 Speedgoat 50k podium (From left: Krupicka, Canaday and Jason Schlarb) Photo: Billy Yang

A little more research produced more of the same: Sage talked about running on the track while  Tony talked about a spiritual connection with the mountains.  Sage was doing hill repeats on graded fire roads and Tony was tagging every 14er in sight.  Tony has other aspirations in the mountains: climbing, skiing— hiking when he was injured.  Sage Canaday seems like the type of dude to pick running on an Alter-g treadmill in physical therapist’s office over going on a hike and has no other aspirations in the mountains from what I can tell. (Side note: I’m not trying to single out Sage Canaday for some reason, this was just how my experience happened. I think Sage is an amazing runner, obviously.)

At this point, I pretty much wanted to be Tony Krupicka.  He’s the basically the coolest dude in the world.  He was out there talking about running like a buddhist philosopher and then toeing the line on race day and crushing everybody’s souls.  He was some mythical legend, sleeping in his car at trailheads all summer and running every big peak in short shorts and no water bottle,  taking routes that most people would be roped-up on.  He slept on the floor of a buddy’s hotel room then won the Miwok 100 the next day to punch a WS100 ticket.

He was the definition of minimalism. He needed less than everybody else and he was still going to perform the best.  Kilian was and never will be what Tony Krupicka was for a few years there: a true mountain runner.  Tony was running in the winter still, he wasn’t skiing yet.  He was literally running in the mountains everyday and, in the summer at least, showering in the river.  He just embodied this certain ideal.  He lived and breathed the mountains.  Like he would rather not run than step on a treadmill or a track and he would most certainly choose to forgo shoes altogether before lacing up a pair of Hokas.  

TK Scramble Rob Timko
Photo: Rob Timko

Then we lost Tony. I realize this is an entirely selfish point of view.  I don’t care.   We need him now more than ever and I want him to come back.  As his old self.   At the very least, I’d love to see him running again, with his newly-honed climbing and biking proficiency, he’d undoubtedly be doing some insane running/biking/climbing projects that nobody else would have the skill set for.   But as of right now, there’s nobody to fill his shoes.

I hesitate to even mention it so early on but he has, ever since his recent trip to Chamonix, been logging some solid runs in the mountains.  He has put multiple runs over three-plus hours on Strava in the past couple weeks and he seems to be holding up.  So there’s that.  Could be something. Fingers crossed.

I read an interesting article by Chase Parnell where he talks about the dichotomy in ultra running and just reading it, I get the sense that if Tony were still his former self, this debate would be a lot less heated.  The purist-mountain runner side has no one to carry our flag. Walmsley and Co. seem to be growing by the day (thanks to Rob Krar, according to Tony Krupicka].  We should make hats like surfers did when Laird Hamilton re-popularized paddle boarding, ours will say “Blame Rob”).  And all us mountain purist people have to either site Krupicka circa-2010 or hope that Killian beats Walmsley at UTMB.  

TK Speedgoat Matt Trappe
Photo: Matt Trappe

Chase spends a lot of time talking about the difference in technicality of the races and making predictions about certain match-ups in the mountains and I certainly agree with what he’s saying.  There’s no way Kilian gets beats by Walmsely because Kilian won’t line up for a race that Walmsely is going to win.  Kilian likes steep, super technical stuff.  I ran The Rut, that shit is not flat.  There’s a better chance we see Kim Kardashian line up for Western States than Kilian again.

But I think he’s missing the point about this whole debate.  Tony Krupicka was so special because he transcended running.  Tony was so much more.  Tony Krupicka was like a religion, a lifestyle.  Listen to any podcast that he’s on and the hosts alway ask the same questions: trying to decipher his lifestyle and unlock the code to his success.  He lived the dream and he did it for the right reasons.  He respected, humbled himself to, drew motivation from and exclusively ran in the mountains.  It was pure and it was beautiful.

At first, I was mad about the whole Tony Krupicka thing.  Then, I realized that I was being ridiculous and selfish. Sure, he had completely abandoned most things that seemed to give him so much success early on in his career and made ridiculous statements about how old he is and how his “body can’t take the pounding it used to” when there are numerous examples of people much older than him running much more, some exclusively in the mountains and some at a much faster pace (like Mike Wardian).  But at the end of the day, none of that shit is my business.

Thinking about this (and spending entirely too much time in comments sections reading about this) recently has highlighted the fact that even a small community like ultrarunning—where most of the famous runners are essentially no-names to the general population— is still an incredibly celebrity driven culture.  We’re obsessed.  It’s a problem.  Why does everyone care so much?

jim-walmsley
The man of the moment, Photo: Clif Bar

I loved being inspired by Tony Krupicka.  I still go back and read his old Runner’s World blog posts when I’m feeling especially unmotivated.  But if I don’t have my own very real reasons for wanting to go running everyday, for wanting to spend time in the mountains, nobody else is going to be able to get me there.  Everyone gets to pick which races they run (for the most part, lotteries can be a bitch) and everyone gets to pick where they devote their own time, effort and money.

Regardless of where the community as a whole swings, or regardless of who graces the magazine covers, there will always be people on the fringe, people who spurn the establishment for a more pure, simplistic style.  People who draw their motivation from a different well.  Breathe the air a little more deeply.  And they probably belonged out on the fringe all along, where they prefer to be.

 

Chasing Jeff Browning

WRClimb
Photo: Howie Stern

Author’s Note: All Jeff Browning quotes are reconstructed from memory.  While I think I did an accurate job remembering what was said and how it was said, we were running (fast) up a mountain at the time. 

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“Within five years, Walmsley will be out of the sport.”  My ears perked as the musing from Jeff Browning came floating over his shoulder.  My head snapped back toward the trail and Jeff, away from Sullivan Canyon, slowly being awoken by the soft morning light.

“You think?” I wondered aloud.  

“Have you seen that dude’s Strava?” Jeff asked. “He’s running sooo much. Too much. One hundred and forty, one hundred and sixty mile weeks, one after another.”

“And super fast too.” I added.

“If you look at anyone who’s had any longevity in this sport– like me or Meltzer– we’re consistently putting in 70-80 mile weeks.  There’s a place for a 100 mile week in a training plan.  But you can’t be there all the time. You’re gonna flame out.  That’s exactly what happened to Tony.”  

I think it was right around this point, when I heard Jeff casually referred to Anton Krupicka as “Tony” during a conversation he was having with me that I started to realize how lucky I was in the present moment.  Not only was I running with Jeff Browning (in the lead of a race) but he– one of the most successful, competitive, smart ultrarunners in the world– was dropping knowledge on me like a professor.  

“I think you can run year-round if you stay in that 70-80 mile range.” Jeff said. “You don’t really need an offseason.”

It was only 7:15am but it was already getting hot.  We were hammering hard uphill, climbing away from Will Rogers State Park en route to Trippet Ranch in the heart of Topanga.  My hat felt heavy with sweat.  I glanced down at my watch as we approached the top of the Will Rogers trail: we had been averaging just over eight minute per mile pace for the first seven miles, which had over two thousand feet of vertical gain and no relief– maybe 10 cumulative feet of descent.  

“Would you go out this hard in a 100 typically?” I asked.  

“No, definitely not. We’re going out pretty hot right now,” Jeff said glancing back at me with slightly raised eyebrows.  “For 68, this will be ok for me.  In a 100, it’s too risky.  Once the wheels fall off, they ain’t going back on.  I like to make sure I can run the last 50k of a 100.  If I can just run nine minute pace, I’m picking people off.  I was in 17th at Forest Hill last year at Western.”

And we all know how that turned out.  I was just trying to soak in all of the wisdom I could from a guy who is 45 years old and still crushing 100 milers in big mountains (he finished just behind Kilian at Hardrock last year), has consistently shown an ability to be competitive and run an exceptional smart race from start to finish (regardless of what is happening at the front of the pack).  His nutrition is on point.  He basically invented drilling screws into your shoes for running on snow and ice, making anyone who purchased “running crampons” feel like a total moron. 

“You trying to go under the FKT today?” I asked.  I had been wanting to ask him this from the first moment we started chatting but I had held off.  Somehow I don’t think I really wanted to know the answer.

“Yeah….” Jeff said casually, “I’m just trying to finish in the daylight.  Under twelve hours.”

The current FKT stood at 12 hours nine minutes, set by Mark Hartell back in 2012.  Before that, Chris Price had it for a little bit but he ran it the “wrong way”: West to East, which is less vert and ignores the historical significance of the trail.  It’s run the way it was established: East to West.  And there’s also just something beautiful and poetic and perfect about descending the Ray Miller trail down toward Pt. Mugu, racing the sun toward the horizon, hoping to reach the finish line before it disappears beneath the endless expanse of ocean.  Running back into smoggy Santa Monica isn’t as satisfying for a number of reasons, regardless of how much closer it may be to my apartment.  

“Twelve hours seems kinda slow for 68 miles.” I stated, fully aware that with over 15,000 feet of climbing, most people tell you the Backbone runs like a 100 miler.  I was simply attempting to draw attention to the fact that not a lot of fast people had attempted the FKT and any number of runners could probably come and break it if they were interested (as Jeff would do that day).

“But dude,” Jeff replied, “It’s just so technical.  And there’s a ton of climbing. The guy with the FKT has won Hardrock a couple times.”

And it was true.  The Backbone is super technical.  Jeff didn’t need to tell me that.  I had run every step of it (with a tiny exception on a recently re-opened section).  Mark Hartell certainly was a badass: he won Hardrock and finished second there twice.  He finished top-five at Western States and top-twenty at UTMB.  It’s not like he was some scrub who rolled off the couch and decided to go for a run on a random Saturday because he was bored.  This was a highly coordinated attempt by a highly accomplished runner.  

“But I guess if you’re gonna set the FKT, a race is the time to do it, with all the aid you could ever need laid out for you.” I added.  

“Yeah, it’s kind of weird.  There’s not many races that take place over routes that people run for FKTs…” Jeff said before trailing off.  I was half hoping we were going to get into a philosophical discussion about the relative merits of unsupported vs supported vs full race aid station FKT attempts. Not only was Jeff Browning a total badass, he was a super cool guy.  

As we floated into Trippett Ranch, the first aid station at mile 11.5, Jesse Haynes running along side us holding his GoPro in an outstretched arm, I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.  

Trippet
Coming into the first aid at Trippet Ranch. Yeah, my shorts are already soaked– at mile 11.5 before 8am. Side note: that is not an optical illusion, Jeff Browning is tiny (roughly half my size, haha). I thought he was on the “bigger” side of elite ultra runners, I always thought he had big arms and was muscular- I was wrong. 

 

I was so into the conversation with Jeff, I realized I had barely drank anything and my shorts were already soaked with sweat.  We kept saying how hot it was going to be today.  Fuck that, it was hot right now.  I filled my bottles– that were only half empty– tossed a cup of water on my head and was pounding down Dead Horse toward Topanga Canyon Blvd, hot on Jeff’s tail.  

I broke my stride and fell into a power hike for the first time on the super steep pitch behind Topanga Elementary.  The conversation and basically just the presence of Jeff Browning had pulled me out of myself a bit.  I hadn’t been drinking nearly enough water, I wasn’t checking in with my stride, and I hadn’t even thought about nutrition at this point.  

This was my big concern.  It seems to always come down to nutrition for me.  I just hate eating when I run.   I can easily go 50k in a training run without eating anything (before or during).  As soon as I eat, I feel like everything goes to shit.  All of the sudden, I have to content with the food in my stomach as well as the miles in front of me.  It seems like more stress than relief.  

My plan in this race was to wait until I got hungry and then eat what looked good off the aid tables.  Not exactly the dialed-in nutrition plan of someone like Jeff Browning  (whom I had witnessed pulling a pill bottle out of his Strider Pros and popping a small capsule about 45 minutes into the race) but I was hoping for the best.  

The three-mile climb through the canopied Hondo Canyon went surprisingly well.  I was cooling off a bit in the shade, trying to drink water and still climbing strong. It’s almost 2,000 feet in a 3.5 miles and I was able to keep my pace solid and my cadence high.  As I turned onto the Fossil Ridge Trail, about a mile from the second aid station (at 20k) I left the shade of Hondo Canyon and started climbing along the exposed ridgeline.  The sunlight felt heavy beating down on my back as I drained my second 20oz bottle.  I immediately slowed in the heat.  Luckily, I was starting to feel hungry just in time for the aid station.

I bombed into the Lois Ewen Overlook– an exposed intersection with a small parking lot at what is essentially the top of Topanga, tossed my water bottles to my crew for refilling and started perusing the table for food.  I slammed a couple dixie cups full of coke and then started eating an almond butter sandwich. There were some rolled up tortillas stuffed full of avocado that looked tasty so I shoved two in my waist belt and was off down the trail, mouth full of almond butter and Wonder bread, looking forward to the first extended descent after 18 miles of non-stop climbing.  

Lois Ewen
Poor choices being made at the Lois Ewen Overlook (mile 18.3)… Photo: Mom 

I knew I was dehydrated.  I started to think that I was more dehydrated that I thought when I literally could not swallow the second half of my almond butter sandwich.  It was just stretching around my mouth in a dry mess.  When I exhaled, little bits of bread were wheezing their way out.  It felt like I had sand glued to the inside of mouth.  It took me a full 20oz bottle to get it swallowed.  I felt like Ron Burgundy; it was a bad choice on a hot day.    

As soon as I started to push the pace on the descent, my abs started to cramp.  My abs usually start to cramp when I get pretty dehydrated. They’re fucking weak.  Another thing I need to work on.  I HATE walking descents.  It kills me.  For me, mentally, it’s on par with sitting in a massive traffic jam on the 405.  There’s all this free speed available, I can run fast without exerting effort.  I can’t handle it if I’m forced to walk.  I should probably work on that, too.  

I flexed my abs as hard as I could and decided to push through.  They kept getting worse. I continued pounding down the switchbacks toward the Piuma Trailhead.  The cramps spread across both sides.  I kept pounding.  Two minutes later, I was bent over the side of the trail vomiting. Violently.  My entire abdominal cavity felt like it was stuck in a twisted mess that could never be untangled.  I had to walk now.  I was already dehydrated and I just threw up all my water.  I walked it in to the aid station at mile 25.8, exactly four hours elapsed.  

Descent to Piuma
Descending to Piuma. Pretending to run for the camera. Photo: Howie Stern

By 4:35 elapsed, just as the runner in third place was coming through the aid station, I still couldn’t keep anything down.  I was cramping all over my body.  My quads were twitching up and down with little cramps in every muscle.  I was done. My faith in my ability to bounce back is significantly diminished when I can no longer eat or drink.  When I start throwing up, I sink to a very dark place mentally.  I kept telling myself that I would get to the aid station and replenish and feel better… it wasn’t happening.  

I need to figure my shit out.  I’ve DNF’d my last two races.  I put together the best training block of my life, including three consecutive 100 mile weeks, only to have it derailed by poor decision making and a complete failure to stay on top of my hydration early in the race.  All that time and effort.  Countless hours.  Then I don’t do the one thing I know I need to do because I’m so engrossed in a conversation with Jeff Browning?  I suck.  I’m weak and stupid.  And drop-sick.  

I recently heard a quote from Jim Walmsley talking about ending suffering in a  race.  It was something to the effect of: “Only covering the distance ends the suffering.” A week after my race and I can tell you that he’s right.  I dropped out and I’m still suffering.  I didn’t end when I ripped the race bib off my shorts and got in the car.

I need to learn from this and move on.  I need a nutrition plan.  I need to learn to hydrate better on all my runs, not just my races.  I need to get more in touch with my body.  I need to get better at running slower sometimes or walking if I need to.   I need a more optimistic mentality when things go wrong. As my wife pointed out later in the day, I didn’t even mention dropping at the aid station, despite how poor my condition may have been, until that third place runner came through and passed me.  I need confidence in myself.  Confidence that if something goes wrong, I can bounce back and push through.

Going forward, I’m ready to embrace the low points.  Instead of fighting against them, I’m going to welcome them wholeheartedly, like an old friend.  Even in my training, I’m going to relish each and every attempt I have to truly suffer.  It takes a lot of work and a lot of effort to get to those places.  I’m going to be looking forward to it next time it happens.  It will be another opportunity to test myself, to find out who I really am.  Let’s just hope I can show up next time.

An Inconvenient Truth

“Ha ha. 6k? That’s like four miles. Four miles is a joke.”

I was wheezing so heavily through my nose that I thought my left nostril might rip.  It, meaning my nostril, was beginning to feel like loose skin flapping in the wind each time I was fortunate enough to begin exhaling the oxygen–nay, CO2– that was trapped in my lungs, stretching the shit out of my diaphragm and forcing the aforementioned wheeze out of my flapping left nostril.  I refused to breathe through my mouth.  This was a training run.  This was way below my (self)prescribed distance. I’m an ultra runner. I run 100 miles a week.  Four miles is a joke.

I was never a cross country runner.  I didn’t come from this background.  I began running largely as an escape, an attempt to get away from the bullshit.  I needed to get away from my phone, away from my boss and away from anyone who wanted to contact me.  I ran from people and for myself.  Then, a time came in my running career where performance started to become a bit more important.

Running was now a habit.  I had run everyday for three years.  I was enamored with the simplicity, the solitude and the brain chemistry.  In fact, I was addicted to all three.  A couple of my more scientifically inclined friends started referring to me as a junkie.  I was after the brain chemistry, they said. I needed the dopamine to function like a normal human being, they said.  I couldn’t be trusted to control my reactions in everyday situations unless I had run for at least three or four hours, they said.

As I had ascended to this level of junkie, I was clearly ready to have more performance-based aspirations.  So what to do?  I felt like my running had plateaued a bit.  I was running consistently and I was maintaining a solid weekly mileage, yet I still felt like there was something missing… an unexplored side of my craft.

heroes6k

“Fuck that shit!”

Was my initial response to my wife’s inquiry of whether or not I’d like to run a 6k race for her work.

“You realize I’m currently training to run a 100k, right?  And you furthermore realize what a big fucking deal I am, right?  I mean, I might have a good– if not relatively good– chance of finishing in the top 20 of a trail race in which 99.99999% of people have no idea exists and if they did realize it existed would (somehow) care less about it?”

Long story short, I lost my argument and I was toeing the line with a few hundred other runners on a balmy September morning in the Santa Monica Mountains at the Heroes in Recovery 6k.  I’m not exactly one to make excuses *cough cough* but I had like 65 miles on my legs already that week and I was entering this race with far less knowledge of the distance than was ideal.  My shortest race to date was a marathon and I only had one of those tacked to a 15-race resume.

The crowd around Paramount Ranch wiggled, the gun went off, and the participants of the Heroes in Recovery 6k danced their ways down the trail.  I stayed with the first group, probably six or seven guys, for the first kilometer of so, until the first mildly sustained climb, at which point I looked down at my watch and saw that I was pushing a 5:40/pace.  Way too slow.

I dug into the hill and passed a couple runners on the ascent, sucking wind heavily as we crested the small peak, grateful to fall into the descent down into the tiny valley below.  I did my best Scott Jurek impressions and kept the wheels turning, owning the transition, and started my climb out of the low valley when I glanced at my watch.  I had only run for .86 of a mile.  And I was about ready to puke.  I certainly wanted to stop.  It was reminiscent of the latter stages of an ultra for me.

But this wasn’t an ultra.  This was a 20-min race.  I needed to get it together.  I was rolling.  The hills at Paramount Ranch certainly were.  The elevation on my Suunto was.  My stomach felt like one of Kanye’s waves.   Then, I saw a runner ahead of me.  I couldn’t really breathe.  But I felt like I had to go.  There he was.  I had a little climb, my advantage.  Next thing I knew, he was behind me.  My nostril was flapping.  I couldn’t breathe.

Mind numbing pain.  The hysterical sucking for air.  Loss of limb function and general motor control.  Theatrical vomit sensitivity. All things I was taking for granted the first few years of my running career.  It was mostly mountain tops and sunsets and easy mountain mornings over coffee… ridgeline traverses and butterflies floating on descents into lush valleys.  Summits and sunsets.  Now, I tasted pennies and blood in my mouth and I wanted nothing more than to stop running. Immediately.

But I couldn’t.  There’s some asshole ahead of me with his tank top hanging around his neck like it’s a fucking a cape and he thinks he’s the flash and he seems to be slowing down a bit and I really really want to pass him.  I also really don’t want to yack on my shoes.

I kept pushing my legs, looking for my turnover like a fat kid in a Pillsbury factory as we switched back onto a little ridge and dropped steeply into a wide gully that I immediately recognized as the single aid station on the course.  I wondered why it was only a kilometer in as I blew past at an unsustainably fast pace only a few minutes ago but I guess it made sense now as I lollipopped back out with only a kilo to go.

Despite any pain I was feeling, there was no chance I was letting off the gas. I was feeling alive.  Lungs and stomach be damned.  Like I previously made clear, it’s fucking 6k. Less than thirty minutes. Let’s go. This is what I came for.

I slowed a bit to take in the commotion that was mostly the overweight, hiking contingent of race crowded around the oasis, still only a .62 of a mile into the race, refreshing themselves on electrolytes and refined sugar, when I noticed, in my periphery, a runner cresting the lip and plummeting toward me at breakneck speed.  The runner in front of me was just exiting the climb out of the valley and out of sight and I had this sweat-inducing vision of being passed and the two runners in front of me battling it out, gladiator style, sprinting barrell-chested toward the finish line with the requisite scantily clad women cheering them in as I gasp for air and vomited on myself in the dirt a few hundred yards back, just out of sight (and mind).

As that outcome seemed less than ideal, I decided I needed to stop being a pussy.  I had less than four minutes of running left and I was on the verge of passing one runner and about to be eclipsed by another.  I was in the heat of battle like I had never really been in an ultra, at least in such close proximity, where runners are usually spread over vast distances and regularly stop for significant amount of times at aid stations.  No, this was different, and it was fun.

It was a similar adrenaline rush that I feel at the beginning of a race, with all the people around pushing hard, but this was complete with the late race brain chemistry (I had been going for a bit), the simultaneous feeling of being chased and hunting someone else, all coupled with that amazing smell of the barn (I had pushed and I was ready to be done– and it was close).

Despite the sense of stomach bile rising steadily up my throat, I couldn’t help but smile.  I was having fun.  I was running, I was racing, I was testing myself against other people and natural terrain.  It didn’t get much better.  I finished 5th, just out of the money (fucking 4th place got $100) but the experience opened my eyes.  It was great experience, not only running fast on a trail but racing against other people, pushing myself beyond my limits to find that finish line before and (unfortunately) after a few people.

I crossed the finish line, jogged out fifteen or so strides and then bent over with my hands on my knees.  A volunteer ran up to drape my medal around my neck and for a split second I started formulating an apology for yacking on his shoes, but I held it in- even after he walked away, and didn’t puke up my morning coffee.

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In the beginning of my ultrarunning career, I spent too much time running too slowly.  I spent too much time where it felt too good.  Most of the time, it is supposed to feel good.  Like the sunsets and butterflies and shit I was talking about earlier.  But those moments where it feels good are only highlighted even more by the moments of deep suffering.

As an ultrarunner, neglecting the high-end of your own spectrum can come with severly negative consequences.  For one, sprinting is good for your running technique.  Most of us run pretty perfectly when we’re sprinting and it’s always good for our overall mechanics to feel that (especially if you’re like most people and your slower-paced running form sucks balls).

Secondly, when you run really hard, you’re always out of your comfort zone, and that’s where the growth really happens.  It’s an inconvenient truth, but a truth nonetheless.  The more time you spend outside of where it’s comfortable and sunsets and butterflies, the more you grow and the better you get.  Just look at what guys like Dakota Jones (who placed 2nd and 3rd at Hardrock) and Tim Tollefson (who recently took third at UTMB) have been doing the last couple weeks:

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Running slow and recovering on the move certainly has it’s place, but in your hard workouts, when you try to improve your ability as a runner, it doesn’t belong.  As they say, you gotta have easy and hard workouts, from now on, I challenge you to make sure your hard workouts make you look forward to your easy days. You’ll be a better, faster runner for it.   

Western States and the State of US Ultra Running

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Photo Cred: Myke Hermsmeyer

Last weekend’s Western States 100 Endurance Run was exciting.  Much more exciting that I expected it to be.  With the news that Francois D’Haene wasn’t starting the race, frankly, the field looked weak.  Sage Canaday— a runner yet to complete the 100 mile distance— was the favorite on the annual iRunfar.com WS100 fantasy game (which is fucking insane when a runner like David Laney, who placed 3rd at UTMB, is toeing the line). There were a lot of unknowns and a lot of untested runners with huge expectations.

Jim Walmsley came into the race with seemingly unprecedented expectations for someone with such little experience.  From iRunfar’s Bryon Powell:

“Aside from his inexperience at the 100-mile distance, one might question Walmsley’s mountain worthiness. To that point, does have the course record at Montana’s Old Gabe 50k, but he also finished 28th at the 2014 Speedgoat 50k.”

Powell ranked Walmsley in his top three (along with Canaday and Laney) based on wins at 2015 JFK 50 Mile, 2016 Bandera 100k, 2016 Red Hot Moab 55k and the 2016 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, an uber-competitive race drawing all the Bay Area talent, in which he set the course record.  Definitely not a bad resume, but Powell’s predictions and Walmsley’s “I’m definitely going to set the course record” pre-race attitude still seemed super presumptuous and disrespectful of the distance.  Until you prove yourself across that space, everything else should be ignored.  Sage Canaday’s UTMB experience should tell us that.  If I’m at the helm of iRunfar.com,  a true monopoly on ultra running news, I choose to be wrong before I pick some untested twenty-three-year-old.  But maybe I’m just an asshole. So it goes.

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Jurek didn’t look cool in 2002 and Walmsley looks just as stupid in 2016. Jurek was amidst a seven-year winning streak at least. Photo Cred: Scott Jurek

The race began and a crop-top sporting Jim Walmsely, looking fully homeless with his stringy hair, 80’s sunglasses and holes cut all over his shirt, proceeded to leave everyone seemingly standing still.  Including a bewildered Sage Canaday who tried so hard to keep up with him, he couldn’t even snag a top-ten finish after running under course record pace for the majority of the race. This was probably my favorite part…  as someone who has watched a couple of Canaday’s YouTube videos, I strongly dislike him.  Anyone who is that sure of anything is completely full of shit.  His analysis leaves no room for anything but a singular agenda; the one of his own making.  It’s honestly disgusting.  I can’t listen to the guy talk. 

According to Meghan Hicks: “Observing his run, he seemed somewhat torn by the dueling ideas that 100 miles is a long race and that Jim was running quite strongly ahead of him.” You gotta love that quote, especially after Sage took to YouTube after UTMB last year and talked all that shit about the 100-mile distance and how it’s boring because you can’t “run it hard” and if you’re running 100, you just have to “get through it”.  I have to give Jim Walmsley all kinds of kudos for showing this douche, if even for a moment, that he doesn’t know shit about racing 100 miles.

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How can anyone take this guy seriously? Photo Cred: DryMax Socks

The rest of the race seemed to melt away under some sort of Walmsley-induced fog.  No one on twitter was talking about anything else. I was interested in the Women’s race but I found myself scrolling through the feed each time it refreshed to see if he was maintaining his suicide pace.  When he went splashing into the American River at mile 78, thirty minutes ahead of course record pace and a full mile ahead of his pacer, I was in shock.  I didn’t think the heat would allow him to keep this type of intensity.  It was damn impressive.  Tim Olsen, Rob Krar and Geoff Roes were shitting their collective pants.  Their performances were about to be crushed.  This was the oldest 100-miler in the US.  Since 1974 for god’s sake!

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Walmsely fighting his way out of the American River. You gotta love the legend hashtag.  78 miles does not a legend make, my friend. 

Then the wheels fell off.  Walmsley gets washed a few hundred feet down the river. Then he takes a wrong turn.  In his post race interview, he blamed it on the information he was given about the distance to the turn.  In all reality, he was probably fucking trashed.  But most importantly, what was his pacer doing?!? When choosing a pacer for a 100 mile race, the criteria seem pretty simple: 1) keep up with me, 2) don’t let me get lost, 3) don’t let me drop.  Jim’s pacer blew the first two, which all the sudden become massive mistakes when you consider the fact that he was running THAT far ahead of record pace in the most prestigious 100 in the country.   

The current record holder, Tim Olsen, went off course for about ten minutes during his record-setting run but generally speaking, you don’t hear about people getting lost on the WS100 course that often.  It has a history of being very well-marked and very well-known.  I know he was running fast but if you drop your pacer, you gotta look around a bit, have some awareness, this isn’t a road marathon, bruh.

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That guy doesn’t look like he has any chance of keeping up with Walmsley.

So Walmsley ends up walking down Highway 49, and according to an Outside Magazine article he was found lying down on the 105 degree pavement.  The few times I got lost in an Ultra, like when I got to a highway, I turned around immediately.  You have to wonder about his mental state here. He gets lost and finishes three hours and six minutes behind the winner and almost four full hours behind the CR pace.  If he doesn’t get lost does he hit the course record?

There are so many factors at play, we will never have anything close to a definitive answer.  The physiology and the psychology are tested beyond what most human beings will experience ever.  When I was running my first 50-mile race in the Marin Headlands, I was furious with my father who told me to exit an aid station in the wrong direction, a mistake that probably cost me a total of 200 meters.  I can attest to the devastating mental effects of these mistakes.  If you’re running 100 miles, taking literally one step in the wrong direction has to feel like a huge waste of energy. But, laying down on 100+ degree pavement doesn’t sound like something somebody in their right mind does and, even if he doesn’t go off course, there’s a huge chance that Walmsley still blows up and collapses under the weight of the previous 90 miles.  I really wish I knew what would have happened… 

I had two big take-aways from the WS100.  The first perfectly aligns with my personal philosophy, which is roughly “I don’t know shit”.  The truth is, we don’t know anything and anything is possible.  Sage Canaday probably went home and cried to his marathon coach about how what Walmsley did for 80 miles was impossible.  He seems like that type of guy.  I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised if Canaday had started accusing him of blood doping. 

And secondly, the Western States isn’t what it used to be.  The WS100 is a fast, non-technical, downhill finishing race that no good mountain runners want to run.  The only really “mountain runner” in the race was probably Jeff Browning.  With the list of entrants, we might as well run this whole race on the Placer High School track, not just the last 400m. Ian Sharman, a guy who runs treadmill marathons, has placed somewhere in the top-ten (between 5th and 7th) for the past seven years.  No one could do that at Hardrock.  The nature of the terrain throws too many variables at you.  The technicality and the elevation make each time you run it very different.  Sharman has the WS100 so wired at this point, it seems he’s on autopilot. 

Western States has become a 2nd-tier race that no good runners want to compete in.  When Kilian is coming to the US for the Mt. Marathon 5k and has zero interest in WS, you know it’s become irrelevant as a mountain race.  This split, between runners wanting to run 100 miles as fast as possible and those who want to tackle the most difficult, aesthetic terrain, seems to be growing larger by the day.  And as more Americans make placing well in European races a high priority, expect to see the chasm grow even more.  Western States and Hardrock seem like they’re event for two different sports at this point.  

When I first started running ultras, I actually put my name in the WS100 lottery.  Now I’m just looking at The Rut and the Big Horn as realities and dreaming about Hardrock and UTMB.  #iwontseeyouinsquaw #notthaticouldgoanyway