An Ultrarunning Thought Experiment

id4-spaceship

Bobby Geronimo: Here’s the situation:  Aliens land on earth.  A vastly more technologically advanced species, they intend to wipe out humankind before mining the earth for it’s resources.  Luckily for us, these aliens (who are also bipedal and avid runners) hold some ancient karmic belief that gives us a sporting shot: they want to race 100 miles for the fate of the planet.

Wasatch Willy: So, essentially it’s Space Jam except the aliens are ultrarunners instead of basketball players.

Bobby Geronimo: Exactly. I should have just said that… So, after a brief consultation with the aliens (which I imagine will begin something like that scene with Will Smith in Independence Day) we iron out all the details and decided the race will be a five-leg relay run on the toughest, most versatile courses we have to offer on Earth.  Each species lines up their five best runners to tackle each course for the fate of the Earth and, in our case, the species as a whole.  After running all five courses, the team with the lowest combined time wins.

welcome-to-earth
Welcome to Earth.

Wasatch Willy:  And the five courses need to be difficult, different and showcase a bit of all the different types of terrain Earth has to offer.  Let’s go with: Western States, UTMB, Hardrock, Badwater and Barkley.

BG: Perfect! That gives us a little bit of everything.  And for the sake of this thought experiment, let’s both a draft our team (alternating picks) so we don’t end up with any duplicates and it makes it a bit more interesting.

So, you have to draft five runners in any order you choose and assign each of them to a race: Western States, UTMB, Hardrock, Badwater and Barkley.  The alternate needs to be able to fill in wherever needed.

Your five runners run the five courses and the combined time needs to be below the combined time of the alien runners or we all die horrible, painful deaths.

WW: Sounds good, I’m going first.

“With the 1st overall pick in the 2017 hypothetical ultrarunning draft, Wasatch Willy selects”: 

Wasatch Willy: #1: Kilian Jornet, Spain, Hardrock 100

Kilian

This actually might be cheating… Are we sure Kilian isn’t some sort of alien? Assuming he is human, this seems like the safest pick. He has the CR in both directions and it didn’t even seem like he was trying that hard. He also is the nicest guy on the planet, the aliens may change their minds about global domination after meeting him.

Bobby Geronimo:  #1: Jim Walmsley, USA, Western States 100

Another big surprise here. Nobody is beating Jim Walmsley on the Western States 100 course this year.  Not Kilian, not a deer, not some alien.  Not after what happened last year.  With the fate of the planet on the line, he definitely goes sub-14.  Plus, I want someone with the competitive fire of Jim Walmsley lining up for the species.  He’s gonna bring a swagger and confidence that, coupled with his suicide pace, will hopefully leave the aliens searching for a planet of less-athletic runners.

WW: #2: Kaci Lickteig, USA, Western States 100

Give us your biggest, baddest lady alien, and we’ll give you Kaci. She is a friendly, smiling assassin and is KILLING it right now. She knows the course and is in great shape. Obviously these aliens haven’t been following her on Strava.

BG: #2: Francois D’Haene, France, UTMB 

francois-dhaene

Experience. Experience. Experience.  UTMB course record holder and two-time winner.  Adds some perfect balance to the team with someone like Walmsley up front.  You just know this guy is gonna get it done, especially on this course.  With the exception of Kilian, there’s no one else I’d be more confident in going sub-20 hours on a circumnavigation of Mount Blanc.

WW: #3: Zach Bitter, USA, Badwater 135

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Zach is flat out fast. He is possibly the most fat-adapted athlete on the planet, I bet these idiot aliens haven’t even figured that stuff out yet… Anyways, Zach owns the American 100-mile record in 11:40:55(I am aware that some Russian dude has the WR but I’ve seen the movies, Americans always save the world.). He did that on a track, which takes an incredible amount of willpower that will serve him well on the melting asphalt roads at Badwater.

BG: #3: Anton Krupicka, USA, Hardrock 100

This is my darkhorse.  It’s a bit risky, obviously, but I’m assuming that with the Earth on the line, Krupicka is gonna push through any latent ITB issues and get the job done. At the end of the day, his skill set fits this course and I think he has the tools to put together a course record performance on a good day.  And he wants this race.

Plus, worst case-scenario, we get to watch Krupicka race Hardrock before the world ends.

WW: #4: Rory Bosio, USA, UTMB

Rory

These chick aliens aren’t going to know what hit them when they meet the women of Planet Earth. Rory has the UTMB course record in 22:37 and has won TWICE. She also has one of the smoothest gaits around and seems like a total badass. She hasn’t been racing a ton, so she will be well rested and ready to kick some alien butt.

I’m all about gender equality when it comes to saving Earth.

BG: #4: Mike Foote, USA, Barkley Marathons

I was really tempted to go with Gary Robbins here, but I think that Mike Foote is gonna be the guy to get this one done.  Gary has the experience on the course, but at the end of the day, Mike Foote has the ability to excel on this course and a bit of a higher ceiling than most previous Barkley finishers.

If Mike puts together the type of race he’s capable of on this terrain, I think he goes under Brent Maune’s CR and gives us a solid cushion on the aliens.  Mike is also just a super awesome dude, and if someone is gonna represent our species, I don’t know who would do a better job.

WW: #5: Cameron Hanes, USA, Barkley Marathons

Chanes

Admittedly, this pick is a little bit out of left field. Cam is a strong runner, a professional bow hunter and very competent in the outdoors. He is PERFECT for Barkely. It is a footrace- but an unorthodox one and Cam is used to being off trail and the challenges that come with those situations. I think his skill set works well for Barkley… Ok, I’ll come clean about this pick. I hoping Cam kills one of these alien bastards with his bow.

BG: #5: Rob Krar, USA, Badwater 135

Krar-Western-States

I think Krar would be capable of doing something really special on this course. Rob knows a thing or two about battling demons.  With Earth on the line, He might be able to run 135 sub-five minute miles.  Who knows?  I just know I want him lining up for that race on my team.

WW: You get to pick your alternate first because I had first overall pick. Just to be clear, the alternate needs to be a versatile runner capable of filling in for ANY injured runner on ANY of the courses.  This can’t be a one-trick pony.

BG: Sounds fair.   Alternate: Magda Boulet, USA 

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Photo: Matt Trappe

This is a no brainer for me. I already have too much testosterone on the team (because you stole my two picks!) but I really feel like Magda could line up at any of these races and crush it.  She’s done it before on the UTMB and Western States courses and I think she has the foot speed and ability to withstand the heat enough to be very successful at a race like Badwater.  She just edges out David Laney for this spot for me, as a 2:17 marathoner with a true mountain running pedigree, he’d be a nice reliever to have on the bench as well.

I like my team! I think we win the planet.  Who you got on your bench?

WW: Alternate: Gary Robbins, Canada

He is versatile as can be, runs super-fast on all sorts of terrain and is a Barkley finisher guy who almost finished Barkley. I’m really concerned Cam will be DQ’d for killing the aliens and Gary can fill in if needed.

BG: Good picks bro! That was fun.  Our lists might be a bit-American centric (as we are from the US).  We would love to hear from readers what their mountain running teams look like.

The Final Teams: 

Bobby’s Team: Jim Walmsley, Francois D’Haene, Anton Krupicka, Mike Foote, Rob Krar, Magda Boulet

Wasatch’s Team: Kilian Jornet, Kaci Lickteig, Zach Bitter, Rory Bosio, Cameron Hanes, Gary Robbins

Leave your selections in the comments below.  Did we get it wrong?  Who did we leave out?  Let us know what you think!

 

Jim, Kaci, Gary, Tim and the Art of the 100-mile Taper

Tim-finish Maggie Zhang
Tim Tollefson putting the finishing touches on his 2016 UTMB. Photo: Maggie Zhang

Long story short, I have no idea how to taper.  When I didn’t think about any of this stuff and I just went running, I had no taper issues. I was running around 35-40 miles a week and then I would just take Monday, Wednesday and Thursday off, run like 5k on Tuesday and Friday and show up for my 50 mile race and feel great. 

Now, I’m running a lot more (at least 75 miles a week) with much bigger weeks peppered in during a big training block.  I’m also running a lot faster.  Things have fundamentally changed.  But I’m still trying to hydrate, eat and taper like everything is status quo.  I need to figure my shit out.  I’m on a mission to master my nutrition.  Determined.  That’s a whole different post.   For now, let’s talk taper.

When I’m running 90-100 miles a week, I feel incredibly strong. Tired, but strong.  It takes me a bit to get going (or even out the door a lot of the time) but when I get warmed up, some of my strongest training runs have come as I’m closing down back to back 100 mile weeks with tons of volume on my legs.  Things I didn’t even think were possible.  I perform better deeper into runs.  At mile 25 or 30 of my training runs, I feel strong.  I need to capture this during race day.

For my recent Backbone Ultra (110k), I ran three consecutive 100 mile weeks followed by a 93 mile week heading into my taper.  I ran just over 15 miles leading up to the Saturday race and while I initially felt fresh and rested, it seemed to turn bad on me very quickly (after only about two hours, which seems insane considering the training I put in).  If I had just kept running that week like my training, how would the result have been different? My previous Saturday run on tired legs was great. 

In an attempt to figure it all out, I took a look at what some elite trail runners, those who actually have consistent success at distances beyond 50 miles, do in their taper.  I’m not talking about the guy on social media you follow who puts up photos of himself eating donuts under the hashtag #tapertantrum.  I’m talking about the big boys.  Let’s see if Jim, Kaci, Gary and Tim can help us amateurs figure it all out.

Jim Walmsley, Western States 2016:

We all know how this went down.  Despite his wrong turn, he obviously had his fitness dialed in.  Jim runs a ton, so this should be a good indication of how to taper down from high volume successfully:

Weeks out:

Six: 140.7mi  17h 29m  22,530ft

Five: 141.1mi  17h 3m  14,285ft

Four: 120.0mi  14h 19m  10,268ft

Three: 100.3mi  12h 34m   15,349ft

Two: 65.2mi  8h 37m  11,993ft

Race Week Prior to Western States: 27.2mi 3h 5m 1,689ft;  Days run race week: Tuesday (8.2) Wednesday (8.1) Thursday (6.2) Friday (4.4)

Jim (somewhat surprisingly) does dip down in volume the last two weeks.  Two weeks out from race day, his volume is approximately 46% of his six week mark.  He only took a single day off the week of the race (Monday) which, from what I can tell, seems to be the way to handle the final leg of the taper:  increasingly shorter runs leading into the weekend, keeping the effort easy but not necessarily jogging slowly.  Like David Roche has pointed out, you need to keep your muscle tension high in order to maintain your speed. Jogging slowly in your runs before a race doesn’t do that for you. Short and fast. This certainly worked for Jim.  

Gary Robbins, Barkley 2017:

robbins-finish michael doyle, canadian running magazine
Gary at the finish.  Photo by Michael Doyle, Canadian Running Magazine

Obviously, Barkley is incredibly unique.  There are not a lot of other courses out there that pose the challenges a race like Barkley does.  The training is specific.  It might be a waste of time to look at this data, but Gary Robbins is a smart, calculating dude and this was Gary’s second time running Barkley so he knew exactly what to expect and how to train specifically for the task.  Let’s see what we can glean:

Weeks out:

Six: 47.2mi  14h 35m  30,446ft

Five: 43.5mi  13h 22m  30,453ft

Four: 56.9mi  18h 14m  40,322ft

Three: 43.9mi  14h 42m   27,828ft

Two: 33.7mi  8h 9m  11,040ft

Race Week Prior to Barkley: 9.9mi 2h 50m 4,134ft;  Days run race week: Tuesday (5.0) Thursday (4.9)

The crazy part about comparing Gary’s Barkley taper with Jim’s WS100 taper is how similar they actually are.  You would think those two races and their different demands would render wholly different training cycles, and yet, in terms of time spent running these two tapered very similarly.  Following them both on Strava, it definitely seemed like Jim was running a lot more, but he was hanging significantly more mileage, not necessarily spending a lot more time on his feet.  Gary was tackling Barkley-esque terrain on the BCMC everyday in Vancouver, eating up massive chunks of vert each and every time he stepped outside.

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BCMC repeats all night long. 

If you start three weeks out, Gary actually tapered a lot less than Jim in terms of time and vertical gain.  He only ran ~10 miles race week prior, but the three hours he spent was the same as Jim (who almost ran 30 miles).  Both athletes were very specific to the demands of their individual race but tapered in a shockingly similar way when you compare the numbers side-by-side.  We might be getting somewhere here…

Kaci Lickteig: WS 2016:

Kaci-Lickteig-Wins-Western-States photo by iRunFar
Photo: iRunfar.com

Kaci is a beast.  She runs a TON.  And fast.  She’s similar to Walmsley in that regard (although she probably trains on flatter terrain than him day in and day out, living in the Mid West). She looked so, so smooth at last year’s WS100 and according to her Strava data, she spent less than twenty combined minutes stopped at aid stations during her 100 mile win.  She just kept rolling and never even looked tired.  I want to taper like her.  Let’s take a look:

Weeks out:

Six: 102.1mi  14h 18m  10,410ft

Five: 111.7mi  15h 48m  9,429ft

Four: 129.8mi  17h 56m  10,282ft

Three: 100.4mi  13h 34m  5,902ft

Two:  86.6mi  11h 7m  2,365ft

Race Week Prior to WS100: 27.9  3h 5m 787ft;  Days run race week: Monday(10.2) Tuesday(10.4) Wednesday (7.1)

She tapered down her volume less than Jim, but her peak wasn’t as high.  She’s running at 85% of her six week total two weeks out from race day.  She peaked in volume four weeks out (just like Gary did for Barkley) which is in contrast with Jim’s peak six weeks out.  Kaci and Jim’s race weeks were eerily similar in terms of distance/time:

Kaci: 27.9mi and 3h 5m

Jim:  27.7mi and 3h 5m

Jim grabbed about twice the amount of vert but the big difference here is that Kaci took Thursday and Friday off, while Jim did not.  Unless she’s not putting a run on Strava (and she seems to log just about everything) Kaci took two full days off before Western States after averaging over 106 miles per week the five weeks leading into the race. Something David Roche suggested not doing (which made a ton of sense to me when I read it).  But it definitely worked for her.  Interesting…

Tim Tollefson UTMB 2016:

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Consistency. 

Tim is an impressive dude.  He almost never takes a day off.  Sure, he took a couple after UTMB and single day after this year’s Hong Kong 100k, but in his training cycle, never. He comes from a background of consistency in his running and he sticks to it.  Even if there’s 10ft snow of the ground in town in Mammoth Lakes, Tim is out there getting it in.  And, as far as I can tell, he runs everyday leading up to his races (Side note: Tim’s Strava really makes me want to live in Mammoth Lakes.  Like really bad.)

The 2016 UTMB was Tim’s first 100 mile race (easy first, haha) and he threw down one of the best performances ever by an American athlete.  He ventured into unknown territory and did it flawlessly.  As someone who hopes to race 100 miles for the first time in the future, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at his training and preparation for this race. (Fun Fact: Tim stood on the UTMB podium without running longer than 55k in training.)

Weeks out:

Six: 101.2mi   15h 4m  15,942ft

Five: 86.9mi  11h 36m  7,251ft

Four:  107.1mi  15h 32m  17,074ft

Three:  92.9mi  12h 30m  9,195ft

Two:  75.3mi  11h 25m  9,889ft

Race week Prior to UTMB: 36mi 3h 19m 2,503ft;  Days run race week: Monday (10.0)Tuesday (8.0) Wednesday (8.0) Thursday (6.0) Friday (4.0)

Thirty-six miles seems like a lot leading into a race like UTMB, but when you look at his overall time, he only ran 14 minutes longer than Walmsley and Lickteig leading into Western States.  He did hang a lot more vert than Kaci and Jim that week (which means he was running FAST; muscle tension!) but that’s specific to the demands of a course like UTMB which has much more vertical gain/loss and poses a more technical challenge.  Not the vert or technicality of Barkley, but somewhere in between the two, where it seems like Tim found that sweet spot in his training.

Looking at his last six weeks, Tim peaked four weeks out (the same as Gary and Kaci) and had a small dip in volume during week five (the same as Gary and Kaci).  Something about that small stagger in their training weeks is interesting to me.  Sure, Walmsley’s nice straight lines that are always building toward or descending away from his peak are strangely satisfying to look at, but there seems to be something to the five-week-dip into a four-week-peak.  Take a look at Dominic Grossman’s training for the AC100:

Dominic Grossman AC100 2016:

DomGrossman
Dom in his happy place.  Photo: Dominic Grossman

Weeks out:

Six: 72.2mi  11h 30m  13,480ft

Five: 45.6mi   6h 33m  7,424ft

Four:  54.1mi  13h 34m  19,114ft

Three: 66.3mi  11h 30m  13,555ft

Two: 36.3mi  6h 2m  7,520ft

Race Week Prior to AC: 18.4mi  2h 49m  3,109ft

While Dominic may not be running as much as the rest of them (he has a full-time job to balance with his pro running career) he is super consistent and he has a ton of experience, especially when it comes to running the Angeles Crest 100.  That’s his race.  So, despite slightly lower volume overall, you would expect him to have his training and taper dialed in.

With him, you see the same four-week-peak (the most time by over two hours and 5k more vert than the other weeks) after a similar dip during week five.  Dom’s training is very specific to the course demands (almost all of his training was done on the course) and he clocked the appropriate amount of vertical gain and wound up with a third place finish.  On a rugged, high-elevation, point-to-point mountain course that eclipses Western States in difficulty in all categories.

Tapering is a specific thing.  Each race offers a different list of challenges and demands.  Everyone has different goals.  That being said, it’s very interesting to me how similarly the elites taper.  Even for races as different as Western States and Barkley.  They’re doing it right based on experience and wisdom.  And, surprisingly, essentially in the same way. If I want to run 100 mile weeks and train at a volume similar to elite ultrarunners, I need to start tapering like one.

_______________________

During last year’s pre-race briefing for The Rut 50k, Mike Foote, standing behind a podium at the Bozeman Running Company store, was asked how much we should be tapering the final two weeks before the race.  

Mike smiled and said, “Well, at this point the hay should already be in the barn… but you don’t want to turn the faucet off completely, you want to keep it running.”

Well said Mike. Well said.

 

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.

 

Fear & Suffering in Big Sky, Montana

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Race Director Mike Foote getting his selfie on before the VK

We were skirting the West edge of Yellowstone National Park, the pedal of the Jeep Wrangler smashed all the way into the floorboards when Lone Peak first came into view. I don’t exactly know how to describe the sensation, but something unique happens the first time you witness a big mountain in person. It’s some scattered combination of awe, fear, excitement, anxiety and desire. It’s a deep, spiritual sort of feeling, one that reminds you that you’re alive.

Bugs exploded against the windshield as we swerved into the left lane to pass yet another Subaru, driving well below the posted limit, obviously without anywhere to be, admiring the put-all-your-wallpapers-to-shame magnificence draped all around us.  If only we were so lucky.

It was Friday at 1:50pm Mountain Standard Time and the gun for The Rut Vertical Kilometer was going off at 3pm.  I left Santa Monica at 4pm (PST) on Thursday afternoon and had been in the car ever since, literally without a single minute of sleep. It had been about 18 hours of driving and a couple scattered hours sitting in diners and watching my wife charm her way out of a ticket (she was going 80mph in a 60mph construction zone- if that was me driving, they would have found some way to arrest me, but naturally, she got off with a warning).

By the time we finally pulled into the Big Sky Resort, I got changed and jogged the 200 meters to the starting area, it was 2:40pm.  I was a little shocked that I actually made it.  18 hours and seven states (CA, AZ, NV, UT, ID, WY and MT) later, my Altra Superiors were laced up and I was ready to go.

All the speeding and driving through the night aside, the whole thing just seemed surreal, the surroundings were taking my breath away everywhere I looked.  I may have been delirious… but it was probably just the altitude. Standing at 7,800’ staring up at Lone Peak another 3,400’ above me, it was hard not think about the fact that I hadn’t slept since I’d left the beach.

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Lone Peak

As per the notification I received from the staggeringly useful Run the Rut app, winter was coming sooner than expected in Big Sky country and a lightning forecast from 3-6pm forced Race Director Mike Foote to make the tough call to stop the VK short of the summit.  From Mike’s email:

Don’t worry too much, the plan B course will still be hard!  It starts in the same area and climbs just over 2,000 ft in 2.4 miles on a mixture of ski runs, single track trails and scree fields to the base of the Lone Peak Tram.

Honestly, I was relieved.  I felt surprisingly good for spending so much time in the car but I knew that I soon as I started demanding high-end performance from my body, it was going to be a different story.  I was entirely out of touch with my whole gastro-intestinal array; I didn’t know if I was hungry or I needed to take a shit. I probably needed a nap. I figured I would still be able to tag the summit during the 50k on Sunday and I definitely needed a warm up at (slightly) lower altitudes.

The gun went off and I started out fast, probably somewhere in the top 15.  I had warmed up with a few hill repeats and felt decent but I could tell instantly that this pace was far beyond my current capacity. I started gasping pretty quick and then my biceps starting cramping, something that has never happened to me before, under any circumstances, even after climbing for two hours and then doing pullups. So that was a little weird.  Then my abs joined in.  Then I was being passed by someone every couple of steps.

The trip up to the bowl directly under Lone Peak, at the top of a large scree field took me 42 minutes.  My Suunto had me at 2.35 miles.  Hardest two miles of my life, without a doubt.  I’ve been above 14k’ before but I’ve never sucked oxygen like this.  My throat and lungs burned with every inhalation of the crisp, mountain air.  I crested the top of the gigantic choss pile, walked through the Run The Rut archway and proceed to projectile vomit all of the water, coffee and bile my stomach had to offer.

Then I continued to gasp for air until I had jogged about halfway back down to where we started from. Then I ate a burger, drank a beer and fell asleep for thirteen straight hours.

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Feeling wrecked after the VK

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There’s something about this race that is just different than other races.  For one, it’s the only race in North America that belongs to the International Skyrunning Series, which is a series of eight races around the world (well, mostly Europe with a single race in China and the US, respectively) that draw the best mountain running talent around the world.  Kilian Jornet has run this race. The Men’s podium for the VK went Spanish, Bulgarian, Catalan.

Secondly, the race directors/creators are world class mountain runners themselves, so it’s fun to be interacting with them and running a race conceived by them that was so fucking epic the International Skyrunning Federation had to include it.

It also ended up being a fun, inclusive environment captured by the Big Sky Resort and centered around the race.  With three days of racing, the majority of the people at the resort are runners or there to support the runners in some capacity.  It seemed like most people were hanging around the events they weren’t running in, watching the show put on by a bevy of world class mountain runners.  Oh, and you could just walk around the whole resort with a beer in your hand like it was Mardi Gras or some shit.  Somehow slightly reminiscent of my college days.

Saturday for me was mostly spent sleeping and eating.  I watched the first 15 runners finish the 28k (unfortunately the early leader, Dakota Jones, rolled an ankle around mile 14 and dropped- it would have been nice to watch him win) and, in some misguided and wholly worthless attempt to acclimatize to the elevation, I rode around on the chairlifts up as high as possible.  The views were nuts.

By the time Sunday morning rolled around, I was feeling pretty good.  Presumably ready to run hard.  A full-on winter advisory warning had been issued for Sunday and they expected upwards of eight inches of snow to fall on the big peak by Monday morning.  My second chance to bag Lone Peak for the weekend was ripped away in the chilly  pre-dawn dusk. Fucking lucky 28k runners…

Mike Foote assured us once again the course would still be hard- albeit with slightly less distance and elevation gain.  As disappointing as the announcement was, it carried the slightest twinges of relief.  I had pretty much fully convinced myself that my VK woes were due to lack of sleep more than pure elevation. I thought all the sleep I had gotten the past couple of nights was going to manifest well, but I was still a bit worried.

Sure, I had been up to 14,000’ before and I had spent plenty of time running above 10k’ but the reality was, I had never raced up this high before.  I had never demanded the kind of top-end performance that racing requires above about 7,500’.  The Skyline Mountain Marathon in the Wasatch Mountains flirts with 8,000’ a couple times but it’s nothing sustained.  After just flying up from sea level, I was running in 5th in that race through 22 miles (in 2013) when severe ab cramps on the final descent forced me to walk far enough that I slipped to 18th.  Then I threw up for the rest of the night.

I tried to shut off my brain as the Elk Bugle sounded and I, along with the rest of the first wave, charged off into the damp darkness. I went out hard but quickly realized that I was pushing an unsustainable effort. The weird bicep cramps came back. I felt like I was hammering up the initial fire road climb but a glance down at my Suunto revealed that I was chugging along at a mere 11:30/min pace.

Then things started to get really steep.  I settled in to what I thought was an easily sustainable power hike, something I could have maintained for hours on the steepest pitches in the Santa Monica Mountains.  A mile and a half into the race, as I reached the top of a particularly gnarly pitch, I did something I’ve never done before, ever.  I stepped off the side of the trail and proceeded to pretend like I was taking a piss.  Probably thirty runners passed me as I gasped for air through a wide mouth and teetered from side-to-side, happy to be standing up at all.  I clicked the light on my headlamp off in embarrassment.

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I got going a little bit on some downhills and I began thinking that my body was settling into a groove.  I was running well on some of the climbs, about every other one, and I started to pass some people. I had been nurturing some very early thoughts of dropping out of this race, but now I was thinking that a finish was within reach.  

With so many racers on the course, there was never a moment where there wasn’t two or three people visible and it seemed like every time I slowed down a bit I got passed and every time I sped up a bit I was passing a couple of people. Frankly, it was annoying. I did get lucky enough to glance an elk, full on devouring his breakfast as I jogged by. He paused his massive jaw for a split second and peered in my direction before resuming normal activity.

We started picking our way up a scree field a couple of miles below the Swift Current aid station (about 14 miles into the race) and the temperature had dropped a bit, the weather now exhibiting some combination of rain and snow, and I was finally forced to pull my jacket out of my AK vest and cover my t-shirt.

This is about the time shit started deteriorating fast. I honestly don’t remember exactly what happened.  I was hopping across a scree field one minute and the next I was trying to remain upright as vomit splashed against my shins as it ricocheted off the flat talus below.

By the time I was done yacking, I was shivering uncontrollably.  The average temps in the various mountain ranges I frequent in Southern California have been in the 80s and 90s recently.  I haven’t worn a shirt on run in as long as I can remember.  I came into this race (unintentionally) heat trained.  Sweating early and often. I don’t think the sub-freezing temps would have been a problem by itself, without the elevation slowing me down so much, but the combination of the two left me in pretty rough place.

As I hiked into the Swift Current aid station, Luke Nelson was standing at the edge of the drop bag pile with my bag (he had placed 8th in both the VK and the 28k the previous two days).  I quickly changed my shirt and my jacket and added a second long sleeve layer.  The shaking continued. I walked over to the table, looking to get something warm and found myself a delicious smelling cup of broth that lasted about 45 seconds in my stomach.

I found a volunteer to inquire about what exactly I had left on the course and for what I hoped would be some solid motivation (it’s been my experience that aid station volunteers will usually do whatever necessary to get you back on the course if they feel like you still can). The guy I talked to did everything short of carrying me to the chairlift himself.

“Look man, you can be back down below 8,000’ in a hot shower in less than 20 minutes.  The chairlift is right there.” I was shaking, I couldn’t keep anything down, my head ached and it was dumping these massive, fluffy snowflakes.  I wanted to keep going but I couldn’t wrap my head around the decision.  I wasn’t thinking clearly.

I told the station captain that I was dropping, he brought me inside for a minute to try and warm up before riding the chairlift down and within a few minutes, I was back down in warmer temperatures and lower elevations, feeling infinitely better.  It was only 9:15am. I had barely gotten started.  I had only been running for three hours. Did I really just drop?

After a shower, a nap and a bag of chips I felt pretty good. I barely felt like I had gone running that morning. I felt stupid for dropping.  I couldn’t remember why I dropped.  The condition was so fleeting…

When I had dropped in the past, I had been in bad shape for days after the race.  Laying on the grass as my quads and hamstrings took turns seizing for hours as I desperately drank bottles of coconut water.  A couple hours after this drop and I was feeling fine.

After wrestling with these feelings for far too long, I’ve decided that I need to trust myself. Whatever I was feeling up there that caused me to drop, I suppose I made the right choice. But I still can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had just left that aid station.

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Another reason The Rut is such a cool and unique race: they offered free tattoos of their logo (which is dope) and gave anyone who got one free entry into next year’s race.  There has never been better motivation for me than a DNF.  It always spurred my training and my drive. My best performances as an ultrarunner have come on the heels of  DNF.  

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My fresh Rut logo tattoo

So, naturally, I figured that if I DNFed, then got a tattoo of the race logo and entry into next year’s race, I would be motivated as hell.  Not only would I have the memory haunting me as I tried to fall asleep every night, I would also have a very obvious reminder permanently inked on my body. A good performance at next year’s race would turn that mark of shame into a trophy.

Despite my relatively poor performance in the VK and my DNF in the 50k, I still had an incredible time.  Montana open my senses to a whole new type of experience while firmly cementing my beliefs that I want to spend as much time in big mountains as possible.  My Run the Rut tattoo and I will be back next year, for no less than two weeks this time, and for better or worse, ready to run steep, get high.

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The view from my tattoo chair.  The Montana Mikes.

 

You Run Like Shit: Pose Arguments

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This is Part Two of a Pose Method series. Here’s Part One if you missed it. 

For a while after I discovered the Pose Method, I lived in a happy little bubble.  I was so excited about how fast I was beginning to run and how all my little aches and pains were dissipating as I was simultaneously increasing volume.  The amount of effort it took me to run at high speeds was coming down and my heart rate was staying much more consistent— especially on big climbs.  It all seemed perfect and everything made sense.  It was beautiful. All was right in my world.

Then I made the mistake of going on a comment thread on some stupid website and making a small, inconsequential comment about physics and running, without any specifics and certainly no mention of Pose. From there, a reader found my website, discovered I run Pose Method and then him and his angry cohorts proceed to spend about 15,000 words telling what a stupid fucking moron I was, complete with the phrases “google it” and “ask any physicist”. 

First, I was a little shocked.  I didn’t realize this kind of ire was out there.  I couldn’t possible fathom why people would be so upset about the Pose method. It didn’t make sense to me.  It’s not like it effects other people if I’m running Pose. At the very WORST, Pose gives us some tools to think about what were doing.  Someone isn’t going to misinterpret the Pose principles and go blow up and building or shoot somebody.  Why was it so polarizing?  I had to get to the bottom of it. 

So, I descended deep into the Pose-hater rabbit hole.  Like, to page 125 on the google search results deep.  And it was interesting.  It was great to read some of the well-crafted attempts at refutal.  A little bit unnerving that people waste THAT much time dissecting things that they don’t believe in or want to try, but hey, you gotta do you. 

One big problem that quickly became glaringly obvious: most Pose coaches don’t fully understand what they are teaching or they are unable to articulate it properly.  Sure, they can look at stride and point out inefficiencies and they probably have a solid grasp on what Pose running entails, but they can’t effectively argue the physics or biomechanics involved.  More often than not, they get pushed a little about the physics on a message board and they get angry and start spouting Romanov quotes and the discussion starts to turn away from physics into something much more dogmatic.  I for one, wish these people would stop. No one wants to hear about how you know the Pose Method is perfect because of how you feel. You’re making us all look stupid.

After my research, I believe that Pose skeptics/haters can be broken into one of three categories:

  1. The runner/running coach with a background in biomechanics and/or physics.  This person never actually finds anything wrong with Pose per se, but they don’t fully endorse it.  They will usually make a claim that Pose has “some good tenets” or say something about how the cues can be helpful, or that “most elite runners” show “pose principles at a high speed”.  But these guys are scientists and as such, can’t really be certain about anything.  They would all probably agree that running form is something we should be talking about and, from what I read, probably agree that Pose is the best technique being taught.  But it’s not perfect. 
  2. The entitled millennial who believes that they are super special and super unique and nobody— I mean nobody— has any idea what is best for them except for them.  They are beautiful snowflakes of individuality and if anybody has the fucking audacity to tell them how to run, they’ll be sorry.  They don’t have an argument beyond “google it, moron” but if they know anything for certain, it’s that you’re wrong. 
  3. The skeptic sniffing out any dogma, ready to pounce regardless of the topic.  Quick to call Pose runners “cult members”, etc. 

Let’s start with the people who are actually trying to have a discussion, understand that running technique is something that we should be talking about and attempting to use science to refute Pose principles.

The Physics:

Go on any running form message board where people are talking about Pose and you will see inevitably see a handful of comments that say something like this:

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A “giant joke”? What do you think the chances are this guy could actually articulate an argument against the Pose Method?  But someone else reads this crap and regurgitates it somewhere else and… well, you know. And why is the word physics in quotes like it’s some made up thing that doesn’t exist?

This is my big problem with comment threads— no one makes an argument.  “Google it” or “ask a physicist” is not an argument, but for some reason, people not only think it’s an argument, they actually waste their time posting it. 

Beyond the message boards, however, you can find some very intelligent people with an actual background in Physics or Biomechanics and they’re usually making one of three claims:

  1. Gravitational torque cannot provide horizontal linear momentum by itself.
  2. You MUST push off: ground reaction force is being ignored/seriously underestimated.
  3.  Your general center of mass travels upwards vertically after you leave support, which is contrary to falling.

Let’s run them down quickly….

1. Gravitational torque cannot provide horizontal linear momentum by itself.   

According to Newton’s Second Law of Motion:

“The acceleration of an object as produced by a net force is directly proportional to the magnitude of the net force, in the same direction as the net force, and inversely proportional to the mass of the object.” 

Dr. Romanov claims gravity is moving you forward, so how can that be?  As soon as your general center of mass (GCM) is in front of your support (leg on the ground), you’re producing angular rotational torque in a forward direction.  In other words, you’re falling forward, toward the floor in front of you, a fall that is cut short by your trail leg swinging through to the front, where you can recapture the Pose and fall again.  Many people erroneously believe that running is a continuous fall forward— you’re falling to regain your pose and fall again, linking these falls together is what we call “running”.

A lot of people making this argument believe that gravitational torque does provide horizontal momentum, just not enough to be the primary source of locomotion.  Which leads us to…

2. The push off argument: ground reaction force is being ignored/seriously underestimated.

The failure to account for the forward momentum created by rotational torque is usually combated with a some sort of force plate data (from some study that has less than 10 participants) showing that the force upon foot strike is equal to two or three times your body weight and so, according to the third law of motion, the ground reaction force (GRF) is equal to this and is the main cause of forward momentum, which essentially becomes the “push off argument.” 

This could be true.  It’s hard to believe that GRF is more responsible for forward movement than fucking gravity (smh) but there isn’t any definitive data on this (that I could find) in the form of a scientific study.  Even if it is true, it changes nothing about the Pose method.  Pose teaches a “pull” of your foot from the ground as opposed to actively attempting to propel yourself forward with a push.

My big problem with the GRF argument is that I still don’t see any evidence of an active push off.  Your body is impacting the ground with force, and this force is being redirected (by the springs that are your legs) and applied to horizontal (and possibly vertical) momentum.  The energy is there, there is no need to add extra muscular effort to this equation. That extra effort is simply wasting energy and increasing time on support.

Here’s a quote from Dr. Romanov’s 2006 book, Training Essays:

“Does [the push off] exist or doesn’t it exist?  Neither is right and neither is wrong, too… Basically, very simple things that push and pull exist in the same system of movement, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes separated by a fraction of a second. All our movements contain push and pul and it is very difficult to see whether we are pushing or pulling and for what purpose. In running, push-pull relations are hidden, camouflaged by a seemingly obvious presence of a push-off, so obvious that there is almost no reason to question it.

But the questions are there: do we have a push off and do we need a push off?  The answer to the first question is positive.  We have a push off, and the sport science received a tremendous number of force platform data confirming there are vertical and horizontal components of ground reaction force. But does that mean that we got the answer?  The movement is not as simple as it seems. There are two types of movements here and only one of them needs to be produced by our voluntary muscle contractions, our muscular efforts.”

Even Dr. Romanov freely admits that there is some sort of vertical reaction force propelling you from the ground, he just realizes that “we don’t need to do it with voluntary muscular efforts, all we need to do is release the elastic property to do the work.”

I admit that some of the calculations and claims being made might about the amount of momentum gained from GRF might not be 100% accurate.  There is a possibility that, under the Pose Method of running, GRF might be underestimated.  But even if this is the case, why does it matter?  You’re moving forward from some combination of gravitational torque and GRF. An active push off doesn’t make you run faster or more efficiently.

The bottom line is still the same: you’re not thinking about pushing into the floor for forward momentum.  There is an apparent disconnect here between what is ACTUALLY happening and what you are actively MAKING happen.  No matter how much GRF you’re getting, you’re still simply thinking about pulling your foot from the ground.  This doesn’t change anything about the Pose Method or how you should run.  In fact, it reinforces the Pose principles. 

3. Your general center of mass travels upwards vertically after you leave support, which is contrary to falling.

This argument seems anecdotal but according to one website:

“Objective measurement from video recordings demonstrates that [Usain] Bolt’s COG rises after mid-stance rather than falling as Pose theory predicts”

Naturally, the author links no actual study and fails to elaborate at all about how these “measurements” are being taken or how they are determining where Bolt’s GCM is.  Taking measurements of moving person’s COG from a video sounds pretty unscientific in general, but without the information, who knows?

I think this argument goes hand in hand with argument number two and it’s pretty easy to see why this argument is made: in order to keep falling, your GCM has to rise. But because Pose Method is claiming gravity is the main source of forward momentum, it’s very hard to see what is causing your GCM to rise, when intuitively, we see gravity as pushing us DOWN. 

People running using Pose technique do, in fact, have vertical oscillation.  Your GCM has to rise, but pushing into the floor is not what causes this to happen.  This is happening by a combination of unweighting and the muscle/tendon elasticity that is happening thanks to Newton’s Third Law of Motion. 

From Training Essays once again:

“Vertical displacement in running happens by utilizing muscle/tendon elastic property, which lifts the body 4-6 centimeters above the ground, just enough to shift the body weight from one support to the other.”   

How much of your GRF is being converted into horizontal momentum vs. vertical oscillation?  Obviously a little bit of both is happening and the vertical oscillation gained from your muscle-tendon elasticity is enough to allow your GCM to rise enough for you to recover Pose and fall again. Repeatedly.

These arguments are all great.  They force you to think about what you’re doing and they push everyone’s understanding of running further.  Diversity of intelligent opinion makes us all better and I welcome it.  From where I’m sitting, however, these arguments are pretty knit-picky about certain claims being made, when these claims have nothing to do with the actual function of running.  Sure, the propulsive forces might be skewed a bit but I think it’s pretty clear that a) nobody really knows what is going on for sure and b) it isn’t changing a thing about how you’re running anyway. 

It seems like we’re arguing about semantics when the practical application of the running remains unchanged. If you disagree, please comment below, I would love to get a discussion going and I know I need to learn a lot more. 

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Beyond the scientific arguments, there are numerous anecdotal arguments out there being thrown around.  Let’s take a quick look at the most compelling:

Pose Method moves the load from the knee to the ankle, causing subsequent achilles tendon injuries.

So you’re telling me that switching the loading from the knee (an unstable hinge joint operating in a single plane of motion) to the proprioceptive monster consisting of your foot-ankle complex is a bad thing?  In Scott Jurek’s book Eat and Run he details running— and winning— the Western States 100 with all the tendons and ligaments in his ankle “completely shredded” from a bad ankle sprain he suffered playing soccer a day before the race.  You think if Scott Jurek sprained his knee, even a little bit, that he would have ran WS?  An NBA player will roll his ankle so bad he can barely walk and be playing again five minutes later.  That same player tweaks his knee the smallest amount and he’s out for the rest of the game until they can get him in the nearest MRI machine. 

The problem isn’t switching loading from the knee to the ankle.  The problem is failing to take into account the fact that most of us are running around with shortened, weakened achilles tendons from our shoes that have padded heels.  It’s going to take a lot longer than six weeks for this to be fixed.  But you can’t tell someone who has been running their whole life to stop and slowly build back up so you develop the necessary strength. No, that would be absurd. Just keep fucking up your knees. That seems like a better idea. 

We are not “taught” to walk as babies, and we don’t need to be “taught” to ride a bike, we just figure it out.

So if you just happened to come across a bike, you would just pick it up and “figure out” what to do with it?  This is sorely underestimating or misinterpretation the meaning of the word “taught”.  Just because you lack the vocabulary to be taught in words how to walk as a baby, you’re certainly being “taught” by observing.  And you’re not wearing SHOES!! How is this overlooked? 

We are all too different for one way of running to be applied to all of us. Essentially the millennial “I’m special” argument where people cannot, under any circumstances, come to grips with the fact that, despite minor difference, were all walking around with the exact same equipment and using it in the most efficient way involves the same patterns. 

Actually, you’re not fucking special at all.  You’re just like everyone else. You’re the same collection of levers and fulcrums.  Look at any other animal in the world.  They don’t move around differently.  You don’t see two different horses running with different gaits.  They might have a little bit of their own style— as we do as humans— but their fundamental moment patterns do not differ. Even dogs, who have been tinkered with beyond belief in terms of artificial selection— they all still run the same.  You’re telling me the lever length matters THAT much? 

It’s too difficult to teach.  After a couple weeks, the participants were reverting back to their old gaits.  If it’s so hard to teach, what’s the point? 

Considering how ridiculous this argument is, it’s amazing how often it’s cited.  People making this argument are lacking a certain understanding of how our brains work. Simply put, every time you move, the corresponding motor neurons in your brain are communicating.  Doing the same movement repeatedly causes these motor neurons to get better at this communication process. After a while, you essentially hardwire a pattern into your brain.  For movements you do all the time, the ones you don’t need to think about (like picking up a cup of water and taking a sip) have become automatic because those motor neurons talked so much they’ve become super efficient at it.

Developing neuromuscular patterns is what “bro science” would call “muscle memory”. Obviously, you’re muscles can’t remember shit. You’re brain certainly can.  This awesome component of our elastic brains allows us to become proficient at movements that are important or necessary to us.  The problem arises when we’ve been doing a movement wrong for a long time.  It is very hard to undo that hardwiring.  You can start making new patterns, but your brain wants to fall back into the old habits— they’re more efficient. 

There are studies being done now that show people born with a disease like cerebral palsy, may have recovered the ability to walk normally as they have gotten older, but they cannot overcome the patterns for walking that have been hardwired into the brain over time.

(There is a great Ted talk about this by Karen Pape entitled, “Baby Brains Do Recover but Habit Hides It“, if you’re interested.) 

For runners that have been running incorrectly for years and years, it’s gonna take a little bit of time.  You can’t do it in two weeks.  You probably can’t do it in six weeks.  Have some fucking patience, it’ll be worth it in the long run. 

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I don’t think the Pose method is perfect.  I do think that it helped me a ton.  I admit, I was not a runner before.  I never had a high school track or cross country coach telling me what to do when I was running.  Pose was my first foray into the world of “running technique”.  So, this probably gives me a huge advantage over the runners out there who grew up hearing someone telling them the wrong things all the time. 

I was starting out from first principles, with zero bias or investment either way.  I just wanted to run faster and farther and not get hurt.  Pose did that for me.  I don’t have some biblical desire to see everyone running Pose.  In fact, it’s better for me if you don’t run Pose (I’m a pretty selfish person for the most part).  But if someone comes to me and asks for my help, I have to go with my experience, an experience paints a pretty compelling picture for the Pose Method. 

You Run Like Shit: My Pose Journey

This is Part One of a Pose series.  Part Two digs into the (mostly) scientific arguments made against the Pose Method 

___________

“You run like shit.”

Not exactly something anyone wants to hear. If you’re currently in the process of running 80+ miles a week, this kind of news can be devastating.  I stared blankly at the 50-inch flat screen placed precariously in front of our small group— maybe 16 people—and wondered why I looked so bad. 

The full breadth of my stride was on display here; one foot trailing behind my body and the other reaching in front, driving forward.  This was how I was supposed to look.  This is how “good” runners look.  All those Nike ads and pro-runner’s Instagram feeds had burned the images into my mind.  I didn’t understand.  All these people I emulate run like shit too?

There was clearly a disconnect here.  The smartest man in the world of running, Dr. Nicholas Romanov, was tracing a laser pointer across the TV screen, advancing my lumbering body frame by frame to show everyone in attendance why I couldn’t run.  In increasingly specific terms, he shredded my gait from top to bottom, eventually concluding that if I was going to run like THAT, I should probably just save my energy and not run at all.

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Don’t do this. You’re gonna have a bad time.

As I sat there, disillusioned, disheartened and incredibly embarrassed, I realized this was, in fact, exactly what I wanted.  Did I really spend a shitload of my money and time to fly to Miami (in August!) so I could hear Dr. Romanov tell me that I run perfectly?  That’s an expensive ego boost, even if it is coming from The Most Interesting Man in the World. No, this was a good thing. It was time to figure out what I had been doing wrong.  It was time for my education to begin.

  1. Historical Context

It has become widely accepted that running played a huge part in our development as human beings.  Despite anecdotal romanticisms like Born to Run, the real information (i.e. backed by data) is out there and has become an accepted addition to our larger evolutionary picture.  In his incredible book, The Story of the Human Body, Harvard Evolutionary Biologist Daniel Lieberman describes all the ways evolution designed us to become running machines, from the stabilization and balance systems in our heads/ears/spines specifically designed to let us balance and see clearly while running to the entire anatomy of our lower leg being setup like an energy-returning spring.    

According to Lieberman’s research, running made us who we are today.  It allowed us to track and run large mammals to death, largely thanks to our bipedalism and superior cooling systems, which allowed for larger, more nutrient-dense meals to be consumed, eventually resulting in an explosion in brain size.  So without running, there is no us.  We are inextricably linked to this simple act of locomotion, for better or for worse, and whether we want to believe it or not, we are all “runners”.  We might not be “born to run” but we were certainly “born runners”. 

Most people view running as a very simple movement.  People are constantly uttering cliches like “just put one foot in front of the other” or some similarly reductive phrase to remind you how simple it is.  Sure, at one time it might have been the pinnacle of complex movement, but now we have bikes and baseball bats and basketballs and pole vaults and 110m hurdles.  We go to the gym and sit on massive machines designed to let you barely move a single joint in your body so you can “isolate” it. 

Clearly, we’ve got it all figured out.  All this overcomplexity and information has made us the healthiest we’ve ever been in human history (ha!).  Also, we never get injured anymore (ha!).  All kidding aside, the real irony here is that if you look at all the athletic movements we make as humans, only the ridiculous invented motions (i.e. swinging a golf club, shooting a three-pointer, the backstroke, etc) all come with a universally accepted prescription. In a lot of cases, it’s based in physics (measuring the amount of torque produced at the end of a bat based on various swings) or simply based on years and years of data (the tennis coach who has seen thousands of hours of backhand swings and understand exactly— even if he cannot fully articulate it— why certain players are more effective than others). 

For running, this doesn’t exist.  If you go out and hire a running coach, 90% of them will “coach” you by essentially writing a program that tells you when, where and how hard to run.  They toss around words and phrases like tempo, intervals, aerobic threshold, hill repeats and “recovery run” to make it seem like they’re doing something more complicated to justify the money you’re spending, but the bottom line amounts to ZERO time spent focusing on actual running technique.  People don’t teach it. If you compare that to someone who hires a tennis coach or swimming coach (or any other coach), the vast majority of the time spent coaching, usually around 90%, will be spent on technique. 

What this fact tells us (beyond illuminating running coaches as assholes who steal your money) is that the prevailing sentiment— not just in the running community but in the athletic community at large— is that we all run differently.  People believe that they DO NOT need to be taught how to run.  People will say things like, “Nobody taught me how to walk, when I was eight months old I couldn’t even talk, I don’t need anyone to teach me how to run.”  Most intelligent people quickly see how foolish a statement like this is.  It shows a total lack of understanding for how we “learn” as humans while completely missing the point at the same time (more on this in Part Two).

So just to recap:  All the invented-by-humans human movements we’ve been talking about, swinging a golf club, the breast stroke, karate chopping a cinder block— whatever it may be— has a very specific technique that must be taught and mastered.  Deviation from this technique is worthless and unacceptable.  But running, the movement that was “invented” by natural selection over the course of millions of years with a very specific set of levers and fulcrums acting against a very specific force (gravity), can be done any fucking way you feel like it.  It doesn’t matter at all.  Just do what feels “natural”.  Nature doesn’t know shit.  You know everything. 

II. Looking for Answers in All the Wrong Places 

Ever since reading ’Born to Run” I had been wearing minimal shoes.  For my first race ever, a 50k in Idaho, I “laced up” a pair of Vibram Five Fingers. I ran a mountain 50k wearing these kicks, based on Chistopher McDougall’s generalized view that minimal footwear makes you run properly.  I had dreams of running 100 miles across the mountains like Tony Krupicka and Scott Jurek but I could barely run 50 miles a week without totally breaking down.  I was bruising my feet constantly on rocks, my ankles were always a mess, my knees ached, my IT Bands felt like someone was ratcheting them up like a slackline.  I would read articles about the weekly volume elite ultra runners were putting in, sometimes upwards of 200 miles a week, and wonder how their bodies could possibly withstand all the punishment.  It seemed unfathomable. 

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Back in 2012 before the Foothill Frenzy 50k. Give me a break- it was my first race ever.  I didn’t know what I was doing. A volunteer working the aid station at mile 27 introduced me to my first electrolyte supplement that day.

Nevertheless, I tried and I tried.  I started to get my weekly volume up a bit.  I finished 7th place at the Zion 100k.  I snuck onto the podium at the Malibu Creek 50k. I started really pushing to get more miles on my legs.  I was looking at all these successful runners and the formula seemed obvious: more volume. 

The problem for me was all in the health of my lower extremities.  My energy systems were never an issue.  My feet or legs would always breakdown long before I could get to that point. I needed more volume and my legs hurt… so I began running through a lot of pain.  I ignored my body completely and routinely went out on long runs in the mountains despite experiencing agonizing pain with every footfall. Then one day, about nine miles from the trailhead, the pain got too bad to continue.  After a two-hour hobble and a couple of days of denial, I was at the doctor’s office with a diagnosis: severe stress fracture of the Lateral Malleolus. 

The Lateral Malleolus is the distal end of your Fibula, basically what most people refer to as their “ankle bone”.  According to my physician, during bipedal locomotion, this bone is non-weight bearing.  To me, this immediately meant that my gait was FUCKED UP.  I did enough damage to a non-weight bearing bone to break it?  My stride is so bad that I’ve got muscles wrenching on the end of my fibula to the tune of enough torque to crack it?  This was obviously something I needed to figure out. 

Naturally, I asked the doctor what I was doing wrong.  What could I do to fix this? I will never forget what happened next.  This prestigious orthopedic surgeon, operating out of one of the most respected clinics in Los Angeles (SMOG), sat down in the chair across from the table I was sitting on, took a deep breath, exhaled, looked up at me and said, “Unfortunately, you’re just too tall to run. Especially long distances.  I wouldn’t recommend running more than two miles at a time.  You need to get some shoes with some more padding and on your next visit, we’ll fit you for orthotics.” 

I am tall.  I’m 6’7”.  But I have the same equipment as everyone else.  I have the same set of levers.  Just a little longer. I couldn’t believe what he had just said. I stared blankly through his face as he kept rambling on about the history of tall NBA players and stress fractures of the feet. He was saying something about Yao Ming when I stopped listening. 

This couldn’t be true. I wouldn’t accept it. I’d long held a deep distrust for every doctor I’d ever met so it wasn’t hard to convince myself that he was a myopic idiot.  No, that was easy.  The hard part was going to be figuring out what to do next. 

The answers had to be out there, I just needed to find them.  Freshly clad in a size 15 walking boot, I was out the door and on the search for my running salvation… but a revolution would have to do.   

III. (My) Running Revolution

When you’ve been running a couple hours everyday for the past year or so and then you’re forced to halt this activity abruptly, it really fucks with your psyche.  There have been countless studies done showing the hormonal effects of cardiovascular activity— it changes your brain.  It alters your decision making.  You’re not really the same person, in terms of brain chemistry, when you’re not exercising that you are when you’re regularly getting a good dose of cardio. 

I suffered through this (much of it probably placebo) for about three weeks and fell into a desperate pit of despair.  Then my ankle finally got to the point where I could put some weight on it without any pain, and I started biking, doing a lot of hang cleans and front squats (I still couldn’t do a full power clean) and generally started to feel less worthless and ready to uncover some answers (that I hoped were there). 

So I started doing research.  And this is when I started to realize that most people don’t talk about running form.  If someone was , it was usually a current or former elite runner who has made a transition to coach, but doesn’t understand why they were faster than their peers or happened to stay injury free.  The result of this is a lot of ambiguous, relative terms being thrown around like, “make your stride feel smooth” or “be light on your feet” or “imagine yourself gliding down the trail” or “drive your legs”.  None of this helps anybody and it certainly wasn’t what I was looking for. 

No, I wanted definitive information about the differences between a heel/forefoot strike.  I wanted to know what cues I should be focusing on during the different phases of my stride.  I wanted to know if Nike really ruined the world like Born to Run claimed.  And more than anything, I wanted to be able to run with a certainty that I wasn’t damaging my body.  A quick google search of “running+physics” and I stumbled across the Pose Method site.

I started reading a bit and it sounded promising.  It was offering me a way a singular, correct way to run. At fast speeds and jogging alike.  It has always seemed naive to me that, as creatures of the same species, we run so dramatically different.  I grew up watching NBA games on TV wondering why some of the players (the more athletic ones) ran on their forefeet, while the big centers usually plodded down (very un-athletically) with an obvious heel strike.  It was apparent that these things were not equal, but no one else was talking about it and I was ill-equipped to discover the answer to which of these methods was better. 

Dr. Romanov was laying it all out there for me: here’s how you run and here’s why.  Not only did he have the balls to say something audacious, but his claims were making sense.  I was never a competitive runner before I started entering ultra marathons in my 30s.  I never worked with a track or cross country coach and I never had anyone tell me how to run (my college basketball coaches wouldn’t have dared to correct someone’s running form).  So, I was picking all of this up starting at first principles, with an empty cup waiting to be filled with information.  (I honestly think this was a huge advantage for me because I didn’t have to unlearn a bunch or erroneous information or running dogma.  A lot of runners are already full of that shit, so it’s hard.) 

Upon my initial reading of The Running Revolution, I missed a lot. Even with the videos that accompanied the iPad version of the book, it’s hard to learn how to run by reading a book.  It’s hard when you can’t watch yourself and see what you’re actually doing. So I kind of heard what I wanted to hear and picked up about half of the Pose tenants and adopted them in my running. 

It helped a lot, but it wasn’t perfect.  My big mistake after reading the book was inaccurately synonymizing  the words “fall” and “lean”.  I took falling to mean leaning, and I ran with poor posture.  I was trying to do a continuous-leaning-type-thing instead of the pendulum falling effect.  Then, when your posture is shit and you’re bent at the waist, you’re forced to counter-balance (around your GCM) by leaving your feet trailing behind you when they should be directly underneath your hips.  I had more time on support because I was waiting for my trailing leg to catch up with the rest of my body that was essentially running away from it. 

I need someone to look at me and point out my specific deficiencies, and Dr. Romanov certainly obliged.  After I left the clinic in Miami, I couldn’t wait to get out and try my new technique.  I had finally seen myself in action and I knew what was going wrong.  At first it wasn’t easy.  I had been so conditioned to “use my long stride” that the short, choppy steps felt incredibly foreign to me.  I didn’t feel like it was conducive to running fast.  Then, one day about two weeks of running, I had a breakthrough. 

I was running on a trail that I had been on a lot (over 100 times) and I was focusing on pulling my foot from the floor as quickly as possible— even though the high cadence felt weird— and maintaining my posture.  I got to the top of the climb much quicker than I normally would, but I was keeping the effort easy and (incorrectly) assumed that there was some mistake or I had forgotten to un-pause for a bit after I took a leak.

I turned and started back down the mountain, once again with laser-focus on my cues, fighting the urge to over-stride.  What happened next was amazing.  I still remember the sensation vividly. My short, choppy steps started to flow.  My legs started to feel light, like they were popping off the ground as soon as they touched down.  It felt great, but I assumed that I was running very slowly.  I felt way too in control of my body to be running fast downhill— usually when I hit seven minute pace, I felt out of control like I was pounding and the impact felt dangerously high. 

I glanced down at my watch and did a double-take.  It said I was running at 5:30min/mile pace. That can’t be right!  There’s no way I could be running this fast and be in control like this.  I didn’t feel like I was doing anything.  I had this weird feeling where I felt detached from my legs.  I was just this person up in the cockpit driving, and all I had to do was pick my feet up and get them under my GCM as quickly as possible. It was surreal. And I was fucking flying down the hill. I couldn’t help but let a huge smile grow across my face.  

Never in 100 years would I have come to the conclusion that my downhill running problem was from leaving my foot trailing behind me too far.  This type of error wasn’t even on my radar. In a single moment of clarity, running downhill switched from being slow and strenuous to being fast and fun.

I got home and checked the results of my run on Strava.  I set something like 25 personal records on a run that I had done 100+ times.  And I had kept my effort easy the entire time.  I wasn’t pushing, I was concentrating on my cues.  From that day forward, I was sold.  You could now call me a Pose runner.

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Since then, I’ve naturally had some ups and downs with my training, but you can’t even compare the runner I was with the runner I am now.  100 mile weeks aren’t scary anymore.  My legs don’t hurt.  I’m partially convinced that the only thing holding my running back at this point is the amount of food I can eat.  Now, instead of having my legs break down, I’m dealing with energy systems issues (which has led to a few dangerous situations actually where I was way too far away from home and running out of energy— it took me a little while to get a handle on that situation because it hadn’t happened before). 

I do a lot more flat running too.  I still hate it, like I did before Pose, but now I see the real benefit in it and I understand how it translates to the mountains a lot better.  I need to come back to the flat to push the reset button after too much time on variable terrain.  Taking all the other variables out of the equation is still the best way for me to get in touch with my form, but as I said, I’m still very new to this whole thing, so hopefully that’ll improve in the future. 

I’ve fared well in my races since fully adopting the Pose method as well.  I brought my 50k PR well below five hours and somehow (I’m slow) managed to place 2nd in the Santa Barbara Red Rock Marathon with I time I wouldn’t have dreamed of a year before. 

I haven’t raced much though, and it seems to surprise people when they look at the volume I’ve been consistently putting up for the last year.  They want to know what I’m training for.  I’m just having too much fun running as much as I want as hard as I want.  I’m having too much fun pushing the boundaries of my own body right now. When I’m interested, the races will be there.  It’s like someone finally gave me the blueprint to operate this vehicle I call a body and I’m still test driving the shit out of it. 

There are myriad reasons why I’m sold on Pose running.  But to avoid sounding dogmatic, I’m going to save you the rest of the anecdotal evidence of my personal experience and do my best to look at some of the common arguments made against Pose (scientific and otherwise), understand why they are being made and attempt to get to the truth.  Because at the end of it all, after the trolling and debating and commenting is over, truth is all that matters. 

Part Two: The Problems with Pose, Breaking Down the Arguments

 

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