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

zachbittersolstice2015.jpg

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.

 

Afternoon Delight

santamonicabp1

“Wait.  You want me to put cheese slices in your milkshake?” The confused looking teenager asked, glancing sideways at me across the white counter, shocks of his disheveled hair sticking in every direction from underneath his paper In-N-Out hat.

“Yeah.” I replied, “But you have to melt the cheese first.  If you just put the cheese slice in the milkshake, I won’t be able to drink it.”

He stared at me for a couple of seconds before turning his back and walking toward the closest grill, throwing two thick slices of american cheese on to it, and then pacing back toward the milkshake machine.  A couple minutes later, I was on my bike, cruising down Washington Blvd toward the beach, slowly sucking strawberry milkshake through a straw.

I was about to go on a run.  Normally, I prefer to eat nothing or maybe a banana before running, but today was a special occasion.  It was the first day of spring break.  The area where I was set to go running would be a complete shit-show: tourists everywhere along the bike path and boardwalk, lost Uber drivers weaving unpredictably in and out of traffic trying to find their fares, huge groups of people dumping off of tour busses and just your average can’t-be-bothered-to-look-up-from-my-cell-phone unaware idiots.

Normally on days like this, I make it a point to get my run in before 8am.  If that doesn’t happen, I end up experiencing some sort of run-rage:  kicking cars, yelling at bikers, snorting disapprovingly at selfie-takers and generally announcing things to people that I feel they should be more aware of.

It isn’t good for my mental health.  Running is an escape for me, I usually do it in the mountains.  I have learned over the years that if I need to go on a run in a situation like this, I need a recourse.  I can’t be yelling at people.  Even when people are blatantly ignoring simple rules of etiquette and common decency, I don’t like to tell people what to do.

And I shouldn’t have to.  But they still need to be taught a lesson.  They need some sort of accountability.  And I need something to ensure the worst offenders are dealt with.  For mental health’s sake.  Enter american cheese/strawberry milkshake.

My bike locked up, I sucked the last of the pinkish goop through the straw, tossed the cup in a trash can, pulled my shirt over my head and took off on my jog.  It was a gorgeous day, 72 degrees and with a slight onshore breeze and just a nip of humidity in the air making it feel closer to 68.

I headed down the palm tree-lined street, straight for the beach and as I approached the intersection in front me, I was fortunate enough to have the light change and was greeted with a big, bright walking man in the crosswalk sign.  The car sitting at the light started to pull forward with their left blinker on, looking to turn left.  I had noticed the large Uber symbol in the back window and so I immediately knew this person had no idea where they were and was totally reliant on gps to get anywhere (meaning they would be looking at their phone, not where they were going) and remained vigilant.

Sure enough, just as my first foot landed on the striped asphalt of the crosswalk, the driver apparently got new information and decided he wanted to turn right.  He didn’t signal or look, he just went (having to perform a u-turn at the next light would be devastating) cutting back across the crosswalk, barely making it into his own lane, only missing me because I came to a complete stop.  He still had no idea I was even there.  There was a large cat sitting in his lap and two huge phones sticking out of the dashboard on holders.

I started running soon enough to pull parallel to the rear of the car, I had just enough time.  I cocked my head back to the left, covered my left nostril with two fingers and let the first one go.   A huge projectile ball of thick pink snot went fluttering across the open space between my face and the rear window of the black Prius.  It splattered upon impact, the main glob sticking to the center of the window while edges started dripping down in a mess of pinkish goo. Bingo. It didn’t look bloody yet, but I knew the strawberry milkshake just needed a little more time to work.   I was shooting 100% early in this run.  Feeling good, salty breeze in the air, I headed down toward the boardwalk.

I hit the bike path and hung a hard right, headed northbound, the outline of the Santa Monica Mountains silhouetted across the hazy horizon line.  Directly ahead of me on the path, I could see what seemed to be a traffic jam.  There was a large congestion of bikes stopped in the middle of the path, halting all traffic coming from both directions.  I weaved in and out of a few bikes until I could see what was causing the jam:  a group of five or six twentysomethings were crowded around a single cell phone that was extended in an arm from the center of the group.

They had stopped in the middle of the bike path to get a selfie, something that required blocking both lanes, mere feet away from a safe boardwalk with plenty of room and no flow of traffic.  I gathered my ammunition steadily with a few well-timed nostril inhalations.  I approached the rear of the group and veered to their right, covered my right nostril and let a rocket go from my left nostril.  It hung heavy in the air before splattering on the back of the last guy in the group.

A bit of commotion ensued, signaling that he might have realized what just happened.  I was busy weaving through the middle of the group and out the left side, placing two fingers on my left nostril and with a slightly-cocked head, sent a huge glob of snot directly onto cell phone of the selfie taker.  It exploded across the back of the phone and sent a stream of red-yellow mucus streaming down her arm.  She looked dazed… then angry.  I sprinted away to the sounds of screaming and commotion.  Luckily for me, their selfie stop had caused such a traffic jam on the bike path, they had no chance of catching up to me any time soon.

Three for three. I was feeling hot.  Sure, the targets were easy (I was effectively shooting layups at this point) but it still felt good to dish out a little old-fashioned snot rocket justice on inconsiderate and unaware idiots.   Just as the phlegm began to reconvene in my sinuses, I spotted an interesting situation unfolding in the bike path ahead.

In one of the pedestrian crosswalks that bisects the path, there was a fat woman wearing a yellow bikini crossing with her two sons.  One of the children was halfway across when he decided to sit down.  Bikes and runners traveling southbound started slowing to a stop, waiting for the child to move.

The mother, who was behind her son, stopped in the crosswalk as well, blocking northbound traffic and started screaming at her son: “You’re in the way!” and “Move!”.  She had her arm outstretched and was pointing at the jam of bikes he had just caused, completely oblivious to the pile-up she was causing behind her.

As I approached, weaving through the traffic they were causing, the mother was no closer to her son and had still made no effort to pick up her confused toddler and move him from harm’s way. He was crying very loudly.  Screaming, really.

I covered my left nostril firmly just as she shouted, “Get out of the way!” at the top of her lungs and sent a tight ball of firm pink snot shooting towards her.  It hit her exposed shoulder and exploded like a water balloon, sending mucus globbing down her arm and back.  I could have sworn I heard some cheering from the congestion as I darted out of sight down the path.  Keepin’ it 100.  Unprecedented accuracy.  I was in the zone.

I jogged a couple uneventful miles, enjoying the ocean breeze and the mild temps.  Despite his early reticence, the In-N-Out employee ended up putting together a perfect concoction of thick-sliced American cheese and creamy, real ice cream milkshake.  The balls of snot conglomerated to a seemingly impossible size and held together perfectly as the flew through the air, only releasing on impact.  I tipped my Patagonia duckbill cap to him as I looked for a final target.

I had one solid piece of ammunition left; one that had been coalescing for the past couple miles and had finally gathered toward the end of my nostril, sitting prime to be ejected.  I turned my back toward the beach and headed inland, toward the traffic.  I approached the first intersection to find approximately 40 people waiting to cross the street.  I was still about 100 yards back when the light changed and they were given their little white man symbol to start walking.

Waiting at the light to turn right was a red convertible Maserati. The driver was incredibly irked that he had to wait for these people to cross.  He tried to jump out in front of everyone, and as that failed, I saw him throw his arms up in disgust.  He had to wait. System check: I slowly inhaled through my nose.  All systems were go.

The driver of the red convertible Maserati wanted to make sure that everyone knew how inconvenient this was for him, so he refused to sit and wait, he slowly kept inching forward into the crosswalk as the people walked past him.  By the time I approached, at the tail end of the the crossing pack, he was halfway into the crosswalk, still slowly inching forward, refusing to stop and wait for the pedestrians with the right of way to cross.

I only need three steps in the crosswalk to eclipse the front of his car, I was banking on the fact that as soon as I passed, he would slam the gas pedal to the floor and continue to his back-waxing appointment or wherever a dude that drives a Maserati goes.  To buy designer sunglasses?…

He did.  As soon as I was a fraction of an inch clear, he gunned it, cranking it hard right to get back into the first lane.  I stopped immediately in the middle of the intersection, pivoted on a dime and, my right hand already covering my nostril, unleashed the granddaddy of all the snot rockets that day, right toward the open cab of the car.

Time seemed to slow down.  The pinkish glob hung in the air for a moment, the sun reflecting off of it, turning it red.  For a split-second, I thought it might disintegrate in the air before reaching its target.  It was a huge, bulbous blob, way too big to be obeying the laws of physics, and it was somehow, someway holding together and floating toward the driver.

It almost hit him.  Instead, it hit the back of the headrest on the passenger side.  When it exploded I thought I could see and entire slice of American cheese being stretched inside it.  His white leather interior was suddenly stained pink.  His face, shoulders and chest were covered with snot, as well as the entire backseat.

He slammed on his brakes and stopped in the middle of the street, looking stunned.  He examined the damage like he had just been shot.  He didn’t know what to do.  The driver behind him honked.

I, on the other hand, felt like Michael Jordan in game six of the 1998 NBA finals.  I was floating.  I arrived back at home feeling refreshed, phlegm-free and utterly satisfied with my running experience.  Perfect way to kick off spring break.  Snot rockets in flight, it truly was an afternoon delight.

innnout
The perfect ammunition.

 

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.

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.