Monday, May 26, 2008

It's the Hard That Makes it Great!

A few years ago I was entranced by a movie called "A League of Their Own." In this film a character played by Tom Hanks takes on the role of managing an all-women's baseball team during World War II. In one particularly poignant scene a distraught Geena Davis complains to Hanks.

"This is so damn hard!"

Hanks replies, "Damnit, it's the hard that makes it great!"

This scene came back to me today as I was climbing a local mountain with good friend and fellow ultrarunner Mike Stevens. We were putting a cap on a long Memorial Day Weekend of training. After long runs on Saturday and Sunday we were in the midst of a 20 mile, 5000 foot run. It was hard, and it was great.

As people who know me can surely attest I believe that success in 100 mile trail runs depends as much on the head as it does on the legs. Certainly, hard, steady training is necessary but training the mind is more subtle, more nuanced, and, to me, more important.

There will come a time in the last 20 miles of a 100 where my body will say, "stop, slow down, just get 'er done. This is hard." In those moments I remember Tom Hanks and I say, often literally, "It's the hard that makes it great!"

We are now less than five weeks away from the Western States 100. The field is stacked with some of the best ultrarunners in the nation. It seems that everyone is training harder and longer than ever before and as more attention comes to the sport the stakes get higher and higher.

And so, my questions are;

Who has it between the ears to win the race this year?
Who has what it takes physically and mentally to get to Placer High School first?
Who is going to get it done?
Indeed, who is going to spend the next four weeks working on that mental side?
Who out there will be able to say, when the body says stop, GO!


Monday, May 19, 2008


We finally had some heat in the Northern Rockies this past weekend with temps in the mid-80's. It wasn't exactly what they had in Auburn but it was a good start to the heat training cycle.

I managed a 15 miler on Friday afternoon, a 32 miler on Saturday midday and a 30 miler on Sunday. My S! cap intake is slowly declining and my body seems to be adapting to more stress. The timing seems right with six weeks to go and I am feeling tired but focused.

It was also quite exciting to follow the Walker/Knipling battle at Masanutten. Knowing how stressful the last 20 miles of 100 milers can be made that particularly provocative. Congrats to both runners for a great race.

And, finally, it's now time for full-on hardcore training. I'll be trying to get in 110-130 Miles Per Week for the next four weeks and hopefully my body will hold together. In the meantime, I hope everyone's training is on track.


Monday, May 12, 2008

Every second counts...

I was reminded of the fact that "every second counts" in the last few days as our small community here in the Northern Rockies lost a beloved community member to a tragic automobile accident on Friday night. Gary Hunt, co-owner of the local independent book store and all-around good guy, lost his life tragically on Friday night. He leaves behind his wife Sarah, his two-year old daughter Penelope and three stepchildren.

As you might expect this is the kind of event that hits a small mountain community like ours quite hard. Furthermore, as a school person, the impact on the children and on all the families in our school community can be particularly traumatic. As a result, much of my attention over the past few days has been drawn toward supporting and nurturing members of the school community in this trying time.

Of course, I also need to look after myself and at a time like this running the trails provides that opportunity. In between phone calls, meetings and conference calls a nice run on the trails gives me a chance to reflect, collect my thoughts, and prepare for the next thing on my list. And, it gives me another reminder that "every second counts".

I remember saying those words to my pacer Craig Thornley during the last four miles of the Angeles Crest 100 in 2005. We had just finished hammering 5 miles downhill in the hope that we could catch Guillermo Medina who was running six minutes ahead of us. Upon reaching the Millard Aid Station we were told he had extended his lead to 9 minutes. It was tough news to hear but the truth nonetheless. So, on the climb up from the campground we re-grouped, Craig said nothing and I said, "Crap man! Every second counts! Let's move!" We hammered those last four miles in 28 minutes.

I ended up in 2nd place 9 minutes behind Guillermo with an Angeles Crest PR of 19:45. I have not been back to the race since then but the memory of making every second counts still persists. Tonight, as I think about the loss of a friend and the gift of this life, that mantra is particularly poignant.


Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Obsession with Western States 100

This is not AJW here, but rather LB, one of the "anonymous" Oregonians who has been friends with AJW for quite a few years. Last weekend I suggested he let me guest blog, and I was surprised when today he gave me the password and said have at it. Really? Should I write a post in third person pretending to be him? That could be fun. Should I tell you about the AJW that I know? Nah, we'll just all keep our own view of the guy. Who knows, maybe when you're around him he's a quiet, shy, unassuming, selfless, muscular, fearful, self-effacing, weak-willed, athletic, self-sacrificing, following, modest, giver. Or maybe not.

Instead, I decided I'd write about something that he and I share in common: an obsession with Western States. Last weekend before the ICS run we were sitting in Michigan Bluff talking about the race when a guy we call Tapeworm, a skinny 2:26 marathoner who raced his way into States at Way Too Cool by outkicking Jurek in the last 1/4 mile, said reluctantly, "There is more to life than Western States..." The room went silent (which is a very difficult accomplishment when AJW, Monkeyboy, and I are together), and we all just stared at him. What? What planet do you live on? It's May 2nd, the day before the ICS run, the 9th day of our 10 day training camp in Michigan Bluff, and less than 60 days before the race. What else could there possibly be?

AJW and Me

My obsession dates back to 1978 or 79 when I was a wee bit of a lad growing up in Cool, California. I found myself inadvertently camping at about the 85 mile mark of the WS course. These guys kept coming by all tired and dirty asking us where the aid station was. I was just a high school mile and two-mile runner back then, but the allure of the event had captured me. For the next 20 years I found myself working at Dusty Corners, crewing, pacing, and sometimes just watching. Even before I ran the race for the first time in 2001, I would camp at Devil's Thumb or Michigan Bluff or Driver's Flat, and go for runs on the trail. When I would come home to visit my mom in Cool, I'd almost always include a run to Auburn from ALT. This year I'm going to attempt my 6th States, and at 44 years old I'm just as excited about the race as I was as a 16 year old.

So why does this race have such a hold on me, and why would I want to share this?

I've thought about the first question a lot over the years because I'm often asked it. The course is definitely a big part of it. The history of the miners and the booming towns is fascinating. Running through Deadwood and into Michigan Bluff it is easy to imagine the life of the miners who gave up easy lives elsewhere in the hopes of striking it rich in California. Some might see the greed of those miners, but I see the adventurous spirit. A willingness to put it all on the line to make a better life for their family. Look at the headstones at the Masonic Cemetery in Michigan Bluff sometime.
Headstone at Michigan Bluff

Then there is the high country ... the river canyons ... the oak and pine trees ... the bears, cougars, ticks, foxes and rattlesnakes ... the trail is an authentic path through the Sierras. Start in Squaw; go to Auburn. Sure there are some other 100 mile courses that are point-to-point, but none that follow a less-contrived path. Yes, I love the course.

The training is also a huge part of the reason for my obsession. My wife and I have taken a 10 day vacation in Michigan Bluff for each of the last five years. Before that I used to camp in the area alone. For what? To train for WS. Classic group training runs such as the ICS (Cal2 to Swinging Bridge and back) and the Peace Run (Robinson to the River). Solo runs around ALT, Browns Bar, and No Hands. I can't tell you how many times I've run Cal St. The camaraderie of the group we had for ICS last weekend was pretty cool. There were nine of us. We all ran our own pace, but we frequently regrouped at agreed upon places: Foresthill, MB, Pump, Swinging Bridge, Pump, MB, Foresthill store, the car. The faster folks had to wait for the slower folks, but nobody complained. There is also a group of runners in Eugene who train together each year for States. We meet regularly on Wednesdays for workouts. Each year we have one or two new folks, but there is always a core training for that race in California at the end of June. Yes, I love to train for States.

But the race is also a big part of the obsession. 1300 volunteers, many of whom are not, never have been, and never will be runners. The competitive field. The number of runners who peak for this race. The pre-race hype which is often too much. It's exciting to watch the first timers, whether they are 19 hour runners or 29 hour runners. I enjoy racing with the veterans. Twietmeyer, Terry, Nielsen, Fitzpatrick, Trason, DK, and AJW ... If you're running the race this year, take some time to recognize how many people are out there to help you get through. Pacers, crew, aid station workers, etc. It is a staggering number at the river crossing alone. For me, this is the race that matters most.

So why did I choose to share this instead of doing the other 100 things waiting for me in my Inbox after a 10 day vacation? Especially when the race is getting harder and harder to get into, and as the field gets more competitive it gets more and more difficult for me to get into the race? Hmmmm, maybe I shouldn't have shared that. Because, as AJW has told me, I'm a connector, and look forward to sharing the trail with you on June 28. Thanks, AJW, for letting me post.

Craig Thornley
Eugene, Oregon

Monday, May 5, 2008

Ice Cream Sandwich

I made it to the Western States Course this weekend for 82 miles of training. Friday I did two shortish runs between Foresthill and Devil's Thumb and then on Saturday ran from Cal 2 to the Swinging Bridge and back. All in all it was excellent training. Here are the stats:

Foresthill to Michigan Bluff: 1:00
Michigan Bluff to Foresthill: 0:57
Michigan Bluff to Devil's Thumb: 1:29
Devil's Thumb to Michigan Bluff: 1:17

Cal 2 to Swinging Bridge: 5:20
Swinging Bridge to Devil's Thumb: 0:33
Devil's Thumb to El Dorado: 0:38
El Dorado to Michigan Bluff: 0:41
Michigan Bluff to Foresthill: 0:57
Foresthill to Cal 2: 1:14:40 (with Craig Thornley leading the way)

Now, here is the story:

The highlight of the entire weekend was the group I ran with. An intrepid band of quasi-successful Oregonians have been doing the Ice Cream Sandwich Run ever since they poached the idea from Tim Twietmeyer years ago. And, as much as they moan and complain about just about everything, they are actually pretty good people.

Of course, they are also a highly sensitive lot so in the interest of privacy they shall remain nameless. However, I should also say that I was quite happy and relieved to be joined by two Californians who proved to be pleasant company throughout the day. So, the run:

We started at a very relaxed pace up from Cal 2. It was cool and sunny and I was exhilerated to be out on the Western States Trail. We passed the time swapping stories of past Western States Runs and I enjoyed telling some of the new guys about the splits we were making. You know, stuff like, "from this bush it's 6 minutes until the second creek crossing where I usually eat a gel." I think they thought I was a bit obsessed. And, the truth is, I am.

We got up to Foresthill in 1:48, topped off our bottles and ran steadily to Michigan Bluff in 1:07 where our Aid Station was. The "womanfolk (Craig's title!)" had stocked a cooler with cold sodas, turkey/avocado sandwiches and my personal favorite, sugar coated S! Caps. After fueling up we began the trip through El Dorado. Running a relaxed pace we got to the bridge in :22 and then up to the pump in 1:20. Then, it was off to The Thumb and down into Deadwood. This would be the last stretch of easy running all day.

It was warming up nicely by the time we re-grouped at the Swinging Bridge and the smack talk had started in earnest. I will not go into details but let's just say the Idaho/Oregon Challenge is going full tilt.

I wanted to get to the Thumb in :33 and a steady walk got me there. I was still feeling tired but was ready to push the downhill. The drop into El Dorado is by far my favorite part of the course and I wanted to see what I had in my downhill legs after 6 hours of running. I got to the creek with two other anonymous Oregonians at my heels in :30 from the pump. Four minutes faster than my race day split. I got back to Michigan Bluff in :41 and was ready for another break. More sandwiches, sodas, and S! Caps before we were off to Foresthill! I got there in :57.

At that point, we were at the crux of the workout. Everybody ate an Ice Cream Sandwich and drank a can of Coke. That is Tweit's requirement. No exceptions. Then, we had to run to Cal 2 in 1:15. Doing so without puking makes the run a success. Losing your cookies, means you are a pathetic failure and a DNF is the likely outcome for the race. With Craig's able leadership, we made it to Cal 2 in 1:14:50. A virtuoso performance by a true trail running legend.

After hiking to the car and driving back to Michigan Bluff we assessed the damage. All was good. Time to rest, or whatever...

My conclusion from the weekend:

I think my 16:34 goal is possible in benign conditions and I am ready to give it a try this year. If the weather on race day is more like 2006 than 2007 then my time will be more like 18 and change. Now we'll just see how the next six weeks go.

And, as for those pesky, anonymous Oregonians: There are a couple of superfast first timers in that bunch who need our attention. Then, there are the crafty veterans in the bunch who have both worn "M" numbers in the last five years. Also, there's a really fast "F" runner in there who is really fit and just returned from the Olympic Marathon Trials. And finally, there are those Californians. As usual, watch out for them!

Time to train. This is the best time of the year!


Thursday, May 1, 2008


May 1st is always an exciting day for me in my preparation for Western States as it marks the beginning of my heaviest training month. As much as I love the race, it is the training that ultimately makes it all worth while. I have found that as I get older and slower the training takes on added significance as it not only fuels my fitness but my emotional well-being as well. This year, in particular, training has provided an excellent outlet for stress and tension.

I am particularly psyched about the coming weekend as I will be on The Course for 16 miles late Friday afternoon and then 52 long, tough miles on Saturday. I look forward to the first weekend in May more than just about any other weekend of the year.

And, I am curious, for other Western States runners out there, what are your May training plans?