Monday, June 29, 2009

Western States - 2009

"AJ, look up there, around 11 o'clock, it looks like we've got company." My pacer Jeff Hutson spotted a light bouncing up to Robie Point about 20 minutes before the end of the WS 100. I knew I was in 11th place at the time (10th male) and I thought maybe, just maybe, I could reel one guy in. So, we ran, hard.

Then we hit Robie and turned onto the pavement. The light ahead was bobbing away.

"OK, AJ, now it looks like we've got someone behind us. Look!" Jeff pointed down to the road leading up to Robie. He was right, two lights were bobbing up the trail about 45 seconds back.

It was 18:30 into the race. I was battling brutally blistered feet and trying my best to stay positive. And, to add stress to the system, I was now in a battle for 10th male. I put my head down and powered up the climb (this would be the first time in 6 races at WS that I would run every step from No Hands to the Finish)

When we crested the hill the light ahead of us was out of sight but the light behind us was right there, closing. I knew I had five minutes left to hold my spot or end my streak of consecutive top-10's at WS. While I know it'll eventually come to an end I didn't want it to be now.

"I'm thinking, how fast can I run 1200 meters?" Maybe the speedwork would come in handy after all.

Well, by the time we got to the entrance to the track the light behind us was out of sight and Mark Lantz (the 9th place runner who had staged an amazing comeback from Foresthill) was rounding the final turn toward his 9th place finish. My kids came bounding up to me and we continued our sprint around the track. In the end I edged out Victor Ballesteros for 10th place by 20 seconds. He had surged from 26th place at Foresthill to 11th at the Finish. Incredible.

My 6th run at WS started oddly as the lead group of 40 or so runners took a wrong turn about five minutes into the race and added a bit of excitement to the proceedings and served to mix things up in the early going. I knew I was in for a long day when I started to blister at Red Star Ridge. It became clear that I would need to gut it out but with trashed feet and that my normally consistent downhills would suffer.

Since I have five years of data for comparison I was able to see how bad it really was. I ended up doing the descent to Duncan 6 minutes slow, the descent to Deadwood 5 minutes slow, the descent to El Dorado 8 minutes slow and the descent to Volcano 10 minutes slow. By the time I hit Cal Street my feet were thoroughly trashed and I knew my planned 2:30 was unattainable. Damage control was now the order of the day. Quads and stomach were fine but I knew the push to the finish would test my ability to balance, focus and persevere.

As far as the competitive aspect of the race, it proceeded as planned but only up to a point. I was 22nd at Robinson, 15th at Michigan, 10th at the River, and 10th at the Finish. In contrast to past years, I had nothing left to close with from the River. It was partly my fault but more an issue of the depth of the field and the quality of 100 mile racers who were in the mix.

Aside from the fact that I was quite surprised at the DNF's from Scott Jurek and Dave Mackey, there was absolutely no way to fake it into the top-10 this year. Kaburagi from Japan was incredible from start to finish and his 2nd place finish absolutely obliterated Tim Tweitmeyer's Masters' Course Record. Jez Bragg from the UK proved a bunch of prognosticators wrong and proved KiwiPaul correct. His 3rd place was the Real Deal. Jasper Halekas did what we all thought he could do and hammered out an amazing, pacerless sub-17 hour 4th place while Kevin Sullivan, from Andover, MA, who chased me through the hills of Vermont last July, established himself as the new beast of the East, with a sub-17 of his own for M5. Zach Miller, Leigh Schmitt and Erik Skaden all powered through amazing races and Mark Lantz got it right on his 4th try and got the top-10 he'd been striving for. In the end, it was truly an amazing group to be part of and I was happy to be the caboose.

Of course, just after Erik and before Mark and I came the extraordinary Anita Ortiz who showed that you can make the move from mountain running to ultras and concluded an extraordinary run leading to her new title as WS Champion. Not bad for a mother of four who took a wrong turn and passed me like I was standing still between Green Gate and ALT!

From my perspective, there are three important takeaways from this year's race:

1. Non-American runners should not be taken for granted anymore: The 2nd and 3rd place finishes by Kaburagi and Bragg have set a high bar. It'll be fun to see how it unfolds from here.

2. The East Coast has arrived: Sure, we've had Morton and Clifton but the races this year by Sullivan and Schmitt (as well as Miller who only recently moved west from Michigan, I think,) suggest a changing of the guard and could lead to some exciting races in the years ahead.

3. Experience, schmexperience! I admit that I have been consistently guilty of suggesting that course knowledge and race-day experience are critical to success at WS. Perhaps this is no longer true. In addition to the Women's Champion, of the top-7 men, only Hal had run the race before. Erik, Mark and I were the other "experienced" guys and we got our clocks cleaned.

As for me, I am currently en route to Silverton to begin my preparation for Hardrock. I have no idea what to expect but if it's half as exciting as my weekend at WS it will make for a summer to remember!

I'll try to write more when I get settled in Silverton. I hope you're all having a great summer!


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Giving it all

The recent news out of Southern California about Ben Hian's return to ultrarunning was, for me, truly inspiring. Ben is one of the sport's great guys who, in the '90's, dominated Southern California ultrarunning like no other. However, after a brutal DNF in the Vermont 100 miler in 1997 Ben slipped quietly away from the sport. Earlier this month he returned to run the San Diego 100 and won, edging out Tom Nielsen, his good friend and training partner, by less than 10 minutes. After the race, unfortunately, Ben was hspitalized with Acute Renal Failure and only released after 10 days.

This amazing comeback story with a near tragic end brought me back to my experience at the 2004 Angeles Crest 100. In that race I battled back and forth all day with Jorge Pacheco and Guillermo Medina only to come up short in the end. During the last 12 miles of that race I pushed myself harder than I ever had pushed myself before and, in the end, it was not enough. I finished 3rd in 19:53 and upon finishing slumped on the grass in pain.

At that moment I knew things were not quite right and I checked into the medical tent. I fainted a couple times and by the morning I ached all over, couldn't walk and my urine was dark brown. I knew then that I was experiencing the symptoms of Acute Renal Failure and I went off to the hospital. 7 days and 36 liters of IV fluid later they let me out. I would never be the same again.

I recall this experience in conjunction with Ben's comeback story because to me, in a strange way, these experiences epitomize the joy and sorrow of 100 mile racing. I am sure both Ben and I could have slowed down during the last 20 miles of our races to minimize the muscle damage and avoid hospital stays. But slowing down in the last 20 miles of a 100 mile race is not an option for us. We have not loved the sport for all these years by slowing down at the end. We love this sport because we stay in it until the end and push ourselves to, and sometimes past, the limits of our training and ability. That's what I did in 2004 and I vowed, at the time, to never do it again. Obviously, the problem was, I wasn't training hard enough!

On Saturday morning I will head out onto the Western States Trail to begin my journey to Auburn. I will do so trusting that my training and my focus will lead me to a finish with which I can be happy. I will also do so knowing that the last 20 miles are going to hurt and it will take all the physical, mental, and emotional strength I have to battle through and finish strong. I am hopeful that this will not result in another trip to the Emergency Room but you can rest assured, in the back of my mind, the memory of my 2004 race at Angeles Crest will be there as will the thought of Ben Hian's amazing comeback. By the time I circle the track at Placer High School I want to know, with certainty, that I have given everything in my body and soul to the trail. Then, I will be truly satisfied. See you in Squaw!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Fine Line

When I was a kid my dad always gave me a little talk pep before big games. After a bit of semi-helpful strategy and typical fatherly advice he would inevitably ask me The Question,

"Are you scared or nervous?"

I always paused, knowing the correct answer but asking myself for the right answer,

"Why does it matter? Aren't they the same thing?" I'd always say.

"No, Andy, they're not. If you're scared you want to get out of here and if you're nervous it means you're ready to play. It means you want the ball and you want it now"

Today, years away from interscholastic sports, I like to think I have wisdom and experience on my side in my own athletic pursuits and don't need silly pep talks for motivation. Nonetheless, my dad's words continue to resonate with me. I ask myself, on the verge of this year's Western States, "am I scared or am I nervous?" Do I want the ball or not?

In 10 days I'll scurry away from the starting line at Squaw Valley at the beginning of my 22nd 100 mile race since 2000 and my 6th Western States. At the time I will be thinking and feeling many things but most of all I will ask myself, "Am I scared or am I nervous?"

Each of the past five times in the race I have been nervous. I have been cautiously confident in my abilities to finish the race and with each passing year I have proven to myself that I can perform well in the midst of the high pressure environment of the Western States 100. Don't get me wrong, it's not the 9th inning of Game 7 of the World Series or the 18th hole at Augusta but for those of us who toe the line at Squaw this is our Super Bowl and you better be ready to put up or shut up. In other words, you better be nervous, not scared. In addition, even in this little bubble of pressure you better be ready to perform. Preparation is one thing, execution quite another.

Anyone who knows me or has read this blog knows that of all the people in ultrarunning the man I admire and respect the most is Tom Nielsen. Tommy taught me how to run these things back in the mid-late 90's and his lessons are still with me today. In fact, I look forward to Tommy's return to Western States in the not-too-distant future as I think he is a pretty good bet to take down Doug Latimer's 50-59 year old age-group record (18:43) and to have fun in the process. And, if I'm not mistaken, I think I am second behind Tommy in the guys-who-finished-2nd-behind-Jurek standings as I lost to Scott by 24 minutes and Tommy by less than 20 minutes. Nonetheless, the guy's a legend and he taught me everything I know.

And, of all the advice Tommy ever gave me the best was this:

"Look AJ, in the last 30 miles of a 100 miler everybody's hurting. Everybody is way beyond physical fatigue and mental, emotional, and psychological fatigue is setting in, Big Time. If you want to succeed in these things you need to know that, dig deep, and fight it. In the end, you need to race every step like there's someone three minutes ahead of you and someone three minutes behind you."

This year, no matter where you are, that is likely to be true!

That is why, in my opinion with 10 days to go, it's better to be nervous than scared.

Here's wishing everyone lots of nerves and no fear! And, if you want the ball, go get it.

This is the 5th and final installment of the 2009 Western States Synchroblog Project. This is an open topic so we’ve got a wide range of topics this time.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Women's top-4 from the poll

Nikki Kimball
Krissy Moehl
Bev Anderson-Abbs
Jenn Shelton

Not a bad top-4. Multi-time WS winner followed by Hardrock Course Record holder followed by multiple top-5'er followed by the woman with the fastest 100 mile time in recent years.

Anyone else getting ready to start this thing? I don't know about you but my car's already packed! And, the temperature's rising....

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Now what?

Anton, Max and Jon are out. Scott, Hal and Dave are the prohibitive favorites. A couple other guys are banged up and a bunch of others are really, really quiet. (Jasper's been running fast and hard, Eric has been altitude training for (gulp!) a month, and Erik and Graham are, well, they're Erik and Graham!)

What's the deal? Where are we today, 13 days before the big dance? Who really has what it takes to win, to be top-5, to, in the end, get it done with a top-10 this year?


Wednesday, June 10, 2009


I've just returned from a 26 mile, 4 hour and 40 minute run in the mountains. It was my last long effort before Western States. Everything felt good and I think I am ready to go. It's a good feeling. A full feeling. I familiar feeling.

However, there is also something sad about it. I must admit, I like to race. But, I love to train. In fact, I think the reason I run races is so that I can train and not the other way around. I know everybody's a little different about this and I certainly don't claim to be one of those "it's-all-about-the-process" types but the daily ritual of putting in the miles on the trails and building up to a place where I can be ready to race is invigorating and immensely satisfying. It's the build-up and the consistency that I find so inspiring.

Preparing for an event like Western States takes patience and perseverance. Every morning when that alarm goes off and it's still dark and cold out the voice in my head whispers to get moving. I want it to shut up but it can't. A few minutes into my coffee and I am thinking of the hour or two to come. Quite simply, those early morning training moments are the highlights of my day. As much as it hurts, I wouldn't trade it for the world. The feeling of grinding up that first steep hill 6 minutes after leaving my house is brutal in the moment but absolutely essential to my well-being.

Now, as I slip into taper mode, my life will change. In some ways it will be nice. I won't need to get up as early. I can slack off on a couple of the climbs on my daily loops. Hell, I can even skip a day completely if I want to! Over the next couple of weeks I will wallow in the fun of the energy piling up in my body and the excitement building in my heart. But I will also long for the all-over body fatigue that is with me as I go about my life, the subtle pressure I put on myself to get a little better every day, and the steady, daily grind of training hard over and over and over again.

I guess, when all's said and done, if I had my druthers I'd train more and race less. Maybe, in fact, that is what I should do.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Men's Poll Results and the Women's Poll

OK, well, even though I left out a ton of guys in my poll here are the top-10 from the readers of this blog.

Scott Jurek 175
Hal Koerner 168
Dave Mackey 134
Anton Krupicka 93
Eric Grossman 52
Erik Skaden 50
Graham Cooper 46
Jasper Halekas 46
Max King 43
Andy Jones-Wilkins 43

Interesting to see how the top three guys have such a gap on #4 who in turn has a gap on #'s 5-10. Wonder how the actual race will turn out? Anyone have some top-10 picks not on this list? Any top-3 dark horse picks?

And, take a minute to vote for the women over on the sidebar. Should be a great race!

PS -- Anybody out there have a hotel room they're not using in Silverton for Hardrock?