Monday, 25 June 2012

Western States III

Top of the Escarpment at 4 miles; photo by Drymax Socks

Writing up something about the 2012 Western States 100 could be a 10,000 word novella but I'm going to save that version (including swearing and long descriptions about being generally very uncomfortable) in my head.

Bryon Powell's irunfar has covered most of it in minute detail, mainly summarized here so instead I'll give a quick overview of one of the most memorable and inspiring days in trail running history. Admittedly there were a few top runners who either didn't enter or had to miss the starting line, but on paper it looked like the men and women would be racing to new levels of excellence.

After doing the 2010 and 2011 races, both with what were considered to be faster snow course diversions, I was looking forward to the full course. Weather reports suggested it'd be cold and wet early on then not very hot at all later and these proved to be true.

In summary, it started cold with rain then snow, sleet and hail. Winds cooled things down further and it wasn't until getting below 5,000ft for the first time after maybe 40 miles that temperatures became more comfortable. The canyons were mild and the hottest temperatures all day were barely over 70F (around 20C) - way lower than the usual furnace.

A lead pack of six hit the Escarpment summit at four miles and these guys pushed each other all day. After reaching that point a few minutes behind and around fifteenth, I zoomed down the first descents and really enjoyed the lack of snow on the course. I wasn't trying to eat into their lead, but went a little too fast and so had sore thighs from very soon afterwards which groaned at me all day. But thanks to the lead pack (Wolfeman, DBo, Jesus 2, Smokey (see the cigar photos of Nick Clark), Elder Statesman Mackey and the Zeke) getting lost along the still-marked 2011 snow diversions for a few minutes, I was somehow in the lead with Ryan Sandes.

They caught back up, then by Duncan Canyon at 23.8 miles I was with Ryan and they had a small lead. Some walking left me in eighth as they climbed to Robinson Flat, but I went past Zeke who looked rough. I wished him luck and suggested he spend a few mins in the next aid station to recover (he did and then had an amazing surge late on to come in sixth) then powered on in seventh, which I held solo for about eight hours. Annoyingly, the six ahead were together and at each aid station I was told this, so knew that catching one of them meant getting back in the lead.

But by Foresthill at 62.0 miles the group had spread slightly with Timmy leading and powering on to his new, super-human, course record. I was 18 minutes behind him and just behind Nick who supposedly looked rough and would be 'easy to catch' according to the volunteers. He wasn't and his ability to come back from the dead suggested more Jesus-like powers, combined with the beard...maybe that does help (beard thoughts). Or maybe his strength comes from the beard, like Samson. Whatever it is, it's biblical.

With my pacers along to help me out, I hoped to capitalize on the easier running in the course in the last 38. Instead I'd used up my ammunition too early and could only grunt through to the finish, albeit fairly steadily. Mike Wolfe was seen after the river doing a slow walk and I thought he was dropping at Green Gate (79.9 miles) but he battled on like at last year's UTMB and still finished a respectable eighteenth man.

Some miles went by well but I was in more pain than previous years, compensated for by being better trained for the hills and starting the race fresher than 2010 or 2011. All I wanted was to break 16 hours and I'd take whatever position that meant. I needed around 10 minute miles for the last 20 miles and kept pushing through miserable sections, just wanting it to finish. With a couple of miles to go I caught Dylan Bowman who was spent, then kept going with a little sprint around the track at the end, mainly to get it over with faster.

Here's a video of the first 10 men finishing and another of the first 10 women too. Plus Greg Lanctot was kind enough to scream at me while shooting me sprint round Placer High track:

I'd describe it as the hardest day of my life (yes, I've led a sheltered life) but with the consolation that as soon as you stop, much of the pain and effort evaporates. Focusing more on this race in 2012 has helped but there are still a lot of things to work on for next year, as I'm sure there will be for the following year, etc. Much as it felt like hell for most of the day, there's something irresistible about the race, not least the level of competition.

Six of us broke 16 hours when only nine had ever done this before and most had done it on supposedly faster (but hotter) courses. Anyway, irunfar can give you all the stats and full results are here. I was extremely happy with 5th in 15:54 and a third top 10 finish. But hats off to so many people for their speedy running, particularly Timmy and Ellie's ground-breaking course records of 14:46 and 16:47.

Damned good runs by Oregonians too with three in the top 10 men and the same in the top 10 women. Too many great performances to mention but it'll be worth reading all the blog reports and irunfar will link to plenty of them once they've been written. Thanks to everyone who helped to put on the race, help out or just turn up and especially to my pacers Zach Violett and Jeff Caba. Somehow listening to me grunt for several hours didn't put them off the race at all.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Dirty Half Marathon

The past two years I've had my Junes filled with Western States and the Dirty Half Marathon in Bend two weeks before. Usually I also had Comrades two weeks before that but this year in an effort to be slightly more sensible (unlike Ellie Greenwood who foolishly put in lots of effort for her close second place at Comrades just three weeks before WS - tut, tut [head shake]), I skipped Comrades and the days of flying it involves.

Last year I opted to run the Dirty Half in 10 layers of clothing for heat training and most people kept asking if I was ok or if I wanted to leave some layars at an aid station. I didn't. This time I tried going for a hard run, especially since it's a competitive race with the leaders gunning for the national USATF half marathon trail title. It's really a race for second since Max King rolls out of bed each time after a hard shorter distance race the day before (this time it was an Olympic Trials qualifying time of 8:36 in the 3,000m steeplechase in Portland). He won in 1:15, as expected. 

The course is pure Central Oregon with beautiful, twisty single-track trails through the pine forests with plenty of sandy-colored background inbetween thanks to this being the beautiful Central Oregon High Desert. Not too much ascent, just rolling and sharp mini climbs. Basically really fun and fast for most of it. I managed a 1:20 so was happy with 8th and some faster running on trails thaan I usually would do.

Everyone had a great time, but later that day we found out there was a real tragedy that one man had collapsed on the course and died. The organizers weren't at fault at all and put on a fantastic event again, but there's always that chance that something can go wrong with any extreme exercise, as accidents can happen anywhere, any time.

The women's race was tight with local Marci Klimek edging out Colorado's Megan Kimmel in a sprint to the line in 1:24. My North Face team-mate (and Bend resident), Steph Howe rounded out the podium in 1:26 after winning her third Pole, Peddle, Paddle race the month before. Full results here. Come and do this sell-out trail race next year.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Do Ultra Beards Make You Run Faster?

Nick Clark - definitely bearded

At the end of last year I made a few light-hearted predictions about ultrarunning in 2012, including that ultra beards would go out of fashion. From what I've seen so far this year the men with beards still have beards. But for anyone trying to emulate their achievements, the important question beards make you run faster in the mountains?

Using rigorous scientific methods which I'm unwilling to disclose, I've decided that the secret to success does not lie in some kind of Samson-like ability from not cutting your hair anywhere. Western States and Hardrock will put this to the test in the US but here's a sample comparison for interest's sake:


Tony Krupicka (injured)
Geoff Roes (taking time off to get back his mojo)
Nick Clark (see photo above which I'm posting again - clearly there are some issues)
Joe Grant (calls everything 'douche grade' and wears racing flats to do muddy, technical, Spanish mountain races)
Timothy Olson (seems to be winning a lot of stuff and providing a ray of hope for pogonophiles)


Kilian Journet and all the Europeans (they seem to do well in general)
Dakota Jones (pretty sure he couldn't grow a grizzly beard yet but this isn't holding him back)
Mike Wolfe (with a name like that you might expect a beard, but it would just get in the way of him Tweeting)
Dave Mackey (Ultrarunner of the Year 2011 with zero beard)
Adam Campbell (on fire, so it's lucky he doesn't have a beard to burn)
Anna Frost (unstoppable and definitely beard-less)

Clearly beards are not benefiting runners in 2012 as much as, say, in 2010. My own accidental experiment with a pathetic beard while I forgot my razor in Chamonix did seem to suggest I was improving...but that could well have been down to training rather than mystical beard-related powers. The beard has gone and I haven't slowed down, so I believe it was either too weak a beard or just didn't help anyway.

I'm also fairly confident that beards don't make women faster. I'm yet to see a woman with a beard win a race, although I'll admit there may be a few further back in the pack.

The predictions in full and how they're panning out:

1. Mike Wardian will win at least one really major trail ultra, finally proving that he can find his way through the woods as well as run fast. It's only mid-season so Mike has at least 30 ultras left this year and I'm confident he'll win plenty.

2. Several people will run under 14 hours for 100 miles on various surfaces and at least a couple will break 13 too. Mike Morton is making this true all by himself with three already in 2012, plus Hal Koerner knocked out a 13:24 at Rocky Raccoon. I think there's still scope for some sub-13h action this year.

3. Western States will be run on the normal course and won't be as fast as the past two years. Looking like a safe bet, but with such a classy field they may well run the fastest full course time to break the 15:40 best by Mike Morton.

4. Some men you've never heard of will win big ultras in the US but you'll have the same names for the women at the front of the top races. Ok, this hasn't really happened yet but it's only the start of the main summer season.

5. China will join the ultra bandwagon, train up some marathon runners and send them to races to make them the 'Salomon' of 2012. These runners will then run away at the finish line and claim asylum. I've heard there's a secret program and these Chinese runners will be at the Olympics then will become British citizens.

6. North Korea will try to copy this 'success' but their runners will run away before the starting gun even goes off. I think they're too messed up to know what the Chinese are up to right now.

7. Races in the Euro area will become very cheap (to the rest of the world) as the currency becomes monopoly money. This is happening to an alarming degree and if Greece leaves the Euro, as it looks like they may, then plan to do some cheap trips to Europe.

8. In the quest for lighter and more minimalist shoes, one company will come up with the idea of injecting shoes with helium, which will lead to hilarious accidents on course as people with squeaky voices limp into aid stations. If anyone does this I'm suing as it's my idea and I'm in America so I'd probably win.

9. Ultra beards will go out of fashion. See above.

10. A tribe from the Amazon will be discovered who run all day and night in Hoka-like shoes and have done for centuries. A book will be written and Scott Jurek will race them. I'm really hoping there's an explorer down in the Amazon who'll find a lost tribe who run all day with dead leopards stuck to their feet and that these large, cushioned shoes allow them to achieve untapped levels of running. If so, I'll let Scott know and he can take a break from his book tour.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Chamonix in Photos - Mountain Training

I just got home from a month away in Europe where I fitted in more mountain running than ever before. It's eye-opening to try to fit in more vertical than I'm used to and on gradients that are steeper than I'd usually train on (up to 1,900ft/mile - definitely not douche grade as the Skyrunners described easier slopes!). I have an even more deep-founded respect for the guys who can fly up those slopes and achieve things like 30-minute Vertical K times (a 3,300ft climb over 3 miles or less).

Combining the volcanic slopes of La Palma for the Transvulcania race, then muddy slopes of the Spanish Pyrenees for Zegama-Aizkorri was tough. Then an easier weekend at the Northants Ultra 35 miler with just 2,000ft of ascent before heading to Chamonix to run around the Mt Blanc area and 'run' (ie hike) up thousands of feet per day and trash the legs on the downhills. And all while watching the Comrades Marathon jealously from afar, especially the incredible runs from Ellie Greenwood (2nd), Jo Zakrzewski (4th) and Devon Crosby-Helms (5th) and Mike Wardian battling through pain from the start line to still run 6h03m, only half an hour off the men's lead.

There's an obvious trade-off within training that if you run up and down mountains all day long you lose some of that speed for the flatter races and specialization is the key to success within the increasingly competitive men's fields. For example, just nine minutes separated the top 10 men at Comrades. So this summer I'm giving Western States a bit more respect and training for it rather than the road races. It's just 17 days away and I'm getting kids-at-Christmas giddy about it. As a nice reward, I got some of the views below within the last week.

Chamonix Vertical K course up a ski slope