• Mama Bear 50 Recap – Round 2

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    This day last year I was frantically driving back and forth down a 2 lane road between the state highway and the Albert Moser campground near Preston, Idaho. I hadn’t heard from the race director whether the race was actually going to continue as planned, so I kept driving back to get phone reception in hopes of a voicemail or email that would tell me the race was a go. Nothing.

    I went back to the campsite and scouted out the surrounding areas including the start line and saw no sign of a race going on.

    4am came quick and next thing I knew a small ford ranger pulled up to the start area 15 minutes before the start of the 50 mile race. Finally! My race number – 1. 1 of 2 I soon found out. The few others that had registered didn’t show and it was just Rob and I standing there in silence as we realized we had the entire course to ourselves.

    Rob took off immediately as the race director verbally announced “start”. I was locking up the van at that point and he had already taken off. 3 miles in, I caught him on a climb and came to the realization of how much the day was going to suck.

    Here I am now, one year later, sitting in the same campsite wondering if anyone else is showing up, but this time I don’t care. I’m not stressed about it and if I’m the only one, then so be it. I’ve got the route programmed into my watch and I plan to reference it so that I don’t get lost as I did last year.

    For many people, one of the biggest appeals is the camaraderie associated with it. Hanging out the night before, being cheered on out on course, and then hanging out drinking beer afterward and talking about how the thought of quitting seemed so appealing at the time. It’s reflective of the mountain biking community and interesting to see the parallels despite the somewhat hostile attitude that is often shared between the two groups. Everyone has their own motivating factors for competing in ultra distance racing and mine is become a better version of myself. You learn a lot about yourself when you spend the time by yourself and that self-discovery can often be masked or avoided through social interaction and external gratification.

    Am I ready? I’m not completely sure. But here it goes.

    I wake up at 3:50, just minutes before my alarm is set to go off. Somehow, this always seems to happen, no matter what time I set the alarm for. I get up and immediately toss back a pre-mixed sweetened cold brew coffee with almond milk. Last year, it was bone chilling cold that morning so I whipped up a french press of unbelievably strong coffee, to the extent that my stomach was churning for the first several miles deciding if it wanted to reject it. This cold brew did the trick though. I rolled down past the race start and a couple miles down the road to the land of cell reception to make sure I didn’t miss any important phone calls, texts, emails, etc. I was kind of hoping in the back of my mind I’d have a couple of ‘good luck’ texts, but I had nothing beyond the usual social media clutter. Back to the race start to check in. I signed the same waiver as last year, but on the back of the paper this time. We spent a couple of minutes discussing whether the 50k and 50m started at the same place last year because he couldn’t quite remember. We were apparently supposed to start from the campground 1.5 miles down the road, but started at the Deer Cliff Inn instead – which explained the difference in recorded mileage last year. Now knowing the director, I got a good chuckle out of it as I hopped back in the van and sped down to the start line. I forgot one thing though… to give him my drop bag. I had plenty of time still to take it back down, but opted to just reload my hydration pack instead with the essentials I thought I’d need – a few bars, electrolyte mixes, and a spare pair of socks. My drop bag had a few other items including other foods I might crave and a spare set of clothes, but I knew I could manage without. I’d likely just be wasting time at Danish Pass sorting through it instead of moving on.

    So last year there were 2 of us. This year there were 6. 2 middle aged women who came from Twin Falls, one older gentleman who didn’t fit the traditional running physique, a middle aged oriental women who’s boyfriend was overly concerned about her, and Shawn. Leland Barker, the race directer is a peculiar guy, so I wasn’t surprised that his method for keeping time was a few old school wall clocks that it looked like he grabbed off the wall of his house the day before. They were all synced together and he had one at each aid station for official time keeping. I feel like anyone else would have been a little stressed, but I had a huge grin on my face as we watched the second hand round the final quarter of it’s revolution.

    “Shall we?”

    The 2 women from Twin Falls were waiting on the vault toilet that Shawn was currently occupying, but the other 3 of us took off down the road. It’s gonna be a long day I said to myself. At least I have a good playlist going to keep my mind occupied. I knew the course up through mile 30 at Danish Pass where I chose to drop out last year and I remembered the first several miles being quite grueling. 1 mile, 3 miles, 4 miles, it seemed like time was flying by. Around mile 4, I glanced back and caught the faint glimpse of a headlight creeping up on me. It took a bit, but a mile or so later, he caught up to me. Shawn (or Shaun?) was his name, and I was thoroughly expecting him to pass me with the pace he would have had to keep to catch me following his morning movement. We talk for a few minutes and discuss the upcoming turn – the one that was unmarked last year and got me and the other runner lost. “That was you?!”, he exclaimed. I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or be embarrassed so I chose to fill him in on the details instead. That’s when we hit the turn. The trail we were on continued straight, there were 2 side trails to our right marked with blue tape (bad), and then the crap shoot up to our left that was the way we were supposed to go. It’s the second steepest section of trail on course, but the longest consecutive. Maybe a mile and change of washed out moto trail and something like 1,500′ up? We reach the top and take the right turn – which was also unmarked last year. Leland did a great job marking, but the nature of marking a shared use trail multiple days before the event left open the possibility of people removing flags and ribbons not knowing what they were.

    We crest the climb and head down towards the water stop. A handful of gels and 2 coolers of water, we’re doing alright so far. Just a few miles to Danish Pass where we can check in and begin the 18 mile loop out towards Beaver Creek. The 50k runners continue from Danish over to Paris Canyon and back to the finish while we continue off and do our loop before heading to Paris. I’m a bit of a visual person, so imagine a figure 8, although only for reference, not actually proportional. The 50k runners turn around at the apex, while the 50 milers do the whole thing.

    I leave Danish a minute or two before Shawn but I knew he’d catch up. If either of us wanted to somewhat enjoy the day, we’d want to stick together as long as we could. He catches up and as we approach Beaver Creek and I start to have flashbacks of last year when Rob and I rolled up and his daughter decided to pace us to the next aid station. Where’s the watermelon? No watermelon this year, but they had hot boiled potatoes and salt ready which is by far my favorite food before or during an activity. A full potato later, we’re moving again. I’m jokingly looking off to the left where I tossed the remnants of the watermelon that left the aid station with me last year. We alternated between a walk and run for the next few rolling miles before hitting my least favorite part of the course. A handful of steep washed out uphills, with corresponding downhills. The trail builder could have easily made a straight line when designing it, but I imagine it is probably pretty fun on a dirt bike the way it is . We leapfrog each other on the up and downs depending on their grade, but when it leveled out, we were there side by side again. Just a few more miles to Danish (the apex of the figure 8). It’s easy dirt road miles in, but I think both of us were enjoying briskly walking it instead. Although hard to see in the picture, we had herded several hundred sheep along the way so we felt like we had earned a little break from all that hard work.

    Meanwhile, my left foot is bothering me. It feels like I bruised it stepping on an awkward rock in the previous days, but I can’t quite figure it out. It’s getting worse though. I’ve gone blister free up until this point, but it needs some attention.

    Danish Pass, round 2. We look at the check in board and realize the first time we came through, we had over an hour lead on the next runner. Huh. Apparently we’re not doing that bad. Even Leland was impressed with our time. A few fig newtons and a Mountain Dew were my choice, although you will never see me eat those on an average day. Sometimes you crave odd things during long distances. Toe socks were off and swapped to some traditional thicker socks in hopes that the ball of my feet would feel better with a little extra cushion, although minimal. We split up the hill and on to the later half of the course. 20 miles to go – 9 on the Highline trail, a few on dirt roads passing over power lines, then the choice for steep singletrack back or a slightly longer dirt road decent.

    Just 2 miles from the aid station we reach a ridge. Holy ****. You’re telling me that I was this close to seeing this last year but dropped out instead? The 50k runners definitely get it good since they get to see this beautiful section of trail early on. The trail is a series of bench cuts along the ridgeline mixed with steep chutes up and over varying knobs. Both Shawn and I were really digging it. A few miles passed without much thought other than how astounding the scenery was.

    My feet felt great up until mile 35 or so when the lack of buffer between my toes began to take effect. I wear toe socks (Injinji) to prevent these types of blisters, but thought I’d be safe switching over after the sandy parts of the trail had passed. As it got worse, I noticed myself slowly falling back on some of the descents from Shawn. Up until then, he mentioned my skilled footwork on technical downhills meant I should probably get in front, but the tables had finally turned. I hung with him as long as I could, but next thing I knew, I was glancing at him several hundred yards up the trail cresting a summit that I was soon to be on.

    Not really sure what to do any more. we’ve literally run 30 miles together, and there’s no sign of anyone else even remotely close to us. We passed a couple of people slowly hiking the 50k course, but they weren’t looking so hot. I guess it’s time to get the playlist going again. Find some music and slip into a hypnotic groove to round out the final 1/3 of the course. Just a couple miles from the Paris Canyon water stop around mile 40, I caught glimpse of a runner far off in the distance as Shawn passed him. The only thing it could possibly be is a 50k runner getting a second wind? Considering his pace, he shouldn’t still be on course this late. As it turns out, Daniel’s car broke down on the drive in that morning and had to hitch an Uber to the start. I didn’t even realize you could catch an Uber out that far of town, but he managed to do it and started the course 2 hours late. I step inside the tent at the water stop we talk for a few minutes as we both refuel on water and supplies. We both stepped into the tent a bit dehydrated as the stretch between the Danish and Paris is the longest stretch without aid. It’s roughly 11 miles at high elevation during the heat of the day which was maybe pushing into the low 80s. We’re both somewhat out of it as we stumble around the tent discussing how each other were doing. He’s feeling alright but bummed about his hectic and stressful morning.

    We take off together down the dirt road up and over the power line stretch out of Paris Canyon. It’s all downhill from here. On any other day, I’d be logging 7 and 8 minute miles down this descent. I’d be done in an hour no problem, but my feet were telling me otherwise. I held with Daniel as long as I could but I dropped back a couple of times to retention the laces on my shoes and walk for a minute. Somehow, I made it to the final water stop at mile 43 before he had left. Option number 1 was to take the road back 7 2/3 miles to the campground with a steady and gradual downhill all the way back, although with a lot of 4x4s and trucks flying by and kicking up dust. Option #2 was to take a ridiculously steep uphill trail over a ridge then an equivalently steep downhill over the other side before meandering down a quad trail back to the finish. It saves roughly a miles and avoids the road traffic, but it’s rough and steep. Maybe next year I’ll get to attempt it, but this year is was the road like Shawn and I had discussed. I knew with his feet being in better shape, he’d be flying down by this point. 

    Daniel took the trail and I took the road. The last few miles are always the hardest, but I knew in my mind that I was going to finish. Taking nearly 2 hours to cover a segment that would take you an hour on any other day is a hard thing to deal with. As stupid and straightforward as it seems, I found that not thinking about that was the ticket. Just focusing on the fact that I knew I was going to finish and how ridiculously beautiful the country surrounding me was kept me moving. Run a 1/3 of a mile, walk a 1/3. Doing the math in my head, I began to contemplate a sub 11 hour finish, but quickly realized that I was going to miss it by a few minutes at the rate I was going. The closer I got to the finish, the heavier the dirt road traffic got and I quickly had my bandanna out covering my mouth to filter all the dust and exhaust from passing vehicles. I walked in as Leland had his back turned talking to a 50k finisher and gave my bottle a little klunk on the table. He turned with a pleasant look of surprise on his face as he hadn’t seen anyone come through in almost an hour – the window of time that Shawn had managed to put on me in those final few hours. I was somewhere between 11:10 and 11:20 but I can’t quite remember.

    Shoes off, socks off. Woah. I made quick work of the smaller blisters, but I can’t say it was the most sanitary thing I’ve ever done. The others I took care of the morning after and here I am a day later and I’m already walking normal and contemplating going for a short crack of dawn mountain bike ride.

    As with every race I’ve done, I learned a lot. The interesting thing is that this time, it was mostly related to gear – socks in particular. I already know what I could do to remedy it from happening again, but unfortunately I’ll have to hobble around a few days while my feet recover. Mentally, understanding your current conditions and surroundings is the most important thing you can do. If you are self aware, you can correct problems or address them before they ever happen. Unfortunately, trying to remedy my problem created another, which was a bit ironic in this situation. Understanding that walk/running a 16 minute mile for 4 miles straight is what needs to happen is huge. If you focus on what you can do in other circumstances, you won’t be able to focus on what you’re able to do here and now. Every trail is different, every day is different, and sometimes the ones with the most challenges turn out to be the best.`

  • Overcoming The Slump

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    12 miles in I hit a wall, not mental but physical. It’s time to call it and go home. 18 miles at Waterfall Glen isn’t happening today.

    A month or so ago, I hit that wall running along Summit School road in Central Pennsylvania. 7 miles, cut short to 4. The view was worth it though.

    2 days ago I thought I could do 8+, but I settled for 5, with a few minute break in the middle.

    Yesterday, I woke up and ran 8 without and felt like I could have done twice that.

    Today I ran 10. The only thing I thought during those first to miles was “I’m back”.

    Some days I have it, some I don’t. Everyone thinks 15 miles is a cinch and that I could do that in my sleep. The reality though is that I face – at different levels – the same struggles mentally and physically that everyone else does, and sometimes admitting that is hard to do. Over the past few months, I’ve had times where my mind game has been off. I can’t explain it, its just not there. Maybe it’s the consistent 50+ miles weeks running solo in different places across the country. Maybe it’s some stress from work. Maybe its differences in elevation, climate, or terrain. I don’t know what it is, but it’s led me to dial things back for a week or two before Mama Bear 50, which I just registered for next month.

    Sometimes we just need a break, with hopes of leading to a renewed level of motivation. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s been hard to focus. I’d guess that over 90% of my miles this year will be solo. While I enjoy group rides and riding with friends, waking up to run for an hour or more a day is hard to align with others schedules and group runs that usually cater to the 9 – 5 class. Having this type of time riding and running by myself is something that I value and need, but when I run out of things to reflect on and stimulate the mind during that time, the ability to pass that time can seem futile. The alternative for many would be to relax and enjoy that time in silence and lack of movement, but I can only do that for so long before I feel like I need to move. I can sit in the woods in the peace and quiet and relax, but at some point I have to move. Additionally, it can be hard to battle all the social media, online content, or even work that I feel like I have to always stay in touch with.

    It’s also hard to see what it is while you’re in the midst of it. At some point, you just have to step back and see the bigger picture. One day you’ll wake up and realize that the thing you were dealing with has passed over and you barely noticed. I’ve noticed this particularly with my dog. I spend all this time working with him and training him over the past few months, and just yesterday I opened the door of my van and he hopped right in without me having to tell him. All the basic commands and actions he now has down and usually obeys, but it wasn’t until I saw the end result that I realized how much that hard work paid off. I tell him to stay while I scout out a section of trail, and next thing I know I’m 100′ down a trail and he hasn’t moved. Realizing what is going on and figuring out what tools you need to push through is the answer. I even got him to pose for a picture:

    I’ve never been one to use races for motivation, yet I’m currently registered for one. It’s the only event I’ve ever dropped out of, so I felt like some redemption was needed. That said, now that I’m registered, I’m really not all that excited for it. I raced 50 miles on my mountain bike a few weeks back and was reminded why racing isn’t always my favorite thing. I find it very interesting how often I can tell that to someone and have them thoroughly agree, yet they also tell me they are registered for several races in the following months. It’s a feeling that most can relate to, but can’t find an alternative motivation for, and at times I’m no different.

    The first several miles were spent passing countless people on the first few mediocre hills that the course had. Ore 2 Shore is a 48 mile point to point race with a net vertical loss. While there are plenty of uphills, the last few miles are nearly all downhill. Of the 48 mile course, I’d guess 6 are pavement, 2 are singletrack and the remaining 40 are muddy snowmobile trails and doubletrack following powerlines. My first issue happened 5 miles in where a rider had a bad shift on an extremely mellow climb and fell onto me. Rotor bent, dismounted and in a mangled mess with my bike, I fully comprehended and realized how little skill many of these riders have. I’m not fast, and compared to most, I’m not even that skilled on the downhills. Yet, apparently, against anyone in Michigan, I’m an animal. I managed to clean the most technical feature of the course referred to as “misery hill”. The next morning at our demo, I even had a participant refer to me as the “the man who cleaned misery hill”. Miles 40 or so, I hit a bit of a physical wall due to poor nutrition and hydration, but I roughed through it as I lost about 20 spots over the final few miles. Most of them were groups who had banded together or were teammates who were rallying to finish strong. Despite the poor nutrition, I hit a bit of a physical as well. Riding a bike I don’t normally ride, in a fixed position and clipped into the pedals, can ultimately cause certain areas like the knees and hips to hurt. In a way, that’s why I often find running easier when I just want to work out. Running in minimalists shoes allows me to correct my form and adapt to different types of terrain, rather than separating the rocks and roots from my foot with several millimeters of cushion. Being able to feel the ground allows the body to adapt quickly and efficiently and usually leads to fewer injuries.

    So that race was just that, the entire highlight reel isn’t worth more than a couple of sentences. I’ve knocked out a few 13+ mile runs with extreme elevation out in the wilderness areas in West Virginia to prepare. I might be ready, I might not be. I’ve switched from Pearl Izumi to Merrell and my form and gait have improved significantly. I’m also in the process of switching from a Solomon pack back to Nathan. Running poles, I’m not quite sure about on this race. Last time I did it, I used them for the first 15 then dropped them at the aid station in my drop bag. I might just forego them this time. Dependent on the weather, I’ll probably be in an old race shirt and a pair of clearance Brooks shorts. Everyone always asks me about nutrition, yet I feel like every run for me is different. Almost everything I’ll use this race will be a hammer product, with their bars and gels being my primary fuel. The frequency and variation will depend entirely on how I’m feeling.

    The last time I did a run of this intensity was in the Grand Canyon and I ate Clif bars. Lets just say, they passed through my system a lot faster than I would have liked. After running R2R2R I remember the drive back vividly and often joke about it. Leaving mid day from the campground, we hit the panhandle by nightfall, and subsequently needed to stop for gas. Once you get to Texas you can purchase cold beer from a gas station. You can also purchase oreos at said gas station. In addition, according to the driver, I was good to partake as long as I was in the back of the RV. Run 50 miles through a big ass canyon, then drink beer and eat oreos in the back of an RV someone else is driving? Absolutely.

    What do you think about over a 15 hour drive, with a pit stop to run for a couple hours? I still don’t know, but I did it this week. Maybe you think about the things you’ve done or maybe you think about what you’re going to do. Imagine when you’re trying to go to sleep. You can tell yourself to go asleep, but the simple fact of falling asleep involves not thinking about it. I feel like running can be the same way. I want to zone out early into a run and not think about anything, but I often find myself wrapping up a run and not realizing the point at which that actually happened – the same way that you can wake up in the morning and forget the things you were doing or saying right before you went to sleep, they just blend in with the dreams you’ve already forgotten. Maybe the key is never relying on the same technique or same thing. Today for instance, I looked up at the 4 massive radio towers and wondered what they did and how they were erected. Maybe I’ll look it up later, or maybe I’ll forget and think about the same thing tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow I’ll think about nothing except the music I’m listening to. Maybe I’ll be staring down at my watch wondering how much longer it’ll take to finish the last 3 miles.

    Every day and every run is different. Every ride is different. Every drive is different. Understanding what it takes to get through different situation is the ticket. Self awareness and critical thinking seem to be 2 common factors to my success over long runs. Whether or not I always enjoy every single part of a run, it always has meaning and they all combine to make me a better person.

    “And the days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations
    Well, I have really good days”

    Mother Blues ~ Ray Wylie Hubbard

  • Thoughts of an Ultrarunner

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    It’s been nearly a year and a half since I packed or sold what I owned and tossed anything valuable into a 49lb duffel bag so I could fly. While it seems like years ago, it also feels like I was just handed the keys to this rig yesterday. I write not to brag about all the cool things I’ve done or to complain about how hard things can be at times, but to hopefully inspire you in your own journey. Long drives, runs, and rides have given me time to reflect recently in ways that are hard to convey to others. Nearly a month ago now, I wrapped up several days at a festival in central PA and found myself with the opportunity the day following to run a 28 mile stretch of singletrack along the Standing Stone Trail. Sitting there with Helena and Evan in State College, I was offered a free lift to 1000 steps, the start of the segment. 1 beer in, I was on the line. A sip of the second, and I decided I was in. After breakfast, Evan went to pick up a friend before stopping by and giving me a lift to the trailhead. Here goes nothing.

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    1000+ strategically placed steps in the first mile or so was a hell of a way to start out, but it was incredible to experience such beautiful trail building. While I don’t want to bore with the details of every single stretch of trail, I learned a lot about myself. I mean, this was a random Monday morning in May that I decided to run 28 or so miles along a gnarly stretch of punishing singletrack solo and self supported. Helena was nice enough to watch my dog G (Geronimo) while I was out and was my ride home once I hit Greenwood Furnace. While a lot of pictures remain solely in my head, the emotions I experienced along that trail linger with me daily – just like those I experienced at Palo Duro 50, Old Pueblo, and even R2R2R. Although nobody was there cheering me on along the course, the feeling that it was something I NEEDED to finish was overwhelming. While nobody really truly cared whether I finished, I knew I had to. On the final stretch, Helena ran up from Greenwood Furnace until she ran into me (literally) right before the overlook and we turned around and finished the final piece of mellow singletrack back to the trailhead. That final mile is more clear in my mind than the other 27.

    Finishing it has now become one of the many stories I have that inspires others. Talking with a friend today, I discovered that is all I really want. I don’t want you to take up running. I don’t want you to go vegan. I don’t want you to live in a van. I want you to see how those choices have affected me in a positive way. I hope that through my lifestyle, I can inspire you to improve yours. I’m learning things every day, both riding, running, and personally. Learning and improving yourself constantly is what it’s all about. If you’re not improving, you’re going backwards.

    While I don’t consider myself “religious” anymore, I do consider myself to be more spiritual than ever. Sitting along the edge of the Blue Ridge Parkway in the spring and watching the sun rise and set over the mountains is something truly incomprehensible. Is it about the mountains? The sun? The colors? The clarity? What is it that makes that moment so enjoyable? What is it about a mirror-like pond in the middle of NH several miles into a trail that makes me just want to stop and take in the beauty of it? Is it because we were meant to live like that or is because I’m just that weirdo dirtbag, hippie, runner that lives in a van?

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    The things I’m discovering are not new to our society. This isn’t some revolutionary idea that people struggle dealing with and comprehending. It’s something that has been and always be a part of humanity. Why don’t we do it more? Why are most people’s lives base their days off or vacations around trips into the mountains or woods? How many people do you know that just want to go camping on their days off? How many people do you know that want to take trips to go hiking or mountain biking on their vacation? This isn’t something new, and while these things bring a sense of comfort to us while we work 9-5 in the office, the real beauty is that they actually bring us back to this primal feeling that we need to be outdoors. There’s so many way to experience this feeling and running has been the most raw and unadulterated way for me to satisfy that need.

    I’m running around Pico mountain these last few days and I’m wondering when I’m going to hit the summit. I’m climbing, yet I’m not there. Will I ever be there? After taking a drink from the fresh spring near the summit, I’m descending down towards the trailhead at an unfathomable speed. G is on my tracks and I’m running without poles or a bottle since there’s fresh water along the trail. My mind empties of everything – only me and the trail. I don’t even have to worry about the dog since he stays right on my tail. I reach the bottom and wonder what happened over the previous 3 miles. The same way that most people go for a ride with friends and have conversation during it to pass the time. Finish a ride and try to retell the entire conversation you had during your run. It just doesn’t work like that. Your body needs a time to prioritize memories while flushing out things that don’t matter. When you finish a 50 mile run, what matters most? The struggles you dealt with along the way, or the fact that you actually finished what you set out to do? If you have something you need to do, do it. If external gratification is your goal, instead focus on what you will gain yourself and focus on how your experience will inspire others.