Sunday, August 12, 2018


“How was Hardrock?”

A simple question. How do I answer this? To be blunt, it was fucking amazing! I only made it twenty miles which took a painfully slow nine hours by the way. But it was everything you would envision it to be, multiplied by ten. All the YouTube videos you see of the beauty of those trails and the generosity of the people, it’s all that and more. The mountains there are simply stunning. I can’t emphasize that enough. The fact that I didn’t finish is muted by the massiveness of the landscape and of the kindness of the folks that dwell within it. You just have to experience it.

“So what happened?” 

Takes a deep breath. Leans back in chair. Exhales. 

Another three word question but this time not so simple. 

I’ll start with this. Hardrock for me, I truly feel, is on the very edge of what I am capable of doing. When I think of it now several weeks later it seems bigger to me and I am more in awe of the runners who do it. I am much more intimidated by it now having seen a glimpse of what it is. It is a different kind of beast. It is layered and complex but at the very same time so simple. It can destroy you physically and inject doubt leaving you on the verge of tears. And most importantly, this mountain range can kill you. Being out there in the San Juan’s running alone you immediately get the feeling that the place is a living breathing entity. It’s alive and you can feel it. It is so wild and so vast and so dangerous, and it is glorious! 

I feel Hardrock is more of a mountaineering race then a mountain run. You are not simply climbing some hills and running along on some mundane trail. You can't really just zone out and whatever happens well, happens. There is almost a heightened awareness that is required. You are faced with choices during this event that you never need to deal with in other hundred milers. The altitude alone is crippling and managing your body and pacing becomes so vital. This is a sustained high altitude event that basically starts at 10,000 ft and only goes up from there. Sure it dips down below 8,000 ft briefly when going into towns like Telluride and Ouray, but it immediately goes back up high. And the funny thing about altitude is that is accumulates. It's like a weight that builds up slowly adding more weight the longer you are up high and it slowly squeezes you. The course has sustained stretches above 12,000 ft in the later miles in this direction. There is no let up and no place to catch a break. You are up so high for so long and you are so deep in the back country and almost anything can happen to you. You are isolated and you are vulnerable and you know it.

The weather is also a huge factor and can end your race by giving you legit hypothermia miles from civilization where a life and death choice must be made. These mountains create their own weather with lightening storms that hit these passes and peaks daily and will make you flee for cover. The temperatures can drop into the thirties on the ridges with drenching rain. If hunkered down in a cold storm waiting out lightning, without the correct gear you develop hypothermia quickly. Get caught out in one of those lightening storms, above tree line exposed on a ridge with you as the tallest thing, and your run could end unpleasantly. I knew all this, as does everyone, but when you are actually out there in those mountains above tree line at 13,000 ft and thunder is starting to boom over your shoulder your mind races and real honest to god fear begins to creep in. This is late July in the San Juan's and this is what we signed up for.

After all that I haven't even begun to mention the danger and insanity that is some of the trails on this course. They are beautiful and far more technical then I thought they would be. If you are from Colorado then maybe it's not such a big deal but if you are not used to running along a trail with drop offs of hundreds of feet off a cliff a mere few feet away it can have affect you in ways you are not ready for. That was the Kamm Traverse. Or the near vertical descents down off some of the high passes like US Grant Swamp Pass. If you have never experienced that and this is your first time then it can be eye opening. It was my first time there and it was more then eye opening for me. East coast 100’s are not like that in my experience. East coast 100’s do not prepare you for this run in my opinion. Getting on the course and seeing it will prepare you. Of course many flatlanders have gone out and done Hardrock and have done it well. Folks like Debbie Livingston and Chris Agbay to name a few. But what I am saying is running Grindstone or Eastern States or Manitou's Revenge or whatever race you want to put in there (excluding Barkley of course), as tough as those races are and they are hard believe me, but they are nothing like running this. It doesn’t matter. Hardrock is in another solar system. It’s out there all by itself.


The first two miles were great. I ran across Mineral Creek feeling good and starting the first climb up Putnam ready to go. I was starting super easy and watching my breathing rate like a hawk. I was getting passed by most everyone behind me as the trail slowly became steeper and steeper. Weaving through the trees the trail climbed up and alongside a deep drainage for Bear Creek.

Ascending along the Bear Creek Drainage on the opening climb.

This portion of trail was super rocky and technical and the wild flowers were everywhere splashing the trails with brilliant color. This climb you don't read much about in blogs and reports. It was relentless and grew steeper the further up you went, a theme that seemed to repeat itself on the next few climbs and I am sure the rest of the course. I felt like I was climbing well but after looking at the data I was very slow and working very hard to maintain a rhythm. I ate several gels along here and was drinking Roctane so calories were going down just fine. The thing is the steepness of these climbs mixed with the high altitude were forcing me to go anaerobic and that is just not sustainable for me. So I would stop every so often to allow my heart rate to come down and take deep breaths. This would continue as the day unfolded.
Climbing Putnam and looking back at Sultan Mountain above 12,000 ft

Near the top you left the good trail and veered off going cross country and went up a super steep grassy hillside pushing a 40% grade. It was a half mile long and the steepness was punishing and made me work much more then I wanted. Again these were not the 20% grades I was acclimating on around Leadville. I was learning very early on that these mountains and trails were nothing like the ones four hours northeast of here. I was receiving a sobering introduction into was this course is.

The sunrise illuminating the face of Grizzly Peak. 

By the time I crested the top of the Putnam-Lime Creek Saddle the only runner behind me was the legendary Liz Bauer. She was going for her tenth finish and days later I was thrilled to learn she did succeed. I was privileged enough to meet her and speak with her at packet pickup. She was a kind and caring soul and was so gracious, a true legend of this run and of the sport.
Liz Bauer lower left putting on a clinic on how to do this run.

Now the views from this point in the run were out of this world. It was a strange thing in that your eyes would try to focus on something but the landscape was so vast and open and gigantic that your brain almost could not keep up with the sheer volume of things to focus on. Your brain wasn't buying what the eyes were seeing. The scale of everything was so just so much to handle, especially seeing it for the first time in the morning light. The cool wind was a consistent slap in the face along these ridges. The wind was the only sound you could hear. You heard the wind and felt the wind. There was nothing as far as you can see in a 360 degree view but aggressive and gigantic cliffs and steep craggy mountain peaks. It was jaw dropping. I stood there with my mouth open snapping pictures and in a matter of a minute or so Liz galloped past me on down the backside of the saddle and was a distant memory. The steepness of the first initial descent took me by surprise as well as the technicality of the trail going down. Surrounded by cliffs that dropped off hundreds of feet, I picked my way down at a snails pace. The strong wind beating me in the face the entire time. 

Coming down Putnam and staring at everything. These cliffs were gigantic
and the scale is impossible to capture with a phone picture.
Making my way across the vastness that is the Putnam basin the trail was on the smoother side and runnable. Problem is this section hovered around 12,200 ft and running anything remotely on an incline no matter how shallow would make my heart rate spike. So I speed hiked it and waited for the trail to dip down into the trees where I can start to hopefully jog. Once into the trees I was able to run a bit but again the trail wasn't smooth in here. It was root infested and rocky in spots then would get smooth for a bit then would drop steeply down and turn and weave in amongst the trees. I was finding it difficult to get any type of running rhythm.

The Putnam basin. Staring at my next objective head on, the Kamm Traverse
which cuts directly across those cliffs in the foreground above the grassy slopes. 

When I hobbled into the first aid station at mile eleven I was the last runner. I felt as though I had already run eighty miles. It wasn't my legs that were sore or tired but my cardiovascular system was tired. My lungs and heart just felt drained. It's something that was foreign to me. Usually it's the legs that go first but not this time. I sat down in a chair and the volunteers rushed over and quickly got me food and drink. Then four hard nosed men, one of them kneeling down next to me, who looked like they knew these mountains and this course with serious looks on their faces reassured me and gave me a breakdown of the next section up across the Kamm Traverse and towards Grant Swamp Pass. They were not your typical volunteers. They knew much more then me and I trusted everything they told me.

The altitude is definitely the toughest force to reckon with here I think. When you start a 3,000 ft climb at an elevation of 10,000 ft and the grade of the climb fluctuates between 20-40% and you are from the east coast you will feel like a vice is squeezing down on you. I spent ten days in Leadville and Silverton before hand acclimating but it just was not enough for these trails. They are just so steep and this was my first time on them. Having never seen the course prior to the run was a massive mistake. And as I left the first aid station heading up the Kamm Traverse I was confronted with a dry loose trail that was twelve inches wide, cantered down towards a grass slope pushing grades of 60% which then stopped abruptly at a series of plunging cliffs. A slip here would mean almost certain death. My home town mountains and trails I run are not like this but here I guess you just get used to it. This is the San Juan's and this is the Hardrock course.

Along The Kamm Traverse. You can see the cliffs on the left below the
steep grassy slopes. It sure was beautiful though.

I gingerly made my way along the Kamm Traverse, aptly named after Ulrich Kamm the German hiker and long time Hardrock veteran who discovered the trail off some old mining maps. Making my way up this trail my heart rate was out of control and I was slow and full of anxiety and fear. Apparently this section was an old mining road bed of some sort but now the mountain was slowly reclaiming it. There were a few washout sections that you had to cross that were loose and sketchy and would make me winch with anxiety. I don't like heights but more so I don't feel comfortable with exposure and so far this course is proving to be a challenge in this regard. If you suffer from acrophobia then this honestly is not the run for you. I knew this going in having meticulously read through all of Matt Mahoney's write ups on his runs at Hardrock. He documented his runs and his training brilliantly on his website and I must have read those reports dozens of times. I was determined to face my fear and honestly I was controlling it well and getting through it but I was moving much slower then I had hoped. I was managing so many things so early in this run. Fear, altitude, nutrition, hydration, pace, heart rate, breathing, gear, weather and all the demons and doubt that accompany a 100 mile run. All of these things are magnified here and I found you just cannot let any of them go astray. It was a lot to juggle and manage but this is what I signed up for and paid money to do so no whining aloud. Then out of nowhere a runner passed me on my left. I'm almost certain it was Cody Reed. I was in sort of a malaise and he startled me. He was out training and simply ran his way along this trail as if it was no big thing. I was in awe as I watched him run on up the trail.

Once I entered the security of the trees I was able to relax a bit and focus on moving swiftly along the trail. Climbing along this unmarked trail it eventually intersects with the well worn Ice Lakes Trail that leads to the collection of ice cold glacier lakes that are found scattered within the shadow of Grant Swamp Pass and Pilot Knob. Once you intersect this trail you are faced with a 1,600 ft climb in a mile and half starting at a modest elevation of 11,200 ft. It's a long slog. The final pitch to the top is on all fours hand over hand. As I made my way slowly up this ascent it was almost high noon and high clouds were building and thunder began to echo over my shoulder. Day hikers were on their way down as no sane person would be caught dead up on top of the ridge with storms brewing. Well, except me and 139 other runners attempting to navigate this course. And just then a few runners came flying down the trail towards me one of them clanging a cow bell often heard during European ultras and ski events. It was none other then Jim Walmsley and a few of his Coconino Cowboys. He was shouting "go runner go runner" and as he got close to me I just simply said "hey thanks Jim" and then he shyly responded "you're welcome." It was so funny and made me smile. Here is arguably the best ultra runner in the world cheering a nobody on, me, as I slog up this mountain. It then occurred to me that all the pictures you see and fanfare of past Hardrock runs on Grant Swamp and all those spectators cheering on runners would not be there for me. I was the last runner and a storm scared everyone off the ridge so I was left alone to summit this mountain and navigate my way down the other side. It was somewhat of a buzz kill at first upon realizing it but I soon embraced my lone wolf status.

Paying respect to Joel Zucker at his memorial by placing a rock on the pile.

The iconic Island Lake with thunder booming towards me. Seeing this
with your own two eyes is mesmerizing. 

Descending US Grant Swamp Pass down into it's basin heading towards Chapman Gulch you must go down the single sketchiest descent I have ever seen. Although I heard Kroger's without snow is equal or worse. I stood there alone at the top of that descent shouting F bombs and you gotta be kidding me's for several minutes before I could compose myself to sit down and inch down it. This was a scree descent void of scree because all the runners have pushed it all down to the bottom and the result is a sheer granite wall with dust on it at a 60% slope that dropped about 100 ft where the scree actually was and then it was another 200 ft to the bottom. In the counter clockwise years I just cannot comprehend trying to climb up this at mile 90 of the run in the dark.

Standing on top of US Grant Swamp Pass and trying to figure out how to
 descend down this cliff without serious injury or worse.
It was a "check the shorts" descent for sure. Oscars Pass
looming in the far distance which is the third climb.
I stood there on that pass all alone with thunder rumbling and the cold force of a strong gale which seemed to nudge me towards the cliff like descent. The thought crossed my mind for a split second of turning around and going back. That's how bad the descent looked to me. I quickly brushed that aside though and gently slid down on my backside using my poles as a third leg to slow the slide down. I have gone done some scary steep trails before but nothing and I mean nothing as sketchy as this. Doing this for the first time during the event I would not recommend. After what seemed like an hour I made my way over towards the left where I could see some loose scree and what looked like a softer way down even if I fell. Every inch I covered towards the bottom seemed like a monumental achievement. Getting to the scree where I could sort of step push my way down was like bliss. Finally I made it to the first part of the basin, a cairn marked trail that seemed flat but it was all large rocks and boulders. There were three steps to this basin or levels that you had to descend down. And as the rain lightly fell I seemed to be making progress moving forward and loosing altitude which was a welcoming thing. I reached the third level of the basin and stopped and turned around to marvel at this place.

Staring in awe at where I came from. The trail weaved above the cliffs
on the left and Grant Swamp is in the center notch.
Finally I hit tree line and the trail become softer with pine needles and more dirt so I was able to run a bit in here. The trail then turned into more like double track and more road bed like so more running ensued. I was starting to see signs posted for the aid station at Chapman Gulch. I was so happy to run into this aid station even though I felt lousy and slow. I was the only runner there and the volunteers again were so welcoming and kind. This group of volunteers comes up from New Mexico every year and they camp here for several nights and set this station up. They were beyond amazing and helpful. I sat and ate and chatted with them for as long as I felt I needed. I had to take care of self but I was exhausted and super fatigued and I was only at mile 18. My next objective is just get to Telluride where my crew of Janine, Kiran, and Phil would be. Just get to them was my focus. So up I went and hiked up to Ophir Road and towards the third climb up Oscar's Pass, a steep exposed three thousand foot monster.

I left the access road out of Chapman Gulch and turned right onto a primitive steep jeep road called Ophir Pass Road. I thought to myself "this is a road?" It's a road if you you have a jeep or a high clearance four wheel drive truck. I found myself struggling badly just climbing up this road to get to the gate where Oscars Pass was. Then from behind me I heard a voice say "hey are you a runner?" I responded with a "yeah I'm doing the race" but I was to tired to turn around. The gentleman ran up along side me and I immediately recognized him as Dakota Jones another world class ultra runner. I said "oh hey you're Dakota Jones right?" He said yes and smiled shyly and he asked me how I was doing and I told him bluntly that I have had better days. He smiled and said "yeah Hardrock can do that to you." He then proceeded to give me words of encouragement as we walked up this road and I congratulated him on winning the Kendall Mountain Run the week prior. He seemed genuinely appreciative of my congratulations. He was a very humble and genuine person who listened when I talked. It was in that moment that I was reminded of what ultra running is and should always be and what this race is. It is a family. We all have bad days and bad runs and good days as well. The elite runners can socialize with the slowest of the slow runners. It's a true community. And seeing it unfold over these agonizing miles of mine was special to see. We finally reached the gate to start the climb and we fist bumped, smiled, and thanked each other.

Crawling up Oscars Pass I decided to take a picture of where I came from.
Dead center of this picture is a brown streak, that is the descent from
Grant Swamp Pass that I enjoyed so much.  

With Dakota's optimism I felt ready to tackle Oscars. I read many race reports about the black flies on this climb so I came prepared. I read they will eat you alive. So I brought my trusty REI head net that goes over your head to keep bugs off. My buddy Don Riley picked them up a few years back when we ran The Ring in Virginia because black flies can be bad there as well. Well let me say thank god I had that because right on cue the flies came swooping in and where relentless. I'm not talking about a couple of flies here I'm talking thirty or forty flies at one time on you at all times. If not for that head net I would have inhaled several of them and they would have been up my nose and in my eyes. You can't out run them because you are climbing a 25% grade so you are at their mercy.  I slowly inched my way up the first few switchbacks and had to stop multiple times about every twenty feet or so and lean on my poles. I was sweating profusely and it was oddly humid here. The higher I got the more I had trouble breathing. I was panting and soon would take five steps and hunch over five steps and hunch over. I just came from the aid station and ate a bunch of food so I wasn't bonking I knew that. I just could not move. My heart rate was parabolic. So I sat down panting and huffing. So then I laid down on the trail in the dirt trying to stretch my body out and relax. The flies swarmed me like a dead carcass on the road. How fitting really. The flies were the least of my worries though. Laying there I knew the reality of my situation. I was in trouble, my race was all but over, and there wasn't a thing I could do about it. I don't know how long I was there. But I made the call to turn around and seek help. I walked back down to Chapman Gulch aid station and officially dropped from the run. The volunteers there later told me they were not surprised and expected me to come back. They knew I was in trouble from the minute I initially came into the aid station. They didn't show it though and were so very helpful about getting me back out there.

The volunteers told me I had acute mountain sickness or at least all the signs of it. It didn't matter really as most runners get a bit of that during this event I think anyway. All I could think about was my three friends who came all this way out here to support me and having to inform them I pulled the plug. I felt horrible for that even though I know they get it, but its still not an easy pill to swallow. I was so happy Janine, Phil and Kiran came out here to help me. It meant the world to me. Sitting in that chair with thunder still rumbling around as they packed up the aid station I then turned my thoughts to the last six months of training. All those miles and all that vertical and all that sweat and all those sacrifices my family made for me to be here and all I can show for it was twenty miles. The privilege of running this event when so many people have waited years and years to get in. I sat there staring into the woods with all those thoughts and emotions swirling around in my head. But through it all, it came down to I just was not ready for an event of this magnitude. I wasn't fit enough and I should have acclimated for several weeks more and done much more training on the course. I was as fit as I ever was and I strongly believe I could of PR'd on any of the other hundred mile course I have run in the past. But here it was not enough. This course and this place demanded much more. I really enjoyed my time here and made lasting memories and experiences with good friends that will linger long after I am gone.

Hardrock is a special race, a very special race. You feel it when you're there and I honestly miss it very much. I daydream about my time there and rewind and relive snippets of it on a daily basis. I know Kiran, Janine and Phil all felt the love there during their time there as well. It doesn't really matter if you get in and run this race. It's far bigger then a single entry.  If I never get in again I'll be at peace with that. But I will be going back again at some point spectating, pacing, running, crewing, volunteering or soft rocking. The pull of that place is just so strong. Those mountains and those trails are just so incredible and should be experienced by every trail runner. Just do yourself a favor and go see it. You will not believe your eyes!

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Wrapping Your Head Around The Unthinkable

I was at mile forty five of the Devil Dog 100 miler when I found out. It was a cold early December late afternoon and I came into the start/finish after my second loop cold, tired, and wanting something hot to eat. It was December 2nd otherwise known as States and Hardrock lottery day. I put in for both but thought nothing of it as the chances of being picked are so small it almost doesn't warrant much attention. I had maybe a 3% chance for WS and a paltry 0.8% for Hardrock. That is when Laura Mooney walked up to me as a sat down to rummage through my drop bag. Here is that conversation.

Laura: Hey how are you doing? I have something exciting I want to tell you! (smiling and pulling out her phone)

Me: Hey Laura, I'm doing ok just tired and wet (mumble mumble grumpy face etc..)

Laura: I have a text I want to show you! (shows me the screen on her phone which read this)

If you see Bryan Slotterbach
 tell him he just got into Hardrock.

Me: Wha? What? How? Huh? What the fuuuuck?? (staring into oblivion)

I did not understand. I did not compute. I was almost halfway through a much tougher 100 miler then I envisioned and I'm being told I just got into arguably the most difficult 100 miler in the world (excluding Barkley which is not technically a 100 miler and is it's own thing). Laura's boyfriend another good friend Mike Yoder came over and said the text was from Tom Chobot and is legit. He would not joke about something like that. I sat there in a daze. Caught between the next 55 miles of the race I was in and trying to process this news. Honestly I was in shock. In my head all I could think about were all those Hardrock youtube videos I had watched over and over. I didn't feel joy but dread. I just kept having conversations to myself in my head that went something like. 

Me in my head : "How can I possibly do this race? It's Hardrock! I am not worthy? I have done a few hard mountain hundreds but they are nothing and I mean nothing compared to the ultimate high altitude mountain run. Dear god what have I done?"

So for the next eighteen hours and three loops of Devil Dog I just tried to wrestle in my head the thought of doing a 100 miles in the San Juan"s. It was motivation to finish let me tell you.

I did finish in 30:08 and it was a great way to finish off my year of running. I had a great spring, a horrible and lousy summer filled with drops and DNF's and a great fall. 

The three and half hour drive home up 95 was filled with tears and emotion. Finishing 100's always leaves me an emotional mess. It's funny that way. It's almost like I feel fragile emotionally. It's clearly the lack of sleep and exhaustion of going 100 miles on foot through the cold night, hitting mental highs and lows, hunger, pain, feelings of I'm not going to make it to feelings of yes I will, and joy and elation. It's here I would also envision for the first time myself coming into Silverton and kissing the rock. My god... Huddled over, tears of joy, seeing the clock with a small amount of time still on it. What would that honestly be like? I start picturing it! And then start balling in my car on the highway. That vision with my current emotional state opens the floodgates. That's when I start laughing at myself and to myself. Hey get yourself together dude. Snap out of it.

It's now December 9th as I type this. A week has gone by and the shock is still there. I have begun the history lesson of this event. It's time to study. Like a mid term paper that is due or a big final exam. Everything and anything must be absorbed and understood. The history must be read to fully understand the core of this run. How the mountains were formed. The history of the district. The mining and the suffering of the miners. How the course flows and why. The altitude and the logistics. The trails and how they were engineered and by whom. An entire encyclopedia of information must be understood before even pinning on that bib. Respect. Before actual physical training begins, one must have a full knowledge of this place. That is how I feel. Otherwise how can you train if you don't know? This is like no other challenge that I have done. I have eight months. And I will be using this blog to catalog my feelings and training. What I do love is sinking my teeth into a goal. And I love the process of training for that goal. I have drawn up an initial training plan which includes more mileage and more vert and more speed work then I have ever done. But I know I can do it. It will require getting back to 4 am runs during the week and possibly some doubles as I hit peak weeks. But I know I can do it. I know I can. But for now I'll relax and enjoy the holidays. Run enough to keep some fitness and then come January, it's on.

Looking northeast into Silverton, Colorado, in 1895. Image taken from the base of Sultan Mountain. Photo courtesy of the San Juan County Historical Society of Silverton, Colorado. Courtesy of iRunfar

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Eastern States Pendulum

It's been a long while since I wrote a blog. But after my second failed attempt at Eastern States 100 I just found that I had way too many things floating around in my tired brain. I needed to get them out. I will keep it short and sweet and hope my thoughts can and will help other mid to back of the pack runners tackle this race in the future. As for me, I will not return to run next year. Maybe to help out and pace, I don't know. Not because I don't like the race or the RD or the trails. I love them all! But because I don't see much changing for me there. Yup, the ole definition of insanity routine.

My Maryland buddies Casey and Don spent the weekend driving me around and helping me out and for that I cannot thank them enough. I feel I let them down more then I let myself down. It is very hard for me to convey that to them. I feel they know it though. I got as far as I did because of their help. I only got to mile 32 however and like Don comically pointed out to me "hey you got three times further then last year!" Which made me chuckle at how absurd that is considering I only completed 30% of the race!

As the sun was setting on our way home and we hit the PA turnpike southbound I kept trying to come up with how to describe this race and this course. How would you explain it to folks who have never run here. How do I explain the course to my wife who does not run and asks seemingly very simple straightforward questions such as "So what happened?" or "What makes it so hard?" Insert my blank stare. Great questions but I am almost at a loss but I know exactly what the answers are but I just can't spit it out. Frustrating really. So the next morning it hit me.

I think of Eastern States like Edgar Allan Poe's Pit And The Pendulum. It's exactly the same. It's terror. It's torture and torment. It's a long drawn out nightmare. You almost at times welcome your demise. The course eats at you. It picks at you. Looking for a way to get in. Swinging slowly and slowly as the blade gets closer and closer all the time while you watch it getting closer and closer and there isn't a fucking thing you can do about it. Your body is getting cut and bruised and banged around and the oppressive humidity wears on you sapping your leg strength and raising your heart rate to anaerobic levels but yet you are moving so damn slow. "How is this possible?" "I have trained here I have run these trails I know this course why is this happening?!!" I have finished Massanutten 100 twice I did the 2016 Grindstone 100 where it rained for thirty straight cold hours. And yet I can't move on this course. I am completely immobilized for the second straight year.

A slow and painful demise. Source Google.

And here is the beauty of it. Other races have longer climbs, rockier trails, more mud blah blah blah. But so far from what I see no other east coast 100 miler (excluding Barkley, of course) has what this course can throw at you. They talk about the Western States Killing Machine. It's a great read and can be found here. This course has an eerily similar character trait. The first thirty miles are simply some of the most ruthless and nasty trails you will find. Survive that and manage those miles well and you will then be able to start actually running at mile thirty three. Easier said then done. The classic problem is your pace. You look down and see your overall pace at eighteen minute miles. It's shocking and tough to swallow at first.You are fresh but slowing as the miles tick off so you push and risk blowing up. Or you stay really chill and try to just hike and not go hard and you risk blowing time and not making the initial Hyner cutoff. It's funny, you look at the elevation profile and it looks tough sure but until you actually have experienced those trails you just don't know. My plan this year was to really take it easy during those first thirty. Save myself for the running that is coming up. Problem is the cutoffs are the tightest during the first third of the race. It's a catch twenty two. I found myself scolding myself in my head! "News flash, you can't take it easy you stupid idiot!"

Mile 9 vista. Taken during our training run there in July.

The heat.

So the starting temperature I think was 71 or something. Nice right? Sure if you are sitting in a lounge chair by the pool. The dew point was climbing into the seventies however and the humidity was rising. Once we entered the forest canopy it was stagnant, stale, and windless. And that is one of the really sneaky aspects of this race. The canyons there and the surrounding thick forest seems to trap the heat from the days before. No wind reaches these areas. So the air just sits there and the moisture from the thick mossy soil and many creeks moisten that air. Couple that with the already increasing high dew point and you are faced with your first puzzle to solve. These hollows are what you run in and out of all day and each climb starts in a hollow where you face these temperatures and conditions each time. I thought about this for twelve hours over thirty miles. I kept asking myself "Why is it so damn hot at the start of each climb then when you get to the top it's a little cooler? Doesn't heat rise? What is this some sort of alternate universe the cold air rises and hot air sinks?" It took me all day to figure it out. I think it's a unique local phenominon. It's only here where I experienced that trapped air. "Why is my heart rate spiking so high right now?" "I can't be working that hard can I?" Confusion sets in. You increase your effort and pace. You burn up calories twice as fast as you normally would. You create an early caloric deficit. You find yourself sweating buckets. The Western States article talks about the buzzsaw, but here at this race, it's the pendulum that has started it's swing.

Leaving mile 18 Lower Pine Bottom in shaky shape. Pic Jim Blandford

Those trails.

I'm from PA born and raised. I train on the AT. I know rocks. I love rocks and they love me. I'm at home there. Mountains and rocks and PA trails. The trails in and around Waterville are not like the AT or the Massanuttens or the Tuscarora. This is loose slate and when it's wet its like ice. Mud pumps up in between the tree roots. The loose slate pieces are almost leftover from logging or mining. Seemingly just dumped here with little care. Then the trails built on top. Sometimes when you step in between two pieces the jagged edges pierce the sides of your shoes grazing the sides of your macerated and softened feet. As you pick your way down the descents, you hear the sound of the smaller pieces tumbling behind you and repositioning themselves for the next poor soul. When you kick a rock it follows you, end over end and often times hits you a second time, bouncing off the outside of your ankle or again on the side of the foot. It's as if the rocks don't even like you here. "The rocks are against me?" "Why is this happening?" Whoosh...Whoosh as the pendulum continues it's descent.

The climbs.

I'm a climber or at least until I run here then I'm a pathetic child. It's seems the exertion that I put out to climb up those mountains puts my heart rate at redline. You see the climbs I do well at are the long slow grinding type where you can get into a rhythm. The climbs down in Virgina are that type. Long but not super steep. The climbs here are short and very very steep. And it just repeats over and over for the first thirty miles. I find that I just can't get into any kind of groove on these climbs. Add the mud, the rocks, the humidity and that so called short climb turns into a death slog where you find yourself sitting on a rotten log a third of the way up catching your breath. And the clock is ticking. On a training run I would never think to sit down on a climb. During a race of course not. But here I sat down more times then I can remember. Thirty seconds here a minute there really adds up. I used that time wisely however. I ate and drank. The fact is if you have to sit down anywhere on trail here you will not finish. Unless of course you are late in the race and are hours ahead of any cutoff. By all means relax and take a breather. Climbing a 30% slope is much different the climbing a 20% slope. It's huge and you legs will feel it. I really struggle pushing 25% or greater. I could also stand to loose a few pounds. I'm sure that contributes to my struggles in some form.

The clock.

As I said I am a mid pack to back of the pack runner. Meaning I finish in the fifty percentile range of entrants. So I am not fast nor super slow but average I suppose. I have never felt threatened in any race by cutoffs. Never. Not once. But here for some reason they seem to be right over my shoulder. And honestly, that wears on you mentally. I'm not use to it and to be blunt I really don't like it. I have enough fucking things to worry about and the clock adds another layer of burden. But tough shit, that's the way it is so deal with it. On Saturday I covered the first 32 miles in twelve hours. Yes twelve hours. I have to say that out loud. TWELVE hours.. When I ran Manitou's Revenge in June several weeks after MMT100 in very similar weather conditions I covered the first 31 miles in exactly ten hours. What? I dropped at Manitou as well. And Manitou is arguably, mile per mile, the hardest 50 miler in the country. It took me almost two hours longer at Eastern States to cover basically the same distance. If this was last year I would not have made it past the mile 25 aid station as I did not make the cutoff that was imposed there from the year prior. This is what I am currently trying to dissect and analyze. The old saying about 100 milers is to start slow and go slower. That doesn't work here. I actually tried to do just that. Save myself for the middle sections. The sweepers caught up to me sitting on a moss covered rock in the middle of an ice cold stream with my feet and calves submerged in the water. Talk about pathetic ending to a race. My response to them when I saw them was "what took you so long?" I was almost glad. As my pacer Casey often says, "sometimes you eat the miles and sometimes the miles eat you."

The bugs.

Actually they weren't so bad until the Browns Run Climb. A six mile ascent along, well, Browns Run. The trail crisscrossed the creek back and forth and the gnats just suffocated your face. As if I needed any more misery. Inhaling gnats for six miles was just lovely. There was also the mosquitoes that would buzz in and out of you ear. Bugs have never bothered me before in a race. But of course here they loved me.

Eastern States. So you want to run it? It truly is a great event. One of country's most badass 100 milers just on the finisher rate alone. A truly wild and remote wilderness experience. It's not a race that you can typically just sandwich in between others as a fill in. It's not a race you can just get by on undertrained legs and squeak out a finish. It's an event that when you go into it you can't have any lingering injuries or issues otherwise the course will expose them. Your mental game must be as sharp as your physical one. Course management and taking care of self is a big deal in any 100 miler but really important here. Graduate level race? Without question. The race should 100% be a Hardrock qualifier. But that will be up to the RD Dave Walker to apply for it and for the Hardrock board to approve it. From what I was told the board did not approve the request last year. I scratch my head at that. After four years of this event, I think it's pretty clear that this east coast 100 miler is certainly worthy of a Hardrock ticket. I finished Grindstone last year and this race is much harder then that one and Grindstone, of course, is one of the great 100 milers in the east and the Northeast's only Hardrock qualifier. So what are you waiting for? Sign up and come on out to Pennsyltucky! But don't hesitate because this race sells out fast and at some point very soon I predict will need to go to a lottery.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Living in Darkness. The Grindstone 100

Once again I was entombed in the blackness. My pacer Kiran and I had just finally crested the top of an arduous climb called Crawford mountain and into the cold embrace of a very blustery north wind. It was a little after 10 pm Saturday night and the rain had finally subsided for a bit. The second night had fallen upon us. I was pretty much reduced to a moaning shuffle from here on in as each foot fall would bring me to winch as I envisioned the detached layers of skin shifting like tectonic plates on the bottoms of my macerated feet. As we shuffled along my demons shuffled along with us in the inky blackness just outside my peripheral vision. They had made their presence known, I knew they were there waiting for the right moment. I thought of dropping at the next aid station, Dry Branch Gap mile 87. I was fighting that decision. "Yes, yes I'll drop!" I thought. "But no no no I can't, I have come all this way!" I did a quick assessment on my systems and I determined that I was not injured in any way and my stomach was in good shape so then I asked myself again "How can you drop if you are ok?" I had no legitimate reason to drop. Our pace was painfully slow. My legs long since blown from the muddy and slick seven mile descent on the Wild Oak Trail down into North River Gap. My brain was in a fog and simple thoughts were becoming harder to process. My eyelids were finally succumbing to the weight of two nights of running. Then it hit me! I need to sleep. Yes I would do what I always said I would never do. Just 20 minutes or maybe 30. I will sleep at Dry Branch aid station but I won't tell Kiran until we get there. I will beg the volunteers to let me sleep. We stumbled into the Dry Branch aid station a little before 11 pm I sat down in front of a warm campfire head back and eyes shut. Lights out.

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rainand back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
-Robert Frost

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Worlds End 100K - The Empty One

"To try and fail is every bit as valuable as success so long as you push your own margin and thus gain knowledge." - Cory Richards

The view of the start and the same view at the finish.

Seven day after finishing MMT100 I found myself standing at 5 am at the starting line at Worlds End 100K up in Forksville Pennsylvania. I can't really recall if I signed up for this one first or MMT but I think it was this one. I hadn't run all week since MMT as upon finishing that race I had some edema in the lower legs which I also experienced following Oil Creek 100. My left shin was also very tender to the touch. It was sore almost like a shin splint type of soreness. I would not label any of this injury it's just the way it is after you put your body through the rigors of a technical mountain 100 mile foot race lasting close to 33 hours. So I rested all week and ate and rested and ate some more. The puffiness in my feet and ankles subsided by Thursday and the shin tenderness was all but gone by the time I started running at 5 am.  This was my first 100k race so I really didn't have any idea how to approach it other then to survive. I almost thought of it as another 100 miler. I knew about 45 miles of the course having done the 50k last year and a training run or two over winter. This is not a race that compares even close to a 50 miler so my only thought was to treat it like a hundred. I felt mentally I was in a good place but physically I had no idea on earth what my body was going to do.

Respect. I know some folks may be thinking that I went into this race with a lack of respect for the distance and terrain. But actually it would be the opposite. Why would someone want to run a very challenging 100k race a week after a very challenging 100 miler? My answer is simply why the hell not! I wanted to see if I could do it. I wanted to be challenged and pushed almost to the breaking point. I knew failure was hiding behind every tree and bush at Worlds End. It was in the air. I could see it reflecting in the pools at the base of the many waterfalls when I looked down. I was running from it. If I dropped or missed a cutoff well then so be it, I would then know my limitations. Because let's cut the shit here isn't that why we all do this? To see if we can finish or tackle a distance that we never have thought possible before? That's the whole damn point of ultra running. The point is to push our limits, to do the unthinkable. At least that's how I view it. There are many "easier" races out there just waiting for your next cushy PR or age group award. Those races are not for me and do not appeal to my sense of adventure.

Something happened in this race. During those long 65 miles out in the forest something that I have never experienced went down. I was given a choice somewhere around mile 10 or so. I could drop or head back out on the course towards a state of mind that was all new. I felt pretty good physically and mentally for the first ten miles. But after that I was drained. I had nothing left to give. It was almost as if during the week I filled the reservoir back up from being empty but with only enough for about ten miles worth of running. What was I going to do for the next fifty some odd miles? It was all a blur. I would run with a few friends and we would merrily run along chit chatting at times and other times in silence. We would run/walk the technical stuff and hike the climbs. We would run the downs the best we could. It was strange. I just kept going fueled on... nothing. My legs were killing me, my wet feet blistered, my mind was almost blank. I would play the same music in my ear over and over mile after mile.

The scenery was fantastic, the trail a dizzyingly array of color and texture of sounds and smells. The air was grey and moist then rain then cold then dark. I was all alone in the dark along a fence and along a mud socked trail around mile sixty pushing 11 pm.. My trail friends whom I ran with were no longer behind me. They had fallen back and succumbed to this place. I thought I was lost. I could see the reflective markers lit up by my headlamp but soon realized I had been here in this exact same spot a 50K ago, it was the coal mine clearing. And as I stood there not understanding I was supposed to be here I let out a scream in frustration at the top of my lungs. It was dead silent afterwards. It was utterly soundless in that clearing and in that forest. The mist lingered in the air as my headlamp reflected off the dew. I was confused as to my placement on course. Was I still on course? What is happening?? I immediately was overcome with a foreboding feeling. I paced back and forth in the most frantic state. I was loosing it. Panic was coming. I had to make a choice. Go back for some reason, stay there and hope someone was behind me or follow the reflective flags. My mind was not in any shape to make such a call. So my gut stepped in and it choose the correct route.

I had been running flag to flag for the last fifty miles. I had been running in slow motion. Running as if in a quagmire. It wasn't the same run as MMT. It was not the same feeling. My legs and hips throbbed with a tightness and with a pain never experienced but yet I blocked it out. My blisters on the bottoms of my feet would warm as they burst then cool but I felt nothing. My head throbbed with exhaustion but I wasn't yet tired. I was grinding. I was running on sheer will to finish. I cared not of consequence to the body or of placement of position. Buckles or material things had no meaning. I needed to finish. I wanted to finish. And finish I did. I finished with another runner named Dave. We were fourteen minutes passed the deadline. A finish line cutoff that was not met. A finish line DNF (did not finish). Even so I wanted to shake the race director's hand. He was not to be found. Later I had learned he was sweeping the course as the person who was supposed to be doing it was having trouble. I saw Don and many other friends at the finish. I sat down at a picnic table with no real feeling at all to express. I sat there staring at the many dark shadows and figures trying to eat. Some talked to me or looked at me but I was blank. Don was talking to me but I was not understanding. I saw Sam finish a few minutes after us with the same look on his face as I felt inside. I hobbled over and congratulated him as he stood there off to the side as if lost. I shock his hand and patted him on the shoulder. There was nothing else to say or do. In the end I had found what I was looking for. I set out and did what I came to do. I completed the course and I unexpectedly stumbled right to the edge and came face to face with my breaking point. But I did not break.

Worlds is a phenomenal race. It's magnificent in it's beauty. It's a race not to be missed.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Massanutten 100 - It Was Just My Imagination

It was now 1:30 in the morning. I have been on the MMT course for over 21 hours. The cold and bitter wind was howling from the northeast with a winter's fury. We could see the lights way down below in the town of New Market, Virginia. It looked like a place that I wanted to be. I knew there was warmth and comfort down below. I yearned to be down there. But I was up here on the infamous Kerns Mountain ridge and I was freezing cold, physically exhausted and mentally broken.

The Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Miler is a classic spring time race held each year in the beautiful Virginia mountains of Shenandoah. I have had this race on my radar for over a year, even before Oil Creek. I read a slew of race reports and studied the website. But I knew last year I was not trained for a mountain race like MMT. I was running on the Appalachian Trail occasionally but most of my long trail runs were on hilly trails like those found at Oil Creek. After studying and trying to pick the perfect first 100 miler for me personally I felt Oil Creek was a better fit logistically and with the way I was training so I went with it and completed my first 100 mile finish. It was such a great experience. OC is a magical race and so well done and I know I will return to best my inaugural finish time at some point. But I often would daydream of something really hard and mountainous. A race that will push me back or more importantly punch me back on my ass and force me to decide on how to respond. So I signed up for MMT lotto and got in.

My training post Oil Creek ramped up almost immediately. I slowly started doing more long runs on the AT and on Mt. Tammany. All winter long I would do mountain repeats almost weekly. 1,200 foot climbs up and down for hours. I was even able to get a full Buzzards run in out in Harrisburg which is an old marathon fatass race course that has some burly climbs and descents in and around the AT. I love signing up for trail races as training runs as well. So I did Tammany 10 (ouch), Hyner 50k, and Breakneck 42K as quad thrashing long runs. I ran Bull Run Run 50 miler as well to get some more long running miles in as well so I was forced to actually run. Those races were all so fun! I also kept doing short speed work during the work week on roads. The weekends were for climbing and technical trails. I would go out to Hamburg Pa a lot by myself and run Hawk Mountain and the reservoir where the AT runs through. Occasionally I would go out and run with Jimmy Blandford and company in Port Clinton and he would take us on guided tours of all the beautiful trails in his back yard. Well, I would try to keep up anyway he did win MMT and BRR so he's kinda fast. He's so great because he would wait for us at intersections and backtrack to make sure we weren't completely lost out there. I had a great six month training block with no injuries and felt rested and ready.

I would be paced by Casey Fisher at MMT who also paced me beautifully at Oil Creek. I drove down to his house outside of Baltimore and he drove the rest of the way. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Woodstock on recommendations from Jimmy and that was a great call. I'm just not a camper and the hundred or so dollars spent for a nice bed is a worth while investment for me personally. I am high maintenance I suppose. We did packet pickup then shot over to the Woodstock Brew House and had lots of beer and bbq. I was basically half intoxicated when I left. Oops..But most importantly I was relaxed and in a good mental state. I was not worried or very anxious about what was about to go down in those mountains. All you can do is show up and start running and see what happens.

All smiles at packet pickup.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Mt. Tammany 10! - Did Not Finish

On Saturday March 19th 2016 I ran the Mt. Tammany 10 right on the Delaware River across from East Stroudsburg PA on the New Jersey side of the river. The term “run” is used here to describe the race but it’s more of an endurance event or more aptly "who can block out the most discomfort race event." It’s around 38 miles with roughly 13,000 ft of vertical gain and each participant is really supposed to be able to complete it in 10 hours or less. The course is simply 10 loops of the 3.8 or so mile loop of Mt Tammany. You climb up 1,200 ft then back down 1,200 ft and repeat until you finish or have had enough. We are not talking buffed out trails here or forest roads. It is uber technical. I'm not overstating it either. It's not for the novice trail runner. 
The ascent is a tad on the technical side. (photo I took during the DWG 50K in Oct.)

And here is a small portion of the descent looking up. Yea one mistake and your done.