Monday, March 26, 2012

Our Favorite Trail Snacks

Pictured: Vanilla Honey Stinger Waffle, Justin's Honey/PB Blend, Swinging Bridge

Back into spring, into heavy training mode, that time when so many thoughts inevitably turn toward one of my favorite subjects: food.

Mmmm ... food.

In addition to the nutritional decisions we make for breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, snack, after school snack, tapas, dinner, and dessert (Um, you have these decisions too, right?), we endurance athletes also have to put some thought into what sustains us out on the trail.

When running for 6-10 hours in a day, I have a few qualities I look for in my trail food:

Calories, taste, and palatability (does it sit well on the stomach?). I want a lot of calories for very little mass, I want it to be yummy, and I definitely do not want it to make me nauseous. I tend to fluctuate in various stages as to what I think qualifies as yummy, and I also have some old standbys that never wane. (For instance, back in 2009 I was in love with Berries-Go-Mega Odwalla Bars. Now? The very idea makes me want to throw up. I'm feeling a little queasy just typing this.)

I am one of those few runners who doesn't really love to talk gear. I think it's a result of having worked in gear stores for so long. (And plus, you know what? You really don't need most of that stuff! Shhhh!) But I can talk food forever! Especially while on trail.

So, I thought I'd share some of my trail food loves in the hopes that it will give you all some new ideas of what to try. I'm hoping, of course, for some of your brilliance in return.

Classic Standby: PBJ -Tastes good. Sits well. Always have it at home. Always available at aid stations.

Standard Race Fare: GU -Any flavor. Immediate rescue from an "inevitable" bonk.

Latest Favorite: Strawberry Honey Stinger Waffle with Justin's Chocolate/PB blend spread on top. OMG SO AWESOME! (Also amazing - Vanilla waffle with Nutella.)

Thirst Quenching: Honey Stinger Pink Lemonade Chews. Seriously, these taste like "cool and refreshing on a hot summer day." I don't know how they do it.

When I'm Feeling Pukey: GU Chomps. Calories that never come back up.

Early in a Run: banana, Mountain Mix Mojo Bar

Late in a Race: avocado with salt 

Post Run: Black Butte Porter (with a strawberry/watermelon GU Brew Recovery chaser)

So? Lay it on me friends. What do you love before, during, and after those long runs and races?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Way Too Cool 50K 2012

Nothing marks the beginning of the ulra season for me like the Way Too Cool 50K. If you live in another part of the country, I’m sure you have a similar race – the one where you finally see all your ultrarunning friends again after the hiatus of winter and its accompanying holiday binging. Cool is a big race – approximately 700 runners – and although I typically prefer fewer people, in this case that’s one of the draws. The excitement generated by seeing so many friends is a great way to start the year.

Jenelle and I carpooled down the hill together, and soon we were gathered in the start area with Jamie, Clare, Amy, and several hundred of our closest friends. Truthfully though, standing with those ladies before the gun was a great feeling. They are all fast, badass chicks who I know can push me to have a good race. Plus, they’re all super fun to run with!

My legs were still in pretty rough shape after Napa, and I could feel the soreness in my quads just walking around. I had run only easy, recovery miles in the previous six days, so taking off at 8-minute pace was a bit of a rude awakening for my legs. I knew I had put forth a truly hard effort at Napa and wasn’t nearly recovered, so my expectations for Cool were wide open. It would be nice to go under five hours and run a similar time to last year’s 4:56, but I also knew something like 5:30 might be in the cards. I was still pretty stoked about my new marathon PR and happy to accept whatever race I could muster at Cool.

I ran the first few miles with Jamie. That’s not typical for some reason, and it was a really nice way to feel relaxed about the fact that it was a race with a lot of fast people. Clare and Amy were just in front of us, and Jenelle, possessing the most leg speed of the group, took off out of sight. Jamie and I got caught up on life together before I eventually moved ahead on a downhill and kept my eyes glued to the back of Clare’s pink shirt in an attempt to stick with her.

Please do not mock my running form. My PT would laugh at this picture. But what the heck - I'm having a blast!

After about two miles, runners merge from the road onto singletrack. The landscape is marked by open, grassy hills dotted with broad, ancient oaks. We were still running in a long line of people both ahead and behind, but I felt the pace was right for me; I didn’t feel crowded or trapped. Shortly before the first aid station at mile eight I ducked into the bushes in a move that was to become a theme of this race for me, although this time it was just for a quick pee. This allowed a solid gap to open up between Clare and me, but I knew she was close and I worked on regaining my place.

After exiting the aid station, which is at the start/finish at the fire station, runners hit a nice, downhill singletrack heading toward the highway 49 crossing. I was flying down this technical section when I suddenly realized I really needed a bathroom. Like, NOW.

Have you ever run down the trail while squeezing your butt cheeks together in a desperate attempt not to soil yourself? Well, yeah, so have I. But doing it in a race, while trying to run fast? That’s a whole other level of challenge. Holy-moly, I thought I might die! I knew there was an outhouse at highway 49, so I just tried to hold myself together until then. Sadly, I had to slow my pace for this effort, but certain things are more important than being fast, you know?

Of course, the most horrific of nightmares ensued when I arrived at the Quarry Road trailhead outhouse at highway 49 and it was occupied. Gagh! Nevermind – I knew there was another port-a-potty about a quarter mile down the trail. No problem. I was sure I could make it.

Until I got there and it, too, was occupied.

I let the occupant in on my state with a bit of a door shake and a solid scream of frustration. I’m certain he appreciated that.

But wait for him to leave? It was a race! I was too freaked out by my own quandary, and my brain apparently had shut down because I made the huge mistake of running on down the trail, bathroom unused.

This section of the course, on Quarry Road, is quite wide open. No bushes. No trees. Just river to the left, and steep slope up to the right. No place with even a shred of privacy to do my business.

It only took a half mile before I knew that not stopping to wait for the outhouse had been a fatal error. I began to imagine the scenario if I crapped my pants. I can’t even write this without laughing hysterically, but at the time, I was near tears. It was sure to mean a DNF and an annihilation of my dignity.

Miraculously, I could see Clare and Jenelle ahead now, and I tried to focus on closing the distance. If I could just get my mind on something else, maybe the lack-of-bathroom situation wouldn’t seem so dire! Slowly, in my squeezing-the-butt-cheeks-shuffle, I came up behind them.

Just when I was close enough to say hello, I spied some picnic benches about a hundred yards off the trail. Could there be an outhouse near those benches??? It was hidden by a slight bend in the trail, but I was sure there must be. I sprinted off course to investigate. Hallelujah! I’m saved!

I must have spent at least five minutes in that outhouse. Maybe more. I could not have cared less about all the runners who, I knew, at that very moment, were flying by on the trail. I had found an empty outhouse and some toilet paper, and that was really all that mattered in life. Seriously. The race was over. I had won!

When I finally got back on the trail I wore a triumphant smile, but inside somewhere, I knew my body had not yet had its final say. What’re you gonna’ do though? I just kept running.

Turning up the American River Canyon Trail, we traveled my favorite miles of the course. Beautiful singletrack follows creek and waterfall, eventually connecting with the Western States Trail. Past the ALT aid station runners are treated to miles of smooth, runnable, and just slightly downhill singletrack. Heaven.

If it hadn’t been for my intestinal rumblings, that is.

One advantage of being familiar with the course was that I knew at this point there was no hope of a bathroom until the finish. I also knew the options for ducking into the bushes weren’t going to get much better. It required a sketchy scramble down a steep ravine to find any privacy, but, once again, what’re you gonna’ do? I was only worried that I might lose my balance and go tumbling down the hill through gobs of poison oak with my shorts around my ankles. Things could be worse than just a little upset stomach, right?

I had to make one final dash to the bushes to finally put an end to the drama. After each stop, I worked hard to catch back up to the same people. There’s the guy with the argyle arm warmers, the girl with the braids and green headband, the girl with the Urban Cow shirt. Every time. Same people. Was I even getting anywhere in this race?

Once I realized I had control over my bowels for good though, my attitude shot way up. Did I care that I had lost at least ten minutes to digestive issues? Nope. I really didn’t. I felt great, and I was no longer worried about finishing the race with diarrhea legs. (It’s the little things, you know?)

I was all smiles up Goat Hill, happily greeted Norm and Helen at the aid station, and had a blast pushing my pace to see if there was any possibility of catching up with any of the girls. I knew everyone had to be well in front of me at this point, but I figured I had nothing to lose by running hard the last eight miles.

I knew the last aid station was 1.4 miles from the finish, and I’d been keeping a close eye on the watch. I came through at 4:46, giving me 14 minutes to go sub-five – exactly 10 minute pace. Normally that would seem pretty doable at the end of a 50K, but I was also aware that those 1.4 were nearly all uphill miles. I ran straight through the aid station, knowing it would take a little effort to make it in under five hours.

I crossed the line in 4:59, ecstatic to see Jamie and Clare cheering me across the line. Jenelle and Amy had already gone to clean up. We'd all finished under five hours!

It may seem strange to feel good about a race where I had so many problems, but I can’t help feeling proud of myself. Given the post-Napa state of my legs, and the fact that I lost at least ten minutes to emergency bathroom breaks, I can hardly believe I was only three minutes slower than last year. The stakes were not high for me at Way Too Cool, and I figure if I was going to have a race with such issues, this was a good time to have it.

Recovery beverages and frog cupcakes in the lounge.

Afterwards, Jenelle, Jamie and I kicked back in the Patagonia “Recovery Lounge.” Oh yeah – Patagonia knows how to recover in style, with plenty of sofas and a keg. It was a perfect place to enjoy our frog cupcakes! Jenelle and I entertained ourselves when we found a copy of the latest Ultrarunning Magazine and searched out all our names on various top-100 lists for the year. I already knew that I train with some hardcore ladies, but I’m glad to see the rest of the ultrarunning world knows it, too.

Thanks and congratulations to RD Julie and everyone who worked hard to put on this fabulous event. It makes a perfect start to the season, and seems to get better every year!

Jamie and I had also planned to ski the day after the race, because who doesn't what to follow up back-to-back race weekends with a little tele skiing for recovery? We'd been picturing spring corn and t-shirt weather, and this is what we got. It was awesome anyway! 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Robert and Linda Mathis Memorial Run

Pulling into the parking lot of the Overlook Park in Auburn on a Saturday morning, it was much like the start of many other races. I greeted friends as I walked across the lot toward the tables and tents. Runners were filling bottles and putting on hydration packs. It was exactly the same scene, the same place, as when I last saw Robert and Linda Mathis. They were the reason we were all there this February – to share memories, and honor their legacy by – what else? – going for a run.

Race shirts from Robert and Linda's races

I added my homemade cupcakes to the spread for the finish line pot luck and immediately began passing out hugs. It was so wonderful to see friends that I hadn’t seen for so long like Peter and Catherine. It’s truly a statement on the connections that Robert and Linda made with their runners, and the passion they shared with us all, that so many people came from far and wide for this memorial run.

Catherine and Peter before the start

Aaron Summerhays began by inviting folks to say a few words. Several people spoke, sharing what great experiences they'd had at Robert and Linda’s events. They were greatly appreciated for having generous cut off times at their races, and it just made me smile to hear about that, as I recalled Robert talking about it one day at Jenkinson Lake. He said he didn’t see any reason to pack up the finish line and tell folks they had to go home when there were still people out there running. He didn’t mind waiting.

Mathis family

Aaron invites people to speak.

Norm Klein talks about what an excellent race director Robert was.

It was wonderful to have the Mathis family present, and once they released the balloons, we were off!

I ran the first downhill to No Hands with Clare and Scott and we talked about our days running Lake of the Sky and other races. Like the majority of people present, I sported a shirt from one of Robert and Linda’s races; mine was from River City Marathon.

Running down to the river

Aid station at No Hands Bridge

I let Clare and Scott go ahead shortly before No Hands and eventually fell in with a group I didn’t know. Aside from seeing old friends, my favorite part about the day was making new friends. I met Rodney, whom I’d first spoken with just after hearing of Robert and Linda's deaths. I met Karen and Natu who are running UTMB this year. I met the ultrarunner podcast guys. Since it wasn’t a race, no one was in a particular hurry. When we approached the training hill (K2), we all decided to diverge from the marked route and go up. Why not? That’s the way Robert and Linda always made us go!

Mathis family at No Hands Bridge

When we returned to the Overlook, there was a feast awaiting us. I was glad the weather was beautiful and we all stood around generally making pigs of ourselves and sharing stories. Bev and Alan Abbs were training for Barkley, and Alan regaled us with tales from his run there last year. Epic stuff, indeed.

Post-run time with friends

Old friends, reunited

I’m so thankful for the community of ultrarunners that put this event together – a community that Robert and Linda had a big part in forming. It was a perfect way to honor them and everything they did for us.

There are plans for this to be an annual event, and I love that idea. I can’t imagine much better than being here every February, running with friends in the Auburn sunshine, remembering the couple that brought us all together.I think Robert and Linda would appreciate that.

As far as Robert and Linda’s races go, I was excited to receive an email from Elemental Running and Training informing me that they will be putting on the events. Here’s the pertinent excerpt from their email:
“ERT is proud to announce it will be assuming the calendar of events from Robert and Linda Mathis.  As many of you are aware, Race Directors Robert and Linda Mathis were tragically killed on December 30th, 2011, when they were struck by an impaired driver while crossing a crosswalk in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.  Longtime pillars in the running community, Robert and Linda directed many well-known and long-standing events, such as the River City Marathon and Half, Lake of the Sky Trail Runs, Cool Moon 100M, and many others in northern California.

While we remain deeply saddened by this unexpected and painful loss to our community, ERT is happy to report that their races scheduled for 2012 will continue, and wishes to thank the Mathis Family and friends for placing their trust in ERT to honor Robert and Linda and continue their legacy.

Registration for the River City Marathon and Half has been reopened, and the remainder of the 2012 events will reopen soon.  If you have already registered, your entry will be transferred and you do not need to take any action.  Existing race websites will stay active, but news and information will also be located here, on ERT's website.  Any questions or concerns regarding the events may be directed to Jimmy and Carmella at

Thank you for your patience, understanding, and support as we transition these races to new management.  Given the body of work Robert and Linda leave behind, the task is considerable, but rest assured that every effort is being made to meet the highest standards of service and experience that you have come to expect from not only Robert and Linda Mathis' events, but from Elemental Running and Training.
We look forward to an exciting and successful 2012!”

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Finding your Inner Sled Dog: An Ultrarunner's Guide to the Iditarod

Zoya DeNure's team at the 2011 Iditarod (Photo by Dana Orlosky)

If I told you about a sport where the athletes run crazy distances over remote wilderness trails through sleepless nights, where nutrition, hydration, and pacing play key roles, where logistics and route finding can be tricky and an entire year is dedicated to preparing for just one or two big races – a sport that is dominated by the older set because experience counts more than anything, and race finishers are rewarded with a belt buckle – I bet you’d know what sport I’m talking about.

That’s right. Dog sledding.

I got into dog sledding when I lived in Minnesota, and wondered, what’s a California girl to do in the frozen north? As a dirtbag 20-something, the easiest way for me to find adventures was by finding work in the outdoors, so I promptly moved up north and took a job as a dog handler for a musher in Brimson. There, I spent a winter living off the grid, pumping water from a well, splitting many, many chords of firewood, bathing in a sauna (pronounced SOW-nuh), and caring for 35 Alaskan huskies.

Ray Reddington Jr. at the 2011 Iditarod (Photo by Dana Orlosky)

If you’re not familiar with the sport, you may have some misconceptions about dog sledding. Alaskan huskies are a mixed breed – mutts – who have been bred for their desire to run. I have never related so well to another animal. When they see you pull that sled out and walk toward the dog yard with a pile of harnesses in your arms, they’re like children on the best Christmas morning ever. The chaos of barking and howling and pulling on their chains as they cry desperately to be one of the dogs chosen for the day’s team reaches a fever pitch when you finally have all the dogs on the gangline, pull the snow hook, and speed off into the woods. The team dogs lope down the trail with joyful abandon, but the dogs left behind let out with a mournful song.

You have no idea what the phrase “born to run” means until you’ve met a sled dog.

The musher I worked for had a library of books on dog sledding, and I devoured them. I read the memoirs of so many Iditarod finishers I can’t even remember all their names. The book by Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the race, was particularly educational with tons of side notes about the rules and history of the race. I wasn’t an ultrarunner at the time, but the endurance and tenacity required to drive a team a thousand miles across Alaska was not lost on me. I became a total Iditarod junkie.

As we speak, the 2012 Iditarod is underway. Sixty-six mushers, each starting with a team of 16 dogs, are on their way to Nome.

Mitch Seavey's team at the 2011 Iditarod (Photo by Dana Orlosky)

And it’s one of the beautiful things about being a teacher that you can bring your passions into the classroom and turn them into lessons. My students and I are immersed in all things Iditarod right now, watching a documentary of the 2008 race, following  the teams online, and completing related lessons in Social Studies, Literature, and Math. Each student has researched and chosen a musher to follow, and every day we move our musher tags to the appropriate checkpoint on the giant map in our classroom.

They are SO into it!

One of the books I read and loved when I was running dogs was Winterdance - The fine Madness of Running the Iditarod, by Gary Paulsen. If you like adventure stories, you should definitely read this memoir. Paulsen is best known as a Newberry Award winning author of middle grade fiction (Hatchet, anyone?), but did you know he ran the Iditarod? As part of our Iditarod unit, my students and I are reading Woodsong, the middle grade version of Winterdance. Whether written for children or adults, his books are incredible.

Lance Mackey's dogs at the 2011 Iditarod (Photo by Dana Orlosky)

So, let’s take a look at some comparisons of Ultrarunning and dog sledding.


  • Long runs through day and night
  • Consumption of many calories by athletes
  • Lack of sleep and hallucinations
  • Wonderful and tireless volunteers
  • Belt buckle for finishing
  • Training is important, but experience and tenacity may be even more so


Ultrarunning: Two legs
Dogsledding: 34 legs

Ultrarunnig: GU
Dogsledding: Frozen fish

Ultrarunning: Dave Mackey
Dogsledding: Lance Mackey

Ultrarunning: The race doesn’t start until Foresthill.
Dogsledding: The race doesn’t start until the Yukon River.

Ultrarunning: Shoes
Dogsledding: Booties

Ultrarunning: Hydration pack, electrolyte pills, Clif bar, rain jacket
Dogsledding: Snowshoes, axe, frozen meat, parka

Ultrarunning: Athletes weigh in at a few aid stations
Dogsledding: Volunteer vets perform hundreds of vet checks at every check point

Ultrarunning: Gordy Ainsleigh
Dogsledding: Leonhard Seppala

How about some analogies?

Western States is to the Iditarod as Hardrock is to the Yukon Quest.

Ann Trason is to Susan Butcher as Scott Jurek is to JeffKing.

Well, you get the idea, right? Although these two sports exist in two different worlds, they have more in common than most people realize.

For me, dog sledding has this almost magical appeal because it combines some of my favorite things: endurance, the wilderness, running, and dogs. As much as I love running myself, there is something so appealing about being a part of a team. And make no mistake – musher and dogs have an incredible bond and work as a team.

If you can’t tell, I really miss running dogs. If you ever get the chance to drive a dog sled team – and I mean drive the team, not ride in the sled – don’t pass it up! Being a musher is a much bigger lifestyle commitment than being an ultrarunner, but of course, the greater the challenge, the better the reward.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Iditarod and dog sled racing, you can follow the race online at They have an extensive website! I also urge you to read Winterdance, by Gary Paulsen. It’s an entertaining read, and you’ll learn a good deal about running dogs. Finally, there is a great documentary from the 2008 race called “Iditarod: The Toughest Race on Earth,” and it’s excellent. If you have a Netflix subscription, it’s available to stream instantly. It’s quite long, but I even watched it with my students, and they couldn’t get enough of it.

Aliy Zirkle at the start of the 2011 Iditarod (Photo by Dana Orlosky)

I’ll be watching the rest of the race as it unfolds online. The musher I chose to follow with my class, Dallas Seavey, is currently in 5th. (Incidentally, he’s ahead of every musher chosen by my students. Not that I’m competitive about it or anything.) I’d love to see someone so young show the old men how it’s done. I’m also rooting for a few of the other contenders, like Aliy Zirkle, and the sentimental favorite, DeeDee Jonrowe. It’s been a really tight race so far, and it could belong to absolutely anyone. I can’t wait to see how it plays out!

Dallas Seavey's team at the 2011 Iditarod (Photo by Dana Orlosky)