Thursday, May 26, 2011

Western States: Why Run 100 Miles? (With Russ McGarry)

Back in my glory days as a middle school track runner, my mom used to come to all my races. I remember at one race in particular, she remarked in dismay, "I forgot my sunglasses!"

I stared in confusion. It had been overcast all day.

"What's so important about your sunglasses?"

"Oh," she hesitated, "so no one will see me cry."

"Oh God, Mom!" I rolled my eyes at this. My 11-year-old self simply could not fathom why anyone would cry at a track meet.

Turns out, I am my mother's daughter. 

There's little I love more than a heartwarming tale of personal victory, and running is the perfect venue for such stories. My husband will gladly tell you that my favorite movies fall into what he calls the "feel good sports movie" genre. He never fails to giggle while I sit watching, captivated, with tears streaming down my face. And I've ceased to be embarrassed by it. I adore these sporting triumphs.

It didn't surprise me, then, to find myself captivated by a radio program that attempts to answer the question of why we run 100 miles. It's the perfect question, if you ask me, and one with no shortage of interesting answers. It was the question that compelled Russ McGarry to follow Hal Koerner and Kate Merrill on their Western States 100 journeys in 2010.

This piece captures many of the things I love about ultrarunning - the journey, the camaraderie, the searching out of physical and mental limits. Mostly it captures the love of the sport.

With my first Western States right around the corner, it speaks to me in a way that most of the other internet chatter really doesn't right now. This piece gets me excited to take part in something special, whether it's Western States or any other 100 miler. I love ultrarunning.

And yes, I did sit listening, captivated, with tears streaming down my face at times. If you're listening in public, don't forget your sunglasses.

You can listen to the podcast of "Western States with Russ McGarry" here. Or, you can download it straight from iTunes here.

Thanks for putting this together, Russ. I love it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Silver State 50K - 2011

The Silver State 50/50 races always seem to find their way into the perfect high-volume training time in my spring schedule. It doesn't hurt that the starting line is only a 30 minute drive from my home in Truckee, but the real reasons to hit these races are the beautiful trails, high-desert scenery, and running friends.

With Sarah at the start.

I opted for the 50K version this year, instead of the 50 mile race. Given my lack of any sort of taper and the underlying fatigue still remaining from Miwok, I am thankful that I made this choice. I was thankful at many points during the race, too!

I planned to take it fairly easy since it was only to be a training run, and things went fairly well in that department. I met up with Sarah at the start, and my only concern for the day was what to wear. I've had incredible luck with weather at the races so far this year, but this day's forecast called for rain. Since I'd be running at a casual pace, I was a little concerned about being cold. I'd also been up on the mountain a few days earlier and it had been frigid and insanely windy. I decided to forgo my usual race-day tank and opted instead for the Waldo shirt and a pair of lavender arm warmers. Paranoia induced clothing - yes - but it worked out for me. Plus, Gordy said he liked my outfit, so I may have to keep this one around.

Before the start, I ran into Jennifer Benna, whom I had met at Miwok a few weeks prior. Let's pause in the race report for a moment to talk about Jennifer.

This woman blows me away. She has a 7-month-old, just finished Miwok in 11 hours, and then two weeks later put down Silver State in 5:20. That impresses me beyond explanation. I know there are a lot of great performances out there, but to see someone so strong right after pregnancy is a beautiful thing. She'll be toeing the line at TRT 100 later this summer, and I can't wait to see what she does!

I enjoyed the first climb, while reminding myself that I needed to take it easy. I watched Jennifer pull ahead of me up the hill and felt no need to try and keep contact. The pace felt right.

The biggest thing I noticed this year was that the 50K is a lot shorter than the 50 miler. I know, right? Crazy. I just came up to Micheline's Ranch Creek Aid Station so darn fast, I was almost disappointed that I hadn't entered the 50 mile race. But by the time I hit mile 20 and the Summit Aid Station at Peavine, I had changed my mind about that. I could feel the fatigue from all the training, and I was thankful that A) I had taken it easy, and B) I only had 11 miles to go.

I tried to simply stay relaxed on the long downhill to the finish. After a few light sprinkles in the morning, the day had cleared beautifully and I found myself simply enjoying my surroundings. Yes, I was tired, but the birds were singing, the trails were good, and my legs were strong.

I had figured 6 hours would be an appropriate time for a relaxed run on a course like this, so I was perfectly happy to cross the line in 5:44. Sarah came trotting in right behind me in 6 hours, totally glowing from her first 50K. Yeah, Sarah! You're an ultrarunner now, girl!

I stretched out happily in the sunshine, coke in hand, and cheered finishers across the line. Peter Fain had won the 50K in 4:15, with Jen Pfeifer taking the women's win in 4:52. Tim Olson looked relaxed as he crossed the line in the 50 Mile race for the win in 7:16, while Joelle Vaught was first woman in 7:54. (Complete Results) Also, Joelle and the Idaho contingent definitely took the carpool award this year. Nice job, ladies!

Thanks to the Silver State Striders and everyone involved in putting this event together. It has really become an excellent race, and I think that's reflected in the high level of competition that it's attracting. Great job, everyone!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Miwok 100K 2011

The Miwok 100K in the Marin Headlands of California is considered by many to be the most prestigious 100K trail race in the country. This could be because of the elite field of athletes it attracts, or it could be because of the equally elite scenery along every mile of the course. It could also be a result of the incredibly runnable trails, or the incredibly efficient aid stations. I suspect most would agree that it has something to do with all of these factors. Even with such high expectations, my first Miwok did not disappoint. It was awesome!

Driving out to the coast on Friday, I felt many of the same things that I felt before Way Too Cool. I’d been looking forward to this race all season, but now that it was here I didn’t feel excited about running it. This time though, I knew what the real issue was: nerves. Although I was somewhat familiar with the area, I’d never raced here before, and last year at Waldo was my only previous experience with the 100K distance. I was nervous about my abilities and irritated with myself for not feeling happier about running. As with Cool, I kept trying to remind myself that this was going to be fun, but I just wasn’t having any of it. I’d been exhausted all week, barely getting enough sleep, and a little stressed-out at work. I just felt crabby.

When I arrived to check-in at the hostel, I saw a lot of familiar, smiling faces, and I immediately felt better. Yes, no matter how I ran, this would be fun. Ultrarunning is fun! I had the same feelings seeing friends before the start the following morning. I stood on the beach, took deep, calming breaths, and smiled. It is such a pleasure to be in a beautiful place, doing what you love, surrounded by like-minded individuals. Thank goodness my mindset had improved. Whew!

We set off across the beach into a slightly foggy sunrise – runners, competitors, friends – out for a day of adventure on the California coast.

Climbing up Conzelman Road, I settled into a steady hike along with a pack of talented women, including Jennifer Benna, Carly Koerner and Larissa Polischuk. I had never met any of these gals before, and the friendly and fun conversation really set the right tone for my day. I continued relaxing, let go of my last remaining race anxieties, and enjoyed every step. I let my body dictate the pace and simply followed its wishes.

Climbing into the sunrise behind Jennifer and Carly

After the first aid station at Rodeo Beach, runners climb the Coastal Trail, and I found myself playing leap frog with Paul Sweeny. It suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t know anything about the aid stations or mileage on this course. I confessed to Paul that I hadn’t done my homework, and he told me we had about 3 more miles until Tennessee Valley. Paul has kindly consented to crew for me at Western States, and I was hoping he didn’t think I would forget my homework for that race! I have found though, from past experience, that not having split goals for the aid stations seems to work out best for me. That turned out to be the case at Miwok as well.

After passing through Tennessee Valley, I felt like I had a solid rhythm going. Sometimes I ran alone, sometimes with a few men around. We ran through dense, redwood forests that had a very mystical quality about them. We ran across open hillsides of grass above beautiful ocean views. I came up behind a small group of runners on one of these grassy sections where the singletrack was narrow, slanted and overgrown.

“Do you need to pass?” the first runner immediately offered.

“You know,” I hesitated, “I’m kind of struggling with the footing right now, so I think I’ll hang here.” Avoiding an ankle twist topped my “to-do” list for the day, and we were travelling through prime ankle-twisting territory. “It feels like all we’ve been doing is running downhill,” I added.

“Yeah,” he agreed, “I find the first few miles out of Bolinas on the return trip to be some of the toughest miles of the course.” (We were currently on our way into Bolinas for the first visit.)

I filed that information away for future use. When someone gives you course knowledge like that, you can do one of two things with it – say: ugh, that section’s going to suck and then it does, or say: okay, I’ll have to gear myself up for that section so I can punch through it. Lucky for me, I chose option number two. But that part comes later.

Coming through Bolinas, I saw many of the same cheering friends I had been seeing all day, including Rick, Sean and Nico. It’s so great to have people out there supporting, especially when they’re cheering you by name!

The run along the Bolinas Ridge was quiet and pleasantly shady. Eventually, I saw Dave and Hal on their way back to the finish, bringing along a pack of at least 5 men. I was surprised to see the men’s race still so tight with only a little more than 20 miles to go, and I knew it would be a great one to watch unfold. The women’s race looked a little more settled to me, with Pam, Meghan and Krissy already spread out with at least 3 minutes between each of them.

I knew I was nearing the turnaround at Randall when I suddenly realized I still hadn’t seen any other women after Amy and Helen (4th and 5th). Oh God, I thought, if I’m in 6th place right now I think I might throw up. That would make me way, way too nervous. Fortunately I remembered that Darla had to be somewhere ahead of me, and soon enough I saw her, along with a number of other women. I was tenth woman at the turnaround.

Hiking the mile-and-a-half back up to the ridge felt great, but I also got to see what was going on in the race behind me. Not only were Jennifer, Larissa and Carly still right there, but they were accompanied by Betsy Nye and Clare Abram. I figured with only ten minutes on her, there was no way I could hold off Clare. That woman is what you call a closer. I mentally kissed a top-ten finish goodbye the moment I saw her.

Climbing back up to the Bolinas Ridge after the turnaround

But back up on Bolinas Ridge a funny thing happened – I passed the 9th woman. Now if Clare passed me, I could still finish in the top ten and I felt a little bit hopeful. When I took a mental assessment of my status, another funny thing happened – I realized that I felt great! When I got back to Bolinas aid station there would only be 20 miles to go, and that really didn’t sound far at all.

Cruising along Bolinas Ridge

More friends and cheering awaited at the aid station, and, I have to say, excellent volunteers. Someone always filled my bottles quickly, and I never wasted any time at aid stations. I filled up on PBnJ’s, a few potatoes, and took a few GU’s to go at every station. It all flowed with beautiful precision.

Leaving Bolinas, runners emerge from the forest back into the open, grassy hillsides. This was where that runner had warned me of the tough miles, and I could see what he meant. The trail was deceptively uphill with tricky footing, but not what you’d call a real climb. It definitely required running, not walking, especially when I heard the sounds of a female voice in the distance behind me. I knew it could have just been someone’s pacer, but why take the chance? I felt good, so I just kept running hard.

After passing through Pan Toll, I started trying to figure out what kind of time I could run. My goal for the race had been to run sub-12, and I arrived at this number through comparisons of the Waldo and Miwok courses. Based on times of runners who had completed both courses, Miwok looked to be about 60-90 minutes faster. I also knew that I was in better shape than I had been at Waldo, so I figured a 90 minute improvement would put me at exactly 12 hours.  May as well try to dip under, right? But with 15 miles to go, I still wasn’t sure I would make it because I really didn’t know how many hills were left. If heading out on the course had felt like it was all downhill, the return trip was feeling much the same way. There had to be some big climbs coming up, didn’t there?

Running down to Muir Beach, past the Pelican Inn, a volunteer told me that I looked like I had it in cruise control. I smiled and thanked him; that was exactly how it felt. As I wound past Pirate’s Cove, I found myself intentionally scanning the sides of the trail. This was the section of trail where I lost my wedding ring back in February. I knew I was an idiot for thinking I might see it while flying by in a race, but I couldn’t keep myself from looking. It just would have been so perfect. As I started climbing the steps up out of the cove, I gave the ring one final wish farewell and sighed.

Again, I headed down a big hill, noticing that my quads still felt just fine. The downhills felt good, but I still couldn’t figure out how there were so many of them. If anyone ever tries to tell you that Miwok has something like 10,000 feet of elevation gain, they’re totally wrong. I’m pretty sure it’s almost all downhill.

Coming down into Tennessee Valley, I was surprised to pass Darla. Even more surprising was seeing Suzanna Bon in the distance and noticing that I was gaining on her. Both of these things made me more than a little nervous because I respect both of these women as strong, fast runners. Normally, I would have questioned my stupidity in passing them, but with only 5 miles to go and feeling strong, I couldn’t find any reason to slow down.

The last five miles to the finish were nothing but joy for me. I finally realized that not only was I going to break 12 hours, but I was 7th woman and would actually be pretty close to 11 hours. I was stoked. It wasn’t until I was within 200 yards of the finish that I realized I was comfortably under 11 hours. I spotted a beautiful view of the Golden Gate Bridge framed by my favorite trees and I stopped to take a picture. So, I lost a few seconds to photography. So what? I wanted to enjoy every last second of that race. I crossed the line in 10:43, all smiles, and could not have been happier.

After a hot shower and some freshly grilled sausage and chicken, I stretched out on the grass next to Paul who finished in a strong 10:06. We sat there wrapped in down jackets, me giddy as a little girl, cheering our friends across the line. And that is what I call a perfect day.

I’m incredibly grateful to Tia and everyone else involved in putting on this event. It’s clear why this race is held in such high regard. From the support to the scenery to the company, it was top notch in every way. The trails were well-marked, the food was delicious, and the weather was perfect. (Nice job on the weather!)

Recovery from Miwok has gone surprisingly well and I’ve been enjoying my running this past week. Even though it’s time to look ahead and stay focused on my training, I’ll be looking back at this race for the answers every time I question just why I do this crazy thing.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Escape from Prison Hill Half Marathon 2011

Author's note: If you're looking for my Miwok 100K report, this clearly isn't it. I have to confess that between end-of-the-school-year-craziness at work and training, I'm just exhausted. Sleep has moved up my priority list, and blogging has fallen off the bottom of it. Miwok was epic, and there WILL be a report on it. I'm just playing a little catch-up here. Look for it early next week!

Tahoe view on the drive to the start.

Saturday morning dawned clear and cold in Carson City, Nevada, as it typically does for the Escape from Prison Hill Half Marathon. I’ve run this race on three previous occasions, (in 2006, 2007, and 2009) so I know a thing or two about the course – mostly, that I LOVE it. What I didn’t know this year was that it had changed.

“Backwards?” I gawked at Abbey after she delivered the news, 15 minutes before the start.

“Yeah,” she nodded serenely. Clearly I had not looked too closely at the website this year.

Gathering at the start.

My initial thought was disappointment because I love this course so much. It’s hilly, sandy, technical and beautiful. How would the reverse in direction change things? Where were the hills now? I had no idea. I also had no time to really think about it as, soon enough, we were off the start and headed down the dirt for 13 miles.

One thing was clear to me right away: I was running much more aggressively that I had in previous years at this race. It wasn’t intentional, since I had no game plan for the day. It was just what felt right.

At about mile three we found ourselves running up a long, steep hill. My breathing came fast and desperate, and my heart hammered in my chest like it was trying to find a way out. I was a little concerned. Why was I running this hard? Sure, it’s only 13 miles, but it’s hardly a 5K! Oh well, I told myself as I passed another woman to move into second place.

I recovered almost instantly as soon as I reached the top of the hill and was in fine form to fly down the other side. I could no longer see the first place woman even though I’d used the climb to close in on her. It turned out that she dropped somewhere near the top, but I didn’t figure that out until later. The downhill was technical and it took all of my focus to maintain speed while remaining upright. Although a number of men passed me, I didn't fall and felt my downhill efforts were successful!

By the time I passed the relay exchange at the halfway point I realized I was in the lead. (People kept telling me, and I finally started believing them.) It didn’t matter too much though; I knew I was going to stay aggressive and run hard the whole way regardless of competition. Why? Because it was So! Much! Fun! I was truly having a blast at this race.

During the second major climb I passed most of the men who’d passed me on the downhill. Not only were they very gracious in moving aside for me, but I exchanged compliments with all of them. It was a very supportive group out there! We weaved our way through sagebrush encroaching on narrow desert singletrack and squinted into bright blue skies behind the snow covered Sierra. It could hardly have been a more perfect day.

By the time I hit the last 4 miles, running the technical single track at the top of the hill, I found myself moving along all alone. I kept wondering to myself why I’d skipped this race last year. I can’t remember, but I do know that I don’t plan on skipping it next year!

The final downhill into the finish was wonderful. It wasn’t too steep, and it had enough sand to absorb impact and allow some confidence in speed. I absolutely loved the speed! When I crossed the line I was all grins and giggles to see my time of 1:58. (I hadn’t worn a watch, so I had no clue as to my pace until then.) It was a 12 minute PR for the course, and I was thrilled to have broken two hours on this beast!

The final mile. If you can't tell, I'm having fun! (Photo by George Ruiz)

To be honest, I was a bit surprised with my performance. After really going for it in ’09 and coming up short, I didn’t think I would run sub-2 here. It led me to wonder a couple of things, like:

  1. Has my training been geared more towards a shorter distance race than towards an ultra? That thought makes me nervous. I have no doubt that my weekly hill-repeat sessions were good training for this race, but will they still serve me well in an ultra distance race? Perhaps my hills are too short?  
  2. Why am I running ultras again? I forget. Because this race was just so much fun, so much less painful than an ultra, and so fast to recover from. Mmm, something to consider here.

After the race I indulged in what I’m certain is the best post-race eats going: fresh, homemade breakfast burritos. Excellent! I stuffed my face while friends Peter and Bill chatted about the only two topics anyone seems to find of interest lately: minimalist footwear and how much snow will still be on the Western States course at the end of June. Tom Wion handed me a certificate for a pair of Montrails while we sipped sodas in the sunshine. I was a happy girl.

Extra special thanks to Steve, Tom and all the Stompers and Milers out there to help. I still love the course no matter which direction we run it!


The following day, Sunday, Jamie and I went for a long run in the canyons. I debated the wisdom of such a full weekend of running just one week before Miwok, but I just couldn’t give up a day in the canyons. Besides, the weather turned out to be perfect. Sunny and mild – quite a contrast to the previous weekend’s 7+ hours of running in a downpour.

I also mention this run because I need to give a huge shout out to the work crew who was there the day before us. There had been some mighty large piles of downed trees littering the trail in El Dorado, but clearly many of you put chainsaws and strong backs to work out there. THANK YOU!! That stretch of trail looks pretty shiny at this point, and I’ll appreciate every mile of it every day I’m out there!

El Dorado Creek

Trees cleared from the trail. Sweet!

Happy runners on the swinging bridge.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Walkman Winners!

A quick post tonight to announce the winners of the Sony W-Series Walkman giveaway.

Paige and Kathy Walsh! Send me an email with your address at gbrugman at

Thanks so much everyone for playing! Tomorrow (or, uh, sometime soon) look for my report on Saturday's Escape from Prison Hill Half Marathon - an awesome, awesome event in true Sierra Eastside style.