A Staten Island triathlete and endurance coach ventures into the ultramarathon realm where there are seemingly no limits to human endurance. In 2013, he successfully finished the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (picture of 2013 Grand Slam finishers above; I'm second from right), becoming only the 282nd person (since its beginnings in 1986) and only the fourth New Yorker to finish four of the oldest and most prestigious 100 mile ultramarathons in the U.S. in only 10 weeks.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Leadville - The Race That Transformed Me

Well, the time is finally now to talk about Leadville.

I've held my tongue long enough, enough to know that I am done with the first two races of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (Western States and Vermont) and my focus shifts to Leadville as the 3rd race of the Slam.

It is two years ago. A year before that I finished my first ever 100 miler in Vermont at a little over 28 hours. I failed at getting into the Western States lottery for the first time, but I wanted travel somewhere exotic for a 100 miler anyway. I found that, at the time, Leadville was accepting applications for its 2011 race. No lotteries, no waitlists, etc. Just pay the application fee and I'm in.

Now Leadville has a lot of history behind it. It's in the High Rockies, it's at altitude, it's about the Tarahumara Tribe. Good stuff. A tough ultra, I've heard, but I am never one who bows down to  taking big risks.

So I entered.

A little history of my athletic exploits is needed here.


My Triathlon Background


A very old picture of me at Harriman, probably taken around 1993.


I was a hardcore triathlete in my heyday (in the 90s). I've completed 6 Ironman races, mostly between 10.5 and 11 hours, which are decent times in these races. As a triathlon coach, I have always research and tested trends in endurance coaching to see whether they will give a more powerful edge to the people I coach.

 Taken back in those early days again. I came from a swimming background, believe it or not.


I also test new methods on myself.

So I departed from triathlon training and went for mega-miles of running leading up to my first ultra finish in 2010. I ran 100 mile weeks frequently. I've also had a couple of weeks where I went over 120 miles of running. Not much cycling and not much swimming accompanied it. I mean, why would I need cycling and swimming if all I'm doing that season was running. Well, that was the attitude I had that year.

Vermont 2010

The Vermont 100 turned out to be a struggle. The Vermont course consisted of endless hills that I couldn't climb very well in. It was such a struggle that my pacer at the time (more experienced that I was at these races) told me that I needed "hill legs" to be successful in these events.

There I am, not admitting it, but looking pretty heavy at my first Vermont 100 (was taken at Margaritaville Aid Station, Mile 62).


He was right, but I didn't know it at that point. Being oblivious to his warning I entered Leadville the next year.

I did the same ultra training type of workouts. Lots of runs with weekly volume over 100 miles. No swimming or cycling, just a lot of running, running, running.

There was another thing that mattered at the time that I was oblivious to also. I was aging.

I was a spry 20-something when I competed in triathlons. I was indestructible. And therefore, I never paid attention to diet. I always burned it off!


Leadville 2011

When the training was finally done, I went to Leadville and got totally destroyed. I've never had one race sweep me to the side like yesterday's newspaper. That's how bad I did there.

I officially weighed 204 pounds there, about the most I've ever weighted for a race. I still thought I was indestructible leading up to that race.

It was so bad that it woke me up. If I am to ever rise to the level this race demands, I needed to change my attitude and transform myself to a higher level of performance so that I can finish the race.

It's amazing when you can go back in time to see what you said in your blog about a specific race. Here was my first blog written about my DNF in Leadville.

Some key quotes from that blog:

[What went wrong] "Even with heart rate sky high, I was able to make cutoffs, that is, until I hit the climb of Hope Pass. The hill was extremely slow going because of my existing weight. 195 pounds can definitely work against a runner going up a major hill. If I even have hope of completing this race, the weight has to come off."
 "The training leading up to the race was pretty experimental, doing mostly runs only. There are some aches and pains in my feet right now from all that mileage that might amount to something unless I back off from the mileage for a small bit of time."
And the Conclusion?
"That is my short list in a nutshell. There is no giving up in me, and even though I wrote off next year for another attempt, I would like to see if I can try again in 2013. As for training for these things, I don't think this current form of training that I did this year did the trick. If anything, I will be going back to my strength and train primarily for triathlons next year. What I always find time and time again is that triathlon training is one of the most balanced forms of training that is out there. Maybe going back to that training will actually help in ultras as well! I also want to see if I have the physical and mental capacity to get back on that podium as I did in the 1990s. If all goes well in 2012, then I can try to attempt Leadville again in 2013, hopefully in much fitter shape and with a lot less weight.

That's the overall 2 year plan. Of course, life might get in the way of this plan, but, at least it's something to shoot for in the future."
So going back to Leadville in 2013 was originally planned from the start. I didn't want to make promises and do Leadville the next year because Leadville was such an expensive venture. So I wanted to take a year and see if the changes I did were working first before trying for Leadville in 2013.

So I went back to my strength and started training as if I was doing triathlons again. I cut down my running mileage (only did two 80 mile weeks and the rest were about 60 miles or under) and significantly raised my swimming and my cycling as if I was training for the Ironman again. On the diet side, I cut out the soda and started to minimize my carb intake.


Back to Vermont - 2012

My official weight for Vermont was 191 pounds (as opposed to 204 pounds) for Leadville, and I finished the race in 55th place at a time of 21:24:21. As my pacer suggested in the 2010 race, I gained my hill legs, but not from running. It actually came from my cycling!

Me going through Woodstock at Mile 14 of the Vermont 100. Looking a bit thinner.


Here is what I had to say after my success in Vermont:

"Since triathlon training trains a lot more muscles than just ultra training alone, I was able to put in a lot more hours of training swimming, biking, and running rather than running alone. This is one of the primary reasons why I toed the start line at least 15 pounds lighter than in 2010."

"More developed quadriceps. I think all the cycling I did really built up my quadriceps to the point where the hills were much easier to manage. I also did a lot more trail running which helped as well. Handling the hills in this course was the most critical difference between this year and 2010."
After the success here I was already planning to go back to Leadville to try again.

And that's when the Grand Slam happened!


Grand Slam 2013 - Includes Leadville!!!

The Grand Slam of Ultrarunning is basically having the effect of completing my transformation to a healthy lifestyle as I age. Knowing that I actually had to complete four of these 100 mile races, including Leadville, is a serious undertaking, and one that has a high degree of failure. In order to minimize that failure, I had to go all the way with my lifestyle change. It was hard, but I finally fully transformed my diet to a Paleolithic one, cutting out grains entirely and eating unprocessed foods and lean meat. I found that my weight dropped down to 177 pounds this year (was officially 181.2 pounds in Vermont this year, with clothes on).

Me on the extreme left with other Grand Slammers before the 2013 Vermont race. That's the thinnest, and the fittest I've been for over a decade!


With Western States and Vermont done with, Leadville is next. And that is where I hope to finish this chapter of my story of transformation.

Leadville was the race that completely obliterated me.

Leadville was the race that woke me up.

Leadville was the cause for transforming my life.

Leadville was the cause for transforming my fitness and my methods of training.

And I'm hoping my return trip to Leadville finishes that particular story.

And helps me to move forward with another story so that I can complete that story (Grand Slam) in Wasatch 3 weeks after Leadville.

Leadville demands a higher level of performance than Vermont or even Western States did. In 2011, I couldn't rise to that level of performance.

This year, going in at least 25 pounds lighter than 2011 and with greatly improved climbing legs, I think I'm ready to rise to the level of performance Leadville demands.

Let's do this!!!

The Leadville course awaits. I'm focused and ready.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

It Pays to Look Back Every Once in a While

I went to the pool this morning, the second time is as many days, to do an easy swimming workout designed to help loosen my muscles and quicken the recovery time from the Vermont 100.

One of the regulars that I see often at the pool wanted to know how I did at Vermont. I told him I went 23 hours and got myself a buckle, so all went great.

He looks at me and says, "You know? You are really off the charts with this."

Confused, I ask, "What do you mean?"

He answers to the effect of, "Most people come here to the pool and get their exercise in. They splash out a couple of laps and call it a day. Some might even do some races for competition. Maybe some hearty ones will do a marathon. You, doing four 100 mile races?" He shakes his head, "Off the charts".

That does get me thinking. Most competitive racers only tend to "look up" at the people who do these things better for them and ask themselves how they themselves can get better at those races. I'm definitely one of those racers. I tend not to be satisfied with where I am; I'm always looking for ways to improve my performance.

USA Triathlon has annual rankings athletes can look at. A lot of athletes will focus only on how to improve instead of stepping back and appreciate the current position they're in.


There's nothing wrong with that, but sometimes one must look back to where (s)he's been to appreciate WHERE HE OR SHE IS AT THIS MOMENT.

You can easily see from my previous blog entries that I wasn't satisfied with my Western States time, that I wanted to improve on this time in Vermont (which I did). That, compared to the other people doing the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, that I'm probably just about average over the two races. And yes, I'm now constantly thinking about how I can do the best at Leadville.

The problem is, I forgot to look back and realize that I am perhaps doing something very few people would even attempt to do in their lifetimes.

That the Grand Slam is perhaps one of the most difficult achievements in the world anyone can ever hope to try. That I'm ALREADY HALFWAY THROUGH the Slam is quite an accomplishment in itself.

I took this photo today to appreciate how far I actually got in the Slam. Yes, I still have some unfinished business to take care of, but to actually complete 2 of these races within 3 weeks of each other is an accomplishment in itself.


So yeah, I definitely got caught "looking up" a little too often recently; it took one regular person to make me realize that I should "look back" and see how far I came.

I remember my first 5k and remembered how hard it felt back in those college days. I remember signing up for an Ironman and feeling so much panic afterwards feeling how crazy I was signing up for that race. And when I signed up for my first 100 mile ultra I thought I was totally insane in doing so.

The level that I'm at right now is higher than all that. And I haven't really appreciated it. Until now.

My suggestion to all athletes out there. In the midst of all your training, and in the midst of trying to improve your race times during competition, I want you to occasionally take a look back and appreciate where you are at that moment.

For those signing up for their first triathlon or marathon, remember when you first started to run, or ride, or swim, and feel how difficult it was doing just a mile, let alone even think about doing a race. Look where you are now! Look at the progress you made to get yourself to a point where you are considering racing a marathon or a triathlon! You've made a lot of progress. Sure you might not feel that way, but you've taken more steps towards your fitness goals than most of the population of the earth!

Being appreciative of where you've been when you started all this fitness and where you are now can definitely provide you the motivation you need to keep going with it. Think big, dream big, and you'll find that your current goals can be attained, and exceeded, in the future.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Vermont 100 - Winning the Endless Battles and Finishing Well

Two races into this Grand Slam of Ultrarunning adventure, and I can safely say that this has been quite a ride! Both Western States and Vermont races have definitely been eventful; I finished both races under extreme conditions and am still alive and in the running for Grand Slam recognition.

To be honest, I wasn't very motivated to do this race, right up until the day before. It could have been because I just did an exhausting run 3 weeks ago at Western States and was not ready to undergo another ordeal like this. Or it could be because I did this race twice, including last year. I didn't originally enter into Vermont this year because I wanted to race in other races, but when my name got pulled for the Western States lottery, then I entered as part of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. Or it could be a combination of both.

In any case, I was a bit worried about the lack of enthusiasm that I had here.

Pre-Race

Traveling to Vermont has always been fun. I love to stop at the Vermont Country Store in Rockingham to take a look at the little doodads there. Sure, it's a tourist trap, but it's great to look around anyway. And of course, I had to take advantage of the grass-fed beef burgers there and their sweet potato fries. Yum! I figure I would have a large lunch instead of a large dinner so that I know that the food I ate had time to "clear my system" before the start of the race.

Registration and the meeting went nicely. They told us Grand Slammers to stand up and we got a hearty recognition from the crowd. I knew so many people over there that I had to flit between the NYC Ultra group, the Raritan Valley Road Runners Group, and the Grand Slammers group.

Here I am with the talented NYC ultra contingent. I'm the one with the lifeguard style hat in the back.

At pre-race dinner with Claudia Osmar, Otto Lam, and Paul Arroyo

The Grand Slammers Group needs no explanation. There were 28 of us entering Vermont to try to continue our quest, so it was a sizeable crowd. The New York crowd consisted of some very noted people, including Cherie Yanek, which I had the pleasure of talking to during the race, Reiko Cyr (in a pacing role), who finished seconds behind me at Western States, and Jackie Choi, who is bouncing back from a tough Western States race. The Raritan Valley Road Runners were in full force also! Mike Dixon, Jason Kolb, Elaine Acosta, along with me, were the 4 official RVRR runners doing the race.

After registration and pre-race festivities were done, I pitched my tent and immediately prepared for sleep.

And that is when the thunderstorms came.

Around 9PM, the winds whipped up, and the rain fell in sheets. Even though my tent was covered with a tarp, the water managed to leak into my tent a bit, and I was continually trying to sop up the wetness with a towel.

At around 11PM, the storms finally died down. With me scheduled to wake up at 2:30PM, that didn't leave much time for sleep.

Still, I woke up on time at 2:30AM, had no problems getting lubed and taped up and got my running clothes on without a hitch. I got over to the registration tent a little after 3AM and signed into the race. I started to feel a little motivation at this point, but it's just to really get this race over with so that I can move on to Leadville. And yes, I was still worried about this attitude because 100 milers are not races you can simply "shrug off". And the whole Grand Slam thing is riding on me finishing this race.

Here is me with some of the Slammers right before the race start. From left to right, Me, Ryan Lund, Andre Blumberg, Dennis Ahern, Terry Sentinella, Traci Falbo, Iris Priebe, and Jonathan Shark


From Start to Pretty House (22.5 miles)

4AM finally came, and off we went! I felt pretty strong right off the bat, and I started to go at a pretty fast pace. The first 2 miles of the course I remembered was a bit tricky. It was still dark and we had to navigate a couple of rocky trails that this year had a bit of mud to them. Vermont has been rained on a lot before the race and that would definitely factor into my race in a very big way.

After getting onto the dirt roads, I started talking to a guy named Dave and we talked a lot about ultras, triathlons, and other things that came up. While I was talking, I also noted that Iris Priebe, a fellow Slammer, was running either ahead or behind us at the same time. We played a bit of leapfrog right up through Woodstock untilthe Taftsville Covered Bridge Aid Station, when I stopped for a little bit to get some food in me. We were going at a scalding pace too, which is not really what I wanted. But I felt too good, and never really want to hold back if I feel that I'm not struggling with the pace.

I got to Pretty House with a pretty good time, 2:36, good for 90th place.


From Pretty House (22.5 miles) to Camp 10 Bear (47.0 miles)

The road from Pretty House is a bit downhill until we get to the U-turn Aid Station, and then it's pretty much up, up, up until we get to the top of the Sound of Music Hill. Getting up and over the mountain felt OK, but I started to feel the humidity of the day as the sun climbed ever so higher in the sky. At this point I wasn't with anyone in particular; I was just alone with my thoughts, and my video cam to take in the views. And they are spectacular. I'll be posting the videos after I clean them up.

There was also a sign that we did 26.2 miles near the top of the mountain. I found that I covered the marathon distance in 4:43, still a very fast time.

The descent down from the mountain was a bit steep, and I tried to be careful with my quads at this point. I didn't want to torch those muscles after screwing them up at Western States. At Stage Road Aid station, I finally remembered to drop my headlamp in the drop bag there (I forgot to do that at Pretty House), and went on.

The course from Stage Road to Camp 10 Bear is a series of ups and downs, some of them severe, that can take a toll on legs if one isn't careful. The trails are also quite muddy, and I almost had my shoes taken off a couple of times by going into shin-deep mud. Even the riders of the horses were have a tough time on the muddy trails, trying to steer the horses clear of these hazards. This, and the very uncomfortable day started to slow me down considerably. I also slightly twisted my ankle near Vondell Reservoir and scraped up my knee in the process. I was OK though.

The blood sacrifice to the trail gods done, I finally made my way toward Camp 10 Bear at mile 47. My official time was 9:21, still under the 20 hour pace.

Making may way into Camp 10 Bear, video cam running. Took some fabulous videos until Margaritaville, when I exchanged the cam for a headlamp.


Camp 10 Bear #1 (47 miles) to Camp 10 Bear #2 (70 miles)

After getting weighed in (weight at 182, no change), I quickly left the aid station to prepare for the climb up Agony Hill. I was feeling less than 100%, but I girded myself for this nasty club as I made my way toward it.

I hit the hill about 1.5 miles out from Camp 10 Bear and started to trudge up it. My common position for a climb like this? Head down. I really don't want to see the entire hill, as scary as it is, so when I encounter a hill like this, I tend to just look at the ground before me and take it one step at a time. And it works because before I know it, I'm usually up the hill without any problems.

And it worked here too. I got up the hill, passed a couple of people in the process, and started to run immediately when I got to the top. I got to Pinky's (51.4 miles) in pretty good shape. I also met up with Cherie Yanek at this point, who was having a pretty good race.

We leapfrogged over each other for a good distance of the race until Tracer Brook, when we decided to go up the hill together on the way to the Seven Sees Aid Station. We talked for a good bit as we climbed the hill, until the rain started to come down. It was light at first, so I welcomed it, but as we finally arrived at the Seven Sees Aid Station, the skies opened up and got us good! It was a cold, drenching rain; we took cover under the tents at the Aid Station until it started to clear up. That was fine with me; it gave me more time to take in more food and drink before we went off again.

And sure enough, the rain relented, the sun came back out, and we were running again. At the top of the hill, I told Cherie to go ahead because I wasn't quite sure about my downhill legs at this point and didn't want to force the issue. So she went ahead of me and I started to plod my way down the hill towards Margaritaville at mile 62.

Between Seven Sees and Margaritaville, the course was loaded with biting flies, just another unpleasant factor in the heavy rains that hit the area before the race. I must have killed at least 10 flies during the stretch. It's frustrating to have killed one only to have another two latch onto you looking for blood.

At Margaritaville, my Injinji socks were getting a tad uncomfortable as my feet were getting a bit swollen, so I changed to Smartwool socks. I also placed my video cam into the drop bag here and picked up the first of my two headlamps. I still had a good amount of daylight left, so I dropped it into my pouch just in case I needed it later.

After Margaritaville, we climbed up a bit of a hill, then took a sharp right turn to begin the major descent downward to Camp 10 Bear for the 2nd time. The hill was a blessing as I was just not feeling well at this point. I knew it was going to be a major battle for the rest of the race, so I just stood focused on the moment and keep my running form from falling apart.

I also caught up with Cherie again before 10 Bear and she had some blister issues also. I think she went to get them taken care of at 10 Bear since that was the last I saw of her until after the race.

At Camp 10 Bear (mile 70) I got weighed in again and saw that my weight was down to 175 pounds. It was well within the limits, but I was concerned. I knew that I needed to eat and drink more often so that I'll be OK when I get weighed in at Bills for the last time.

After the weigh in, I had a grilled cheese sandwich, some soda, picked up my primary headlamp from the drop bag, and started off on what I think is the toughest stretch of the course.

From Camp 10 Bear #2 (Mile 70) to Bills (Mile 89)

This stretch is where things got really serious. Climbing Heartbreak Hill is tough, but when it is just inundated with shoe-sucking mud, it was a totally evil climb. I saw Otto Lam as he passed me climbing this beast of a hill. When we were finally able to hit the dirt road, Otto was a considerable distance ahead of me.

The dirt road still climbed for a bit as the sun started to set in the sky. I was glad that I was still going to get through this section during the day because this section is damned evilly difficult at night. The single track there is quite muddy and presents some steep ups and downs there that will make the quads scream for mercy. I just barely held my patience in this section; I was almost at wits end here begging for this section to end.

Mercifully, after a real cruel downhill, I made it to the road and got to the next aid station (Seabrook; Mile 75.1). I quickly loaded up my bottles and started off again. Before I knew it I was back on some real muddy single-track trails and back at wits end just hoping to get at least some sure footing again.

At this point, blisters now started to form on my feet. Funny, but when I had the Injinji socks on, my feet were well. Now with the Smartwool, the same socks I used at Western States, I start getting blisters. I don't think I'll be using Smartwool for any more 100 milers anymore.

The whole race turned out to be an extreme test of crisis management, trying to keep my wits as I fell and bloodied my knee, trying to keep the black flies from biting me, trying to keep from getting too cold when the rain came down in sheets, trying to keep myself dry and cool from the high humid day, tryng to tolerate the pain from the blisters forming on my feet, trying to keep calm when trying to find some sure footing in an otherwise muddy trail. At any time I was ready to just throw my hands up in the air and cry "Uncle", but I somehow managed to stay at the edge of my cliff and stay calm. It wound up that this extraordinary patience that I exhibited turned out to be the deciding factor in having a decent race this year. I don't know if I want to call it "mental fortitude" or "sheer stupidity", but I miraculously held myself together.

Coming into Bills at Mile 89, I knew that if I can hold together for a bit more, I would go under 24 hours and get that belt buckle. I just needed to be patient just a little longer...

From Bills (Mile 89) to the Finish (Mile 100)

I got to Bills in haggard shape. But I got weighed in and found that my weight went back up again. The eating and drinking actually helped; I just had to keep it up so that I can finish right. I saw David Allara as he was pacing at this point. I did see him before briefly at the Spirit of 76 Aid Station. At this point I was predicting a 22:45 finish and relayed that info to him, and he agreed with that assessment.

After a couple of minutes of chicken broth, I decided to quickly leave Bills. It's very easy to stay there a while, with cots and chairs and all, but it's better to resist the temptation and forge on ahead, getting the last 11 miles over with as quickly as possible. Out of Bills, onto a short single track trail, onto road, then onto a real tough single track section with rocks, mud, and the kitchen sink. Oh, and there was a short brick wall that one had to step up and back down the other side of, which drew a sharp pain from my quads. Again, it was an extreme test of my patience to hold it all together here. I got to Keatings Aid Station (92.4) barely running as everything hurt.

As if the previous stretch was bad, the stretch from Keatings to Pollys (Mile 95.9) was even worse. The whole trail was muddy, and the horses that went before me on this trail churned up the mud to an uneven mess that made the whole thing unrunnable. Worried that I might get injured here, I decided to just walk the section until I got back onto road again.

After what seemed like forever, this stretch finally ended and I was safely at Pollys, ready for the final stretch that would take me mercifully home.

Again, I was quick through the aid station, just asking for water. No more food, no more Gatorade, just a bit of water and some will to finish the race. I forged ahead onto the road. Looking at the watch, I knew I was comfortably sub-24 hours. I also had a shot of going sub-23 hours, so I actually aimed for that goal and pushed hard for it.

The first couple of miles were on the road and I made good time there...

...but the last couple of miles were on very muddy single-track trails. It was going to be close. The mud really tripped me up pretty bad, and that is when my patience was at an end. With exclamations like "What the fuck?", and "Another fucking uphill, really?!!", I think I managed to draw the attention of other runners in a half mile radius. Still, with about 2 minutes before the 23 hour mark I finally came upon the candle-lit bottles that indicated the end of the race. Another short uphill came and went, still had 50 seconds to go. When I came around a small bend and saw yet more trail left, I knew I wasn't going to make the 23 hour mark, so I let up a little.

I got to the finish line 49 seconds after the 23 hour mark (23:00:49), good for a belt buckle, and a good comeback from a tough Western States race. A lot of the RVRR crew was on hand as I crossed the finish line, offering me a chair and congratulating me on my finish. Thanks guys!

All in all, this was definitely a character-building race for me. I had dug deep, really deep, and won the endless battles that enabled me to walk (or is it limp) away from the race with a decent time.

And it's good to know that I have a bit of battle left in me because Leadville is next, and I remember that debacle of my Leadville experience 2 years ago. If I'm to finish Leadville, I know I'm going to need every bit of chutzpah. I'll be definitely talking about Leadville here in the next 4 weeks, so stay tuned.

I live on to fight another day! Onto Leadville, the 3rd leg of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning!


Thursday, July 18, 2013

On The Fly Decision-Making and Improvisation - Necessary in Endurance Races

As I gear up for the 2nd leg of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning this weekend, the Vermont 100, my mind involuntarily drifts towards the race itself; what to do when "A" happens, how to react when "B" happens, and so forth.

Mental rehearsal has always been with me when the big races approach. It helps me to focus on possible situations that might arise and how I would cope with that situation.

Mental rehearsal is important for short races like the 5k too, but with those races, it's basically "try to go at a certain pace and not blow up". There's really not much in decision-making in short races.

With long races, it's a different matter entirely. People find out that decisions are important when they do a race as long as the marathon for the first time. What food should they eat, what type of drink should they imbibe, and how often. They start to realize in the marathon that decisions might play a major role in how they finish the long races.

And the longer the race, the more decisions they have to make and the more important their decisions will bear on their overall performance. For example, if you do the Ironman triathlon, you're not just making decisions that will affect you in 4-5 hours, the decisions you make will have a major effect on you 8 hours down the road! And more decisions have to be made on the spot while you race, what type of clothes to wear, should you ingest salt caps, and how many.

Races as long as 100 miles are very long, so you just don't know how things will shape up out there. You cannot just "run a certain pace" and expect to be at the finish line at a certain time. There are so many decisions to make during the course of the race that 100 mile races really turn into chess games...what move should I make in order to see the best possible outcome. And like in chess, sometimes you need to sacrifice something in order to see the best possible result. Long races like these require you to THINK, not just run, and that is what intrigues me the most about these races.


So many adverse things can happen during a 100 mile race though, and sometimes your choice might be the wrong one. That is where improvisation comes in. Every 100 mile ultrarunner knows that they just cannot cover all possible outcomes in a race such as Western States or Vermont, so (s)he has to have the will to improvise and cope when something bad rears its ugly head. It can get really ugly out there, but if the person has that mental fortitude to keep putting one step in front of the other, (s)he just might reach the finish line.
 The improvisation part is what might happen in Vermont this weekend. I've never done two 100 milers within a 3 week period, so I really don't know how my legs will hold out. That's an unknown that might show up in Vermont this weekend. Just like in Western States, if something bad comes up I hope that I have the will to keep moving it toward the finish line. All of my Grand Slam races might just be a fight for survival and every one of those races, but maybe that's what it takes to finish the Grand Slam to begin with, that drive to get to the finish no matter what it takes.

So wish me luck as I go to Vermont tomorrow and start the race on Saturday. It's going to be an interesting weekend to say the least.

------

Although the Vermont 100 doesn't have an athlete tracker like Western States, I will be bringing my phone with me to update my Twitter and FB accounts while on the course. This depends, of course, on my mental capacity and whether I get a signal or not, but I will try my darndest to keep everyone updated. I will be using the hashtag #ironpete. on Twitter. My bib# for the race is 247.

Monday, July 15, 2013

My Vermont Strategy? Same as Last Year's

With 5 days before Vermont, it's time to talk strategy.

Last year, I did this race while proving a thesis that triathlon training is the best training available for running 100 mile ultras. My aim was to go under 24 hours.

I wound up doing so...by over 2.5 hours. I finished the race last year in 21:24:21.


So what is the strategy for this year?

Basically the same. Yes, I do have a lot more on the line this year than last year, as I have to concentrate on the entire Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, not just Vermont.

But I go by that simple premise...if it worked last year, I might as well do it again this year.

But what exactly was my strategy last year? Well, it's rather easy. I wanted to start off the race by doing 12 minute miles, or about 5 miles per hour. That pace is very easy to track without that much number crunching.

If I kept that pace through the entire race, I would finish in 20 hours. But I know at some point in the race I will start to slow down. At that point, I have a 4 hour cushion to finish the race in under 24 hours and get the belt buckle (in this race, no belt buckles are issued to people finishing over 24 hours, only plaques).

Last year, to my pleasant surprise, it happened quite late in the race, around mile 77. At that point, I knew I was going to finish sub-24. The only question was, how far under 24 hours.

Hopefully, with me being even lighter in weight than last year, I can do a bit better than last year.

As far as the blister concerns from Western States, there is still a concern regarding my feet going into the race. Most of the blisters have dried up, but the outer skin has been peeling off the bottoms of my feet, leaving some tender, sensitive skin exposed. I've been looking at Leukotape as a preventative for getting blisters in Vermont this weekend and have been doing some experimental running to see where the tape should be best positioned on my feet. I think I have most of the taping down pat.

Still, in a departure from Western States, I will not stop at every aid station in getting any blisters treated. If I do wind up with a severe blister issue, my goal is to just bull through the rest of the race.

I do admit that yes, I'm glad I finished Western States, but I'm not satisfied with that time at all. Call me a perfectionist, but I know I could do better in that race.

I'll not be satisfied with 28 hours in Vermont.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Friday Night Happy Hour for 20 in 24 Ultrarunners

I haven't been impressed with a group's accomplishments than our Ironman Canada group back in the 1990's.

But here I am, totally impressed with this group this past week!

I went to NYC this past Friday (Bar Thalia, W. 95th St.) to join what I think is the "who's who" of ultrarunners as we give a hearty send-off to those who are going the 24 hour distance in the 20in24 ultra race in Philadelphia next week, which benefited the Back On My Feet Charity.

Aside from a large group of runners that are doing the 24 hours next weekend, each person I was talking to had such an impressive ultra resume tied to them. A couple of people were going to Vermont next week. One was going to Vermont to pace (and oh yeah, she finished Western States 3 weeks ago also). We had a nice group of 4 people going to Leadville in 5 weeks!

The Leadville contingent. We're going there because we're not all there. ;-)

I was also talking to a person who has done several hundreds, including the old Vermont course; he will be up there in a volunteering capacity next week. Several of them are traveling to Arizona to do the Javelina Jundred this fall (I'm tempted to go with them). There was one woman who did her first 100 mile race at the NY Exposition 2 weeks ago and actually won the thing in a little over 22 hours!

There were others with 100 miles under their belts as well.

Yes, most of these people were congratulating me on my Western States finish, but the beauty of this group is that, in a couple of months, I will be the one congratulating most of these people with their amazing accomplishments. I mean, this is one heck of a group of over-achievers that we are talking about here.

And nothing is impossible with this group. Everyone here has certain goals they would love to accomplishment and nothing is going to stop them from achieving it. For example, one of the people going to Leadville is going for her first 100 there.

Leadville is one of the hardest 100 mile races in the world. Yet that little tidbit isn't going to stop her. She's going for it. If she fails, she will be back the following year to give it another try.

Not that's a great attitude!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Ready for Vermont!

I'm ready for Vermont.

Vermont Start Line. Ready to Rumble...Again!!!

Yesterday morning's 6 mile run in the Staten Island Greenbelt felt way too good for a person who struggled for 100 miles two weeks ago. So physically, I feel good to go.

And I feel like I have the mental edge also.

I'm trying to figure out why I feel I'm close to 100% recovered.

Maybe getting blisters in the Western States race was a blessing in disguise. It forced me to slow down earlier than I wanted to, maybe?  Enough so that I didn't expend all of my energy in that race?

And maybe I'm itching to go because I feel I can get a much better time in Vermont than I did at Western States. Yes, I am glad I finished, and it took a heck of a lot of painful steps to get me there, but in the back of my mind I'm still not wholly satisfied with my time there. I'm sorry, but I'll never be satisfied when I feel that there is a need for improvement.

That's my Type "A" Perfectionist voice talking.

Oh I know that, at the end of the year, I'll be submitting my name for the Western States lottery again. I already qualified for it by finishing that race. I can do better in that race, and would like to get a shot at it again.

Western States lottery...Put me back in!!! :-)


But back to Vermont. One person asked me if I was going to try to eclipse my PR of 21 hours and 24 minutes for this race this year. I didn't say yes or no, but hedged my bet in saying that I'll be using the same strategy this year as I did last year for Vermont. If the planets align right, then maybe I have a shot at it. But in the back of my mind, I still have to consider the entire Grand Slam in general and might have to play it safe when push comes to shove.

Anyway, we have a little more than a week to go before Vermont. And things are looking good!

Here's to one more week of tapering in the Staten Island Greenbelt before the 2nd leg of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning!

At the Greenbelt Nature Center ready for a trail run.

------

We're up to 31 members of the DREGS who want to do triathlon and ultras!

Love it. I would love to see every one of you! The online chat is OK, but it's the personal meetings that I look forward to. If you can, please try to make some of the meetups if you can.

And remember, you don't need me to make meetups of your own. Well, maybe my approval. But I think the site automatically approves meetups without my approval when 3 people sign up for your meetups. So it's encouraged by all in the group to arrange some meetups, even if you think only a few people will come.

Anyway, for this week, there will be an Open Water Swim at Midland Beach tonight, provided it doesn't rain. If there is a possibility, I'll be taking some running clothes with me and running a short run (about 4-5 miles) along Fr. Capodanno Rd. to compensate for the swim.

The swim meetup to the DREGS group is here:

http://www.meetup.com/Staten-Island-Dregs-Triathlon-and-Ultrarunning-Group/events/126018862/

Remember that we also have people doing the NYC Triathlon as well. I intend to go out there and cheer them on! If you're interested in coming along, let me know.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Grand Slam - Am I Contradicting My Coaching Philosophy? Maybe, But Maybe Not

Yesterday, I took the trip to visit one of my clubs in New Jersey at Donaldson Park (Raritan Valley Road Runners). The club was in the third race of four Summer Series races. Those races are one of the biggest foundations of the club since its founding. I'm glad that the course has moved back to its original place in Donaldson Park where it belongs (Donaldson Park, in Highland Park, NJ, underwent a complete overhaul for several years, focing the series to Buccleuch Park in nearby New Brunswick.

While I was there, I got into a discussion with a couple of people there about the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning I was doing and it got me thinking for the rest of the night.


My philosophy, and my coaching that reflects this philosophy, is to gear up for the big races, but always build in a good amount of time to rest after the racing is done. This way, it promotes longevity and minimizes all those injuries that seem to come with intensive training.

Up until now I always erred on the side of safety.

In my opinion, a race as long as an Ironman or a 100 mile race deserves special attention because these races tend to break down the body significantly. These races are also long enough to wear down the soul a bit too. Take a look at the people who finish these long races and you can tell by their faces that they've been through a bit of an ordeal in their race. They waged their personal battles during the race, and they won. But it took a lot out of them. You can definitely tell they need a bit of rest before they can train hard again.

I strongly recommend to my athletes a good 3-4 month rest before tackling another one of these long races again, not just to get their bodies strong again, but to get that mental edge back again. Otherwise they might suffer a huge mental burnout and opt not to race again.

Looking at my schedule, one can see that I might not be practicing what I'm preaching. I just had one of the toughest races in Western States that really tested my mettle in getting to the finish, and now I have another race coming up in 10 days (Vermont 100) which might require another huge battle to get to the finish line.

So, two 100 mile races in 3 weeks. Or how about the entire Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, four 100 mile races in 10 weeks?

In one way, this is an incredibly stupid thing I'm doing. LOL.

Doing four of these 100 mile races in 10 weeks definitely raises my chance of sustaining a significant injury during the series, so I have to be especially careful about myself in these races.

And me pushing through foot pain in the last 40 miles of the Western States 100 doesn't help things, that's for sure. I'm really walking a tightrope between sustaining a significant injury and getting myself to the finish line intact.

But in another way, I still will uphold my philosophy in building in rest, but after the Grand Slam is over. Since the Grand Slam is incredibly taxing, I do believe that, instead of the customary 2-3 months of easy recovery I recommend to my athletes, I will be extending that rest to 4-5 months (and beyond, if I find my body and mind still not 100%).

Remember that it's very important to get that rest in after your season is over. Everyone needs it, even those who specialize in short 5k races. And if you ever find yourself in a very busy season where you 1) have a string of long endurance races in a very short number of weeks (i.e. the Grand Slam), or 2) have a busy summer season of triathlons that you will be doing, with practically one every week, or 3) have one huge "A" race that you intend to give 110% to, remember that rest ALWAYS comes afterwards.

This is big, because I've seen so many endurance athletes my age sustain permanent injuries and drop out of competition permanently.

Give your body several months active rest (low volume, 100% easy pace, cross-training strongly recommended) after your big season or races, or your body will force you into rest...permanently.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Vermont Course Preview for Aspirant Slammers


OK, first off, be mindful of the time you start the race...4AM. This means you will need either a headlamp or some kind of a flashlight to start the race. The flashlight can easily be handed over to crew or placed into a drop bag at the first significant aid station, Pretty House, at 22.5 miles.

Also, be mindful that there is also a horse race that coresponds with the run, and the horses start at 5AM. Don't worry, the horses will not trample you over. What you do need to understand that there MUST be constant communication between you, the runner, and the riders of the horses. There will be places will the horses will pass you on the courses. There are also places, like some technically difficult single track sections of the course, where you might actually pass the horse. If you find yourself in the latter scenario, taking care not to surprise the horse is the way to go. Announce yourself to the rider and the horse so that you don't spook the horse from behind, and the rider will find an area to make the horse step aside so that you can pass. Again, communication is critical so that both you and the horses do not get surprised.

Running with the horses is a thrilling experience...just make sure you keep in constant communication with the riders and you'll do fine with them.


Other than that, it is great to run with the horses. I sometimes find myself talking to some of the riders of these magnificent animals in the early part of the race, and I find that to be a great pick-me-up during the race.

Next up, the weather. I participated in this race when it was hot and humid in 2010, and I participated in this race when it was a cooler, more pleasant day in 2012. The weather can be absolutely critical on your performance in this course. In Western States, you experienced a dry heat. Here, if hot, you will experience a more humid day. Humidity just makes the heat A LOT worse. Even if you're just standing still, a hot and humid day will make you sweat profusely. The conditions can be downright BEASTLY if we get the correct unholy alliance of heat and humidity. When I participated in the hot Vermont race in 2010, only 55% of the people finished the race. So the weather in Vermont is a huge factor. DO NOT take it lightly.

I will describe the course as best as possible. Overall, some people believe that because the course doesn't involve big hills or canyons like the other 3 races of the Grand Slam, that this is the “easiest” course of the Slam. Don't underestimate this course! The hills might not be as big as the others, but they are plentiful and keep coming at you relentlessly until the finish line.

OK, here goes...

Start line of Vermont 100.

Start line to Densmore Hill (mile 7.0) – You basically start from the farm and take Silver Hill Rd. for the first 2 miles of the race. It's basically a nice rolling hill section which is nice to get the legs going. After which you get into a bumpy dirt trail for another couple of miles. Here, the course starts to take a nice pleasant turn downhill in which you can open up a little. The trail eventually winds up back on dirt road, which I believe to be Densmore Hill Rd. Here you'll basically walk a little uphill to the first aid station, Densmore Hill at Mile 7. This is an unmanned aid station, and will basically have just water and electrolyte fluid, which you have to serve yourself.

From Densmore Hill to Dunham Hill (mile 11.5) – After the first aid station, you make a right hand turn and start down another dirt road going downhill. After what I think is another trail, you'll find yourself going uphill to Dunham Hill Rd, where there is another aid station. Again, this is an unmanned aid station with fluids.

After Dunhum Hill Rd., this is where you get the first significant downhill section going towards Woodstock. You'll find yourself going from unpaved to paved road as you approach Rt. 4. Last year, a key bridge at Taftsville was out, so the course actually went northwest through the village of Woodstock on the way north. But this year, we might revert back to the original course and skirt northeast of the village back to the Taftsville Bridge. If so, this covered bridge is one of the signiature landmarks of the beautiful Vermont countryside, so soak it in as you go through it. This is also one of the low points of the course, so be prepared for a nice climb after you leave the bridge and the aid station to follow.

Taftsville Covered Bridge. The covered bridge, one of the unique signatures of the Vermont landscape. You'll be going through two of these bridges along the course.


The Taftsville Covered Bridge Aid Station (15.4 miles) is the first manned aid station and will have the first significant variety of foods (potatoes, fruits, gummies, etc.) available, yummy goodness an ultrarunner will ever need! No crews will be here, so it will just be the runners and the volunteers; I remember it to be quite peaceful. Mike Lebowitz, this might be a good vantage point for the early part of the race to take photos since people will be walking uphill here. Since everyone is slowed down, it might be an easier time to take photos. We might all be smiling at this point!

The course continues its grind uphill along a dirt road from Taftsville to the South Pomfret Aid Station (18.9 miles). This is another unmanned aid station with just basic needs only. Again, it's a self-serve aid station.

The course continues its uphill jaunt until it tops out just before the Pretty House Aid Station at 22.5 miles.

A couple of things you need to know about Pretty House that is very important. To start, it is the first aid station where crews can access their runners. Because of this, and because it still is the early part of the race, the scene here can be VERY chaotic. As a matter of fact, a lot of the runners who have done this course tell their crews to skip this aid station and go first to either Stage Rd. or Camp 10 Bear because of the limited parking and the chaos here. I would advise the same thing here. Leave a drop bag here so that you can allow your crew to save the headache here and move ahead to Stage Rd. or Camp 10 Bear. Also, Mike L., I'm not sure you can get good photos here because of the chaos. I would skip this location.


 Pretty House Aid Station. Save your crew the headache and place a drop bag here.

OK, from Pretty House to Stage Rd. is the first real test of a climb. Going from dirt road to trail, you'll be climbing, and topping over the Sound of Music Hill. The U-Turn Aid Station at Mile 26.4 is also unmanned, at probably at the only switchback of the course (remember the millions of switchbacks at Western States? Not so here). You're going to want to have a camera here with you when you top this hill, the scenery when arriving at the top of this hill is AWESOME!!! Please pause at the top and soak it in, it's a great sight to behold!

This picture does the scenery no justice. It will pretty much overwhelm you when you reach to top of this mountain!


Watch your quads here! The descent from the hill is rather sharp. Please pay extra attention to the course markings here as the trail might not make itself known in several sections. At the bottom of this hill you will arrive at the Stage Rd. Aid Station at mile 31.4.

Stage Rd. is the second aid station where crews can access their runner but is not as chaotic as Pretty House (Mike L., this “might” be an OK place to take photos of runners with their crew, but I would suggest Camp 10 Bear being the much better location for photos). Stage Rd. is also an optional medical check. You can gauge how you're going with weight at this aid station before getting weighed for real at Camp 10 Bear.

From Stage Rd. you start down a paved road, then turn right into a single track trail and one of many small steep climbs on the way to the Camp 10 Bear Aid Station. Make sure to save a bit of energy here and get a good powerhile in so that you can get to the top of this particular hill with some energy left. Once you start descending this local hill you'll end up back on paved road at the Route 12 Aid Station (mile 34.3). This is a small manned aid station but has basically every food that you typically see in an ultra.

If I remember correctly, you'll be on Route 12 (paved road) for a little bit after the aid station, and maybe exposed to the sun also, which could be a factor if the day is hot. Once off the road you'll turn to yet another trail and a small yet steep hill. Again powerhike up that hill. During the course of the hill you'll encounter the Vondell Reservoir Aid Station (mile 36.2), which says it is unmanned but, in the both times I've raced Vermont, has actually had a guy there pouring liquids there for you. Don't expect much food at this aid station though Get your bottles topped off and continue on.

The course from Vondell Reservoir is pretty much on trail and downhill. It's a nice little place to cruise before hitting the next aid station at the Lincoln Covered Bridge (mile 39.6). And yes, it's another covered bridge that you'll go through. I think the aid station is after crossing the bridge. This will be a manned aid station with all the foods and liquids you need. No crew access though, so it's pretty calm there.

Now you're set for the final push to Camp 10 Bear! The course has a few major climbs and descents on single track trails just like the ones after Stage Rd. Don't kill yourself on these, just take them as they come. You'll pass Barr House (unmanned, 41.8 miles), Lillians (manned with food, 43.9 miles), and finally Jenny Farm (unmanned, 46 miles).

When approaching Camp 10 Bear for the very first time you'll notice a lot of activity before you get there. Cars will be parked on the sides of the road and crews are out waiting for their runners at this point. As you continue on, the crowds will be thicker as you actually approach the station.

Camp 10 Bear (mile 47.6) is THE major aid station on the course. It has everything, food, drink, heck, even a barbecue for when you hit Camp 10 Bear the second time.

Mandatory Weigh-In at Camp 10 Bear.


It also has a mandatory medical check. Unlike in Western States where it's only advised, if you're found below a certain percentage, they will either hold you there until you get back into acceptable weight. Or they have the descretion to pull you out of the race if your weight is way too low. Make sure you eat and drink at the aid stations leading up to Camp 10 Bear so that you can be cleared to continue on by the medical staff there.

If you can, take an extra minute or two to fuel up because the next part of the course is pretty significant. Once through the aid station you'll be on paved road going up, then down a big hill. You'll hit an intersection at this road and then go to your left, continuing on a paved road for close to a mile I think.

The course, after a while, takes a turn off the road and onto a trail. At this point, prepare for a major climb up a tough rocky trail. Dubbed “Agony Hill”, the steepness of this hill will sorely test your legs for a bit. Once up top, you'll finally get yourself onto another road on the way to the next aid station, Pinky's (51.4 miles). This is a manned aid station that (I think) has sandwiches along with the usual food and drink. It was nice to stop here after the climb and replenish what I lost.

The course after Pinky's is mostly dirt road and some trail, with rolling hills. If I recall, there is a nice running section here that was quite comfortable. After a bit of downhill you get to the next aid station, Birmingham's (54.5 miles) which is manned and has everything you need.

Looking at this year's aid station list, looks like there is a major change here. It used to be that Tracer Brook was the big aid station at the bottom of Prospect Hill that crews can access. Apparently, that's been reduced to an unmanned aid station and that the crews can access a new aid station called the Seven Sees. I'm not sure if this involves the climb up Prospect Hill that was part of the old course or involves a new route entirely. It also seems that there is an optional medical check here also in preparation for the mandatory weigh-in at Camp 10 Bear.

Since I don't know the new route, I'll leave it out. I'm sure the race director will explain fully the new route or aid station at the pre-race meeting.

With the old route, we used to go up and over Prospect Hill, which is a dirt road. Once going downhill, we found ourselves at the Margaritaville Aid Station (62.5), one of my favorites!

Themed after Jimmy Buffet's famed songs, the aid station plays Jimmy Buffet music, of course, and the volunteers are dressed as Parrotheads. There are also Margaritas here available to intrepid runners (I've never even dared to take one after 60 miles of running, lol). Crews can also access their runners here as well.

Me approaching Margaritaville in 2010.

Gotta love the signs!


This aid station is a good time to prepare yourself for the second time you get into Camp 10 Bear. After a small climb (mostly dirt road) to the unmanned aid station at Brown School House, you're going to have to contend with a MAJOR DESCENT that might make your quads sing a sour note. If your quads are OK, then this can actually be the best part of the course; I was feeling great going down this hill into Camp 10 Bear! On this downhill section, the dirt road goes into a narrow broken trail section for a time, then emerges back onto a huge dirt road. Again, if your quads are good here, you can easily FLY down this hill!

Once down the hill, the course finally takes a left turn onto another road; you're faced with a short uphill section that will lead you back to Camp 10 Bear (70.5). Again, you'll see crews parked along the road as you approach the aid station. At this point, it can still be daylight or can be dark, so plan your headlamps accordingly.

Last year, when I hit this aid station, they had some pretty good grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches that hit the spot. I think they also served chicken broth and other hot foods here.

The second arrival at this aid station also means another mandatory check-in, and you'll be asked to get on a scale. Hopefully, you'll be cleared to run immediately.

This also means you get your pacer here! That is good, because the next section of the course, I feel, is the most difficult section of the course.

Once out of Camp 10 Bear, you'll be immediately thrown onto a gate and un upward trail. I think someone dubbed this nasty climb “Heartbreak Hill”. No, not that puny hill in Boston that road runners cry over every year.. This one is quite the beast!

After what seems like forever going up this hill on single track, the course finally emerges out onto a dirt road. Your climb still isn't over yet though! You'll still find yourself powerhiking on the road until it finally levels off. The scenery here is pretty beautiful; soak it in before you continue!

The course then turns off the road into a very tough single track trail. The trail here has lots of little cruel ups and downs that will make your quads sing again. You will not be comfortable in this section at all. Luckily, you'll have your pacer with you.

With one last downhill, you finally emerge onto a road a short distance from the Seabrook aid station (mile 75.1). Once at Seabrook, this long taxing section will be behind you!

This will be the night time section for most runners. It is from here on that you'll mostly find yourself on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere with just blackness around you. It can feel pretty isolated, even in the company of a pacer. It is also here that you will be battling a bit of sleep because of the quite and the isolation of the roads.

The Spirit of 76 Aid Station (mile 77.1) is another major aid station with crew access. At night, it is impressively lit; it looks like a beacon in the middle of all this blackness. You'll probably get the urge to sit down; don't do it. Get your stuff you need and keep moving!

Spirit of 76 Aid Station


The course from the Spirit of 76 starts off on trail, then quickly gets back onto a dirt road again. Again, all I remember from my 2 races is the road and the blackness of night. It can get quite monotonous, so, if it works for you, maybe carry on a conversation with your pacer at this time.

From what I remember of the next aid station, Goodman's (81.4 miles), you can easily go right past it if you're not aware of it. It is unmanned.

After Goodman's please be very aware of the course markers (glow sticks at this point). Right before Cow Shed, the course does a major u-turn onto another dirt road. The first time I raced, I almost went off-course. The second time I was aware of the turn, but found it can still be very tricky.

Cow Shed (mile 84) is a nicely lit aid station to your left on the dirt road. It has just about everything, including some hot food. Please take an extra minute and load up of your food and drink here because there is a pretty tough 5 mile section between Cow Shed and Bills that you need to negotiate.

The 5 mile course is totally on dirt roads. You might find the first half of the course very, very easy, since it does go downhill for the first 2.5 to 3 miles. At the low point of this stretch, you'll be crossing a paved road and bear right onto another dirt road. You'll know it when you see it. Because at this point, you'll have a rather hard 2 mile slog up this nasty hill before you get to Bills. Both times I did it, it felt like forever before I was finally able to take the right turn toward Bill's.

Bills Barn - Great Aid Station at Mile 89.

Bills has chock full of everything a runner needs. Don't get too comfortable though!

Bill's is a barn and is a major aid station with medical staff and all the supplies you can think of at the aid station. It can also be labeled as a “trap”, because the barn is nice and warm, there are cots there you can easily lie down and fall asleep in, and the people there are warm and friendly. I guess it's like the “roach motel” because you can check-in, but will never check-out if you don't play your cards right here! Some people suggest that you get in, get weighed, then get out as soon as possible before you get too comfortable.

The final mandatory weigh-in also occurs here and your crew can help you out here as well. It was also a nice place to switch pacers; I had one pacer do the first 19 miles, then switch to another pacer who finished the final 11 with me. Once you're cleared with the medical staff, you can actually start to think about finishing the race!
Careful here though! The hills in the last 10 miles tend to just keep coming at you. As tired as you might be, you'll feel that you'll always have a hill in your face these last miles.

The final part of the course is a mix of dirt roads and some pretty involved single track trails that can occasionally trip up the tired runner. Watch your footing on some of the single-track sections and you'll be OK.

Keating's (92.4 miles) is a nice, small manned aid station that is nicely placed between Bills and the last aid station with crew access. Take a small break there, top off your bottles, and quickly get towards Polly's (95.9 miles), in which your crew gives you that final Pep Talk right before the finish line. The course still goes up and down some hills until you get to the last unmanned aid station, Sargent's (98.1 miles, which I've easily skipped twice).

After Sargent's you will be on single track trail for the remainder of the course. You'll go uphill after Sargent's, then level off to get some running in. At this point, you'll reach a sign saying “1 More Mile to Go!!!”. Another half-mile later, you'll reach some eerily lit bottles with candles lit inside them, you know the finish line is near! At this point you can easily pick up that pace and start to smile, one more right turn and the finish line is right there! Once across you are done...

...and already starting your Leadville preparations, but that will not be covered here! I hope this report helps.

Showing off my belt buckle at the finish line.


See you at Vermont on July 20!





Sunday, July 7, 2013

Finally Home - Getting Ready for Vermont

It's been a weird week of recovery after Western States.


Recoveries after a long race such as Western States has always had a life of their own. And some things catch me unprepared.

The Painful Trip Back to NYC

OK, let's start with the bus ride back to Squaw Valley after the race. I could barely walk. The blisters on my feet were teaming up with my tender quads to result in a walk slower than that of even a zombie. I was extremely worry I would not catch the bus after the awards ceremony because I was afraid that I could not cover the distance to the front of Placer High School in time before it drives away.

Much to my relief, the bus did not come until around 45 minutes after the awards ceremony ended. Whew!

The bus ride was a bit uneventful. Once I got to Squaw Valley and checked into my hotel room, I just could not stay awake any longer. I already got a shower in at Placer HS after the awards ceremony, so once I closed the door to my hotel room, I just plopped on my bed and passed out.

I never woke up until well past midnight. By then, I was ready to repack everything for the flight home. So much for pleasantly soaking in the swimming pool during my stay there.

 This would have been nice, but sleep won out...

The trip home basically sucked. I really needed to stay off my feet the day after my trip, and could have afforded the extra day there and take the trip home the next day. But, in my planning, my post-race condition was never taken into account, and so I had to start to take the trip home Monday.

I took the local bus to Truckee, then transferred to the Amtrak bus back to Sacramento. It was on this bus that I really started to feel my feet throb. I elevated my feet during the trip and it came as welcome relief.

I arrived at the airport with a lot of time to spare. I actually had to wait 5 hours before I can check in my bag and take the midnight flight back to Laguardia.

During the 5 hours, again, I propped up my feet on my luggage and I felt instant relief. I was afraid I couldn't do that during the flight, as crowded as these flights are. I knew that I would probably be suffering on the two flights back to NY.

The flights were a nightmare. Both feet were throbbing and it took a huge effort to get some sleep on the flights to avoid the pain. Thankfully, the flights weren't delayed this time and I was able to get back to Laguardia by noon on Tuesday.

Once I got back home, I just kicked off my shoes and went to sleep, relieved that I was done with the journey.

The next day, feeling better, I repacked my bags and went to my parents' timeshare at Villa Roma in the Catskills. I was looking forward to the days of just doing nothing for the week, letting the feet and legs heal from the race.

What's Villa Roma without the daily Bocce tournament? I couldn't move around much, but I really didn't have to move much playing Bocce, right? :-)


That was the best part of the week. Each day I felt a whole lot better than the day before. Today, I'm able to walk and run normally again, and the bottoms of my feet were hardened from the healing blisters. I am a new man now.

Was it the Shoes that Caused Blisters?

During that time in Villa Roma, I was able to step back and question some of the the things I experienced at Western States that weekend. Namely, why the heck I got so many blisters when I've never had that problem in the past.

I mean, yeah, the downhill nature of the course had something to do with it, but I still cannot rule out fitting into my Hokas.

On most of my long runs in the Hokas, everything seemed OK, but there always seemed to be several hot spots forming during those long runs. I've never experienced this with the other shoes I had.

Were the Hokas not fitting me right?

I went to the internet and found that I wasn't alone with this problem. Most of the people wearing Hokas were experiencing blister patterns similar to what I experienced at Western States (namely under the toes, where the push-off happens).



So, were ill-fitting shoes the main problem here?

I seriously don't know. But I really do not want to go through that crisis again in another 100 mile race, so I fugre the best thing to do was to go back to the New Balance shoes that fit me well in last year's Vermont 100 race. At least for the start of that race.

I'll probably put my Hokas in the crew car so that they are available in a pinch should I get a crisis with my other shoes. That should give me some good choices of shoes during the race.

My Current Condition

I can safely say that, one painful week after Western States, I am about 80% recovered. My quads are almost back to normal, the bottoms of my feet are mostly healed, and I can run normally again. As severe as my injuries were, sustained by Western States, I can safely say that all of my injuries were cosmetic and that I should be at 100% when towing the line for Vermont in 2 weeks.

And this is big, because I really want to get under 24 hours for Vermont this year. Vermont only gives out belt buckles for those who finish under 24 hours, and it would be great to have a complete collection of 4 belt buckles for the Grand Slam.

I start training consistently for Vermont tomorrow (Monday July 8) and should be able to at least give a strong showing at Vermont on July 20.

Let's get ready for leg#2 of the Grand Slam!!!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Full Western States Report - Buying Myself 3 More Weeks of Slam-Mania!

This is going to be one heck of a race report. There are hundreds of pictures that I took during the race and will need time to sort out. I will post them here in the future. As for now, I'm going by the photos that are already available to me, like this one:

Me showing off my bib number before the race...this picture was used for the Western States webcast the next day while I was running.

So let's see what I did...I was involved with the original 100 mile ultramarathon, the one that started the current ultrarunning phenomenon, the one that now questions the marathon as the “ultimate race”. I've rubbed elbows, and even became Facebook friends with Gordon Ainsleigh, the first man who actually dared to challenge the impossible and run 100 miles in a horse race back in 1974. I've met the other 30 people who dared to attempt the Grand Slam this year, and the photographer (Michael Lebowitz) who is taking pictures of our exploits in each of the 4 races of the Slam.

But best of all, I get to run the actual Western States 100 course, for a crack at one of the most prestigious prizes in ultrarunning, the coveted Western States Belt Buckle.


With this report, I'll just focus on my race. Forget the hoopla surrounding the race. I'll report about that a little later on.

The Start

Woke up race morning at Silver Creek Campground. Took the primitive approach to this and brought my tent along with me to sleep outside under the stars. It was a great experience.

Got to Squaw Valley a little after 3AM. Ate some of the food they had there and hydrated very well. Emotionally, I was ready and focused. Heck, I was doing the biggest race of my 23 year career here. No pressure, right? The only strategy I had was to race in the moment and see where that would take me.

10 minutes before the race, we all gather at the start line. Was with Reiko Cyr and Jackie Choi as we counted down the minutes. The first part of the race was a 2,500 foot climb, and thus a power hike to the top of Emigrant Pass. Just put one foot in front of the other enough times and soon we would be at the top! I had my action cam on my head and ready to take pics of the early, beautiful part of this race.

The starting gun goes off, and off we go! The road out of Squaw Valley takes us higher and higher, into the heart of the Sierra Nevadas. As we climb, the camera snaps photos along the way, taking pictures of the entire valley of Squaw, the looming mountain, and Lake Tahoe in the distance. The photos are impressive; I'm glad I took the camera with me.

I settled into a good power-hike rhythm up the mountain. I get to the first Aid Station at the Escarpment, drank some fluids, and marched into the Escarpment itself. Needed my hands in the early part as the Escarpment is quite steep, but soon I was on top and making my way towards the Watson Monument and Emigrant Pass itself, the very top of the climb. Time to finally run!

The back side of the pass was breathtaking as well. Wound up talking with a few people while running, with one being Will Jorgenson, another Slammer aspirant. We talked about other ultras, training, even A-Rod and the Yankees as we get to the top of Red Star Ridge.

Those early miles were a blur, but I felt very good at that point. I was running on all cylinders and managed a good pace through the early miles. The first test was coming up though, our first canyon of the day, Duncan Canyon.

Duncan Canyon itself lies between the Duncan Canyon Aid Station and Robinson Flat. At this point ot the race, the heat was now starting to assert itself. The descent down into the canyon is characterized with several switchbacks. It is the first of many significant descents of the course and one where runners need to preserve their quads. At the bottom of the canyon is a creek that can only be crossed by going through it. Wet feet and ultras are not a good combination, and this is something that will be significant in the later part of the course.

With the heat asserting itself, some of the runners are already immersing themselves in the creek to cool themselves down. I had none of that, crossed the creek, and started to climb the other side of the canyon.

The Duncan Canyon climb at mile 27-30 is a tough slog. It is here that I have found some runners starting to falter a bit. The difficulty of this course is starting to make itself felt!

I climbed Duncan Canyon very well and found myself at the Robinson Flat Aid Station in good time. I joked with the volunteers, exclaiming, “that climb is nothing!”. I grabbed water and some bananas and continued on.

At this point, the course starts to turn downhill. I was motoring along nicely, getting through Miller's Defeat and Dusty Corners Aid Stations, and finally started to approach Last Chance. I was anticipating the next 2 very large canyons (Deadwood at miles 44-48 and El Dorado at miles 49-56) with cautious optimism. Being strong at this point, the visit to the canyons was well timed.

The Canyons

At Last Chance I visited the Port-a-John and took an extra couple of minutes to prepare for the first canyon, Deadwood canyon, with 37 switchbacks on the 1600 foot climb to Devils Thumb. I met Wade Blumgren, who is preparing for the canyons by resting a bit before going for it; he looked really good.

After leaving Last Chance, I was prepared. The first mile out of Last Chance was a gradual downhill along an unimproved road. After reaching a gate, we turned towards a single track trail with a sign accompanying it warning everyone about the precipitous nature of the trail.That must be the start of the canyon...

Deadwood Canyon. Here we go!

I was prepared for the agony of the climb out of the canyon but was unprepared for the precipitous drop of the trail into the canyons. The many switchbacks that descend into this canyon is not enough to mask the sheer drop of the trail, and my quads were definitely reminding me of that. I knew I was going to have to pay for the jarring and the abuse later, but right now, the focus is to get to the bottom just to make it stop!

After what felt like forever, I finally got to Swinging Bridge at the bottom of the canyon. I was thankfully done with the descent, but now was staring at the climb out of this hellish place. 37 switchbacks, right? Well, it's time to start counting.

The start of the climb was deceptively easy, after about 5 switchbacks, I felt OK. But the trail starts to climb steeply after that, and my legs started to groan in the process. It was about here that I was really starting to feel the heat also. The only thing I could do at this moment is just keep putting one foot in front of the other and hopefully count to 37 before I collapse.

It was the top of the climb that was the worst...with 2 switchbacks to go, I was eagerly awaiting the top of the climb...but switchbacks 36 and 37 didn't come. Instead, the trail turned steeply upward. The extra work that my already burdened legs had to do to get up the steeps here simply stunned me. Finally, after the steep sections were done, switchbacks 36 and 37 were counted and 1600 feet of climb, I finally arrived at the top of the canyon to the Devil's Thumb Aid Station, stunned and confused.

The Devil's Thumb Aid Station was prepared for this, as they had cool, damp towels to drape on the poor, stunned runners' heads to get them to think clearly again. They also had popsicles which were a godsend! I took an extra couple of minutes just to get my bearings back before leaving the station. Heck, we have another canyon to traverse right away, yikes!

I was weakened and just downright stunned by Deadwood Canyon, but I told myself as I left Devil's Thumb Aid Station to start running, even if very slowly, to see if I can “jump start” myself again. About two miles afterwards, I found that I was running at the regular pace again, much to my relief. We had El Dorado Canyon to traverse now, so I gave it my undivided attention.

The descent to El Dorado Creek wasn't as steep as the descent into Deadwood Canyon, but it was long and arduous. My quads were already very tired from the course, the descent still was very taxing. There was one other thing in this canyon that I felt that I didn't in the other canyons.

The heat.

This canyon was downright stifling. It was hot, there was no wind, and the air literally scorched my face as I descended towards the bottom. I knew I was running in temps way above 100 degrees here. As it turns out, I found out later that some of the recorded temps here exceeded 115 degrees in this canyon! As it turns out, I still wasn't really adversely affected by the heat. I felt it, yes, but I didn't slow down because of it.

I got to the bottom of the canyon and into the aid station there. I felt OK, but was now worried about this climb out of the canyon. 2.8 miles and 1800 feet of climb to Michigan Bluff. Luckily, the side of the canyon where I'll be climbing is rather shaded. Temps were stifling, yes, but to be out of the sun's eye while climbing this imposing canyon was a godsend. I started to climb up the canyon.

The climb was not as rough as Deadwood, but it was significant nevertheless. I can start to feel the fatigue settling in as I labored up the path. With the sun getting lower and lower in the sky, I find myself wondering what the night will bring on this course. The one thing I started to feel though during this climb out of the canyon, was that blisters were starting to form on my feet.

Finally climbing the 1800 foot canyon wall and reaching Michigan Bluff, I took a quick assessment of myself and found that I was still breathing. They had some real food at this aid station. I decided to try a grilled cheese sandwich. My system violently reacted to it, and I had to vomit it up as I was leaving the aid station. Oh well, looks like we're staying with bananas and watermelon for a while longer.

As I left the station, one of the volunteers congratulated me on finishing the canyons. I mentioned to him that we had one canyon left, Volcano Canyon. He taunts, “that little itty bitty thing?”

That made me nervous. A “little itty bitty thing” here in the West can be more than I bargained for.

Signs for Volcano Canyon were present on the dirt road climbing into the Volcano Park. After climbing several hills on this road, the trail turned single track again, and made a huge descent into the canyon. More switchbacks. My poor quads were really aching with pain descending into the canyon and I felt the blisters growing on my feet. Looks like I need to address my feet at Foresthill Aid Station at Mile 62. I mercifully reached the bottom of the canyon and started the painful climb up the other side.

“Itty bitty? Who's he kidding? This canyon sucks”

I finally made it to Bath Road, only 1.4 miles from Foresthill Aid Station. I was tired, sore, and the blisters on my feet were making themselves known. I had fresh socks in my drop bag at Foresthill, along with my headlamps and a new shirt, so I was looking to Foresthill with hope that the new stuff will renew me for the rest of the trip. The big mountains and the canyons were over, now it's time to enjoy the trails by the American River.

The Night and the Blisters

I got to Foresthill Aid Station, and found myself in the middle of a party! This was clearly the largest, and the most important aid station on the course where people pick up their pacers, and get going on some of the easier trails of the course. I spent some time here assessing my feet (yeah, those feet were getting ugly), changing my socks and shirt, and getting my headlamps. I started out dry, fresher, and with renewed confidence, found myself going fast and steady downhill to the Cal-1 aid station. The daylight was waning, so during the run I had to turn my headlamp run.

Here comes the night. I'm always nervous to see what night has to bring in these races.

Descending into Cal-1, I was initially strong, but was getting a bit weaker as I arrived at Cal-1 Aid Station. The blisters were getting worse, and my alertness was fading a bit. I decided to take a bit of time here and eat a lot before I set my sights on the next Aid Station, Cal-2.

It was between Cal-1 and Cal-2 when I started getting some real bad news.

The blisters on my feet got real bad, and with each painful step, had to slow down the pace a bit. The dark and isolation of the trail didn't help either, as I felt utterly alone with my dark thoughts. It was a long haul to Cal-2, and I was feeling it every step of the way.

I got to Cal-2 stunned. At this point I knew a sub-24 hour finish was out the window, but should still be a shoe-in for a sub 30 finish. With the Grand Slam always in the back of my mind, a sub-30 finish is as good as a sub-24 hour finish in that it would allow me to move on to the next race in the Slam, Vermont. So I set focus on finishing the race to move on in the Slam.

The shorter distance from Cal-2 to Cal-3 initially was fine with me, but there was a horrible climb right before Cal-3 that destroyed my feet. It was time to address these blisters. I stumbled into Cal-3 and asked if I can get the blisters treated here. The guy had a First-Aid kit, but told me that the next aid station, Rucky Chucky, had a podiatrist that can help me with my blisters. He did help me by covering up some bad spots on my feet, but now I was faced with a painful 4.7 mile slog down to the river before getting treated.

So what did I do? I started off. The volunteer wished me well, and off I went.

This section was by far the toughest, and the most defining part of the run. I needed to get to Rucky Chucky to have any chance of finishing the course. So I put all my grit and determination in getting down to the river.

It felt like forever, as I was doing about a 15 minutes/mile pace at this point, but I finally reached Rucky Chucky.

As I stumbled in, I asked one of the volunteers where the podiatrist was. He said he was on the other side of the river. So I decided to get the crossing over with quickly.

Except that it didn't go quickly.

I envisioned the Rucky Chucky Crossing to be one of the highlights of the course. It turned out to be a nightmare. We had to navigate large rocks on the course, and whenever I had to take a step in a deeper section of the river, I was uncontrollably shivering whenever the water got waist deep. Plus, the blisters on my feet were screaming with pain as I traversed the river.

After what felt like forever, I finally emerged onto the other side of the river and asked to see a podiatrist immediately. He was there, but told me that if I didn't have any dry socks in the drop bags (which I didn't), that it would all be for naught. I told him I had fresh socks at Auburn Lake Trails, the next aid station. He told me there was a podiatrist there and he can treat me there then.

Great. Blisters, now wet feet, and now I'm to run another 4+ miles to get treated. Oh, and as to add insult to injury, I found my running shorts to be split on the bottom. This is turning out to be a rough night!

Still, I soldiered on. I managed to get some energy back as I ran towards Auburn Lake Trails, and passed some people along the way. When I got to the aid station, I felt OK again.

But I still needed to get my feet checked, so I stopped.

The medical staff at Auburn Lake Trails were great. They knew I had a dry pair of socks to put on, so were willing to tackle the blisters for me.

When I finally took off my shoes and wet socks for them, they knew they had their work cut out for them. One of them exclaimed, “oh #$&%”, and took out his camera to film my feet for posterity,

On both feet, there were blisters on the outside of the heel. There were big blisters right underneath the midfoot, there were some blood blisters underneath the toes, and there were numerous small blisters in between the toes. The treatment turned into a project.

In around 45 minutes they tried to drain all the significant blisters. My left foot was a bit worse than my right, with a big blood blister smack-dab right on the balls of my feet. After 45 minutes I was getting a bit antsy and eager to shove off, so they made quick work of the rest, put my dry socks on, my shoes, then wished me a lot of luck. I felt wobbly getting up, but the thought still hasn't crossed my mind whether to quit the race. In my mind I still had time; if I was to do a 25 min/mile pace I would still finish ahead of the 30 hour cutoff, so off I went.

The first mile was very slow as my legs slowly loosened up again to running, After that mile I settled into a slow but steady rhythm to get to the next aid station.

The Next Day and the Painful Last Stretch

During the 4+ stretch of miles to Browns Bar Aid Station, the light from the dawn slowly returned, and during that stretch, I turned off my headlamp to face the new day. Yeah I was a bit frustrated that I still had not reach mile 90 yet and that I felt less than stellar at that point, but part of me was still happy that I had survived the night and was still moving toward the finish. I also resolved myself to no more significant stoppages at aid stations. Whatever the condition of my feet would be I would just have to deal with it and bull through the remaining part of the race.
I reached Brown's Bar at 89.9 miles, and as quickly as I came in, I downed a few drinks and salt tabs, I was quickly off for the next aid station. At this point I had to do a 30 min/mile pace to finish the course, which gave me a bit of confidence.

The next 3.6 mile stretch sucked. It featured a huge uphill section that just kept going and going until I finally started to hear the sound of cars in the distance. Highway 49 Aid Station shouldn't be far behind then. As the roar of traffic got closer, the sun started to make its presence felt on the second day; the day promises to be even hotter than yesterday, so I had to get myself prepared.

At the aid station they had lots of bacon, which did appeal to me. So I had about 3 strips of bacon, washed it down with some Gu Brew, then quickly left the station seeking No Hands Bridge.

No Hands Bridge was the lowest part of the course, so I was expecting a downhill jaunt to that aid station. Instead, I was faced with a steep and daunting uphill for the first mile of the stretch. Crsing under my breath, I took the climb and then found myself in a sun-exposed field with no trees. The furnace of the day was turned on at this point.

At that point, the course went sharply downhill. And that is where I discovered I had no quads left to steady myself down the hill.

I couldn't keep straight down the hill, which featured yet more switchbacks (I'm starting to hate switchbacks now). I had to slow myself to a crawl to keep myself steady as the steep downhill was jolting through my exhausted quads. I was loudly cursing at this point, at which a volunteer came out of a corner (who must have heard me) tole me that the bridge was only a quarter mile away. The ground finally leveled at that point, which finally enabled me to hobble at a good speed to the aid station at the bridge.

I'm at 96.8 miles. 3.2 miles left. C'mon Pete, that's a 5k race! You can do this!

The Finish!

I crossed the bridge, started to run awkwardly again, and hoped for the best. At this point I knew I was finishing, but at what cost? I knew that I would survive the first leg of the Grand Slam and at that point I thought, “that's exactly what you wanted all along, right?” You survived to fight another day! No matter what condition I'm in, I now have 3 weeks to fix it before doing it again in Vermont. I bought time!

So I settled for the less than stellar time in Western States. I made one last awful climb to the Robie Point Aid Station, got a cup of Gu Brew in, and started the last 1.3 mile run on the asphalt towards Placer High School and the finish,

There were people along the road cheering me on as I slowly crept toward the stadium. I had to crack a smile every so often because it tends to be always emotional at the end of a 100 mile race, and I was coming to the end of THE ORIGINAL 100 mile race. I basically survived the second hottest Western States 100 in its history, and got through a lot of adversity to get there. As I got onto the field, some of the people I knew was cheering me in towards the finish. I crossed the finish line with a time of 28:51:35. A bronze buckle finish, but I'll take it. My Grand Slam goal still lives, and I'm happy for that.


My feet were utterly trashed. At Placer High School, I was wondering what condition I was going to be in 3 weeks when Vermont starts. But that is what the Grand Slam is, buying more time to stay alive. In my mind I bought 3 more weeks. I will try to heal up as best I can during those 3 weeks and hope to toe the line in Vermont as close to 100% as possible. At that point, it's back to “survive the race” to buy 4 more weeks to Leadville.

Such is the life of a Grand Slammer. Keep buying time, stay alive for as long as possible, and hope to make it to the end. I survived the first leg, so in the grand scheme of things, I was successful. On to Vermont!