Thursday, June 28, 2012


Looking back on Western States I feel a great relief it is over.  The whole event is such a production.  I mean that in the most positive terms, but damn if Western isn’t so consuming that it forces almost everything out of one’s psyche, especially as the weeks click by closer to race day.  The sacrifice.  The focus.  The energy it consumes.  (If you let it.)  It is just so intense.  It takes living and being to a whole new level.  Ironically, that is exactly what I love about preparing for an event like Western.  Still, it is important sometimes to step back from things I love, pause, and absorb the journey.
Leading up to Western I felt unusually calm and confident in my mission.  A low 16 hour time, whatever the weather, whatever the route, is what I was after and what I figured realistic.  It wasn’t like I came up with this time the week of either.  I decided last December this is the time I was after.  A top 10 was in the back of my mind and I figured the closer I came to my goal the more likely I would finish amongst the top 10.  Low and behold, I finished in 16:18 and 10th place.
Friday night before the race I was in bed by 9:15 and fell asleep in only a few minutes.  This never, ever happens the night before a big race.  Falling asleep instantly the night before Western States?  It was a miracle.  Even better, I slept like a baby the whole night through and awoke at 3:00 perfectly rested, springy and for a minute or two completely unaware that it was even race day.  Perhaps this was a good omen.  Even as I prepared that morning and made my way through the crowd to the race start I never felt nervous or anxious.  The experience was a bit surreal; it felt like a normal day, like going to work.  Even before big solo runs I usually get nerves- just the idea of what is about to happen or what could happen fires me up.  Thinking back as to why the night before and morning of Western I felt so calm I still don’t have definitive answers.  The likely cause is I simply knew and believed, in my core, I was prepared and that I didn’t have to remind myself I was prepared or that I should ‘rely on my training’.  I wasn't worried about the other runners and I didn't care who was there.  I needed only to go out and do what I came to do.  That was it.
For the most part, the race unfolded exactly how I figured it would, for me and for a few others around me at least.  Though in honesty I was surprised there wasn’t more carnage amongst the front crowd.  That I will chalk up to the weather and the incomprehensible depth of talented and prepared athletes who came to demonstrate their skill in California’s famed, rugged Sierras.  My hat is off to everyone who delievered on race day- the athletes, the volunteers, I mean everyone- and especially to those who perhaps discovered a new low gear they didn't realize they had before and cranked it.  Timmy’s run?  Holy hell.  He is my new hero.  Ellie?  WTF!  She is superhuman.  They both, in my estimation, are a lock for UROY and PYOY.  (Apart from Bryon Powell, of course.)  That’s right, and all in a day’s work.  That is, unless a certain young man runs under 23:23 at Hardrock.  Will that happen?  It would certainly make things interesting, wouldn't it?  Could it happen?  Absolutely.  Eventually, Dakota, or Kilian, or Timmy, or some other pimp will run sub 23 at Hardrock.  Most likely sub 22:30.  It might take perfect conditions to do it, like at Western, but it will eventually happen.  It is only a matter of time.
Back to Western, my only regret is that my legs didn’t quite hold up the same after the back-to-back descents from Last Chance and Devil’s Thumb.  Zeke and I ran together for several miles leading up to that point, with Yassine yo-yoing off the front.  Unfortunately, I was the one who set the pace down both of these descents, as well as the climb up to Michigan Bluff (Zeke set the pace up Devil’s) and I can’t say the two descents didn’t extract a bit of pep from my legs.
By the time I reached Rucky Chucky and the River I was in 10th place and unsure how close or how far back Yassine, who I passed some time after Forrest Hill, Olive Oil Joe or some other runner(s) were in proximity.  I climbed the road well enough from the River to Green Gate, stopping once to pee and power hike a few short sections.  I heard cheering at the River crossing only monents after I left, signaling the arrival of a trailing runner, and it was then, I knew, that the race for Top 10 officially took hold.  I picked up Paul as a pacer at Green Gate, and Gaby and Pattie once again helped process me through the aid station efficiently.  Moments after leaving Green Gate Paul and I ran by a walking Mike Wolfe.  I wasn't sure if Mike would DNF but it looked like he might.  Runners always DNF at Green Gate, it seems.  (Turns out Mike did finish, and finish well, but mostly likely after a fair bit of suffering.)  The climbing continued after Green Gate.  Despite my sore quads I was climbing well enough and I figured if it was Yassine who I heard the crowd cheering for shortly after I crossed the River I felt good about my chances of gapping him the more we had to climb.  The only problem was, it wasn't Yassine.
Running in ninth place I felt slightly less pressured but it didn't hold me back from moving along at a pace my sore legs would allow.  Just before Auburn Lake Trails mother nature called and I was forced to pull over for a few minutes.  I wasn't happy to stop but I was happy for the relief.  Suckingly, before I hopped back onto the trail Olive Oil Joe- who was actually on my tail at the River- and his pacer ran by.  Joe looked sore and banged up but it didn't stop him from moving strong and staying focused.  In fact, it most likely motivated him to run harder and finish faster so he would have to suffer less.  That, plus I am sure he was hell bent on a top 10.  Me, I was now back in 10th.  Back to feeling pressured.  Paul and I kept moving.  I ran pretty much every hill all the way to the finish, only stopping to hike for a few seconds here and there, including the climbs up to Highway 49 and Robie Point.  Paul unfortunately fell slightly behind on the climb up Robie and I eventually picked up AJW and then also Gaby on the road leading to the track at Placer High.  We ran together, laughing as the last bit of pale sky turned dark, and I was thrilled that- for me- the race was all but over and a return ticket to Squaw next summer would soon be stamped.  Finally, I entered the track and crossed the finish line after several high fives.  Needless to say, it felt good to be done.  And I was so glad not to have suffered more race drama after being passed by Joe in the mid 80s.  I can't imagine how hugely annoying and stressful it would have been to fight for M10 over the final few miles.  But I would have done it.  No question.
I'll definitely return to Western next year.  How could I turn down the opportunity to sport M10 and go after another such life opportunity?  The sacrifice.  The focus.  The energy it will consume will make life all the better.  Fortunately though, for now, Western is over for another year.  It is time to relax.  But just for a bit.  Soon many new prize experiences will arrive to focus on and embrace.  Namely, in September I’ll be a Dad.  Yes, indeed.  I’ll be a new parent and father to a baby boy.  I am very excited, and I am very nervous.  Plus, in a few weeks Gaby and I move into our new home in Charlottesville; a gravel road leads to trails on O-hill and the Rivanna Trail from the tail end of our new street.  And now through mid July I wake each morning with the sun, look east over the Rocky Mountains from my patio in Vail, and chomp at the UTMB bit.  Life is good.
Running away from Robinson Flat.  Yassine in tow.  Photo by George Thoma.
Entering Michigan Bluff.  Zeke makes his break after the aid station.  Photo by Brett Rivers.

The climb to Bath Road.  Photo by John Mackey.

Highway 49.  Gaby said "two runners are only a few minutes behind you!"  That was all I needed to hear (whether it was true or not).  Photo by Meghan Hicks.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Reset Button: FKT at The Priest and Three Ridges

Saturday marked my third weekend outing in a row at The Priest and Three Ridges.  I have something of a crush on the area and its trails, I confess.  The morning began like many others:  an early, uneasy rouse, followed by a packing of the car and coffee to go.  As the summer solstice nears morning light arrives earlier by the day.  Driving south on Route 29 from Charlottesville at 5:30am the sun seemed well into the sky.  Then, shortly after 6:00 as I neared Route 56 West, suddently they came into view: first The Priest, then Three Ridges.
Route 56 is an easy road to find but a difficult road to drive without distraction.  The Tye River for one is a beautiful flowing mass of water, draining east from the westerly peaks, churning over a bed of rocks and boulders, helping to make all things green and vibrant in the valley below.  56 follows the Tye as it weaves through the valley.  Farms offer another distraction on both sides of 56.  They're beautiful both in their pastoral setting and in their conventionalities that define the area.  In addition, I find witnessing a farmer labor a field very peaceful and sometimes actually worth watching.  The Priest and Three Ridges mountains command the most attention while driving west on 56.  Their size, their contour, even their color- which constantly changes by the week or with the smallest tweak of sunlight- adds greatly to their prowess.  I am nothing if not fixated on them, particularly The Priest, as I inch closer on 56 to the nearby Appalachian Trail (AT) trailhead.
West on 56.  The distant highpoint is The Priest.
Stopping in the road to admire The Priest.
More Priest.  It's coming better into view.
Three Ridges.
Back to The Priest.
Long shuttered one-room area schoolhouse located 1.5 miles from the trailhead on the right side.
At the trailhead entrance of Three Ridges, a suspension bridge spanning the Tye.  Notice the white AT hash marking.
A view of the bridge from the Tye roughly 20 feet below.  Hard to believe the Tye crested higher than the bridge in 1969 during Hurricane Camille.
Once the picture taking was done it was time to run.  Only this time I was back on 56 for a 20 minute out and back warm up.  I admit, with only three weeks remaining until Western after this weekend I came to run hard and the AT leads directly up in either direction.  A warm up would help get the blood flowing as I began the climb up Three Ridges.  That it did.  The climbing felt smooth.  Not a smooth as I hope climbing will feel in three weeks, once rested, but pretty darn smooth, or smooth enough, considering this weekend ended five weeks in a row of 100+ miles and loads of vertical.
Like last weekend and the one before that, I ran my usual- up the AT to Three Ridges, down to the Mau Har, back to the AT, back to the car lot, then up and down The Priest.  Two weeks ago I ran this loop pretty well and fairly hard at times.  Last weekend it was hot and our group more casual.  It was nice stopping at the overlooks.  Especially the one facing west on The Priest summit, which offers spectacular, practically unmolested natural mountainous views to the west.  This time, like I said, I came to run hard and so that it was I did.  Only this time from the top of The Priest I ran down the other side, hooked left at the shelter sign (the Bradley Mongold way), ran the rocky descent to the actual shelter, tapped it’s wall (adding a ¼ mile or so from the sign to the shelter and back), then returned to 56.  For those geeky enough to care, here are the splits:
  1. :19:52 from the AT trail map board to AT/Mau Har intersection.
  2. :46:15 (1:06:07) to Three Ridges summit.
  3. :22:42 (1:28:49) to Mau Har intersection.  Refilled water bottle at the spring here and took a scratch shortly after.
  4. :32:54 (2:01:43) back to Mau Har/AT intersection.
  5. :12:11 (2:13:54) back at the car lot/trail map board.
  6. :01:16 (2:15:10) switched out bottles and back on the AT, up The Priest.
  7. 1:02:35 (3:17:45) tippidy-tapped the shelter wall.  I lost a chunk of time on the climb.  Running up a mountain on un-fresh legs is challenging, to say the least.  Excuses, excuses...
  8. :35:23 (3:53:10 finish) Priest re-summit and down to the AT trail map board.  FKT reset.  Running hard down a mountain on un-fresh legs is much more doable.
GPS details here22.5 rocky miles and just shy of 7,800 feet of vertical.  The Priest and Three Ridges.  Have some.

Running down The Priest from the meadow I killed it in 27 minutes.  Not exactly a Clark Zealand/Josh Cox effort (25/26 minutes!) but a respectable time nonetheless.  And along the way down who did I see running up, looking fresh as a daisy?  None other than my partner-in-crime from two weeks prior, Dr. Dave Hryvniak.  Dave and his wife were en route to Blacksburg for the weekend- taking the slow, scenic way- and decided to break up the trip with a Priest assault.  We blasted right by one another.  “There you are!,” Dave yelled laughing, appearing out of no where as I coursed a bend in the trail.  He must have seen my car in the lot down the mountain.  “See you at the bottom,” I spit out in between heavy breaths.  Once down I hit 56 again for a five mile cool down to round out the morning at 30 miles.  Back at the car lot I caught up with Dave.  He ran up The Priest to the shelter sign in 45 minutes (insane!), then turned around and burned it back down in 35.

As I mentioned to Dave after the run, this was my fifth run at The Priest and Three Ridges though in some ways my least fulfilling.  I realized then and there this is because it was the first time I ran here by myself.  Most often I run alone and am content to do so; however, for many reasons the memories of running here with others feels more meaningful.  The trails, the terrain, the sights this area has to offer, even the drive out, is best shared in the company of others I decided.  I enjoyed the day’s hard effort but for now, with the books on Western training all but closed and an official FKT under my belt (for whatever it’s worth...), for the foreseeable future I only hope to return to The Priest and Three Ridges with others and to run at a more casual pace.  Five times and there is still much to see and explore on this circuit.  Plus, there are many other nearby sections of trails to link up and explore.