Category Archives: Ultra marathon

South Sister Summit and Circumnavigation

The idea for this route started  formulating in my mind about a year ago. Having done the circumnavigation by itself twice as well as summiting South Sister numerous times I was thinking about more challenging and epic routes in that area. It occurred to me by putting these together it would be an awesome route. I then did some searching on Strava and elsewhere and it appeared nobody had completed this route before so I became all the more intrigued. Then when covid-19 hit this year and many runners took up FKTs (fastest known times) as a replacement for cancelled ultra marathons the seed was planted.  Therefore this write up is not just about my experience but also a guide for those who might like to do the route as an FKT attempt. 

The route begins and ends at South Sister Climbers Trail #36 near Devils Lake by the posted signs. I began my journey on October 31st at 6:19 am.

Official start and finish.

This route to the top of South Sister is popular not only with runners but with hikers too as it does not require any climbing gear, just a healthy set of lungs and stamina.   Because of its popularity during the height of summer one can literally get caught in conga lines on the final push to the summit so I decided to start the route with the climb instead of ending with it. This way one can plan a pre-dawn start and miss the biggest crowds. It’s approximately 5.5 miles to the summit and 4,500 feet of elevation gain. The trail starts by going through forest and gnarly roots are frequently entrenched across the path. It’s actually helpful at times as I use them like steps going up but makes for a tricky descent on the way back.   After about 1.5 miles and 1,000 feet of climbing I reached the junction for Moraine Lake Trail and continued straight. Even at this time of year there were already a few other people on the trail and at about 3.5 miles in I came upon a most unusual and comical scene. Four costumed hikers taking photographs of themselves as they hiked up South Sister. Well it is Halloween and they found a novel way to celebrate.

Happy Halloween on the mountain.

After my chuckles subsided it was back to work. The trail from this point on continues to steepen with plenty of opportunities to challenge my rock scrambling abilities. However I couldn’t help myself but to keep pausing to take in the magnificent views.

The moon set while the sun continued to rise.
Sunrise with Mt. Bachelor to the left.
Sunrise selfie.

Soon after this selfie I came to a steep ridge that blocked out the view of South Sister. After clambering up with a few slips I popped up on top with views of the Lewis Tarn fed by Lewis Glacier and a magnificent view of the last ridge to the top.

South Sister ridge to summit, Lewis Glacier and Lewis Tarn.

The way up to the top is self evident as one just follows the ridge line. However it is quite steep and full of scree and this particular morning I had an added bonus of frozen ice on many of the rocks. Fortunately is was quite early so the sun did not have a chance to start melting the ice but I made sure to be extra careful.

Ridge line to the summit.
Scree and ice.

Finally after some lung burning effort I came to the top of the caldera. This however is not the turn around point. Most times up here I make a point for hiking around the entire caldera counter clockwise.

Caldera and ridge to follow to the right towards summit.

Runners doing the FKT route might be tempted to dart straight across the caldera if the water there is frozen over but for safety and for the fantastic views I ask you to stick to the ridge. After all the reason I chose the route for this journey was in large part for the scenery and believe me you won’t regret it. Usually the path along the ridge is self evident if not covered by snow and ice. This will take you towards the actual summit.

Path to summit.

No need to climb to the highest part but when you come to this view of Middle and North Sisters you can stop.

Middle Sister and North Sisters view and turn around point.

Taking a few minutes to take in the seemingly endless views I also peered to the areas I’d later be traveling as I looped around this volcanic mountain. After exchanging pleasantries with the only other person at this time on the mountain I briefly admired the tear drop pool which happens to be Oregon’s highest lake before making my way back.

Treading careful back along caldera rim.
Another view from the caldera before heading back down.

I returned as I came and began my descent back to the glacial lake at the base of Lewis Glacier. Fortunately the crusty ice that clung to the edge of many rocks was feeling tacky when I had to step on them so my descent was slow but uneventful.

Upon reaching the glacial lake I began following the unnamed trail which is on the east side and then followed the intermittent cairns heading to Green Lakes. There is a Strava segment called Lewis Glacier Toe to Dubious Crossing. The dubious part I believe refers to the rock and scree one has to descend all the way to Green Lakes.

I highly recommend one carry a gps track of this section of the trail. Although the way is marked with cairns and most of the time you have a trail to follow sometimes I find it gets tricky. The first time I tried this descent I really didn’t know which way to go and got myself into a precarious situation. So be forewarned, study the map, look for the cairns and refer to the gps if you are unsure. Other then that it’s a peace of cake! Ha, ha!

Look for the cairns.

Just after I rounded away from Lewis Glacier I decided to shed some layers as the temperature went from about freezing at the summit to above 40 degrees. I also needed to shake out some small pebbles from my shoes and took the opportunity to grab a quick snack. If one has gaiters it would be well worth it to wear them as this was one of several times I had to empty my shoes of unwanted stow aways. The way follows a stream that eventually becomes a waterfall, depending on time of year, and is a good source of water when available or one can wait as I did to refill at Green Lakes. I used a filter as it’s always best to be cautious when dipping and sipping. As I began my way down another volcanic peak Broken Top looms in the distance but today’s adventure will keep me from climbing that mountain.

The end of the Dubious descent.

After numerous slips, stops to seek the trail and careful maneuvering I come to the end of the scree. I follow the trail towards southern most part of the largest section of Green Lakes, there are three main bodies of water, and cross at Fall Creek. I take a short look at South Sister and grin with satisfaction and on most days this would have been close to the end of my trip. However now it is time to start running around this big girl so I then pick one of the trail connectors to hook up with Green Lakes Trail that follows the east side of the lakes.

Fall Creek and South Sister.

There are several trails to choose from that connect to Green Lakes Trail and I take the less direct one so I can pass by the small lake with an awesome view of Broken Top looming above. For those running the FKT you can choose any of the others just please stay on a trail as this is a fragile environment. Now begins the circumnavigation of South Sister and the trail now allows for some faster running. I continue north on Green Lakes Trail towards Park Meadows junction about  4 miles away. 

A classic view of Green Lakes and South Sister.
An unnamed lake along the trail.

Upon reaching the Park Meadows junction I follow the trail markers to stay north on Green Lakes trail for another 5 miles to Camp Lake Trail.  The trail from Green Lakes up until this point has been very runnable and I expected it to continue mostly this way until the Camp Lake trail 5 miles away. Little did I know just how wrong my assumption was. After running about another half mile or so I began entering a large burn area. The charred landscape is the result of the 2012 Pole Creek fire and although that was eight years ago many dead trees still stand. During the winter months and probably spring and summer too strong winds have knocked numerous trees down. This is not unexpected however due to the covid-19 pandemic I believe the National Forest rangers and volunteers have not been able to come in and clear this area. My expectation of going through this 4.5 mile section rather easily became anything but.

Downed trees obstructing the trail.

Not only did I have to climb over, under and around more trees than I care to remember on two occasions I had to stop and search for the trail. It literally seemed to vanish into the log jumbles. I expect it may be some time before these get cleared out so be prepared to have some patience. I will try and remember to offer some help to restore this section of trail once trail work begins again. Those who live in the area might want to consider as well.

Despite the many burned trees in places it was quite evident that the forest was on its way to making a comeback.

After getting through the last of these downed trees I finally came to the Camp Lake Trail. At this trail junction Soap Creek meanders by and I considered topping my water off but the smell of horse manure had me reconsider. I didn’t want to take time to go upstream so I continued on knowing there would be another opportunity about 3.5 miles away at North Fork Whychus creek. From this point on until entering the chamber lakes area the trail would continue up from an elevation of 5,500 feet to about 7,200 feet, the highest point since summiting South Sister. Mercifully the trail was mostly clear of trees and I could focus more on steadying my uphill pace than going over obstacles. As I drew nearer to Camp Lake I came up a ridge and had wonderful views of Middle and South Sisters. Such a contrast from the aerial view from early this morning to this lower one.

As I neared Camp Lake I looked for the sign indicating which way the trail continued and as the sign says it is unmaintained. However plenty of people do hike this way so it’s fairly easy to follow along the lake.

Sign post just before Camp Lake.

It was nearing 2 pm at this time and although I had been taking some gels and bars and even one mozzarella stick wrapped in prociutto ( I love those from Trader Joe’s) my stomach was craving some real food. So I took what felt like a luxurious 15 minute break and found a flat rock to eat the half burrito I’d been carrying all these hours. When I took my first mouthful as always it immediately reminded me it was worth the extra bit of weight.

Lunchtime!

I also took the opportunity to take off my shoes, eat some more sugary snacks, took a salt capsule and gorged myself on the nice ice cold water from the lake. The sun was getting low in the autumn sky and I knew I had a lot of miles and some rugged terrain to still get through. Once past Camp Lake I climbed a steep ridge and just beyond this point was the access to the Chamber Lakes area. It would be a bit slow going for the next 4.5 miles until I hooked up to the Pacific Crest Trail.

Steep ridge towards Chamber Lakes area.
View of Camp Lake.

The way on from here is pretty straight forward as you keep South Sister on your left and Middle Sister to your right and eventually you hit the PCT.

Another view of South Sister, about 3/4 way done with the circumnavigation.

I am able to continue following the trail and stop to admire the view which mercifully is now downhill. Full of rocks but downhill none the less.

I stay to the left and above the first emerald green lake in the distance and stay up on the trail before going over the ridge. I pause to decide which way to continue as it seems a path continues through rocks on the edge above the basin I’ve come to as well as a path heading down into it. I then remember I’ve previously dropped into the basin as although it’s full of rocks I can run slowly through them and avoid climbing them until farther up about a half mile away. I look at the steep grade and cautiously step forward and sure enough I take a spill. I stick out my right arm to break my fall and jam my shoulder but fortunately stop on the spot. I had a feeling that was going to happen but I counted myself lucky as it was my first and to be only fall of the day.

Second larger Chamber Lake and basin I just ran through.

I found the trail again as sometimes people do camp in this basin, although I’d be a bit nervous about an unexpected stray boulder coming down the mountain while lying in my tent, and continued to another large pile of boulders. Fortunatley there were plenty of cairns and I made my way to the next ridge and kept to the left. On my first time through this area I lost the path up on the ridge and kept to the right. I was able to make my way but was a bit slower so be sure to stay to the left and you’ll have an easier time following the trail. After dropping through some moss covered trees the trail once again became easier to run on and was flatter the rest of the way to the PCT.

An interesting geological formation.
Another view of South Sister and almost to the Pacific Crest Trail.

As I finally came up to a trail junction I hung left onto the PCT and was back on some nice single track. The remaining distance of the route would be mostly like this, fairly smooth and runnable.

Forest along the PCT trail.

I now continued about 5.5 miles until the Le Conte Crater Trail.

Making my way towards the Wikiup Plain and Le Conte Crater.

The sun was setting fast and the light was creating beautiful highlights on the higher ridges and mountains. After getting to Le Conte Crater Trail I ran on sandy, gravel covered terrain to Moraine Lake trail. Despite a low battery I turned my phone back on to get some last photos of South Sister before the alpenglow dissappeared.

South Sister bathed in the setting sunlight.

This view momentarily made me forget my tired legs. The trail still had some hills although not as steep but having been out running and tramping around for almost 12 hours now these last few miles were tough. After 2.6 miles I made my way back to the intersection of the Climbers Trail and felt a sense of jubilation because I was almost done. I passed a hiker with a radio booming and for me that just seems wrong. I much prefer the sounds of the natural environment over any human sounds and to fully immerse myself in what Nature offered. Ah well, to each his own. I stopped one last time to again empty some gravel in my shoe and put on my headlamp. I had hoped to get through this last mile and half without it but I didn’t quite manage to go fast enough. I put it to it’s highest setting and made my way down the steep path, gingerly climbing over the many tree roots until finally hearing the sound of a small creek which told me the finish was finally at hand. I smiled and took a selfie which didn’t come out very well and headed back to my vehicle.

I do advise that this is not a run for new trail runners. Be sure you are capable of all the climbing, route finding and other unexpected obstacles you may encounter. Have a good map and gps of the route with you. Not trying to discourage anyone but just be prepared. I myself hope to try it again one day and will take fewer photos, well maybe, and try to better my time. It was a long but blissful way to spend the day and I hope my write up and images inspire some of you to try this route. I know there are plenty of capable runners in my own town who could probably knock off a couple hours from my time and look forward to seeing what others can do. Happy trails!

Some Data

  • Elapsed Time: 12 hrs 20 min 38 sec
  • Distance: 37.30 miles
  • Elevation gain: 9,232 feet
  • Elevation loss: 9,380 feet
  • Maximum elevation: 10,169 feet
  • Minimum elevation: 5,312 feet
  • Average pace 19:51/mi
  • Average moving pace 16:34/mi
  • Approximate calories burned 5,624
  • Ran unsupported

Nutrition

  • HUMA chia energy gels x 4 (could have used 6)
  • RXBAR x 3
  • 1 Honey Stinger Waffle
  • 3/4 of a beef burrito
  • 1 Mozzarella Prosciutto stick
  • Water: approximately 3 liters
  • 1 salt tab

Equipment

  • Black Diamond Distance 15 pack
  • 1 bladder pack
  • 2 Hand held bottles with one having a Katadyn BeFree water filter
  • Hiking poles – one Leki pole one Black Diamond, each of those the other broke and time to replace.
  • Saucony Peregine 10 shoes
  • Short sleeve as well as long sleeve tech shirt
  • Salomon rain shell
  • Hat
  • Gloves
  • Hand warmers (did not use)

Some Links

My run submitted to FKT (Fastest Known Time)

My STRAVA link

My Garmin link

GPS on GAIA link

The coronavirus pandemic has people feeling uncertain, angry, helpless or sad, issues that if not addressed can compound and adversely impact our mental health. Trail runners are great at managing big tasks, for example, breaking down long races into reasonable bites by focusing on just running from aid station to aid station. But the intangibles…

via Prioritize Your Mental Health Amid Coronavirus Madness — Trail Runner Magazine

 

Marco De Gasperi is a legend of mountain and skyrunning. At the age of 16, he gained special permission to climb Monte Rosa with ISF president, Marino Giacometti and a small group of like-minded adrenaline filled mountaineers. It was the birth of skyrunning. The rest his history, Marco has six-world titles and a list of […]

via Marco De Gasperi – Vertical Kilometer® Hints ‘n’ Tips — iancorless.com – Photography, Writing, Talk Ultra Podcast

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Sitting in my living room I’m looking at Strava posts of some racers who just completed the Wild Outback 50k. I was registered for this race and it was to be my first ultra of the year and second race overall. Unfortunately I did not ever make it to the start line. 

The week prior as race-day approached  my body started feeling out of sorts. While stretching on the floor I noticed a new painful sensation in my right buttock. As I’ve been dealing with piriformis syndrome (A disorder in which the piriformis muscle in the buttocks irritates the sciatic nerve.) the past 18 months I figured it was just another symptom of this frustrating condition. The next day while running I felt pain in my right groin. Dang it!  Pulled a muscle just prior to the race I thought. Then later that evening I started to get body aches like when getting the flu. I brushed it off and thought I was just fighting off the cold my wife had. Then I felt miserable waking up one morning, felt a bit feverish and had a headache, so I called in sick and stayed home. A good day of rest should help me kick whatever was going on I decided. Throughout all this it never dawned on me that these symptoms might all be related and not separate issues. Just a series of coincidental niggles that wouldn’t keep me from my running goals. Not until the following morning when I had a serious problem urinating did my stubborn ultra runner mind finally say something more was happening and I called my doctor. As any ultra marathon runner will attest you have to develop a certain mentality to compete and train for these events. Push pain and discomfort aside, become single minded to the goal you want to achieve. In an ultramarathon there is no way around this for one will at various times and lengths of the race suffer much both physically and mentally. The key for ones own well being is to know where to draw the line.   

As race day drew ever closer my mind had gone into that full focus of preparing to run 50 km on wondrously challenging mountain terrain. 5E10E058-DBD6-49B8-AE9F-30ABDE799A1EThe good news is I finally admitted to myself something was up and what first seemed like might be an internal infection or even worse wound up being a total surprise. I had gotten shingles. I was relieved I had an answer to my mounting issues and glad it was something that’s treatable. I got some medication and briefing on what to expect and went home hopeful I could still race. Seemed if I could tolerate the pain (and I thought I could) and as the worst was probably going to be over before the race that I’d still be able to give it a go. There goes that ultra mentality again!  Well the next two days as I limped around and gently lowered myself into sitting positions at work and at home another issue was not improving. I just couldn’t pee. 4E681E48-A0BB-48A3-81DD-2A13BB9C42DFWell I could but what is an easy bodily function we all do without much thought everyday became a torturous ordeal for me. When the day before the race I had to call in sick to work again I finally admitted to myself that it would not be wise to race in this condition.  Being out on remote trails for six-ish hours where one needs to eat and constantly hydrate and relieve themselves on the go was not something I could do. 

The rest of that day I was angry and depressed. It takes a lot of time, effort and commitment to train for these events and when you can’t even get to the starting line, well its disappointing for sure. I texted a couple friends who were going to race and let them know I couldn’t and wished them success. When race-day came I continued with my struggles with my ailment and my thoughts began to soften. I couldn’t run but I had my family at home with me this Saturday and I could use this time to be with them.

 

 

Things we do so often without thinking we take for granted. But when it’s suddenly jerked away and becomes a monumental task it helps one refocus priorities.  Yes I missed the race. I did not get my reward for months of preparation and hard work. Yes this race was to also serve as further training for another upcoming event which will be longer and harder. But despite that I know I’ll soon get better. I have my loved ones close to me and time not spent running is time spent with them. I’ll take that every time if I had to choose one over the other. This ordeal was a good reminder that we all need to know our limits. When to listen to what our body is saying to us and then most importantly adjust accordingly. I hope I’ll soon be back out running. In fact I know I shall and having gone through this I’ll appreciate those running moments all the more. 

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Happy Trails

Eight great ultra training tips.

Ultrarunning has a myriad of variables that go into prepping for a race. From training volume, long runs, hilly runs, heat training, nutritional decisions and seemingly endless equipment choices it can be easy to forget basic concepts that lay the foundation for every runner to be successful.  Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning Jason Koop and author of Training Essentials for Ultrarunning shares 8 solid tips every ultrarunner, myself included, should know and not forget.D17DDAD8-E329-446D-84F0-B7DBD9CDA287

“Sure, I like advancements in nutrition and equipment but if an athlete tells me they would have won a race if only they’d had the latest hydro-gel or Kevlar shoelaces, I’ll tell them to take up a new sport. Simple things matter, a lot. And I would bet my last dollar the following 8 things, if done properly, are worth more than a specific gel, lightest shoes, newest equipment, advanced technology, fanciest recovery modalities and most ergogenic of all the ergogenic aids combined.”

Read on for his advice here:

https://trainright.com/8-things-ultrarunners-do-improve-training/

Preventing Winter Doldrums

On a recent Friday evening after getting out from a long day at work heading straight home was the enticing thing to do.  Would be wonderful to sit in my warm home with my wife and kids or head out for dinner and a beer at one of the many great brew pubs in my town of Bend, Oregon. But instead I donned a rain jacket over my running clothes, put on a headlamp and gloves and readied to brace the elements outside. It was the middle of January and the weather was not very appealing to go for a training run. It was dark, rain with sleet fell and the route I had chosen to run on was either soggy, muddy, snow covered or all three at once.  So what was it that got me out there when it would be so easy to just head straight home to the creature comforts that awaited?  It wasn’t sheer determination to venture out after my wife texted me she was forgoing her run in this “cold rainy snowy stuff”.  I wasn’t jumping for joy to have an opportunity to run in water soaked shoes with cold feet and having icey rain pelt my face. No, what actually motivates me on days and nights like this was what lies in the near future. I had already signed up for three races that were coming in the months ahead.  The Eugene Marathon, a speedy road race distance I hadn’t done in a couple years.  A new local race called The Wild Outback 50k a distance I hadn’t raced in a couple years as well. Lastly a mountain race called  Beaverhead Endurance 100k with average race elevations I’d never attempted before.

About a decade ago ago when I first began running after each marathon race I’d take a month off to recover.  I felt like my body was on the verge of falling apart from the effort and saw no reason not to take it easy for awhile. Eventually I’d start running again, but only casually with no plan or goal in mind.  Before I knew it the winter season was fast approaching and it was time to crawl into my running hibernation mode. 5b748303-48d6-4e80-beee-13c8c4d44a82

The downfall to this strategy I found was once the warm seasons returned and I felt the pull to be outdoors running I realized I had lost much of my previously hard earned fitness. It seemed I was almost starting over again as I returned to the roads and trails. After several  years of this foolhardy approach it finally dawned on me that maybe year round training was the way to go.  Who’d of thunk it?!   But I was lacking motivation.  I continuely would start and stop then restart my running. Even the fact that I used running as a form of excercise to help me with my mental health was not enough to get me out there consistently.  So what I did was sign for a new type of challenging race. I was drawn to races that would push my limits and challenge my physical and mental limits.  However I was intimidated by the thought of running an ultramarathon. Just a few years prior I ran my first road marathon and ran in a local half trail marathon yearly, but running longer than 26.2 miles on not flat, smooth roads but on uneven, hilly or even mountainous terrain just made this runners knees shake. So I decided to get my feet wet by running a marathon length race on trails. My mind was comfortable with knowing I could complete the distance and I figured I’d start doing some hill training, which until then I avoided like the plague, and I’d be just fine. Needless to say the race proved more difficult than I imagined, but I got it done.  A seed was planted as I realized how much I loved running on trails in Nature much more then on pavement. Yes, it was more challenging and I hurt after this race like I did after my very first marathon, but I loved it and was now hooked. So for the next calendar year I signed up for not just my first 50k but three of them.  Coming off the heels of completing the Silverfalls Marathon  I was plenty excited to start training for these greater challenges. As there was still much unknown to me about running ultra races I had plenty of motivation to keep training as the seasons changed. When the next racing season came to an end and it found me having completed all three ultras I realized how better fit I was when I trained year round. I also came to the realization having a huge challenge ahead of me gave plenty of reason to keep at it year round.

The next racing season I signed up for the Gorge Waterfalls 100k. Not only would it be my first race at that distance but it would have more vertical then any race I’d previously done and it also was my first Western States qualifier. It didn’t take long for this ultra newbie to start dreaming of his first hundo. This early spring race got me out the door repeatedly during the worst winter days as I really wanted to complete and do well in the race. That year I raced and finished three 100k races and one 50 miler. As the next couple of ultra racing calendar years came and went I continued to employ the same motivational technique.  No longer being a rookie to ultras I knew I’d have to train properly or not only would I suffer throughout a race but might not even finish if I was unprepared. So now every year like many runners I get the itch to quickly sign up as announcements are made for the next seasons races. I give myself permission not to wait for it’s important to search out for ones that will somehow challenge me in new ways, offer to take me to new locales and experience new things which in the end keeps me from going into runners hibernation.

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As I got halfway through my chilly run I actually found myself having a good time. As I thought how this run will help me to experience many more wonderous running adventures in better conditions and I soon felt the miles click away.

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”The studies found that there are risk factors specific to athletes for depression.

  • Injury: lasting >6 weeks or needing surgery
  • Age related loss of performance
  • Pregnancy interrupting training or competition
  • Retirement or loss of professional or elite affiliation
  • Over-training
  • Overly perfectionist personality traits
  • Recreational substance abuse
  • Anabolic steroid use

The risk factors can be lumped into more general categories. 1. Injury negatively impacting performance and or training. 2. Life or developmental milestones affecting the athlete. 3. Finally maladaptive approaches/attitude to training and or competition having unintended negative impact on performance.  It is my opinion that these risk factors should not be interpreted as an additive or causal relationship, meaning that if you acquire more of the above, like an aging type A personality-athlete with chronic injuries and difficulty attaining a sponsor, that you will definitely develop clinical depression; rather to recognize that these experiences, much like a fall on the trail, should indicate to the runner, coach, manager or sports med doc to perform a self-assessment or screening for depression.”

This was an excerpt written by psychologist and fellow ultra runner Dr. John Onate.  I look forward to his next two posts which he will write about treatment, stigma reduction and advocacy for depression. Click on the link below to see the full post.

Depression in Endurance Athletes Part 1

Dreams are Made to be Had

 

I just received confirmation after receiving my medical clearance that I’ve passed the final step to entry to the Lavaredo Ultra Trail race.

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It was a simple generic email from the race organizers but nonetheless it stoked excitement within me.  You see I started racing ultra marathons four years ago and am in many ways still a bit of a newbie to this masochistic sport.  That first year in 2014 I ran my first three 50k races.  I was pumped with emotions after completing each one. They were not by ultra race standards overly tough courses, but they challenged this rookie immensely. Sometime between my racing SOB 50k and the McKenzie River 50k I read an article that Anton Krupicka had won the 2014 Lavaredo race in near course record time.  Wait!  What?  I had never heard of this event.  That race is in Italy!  In the Dolomites!  I read through the entire article and salivated over the photos.

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This seemed awesome. I was not ready yet for a race like this with more than double the mileage of my first two ultras and over triple the elevation gain but nevertheless a seed was planted. My wife grew up in Rome Italy and I’ve had the opportunity to travel there several times. I enjoyed the country and it’s people immensely on those prior visits and it was time to go back. I thought what a great way to celebrate turning 50. We could go to Italy again, visit her family, dine on exquisite cuisine and in between I could squeeze in this race.

Life has a way of creating many twists and turns that we can never imagine are coming. My 50th came and went with no trip to that mountainous northwestern corner of Italy.  However the seed which had since sprouted within me kept growing.  I continued to race and train and with each passing year I gained valuable experience, fitness and knowledge to the point the dream of racing no longer seemed an impossible task. Now it was a question of simply when. My wife and I finally decided that it was time to go back no matter what else showed up down life’s path. It had been over a decade since she last visited her childhood home and despite having two children to bring along we would make this happen. So we put things into motion and began making all the necessary arrangements.  I checked into gaining entry to the race and found out that one must run a qualifying race to get in.  Their website stated  “Athletes must also have completed at least one qualifying 4 point race as per the new ITRA classification (see art. 4).”  My heart sunk.  I learned races in Europe have their own point system and not all ultra races in the U.S. participate in this system. Did I run anything that would qualify me?  Why didn’t I look into this much sooner?  Would I even have time to run a qualifying race if my previous ones didn’t meet the criteria?  I nervously began scanning their list of  races which qualified in my region of the Pacific Northwest and low and behold there it was. The Gorge Waterfalls 100k.  I had a rough time during that race and had my slowest finishing time to date for a 100k but it did qualify me. So now I was in!  Err not so fast. There is a generous amount of racers allowed to run but the event did have a cap.  There was going to be a lottery. Ugh. Fingers crossed I waited. Odds were better than getting into Western States 100 and I made it. One of 1500 racers out of  nearly 3,000 lottery entrants.

Pouring over race details with some Italian wine and cheese.

It took four years of luck, planning and hope but what seemed just a fantasy is now reality.  Far fetched dreams and goals are often great motivators to keep one pushing, training to not give up. All that’s left now is to keep training and get to the starting line as fit and healthy as possible. Piece of cake, right?!  The journey continues.

Return to Running with An Old Friend

As I make my way down the asphalt path I am conscious of the sound of my feet hitting the ground.  It’s something I usually don’t pay much attention to but today is different.  I am running with more attentiveness to my form.  Is my posture good?  Am I leaning into this short grade properly?  Am I engaging my glute muscles?  As my legs continue to propel me forward the parking lot comes into view.  I see someone leave their automobile and make their way towards the trail head.  As I go by him I see two others coming off the trail up ahead.   I ponder as I approach.  Do I head up the mile long trail or continue on the relatively flat route I’ve planned for myself this morning?  It’s about a 600 foot gain in elevation which I’ve done many times over the years. But today I hesitate.  After 7 weeks of  virtually no running due to an injury this is just my third consecutive day running.  It’s been a slow and frustrating process to get to this point.  I felt pretty descent the previous two runs although not without pain and stiffness.  I quickly check in with myself.  Right calf is a bit tight as well as my right piriformis.  Two months ago if you would have asked me where my piriformis muscle was I would have said piriformi what!?  But so it goes with my running.  I learn on the fly.  I don’t come from a running background and with two young children to raise I can’t justify the expense of hiring a full time coach to aid me in my mid pack race finishes.  Like many I learn from experience, from reading articles and books, blog posts and conversations with other runners.  But pursuing running, or any sport for that matter, with the goal of continually pushing ones limits and trying to get better lends one to walking a tight rope.  Stay on the taut, high wire and push to your maximum ability in attempt to maximum your gains.  But go too hard and you’ll lose your balance and not only will your gains be less fruitful but can often lead to injury.  I fell off the tight rope and didn’t even notice when I had lost my balance.

The start to my year had been good.  I decided to try a new diet and become fat adapted and have had success with it so far.  I ran a low key 50k race in January, the Madrass FatAss 50k and then another long run weekend along the Rogue River in southern Oregon with a group of other runners at the Southern Oregon Fat Ass run (SOFA).   Although I ran into some stomach issues during the second run along the Rogue I learned much about fueling with this diet and had a great time.  Things were clicking along and plans were being made for my upcoming running season.  Then without warning down I went down.

It was an innocuous start to a short day hike.  Just myself with my two children and our two dogs.  It occurred on the way back about half a mile from the car.  Our dogs in need of burning their pent up energy were playing fetch as we hiked along the snow covered forest service road.  I bent over to pick up a stick when a sudden pain pierced my lower back.  I almost couldn’t right myself back up.  I managed a slow shuffle back to the car and my 8 year old son had to lift my legs so I could get in.  Upon getting home it took almost a half hour for my wife to help me get back out.  The pain was that intense.  This injury seemed to apparate from out of nowhere like a Death Eater attacking Harry Potter, but in retrospect it was nothing quite so dramatic.  In fact it probably had been a long time coming.  Too much training spent just running and little to no time focused on stretching and working the supportive muscle groups.  Add to this my work environment where I spend half my time in a chair with little walking and it’s no wonder that my problems didn’t arise sooner.

After a little research I self diagnosed myself with a condition called piriformus syndrome.  Hey, Doctor Google is never wrong, right?  But as the weeks went by my suspicions proved correct as my symptoms lessened and body responded to core work and hip and glute exercises.  I was heading down the right path.  I’ve been trying to incorporate regular workouts for these muscles by going to group classes and using resistance bands at home.  It only took me 14 months and an injury to finally take the bands out of their original packaging!  I had good intent when I bought them, but poor follow through.  Don’t you make the same mistake.  All those articles we see regarding cross training, stretching, strength and core work outs are there for a reason.  They benefit us in becoming better runners and staying injury free.

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So today I look up the hillside as I approach Pilot Butte seems like an old friend.  One who patiently waits, unchanged since my last run weeks ago. I quickly decide to turn up the path and climb to the summit.  She quickly makes me sweat from the effort even though I try to take a slow and steady pace.   My calves begin to complain and a slight burning sensation begins to grow in my right glute.  But I don’t hesitate or think of turning back.  I’ve missed the exertion of running.  The pain and sweat along with the things I see in the outdoors.  When something you love is suddenly taken away or is lost it really hits home how often one takes it for granted.  My old friend who I used to avoid like the plague when I first began running I now welcome with open arms.  For although she doesn’t realize it she will be instrumental in allowing me to see many things and accomplish great goals.  My regular running partner whose always there, waiting for me to join her.  So I climb.  Step by step.  It’s not easy and I’m not fully healthy but it feels right.  My heart rate rises and my breathing becomes labored and every step is worth it.

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Mind over matter

In ultra running and any endurance sport for that matter, how you think can play a huge role in your results. I’ve often thought the mental aspect was as much if not more important than the physical side of running. Don’t get me wrong you can’t perform well in a 100k ultramarathon without proper physical training, but one needs to train the brain as well. This topic and many others has been written about in previous articles by Alex Hutchinson and now is the topic of his new book Endure :Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. His article “The Mental Tricks of Athletic Endurance” in the Wall Street Journal talks about this often neglected topic by athletes.  Here is one tidbit from the article.

“Hill and other early researchers soon realized that psychology must play a key role. In 1961, a pair of scientists at George Williams College in Chicago showed that they could boost the maximum strength of weightlifting volunteers by 7.4% if an experimenter sneaked up behind the subject and fired a .22-caliber starter’s pistol just before the lift. It was among the first (and most bizarre) attempts to demonstrate that the limits we perceive as physical and absolute are often negotiable and mediated by the brain.

The precise nature of the mind-muscle connection remains hotly disputed today, but most researchers accept the essential point: that the physical manifestations of fatigue—racing heart, elevated core temperature, a rising tide of metabolites like lactate in the blood—merely serve as sources of information for the brain, rather than direct limits on our ability to continue.”

After reading the full article I look forward to gleaming more insight from his new book.

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