Author Archives: Paul

White River 50 Mile Endurance Run 2018

Faking a smile at Sun Top. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

I somehow faked a smile for Glenn’s photo of me summiting the final climb of the race: Sun Top. That is, right after my true self was revealed to the camera in a less flattering shot.

A few hundred feet later, I saw the white tent that indicated I had reached the Sun Top aid station. I stumbled ahead and located a green Rubbermaid container with nothing piled on top of it and quickly claimed it as my own. Thankfully, it didn’t give way when I sat down on it, nor did anyone chase me off it. My head sank low. For the second time in the race, I was wrecked; there was nothing left.

What can I get you?

Quickly, an aid station volunteer descended upon me, asking me “what can I get you?” as she avoided telling me I looked like death (but I am pretty sure she thought it). “I don’t know,” I quipped. Really, all I wanted at that moment was to stop moving for a few minutes and gather myself up.

After a few minutes, I raised my head and asked for water and watermelon. She offered to fill my hat with ice. I agreed to it. “Can I get you your drop bag?” Yes, I answered, not moving an inch off my perch. “It’s number 151 and it’s big and black.” Within seconds it appeared, but all I wanted out of it was the bottle of Coke. The volunteer told me that she had fresh Coke but I insisted on mine; I didn’t want to take someone else’s chance to energize. “Do you want a cup?” Sure. I opened the bottle and poured some in the cup. It was warm. “How about some ice?” “That would be great.” I sucked that Coke down and slowly I came back to life. At the previous aid station at Fawn Ridge, I could no longer stand my warmed over Tailwind nutrition sports drink so I had them replace it with water and ice but that too had warmed and wasn’t exactly something to look forward to.

I have no love for Coke and Pepsi and all these companies stand for, which is basically the need to make billions while sending millions — maybe billions — to an early grave by pushing gallon after gallon of diabetes and heart disease to the masses. But during a 50-mile race, I have to admit that Coke (or any caffeinated soda for that matter), is the magic elixir I so desperately needed.

Another volunteer made his way over (I wish I remembered their names) and asked me how he could help me. What a wonderful thing that these volunteers were so helpful when I was at my lowest. Just as if they were a sales rep at Nordstroms and I was one of their top customers with a fist full of credit cards ready to purchase thousands of dollars of clothes. But there was really nothing in it to motivate this awesome crew of volunteers other than the good feeling in their hearts, knowing they helped another runner achieve their goal. (I hope to pay that back a little volunteering again at Cascade Crest 100 in a couple of weeks.) Speaking of Nordstroms, I mentioned that I wanted to change my shoes, and suddenly the shoe salesman in my volunteer came to life. I muttered something about being able to do it myself, but before I knew it my Topo Terradventures  had been untied and removed, and my Salomon Sense Rides were securely on my feet. Talk about service! I next mentioned that I wanted to put my poles in my bag since I had little use for them on the remaining 13 miles. I collapsed them and he carefully placed them into my drop bag with my dusty pair of Topos.

After a few more pieces of watermelon and some fresh water added to my Nathan bladder, I rose to my feet and headed out, shouting a big thank you to those tireless volunteers, as I started to move again. It was 6.5 miles straight down to the next aid station along a dusty gravelly Sun Top road.

A long way to run

50 miles is a long way to run. I realize that many others have run much further, but prior to July 28th, I had not. I have been wanting to move up to 50 miles since I did my first 50K back in 2015 at Chuckanut. Fast forward 3 years: I have now completed 5 x 50K’s and have been able to get past my reoccurring ankle injury to finally make it to the starting line of the White River 50 Mile Endurance Run.

The race director, Scott McCoubrey, was yelling something around 5:45 AM. I couldn’t hear anything but a few bits here and there. Something like “it was going to be hot” and “hydrate a lot” plus he was detailing every turn of the race. But I had already run the second half of the course in training, and since I was going to be in the middle (back) of the pack, I wasn’t too worried about getting lost. Not to mention, that I was carrying a map of the course and, as it turned out, the course was well marked.

The start. Photo by Suzanna Litwin.

We lined up around 5:50. I walked to the back. At 6:03, the race started. There was no gun or bell. At least I don’t think there was; it was hard to hear since Scott was not using a megaphone. I believe it was just Scott counting down to zero and we were off. Anyway, I started my watch when I detected runners in the front of the pack moving. And we were off.

The days leading up to the race were quite hot for the Seattle area, topping 90 degrees fahrenheit for days. I was worried about the heat and its effect on us runners but it was cool enough at the start. However, within the first half hour, I noticed that my shirt and shorts were soaked in sweat. So much for the cool weather.

We started on a gravel road. Someone behind me called my name and I turned around to see Alison Gillespie, my friend and physical therapist. We chatted a bit before moving into single file as we made a u-turn onto the single-track Skookum Flats trail and headed across the river and highway 410 towards the first aid station at Camp Sheppard.

As we passed the aid station, Alison mentioned that her watch was 1.5 miles behind the purported distance of the aid station: 3.9 miles. I looked at my wrist, and replied “mine too” as we started to slowly climb for the next 8 miles to Ranger Creek. My watch continued to be off the remainder of the race between 0.6 and 1.5 miles. In reality, the only distances that mattered were the posted course distances, not what my watch told me. That said, it was useful to have a rough idea where one was on the course and how long it was to the next aid station.

Blackened forest

Blackened trees between Ranger Creek and Corral Pass.

The trail up to Ranger Creek was a whole-lot-of-up, single-track, lots of switch backs, sort of trail. At one point, I passed an old friend, Daisy Clark who was shepherding a group up the trail. At mile 12, I arrived at the aid station at Ranger Creek. Ten-time Seattle Marathon winner and Mount Rainier FKT record holder, Uli Steidl, was working the aid station. I stopped to adjust my socks.

Alison came in a few minutes after me, but headed out before I left. I leap frogged her a few minutes later and settled in with a group of runners for the bulk of the run to Corral Pass.

The forest service had only opened up this the portion of the trail a few weeks prior to the race. Now I knew why. The landscape was heavily blackened by last year’s fires. The trail was very dark in places, with lots of soot mixed in with the dirt.  This made the footing a little tricky in places, even a little dangerous in places along some steep fall offs.

Besides the fire damage, I was surprised at the amount of ups and downs on the way to the next aid station. For some reason, I thought it would be flatter.

Heating up

A lot of the trail during this stretch of the race was exposed and it was getting hot.

Fire-ravaged forest with Mt Rainier in the background.

The trail between Ranger Creek and Corral Pass was the sole out-and-back section of the course. This was a good chance to see the leaders of the men’s and women’s races, including a few runners that I recognized, which included locals Keith Laverty, who placed 3rd in the men’s race, and Western States Superstar, Katlyn Gerbin, who also ended up finishing 2nd at White River.

At mile 17, we reached the Corral Pass aid station. I grabbed my first drop bag and attempted to eat a sweet potato burrito I had packed but ended up throwing most of it out. My stomach just didn’t feel like it. I switched to PB&J, which seemed to go down better and added some Tailwind sports drink to my hydration bladder.

The music at the aid station was some sort of country blues. I have to say it was quite depressing which I guess was a good thing, because I soon hurried out of the station after re-applying some sunscreen.

The aid station, at 5670 feet, was supposed to be the highest point of the race, but I soon discovered that would not be the case, since the way out of the aid station was up a steep hill that must have been another 50-100 feet higher before dropping back down to meet the trail we had cruised into the aid station on. After another mile or so of sometimes steep uphills, the bulk of the return to Ranger Creek was flat or down.

I adjusted my socks again at Ranger Creek, mile 22, paused for a few seconds, and then headed down the 5 miles of switch backs towards Buck Creek. One runner must have been having a hard time on the downs because at every switch back he moaned. I quickened my pace to get him out of earshot. The moaning soon faded into the distance. On the way down, I came across Jaclyn whom I had met on the White River training run several weeks ago. She was having some IT band problems and was trying to stretch it out on the side of the trail. That brought back memories of my IT band issues; fortunately, my IT band hasn’t bothered me for a while. I was loving the down hill, even though the footing was sketchy in places due to the fire damage.

Buck Creek festival

At mile 27, I reached the Buck Creek aid station, which was right next to the start/finish, and had an almost festival-like atmosphere, with lots of volunteers, runners, and spectators talking, yelling, sitting, standing, and moving about.

A good (and fast) ultrarunner friend, Sean Micheal, was standing there looking pretty nonchalant. Mind you, Sean should have been about an hour or two ahead of me, crushing the second half of the course. I quickly realized that he had dropped due to his nagging knee injury. It’s kind of funny, but here I was 27 miles into a grueling race, with the worst still to come, and I was chatting up Sean, letting him know that he made a wise decision to drop.

Another ultrarunner friend Christie, who was actively spectating at White River, was asking what she could get me. “How about some ice in your hat?” I said yes, but after about two seconds, I could not tolerate the ice directly on my head, especially since I have no hair up there to buffer the cold. I lingered a few more minutes, eating a few items at the aid station and then decided I better get going.

A few steps later, another familiar but encouraging face was calling my name but, to be perfectly honest, I couldn’t place the face. She was imploring me to look up at the mountain I was about to climb. It wasn’t until a day or two later, after a Facebook comment, that I realized it was Holly, who I had run with the summer of 2017, the week before she was about to run White River. After a quick look up, I followed the trail out of the aid station. The trail meandered a bit alongside campsites and parking lots. For some reason, I stopped to stow my poles, and then passed a few runners on the flats.

The second half

The trail starting climbing 1700 feet over about 4 miles of switchbacks and I pulled my poles out only minutes after stowing them. I had run this half of the race three weeks earlier on “fresh legs”, thinking at the time that it wasn’t too bad. This time, however, the experience was quite different after 28 or so miles under my belt. In fact, this was some of the darkest moments in the race for me, even as the sun was beating down pretty hard. The real race had finally begun. A coupe of runners passed me. The course was alternately shaded and exposed. The temperature was in the high 80s or low 90s. I was struggling.

Making my way up to Fawn Ridge (4280 feet elevation). Photo by Suzanna Litwin.

We continued to climb. More runners passed. Finally, I reached the Fawn Ridge aid station. A worker called out “151” and suddenly, several people yelled out “Paul”, including my hard-working aid station volunteer and wife, Suzanna.

“What can I get you?” I quickly made a bee line for a camp chair in the shade. (In fact, it was one of the camp chairs I had loaded into our car the day before, when we left our house heading for White River.) I was wrecked. Suzanna fetched some cold water. There were 4 or 5 camp chairs there and they were all filled by tired runners. I asked Suzanna to dump out my Tailwind — I could no longer tolerate the sports drink (probably because it was hot and I had been drinking it for 8 hours now). Suzanna refilled my bladder with cold water.

Suzanna also fetched a chilled bottle of Coke from my drop bag and dunked my hat in cold water. My stomach had just rejected one type of sugar water but here I was craving and enjoying a much more pedestrian sugared beverage. And it helped to revive me. I drank all 16 ounces, and then it was time to go so I headed up and and onward towards Sun Top, another 5 miles away and about 750 feet higher in elevation.

While I “wasted” about 15-20 minutes at Fawn Ridge, I left a new man. And for the next hour or so, I felt much better. I soon came up upon Daisy (who must have snuck by at the aid station while I was sitting) and her entourage as we climbed our way up. It was good to settle in with a pack and listen and occasionally converse. Daisy mentioned that a nice downhill section was coming soon. After about 3 miles of up, we came upon the cushioned downhill section. I scrambled ahead of the group and took off. Another runner, Mary, went with me. I started to slow a bit and Mary passed me. After a mile of the downhill, we passed a gravel road and begun the final climb to Sun Top. By this point, the Coke had worn off, and I was again struggling as I walked that final mile to the aid station.

Finally, I came upon Glenn Tackiyama, who was taking photos of the runners. Sun Top was just around the corner.

Coming up to Sun Top in Beast Mode. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

As I left the aid station at mile 37, I began a slow walk down the forest road, which for the first few hundred feet was quite rough with lots of rocks and pot holes. Still, it was downhill, I was feeling better since the aid station, and after a little hazy math and dispensing with my idea of finishing in around 12 hours, I came up with a new, though unlikely goal: finish under 13 hours.

After walking about 50 feet, I started to jog around the giant rocks and potholes. Soon the road made a u-turn and the rocks were gone. I settled into a comfortable pace, put some earbuds in, cranked up some Silversun Pickups, and started passing the slower runners. I made a point of saying hi or “nice work” as I passed each one. Most of the runners looked familiar since we had played leap frog for the past 10+ hours. I was feeling good; my pace quickened. My watch called out some fast splits: 9:18, 8:08, 8:09, and 7:48. I was cruising and when no one was around singing along to the music and practicing diaphragmatic breathing. I must have passed a dozen people down Sun Top road.

Not so Flats

The road flattened out at the bottom and after another half mile the Skookum Flats aid station appeared at mile 43.5. I grabbed a bit of watermelon and a few ounces of Coke and was off: no time for dawdling. There was 6 and 1/2 miles to go and I was determined to run as much of “the flats” as I could. It’s worth mentioning that the Skookum Flats trail is pretty technical. Lots and lots of roots, oh and it isn’t exactly flat. But the name Skookum Rooty Rolling Hills Trail didn’t make the cut when naming the trail.

Rounding the last turn. Photo by Suzanna Litwin.

I had read and heard many comments from prior runners complaining bitterly about “the flats” which I had run on “fresh legs” three weeks previously. Fortunately, I more or less knew what to expect. I was also determined to finish the race strong and had a deep desire to break 13 hours so I dug down deep and started running. Within the first 20 feet out of the aid station, I passed two runners who were walking. Over the next 6 1/2 miles I would pass another 20 or so runners, almost all walking that last 6 and 1/2 miles. I mean after 45 or so miles, who wouldn’t want to walk?

How much of Skookum Flats did I run? I probably ran 2/3 of it, walking the up hills and occasionally a few flat portions. But every time I caught myself walking an easy portion, I told myself to pull it together and get running. Running would make the pain go away sooner. Running would help me achieve my goal of breaking 13 hours.

With a couple miles left, I turned off the music and put my earphones away. I wanted to fully experience the end of the race. Then in the distance, I could see the light break where there was a road. I climbed the trail to the road and turned to the right. Just then, two runners I had recently passed shot up ahead of me with one final burst of life. I let them go. Too young and with too much energy left in their tanks, I thought.

The final stretch to the finish. Photo by Suzanna Litwin.

As I saw the finish line in the distance there was lots of much appreciated cheering. I made final push to try and catch the closer of the two runners but she was going too fast for me.

As I rounded the last corner of the race, I could see Suzanna. Twenty yards later I was over the finish line. A volunteer handed me my White River 50 Mile Endurance Run souvenir glass filled with some water, mentioning that I could swap it for some beer after I finished drinking the water.

I slumped into a chair as Suzanna doted over me. To say I was exhausted was an incredible understatement; every muscle in my body seemed to hurt. At the same time, what an incredible feeling: I had just completed my first 50 mile race, and I made it under 13 hours.

 

 

 

 

 

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Mount St Helens Training Run

Me and a few running friends decided to run around Mt St Helens as a training run for White River on Saturday, June 30, 2018. Here are a few photos from our 33 mile counter-clockwise circumnavigation on the Loowit Trail around Helens. My group took 12 and a half hours. (Others finished faster.)

Our first view of the mountain/volcano

 

Crossing our first boulder field

 

The crew stopping at the first junction: Brook, Sean, Eileen, Elizabeth, Danny, and Nicola. What a cool looking crew, I might add!

 

Bear grass

 

Time to fill our water bottles and grab some food

 

Running along one of many many ridges

 

Me and Sean in front of Loowit falls

 

Nicola and I on the Plains of Abraham

 

Climbing out of the plains. The soil was very unstable

 

Me and my shadow

 

Sean and Brook

 

Brook, Sean, and I in front of the crater

 

The crater

 

Spirit Lake

 

Climbing up a rope

 

Lots of ups and downs (Spirit Lake in the background)

 

Checking out the stream crossing

 

There were so many different microclimates on our route

 

More boulders

 

 

Towards the end the boulders seemed to go on forever

 

A glacier

It was beautiful!

 

 

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North Olympic Discovery Marathon

This past April was my birthday and one of the few advantages of aging is that every 5 years you enter a new age qualification bracket for entry into the Boston Marathon. Suffice it to say, I have been wanting to qualify for Boston since forever. I missed qualifying by a mere 15 seconds 10 years ago in 2008 at the Eugene marathon with a time of 3:36:14. And, in fat, I actually qualified (again at Eugene) in 2013 with a time of 3:39:23. However, there was a huge upsurge of qualifiers that year (2013 was the year the bombing occurred, so many people were inspired to qualify for the 2014 event) and when I was ready to register in September, the Boston Marathon Association reduced the qualifying times for each age bracket by over a minute so I no longer qualified.

After a few more attempts to qualify and repeated bouts of IT band syndrome, I discovered trail running and the fact that my IT band was much happier when I was running my long runs on trails. Fast forward to the time of my birthday this year, and I decided to give the marathon another go and searched for a marathon to squeeze in between the Mendocino Coast 50K in April and the White River 50 Mile Endurance Run in July. The North Olympic Discovery Marathon (NODM) scheduled for June 3rd fit the bill.

So…I started training for the marathon a few days after Mendocino, following my coach David’s training plan to the “t”. And David’s suggested race plan was pretty simple: Go out in 8:45-50 first half. Quicken to <=8:40 pace for 2nd half (or perhaps post-mile 16).

The start in the town of Blyn

The race started at 7:30 AM and I quickly settled into a comfortable pace, letting my friend Laura go ahead. My first mile was 8:49.9; right on pace. The 4 hour pacer passed me before the first mile marker, which was a bit disconcerting (since my goal was to run a 3:50 race), but I told myself “run my race; not anyone else’s” and eventually, I caught and passed his pace group at mile 3. They must have been “banking” miles.

Just after passing the 4:00 pacing group

I also caught up to Laura briefly at the top of a hill, but then let her go again after a brief chat. The miles ticked off and I continued to feel good except for some right foot pain (oddly, not the foot that usually caused me trouble) that bothered me between miles 8 and 18 or so. Around mile 12, I came up to Suzanna, who had started at 6:00 AM and was walking the marathon. It was so nice to run into her (literally); we kissed, checked in with each other, and I was off, wishing each other a great race.

The course was about 80% asphalt and about 20% concrete, but with my foot bothering me, I took every chance to run on the grass or dirt to the right of the path. This seemed to help a bit. I wore a Nathan hydration vest, which obviated the need to stop at aid stations but I did make one quick stop to pee sometime after the half way point.

After the first half, there were around 7 or 8 stream crossings which meant a steep descent to the stream followed by a steep climb back up. These stream crossings were tough, especially one of the later ones where I had to walk up the hill because of its steepness.

Around mile 21, the course headed down a hill to the water front and remained flat the rest of the race. This was great, except for the fact that the wind had picked up, meaning that for the last 5 miles we were headed straight into a head wind. Around mile 22, I caught up to Laura, tapping her on the shoulder to say hi. I thought we would run the rest of the race together, but as soon as I caught up to her, she dropped right behind me. Funny thing, I never looked back, and assumed that she drifted back as I pressed hard during those last few windy miles.

 

Crossing the bridge right before the finish. You can see Laura in the blue shirt and white hat behind me.

Looking strong!

It took everything in me to push harder and harder to the finish and I finally crossed in a respectable 3:50:42, more than 4 minutes under my Boston qualifying time!

The finish

I soon discovered that Laura had not faded after all. In fact, Laura finished just 5 seconds behind me.

Laura and I after the finish

After some food and drink and a quick shower (our hotel was right across from the finish), I came out to cheer for Suzanna’s triumphant arrival at the finish. I was so proud of her.

The final stretch for Suzanna. Her time: an amazing 6:45:22, walking all 26.2 miles!

Suzanna, Laura, and I all achieved our goals! Plus, Laura finished 1st in her age/gender group and I finished 3rd in my age/gender group. What a day.

Suzanna and I post race.

 

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Mendocino Coast 50K

After a good night’s sleep, I awoke feeling okay. I ate my bagel with peanut butter, took a hot bath, and got dressed. We then headed off to the start which was less than 5 minutes by car. The weather was a little cool but it was expected to warm up a bit so I ran in shorts and a long-sleeve tech t-shirt. The race started at 7:30 and we were off.

Photo of start/finishMendocino Coast 50K Course Map

The fact that I started pain-free was a small miracle of itself. Three days before the race, I awoke to a nasty ache in the lower left side of my back. Great, I thought: we have to drive about 830 miles over the next two days and I have a bad back. Suffice it to say, Wednesday was quite painful in the car, even though I only drove for an hour or two. (Thank you, Suzanna, for doing the bulk of the driving.) Nothing made the pain go away and quite almost everything I did made it feel worse.

We got to the hotel in Ashland in the late afternoon and I finally found something that took the pain away: a hot bath. Unfortunately, the bath had to end and the bed was a bit too soft. I tossed and turned most of the night. In the morning, after another hot bath, and a quick breakfast and coffee, we took off again. The back was a better for sure but still pretty painful. Again, Suzanna did the bulk of driving, but I was able to contribute more since my back was feeling better.

Once we got to our destination and checked into our B&B, I again took a hot bath and experienced relief while I worried what was in store for me on Saturday. Thursday night’s sleep was definitely better and I awoke with a more positive outlook on Friday.

That morning, I emailed my coach, David Roche, and David suggested that I not race if I was in pain. I agreed and told him I would check in again after a 3-mile shakeout run. Packet pickup was only about a mile away from our B&B at the Stanford Inn, so I suited up and headed out the door uncertain how it would feel. While not quite perfect, I held up pretty well. (Great swag, by the way.) The run back along the beach was fun and I was starting to think that I might make it to the starting line after all.

Photo of the race swag

Race swag, including a tech shirt, mug, hat, racing cup, string bag, and a headlamp. Oh, and a very cool race number too!

Friday night we had a fabulous pre-race dinner at the Stanford Inn’s Ravens restaurant and I did my usual pre-race ritual (lots of gathering way too much gear and food and assembling it before ditching half of it) and then I took another hot bath.

Big River Trail

Sometimes things just work their way out. And man was I pleased Saturday morning to make it to the starting line with only the slightest niggle of back pain. For the first 10 miles we headed due east on the very flat and soft Big River Trail, which winded alongside the, you guessed it, Big River. The plan was to go out nice and easy and I executed that pretty well. After about a mile, I met another runner, Nicolette, who seemed to be running at the same pace and we struck up a conversation for a number of miles. Anytime you can run with someone else, even if it’s for a few miles, is a bonus in an ultra because, for me anyway, unless I am struggling to keep up with the other runner, it helps you to relax and take your mind off the long trail ahead. And that’s exactly what happened, the miles ticked by effortlessly as we chatted about our jobs, loved ones, and recent races.

A little after mile 10, and a brief hug from Suzanna at aid station 2 (who I was pleasantly surprised to see), we turned away from the river onto the Big Tree Trail, and climbed we did for the next two miles. About half way up this climb, I looked back and Nicolette had dropped back behind another group and I never saw her again. I continued up the climb, walking the steeper parts, and made it to the top at about mile 12. The wooded trail leveled off for about a half mile before it dropped most of the elevation we had just climbed. I ran the downhill moderately fast, passing a number of other runners who were more timid on their approach.

The Stream

At mile 14 we bottomed out and came upon a stream. Not thinking much about it — I guess I assumed we would soon come to a bridge upon which we would cross the stream — I suddenly saw a pair of runners ahead wading across. So after a quick survey of my options (there was only one), I waded on in. And after a few strides I reached the other side with some very wet shoes and socks.

The stream at mile 14

The stream at mile 14

At this point, I realized that my shoes were too loose on my feet, which exacerbated the sloshy feeling, but I decided I would wait until the next aid station at the top of the next hill before adjusting things. At the top the hill, I reached the aid station just shy of mile 17. I sat down in a chair, took off my shoes, removed the debris from them, secured the laces, and I put them back on. As I looked up from the chair, I realized that my drop bag was right in front of me. Nice coincidence. I grabbed the bottle of premixed Tailwinds, and emptied it into my hydration bladder, neglecting to bleed the air out (which I regretted for the remaining miles as I kept thinking the noise from the bladder was someone right behind me). I grabbed a few food items from my drop bag (most which I never ate), adjusted my pack, drank some aid station water and ate some aid station chips, and headed back out.

After another relatively flat mile, I came to a “rogue” aid station run by Healdsburg Running Company where the guy manning it, told me to take a hard left (which was good because the aid station was blocking the straight-ahead option), and head down for 5 miles. The next five miles was indeed all down, and during that stretch I never saw another soul. During one long portion of the down that went for miles, there were drainage dips in the trail every 50 feet or so, sometimes filled with rocks, which made the running difficult since there would be a steep down followed quickly by a steep up, which unfortunately aggravated an old abdominal strain I had on my left side.

Course elevation/gain profile

Course elevation/gain profile

I bottomed out at mile 23, had to jump across a few small streams and then head up the steepest of the three climbs, ascending about 600 feet over about a mile. While I did encounter a volunteer at the bottom, making sure I was headed the right way, still no other runners. At the top, just before aid station 4, I was happy to encounter a volunteer who was yelling “runner coming; number 100.” Even better, Suzanna was at the aid station asking me what I needed. I just grabbed some water, and we started walking while I finished my cup. I said goodbye with a kiss and headed off down the gravel path a couple of hundred feet before I turned right onto the trail and started down a two-mile descent.

Russian Gulch Waterfall

Russian Gulch Waterfall

The next stretch of trail was part of the Pacific Coast Trail. As I descended, I finally encountered and passed a few runners as the trail became the Waterfall Trail, which passed by the Russian Gulch waterfall.

As I got lower, I also encountered numerous hikers. The miles continued to tick off: mile 26, 27, 28. This race was coming together and I was in the moment. The dirt trail morphed into an asphalt and dirt trail and soon I was at the beginning of a parking lot, where I again encountered my sweet wife who informed me that the aid station was just ahead at the end of the parking lot. There was no stopping now, as I continued to cruise along at a good clip.

4.4 Miles to Go?!

Mile 29 ticked off on my watch as I arrived at the last aid station. Only 2 miles to go! Woo-hoo!

But wait, the sign hanging from the aid station table boldly stated 4.4 miles to the finish. Incredulous, I asked the aid station volunteer if that was correct – my watch said I only had 2 miles to go. He confirmed the bad news and intimated that others had complained too and that he suspected that the course was a couple of miles long.

I have to admit that the realization that I had an additional 4+ miles, was like a gut punch and really broke my spirit. Still, I gathered myself up and forged ahead. After the aid station, I had to scramble up a brief but steep and muddy incline before heading under the road onto the coastal trail. Pretty soon, some spectacular views of the coast started to open up.Spectacular views of the Mendocino coast

The miles started to crawl along and I finally came to the infamous rope-assisted descent. Volunteers were there to guide me, as I repelled down some slick rocks for about 40 feet. Around a turn and then I repelled down another section of rope. That was kind of fun but at the bottom, I had to scamper up another steep incline and head up alongside Highway 1. Amazingly, Suzanna was there yet again, having just pulled over to see if she could spot me one more time before the finish. For the second time, Suzanna offered to grab my hydration pack so I wouldn’t have to haul if for the last couple of miles. This time I said yes, and suddenly I was a little lighter and, incidentally, now without a phone.

In a little bit, I turned off Highway 1 onto Lansing Street as we headed into Mendocino and up a slight incline. I walked a stretch on Lansing Street. After another half mile, or perhaps a bit more, I turned into Mendocino Headlands State Park as a runner caught up to me. The path was narrow, no more than 1.5 to 2 feet wide in many places, and the wind picked up. After a couple of minutes, I let the runner pass me and then promptly started to walk as I silently whined to myself about the never-ending race and the wind whined by my ears.

We had walked in this same park on Friday, so I more or less knew what to expect here and for the remainder of the race, but even with that information, the trail through the park seemed to go on forever. At this point I did a lot of walking, intermixed with a little running. Another couple of runners passed me, and I tried to console myself with the fabulous views but they were mostly wasted on me. After what seemed a short eternity, we turned and came to a set of stairs that led down to the beach.

The beach sand was soft and my shoes quickly filled with sand as I proceeded to walk (again). We crossed under Highway 1 and another 2 or 3 runners passed me. Soon we came to an asphalt parking lot and I could now see the finish line. I started to run again, quickly picking up my pace as I passed Suzanna and headed hard into the finish.

Last few feet of the race

Last few feet of the race

The race director shook my hand as I crossed the finish line. Another 50K was completed. My time: 6:49:37. A 50K, as you know, is supposed to be 31 miles long, but my watch said I had run 33.3 miles (and incidentally, never went off course). Now I understand that GPS watches can be wrong, and perhaps mine was wrong, but man, that race seemed long and my finish time, even with a mile or so of walking in that last few miles, seems high for a 31 mile race.

But it was a good race. In fact, most of the race went flawlessly. Yes, I shall declare it was a good race.

Lessons Learned

Hopefully, every race is a learning experience as much as a racing experience. And Mendocino taught me a few things:

  1. The Mendocino Coast 50K is a beautiful and moderately easy course as far as 50Ks go (except for the fact that it might be a couple of miles long).
  2. Going out slow is the key for me to having a good race and not bonking. If we ignore, for now, the last 4 miles, I nailed this race!
  3. I became too caught up in the miles left as told to me by my Garmin Fenix 5x watch. This was a critical end-of-race mistake and when reality came crashing through at the last aid station, I let it get to me and let myself get “psyched out”.
  4. Stop looking at your watch! and stay conservative on all “miles to go” estimates!
  5. Don’t get ahead of yourself and don’t get cocky! Mile 28 (or was it mile 26?) was way too fast. My Garmin says it was 7:32. Even if the split is off by a minute, that mile was way too fast with 4 miles to go. I got ahead of myself and the race, and this combined with the aid station reckoning led to a somewhat less-than-satisfying finish.
  6. My wife, Suzanna, is awesome.

 

Categories: Fitness, Running, Sports, ultrarunning, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Building a Better Muffin

IMG_1775I’m always trying to make recipes better. I find that there are lots and lots of wonderful recipes out there, but when it comes to baked goods, most people give up and succumb to the white flour, white sugar, butter/margarine/oil onslaught that fills shelves and stomachs with so much processed crap. This is not to say that I am perfect; far from it. But I do strive to do better, and for this recipe that I first created about a month ago, I set out to build a banana muffin that was not a processed food bomb and was healthier than 99% of the recipes out there but also tasted great.

I started with what I thought was an okay recipe from a cooking website called The Spruce, basic vegan banana muffin recipe, that Suzanna ran across when searching recipes online. But then I saw that it uses white flour, sugar, and oil or margarine. Wow, I thought, I am sure I can do better because I had been making smoothies for years with dried dates and had recently had some successes with using avocado in some baked goods. So began my better muffin journey and it’s been a great ride.

The recipe I have come up with is also a very simple recipe to make. And it works well with variations (see below). It takes about 15 minutes to prepare and another 25 minutes to bake. So you can go from start to eating in about 45 minutes.

Each muffin is only 121 calories, is made exclusively from plant-based foods (i.e., is vegan), is made with 100% whole wheat, and packs 5 grabs of natural oat bran fiber! Furthermore, the recipe uses no phony overly processed foods with all the micronutrients stripped out, and no phony artificial sweeteners. And with only 5 grams of natural whole-food-based sugar in each muffin, this muffin won’t spike your blood sugar. Plus it tastes great.

Ingredients

  • 5 pitted medjool dates
  • 0.25 cup medium avocado
  • 3 medium (ripe) bananas
  • 1.5 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 0.5 cup oat bran
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 0.25 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp chia seeds
  • 0.25 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
  • 0.75 cup water

Steps

  1. Preheat oven to 360 Fahrenheit. This I got from the spruce recipe and have stuck with. It seems to work well.
  2. Grab a muffin tin, put liners into all 12 holes and spray with some non-stick cooking spray or rub with a small amount of coconut oil, or, if you don’t mind the muffin sticking to the liners, don’t use any oil/spray. I’ve done it with and without the oil spray and have to admit I enjoy the muffin just popping out of the liner. I think the oil absorbed by the muffin is negligible.
  3. Place the pitted dates and a 1/4 cup of water into a high speed blender (e.g., Vitamix) or food processor and run it until it chops up the dates into tiny pieces. scrape the sides.
  4. Add the avocado and bananas and another 1/4 water and run the blender until it makes a nice goopy slurry. About a minute. You may need to interrupt and scrape the sides occasionally. Oh, and you know all those banana muffin/bread recipes that insist that you must use over-ripe bananas: they’re all wrong. I have used everyday bananas at no great loss. So use the over-ripened bananas if you have them but don’t sweat it if your nanas are a little under-ripe.
  5. In a separate bowl, add the dry ingredients and stir with a fork until well combined.
  6. Now add the wet contents of the blender into the dry ingredients and combine well. At this point, I strive for a goopy batter that is easy enough to scoop into the muffin tins. For me, I usually add another 1/4 cup of water so that it has the right consistency.
  7. Add the batter to each muffin tin with a spoon. I find a 1/4 cup measure works pretty well. Try to even them out but don’t worry too much about them all being the same level.
  8. Bake in the oven for about 25 minutes. You want to strive for a nicely browned muffin that, when a toothpick is inserted comes out mostly clean. Cook less, if you prefer a moister muffin or more, if you prefer a drier muffin.
  9. Place on a cooling rack. Try to wait for just a few minutes before grabbing one and devouring it. But don’t fret, it’s only 121 calories!

Nutritional Profile

This version of the muffin is only 121 calories per muffin, give and take a few calories based on your exact ingredients. I say this because we buy a lot of stuff bulk and the nutritional profile does vary from vendor to vendor.

Thanks to MyFitnessPal’s recipe calculator, here is the complete nutritional profile and a nice photo of one of the muffins in my hand. Yum!

Variations

Today is actually the first day I made the specific recipe detailed here but I have made the recipe maybe six different times, always varying things up. My various versions have had from 90 to 140 calories and most have tasted great. I’d like to mention here some of the variations that you might consider:

  • Increase/decrease the amount of oat bran while decreasing/increasing the amount of whole wheat flour.
  • Substitute prunes for dates. Also, if you like your muffins sweeter, you may want to increase the number of dates/prunes but I find 5 works well for us.
  • Add a nut such as pecans or almonds.
  • Add different seeds such as pumpkin.
  • Add cocoa powder.
  • Add fruit.
  • Remove the coconut and/or chia seeds.

You might need to adjust the amount of added water depending on the ingredients you use. Feel free to experiment, and please keep it whole food as much as possible (the concept, not the grocer; support your local grocer or food coop). And please, try to keep processed sugar and oil out of the recipe, if at all possible.

Categories: Cooking, Uncategorized, Vegan | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Trail del Moscato 54K

IMG_8445I like the idea of destination races: you get to do a race that is unique plus you get to travel! Sounds like a great deal to me, especially when combined with some vacation time before and after the race. Having run the Prague Marathon three years ago, it was time for another destination race in Europe, this time a small and relatively unknown trail race in northern Italy on September 25th.

Suzanna and I registered for Trail del Moscato, a set of small races running through the terraced vineyards of the Piedmont region of Italy. Suzanna signed up for the 21K Nordic walk and I for the 54K run, serving up 9,186 feet (2,800 meters) of elevation gain over 54 kilometers. The previous 50Ks I ran had 4-5,000 feet of gain, so I knew this was a bit of a jump in elevation, but somehow I didn’t realize the true significance of the difference. Maybe in retrospect that was a good thing because if I had, I likely wouldn’t have signed up for this crazy-tough Italian trail race.

TdM_profile

Ultrarunning magazine categorizes races on a pair of 1-5 scales: one for elevation profile and one for surface, with 5 being the highest category for each. Trail del Moscato scores a 5 on the elevation profile based on the fact that’s there’s over 250 feet of climb per mile! So it wasn’t just me – it was extremely difficult! Trail del Moscato is a loop course that starts and ends in the tiny town of Santo Stefano Belbo.

The start was set for 7:30 am, following a 10 minute pre-racing briefing in Italian. I didn’t understand a word of the briefing. Nor was I able to communicate with any of the race officials or other runners since unlike in the big cities like Rome or Florence, very few people in Santo Stefano Belbo spoke much English. Still I wasn’t too concerned since I had studied the race website which included English versions of the key pages.

About 50 of us lined up at the starting line. The gun went off and we ran a few hundred feet across cobblestones and concrete before cutting right into a dirt trail that went up for a few miles.

 

Mile 1 Surprise

IMG_8429Around a third away up the first hill, just before my watch alerted me to mile one, the race suddenly became more of a challenge as I heard a buzz in my ears as a swarm of bees, undoubtedly disturbed by earlier runners, attacked me from behind managing to sting me around 8 times in my right thigh, left buttock, and, worst of all, in the base of my skull. The pain was pretty jarring and lasted for most of the race. Worst of all it gave me a pretty nasty headache. A few seconds after my unfortunate encounter with the bees I heard another runner scream so I know at least one other runner was stung.

With the pain of the bee stings unrelenting and fearing, with that many bee stings, I might suffer an allergic reaction, I took a Benadryl pill that I had in the pill pocket of my hydration pack. Worrying more and more about the bee stings, I downed a second Benadryl tablet a few minutes later.

IMG_8440About 75% of the race is on trails up, down, and through the terraced vineyards and spectacular views of the valleys below with grapes surrounding almost every step of your way. Another 20% or so of the race was through forested areas with the remaining 5% through a handful of small towns. The uphills were steep and relentless, with my trekking poles coming in mighty handy. The downhills were sometimes so steep you were pretty much doing a controlled slide. The flats were few and far in between. It was almost constantly up and down.

As you can imagine, with only 50 runners over 54K, I ran the majority of the race alone. Still, I managed to hook up with some other trail runners for a few good stretches. The aid stations were pretty basic, supplying water, an electrolyte drink, and a few food items. I carried plenty of food so I didn’t need any and refilled my hydration bladder about half way to which I added an extra package of Tailwinds Nutrition powder. And every so often I picked a few grapes.

Descending into Despair

Between miles 16 and 17, about four and a half hours into the race, I reached the top of a very steep downhill section and started running down. I reached the bottom of the hill after running and sliding for about a quarter-mile, though the steepness of the hill made it seem much further. But there had not been any race flags for a while. When I got to the bottom, I soon realized that I must have missed a turn. Many sighs and a few curses to myself later, I reluctantly turned around and struggled back up about 7/8 of the hill until I located the missed turn. Fortunately, I had my running poles; without them, I am not sure what I would have done. This, mistake took a lot out of me, both physically and probably more important, psychologically.

I achieved another low point a few miles later as I reached what I thought was the 4th of 5 aid stations, I took my race map out of my pack, pointed to aid station 4 on the map, and grunted something that I am sure was indecipherable to the volunteer working the aid station, so that they could confirm that I had reached 42 K or 26 miles (marathon distance). The volunteer pointed instead to the third aid station at only 34 K (mile 21). A difference of only 5 miles, give or take a few kilometers, but it seemed a world further and I immediately descended into a funk. At this point, I was having trouble keeping it together, suffering from the bee stings, GI distress, the hot sun, and of course, the relentless uphills.

IMG_8449Somewhere between aid station 3 and 4, I slowed down quite a bit. When I finally got to the aid station that I thought I had arrived at earlier, I tried to communicate to the volunteer that I was done, spurting out some badly broken Italian while using the international sign for the end (moving the palm of my hand across my throat). I think he understood me but could offer no help in getting back to the start. It was at this moment, that another runner who had just arrived at the aid station, Massimo, spoke to me in English, much to my relief. He told me he we only had around 12 kilometers to go. Massimo too was hurting, finding the downhill running especially difficult and suggested that we stick together. He also mentioned that there was another runner just ahead of us and if we caught up to him we could all run, or practice something resembling running, together. I remember at this point that Massimo and I discussed the 10-hour cutoff in the race and the fact that we might not make the cut.

 

Downhill it goes

Finally having someone to run with and someone who spoke my language – literally – was a huge relief. At the same time, 12 K seemed like an infinite distance away. We caught up to the other runner and the three of us worked together. After a bit we caught up to a woman, so now there were four of us running, more or less, together. And while the others seemed to suffer caution on the downhill sections, I drew energy from the downhills. And it turns out we soon came upon a long downhill section of the course about 2 miles long, so I ran ahead of the group. In fact, at this point, I thought that I would finish in under 10 hours, especially if the downhills continued to the finish.

IMG_4483

If I had been a little less delirious, however, and stopped to consult the map, I would have realized that there were three significant hills left in the race. About half way up the second hill, I was out of fluid and pretty much out of energy, having perhaps expended too much energy during that downhill stretch. So I sat down on the side of the trail and rested for about 5 or 10 minutes. While I rested, one of the runners I had been running with earlier passed me. I got up and continued to climb the second hill, but after a brief downhill section the course flattened out for a bit and the last hill came into my view, which climbed a steep 600 feet over about 3/4 of a mile. At this point, the site of that hill broke any shred of confidence that remained in my mind and I again descended into a very dark place. I’m sure it didn’t help that I had taken two Benadryl earlier in the race; I was so exhausted; so tired and craved sleep. At the same time, my Garmin watch gave out and went blank. What a metaphor for how I felt at that moment.

So I laid down on the side of the trail and took a nap. I’m not sure how long I slept there on the trail but I woke up as one of the remaining two runners, the woman, passed me. I started to get up but laid back down and feel back asleep. Finally, Massimo caught up to me and urged me to rise and finish the race with him. He asked me if I had any water left, and realizing that I was out, he gave me the few ounces that remained in his bottle. I took half and returned the bottle to him, very appreciative of his incredible act of kindness.

A short while later, the race sweeper – a guy on a bicycle who I had seen once or twice previously – caught up to the two of us and asked how I was doing (in Italian). Massimo told him that we were going to finish together and that we were out of water. The sweeper took off on his bike and returned 10 minutes later with water for our bottles as we crawled slowly up that last hill.

At the top of the hill at 52 K (32 miles), a number of race volunteers cheered for us and offered us water. There was a chair there and I recall sitting down as Massimo chatted with the volunteers. After resting for a few minutes, we refilled our water bottles, and walked down the hill together towards the finish line. I managed to reenergize a bit on the downhill and could have run most of that last 2K but decided to stick with my new friend who was struggling on the downhills.

IMG_4576Once we reached the town of Santo Stefano Belbo and spotted the spire of the Sacred Heart of Jesus church, we both got pretty excited and started running. Our excitement was tempered a bit when we realized that the course didn’t go directly to the finish line but instead looped annoyingly through the town. But we kept running, perhaps a little slower, when we realized there was more to run than we had first thought but soon enough we neared the finish.

The site of the finish line (and the yell of Suzanna’s “Here they come” when she spotted us) brought pure joy to my heart. As we IMG_4580approached the finish line, I reached out to Massimo and we locked hands as we crossed the line together. The elapsed time was 10:28, doing a quick check of the clock time on my phone since my watch was dead. The official clock had been turned off and technically, we were DNFs, having finished more than 10 hours after the start. (A day later when the official times were posted, Massimo and I were credited with a time of 10:11:30. I’m guessing that was the time the clock had been stopped.)

Massimo and I finished 51st and 52nd of 52 finishers (i.e., dead last), but I am still very happy to have competed in and completed Trail del Moscato. It was a brutal but beautiful race and stretched me to the edge of my being, but I survived and am better for it. As Scott Jurek would say, it’s all about digging deep inside of yourself to find what you didn’t know was there. And having a friend there to urge you on, doesn’t hurt either.

Categories: Running | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Sun Mountain 50K

Although Fall training had been a bit tentative because of a lingering left ankle sprain (which I rolled a few steps from the end of a hike with the kids back in July), the Deception Pass 25K race (December 2015) went okay and training for Orcas 25K was going well. Unfortunately, I rolled the ankle hard at the Orcas race on January 31 and, while I was able to “run it in,” I had suffered a pretty bad sprain, and I ended up taking 6 weeks off from training. I was scheduled to run the Chuckanut 50K in March but  was able to obtain a refund from the race director (the RD of Chuckanut, Krissy Moehl, was wonderful I might add) and set my sights instead on Sun Mountain 50K in May 2016.

 

Back on the Mend

Slowly, with the help of my coach, Alison Naney of Cascade Endurance, I was able to put in place a training program that would get me ready — though far from optimally — for Sun Mountain. Now, for me, an optimal training schedule for a 50K trail race would involve a slow buildup of mileage with a peak of the longest run being in the 20+ mile range (or 5-6 hours) occurring around 3 weeks pre-race day. But Alison came up with a plan that would have me a bit under-trained but more or less ready with a peak long run of 4 hours at 2 weeks prior to the race. Sub-optimal, yes, but it would have to be good enough given the 6 week layoff for the ankle.

Not So Fast

So all was going pretty well. Four weeks pre-race, I had a great 3 hour run on the Chuckanut course near Bellingham and a week later had a good 3 1/2 hour run at Cougar Mountain. Unfortunately, the good running karma took a break when two weeks before the race I rolled my ankle again on what was supposed to be 4 hour run from Snoqualmie Point to Rattlesnake Lake but ended up being only 2 hours with some collateral damage. The good news, though, was that I was able to run 3 days later and had a few good one-hour runs later that week. That Sunday (6 days pre-race), I set out for a 2-3 hour run at Discovery Park but ended it early when my ankle started feeling stiff and then hurting whenever I landed after scaling a log.

Now any runner will tell you that this was not going well. Your ankle should not be hurting with less than a week to go before a major race. Furthermore, if by some strange miracle, my ankle was okay on race day, there was this little matter of being under-trained for the race.  Still, I decided not to panic just yet and was thankfully able to snag an appointment with my wonderful ultrarunner physical therapist, Alison Gillespie of Real Rehab (yes, both my coach and PT are named Alison). Thankfully, Alison was reassuring. She worked on my ankle, suggested I take a few days off from running and that I try instead some spinning or biking to get the blood flowing to the injury without bearing weight on it. Best of all, Alison told me she thought it was okay to run the race on Saturday, and worse-case-scenario, there were several points during the race that came by the start so if I needed to drop, I easily could.

At this point, my confidence was less than spectacular, but I nonetheless followed PT Alison’s advice and rode my bike Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday and held off doing any running. To make matters even worse, my ankle was hurting on Thursday riding home from work, which I figured was not a good sign. Because of my concerns of keeping the ankle from swelling any more, I decided not to run the entire week.

Race Day

Well, the hotel was booked, I had always wanted to visit Winthrop and the Methow Valley, and I wasn’t going to get refund from my race entry fee, so I figured I’d give it a whirl despite my misgivings. Those last few days, I worked hard on staying positive while remaining realistic. Listen, I’m not some crazy ultrarunner hero; I wasn’t going to keep running if my ankle was really hurting. But on the other hand, it was a no brainer to at least start the race. We took off for Winthrop Friday morning and the drive there along Highway 20 was beautiful. I sat in the back seat with my leg propped up while Suzanna supportively did all the driving.

Suzanna and I discussed race strategy, prepared my drop bags, discussed where she would be able to see me on the course, and how I would communicate to her if I dropped. Saturday morning arrived and I was the first runner to check in. After chatting with some runner friends and coach Alison, and visiting the porta-potties at least 3 times, I was ready to start the race.

flowersThe race started at 10 AM and I have to say right off the bat, I felt crappy. At mile 3, I seriously contemplated turning around and heading back to the start. I just wasn’t feeling it. About that time, Coach Alison’s husband Sam (also a Cascade Endurance coach) was there cheering me (the first of three times I saw him on the course; thanks, Sam.) A little after that, a voice in the distance from above shouted “Paul, I see you” which surprised me, especially since I couldn’t see where exactly the voice came from but I was pretty sure it was Suzanna which made me smile. I clamored on and finally settled in a couple of miles later with a a pair of runners (Kari and Broeck). Having other runners to chat with was great and really helps when one is thinking of how horrible they feel. We made it to the first aid station at Thompson Ridge at mile 8. I grabbed a few grapes and headed back out. At this point the ankle was feeling okay and while I wasn’t feeling great, I was okay. A few miles later, I fell back and lost touch of my two new friends. My thinking soon devolved into whether I’d drop out at the second or third aid station, or maybe there was the slightest of chances that I might tough it out I finish the whole darn race. The ankle continued to be fine but now my right side which I had strained a few weeks earlier doing some plyometrics drills started hurting.

Lest I only whine about the pain and hardship, I should mention that the course was beautiful. Yellow and purple wildflowers were everywhere; the valley was so colorful surrounded by gorgeous mountain peaks and sweeping views.

Digging In

The second aid station, Homestead, was supposed to be at mile 17 but my watch was telling me that it was mile 15. Nevertheless, I was happy to make it and see Suzanna and Porter (our black lab). I sat down for a few minutes, refilled my hydration pack, ate a few grapes, kissed her goodbye, and headed back out onto the trails.

Soon, we began a long climb up Black Bear trail. I got my running poles out which helped ease the ascent. It was tough but what really hurt was the descent down Black Bear. At first my right side pain came back and then my hips. With each step down the hill, my hips and pelvis screamed with a bone-jarring pain. A nice woman who introduced herself as Laura ran with me for a bit, encouraged me and then took off. I slowed down, did a little walking (which I never do on the down hills), and took a few deep breaths. And then I just continued going forward. At this point, I was sure I would be dropping out and debated whether I would drop when we ran by Sun Mountain Lodge at around mile 22 or at the last aid station at around mile 25. It was just a matter of time.

The trail bottomed out and was flat for a bit before climbing very steeply to Sun Mountain Lodge. I saw my running friend, Nicola run by looking strong (she finished 5th) as I struggled to make it up the ascent. Once again, the poles helped as I struggled up, but it was the fact that in a few miles, I would turn around and descend this very steep incline that worried me the most. At the top, we then flattened out and ran by a bride and groom having their pictures taken on the lawn in front of the lodge.  The course continued down past the lodge for another mile before turning around at small white sign in the middle of the trail. On the way down I had spied a large root with a loop that was raised several inches above the ground. I yelled “root” to the runner right behind me who yelled it to the guy behind her. About a minute after the turn around I looked up to see a guy trip and fly through the air. He must have missed the root. Fortunately, he tucked and rolled perfectly and was fine. We headed back up to the lodge and then back down the earlier very steep hill. Ouch, it hurt, but a little less than it hurt on Black Bear, for which I was thankful.

SunMountain-420-LAt various points in the race, you would come up to a spring-loaded gate that you would open and let snap shut behind you to stop livestock from going where they were not supposed to go. But at some point between Sun Mountain Lodge and the last aid station, I looked up and saw a runner ahead of me climbing what appeared to be a step ladder over the fence. And indeed, I had to do the same. Now, suffice it to say that 20+ miles into an endurance race, one of the last things you want to do is climb a ladder over a barb-wire fence but that’s what we had to do. I yelled to the runner who had just performed the feat “That’s interesting.” She yelled back, “No, that’s rude.” I chuckled as I next hobbled painfully up and down the ladder, steadying myself on the tree that thankfully was there to assist with this trying feat of strength. I thought about stopping to photograph this absurdist of mid-race obstacles, but I was too tired to take my phone out. (Thankfully, I saw that someone else had posted a photograph of the obstacle in question when composing my story.)

At the bottom of the hill, things flattened out again and the trail went by Patterson Lake. In the distance I could hear what sounded like the third and last aid station. The din of cheering and cow bells got louder and pretty soon I was there at the Patterson Lake aid station at mile 25 (or mile 23 according to my watch). Suzanna was there, of course, and took my picture as I was approaching the aid station.

I rested a bit, chatted with Jess Mullen, who was working the aid station and who proceeded to tell me not to be fooled by the first false peak up Patterson Mountain. Suzanna and I talked. I discussed with her my options, which included dropping now and walking back the two miles with her and Porter to the finish as a DNF, or maybe, even if I walked the remaining 6 miles of the course, I guessed it which would take me about 2 hours and get me to the finish in about 7 hours, which was plenty of time before the 8 hour cutoff for the course. I mean what’s 2 more hours of suffering anyway? Did I mention that miraculously my bad ankle was not bothering me at all? The fact of the matter was that I would much prefer to finish the race, as long as I wasn’t seriously injured than drop out. Suzanna agreed that I should go for it and so it was decided I would continue and not take the easy exit.

Doubling Down

Patterson Mountain was the steepest of the three steep climbs of the race, ascending a little over a 1,000 feet over about 2 1/2 miles. It was brutal, worsened by the fact that it was open so you could see all these runners in the distance slowly making their way up (and then back down) the mountain. I walked most of the way up and ran the few flatter spots. I made it to the turn-around and then headed back down the very steep decline. Amazingly, the bone-jarring pain I felt 7 or 8 miles earlier was gone. I mean I was exhausted and every part of my body hurt, but nothing like the earlier descent down Black Bear trail. I continued on.

I should mention that one of the nice things about the out-and-back nature of the peaks of the Sun Mountain course, is that you saw people going in the opposite direction as you went up or down and almost everyone was there cheering each other. The people coming down when you were going up would usually throw you some encouraging words. “Nice job.” or “Way to go.” And when you, in your state of absolute exhaustion and self pity, were coming down the mountain, the people who were behind you by 20-40 minutes were smiling and praising you like you were some amazing super ultrarunner, making you feel almost accomplished, like you were fast or something, when you were pretty sure you were way slow. That’s the beauty of the ultrarunning community — almost everyone is nice and friendly. And despite my not feeling up to it, I tried to reciprocate with some encouraging words of my own.

About half way down the mountain, I came to a T in the trail and instinctively, without reading the yellow sign, headed to the right to retrace my steps from earlier. Fortunately, a few steps later, I realized that I never looked at the direction of the arrow in the sign. I turned around, ran back to the sign, and saw that I was actually supposed to go left, not right and head towards the finish, not back to Patterson Lake aid station. A runner who was heading up the hill, yelled “good catch.” Boy was it ever.

From there it was about 3-4 miles to the finish. I was alone for the next two miles on some technically difficult single-track terrain. Not difficult because it was very steep or because of any sheer drop offs, but difficult because we were running along a narrow dry stream bed (about 2-3 feet wide) with a rut carved right down the middle. Suffice it to say, that the footing was difficult, and I was worried about rolling my ankle. Fortunately, I managed to avoid any injury and made it to the road. I crossed the road and headed toward the finish. Since my watch didn’t agree with the map of the course that I had studied and printed before the race, I wasn’t sure how long I had to go. I was thinking it was anywhere between a 1 and 4 miles at this point, though I was thinking–okay hoping, wishing, and praying–that it was closer to a mile. At this point, it didn’t matter. I was committed and I was going to finish! After about a mile, I saw a sign for Chickadee trail, which was the trail we had started on and which I was reasonably sure would soon lead me to the finish. I dug down a little deeper and ran the shallow inclines instead of walking them like I desperately wanted. After another half mile or so, I started to hear the cheers in the distance. I quickened my pace and spotted Suzanna! She confirmed that the finish — which I couldn’t see at this point because of a remaining turn — was about 50 feet away.

I accelerated across the finish, smiling big time, with a respectable time of 6:22. I did it. I stuck it out despite having a thousand excuses to quit. I simply refused to use any of those excuses. Not this race.

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Obliteride Wrap-up!

The 50-mile route

The 50-mile route

Over the last three months, Suzanna and I donned out bike jerseys and shorts, grabbed our bikes, and trained so we would be ready to ride 50 miles on Sunday, August 9th. Well, Sunday came around, the weather was sunny (but thankfully not too sunny), and Suzanna and I had a great time pedaling 50 miles in Obliteride 2015.

The dedication wall

The dedication wall

More important that the athletic challenge of riding 50 miles was the fund-raising. We used social media and a few emails—sorry if we annoyed you—to ask our friends and family to donate to the cause. And thanks to the generosity of our friends and family, we managed to raise $4000 for life-saving research at Fred Hutch. Thank you so much, donors, for your generosity.

 

The Ride

It was a truly great weekend. On Friday, was the kick-off party with food, drink, music, and a chalk board to write dedications for the event.

We arrived at Fred Hutch on Sunday just before 8:00 AM, unloaded the bikes from

Suzanna and Paul at the start

Suzanna and Paul at the start

the car, and made our way to the starting line. After the singing of the Star Spangled Banner, the ride started promptly at 9:00 AM and Suzanna and I took off along with several hundred other riders doing the 50-mile route. One of the best parts of the ride, was the fact that we got to ride together the whole way. We finished the ride with my hand on Suzanna’s shoulder as the announcer announced our arrival, adding the fact that Suzanna was a cancer survivor. Survivors, in fact, had special status all weekend which was a fitting touch. At the start, signs naming each and every survivor rider lined Fairview Avenue.

The survivor sign

The survivor sign

In all, over 1,000 riders participated in the event, raising (as of August 11th), over 1.8 million dollars for Fred Hutch! This number will undoubtedly go up between now and the end of September. What a great event for a great cause. We are so glad we could be part of Obliteride 2015!

 

 

 

Obliteride was a success because of all the generous donors. It’s not too late; you can still contribute to Obliteride until September 30th!

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Back to the Real World

In my work at Fred Hutch I collect and manage data on cancer patients.  Every day when I come to work, I have to temporarily suspend my empathy for the patients we study and disconnect my emotions or I’d lose my objectivity and quite possibly my mind and never get any work done. The people and their experiences we study become data points living in a database within a virtual world stored inside the computer network. They become statistics that we manipulate and report on to further science. This is a necessary requirement of doing research and getting the work done. Thus, most of the time when I work at Fred Hutch, I live in the abstract world.

Every so often, though, the reality of cancer thrusts me back into the real world like a cold slap across the face. Yesterday, for example, I learned that a friend in her forties who had been battling cancer for a number of years finally succumbed to the disease and died. Aletia wasn’t a close friend but she was someone I knew through our church and the school that my children attended.  A real person cut down in her prime by cancer, leaving behind two lovely girls and a loving husband.

Aletia’s death is also a reminder why working in cancer research is so important. Real people get cancer, real people suffer from it, and real people die. Lots and lots of people. From babies to 100-year olds and everyone in between. This is the reality of cancer and the reality of life. RIP, Aletia.

I’m riding Obliteride on August 9th to raise money for cancer research at Fred Hutch. Please consider donating to the cause.

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A Day in the Life of a Cancer Programmer

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research CenterI consider myself very lucky to have the privilege to work at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, which we affectionately call Fred Hutch. I manage a small team of programmers in creating custom solutions to support the world-renowned research that is happening here.

In this post, I thought I’d give you an idea of what research projects I am personally involved with day to day, either in a programming/configuration/orchestration/maintenance role or in a management role.

Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that not all of the work we do at Fred Hutch is cancer related. Fred Hutch scientists also do research in infectious diseases, diseases of the immune system, and a few other disorders. Still, the bulk of the science being done here is cancer related.

So here are some of the projects I am currently working on…

1. My group at Fred Hutch serves as the clinical coordination and data management center for a multi-site study of an immune system disorder called Sjogren’s Syndrome. The goal of this study is to develop a panel of biomarkers to diagnose this disorder. We are responsible for the collection, quality control, and storage of clinical and laboratory data for this clinical trial. For this project, we use a electronic data capture system called REDCap, a laboratory system named LabKey, SAS, a few custom-built .NET programs to tie it all together, and SQL Server.

Image_782. I lead the programming team supporting a pair of trials looking at the accuracy of pathologists when diagnosing breast cancer and melanoma. Initial results of the breast cancer study made news when a controversial paper describing the results was recently published in JAMA. The system is built using ASP.NET MVC with an electronic slide viewer built using Silverlight.

vials-rack-192652743. I created and maintain a specimen repository that I first wrote using ASP.NET about 10 years ago. This system is used to track specimens– little vials of blood and tissue that are collected from study subjects and stored in super-cold freezers–for five different repositories, including repositories for leukemia and a rare disease known as Shwackman-Diamond syndrome.

4. My team maintains another ASP.NET-based system that tracks the logistics of running hundreds of clinical trials in AIDS treatment and prevention. This system also communicates to our funding agency at the National Institutes of Health on a daily basis using a web service client.

5. My team recently launched a new study that is looking at the effects of eating frequency on health. We helped build the data collection system (using REDCap) and a .NET console program that texts participants reminders to complete their daily food intake diaries.

6. We are working to build a website for a new study with pilot funding to improve the reliability of self testing for Cytomegalovirus (CMV) infections in bone marrow transplant recipients. CMV is particularly dangerous in these patients.

Cholera7. I am helping to manage the data collection of a study that is attempting to extract information about cholera outbreaks in Africa using as the source data reports extracted from a public reporting system called ProMED. The goal of the study is to build models to better understand how this devastating disease spreads.

8. We manage the data collection for innovative research study to use acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) to coach smokers over the telephone to quit smoking. Prior studies have shown ACT to be a promising technique to help smokers and others with addictions to stop these destructive behaviors.

9. I recently completed an online implementation of a scoring algorithm for use by oncologists who are trying to predict patient survival from hematopoietic stem cell transplants for leukemia and myeloma. The system was built using ASP.NET MVC and jQuery.

10. I lead a team that maintains a 8-year old custom-developed CATI (computer assisted telephone interviewing) program for our telephone interviewer team.

That covers most of the systems that occupy my time of late.The technology is not always bleeding edge but, in general, we try to stay current and forward thinking.

It’s a challenging job at times, especially when trying to juggle dozens of clients who are almost always on a short schedule with a even shorter budget. But boy, is it rewarding. I truly love my job and I hope you enjoyed reading a bit about it.

Obliteride_Logo_Horizontal_4CP_Regv2And finally (you knew there was a tie in), my wife Suzanna and I are riding our bikes 50 miles on August 9th to raise money for the wonderful and truly life-saving research being done at Fred Hutch. Won’t you please consider supporting the amazing work we are doing here by donating to my ride? Thank you.

donatenow1.jpg

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