San Diego 100 rotisserie run

IMG_20160602_163438-1Everything looks great on paper. It is fun to sit down and go through the logistics and strategy of a 100 mile run and how it “should” go down. You try to account for all of the variables and determine what will have a major effect on your split times from aid station to aid station. Then, there is what actually happens on race day. There is a good possibility that it will not go as planned. Especially if momma nature decides to crank the heat up and make running any distance quite uncomfortable. So, when the San Diego 100 mile run came around this past Friday, and they were calling for a heat wave, I got a little worried. When I was actually in the early stages of running and it was already toasty at around 9 am, I became a lot worried. You see, heat and I have never really gotten along. With my fighting weight being around 180 lbs., it takes a fair amount of energy to cool down once I start cooking. So, only 20 miles into my 100 mile journey, I was fading fast.

The SD100 course is quite amazing and breathtaking. It is also very exposed for much of the way. Often very windy as well. With the heat and wind I felt like I was running in a convection oven and having a very hard time staying hydrated even though I was carrying two 25 oz. handhelds between aid stations, the longest stretch being around 8.5 miles. Those 8.5 miles seem like eternity when the temperatures are hovering around 100 degrees and running makes your head feel like it is going to explode and your heart is pounding out of your chest because your heat acclimation started at 6 am that morning. By about 25 miles I was already wondering how I was going to get through the day and finish this race on two feet and not on my face. Having had close calls with heat exhaustion in the past and knowing the symptoms, I decided that I would pretty much just have to power hike most of my miles that occurred in the hottest hours of the day, running at a slow pace when my head was not pounding, and try to redeem myself in some way once the sun went down. This is easier said than done as the course has a good amount of loose rocks and boulders that make night running a frustrating challenge. All in all, I realized that if finishing was to remain an option, I had to put the brakes on and accept that it was going to be a much longer day then I had planned on and throw any prior time goals into the fire.

At any rate, I had some built-in incentives to get my ass to the finish line no matter what extra challenges awaited me. For one, I have this whole California Triple Crown of ultra-running thing that I had decided to sign up for. This is a challenge that requires me to complete the San Diego 100 in June, then the Santa Barbara 100 in July and last but certainly not least the Angeles Crest 100 in August. It wasn’t going to be too great if I could not finish the first of the three. I knew that even if it meant power walking the majority of the course, barring major injury, I had to finish.

Every time I finally reached an aid station I was greeted by volunteers who seriously wanted to do whatever they could to make me feel better and get me back on the course. There was ice for my hat, and watermelon for my heat diminished appetite. Every time I came in ready to rip off my race bib and call it a day; and every time I headed back out feeling rejuvenated for the next leg. Not one volunteer showed any signs of fatigue or irritability even though they would be there through the duration of the race dealing with all of our pissing and moaning.

One thing that always leaves a lasting impression on me when running some of these races is how immensely beautiful this planet is and how insignificant and powerless we as individuals are when facing off with the elements. It really hits home when you are a long way from anything and running low on fluids and feeling exhausted and fully exposed to oppressive heat and winds that make your eyes feel like prickly cotton balls.

I often looked above me to beg the sun to turn it down a notch. When I did, I would see the hawks gracefully and effortlessly gliding along utilizing the heat to their advantage. If only I were able to harness the convection currents and float along rather than having all of my energy sapped by my body’s need to cool 185 pounds of mass.
One thing that kept coming to mind was a moment in the documentary about the Western States 100 where Gordy Ainsleigh talks about his first pioneer running of the course where the only food and drink that he had was some dry trail mix and creek water. The temperatures for him that year were hot enough to make a horse drop and yet he managed to get through it. So, what the hell was my problem! I had a little heat with top-notch aid stations every 6-8 miles with ice baths! There was absolutely no excuse for me to not get my ass to the finish line, barring a face plant onto a rocky surface.

My performance for the day was far from aggressive. My goal was to keep heat exhaustion at bay and make it to sundown, at which point I would hopefully regain some energy. This meant that I pretty much walked up all inclines after mile 20 and ran a pretty pathetic pace on flats and downhill. This pace put me at my drop bag location at Penny Pines, mile 43, around 4 pm, 2 hours later than my original goal time. Needless to say I was not the only one hurting more than they had anticipated for this race. I caught up to my friend Pete just before arriving at Penny Pines and as I approached him from behind I could see that he was in bad shape. His gait spoke volumes and when I caught up to him he told me how much pain he was in and not doing well. It is hard to see a friend suffer and not be able to help. He would end up having to pull out after another 12 miles, deciding to not let bravado stifle common sense.

After changing my handhelds for my pack and a reservoir full of ice on my back, I felt like I now had a fighting chance against the heat. I was topped off with cold fluids, had watermelon in my stomach, and ice in my hat. I was ready to get back on the trail. Shortly after departing Penny Pines I was stopped abruptly in my tracks as I saw the head of a rattlesnake poking out as it prepared to cross the trail. I gave it a wide berth and looked on in awe as it slid by. As soon as it reached the other side, it gave its little “don’t even think about it” rattle and slithered off into the brush. Finally, after 20 plus years in Southern California I had seen my first rattlesnake. Pretty amazing event for me.

Even as the sun began to set and I was at the 100k point of the race heading down to the turnaround at Cibbets Flat, the winds were warm. I was beginning to see the leaders on their way back up the climb out of Cibbets. The fact that the lead was running back up exemplifies the endurance and power that it truly takes to win a race like this. It was a fairly rocky single track which made the trip down and the trip back up quite an ordeal, especially when the headlamps came out and people going in opposite directions could take turns blinding each other as they exchanged encouraging words.

On my trip down, I got pinned down behind a racer and his pacer. There was not much room to maneuver around them and then I realized that the pacer, running behind, had no headlamp. As much as I wanted to run ahead and regain some lost time, I decided that the nice thing to do was to run in the rear and light the trail for the pacer through this rocky section until we got to the aid station. I felt bad as the pacer keep tripping and toe smashing with his limited ability to make out the terrain. To be honest, part of me was a bit irritated that I could not use this section to make up time, but it wasn’t like I was going to come back from my current position and contend with the leaders.

After what seemed like a never-ending 7 miles we finally reached an open stretch of asphalt where I parted ways with my company and took off for the Cibbets AS lights about a mile away. I was ecstatic to be at the turn around point and ready for the long grind back up and ready to get to within 30 miles of the finish. This was the point of the race that the race director Scott Mills had referred to as one where we would feel like we “had the tiger by the tail “. That had stuck in my thoughts for some reason, but I liked to think of it more as having the monkey by the tail, because I like monkeys. I was going to keep a strong grip on my monkey’s tail all the way to the end.

The 7.7 miles back up to Dale’s Kitchen aid station was a long one. The rocky terrain and constant need to step aside and let oncoming runners pass made it a bit more challenging than it would have been otherwise. On top of that, I began to sense that my headlamp was becoming quite dim. I was sure that I had loaded fresh batteries in it before stashing it in my drop bag. I had back up batteries but I would not have access to them until I returned to Penny Pines for a second time in another 10 miles or so. Just another thing to slow me down. It seemed that I just was not meant to get any redemption at any point in this race. I had very little depth perception without decent lighting and kept fumbling about on the boulder strewn path. One by one, runners with super bright headlamps caught up with me and passed me by. I started to realize that my secondary goal of 24 hours was fading away, just like my headlamp.

Somewhere around 2 am I finally reached Penny Pines for the second time. In my planning stages before the race my goal had been around 1030 pm. Quite a lag. It was at this point that I knew that I would not make it home for the 6 am Silver buckle prize. Going 20 miles in just under 4 hours is a pipe dream for me when it is the last 20 miles, my legs are like stumps, my eyes so dry they are about to fall out, and I am continually tripping over my own shadow. It was time to dig in for the long haul and just do it as quickly as I could and arrive in one piece.

There are very few things in this world that lift my spirits after an all-night death march like a beautiful sunrise. This sunrise goes down in the books as one of the most beautiful that I have ever seen. It arose from behind the mountains off in the distance across the vastness of the Anza Borrego desert. As I stood watching by myself from the PCT I knew why I did these all day races. Mother Nature’s wonders are a 24 hour show and we miss so much of it while we sleep. Once in a while it does the soul good to stay awake all day and witness what she has to show us.

It was fitting that soon after my awesome sunrise show I arrived at the Sunrise aid station for the second and final time. I was feeling the exhaustion settle in but my spirits were high as I now was within one 9 mile trek from the end. Not a whole lot of elevation to be overcome on the final stretch but my legs would only give me small bouts of running. I would try to run one mile and walk one. As I got within sight of Lake Cuyamaca, I felt a bit more energy seep into my muscles allowing me to get some more consistent slow pace running. I could feel the finish line approaching. The last couple of miles followed a grassy path that seemed to wind on forever before finally approaching one tiny little hill up to the finish line. Hill or not, I continued running, wanting finish and stop the clock. I ran across the finish line to the double high-five of race director Scott Mills. Scott’s unwavering energy and obvious enthusiasm for the success of all runners is a memory that will stay with me. It made for a wonderful finish and the end of a long hot day in San Diego.

I ended up finishing in 26:53:14 in 49th place overall. Full results can be found here .

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Leona Divide 50 mile

LD50

Here we go again. Struggling to climb my way out of the Agua Dulce checkpoint getting blasted by mother natures hot breath and trying to watch my footing through dirt glazed eyeballs, I was having a serious “why do I do these races?” moment. Oh, that’s right, because they hurt so good. The reward comes with the finish.
The Friday before the race was ridiculously windy, stripping the trees of their less stout appendages and tossing our patio umbrellas halfway across the yard. Not looking forward to running 50 miles through a dust storm, I looked up the forecast, which promised that these gusts would subside by race morning.
Well, as they say, weather forecasters are in a class of professionals that get paid to be wrong a high percentage of the time. The winds did not subside, and only added another dimension to an already challenging race.
I had a couple of goals for this years Leona Divide 50 race. I wanted to do better than last year, not fall on my head like last year, and be more consistent on the climbs. I had planned on starting very conservatively, holding out until the second out and back section from Spunky to San Francisquito.
Sometimes plans are made to be thwarted at every turn. As I looked around me waiting for the start at the large number of racers who would also be starting at the same time, I knew that I would have to go out faster than I had planned if I didn’t want to get stuck in the ass end of a long conga line. Much of the LD50 course is true single track with a wall of terrain on one side and a steep slope on the other, making passing almost impossible.
With the first 2 miles or so being moderately uphill, there is not much time to warm up if you go out too hard, but given the alternative, it was worth the elevated heart rate for the short-term.
With the large group of energized runners, Keira struggled to give her prerace pep talk over the nervous chatter, and soon enough, it was go time. I got into my niche not too far from the dust flying off of Jorge Pacheco’s heels.

Once I reached Spunky and the start of the PCT, I felt comfortable with my spot and dialed in a sustainable pace and rhythm. The next 6 miles or so to Bouquet Canyon was a mix of runnable uphill and fast downhill into the Aid station. I had 40 oz of fluids and no need to stop, looking both ways I quickly crossed Bouquet on my way up and over to Aqua Dulce.

It is this 9 mile stretch between Bouquet Canyon and Agua Dulce that chews me up every time. With the added wind gusts blowing me around and turning my eyeballs into little powdered tea cakes, I was struggling with my mental state to say the least.
On the outbound trip to Aqua Dulce, my spirits were pretty good. no surprises. Just climb steady and countdown the 4 shin buster motocross blockers. These welded systems of 4″ pipe occur on this stretch to keep motor bike travel off of the trail. They are not too hard to jump over, unless your legs are mush. If you misjudge your jump, they are right at shin heighth, and it will have you swearing like an inebriated sailor even if you normally don’t have a foul tongue.
When I ran on down into the Agua Dulce AS I felt bad because it looked like they were struggling to keep things from not getting airborne. I tried to not spend much time here. I was in about 10th place at this point and wanted to hang on to it as long as I could.
I knew that Rachel Rangona was on my heels and she would most likely overtake me on the way back, especially with my sour mental struggle with the next 9 miles back. The first 6 is a fairly relentless climb and on this day it was a climb with a gnarly headwind; from all directions. Make sense out of that one. Another added challenge was the constant need to stop and move over for all of the other racers coming from the opposite direction. This course is single track on a slant with not much space to move out-of-the-way without sliding down the hillside. So, I was pretty frustrated. I did my best to be relentless in my forward progression but not get too uptight about those challenges that I had no control over.

Turning my thoughts inward and just focusing on smaller sections at a time helped to make it less overwhelming and before I knew it I was reaching the power poles and ready for some much easier running over the last 2-3 miles back to Spunky. This was the point last year where I came the closest to not finishing a race to date. I was in a bad place. Even this year, I was in a better place, but having the choice of two and half miles to your car, or another 16 miles out and back, is always a choice that tugs at your motivation. I refilled my bottles and made it out of the Spunky AS before I had time to even entertain the idea. On the way out I was able to see those vying for the top spots. Jesse Haynes was first on the return, not too far ahead of Jorge, the Leona Divide king. Both looked like they were just out doing a 50K. Very impressive and inspiring to watch runners of this caliber compete.

There is some benefit to always favoring the second half of this course when I do training runs out here. I am more comfortable with it and this mind-set helps in the latter part of a race when the last thing that you want to do is run another 16 miles. Knowing it well, I can just tune out the discomfort and cruise. After much scooting aside and side stepping I soon found myself at the turn around at San Francisquito AS. I threw back some fuel, filled my bottles and made my way back to Spunky. Not before almost falling on my face when trying to high-five one of the AS volunteers. Apparently my motor skills were a bit off. Not sure why.

This is the point in the race when all I have to do is keep my form and breathing consistent and know that every step is one less to the finish. The hard climbs are over and all I have to do is push it to the end and not roll and ankle or get pushed off the trail, both quite possible on this day. I understand that everyone approaches these races differently. Some bring their competitive face to every race. Some strive to compete only against what they have going on within themselves. Some just want to suit up as a cartoon character and have a low-key fun run with friends. This is great; however, some need a little lesson in trail etiquette. On a single track course like Leona, it is only common sense, and respectful to other runners, to try to meet them half way in allowing room to pass when going in different directions. Having a selfie party and taking up the whole trail while some runners are approaching the race with a degree of competition is probably not along the lines of acceptable trail etiquette. This has become even more important as race participant numbers climb.

On the way back from San Francisquito AS I was holding onto a spot somewhere in the neighborhood of 12th place. I was able to move pretty good and hold it right up to about mile 45, at which point I was passed by about 3 other runners. As much as I wanted to hold my spot, I wanted to run comfortably and controlled to the finish. I wasn’t able to muster up any fierce urge to race these guys for another 5 miles. Another day. My mantra this season is to endure my races and endure them well, but not to the point of blow out. I am not going to break any records at any of the three hundred mile races this summer. More importantly, I need to stress being controlled in my running form, breathing, and pace and also work on my mental state.
I felt pretty good as I rounded the corner for the last two and a half miles to the finish. The last mile of asphalt was down hill and it felt good to be able to open up, as much as my aching legs would allow. I did my best to hammer through with a strong finish. 8:37:35 for 17th overall. Official results here . Over an hour off of last years time. I felt pretty satisfied.

Next up, Wild Wild West inaugural 50 mile race on Saturday May 7th. This Wild Wild West race was where I did my first trail race and it is in one of my favorite places overshadowed by the beautiful Eastern Sierras. No matter how my race goes, I will be happy just being there.

Santa Barbara Nine-Trails

Like most, I don’t like being told that I cannot or shouldn’t do something. This goes for running difficult races that I may or may not be totally prepared for. In the spirit of taking my running to a whole nutha level, I didn’t see not running the Santa Barbara Nine Trails as an option. Created by Patsy Dorsey and kept alive by Luis Escobar and the Santa Barbara Running Company, I already knew that it was going to be a rough and wild adventure. The foreboding overtones espoused by Luis further solidified this certainty, making me want to run it even more. I had planned on running it last year, but when the race date arrived I was dealing with much more important needs with Robin fighting to overcome severe injuries from her car accident just three weeks prior. Showing up for the race then was the furthest thing from my mind. However, with the overriding theme of this past year for Robin and I being one of enduring strength and overcoming life’s challenges, I knew that I had to be at the starting line to conquer this beast this year.

What made it even more special was that Robin and I were making the trip together. She would spend some time painting on the coast in some of her favorite spots and I would run this little 35 mile race with a healthy dose of roughly 11,000 feet of elevation gain.

Just before 6 am on Saturday, we all gathered around Luis at the start as he recounted how special this race was for him and many others who have taken part in it. On this day there was a father and his 10 year old son attempting to complete it together. Quite an amazing feat for anyone, especially a 10 year old.

As is customary for all Escobar adventures, we all recited the oath of personal responsibility before throwing ourselves into the fire, chanting to the tune of “if I get lost or die it’s my own damn fault!” After a short walk over to the trail head, the journey up began. It was still not light yet, so it was a conga line of about 100 headlamps shuffling up the trail for the first few miles.

I started off pretty conservatively having no intentions of racing this one, letting a surprisingly large pack of about 10-15 eager rabbits take off in the lead. For me this race was an opportunity to get some good climbing in for the coming summer 100 mile races. I felt pretty comfortable as I churned my way up and up. The course was a good exercise in self sufficient running, with aid stations spread out at mile 9, the turn around at 17, and again at 26. I had my vest with two 20 ounce handhelds and a full 70 ounce reservoir, so I didn’t feel the need to spend too much time at the first aid station.

There were essentially 6 major bouts of climbing on the way out and 6 on the way back. Of, course what goes up must come back down and this is where I always have problems. With much of it littered with loose rock, the descents gave me a frustrating challenge where I just could not open up my stride and spent most of it in an exhaustive tip toe tap dance while trying to not roll my ankle or trip and fall on my face.

The turn around aid station was nice just because it was the turn around point. On top of that, the volunteers went way beyond the call of duty and had on display some wonderful edible concoctions, such as the bacon and guacamole smothered cracker things,that I devoured about three of, before quickly forcing myself to stay focused and checked out for the return trip home.

I now had a nice climb up the paved section back up Romero Canyon Road before getting back on the trail. I was able to run most of it and I found it much less painful than the rocky downhill sections that slowed me down so much.
I played back and forth with a couple other runners as I passed them on the uphill sections and they easily passed me on the rocky downhills. I tried not to get frustrated with my inability to move quickly over the rocks and accept the fact that it was not, and may never be, my strength.

I did my best on the return to grind up the inclines at a slow jog or fast power hike and run any flat sections, which were few of as can be seen on the elevation profile , which sort of resembles fangs ironically. The raw beauty of these trails in Santa Barbara’s front country is stunning and helps to distract you from the burning pain in your quads.

My goal going into this adventure was to be consistent and to take advantage of the good training that I would undoubtedly get from it. I had a target finish of 8 hours and as I neared the finish I knew that it would be very close. As I came closer to the finish I did my best to crank out the last few miles as quickly as possible. With about 5 minutes remaining I thought that my 8 hour goal was in the bag until I rounded the bend for one last tiny climb. This tiny climb was just enough to slow me down and push me past my 8 hour goal by seconds. Oh well, once on the level runway I gave it everything and pounded across the finish in 1 minute over 8 hours.
As promised, the race creator, Patsy, was waiting with open arms giving a reward of consolation and loving embrace to all finishers. That gesture made it all with it.

I ended up finishing 15th overall in 8:01 with results found on my Ultra Signup page . Next up, Leona Divide 50 miler on April 16th.

Sean O’Brien 100K, a lesson in pain.

I would have to say that I felt fairly content with where I was in my training going into the SOB 100K Saturday. I had been more consistent over the last month and gotten some good long runs in. The one concern that I had was with my chronic problem right ankle. I had tweaked it some in my last race in January and it still felt a bit kinky. Certainly not bad enough to not race though. The work week leading up to race day was substantially draining; however, and I did not feel like I was stepping up to the start line with a full tank. This is usually the case with any race having a job that is physically demanding; but, as I would soon find out, this race demanded a full tank and then some.

The SOB 100k is run over the trails and fire roads throughout the Malibu Creek State Park in Calabasas. It is a breathtaking slice of California real estate with lots of panoramic ocean views to be had after a bit of climbing. With almost 14,000 feet of elevation gain, there was plenty of climbing. What goes up inevitably must come down and there was also lots of leg smashing downhill.

The race began at 5 am for the 100K. This had me up at 2 am to leave the house by around 330 am. I am normally up early but this was even early for me. I had picked up my bib the night prior so that was one less thing to stress about as I got ready and got into my truck for a calm drive to the park. The great thing about the early morning hours is the lack of traffic. Driving to the race site I had noticed that the outside temperature was around 50 degrees and remember thinking how it was rather mild and knew that it was going to be a warm day. What was amazing was how the temperature dropped about 15 degrees as I entered the park. It was about 35 degrees as we all stood around shivering anxiously waiting for the race to kick off. I had decided to place a drop bag at the Kanan AS at mile 13 so that I could lose the layers that I would only need for the very beginning of the race. I also had a change of shoes in case the creek crossing about 2 miles in created the need for a swap out.

After a short and sweet prerace briefing by RD Keira Henninger, it was a countdown and off we went. Being a Montrail Ultra Cup race with the top two males and females getting automatic entry into this years Western States 100, there was a fairly large group of about 20 runners that went out hot. Immediately obvious was the very competitive pack of 3 or 4 women that hung tight with the lead men right from the start. I hung back a bit from this group knowing my own intentions and limitations. For me the purpose of this race was to get a challenging early season 100K in so as to shock my body and prepare for the big demands that I am going to throw at it come summer time.

Shortly after a smooth ride down the road and over a bit of single track we were headed down to the creek crossing. It seemed that the creek level had dropped from last weekend but there was not much time to be choosy about footing so I just jumped into the water which was only slightly higher than ankle-deep. Out and up the hill onto the Backbone trail to begin the first ascent of the day. It was about 4.5 miles up to the first aid station at Corral Canyon. It was still dark but once on top the twilight was sufficient enough for me to turn off my headlamp. The view looking down was stunning, with the shimmering ocean and glow of city lights off in the distance. The wind was picking up and hinting that it was going to be around for the duration. I reached the Corral Canyon AS in decent time and continued on, wanting to get to Kanan Rd. AS at mile 13.3 quickly, get rid of my now sweat soaked layers, and move on.

It was a good amount of downhill and I just tried to maintain a fairly consistent reasonable pace as I made my way into the Kanan AS. With the help of the AS volunteers, I quickly dropped my layers, swapped my handheld for my pack and made my way back out. My shoes did not feel very wet and I decided to leave them on. If I needed to I could still change them when I returned to this AS in 23 miles. I grabbed my pack because I knew from the course profile that the next 23 miles would be a challenging package of either burning climbing or jarring descents and the temperature was rising. It was the latter that would mess me up more than the climbing.

It was about a 3 mile uphill trek out of Kanan to the next AS at Zuma Ridge fire road and then a fast and hard descent to the Zuma Edison Ridge Motorway AS at around mile 19. I had some good bites and refueled here and ran into friend Matt Smith, race director for the Kodiak 100 mile. Off I went for some more downhill into the Bonsall Drive AS in about 3 miles. I was happy to see Peter Brennen and crew manning the station. Peter asked how I was and after thinking about it for a moment realized that I wasn’t too bad but my right ankle was not happy with the foot slapping downhill that had taken place over the last 6 miles or so. Downhill is usually a nice reprieve after a bunch of climbing, but when the surface is hardpacked like concrete with lots of loose debris to hop around it can be a bit stressful on an already stressed ankle.

After some friendly encouragement from Peter, I made may way out of Bonsall for the beginning of a couple good chunks of climbing that would prove to be one of the most draining sections of the course for me. The next 8-9 miles was a good bout of climbing followed by a short tease of downhill and then some more punishing climbing back up to the Zuma Edison Ridge Motorway AS at mile 31.3. The climbing was wearing on me but the downhills actually hurt more as my ankle screamed with every footfall. Subtle twists and torques were inevitable with the ruts and debris scattered across the road and these movements just added to the discomfort. Part of me was really frustrated because I couldn’t make up time on these downhill stretches. The surface was really hard and I was beginning to think that I should have swapped shoes for my more cushioned Olympus shoes. I knew as the pain increased and my pace decreased my chances of finishing in less than 12 hours were slipping away.

Over the next few miles headed back towards Kanan Rd. I found myself in a bad patch. I was actually contemplating dropping from the 100K to the 50 mile. I was drained mentally from the pain of my ankle, the warm temperatures and dusty winds of the exposed climbs, and the idea that I wasn’t going to accomplish my goal finish time. As I came into Kanan AS at mile 36 I was not a happy camper. If my truck had been within 100 feet, I probably would have gotten in and drove home. One of the station volunteers asked if I wanted my drop bag or if they could send it back. I thought about changing shoes but realized that at this point it was not going to help much. I told her she could send it back so that at least it would be there if I decided to drop down to the 50 mile. Then, as I walked over to get some fuel I was met with the heavenly sight of watermelon. I don’t usually think of watermelon at “winter” races but when February feels like June, it becomes that little thing that flips me back into not so negative mode. I was also able to get some ice in my cap. It was like a complete 180, in with a defeated state of mind and out of the AS with ice in my hat, watermelon in my belly, and no more thoughts of doing anything less than 100K.

It was a couple of miles up to the next aid at the Latigo road crossing and then onto the point of no return at Corral Canyon at mile 43. This was the point at which I could crossover to Bulldog and get my final dose of pain and what I set out for, or where I could drop down to the 50 mile distance and head back to the finish. I was not really entertaining the latter idea in my head anymore. Thanks to one of the station angels who iced down the back of my neck and thanks to the 5 slices of watermelon, I set my sights on the power towers up the hill and went to meet the Bulldog.

The Bulldog road section was mostly exposed fireroad, with the first half mostly downhill and the second half of the almost 13 mile out and back an uphill grinder. Once you entered this section, as painful as it would be, there was only one option; grind it out and get on home. I did my best to run the downhill and drown out the discomfort of my ankle. Before going more than a mile I saw the first 100k finisher, Stephen Wassather, on his way back. He had nothing but focus in his eyes and I was very impressed with his ability to still power on at a good pace. Not too far behind him I greeted Jesse Haynes as he ran his way up the hill calmly and methodically. I continued on and passed other 100K leaders looking tired but strong. First woman Devon Yanko still seemed to have all cylinders firing. When I am in a race and feeling drained and in a lot of pain and I see runners go by with about 12 miles of lead on me I am in awe of their capabilities and the effort and ability that they exude.

As I came close to the turn around point I was lucky enough to run through the old MASH filming location with some remnants and vehicle props. Pretty cool for me, especially since I grew up watching the show and was very fond of it. I felt a bit of energy return as I ran into the Bulldog AS knowing that I was halfway done with this section and on my way back home, even if it did mean a humbling 5 mile climb out. It was the last big climb of the day and it was the only way that I was going to put this thing to bed.

There were some flat runnable sections in the first mile and half or so before I got to the climbing and I did my best to run all of it. When I got to the uphill I just powered through knowing that every step was one closer to the finish. On the way back up, around mile 53, I came across Rocky, who was struggling through a rough patch of his own. We talked for a bit and I did my best to try to let him know he wasn’t alone and that he was going to finish. The climb up Bulldog back to the towers seems relentless at this point in the race and it makes it very difficult to be positive. On the other hand, you know that you can’t go up forever and soon you will be back on top and putting it behind you.

Getting back to the Corral Canyon AS for the final time and grabbing some more watermelon I was elated. I had another 6 or so miles. The question was not if I would finish, but how quickly I could do it. At this point I was just under 11 hours. If I could run most of it, I could finish in 12 hours by the skin of my teeth. I took energy from this realization and quickly exited the AS to see what I could do, or what my body would allow me to do. It was good to see Rocky with a renewed spirit as he ran by me. After about a mile or so of some little climbs it turned to about 3 miles of steep hard descent. I tried to take advantage of it. Unfortunately, my ankle wasn’t having it. With every impact on the hard packed dirt road pain coursed around my ankle to the point at which I felt going any faster would only lead to instability and me crashing to the ground. I decided to slow it down and just shuffle my way along reducing the impact as much as possible. By the time that I neared the bottom of the descent and neared the creek crossing, I was pretty wiped out. I made my way across the creek and trotted on with some of the worst running form I have ever found myself it. The clock had run on and I had fallen over 12 hours. So I set my sights on finishing under 12 and a half. Running on and around the turn onto the trail overlooking the campgrounds and parking lot, the sound of kids playing and people enjoying the day resonated up towards me and gave me the fuel and positive vibe I needed to shut out the pain and run out the remaining mile and half. Once I planted my feet onto the road I turned on all that I had left and pushed towards the finish line. Emotions churned inside as I approached, and in less than 12 and a half painful hours I was finished. I ended up 19th overall with a time of 12:25:39. Results can be found here .

I am proud of myself for sticking it out when all I wanted to do was drop. I am also frustrated that I had so many issues with my ankle and had to struggle so hard to finish this race. I know that it was a difficult course but I really wanted to come away from it feeling less beat up than I do. I will give my ankle a bit of rest and hope that it finds its way into my training plans soon because I still have a lot of work to do.

I often get into a depressive slump after the intense emotional high that comes with finishing a race. It is a bit more intense after this race for some reason. I believe that part of my disappointment comes from my finish being over an hour more than my goal,which I felt was realistic given my improvements in training.

I know that I need to be patient and not beat myself up too much. Unfortunately, often the voices of self doubt and disappointment are very loud and drown out the good things about the experience. Things like how I completed the course even though all I wanted to do was drop, or how important this race was for my training for this season. I think that along with my needing to continue making subtle changes and improvements in my training regimen, such as more speed work and hill work, I also need to work on my mental perceptions of self worth and positive energy.

Next up, Santa Barbara Nine Trails 35 miler . Chosen for the beautiful suffering that is assured by all those that have run it in the past.
More suffering means more improvements.

La Cuesta mudfest

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Going into last Saturday’s race at the La Cuesta Ranch in San Luis Obispo, I was certain of one thing, and that was that it would definitely be an interesting challenge. If you know anything about events put on by race director Luis Escobar, you know that they are humbling experiences that somehow have you crawling across the finish line begging for more.
I drove up Friday planning to swing by the motel, check in, and then stop by the Running Warehouse to get my race bib and some good socks for the assured wet running conditions. I always enjoy the drive up the 101 towards San Luis Obispo. It is a beautiful drive and one of those moments where I am reminded of the beauty that can be found in California.
San Luis Obispo is an interesting town. It is surrounded by scenic hills and coastline that is easy to fall in love with. You also get a mix of ranchers, college folk, and drifters which keeps you guessing.
After checking into my room and picking up my race bag I drove over to where the race was to be held. It was all very close, only about 10 minutes from my hotel. I came to the entry of the ranch and looked around a bit to get oriented and went back into town to get something for a lightweight dinner and then settle in for the evening.

I was excited that I had gotten a free copy of this month’s Trail Runner magazine to relax with before going to sleep. It offered a good mix of stimulation with excerpts about elites in the sport and those who just enjoy time on the trails for the inherent spiritual connection that they offer. I was reminded that ultrarunning is composed of all levels and that I can still be part of the family even if I didn’t come on first place in the next days race. I set the alarm for 4 am and lay back with visions of muddy trails and hilly climbs filling my head.

As usual I was already lying awake before the alarm went off. I was ready to get going. Once I showered and loosened up a bit I threw down a small bit of fuel consisting of a banana and some of my favorite cashew clusters from Costco. I never like just sitting around, so I hopped in the car and drove over to the ranch and ended up one of the first cars there. I decided to make myself useful and helped to direct cars as they came in. Eventually I was relieved by another volunteer and I got myself ready to run.

While waiting around the start area I was fortunate enough to meet Arnulfo Quimare, a well-known Tarahumara champion runner. Luis has a strong connection with the Tarahumara Indians of Copper Canyons in Mexico and often hosts them at his events. They are the subject of the famous book Born to Run by Christopher McDougal that served as an inspiration and spark for many a new ultra runner. Arnulfo was dressed in his colorful attire and handcrafted sandals. He is a very soft-spoken and kind person and it was an honor to be able to run in his midst, even if he very rapidly put distance between himself and the rest of us.

I knew very little about this course coming into it because it is private land, the owner understandably did not want a course map or a lot of other information made public. I saw a course profile a few days prior and that confirmed my hunch that there would be a fair amount of elevation gain and loss.
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For the 50k, it was the above profile twice. My goal was to utilize this race as training for climbing and to just try to enjoy it. The weather wasn’t too bad, not really raining, just a lingering heavy mist most of the day. It was in the mid 50’s and not too chilly but cool enough to be incentive to keep moving.
We got started just after 7 with a shotgun blast and the fun began. Immediately Van McCarty and Arnulfo were off like jackrabbits up the road. I fell into a spot with the next group of runners resisting any urge to go out too hard. It was not long before the climbing started. As Luis had noted, much of the course was either on dirt ATV roads or not on trails at all, at which point it was just running by dead reckoning, flag to flag. Not long after the start we came upon a decent hill climb which got everyone’s heart rate on the rise. But, the fun was just beginning.
After coming over the top of the first hill there was a good run of fairly flat jeep road, just enough to get a comfortable rhythm. This didn’t last long though as we were soon faced with a seemingly endless section of road of thick shoe sucking mucky muck. There was no going around, it was both feet immersed in mud that was so thick and sticky that some unfortunate runners were getting their shoes sucked right off. I found that by sliding my feet to the back and out to the side, like a skiing motion, I was able to keep my shoes on and avert disaster. After about a half mile of this the worst of it was over; however, I would have to go through this section three more times before the finish.
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After the muddy patch we soon came upon an aid station and a mile out and back leg on pavement which allowed me to shed some of the mud from my shoes and open up my stride a bit. It didn’t last long though. Soon after it was back up and through the mud and on towards the hilly roller-coaster section. As the label implies, this next section was a fair amount of climbing with some quick downhill sections along the way to the top. Much of the uphill held me to a power hike pace. Once I reached the top there was a big white arrow on the ground affirming that we could turn around and do some quad bashing on down.

The final section was truly off the beaten path. It followed a series of flags that took you up a big climb and scrambling over some rocky terrain. It was extremely rewarding though, once reaching the top, with a spectacular view of all of San Luis Obispo and beyond. The trip down and back to the finish was short, less than two miles and within eyesight, but seemed endless as it followed a choppy switch back type path through ankle wrenching rocky outcrops down to the main road leading to the finish line. This last mile or so was probably the most painful for me as my ankles and achilles were a bit stressed from the yanking of the mud suction section.

I finally made it down to the hardtop and churned my legs at a decent pace back to the start finish. It is at this point of the race that the real challenge arises. After about fifteen miles of challenging terrain and conditions you have the stark realization that you still have to go back out and do it again. I quickly inhaled some orange wedges and banana chunks and didn’t give myself time to even think about not going back out. Back to the mud pits!
The second time around was in some ways not as bad. I was a bit slower and my ankle was irritable; however, I knew what was coming and I knew that if I could do it once I could do it again. The mud was still there and even more messy now that many runners had churned it up.
I did notice on some of the out and back sections that the original group of front-runners had changed up a bit. The challenge of going back out had gotten some and others had moved up to take their place and stick it out.
The final rocky climb and views were well worth the return trip and as I once again planted my feet on the final stretch of pavement, I felt a surge if energy allowing me to increase my cadence and give one last push across the finish. I finished 6th overall coming in a minute over 6 hours. Results can be found here .

I will be honest and say that this was one of the most challenging 50k races that I have done. Not only was the course fairly difficult and muddy but there was the added mental hurdle of it consisting of two repeat loops. When you do a race where the course is an out and back or point to point you are pretty much committed once you cross the start line. There are only a couple of ways to get back. You either drop and hang around at an aid station for a long time or you finish the thing. With repeat loops the temptation to not go back out can be very alluring. When you have a chance to run in a place as beautiful as La Cuesta Ranch though, you want to get the most out of it as you can. It is well worth the aches and pains.

I had volunteered to help sweep the course when I originally signed up for the race. I enjoy Luis’ races and wanted to help out. I also figured that it was only a 50k and doing some additional miles afterwards would do me good. What I seemed to forget was that when Luis puts on a race, a 50k often feels more like a 50 miler and a 50 miler feels like a hundred miler. I had a great time going back out with a couple other guys to sweep the course and it allowed me to get some photos of a beautiful area that not many are lucky enough to see. It was a bit painful but probably less damaging than sitting down right away and letting everything tighten up.

La Cuesta Ranch 50k was everything I expected and more. I got some good mileage in over some challenging terrain. I taxed my body a bit and hopefully sent it a message that I am going to be asking a lot of it over the next year. I got to spend time in another beautiful area with good people and cows. Now it is time to focus on the Sean O’Brien 100k February 6th!

A Whole Nutha Level

After my last 100k race in November I felt like I needed a bit of a break. As much as I enjoy racing I feel that racing too much with mediocre results is not only draining on my body but also on the bank account. I don’t want to get so wrapped up in racing that I become blind to the simple pleasures that come with running for the sake of running.
I rested up a bit over the remainder of November and spent some time mulling over where I want to go with my pursuits in the coming year. I have already committed to the Angeles Crest 100 in early August and so this race is the one I am developing the rest of the year around.
Deep down I have animalistic urges to push myself harder than I have up to this point. I want to take it all to another level and yet not crash and burn. In keeping with this theme I have decided to make an attempt at achieving the California Triple Crown of ultrarunning. This consists of the completion of the San Diego 100, Santa Barbara 100, and Angeles Crest 100 mile races all in the same summer.
Yes, part of me thinks that this is too much and that I should just focus on tackling the beast that is Angeles Crest. Then, there is that other part of me…so we really want to go there? This is that part of me that is never satisfied with what is on my list of achievements because I know that as long as I still have all of my faculties in tact, I can push further. I don’t ever want to just settle.
So, while I am sane enough to be aware of certain physical limitations that come with getting older and my inherent genetics, I am off-center enough to keep pushing myself out of the safe and cozy zone. It takes me a bit longer to recover from a hard run than it does someone twenty years younger than me. There is not too much I can do about that other than try my best to keep my nutrition clean and get a good night’s sleep. My body mechanics also make my chances of running a sub 5 minute mile unlikely. I guess that is why I don’t race many 5k’s. I can certainly get faster, but not fast enough to run those kinds of races. All of that being said, I do feel confident that I can complete these three 100 mile endurance runs in one summer. My goal is not to crush any course records. My goal is not to win any of the three races. My goal is to get to the finish line of each of the three races and do it as quickly as I am physically and mentally able to. Hopefully I will finish in the top 10%.
I know that in order for me to improve my chances at attaining the Triple Crown there are certain key elements that have to be present in my training leading up to this summer. I need to be more consistent with my running. Not only do I need to increase my weekly mileage, but I need to get my ass out there and run every day, even if only for a couple of miles. Having a job where I am on my feet all day makes it easy for me to feel like days off are acceptable. A day off every week is acceptable, but when it turns into two or three days a week I think it leads to sub par training for what I am looking to accomplish.
Another element that I need to focus on is seriously increasing my weekly elevation gain and loss. I need more uphill just like Christopher Walken needs more cowbell. I also need more downhill, with lots of rocks and roots. I need to get better at playing hop skip over obstacles as I propel myself downhill without falling on my face.

This need for more uphill and downhill is always made apparent when I go running on hilly courses like the Ray Miller course in November and when I did a Mt. Wilson double this past weekend. As painful and uncomfortable as it is, (I am still sore from this past weekend) doing more of it will build my confidence and my legs.
Not having any formal coaching, much of what I do in my training is the result of an evolving process where I do what feels right. I incorporate things that seem to be dominant in most training regimens and then fine tune as I go. I am getting better at figuring out what works for me and what does not. I have always been somewhat reluctant to push too hard because if I get injured it doesn’t just affect my running, but it also makes my job difficult as it is often quite physical.
I am looking forward to how this year will unfold. I do believe that I am ready to take things up a notch but will also temper my more aggressive approach with modifications to prevent burnout and excessive fatigue. It’s going to be a great year.

Ray Miller 100K

I had mixed feelings about race plans for November. Originally, the plan was to knock out another 100 miler at Chimera to finish out the year. But, to be honest, the logistics of running a hundred miler and the cost are quite stressful, so when it came down to it, I decided to run the Ray Miller 100K. This race is organized by Keira Henninger who does other amazing races such as the Leona Divide 50/50 and Sean O’Brien 50/50/100. Since it was only an hour drive from my house I would be saving some money by not having to get a hotel. I like the 100K distance and I knew that the course would be a meaty challenge. I have not spent much time running in those parts so this would give me a chance to see what the trails were like.
A week prior to the race, I did a little preview run of the first fifteen miles or so. When I got to the top of the first climb, I was glad that I had signed up for this race as the ocean views were spectacular. The canyon meadows were beautiful too. This little taste of the course did not really prepare me for what was to come on race morning; however.

The race began at 5 am, with check-in at 415 am. With just over an hour of driving, allowing for any traffic issues, I got up at 2 am and set off from my house around 3. The drive was pretty smooth, aside from all of the tumblin’ tumbleweeds blowing around the highway. It did not really register with me what this meant until I pulled into the park. Rolling down my window to check in with the race director I realized that it was windy as hell. I am not a big fan of high winds when running and would rather have rain. Unless the gusts are at your back, which they usually are not, wind can make a run seem almost futile.
I parked in the parking lot and headed over to pick up my bag of goodies and bib. The wind was howling pretty good and it looked as if everything at the check-in table was only seconds away from being blown off with the next gust. I went back to the car, taking care of any last-minute preparations and returned to the start staging area to await the approaching kick off. There was not a very large group of participants for the 100K, maybe 30. Most had signed up for the 50 miler and 50 K lengths. After a quick info presentation by RD Keira, we were led out to the trail head by her husband Jesse.
Knowing the beginning section of the course, I took advantage of my familiarity and took the lead up the initial climb. I was feeling good, aside from the wind, and pushed up to the ridge at a decent pace. On top there was no protection from the gusts and it was pretty intense. Just before twilight I turned off my headlight as there was just enough light on top to see and the terrain held no surprises. Under the crescent moon with the wind howling I felt strong and alive as I churned on towards the first aid station. I was reminded of times when I was younger and I used to storm through the woods with reckless abandon imagining myself to be some type of wild animal on the hunt.
I ran on along the fire road section and on to the first of three visits to the Hell Hill AS at mile 4.8. I had everything I needed and passed it by to continue on to the first loop around Magu peak. It heads down into a very scenic section of meadow into the La Jolla Canyon loop. What I hadn’t experienced the weekend before was the extra little out and back, or I should say down and back up, taking us down to the beach and back up for about a mile with about 1000′ elevation change. There were a surprising number of people hiking up from the beach as I was headed down. The location is probably a popular draw for hikers who are familiar with the area. As I was making my way back up I began to see those that would be on my tail soon enough.
As short as the steep climb back up was, it took a bit of pep out of my step and I noticed some drag as I continued on back around Magu Peak and back to Hell Hill AS. I continued on unaccompanied and was able to start feeling my legs respond well again, but it was too late. A couple of miles out of the Hell Hill AS, as I finished another climb, I was caught by another runner, Roger, looking pretty unphased and ready to go. I wished him well as he passed by on the downhill. I finished it out, slowing up a bit as I trekked back up to the Hell Hill station on the last half mile or so. I refilled my handhelds, quickly grabbed a couple bites to eat and headed out of Hell Hill for the third and last time and onto the Backbone trail, where the real fun awaited.
I still felt pretty good as I continued on to the Backbone trial. My legs still feeling a bit shocked from the initial ascent up from the beach and began lagging on the climbs. I pushed a bit harder to try to flush them out a bit. As I head into my next climb on the Coyote trail, I could tell that my uphill mode was not up to par and this would drop me down another notch as the eventual overall winner, Megan, crept up behind me around mile 20 and took charge. She was looking determined and like she still had what it would take to knock out the big climb coming up and I was not feeling as strong at this point. Trying not to get bogged down with the feeling that comes with being passed, I just focused on what I needed to do to put forth as much effort as I could without blowing it.
I went on cruise mode for the rest of my time up to the start of my hike up at around mile 25. My time for the first 25 to 26 miles was respectable, all things considered. It was about to start unraveling though as I began climbing up towards Boney Mountain. My pace at this point was on average reduced to a fast hike. Rather than try to fight it, I did what my burning glutes and thighs would allow and took in the awesome sights. The rock formations reminded me a bit of those found in the Alabama Hills at the base of Mt. Whitney. You could let your imagination run wild with what it was that they resembled and it distracted me from the incessant burning in my legs.
It was about the time that I peaked out by Sandstone Peak at around mile 30 that I realized that my vision was really foggy and blurred. It was as if everything was washed out and I could see lights and darks but nothing with any real clarity. I assumed that it was a result of all of the wind and dirt that had been blowing around during the morning and that I most likely had a good film of gunk over my eyes. Whatever it was, it was a bit unnerving as it makes it difficult to hop skip over rocks heading downhill when you are not able to focus. I was forced to slow down or risk rolling my ankle, which would really mess things up.
I made my way down the next few miles to the next aid station at Yerba Buena as quickly as I could. I spent some time here regrouping and trying to get a few more calories and filling up my reservoir as I was going through fluids rapidly due to the wind and increasing temperatures. At this point I was sent down the chute towards a section where we were to run about a mile and half to a grotto and turn around and come back. When I got to this cluster of massive boulders there was a sign saying right turn. Well, as I stood there looking around, any way you turn you run into a cliff face. I started scrambling down into the grotto finding no resemblance of a trial because there was none to be found. There was a somewhat stagnant pool of water and what seemed to be a popular area to hang out, especially in seasons with more water.
After about 15 minutes of screwing around I climbed back out to find the next 100K runner behind me, Blaise, waiting for me. Brilliantly, after some discussion he decides to flip the sign around which has a more logical message, “TURN AROUND”. And so off we go, out of the grotto, and back up to Yerba Buena.
At this point I am not only running on burned legs, and half blind, but also irritated with myself for not stopping and thinking for a bit before wasting time climbing around the boulders. Blaise goes off ahead and I scrape together my patience and climb on. Once I reach the Yerba Buena crossing I feel a bit defeated but keep telling myself to keep moving forward. I remember the bit of motivation that Peter Brennen gave me at the bottom of the grotto abyss and feel the cold chunks of ice in my cap and pull myself together. After departing from the Yerba Buena AS for the second and last time I am ready to finish and feel compelled to get it done before sundown. The sunset will be amazing and there is the little issue of not being able to see very well as added incentive.

I head off for a pretty lengthy leg to the last aid station at Sycamore. After cresting again by Boney Mountain, it is a downhill trip most of the way with about 2000 feet of loss and I begin to feel a return of energy as my glutes get some rest and I can just let my body go with gravity. I strive to be careful to focus as well as I can on the terrain and stay in control of my footing. I put for my best effort to stay consistent and keep walking to a minimum. If I can do the uphill at a fast shuffle I do. I actually felt pretty solid and not too wasted all of the way to the last aid station at Sycamore Canyon. I get what I need and take solace in the exclamation made by the station volunteer that this is the last station with only another 5 miles remaining, two up and 3 down. My goal is to push up those two best I can and then storm down into the finish.
A runner from one of the other distances overheard me mention to an aid station volunteer that I am having trouble seeing and offers to help guide me back. I let him know how much I appreciated the offer but felt confident that I would be able to navigate the last leg home as I knew it was not too technical and I was pretty sure that I could cross the finish before sundown. This was just another example of why I love this sport. Although each of us is competitive, it is not to the point of being cutthroat or self-serving. Runners in ultrarunning look out for other runners and place the welfare of fellow runners on a higher priority than their own finish time. What comes around goes around in the world of ultra running because when you are running for long distances in fairly remote areas, things can go wrong and you hope someone will be there to give you a hand if you need it.

I set myself into a good power hike pace up the two miles to the ridgeline and made it in time to be able to glide down the descent as the sun slowly settled into the ocean horizon. The view was so invigorating that I felt a surge of energy as I barreled down the last miles. Endorphins were in full effect at this point. I could see and hear the energy and activity in the finish area down below as I got closer. It was probably one of the most enjoyable and exhilarating finishes that I have had thus far in a race. I felt alive as I churned past the time clock and elated that I had finished well enough to earn a third place male finish. My excitement was dulled somewhat by the fact that as the light began to fade I quickly realized that I could not even focus enough to make out the path back to the parking lot. Keira was walking by and I thanked her for the amazing event and joked about not being able to see. She wasted no time showing her ultimate concern with the welfare of all of the runners that she exhibits with every race that she puts on, and had her son walk me back to my car.
I ended up sitting in the car for about an hour with a cold compress over my eyes trying to get some moisture back into them as I felt that they were just extremely dry and stressed from the windy conditions. I was able to get to a point where I could gingerly make my way back home, fortunate that the drive from the race back home followed some pretty mellow roadways.
There are some races that I run that I look forward to running again in the following years because they are so memorable. Ray Miller is one of those. It is a genuine blend of raw beauty, tough running, and hurts so good feelings. I learned some valuable lessons from this race that will help me to improve just a little bit more and hopefully continue to up my game. I still battle with the voice in my head no matter what achievements I attain. As soon as the initial excitement of a good finish begins to wane, the voice reminds me that I only placed in the top three because the field was so small, or how I was still not below 12 hours. I am in constant competition with this very critical voice in my head, much more so than any other runner. I just focus on what I need to do to improve and for now, regardless of the whys and what ifs, I will cherish my third place finish as they are few and I worked my ass off to get it, literally. That is what matters to me.