I didn’t commit to running UTMB this year until two weeks before race day. During the second week of July my historically-troublesome right shin became a worry once again, and I was able to do very little true running for all of July and August. In early August, in hopes of keeping my Hardrock Qualifier chances alive, but wanting to buy myself a little more time, I had even signed up for the Bear 100 and given up on racing UTMB altogether. However, my shin unexpectedly experienced a turnaround a couple weeks before the race, which made the opportunity to head back to Chamonix too appealing to pass up. Continue reading
While Hardrock is generally referred to as an “Endurance Run”, and while it is very much that, each year there is unavoidably a competitive component to the event as well. Having been a part of the event five of the last seven years as crew/pacer, I definitely appreciate the community-oriented vibe that the Hardrock Board has so assiduously cultivated over the years; it’s a huge part of what makes Hardrock so special. However, to anyone who wants to dispute the fact that there is at least a small bit of competitiveness going on down in the San Juans, I say, ok, then stop timing finishers and publishing the results (and basically every possible permutation of the finishers’ splits).
There’s nothing wrong with caring about one’s performance. I submit that doing so is even at least a small part of what makes running in the mountains so instructive—we try to be the best versions of ourselves, and in the mountains that means, of course, physically, but also mentally and emotionally. But that’s a discussion for a different time and place.
There is basically no debate that at the pointy end of the field, this year’s men’s entrants represent the highest quality and depth ever assembled. It all happens literally by the luck of the draw, so, as a fan of the sport, I feel pretty damn lucky this year.
After taking six of the previous eight months off, I finally started daily running again on April 23rd, the day I got back from a trip to Japan. The first week I began with 35-60min flat jogs, but only a month on I did my first race of the year—the Jemez 50mi—and after that knew that I wanted to find some kind of focus event for the first half of the summer. Ever since I DNFed in Trient, Switzerland (140km) last year, UTMB was always going to be the goal race for the second half of the 2014 summer.
A couple weeks ago I did a bit of a tester long run on my home trails in Boulder—31mi, 4h26min, 7k’ vert—to see how/if my hip would hold up on a longer effort. It did, and afterwards I started thinking about what I could race on the upcoming calendar, despite the fact that I’d only been running pain-free for all of 16 days. Originally, I’d planned on racing the Zegama Skymarathon in the Basque country in late May, but despite that being an incredible event, there was no way that I could be fit enough in time to justify the international travel.
The Jemez 50 miler in northern New Mexico, however, was the same weekend, and it is an event that I’ve had in the back of my mind for years, mostly because of Kyle Skaggs’ recommendation. Unfortunately, the original course—which reportedly featured a tasty mandatory hike up a boulder field on one of the route’s three 10k’+ summits—burned down in 2011, so the current course has seen a couple of different renditions. This year’s route would retain many of the original’s defining features: an ascent of 10,400′ Pajarito Mountain (which we would actually do twice), a loop through the Valles Caldera National Preserve, a rugged cross-country ascent to access Pajarito Canyon, and the classic 3000′ finishing descent of Guaje Ridge.
My main objectives going into the race were: 1) to not lose any training before or after the race—I basically wanted to put out a solid training effort, 2) not re-injure myself. As such, I didn’t rest at all leading up to the weekend. My sister was moving into her new house in Colorado Springs, so I headed down to help her with that and took the opportunity to run up and down Pikes Peak on Wednesday, an almost 4hr effort with 8000′ of pounding on the pins. Friday morning I felt terrible on my nearly 2hr run, and I calculated that in the seven days leading up to the race I’d run 40k’ vert and 125mi. Ok, so, not rested. Let’s see if I can achieve my other goal.
I ran the first 10mi at a relaxed pace with birthday boy Joe Grant. Neither of us were feeling much pep in our legs on the uphills (and it would stay that way, at least for me), and we soon realized that this was very much a running course—there wouldn’t be many steep, hiking grades to vary the leg muscle recruitment. While I prefer the steep and techy stuff as much as Joe, I’m able to hold my own on the smoother, flatter stuff, too, so began to push out a bit of a gap as we made our way up Pajarito Mt for the first time. This climb was on a moderately-graded, but freshly cut trail before traversing over the top of the mountain past ski lifts and descending in a circuitous fashion down to the Pajarito Lodge at mile 18.6. I enjoyed this flowy singletrack downhill and felt firmly ensconced in training run effort.
Joe’s wife, Deanne, was gracious enough to hand us gels at the Lodge all day (we would pass through this aid twice), so after picking up an extra water bottle and some sugar there, it was off to the Valle Grande. I skipped the Pipeline Aid as I had more than enough water, but I doubt it was a full 4mi from there to the aid station in the Caldera (mile 25.4) as I covered this smooth double-track in only 24min (3:27 at Pipeline, 3:51 in the Caldera).
A short while later, the route left the double-track and headed across the grass and up the hill to a low pass between Cerro Grande and Pajarito Mountain. After 4hr of basically continuous, up-tempo running, I was ready for this short hike uphill. The grade wasn’t particularly steep, but the route was flagged off of any discernible trail, directly up the fall-line, over rubbly footing and many burned, downed trees. If there had been a trail (solid footing), it would’ve definitely been runnable. I’m glad there wasn’t; I was tired of running. I hit the pass at 4:18 (it was only a 1000′ climb) and immediately enjoyed a rollicking descent down Pajarito Canyon. It began as more cross-country fare over grass, but eventually we picked up a trail that only got smoother and smoother and was at the absolute perfect grade for fast, unbridled descending. This was one of my favorite sections of the course.
I reached the Pajarito Canyon aid (31.4mi) in 4:51. I was having a blast, but after a solid 50K, running starts to feel a bit redundant no matter what. Nevertheless, with a pair of full bottles and another summit of Pajarito between me and the next aid I took off with continued enthusiasm and energy. The climb back up the mountain went better than expected—I did it only 1min slower than earlier in the morning—and now there were 50K runners to exchange encouragement with along the way. When I saw Deanne back at the Lodge again (38.6mi, 6:11), I knew there was frequent aid the rest of the way, so picked up a couple extra gels and left my extra bottle. When she asked how I was feeling, though, I think I mostly responded with a desultory grunt about how it was going to be work from here on out.
It definitely felt that way on the jog back over to the Pipeline aid—I was thoroughly uninspired and just ready to be done—but if I’d known just how sweet the upcoming Guaje Ridge singletrack was going to be, I would’ve been operating with a whole lot more enthusiasm. This descent was spectacular. A carpety trail traversed along the gently descending ridge for miles and miles at a grade perfectly suited for running downhill fast. Seriously, it is one of the more quality descents I’ve experienced in the sport.
Eventually, the terrain flattened out for a couple of frustrating, wandering miles through an extensive burn zone, but by now I could smell the barn and soon enough I was back on singletrack dropping into Rendija Canyon (mile 50.6 in 7:48) before the interminable final two miles leading to my 8:07:07 finish in the now full-on rain. Unfortunately, it was snowing up high and they ended up having to pull runners from the course early. Considering it had been exactly only a month since my first run back from my hip injury (a flat 33min outing on the creek path the day after I got back from Japan), I was satisfied with the effort.
Even with the rain, the finish was a perfect example of the intimate, community feel to this event, which was a big reason I wanted to run it. Selfless volunteers, tables and tables of very good Southwestern food, and general mirth defined the atmosphere. I’ve always respected my friends who will run all kinds of races—big and small, local and international—while it seems I’ve mostly gravitated towards the competitive and high-profile.
Running hard and fast against the best competition will always be my number one priority in the competitive realm, but I hope to do more low-key, less intense events, too, where there is as much emphasis on the camaraderie and fellowship and community as there is on the top runners at the higher-profile races. Obviously, our sport is large enough to accommodate both types, and I hope I can begin to fit more of each into my schedule.
You could say that going to a local event like this for an easy win is cherry pickin’, but I would argue that that term works in more ways than one. Cherry pickin’ is often used to refer to scouting for weak fields where one can snag an easy victory, pad the ol’ win-loss column. A slightly different use of the phrase, however, refers to selecting the best out of a bunch, and in than sense, the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs certainly qualify. I would highly recommend them to anyone looking for a fun, flawlessly-organized, friendly race with an above-average course.
Finally, a huge thanks to all the volunteers—I mean, really, who wants to stand out in the woods all day waiting for runners to come through?!—to Deanne for putting up with Joe and I all day, and to Blake for so kindly opening his home. That shower felt incredible.
A couple weeks ago, a lot of my friends in my Facebook Feed were popping up with comments and results from the Colorado Marathon up in Fort Collins. It reminded me that, hey, I ran that race once. And that, holy shit, it was 10 years ago! In retrospect, that 2004 marathon—my third, at that point—and that spring in general, was a harbinger in a lot of ways for where my running has taken me 10 years later. There were two main themes to my running that spring: 1) a shift to minimalism and barefooting in my footwear choices, 2) a frustration with track racing and speedwork and subsequent turn towards the longer distances.
One meets a lot of influential people in college, and for me, Kiran Moorty was one of those people. In early 2004 this talented freshman runner (I was a junior) started experimenting with wearing shoes that were light, flexible, and had little to no drop between the heel and forefoot. He even started running barefoot on a regular basis, and later that spring would do 400m repeats on the track in aqua socks. Kiran had a pretty deep interest in primitivism and indigenous cultures and one that he mentioned—the now-famous Tarahumaras of Mexico—tripped my memory of some 1970s running literature I’d read in high school about this tribe in Mexico that would spend days kicking a wooden ball. The article I had seen had focused more on the age-longevity that resulted from active, calorie-restricted lifestyles, but it had piqued my interest, nonetheless. How could anyone run along kicking a ball for multiple days, I wondered. Additionally, I’d sustained 12 stress fractures in the previous six years, and a lot of what Kiran (and our internet sources, mostly anecdotes from the Letsrun message board, as I recall) was saying about shoes, running mechanics, and injury prevention was making sense.
For Spring Break that year, Kiran and I went on a backpacking trip together along the Buffalo River in northern Arkansas (the better to spectate at the NCAA Indoor Track Champs that same week in Fayetteville—Alistair Cragg and Kim Smith dominated the distance events that weekend) and during this trip I started experimenting with “minimal” footwear myself. This meant first simply removing the stiff, fiberglass orthotics that I’d been wearing since I was a sophomore in high school. Over the next six weeks I got rid of the orthotics completely, started doing a little barefoot running on grass, and gradually started wearing road racing flats for my daily running instead of the motion control shoes I’d been in for the past six years. Kiran was even the instigator for my first foray into shoe modification: we would buy pairs of the New Balance RC240 racing flat from the Colorado Running Company for $40 and hack the heels off with bread knives to achieve the desired zero-drop effect.
Meanwhile, I was having an increasingly frustrating track season, trying to run fast for the 1500, 5000, and 10000. A typical week of training was in the 100-110mpw range, with a Monday long run (15-20mi) on trails, Tuesday and Thursday high-intensity interval sessions on the track, and Saturday races. Looking back, it’s pretty obvious why I was racing so poorly—going too hard in workouts trying to run with faster teammates, running too hard on the “easy” days in between workouts, all while running some pretty high mileage—but at the time I was unwilling to change anything, probably because I thought if I just tried hard enough, things would certainly improve.
At this point in my running life, I was at the peak of believing that running was very much a sport that would reward you proportional to what you gave it. If I ran more, and at a higher intensity, of course I would be compensated with improvement, PRs, the realization of my lofty goals. In the classroom, I was splitting my time between Physics and Philosophy. I quickly latched onto the Continental Existentialists’ dictum that life’s meaning was the individual’s responsibility. Meaning required self-creation; there was no place for chance, luck, or fate. I saw running as an apt avenue for practicing this belief (my thoughts on this have…evolved…over the last 10 years).
Of course, I was overtrained. The nadir of my disappointment came in late April at Grinnell College in Iowa, where I raced a desultory 36:55 10k in the humid morning, followed by a just as bad 17min 5k in the brilliantly warm, spring afternoon. My Dad had driven over from Nebraska to spectate, and I remember being baffled talking with him, trying to figure out how I was running so poorly. The Grinnell track meet held a sort of magical aura for us Colorado College athletes. It was oxygen-rich, low-altitude; the vibrant, lush spring-time green-ness of the Midwest was always an inspiring departure from the more arid environs of Colorado Springs; and the track had short straightaways and long, gentle curves, making for what felt like shorter, faster laps (of course, they were still 400m). Personally, in 2001, I had almost accepted my entry there instead of attending CC.
After that meet, I was fed up. On the interminable, through-the-night, 16hr bus ride back to the mountains, I resolved to quit caring about track and instead focus on running the Colorado Marathon in Ft. Collins in three weeks time. Despite having raced 15k on the track the day before, spending all night on the bus, and not getting back to my dorm until 5am Sunday morning, I slept only 3hr, got up, and went and logged a 20 miler through the Garden of the Gods and the COS foothills. I was happy with my decision; long runs just felt right.
The next day, I talked with my coach, who, much to his credit, agreed to let me substitute the team interval workouts with tempos and long runs but still run the last meets of the season with the team. The following weekend I made my first true foray into the “ultra” distances (I’d run the 25mi up and down Pikes Peak a couple of times, which was longer on my feet, but technically not further than a marathon) with a 30mi out-and-back training run on Colorado Springs’ central trail along Monument Creek. The challenge of the unknown distance inspired me, and, much to my surprise, I felt better and better as the run went on, averaging 6:40s the whole way and finishing up with an almost accidental sub-6min final mile. I ran the last 10km faster than the 10k I could muster on the track in Grinnell.
I was quite taken aback. In contrast to trying to run fast on a track, this felt so right, so effortless, really. Natural, empowering, restorative and strengthening rather than the seeming stress and destruction—both mental and physical—that resulted from interval workouts. I’d been running for nine years and never had an aspect of it come so easily to me. I had, obviously, always worked very hard—and loved putting in all that work—but I had never really felt any sort of tangible, quantitative, performance pay-off for it. Suddenly, it seemed obvious to me that I needed to forget about 5k’s and 10k’s and focus on long stuff, the fun stuff, marathons and farther. I was even more excited to head to Ft. Collins in two weeks time and race a marathon.
Before that, though, I had one more track meet left in the season, in Albuquerque, NM on May 1. With my coach, I decided to race the 1500m and 800m, instead of the usual 5k. And with a marathon only a week later, I was no longer emotionally attached to my results on the track; I remember I doubled the day before the meet and even ran an early morning 5mi shake-out before the afternoon races. Again, much to my surprise, two weeks after substituting long runs for speedwork, I PRed in both the 1500 and 800. My times were flagrantly mediocre–4:25 and 2:11–but, hey, they were the fastest I’d ever gone (and remain my PRs to this day), and that’s always fun. Five days later, on May 6th, the 50th anniversary of Roger Bannisters first sub-4min mile, I set a PR in the mile of 4:42 (at 6000′ in COS) in a celebratory time-trial with some of my teammates.
Another three days later, I PR’ed in the marathon, running a 2:47:18 for 3rd place in Ft. Collins. The night before, Kiran had driven up to FoCo with me and we bivied in sleeping bags on the infield of CSU’s track before the early wake-up for me to catch the shuttle bus to the start in the Poudre River Canyon (we were sure to scope out a spot free from sprinkler-water). I’d been running nine years, I was 20 years old, and finally it felt like I was taking my running in the right direction. I didn’t win—I mean, I was nearly a minute per mile off the pace!—but I felt good about what I was doing. Running fast for that long was exhilarating and new and best of all, satisfying. Not to mention, I’d PR’ed across the entire spectrum of race distances since cutting out formal speedwork.
Obviously, college is all about trying new things, finding out what is important to you, developing a personal set of values, discovering your passions and talents, but it is still striking to me just how enduring the constellation of revelations and new experiences I was having in the spring of 2004 have been 10 years onwards. Sure, things have evolved for me in those 10 years, and it would take me another full two years after my race at the Colorado Marathon before I got around to racing my first ultra, but there’s no denying it’s role in nudging me towards the things I do today. Maybe I’ll have to go back and race it again next year.
EDITORS NOTE: ANTON SWORE OFF INTERVALS – WHAT ABOUT YOU?? WE LIKE YOUR COMMENTS.
For the first month of 2014, I’ve been injured, again. Back in the first week of the year, I aggravated a hip flexor while shuffling my way up a mountain, and a month later it’s finally showing signs of health. Injuries aren’t unfamiliar to me, but after 19 years of running, they are no less frustrating. Especially when seemingly induced by an activity (skinning uphill) that, by all accounts, should be the perfect, low-impact winter complement to my summer pursuits. A year ago, I wrote a post about dealing with injuries, so I have no desire to re-tread that ground.
With skiing (skinning) and running off the table, I’ve been attempting to remain physically engaged in the only other activity that holds serious interest to me: climbing. Except that it’s the dead of winter here in Boulder and the local crags are typically wet, if not fully encased in snow and ice. Other than a week in mid-January when I was able to get in three days on proper granite and sandstone, this means that I’ve been climbing plastic, in the gym.
This has very much been a first for me. Prior to this winter, I had roped up in a gym exactly once before. But, I have some modest climbing-ish goals for the summer season (mostly a couple of moderate but long and tricky traverses/link-ups in Wyoming) and getting stronger and improving my technique will make those go a whole lot more efficiently, hopefully. And especially with the winter conditions, the easiest way to be consistent, improve, and lay a base for the summer is to hit the gym. At the first of the year I finally committed to the indoors by buying a pass to Movement Climbing+Fitness and have been going four or five days a week.
The climbing gym (especially in Boulder, CO, where there is a pretty astounding concentration of climbing talent) is an eye-opening place. First, I’m not a good climber. Outdoors, I’m a below-average climber; in the gym, I’m a rote beginner, both in terms of strength and technique. Second, the vast majority of my climbing outside has been of the traditional variety, meaning that I’m placing my own removable protection (stoppers, cams and the like) on lead, or seconding beneath a belay constructed of same. Third, while well-placed cams and nuts are fully capable of holding a fall—but, really, who wants to unnecessarily test this?—I generally subscribe to the maxim that the leader does not fall. As a result, almost everything I climb outside has been fully within my abilities, which doesn’t offer up much opportunity to really push myself and get stronger.
The first week in the gym, I was barely able to climb. After maybe 30-40min, my grip strength was completely exhausted and I could barely untie my shoes let alone continue clinging to a hold. To counteract this, however, is the totally ridiculous but still nice ego-boost one receives by rocketing up grades that I typically wouldn’t even consider outside. Even if one factors in the generally safe, controlled environment of a gym (pre-hung draws, top-ropes, extreme unlikeliness that a hold is going to break or a rock is going to fall on your head), gym ratings still seem outrageously inflated. In the gym, I typically warm up on a grade that is at my leading limit outdoors. Fun! And after six weeks, endurance is rarely the limiting factor for me anymore; I can usually climb with decent technique for almost all of my typical 2-2.5hr session.
Any inflation in my confidence is very short-lived, however. The simple fact is that I am a horrendous climber. This is not annoying self-effacement. This is fact. Much like how in running, the track and stopwatch don’t lie, in climbing, one’s pure strength and technical expertise (or glaring lack thereof) is laid out quite starkly in the gym. Essentially, all the heady intangibles of actual climbing—wind, loose rock, run-outs, lichen, wet rock, poorly-placed protection, etc, etc—are removed and all that is left is pure performance, the movement. My chosen gym is aptly named, I’ve found. Just like there is no denying that I’ve never run faster than a 4:42 mile, in the gym there’s no denying that in my current state, I will almost certainly fall off a 5.11b.
On any given day, I am pretty close to being the worst climber in the gym. Again, this is no exaggeration. Thanks to the previously mentioned, prominently posted grades, it’s really easy to see how easy or hard everyone is climbing. And everyone climbs harder than me in the gym. Women twice my age. Dudes with beer bellies. Tiny girls a third my age. Fellow weakling runners, who, given their technical trail skills outside (or lack thereof—I’m looking at you, Trent :-)) I would never expect to excel in the vertical world. So, it is deeply humbling. The ego is deflated. It turns out that being able to nimbly scramble a flatiron in running shoes (or ten in a morning), or launching up a multi-pitch climb in Eldo with no more than five cams and a set of stoppers (climbing gear is expensive!) has absolutely zero bearing on one’s ability to crush in the gym.
But, the flipside of this is that my curve of improvement is pleasantly steep. In running—especially in the mountains—I’ve felt competent, even accomplished, for many years. My improvement in that arena continues to go up, but it occurs in predictably incremental steps. And to continue to improve, I have to keep paying attention to smaller and smaller details.
Conversely, after only six weeks in the gym, I can tell that I have made significant gains, if only because I started so pathetically low on the spectrum. Most of the improvement comes from simple consistency and from realizing that there is usually an easier way: rotate your hips into the wall, move your feet up, read and anticipate the sequence, don’t hold on so tightly, quickly move past the bad holds instead of stalling out on them. It’s all pretty basic stuff, but, like most things, is also easier said than done (at least for me).
While applying myself with commitment to something new is inherently fresh and exciting, it is also frustrating. Since my goal is improvement, it seems that working towards that on a climbing wall inevitably means struggle and failure and an overall feeling of incompetency. Because of the cush, controlled environment, it doesn’t take long for laps on easy routes in the gym to start feeling like complacency instead of training for endurance. So in striving to improve, a lot of my time is spent falling off of routes that are at the very edge of my current ability. This is frustrating, especially when you can feel yourself doing it wrong—climbing with poor technique—but somehow feel powerless to do anything about it.
Because I’ve been running for 19 years, being outside, moving quickly and efficiently in the mountains has become the main thing in my life where I feel competent. I feel reasonably skilled, effective, a master of meshing my effort and abilities with the terrain and covering ground quickly. If indoor climbing is supposed to be my physical outlet right now, in almost every way it’s an awfully poor one when compared to what I’m usually able to do outside. But that’s okay. Growth only comes through challenge and failure, so I’ll take my lumps. And, eventually, hopefully, it’ll have a positive effect on my experiences out in the mountains.
I dropped from the 2013 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in Trient, Switzerland on Saturday morning—139km and 17hr after the start in Chamonix, France, but still 29km from making it all the way around the mountain. Curiously—despite the DNF—UTMB was one of the most pleasant, even serene, racing experiences I’ve had out on the trails. However, sometimes a few pieces of gristle are all it takes to bring a halt to our silly ambitions, and, if you let it, completely transform your outlook on the day. I’ve tried to not let that happen, but I’m a competitive bastard, and it takes constant attention on my part to keep my perspective firmly situated in the much-vaunted “bigger picture”. Sometimes you really want to win the fucking race, though. Or just finish, even. And when you don’t, it’s disappointing. Big surprise.
I came into Speedgoat this year feeling primed after spending all month exploring new (to me) routes and mountains in non-Sawatch mountain ranges in Colorado. I’d gotten my fill of the Sawatch in June. I also came in with an undue amount of competitive angst.
Capitol Peak and Snowmass Mountain in Colorado’s Elk Range are unique when compared to the range’s other 14ers in that they are composed of fractured granite rather than the teetering piles of sedimentary choss that make up the range’s even more famous 14ers (notably, Pyramid and the Maroon Bells). Because of its mandatory Knife Edge on the NE Ridge standard route, Capitol is considered by some to be the state’s most difficult 14er (debatable, of course), and Snowmass is probably the most remote 14er outside of the San Juan range—not a lot of people climb it in a single day. I have an interest in eventually completing a north-to-south link-up of all seven of the Elk 14ers, so rehearsing the best route between Capitol and Snowmass seemed like a good idea.
When I left the Leadville Fish Hatchery at 2am on Monday morning—setting out on the Nolan’s 14 link-up—I suspect I thought I would have a much longer and more interesting story to tell about my journey than the tale I have in my head right now. The short of it is that I started out stupidly early in the morning, felt crappy already by the second peak (Mt. Elbert), and kept going for four more peaks and 10 more hours, but instead of things getting better they just kept getting worse and worse so I ultimately bailed after Mt. Belford (#6) and descended to the Missouri Gulch trailhead, in relief.
All photos: Matt Trappe.