Friday, June 29, 2012

Western States 2012

Snow courses, fire years, 100 degree inferno years, and now - ladies and gentlemen - ‘the cold year.’ I’m not sure there’s a typical Western States with regards to course and conditions, but we got a wild and wonderful one this year.

Rolling up the ski hill towards the Escarpment, it was cool, a little wet and a lot foggy. Up high on the ridges it was raining, sleeting at times, and windy. It was legitimately cold, but with a beanie, gloves and a pair of arm panties I was comfortable enough. Moving at a good clip, there was plenty of warmth to go around, but it was hard for us to wrap our heads around the fact that we were running through the opening miles of the Western States 100 while sitting in a rain cloud.

Maybe it was the unexpected cold or maybe it was some general fatigue, but whatever it was I found myself feeling lazy and tripping over rocks up there in the fog. My eye-foot coordination was off, my legs felt tired and I didn’t much feel like running. But there I was moving along with the Big Boys on the biggest 100 mile stage in the country. The standard sanity check questions were filtering through my mind way earlier than usual, but you just have to push them out and keep moving. It’s either that or quit, and that’s not really an option at mile 10.

A wrong turn, some effing and blinding, four to five minutes lost and four places given up. Dylan, Zeke and Mike got to work immediately and began closing the gap on those that had snuck through. I followed for a bit and then chilled out, reminding myself of the hours ahead. Timmy and Dave were wisely content to sit back and wait. I made my way through the ridges' rocks, tripped on a few, imagined the views and slowly moved past Joe, Neal, Lizzy, Jorge, Ian and then Ryan. By mile 17 Dave, Timmy and I were still in the fog and rain, but back together as a pack near the front of the race, with just Dylan, Mike and Zeke a minute or two up ahead.   

Coming into the Duncan Canyon aid station I was a bit discombobulated. I ran straight through, not seeing Connor, my crew man, as planned. Rather than head back in and fill up my half-empty EFS drink supply, I forged on without stopping. I couldn’t remember how far it was from Duncan to Robinson but I figured I’d be fine with the half bottle I had. It’s not like it was 80 degrees out.
Discombobulated at Duncan. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama
A little more climbing and then we dropped in; the first canyon of the morning. Contrary to the standard mountain run - where one ascends, enjoys the view and then drops back down – canyon crossings descend, cross a river than ascend back out (it all feels so wrong). The Duncan descent is relatively shallow and unlike two years ago we were able to cross at the bottom without getting our feet wet. I was encouraged to see the front of the race – Dylan, Mike and Zeke – just a few switchbacks up ahead. Tim found a better line through the river and jumped ahead of me, catching up to the boys in relatively short order. Zeke was off the pace on the climb and by the time I hit Robinson I was alone and wet in fourth with Dave and the rest of the field an unknown distance behind.

The scene at Robinson looked cold. My poor family was drenched and I unsportingly growled at my wife for mixing up Ultragen instead of EFS drink in the bottle she handed off. I took water and an EFS gel flask instead and left her with my wet and stinky hat, gloves and arm warmers. I immediately regretted everything about the Robinson stop. S-Caps were now unreachable as my exposed and frozen figures couldn’t manipulate the zipper on the back of my shorts, but worse was the lingering memory of my dick’ish snap at Dana. I would have to wait until Foresthill some five hours later to apologize.

And then began the long 14 mile descent to the Swinging Bridge at the bottom of Devils Thumb Canyon. The fog lifted somewhere between Millers Defeat and Dusty Corners, just as I caught up to the lead pack of Timmy, Mike and Dylan. We cruised the wide doubletrack down into Dusty as a group, enjoying a bit of banter and relishing the brief glimpses of blue sky ahead. At Dusty I found Connor, switched out bottles, ate some oranges and asked him to please call Dana to tell her 'sorry' and that I loved her.
The PI train, with Tim obscured, rolls into Dusty. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama
I left at the front of the field feeling a little better about life. Despite the fact that my legs were feeling unreasonably tired just 40 miles in, I was still hanging in there and feeling good about having been able to get a (second-hand) apology off to Dana.

Ryan caught up to us soon thereafter and all of a sudden we were five, with Old Man Mackey just a few strides back in sixth. Timmy led us on the singletrack contour over to the Devil's Thumb descent with the banter now
having been reduced to a minimum. The race, it seemed, was officially on; five boys running through the woods, grunting, peeing and listening to the sounds of the river down in the canyon below.

And then we dropped back in. Dave pulled a Kilian, running the berm of the trail, zipping by the lot of us in search of the river. We all let him go. I needed to pee and I also felt like I needed to slow the pace, so I stopped a couple of switchbacks from the river and let the train go by. I didn’t want to be forced into an uncomfortable pace on the Devil’s Thumb climb, I just wasn’t feeling it.

Every time I do this climb, I think about how much fun it would be to run it on a fresh pair of pins, but it’s never fun in the moment, with 45 miles under your belt. I always just grunt and then curse about the hike that I’m forced to maintain. This year was no different and while it was nowhere near as hot as the last two years, it actually felt like we were dealing with some heat
for the first time, but more uncomfortably some significant humidity. My stomach started knotting up a bit and I got that sinking feeling that things were heading south.

Jogging out from the top, I was feeling unbelievably flat. I needed to regroup and I knew it. Jogging was absolutely the order of the moment on the cruiser section over to the Michigan Bluff drop. If I wanted to race later, I would have to forego the racing now. My descent to the river was unimpressive, while my shuffle back out would probably have been faster at a convincing power hike, but the running cadence was good for confidence. At the Bluff – my mental halfway point – I emptied my shoes, picked up new EFS bottles and then ran on out, polishing off a longer-than-remembered descent into Volcano canyon and a shorter-than-remembered ascent to Bath Road. Coming up into Foresthill I was all of a sudden feeling pretty good.
Heading out from the Bluff. Photo: Marianne Bush
I knew now, on the Foresthill Road, that I was going to at least finish the race, but I’d pretty much given up on competing for the win. I had five guys 10-12 minutes ahead of me, and I knew that at least one - if not all of them - were going to finish out the race stronger than me. The Foresthill stop was a good one. I got a time check from AJW: 9-15 minutes behind the lead five. In addition I got a fresh pair of socks, a cool-down soak, new EFS bottles, and a kiss and a giddyup from the wife and kids. 

AJW gives me the run down. Photo: IRunFar Media Enterprises
I set off with Christian, a young and talented runner from the area, down the Foresthill Road. As usual, my conversational skills were at a minimum, and even a close call with a basking rattlesnake did little for my desire to chat. To his credit, Christian – who I was meeting for the first time – was comfortable with minimal conversation and happy to provide the silent companionship that I was after. The running felt decent if not impressive on the way down to the river, and unlike the last two years it was not punctuated with any positional changes. This year was just about getting down to the river. The split estimations along the way suggested that I was holding my own on the chase pack but losing ground to a charging Timmy and Ryan. As it turned out, I ran my fastest ever 16 for the Cal Street section, but given the significantly cooler conditions it would have been a disappointment if that hadn't been the case.

With Christian on Foresthill. Pic: Ultrarunnerpodcast
At the river, I traded Christian for Connor and learned that we were going to cross the river in boats again. I was marginally bummed not to be fording for the third year in a row, but really was just happy to be getting close. The river is a huge landmark and getting there with functioning legs is something to be celebrated, so I celebrated quietly as we waited the couple of minutes for the boat to come back from the other side. Once we were across, we were almost immediately passing an exhausted Mike Wolfe and moving into fifth place. That one was a surprise.
Cooling off in the river. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama
Connor prompted me to get running as we pulled out from the river up towards Green Gate. As I re-found my stride, I realized that my climbing legs were well and truly on their way out. They had been sub par all day, but now quite frankly they were just pitiful. I had to walk a few of the steeper pitches up to Green Gate, but managed to shuffle the rest. From there on in, I was still able to move well on the flats and downs, but any kind of upgrade was pretty pathetic for the most part. And so we rolled, now in fifth. 
Cruising up to Green Gate. Photo: John Mackey
Photo: Meagan Hicks
Connor was getting excited about hunting down places; I just wanted to finish and sit down. Nonetheless, the news from Auburn Lakes Trail suggested that we were closing the gap on an unnamed runner in fourth. I believe they said six minutes, which meant that we were closing fast. I figured it was Mackey, but as it turned out it was Dylan, and he was clearly a hurting unit when we caught him at Brown's Bar.

With just 10 miles left to run and a reported 15 minutes to Mackey in third, I figured it was just a question of holding on to fourth at this point. If I could run the downs convincingly, shuffle the flats and mellower ups, and hike the climbs with purpose, then I figured I could get it done. It wasn’t going to be especially pretty, but I knew we were at least getting close.

I actually enjoyed the hoof up to Highway 49, as I could hike without shame. Connor had led the whole time we’d been together and I could sense a slight bit of frustration on his part when I dropped to a hike on some of the more pathetic rollers. But there was no shame on the prolonged steep climb to Highway 49, and the hiking felt so good. And then, before I knew it, we were hearing cars and an aid station. 

Dana was there at Highway 49 and so were the kids. I was looking for some sympathy or at least a hug – Dana’s usually good for that kind of stuff – but damn it she was having none of it. She had her game face on and she wanted me to get after it. Mackey was apparently walking and just four minutes removed from the aid station. Just like that a podium was up for grabs. I honestly couldn’t believe it. I just didn’t feel like I was running that well, but then you remind yourself that nobody is moving well at the end of a 100 miler and it’s the guy who slows the least that prevails. A last sorrowful look at Dana for sympathy and another order to get on with it and we were out of there.

And so it was, in the beautifully scenic Cool Meadow that I made the final pass of the back 20, assuming third in the process. We had heard cheers as we were leaving Highway 49, so I knew there was work left to do to fend off a charge from behind, but I figured that if I could run everything up to the Robie Point climb then I would probably be fine. With my downhill legs still alive, Connor and I were able to move really well on the descent to No Hands Bridge, which in my mind pretty much sealed the deal on third. We shuffled the horse grade to Robie and then hoofed the last 800 feet of climbing into town.
Closing in on the finish. Photo: Amy ?
The tarmac felt good, the rubber of the track sublime, and crossing the line again with my boy was a treat that will never get old.

All pics: Glenn Tachiyama

In the final analysis, I have to be happy with another podium finish. I know I didn’t run my best race out there and feel like I maybe missed an opportunity, given the cooler temperatures, to really lay down a time that I can look back on in years to come and be proud of, but it was still a six minute personal best and an effort that required some grit. And the gritty ones are always satisfying.

As usual, I vowed somewhere on the Devil’s Thumb climb that I would never put myself through this torture again, but I know I’ll be back next year. As AJW likes to say, this race gets under your skin and into your blood. With a fourth, two thirds and a set of times that continue to get faster, I just feel like there is more to be squeezed from this race. The Cougar is proving elusive, but maybe if I keep chipping away at it, I’ll get that day where it all comes together and I’ll make that long drive back to Colorado with a little extra weight in the back of the car. Or maybe not. Maybe my son or daughter will win it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself as usual. A big thanks to all the wonderful aid station volunteers, to anyone and everyone who offered encouragement along the way, to Christian, to Conor and his amazingly hospitable parents, and of course to my wonderful family for coming all the way out to California to freeze their tooshies off just to hand me a couple of bottles (and be growled out). You are all owed.     

Friday, June 15, 2012

Pilot Hill 25k

This would be my third year out of four running 'Wyoming's Oldest Foot Race.' I missed it last year but won it consecutively in 2009 and 2010. Sitting two weeks out from Western States and being just 15.5 miles in length (8.5 up, 7 down), this up-and-down hill race was sitting perfectly on the calendar as a last little benchmark sharpener on the way to Squaw, so I couldn't resist.

The goals going in were to register a third win and hopefully run a little faster than 2010, with an emphasis on running the descent at all-out looney pace.

A small crowd was on hand at the start, but with Horsecow Lonac (a mid-15 5k'er when fit) lining up and a few other fit looking dudes milling around, it looked like there would be some guys to help keep the effort solid. From the gun, training partner and perennial first mile over-achiever, Mike Hinterberg, took a flier as we made our way through the opening stretches of rolling sand flats that make up the first few miles of this variably terrained race.

Having forgotten my watch and subsequently borrowed a friend's GPS device, I was to be beeped at every mile for the duration. Annoying, but somewhat unique to have splits along the way. With Mike still ten meters ahead and a young college-age lad (Scott Foley) on my shoulder, the first mile beeped at 5:55. Given the less-than-stellar sandy conditions underfoot and rolling nature of the route thus far, I figured I was probably a touch hot through the first mile.

Scott and me early
Not long after the first beep, Scott and I were passing Mike and starting to tuck into the early sections of uphill that would eventually lead to the communication towers at the top of Pilot Hill (8,829'). And not long after that, I felt like I had to let Scott go; he was clearly a talented runner and any effort to hang on would spell disaster later in the race. Knowing nothing about Scott, I put together a couple of guesswork assumptions: he was a college track or cross country runner that trains for at most 10k races, he would likely smoke me to the top, but I may have a shot at catching him on the deceptively tough descent when post-10 mile fatigue began kicking in.

Pics: High Plains Harriers
And so it went. I watched Scott build a couple of minutes on me, solo in second, as we made our way up to the towers. I had turned in 59:40 in 2010, so was hoping for anything under 60 this year given that the tailwind was significantly lighter. As it turned out, I hit the top on legs that felt 'just okay' in 60:07, with a set of splits that essentially slowed as the terrain turned steeper (5:55, 6:14, 6:45, 6:53, 7:24, 7:52, 8:29, 7:47).

Scott had torched the ascent in a very impressive 57:51, but now the advantage, I believed, turned in my favor. Two+ minutes is a ton of time to make up over seven miles, but I'd come here for the downhill, meaning the rabbit out front was much appreciated. I immediately set to work, running the first flatter mile of the descent into what always seems to be a stiff return headwind, at a much elevated heart rate. I decided to continue pushing the envelope over the more technical rocky terrain in the mid section with hopes that I'd be able to gain some kind of visual on Scott before I blew a gasket. About three miles in (5:56, 44, 47), I got my sighting and it looked like I might have chopped a minute off the lead already.

The effort had caused a good amount of fatigue by the time we were down to the rolling sections around the sand flats, but I figured I had a shot, so I kept pushing. With a couple of miles to go, it was evident that Scott was hurting and I began to feel confident that I would be reeling him in, which I did with a mile left (6:00, 6:01, 6:04, 6:41).

I ended up running a net PR on the course (1:42:24 vs 1:43:45) with a descent almost two minutes faster than last time. Both those facts helped erase some - not all - of the post-Zegama doubts that have been sitting uncomfortably with me for the last few weeks. Yes, this is a small race, but it really wasn't about winning, losing or drawing, it was about gauging fitness. My takeaway is that I'm in at least as good a shape as I was in 2010 (over this course) when I ran my first Western States (4th, 16:04). An additional nugget and confidence booster is that it turns out that Scott has just graduated from Boise State, running a track 10k of 29:52 at the Mt SAC Relays in April and a 68 minute half marathon somewhere else not so long ago.

You take what you can in the mental game before a big race.

I was going to run Storm Mountain up and down the next day as a final effort before Western States, but as it turned out we ended up being evacuated from our home with all hell breaking loose west of Fort Collins in some of my favorite acreage in the whole world. My heart is pretty heavy right now for those who have lost homes and also for the beautiful forestland that is currently burning up, but I'll use that as fuel when things start hurting next weekend. I'm doing this one for The Fort.


Friday, June 8, 2012

Week Ending June 3

Mon - 9.5 miles (2,300') easy. Soderberg - Southridge - Audra - Horsetooth summit - Rock - Wathan - Spring Creek - Herrington - Stout - Falls.

Tues - Noon: 5 miles (1,000') easy. Falls loop.
PM: 10 miles track. First Tuesday Night Track session of the season. Big group. Workout was 1,000 open, then 2 x (1,000, 400 rest, 600, 100 rest, 300) with 400 between sets. Had pretty dead legs from the weekend and truth be told, I just don't have the turnover right now to even pretend to be able to keep up with the big boys at the track. That's something I'd like to remedy a bit after Leadville with lots of high intensity shorter reps and less weekly mileage - maybe take another shot at that sub-2:30 marathon. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Today's workout went: 3:23, 3:15, 1:56, 55, 3:21, 1:57, 53. 4 mile w-u, 1.5 mile c-d. Not even close to where I would need to be to go 2:29, but I think I can get there with focus.

Weds - Noon: 7.5 miles (1,800') easy. Straight up and down Horsetooth via Southridge - Audra. Slow and super easy. Felt a bit worked from yesterday's track session.  
PM: 5 miles (1,000') easy. Falls loop. Zipped around pretty good considering the effort it took to get up Horsetooth six hours earlier.

Thurs - AM: 11 miles (1,300') easy. Bluesky, Indian Summer with Slush, Celeste, Sarah, Kyle and Al_Wesir.
PM: 10 miles (2,000') hills. Towers steady. Started out pretty easy, then upped the tempo as I made my way up the hill. Was 18:00 at Herrington (PR + 1:30), then essentially stayed on second half PR pace from there. Felt pretty knackered for most of the up and most of the down. Ho hum.

January: 330 miles (45,200')
February: 445 miles (58,500')
March: 501.5 (79,600')
April: 430 (66,800')
May: 387.5 (70,700')
Total: 2,094 miles (320,800')
Avg: 419 miles (62,525')

2012 Summits (71)
Horsetooth (7,255') (33)
Arthurs (5)
Green Mountain (7,335')
7,098' (Poll Mtn range)
Goat Hill
Reservoir Ridge
7,260' (Ziggy Point)
8,415' (Leila Peak)
Mount Ethel
Buckhorn Mountain
5,740' (1)
5,740' (2)
Table Mountain (7,074')
5,773' or 'Aggie Peak'
Green Ridge (7,402')
Spruce Mountain (7,781')
Storm Mountain (9,918')
Sullivan Stump (7,778')
Lily Mountain (9,786')
Round Mountain
Crosier Mountain (9,250') (4)
Lookout Mountain (10,626')
Longs Peak (14,259')
Mount Elbert (14,443')
Aizkorri (1,528 meters)
Aratz (1,443 meters)
Aitxuri (1,551 meters) 

Fri - AM: 15.5 miles (1,100') easy. With Lucho, Rob, Amy and Nate in Leadville. Dam Road to May Queen and about a mile further on Colorado Trail, then back. This section of trail will be a suck-fest on the way back to Leadville in August. I need to run Fish Hatchery to Twin Lakes and then I think I'll be familiar with the whole course. I actually think I'm going to run those roads a few times before race day, just to pick up some landmarks to help break up the monotony of the race.

Sat - AM: 10 miles (4,400'). Whitney Peak (13,271'). Mike and I had originally planned on climbing Mount of the Holy Cross, but the seasonal closure on Tigiwon Road was still in effect, so we opted to head down from where we were camping on Homestake Road to climb Whitney Peak - an elegant 13'er with relatively easy road-side access. At approx 9,100 feet on the Homestake Road, there is a trailhead (set back and not immediately obvious) for Whitney Lake. The trail runs a little over 2.5 miles up to Whitney Lake at 11,000 feet through beautiful aspen groves and occasional meadows of wildflowers (not yet in bloom).

From the lake, the views of Whitney Peak were Colorado'fully majestic, and while the true summit could not actually be seen, the spiritual notch summit of the mountain was in plain sight and quite striking. After some debate, we decided to head up through heavy tree cover in the general direction of the southeast ridge. Approximately 800 feet of directionless bushwhacking later and we popped up above timberline with a clear line of sight for the summit. Perfect. The route was largely a class two talus field walkup, with a few spots of easy class three. The views of Mount of the Holy Cross, its lakes, tarns and especially Halo Ridge from the top of Whitney inspired major enthusiasm for future outings in the Holy Cross Wilderness.

No trip with Mike would be complete without at least some directional doubt, and indeed below treeline on the way back down we managed to get completely turned around in search of the lake, wasting a good 45 minutes slopping around in marshes, climbing deadfall and generally wondering where the hell we were before finally finding the lake and zipping back down the trail to the car. According to the summit register, we were just the second party up in 2012, which is one of the best reasons I can think of to enjoy Colorado summit views from vantage points under 14,000 feet.

Lake Whitney, Whitney Peak to left. All pics: Mike

Mount of the Holy Cross southern ridgeline with peak far right.
Descending SE ridge, before the drop down to the picture below.
Descending towards treeline.

Whitney Peak and SE ridge to left.

Hanging with the gang on the hillside above camp: Mike, me, Shadow, Alistair, Maddie May, Alex
Sun AM: 21.5 miles (4,000'). Red Cliff to Vail by way of Shrine Pass Rd - DBow's cut-off - Two Elk Trail - Vail back bowl - Highline ski run - Mill Creek.

Dana dropped Mike and me off above the small town of Red Cliff on Hwy 24 from where we planned to run to Vail to meet back up with her, the kids and other friends at the Teva Mountain Games. The road up towards Shrine Pass was an absolute joy to run, so Mike and I set a good honest pace while enjoying the Holy Cross couloir views from on high. About seven miles in at a little under 11,000 feet we cut left on Lime Creek Road before hanging a right onto Bowman's Cut-off Trail in the direction of Two Elk Trail and the Vail Back Bowls. We got snarled up a bit in snow and deadfall on the north-facing slopes on Bowman's Cut-off, but were rewarded with killer views of the Gore Range from the high point of the run at around 11,700 feet. Running late again due to the snow and deadfall, I told Mike I'd meet him back in Vail before setting off with a general idea of what I needed to do to get there. After climbing one of the Vail back bowls to the Vail Mountain ridge, I made one wrong descent attempt into thick trees and snow, reascended and then ended up shooting straight down the Highline ski run at max pace. Just as I popped out, Mike emerged on the service road and we hit the remaining two or so miles together back into Vail. Good little outing.        

Total: 105 miles (18,900')

It feels a little weird to be in taper mode right now given the relatively light mileage in May, but hopefully that will make me one of the more rested guys on the start line in Squaw in a couple of weeks. Ultrarunning is such an obsessive, compulsive sport that it seems to me that guys find it immensely difficult to take their feet off the accelerator when it comes to sharpening for a goal race. Not me, I relish the taper and take it seriously. The one and only goal for me in the last three weeks before a big race is to get to the start line with a fresh pair of pins.

My training hasn't been optimal this year and my racing has been just okay, but I remain confident that I can race hard in California and perform well. I know the course, I know how to get from Squaw to Auburn in one piece, and I know how to ride the highs and lows. I keep reminding myself in moments of self doubt that 100 miles is a long way to run and the shorter-distance form book goes out the proverbial window on race day. Just as it has been the last two years, the cougar is the goal, and I believe I can make that happen regardless of who else is running. My only concern is to run the best race I can, get to Auburn as quickly as humanly possible, and then start tucking into AJW's Sierra Nevadas just as soon as I can.

One more week and then the family road trips out. Fun times ahead. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Zegama Marthon and other thoughts

"Zegama is no a very technical track."

Those were the first words of English the Zegama race director put out there as the course preview got underway the evening before the race. And for the most part he was telling the truth; it's just that when the course did get technical - between the second and third summits in particular - it got really technical (as running races go). But let's not get carried away here, we're talking class two rock hoping with a few very short sections of class three hands-on-rock action over a stretch of maybe four miles.

The challenge on the rest of the course was really about dealing with the grade, which for the most part was pretty steep. And then of course there was the weather. Wet rocks, wet grass on looney descents, slick mud, and trails sliding off the side of the mountain (literally). I lost count of the number of times I hit the deck, but generally speaking I was moving faster on my ass than on my feet, so the butt surfing actually worked out pretty well.

The race went out hard, as they always seem to do in Europe. By the time we had completed a circuit of Zegama and begun the first ascent I was probably in 30th place. But that was fine, I was sure half those guys would be coming back to me by the time we topped out on Aratz - the first summit of the day.

Yeah, that never really happened. As it played out, I would pick up some runners on the climbing, generally lose ground on the descents and then salvage a few positions over the last 10 kilometers of downhill to the finish when the endurance factor started coming into play. On the techie crux of the race through the middle section, and the ensuing parachute drop, I probably gave up close to 15 places, while also almost losing my head to a loose rock from above that whistled within a meter of me at break-head speed midway through the steepest drop of the day.

I survived. My ego took a pretty good bruising though.

I love negotiating technical alpine terrain, but I guess I'm just never in that much of a hurry to do so when in the environment. I tend to consider alpine jaunts as time-on-feet training - or just pure pleasure - as opposed to some kind of performance outing, and that was brought into sharp focus at Zegama.

I simply didn't have the technical chops to compete - or even want to try and compete - with the Basque boys around me. Finding myself way back in the pack up there as I did on race morning, I guess I just wasn't motivated enough to put body parts on the line. Maybe if my uphilling had been stronger through the early stages of the race, I would have been compelled to take some risks, but my climbing/pow-hiking wasn't good enough and so I found myself pussyfooting around up high with a mindset more focused on getting through the race in one piece than on rapid movement.  

Maybe I'm getting old. Or maybe, as others have speculated, we U.S.-based trail runners just don't have the occasion or opportunity to rip on the kind of courses that make up the Skyrunning circuit in Europe and across the world. Of the three Skyrunning races I have participated in, I have been humbled by two (Sierre-Zinal and Zegama) and done okay at the third (Pikes Peak).

Sierre-Zinal is not a particularly technical race, but the opening ascent is much steeper than anything I typically run or race on over here. Much like Zegama, therefore, my 'race' at Sierre-Zinal was essentially over once the first 5,000 feet had been negotiated. Pikes Peak, on the other hand, is neither technical nor that steep, rather it is a race about pacing, altitude management and running, and I have performed decently there. Yes you ascend close to 8,000 feet, but at no point during that race should you be hiking (unless of course the altitude gets the better of you). The trail gains 8,000 feet over 13 miles, which works out to an average grade of about 11 percent, or 600 feet per mile. Some would describe that as amateur hour in the mountains (dubbed 'douche grade' by some of the rate-of-ascent purists in the U.S. mountain ultra scene), but the general reality of running in the Mountain West, especially when it comes to racing, is that grades of between 400 and 800 feet per mile are - for sustainability reasons - the angle at which our mountain trails are generally cut.

And I'm fine with that. It just means that I perform at a pretty mediocre level on steeper pow-hiking grades. For as much as I love to ascend steep terrain, I've never felt the need - nor desire - to rip on it. Good job I don't race on uber-steep terrain too often then, I guess. 

Interestingly (all things of course being relative), my fourth shot at a Skyrunning race will come in July on a course that I actually know quite well, and a race that straddles the middle ground between the Euro-style Skyraces and standard U.S. mountain races.

The Speedgoat 50k never gets that technical, but is certainly 'nastier' than Sierre-Zinal or Pikes Peak with regards to terrain. The grades are steep, but with the exception of one hillside, never so steep that the course can't be covered in its entirety at a running cadence, while the altitude tops both Sierre-Zinal and Zegama, but doesn't come close to Pikes' above-timberline action.

The beauty, strength and draw of our sport lies in its variety. I love to race it all, but also recognize where my strengths lie.

People ask me, for example, if Western States or Hardrock is harder (expecting Hardrock to be the answer), and I typically tell them that they're both incredibly hard. For me, Western States is way more punishing physically than Hardrock because it's almost 100% runnable and a race in the true sense of the word, whereas Hardrock is a painfully slow high-altitude grind where you're on your feet for almost twice as long and negotiating sections of legitimate mountain terrain. But you get to hike for hours on end and really don't get too involved in the competition aspect of the event. Patience and perseverance is the name of the game there. Western States is a running race held on grades that play into my wheelhouse, which is the reason, I think, that I have done quite well there and have performed comparatively better than my (somewhat compromised) Hardrock effort. But make no mistake, the last 20-40 miles of both races are - or can be - excruciatingly painful.

I guess the conclusion to this rambling and disjointed post is that the disciplines of mountain, trail and ultra running are hugely diverse, and therein lies the greatest draw of the sport. It is the rare talent that displays mastery of all terrain and distances. From long to short races, from buffed to gnarled, there is a slice of something for everyone. 

The passion for the mountains that the Basque people displayed in Zegama was a joy for me to experience, and that, at the end of the day, is what our sport is and should always be about.