Sunday, April 20, 2014

Pre Boston Marathon

San Francisco from the Marin Headlands
The day before a marathon is usually filled with all kinds of emotion. Some wonder whether they are adequately prepared or properly tapered, and others may analyze every calorie they consume or are torn between which shorts to wear. At the expo some may see how they compare to others, maybe even trying to get a quick glance at another's bib number. I am guilty of this on occasion. However, Monday's race in Boston is different. It is not about competition or any one person; rather it is about coming together as community, city and nation. I am honored and privileged to take part in this year's race, especially as I know qualified runners who were denied entry due to the increased demand.

Relentless hills of the Marin Headlands
My only goal is to cross the finish line with nothing left. I don't care if it is a 10 minute personal best or my slowest marathon yet. I want to finish knowing I had nothing left to give. So I am not worried about pace or time and
don't have any goal splits or specific race strategies. I will go out at an uncomfortably hard pace, whatever that may be, hoping to fall into a rhythm within the first few miles. If all goes well, this rhythm will get me to mile 15 or so.

During the later stages of the race, I will be questioning my physical and mental limits, no doubt, but that is what running is all about. I will use my previous experience, family and of course, last year's horrific tragedy as strength. When times get tough, I will think about those who cannot run and would do anything for just one step.

Below, I summarize the last three weeks leading up to Boston. I feel strong, although, I seem to have semi-problematic hamstring issue at the moment. Sometimes it feels stiff and tightens up, while other times I hardly notice it. Hopefully, it is not an issue tomorrow.

Training Week 3/31 - 4/6
Oakland from Claremont Canyon Park
100.6 miles with 9,600ft gain in 14:24
This week was great with a lot of miles and some quality runs at hard efforts. During the week, I extended my morning commute to 10 miles with the standard 5 mile evening commute home. Friday, I set a personal best climbing a monster hill right outside my door. From my door to the peak, it is 1.4 miles and 700ft of gain. I beat my old time of 14:50 by a surprising 30 seconds! Saturday, I ran with the SFRC as usual, but extended the run to 20 miles with 3,600ft of gain with a good friend, Fernando. Sunday, I went solo for a long 26 miles loop throughout the East Bay (strava). For both long runs, I used UCAN pre-workout with only a couple spoonfuls of peanut butter for breakfast, and my energy levels were very good through the first 15 miles. After 15 miles, I started to get tired, but I managed to finish my run Saturday without any additional calories. Sunday, I took a few gels at miles 15, 19 and 22 to get me back home, which was intended to practice my Boston fueling strategy. The post-workout Vitargo was great to help me recover in-between the long runs, however, I did not take Vitargo after Sunday's run. In the end, this was an awesome week, and I was stoked to get in a 100+ mile week before Boston.

Getting some sun at Pirate's Cove
Training Week 4/7 - 4/13
70.2 miles with 4,500ft gain in 10:12
I started to take it easier this week in preparation for Boston, and honestly, I was feeling some lingering fatigue from last week. Maybe I should have taken a Vitargo to after Sunday's 26 mile effort, but I thought it would be good to gauge how I felt without it. I am sure the fatigue was mostly due to the high volume week, not just the lack of Vitargo. Even so, I still think it is a great recovery product. The week was fairly uneventful until Saturday. On Saturday, I volunteered at the incredibly stacked Lake Sonoma 50, and managed to get in a quick 8 mile run along the lake just after the start. I was stationed at the start/finish, and it was a blast keeping tabs on the all the top runners. Huge congrats to local favorite, Alex Varner, who managed an amazing 4th place finish for his first 50 miler. I run with Alex in Marin with the SFRC. Sunday, I went out for an easy 17 miles. It was a beautiful day and couldn't resist a few extra miles along the San Francisco Bay.

Lake Champlain and Red Rock's Park in Burlington, VT

Training Week 4/14 - 4/20
40.1 miles with 1,500ft gain in 5:37
I took it super easy this week, except for Friday. On Thursday, I flew out to Burlington, Vermont to stay with family for one week and eventually head down to Boston for the race. Friday was my first run in Vermont, and I went fairly hard for 10 miles at 7:30 pace, which felt great. Then a couple easy runs Saturday and Sunday to close out the week. I love Vermont and have really enjoyed some beautiful runs along Lake Champlain.

Best of luck to all the Boston runners!!

A couple more Bay Area pics.

Bay Bridge from Vollmer Peak
East Bay hills from Vollmer Peak

Monday, March 31, 2014

Training and Nutrition Update (end March)

Training Update - End March
San Francisco and Golden Gate Bridge from the East Bay
In this post, I want to provide an update on my Boston and San Diego 100 training as well as give some preliminary results with some nutrition products I have been experimenting with. As promised, I have some nice running photos from the last couple weeks of training, enjoy! In my last post, I mentioned that I was considering running the Oakland Half Marathon as a tune-up race for Boston, however, I decided not to run the race for a few reasons.

First, I thought it would take too long to recover from. In the past, I have noticed my body seems to recover much slower from short and fast races. My hamstrings took at least 10 days to feel normal after running the Berkeley Half last November. This fatigue could be due to my lack of more formal speed work, like intervals or tempo runs, in training, which I have done very little of, if any, in the last few months.

Secondly, I wasn't sure how the Oakland Half would fit into my San Diego goal, which is my main focus, not Boston. A fast half marathon with a little taper beforehand and 10 days of sore hamstrings, obviously doesn't sound ideal for 100 mile training or even marathon training.

Rodeo Beach, Marin Headlands
Finally, I questioned the idea of a tune-up race. Boston will be an all-out effort, regardless of weather or other external factors. A tune-up race would just give me an idea of my potential at Boston, assuming similar conditions, which could be used to determine my goal splits. However, this somewhat goes against my racing philosophy. I have never raced with splits before, and in fact, my best marathons have all been run by feel, without a watch. For example, my marathon PR at CIM 2012, I ran as hard as I could for 26.2 miles without a watch or knowing a single split through torrential rain and strong headwinds. The first time I saw a clock was 100 yards before the finish, 2:52, and after crossing the line, I collapse into the arms of the medical staff. The whole race I kept questioning myself whether or not I could hold on and seemed to be on the verge of blowing up. I don't want to get too philosophical in this post, but I race to find my true potential and that feeling at the finish knowing I gave it every ounce of my being. I want to feel 100% depleted with nothing left in the tank. In my opinion, if one is constantly trying to hit splits, racing becomes all about time and competition, which is not why I run. Perhaps my racing philosophy is a great subject for a future post, but to me, racing is all about trying to get as close as possible to one's true potential at that given instant. If you hit all your splits, one must wonder if they could have gone faster. If not, then you are disappointed because your fitness is less than you thought, even if you gave it everything you had. Of course, time goals and race strategies are important, and it is important to recognize your ability to determine your general strategy. However, more times than not, my strategies go right out the window before the start due to weather conditions, stomach issues or something else unexpected, and this usually leads to my most memorable and meaningful races, regardless of time. For CIM 2012, it lead to a PR against horrific weather conditions.

Although $95 might be reasonable for a big city half marathon a week before, I would rather spend the money on shoes or gear!
Coastal Trail out of Rodeo Beach
Training Week 3/17 - 3/23
88.6 miles with 7,900ft of gain in 12:19
Since San Diego is my focus this season, my training will be ultra focused, meaning back-to-back long runs, more hills and more miles rather then traditional speed work. During the week, I commuted to and from work adding a little climbing in the Berkeley Hills. For the weekend, I had a great 20 mile run with the San Francisco Running Company Saturday. The first 15 miles had 2,200ft of climbing, and I was holding a comfortably hard pace both up and down. I finished the last four miles (flat) at 6:40 pace, which felt really good. This run gives me a ton of confidence for Boston and even makes me think 2:50 could be possible depending on the weather and the next few weeks. On Sunday, I went for 30 miles with my friend Dario. We did a 30 mile East Bay loop (Strava) through Wildcat Canyon, Tilden Park, Vollmer Peak, Claremont Canyon, downtown Berkeley, Berkeley Marina, Albany Bulb and Point Isabel. I felt a little bonky around miles 24 to 27, but only fueled with UCAN 30 minutes before and a couple gels to that point. At mile 25, I took a Pocket Fuel nut butter, which made the last few miles much better. This run was the first time I tried Pocket Fuel, and I thought it was great. 

Training Week 3/24 - 3/30
90 miles with 13,500ft gain in 13:51
Tennessee Valley Beach
This past week, I did my standard commutes back and forth, but added more climbing in the Berkeley Hills. On the weekend, I had two great long runs with a lot of climbing. Saturday, I went out in the pouring rain with the SFRC and extended the run to 20 miles with 3,000ft of climbing. I went at a fairly conservative pace because of the weather, and I knew Sunday would be epic. On Sunday, I ran up Mt. Tamalpais in Marin followed by a double Dipsea for 24 miles and 7,000ft of climbing (Strava). For those unaware, the Dipsea Trail in Marin hosts the iconic Dipsea Race starting in Mill Valley and finishing at Stinson Beach, which is about 7.5 miles and 2,500ft of gain. The Dipsea Race is one of the oldest and most unique races in the country as it started in 1905, has a staggered start based on age/gender and also allows shortcuts. A double Dipsea is out and back for about 15 miles and 5,000ft gain. It was a long and sometimes brutal day on the trails. The Dipsea Trail is very tough consisting of well over 600 steps and some challenging climbs, but stunning views. An unexpected highlight was that Timothy Olson (Western States 100 course record holder) was in the Bay Area for The Northface and joined the run. It was an honor to meet and run with him. He is an incredible person. Thanks for taking it easy on us!

In the past weeks, I have been steadily increasing mileage, but have keep the climbing between 7,000 and 8,000ft. It felt great to have a higher mileage week with a lot more climbing this week. I have been feeling very strong lately, with some awesome runs at hard efforts up and down. I hope to keep the mileage fairly high, in the 90 - 100 range, for the next couple weeks and continue increasing the vertical. Then, a mini taper for Boston. 

Nutrition Update
Mt. Tamalpais (Tam for short) from Vollmer Peak
Eventually, I want to post a proper review of each product, but obviously, I don't want to just try it once and write an ill-informed review. Instead, I would like to research the science behind each product and evaluate them over a few months. However, in the meantime, I plan to post my preliminary results and initial thoughts once or twice a month with my training updates.

Over the last two weekends I have been running back-to-back long runs of 20 - 30 miles each. Before each run, I had a minimal breakfast consisting of a couple spoonfuls of peanut butter, and then, about 30 minutes before each run, I took one serving of UCAN Sports Drink Mix as instructed. UCAN claims to supply a steady flow of energy to your muscles over a longer period of time without spiking blood sugar, which avoids a potential energy crash later on. In contrast, gels typically spike your blood sugar and offer quick energy, but often lead to a crash afterwards. On Saturday 3/22, I ran 20 miles with just water and no calories during the run. I felt great for the first 18 miles, and for miles 19 and 20, I felt in the initial stages of a potential bonk. However, I ran the last four miles of this run hard at 6:40 pace. So I think it was probably of combination of a hard effort and lack of calories. However, even the UCAN Guide suggests another serving around mile 18 or 20 anyway. The next day was similar, pre-workout with UCAN, and then I ran 30 miles taking a gel at mile 15 and 20 along with a Pocket Fuel nut butter at 25. This past weekend, I ran 20 and 24 mile back-to-backs with UCAN pre-workout, and again, felt sustained energy. As a first impression, I am impressed with UCAN and very excited to continue using the product.

Mt. Diablo from Vollmer Peak
Although Vitargo is also a super-starch, it appears to be quite different compared to UCAN. Vitargo claims to be absorbed much faster than typical maltodextrin gels, which allows you to consume more calories in a given period or time. This rapid absorption may help reduce the calorie deficit in long ultras (compared to standard gels and sport drinks), and also allow for quicker restoration of glycogen stores as a post-run recovery mix. After each of my back-to-back long runs, I immediately took one serving of Vitargo. Again, my first impression is very positive, and my legs felt really good, almost no soreness in the days after the long back-to-backs. I definitely noticed a substantial improvement from when I did not take anything designed for recovery. I almost always take Mondays off from running, but even after 44 and 50 mile weekends, I felt I could run, albeit not very hard, and actually, wanted to. I only took one serving of Vitargo, but the packages claims you can take up to three.

East Bay from Mt. Tam summit
My initial experience with these super-starches, UCAN and Vitargo, has been very positive. I have bought a few single serving packets to see if I like the products and to try the different flavors. This way, I avoid spending a lot of money on a huge tub of product I don't want. So if you are interested, I highly recommend purchasing the single serving packets to see how they work for you. As a disclaimer, I am in no way sponsored or affiliated with any of these nutrition products, and I am just reporting my limited knowledge on the subject from online sources and experience.

I will post again before Boston to provide a training update and my specific plans for the race! 

A few more photos for good measure!
Northern Tam summit view
Dipsea steps...
Another northern view from Mt. Tam

Monday, March 10, 2014

Planning Ahead - Spring 2014

If you have read any of my previous posts, you know one big thing I learned the hard way in 2013 is that I raced too much. So in 2014, I am trying to pick a few focus races to properly train and recover from. That said, if I just post race reports, this site will be pretty boring and not too helpful with less than ten posts this year. Therefore, I am going to try posting a couple times a month talking about my current training, race plans and maybe product reviews.

Spring 2014 Race Plan

4/21 - Boston Marathon
4/27 - Big Sur Marathon (Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge)
6/07 - San Diego 100 Mile

Of these races, my main focus is San Diego. If I could do well at any race, I would without a doubt choose San Diego. I would be absolutely thrilled to break 20 hours. The course will be challenging with about 12,000 feet of climbing and at elevations peaking over 6,000ft. However, I think 20 hours is a great goal for me. I ran Rio del Lago, which has about the same gain, in 23 hours, however, I took an hour nap at mile 74 and hiked about 20 miles of the last 26. I made some obvious nutrition and strategy mistakes that led to the epic bonk. I also ran Headlands 100 in 23 hours, but that has 20,000ft of gain.

As for Boston, I would like to give it a hard effort, but I want to keep San Diego in mind. That said, I will most likely treat it as a long speed session going for sub-3. If everything goes perfectly including the next six weeks of training, I may shoot for a PR looking at 2:50, but my training up to Boston will be more tailored to San Diego. I will be doing a lot more hill work than interval or tempo runs and therefore, will be banking on the 'hills are speed work in disguise' principal for Boston. One thing I noticed at the Chicago Marathon, which was a DNF at mile 4, is that I felt very out of place running with screaming spectators lining the streets because I have been accustomed to running small trail races. I have considered running the Oakland Half Marathon (3/23) to reacquaint myself with big city races. I thought it could be a good tune-up race. I have not registered yet, but I have until 3/14 before they raise the price. A tune-up race would give me a good indicator of my current fitness. At the end of the day, Boston will be an all out effort, there is no denying that, and it will be a question of how long I taper before. Right now, I am thinking two weeks, but that may change depending on the next few weeks of training. I am hoping to peak around 80-90 miles two weeks before Boston. If I still feel strong, I may shorten the taper to one week, otherwise, if I feel beat-up, I'll keep it at two weeks.

I know, Big Sur a week after Boston isn't exactly a recovery run, but I signed up last July, which was long before I realized I was racing too much. Right now, Big Sur will be a long run, and my effort level will largely depend on how Boston goes. However, I like how this plays into my San Diego plans with two long, supported efforts. I had a really good race there last year running a 2:55, placing 4th in my age group and 24th overall. Since it is only six days from Boston, I will try to be very careful not to over do it.


Currently, I am experimenting with super-starches like Vitargo and UCAN. Standard nutrition products like gels and chews spike your blood sugar, which unfortunately, can lead to a crash afterwards. Also, it is quite common for these products to cause gastric distress for many ultra runners. UCAN is supposed to be easy on the stomach and does not spike your blood sugar. Therefore, UCAN is supposed to offer sustained energy. Vitargo on the other hand, is supposed to be digested much faster than gels without gastric distress. This allows you to consume more calories in a given period of time compared to gels. Although Vitargo seems to spike blood sugar, it can be consumed over a period of time (maybe 1-2 hours), whereas for the most part, gels are consumed all at once. Hopefully, this strategy with Vitargo reduces the spike in blood sugar, but also offers sustained energy. Right now, I am thinking of using UCAN pre-workout and using Vitargo during for sustained, high energy. I am hoping to use this strategy for Boston.

I am also experimenting with a post workout recovery mix. In the past, I have never used anything designed for recovery. After a hard or long workout, I have started using Vega Recovery Accelerator.

Finally, one thing I learned from Rocky Raccoon was that I want to rely on aid stations for nutrition. I don't want to carry a pack, because it fatigues core muscles. Therefore, I will either have to rely on a crew or aid stations for nutrition. For San Diego, I will most likely not have a crew, and the aid stations will be serving Tailwind. Although I have used it in the past, I want to start regularly training with Tailwind to get used to it. I will probably take the Tailwind Challenge, which offers four large bags at 10% off to train with and will refund your race fee if you don't like it. Although I have just started to use it regularly, I like Tailwind, especially because it offers calories, hydration and electrolytes all in one mix. So you don't have to constantly manage calories, hydration and electrolytes from three different sources.

Please note, I am in no way qualified to speak about nutrition scientifically. This is just the information I have gathered from other runners and online resources. As I try these products, I will report back on my experience. Finally, I am in no way sponsored or affiliated with any of these products either.

Recent Training Weeks (post Rocky Raccoon)

2/10/2013 - Total: 43.3 miles at 8:25 average pace with 4,236ft gain

I did a couple really short runs the week after Rocky Raccoon, just to keep moving. I find I recover quicker if I keep moving and stay active even if it is running super slow. I tried to take it easy this week, but had a really nice 16.5 mile run with 3,400ft of climbing in Marin Saturday. This run felt really good, and I was able to finish strong. It felt great to run in Marin again after spending eight weeks in Chicago and to catch up with the San Francisco Running Company (SFRC and awesome running store in Marin County, CA). There is an awesome running community surrounding the store, which I am proud to be a part of.

2/17/2013 - Total - 61.9 miles  and 7,300ft gain

Pretty standard weekdays in which I just ran to and from work, which is about five miles each way. For the weekend, I did back-to-back longer runs with a lot of hills. Saturday, I ran with the SFRC again, and we did 14 miles with 2,300ft of gain. Sunday, I climbed to Vollmer Park in Berkeley's Tilden Park for 15.4 miles and 3,000ft of gain. The back-to-backs felt good, which I was very happy about, and I probably felt stronger Sunday. Saturday was a hard effort as we averaged under 8-minute pace, which was tough will all the climbing. I wanted to finish my Vollmer Park run in 2:15, but I had to really fly on the last downhill to finish with 10s to spare! Starting to get my climbing legs back!

2/24/2014 - Total 68.6 miles and 8,000 ft gain

Again, pretty standard weekdays commuting to and from work, but I added some more climbing in the Berkeley hills. The weekend was similar to last week too since I ran with the SFRC Saturday and climbed Vollmer Peak Sunday. The SFRC run was another harder effort with 15 miles and 2,800ft of climbing at 8:14 pace. I finished pretty strong, though. Sunday's Vollmer Peak run was a tough one since it was pouring rain and very muddy. However, I was only five minutes slower than last week.

3/3/2014 - Total 76.3 miles and 7,900 ft gain

During the week, I didn't feel that great, so I took it easy Thursday and Friday. However, I felt really strong over the weekend. Again, I ran with the SFRC Saturday and Vollmer Peak Sunday. I was only 2.5 minutes slower that my Vollmer Peak round-trip PB, even after Saturday's 20 mile effort with 3,400ft of gain in Marin. I am feeling really strong right now. Next week will be a recovery week for me, and therefore, I will shoot for 50 miles with much less climbing.

I have been using Tailwind (one 100 calorie serving) to fuel my long runs without any additional gels or salt. Although 15 - 20 miles is not super long, I like the taste and it has been working well. I am trying to promote fat burning by limiting my carb intake before and during my run.

I hope to post again towards the end of the month, especially if I do decide to run Oakland, to provide an update on my plan for Boston, San Diego and possibly, nutrition results. Also, I usually don't run with my phone or camera, but to add some color, I will start to run with my phone to provide some nice Bay Area scenery to my posts.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Rocky Raccoon 100M - 2/1/14

Long story short, I unfortunately dropped out of Rocky Raccoon at mile 80. The biggest obstacle to overcome was the heat and humidity. I spent the eight weeks prior to the race in Chicago, which is currently experiencing one hell of a winter. During those eight weeks, Chicago received a lot of snow. Even worse, it was dangerously cold, with daily wind chills consistently well below zero, and a day whose wind chill was -46F. Of the 50 days I spent in Chicago, I feel reasonably confident that less than five days reached temperatures above 25F, not including the wind chill. Needless to say, temperatures in the mid 60s and over 90% humidity was quite a shock to my system on race day. I battled cramps and swelling all day and stomach issues for most of the day. Around mile 65, my left hamstring became really tight causing some nasty knee pain, which was very difficult to run on and forced me to walk. Although I completed the 80 miles in 17.5 hours and had ample time to walk it in, maybe even sub 24, I did not want to finish that way. I also did not realize my crewing brother needed to get back to Texas A&M to finish some homework due Monday. I did not want him to have to stay up another 24 hours finishing homework, just after crewing me for 24 hours. So for a number of reasons, the most logical decision seemed to drop. I am hoping to learn more from the drop than I would have if I walked it in. In the past, I have had the attitude finishing is the most important thing, however, with all the joy at the finish, you may inevitably forget many of the lessons that should be learned. The finish rate was 57%, which is the lowest in the 20+ years of the race. There is no doubt that the temperature and humidity was brutal out there, especially for anyone coming from winter climates. The conditions caused numerous people to drop, from the front to the back. Congrats to everyone who gave it their best! Already planning for revenge in 2015!

I have thought about this race a lot in the week after. Constantly, I have gone back and forth on whether I should have dropped. After all, it is my first drop in an ultra and only my second overall. At mile 80, it was very difficult to run and quite painful. Sure, things could have loosened up, and maybe I could have ran/walked the last loop in 5 hours to come in around 23 hours overall. Or, maybe I could have tripped on one of the many, many rocks or roots and made things even worse, jeopardizing Boston. Both scenarios played in my head before I made the final decision. If I would have been by myself, without a crew, I think I would have headed back out. However, a tipping point in my decision was that my brother needed to get back home to finish homework, and I didn't want to negatively impact his school work. Although, he assured me I could go back out and he would have no problem with it, I didn't need much of an excuse to call it a day, especially in those conditions. He also asked me, "what do I have to prove by walking it in and I can always comeback next year," and just like that I rationalized the drop and was done. Again, I did not want to finish under those terms, and either way, I would be out for revenge next year.

I also thought I needed to force myself to learn some lessons, specifically about the balance between training and racing. Had I completed the race, the joy and excitement at the finish could have easily hidden the fact that my 2013 race schedule was far too ambitious. After all, had I finished, I would have survived the crazy schedule, albeit there were some really rough races in the bunch. In that case, I don't think I would have continued piling on the ultras, but it certainly wouldn't have been so obvious I needed a break. In 2013, I raced nearly 700 miles, all marathons or more except one half, and a month into 2014, I was going after another 100 miler. Also, as in my previous race reports, I was constantly battling some injury for the last three months of 2013. All things considered, the DNF leaves a really sour taste in my mouth, and it is brutally obvious I need to regroup. In a previous post, I mentioned I don't have the discipline to run a training race. So by racing all the time, I was not gaining any fitness because I was constantly alternating between racing and recovery. Sure, this all seems obvious, but a year ago, I was the only crazy ultra runner I knew and was still getting acquainted with California trails. The races seemed to be the best way for me to meet like minded people and experience new trails. Also, as a side note, I am completely self-coached (coached is probably the wrong word), and I run solely to have fun, not necessarily to compete. However, I have absolutely no regrets. I learned so many new trails in California, met a ton of great people and had a blast doing it. In the future, I will have plenty of friends to join and places to go for a fun 30 mile training run, instead of a 50k race. I can't wait.   

Finally, I have thought more about "what do I have to prove?" I have run a hundred before, I have proved I can complete the distance. However, with this reasoning, I would never race a distance twice. A 100 miles is far, really far, and it does not matter if it is Hardrock or 400 laps around an indoor track. Although I have only completed the distance twice, there are always a ton of questions going into the race and many are race specific. Any small hiccup in nutrition, gear, weather or the dozens of other factors will be exponentially worse as the miles go by, which is something that really separates 100s from even 50s. Any minor problem could reduce your pace to a crawl or even worse, land you in the medical tent. My point is, each race will provide different obstacles to overcome, and for my Rocky Raccoon, it was the weather. Sometimes you nail nutrition, but you could have horrible blisters or busted toenails. Since every race is unique, there is always something to prove in the end. Even when I go back next year, it will be a new set of circumstances, and I can never truly redeem myself. Now, I don't mean we should push to the bitter end, that would be foolish. However, before you drop, really think about it. If you are in severe physical pain and can't walk, dropping is probably best. In my case, I could have walked it in, but I just didn't want to. I mentally rationalized excuses, some where good ones, to justify the drop and ease the moment. However, easing the moment, might not be best in the long term. In my defense though, you don't know what a DNF feels like until you DNF (my first DNF was obvious due to Achilles issues). In the end, I am just trying not to regret anything, just learn from the experience. Now that I know the feeling, it will make the decision easier in the future, I hope anyway.

Lessons Learned
1. Pack/Aid Stations - I wore a Salomon belt to carry gels, salt and small bags of Tailwind. In the past, I have also worn an AK Race Vest, and in both cases, I have relied on handheld bottles for fluids. After 40 miles, the pack was getting annoying and also causing some muscle soreness in my core. No design flaw or anything, I just did not want to wear it anymore. I have complained about this in the past, and since then, I have done more core work, which I noticed improvements. However, it was definitely bugging me at Rocky Raccoon, maybe due to the heat. I ended up leaving the pack after 40 miles and felt much better. In the future, I will rely on the aid stations or crew for nutrition assuming the aid stations are not too far apart. My handheld bottle has a good size pocket, which can easily carry salt and three gels. This should be plenty of storage for up to seven miles assuming I am not walking too much. If I have two bottles, I should be good for ten or eleven miles. 

2. Training - Obvious, but if you are always racing, you won't make much fitness progress unless you have the discipline not to go at a race effort. Unfortunately, I don't have that discipline yet. I am looking forward to proper training cycles to increase my fitness for a goal race and then recover. I have said this before, but I hope the DNF drives this message home. 

3. Climate - Drastic climate changes can be really tough, especially from really cold to hot and humid. Again, obvious, but my first experience with it. I spent eight weeks in frigid Chicago, where temps were consistently below zero. In Huntsville, it was 70s and 90% humidity, which was an enormous shock to my system. It was very apparent in the other runners as well. How you were holding up in the humidity was usually the first thing to talk about between runners. However, I think going from hot to cold can be beneficial in some cases, and I have read heat training can give similar benefits as altitude training. 

4. Walking out of Aid Stations - I really liked this strategy, especially for a quick break and time to digest some calories. I would run into the aid station, grab whatever I needed and walk out, almost never stopping. As I left, I would walk as I ate, even though it would take me well past the aid station. It was a great way to enjoy the food and take a quick break from running. Although I dropped, I could see this as a strategic forced break to save your legs and prevent you from sitting at an aid station.

5. 100 miles is Far - There are no easy 100s. It doesn't matter how flat or mountainous, 100 miles, by foot, is a long way. 

Race Report 
We left College Station, TX about 3:30am and arrived at the start around 4:30am. I grabbed my bib, went to the bathroom, packed my race belt and went over the final details with my brother, who would crew for me. He was allowed at all the aid stations except Dam Nation. For each 20 mile loop, I would see him at the start/finish and around miles 3 and 15. They also did not allow cars to park at the aid stations, so he would bike back and forth. 

Eventually 6am rolled around, and we went off. Initially, I was running with a good size group until the first aid station. This was my first time on these trails, and I was surprised how many roots there were. It was very easy to trip, and I saw numerous people wipe out. The first lap was fairly uneventful for me as I became more acquainted with the trails. The aid stations appeared very well stocked and enthusiastic. I really enjoyed the nice views along Raven Lake and the levee. Even before the sun rise, it was apparent the humidity would be one of the toughest obstacles for me. I was soaking wet in sweat after just an hour or two at an easy pace.

My stomach was really bothering me from miles 10 to 15. It was some bad side cramps that I think were due to the heat and humidity, and eventually I was saved by the portable toilets just before the last aid station. Eventually, I finished the first loop in 3:05, and replenished my bottles and supply of gels at the start before heading back out there. 

Next, I finished the second loop in about 3:15 and started the third loop at about 6:30, gun time. The third loop was tough. The humidity was really slowing me down, and I could definitely feel the fatigue in my legs building up. I decided to take a little more time at the aid stations and walk for a few minutes after I left to eat and digest some calories. I really liked this strategy rather than eating on the run. I completed the third loop in 4.5 hours, drastically slower than the previous two. During the second and third loop, I could feel cramps in my glutes, and I stopped at park benches to stretch, which really helped. Unfortunately, the stretching was less and less effective and I was doing so more and more often as the day went on. 

After 11 hours, I had finished 3 loops or 60 miles, but I was in somewhat rough shape. Although I was taking salt, I was cramping up. Maybe I needed to take more, but I did not want to over do it, especially because I noticed my fingers were slightly swollen. I tried not to take more than the equivalent of 2 tablets per hour, however that was difficult to gauge once I started eating solid food.

For the fourth loop, everything got worse, and my left knee started to really bother me, which seemed to be from a really tight hamstring. I tried stretching and continued with the salt, but I couldn't quite figure it out. It was really painful to run on, and therefore, I was forced to walk most of the fourth loop. I finished in about 6 hours. At this point, I was at mile 80, 17.5 or so hours into the race and it was just about midnight. My knee was killing me, and now it was dark. I was severely lacking motivation to continue. I did not want to make my knee any worse and jeopardize Boston. My brother conveniently informed me that he had homework due Monday. After playing out different scenarios, it came down to either continue without my brother as crew so he could sleep in the car or drop and head back to College Station now. I don't blame my brother at all, it was his first time at any running race, period, so he had no idea how things would go if not according to plan. If anything, it was my fault for not informing him. I did not want my brother's school work to suffer because of the race. Then, he told me, "you have nothing to prove," and in my weak mental state, I agreed and was done. I could have finished, however, I could have tripped on a root and made matters much worse. You never know. Even if I had walked it in, I would be out for revenge next year. Ten days later and my legs are feeling pretty good, and I am excited to start training for Boston. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

North Face 50 Mile in San Francisco - 12/7/2013

The North Face 50 Mile Championship in San Francisco proved to be one of my most difficult races. I woke up race morning with a terrible sore throat and miserable congestion. I thought for a second about not running, but I really wanted to run considering the stacked field of runners. The temperature was uncharacteristically cold, which didn't help, but I made it to the 5am start. I battled through my cold and ran a great first half all things considered. I ran the first 25 miles in four hours, but soon after my race unraveled. My cold got worse, and my legs were battling fatigue from Rio del Lago and The Berkeley Half Marathon, both were within the month prior. I did great on most the downhills, but the uphills really got me. Unfortunately, my pace was reduced to a crawl for the last 10 miles. I strongly considered dropping because I did not want to walk it in, but I continued to grind it out to finish in just under 10.5 hours. It was a really rough day for me, and I am looking forward to taking a couple weeks off from running to recover both physically and mentally.

Due to my cold and some lingering fatigue, this race was one of the most difficult for me to complete. I am really glad I finished and certainly do not regret walking at least ten miles of the last twelve miles. Physically, my body was destroyed, but I also lacked the mental strength to push when my body said no. I took whatever my body gave me for the day, even though it was rather disappointing. With this philosophy, I realized that eventually it will not get me to the finish line or it will not be worth walking it in and this is perfectly fine. Sometimes, you just need to accept it wasn't your day, learn from it and move on. Whenever my first ultra DNF comes, I will accept it, not as failure, but as a learning experience. There is always something to learn, especially from a race that does not go as planned, to improve upon next time. In the crazy world of ultra running, you will never stop learning, and to me, that is one of the most appealing aspects of the sport.

Lessons Learned
1. Racing too often - I definitely did not anticipate a long recovery from the Berkeley Half Marathon two weeks prior. I went as hard as I could and even ran a PR, but it took more than a week for my legs to feel normal. There is no doubt in my mind my legs were not ready for a hard, hilly 50 miles. I thought the half marathon would be some nice speed work, but it took a lot out of me, probably in part because I have done very little speed work this year. Next year, instead of racing one or two times a month, I am going to pick a couple focus races to properly train and recover from. I'd like to think I can go into a race treating it as a training run and not go all out, but I proved I don't have the discipline just yet. So for 2014, I am going to pick four or five races, which will hopefully allow proper training and recovery cycles.

2. DNF - Although I did finish the race, I am more accepting of my eventual first ultra DNF. There is definitely something to be said for pushing past adversity and grinding it out to the finish, but I don't think anyone wants to finish just because they have enough time just to walk it in. Although, I ran the last mile, I basically crawled for the ten miles before that. Next time, I will probably drop rather than finish at all costs, especially because my cold got much, much worse in the days after. In hindsight, it probably wasn't worth it.

Race Report
The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championship in San Francisco is held in beautiful Marin County, California, which is only about 15 miles from Berkeley. I try to run in Marin once or twice a week, so I am very familiar with the course. I knew it was going to be tough with over 9,000 feet of gain.

About a month before, I ran the Rio del Lago 100 miler, and two weeks prior I ran the inaugural Berkeley Half Marathon. I thought I recovered quickly from Rio del Lago and also thought the Berkeley half would be a nice and short speed workout. I went as hard as I could in Berkeley setting a new PR with a 1:22. However, my hamstrings were really sore for at least a week afterwards. I have done very little speed work this year because I focused on the longer 100 milers, which I think lead to my slow recovery. In hindsight, this was a bad idea. I ran Berkeley without fully recovering from Rio del Lago, and then ran North Face without fully recovering from both Rio del Lago and Berkeley. In addition, I had a big work deadline the Thursday before North Face, and unfortunately, this led to little sleep and a lot of stress the week before the race. I think all of these factors set me up for a really rough day in which I would learn first hand that I bit off more than I could chew.

Race morning I woke up at 3am with a miserable sore throat and congestion. Thankfully, it was all above the neck so I thought I could at least start the race. The week before the race was very cold in SF with overnight lows in the 30s, which is very cold for the area. I think the combination of the unusual cold weather, lack of sleep and stress led to me feeling awful a few hours before the 5am start. Originally, I had a goal of 7:30 to 8 hours, which would have been a very respectable time on such a difficult course, but I thought it was entirely within my abilities. Although, a much easier course, I ran a 7:20 at American River, but had a terrible last 10 miles. I felt in better shape for North Face and was ready for all the climbing. However, these time goals went out the window when I woke up.

I arrived to the start about 4am and saw many elite runners. It was a stacked field, which included all but a couple elite American runners and a very strong international field. It was cold with temperatures probably in the high 30s. Even though I was sick, I wanted to give it a good effort since this was one of the most anticipated races of the year.

At 5:03 we left the start and headed up Bobcat, which I have climbed many, many times. I felt OK, but I could tell I didn't have my legs on the climb. I ran the entire hill and then proceeded back down to Rodeo Beach to the first aid station at about mile 5. Honestly, I started to feel a bit better and was giving it a good effort. I flew threw the aid station and was about to head up Miwok. Again, I ran the entire climb and then headed down to Tennessee Valley around mile 8, refilled my bottle and was head up Coastal to Pirates Cove. At this point, I was pretty much all alone, but I was enjoying myself as the sun started to rise over the east bay hills. I stopped to hike for the first time for some of the steep portions of Coastal, but I felt strong and motivated. Soon I made it to Pirates Cove, which is my favorite trail in Marin, just as the sun was rising. It was awesome and a unique perspective, which reminded me of my last lap at the Headlands 100. I still felt strong as I made my way down to Muir Beach at mile 12.7, and I felt I was doing great for fueling and hydration. I was drinking the sports drink and taking about 2 gels an hour.

By now, the sun had risen and I headed north towards Cardiac, which would be the longest climb of the day. I ran the entire climb to the Cardiac aid station at mile 17.9, and I continued to hydrate and fuel. However, after the fact, I felt that climb took a lot out of me, and I began to struggle a bit with my head cold as I think it was getting a bit worse now. The next five mile stretch to the McKennan Glutch aid station would prove to be my first low point. It was windy and cold, which made me feel weak and fragile. I fell on a narrow section of trail as the ground gave way underneath me. At this point, things went from bad to worse. My cold and congestion was getting worse, I was freezing and I started to notice the fatigue from the Berkeley Half and Rio del Lago. This portion of the course was a three or four mile out and back, so we had to constantly jump off the very narrow trail to avoid colliding with the elites. They were flying, and I could not believe how fast they were going. I was in awe, but this made it hard to get in a rhythm and establish a pace.

After McKennan Gulch, the course headed down to Stinson Beach at mile 27. I completed the first 25 miles in under 4 hours, which I thought was great all things considered. I ran the entire way down to the beach and actually felt a burst of energy as the temperature started to warm up. For most of the day, I ran great downhill, but the climbs just seemed to take a lot out of me. I even passed Rory Bosio, who shattered the women's record this year at UTMB. As we descended to the beach, I thought I really turned things around and even considered a sub 8-hour finish, but unfortunately, it didn't last too much longer.

I power hiked most of the climb out of Stinson Beach to Cardiac on the famous Dipsea trail. I rolled into Cardiac for the second time at mile 30.4, but noticed everything seemed to be getting worse. I couldn't seem to climb a hill if my life depended on it and my cold seemed to be getting worse. It was a strange day since I seemed to alternate feeling good and bad. I knew it was going to be a rough 20 miles to the finish. However, the next six miles were mostly downhill, and I did great as we ran thru the redwood forest and crossed numerous bridges made from fallen trees. This portion of the course is really nice. Once things flattened out though, I struggled to keep running. Next, was a flat five or six mile stretch to Muir Beach, where my legs felt like lead weights and my glutes started to cramp up. It was a grind to say the least. I tried to follow my friend Dario to the Muir Beach, but could not quite keep up. Finally, I made it to Muir Beach at mile 40, but I was absolutely dreading the next climb up Coyote Ridge.

I did my best to hike this climb, but I was crawling. I felt miserable. If I had anything left, this climb took it all. Numerous people passed me and noticed I wasn't feeling great. Most of them asked if I needed anything, which was really nice. I am always amazed by the generosity of the ultra community. I struggled all the way to the top, and by the time I was there, I was hurting, big time. My legs and glutes were killing me, and I was mentally fried. I strongly considered dropping at Tennessee Valley, which was mile 44. Basically, I did not want to finish under these circumstances walking it in, and I knew I would be walking almost the entire six miles to the finish. I walked pretty much the entire downhill to the Tennessee Valley aid station. My body was toast. Once I finally got to the aid station, I sat down for a few minutes an had some soup. Even though I was confident I would drop out here, it never crossed my mind once I arrived and after 10 minutes or so, I was headed up Marincello to the finish.

I walked pretty much every step of the last 6 miles except for the last mile, which I ran. My cold progressively got worse, my legs continued to cramp and now it was getting cold as the sun started to set. It was brutal. I was definitely paying the price for racing so much this fall without recovery. I ran the last mile to the finish to come in just under 10.5 hours. Sure, I am glad I finished and avoided my first ultra DNF, but it was a miserable day for me. Once I finished, I learned Dakota Jones finished in 9.5 hours with the flu. I give him a lot of credit for grinding it out when most would not have started, and this makes me glad I grinded it out to the finish as well. There is definitely something to be said for taking whatever the day gives you and finishing. With this perspective, I will just think of this race as training to suffer.

The scenery was beautiful though, and no matter how much I run in Marin, I never get sick of the views. It has got to be one of the best places to run in the country. The course boasts a lot of diversity from gorgeous coastal views to secluded redwood forests.

I will take a few weeks off from running and recover with my family in Chicago for the holidays, but I will be anxious to get back to the bay area and start training for Boston.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Berkeley Half Marathon - 11/24/2013

I have not raced a half marathon since April 2012, which I ran a 1:29:58 in San Francisco. The Berkeley Half Marathon start and finish were only a few miles from my house so I figured why not. It turned out to be a perfect day for running with temps in the low 50s at the start and clear skies. The race starts in downtown Berkeley, goes down University Avenue, runs on the SF Bay Trail along the shoreline and throughout the Berkeley Marina before finishing at Golden Gate Fields, which is also along the east bay shoreline. The course was marketed as being very fast since it was all downhill from the start to the marina and was pretty much flat after that, except for a nasty little hill just before the finish. I ran well, finishing in 1:22:11, and was really excited considering I have done very little speed work all year and ran the Rio del Lago 100 just two weeks before. The course had five or six 180-degree turnarounds, which were kind of annoying, especially the last two, which I thought were unnecessary. Overall though, it is a nice course with great views, and I would definitely run it again next year.

I don't really have much to say here. The race was a blur, and it was a grind from start to finish. Ultra running, especially 100 milers, doesn't make you faster, but it teaches you how to suffer and gave me a lot of confidence. Although it was a very different kind of pain and discomfort, you learn to embrace it either way and realize if it were easy, everyone would be right there with you. Knowing that I finished Rio del Lago, against all odds, gave me a lot confidence to keep pushing hard to the end and not to give up. Also, I’ll admit I was a little cocky and told myself I wasn’t going to let a half marathon get the best of me. I didn't think I would say this, but I am really excited to start speed training again and would like to run another half next year. I constantly tell people it doesn’t matter how far you have run, a fast 5k or marathon is damn hard. The Berkeley Half reminded me of this fact.  

Lessons Learned
1. Warm-up - For most ultras, you don't need to worry about warming-up before the race. Since the race is so long, you have plenty of time to warm-up in the first few miles. Generally, this is not a problem because a well-executed race, regardless of time or ability, is achieved by not fading deep into the race and not how fast you go out. However, for shorter distances, those first few miles are crucial because you want to establish your pace and don't have a lot time to make up for a slow start. I didn't do much to warm-up before the race, and I thought it took me a few miles to find my rhythm and establish my pace. I don't think it cost me a lot time, but if you take out the 180-degree turnarounds along with a proper warm-up, and maybe I could have gone sub 1:20, you never know.

2. Ultras - For most of the year, my training has been solely focused on the 100 milers. So 90% of my training has been long and slow with the occasional hard effort when I felt like pushing it. I have not done any intervals, threshold or V02 max training at all. About a year ago, I ran a 2:52 marathon at CIM 2012, which according to McMillan, gives me a 1:22 half. Both CIM and Berkeley are reasonably similar courses. Although I have not become any faster according to McMillan, I have maintained my speed, which is great news. A lot of elite ultra runners, who have not stepped up to 100 miles, are very hesitant because they worry about losing their speed. Of course, I am not nearly as fast as them, but this was something I was definitely thinking about since I do have aspirations to run a faster marathon (Boston 2014!!). 

3. Pain - Running at a high effort for a long time isn't easy and it doesn't matter how fast you are. Eventually, you are going to want to slow down. However, after running various races of 50 or more miles, I feel like I am mentally much stronger and can better cope with discomfort. Just knowing there was less than 10 miles to the finish line was great, and I knew the faster I run now, the quicker I'll finish, which is not necessarily true for an ultra.

Race Report
At the start of the race, I talked to Jorge Maravilla, who I run with a lot in Marin and also noticed Ian Sharman and Devon Yanko. I don't remember much about the race; it was a blur like I said. I remember the start, talking to some friends, and then I ran as hard as I could for 1:22 and it was over. The pace was fast from the start and rightfully so, there were a lot of fast runners. I tried to establish my pace, but it was difficult to find a rhythm and someone to latch onto. In the beginning, I was running with a group that constantly saw people fall off the pace. Eventually, I was running alone for most of the second half and even managed to pass a few people towards the end. I felt on the edge of blowing up the whole time as it was a hard effort from the start, but I ran consistent the entire race. My fastest mile was mile 2 at 5:57 and my slowest mile was mile 9 at 6:22. I took a single espresso Clif shot at mile 7 and had a few cups of electrolyte drink along the way.

Annoyingly, there were five or six 180-degree turnarounds, but the views were nice along the bay so I tried not to let it bother me. However, I believe all these turnarounds added about 30 seconds overall. I don't mean to complain, but the last two at the end seemed very unnecessary since they were about 100 feet apart. I felt I was waiting in line at an amusement park. It was a little windy along the bay, but it could have been much, much worse. I run the bay trail all the time, and sometimes the wind is two or three times stronger. The sun was out with crystal clear skies and gorgeous views of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, Bay Bridge and Marin. 

There was a nasty hill about a quarter-mile from the finish. By ultra standards it doesn't even register and might as well be flat, but 13 miles into a hard effort, it was torture. Thankfully, the finish line was near and it was over. I told another runner about 100 feet from the finish I'd race him, and we did, but I think he got me by a hair. I lay on the ground for about five minutes and then made my way over for a free massage (thanks Lauren!). All in all, a great day, and I am very happy with my effort and a new PR. 

Huge congratulations to Jorge, with an impressive 2nd place and 1:09 finish!! Did I mention he did 18 miles in Marin the day before!!

Saturday, November 23, 2013


Welcome!! My name is John Finn, but I usually go by Jack among friends and family. I started this blog to share my running adventures. Trail and mountain running is my passion, and I have run various ultra marathons in Northern California from 50k to 100 miles. Although, I much prefer the trails, I also enjoy road marathons and have run various races in California and the Midwest. I know there are a lot of running blogs out there, but I thought I could offer a unique perspective on the sport. I would not consider myself an elite runner nor a mid-packer. I am somewhere in the middle, and since I am only 26, I feel my best years are ahead of me as I aspire to be more competitive. I hope by publishing this journey, it is interesting and helpful to all that follow.

I have written race reports for all my previous races, but have not published them until now. I am currently in the process of editing and posting them so stayed tuned! I also want to offer a unique style to my race reports. When I read a race report, I often get bored or lose interest in mile-by-mile posts explaining every detail. Although I write them myself, I want to follow a format offering a summary, reflections, lessons learned in addition to the detailed report. In a typical race report, I prefer to skip all the details to read about meaning behind a race and the lessons learned. I hope this structure makes it easy to read what is most interesting to you.

Thanks for visiting, and I hope you enjoy my posts! Stay tuned as I upload my past race reports.