Pine to Palm 100 Miler

 

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Photo Credit: Paul Nelson

 

OOOOh man! Well, I guess I am finally going to write this thing up. It has almost been an entire month since Pine to Palm 100 and I still really don’t feel like writing about it. However, my goal with this blog has always been to be completely honest with myself, so that I and others may learn as much as possible from each race. I have no secrets. I will admit…this one did hurt.

This year I chose to focus on two key races for the entire year and I would try and build specifically for Gorge Waterfalls 100k in April and Pine to Palm 100 in September. I was pleased with my training, effort and result at the Gorge and was really excited for my training block for Pine to Palm. I feel like 100s are my best event and I really enjoy training for them. Last year Mountain Lakes had gone well, but Pine to Palm would have several new unknown factors that I was nervous about. The heat, the altitude and the 20,000’ of climbing. These would all be new stresses coming all in one race. Of course, my only thought was to train as hard as possible to prepare myself for each of these facets. First off…climbing. My body was used to routinely running 10,000’/week, but I began climbing 15-18,000’ week after week to prepare myself for the elevation gain. Heat. I began a heat acclimation protocol about 18 days before the race. I would raise my core temperature to 101 degrees for an hour a day for fourteen days in a row. I wore six layers of clothing and would hike on the treadmill at 14% grade. As far as the altitude. Well, even though I live at sea level, I really didn’t feel like it would be that big of an issue. It only went up to 7,500’ and I didn’t feel like that would cause much of an issue. I was running over 17 hours/week with 18,000’ of climbing and I was in the best shape of my life. I tapered hard and felt very confident heading into race day.

 

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Photo Credit: Paul Nelson (Mile 12)

 

The race began and within the first ten minutes Ryan Ghelfi started pulling away up the first climb. My first thought was that he was trying to take advantage of the cool morning temperature and was going to make a strong push early on. I thought about going with him and share his race tactics, but I thought about how important it was to stay conservative and save energy. I naturally fell into second place and simply focused on running by rate of perceived exertion. During training, I had purposely completed many long training runs where I focused only on the proper effort for the first thirty miles of a 100 miler. I began to assess my effort and pace. Ok. Well…everything felt about what it normally does during training, so let’s just check my heart rate. A good 100 mile effort for me should put me somewhere around an average heart rate of 145-150 bpm. I looked down and my average heart rate was 161 bpm. This really surprised me because my effort as well as my paces seemed really normal. I thought maybe I was just jacked up for the race, but then my pace would have been faster. I thought, let’s not focus too much on technology and just go with feel. I believe that this was where my entire race began to unfold without me even noticing it. I wish, I wish, I wish I could go back to this first climb of the race and do it all over again. I had great fitness and solid climbing coming into the race, but I needed to realize that for me personally, my body was not prepared to run at altitude. I just needed to slow down. And that’s ok. It’s a 100 mile race. Unfortunately, one of the things that makes racing a 100 miler so tough, is that you don’t come back from a mistake like this. Underestimating the effect of altitude on your body is a huge mistake. 100’s have a very large learning curve and I will certainly learn from this one.

 

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Photo Credit: Paul Nelson (Mile 52)

 

I went on to run nicely for the next fifty miles but, the whole time my body was working incredibly hard. As the day progressed, I would start to feel pressure on my heart and my lungs. Soon enough, I could sense the inevitable was about to happen. I began the big slow down and my body began to lock up. Nutrition and hydration was good, but it didn’t matter. I was worked.

 I began getting passed for the next ten miles and I told myself that my first goal had simply changed and now I would need to be focused on keeping a good attitude and trying to encourage others as I completed this race. I did not have a pacer at this race and I would see my wife for the last time at Dutchman Peak (mile 67). I came into Dutchman behind schedule and I told her not to worry about me. I’m fine. Things have changed and now I was just going to try and slowly make it to this finish line.

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Night began to fall and my slow shuffle had become a fast walk. I was just trying to get from aid station to aid station. I thought that was bad enough, but now my slow shuffle had become a slow walk. It is amazing how long it takes to get to the next aid when you are walking. I was somewhere around mile 74 and stopped at an aid to get some food. They asked if I wanted a cheese sandwich. I thought…wow. The only good thing about this is that I can stop and have time for a cheese sandwich. That was cool. I do think it messed with my mind though. All thoughts of racing were now far from my mind, I thought about how my wife would be up all night waiting for me. On top of that, I was wearing clothing that was now completely inappropriate for a cold walk in the woods. But, I ate my cheese sandwich and pressed on. The next six miles felt like the longest six miles of my life. As well as a very important six miles.

As I walked through the trails guided by my headlamp I reflected honestly on my running. I thought. What am I doing? Why am I doing it? Am I being too selfish? Is this even healthy? These thoughts all sound negative, but they were important for me to ask. I tend to have an addictive personality and when I get passionate about something. I can go overboard. I spent the next several hours thinking honestly about these questions. I finally reached the aid station at mile 80 and officially ended my race. My first official DNF. Yuck. I don’t even like writing that down. But, that is what happened.

As far as my last six miles. Well, I love running and I am going to continue to attack my passion for ultra-running. But…I may ease up on myself a bit. I may decrease my mileage a bit. And, I may sleep in a bit. Ultimately, life is a balancing act and I simply need to find a better balance.

 

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Mt. Hood 50 Miler

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Ahhhh. Mt. Hood 50 had finally arrived. My wife and I always put a lot of effort into these weekends as they make for such a great mini family vacation. We had reserved a few nights at the Resort at the Mountain and had coolers of food packed on ice that could have fed us for a month. We arrived at the resort and without hesitation our five your old son immediately wanted to go swimming. We made our way to the pool and I told Steph and Drew I was going to head back to the room and rest my legs for the race in the morning. I walked back to the room and shut the door. I sat down on the bed for a full 2-3 seconds and thought to myself…what the heck am I doing? It’s not like I’m some professional runner trying to make a living off running. So, I immediately jumped in my swimming shorts and walked back to the pool. We played “shark” which is just me swimming under water, with my hand up like a fin, chasing after Drew. It was a silly game, but it made him so happy. He could have played shark the entire night.

Mt. Hood 50 was going to be an interesting race. Just two months ago I had raced against two of my friends Rick Stilson and Kyle Ormsby at the Smith Rock 50k. We all finished on the podium at that race and we would all be in the Mt. Hood 50 as well. They are both very strong runners and I knew it was going to be a competitive race. My plan was to go out conservative during the first 26 miles of the race. I wanted to conserve energy and focus on eating and hydrating. I figured I would be about 2:30-3:00 minutes behind at mile 26 and then I would pick up the effort on the back half of the course and make up ground on the leaders as the miles and hills progressed. But, of course plans never work out exactly like you would hope.

Rick, Kyle and I all lined up at the front of the pack. Rick turned and asked me if I was going to go out hot. I replied, “oh no”. I’m going to keep it easy. All three of us ran together for less than half a mile and then Rick and Kyle were gone. I told myself just to be patient and stick to my plan. I eventually caught up to Kyle around mile seven. He looked strong and was running a nice pace so I ran with him. We reached FSR 58 aid station around mile 10 and the volunteers told us that 1st place was up by six minutes. Holy crap. Rick wasn’t messing around. At that point, I remember thinking that I was right where I wanted to be and my early conservative pacing would pay off in dividends later.

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Photo credit: Paul Nelson (Kyle Ormsby and Rob Russell)

I continued to focus on eating and hydrating. Kyle and I had been running together for about 20 miles and I kept hearing him cough now and again. I remember reading on his strava that he had a head cold a week or two ago and I thought he might still be under the weather. We reached the Little Crater Lake aid station at mile 22 and I ran right through the aid station trying to put a gap on Kyle. He did not pursue me and I didn’t see him again until mile 37 at the turnaround at Warm Springs. This was Kyle’s first 50 miler. He ran with a lingering cold and still managed to finish in third place with a 6:43.

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Photo credit: Paul Nelson

The course at Mt. Hood 50 miler is absolutely gorgeous. It is almost all heavily shaded singletrack. The trails are fairly buffed out. However, don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security as you will surely set yourself up for an ankle sprain. There are phenomenal views of Mt. Hood as well as several river crossings. The course is a double out and back with the first 26 miles being predominantly flat to rolling and the back half having much more climbing and descending. It is a true Northwest Classic trail race and an excellent choice for someone attempting their first 50 miler. The race is organized by GoBeyondRacing and I cannot say enough good things about Todd, Renee and Trevor. There is always a friendly and positive vibe at their races and that is simply a reflection of these three.  

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Photo credit: Paul Nelson

I was now running alone and headed back through the starting line at mile 26. My wife and son were there waiting for me. I ran over and gave Drew a big high five and off I went. I was headed out to the back half of the course and told myself that I was really going to pick up the effort now. I was climbing up to Red Wolf and realized that I just felt ok. I thought if I ran composed through the first 26 miles that  I would really be able to hammer on this climb. But, that just wasn’t the case. I started to worry about my plan. Maybe after 30 miles you are just tired regardless of your initial efforts. Maybe, I had simply lossed time by running too conservatively on the front. These thoughts were not helping though. I just needed to stay present and focus on the things I could control. I made it up to the top of Red Wolf aid station (mile 31) and they said I was still six minutes back. I figured that meant Rick was still running well and I just needed to hammer the downhill. I started down from Red Wolf and my stomach felt great, my quads felt strong and I was able to fly down the hill. Rick had made the turnaround and I was able to do some recon on him. He still looked peppy. He had a nice short cadence and his form looked solid. After assessing him as we passed each other. I thought uggg. He’s not gonna give this up easily. One thing to note: as we passed by each other we tried a high five and completely missed. I mean…that’s pretty weak. Not even like a three finger high five, just a complete whiff!

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Photo credit: Paul Nelson (Rob Russell)

I arrived at the Warm Springs aid station (mile 36) and really tried to make it a quick stop. Although, I was able to see the always positive person Laura Kantor at the aid.  We talked for a quick moment and I was out. I now felt really good coming out of Warm Springs. I thought…ok this is it. Just kill this section. I ran the downhill really well, but struggled a little on the climb up to Red Wolf (mile 42) I ran it with all my effort. But, I was all hunched over running Grandpa style. The other runners headed out to Warm Springs were so positive and really helped me through this section. I received a lot of good job, keep it up and I think it was Jeff Fisher who yelled at me GRIT!…yeah…GRIT! It was awesome and really gave me a boost. I must have looked like a mess though. I kept telling myself that I needed to put myself in a good position at Red Wolf so that I could really make a big push to the finish. I continued to work hard up that hill and was relieved to hear cow bells in the distance. I had finally reached Red Wolf aid at the top (mile 45). I asked them how far and they said Rick was still six minutes ahead. Aaaghh! What the heck. I hadn’t made up any ground? I will admit that was a pretty big blow and I could actually feel it in my stomach.

Ok. Quickly, no time to feel sorry for myself. I grabbed a wedge of watermelon and drank a little water. I took a deep breath and made my final push to the finish. It was almost all flat or downhill and I would not leave anything left in the tank. My quads felt great, my stomach felt great and I was moving very well despite being at mile 45. At each corner I kept looking for Rick in the distance only to continually be disappointed. As the miles passed by I realized I was not going to catch him. Rick had obviously run a great race, he put in a serious effort and was strong enough to hold on until the finish. You have to give him his credit. I was not upset at myself though. I gave it a solid effort, I was patient and stayed true to my original plan, but Rick simply ran a better race. I finally reached the point where the single track meets the road and I knew the finish was only 30 seconds away. My body was immediately filled with endorphins. Overall, I was fairly happy with my effort and I was very relieved to finally be done. I finished 2nd place in 6:23:30 and ran the 5th fastest time in the 18 year history of the Mt. Hood 50.

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Photo credit: Renee Seeker (Rob Russell officially tired)

The race was over but my job was far from done. Drew walked over to me and said, “good job Daddy…now let’s go play shark”.

 

Newport Marathon

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Life can sometimes become stagnate. The day to day routine can become infectious and it is all too easy to slip into the comfort of our daily actions. We tend to stop pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones and as a result our growth as individuals can become stunted. One of the ways we can attempt to counter this stagnation is by facing challenges through running.

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Photo credit:Drew Dinan (Rob Russell #377)

 

Hundreds of runners had arrived at the starting line of the Newport Marathon and nervous excitement filled the air. A loud voice called all marathon runners to the starting line. The gun fired and we were off. The first three miles of the Newport marathon course makes its way from historic lighthouse at Yaquina Bay State Park through the city streets of Newport. This portion of the course was visually stimulating and there was great enthusiasm and interaction from the spectators. I went out with a lead pack of six and we really eased into the race. There were several short ascents and descents in this segment of the race and it was important to keep my heart rate down and simply relax. The weather was near perfect and we enjoyed some great views of the ocean as we went through Nye beach

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Photo credit:Drew Dinan

 

By mile 4 the lead pack had been reduced to four. We continued our way past the Yaquina Bay Bridge and down through Newport’s Historic Bayfront. We ran on the boardwalk, past shops, restaurants and galleries. We climbed one last hill before heading out along the bay. This is where the race really begins and everyone seemed to fall seamlessly into their strides. I found myself running comfortably in third place.

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Photo credit: Ed Cortes

By mile 6 the course became flat and fairly straight forward. The race could have become quite boring, instead there was always something exciting happening. We passed by a high school band followed by a group of cheerleaders and wrestlers from the local high school. I jumped through a water fountain and gave out many a high five to very enthusiastic and supporting spectators. I’m sure my extra-curricular activities were not ideal for maintaining a high level of running efficiency, but I was really having fun and enjoyed all that this race had to offer.

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Photo credit:Ed Cortes

This out and back course has a turnaround located at mile 15 which makes things interesting. You begin to run back towards the starting line and pass by all of the other marathon runners. Everyone was highly competitive, but there was also a very strong sense of comradery. As I passed by hundreds of runners we constantly exchanged words of encouragement. Nice job, well done, Keep it up. It was very apparent we were all in this together.

I had been running fairly comfortably for most of the race, but by mile 16 I realized I was having to put in some increased effort to maintain my pace. It wasn’t painful, but I could feel something had changed. I knew this point would come, I just didn’t know how soon. The next several miles were much of the same, but by mile 20 it was no longer a slight sensation. It was more like a punch in the face. My legs now felt heavy, I was experiencing increased pain, negative thoughts were trying to creep in and I was really having to work hard to maintain my pace.

This point of severe pain comes in every race I run and it was very clear that time had arrived. It’s easy to be positive when we are comfortable, but our outlook on life and our internal strength is primarily revealed when we are in pain or think we are about to be in pain. The choices we make during this discomfort is incredibly important in finding out who we truly are and this is why we take on these challenges. By running a marathon we are forcing ourselves into a situation that causes pain and discomfort in an effort to accomplish and overcome with grace. In America our daily lives have become so comforting, constantly demand immediate gratification and striving so hard to find ways to make things easier. So much so that we rarely get to encounter challenge. We tend to view pain as a bad thing, as if it is something to be avoided. The reality is that pain and discomfort should be sought out because that is where growth comes from. Ease and comfort only breeds stagnation. It is important to lean into fear, because what we want is usually on the other side of what we are scared of. Much like training for a race, if you push yourself outside of your comfort zone, you will eventually adapt and become a better, stronger more fulfilled person.

I reached the final mile of the race and was now giving it everything I had. My body hurt, my breathing was hard and my form was deteriorating. I could see the top of the hill and I told myself to stay positive. I just needed to push hard to the top. I reached the top and was rewarded with a final downhill stretch. My body was relieved to feel gravity begin to relinquish its unrelenting grip and I was filled with a renewed sense of power. I flew down the hill full throttle. I could now see the finish line and the gallery of spectators surrounding it. I chose to really enjoy the moment and ran by the crowd with my hand seeking attention. I was met with a barrage of high fives and cheers as I made my way through the finishing chute. I finished second place in 2:39:23.

After the race I stayed and watched runner after runner pass through the finish line. It was so enjoyable to see the look on the faces of so many runners as they completed their goal. To watch their families fill with a sense of pride in their accomplishment. It was very apparent that although I had finished the race faster than many of the other runners, this was quite beside the point of the event. Despite all of our different body types, different ages and different running paces. We all had something in common. We had all summoned the courage to reject fear and encounter the discomfort and pain that running 26.2 miles would inevitably bring. All of this in an effort to reveal our inner selves and ultimately to grow from the experience. It is so common these days for people to search for the short cut, to identify a life hack, or to attempt to get to the destination without putting in the effort. But, that would be to entirely miss the point. It is not the medal, the finish time or the personal record that is the reward. But, rather the journey itself.

 

 

Gorge Waterfalls 100k

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I had been looking forward to the Gorge Waterfalls 100k since I signed up for the race in October of last year. This was going to be a “golden ticket” race, which meant the top 2 finishers would receive automatic entry into Western States 100. This also meant that it would be highly competitive and draw top runners from around the country. After a poor race at the North Face 50 in December, I made sure I would be more prepared for the Gorge.

The race had gone out fast and I was perfectly fine hanging back somewhere around 10th position. We made our first 1,500’ climb up to Wahkeena falls. I tried to stay relaxed during this early climb, but in retrospect feel I pushed too hard during this section. The morning sun had now begun to rise and my surroundings quickly made themselves known. The gorge was beautiful. And, I do not mean that it was nice. It was un-freaking real.

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Photo Credit: Glenn Tachiyama

I would run over rock beds lined with thick moss, cross bridges over thrashing creeks, and go passed and underneath countless waterfalls. And it wasn’t just visually stunning. As you passed by a waterfall the mist would reach out and cover your body. You were inundated with the sound of the water crashing on the rocks below. It almost reached a point of sensory overload. However, I must warn you. The beauty is only a façade. This course is a true Northwest bruiser. The terrain is seriously rocky. You must have strong ankles as well as the ability to run technical sections with ease. There are only a handful of big sustained climbs, but the rest of the course is relentlessly rolling up and down 100-200’ at a time.

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Photo Credit: Robert Sholtis

I made my decent down to Multnomah Falls. I let my body simply fall down this decent and did not push hard. I was now headed east on the Gorge Trail 400 and had now entered the rolling sections. This type of running is my favorite. The trail is constantly moving up and down, left and right. Jumping over logs and avoiding sharp rocks. The trail was like this for many miles and I simply tried to keep a steady effort despite the constant change in terrain.

I had been running with two other guys for the first portion of the race, but they seemed to be picking up the effort around Mile 20 in between Yeon and Cascade Locks. I preferred running with the group, but made the decision to stay on my own pace.

I reached the Cascade Locks aid station at Mile 22 and I was delighted to see my wife. She was crewing for me and was on point all day long. She handed me my nutrition and a fresh water bottle. I snuck a quick kiss and I was on my way. She mentioned that I was 10 minutes off the lead. This didn’t bother me at all. It was so early in the race and the guys ahead were really pushing hard. I felt that if the lead guys were able to sustain that pace, then they deserved the golden tickets. The thing I was concerned about was that despite my effort to contain myself, I was still ahead of my goal pace.

I was headed out to Wyeth which is located at mile 31 and is the turnaround point for this out and back course. I felt comfortable during this climbing section and began to pass several runners without making any change in effort. I moved into 8th position. I was nearing the turnaround point and began to see the lead runners. It was a little disheartening to see the leaders were definitely ten minutes ahead and looked strong. But, I told myself it is a long race and you can only do what you can do. So, I tried to stay positive and focus on my own efforts.

I made it to Wyeth, loaded up my pack and was headed back west. I did a quick self-assessment and determined that my legs still felt strong, my nutrition had been good throughout the day and I had not incurred any niggles throughout the course of the day. My early pacing was too fast, but I was back on track and felt I was in decent position to now make a move. Over the next several miles I would move from 8th into 5th place.

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Photo Credit: Glenn Tachiyama

I made my return to Cascade Locks aid station (Mile 40). My wife asked me how I was feeling. I replied,” Well, I feel like I have run 40 miles.”

40 miles completed with 22 miles to go and this is where the race truly begins. This is where you answer the questions,” did you pace correctly for the first 40 miles, did you eat early and often, did you drink enough water and get your electrolytes, did you train your legs over the past several months to withstand 12,000’ of climbing and descending.” Because at this point your body will answer those questions for you.

I was headed back out and realized I was still moving well, nutrition and hydration were good, I just felt really tired. The next twenty two miles were going to be a mental battle. I was trying to remain positive and grind out the best splits I could mile after mile. But I was tired and the negative thoughts kept creeping in. I needed some positive thoughts and I reminded myself that my sister (Amy) would be at the finish line. This immediately helped my attitude. My sister is battling cancer and is currently 2 ½ months into chemotherapy. She has been nothing but positive and has maintained a good attitude despite her very difficult journey. I thought of her a lot during these last 22 miles. Not only did I stop my negative thoughts, I began to reflect on how lucky I was to have a healthy body that can race for 62 miles. This is something that can be taken away from me at any moment.

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Photo Credit: James Varner

I finally arrived at No Name aid station with only six miles to go in the race. However, there would be a 1,500’ climb and descent in between me and the finish. I gave it all I had on the ascent up to Multnomah Falls and beyond. There were tourists everywhere and I was tired. I must have looked like quite the site. I was running, but the climb had taken its toll. I was on my way back up to Wahkeena Falls when I clipped a rock and went head over heels rolling to the edge of a cliff. My water bottle was sent flying and I could hear a group of tourists gasp. Luckily, my pace was so slow that only half my body went over the edge and I was able to hang on with my upper half of my body. There was a 20ft drop with only water below and it could have been really bad…but what do you do? So, I crawled back up, found my bottle and continued running up the hill.

I was relieved to finally reach the top and went on to run the 1,500’ descent fairly well. After I reached the bottom I knew I only had a few miles to go and really tried to savor those final moments. I rounded the corner at Benson State Park and saw my entire family cheering for me. It made me so happy to see my wife and son, my parents and my sister and her family. I crossed the line in 9:38:11 and finished in 5th place.

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Photo Credit: Drew Dinan

 I had not reached my ultimate goal of obtaining one of the two golden tickets. I made a few pacing errors early on, and I did not run with enough confidence late in the race. I will definitely learn from these mistakes. But, I am a big picture kind of guy and the reality is…none of that really matters. I had a wonderful day in the gorge. I was constantly inspired by its beauty and I was able to spend time with my friends and family. I will never take my health for granted. I will never take the beauty of our world for granted and I will treat them both with the respect they deserve. I will continue to push the limits of my body’s abilities and the boundaries of our amazing world.

The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler

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Photo: Nate Dunn

The majority of us will never be able to play in the World Series with the Yankees, or join a foursome on Sunday of the Masters. However, as I looked around at 5:00 am Saturday morning December the 5th, I was standing shoulder to shoulder with many of the best ultra-runners in the sport in one of the largest and most competitive races of the year. How cool is it to be able to test yourself against the very best and see how you stack up.

Saturday morning had arrived and my alarm sounded at 2:00 am. I am normally an early riser, but this was ridiculous. I caught the athletes bus at 3:15am and was on my way to the Marin Headlands. The excitement continued to build as I exited the bus and followed the stadium lights to the starting area.

I was aware that The North Face 50 miler was known to go out fast and my plan for the day was to be cautious and run composed for the first 13 miles. I planned on picking up my effort once I hit the climb up Cardiac and would hopefully be able to move up the leaderboard throughout the latter portions of the race.

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2015 North Face Endurance Challenge Starting Line

The gun went off and I stuck to my game plan and ran well within my comfort zone. I made the climb up Bobcat (Mile 6) in the early morning darkness and then it was off to Tennessee Valley. One of the joys of ultra running is being able to see places that most people will never get to enjoy. The best view of the day and one that is now permanently burned into my memory was during the climb coming out of Tennessee Valley. The sun had just begun to rise, the waves were crashing hard against the rocks and I looked back and saw the bright city lights of San Fransisco, a dark purple horizon and a long line of headlamps snaking up the trails in the cool morning air. This was truly amazing!

I made it through Tennessee Valley (Mile 9) feeling great and was now headed out to Muir Beach. I was a little nervous about this race due to the amount of climbing. I had run a 50 miler before, but it had 5,000ft of climbing and this would be over double that in elevation gain. I had now reached Muir Beach (Mile 13) and it was time to take it up a notch. I felt comfortable and cruised up Cardiac quite easily. I thought this climb was going to be much more difficult than it turned out to be, and I was hoping this was going to be a sign of things to come.

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Headed out to McKennan Gulch (Mile 21) Photo: Nate Dunn

After reaching the top of Cardiac (Mile 18) I made my way out to Mckennan Gulch (Mile 23). I was running really well at this point. My pace felt very comfortable and I was sandwiched in between Hal Koerner and Michael Wardian. I was somewhere around 25th place and felt like I had put myself in a good position. I was hoping to maintain my position and make a move up the leaderboard somewhere around mile 40. However, the first 28 miles would turn out to be the most enjoyable of the day. I made my way down to Stinson Beach (Mile 28) and for the first time noticed my quads felt really tight.

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Descent down to Stinson Beach (Mile 26)

The previous night I had watched an interview on irunfar.com with Max King. They asked Max how newer runners cope with The North Face Course. Max responded with, “They don’t have that leg strength built in yet and that climbing ability. This race, in particular, is difficult for someone who is new to the sport to come out and actually have a really good race. The legs can handle the distance, but they don’t have the strength to climb all those hills.”

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Climb up Cardiac 2 (Mile 29)

I reached the bottom of Stinson Beach(Mile 28) and started my climb up Cardiac 2. I had put myself in a good position and felt fairly good despite the tight quads and I was ready to really make a move up Cardiac 2. However, about a half mile into the climb eveything began to change. It is amazing how quickly things can turn from good to bad and this was bad. I had reached a portion of the trail that was so steep that it required hundreds of wooden stairs and this is where I really began to suffer. My climbing no longer felt powerful, my legs and lower back began to hurt, I was passed by several runners and all I wanted to do was lay down and take a nap. There was still 20 miles and thousands of feet of climbing left in the race and I was already falling apart. The negative thoughts were now flowing like a river and they seemed to increase with the grade of the trail. I remember thinking…I just want this to be over. I seemed to really embrace this pity party for about ten minutes, until I finally got bored of myself. I realized my original race goals had now changed and I needed to re-evaluate and go through my options. OPTION 1 dropping out. I thought about it for a moment and this was clearly not an acceptable option. OPTION 2 fight on. I now clearly realized what my options were and the negative thoughts immediately vanished. I had to accept my pre-race goals would not be met and I would need to fight hard the next 20 miles for the best possible finish on this particular day. I made a deal with myself. The only way I would feel proud of myself and cross the finish line with my head held high was if I worked as hard as I possibly could, expressed no whining and kept a positive attitude despite my slow pace.

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Climb up Cardiac 2 (Mile 29)

I was very relieved to reach the top of Cardiac 2 (Mile 30.5) and headed down into Muir Woods to the Old Inn aid station (Mile 36). Unfortunately, the relief quickly passed as I realized my quads were not cooperating. My legs felt locked up. Every single stride felt like I was tearing the muscle off of the bone. At this point, Ellie Greenwood passed by me and I immediately latched on to her. She was huffing and puffing and alternating between running and hiking up the hills and I just copied her routine. We traded leads many times throughout the next several miles. Ellie commented that I looked much better than she felt and I told her I was just good at faking it. I just had no power left in my legs and she eventually pulled away finishing in 28th overall and second woman. I was really impressed with her, but also wished I had felt stronger. What could have been. right?

I made it to the aid station at Muir Beach#2 (Mile 40) and saw my friend Jeff Oswalt. It was a much needed pick me up that helped carry me through the next couple of miles. My nutrition and hydration had been wonderful all day long. My mind was clear and there was no bonk to speak of. It was simply muscle fatigue holding me back. I wanted to go fast…I just couldn’t.

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Headed out of Muir Beach (Mile 40) Photo: Jeff Oswalt

The course opens back up onto wide service roads with long relentless climbs. I would live up to my deal and continue to push as hard as I could for the remainder of the race. I eventually reached the finish line in (7:35:55/40th place) absolutely exhausted. I had not run the race I had dreamed of, but despite my time or place, I could finish with my head held high. And that was enough for me on this particular day.

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Photo: Jeff Oswalt

As I reflect on my first North Face 50 Miler, I initially felt like I didn’t race to my potential and the race was a bit of a failure. Upon second glance. I feel like I performed exactly the way my body was prepared to perform. My cardiovascular system was prepared, but my musculature was not ready for the 10,500ft of climbing and descending. My leg muscles were simply too fatigued to perform and I had to struggle to the finish on heart alone.

One of the things I love about running is that it is very black and white. You have either put in the appropriate work during training or you have not. There is no fooling anyone. There are no judges that determine your score or success. There are no referees that could potential miss a call. There is no boss that likes one person over another. The reality is you race against the course and your competition and you finish where you finish. End of story. It is so pure.

Oregon Coast 50k

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Cape Perpetua

Two weeks had passed since my 100 mile race at Mountain Lakes and to be honest, I was still trying to collect myself. However, I had signed up for the Oregon Coast 50k months ago, I have an affinity for these particular trails, and I could not imagine not taking part in the event.

A couple hundred runners exited a brigade of yellow school buses, we made the short walk down a sandy trail and as we walked beyond the shelter of the cliffs the wind made its presence known. We were to endure sustained winds of 30 mph with gusts reaching 50 mph. The wind was blowing from the south directly into our faces. We all gathered at the starting line (which was a simple line drawn in the sand), and spent the next six miles headed directly into the teeth of the wind. It was very apparent that venturing out on my own would be tantamount to race suicide, so I found a group of runners and took shelter behind them. Our group of six eventually began working together, the leader would break the wind for 45 seconds and then fall to the back. The next in line would become the new leader and so forth. Although the pace was very slow it was the most efficient way to get through these first six very difficult beach miles. I could see the leaders far in the distance and every minute I was getting farther and farther behind. There was nothing I could do. I simply needed to stay patient and save as much energy as possible while on the beach.

Starting Line

Photo by: Cody Callon -Starting Line

I was relieved to finally leave the sand behind as I reached the first aid station. I scanned through the crowd and found my wife Stephanie and my son Andrew who was proudly holding my pack for me. I was happy to see them, although I quickly noticed Stephanie had a very concerned look in her eye. She immediately asked me if I was alright. I realized I was only six miles into the race and was behind by more than six minutes sitting in 8th place. It must have looked pretty dire from anyone who had not been racing on the beach. I told her I was fine, I just had to take it easy in the wind. The concern immediately vanished from her face. I had only taken a two week rest period coming off of Mountain Lakes and she had been worried that an injury had shown itself during those first miles.

The next three miles were now on pavement with beautiful oceanfront views, but the oceanside location put me right back in the heart of the wind. I could now see a group of runners ahead and I quickly joined up with this pack, then worked on eating some nutrition. The wind was still brutal, I turned my head to see who was on my left, my cheek was immediately filled with air, taking the form of a parachute and the wind actually blew the nutrition right out of my mouth! It completely caught me off guard. At this point, the level of wind became comical.

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Photo by: Jeremy Tolman

Although the wind was treacherous, I remained very calm. Yachats is my favorite beach town and I visit quite frequently. I have run on these trails 45-50 times and commonly refer to them as “my” trails. I am a lifelong Oregonian and these trails simply feel like home. I have run on many buffed out trails that hardly require you to think and these trails are the opposite. They are constantly moving up and down and left and right. Avoiding roots and rocks, tip-tapping your feet quickly, shifting your upper body in preparation for a sharp turn, and bounding down wooden stairs bypassing a step just for fun. These trails make me feel like a child again.

Amanda Trail

Amanda Trail

I had reached mile 9 and I quickly transitioned from pavement and oceanfront views to single-track trails in dense forest. The first 9 miles were more about self preservation and now I was able to finally start racing. I had reached my comfort zone on the trails and was really enjoying the rolling terrain. I picked up the effort level, passed several runners and moved into third place.

Cape Perpetua

Photo by: Glenn Tachiyama Cape Perpetua

Although I was comfortable and my cardiovascular system felt great, my musculature did not. I would occasionally feel some odd twinges. My left achiles would bite from time to time and my right knee felt like I was missing a ball bearing. The biggest problem though was my climbing. I did not have any pep on the steep climbs. I just felt sluggish. There was a throbbing sensation deep in my legs that just felt like weakness. It was no surprise that I had not fully recovered and was realizing the consequences of racing too soon.

Rocky climb up Cummins Loop Trail

Rocky climb up Cummins Loop Trail

During the later stages of the race my lackadaisical climbing caught up with me and I was passed and moved backwards into 4th place. A short while later I was able to find some strength and moved back into 3rd place. From there I managed to hold on, maintain my effort and just do the best I could on this particular day. I will admit I was lacking some confidence and was looking back quite frequently on the last 6 miles. Regardless, I was able to enjoy the wind at my back for the last 5k and finished with a nice high five and a 3rd place finish.

To sum it up the Oregon Coast 50k is diverse. From the flat windy six miles on the beach to the steep climbs on the single-track up Cummins Ridge Trail it has diversity in terrain. The landscape is ever changing as you run on sand and pavement with gorgeous ocean views only to instantly be engulfed by dense forest and rolling trails. There is also amazing diversity in plant material as you pass by wind blown shore pines, greenleaf manzanita, sword ferns, giant spruce, western hemlock and miles and miles of single-track trail bedded by different shades of green moss. These trails are Pacific Northwest to the core and I for one am completely in love with Yachats, Amanda trail, and the Oregon Coast 50k race. This race is mentally and physically demanding and will test all of your running abilities.

Cummins Loop Trail during the summer

Cummins Loop Trail during the summer

Cape Perpetua on a sunny day

Cape Perpetua on a sunny day

Mountain Lakes 100 Miler

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Olallie Lake Photo by Jonathan Schwab

2015 has been a year full of new and exciting adventures. I have raced my first 50k, first 50 miler and now I was to embark upon my first 100 mile race at Mountain Lakes 100. Although new things are exciting, they can also be very scary.

Race morning had finally arrived and the weather was cold and misty. Time seems to shift quite erratically on race mornings. Some hours drag on and on while others pass by with the blink of an eye. Knowing this I made sure I was prepared and ready to go come race time. All of the racers congregated at the starting line. We listened to our final instructions from our friendly Go Beyond Racing team and off we went. I went out with a lead pack of four. I began chatting almost immediately with Jace Ives. I found him to be a very composed character with a kind spirit. With that said, he is also a great runner and I had him slated as one of the top contenders. The other two runners were Zach Gingerich and Adam Angstadt. I knew that Zach had won Badwater and would be someone I would definitely need to keep an eye on. While I knew less about Adam, that didn’t mean he would be any less of a threat. These two quickly broke away from us and went out on their own. Jace and I separated, and I was now running by myself in third place. I was simply trying to focus on running easy and relaxed.

One of the more interesting points of the course comes after you pass Breitenbush for the second time, as you backtrack and pass by the runners that are behind you. I was able to see who was behind me and how they looked. Both Jace Ives and David Mitchell were in good position and looked strong.

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Photo by Jonathan Schwab

The course at Mountain Lakes was predominately rolling single track with lots of grinders. The first 26 miles had sections of technical single track while the remaining miles were much more runnable. The Olallie Lake area is an alpine landscape with many beautiful lakes to enjoy. The contrast between the rocks and vibrant plant material was breathtaking. Renee, Todd, and Trevor did an exceptional job organizing volunteers as well as marking the course for runners and crew alike. The food was great and everything seemed to go off without a hitch. Go Beyond pulled off a first class event once again. Thank you to the countless volunteers that gave up their weekend to help us at the aid stations and to Paul Nelson for capturing all of the special moments. You are greatly appreciated!

I arrived at Olallie Lake aid station, Mile 26, on 17 hour pace and was right where I wanted to be. I met up with my crew, picked up some nutrition and slammed down a couple scoops of UCAN then I was on my way. It was so nice to see my wife Stephanie and my friend Ryan Kaiser at the aid station, and it gave me a big boost of adrenaline. I was now on the long journey away from Olallie Lake, and I wouldn’t see my crew again until Clackamas Ranger Station at mile 54.

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Photo by Stephanie Russell

The Olallie Meadows aid station, Mile 29, came quickly and I didn’t bother to stop. Soon after I saw Adam walking and I asked if he was alright. He was eating some chips and said he was fine. So, I continued on my way. I was now in second place and was still pacing where I wanted to be.

I had reached the Pinheads aid station, Mile 36, and felt now it was time to take a bit of a chance. I had reached a very runnable downhill section and my plan was to give a little extra during this section. I knew I was pushing a little and it was still very early, but I thought it was a nice spot to put in a good effort. Four or five miles later I would see Zach in the distance. I contemplated how I wanted to handle the situation. I eventually decided that the terrain ahead of us looked very runnable and I would try and pass him with authority. I caught up and asked if I could pass. I put in a big surge to quickly pass by. I think I caught him off guard and I gapped him quickly. However, the move completely blew up in my face as it was very poorly timed. I had not realized the Warm Springs aid station, Mile 43, was only a half mile ahead and I needed stop and refill the bladder in my pack. Almost immediately he joined up with me at the Warm Springs aid station, so my move was a total waste. I asked Zack how he was doing and he said he felt like it was already mile 80. We left the Warm Springs together and I tried to shake him. Zach is a strong runner, and I thought he may have been playing me with his mile 80 remark. The terrain was gradual downhill and he was latched on pretty good. I finally reached a stretch of windy trail and I was able to surge out of site. I pushed hard on a few steep up hill climbs and I was finally able to break free for good. In retrospect, I probably should have been much more patient. I used up more energy than I wanted during that exchange, and there was a chance this would affect me later.

I was now leading the race, but I had picked up some shrapnel along the way. My mind was continually going back to my vision at Breitenbush, and I was curious as to how Jace and David were doing. I was also reflecting on the long downhill at Pinheads and the big downhill at Redwolf. I wondered how much strength I would have to climb those sections on the way back to the finish. I was now leading the race, but the pressure I felt had increased, and I really wanted to keep my lead until the finish.

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Photo by Stephanie Russell

By nature, I don’t like to ask people to go out of their way for me and I constantly try to be aware of the feelings of others. However, when I rolled into Clackamas Ranger Station, Mile 54, I uncharacteristically said to Ryan (who was recovering from a recent ankle injury and debating whether or not to pace me), “if you can run I could really use you on the way back.”

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Photo by Ryan Kaiser

I picked up more nutrition from my sweet wife and threw down another bottle of UCAN. I said thanks to my crew and the wonderful aid station volunteers, then off I went. About a half mile later I realized I didn’t have my headlamp. I would not return to Clackamas until around 7:20, and the possibility of nightfall was likely. I remembered Ryan telling me on one of our training runs how troubleshooting was a major factor in 100 mile races, and so I chose to remain calm and filter through my options. I decided to continue on and ask the next aid station if they had an extra flash light or head lamp available. I will admit I was fairly stressed during this stretch as I was facing a possible race ending situation.

I reached the Little Crater Lake aid station in a slightly stressed state of mind, but was quickly relieved when I felt the very positive vibes from the volunteers. They were directing me to a table with shots of Fireball, which I quickly passed on. I was very happy to see Yassine Diboun who was donning a full on suit. He cordially shook my hand with a big smile. I explained my situation and Yassine immediately went looking for lighting. While he went behind the tent a saint of a man named Mathew Clover handed me his Petzel headlamp. I was blown away by his generosity and made sure to thoroughly thank him. I quickly grabbed a small turkey wrap and headed back towards Timothy Lake. Before I could make it out of Little Crater I was handed a bottle of Fireball. At this point things were looking up, I was riding the high from the selfless act by Mr. Clover and the energy was good. I grabbed the bottle and took a nice big swig. I was met with what felt like rock star level applause. It was really one of the best moments of the race and reminded me that I do this because I love it and it is fun.

Photo by: Paul Nelson

Photo by: Paul Nelson

I enjoyed the jaunt around Timothy Lake and arrived back at Clackamas Ranger Station. I picked up my headlamps and exchanged jackets as the darkness would soon be upon us. I had spent the first 71 miles alone and I was now accompanied by Ryan, my pacer and friend. It was invigorating having him with me now. We began to go over how I was feeling both mentally and physically as well as how the guys behind me looked coming into Clackamas one.

We headed up to Red Wolf, Mile 76, and I began to get a little bit complacent. My right knee was having an issue and it became difficult to pick it up with each step. I ran the downhill section poorly, seemingly just going through the motions and that can become contagious. I tried to pick the pace back up, but subconsciously I was thinking, “Maybe I can just finish this thing off without too much effort.” It is a horrible thought, and it goes against everything I stand for, but after 76 miles those weak thoughts tend to try and creep in.

Photo by: Paul Nelson

Photo by: Paul Nelson

We had almost reached the beginning of the six mile climb up Pinheads when Ryan needed to stop and change the battery in his headlamp. I continued on and hoped he could make the switch in complete darkness. A few minutes later I looked back and was relieved to see his headlamp bouncing towards me. Oh shit. No, that’s two headlamps. I thought maybe it was an injured runner heading back to an aid station. Nope. It was David Mitchell and a peppy David Mitchell at that! I stopped after crossing the bridge and let David pass. He gave me a friendly slap on the shoulder accompanied by a “Wattsup homey.” I mustered something in reply, but it certainly did not match the tone or cadence of his greeting. Ryan and I looked at each other and didn’t say much. We both knew what had happened, we knew where we stood and we knew what we had to do. I then followed behind David who was full of energy, singing to himself as he bounded up the hill. I began processing information as I quietly trudged on behind him. It can be very discouraging getting passed by someone at mile 78 and I was working through some emotions. Thoughts like…second place is still good, and now I can let up a little went through my brain. Those thoughts were immediately met with feelings of cowardice and I would not have any of it. I quickly got back on track and thought about what I stood for. I was presented with a tough situation and this was not a time to take the easy way out. It was time to fight on, accept the fact that these next 20 miles would be very painful, and show myself what I was made of.

I was fortunate to have Ryan pacing me. Not only is he a phenomenal runner, but he is very smart and our personalities are very much in line with each other. He began to tell me that we would stay directly on David. He wanted me to be a gnat on his butt and annoy the hell out of him. We were right in position and although David was running very strong, he was doing most of the work. We remained like this for some time.

We were making the long climb up Pinheads, Mile 84, and David had become quite. He still looked good. He was power hiking some sections with intensity and I was forced to run to keep up. Ryan and I talked about how I was feeling. I told him I was comfortable and I had reserves available if needed. He said to save them, because it may come down to a final seven mile race. Then, out of the blue, David pulled off to the side and said he had to relieve himself. I was immediately wondering what he was up to. I thought he might have been sick of leading and wanted me to take over. A little bit of a gap formed and I thought to myself don’t get carried away, he is just trying to make you burn some energy on the hills and he will come firing back full of energy on a flat or downhill section. After a little bit of time though, a decent gap had formed and I decided to go ahead and use some energy and gap him. We had made it through the hills up Pinheads and the terrain was now rolling downhill. I actually preferred the climbs, because I knew David had been so strong on the previous downhill section. I had been running gingerly on my right knee and now blistered feet and decided just to let it rip regardless of the pain. We had an opening… and we took it. We fought hard the entire way to the finish. Ryan’s motivation was incredible. My efforts were met with, “No one else is willing to fight this hard,” and “This is why we train like we do.” Each mile we got closer Ryan would explain how David could be making up time and we would have to work harder. He asked me how badly I wanted this. He was pushing me hard and I thrived on it. We had respect for David’s running abilities and did not want to give him a way back into this race. The last three miles seemed more like five or six, and at no point did I allow myself to think I had the race in the bag. Eventually I saw a large grouping of orange cones and I knew we were on the final stretch. Ryan made the comment,”you have a proud friend behind you,” and that meant a lot to me. The road widened and Ryan was able to run next to me like the team we were. We could finally hear people and Ryan yelled out,” We have got Rob Russell coming in.” I made the final turn and crossed those beautiful arches before the lake. I had nothing to say. I felt like nothing needed to be said. I hugged Ryan, I hugged my wife, and I felt proud.

Photo by: Paul Nelson

Photo by: Paul Nelson

There are only so many times in your life when you are met with intense challenges and how you handle them really defines you. I was happy that I was able to dig deep and fight hard despite being challenged late in the race. More than that, I felt so fortunate that I have a loving wife that would spend the entire day handing me nutrition and driving around in the dark wilderness. I was thankful to have a friend that would risk running on an injury just to see me succeed. These are selfless acts. These are the things in life that you cannot purchase, and not everyone can just have. This is why I love the ultra running community, and all of my fellow racers at Mountain Lakes 100. We don’t race to receive huge checks or have television commentators speak about us. It is to see how we will react when faced with a challenge, and what we will do for others while expecting nothing in return. The photograph below is a perfect microcosm of my race at Mountain Lakes 100. I can’t tell you how much it means to me. It encapsulates many of the things I truly value. It captures the grit, heart and determination it takes to win a 100 mile race. As well as the pride, love, worry and selflessness shown by others. Thank you Stephanie and Ryan. David Mitchell, Renee, Trevor, and Todd. Paul Nelson. Mathew Clover, Yassine Diboun, Ian Sharman, Eric Lubell, Jonathan Schwab, all of the wonderful volunteers, and all of my fellow racers at Mountain Lakes 100. Congratulations to all of you. What an accomplishment.

Photo by: Paul Nelson

Photo by: Paul Nelson