Summer/Fall Recap

October 25, 2014

Last time, I left you with the cliffhanger of me about to embark on running around a track for 24 hours. 6 Days in the Dome was an interesting experience, to say the least. I ran the 24 hour race on the first day, and then hung around most of the rest of the week helping out and watching the action unfold. I was happy to have met my “A” goal of running a sub-24 hour 100 miler – but not by much!

I finished the first 50 miles in about 9 1/2 hours, which I was very pleased with, and still feeling pretty good. Unfortunately, around 2 or 3 in the morning, I had something happen that was a first for me in 100 mile races: I could barely stay awake. I don’t know if it was the monotony of running on a track for that many hours, or because the lights never went off, but whatever it was, I needed a nap if I had any hope of hitting 100 miles! After a few attempts at taking just a short 15 minute nap, and not feeling very rejuvenated, I finally laid down for about 45 minutes and that finally helped. All in all, I probably laid down for about 90 minutes.

Once I started running again, I was doing the mental math on whether 100 miles was still a possibility for me. I thought I could still pull it off, but it was going to be. I figured out how many laps I needed to average per hour, and decided to just take it an hour at a time, instead of thinking about how much longer I still had to run. The mental side of a timed race like this is quite a bit difference, since there’s not really a finish line, you just keep running as far as you can until the time is up. I was meeting my hourly lap goal by just 3 or 4 minutes, but that was enough to keep my hopes alive that I could still do this. As the hours went on, I was actually speeding up a bit, meeting my hourly lap goal with 7 or 8 minutes to spare. With just a couple hours to go, I knew I had my goal all but met, as long as nothing went seriously wrong.

I hit the 100 mile mark at about 23:35, and managed to bang out a few more laps for 101.5 miles total in 24 hours. Overall, I liked the timed race format, but I’m not sure I would want to do a race like that on an indoor track again. The track at the Dome is very hard, and took its’ toll on many runners. It was very interesting to hang around the rest of the week and see the whole thing play out. There are many ups and downs over the course of 6 days, and it was pretty amazing to see someone who could barely limp around one day, would be running around at a pretty good clip the next.

Without a doubt, the most inspiring part of the whole 6 days was watching Traci Falbo break the women’s 48 hour record. She had started on the first day along with me, and was extremely friendly and cheery every time she passed me. It was a privilege to watch her final few laps, while it became very obvious how much she was hurting as she leaned far to one side, but still determined to keep pushing hard and get as many laps in as she could. After completing her final lap, she just collapsed, having given it everything she possibly could. If you haven’t see the video of her finishing, it’s something you really should take a moment to watch:

Hatcher Pass Marathon

Rewinding back a few weeks, in between Sluicebox and 6 Days in the Dome, I ran the Hatcher Pass Marathon. This is one of those races I had been wanting to run for several years, but for one reason or another, just hadn’t been able to. This year, I was finally able to swing it. I ended up running most of the race with my buddy Ray, which is always a joy. The race course itself is beautiful – as the name suggests – through Hatcher Pass near Willow. Pretty much the entire course is a gradual uphill climb, with several very steep climbs thrown in for good measure. All in all, there’s about 4000 feet of elevation gain. Then, just to really piss off your legs, the final mile is a long downhill to the finish line.

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Overall it was a very enjoyable race. Having just run Sluicebox 3 weeks prior, my legs were still pretty flat, so I didn’t run a blazing fast time, but I still had a great time. My cousin was out cheering on the course and passing out beer and pretzels around mile 21, which was a welcome surprise. The race medal was also very cool, it was handmade from clay:

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What’s Next?

Next weekend, I’m heading to the east coast for the New York City Marathon! I’ve been trying to get in for the last 4 years, so I’m super excited for this! I have no doubt it’s going to be a great time. After that, I’ve got a few ideas of what’s next, but haven’t made any specific plans yet. It will be the first time in quite a few months that I don’t have anything on my race calendar. But I’m sure that won’t last for long… :)

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Around and Around I Go

July 31, 2014

Late last year, I started to hear rumblings of a new race being organized for sometime this fall. Joe Fejes, who broke the American 6-day record by running 555 miles at Across the Years, was looking to organize a multi-day event at an indoor track. The Dome in Anchorage quickly drew his attention.

And thus, Six Days in the Dome was born.

Six Days in the Dome

Apparently The Dome is actually a pretty unique facility. There is a full-size 1/4 mile track (actually just a tad bit longer), whereas most indoor tracks are half that size. Normally I don't run much at The Dome – it's fairly expensive to be a member there, and it's pretty much all the way across town from me, so it's not exactly convenient anyways. But during the winter, the Anchorage Running Club rents it out one night a week for members, so I do usually go to that.

The Alaska Dome

This race really piqued my interest. I reached out to Joe early on, saying that I'd be happy to help, since I figured it would be useful to have someone local. The next thing I knew, I was listed as the volunteer director on the website :)

I also wanted to try out running a timed event. Six Days in the Dome actually has 3 events – 6 days, 48 hours, and 24 hours. I wasn't going to jump into a 6 day for my first timed event. I briefly considered the 48 hour, but in the end I decided on the 24 hour. I figured it would be a good introduction to both timed events, and running around a track for an extended period of time.

So next week, starting at 9am Monday morning, I'll find myself running seemingly endless loops around a track. It's going to be a very different experience than any of the ultras I've run before. On one hand, it's a nicely controlled environment: no hills, no rain, no muddy trails, a constant 60 degrees, and there's an aid station every 1/4 mile. On the other hand, I'm worried it could get to be mind-numbingly boring. I'll have my iPod loaded up with plenty of music and podcasts to hopefully keep my mind occupied.

I'm also excited about the field of talented runners that are coming from all over the world for this race, to name just a few: Joe Fejes (of course), Zach Bitter, Connie Gardner, Frank Bozanich, Ed "The Jester" Ettinghausen, and Traci Falbo.

I'm especially excited to see how our local super ultrarunner David Johnston does in the 6 day. Dave smashed course records in both the Susitna 100 and Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 Mile last winter (with the 2 races just 1 week apart!).

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It’s been almost 3 weeks since the Sluicebox 100 up in Fairbanks, so some of the details are kind of fuzzy at this point. One of the things that I definitely won’t forget is sharing many miles on the trail with this awesome lady:

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I had met Sarah a few times before, but we hadn’t talked much and I didn’t know her particularly well before this race. There was never any discussion of it or planning before the race, but once we started running, we almost immediately found ourselves running together and chatting. We ended up running the first 50 miles together, before she pushed ahead while I was going through a rough patch, and then another 15-ish miles near the end after I caught back up to her.

It’s amazing how much you learn about someone when you spend that many hours running together. It’s as if time gets compressed. You go in hardly knowing someone, and then after 16+ hours of running together, you feel like you’ve been friends for years. One cool thing I’ll tell you about Sarah is that she’s in the midst of running the Alaska Slam – all 4 100 milers in Alaska in the same year. That’s Susitna in February, White Mountains in March, Sluicebox in June, and finally Resurrection Pass in August.

The week leading up to the race, Fairbanks got hit hard by rain. There were flood warnings, and I was getting worried about what we in store for during the race. It was still raining when Tony and I arrived in Fairbanks Friday afternoon in time for packet pickup and the race briefing, and continued all night until we went to sleep. Luckily, when we woke up early the next morning, the clouds had parted and we were greeted by beautiful blue skies. But I worried about what sort of condition all that rain had left the course in.

As it turned out, the main parts of the trail were mostly in good shape. But many of the lower areas had filled with water and turned into boggy mud pits. It was hard to tell how deep or mucky most of these were, so we found ourselves detouring around these areas into the bushes, in an attempt to stay as dry as possible. This was slow and time consuming, and definitely not one of my favorite parts of the race.

One thing I’ll say about the Sluicebox course is that it’s almost never flat. It’s not super mountainous around Fairbanks, but there are lots of hills, so you’re pretty much always going either up or down. Overall there was a little over 15,000′ of both climbing and descent in this race:

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Unlike Resurrection Pass, which was almost entirely self-supported, Sluicebox has a fair amount of support. There were 4 fully stocked aid stations, as well as 10 unmanned water stations, a few of which you visited more than once due to loops in the course. I wore a hydration pack with a 1.5L bladder, and that worked out really well for me. I kept it full of Tailwind most of the race, and began relying on that more and more for calories as the day went on, when my stomach wasn’t always in the mood to eat.

Another unexpected benefit of running with Sarah is that she had brought along 2 friends as crew members, and even though I had never met Karen and Mike before Friday’s race briefing, they adopted me as one of their own. I was able to have drop bags at each of the 4 checkpoints, so I had gone to the race alone feeling like I didn’t need a crew, but it was awesome to have Karen and Mike there to lend a hand, or even just see a familiar face at 2 in the morning.

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The section between the first and second checkpoints is one that they warned us about at the race briefing. It was a pretty wet section, and at one point you take a steep descent all the way down Ester Dome into what had become a lake, only to loop around and climb all the way back up again. The need to swim across was mentioned, and Sarah joked about stopping at the store to pick up a pool noodle after the race briefing. When we reached the bottom of Ester Dome, it was apparent they really weren’t kidding, there was a small lake down here, right in the middle of the trail! Luckily, we were able skirt around the edge of it and stay (mostly) dry. Though again, this was time consuming and frustrating. Then began the steep climb back up to where we had just come from…

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Right about the halfway point, there was a long, steep climb up Moose Mountain. One of the most frustrating things about this climb is that it was through a heavily wooded area, and so it was impossible to see how much farther we had to go. It was a climb that seemed to just keep on going forever, and it was incredibly steep in a few sections. I was getting tired and starting to bonk, but even going at a ridiculously slow pace up this steep climb, my heart was beating out of my chest and I was breathing heavily. I would have had to stop for several minutes to let my body settle down before I could eat or drink anything. Instead I decided to just soldier on and get to the top of this climb before I worried about refueling. But I was moving slowly, and this is when Sarah pushed on ahead of me. Finally I reached the top of the climb and turned onto a dirt road to begin the descent back down. I could see Sarah a few hundred yards ahead, but I needed a chance to let my body settle down so I could refuel.

Not long after is when I started hearing of people dropping, and it was starting to become a race of attrition. Overall the course was marked pretty well, but there are quite a few tricky turns that you could easily miss or get confused by. We managed to stay on course the whole time, but heard many stories of missed turns and extra miles run to get back on course. The brutal course and trail conditions, combined with the mental hit of going off course, was taking its’ toll on many people. I came up from another climb onto a dirt road and was immediately greated by another runner’s wife, asking if I’d seen him. He called saying that he wanted to drop. In a race like this, even if you’ve decided that you want to drop, it could be several hours before you get to a place where you actually can drop.

On this next dirt road section, I passed Houston (who is also doing the Alaska Slam). He was walking and didn’t look very good. I tried talking with him a bit and offering encouragement, but he didn’t seem much in the mood, so I continued on. I found out later that he had missed a turn shortly after the 2nd checkpoint and ended up running several miles extra. This was also his first 100 during the summer, and it had been pretty hot during the day (mid to high 70’s qualifies as “hot” by Alaska standards).

After climbing to the top of Murphy Dome (as I said earlier, there aren’t any real “mountains” around Fairbanks, instead they call them “domes”), I was treated to a steep, yet picturesque descent alongside the Alaska Pipeline.

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One of the benefits of running a 100 miler in the summer in Alaska: the above photo was taken around 1am. That’s as dark as it ever got – no need for a headlamp!

Nearing the bottom of this descent, I could see a steep ascent up the next dome where the pipeline continued. It wasn’t clear yet where the course led, and I kept thinking to myself “please don’t send us up that, please don’t send us up that, please don’t send us up that.” But alas, that’s exactly where I was headed. It was indeed a steep climb (the photo below doesn’t nearly do it justice), but thankfully at least relatively short.

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Shortly after that I found myself at the 3rd aid station, around mile 68. This is where the carnage really started to pile up. Sarah had just left the aid station before I arrived, so I knew she was still doing well. As I arrived in the aid station, I went straight for the bug tent they had setup (the bugs this time of year in Fairbanks are horrible). There were 4 other runners inside, the most I had seen at any one point since starting the race. Tony and Jason had already dropped. Michael (the one whose wife had been looking for him earlier) hadn’t officially dropped yet, but he wasn’t looking good. To my surprise, Houston was also there (who I had passed 10+ miles earlier). Apparently he had taken another wrong turn, which turned out to be a short cut to the aid station. He sat there with a 1000 yard stare, contemplating what to do next. If he continued from there, he’d be DQ’d for cutting the course. Jason’s wife offered to drive him back to where he went off course, which is the option he eventually took.

It was nice to see some familiar faces and share “war stories” from out on the trail, but I ended up spending way too much time at this aid station. Eventually I was on my way to the 4th and final aid station, this time only 10 miles away. I don’t remember a whole lot from this section, other than the sunrise I was greeted to on a descent shortly before arriving at the last aid station.

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This time, Sarah was still in the aid station when I got there. I did a quick sock change, ate some soup, and got out of there pretty quickly. Sarah had left a a few minutes before me, but I managed to catch up within about 2 miles. This last section of the course (about 22 miles) was not my favorite. It was mostly on dirt roads and rutted 4-wheeler trails. At this point the course felt a bit forced, like they were just piecing together whatever they could to get to 100 miles. I ran with Sarah until around mile 95, at which point I was just ready to be done. I was tired, and it was getting hot out again. We had been following a ridge line for a while, away from tree cover, and I was baking. I dug deep and found an energy reserve from who knows where, and pounded the final 5-6 miles as fast as my legs could carry me at that point.

Relieved, I crossed the finish line in 27:56, my slowest (but by far most difficult) 100 miler so far. Sarah finished about 30 minutes later. To give you an idea of the difficulty of this race, only 6 of 15 starters finished. My time was good for 3rd place. My hat is off to Houston for gutting it out and finishing in 32:33 (the cutoff is 36 hours).

I’m extremely happy to have finished my 3rd 100 miler, and especially one as difficult as this. Overall the race was well managed, but I wasn’t a big fan of the course. The difficulty from the amount of climbing didn’t bother me, that was one of the things that attracted me to this race. Rather, it was the surface of the majority of the course I didn’t like. As I mentioned before, there were lots of dirt roads and rutted 4-wheeler trails – not your typical running trail. I also wasn’t a fan of the many boggy, swampy sections that left me with wet feet most of the race.

Will I be on the lookout for more difficult races, with even more climbing? Yes, definitely. Will I run this particular race again? No, probably not.

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On a recent weekend, I was in the position of needing to do a long run, but because of some things my wife had going on, I needed to be relatively close by in case she called and needed me home. Not having the liberty to spend several hours in the mountains, instead I headed for a system of “urban” trails that are close to home. By “urban” trails, I mean honest-to-goodness dirt trails, with plenty of rocks and roots and mud, found right in the middle of Anchorage.

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My first stop was University Lake, near the UAA campus, and just a little over a mile from my house. The lake has a nice dirt trail going all the way around it, a little over a mile in total. The area is designated as an off-leash dog park, so there are usually plenty of dogs around, chasing balls and splashing around in the water. I’ve thought about someday doing a long run consisting only of loops around this lake, as good mental training for a 100 miler. But today was not that day, so after about 1 1/2 loops, I hopped onto the APU cross-country ski trails.

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The cross-country ski trails on the APU campus are a large network of trails, right in the middle of Anchorage. During the winter they are reserved for skiing, and running on them is frowned upon, but in the summer they’re wide open. There’s pretty much one main trail that winds through the area, with tons of smaller trails spurring off into the woods to explore. This is where I got in most of my miles that day, and I had a great time running all around these trails, picking random trails to take and see where they led me. Sometimes I’d end up on a trail that was too swampy and wet, so I’d turn around. Other times I’d come across something odd like this, that sort of reminded me of something out of the Blair Witch Project:

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There were plenty of ups and downs to have me working hard and keep things interesting. Some of the trails were wide and smooth enough you could have driven a car on them, while others were narrow and barely-defined, covered in roots and rocks that kept you on your toes.

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After I’d had my fill of the APU ski trails, I moved onto Russian Jack Park. This is a popular park in Anchorage, complete with baseball and soccer fields, a greenhouse, even a small 9-hole golf course. There are miles of paved paths running through the park. There are also plenty of dirt trails that will take you to many areas of the park that the paved paths will not. Again, I tackled these trails by taking whatever random trail I found and seeing where it took me. I discovered things I had no idea were there, sometimes within 50 feet of a main road. I found where there had been an old campground, now long-forgotten, with marked campsites, a boarded up outhouse, and the remnants of a covered picnic area.

Once my romp through Russian Jack Park was complete, I headed back the way I had come – through the APU ski trails (taking a more direct route this time), another 1/2 lap around University Lake, and then home. By the end of my run, I had covered about 18 miles in 3 hours, all within 3-4 miles from my house, and without just looping around the same couple miles of trail. Except for the first and last mile – getting to and from my house – I was almost entirely on dirt trails. While I would certainly choose to go play in the mountains first, that’s not always possible, but I discovered that you don’t always have to go far to find adventure on the trails.

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About 2 weeks ago now, I was lucky enough to get my hands on a new Pebble Smartwatch (disclaimer: I was provided this watch for free as part of my gig as an ambassador for the San Francisco Marathon – however, this review is entirely my own).

If you’re not familiar with the Pebble, here’s the short version of what it is and what it can do: it’s a Bluetooth-powered “smart” watch that connects to your iPhone or Android phone, and can display notifications and interact with apps on your phone. The Pebble is being marketed especially towards runners, offering compatibility with popular apps like RunKeeper and MapMyRun. Plus, the battery life is 5-7 days.

The Pebble comes nicely packaged, not so different from the packaging of Apple products:

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Here’s what comes in the box: the watch itself, power plug, and a simple “getting started” guide.

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The watch itself looks very nice. The body of the watch is made of plastic, but it doesn’t feel cheap at all. It’s a relatively slim design, especially compared to most GPS watches, that are typically pretty large and clunky. I was also impressed with the power plug, that simply connects via magnet (similar to Mac laptops), so you don’t have to fumble with getting it connected just right.

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Once you download the Pebble app onto your phone and get it paired with your Pebble, you can customize your watch with a large selection of apps and custom watch faces:

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Since getting my Pebble, I’ve taken it out on every run with me, and so far I’ve been very happy with it. I’ve had to remember to charge my iPhone before heading out, but that hasn’t been a big deal. I’ve been using it with the RunKeeper app, and it’s really nice how I get a distance/time/pace summary on the watch, and can even pause and restart the app from the watch. Here’s what you see with the RunKeeper app:

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Pebble has teamed up with the San Francisco Marathon, and they will be creating an app specifically for race day information and real-time data for both racers and spectators. Pebble is also offering some nice discounts for runners. If you’re registered for the San Francisco Marathon, you get $20 off a new Pebble.

Even if you’re not registered, you can still get $10 off a new Pebble!

If you’re in the market for a running watch, but are looking for something that can do more than be “just” a watch, then you should definitely give the Pebble a try.

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