Archives for posts with tag: Ultra Running

smith-curve

Few people outside of the climbing community realize that one the best rock climbing areas in the world can be found just a few hours from Portland at Smith Rock in central Oregon.  In the mid-80’s pioneers like Alan Watts began putting up bolted routes and Smith (as it’s known locally) became a mecca for climbers willing to push it to new levels.

smith

You don’t, however, need to a be a climber to enjoy this wonderful state park.  There are miles of hiking trails along the aptly named Crooked River with views of the snow-capped Cascade volcanoes lined up along the horizon.  For the rock climbing curious, I’d highly recommend a hike up Misery Ridge for a look up at the iconic Monkey Face tower.  The exhilarating view will either turn you into a climbing junkie or put you off of the sport forever.

'Monkey Face'

In 2013 Go Beyond Racing organized the inaugural 15 mile Smith Rock Ascent.  It was so successful that this year they added a 32 mile option.  Both races are part of the popular Northwest Mountain Trail Series.

My buddy Greg and I drove down the day before and camped at Pelton Park.  The campground is managed by PGE (Portland General Electric), which built a dam that created Lake Simtustus.  Our site was right across from a friendly family from Guam that was spending the whole month camping, partying and catching up with various members of their large extended family.

The day of the race turned out to be cool, cloudy and with a recent dose of rain to keep the high desert dust under control.  For the first time in a long time I didn’t feel nervous beforehand.  My plan was to use this race as part of the buildup towards my ultimate goal for the year, the Cascade Crest 100 in August.

I recognized a few faces at the starting line including Kami Semick, a North Face sponsored athlete who lives in nearby Bend.  One look at the muscles in her twisted cable-like legs and you immediately understand why she’s one of the top trail runners in the country.

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The race started out with a nice meander along the Crooked River before gaining 2000 feet up to Grey Butte.  From there it was a gradual descent down into the grasslands north of Smith.  At around mile twelve I got into a groove and was content in my solitude.  But then a blond ponytail cruised by me like I was standing still.  Well, actually I was standing still, peeing behind a bush alongside the trail.

My ego doesn’t like to be passed and it forced me to catch up with her.  She looked strong and had great form.  I snuck by her on a technical section and thought that would be the last I’d see of her.  But sure enough she caught up few miles later on a wide forest road and I figured we might as well have a chat.

The first thing she said was, ‘Wow, I thought this was going to be harder.”  That’s an idea that honestly has never popped into my head while running long distances.  She went on to say that this was her first race.  Not her first ultra race…her first running race…at any distance.

It turns out that she’s an elite level rower and after ten years of extensive training narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Olympics.  That made me feel a little better.  We had a nice conversation over the next few miles, talking about traveling, books (including The Boys in the Boat) and this crazy sport of running.  Eventually I got to a point where I couldn’t focus on the trail and the conversation at the same time, so I moved on ahead.

The last aid station at mile 27 was run by the fine folks at Animal Athletics, a Portland-based running club whose Thursday night social runs are always a good time.  We exchanged a few hi’s and goodbye’s and they told me that if I pushed it I could still break five hours.

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This next section had some great views of the Cascade volcanoes and as much as I wanted to stop and admire the view I knew I had to keep cranking it.  The last few miles turned out to be a quad-burning descent down a rocky forest road.  I was happy to pass a couple of guys, but still really wanted to finish in under five hours.

After huffing it up the final hill I turned the corner just as the first digit on the finish line clock turned from 4 to 5.  I crossed the line at 5:00:04 and the first thought that entered my head was, “Damn, I knew I shouldn’t have stopped to pee.”

The rower got in a few minutes later and I congratulated her on running a great race and being the third place women’s finisher.  This girl has a serious future in ultra running.

Over burgers and beers I caught up with a few local runners, including the men’s winner, Jeff Browning.  Jeff is a 100 mile specialist (he’s won more than ten races at that distance).  What I find even more impressive in following his blog is how he manages to balance family, work and running.  That is a greater accomplishment than any 100 mile victory.

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texas state

It’s been another long wet winter here in the Pacific Northwest.  I took an extended break from running and was slow to begin training again.  There were some dark times when I seriously began to question the role running plays in my life.  But I have since seen the error in my ways and have once again embraced the long run as a path to a higher consciousness.  It’s good to be back.

Last week I was in San Antonio for a children’s book conference and thought it would be fun to kick off the season with a race in the Lone Star State.  There’s a series of ultra distance races there called Tejas Trails that are run by a guy named Joe Prusaitis.  Joe puts on well organized races, including several national championships and is known for his unique sense of humor (“If you get lost during the race, please be sure to tell me afterwards so I can charge you for the extra distance.”)

hellshills

Hell’s Hills is a multi-distance trail race in Smithville, Texas, about 40 miles south of Austin.  It was my first race in six months and I really didn’t know what to expect.  My goal was to put in a decent showing so I’d have the confidence to keep training and racing hard through the summer.

The 50k (31 miles) started at 6am, which meant that we’d be running the twisty trails for an hour before sunrise.  I don’t run well in the dark, so I decided to take it out at a slow pace and wait for the sun to rise.

During the first mile, there was a guy running right on my heels.  I asked him if he wanted to pass.  He said that he had forgotten his headlamp and asked if I wouldn’t mind if we ran together until it was light out.  No worries, I had certainly forgotten a fair bit a gear in races past.  He was a nice kid, an engineer from France named Victor.  This was his first ultra trail run, making the transition from being a road marathon runner.

We hit the first aid station at mile 6, just as the sun was starting to peek through the pine trees.  Victor took off, no longer in need of me and my handlamp.  I went with him and we ran a few miles together with me doing the tailgating this time.  Eventually we caught up to another speedster and the three of us started to really push it.  I soon realized, however, they were taking it way too fast for me and I let them go.

When they took off I remember thinking, “Go on boys.  You have your fun.  But just you remember that this old buck’s got some hair on his antlers and I just might have to teach you youngins a thing or two before this day is done.”  For some weird reason this thought had a Texas accent.  My thoughts don’t usually have accents, do yours?

blue bonnets

The most beautiful section of that first 15.5 mile loop was a field exploding with Texas bluebonnet wildflowers.  It was like running through a dream.  Everyone slowed down and had big smiles plastered across their faces.  If I wasn’t running this race I would have rolled around in the meadow like a big old labrador retriever.

After the first loop I dropped off my headlamp and grabbed a few energy gels to get me through round two.  The sun was now fully up, but luckily the temperature still remained pretty comfortable.  I got unto a zone and tried to run at a consistent pace.  The miles fly by at the beginning of a race, but the closer you get to the finish, the more…they seem…to drag.  The field of bluebonnets once again picked up my spirits.  Come on man, only 5 more miles to go.

Soon thereafter I saw Victor and the speedster still running together.  I wasn’t feeling that great, but  figured if I had caught up to them they must be feeling even worse.  I bid my time, trying to keep my heart rate in check, waiting for the perfect moment.  I snuck up on them at the base of a little hill and zoomed by without any of the normal, “how’s it going?” “looking good” or “almost there” pleasantries.  I wanted to appear strong (even though I was far from it) and put as much distance between them and me as possible.

Cheetah Antelope

I was now running scared and fear, I’ve found, is a very effective motivator.  The antelope has a greater incentive to escape than the cheetah does to capture.  Survival will always trump hunger when push comes to shove.  With a mile to go the trail left the pine forest and opened up onto a wide dirt road.  If I was still in sight of the speedsters I knew they would hunt me down.  Finally with about a half mile to go I took a quick glance over my shoulder.  The cheetahs were no where to be found.  I would survive another day.

Even though the ultra scene in Texas is not quite at the same level as it is here in Oregon, I was still happy to finish in 8th place overall.  Victor finished two minutes behind me and said that he enjoyed the friendly competition during the race.  We hung out together afterwards, sharing snacks and stories about running and traveling.  I’m convinced that he won’t be going back to road racing.  Another happy trail running convert.