Badwater 2011 — Crewing for Pam Reed

A couple years ago at Thanksgiving, I watched with fascination Running On The Sun, the 1999 account of the Badwater Ultramarathon.  I wrote a review on it here.  I knew I would never run the race but it never even occurred to me that one day I would be crewing for it because I didn’t even know anybody who wanted to run 135 miles in a human BBQ.  All that changed when I met Pam Reed.

I had crewed for Pam in Jan. of this year when she did a 24-hr. run near my home in California.  So when Pam asked me to join her crew for Badwater, I didn’t hesitate.  In his pre-event news release, race director Chris Kostman said, “The necessary favorite is Pam Reed, 50, of Jackson, WY, the 2002 and 2003 overall champion who also won the women’s field in 2005 and placed 2nd woman and 7th overall in 2009.”  Pam had also recently qualified for the Ironman World Championships and the 70.3 World Championships, and won the Keys 100 in an impressive time.  She was more than ready; at age 50, she was in the best shape of her life.  Most people do Badwater just to finish or win a belt buckle.  Pam was here to win it, and that creates a sense of excitement and a dynamic with the crew that other teams don’t get a chance to experience.

A week before Badwater, one of our crew members had to drop, so my running pal and training partner Dr. Kevin Stuart joined the crew.  I was thrilled to be doing another epic event with Kevin as we have shared some really awesome experiences over the years.  Still, we weren’t really sure what to expect as rookie crew members.  Race rules state “runners accompanied by conveyance such as hovercrafts and helicopters will be disqualified.”   Why would “hovercraft” need to be in the rules?  At the general store at Furnace Creek Ranch, I found a t-shirt with the instruction, “Bring a compass.  It’s awkward when you have to eat your friends.”  Such rules and words leave a lot to the imagination.

Yikes! Try not to buy gas in Death Valley. Ice is $4 a bag but we would have gladly paid $10.

This year’s crew met for the first time two days before the race in Las Vegas.  Led by crew chief Susy Bacal, we were joined by veteran crew members Craig Bellmann and Jim Cady.  Nike running coach Kenley Ferrara joined us from New York City.  I could tell there was  a good vibe with this crew right from the start.

Pam figured she had one person to beat–Sumie Inagaki of Japan.   Pam had run with Sumie in France at the 48-hr. world championships.  Sumie is the world record holder at 48-hrs. but this was her rookie year at Badwater and had probably never run in this kind of heat.

Eventual women's winner Sumie Inagaki gets some much needed sleep at the pre-race meeting.

Early on race morning, Pam got a phone call and heard some difficult family news.  At breakfast, she told the whole crew.  We knew it wasn’t the kind of thing she could just block out of her mind, but we tried to keep things light-hearted since the race was starting in just a few hours.

Kenley and I waited at Furnace Creek (mile 17) in the second van to take over support when Pam arrived.  We watched the entire 10 am. group come through.  Something was wrong.  The crew said Pam seemed fine the first ten miles, then started slowing down and walking with a sharp pain in her back.  We couldn’t tell if it was a real injury or if the stress of the news from home had her tied in knots.  Whatever it was, Pam was suffering.

When Pam finally arrived, she had to lay in the shade.  We did our best to calm her down, help her relax and find a new groove.  She took a dip in the pool at Furnace Creek Ranch and we hoped that would help her snap out of her funk.  Eventually we were back on the road and tried to keep moving.  We took turns walking with Pam for several miles as she struggled mentally and physically.

Pam tells race officials she is dropping.

One race official pulled up behind us, shocked to see Pam in very last place.  Without hesitation he said, “We will bend the rules for Pam.  She can do anything she wants out here.”  It was indeed an honor to be crewing for Badwater royalty.  She made it another few miles but decided to drop before things got worse.

Even at her lowest point, Pam wanted to check on her fellow runners.  We drove ahead to find Amy Palmiero-Winters in bad shape on the side of the road.  We pulled over and Pam gave Amy some words of encouragement.  Amy recovered like a true champion and finished the race.

We also caught up to Luis Escobar who had returned to Badwater after a five year hiatus.  Pam and I had a fantastic time with Luis last Sept. when we took him to Jackson Hole, WY  to do a photoshoot of Pam in the Teton Mountains.  He’s an amazing photographer and an outstanding runner, finishing his third Badwater this year.

Luis Escobar shocked to hear Pam is dropping. He goes on to earn a buckle.

Once we gathered ourselves and realized the race was over for us, Pam said she wanted us to drive to Stovepipe Wells at mile 40 to give the rookie crew members a flavor of the race.  We passed many runners and just about everyone looked like they were suffering greatly.  It was 125 degrees and everyone at the time station remarked how it was so much cooler than last year’s 134.  We all jumped in the pool at the Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel.

I didn’t get to experience the full measure of Badwater but I saw enough to appreciate the magnitude of what these runners do out there for 135 miles in unimaginable heat.  And to consider that every year the field gets better, stronger, faster.  I can’t help but wonder just how fast someone can run this course.  The men’s record is 22:51:29 and some were expecting it to be broken again this year.

It’s hard to know if Pam will make a another run at Badwater.  I’m not sure she knows herself.  It would seem there’s really nothing left to prove but a DNF doesn’t seem like the way to end her career at the event that brought her  worldwide fame in the ultra running community.  If she decides to go for it next year, I hope to be there.


Race Across America (RAAM) 2010

It’s time to put some some thoughts to paper on an event I did in 2010 that forever changed my ideas about extreme endurance sports.  I spent the year traveling 250,000 miles around the world on business with many trips to India.  In Bangalore, I was introduced to Samim (Sam) Rizvi, India’s top endurance athlete and their version of Lance Armstrong.

Getting There
With only three months to prepare, my employer asked me to lead the sponsorship of Sam Rizvi for the Race Across America (RAAM), a grueling, nearly non-stop, 3,000-mile bicycle race across America.  Many of the participants ride in well-organized teams but the real race is with the few over-the-top adrenaline junkies who choose to do this race solo.  There are numerous ways to qualify for RAAM as a solo rider.  Sam was the first person from India to qualify for RAAM in its 29-year history by riding 700 km in 24 hrs. on the streets in and around Bangalore.  That alone is a fairly remarkable accomplishment, given the brutal conditions of the roads in India.  Here’s a taste of what it was like:

Sam believed he had a chance to win, even though no rookie has ever won at RAAM.   Just about everyone who enters RAAM takes a full year to prepare.  Having only qualified in Feb., Sam had less than four months to prepare.  I realized immediately that Sam needed a second bike.  Nobody does RAAM with only one bike and no back-up.  He had already logged over 400,000 km on his old Specialized bike, so I bought him a brand new Specialized S-Works Roubaix SL2, the perfect bike for long hauls.  It helped that I live in Morgan Hill, CA where Specialized is headquartered.  I was able to land a good deal on the new bike through my local bike shop.  But after this successful equipment purchase, every detail from here on out became a mind-boggling set of challenges.

The Crew
The skeleton crew Sam had assembled in India had never been to the U.S., including Sam.  I was worried about diet and nutrition from the start.  But the team assured me they had worked out a “secret formula” to keep Sam properly fueled and hydrated.  Sam had been cycling incredible distances in India for many years, so I figured he had a system all worked out.  Besides, I was too busy traveling all over the world with my job, I didn’t have time to analyze Sam’s nutrition needs. I would have to trust them.  And the first problem was just getting visas for the team.  My employer helped with that process as well, but in the end, one crew member–Sam’s  driver for the past 13 years–was denied a visa.  This would be a misfortune that would come back to haunt us.  Only Sam and two others were granted a visa.  I scrambled to find my own crew from the U.S. but could not find anyone who could commit the time.

Meanwhile, we proceeded to launch our fledgling effort with all the fanfare of a bid for the Tour de France.  We called a press conference in Bangalore and with TV cameras rolling, we unveiled our plan to win the Race Across America.  I was named the resident “expert” since I was doing an ironman ten days after RAAM.  Don’t know what that has to do with a trans-continental bike race, but to the masses in India, I guess I looked like a credible American athlete.  Nobody else cared that two to three weeks before RAAM, I should have been peaking in my own training.  Instead, I would spend my peak training days huddled in a van traveling under 20 mph chasing another man on a bicycle for 3,000 miles.

Sam and his crew showed up in Oceanside, CA ten days before for the race.  Ronnie Sehgal was officially crew chief but was woefully unprepared.  No check lists, no crew assignments, no plan.  Arjun Venugopal had been Sam’s masseure, physiotherapist and nutritionist for several years.   Suzanne Allen was Sam’s old friend who joined us from Seattle, WA.  She was an experienced mountain guide so I figured she knew a little something about discipline, endurance and the importance of being organized.  Less than 24 hours before the race started, I spoke with a movie producer who agreed to put a cameraman in our support van to make a film about Sam’s epic journey.  Our cameraman, Peter Levermann, turned out to be an invaluable crew member.  He had crewed for RAAM before.  But it’s not a good sign when the most experienced crew member is your videographer and a total stranger to everyone. We had no nutritionist, no team doctor (nobody to administer an IV), and no mechanic.  How we could show up at the start of a 3,000-mile bicycle odyssey without one crew member having ever changed a tubeless tire is beyond me.  I’ve changed many flats, but I’ve always used clinchers.  By all accounts, we had the smallest crew in the entire race.  This was going to be a real adventure.

Getting Started
I spent the few days before leaving home getting the primary support van outfitted with some technology.  I bought a GPS system, outdoor speakers for the PA system so we could talk to Sam from inside the vehicle, a night vision windshield mounted video camera, and wifi cards for remote internet access so I could stream live video to India over WebEx.  I drove one of the crew vans from my home in northern California and met the crew five days before race day in Oceanside.  We spent the last few days before the race just getting to know each other better.  We ate meals together, asked about each other’s background, and joked around a lot.  But it would have been difficult to assemble a more motley crew.

The night before the race, we were still scrambling for supplies.  I went to pick up Sam’s cycling gear which we had printed locally with sponsor logos while Sam and his crew went to the grocery store for final supplies.  It wasn’t until the morning of the race as we were packing the vans that I realized what they had planned for Sam’s nutrition.  To my shock and horror, they had purchased cases of ginseng tea, lemonade, soda, Gatorade and other bottled drinks which contained absolutely no nutritional value.  There was very little food and almost nothing with protein and carbs.  I knew we had serious problem before we even started.

At the start line, our team had dispersed in every direction, each person following their own interests.  We were not huddled together, taking stock of last minute preparations, checking and double-checking our lists.  Then, out of nowhere, they announced Sam Rizvi as the next racer.  We thought he had been placed at the back of the pack when in fact he was at the front of the list.  In the next moment, Sam was off, and the crew was left fumbling around at the start looking for each other.  When we reached our van, we immediately realized we had missed our own start time.  I took the first turn as driver of the primary support vehicle since I was the only one who had any idea where we were.  Two of our drivers had never even driven on the right side of the road before.

Within the first mile of our journey, Arjun announced he was solely focused on providing food and drinks to Sam, asking us not to bother him with any other duties.  Seriously, did he just say that?  My whole approach to crewing is that every team member needs to be absolutey willing to do anything it takes to make the team successful.  So it did not sit well with me that one team member in the first mile was already announcing he was not willing to man up.

The Race

Sam took the first 24 hrs. like a real pro but he did it on pure adrenaline and desire as he was at a serious nutrition deficit right from the start.  Arjun’s secret sauce for nutrition amounted to nothing more than alternating ice water with tea, gatorade, juice, or some combination, as if combining zero nutrition with more zero nutrition would amount to something useful.  I knew we needed a real nutrition plan as soon as possible, but once you within a few hours outside of the Los Angeles areas, the next place to stop for real supplies is Flagstaff, AZ.  I knew Sam’s body would start feeding on itself before we could get some proper nutrtion, and then I thought it might be too late to recover.

Sam at 24 hours:

We stopped at a few rendezvous points over the first 24 hours and checked out our competition.  Everyone else had meticulously organized crew vans.  Many had custom compartments for storage.  Everything was  clearly labeled.  Some crews claimed to have two of everything, just in case.  Our van was like an overstuffed janitor’s closet that had been stocked by throwing everything onto a warehouse shopping cart.  We had four captains chairs behind the driver–comfortable for passengers but awful for storage.

Day 2 — Somewhere in Arizona

How Not To Do RAAM
Over the first three days, we put ourselves through a comedy of errors we could not possibly make up if we tried.

In Prescott, AZ, I finally found a decent bike shop and bought out their entire supply of Hammer products, mostly gels and Perpetuem.  We also found a GNC store at a mall and bought everything we could think of for energy and recovery.  Now I had some proper nutrition products, but I also knew Sam had never tried this stuff before and he has a sensitive stomach.  I had no idea if he could handle it.  It also became clear that I was the only person who knew anything about nutrition.  Nobody, least of all our official nutritionist, seemed to grasp the idea that Sam had to ingest at least 200 calories an hour just to get by, 40o calories to stay on top of his game.  We were nowhere close.  It was truly amazing he was still going at all.

When we left Flagstaff, AZ, I suggested to Sam that he put his aero helmet on for the long, fast descent off the mountain.  At first, he thought it would be too windy for an aero helmet, but as he started down the mountain, he decided to put it on.  I was sitting in the passenger side when Sam flagged us down.  But for some reason, Ronnie decided to pull ahead of Sam to stop.  As he applied the brakes, Sam rode straight into the back of the van, crashing his bike.  From the outside mirror, I saw Sam flying across the road in a tangled heap.  In a panic, Ronnie forgot to put the van in park and just turned off the key.  We came to a rolling stop.  I jumped out of the van and sprinted back to find Sam motionless on the freeway, still clipped in to his bike on one side.  For a moment, I thought we had killed our rider.  Sam had twisted his knee but after a few minutes he wanted to get back on his bike and continue riding.  Once back in the van after a long, awkward silence, I announced to the crew that I had two new rules.  1.  Never drive in front of the rider.  2.  Do not take pictures with your camera while driving the van.  I could not believe I actually had to make such rules.  And I could not believe our own crew chief had forced our rider to crash.  I kept thinking if only Sam’s trusted driver had been able to get a visa, this would not have happened.  Here’s a video I took just after the crash:

Somewhere deep in the dessert of Utah, I drove ahead to find a hotel room to crash for a few hours.  Just as I was about to check in to a hotel, the primary support van called me to say they had driven off the road.  They were stuck in a ditch and Sam could not ride ahead because we were in evening hours when rider and support vehicle must remain together.  So I drove 100 miles back to help drag the van out of the ditch, only to get a call when I was 20 miles away to be told someone had pulled them out of the ditch.  80 miles back to my hotel, and I crashed.

A few hours later, I learned the Sam had ridden through the night in hail and a thunderstorm but had no rain gear.  No rain gear!?  How is that possible?  He came all the way from India, spent ten days in Oceanside and nobody thought to pick up any rain gear?  It never occurred to me that he would not have something as basic as proper rain gear.  But this was also something that would have to wait until we reached a city where we could buy something appropriate.  In the meantime, we found Arjun wrapping Sam’s legs and face in plastic grocery bags.  We had come this far only to find ourselves wrapping our rider in plastic grocery bags.  If he was pulled over on the highway, any cop would have thought he was some kind of homeless man stealing a bike.

To make matters worse, Ronnie had decided to drive for about 16 hours straight.  I had told everyone they are each responsible for making time to sleep.  Ronnie had blown it.  Now he was going to be useless for a while, but I had to send him ahead to pick up some supplies.  Nine hours later we still didn’t know where Ronnie was, and it appeared he didn’t know, either.  In his catatonic state, he had gotten himself lost and didn’t even know where he was to ask directions.

At another pit stop in Utah, a kind German team member offered to give Sam a massage.  He had his own massage table and set up shop in a gas station parking lot for us.  After receiving this massage, Sam realized Arjun had no idea what he was doing with massage.  He told Arjun to take some lessons when they returned to India.  Then, as Suzanne pulled the van out of the rest area, she was immediately stopped by race officials and given a 15-min. penalty for not having her lights on.  This is a very common penalty, but still so disheartening to pull right out of a rest stop with a penalty.

Pit stops had become nothing more than organized chaos.  You would think the first order of business would be to take care of the rider.  But our Indian contingent would often get out of the vehicle and just wander off in different directions, taking pictures of their first time in the U.S. or otherwise wander about with no real purpose.  They joke in India that IST stands for India Stretchable Time (vs. India Standard Time).  It refers to a country of over 1 billion people with no sense of urgency whatsoever.  Pit stops were no different.  It didn’t seem to matter how long we stopped, we would eventually get back on the road.  The Indians seemed to lose the entire concept that we were in the middle of a race.  We had been reduced to nothing more than a yard sale moving down the road.

Making the decision to reach Durango:

For the last stretch to Durango, TX, I decided to count calories.  Sam consumed a total of less than 400 calories six hours.  We reached Durango with very little time to spare before the cut-off.  But Sam had gone nearly three days with very little rest and almost no real nutition, and he had developed a nasty cough and congestion from exposure.  After crashing at a hotel, we tried to get back on the road in the middle of the night.  But Sam’s condition had deteriorated so badly, he was barely moving at 7 mph.  After several roadside attempts to re-group, we pulled Sam from the race.  In the interest of his own safety, he finally succumbed to seeing a doctor.  The doctor at the local hospital confirmed Sam had contracted influenza Type A pneumonia and could not continue with the race.   He had made it 1/3 of the way across America but there was nothing left in the tank.  It was the end of the road.

Closing Thoughts
I learned a ton about crewing for an endurance event, mostly by doing everything wrong.  It’s difficult to imagine how we could have possibly finished the race.  We only made it three days and had planned on 10 -12 days.  But after just three days we were completely wiped out.  Our vans looked like a cluster bomb had gone off in them, tempers and personality differences flared, and we all felt a strong sense of diminishing returns.  I can’t think of one single thing we did right.  They say a rider cannot win RAAM on his own, but the crew can definitely bring a team to a grinding halt.  Yes, I would do it again, but I would want to be crew chief and have a strong vote on who is on the crew.  There are countless things I would do differently next time, and I would want to believe we had a fair chance of actually winning.

We spent a couple days in Durango after dropping out just to let Sam rest while the rest of us slept and recovered from our ordeal.  Arjun then took off for Las Vegas where he hoped to win big.  Nobody ever heard from him again.  Sam and Ronnie decided to drive the remaining distance to the finish line in Annapolis, Maryland.  Months later they had a falling out and parted ways.  Suzanne and Peter went home and went on with their lives.  I’m fairly certain I’m the only one who has kept in touch with everyone (except Arjun).  Just goes to show you what a circus act we pulled together for this event.  Even in retrospect, I am disappointed to say I did not enjoy it,  but I’m still grateful for the experience.  There is always more to learn more from failure than success.

Sam is registered to race again this year at RAAM, but I heard his new team recently fell apart.  Unfortunate, but it’s no surprise to me.  I still hope he gets his chance.

Ironman Couer d’Alene

My ironman story is more about the journey than the race itself, but I knew it was going to be that way when I started training seven months ago.  I just never could have imagined the incredible series of events that would transpire once I put my plan into motion.  It seems the longer and harder the race, the more amazing the serendipities that unfold along the way.

As soon as I paid $550 online to register for my first ironman, I took a new job at my company.  It would mean traveling 170,000 miles over the next six months to China, Brazil, Bahrain, and frequent trips to India.  First thing I did was re-build my road bike to the exact same specs as my tri bike and ship it to India with my trainer so I could spin in my hotel room on business trips–riding outdoors is a death wish in India.  I had not anticipated that FedEx would lead me astray by shipping my bike to a port of entry not approved for bikes.  And being new to India, I had not planned on paying a $1,200 bribe to get my bike out of customs.  In the U.S., we call that extortion.  In India, it’s business as usual.

Just a couple months into my training, my boss asked me to manage the company’s sponsorship of the first person from India to qualify and race in the Race Across America (RAAM).  I eagerly took up the challenge and was quickly introduced to Samim Rizvi, India’s #1 endurance athlete and professional cyclist.  We quickly became friends, and in short order I found myself on a training ride with Samim, riding 50 miles near the town of Mysore, India in the middle of the night, our crew van following closely behind us as we dodged motorcycles, cows and pedestrians while negotiating India’s giant speed bumps.

Sam Rizvi and me after a training ride before the RAAM start.

The next thing I knew I was asked to join the crew for RAAM and support Samim in his bid to be the first Indian to complete the famously difficult race.  I joined the rest of the rookie crew in Oceanside, CA just three weeks before my own ironman race and found myself driving 20 mph across the United States in a van, following a deeply committed athlete from India on his bike.  That sort of shot the end of my ironman training in the ass, but Samim would eventually contract pneumonia and pull out of RAAM in Durango, Colorado.  I flew home just three days before leaving for Couer d’Alene.

With my training partners on Sat. testing out the frigid water.

I had several friends doing CDA with me, but unlike ultramarathons, ironman is a very solitary endeavor.  You do most of the training alone and you’re pretty much alone the entire race.  So finding some familiar faces in Couer d’Alene made the pre-race jitters a little easier to deal with as we all did our best to figure out what to do with the five gear bags we were given, get mentally prepared for a very cold swim and a very hot run, and try to get some rest before the big day.  By this time I had convinced myself I was well-prepared, despite my erratic training schedule, traveling overseas 60% of my time, and crewing for RAAM when I should have been putting in my longest miles.

There is nothing in the pool that can prepare you for a mass swim start with 2,600 highly trained athletes.  It was my first mass start and I had toyed with numerous strategies.  Start a full 10 minutes after everyone—but I would probably get lapped on the second loop.  Beat anyone senseless who even touches me—but there are bigger guys than me out there.  I decided to start way to the right of the buoys at the far end of the beach.  Nice idea except that it seemed half the field had adopted the same strategy.  An ironman swim is not for the timid swimmer.  I had my goggles kicked off once, and as I tried to maneuver through a sea of wetsuits, I kept noticing someone’s arm was coming far too close to me.  Then I realized it was my own arm! If I were swimming alone, I think I may have managed 1:20 on the swim, but I emerged in 1:31 and told myself to just get on with it.  I had lost only 10 minutes.

I made my way to T1 where a young boy quickly found bag #1648 and sent me to the changing tent.  Having taken the plunge a month earlier and shaved my legs as smooth as a baby’s bottom, I slipped out of my wetsuit with ease and fumbled through my transition bag as if I were inspecting the content for the first time.  By the time I had scampered out of the transition area with my bike, eight full minutes had gone by.  I had planned on five minutes.

I had planned to drive the bike course the day before with my friends but we all ran out of time so I wasn’t sure what to expect on the course.  The first 40 miles went quite well.  I was comfortable, riding with ease and well ahead of plan.  Then it started to warm up.  I knew the forecast called for 80 degree temps, but somehow I thought I could manage it on the bike.  By the time I started the second loop, I could feel all my energy being drained by the heat and there was nothing I could do about it.

Five hours into my race, I told myself I needed to abandon my 11:59 goal time and just try to finish.  It took me at least an hour more on the bike to process the fact that it was going to be a much longer day than I had planned.  I always knew I could finish, but after everything I had been through to get to this point, somehow just finishing didn’t seem good enough.  I’m glad sound judgment prevailed on this day.  I thought about my family who knew I had gone to the hospital before from a severe bonk.  I thought about my youngest sister Julie who suffers from MS.  I thought about the many people who were supporting me through my fund-raising drive for the National MS Society.  I had to finish.

By the time I reached T2 I was a mess, completely wiped out from the heat and ready to be finished.  I wasn’t even sure how long the bike had taken me but it didn’t really matter anymore.  Someone grabbed my bike for me and I headed to the transition area to get my run bag, having no idea how I was ever going to run a marathon.  Eight minutes later, I stepped out of the changing tent and decided to just start walking.

I walked the entire first mile past all the spectators and thought this just sucks.  I was actually calculating how long it would take me if I walked the entire marathon.  I had never even thought about that before and here I was trying to figure out what it would take just to make the cutoff.  Wow, what a humbling thought.  Before I reached the first turnaround, I decided to just take it easy and enjoy the rest of the day.  It’s a nice thought, except that by this time I had already been on the course for over 10 hours and now I was seriously tired.  I managed the first half of the run in exactly three hours and told myself if I could run a negative split, I would finish in under 15 hours.  Instantly, that was my new goal.  15:01 sounds about an hour longer than 14:59.

Heading out for the turnaround on the second loop, the sun was setting.  That meant it was finally beginning to cool down.  At the final turnaround, I finally felt like I could run again, and it felt great to have something left in the tank after nearly 14 hours.

There isn’t anything in racing quite like an Ironman finish.  Making the last turn, I could see the finish line for about a half mile.  The streets were lined with people screaming, “you are an Ironman!”  The last 200 yards through the grandstands and finish chute is something I’ll never forget.  The grandstands were packed with people screaming my name, waving, reaching out to give me a high five.   It’s pretty special.  I finished in 14:56 and felt great crossing the finish.  My time was nowhere near what I had hoped, but the time didn’t even matter anymore.

Final Thoughts
Completing an ironman was a lifetime goal for me, not like any other event I have ever done.  It was my Everest, and I had dreamed about doing one for at least 20 years.  Now that I’ve done it, I know I’m capable of performing much better next time, so I’m sure I’ll do another one.  I don’t think I’ll be signing up for my next one right away.  There are just so many other events I want to do and I’ll still be traveling a lot over the next year.  There’s also something in me that tells me I can go even farther than an ironman and I know I will probably push that boundary.  I think most people can go about twice as far as they think they can.

I’m very grateful for all the support I received from so many people who supported my fund-raising drive for the National MS Society.  I try to pick one race a year to support a good cause.  This year, I raised over $13,000 through my ironman race, bringing my total to over $22,000 since I started this drive a year ago.  I know it gives my sister some comfort to know I’m doing this in her honor, and I’ve been deeply touched by the many stories I hear from donors who have told me about their own battle with MS or about people in their lives affected by MS.   I feel blessed to have my health just to have the opportunity to take on the ironman challenge but at the end of the day, an ironman is just a race.  I hope I’m making a small difference through my effort for those who suffer the most.

20K Time Trial

This was my first time trial.  The only thing I knew about time trials was from watching the Tour de France.  Blazing fast, aero helmets that make them look like torpedos on wheels, and an all out race against the clock. I’ve always wondered what it feels like to have someone pass you in a time trial.  With 30-second staggers I figured I would probably find out.

This was the first cycling event of the season for South Valley Endurance, the Bay Area’s newest and coolest Run-Bike-Tri-Du event company.  I showed up at Harvey Bear Park in San Martin where I have run countless miles in the beautiful hills nestled between Morgan Hill and Gilroy.  The skies looked ready to empty buckets of rain at any moment.  I pulled into the parking lot to find what appeared to be every single cyclist spinning  on a trainer next to their car.  So this is what you do to warm up before a time trial.  I had no warm up plan and I had recently shipped my CycleOps to India so I could spin in my hotel room on business trips.  I quickly checked in and took my bike out on the tw0-mile asphalt loop where I have never seen a person on a bike.

Upon finishing my warm-up ride I realized I had no idea where to find the start line.  I had intended on studying the route a bit before showing up but never got around to it.  I finally found the start line nearly a half mile from the parking lot and pulled up just as they were calling my number. 

With a ten second countdown I was off.  All I was thinking was go as fast as you think you can go for 30 minutes.  That’s not terrically fast but turns out it was faster than most.  With a time of 35:10, I averaged over 21 mph with half the course in a headwind so I felt good about my result.  Just as I was about to celebrate my 8th place finish overall, I realized the dude in 7th place was 61 years old!  Well, good for him.  I did get passed rather effortlessly by one guy on disc wheels but I had the fastest time in my tri club and I know I can go faster.  Can’t wait to do another one.

Bizz Johnson Marathon–My First DNF

It’s been a few days since attempting my BQ (Boston Qualifier) at Bizz Johnson so I’ve had some time to reflect and recover from the physical and mental agony of a DNF (Did Not Finish).  I can deal with not qualifying, but a DNF messes with the mind like nothing else.  It wasn’t until the day after the race that I was convinced about what went wrong.

After my best year of running in over 30 years, I had only one big goal left.  I had put in 100-mile training weeks to complete the Transrockies Run, knocked out two solid 50Ks in two weeks, and set PRs at the 10-mile, half marathon and marathon distances.  I had run 3:35 at Napa in March in pouring rain, and I wasn’t even trying to qualify.  I know I’m faster than the average runner but I don’t think of myself as fast at all.  Yet, all that was left to accomplish this year was a BQ, and somehow I’ve always thought you need to be pretty fast to qualify for Boston.  I was probably in the best shape of my life and my marathon training had gone reasonably well.  My Yasso training predicted a 3:23 marathon and I needed a 3:30 to qualify.  I tapered well, ate well and slept well.  I felt good about my prospects even though I knew I would still need to have a very good day to qualify.

The first eight miles of Bizz is a very gradual climb starting at nearly 5300-ft.  Marathon pace was 8:04 but I was willing to go 8:15 for the first 6 miles and make it up on the downhill.  The trouble started early when I realized in fhe first two miles I was putting out a fairly significant effort just to hold an 8:15 pace.  Eight miles into the marathon I was done.  At mile nine I was walking.  I was stunned.  What the hell just happened?  Seconds were ticking by, quickly turning into minutes, and just like that, my BQ was gone.  Anger quickly turned to confusion.  Was it the altitude?  Could I really not handle running at 5,000-ft. after running at 8,000 – 13,000-ft. for six days in the Rockies just six weeks earlier?  Come on, it should not be this hard.  I should be cruising through the first half comfortably at 8-min. pace.  So I started running again.  Wow, now I was having trouble just keeping a 9-min. pace.  I slowed to a crawl.  I was angry again.  Like really pissed off.

I reached the halfway point in just under two hours and realized if I finished, it would probably be in the 4:30 range.  I started thinking it’s not even worth running 26.2 miles to go that slow.  I didn’t know if I was mentally checking out or if there was really something wrong.  But what could be wrong?  I felt fine.  I just couldn’t run.  At the aid station at mile 14 I started asking if I could get a ride to the finish.  Everyone thought I was kidding at first.  But there was no way off the mountain.  The entire course is a dirt road with few access points.  It was the aid station at mile 20 before I found someone who could give me a ride to the finish.  3 hours 10 mins. and I was done.  I was completely spent, nothing left in the tank.

It was when I arrived at the finish that it occurred to me.  I’ve been taking red yeast rice to control my cholesterol.  I’ve been taking it for years so it never occurred to me that switching brands a week before Bizz could result in such dire side effects.  I was more sore the day after Bizz than the day after I did AR50 and I only ran about 16 miles at Bizz.  In fact, I was very sore for two full days.  That can’t be the result of altitude, training, stress, diet, sleep, or dehydration.  It must be medical.  I switched brands for red yeast rice when I learned the stuff I had been taking was no longer effective.  It had been re-formulated after the FDA cracked down on yet another manufacturer.  I started taking the new pills just six days before Bizz, completely forgetting that the two most common side effects of statins are muscle pain and muscle weakness. 

It has taken me a few days to put a DNF in perspective.  early on, I was angry for several reasons.  First, this was my BQ and I had trained for it.  My coach and running partners were confident I could qualify, and I knew I could, too.  I even thought I had a chance of running the best marathon I would ever run.  Everything was in my favor.  Second, I could have prevented it if I would have considered the side effects of statins.  It didn’t ever occur to me.  Third, I drove 650 miles round trip on a weekend to run a marathon for which I had no chance of running well.

So here’s the perspective, for what it’s worth.  My youngest sister nearly slipped into a coma this week after suffering from another MS exacerbation with other complications.  That right there sort of makes my DNF rather inconsequential and makes me an idiot for getting upset about a foot race.  I’ve set nine PRs this year in the swim, run and triathlon.  There’s a good chance I’ll never be able to say that again.  A DNF sort of puts a nice stamp on the year, don’t you think?  Amid all the PRs, I also had a DNF.  I’m also not the only one who suffered out there at Bizz.  Charles and Kim, two friends from my running club, also failed to qualify.  They have run over 100 marathons between the two of them.  They finished, but they were far off their BQ.  Turns out I ran about seven miles with Kim and she said it really helped her get through it.  I’m glad to have been able to help her even in my condition.

Someone asked me if I wish I would have finished and not taken myself out of the race.  Yes, I wish I would not have DNF’d.  But I think it was the right thing to do.  I’ve done the IV at the finish line with a severe bonk at the Way Too Cool 50K and been carted off to the hospital.  I hope I have learned to listen to my body and not do something stupid.  Of course no amount of perspective will change the fact that I did not qualify for Boston.  And so it sits out there as the one that got away, and a goal for next year.  I probably need a redemption run just to get it out of my system, but as I have come to my senses, I’m eternally grateful just to have the chance to run another day.

Multi-day Running Events

After completing the 6-day Transrockies Run this year, I couldn’t help but wonder what other stage races I might consider in the future.  There are an ultra number of options out there.  Can they all be as well-organized as the Transrockies?  Are they affordable?  How difficult is the terrain?   There are multi-sport ultras, typically a double or triple ironman but going as long as the double deca (20 times the ironman distance…completely insane).  There are multi-sport stage format events like the Ultraman World Championships in Hawaii, a 3-day stage triathlon circumnavigating the Big Island of Hawaii.  There are also ultra distance cycling events like RAAM (Race Across America) or the Sea to Sea, a 1,085 mile bike race from Homer, Alaska to Prudhoe Bay (Pacific Ocean to the Arctic Ocean).  Adventure racing is really a separate category, popularized by Mark Burnett’s expedition-length Eco Challenge which ran as a reality TV event from 1995 – 2002.  Today, there are many options for adventure racing in many different formats.  What follows is a brief summary of some of the best running multi-day events.  For a calendar at a glance, here is an exhaustive list of multi-day running races for 2010.

Possibly the original ultra stage race, the Marathon des Sables, which has been around for 25 years, can be blamed for the increasing interest in stage races, especially in northern Europe and the UK. There are now numerous multi-stage races to choose from, many much tougher than the MdS, which is still considered the benchmark.  Although it is very expensive to enter there is always a waiting list despite there being 850 runners this year.  The majority of these races are challenging because they cover large distances in remote, hostile and usually hot parts of the world–Libya, Morocco, Egypt, Kalahari, Gobi, Atacama, Namibia–in other words, deserts.  I’ll probably update this post as I learn more, but let’s start with the event that got this crazy idea started.

Marathon des Sables
The MdS is a 6 day, 151 mile (243km) endurance race across the Sahara Desert in Morocco, usually at the end of March or beginning of April.  Equivalent to 5 1/2 regular marathons, competitors carry everything they will need for the duration (except for their tent) on their backs in a backpack (food, clothes, medical kit, sleeping bag, etc). Water is rationed and handed out at each checkpoint.  Two competitors have died on the course.  Required gear includes an anti-venom pump and a signaling mirror.  That’s enough info for my wife not to grant me permision to do this event.  The official web site for N. American entries is here

MDSDates:  March/April
Distance:  151 miles
Land cost:  €2550 / ~$5000 (many competitors raise these funds through sponsors)

GORE-TEX Trans-Alpine Run
The idea of running across a desert doesn’t appeal to me, so this is my choice for my next multi-day event.  Put on by the same first-class organization that delivers the Transrockies Run, the Trans-Alpine Run has quickly become the pinnacle of stage races in only its fifth year.  This event is longer and harder than the Transrockies.  At eight stages instead of six, the course is 240km / 149 mls. compared to 113 mls. this year at the Transrockies.  It also has 14,000 meters / 46,000 ft. of elevation gain compared to 20,000+ ft. in the Transrockies.  Instead of tents, runners stay in the towns where each stage ends in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy.  There are lots of great videos on YouTube but here is a great trailer from 2008.

Dates:  Sept. 5 – 12, 2009
Distance:  149 miles
Cost: Starter Package = €1180  / ~$1700 per team

Desert R.A.T.S. (Race Across The Sand)
In the U.S., Gemini Adventure Events puts on the Mountain R.A.T.S. and the Desert R.A.T.S.   The mountain version is shorter–4 stages, 10 – 25 miles per day.  The location is different every year and they don’t announce the exact location until the night before the race.  This year it was held in Copper Mountain, Colorado. 

Desert R.A.T.S. is a 6-day stage race starting in Grand Junction, Colorado, ending in Moab, Utah.  It stretches 148 miles along the stunning Kokopelli trail.  This is an individual race, not a team event.  Stages are as short as 9 miles, but there is one 50-mile stage with a generous 24-hr. cutoff.  Gemini Events sets up a tent city for runners but the way to do this event is to pay an extra $2800 for the Pampered RAT package.  Recommended for two racers or two couples traveling together, you can relax, travel and sleep in the comfort of an air-conditioned motorhome, get a daily massage and a nice shower.  Count me in.

Dates:  June 13 – 19, 2010
Distance:  148 miles
Cost:  Early registration until Jan. 1, 2010: $750; until April 1 = $950; until June 1 = $1050

Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race
2010 will mark the 20th running of the Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race.  This is a solo event, not a team event.  It’s an 8-day stage race with spectacular views of Mt. Everest, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse, and Makalu (4 of the 5 highest peaks int he world).  The course traverses isolated jungle, pine forests and major rivers while passing through small settlements and villages.  Yaks, wild ponies, and the red panda can be seen at higher elevations.  At each overnight stop, meals are fully catered and accomodations are in rustic mountain huts.  Stage 3 is run simultaneously with the Mt. Everest Challenge Marathon.

Dates:  Oct. 24 – 31, 2009
Distance:  100 miles
Cost:  Twin = €2599; Single = €3199 (side trip to Taj Mahal priced separately)

Trans Andes Challenge
Following the inaugural Trans Andes Mountain Bike Challenge this year, and modeled after the Transrockies Run, the Trans Andes Challenge is a shorter 3-day format located in the stunning Patagonian Andes Mountains between Chile and Argentina.  The course will include about 1500 meters of elevation gain per day.  Organizers are running the course in October, then posting detailed stage profiles on their web site.  This event is organized by Santiagos Producciones, a Chilean outdoor adventure racing company.

Trans Andes ChallengeDates:  Feb. 11 – 13, 2010
Distance:  30 – 35K each day
Land Cost:  $350 – $1900 per person (4 different packages — high end includes an additional 6 days in Pucón, Chile–includes , lodging, meals, and 4 days of fun adventure: Rafting, Trekking to the Villarrica Volcano, and more.

Andes Adventures
Santa Monica, CA-based Andes Adventures offers numerous choices.  Their Patagonia Running Adventure spans 17 days with no camping.  The longest run is 19 miles with optional shorter distances on many days.  The shorter 10-day version is called the Torres del Paine Running Adventure.

andes-adventuresPatagonia Running Adventure
Dates:  Dec. 19, 2009 – Jan. 4, 2010
Land Cost: $2995 – $3200 all inclusive (depending on number of participants, 29 max)

2009 Transrockies Run — Final Thoughts

Rocky MountainsLots of people have asked me if the Transrockies Run was everything I expected.  The answer is yes and no.  Yes, I expected an epic week of running and Colorado certainly delivered.  The views were stunning, the TRR staff was incredible, the atmosphere was electric.  But due to Kevin’s injury, we did not get to run hard everyday like we wanted to, so we didn’t get to experience the one thing we wanted more than anything–to push ourselves to the limit and see how we stacked up against a very solid field of runners from 10 countries and 29 states.  Am I disappointed?  Not in the least.  Most things in life don’t turn out according to plan.  I am grateful for even having the opportunity to participate. 

Kevin wasn’t the only one to run with a serious injury.  Ultra running legend Dean Karnazes took a hard fall on Stage 3 and cracked three ribs.  He ended up on a tow-line behind his partner Helen Cospolich (past women’s winner of the Leadville 100).  I ran a few miles with Devon Sibole on the very first day and watched her tumble ass over tea kettles twice right in front of me, putting a nice gash in both knees.  Aaron Heidt of the Two Joes from Canada fell in Stage 2, sustaining a broken tooth and split lip which required a root canal, stitches and glued tooth to fix.  They still finished in third place overall in the Open Men’s division.  There was plenty of carnage along the way.  As each day passed, more runners had bags of ice strapped to an appendage around camp.  And some unfortunate flatlanders seemed to never acclimate to the altitude and felt like crap almost the entire week.  Still, I am immensely proud of my teammate Kevin who ran the entire race with a torn muscle.  I have never witnessed anyone struggle through so much pain for so long in a sporting event.  I probably spent more time thinking of his condition than my own, but in a team event, an injury to one is like an injury to both.  Days after the event, I still wince at the thought of Kevin shuffling, staggering and plodding his way through the last few miles each day.  Every single step hurt.  Kevin is a stud.

Alpine flowersThe final results are humbling.  Kevin and I figured in our best condition, we might have covered the course in about 23 – 24 hours.  That would have put us in roughly 12th place in our division, exactly in the middle of the pack and right where we thought we might finish when we started the race.  I remind myself that our original goal was simply to finish injury free.  Well, at least we finished.  It took us 30 hrs., 57 mins., just edging out the California Old Goats, the oldest team in the field at 65 and 70 years young.  Right behind them were speed-inspiring names such as the Blazing Rocking Chairs and the Big Fat Cohibas.  Notice the lack of major brand names preceeding their team names.  Team names starting with Salomon, Nike, Montrail, North Face, and Nathan all led their divisions and were showered with schwag all week long.  The winnning time posted by Run Flagstaff was 14:59:59, less than half the time it took me and Kevin.  That’s just about the difference between running and going for a hike.

And that raises another point.  Most people think of the Transrockies as an ultra event.  It’s even called an ultra in some of the promotional material, but it really isn’t.  This year the course was 113 miles but we never ran more than 24 miles in a single day.  You don’t need to be an ultra runner to do the Transrockies.  In fact, just about anyone in decent running condition can complete it and fully enjoy the experience.  The cut-off times are very generous and you can walk the tougher uphills and still make the cut-off.  I trained by doing back-to-back-to-back long trail runs for 8 – 10 weeks.  I’m glad I did that but it certainly wasn’t necessary.

Clouds in ColoradoI think there was a big missed opportunity with the elite field that had assembled this year.  We had a fair amount of free time in the afternoon and early evening.  I thought it would have been great to have Hal Koerner do a chalk talk on how to run your first 100-miler, or have Anita Ortiz talk about her recent win at WS100.  Nikki Kimball has great tips on how to run down hills.  Dean Karnazes always delivers a captivating talk on any number of topics.  There were so many elite runners that have accomplished so much, it seemed like a wasted oppotunity not to have them share some of their knowledge with the other runners.  We were together for a whole week and never really had a chance to tap into their wisdom.  I chatted with a few of them during the course of the week, but you don’t necessarily want to jump all over them every time you see one of them.  It’s also nice to just have a beer with them and hang around the campfire.

I’m really glad I decided to use the Transrockies Run as a fund-raising event for the National MS Society.  The emotional boost it gave my sister was worth every step I took.  She spent the entire time I was racing in the hospital getting treatments for her MS.  It gave the whole experience much more meaning for me.  I have raised $7,000 and I still intend to reach my goal of $10,000.  The many other people I met who were also running for charities inspired me to do more and I am grateful for the example they set.

Bear Lake sunriseWould I do the Transrockies again?  I would love to but probably won’t, unless by a fantastic but improbable set of circumstances, several friends from my local running club all decided to do it in the same year.  If I could afford it and could make the time to do another stage race, I think I would choose the Trans-Alpine Run in Europe.  It’s eight stages instead of six, criss-crosses four countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy), with over 45,000 ft. of elevation gain over the Alps.  There are also countless other events on my bucket list, so doing the same week-long event again, as memorable and as it was, is unlikely as long as I have to work to make a living.

Others have asked me where the Transrockies ranks in all the events I have done.  Is it at the top of the list?  That’s hard to explain to non-runners or non-athletes without sounding like a pompous ass.  My first marathon, my marathon PR, my first ultra, my longest ultra, my best triathlons–they are all very special to me.  There is no hierarchy of good, better and best experiences.  I remember more of the good experiences than the bad, and each race and every effort adds to a lifetime of experiences.  I hold an unbreakable record in the pole vault at my high school which stood for over 20 years before the school eventually closed.  I’m pretty proud of that. 

The Transrockies clearly has its unique place.  For me, it was the epitome of trail running and a celebration of the sport.  It combined so many things about running you just can’t capture in a single event.  The views are spectacular; the competition is fierce; the atmosphere is fun and exhilirating; the support staff is uncompromising.   But the two things that make it unlike any other event is the 6-day stage format and the team aspect.  Getting up in the morning to do nothing but run for six days in a row is a very liberating feeling.  No work, no commute traffic, no email or voice mail, no family commitments, no responsibilities other than to get your ass over the finish line that day.  Now do it with your teammate and don’t separate by more than two minutes all week.  It was the adventure of a lifetime and I loved every minute of it.