Running The Sahara Movie Review

If this 3-min. trailer doesn’t captivate you, read no further…  I watched this movie several times on a flight from San Francisco to Dubai on my way to Banaglore.  It made the 15-hr. flight somewhat bearable but it also kept me awake when I should have been sleeping as I was mesmerized by the story.  I had heard about these three nutcases who decided to do this on something of a whim in the winter of 2006. 

American Charlie Engle is well known in running circles for having completed some of the longest runs ever after a life of serious drug and alcohol addiction. Ray Zahab from Canada is a former smoker and drinker.  Kevin Lin from Taiwan was really the only real elite athlete, capable of running under 2:20 for a marthon.  The three of them had raced together before, but they decided to run the Sahara simply because nobody had ever done it.

Narrated and executive-produced by Matt Damon, the team called this an expedition, not  a run, and the original goal was just to get one of them to actually finish.  Starting on the coast of Senegal, the course took them 4,300 miles through Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Libya and Egypt, finally finishing at the Red Sea.

Running The Sahara, photo By Don Holtz

It’s impossible to chronicle a 111-day journey in a single documentary film.  But it does a great job of capturing the thoughts and emotions of three distinctly different men, their loved ones, and their support crew. I found myself sometimes wondering what happened in those 4 – 5 day stretches that weren’t covered in the movie.  Were they just mundane, uneventful days of running 2 marathons a day, day after day after day?  Sort of makes those guys who run a marathon a day for 50 days look like they’re just getting started, huh?  These guys actually got to a point where they were comfortable running 50 miles a day…after already completing 3,000 miles!  The mental fortitude it must take to continue under incredible circumstances and challenges is difficult to comprehend.  Sandstorms, death threats, baseball size blisters, sleep deprivation, significant weight loss, illness, exhaustion.  Good grief.

What takes the whole expedition to another level is the cause that was spawned as a result of the effort.  In partnership with Matt Damon, the Sahara runners started the H2O Africa Foundation to bring attention to the water crisis in Africa and gather support for clean water programs in critical areas, including communities along the Running the Sahara route. I love stories like this, where it’s not just about three madmen hoofing it across the biggest sandbox in the world.  This is real inspiration.


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.

Inov-8 Roclite 312 GTX Review

I’ve been wanting to try trail shoes from Inov-8 and I needed something that could handle every miserable condition for the Transrockies Run.  In the words of Leadville 100 founder Ken Choubler, “Hope Pass is a bad son of a bitch on a good day.”  I needed a shoe that was ready for battle.  And since I never pay full price for the latest model (the old model used to be the new model, right?), I chose the Inov-8 Roclite 312 GTX. 

Inov-8 Roclite 312GTXThe most obvious feature of this shoe is the eye-popping red color, which has been discontinued.  Maybe they decided it’s not very manly, but I don’t really mind, especially since all my trail shoes are generally covered in so much dirt the original color is barely discernable.  The clever insert that comes stuffed in the shoe claims the Roclite has a “radical design upper (that) provides excellent support while the fascia-band™ aids propulsion efficiency of the running cycle.”  The fascia-band claims to “replicate the plantar fascia ligament to increase propulsion efficiency and reduce fatigue.”  Hmm, really?  OK, if you say so.  Turns out a Google search for  “propulsion efficiency of running cycle” turns up the Brayton cycle (or Joule cycle)–the operation of a gas turbine engine ideal for jet propulsion engines.  It’s an unrelated connection but an ironically good metaphor.  These shoes feel like they generate their own power!

Roclite tread patternWhen it comes to traction, the Roclite is actually the middle of the road in the Inov-8 lineup.  The Mudroc, X-Talon and Mudclaw all have treads that make a tire on a backhoe look smooth.  The beefy tread and lug pattern on the Roclite is a cross between a snowmobile and  a pair of snowshoes.  I was afraid it would feel terribly uncomfortable but I was impressed with how smooth they felt across every kind of surface…except for asphalt.  You really don’t want to wear these on the road.  It seems almost counter-intuitive for a company that bases their designs on optimizing the natural biomechanics of the 26 bones and multi-directional joint systems of the foot would end up with a shoe that looks suitable to wear on the moon.  But at 312 grams (numerical designation = weight), these shoes are nimble, versatile and responsive.

My favorite feature is the generous toe box, which becomes more important the longer the running distance.  I have yet to try these for an ultra distance but I’m looking forward to it.  I was a bit concerned about the somewhat low profile.  I know that’s the trend in trail shoes, but I’m not sure shoe manufacturers are fully considering how a custom orthotic changes the higher position of the foot in the shoe.  So far it hasn’t been a problem. 

The only thing I haven’t quite figured out is how to wear my gaiters with these shoes.  The laces start fairly high up on the shoe, which means the back of the gaiters need to be velcroed way at the bottom of the heel to keep the trail out.  Pretty sure they don’t think about gaiter fit when they design these things.  Speaking of laces, these shoes are designed with an innovative loop lock lacing system to secure the heel and forefoot.  It also locks off the lacing while distributing pressure across the top two eyelets.  roclite-312-GTX blackThe crazy thing about Inov-8 is the sizing, so don’t forget this is a Brittish company.  Sizing is not what you would expect.  I generally wear size US 12.5 road running shoes and size 13 trail shoes.  I felt like an NBA player ordering size 14 but they are exactly the same size as my size 13 Vasque trail shoes. 

Aside from proper training, nothing makes me feel more prepared for an epic run than a great pair of trail shoes.  With my Roclites,  I’m ready to handle whatever Leadville has to dish out.

Leki Summit Antishock Trekking Poles

Leadville SignI had never used trekking poles but decided to get some for the Transrockies Run next month after seeing lots of photos from previous years with runners carrying poles.

The amount of speeds and feeds that go into a pair of sticks is rather amazing, but when you consider the history of trekking, mankind has had decades–even centuries–to perfect the walking stick.  And when it comes to poles, the #1 brand by a big margin is LekiFounded in Germany, LEKI began as the hobby of an airframe mechanic and avid skier, Karl Lenhart, who believed aluminum would make a superior ski pole to the heavy steel poles of the late 1940s.  Today, Leki is known worldwide for skiing, trekking, nordic walking poles and gloves.  They are the definitive pole experts.

Summit AntishockI selected the Summit Antishock poles and saved some money by having the poles delivered to REI for pick up.  I needed to go there anyway.  I was pleasantly surprised to hear the salesperson on the phone tell me I would get an extra 20% off.  So I paid $55 for a pair of $100 poles and felt like I really found a deal.

Reinhold Messner 2What got my attention is the little CD dangling from the handles when I picked them up at the store.  I loaded the 3″ CD in my laptop and was introduced to Reinhold Messner, the Italian mountaineer and explorer from South Tyrol, often cited as the greatest mountain climber of all time.  He is renowned for making the first solo ascents of Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen and for being the first climber to ascend all 14 “eight-thousanders” (peaks over 8,000 meters above sea level).  He has also trekked across Antarctica and the Gobi Desert, and has tracked the yeti.  Now if that doesn’t get your attention, you probably have no business buying trekking poles in the first place.  The 11-min. film is all about the poles, but the unexplained setting–probably somewhere in Germany–is absolutely breathtaking.  Three trekkers take a hike with Reinhold along snow-capped peaks, passing rustic stone cabins, crossing babbling brooks through fog and mist, finally ending at a majestic castle.

six elephantsLeki claims trekking poles used correctly will take roughly seven kilos less pressure for every step, which translates to 30 tons less pressure on the knees over a full day trek.  That’s approximately the weight of six adult elephants.  Almost doesn’t sound right, but if a pair of sticks can take anywhere near that amount of pressure off my joints, I’m all for it.  Pressure is further absorbed with the triple spring technology located in the middle sections of the Leki poles.  This is my favorite feature.  The antishock can be turned off for more efficient ascents or left on for descents.  I like it on all the time.  It makes a huge difference in the wrists on every pole plant.

The carbide flextip on the lower section can flex up to 30° without damaging the pole shaft.  I hope I never need to put that much weight on it but I do picture myself leaning helplessly over the poles gasping for air at Hope Pass (13,200-feet).  Other features include ergonomically shaped handles, internal locking mechanisms for each section that don’t come apart while in use, and 80% cork handles to maintain a solid grip.

Trail running with poles is very different from hiking or trekking with poles.  I had to experiment quite a bit with the cadence of the pole plant in relation to my foot plant.  It also takes some practice to change the length of the pole when transitioning from an ascent to a descent without fumbling around too long and wasting time.  Also consider what to do with the poles when you want to snap a photo or if you’re carrying an extra water bottle or two.  I’ve been experimenting with drinking a bottle, then stashing it in my pack so I can free up my hands.  When I’m not using the poles, sometimes I find it easier to just carry them and use them to help balance rather than mess around and stop to strap them onto my pack.  It all just takes practice.

My favorite part of the Leki film is the end, where the trekkers toast a fine hike with a bottle of wine and carve some cheese and what looks like dry aged meat, probably bunderfleisch or prosciutto.  Now that’s a great way to end every long trail run and a tradition I should adopt.

Ultimate Direction Wasp Hydration Pack

wasp_front07I use the Nathan HPL 020 hydration pack for local trail runs, but I needed something with extra storage capacity without the bulk for the Transrockies Run.  I also have broad shoulders and a big frame for a distance runner and needed a pack that fits me comfortably.  Nathan packs are not really designed for someone my size.  I had heard recently that the owner of Ultimate Direction used to be partners with the owner of Nathan.  They split and became competitors, and that would help explain all the extra features you find on UD products.

I chose the Wasp from Ultimate Direction.  First launched in 2004, you can tell by looking at it that it was designed for long distance running.  The shoulder harness system allows this pack to sit higher on the back than most packs.  It’s amazing what a difference that makes.  Aside from fitting more like a garment than a pack, my running shirts don’t creep up my back with this pack.  Click here for a detailed list of product features.

It’s all the little extra touches that sets this pack apart, starting with the bite valve.  If I can’t drink easily, the whole thing feels like a nuisance.  On the Wasp, you just bite down on the pliable silicone and the water flows.  It also doesn’t drip when you’re done drinking.  The tube is encased in insulated neoprene to keep the water cold.  And I really like the little gator clip with a wrapping velcro attachment which allows you to secure the valve where you want it instead of having it bounce around.wasp_back07

A distinguishing feature of this pack is the unique roll top reservoir opening and closure system.  At first glance, you might expect this design to leak and it doesn’t really look easy to open and close.  But then I remember how many times I have fumbled with the screw tops on Nathan and Camelback reservoirs and I realize this design makes a lot of sense.  Once again, it’s the little details.  The reservoir has a central baffle that keeps it from bulging when filled to capacity.  It also has a simple grab loop at the top which holds it in place and keeps the reservoir from dropping as it empties.  Sounds like something designed by runners, for runners, doesn’t it?

Wasp at YosemiteI recently wore this pack on a very hard 16-mile training run at Yosemite, almost fully loaded the way I would wear it for Transrockies.  I packed a blanket, raingear, arm warmers, gloves, camera, Gu, energy bars, and trekking poles.  The only items I didn’t pack were a medical kit and a few accessories like a compass and sun block.  All these items were easily stored on the Wasp and it felt very comfortable.  I was a bit worried the poles might bang around but I didn’t even notice they were there when I was running.  We also refilled twice in the streams (we had iodine tablets) and I was impressed with how the insulated tube kept the water flowing cold.

I really can’t think of anything I don’t like about the Wasp.  Even the price is very reasonable.  I found it for $65 online but probably would have paid more for such a great product.  The jury may still be out on the durability of the reservoir.  I’ve had two blowouts on my Nathan pack in two months.  The Wasp has a double RF-welded perimeter specifically to prevent blowouts.  Again, a smart design feature, but now I need to see if it stands the test of time and trails.

A Chance Encounter at Montana de Oro

I was visiting my in-laws in Paso Robles for Father’s Day weekend, so decided to treat myself to some new trails this weekend.  I printed the 25K course map for the Pacific Coast Trails Montana de Oro event and drove to Montana de Oro State Park early Sunday morning.

Spring poppies

The name Montana de Oro, or “Mountains of Gold,” was inspired by the abundance of Orange Bush Monkey flower, but the mountains are a cornucopia of Indian Pink, Indian Paintbrush, Yarrows, Buckwheat, Lupins, Deerweed, and other varieties.

The 1200-ft. climb from Spooner’s Cove to Valencia Peak is two miles long at an average incline of 14.1°.  A third of it is loose Monterey Shale (rock) and the first ridge is entirely exposed.  The view of Valencia Peak reminded me of the scenes from the Road Runner cartoon or How The Grinch Stole Christmas where the narrow trail spirals up the mountain until it reaches the pointed top, which I reached in a leisurely half hour.  I signed one of the hiker’s log books with a Father’s Day message.

Spooners CoveAlmost two hours into my run I had not yet found the Hazard Peak Trail.  I found myself winding my way back to Spooner’s Cove.  Entirely by chance, I met three runners coming down the same Valencia Peak Trail I had completed about 45 minutes earlier.  One of them was Luis Escobar, who will be running the Western States 100 for the 8th time this weekend.  He has also completed Badwater, Hardrock, HURT and numerous other ultras.  He’s also an accomplished photographer.  Go to and check out Luis’ account of the rarely photographed Tarahumara people in the Urique and Batopilas Canyon region of the Copper Canyon, state of Chihuahua, in northern Mexico.  Very cool stuff.

Luis invited me to a 50K/50-mile run his running group is putting on at this location the weekend after Thanksgiving.  This is a new venue for the Santa Barbara 9 Trails 35 Mile Endurance Run, chosen after the recent fires in Santa Barbara.  I’ll be sure to promote it with my running club.

I took this chance encounter as the reason I was not supposed to find Hazard Peak Trail (although I did finally find it a half mile from where I parked as I left the park).  Some of the best moments in running are the serendipities along the trail.
Bluff TrailLuis and his buddies were meeting family members so we parted ways at the parking lot.  I was running out of time with a 45-min. drive back to Paso Robles.  Luis said the Bluff Trail was not very interesting.  It’s very flat, but I didn’t have time for Hazard Peak.  I’m glad I ran the bluff.  I stopped many times to take photos, listen to the big waves crash, and enjoy the moment.

Saucony Grid Type A2 Racing Flats

saucony-grid-type-a2-red“Saucony” is an American Indian word meaning, “mouth of a creek or river.”  The brand’s “river” mark represents the flow of the Saucony Creek in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, where the company built its first factory in 1906.  Founded in 1898, the Saucony brand today is most popular with marathoners and triathletes.  It may be best known for its Originals line, built around the Jazz running shoe in the 1980s and arguably the most technical running shoe of its time.  I’ve tried a lot of running shoes over the last 32 years but I have never owned a pair of racing flats, so I tried the Saucony Grid Type A2.

Racing flats are designed to help you run more efficiently.  The absence of a robust heel translates into a lighter shoe with less support and cushioning but better foot to ground power transfer.  I have a normal foot strike, which helps with flats.  The heel to toe transition is smooth and responsive.  The wide open mesh upper hugged my feet and kept them cool.  At a feather light 6.9 ounces, both shoes together weigh less than just one of my trail shoes.

If you’re going to run in racing flats, you may as well look fast on the starting line.  I wore them for the first time on the back end of a brick workout after a 25-ml. tempo ride.  I was running on tired legs, especially after an 80-ml. ride the day before, and I wanted a good run.  I may not be crazy fast, but I sure look fast and feel about ten years younger in these shoes.  And there’s a lot to be said for that.  A singlet or tri top and tri shorts or a tri suit with these shoes looks great.  The marathon shirt from your last race with running shorts–not so much.

My biggest concern was the low profile, which doesn’t really accomodate an orthotic.  I tried the SOLE footbed but even that was too much of an insert for these racing shoes.  So I ran with the removable, perforated, cushioned sockliner that comes with the shoes.  It felt like I was almost running barefoot.  The super lightweight flats definitely put you in touch with the road.  I swear my leg turnover was just a bit faster in these shoes even though a 90 – 95 rpm ride also increases the leg turnover on the run.

It’s also important to me that my tri shoes work well with lock laces.  I find some shoes just have a eyelet pattern that isn’t comfortable with lock laces.  The Saucony worked perfectly.  I was able to use all the eyelets with my lock laces and it allowed an easy and snug fit.

Racing flats have about half the lifespan of normal shoes.  I’ll wear them for the 5-mile run portion of the Morgan Hill Sprint Triathlon at Uvas next month.  I’ll probably use these flats for 5K and 10K runs and Olympic distance tris this year.  I think I prefer the comfort of my Asics Landreth for anything longer than a 10K.  Did I mention how good I look in these racing flats?