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Longevity and durability vs. natural ability

How many current competitive trail/ultra runners were successful prep athletes?

I ask this question because I know that many of the top ultra runners in the country and world never qualified for the state track meet in high school.  Although they are known by the trail community as roadies, neither Max King nor Sage Canaday would have considered themselves speedsters in high school.  Granted, they both hail from Oregon - land of Steve Prefontaine, Nike, historic Hayward Field, and Track Town USA - but what does it say about a sport when two of its best were never considered elite at the high school level? 

Are ultras simply where guys who can’t hack it on the track put out to pasture?  Whether this is true or not, does the fact that the sport is open to all diminish it in any way? Is it not something to celebrate that at least two stars (and I’m well aware of many more) who were not instant successes as youngsters are so passionate about the sport that they can make a living doing what they love and inspiring others to take up the lifestyle?   
For the record, at least two of these guys (Max King and Ryan Bak)
can hold their own on just about any surface.
Flagline 50K, Bend, OR, 2011 USATF 50K Trail Championships.
Photo by Riley Smith.
Sage recalls a pivotal moment in his life that helped solidify his commitment: “My coach at Cornell, Robert "Rojo" Johnson of, always told us ‘Running is a lifestyle’ so I wrote that on a Brooks poster I got at Pre-Nats several years ago and have had it on a wall in my room ever since so I see it every day.”

Running is not merely a pastime for accomplished adolescents, but rather a lifestyle that can span a life time.  It is not exclusive to those with great genetics, talent, or early success.  Young or old, running represents an invitation with a challenge.  Those willing to accept the challenge are invited to regularly test themselves against themselves, the elements, the course, the clock, and others.

In addition to being an Oregonian, like Max and Sage, and many more like them, I never qualified for the state track meet in high school where the top two from every conference earned the sacred privilege of running on the hallowed track of Hayward Field.  I only qualified for the state cross country meet once, and that was only because the standards were a bit easier: the top seven from every conference and top two teams qualified to compete.  In my one state appearance, I placed 26th in a star-studded field of Foot Locker finalists, future all-Americans, and Olympians.  Some may have seen that as a decent bookend to a four year extracurricular activity, but since that time I have placed higher at much larger races with national and international fields, including national and world championships.

Naturally, I wasn’t highly recruited out of high school to run at any big schools, but I still had a desire to run so I walked on to a junior college team.  Over the next two years, I had to fight tooth and nail just to make the traveling squad, but I had the opportunity to run at the NJCAA national championships two years in a row.  I finished my eligibility at a small DII school, but even when I finished there I felt there was a little more in the basement.  I was not ready to move on, to let go, to put a close to this chapter of my life.  In fact, I felt like it was just beginning.  I felt like there was something more - something untapped -some strength that I still needed to develop before I could say that I had maximized whatever little talent I may have.
Senior season as a Seasider.  Photo by Scott Lowe.
I have chosen this sport, this lifestyle, and this outlet because I believe in the life lessons and principles it teaches through natural consequences.  I believe in the law of the harvest – in running, as in life, you reap what you sow.  I also believe in doing hard things.  As John F. Kennedy once said about space exploration,We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win” (Rice Stadium, 1962). Similarly, I choose to run because I believe in testing oneself and that in so doing a better self will emerge. 

I made the transition from road racing to trail running not because it is easy, but because it is hard.  In college, my physiology and kinesiology professor, Jokke Kokkonen, used me as his lab rat to represent the anomalies that exist in human physiology.  Each time he tested me, my VO₂ Max came back higher than anyone he had ever before tested but ironically, despite my body’s freakish capacity to intake and distribute oxygen I had/have a below average lactate threshold which essentially cancels out any benefit I should gain from my body’s anomalous aerobic abilities.  This means that I can cruise below my lactate threshold rather efficiently, but as soon as I cross the red line I enter asthmatic wheezing mode.  Anyone who has passed me going up a hill knows what I mean.  If I hammer hills, surges, and starts, it can set me back so far that it is hard to ever recover from them in a race. 

So what can I do about it?  Well, I can use a heart rate monitor and try to train in different heart rate zones to strengthen my weaknesses.  But in addition to that, I can regularly test myself.  For example, I can enter racesthat present great obstacles to my natural abilities and current training environment – with steep inclines, slick, uneven footing, and undulating terrain.  I can also train specifically for these races by more regularly running on uneven, hilly surfaces that intentionally keep me out of my comfort zone.  I can do plyometric work to train my size 14 feet to bounce back and not catch so easily on roots and rocks.  I can do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard and as I do these things I will not only become a stronger trail runner, but possibly a better overall runner with greater injury resistance, stamina, and versatility.  While I may not be as competitive as I’d like in some highly technical, uber competitive races I can still use these races as trial runs to dial in on my nutrition, training, and pace as I prepare for late Spring and Summer races.

This long-term perspective helps me both as an athlete and as a coach.  While some of the teams and individuals I’ve had the privilege of working with have experienced relative success (including team and individual state titles), I try to help them view running as a lifelong lifestyle.  Rather than putting all the emphasis on short term achievements, or making them feel that if they don’t make it to state or win every race that they had better find another pastime, I can show through my own example that running is not a fair-weather friend and really is no respecter of persons.  Running is a microcosm of reality and can teach us more about ourselves and about life than almost any other activity.  My goal for myself and my athletes is that we find lifelong fulfillment in and through the lifestyle of running.  Rather than medals, buckles, trophies, titles, and other tangible things, I hope to judge my own success and that of my athletes by our endurance – our ability to overcome injury, let-down, distractions, and other life challenges through the constancy of our engrained runner’s mentality and durability.  

Trail Champs Converge at Chuckanut

The Chuckanut 50K is quickly approaching. As Adam Chase detailed in his recent Running Times article entitled “The Ultra Harbinger,” the “small Washington race” that started 20 years ago has now become “one of North America’s premier trail races.” In commemoration of the 20th anniversary and in response to growing demand for the limited 200 entries race director Krissy Moehl decided to do something special – she opened the race up to 1000 participants.

In itself, this move responds to Brian Meltzer’s appraisal of the sport in last year’s Running Times article "Trail Running at a Cross Roads " where he expressed concern over limited field sizes and such small purses that the sport, in itself, fails to regularly assemble the best of the best. This year’s Chuckanut 50K may just fill that void. Based on the list of registered entrantsthe 2012 Chuckanut 50K could end up being the most star-studded field of any trail race in North America.

Both course record holders and last year’s champions, Ellie Greenwood and Geoff Roes, are registered to return and defend their respective titles and chase the the Udo’s Oil Course Record Bonus of $200 and $2500 prize purseto be distributed to the top three men and women and the top masters male and female. Others who were either in the mix last year or who want their shot at the CR and their share of the purse this year have registered en masse. What could make the 50K race even most interesting is the fact that the group assembling represents a diversity of athletes with specialties that range from the track and roads to really long Ultras.

While Roes is still registered to compete in this year's race, he just won the six-day staged Iditarod Trail Invitational and may not quite be recovered enough to defend his course record. In addition to several of the guys that started with Roes last year (including Chuckanut #6 and #9 all-time Aaron Heidt and Adam Campbell), a competitive contingent of potential course record holders will converge on March 17 in Bellingahm, Washington.

World Mtn. Running Champion, 4xXTERRA Trail Running National & World Champion, USATF Trail Half Marathon, Marathon, & 50K Champion, Olympic Trials Steeplechaser, and many time World Cross Country team member, Max King, who is coming off a 2:14 road marathon PR at the U.S. Olympic Trials has thrown his hat in the ring. Max will be joined by another Oregonian and Cornell graduate, 2:16 marathoner, blogger, author, videographer, and social media master, Sage Canaday. Sage recently returned to the northwest after a couple years in Michigan with the Hanson's Brooks Distance Project and will make his debut on the trails and at the 50K distance. See his preparationshere and here.

Despite their impressive track, road, and trail PRs, the Oregonians could be greatly tested by other equally qualified Ultra Runners. 2011's Ultra Runner of the Year, Dave Mackey, is coming off two solid performance as the Golden Gate Trail Run 50K and Bandera 100K this year and could certainly make things interesting for Max and Sage. Jason Loutit is coming off a win at the HURT 100M and boasts a nearly impeccable race record at distances ranging from 13M to 100M. Dane Mitchell , who most recently won the North Face Endurance Challenge - Bear Mountain 50K also has an impressive resume.Jason Schlarb, another formidable 50 miler, also plans to be in the mix.

I wish that Tim Tollefson, whose scathing critique of the Ultrarunning community enraged and inspired several of the FloTrack faithful, could join us on the trails. I think he might find what I found at last year's event: 1) trail 50Ks are no stroll in the park, 2) those who do them well are accomplished athletes who deserve every bit of what little recognition they get, 3) very few of the very best in the sport are looking for the spotlight except to appease and garner sponsors and even then, many still shy away and 4) the ascetic lifestyle of many elite ulatrarunners makes most rather amiable folks.

When I was foolishly trying to hang with the leaders last year, I was clueless as to who I was running with. It wasn't until after the fact that I realized that all of the nice guys who cheered me on as they passed and offered sage advice and assistance as I was struggling through the most arduous ordeal of my life were none other than some of the best in the sport. A few of them even came up to me afterwards to check up on me and make sure I was alright. Not a single one introduced themselves by telling me what race or races they had recently won (which could have been quite a list) and for the short time we were running together any time a camera was seen they hid behind the newbie - which is how I somehow ended up in a lot of publications I had no business being in other than the fact that the other guys knew it was way too early to try to steal the limelight.

I'm looking forward to improving my fueling this year with a more comprehensive nutrition plan and running a far more conservative/consistent race (though I doubt that some of the roadies are going to let the pace dawdle for long). I hope to actually be able to finish this one the way I had hoped to last year with a little more than fumes by the time I begin the descent back into town.

As a very strong advocate of equal coverage for both genders I should do a better job of writing and researching the women's field. But let's just say that Ellie Greenwood, with two wins, a dominant course record, and a wire-to-wire runner up finish to her name is the definite favorite this year. However, she should have some company with the likes of Nichole Sellon of Washington and Joelle Vaught of Boise, Idaho.

If I don't get off the computer soon, though, my much faster wife, who is also a strong advocate of equal time, may not be as enthusiastic about supporting my new hobby/habit!

March 17 should be a great day, in a great venue, with many of the sport's best mixing it up. So sign up or stay tuned for some potentially record setting performances on the men's and women's side.

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What makes a favorite a favorite?

One of the most liberating aspects of trail running is that it does not conform to the universal uniformity of the track. Each venue presents distinct surfaces, seasons, difficulties, and distances. Due to the diversity of courses, conditions, and challenges it is impossible to select a “favorite” race. 

While relatively new to the trail running world, each of the races I have done have become a favorite of sorts for various reasons. Rather than delve into great detail about just one, I’d like to talk about how each race can be a favorite in its own right - which is one of the most appealing parts of trail running – you don’t have to only like the sites where you win races or set PRs, but you can even like the places where you fail miserably.

To understand this unique trait of trail running, it is important to identify criteria for what makes a great race. I approach this task with first-hand knowledge as not only a trail runner, but as a coach, race director, and volunteer. 

So what makes a great trail race?

LOCALE: Is it in the perfect location with unparalleled vistas? Is it a destination race or a local one? 

NOVELTY: Does the race bring prestige or recognition? Is it unique? Does it make you feel accomplished or is it simply a check off the box before the weekend yard work begins?

BENEFIT: Does it benefit a good cause? If so, how much of the proceeds go toward the cause? Does that matter?

COMPETITION: Does it attract the best competition, just enough to keep you honest, or is it so off the beaten path that you run alone and are the uncontested age group and/or overall victor? 

FIELD SIZE: Are there a lot of people or is it your own little private run? What do you prefer?

AWARDS & PRIZES: Are there great prizes? Are they valuable? Are they unique or distinctive? Do you like the shirts, medals, socks, or buckles? 

SPONSORS: Are there lots of sponsors – local, national, or global? Do they make the event better? How?

AID STATIONS: What do they serve at the aid stations (standard fare – water, Sports Drink, and gels or chews, or does each serve up a banquet of anti-bonking aids – PB&J, bananas, orange slices, salt, salt pills, potatoes, soda, licorice, gummy bears, sausage links, etc.)? At what intervals is aid located along the trail? Do they offer drinks in cups or must you BYOB (bring your own bottle)?

MARKINGS: Is the course well marked or should you bring your own GPS and map? How is it marked? Is it environmentally friendly marking? Do you care one way or another? Is it possible to preview the course in training prior to race-day?

VOLUNTEERS: Are there enough volunteers on the course? Are they helpful? Do they know what is going on? Do they know the course and do they have some understanding of the sport? Are volunteering opportunities available at the event?

CHALLENGE: Is it challenging and slow or fast and easy? Is it a PR course, or do all times go out the window? 

AESTHETICS: Do you like the webpage, advertisements, race logo, t-shirt, medals, beanies, or buckles?

SEASON: Is it at an ideal time of year? What is the weather generally like? Cool? Hot? Rainy? Sunny? Windy?

POST RACE: What is available after the race? Food? Music? Friends? Family? 

COST: Is it affordable? Do you get what you pay for or more?  Where does the money go?

FOOTING: Does it have the right type of footing? Are the trails wide or narrow? Packed, muddy, slick, rocky, or sloppy? Is there pavement anywhere on the course? Is this good or bad? Are there steep climbs and switch backs or small rollers?

LODGING: Are there ample sites (parking lots, camp sites, hotels, etc.) for sleeping before or after your race?

In reality, these are just a few of the many considerations we make when determining what makes a race great or how to make a great event. Now I’d like to tell you about a few of my favorite events and explain how they are each my favorite in one way or another.

FIRST ULTRA: Hagg Lake 50K in Gaston, OR was my first attempt at a distance over 26.2 miles and was my first time running for more than 3 hours. It was challenging, intimidating, discouraging, frustrating, and inspiring all in one race. The race directors are very well organized and the course is pretty simple – short out and back followed by two loops around a muddy lake primarily on single track. I liked this race 1) because I realized I was capable of doing something I had never before done, 2) because I met some good people with whom I shared a few hours on the trails, 3) because the post-race meal (chicken-noodle soup) was incredibly satisfying, 4) because it introduced me to and got me hooked on trail running, 5) because it wasn’t too far from home, and 6) because it was super well organized and the race directors take care of all of the athletes.

MOST CHALLENGING: Chuckanut 50K in Bellingham, WA was by far the most challenging race I’ve ever done. Not only did several of the country’s best trail runners show up, the course climbs and climbs through technical terrain before dropping so abruptly that it is hard to stay upright on fatigued legs. I bonked pretty hard and struggled home in my slowest time for a 50K. That said, I enjoyed running with and meeting some of the legendary pioneers in the sport (for a few miles). 
Chase pack at 2011 Chuckanut 50K 

I also liked the post-race spread and the natural low-key atmosphere. I’d do it again because of the challenging terrain, the great competition, awesome trail and scenery, and because I failed on my first attempt and want another stab at it. This year will be the 20th anniversary for the event and the 200 participant cap got shifted to 1000. The purse has also grown over the years which has attracted a rather strong contingent of trail runner specialists from XC, Mtn., road, 21K-50K, and 50K-100M. For a complete list of competitors please see list at UltrasignUp.  It should be exciting to see the outcome. Stay tuned for a more specific race preview in the next week.

GREAT GETAWAY: The Flagline 50K in Bend, OR was close enough to home that I was able to make a few short trips to preview the course in the months leading up to the race. I ran this one because it was close to home (4 hours) and it was the U.S. Trail 50K Championships for 2010 & 2011. Some of the highlights of the event were the pine-needled softened trails and great aid stations. The high altitude and rolling terrain added to the challenge and appeal. The salmon tacos and black beans after the race further solidified the race as a great event. Top that off with the local legends Max King and Ryan Bak to lead the way and you’ve got a formidable trail fest. 

Start of the Flagline 50K (2011 USATF 50K Championships)

MOST SCENIC: The XTERRA World Trail Championships in Ka’a’awa, Hawaii is by far the most scenic trail run I’ve done. The roughly 14 mile course traverses through the Koolauloa Range along Oahu’s North Shore, specifically through Koaloa Ranch which has been used for filming in several major productions including Jurassic Park, 50 First Dates, and Lost. The most appealing part of the race, by far, is the setting. I graduated from and ran for a small DII university, Brigham Young Unviersity-Hawaii, not far from the course and loved waking up each morning to run in the mountains. Any time I can get back and enjoy the terrain I take it. This course served up its own set of challenges. Due to the shorter course, the pace was much faster than most trail runs I’ve done. Four-time National and World XTERRA and Mtn. Running Champion, Max King, was pulled out for the first few minutes by fellow steeplechaser Ben Bruce. The rest of us were left in a cloud of dust as we ascended and descended some pretty gnarly terrain before returning to the valley for the finish. The highlight of this race was the 70* temps in December and the chance to cool down in the ocean after the race. While it was hard to jump off a plane and then jump right back on, the warmth and beauty of the island and ocean made the trip well worth it.

Start of XTERRA World Trail Running Championships
LOCAL FAVORITES: Due to the sense of community that one feels and experiences as a trail runner, I enjoy some of the small local races I help organize just as much as some of the larger more competitive races in which I’ve participated. One of these races, the Columbia River Power Marathon, is actually a full marathon that starts in Oregon, crosses the Columbia River via a hydroelectric dam into Washington, returns to Oregon after running through a tunnel and crossing a bridge and then runs 10 miles on trail along the Columbia River. While some may not call this a true “trail” run because only about half of the course is unpaved, it is certainly scenic, rugged, and unique. The race is run in October so the weather is usually perfect and the trail is relatively packed for the full marathon.

In the summer we use the same Lewis & Clark Trail along the Columbia River for the Columbia Corridor Corredores Trail Runs (10 mile, 25K, and 25K relay). The weather is quite different and we start pretty early to avoid the heat and other critters that like the sun. The race starts and finishes at a shaded park with great picnic areas and a roped off swimming area for participants and their families to enjoy the beach. My favorite part of both of these events is that they both benefit the Hermiston Cross Country Program, which I help coach. The funds help run the middle school programs which were cut with the first round of program cuts and also help many of the athletes replace shoes, attend camps, and travel to competitions throughout the year. 
2011 Columbia River Conference Champions, 2nd @ Oregon State Meet
These are just a few of the myriad trail runs out there.  As the sport grows in popularity more and more trail runs seem to pop up.  So find the next trail race in your area and sign up to either run or volunteer.  If there isn't one near you, start one.