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Return to the Roads

After a hard effort at the Hagg Lake 50K I took the week to recover and then made my first return to the roads in over a year to add some much needed threshold work to my winter training.  After Hagg I took a day completely off from running, did some light swimming, aquajogging, and mountain biking with some easy running mixed in.  The Saturday after Hagg I accompanied my friend and long run training partner, Rian Beach, to Richland, WA to participate in the second annual Tri Cities Half Marathon.

Rian has had a profound impact on my running over the past few years.  Doing my long runs and long workouts with him has been both fulfilling and beneficial.  We were actually rivals in high school, but we reunited at a local fun run, the Salmon Walk 10K, a few years back and have been training together as much as possible ever since.  It was actually kinda funny the way we were reacquainted with one another.  My brother and I started out pretty fast down a hill pushing infants in jogging strollers.  The strollers probably helped on the descent, but when we had to climb back up the hills pushing them it got a bit more difficult.  When Rian tried to pass my son, Cairo, removed his shoes and began throwing them at him.  Rian kindly reached down and picked them up, thinking that perhaps it had been an accident.  Then Cairo started throwing snacks, granola bars, gold fish crackers, etc. and Rian finally got the hint that Cairo was far more competitive than the guy pushing the stroller.
My brother, Thomas Rivers, and I pushing our kids at the Salmon Walk
Rian lives in Pendleton, about 35 minutes away.  For much of the winter of 2010 we drove back and forth to each others towns to run with each other on the weekends.  Both of us had completed a couple of marathons, but we both felt that what we needed to dip under the 2:30 mark was consistency in our long runs.  We both got it during that winter.  Most of the time I'd be dragging the last few miles, but Rian insisted on dropping sub 6:00 miles the last few miles of our 18-24 mile training runs.  This stimulus had both psychological and physical benefits.  That Spring I PRed by over 5 minutes at the Eugene Marathon.  With his help, I was able to complete a number of marathons under the previous ceiling of 2:30.

Rian and I cooling down after the Wheat Field Half Marathon & 8K in The Dalles, OR 2010
Photo by Scott McMullen
It was that first winter of training with Rian that actually got me interested in running trail 50Ks to extend my training runs even further.  Now, it is my turn to try and help him make similar jumps in his racing.  Due to a coaching conflict, I won't be able to join him at Eugene this Spring, but I'd like to be able to run with him as much as possible between now and then.  So when we heard about the Tri Cities Half we decided to go for it.
Rian and I running up Dead Man's Pass in the Blue Mountains outside of Pendleton
Then we heard that it would be cold and windy.  Really windy.  Oh well, we'd adjust our goal.  We initially talked about trying to run 1:13 or 1:14.  Neither of us have been doing much in terms of speed, so we figured that would require a solid effort at this time of year, but we also thought it would provide a solid stimulus for our future aerobic development.  However, with the wind it was pretty tough to hit any sort of even splits.  The course was horse shoe shaped - started by going north about 3 miles, turned east toward the river, turned south into the wind and ran along the river about 3 miles and then turned around and retraced the same path.  The wind was at our backs about half of it and in our faces the other half.  So it really didn't seem too tough to go out in 5:20s with the wind to our backs for the first three miles, but once we turned into the wind it was more than a challenge to stay under 6:00 per mile.  Our initial time goals had to go out the window and our goals of winning, breaking the previous course record, defeating last year's champion, and getting a good workout in were still attainable.

Photo of the Start courtesy of Mark Harper, KAPPTV
We ran together for the first three miles or so.  After the initial blitz, I was bigger (taller and wider) than anyone else in the lead pack so I just tried to get as much wind in my sails as possible on the way out.  On the way back it seemed to have the opposite effect - the wind seemed to slam into my barrel chest and held me in place as others made up considerable ground.  We were still pretty close together at the turnaround.  Rian and I had opened up a gap on the others, but third and fourth were still in striking distance.  I tried to use the tailwind to my advantage from miles 6.5 to 9.5 and tried to drop the pace again to give me a cushion when we got back into the head wind from mile 10 to 13.

Swiftwick Aspire Twelve compression socks - perfect for the cool , windy weather.
Between the warm up, the race, and the cool down I would be running about 18 miles on pavement which is about 18 miles more than I typically run on pavement on any given day so my upper legs and lower back were not reacting well.  Thanks to the Swiftwick Aspire Twelve compression socks, my feet and lower legs were able to get the rest of my body back to the finish with no cramps and no hot spots or blisters.  I was still a bit sore from the effort the week before so the last few miles into the wind were more about focusing on form and trying to run as efficiently as possible.  The socks helped me stay focused on form and not on my feet.
Me, race director, Miguel Reyna, and overall women's champ,  Erica McElrea
Photo by Rian Beach
It turned out that both of us were able to beat the previous course record.  After fueling up at the PowerBar station and downing a few bananas we cooled down with the 2012 champ, David Hurtado (who is an engineer that coached soccer at the same school where I coach cross country and we shared a few athletes).  We looked for a healthy post race meal option, but the only place that was open that early was Zips so we had no other choice but to eat greasy hamburgers.  Protein is protein, right?

I've done two races this year and set course records at each.  I've got my first mountain bike race of my life this week at the Echo Red2Red XC and let's just say I don't expect the streak to continue, but I do plan to have a lot of fun and enjoy one last ride before I am on the road every weekend at high school track meets.

Sometimes a great notion

Shot of Hagg Lake near the Start by Michael Lebowitz
In 2011 I took up 50K trail runs as a means of occasionally extending my long runs beyond the three hour mark and assuring that my water bottles wouldn't be picked up by others before I got to them.  Honestly, all I really had in mind was becoming a better road marathoner and if it meant I had to drop a few bucks on entry fees and travel to secure training partners and the necessary aid I'd do it.

Photo by Michael Lebowitz, Long Run Pictures
Then it happened.  It only took one race, the Hagg Lake 50K, and I was hooked.  The unknown world of trails captivated me. I was quickly on to the next one.  Went out hard, bonked hard, crawled back home...  Yet, rather than deterring me from doing more, this experience and many other newbie mishaps kept feeding my desire to do more - to familiarize myself enough with the terrain and the technique and my gangly body that I could navigate the trails the way so many others did as they flew by me on the rooty, rocky descents.

In most races, my aerobic capacity covered my ineptitude on the trails.  Despite the fact that I was either unable or unwilling to try and compete with the stars, I was able to manage relative success in the new milieu.  However, I decided that this year, if I'm really going to 'race' on trails, then I had better figure out how to prepare for the technicality and I had better prepare to actually 'race', embrace the red line and hang on, rather than do everything in my power to avoid discomfort.

Creek leading into Hagg Lake near first muddy climb.  Photo by Micheal Lebowitz.
I knew that if I hoped to be more competitive on the trails I needed to switch things up a bit in my training.  I needed to train on more single track, more hills, and more rocky, uneven terrain.  So this winter I made a conscious effort to train on more winding, technical trails to learn to navigate them with less hesitation and reservation. I needed to actually start racing and stop seeing trail runs as simply training runs.  Until I flipped that switch in my mind, I wasn't going to be able to compete on the trails even at the level that I had on the roads.

Shots of the lake by Michael Lebowitz
The stars aligned at Hagg Lake and I was able to begin 2013 the way I had hoped.  My training has been going relatively well.  I am healthy.  Work (teaching and coaching) hasn't been any more stressful than necessary.  My family is healthy and happy.  So what could stop me...

Start of Hagg Lake 50K with the legendary Joelle Vaught.  Photo by Micheal Lebowitz.
I woke up the morning of the Hagg Lake 50K to find that my GPS watch had not charged, was frozen, and would not respond.  I wasn't hungry enough to eat any solid food so I just had lots of orange juice with lots of pulp.  Based on the results from the past few years and the list of entries I was favored to win which in itself would be a nice way to start the year.  Word got out that the weather had been nice and although the mud was supposed to still be present around the perimeter of the lake it would be runnable (other than a few sections on the back side that still weren't draining properly).  After running the course the two previous years I felt confident that I could push the pace longer than I previously had.  I also knew from recent training and racing experiences that I could grind through discomfort as long as I was fueling properly.  I could run fluidly for at least three hours at a relatively high intensity on varied terrain.

However, I did not intend to lead from the gun.  Jason Leman and I ran side by side up
the first hill to the turn-around of the out-and-back and I planned on running with him for a while, but on the descent my legs were longer and I didn't want to put on the brakes and tie up my quads early in the race so I just let gravity pull me down and hoped to use a bit of the momentum to recover from the climb and propel me through the first loop.  I figured I'd see him once we got into the technical stuff.

My family (wife, son, and mom) were there to cheer me through the start/finish area where I was able to ditch a jacket.  They circled the lake providing me with PowerBar Energy Gels and PowerBar Perform at each of the aid stations.

The aid stations were close enough to one another that I was able to forego carrying a bottle or bladder and just drink at each aid station as I would in a road marathon.  I'd switch out the wrappers of the gels I'd eaten and replace them with new ones and wash them down with a swig or two of PowerBar Perform and a salt cap.

The fact that my GPS wasn't working was actually a boon.  I wore a simple chrono watch and just made sure I was eating a gel at least every 45 minutes and salt at least every hour.  Rather than basing my pace off of a predetermined standard I simply had to go off of feel.  I tried to stay at threshold effort.  I didn't have a HR monitor to tell me what zone I was in or the GPS to tell me the exact mile splits, but I simply tried to run out of my comfort zone without going anaerobic.

The Mountain Hard Wear 3/4 tights I was wearing have a good sized pocket in the back that held my gels and salts and used gel wrappers close to the body so that I couldn't even tell they were there until I needed them or needed to dispose of them.  The flap rather than zipper made the pocket easily accessible without compromising the security of the contents.  I used them on a few long runs this winter and will definitely use them again in the cooler races this winter and spring.

The Swift Wick Aspire Twelve compression socks wicked away the ankle deep mud and moisture (as much as a sock can) and enabled me to focus on the course and my body rather than blisters and hot spots.

For the first time in a long time, I felt like a kid in a candy store and not simply because I was consuming copious amounts of chocolate.  I bombed the root laden hills and didn't worry about twisting an ankle or crashing and burning.  While I still had to use my hands a bit more than one would normally use them in a road marathon to brace myself from falling or support myself across the slick bridges and tight turns (and a couple of times to pull myself up some muddy hills), it was actually a lot of fun to feel free and competent on the trails.  My winter of trail training, cross training (MTB on similar surfaces), and accumulation of races (trail and road) all seemed to come together for me.

Photos by Michael Lebowitz, Long Run Pictures

By the start of the second lap I knew I was on pace to challenge Max's course record, but I was also tiring and my quads and hip flexors were tightening up.  While Max's course record was a goal of mine going in, I actually entered the race with a number of goals and wanted to be sure that I fulfilled as many as I could in order of priority:

1). Be grateful & try to communicate gratitude to race and aid volunteers, RDs, spectators, photographers, other participants, and my family/crew.
2). Be nice to everyone - treat others the way I would like to be treated - which is exactly how I have been treated by my fellow trail runners
3). Have fun and make some new friends
4). Take risks
5). Don't get too comfortable
6).  Fuel wisely (gels at least every 45 minutes and salt at least every hour washed down with PowerBar Perform)
7).  If conditions permit, improve on last year's time
8). Try to PR on the course (3:46 from 2011)
9). Race to win - win or lose, at least give myself a chance to win
10). Shoot for the stars (Max's record) and if I don't get it, maybe I'll get Andy Martin's longstanding #2 all time mark of 2:41

Hagg Lake 50K Top 10 through 2012
Max King
Andy Martin
Ruben Galbraith
Neil Olsen
Ryan Bak
James Kerby
Jacob Puzey
Andrew Schupp
Stan Holman
Lanny Gower

Nearing the finish and hoping my watch was right and I could finish without slipping and falling.  Photos by Michael Lebowitz of Long Run Picture Company.

Photo series by Michael Lebowitz of Long Run Picture Company
It worked out.  I achieved each of my goals (though I did startle a few people wearing headphones as I tried to pass:(  My apologies.

To be fair, had Max or Ryan Bak or Andy Martin or any of the other speedsters who have raced Hagg before been present, the course record would have been broken by even more.  When it comes to Max I have decided that you can pretty much replace his name in all of the Chuck Noris jokes and they are usually even more true with him.  I am humbled to have had such a fun day and honored that I was able to run faster than I ever have over 50K.  Hopefully, my new-found confidence can propel me into more solid performances in 2013 and a more fulfilling life as a trail runner.

This day would not have been possible without the endless support of my family and the generosity of so many volunteers along the course.
Race directors, Eric and Kelly Barten, Todd Janssen, and Timing Team NSPIRE.  Photo by Michael Lebowitz
Special thanks to race directors Eric and Kelly Barten and Todd Janssen and the NSPIRE timing crew for putting on such well-organized events, slogging through days of rain and mud so that we could enjoy a couple hours of fun in the mud, broadcast our progress in real time to our friends through social media, and enjoy scrumptious meals at the finish line.  They set the bar extremely high for all races and race directors and hope they know how much we appreciate their attention to detail and desire to make each event that they do an experience that participants will remember and cherish for a lifetime.

State of the art timing, tracking, and broadcasting system by NSPIRE.  Photo by Michal Lebowitz
Also, special thanks to Micahel Lebowitz and his crew from Long Run Picture Company.

While Michael Lebowitz is usually the guy behind the camera, Paul Nelson got a great shot of him before the start.
Between Michael, Eric, Kelly, and Todd it is hard to imagine a trail race I've done where all or at least most weren't present and in some way involved.  They have helped me fall in love with this sport and they are a big reason why I want to keep doing it.  I look forward to participating in more events directed, timed, and photographed by them in the coming years.  If you are looking to do a well organized, well managed, well timed, well marked, well captured event I'd encourage you to look at the list of races that these great people direct, time, and shoot.  Click on the links below or to the side for a complete list of races.

Special thanks to all of the volunteers who made the event possible and the sponsors who continue to make this sport great.  Thank you to a new Oregon based company, Trail Butter, for having your amazingly delicious, hardy, healthy Trail Butter available to sample and purchase after the race.  We had a long drive home and needed something to eat with our Dave's Killer Bread and apples.  Your Ozark Original Trail Butter hit the spot.  Hopefully, we can get it into some stores out in the sticks where I live.

Special thanks to my family/crew for helping me along the way.  I think Cairo gets as much of a thrill out of the races as I do.  He is fascinated by the maps and the strategy and my mom pays close attention to detail.  She wants to be sure I have the right concentration of electrolyte drink, gels, water, salt, and anything else I might need.  Jen, who is currently six months pregnant, ran before the race and then drove two loops around the lake to beat me to each aid station and assure that I had what I needed when I needed it.  

My main man, Cairo.  Photo by Michael Lebowitz
Strategic map drawn by Cairo of the course and each aid station and what he would give me at each spot.

Special thanks to the people and companies that support my passion for running and the outdoors, particularly PowerBar who have helped me with my nutrition in training and racing and support the events that I direct as fund raisers for the high school and middle school cross country teams I coach.  

Nothing like hot soup and grilled cheese to warm you up after the race.

Two years and looking forward

As I prepare for the upcoming Hagg Lake 50K, it is hard to believe that I am entering my third year of ultra running.  Hagg Lake was my first attempt at a distance over 26.2 miles two years ago and I have been hooked ever since.

Since that time, I have often been asked what is so appealing about the distances and races that go beyond the traditional 26.2, often over challenging terrain. While I still consider myself a neophyte to the sport of trail, mountain and ultra marathoning, I've concluded that there are some overriding traits to the sport that appeal so much to me and a burgeoning bunch of newbies seeking the next challenge:
  • Community - While I don't have a large pool of people to train with on a regular basis, I have felt a part of something bigger than my small-town self each time I have participated in an ultra.  From check-in to take-down I have felt the embrace of an eclectic group of people who love what they do and enjoy sharing it with others.  
Energetic volunteers at the first Aid Station at Trail Factor 50K 2012.  Photo by Micheal Lebowitz.
Aid stations and finishing chutes are managed by energetic volunteers, many of whom are runners themselves, who give up a couple weekend long runs to do trail maintenance and share their local trails with guests visiting their stomping grounds.  Times and places fade away as participants, photographers, volunteers, race directors, crew members, and spectators relate tales from the trails and bask in the sense of fulfillment that only comes when people approach and exceed the perceived limits of human potential.
Finish line crew from Trail Factor 50K 2012.  Photo by Michael Lebowitz of Long Run Picture Company
  • Variety - My 20s were spent on the roads.  While I don't mind long straight-aways as much as some, I have certainly enjoyed the change in scenery, surface, and speed.  Technical terrain poses a definite challenge to me.  My feet are huge and I am much more accustomed to running on flat, even terrain.  The variety in race terrain has forced me to seek out more varied terrain in training and has helped me find greater fulfillment as I work toward strengthening my weaknesses.
The only single track within an hours drive of me in Echo, Oregon.  I've spent every minute of the winter that I could running and biking these trails. 
  • Comradery - Some of my most treasured relationships have been forged on the trails.  Yet what is so unique about these relationships is that they are not limited to an inner circle of early starters, elites, or old timers.  In fact, one of the most refreshing parts of the sport is the sense of communitas shared at the finish line when those who have finished await and cheer for those who are finishing. 
Start of the Flagline 50K led by Max King, Ryan Bak, and Mario Mendoza.  Ate dinner the night before with them and their families and then played in the woods for a few hours together the next day.  Photo by Michael Lebowitz
  • Tranquility - While training for ultras definitely requires discipline, the variety in courses and weather conditions all but eliminate the unhealthy obsession with splits on every training run and workout.  This enables the runner to be more in tune with his/her environment and body.  This holistic approach enables training to be adapted to the way the body feels and the way the winds, rains, and temps affect the body.
Climbing Mt. Chirripo, the highest peak in Costa Rica, with my brother, Thomas Rivers Puzey.  This was part of his two month stint as a volunteer porter and national park ranger.
  • Responsibility - Perhaps the most appealing thing about the ultra community is the sense of responsibility that so many who spend long hours in the woods and on mountains feel toward the environment and fellow runners. Sure they want to bag peaks to kick off their mornings or weekends, but they also want that same experience to be available to them and countless others time and time again.  They feel a responsibility toward their surroundings.  They want to care for it.  They want to eat responsibly and advocate for responsible stewardship of the land and waters that produce healthy foods, breathtaking views, and endless adventures.  They also want to share the sport with the next generation of endorphin junkies.
I've met some great friends on the trails including Max King and Ryan Bak.  They help coach the teams and athletes my XC team competes against.  When we compete on those terms it seems even more competitive than when we race ourselves.  Photo by Riley Smith
Flanked by two of the most passionate guys I know, Nick Triolo and Yassine Diboun.
Photo by Micheal Lebowitz

I look forward to greeting the friends I have met over the last few years and meeting new ones on the trails, at the aid stations, and at the finish line of the races I'll be doing in 2013.  I'm particularly looking forward to doing so many races I have always wanted to do throughout the NorthWest that will let me get to know new places I've never been before.

2013 Race Calendar