Tag Archives: Running

Now Leaving Reality, Return Date Uncertain

So long to the world I live in and the life I know!

For a week or so, anyway.

Yes, I’m in Nevada, about to enter Black Rock City on the playa, for my first-ever Burning Man experience. While I’m immersed in whatever mind-blowing universe they’ve built there, I will be disconnected from “defaultia” as they call it – i.e. no Internet or phone or texting. This is due in part because BM culture expects you to do so, and in part because cell phone service is so bad there anyway.

I’ll do my best to take some photos, although excessive “recording” of the event is also frowned upon, the mantra being, “participate, don’t be a tourist.” Plus there are tons of photos from past Burns on the Internet, and I’m sure there will be another bumper crop from this year.

So, here’s a brief summary of the week leading up to my getting here:

Saturday & Sunday: Manage Zero Waste at two local races. Major time suck. No time to pack.

Monday & Tuesday: Business trip in Chicago. Got back late Tuesday. No time to pack.

Wednesday: Do some shopping for the trip, then work Zero Waste at an evening race. Can’t pack because I need my car to hold race stuff.

Thursday: More shopping. Finally attempted to pack car. Fill interior, hitch bag, and roof bag, with still more stuff to get in there somehow. Strap bulky and unwieldy camping cot to roof and hope it holds.

Burning Man 2018 - Jeep packed up

Packed up except for camping cot. At this point I was still trying to figure out where to put it.

Planned departure: 2:30 p.m. Leave driveway: 6:00 p.m. Cot flips over within a quarter mile. Go to hardware store for tie-downs and strap cot to bike rack. Leave Ann Arbor 7:30 p.m. Arrive in Iowa City for the night at 2:30 a.m. Central time.

Friday: After a few hours sleep, drive 750 miles to Cheyenne, Wyoming. There’s a lot of Iowa, and even more of Nebraska. And it feels like every mile of I-80 is under construction.

Burning Man 2018 - Fat Dogs store

Saturday: Decent night’s sleep. Random guy in hotel parking lot strikes up conversation with me. He recommends I go to the Chuckwagon in Laramie for breakfast. Go to Safeway for final shopping, drive to Laramie to fill tank, and guess what I see right off the exit:

IMG_20180825_104826

Guy next to me at the counter strikes up conversation. Turns out he’s from Michigan and now is a rancher. He was also an instructor at Wyo Tech, an auto tech institute, and now is a part owner and helping keep it going.

Burning Man 2018 - Me with Jim at Outlaw Cafe in Laramie - 2

Wyoming people are the friendliest! And their cinnamon rolls are obscene.

Continue on, stop at Delle, UT for gas. Restroom out of order. So is soda machine. Why? “Someone shot our well,” the counter guy says. Yep, I’m out West all right.

Burning Man 2018 - Cowboy Cafe - Delle UT - Art on Wall - funny

After 785 miles, arrive in Winnemucca, Nevada. Just a couple of hours to reach Fernley, then onto 447 for God knows how long a wait to get into BRC. Better sign off now. I need all the sleep I can get.

See you when I emerge from the playa!

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Done Lots of Sweating – Time to Burn!

BEEN A LITTLE WARM THIS SUMMER, hasn’t it. But it hasn’t stopped me from training. Even the VM150, with its two days of 90+ degree heat and blazing sun, was useful to me.

What for? Well, in three weeks I head to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, for a small social gathering they call Burning Man.

Photo: Aaron Logan on Flickr, Creative Commons license.

The five-cent summary is that BM is a week-long event in the middle of the desert. A city is constructed on bare playa, 70,000 people move in, wear outlandish clothing, do outlandish stuff, burn this giant figure, and then they all go home. If you’d like to learn more (and I encourage you so to do), just Google “Burning Man” and you’ll get all the information and photos you can manage. You could start here, for example.

Photo: Steve Jurvetson on Flickr, Creative Commons license.

The following Q&A comes in part from those who already know, and in part from what I can hear in your heads as you are reading this.

Q. So, Jeff, ummm….. why?

Believe it or not, BM had never really been on my list of things to experience [1] until recently. But I’d been aware that they return the desert completely to its natural state afterward. They take Leave No Trace and zero waste principles VERY seriously. This I have to see.

Oh, and there’s a 50K there, too. Which is the main reason I’m going. [2]

Q. So, Jeff, how on earth does one prepare for a week-long stay in the middle of nowhere, be entirely self-sufficient, and stay cool, hydrated, and reasonably sane?

I’m still trying to figure that out. Fortunately, they provide a “Survival Guide” with all the essential information one needs. I’ll provide details as I finish up planning and stocking up, I promise.

Q. So, Jeff, let’s assume you really do intend to run 31 miles in the desert. How are you training for it?

Well, I’ve been running…

Cycling…

A little 70-mile jaunt up the Leelenau Trail to Suttons Bay last month.

And hitting it hard at Body Specs

It helped that I took my time recovering this year after my big race, instead of trying to rush back into full activity (like the previous two years). I’d credit greater maturity and wisdom, but really it was a sore knee that took several weeks to heal completely.

And although the heat’s been annoying, it’s helped me stay acclimated to what’s coming up. Nature has my permission to cool things off starting in September.

(To be continued – I’ll share as much as I can of my careful, meticulous planning and frantic, last-minute panicky decisions. I’ll let you guess what there will be more of.)

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[1] You’ll never catch me using the ghoulish phrase, “bucket list.” When I’m dead I won’t care what I did or didn’t see/do. I focus on experiencing life, not death. Plus I don’t like the imagery.

[2] That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Veterans Memorial 150, Part 3: Bringing Home the Buckle

Concluding my Veterans Memorial 150 race recap: It’s early Sunday morning on the Pere Marquette Trail, finally cooler after a beastly hot Saturday. I’m running well, but another hot day – and trouble – lie ahead…

The Field Thins Out

I arrived at AS 8 (mile 80) around 1:00 a.m. and eased gratefully into a chair. Ruth was there, which meant she’d dropped. “I’m sorry to see you here,” I said. Awkward as that sounded, she understood, admitting to not feeling well from the start. So she’d switched to aid station volunteer.

Kurt arrived and asked how I was. Fine, I told him, how were the other runners doing? “Lots of them have dropped,” he said, which he’d expected. Dean, who I’d met at Baldwin, had been taken to the emergency room with heatstroke but had recovered.

Other runners taking a break. (From the race’s Facebook page.)

Kurt said my nearest competitor, Rebecca, was about 2-3 hours behind me – a bit too close for my comfort. Heading back out, I picked up my pace to take advantage of the cool night and hopefully extend my lead.

A Ghostly Picnic, the Non-Breakfast, and Running Scared

On to Farwell for a crew stop at their park pavilion – a 4 a.m. “picnic” in misty artificial light in a dark, empty town. It was a bit surreal, even spooky. I can only imagine what any passersby would have thought.

An hour later I arrived at the Moose Lodge (AS 10, mile 92) outside Clare. A pancake breakfast would begin at 7 a.m., but nobody showed up early just for me. (Well!). So my crew made me instant oatmeal. Isn’t it wonderful to have people who care?

We checked in with Kurt and heard some startling news. Out of 32 solo runners who started, only eight were still on track for the entire distance. And there’d been some wildlife excitement on the trail overnight! One runner had spotted a black bear and been literally “scared sh**less.” Another had been so spooked by howling coyotes she’d climbed a tree, where race staff found her and talked her down.

Not the same bear, but you get the idea. (Video from Roscommon Fire Department. Click to see video.)

I’d enjoyed an uneventful night, seeing only deer and being cheered on by a chorus of bullfrogs. Nature soon made up for that. As I ran through Clare, lightning lit up the predawn sky. Hard rain soon hit, and I ducked into the van. I tried to appreciate the extra rest, but wanted to get more miles in before it got hot. So I got back on the trail as soon as it let up a bit.

After an hour of intermittent rain, the clouds broke up and the sun was peeking out when I arrived at Loomis (AS 11, mile 102). My running coach Paul and his wife Colleen were there, ready to begin pacing me. And Charlie, my pal from Body Specs, had taken over crew duties from Joyce and Sue, who went to catch a few hours sleep.

Another long, hot day loomed ahead, but only fifty miles to go!

Paul and I hit the trail. Dave and the crew van in the background. Charlie is behind Paul.

Stage 3: Loomis to Bay City

Pacing, Passing, and Pseudo-Napping

“You’re an hour and a half ahead of my time last year,” Kurt told me at Loomis. “I needed two naps during my race. I recommend you take one.”

I thanked him but declined; I was wide awake and had good energy. And I wanted to keep a good lead over Rebecca, who had just left Clare. Paul and I agreed a nap could wait. But as we approached Coleman (AS 12) it was already hot and I noticed reality blurring briefly –instants of fading out and snapping back. I told Paul maybe it was time.

“Lie down and cover your eyes,” he said. “Part of sleep is shutting off the input we get from our eyes. Even if you don’t fall asleep, this will help.” So at Coleman I lay down in soft grass in the shade with a cold towel over my face. It felt glorious. I remained awake but was relaxed and comfortable. Fifteen minutes of that, plus another five minutes a bit further on, was all I needed for the rest of the race.

On this stretch we caught up to Dick West, who was attempting 100 miles and had started at the 50-mile mark. A longtime ultrarunner, Dick is still out there competing at age 76. We exchanged handshakes and encouragement. (I’ll spare you the suspense: he finished!)

I want to be this guy when I grow up.

Paul and Colleen tag-teamed me until Sanford (AS 14), keeping me at a safe pace and entertained with conversation. (What do runners talk about while running? You have one guess.) It was my first time being paced, and I quickly appreciated its value. The miles were hot and miserable, but company made them pass more easily.

How am I doing? I’m fresh as a daisy. Why do you ask?

On the trail with Colleen.

At Sanford we waved goodbye to Paul and Colleen (who’d brought me a milkshake – aren’t they great?), and Sue and Joyce rejoined us. I was surprised to find Charlie ready to pace. I hadn’t expected him to start until Midland (mile 127, ten miles ahead) and even then I was a bit worried, since he’d never raced more than a half marathon.

“Dude, it’s thirty-two miles to the finish,” I said.

“Yeah,” Charlie said. “Let’s go.”

Crisis Afoot

The miles to Midland were among the hardest I’ve ever done. It was mid-afternoon, the temperature well over 90, with fewer crew stops because they had trouble finding places to meet us. But more troubling were my burning feet. All the hours spent on hot blacktop were taking their toll. By the time we neared the end of the trail, every step was extremely painful.

Charlie’s presence was invaluable. He knew I was struggling, but remained easygoing and relaxed, keeping me moving forward without the need for direct encouragement. We swapped Aikido stories (he’d also trained under Kushida-sensei), pondered the weather, anything to take my mind off the long hot slog.

Finally we reached downtown Midland – and my crew couldn’t locate the aid station. I spotted a bench next to a pretty glockenspiel and collapsed onto it while we called Kurt. He said the station was being set up a mile farther down. Oh, God, another mile of agony, I thought. And how the hell was I going to do 23 more after that? For the first time in the race, I wasn’t sure I could continue.

“We need to do something right here, right now,” I said to my crew, rather plaintively. “I can’t finish the race with my feet feeling like this.”

They sprang into action. An icewater foot bath put out some of the fire. I took two Advil. Charlie checked the bottoms of my feet – nothing cracked or bleeding, just some swelling – and applied some moleskin. I slipped thin foam insoles into my shoes for extra cushioning. I found a large blister and treated it. Finally, a fresh pair of socks. All that done, I stood up and took a few steps.

My feet still hurt, but it was a manageable hurt. Charlie and I walked to the aid station while the crew cleaned up. By the time we got there and checked in, I was physically and emotionally back on track. “We’re gonna finish this puppy,” I said to Charlie. (I may have used a slightly stronger phrase.)

Motivation

From Midland the course wound through an industrial park, then onto Midland Road and due east to Bay City. This road was five lanes wide and busy with traffic, even on Sunday. Sometimes there were sidewalks, and sometimes we had to hug the shoulder. I was grateful again for Charlie being there. I’d expected to be exhausted at this point and running in the dark, but even awake with the sun still up I felt much safer with a pacer.

And as the evening slowly cooled, I was able to run again! We began with jogs of a hundred yards or so, and worked up to half miles. My legs felt surprisingly strong, and running was actually less painful than walking. Charlie even had to rein me in at one point. “No sprinting!” he called out as I pulled away at a blazing ten-minute mile pace.

At 8:00 p.m. we reached the Auburn aid station (mile 135) and I checked on runner status. A few had stopped at Loomis, earning a 100-mile belt buckle. Only four were still on track to run the full 150. “Is Rebecca one of them?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” was the reply. “We expect her to arrive around 9-9:30.”

I couldn’t believe it. My lead had shrunk to an hour, and 45 minutes of that was due to my early start. Charlie looked at me. “We’ve got to win this by at least an hour,” he said. “For moral justification, at least.”

Charlie and I on Midland Road, ready to rock to the finish.

We took off running, and kept up an aggressive pace into Bay City. (11-minute miles never felt so fast.) We reached the final aid station, the Cops and Doughnuts store in downtown Bay City, as darkness fell. In hindsight I should have asked about Rebecca, but I was so anxious to finish the race I didn’t even buy a cookie (or three) to carry me through the final six miles.

The last stretch on Henry Street / State Park Rd. also had heavy traffic. Charlie had on a full light vest, so we were very visible. Still I was grateful when the streams of headlights diminished as we approached the park. And although I was pretty sure Rebecca couldn’t catch us, I kept looking behind me, unable to shake the fear of seeing an approaching headlamp.

Kurt had checked regularly on our progress so he could be at the finish when we arrived. And at 11:20 p.m. Sunday night, the finish line was lit up and he and other staff were there to welcome us in. I jogged across the grass, up a sidewalk, and after 40 hours and six minutes, crossed the finish line. I’d led it (nearly) wire to wire – and won it.

Finish! Kurt hands me my 150-mile belt buckle.

Aftermath

Relief, Disbelief, and Unnecessary Grief

Kurt was amazed. Despite the oppressive conditions, I’d finished over two hours faster than his time last year, and five hours ahead of my original schedule. “How did you handle the heat so well?” he asked.

Past experience mainly, I told him. I’ve run enough hot ultras, and learned the hard way from them, to know what I need to stay cool and keep electrolytes in balance. And a terrific crew and pacers. No way I could have done it without them.

We hung around for an hour, and then got ready to head back to our campground in Empire. I asked Kurt when Rebecca was due to arrive, as I’d hoped to cheer her in. “Oh, we expect her around 3:30,” he said – three more hours away. WTF?

The Auburn aid station had either misunderstood or been misinformed. She hadn’t even left Midland until after 9 p.m. We could have walked it in! I was happy to have finished strong, but I could have been spared a lot of anxiety knowing the actual situation.

On the other hand, who was really to blame for that anxiety? Charlie said it best during our trek down Midland Road, when I’d pushed too hard and thought I’d hurt my knee. “You lost your focus,” he said after I’d stretched it out. “You were worried about Rebecca instead of running your best race.” Amen. Lesson learned.

I couldn’t sleep on the drive back because someone kept moving my legs and sticking needles into my feet. When we got back to camp I considered going into Empire for breakfast, but decided to attempt a nap in our camper. I was out instantly. Nearly 48 hours after I woke up Saturday morning, my race was over.

Veterans Memorial 150: How Did This Happen?

I RAN 150 MILES FOR THIS HERE DOUGHNUT.

I’d just run the Veterans Memorial 150 from Ludington to Bay City, and the iconic Cops & Doughnuts is a sponsor of the race. So naturally I had to stop in and thank them for their support. I bought a bunch of their ginormous cookies, but I got this doughnut for free.

How come? It’s my trophy.

Because I. Won. The. Freaking. Race.

First overall.

VM150 2018 results

Click the image if you’d like to see the full results.

151 miles in 40 hours, 6 minutes, over two days of brutal heat that dropped half the field on Saturday, and many of the rest on Sunday. Ten runners made it to the one hundred-mile mark, and only four (including yours truly) went the entire distance.

I had other “firsts” too. It was my first race over one hundred miles, and the first race where I had a crew and pacers. And yet somehow, some way, it all came together. I’m still finding it hard to believe.

As there’s a lot to share about my experience, I’ll dedicate several posts to it. In this first post, I’ll tell you why I chose the race, trained for it, and planned it. Next, I’ll recap the race itself. Then I’ll talk about the factors essential to my finishing, and winning – what steps I took to prepare, how I dealt with foot issues, and how I handled the heat. And I’ll ask my crew and pacers to chime in with their thoughts and experiences, too.

So here we go!

What’s the VM150, and why did I sign up?

The Veterans Memorial Honor Run is a 150-mile jaunt from Ludington to Bay City – Lake Michigan to Lake Huron. Taking place over the Memorial Day weekend, it is also a fundraiser for Victory Gym, a nonprofit that offers free membership to veterans and first responders, and supports people dealing with PTSD and its effects.

Exercise has been shown to help alleviate PTSD symptoms, and the gym was founded by a veteran who discovered its benefits and wanted to help others. Both the unusual distance and the wonderful cause attracted me to the race, and not too long after I found out about it, I took a deep breath and signed up.

The Course: Lake Michigan to Lake Huron

For such a long race, the general directions were quite simple:

  1. Go to Ludington Pier, face east, and start running.
  2. Stop running at Bay City State Park.

For a really cool animation of traveling the course created by a fellow race finisher, click the image of the video.

Over half the race (81 miles from Baldwin to Midland) takes place along the Pere Marquette Rail-Trail. It’s very difficult to get lost on this stretch, although I nearly succeeded once. The final 23 miles out of Midland are on open roads, so I drove it a few weeks before to get familiar with that stretch, as I figured I’d be running it in the dark.

How to Train for a 150-Miler, Summary Edition

My training followed the same basic plan as for my 100-milers the past two years; strength train and run all winter, and warm up to the distance with spring ultras.

The fine folks at Body Specs did their part, pushing me hard three days per week. They worked my entire body, with a special focus on the muscles that support running – glutes, hamstrings, and core. I did a ton of squats, lunges, crunches, and resistance training.

My spring ultras were the Land Between the Lakes 50 (a PR!), the Dogwood 12 Hour (54.5 miles, 3rd place finish), and Trail Marathon Weekend (the “No Wimps” half + full marathon). In between ultras, I recovered, and never ran more than 35 miles per week.

Unorthodox? Yep. But I’d successfully used this routine for my 100 mile races, so I knew it would prepare me physically. But mentally, running 5-6 days per week would have been tedious and non-motivating. With no sponsors and nothing to prove except to myself, I wanted to enjoy the journey to the big event. Otherwise, what was the point?

Recruiting Crew and Pacers: Otherwise Rational People Agree to Support This Crazy Adventure

Last year’s Lighthouse 100 taught me the value of a crew. I ran that race unsupported in 95-degree heat, with aid stations ten miles apart. The result was a bonk and near-DNF until I was rescued by another runner’s crew. The VM150 aid stations also average about ten miles apart, so a crew of my own would be essential.

My wife volunteered for the job, as did my good friends Dave and Sue. As they’d never crewed before or witnessed an ultra in progress, I gave them plenty of warning and time to change their minds. I advised them that CREW stood for, “Cranky Runner, Endless Waiting” and the race would consume their entire weekend, when by all rights they should be sitting comfortably at our campground with cold drinks. They stuck to their guns, and I accepted with a mix of gratitude and concern. I would need to give them a lot of information and instruction for things to go well.

I would also need pacers. I figured by late Sunday I would be pretty tired, and running the final miles on open roads in the dark was not an attractive prospect solo. If nothing else, a pacer would keep me pointed in the right direction and save me from becoming a traffic hazard. My running coach Paul and his wife Colleen offered their services, as did my friend Charlie from Body Specs.

So I had a team. Now what I needed was . . .

My Liege, I Have a Plan (click for reference)

First and foremost, I needed a schedule, so my crew could plan their stops and my pacers knew where to find me. I created a spreadsheet detailing my expected arrival and departure times at each aid station. At 50 and 100 miles I put in an extended break to rest, stretch, and change clothing and gear as needed.

I’d finished Lighthouse in 24 hours despite my near bonk, so I figured I could cover the first 100 miles at VM150 in the same time. This could be done with 11-minute miles for the first 50, and 13-15 minute miles from there to 100. I figured I’d be walking most of the final 50, which put my total race time around 45 hours, finishing near dawn on Monday morning.

I thought this was a conservative schedule, but I found I would arrive at many of the aid stations before they were scheduled to open! Not a problem since I had a crew, but curious. Wouldn’t many other runners be in the same situation?

Gear and Equipment

Next I created a packing list for clothes and gear, first-aid and personal care equipment, and food and drink. I packed them into separate and easily identifiable boxes so an item I needed could be found quickly.

Dave and Sue offered their custom van for the crew vehicle, which had plenty of room for all my supplies, plus a bed if I needed to lie down, and even a toilet. In terms of an ultra, this was real luxury. And no need to pack drop bags and guess which aid stations to send them to!

You can see my complete packing list below.

What to Wear? What to Wear?

With warm weather forecasted, the basics were easy. Shorts, shirt, compression underwear to prevent chafing, and lightweight socks. I packed spares of each, along with a light rain cover and a jacket. A light-colored cap was a necessity, as was a hand towel to dry myself or soak in ice water to stay cool.

For shoes I used my Saucony Kinvara 9s, with my Saucony Ride ISO and New Balance for backups. As a sock change can refresh sore feet, I packed six pairs. A basic belt held my phone and a Gu, and I used a handheld water bottle. With a crew close at hand, I could save the weight of extra food and fluids I would otherwise have to carry.

Food and Drink: The Ultra Diet

Here’s how you select food and drink for an ultra: Go to the grocery store and pull stuff off the shelves at random. Once home, sort out the items with fiber or any nutritional value whatever. Throw those away. Pack what remains.

A typical ultrarunner will burn between 400-600 calories per hour during a race, but can only replace about half that. Too much food, or heavy food, will stick in the gut and cause much unpleasantness.

Humans have tens of thousands of calories in fat stores, so there’s no danger of actual starvation. The trick is to prevent the body going into calorie conservation mode. Easy to digest foods with lots of carbs work best for most runners, with a small amount of protein and fats to help prevent muscle breakdown.

I stuck with the tried and true for me: PB&J on white bread, pretzels and pickles for salt, bananas and red grapes, and cookies and M&Ms for obvious reasons. Clif bars and chewy granola bars were handy items to “grab and go” and Gu packets give me a quick shot of energy if I’m not feeling up to eating at the time.

Water was my main drink. I used S-Cap tablets for electrolytes, supplementing with Gatorade. I also included iced tea, and Vernors, which provides sugar and settles my stomach.

Finally, ice would be key. It promised to be a warm weekend, so I’d need a lot to stay cool. Plus during any ultra I like my drinks to be ice-cold. Warm Gatorade in particular is no fun to drink.

The Night Before

We loaded up the van and drove to Beverly Ludington Friday evening. For a pre-race dinner I like something simple but not greasy. This time I had a grilled chicken sandwich and chips, which pleasantly filled me. I didn’t feel the need to “carbo load” as the course wouldn’t be strenuous and I’d have a crew nearby.

To our pleasant surprise, our motel had a beautiful Buddhist-style garden and koi pond, perfect for settling the mind and getting into the moment. I felt a sense of release very much like the start of my first marathon. All the training and preparation was done, and the stage was set. All that remained was to show up Saturday morning and run.

Up next: How did the race go? What went according to plan, and what didn’t? And what did some other runners see on the trail that first night? “Bear” with me to find out!