Speedgoat 50k

 I hadn’t intended on writing a race report for Speedgoat, but when Ultrarunning Magazine asked me to contribute a report for their upcoming issue, i was happy for the external motivation.  Please visit their site for additional photos and full results from the race.

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Photo by Jordi Saragossa

“Why are we even racing tomorrow?”

That was the thought that occurred to us as yet another colorful wildflower meadow unfolded before us on a sunny evening above Snowbrid Ski Resort. It was the night before the Speedgoat 50k, and I was on an easy shakeout run with Rickey Gates, Anna Frost and Fernando De Samaniego Steta, my Bay Area travel buddy for the weekend. Indeed, the act of exploring new trails with friends while the evening sun kissed our backs now seemed reason enough to justify the lengthy trip from the Bay Area. But the race would certainly provide this and more the following day, so we reluctantly turned around to get some rest.

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Photo by Bryon Powell/iRunFar

The next morning we awoke to a clear dawn, and after exchanging a few quick hellos during the anxious starting line warmup, Karl Meltzer sent us off on our journey. Before the race, I had debated if I should go for $1000 prime that awaited the first runner to the top of Hidden Peak (8.5 mi). But when Sage Canaday burst out of the gates like a charging bull, I was somewhat relieved to have that decision made for me. So I tucked into a pack that included Rickey Gates, Alex Nichols and Paul Hamilton, while Patrick Smyth and Jim Walmsley gambled with the Sage’s hot pace ahead.

It felt good to breath hard. To me, that’s altitude running in a nutshell; the willingness to breath hard while moving relatively slow. Although I’ve called sea level home for the last six years, my notion of running was forged in the relatively thin air of Boulder, Colorado where I went to college and spent the first six years of my professional career. Hiking and running in the mountains was the perfect counterpoint to the mental demands of my education and subsequently cerebral job, and I soon found myself competing in high altitude races like the Imogene Pass Run, Kendall Mountain Run, and the Pikes Peak Marathon.

Since moving to the Bay Area where the trails are gentler and the air is richer, I still find myself yearning for the rugged mountain running experiences and thin air that first attracted me to the sport. Karl’s Speedgoat course answers that call. With 11,000 feet of climbing crammed into the 50km distance, there is hardly a flat section of trail to be found.

At the top of the first climb to Hidden Peak at 11,000-ft, I was in sixth place and feeling like a champ. My plan for the long descent was to relax into a comfortable effort, fuel up, and save my energy and legs for the second half. The descent proved uneventful, if not a bit lonely with a sizable gap both in front and behind me.

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Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

The short out and back section at the bottom of the descent serves as the halfway point and provides an opportunity to evaluate one’s competition. Those who went out too hard in front have a pall of doom on their faces, while those who started relatively easy look fresh and hungry. Sure enough, at this point I caught Smyth and Walmsley — the two guys that went out hard with Sage — bumping me up to 4th place. But I also caught a glimpse of Rickey Gates and Mike Wolfe, who were both looking far too casual. I would be seeing them again later.

The best part about running a race like Speedgoat is the training that it inspires: namely, running as much vertical as possible. In Marin, vertical is parceled out in relatively small hits of 1000 ft or less, with the exception of Mt Tam, the highest mountain in the county with around 2500 ft of vertical relief. It’s no accident that this mountain serves as the backdrop for the home of many ultrarunners, including myself. I tagged its summit on 54 occasions leading up to the race and was averaging around 20,000 feet of vertical per week. Not bad for a working dad from sea level.

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Photo by Criss Furman / iRunFar

At the top of the final climb up Hidden Peak (mile 27) I was still in 4th place and had only a 5 mile, 4000 ft descent between me and the finish line. As I reached the summit, I looked behind me to see a figure that I have come to expect in the closing miles of any race I compete in: Rickey Gates. Perhaps it’s a pattern that I’ve grown too comfortable with, but he is an outstanding character with whom I’m always grateful to share some miles with, competition be damned. Despite his encouragement to stick with him as we began the descent, I was still recovering from the grueling climb, and had to let him go. I wouldn’t see Rickey again until the finish line where he would finish 4th.

Just as I was beginning to recover, Mike Wolfe caught up to me, and we continued to bomb down the mountain together for nearly a mile. But we soon found ourselves at a trail junction absent of any course markings, and realized that we had somehow traveled off course (we would find out later that some unsavory individuals had intentionally pulled flags). Mike and I split up in search of the course, but it became apparent that our detour was considerable. Precious seconds gave way to what felt like eternal minutes. The spirited competition amongst craggy peaks and brilliant wildflowers that had left such an impression on me only hours before now felt like a fairy tale, replaced by the sinking feeling that my hard fought effort was being lost – literally – in the convoluted trails of a deserted ski resort.

I would eventually find the course after 20-30 minutes and 2 miles additional miles of hiking and finish several places back in 9th. Mike Wolfe somehow managed to find the course much faster than I and finished strong in 5th.  Next time i get lost with Mike i’ll be sticking with him.

As an athlete, it’s natural to yearn for a performance where the outcome matches the effort that goes into it… a result that demonstrates your ability on the day. That didn’t happen for me in this instance.  But I remind myself that these races, so full of unpredictable variables, are about much more than a result. They are about the experience of bringing together a talented group of friends to inspire the best in one another. I think we all found this at Speedgoat, and for that I am grateful.

More: Strava data | iRunFar Coverage | Full Results 


Thanks to San Francisco Running Company, as always, for supplying me with the best shoes on market (or off the market as was the case with the pre-release Hoka Huaka shoes i used!) and Ultimate Direction for my complete hydration kit (AK Race Vest, soft flask bottles, and gel flasks).  And to my Bay Area running buddies for raising the bar – you all are a tough act to follow!  And above all, thanks to my wife Kristin and daughter Autumn for supporting me in this time consuming hobby of mine.

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Photo by Galen Burrell

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Another Look at Ultras – TNF50 Round 2

A weary runner (Brett Rivers /San Francisco Running Co)

A weary runner (Brett Rivers /San Francisco Running Co)

Here’s the irony of ultra running: When you are on an easy run, you have time to think about a lot of things. But when you are racing an ultra, you have a lot of time, but somehow can only manage to think about one thing: how uncomfortable it is. Or maybe it’s just me.

I ran my second 50 mile race on Saturday, the North Face 50 Mile Endurance Challenge. I ran the same race last year as my first serious ultra, and let’s just say things didn’t really go as planned. So i was determined to learn from the experience, and come back to do it right this year.

I focused more on the long runs in the months leading up to the event, and got to the point where clicking off hilly 25 milers on the weekend was relatively casual. I built recovery weeks into my training cycle, ensuring that i would not show up to this late season race burned out (like last year). And i got my nutrition dialed… namely by discovering that the best way to survive an ultra without bonking and getting sick is to drink the most un-nutritious beverage on the planet: Coke. Lots of Coke (Sorry Mrs Obama).

And all that stuff worked fantastic on race day. I showed up well rested, didn’t bonk, and ran like a champ… for 25 miles. I chatted quite a bit with Rickey during the early miles, agreeing that biding our time, running a consistent pace would be key to running a successful (or at least satisfying) race.  I was feeling confident about this plan.  Although i realized that the pace I was running for the first 25 miles (7:30 min/mi) would win the race most years, it felt comfortable and sustainable.  But the last half of the race felt almost as tough as i remembered it from the year before: numb, battered legs that simply refuse to go any faster down the stretch.

And who can blame them?

Strava course profile

Strava course profile

47 miles, 9000+ feet of climbing, darkness, rain, and mud.  Ultras are hard.  Really hard.  You have to be willing and able to run uncomfortably for a long time, which is as mentally taxing as it is physically.  How the leaders manage to run sub 7 min/mile pace over that course is beyond my comprehension, but i suspect it is has much do to mental conditioning as physical training.  I suddenly feel like an amateur in a pro sport.

Good gear helps

Good gear helps

In the end, i would finish in just under 6.5 hours for 21st place.  Kristin and Autumn, who crewed for me the whole day in the rain, were waiting for me across the finish line.  I could finally enjoy their company.  Autumn gave me a thumbs up.  You know you have a family that loves you when they are willing to embrace you even though you are sweaty, muddy and smell a bit like urine.  I couldn’t talk for the first few minutes, because i just wanted to cry.  Not out of disappointment, and not out of joy, but rather tears of relief, that i had persevered and gotten through it.

At the finish line with Kristin and Autumn (Brett Rivers / San Francisco Running Co)

At the finish line with Kristin and Autumn (Brett Rivers / San Francisco Running Co)

Although my pace slowed in the end, i ran every step and never lost my composure.  I climbed well.  I fueled well.  I wore the right shoes and socks.  And i never gave up.

But i question if i have the ideal physiology to run ultras as hard as one needs to be competitive   Maybe i’m not robust enough.  My quads don’t look like the tree trunks.  But most of all, i question if i have the desire to train and race such long distances.  Running is more special to me when it is kept in balance with the rest of my life, and i think to be competitive at these ultras you need to train more than i do.

Remember when marathons used to be considered long distance?  Well, they are sounding pretty good to me right now.

Congratulations to everyone who ran their heart out in such a challenging race.  It was inspiring to be a part of it.

-Galen

Links:

iRunFar Article

Full results