Gear Review: Orange Mud HydraQuiver 2

Gear is very important once you start regularly running and racing distances 20 miles or more.  Shorter runs you can get by with not much more than a water bottle and maybe a couple snacks in a pocket.  If you are training long miles self-supported and running ultras, chances are you will need something a bit more significant than a belt pouch to carry some essentials including food and water.

Candi and I had been gifted an Orange Mud HydraQuiver 2 from a

Wearing my Orange Mud
Mid Pack and Candi Crusher

friend who had been too large for this particular vest, but having great results with my old pack, the Orange Mud just stayed hanging

on the running rack in the laundry room.  Yesterday, on a planned 20 miler, I decided to give it a test run.  The plan is, if it passed, it would get the nod to start the game at White Rock Classic 50K next weekend.  (I will get back to whether the HydraQuiver 2 made the starting lineup or not in a few paragraphs, so read on.)  Following are my observations from my experience yesterday with the pack.

Fit / Wear

Fit is so important in hydration packs.  All the little pockets and gadgets are great, but if the damn thing does not fit right, it might as well go in the garbage.  The HydraQuiver 2 vest fit nicely with very easy adjustments.  The wearer can adjust from front center, back center, and under both arms.  Personally I don’t like shit sitting under my armpits, so I pull tight at the front and wide in the rear and cinch under the arms.  I also like it to ride higher on my shoulders – I was fairly quickly able to get the pack adjusted pre-run to a very comfy position (while wearing a long sleeve, fairly thick pullover).  So I definitely liked how easy it was to adjust for the first time.  No difficult buckles to fuck around with (and still not get right), just a simple one-way pull ratchet clip that stayed in place and didn’t get looser than a truck stop lot lizard while running.  While running, the fit held nicely and the pack stayed where I wanted it.  My only knock on the fit is that once it warmed up and I took my pullover off, I put the pack back on and it was too loose.  Since I had the front already cinched tight (per my preference) I had to either take it off to tighten the rear or have Candi pull the underarm straps.  No problem if you have a running buddy, but a big pain in the ass if you are solo.  Again, this is partly due to my personal preference in the front, but I would like to be able to reach the underarm straps from the front without removing.   But all-in-all a very comfortable fit and ride once adjusted and it did not give me any chaffing or hotspots.

Form / Function

I will start in the front and move to the back.  The front (chest) of this pack has a large oval pouch on both sides.  These damn things are good size, and are super stretchy with easy to use locking drawstrings at the opening.  In my left pouch I had my iPhone 6 PLUS

Orange Mud HydraQuiver 2
Orange Mud HydraQuiver 2

IN A CASE, a couple cereal bars and fruit strips.  There was still plenty of room, and it felt just fine.  In the other pouch I had a few more bites of food and it actually felt empty – tons of space for trash or little road finds to be tucked away as we ran along.  I shit you not, these little pouches were like Harry Potter “bags of holding”  I love having easy access to fuel, small gear items (like chap stick, wet wipes, body glide, etc.) without breaking my arms and cramping my shoulders grabbing from the back – or God forbid – stopping to take it off to get crap out of the back.  Beware however, one of the pouches has an access hole on the bottom corner, so don’t lose your keys!  I didn’t notice the bottom corner access hole until after I finished, but luckily didn’t lose anything.  Fortunately, inside each pouch is a small clip, great for securing keys, whistle, or single shot Derringer pistols.  Move up on the shoulder straps and each side has an additional pouch for small items like ibuprofen or S-caps or maybe a few bucks and an ID for you urban runners who have things like convenience stores on your routes.

In the back, there is not much storage (none actually) aside from the water bottle holsters.  You could possibly use the bungee adjustment cord between the holsters to strap down a jacket or something rolled up, but I am not sure that was the intended use.  As far as the bottle quivers, this is what makes this pack unique.  Most packs that use bottles as opposed to bladders (which I HATE) are on the front, all sloshing in your ears and banging into your face, while rubbing your chest raw with the weight.  Having to bottle holders on your back damn near perfectly distributes the weight and makes for no bounce.  I had one empty bottle and one that was full and could not tell any uneven weight distribution at all.  My concern starting was that I wouldn’t be able to reach them well or get them back in the quivers after taking a sip.  Turns out that by simply tugging down a bit on the front straps pulls the bottles up your shoulders and it is no harder to grab a bottle than it is to adjust an earbud.  I did struggle a little bit – at first – to get them back in, but by the end of a single run, the muscle memory was set, and it was just like slipping your trusty pistol back into its concealed carry holster.  Very handy.

The bottles on the back did not bounce and swishing sounds were minimal.  I used my trusty CamelBak insulated 21 oz bottles with the lock tips (best on the market) rather than stock and they fit just fine.  As a matter of fact, they are taller and skinnier than a lot of bottles and they fit just fine.  Actually they might have been easier to grab and stow due to their shape and size.  The point is that it will work fine with just about any bottle I have ever seen.

Conclusion

I really had a great experience with the Orange Mud HydraQuiver 2.  My only two criticisms are that it is somewhat challenging to adjust the fit while wearing, and if you are going really long in high heat, you are maxed out at 2 bottles – with no option for a bladder.  But, for me, in a 50 miler or less or any race where the aid stations, water refills are no more than 8-10 miles apart two bottles should be more than sufficient.  I loved the way it rode, fit, and most of all – just how easy it was to get to my food (I LOVE FOOD) while running with no reaching or stretching to get stuff out of the back.  When I hit the starting line next Saturday at the AURA White Rock Classic 50K, I will most definitely be wearing my Orange Mud HydraQuiver 2!  Check back to read the follow up on how it performs during an actual ultra!  Big thanks to Orange Mud for putting out a quality product!

PS – This review was not solicited by Orange Mud in any way.  It is strictly my opinion on it based off of my personal experience with the pack.  As always, there is no perfect one-size -fits-all in any aspect of ultrarunning.  It truly is a deeply personal experience that is different for every runner!

 

U.T.O.T.D: Soreness vs. Pain

I will start this with a simple clarification between the definitions of soreness and pain:  soreness indicates that you have worked a muscle or group of legpainmuscles while pain may indicate an actual injury.  If I have a pain that is sharp, extremely localized, and gets worse as I go – I watch that very carefully and make sure it isn’t (or does not turn into) an injury.  If I have soreness, I pay attention to it as it lessens as I work it out, hopefully making gains – be it running, lifting, agility.  If you train through an injury, you can hurt yourself and miss training time and as we all know, that SUCKS.  If you train through soreness you will feel less sore and overall stronger when you are done.  Like with most things workout related, this is sometimes a judgement call, as it may not be obvious if the aches and pains you feel are sore muscles or damaged tissue.  Here is where my tip of the day comes in:  Listen to your body at all times.  Not just when you first start your workout or after you are finished.   If you feel sharp pains, back off and rest.  As you feel muscles loosening up, push a little harder.  Take an inventory of how you feel periodically during your workout and adjust accordingly – but BE HONEST.  Don’t be a wuss and slack off because you are sore and then blame the pain of soreness like it is some kind of injury!  No one else cares about your excuses and you can not lie to yourself – so every run, every workout, every lift – give it all you’ve got and go be the best you that you can be!

U.T.O.T.D: Be Flexible!

Mid Pack Zach says, "You're awesome!"
Mid Pack Zach says, “You’re awesome!”

Sometimes, just like Forrest Gump observed after stomping a dog turd, SHIT HAPPENS.  I know that ultrarunners love to use plans.  Training plans, fuel plans, hydration plans…. always a goddamn plan for everything.  The difference between success and failure lies in how well you can manage to sidestep, block or catch the unplanned bullshit that comes flying in your direction.  After all, that’s what running an ultra is all about.

Be flexible!  All week, Candi and I had planned on capping a nice solid training week with a brisk 20 mile run.  Low and behold, my eldest spawn reminds me on Friday that I had committed 6 months ago to assist with a school tourney on Saturday from 7:45 to about noon.  FUUUUUUCCCKKKKK!  Some planner I am… should have added that to the calendar months ago.  Having afternoon plans pretty much nuked our chances for getting our scheduled workout in -AS PLANNED.

Fortunately, we did as we do… we got creative.  Nobody wants to get up at 3:30 am to run on their day off, but somehow 5:30am seemed perfectly acceptable.   We decided to simply split our run into 2 separate 10 milers – one before the tourney, and one immediately after.  Simple.  BE FLEXIBLE.  To add a little bonus, or possibly self-punishment, for my piss poor planning – it was also decided that since we would have to break it up, we would do both at a faster pace.  The result was 2 very solid runs that totaled our goal – faster than goal speed.  Success.

Whether it is a training run getting interrupted because  of a birthday party, a workout cancelled because Globogym was installing new Tug Toners or Shake Weights, or because you drank too many white wine spritzers last night to do speedwork at the track – DON’T PANIC! Missing a single workout isn’t the end of the world and will not cause an automatic DNF at your 50 miler in two months.  Chill the fuck out, be creative, find a new time (or substitute) and BE FLEXIBLE!

First YouTube Video! White Rock Classic 50K Race Preview

What up all you crazy ultrarunners?  If you are reading this, you are either lost on the internet or interested in the White Rock Classic 50K at White Rock Mountain near Ft. Smith Arkansas.  This is the first of hopefully many videos that I plan on making to share my information, experiences, and perspective from the middle of the pack on some of the many great ultras I participate in.  Eric Strand, to preemptively answer your question, there are no llamas at White Rock (at least that I saw).  Hope you enjoy…

Ultra Wimps and Whiners: Kindly Fuck Off.

I apologize in advance if the language, lack of political correctness, or content of this article offends you.  Oh?  Wait as second… no I don’t.  If you are offended by the language, content, or lack of political correctness in this article – YOU are the problem.  If you don’t like it: fuck you, piss off, go cry somewhere else, and stop complaining about stupid shit and blaming others for your problems.

Ultras are equal opportunity destroyers.  Facing fears and enduring hardships in effort to reach a goal that most people never even dream as possible is at the core of the sport of ultrarunning.  Surviving and persevering in spite of agony and despair – by your own choice – is what appeals to most ultrarunners.  There is no place in this sport for whiners and wimps.  With the rise in popularity of ultras there has also been a rise in runners complaining about every minute detail of a race they don’t deem as perfect.  I have seen people whining about a few things that they should accept as their own responsibility.  But there are a couple things that absolutely drive me nuts… HERE GOES.

Aid Station Food and Drink 

How can you expect a race director to have everything you possibly want or need at every aid station?  I actually HEARD SOMEONE in a 50 miler whining at an aid station that there were no hot food vegan choices.  You think this is a fucking hipster restaurant?  You choose a lifestyle like that, you better prepare to pack your own food!  If you have a peanut allergy don’t bitch about the PB&Js, eat the fucking boiled potatoes!  You need to plan for the possibility that the aid stations will have nothing of nutritional value for you – cause guess what – I have gone through aid stations that expressly stated there would be GUs and I ended up carrying a Dixie Cup of goddamn gummie bears and M&Ms.  I fought nausea for a good hour and just about shit my pants in that 50K – but more importantly – learned a valuable lesson.  Take nothing for granted.  Now, I always carry at least 500 calories between drop boxes that are filled with other food options.  There have been plenty of times where the aid was great and I didn’t use my own shit – and that is fine by me.  I can either eat it later or take it home.  No big deal.  Please – take responsibility for yourself.  Aid stations are to be an aid (no shit) to you, not your personal chef.

The Weather 

Holy shit.  If it is cold dress warm.  If it is hot strip naked.  But please…. PLEASE…. do not piss and moan about the weather.  Complaining about the weather in an ultra is like complaining about like complaining about dirt while gardening.  It is dumb.  Part of the fun of ultras is planning for, and overcoming, the unexpected turns that the weather can take the day before (or during) the race.  If your hands are cold, that is your own damn fault.  Whining about it will not warm you up.  Making bad decisions and poor planning does not make it the volunteer’s responsibility to let you borrow a hat and gloves (seen it), give the poncho off their back (seen it), or give you a trash bag to use as a windbreaker (seen it).  Awesome people working the events often do these types of things – but they shouldn’t have to.  Don’t be a dick, be prepared.

The Price 

I have to admit.  I am guilty here.  I have whined about the price of events.  It is stupid.  There are new events popping up all over the country every single day.  All boast a different challenge, a different perk, and a different price.  Let your money do the talking.  If the event does not offer enough value for you – do something else!  If it is a race you have done every year for 10 years, either pay or move on.  There are charity races if that is your thing.  There are for-profit high profile races and low key fatass events.  Find what fits you and go with it.  Don’t go around bitching how you got into a high dollar race – especially AFTER you paid for it.  That makes you look like a total douche.  “Hey man, it was like 400 bucks to get into XXX Ultra, total rape-job.  I am gonna eat as much of that vegan chili as I can to get my money’s worth”  It is a supply and demand system – let your $$$ not your mouth do the talking.

General Blame Shifting

If you fail you fail.  Own it.  Don’t make excuses about how the campers next to you kept you up all night or the hotel sheets were too scratchy to sleep.  Some people are always looking to blame someone or something else.  Work has been too busy…  The kids need too much attention… The dogs didn’t feel like running… I had the sniffles…  The course was too hard… The course was too easy… It was too hot… It was too cold… The RD was mean… My crew was unprepared… My pacer was boring…   ALL EXCUSES.  I had a middle school teacher who loved to say, “Excuses only satisfy those who make them.”  He literally used to make us say it out loud anytime someone in class made an excuse.  If you fail, for whatever reason, own it.  Don’t try and make it not your fault – because in running ultras, the bottom line is that, yes, it is all your fault.

I could name several other things that the (still relatively small number of) whiners and wimps have been doing that just piss me off, but I feel like that I would be borderline whining myself.  I will continue to ignore them, as it is not affecting me and my race strategy – but I just wanted to call them out.  If you think this is about you it probably is.  Toughen up or fuck off.  Ultrarunning is not a sport for insecure, whining, petulant, entitled, fragile, weak-minded wimps.  (edit – it was pointed out to me that pussies can indeed take quite a pounding and was not a good word choice.

U.T.O.T.D – Have Your Shit Ready to Go

It is a damn good thing that Candi woke me up while getting ready to go to work this morning at 4:30am because I was not ready to do battle with my morning training run!  I mean mentally, yeah, I was ready.  But otherwise, I was pretty less-than-prepared.  This brings me to my Ultra Tip of the Day.

Have your shit ready to go!  This morning I had to scrounge through my running drawer, some clean clothes in the dryer, and even the nice hangers full of clothes with at least 40 miles of sweaty funk hanging of off them from last week.  After 10 minutes of textile gathering, I grab the trusty Fenix and attempt to turn on the GPS only to find that apparently electronic devices need to be charged before use.  My dumb ass left the BlueTooth on yesterday and so no data for this morning’s great run other than my looking at the clock before and after and using the gmaps-pedometer tool to track my route… better than nothing, but no mile splits or heartrate data.

This tip is simple.  Have your shit ready in advance and you can save yourself some valuable time and a decent amount of frustration.  Planning is a very important part of ultrarunning.  I have seen some great natural runners fail or totally underachieve because they are fucking terrible at organizing and planning.  This is no different.  Train how you want to race, planning included.

-Mid Pack Zach

T.O.T.D: Get Dressed

Ok!  Here is today’s tip of the day!  Not only is it the tip of the day, it is the very FIRST EVER tip of the day.  Yep.  That’s what the acronym T.O.T.D. mean.   Will I write a tip of the day every day?  Probably not – it is, afterall, not billed as “the tip of the day everyday no matter what”.  But here goes the tip for today:  

When it is burn your skin and make you miserable cold forecasted for your early morning run, don’t commit to going running.  Sometimes it really sucks to run is nasty weather, and in my opinion, there is no reason to hate your run because Jack Frost won’t get off your ass.  What I do is instead of committing to going for that run, I just commit to getting dressed in my winter gear and  going out to check it out.  You see… after a 23 minute ordeal of slipping into 4 skin-tight layers, 3 fleece layers,  a neck gaiter, a stocking hat, and 2 goddamn pairs of gloves, I usually find that I am hot as hell and need to get out into the tundra to cool off.  Great tip to get your butt out the door in the dark, cold recesses of winter.  Good luck, and stay tuned for tomorrow’s (or whenever I get around to it) tip of the day (TOTD).

2016 Athens-Big Fork Marathon

The Athens-Big Fork Marathon – heretofore to be referred to as “ABF” – has been on my radar for a number of years.  Last year I was all set to go, but it got flooded out.  The two years before that it was in conflict with a local race that I love.  This year, I decided, come hell or high water, my fat ass was gonna be tromping over the significant (at least to a flatlander) mountains of the Ouachita National Forest.  First off – don’t let the name fool you – this race may measure like a marathon – but it runs like a pissed off 50K.  This year it got written up in Trail Runner Magazine as, “The Hardest Trail Marathon You Have Never Heard Of” or something similar.  After running it – I would definitely agree to that statement.

Residing about 5 hours north of the ABF starting line and having a homecoming queen crowning to attend that Friday night meant that

Big Fork Community Center - Very cool place!
Big Fork Community Center – Very cool place!

our arrival to Mena, Arkansas would be somewhere between 1:30am and 2:30am on race morning.  PLENTY of time to make it not-so-well rested to an 8am starting line.  My ultra-compadres Candi (my super hot and totally badass wife) and old buddy Ryan

(Rhino – cause once this dude charges, he won’t stop) enjoyed a long and massively shitty, rain infested interstate trip down to our one-star motel.  I woke the poor clerk up from his curry fueled slumber behind a thin wall behind the front counter with a ding of the bell, and with a creaking fart and some grumbled curses he got us checked in.  I am definitely not complaining – it was a double queen room 20 minutes from the start line for 57 bucks.  Our room was just clean enough for a 3 hour sleep, and before you know it we were hanging out at the Big Fork Community Center waiting to get started.

The beginning of the race is a short bit down the highway with full-on police escort in the front and rear followed by a nice jog down a

All runners at start
All runners at start

red dirt road to get to the trailhead.  That is when ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE.  By this time, the nice soaking rain has us totally drenched and showed no signs of letting up any time soon.  After a short jaunt at the foothills of the first mountain, it was time to climb.  And climb we did!  Over and over and over.  Eight

Water crossing #495982703
Water crossing #495982703

mountains on this out and back course – and yes they were mountains.  These climbs were GNAR for the midwest!  I have run in the mountains of Colorado, and these were every bit as steep, although not as long.  Basically the entire course you were either going up or down.  It was freakin’ awesome!  There was an aid station shortly after getting on the trail, after the first mountain I think, but Candi and I didn’t utilize it being only a few miles into the race.  We had decided to stay together and enjoy the day couplie style like we often do, while Rhino set out a bit slower but VOWED to see us at the finish.  We kept on at a nice steady pace, and I was pretty much cold the entire time – as my decision to only wear a couple of tech tees under my rain shell proved me a dumbass.  Candi – being smarter than me as

usual – had enough layers that she didn’t bother covering her ears.  It was a steady rain with temps in the mid to low 30s and pretty good winds if the mountains weren’t providing cover.  The terrain once you get on the trail is pretty varied; from scree-like gravel, muddy ruts, rocky outcroppings, to soft pine needles track – this course really had it all.  The valleys had flowing streams at every low point, and even a couple deer feeding plots.  It was wonderful – totally what I look for in a trail.  And did I mention you get to climb

ABF-Boston Elevation Comparison
ABF-Boston Elevation Comparison

hills.  Mountains.  I had so much fun climbing that I made this graphic comparing the iconic Boston Marathon to the ABF.  –>

We eventually made it to the top and bottoms of all the 8 mountains on the way out to the Jackass Aid Station.  This was run by a bunch of cowboys… REAL cowboys… from Texarkana.  These guys were serving up hot soup and real foods, had a warm fire, and an overall badass forest oasis set up for us.  Candi and I made it to the turn in about 3:15 at right about 14 miles and felt good since we were shooting for a 7:30ish finish after looking at the finishers times from previous races.  Coming over the last

View from the top
View from the top

mountain we ran into Rhino, who was about 30 minutes behind us and totally kicking ass.  It was basically more of the same on the way back – powerhike up the mountains, try not to roll down the other side like a snowball, and freeze your ass off crossing the stream at the bottom.  Rinse.  Repeat.  It was nice coming to the aid stations and getting hot food and a slap on the back before heading back out.  We finally dragged our shredded quads off the last mountain and headed back down the roads to get back to the Community Center – and I tell you what… that Marathon ran WAY more like an ass-whippin 50k.  It was tough.  For technicality of trail I give it a 4 gel packs out of 5, and for difficulty compared to similar races I give it a full 5 snotrockets out of five.

Warming by the fire! Candi left Rhino right
Warming by the fire! Candi left Rhino right

Once we got finished, just over 7:22, I pretty much stripped my soaking clothes off and nakedly hugged the glowing woodstove while chugging hot coffee and eating from the various foods we had packed with us.  I basically stayed cold as a witch’s tits the entire day – my fault – and just wanted to be warm.  For a fat-ass race, this thing had all the bells and whistles, minus a medal I didn’t need and a shirt I didn’t want – so I call it a win.  Thanks to everyone who worked hard to put this on. It was outstanding!

Ryan, Zach (Me), Candi at the finish in the Big Fork Community Center
Ryan, Zach (Me), Candi at the finish in the Big Fork Community Center

Ultra-Community

I often find myself wondering why I continue running ultras.  Why would I willingly participate in an activity that beats my body to the point that walking to the bathroom becomes nearly impossible?  Why is it worth doing when it makes me shed toenails more often than a snake sheds it skin?  I have had blisters the size or dollar bills, gashed knees, and even temporarily lost feeling in the tips of my toes.  I have puked on the trail and crapped in places and wiped with available materials that would classify me as barbaric at best.  Staying awake for 48 or more hours at a time during an ultra (and dragging serious ass at work for days afterward) would most likely not be considered “a reward” by most people.  Ultras (and the required training) monopolize a ton of my time, costs me a small fortune in gear and race entries, take me away from my family on the weekends, and have put me outdoors in some seriously shitty weather for hours and hours at a time.  So…. Why?  Why do I continue to train and run ultras? For the fun?

It is not for the race photos, which I always manage to ruin.  It is not for the finger lickin’ aid station food.  It is not for sweet tech race shirt number 437.  It is not for the finisher’s medal.  It is not for the vanity car sticker that I don’t have any place for.  It is not even for the shiny belt buckle.  My introspections have led me to narrow down my list of why I continue to train and run ultras to two main reasons, one of which is the focus of this article.  The addictive quality in an ultra is the challenge.  In an ultra I can test myself in ways that I cannot in any other aspect of my life.  As life gets easier and more comfortable, physical challenge decreases.  We no longer have to run down antelope on foot, run for our lives from lions, chop down trees by hand, or carry buckets of water miles just to survive.  Ultras are never predictable and you are required to solve problems and adjust if you want to get yourself to the finish. I could go on and on… but I will save that for another article.  The challenge is what gets you hooked early on.  The next reason is what keeps you coming back.

The Community.  The ultrarunning community is like none I have ever been around.  The cross section of people you find at ultras is extremely diverse.  Women and men from all walks of life, race, nationality, religious background, and socioeconomic classes can be found at ultras.  The shared hardships become the common denominator that binds a very eclectic group.  Strong and lasting bonds (a marriage in my case) are created in even very short times of shared suffering.  This fact means that as you participate in ultras – as runner or volunteer – the more and stronger bonds you create!  Humans are social creatures and bonds with others is what enriches our lives more than any personal accomplishment ever could.  Around these bonds, a culture of community is formed.  Runners support each other; I have witnessed runners sacrificing their own races or their personal comfort to help someone in greater need – giving away valuable food, water, even their own gear!  I have seen volunteers go above and beyond every expectation while caring for those challenging themselves on the course.  From massaging nasty, blistered feet to lubing sweaty armpits, the commitment shown by aid workers is unbelievable! Watching the winner of the race stick around for many hours cheer in the final finisher is something I have never seen outside of an ultramarathon.  This is a strong community.  Once built, an ultrarunning community will begin to function as a family would – members relying and supporting each other, sharing triumph and sorrow, laughter and tears -a situation evolves where the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts.  Ultimately, the ultrarunning community becomes more about spending time with friends rather than just getting to a finish line.  Evenings before races spent nervously discussing strategy and nights telling stories of pain and fatigue after a long hard day on the trail with close friends is what makes all of the sacrifices worthwhile.  And beer.

The Race Across The Sky

PST100-2015-2657
“The Race Across the Sky.”  LT100.  Leadville.  Whatever you call it, it is now in the books for 2015.  Less than half of the nearly 650 brave runners from all over the world who started the race managed to power themselves across the finish under the 30 hour time limit.  I was the 281st finisher of the 2015 Leadville Trail 100, earning a finisher’s medal and shiny new buckle on my first attempt.  To be completely honest, I am still amazed by this fact.  There were several points during this race where I just didn’t think that I was a strong enough runner to move fast enough to stay ahead of the cutoffs.  While I never seriously contemplated quitting, I several times resigned myself to the fact that the next aid station would probably be my last before my time ran out.  But first, let’s rewind a few months and lay the groundwork and build the context of this ultra-adventure.

The Lottery

This was the first year that the race had moved to a lottery based entry.  It is not weighted, requires no qualifier, and is purely random – as far as I know.  It was pretty simple, once December rolled around, you would pay your $15.00 and cross your fingers.  In January I received a congratulations email that I had been selected and needed to confirm, which I immediately did.  I was totally geeked up and telling anyone who would listen that my flatlander ass had gained entry to one of the oldest and most well-known 100 mile mountain ultras in the country.  In about 8 months I would be climbing over the Rocky Mountains on foot, digging as deep as I could dig to find that “inexhaustible well of grit, guts, and determination” that founder Ken Chlouber so famously references each year at the pre-race meeting.  Eight months is a long time to focus, train, and plan toward a single goal.  This takes us to training.

Training

I was dedicated to working hard.  I was dedicated to the idea of doing everything in my power to give myself a chance at success.  Hard work was the core strategy of my training plan.  I decided on running faster, higher intensity miles but reducing the total number of miles in a traditional 100 miler plan.   My point was that I had a strong mileage base and knew I could power hike a good long time if need be.  What I needed was the power to be able to make the long, steep climbs Leadville is notorious for without eating up a massive amount of time.  Scattered throughout the months of January, I also ran several races that broke up the cycle, and each forcing me to take a step-back week after a hard effort.  I did 25k, (2) 50K, (2) 6hr timed, 50 mile, 60 mile track, 101K, and 30 miles of pacing on a road race.  Nearly all of these efforts ended up as new PRs for the course or distance.  Two highlights were an 8:40 50 mile finish at Prairie Spirit and a 10th overall sub 5 hour 50K at War Eagle in Arkansas.  One major observation throughout this process:  Staying focused on a single race for 8 months is very challenging.  Breaking the time into sections with step-stone goals (races) was definitely helpful.

Race Week

The last 10 days or before the race were brutal for me.  The steep drop-off of training miles and idle time resulted in me damn near driving myself nuts.  Over-thinking, over-analyzing, and just pure anxiety were the central theme of this time period.  I had trouble focusing on anything not related to the race and sleeping at night got really restless and somewhat frustrating – to be honest – it really sucked.  But, eventually the time passed, the race van was packed, and by 8:30am on Thursday, August 20th 2015 we were on the long desolate road across Western Kansas that would eventually take us to Leadville Colorado.

Road Trip

Candi had taken care of most of the packing and organizing of our gear and aid stuff that we would need for the race.  She did an excellent job at making sure we had everything we would need, without filling all of our bags and the van with a bunch of crap we wouldn’t use.  On top of being a master at logistics, my wife is a total badass who can go for days with almost no sleep and does not know the meaning of the word “quit”.  She can crew and pace with the very best of them – and I am DAMN GLAD she is heading up my Leadville crew. I would definitely need her if I stood a snowballs chance in hell to finish under 30 hours – plus she is really hot!

Ryan showed up well before the scheduled time, and only a few minutes behind “schedule” we hit the road.  Ryan Schwatken is a fairly new ultrarunner, but has already notched several 50K finishes, 101K at FlatRock, and a very gutsy 50 mile effort where he demonstrated a toughness and tenacity that I am not sure that I have seen matched.  Ryan made it to that finish despite nearly EVERYTHING going wrong for him and walking 20 miles on two of the largest blisters I have ever seen.  Ryan has also crewed for me before – taking on the horrendous driving responsibilities at Ozark Trail last fall.  He is a solid addition to any 100 mile pace/crew and a great friend.

After five stops in two hours to drain the excess hydration, our first real stop was Wichita to pick up one of the most undeniably entertaining and inspiring humans I have ever met, Mr. Epic Ultras himself – Eric Steele.  Eric has been running ultras himself for more than 20 years and now puts on the best ultras in the Midwest.  Eric also earned his own Leadville buckle some 15+ years ago.  A fountain of ultrarunning knowledge and motivation, Eric is more importantly my brother-from-another-mother.  We picked up Eric and met with another Wichita ultrarunner, and good friend, Dave Meeth for lunch – who provided us with a bunch of great energy and mojo, wishing us luck and sending us on our way.

The drive out to Colorado was mostly uneventful and consisted of food and pit stops.  You see, I was given the following advice:  “The best way to avoid altitude sickness is to be massively hydrated.”  I followed that advice before a training trip to the mountains in July and it worked perfectly.  The downside is having to stop every 50 miles in order to keep your bladder from bursting.

After a long drive beginning in Southeastern Kansas and finishing up in the haze obscured mountains (courtesy of the California wildfires) of the high country of Colorado, we arrived at The New Summit Inn in Frisco.  We got checked in and relaxed in our room.  Ryan and Eric went on a beer run and watched some local teenager wiggle on the ground outside of the hotel.  This is its own story, but basically they supposed he had too much of the newly legalized recreational “Colorado herbage”.  I slept decently, knowing I still had one more day before the race started and that basically everything I could do was already done.

Pre-Race

Friday would be the first time we drove into Leadville as a team.  We arrived at the packet pickup on Harrison Street and I got my swag bag complete with my #5 bib.  I was also given a wristband with name, d.o.b, and relative medical info.  This band signifies your entry into the race, if you quit or miss a cutoff, they cut it off.  If the band is cut, your race is over.  After getting checked in, we had a couple hours before the pre-race meeting, so of course, we ate.  After breakfast we walked around checking out the town.  Leadville has a really touristy yet throwback kind of feel to it, and the streets were filled up with runners, their crews, and family members.  I remember feeling a really cool vibe as though we were all on the verge of something pretty important.  At Lake County High School gym, completely surrounded by a massive herd of runners and crew, the pre-race briefing had the hairs on my neck standing on end.  The speakers featured Dr. John, the funny medical director, who was giving out great last minute advice in a very funny and most entertaining way, followed by race founder Ken Chlouber who has the ability to motivate a large crowd with just a few words.  According to this old cowboy (and 10+ time Leadville 100 finisher), “You are better than you think you are and can do more than you think you can do.”  At the end of the meeting, I fully believed him.  I took his oath and repeated out loud, “I commit to NOT QUIT.”  After the meeting was over, we drove out to the village of Twin Lakes where I would have aid available at mile 40 and 60.  It is also the final aid station before the round trip over Hope Pass.  After a while driving in the mountains, we ended up back in Frisco eating one of my favorite pre-race meals; KFC.  Finger. Lickin’. Good.  After a short trip to the store to get ice and water and we ended up back at our lodge and began to get my gear ready for the early (more like middle of the night) wake-up call needed to get us to the 4am start line on time.  I had a couple pre-celebratory beers with Eric and Ryan, and Candi helped me get my race clothes ready and my race vest loaded for action – ensuring I didn’t end up at the start line with two left socks, no underwear, and missing a glove.  Did I mention how great she was?

TIME TO RACE!Starting Line

Start to May Queen

The start of the race was pretty chilly (35-40 degrees), but Ryan let me wear his hoodie for the 20 minutes or so we waited around the start line.  At exactly 4:00am, Ken blasted his shotgun signaling the start of the race.  More than 600 unacquainted best friends all sharing a single goal, we effortlessly rolled downhill and out of town eventually getting to Turquoise Lake where the trail became single track.  We were in an extremely long conga-line but somehow I never felt like I was being either pushed or held up.  It was quiet and dark, not much chatter.  The first 2 hours and 22 minutes went by in a flash, and before you know it I had made half a loop around the lake and was at the May Queen aid station 13.5 miles into the race.  I was quickly in and out of May Queen, filling my bottles and grabbing a bit of food.  We had decided in advance that the crew would skip this stop because 1.) I really wouldn’t need anything.  2.) Driving out to this aid station is a pain in the ass on a single road with 600 other crews.  It was the least I could do for my crew considering what they were doing for me.  It was a good decision as I didn’t even stay at the aid station for a full minute.  My plan was well established from the start – I figured I could maintain the required pace, but would not have much extra time to screw around at aid stops – I kept telling myself to plan ahead, get what you need, and move your ass on down the trail.

May Queen to Outward Bound

The first good climb is in this section on a bit of gnarly single track that takes you up to some dirt roads to get to the top of Sugarloaf.  I mixed in some good powerhiking here at the steeper spots and ran what I could without sending my heart into an explosive range.  Got rained on a bit as a little thunder shower rolled through.  It was mostly overcast and but the sprinkle did seem to knock out the smoky haze somewhat.  Eventually I crested the top of Sugarloaf Mountain and got to bomb down the section known as Powerline.  Powerline is exactly what it sounds like, a trail/jeep/maintenance access road that runs under the power lines.  No switchbacks, it can be very, very steep at times.  I was trying to hold myself back so I didn’t trash my quads, but found it very difficult to run slow.  It was a lot of fun blasting down the side of the mountain!  At the base was a couple miles of road that led past the Fish Hatchery (previous site of this aid station) to the Outward Bound aid station.  This was basically set up off the road in a pasture.  Candi, Eric and Ryan were here standing by the timing chute ready to crew me for the first time of the day.  They took my trash, filled my bottles, and restocked my vest.  This was roughly 24 miles into the race, and I still was not in need of much, so I was in and out of OB very quickly and headed on toward Halfpipe.  Knowing the first 40 miles of the race are the “easiest”, I wanted to make the most of them, without pushing too hard.  That is a difficult balance to find, but I was for the most part sticking with my plan.

OB to Half Pipe

This section kind of sucked.  Leaving OB was a section of mowed grass leading across the pasture, followed by a section of pavement, finally followed by a forest road before getting to Half Pipe.  It was pretty hot and dusty and I was firmly in my first rough patch, but managed to eat and drink my way through it.  Along this section there was an alternate crew access point and I got to see my people for a couple minutes, which I did not expect.  They filled me up, but more importantly they perked me up, which I was definitely needing at that point. Arriving in Half Pipe at the 50K mark in just a couple minutes under 6 hours, I was still right at my goal time.  I am not really sure what the hell Half Pipe is, but it was a pretty cool aid station, just not crew accessible – so needless to say, I didn’t lounge around here very long.  I grabbed a handful of GU’s, my primary fuel source, and hit the dusty trail.

Half Pipe to Twin Lakes

Once you leave Half Pipe it is a pretty steady climb for about 5 miles.  Nothing real steep, just kind of always going up, and it is mostly not-really-that-technical single track.  I got into a pretty good groove here, but was a little slower than I felt, I am guessing it was due to the steady uphill.  It is 8.5 miles to TL but seems like at least 15.  There was a small outpost on Mt. Elbert sponsored by CamelBak where they had fluids, but otherwise there is not much to break up this chunk.  I was ok mentally but was a bit sleepy and kind of slow, which led to me getting to Twin Lakes at noon, about 20 minutes behind my goal time, but well within the cutoff.  This aid station was freaking huge!  I am telling you it was like a circus of people and shelters about a half mile long.  The aid station was in an old fire station, or at least the bays where you park firetrucks.  I found my crew, and they took expert care of me, getting some different foods in me.  I think I managed to eat a banana and some mixed fruit along with some watermelon and sandwich quarters.  It definitely felt like lunchtime, and I hit the aid table like an all you can eat buffet.

Twin Lakes to Winfield

Twin Lakes is the last stop before going up and over Hope Pass.  In a span of about 5 miles, runners ascend from 9200’ to 12,600’ above sea level on rocky, single track trails.  To make it even more fun, leading up to the climb, adventurous runners get to wade through knee deep water for about ½ of a mile after leaving the aid station to get to the base of the mountain.  Once you get just above the tree line is the Hopeless aid station.  This crazy group of volunteers pack all supplies up on llamas.  Yes, llamas.  They are an awesome bunch and made the best potato soup on the course.  I fought like hell to get up the mountain – getting passed by a lot of folks who were either a.) Much better climbers than me. b.) Much better at high altitude than me. 3.) BOTH.  Whatever the case, I just kept hammering away at the mountain, hiking 50-100 yards and leaning on a tree or sitting on a rock for 6 deep breaths.  I was really struggling to keep my heartrate below about 5900 bpm.  Eventually I made it to the Hopeless aid station, albeit much slower than I would have liked.  I ate some soup and sandwiches, filled my bottles and sat for 3 minutes (I timed it).  One would assume that since you made it to the aid station, it would be time to head on down the back side…. Nope…  There are probably another 500 or so feet to climb before reaching the summit on some very steep switchbacks.  Once cresting Hope Pass, I got to stare in awe for miles in both directions before beginning the steep ascent that would take me to Winfield and the half way point of this very tough race.  The back side of Hope Pass is super steep, and I fell on my ass more than once. It was steep enough that I was not doing too much running, feeling like I would end up rolling off the side of the mountain and die should I catch my toe.  At the base of the back side, the course turns and heads to the aid station that marks the turn around, and I thought it was much closer than it actually was.  This section of the race was easily the most painful, depressing, and not very much fun part of the entire adventure.  I came hauling my out-of-water-not-eating-anything-ass into Winfield at just before 4:45pm.  The cutoff here was “gone by 6 pm”, and to be honest, I did not know if I would be ready to leave in time.  I had planned on being here by 3:45 but took an ass-whoopin’ climbing up and down Hope.  Ken Chlouber had quoted Mike Tyson at the pre-race meeting, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”  That had proved so true, and my jaw hurt like hell from the uppercut that the mountain gave me.  Coming up the road I was greeting by my wonderful wife who had had been pacing nervously, waiting for me to arrive.  I handed her my bottles and said, “Fix me.”  She asked what was wrong, but honestly I was pretty loopy and said I wasn’t sure.  Our plan had been made in advance, that WHEN I began to struggle, they were to force-feed me, take no excuses and kick my ass down the trail.  Ryan and Candi were giving me food to eat (not options) while Eric was getting ready to pace.  I asked for my knee braces because it hurt to run down – not a good sign when you are HALF way through a 100 mile mountain race.  I also took an Aleve and drained a bottle of Sustained Energy (THANK YOU HAMMER NUTRITION).  After 15 minutes and what felt like an eternity, they helped me get up of the ground and start walking me out of the aid station.  This is where I could say that my crew saved my race, but it would actually be more accurate to say that this is where they STARTED saving my race – details to follow.

Winfield to Twin Lakes

I have now passed half way, and seen the entire Leadville Trail 100 course.  I have Eric Steele pacing me for at least the next 10.5 miles back to Twin Lakes, with only 2 things standing in our way.  The first is a big-ass mountain and the second is a 9:45pm cutoff.  We left Winfield at exactly 5:01pm and the way I was feeling I might not make it back up Hope Pass before 9:45pm!  As I had experienced in other ultras, I began to feel much better very quickly after taking in food and fluids.  A combination of having someone like Eric to leech energy off of and the food I had ingested breathed new life back into me.  After a while we passed people still headed to the turn and it hit me that they would not be making the return trip.  They would be timed out at Winfield and their LT100 dreams would be over for the day.  While I felt bad for them, it also lit a fire under me that I still had a chance and that I needed to push hard if I really wanted that belt buckle.  Digging deep is a central theme of Leadville, and that is exactly what I did.  I dug as deep as I ever had and propelled myself back up the steep side of Hope Pass.  The front is steep, but the back side is a fucking wall.  With the help of Eric’s expert singing and hilarious dirty limericks echoing on the mountain, we made it back to the top of Hope Pass, passing several runners on the climb.  At this point I was feeling GREAT, literally and figuratively on top of the world!  We stopped for a bite at Hopeless before jetting on down the mountain.  Everything was going perfectly, and I was making good time as the sun went down.  Once getting back under the tree line, it started getting dark very quickly.  Eric and I bantering back and forth, tired legs, and dim trails led to a couple of falls fairly close to the bottom.  Both times I rolled my left ankle just a bit, but both times it burned for a minute but was OK.  We crossed the meadow and eventually made it back to the water crossing which at mile 60 felt pretty damn good to me.  Upon arrival back at the Twin Lakes aid station the crew was excited and glad to see me feeling so much better.  I was in at about 9:00pm, 45 minutes ahead of the cutoff.  I thanked Ryan and Candi for saving me at Winfield and started eating.  And eating.  I also lubed up my feet and put on fresh socks and shoes.  Amazingly, a fresh pair of socks and shoes can really give you a nice boost.  Ryan was all set to pace, and after maybe 8 minutes I was headed toward Half Pipe and the 69 mile point – by way of a long climb up Mt. Elbert.

Twin Lakes to Half Pipe

There is not too much to say about this section aside from the fact that right after round tripping Hope Pass, you have about a 3 mile section of single track that gains about 1400 feet.  To put this in perspective, that is only about 100 feet less than the Powerline climb at mile 80.  Not sure why this section does not get more attention, but it is pretty rough.  I had been warned by a number of people to be ready for it, and I was.  The plan was to hike it as hard as we could and the try and make up some time on the 5.5 mile descent into Half Pipe.  We stuck with the plan, and Ryan pushed me whenever he could, and always kept me eating on schedule, the method Eric had started on his section.  This worked great, and my energy never lagged too much.  We leapfrogged the same 12-20 people for the entire section into Half Pipe, and saw one guy puke at least 10 times.  I just kept thinking, “I am tired, but I freaking glad I am not THAT GUY.”  I was really slowing down at this point, but we still managed to gain back a few minutes and got farther ahead of the 1:15am cutoff.  We got to Half Pipe and almost exactly midnight and I sat for a minute while Ryan got me broth and filled my bottles.  I knew it was another 6.5 miles to get back to Outward Bound, which means it was almost time to climb the dreaded Powerline.  It also meant that Candi would be pacing me soon, which is always a huge boost for me.

Half Pipe to Outward Boundbazu-6817858

This section was weird.  The road was smooth, dusty and gray.  I felt like we were running on the moon, although my legs did not agree that it was moon gravity.  Ryan eventually pulled out a handheld flashlight and it was super bright and helped a great deal to give depth to the world.  I was in a hazy , dreamlike state and just kept shuffling along at this point – eating when Ryan said eat, shuffling when he said run.  It seemed like no time before we covered 3 miles and returned to the alternate crew access point, which was good, because I was getting very sick of GU gels and was having a bit of trouble swallowing them.  Candi and Eric mixed me up a bottle of Sustained Energy, and it was a great boost.  We got in and out and made good time toward the OB aid station.  A couple miles before the aid station we got to the open area out of the wooded mountain and it got cold.  To me it felt as it the temperature had dropped 25 degrees.  I was shivering and only had a light jacket on, and zipping it up only helped a little.  Thankfully, Ryan had his rain jacket stowed on his pack and let me wear it.  Chances are that I would have been battling hypothermia had he not had it.  So once again, the crew just kept on saving my race.  We got to OB a full hour before the cut-off at almost exactly 2am.  Candi was on deck and ready to run!  I sat and gathered myself for a minute and they briefed me on time, cutoff, and what I would need to do to get my buckle.  It seemed impossible that I could go another 20 miles as tired as I was feeling, but I had long ago decided that it didn’t matter what the “outlook” was- I was just going to keep going until I either crossed the finish line or they told me I missed the cutoff and I was pulled.

Outward Bound to May Queen

Leaving OB at 2am means I would have 4 hours and 30 minutes to get up and over Powerline and back to May Queen, a section about 11 miles long.  Aside from tEPIC Finishhe steep-as-shit climb up Powerline (with 80 mountain miles on your body), there is also a section of really technical single track just waiting to twist your ankles and pop your knees for you.  Also, if you get to May Queen at the 6:30am cutoff, that only leaves you 3:30 to cover the last half marathon which is either single track or going uphill at a fairly steep slope.  3:30 sounds like a lot to do a half marathon, but trust me, at the end of a Leadville, it sounds like a sprint.  Candi prodded me out of the aid station and it was up the road until we got back to the Powerline trail.  I took the advice of a few Leadville veterans and just kept grinding.  Don’t look up to the top – just focus on the next 50 feet – then do it again.  Candi did a mixture of cheering me on and challenging me to push harder.  She is as good a pacer as she is wife, and I am sure glad she is mine.  We grinded away at the climb and I rested when my heartrate got too high.  Eventually, after the 200 or so false summits, we made it!  At the top was an oasis we were not expecting – a party on the mountain masquerading as an aid station.  While I am pretty sure this is not an officially sanctioned stop, I was glad it was there.  Folks were partying their asses off and I only wish I felt good enough to sample the libations.  We burned down the back side of Sugarloaf at a nice interval shuffle and eventually got back to the single track.  It was slow going, but eventually we made it back to the road into May Queen shortly before 6am.

May Queen to Finish

Coming into MQ, the crew was there to meet us and take care of us as they had done all day and night.  Eric and Ryan filled my bottles while I used the porta-John.  I felt like time was running out and was somewhat in panic mode, even though I had 4 hours to cover the last 13.5 miles.  I knew I had slowed down a lot and desperately did not want to be coming up 6th street as time expired.  Candi gave me a Red Bull and told me when it was gone, we were running until we got back off the road and onto the trail.  As we took off, a guy said, “Great job, but you need to RUN some around the lake, you need the time!”  It was strange how hearing it from someone else can light a fire, and it did.  We took off and actually knocked down a 12 minute mile in the first time since very early in the race.  Candi told me to just take what the trail gives, and that is exactly what we did.  We were able to run most of the way back around Turquoise Lake at about 15 minute mile pace, pretty good for 90 some miles into a race, over rolling single track.  We got a surprise from Eric and Ryan at Tabor boat ramp, they had stopped just to cheer us on and ask if we needed anything, but we just took a hug and rolled on.  After we finally came up off the trail and onto the road,Buckle it feels like you should be done… but you are NOT.  I was also warned about this, and just kept telling myself that we are close, but not there yet.  Time wise we were in pretty good shape and I realized in my mind I could walk the entire rest of the race and get the finish, but still had this strange feeling that something bad could still happen.  We jogged/walked intervals off and on and I marveled at how damn steep these hills were while getting ever closer to town.  We finally came off the last long dirt road hill and got back onto the pavement that would become 6th street and lead us to the finish line.  In the last mile, Eric and Ryan joined Candi and I as we marched proudly toward the red carpet and ultimately the finish line.   As we looked up the hill and saw runners and their families crossing the finish, it hit me for the first time that I was actually going to do this.  With the help of my wife and best friends, we were going to make my Leadville dream a reality.  We joined hands in unity, raised them in the air, and crossed the finish line together with about 30 minutes to spare.  After a round of hugs for my team, Marilee hung the medal around my neck and Ken gave me a big sweaty hug.  Needless to say it was a long, difficult adventure and that moment crossing the finish line is most definitely one that I will never forget.

 

Until next time… BE EPIC!

Zach