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alabama’s got some mud – enjoying the black warrior 50k

Last month I was thinking about some new goals for running. I’d been grappling with motivation and focus, and really thought about why I do this. My issues were pretty fundamental – road vs trails, speed vs volume, stuff like that.  It’s normal to ponder this from time to time – the intended result being to attach purpose to what we do each day.

One of my goals is to run marathon or longer in all fifty states. Not a phrenetic checklisting exercise, but rather visiting every state, experiencing what it’s about, and while I’m there, doing a race that’s something I’ll enjoy.
I’ve completed 22 states in the past 15 1/2 years. This means I’ll click off state #50 when I’m a little over 90. But it’s very much a “journey is the reward” thing for me, so that’s okay.

February’s a great time to race in the South. Not too hot yet, and there are some good options. Also, it’s usually a chance to escape the Seattle gloom. This is what brought me to the woods of northern Alabama this weekend for the Black Warrior Trail 50k.  All indications were that this was a great choice.  Trails, smaller event, good history, and irreverent humor evident in their communications.

Wanting to gauge the time to the start, I went out there before dinner on Friday, and got to meet the race directors.  Really nice people – they let me pick up my bib and shirt, and invited me for some food too.  Their positivity really made me feel like I’d made the right choice – a large road marathon’s got nothing on the great vibe we get in our trail running community.


at the start, before the mud

Race morning brought some significant rain.  We’re not afraid of weather in the Pacific Northwest, but this not the gentle mist we’re used to at home.  This was going to be different.

We 130 lined up and hit the trail just after 8 am.  We started with about 500 feet of climbing during the first three miles.  This foreshadowed more significant climbing than I’d planned on.  After climbing on a fire road, we veered off into some nice single track trails, and people spread out a bit.  I held to running the hills and walking 30 seconds/mile for the first 12 or so miles.  After that terrain won, as did the mud.

Oh that mud.  Thing about hard rain on clay is that the water doesn’t get absorbed as quickly at the rain falls.  Very slippery.  Also ankle deep at times.  I felt a bit like a Looney Toons character running on air.  And I’m amazed I didn’t fall.

I felt pretty tired by the time I hit about mile 13.  This is when the walking became much more frequent, and my pace and cadence really declined.  This is when my inner voice got more doubtful, and I had to push myself to keep moving.  It’s not unusual for this to happen, but it felt worse because of the sketchy footing.  Miles 17 through 24 really crawled by.  The 50k runners had split off onto a separate loop around mile 8, rejoining the 25k route at 24, and this is when things picked up for me again.  By then I was feeling concerned about going over 7 hours.  Given my pacing for those middle miles, it was looking bad.  Then is leveled off a bit, and I felt more consistent.

Around mile 27, a young woman passed me, looking pretty strong.  I used this as a motivator to try to keep up with her.  After trailing her for about a mile, I assured her that I wasn’t stalking her, and thanked her for helping me pick my pace up.  Emily and I ran most of those last four miles together. We talked about our kids a bit.  She told me how she has to get creative with her training, as her husband travels a bunch.  Her boy saved up for a nice bike, and now joins her for her runs on a greenway near her home in Huntsville.  She’s run 6 100-milers, so she’s making it work.  Wow!

We crossed the finish in about 6:41 – which she shared was a 40-minute PR for her on this course.  I felt really good about being able to pick things up during the last miles.  In fact, my last two miles were my fastest two of the day.  It helped that we spent most of that on fire road rather than single track, but being able to muster that finish felt really good.  It’s also testament to how running really can be a team sport – it’s doubtful I could have done that without having good company and conversation.

Clicking off another state is always fun, but experiencing an event like this one definitely makes it feel like that journey’s the reward.  Bonus is that my first two events of 2018 were ultras, and that I’ve completed #96 lifetime “long ones” (marathon or better).

The mile splits, and cadence really tell the story.  It’s interesting that my heart rate remained pretty steady throughout, even as my pace and cadence slowed significantly.  I pulled this table from my Suunto movescount data, because it includes cadence per mile.  My Strava data is below too.

m Heart rate  Pace  Ascent  Descent  Cadence 
1 148 (75-166) 11’14 (89’24-9’56) 256 0 80 (39-90)
2 145 (136-162) 10’14 (14’54-8’39) 98 89 81 (31-92)
3 147 (131-162) 10’26 (14’07-8’39) 151 230 82 (60-96)
4 154 (145-163) 11’33 (14’54-9’56) 308 285 79 (40-91)
5 153 (145-162) 11’25 (26’49-9’34) 269 213 78 (32-94)
6 147 (121-163) 12’52 (0’00-8’22) 266 253 75 (34-95)
7 151 (138-163) 11’33 (14’54-9’34) 72 141 79 (52-92)
8 148 (139-159) 13’26 (29’48-10’43) 98 210 76 (39-91)
9 155 (140-166) 13’08 (0’00-9’34) 279 105 76 (45-232)
10 150 (138-167) 11’40 (16’45-9’34) 167 161 79 (67-94)
11 152 (137-167) 12’02 (20’38-8’56) 121 154 77 (52-91)
12 155 (138-165) 12’18 (19’09-10’19) 157 138 77 (52-89)
13 144 (119-167) 14’15 (0’00-8’22) 49 171 69 (31-90)
14 151 (134-173) 14’18 (20’38-11’10) 262 161 62 (37-99)
15 153 (143-169) 12’10 (17’52-10’19) 121 138 58 (34-86)
16 156 (145-166) 12’50 (26’49-8’56) 177 148 57 (35-89)
17 146 (124-164) 16’39 (0’00-9’34) 207 167 61 (34-90)
18 140 (127-154) 14’31 (0’00-9’14) 98 112 68 (43-93)
19 144 (123-164) 12’44 (19’09-10’43) 72 249 75 (32-89)
20 136 (117-158) 17’21 (22’21-9’56) 197 69 60 (42-86)
21 139 (115-164) 15’01 (22’21-9’34) 230 240 68 (48-91)
22 139 (117-162) 17’32 (0’00-7’53) 289 249 64 (47-87)
23 150 (120-167) 13’13 (33’31-9’56) 240 387 74 (48-91)
24 146 (121-170) 15’42 (0’00-9’56) 302 299 66 (32-89)
25 150 (127-170) 15’30 (24’23-9’56) 331 322 66 (38-92)
26 146 (121-167) 14’44 (53’38-9’34) 335 354 68 (41-91)
27 156 (141-171) 13’23 (20’38-8’56) 390 318 72 (34-95)
28 155 (130-177) 14’25 (0’00-7’27) 331 272 71 (37-98)
29 166 (153-174) 9’37 (12’11-7’53) 85 62 82 (74-93)
30 165 (153-174) 9’54 (10’43-8’56) 125 335 82 (71-93)
31 164 (157-172) 9’47 (11’39-8’07) 52 79 79 (28-93)

that voice in your head shouldn’t hold you back : two bear marathon race report

There’s an old voice in my head
that’s holding me back
– well tell her that I miss our little talks

–  Of Monsters and Men

I’d reached sort of a crossroads with running.  Since running Grand Ridge back in August, I’d been fighting some nasty foot injuries. It’s been one of those stretches where I’d been searching for a bit of motivation and confidence too. 

It’s easy to get excited about races.  It’s harder to get excited about the day to day workouts that make marathons and ultras possible.  Since Grand Ridge, I’d since maxed at 17.5 miles, not good enough to call myself ready.

The problem was that I’d registered for the Two Bear Marathon in Whitefish Montana.  Earlier in the year, my friend Ken from the Eastside Runners had proposed the trip.  It had been on my list for several years.  It was in a beautiful part of the country, and was an opportunity to clink off another state on my path to being a 50 state marathoner

It had sounded great at the time, but not so much as race day approached.

relaxing in our suite at the lodge, the night before the marathon

relaxing the night before two bear

Several of us flew into Kalispell the afternoon before the race.  Friends arriving earlier had been kind enough to pick up our packets (thank you Sue!), and we enjoyed a nice dinner at local hotspot Ciao Mambo.  Then we settled into the opulent suite our friend Laura had arranged for six of us to share at the Kandahar Lodge, just outside town.


stuff is laid out and ready to go

Being around friends helped settled my nerves, but not quite enough to get to sleep.  I got up the next morning just ahead of my alarm, having slept fitfully.  After a light breakfast, we headed out to catch  the shuttle to the starting line at the Lion Mountain trailhead.

At 7:30 sharp, we were off.  I didn’t know the course well at all.  I could say that I’d wanted to go at it with “fresh eyes”.  Fact is, I’d not done my homework.  So, my race plan was really simple.  I’d take a walk break every mile, and run how I felt the rest of the way.  The course had a fair bit of ascent along the way, so I’d need to take things a bit easy on the hills.

early miles of the two bear mrathon

early miles along the trail

I settled into a fairly conservative pace in the early miles, as we wound along the Whitefish Trail.  There were some climbs, but nothing terribly steep.  I yielded to a number of others early on, really wanting to stick to my simple plan.  We were mostly in the trees, but would occasionally get a glimpse of the mountains around us.  Very nice.

As the field spread out, I took more notice of the copious amount of bear scat on the trail.  I took to clapping a bit, hopefully enough to alert the grizzlies that a dangerous human was on the way.  This was mostly the only sound I’d hear for most of mile 9 through mile 14, other than when I’d come upon an aid station.

running along "the cliff" during the two bear marathon

running along “the cliff”

Following a significant downhill section, we hit the road in between mile 14 and 15.  This was a definite adjustment.  With more of the course ahead visible, it was more important than ever to silence The Blerch (the demon in your brain who likes to say “you can’t”).  As we rolled along the lake, my Blerch and I exchanged a few words.  My walk breaks were shorter, in hopes that I’d be able to pick the pace up a bit.

As I passed mile 20, I stopped taking walk breaks, and focused on keeping things steady.  By now, the sun was shining down on to the asphalt and we could see long undulating ups and downs ahead of us.  I had to block the voices in my head telling me that I was tired and hot.  By the time I came to the marker for mile 26, I was ready to be done.  I crossed the finish in 4:2439.

It took a few minutes to settle down.  My pace and heart rate had both been faster for the last few miles, and I could definitely feel it.  Mike had already come in before me, and soon after, Janet, Ken, Sue, Kirk, Trish, May, Laura, and Dave all came in.  All remarked at how nice the trails, how tough the stretch on the road were.

I received possibly the most painful post-race massage ever – which was probably just what the doctor ordered, as it definitely loosened me up.  We celebrated with a nice dinner in Whitefish, and then retired for some drinks by the fire at the lodge where we planned the next day’s recovery hike.

along the trail to hidden lake

our recovery hike, near hidden lake

on the way up to logan pass, along going-to-the-sun road

looking back towards logan pass

We did a nice recovery hike the next day, from Logan Pass, inside of Glacier National Park.  The group of us headed up to Hidden Lake, enjoying a windswept lunch at the Continental Divide.  We reflected on the race over drinks by the lodge’s fireplace, and then hit the road early the next morning for a longer hike.


that’s a pretty steep drop – which is why the green cable is there. picture by ken o’neill


picture by ken o’neilllooking down the trail from the chalet back to the loop trailhead

a couple of miles above the loop trailhead

The brave among us (everyone but me) headed back up to Logan Pass to hike the 11 miles down the Highline Trail.  This involved long stretches on a narrow trail, with a sheer dropoff down to the Going-to-the-Sun Road below.  I opted for a milder version from the Loop Trailhead, meeting the rest up at the Granite Park Chalet, where we enjoyed a mile-high lunch with a panoramic view of the mountains.  It was amazing.

Sitting and writing about this at home, I reflect on several things.  I am very happy with my quality of effort during the race.  You can’t necessarily see that in every 4:24 marathon.  And getting to enjoy the race and one of earth’s most beautiful places with good friends was great.

charts and graphs for running geeks


First – the pace chart.  Looks great – but can’t claim a bunch once we factor in the difference in elevation between the first and second half (much more climbing during the first half).


The heart rate chart looks very good.  I was able to keep my heart rate down during the climbing, and pushed things towards the end.


Here’s the course profile


… and here is heart rate (in orange) overlaying the course profile.  It shows an upward trend towards the later, flatter miles.


recent adventures

This past weekend I’d decided not to run the Tacoma City Marathon, instead choosing to do another long training run to prepare for a marathon later this month.  As expected, I have conflicting feelings.  It made sense in a number of ways.  I didn’t feel ‘ready’, and didn’t think the event would be too much fun.  I was pretty sure I’d be able to finish, but didn’t see much point in trying to prove that to myself.

Instead I ran 25 miles from home, making it out to the Redmond Watershed before heading back. In a practical sense, I might as well have driven down and taken advantage of the course support I’d paid to use in Tacoma.  Didn’t feel motivated, so ended up going solo.  Looks like it was a great day for some good friends running in Tacoma, Eugene, and out in the Methow Valley (at the new Sunflower trail marathon).  There were some PRs, some excellent first time finishes, BQs, and some good times in general.  Always great to enjoy when friends do well.

I had an odd adventure Monday.  While getting out of my car, heading in for a swim, I hit my head on an overhang.  It was over on my left side, where I don’t see.  There was no blood, but I did smack it pretty hard, on the side where my fractures and craniotomy were (following the cycling accident in July of 2008).  I couldn’t decide whether or not to be concerned about it.  Probably owing to the long run on Sunday, and not getting as much sleep as I needed, I was already feeling a bit woozy.  I decided to head in for  the swim, to see how I felt.  After about 1200 yards, with some timed work, I climbed out.  I wasn’t feeling like myself – still a bit woozy, and a little bit nauseas.  Annoyingly, I couldn’t gauge whether I was feeling that way because I’d bonked my head, or whether to attribute it to being rundown from the 25 mile run on Sunday (dehydration can make you feel nauseas).  The thing that really bugged me was not knowing whether it might simply be anxiety – not knowing whether to worry about it or not.

According to the ER doctor, my skull is less structurally sound than before, near the site of the fractures and the craniotomy.  Unfortunate fact.  Got it checked out, and things were fine.,  Definitely interesting to experience things like this – weighing whether I’m thinking or worrying about my past injuries too much, against simply exercising good common sense.

back to nookachamps again

There’s a great little half marathon just to the north every January.  I’ve run there eight times over the past twelve years.  I’ve done well (including my PR in 2005!), and horribly.  Some years we’ll run in beautiful, crisp 25 degree weather, others in blustery 45 degrees with horizontal rain.

Through the years there have been two constants.  The shirts always have the same stuff on them – a nice trumpeter swam in flight, and "nookachamps winter runs" with the year.  The other thing is the great energy that the event has.

The first time I ran Nookachamps was in 1996.  I was new to half marathoning, with just three under my belt.  I was also still pretty new to the Pacific Northwest.  Unsure of the driving distance, I arrived early enough to take a nap in my car before the gym opened.  I had a pretty good day too, running to a new PR. 

I was on again, off again at Nookachamps for a while.  Then in 2004, I ran into a friend from work while waiting for the start.  He was up for the race with a group of friends from the Eastside Runners, and invited me to go for lunch with them afterwards (had to decline so I could get back home).  That year, I ran a very good ten mile race.  The problem was, I needed to run another 5k or so in order to get back for a nice hot shower.  I gritted it out through mile 11, before my friend loped easily up behind me and said "Thought I’d never catch you!".  He chatted me up until we made the final turn into the college – easing my pain through the hardest part of the race.  I mustered one final kick, finishing my fastest half marathon in seven years (about 15 seconds behind my friend).  The following year I eked out a 30 second PR, this time running the first miles with my friend (who was generously pacing someone else to a PR too).

My wife and I have returned to run Nookachamps two out of the last three years, making a day of it with ESR.  The club rented transportation, and we’d capped the race with a hearty meal at the brewery in downtown Mount Vernon.  Even though I haven’t approached a PR since 2005, I’ve had a great time visiting with friends, enjoying the course, and drawing something from the experience of running a solid half marathon.

This year, we ventured up in the lap of luxury, owing to the efforts of Barbara Sobey, who arranged for a bus to carry up the 15 ESR folks who chose to share the ride.  We had perfect running conditions – 45 and dry.  This was about fifteen or twenty degrees warmer than my recent Nookachamps races.

The magic bus pulled up to Skagit Valley College in time for us to stretch, relax, and "find our happy place".  Then we ambled out to the starting line where we had just enough time to settle into a couple of pace groups before it was time for the surprise no countdown start.

We never saw John before he shot off way ahead of us.  We did have enough time to wish Nicole and Alicia well as they left us in the dust.  Bob and Mark chatted with us as they warmed up during the first half mile.  I settled into a nice steady run with Randy, Ram, and Karen.  I wasn’t feeling my best, and I had no idea what the race would hold for me.

Randy’s plan seemed to be steady 8:15-8:30 miles, which sounded good to me.  I was prepared to slow down more if I felt like it too.  Randy and I passed a pleasant five or six miles together.

Then I had a dilemma.  Having no real expectations for the race meant I hadn’t committed to a specific pace.  I’d planned to run with my wife until she rebuffed me in favor of headphones (apparently she hears enough from me without needing to endure a long run together).  If I’m ‘racing’, I generally try to hit about an eight minute mile pace, but didn’t expect to do so today.  So when I pulled a little ahead of Randy I wondered whether I wouldn’t rather drop back and make a social run out of it.  What’s the point of pushing too hard without a hard goal?  As I ticked off a succession of 8:10-8:20 miles, I pondered this question, even as I slowly began to pick up the pace.

I stole a look at my elapsed time as I crossed the nine mile mark.  I try not to do that, instead focusing on each mile split.  But what my watch told me was that if I pushed a little, finishing the last 4.1 miles in about 31 minutes, I’d hit my outside goal of 1:45 (that’s eight minute splits for those following at home!).

But I didn’t want to make this nice day only about a time goal.  So I decided to push as hard as I could, but hide my watch under my sleeve, so I couldn’t see how fast I was actually running.  Brilliant!  Also borderline obsessive-compulsive.

There’s a lot of gentle up and down on the course.  Forgetting about the steep hill coming up from Clear Lake around mile 8, the two hills I remember most are at mile 10 and 12, coming up from the valley into town.  I could definitely feel that I was running faster as I managed the climb from the valley.  Oddly, I felt much better than I’d expected, and chalked it up to my accidental negative split strategy!  Making the final turn into the college, I anticipated learning how close to my goal I was.  It wasn’t until the final 150 yards that I saw just how close it would be.  I gave it all I had, and crossed the line with just 3 seconds to spare!

Once my heart and lungs had returned to their normal locations inside my body, I joined the folks who had finished before me to greet our friends as they came in before adjourning to the warm showers.

All in all – ESR folks did well this year.  10k finishers included Carl Kadie, Charlie Garrett, Doug Chase, Mark King, Ed Sobey, Mona Petrou, Trish Ostertag, and Linda Rinker.  Richard Chase, John Dickson, and Nathanial Rastallis led the club finishers in the half marathon.  Also running the half were Rod Brown, Barbara Sobey (placing in her age group!), Kris Solem, Amy Wismer, Hazel Chase, Karen Zehm, May Cheng, Randy Erber, Judy Fisher, Tony Tang, your humble narrator, Alicia King, Nicole Sweeney, Mike Donoghue, Bob Wismer, and Mark Hovde.  This varied group included the full complement of PRs, PWs, negative splits, leg cramps, side stitches, and swan sightings.

Distance running will humble you.  Even if you prepare well, a last minute cold, sleepless night, or random meal choice can sink you.  So when I don’t prepare well, I’ll take whatever I get.  This time around I ran two different races.  I’ll remember the one after committing to do my best.  It’s important to celebrate even the small victories.

The rest of the day was very nice.  We hung out at the brewery, and enjoyed watching the Seahawks bolt out to a two touchdown lead (unfortunately they still had to play another 3 and a half quarters).  We rode back towards home trading stories about our training plans and remembering a nice day in trumpeter country.

running in a friend’s footsteps

Two years ago this week I was taking in a Father’s Day baseball game with my dad in Seattle.  Right around the second inning, I got a phone message which shook me to my core.

My work and running colleague Peter had been in a bad bicycle accident while doing a century ride east of Seattle.  He passed away twelve days later, leaving behind family and friends who miss him very much.

I think about him sometimes when I’m out running, because he was good company, and also a very good athlete.

I reflect sometimes on the experience of watching people rally around him, and on saying goodbye.  More than that though -seeing the hole he left in the hearts of his loved ones, his colleagues at work, and his community of friends reminds me that each person touches the lives of many others.  You leave more of an impression and make more of a difference than you can know. 

It’s important to make everything you do count – whether you’re doing work, running on a mountain trail, or spending time with the people you love.

out on the town, five year old style

While enroute from the aquarium last week, Rachel and I got into a discussion about planes.  Both of our kids have flown a fair bit, starting when they were a couple of months old.  On the other hand, I didn’t fly until I was eight.  Until we traveled from NYC to Dallas to visit friends over that summer, everywhere we’d gone, we’d driven.

So I told Rachel that I was eight before I got on a plane.  She replied : "is that because they weren’t really invented yet?".

Because that is the most viable answer you know.

david halberstam, rip

Sad news today that journalist and author David Halberstam was killed in a car accident in the SF Bay Area.  I have enjoyed reading his work, and remember watching him interviewed by Charlie Rose on Election Night 2004, just after Kerry conceded the race to Bush.

Mr Halberstam wrote many fine books, among them several about how the brightest minds in the US were responsible for miring us in the Vietnam War.  In recent years he drew parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, most ominously between the government impulse to CYA (from :

Speaking to a journalism conference last year in Tennessee, he said government criticism of news reporters in Iraq reminded him of the way he was treated while covering the war in Vietnam.

"The crueler the war gets, the crueler the attacks get on anybody who doesn’t salute or play the game," he said. "And then one day, the people who are doing the attacking look around and they’ve used up their credibility."

I mourn our gradual collective loss of intellectual curiosity.  Mr Halberstam communicated his very eloquently.

communication, redux


This picture is a demonstration of active listening by a person prominent in our local obsessive and overthinking community :

The subject was ‘listening’ to the author drone on about the particulars of a camera lens purchase as she worked the Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle.

the key to a strong marriage is communication


My wife and I are both a bit obsessive.  We train obsessively and tend to overthink things a bit – remodeling, vacations, and pretty much anything else.

One of the important parts of our overthinking process is "overthinking out loud" to each other.  For example, five minutes ago, my wife arrived home after a triathlon training clinic, and began sharing the various ins and outs of the things she learned.  All sorts of minutia about VO2 max, threshold training, heart rate zones, and (important!) setting achievable goals for oneself.  Just about then I drift back in from the other planet I’m on, and say something unhelpful and hopefully uncontroversial so that it seems I was listening.  Better yet, I’ll occasionally stumble onto a joke that enhances the sense that I’m a caring, actively listening spouse.

Please don’t think I’m a bad person, I’m pretty sure she does this to.  Part of being an overthinking person is that you are often mired in your own inner world of thought, impervious to external disturbance.  And I love her dearly.

Anyway as she spoke, it occurred to me that this may be a common occurrance in other households as well.  If any of you happen to pop up from your own sphere of obsessive overthinking, let me know what you think.