Eldora Rando Return

December 3, 2016

My first ski mountaineering race was almost over before it began.

I just found out about the race the day before and decided to do it on a whim. The only problem was it was early December and I hadn’t been skiing yet that season. Ski mountaineering is a lot like mountain biking for me–a lot of fun, I’m actually reasonably strong going uphill, and I’m quite shaky (relative to competition) going downhill.

I went a few hours early to Eldora ski area to do a couple of downhill runs before the race to refamiliarize myself to the process. Those runs went well. Then it was time for the race. It starts at the bottom of the hill. You hike to the top (with a special attachment on your skis to as to not slide backward down the hill) then ski down. The beginner race I did consisted of two laps, while the more competitive race was four laps.

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Me in blue jacket and orange boots at far right of frame. Photo by Thomas Woodson.

I lined up near the back since this was my first race and I didn’t want to get into everyone’s way, but not too far back because, as I said, I’m much better at going uphill than downhill relative to the competition. When the race began a funny thing happened. As I started to walk one of my boots came detached from my ski. I had to stop and fix it. Then a few steps later it happened again. Then again. And again.

At this point I was in dead last place, only a few feet in front of the starting line as the rest of the race was well on their way up the hill. Frustrated, and rather embarrassed to be fumbling like this right in front of the all the spectators, I nearly turned around and walked back to my car to drive home. Then I figured out the problem. There’s one latch on the ski bindings that’s only used when going uphill that I forgot to lock into place. I locked it and my boots stopped coming out of the bindings. It was a really basic thing that I absolutely would have remembered to do if this race had not been the first time I skied uphill this season. Lesson learned.

Photo by Thomas Woodson

Now with a lot of ground to make up I started to, well, make up ground. I’m relatively good at going uphill. I caught up to the back of the pack about 1/3 of the way up the hill. I worked my way through that group and continued to move forward. Once at the top of the hill I tried to quickly take the skins off my skis and plunge down the hill. I was a bit timid. A handful people passed me (rather quickly). But these were all people I had caught up to and passed on the way up. I should be able to do the same on the second lap.

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Photo by Thomas Woodson

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Photo by Thomas Woodson

The second lap started with a gradual hike uphill, but took a different route than the first lap. There was a section so steep it couldn’t be hiked on the skis. Everyone had to take their skis off, strap them onto their backpack, and hike up on boots. This is a fairly standard feature in any ski mountaineering race, but I had never done it before. Hiking in ski boots is super awkward, but it was a short section, and it was over soon enough. Skis back on for the last bit of uphill and the final (for me) descent.

Again a few people passed me on the descent, but not as many as the first lap. I apparently finished in 9th place out of 29 in the beginner race. At the rate I was going (passing ~15 people each uphill and being passed by ~5 people each downhill) I maybe could have won the beginner race if it ended after one more uphill. But it didn’t. And it likely never will end at the top, so I need to get better at going downhill.

Shoot the Moon

I love playing the card game Hearts. Four players take turns playing cards, following suit when possible, highest card wins. Each card in the suit of hearts is worth a point and the queen of spades is worth 13 points. You don’t want points. Points are bad. Unless you score all 26 points in a given hand. In that unlikely event all the other players get 26 points instead of you.

This is called shooting the moon. It’s hard to do, particularly if your opponents are skilled players. It requires luck to draw just the right set of cards. Then it takes a fair bit of skill to prevent your opponents from stopping you. You need to bluff at first. Then, when the cards remaining in your hand are strong enough, you need to commit. And when you commit, you need to commit fully. The worst possible outcome would be to take the first 25 points only to fail to take the final point.

Des Plaines River Trail 50

October 15, 2016

While running with some friends leading up to this race one of them asked me what my goal was, and I blurted it out: sub-7 hours. Saying it out loud made it more real. To my relief, this stronger runner than me agreed that it should be possible.

A couple weeks later another friend, also a stronger runner, asked the same question. When I repeated my answer of sub-7 hours this friend responded, “Don’t you think you’re sandbagging a little?” Meaning, he thought I could run faster than that. I don’t know, 7 hours would already be a significant PR. My fastest 50 miler was 7:24. Could I have been underestimating myself? This was not the time for me to question everything.

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By race day my mind had calmed a bit and I changed my plan. Rather than average 8:24/mile I would try to run 8:00/mile for as long as I could, and slow down as necessary from there. The weather was nearly perfect: 55˚F, overcast, a slight breeze, lots of shade. I was the only shirtless person at the starting line. I love running in Illinois in October.

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This race is essentially a 25 mile out-and-back on a flat crushed rock and dirt recreation path in the northwest Chicago suburbs. 8:01, 7:59, 7:57 for the opening miles of the race, right on target. I settled into about 10th place or so. I knew this was a fast course and the winning times are always screaming, but I honestly didn’t expect this many people to be ahead of me, given I was probably starting too fast.

With focus I could pay attention to my watch and I could hit my 8:00/mile splits. When I didn’t focus my pace sped up. I fought to hold back, but I was averaging closer to 7:50/mile than 8:00/mile. There was a small downhill in mile 12 and I accidentally ran a 7:38 mile. My heart rate was 123. What was going on? It seemed like the mental effort of holding back was taking a greater toll on me than just running at a faster, more comfortable pace. Either way, my heart rate was ridiculously low. I had plenty of headroom to speed up at that moment, but did I have the guts to do it?

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I continued to pass the fast starters one by one. My pace gradually increased a bit here and there. By mile 20, still running easy, I said to hell with it, and I sped up. I’ve never run so fast so effortlessly. This was uncharted territory. I was fully committed. I had a strong hand, and I was attempting to shoot the moon.

7:35 for mile 20.

7:15 for mile 25.

6:48 for mile 28!

It was so scary to be moving at what should have been an unsustainable pace, but I felt so good I couldn’t help myself. Approaching the 25 mile turn around I discovered only two runners remained ahead of me. The leader was moving at a good clip, but the 2nd place runner had slowed a lot. I passed him shortly after the turn around.

I passed the 50K mark in 3:56, a new 50K PR. Only 19 miles to go.

I caught up with the leader around mile 32, held back for a moment, then passed convincingly to move into the lead. He briefly tried to go with me, but I was still running 7:00/mile pace. Over the last 18 miles I would gain 2 minutes per mile on him.

At mile 37 I found myself in the middle of a high school girls cross country meet. A couple hundred meters of their 5K course was on the Des Plaines River Trail. I certainly wasn’t going to stop, so I just joined in, passing the mid-pack runners as I tried to stay out of their way.

By mile 40 I was feeling the effort. My pace was back up to 7:30/mile, and I knew my fastest miles were behind me. I only need to hang on for 10 more miles, a distance I ran 5-6 times per week. I was only looking at my pace. I didn’t know what my elapsed time was. Every mile I had run at that point was faster than 8:24, so I was certainly ahead of 7 hour pace. I even had a pretty good chance at winning the race. Just 10 more miles. Stay on target.

8:00/mile. My legs were burning. The (warning: graphic photos) blood blisters that had formed on my big toes were becoming more and more unbearable with each step. My calculated, slightly lower than necessary intake of fluids and calories was starting to catch up to me. The wheels began to fall off the last four miles. I was still moving, but now a minute per mile slower than my average.

And then it was over. I was the winner. My time was 6:19:15. Nobody was more shocked than me. How did this happen? I just ran a PR of over an hour. I just exceeded my ambitious goal by 41 minutes. I just averaged 7:35/mile for 50 miles. I just ran negative splits in a 50 mile race (3:12, 3:07). After 250+ races I just ran what was unquestionably the best race of my life. I just made a bold gambit that paid off in a big way.

I just shot the moon.

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Rodelle Vanilla Day 5K

September 25, 2016

After a disappointing 50 miles at Howl at the Moon in August 2016 I spent a few bitter weeks feeling sorry for myself before finally resolving to make another serious attempt at the distance, ASAP. I believed I had a sub–7 hour 50 miler in me, regardless of what happened in Illinois that August. I picked a race in October and trained hard, running both longer and faster.

To test the fitness I was building I decided to run a 5K that some friends of mine were directing. Though, not wanting to throw away a whole training weekend, I, well, went into this race in an unconventional manner.

Saturday night I ran 16 miles.

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Sunday morning I woke up early, drove across town to the race venue, then ran a 10 mile warmup with my friend Stephen.

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Correct, in the 15 hours preceding the start of the race I ran 26 miles. I wanted to experience how it felt to run all out on very tired legs. Interestingly, my legs actually weren’t that tired, which I suppose is a good sign.



The race went like most 5Ks go. I started a little too fast and gradually faded each mile. But it was still respectable. My 17:47 finish was good enough for 3rd place, while my friend Stephen finished in 1st. It wasn’t my fastest 5K in Colorado, but it was close enough that I was rather pleased. My fitness seemed to be in a really good place heading into October.


Then we did a 3 mile cool down.

Labor Day Road Trip

When we first briefly visited Telluride during the 2016 Hardrock Endurance Run race we knew we would want to come back and spend more a bit more time there, but not when it was super busy. Telluride is a festival town. There are many, many festivals throughout the year. With no plans for Labor Day weekend 2016 I checked some online Telluride festival calendar and it clearly indicated no festivals that weekend. Great, let’s take a road trip.

Kenosha Pass/Colorado Trail

We camped the first night at Kenosha Pass and did some light recon of the Colorado Trail. Melissa became very interested in the CT around this time and would go on in the summer of 2017 to run 44 miles on the CT to raise money for the Children’s Speech and Reading Center of Northern Colorado.


We arrived in Telluride and it was absolutely packed. There was some kind of film festival going on (thanks festival calendar). We drove through town to Bridal Veil Falls for a quick run.

We found a free dispersed camping site about 10 miles outside of town. Melissa claimed it was the best spot we’ve ever camped.

The next day I ran the Sneffels Highline Trail while Melissa and Will explored the town.

Our next campsite (the Montrose Walmart) was not the best spot we’ve ever camped. It was right on the strip where the kids cruised, each trying to one-up everyone else in car loudness.

We passed through Colorado National Monument on the way home.

A Longs Longs Time Ago

August 27, 2016

In August 2016, just after all the snow melted, Longs Peak got a light early snow, complete with ice, that made the already challenging climb and descent even more so.


With friends AJ and Stephen we took the Loft route up to the summit, a first for Stephen and me.




We descended the Keyhole route.

Black Squirrel Half – Take 3

Once upon a time I ran races then wrote about them on this blog. Then technical difficulties (for years) added more friction to the process and I got farther and farther behind. Now that the technical difficulties have been fixed I’m ready to write a report for a race in 2016.

Black Squirrel Half Marathon

September 10, 2016

Who am I kidding, I don’t remember what happened. Not really. Here’s what I do remember.

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Photo by Erin Bibeau Photography

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Photo by Erin Bibeau Photography

I ran strong up the climb in the first 4 miles. I was ahead of most of the people I thought I would be ahead of. The leader was way off the front on his way to a course record, but I was within striking distance of the chase group.

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Photo by AJ Cohen

I bombed the first part of the long descent only to quickly catch up with a runner (whom I didn’t know) that was going much slower. I tried on a couple of occasions to get around him, but I never quite made it. About halfway down the hill two of my good friends (who are great at running technical downhills) caught up, passed both me and the slower runner ahead of me, and began to open a gap. Frustrated, I made a couple more attempts to pass before the unknown runner suddenly sped up dramatically. This minimized the time I lost to my two friends, but the damage had already been done.

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Photo by Erin Bibeau Photography

Once off the mountain and into the valley I quickly passed the guy I had been behind for the previous 2 miles and sped off after my friends. It took me 1½ miles to catch up and pass one. The other I chased the final 3 miles and never made up any more ground.

I ended up running my fastest Black Squirrel ever, so I was quite pleased with how the race went, even if Cookie Mike did beat me for the first time ever in a race shorter than a marathon. As it turns out, nearly everyone ran their fastest Black Squirrel times in 2016. 5th place overall and 1st in my age group netted me a Salomon running/hiking pack, which I still use.

Lory Challenge

Shortly after Howl at the Moon last August I mixed things up with a mountain bike race at Lory State Park. It had been years since my only two previous mountain bike races, and I had never raced in, you know, actual mountains. This should be fun. I certainly didn’t expect it to be my only bike race of the year, but whatever.

The race started super fast before filing onto single track. Of course I was badly positioned, very far back. This was unfortunate because the part of the course that suited me, the uphill, came at the beginning. So during the nine minutes of climbing I wasn’t going the speed I was capable of going, I was going in slow motion, at times completely stopping to avoid running into the long train of slower riders ahead of me. Super frustrating.

AJ racing at Lory

But the tables quickly turned. A super fast technical downhill came next and I quickly realized I was way out of my league. I held on for dear life and somehow managed to make it to the bottom in one piece, but it was really, really scary.

The last several miles were on the rolling, twisty-turny valley trails. I passed a few people. A few people passed me. The end.

Lessons learned:

  1. Mountain bikers suck at going uphill.
  2. I suck at going downhill.

A Day of Towers

Towers. Towers is never easy. From Soderberg trailhead to the top of Towers “Road” is 3.4 miles with 1700 ft of ascent. Throughout the year we have regular time trial group runs up Towers. Then one day every summer a small group of people do “24 Hours of Towers”. It’s not a race, just a fun run to see who can complete the most laps. I had missed out on this experience my first few summers in Colorado, but in August 2016, despite being only a week after my disappointing Howl at the Moon race, I gave it a go.

The whole family went out in the RV early in the morning. I started my first lap at the official unofficial start time with maybe 10 other people. Everyone else ran, while I walked. It was going to be a long day. Once I reached the top I ran back down.


After the first lap I traded places with Melissa so she could run. I took Will on a hike up the mountain for my second lap. This was the first time he had ever been up Towers before, and it was both the longest hike (6.8 miles) and most vertical (1700 ft) he had ever done. We were so proud. Hiking with Will has always been a challenge, but I made sure to bring plenty of snacks, and all was well.

Towers summit

It was a little slow going with Will, so Melissa had time to run two laps. Of course, Will was done after one lap. I did two more laps (for a total of four) while Melissa and Will kept themselves occupied in the van. After 10 hours everyone was bored and wanted to go home, and that was just fine with me. A 29 mile fun run with 7000 ft of climbing the week after a tough 50 mile race was plenty.

Running Hot

I run hot.  I generate a lot of body heat when I run.  I sweat the soonest and I sweat the most.  I much prefer running in cool or even downright cold temperatures to hot temperatures. Unfortunately, most ultra marathons are held during the summer months and heat is almost always a factor.

My A race for the summer was the Howl at the Moon 8 Hour timed race outside my hometown of Danville, IL. I previously ran this race in 2012 and 2013. In both cases I ran my fastest times for the 50 mile distance (7:50 and 7:24, respectively). I have improved in many ways since I last ran this race, so I had high hopes for the event this year. I focused all of my effort on it, without any plan B. I hoped to hit 50 miles under 7 hours, which would put me on pace for 56+ miles in 8 hours, which would give me a shot at the win.

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The heat I could mostly train for by running midday under the blazing high desert sun. I couldn’t really train for the humidity, and the humidity in central Illinois in August can be brutal. But the elevation is much lower, so that could potentially cancel out any ill effects of the humidity.

We arrived in Illinois a couple days early. Melissa and I did a short test run and it was ridiculously humid. We hoped for the best on race day, while preparing for the worst. We woke up on race day and the humidity was unreal. I sat in a chair at 7 AM and sweat was dripping off my forehead. The one redeeming factor was that the sky was completely overcast and gray, with the sun nowhere in sight. So it definitely could have been worse.

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I started out with the lead pack. In years past these guys have taken off at 7 minute pace and pulled away early. This year the pace was a much more pedestrian 8:15/mile. This was exactly how fast I was hoping to run for the entire race, so starting off at a nice steady pace was great for me.

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Photo by some member of The Buffalo?

An hour and a half into the race the clouds broke and the sun came out. It was going to be a long hot next six and a half hours. By two hours in I had sweat so much that my shoes made sloshing sounds with every step I took. Six more hours of this bullshit.

I continued to run at a fairly steady pace, while a couple guys from the lead pack sped up and a couple slowed down. I quickly lost track of how many people were ahead of me, and by later in the race people were moving at such wildly different paces there was really no way to tell how many 3.29 mile laps they had run.

By 30 miles the heat was taking a huge toll on me and my pace tanked. The only thing that kept be going was the fistfuls of ice I shoved into my hat and the bandana around my neck each lap. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever sweat this much in my life. I had to drink so much water to stay hydrated that my stomach was just sloshing and sloshing the last few hours.

This was not my day. I was way slower than my A goal of 50 miles in 7 hours. I was way slower than my B goal of beating my previous best performance at this race of 53.64 miles in 8 hours. It was a real struggle just to match my 2012 performance of 50.35 miles. I had just enough time to squeak past that and I finished with 50.85 miles. So it wasn’t my worst ever, but it was a far cry from what I hoped to do… from what I believed I was capable of doing.

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My shoes were so wet the insoles kept sliding around

We all have bad days and disappointing races. My racing record is quite spotty (particularly since moving to Colorado). But I usually bounce back pretty quickly and move on to the next thing. This race, though, put me in a pretty bad place. It left me with all kinds of doubt about what I was actually capable of. It left me wondering whether I even wanted to race again given that I might not ever improve. Maybe I should just focus on adventures in the mountains and leave the racing to the youngsters.

I continued running, a bit aimlessly, for a few weeks before I snapped out of it. August gave way to September. I focused my effort on my favorite local race, the Black Squirrel Half Marathon. Little did I know what autumn had in store for me. That I would go from borderline despair to racing beyond my wildest expectation. But I’ll leave that for another post.

Chasing Moons

Back in July Melissa and her friend Angela wanted to do the Chase the Moon 12-hour night run in order to prepare for the Javelina Jundred later in the fall. They decided maybe it would be better to enter the 3-person relay division and I volunteered to round out the team. On a busy Friday afternoon we braved the Denver traffic in the RV to make it to the suburb of Highlands Ranch a bit earlier than the 7 PM start. I parked right along the course so we would be able to stop by the RV between the 10.6 mile loops. Angela met us there after driving across the Rockies from the western slope. We surprised her with delicious vegan food from Native Foods Cafe.

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Team Ultraordinary (photo by Melissa)

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It was still light out as Angela ran the first lap. She didn’t know whether she wanted to do one lap or two, so I had to be ready to take off after her first lap, just in case. About the time I started getting ready Will locked himself into the RV bathroom. We tried explaining to him how to unlock the door, but he just couldn’t do it. With all three of us in full-on panic mode I began frantically searching hundreds of pages of RV manuals trying to figure out how to unlock the door from the outside. After a very tense 10 minutes we eventually figured it out. I finished getting ready, walked outside, and before long Angela showed up… sooner than expected.

She had a good run and decided to stop after one lap, so I was off, planning to run two laps before handing it off to Melissa (who specifically wanted to run in the middle of the night). The course was very clearly designed for mountain bikers. It was very, very winding and quite lumpy. There was really nowhere where you could get up to speed with all the turns and small hills. On the bright side the weather was fairly cool, so I was still able to keep the pace moderately high.

My big race for the summer was to be Howl at the Moon 8-hour in August, three weeks after this race. So I wasn’t going to destroy myself here, but I did want to get an idea exactly where my fitness was at that point. Things were looking good.

I finished my first loop, picked up some food at the RV, and went back out for another loop. This loop was in the opposite direction, which was fairly disorienting in the dark. I slowed a bit, but not a whole lot. I averaged 8:14/mile for the first two loops. Upon finishing, Melissa went out for her first of two planned laps. I changed into some dry clothes in the RV, ate food, drank fluids, and tried to get some sleep, setting my alarm for when I thought Melissa might be coming through.

I don’t recall at this point whether I saw her or not (I’m thinking not), but I eventually did see her lap time on the live results tracking website, so that gave me an idea when to expect her after the second loop. She would be done at that point, and Angela was done too. But there would still be time on the clock… and this is a race… so I decided I would go back out for more. I again set an alarm and tried to sleep. I probably got an hour or so.

Melissa was surprised to see me waiting for her in front the the RV when she finished her second loop. I think she thought I was done. I headed back out. It didn’t feel good. It must have been 4 or 5 AM by this point, I had very little sleep, and I already had 21.2 miles at a decent pace in my legs. This lap would definitely be slower. Midway through the lap I started to feel a little more warmed up and I increased the pace a bit.

By the time I finished my third loop there wasn’t enough time to cover another 10.6 miles, but there was a shorter 3.5 mile loop available. So I did one of those. I was moving quicker now. I think I did that loop 28 minutes or so. I reached the start/finish area with 41 minutes to go until 7 AM, but… they didn’t let me start another loop because the cutoff to start the last loop was 6:15 AM. I missed it by 4 minutes. And despite the fact I could have easily finished another loop in the remaining time our race was over. I ran my last 14.1 miles at a slower, but still respectable 8:56/mile.

Our total of 65.3 miles was good enough for us to win the COED 3 PERSON division. There were only 3 teams in that division, but a win is a win.

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I was quite pleased with 35-ish miles at 8:30 pace without destroying myself. This bodes well for my big race at Howl at the Moon where I hoped to run at a slightly faster pace for 20 miles farther on a faster course at lower elevation. Sure, the weather wouldn’t be as nice, but how bad could it be? Stay tuned.