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.

Howelsen Hill

One week after a race + camping weekend in early June we decided to do it again. I convinced my friend Stephen to race the Howelsen Hill 8 mile trail run in Steamboat Springs with me.


As we approached Steamboat that Friday evening I discovered that my Plan A campground was not yet open for the season (there were still a few piles of snow on the ground at 10,000 feet in mid-June). We drove on through Steamboat to find my Plan B campground was already full for the night. Plan C it was then, parking on the side of a dirt road in Routt National Forest. Unfortunately, several cars passed throughout the night and kicked up a bunch of dust we then had to breath while trying to fall asleep. It wasn’t ideal, but I’ve slept in worse conditions.

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Photo by Melissa


We arrived nice and early to the race, hooked up with Stephen, and we ran a short warmup. There was a 4 mile race and an 8 mile race starting together, and you didn’t know until mile 2.5 who was in which race. I started in the lead pack and settled into 6th place or so, while Stephen was in 2nd. We managed to stay together for the first couple miles as the course meandered uphill. Nothing too steep yet.


Things spread out a bit in the third mile as I lost sight of Stephen and at least one person turned off for the shorter race. These were very clearly heavily used mountain bike trails: smoothed out, twisty, lumpy, flowy. I stayed on the heels of the guy in front of me until we reached a very steep, rocky stretch (“Little Moab”) and he pulled away from me.

This was the high point of the course and it was entirely downhill from there. With only a couple miles remaining it became clear the downhill would be much steeper than the up. I ran fast, but not fast enough. A couple of guys caught up to me pretty quickly. I sped up and held them off for a bit, but I just couldn’t go fast enough down this hill. I ran a 5:36 mile and still got passed by 3 people. I kept it together, didn’t lose any more places, and finished 8th (the reason I didn’t lose any more places was that 3rd-8th finished within 1 minute of each other then there was a 4 minute gap back to 9th). Stephen finished 2nd.

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Will cheers on Stephen at the finish. Photo by Melissa.

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Photo by Melissa

After the race we retraced our path from the previous weekend and drove to State Forest State Park for camping, only this time it would be more fun because we were joined by Stephen and his girlfriend Stephanie, and by another friend Aaron along with his wife Erin and their two children. The kids played and played and played. We had s’mores. We named the stars.

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Photo by Stephen


In the morning Aaron and I went on an epic run in the Medicine Bow mountains, making what was probably the first Hidden Valley traverse of the season (the snow at 11,000 feet was very deep still). While we ran, more friends Nick and Dana with their two kids came to the campground. Will was having the time of his life.

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Pilot Hill Take 2

The Pilot Hill 25K Classic in Laramie, WY was the first race I ran after moving to Colorado (What have I gotten myself into?). I missed it last year due to injury and the Quad Rock rescheduling, but I decided to give it another go this year on June 11. I felt like I had roughly the same fitness as I did in 2014, but I felt like I could run uphill faster… which is helpful considering this race has a 6.5 mile long climb.


My friends Nick “Professional Fell Runner” Clark and Stephen “Steve” Pretak took the lead, with another guy on their heels, followed by “Cookie” Mike Neal and Rob “Sexy Hermit” Ragfield. I pulled away from Cookie Mike on the climb (thinking he’d probably catch me on the descent), while the 3rd place guy fell back a bit. I caught up and passed #3, but he hung close enough that we reached the 9000 foot Pilot Hill summit at roughly the same time. While he stopped for a drink of water I drank from the bottle I carried with me. This gave me a good gap on him, but not enough of a lead to be comfortable.



I hammered the descent. When the course straightened out a bit I could see Pretak (#2) off in the distance. He wasn’t really gaining on me, but I wasn’t really gaining on him either. I never looked back to see whether #4 or Cookie Mike were catching me (looking back is a sign of weakness to the people chasing you). Fortunately, I had run fast enough to hold them both off.

I finished 3rd place in a time of 1:53:08. This was technically a slower time than my first Pilot Hill, but a small change to the course added about ½ mile, so I did run a bit faster. This was the first podium finish I’ve had in a race in the Mountain Time Zone. The first six finishers were all from Fort Collins, though I didn’t know the eventual fourth place guy.

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This was the second week we had our new RV and now the second race we’d taken it to. After the race we took the long way home by way of the Medicine Bow mountains and camped on Saturday night at one of our favorite places: State Forest State Park.

Quads Rocked

For the second year in a row the Quad Rock 50 mile race (back on May 14) was the race I focused on for the entire first half of the year. And for the second year in a row the race didn’t go quite as I’d hoped.

My training was good (not great, but good). On the Tuesday before the race on Saturday I had a sharp pain in my knee that cut my run short. I hoped it would go away quickly, but it did not. By Thursday I was worried. I even tried to run on Friday (I never run the day before a big race) and I only made it a mile before the pain set in. Now in full-on panic mode, I shaved my legs, kineseo-taped the hell out of my knee, and dropped from the 50 mile race to the 25 mile race. If I was going to run through agonizing pain I’d rather do it for 4 hours than 9-10.

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Photo by Melissa?

When the race started the next day I felt no pain. And not just for the first couple of miles as I expected, but for the entire 25. No pain. None. Of course, had I known that would have happened I would have run the 50… but I had no reason to expect that would happen.

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Photo by Erin Bibeau Photography

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Photo by Melissa

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Photo by Ryan Quinnelly

Only racing half the distance I was expecting means I felt compelled to run much faster. The three long climbs up the mountain were slow, but the rolling sections and the long descents I really pushed the pace. I lost track of how many times I thought to myself I’m going way too fast, I’ll never be able to hold this pace. For the most part I did, except for the climbs. The second climb went slower than the first, and the third climb was really slow. That’s me: good for 1½ climbs.

My local rival Cookie Mike passed my on the last descent to finish just ahead of me. I finished in 3:56:46, good for 12th place. I was hoping to break 4 hours.

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Photo by Melissa

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Photo by AJ Cohen

Recovery was fast and the mysterious race week knee pain never came back.

Horsetooth Half

It’s been 12 years since I’ve run a road half marathon. To be honest, it’s the race that scares me the most. It’s short enough that you have to run really fast, but it’s long enough that it will hurt a lot to do so. Of course, April’s Horsetooth Half is not a typical road half marathon. The two big hills in the first two miles make for 600 feet of climbing. It’s a pretty brutal way to start a pretty brutal race.

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Colorado kept things interesting by dumping a few inches of super wet snow on us overnight. The course was plowed, but there was a lot of water out there. My friend Stephen drove to my house and we ran over to the start line as a warmup.

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Photo by Melissa

That would be the last time I’d be in front of Stephen that day. He went on to win the race. It was his first half marathon.

The race was delayed a bit on account of traffic backups. Once we got started I eased into the first climb, with at least 30 people ahead of me. By the top of the first climb I was closer to 15th place. 7:16 for the first mile.

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Photo by The Coloradoan

Next came the harder climb. 7:31 for the second mile. Once over the top came a nice gradual downhill and I really ramped up the pace, passing a few more people. Things were going well. I did tempo runs on this hilly road all winter long, so I felt well trained for this part of the race.

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Photo by Erin Bibeau Photography

Down the steep hill at the north end of Horsetooth Reservoir I started to ease up a bit and the guys I had been running with pulled away from me. One more guy caught up with me and passed me around Bingham Hill.

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Photo by Monnier Photography

Finally, I reached the easy part of the course. The last 5 miles are a very gradual downhill on the Poudre Trail alongside the river. This should have been where I really excelled. Every time I pushed the pace up to where I thought I should be I was very uncomfortable. As soon as my concentration broke I slowed down 15-20 seconds per mile and felt like I could run all day. Then I’d speed up again. Then I’d slow down again. I spent very little time training to run that kind of pace, and the lack of training really showed. I just couldn’t run fast.

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Photo by Melissa

A couple of guys passed me on the finishing straight. I finished 13th place overall, 12th man, 1st 35-39 (old) man. My time of 1:24:13 was technically my fastest half marathon race (on a hilly course at elevation), though I actually ran 13.1 miles of last year’s Loveland Marathon in 1:20:34 (but that was entirely downhill). It was good, just a bit slower than I thought I’d run. But I’ll take it.

Run Through Time

The Run Through Time Marathon in Salida, CO is kind of a big deal in this part of the country. In mid-March it’s really the first long distance trail race of the year. It seemed like everyone I knew was doing it. Melissa really wanted to go to Monument Valley the following weekend, and since she was injured there was some talk of me doing that race instead. Fortunately her injury healed up, so she was able to do the race she really wanted. And at the last minute I was able to jump into this marathon in Salida.

All my best marathons happen with when I decide to run them at the last minute.

I scouted out a few places to camp the night before the race. Being mid-March with sub-freezing temperatures at night, one would think there wouldn’t be much competition for camping spots. But in Colorado there’s always competition for camping spots. I really had no idea what to expect. Complicating matters was the fact that we arrived to a campground along the Arkansas River after dark and we had trouble finding our way around. We eventually made it to a campsite. In the morning we discovered it looked like this:

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On the way to the race we were treated to a glorious view of the sunrise hitting Mt. Shivano (14,235 ft).

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Once at the race I saw what seemed like every single person I know in Colorado. The course started with 2-3 flat-ish miles near town before heading up into the mountains.

Photo by Melissa

The start was fast and the competitors spread out pretty quickly.

Photo by Melissa

Will ran the kids race.

Photo by Melissa

After 5 miles of up and down (more up than down) the climbing started in earnest. I felt like I may have been struggling early on, but once I hit the steep part of the climb people started coming back to me. I passed two friends who had started out faster than me.

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Photo by ???

I hit the halfway turnaround at the high point on the course (~9,000 ft) feeling ready to rip the descent.

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Photo by ???

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The way back down the mountain went well for a while. Then we turned off the nice wide Jeep road and onto a twisty, freshly cut mountain bike trail. I had to slow quite a bit. There were a few places with deep snow where I had to stop and look around for a while before I spotted the trail. I thought for sure a ton of people would catch up and pass me at any moment, but that never really happened. There was one person who passed me on the way down and it turned out to be a guy I knew. The trail got easier with about two miles of downhill left. The marathon runners merged with the half marathon runners at that point, so I had to do quite a bit of passing in the last two miles.

Of course, it couldn’t be easy. On a switchback I happened to see my friend Pete just behind me and closing fast. I had to haul ass down the rest of the trail to stay ahead of him to the finish line.

Photo by Melissa

Photo by Melissa

My time of 3:47:40 made this my fastest trail marathon ever (just barely). I had a few minor problems, but things mostly went well for me. I did the race in the midst of a heavy month of training with essentially no rest before or after (this wasn’t an A race), yet I managed to run pretty strongly.