“We are not a bunch of lunatic fitness freaks – we are everyday people who don’t think of what we can’t do, we think of what can do and then do it. We are health minded people who like to run long distances.” Jim Richards, Ultra Running Veteran
When I finished playing professional baseball and began my transition into the endurance world I had never run more than 4 miles in my life. I had spent my entire career training anaerobic and the thought of completing a 4 mile run seemed DIFFICULT, 6 miles DAUNTING, 13 miles EXCRUCIATING, 26 miles OVER THE TOP, 31 miles UNREALISTIC, 62 miles NOT POSSIBLE, 100 miles NOT HUMAN.
Exactly 5 years ago I started with a 4 mile run around the campus of University of Miami. It’s now officially 5 years later and I basically haven’t stopped. I slowly increased the time and distance of my runs to get to the point where I am today. It’s that simple.
Through training, triathlon and individual running races, I have now completed countless half marathons, 7 marathons, 3 50k’s (31 miles) A 32.2 mile lap around Manhattan, a 48 mile Florida adventure run and a 62 mile (100k) ball buster. I only wish more people would take advantage of the opportunity to experience the exhilaration, joy and mental clarity running has brought to my life.
In March of 2014 I finished my first ultra marathon, the “Way too Cool” 50k that featured 5,000 feet of elevation gain across crazy terrain including fallen trees, rocks and knee high creeks. I immediately fell in love with the alternative running culture. Imagine a very eclectic group of individuals with an extreme fascination for nature and exercise. Add in a fiery competitive edge, an eternally optimistic vibe and a blatant disregard for what main stream society deems normal or even possible. That to me is the ultra running community.
Ever since I got into the endurance world, there is a race that I keep reading and hearing about that has completely captivated me. The Western States 100. Originally this race was a horse race that started at Squaw Valley and covered 100 miles of the Western States Trail ending in Auburn, California. The race features nearly 20,000 feet of elevation gain and 24,000 feet of descent. Temperatures can range from temps in the 30’s over the summit to well over 100 degrees in the canyons. In 1974, after his horse went lame, Gordy Ainsleigh was the first to attempt the race on foot. The next year he returned to prove to his doubters that it was possible a human could run the 100 mile course within a 24 hour time period. Gordy finished in 23 hours and 42 minutes. More amazing is that he has continued to do the race every year since. The “Western States” has now become known to be one of the most iconic and difficult endurance races in the world. Every year about 1200 people qualify at other 100k and 100 mile races around the world, only 400 get in.
After I got my first taste of the ultra marathon world I knew I wanted more. While checking into my first “Way Too Cool” I met a guy by the name of Jim Richards, a staple in the ultra community. Jim was very helpful providing insight into a world that I knew very little about. After the race we touched base and I explained to Jim that I had a goal to complete the Western States 100 and ideally do it in 2016, the same year of my 40th birthday. Knowing there would be an arduous process involved, I needed direction. Jim recommended several training runs and race options that could potentially dial me in to race Western States provided I was able to qualify and also find my way into the race. To help get me more acquainted with the ultra community, via e mail, Jim introduced me to Julie Fingar, the race director of Way Too Cool, and Tia Bodington, the race director of the legendary Western States qualifier, “The Miwok 100k.” I have done my best to pick both of their brains about all things ultra…
In November, after I finished my 6th Ironman in exactly a 3 year period, I put the bike away, ditched the speedo and fully committed myself to the ultra marathon. In December, I secured a spot into the Miwok and the training was officially on. Looking at the result times of the 2014 Miwok was definitely an eye opening experience, basically I realized that I needed to somehow train myself to run for over 12 consecutive hours. 62 miles was intimidating but when you add in 11,800 ft of elevation the Miwok became flat out scary. I had no choice but to attack this new challenge the same way I did playing baseball or racing Ironman Triathlon, work my ass off.
I figured 11,800 feet of climbing over the course of 62 miles roughly works out to 200 feet of elevation gain per mile. Up and away I went… Every treadmill workout contained either a long steady hill climb or some sort of intense hill intervals. I then took advantage of every opportunity to run some of the Bay Area’s best trails. Windy Hill, Purisima Creek, Montera Mountain and the Dipsea were common training grounds. While working spring training in Arizona I charged up Camelback Mountain daily and when I was in Florida I ran 48 miles from Tigers camp in Lakeland to Astros camp in Kissimmee. I thoroughly enjoyed the organized Western States training run which covers the final 23 miles of the race. I also had fun with several other “destination runs” that included running from Half Moon Bay to Palo Alto as well as the 32.2 mile trip around Manhattan. Most importantly, I learned to LOVE running. Time and miles were simply a result of enjoying the process.
I arrived at the Miwok start line in Stinson Beach at 4:55 am 5 minutes before the start. I hopped in the middle of a swamp of head lamps and off we went. The first part of the course is up the infamous Dipsea Trail. Within the first 2 miles of the race we climbed nearly 2000 feet before heading back down the mountain and into Muir Beach where the first aid station was at the 8 mile mark. I spent the entire first section of the race chatting up a school teacher from New York City and another dude from Maryland. We were not even 1/10 of the way into the race and I had already talked more than I had in all of my Ironman Triathlons combined.
In order to get to the Muir Beach aid station we had to run across a bridge then backtrack over that same bridge. I passed several runners going the opposite direction on the way in and then several runners on the way out. I am not sure if there was a single runner that did not offer some sort of words of encouragement or at the very least flash a big smile on the way by. The overall love filled energy of the Miwok was flat out like nothing I have ever experienced in any sort of race.
Every aid station was basically the same operation. I walloped a PB&J, refilled my water bottle and electrolytes and was off. Once I got my first glance of the Golden Gate Bridge at mile 17, I basically hit that runners high which helped me float all the way to the return to Muir Beach at mile 32. Unquestionably that 15 mile stretch is one of the most beautifully epic trails in the world. When I rolled through Tennessee Valley the second time at mile 26 my entire family was waiting with signs and hugs. I was 4 hours and 20 minutes into the race, had a marathon and nearly 6,000 feet of climbing under my belt, I had barely broken a sweat. A little different then when I thought I was going to pass out at mile 3 of my first run around the Miami campus a few years earlier.
I snapped a quick pic with the family and cruised. It wasn’t until after the Muir Beach aid station when we headed up the back side of the Dipsea that I felt any sort of fatigue. This was the first time I completely dried out both water bottles before reaching the next aid station at the top of the mountain.
The course then headed north on some pretty sweet trails that took us in and out of redwood trees and exposed hayfields high above the Pacific Ocean. For the most part the majority of the day was overcast but once I got to mile 40 there was a thick fog that settled in only to be quickly replaced by clear skies and sunshine. It seemed as if every corner I turned there was a different weather pattern that included a heavy drizzle or even a light rain at some point. If there is a such thing as perfect running weather, this was it. As I approached the aid station at mile 42, Bolinas Ridge, there was a sign that was made by the Half Moon Bay Coastside Runners Club that read “Man Imposes His Own Limitations.” Franz Dill, who has run both the Miwok and Western States several times, has been a huge mentor of mine in the ultra world, and was manning the operation with his wife Jen and other Half Moon Bay runners. Definitely was nice to see familiar faces. Franz busted out an ice cold coke, offered a few more inspirational words and I was quickly back on the trail.
Pacers were allowed at mile 50 so I picked up my firefighter triathlete training partner in crime, Kyle Hamilton, at the Randall aid station. When we immediately began the climb, Kyle, in his typical aggressive nature, starting firing up the 15% grade hill. Somehow he must have forgotten I had 50 miles and 10,000 of climbing in the books. The last 12 miles hurt in every sense of the word. I could physically feel blood blisters forming on my feet, my calves were tightening up, my quads felt like mashed potatoes and my hamstrings were basically spaghetti noodles. We walked every incline and continued to run any flat area or downhill. The final 2 miles were straight down and hurt worse than any uphill I encountered the entire day. I must have tripped 10-15 times during the descent, it was a small miracle I somehow stayed on my feet.
As we approached the finish, my 3 year old boy hopped onto the course, I hoisted him over my shoulders before crossing the finish line 11 hours and 49 minutes after the day had begun. I finished 52 overall out of nearly 400 that started the race. Although pleasantly surprised, I don’t think I have ever been less concerned with my race results. This was simply about the awesome experience of the day.
The race officially qualified me for the 2016 Western States 100 mile endurance run. The process of getting into the race is now a new challenge. There is something about running that can be very exhilarating, calming and peaceful all at the same time. I hope every capable person has already or will one day soon experience the euphoric two foot ride of their lives.
Regardless if your goal is to complete 1, 10, 50 or 100 miles. My only piece of advice… Keep running!
Here are two very two compelling e mails I received from Jim Richards and Tia Bodington, the Miwok race director, that essentially laid out their purpose, passion and goals for the Miwok and ultra running community. Basically, a few more reasons to run:)