Friday, December 13, 2013


Running while on vacation always makes me feel more at home.  It also gives me the opportunity to see more of my surroundings, and to see them in a different way.  The same town looks different if you drive through, walk through, cycle through or run through.  

I just returned from an 18 day trip to Japan, during which time I ran almost every morning.  My runs were quite slow, but that allowed me to see more, to take pictures and to breath the cold morning air.

The highlight of my trip was a visit to Nanban Rengo, a Tokyo-based running club.  I joined them for their weekly workout, dinner and drinks.  They were very kind, and made me feel even more at home.  

Here are some photos from the trip.   They appear in chronological order.  Other than the last one, of Mt. Fuji, they were all taken on my morning runs.  John took the shot of Mt. Fuji at the end of a long hike.


Shrine to Jizo -- near Ogimatchi

Hida Furakawa

Above Bessho Onsen

Above Bessho Onsen

Hotaka -- one of my favorite places on earth

Hotaka -- one of about 20 monkeys in the troop

Obligatory Picture of Mt. Fuji

Friday, November 1, 2013

Recovery and Renewal

On June 11, 2013, I had my 6th catheter ablation, a seven hour procedure. Since that date I have had no arrhythmia. While it was an out patient procedure, with no meaningful discomfort, I have had one important side effect: my heart rate does not increase appropriately when I exercise. 

That side effect has been wearing off slowly over the past four months, and I am now able to run moderately without discomfort. In early July, I took a treadmill and my heart rate topped out at 140 bpm.  In October, I was up to 160 bmp. That's still a long ways from the 185 bpm I managed back in 2003, but it is improvement nonetheless and I can certainly feel it when I run.

After Western States, I decided to take the rest of the year off from racing to allow my heart -- and soul -- time to recover.  The end of 2013 is now approaching, and I'm starting think about racing again. I just signed up for the Avalon 50 miler on January 11, 2014, and I am looking forward to a brighter year ahead.  

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Western States

Western States produced yet another unique and emotionally charged running experience.  It was not the experience I wanted; far from it, but I have no regrets.

Western States is the granddaddy of all ultra marathons.  It comes with an origin legend which is as ridiculous as the concept of running 100 miles in a single day, a legend which also happens to be true.  

The race began as a 100 mile trail race for horses, the goal being to complete the course in 24 hours.  In 1974, a rider named Gordon Ainsleigh discovered at the last minute that his horse was lame and unable to complete.  Ainsleigh decided to take on the horses -- and the 100 mile course -- on foot.  

Somehow, Ainsleigh managed to complete the race in under 24 hours, without any support.  That remarkable achievement began not only the Western States Endurance Run, but ultra running in the US, and that it why the traditional prize for completing a 100 mile race is a belt buckle.

The Western States course begins in Squaw Valley at over 6,000 elevation, and immediately climbs to nearly 9,000 before heading down towards Auburn, near sea level.  In between, the course passes through several canyons with steep descents and ascents.  The canyons have a well-deserved reputation for being hot.  This year was the second hottest year on record, and the high temperature reportedly reached 112 degrees.

Me and Ryan around Mile 20
Western States provides support unlike any other ultra marathon.  There are 25 well-staffed aid stations, with evocative names including Dusty Corner, Miller's Defeat, Last Chance, Devil's Thumb, No Hands Bridge and Robie Point.  

The support from the ultra running community is equally strong.  Everyone in the community wants to participate in some way, but the limited number of entries means that most cannot race and thus join as pacers, crew or simply by spectating.

Most of the 400 or so entries into Western States are awarded by lottery.  The chances of getting into the race the first time are something like one in 14.  

I was having breakfast with Cassidy on a December morning when I got a text from Kate telling me that I was one of the lucky ones to have their name drawn.  From that morning, my entire 2013 running schedule was built around States.

My initial goal was to break 20 hours.  Perhaps that was somewhat arrogant, but I have always been confident in my running ability and believed it was a reasonable, if slightly aggressive, goal.  Of course achieving that goal would require both solid training and good health on race day.

My heart did not cooperate.  In early January, I went back into atrial fibrillation, and the issue was not easily resolved.  I had two cardioversions, two ablations and two emergency room visits in the first six months of 2013.  Training was all but impossible, as I was either in an arrhythmia, on beta-blockers and/or recovering from a procedure most of the time.  I was lucky enough to run the Zion 100 on April 19, during a short window of good health, but I had no meaningful training before nor after that.

The death blow to my performance at States came at the end of May when I went back into an arrhythmia, this time atrial flutter.  Dr. Doshi was kind enough to make my treatment a priority, and he was able to get me into surgery on June 11, just 18 days before States.  The seven hour procedure was successful, but it left me with temporary side effects that made it impossible to compete.  Among other things, my heart is still recovering and refuses to beat fast enough or hard enough to support meaningful running.

Helen leading me across the stream at about Mile 27, 
three miles before Robinson Flat
The week before States I was still unable to run in any meaningful way.  The furtherest I could run without walking proved to be just four miles.  I should have realized that I was wasting my time, not to mention the time of my crew -- Jack, Marshall and Phil -- and that I should not bother getting on the starting line.   But this was Western States.  And I am me.

By the day before the race I had worked myself into quite a state.  I wanted more than anything to complete.  By that time, my sole goal was to complete the course within the 30 hour cut-off, but I knew that the chances of doing even that were remote.  

Just 12 miles into the race I was in deep trouble.  Although I had started conservatively, I was slowing down and being passed by more and more runners.  By the time I reached the Red Star Ridge aid station at Mile 16 I knew I could not finish.  I stopped at the medical tent where my blood pressure was 94/79.  My heart simply is not beating hard enough to support running.  (A quick web search confirms that normal blood pressure while running is more like 200/80, with readings as high as 300/80 being possible; I recall seeing numbers in the 200+ range when I was on the treadmill several years back.)

My stop at Red Star Ridge did yield one entertaining moment.  Gordon Ainsleigh plunked himself down in the chair next to me and, upon learning what was going on, offered to adjust my spine.  I already knew that Ainsleigh is now a chiropractor, so this offer was not so odd as it may have seemed.  Still, I declined.  I do not think a chiropractor can do much to heal a wounded heart.

Moments later, Helen and Ryan, who were working safety patrol at the race, appeared.  I broke down in tears when Helen, a good friend and an experienced ultra runner who knows how I was feeling, sat down next to me and put her arm around my shoulder.  

The aid station captain nearly removed me from the race based on my condition.  Helen rescued me, pointing out that she is an EMT and offering to run with me through to the next two aid stations.  The aid station captain finally relented, and Helen, Ryan and I ran together to Duncan Canyon at Mile 23.5.  Just having my friends with me did make me feel a bit better, albeit it temporarily.

I clearly should have dropped out at Duncan Canyon, but I still could not quite get myself to do it.  Instead, I tried to get Jack to make the decision for me, telling him how bad I felt and that I was not sure I would be able to beat the cut-off if I continued.  That was not the nicest nor the smartest way to handle the situation.  It was my decision to make, and I should have made it, rather than trying to draw someone else into doing it for me.  And, of course, it did not work.  He just encouraged me to stay with it, as he should have done.

A mile or two after leaving Duncan Canyon I finally knew it was time to give up.  Helen, Ryan and I walked slowly into Robinson Flat at Mile 30, where I got a ride back to Forresthill with Erin and Natalie.  One silver lining to my DNF was getting to see Tim Olson finish the race in 15:17, just half an hour slower than his own course record, set last year.  

One Coyote did finish Western States this year, Chris Hays.  Chris persevered through the 112 degree heat in the canyons, waded across the American River at Mile 78 and emerged from the Western States Trail at Mile 98.6 at Robie Point at about 7am on Sunday morning.  A group of six or seven met him for the traditional escorted run to the track.

Chandra, Jason, Chris, me, Helen and Jack: After Robie Point, one mile to go

I wanted so badly to do well at States.  I wanted to prove myself in my new sport.  I wanted to show off in front of my friends, on the biggest stage the sport has to offer.  I wanted to wear my Coyote jersey when running the final 1.4 miles from Robie Point to the finish line on the track at Placer High School.  

In once sense, I failed miserably.  But in a more important sense, I did just fine.  I stepped on the starting line and gave it everything I had, risking a very public failure.  Indeed, I got on the line, knowing full well that the chances of success were slim.  But I was lucky enough to win the lottery, to get to the starting line and to have a chance, however, slim it might have been.  And I did give myself every chance to succeed.  And I did fail to finish the race.  But, at the same time, I am proud of myself for taking that chance despite it all. 

Once again, my wonderful friends were there to catch me when I fell.  Thank you, Helen, Ryan, Jack, Marshall, Phil, Natalie, Erin, Jason, David, Chris, Chandra, Kevin and anyone else I may have forgotten.

Chris Hays taking the time to comfort me at Mile 99.5, 
just when he should have been celebrating his own finish. 
Thank you, Chris!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

In the Long Run (and lots of walking)

The Zion 100 did not go as planned, but it was a fantastic day nonetheless.  Instead of running alone, I ran with Marshall for Miles 5 through 55, until he and his pacer, Michael, took off.  Marshall ran a personal best of 23:31.  My pacers, Dave and Kim, kept me company from Mile 52 to the finish, so I had someone running with me the entire way.  And, of course, I talked to my fellow runners, and to my SoCal Coyote teammates, who were at every aid station.

It is difficult to capture the emotional experience of being out in the desert, on trails and remote back roads, for over a full day, watching two sunrises and one sunset, and being supported by so many friends.  Whatever I write here will necessarily fall short of conveying the beauty, camaraderie, euphoria and exhaustion I experienced this past weekend.   

The race began at 6am on Friday morning in 37 degree weather, and I finished 25 hours and 37 minutes later, at 7:37 am on Saturday.  The course rolls through the countryside just outside of Zion National Park, climbing up to three different mesas, then descends back down to the start/finish area at Highway 9.  

Just before the start: Marcus, Tiffany, Marshall, Andy and Jack
The first major climb is around Mile 19, captured in the photo below, which we reached well before noon on Friday.  The worst of the three climbs is known as the Flying Monkey Trail, which we reached at about mile 84 around 3 a.m. on Saturday morning.  

Me and Marshall at Mile 19
The support I received from my crew (David and Kim), the other SoCal Coyotes who crewed and ran the race, the other runners and the many volunteers is what made the experience so special.   On a practical level, David and Kim provided me with everything I needed to get through the long race and the changing weather: food (mostly sports beans aka Jelly Bellies) water, various sports drinks, several changes of shirts, a jacket, a beanie, gloves, hand warmers, head lamps and new batteries when my headlamp went out.  Marshall provided me with toilet paper when I needed it at Mile 21.

 I started out running the flats and downhills, and walking on uphills.  By the end, I was walking on most of the flats and even some of the downhills.  The low point in the race came at Mile 88 or so.  It was about 4am, and Kim and I had just climbed up the Flying Monkey Trail.  We were on top of the mesa, on a fire road, walking into a moderate head wind.  I began to feel cold and a bit fuzzy, and wondered whether I would be able to finish.  Fortunately, Kim gave me a thin plastic jacket, which I put on over my two shirts. The jacket broke the wind.  I rested briefly at the aid station at Mile 88.5, ate a bit, and by the time we reached the final turn-around at Mile 91, I knew I would finish.

Mile 96 - with Jeff in the distance
The final nine miles of the course are almost completely downhill.  The photo above shows one of the few sections of the course that was on black top.  The photo below shows the final stretch, on a dirt road.  Thanks to Helen for the wonderful picture.

Mile 99.74, with Kim, my closing pacer

The video below shows the finish line.  Thanks to David for taking it and sharing it with me.  That's Marshall whom I'm talking to at the very end (he's off screen but you can hear our exchange)

Belt Buckle -- the traditional award for finishing a 100 mile race

A photo Brian took  on race day

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Before the Deluge

In 36 hours, I begin my first 100 mile race, in Zion, Utah.  The furthest I have run is 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, and I have no idea what to expect when I ask my body to carry me through the desert for a full day or more.   Half a dozen of my teammates, all of whom have finished 100 milers, have described their experiences, and given me their advice and encouragement.  But I cannot picture it myself; I cannot run through that distance in my mind, extrapolate from the shorter distances I have run, and imagine what it will be like to cover that distance.  Somehow it just does not make sense.

My plan is simple.  I will run and walk at the most comfortable pace possible, and will not allow myself to strain or worry about the time.  I will not chase the other runners.  Instead, I plan to shut out everyone and everything, as best I can, and focus on my body and the desert.   I'm looking forward to the peace and privacy.  No one to rely on, no one to please, and no one to blame.

Anything could happen on Friday.  My heart may not cooperate, I might not have had enough training or I may discover that my body simply isn't capable of running 100 miles.  Or I might finish under 24 hours.  But whatever happens, it will be my own experience and I will own it.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Short Circuit

The past three months have been among the most difficult in my life.   Usually, when times are hard, I turn to running to restore my equilibrium.  But that has not been possible recently.  Just when my toe healed around the beginning of 2013, my heart went into atrial flutter, an arrhythmia that makes running impossible.  In a four week period I had two electric cardioversions, one failed attempt at a chemical cardioversion, a catheter ablation (my fifth) and a ten hour false alarm stay at UCLA emergency.  Most recently, after the second cardioversion, I have been on beta blockers for two weeks.

In the good times, I thanked my friends for a great 2012.   I owe a much greater debt to my friends this time.  I've leaned very hard on several different people, and I am not a good patient.  In earlier posts, I wrote about how easy it is to be gracious when everything goes your way, and and how hard it is when things go wrong.  I re-learned that lesson recently, and found that I have a lot learn about dealing with adversity, among other things.

But the news is not all bad.  My heart has been in a regular rhythm for two weeks now.  I've just started running again and, if all goes well, I am off the beta blockers completely after this weekend.   While I do not know what the future will bring, it certainly seems like the worst is over and running -- and life -- are getting back on track.

Here's to better times ahead, and lessons learned.