Last year during the running of the 2010 Western States 100 miler, I followed the action as best I could by hitting, hitting and rehitting "refresh" to see if there were any further checkpoint updates.  As you can imagine, that makes for a pretty long day, no matter how nerdy your interest in ultrarunning.

That day the young Spaniard, Killian Jornet, drove a furious pace that eventually helped push Geoff Roes and Anton Krupicka to record performances.  Jornet ultimately faded in the unfamiliar California heat after naievely failing to stay hydrated.  He returned this year, fluids in hand, and won the race.  Still, his real home is in the mountains of Europe.

Which brings us to this past weekend and another running of the epic Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a 100+ mile circumnavigation of Mont Blanc across the rooftop of Europe.  Runners climb over 30,000 feet and start in France, pass into Italy and then Switzerland before returning to France for a crossing of the finish line in picturesque Chamonix.  The race begins in the middle of the night amidst thousands of celebrating onlookers before disappearing into the darkness.  The course winds through the Alps, exposed to the shifting weather of the mountains, and visits numerous 1,000-year old villages whose streets are lined with proud inhabitants enthusiastically cheering on the visiting runners and volunteers.  It is impossible to imagine a similar atmosphere here in the United States.

Obviously, I was nowhere near the Alps, holed up in Manheim awaiting the arrival of Hurricane Irene.  Thanks to Bryon Powell and http://www.irunfar.com/, however, I was privileged to be one of the moderators of a live "chat" of the event.  Collecting various Twitter feeds and serving as a common meeting place for anyone following the event from wherever he or she called home, the iRunFar coverage was as good as it gets for those of us who couldn't be up in the mountains ourselves.

As a moderator, my sole task, really, was to review and authorize comments to make sure that they weren't inappropriate, block spam (there was little, if any), keep any single poster from monopolizing, etc.  Bryon, who has done a magnificent job covering Western States, Hardrock and other major events in the past was on the course this time, not as a reporter, but as a UTMB participant.  Maintaining his open-minded approach to iRunFar, those of us monitoring the chat employed a light hand in moderating and most comments were given the "ok".  Mostly, we kept busy responding to those who'd just checked in with updates from earlier on in the event.  There were several of us involved and we split shifts amongst the group, though there was much overlapping as, at heart, we were there as fans and spectators as much as we were moderators.

The shared enthusiasm of those logged in was infectious and included Americans, Canadians, Europeans and many others.  There was some friendly nationalist and continent vs. continent competitiveness in some of the dialogue, but mostly there was shared awe and celebration of the Alps, the UTMB and the participants at the front, middle and back of the pack.

I can't even imagine the electricity of actually being there in the Alps, but even following along on the computer with like-minded enthusiasts was thrilling.  There were disappointments as reports drifted in of many of the top Americans dropping throughout the day.  Those letdowns played out repeatedly as fans, friends and family members checked in for updates only to find that beloved runners were already off the course.

The highs, though, were incredible.

The machine-like Salomon running team owned the day on the men's side with teammates Iker Carrera, Miguel Heras and Kilian running together near the front almost the entire race before an always smiling Kilian (so revealed the countless pictures being posted online) broke away in the last few kilometers to finish just minutes ahead of Iker.  The incredible Lizzie Hawker punished the women's field and beat all but 12 men to the finish line.

The pre-race excitement had motivated me to get out the door for a 10 PM run on Friday night and, after Kilian made his triumphant arrival in Chamonix, I found myself lacing on my sneakers again despite the pending arrival of Hurricane Irene.  The roads surrounding Manheim are hardly the Alps but I found myself daydreaming.

Those daydreams looked a little like this:

Returning from the run, I tuned back in to see just how far up the overall leaderboard Lizzie had climbed on her way to the women's crown and learned that Bryon had DNF'd.  The weather had been less than cooperative and the cold at the highest passes had taken its toll.

Those factors had made for a higher than usual drop percentage.  Only 1131 of the 2300 starters made it to Chamonix.  The DNF list included some of the biggest names in the sport, including Scott Jurek, Geoff Roes, Krissy Moehl, Nick Clark, Dakota Jones and, yes, even Miguel Heras who ran near the front for most of the day.

Bryon could (and should) hold his head up high knowing all that he'd accomplished, including giving so many of us, who until recently would have had no visibility other than reading race recaps, a nearly-live connection to the glorious spectactle that is the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc.  I know that I for one am most grateful.

Thank you.


it's complicated.

Been pondering the "why" of running quite a bit lately.

Not due to any doubts or second guesses, but because I've been incredibly inspired as of late by what folks have tackled, are tackling or are planning to tackle (and I'm not just talking about running) and, in turn, I have been wondering how far, how high and how hard I might try to go on foot before my body gives out on me. 

When I consider the motivations of others in doing something I love doing, I find it impossible not to look inward for what drives me.  At the same time, I've had friends and family ask me to explain the fascination.

It isn't the easiest thing to do.  Not because I don't have reasons.  In fact, I started making a mental list and ran out of paper.  But no single reason holds the key and the words I come up with fall woefully short of capturing everything I want to convey when pressed to explain myself.

Frustrated by my inability to express myself properly, I've been devouring other people's writing of running and marveling at their abilities.

The June issue of TrailRunner ran an article about Diana Finkel's amazing second overall (1st woman) finish at the 2010 Hardrock 100-Mile Endurance Run and the subsequent kidney failure that she suffered in the days following the event.  The account was penned by Ben Woodbeck, her husband and pacer for the last 40 miles of the race.  Turns out he's also a gifted writer and insightful runner.

To wit:

"Asking about running is just another way to wonder, what is it for?  Just as ineffable as why one would climb a mountain, or kayak a river, or jump from an airplane, I guess.  Running makes life worthwhile, maybe; it gives a little definition outside the confines and strictures of work and family.  It offers a community, one in which we can be individuals, ourselves, sometimes our best selves.  It reminds us what is important, somehow, even if it does so by reminding us that running is not really that important.  Relationships are important; another truth that we know but sometimes forget."

I love that.  Love it.

It speaks so beautifully to the "escape" of running without saying (as I would have) "running is such an escape."  Whatever it is that we turn to in order to get momentary respite from the weight of the world is valid only so long as we remember that while it's a lovely gift it isn't "real" in the way that the rest of life is and must be.  The danger is to get so fixated and so lost in that step away that we fail to come back to what really matters.

The best of escapes, and for me that is a gorgeous, inviting strand of single track, sharpens the focus upon returning on what truly is important.

And that, friends, deserves ice cream.


the sea level blues.

Twice a year, I board a plane for Salt Lake City to attend the Outdoor Retailer trade show.  If you like backpacking, mountain biking, climbing, trail running, paddling, camping or just about any other activity in the great outdoors, each January and August, the Salt Palace serves up a head-spinning carnival of "what you'll have to have six months from now."

OR (pronounced oh-are), as it's known affectionately, also happens to be a great place to make and/or reconnect with like minded friends who've found ways to forge out a similar work/play hybrid career.  Each time I go, I've got more faces to look forward to seeing and more difficulty freeing up the time I'd like to catch up with everyone.

As a key component of a retail operation that works hard, hard, hard to continue carving out a place in the outdoor industry, I am often overwhelmed by how much actual work we cram into just a couple of days and I should be thrilled that we find anytime at all to socialize.  And we do.

For the past three or four years, while at OR I've run the Wasatch Wobble, a 5K put on by Montrail/Mountain Hardwear up in Red Butte Gardens above the city.  The event is a non-timed focused-on-fun event but at 5,000+ feet of elevation it's always been a good test for me too.  This year, though, I'd learned about the Jupiter Peak Steeplechase that takes place in Park City each August.  Beginning at 7,000 feet, stretching for 16 +/- miles and having a gain of over 3,000 feet, this race promised to be a big step up from the Wobble.

On the first day in town, I got up early to sneak in a run and breath the fresh air before sucking in the artificial air at the Salt Palace all day long.  I was also looking forward to seeing how my legs and lungs felt a few thousand feet higher than back home.

We were staying south of the city just a short drive to the foot of Big Cottonwood Canyon.  Unfamiliar with the area and starting before sun-up, I opted for a paved pedestrian trail until it conked out and left me climbing alongside the road toward the top of the canyon.  Not being on single track didn't dampen my spirits, as there were no cars on the road and the soft grit that ran parallel to the road felt great underfoot.  As the sun rose, I plodded steadily uphill as the sun began to peak over the Wasatch Mountains.

Not even the birds were stirring and the only sound was the creek crash, crash, crashing its way down the canyon.  My camera complained about the lack of light and an inept operator who couldn't find a mechanical compensation.  All the same, it did its best and captured a few memories.

I was on the verge of daydreaming my way up into the mountains and away for the day when I came to and realized I needed to get back to the car.  I tucked the camera into my waistband and quickened my pace.  I'd managed the climb nicely and was able to really push on the descent.  This made me hopeful for the race on Saturday morning even though I knew I'd be at twice the elevation.  I'd hiked above 10,000 feet but never run up that high.  It was safe to expect that I wouldn't manage the sub 7:30 miles I'd just logged, but, I was still encouraged by my effort that morning.

The next two days were a blur of backpacks, socks, tents, sleeping bags, trekking poles, waterproof/breathable jackets, headlamps, doodads, whizzywhats and shaboozles.  Business was talked, talked, talked, talked, talked.  Thankfully, there were also a healthy number of warm handshakes, hugs and laughter wedged in between all that talking.

The hours and days flew by and it was Saturday morning.  True to its calling, the alarm alarmed me that it was 5:45.  A little over an hour later, after dropping my boss off in downtown Salt Lake for a pre-business business-breakfast (talk, talk, talk, talk, talk), I coasted into the lower parking lot of the Park City Mountain Resort and stared past the windshield at the fittest bunch of pre-racers I can remember seeing.  A little gasping-for-air voice told me I was in my over my head, but my eyes followed the chairlifts upward and I wondered where out there was the top of Jupiter Peak.

I had to go see.

There was one last moment of trepidation when I realized that Lindsay's phone number was printed right on my bib.  So some kind passerby could give my wife a courtesy call upon stumbling on my corpse?  Yikes.

Clearly I was over thinking things and just needed to get my feet underneath me.  I wedged in with some 300 other runners as someone muttered inaudible instructions through a megaphone.  A signal of some sort, again unheard by me, sent the pack slowly shuffling up a steeply sloped service road before funneling us onto the start of endless (and glorious) single track that would wind its way all the way to the top of the mountain.

I'd decided on a modest goal of 4 miles an hour on the ascent, expecting that the severity of the grade and the altitude were likely to make my usual pace impossible to achieve.  If I could top out in 2 hours and have legs left beneath me, I hoped to let gravity whisk me the full 8 miles down to the bottom at a much faster pace.

I fell in stride with a number of runners who seemed to be of equal ability and condition

Somewhere soon after mile 5 the grade steepened and I could sense unfamiliar physiological demands.  I was struggling to pull enough oxygen out of the air and my legs reported corresponding heaviness.  Feeling a little lightheaded, I decided it was time to peek at the GPS and learned that we'd now climbed over 9,000 feet.  There were less than 3 miles left to the top but another 1200+ feet of elevation to be gained.  Needless to say, I was no longer running 12 minute miles when I looked up to see the ridge just below Jupiter.

To give some scale to the photo, note the "runner" at the very lower right and keep in mind that the tufts at the top of the ridge are full grown trees.  I couldn't help but notice that not a single person ahead of me was actually running.  In fact, some of them were on all fours or at least appeared to be.  Loose rock added to the challenge and I was relieved to find that the stubborn grass growing on the ridge held my weight as I clutched at it.

Topping out, I glanced at my Garmin and was surprised to see that I'd only covered 7 miles.  I vaguely remembered hearing that there was more work to be done after Jupiter's Peak and after a quick two hundred yards of downhill, the track led upward again to the top of Tri-County Peak.  At last the climbing was done and the smooth winding downhill single track led off into the distance.

It was right around mile 10, probably while my mind wandered off into another patch of aspens, that I fell and fell hard.  I took the brunt of the fall on my right knee which was now bleeding but also banged my right side just above the hip and dragged my right forearm and elbow.  A couple of runners hopped over me, offered words of genuine encouragement and then disappeared down the trail.  It took me a moment or two to get back on my feet and I was, admittedly, shook up.  I traversed the next few miles very tentatively and did anything but barrel down the mountain.

Eventually I shook off the fall and got back to running but I never work up to the pace I'd hoped for on the return to 7000 feet.  My head, however, did begin to clear with the downward progression and I reached the bottom feeling good.  Good and tired.

I can't speak for any of the preceding 18 years, but my GPS confirmed that this year's course was a full mile short of 16.  My exhausted lungs and legs didn't seem the least bit disappointed.  Those 15 miles had taken me just over 3 hours (more than an hour behind the winners), but, coming from a home elevation of 400 feet, I'm holding my head up high...and looking forward to next year.