Tuesday 25 December 2012

Christmas Oregon Walks

A few photos from mini hikes in Oregon over Christmas, including at Multnomah Falls where the beautiful Gorge Waterfalls 50k is held.

Forest Park, Portland.

Amy at Forest Park.

More Forest Park.

Forest Park.

Multnomah Falls - very Lord of the Rings.

That same bridge.

Looking the opposite way at Multnomah Falls.

More water at Multnomah Falls.

Multnomah Falls from farther back.

Monday 17 December 2012

Desert Solstice 100-mile/24-hr

I just got back from the Aravaipa Running Desert Solstice 100-mile/24-hr track race in Phoenix, AZ, and it was another great event with fantastic performances and excellent organization. Again I was blown away by the fun atmosphere and truly good people involved in the sport, especially the Coury brothers who directed the race - Nick even ran 139.7 miles to get into the US 24-hr team). However, for me it was a learning experience and things were going almost perfectly then very abruptly went to hell at 70 miles.

The allure of a track ultra was the chance to go for fast times and records so I made sure I had suitable races in the build up to help with that (road marathons and ultras like JFK50 that are mainly about maintaining an even speed without much in the way of hills). So I was well prepared, albeit with a blip two weeks earlier from a brief knee injury that stopped me racing the TNFEC 50 in San Francisco.

The aim was to run hard for 100 miles (or 12 hours) then decide whether it was worth continuing for the 24-hr challenge. So I had several targets to aim for and knew the rough splits required for each:

  • 12-hr World Record: 101.02 miles by Yiannis Kouros of Greece at New York on 11/7/84 (for some reason this doesn't count as an American All-Comers Record too, possibly due to lack of documentation provided to USATF) 
  • 100 miles: 12 hrs 
  • 100 miles North American All-Comers Record: 12:05:43 by Andy Jones of Canada at Sylvania, OH on 9/27/97 
  • 100 miles American Record (not that I'm eligible but it's a good target): 12:12:19 by Rae Clark at Queens, NY on 4/1/89 

Failing those, I still had the back-up of a 100-mile PR to aim for at 12:44:33.

So I started at a reasonable pace that felt fine and got a few PRs for new distances along the way with splits of:

  • 2:58 Marathon 
  • 3:32 50k 
  • 5:47 50 Miles 
  • 7:19 100k 
  • 8:20 70 Miles 

Realistically I was then heading for the 12:12 American Record as my pace had dropped slightly but I felt good running with Jon Olson who finished the 100-mile in 12:29:37 for one of the fastest US 100-mile times ever. At that point I had a 7-lap lead over Jon (1.74 miles) but I made a fatal mistake and let the elements get to me.

Phoenix has a desert climate and it doesn't rain much, but it also doesn't get very cold in winter. I'd raced there twice for the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon each year in January and had an idea of what to expect, but the forecast of showers and temps in the 50s during the day seemed ideal for fast times. So I made the mistake that some people made at Western States this year (which had 40 miles of cold, wintery weather up high) and planned to run race conditions that are typical rather than what actually happened on the day.

When a nasty rain-storm got going and the wind picked up, I assumed it'd blow over and kept running for a couple of miles in shorts and T-shirt while everyone else put on layers. Eventually I put on a light rain jacket but was already cold, so that reduced my appetite and I probably ate nothing for roughly an hour while over 100k into the race. The predictable bonk led to walking through the aid station on the track and taking on more food, but when I slowed down for just a few minutes my body temperature plummeted and I started shivering uncontrollably. I walked a lap but only got worse and had to go inside to get warm as I was close to hypothermia and it took a couple of hours to stop shivering.

It was frustrating to have made such a simple error but I had only turned up to chase records so a 2-hr minimum stoppage put those out the window and it wasn't worth continuing for the sake of grinding out either 100 miles or 24 hours. I know others would have got out there again but I wasn't there to see if I could keep going for the distance, but to do it as well as possible. At least I learned something about track racing and also got a reminder to stay on top of all the things that can cause an ultra to go bad mid-race.

The one thing I'd expected was to find the experience mind-numbing, but it was enjoyable to see people again and again along the track and to run the first 20 miles with Dave James then later on with Jon. It's much more exciting than expected to watch it, too, especially as we got close to the 100-mile finishes and runners pushed to their maximum to shave minutes off their times. The most incredible thing to see was a topless Mike 'The Fruitarian' Arnstein negative splitting his 100 miles to break 13 hours and to unlap himself numerous times from Jon (the weather improved again after it got dark).

Mike lapped consistently around 6:20-6:40 mile pace for hours at the end and his final marathon must have been in the low 2:50s! I'm pretty sure even Yiannis Kouros at his peak would have struggled to match that pace for that long after 10 hours of running. Jon was still running around a 7:30/mile pace for much of the final hours and that was also amazing but I couldn't believe Mike didn't blow up. His emotional collapse at the finish line was something we all could understand after such a hard push and his success at breaking 13 hours.

One other person mention is Pam Smith ran an amazing 100-mile race too, with a 15:01 finish despite losing her timing chip when changing clothes and spending many minutes trying to find it.

If track ultras sound boring, try one and see if you still think that. There's something positive about seeing the entire field at the same time rather than just those running at the same speed as yourself. I'm not going to make these my main focus but will be back again to run hard and see what's possible in terms of speed in the fastest style of ultrarunning possible.

Results are here plus will be on the race website in more detail soon.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Top Global Ultra Performances in 2012

This year has been spectacular for ultrarunning. Given we're near the end of 2012 and there aren't many chances for mind-blowing performances left before 2013 (probably none on trails), I thought I'd go through some of the incredible runs that people have done this year. I've been lucky enough to see many of these in person and each has been inspiring and helped to push the boundaries of our sport. There were many more great runs than those below, but these are the ones that really stood out to me as being on a different level.


Dakota Jones, Transvulcania, Canary Islands (Spain), May - With almost 15,000ft of ascent in somewhere around 50 miles in this Skyrunning Ultra, plus heat, humidity and a large portion of the world's best mountain runners, Dakota ran a 6:58 course record. Having run the course up and around a stunning volcano personally, his dominating performance was really special and set the bar early in the season.

Dakota after winning Transvulcania. Photo: International Skyrunning Federation

Ludwick Mamabolo, Comrades, South Africa, June - Arguably always the deepest field of ultrarunners in the world, it takes sub 6 min/mile pace over 55.5 hilly miles to win this in a 'down run' year. The top 10 men were spaced out by a mere nine minutes and the winner has to be considered to be one of the most impressive ultrarunners globally. Sadly, this year was marred by the fact that Mamabolo seemingly failed his A and B sample drug tests according to all the newspaper articles I could find. Strangely he's not been disqualified and there doesn't seem to be any news on this since July (when his B sample was tested and failed).

Tim Olson, Western States 100, USA, June - Admittedly the weather was favorably mild but Tim destroyed the full course and the record with his 14:47 finish (20 minutes off Geoff Roes' 2010 North American Ultra Performance of the Year). His pace over the last 38 miles distanced him from the pack who were all around course record pace (and annoyingly just a few minutes ahead of me) for the fastest finishing split ever. This is a record that I suspect will last at least until the next time the weather is freakishly easy and that could be a long time. I'm not sure anyone could come close to that time in the heat.

Mike Morton, Badwater 135, USA, July - Mike's run was a minute off the course record of 22:51 for 135 miles through Death Valley in obscene temperatures. I only saw him once while I crewed Aussie Dave Eadie since he zoomed off at such a pace it seemed impossible to sustain. He was under the course record splits until very close to the end but a slow climb up towards Mt Whitney robbed him of the record. It was the first time I witnessed Mike's running and his style and pace makes it such a great thing for the sport that he's back to full fitness and racing again.

Hal Koerner, Hard Rock 100, USA, July - Hal's proved he's a tough runner on any type of terrain but is better known for his fast times at relatively flatter 100-milers, like his wins at Western States, Rocky Raccoon and Javelina show. But he ran 24:50 for one of the fastest times ever at this insanely hard and high altitude race. Not bad for someone not living at altitude and firmly placing him among the top ultrarunners of the year.

Kilian Jornet, Skyrunning and Other Ultras, Globally, All Through Summer - I don't even know which of his runs was most impressive but he showed again that i the mountains he's second to none with wins at Speedgoat 50k (controversial and technically a DNF), Trofeo Kima, Cavalls del Vent and Grand Raid de la Reunion. He also won numerous non-ultra mountain races, often beating the best runners in the world, including Max King (see below for what he does out of the mountains).

Mike Morton, World Championship 24-hour race, Poland, September - Mike won the gold medal with one of the best 24-hour results of recent years and smashed the US record too with over 172 miles. That's an AVERAGE pace of 8:20/mile for a full day! Amazing as this is, it's still 16 miles short of Yiannis Kouros' mind-bending 188.6 miles, the world record from 1997. That's probably Yiannis' most amazing record (just my opinion there) and that's saying something from such a legend, so Mike's distance is still absolutely incredible.

Max King, UROC 100k, USA, September - After a couple of 50-milers that saw Max blow up near the end, he focused more on long runs and it paid off with 7:57 for at least 60 miles and something like 10,000ft of ascent. Running behind I was convinced he'd blow up (or more likely get lost given he has a tendency to do this while leading) but he sustained the pace and broke away from speedy marathoner and US Mountain Running Team member, Sage Canaday. Yes, there was a lot of road in this one, but not much was flat and this was probably the most impressive performance I saw this year.

Max King, JFK 50, USA, September - Last year David Riddle's 5:40 course record got the North American Performance of the Year so Max's 5:34 shows another level of pace and was yet more proof of his incredible abilities in ultras.

Miguel Heras, TNFEC San Francisco, USA, December - Probably the deepest field of the year at an ultra, although a few top contenders certainly weren't there (Max King, Geoff Roes, Anton Krupicka, Kilian Jornet and others) but there's no way that everyone will manage to turn up uninjured and pick the same race since that doesn't even happen at the Olympics. Miguel ran incredibly fast and benefited from the leaders going off course then having to catch up later. However, his closing lap was so much better than everyone else that there's a good chance he'd have caught and overtaken the leaders anyway. 5:33 for almost 47 miles of muddy hills was truly exceptional.


Anna Frost, Transvulcania, Canary Islands (Spain), May - Like Dakota's run at this race was his most impressive of the year, this was Anna's most amazing run. 8:11 smashed the course record but nobody else even got close to her and she was mainly racing to get into the top 10 men in a deep field of talent, just missing out with 11th.

Anna Frost celebrates after Transvulcania by smoking Dakota's prize. Photo: Ian Sharman

Elena Nurgalieva, Comrades, South Africa, June - The Nurgalieva twins have dominated both major South African road ultras (the other being Two Oceans) for a decade but since Olesya was having a baby there was no chance of another 1-2 finish. Even when they had a bad year in 2011 and struggled, they still managed to finish in the top two spots. Elena racked up her seventh win (third in a row) and tenth consecutive podium with her fastest ever time - 6:07 (6:36/mile) for 43rd overall!

Ellie Greenwood, Comrades/Western States 100 double, South Africa and USA, June - Ellie chased Elena down at Comrades and finished a mere minute off the win (48th overall), which is impressive enough in itself. Then three weeks later she took a whopping 50 minutes off Ann Trason's rock solid course record at Western States 100, running 16:47. These are probably the two best performances of the year by a North American (yes she comes from Scotland but is virtually a Canadian citizen now). Admittedly there's the same asterisk by the Western States time that Timmy has for his CR, but I have no doubt that both of them ran the best performances ever by a woman and man, respectively, at Western States.

Lizzy Hawker, Spartathlon 153, Greece, September - After a month in which she won the shortened UTMB and Run Rabbit Run 100, she also won the Spartathlon 153-mile road race with a course record 27:02 for third overall. Lizzy's always pushing boundaries, but that month was something special and the Spartathlon win on what must have been tired legs was impressive.

Ellie Greenwood, JFK 50, USA, November - obviously 2012 was kind of Ellie's year given her results at trail, mountain and road ultras of multiple distances. But the other really notable performance was her 17 minutes off the course record of America's biggest and oldest ultra. Her win and record was no surprise but cemented just what a versatile and fast runner she is, running 6:12 for tenth overall.

So I think it's fair to say that 2012 showed a step change in the level of trail ultrarunning with so many course records being broken, often by large margins. For example, we saw the eight of the top 20 Western States times for the men in the 2012 race, plus six of the top 20 women's times. Many major races required times that would normally win just to get anywhere close to the podium. So 2013 is something to look forward to.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

JFK Statfest And Comparing Different Ultra Finish Times

9 miles into the JFK 50 course on the AT

Having just got back from the 50th annual JFK50 (see a great history of the race here), it was an honor to be part of the event, especially with course records being destroyed (see results). It got me thinking about the comparability of race times between road and trail races, plus different distances.

On a training run the day before the race it's easy to bump into half the Montrail North American team and a whole bunch of Canadian speedsters.

For interest, here’s the JFK course profile which includes around 3,000ft of ascent and a little more descent. It has roads or canal path easy trails for all but 11 miles, of which there’s a really fun 10-mile section on the Appalachian Trail which is quick and generally not technical except for maybe 3-4 miles of rockiness. I may write up a report of the race, but there are a few of those around from others who had more interesting days out on the trail. In summary, I loved the AT and jogged through that then sped up on the canal path before getting slight stomach problems (rare for me) and couldn't get motoring so just kept up the best pace I could and mainly ran solo, finishing 4th in 5:50.

Predicting finish times from one ultra to another

One stat I’d heard at the Miwok 100k in California is that if you double your time from that race you get your Western States 100 mile finish time. Although broadly true there’s a lot of variation, plus that assumes having a good day at both races. It’s glaringly obvious that there’s a large degree of individual impact on how well, say, a marathon time translates to a flat ultra and even more so to a mountainous one. But JFK brought some of the fastest runners ever to a US trail 50-miler – Trent Briney ran a 2:12 marathon and has been the US alternate for the Olympic marathon (he got 2nd and broke the CR); Max King runs a 2:14 and took almost 6 mins off the record; Emily Harrison runs a 2:32 and smashed the women’s record, but not by as much as 2:42 marathoner Ellie Greenwood; plus there were a lot more guys with 2:2x marathons, not least David Riddle who came 3rd and held the record from last year.

Ultras like Comrades, UROC 100k, JFK 50 and American River 50 have plenty of fast road sections (or trails that are almost as quick) so they favor a fast marathoner who also trains for ultras. But there’s a lot more that comes into it too (as anyone reading this will certainly know). A quick comparison of some of the fastest ultra courses for people who’ve run them at the front shows road speed is fairly important, but more so the shorter the race. I’m biasing this towards courses I’ve personally done so I can legitimately compare them.

Comparison of PRs* for selected runners over multiple fast ultra courses:

Marathon (26.2)
JFK (50.2)
American River (50)
Comrades Down Run   (55.5)
UROC (60+** 2012 course)
100k Roads (62.2)
Rocky Raccoon (100)
Western States (100.2***)
Eric Clifton
6:23 (Age 40)
Not raced
Max King
6:01 (Bad day)
Not raced
No 100k
No 100s
DNF (injured)
Trent Briney
2:12 (2004, but ran a 2:19 in 2011)
Not raced
Not raced
Not raced
Not raced
Not raced
Not raced
David Riddle
Not raced
Not raced
DNF (Bad day)
Not raced
Ian Sharman
6:00 (Bad day)
Not raced
Ann Trason
Not raced
Not raced
Not raced
Ellie Greenwood
Not raced
Emily Harrison
Not raced
Not raced
Not raced
Not raced
Not raced
Not raced
Lizzy Hawker
2:47 (2007)
Not raced
Not raced
6:48 (Up Run - slower course)
Not raced
Not raced
18:32 (Bad day)

*PRs are to the best of my knowledge, plus the help of Google
**UROC 100k 2012 had 10,000ft+ of ascent but it was largely on roads and hugely favored fast marathoners who could also run trails
***Western States 100 isn’t nearly as flat and fast as the other races but it’s the only 100 miler for some of the athletes to date

Before I get comments saying this isn’t a large enough sample or it’s not scientific enough, I’ll mention that there aren’t enough runners who’ve run around course records at several of these races to make direct comparisons plus weather conditions play a huge part, especially on trails. More runners could have been included but I’m doing this with a JFK 50 2012 slant and am trying to show the really pointy end of the field, (plus myself for comparison because it’s my blog and it gives me context).

Along the C&O Canal at JFK. Photo courtesy Ray Jackson Jr.

Also, I'll point out that a great site for comparing race finish time for the entire field from race to race is RealEndurance.com. You can get an idea of your potential finish time in a race based on what other people managed at a given event who run at your speed in races you've already done. 

What does that imply for 100 milers?

The other reason for looking at these stats is that I’m sure a lot of people are wondering what Max, Trent or Emily could run in a 100 miler. From experience the correlation between fast shorter distance times and 100s is a lot looser than between a marathon time and a race like JFK. Plus there’s a clear trade-off between how much time a runner can spend on road speed and on mountain endurance, although most would agree that these do complement to some degree. Kilian isn’t going to run a 2:10 marathon off pure mountain running and the Kenyans won’t run a 20 hour Hardrock 100 when their longest run is 2 hours and at a much higher intensity. Of that I’m certain, although it’ll never be tested (at the least they’d switch their training significantly if they went for the races at the opposite end of the spectrum to their usual).

To run an average pace of 9 min/miles at Western States means a lot more training at a slower speed than a marathoner would do. This is due to the law of specificity, meaning that your body adapts to the training stresses that are placed on it. If you want to run a fast marathon, a lot of marathon-pace or faster running is required. If you want to sail up and down mountains all day long, a large portion of training needs to simulate that.

When was the last time one of the really big, competitive 100 milers was won by a sub 2:30 marathoner? Doesn’t tend to happen at Western States (please comment if you know who the last person was to manage this was as it’s not any of the recent winners). UTMB is for pure mountain guys and many of the top runners haven’t even run a road marathon. Never mind Hardrock – a recent fast marathon time is almost (I’m exaggerating) a predictor of a bad run as it implies too much time spent on the roads and not enough in the mountains at altitude. It’s much more important to do a lot of vertical in training than to be able to run the flatter sections at a 5 min/mile.

In summary, I don’t think there’s a very strong relationship between mountain ultra success and a top end marathon time. I’m not going to dust off the old economist’s tools (my previous life) and search for a huge pile of data to find out which variables correlate to mountain ultra success. It’d cost $20k to get a bunch of economists to do that analysis so I’m going to go out on a limb and give you my non-scientific predictions of the key variables for a fast elite time (relative to a world class runner for that style of race) at a given mountain 100-miler:
  1. Results at really similar 100 mile races or with similar aspects to the race in question
  2. Turning up completely uninjured with a long injury-free period pre-race for consistency in training
  3. Location – living close to terrain that’s similar to the race for training
  4. Frequency of DNFs – the fewer, the better
  5. Motivations – this’d be a hard one to model and would need truly honest answers to a questionnaire but someone who turns up with the aim of enjoying things first and competing second rather than caring more about records and winning with second place being deemed a ‘failure’

And factors that I think are somewhat correlated:
  1. Past success at the race in question in the recent past, but this could also build the pressure too much to cause bad pacing
  2. 100k or 50 mile mountain results
  3. Marathon time
  4. Age – Marco Olmo is probably the last guy around retirement to win a really major race but the peak age range is fairly wide
  5. Rippling six-pack/big guns – shows the runner does more training than just running all day, which is more important in an ultra than in shorter races. You wouldn’t pick a fight with Kami Semick and she’ll probably beat you in the race too…

100 mile records

So what about a flat 100-miler on a hard surface? There really aren’t many that fit that description except on a track. Fast trail 100s like Rocky Raccoon 100 (5,400ft of ascent) or Umstead 100 (8,000ft of ascent) are still significantly slower than a flat road race of that distance. What do I think the runners listed above could run on a flat road/track 100? Well, the 100k on roads gives an indicator but only covers the ‘easy’ bit of the race.

The male World Record for 100 miles is 11:28 by Oleg Kharitanov, pretty much 3h marathon pace x4! I think Max and Trent have the pace to do that if they altered their training to include a lot more miles at a pace they’d think of as slow.

Ann Trason holds the female World Record of 13:47 which I think Ellie could run. Lizzie Hawker too.

But who’d want to run around a track all day? Well, I’ll answer that in a month after I give it a go at the Desert Solstice 24h race in Arizona.

Sunday 11 November 2012

Smith Rock Snowy Running

Monkey Face (yes, it does)

Several of the posts I've done recently have virtually been Tourist Board ads for Central Oregon, but I'm going to do it again and include photos of today's run at Smith Rock State Park, a world-renowned climbing spot (not that I've climbed there yet...the running's too good). Zach Violett and Steph Howe joined me for some TNF50 training, while it was my last long run before JFK50 in six days.

There's been a dusting of snow recently which made some of the low peaks look so much more impressive. And the mountains on the horizon seem larger and more daunting thanks to their white frosting. Much more spectacular and beautiful too.

Steph striding to the top of the peak after Burma Road

Zach at the same spot

Looking down at Smith Rock and the Cascades in the background

Heading towards Gray Butte

Had to get myself in one shot - Smith Rock below

View from the top of Gray Butte

Mt Jefferson in the distance

Most of the Oregon Cascades on the horizon

Top of Gray Butte

Heading back to Smith Rock

Switchbacks I'd somehow never seen before

Back on top of Smith Rock

Gray Butte in the middle of the photo

Smith Rock

Burma Road switchbacks

Smith Rock and Burma Road in the distance

Climbers on Smith Rock

A good place to run...