I’ve been looking forward to try out the Clifton since reading about the [surprisingly] lightweight shoe on the Running Warehouse Blog earlier in the year. Although I’ve logged many miles in both the Stinson Evo and Bondi 3 over the past 12 to 18 months, I have to admit Hokas are not typically the first shoe I reach for when heading out for a run. I love the cushioned ride, but usually find myself selecting one of the many lighter options in the closet.


Quite possibly the smoothest-riding shoe on the market, the CLIFTON offers incredible cushioning at an almost impossibly light weight.

Sounds intriguing, but would the CLIFTON live up to all the hype? Only one way to find out – head to the local speciality running store, Running Etc., and give them a whirl. Out of the box, and based on weight alone, the CLIFTON don’t feel like a typical HOKA. For a shoe with so much cushion, they’re deceptively light – 8.1 ounces for the size 10 I purchased to be precise.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and I’ve almost logged 50 miles in the CLIFTON, which should be enough for me to jot down a few initial thoughts:


  1. Price – at $130.00, it’s great to see a HOKA with a retail price lower than $170.00.
  2. Weight – can’t beat an 8 ounce shoe which so much cushion.
  3. Ride – surprisingly stable, and the rockered profile encourages a smooth, fluid gait.
  4. Offset – 4mm heel-to-toe offset is right where I like it.
  5. Colors – blue/black/lime is an eye-catching combo.


  1. The included inserts are wafer thin and held in place by a few small squares of double-sided tape. Just a few miles into my first run and the left insert started to bunch up at the front of the shoe – a little bit annoying but thankfully not blister forming. I’ve since switched out the thicker inserts from my Bondi 3s, and for the sake of an extra 0.2 ounces per shoe, the bunching issue has been eliminated.
  2. As mentioned above, I wish there were a set of extra top-row eyelets in the CLIFTON so I can tie the shoes just like in the video below.


From the HOKA ONE ONE website:

Earlystage Meta-Rocker sculpting geometry provides a fluid, efficient ride and the stripped down SpeedFrame upper leaves no extra weight for you to lug around. If you want to take the feeling of running on grass with you to the concrete jungle, look no further than the Clifton.

Anyone else tried the CLIFTON? Like ‘em? Hate ‘em? How about the Huaka – another HOKA on my wishlist. Feel free to leave a comment below, and, as always, thanks for reading!

The HOKA ONE ONE CLIFTON are available for purchase at Road Runner Sports and OnlineShoes.com – current price $129.95 [8/12/14].




Training Update

Been a while since I posted one of these training updates, so just thought I’d recap what’s been going on since June’s Western States 100.

6/30 – 7/06
Aside from getting stuck overnight at Chicago Midway Airport, the week was fairly relaxing and just what I needed after a challenging 100 Miler. I did manage to log an easy 4 mile run and a 4 mile walk towards the end of the week, but for once, I listened to my body and took things easy.

7/07 – 7/13
Legs and mind felt sufficiently rested, so I ran every day and ended up with 36 miles for the week. Longest run was an easy-paced 7 miler. Also of note, I resisted the urge to race the inaugural Seashore Summer Trail Half – probably a wise decision considering the pretty brutal heat and humidity that day.

7/14 – 7/20
Another week where I ran every day and felt good doing so. Logged 58 running miles and 8 early morning walking miles which really seem to set me up for the day as far as getting the legs moving goes.
Also hit the local track for some baseline 800m and 200m repeats, and on the weekend headed to First Landing State Park where I ran the Seashore Summer Trail Half course. Covered the 13.1 miles in 1:32ish and really enjoyed some local trail time.

7/21 – 7/27
Another good week – 62 miles of running and about the same walking miles as last week. Most of the runs were easy-paced efforts, but I did head to the track to have another go at the 800s and 200s. Times were similar but the effort level felt easier. Progress I guess. It was also nice to finish off the week with 18 miles at FLSP – not exactly speedy, but good fun all the same.

7/28 – 8/03
Back to 58 miles of running, but there were a few more quality efforts thrown into the mix this week. First up was a 5K race at the Norfolk Botanical Garden on Tuesday evening – my first 5K in 12 months would you believe?! After a dodgy start where I got boxed in by a bunch of enthusiastic kids, I was able to work my way up to a Top 10 finish in 17:40 – not too shabby so soon after the 100 Miler.

Memorial Scholarship 5K

Memorial Scholarship 5K – photo courtesy JP Caudhill.

Friday brought another visit to the track, but the heat, humidity and rain weren’t a great mix for fast times. Saturday I enjoyed probably my best run since Western States – an unplanned 11 mile progressive run, culminating with a 5:58 mile. I rounded off the week with 16 swampy miles at the local state park.

8/04 – 8/10
This week has been all easy-paced efforts so far. Not sure if the track work is the cause, but my right heel and left groin have been sore since the weekend. The easy runs have helped the groin, and ice on the heel seems to be doing the trick too. Let’s hope the “recovery” continues.

As for races, as long as I’m healthy, I’ll be having a crack at the local Tidewater Striders Mile next weekend, then September brings another fun trip to Prince William Forest Park for the Athletic Equation 12-HR Adventure Trail Run. Last year I managed to complete 11 x 6.5 loops, and I’d be really happy if I could do the same this year.

Finally, in October, I’ll be heading to Oklahoma to take part in my end-of-year “A” race – the 24 The Hard Way which takes place on a relatively flat, almost 1 mile loop at Bluff Creek Park in Oklahoma City. Last year I came away with the Masters win and 128.87 miles in 22 hours 45 minutes. Unfortunately for my legs, this year I want more! Watch this space to find out what happens…

Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 2.0 Product Review

Leading up to the 2014 Western States 100, one of my biggest dilemmas was deciding how to stay hydrated during the race. Handheld? Waist pack? Vest? Or, perhaps a combination of all three?

Handhelds typically work well for me, but to be honest, I only enjoy carrying 1 x 20oz bottle, leaving the other hand free to adjust my headlamp, fumble with Endurolytes, open gel packs etc. I knew one handheld wouldn’t be enough at Western States, so quickly dismissed this option.

Waist packs are fine and they can certainly hold enough fluid/other supplies, but the ones I’ve tried tend to bounce quite a lot and feel quite restrictive around my middle. I figured with the amount of climbing/descending to be done at Western States, the bounce, bounce, bounce might really annoy me after a while. Scratch waist pack off the list as well I guess.

So, after several weeks of trying out various options, I pretty much decided the good old hydration vest was the way to go. The only question that remained was “Which hydration vest?”

First choice was the original Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest which served me well at both the 2013 and 2014 Rocky Raccoon 100. However, I find the front bottle holsters don’t quite hold a 20oz bottle in place, which leads to a fair amount of bounce and typically a bruised rib cage. To eliminate the bruising, I have been able to switch out the 20oz bottles for a couple of smaller UD 10oz flat bottles, but with Western States being a brutally hot race, I knew this option wouldn’t hold enough fluids to get me from aid station to aid station. I thought about carrying a 20oz handheld in addition to wearing the vest, but to be honest, this kind of defeats the purpose of wearing a hydration vest.

Second choice was a recently purchased Salomon S-Lab Advanced Skin Hydro 5 Set – a beautifully designed, form-fitting hydration pack featuring front bottle (soft flask) holders and a host of storage options. I plan on reviewing this pack in a bit more detail in a future blog post.

Third choice was a late addition to the product line up – a 2nd Generation Scott Jurek Ultra Vest generously supplied by the folks at Ultimate Direction. The Ultra Vest 2.0 is the product I’ll be reviewing here.

From the Ultimate Direction website:

SJ Ultra Vest 2.0

SJ Ultra Vest 2.0

Scott Jurek designed the SJ Ultra Vest to be the perfect all-around product for everyday use or high-end racing. Comfort and performance are outstanding due to it’s technically advanced design and features.

The SJ Ultra Vest 2.0 adjusts to fit a wider size range with the addition of side adjustment straps. Version 2.0 is also stronger and more durable with a 340gm Power Mesh, Silnylon 66 for increased seam strength, and all pockets have been reinforced with edge banding for better gear retention. An added size zipper improves access to an optional reservoir.

Scott Jurek really understands what runners need, and that is exactly what he designed.

Product Video featuring Scott Jurek:

Initial thoughts:

The first thing I noticed on unpacking the vest was the weight; or rather lack of it. Even loaded with a couple of kicker valve bottles, the vest weighed in at just about 16oz. Secondly, if colors are important to you, the gunmetal and bright blue design make for a great looking vest. As for features, the SJ Ultra Vest is loaded with cool, well thought out selling points:

Front Bottle Holster

Front Bottle Holster

The first run with the SJ Ultra Vest was a good one – a longish road run on a typical humid Summer day in Virginia. I opted to carry the included kicker valve bottles and aside from a little bouncing in the early miles, the vest stayed put and didn’t chafe at all, although the hard plastic of the round bottles did leave my ribs a little sore and bruised.

Basic adjustment is easy to carry out on the run via the plastic sternum straps – simply slide the hard plastic bits up/down until you find a position that agrees with you, then tighten the straps until snug. Further adjustment can be made via the straps tucked behind the side “lat” pockets, and I was pleasantly surprised how you can really dial in the fit using this new feature. Nice one, Ultimate Direction!

Side "Lat" Pocket

Side “Lat” Pocket

For the second test run I decided to carry a bit more gear – 3 x Island Boost packs in the left side pocket, iPhone in the right side pocket, 2 x 20oz kicker valve bottles in the front bottle holsters, spare t-shirt and cap in one of the rear vertical pockets, and a couple of single serve packs of Tailwind in each of the pockets above the bottle holsters. Naturally, the vest was a little heavier than on the first run, but with a few small strap adjustments, the fit was just as snug.

Once again, the vest performed well over the 20+ miles and left me with zero chafing underneath my Salomon short-sleeve top. Unlike other vests I’ve tried, all pockets (with the exception of the rear vertical pocket which I didn’t need to open) were easily accessible on the run – no need to stop and remove the pack to get to fuel or the phone. The only downside for me was the hard plastic bottles rubbing against my ribs. I can deal with water sloshing around in the bottles (in fact, you hardly notice the slosh after a mile or so), but bruised ribs are not too pleasant. I can’t help wonder if Ultimate Direction should develop a flat-sided 20oz bottle that would still fit in the bottle holsters and sit snug to the body.

Rear Storage with Bungee

Rear Storage with Bungee

For the next test run, I loaded up a similar amount of supplies, but switched out the round 20oz bottles for a couple of the Ultimate Direction Soft Flask Body Bottles. The soft flasks are super comfortable, pliable and conform to the shape of your body, rather than rest painfully against it. The run was much more enjoyable with less sloshing (the flasks collapse as the amount of liquid reduces) and no bruised ribs. The only downside to this option is that the bottles only hold approximately 14oz each – that’s 28oz for both bottles, which is 12oz less than 2 of the round plastic bottles.

The SJ Vest is very durable and shows no signs of frayed stitching or bungees coming loose. The stretchy pocket fabric has retained its original shape nicely and has not developed any tears or holes. Personally, I prefer a slightly more minimal vest such as the AK Race Vest 2.0. I don’t tend to use a bladder during training runs, and the extra rear storage space of the SJ Ultra Vest was kind of wasted on me. If you’re going to be out for a long, long training run, or taking part in a race where you need to carry plenty of kit, the SJ vest is pretty much perfect. I just wish the included round kicker-valve bottles didn’t hurt as much.

As for sizing, I initially thought the Unisex Size Small would suffice (I wear a small in the AK Race Vest), but even with an empty pack and the straps adjusted to their max, the fit was too tight and uncomfortable just walking around the house. The Unisex Medium was a much better fit (chest size 31″ – 39″) with a lot more scope for adjustment.

Priced at $129.95, I think the SJ Ultra Vest is great value for money and a product that will give you years of hassle-free use. However, I would like to see an option where you can just buy the vest without the bottles, save yourself a few dollars and use whatever bottles you already have kicking around.

The SJ Ultra Vest 2.0 is available from the Ultimate Direction website where you can receive Free Ground Shipping on all orders!

Win a SJ Ultra Vest 2.0

In addition to providing the vest used in this review, Ultimate Direction have generously donated one Size Small SJ Ultra Vest 2.0 as a blog giveaway. Just follow the instructions below to enter. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Disclaimer: The SJ Ultra Vest 2.0 is a media sample provided free of charge by Ultimate Direction.

2014 Western States 100

Packet Pickup Photo for Live Webcast

Packet Pickup Photo for Live Webcast

Well, it’s almost to the stage where I’m forgetting how challenging the Western States 100 Endurance Run was, so I guess that means it’s about time for a race recap. Ever so briefly, the pre-race couple of days were very enjoyable, and thanks to my crew of wife Ally, daughter Shannon and friend Greg, not stressful at all.

We stayed at the luxurious Squaw Creek Resort and Spa, which was just a few minutes drive from the race headquarters and start at Squaw Valley. One day I’ll return to the Resort/Spa to take full advantage of the many facilities on offer.

Packet pickup on Friday morning was just as organized as all the online race reports described – you’re treated like royalty from the moment you get weighed, to the moment you leave the village with a bag full of quality schwag. For the record, I weighed in at 140lbs, which would be used on race day to gauge loss of body weight at various checkpoints along the course.

After my traditional dinner of hamburger, fries and a Guinness, we retired early to bed with gear already laid out and alarm set for 3am. Sleep came easy and before I could stress too much, it was time to head to the start to pick up the timing chip/bib and get weighed in once again.

Starting Gear
After much deliberation leading up to the race, I settled on the following starting gear, with plenty of reserve clothing/accessories packed just in case I needed them along the way:

Elevation Profile - Runners Run Right to Left [Squaw Valley to Auburn]

Elevation Profile – Runners Run Right to Left [Squaw Valley to Auburn]

Start to Robinson Flat [74th Overall]
After hanging out indoors for a while, it was soon time to stroll the few hundred feet to the start line. Naturally we took a few selfies for posterity’s sake, before Ally and crew made their way to snag a prime photo-taking spot. Hanging out at the start I bumped into Kaci Lickteig who had finished 2nd at the Rocky Raccoon 100 earlier this year and was one of the pre-race favorites for the Women’s race. It was nice to see a familiar face and chat briefly as the clock slowly ticked down.

Then, all of a sudden, just as race founder Gordy Ainsleigh was saying a few words, the final 10 seconds were counted down and we were off and running. The race start is a bit cruel with just over 2,500ft of elevation gain in the first 4 miles, yet the lead guys and girls took off as if the terrain was flat. Meanwhile I settled into a steady hike/jog to *save* my legs/lungs for the final 96 miles of the race. No point going anaerobic at this stage of the game, right?

The air was cool, but the atmosphere was electric. I enjoyed the hike, and unusually for me, chatted quite a lot with runners from North Carolina, California, Texas and Alaska. I also took the opportunity to glance back several times and was amazed at the long line of runners snaking all the way back to Squaw. The higher we climbed, the more magnificent the views became. The last section of the climb was pretty steep, but after power-hiking for a few more minutes we finally reached the summit. Again, the view of Lake Tahoe from the top was breathtaking.

Photo courtesy Luis Escobar

The Escarpment – Photo courtesy Luis Escobar

After cresting Squaw, I think there was about 7 miles of rocky, rolling singletrack to negotiate – most of it downhill. I decided to take things easy this early in the race, as one of my biggest fears was destroying the quads leaving nothing left for the runnable miles much further down the line. The Lyon Ridge aid station was buzzing with excitement and offered plenty of support and encouragement, but on this occasion all I needed was a quick water top up.

The next 5 miles to Red Star Ridge were once again rocky, but rolled along nicely. It was also cool to see Kim Wrinkle doing his iRunFar-thing in this section, but unfortunately there was no time to stop and chat. At Red Star Ridge I took the time to drop off a couple of empty Island Boost packages, top off with water and refill my Tailwind soft flask. Aside from feeling a little light-headed (probably due to the average 7,000ft elevation), I was happy with how things were panning out.

The next section down to the Duncan Canyon aid station, and then Duncan Canyon itself, was spectacular, yet a little taxing on the legs. The downhill was pretty long, and surprisingly for this early in the race, I found myself all alone with no-one close by. No worries though – a few more miles and I’d get to see my crew for the first time at Robinson Flat. The “few miles” turned out to be a grinding, almost 4 mile climb, which for some reason, I wasn’t really expecting. I’d read the course description numerous times before the race, but oddly this climb had escaped my memory. Ugh.

The aid station noise finally came into earshot just as the trail flattened out a bit. Great news! I jogged in to the aid station where a volunteer removed my hydration vest so I could get weighed. It was a bit overwhelming to be honest, with several people asking questions at the same – “What was your starting weight?”, “What can I get you?”, “What’s in your bottles?”, “Do you have crew here”? Thankfully, as I hopped on the scale I spotted my crew enthusiastically waving in the distance and was able to hop off the scale and bypass any more questions and the majority of the aid station tables. For the record, I weighed in at 136lbs, but with the scale positioned on a sand/dirt mix, I didn’t think it was that accurate – besides, I’d been religious about my fluid intake and was happy with my level of thirst.

Robinson Flat to Michigan Bluff [68th Overall]
Again, it was great to see my crew at the aid station, but there was no time to hang around and chat. I dropped off my arm sleeves, gloves & empty fuel packets, as Shannon quickly switched out my Salomon soft flasks and Ally sprayed me down with MISSION sunscreen.

Out of Robinson there was a shortish 1 mile climb, followed by another 4-ish mile descent down to Miller’s Defeat (Mile 34). The legs still felt good and it was really nice to drop down to 6,000ft where the air felt more breathable. I remember really enjoying this dusty section of the course and for the first time in the race, managed to string together 4 miles in the 9:xx range.

Photo courtesy Glenn Tachiyama

Focused & Feeling Good! – Photo courtesy Glenn Tachiyama

Miller’s Defeat to Dusty Corners was another fun 4 mile section. I was able to stretch out the legs and even passed a couple of runners with a couple of sub-9:xx miles. Dusty Corners aid station was really enthusiastic too. I topped off my fluids and took advantage of a major sponge down before setting off to Last Chance.

This section rolled quite a bit, and I think there were a few sections where I decided to power hike instead of jog. A few runners around me commented on the temperature, but to be honest, I wasn’t finding it hot and the Mission Multi-Cool Buff was doing its job nicely. So far so good.

From Last Chance we dropped down another 1,800ft in the next 2.5 miles. The quads took a bit of a beating on this descent as I found it really difficult not to stride out. I guess I need to work on my descending skills. Thankfully, at the bottom of the canyon was a most welcome river crossing which really felt good on the legs. I could have stayed there for hours!

Once across the river, I was faced with the notorious hike to the Devil’s Thumb aid station – 36 glorious switchbacks on a 1,750ft climb. From what I remember there were only a couple of runnable sections on this climb, and I definitely worked up a sweat as I made my way to the top. At the aid station I took time to chug down some water, refill my bottles and stuff the cooling buff with ice.

Out of Devil’s Thumb there was a long (5 mile), gradual descent down to the El Dorado Creek. Halfway down the descent I noticed my 50 mile split was just under 10 hours – not too shabby, and well on pace for a shiny, silver sub-24 buckle. I forced the thought out of my mind though as there was still a lot of running left to do. It was also on this descent that I first noticed signs that my quads were getting sore. I tried to back off the pace a touch, but the braking action of slowing down seemed to put even more pressure on the muscles. With each painful stride forward, I decided my mind and body was ready for another climb.

Once across the bridge at the bottom (at least I think there was a bridge), the trail quickly steepened and I settled in for the almost 3 mile climb to Michigan Bluff (Mile 55.7) where I’d get to see my crew again. I was drinking a lot on this section of the course and at one point was a little concerned that I’d run out of fluids before I reached the aid station. Finally, the trail popped out onto a dusty, rutted road and in the distance I could hear the clapping and cheering of the Michigan Bluff aid station. Ah, civilization at last!

Entering Michigan Bluff

Entering Michigan Bluff – Photo courtesy Ally Speirs

Entering the aid station I removed my hydration vest and weighed in at 138.5lbs. That’s more like it! I bypassed the food/drink tables and jogged along to where Ally, Shannon and Greg had set up my supplies. After 50+ miles of running, it was really good to see them again. I switched out bottles, stocked up with Tailwind/Island Boost and took a minute or so to cool off with the giant MISSION cooling towel. Aside from the quads, everything felt good, although I’m pretty sure I whinged a bit about the two “brutal climbs” that I’d just negotiated. I didn’t hang around too long at Michigan Bluff and after a quick “See you at Foresthill”, I was off running again.

Michigan Bluff to Foresthill [66th Overall]
I ran part of the next section down to Volcano Canyon with another runner whose name escapes me at the moment. It was good to chat a bit, but he soon left me as the singletrack dropped off the closer we got to the canyon. I expected this section to be a bit flatter and, despite taking things pretty easy up to this point, was surprised at how much the downhills were already hurting.

The climb out of Volcano was a welcome respite for the quads, and it was nice to power hike the paved Bath Road section with one of Shannon’s friends who was looking for her runner (she was on pacing duties). From Bath Road it was just over a mile to the Foresthill aid station where I’d get to see my crew again and pick up Greg who would accompany me the last 38 miles of the race. This was a fun section along Foresthill Road with lots of cars honking their horns and folks outside their houses shouting and cheering.

The aid station was a bit overwhelming and quite hectic – lots of crew, and plenty of pacers all waiting anxiously for their runners. After a quick weigh in (138.5lbs again), and a few cups of coke, I exited the station and jogged along to find Ally, Shannon and Greg. Greg was raring to go, but I needed a few minutes to take on board more fuel and liquids, and also stuff the Petzl Nao Headlamp into my hydration vest for later on along the course. It was kinda nice to get going again, but as we headed out I realised it would be much later at night when I’d see my crew again at Highway 49 (Mile 93.5). 31.5 miles seemed so far away.

Foresthill to Highway 49 [77th Overall]
After running solo for much of the first 62 miles, it was great to have Greg for company and to chat a bit as we started the descent down to the American River Canyon along Cal Street. The 16 miles to the Rucky Chucky river crossing passed pretty quickly, although fatigue was definitely setting in and my quads were locking up.

Leaving Foresthill - Photo courtesy Ally Speirs

Leaving Foresthill – Photo courtesy Ally Speirs

Foresthill to Cal-1 was a nice descent, but it was hard to stretch out as my quads rebelled. Cal-1 to Cal-2 was a lot more technical, with numerous rollers along the red-soiled terrain. I think I stopped to shake out some rocks from one of my shoes along this stretch, and was surprised how tough it was just to bend down. Cal-2 soon arrived, however, and after topping up fluids and squeezing down an Island Boost, we were soon off again.

Cal-2 to Cal-3 was more downhill and more rollers. We hiked the ups, jogged the flats and suffered through the steeper parts of the descent. Once at Cal-3 I knew there was only about 5 miles to go to the near side aid station. Thankfully the singletrack levelled off a bit and we were able to run a decent pace along this stretch. At least it *felt* like a decent pace at the time…

I expected the singletrack to continue all the way to the river crossing, but it ended kind of abruptly and turned into a dusty fire road instead. I think there was a bit of a hike involved along here, before the road dropped down gently to the aid station. Once again I jumped on the scale (140lbs – back to my pre-race weight), topped off fluids and as darkness was almost upon us, strapped on a waist lamp and the Petzl Nao.

The short, steep descent to the river was slow going. My quads hurt and it was difficult to pick out a boulder to step down onto. The river crossing, however, was awesome. The cold water felt great on my legs and the support from the volunteers manning the guide rope was fantastic. At the far side of the river I mentioned how good the water felt on my quads, but at that precise moment, my right foot slipped on a rock and I nearly cramped up big time. Thankfully I successfully avoided the cramp and was able to jog slowly up to the far side aid station where our drop bags were waiting.

For the first time in the race I sat down and let a volunteer change my soaked shoes/socks. With 22 miles to go, it would be nice to at least start off with dry feet. The volunteer struggled a bit with my Injinjis, so I bent forward and helped her out. Greg changed his shoes too and after a few more minutes we were off power hiking to Green Gate – a steady 2 mile climb on a rather nice fire road.

I made sure to drink plenty on the climb and munched on a couple of dried pineapple pieces which I’d stowed in my drop bag. They tasted great and made a pleasant change from Tailwind and Island Boost. This section of the race was quite busy with several pacers making their way down to the far side aid station to meet and pick up their runners. It was also quite cool to be moving along with just a headlamp lighting the way.

We reached Green Gate in 61st position overall (the best of the day), quicker than expected and mentally I was still feeling good. Unfortunately it was on this next section to Auburn Lake Trails that I realized my quads were 100% shot and I wouldn’t be running much, if any, of the remaining 20 miles. The pain was intolerable and frustratingly I was forced to hobble down the descents one sorry step at a time. I’m still wincing at the very thought. Thankfully, I was still on pace for a sub-24 finish and was able to stride out on the flats and hike the ups at a pretty decent clip.

The 5 mile stretch to Auburn Lake Trails seemed to take forever, and by this time my Garmin had died and I was reliant on Greg to keep me up-to-date with regards to pace, estimated finish time etc. From what I can remember, ALT was a great, fully-stocked aid station, but with me reduced to a walk-only mode, there was literally no time to hang around.

Somewhat despondently, we headed out of Auburn Lake Trails faced with another rolling 4.5 miles to go to the next aid station at Browns Bar. I kept telling myself at least there were only 15 miles to the finish and in my mind mapped out the distance of a comparative route that I run most weekends. One step at a time, Steve. One step at a time.

Greg and I chatted often but also went quiet for long stretches. I think the stretch to Browns Bar was predominantly a quiet one, aside from the numerous times we were passed by runners moving quicker than us (i.e. not walking). I probably bugged Greg a lot on this section asking “How far since Auburn Lake Trails?”, “How much further to Browns Bar?”, “How much time in the bank for my sub-24?”. It was also frustrating as I felt like we should be running this allegedly-easy section of the course, but my legs just wouldn’t allow it.

Finally, Browns Bar came into earshot with some crazy loud tunes playing in the distance. It was a bit weird though as the closer we got, the quieter the songs became. Did we miss a turn, or did we have to run some kind of crazy loop to get down to the aid station? Suddenly, the tunes got louder and the aid station miraculously appeared before us! [Note: we found out after the race that Rogue Valley Runners who man the aid station apparently like to confuse runners by messing with the volume of their music. Thanks guys - it certainly worked for us.]

Out of Brown’s Bar came another painful 1.5 mile descent (are you kidding me?), followed by a 1.75 mile hike to Highway 49 where Ally and Shannon would be [patiently] waiting. Again, this section seemed to take forever, and the steep descent did nothing to help rejuvenate my quads. After being passed by at least another 4 or 5 sets of runners accompanied by their pacers, the Highway 49 streetlamps soon came into view and it was just a short hop across the road to the aid station.

I could sense Ally and Shannon were concerned about my dramatic slowing from Foresthill to Highway 49, but they didn’t mention it, and just made quick work of switching out my bottles and getting me on my way. I sat down briefly for some reason (not sure why to be honest), and decided to swap my Petzl Nao (which was starting to annoy me) for my Black Diamond ReVolt headlamp. Might as well have a bit of comfort for the final 6.5 miles, eh?

Highway 49 to Finish [87th Overall]
Heading out of Highway 49, we were greeted by another 1 mile gradual climb up to Cool Meadow. I would have loved to have run this section of the course but my legs were having none of it. Once across the meadow, there was another annoying 2.5 mile descent down to No Hands Bridge. Again, the pre-race plan was to run this section quite hard and make up a bit of time, but all I could do was keep up a pretty good walk pace.

The bridge soon came into view and was semi-lit up with Holiday lights. A nice touch, but all I could think about was one more climb, and just over a 5K left to the finish. As we crossed the bridge, Greg reassured me that I was on for a sub-23 finish if I could just keep the same pace going. However, I knew the climb up to Robie Point was a tough one and it would take a real effort to reach the Placer High School track in time.

The climb was indeed pretty brutal and coupled with some confusion regarding the distance to Robie, I was just ready to hit the asphalt and be done with the race. The folks at the Robie Point aid station provided a huge boost, however, and as we hit the last slope of the day, it hit me that I was about to complete the Western States 100 Endurance Run. Ally and Shannon were waiting just beyond the 99 mile marker, and it was really cool (and emotional) to follow the painted WS100 footprints and stride out together towards Placer High. The school floodlights soon came into view, and it was such an amazing feeling to hop onto the track and run the last 250m to the finish line, just as I’d imagined so many times in the weeks/months leading up to the race.

The Finish - Photo courtesy Ally Speirs

The Finish – Photo courtesy Ally Speirs

The End
After crossing the line and thanking Ally, Shannon and Greg, I wasn’t really sure what to do with myself. I chatted briefly with Kim Wrinkle (iRunFar.com), sat down for a while to reflect on the race, but soon started to feel chilly. Ally went back to the crew vehicle to grab warm clothes and some compression gear, whilst I weighed in for the final time (140.5lbs would you believe), before heading to the medical tent to snag a cot and a blanket to keep me warm.

What Next? - Photo courtesy Ally Speirs

What Next? – Photo courtesy Ally Speirs

The next 6 to 8 hours were a mix of snoozing in the car, chowing down on the post-race breakfast, sitting in a chair icing my feet and attempting to stay out of the sun. Finally it was time to head to the Awards Ceremony where the Top 10 Male/Females were announced, and every finisher presented with their respective buckle.

100 Miles One Day Silver Buckle

“100 Miles | One Day” Silver Buckle

Thanks to the Merrell Bare Access Trail and Injinji TRAIL 2.0 socks, my feet are the happiest they’ve ever been post-100 Miler. Aside from a couple of small hot spots, they look almost the same as they did before the race. My quads, however, took several days to come around, and 9 days on, are still a teeny bit tender. I thought I’d prepared enough for the Western States 100, but in reality I guess I was nowhere near ready for the almost 23,000ft of descending after all. In all honesty the 18,000ft of climbing wasn’t too bad, and I felt pretty comfortable hiking at a good clip where I needed to. I’m just a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to run much in the last 22 miles and take advantage of the “easier” sections of the course that I kept reading about.

Deep in the latter miles of the race, I remember telling Greg that I had no plans to return to the Western States 100. Despite the trashed quads, I had no doubts along the way that I could finish (which of course I did), but I wasn’t feeling the need to return and put myself through the pain and suffering of a very challenging 100 Miler. Of course, just a day or two after the race, thoughts of “I could do this better” and “Maybe if I tried this?” started to creep into my mind, and maybe, just maybe, one day I’ll be entering the WS100 Lottery again.

I would also like to officially thank Ally, Shannon and Greg for their tireless work last weekend in supporting me. Running 100 Milers is tough, but it’s arguably just as tough, if not tougher, to crew these races. I owe each of you big time. Also, the online support I received via Facebook and Twitter was amazing, and it really kept me going to know that so many people were tracking my crazy journey to Auburn. A sincere thank you to everyone.

Finally, thanks to Hammer Nutrition, Tailwind and Island Boost for fueling me through the 100 miles with no stomach issues whatsoever. Aside from a couple of pieces of dried pineapple, I stuck religiously to a liquid only strategy, and it worked tremendously. I did tire slightly of the Tailwind taste in the last 10 miles, but I think if I’d been running, that wouldn’t have been so much of an issue.

So, lots of positives to be taken from the race – I finished with happy feet and a happy stomach, and achieved my pre-race goal of earning a Sub-24 buckle. There’s also the knowledge that I can definitely do better if I’m lucky enough to get another shot at the race one day. We’ll see, I guess…

Other Online Race Recaps:
Ian Sharman – Sharman Ultra
Juan Escobar – Tales of an El Paso Trail Runner
Stephanie Howe
Max King – Western States and All That History
Alex Varner – Western States 2014
Larisa Dannis – The Dark Horse
Mike Aish – California Dreaming
Dylan Bowman – Western States 100
Pam Smith – Western States 2014: One Great Big Fake Orgasm
David Laney – Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run

2014 DC North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler

Bit of a last minute decision to run this one! Western States 100 preparation has been going well, but in the back of my mind I couldn’t shake the thought that I needed one final, long training run. Of course, some actual trail experience with a modicum of incline/decline would sure to be beneficial too.

Aside from the typical Friday afternoon traffic, the drive to the DC area was fairly uneventful – there was even enough time to meet good friend Andy O’Brien at The North Face Tyson’s Corner store for packet pickup. One less thing to do on race morning if nothing else. Dinner was enjoyable at the local Sweetwater Tavern, and with all my gear laid out by 9pm, it was soon time to set the Saturday morning alarm and turn in for the night.

As expected, 3:30am came all too quickly. Breakfast was a couple of scoops of Sustained Energy – enough calories to eliminate that hungry feeling but without having to force down any solid foods. 20 minutes later, dressed and bags loaded, it was time to head to the race.

The start area was unlike most typical Ultra events – music blaring, DJ making announcements and many of the vendor tents bustling with excited runners. I just wandered around with Ally; chatting, sipping water and counting down the minutes to the off.

Staying cosy pre-race in the Injinji Hoodie

Staying cosy pre-race in the Injinji Hoodie

A few minutes before 5am, runners were ushered to the start line, and after a brief speech by The North Face athlete Dean Karnazes, we were off and running. Four young kids took off like it was a 10K but I settled into the pack and concentrated on taking things nice and easy.

The first few miles took place on a grassy field (perfect for getting the feet wet early in the race!), a golf cart path cutting through several fairways, before finally reaching the Potomac Heritage Trail. Pace was in the low to mid 8:00s and everything (as it should at this early stage) felt good. My plan for the day was to keep things under control and run a steady, even-paced race, without getting sucked in to the usual race day madness. I was also keen to test out a shoe/sock combination (Merrell Bare Access Trail/Injinji TRAIL 2.0) and practice consistent fueling with my planned Western States nutrition. As we continued along the winding single-track trail I forced myself to check my heart rate reading every once in a while to ensure the effort level stayed easy.

I was amazed how quickly the first 15 miles passed, and as I approached the Great Falls aid station where Ally was patiently waiting, realised I was almost one third done with the race already. I topped up with water, dumped in a serving of Tailwind and headed out on the first of three “Great Falls Loops” in 15th place.

Aid Station Mile 15.3

Aid Station Mile 15.3 [Photo Ally Speirs]

With 3 out-and-backs per 6.9 mile loop, it was an excellent chance to see how far ahead the other runners were. The 3 or 4 “fast kids” were nowhere to be seen, but I counted at least 10 other guys ahead of me – some looking good, some already struggling. I told myself to stick to the plan, maintain the steady pace and make the most of what ups and downs there were on the course. I made it back to the Great Falls aid station with Loop 1 completed right on 60 minutes. Ally was nowhere to be seen, but I figured she was probably out logging some miles of her own. After a quick Tailwind top-up and serving of Island Boost, I was off and running for Loop 2.

With some of the 50 Mile runners starting their first loop, the course was definitely more crowded now. I just kept the steady pace going; feeling strong on the ups and swift on the downs. I got back to Great Falls in 59 minutes, with Ally waiting at the drop bags to find out what I needed. I stuck to the Tailwind/Island Boost combo, but made a point of telling her that at the end of the next loop I’d be ditching the Ultimate Direction AK Vest and just carrying a handheld for the final 15 miles. The temperature was rising and I looked forward to getting some air around my upper body.

The final 6.9 mile loop passed quickly. Once again, I focused on consistent fueling and steady pacing, and managed to overtake a couple more runners on the return to the aid station. Ally was ready with my supplies and after ditching the AK Vest, I was soon on my way. I didn’t realise at the time, but Loop 3 took exactly an hour – giving me splits of 60, 59 and 60 minutes for the 3 loops. Happy with that!

Aid Station Mile 35.5

Aid Station Mile 35.5 [Photo Ally Speirs]

With just about 15 miles left to run, my main goal was to keep on top of hydration/nutrition and stay as strong as possible. I knew there were a few rollers on the way back and wondered how my legs would react to the ups and downs. Frustratingly, I managed to miss the left turn onto Bootlegger Trail and probably wasted at least 4 or 5 minutes backtracking to the short, steep incline. I’m always amazed how a momentary lapse in concentration (this time I was looking down at the rocky terrain to make sure I didn’t trip) can potentially cost you a lot of time and wasted energy. Thankfully, on this occasion, I quickly realized my mistake and was able to head back to make the correct turn.

Last time I ran this race I remember struggling somewhat with the heat and distance between aid stations. The final half marathon distance seemed to drag on forever, and the steep little inclines as the trail ventured away from the river really took their toll. This year I felt much stronger and in control. I power hiked the ups and was able to negotiate the downs much more fluently.

The trail was also quite busy with marathon runners heading out towards Great Falls for their race, and 50K runners heading back to finish off theirs. I guess saying “Good job!” at least 100 hundred times helps pass the time, and it was nice to receive several “Looking strong!” comments too.

Eventually I reached the Mile 47 Sugarland aid station where I heard someone shout “Look who it is!”. Turns out local guy Aric Martinez had showed up to watch the last few miles of the race and offer his support. It was cool to see Aric but I didn’t want to hang around, so after downing a few cups of Coca-Cola and a quick water bottle top-up, I set off on the 2.2 mile out-and-back which would bring us back to Sugarland.

Aid Station Mile 47

Aid Station Mile 47 [Photo Aric Martinez]

The out-and-back was a little muddy but not bad enough to slow me down, and aside from dodging a few flying marathon-relay runners, it was quite uneventful. To be honest, I just wanted to close out the race and get some proper food inside me. However, as I entered Sugarland for the final time with approximately 1.6 miles to go, Aric informed me that the 3rd place guy (really?) was just 90 seconds ahead. Apparently he was 4 minutes ahead when I started the out-and-back so I’d gained 2.5 minutes in just 2.2 miles without picking up the pace at all.

All through this race I was proud that I’d stuck to my plan and avoided getting sucked into race mode, but with a podium slot now within striking distance, a switch flipped, and I was off doing what I love to do – chase down the opposition. It took about 3/4 of a mile to reel him in, and from that point on there was no looking back. I crossed the line in 7:21:42 (about 15 minutes quicker than my 2011 race) and was confirmed as the 3rd place guy by the race announcer.

Post-race Happy Feet in the Merrell Bare Access Trail and Injinji TRAIL 2.0

Post-race Happy Feet in the Merrell Bare Access Trail and Injinji TRAIL 2.0 [Photo Ally Speirs]

Ally was there at the finish, and after enjoying the best post-race beer ever (a Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA) and a quick bite to eat, it was time to change into dry clothes and head home.

Favorite stat of the race – in the first 48 miles I ran just two sub-8 minute miles, but with someone to chase and the race-mode switch flipped on, I closed out the last 1.5 miles at a crazy 6:40/mile pace. Nice to know there was something in reserve…