Lessons to Learn When You Don’t Finish the Race

by Larry Carroll

To an outsider, headlines coming from the recent Barkley Marathon must have seemed frustrating. For the second straight year, not a single person finished the race? Out of 40 participants, they all went home without crossing the finish line? What’s the point?

Experienced ultra-runners, however, undoubtedly read things a bit differently. Naturally, finishing a race is always preferred — and to strap on your shoes means that you intend to give heart, body, soul and gallons of sweat to achieve that goal. But DNF’s are simply a reality of life, and sometimes the lessons you learn from a “Did Not Finish” are invaluable on future runs.

With that in mind, here are just a few of the things a “DNF” can teach you about yourself, your body, and the adversities of trail-running. Because as the old saying goes: You can lose the battle, but still win the war.

Your Rest Level – How well did you sleep the night before the race? How about the night before that? Did you sleep at home, or in a hotel? And when you were on the trail, was exhaustion an issue?

To many elite athletes looking to spend hour after hour pushing themselves to the physical limit, that level of rest is a key factor in performance. In general, adults should strive for 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night — and it’s almost a guarantee that for several days after a marathon, you’ll average another hour or two as your body recovers.

But how much sleep you get right before the marathon is a personal choice akin to any other facet of training. You need to know your body, know how much caffeine will help you/hurt you in achieving that goal, and act accordingly. And much like having a bad workout, a bad run can be both a bummer and an opportunity to learn. If you didn’t feel well rested on the trail, take notes on what you did the night before, and in the future adjust accordingly.

Are You Running Correctly? – Take a look at this blog entry (Going Wide: The Role of Stride Width in Running Injury and Economy) by physical therapist/ultra-runner Joe Uhan and you’ll begin to see all the possibilities for bad habits that can set in when we’re doing what seems like the most natural activity in the world: Running.

Narrow strides, hip weakness, forward trunk engagement and other such issues are only a few things to consider as you run. Like a golf swing or a baseball pitcher’s motion, it looks so effortless to the untrained eye — but when done correctly, you’re looking at maximized potential, body discipline, and the unflinching ability to repeat a motion time and again without variation.

Do you need to adjust your own landing or push-off? Are you running economically? A DNF may signal your own need to see a physical therapist, strip your running style down to its bare elements, and rebuild it for better results.

How to Avoid Injury – Many DNF’s occur because of injury, or the fear of causing one. Both offer valuable learning opportunities for the runner.

If this is your first run after recovering from an injury, perhaps the DNF is telling you that you should have waited longer. As frustrating as it is, your body is basically telling you that you’ll need to adapt to the new reality of a body part not functioning as well as it once did. Does this mean your ultra-running days are over? Of course not, but it may indicate that you’ll have to start running more by intellect and less by instinct.

On the other hand, perhaps you bowed out of the race because some part of your body didn’t feel right. Of course, no marathon goes without some degree of discomfort, but your post-mortem on the race should include an examination of possible factors. What did you eat in the hours before the run? How about on the trail itself? What behaviors did you observe while stretching? Should they be adjusted? These and other such questions might pay off in future races, so that you won’t experience that same injury fear again.

Weather Adaptability – With every ultra-marathon, weather and terrain is a huge factor. So, what did you learn from your DNF?

Perhaps it’s that your clothing was insufficient to cope with the elements. Perhaps you learned that your running shoes weren’t appropriate, that they weren’t as waterproof as advertised, or didn’t grip the trail to your liking.

When you’re out on the trail, you also have the opportunity to learn about yourself, so make sure you’re listening. Did the heat bother you more than you expected? Have you always considered yourself a good night runner, but for some reason it didn’t go so well this time? Such things can be taken into consideration for future races, and the selections of which to run.

How Do You Bounce Back? – Most importantly, a DNF teaches you about your resilience. How do you fare in the face of what some may perceive as a defeat? Are you the kind of person who jumps right back on the horse, plots a careful return, or simply throws in the towel? Will you start back with a smaller race and build off that success? Or will you return with a similar race, determined to prove the “DNF” was a fluke?

So learn your lessons, adjust accordingly, and get back out there. Because ultimately it’s the bounce back, not the failure, that speaks volumes about any athlete.


Every Ultra-Runner’s Secret Weapon: Socks?

By Larry Carroll

Let’s face the facts: Running shoes are sexy. Shorts get lots of attention, tees display messages that tell everyone a runner is serious, silly, or sweating for a cause. Then there are the accessories: packs to carry, GPS trackers that boast the allure of new tech, and of course nothing makes you look cooler than a good pair of sunglasses.

But the one thing (almost) every runner wears, and very few observers ever notice, is socks. They’re boring, they’re simple — and if chosen incorrectly, they could make a huge difference between a smooth run and one dogged by pain and discomfort.  

As Albus Dumbledore said in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”: One can never have enough socks. So, let’s give some love to the unsung secret weapon of ultra-runners everywhere, as we consider the reasons why proper sock selection is crucial.

Hold The Cotton – Sure, if your plan is to Netflix and Chill on your couch on a Friday night, cotton socks are a comfy choice. But those in the running community know that cotton is a terrible material for sweating, as it absorbs moisture and causes blisters. On hot days and in wet weather especially, it should be avoided at all costs — instead, preferred footwear options will typically contain merino or synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon or spandex. What you need is a fabric that dries quickly, breathes well, and protects your feet mile after mile.

How Low Can You Go? – While a lot of elite athletes prefer the “no show” look, lately crew length has returned from 80s exile to become the norm. It isn’t just a comfort issue, however — when you’re running on trails, taller socks can act as a barrier against brush scrapes and keep dust and dirt from accumulating. For this and other reasons, knee-length socks are the preferred option for many runners, because they cover the whole calf.

Don’t Decompress – Compression socks are all the rage these days, with many athletes thinking they speed up recovery, improve blood flow to the muscles and lessen fatigue. Snug fitting and stretchy, when worn correctly these socks will squeeze your leg and make you feel better on the trail.

As with running shoes, the key to compression socks is making sure they fit properly. It is recommended that runners use a tape measure to get the circumference of the ankle, and measure the widest part of the calves, before purchasing compression socks accordingly.

Minimize the Annoyance – If you choose your running socks well, you’ll never have to think about them. If you choose poorly, they will dominate your thoughts for mile after mile.

For instance, durability is a major concern because you’re going to be putting serious mileage on your feet and if a hole develops, it most likely will not be pleasant. Similarly, consider the seam, which could rub you the wrong way — quite literally. Thankfully, many socks today are seamless, presenting heel-to-toe comfort for those who prefer the seamless lifestyle.

Smell You Later – It’s a reality of running: Your socks are going to smell bad. But many socks offer options to diminish the odor, from wool to moisture-wicking fibers to silver ions that supposedly kill germs. Such factors are worth considering — particularly if you have a partner brave enough to do your laundry.

Extra Support – Some socks have silicone pyramids that massage the Achilles tendon; others have toes, maximizing blister protection; others still have dual layers that rub against each other to prevent chafing. There are socks that conform to the left and right structure of the foot — and don’t even get us started on cushioning options. The bottom line is, no matter what you’re looking for in a sock it seems to be out there — so compare notes with other runners in your life, and proceed accordingly.

What’s Your Style? – Last but certainly not least, a runner’s socks offer one last chance to personalize a look.

While many are purely functional, others come in a variety of styles and colors. Are you inclined to go fluorescent, so you’ll be easier to see on the trail? Or maybe have your own socks custom-made with a design, logo or message for all to see? Yeah, socks can be a little boring — but only if you want them to be that way.


Hallucinations: Humorous or Harmful?

by Larry Carroll

They sound like something out of a Road Runner cartoon, or a David Lynch film — hallucinations, mirages, mind-trickery that convinces you something is so real you could reach out and touch it. But as humorous as it may be to conjure up thoughts of backward-dancing dwarves and unicorns, for elite runners such phantasmagoria can be both horrifying and dangerous.

Unlike shin splints or Achilles tendonitis, however, hallucinations are neither easily diagnosed nor treatable. In fact, many runners consider them part of ultra lore, fodder for some good campfire stories the night before a big race. But when an athlete sacrifices body and mind for hours at a time, often in remote areas and into the middle of the night, there’s no way of knowing if hallucinations will hamper your journey — until they do.

“Your mind plays tricks on you,” ultra-marathon legend Courtney Dauwalter said last year in a YouTube interview (Courtney Dauwalter Ultra Runner | Talks First Hallucinations in Ultra Race), stopping just short of invoking the “h-word” to describe what she’s seen out on the trail. “You’re seeing something, and instantly your brain tries to tell you what you’re seeing, and it’s not at all what’s there. One time in Steamboat [Springs], I was running along these trails. It was getting dark — and next to the trail, a woman was churning butter.”

“There was a colonial woman just standing there, churning butter,” she says with a laugh. “It wasn’t real; she wasn’t there.”

In 2013 at the Hardrock 100, Steve Pero was running along Colorado’s remote Bear Creek Trail in the middle of the night when he saw a camper who had set up his tent in the middle of the trail, then came across hundreds of 1970s-style transistor radios. As Jay Sanguinetti, a University of New Mexico research assistant professor — and runner — tells Trail Runner magazine (Ultrarunning Hallucinations Happen. Here’s How to Deal With Them ), such hallucinations are rare but perfectly plausible in their cause, if not their storyline.

“Your brain chooses what data from the optic nerve it wants to use,” says Sanguinetti. “It gets very complicated when it’s dark outside, or very shady…Your brain is saying, ‘This is the best I can do, given that you’ve been awake for two days while running. You’re going to see some stuff, and I’m not sure if it’s out there or in here.'”

At that point, which hallucinations you see out on the trail are as personal as any decision you may make in your daily life — this one, however, is more about your subconscious choice than any you’d willingly select. For Gary Robbins in the 2016 Barkley Marathon, it manifested itself as house numbers on trees and faces on the leaves he was trampling on.

“The first time, it’s like blistering or chafing,” he tells Trail Runner. “It’s super painful. Then, you realize you’re not going to die. Years of experience definitely helped me handle hallucinating.”

But just like a mirage in an old cartoon, as long as the runner keeps moving along the vision offers no danger, vanishing into the ether as quickly as it appeared. As Gary Dudney wrote in a blog entry on Ultrarunning Magazine (Got Hallucinations?), sometimes such visions aren’t even the sorts of thing that should be on dry land.

“Each vision was as distinct and vivid as a cellphone snapshot,” he says of a race in Shenandoah Valley that had him seeing dolphins in the middle of the night. “The dolphin and its wave dissolved when I got even closer and directed my flashlight beam at a big chunk of fallen tree trunk with a bushy little sapling sticking up behind it … A few minutes later I ran through an area full of tree stumps, which at first I could have sworn were robot men.”

For a fascinating read on the realities behind such visions, take a look at “Within the Dreams, Reality and Hallucinations of Ultra-Marathon Runners,” a 2003 study ( Within the dreams, reality, and hallucinations of ultra-marathon runners ) by Andrew J. Mojica that analyzes the visions of Badwater ultra-marathoners and even draws parallels to the hallucinations of the Greek dispatch runner Pheidippides who claimed to see the god Pan in 490 B.C.

According to Mojica, six people out of the twenty study participants reported seeing hallucinations, most between midnight and sunrise, most less than a minute and attributing sleep deprivation as the likely cause.

Ultimately, all you can do is try to minimize your own likelihood of hallucinating (get your sleep, run with a pacer who can assure you they don’t see any butter churners, try to keep your mind from drifting) and if you do encounter one, keep calm. Because as long as they aren’t instructing you to step off a cliff, hallucinations are harmless.

“You’re in a really unusual situation, not faced by most of us,” Mojica tells Trail Runner. “It’s fine. Try not to stigmatize it, and it should be less frightening.”

According to Dauwalter, you just have to accept that robot men, dolphins and butter-churning comes with the challenge. “My first hallucination was a pterodactyl and some giraffes and I was like ‘this is not safe!’,” she smiles. “But when I ran by the colonial woman, I waved at her.”

running shoes

How to choose your next pair of running shoes

by Larry Carroll

For ultra-runners, selecting a pair of shoes is like Han Solo bonding with his spaceship or John Wick picking out a certain weapon of choice. You’re about to head into battle together, the two of you are about to share a special bond — and when showtime hits, you want to make sure you won’t be let down.

Another unfortunate reality of endurance running, however, is that you need to replace your kicks with frequency, and innovation is constantly changing your options. With that in mind, below is a simple breakdown of some questions you should be asking yourself when the time comes to select your footwear.

Trail-runner or road-runner? – Although you’d be hard-pressed to find a lengthy run that doesn’t combine the two to some extent, the first choice you must make is which kind of shoe your needs require. For this discussion we’ll assume trail runner shoes, which are generally designed to prevent foot rotation injuries over control of pronation (the degree to which the arch of your foot collapses upon impact). 

Is my store up to the task? – It sounds obvious, but far too many runners put more thought into shoe brand and style than they do fit. Even if you think you know your shoe size, don’t take it for granted. Make sure that your selected shoe seller has the measuring abilities, staff, and selection to properly fit your feet — then take the time to do so before you do anything else. You’d be surprised at how much impact a half-size difference can have when you’re out on the trail.

Light, rugged or off? – Trail running shoes can largely be divided into 3 categories. If you tend to run on well-groomed trails, then you want something close to traditional running shoes, weight-wise, because a brisk pace is most important to you. Rocks and roots aren’t as much of a concern, so you want to go with a light trail shoe. Rugged trail shoes, meanwhile, will generally give you additional underfoot protection, toe guards and lug patterns to keep you upright and protected — and can range widely based on how crazy you plan on getting out there. Speaking of which, the last category is Off Trail shoes, which offer the most resilient materials and actively guard against twisted ankles while simultaneously satisfying all your weatherproofing needs – but remember, the more weatherproofing you take on, the less your feet will breathe out there.

Be realistic – While some people might think it could be inspiring to buy shoes for a 100-mile race when your training level is only around 5 miles, it’s really just overkill. Be honest with yourself about where your training currently stands, and shop for the races/training in your immediate future. Don’t worry — when you’re ready to run Badwater, you can always come back and get another pair.

What’s your stack height? – Some runners swear that thick, protective shoes will make your runs more comfortable and less likely to result in injury. Others desire less cushioning, wanting a feel so natural that it’s almost like running barefoot. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice — but if you lean towards minimal footwear, just be sure that you build up gradually.

Give yourself a wide berth – For some, a wide forefoot is best. If you’re running very long distances, for instance, or if you happen to have wider feet and need a bit more wiggle room. Shoe width is an important decision, however, because losing fit precision could lead to clumsiness on the course.

What’s the off-set? – It seems like a minor decision, but when you plan to spend mile after mile with a pair of shoes it’s one worth asking: How much lower do you want your toes in relation to your heel? With each stride, shoes with less of a drop encourage you to land on your fore-foot or mid-foot; a bigger drop is ideal for striking with your heel.

Once you’ve considered all this and made your purchase, you get to enjoy the best part: Busting some new shoes out of their box, strapping them on and taking them out for a maiden voyage. Is it weird to bond with a pair of sneakers? Remember, what happens on the trail stays on the trail.


Is it a good idea to ultra-marathon on a Keto diet?

by Larry Carroll

If there’s one thing that has been around as long as the concept of running for health, it’s dieting for health. Much like running itself, dieting has witnessed the rise and fall of many fads, vast quantities of products touting the ultimate solution, and many programs that prove difficult to stick with. Nowadays, the hot word in dieting is “keto,” and as more long-distance runners are looking to it for an edge, one has to wonder: Is it a good idea to ultra-marathon on a keto diet?

For decades, the image of a long-distance runner in the days before a marathon was relatively clear-cut: Huddled over huge plates of pasta, shoving a banana in the mouth at the starting line, treating themselves to chocolate milk in an attempt to get sugar back to the muscles post workout. Of course, all these images run contrary to the rise of the ketogenic diet, which promotes a high-fat, adequate-protein, low-carbohydrate lifestyle that forces the body to burn fats rather than carbs.

According to a recent article by CNN (https://money.cnn.com/2018/09/17/news/companies/keto-diet-trend/index.html), “With the help of social media and word of mouth, demand for keto-friendly products have gone through the roof … Interest in keto has far outpaced interest in other fad diets. A Google Trends chart over the past year show searches for ‘keto’ have dwarfed searches for ‘paleo,’ ‘Whole 30’ and ‘intermittent fasting.'”

Naturally, when something the media describes as a “fad diet” hits such pervasive proportions, it is going to bleed over into the world of athletics and fitness. It’s no surprise, then, that someone like Zach Bitter is giving interviews talking about his recent setting of the record for fastest 100 mile trail run while crediting a diet with virtually no carbs.

Remembering his high school and college days, Bitter tells Men’s Journal (https://www.mensjournal.com/health-fitness/zach-bitter-100-mile-american-record-holder-he-also-eats-almost-no-carbs/): “My diet was clean, but probably 60% carbs. Then, in 2010, I started participating in ultra-endurance events and noticed that things weren’t ideal — not being able to sleep consistently through the night, having big energy swings during the day, chronic inflammation in my ankles, things like that.”

After meeting with Jeff Volek, an Ohio State University professor/expert in low carbohydrate research, Bitter changed to a diet that now has carbs accounting for as little as 5% of his diet. “The inflammation went away really quickly, and within a month I was sleeping way better, like getting through the night,” Bitter explains. “And I noticed that my energy levels were consistent throughout the day.”

Whenever any athlete decides to go Keto, the primary question seems to be the same: How can you fuel yourself during an endurance race?

According to Kristin, a blogger at Madcity Eats, it was just a matter of time before her body got accustomed to burning fat, not carbs. “I started training for a 50k after being on the keto diet for about four months At that point, I was fully fat-adapted, meaning my body had shifted into a metabolic state where it was using fat as its primary fuel source.,” she writes (https://madcityeats.com/my-first-ultra-marathon-on-a-keto-diet-eb6e66840cce), observing that the fat in her diet made her less hungry than in past training, allowed her to skip breakfasts and rely on fuel from the previous night’s dinner, and like Bitter led to her recovering from workouts faster. “I know the ketogenic diet is working for me  —  not only in my day-to-day life, but also in my endurance pursuits.”

Much like Atkins and other low-carb diets, keto puts your body in a metabolic state called ketosis. Your body becomes efficient at burning fat for energy, and supplies energy for the brain by creating ketones in the liver. Reductions in blood sugar and insulin levels are common, which can result in health benefits. However, health experts have voiced concerns over ketoacidosis — a dangerous condition that occurs when the body stores too many ketones — which could lead to liver, kidney or even brain damage, particularly in diabetics. Even if you closely monitor your transition into the keto diet, the so-called “keto flu” should have you expecting to feel tired and in some sort of gastrointestinal distress for several days.

Then there’s the matter of a recent study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness where Edward Weiss, PhD, associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University, found with some colleagues that participants actually performed worse on cycling and running tasks after 4 days on a ketogenic diet than that same window on a high-carb diet.

“Just losing a few pounds is enough to give you a huge advantage on the bike, but I’m very concerned that people are attributing the benefits of weight loss to something specific in the ketogenic diet,” Weiss tells Health magazine (https://www.health.com/weight-loss/keto-diet-side-effects). “In reality, the benefits of weight loss could be at least partially canceled out by reductions in performance.”

Not exactly music to the ears of an ultra-runner hoping to improve their time on the trail.

Ultimately, Kristin at Madcity Eats may sum it up best: “What I learned is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to training and racing while in ketosis. Everyone is different and has different fueling needs based on factors like body composition, how long you’ve been fat adapted and the duration of your race. Some athletes can train and race in a fasted state; others need to eat before and during a race. Still others opt to break from ketosis in the days leading up to an event and consume more carbohydrates for optimal performance.”

As the TV commercials say: Consult your doctor. Together, perhaps you’ll decide that keto offers the right path to reach your training goals. But until then, you might not want to throw away all those boxes of spaghetti just yet.

get your dog fit

How to get your dog fit for long distance running

by Larry Carroll

Ultra-runners can be divided into two categories: Those who prefer a running partner, and those who prefer silence. Throughout centuries of undying companionship, dogs have earned the term “Man’s Best Friend.” It would make perfect sense, then, that the ideal state of training for many runners is alongside a 4-legged friend.

Running with a dog, however comes with so many questions. Which breeds are best equipped? How can you get them accustomed to running long distances? How much equipment will you need to add to your own? And, perhaps most importantly: How do you get them to stop chasing every darn squirrel they see along the route?

Cushla Lamen is a fitness instructor, Canicross racer and canine myotherapist — and she says the key to getting your dog out on the trail with you is simply treating them like anyone else. “Dogs need to build up to long distances slowly and steadily, just like their human companions,” she recently told Trail Running magazine ( HOW DO I TRAIN FOR A MUD RUN? ). “By taking your dog with you on training runs and building distances together, you’ll ensure you’re both race fit. Start with 5km to 10km, then add an additional 3km per week up to 20km. Overall, it’s down to the dog; if they stop, so do you.”

As much as you and your dog may come to feel like a team, it’s unfortunately impossible to sit Fido down and explain that you’re about to do a 5K, a marathon or a simple run to the corner market. Some dogs, however, may come to recognize something like a backpack you wear as an indication that it’s time for a lengthy run.

They are also likely to recognize the harness/bungee line/waist belt combos preferred by those who have embraced Canicross — a cross country sport that views the human as a driver and the canine as a sort of engine, responding to voice commands while embracing a team aesthetic that engages both the dog’s body and its mind. In the Canicross world, runners go hands-free and often use mushers terms to drive their dog, brief commands like “Go Gee” (go right) or “On by” (ignore, keep going) — but ultimately, you can use any terms you like in training your dog out on the trail, as long as they are consistent and easily understood.

If you don’t yet have a tail-wagging trail buddy in your life yet, there are certain breeds better suited to the task than others. Consider such breeds as Weimaraners (muscular, love to be alongside their masters), Vizslas (long gait, enjoys exercise), German Shorthaired Pointers (built for mileage) and Golden/Labrador Retrievers for unrivaled companionship. If you’d prefer a smaller dog — after all, at some point you need to stop running and bring the dog home, and a one-bedroom apartment might not work for a Rhodesian Ridgeback — Jack Russell Terriers are very active and eager to learn commands, Fox Terriers are great for running in heat, and although their prissy reputation may not call it to mind, poodles were bred for long, slow runs. If you’re more inclined to rescue than adopt from a breeder, dogs with any combination of the above breeds are likely to satisfy your needs.

As for equipment, if you’re not looking to go the full Canicross route you could crib some notes from record-setting trail runner Alicia Vargo. As she told Outside Magazine ( The Best Gear for Running with Your Dog ), her dog runs through Arizona’s pine forests wearing a pack that carries its own water in two 0.6-liter collapsible hydration bladders — and attaches to a quick-draw, two-foot-long leash that can be stashed for off-leash runs. “It gives him a sense of purpose or makes him feel like he is working,” she says. “He is a border collie, after all, and needs to work to be happy.”

Other products worth researching include Musher’s Secret (HDP Invisible Dog Boots Wax-Based Cream Mushers Secret )– a balm for rubbing on dog feet before they run on particularly hot or cold surfaces; Zuka Bowls (ZUKA TRAVEL DOG BOWLS) — easy to fold, holds 10 or 16 ounces of water and comes with a carabiner; and of course, you can’t run without treats to reward good behavior such as Zuke’s Mini Naturals (Zuke’s Mini Naturals Healthy Moist Dog Treats Variety Pack – 6 Flavors (Roasted Pork, Wild Rabbit, Roasted Chicken, Delicious Duck, Savory Salmon, & Fresh Peanut Butter) — small, yummy and perfect for bringing on a run. Also, you may want to consider bringing dog booties and a first aid kit in your supplies.

Much of running with a dog is simple common sense. Before becoming an ultra-runner, it’s wise to speak with your doctor; similarly, consult a veterinarian before asking your dog to become one. Just as it’s wise for us to avoid warmer temperatures, you’ll want to consider the same for your companion. Finally, don’t feed the dog just before or after a long run — just as you wouldn’t do that to yourself.

Ultimately, running with a dog is about the two of you operating as one. So be sure to take time and listen to how the dog is breathing during your run, keep an eye on their gait and make sure they aren’t showing signs of injury or exhaustion, and be prepared for some days which may go better than others — just as they would if you were running solo. The best part about running with a dog may just be at the end, when it’s time to kneel down and give out a treat and a well-deserved pat on the head — knowing that together, the two of you have just accomplished a shared goal.


Badwater Salton Sea shifting focus back to 3-person teams for 2019

by Larry Carroll

Appropriately enough for a race that stands out with its two and three person team style, last year’s Badwater Salton Sea 81-Mile Ultramarathon was marked by its camaraderie and sportsmanship. As teams amiably fist-bumped passing competitors, team Too Legit to Quit proved worthy of their moniker while taking first place.

Of course, part of the fun for this particular race is watching the athletes adjust their strategies to embrace a format that demands each member of the team stay within 25 meters of each other, essentially running the entire 81 mile race in single file. The other fun part is watching these eccentric teams coalesce under such names as “Huey, Dewey and Louie,” “That Married Couple,” “Funky Pickles,” or for the follicly-challenged among us, the inspiring “Bald and the Beautiful.”

It’s no surprise, then, that as AdventureCorps counts down to the next run, they are keeping the focus on teamwork.

“We worked well together,” runners Walker Higgins and Dan McHugh of Too Legit to Quit, seen hugging after crossing the finish line first, said after their first place finish last year. “We were very opposite in many ways. When he was strong for the first half, he pulled and cut the wind for a good 30 miles. Then I started feeling strong on the trail. We talked and communicated and respected each other, and it worked.”

Of the 36 teams that started the 2018 race, 35 crossed the finish line. Without a doubt, AdventureCorps is hoping for similar results with the 2019 race, scheduled for April 28th. From Salton City (elevation: 234 feet below sea level) to Palomar Mountain (the tallest mountain in San Diego County, competitors will once again run on a challenging mix of road and trail, with a total elevation gain of more than 9000 feet.

This year’s Badwater Salton Sea has been capped with a limit of approximately 115 runners, consisting of twenty 2-runner teams and twenty-five 3-runner teams. The race will feature runners from 23 American states, as well as countries including Australia, Poland, Russia, Moldova, Japan and the Cayman Islands.

There are many things that make this race stand out from the pack, most notable being the “Team Ultra Racing” format. Long before the first step has been taken, a runner must consider who his teammate(s) will be — and select those with a similar running style and pace. Beyond that, you can determine whether you’d like to run with a same-gender partner or a mixed race (teams of two men and one women, or 1 man and two women, are considered equal). If you choose well, the result could be a once-in-a-lifetime bonding experience alongside someone else who similarly enjoys talking to pass the time or staying quiet to concentrate; if you choose poorly, it could yield 81 miles of staying within 25 meters of someone who is like a pebble in your shoe.

The Badwater Salton Sea website recommends several intriguing methods for selecting a teammate. Among those: “Why not pick teammates with whom you actually compete directly? You’re likely the same speed, so why not work together instead of against each other, for a change? Why not ‘bury the hatchet,’ so to speak?”

Such a Kumbaya moment is undoubtedly inspiring, as is another nugget of guidance the site offers for team selection: “What about fellow runners that you are mentoring, whether ‘formally’ or just in a friendly way? Why not help another runner have an amazing experience in your company, with you playing the role of ‘grizzled old veteran’ or Jedi of ultra-running? There is no Luke Skywalker without Obi-Wan Kenobi, after all.”

It would be easy to get distracted talking about the Badwater Salton Sea as one of the most demanding and extreme races in the world — after all, its centerpiece is an 8-mile, 3500 foot single-track trail ascent — but ultimately, what the folks at AdventureCorps want to focus on is the life-changing opportunity to bond with other runners. Which is why the company is pushing harder for 3x teams to compete.

“With no offense intended towards any 2x teams – past, present, or future – we want more 3x teams to compete because that’s the original spirit of the event and because it’s harder to enter – and finish – as an intact 3x team,” the company explains on its site, alongside an entrance fee which is actually cheaper if you have more runners, and guaranteed slots in the Badwater 135 for 3x teams who win their division. 

For the first two years of the race, only 3x teams were allowed. Now, in hopes for “a transcendent and meaningful [experience that] will resonate far and beyond after the race is over,” the Badwater Salton Sea is embracing its roots and reminding runners that while there is no “I” in team, there are three of them in sociability.


Lake Sonoma 50 features women’s field ready to topple a record pace

by Larry Carroll

As David Bowie once famously sang: “Changes are taking the pace I’m going through.” This year, participants in the Lake Sonoma 50 can be forgiven if that song is stuck in their heads as they set their own pace.

An iconic endurance race for more than a decade, the highly competitive Sonoma 50 has made a name for itself circumnavigating the gorgeous hiking trails on the Warm Springs arm of Lake Sonoma. This year, however, the race begins its second decade with a new race director — and a headlining cast of female athletes certain to put on a great show.

“It’s a great run — hard, but not stupid-hard — scenic, rugged, remote, and almost all single-track that with its continual ups, downs, twists, and turns wears you down,” outgoing director John Medinger recently told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat ( Lottery opens for insanely difficult Lake Sonoma 50 race ) upon stepping down to make way for Skip Brand to take over the position. “You give it your all for a really long time, and then you celebrate your finish with your friends.”

Brand, an ultrarunner and the owner of Healdsburg Running Company, is taking over the Sonoma 50 because the 67-year-old Medinger — the founder of Ultrarunning magazine who estimates he has run more than 110,000 miles in his life — is dialing back his commitments following 37 years devoted to the endurance running community.

Those who closely follow the Sonoma 50 are accustomed to a registration of only 400 runners, in a competitive race that rewards the top two men and women racers with guaranteed entry into the Western States Endurance run. They are also used to a race that embraces the spirit of giving — indeed, more than $200,000 have been given to charity by the race since it began. What they may not be prepared for, however, is the amount of drama heading into this year’s installment on April 13.

In 2018, the 10th installment of the race saw Jim Walmsley not only breaking his own course record, but doing it by so much that he was the first participant to ever finish in less than 6 hours. Walmsley took off and ran solo for much of the race, gaining incremental time on his previous course record from miles 12 through 38. Over on the women’s side, Keely Henninger similarly dominated from the beginning, nearly also setting the record but instead settling for the 2nd fastest women’s finish ever.

With that backstory in place, the 2019 Sonoma 50 takes center stage with a women’s field that is particularly stacked. In addition to Henninger’s returning attempt to break that record, registrants include such top names as Taylor Nowlin (winner of the Under Armour Copper Mountain 50k), Camelia Mayfield (winner of the Peterson Ridge Rumble 20 mile, Under Armour Mt. Bachelor 50k and Waldo 100k) and Abby Mitchell (winner of the Silverton Alpine 50k and the Austin Rattler 66k). As if those names aren’t enough, the Sonoma 50 will also feature such formidable athletes as Nicole Buurma, Kami Semick, Kelly Wolf and Julia Stamps.

Much like past installments, the 2019 Sonoma 50 will consist of 25 miles running into the hillside surrounding Lake Sonoma, then 25 back over the mostly single-track terrain. Views should be stunning, the wildflowers are already in abundance, and the race will once again pride itself on the unusual tradition of starting all the runners together.

If there are any changes to be made by Brand in his first year at the helm, he’s keeping them close to the vest. One goal he has already revealed, however, is to open future installments of the Sonoma 50 to include more local runners.

“We have our fair share of endurance athletes here in Sonoma County,” he recently told the Press Democrat. “There’s no reason why we can’t have a larger number of local people give it a go.”

Energy Gels

Energy Gels and Goo — What’s Really in the Pouch?

By Larry Carroll

In 2018, the athletic footwear business was a $16 billion industry. In the United States alone, more than 60 million people consider themselves runners, joggers or trail runners — a number that climbs to more than 110 million who walk for fitness. As you can imagine, all these people need something to supplement their efforts, nourishment that they hope will improve both performance and overall health.

If you are one of these millions of people — or have been around one — there’s a good chance that you’ve tasted the gels that often adorn their fuel belts. Housed in small, brightly-colored pouches, the substances typically come in all kinds of Pinkberry-sounding flavors like Salted Caramel, Chocolate Outrage and Gingerade — and taste a bit like cake frosting squirted directly into your mouth. In a billion-dollar industry, gels and goos (the words are often interchangeable) have grown exponentially since research scientist Dr. Bill Vaughan formulated the first GU energy gel in 1993 in a Berkeley kitchen — launching GU Energy Labs, one of the biggest players in the market.

“Drinks are good in that they empty the stomach quickly,” his son and the company’s current president, Brian Vaughan, explains in an interview on the product’s site ( 25years of GU: The Invention of the energy ‘Gel‘ ) “Bars and solid foods are good in that they provide nutrients, but they both have limits to them. As a research scientist [my father] began to play around with formulations. And so, through a series of reductions of that bar concept, he came up with simpler complex carbohydrates, amino acids, muscle buffers, electrolytes … you don’t have to destroy your muscles, providing you can supply the right nutrients at the right time.”

As is the case with any successful business model, there are many different companies now elbowing each other for market share. In addition to GU, runners have a choice between gels from Honey Stinger, Clif, Huma, PowerBar and others. What they have in common is a desire to top off glycogen as it gets depleted by offering simple sugar — after that, it’s up to the athlete to seek out brands with carbohydrates (glucose, fructose), electrolytes (for running in warmer weather) sodium (for those with salty sweat), or whatever else their personal needs may dictate.

But when all is said and done, are goos and gels worth the hype? A 2016 analysis from radio station WBUR interviewed dietitians and Sports Medicine experts and concluded that in some ways, energy gels are the exercise version of Santa Claus.

“They’re a wonderful thing to believe in on the starting line, and during training. Just as believing in Santa gets us in the spirit of giving around the holidays, maybe GU gets us in the spirit of competing,” the article concludes (As Olympians Suck Down Energy Gels, A Believer In ‘GU’ Gel Seeks Reality Check ). “The magic of GU maybe not in the specialized chemical formula, but more in the convenient packaging. It is certainly easier to slip a small gel-pack into your pocket during a long run than it is to carry a cup of coffee and a slice of bread.”

In short, many of the benefits of these gels can be consumed just as effectively via traditional pre-exercise meals, or such grab-and-go foods as bananas or bagels, but that little packet on your fuel belt gives you a smaller amount in a form that takes effect much faster. So, to goo or not to goo? At the end of the day, such questions are all about what it takes to get you across your own personal finish line.


Making Meditation Part of Your Training Routine

It’s long been widely recognized that regular meditation practice brings a variety of health benefits. Reduced anxiety and depression, increased pain tolerance, improved attention span, lower blood pressure, and improved sleep are just a few of the medically acknowledged benefits to mindfulness. 

That’s a list that looks like it could double as a description of the benefits of long distance running, which may be what inspired a team of researchers to examine the effects of combining meditation and running1. Their research suggested was a big win for the combined program, which is one of the reasons we now see ultra running pros, like two-time Western States 100-mile winner Timothy Allen Olson and three-time Hardrock 100 winner Darcy Piceu, advocate for what they call “mindful running.” 

Getting Started

If you’ve never meditated before, you won’t accomplish much trying to get your first session in on the road.  Instead, you should start by adding a short, seated meditation session before you start your workout. 

Find a comfortable seat—there’s no need to cross your legs, unless you’d like to—close your eyes, and tune in to a guided meditation program. There are several applications available serving exactly this purpose. Three favorites: 

Calm – an excellent meditation primer. The freely available “Seven Days of Calm” unit is a perfect place to start, and the additional features are well worth the subscription cost. 

Headspace – another solid introduction. The free offering isn’t quite as robust as Calm’s, but the opening session is slightly more approachable. 

Run Mindful – Timothy Allen Olson’s own offering to the selection, an app made specifically for endurance runners. 

Once you’ve got the program running, all you have to do is sit still, listen for about ten minutes, and do the best that you can to follow along. There’s no need to worry about whether you’re doing it right, just trying will be enough to improve. 

Immediate Benefits

Over time, you’ll start to notice better sleep, experience reduced stress, and exhibit lower impulsivity and greater patience in your daily life. The improvements won’t be limited to long-term gains: in the short term, you’ve brought your breath under control, lowered your heart rate, and cleared your mind of the day’s stress. Pay close attention, and you may notice a marked difference in the quality of that first workout. 

Honing the Mind-Body Connection

Depending on the guide program that you choose, you’ll likely encounter body scan meditations. These meditations encourage you to mentally scan your body from end to end (usually head to toe), carefully observing any and all sensations. With practice, these body scans can help you discover knots, tightness, and posture imbalances. Sometimes, simply noticing a pain that you’ve been ignoring is enough to relieve the tension. Even when it isn’t, if you pay attention to the signs, you’ll know when you need a little extra stretch, or a date with the roller. 

Take It to The Road

As you grow in your meditation practice, you are essentially developing the ability to train your focus on one stimulus while tuning out distractions. At first, the stimulus will almost always be the rhythm of your own breath, but once you’ve got the knack, you can substitute anything. That’s when it’s time to take the show on the road. 

Some mindful runners like to silently repeat a positive mantra (a simple, short, repetitive statement, usually reflecting a goal or ideal). Focusing on the finish line can be a strong motivator, or general thoughts about life can help influence positive thinking outside the run. 

You can apply the body scan technique here, too. Any time pain crops up as a distraction, you can try impartially listening to it. Our natural instinct is to push pain aside, which often leads to unconscious changes in form and stride. By making an effort to listen to the pain, welcome it, and understand it, we avoid making these comfortable negative corrections, and give ourselves a much better chance of correctly identifying and treating the problem. As Timothy Allen Olson told REI, “When you observe it and accept it, many times pain simply dissolves.”2

Mindful Running Retreats

If you want to make the advantages of mindfulness a part of your running routine, but you don’t think a phone app will get you there, there is help available. As the practice has grown in popularity, there’s been a movement toward group mindful running retreats. Timothy Olson’s Adventure Mindful is one of the groups on the forefront of this movement. They’ve got retreats planned for 2019 in the Canary Islands, Colorado, and Austria, which include trail running for all experience levels, mindfulness training, food, and transportation. 

  • “MAP training: combining meditation and aerobic exercise reduces depression and rumination while enhancing synchronized brain activity.” B L Alderman, R L Olson, C J Brush & T J Shors. Translational Psychiatry volume6, pagee726 (2016). https://www.nature.com/articles/tp2015225 

  • “For Runners: How to Stop Stalling and Start Meditating.” Kelly Bastone. REI. May 15, 2018.  https://www.rei.com/blog/run/meditation-for-runners