Thursday, August 23, 2012

2012 Leadville Trail 100 Mile Run

I successfully completed the Leadville Trail 100 in 29:05. It was the hardest thing I've done yet. With a 45% finish rate for 2012, I was just happy to reach the finish line!

It's a beautiful monster of a course that led me from excitable joy, to dreadful suffering, to tearful triumph. Words and pictures merely scratch at the surface of the experience, but this at least gives you a taste.

2012 Leadville Trail 100 Mile Run from Steve Emmert on Vimeo.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The Journey Continues, This Time "Across the Sky"

(Image borrowed from
In what has become a regular pattern for me over the years, I again have targeted one major endurance event for 2012.  And, this year the path leads to the sky.  On August 18, 2012, I'll be joining a few hundred others as we take on the "Race Across the Sky", the Leadville Trail 100 Mile Run.

I can't say Leadville was my first choice. Ever since the race was prominently featured in Christopher McDougall's best-seller, Born to Run, the field size has increased substantially, and the event has taken on a level of hype that doesn't exactly appeal to me. I've heard reports of parts of the course getting very congested with runners, pacers and crew, all kicking up choking clouds of dust. A couple years ago Lifetime Fitness bought the race and brought with it a much larger marketing machine than is typical on the ultra scene. I really enjoyed the decidedly low-key atmosphere of a race like Cascade Crest 100 this past year, and had been searching for a new race more like that.

But, regardless of all of that, Leadville still holds great appeal to me as well. Rugged trails, mountains, beauty, and it's an out-and-back course, not a multi-loop. And, in this case, they're not just any mountains. Beyond the challenge of thousands of feet of climbing and descending, this course brings the added challenge of altitude with elevations ranging from 9,200 to 12,600 feet. That's pretty daunting to this guy who lives at a mere 900 feet above sea level.

I like daunting.

So, when my friends Dominic Guinta and Vishal Sahni posted on Facebook that they'd signed up for Leadville, I was pretty much in, Leadville hype and all.  Vishal tipped it in with these words: " know you plan to run it at some time in your life, might as well do it with us!" I clicked "submit" on my entry within an hour of reading those words.

Life is short. Do cool stuff.

Onward...and UPWARD!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

2011 Cascade Crest 100 "Video Race Report"

Here's the video I compiled while running Cascade Crest 100.  The rewards for the numerous challenging climbs were the fabulous views of the Cascades.  This was my kind of course, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to experience it.

If Cascade Crest is a race that intrigues you, then you may find this enlightening.


2011 Cascade Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run from Steve Emmert on Vimeo.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Mind Games and Life Lessons - 2011 Kettle Moraine 100K

I knew something was not right before the race even started.  I didn't really want to be there, or at least I didn't really want to run.  Not 63 miles.  I knew what was out there.  I knew it was going to be hot and humid.  I knew I had to run through that seemingly interminable section of open grassy meadows, exposed to the sun, bottling up the heat, intensifying the suffering.  And I'd have to go through it twice, out and back.  I knew it would be even more sweltering on the way back.

"Eh.  Just another long training day."  That's what I said to myself.  I was trying to think of anything to take the pressure off myself.  And, that was the problem.  Just a training day.  No pressure.  This is the mindset that makes quiting too easy once things get really hard.  I knew all this before I took the first step.  But 6AM came, and I did what I do.  I started running.  Well, my body started running anyway.  My mind was someplace else.  No, not someplace else.  Rather, my mind was no place else.  I wasn't focused.  I had no goal that mattered to me.  I had never been less mentally committed to an endurance event.

This is not a good way to start a 63 mile trail race.  I knew it.  But I was off and running with the rest of the pack before I managed to set my head straight.

I ran like I'd forgotten just about everything I've learned about long sufferfests over the past decade.  Fresh off a surprisingly good 50 mile performance three weeks earlier, I dismissed the fact that today was 30 degrees warmer, and I pushed hard.  I knew I was going too hard, and I did it anyway.

I fell in behind a guy who was setting a solid pace for a good part of the first 15 to 20 miles, brain turned off, body slowly spiraling downward toward distress.  I was drinking, but not enough.  I was eating, but not enough, and running too hard in the hot weather for my body to properly process the food anyway.

And then, the meadows.  Around mile 16 or so, the trail opens from the forest trees and spits you out into 6 to 8 miles of rolling meadows of tall grasses, with intermittent short sections of trees.  It was warm and humid, but didn't seem crazy hot yet.  But, I was hot.  And, yet, I hadn't been taking ice from the well stocked aid stations.  Brain still disengaged.  Not surprisingly, I started dragging.

I didn't exactly feel sick, but I certainly didn't feel good. I wasn't throwing up, but it felt like my nutrition wasn't flowing through.  I hadn't peed for hours, and had no urge.  Not good.  And, despite all that, at the last aid station before the half-way turn around, with 5 miles to go to the Scuppernong aid station at the 50K point, I failed to take enough fluid.  I filled my handheld bottle, but didn't bother to restock my hydration pack.  Sure enough, two to three miles before reaching the turnaround, I was out of fluid and my mouth was dry.

I started having a conversation with myself inside my head.  It was short.  I was done. I was dehydrated and trashed and dragging ass.  I couldn't fathom heading all the way back through all of that to the finish.  I couldn't face those f---ing meadows again.  I walked and shuffle-jogged the last couple miles to the aid station at the half way turn around.

The first person I recognized there was Brandi Henry who had been a bright smiling face at every aid station all day.  She cheered for me and asked how I was doing.  "I'm done.  I'm pulling the plug."

Some people would respond to that with a sort of sympathy and understanding.  "It's a tough day out there. You just did a 50K on a brutal day.  That's something to be proud of!"  Those are the sorts of things most people would say.  "Nothing to be ashamed of."  "You did your best."  "You'll get 'em next time."

Brandi didn't say any of that.

"No you're not."

That's what she said.  Just matter-of-factly-like.

But she was wrong.  She didn't understand.  No, really, I'm done.  Don't you know?  I decided this, like a few miles ago.  I'm pulling the plug.  It's just not my day.  It's just a training day.  50K on a day like this is plenty of training.  I'm dehydrated.  I had 'em all lined up in a tidy little row in my head.  Every reason to quit.

It doesn't matter.

I don't care.

I truly don't care.

There's this little place, though.  Somewhere inside my head, or heart, or soul, or something.  It's buried in there deep.  It knew what was really going on.  "This is too hard.  This hurts.  It's hot.  I don't want to go back out there. Going back out there is hard.  Like, really hard.  Sitting here is easy."

Quiting is easy.  Quiting takes the pain away.  Quiting is better than a shortcut.  It's like time travel right past the pain you otherwise had coming.

So, I sat there.  Quitting or not, I knew I had to re-hydrate and refuel.  I drank a bottle of ice water, then another.  I ate an orange and a turkey sandwich.  I drank some more, and then some more.

Michael Davenport came in about 10 minutes after I did, and told me I was going back out with him.  "Nope. I'm done."  He went about his business, and when he was ready to head back out, he encouraged me once again to come with.  I just shook my head.

I had texted my wife, Jenni, soon after I arrived at the aid station, letting her know I was dropping out.  After some time, she called, worried about me.  I told her not to worry.  I told her I was fine, just done with the race.  I told her I could find a ride back to the start/finish area.

And, I told her to tell Derek that I was sorry he couldn't finish with me.  That hurt.

Jenni and the kids were planning to come up to the race after Derek's soccer double-header.  Derek's turning 7 next month.  I've been crossing finish lines with him since he was two months old, at numerous Ironmans and ultras, whenever the family could be there and whenever the rules allowed.  He likes it.  I love it.

I remember once telling Jenni that I wanted to be Derek's hero.  I wanted to be the guy worthy of being the man he wanted to become.  I wanted him to grow up seeing, experiencing, people "achieving their impossible".

When I got off the phone with Jenni, I sat and thought about Derek.  I thought about the conversation to come.  Derek was going to want to understand why I didn't finish.

I couldn't come up with anything that didn't sound like a lame excuse. I had no honest answer I could give him that would serve as a useful teaching exercise. There was no way to make, "It was too hard", sound heroic.

Don't get me wrong.  There are perfectly valid reasons to pull out of events like this.  At the same time our race was going on, a young man died at a half marathon in Chicago, just a couple hours' drive away.  These things can be dangerous, especially when it gets hot.

But, I knew I wasn't really in trouble.  I knew that I was just quitting because it was too damn hard, and quitting was easy.

I knew something else, too.  All of a sudden I had an urge to pee.  That's a good thing.

I got up and did my business, and I noticed something else.  I felt...pretty good.  Much of the pain and stiffness was gone from my legs.

And, that was it.  A switch just flipped in my mind.  I filled my bottle with ice and sports drink.  I filled my hydration pack with ice and water.  I grabbed some more food.  As I was stuffing all that in my back pack, I started to tear up.

Finish what you started!


I was yelling at myself inside my head.

This thing I didn't care about.  It mattered.  It DID matter.  Finishing what I started mattered.

I wiped away the unexpected tears, suddenly extremely pissed at myself for having given up, realizing the only reason I decided to quit was because the race was hard, and it hurt, and continuing on was going to be harder, and hurt more.

Did you think it wasn't going to be hard?  Did you think it wasn't going to hurt?  It's an ultra you dumbass.  It's supposed to be hard.  That's why you choose to do them.

You do this stuff for the very purpose of pushing past the urge to quit when things get too damn hard.

I sent a text to Jenni, telling her I was feeling much better, and that I was going to finish!  I headed toward the timing mat, where Brandi was still there, encouraging other runners.

"I'm going back out."

A little cheer erupted from the few who knew my plan to drop out.  I raised an arm in the air, determined to get this thing done.

More than an hour had passed as I sat in that aid station, but my mind was finally in the right place for the first time all day.  I needed to finish.

Now, all I had to do was cover another 31.6 miles, in 90 degree heat with high humidity.  The adrenaline wore off in about five minutes.  After that, it was hard again.  But, I was determined.

I ran past Bill Thom on my way out of the Scuppernong trails, proudly announcing to Bill that I had quit, but then "unquit".  There's an example for you.  I'm not sure if Bill has EVER not finished a race.  One of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, but hiding inside that dude is a will strong enough break through any obstacle placed before him.  He knows finishing matters.

It didn't get easier.  It got harder.  But, my mind was right.  My body was as good as it was going to get.  I was loading up on ice, keeping myself cool, and making steady progress.

The meadows ate me alive again.  That's why they're there.  Those steamy meadows are there to stop anyone who doesn't want it badly enough.  They took their toll, but they didn't take me down.

Jenni and the kids had arrived by the time I finally came out of the meadow section and made my way into the Emma Carlin aid station.  I guess I was looking rather haggard. I wasn't feeling great, and I guess I wasn't all that pleasant to be around just then, but I was determined to push on.  And, I was very happy my family was there for me, despite outward appearances.

15.8 miles to go.

Hugs! 7.5 mi to go
Slowly I pressed on, as happy as I could reasonably be to be out of the meadows and back in the forest.  When I arrived at the Bluff aid station, 7.5 miles to go, I was met by Jenni and the kids, with smiles and little kid hugs.  They didn't even really care how dirty and smelly I was.  I was tired, but feeling better than I had 8 miles ago, and ready to get this thing done.

I'll never come to appreciate the never ending roller coaster of hills that comprise the last few miles of this race, but I endured them as best I could and finally heard the sounds of the finish line as darkness was settling in.  Derek came running out to greet me, and we ran together, hand in hand, across the finish line.

I started the race with the mindset that it was "just a long training day".  I nearly misused that mindset as a rationale for quiting.  Just a training day.  50K in the heat, that's good training, right?  No shame in calling it a day early.

But, it turns out the real training benefit of the day wasn't physical at all.  It was mental.  If I'd have quit, the most valuable lesson of the day would have been lost.  I hope this is a lesson that will stick in my psyche permanently.  I'm going to need it again one day.

Finish what you started.  It matters.

Darcie (tired), me (happy), Dustin (What's going on?),
Derek (unwitting student in the game of life)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Start Hard and Hang On - 2011 Ice Age Trail 50 Mile

Pre-race: Jennifer Aradi, Dominic Guinta, me, Bill Thom
"I think I'm gonna dial it back a bit. You go on ahead."

That's what I said to Dominic about 7 miles into the 2011 Ice Age Trail 50 mile run as he pulled away from me, running up another hill while I power hiked it. We'd been running together to that point, just yucking it up and having a good time. But, Dom was setting a pace a bit harder than I would have done alone, and running up hills I would have walked. I was worried the damage may already be done and I'd be paying for it later, withdrawing a debt of early fatigue that I'd have no way to repay.

It's not like we were flying or anything. But, pace in these things is entirely relative to the number of miles and hills that lie in wait ahead. And I knew a whole lot of miles and a whole lot of hills were just waiting out there, smirking at us, cracking their knuckles, ready to pummel.

I gotta let him go or I'm gonna blow up. Maybe I'll catch him later. That's what I was thinking.

But, dammit if Dom didn't get but 30 yards ahead and then slow down while futzing around with his iPod earphones. :-) I soon found myself right back on his heels again, chit chatting away while we finished up the initial 9 mile Nordic loop that kicks off the IAT50.

The day before the race I put together a pace chart, both for myself and for my wife should she and the kids find the time to come up to the race after Saturday morning soccer. I'd built a pace chart for a 9:30 finish, then tweaked it a bit down to 9:20. Based on my training and goals for this event, that seemed about right. I told Jenni it could be off plus or minus 30 minutes or so depending on the myriad of variables that come into play during ultras. That would put me pretty much half way between the 8:58 I managed at IAT50 during my first 50 miler in 2008, and the 9:44 I turned in at the same race in 2009 where "long training run" was the mindset of the day.

Finishing the initial loop of the Nordic trail, Dom peeled off for a bathroom break while I pulled over to the aid station to grab a few calories. I soon found myself more or less alone over some relatively mild terrain, on our way to the twisting singletrack of the Ice Age Trail. Alone with my thoughts. Pondering my pace.

I could dial it back, treat it just like another long training day. But, well, I was feeling pretty darn good, actually. I started thinking that it had been quite awhile since I'd really pushed myself in a long endurance event. I thought back to how hard I'd pushed myself during a few half Ironman triathlons 5 to 10 years back, pushing the pace on the second half of the run to "tunnel-vision hard". Okay, maybe I wasn't prepared to go quite that hard, but the thought of pushing myself harder than I'd planned, harder than I'd pushed since starting ultras...well, the idea kind settled in and stuck there. So, I pushed on. Not crazy hard. But hard enough that I knew I might really suffer for it later.

Around mile 15 or so, who did I come up behind but Dominic. Apparently the line for the bathroom was too long when he'd stopped back at mile 9, so he skipped past it and snuck ahead of me. We ran together and chatted a little while. Telling him I was feeling good, I gradually pulled ahead. What I should have kept in mind was that this stretch, between miles 9 and 17, or so, is about the most gentle section of the course. It's easy to cruise pretty quickly through this stretch, almost forgetting what's coming.

The next 10 miles or so, from Highway 12 to the southern turn around at Rice Lake and back, which includes some of the most technical trail on the course, I ran almost entirely alone. This is where I started to feel the fatigue beginning to take its toll, particularly on my hamstrings on the climbs. This was a new one to me. I don't recall having my hamstrings become a limiter in the past. The result of too many treadmill miles this early season, and not enough trails and hills? Gonna have to address that before Cascade Crest in August!

Mile 26:  Running with Meg Rubesch
Returning to the Highway 12 aid station, exactly a marathon into the course, a girl I'd not met before caught up with me and we ran together a couple miles. It was Meg Rubesch, who was currently running in 4th place among the women. Turns out this was Meg's first attempt at a 50 miler. She had the look of a lean mean cross country machine, was running smooth and easy, and I suddenly felt out of my element, in a place I didn't belong. But we each confessed we were starting to drag. Meg and I ran together for a few stretches on and off to mile 37 at Horseriders aid station.

I moved quickly through Horseriders and would run the remainder of the race alone, my confidence building as the number of miles remaining gradually started ticking down toward zero. I'd taken an Aleve around mile 30, and a second around mile 37, confident that I was well hydrated in the cool temperatures, and so not fearing risk of kidney damage that has been associated with taking NSAIDs during ultra endurance events. The effect of a couple Aleve over the final 10 miles of a 50 miler is almost magical in my experience. On the return trip from the northernmost turnaround at Emma Carlin back to the finish, I was able to run, hard, on all the downhills. I was walking pretty much all the climbs, but I kept pushing hard on the flats and descents.

With about 7 or 8 miles to go, I did something I've never done before during a race. I texted my wife, letting her know I was currently about 40 minutes ahead of the pace chart I'd given her. I didn't know if she was going to be able to come up to the race, but just in case, I wanted to let her know that she'd best just head to the finish rather than any of the last few aid stations. She replied that they were indeed headed up, and they'd be there at the finish. This boosted my spirits further, and I now really just wanted to be done, hanging with my family, enjoying that addictive post-race buzz (gently aided by some fine post-race micro brew :-)

Nearing the Finish!
I didn't even break stride through the last two aid stations. I wanted to be done. For sure, one of the great joys in my life is the distant sound of a finish line, still out of sight in the woods, but gradually getting louder, closer. And, when the finish comes into view, there's nothing better than seeing my family there, cheering, smiling, and happy to see me.

I have a "thing" with my son, Derek. We finish races together, hand in hand. It started when he was two months old, tucked securely in my arms. This year I was prepared for a first. If Derek was going to cross the line with me, there was no way little two and a half year old Darcie was going to stand by and watch. She'd be joining in the fun, and this would be non-negotiable. She's, how to put it...strong willed. But, not seeing Darcie with the rest of the family, I knew exactly why. She was sound asleep in the van :-) So, Derek and I joined hands, he still in his soccer kit from his earlier game, and we ran across another finish line together, while Jenni cheered, with Dustin in the stroller. A blessed finish indeed.

The time on the clock was 8:24:18, a 34 minute PR, 24th out of 222 overall, 3rd out of 33 in my age group. I could not have been happier with my day. How great it was, too, to see so many friendly faces from the Chicago area ultra running community, both running and cheering.  These are good people!

Another very special day, in a very special place, the Ice Age Trail!

Happiness: Finishing with Derek, Jenni on left cheering with Dustin in stroller.

Friday, July 02, 2010

My Western States 2010 "Video Race Report"

It seems I no longer write actual race reports, but instead bring along a video camera to capture the sights and sounds along the way. Both the Grand Canyon, and now Western States, felt like events I wanted to have some video of, since who knows when I may ever get back to these great places again.

This race was quite a challenge for a flatlander like me. I was very happy to simply finish! I hope this video gives you a chance to see and "feel" what the Western States 100 is really all about. Enjoy!

2010 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run from Steve Emmert on Vimeo.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Rim to Rim to Rim for Haiti Video

I haven't gotten around to writing any sort of report from our Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim run, but I have managed to piece together some video we captured along the way.

It was an amazing experience. Very hard, but very worth it.  If you've ever considered doing it...DO IT!  I can't think of any better way to experience such an incredible place.

Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim for Haiti - April 24, 2010 from Steve Emmert on Vimeo.