Keep Your Head High (Montgomery Marathon Recap)

“Keep your head high no matter the challenge.” – Ronald Olsen


Before I was thirteen, I did not know about my dad’s high school running life. I was familiar with his all-star baseball life, but it was not until I joined the cross country team that he disclosed how he was also quite the track star in high school. Running very quickly became a bonding interest. I loved running for myself, but I also loved the excitement my running generated out of my dad. In 9 years of middle school, high school and college running, I never did beat his personal record in the 800 or 1600 meter races.

My dad, like most high school athletes did not continue running into his adult life and the 40-year-old dad I knew when I was 13 was a far cry from the lean athlete I heard stories about. 12 years ago, I felt certain I would one-day run a marathon. However, if you told my dad 12 years ago he would run a marathon, he would have laughed in your face.

I am not sure exactly when it started, but my earliest memory was after running the Cotton Row 10k in 2007, my first road race. My dad was there to cheer me on. I remember being caught up in the excitement and fun spirit of the road race and I remember my dad catching that excitement too and announcing that he would run the Cotton Row 5k the next year.

He didn’t start training right away and I remember forgetting his announcement until one day he took our dog, Charlie, and said that they were going to run a mile. He and Charlie started running the same one mile loop three days per week on a very consistent basis. This was no ordinary one mile loop. This one mile loop was TOUGH and hit every hill in our neighborhood.

The one-mile loop was the beginning. After building from there, he ran the cotton row 5k. Then he ran the Turkey Trot 5k and the following year, he ran the Cotton Row 10k.

One day, he announced he would train for the Staten Island Half-Marathon. Staten Island is the place he grew up. However, after a major ankle twisting injury, he missed the race.

I spent YEARS trying to convince him to sign up for another half. He wouldn’t do it. His excuse was that he was too old. I knew this was utter crap and told him so, but he never listened.

Fast forward. I graduated high school and college and whenever I came home, we would put in many miles together. After I graduated college, I couldn’t wait to train for the longer races I knew I was destined for. On January 1st of 2015, I texted my family to tell them that I signed up for the Pinhoti 100. They were very supportive. Less than a week later, my dad calls me to ask me if I will run the Bridge Street Half Marathon with him. My jaw fell on the floor of my apartment in disbelief. I spent YEARS trying to convince him to run one and now he finally was.

He worked hard to get ready for his first half-marathon and we had a great time.

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The first people I invited to be part of my crew for Pinhoti was my family. My dad said that he wanted to not just crew, but be a pacer for a few miles as well. If you want to read more about that story, check out my Pinhoti post: here.

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After spending years trying to convince my dad to run a half-marathon, I was content. I’ve realized since then that the running world can unfairly put pressure on runners to always sign up for the next longer distance, even if it is not the right choice for them. I did not want to participate in that culture.

Despite not receiving any encouragement from me, while we were driving back from Pinhoti, my dad announces that he wants to run a marathon. I was too tired from the race at the time to take him seriously, but he called me a couple of days later to let me know he had decided upon the Montgomery Marathon and asked if I would join him.

These are my dad’s words explaining exactly what motivated him to run a marathon:

One way to burn 4000 calories is to run a marathon (26.2 miles). Although losing a few pounds is a nice benefit, the people that often run this crazy long race do it for many different reasons. For me, I said I would never run a marathon because it required too much training plus my legs said no. That being said, I was inspired to give it a go after my son David ran a 100 miler in November 2015, and encouragement from my family. As you can imagine running for many hours is tough, but I’m not sure what is tougher to do, the training or the actual marathon. Perhaps neither! The mental aspect is the key in that you have to really want to check this box. I was also motivated to run this race for Jamie and Josh (my other son in law) who are in foreign lands defending our freedom. The race in which I selected was the Montgomery [Ala.] Marathon on March 12. This choice provided a low risk of bad weather (cold or hot), and it was not too far from Madison, Ala. (my home). In addition, David agreed to run the race with me, and I was able to complete the race before granddaughter number 2 and 3 are born in April and May, respectively.

Coming off of a long, trail ultramarathon, I was genuinely excited for this race. It would be a good opportunity for me to drop a fast marathon time. It had been over a year since I had run a marathon and I was not thrilled with my personal record.

My training took a big hit in December when I rolled my ankle at a trail race I joined for fun, but it healed quickly and my confidence for this race grew as I threw down strong finishes at the Resolution RunThe Red Nose Run and Adam’s Heart Runs. I made some changes to my training. I joined the Birmingham YMCA to add more cross training and experimented with my diet. Both the cross training and dieting paid off in big ways for my running.

My dad had this to say about his preparation for the race:

My daughter Erica said, “you know you can die from a marathon” [in reference to being in shape]. She caught my attention and we discussed the importance of preparation. I received a lot of good advice from fellow family marathoners (David and Jamie, my son in law) which enabled me to devise a serious plan. I followed the plan and enjoyed the journey which spanned running in seven states, and which accumulated about 250 miles in a 72 day span. Also, I ran at least 13.1 miles every weekend since Christmas and daughter Jennifer got me through one cold weekend by providing a house and beach to run on in Destin. In addition, I never realized how much really happens on Hughes Road every Saturday morning.

We got lots of Father-Son bonding time the week leading up to the race. We took a road trip up to Kansas (taking the “scenic route” and lots of detours) to pick up my 8 month pregnant sister and bring her down to Alabama. We stopped to run many times along the way.

My oldest sister and mom tagged along for the adventure in Montgomery to cheer us on and everyone was very excited.

PreRace

Before the race, I was excited. I had spent the first quarter of the year making the transition from trail ultras back to a road marathon and I felt I was in great shape and would have no problem breaking 3 hours. I thought I might even get close to 2:50.

As we lined up in the corral, I heard the announcer make a comment about the prize money for the top 3 in the race. I paid little attention to this. Whenever there is prize money, it means that elite runners will show up and give me no chance of claiming a top spot. The announcer also gave a warning about the weather heating up. This wasn’t good news because it was March and I had been training in the cool Alabama winter. I was not acclimated for a hot day. There was also a chance of rain. I love running in the rain, so I hoped for that instead.

I looked around the starting line looking for the elite runners. I couldn’t find them. There was one guy who looked like he might fit that category, but he was wearing a bib colored for the half-marathon. One minute before the gun went off, that guy came up to me and asked which race I was in.

“Umm. The full.” I offered suspiciously

“Cool. I’m in the half. What’s your goal time?”

“Three hours.”

“Okay. See that guy in the white shirt? He has the same goal.”

Then he ran back to his start spot. I was a little confused as to the purpose of the conversation, but I was glad for the information. When the gun went off, I found the guy in the white shirt and introduced myself.

“Hey!” I said, “I was told you are trying to break 3 hours too.”

“Yeah, it’ll be my first time under 3, you?”

“Me too. Glad to have someone around the same pace.”

Montgomery Marathon Start

Photo Credit: Montgomery Multisport

Montgomery Marathon Start 2

Photo Credit: Montgomery Multisport

We ran together at 3 hour pace, or 6:50/mile and noticed no one in front of us besides the half-marathon leader. That was strange. In a city marathon with a prize purse, the leaders should running much faster than 3 hour pace.

The guy I was running with was named Chris. He is 28 and lives in Montgomery. I was glad to run with Chris because he was obsessive about checking his GPS watch and keeping us exactly on 3 hour pace. I was happy to let him do all of the pace work and I could mentally relax and run whatever pace he was. He was also a really nice guy and thanked every single volunteer we passed on the course.

Around mile 7 another runner caught up to us. His name was Jonathan. He was 30 years old and ran with a wild stride and arm swing that reminded me of Prefontane.

“HEY GUYS!” he shouted with an obnoxiously chipper attitude, “What time are you trying to run?”

“Three hours.” We replied.

“I would also be delighted to finish under three hours today!”

“The more the merrier.” 

The three of us became the official three hour pace group of the Montgomery Marathon. As fun as it was to have someone with Jonathan’s positive energy in our group, I had a feeling that his presence would mean trouble for my race.

I was right. Up until this point, Chris and I had maintained a stead 3 hour pace for every mile. The mile after Jonathan joined, we ran about 10 seconds faster. The next mile, 20 seconds faster.

Chris decided to drop from our group of three and stick with his three hour pace. I should have let Jonathan go as well. However, I didn’t want to. I was feeling really strong and I truly believed I could hang on at this pace. Truth be told, he wasn’t always the one pushing the pace. In my excitement to be leading a road marathon, I was just as responsible for our irresponsible pacing strategy.

Jonathan and I continued on and continued talking as a way to keep the pace under control. I really enjoyed getting to know him as a person. His enthusiasm was fun to be around.

Huntington College

Photo Credit: Montgomery Multisport

I have never been a guy to run for money. Mostly because money is never something I’ve had the opportunity to receive from running. However, all I could think about during the race was how badly I wanted to win the prize purse. I didn’t know how much it was, but I knew it was sizable and I wanted it. I am in no desperate need for money, but my house does need a lot of repairs and this would be a huge help.

Around mile 12, we ran up the only hill on the course before turning onto historic Dexter Avenue by the Alabama State Capitol and descending into downtown Montgomery. This is where I let my excitement get the best of me and I took the lead. I knew that this was a pace I couldn’t sustain, but as an ultra-marathon runner, I felt confident in my ability to still run stronger than Jonathan in the later miles of this race.

While I blowing my race strategy out of the water and overthinking my approach to every mile, my dad was perfectly following his race strategy and having a good time:

My game day strategy was simple: drink as much as you can and listen to your body. Drinking also included a food/energy supplement called Tailwind. I am very glad that I followed this strategy. The first half of the run, through the sights and sounds of Montgomery including the Capitol building, was amazing as so many people came out to cheer including bands and partiers. One cheer had something to do with enjoying an adult beverage (i.e., beer for me, but not for you). The best were the small children that clapped, and the many volunteers, on what seemed to be about 100 street corners, cheered. There was also a woman in downtown Montgomery, that may have been pushing a shopping cart, yelled, “you go pops”.

Dad Huntington

Photo Credit: Montgomery Multisport

Dexter Avenue was dead silent. It was surreal running by the state capitol with no one around and passing Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, taking the chance to pay my respect  for the people who fought for the civil liberties of so many people in that building despite the political corruption going on down the street.

When I passed the half-marathon mark, the coolest thing happened to me. The pace car pulled in front of me to guide my way through the second half of the race. I have NEVER chased a pace car in my life. In that moment, I knew no matter how the race ended up, I needed to soak in the moment I was chasing the pace car at mile 13 of a city marathon.

I was extra excited in this moment because my mom, sister and niece said they would be cheering at mile 14. I couldn’t wait to see thier excitement when they saw me in the lead. Except they weren’t there. They are forgiven because my sister was 8 month’s pregnant and getting anywhere on time with a 2 year old is nearly impossible. Also, I told them before the race to not worry about cheering for me and focus on supporting my dad. This was a bigger milestone for him than for me.

I could hear Jonathan catching back up to me. He has a wild form that can be heard from a distance. This early in the race, however, there was nothing I could do about it. I was not confident enough to pick up my pace, because I was sure I would not be able to hold the pace I was currently running. I let him catch up and that was all he wanted. We slowed our pace and made our way into the Air Force base where the majority of the second half of the race would take place.

We were deep into the race, but Jonathan and I were still talking and joking.  This happy attitude only made the pace naturally quicken. I could feel in my legs a future bonk on its way. I just had to hold it off as long as I could. I told myself I could overcome tired legs with a strong mind.

The Air Force base was a relatively boring place to run. The roads were long without turns and the scenery was uninteresting. Mile 19 was the first time I noticed our pace slow down dramatically despite maintaining an even effort. I knew the last 6 miles would be the real race, so I made the decision to make my move early and get a head start on the final 10 kilometers.

I could feel instantly in my legs that there was no way I would be able to hold this pace. I went from feeling fresh and strong to rapidly declining in a matter of minutes. Doomsday thoughts were racing through my head and I was fighting to silence them with everything that I had. That is when I turned a corner and the sun came out in full force and the wind started to blow directly into my face without any change of direction in sight.

Meanwhile, my dad was finishing his first half of the race and gearing up to run into the Air Force base himself.

The second half of the race was mostly in the beautiful Air Force base called Maxwell. Just before entering the base I received some much needed encouragement from my terrific wife Nancy, daughter Erica, and granddaughter Hadley. Nancy filled my water bottle with Tailwind, Erica took photos, and Hadley was so excited that she ran after me. I am sure she will catch me in a few years. The folks cheering on the base were super nice including encouraging words such as “good job sir”. I didn’t see any alligators along the river, but we did come very close to a shooting range that caught my attention. All of these distractions, from the achy legs and feet, were well appreciated plus the many great people that provided beverages every two miles.

I came though mile 20 and tried to find a steady pace that would keep me in the lead. At this point, I was doing everything in my mental reserve to inspire myself to keep it up. I thought about the cash prize and how I just drained my savings account the day before to pay for a big repair on my house. I thought about the Instagram post I could make after the race celebrating the victory. I thought about the excitement I would see on my family’s face if I turned the corner into the stadium in first place and how cool it would be for my dad to celebrate his first marathon finish at the same race that I celebrate my first marathon win.

Despite all of this, I heard footsteps behind me get closer and closer and there was nothing I could do about it. During mile 21 a guy passed me for the lead who I hadn’t seen the entire race. Shortly after, Jonathan passed me placing me in third. Being passed broke teh final strand of my mental strength and my pace slowed to a jog because it was all I thought I could handle. The sun was blazing, the wind was pushing me and I was so tired from pushing for 21 miles that I was now using everything my arsenal just to keep from walking. I couldn’t help but laugh at the noticable change in attitude I was experiencing compared to an hour before.

Eventually I found my way back into downtown Montgomery, made my way around the Montgomery Biscuits’ Stadium and put on my best sprint to cross the finish in 3:03:53.

Despite being a 15 minute personal record, I was incredibly frustrated after the race. I get a lot of comments from friends and family who read this blog informing me that I have a problem with being too hard on myself. Frustration was in full force after this race was over. All I could think about was the fact that I should have won this race and I blew it. I simply got over excited and arrogant and blew it. I was angry when I should have been grateful and I didn’t hide it very well.

Meanwhile, my dad was still out there and getting closer to the finish.

The air temperature warmed quickly, and so did I, at about the 17 mile mark [with a long nine miles to go and about the time (3-hours) that David was getting close to the finish line]. My legs also growing weary at this point, but I knew from training that I could finish this race with a sensible pace. The good Lord delivered some nice cloud cover after mile 18, and a strong head wind from mile 18 to 21. The race sponsors exaggerated a bit when they wrote that the extreme heat kept several runners from finishing the race (i.e., relatively extreme heat after training in the cold for the last three months).

I have a tradition with my dad after I finish a race to go back and find him and run the last section with him to the finish. I had over an hour until he would come in and I was feeling beaten up, so I took my time eating the post race food, talking with fellow runners and playing with my niece before heading out to go find him.

I started walking backwards along the course and as soon as I saw him running with strength down the street, any negative feelings I felt completely dissipated and were replaced with a sheer pride. I’ve seen my dad after many races and many long runs and he is the king to looking like death has consumed his face and whole body. I fully expected him to be hobbling down the road with an arch in his back and a runny nose. However, he could not have looked better. He was confidently running down the road towards me getting ready to finish his first marathon in a great time! I caught up to him and started to jog along side him. He immediately thrust his empty water bottle into my hands and I told him how good he looked and exactly what to expect as he approached the stadium. I left him about 400 meters before the finish line to catch up to my mom and sister and cheer him in as he finished the race by himself with arms lifted in celebration.

Here is my dad’s account of his run to the finish:

With 1.5 miles to go a nice woman runner, that I passed while she was helping somebody else, told me to keep my head high. I did just that, where I bounced (exaggeration) over the last hill and down to River Front Park [home of the AA baseball team in Montgomery] where David greeted me with a half mile to go, as I emotionally ran the final stretch not knowing if my legs would give out or not. I forgot about the pain to the cheers of my family and the crowd as I crossed the finish line 58th out of 142 in a time of 4 hours 48 minutes and two seconds. Nancy then helped me up the stairs so that I could finally enjoy that free beer provided by Bud.

Dad Finish

Photo Credit: www.whimsicalseptember.com

It was pretty exciting to watch someone else’s finish line when you know the amount of work and effort that was part of the journey. What I love about this sport is that if a thousand people line up for a marathon, by the end of the day there will be a thousand different stories of personal triumph, defeat and overcoming the distance. I am simply thankful that I got to share the story of this race with someone who means so much to me.

If you have the desire, the opportunity and the health to run a marathon, go for it. If you train you’ll be fine and worst case you might lose 4000 calories. Special thanks to all my family and friends that sent notes of congratulations, thanks for taking the time to read this blob-in-a-blog, congrats to David for taking third overall in the race, much appreciation to Nancy for taking the journey with me, to my children and sons-in-law that inspire, and remember, keep your head high no matter the challenge.

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What Makes Me Tick (Adam’s Heart Runs Recap)

“Running is my thing… it’s what makes me tick. The sport has fused itself with my identity and lifestyle.” – Sage Canaday


Just two weeks after a ten mile race at the Red Shoe Run, I took on another 10 miler on the roads at Adam’s Heart Runs.

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What drew me to Adam’s Heart Runs was that it takes place at Oak Mountain State Park, one of the best places to run on trails in Birmingham, but it is put on by the Birmingham Track Club, an organization primarily involved in road running. There are many races held at Oak Mountain every year and as far as I am aware, this is the only road race held there. The rest are trail races.

The ironic combination of roads and trails perfectly summarizes how the past couple months have been for me. In 2015, I solidified myself as a trail runner and confirmed to myself that the dirt paths are my favorite place to be. However, when I agreed to train for a marathon with my dad, I grew excited about the prospect of training hard for a fast time and have rediscovered the beauty of running on asphalt. At the same time, I am equally excited about the many trail races I have planned for after this marathon and can’t wait to start charging up single track mountain trails again. Adam’s Heart Runs is great because it gets me close to the trails while still letting me stretch out my legs on the pavement.

I already mentioned that this race is put on by the Birmingham Track Club. It is actually the first race in the BTC Race Series. The series is a group of four races every year that BTC members can sign up for at a discount and receive a special t-shirt for finishing all four. I don’t have plans (yet) to finish the series, but it was fun to complete one of them.

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Meet Lisa Booher:

She is a baller trial runner, running coach with Resolute Running and the 2016 Adam’s Heart Runs race director. She is also a fan of Survivor and that makes me love her even more. She did a brilliant job organizing and putting together a fun event for all of us runners. The race itself is actually named after a previous race director, Adam. Check out Lisa’s blog post to read all about Adam and his connection with the long and interesting history of this race.

It was not as cold this morning as it was for the Red Shoe Run. For that, I was thankful. My face on the start-line demonstrated this excitement:

 

 

The race itself was a very simple run down the road, after five miles, turn around and run back. Simple enough. The winding road through the forest was beautiful and was just enough to give me my nature kick for the day.

BTC - MiddlePhoto Credit: Just4Running.com

Because the race was more simple and because I didn’t get lost, I ran a couple of minutes faster than I did at the Red Shoe Run and claimed first in the 10 mile race.

MRuns - Winners

Male winners from the 5k, 10k and 10 mile races. Photo Credit: Marathon Runs

BTC - Adam

Getting an award from Adam, the namesake of the race. Photo Credit: just4running.com

After the race was the typical mingling around, making conversation and forming new running friendships.

I don’t have anymore planned races before the Montgomery Marathon on March 12th. I’ve got a little less than a  month of training to go. Even though I don’t enjoy the roads as much as the trails, I’ll try to soak in every moment of running I get because I know that I won’t have it forever.

Every Race is a Question (Red Shoe Run Recap)

“Every race is a question, and I never know until the last yards what the answer will be. That’s the lure of racing.”

– Joe Henderson


I signed up for the Red Shoe Run pretty last minute. I ran it three years ago when I was a senior in college and had a blast. I’m drawn to it because it supports a great cause: The Ronald McDonald House Charities of Alabama. Also, if I am going to be doing a long run in the cold on a Saturday morning, I might as well do it with a bunch of other people and get a finisher’s medal and a t-shirt.

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I wasn’t planning on treating this as a serious race, but rather as a good opportunity to do a fast, long-run. However, all of that changed when I woke up in the morning and thought to myself, “I wonder what time I ran this race in 3 years ago, and I wonder if I can beat it…”

That was all it took. I run very different races now than I did in college and I haven’t had many opportunities to test out if I was in better shape then when I had a coach and teammates to push me, or now while I am running out of love and coaching myself.

I went over to the computer, looked up the results from three years ago and saw 21-year-old-David’s time: 01:04:54 (6:30/mile pace). A wave of disappointment quickly ran over me because it has been a long time since I have consistently dropped that pace. Then a surge of competitiveness raced through my veins as I thought, “Bring it on, younger me…”

If you’ve followed my blog over the past year (I’m kidding myself thinking that anyone does), then you know how miserable I was running in college and I’ve felt so liberated since finishing that final conference meet almost 3 years ago and promised myself that I would only train for and do races that were fun for me. Getting to compete with the collegiate version of myself is much more motivation than anyone else you could put on the starting line next to me.

Pre-race food consisted of some chia pudding I made the previous night and a couple of oranges. I live only 2 miles from the start of the race, so I got in some extra mileage by jogging from my house to the start as my warm-up.

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Once, I arrived, I huddled inside for warmth as long as I could before stripping off my warm-up layers and heading outside to the starting line. I didn’t wear many layers for the race, just my singlet, arm warmers, gloves, shorts, shoes, compression socks and, of course, a Survivor buff. Although it was miserably cold standing on the starting line, in such thin clothes, once we started running I didn’t notice the cold for the rest of the race.

Red Shoe Run Start 3

Photo Credit: Just4Running.com

After the gun went off, a crazy, shirtless runner who is known for being a very fast, local runner took off in front of everybody. A chase pack formed behind him of 7 people, including myself. I hung on to the back of this group. Since it has been a while since I have done a long road-race like this, I had no idea what pace I would be able to hold for 10 miles. After one mile, I decided that the pace of the chase pack made me too nervous and I dropped off to relax and do my own thing.

Red Shoe Run Start

Photo Credit: RMCHA

Red shoe Run Start 2

Photo Credit: RMCHA

During the second mile, I was passed by three runners, one male and two females. This put me 10th male and 11th overall. I stayed in this position through mile 5, but I managed to keep most everyone in front of me within eyesight. I could see the chase pack splitting up ahead of me, but for the most part, everyone stayed pretty close together.

One benefit that I gained from training for ultra-marathons, is that I feel much stronger in the second half of shorter races than I used to. During the 6th mile, I realized that I felt strong and was making ground on the people in front of me without trying. This gave me the confidence to make a push and start passing people one-by-one. By mile 9, I had worked my way from 11th into 4th place.

With less than half-a-mile to go, there was a turn I missed because there were no signs or people telling me to turn. Within 200 meters, I ran into a couple race officials who told me to turn back and turn. Four people behind me also missed the turn because they were following me and they turned around as they saw me turn around. “Great…” I thought, “Now all of these people I just spent the last 3 miles passing are in front of me again.” I sprinted as hard as I could to get back in front of the group into 4th place just in time for the final stretch to the finish line. In that final stretch another runner put on a very impressive sprint that my legs simply could not match and I finished in 5th place. For a moment, I was frustrated. If I had not made the wrong turn, he would not have been close enough to me to sprint past me. However, that frustration subsided as soon as I saw my finish time: 1:01:58. Almost three minutes ahead of my time three years ago.

The race directors and volunteers did a fantastic job with this event. After the race there was a large spread of food and drink for all of the runners, there were activities for kids and families and an extremely positive atmosphere. The best part is that everything they did or said tied back to thier mission of fundraising for the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Alabama. If you want to donate to this great organization, just click on the picture below.

ronald mcdonald

 

 

Mix a Little Foolishness (#RuntheATL Recap)

“Mix a little foolishness with your serious plans. It is lovely to be silly at the right moment.”

– Horace


 

After four miles of running, wading and crawling through the mud in what appeared to be an industrial part of Atlanta with a bunch of people I did not know, I realized that today was going to be much more adventurous than I expected and I was super excited. I was running a “race” called Run the ATL. I initially saw a Facebook post for this run back in October and didn’t think anything of it. I could tell it was a small, casual and grassroots run around Atlanta.

Getting ready for the Montgomery Marathon in March, where I am hoping to clock a solid time, I’ve been very serious with my training. However, doing a standard long-run every weekend gets monotonous and I catch myself yearning to break free for something fun. That’s when I remembered about Run the ATL. I’ve run almost every part of Birmingham, but I’ve barely ever been to Atlanta. It felt like the perfect mini-adventure.

Like I mentioned, this was a small, casual event. There was no inflatable start/finish arch, but rather the starting line was on a driveway to an industrial building and the finish line was a picnic table. There were no fancy bib numbers, instead we each received a playing card to carry with us. Finally, there were very little course markings. The race director wrote course instructions with pictures and put them online. I carried my phone with me so I could reference these instructions and attempt to not get lost.

The run was put on by a super cool dude named Matt B. Davis. We were given strict instructions, however, to not say “I am running a Matt B. Davis race” to any city officials or police that we might run into as it was not a sanctioned event. I found out that what’s great about Matt, and what made him an interesting race director is he is not just a runner, but more specifically he is an obstacle racer. He manages a website and podcast called Obstacle Racing Media and interviews obstacle racing athletes, race directors and is a great news resource for those crazy people into Spartans, Tough Mudders, etc. He is a crazy nice guy and seems to be a pillar of Atlanta’s obstacle racing community. As a result, many of the runners at this event were obstacle racers. I saw a lot of Spartan t-shirts and headbands and I overheard chatter about upcoming obstacle races that I’ve never heard of. I was surprised to find that the obstacle racing community is not much different than the ultra-running community: just a bunch of crazy people bonding over thier mutual craziness. I am not into the obstacle racing life. I am glad that obstacle racers love what they do, but I’m happy just putting one foot in front of the other over-and-over without jumping over walls and crawling through mud.

It rained in Atlanta for two nights before the race and it turned the first 6 miles of the course into a muddy wonderland. I don’t just mean a little bit of mud either, I mean knee deep mud that takes your shoes right off your feet. (Yes, I did lose a shoe more than once and had to stop to recover it)

I’m not sure what to call the area we ran through, but we passed under a few tunnels with some cool art work.

After mile 5, the mud cleared up a little bit. I usually never carry my phone with me while I run, but I needed it today to follow the directions on the website and I was having fun snapchatting and taking pictures of cool landmarks.

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Right after passing the previously pictured phoenix, I came to a tall fence along the path. The instructions on my phone told me to jump it. “Great.” I thought, “this really is turning into an obstacle race.” I’m glad no one was around because I am not exactly a graceful fence climber and I gave a high-pitched yell when jumping from the top of the fence back to the ground.

The next quarter mile or so was back in thick mud before turning left onto my favorite section of the course: railroad tracks.

The railroad tracks led me right to a creepy tunnel…

Not long after this tunnel, I reached a section of Atlanta called “Glenwood.” I didn’t take any pictures because it was rather pleasant and normal looking. And not long after running through this nice little town, the course hit a paved walking trail and suddenly there were lots of people running, waking and biking along with me. I’m sure that I was an interesting sight because I covered in mud with a big water bottle on on my back hip in stark contrast to everyone else in clean workout clothes.

One thing I learned about Atlanta while running through (or around?) it, is that the street art is amazing. I stopped very frequently to take pictures of the cool art on bridges and and walls. I would have taken a million more pictures, but I remembered that I was supposed to be running.

 

Eventually I reached the turn around point, came back the way I came and enjoyed spending some time at the finish. I was surprised to learn that the course we just ran on is a trail in Atlanta called “The Beltline.” It used to be an active railroad path that went around the city of Atlanta, but a couple of years ago, they started a campaign to turn it into a walking/biking/jogging trail. The paved, crowded section we ran on is the completed part of it which is extremely popular. However the muddy part we ran on is still undeveloped. Just like any city, the new project is received by the local community with a combination of excitement, skepticism and controversy. Allegedly there are issues with privately owned land that some of the undeveloped Beltline runs through and those claiming that the parts of the city with a lower income level will be the last ones to have thier section developed.

It was cold outside and I knew I had a long drive back to Birmingham, so I didn’t hang around too long after the run. I’m thankful to everyone there for making this kid from Birmingham feel welcome in Atlanta. It was a fun day and a great way to get in the mileage I needed and now I get to decide if I want to come back in July for the summer version of the same race!

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What Lies Before Us (Bham New Year’s Double)

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” — Henry Stanley Haskins


New Year’s is my favorite holiday. I love endings, beginnings, new phases of life and most of all, I love making resolutions. (What I don’t like is staying up till midnight, because anyone who knows me is aware that I like my regular sleep routine and bedtime at 9pm)

New Year

Ringing in the New Year with great people

Many people are cynical about New Year’s Resolutions because they don’t tend to last long. I choose combat this pessimism by making as many resolutions I can think of. That way, if there is a 5% chance of keeping a New Year’s Resolution and I make 20 of them, I’m guaranteed to at least keep one.

I always divide my resolutions into categories: Spritual/Personal, Social, Career, Running and Survivor.

Because this blog is only about the running part of my life, here are some of my running resolutions:

  1. Incorporate more cross training into my schedule (I’ve signed up for a membership at the YMCA)
  2. Continue and learn and explore with food (This was also a resolution last year and I kept it, but there is more to learn and explore)
  3. Break 3 hours in the Marathon (I’m registered for the Montgomery Marathon with my Dad in March, if I don’t succeed there, I plan to register for another)
  4. Complete all four major southeastern stage races:
    1. Grand Viduta Stage Race (Hometown of Huntsville, here I come!)
    2. Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race (I’ve wanted to do this race for 2 years and am PUMPED about it)
    3. Cumberland Plateau Stage Race (This is so much more than a race, but a whole weekend of events and I can’t wait)
    4. Birmingham Stage Race (I’ve gotta defend my title!)
  5. Top secret mission/big goal for the fall (It’s only a secret because I’m giving myself permission to chicken out)

There are a couple of running events that happen in the first week of the New Year, and I decided that they both would be fun ways to spend the weekend. There were a few runners who participated in both of these events, I have taken it upon myself to coin this act the Birmingham New Year’s Double!

The first event in the double was The One Run. It takes place every year on January 1st (1/1) at 1:11pm and involves running 11 kilometers through downtown Birmingham. This very punny event is put on by the awesome people of Big Benefit Run and Ride. They put on many low-key running and cycling events around Birmingham that raise money for various non-profits doing amazing things. The supported charity for this run was Junior Achievement.

Big Benefit Run and Ride

The run met at Buck Mulligans which is only about a mile from my house. I opted to get some extra mileage by running to the event instead of driving. When I arrived, I saw a few people that I knew from other running events and I saw a couple of old friends from college who I haven’t seen since they graduated a couple of years before me. It was fun to catch up.

The organizers choose an awesome route for this event. It climbed up many hills, but we were rewarded with scenic views of downtown Birmingham. This was a non-competitive event, so it was fun to run easy and chat with those running a similar pace. At least, it wasn’t competitive until the last 50 meters when I sprinted through the finish with another runner and I almost ran straight into the photographer resulting in a fantastic race photo.

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Photo taken from Big Benefit Run and Ride

After the run is where the fun really begins as we all gathered back at Buck Mulligans for food, drinks and socializing. I couldn’t eat and drink anything there and I’ll explain why in a future blog post, but I still had fun before jogging another mile back to my house.

The next day was an early morning to make it to the start of the Resolution Run 21k at 7:30am. The Resolution Run is put on by the Birmingham Track Club. The BTC is a super cool part of Birmingham’s running scene. They provide community, inspiration and resources to both the experienced and the brand new runner. If you’ve ever been to a great race or running event in Birmingham, chances are it was either put on by the BTC or many of the volunteers are from the BTC. They are an organization worth supporting.

BTC

The Resolution Run took place at Red Mountain Park. In fact, the proceeds from the run, went to benefit the park. Red Mountain and I used to be best friends, but last month, I sprained my ankle during a race at Red Mountain. Since then, we’ve had bad blood. The Resolution Run was my chance to work out my issues with Red Mountain and patch our relationship.

The race director announced to us before the race began that somewhere on the course, there is a nutcracker statue hiding. If you find it and bring it back, you get a special prize.

Resolution Start

Photo taken from Birmingham Track Club

Poetically enough, the course we were running on was almost identical to the route I ran when I sprained my ankle here. When the gun went off, I took off with another local/active trail runner. The pace was fast but comfortable. Many times these long trail races spread out, so it’s always nice to have someone who runs a similar pace to you.

There was no ankle twisting today and it felt good to run fast after spending most of 2015 running slowly to get ready for Pinhoti. Red Mountain and I are now best-bros again. With about a mile left in the run, I saw the nutcracker sitting on a rock. I thought it would be courteous since the other runner and I were leading the run, to let someone further back take it. I just pointed it out and said “Ooh! Nutcracker!.” Then the guy behind me swooped down and took it. That’s when I decided to take off in a sprint for the last mile. I didn’t want him to have both the nutcracker and the overall win.

Resolution Run End

Photo Taken from Marathon Runs

It worked out perfectly because they didn’t give out a second place prize, so I got a gift certificate to Red Mountain Park for winning and he got a gift certificate for finding the nutcracker.

Resolution Run

Post-race was another fun socializing event where I couldn’t eat anything. Just like the day before.

I’d highly recommend these two events to anyone in 2017. Running is the best way to spend everyday and is an especially good way to start a new year!

 

 

The Hero of Their Own Story (BUTS Bearly Ultra Recap)

“Everyone is the hero of their own story.”

– Stephen Fishbach (Survivor: Tocantins and Survivor: Second Chances)


I was going crazy after Pinhoti. I wanted to hit the trails and race again more than anything. I continued to remind myself of my big plans for 2016 and 2017 which required

taking it easy right now. However, it didn’t matter how much I talked to myself, there were two races in December that I was DYING to run: The Lookout Mountain 50 miler and The BUTS Bearly Ultra 27 miler. They are back-to-back weekends, so doing both was out of the question. I reasoned that if I said “no” to the 50 miler, I would earn some responsibility points and I could reward myself for my sensibility with the 27 miler. Welcome to my logic.

I could have just volunteered for the 27 miler and that is what I should have done. The problem wasn’t that I wasn’t recovered from Pinhoti, but rather that I hadn’t been running since Pinhoti and was in no shape to tackle 27 miles. It didn’t matter though, I wanted to “seize the day” and even if I didn’t race competitively well, I would still enjoy a few hours on the trails with great people.

The BUTS Bearly Ultra is put on by the great people of the Birmingham Ultra Trail Society. An “ultra-marathon” is most commonly defined as any distance longer than a marathon (26.2 miles). They call this race the “Bearly Ultra” because it is 27 miles. It’s a great introduction into the ultra marathon world if you are new to the sport.

The stage for this event is Red Mountain Park. I have a special affinity for Red Mountain Park. The first time I ran there was in 2010 when the trails were still being carved out and the historic structures being unearthed. Our college cross country coach took us there and told us that it would be a future park for the city and they invited a couple of local running groups to test out the trails. In a short 5 years, the park has grown and developed into something quite amazing. My first trail race after graduation was an 8 mile race at Red Mountain. I lived only one mile away from the park for 2 years and I was there almost every single morning before work heading to Grace’s Gap to catch a sunrise glimpse of downtown Bham. I love Red Mountain so much that I’ve referred to it before as my “bro” or “best man.” It felt appropriate and exciting that my re-entry into trails after Pinhoti would be at Red Mountain.

For some reason, I thought the race started at 7am. So I set my alarm clock for 5am, woke up, packed my things, ate food with the assumption of a 7 o’clock start time and strolled up to Red Mountain around 6:30am. When I arrived, I learned that I was an hour early as the race began at 8. No big deal. I went back to my car, played some fun music, filled up my gas tank and grabbed some fruit to snack on before the race began.

Before the race, I ran into Bob. You may remember him from my Pinhoti 100 blog post. He is another Birmingham runner whom I stayed in front of for the duration of the race and because I got lost at the end, he ended up beating me by a minute. I’ve started referring to this phenomenon as “The Curse of Bob.”On paper, I should beat Bob in most distances. He always comes up to me before a race and says something like, “Well, you’ll be beating me today.” That is when I always remind him that I have never actually beaten him in a race. Bob is like many trail/ultra runners: humble, relaxed, and not outwardly competitive. I am the opposite: arrogant, anxious and always publicly talking about the people I want to beat before the race begins.  Today I was telling everyone how I wanted to break “The Curse of Bob” today and finally beat him in a race.

When the race began, a couple of fast Birmingham runners took off in front. I followed at a safe distance behind and let them go so I could relax. If I felt like it, I would turn on my competitive switch in the last 13.5 miles, but for this first half, I planned to have fun. The race started running up a power line trail and very quickly the front runners made a left into the woods and everyone followed. Within 200 meters they stopped, looked back at us and yelled “WHERE DO WE GO!?” They had reached an intersection that appeared to have course markings going in both directions. Bob, behind me yelled back, “GO LEFT!” So we went left. Within 30 seconds, people behind us started screaming, “NO! GO RIGHT!” Then people began to run right. Others continued to insist that we go left. We were only 1/2 mile into the race, so the group hadn’t spread out yet and now everyone was catching up and it was becoming a crowded scene. Finally someone yells, “IT’S NEITHER LEFT NOR RIGHT! WE SHOULDN’T HAVE TURNED ON THIS TRAIL, WE NEED TO GO BACK TO THE POWERLINE!” Chaos ensued as these three arguments yelled against each other and others began to call for a restart to the race. Going back to the powerline made the most sense to me, as no intersection should be this confusing. So, I led the charge back to the powerline where we made the wrong turn and it became clear that we should have gone straight up the powerline trail instead of turning. With that corrected, I spent the next 1/2 mile laughing about how interesting this morning had been with my confusion of the start time and now the confusion of the course markings.

I want to make clear here, that the race directors did an INCREDIBLE job putting this race together. Neither my confusion about the start time or the runners wrong turn should be attributed to their communication or course markings. The course was clearly marked to continue straight and we simply ignored those markings.

The next 4-5 miles were pretty uneventful. My “nemesis” from the Birmingham Stage Race was there. I was surprised that he was behind me, but I also know that he can crush the second half of a race. I was thoroughly enjoying being back on trails and racing again. In my euphoria, I began to zone out and missed another turn. Luckily, I only missed it by about 50 meters before I heard Nemesis yell at me from behind to turn around. So I ran and caught back up with him and followed him down the next trail.

We made a turn and started to run on a trail called “Ike Mason.” This is the only technical trail at Red Mountain Park. It feels similar to a roller coaster because it goes up and down and up and down very rocky paths. About a mile onto this path, I was hopping from rock to rock down a steep descent when one of the rocks rolled to the side and so did my ankle. As a trail runner, I roll my ankle frequently. For that reason, I work hard on my ankle flexibility and mobility. 90% of the time, when I roll my ankle, I pop back up and keep going like nothing happened. This time was different and I could feel it immediately.

After a couple of profane words, Nemsis asked if I was ok. I responded yes and told him to keep going. This hurt much worse than it ever has before. I stopped for a second, collected myself and kept walking. I knew that it would either get better in a few moments and I would be able to keep running, or it would get worse and I would have to call it a day. I was thrilled and relieved when it began to feel better and I continued running down the trail again. However, it didn’t completely recover. It was tolerable on the up hills and flats, but was sharp and painful on the downhills.

I reminded myself of the story I read over a year ago in the book “Eat and Run” where Scott Jurek sets the course record at the Hardrock 100 on a sprained ankle. I realize that I am not Scott Jurek and will never posses his mental toughness, but what I am is delusional enough to believe that I can try. Over the next few miles, the pain either subsided or I grew accustomed to it. This allowed me to return to the task at hand and pass a few people back who passed me while I was walking after the sprain occurred. I finished the first 13.5 mile loop around the park in 4th place, feeling good and Bob was no where in sight. If I could hold it together for another 13.5 miles, I would break the curse.

I didn’t hold it together. Despite the fact that the pain had subsided for the first 8 miles after rolling my ankle, it started to get much worse after I passed the half-way mark. With every step, it grew more and more painful. It was hard to control my “run limping” through the park and keep my form together, which I knew was essential to avoid causing an over-use injury in my non-injured leg. I continued to remind myself of stories of crazy athletes who possess incredible mental toughness and have done much more difficult things than run on a sprained ankle. Mile 20 is when I realized that I am not one of those stupid/crazy athletes. I was done. I reasoned that I could walk/hobble through the last 7 miles of this race and be miserable or I could take a short-cut back to the start/finish, accept my DNF and have a beer. If this were Pinhoti or another race that I had more emotional ties to, the story would be different and I would have run through it. This race, however, was a last minute decision for me to run and I might as well start the recovery process early.

Taking the detour trail back to the start was a little disheartening. In 11.5 years of running, this would be my third DNF. The first was my junior year of high school when I dropped from the 3200 at the sectional championships because I “wasn’t having fun anymore.” (Not much has changed…) The second time was earlier this year at the Race Against the Sun. That one doesn’t count because the race is designed to DNF 99% of the entrants.

When I reached the start/finish, I told the race director to scratch me and sat down on the ground. I thought to myself, “When I take off this shoe, my leg better swell up like a balloon to justify this DNF.” Instead, it looked perfectly normal sized. Someone then handed me a beer and a bag of ice and I was a happy camper for the rest of the afternoon. I enjoyed talking and catching up with people I have met this year, cheering in other runners and informing Bob upon his finish that the curse was still in effect.

There are a couple of positive things that I am taking away from the Bearly Ultra. First, I’ve been reminded of the respect I must have for all ultra distance races. I’ve learned this lesson before, but running 100 miles makes you feel invincible and I thought that running 27 miles would be “no big deal.” Wrong. It doesn’t matter how good of shape you are in. Races 26.2 miles and longer are equal opportunity crushers and everyone hurts. There is no approaching it with a “I’m just going to have a fun mentality.” You can absolutely have fun at these events, but the fun does not come without a little hurt.

Second, I am much more certain of my goals for 2016 now. Before Pinhoti, I had my goals for 2016 (and 2017) planned out. However, 100 miles made me start to rethink everything I had planned for my running in 2016 and I have felt like a ping pong ball bouncing between potential ideas for my next running adventures. Time spent running/hobbling through the woods during the Bearly Ultra helped me make up my mind for 2016 and I am pretty excited about it.

For now, I am spending a lot of time in the gym while I try and let my ankle recover. I’m eagerly awaiting to get back at it again.

 

 

 

Listen to Your Life

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” – Frederick Buechner


Physically, I recovered quickly from the Pinhoti 100. Only two days later I felt I could go outside and run again. However, I didn’t. I’ve taken the last 3 weeks off from running and training. (well…mostly…)

This break from running has been different than other occasions I have taken time off. Previously, running breaks have been about rest and recovery. For example, I took five weeks off starting in January of this year because I was exhausted and slightly injured after running a long, tough race every month for five months. I took that break to let my body rest from a difficult race season and to feel mentally rejuvenated as I started Pinhoti training in March.  Physically, I don’t feel like I need to rest and recover right now. I tapered off and rested well before Pinhoti. Mentally, I am on such a high from the experience that I seriously contemplated not taking time off and signing up for a 50 miler in December. For the last two weekends, I’ve been watching race results and photos from other trail runs wishing I was there. I don’t want to rest from running right now.

To my family and friends who have asked, I’ve referred to this three week break from training as my “running fast” because rather than resting from running, it feels more like I am abstaining from running. I’ve had two primary goals for this time off: reflect and prioritize.

Taking intentional time to reflect is a learned activity that became very important to me in college. This blog itself is a method of reflection for me because I have tried and failed a million times to keep a private running journal. Life can be fast paced and it feels like there are a million things you should be doing at any point in time. Even in the ultra-marathon world, which claims to host a culture that slows down and escapes the business of city life, it is tempting to sign up for every race you see posted on the internet and there is a desire to keep up with other runners on social media who seem to be running, racing or traveling every weekend. I hope that by taking a break between training cycles I’ll be better able to reflect on what I learned this past year and use that experience to make next year better.

For example, here is some of what I have taken away from this year.

  1. Starting my training season with rest. Last year, I got really excited about my new journey as an ultramarathon runner and started training and racing very hard. This resulted in various minor injuries and a pretty quick “burn-out”. Before starting Pinhoti training this year, I took 5 weeks off and created a 36 week training plan that I stuck to and thrived in. It was a great decision for me and that is partially what I am replicating now with these three weeks off. I know that when I start training again, I won’t be stopping for a while.
  2. Don’t be afraid of strength training. While running cross country and track in college, we went to the gym twice a week to lift weights. I hated every second of it and I was really bad at it. Now I know that the type of weight lifting we were doing was not good for long-distance running. After college, I swore off gyms and weights of any kind. I was going to stick to what I loved: running. I am fortunate that I was introduced this year to types of strength training and ways of using a gym that I don’t hate and that quickly made me feel like a stronger and more confident runner. I absolutely plan to take what I learned last year about cross-training and build on it this year.
  3. Food. My journey with running and food deserves a blog post of it’s own. Trying to eat right as a runner intimidates me to my core. I am intimidated by the whole process of meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking, and even food timing. The idea that you can eat whatever you want if you run is a dangerous lie. In college, I ran 60 miles a week at high intensity and still gained weight because I believed this lie. I have learned much this year about eating as an ultra-runner and it made a massive difference in my training and performance. I still have much to learn and I am very frequently reading articles or watching videos about ultramarathon nutrition trying to improve.
  4. No more whining and trying to “prove myself” If you are one of the few people who actually read most of my blog posts, you have probably recognized a pattern of language that sounds self deprecating and uses phrases like “proving myself” or “running redemption.” I have had many people talk to me privately in a loving and concerned way that they thought I was being unrealistically hard on myself or had self-esteem issues. While I believe these are slight misinterpretations of what I intended to articulate about my motivations for racing and training this year, there is a lesson to be learned. I now realize that trying to “prove myself” by running is a pretty ridiculous thought. In 2016, I am done complaining about past races or feeling negatively about my athletic ability. However, what I will retain is the feeling of being unsatisfied. One of my pacers during the Pinhoti 100 made the following comment to me, “I am glad that you are never satisfied with your running performances, because all of the best athletes are also unsatisfied and always striving to be better.” That quote put into context for me the balance between being unsatisfied with my racing results and being self-deprecating about my race results. Am I really proud of myself for what I accomplished in 2015? Yes, very proud. Am I satisfied with a 12th place finish and a time of almost 23 hours? Absolutely not, and that hunger will only be more motivation for next year’s goals.

The second reason for taking a running fast, was to better prioritize the aspects of my life that are unrelated to running. I threw myself into running this year 150%, much to the neglect of other aspects of my life. I’ve said this before, but there are higher callings than running. I want to make more time to spend with family and friends, I want to better love my neighbors, I want to engage in more spiritual disciplines, I want to take better care of the house I live in, and I want to be more generous with my time and resources.

Having the extra time in my schedule without running, has allowed me to spend extra time doing yard work on my house.

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I’ve also been able to plan out my schedule to add time for spiritual study and reflection. I am working to find a project or act of service in which I can regularly engage and I’m trying to spend more time with family and friends.

It has been a fun three weeks. The first thing I did was shave. I thought it would be a good look and a nice change to initiate this new season of life after finishing the Pinhoti 100. Instead, I learned that I don’t like how I look with a clean face and apparently none of my friends, family or co-workers like it either. So facial hair will be making a comeback.

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I started a new position at work, and it has kept me very busy. On top of my new position, I had the opportunity to work with our Human Resources department on our company’s United Way campaign.  That gave me the opportunity to tour with my coworkers three different local United Way agencies that are providing important services for vulnerable populations. The experience was overwhelmingly rewarding and it gave me so much inspiration towards my goal of finding to way to give more of my time and resources and hoard less of it.

My family came to my house for Thanksgiving and it was so much fun! I always travel to see them for the holidays and one year ago, I insisted to have one holiday here in Birmingham and it finally happened. I surprised myself by making a good turkey and everyone was in a great mood. Easily one of my favorite holidays.

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I cheated on my running fast only once. I’ve been training with my two roommates for 11 weeks as we went through a couch-to-5k training plan. We ended the 11 weeks by running the Magic City 5k last weekend. It was the first 5k for one of my roommates and the 2nd 5k for the other. We had a great time and I was super proud.

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Today is the beginning of Advent, so it seems like an appropriate time for a new beginning. Tomorrow, I’ll be back into training and I am very much looking forward to it. I’ve got some big dreams for both 2016 and 2017. Next week, I’ll reveal exactly what those dreams are.

A Day I Did Not Deserve (Pinhoti 100 Recap)

“Today was a day I did not deserve and I am grateful.” – Keith Thompson


The weather forecast leading up to the Pinhoti 100 wasn’t pretty. Only 4 days before the race, there was a 100% chance of thunderstorms. Luckily for the 200+ runners on November 7th, there wasn’t a thunderbolt in the sky. There was however a light drizzle and the heavy rain from the previous night had pre-soaked the trails for us.

I wasn’t worried about the rain. I love running in the rain. Back in August, I ran my first 50 miler in a downpour and ended up having the race of my life. It struck me peculiar that morning how I wasn’t worried about anything. Standing outside of my parent’s car before the start of the Pinhoti 100, I only had two things on my mind: “Ok, David, make sure you finish this entire Clif Bar and drink this entire bottle of water before the race starts.”

I spent months leading up to this race visualizing the starting line and the emotions I would feel. I expected to feel excited, nervous, anxious, nostalgic, proud or any combination of the above. Instead it seemed I had already felt these emotions for so long and my quota for those feelings was spent. All I knew was I wanted to run and lucky for me running was exactly what was on the menu for the day.

I recognized a friendly photographer from Huntsville walking by. He comes to so many of these events and always does a great job. “Hey guys! I wanna take a picture!” I called out to my mom, dad and older sister who would consist of my crew for the day.

I was worried about my crew and debated for months whether or not I wanted others there. I wasn’t worried whether they do a good job not, I knew they would do great. It wasn’t because I didn’t want them there, because I did. I wanted to invite them because I wanted to share the ultramarathon and trail world I have fallen in love with. I also wanted them to see me as the new runner I’ve become. They knew me as a cross country and track athlete, but I’m not the same runner I was then. However, crewing is a hard job and I was worried they would be miserable and resent me for inviting them. I tried to warn them for months about what they were signing up for. I told them it would be difficult, miserable and cold. I told them they would be stuck in the car together for over 20 hours and would be standing outside waiting for me for long periods of time only to find me not in the best of moods. Despite these warnings, they were here and were beaming with the excitement and nerves I expected to feel myself but didn’t.

After walking to the start line together, I gave my crew quick hugs thanking them again before taking my spot on the starting line. No matter how bad today went, I wanted them to know without a doubt how grateful I was for them to be there.

At the start line I found another Birmingham runner for whom I have a lot of respect. His name is Bob, he is about 40 and this is his third time running the Pinhoti 100 and his third 100 mile race this year. He is an incredibly strong runner. One of my goals was to be the first runner from Alabama to cross the finish line. I had studied the entrant list and Bob was one of two people I was worried about getting in the way of my goal. Thus, I made sure to start right next to him.

After the gun went off, we raced down a gravel road for about a quarter mile before jumping onto the single track trail. It made sense to go out fast on the road to avoid getting stuck in a conga line on the trail. My strategy at this point in the race was simple: stick with Bob. I knew we should be close together in this race and I trust his experience to not go out too fast. He was running a little bit faster than I wanted to at this stage in the race, but I went with it anyway. We talked for those first few miles about the trail and the race. He is a dad and I asked about his kids running cross country in middle school and I told him about how my dad is here and will be pacing me for about 10 miles today. He was able to let me know what the section my dad would be running is like so I knew what to expect.

This section of the course is stunning. It is a good thing I didn’t carry a camera with me or I would have stopped to take pictures of everything. I couldn’t get over the surreal feeling of where I was and what I was doing. I had spent months visualizing the Pinhoti 100 and now I was doing it. I felt overwhelmed with gratitude.

Because of the rain, the race director moved the starting line of the race meaning the first 13 miles were an out-and-back section to the first aid station. It is normally a point-to-point. The second aid station would be the same place the race began. The out-and-back was fun because it allowed me to see all of the other runners I knew at the beginning of the race. There was still so much excitement this early on and everyone cheered each other on while running past.

When I came into the first aid station, the cheering was loud because every person’s crew was still there from the start. We hadn’t spread out yet. I was worried in this crowd of people I would have a hard time finding my crew, but they were ready and prepared. As soon as I came off the trail, my dad was standing ready with a packet of tailwind nutrition and told me my mom and sister were just ahead with more supplies. I didn’t need anything from my mom and sister, so I gave them a happy wave and kept on going.

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I left this aid station before Bob and now I was by myself. This gave me a peace of mind and made me feel more in control of my own pace. I had a lot of nerves related to this being my first 100 mile race and the pace I was running. I didn’t want to run too fast and kill myself later in the race and I didn’t want to run too slow and miss my goal time. I was still ahead of pace of my A-goal time, but only slightly and the second half of this course would be much more difficult than the first half. I knew my pace needed to be a little faster to make up for the increase in difficulty later, but I wanted the pace to feel more effortless than it did in the moment. I resolved to simply run the pace I knew would get me to finish. I knew my A-goal was a stretch and as long as I ran decently, I wouldn’t actually be upset if I missed it by an hour or two.

I came into aid station 3 at mile 18. This would be the last time I would see my crew until mile 40. My dad was there with a bag a tailwind to mix into my drink. I wanted to take 3 additional bags with me to get me through the next 22 miles.

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“Sorry, we only brought 2 bags over here.” Said my Dad and sister.

“I need 3,” I replied “Where are the others?”

“They are in the car. We didn’t bring them. Just make do with these.”

“No!” I yelled “Let’s walk to the car then.”

Apparently the car was farther down the road than I thought. So my dad told me to start heading to the trail head as he sprinted to the car and drove it up to meet me with the supplies I needed.

I headed back into the woods frustrated and embarrassed. I didn’t want to snap on my family who was making a big sacrifice for me, but I was frustrated because I felt I had made it clear how I don’t know what I will need at each aid station until I get there and I put everything I may need into two bins which aren’t hard to carry into each aid station. I knew I would want a change of clothes and a chair to sit in at mile 40 and now I was concerned they wouldn’t have it ready if there wasn’t a close parking spot to the aid station. Being frustrated with my crew in-turn made me frustrated with myself for being so high maintenance and for even thinking negatively about my crew who were being saints towards me just by being here.

Running frustrated is always a poor racing strategy. I did everything I could to turn my thoughts positive. Friends and family ask me frequently what I think about when running for hours at a time. The answer is simple: cheesy, pop songs. I don’t typically listen to music while racing, but if a song gets stuck in your head while running. It is going to be there a while. I’ve learned the cheesier the song, the more likely it is to get stuck.

Needle and a thread, gotta get you out of my head
Needle and a thread, goona wind up dead

The next 17 miles were beautiful, long and wet. The trail wound along with a creek and intersected the creek on numerous occasions. Sometimes the water was as high as my knees. There would be no hope of keeping my feet dry. There were two large and stunning waterfalls which left me tempted to stop and enjoy for a few minutes, but I didn’t. I was starting to feel tired for the first time at this point. This wasn’t unexpected because I usually start to feel sluggish after mile 20 on most of my runs. I knew if I just kept going at a steady pace, I would start to feel better.

There was only one manned aid station during the section before I saw my family again at mile 40. It was put on by the Birmingham Ultra Trail Society. They are basically the coolest trail runners you will ever meet.

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Check out the BUTS at www.runbuts.com

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It was nice to see familiar faces. I’ve gotten to know members of the BUTS primarily during this year of getting ready for the Pinhoti and I knew they were cheering for me.

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Once I reached mile 35, I knew the next 5 miles would be all up hill to the top of Mt. Cheaha where I would see my family again. This climb looks very intimidating on the elevation profile, but I’ve heard that it isn’t that difficult. They were right, I enjoyed this section and I began to feel better and stronger. It is a long climb, but it is very gradual and it is stunning. The farther up I went, the more mist covered the trails and the setting became very spooky in the coolest way possible.

At the top of the mountain, my family was ready for me and I was overwhelmingly happy and grateful. They knew I would probably need to sit at this point so they had a chair set out for me and bins of all of my stuff ready for me to ask for it. I knew exactly what I wanted. I had been drinking Tailwind all day and I was craving some real food, so my mom gave me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I also wanted to change my shirt, shoes and socks. This was more of a mental strategy than anything. The first phase of the race was over and I wanted to feel like a new person. When I took off my socks, we found a pretty massive blister on my big toe. My sister, who is a rock-star nurse, got it wrapped up very well and I never felt it for the rest of the race.

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Changing my shoes at mile 40. This would end up being the only time I would sit down for the entire race.

I left the aid station at the same time as another friend of mine from Birmingham. He is a very strong runner and I wanted to beat him very badly. At the same time, however, I was rooting for him because it was his second attempt at this race and he DNF’d the first time. He is an example that no matter how good of shape you are in or how well prepared you are, if the odds are not in your favor on a particular day, anything can happen.

The next section of the course was the descent down Mount Cheaha. It was steep, slippery and borderline dangerous. This was taken very slowly and cautiously. After making it down the mountain, there was only a three mile run on jeep roads until I saw my crew again and my dad would begin to run with me. I’ll admit at the beginning of the day, I was nervous about my dad running with me because even though he is a very strong runner, he doesn’t have a lot of experience running on trails, let alone trails in the rain at night. However, in these last few miles before picking him up, I was absolutely ecstatic. I was ecstatic because I had such a fun day thus far running on and enjoying the beautiful trails and having such an adventure. My dad was exactly the person I wanted to share these beautiful trails and adventure with. I couldn’t wait for him to see what I had seen and experience what I had experienced. My dad has always been a big part of my running. It has always been a bonding activity for us. Sharing the next ten miles was going to be very meaningful.

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Arriving at mile 45 excited to pick up my dad as a pacer

When I arrived at mile 45, my dad was dressed, equipped and ready to go. He would be with me for the next 10 miles. The sun was going to set during our 10 miles, so he had two headlamps ready for the both of us.

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Departing the aid station with my dad.

We departed and aid station together and made the turn onto the single-track trails we would enjoy for the next 10 miles. We ran for about a minute before coming to a creek crossing. I calculated the width of the creek and jumped across it. 10 seconds later…SLIP! THUD! AHHH!

I whipped around concerned to find my dad on his back in the creek and his headlamp in the water. For a second I thought, “Well, that is it. I broke my dad.” However, he popped right back up without missing a beat and exclaimed, “I’M FINE! KEEP GOING! JUST SLIPPED ON A ROCK!”

The next seven miles went well as I told him all about my day so far and how amazing this adventure has been. I picked his brain for how everything was going on the crew side. I made a comment to him about how cold I was which he found concerning because I was cold in a jacket and he was in short-sleeves and not cold at all. He fell a few more times because this section was especially technical. It takes a lot of practice on technical trails to become comfortable on them.

By the time we arrived at the next aid station at mile 52, it was dark and we were using our headlamps. This aid station was my favorite one of the entire day. First, there was a man standing at the entrance of the aid station cheering in every runner exclaiming, “YOU’RE OVER HALF WAY THERE! CONGRATULATIONS!”Second, they had chicken quesadillas which were exactly what I needed in that moment. I was sad to leave, but I knew there were only 3 more miles until the next aid station.

What happened next was the longest three miles of my entire life. Soon after leaving the aid station, my dad’s headlamp died. I’m still not sure why because the batteries were new. We figured it was from water damage when it fell in the creek.

This meant for the next 3 miles we would be two people sharing one headlamp. This required some problem solving and creativity. We tried to have myself run in front with the lamp and my dad behind. We tried to have my dad in front with the lamp and me behind. We tried to have myself behind with the lamp and my dad in front. We tried to have my dad behind with the lamp and me in front. None of these methods were working perfectly. The rain only made it more difficult for the beam to shine very far. Leaves were covering the rocks and roots on the trail and it was easy to miss the flags and signs keeping you on the trail. It felt like an eternity until the next aid station. I tried not to let my dad see it, but by the time we got to the next aid station my mom and my sister could tell I was frustrated. Now my dad and I joke about the experience because those three miles ended up being one of the most memorable parts of the whole day.

I had two friends from Huntsville on their way to run with me through the rest of the night. However, they were late and I would run the next 13 miles alone until they arrived. The next 8 miles were primarily on dirt roads and those miles flew by. However, the last 5 miles until I saw the pacer again was on single track and I reached my second major low point of the race. My body was finally starting the feel the impact of the miles I had run until this point and I was struggling. It felt like a lot of people passed me during this section and with each person running by, I felt a little more demoralized. When I reached mile 68, my friends were there. I looked right at them and said, “You have a lot of work to do because this is the worst I have felt all day!”

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“I just  need you to keep talking to me. I think it will make me feel better.” I said to Dante as we started running onto another trail. The next seven miles would be mostly uphill until we reached the aid station at mile 75 at “The Pinnacle.” I had been told this climb was the most difficult one, so I was very grateful to have Dante there to help get through it.

I’ve known Dante since high school. Back then I saw him as my rival. I ran for Bob Jones and he ran for Huntsville. I would beat him in every small track meet, and he would beat me every time it mattered at the Metro or Sectional championships. Even back then he was extremely outgoing and made friends with every runner before and after the race. After High School he ran for The University of Alabama Huntsville (or UAH) and had an incredible college career. We saw each other at a couple of cross country meets our freshman year and it was obvious he was an improved runner and had a serious shot of towing the line at nationals one day. Now he is still active in the running community coaching individuals as well as a small high school cross country team. Having the combination of a rival and friend with a coaching mindset made him the perfect pacer.

I was pumped to have him there because I knew he would be optimistic. Every time I said something negative about myself, the race or told the story about my dad’s headlamp going out, he wouldn’t hesitate to snap back with something positive. He ran in front of me and I stared at his neon back-pack as it glowed in my headlamp. Talking with him did help me feel better and we started to pass some of the people back who had passed me on the last section.

Eventually, we made it to the Pinnacle aid station at mile 75. This was a big check point in the race. I’ve heard it said if you can take one step out of this aid station, you will finish the race. After this, there are only 10 more miles on difficult single-track trails before starting on the last 15 miles of easy jeep roads.

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This aid station was also sponsored by the BUTS. They had great music playing and the familiar faces were nice to see.  At this point my mind was gone and all I could think about was how cold I was. One of the volunteers wrapped me in a big hug and her warmth made me feel so much better. They asked me what I wanted to eat. They had a lot of good food, but all I was craving was more of the chicken quesadillas from mile 52. They gave me a cup of hot Ramen noodles and I was on my way.

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People have asked me what the hardest part of the experience was. Absolutely it was the cold. I don’t mind running in the rain, but it rained for most of the day. At night the temperature dropped severely and the combination of wet clothes and cold weather kept me shivering for most of the last 5 hours of the race. I was feeling this especially on top of this mountain where the wind was blowing pretty hard.

The second most difficult thing was muscle fatigue. I was never sleepy and I was never tired from a cardiovascular standpoint either, but around mile 80, it became increasingly difficult to pick up my legs. I was hitting my toes on every rock and root. Dante will testify how this resulted in a lot of screaming and vulgar language on my part. Dante recommended we treat the next few miles like a fartlek and run for a minute with thirty seconds of walking between. This helped, both mentally and physically and we knocked out a few miles with this method.

Once we arrived at mile 85, we saw my crew again and Dante’s turn of running with me came to an end. I heard the last 15 miles were relatively easy and Mindy would be joining me for the next 10 miles. I tried to take some time to stand by the fire at the aid station and warm up for a minute before leaving. However, an aid station volunteer warned me not to stand by the fire too long because I might not want to leave. She was right, the fire felt amazing to my shivering body, but I had to leave. I only had to suffer for 15 more road miles before earning the belt buckle I had been dreaming about all day.

Mindy was one of my college cross country teammates at Birmingham-Southern. She was one of the first friends I made at BSC because we were both clearly the most nervous and socially awkward at xc camp freshman year. Mindy is one of the few people who understands how I think as a runner. She understands why I love the longer distances and she acted like it was perfectly expected when I registered for a 100 miler. She also understands why I’m never satisfied with my running performances. We have the same definition of what “good” or “acceptable” running performances are. She knows disappointment and what it is like to run through struggle much better than I do as she has bravely dealt with various running injuries and setbacks. She was perfect for keeping my mind straight.

Mindy did exactly what I needed her to do. While I was too cold to talk and overwhelmed by how far I still had to run, she was a chatterbox of optimism. I just listened while she told stories of thier car getting stuck in the mud, of almost running out of gas and her hopes/plans for grad school next year. This was good because I was starting to feel a little disoriented at this point and off-balance.

Eventually we made it to the final aid station at mile 95. This was supposed to be crew accessible and my crew would pick up Mindy and I would run the last five miles alone. However, the race directors made a last minute decision to close this aid station to crew vehicles and Mindy would end up running the last five miles to the finish line as well. She was not planning to run 15 miles, but didn’t complain once.

When we left the aid station, the reality of the finish line sank in for the first time. This was the first time I started to become emotional because not only had the last 22 hours been an incredible adventure, but the entire year had been part of an incredible personal journey for me. I started to tear up when I visualized running into the stadium in Sylacauga and finishing the race. However, I really didn’t want Mindy to see me emotional, so I decided to suppress and wait until the actual finish to feel any emotion.

When we hit the roads in Syclacauga for the final 3 miles of the race, Mindy told me to leave her. She was tired and I was ready to push hard to the finish. I was warned the last road section to the finish is torture. Torture is the perfect word. The long road stretched on for what seemed like an eternity. It would bend around a corner and I would hope to see stadium lights, but they would never be there.

Eventually, I saw stadium lights and I saw flags telling me to turn left. I looked for more flags or a sign telling me to turn right into the stadium, but they weren’t there and I couldn’t see or hear anyone in the stadium. I also saw another runner on the road ahead of me past the stadium. So I continued straight. I thought it must be the wrong stadium. Half a mile later, the runner ahead of me stopped. I caught up to him and we both knew we had missed a turn somewhere. I ran for 100 miles and never got lost in the woods once. Now, at the end of the race, I finally got lost. No one was around on the road at 5:30 in the morning. Eventually we found a post office worker who told us the stadium was half a mile back. My brain was too tired to be frustrated. So I just pushed back as hard as I could down the road. Found the turn I previously missed and ran into the stadium.

When I entered the stadium, I saw Bob, another Birmingham runner crossing the finish line. I spent most of the race as the first runner from Alabama and because of my misdirection, I lost that distinction. I saw my family behind the finish line huddled together, and they did not look excited to see me. I crossed the finish line to a perfectly silent audience in 22:53:37 and 12th place overall. No cheering. No excitement. I started to walk towards my family and after a minute, they finally recognized me and we laughed at how they didn’t realize it was me until after I finished. It was the most anti-climactic finish to a race I could have ever expected, but it didn’t matter. The journey was over.

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“Today was a day I did not deserve and I am grateful.”

I first heard this quote 3 years ago. I was given the advice to put it into my phone to go off as a reminder at the end of every day. So it has gone off on my phone every day at 9:00pm for the last three years. This is the quote that was stuck in my head as I was finishing this race. It has become a mantra of mine this year, as much has happened for which I am grateful.

After the race, I only wanted to do one thing: take my shoes off. I had been running with wet feet for almost 23 hours and I was dying to see the damage. I have no pictures to share, but trust me when I tell you they weren’t pretty. The second thing I wanted to do was take a hot shower. I was freezing and my family later told me how they saw a lot of people drop from the race due to hypothermia.

We didn’t waste much time hanging around. We all had an incredible weekend but we were ready to get home. I tried to find words to thank my family and friends for what they had done for me. Those words don’t exist.

When I got home to Birmingham, my roommates gave me a warm greeting. I turned on my phone and read the most amazing messages from friends on Facebook, Instagram and SMS. My sister apparently did a great job managing my social media and generated quite a bit of attention. I felt grateful for every person who wrote me a comment or a message. It made me feel very loved and I am grateful.

While unpacking my things. My roommate made a comment how he was surprised I wasn’t asleep or starving. I told him how I didn’t want to nap during the day because it would mean I wouldn’t sleep as well at night. However, eating sounded like a good idea. So I heated up some lunch and took it to my room to eat and watch some Netflix. Once I actually sat down in my bed just before 12:00 pm, it took about a minute before I passed out and didn’t wake up until 4:30 the next morning. I slept for 16.5 hours. I guess I didn’t have anything to worry about when it came to sleeping through the night.

Overall, the Pinhoti 100 was one of the craziest adventures I have ever been on. Despite being anxious about if my family would have a good time, they seemed to have loved it as they had an adventure of their own. The next day, my sister texted me about “next time.” My dad called me too on a high from his 10 mile adventure in the woods and seemed ready to go again. Even my mom, who I feared would be most out of her element, told me how she enjoyed it and would do it again. As it turns out, they had more stories to share from the weekend than I did.

Now the Pinhoti 100 is in the books. The question arises, “What’s next?” I thought about this a lot in the months leading up to the race. Training for this resulted in one of the most unique years in my life. I stepped out of my comfort zone this year and the result was learning things which made me a better runner. However, now I am trying to figure out how much of my life I want to dedicate to this sport going forward. There are higher callings than running. This isn’t a new internal debate for me and I’ve struggled with this question since I started running when I was 13. Right now, I’ve resolved until thanksgiving to take a break from running and focus on some other priorities in my life. After thanksgiving, I’ll start preparing for my next athletic goal. That goal however will remain a secret until December.

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Think About These Things (Thoughts Before a 100 Mile Race)

“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

– Philippians 4:8 (NRSV)


On January 2nd of this year I registered for the Pinhoti 100. It was something that I had wanted to do for a couple of years. After registering for the race, I did three things:

First, I messaged my family to tell them what I had done. I expected them question my decision and possibly my sanity, but instead my mom simply responded: “Wow, that’s great! You’ll remember this for the rest of your life.” She was right, I haven’t even run the race yet and I’ll already remember this year of training for a long time. This year has been full of adventure, hard work, life lessons learned and new friendships made. What I will treasure most, however, are the quiet moments spent on the trails. I learned that I like myself when I’m running. It gives me a feeling of self confidence that I don’t feel most other places.

The second thing that I did was write the race onto my calendar and I recited to myself this phrase: “The race will not be won on November 7th, but it will be won every morning between now and then when my alarm goes off and I decide to either lace up and run or hit the snooze button.” All of those mornings have passed now and my alarm has buzzed over one hundred times. Some days I got up, and some days I slept in. Now, I find myself reflecting on on all of those days and asking myself, “Was it enough? Did I run enough miles? Did I eat healthy enough? Did I cross train enough? Did I stretch enough?”

The third thing I did was go for a run. Obviously.

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People keep asking me if I am nervous for the race this weekend. The truth is that I’ve spent all of this year being nervous and I’m tired of feeling anxiety. I am excited. This is what I love to do and I feel so privileged to be able to do it. There is nothing else left to do but show up and run.

I am so thankful for the crew of people coming to support me during this race. I am overwhelmed by the number of people who have offered to come support and help, but I had to keep the number small. My parents and sister will be crewing during the day and two running friends from Huntsville will come to pace and crew through the night. I don’t know how to thank these people enough for giving up thier weekend for an adventure that won’t be fun all of the time.

I’ve been very clear every time I have discussed this race with anyone who has asked that I am not running just to finish, but rather I am running to compete. Just by finishing this race, I’ll impress many people and will have an accomplishment to brag about for a long time. However, I’m not running this race to impress other people. I’m running this race to impress myself. Specifically, I’m trying to impress various iterations of my younger self. I’m running to impress 8 year old David who loved running the mile in gym class, but was never the fastest one. I’m running this to impress 13 year old David who after learning he was really bad at almost every sport, finally found something he was good at. I’m running this for 18 year old David who felt conflicted between pouring all of his energy into a sport or giving it up to pursue things that seemed more meaningful. Finally, I’m running this for 21 year old David who was tired of finishing in last place during college 5ks and yearned for the day he would graduate and be free to chase marathons and ultras. My friends and family are my easiest critics, but I’m trying to impress my toughest critic: myself.

That may sound over dramatic, and it is. That’s how I roll. Drama makes the experience more fun. I’m trying now to focus less on putting pressure on myself and more on my strategy for the race. You can’t plan out a precise strategy for a 100 mile race. There are too many variables outside of your control. Given the need to adapt, I’ve come up with three core principles that I’ll be keeping in mind all day:

  1. Dance into every aid station.
  2. Be gracious to every volunteer.
  3. Give thanks for every step.

If I can remember these three things. No matter the outcome, I’ll have had a great time and will leave with nothing to regret. If I don’t do as well as I hope, my younger self can get over it. It’s going to be a long party in the woods and I plan to enjoy every second of it.


One of the biggest emotions I am feeling right now is gratitude for every person who has supported and encouraged me in this endeavor so far. Even if you don’t know anything about running or ultra marathons, but still said something encouraging, Thank-you. You don’t know how much encouraging comments have meant to me when there are many days I thought this would be impossible.

If you want to follow/track me during the race go to http://www.ultralive.net/pinhoti100/webcast.php This website should update every time I check into an aid station.

You can also follow me on twitter or instagram or snapchat @drolsen91 I will be giving my phone to my crew so they can post updates on these social media sites.

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Mountains are Like People (Crusher Ridge Race Report)

“In essence, mountains are like people: To love them, you must first get to know them.” – Kilian Jornet


Ruffner has been a very special place for me in 2015 and every time I reflect back on this period of my life, preparing for my first 100 mile race, I will always think of Ruffner Mountain and all of the miles that I put in there.

Ruffner is a beautiful place. It contains a massive diversity of plant and animal life as well as symbols of Birmingham’s industrial history in the rock quarry and old mine crushers. It is a very strong mountain with technical trails, steep climbs and off-map areas waiting to be explored.

There are many other trails and mountains in Birmingham to run on. Red Mountain and Oak Mountain, for example, have given me many great memories and if mountains are like people, then I consider them to be two of my best friends. With Ruffner mountain, however, I want to be more than friends and against my better judgement, I can’t resist my feelings for Ruffner Mountain.

However, Ruffner does not feel the same way about me, or if it does, it has an odd way of showing it. I continually come to Ruffner Mountain with expectation and hope for a great training run or a successful race and it always sends me home beat up, broken, and with low self confidence. Yet, despite these repetitive beatings, I continue to return hopeful that this time will be different, and it never is.

Crusher Ridge is a fantastic race and all of the profits go to benefit both The Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve and also The Exceptional Foundation.

This was my third year running Crusher Ridge (it is the only race that I have run 3 years in a row in Birmingham) and it is my third race in 2015 at Ruffner Mountain. None of these races have gone to plan and I will probably continue to return until I feel I don’t have any more unfinished business here.

I will have to wait until 2016 to bury my unfinished business with Ruffner Mountain because the consequence of having such a great weekend at the Stage Race two weeks prior was developing a strain in my Achilles tendon. I ran for 9 years without injury, so I am pretty hyper sensitive to anything that seems “off”. Even if this “injury” isn’t a big deal, I certainly treated it that way by taking time off, stretching, foam rolling and icing like crazy.

Because Crusher Ridge is only four weeks away from Pinhoti, I resolved to take every precaution. The plan was to take it easy, run slowly and focus on just getting in mileage and elevation for training. This was actually pretty freeing. I mentioned in my recap of the Stage Race that even though part of my love for running stems from being a competitive person, I feel silly sometimes acting very competitive in trail and ultra running because the environment and the culture isn’t a very competitive one. The culture at trail and ultra races is much more supportive and fun-loving. I was looking forward to embracing that side of the sport today and just focusing on having fun today.

The Crusher Ridge course is a 21 kilometer loop with a brutal 4,500 feet of elevation change. To call it tough would be an understatement. Half of the trails don’t appear on the official Ruffner Mountain map. It feels like the course runs from the bottom to the top of the mountain about a million times before it is over. I was registered for the 42 kilometer race, meaning that I was in for two loops of fun.

The first 6 or so miles of the loop are the most brutal. These are the trails that are not on the official park map and many loyal volunteers have been slowly working to clear out and maintain them so that they may eventually be recognized as official. These 6 miles follow a long face of the mountain running from the bottom to the top and back down 4 times. Each of the four trails that take you up the mountain increase in difficulty, incline grade and overgrowth. The trails going down the mountain don’t provide much of a break as you try not to trip over a hidden root or hit a slick rock on the steep descent.

Next, you get rewarded with a couple of miles of flat gravel road. This is where my Achilles started to act up. There was no pain, but I recognized the sensation that was distinctly different from my other leg. This is where I became aware that running up and down the hills doesn’t agitate it as much as picking up the pace on a flat section. Once the gravel road section is over, the rest of the race is run on official Ruffner Mountain trails. This doesn’t mean that they are much easier, but it does mean that more existing foot traffic has cleaned them out some more.

The second half of the course has more scenic spots too. The course runs past a beautiful mine crusher, an overlook of the city of Birmingham and takes you around the ridge of and into the bottom of an old rock quarry.

When I finished the first 21k loop, it was time to make a decision. Do I play it safe and stop here to make sure that I don’t agitate my Achilles any more, or do I run the second loop knowing that I barely got in any mileage over the past two weeks and really need a long run today? I asked the advice of another experienced trail runner who told me just to take the second lap even easier than I took the first lap and finishing this race would probably give me even more confidence going into Pinhoti. So, off I went.

Someone told me before starting the second loop that I was in fourth place. That was good. It meant that I didn’t have to stress about trying to get a podium finish. I could continue with my leisurely run, not worry about trying to catch the people in front of me and having nothing to lose if someone behind me catches up.

I didn’t see another person for almost the entire second lap. Aside from the faint, spooky train noise that always accompanies Ruffner Mountain, it was quiet and peaceful. I’ve grown to love long runs by myself. It opens up time to pray, meditate and to reflect. I have a lot to reflect on. This year has been a very full year with many good things to be grateful for. Gratitude has been a theme of my running this year. It’s how I feel during and after almost every long run of being lost in the woods. Running is a privilege that I don’t deserve and I am grateful.

With a little less than four miles to go, I came up to an aid station sponsored by the cool people at Resolute Running. They made a joke to me about looking like the happiest person to come through the aid station so far. I took my time refilling my bottle with tailwind and looking for a cookie and explained that I was having fun today taking it easy and not racing. This prompted them to tell me that third place had only left the aid station a minute before I arrived there.

I didn’t believe them at first because I hadn’t even caught a glimpse of them all day and I really was taking it easy. They reassured me that he was there and so I continued on at my easy pace assuming that since I had caught up to him running slowly this far, I might still catch up to him running slowly now. I really wasn’t concerned if I didn’t catch up as I had already resigned myself to not caring today. Yet within a quarter mile of leaving the aid station, I not only saw third place close in front of me, but also second place with him.

“Sorry, Achilles” I prep talked myself, “I’ve been nice to you all day, but now I am going to change gears and take home a gift card.”

The only explanation I have for how I finished in second place is simply that this is a very difficult course to run and is made even more difficult when you aren’t very familiar with it. I have run these trails and variations of this course every week for all of 2015 so far. I knew exactly what to expect at every turn. If you don’t know these trails, they not only beat you up physically, but also psychologically. I know this because that is exactly what happened to me last year at this race. The two guys who I ran by before the finish, were from Huntsville and from Mississippi, making them more unfamiliar with the beast that is Ruffner. One of them commented that this race is “harder than an Ironman.” I’ve never done a triathlon, so I can’t verify that statement, but it should give you an indication of just now it feels to run 42 kilometers on Ruffner Mountain.

This is my second time coming in second place at Crusher Ridge. The first time was in the 21 kilometer race in 2013. This pretty much solidifies that I will be back here next year and I will be running for one reason: to finally take the win. However, I’ll cross that bridge next year. Finishing place was not what today was about. Today was about dispelling any fear attached to how my Achilles felt so close to Pinhoti, today was about building confidence and putting some more miles and climbing under my belt and most importantly, today was about gratitude for this sport and the opportunity to get lost on the woods during a weekend in October.

Thank you to all of the volunteers from the Birmingham Ultra Trail Society (or BUTS) and Resolute Running for working at the aid stations and providing positive energy and encouragement. Thank you to anyone who has spent a Saturday at Ruffner Mountain doing trail maintenance on the new sections of this mountain. The biggest thanks go to the race directors, Lisa Booher and Mary Campbell. You did it again and put on a great event, benefiting a fantastic cause. Thank you for everything you do for the trail running community, for Ruffner Mountain and for the Exceptional Foundation.

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