Photo taken at the American River 50

Photo taken at the American River 50
Contact me at e.senseman@gmail.com

10/22/2014

Bouncing Back and Intolerable Things (Tussey Race Report)



As he did last year at the Rock N’ Roll USA Marathon and at TNFEC-DC 50 Mile, Michael Wardian again finished one spot ahead of me at the Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK 50 Mile this year. This time, however, he bested me far more dominantly, crossing the line nearly 24 minutes faster in 5:46:34. The 24-minute sized gap was largely created from mile 20—at the start of the day’s biggest climb of 1,330’—to mile 35, a stretch during which I averaged nearly nine minutes per mile, didn’t know if I would finish, and couldn’t manage more than a shuffle on down hills. Nine days before the race, I made the retrospectively clear mistake of bombing down Snowbowl Road in Flagstaff with Brian Tinder at 5:13 per mile pace for about six and half miles. I had never run that fast for that many miles and I was pretty wrecked for several days thereafter—and for many days more under the surface. The opening climb (3.2 miles, 850’ of climbing) on the course is followed by about eight miles of down hill and flat running and just a few miles into that stretch my quads began to whimper. It felt as though I was going for a run the day after a hard down hill workout. So the majority of the race was really a grind in which I was battling to maintain pace and keep form.

Ultimately things turned around near mile 35 thanks to continuous fueling with gels and electrolyte water. My legs never fully came back but they did so enough that I was able to manage around 7:10 pace per mile over the final 15 miles. In doing so I went from fourth place to third around mile 40 and then from third to second just after mile 45. First place didn’t seem to be in the cards on the day but had my legs not faltered I believe it would have been a much closer battle to the tape. In any case, despite such a significant setback I PR’d at the 50-mile distance by 10.5 minutes. It’s rather surprising, though perhaps promising, that I did so since I lost such significant time on the course due to muscle ailments. That gives me hope that a markedly faster PR is in store down the road.

But it would be worth discussing something more important than the race itself.

Some actions during a race cannot, and should not, be tolerated. There is no place in the sport of ultrarunning for people who jeopardize the sport of ultrarunning. If one’s actions during a race could lead to the termination of said race, then those actions are fairly obviously actions that should not be performed—assuming we all want to continue to run beautiful courses for long distances through the woods and mountains. 

Let me be less abstract. 

If the race guidelines say that you shouldn’t relieve yourself during the race anywhere except at designated bathrooms along the course, which are found every three to five miles, then you shouldn’t relieve yourself along the course. And the logic on behalf of the course guidelines is simple: the areas along the dirt roads are either privately owned, in which case you shouldn’t trespass, or the area is part of a state park, which has rules stating that patrons should use designated bathrooms. So, you shouldn’t relieve yourself on the side of the course.

Whether or not the race guidelines say not to litter, you shouldn’t litter—and that is true whether you're in a race or not. That is a fairly obvious truth about any place—not to mention a state park. So you shouldn’t drop your trash along a dirt road, during a race, in a state park. And you definitely shouldn’t throw your paper cup into the woods, while running on a dirt road, during a race, in a state park. And if you are crass enough to do one of those things, you shouldn’t say, “I didn’t know [not to do that],” when confronted about it. Because unless you have about seven screws loose, you do know and it’s cowardly to pretend otherwise.

The reason not to break race guidelines is simple: doing so could result in permits being rescinded, races being cancelled, and folks missing out on the opportunity to enjoy wonderful trails, roads, woods, mountains, or whatever. So don’t do it. Doing so is not tolerable and jeopardizes the future of races. If you are going to do it, get out of the sport.

9/10/2014

Life Can Be Unfair


Death is generally a terrible occurrence. 

Even if the end of one’s life results in the termination of significant suffering or severe discomfort, death is rarely, if ever, welcome. When an eighty year old man is administered a final dose of morphine and drifts off into extinction—years after being diagnosed with dementia and months after he can speak or remember—the death is at most a relief and at least still terribly sad. This is because the man could have been without dementia and so could have been otherwise perfectly healthy and living a fruitful existence. Although the man wasn’t in fact in good health, he could have been—at least in today’s modern world. And this makes his death an altogether unfortunate, if not terrible thing, even though it might have been a relief.

If death is generally a terrible occurrence, then an untimely death is even more so. When a girl dies in a car crash at the young age of ten, the event is at once, and unquestionably, tragic. She should have enjoyed a healthy life for many more years. If the girl had endured months of unending suffering prior to her untimely death, it would seemingly be even more tragic. Young cancer patients who die from the disease, then, are arguably the most horrifically sad cases of all.

Death caused by cancer at a young age is unequivocally the most unbearable type of death because the young man or woman should have been healthy: the seventeen year old boy should have been driving around with his friends rather than at the hospital for treatment; the twenty one year old woman should have been strolling through campus with her friends, or out on a date, or doing any number of other things rather than methodically punching a button to administer morphine so as to mitigate the dreadful pain caused by the disease that would eventually take her life. Young people that die from cancer not only should have been healthy, but they should not have had to suffer so immensely and so plentifully. Although the final, irrevocable, and fatal overdose of drug will ultimately bring about relief, as the young person’s suffering will end for eternity, that same dosage will end his or her life and will result in a tragedy still because he or she should not have been unhealthy; he or she should have lived a much longer time with much greater pleasure to experience yet.

The consequences of a tragic death as described are immense: the mother is inconsolable and the father brought to tears; the widow is left breathless and the in-laws reeling; the friends of the deceased can only reminisce about enjoyable times with their passing mate, which brings about bouts of euphoria followed by heartbreaking sobs. Everyone, although they can feel appreciative for having known the young person and for having experienced enjoyable times with the person, is left saddened and, perhaps more so, upset. And what makes the sadness all the more insufferable is that it is directed at nothing in particular: when we lose a loved one to cancer at a young age, we are mad at the world, but the world is not responsive to our feelings and our feelings are left unnoticed. We want to blame someone or something for the tragedy, yet we have no one thing to blame. Can we blame the sky, or the earth, or the cancer cells that slowly took the life from the person we hold dear? Perhaps. But the sky nor the earth nor the cancer cells can hear our scorn or change the world for us. We are left mad with the world and there in nothing—absolutely nothing—we can do to change it. We are impotent.

Death is very probably at its cruelest when it takes the life of a brilliant, loving, gregarious young man after making him suffer immeasurably for over a year. Such a death may take place in the near future and I happen to know the affable young man who will be the recipient. This young man, at twenty-six years of age, was dealt a hand in life that he was incapable of winning with: Ewing’s sarcoma. The fact that he is such a remarkably gifted and caring individual makes his case especially difficult to swallow. It is a tragedy, on all accounts, that he has had to suffer and that, save for a miracle in every sense of the word, he will most probably not be around for much longer. He is one that should have been healthy; that should have enjoyed countless happinesses for years to come; that should have continued to positively affect the lives of those around him; that should have watched his young son grow up into a blossoming youth and into a joyous man like himself. Instead, his hand will play out as it was dealt to him. The world will be at a loss when his card game is over. Life can be quite unfair. 

8/26/2014

On Travel, Nutrition, Consistency, and Intelligence


So as not to render this blog obsolete, I figured it was time for a post. Here are a few things on my mind as of lately:

1. Travel

Travel, as I’ve written elsewhere, is one of the most fundamentally enriching and enjoyable things (second only to running, in my book). I’ve been fortunate enough to do a lot of it in the past two months: Indiana, Tennessee, Georgia; Badlands, Glacier National Park, Yosemite National Park; Missoula, Bozeman, Whitefish, Helena, Portland, San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles. All the moving around was made possible after I quit my job at the beginning of July. So instead of living in hot, humid, flat Florida, I’ve been, well, seeing some pretty unbelievable places. If you’re in a situation financially such that you can afford some time off, and you aren’t pleased with your current surroundings and undertakings, I’d say get out and hit the open road. But that’s just me. Here’s what I’ve been able to explore—and just a fraction of what is available to explore—recently (in no particular order):

Minor league baseball in Chattanooga, TN
Arguably the most beautiful place in the U.S.: Glacier National Park
John Muir Trail (JMT) in Yosemite National Park with AK
Enjoying Georgia farm life
Glacier NP 
Closing miles on the JMT
Camping outside of Bozeman, MT
Another shot from Glacier NP
Fog atop the Twin Peaks in San Francisco (SF) 
Forest Park in Portland, OR 
Views atop Mt. Diablo outside of SF 
My buddy, DeNuch, finishing the Headlands 50k 
Closing stretch of the San Francisco Marathon 
Finishing the Headlands 50k in 4th
2. Nutrition

I’ve had two races in the past month, the San Francisco Marathon (19th, 2:46:49) and the Headlands 50k (4th, 4:10:40), both primarily for training purposes in preparation for some higher profile races this fall. Both were organized well, competitive, and boasted uncanny views. The marathon went well enough, given the lack of training beforehand. I think the 50k went about as well as it possibly could have on the day. One big reason for that was my nutrition during the race. It is said that 200-300 calories should be consumed every hour during an ultra to maintain performance and, unfortunately, I don’t think I had ever consumed 200 or more per hour prior to the Headlands 50k; I think I’ve underperformed in ultras due to that fact alone. I forced myself to take down gels every 30 minutes or so this past Saturday and this, I think, accounts for my higher than normal energy levels at the end of the race, evidenced by the fact that I went from 6th place to 4th over the last six miles. Nutrition is very important in an ultra and that fact seems truer to me now than ever. It should be a real focus for everyone running ultras, if it isn’t already. I’ll certainly be focusing on my caloric intake more meticulously going forward.

3. Consistency

I had the opportunity to interview Traci Falbo (new American and world record holder in the 48-hour event) [link to article] and Joe “String Bean” McConaughy (new Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) FKT holder) in the last two weeks [link here when available] for iRunFar.com. There was one central commonality between the two, that I could tell, which led to their respective successes: consistency. They were both consistent as hell. In the case of Traci, she took very few breaks and ran huge stretches, without breaks, at five miles per hour—not fast, just consistent. Joe averaged four miles per hour on the PCT, which is by no means pokey, but he was up every morning at 5 a.m. and stayed on the trail at least 12 hours every day. Consistency is truly a virtue in ultras. Look at Ian Sharman, for example: he isn’t the fastest up hill, but he’ll maintain that same up hill pace on every climb for 100 miles. (In conversation, he’s said: “My 50k up hill pace is the same as my 100 mile pace.”) My conclusion: maintain a consistent pace—which will be different given the gradient, technicality of terrain, etcetera—from the start of the race until the end. In other words, run smart. Onto the next point…

4. Intelligence

“Run a smart race,” they say. Does that mean conservatively? Finishing strong? Racing to your strength? It very probably means all of the aforementioned and more, but I think one way to explain the phrase, “run a smart race,” is to focus on consistency. Run a consistent pace from the gun until the finish (which, again, doesn’t mean the same exact pace the whole race, regardless of the gradient and terrain; but instead means run the same pace on any given type of terrain/gradient throughout the race.). If you do that, then you won’t go out too fast; you will finish (relatively strong); you won’t run with an elevated heart rate for too long; you won’t run someone else’s race; you won’t start racing for a podium place in the early miles. I focused on running a smart—err, consistent—race at the Headlands 50k and was met with success. Rather than worrying about my place in the field, I focused entirely on what my current fitness would allow me to do. Of course, I may have had some soft moments mentally, and not pushed my body entirely to its physical limits, but I did well to run within myself and run strong throughout. I was power hiking climbs less than two miles into the race and I was power hiking climbs, at the same pace and perhaps faster, in the closing miles; I was running the descents faster in the closing miles than in the beginning. As such, I bounced around: I ran in 7th early; then was in 5th, bounced back to 7th, before finding my way to 6th around mile eight—where I remained for much of the race—then moved into 5th around mile 25, and finally into 4th at mile 26, where I ultimately finished. But I let my current fitness, and current strengths and weaknesses determine my pace throughout the race. It’s likely the first time I’ve done that for an entire race, and it felt right. 

In short: travel lots, fuel well, and race intelligently—rather, be consistent.


5/13/2014

What It's Like To Run The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon ("GC") has been described as many things by many people: magical, majestic, mystical, magnanimous (to get the "m's" out of the way first), scenic, breathtaking, beautiful, amazing, among others. Journeys through the canyon have also been painted poetic: as a pilgrimage, a spiritual journey, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and, in the words of Runner's World, "the single-most satisfying achievement in domestic trail running." 

It may be all of those things. I don't know because I don't think the experience is quantifiable and I don't think it can be captured in a word, a phrase, or a mantra. Running the GC is truly unlike any other experience. Descriptors and phrases are incapable of doing the experience justice, of properly describing its challenges, its rewards, or its hardships.

I emerged from the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trail after 45 miles and almost 12 hours of travel. Exhausted, entirely depleted, hungry, thirsty, ever-so-tired, I lay on the asphalt in the shade -- the first asphalt under me in over half a day besides the sundry sections of asphalt across the many bridges throughout the canyon. It was difficult to fully absorb what had just happened, the enormity of what I had just done, where I had just been, the challenges that I had just faced. Not long thereafter I began to think about how I could capture the experience, what I might write about the experience, how I might describe it to people. I could not figure that out then and, three days later, I still cannot figure it out now. A blogger, or journalist, or writer generally, should always be fearful of saying too much, of saying more than what is true. Feelings, emotions, and experiences are too often fabricated by a writer, or are misremembered and inaccurately described, or are not known truly but are posited as truth.

I think the problem with describing the experience of traveling across the GC -- from the South Rim to the North Rim and back to the South Rim -- in a single day by foot is that one cannot fully appreciate and comprehend all of the feelings, all of the emotions, and all the complexities of the experience. I have told people that it was the most challenging thing that I have ever done and I believe that is true. The feeling of running in the canyon -- at first the open expanse with its multitude of crevasses, then the towering walls with unending layers of colors; the cool breeze at the top and the sweltering heat at the floor; the dirt and the rocks and the views and the lizards and the sudden recognition that you are tiny and helpless and have only one way out -- and the emotions that it evokes -- the excitement, the fear, the worry, the sudden rush of so many feelings at once brought on by fatigue and joy and hunger and sleep depravation -- are very, very difficult to know truly. The feelings emerge and are felt for an instant before other feelings take their place but the internal compass cannot stay focused long for the views of the GC turn one's thoughts outwards and distract the inner happenings of the self; the emotions rush back but fatigue overwhelms them; the fatigue is transcended but thirst and hunger prevail among all the other present feelings; finally you are finished and you try to understand how it all happened and how you did it and how difficult it all was.

And then, with resistance and sadly, you must leave. You drive back to your home or you get on a plane and fly away and you are left with pictures and videos of the experience. And you try to remember how it felt, how it all happened, each turn in the trail, each scenic overlook, all the breathtaking scenery. But it is gone and it cannot be recreated and it cannot be properly explained because it was never fully understood: the emotions and feelings and experience as a whole could not possibly be absorbed when it happened and, at a distance now, none of it can ever be properly absorbed.

You must run the Grand Canyon yourself to understand what it is like to not understand how to explain what it felt like to run the Grand Canyon. No phrase, nor word, nor account of the experience can properly capture what it is like.

At daybreak soon after the start. 
The scenic S. Kaibab trail 
The Canyon, in all it's glory
Colors, colors, colors 
DeNucci and Paul soaking it in 
River runnin' 
The crew (Paul, Chris, Derek, Jason, Mario, and David) taking it in
The DeNuch 
Views from the N. Kaibab Trail 
Paul cruisin' along
Early on with Chris and Mario in tow
Nearly finished, taken from the Bright Angel Trail 
Derek...
...Mario...
...and Jason, crossin' bridges

4/30/2014

Learning to Feel (Leona Divide Race Report)

Result: 3rd, 7:17:23

Two weeks before the Leona Divide 50 I was in San Francisco running in the Headlands with a group from the San Francisco Running Company. And the next day it hurt to walk. That's because I was running up-and-down mountains for the first time in several months. That's also because I have been living in Florida and, although I had run staircases and had been on the treadmill, I hadn't done enough to prepare myself for real mountain terrain. So the experience in Marin had me concerned that I wasn't prepared for Leona. Then, the same day I was hobbling around, I learned that the Leona course was altered: instead of 7,800' of elevation gain, the altered course would boast around 9,000' feet of climbing. It's fair to say that I was even more worried about how I would hold up during the race.

So the week of the race I smartly reminded myself of an oft-forgotten sagacious phrase first uttered to me by my good friend Brown Dog: abandon expectations. And so I did. When I toed the start line this past Saturday, I was not wearing a watch and I had spent very little time looking at either the course profile or the entrant list. I was concerned neither with my finishing time nor my finishing place nor anything else besides enjoying the trails and the scenery for the morning: something I am unable to do in Central Florida.

Sunrise at the 8.6/26.6 mile aid station (all photos courtesy of Jacquelyn) 
Keeping warm at the start line
Almost underway at dawn

I ran the entire race based on feel and, though my time nor my place would suggest as much, it was the best 50-mile race I have ever run. Case-in-point: my split (I was told) to the 8.6 mile aid station was about 1:05, while my split (I was told) from the mile 39.6 aid station to the finish was 1:08. I ran in 4th place almost the entire race and moved into 3rd only in the last 10 miles. I hiked almost every significant climb, as I was entirely unable to run with any vigor on the inclines, but used the downhills and relatively flat sections to maintain a decent overall pace. And in the end I was reminded of something that I already knew: I need to run mountains to get better at running mountains -- go figure.

Still jacketed leaving the 8.6 mile aid 
Fueling up at 26.6 miles 
Descending into the 26.6 mile aid station
This race turned out to be the most enjoyable race I have ever run. During it I was filled with happiness and gratitude for all that the sport of ultra and trail running has brought me. I reflected on where running has taken me and the people that I have come to know through it. When the race was especially difficult, I recalled all the super early long runs I've had with Hank Southgate, all the indoor mile repeats I used to do with Fran Flanagan; when the scenery was breathtaking, I was reminded of long runs with Brian Condon in Flagstaff, fun runs all over Colorado with Cassie Scallon and Matt Flaherty, and scenic runs with Chris DeNucci in San Francisco.

But I also kept my mind on the race and coached myself through the course with brilliant advice from some of the many talented ultra folks I have had the pleasure of knowing: when I was tired and wanted to walk, I thought of Matt Flaherty's classic line: "the thing about running is, it's faster than walking...even if it's slow running"; I thought of Ian Sharman's sage words when I started picking up the pace to catch the runners within eyesight early in the race: don't start racing until the last third of the race; I recalled some of my conversations with Rob Krar while dealing with a particularly curvy and undulating part of the course late in the race (a section that was very, very similar in kind to a section of the Bootlegger 50k course): find a rhythm, get into it, and stay relaxed.

Final stretch to the finish 
Getting in-and-out quickly at mile 39.6
The support I received during and outside of the race was second-to-none and another reminder that the people in my life and the people in this sport are fantastic. RaceReady helped me get to the race and, as always, provided me with the most functional and comfortable gear made in the US. My crew, which was amazing, consisted of my girlfriend Jacky and her friend Peter Brennen. Peter was asked if he wanted to crew just 36 hours before the race, having never met me before. He drove north of LA the night before, slept in his car, and then crewed for me all day before running a 12-miler of his own. How awesome is that? Jacky came up with some hysterical costumes and the two of them dressed up to keep me (and themselves) entertained during the race. Again, pretty damn awesome.

Costuming it up!
Running in southern California during Leona reminded me of all the things that are good in my life and in the sport that I love. The race itself -- the competitiveness and the arbitrary distance -- meant very little, and the result even less so. It is the journey through the mountains and in the mind that give us all so much joy. It is a joy that cannot be experienced without the love and support of amazing people. I'm lucky enough to know such amazing people, and I hope to experience the joys of long distance running in the mountains again and again for as long as I can.