The Interval, 4/6/17

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Photo courtesy of Tejas Trails

The 17th annual Hells Hills Endurance Run by Tejas Trails was held this past weekend.  The site is Rocky Hill Ranch in Smithville, which maintains miles of trails for mountain biking and running that wind through piney woods, meadows, streams, and rolling hills.  There were 4 events from 50 miles ranging down to 10 kilometers and over 350 runners completed a race.  It was a beautiful spring day for spectators, but the runners had to deal with less than ideal humidity and heat.  The trails are not as difficult as Bandera or Tinajas in terms of elevation change or technicality, but the incredible amount of turns and slope changes require constant deceleration/acceleration that can wear down even the strongest runners.

Photo courtesy of Tejas Trails.

The 50 mile race was won by Jeff Ball in 7:03, an extremely fast time for 50 miles, but still a fair bit slower than the remarkable 6:46 course record by Anthony Jacobs in 2016.  Gabe Leatherwood at 8:03 and Thomas Orf (interview below) at 8:08 completed the podium.  Dan McIntyre was the masters winner.  The women’s 50 miler was won by Steph Whitmore in 9:25.  Julie Koepke was second and Nikola Grafnetterova was third.

The women’s 50K race was fairly close, with Jacquelyn Meyer first in 5:44 and Anabel Pearson just 7 minutes back in 5:51.  Mallory Brooks was third in 5:59, but deserves extra credit for carrying 20 pounds of rocks in a hydration pack as part of her training for a Wonderland Trail FKT attempt later this year.  Michele Genereux was the masters winner.

The deepest field of the day was for the men’s 50K, with 4 guys finishing between 4:09 and 4:20.  Joe Schmal was first, just edging out Matt Smith, both with a time of 4:09:17.  Race Director Chris McWatters was at the finish line:  “It was really cool seeing two such great guys enjoying a hard race together. They both came in really relaxed. Joe told me they decided together that they weren’t going to duke it out. But I was happy to see them both looking strong and having fun. It’s always refreshing to see guys who race a lot still enjoying the steps between the start line and finish line!”  Brandon Ostrander of Rogue Running was third in 4:12 and Steven Moore was fourth in 4:19.  I was the masters winner.

The 25K race had the most runners of the 4 events.  Dani Moreno, a pro trail runner from Santa Barbara, was the women’s and overall winner in a women’s course record time of 1:49.  That’s about 8 minutes faster than the old record from 2014 held by Tracie Akerhielm.  Breanne Pruett was second and Megan Leatherwood was third.  The masters winner was Laurie Hull.  The men’s 25K winner was Gustavo Murillo in 1:55, just 15 seconds ahead of Carlos Gillett.  Doug Alles was third and the masters winner was John Krause.

The 10K runners were probably the smartest of the lot, they got to sleep in a bit and were drinking beer by the time anyone else finished.  Andy Bitner was the men’s winner in 43:38, followed by Greg Sisengrath and Ulises Marrufo.  The masters winner was Jose Murillo.  The women’s race was won by Jennifer Ballard in 54:07.  Neemisha Rowjee and Therese Lamperty completed the podium and the masters winner was Rosie Jonson.

Thomas Orf, one of the nicest people I’ve met on the trails, was third overall in the men’s 50 miler.  He agreed to answer a few questions by email:

1. Thomas, you’re an experienced runner but were sidelined about a year ago with back surgery.  Please describe your return to running.

I had lower back surgery last year at the beginning of February.  I started walking a couple miles at lunch in early March.  Ran my first 4 miles in early April at a 14 minute pace, and have been running ever since.

2.  How did you get into running?  What initially attracted you to ultras?

I smoked over a pack of cigarettes a day, for 17 years. As a smoker, I thought running was the dumbest thing a person could do, (like smoking was a real smart thing), but I was intrigued with the thought of me one day being able to finish a marathon.  It was so far from something I felt like I could ever do. Finishing a marathon became a bucket list item, if I ever quit smoking.  After countless failed attempts at quitting smoking, I finally did it in April 2007. It didn’t take long before I figured it’s time to completed my marathon bucket list in case I start smoking again.  I joined they gym at my work, and to start getting into shape, I would jump rope every day and do light weights.  At first, I couldn’t breath very well, but eventually I became a pretty good jump roper.  It was a Sunday in September when I decided to go out on my first run in my old K-Swiss tennis shoes that I used to mow the grass in.  I ran out from my house and came back.  I felt terrific.  I got in my truck to see how far I went.  I discovered I ran out for 3/4 of a mile and back, so I did 1.5 miles.  I felt so good, I did it again when I got back.  Now feeling amazing, I did it again.  I ran 4.5 miles and I felt like I was flying.  This is where it all started.  As I continued to work towards completing my marathon bucket list, I fell in love.  I ended up completing my first marathon 14 months later in November 2008 and ran a 3:14.  Then I finished Bandera 100K in January 2009, then attempted Rocky Raccoon 100M in February 2009, but DNF’d.  I went back to Rocky in 2010 and finished.  To this day, I still love running.  I still get a big smile on my face when I can go out and finish just 5 miles, and I’m still in awe and amazed at what our bodies can do. 

3.  You do so well at these long and difficult events.  Can you describe your training philosophy?

In short, my philosophy is, put in the work and train hard and don’t put walls or limits on yourself. Not every run is supposed to feel good and be comfortable.  You need runs that hurt and make you second guess what you’re doing and make you want to quit and pick up crocheting.  You need those mornings where you don’t want to run because you’re tired and your legs hurt, yet you still find a small piece inside you that gets you out the door and you go. This not only trains me physically, but also mentally.  I figure if I can’t find a way to get out there when I don’t feel like it, then I won’t be able to push myself to keep going when things get tough during a race of 50km or more, because there’s no doubt that I will encounter some tough times.  I put in all the hard work and suffering in training so I don’t suffer in a race. 

I also find consistency has been a big key for me.  When some people train specifically for a race, then after the race take time off to recharge or rest, I keep going.  I never focus on any one race that much.  Before I go into a race, I always have 3 or 4 or more races beyond that in mind and when the race is over, I’m running again. Whether you have the time to run all 7 days a week or just 3 days a week, I think if a person finds where they have time to do some running and stick with it for the long-term, they will be amazed at how well they continue to progress. 

Lastly, don’t over complicate things.  Running is the easiest thing in the world.  There’s nothing to it, it’s just “left right left right”.  I used to get lost and confused with all the talk about tempo, interval, strides, long run, short run, recovery run, farleks… blah blah blah.  Yes, these are all real terms and very important concepts and have their place in training and running, but before any of that, the trick of it all has been to forget all that, lace up my shoes, and just go run. 

4.  I found the Hells Hills course to be deceptively difficult.  On fresh legs, the first loop was fun and easy.  But the constant turns and change of slope wore me down on the second loop.  You had done this event before, so how did you approach the race this year?

Hells Hills is certainly one of my favorite courses to run.  Not because it’s easy and fast, but because it has a mix of different terrains and elevations that is an honest test for a trail runner what what we have in Texas. For me, this race highlights where my strengths and weaknesses are and what I should be working on for the year.  After this past race, I feel like I should focus on running a little more hills during the week and put in a few more longer runs on the weekends. 

Here’s my trick with racing.  I apply it to 50+ mile races, but for a new runner or a runner that hasn’t done many ultras, you could do this for a marathon or 50km as well.  I break the race down into two halves.  My goal for the first half is to always focus on setting myself up for the last half.  I focus on my nutrition (Tailwind has been my magic sauce for the past three years), drinking steadily, running steady and strong but not feeling like I’m having to work very hard for it. I also focus on smiling, enjoying my time, listening to some music and don’t take a single moment of the run for granted. The other key is to finish the first half as if I ran a hard 8 mile training run. For me, the real race starts on the last half.  This is where you start to feel some aches in the body, getting tired, your brain starts questioning why you’re doing this, etc.  This is where I focus on staying strong and pushing through all the negative stuff that is guaranteed to come at some point. I sometimes yell at myself to keep going, other times I say little mantras like “embrace the suck”, “push through it”, “don’t stop”, “you can do it”, “keep going”, etc.  I also know that I’m not the only one feeling bad and hurting and if they can keep going, so can I.  Then before I know it, I’m coming to the finish and all the pain and discomfort is washed away and joy comes flooding in because I know that I gave everything I could and I didn’t give in.   

5.  You’re obviously a smart, talented, and dedicated runner, but many of us suspect the real reason for your success is that you are married to a massage therapist- Jaimie Orf.  Can you confirm or dispel that theory?

This is probably one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked and I’m happy to confirm this theory.  Not only is she the key, but she’s the magic and my special weapon. I’ll also add that it’s not just Jaime, I’ll include my daughter Haley and here’s why.

First, yes, Jaime’s massages have been the key for me for several races, including this past Hells Hills.  There’s been many times where leading up to a race I had some sort of issue I was working with like a strained muscle or various other problems. I let Jaime know what they are and at night time, she works on them and does her magic to help ensure I make it to the race 100%, and she’s never failed me yet. Some people think I get many massages every week. This isn’t true.  Jaime always makes herself available to me at any time, but somehow after knowing she worked all day, it’s hard for me and I think it would be hard for anyone to just come home and tell there wife, ok, now it’s time for you to work on me.  While I’d love a daily massage, I’d feel too guilty to ask her to do this all the time.  So I chose my times when I feel I really need them the most. At a minimum, I try to get in two 90 minute to 2 hour massages, one each week leading into a race.  I’ve usually started cutting back my mileage and this is when we focus on healing all the niggles and getting my legs fresh so I can go to a race and perform at my best ability.  As of Friday, before Hells Hills, I wasn’t sure I’d make the race.  I was playing paddle ball with my daughter Wednesday evening and I must have tweaked my back because it started hurting pretty bad on Thursday. Jaime worked on my back Thursday evening and Friday and taped it up.  By Saturday morning, I had no issues and I didn’t have any problems in the race and I haven’t had any since.

While Jaime’s massages are terrific and a big part, the real secret she offers to me is just being there. To this day, my best races have always been the ones that she’s at and my worst races are the ones she hasn’t been at. Jaime’s not just my wife, but she’s still my girlfriend.  I still want to impress her and I find myself wanting to show off for her. When I’m out there running around, it’s as if I just met her and we went out on one date, then she’s come out to watch me race for the first time. I want her to see me doing my very best and I want to try and get a trophy for her to have.  When things are hurting or when things aren’t going very well, just knowing that when I finish a lap or come through this aid station, I’m going to see her, I’m able to run much better and stronger. 

This goes the same for my daughter.  My daughter sees how hard I work and train, and I want to show her that when you work hard and put in the time, you will achieve success in whatever you have a passion for.  I just happen to have a passion for running. 

6.  Aside from Jaimie and Haley, can you describe your running community?

They say “it takes a village to raise a child”. I say “it takes a community to raise a runner”.  In the Texas area, we not only have some of the best races around, but from the Rio Grande Valley, to Corpus Christi, to San Antonio, to Austin, all the way through Dallas, Fort Worth, and the panhandle,, and not just some of the best runners, but some of the best people in the trail running community. From the leaders, to the last place finishers and everyone in between, there’s just so many people that have influenced me, taught me, given me advice, been an inspiration, and have inspired me to want to become something better in running and in life.  There’s just so many people and I won’t list them, but they know who they are.

7.  What are you training for next?

As I mentioned before, I always have other races on my mind before I ever get into my next race. This year, I’m planning on running Pandora double marathon, Capt’n Karl’s 60kms, Rawhide 50 miles, Wonderland 50km, and Brazos Bend 100. John Sharp also has some race in July where you run 4 miles starting at every hour and you see who the last person left is. I’m intrigued by this and plan on running that one. I also really want to go do a 24hr track race somewhere and see what I can do in 24 hours. It might sound crazy, but I have dreams of making the 24 hour USA team. While it’s a dream now, I do believe it’s within my reach.

Many thanks to Thomas, he’s an inspiration to me and everyone who runs with him at the Tejas Trails and Spectrum Trail Racing events.

The Boston Marathon is less than 2 weeks away and all the runners should be happily tapering.  Our interview this week is with Matt Fletcher, a good friend and fellow member of TrailRoots.  Matt is an engineer for NXP and like another NXP runner Michael Woo, takes a decidedly analytical approach to training.  Matt and I emailed about Boston:

1. You’ve read the other Boston interviews. What do you want to talk about?

My Boston story for this year is that after really enjoying Boston in 2016, I planned to PR at Tulsa in November to stair-step down to a sub-3 at St. George in October 2017. So Boston ’17 would be celebratory like last year and for fun along the way, but not  a race I’d have to actually PERFORM in! Easy, right! Ha!

Instead I am reminded the Marathon is a cruel mistress who will cackle hideously at your plans for her. Tulsa was a bitter miss for a set of reasons I’m still not entirely sure about, but probably a combination of too aggressive a goal for a course hillier than I realized and, based on an elevated resting heart rate upon wake-up the week prior, I think I was fighting off a cold.  I’d also trained well for a good confirmation of fitness in January at 3M, but had a head cold so no good time or fitness measurement. Then in Feb, even if I hadn’t already agreed to pace Austin, it wouldn’t have otherwise given me a good fitness measurement with that weather!

As you know well, Boston is not a good place to lack confidence, and it’s definitely NOT a place to go out faster than one’s honest and true fitness level! I have 6 weeks of really good training, hitting all my workouts, and asked my coach (Erik Stanley) to try to push me a little more on the paces in the speed workouts.  Even though I haven’t made all those new paces, I’m feeling strong but in that mode of perpetually tired that is the hallmark of the peak of marathon training.  So I’m upon the Boston Marathon having trained my ass off, but still totally lacking data to support if I’m in 3:05 shape or 3:12 shape and every workout gives me a different signal! 

2. Describe your BQ and marathons since then:

Perhaps some of your readers can relate to having a solid PR a relatively long time ago, and then running mediocre times (by one’s own yardstick, certainly) for another year or two, and struggle through to the start line again not knowing remotely how it will turn out? My breakout BQ was a totally unexpected 3:06 at the Light at the End of the Tunnel (Snoqualmie Pass outside Seattle) in June 2015, and of course it should only get faster from there, right!

Nope. I then struggle-bused 3:15 after 3:15 for the next 17 months! As a newish runner, having only started 2011 and my first half in 2012, it’s pretty much been PR after PR, and having to fight so hard for another PR is nowhere NEAR as fun as the old days! I was just this morning before dawn on a taper 7-miler on Town Lake (got to say hi to your last interviewee, Bonnie Yesian, as she ran by!) talking with Big Higgi and he said all runners will eventually have the improvement trend flatten out like that, after which you really have to mess with your training to figure out how to break through to that next PR again. I’m clearly in that predicament, and ready to break out of it before old age really starts to slow me down even more!

Boston this year, not only do I feel I really have something to prove following my string of disappointing (to me) 3:15s, but at a time when I need confidence, I’ll have to get humble quickly, having started comfortably in Wave1 last year, where this year I’ll be back with my fellow 3:15 crowd in Wave2. Maybe I’ll hear that Wave1 gun fire and be fueled by bitterness, but I doubt pure bitterness and spite will get me through Newton with enough gas to take advantage of that generous final 10k downhill! I’ll need to summon every form of motivation I have to get my break-out race. I’m definitely going deep at Boston this year — it may hurt, but I don’t think I can handle another 3:15, so I’m committed to make it hurt.

3. How has trail running impacted your training?

I do 1 or 2 trail runs of my 6-7 typical runs per week. There’s a host of physical training benefits — softer surfaces than the pavement, wide variation in striding to force different movements than you get in straight road workouts, which results in toning and development of smaller stabilizer muscles and overall range of motion improvements vs very linear contained road stride. It also gives you training stress in focused ways you don’t get on the road, like very steep climbs and declines, zig-zags around trees to work the hips and transverse core, and even some ducking and diving under branches for back flexibility and balance. And yes, some stumbles and crashes to remind you mother nature is boss and she may demand of you a blood sacrifice (which you’ll wear proudly).

It’s always my favorite run of the week… the scenery, the sounds, the smells, the running across creeks (and in the summer jumping straight in the creeks to cool off), trying to chase Bambi and the Easter bunny, and of course good trail amigos. On trail you tend to be less worried about Garmin pace since it’s governed so much by the terrain than a pace target, so you usually wolf-pack with several people and solve all the world’s problems.

The trail run is usually the one where I bring in the long-duration run where even if the mileage isn’t really long, it gives me time-on-feet that is beyond the road marathon duration, so you get the training stress you can only get from a long time on feet, which generates a training response that I think that helps late in the road marathon, as well as in ultras. During summers I usually work in some 4.5 and 5 hour trail runs… followed by several breakfast tacos with said amigos.

This last cycle before tapering for Boston, I was worried about being ready for a real breakout race in Boston, so my coach, Erik Stanley, tweaked my plan and built some special road workouts for my long runs, missing some trail-love, where we incorporated some long MGP miles plus some sub-LT (lactate threshold) miles to simulate Newton Hills at mile 16-20 on tired legs, and then keeping going to simulate the downhill to Boston, and I did another with the Run For The Water Scenic loop at mile 16-20 as well. Those targeted efforts along with the typical host of hilly miles in my weekly Austin routine, like Bonnie mentioned, should make me and the Austin contingent at Boston pretty competitive going through Newton!

4. Why Boston?

Like most people the draw of Boston for me is first the exclusivity — you have to hit a time that can take years of training, so it’s a natural milestone for any marathon runner (next one being sub-3, of course). We BQ, so we go, because we’re allowed to go!

After 2013, racing Boston became an even larger Beacon, a symbol of a city and a nation and our world marathon running community that will not hide from radical violence. We show our enduring will every time we toe the line in a marathon race and commit to keep going when it gets hardest. I wanted to BQ then more so than ever, and soon I toed that hallowed start line myself. I’m back in 2017 because I want to feel again, turning right on Hereford and left on Boylston, that grace that washed over me, as I ran alongside the ghosts of those streets, my shoes having splashed in over a century of their sweat, and carried me across that hallowed finish line. There’s no other race that can claim such a history.

It’s also a helluva party with easily 60 of my running friends letting go a little (or a lot) after weeks or months of dietary discipline!

I’m pulling for Matt to break that 3:15 barrier by a wide margin and I hope it hurts only until he crosses the finish line.

Interesting Articles

Joyciline Jepkosgei broke the half marathon world record and 3 other records en route.  She pressed the pace right from the start and broke world road records for the 10K, 15K, and 20K before stopping the watch at 1:04:56, breaking the half marathon record by 10 seconds.  American Jordan Hasay was sixth in the race at 1:07:55, the third fastest time by an American.  She is good shape heading into her marathon debut at Boston.  Full coverage from Runner’s World.

The Barkley Marathons have gotten increasingly popular since the documentary The Barkley Marathons:  The Race That Eats its Young came out a couple years ago.  The event this year featured just the 15th ever finisher of the 5×20 mile race and nearly had a 16th finisher.  Coverage from Runner’s World and Canadian Runner.

Upcoming Races

The 6th and final running of the Austin 10/20 is this Sunday at the Domain.  10 miles, 20 bands and a healthy amount of prize money, with $1000 for the women’s and men’s winners.