Finding My Fitness: From Swing-and-a-Miss to Baby Oil Photos and Brutal Mountain Ultras

 Sprinting to glory at Grand Ridge... ok, glory of 5th place

Sprinting to glory at Grand Ridge... ok, glory of 5th place

Like remembering every detail of your child's birth: the day, time, statements said and emotions felt,  I can clearly recall the moment I became an athlete. My birth was spiritual. My afterbirth was sore legs and a beaming grin. I was the ripe age of 27 and had just ran my second trail race, a local 10-miler where I (amazingly) earned a fifth-place finish. I sprinted the last two miles of the course as the trail switchbacked down a ridge, and overtook a few 40-something dads. My lungs burned, but my will was decided.

"These guys aren't passing me" I thought with determination as I pumped my arms and kicking my legs. A few minutes of suffering later and I made it to the finish line of the Grand Ridge Solstice Run.

Wow. So this is what I was missing!?!

Elated with my performance and thirsty from the effort, I sipped dixie cups of Mountain Dew and repeatedly thanked the race director, Roger. While a modest achievement, that afternoon run in 2009 forever changed me. It was a long time coming, but I finally discovered how I could compete and succeed as an athlete.

My birth was spiritual. My afterbirth was sore legs and a beaming grin.

Growing up I was no couch potato, but I never excelled at traditional team sports. To get me engaged in Little League my parents bribed me with post-game sodas. Despite the sugary reward, every game felt like I had to pretend to care. Meanwhile I failed to master the basics in practice or competition, and dropped the sport after two seasons. Hits? Nope.

 Soccer in the New Windsor Rec. League; I think my hair was a political statement

Soccer in the New Windsor Rec. League; I think my hair was a political statement

I lasted longer in the weekend soccer league, but my foot-eye coordination was still rudimentary. I could catch up to other players and my enthusiasm was top-notch, but then I'd fumble the ball game after game. I failed to score a single goal in my entire soccer career.

What's the equivalent of a strikeout in soccer again? Whatever that is, I had LOTS of those.

 Ridin' big since '81

Ridin' big since '81

For a period in my youth I also got into cycling influenced by Greg Lemond's win in the Tour du France. These were the "clean" days of professional cycling when feats of endurance were celebrated universally with awe and accolades. Watching Lemond's accomplishment—and later Lance Armstrong—I was inspired (and a bit goofy). I wanted to feel that suffering and to wear those laurels.

For my birthday my parents bought me a road bike, but it was much larger than my body could manage. 

"You'll grow into the frame" they promised.

I peddled that 24-speed around my neighborhood wearing an oversized helmet and seated on a saddle wrapped in a bright pink cover. It looked very 1990s and screamed awkward pre-teen. Despite this, I felt empowered and pumped my legs while looping the block and fending off chasing Terriers. 

When I was in grade school my dad developed a passion for speed skating at a Yonkers, NY rink and brought me, my brother and mom along to skate, too. We weren't great, but it was still a blast. During the warmer months my dad also ran on the road from my house, climbing a steep hill on Rt 33 on a four mile circuit. At the time the distance sounded unfathomably far. He also shared stories of running marathons. His thin frame, Type I muscle fibers and patience made him perfect for endurance sports. I wanted to be like that.

I looked up to my dad, literally (he is 6'3''), but also athletically. My father was talented. While I never quite could get the basics, he demonstrated with patience: baseball, basketball, soccer, etc. He never pressured me. My dad expressed pride in my attempts.

 Posing with my childhood friend Joey

Posing with my childhood friend Joey

In junior high and high school I rowed crew and started to connect with my maturing body, but never felt the "rowers high" I was promised. Sports were ok and I loved the social component and excuse to interact with girls on the coed team.

Rowing was fun I just lacked the dreams of setting new school records or capturing stardom in another sport like my peers. I yearned to be physical, but struggled to find a way to work the itch.

Sports in school were worse. Each high school class in Newburgh Free Academy was identical to the last. Coach Bucci would have all the boys form into six teams, three games. I would either attempt to play in the "bad players game" or not even attempt; spending the entire class sitting on the bleachers while dramatically expressing my teenage angst with fellow athletic flunks. 

You’re gonna need to own this. You’re an adult

After graduating from high school I worked crumby jobs: cart pusher at Home Depot, front desk clerk at a shabby hotel, and customer service rep at a mall. The jobs were terrible enough to inspire me to dream bigger. With honest and raw words from my mother, "You're gonna need to own this. You're an adult now", I eventually figured out how to get to college. It was there that a new athletic chapter began: the weightlifter. 

But first, I got fat.

 Freshman year, Spring 2002. I wasn't exactly looking my best.

Freshman year, Spring 2002. I wasn't exactly looking my best.

My freshman year was full of overindulgence in sweets and cereal. Luckily in my sophomore year I registered for a class on strength and conditioning. This move proved transformative. 

Taught by an intense type-A trainer, the class was held twice weekly in the campus gym with the time divided evenly between detailed lectures and hands-on iron-banging. I LOVED IT. I found the instruction and homework on anatomy and training technique immensely intriguing, and the actual strength conditioning almost immediately demonstrated results. My body was changing.

Within a few months I went from violently quivering while attempting to complete a single bench press to loading on plate after plate as my limits grew. This class also touched on nutrition and diet supplementation so by mid-semester I had traded the sugary snacks for clean eating and a stack of whey protein and creatine. While the supplements made my farts horrendous, the nutrition and exercise routine replaced fat with muscle. For one of the first time in my life I felt like I was tapping into my power.

Each meal now had a purpose: to grow. I'd grill skinless chicken on a George Foreman and added spicy mustard for flavor. Microwaved broccoli from Trader Joe's was my roughage. I ate this meal countless times while reading Gregg Valentino's column in Muscular Development (Men's Health just didn't cut it). I even bought a "dip belt" so I could hang weight off my hips while doing pull-ups to maximize the intensity. It's was beautiful.

In the headphones? Ruff Ryders' Anthem.

Joel Ballezza Lifting Heavy Weights

Eventually I earned the nickname "Well Oiled Machine" from one of the school gym managers for the way I'd move from one lift to the next (and probably for my habitual perspiration, too). I wasn't close to being the biggest or strongest guy at the gym, but I adopted a lifestyle, community and identity.

This was my church.

By senior year I was now walking around at 200lbs, could benchpress about 1 1/2 my bodyweight, and deadlift over 400lb. Nothing to write home about for the gym elite, but I knew where I started from a few years earlier and was proud of my progress. And so I did what any regular college student would do at that point. I nair-ed off all the hair on my body and hired a fellow student coworker from my job at the admissions office to take photos of my heavily-oiled physique. Pic or it didn't happen.

I nair-ed off all the hair on my body


After picking up my diploma I felt a shift. I knew that that chapter of my life was coming to a close, and not just my undergrad. I realized that the gym might not be in my future. Maybe I was destined for something else?

After college, I moved west to Seattle for grad school at the University of Washington. Shortly after setting into my new home, I sold my car and used the money to buy a nice lightweight road bike and a motorcycle. Moving to Seattle and selling my car felt novel and reckless, and I LOVED IT. Suffering through rain was worth the story.

Seattle is known for more than just Starbucks and Sleepless. It's also a place full of incredible everyday athletes who use the surrounding mountains to run, ski, climb and explore year round. After you've drank all the coffee and read all the books, roaming outside is just what Seattleites do.

 Leon and I climbing up Mt. Rainier shortly after arriving in Seattle

Leon and I climbing up Mt. Rainier shortly after arriving in Seattle

In his mid-40s, Guy Browne was my first landlord. He had an intense passion for cycling and the shredded physic to go with it. As one of the first people I met in my new city he made an immediate impression on me.

These people are different. 

Guy's weekends were spent suffering up hills, and riding long miles through all the tough weather Washington could throw at him. And he was just one of many everyday people who I met in my new city during that first year who did epic, epic things on the regular. I couldn't have been more excited to be a part of this community. 

After being in Seattle less than a week, Leon, a college friend and my housemate, decided to head to Mt. Rainier thinking it wasn't that big of a hike. We had grown up not far from each other in the Hudson Valley area of Southern New York. There were mountains there. Surely Rainier couldn't be that much different? 

On our drive to Ashland, Wa, the giant volcano continued to grow and grow and grow in our field of view, dominating the skyline on the brilliant July afternoon. We soon realized this mountain was different than the ancient hills we grew up around. Jesus. This thing is immense.

Leon and I started the hike up Rainier from the Paradise Visitor Center, climbing high up the mountain and into July ice and snow before realizing our folly. I trekked in Timberland boots, and lacked the food or gear the hike required. Leon was similarly unprepared. Our wits finally got the best of us just above 8,000'.

"What are we doing? We should go down."

Leon and I turned back and headed back down the winding trail. We lived to hike another day. And we did many times throughout that first fall.

While my days and nights were packed with work at the University of Washington and graduate school, I couldn't keep the mountains from calling. Every chance I got I explored the trails around my new home. A friend recommended Beyond Mt. Si, a popular hiking guide listing the top treks around Seattle, including the namesake and one of the most popular climbs in the state., Mt. Si.

I wanted to do them all.

 Atop Mt. Si with an appearance of Rainier in the background, 2006

Atop Mt. Si with an appearance of Rainier in the background, 2006

Soon I was backpacking in the Central Cascades and exploring the trails on the Olympic Peninsula while gaining confidence in my abilities to move in the outdoors. A few years later my father and Uncle came out and we climbed Mt. Rainier. While an injury kept my dad from the summit, my uncle and I had more luck and reached the crater of the 14,411' volcano on a bluebird day. I was exhausted when we finally made it off the mountain and sat down to enjoy a meal, but we had made it! I felt transformed. I wasn't a weightlifting gym rat anymore. I had become something even better. 

And it turns out my metamorphosis from Northeast urbanite to Northwest alpinist was just getting started. But first... I get a little fat again.

After graduating from the University of Washington with my masters, I focused on work and life. Somewhere along the way I strayed from my fitness lifestyle: consuming too many burritos and mojitos, and added a roll of fat around my waist. I wasn't obese, but I definitely wasn't baby-oil-trim either. My doctor even asked about my sudden uptick on the scale.

"Well Mexican food is delicious." I sheepishly admitted.

 Seattle has great mountains and wilderness... but it also has great tacos. For a bit, I lost my fitness edge and started to gain weight. 

Seattle has great mountains and wilderness... but it also has great tacos. For a bit, I lost my fitness edge and started to gain weight. 

Unrelated, but around the same time in 2008 I began experiencing significant jaw pain emanating from my Temporomandibular Joint. My jaw hurt all the time. After the condition worsened, I saw a few specialists who shared some sobering news: 

  1. To resolve the issue, I'd have to get braces (again)... as an adult
  2. Following braces, I'd have surgery that would break and reset both my upper and lower jaw

After grappling with my options, I finally committed and had dental hardware attached that summer. The following June I had the surgery. I was grateful that my folks came out to visit and to support me through the recovery.

Once I got out of Swedish Hospital in Seattle I spent the first 3-4 weeks with my mouth mostly bound shut with rubber bands. The only nutrition I consumed was slurped in through the sides of my mouth. The arrangement inherently imposed a caloric deficit on my body and the extra fat I carried immediately dropped from my body. Within a month I lost 25 pounds, plummeting from a high of a chunky 195 to a slim 170. While my face was still swollen and I still wore braces across a rubber-band-bound grin, I was making progress. The knew the worst was behind me.

Who needs Weight Watchers when you have jaw breakers?

A month and a half after the surgery the pain and most of the swelling had subsided. I finally felt strong enough to get outside. Looking for a social place to be active I headed down to a popular running route in Seattle, Green Lake. My plan was to loop the lake as I had done many times before. I never considered myself a runner, but I could do three miles, and so I started off on the trek. The day was perfect: mild, sunny and alive with fellow Seattleites enjoying the humidity-free air.

Greenlake: The place of my destiny

My new, slimmed down body felt great on the August morning as I started out on the loop. My grill was still sparkling with orthodontics and rubber bands guiding my jaw shut, but I didn't care. I was happy! Distracted by the runners, cyclists, roller-skaters, kids and dogs, the loop just flew by. As I rounded the final corner by the paddle boats and fishing docks, something odd happened.

"What if I do another?" I thought.

In all of my 27 years, I had NEVER run further than 4 miles. This was uncharted territory. But alas, I trotted on. When I was a few hundred meters from finishing my second loop, six miles, I committed even bigger.

"I'm going to run a half marathon... right now."

And so I did. I stopped at water fountains for water and just kept trotting along knowing that four loops and half would get to me this newly acquired goal. I didn't have a GPS watch, technical running gear or anything fancy, but I eventually finished, aching feet and all. 

Thrilled but exhausted, I limped to my car and drove the mile and half to my condo. When I got home I immediately called my mom in NY and reported my discovery in an excited tone, "I'm a RUNNER! I just ran a half marathon. I just ran 13.1 miles on my own!". Her reply was classic, "Isn't that a bit extreme?" Maybe, but a fire was now lit inside me.

Little did she know what was to come. 

Within days I threw away my ancient $20 Champs gym shoes and headed to REI to invest in real running sneakers. After consulting one of the sales reps, I settled on a pair of Adidas Supernova road shoes that were on sale for what I thought then was still an astronomical price of $80. WHAT?!? I also bought real running socks, 2-in-1 shorts and eventually started eyeing GPS watches. I was all in, in heart, body and wallet. This wasn't a sport I was picking up. This was an identity I was internalizing.

Soon I started staying downtown late after work to join Niketown evening runs. I loved the excitement of running with a group and the post-miles gorge on cookies and grapes. Every conversation with a veteran runner was informative and every recommendation I'd take detailed notes from. I devoured Runner's World, and the books Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, and Ultramarathon Man and 50/50 by Dean Karnazes.

I started running self-designed road routes around my neighborhood and beyond, pushing the distance and finding new challenges. The fall after my self-rediscovery I ran my first half-marathon with my aunt, cousin and father: the 2009 Philadelphia Half Marathon and finished in a respectable 2:03:17.

Not bad for a kid who thought for years he just wasn't a runner.

The Ballezza & Rudolf Family Posting Post-Race

While I had previously questioned why anyone would pay to run a race when they could just do the road miles for free, when I crossed the finish line next to the Philadelphia Art Museum and Rocky sculpture, I knew realized why. The cheers. The community. Without sounding too cheesy: the glory. It was amazing.

Running wasn't easy for me, especially as I logged more miles, but it connected with my soul more than any other physical activity I had ever experienced. This wasn't a runner's high. This was something deeper. Every mile I logged etched in an identity.

In 2010 I continued to run and hike until one fateful Saturday while hiking on Tiger Mt., a 3,000' six-peaked behemoth situated in the heart of what is lovingly called the Issaquah Alps, a series of mid-sized mountains about a half-hour from Seattle. That morning I had trekked up the Highline Trail, and just as I summited the Tiger 3 peak, I see a man wearing running clothes and wrap-around sunglasses emerge from the trees on an adjacent trail. He was middle-aged, fit and looks serious in his short-shorts and light running longsleeve. I could tel this wasn't a weekend mountain run. He wasn't just seeing the sights. This guy meant business.

Sheepishly, I approached him and asked my assumption.

"What are you training for?" I posed in the most masculine tone I could muster. 

"White River" he replied.

I had no idea what that was but shot back with a quick "Oh, yeah" and a nod, then reconsidered. 

"What is that?"

He must have sensed my confusion but offered offered only slightly more detail.

"White River 50"

And then, like a Olympic ghost or a mountain goat with a Garmin, he ran back into the woods, and down off Tiger Mt. I never saw him again. Luckily I wrote down what he shared with me and was determined to figure out this puzzle.

When I got home I googled "White River 50 race" and immediately got what I figured had to be the bullseye. That guy was training for the White River 50, a 50-mile trail endurance run held on Crystal Mt, just adjacent to Mt. Rainier on a figure eight course. Over two big climbs the race had over 17,400' of ascent and descent. Held in late July, the race was six months away.

While I had never run a trail race, and had yet to complete a 50k (the standard entry distance for an ultramarathon), within a day or two I committed and paid my race entry fee. I was convinced that I could prepare.

Instead of fear, I was excited. In the same way that I had jumped into weightlifting and hiking, I jumped into ultra running. Over the coming weeks I researched and found the Rome Marathon (yup, the when in spot) and decided that I would take a side tour on a trip to Italy and make that my first full marathon. A few months later I found a trail 50K Lost Lake. The race turned out to brutally difficult due to technical trail and 8,000' of climbing packed into ~31 miles. Despite a twisted ankle at mile 19, I 'death marched' the last 13 miles to a finish. Ain't no way I was quitting!

 After crossing the finish line at White River in 10:28:40, I immediately thought "I will do this four more times". And I did.

After crossing the finish line at White River in 10:28:40, I immediately thought "I will do this four more times". And I did.

The kid who wasn't athletic. Who couldn't dribble, hit or score had just became an ultramarathoner at the Lost Lake 50k. And that's pretty cool. A few months later an even bigger goal was realized. 

Just days after my 29th birthday I successfully battled my way through the stunning White River 50 Mile Endurance in 10:28:40 seconds. While drinking views of Mt. Rainier just across the valley from the run, I was patient with my body on the climbs. I put my head down and trotted when my body wouldn't perform. The race director Scott's guidance rang loud in my head, "micromanage the course". When I could run, I ran. When I had to walk, I walked. 

But eventually. I made it to the finish.  While I never saw the mythical athlete at the race I met atop Tiger Mountain six months earlier, I silently thanked him. Whether he was real or imagined. After finishing I also immediately committed to myself that I would run this race for a total of five times. That concept just sounded cool. 

Over the coming years, each summer I returned to White River. In 2014, I dropped halfway when the person I was running with fell ill, and in 2015 I had to skip the event due to travel. It took seven years, but in 2016 I finally scored my fifth finish in a time of 10:41:40. Not my fastest WR, but I had set a goal and realized it. In my eyes, that was HUGE. I had become a runner; a trail runner; an ultramarathoner!

Over the following years I would run dozens more trail races and start to build an Ultrasignup profile I was proud of including many more 50k, 50 -ile and 100k races. I even finished five 100-mile races on some wild mountain courses including a particularly challenge one call IMTUF, each time earning a fancy belt buckle as a souvenir.

I'm now closing in on a decade of running and continue to learn from the adventure. I've found a place to complete, an identity as an athlete and a humbling practice I get to grow from, always.

For those reading this who might not think they are an athlete, or that they can't feel at home in movement or in sport. Just keep looking! I promise you'll find it. Humans are an athletic species. We were designed for this. Just because you can't hit a ball with a stick, doesn't mean you can't do great things. Just keep trying. Keep exploring. You'll find your fitness, and it probably won't even take 27 years like it did for me. 

Underestimating the La Bohn Traverse

“I may have underestimated this” I thought, forcing a reluctant chuckle as I fought uphill on a scree field at 5,200 feet in the Central Cascades.

I was all by myself for miles, but I felt like speaking aloud would be soothing. I wasn’t scared or panicking at this moment, but I was definitely managing my emotions and started to take account of my resources. A Gu shot, Outdoor Research Helium hard shell, gloves, hat, water filter, iPhone…

The "fun" part of the run had ended hours ago and now I just needed to get home safely.

For the past 11 hours I had been running, trekking and stumbling solo from the East Fork Foss Trailhead off Highway 2 southbound towards my goal of Snoqualmie Pass. There my buddy Laura would pick me up, we’d share high-fives, toast drinks and enjoy a feast at Commonwealth. My problem was I was still miles away, and hours late.

As I climbed up over the notch in the trail close to Lunin Peak I didn’t have to look at my watch to know it was between 24-25 minutes past 7 pm. I hold no innate, supernatural ability to calculate the passage of time, but I could tell from the sky that the sun was setting and knew it would be lights out at 7:30. I was now facing the night with just a micro emergency headlamp and was low on calories, water and clothing. Yes, I did underestimate the La Bohn Traverse Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenge.

How did I get here?

It started in a running shop five months earlier at the local favorite Seven Hills Running. There the ultrapedestrian couple themselves, Ras and Kathy, and their wild compatriots introduced the newly selected UWC routes for 2016. I was inspired.

Among the night's presenters local mountain runner and alpinist Arya Jonathan Farahani described the La Bohn route, showing PowerPoint slides of the run he had charted the season before.

As an alternative to the longer, but 100% trail PCT, Arya’s route linked well-maintained trails with six miles of off-trail travel and extremely rustic routes to make a 30-mile course with 9,000 ft of climbing.

Imagined or true-to-life I recall Arya promoting the sights, adventure and ease of the experience over and over. Probably in reality he guaranteed vistas, but also warned against the tough terrain and route-finding. I guess I was too drunk on the promise of the outing, to yield his warnings.

“Wow. I could do this” I thought while seated at Seven Hills.

“Instead of depending on a race, I get to make my own adventure” I thought.

I had never attempted a UWC route, but from Arya’s brief description of the point-to-point run it seemed like a lovely weekend outing. Fast forward to last week, I knew I had a weather window that looked promising and a buddy who could crew me for the P2P run. Saturday was my “go” day so I announced my plans on the UWC Facebook Group (because FB makes it real), updated my Delorme InReach and watch with maps, and geared up my Ultimate Direction Wasp pack.

While picking up Laura on Saturday morning I realized I forgot two pieces of gear I normally bring on off-trail outings: 1) shoe gators to keep twigs and rocks out of my Hokas and 2) Black Diamond Z-poles. Laura didn’t have the gear to lend and I viewed those as nice-to-haves anyway, so I just picked her up and headed north.


The East Fork Foss Trailhead is just a mile or so off Highway 20. While the parking lot was full, Laura was just dropping me so it didn’t matter. We hugged and then I headed south into the Necklace Valley as she pulled away with my dog Luna wagging in the back.

The thing about the Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenges are that they’re unmarked courses and come with only general route information—no course markings or lovely detailed GPX files. You depend on your fellow runners to share local knowledge and trail beta to ensure you’re bringing the right gear, have accurate maps and know where to turn. The routes often link together trails, but in many instances the phrase is used in a very loose fashion. Some of the paths see more goats than people. And the people who do try them are mostly goat, anyway.

For the first six miles I ran on the Necklace Valley Trail, rolled through lush forest and aptly-named Jade Lake.  I encountered a handful of hikers doing loop and out-and-back hikes. Everyone was in good spirits. The sky was bird blue with a few puffs of white for accent. Just past Opal Lake the route takes a hard left and changes from defined trail to goat path. The only way I knew to go this direction was because I had downloaded multiple GPX files from other UPC runners. Within a few minutes I was cairn-finding on a rock field that ascended up to the namesake La Bohn Gap.



My body felt great and I was excited to get the off trail section done as early in the day as possible, but as I climbed the blue skies now were replaced by heavy cloud cover that hugged the very mountain I was traversing. Within just a few minutes of climbing on a bolder field the intensity went from run-in-the-park to PAY ATTENTION AND BE PRESENT. The sky darkened. The air was dry but the wind picked up as I climbed to the pass, a flattened ridge of slab stone and ponds wrapped in heavy white clouds.

The ascending wasn’t the hard part, staying on “trail” was. As I topped out on the pass I knew I had to make a series of turns up and around ponds and rock outcroppings, but the fog was so heavy that I couldn’t run for fear of going off course, or worse, falling off a drop. This was bonkers and I immediately knew I made a mistake by not bringing a physical compass, and instead depended on my watch and InReach electronic devices to tell me direction. If they failed, I could easily get turned around in these conditions. I was eating cloud soup and rocks, and dining solo.


At mile ten I hit was looked like the far side of the pass I was excited to a see a bolder field that descended out of the weather. Seeing color, not just black and white, also brought me a boost of confidence. Whew. The climb down was slow, but I didn’t want to make a speed record. I figured if I broke my ankle on the descent, no one would happen across me so I took each step with intention.


Finally, at mile 12 I connected back with the trail at Williams Lake. While the path wasn’t runnable, every step had confidence—a big relief. From there I connected with the Dutch Miller Gap Trail and rolled next to the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie. This is where I put in my fastest miles and also where I chatting up a few hikers who were doing multi-day outings.

After crossing the river I made my way to Goldmyer Hot Springs, a place of hippie respite and sulfuric springs. I stopped and chatted with the camp host and got my pack filled with water. In my mind I knew I was running way behind schedule, but thought that I had the hardest part behind me. I knew I had to ascend up to Snoqualmie Pass, but hey, its just trail. No big deal. That’s when I checked my printed instructions again and GPS map stored in my InReach.

Wait, I’m not really taking the trail up…it looks like I’m just going up the side of the mountain. Ummm…

At mile 23, you leave Goldmyer at 1,800 feet and immediately begin climbing on the long, long forgotten, forsaken "trail".

How bad is this trail? Let’s personify a storm. Mr. Storm, ate bad take-out food of trees and vegetation. Later, in the middle of the night Mr. Storm spend hours and hours taking trips to the bathroom (aka scamble up from Burntboot Creek) defecating and vomiting plant material everywhere on an already poorly kept lavatory.

This is my way of saying that the trail was a mess with dozens of huge blowdowns and lots of route-finding. Only when you get to about 3,700 feet does the trail become less dense and reasonable, but at this point I was tired and concerned about how much light I had left in the day.

So there I was.

I made it over the notch next to  Red Mountain and now was descending towards Red Mountain Lake where if the trail description was right would bring me to the coveted PCT trail. All I focused on at this point was using the last few moments of glow in the sky to get to that trail.

I squinted to see the rustic trail in front of me, but finally reluctantly strapping on my emergency Black Diamond headlamp. This was admitting that I was both in a worse situation that I expected, and also that I hadn’t prepared for this run properly—that I should have starting earlier and brought the right gear.

The one tool I did bring that proved immensely beneficial was my InReach Explorer. It allowed me to share my location with friends in real-time and also to message Laura letting her know I was safe, but hours behind schedule. I knew if things got bad, or if I got lost I could also use it to get help so that significantly tamped down my anxiety level, too.

After death marching for a few miles and down 2,000 feet I finally made it to the PCT. I was close to home. However, my GPS trek routed me to the Old Commonwealth Trail, instead of the PCT for the last mile of the run, so I spent a good 15 minutes wandering in the total darkness, now navigating entirely by the light of my iPhone. #Fail.

I was SO close, but couldn’t find the trail anywhere due to a half dozen fallen trees. Just bog, tree and me making circles. Laura messaged me "Getting close?"

I finally get my whereabouts and make it to the parking lot where Laura was waiting for me. Sure, I was happy to survive this more-intense-than-expected outing, but I had more pressing concerns when I hoped in the car. It was 9:30 and the Commonwealth was closing in just a few minutes.  We needed to make it there STAT!


Yah! I survived, got to enjoy a meal at Commonwealth before they closed, and learned an important lesson about route research and gearing for wilderness adventures. (Just do it.) I hope to never make the mistakes I described above ever again.

Thank you!

Huge thanks to Laura for crewing me, Arya for designing this route, Jessica Kelley for offering route guidance, Ras & Kathy for dreaming up and hosting the UWC concept, and to the ultra community for just being a group of awesome goats.

Finding My Inner Ultrapedestrian at Chinook Pass

img_9070While it was one of last year’s Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenge routes (trails don’t go out of style, right?), Chinook Pass looked to me to be the best place to dip my toe into the UP water. Or really, both feet. While I had heard of these tough, self-supported routes for some time, and have known Kathy and Ras for years, I had never attempted one of these running challenges. The Chinook Pass route looked the like the perfect introduction. The 31-mile loop route is easy to access from just outside of Rainier National Park in the Wenatchee Forest, is entirely on marked trails and includes a trek on the PCT.  Triple win!


The night before the run I loaded the GPS track into my watch and filled my pack with essentials—water filter, 2-liter water bladder, cliff bars for hours, etc. The weather looked perfect—one of those goldilocks days—not too hot and not too cold with a bonus of sun for miles. After telling my roommate where I was headed and who to call in case I never returned, I walked my pup Luna a little past 6am and then drove out to the backside of Mt. Rainier. At the trailhead I met another skinny old man wearing Altras and a race vest (a twin of how I sometimes view myself).


This mountain runner sported a hydration pack and Altras, so I knew he’d probably spent a few miles on the trails. A quick conversation with him confirmed my guess. John and I shared pleasantries for a minute, then he headed off in the opposite direction and I proceeded to cross a bridge that arches across highway 410 before dropping down at the start of the trail. As I headed out in the morning air a touch of fog rolled over the pass and burned off in dramatic fashion. The air—so fresh and so clean (start humming Outkast in 3…2..).

Now because this was a loop trail you could either experience the course in clockwise or counter-clockwise directions. John suggested I go in a clockwise direction so I took his advice and began the loop floating down the rolling trail. Instantly I was rewarded with beautiful meadows, mossy trees and alpine lakes, and I had yet to even enter Rainier National Park. The first six miles or so were all in the national forest. I knew this for certain because there were a half dozen other hikers out on the trail and they trekked along with dogs, something that is prohibited at most locations in the park. (Luna, I’m sorry, we’ll have to come back. If I knew, you’d join me on a lovely out-and-back.)


The miles just flew by mostly because for the first few hours the route descended in a series of steps. The pass is at 5,800 feet but by the time you hit mile 19 I was at 2,200—my type of running. I stopped for plenty of photos and to enjoy the scenery. Moss, trees and sky--this is why I love trails.

One of the most attractive qualities of the UWC concept for me is the fact that it’s not a traditional race. If this was a 50k competition, or really any distance, I would feel pressured by my own internal persistence to limit my snack breaks and chit-chat. Instead I would push myself to get across the finish line as fast as possible—giving up sightseeing just to shave a few minutes off my time.

For me this practice really makes no sense because I’m not going to win any races or grab endorsements, but races just do that to me. The Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenge though is different. I had permission to meander, to investigate lakes and to pause for photos. I wasn’t racing anyone else, especially myself.


At mile 20 I began to climb—up, up, up. Around this time I also ran into a few hikers completing the same loop I was running, but they were hiking over three days instead of fitting the miles into a single push. Both were engineers with Boeing. As a group we reflected on the day—remarking on how perfect the weather was, how scenic the vistas were and how lucky we were to enjoy the day outside. When I wrapped up my break and began pressing on the couple offered me a quick, but ominous warning.

“There are lots of blow-downs in the last five miles—like 50!”

“Thanks!” I called back, but as I took in the number they shared I didn’t fully believe their count. So far the trail had only a scattering of trees crossing its path.

“It’s probably like a dozen and they’re just being dramatic”, I thought.

In reflection, this mental note did not take into account that the couple were trained ENGINEERS—as in people known for their expert precision and attention to detail. Soon I’d learn the truth.

Miles 20-25 climbed, but at a reasonable grade. Just a little past mile 25 I turned onto the Eastside Trail and began to encounter fallen trees. First, just a handful of branches—easy to step over. Soon thereafter smaller, young trees also crossed the path. Within a half mile I began to enter the meat of the blow-downs. Yeah, so this is what the hikers were talking about. Tree after downed tree. Each required me to climb up and over, down and around, or if I'm lucky, duck under.


There were fallen trees that dropped parallel onto the trail to obliterate any discernible way forward. I crawled, climbed and scrapped my way over each mountain of branches, dirt and roots. Each one I passed, I made a mental note, “5….6….7”. The Eastside trail was definitely not loved by the Forest Service. They might just have a vendetta against this section of dirt because it was obvious no one had cleared it in years, NAY!, decades.

img_9114After it was all said and done, I counted exactly 52 blown downs on the trail making the final five miles of the Chinook Pass Ultrapedestrian Challenge a beasty affair. All in all, the day was perfect. I got to spend it outside in a beautiful place, challenge myself on the trails and made it home in time for beer and pizza with my pup.

Thanks to Jessica Kelley for intel on the trail, and of course to Ras and Kathy for finding special outings around the region and for promoting the practicing of exploring the outdoors.


How to Destroy Your Legs Running the Cactus to Clouds Trail

IMG_6139 Video / GPS

We laid down on the deck outside of the Round Valley Ranger Station. With my body splayed out on the wood planking, I felt the full warmth of the brilliant sun shining down from above. In the cool mountain air the rays felt…GLORIOUS!


The previous five plus hours were spent laboring up eight and a half miles and 7,000 feet of ascent from the desert floor of Palm Springs on the Skyline Trail (AKA Cactus to Clouds). It was midday when we arrived at the ranger station, our last checkpoint and water source before topping out.

Instead of immediately pushing on through the final five and half miles to the summit of Mount San Jacinto, my comrades Andrew, Rhea and I took an impromptu nap on the deck. Meanwhile Sawna, our fourth adventurer, went inside the ranger station to inquire about future wilderness training opportunities she had just heard about. Sawna was obviously feeling a bit more energized that I was.

A park ranger walked out and observed us while we rested our eyes.

“Are you ok” he asked while staring down at our prone bodies laying on his deck.

“Yeah. We’re just…sleeping.”

I replied in a tone that implied that it was an entirely normal time and place to be dead public. It wasn’t on both accounts, but hey, we weren't exactly caring about social norms at that moment. We were just tired.

After dismissing the khaki authorities we caught a few more z’s until Sawna came out and poked us awake. Touching my hand, she declared “It’s time to go". Reluctantly my deckmates and I opened our eyes and obeyed, pulled on our packs and readying our bodies for the final ascent through the snow.


As I mentioned above, my day had started much earlier. Sawna and I had left her home in Hollywood a little after 2:30am Friday morning (yes, I was a little slow and might have caused a late departure). Coffee, tunes and excitement powered us on our drive down to Palm Springs where we met up with Rhea and Andrew—friends from LA—who had stayed in the area the night prior. Dawning headlamps and chock full of almond butter and excitement we began the climb upward from the desert floor at just past 5am, following white spots painted on the dry boulders.


Within a few hours the sun rose, warming the air and painting colors across the landscape. The setting was gorgeous, but the climb was unending. Unlike most trails that have some undulations, rolling up and down even as the trail overall climbs, Cactus to Clouds absolutely did not. Every step was up, up, up and the hours took their toll.

By the time we got to the Round Valley Ranger Station, my climbing muscles were spent. Too tired to even move my arms, my trekking poles dragged by my sides. We were all showing some amount of exhaustion. Lacking poles, the rest of my party even took up sticks to help with the climb. These were both used as ascending tools and played double-duty as pokers to probe holes in the dry grown filled with snakes/rats/scary-things  as we labored upward.

(We didn't really harass wildlife, we just joked about it.)


Quiet Joel

While our pace was slow, my lungs still felt underpowered. I did my best to put on a good face for the rest of the team. The truth though was that I was hurting.

I think Sawna caught onto my suffering because she noticed that “Quiet Joel” had come out to make an appearance. You see, when I’m really hurting I don't complain outloud and  mouth-off. Instead I stop joking or talking entirely, and focus my energy on putting one foot in front of the other in silence

"Just keep moving" I told myself.

By the time we got to the Round Valley Ranger Station, I had spent at least an hour pondering if I had the energy to continue on to the summit. “Am I slowing them down? Should I just stay here and let them go ahead?”

Luckily, water food and some good 'ol fashion deck sleeping did its wonders. After my quick nap, I felt I had what was needed to climb the last five plus miles to the 10,834' summit of San Jacinto Peak.

It's Snow Time IMG_5987.jpgWithin a half mile after departing the ranger station we were now at over 7,000' and were trekking fully in snow. Luckily the conditions were perfect.

The snow underfoot was neither too soupy to be mush or too cold to be slick ice. We just told stories, admired the view and kept trekking on. Andrew brought his GoPro and occasionally asked us to run for an action photo or video clip. As soon as the shutter closed, we reverted to our slower trekking hike. Luckily, we were still making progress.

On the final ascent up the ridge a PCT backpacker caught up to us. Melissa was a badass Canadian hiker sporting pink spandex shorts and well-worn Altra Lone Peaks. She was taking a day trip with fellow Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers to top out on San Jacinto before returning to their noth-bound hike (what a "rest" day?!?). Melissa, (watch the video below to discover her trail name) not only caught up to us on our climb above Round Valley, but did so while carrying a full 60lb+ pack.

Looking for a challenge and a great story Sawna offered to carry her load to the summit, however Melissa respectfully declined. She didn't want to loose face in front of the other hikers (or her reputation for being a badass).

We all took one final brief rest below the ridge and grabbed a sip of water before making the final climb to the top.

The summit was windless and scenic--amazingly so on both accounts. The alpine air was cold, but otherwise the conditions were perfect for a few group photos and for taking a moment to revel in what we had achieved. We had just climbed over 10,000' in less than 14 miles, all straight up. Wow!

After a few more photos, we reversed course down to the Round Valley where we stopped at an oasis-like resort. Sawna's promise of a bar and food were spot on. Our party of four downed pints of frosty, well-earned beer while snacking on humus. Today was a good day.

Instead of running the final stretch of trail down to the valley below, we paid $12 each and took the sky tram to the Palm Springs below. The ride was thrilling, and didn't require us to run or climb, so I was all smiles. It was the best money I've spend in years.

Thank you to Andrew, Rhea, and Sawna for allowing me to tag along on their adventure. It was the perfect mix of suffering and joy, and with the best people.


Rebirth & Heartbreak at Zion 100


As the daylight faded at the Zion 100, I paced down a dusty gravel road atop Gooseberry Mesa. Having logged the last dozen miles looping back and forth on the 5,000ft mesa, I was happy to now be away from the cliffside and to be on a safe, downward-pitched road leading off the rear of the mountain. Despite my more stable ground, I was still in trouble.

Having run 50 miles over the past 12 hours on hard-packed desert clay and slick rock, the bottom of both of my feel were now blistered and swollen. They ached in my crumbling Hokas and each step sent white hot electric waves of pain up my tired legs. I had done what I could to prevent this—changed socks, avoided puddles, rested at each aid station, massaging my chronically crushed little toes, and as a last resort, popped Ibuprofen. Still, I was in this situation…again.

You see while running my last 100-miler—the aptly named IMTUF (Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival)—I was stopped at mile 52 and for the same reason: wrecked feet. Was this going to be another failure? Another DNF?

When I first started running ultras back in 2010 I set a personal goal of earning ten buckles, the awards given to 100-miler finishers. Within a few years I earned finishes at Lumberjack, Cascade Crest (2x) and Southeast Washington’s Badger Mountain 100. At the time I was on a roll. However, my last completed 100 was now almost three years ago. Zion was supposed to restart my mission towards ten. Unfortunately with every step further right now my body told me I would have to wait for my fifth piece of runner "jewelry". Crap!

My troubles didn’t start atop Gooseberry Mesa. I knew something was off miles earlier.


Zion 100 is a race held in the sweeping desert landscape of Hurricane, Utah, just outside of Zion National Park, and a few hours drive from Vegas. I had traveled here with my buddy Nick, a wickedly-fast Ohio transplant who now trained by doing 4x Mt. Si climb repeats and other brutal training outside of Seattle. The day before the race he and I hiked the surprisingly intense Angels Landing in Zion National Park. Clinging up chains bolted to the cliffside, we skirted past crowds of visiting students out on spring break. Nick and I drank in views of the arid desert, but also pondered what the next day's weather would bring.


For the two weeks prior the race director Matt Gunn and his team had messaged runners warning us about a weather forecast growing worse by the day and even offered to transfer anyone's registration to next year if desired. Rare desert rain was expected with the potential to turn clay dirt hills into dangerous vertical slip-and-slides, requiring course-rerouting or worse, event cancellation. Nick and I just put our hope in the gods and kept our race plans for Zion. The evening before the race I went to bed early at our AirBNB in Huricane, Utah, just a town over from the race start. Fingers crossed for tomorrow. And shoes laces bowed for luck.

On race morning we woke early and began getting ready. I didn’t tell Nick that my legs felt dead, still sore from the Angels Landing climb the night before. Bad juju. It was 4am and instead of feeling energized and excited for an outing in the hills, I felt depleted. Knowing that things can change throughout a day of ultra running I just went through my normal routine: coffee, clothes, car, bus, race start. Ok, let’s do this.


It's Go Time

No briefing in the morning. The course had been explained by the race director the night prior. At a hair past 6am, Nick, myself and a few hundred other runners headed out into the darkness, a mixture of 100-mile and 100k runners. And so we ran and climbed.

For the race I wore my Petzl headlamp strapped to my forehead, an Ultimate Direction pack on my back and size 12 Hokas on my feet. The morning desert air was cool and the sky was a mix of clouds and with a few rare patches of blue. While rain was forecast, the race director said “There’s only a 40% chance. We just don’t know if that means there’s a 4 in 10 chance of precipitation or that 40% of the area will get hit.” Yikes.

The first hill up was the joyous sounding Flying Monkey. I was a middle link in a chain of runners working up the climb. Just one step at a time, I slowly made progress on the climb. Our lamps painted a snake down the trail in the early morning light. Beautiful.

The first 15 miles went as expected. I watched my pace, made sure I drank plenty to counter the dry desert air and started to see miles tick by. None came easy as they normally should during the first section of a 100, but then again I just thought my body needed time to warm up after a long plane and car ride.

To everyone’s benefit, the rain held throughout the morning.

Things started to change for me around mile 18. As we climbed up a hill called guacamole, my body started complaining (and no, not avocado hunger pains). First I noticed my breath become slightly labored and then my legs started to ach. This isn’t uncommon for me during a race, but my suffering was coming WAY too soon, as in 60-miles-too-early. I can death march into a finish sure. I shouldn’t START a race feeling like this.


While I expected climbs to take effort, I was surprised by another challenge: slickrock. The guacamole section of the run involved running on this terrible surface, bounding up and down on stone as the trail wove around mounts of cooled lava. You can never get into a rhythm and while the cumulative elevation change wasn’t huge, I began to tire from high stepping constantly. This was less than 20% into the race and I was struggling to keep my chi in check. What was going on?

I hate guacamole

I trotted into the guacamole aid station with the best faker face on. "I’m ok", I told myself. "I’m just going through a moment", I thought with an effort to reassure. At the aid station a kind volunteer gave me ice that I tossed under my hat to cool my head (physically and figuratively). I rested for five minutes in a folding chair while refueling with electrolyte drink and cubed cantaloupe. Still not feeling revived, I banged down a half can of Mountain Dew. That should do SOMETHING?

I left the aid station at mile 25 and put in my headphones. I thought, “music and caffeine: DO YOUR MAGIC!” Finally, some momentum came to my legs and I picked up speed descending the hill. I could run again and leaned into the miles. Rihanna’s “Work” played on my shuffle as I bounded down the fire road. Finally I felt more in control. And it was perfect timing as I pushed towards the biggest climb of the day, the satirically-named Goosebump.

Was I reborn? We’ll see.


The ascent up Goosebump is steep, as in 2,000’ up in less than four miles. But honestly compared to the mindless loops on Guacamole, seeing progress in vertical feet climbed, and new views achieved wasn’t that bad. Mountains—I live for this shit!

The last section of the climb involves grabbing hold of fixed ropes that race organizers placed for protection. The lines were welcomed tools, but honestly optional in the dry conditionals. If it rained though the ropes would be the only way to get up, and more importantly, down. This could get scary.


After grabbing food, water and massaging my feet at the Gooseberry aid station, I started my Goosebump loops. This is like Guacamole on steroids—more climbing and descending on slickrock and looping past sheer cliffs, all the while following faint white markings painted on the stone slabs. It was both a mental and physical challenge to make sure you were headed in the right direction. Once again, my body started giving me signals.

You’re tired. You’re unmotivated.

Your feet hurt even thought its just 40 miles into the race.

You aren't made for this. You should try golf instead. 

I was my worst enemy.

After finishing two winding loops atop the mesa, the day was getting long. I refueled at the Gooseberry aid station, and headed out on a ten mile out-and-back to the "cemetery". Aptly named.

As I started down the dirt road, I waved at runners coming in from the opposite direction. I tried to put on a smiling face, but my feet were screaming. Blisters had sprung up on the front and rear of each foot meaning all I could do was walk, and gingerly at that. I had the energy and my legs felt ok, but my feet were a mess. This was IMTUF all over again.

I pushed myself two miles down the road promising myself that something would change. It didn't. After a few more minutes, I knew what I had to do. I turned and headed back to the aid station. I planned to drop from the 100-miler and instead finish the 100k course.

The wind kicked up and cold rain dropped from the dark clouds above for about 20 minutes. How fitting?

"This sucks!" I exclaimed for no one but myself to hear.

I put on my jacket, zipped up to my chin and cinched the hood tight around my face. Wasn't the desert supposed to be warm and dry?

Turning Around

On my return to the aid station, NW ultra runner Kevin Karr and I passed on the trail. Kevin looked a little tired, but his will was unyielding. I explained that I was dropping to the 100k.

"What? No, keep going!"

He encouraged me not to, but my mind was set. "I can't. I'm dropping. It's done."

With that Kevin pushed on towards the cemetery, while I reversed course to finish out the 100k course. I was disappointed with myself.

The end of the race was what you'd expect. Hard.

The descent down the Goosebump climb was expectedly steep. The run out to the Virgin Desert aid station was literally the longest eight miles I could imagine. I climbed up and down mountain bike trails with other 100k runners and made chit-chat to help the hours go by quicker.

Along the way I met Jim, a father from just outside of Chicago and we shared complains about how long the miles felt. From our rear a set of friends from California joined us their lights dancing in the darkness. The sun had set so we all wore headlamps and searched the landscape for aid station lights. Nothing.

Eventually we did get to Virgin Desert. After fueling up on soup and soda, my new Chicago friend and I headed back out into the darkness. The trail to the finish wove around a canyon and included plenty of cliffs to avoid. No time to doze off!

The Finish

We spent two miles on a fire road and then finally had another four on trail before weaving back to the race start/finish. Emotionally I was spent. While it was now past midnight, race organizers were still up. The generator hummed, powering the lights and inflated finish line arch. I crossed the finish with a few labored steps, then searched for a seat. After over 62 miles of mesa running, I was done both emotionally and physically.

And damn did my feet hurt.


So, what did I learn?

  1. Figure out my feet. This means how I tape them, what socks I use and what shoes I lace up in. I can't keep beating my feet into bloody pulps and having them fail me 50% into a race.
  2. More 100s? I LOVE trail running. It is one of my favorite activities to do, and races lasting 30, 40 or 50 miles all still seem reasonable. But something happens when you aim for 100. It means that instead of suffering for maybe 10% of a run or race, I suffer for 40%. That's not actually something that I enjoy and can't say if its even worth it. Why not just have more fun, and forget my buckle goal? We'll see. I'll make a decision in a week or two.
  3. It's not always about elevation Both Zion races, the 100k or 100 miler, didn't have that much elevation gain. The 100 miler had less than 12,000' of climbing—nothing when it comes to ultras held in the Western U.S. And yet, it wasn't the big mesa climbs that got me, but the tiny up-and-downs that I found challenging. For my next race I'm going to explore the course description more to understand that the challenge isn't always vertical gain.

My next race on the books is the Beacon Rock 50k, a loved race and course on the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge. It's a race I've run before and enjoyed. Let's hope that I have a more successful run with less suffering. And yes, I'm buying new shoes.






Scott McMurtrey Takes on the Atacama Crossing

At 8am this morning, Washington-based ultra runner Scott McMurtrey along with 109 competitors from around the world began the Atacama Crossing, one of the most challenging races in South America, if not the world.

This 7-day 250km race cuts across the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on earth, and requires competitors to run self-supported across salt lakes, lava flows and sand.

Race officials are posting live updates from the race. You can track Scott's progress at The 155- mile Atacama is just one leg of the 4 Deserts Endurance Series offering the most intense desert endurance races on earth. The 4 Deserts series also includes races in the hottest (Sahara Race in Egypt), coldest (The Last Desert in Antarctica) and windiest (Gobi March in China) deserts on earth.

I had the opportunity to interview Scott before he caught his flight down to Chile. As I previewed in a previous post, Scott has some interesting thoughts on what compells him to take on these endurance challenges.

[Joel Ballezza] So you're running across Chile, what gave you the idea for this adventure?

[Scott McMurtrey] I’m always on the lookout for international races. This year I knew I wanted to travel to South America.  I’ve had my eye on a few marathons and a couple ultramarathons, and then I came across the Atacama Crossing race.  My first reaction was, “No way. Too scary. I’m not ready for something like this.”  In other words, “It’s out of my comfort zone.”  So about ten seconds later I decided that this would be the perfect race for me, and I sent in my application.

[JB] Can you describe the distance you're undertaking, start and end points and what type of terrain you will be traversing?

[SM] The race covers 250-km across the Atacama Desert in six grueling stages.  The Atacama Desert is regarded as the driest place on earth.  Stage 1 starts at 10,000 ft.  Temperatures will be over 100 degrees.  It looks as though the course will wind over mountains, salt flats, rock, sand, and just about any other variation of hot/dry earth that can be made.

[JB] What type of support will you have?

[SM] This is basically an unsupported, solo run.  Participants are required to carry everything they’ll need for a week, expect for tents and extra water.  This means a week of food and energy gels, a sleeping bag, first aid, extra clothes, etc.  There will be checkpoints along each route where we can refill out water bottles.

I believe it’s going to be an extraordinary adventure.

[JB] What are your expectations with your Chile run?

[SM] I’m expecting to have my butt handed to me.  I’m confident I can complete it, but I’m preparing myself to be absolutely unprepared for the conditions that I’ll face.  I mean, c’mon, it’s winter here in Washington.  I’m training in sub-freezing conditions for a 100+ degree hellhole.  I have no illusions that this is going to be an easy week.  I’m mentally prepared, I hope, for a long, long, long slog.

[JB] Previously you've crossed Idaho. What is it about crossing a geographic region, either a state or a country, that fascinates you?

[SM] It just sounds cool, doesn’t it?  The run across the Idaho Panhandle was 93 miles and took me about 21 hours.  I wanted to say that I did it in a single day.  That was the farthest I’ve run in a single go.

I’m even hatching a plan to run across Washington with my dog.  I’d love to run across the United States someday, but I don’t have the resources to do something like that right now.

[JB] What would you say to someone who thought the idea of crossing a country by foot is too difficult or insane?

[SM] Difficult or insane?  Heck, those are two of the best reasons why.  Again, it’s all about comfort zone.  Many of the best moments of my life have been a result of testing my own boundaries.

But you know, the reality is that I’m still kind of in a comfort zone.  Sure, I may be pushing my own limits, but I still know that other people have done these things before (and most of them have survived), and I know that the human body is capable of great endurance.  So though part of me feels like it really is crazy or insane, there’s the part of me that keeps reminding myself that I’ll be relatively fine as long as I’m smart.

I guess it’s just about finding that thing that gets you excited to live.

As I publish this post, Scott's been running for 5hours and 53 minutes, day one of an amazing adventure. Cheer him on at

Bringing Your Mental Game: My Battle at the Woolley 50K

I don't know who first offered this piece of wisdom, but it is something to keep in mind at your next competition:

"You don't win races with your feet, you win them with your mind."

I had heard this seemly trite quote before, but it wasn't until yesterday that the message helped me fend off a runner and earn a second-place finish at the Woolley Trail 50k.

At the mind-numbingly early hour of 5am, my girlfriend Sophia, friend Heather and I loaded our water bottles, spare clothes and trail shoes into Sophia's Honda Civic and drove north on I-5. The morning was frosty, with the thermometer hanging in the low 30s, but felt much colder. It would be a few hours before the sun would make an appearance.

At exit 232, we turned off the freeway and headed east on highway 20.  Within a few miles we arrived in the sleepy town of Seedro-Woolley, temporarily inundated with 150 ultra runners for the Woolley Trails 50k, marathon and 1/2 marathon trail runs.

The course was an out-and-back route on a 15 mile section of the Cascade Trail. Flat as a pancake, the only obstacles on the crushed gravel trail were a few downed trees and a 200' stretch of the course intersected by a shallow stream pumping ice cold water.

Technically, this was just a fun run, not sanctioned by any racing groups, but when I lined up at the start at five minutes to 7, I felt a surprising hunger to compete. I had never finished a race in the top five before, and barely broke the top ten in previous competitions. However, today, the idea of pushing myself wandered into my mind. "Maybe" I told myself.

Following a briefing by race director Terry Sentinella, runners took off into a dimly lit and frigid morning.

The first 15 miles of the race were as I expected (with the exception of the buffalo and alpaca grazing next to the trail). A group of us, mostly men with the exception of the powerful Shawn McTaggart, pushed to the front and set a 7:15/mile pace. This was a little fast for me, so I dropped back and settled at a 7:30/mile, running alone in the cold.

Because runners were competing in 1/2 marathon, marathon and 50K distances on the same course, I wasn't totally sure of who was ahead of me until I approached the turn-around for the 50K distance. The 50k leader was a 100%-business looking runner in his late-30s who was dialed in and at least a mile ahead of me. I looked around but didn't see anyone else between me and the turn-around.

Wait! Could I be in second?

After grabbing half of a PB&J sandwich and refilling my water bottle at the aid station, I thanked the cheerful volunteers and started my return run. While catching the front runner was out of the question, if I could hold out, I could finish stronger than I've ever done before.

As the miles began to tick by...20, ...22, ..24, my demeanor changed from competitive fun-run to 100%-business, too. The morning felt bright and I just kicked one foot in front of the other.

Despite my determination, at some point in the last quarter of the 50k I  gradually started to slow down. With no one around me, my pace slowed.

I didn't realize that I was being stalked.

At mile 28, the sound of foot steps came out of nowhere. I checked over my left shoulder and saw another runner, a male in his 40s with a high tempo gaining on me with what seemed like an effortless advance. Suddenly, he pulls parallel to me.

Shoot! I've got just three miles left, and he has more gas in his tank than I do! Wait, could he be running the marathon distance instead of the 50K?

"You're running the 50K, right" I asked.

"Yeah" he replied in a friendly, but focused tone.

"Same here" I replied, knowing that a duel was about to happen.

Grinning, he replied "I guessed that".

A moment after this exchange he begins to lead me by 10 feet. While he was the stalker for 27 miles, now he was the underdog hero coming to take what was his. I have to hold on!

Panicked, I thought  back to a book I'm reading, Open, the autobiography by tennis great Andre Agassi. He describes tennis matches against pros who at the time were much better than him. Agassi described using mental games to take the wind out of competitors by making them think that he was stronger, even when he wasn't.

That's what I have to do.

With just three miles left, I had to make my move and I'd have to do it in a way that would make the other runner think I was stronger than I was--to take away his hope.

The mind game was on!

In a dramatic flair, I threw my hand-held Nathan water bottles to the ground, lightening my load, and began to swing my arms with full vigor. I quieted my breath to make it sound like I wasn't working as hard as I was. When the moment just right, and with only two miles to the finish, I pushed past him in one smooth acceleration, never looking back or checking my watch. My stare was fixed on the last two miles of the 50k.

After stepping through the stream that bisected the trail, I crossed the finish with a surprisingly quick time of 4:12:36, capturing 2nd, my best finish ever.

What mind games have you used to compete?

Podcasts and Orange Juice Can Make You Fly

Let's call it a day...

What do you do when you're having a tough day? You know, when you struggle to get out of a perfectly good, warm bed and your whole body aches. Maybe you're coming home from a long day of work and you just can't see yourself lacing on a pair of sneakers? You need to get in your miles on the road or trail this week, but you feel unmotivated and lost for the moment.

Your energy has tanked. How could you possibly exercise?

When I feel like this, I reach for two essential tools to get me going. The first is a glass of cold, pulpy orange juice. A few sips and the simple sugars rush to my brain, giving me a quick boost of energy.

The second essential tool for getting me motivated is my iPod Shuffle. I put on a podcast from Endurance Planet (itunes link) or switch on some Lady Gaga  or Lil Wayne and within 50 feet from my house, my heart is pumping and my legs grow strong.

The key parts of finding your energy to exercise is:

  • Recognizing when you're feeling low
  • Knowing what your body and mind need to get back on course.

For me, I know orange juice can save my day (and if it is the morning, I gulp coffee). I make sure I always have some in the kitchen. Similarly, pop music and rap can transform me from shuffling around the house after a long day of work, to effortlessly pounding out miles on an evening run. I just prepare for low moments by always having an up-tempo song list loaded into my charged iPod Shuffle.

This prep can be the difference between meeting your weight and endurance goals, and falling behind. Sports and endurance podcasts are also helpful because when you listen to other athletes talk about dealing with struggle, you think "Hey, I'm not giving up either".

Do you have a tip for finding your energy? Add a comment below.

Get Hot and Sweaty Today

...And Then Sometimes Valentine's Day Sucks!

Not a fan of chocolate, don't have a special someone or maybe you just don't like supporting the flower/card/stuffed bunny industries? Well, instead of filling yourself with sweats this Valetine's Day, how about you do something really sexy: go for a run.

Think about it.

What's more attractive than a strong body dressed in athletic gear kicking miles around town? Better yet, get sweaty with your boyfriend or girlfriend. Exercise is not only a great way to relax and lose weight, it's a great bonding experience to have with someone you care about.

Before today's over, lace on your shoes, call up your sweetheart and do a few loops around Greenlake together. Afterwards, stop for a few chocolates at Chocolati. Ahh, true romance!

Sure, you could skip your workout and instead put on a romantic comedy and snuggle together on the couch. But do that AFTER you put in some miles on the road or trail. You'll not only feel better, you'll be sexier because of it.

Happy Valentine's Day!