Coach’s Corner: The “Secret” of Ultrarunning: The Role of Rational Confidence

Note:  Starting today, I will be posting a “Coach’s Corner” article every Thursday that discusses, with some degree of depth, an ultrarunning topic for which I tend to receive a lot of questions from clients and other runners.  I hope you enjoy these articles and find them at least a little useful 🙂

1.  Of Lions and Lambs.

masquerading lamb

One of the most common questions I get as a coach is “how do I gain the confidence necessary to run the insane distance that I just signed up for?” (usually 50 or 100 miles).  This is a VITALLY important question, because without confidence, a runner — especially a first-time ultrarunner — might as well not even toe the line.  Simply showing up and “hoping” or “wishing” that “today will be the day” is not exactly the best mindset to ensure success.  You can’t go into these things as a lamb when you need to be a lion.

So, then, how does one simply “turn on” the confidence necessary to ensure success at an endeavor that he or she has NEVER done before?  How do we find that inner lion that lives within all of us?  Anyone can say, “yeah, I’m confident.”  “Yeah, I feel great.”  “Yeah, I’m going to do this.”  But how do we ensure that those words have actual force behind them, and aren’t just empty assurances we make to ourselves, or false promises we make to others through various forms of social media?  How do we transform from a lamb to a lion by race day?  Or how do we go from being a “Facebook Hero” (in the Foreigner sense of the phrase) :), to an actual success at this very hard sport?

Facebook Hero

The only answer to these questions is that we need to develop rational confidence; a sincerely-held belief that we will not only finish the race, but that we will thrive at the race.  The word “belief” isn’t really even strong enough; the feeling needs to be a truth.

So how do we get to the point where we actually know we will do well in the event when we toe the line?  The only real answer is very easy and very challenging at the same time:  CONSISTENT QUALITY TRAINING.  Only by building ourselves up physically can we develop the mental toughness needed to accomplish our lofty goals.  I often hear people talk about how much of the sport is mental versus physical.  I think that is the wrong manner of thinking of it, because the mental and the physical are completely and inexorably intertwined.

2.  The “Trial of Miles.  Miles of Trials.”

'Like lambs to the slaughter, my ass.'

I often have runners that are frustrated at the beginning of their training, because they do not see immediate tangible results after the first few days or even weeks.  The path to ultrarunning success is a process, and one that cannot be shortcutted or cheated.  If you want to be physically-prepared — and in turn develop the rational confidence (grounded in reality, not delusions) needed to succeed — you have to endure what author (and former SEC runner) John L. Parker, Jr. refers to as the “trials of miles.”

Once a Runner

In his book, Once a Runner (which you should check out if you have not read it yet), Parker discusses the training regimen that star cross-country runner Quenton Cassidy puts himself through:

“And too there were questions: What did he eat? Did he believe in isometrics? Isotonics? Ice and heat? How about aerobics, est, ESP, STP? What did he have to say about yoga, yogurt, Yogi Berra? What was his pulse rate, his blood pressure, his time for 100-yard dash? What was the secret, they wanted to know; in a thousand different ways they wanted to know The Secret. And not one of them was prepared, truly prepared to believe that it had not so much to do with chemicals and zippy mental tricks as with that most unprofound and sometimes heart-rending process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that comprised the bottoms of his training shoes. The Trial of Miles, Miles of Trials. How could they be expected to understand that?”

There is NO magic pill in this sport.  There is no “secret.”  Only consistent training.  Those daily battles with the alarm clock, the daily grind of “removing the very tough rubber” from the bottoms of your shoes, the 6-mile loop around your house that you’ve run 451 times and it’s too hot/cold/whatever outside and you’d rather not run number 452 today.  Fight and win those “trials” on a daily basis, and you’ll show up at the start line ready and able to win the war against the course on race day.

3.  Daniel LaRusso and the Secret of Ultramarathons.

A few days ago, one of my runners said something along the lines of, “I’ve never been this strong physically as a runner; I can just feel myself getting better every day.  I only wish I was growing mentally as well.”  Without trying to channel too much of my inner Mr. Miyagi on her, I said, “You are getting stronger mentally; you just don’t know it yet.”

Consistent quality training is what allows us to have rational confidence that we can face our fear of the great unknown on race day.  All of those little battles we win on a daily basis in training add up, and, over time, allow us to face our own version of that big, bad Cobra Kai kid waiting at the end of the journey.

wax on

(LaRusso demonstrating the secret of ultrarunning).

Despite being unsure of himself on “race day,” Daniel defeated the Cobra Kai, as he realized during the “race” that the consistent training he endured had given him the tools to succeed when it mattered most.

The same will happen for first-time 50- or 100-milers during their own races, BECAUSE their consistent training will allow for growth and discovery of rational confidence.  They will meet their inner lions.

As an aside, with Halloween coming up, for you single guys out there, dressing up as a Cobra Kai villain is a horrible idea, unless your target audience for attention is a bunch of 30 to 40-something year-old dudes shouting “sweep the leg” and “get him a body bag” to you all night long.


(Alex and I on our first date in 2008.  So I guess, in hindsight, that costume worked out okay for me.) 🙂

mean girls

(“Uh, so like what’s that guy in the above pic like supposed to like, be?  A ninja or something?”  “Yeah, so totally not ‘fetch'”).

4.  “Ninety Percent of This Game is Half Mental.”

Former Yankee great, and philosopher extraordinaire Yogi Berra uttered that unintelligible phrase about how much of baseball is physical versus mental.  I think it perfectly sums up how much of ultrarunning is physical versus mental as well:  you cannot separate one from the other, and when people try to, they wind up sounding like Yogi.  Rational confidence is built from wearing down the rubber on your shoes, day in, day out, week in, week out, month in, month out.  This is the only way to gain a sufficient level of mental fortitude to complete an “insane” challenge such as running 100 miles.

Yogi Berra

(Ultrarunning philosopher Yogi Berra).

There is one important caveat to that “no separation between mental and physical” point, however.  No matter how physically prepared you are when raceday comes along, you MUST possess the will to persevere, no matter how bad things get.  Everyone, from a first-time runner to the world’s reigning 24-hour champion, goes through super-low points during an ultra.  And everyone must ultimately make the decision at that lowest-of-the-low moment:  “Do I give in and stop, or do I put my head down, and simply keep putting one foot in front of the other until I start feeling better and I can run again?”

As ultrarunners, we need to keep an immutable truth in our minds at all times during the race:  No matter how bad things get or how badly I feel, if I keep going, I can break through to the other side and things will turn around for the better.

Obviously, I’m not saying that if you break your leg at Mile 5, you should drag it for 95 more miles; there is a difference between acute injury (which accounts for well-under 1% of all DNFs at races), or the general, garden-variety “bonking” that we all will inevitably experience — most likely multiple times — during the race.  We can always overcome that.  Always.

So that’s the secret to ultrarunning:  consistent quality training, which leads to rational confidence on race day, coupled with an unflinching will to succeed.  Then, and only then, will you meet your inner lion.

See you all for next week’s column, and enjoy getting “out there” and winning your trials of miles this week 🙂



Over The Top: 2014 Spartathlon Race Report

1.  Introduction. King Leonidas back It’s been about 36 hours since I’ve gotten back to Florida from my week-long trip to Greece for the Spartathlon.  And the one phrase that keeps coming to mind when I reflect on this trip is “over the top.”  That phrase truly describes everything about the trip: the Greek hospitality, their enthusiasm/passion for the Spartathlon, the course itself, its level of difficulty, the substantial mountain you must pass over at exactly Mile 100, and the pressure of the time cutoffs (36 hours for 152.4 miles, with 75 checkpoints in-between). “Over the top” also describes the ridiculous financial bargain of this race.  What you get for $550 is, quite simply, ridiculous.  (More on that later).

The only thing “Over The Top” really does NOT refer to here is the craptastically-cheesy 1987 Stallone movie about arm-wrestling truck drivers: Over the Top 2 (“Some fight for money . . . Some fight for glory . . . He’s fighting for his son’s love.”  Wow.  Some Hollywood exec actually green-lighted this movie.)

Okay, without further adieu, here’s my view on how Spartathlon 2014 went down:

2.  The Two Days Before the Race.

Like most international athletes, I arrived in Athens on Wednesday, and therefore had two days to relax, adjust (somewhat) to the 7-hour time difference, and prepare for the Friday morning race start. The race officials put the American team up in the Best Western Fenix hotel, which is in Gylfada, a beachside suburb about 10 miles southwest of downtown Athens.  The hotel was modern, clean, and was literally across the street from the sea. beach outside Hotel Fenix 1 (The beach across the street from the hotel was gorgeous.  The water is completely clear and jumping in for a swim a few days after the race was VERY relaxing.) beach outside hotel fenix 2 (One more shot of the beach, at a different time of day.  This was not an ugly place.) 🙂

The USA Spartathlon team consisted of Jon Olsen, the world’s reigning 24-hour champ, Rob Youngren (who has finished Hardrock 4 times and just finished Badwater in the top-10), Bryce Carlson (owner of a 16:30 100-mile PR), Maggie Beach (who has run just about every tough race out there), Ed Aguilar (a chiropractor from LA who has lived in Italy for the past 18 years), my buddy Andrei Nana (who ran the race last year in just under 31 hours), as well as Dean Karnazes, the most famous ultrarunner on the planet who was running Spartathlon for the first time.  I was honored to be included with such a group of accomplished runners and good friends.

For the trip, I roomed with Rob and probably spent the most time with Rob and Bryce.  (Andrei was there with his wife Claire, they got engaged in Greece at this trip last year, and they understandably planned a lot of “alone” time during the trip). Finish with Rob and Bryce (Rob, Bryce, and myself at the finish line statute of Gerard Butler . . . er, King Leonidas, the day after the race) With Bryce at Parthenon (Bryce and I at the Acropolis a few days after the race) Pre-race meeting (Andrei and I relaxing just before the pre-race meeting the day before the race)

After the two days of preparing and relaxing were over, we were ready and anxiously awaited the 6am bus ride from our hotel on Friday morning to the Acropolis, for the 7am start of the race.  With the task in front of us (a challenging 153-mile run with tight cut-offs, as well as the deepest field of international talent at any road ultramarathon on the planet), it was easy to feel a bit anxious.  I usually sleep like a rock the night before the race, but for this one, I was tossing and turning pretty much all night long.  By about 4 am, I just said, “screw it”, and got up…

3.  Race Day:  The First 26 Miles.

We arrived at the Acropolis about 45 minutes before the start, and at exactly 7am, we were off.  It felt good to finally be running.  I quickly settled into my pace of 8 min per mile.  I just planned on running 8’s for the first 30 miles, and then 9’s from 30-50, for a 50-mile split of around 7 hours.  (The 50-mile cutoff is 9:30, which is not terribly hard on a good day, but is a big problem if you are having issues/a bad day). By mile 2, I hooked up with Jon Olsen, one of the serious race favorites.  He also was locked into an 8-min pace, so we just ran together for the first 3-4 hours. running with Olsen (Running with Jon around Mile 10)

The first 25 miles are not particularly scenic, as you have to run out of urban Athens before you hit the sea.  Once the Saronic Gulf is reached, however, the course truly opens up and becomes quite beautiful.  So I was extremely glad not to be alone for this first section, as I generally hate the first few hours of an ultra until I get into a good running rhythm.  Jon was awesome to run with, as he is very easy-going and laughed at all of my jokes.  (Which CLEARLY means he has an impeccable sense of humor!) 🙂 Actually, we had a lot in common, such as playing a Division I sport in college other than running (baseball for me, football for him . . . he was a middle linebacker.  Or a punter.  Look at the picture above and decide for yourself).

We both also have wives who couldn’t make the trip because they just started grade-school teaching jobs at new schools. By the time we reached the marathon point (Megara), I told Jon to continue on without me, as I was starting to develop a bit of a stomach issue.  That was the last time I saw him during the race.  I crossed the marathon point at right around 3:40, so a bit over 8:00/mile.

4.  Megara to Corinth (Miles 26-50).

This section is defined by incredible beauty (of running along cliffs that overlook the sea) and then incredible dullness (of running by a succession of factories).  Once the course crosses the Isthmus of Corinth, you leave Attica and are on the Peloponnese Peninsula, and the course switches quite drastically from urban to agrarian: Sparty course (The Spartathlon course) My small stomach discomfort at the marathon mark turned into a full-blown issue by the 50k (31 mile) mark, at which point Andrei passed me. about 50k mark (Struggling a bit at the 50k mark) This is also the point, however, where we really started to get great views of the sea, which was invigorating. Megara 2 (The race road around the 35 mile mark). Megara (View of the sea from the race road; pretty decent scenery, huh?) 🙂

Andrei passed me after a few miles, and I would not see him for quite a bit later down the race.  It also started lightly raining during this time, which was really nice.  It even got a bit chilly.  A Brit named Sam Robson flew by me at this point and commented that it felt like “a gorgeous summer day in London” during this spell of rain. A few miles up the road, I ran into Dean Karnazes, and we ran together for about the next 10 miles.  He was running the entire race on only olives, figs, and cured meats — to mimic the likely diet of the “original” ultrarunner (Pheidippides) — and, along with me, he was not liking life very much at that point.  It didn’t help that after the quick bout of rain, the skies cleared pretty rapidly and the temperatures soared into the upper 80s with high humidity.

By Mile 40, I was reduced to a run/walk (with a lot more walking than running).  Dean dropped me — as did a TON of people — during this stretch, and I knew I wouldn’t be anywhere near my 7-hour goal for the first major checkpoint of the race at Mile 50. With a few miles to go until the big checkpoint, Rob and Bryce both caught up to and passed me.  I was struggling to keep a steady pace.  This was my “low” point in the race; it was just happening really, REALLY early.  With over 100 miles STILL to go, and the cutoffs looming ever more closely with each mile that I walked, I was not in a good place mentally for this stretch of the race.  I just kept telling myself, “just get to Corinth; just get to Corinth.”

5.  Corinth to Nemea (Miles 51-77). Isthmus of Corinth (The man-made Isthmus of Corinth, providing a thru-way of the most narrow part of the Peloponnese Peninsula to the Saronic Gulf and Attica)

When I finally reached the Mile 50 Corinth checkpoint in about 8:15, I was in pretty bad shape, and I was only a little over an hour ahead of the cut-offs.  I decided to sit down for the first time in the race, take 5 minutes (which for me is an eternity at an aid station), restock some supplies (my first drop bag was at Corinth), and, most importantly, “flip the script” mentally. I was not thinking positive thoughts for the past 10 miles, and I was running defensively.  I decided right there that I needed to force myself into a positive mindset, and focus on two things:  building up more of a buffer on the time cutoffs, and passing as many people as possible for the remainder of the race.  (With the unbelievable depth/quality of this field, I was likely not even in the top-150 at this point, so I had PLENTY of “rabbits” out in front of me to catch).

When I got up and left the aid station, I had a tad over an hour on the cutoffs, but I was in a much-better place mentally, and I was going to be in “attack-mode” for the rest of the race.  I was also going to enjoy myself a lot more.  I was in the middle of the greatest international road ultramarathon in the world, after all. I probably repeated “flip the script” about 100 times to myself for the first few miles out of the aid station.  It started to work.  I quickly passed 5, then 10 people in front of me.  I was finally moving like I knew I could.  I still had 100 miles to go, but for the first time in the race, I started to feel comfortable and like I was “taking it” TO the race, not the other way around.

I’m a huge nerd, which goes hand-in-hand with being a Star Wars fan.  In The Empire Strikes Back, there is a scene where Luke tries to use “the force” to lift his X-wing out of the swamp on Degobah.  When he fails, and sees Yoda subsequently succeed, he says “I don’t believe it.”  Yoda replies, “THAT is why you failed.” THAT is ultrarunning in a nutshell.  We run these insane distances, and in races like Spartathlon, are forced to do it pretty quickly.  Self-belief and a positive attitude are the most important ingredients to success.

After I committed myself to always staying positive no matter how shitty I would later feel (which, believe me, was often), my race turned around. Scenery-wise, this section was drastically different than the first 50 miles.  While that first section was urban sprawl, we were now in the Greek countryside, going through olive groves, orchards, wine vineyards, and very small country towns: nemea One of the biggest factors in helping me stay positive throughout the race was the UNBELIEVABLE passion of the Greek people during the race, especially in the small country towns.  Scores of people cheer like crazy when you enter the town.  Hundreds of kids line up to get high-fives, and I was asked for my autograph at least a dozen times in these small cities.  (I obliged every time; while to an American, the situation may seem a bit silly — a Greek kid asking a random American for an autograph — their faces all lit up whenever we obliged, so it was an easy call). The Spartathlon is now a part of Greek history, and one that honors one of the great stories of ancient Greek history (the feats of Pheidippides).  Thus, the race has really become part of the fabric of Greek culture.  I’ve never experienced this in ultrarunning; in most U.S. races, people look at you with mild bemusement at best.  But in Greece, genuine emotion and passion was just pouring out of people.  It was really, really inspiring to be a part of such a powerful event.

6.  The Calm Before the Storm — Nemea to Lykria (Miles 77-92).

I reached the second major checkpoint, Ancient Nemea (Mile 77), approximately 14 hours into the race.  I had run well enough in the previous section to double my buffer on the cutoffs (I was now over 2 hours ahead of them).  Nemea was a party atmosphere with hundreds of spectators, bands, and plenty of warm food.  So, naturally, I high-tailed it out of there as quickly as I possibly could, for fear of getting TOO comfortable there. It was now dark outside, and this 15-mile section ending at Lykria — at the base of the most substantial mountain in the race — is pretty easy from a terrain standpoint; just a lot of rolling hills, followed by a sustained downhill into Lykria.  So I just focused on maintaining a good pace and losing myself in the race and its rhythm.

A few miles into this section, around Mile 80, I caught up to Dean again, who was surprised to see me.  “I was worried about you back there.”   “Yeah,” I replied, “I was in a bit of a rough spot, but I’m back now.”  “I can see that.”  We then hung out for the next 10 miles and traded some war stories, generally joked around, and actually had a pretty good time; despite the fact we were over 80 miles into the race, we pretty much ran that whole section.  He thanked me for “pulling him” through it, and then I pulled ahead of him around Mile 91, about a mile before the third major checkpoint in Lykria.  I was fully “in the zone” now, so to speak, and Dean was still hurting a bit, so I knew that this would probably be the last time I saw him during the race.  So I said “keep it up,” “get ‘er done,” and probably a few equally silly phrases, and was on my way.

Coincidentally, I ran with and passed Dean for good at Mile 91 at Badwater last summer as well.  I’ve said this before; Dean sometimes gets caught up in controversy, as his celebrity status/financial success is the envy of runners everywhere, but in person, he is a VERY down-to-earth and nice guy.  I really enjoyed running with him out in Greece, and look forward to the next time we share the same course (which I’m sure will be soon enough).

7.  Over the Top of the Mountain — Lyrkia to Nestani (Miles 92-108).

After the last five miles of quad-pounding downhill miles, I was actually looking forward to the eight-mile climb up to Sangas Pass from Miles 92-100, which is the highest point and toughest climb of the race.  The final mile of the climb is on a trail of VERY loose rocks and grades so steep you are literally on your hands and knees much of the way up.  Over the course of eight miles, you climb almost 4000 feet, much of it at a 20% grade. Sparty elevation chart (As you can see, the mountain is basically straight up for 8 miles)

For some completely unknown reason, over the past few years, I’ve actually developed into a decent climber during races.  (I say “unknown” because I live in Florida and do virtually no hill training).  At any rate, I was really strong on the 7 mile climb up to the final trail mile, and I hit the Mile 99.1 aid station in about 18:50.  (Originally, I wanted to be about 2 hours faster through 100 miles, but for my first Spartathlon, I’ll take it)  🙂 Start of mountain trail (At Mile 99 and one trail mile to go to the top (Sangas Pass))

The trail itself was just silly.  One mile, and about 1000 feet of vertical climb, so basically straight up.  The footing was loose and terrible, so I just put my head down and tried to get it over with as quickly as possible.  As a lot of people know, I am not at my most comfortable on rough, “technical” trails, so I just really wanted to get it over with.  Perhaps the only person I know who is less comfortable than me on trails is my buddy Andrei, who I caught up with and passed on this mile-long trail.  He looked miserable at the time, but he’s the toughest guy I know, so I was sure he would rebound and finish the race (which he did).

Once I got to the top of the race, the next mile — going DOWN the loose-rock trail on the other side — was absolutely miserable.  My energy levels were great and my legs felt fresh, but I was basically doing baby steps down the other side of the mountain until I got off the trail, for fear of falling and seriously injuring/killing myself.  I must have gotten passed by 10 people on this mile-long down trail.  I happily let them go, knowing that I would be seeing them very soon as soon as the path rejoined the road. Once we did get back on the road, I started running again for the first time since the start of the climb.  It took about a mile to get back into rhythm, but when I did, I was flying.  It felt great — I was running sub-8 minute miles for about 5 miles into the Nestani aid station, and I passed all the people who passed me on that trail, along with a few others.

When I reached Nestani at Mile 108, I had built up a 3-hour buffer from the cutoffs.  This is the point I stopped looking at the cut-off times when I got to each checkpoint; I knew they wouldn’t be a problem anymore.

8.  One Last Energy Low — The Plains of Tripolis, Nestani to Ancient Tegea (Miles 108-122).

The 15 miles from Nestani to Tegea are the flattest of the course, and sunrise occurred during this section.  The 110 miles already run was beginning to take its toll on my legs and on my energy level.  I knew that once I reached the last major checkpoint of Tegea, I would only have a 50k (31 miles) to go until I met King Leonidas in Sparta, so I just put my head down and tried to get the miles done as quickly as possible.

9.  Meeting the King — Tegea to Sparta (Miles 122-152.4)

When I reached Mile 122 and Ancient Tegea — which was visually really cool — it was about 8:15 am, so a little over 25 hours into the race.  I was tired, sure, but the daylight as well as the fact that I was so close invigorated me, and made a point to only stay in Tegea for a few moments until heading out for the final push. ancient tegea (Ancient Tegea)

I unfortunately learned in Tegea that Jon Olsen, the top American in the race, had dropped out with about 20 miles to go, due to thermoregulation issues.  He’s a great guy and super-talented, and I have no doubt he will be back at some point and probably win the race.  The list of Americans who have dropped out during their first attempt at Spartathlon reads like a who’s-who of world-class ultrarunning.  Some absurdly-talented guys have dropped out of this race.  It really is that tough.

After leaving the Tegea aid station, I felt probably the best I had the entire race.  I was FLYING for a mile or so until I hit a rude surprise . . . the final major climb of the race.  It was probably about 1200 feet of vertical over about 5-6 miles, so the grade wasn’t bad, but this climb just seemed to never end. But once that climb is over, the last 22 miles are pretty much all downhill, so while this section will kill your quads, you can move pretty quickly into Sparta for the finish. mt taygetus sparta (View coming into Sparta) hills above sparta (Another gorgeous view heading into town) Sparti, Peloponnese, GreeceJune 2005 (Sparta) 5 miles to go (Last 5 miles…) When I made the final turn on the street with the King Leonidas statute at the end, it was like nothing I have ever seen in ultrarunning.  The street, lined with restaurants, bars, etc., was FILLED with thousands of people who ALL cheer wildly for you when you pass.  They make everyone feel like they won the race; it’s just insane.  And the last 100 yards or so, about a dozen kids join you and run you in to the finish.  It is just spectacular. home stretch (About to pick up my entourage of a bunch of 10-year-olds…) 🙂 Finish at foot (The race is over when you touch the foot of the great King Leonidas; I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a hugely emotional moment, after running over 152 miles…) Finish line with kids (Every finisher is presented with an olive wreath, a VERY cool medal, some water from the Evrotas River, and all sorts of other things).

I finished the race in 32:43.  Bryce, Rob, and I all finished within about 40 minutes of each other, which was awesome.  Andrei was about an hour behind, and Dean finished about an hour behind him.  Ed Aguilar also finished the race.  Of particular note, Hungarian-American runner Katy Nagy had an amazing race and finished as the second female overall, in a little under 29 hours.  (The winner, Szilvia Lubics, won for the third time, setting the course record for women, in a bit under 27 hours.  I met Szilvia at the Ultra-Milano Sanremo course this past March in Italy; there, I beat her by about 7 hours.  Here, not so much.)  🙂

While I’m sure if I run the race again, I can improve my time by several hours, I doubt any subsequent trips will beat this one for me.  Seeing the unbelievable amount of passion that is involved in the race was just really moving for everyone involved.  This is a first-class event all the way; the runners are treated like royalty for the entire week.

10.  Aftermath.

After we crossed the finish line, we were bussed about 10 miles away to a sweet resort right on the beach called the Belle Helene Hotel.  It was easily a 4-5 star resort with unreal views of the Aegean Sea: Belle Helene (Our hotel for the night after the race) Belle Helene balcony (View from our enormous personal balcony) Belle Helene Beach Water Belle Helene Beach Belle Helene (More views of the hotel beach) The next day, we returned to Sparta to pick up our drop bags, and to have lunch with the mayor of Sparta.  It was a great feast/celebration, set in a vineyard’s restaurant: Lunch with mayor (Outside the restaurant for the lunch with the mayor) inside lunch with mayor (Inside the restaurant) with Szony (With Szonyi Fenerc, a super-strong Hungarian runner who beat me — and came in second overall — at Ultra-Milano Sanremo in Italy in March, by SIX minutes!) with Eva (With Eva, one of the many race volunteers.  Eva works as a teacher for special-needs first-graders; she, along with all the other volunteers, happily gave up their entire weekends to be part of this special event)

The Spartathlon represents, to me, the pinnacle of “pure” ultrarunning.  It is run by a non-profit organization, the citizens care DEEPLY about the race, it is a formidable challenge amongst the deepest field in international road ultrarunning, and the value is . . . well, it’s just silly: The race costs $550.  Here’s what that gets you:

-Registration into the race;

-5 nights’ stay at the Fenix Hotel (4 nights) and the Belle Helene Hotel (1 night);

-all meals included; -75 fully-stocked aid stations along the course;

-all transportation to and from all race events;

-THREE post-race celebrations (an awards ceremony the night of the race in Sparta, a lunch with the mayor of Sparta the next day, and the “main” ceremony:  a more formal awards gala back in Athens on Monday after the race); and

-The swag.  As if the above is not WAY over the top, here are all the physical things they bestow upon you as well: Sparty Swag That consists of:

-race bibs;

-a particpation tech shirt;

-a finisher’s tech shirt;

-a race medal (around your neck);

-a really big race medal (in lieu of a buckle);

-an olive wreath;

-a hat;

-a finisher’s certificate with all of your splits listed;

-a celebratory certificate handmade by a local child;

-a CD loaded with pictures of you running during the race;

-a race DVD;

-photographs of your table during the awards gala, which are printed off and given to you before the night is over;

-a polo shirt; and

-shot glasses.

(The only things I had to pay for with my own money were the polo shirt ($5, seriously), and the shot glasses ($1 each)).

Needless to say, the race is by far the best deal in ultrarunning.  As one of my new Brit buddies said the day after the race, “I’d use this as a super-cheap vacation even if I WASN’T running!”

11.  The Final Day in Athens.

We arrived back in Athens late on Sunday night, and had Monday to ourselves before the awards gala at 8pm on Monday.  Bryce, Rob, and I decided to head into town and check out the Acropolis/Pantheon and then take a dip in the sea before the gala.  It was the perfect ending to the trip. at Acropolis (At the Acropolis) Gala (At the awards gala with Rob, Bryce, Andrei, and Claire) awards dinner (Receiving my finisher’s certificate and medal at the gala)

Overall, this was simply an outstanding experience, and, in my view, really represents the pinnacle of what ultrarunning is all about.  I SINCERELY hope that for those of you that are in our sport, as many of you as possible get to experience this race, either as a runner or a supporter of a runner.  It is just such a phenomenal race and experience in general. It’s unfortunate that the time cutoffs are so strict, and those cutoffs — as well as the stringent race qualification requirements — will inevitably mean that a lot of runners will not be able to qualify for the race.  But think of it as our version of the Boston Marathon; it is hard to qualify for, and even harder to finish, but when you do, boy, it sure is worth every effort made to get there. Zwitty Logo-Web To that end, for anyone who sees Spartathlon as a goal in either their short or long-term future, I would be honored to work with you and help devise a plan to help get you there and be the one toeing the line at the Acropolis for this legendary race.

I launched the Zwitty Endurance Training Program about a month ago, and the response has been overwhelming to say the least.  I still have some slots open, though, so go to if you would like more information about my coaching services. Finally, thank you to the literally hundreds of you guys who followed me and cheered me and the rest of our team on out there; I could definitely feel your warm wishes during the race 🙂  I hope you enjoyed reading about this experience even a small fraction of the amount I enjoyed living it!  See you guys “out there”!

2014 Spartathlon Preview

1.  Introduction.

A week from Friday (Sept. 26th), along with 350 others, I will be standing in front of the stunning Acropolis in Athens, Greece at the start line of what is — likely — the most prestigious “long” road ultramarathon in the world:  the Spartathlon, a 153-mile race from Athens to Sparta.

Sparty 2012 start

(The start line of the 2012 race)

Sparty start Morton Carawan

(Three Americans from the 2013 Spartathlon team:  Blake Benke, Brenda Carawan (who won the Keys 100 outright in 2013), and our own Mike Morton (who’s won basically every race out there)).

I’ve never been to Greece, but from what everyone says, this is a “must-do” race, given (a) the history of the course, (b) the immense challenge, (c) the unbelievable support of the race staff and volunteers, (d) the race atmosphere, and (e) the fact that it is — easily — the most competitive international road ultra in the world.  (The other very large international road ultra, the Comrades Marathon in South Africa, isn’t really a traditional “ultra” in my opinion, as it is basically the world’s longest marathon (56 miles), and the front-runners race it as such).

The 2014 Spartathlon is shaping up to be a truly epic event, as basically every podium winner for the past decade in the race is back this year, and there are several world-class rookies running as well (most notably, American Jon Olsen, who is the current 24-hour world champion and has run 100 miles in less than 12 hours).  Including Jon, Team USA is sending a record 13 runners this year.  We are even bringing the circus to town with us, in the form of Dean Karnazes and his decision to run the entire race on figs and olives (more on that in a bit).

First, here’s a little background on the race and how it came into existence:

2.  Pheidippides and the Spartathlon Legend.

Every marathoner — and most people in general — now have heard of the “legend” of Pheidippides, and how after the Greeks defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, Pheidippides ran 25 miles from Marathon to Athens, proclaimed “Rejoice, we conquer!!” (or some equally inane phrase), and promptly fell down and died.

Pheidippides statute

(The Pheidippides statute, along the Olympic marathon route in Refina, Greece).

That’s ONE legend about Pheidippides.  The OTHER one — and the one believed to be more historically-accurate (by the people who somehow rank Greek fables) — is by Greek writer Herodotus.  His version is that when the Greeks were preparing for the imminent Persian attack on Athens, they sent Pheidippides to Sparta (over 150 miles away) to ask the Spartans for help.  As the legend goes, he left Athens in the morning and arrived in Sparta the next day before nightfall.

(As an aside, the Spartans said “no” because they were in the middle of some religious ceremony, so Pheidippides had to run all the way back to Athens to deliver the bad news.  On the way back, however, he “ran into” (pun intended) the god Pan, who inspired Phedippides, who in turn inspired the rest of the Greeks, and they fought with “legendary resolve” and defeated the Persians at Marathon, even though they were vastly outnumbered.  Aesop couldn’t have written it better himself.)

For centuries, the fable of Pheidippides’ incredible feat and whether it was humanly possible to run from Athens to Sparta in 36 hours was hotly debated.  That all changed in 1960 when four enterprising young lads from Liverpool came together to change the course of rock and roll history…


Oops, wrong British group.  Let’s try again.  That all changed in October 1982 when British Royal Air Force commander John Foden and four of his buddies attempted to recreate the fabled 153-mile Athens to Sparta run.  Three of them, including Foden (in 36 hours), succeeded, and in 1983, the first official Spartathlon race was born.

3.  The Spartathlon.

Since that first running in 1983, the Spartathlon has steadily grown, in terms of participants and in prestige, and today, is widely viewed as the most competitive road ultramarathon in the world.  Each year, 350 athletes toe the line in Athens and attempt to retrace Pheidippides’ footsteps.

With an all-inclusive race fee of $550, the Spartathlon is one of the great bargains in ultrarunning.  That fee covers the registration fee, SEVENTY-FIVE aid stations along the course (so it is entirely possible to run the race uncrewed), transportation to and from the start/finish, . . . and, a FULL WEEK of room and board accommodations!  That deal is obviously very unique in the world of ultrarunning; on the other end of the spectrum, some races cost many hundreds of dollars more for just the race fee alone (with nothing else)…

MANY race directors of ultramarathons around the world employ marketing descriptions such as “world’s toughest footrace,” “ultimate test,” etc.  The people that run the Spartathlon just let the race speak for itself.  It is not the hottest race on the planet.  It is not the hilliest.  And since over 95% of it is on the road, the terrain is certainly not the most “technical.”  Rather, when all the elements are combined, the challenge is nothing less than formidable.  Temps can reach 90 with high humidity, there are rolling hills (and one mountain) to overcome, and, perhaps most challenging, runners must complete the 153 miles in just 36 hours.  And one look at the list of VERY accomplished runners who have DNF’d at Spartathlon over the past few years — including Mike Morton — only confirms that this is a VERY hard race.  The following graph of finishers over the history of the race illustrates the difficulty of the course; many more people finish closer to the 36-hour cutoff than to the race winner (which is usually around 24 hours):

Sparty stats

(Note that only 15% of all Spartathlon finishers have run the race in under 30 hours…)

Sparty course

(The Spartathlon course)

Sparty elevation chart

(The elevation profile:  rolling hills for the first 100k or so, then a few significant climbs, culminating with the mountain at mile 100-ish.  The final 50k into Sparta is downhill…)

Sparty early miles

(The early miles in the race between Athens and Ancient Corinth (Mile 50)).


(Scott Jurek passing Ancient Corinth, sometime in the mid-2000s…)

Sparty mountain

(A runner approaching the mountain section of the course)

Sparty finish

(The finish line in Sparta.  The race is over when the runner touches the feet of the statute of King Leonadis.  Hope he doesn’t mind that I’m a Michigan fan; Go Blue!) 🙂

3.  Team USA Amongst A Ridiculously-Stacked Field.

While the overall quality of the field this year is the highest it has EVER been, the US contingent is also at its strongest ever.  At the top, we are sending two athletes — Jon Olsen and Katy Nagy — who both have legitimate chances to win their races.  Jon, as described above, is currently the top 24-hour runner in the United States, and will undoubtedly look to finish the Spartathlon in around that time.  And Katy lives right here in Florida, where she has already had an amazing year (sub-16 at Keys 100, set the 200k national record in April, won the Everglades 50 outright in Feb, etc.).

Some other noteworthy US runners include Bryce Carlson, who was the second male at this year’s Keys 100, Rob Youngren, who finished in the top-10 at Badwater this year (and even somehow managed to beat Aly Venti), and Andrei Nana, who has finished over 20 races of 100 miles or longer, including Spartathlon last year.

As for me, I’m just looking to run a strong race.  I surprised a few people out at the Milano-Sanremo 175-miler in Italy back in March, so perhaps I’ll be able to do the same in Greece 🙂

One other noteworthy United States runner is none other than the self-dubbed “ultramarathon man,” Dean Karnazes, a runner of Greek heritage who is participating in the Spartathlon for the first time.  In true “Dean” fashion, however, he is adding a twist to his run . . . he is going to attempt the race on the “Pheidippides diet,” meaning that he will only eat the food available to Pheidippides during his historic run (olives, figs, and perhaps cured Minotaur meat) :).  He claims to be doing this because he is “writing a book on” Pheidippides…

Shameless self-marketing/publicity stunt, or a neat way to draw more attention to the race from casual observers and maybe entice them to a healthier lifestyle?  That’s the line Dean has made a career out of living on, and one that I have no interest in debating.  So to the “Dean Show,” I say, Godspeed!  (And I especially wish him good luck in taking a fable of a Greek runner and extrapolating it into an entire book; now THAT will be an accomplishment!)

Seriously, I think Dean is a good guy who catches a lot of flak, and a lot of it is caused by his own doing.  He and I talked a bit during the race at Badwater last year, and he was nothing but positive and encouraging to me, both when he passed me at Mile 5 (everyone is nice when they are the ones doing the passing), and when I passed him at Mile 95 (most people are not in a really good mood when getting passed late in a race, but Dean was just as positive as he was at Mile 5…)

4.  Team Zwitty.

As always, my “ace in the hole” at this race will be the fact I’m representing Team Zwitty out in Greece:


Zoey Witt

Even though the little munchkins won’t be making the trip to Greece, I’ll be thinking about them for 153 miles 🙂

Zwitty Logo-Web

So good luck to everyone running the race this year; I can’t wait to see you all in Athens next week!  And for those of you who back here in the states, the Spartathlon website has an excellent race tracking system to follow along during the race next Friday.  Just go to to follow!

Finally, if anyone who is dreaming about running Spartathlon — or any other ultra — and would like someone in their corner throughout the journey, check out the Zwitty Endurance Traning Program at .  We are adding an “Endorsements/Testimonials” page in the next day or so!

Why I Love Ultras: The 2014 Pinellas Trail Challenge

1.  Introduction/Course Description:

As a warm-up (and I mean that quite literally) for the 153-mile Spartathlon I’m running in a few weeks in Greece, I decided to head to the Tampa Bay area this past weekend to take part in the second running of the Pinellas Trail Challenge, a 46-mile paved “trail” through the cities and towns that make up Pinellas County.  (For those who do not know, Pinellas County is west of Tampa, and includes the Gulfside towns of St. Petersberg, PInellas Park, Largo, Clearwater, Dunedin, Palm Harbor, and Tarpon Springs, among others). The Pinellas Trail is a 45-mile multi-use path (used mostly by cyclists and runners on the weekends) that starts in downtown St. Pete, right on Tampa Bay, and makes its way toward the Gulf before heading north through various towns, parks, golf courses, and downtown areas before turning east in Tarpon Springs, and finally south for a few miles until it finishes at the entrance to John Chestnut State Park.  (The race is 46.2 miles; the final 1.2 miles are run in the park).   PTC course The PTC ultra was conceived by Michael Stork, a local runner who decided to host a FREE event spanning the entire length of the Pinellas Trail.  So on August 30th, along with about 75 other runners, I found myself standing at the start of the trail at 6:30 am.  It was already over 80 degrees outside…

2.  Getting Started (Miles 1-15):

Of the 46 miles of the race, the first 10 or so are the most uneventful, as they are generally run through St. Pete’s downtown/industrial neighborhoods before the course starts to open up into parks, golf courses, and seaside towns.  In fact, at Mile 1, you pass the travesty of a ballpark named Tropicana Field, the home of the Tampa Bay Rays.  (Of the 30 major league ballparks, the “Trop” is EASILY the worst; it’s not really even close.)  Call me a stuck-up purist, but as a lifelong baseball player (well, at least until I graduated college), I just don’t think that baseball should be played (a) indoors or (b) on artificial turf.  An outfielder shouldn’t lose the ball in the white dome above his head or because it hits one of the catwalks on the roof, lands in front of him, and bounces over his head. Trop (Probably not what Abner Doubleday envisioned back in the day…)

Okay, rant over; back to the race.  My race plan was simply to run 8:00/mile for the first 3-4 hours, and then coast into the finish line in around 7 hours.  (Spoiler alert:  that didn’t happen).  I did run the first 15 miles in 2 hours (so, 8-min/mi pace), but when I came up to my awesome crew team (Alex and the “named partners” of Team Zwitty (Zoey and Witt), I was (a) a bit bored from running alone for 2 hours, (b) starting to get tired, but (c) most of all, it wast just getting really, really hot… Early miles (Yeah, it’s getting hot…)

3.  Getting Real (Miles 15-35):

Over the past four years, I’ve run my fair share of “heat” races.  I’ve run the Keys 100 four times, Badwater on one of the hottest years ever (the mercury hit 125 during last year’s race), and a few others, but — I’m being totally serious here — the PTC is right up there with any of those races.  The ACTUAL temperature during the race hit about 96 degrees.  With the stifling Florida summer humidity, I don’t even want to know what the heat index was on the course on Saturday.  Suffice to say, it was “hot” with a capital F. Luckily, by about Mile 15, I started running with another runner, a Lakeland guy named Lucas Smelser. Luke is training for his first 100-miler (Javelina Jundred, a desert race in the Phoenix area in a few months), and has run a few ultras to date.  He was being supported by his wife Lisa, who was riding her bike along with us on the trail.  Luke and I had pretty similar running backgrounds before getting into ultras (lots of marathons, and some sub-3s mixed in there), so we were running pretty much the same pace for the next 20 miles. PTC running with Luke

As much as they could, these 20 miles flew by.  Luke is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met in this sport (and that’s saying something).  The guy had a huge smile on his face the entire race and enthusiastically said “hi” to everyone — and I mean EVERYONE — we saw on the trail.  Between his constant enthusiasm and the fact his watch literally beeped every 5 seconds for some pre-programmed reason (“okay, that means 45 seconds until the next scheduled walk break”), Luke was worried that he was being annoying.  I told him that his happy/joyous demeanor is EXACTLY how people should run ultras.  I have seen so many people “run angry” — always looking really serious, being short/rude with their own crew or volunteers, etc. — and it never works for them.  In my opinion, running (especially running ultras) should be an expression of joy/love/affection/etc., not a form of self-torture.  Those who can get in that mindset tend to do the best in these things.  And Luke was certainly no exception to that general rule… Luke smiling (Luke’s perma-smile, even while running so fast that the background is blurry!)

At about the marathon mark, Luke and I were comfortably moving along through the course when out of nowhere, a woman blew right by us.  “I think she’s in the race,” Luke’s wife stated.  “No way” was my response.  She looked like she was running a 10k, not (essentially) a 50-miler. Well, we would come to find out that Lisa was right.  The runner, Kacie Herrick, was not only in the race, but actually running her first race over 50k. Kacie

(Kacie flying right by us and saying, “Peace, bitches!  I’ll see your slow asses at the finish line.”)

(Okay, there is a small chance that didn’t happen).

Later in the race, when I caught up to her, I learned that she was an accomplished marathon runner (about a 3hr runner who has run Boston multiple times), who was running the PTC uncrewed (which is completely ridiculous; even with Alex meeting me every two miles to give me new ice bandanas, refill my water bottles, and let me dump ice water all over myself, I was still completely overheated).  By contrast, this girl looked like she was just out for a casual morning run! As an aside, it should have come as no surprise to me that another Florida female ultrarunner was blowing by me in a race.  Top-level female runners seem to grow on trees here in Florida.  Of the top 5  ultrarunners currently living in Florida right now, AT LEAST 3 of them are female…

4.  Why I Love Ultrarunning (Miles 36-46):

By the Mile 36 aid station (which was conveniently — at least for the volunteers — located at a popular tavern in Tarpon Springs), I was feeling utterly overheated while Luke looked fresh as a daisy.  I told him to go ahead and I would “catch up” (which is code for “there is no f–king way I can keep up your pace; see you at the finish line…”).  It actually took some SERIOUS convincing on my part before he agreed to press forward and win the race, which speaks to his character.  You really don’t see that kind of “we’re in this together” attitude from the race leaders of any other type of sport.   (Can you imagine that happening in a triathlon??)  🙂  Seriously, though, examples of that type of attitude pervade this sport; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard of the race leader in a major trail race take a wrong turn, and then the chase pack waits until that person gets back on track, instead of taking advantage of the mistake.  Sure, people are competitive in the sport, want to win, and competition is fun and healthy, but it just is NOT the same level of cut-throatedness (I just made that word up) that you get in other sports.  As we are not pro athletes, and there is no prize money at the end, that type of “it’s about the collective more than the individual” attitude is really awesome to me. So, anyway, with Smilin’ Luke running away with the win (he would finish in around 7:20, which is an astounding time considering the weather), I down-shifted for a few miles and ran with Kacie (who had started to slow down as well) for a few miles.  Even though it was hot as [insert whatever absurd metaphor you want here], and she had run 10 miles more than she ever did in her life, she maintained a positive attitude throughout and finished strongly for the female win in just under 8 hours.  If she keeps this up, Aly Venti and Katalin Nagy will soon have some serious competition… 🙂 I finished between Luke and Kacie, in 7:47, and overall, it was a great experience.

5.  Upcoming Florida Races and the Zwitty Endurance Training Program.

Labor Day is a great day on the calendar in Florida ultrarunning because it signals the unofficial end of summer and promises that the start of the true Florida ultrarunning season is just around the corner.  While the PTC was an AWESOME race, it is occasionally fun to run on other surfaces besides the sun.  In the next few months, there are some great 50 and 100-mile races coming up.  Some of the more notable ones include the Wild Sebastian 50/100 (November), the Ancient Oaks 100 (December), the Long Haul 100 (January), and also a few brand new 12 or 24 hour “timed” races (Azalea and Icarus Ultrafest, both in November). For those looking to focus their passion for ultrarunning a little bit more and arrive at the start lines of these races as prepared as absolutely possible, I’m pleased to announce my new coaching program, the Zwitty Endurance Program.  It’s a full-service coaching program, where you get unlimited access to me, weekly training schedules, and at a fraction of what comparable programs cost.  If interested, please check out for more information.  And please “like” us on Facebook. Zwitty Logo-Web As I say on the website, I’m not looking to get rich off of anyone.  What I AM looking to do is to share some of my knowledge (from training and more importantly, from experience) with some people — primarily in Florida — to help them achieve their lofty goals.  I genuinely want EVERYONE to succeed at these races, and I know I can help.  Our motto is “Focus Your Passion,” and that is exactly what I will help you do.  🙂 The Florida ultra season is just around the corner; can’t wait to see you guys at all the races!

6.  One Final Note —  Shout Out to Lauren Hadley:

To conclude this report, I’d like to congratulate Zwitty Endurance Program athlete Lauren Hadley — who is training for the Ancient Oaks 100 in December — on a remarkable performance this past weekend at PTC.  Before Saturday, her fastest time in a 50-miler was over almost 17 hours (16:40).  At PTC, despite the heat/humidity issues, she SLICED OVER SIX HOURS off of that time and finished in 10:25!!  (And yes, I realize that PTC was 3.8 miles short of 50, but the added heat/humidity more than makes up for the difference). LH at PTC (Aly Venti may need to start looking in her rear view mirror pretty soon…) 🙂

All right, now I’m really done.  See y’all “out there”!          

How to Survive — and Thrive — in the Keys: My Keys 100 Playbook


It’s only 10 days away now…

On May 17, 2014, the “Super Bowl of Florida ultrarunning” — the Keys 100 — will once again take place.  For Alex and me, this will be our fourth year in a row running the race.  The Keys are a very special place for us.  We’ve visited dozens of times (our first time setting foot on Key West was Mile 96 of the Keys 100 in 2011).  We try to get down to the Keys at least once every month or two.  We even got married there.

To celebrate this year’s race, I decided to emulate the great Barney Stinson and open up my “Playbook” to running the Keys 100, earning that buckle, and maybe even challenging for that coveted conch shell:


So, in no particular order, here are some tips we’ve accumulated over the years we’ve raced the Keys 100, in terms of preparation, gear, racing strategies, the “mental game,” and other points that have worked for us in this race.  Obviously, though, the most important factor to succeeding in this race is something you (hopefully) have already done:  trained intelligently and consistently over the past several months.  No tips or tricks can save you out there if you do not have the proper training base.  It’s hard to “fake your way” through any 100-mile race, and — I guarantee you — it is a losing strategy at the Keys.

So if you have slacked on your training, stop reading, put on your running shoes, and get outside!  Okay, for those of you who are still with me, I’m assuming you are (1) trained properly/fit enough to run, and (2) believe that there are things within your power that you can still do to positively affect your performance during the race.

(Note:  to the people who believe that genetics or an innate ability to run fast are the only explanations for those who have success at ultras,  please read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell; along with other factors — such as the environments/communities we live in, our support systems, and our opportunities — hard work matters.  Plain and simple.)

Alex and I learn new things in this race every year, and — with proper conditioning, obviously — these little tips tend to add up and have produced good results for us.  We have steadily improved our finishing times/placing each of the last three years:  2011 (21:42, 7th place overall; 2012 (18:38, 6th place overall); 2013 (17:30, 2nd place overall).   So we hope maybe some of these pointers can come in handy for you as well:

1.  Dealing with (and accepting) those two “H” words:

Heat and humidity.  Both will be present in spades down in the Keys.  It’s a given; just plan on it.  At the start of the race, the humidity will be at its highest (as the sun hasn’t risen and had a chance to burn some of the humidity off).  Then the sun establishes its position, and the heat index rises to around 100 degrees.

FC temp sign

(Take solace in the fact it won’t be THIS hot in the Keys).

It will be hot and humid all day AND all night.  The high/low temps in the Keys for any given day only vary by about 5 degrees.  It will be hot for the entire race.  Accept it.  On my team, we don’t even really discuss it.  What’s the point?  It’s hot and will be a suffer-fest throughout.  Just remember — no one is putting a gun to your head and making you run . . . you PAID to do this 🙂

2.  What to Wear:

First, please, PLEASE cover up and wear light-colored clothing once the sun comes up.  This seems obvious, right?  But I cannot tell you how many people I see every year — including some really fast people — who wear black singlets or hats during the Keys 100.  If it’s not white or darn-near white, all you are doing is drawing extra heat to yourself.

For me, I start the race with a singlet for the first few hours, and then by about 9 or 10, I will switch into a thin white long-sleeve compression shirt, and wear it until the sun goes down.  The compression shirt serves two purposes:  (1) it keeps the sun from getting direct access to your skin, and — more importantly — (2) it assists in the process of removing sweat from your skin, and allowing it to evaporate so that the process of sweating can do what it is designed to do (cool you down).


Without a compression shirt, I’ve found that sweat just tends to sit there on your skin (that constant soaked/swampy feeling), which is not a good thing.  (Incidentally, for a hot and DRY race, such as Badwater, compression shirts don’t work nearly as well because there is no humidity to draw away from your skin; you actually want to CREATE humidity, so most people wear loose-fitting long sleeve shirts out there.)

Speaking of compression, compression shorts are also a must for me.  Anti-chafing products such as BodyGlide and the like are good up to a point, but with the amount of sweating you will be doing — literally all day and night — you will very likely chafe badly if you don’t wear compression shorts.  I’ve made this mistake before.  Alex and I were living in Phoenix when I ran my first Keys (2011), and it simply did not even occur to me to wear compression shorts, as I NEVER chafed out in the desert.  The first 60 miles went fine, and then — within about a five-mile span — I went from running comfortably to not even being able to walk properly, the chafing was so bad.  Wear compression shorts; you can thank me later.


(“You didn’t let me buy compression shorts for the Keys 100?  Big mistake.  Huge.”)

3.  Foot Care:

One of the big issues most people have during the Keys 100 is keeping their feet in good enough condition to finish the race.  For those of you who do not live in train in a hot and humid environment, as well as those of you who are running your first 100-mile race, you WILL have foot/blister problems during the Keys; it’s inevitable.  That being said, a few tips that seem to minimize the impact of the heat/humidity that work for me are:  (a) DryMax max protection socks (the ones with the orange bottoms); and (b) switch shoes/socks a few times during the race.

Personally, I no longer switch any shoes or socks during ANY race.  I just ran 175 miles in Italy without touching my shoes, and did the same at Badwater last July.  The more your feet get used to running in a certain environment and the more miles they are used to, the less you will encounter blister problems.

But for people who are starting out in the sport, as well as those who aren’t used to the conditions down here, just come in with the mindset that you will have blister issues during the race but those issues rarely, if ever, should force you to quit.  Everyone has his or her own blister treatment strategy, but the “bible” on this subject is Fixing Your Feet, by longtime Badwater medical volunteers John Vonhoff and Denise Jones (wife of race legend “Badwater” Ben Jones).  It’s worth picking up (and it’s available on iBooks, I’m pretty sure).

Note:   Throughout this post, I recommend certain brands of clothes or products.  None of these companies sponsor me; I have no financial interest in their products; nor do I want any such interest.  They are just the products that have worked for me.  The only “sponsors” I will ever have are the members of Team Zwitty, which are my wife and our kids.  (Zwitty, which is a combination of “Zoey” and “Witt,” is just our simple way to represent what is most important to us.):


(Alex representing Team Zwitty at the Vatican) 🙂


(Zoey, one of the two “named partners” of Team Zwitty) 🙂

4.  Fluids:

This may be the most important section in the Playbook.  In order to successfully navigate the 100 miles between Key Largo and Higgs Beach on Key West, you need to be dialed in to your fluid replacement needs.  You are going to sweat a lot on this course, so you will need to drink more than in a normal ultra.  The question, of course, is how much more?  If you don’t drink enough, you’ll become dehydrated, lose weight, and be in serious trouble.  If you drink too much, you’ll dilute your sodium levels, become hyponatremic, and be in serious trouble.

A simple solution:  bring a scale with you and have your crew weigh you every hour or two.  Your goal is to stay as close to your starting line weight as possible.  Weight loss of 2% or less is acceptable; anything more than that, and performance will start to seriously suffer.  Once you get beyond 4% body weight loss, you will be stopped or barely moving.  So just drink enough to maintain your weight.  Don’t gain weight (which should be pretty hard to do on the Keys course).

For me, I need about 70-80 ounces of fluid an hour.  That’s a lot.  But figure out your own sweat rate and go from there.

5.  Salt Replacement:

Directly related to fluid intake and sweat rate is the need to replace all the sodium you are losing during the race.  There are a lot of products on the market these days.  For me, SCaps work the best.  I take 2 every hour, and combined with the occasional Gatorade, they keep my sodium and electrolyte levels where they need to be.

6.  Calories:

200-300 calories per hour is all the body can digest.  Anything more than that will just sit in your stomach and force blood away from your extemities (where it is assisting in cooling you down) to your stomach to help with the digestive process (this is not a good thing).  So don’t eat too much.

On the same lines, easily digestible calories (Gu, Infinit, Tailwind, etc.) is vastly preferable to solid food, if you plan on primarily running the entire race.  Again, you don’t want your body to be preoccupied with digesting food instead of keeping you cool.  It will slow you down.

If you will incorporate extended walk breaks in your race plan (an hour or longer), you can get away with solid foods (but nothing too ridiculous; eating a burger or pizza is just silly, no matter what Dean K. may say about it (and I guarantee you he hasn’t eaten pizza or a burger in years…).  Scientists and statisticians often use the phrase “garbage in, garbage out” to criticize results of studies that use improper sample sizes, subjects, etc.  The phrase applies to running as well; if you put crap in your body, you can expect your body to perform accordingly.

7.  Cooling mechanisms:

Short of devising one of the illegal and asenine contraptions you used to see people use at Badwater — such as Pam Reed’s rigged baby jogging stroller with an industrial-sized fan strapped to it, which she made her pacer push behind her one year so she would have a constant breeze — there’s not really too much you can do to mitigate the heat on the course.  One thing that has worked for me the past few years are ice bandanas.  Just put some ice cubes in a basic cloth bandana, wrap it around your neck, and rotate them frequently during the race.  Occasional use of bath towels soaked in ice water also helps me stay as cool as possible during the race.  By contrast, the industrial garden water/mist sprayers you see people use at Badwater don’t work in the Keys, as the air is already saturated with water.


(Water sprayers:  invaluable in Death Valley and useless in the Keys)

8.  Last-Minute Heat Acclimation:

With only 10 days until the race, hopefully you have done plenty of training where you subject your body to abnormally-hot and/or stressful conditions, whether that means running outside, sitting in a sauna, or watching Fox News for an extended period of time.

But even if you haven’t really done much heat training yet, there is still time.  In 2005, the greatest American ultrarunner ever, Dean Kar…, er, oops, Scott Jurek, showed up at Badwater with virtually no heat training except a few late sessions in the “sow-nah,” as he calls it.  He only went on to break the course record.  (BTW, if you haven’t seen the movie Distance of Truth, which is about that 2005 Badwater race between Scott and Canadian legend (and absurdly-nice guy) Ferg Hawke, it’s worth checking out).


(Badwater legend Ferg Hawke at last year’s Badwater 135).

Anyway, if Scott thought a few late sauna sessions worked for him, that’s probably a good enough reason to give it a try yourself.

9.  Pacing:  Don’t be a Peacock:

Okay, we are going to switch gears a bit and get into the most important aspect for Keys 100 success:  the mental game.  The first point is that we all need to do honest assessments of our own abilties and current levels of fitness.  With the excitement and atmosphere of the start line, far too many people run way too fast for the first 20 or so miles of the race.  Every year, young speedsters show up from northern states, proud new owners of a sub-7 hour 50-miler, and they figure that they will just smoke this flat little road race down here.  They then proceed to run 7-min miles for about 10 miles, 8-minute miles for the next 5 miles, and then they are pulling out of the race by mile 20, barely able to walk.

This phenomenon is not limied to non-Floridians; even more-seasoned runners who are acclimated to the heat in the Keys (which is substantially hotter than even in Miami) tend to go out too fast.  Here’s a good rule of thumb:  if you find yourself at Mile 20 running stride for stride with a short Australian dude wearing a sweat-stained red Salomon hat, as well as two very fast ladies — and your name is not Chris Roman — do the following:  Take a deep breath, sit down on the curb for about 10 minutes, and then continue the race at your own pace; you are currently running much too fast.  The Aussie, Grant Maughan, has either won or gotten on the podium of roughly 58 races in the past year, including Badwater, Brazil 135, Keys (last year), as well as several others.  The two women are Aly Venti, who runs over 200 miles a week in Miami and owns both the 100-mile and 50-mile Keys course records; and Katalin Nagy, who has won some major international races, run over 130 miles in 24 hours, and won this year’s Everglades Ultras 50, in about 7 hours.  In other words, let them go and run your own race.


(Don’t be a peacock).

Perhaps you subscribe to the theory of running extra fast at the beginning to “bank some miles” before the sun rises.  This is not a good idea.  As discussed above, the first few hours are the most humid hours of the entire race.  If you are working hard in the first 20 or so miles, you will pay a major price later on in the race.  For me, at least, the key to performing well in the Keys is to be able to run as much of the course as possible.  I will gladly give up 10 minutes over the course of the first 25 miles so that I can still be able to run 9-minute miles at Mile 90.  Races are not won in the early stages, but they can sure as hell be lost there if you are not smart about your pacing.  Run your own pace, and don’t worry what others around you are doing.  No one can see your bright feathers leading the race at the beginning anyway — it’s still dark outside 🙂

10.  Crew Considerations:

This should go without saying, but in order to have the best chance to succeed, you need a good crew to help you.  I could not imagine runnign this race — or any race — without Alex helping me.  And this year, should I lose focus, Eric “Drakkar Noir” Spencer and his girlfriend, Megan will be also there with us to kick me back into the right frame of mind.

I think it’s important to have a crew that not only knows you, but also recognizes how hard the race is, and will not easily let you quit just because you look/feel like death at any particular point of the race.  Case in point:  in 2011, my Italian buddy Michele Graglia was an ultrarunning neophyte who was attempting his first 100-miler.  His parents were crewing him.  Back then, Michele was not the (literally) world-class runner he is today; he just didn’t know that much about ultras yet.  His parents knew nothing about ultras; this was not a good combination:  Michele led the race for the first 80 or so miles, before he fell apart, mainly due to his lack of experience.  By Mile 93, he had withdrawn from the race; his parents feared for his life and plead for him to stop.

Don’t get me wrong:  I’ve met and gotten to know Michele’s parents, and I’ve had dinner at their house in Italy.  They are wonderful people and are now excellent crew members for Michele in his races (his dad was his lead crew member for his latest run, a win at the inaugural 175-mile Ultra Milano-Sanremo in Italy).  Back at Keys 2011, however, I’d venture to say that a more experienced crew could have helped Michele reach the finish line.

I think with crews, a “sliding scale of experience” theory is useful.  The less experienced the runner, the more experienced the crew needs to be, and vice versa.

As an aside — and especially in the later stages of the race — don’t think about the Keys 100 as a 100-mile race.  It’s a 96-mile race.  Once you hit Mile 96, you have just crossed the final bridge and you are actually on Key West.  You’ve made it; now you just need to do your 4-mile victory trot along the beach to the finish line.

11.  “Satori”:

In his book Eat and Run, Scott Jurek describes the feeling that all athletes search out:  being “in the zone,” feeling like you are “effortlessly” flying down the course.  (The Japanese call this “satori”).

He describes what he thinks is the proper mindset to have during an ultra, especially a really hot one like Keys or Spartathlon (which he is racing during the following passage):

“People always ask me what I think about when running so far for so many hours.  Random thinking is the enemy of the ultramarathoner.  Thinking is best used for the primitive essentials:  when I ate last, the distance to the next aid station, the location of the competition, my pace.  Other than those considerations, the key is to become so immersed in the present moment that nothing else matters.”

I think that passage perfectly sums up the ideal mindset during the Keys 100 (or any hard ultra, really).  When the only factors that matter to you are those immediate, present considerations (when do I eat next, am I hitting my time splits for this section, etc.), the outside world calms down, there are no distractions, the race is no longer overwhelming, and you can focus — and perform — to the best of your abilities.  Thoughts such as “I’m at Mile 15 and I’m already beat; how the hell am I going to run another 85 miles?” are not thoughts that are conducive to success.  Instead, think “I’m at Mile 15, I don’t feel good.  What exactly do I need to do to turn things around in the next mile?”

The best advice I’ve ever gotten regarding this sport came in December 2010 from British ultrarunner Jez Bragg, the day before my first ultra, the North Face 50 in the Marin Headlands (near San Francisco).  He said “no matter how bad things get, you can ALWAYS push through to the other side and feel good again.”  Amen.

Mike Tyson once famously quipped, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”  The Keys 100 will punch you in the face, and do so repeatedly throughout the race.  You will not run your perfectly-planned race at the Keys; I can pretty much guarantee it.  This race is not about who has the best plan, but who can continually get up from the mat after getting knocked down, maintain a positive attitiude, and simply focus on the immediate goals at hand.

So best of luck to everyone, both in these last 10 days of training/preparation, as well as for the race itself.  If anyone has any specific questions they would like to ask, just shoot me a message and I’ll be happy to help in any way possible.  Hope to see all of you at the finish line — Zoey and Witt will be there to greet you 🙂


Vai, Vai! Forza!!: 2014 UltraMilano-SanRemo 175-Mile Race Report

1.  Race Recap:   The Short, Short Version.

For so many reasons, Italy was the best trip of our lives.  Twelve days without the kids, getting to experience a truly incredible race (and do so with many friends), and then spending a week bumming around Italy on our own.  Just an amazing trip.

Needless to mention, I have a lot to share about our experiences out in Italy.  So, fair warning:  this post will be long.  Very long.  Ludicrous speed long.  “They’ve gone to plaid” long.   (If you have never seen the movie Spaceballs, those last two sentences will make no sense).

Thus, for those of you wanting to simply know about the race, here it goes:  (a) it was the most amazingly beautiful course I’ve ever run; (b) 175 miles is really challenging; (c) it was my best running performance to date (33:22 for 175 miles, 3rd overall, with a 100-mile split of 16:33); and (d) we would absolutely go back in a hearbeat.

Okay, for those who would like a bit more detail, here it goes.

2.  Genesis.

This was the inaugural running of the UltraMilano-SanRemo ultramarathon, but certainly not the first time anyone has ever traveled the length of the course.  For decades, the Milano-SanRemo has been one of the world’s most famous cycling races (this year, it occurred one week before our race). 

Last year, my good friend, Michele “Zoolander” Graglia, who grew up within a few miles of the finish line in SanRemo (in a small town named Taggia), decided he would attempt to become the first person to ever travel the entire Milano-SanRemo course on foot.  Living in LA, he trained like a madman for months, running up to 150 miles a week, to prepare for the grueling race.  A week before the race, he flew to Italy and . . . two days later was bedridden with bronchitis.  He was disappointingly forced to cancel the attempt.

Fast forward to the fall of 2013.  Still teeming from being robbed the chance to run the Milano-SanRemo course, Michele decided that he would try again in 2014, but this time, it would be an official race and 50 athletes would be accepted to join him in the inaugural run. 

The UltraMilano-SanRemo (UMS) was born.  Some of the very best road ultrarunners in the world signed up, including the male and female winners of the 2013 Spartathlon, the most prestigious road ultra in Europe, a 153-mile trek in Greece from Athens to Sparta that retraces the footsteps of the legendary messenger Phedippides.  Additionally, several registered runners were members of their countries’ national 24-hour teams.  To put it mildly, the field was stacked with international talent.


(The UMS course).

The course cutoffs for UMS were stout:  runners only had 42 hours to run the 175-mile course (with intermediate cutoffs along the way).  The UMS officials also set an even higher bar:  those who finished within (the pretty much inconceivable time of) 32 hours would receive special recognition. 

I was one of the “invited” athletes to the race.  The UMS officials extended offers to a handful of athletes, whereby the race fee would be waived, and we would be set up with luxury accommodations from the Wednesday before the race until the Tuesday after the race.  It was humbling being part of that group (including, among others, the Spartathlon winners from last year, Joao Oliveira and Szilvia Lubics).  To be completely honest, I knew I was not in their league; I just figured that Michele included me in on the deal as a “thank you” for me having him on my crew at Badwater last year.  But that did not stop me from accepting the offer.

When March finally rolled around, Alex and I were beyond excited to get on the plane to Milan and start our journey.  Our parents generously agreed to watch Zoey and Witt, so we would have our first “alone” vacation since they were born.  And since we never had a honeymoon, we decided to extend our trip for a week after the race. 

3.  Pre-Race.

After a red-eye flight, Alex and I landed in Milan on Wednesday morning (March 26).  The race was not until Saturday morning, and the bed and breakfast that the race officials booked for us was in Imperia, a seaside town on the Italian Riviera about 15 miles from the finish line.  So after meeting our good South Florida friends Andrei and Claire (who would both be running the race as well on Saturday . . . AND getting married in Milan on Friday!), we drove down to our place in Imperia.


(Arriving in Milan).


(First meal in Italy, with Andrei and Claire.  They are not pictured, as this is MY race report, not theirs 🙂  Just kidding) 

When we arrived in Imperia mid-afternoon, we were floored by how nice our place was.  It was on a steep, winding hill overlooking Imperia, with a clear view of the town as well as the Mediterranean:


(View from our place in Imperia.  Doesn’t suck.)

Here are a few more pics of the place:





After relaxing for a few hours, and a very nice visit and homemade dinner at Michele’s house in Taggia with Michele and his parents, we turned in for the night. 

Thursday was an off-day that Alex and I used to adjust ourselves to the time difference, and on Friday morning, we drove up to Milan to get settled for the race, to participate in a marketing photo-shoot, and — most importantly — to attend Andrei and Claire’s wedding (which was taking place at the Royal Palace of Milan, right next to the famed Duomo, and was being performed by the mayor of Milan himself). 

The photo shoot was obviously hilarious.  While Zoolander was in his element, I was a fish in Death Valley.IMG_9504

(Trying very hard not to laugh during the “serious” pose.  “Show us Blue Steel…”)


(Well on my way toward opening the Dave Krupski School For Kids Who Don’t Read Good and Want to Learn to do Other Things Good Too.)

After the photo shoot, it was time for the wedding.  This was an AMAZING experience.  Milan has a huge piazza (town square) literally right in the center of the city.  Flooded with tourists, who come to see the Duomo (the massive church at the center), the Royal Palace, and other really cool buildings.  Because Andrei and Claire were getting married right there, and because the mayor was performing the ceremony, we were allowed to drive right up to the palace and park next to it.  We had the only two cars allowed in the entire town square.  It was absolutely surreal. 


(Right before the ceremony, with Andrei and Claire, our other Florida friends Bruce and Brandi (Bruce was also running the race), and Michele). 


(Andrei and I in front of the Duomo, minutes before his wedding).


(The moment of truth…)


(With the mayor of Milan just after the ceremony.  I still can’t get over the fact that Michele and the UMS officials arranged for the mayor of Milan to perform the ceremony.  With about four million people in its metropolitan area, Milan is the clear financial/business/social modern center of Italy.  Having the mayor marry you is the equivalent of the mayor of New York or Chicago perform your wedding.  Just a really cool honor.)

After the wedding, we got back to our hotel, and tried to get to sleep as quickly as possible.  The 5:00 am race start was quickly approaching.

4.  Firing it Up:  The UMS Start and First 50k (31 miles).

We woke up to a perfect weather race day.  There would not be a cloud in the sky all weekend, and temperatures would reach the upper 60’s during the day, and the mid 40’s at night.  No wind.  Absolutely perfect.

There was definitely a buzz at the start line, with several media outlets, all sorts of police/ambulance/offical vehicles, and a lot of eager runners and crews.  A small cafe right next to the start line opened early for us, and people finished their last minute preparations, gave interviews, etc.


 (About 10 minutes before the race, with Andrei and Bruce).


(Getting interviewed by an Italian media outlet minutes before the start.  He spoke no English and I don’t speak a lick of Italian.  So, naturally, we ended up debating the finer points of world politics, and came to realy respect each other’s perspectives.  Either that, or it was a simple word association game.  He would just say some word (“Badwater,” for example), and wait for me to react.  “Um, hot?”  Next was “Michele Graglia.”  “Nice guy.  We call him ‘Zoolander’ in the US.”)


(Trying to get my game face on.)

The gun fired at 5am (I just made that up; I don’t remember if there was a gun or not), and we were off.  The first 15 miles of the race were run on a bike path to the first town we would run through (Pavia).  Two cyclists would follow the lead pack until we reached Pavia. 

My plan for the race was to run roughly 8:00/mile for the first 50 miles, then to average roughly 10:00-11:00/mile for the next 50, to reach 100 miles around 16 hours.  So for the opening miles, I started running my 8’s, and settled in a nice rhythm.  For a mile or two, Bruce ran with me.  After that, I was alone, and in the lead. 

When you are alone and in the lead of the longest race (by far) you have ever attempted in your life, and some of the world’s best runners are behind you, you (or at least I) was tempted to rethink my strategy.  But I felt good, like I wasn’t pushing at all, and that my plan was solid, so I kept at it.  By mile 7 or so, I was so far ahead of the field, I couldn’t see anyone behind me. 


(Explaining to Alex:  “I’m just running 8’s, honestly.  I don’t know why no one else is near me.”).

By mile 10, an Austrian runner blew by me (literally; he was running about 6:00/mi when he passed me), and I ran in second place for the next 15 or so miles.  (Thank God; I had no desire to be in the lead that early). 


(Running into Pavia:  around mile 15 or so.  Feeling great.)

By Checkpoint 1, in Montebello della Battaglia (a little past the 50k (31 mile) mark, I was in seventh place.  Several of the pre-race favorites, including Joao and Michele, had passed me.  The thing that calmed me at this point, though, was that my pace had remained constant from the beginning.  I was still right on pace with 8:00/mile (I hit the 50k mark at 4:11).  So even though others were passing me, they were not running evenly, and I was sure I would see them again up the road.

4.  Getting Our Zoolander On (Miles 32-50).

Shortly after the first checkpoint, I caught up with Michele, and we began running together.  We would remain together for the next 50 miles.  In competitive ultrarunning, it is EXTREMELY rare to run with someone for so long during a race; inevitably, people have highs and lows at different times, have different race strategies, etc., making sticking together difficult if not impossible.  So Michele and I really enjoyed the fact that our races matched up with each other for so long.  He is one of my very good friends in this sport, and he was the reason I was out there in Italy. 

Together, we kept a strong pace, and by the time we hit the 50-mile mark near Tortona (in 7:03, a new 50-mile PR for me), we were in 5th place. 


(Running with Michele around Mile 50).

An aside (and if you are not interested in race logistics/organization, just skip to the next section):  Since UMS ended, the main criticism that’s been raised is that the course was poorly marked and that the Road Book (providing turn-by-turn directions) was only in Italian.  Both are true.  People have asked me repeatedly how Alex and I were able to stay on track with minimal difficulties.  Here’s my answer:

First, the Road Book, while in Italian, still named every road you were supposed to be on throughout the race, and named all cities you passed through.  So, we didn’t need to know much Italian to know the name of the next town on the course in order to make sure we were on the correct road heading to that town.  (What a non-Italian speaker would miss would be the indicators in the Road Book, such as “When you come to the red barn on the left, keep going straight for another mile and look out for the sign to the next town.”). 

Second, the race website had a detailed online map that you could zoom to a very close level.  The night before the race, Alex took dozens of screenshots on her iPad of all the potentially tricky turns in the race.

Third, with the exception of the first town (Pavia), the general “idea” of the course for each countryside town we passed in the first 80 miles was that the runner would run straight through the town and the crew vehicle would circle around the town and meet the runner on the other side.  (For Pavia, I was fortunate to have a race official on a cycle lead me through the many turns in that city). 

Thus, with these things in mind, Alex always made sure to know the name of the next town, and did a fantastic job of keeping me on the course.  The only real tricky spots were making sure you got on the right road after leaving a town; once you did that, it was usually a straight shot of 15-20 miles to the next town.  And after about 80 miles or so, navigation became much easier, as once you start climbing Turchino Pass and descend down to the Mediterranean (at about 100 miles), the final 75 miles are all basically run on the same road (SS1, or “Via Aureilla”). 

So, that’s how we handled that issue.  I would encourage EVERYONE who is thinking of running this race in the future not to let the poor signage/Road Book issues deter you from coming out to this magnificant race.  The UMS officials are — to a person — very nice and dedicated people who really want to put on a first-class event (and largely succeeded in doing so).  These two issues will undoubtedly be addressed for next year’s race.  These types of issues are typical in first-year events, and even the most professional/seasoned race directors cannot escape them.  (As an example, the 8-mile trail section of last year’s inaugural Badwater: Salton Sea race was not really marked, and a few teams got lost for hours in that section of the race). 

Finally, this truly was a pioneering event in Italy.  While ultrarunning is still relatively new in the US, most people — even non-runners — have heard of the sport and probably know someone who’s run a 50 or 100-miler.  In Italy, NO ONE knows about ultrarunning.  The support of Italians during the race was phenomenal, sure (especially by cyclists, who knew exactly what we were attempting to do, and cheered for us WILDLY throughout the race).  But to expect a bunch of Italians — who have never organized, crewed, or been a part of any ultra in the past to pull it off without a hitch is being unrealistic.  I thought they did a commendable job and it will be even better next year. 

5.  Grinding (Miles 51-100).

Okay, back to THIS race.  Michele and I arrived at the 100k mark (62 miles) a few minutes under 9 hours (we hit the 100.8k Checkpoint 2 in Basaluzzo in 9:04).  This is around the time the toll of the miles and the pace started to affect both Michele and myself.  First I started feeling shitty.  Then him.  Then back to me.  By the time we reached Ovada (near the start of the only major climb of the race) around Mile 75, Michele was definitely feeling a little better than me, and that’s where we parted ways. 

For the first time all day, I decided to get off my feet for 10 minutes and hit the reset button.  It worked.  When I arrived at the small resort town of Campo Ligure (about Mile 80), I was feeling much better and ready to start the gradual climb to Turchino Pass (Mile 89), the highest peak on the course.  From there, it was a very fast 7-mile downhill to the Mediterranean Sea, and another 4 miles until Checkpoint 3 at Mile 100 (Arrenzano). 


(Rebounding and hitting my stride around Mile 80 (Campo Ligure).  Again, the views on this course do not suck.)

By the time I reached the top of Turchino Pass, I realized that if I pushed hard for the next 11 miles, I could hit Mile 100 in under 16:40, which is significant because 16:40 for 100 miles is exactly 10 minutes per mile.  I REALLY wanted to own a 100-mile PR that started with a “9” for my per-mile pace, so I shifted into high gear and ran 6:30-7:00 per mile down the hill, and then 8s until I reached Checkpoint 3 in Arenzano in 16:33.  It was stupid, sure — with 75 miles still to go — but I’m glad I pushed it, even if it probably cost me second place in the race.

By the way, the aid stations in this race were absolutely incredible.  Dozens of people cheering wildly at each one; it was a real party atmosphere.  And speaking of partying, it was now about 10:00 pm on Saturday night on the Italian Riviera.  Things were about to heat up…

6.  Barville (Miles 101-130).

This section, from Mile 100 to Checkpoint 4 (208k/130 miles) in Finale Ligure was typical ultrarunning . . . lots of highs and lots of lows.  Because I ran so hard into Mile 100, the next five miles took forever, as my body was overworked and needed to recover/reset.  Once it did, I found my groove over the next 10 or so miles, and was running 8:00/mile again.  It was a lot of fun; every couple of miles, I would come up to another small seaside town, which, inevitably, would have a handful of “hopping” clubs with literally hundreds of people waiting to get in.  The looks people were giving me were priceless.  They had NO IDEA what to make of this fool wearing a headlamp, reflective gear, and a bib number.  I made the mistake of telling one group what I was doing; their jaws just collectively dropped. 

At another bar, one girl, oblivious to everything except her phone, stepped right in front of me and as I made an evasive move, I completely tripped on something and face planted on the concrete.  I got up, took a bow, and (luckily) continued on uninjured.

At a third bar, some drunk fool asked me if I had a lighter for his cigarette.  Not knowing the Italian word for “you’ve got to be f–king kidding me,” I tried to convey that sentiment through my look of disbelief. 

Note:  The news that “smoking is bad for you” apparently has not yet reached Italy.  Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE smokes out there.  It’s unreal.  It’s like stepping back into the 80’s (which you would also say to yourself if you turned on an Italian radio station; I heard more old-school Madonna, Whitney Houston, etc. in Italy than I have in a long time).  Back in 2007, I ran the NYC Marathon, and (I swear I am not making this up) at about Mile 12, I ran past two Italians — running IN THE RACE — who were smoking.  And we were running at a 3-hr marathon pace.  Unfortunately, the only person who can vouch for this story is the guy who was running with me at the time, Lance Armstrong.  We ran together for about 5 miles, and he and I shared a smile when we saw the Italian smokers.  (He would later go on to drop me and beat me by about 15 minutes (he finished in 2:46 that year)).  So there you go.  Italians smoke during marathons; just ask Lance Armstrong.

Okay, once we got past Barville, Alex and I had our only real slip-up of the race.  Somehow, even though we were both on the correct route, we missed each other at the next meet up point, and we wound up going almost 2 hours without meeting up.  Needless to say, I slowed down considerably at that point (and it was about 4:00 in the morning now).  But she eventually found me, and we made it the last few miles into Checkpoint 4 (Finale Ligure), at almost exactly 24 hours into the race (23:59). 

We were informed that I was in 5th place.  45 miles to go.  Spirits up.  For the first time in the race, I was absolutely sure I would finish.

7.  Strong and Steady (Miles 130-147).

The stretch from Finale Ligure to Checkpoint 5 (in Laigueglia) was probably the most scenic of the entire race (and that is saying something).  This section was largely run on boardwalks, bike paths, and harbor roads overlooking amazing vistas.  The sun was rising.  Cafes in the small towns were just opening their doors, and people were slowly meandering in for their Sunday coffees, morning papers, congregate, and discuss where to sail their yachts next.



(Even though I was about 135 miles into the race — or “one Badwater” into the race at this point — the scenery invigorated us and we felt awesome).


(Words cannot describe how gorgeous this course was…)

IMG_9667(Heading into Alassio (near Checkpoint 5)).


(Almost there).

8.  Bringing it Home (Miles 148-175).

I reached Checkpoint 5 (the last one) in 27:41.  I was feeling good when I got into town, and I was feeling even better when I left town, after learning that I was in 4th place, with 3rd place only a few minutes ahead of me.  Michele was two hours ahead in first place, so I knew that with only a marathon to go (basically), I could not catch him.  But 3rd place was another story.

The final section featured two climbs, a stroll through my host city (Imperia), and then a final stretch on a bike path along the Mediterranean into SanRemo.  I caught the third-place runner, an Italian, going up the first climb.  The race had arranged for the local running club to accompany each runner up this climb, which was awesome, because I had no one to run with since Michele and I parted ways 75 miles ago.  And as an added bonus, my escort runners spoke English.  So those few miles went very quickly.  Now, all I needed to do was hang on.


(Running through “my” town of Imperia . . . getting close now!)

With about 10 miles to go, I started feeling incredibly tired, due (obviously) to the distance already covered, as well as the fact it was getting legitimately hot outside.  By the time I hit the bike path, an Italian Red Cross member on a Vespa became my official chaperone for the final 7 miles.  He would not let me get more than 20 feet away.

Unfortunately for him, my stomach was not agreeing with me at all at this point.  Not sure of the Italian phrase for “Dude, give me some space unless you want to see me throw up,” I put my hand out in a stop sign motion, but the dude kept riding right through it.  Okay buddy, you asked for it.

With that out of the way, I started feeling much better.  Alex even hopped out of the crew vehicle and paced me for much of the last stretch.  She then drove to the finish line and met me with about a quarter mile to go.  Running in together was awesome . . . until, with about 100 yards to go, she tripped on something and did her own faceplant (although there was no drunk Italian bar girl in her way).  She got right up, though, and WE finished the race, in third place, in 33:22.



(This was a REALLY cool feeling…)


(Team Zwitty representing in Italy!) 🙂


(The inaugural UMS podium finishers.)

9.  The Next Day.

After the race, I was SHOCKED by how good I felt.  After Badwater last year, I basically went into a coma for 20 hours.  Here, I was incredibly sore and tired, sure, but I was functional.  Alex and I hung around the finish line for a while, then drove back to our place in Imperia.  After a nice long sleep, we went to the awards ceremony the next day, and then took a sweet trip down to Monaco (less than 30 miles from the finish line), and then had an amazing dinner with Michele and a dozen of the close friends he grew up with at a very good and authentic pizzeria in Imperia.  It was the perfect ending to an amazing race!


(At the awards ceremony with Michele).


(That same afternoon, in Monaco (Monte Carlo) with Alex).


(I was either going to wear my velvet blazer or a Speedo to visit the Prince’s Palace.  I’m glad I chose the former and not the latter…)


(There are worse ways to recover…)

10.  The Next Week.

After the race and post-race festivities were over, Alex and I drove the rental car back to the start line in Milan, and hopped on a high-speed train to Rome, where we spent two nights, and then on to Florence, where we spent another two nights.  I’ve now been back in the United States for about 24 hours, but my heart is definitely still in Italy.  Best trip of our lives!  Here are a few pics from the “honeymoon” phase of the trip:


(View from our hotel balcony in Rome).




(At the AS Roma/Parma football match on Wednesday night.  Sorry U.S. pro sports, you’ve got nothing on the atmosphere in the stadium of major European soccer leagues.  Not even close…)


(Alex and I on our 6-mile run in Florence — to the Pizzale Michelangeo — that our hotel conceirge thought was not physically possible to complete…) 🙂


(View from the Piazzale Michelangelo)


(Our hotel in Florence; probably the best hotel I’ve ever stayed at in my life.)


(On the hotel terrace on our last day in Italy.  What a trip!).

I would like to thank Andrei and Claire for letting us be a part of their amazing wedding.  I want to thank Michele and the entire UMS staff for welcoming us to Italy, putting us up, and giving us the best race I’ve ever run.  And to our parents, who watched Zoey and Witt while we were gone and took such good care of them, thank you so much.

Finally, to Alex.  This race — like every other race — would literally not have even been remotely possible without you.  Even if it were possible, I would never want to run without you being by my side.  You are my everything.  I still cannot believe you chose to spend your life with me, but I know how lucky I am for it. 

Okay, hope you guys enjoyed reading about our adventure; we sure enjoyed living it!  See you all “out there” 🙂







Team zwitty: Donna 110 and Palm 50 Race Report (2014)

1.  The Past Six (or so) Months:

So, those of you familiar with this blog probably know that I ran Badwater last July, and haven’t really done much — running-wise — since, except (1) signing up for some races I had absolutely no business signing up for, and, not surprisingly, inevitably dropping from them very early in the race (due to total lack of motivation to run; call it the “post-Badwater blues”) 🙂 ; (2) feeling the need to call out someone who was obviously lying about a solo run he claimed to have completed (I still don’t know why I felt a strong need to say something about that one; although his claim was the functional equivalent of me claiming to run to the moon, looking back, I now don’t see any good point in having said anything); (3) writing about my epic 5-mile January run through the South Florida Polar Vortex (I’m not sure how I survived that epic run) :), and, oh yeah, (4) we gained a new addition to our family on December 19, 2013, Witt Alexander Krupski:


(Witt and his big sister Zoey).

Incidentally, Witt is named after the finish line at Badwater (on Mt. Whitney), and his middle name is in honor of his mommy.  At any rate, after Witt was born, my lack of racing motivation completely went away and I knew I was “back,” so to speak.

It was also right around this time that Alex and I came up with “zwitty,” which is really just a combination of “Zoey” and “Witt.”  Plenty of people in ultrarunning have all kinds of colorful nicknames; some are spot-on (“Peacock,” for example), some ironic, and some confounding.  For us, we just wanted to create something that would recognize the most important things in our lives, bind us all together, and give us a common identity (Alex is also a pretty serious runner . . . when she’s not pregnant, which hasn’t been often since 2011 :).  So “zwitty” was born, and my love for running/racing was definitely renewed.

IMG_8623 IMG_8716

(Zoey modeling some of her “zwitty” gear)

And after a few months of hard and solid training, I was excited to run the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trial (“LOST”) 118-mile run in February for the second time.

Unfortunately, even though I felt great mentally, my pelvic tumor (discovered a few years ago) did not agree.  It started acting up, and I had to stop only 15 miles into the race.  But after a trip to the ortho and some anti-inflammatories, I felt as good as new and ready to tackle the next challenge:   the Donna 110, an ultrarmarathon held in conjunction with the Donna 26.2 Marathon to Finish Breast Cancer, in Jacksonville.

2.  Donna 110 (Day 1:  83.8 miles):

Before I get into detail too much, if you are an ultrarunner, do yourself a big favor and sign up for this race next year.  It is AMAZING.  The race directors, Chris and Mark, are both great guys, the course is absolutely amazing, and the energy and support out there — for both days — is really something special.

Okay, on to the race.  This was the third year for the Donna 110, and in previous years, people would just start at whatever time on Saturday they wanted, in order to finish 83.8 miles in time to start the official marathon on Sunday morning.  This year, however, was different.  We all — and by “all” I mean me and three other runners — would start on Saturday in Ponte Vedra at 7:30 am, run our 83.8 miles, and then that time would be added to our marathon time for the total finishing time.  The other runners were Traci Phillips, the incomparable Tim “Salt Shack” Purol (who was running his fourth 100-mile or longer race in four consecutive weeks!), and some Cross-Fit dude named Sean who had never run more than a marathon but was sure he would be fine running 110 miles because, you know, he “lived in the gym.”  The race director politely tried to talk him out of it, but he was adamant that he would be fine.  Okay, dude, good luck…

The course for Day 1 was pretty cool, and basically mirrored the marathon course until the northern-most part of it (the first 14 miles, run mostly along the various Jacksonville beaches), and then we would run a 7-mile loop around the northern beach neighborhoods, 8 times (for a total of 56 miles), and then run the 14-mile section back to Ponte Vedra.  It was a well-designed course through some of Jax’s best neighborhoods.

For me, the run went very well for the first 40 or so miles.  I kept a solid 8:00/mile pace for the first 42 miles, which was a big confidence booster for me.  Around this time, my buddy Chris Roman joined up with me as he volunteered to run laps 4-5 with me (Miles 42-56).  Incidentally, Chris is the newly-minted American record-holder at the absurdly-hard — but apparently not “world’s toughest” race — the Brazil 135.  (That’s just a little good-natured Badwater humor;  the Brazil 135 has 60,000 feet of elevation change over 135 miles of roads through the hot and humid Brazilian summer).

Anyway, the first lap with Chris went very well, but by the time I was starting the second lap, those anti-inflammatories did not agree with my stomach, and I slowed to a crawl and spent the next 2 hours getting re-acquainted with everything I ate or drank over the past 42 miles (Sorry for that, Chris) 🙂

But before Chris left, he got me some ginger ale, which, along with the makeshift aid-station set up by Bambi Pennycuff, helped get me back on track, and by mile 56 or so, my stomach was settled and I was ready to tackle the remaining 25 or so miles for the day.

I managed to average 9-10 min/mile for the last 30 or so miles, which was a nice rebound and turned into a very enjoyable evening run back down the Jacksonville coast.  The stretch along Ponte Vedra beach was especially nice and tranquil; that area has multi-million dollar homes and sweeping views, and I had it all to myself.  In fact, the only people I saw on that stretch back to the start line were when I went into an Irish bar on Jax Beach to have them refill my water bottles.  The place was getting packed (it was a Friday night at about 8pm), and I got more than a few puzzled looks from the patrons.  I didn’t explain anything to them; I figured that would only make them more confused (“You see, yes, the marathon is tomorrow, which I am indeed running as well, but there is also an ultramarathon in conjunction, and I’m about 80 miles into that right now…”).  🙂

I finished Day 1 (83.8 miles) in a tad under 15 hours (14:54), which I was satisfied with, given my stomach issues.  I was hoping to be about an hour faster, but happy nonetheless.  The most memorable part of the day probably happened when I reached the start/finish line at around 10pm.  Day 1 started and finished at a fitness center in Ponte Vedra, and since it had a couch and showers, and also because the marathon start line was a few blocks away, I had just planned to crash at the fitness center that night.  But the key fob they gave me (along with the key fobs they gave everyone else associated with the race) did not work, so for about a half hour, I was stranded outside a deserted fitness center and starting to freeze my ass off (as any runner will attest, once you stop moving, your body temperature plummets pretty quickly).

Luckily, there was a Caribbean restaurant next door, and a very confused bar patron allowed me to use his phone to call my wife (who was at my parents’ house about 90 miles south with the kids, and was coming up the next day for the marathon).  Alex got a hold of the race directors, and within 15 minutes, Mark picked me up and checked me into a Hilton next door.  So that one worked out pretty well for me 🙂  After a loooooong shower and 5 or so hours of sleep, I was ready to head back out there for Day 2.

3.  Donna 110 (Day 2:  26.2 miles):

By about 6 am, all of the pacers for the marathon, as well as the elite marathon runners, were gathered with me back at the fitness center (which was still locked; eventually it opened about 45 min before the marathon, so the Kenyans got to do whatever it is that Kenyans do in a fitness center to prepare for a marathon) 🙂

I also learned around this time that two of the three other runners had dropped on Day 1, including — to the surprise of no one — the CrossFit dude.  (I have nothing against either CrossFit or “shoot for the stars”-type goals, but there’s a difference between being prepared enough to give yourself a realistic shot, and setting yourself up for failure).  The only other ultrarunner toeing the line with me at the marathon would be Traci, who got through the first day in a very respectable 20 hours.

My ambitious plan for the marathon was to hang with my buddy Sung Ho “Bruce” Choi (who readers of this blog will recognize as “Baby Gap”) for as long as possible, as he was pacing the 3:35 marathon group (basically 8:00/mi).  Well, I managed to run those 8:00-miles for the first 15 miles, but then my energy levels started to plummet — not much of a surprise — and I crawled those last 11 miles in about 2.5 hours.


(Hitting Atlantic Beach around Mile 10 with Bruce and the 3:35 pace team).


(Coming back to Atlantic Beach at around Mile 16; the wheels are starting to fall off…) 🙂

Those last 11 miles were brutal, and the finish line could not come soon enough.  But eventually, it appeared, and I finished in around 4:40 (which is the slowest “official” marathon I’ve ever run — by far — but I’ll take it given the 84 miles the day before!):


(Finally crossing the finish line!)

Lucky for me I didn’t take too much longer; about 30 minutes after I finished, they shut down the marathon due to bad weather, and pulled everyone left — including Traci, who had three miles left — off the course.  So she ran the inaugural “Donna 107” 🙂

4.  Palm 50k

Six days after finishing the Donna 110, Alex and I were in Deerfield Beach for the start of the Palm 50k, which is a great out-and-back course between Deerfield and Boynton Beaches.  I’m running the longest race of my life at the end of March (the Ultra-Milano Sanremo, a 175-mile race in Italy), and I wanted to see how my legs would respond in a 32-mile run so soon after Donna (50ks are traditionally 31 miles; this one was about 1.4 miles long).

I signed up in part because I had run the Palm 100k before (in 2012), and because a lot of my friends were either running the race or would be there to volunteer or crew other runners.  Plus, Alex and I had a babysitter, and were going to a concert in Lauderdale that evening, so we could make a day of it at the beach after the race.  And it was an AWESOME day/night!

Also, the woman who beat me at the Keys 100 last year (by 14 minutes), Texan Brenda Carawan, would also be running the Palm (but the 100k race, not the 50k).  So I would have to wait until another day to get my long-awaited “revenge.”  🙂  (In all seriousness, Brenda is a top-flight runner who has run Badwater, Spartathlon, and done really well in other races; I was not upset at all to lose to her at the Keys.  I was more concerned about my buddy Andrei catching me from behind than anything else…)


(Reunion with my “arch nemesis” at the start line).

My plan for the race was to hold 7:30/mile as long as possible.  As crew members are only allowed at official aid stations, Alex would only see me every 3-4 miles, which actually was plenty.

The first two hours — or 16 miles — went perfectly, and I hit the turn around in 1:59:45, or pretty much exactly at 7:30/mile.  While I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold that the whole race, it was good to get the first half over relatively quickly.  The only thing that amazed me was that with a time like that, I figured I would be in the lead at the half-way point.  Not even close.  There was a guy — who I later would find out is an Aussie 50k specialist — who was about 18 minutes ahead of me at the turn (meaning he was running about 6:15 per mile!).  And another guy — a triathlete — a few minutes ahead of me.


(Feeling good in the early miles).

On the way back, I held 8:00-8:30 per mile, and ran most of the way with Brenda and Marc Drautz, a local Boca Raton friend I’ve known for several years.  (Their 100k race started 15 minutes before my 50k race, and I caught up to them right before the turn-around point).  It was great to have company for those miles, and they both looked very strong, considering they still had another 50k to go once I was finished:


(Running with Marc and Brenda)

I kept my energy up right until the last two miles, and hit the finish line in about 4:18 (50k in about 4:05).  It was a major confidence booster for Italy, for sure.


(Glad to be crossing the finish line).

5.  On the Horizon:

The past two weekends were just what the doctor ordered as far as my confidence headed into the most daunting running challenge of my life, the Ultra-Milano Sanremo, a world famous cycling event that is being held as a run as well for the first time ever this year.  To finish within the official cut-off, you have to run 175 miles in under 42 hours, which basically is the same pace as 200 miles in 2 days (and those of you familiar with my writing know just how hard that feat is to accomplish :).  Even more ridiculous, if you want a buckle, you need to finish in an insane 32 hours (which basically means you need to run the first 100 in 16 hours or under, and then hold on and still run at least 5mph the rest of the way).  I will definitely give it my all.

Alex and I have been looking forward to this Italy trip for a long time now.  First, a lot of our friends will be there, including the race creator, my buddy Michele “Zoolander” Graglia, who is from Sanremo and will also be running — and probably winning — the race.  Additionally, my very good friend Andrei Nana and his fiancee, Claire Dorotik will be there (they are actually getting married while we are out there).


(Andrei and I training on the Key Biscayne bridge).

My buddy Bruce and his girlfriend Brandi will also make the trip, as will my friend Sergio, who now lives in Arizona.  Finally, Liz Bauer, who ran a mind-blowing 36 100-mile races in 2012, will also toe the line in Milan.  It’s going to be an amazing trip…

Most of all, however, Alex and I have never had a honeymoon, and will spend a week bumming around Italy after the race is over (and do so without our kids, who will be staying with our parents).  So only three weeks of training left until it’s wheels up for Milan 🙂