Saturday, October 3, 2015

Best Headlight for Running

What is the best Headlight for Running?

That's a loaded question! Right next to the best shoes for running. Let me just say that a lot of headlamps will work for a lot of people. Here I will tell you what has worked for me.

I have been thinking and experimenting with headbands and flashlights for a few years now. My obsession (yes, you can call it that) started after Burning River 100 in 2013. I felt that my beloved headlamp was insufficient and was holding me back.

For the next 2 years I spent well over $2000 buying 30 or more flashlights and headlamps. Whenever someone recommended something, I bought it. Finally, I decided that the best lights for me are made by a small company called Zebralight. I will explain later which ones and why.

I then proceeded to sell all the extra flashlights on ebay. I only kept 10 (well, you know, like shoes you can never have too many flashlights… no, seriously, they are used for jobs other than running).  In the selling process I lost a lot of money and probably made a few people happy, because I bought them new and sold them barely used but for less, minus ebay/paypal commissions. But I don’t care. I learned a lot about flashlights in the process.

What did I learn?  Here is a summary:
  1. Having a good light at night is more important in trails than roads.  You might not be able to run as fast in trails at night (especially alone) as you do in daylight, but with a good light you will run faster and feel safer.
  2. A brighter light is not necessarily better.  Light distribution is more important than light intensity.  Ideally, you need a combination of a wide beam, to light the ground in front of you and a more focused beam to see further away and to cast better shadows.  It is difficult to satisfy this combination with only one light.  One light will work but it is compromise, in my opinion. For best results, I recommend two lights.
  3. Light intensity and distribution are important but other factors like comfort, convenience, type of batteries, color of light, etc., are also important.
  4. Are you looking for the perfect $10 headlamp? Keep looking. While you can get away with inexpensive flashlights/headlamps in roads, trails are more demanding. Consider investing a bit more for a good quality unit.  A good flashlight/headband can cost between $40 and $100.  A lot of lights can satisfy your needs. The definition of the best is subjective.
And now…. here is the “rest of the story”:

How Did it All Start

I went for over 2 years running happily in trails and roads with just one headlamp.  This was an Energizer “Hard Case Professional” LED headlamp with a strong spot light.  I loved this headlamp!  It balanced very well on my head (it has a 4x AA battery pack in the back) and the light was strong! I bought 5 units, for backups.  It worked great on roads and trails. I was actually proud of how bright the light was, compared to other runners' lights.

I ran my first 100 mile race (BR100 in 2012) with a section in dark trails without a problem.  I could hear other runners say that you need two lights.  In addition to the one on the head you need a handheld flashlight.  The reasoning behind this went as follows:  The headlight lamp is close to the eyes and does not cast shadows well.  So you need a 2nd light away from the sight of the eyes for better “depth perception”.  To me, at that point, this was nonsense!  I was happy with one light. (Little did I know....)

But in my second 100 miler (BR100, 2013) I realized that I had a problem:  My light was mostly spot and, even though I could see right ahead of me, I could not see the surrounding areas of the trail very well.  As a result, I slowed down and was mostly unable to run.  At some point in the Perkins 5 mile loop I attempted to run and tripped and fell.  After that, I mostly walked this trail.  After this experience, I realized that my light was not working well and it was slowing me down.  So I went on a quest, looking for the “perfect trail light”.

You know the rest… After a year of “research” (mostly me buying flashlights, but also some reading to see what others say), finally I found the ideal combination that works for me. I have tested this for two years now. Two winters ago I ran at night 2 times a week, every week, all alone in dark scary trails. I survived. My lights work perfectly. I am happy. Now, if someone says that they found the perfect headlamp, I just smile. I know I have what I need and really there are no innovations to improve it.

My Preferred Lights Now

After trial and error I found that I like to run with one headlight and one flashlight. I have 4 zebralights:

Battery  Headlamp    Flashlight
AA       H52w           SC52w
1865    H602w         SC600w

Collection of Zebralight lights from left to right: Units 1 and 3 use the larger 1865 battery. Unit 2 uses AA battery. Units 4 and 5 use a CR123 battery (smaller but thicker than the AA, about same capacity).

Zebralight is a small Chinese company, fairly unknown (especially compared to Fenix, another Chinese company).  Chinese make some of the best/expensive and worse/cheap LED flashlights in the world. Zebralight's models are I think some of the best, and definitely expensive. Zebralight products are as good as Fenix, waterproof, shockproof, all metal, very durable, perfect for the harsh trail environment. They are well-made but also very plain-looking with no bells and whistles.

The model numbers change often, but basically there are two sizes, a smaller one that uses one AA battery, and a larger one that uses one 1865 rechargeable lithium battery (lasts a lot longer), two types (headlamp, and flashlight, flashlight points straight, headlight to the side, otherwise they are similar) and they are all warm (the "w" in the end, this is how I like them - see below). They have nothing else special (no frosted glass, flood type, etc.) As of this writing, they cost $69 for the small units and $89 for the large. You can buy these directly from the company (in the USA). You will not find bargains elsewhere, unless if you buy them used on ebay, but these do not depreciate much.

At first I was using the larger units that use the 1865 battery.  But I gradually switched to the smaller AA/CR123 units for most of my runs. If I had to start again, I would just stick with the AA lights and carry extra batteries in case I need to run all night long.

For the small headlamp I use a "Nite Ize" headband instead of the standard Zebralight band that came with it.  You can buy these for less than $7 with free shipping on ebay. I find this headband stiffer and better fitting with no movement in my head.  It also comes in different colors:

I will explain later (towards the end) how I set these units. First, some general comments and opinions.

Trails vs. Roads

Trails, especially technical (single-lane) trails, with lots of roots and rocks, are very demanding.  Horse trails are better.  Roads are a piece of cake.  Any light will work on roads.  The main function of the light on roads is that cars see you.  For roads, just about any headlamp will work.  Plus, something flashing, like the Nathan StrobeLight (~$10) is very helpful.  This light is bright, has a spring-loaded clip (will attach to just about anything) and it is simple (only three modes, all lights on, all lights flashing, off – I use the flashing mode).  Do not confuse this with another Nathan light with many modes and a clip without spring that will break.

As a test of how well your lights work when running on roads, pay attention to the reaction of cars coming towards you at night.  If they slow down and switch lanes, then you are perfectly visible.  (Sometimes they even stop.... I bet the drivers are wondering what is this thing coming towards them… a bike? a motorcycle? a car? For your own safety, keep them wondering!)

Running Alone vs. With Group

Have in mind that when you run with a group, you are seeing not only your light but the lights of the other runners, so the trail is usually well lit.  Plus, you have company and running feels more fun and less scary.  This is true also if you are racing with a pacer. Having another runner with a light is better than being alone.  To try your lights only, go for a run alone. 

If you are training for a race, try to reproduce the conditions of the race.  While training for my first 100 mile race, we did a night train run.  There was a new to me trail that I enjoyed.  At race time, this “nice” trail was a nightmare.  I walked the entire thing!  That’s when I realized that when you are tired, trails that seem easy running at daylight when you are relatively rested, become a lot harder at night when you are tired. 

Having a good light will make things a bit better, but night trail running is inherently difficult. Darkness slows runners and demands more attention.  You will never run as fast in the dark as in during the day. A good light should give you the confidence to run faster in the dark.

Brighter is Always Better – or NOT?

What is a good light?  A good light is a brighter light, right?  Not necessarily.   “A very bright light will make a trail look like daylight, right?”  Actually, no.  No light will make the trail look like daylight, for two reasons: 1) Location (direction) and 2) size of the light. Let me explain:

You are carrying the light on your body so it always comes from you.  It cannot come from the sides or from the top, like sunlight.  The light also moves as you move.  This is very unnatural (the sun does not move when you move).  The size of the light source is very small, compared to, say, the sky, which is what illuminates the trail during daylight.  So, your trail light is a small light source which casts strong shadows and these shadows are always away from you and are moving as you move. 

People mention that a single headlight messes up with your stereoscopic perception. This is 100% correct. You might notice it when you run through grass where the shadows of the grass blades look strange. A light positioned between your eyes casts unnatural shadows that actually have reversed depth. Natural light will never come from between your eyes.  This reversed depth just looks strange and confusing.

Furthermore, a very bright focused (“spot”) light can actually be a problem, making you lose dark adaptation.  Our eyes adapt to the dark so we can see better at low light.  A bright spot right in front of you will make you lose this dark adaptation and not be able to see well past this spot.  So, a light that is too bright will be a problem.

The bottom line is that it is impossible to achieve the quality of daylight using lights that you carry on you.  Light intensity is important, but light distribution is more important.  Even though you cannot reproduce natural daylight, you can make things better, as I discuss below.

Light Distribution – Flood vs. Spot

Light from flashlights can be classified in two groups, depending on how the light is distributed:

  • Flood: The light covers a wide area.
  • Spot: The light is focused to a spot.

Most flashlights/headbands throw a beam of light that is combination of the two.  Typically, there is a hot spot at the center of the beam with some bright light surrounding it (corona, spill).  Depending on the size of the hotspot and the brightness of the surrounding light, the light is classified as “floody” or “spotty”.

In an extreme flood light, there is no reflector to focus the beam so the light is spread over a wide area.  Usually the housing of the “light bulb” (or LED) determines the coverage of a flood light.  Certain Zebralights cast a light that covers 120 degrees (very wide).  Some flashlights have adjustable focus or achieve more flood quality of light by using a diffuser in front of the light.  In some flashlights this is an option (the diffuser flips up or down or it can be removed.)

What kind of light is better for a trail, floody or spotty?  If I had to have one or the other, I would prefer flood light.  Here are the advantages/disadvantages of each type, from my personal experience:

Flood Light:  (+) Illuminates a wide area, including right in front of you.  It is generally easier on the eyes.  (-) Low intensity (light output is distributed over a larger area), monotonous (cannot see obstacles very well because it does not cast strong shadows.
Spot Light: (+) Forms stronger shadows which makes obstacles (roots, rocks) more apparent, brighter. (-) Illuminates a small area and could potentially be too bright.

To measure light output, flashlights and headlamps use lumens.  More lumens = more light.  More light does not necessarily means more intense light, because it depends on how the light is distributed.  Some runners are proud to own flashlights rated at 1000 lumens. From my experience, 100 lumens are plenty in a dark trail. The darker the trail, the less light you need (sounds wrong, but think about it).

The Ideal Headlamp

Everyone is looking for the perfect headlamp.  I don’t think that such a thing exists.  I am convinced that the best light for trails comes from a combination of two lights: 1) Flood to illuminate the path in front of you, a very wide area, 2) Spot to illuminate the trail far away and add more shadows and details.

Some headlamps attempt to satisfy both these requirements by offering two lamps in one unit, one for flood and one for spot.  An example of that is the Fenix HP25.  One problem with this is this particular unit is that the spot is very tight and bright and right in the middle of the flood light.  Ideally the spot should be larger and cast further. 

Even if a headlamp offered the perfect blend of flood and spot and the ability to control how far the spot is cast, I will still make a case for having a hand-held flash light, in addition to the headlamp.

So, here is how I see the prefect trail light:
  • A headlamp (worn on the head or also clipped on the waist) that casts a strong wide beam.
  • A hand-held flashlight aimed ahead of the flood, with such intensity and positioning that it blends seamlessly with the spill light from the spot.

I have run with this combination.  To see how well it works, I often block the flood light or turn off the flash light and I am convinced that I would not be happy with either situation.  The combination of the two lights works perfectly.  If I had to keep one of the two, I would most probably keep the flood light (head lamp).  But flood light is monotonous and makes the eyes tired.  Adding spot creates some shadows and extends your vision further, giving you a better feeling of the trail.  A dark trail can be a scary place to be.  Having the ability to see things further away, in addition to right in front of you, makes it easier and more comfortable to run.

The case for a Handheld Flashlight

I used to scorn at the idea of carrying a flashlight, in addition to the headlamp, but now I am a firm believer. Here is a list of advantages:
  1. Better light from the combination of the two.
  2. The flashlight can be aimed anywhere independently (far ahead, closer, to the sides, etc)  Since it is a spot light, it has large throw and you can see things far away.  When I run, I often change, the direction of the light, usually the distance in front, depending on the trail.  This keeps me both “informed” and somehow entertained.
  3. If one unit dies unexpectedly, you have another light to finish your run.  Also, if you need to change batteries in one light, you have the other one to help you by providing the light so you can see.  If you ever found yourself in the middle of a totally dark trail at night without light, then you know how it feels.  It happened to me once. I only had a flip phone and used that light to guide me.  It was a nightmare.  My iphone now with an LED built-in and a flashlight app, would make a decent backup, but, still….
  4. Safety: Modern LED flashlights have “turbo” output modes with very intense light or “strobe” modes.  You could easily “blind” or discourage an attacker, human or animal.

Holding a flashlight is a problem for some runners.  How do you hold it?  As you run, your hands move up and down, making the light move too, which can be an issue.  Personally, I put the flashlight between my fingers and the water bottle that I hold on my right hand.  This hand does not move as much as my other “free” hand.

Light Color – Warm or Cold?

The color of the light is something that most runners overlook or make the wrong choice. Many higher quality flashlights offer two options (in Zebralight terminology): 1) Daylight white, 2) Natural white, which is warmer.

The daylight white looks brighter to the eye for the same light intensity. So I always went for the daylight white. Until I wanted to buy a unit from Zebralight that only came in warmer “natural white”. I reluctantly bought it and then tried it one night around Fall time. Oh.My.God! This light made the colors of the leaves come out alive! The reds and orange and yellow colors were so beautiful! I could not believe it. What a great experience!

After that I became a firm believe of “natural” warmer color balance. I also find that this light is more comfortable to the eyes. It is late, it is dark and the eyes are used to warmer colors of tungsten bulbs. Daylight white is unnatural at night.

The worst light is the one that comes from very inexpensive LED lights: Bluish. Sorry, but I cannot stand that. Once I tried warm, I am not going back. (But I still use a white flashlight to illuminate my ebay product photography).

Finally, if you have a warmer light and you want to make it colder, you can use a bluish gel over it. And you also turn a colder light to warmer by using an orange gel over it. You can buy these gels on line (I have bought large sheets from BHphotovideo). They are also used for photography.

Zebralight – Standard of Flood?

Some zebralights come with either a frosted glass, or without a reflector so they cast a very wide (flood) beam. At first I liked these and used them for my headlamp. At some point I tried the standard headlamp and I actually prefer it. The Zebralight headlamps and flashlights cast a wide beam by design. I do not think that you need a wider light for the trails.

Tip: If you have a standard light, you can make it wider but sticking a piece of “frosted” tape on the glass. This will diffuse the light just like the frosted glass and it is fully reversible.

AA or 18650 Batteries?

Zebralights come in two versions: Smaller that use one AA battery (or a CR123 battery, but this is phased out and replaced by the AA) or one 18650 lithium rechargeable battery. Everyone knows what AA batteries are but few people know the CR123 or 18650. There is no need to be afraid of these batteries. Even if you use AA batteries, I recommend using rechargeable batteries.

Different rechargeable batteries being charged in my Fenix charger. The two left are 18650. The third is standard AA. The one on the right is CR123.

Now I use the AA/CR123 units because they are smaller and do my job. I also have the 18650 units that I would use if I had to run all night.  During one all night group training run, my 18650 unit only consumed 1/3 of the battery, so these units can last all night long. I am not sure if the AA units can last all night long. But I can always bring a spare battery.

About 18650 batteries: Please, do not buy cheap $1 Chinese batteries. It is tempting and you think all batteries are the same, but they are not! You do not want the batteries to die during the run. Spend at least $10 per battery to buy a good brand like Tenergy or Fenix.  About AA batteries: There are a lot of good rechargeable AA batteries in the market, like the Sanyo Eneloop.

Remember: Cold weather reduces battery capacity!  Always charge your batteries before an important run. And be aware of how long one battery charge lasts. There is nothing worse than running out of light in the middle of a run.

To charge my rechargeable batteries I use a Fenix charger (ARE-C2, only $40 and it will charge anything, including standard AA rechargeable batteries)

One of the reasons I like the zebralights is that they are very small and pack a lot of light. Here is how small the AA/CR123 headlamp is. It has no external battery holder. It is a complete light. When turned at the maximum intensity (mostly to impress my friends) they all comment how it looks like a car headlight or a train coming.

Zebralight Interface

At first I hated the Zebralight interface. One switch (only) controls everything. Now I am used it to it and I find it brilliant. Much better than Fenix or other flashlights. For a while I experimented with continuous intensity variable lights but the zebralights have enough light intensity levels to keep anyone happy.

Here is what I remember by heart (some features might be missing from earlier models):
  1. There are thee intensity levels, let’s say H, M, L.  Each level has two sub-levels, low and high. You can switch sub-levels by double-clicking the switch quickly. So you have 6 intensity levels at your disposal at any time.
  2. A quick click turns the light on at the setting it was left the last time. A slow click (click and hold for a second) turns it on at the lowest level (useful in some non-running occasions). Holding the switch down circles through the different intensity levels. Release the button at the intensity level you want.
  3. Pressing the switch 4 times quickly shows you the battery life left. The flashlight responds with a series of light flashes. Four (4) flashes means 75-100% charged. Three (3) flashes means 50-75%, Two (2) flashes means 25-50%, one (1) flash means 0-25% charge left, or get ready because this battery is dying.  I would not start a run with only 2 blinks.
  4. Finally, clicking the switch 3 times brings the strobe mode. This could be useful for emergencies or to alert a distracted driver at night. No one can ignore you if you emit a very bright flashing light!
This sounds too complicated, I know. But all zebralights use the same interface and once you get used to it, it becomes second nature.

I found that the intensity level that I like for dark night running is the Medium Low. At first this does not sound like much light but it is all I need and the battery lasts for a long time. (Tip for most flashlights: Avoid the brightest setting which most likely consumes the battery very fast.)

You can learn more about the Zebralight interface by reading the instructions (always a good idea!) or googling it (you can find videos too and extensive reviews).

Let me close by saying that there are a lot of good running flashlights and headlights out there. I like this particular kind but you might hate it. Like many other things, it is a matter of preference. I hope that you learned something from my experience.

And that's all I had to say about that.... Enjoy running my friends!

Night run with the smaller zebralight and Nite-Ize headband over my Mountain Wear hat. Did I mention how much I like this hat? But that's a topic for a different blog!

Speedgoat 50K 2015

This report is a bit longer than my usual reports but I wanted to document the entire experience, being so different than my regular races in Ohio. Most of the pictures here were taken with my 3d camera or are frame grabs from 3d video. I am only showing one side (2d) below.

If you do not have time to read the full report, here is a summary that I posted in facebook a couple of days after the race:

Last Saturday I ran Speedgoat 50K in Utah (I happened to be there for a conference at the same time and same hotel so I signed up). I finished 127/304 with a time of 9:10. My goal was to finish under 10 hours so I am happy with my time. I also improved my placement from 165th in the first aid station to 127. I had a strong finish, passing 8 runners in the last 2 miles.

This was my first “mountain” race (being from Ohio) and came rather unprepared for the long steep hikes and types of running surfaces (hard surfaces, rocks, dirt roads, mostly exposed to sun).

I learned a number of things: Being able to hike fast is an advantage (I estimate that 2/3 of the race was hiking and only 1/3 was running). Use sunscreen! Gaiters can be helpful. Lots of rocks and unstable surfaces (I fell twice, once in rocks and once in soft sliding dirt). Using a hydration pack (vs. a hand-held bottle that I use) has the advantage that you can use both hands when climbing in all four! I can see how poles help (but not many runners used them).

I did not have any particular problem. The air was cool and dry. The race was very well organized and the aid stations were great. I was OK with the altitude (but had to stop often at the steep climbs near the top, to breath a couple of times before going on). My quads are still hurting and have difficulty walking down stairs.

Overall, I count this as a positive experience.

“I will NOT do it Again!” Or maybe not?

After the race, later the same day, I went to the NSA banquet. Everyone wanted to know how my race went. I remember my response: “It was hard. I am glad I did it. I do not want to do it again.” I had no doubt about that. And I added:  “Especially knowing what is coming up, all the hard sections. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.You could not pay me enough to do it again.”

I felt very confident in this opinion.  Yet, the next day, and certainly now, all the bad parts were miraculously erased from my memory. I only remember the good parts. I cannot remember the pain. All I remember is the fun. And I will certainly do it again if I ever get a chance!

How did it Happen?

I knew that the National Stereoscopic Association (NSA) convention in 2015 was going to be in Utah, at the Snowbird resort. I also knew that Speedgoat 50K was at the same hotel, around the same time. Last year (2014) the two events were only one week apart. The NSA date was announced first. I was thinking if Speedgoat is within one week, then I should do both. Then the Speedgoat date was announced and it was actually the same weekend. That was it!  I was in for both! I registered for Speedgoat right away in January.

My Racing/Training up to Speedgoat

Since 2012 I have been racing about 40 races a year. 2015 is no different so far. I have my favorite local races that I do. My favorite distance is the trail marathon/50K. After my DNF in two 100 mile attempts last year (Mohican, Burning River) I decided to skip this distance. So this year my longest distance will be Oil Creek 100K.

Even though I race a lot, some races are more important than others. This year my four important races are:
  • Mohican 50 miles
  • Buckeye Trail 50K
  • Speedgoat 50K
  • Oil Creek 100K

The rest of the races are simply training.  My philosophy is that every race is training for the next race. The reason I race so often is that I do not have the discipline to train by running long runs. My long runs are races.

So, before Speedgoat 50K already in 2015 I had run seven 50Ks and two marathons:

- Run with Regis 50K: 5:43 (good time on a course full of snow)
- Green Jewel 50K: 4:56 (road race but lots of ice made it hard)
- Buzzard 50K: 5:43 (hard race, snow, ice and mud!)
- Fools 50K: 6:04 (felt tired in the 2nd half, not a good race)
- Forge the PR 50K: (6:00, good race on a hard course)
- Cleveland Trail Marathon: (first HOT race, signed for 50K but dropped at marathon at 5:10)
- Cleveland Marathon: 3:54 (one of my slowest road marathons but it was hot and humid)
- Buckeye Buster 50K: 5:55 (great race!)
- Mohican 50 Miler: 9:50 (excellent time on a very wet course - rained all day)
- Buckeye Trail 50K: 5:39 (good race but tired near the end)

One week before Speedgoat I ran a 10K in the morning and a 5 mile race in the evening, finishing first in my age group with ~7 min/mile pace. So I felt I was ready to go!

Speedgoat Concerns:

A week or two before Speedgoat I started to get nervous. I read as many reports as I could find and watched videos from previous races, trying to get more information about the race, especially the course. I had four specific concerns:

- How to dress? Was it hot or cold? I saw pictures of snow but heard that the temperature can reach 90F in some areas. Heat seemed to be the problem, not cold.  In the end, I dressed with typical summer attire and had no problem with either heat or cold. The temperatures were nearly perfect. Even though the sun was strong and there was very little tree coverage, the air was cool at the top of the mountain. For the hot sections I poured water over my face/head. That was enough. It gets a lot hotter and definitely more humid in Ohio.

- What shoes to wear? In Ohio I run with lightweight shoes with good grip for the mud (Inov8 Xtalon 212 usually) but I read that the course is rocky so I decided to wear my PureGrit. These shoes gave me good cushioning for running in the mostly rocky trails but they did not have good grip for loose gravel. Maybe the Inov’s would have worked after all.

- Is one hand-held water bottle enough for hydration? It seemed that most runners (except for the fastest ones) run with a hydration system of some kind. I decided to stick with the one hand-held bottle on one hand (and my Panasonic Lumix 3D1 camera on the other, plus my phone with extra charger in one pocket) and had no problem. I just drank plenty of water at the aid stations.

- What effect would the altitude have on me? This was a total unknown. As it turns out, I had no serious problems, except for having to stop often at the very steep climbs at 11,000 feet to “catch my breath” which slowed me a bit.

I corresponded with a local runner (Jeff Musick) who ran Speedgoat last year and gave me some good advice (his blog is here:  so I was confident with my choices of shoes, etc. Only the effect of the altitude was unclear. Also the fact that I did not train specifically for the steep uphills and downhills worried me a bit but I was hoping that my general running conditioning would get me through the race.

To help me with the race, I created this composite of the race elevation and aid stations. I taped this on the back of my phone to look during the race and know how far the next aid station is. I also showed this to anyone asking about my race :)  The altitude is 8,000 feet at the start and finish and the turn around. The maximum altitude is 11,000. You can read more about the course in the Speedgoat 50K web site.

My goals for this race:

  • A: 8:30 – this was the time the first runner over 50 finished last year. This corresponds to 16:30 min/mile pace.
  • B: Under 10 hours (19:21 pace). A finish under 10 hours seems to be a decent finish for this race.
  • C: Finish! (always a decent goal for a race with a good number of DNFs)

Trail Surfaces:

There were 4 main kinds of running surfaces in this race, only one of which was familiar to me:

1-  Service roads, wide with loose gravel and dust. No trees. These were OK to hike going up and run going down but they are tricky and slippery. I found myself sliding going up (other runners did not seem to have this problem).

Typical Service Road. Loose gravel and steep. (from mile 3)

2. Trails as we know them in Ohio.  Single track, soft ground, tree cover, some roots, rocks, etc.  These were OK, even though they were some steep ones, steeper than we normally see in Ohio. The best trails were the ones that were used for mountain biking with banked turns.  There were no real (wider) horse trails as we know them in Ohio.

Typical single track trail, similar to Ohio trails, with trees and vegetation. (Mile 3)

3. High altitude single track trails with wildflowers. There is nothing like that in Ohio. They are very narrow, soft ground, no trees (fully exposed to sun). These are fun to run downhill but you have to look for rocks in the path and cannot fully enjoy the views and colorful flowers with your eyes glued right in front of you.  A variation of this has more rocks than soft ground.

Typical high altitude trail. No trees (full exposure to sun). Wildflowers. Narrow path. A few loose rocks and dust.

4. Loose large rocks. Another surface I have not seen in Ohio. Must hike carefully going up. Dangerous (for ankle twisting or falling) running down. These are hard on the toes. Well-cushioned shoes help.

Rocky trail, around mile 8 (approaching the first aid station) and also coming back. Hard to run in these rocks. Must be careful not to twist an ankle.

A Week Before the Race:

My last run was Sunday, after racing twice on Saturday. I took Monday off to get ready. Our flight was leaving early on Tuesday so I had to get up at 3 am. I ended up not sleeping at all, getting ready for my workshop presentations at the NSA convention. The flight was uneventful and I ended up taking some nice hyperstereos from the plane, one of which (while descending over Salt Lake City) won first place in the on-site competition of the convention!

Hyperstereo of the Salt Lake City area from the plane... Won first place in the on-site 3d competition in the convention.

While at the convention, I walked a lot. On Tuesday (travel day) there was a lot of walking around the airports (we did not have a direct flight), Wednesday we had a full day tour of SLC (lots of walking and  picture-taking).

On Thursday morning I decided to do my only run and run the first 3 miles of the course (plus 2 miles back, total of 5) to get an idea of what to expect. The first mile was on a dusty service road going uphill and it took 16 minutes,  Mile 2 was in a nice trail (10 minutes), and mile 3 was back on a service road very steep (26 minutes). I realized that my shoes did not have a good grip in the steep dusty/rocky roads and tended to slide backwards. I wondered if my Inov8s with the large lugs would work better. Oh well, that’s all I got! 

Later that day we bought a day pass for the Snowbird activities. Among other things, we took the tram at top to check the first (and last) aid station (Hidden Peak) and also took the Peruvian ski lift and walked around the Tunnel (aid station no. 4).

Friday I was busy with my workshops and convention activities. It seems that everyone at the convention knew about my race and they seemed genuinely impressed and worried about me. I had taped the race topography on the back of my phone to use during the race and I showed to anyone who wanted to know more details about the race.

Friday evening I went to the pool and met another runner, a young Canadian, Charlie Sikkema, new to ultrarunning (he had never run a 50K or even a marathon!) and an aid station volunteer (Joe Dean).

Race Day

Friday night I went to bed at 10 pm. Saturday morning I got up around 5am before my alarm. I showered, got dressed, ate a few bites of cheese and nuts, and was out the door.

The race start was a 5 minute brisk hike away. I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly I went through registration. I then took pictures and some video. Liz arrived with 10 minutes to the start, to take some video and then head with Tony for the tram to the first aid station.

I was dressed all green for this race so my crew (wife Liz and son Tony) can spot me at a distance

At the start I saw Sage Canaday and his girlfriend, Sandi Nypaver (a friend from Ohio). The air was filled with nervous excitement. Lots of young runners with colorful clothes and nice hydration systems. Very few had hand-held water bottles like I did. The temperature was in the 50s so rather chilly. (I had a jacket that I took off just before I got to the start line.) Here are a few pictures from the start:

A few minutes before the start I found myself trying to re-tie my shoes, but I could not undo my laces. I was a bit worried about that but it ended up not being a problem.

The race starts. I positioned myself around the middle of the pack. I soon realized that I forgot to start the GPS program on my phone. So, here I am fiddling with the phone. For this race I had decided to run with my phone plus an extra battery because I knew that the phone would not last past the half. I also ran with the Panasonic 3D1 camera. So I had the camera on one hand, bottle on the other, and phone in my pocket. Occasionally I put the camera in my other pocket.

My phone lost GPS signal and stopped at some point. It also died one mile before the finish. Here is the information I got from it:

Start (#0) to Hidden Peak (#1):

The first mile on the service road was mostly walking: 14:27. Mile 2 was on what appeared to be a nice mountain biking trail, quite pleasant: 9:46. Mile 3 was mostly uphill: 19:42. Then the first steep downhill. Right away I found myself sliding and almost losing my balance in the uphills due to lack of traction. Some pictures from around miles 3-5:

We continued on dusty (with loose gravel) roads going up and down. It was nice when I ran alone but now I had to breathe dust generated by the runners ahead of me. My GPS unit was announcing every mile my time, distance, average pace and pace during the last mile.  The average pace was around 15 min/mile, which was good. 

After going up and down (mostly up) on service roads I remember a very steep and slippery section and then a nice single track uphill with soft ground and wildflowers. Finally, we reached an area filled with large loose rocks, with about a mile from the first aid station. Most runners were walking fast over the rocks.  A last steep ramp and we are at Aid Station #1 (Hidden Peak).

Here are some pictures from the rocky section just before the first aid station. A large uphill was just before the station.

Rocks and wildflowers. Mile 7 or 8?

Last large climb before the first aid station.

The first female runner arriving at AS#1. Looks like no. 450 with time 1:48. Did not do well in the end, finishing at 11:35.

Me, crawling to the first Aid Station.

At the first Aid Station (Hidden Peak, elevation 11,000 ft)

I arrived at the first aid station at 2:21, a bit slower that my expected time of 2:15. I had put this time as a goal when I asked Joe (the aid station volunteer) the night before… He said that the average runner gets to the first aid station at around 2:15.

I was in 165th place at this point, so a bit better than average. Tony and Liz were there, asking how I was feeling. I guess this first part is critical and I see a lot of runners dropped at the first aid station. These are mostly the ones who realize they cannot or do not want to finish the race. I was feeling OK, not great. But I never thought of quitting.

My water bottle was half full. I was wondering if one bottle was enough for the first 8.5 miles but it was plenty because it was cool and the sun was not fully up yet. I noticed that most runners passed the aid station without getting any water since the next aid station was only 2 miles away, but I filled mine anyway and I am glad I did because I drank most of it on my way to the next aid station.

Hidden Peak (#1) to Mineral Basin (#2)

From AS1 (Hidden Peak) To AS2 (Mineral Basin) after a short service road downhill we entered a lovely area single track with wildflowers (no trees).  It was lovely but I had to keep my eyes focused on the ground to avoid the occasional rock. I later read Sage Canday’s report ( where he said that this year the wildflowers were taller than previous years. They certainly hid the narrow trail very well. A misstep over a hidden rock could mean the end of the race for someone. So I had to be focused right in front of me and not get distracted by the beauty of the flowers.

Right after the first aid station there was a downhill on this road and then we entered the beautiful wildflower trails.

The Mineral Basin Aid Station is seen here on the left, two miles away from AS#1

A race photographer was there, a perfect spot with nice colors and everyone moving fast in a gentle downhill single track surface.

I arrived at AS2 (Mineral Basin), filled my water bottle and continued towards AS3 (Pacific Mine).

Hidden Peak (#2) to Pacific Mine (#3)

In our way to Aid Station #3 we crossed a small creek. I remember the race director saying that we are not allowed to dip into the river. That must have been the river he was talking about.

A race volunteer was there, saying encouraging words (“you are doing great”) and letting us know what is coming up.  A quick turn brings us into a nice single track shaded trail. It was beautiful but a bit too steep to enjoy. Another volunteer was at the top directing us to the next section..

We arrived at an area with loose medium sized rocks. It appears to be a dried riverbed. I found myself running really fast (almost recklessly) over the rocks, moving from one side of the riverbed to the other, trying to select the area with the least amount or rocks or the most runnable rocks.  This is a long section (1-2 miles). I started to catch up and pass runners ahead of me. These were the “cautious” runners who went over the rocks carefully to avoid twisting an ankle. From reports I’ve read this part is famous for ankle-twisting.

I managed to avoid any accidents, until the rocks cleared for the most part. And then, it happened! I took a nasty fall. My poor camera got hit (but kept working). Dust/dirt all over my clothes, hand and leg, and a bloody knee. I was surprised how very few people appear to have fallen in this race. I did not see any other runner dirty or bleeding.

On our way to Aid Station #3 (Pacific Mine), We have cleared the large rocks. That's where I fell. I took this picture to test if the camera was working.

From the end of the rock section to the Pacific Mine AS#3 it was an interesting run. AS#3 is around the middle of the race (nearly 16 miles according to my GPS) and we got to see the runners running back. I could tell I was getting tired because I found myself taking “walking breaks” on a mostly flat and perfectly runnable section. Hmmm….

The Pacific Mine aid station was great. Located on a nice shaded area with lots of space. Two kids were spraying water at your request. Friendly volunteers were filling bottles with ice and water. All kinds of food on the table, including some of my favorites, like cheese, eggs, and fruit (watermelon, grapes, oranges) plus other ultra running favorites like boiled potatoes, etc. I had fruit and plenty of water at this AS.

I noticed a runner was spraying himself with something which turned out to be sunscreen. I have no need for sunscreen in Ohio but I felt I needed here with a full sun exposure for most of the race. I sprayed my hands but ended up getting burned on my neck.

Pacific Mine (#3) to Mineral Basin (#4)

As I left the aid station I felt rejuvenated and running OK.  After a short flat part, a very long uphill started, climbing back the mountain from a different side. It must have been at least 5 miles of hiking uphill.  Most of this uphill was on a nice area with trees and soft wider dirt and rocky road. Every time I thought the uphill was done, it kept going up.

According to the web site data, the next aid station should be at mile 19.4. So, I started looking for it around mile 19. But the data was wrong! The Aid Station was closer to 21.5 miles.

Uphill on our way to Mineral Basin (AS#4)

The last part of this section was very steep, the worse so far. Everyone was moving slowly. After we reached the top, a steep downhill section followed. I found myself running fearlessly downhill. Other runners stepped aside for me to pass.

To get to AS#4 (Mineral Basin, same as AS#2) we had to go through the same nice trail, only now it was downhill. I ran it fast. At the river crossing, the same nice volunteer was there and he said to me: “Wow you are fast, you made it in an hour”. It felt good to get a compliment even though I knew I was not too fast.  But, looking at the results, it appears that I had moved from 165th place in the first aid station to 129th in the Mineral Basin #2, which means that I had passed 36 runners.

At this aid station I ate a few salty things (chips) and had a couple of salt pills (I could feel my hands swelling up and my belly sloshing a bit so I decided to try the salt pills). I also had plenty of water for what they warned us was going to be a long a difficult uphill climb coming up.

Mineral Basin (#4) to Tunnel (#5)

We left AS#4 for a short flat section and then started going uphill. I admit that I liked the uphill sections because they gave me a chance to walk and feel fine about it. I was getting tired and would rather walk than run at this point.

It was a long difficult climb. I thought that the next aid station (Tunnel) was right at the top of this uphill section, but there was a lot more left. We ran briefly downhill and then a race volunteer sitting right in the middle of the road instructed us to make a sharp right turn, to climb up a mountain! 

This was one of the hardest climbs of the race. I looked up and could see a long line of runners all the way up the mountain.  All I could think of was “you must be kidding me!!”  I slowly started climbing the mountain. There was no well-defined path or trail, just a series of course marking flags that we loosely followed. I had a good amount of trouble climbing up. I had to stop at regular intervals to take a couple of breaths. In a number of spots I had to get into all fours to climb up. In some spots I found myself sliding back and barely standing up. I took at least one break to sit on a rock and rest.  This thought came through my mind: “If I had pressured Liz to run this race, this is the point where she would have divorced me!”

This guy right behind me is taking a rest stop. I had to do that quite often in this very hard climb.

One of the hardest climbs of the race....

At the very top of the mountain, around 11,000 feet.

I finally made it to the top. But the Tunnel Aid Station was not there yet. We had to turn and run along the edge of a ridge. The surface was rocky and rather dangerous being so closed to the edge. I was tired, I found myself walking through this area. A couple of runners passed me running really fast in this dangerous section. Finally, this was done, a fast downhill road followed, bringing me to the Tunnel Aid station.

Tunnel (#5) to Hidden Peak (#6)

Tony walked with me to the aid station. I was now in 135th place. It seems that a few runners had passed me in the steep uphills of the previous section. At the aid station I had some fruit and more water. An aid station volunteer seemed alarm by my (distressed?) appearance. He saw that my bottle was still half full from the previous aid station (that’s because I had a lot of water at the aid station) and made me drink several cups of water before letting me go. He asked many times if I needed anything else. I was impressed by his concerned. I have never had this happen in another race.

Road uphill that leads to Aid Station #4 (Tunnel)

This guy insisted that I have a lot of water before going on. I guess I looked a bit distressed.

I was very impressed by the aid stations and the volunteers in this race.

Leaving the aid station we walked through the Tunnel for a break (I should be running).

Entrance top the Tunnel. (Picture taken before the race - the aid station would be on the left of the Tunnel entrance)

Here are a few pictures I took from inside the tunnel from two days ago when we visited taking the ski ("Peruvian") lift. Very interesting place with mining exhibits, photographs, etc.

On the other side of the Tunnel I said goodbye to my family and started turning downhill on a steep service road. I later saw Tony and Liz in the air, talking the ski lift down. Here are some pictures from this area that we took two days ago when we visited taking the Peruvian ski lift:

This section kept going down and down for what seemed to be a long time. I was a bit alarmed because I knew at some point we had to climb all the way up again.  From time to time I would wonder if I am going the wrong way, but I’d see a flag or another runner. I remember a young woman, Nadine from AZ, 22 yo, passed me. We would be running close to each other for a while and she finished one minute ahead of me.

Finally, we reached the “bottom” of this section, and then turned around to climb 1000-1500 feet in two miles. Another steep slow uphill moving at a pace of 20-30 min/mile. At first I was moving well.  But the top section, as we approached the aid station, was particularly difficult.

Nice views, looking back and down, on our way to the last aid station.

Very close to the top. Very steep climb at 11,000 feet. I had to stop often to take a few breaths. A few runners passed me in this section.

I had to stop every few steps to rest for a while and take a few deep breaths before moving again. I guess this is the effect of the altitude. Other runners did not seem to have this problem. They were moving slowly but steadily. A couple of runners passed me, including Nadine.

Hidden Peak (#6) to Finish

I arrived at Hidden Peak in 135th place. I had water and some fruit. The aid station volunteers told us that we had 6 miles to the finish. Mostly downhill with two uphills only.  We started on a service road that quickly turned into a rocky path. This meant more hiking than running.

This was followed by a steep downhill in loose ground where I lost my balance and fell down.

Later, we entered what looks like an Ohio Trail with soft ground and trees. We then hit another very steep uphill in this trail. I passed Nadine who was slower in the uphills but faster in the downhills.  I remember almost swearing at this steep section (“Really? Was this necessary?”)

Finally, we have reached the top of this section and we arrived at a service road going down. I imagine “it is all downhill from here” estimating that we had 1-2 miles to the finish. I passed 8 runners in this section and only passed by one, Nadine. I remember a couple of female runners running together. Then a guy, another guy, and another guy.

We see a sign “To Finish”. I let out a cry of joy thinking that I am at the end. But there is more to go! When I thought we were done, we turned left from the service road and entered a trail which seem to go on for ever. It must have been longer than a mile. I got discouraged and started walking. Nadine seems unstoppable. She  passes two guys ahead. I am thinking I will not pass these guys. I walk, run, walk, run. Finally I start my last running streak with about half mile to the finish. I come behind the two guys who stop and let me pass. I pass another guy.

Finally I see the last turn before the finish. There is a guy ahead of me. I gradually increase my pace. I wonder if I can pass this guy. I run faster and faster. He sees me and he tries to go fast too. I am sprinting to the finish. The spectators get excited. I cross the finish line a fraction of a second ahead of this guy (even though the final results show me 3 seconds ahead). Tony told me later than no one came to the finish as fast as I did. That's a good feeling...

The only known finish picture of me :)  It is a frame grabbed from a video that Liz took.

The race is over. I am handed my medal, a bottle with recovery drink, and a pair of socks. Liz and Tony are there. I am happy to be done. Feeling thirsty but good.

Right after the race with the medal around my neck.

I saw the young Canadian guy (Charlie). He finished at 7:30 in 37th place. He was 10th overall in the first aid station. Quite a race for his first ultramarathon.

The final results ( show me in 127th place out of 304 finishers (and about 400 starters). I am 4th/ 25 in the 50-59 age group, or 6th/31 in the 50 and over (two 60+ year olds finished ahead of me, ouch!) The first over 50 finished in 8:03. First female over 50 in 10:05. Median finish time is 9:31. First Female: 5:37 (new course record), First Male (Sage): 5:13 (only 32 seconds behind his time last year).

I am happy with my race. It appears that I passed 10 people from the last aid station to the finish, 8 of them in the last 2 miles. A strong finish is a sign of a good race.


I felt OK later that day. Had mild quad pain and some pain in my buttocks the next day. A bit more pain the day after than (usually my worse pain is 2 days after a race). It was hard getting down steps (and I had to go to a tour, I was OK walking but had difficulty getting in and out a bus). By the 3rd day I felt a lot better but I was a bit tired for the next week or two (more than usual). Recovery felt longer than my, say, Mohican 50 mile race.

Race Organization and Volunteers

I was extremely impressed by the Race Organization and Volunteers. I know every runner feels obligated to say something nice about the race organizers and volunteers. I often don’t say anything mainly because I get what I expect. But in this race people went above and beyond the call of duty.

•    Registration and packet pick up was fast and painless.
•    The course was well marked. Never did I doubt which way to go.
•    There were race volunteers at key points of the course. Many of them offered words of encouragement for runners, like the guy after/before the Mineral Basin AS.
•    The aid stations were fully stocked with all kinds of food. These days in Ohio often there is no fruit, no cheese, no eggs, just the usual high-sugar "junk:. Speedgoat had everything, including cold water, ice, suntan lotions, etc.
•    The volunteers at the aid stations were great. I was impressed by the guy at the Tunnel AS who was genuinely concerned about my well-being and insisted that I drink a lot of water.
•    The finish was also well-organized, we got some nice stuff and we were done. Results were posted quickly in

I definitely recommend this race to other runners.

Final Thoughts

This was an interesting experience for me, especially the steep climbs, high altitude and rocky running surfaces. I understood a number of things that were a mystery before: 1) Using sunscreen or sunglasses (not needed in tree-covered often cloudy Ohio trails), 2) Using Gaiters (to stop small rocks from getting in your shoes, not needed in most muddy Ohio trails), 3) Using a hydration system to have your hands free to climb using all four (or using poles).

If I had to do this again I might train better by running/hiking uphill/downhill. Finding a long steep dirt road might be the best match for this race. Being able to hike fast is maybe more important than being able to run fast in a race where 2/3 is hiking and only 1/3 is running.

I would also give some thought about shoes. My shoes worked OK for the rocky parts but did not have good traction in the loose grovel dirt roads.

Later that day at the NSA Awards Banquet (with my Speedgoat medal proudly displayed). Photo by Wolfgang Sell.