Sunday, February 22, 2009

Libyan Challenge

My good friend and fellow VHTRC'er Rebecca Byerly is competing in the Libyan Challenge Master Trek starting this Tuesday. Basically it's a 125-mile foot race through the Libyan portion of the Sahara, self-supported and self-navigated via GPS. This race is NO JOKE. What makes it more significant of an accomplishment is that this is the first American team to compete in the event since relations between the US and Libya have improved drastically in the last year. Check out the press release below, and be sure to track the runners online starting Tuesday.

On February 24th the first team of Americans will compete in the Libyan Challenge Master Trek, a 125-mile foot race along an ancient camel caravan in northern Africa's Sahara desert. Participants will be self-supported, carrying all of their food and medical supplies with only a GPS to navigate between waypoints where they can refill their water supplies. Runners have 75 hours to complete the grueling event. Along the way they will pass prehistoric rock paintings depicting Libya when it was a lush jungle teeming with wild life. Now one of the driest places on earth, the Tuareg's desert-dwelling people are one of the only inhabitants of the desert. Known for their hospitality, it is not uncommon for runners to be invited for a cup of tea beside a Tuareg campfire on an all night desert hike. Clambering over volcanic rock and towering rock formations, the American Team will not only be tested to their physical and mental limits, but they will also have the opportunity to be ambassadors to their country during a time when relations are being built between the US and Libya.

American runners include Bob Lashua 45, Howard Cohen 50, Isabella De La Houssaye 45, JB Benna 29, and Rebecca Byerly 25. Howard Cohen will compete as an individual while Bob, Isabella, and Rebecca will compete as a team. Filmmaker JB Benna and journalist Rebecca Byerly will video the race and cover the story for National Geographic, Al Jazeera, and other media outlets.

"Last September a Libyan friend told me about the race and put me in touch with the Libyan consul here in Washington, D.C.," Rebecca recalls. "Not only did the consul assure me that he could get visas for the team but we also began training for the race together. I thought this was a unique opportunity to learn about Libya while engaging in an extreme sport. Though I had no idea how everything was going to come together, I was determined to have an American team in this year's event."

This it the fourth year the Libyan Challenge has been held but it is the first time Americans have had the opportunity to participate. After three decades of sanctions, the first American Ambassador was recently appointed to Libya and the country was taken off the terrorist watch list. Relations between Libya and the West had deteriorated in the 1970's as a result of Libya's leader Muammar Al-Qaddafi's confrontational foreign policies. In 1986 Libya was allegedly involved in a terrorist bombing in a discotheque in Berlin frequented by American military personnel. As a result the US imposed economic sanctions and retaliated militarily against targets in Libya. In 1988 Libya was also allegedly involved in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people. In 2003 relations improved dramatically after Libya fulfilled UNSCR requirements and publicly announced its intentions to give up its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Sanctions were lifted in 2004 and in 2006 an embassy was set up in Tripoli. In November of 2008 Libya settled its remaining financial debt to the families of Flight 103 and now the US and Libya are working together to bridge gaps and foster new relationships between the Libyan and American people and businesses.

"One of the most inspiring aspects of this race has been watching the mentality of the American team change," says Rebecca. "At first they were hesitant and worried about traveling to Libya, but through research and keeping an open mind their reservations about Libya have lightened." "The opportunity to break down fear and cultural barriers by approaching the country in a very humble way, on foot, outweighed any hesitations," JB says. Bob has similar sentiments, stating "I do not have any reservations about running in Libya, although if I were to listen to friends and family... maybe I should! I've traveled enough to feel comfortable wherever I find myself. I fully anticipate the Libyan people to be warm and welcoming."

Training for the race has been a challenge in its own right. Bob, a Massachusetts native, trained through one of the coldest winters on record. Howard and Rebecca battled injuries and Isabella, a mother of five, barely had time to get the mandatory gear required for the race. "Many of my training treks were done in sub freezing temperatures on roads that had been narrowed by snow and ice" recalls Bob. "It was not uncommon for my water and food to freeze during a training session." Rebecca was only able to begin training in mid January as she was coming off a knee injury and Howard took a bad fall on a training run and wound up in the emergency room. "This could have been a devastating neck injury and I was very worried as I sat in the emergency room waiting for the x-rays to come back," Howard said. "Thoughts of a permanent disability ran through my mind and how it would change my life. But in the end I was okay." Isabella had to juggle being a full time mom, working, and training for the run. One of the best team memories was when she took her 16-year-old son Cason to train with the team on a mountainous 27 mile trek.

"Some people wonder why we are doing this race," Rebecca said. "It definitely takes a special person to take on an event like this. But we take on these kinds of challenges because they offer an opportunity to not only grow as a person, but to make life long friends, and to take steps towards improved understanding between nations. When you are out in the desert it does not matter what country you are from, which God you worship, or how much money you have. We are all out there suffering together with one goal in mind - to cross the finish."

For near-real time coverage of the event please visit the official race web site here:

Within this site you can follow the race live here:

For more information about the race please see the website below:

Youtube channel for the American Team (which will hopefully be updated during the event):

Me and some of the Libyan Challenge first American Team

Friday, February 20, 2009

New sponsor - Brooks Running!

I'd like to give a big shout-out to my new apparel sponsor for 2009 - Brooks Running! On a whim I recently applied to the Brooks Inspire Daily (ID) Team since I know a few friends who are on it. I wasn't expecting to hear back since I'm still new to this whole "running thing", but lo-and-behold I was wrong and I am now a proud ID Team member!

Now this is no "Scott Jurek level" sponsorship... I'm definitely not that good! But I still get a pretty sweet discount on gear while representing a brand whose running shoes and apparel I have been wearing my entire (albeit short) ultrarunning career.

I have been wearing the Brooks Cascadia 3 trail running shoes (and the 2's before the 3's came out) since my very first trail run. I shopped around at different running stores trying on everything I could find. Having a wider foot that gets cramped easily, I found that Brooks' roomy Cascadias were a perfect match for my specific needs. The 3's were a significant improvement to the 2's, offering much better water drainage, lighter weight and enhanced breathability. Being the gear junkie that I am, I continue to try on new shoes at every chance I get, but still nothing compares to my trusty Cascadias and I don't see myself switching anytime soon, even for the brutal terrain of MMT. I haven't gotten my hands on the new Cascadia 4's yet, but don't you worry I'll have my hands (err... feet) on them soon.

Cascadia 4's. Don't they just look fast?

Aside from the shoes, two of my other apparel staples are the Infiniti shorts and the Vapor Dry 3D 1/2 Zip Jacket (which has unfortunately been discontinued).

Thanks again to Brooks for having faith in an up-and-coming newbie like myself and for making simple yet amazing trail running shoes!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Race Report: Holiday Lake 50k++

Holiday Lake 50k++
February 14, 2009
Appomattox, VA

On Saturday I ran the Holiday Lake 50k++, the first of six ultras I will be running this year that comprise the Beast Series. The "++" after the 50k indicates that these miles (or kilometers in this case) aren't standard issue miles, but they are in fact Horton miles. Horton miles are special because even though David Horton is a Ph.D., he apparently does not know how to measure distance properly. This particular 50k measured out to be 32.3mi on my GPS, but previous versions of the course were known to run upwards of 34mi.

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Runners gathered at the 4-H Center the night before the race for a pasta dinner and typical Horton antics. In addition to being the location for the race's start, middle and finish, the 4-H Center features a full cafeteria, bunkhouses and hot showers - the perfect amenities for a race.

Horton giving the Friday night pre-race briefing

Saturday morning gave us an early race start, 6:30am, so it was necessary to don the headlamp if you wanted to avoid tripping on roots in the dark. Too bad I brought my cheap headlamp that had a nearly-dead battery. It was worthless. I think I would have been better off carrying a jar of lightning bugs.

Marc Griffin and myself at the start

T-minus 1 minute or thereabouts

After a group-singing of the national anthem, Horton yelled go and we made our way into the darkness. The first 0.6mi was on paved roads so I used this time to find and situate myself behind a runner who was running my pace and had a bright light that I could mooch off of. That plan seemed to work pretty well and as soon as the sun poked its beautiful head out I started picking off runners with my favorite phrase: "on your left". Temperatures started in the low 30s and slowly creeped into the 40s as the day progressed - perfect weather for fast running.

Lately I have been running plenty of 50k's but they have all been run at a slow and easy pace for MMT training. Today I was taking a different approach and giving it my all to assess my current fitness level. My previous 50k PR was a 5:18 set at Potomac Heritage in October (my first ultra) and I know I have gotten faster since then, so my goal was to shoot for sub-5. I focused on keeping my heart-rate at the appropriate levels and not worrying about my placement among other runners.

I wonder how fast I would have been had I not carried a camera and took pics?

Sunrise on the Holiday Lake course

The first lap (a tad more than 16 miles) was flat, fast and fairly uneventful. I ran straight through the first two aide stations, quickly filled my water bottle and grabbed a piece of banana and PBJ at the third and was on my way. At one point I came across Jeremy Ramsey, winner of last year's Hellgate 100k and member of the Inov-8 ultra team that was rolling deep at today's race. Passing him seemed out of place for a newbie like myself, but I just assumed he was having a bad day so I continued on my way and thought nothing of it. As I got closer to the turnaround, the front-runners started passing by and, although I didn't care about my placement, I started counting runners to keep my mind off the somewhat hard pace that I had been holding. One, two, three... eight, nine, ten, TURNAROUND. Seriously? Just 10 people ahead of me? I thought I was going to be counting to 30, not 10. I was in 11th place?!? Well then, looks like this race just got interesting.

At the turnaround Horton was yelling something at me but the only words I heard were "top 10". Hmmm, temptation to push the pace was calling, but I held back and stuck to my plan. At the next aide station I stopped to fill my bottle and again Horton reappeared, this time proclaiming "Bobby, you're in 11th place. You're the first loser! The next guy is 1.5 minutes ahead. Go get him!" I'm not one to disregard orders, especially those coming from the Race Director, so off I went up the hill, this time with a bit more pep in my step. Screw the original plan!

Running around the lake, on Valentine's Day. Holiday Lake - get it?

After about 2 miles I caught sight of the 10th place runner. I slowly picked up my pace so that I could eventually pass him in a comfortable pace without sprinting. The overtaking occurred just after the next aide station. He had slowed for a cup of water and I kept at full speed since I was carrying all I needed. I kept a strong pace to get some distance and get out of sight so he wouldn't be tempted to re-take 10th. I looked back periodically and the plan seemed to be working.

Image courtesy of Andrew Wilds Photography

During the last few miles, the strong pace and the flat course had me wishing for a hill so I would have an excuse to walk for a bit. Ingesting a GU packet every 45 minutes seemed to be working in terms of energy levels, but now my right hamstring was just barely starting to cramp. I had been taking an S-cap electrolyte pill every hour, but with this cramp I popped another and it seemed to help slightly. Then, with a mile to go I came upon a small hill came and I relished in the opportunity to walk. It felt marvelous...

...until I looked back and saw someone just 100 feet behind me! F*CK! I suddenly got that adrenaline kick that is all-too-familiar from my skydiving. This sprint up the remainder of the hill was a good start, but with the high of an adrenaline kick comes the low as it fades. I felt the energy drain out of me as the runner (Graham Peck) slowly approached and overtook me. I had just enough energy to muster out a "damn", but with that Graham gave a wave of the hand and said "come on!" - he wanted a fight!

We busted out our 6-minute-mile paces (no joke) and gave 100% effort to the finish. He pulled ahead by about 100 feet, and as we turned onto the pavement it was a half-mile downhill battle to the finish. I leaned into the hill, and with what seemed like no fuel left in the system, I was running off of pure grit and determination in hopes of earning a top-10 finish. It was the longest half-mile I have ever run. Thoughts of tripping and the resulting carnage crossed my mind. When I thought he had won it, we approached a steeper section and I once again leaned into it, taking full advantage of gravity and the extra weight that I carry around compared to other ultrarunners. Graham looked back as I started to close the gap. With maybe 100 yards to go and 75 feet between us, reality sunk in and my 11th place finish was finalized. I crossed the finish in 4:10:50.

Finish line shot courtesy of Andrew Wilds Photography

Holiday Lake 2009 results

The feeling of defeat in the fight for top-10 hurt for maybe two seconds until I realized I had shaved an hour and eight minutes off my previous 50k PR! It was the hardest effort I had ever given in a run, probably by ten-fold, but damn did it feel good to completely blow away my sub-5 goal!

Me and Horton - the man, the myth, the runner

Justine Morrison - fellow VHTRC'er and overall female winner

Inov-8 Team members: JB, Kevin Lane, Clark Zealand and Jeremy Ramsey

Q and me sporting the lovely Valentine-themed finisher's shirts

Final standings:
11th of 257 starters and 248 finishers (final results)
7th in age group (age group results)

One down in the Beast Series and five to go. We'll see if my beginner's luck holds up...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Training Run Report: TWOT '09

It's official. I am no longer a TWOT virgin! Now now, get your minds out of the gutter you pervs. I'm referring to my first time running The Wild Oak Trail, aka TWOT. The event is technically a 100 mile run (4 x 25mi loops), but few people attempt more than 1 or 2 loops due to the beating that you ensue from the killer climbs. Needless to say, Keith Knipling holds the course record for 4 TWOT loops with the ridiculously fast time of 27:11:10. Being a TWOT virgin and with my Holiday Lake race next weekend, I opted to run just one loop. Smart move I must say. Below is the course from my GPS.

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I carpooled down with some friends who are preparing for the upcoming Libyan Challenge. It was forecasted to be 60 but at 7:30am the temps hovered around freezing, so we chose to stay in the car until go-time.

The Libyan Challenge American Team and myself before the start. Why am I the only one in shorts?

2009 TWOT Runners at the start

We headed out at 8am in the clockwise direction. Within a mile it warmed up significantly and I shred my headband, gloves and arm warmers. *Sigh of relief* For the first few miles I was running with Sophie Speidel, Marc Griffin and Marlin Yoder, all of whom had run these trails before, so as seems to be the norm with my training runs I was getting a full on guided tour of the TWOT loop. Eventually this became known as Sophie's Tour de TWOT. The TdT was extremely helpful because part of the trail is run on the Grindstone 100 course that I'll be running in October. It's never too early to start training, right?

A group on our way up Hankey Mountain

Top of Hankey? Should've payed better attention to Sophie's tour.

I was relieved when we got to the top of Hankey Mountain. It was the first of 3 major climbs that we were to encounter throughout the day, but unfortunately it was the easiest (see elevation profile below).

8500ft of elevation gain. Sweetness!

As we descended from Hankey we came to the first aide station of the day (at Camp Todd I believe). This was a total surprise to me since I thought the entire event was unsupported. Thanks go out to Dennis Herr for not only organizing the run and being a definite ultra-legend, but also for the unexpected aide that hit the spot. The sandwiches, gingersnaps and gatorade were a welcome to treat to say the least.

We left the aide station and began our ascent of climb #2, Big Bald Knob. This climb sucked. Energy management with ultrarunning tells you to walk the hills, but I don't think it would be physically possible to move any faster than a slow walk up at this point. Just prior to the top we leveled off for a bit and I made an ode to TWOT in the snow.

Snowy TWOT

We also ran into Sean Andrish since he was running in the reverse direction. Even though we ran into him after our halfway point, he still finished first for the day with a time of 5:57, so he must have had a late start (either that or a teleportation device).

Sean and Marc

The descent from Big Bald was fun and fast. I took a video around this part to show how beautiful the trail was with fresh white powder on the ground. There's something about running on snow while wearing shorts and a tshirt that makes me all warm inside. There's also something about quickly melting snow that makes my shoes all wet inside, but that wasn't really much of a problem since I had on my Drymax socks and those suckers go from drenched to dry in all of maybe a quarter mile. Seriously, try a pair if you haven't already. I love those socks!

Dennis showed up with aide station #2 (of 2) right as we approached the bottom of Big Bald, and just in time to prep us for a stream crossing followed by the ascent up Little Bald.

Sophie trying desperately to not get her feet wet. She obviously hasn't learned of Drymax socks yet!

"Are we *gasp* at the *gasp* top yet?" Yes.

Reaching the top of Little Bald was a fantastic feeling. I wouldn't say I was totally beat up at this point since I had been running at a fairly conservative pace all day, but it was nice to know that the climbs were over and it was smooth downhill running for the remaining 6 or so miles. We cruised on down from there and finished our loop in 6:41. My Garmin read 27.23 miles, so it was slightly longer than the 26 I was told, but I'll gladly take extra mileage any day of the week! (watch these words come back and haunt me)

Marc, Sophie and myself after some great TWOT action

An ice cold river makes a great ice bath substitute!

Finish line festivities

These crazy fools went on to do 2 loops! Mitchell's pants provided enough light for them to run into the wee hours of the night.

Kirstin, Jill and Debbie - the Sassy Lollygagging Ultra Tarts (get it?)

Me and the JMU mountain-bikers who opted to do the loop by foot for a change

At this point you might be asking yourself "So what happened to your Libyan Challenge crew?" Well, they spent the day running/hiking the TWOT course while wearing fully loaded packs to simulate what it will be like running in Libya. Needless to say, killer TWOT climbs + heavy packs = slow pace. I hung out at the finish after everyone had left, knowing that they'd be showing up at some point. The sun started to go down and I started to worry since I knew they didn't bring headlamps or flashlights. Two runners, Barb and Vicki, had come in from their loop not too long before dark. They took a short break to put on some warmer clothes, gathered up all the headlamps and flashlights they could find and headed back out to find the Libyan Challenge crew and bring them light so they could safely navigate their way back. Barb and Vicki were no more than 100 feet onto the trail when I heard Rebecca calling from the distance. Safe and sound! Whew, what a relief! Isabella and Cason (her son) had a train to catch back in DC, 3 hours away, so we jumped in the car and booked it back. I put on my teleportation skills and got them back with 10 minutes to spare.

Libyan Challenge crew throwing their stuff into the car for the pleasantly-smelling ride home

All in all, my first TWOT was a huge success. I took it easy and still finished in a respectable time (although Tommy C gave me a hard time since he's an old man and he finished before me). Thanks again to Dennis Herr for organizing the event and bringing aide when it was least expected! Special thanks also go out to Vince for having hot soup at the finish. That hit the spot.

Honk honk!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Quick weekend update Feb. 7-8

Popping in real quick to give a very brief recap of the weekend. Got in 27 miles at TWOT on Saturday in 6:41, then did 5 skydives out at West Point on Sunday. My camera with my TWOT pics is at a friend's house, so I'll post those shots and a race report on Wednesday. In the meantime, here's a quick video from Sunday's jumps. I shot the footage from my helmet-cam and Ahmed edited it all together. For not having jumped in 4 months, it's nice to see we didn't suck too bad!