Our 2017 Sabbath Year

I previously wrote about principles that guide our family’s thinking about the concept of a sabbath year. Those principles were written to be generic enough that they could apply to all of our future sabbath years. While I’m sure we will iterate these ideas over time as we learn from experience, they represent the current thinking.

The next step is to take those principles and apply them to our current life state in order to come up with a specific plan for our 2017 sabbath year.

I predict that every sabbath year will look slightly different, because every period of life offers different circumstances. For example, having young children to take care of is going to make a year look much different than a year in which there are no kids to take care of.

To start, here are some of our current life circumstances that we think will impact the year ahead.

Circumstances To Account For

  1. We have three young kids – 3, 2 and 10 months old. So any year we plan must take that into account. Along with the fact that children are already a ton of work, which will make resting difficult, many things that might be relaxing for adults are a ton of extra work when kids are added to the equation. [Too long. How about: Children are a lot of work which makes resting difficult. Furthermore, many things which might be relaxing for adults alone provide tons of extra work when children are added to the equation.] If I were single, living in a remote cabin in the woods with no electricity or running water might be really relaxing for me. I’m not certain that doing so with three young children would have the same effect.
  2. My wife is pregnant with #4 – Our next baby is expected to arrive in early November – month 5 of our planned sabbath. This means that we need to account for the months leading up to that when my wife is pregnant, tired and somewhat limited in the physical activities she can participate in. We also have to plan for the actual delivery of the baby and the period after that while my wife’s body recovers. Finally we need to account for the period of newborn sleepless nights and getting the family’s new routine in place – I’ve found it takes 3-6 months after adding a child to get back in a groove.
  3. My employer agreed to a six month leave of absence – For the last six years I’ve been working at a startup that I joined as #10. In that time it has grown between 20-50X depending on which metric you look at. We’ve had a great employee-employer relationship, and, as I approached this sabbath, I brought up the discussion to see if there was a better option than me outright quitting. We agreed on a six month unpaid leave of absence with a few different possibilities for how to engage after that. Being on a leave of absence comes with a number of super helpful advantages for our family. The flip side is it also means I won’t be non-working for a full 12 months as I had originally planned. We decided the pros outweighed the cons – more on this later.
  4. Starting the sabbath in Seattle – Despite popular opinion and the thoroughly data backed analysis I produced, Seattle is not always grey and rainy. For about three months of the year it is one of the nicest places on earth, bursting at the seems with natural beauty, amazing events and comfortable weather. Those months start as our sabbath does which gives us an amazing opportunity to enjoy them.
  5. Renting our current home – This might seem minor but actually gives us a ton of flexibility. If we owned our home, we’d be on the hook for a mortgage or finding a renter. Because we’re renting, we can potentially live somewhere else temporarily without much financial downside. We do have to be cautious about how much extra work (and thus not-rest) moving would create though.
  6. Flexibility to end somewhere different – We have been living in Seattle for two years and aren’t sure we are going to be here long term. Because of that, if we chose to spend the sabbath somewhere we enjoy, it might not mean a move back at the end.
  7. A number of planned events – As we looked at the calendar for the year, we also noted a number of planned events – a family reunion, a few weddings, a marathon (or three) and all our usual holiday convening. Though there is some flexibility around all of those, considering them would be part of our planning cycle.

Tentative Plan

With those circumstances in mind, we laid out a plan for how the year would unfold. We are breaking it up into four periods, each of which will cary extra emphasis on a specific subset of the principles. The idea is to create a natural progression through the year.

Period 1 – Rest and enjoy

3 months – July 12 – Oct 12

The focus of this period will be unwinding from current things, resting and enjoying the chapter we are in. We plan to spend lots of time outside and with people we love.

There are a number of specific events we’re looking forward to and we have a list of cool things in and around Seattle that we would like to see as long as we can do so at a relaxing and restful pace.

We are figuring out what the family routine will look like, but the tentative plan is to make time for each parent have a few hours of alone time every day to exercise, read, think, visit with friends, etc.

Most days will include a family activity: a short hike, a trip to the museum, a visit to the splash pool, etc. This will be similar to our current Saturdays.

There will still be a lot to keep up with having three kids three and under – wake up/nap/bedtime routines, meals, diaper changes, dishes, garbage, cleaning, etc. Having two hands on deck should mean we go from a feeling of constantly underwater to one of sitting above it. That alone should allow us to feel more relaxed and then having a few hours per day of alone time will be a welcome and enjoyable change of pace. Our responsibility will be to use it in a restful & enjoyable way. I would personally like to make a dent in my pleasure reading stack.

Period 2 – Going Lean

3 Months – Oct 12 – Jan 12

The focus on this period will be stripping back the unnecessary in order to create more space for the critical.

This will be made easier as we’re having another baby, which tends to force that sort of prioritization for a while.

I actually do a super nerdy thing where I list out all of my life priorities and assign a priority level from p0-5 (zero is the highest priority). Lately I can only focus on items p4 or lower, though periods of DEFCON 3 pop up where I have to temporarily ignore those.

During this period I plan to operate on DEFCON 1 or 2 such that I am only putting attention into the highest priority items. This means that unlike the previous period where we will be traveling and sightseeing some as a way to enjoy, in this period we do not plan to do that. I have a few things I already know I need wrestle with, like the New York Marathon and Star Wars 8 coming out – neither of which are p2s for me.

Our current plan is to live on the East Coast in my wife’s hometown for this period. We’re excited to spend extra time with family and experience a new location. The relocation should also assist with temporarily dropping lower priority items as it creates a proximity lever.

The family routine during this time will probably look a lot like a normal day in the previous period, except I expect my load to be much heavier as my wife prepares for and recovers from childbirth. The biggest impact will likely be the lack of big adventures and a change in how we spend non-child raising time. I expect I’ll be sleeping whenever possible as opposed to trying to read much and I will be avoiding new projects like the plague.

Period 3 – Looking Around

3 Months – Jan 12 – Apr 12

The focus of this period is taking a broad look at what is possible. There will be a lot of data collection but not much action. The goal is really to make sure we have as comprehensive as possible a picture of what our options are for the next six years and as detailed as possible a view of what those actually look like. To answer the question ‘what is the life we want to create for ourselves?’

Scanning isn’t something we avoid in regular life but it isn’t something we’ve been able to put a ton of effort into due to daily tactical responsibilities. Instead of the detailed dossier I want to have, what we have now is an unwritten (until now) list of rough ideas we think are interesting – running a surfing retreat, starting a tech company, being the first family on Mars, opening a artichoke farm, becoming a nomadic family, etc. The goal is to finish the period with a more detailed description of what those lives look like – what type of work would we do, how would we spend our days, what would our finances look like, what things must we give up, what are the biggest difficulties, what are the risks, etc.?

We know a lot about what it takes to live in a West Coast city, work for a tech company and live a fairly normal life. We like that life pretty well, but while it gives us plenty of chance to exercise certain skills and passions, it leaves others atrophied. How might we create a life that allows us to utilize all of our talents and passions? Does it require minor adjustments or an overhaul?

There is a ton of ambiguity about what our days will look like in this period. We have no idea where we will be living, when I will resume work, how much I will be working or the specific type of work it will be. Because of that, is it hard to plan much. We trust that details will fall into place more as we get closer.

On the topic of returning to work half way through the year – I debated this one prior to and after finding out about my company’s offer for a six month leave. My conclusion was that even though the verse that inspires much of this sabbath year principle talks about resting our fields for a year, it is the spirit and not the details of the law that are important. I had a friend take a sabbath year where they continued to work, but intentionally scaled back and held off on certain projects – that can be as much of a sabbath, or even more, as a year of not working at all but doing many other things that feel busy. In this spirit I am fine with returning to work, but would likely look to set up the first six months in a way that was conducive to the sabbath year principles – either fewer hours, less strenuous projects or staying in familiar territory rather than taking on bold new ventures. This will be an area I will have to pay close attention to.

Period 4 – Looking Ahead

3 Months – Apr 12 – July 12

The focus of the final period of the year will be planning for and beginning to enter the next six year cycle. During this time we plan to take the short-list of potential lives that we developed in the last period, narrow it down to our final selection, and begin to break down potential next steps. Though I don’t want to get started on that path until the sabbath year is over, knowing what it is will allow us to prepare for it specifically in our prayer, rest, reflection, conversations, and re-entry planning.

Much like the previous period, we don’t have much clarity as to what our days will look like in this period because we aren’t certain where we will be living, what the details of my work will be, or what we will be preparing for. We do know that around five months into each new child’s life is usually the time we start to feel like we arrive at a new normal – so this should be a great time to get the engine started up again.


Conclusion

The four periods of our year flow through a progression of unwinding, stripping back, scanning, and planning. Though all seven of the sabbath year principles will be present throughout the year to some degree, some will be overemphasized during specific periods. Three (a sabbath to the Lord, rest, and a year set aside) will be general and consistent themes throughout the entire year. Four (enjoying this chapter, pausing things, living without, and evaluating) will be overemphasized in specific periods.

We are really looking forward to this first experiment in taking a sabbath year. I suspect it will be the hardest since a) it’s our first attempt and b) we will have four kids under the age of four. We should learn a lot from it though and will look forward to improving the concepts and applying them in future sabbath years.

What Does A Sabbath Year Look Like?

For 2017 I challenged myself to define & launch a sabbath year. This is a concept I’ve been thinking on for the past ~6 years but as the start date has been getting closer, my need for a clear definition been increasing.

In the last month I’ve been talking with other people a lot about this upcoming sabbath. Two people have poignantly asked me, ‘what does success look like for you?’ Though I had a rough idea, I realized I needed to think on the concept more. Endeavors a squandered less frequently when they have a clearly defined and measurable goal defined before they start. While I can’t say I do this with every endeavor I undertake, it sees particularly important for one that will cost a year of time and over $100,000 between opportunity & actual costs.

Here I want to explore the general concepts of a sabbath period as could apply to any period in my life, or really that of anyone else as well. In the next blog post I will discuss my plans for this year’s iteration and how I plan to apply these principles.

Why a sabbath year?

The concept is Biblical – it dates back thousands of years. The verse that most explicitly discusses the concept is from Leviticus 25 – it says:

25 The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.

That was part of the law of the Jewish people, something they were supposed to follow precisely. Some still do, many don’t and some practice compromises with varying levels of ridiculousness.

For a contemporary Christian, the old testament law is interesting. Most, if not all of it, is no longer considered the law, the same way an updated contract supersedes an old one (which is why Christians are ok wearing polyester and eating shell fish). I don’t believe the sabbath year stands as a law to contemporary Christians, but I do believe that much of the Old Covenant still contains great wisdom. As a child I wasn’t allowed to eat candy for dinner, as an adult I now can, but that doesn’t mean it is a good idea. Many of the laws of the Old Testament, even if they stop being a law, continue to provide value today because of the fact that people still struggle with the same basic things we struggled with thousands of years ago; greed, anger, jealousy, false idols, sloth, etc. These are the things that law was designed to protect against and so we can learn from that law in order to find ways to protect ourselves from the same things.

I think there is a reason that God would tell His people to rest their fields. The simple argument is that this is a good agrarian principle to replenish the soil. I think it goes beyond that. If you are a farmer, as the majority of people were between when this was written and today, resting your fields inherently means a lot of things about how you spend your time that year and the years preceding. The full depths of which I believe lay beyond speculation and require experimentation to understand.

Did they still labor at all during those years? What did they do about multi-year crops? What about their animals? How should my rest relate to the work and rest patterns of people from the past? What should I be doing and how much of it should I do? These are some of the questions I started with as I built my principles.

Sabbath Year Principles

What is the purpose of a sabbath year?

  1. A Sabbath to the Lord – At the heart of the sabbath is the concept that it is set aside and holy. It is not supposed to be aimless, but God-centered. The sabbath rest is not its own foundation, but rather it is a rest designed to allows us to focus on the foundation of everything else in our lives.
  2. Rest – Rest is good. It is good in itself and it is also good for productivity. Just as we rest some hours of every day, some days every week & some weeks every year – we should have restful years every so often as well.
  3. Enjoying This Chapter – I plan to retire eventually – to have the means to longer need to work for an income. Thinking about my life as a single unit, I realized that I don’t want to save all of my retirement years for when my body is old, my mind is less sharp, many of my friends are dead and my kids have moved away. Given the chance to have N years of retirement, I would rather spread them around and enjoy various phases of life – some when I’m young, some when I’m middle aged and some when I’m older.
  4. Pausing Things – A year set aside for rest creates a natural chance to stop doing many things. Some of those things might be sustained only on momentum, some of then might be things we realize we do not need to resume after the year concludes.
  5. Living without – The extra time I will have during a sabbath year comes at the cost of not having extra money. Because of that, we will have to learn to live without certain luxuries. This contrast creates room to learn and grow. It is a natural defense against hedonistic adaptation – the tendency to get used to what you have, however nice and new it is, until you eventually take it for granted. Living without certain things will teach us where we have room to become more efficient & highlight where we need to be more grateful.
  6. Evaluating – Planning something large usually involves three levels of thinking – visionary, strategic and tactical. It is hard to be in more than one mode at any time and truth be told, it is really hard to get out of tactical thinking when every day seems overwhelming. Taking a year to step back from many day to day tactical concerns will help create room for more strategic and visionary thinking. It will help to evaluate priorities, understand how our life aligns with what we value, and, if needed, make adjustments. It is a check-in to make sure we do not head down a slightly askew path for too many years, only to realize that we are not living the life we desire.
  7. A Year Set Aside – The time spent in sabbath should be observably different than normal periods in the way time is spent and attention is focused. No year is without any rest or any evaluation, but the sabbath year should be filled with it to the point of overemphasis in order to increase our affinity with it. Over time, practices from sabbath periods will make their way into normal periods, but that simply gives opportunity to further differentiate the next sabbath year.

What is NOT the purpose of a sabbath year?

  1. This is not a long, photogenic, vacation full of expensive trips, exciting activities and endless consumptive fun.
  2. This is not our family’s only chance to try new things, like; living in a new country, experimenting with a new career, etc. Those are things we can do any time. Though we will certainly have extra time during a sabbath year, trying new things often requires a lot of work and thus go against the goal of resting. If trying something new is a priority, we should make appropriate room for it during a normal year.
  3. This is not our chance to rebalance investments in our priorities. It is hard to invest in everything appropriately when urgent matters push aside important ones, but saving the sabbath year as a time to rebalance will likely create the wrong effect long term. Balance should be continual.
  4. This is not our only way to implement big changes in life. We can at any point make big changes – we do not need to wait for a sabbath year.
  5. This is not a time to take on big projects that we weren’t able to do during other years. This is not a chance to write a book, build a house, start a business, train for some new big race, etc. Through the process of rest and evaluation, we might be inspired to a new idea – if so, we should plan to start off the first year of the next cycle pursuing that goal.

What does failure look like?

  1. Rest that is not God-centered – To neglect the top item on the list, even while satisfying the others, would defeat the core principle of the year. The purpose of the rest and reflection is align our lives more fully with our faith.
  2. Neglecting rest – This is the one I will most easily fall into. Given a vacuum of space, I will attempt to fill it with accomplishments and projects. Doing fun or interesting things that are a lot of effort will result in time that isn’t actually restful. If that happens I might end the year tired, which is not the right way to start the next six years.
  3. Not making the year different enough – If the year looks like any other year, it has not been set aside properly.
  4. Failing to evaluate – If we do not take the opportunity to realign with our priorities and think about how we can best achieve our long term goals over the next six years, we have wasted an opportunity. If we simply return to the same life without having explicitly decided to do so, we have not appropriately reflected. This is the lowest concern, because if we have accomplished the other three, we have done well, just not as well as we could have.

What does success look like?

I want to enter the next six year period like a coiled spring, planted on a firm foundation, pointed towards the priorities our family values the most.

The rest will give us a chance to wind the spring up and ensure the coils are tight. Our foundation in faith and values will be fortified, giving us a stable launching pad to depart from. The pausing of the unnecessary and lean living is a shedding of weight that would hinder our flight. The evaluation & reflection will allow us to calibrate our aim towards the proper target.

Race Report: Dispea 2017

On June 11, 2017 I ran the 107th running of the legendary Dipsea race. I finished in a time of 1:02:04.

Goals

  1. Finish/Survive – ACCOMPLISHED
  2. Qualify for 2018 – ~150 spots – ACCOMPLISHED – with 136 to spare
  3. Average heart rate 170+ – ACCOMPLISHED – averaged 177 BPM
    • 160+ on the Downhills – ACCOMPLISHED – 175+
    • 175+ on the Uphills – ACCOMPLISHED – 180+
  4. Sub 1:05 – ACCOMPLISHED – 1:02:04
  5. Top 25 Open Section – ACCOMPLISHED – 21st out of 796 runners
  6. Do not walk or speed hike – Not Accomplished – 3 sections of speed hiking, 2 forced
  7. Sub 1 hour – Not Accomplished
  8. Top 1% Course time – Not Accomplished
  9. 55:00 – Not Accomplished

Successes

What am I proud of from race day?

  • Completed my first trail race
  • Really strong effort, dug deep & kept pushing
  • Managed to stay upright the whole time
  • Maxed my heart rate at 192 – haven’t seen 185+ since college
  • Really let go on the paved downhills – max of 3:37/mile pace
  • Busted a heel grab over the photo-op hurdle near the end
  • Played it safe through the Swoop to avoid injury
  • Brought a frozen water bottle to drip on head & keep cool

Failures

What areas could I improve for future races?

  • Had too much left in the tank at the end
  • Did not push hard enough for the final stretch of the cardiac hill
  • Got lots of poison oak on my arms & legs

Thankfuls

What that was out of my control am I thankful for?

  • My amazing wife for signing me up and letting me disappear for the weekend
  • The race director for accepting our bribe
  • Other runners I drafted behind during various sections
  • 107 years of history that make this a great race
  • Volunteers that cleared the trail, handed out water, blocked dangerous parts & cheered

Frustrations

What that was out of my control do I wish had happened differently?

  • Bottlenecks, especially through the Sun Trail & Dynamite sections

Race Recap

The following is a detailed account of my race day. It is long. This is my way of paying it forward to future athletes & documenting it so I can remember later on.

Pre Race Day

After a number of years of failed attempts to get into the Dipsea, I had given up. My wife, however, had a different idea. Towards the end of last year she got a hold of my friend Chris to figure out a race we’d want to run & they agreed this one would be a good race and nice chance for a weekend away. So for Christmas last year, this was her present to me. (We’re minimalists, so gifts that aren’t ‘stuff’ are our favorites).

I found out I was accepted about six weeks before the race and realized I had zero specificity for a short (7 mile as opposed to 26.2 mile) trail (as opposed to flat asphalt) run with 2k ft of climbing (as opposed to pancake flat).

I scrambled to turn a few of my interval days into hill-interval days, got one practice run on the course and fortuitously got lost during a long run which allowed me to log a few trail miles to prep my stability muscles.

That would have to do.

I wasn’t sure how I would do, not having raced in nearly a year, so I set a range of goals. I had checkpoints lined up for a ~1:00-1:05 finish but knew I could be anywhere from 0:55-1:10 based on comps to other runners.

The Starts

The Dipsea has one of the most unique race starts I’ve ever heard of. There are ~50 groups that start one minute apart and runners are seeded based on a handicap system that accounts for age and gender. The first group to start includes men 74+, women 66+, 7 year old boys and 6 year old girls. It then works it way back until the last group – men age 19-30. More info here.

Not only that, but there are two sections – the invitational, for runners that previously ran & qualified goes first and then the open ‘runner’ section for everyone else goes second.

I started in the very back group of the runner section. The last group to cross the starting line that day.

The benefit is I got to enjoy watching all of the other groups start. It is pretty cool to see the groups and get to hear the announcer praise the accomplishments of various runners – including winners from recent years and those running the race for the 50th+ time.

My Start

After a short warm up I lined up with the young guns. I debated starting in the very back, just so I could pass everyone, but remembered my lesson from last year’s NYC about getting fancy on race day and decided instead to toe the line – literally.

The pack took off fast, I noticed we were at 5:10 and backed off to my planned 6:00 pace for the relatively flat half mile until the dreaded stairs. There were probably 15 guys ahead of my from that group – only one would remain ahead of me until the end.

The Stairs

The Dipsea race has many reasons to be famous, but the stairs tend to be one of the more dreaded and well known. At 688 stairs in total, runners climb the equivalent of over one third the Empire State Building.

My goal was to use heart rate as my guide – take the first set at 160 BMP, the second at 165 & third at 170. The top of the third set was a checkpoint, I planned to cross is at 8 minutes.

I started up the first set, staying to the left to pass people and was logging 175. By the second set I had gotten bottlenecked, both lanes were moving slow, so I hopped off the steps and sprinted up the dirt to the side, I was now crossing 180 BPM. I got past the bottleneck, sprinkled in a few steps of speed walking up the steps but generally held to 180 through the third set. I crossed at 7:10 – 50 seconds faster than planned. I was worried I’d gone too hard.

Cresting The First Hill

After hitting the top of the stairs I had my first moment of digging deep. Most runners were backing off the effort a bit as they reached the road and continued to climb to the top of the first hill. I held my resolve, eager to make the most of the section of wide road which was perfect for passing people. I averaged 167 BPM and was holding to under 9:00 pace despite the 10%+ grade.

Down To the Bridge

We hit the peak, around the 1.2 mile mark, the course hopped onto the Sun Trail, a single track dirt trail with some ruts from the rain over the previous winter. I tucked in behind two runners that were trying to pass the crowd but we got really blocked up. Despite going downhill we were moving at 12:00 pace and my heart rate had dropped to 163.

I finally stepped into the brush and jumped over a bush to get around a slow pack and got onto the asphalt. We were looking at about a half mile of paved, wide open road at a 10% downhill. I decided to test my mettle and open the throttle. I clocked that section at at 4:50 mile pace, averaging 180.

My goal was to get to the bridge by 18:00 – I hit the next trail section at 15:45 and wasn’t quite sure how far it was. I knew I had lost some time on the Sun Trail bottleneck though.

I tucked in behind a runner that was hollering people out of the way and followed him down the ‘Suicide’ shortcut – which is basically a steep dirt embankment you try and fall gracefully down. I darn near nocked over a 13 year old boy who was stalled at the top.

I picked up some speed and ran through the Muir Woods parking lot at 5:15 pace, clearing the 5 steps in one stride as I tried to pass people before the trail got bottlenecked again. I hit the bridge in 18:05 – just a hair behind pace. I’d lost my edge but was still doing well.

Then came the pain.

Up To Cardiac

The next hill is the biggest. Remember those 40 stories of stairs at the beginning? That was half of the first hill’s climbing. This hill was twice as long and steep as the first hill. In total it was two miles that climbed 1,200 ft.

It starts off with Dynamite – a steep section of switchbacks on muddy trail through a lush green forest. The trail was completely bottlenecked, I tried tucking behind people but there was just no room to pass. I then tried getting around people by running off trail but was burning myself out. I hit 189 BMP – a rate I hadn’t seen on my watch since college. I couldn’t maintain that so I backed off, resigned to move with the pack and save myself for the fire road that was coming up.

We averaged 16-18:00 per mile through Dynamite and when I hit the road I picked it up to 10:00 pace. My goal was to do the two miles in 11 minute pace and get to the top by 40:00.

There are a number of path choices up the hill and I opted for the wider, though often slightly longer trails to avoid bottlenecks. I ended up averaging 10:00 pace and 180 BPM through the main part of the trail and passed a good number of runners.

When I hit 4 miles on my watch I wasn’t sure how much climbing I had left and was getting a bit discouraged. That final steep section really knocked me out – 0.2 miles at 19%. I speed hikes a few really steep sections where tree roots made the footing hard, averaging 13:45. In retrospect, this is one section I could have pushed harder through if I had confidence where the top was and what the other side looked like. I averaged 178 and should have pushed through the top bit around 183-185.

I crested the top at 42:00 which was 2:00 behind plan. That would put my finish in the 1:02-1:05 range depending on how fast I went downhill.

Starting Down

The downhill starts off a fairly mellow rolling trail at around 5%. The views of the Ocean are beautiful but between the wind making my eyes tear up and rocky footing, I was 100% focused on not tripping. I averaged 6:40 and 176 through that feeling pretty strong but getting noticeably less sharp mentally.

I had no idea where I was going at this point, but thankfully had people in front of me continually so I just ran towards the next runner as I overtook each one.

I eventually hit a split in the road and had to stop to figure out where I was going. It took me a second to figure out which way the short one was – my mind was going. I got going pretty quick down the steep stairs for a bit before catching a runner in a blue shirt – he waved me past but I made the wise decision to stay behind him. Drafting meant I wouldn’t get lost, would have someone helping clear the path and would likely be going at a slower (and safer pace).

I only averaged 170 through that section, but am ok with it. A wet, steep, winding path I’ve never been on before is not the place to push myself as I hit exhaustion.

Even with that safe approach I hit a rough patch and rolled my left ankle a bit. I took at easy for a few steps and decided I would keep going. I was pretty sure it would swell up later, but it seemed good enough to finish on.

The Final Bump

The last climb is a short but steep climb that taunts runners who are exhausted. It is aptly named ‘Insult Hill’. As we approached it a young kid I had just passed kicked it into gear and went flying up the hill. I was a impressed.

100 feet later he was walking. I passed him and made a quip to which he defeatedly admitted that was a horrible idea.

I hit 186 by the end of that minute and that kicked me into gear for the final 1.25 miles.

The Last Downhill

The final mile alternated between paved roads and trails that cut between curves in the road. The trails were not very worn, most sections looked freshly trimmed back and teeming with poison oak. I was letting loose on the roads, hitting around 5:15 and doing the best I could on the trails to keep moving without flying into the bushes.

As we popped into the bushes for the second time I overtook a runner and realized that for the first time that day I couldn’t see anyone in front of me. I was running around 7:00 pace on a deer trail with no idea where I was going. Thankfully I stayed on the right course and made it out.

The Finish

Before getting on the road for the last quarter mile, the trail drops you off at a wooden railing you have to jump over. I was having enough fun at this point that I busted a heel grab and got a laugh from the onlookers.

I ran the final quarter mile drops 120 feet. I ran it in 4:21 pace averaging 185 BPM. I hit the finish at 192 and nearly passed out – I don’t think I’ve hit that level of exertion in a decade. I even looked back at hard workouts over the last few years and the highest I see is 185. I found a gear I forgot about for the past decade and it feels really good to know I still have it.

Post Race

Into the ocean to try and get the poison oak oil off of me. A light cool down so I might be able to walk the next day. Then three hours of chilling on a picnic blanket in the sun recapping the race and watching the award ceremony.

Because of the crazy handicapping & starting system, depending on how you count it, I either got 2nd, 9th, 21st, 22nd, 71st or 614th. (2nd in my start wave, 9th fastest time in the runner section, 21st place in the runners section, 22nd in my age group, 71st fastest time of everyone and 614 was the number I crossed the finish line in)

Since I started in the very back, I went from 1,400th to 614th over the course of the race, passing around 750 runners over 7 miles, which works out to about 1 every 50ft.

Data Breakdown

It wouldn’t be a Greg post without a few charts. Here are a few of the interesting bits from this race.

This is the distribution of race times for everyone in the runner section – those that didn’t qualify the previous year. I’m pretty close to the front, only a few people had faster course times, only one from the group I started with.

When I add in the runners that qualified last year I move towards the peak of the bell. The interesting thing about the way qualification works is that 600 people qualify one year but of those 600 only 450 will be able to qualify again and the other 150 come from the fastest among the other runners. You would think this would make the qualifying harder every year but it actually looks like it stays quite stable.

Looking just at my age group, I’m much closer to the middle. That speaks in part to the caliber of the race and in part to my newness to trail running. 

Looking at my Strava data – a few things pop out. First the pace varies widely – par for the course. Second, my heart rate is relatively steady except for the places I got bottlenecked and pushes at Insult Hill + the finish. Third, my cadence is a great way to show where I fought bottlenecks and wasn’t dictating my own stride – the tremors in the pink line highlight the difficult spots, the most obvious and long lasting being the start of the second uphill.

Looking at just heart rate I notice a slight downward trend from mile 2 through 5. Part of that is from exhaustion going uphill & the rest because once I started heading downhill my limiter was footing and not my heart, part of it was exhaustion. I clearly found a second wind though as I hit the final climb.

I love isolating the pace, look at that range – 3:20 per mile all the way to 22:20. I have never experienced so much variance in a single race. This was one of my favorite aspects of it and a big reason I’m looking more towards trail races in the future. Road races have become predictable – set your pace and hold it, then hope your energy systems don’t fail. There was a lot more to think about in this race including footing, passing strategy, optimal-though-not-even energy output, etc.

The zoom in on cadence reveals a few more things. The spike before mile 2 is the suicide shortcut. I hit 230 steps per minute through there because you’re basically just trying to control a fall down a dirt embankment. I later had a few other sections of quick foot movement on the downhills. I believe those helped get my legs into a gear that allowed me to finish well – look at that increase during the final quarter mile – I crossed the line at 212 steps per minute – very high turnover for me.

The Strava course record is held by the runner who has logged the fastest time each of the past few years. I compared my time to his to see if there were any sections I was weak at.

From the looks of it, he took the start slowly, relatively so, as his time really doesn’t separate from mine until the stairs. In this chart, the pink line indicates how far ahead of me he is at any point in the race – higher means farther ahead.

There is a spike where I got bottlenecked on Sun Trail & things stay flat on the downhill section I raced. Most of the big climb looks fairly steady until the final hill – I knew I hadn’t pushed hard enough there and the comparison shows it.

The only section I gained anything was at Insult Hill, and it was only briefly. Perhaps he stopped to help someone. The finish section is actually relatively flat – I was really moving through there so it isn’t a surprise.

The good news with the mostly steady progression is I don’t have a glaring flaw (or I share the same flaw he has). The bad news is I don’t see any low hanging fruit to improve – I’ll just have to do it the old fashioned way.

What is Next?

The top ~150 people from the open section get invited back next year to run in the invitational section – I got 21st. That means if I come next year I’ll get to start earlier, with faster runners. I might even train for this as my ‘A’ race for the year – I would love to attempt to break one hour.

I really enjoyed the trail aspect of this as well as the varying hills. On a track or road race I mostly check out and just hit my paces. Here I had to focus to switch gears between sections of sprinting on the road, quick turnover climbing stairs, long slogs on the dirt uphill and careful maneuvering through tight trails. That variance feels like a breath of fresh air to my running life and is something I’m interested in. In addition, running on trails lets you spend more of your time in beautiful places.

Plus, most of the really long races are on trails – so I’ve got to get good at them if I ever want to compete at the 50 or 100 mile distances.