Okay, I’m saying it – 2019 was my best year of running yet. From a R2R2R in the Grand Canyon, to The Canyons 100k, to the magnificent Alps, to my first hundo in Tahoe, the whole year was the most magical and amazing journey that I could have ever asked for. And while there were some struggles and challenges for the future that materialized as well, I am going to stay focused on the positive right now and be thankful for everything that went down in the past 12 months. I am feeling incredibly blessed to be a part of this amazing community and sport. I’m changing the usual format a bit and going with my Top 5 Runs of the Year, followed by Five Goals For 2020 in a subsequent post.
The year was packed full of amazing runs and it was honestly a bit challenging to pick just five. I completed five major races in the year (including one in Italy!), but you’ll notice that only one formal race made it on the list below. That is indicative of where the evolution of my trail running is going – yes I am still focused on a few key formal events each year, but I have also enjoyed exploring and expanding the joy and adventure that the trails can bring. Fatasses, adventure runs, and quality time with my wife are all on this list and I hope to continue that trajectory into the future. So without further ado… here we go!
#1 – The Tour du Mont Blanc
No questions, no doubts in my mind – our five and a half day circumnavigation of my favorite mountain massif in the world is my top Run of the Year. This effort resulted from one of those rare perfect storms of life – a month already in the mountains getting fit and acclimated, all the proper refuges frantically booked at the last minute, and a week of French sleep-away camp for our bilingual boys. What materialized was an absolutely epic week with my wife, doing what we love doing the most in the world – spending quality time in the mountains with each other. We woke up early each day and hit the trail, forgetting about the usual stressors of our life like work, kids, and schedules. Our only real objective was to make it to the next refuge on the tour each day. Often we rolled in during mid-afternoon with enough time to kick back outside and gaze up at the captivating glaciers before us. It was like an ultra-runner’s version of Club Med – relaxing, rejuvenating, and refreshing.
I still want to try to do it in a single push one day during the UTMB, but honestly this pace felt pretty much perfect. We never felt pressed or pushed and we were able to slow down and look around as we went. We saw all of the trail in daylight, including the section over the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme which we passed through in blizzard conditions with our son in 2010. Yes it’s crowded, and yes people snore in the refuges at night, but these mountains are pure magic y’all – if there’s any way you can ever make it over to do something like this, I highly recommend making it happen.
- Prologue: Les Houches to Les Contamines
- Day 1: Les Contamines to Rifugio Elisabetta
- Day 2: Rifugio Elisabetta to Rifugio Bonatti
- Day 3: Rifugio Bonatti to Champex-Lac
- Day 4: Champex-Lac to Montroc
- Day 5: Montroc to Les Houches
#2 – Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon
This was a somewhat spontaneous solo trip in April of 2019. I had originally planned to “stay/run-cation” my Spring Break and pile up some miles in the East Bay hills, nut it kept raining, and raining, and raining. I even tried to head out to Diablo one day and could barely even muster up the motivation to get out of the car. So I rented a cheap Chevy Malibu from Hertz and hit the highway for an adventure in the Grand Canyon.
I knew a little bit about what I was getting myself into, but I was honestly not entirely prepared for the magic and sacred space between those canyon walls. Being solo for over 13 hours added to the meditative nature of it – I don’t run with music or other distractions, rather preferring to focus on my own breath and steps. The time melted away and my neck got sore from staring up at the soaring sandstone walls. I battled snow for the final mile heading up to the North Rim, ate a bit of food, and then turned around for one of the most glorious descents I have ever encountered on two feet. The buttery singletrack just kept going and going as it clung to the canyon walls. And finally, after crossing back over the river for the second time, I began the slog back out the the south rim, topping out just as the sun was going down. They say that the canyon changes people, and I emerged that day a humbler man with a revitalized passion for life and in awe of the natural world around me.
STRAVA LINK: Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon
#3 – Ultra Trails Lake Tahoe 100 Miler
The journey to my first buckle has been a long and steady one, just like the 31 hour effort that I threw down in the mountains alongside Lake Tahoe in October. I didn’t want to rush my distances in the sport, and I wanted to hold a proper amount of respect for the first run that would take me into triple digits. I knew that if I could pull off a solid summer of running in the Alps then I would be prepared for something as challenging as the inaugural UTLT for my first hundred. 21 starters toed the line at 5:30 AM as we embarked on a journey that would take me to 105 miles with over 20,000 feet of elevation gain, all between 5,000 and 9,000 feet of elevation. I picked up my amazing wife and life-pacer at Mile 62 and we headed into the frigid, sub-freezing night, making sure that we stayed moving and making forward progress. After literally screaming into the forest in the middle of the night that there was no way I could go on for another 11 hours, I pushed ahead for the next 10 hours and 45 minutes to become the sixth (and last) official finisher. The group that was assembled and waiting for me at the Start / Finish line literally brought me to tears. It was without a doubt one of the greatest accomplishments of my life.
If you’re looking for a fabulous Hundo for the fall of 2020 I highly recommend this race. Chaz and Epic Endurance Events are good people and they put on a quality European style race. It’s not for the faint of heart – be ready for steep ups and downs, at altitude, with beautiful sweeping vistas of Lake Tahoe. Despite this being my first, this is not really a beginner’s hundred. But anyone with mountain experience and miles in their legs should not shy away from this course!
STRAVA LINK: Ultra Trails Lake Tahoe
#4 – Zak’s Groundhog’s Day Lupe-fest
As mentioned above, I did a good job at integrating more fun, big days of running that were not official formal races this year. Zak’s Groundhog’s Day Lupe-Fest was a prime example of that success. It began as a crazy idea by one of the local East Bay Quadbangers – we would run a Big Backyard style event on a 3.1 mile loop in Tilden Park, piling up the vert at just about 900 feet per lap. The first lap started at midnight on Groundhog’s Day, and Zak tallied 15 laps by the time the rest of us called it quits. The only real rule was that you had to start and finish a lap within the hour – people came and went as the day (and night) rolled by, huddling around the campfire and sipping cup-o-noodles in their 8-10 minutes of downtime each lap. It was a magical community experience, and I met friends and local runners that I continue to run with on a regular basis. The 2020 edition promises to be exciting as Zak himself has declared that he is going for the full 24 laps.
I’ve talked about it a lot, but it’s the friends and community that keep me on the trails week after week. They are my chosen family and I am so thankful for the hours and hours that we get to spend together in beautiful places like the East Bay Hills. Doing the same 3.1 mile lap all day long was a strangely meditative process, and the Lupe-Fest is one of the runs I’m looking most forward to replicating again in 2020.
STRAVA LINK: Groundhog’s Day Lupe-Fest
#5 – Friday Night Date Night – Mount Diablo
As you can see, some of my best memories of the year have involved running with my wife, and this one is no exception. The planets aligned on a Friday night in May and both kids had sleepovers for maybe the first time ever. The possibilities were endless – we could go out to dinner, go see a movie, go to a show… But we did what any ultra-running couple would do of course – we headed out to Mount Diablo and crushed a 23 mile night loop.
One of my goals in 2019 was to get better at running at night, specifically training for the Courmayeur race as well as the hundred in the fall. Night time running is a different beast (literally sometimes) – the noise, light, and distraction of the day is replaced with a calming, soothing darkness, along with a whole new array of critters and sounds. We had the park of Diablo completely to ourselves, and being on the summit near midnight was a magical thing indeed. It’s fun to have trails that you know well enough to head out on in the darkness, and I was somewhat impressed that I navigated the whole loop without really ever getting turned around or lost. And most importantly we maximized our date night, getting a big training run in AND getting some time to ourselves!!
Strava Link: Friday Night Date Night – Mount Diablo
And there you have it… my Top 5 runs of the year. Stay tuned for the next installment of my year in review, where I set and discuss five major goals for 2020!
Mat, What a great summary: I laughed, I cried, I am inspired!