Woodside, CA-based Scott Dunlap has been an endurance athlete for only six years. But in this short time span he has become arguably the most prolific blogger on the subject of trail and ultra-running while consistently performing well on the race course. Along with his always entertaining race reports, Scott’s interviews are arguably the most popular aspect of his blog. Now it’s time for Scott to sit on the other side of the (virtual) table.
Scott, first off, thank you for agreeing to do this interview. Your interview series is one of the favorite features of your blog for many of us, so this role reversal should be fun. How is your recovery going? [Editor’s note, Scott sustained a knee injury during the recent Tahoe Rim Trail 100 miler]
The recovery is going well, thank you for asking. I felt good at the Sierra Nevada Double Marathon on 9/23, even after adding six accidental miles (whoops – see later note on “always carry a map”). I haven’t quite gotten back to my pre-injury training plan, but so far no issues. That was the first time I had ever been injured, and boy it sure is nerve-racking! But it was good to have some downtime too. I am running with a new appreciation for the trails.
I’m glad you have enjoyed the interviews! I started them a few years back because it felt like everyone I met in the ultra world had these amazing stories, and they always shared tips that I found very helpful. Especially the ones that started “do you know why you are passing out right now?”. 😉
You have been very successful at running marathon and shorter distances and have moved up to ultras over time. Describe your ‘evolution’ as a runner.
My evolution as a runner has largely been a spiritual journey. I started when I was 32 years old, on 9/11/2001. I had just quit my job four days before, which would have put me in New York on that tragic day. Two of my colleagues weren’t so lucky, and thinking about their sudden demise made me wonder if my workaholic lifestyle was really something I would look back on with pride in the last few seconds of my life. I decided to ponder this in depth on the trails near our new home, with Rocky the Pug as my walking partner. Walks turned into hikes, hikes turned into runs, and soon Rocky and were going out for hours at a time. I didn’t consider myself a runner, but then again, this pug was putting in some serious miles too! More importantly, the forest became my “church”, where the rhythm of my steps along the age-old trails helped me find peace and balance in a way I hadn’t thought possible. I found this deep connection with nature, and it put a smile on my face every day.
One of the great side effects of my old job (and that regular trip to NYC) was that I had 600,000 frequent flyer miles burning a hole in my pocket. A friend pointed me to the 2004 Trail Runner Trophy Series with 130 races all over the US , and I thought “how many parks and forests could I see in one season, and how would that change my outlook on life”?. I raced about 18 races in 20 weeks, and met all kinds of great people. Each trail inspired me in a different way, and the longer the run, the better. I brought a camera in hopes to capture the experience as best possible, and the blog soon followed. By late 2005, the ultra bug got me and I started looking for 50k/50m runs in the area. I’ve done a bunch now, but feel like I’m still a rookie at the longer distances. 2007 was the year to tackle the 100. That would have seemed insane two years ago, and impossible six years ago. But there you go. You might be on the same path!
I’m not sure if my race results categorize me as “very successful”, but my state of mind certainly does. I have yet to meet a trail I didn’t like.
Do you have any advice for novice trail runners?
First I would say “congratulations”! The fact that you’ve even decided to start makes you more adventurous than 99.9% of the population. Oh, the things you will see!
On a more practical level, I would offer three tips. First, be patient. It takes a while to get the rhythm of the trail and get your muscles used to all that jumping around. Respect your recovery and ramp up your miles slowly, and you will be a stronger runner for it. Within a few months you will see that the steps come more naturally. Second, have fun! Sign up a for race, but don’t worry about mile splits, place, etc. – just get to the finish line smiling. Once you get a few races under your belt, you can have fun and also be competitive. But don’t ever lose site of the fun part – trail running should be a positive influence in your life, not a duty. Third, always, always, always carry a map. Even if the course is marked clearly, things can go wrong. It is your responsibility to know where you are. I swear I get lost at least every other race.
What does your average training week look like? What are your favorite cross training activities?
I run 5-6 days a week, usually two 8-10 milers, two 6 milers, one set of 6-8 hill repeats (usually my driveway, a 300 ft 16 degree beast), and one long run of 15-30 miles. Most of these are done in a “fartlek” style, where I run relaxed for most of it but go hard for short bursts. I alternate going hard one day, and going easier the next. If I feel fatigued in the morning, I take a day off. There isn’t much structure, really. In early 2007, I did my first couple of 110+ mile weeks, but I was exhausted all the time. I think in general 50-65 miles/week works for me.
For cross training, I do swim twice a week with a Masters class. I’m not very fast, but the swimming seems to “uncompact” the running and help develop my back and core. Oddly, I can keep higher running mileage if I add the swimming. It’s also a good lesson in humility to get my ass kicked by a 60 year old grandma who occasionally shares my lane. I do enjoy cycling too, and will slip in a 1-2 hour bike ride in place of a run for a change of scenery. Plus I carry Sophie around all the time – she’s 24 lbs, so that’s weight training for sure. 😉
What is training like in the Bay Area? How does the sea level training affect your high altitude races such as the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Miler?
The Bay Area is a wonderful place to train. There is a wide variety of terrain, and the weather is quite mild compared to most mountainous areas. You can train year-round. My house is actually land-locked in a county park, so most of the time I just run around Woodside, CA . But a short drive can get you to the Marin Headlands, the Santa Cruz mountains, and the Oakland/Berkeley foothills – each is unique and breathtaking in their own way. It’s really crazy how many nice trails are around here. That’s probably one of the reasons I race “too much” – there are just too many opportunities and I don’t want to miss any.
I do struggle with high altitude races, as most coast dwellers do. I spent a lot of weekends up around Tahoe before the TRT100, which gave me a good sense of how altitude would affect my time (it appears to be 15% slower for the same effort for me). Not sure if I’ll ever get used to it. But the views are definitely worth it!
I’ve learned two things the hard way about high altitude racing that might be worth sharing. First, my hydration needs jump quite a bit. After nearly passing out in the final miles of the TRT50m in 2006 and then coming up 5 lbs light, I decided to run a test and see how much more than the usual 28-30 oz/hour I could drink when running at 6,800-9,000 feet in a dry climate. I ran three hours consuming 45 oz/hour (and adjusted up my electrolytes too) and still came up ½ lb light! That helped me understand how much greater my hydration needs would be for the TRT100 (I drank about 40 oz/hour and was within one lb the whole race). Second lesson learned was that you need LOTS of sunscreen at high altitude. I applied every hour at TRT100 and the Death Ride, and was the better for it. It’s hard to get your energy back if you get a sunburn at altitude.
I have been curious about the use of Viagra among some of the ultra racers I know. Apparently since it is a vascular stimulator, it can help increase red blood count and ease acclimation as much as 10-15%. I investigated it for the TRT100, and had a funny conversation with my doctor about it:
Me – Do you have any concerns with using this Viagra while competing in an endurance event?
Doc – Well, it was made to be used under duress.
Me – What do you mean? Oh yeah, THAT duress.
Doc – But THAT duress typically lasts 10-30 minutes at most. You may want to think about Cialis – it has a 24-36 hour timeframe.
Me – What about running with, you know, an erection? As aerodynamic as that might be, I can imagine it could be uncomfortable.
Doc – If you look closely at the directions, you will see that Viagra/Cialis must be accompanied by “sexual stimuli” to trigger an erection.
Me – What do you mean by sexual stimuli?
Doc – Well, let’s put it his way – I wouldn’t run behind any attractive women if I were you.
Me – Hmm. Ultras always have more than their fair share of attractive women, and many of them run faster than me. I’m not sure I could avoid that.
Doc – It’s worth considering. Once stimulated, the “side effect” could last for hours.
In the end, I decided I had enough issues to deal with for a 100-miler and it wasn’t worth it to add another pharmaceutical and its various side effects (or planned effects). Instead I just came up a week early to acclimate. I’m not sure if it helped with the red blood cell count, but I did notice that I got used to the dry air and sun in the first 4-5 days.
Are there any runners you especially admire or who inspire you?
Sure, there are plenty! I find endless inspiration from first-time ultra runners. Every time a Race Director asks “how many of you are running your first ultra?” and the hands go up, it blows my mind. Once you do a couple ultras you know what you’re in for, but that first one takes a serious sense of adventure (and momentary lapse of reason). We’ve all heard the line – any idiot can run a marathon, but it takes a special idiot to run an ultra. 😉 I think we all understand the hardest part in getting to the finish line is just getting to the start line. The rest is patience, perseverance, and courage – things that are good for the soul to practice regularly. Seeing first-timers cross the finish line nearly takes my breath away. I just want to give them a hug and say how proud I am of them. Now that I say that, it sounds kinda creepy. Is that creepy?
You don’t have to look far to find an inspiring soul in the ultra community. Every volunteer, race director, ultrarunner – I think that’s why no matter how the race goes, it’s impossible to end a race less inspired than when you started. I try to get as many names as I can in those race reports.
What are your favorite foods for training and running?
For 50k’s, I usually stick to Clif Blox, Hammer Gel, Jelly Bellys, and the occasional flat coke. Anything longer then I like some “real food” like PB&J, potatoes, m&m’s, Pringles, etc. For the 8+ hour runs, it’s important that I eat “lunch” around noon, “dinner” around 5pm, etc. –slightly larger amounts of food at those times to trick my body into thinking it got a meal. Otherwise the hunger pangs are very distracting. The folks at TRT100 made Ensure smoothies that were surprisingly tasty, so I think anything goes after 70 miles. I only drink water, coconut water, or flat Coke – for whatever reason, I can’t stomach the mixes and prefer to take electrolytes through S! Caps. I eat and drink during all my training runs no matter how short. It’s important to train your body to expect it.
Do you run with an mp3 player? What do you listen to?
Yes, my iPod is known to accompany many of my runs. The best soundtrack is nature itself (ie, no iPod), but I like to get my groove on from time to time. Most of my playlists are combinations of hard rock (Sevendust, Jane’s Addiction, Foo Fighters, Crystal Method, Prodigy, etc.), down-tempo (Thievery Corporation, Ben Harper, Zero 7, etc.), with some funk and reggae thrown in. For the longer races, I throw in some comedy too. I did a blog entry on selecting songs here.
That’s a really good question, and one I think about a lot. It’s important to seek out adventure in every aspect of one’s life, but how much is too much? In truth, I find that it’s easy to do things you are passionate about even if they take time. Running never seems to be a chore, nor does blogging feel like “work”. But then again, I don’t put pressure on myself to run certain times or update the blog every day, I just have fun with it. And Sophie is definitely a handful, but every hour with her is fulfilling. It feels like all of these things build up my energy, not take away from it. That lets me tackle the CEO role at NearbyNow with a lot more gusto and optimism. It always seems to balance itself out as long as everything is in the mix.
The other big contributor to why it’s all possible is that I have a great support structure. My wife, Christi, adjusts her schedule so I can race and train and I definitely couldn’t do it without her. Similarly, the gang at NearbyNow are some of the smartest and most fun people I have ever worked with, and they don’t mind if I come in to work with flip-flops or head-to-toe Neosporin after a hard race. Sometimes they even give me problems to “go think about on your run”. I couldn’t ask for a better group of teammates.
What kind of traffic do you get to your blog and do you have any tips for aspiring bloggers?
Traffic to my blog varies quite a bit, but typically is about 60-80,000 readers per month. Every once in a while a story goes crazy (like the Toenail Necklace story) and will drive in hundreds of thousands of readers. When Forbes named it the “Best Health and Fitness Blog of 2004”, a million people showed up in two days, but then it quickly went back down to normal levels. The total traffic has always been a mystery to me – there are only about 12,000 ultra runners out there, and maybe 40-50,000 avid trail runners. Something about blogging transcends the subject matter, I guess. That and you can definitely see the Dean Karnazes effect – every time he is in the media, a few thousand more readers show up. I should note that it took a few years to get up to those levels – at first it was about 1,000 visitors/month.
For tips, I’ve noticed a few trends in my traffic patterns that are worth sharing. First, there are few things as important as good, original content. Think about what other people would want to read, and what your experience can pass along. Don’t be embarrassed to say what went wrong – that’s what most of us are looking for! But don’t make it all dreary and depressing – we can turn on the news for that. Second, I’ve noticed a direct correlation between the number of pictures I post and the number of readers. The more pics, the more readers, simple as that. Lastly, be sure to put up buttons so that people can subscribe to your RSS feed (Feedburner is a good free service for this). Although you rarely get more than a handful of subscribers, they will be your biggest fans for sure.
Blogging is very prolific in the trail/ultra running scene. Why do you feel that is?
Blogging is a good venue for long format storytelling, and an easy way to stay in touch with a geographically disperse community online. Ultras have plenty of both of those. If you think about it, a season of trail running is great structure for storytelling. You have a plot line (target races), character arcs (people you meet), a clear protagonist (you), and plenty of adventure along the way. Plus people can give feedback! I bet most bloggers get into it the same way I do – it’s easier to post a blog story than to respond to 50 e-mails asking how your race went.
I think most bloggers share the feeling that trail/ultra races are just too amazing to not record, and that the other runners and volunteers are the most interesting people you’ll ever meet. Each race is an adventure that you share with your comrades in arms (or legs, I guess). At the end of each year, I really enjoy going back and remembering each race in detail by reading the blog entries. It’s like each race write-up is recorded proof that I’ve chosen to live “in” this world instead of “on” it. Then I get all stoked, drink a couple of beers, and fill up the next years race schedule. ;-P
We all know that the best lessons in ultras are learned through the advice of others, and I think that’s another reason why blogging is catching on. There’s no way I could keep up with the likes of Andy Jones-Wilkins, Krissy Moehl, Mark Tanaka, or Jean Pommier, but they graciously share their lessons learned in their blogs and I read every word. I get the same pleasure reading blogs from folks who are back-of-the-packers, sharing tips on how to survive being on their feet for a much longer period of time, as well as all their thoughts and observations along the way that speedier folks might have missed. I also enjoy those blogs from great runner/photographers like Rick Gaston or Chihping Fu who have the eye of an artist – it’s wonderful to be able to see the beauty they see in nature. In all cases, there is much to be learned and shared.
I once sat down to figure out what sites were driving the most traffic to my site, and the answer was “other new runner/bloggers”. I didn’t catch it at first because each new blog sent a small amount of new readers, but then I realized each month there were dozens more new bloggers. I clicked on every one, and it was just great to see them all signing up for those races! I think the growth here has only begun.
Have you had any issues/regrets about sharing personal information in a public setting like a blog?
Blogging is weird that way, in that it is part “diary” and part “story/magazine”. I don’t mind being introspective, and as long as it is honest, it seems to be well-received. Sometimes it downright saves my bacon, such as the case with the Mt. Diablo 50k entry. To be in such an emotional state and have a community of people come offer support via comments just meant the world to me. It can get a bit weird though. I don’t think I will ever get used to meeting strangers during a race who seem to know my life story and I don’t know anything about them. I guess it’s a good excuse to get to know them better!
That being said, I would advise other bloggers to practice some good sense basics. Don’t mention that you “run alone in the park every Saturday” or “will be out of town all next week, come rob my house”. Sophie’s blog is sure to not mention where shoe goes to school, favorite parks, etc. You can never be too careful. It’s usually best not to post your e-mail, phone number, or address too.
Many trail races sell out very early, some even have lotteries. How do you feel about the surge in popularity of trail and ultra running?
Personally, I think it’s great! Then again, I think I’m part of that surge. I had to wait three years to get into Western States (2008!), but at the same time that pointed me to a lot of smaller races that have been a blast. Not sure if I would have found those otherwise. I know much of the recent popularity comes from the Dean Karnazes effect, but how can it be bad that all these people are getting some adventure and fitness in their life? I’m happy to share the trail with anyone adventurous enough to do the distance while respecting nature. If trail running affects even a few of them as much as it has to me, Dean can consider his book a huge success.
You take a lot of pictures during your races, which are always such a great complement to your reports, how much time does that take off your finishes? Also, what kind of camera do you use and how do you carry it?
Ha! That’s a good question. Each pic takes about 30 seconds, and I usually take 20 or so, so I guess that’s about 10 minutes. I don’t think it affects my time that much though, since letting my heart rate recover every once in a while seems to boost my energy levels in the long run (as does focusing on the beauty around me). I made up my mind early that I would be happier with lots of pictures and no podium finish, so I try not to stress about the time lost, if any. It seems to drive other runners crazier than me, like when I miss a age-group win by 2 minutes and say “but look at these pictures!”. I’ve tried some video recently, and boy, that definitely sucks up some time. My guess is that a good video montage will suck at least a half an hour out of a race.
Recently I’ve been shooting with the Olympus FE-230, a slim and light 7.1 megapixel camera. It’s small enough I can carry it in the handheld bottle pouch (Nathan), or in the back pocket of my Sugoi shorts. Sometimes I borrow my wife’s Sony T-3, also a slim camera. Christi is the real photographer in the family (just look at Sophie’s Web site). She shoots with a Canon 10D and is the master post-production expert.
With the popularity of your blog, what free “stuff” to you get? What has been the quirkiest prize you have ever received at a race?
Free stuff!!! I’m all about the free stuff, and generally don’t turn it down. Once or twice a month I get something sent to me, such as books, shoes, clothing, supplements, etc. It began happening in 2005 soon after I was raving about Injinji tsoks (socks with toe sleeves), and continues to grow each year. I let them know that if the product works into my regular training, I will be happy to write about it. If not (or if I didn’t like the book), then I usually just don’t write anything at all. So much of it is personal preference, I would hate to slam a product that might work for somebody else. If you are a blogger that might be interested in getting free stuff, just post a review of one of your favorite products. That will signal that you’re open to that kind of thing, and the PR agencies that focus on new product launches for outdoor products will soon have you on their radar.
Quirkiest prize? I have a couple of rubber chickens from winning races by a local race promoter called Envirosports. That’s gotta be the weirdest so far.
Which paper and online running publications do you follow regularly? And how do you stay current for the purpose of blogging in a timely manner on running topics?
I’m a big fan of Ultrarunning Magazine, Trail Runner Magazine, and Running Times which I read cover to cover. UltraRunning is the best – if I find it in the mailbox, I’m known to sit in my car for an hour reading it! I also subscribe to Inside Triathlon, Triathlete, and Runner’s World largely to follow a few of their regular writers.
Online, I’m really just a maniac with RSS feeds, alerts, etc., which is partially a side effect of being in the Internet business. Although I rarely go to read a particular site, my front page on My Yahoo has 50+ feeds from sites, bloggers, alert services, etc. I also enjoy podcasts on my commute from Competitor Magazine, EndurancePlanet.com, and The Final Sprint. Lastly, I get a lot of e-mails from other runners letting me know of articles they have found, impressive results, rumors, etc. I’m known to sit on race sites after a race has been completed and hit “refresh” for hours until some results come up – always curious to see how everyone is doing!
What are your plans for 2008 and beyond? Do you have any ‘dream races’ or goals you wish to achieve in the long run? (pun not intended)
I usually plan each year one at a time, and try to pick 1-2 “big” races and 1-2 “destination” races, then fill in the rest with races I haven’t run before. I have a slot for Western States for 2008 and will be back for the Boston Marathon, but I haven’t thought of much beyond that. I have some races I would like to do in the next 5 years – Comrades in South Africa , the New York Marathon, the Tahoe Triple, Wasatch 100, Where’s Waldo 100k, and I would like to try an Ironman-distance triathlon. But if you know of some other “must run” races, do let me know!
Thank you for your time, Scott!