nick cifuentes - the running fool

As a an ultra athlete, I tend to got lost in the emptiness the sports provides. The vision that someone could go miles and miles, and not be phased by the void the sport can place you in. Depending what level of challenge you prefer (50K, 50M, 100K, 100M, etc); you often have quite a bit of time to consider what you are doing. And it’s quite often some kind of pain will come attached to the journey, and how you maintain your strength and progression can be something that many question before, during and after the race is over. It’s always easy to give up, but ultra athletes have this amazing tenacity to push through multiple levels of pain.  And a team at the University of California in San Diego is studying how to build resilience and train your brain to be as tough as your body.

Martin Paulus, a leading player in the effort, has put a team together, who has for the past five years, have employed advanced imaging tools to understand the difference between normal and ultra-resilient brains. 

The goal, then, is to train your brain to anticipate, and not overreact, to unexpected stress. For example, take a whitewater kayaker, it means staying calm and making the right strokes after getting caught in a hole; and for a runner, it means pushing through the pain to stay on pace late in a race.

The most promising technique is one that’s already familiar to many professional and ultra athletes, meditation. And with that, there are similarities between mindfulness and the state of focus that athletes achieve through long hours of repetitive training. The state of mindfulness can help push your endurance to new levels, and with our brains trained properly, we can do amazing things beyond what most people imagine. 


About a mile out of the Hell’s Gate aid station, I took in one last view from the top before sprinting back down into the madness that is the Zane Grey. The beauty that spanned across the Arizona horizon, was all being witnessed by a handful of lucky runners that were able to run the 2013 Zane Grey 50 along the historic Highline Trail, a race that I had spoke about for more than year amongst friends, I was finally able to experience it for myself.


In the early AM, runners began to crowd the Pine Trail Head around 4am. I arrived quickly with some friends that we made the day prior and rushed to the start line. It seemed like seconds, but suddenly, the race had started. I broke away with the second group of “fasties” and made good headway into the first climb. The dark was quickly squashed with light as the sun broke the horizon; our headlamps were only needed for what seemed minutes. It was during the first climb where you could shed the lumens and start to see what this trail was all about.

When you consider trail running, and apply a difficulty level to it, you think of it being a bit technical, weathered, a few rocks, etc. It was within the first eight miles you realized that this race would be unlike any race you most likely ever ran. A dirt trail, replaced by earth that was shaken, and from the ground rose small and large boulders that filled that filled nearly ever square inch of this 52 mile trail. And it was within those first 8 miles I could feel the effects. My shoes, Altra Superiors, began to rip a bit away from the soles, rocks nagging into the side of my foot with each step and barely enough solid ground to really call this a “runnable” trail in most people’s eyes. I started to think a bigger shoe should have been in order, but I wasn’t going to detour just yet.

It was about eight miles in and I hit Camp Geronimo aid station pretty quickly. During this time, for some reason I began to think about the preparation for this race and how training wasn’t ideal with quite a few big events in my life the past few months. Moving from San Francisco to Portland, OR in the past year, mixed in with time off for getting married, a honeymoon, holidays, and the last minute move to Portland thrown in the mix because of work; my training was packed into the last month and half in a hurried style. Not ideal, but I made it work. I only had a little time to wander on it, after a quick bottle refill from my wife, I sped right through, pushing up at a good pace, passing quite a few folks, I noticed my place in line heading up the biggest climb. I was feeling in the zone and it didn’t take that long before I hit Washington Park, mile 17ish; I was feeling good, did a quick bottle exchange with Kitty (my wife), grabbed a few potato chips, a couple salt tabs and was off. I chugged an entire bottle on my way out of the station, running with the two-bottle strategy, each holding about 24 ounces. I glanced back and saw quite a few folks hanging in the aid station, but knew lingering too long would give me troubles later with time.

It was the next two areas where the race really started to heat up, and the course began to take its toll on me. It was about 8 miles later when I ran into Hell’s Gate Canyon with the thought this could be a long day. It was about 3 miles earlier where a rock ripped through my Superiors, making them near useless. I had about a 1/4 of my instep hanging out of the shoe those next few miles, which did make it painful. Rushing into mile 25, I had dunked my head in ice water, had to take a few minutes to slip on new socks and shoes (Altra Torin’s, slightly heavier, but a bit more support), and eat a bit. I was still in good shape time wise, but those last 8 miles I had to slow the pace down a bit. It was between here at Hell’s Gate, and Fish Hatchery, mile 33, where things are a bit of blur. I remember it being pretty hot, rocky, and the trail began to get a bit more technical with quite a few ups and downs to trudge through. My energy was high though; it was about three hours into the race when I started eating gels every 30 minutes to keep the energy high, and it seemed to be working well. I knew things were going too well at this point, something was bound to happen, and it did, of course. It was once prior and once post mile 33 on two different down hills where I ended up twisting my ankle, once in an excruciating manner. And which would prove to slowed me to a hobble at certain points in this 11 mile stretch, until I could stretch it back out and push past it.

I’ve always had issues on down hills and with this kind of terrain; it wasn’t going to make me feel any better. I was frustrated with the pace I had to slow to, but thankfully I was still in a good place mentally. I hit the radio checkpoint about two miles outside of Fish Hatchery where they had an ad hoc water station, I was dying of thirst here and running on near-empty, hot water, and was thankful for a quick refill and kept moving. About 20 minutes later I rolled into Fish Hatchery, ate some potatoes with salt, drank some GU, had a couple of salt caps and grabbed a third bottle and rushed off. I wasn’t worried about placement any longer, I knew just finishing would be a good enough treat for me. The ankle did start to swell a bit, but I continued to push past it. I ran strong, for what pace I was keeping, but each downhill aggravated the ankle more and more; but pushed through. Those next 11 miles were hot and extremely rocky, and even had some fun when I encountered a rattlesnake in the middle of the trail. Rather than tempt fate, I found my way around it via the brush off the trail. This section was a bit lonely too, I had no one in front or behind me for some stretch, nor could I see anyone in my sights, giving me some time to think about the race and how important it was to me to finish. I kept thinking, "this run is very hard", which was front and center on the website when I signed up nearly eight months before. It made me proud to be here in this moment, despite the ankle pain.


We’re trail runners, mountain runners, we see the words "this run is very hard" and claw our way to a computer to sign up in time before it sells out. If this sort of running were easy, everyone would do it. That’s exactly why they don’t, it’s not. And Zane Grey, although probably not the hardest run out there, I’d say some of the Hardrock course and running in the San Juan Mountains would put this race in the second hardest very easily, but it’s hard to argue with what was advertised. Heat, rocks, Arizona wilderness and 52 miles of the famed Highline Trail is what stands in front of each runner’s path to stardom. I was just excited to say I was able to conquer one of the most difficult races in the country. And the talent was there to match, this race was seasoned with the likes of Montrail legend Mike Foote and Arizona wonder boy and Adidas Ultra-King James Bonnett, who ran this course in 2001 when he was 14 by the way. Mixed into the elite field you had some talent, Jamil Coury, Chris Price, Jason Leman, Kerrie Bruxvoort, Dom Grossman, the list goes on. They say the very talented stay away from this race because of the fact that it’s not something you can call a 50-mile track meet, which many ultras around the country turn into for the elites. When your winner takes nearly 9 hours to finish, you know it’s going to be a long day for the rest of the 124 runners from around the world.

After a quick emotional wash during those 11 miles, I finally made my way into the last aid station, See Canyon, around mile 44 or so. It was only another seven miles that stood in front of me. I had a quick shirt change, sunblock, a little ankle treatment, and I was off. I shed the third bottle and went back to two, kept a good pace out of the aid station and caught up to quite a few folks and we all ran together for a bit. Not much chatter, but this part of the trail had some of the most beautiful views on the course, and as each mile ticked down, mentally, everything started to feel better. It was as soon as the “1 Mile” sign showed itself, a renewed pace was found. I kicked it into high gear and took off, a few more ups and downs were in the way, but once you heard the finish line party, it was all over. I rolled into finish and crossed the famed two rocks that mark the finish line.

In the end, despite some ankle issues, I was able to finish just under the 13-hour mark and in the top 50 overall for the race and I’m pretty damn happy about that. It didn’t meet my original goal going into the race of sub-10 hours, but nonetheless, I was thankful. The post-race festivities were great, with some good people, beer, and food. I’m not sure I’ll make a repeat appearance at next year’s Zane, but will be back for my sub-10 in some year to come. 



There is something beautiful about reaching the end. For years, I’ve piled through miles of road and trail each day, some with friends, strangers; all plowing toward the same goal, an end. 

I’ve been lucky over the past few years. It was only about six years ago when I began to tire of the sport. Running since I was 15 years-old, it had a sacred sense of being to it. Being alive, being free, being able to burn through stress and life’s over-exertion. It’s allowed me to unleash something special over the years. A calm, collected and casual me. 

In the midst of this update, I can say that life has changed a bit over the past year. For one, I was married in November, holidays and honeymoons took over in December, and then preparing to move to Portland, OR on a whim in February led to an entire new adjustment to the everyday. 

It’s happened, it’s done. 

As my one and only and I continue to transition, I’ve used this time to rekindle that sense of calm that running so greatly presents to my soul. The peace of running and training again has given me my calmness back. My speed and consistency continue to grow, my endurance is creeping along. Consistency i’m spelling, verticals I can manage with just enough mileage. My history of over-training since I was in college seems to have plagued me in recent years. My friends would know me as the start fast, fade late kind of racer. Up until my last race before exiting San Francisco in January, I was able to finish 4th and hold with the leaders for the majority of the 50K race in Rodeo Beach. Speed and stamina intact. 

Well, we now have a new season upon us and finally, the first race is days away. Zane Grey, a race run along the famous Highland Trail, this 50 miler is amongst the toughest, roughest and most beautiful trail runs in the country. 


Ready, yes.

I have bigger goals for this year, most notably some of the following:

Forest Park 50K - May

Worth The Hurt 52.4 (San Francisco Marathon 2x) - June

Squamish 50 - August

Wasatch 100 - September

Dick Collins Firetrails 50 - October

TNF Endurance Challenge (San Francisco) - December

Let the games begin. 

2,272 miles. That’s the second most amount of miles I’ve ever done in a 7-month period. Since January 1 of this year, I made a promise to myself to improve my running, both mentally and physically. Now, with just 4 days remaining until my first 100 Mile race, the excitement and anticipation has me more nervous & anxious than I have ever been for any race.

The road had been long, since The North Face Endurance Challenge last December, my performance was squashed by stomach issues halfway through the race that slowed my finish. Although my best 50 Miler time to date, it held me back from an even stronger performance that I left out there that day. As we always have to do in the running world, shake it off, there is always tomorrow. 

So in order to align the best plan for “tomorrow”, I laid out a training strategy, with much help from my coach, Joe Grant, and went full steam ahead into the next 7 months, pouring through miles, hills and climbing (as much as the bay area can offer).

Fast forward to today, my fitness and running are at the strongest they have ever been. My newfound confidence has landed me in the top 15% in practice races over the past 6 months, including a first place finish in a 50k.

I’m not a professional, I’m nothing really that close to one. Do I wish I could be? At times, oh yes. Doing what you love for a living, breathing it in every morning, that’s a special feeling, reserved for those who can reach that plateau - one day. :D

I’m a marketing professional. I do love that as well, it’s something that translates well for me, and through running I’ve been able to reach further in my career from a mental standpoint, something I would not have been able to do otherwise.

So instead of my continuous rambling, i’ll do what I always tend to do when I come back to this blog such as vow to write more, do proper pre and post race reports, take more photos of runnning journeys and all the amazing places that comes with it. First up will be a pre-race TRT100 report, in a few days.

Until then, run hard and run happy

Didn’t have a chance the past few days to push any updates to this blog, but here we go:

Friday - 45 Minutes - Easy - 6 Miles

Saturday - 4 Hours - 22 Miles - Rolling - Easy Pace w/ a few big climbs (Slowed the pace a bit because of the group we went with, but also helps with 100 Mile training)

Sunday - rest

Monday - 70 Minutes - 10 Miles w/ 10 x 10s up Fort Mason

It’s official! Running my first 100 Miler @ the Tahoe Rim Trail this July 21, can’t wait!

Thursday 2 Hour Headlands Run was cancelled due to not getting enough sleep the night before. So, headed out to do a fast 65 minute run, which netted similar results, just opposite side of the spectrum:

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