Category Archives: Writing

Sweet, Sweet Loving Music: This Writer’s Dream

As some of you know, I’ve been quite busy writing about music. There is a certain depth and lushness to words that describe great pieces of music, and the singers, songwriters and musicians who bring them to our ears.


My music writing days go back to the beginning, when I was the second teenaged journalist allowed backstage at San Diego Sports Arena (or whatever it’s called now) to interview bands. Cameron Crowe was the first, two years before me. Cameron had had a nice career arc, writing for Rolling Stone at 14, then writing Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Jerry Maguire, and one of my favorites Almost Famous. If anything put a lump in my throat, it was Almost Famous — especially the scene of the young writer William Miller trying to get backstage in San Diego. That same backstage door has opened for me… and it has closed, too.

salas cover low resThe music writing has really picked up. Two years ago, my old North San Diego County friend, Stevie Salas, contacted me to help him with a memoir about his year touring with Rod Stewart. When We Were The Boys became a fine, fun, edgy memoir, a real add to music literature. It was also my most intense collaborative memoir — we wrote it in seven weeks. It’s done well since its release in September 2014… and is a great choice as you rev up for summer festival season. BTW, Stevie is playing Lollapalooza in Chicago at the end of July…

More recently,  I finished my novel, Voices, a father-daughter-daughter story set against a reunion tour by a legendary rock band. This took seemingly forever to write, mainly because I loved soaking into the musical atmosphere so much, and tinkering with the 50 songs I wrote in the personae of my protagonists (Tom and Christine Timoreaux). I couldn’t let it go — something I do not advise my clients to do. When you hold onto it too long, what looked good turns into an automatic rewrite. We’ve grown as people and authors, and we see things a bit differently — no matter how long the manuscript has been in the drawer.


Marty Balin (left) playing in April 2015 with Jefferson Airplane bandmates Jack Casady (center) and Jorma Kaukonen. Jefferson Airplane’s first concert was August 13, 1965.

To give you an idea, I first came up with this idea in 2001, when Jefferson Airplane founder and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Marty Balin and I were walking down Haight Street in San Francisco, talking about his memoir. I told him I wanted to write a novel called “The Voice” — his nickname when psychedelic rock launched in San Francisco 50 years ago. He gave me some great ideas, not to mention stories to repurpose. Fourteen years later, it’s going to see the light of day. Look for it soon.

Speaking of Marty, I’m preparing to reconfigure and expand his memoir we wrote in 2002 into a full-fledged biography. When you peel away the claims of people who say they launched psychedelic rock, one name stands above all: Marty (also, a nod to the band The Charlatans). He was the catalyst for psychedelic rock and the Summer of Love. He was the first to use the term “psychedelic rock” publicly. His band, Jefferson Airplane, was the flagship group of 1965-67, #2 among all rock bands in album sales, topped only by The Beatles. The Airplane was the first San Francisco psychedelic band to get a major album deal. In fact, they were the official headliners at Woodstock! Marty also owned The Matrix, which in 1965 was one of few places to allow electric instruments. It also was the first SF stop for many bands, including The Doors, Steve Miller, Love, and many more. Behind it all was this quiet man with a high tenor voice implanted by the angels. His ballads, particularly “Coming Back to Me”, “Count on Me” and “Miracles”, are on more than 50 film soundtracks. Now, Marty is going to finally get the credit he’s deserved for 50 years, though he’s far too humble to claim it himself.matrix-jademuse

Then there’s a real labor of love, helping my longtime friend Robert Munger on his music-oriented screenplay. Can’t go into detail right now, but we’re wrapping the first draft of the script, and then polishing it.

Finally, my new client Lory Jones presented me with an awesome novel to edit, and I mean awesome. It’s centered on a famous 18th-19th century composer, but you’ll have to guess which of the Big Five since I’m not at liberty to discuss. I love classical music almost as much as rock, especially the way it takes us on journeys one minute, and into full appreciation of the grandiosity of the musicianship the next. The Big Five were the rock stars of their era — Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Haydn (or Liszt, Vivaldi, or Handel; take your choice).

Why do I love music writing so much? For starters, music is my hobby, poetry is my passion, and music ties them together. I love all parts of it —composition, instrumentation, delivery, shaping of performances, emotion it engenders, and of course, the lyrics. Whenever I write about music, I’m mindful of the dual origin of lyric and music in the west, through the magical pen of Sappho, the 7th Century BCE Greek genius. She wrote in lyrics, poems and short prose, and her successors took her example into both writing and music.

Most of all, I love the personalities and stories behind songs and bands, and we all know that great stories make great reading. Music, like surfing, baseball and art, cranks out endless great stories. When you put these together, the story can resonate with millions — because we all like music. It is the world’s most universal language, and I like using my writing to prompt that deeper, unspoken form of communication we all instinctively and intuitively understand.


As you start figuring out your summer reading choices, I invite you to pick up When We Were The Boys this year, and look for chapter excerpts from Voices and the Marty Balin biography on and as we close in on publishing dates that are ideal for any music book — tied to the Golden Anniversary of psychedelic rock and, in 2017, the Summer of Love.




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Who Are Your Top 10 Favorite Writers?

Today is a fun blogging day — a couple of “10 Favorite” lists.

I make these lists about once every, well, 10 years. They not only show who influences us most deeply as readers and/or writers, but also who grabs our hearts, minds and souls. The 10-year period between lists also shows how we’ve evolved as people. Several on my lists have remained the same over the years, but one or two invariably switch out each decade.

That said, who are your 10 favorite writers? Also, since it is National Poetry Month, who are your 10 favorite poets and/or essayists? Mine are listed below, with a quick bit about each.

Please use the comment feature on this blog to let us know who your favorites are, and why (at least for a few of them). We’ll post a composite of the responses at the end of April.

Bob’s 10 Favorite Writers, in no particular order (except for number one):


T.C. Boyle

Jack Kerouac — My all-time favorite. ‘On the Road’, and ‘Dharma Bums’ are classics of his tireless stream of consciousness writing. Did you know he wrote ‘The Subterraneans’ in 72 hours — and included a 1,200-word sentence in there?

T.C. Boyle — a mastermind of fiction and short story. He’s carried the mantle among American short-story giants since Raymond Carver died.

Anne Rice — I’m not so hot on her books (except for ‘The Vampire Lestat’ and book one of her ‘Christ the Lord’ series), but her writing is amazing. Who else can keep readers up for two nights with more chilling scenes?

Anne Rice, bewitching at a book signing

Anne Rice, bewitching at a book signing

Thich Nhat Hanh — This Vietnamese Buddhist monk has written some of the most beautiful, applicable books of the past 50 years, his style succinct and full of love.

Laura Hillenbrand — Journalistic narrative gets no better than ‘Seabiscuit’ or ‘Unbroken’, does it? She’s awesome.

Elmore Leonard — My man Elmore, a master of realistic dialogue and snappy, fast-paced storytelling. I read a Leonard novel every time I want to improve my pacing, or simply when it’s time for a great story and some laughs.

John Gardner — 90% of my fiction knowledge comes from the late, great novelist and author of the best book on the craft, ‘The Art of Fiction.’

Anais Nin

Anais Nin

Hunter S. Thompson — Forget how bizarre he was as a person; he greatly influenced me through ‘New Journalism’ (the grandparent of narrative non-fiction), his writing for Rolling Stone, and his two gems, ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ and ‘The Great Shark Hunt’.

Anais Nin — Classy, erotic, cultured, full of irresistible imagery and beautiful writing. Unless your religious beliefs preclude you from doing so, every man should read a Nin book if they care about the innermost worlds of their women.

Joyce Carol Oates — She’s written hundreds of short stories and more than 40 novels. She plunges us into her characters’ worlds within two pages; I feel like I’ve lost my skin and identity when reading her. And her storytelling? The best. In her classic book ‘Blonde’, she admitted she felt like she was Marilyn Monroe while writing it. Priceless.


Gary Snyder, in his element

Gary Snyder, in his element

Gary Snyder — My idol as a poet and steward of the land since I was 16. In my opinion, he’s the greatest poet/essayist alive (and a pre-eminent translator of classical Chinese poetry). He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. In recent years, I’ve had the honor of befriending and being mentored by him. Love the man.

Paramhansa Yogananda — As beautiful soul poetry goes, this Indian yoga master has the touch. ‘Songs of the Soul’ is a classic.

Wislawa Szymborska — She recently passed, but in 2012, Gary Snyder called her ‘the best poet in the world.’ Her winning the Nobel Prize backs his claim.

Wislawa Syzmborska, the Polish wordsmith extraordinaire

Wislawa Syzmborska, the Polish wordsmith extraordinaire

Mary Oliver — How can you not love Mary? Her incisive images and attention to rhythm and detail are beautiful and exact.

David Whyte — He brings the spiritual, natural and inner human worlds together seamlessly; I get goose bumps every time I read Whyte aloud.

Billy Collins — Roll up your sleeves, pour coffee, and survey the little quirks and bits of magic in the everyday world. Billy engages us in the most accessible poetry of the last 50 years. (His protégé, Taylor Mali, could easily fill this slot – but with more obvious humor.)

Mary Oliver, bringing her words to life

Mary Oliver, bringing her words to life

Percy Bysshe Shelley — Let’s dial back the clock. Shelley only lived to be 29, but he defined the 18th-19th century Romantic poetry period. Such beautiful poems, and he mastered the difficult combination of storytelling and lyrical verse.

Rumi — There were more than 100 great Persian, Arabian and other Middle Eastern poets from the 8th through 15th centuries; Rumi has lived on. Who doesn’t feel better and deeper after reading one or two of his poems? Honey for the soul.

Li-Po — Like Rumi, he stands tallest among China’s wandering poets in the 7th through 10th centuries. Want to be a Chinese landscape? Read him aloud.

Sappho — She brought written form to lyric and spoken verse 2,700 years ago, creating Western poetry as we know it (though she wasn’t the first; Sumerian Enheduanna penned her poems on cuneiform tablets 4,500 years ago). Sadly, only about 2% of Sappho’s work survives; she was as prolific as Shakespeare.

There are my lists. Looking forward to seeing yours!

ON SALE THROUGHOUT NATIONAL POETRY MONTH: Backroad Melodies, by Robert Yehling. $9.95 print, $1.99 Kindle, .99 Matchbook. Through April 30.

Low Res Cover Backroads

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Kevin Hines: How a Suicide Attempt Led to Global Speaking & A Compelling Memoir

Most of us experience transformational moments when everything changes, we find and pursue another direction, and our old ways feel like an existence someone else led.IMG_9597

Few, if any, of these transformations can match the one that brought Kevin Hines to his current station in life. Hines, author of the fabulous memoir Cracked, Not Broken, never intended to live “two lives”, but because he has, the world is benefitting from this dynamic self-help speaker and author. His book, published by Rowman-Littlefield’s Taylor Trade imprint, is now in its 20th printing, less than two years after its July 2013 release.

Hines can summarize the book’s narrative premise in one sentence: “I jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge — and survived.” When Hines was 19, the darker side of his bi-polar mind “told me that the only way the pain would go away was if I jumped,” Hines recalled in 2013, “so I did. Then, halfway down, I suddenly felt I had a greater purpose in my life, and I needed to survive.”Unknown

It takes four seconds to fall into San Francisco Bay’s hard, chilly waters at a speed reaching 80 mph on impact. During his final two or three seconds, Hines twisted his body to minimize impact. Still, he was seriously injured, and had trouble staying afloat.

Enter a sea lion. Really. The animal sensed Hines’ distress, swam under him, and lifted him above the surface until a Coast Guard cutter arrived. If you’re counting, that’s three miracles in roughly a minute.

Almost fifteen years after his jump, Hines has turned his experience into a highly successful suicide prevention and self-esteem message, which he delivers with presentations, talks, and signings around the world (watch this video). How many authors can say they’ve been on the road with their book for two solid years, in more than twenty different countries?Unknown-1

“It’s been a great response,” Hines said. “I’m selling 85 to 90 percent of the books I bring to major events where I speak. And the book has only a 2 percent return rate from bookstores.”

If you’ve had books on store shelves, or have spoken with books to sell in the back, you know these are phenomenal numbers. Cracked,  Not Broken is also reaching far beyond bookstores. A psychiatric unit on the East Coast provides books to all inpatients, who use them daily to understand and work with their mental afflictions. Most recently, he spent two weeks in Australia, speaking to groups ranging from high schoolers, young miners, and crisis intervention teams, to hostage negotiators at the International Police Officers Conference. That’s variety, as well as a lesson in author-driven book marketing.

“The input I’ve gotten from people who come to my events has been great, and it’s had a lot of variety,” Hines said. “A man from Ft. Hood came up to me at a signing and said, ‘I gave this book to my military group, 30 young men and women, and they credited it with saving lives.”

But that’s not the best story. That belongs to initiative his wife, Margaret, took. “I walked into a bookstore in Dublin, Ireland, and my wife said, ‘See if they’ll carry your book.’ I got the assistant manager, who asked if it had an ISBN number. I said ‘yes’, although at the time, I had no idea. She called it up and ordered 50 copies,” Hines said.IMG_9602

Cracked, Not Broken is remarkable for Hines’ honesty and insight into his transformation. He continues to live with his illness while funneling his energy into a most noble, challenging cause — showing people their lives have a purpose. This, to me, makes the book. Too many transformational memoirs are black-and-white: someone has major trouble, then a crisis or an epiphany; afterwards, everything is perfect. Hines takes us deep inside the real inner world of recovery and transformation. It is a constant struggle to hold up one’s head sometimes, but by staying strong and finding a sense of purpose, living one day at a time (or one minute, sometimes), and helping others, that struggle can transform into a great work — and a happiness and fulfillment not known before.

“What people like is that Cracked, Not Broken is very specific, and it helped me bring up things that happened in my past,” Hines said. “It’s my perspective. As I wrote it, it helped me grow and become a better person.

“I had a lot of people who came forward and helped me. They were always pushing me to dig deeper and bring it out. I did three rewrites, and then when it came out, readers picked it up and couldn’t put it down. This book also seems to be passed along from one person to another, a lot.”

Hines provided three key tips for people with suicidal ideation, attempters, and their families, friends and colleagues:

Today is not tomorrow. “Because you feel suicidal today doesn’t mean you will when you’re 30, 40, or 50,” he said. “Get past the feeling you’re all alone and no one understands you. Don’t do what I did — ask for help.”


Ask yourself, “Am I having thoughts about ending my life?”

I’ve worked with and have known several thousand authors, and without question, this man has presented one of the most incredible stories. I also had the pleasure of working with Hines on his earlier drafts. He and I have a publisher in common, Taylor Trade (Rowman-Littlefield), which also published When We Were The Boys, which I co-authored with Stevie Salas. We also have the same literary agent, Dana Newman.

Hines plans to write several more books, all of which he’s roughly outlined. He’s now coming out of the blocks with his next book, which he hopes will be published in 2016.IMG_9600

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On Clay Marzo, Stevie Salas & Our Coming New Look

JUST ADD WATER by Clay Marzo and Robert Yehling copyIt’s been a busy and frenetic last two months in my personal writing world. This includes promoting When We Were The Boys, the memoir on which I collaborated with musician Stevie Salas; doing final caption touch-ups and proofs for Just Add Water, my biography of autistic international surfing star Clay Marzo available for pre-order on now and coming in Summer from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; pumping out proposals for books on which I am collaborating and/or writing (details forthcoming); and editing Innovation & Tech Todayone of the hippest and most diverse new magazines on newsstands and most digital magazine services.

Music. Surfing. Innovation. Three of my favorite things. Now for those books on running and fitness, a memoir, and the book for business, book, journalistic and personal writers that’s made it through some brainstorm sessions…salas cover low res

My webmaster and former Ananda College student, Chitra Sudhakaran, and I have also been overhauling the website — and our mission. Part of that will be our new-look blog, which will be unveiled Monday (3-2) featuring a fantastic conversation with author and international speaker Kevin Hines. His book, Cracked, Not Broken: Surviving A Suicide Attempt, offers one of the most painful, difficult, and ultimately inspiring and redemptive memoirs I have ever had the pleasure to edit. When a man jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge and is served up his greater life and soul purpose during the four-second plunge into frigid San Francisco Bay… well, you do the math. It’s an incredible book,  in its 20th printing just two years after its release. You are not going to want to miss this interview.

You’ll also see excerpts from Just Add Water and my long-awaited novel, Voices, which will release later in 2015.ITTodayWinter2014 cover

On our new-look blog, we will be incorporating a few new things, a stylistic reflection of my 2009 book, The Write Time: 366 Exercises to Expand and Fulfill Your Writing Life:

1) Inspiring quotes from writers, entertainers, artists, musicians, and other creatives

2) Resources for further exploration

3) Spot interviews with authors, thinkers, educators, and leaders

4) Book reviews

5) Perspectives on technology, fitness, health, the arts, education, STEM, and other subjects of interest to writers and creative artists

6) Excerpts from my books, as well as clients

7) Links to pieces and special service offers on, and client websites

8) Social Media services of the month (not only the Big Five — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and YouTube —  but many other sites)

9) An expanded blogroll

10) More opportunities for you to comment and/or guest post

11) Prompts, exercises, and tips from well-published authors, and creative and leadership


We’ve always had an eye out for our clients and other writers and creatives on this blog. Now, we will expand that, as part of our mission to showcase the lifestyle of writing and insight of the authors, as well as the final product.

Back to you on New-Look Monday!




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Which Books Did You Read In 2014?

I always find it fascinating to see the lists of books that people read during a calendar year. 1781999_10203204443174551_906138982_nBesides showing that, yes, some of us still do read many books, these lists also give insight into the feelings, thoughts and areas of interest that crossed our minds during the year. It also gives us a footprint of the paths and journeys we took, or specific subjects on which we focused.

In keeping with the spirit of the day, I ring out 2014 with my own list, which combines books I read for entertainment, book research, personal learning, and sheer pleasure. It’s a low number for me, just 40 books this year (after 60 in 2013), but I also co-wrote a memoir, wrote a biography, finished a novel, edited a half-dozen books, and edited a year of Innovation & Tech Today issues — so it’s been busy on the creative side. My goal for 2015? 60 books read.

After reading this list, send us or post your own list of books read in 2014 – and let’s write and read more in 2015!

The Autistic Brain, by Temple Grandin (Non-Fiction)

The Golden Cat, by Max Brand (Fiction)

What You Want Is in the Limo, by Michael Walker (Memoir)

This Just In, by Bob Schieffer (Memoir)

L.A. Diary, by Sacha Wamsteker (Fiction)

Eat & Run, by Scott Jurek (Memoir)

Finishing the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, by Dale Matson (Non-Fiction)

Marathon Man, by Bill Rodgers (Memoir)

Kings of the Road, by Cameron Stracher (Non-Fiction)

City Primeval, by Elmore Leonard (Fiction)

Untwined: A Memoir, by Joan Creech Kraft (Memoir)

Storms of Fire & Ash, by Marie Alanen (Fiction)

Prostitute’s Ball, by Stephen J. Cannell (Fiction)

Divine Romance, by Paramhansa Yogananda (Spiritual)

Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein (Sci-Fi)

Brown Dog, by Jim Harrison (Fiction)

Jesus: Son of Man, by Kahlil Gibran (Spiritual)

Skinny Legs & All, by Tom Robbins (Fiction)

The Big Pivot, by Andrew Winston (Non-Fiction)

Mountains and Rivers Without End, by Gary Snyder (Poetry)

The Road to Woodstock, by Michael Lang (Memoir)

Against all Enemies, by Tom Clancy (Fiction)

The Lenovo Way, by Gina Qiao and Yolanda Conyers (Business)

Cakes & Ale, by W. Somerset Maugham (Fiction)

One Summer, by Bill Bryson (Travel)

The Customer-Funded Business, by John Mullins (Business)

Collective Genius, by Linda Hill and Greg Brandeau (Business)

How We Got To Now, by Steven Johnson (Non-Fiction)

Driving Demand, by Elizabeth Allen (Business)

Fast Copy, by Dan Jenkins (Fiction)

Bossypants, by Tina Fey (Memoir)

Brava: Space, by Claudette Marco (Sci-Fi)

What Would Mary Ann Do? By Dawn Wells (Memoir)

Walt Disney, by Neal Gabler (Biography)

Sleepwalker Chronicles: The Awakening, by Lillith Black (Fantasy)

De-Stress for Success, by Leo Willcocks (Non-Fiction)

Random Acts of Badness, by Danny Bonaduce (Memoir)

Little Girl Lost, by Drew Barrymore (Memoir)

Long Distance, by Abigail Mott (Poetry)

Lips Unsealed, by Belinda Carlisle (Memoir)

A Pirate Looks at 50, by Jimmy Buffett (Memoir)

Screw the Valley, by Timothy Sprinkle (Business)

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Peak Experience in the Sierras: Getting Our 100-Mile Runner Home

(This is the second of a two-part blog on pacing my friend, David Nichols, in the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, one of the toughest running tests in the world and the most storied and prestigious ultramarathon.)

Read Part One

Pacing an ultramarathoner reminds me a lot of ghostwriting or co-writing books. As my friend, veteran ultra pacer and 50/50 marathoner (as in, 50 completed marathons spanning all 50 states) Kenny McCleary, advised me on Facebook before Western States:2014-06-28 06.13.17

Enjoy the day. A pacer has to be part navigator, part psychiatrist, part nurse, part minister, part drill sergeant. But most of all, just be a Barnabas today – an encourager. Only a few souls on this planet have the opportunity or the courage to experience what David gets to live out today. I hope you find the job of pacer/crewmate to be as fulfilling as I have.

With pacing, as with ghost- and co-writing, you check your ego at the door. The only run that matters is his. You do whatever it takes to bring out his best, and take care of him on the trail. No matter how many miles you run alongside, the only accomplishment that matters is your runner crossing the finish line and grabbing that belt buckle.

Pacers just starting off with competitors at Foresthill earlier in the day

Pacers just starting off with competitors at Foresthill earlier in the day

When we arrived in Foresthill, Dave was 15 minutes ahead of the clock. He’d been almost 10 minutes behind in Michigan Bluff, so he made up 25 minutes in seven miles. Substantial. After weighing in (he’d gained back two pounds) and eating from the quasi-buffet line of hot and cold foods (grilled cheese, soups, quesadillas, cookies, rice balls, etc.) that typifies a Western States aid station, we jogged cross-town and met Don and Craig. They noticed that Dave was a different person than the one they’d seen 90 minutes before. He sat down in the chair, and we went through our crewing ritual … while the clock ticked … and ticked …

Once we left Foresthill, it was pushing 11 p.m. A full night of trail running awaited. Dave and I got into a conversation about the last crew stop. “Do you think we needed to be there that long?” I asked.

“No,” Dave said as we jogged toward the woods.

“I don’t, either. That was too long, especially with the aid station right before it. Maybe we can go faster next time.”

After a moment of silence, Dave said, “I won’t be sitting anymore the rest of the race. I’ll towel off, grab what I need to grab, and go.” Nice sentiment, Dave, but there’s 38 miles left to go … about 11 hours at this pace … and you’ve already gone 62…

Mountain running, anyone? For 100 miles? This is the course profile of Western States. It hurts to just look at it.

Mountain running, anyone? For 100 miles? This is the course profile of Western States. It hurts to just look at it.

He didn’t sit down again.

At that time, we encountered a runner from Tennessee who couldn’t keep down food or water. She was heaving as we passed she and her pacer to begin another lengthy descent in yet another canyon toward Dardanelles. “You OK?” Dave asked. “Anything we can do?” He and I were thinking the same thing: Stop and help if she needs it. That’s the rule of the road, especially in ultra running.

“I’m OK, I’m OK,” she gasped.

Within minutes, she and her pacer were right behind us, and her spirits were lifting. “You know,” I said, “when I coached high school cross-country, we used to have mid-summer practices. When my kids got sick on the course, I told them they were now officially cross-country runners.”

She thought about it for a second. “So this makes me an official ultra runner, right?”

“You were that a long time ago, but yeah … right.”

She smiled. “Thanks for saying that.” She and her pacer promptly bolted ahead of us. We passed back and forth several times during the next ten miles, creating a nice camaraderie on the course.

Meantime, Dave’s legs had loosened up again, so we ran. And ran. This span between Foresthill and Dardanelles, and extending further out, was dreamlike. We talked, laughed, ran silently and marked each other’s pace while I beamed my headlamp on the trail ahead, and stuck my arm behind me to give Dave coverage with my flashlight. Every time we picked it up the pace, it felt like two guys pursuing something, tracking something … which we were. We were pursuing a belt buckle. I also called out trail obstacles. We marveled at the simple magnificence of running Sierra trails in the middle of the night, no noise other than our footprints and the occasional raccoon, fox, lizard, rabbit or skunk scrambling in the brush, no light other than our headlamps and the bobbing points of light we saw on the trails ahead of us. They looked like little stars dancing on earth. What could possibly be better than running with a friend in such peaceful, desolate surroundings?

I’m sure Dave had an answer: Being done.


The Ford’s Bar aid station, lit up in the wee hours of the morning. It was a welcome sight after the two miles that preceded it.

The approach to the Dardanelles aid station was marked with Halloweenish signs and a couple of cut-out ghosts (nice). The scene reminded me in a certain way of the R.I.P. tombstone sign we planted at the two-mile mark of our Carlsbad High School cross-country course in 1976. We put it on the middle of a steep, steep incline, nicknamed Riggy HIll (as in, Rigamortis Hill; I returned in June to run it again a few times to prepare for Western States). We averted our eyes; opponents stared at it and let the thought sink in as their legs wobbled. Game, set, match. “You guys were great hill runners,” my coach then and now, Brad Roy, recalled. We were also good psych-out artists, Brad. A funny memory, conjured up at 1 a.m. 600 miles and four decades away…

A Western States competitor, all lit up. Headlamps and flashlights got us through the night.

A Western States competitor, all lit up. Headlamps and flashlights got us through the night.

At Dardanelles, a volunteer, a veteran of a couple dozen Western States runs, pulled me aside as he watched Dave hover over the food table like a famished refugee. “Keep your aid stops to a minute,” he said. “That’s all he needs. Get in, get your food, get your water bottles filled, ask us about the next section of trail if you want, then get on with your run. You don’t have time for anything else.”

Great advice. We heeded it on every subsequent aid stop.

The next section was brutal, in every possible way: switchbacks, rocks and roots, tremendous drop-offs from canyon walls to the American River, steep inclines and descents, runoff grooves in the middle of uneven trails, sand, creek crossings … in other words, difficult to ride on horseback, let alone cover by foot. Especially at night. The frustrating part was that Dave had his second wind (or maybe his third or fourth; you gain several “second winds” during ultras), so we wanted to run … but couldn’t do so steadily. Every time we found a rhythm on the trails, clicking off a half-mile or so, the course threw something else at us.

The Rucky Chucky crossing -- a cooling, refreshing walk through the American River always helps before tackling the final 20 miles.

The Rucky Chucky crossing — a cooling, refreshing walk through the American River always helps before tackling the final 20 miles.

During one stretch, we opened up the pace on a pencil-thin stretch of trail, me leading the way. I looked to the right; a nice Manzanita thicket. I looked left; sheer blackness, nothingness. “Bob, is this one of those thousand-foot drop-offs we’re running next to?” Dave asked, his voice tinged with concern.

2014-06-29 11.49.11

Peering into the future: the scene awaiting us in Auburn — large crowds packing Placer High School stadium and the finish line.

Gulp. “You know what one of the great things is about running at night?” I didn’t turn around; I didn’t want to face him. “You can’t see anything but what’s in front of you.”

We ran directly into my headlamp beam, taking advantage of the night. The advantage? Were it daytime, we never would’ve run on thin single-track with such a precipitous drop-off. In fact, for the past two months, I’d broken into a few wee-hour sweats thinking about how I would pace Dave in these sections, and keep us both from sliding off the hill. Scrambling down a cliffside to retrieve a fallen ultra runner wasn’t on my agenda, though it was certainly on my mind. We kept running.

At miles 72 and 73, we didn’t run much at all. Survive is more like it. We heard Led Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away” (appropriate) blaring from the nearby Ford’s Bar aid station. As we ran along the top of the hill, the music – and aid station – sounded a few hundred yards away. Double the acoustics in a canyon, so say six hundred yards. No more. We were pumped, now a good half-hour up on the clock, making it happen…

Yeah, it happened. The course happened. One of the nastiest curve balls of the entire 100 miles snapped at our legs and almost took Dave’s spirit with it. When did Clayton Kershaw show up? We found ourselves descending through a Manzanita grove, on slippery, chalky white hardpack trail with a runoff groove down the middle. The descent kept going… and going… and going… My quads hated the punishment, and I’d only gone 20 miles. Dave’s legs were practically on fire. We adjusted our foot strike posture and leaned back on our haunches, almost like skateboarding, so our butts could absorb much of the stress.

In the next three-fifths of a mile, we descended 1,200 vertical feet. Insane. It would all but fry a mountain goat. We heard the music again, and gave each other a smile and an “attaboy, we deserve this aid station” glance.

The course belly-laughed at us. After running out our soreness on a quarter mile of beautiful, slightly sandy trail, we faced the second half of this crucible: a fire road climbing into the sky, twisting and bending, its banks as steep as some racetrack turns. We grunted and groaned up 400 vertical feet in the next quarter-mile – then hit a short, steep downhill that dumped us into the Ford’s Bar aid station.

Remember all that time we’d gained? Well, nothing like a one-two punch to send us back into scurry mode. We loaded up at Ford’s Bar, and a gracious volunteer ran our refilled water bottles to us so we could keep moving. Unfortunately, the hills sapped Dave’s legs again, and he found it very difficult to run. We jogged a few times in the next couple of hours, but he couldn’t get it going, even during our final two miles before the Rucky Chucky crossing, when sandy bottom trail and mostly flat fire roads offered an opportunity to pick up time. I wanted to push him, as I had in previous stretches, but common sense kept telling me, “He needs to save it for the final 20 miles.” So, we power walked or did the marathon shuffle (the stride of a three-year-old, familiar on marathon courses the last few miles after people ‘hit the wall’).


Finally, we passed the Rucky Chucky metal gate, ascended a small hill, and dropped into a raucous river-crossing scene, at which runners and pacers cross the American River by holding onto a cable. We ran to our crew, now just 10 to 12 minutes ahead of schedule but far better than his status at dusk. As Dave walked through the aid station, I told Don, “He’s decided not to sit again until he’s done. His legs tighten up too much and he won’t be able to loosen them up.” Then I discussed Dave’s condition and mental acuity with Craig; his focus was still very strong, much stronger than some other runners I saw out there.

“I’m gonna have to push him hard the last few miles,” Craig said as we finished.

“He responded every time I pushed him hard,” I said. “We conserved energy the last five miles after these God awful hills … I’ll tell you later. He knows what needs to happen. You’re the man. Bring him home.”

My pacing was done. I wobbled around, spent after more than seven hours of trail running, wondering how in the world these people do it for 18, 24, 30 hours in a row. I always admired Dave, but now, my admiration went through the roof.


Dave prepares to enter the stadium, with brother Don running alongside. Our ace pacer on the last leg, Craig Luebke, is cheering at the gate.

Dave prepares to enter the stadium, with brother Don running alongside. Our ace pacer on the last leg, Craig Luebke, is cheering at the gate.

Six hours after Craig set out with Dave, and 90 minutes after seeing our glassy-eyed, exhausted runner at the 93-mile crew stop, Don and I arrived at the Placer High School Stadium in Auburn. What a scene: a thousand people on hand, the announcer calling out finishers, families and crew running into the stadium and around the track with their warriors, the monumental test complete. It had been a night and most of a morning since the overall champions, Rob Krar and Stephanie Howe, crossed the line. Krar became the second runner to ever break 15 hours in the event’s 40-year history, running 14:53:22, while Howe won the women’s division in 18:01:42, the fourth-best women’s mark all-time. They were magnificent, as were Ian Sharman and Kaci Lickteig, whose performances enabled them to claim the series titles in the 2014 Montrail Ultra Cup, a mini-tour of six ultramarathons culminating in Western States.

Western States champions Rob Krar and Stephanie Howe talk trail story after their near record-breaking performances.

Western States champions Rob Krar and Stephanie Howe talk trail story after their near record-breaking performances.

Montrail Ultra Cup series winners Ian Sharman and Kaci Lickteig, aka "Pixie Ninja"

Montrail Ultra Cup series winners Ian Sharman and Kaci Lickteig, aka “Pixie Ninja”

Lickteig is known in the ultra community by her nickname, “Pixie Ninja,” perhaps the best athlete nickname I’ve heard in nearly 40 years as a journalist. I asked Stephanie Howe about it. “It’s perfect,” she said. “Kaci is an assassin out there.” Case in point: she won all eight ultras she entered in 2013, came to Western States despite basically no recovery from her previous ultra (a win) – and placed sixth.

Dave's victory lap, flanked by Don and Craig.

Dave’s victory lap, flanked by Don and Craig.

Our runner was magnificent as well. Dave took his victory lap at 10:45 a.m., flanked by Don and Craig, with me shooting photos from behind. Tears had been in Don’s eyes for twenty minutes; now, they also came to mine.

As we moved around the track, I thought of all the hopes, doubts, aches, pains, discomfort, dehydration, sunburn, scratches, bites, blisters, mental self-arguments and talks with Jesus Dave had in the past 29 hours, alone or with one other person on a trail that gave no quarter. I thought of Dave and Don, running the final 600 meters side-by-side, brothers in life and in this pursuit. For them, six months of planning and training culminated with the final piece of the 100th mile. It was an incredibly moving moment.

What it's all about – the Nichols brothers, moments after Dave crossed the finish line. A very touching moment.

What it’s all about – the Nichols brothers, moments after Dave crossed the finish line. A very touching moment.

After Dave crossed the line in 29:49 and received his medal, we waited 90 minutes for the presentation of the coveted belt buckles. Dave stretched out on a brick retaining wall, dead to the world. Don and I had some fun, taking a couple photos of our runner laid out on the rack, then Craig and I walked to the refreshment stand and grabbed breakfast. Craig hadn’t eaten meaningfully in a day, either, having somehow marshaled Dave’s energy enough to get him home in plenty of time. I still don’t know how Craig pulled off his pacing feat. I would imagine a few whipcracks accompanied the encouragement as they passed through Brown’s Bar, the Auburn Lakes meadows, up a final nasty hill at the 99-mile mark (that hurts just writing it) and into town.

2014-06-29 13.16.14

Finally, it was time for Dave’s crowning moment. We helped him to his feet and took a slow 200-yard walk to the awards tent. A few steps after reaching the grass, Dave winced. “Oh man, a hill.” I looked down. There was the tiniest bump on the football field, maybe six inches top to bottom. For a man who just completed something only a sliver of humanity would even attempt, and whose legs were barely functioning, a six-inch bump is a hill.

After watching the elites grab their prizes, for averaging 8:30 to 9:00 per mile for the whole 100 miles, we cheered madly as Dave received his belt buckle. It was his turn to plant the flag on the summit.

Dave collecting his belt buckle and accepting congratulations from Tim Twietmeyer, who won Western States five times among his 25 sub-24 hour finishes in the race.

Dave collecting his belt buckle and accepting congratulations from Tim Twietmeyer, who won Western States five times among his 25 sub-24 hour finishes in the race.

Then I remembered something: Dave is also a two-time Boston Marathoner. How many people have run both Boston and Western States, the most prestigious annual events in marathon and ultramarathon? In 40 years, only 7,500 runners have finished Western States – many of them repeat or multiple finishers. So let’s say, liberally, 6,000 different souls. Of those, how many own Boston unicorn medals? A thousand? Two thousand? Certainly not more. He joined an exclusive club.

Dave repeatedly credited all of us as a team, a nod to his humility. We appreciated his words, but sloughed them off. This is your barbecue, big guy. While Don, Craig and I became brothers-in-arms through our seamless support operation, that’s the extent of what we were on this weekend: support for the man with the belt buckle.

And with that, your hosts for this 100-mile Western States odyssey sign off, with our lead warrior, Dave Nichols, second from the left.

And with that, your hosts for this 100-mile Western States odyssey sign off, with our lead warrior, Dave Nichols, second from the left.



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Peak Experience in the Sierras: Western States

(Part One of a Two-Part Blog on this writer’s experience pacing David Nichols in the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.)

I’ve enjoyed and written about many peak moments in nature — trekking in the Himalayas,

Dave Nichols stands at the starting line, all smiles. How would he feel 100 miles later?

Dave Nichols stands at the starting line, all smiles. How would he feel 100 miles later?

commingling with curanderos in the Amazon, countless hikes and river swims in the Bavarian Alps, Rockies, Sierra Nevada, Big Sur and dozens of other stunning places. I’ve also experienced a fair share of endurance running — ten marathons, a pair of 24-hour relays, and countless 15- and 20-milers deep into forests and along mountain ridges.

Never have I experienced a greater combination of nature and endurance than the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. And I wasn’t even competing. I was a pacer for David Nichols, who traveled from Lexington, Ken. to tackle the mighty Sierra Nevada and, more specifically, the same trail cut by the 49ers during California’s Gold Rush. Along with Dave came my fellow pacer, Evansville, Ind.-based marathoner Craig Luebke, and Dave’s brother Don, our crew chief – the pit boss for our “driver”, as it were.

Competitors mingling at 4:30 a.m. on race morning.

Competitors mingling at 4:30 a.m. on race morning.

Western States is the Super Bowl of ultramarathoning. The best 100-milers in the world, along with about 400 super-conditioned athletes, flock to Northern California to duel on terrain and in weather conditions that make you sweat just viewing the topographical maps. Between the start at the Squaw Valley ski resort and finish at the 50-yard line at Auburn’s Placer High School, there are mountains. Passes. Scree-filled escarpments. Nasty ascents and descents. Creek and river crossings. Rocky trails. Sandy trails. Single-track ridge trails from which, if you look over the side, you can see the American River a thousand feet below, ribboning toward Sacramento. Canyons. More canyons…

My guess is that Dave won’t be training through canyons anytime soon. I think after 29 hours of trudging up and down the American River canyon system in heat pushing 100 degrees, he’s good on that experience for a while.

Which brings up the weather. The Sierra Range in early summer is typically very hot, with temperatures approaching 120 degrees in the heat-protected river canyons. At the highest point of the Western States course, 9,000 feet above sea level, it can also be very cold, with several feet of snow still on the ground. Wind is almost always a factor. How does a person deal with all this, and still cover 100 miles in a day?

Our cast of characters after the Montrail 6K climb up Squaw Valley, which Craig and I ran.

Our cast of characters after the Montrail 6K climb up Squaw Valley, which Craig and I ran.

I drove up to Tahoe City out of both curiosity and commitment, part of a memorable year of racing. As one who will never run a 100-miler, I thought it would be great to taste the experience as a pacer. Also, I’d spent three years in nearby Nevada City as a college professor, during which I’d hiked and run countless miles on similar terrain; local knowledge never hurts. Plus, it would be fun to run with Dave again, after the 5K, 10K and half-marathon duels we had between 2006-2010.

The experience turned out to be far more than I could have imagined. It wasn’t a run. It was a testament to endurance, resilience, adaptability, strength, courage, determination and guts. I could go on and on …

…and that’s what we did. We ran on … and on … and on …

Dave, in front of the fully loaded crew SUV. We'd load and unload the back many times in the next 30 hours.

Dave, in front of the fully loaded crew SUV. We’d load and unload the back many times in the next 30 hours.

After three days shopping, running together, setting and re-setting plans for pacing, going to official meetings, and double- and triple-checking gear checklists, Dave and Don declared us ready. The first realization hit me: you are no longer in marathon land, Bob. When racing marathons, you typically don’t eat, nor do you stop for more than a few seconds – if at all. Ultras require eating to sustain the body, plus designated stops on the course for clothes changes, first aid, food, drink, pep talks, and getting weighed to make sure you haven’t lost too many pounds.

It’s not merely a different type of race. It’s a different world entirely.

Craig and I at the top of Squaw Valley's gondola lift, elev.  8,900 feet, aka the finish line of the Montrail 6K.

Craig and I at the top of Squaw Valley’s gondola lift, elev. 8,900 feet, aka the finish line of the Montrail 6K.

The morning before race day, Craig and I entered the Montrail 6K, a 3½-mile up-the-gut ascent from the base of Squaw Valley. We ran up an intermediate to advanced-level ski run, climbing from 6,400 to 8,800 feet. We also scouted for Dave, because he’d be moving up the same hill the next morning – for the first 3½ miles of his 100-miler. Yes, Western States leaves common sense in a cloud of Sierra dust. Aren’t you supposed to go down a ski run? A never-ending stream of quirky moments added to the fun, such as Dave asking me at mile 59 the next night, “Why are we stopping to look at the stars?”

“Because you’ve gotta see them,” I said, breaking into a teaching moment. Guess I reverted to my years at Ananda College, about 50 miles away. “They’re amazing up here… hey, there’s Scorpius. Cygnus. Orion. Cassiopeia…”

“If I miss my time by 30 seconds…”

I did have a reason (which I’ll share later). This type of repartee occurred countless times on the trail, multiplied by 369.2014-06-28 07.06.55

The 369 official entrants started at 5 a.m., and were cheered into the first climb by hundreds of crews, friends and family members. We hustled to Robinson Flat, the first crew stop at the 30-mile mark. We had to drive to Auburn, then drive right back up Foresthill Road – about 110 miles in all. Along the way, we passed through miles of charred forest from last summer’s fire, which would’ve erased this year’s race had volunteers and trail crews not spent nine months restoring 19 miles of trail. Craig and Don also received their first taste of narrow, windy Sierra Nevada upslope roads with their steep turns and four-digit drop-offs, which led to a comical moment involving fear.

“Oh yeah,” I said to Craig, at the height of his angst, “we’ll be pacing Dave on trails with drop-offs like this – at night.” I couldn’t resist.

I’m sure that Craig will exact sweet revenge on me one day in the future.

Where did the smile go? At mile 30, Dave looked tired and depleted. The realization of Western States' physical brutality had set in.

Where did the smile go? At mile 30, Dave looked tired and depleted. The realization of Western States’ physical brutality had set in.

We waited at Robinson Flat for an hour and a half, during which I marveled at the crew set-ups, the fantastic race organization, and the runners themselves. When Dave came through, he was on goal pace – but looked like he’d run through a desert and smacked a wall. We were concerned. This is not how you want to look or feel with 70 miles still to go and the midday heat cranking up. Don was already feeling an inner tug, as in, “do I act as his crew chief or his worried older brother?” He’d fight that fight a few more times.

A word about Don. The focus of an ultramarathon is the runner, and then the pacers enter the picture for the second half of the race. Hardly ever are support crews recognized. Don is a recently retired, fun-loving Midwesterner, borne of rock & roll and hard work, a former competitive runner in his own right. He did an incredible job keeping us organized with equipment, stops and taking care of Dave’s needs. Every stop required different gear. We made numerous adjustments during the race – the most significant of which I’ll get to – and Don left the running/strategizing portion to Craig and me. However, he took on the tough, unsung stuff, not the least of which was an agonizing instance where he had to talk to his brother about whether or not to leave the race. I vaguely knew Don before this weekend. Now, I know him. He is an amazing group leader.

We took care of Dave, sent him back on his way, and headed down to Foresthill, the only town on the Western States Trail.

Foresthill is a cozy hamlet in the Sierra foothills, about 20 miles outside Auburn. It serves as the symbolic center of Western States, even though it falls 100K (62-mile) into the race. Since we didn’t expect Dave at the next crew stop, Michigan Bluff, for several hours, we pulled up chairs, ate sandwiches, and watched the front of this race – the elites, astonishing in their fitness and efficiency. They passed through town running 7:00 to 7:30 miles, which I’d take for a 26-mile marathon any time. We watched eventual men’s winner Rob Krar run down Max King along the frontage road – one of two strips of pavement on the entire course. We also watched eventual women’s champ Stephanie Howe lope by, her long stride, waist-length hair and 5-foot-10 runway model’s body not what you’d expect for an ultra runner’s physique. Then again, these are outliers. What should we expect?

Craig figures out our revised pacing plan and the pace Dave needs to run, while Don does what any normal person would do on a beautiful, lazy summer afternoon in the Sierras.

Craig figures out our revised pacing plan and the pace Dave needs to run, while Don does what any normal person would do on a beautiful, lazy summer afternoon in the Sierras.

Meanwhile, we had work to do. Dave was struggling, and Craig, Don and I had to decide whether to pace him at Foresthill, or pick him up in Michigan Bluff, at mile 55. That would mean extra running for both Craig and me. While we thought about it, our numbers cruncher (Craig) got to work, figuring out what was needed for Dave to finish under time and get that belt buckle. Since I was the first pacer, I prepared my drinking belt, headlamp, flashlight, running gear and gels, and suited up.

Our decision was made after we arrived at Michigan Bluff, once a gold rush boomtown of 3,000, now a sweet enclave of 40 homes. Michigan Bluff was where Leland Stanford (he of the university) set up the first of his mercantiles and ferried supplies from the San Francisco docks to the gold rushers. (To this day, horseback riding remains a ready source of local transportation.) As the sun carried daylight with it into the far horizon, still no sign of Dave. Craig ran to the other side of Michigan Bluff to serve as our lookout. I started stretching as Don switched into big brother mode and entertained the idea of convincing Dave to bow out. “Problem is, he keeps thinking he’s gonna disappoint the rest of us,” Don said. “But I can’t let him stay out there if he comes in here all messed up.”

“I’d never be disappointed. Just getting out there and going this far, on this terrain, in these mountains is quite the accomplishment,” I told him. “I’m just happy to be here with him.” I meant it, though I did relish the chance hit these trails at night.

Finally, Dave popped into view, about 90 minutes behind what we’d expected. Why? He went through hell between 45 and 55 miles, where the American River canyon system kicked into high gear with bone-crunching climbs and falls in high heat. It used to claim prospectors back in the day… and took its shot at Dave as he baked in the relentless sun. Since Dave is from the Midwest, maybe the mountain remembered how it used to punish pioneers.

Dave weighed in – down nine pounds since the race began – and he and Don took the 300-yard walk to our pit stop. I can only imagine what was said. Minutes later, Craig ran up and told me we were pressing on. As I stretched again, Dave showed up, sat down, and we applied cold compresses on his quads, wrapped a cold towel around his neck, reloaded his drinks, and gave our little pep talks. I thought I was in a fight corner between rounds.


We set out at 8:56 p.m. Our goal: to make the river crossing at Rucky Chucky, mile 78, by no later than 4 a.m., hopefully sooner. While that sounds slow to a 5K or 10K specialist, consider the circumstances: Dave had covered 55 miles, the terrain was beastly, and he had to reserve enough strength for the final stretch.

After not running at all for six hours, due to the terrain and his flagging spirits, Dave started jogging again. We bit five minutes off the clock within the first two miles of flat and gentle downslope. Certainly, having another runner with him helped, someone to talk to, especially after spending 16 hours on the course alone. Also, he knew we were running against the clock – a daunting prospect when there’s still 45 miles to go. He had to negative split the race (run the second half faster than the first) … a concept I understand and have done in marathons and shorter races, but boggles my mind when you’re talking about 100 miles.

There was another big change: he began to rehydrate. He’d dehydrated himself beyond the weight crucible Western States sets: if you lose more than 4% of your body weight, they reserve the right to remove you from the race at a weigh station (every 10-15 miles). They rarely do it, but the fear was in his heart. He took extra drink bottles out of Michigan Bluff, and I kept telling him to drink. His legs loosened up, he started running better, and we clicked off time while enjoying beautiful Sierra foothill countryside, along with favorable trail conditions. His legs were celebrating after the mess they’d traversed all day.

At mile 59, as we ascended Volcano Canyon, I decided to make sure he drank up. That’s when I started pointing out the stars. Dave couldn’t figure out what I was doing, but when you’re in the Sierras on a warm summer night, the stars look like golf balls, and it can feel like you’re one with the heavens. If you bust your ass for a hundred miles, you deserve the experience. That’s what I told him. I also made sure that, while stopped and allowing his legs to relax, Dave took his mind off the race for a second and drank every drop, since he could reload at the Bath Road aid station a mile away.

All told, we stopped for a minute. I took a good-natured ribbing on the course for this move, and Craig and Don joined in later. (OK, boys, you’re right: I’m unconventional. But hey, whatever works…)

(Read Part Two)

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