How Team LSM Approaches Saving for College and 529 Plans

Mrs. LSM and I have slightly different approaches to how much money we should be setting aside for the kid’s college funds.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, both of our worldviews are shaped by the way that we went through school.

Mrs. LSM had to take out loans for school.  In her view, having to take out student loans will make the kids focus more, appreciate the value of the education that they’re getting, and think long and hard about the work/party balance in school.

My parents paid my college tuition, room, and board for four years (I was on my own for law school).  In my view, having to take out student loans hamstrings them in their early 20s – just the time when they could use the cash flow from their paychecks to launch their 401(k)s and get a headstart on their classmates.  We have the ability to fully fund their college careers, and so, I think we should.

Now, this is not to say that I intend to be a piggy bank for books, pizza, and beers for 5 or more years of college.  Cash flow being an important consideration, I think that we should be paying for the big costs – tuition, fees, and a roof over your heads.  But the kids should pay for everything else.

You want a car?  You pay for the gas and the insurance.

Want to backpack through Europe?  Buy yourself a plane ticket.

Want to join a fraternity?  Dues are on you.

Buy your own pizza and beer, kids.

We have three young boys: 5 years, 3 years, and 5 months old.  Since the day they were born, we’ve been depositing money each month into their 529 plans.

Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code allows for tax-advantaged savings towards future education costs.  Up to $10,000 per year per beneficiary can be deposited into a qualified 529 plan and will then grow tax free (meaning any dividends or capital gains are not taxed – much like in a 401(k) or IRA).  The funds are then withdrawn at a later date tax-free as long as they are used for qualified higher education expenses (tuition, mandatory fees, and room and board).

As an added benefit, some states, our home state of Virginia included, allow you to deduct a portion of what you’ve deposited into a 529 plan from you state income taxes.  In Virginia, you can deduct up to $4,000 per year per beneficiary from your state income taxes.  Not coincidentally, we contribute $4,000 per year per kid to our Virginia 529 plans.

The returns have been reasonable, bearing in mind that we started contributing $333/mo. and have been dollar cost averaging ever since.

Our five year old’s plan is up 15%.

The three year old’s plan is up 11%.

The poor five month old’s tuition money is actually down about 4% thanks to a lackluster market in 2018.

At this rate, by the time they reach their senior year of high school, the $48,000 that we’ll have put aside for each kid will grow to about $90,000 for tuition, room, and board.

What I like about the Virginia 529 plan is that once you have it set up, it is braindead simple to maintain.  The plan pulls funds automatically each month and deposits them into a target date fund.  (There are other options – including a stock only plan and a “choose your own allocation” plan – but it seems easier to just have it re-allocate as the kids get older.)

Also, unlike many target date plans, the expense ratios are pretty reasonable – all but a few of them under 0.5%


One thing that we haven’t done yet is purchased any of the pre-paid tuition blocks.  Most states, Virginia included, allow you to purchase blocks of college education with today’s dollars for use at a later date.

For instance, in 2017, you could buy a Kindergartner one semester at a four year public university in Virginia for $8,485 in today’s dollars (or, you could buy a ninth grader the same amount of college for $8,145).

The reason we haven’t purchased any of these blocks is that we simply don’t believe that college tuition prices can continue to go up at present rates.  The same $8,485 invested in a qualified plan that returned 7% over 12 years would reach $19,109 by the time Junior goes to college.  Will tuition be that expensive in 2030?  Maybe.  But given the current student loan climate and what appears to be a migration away from the “college is the only path to success” mindset, I doubt it.

Which brings us to one last question: What happens if you’ve spent 18 years saving up college tuition and the kid doesn’t go to school?  Or goes to school on a scholarship?

What happens to the 529 plan if your child gets a scholarship?

First, though 529 plans are often used for college, they can be used for a wide variety of post-secondary education – from community college to trade schools to vocational schools.  If learning is involved, there is a decent chance it’s covered.  A good tool can be found at to determine if a particular school qualifies for a use of 529 funds.

Second, the plan actually belongs to the account owner – not the child.  So if the child decides not to go on to any secondary education, you can always just change the name of the beneficiary to any other family member – a sibling, cousin, grandparent (!) or even yourself can become the beneficiary.  The only catch is that it must be a family member.

Unfortunately, if there is no one else to shift the funds to and you have to withdraw the cash, you’ll pay a pretty large penalty.  You’ll have to pay the federal income tax on the capital gains and a 10% penalty.

If the intended beneficiary gets a scholarship and there is not another family member who you can shift the funds to, the tax code allows you to withdraw the cash and only pay the federal income tax (you don’t have to pay the 10% penalty).

How does your family think about saving for college?  Do you think it’s better for the kid’s sense of the value of a dollar if they have to know they’ll have student loan debt?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

The Most Important Question Service Professionals Aren’t Asking

A while back, I met with a potential client who was injured in a car crash.  He had been minding his own business and was on his way to work when someone ran into his car at a high rate of speed.  Everything about his case was one that we would be interested in: clear liability, significant injuries, terrible photos of the vehicles, and plenty of insurance coverage.  The meeting came to a grinding halt, however, when I asked him the most important question that I ask of any client:

What can I do for you?

ask blackboard chalk board chalkboard
The most powerful question is the one that gets clients to stop and think about their motives for calling you in the first place.

Service professionals (attorneys, accountants, doctors) owe a duty to our clients from the very beginning to make sure that our goals are aligned with theirs.  If we can’t meet those goals (and can’t quickly change the client’s mind about what their goals ought to be), we should be declining to get involved.

In this case, the potential client wanted to go after a local law enforcement agency for a car chase gone bad.  From everything he had to say, I agreed with him.  The police force involved had ignored several safety rules that ultimately led to a car smashing into this man.  But police cases carry all sorts of special rules about immunity, gross negligence, and whether the police or the “bad guy” was the ultimate cause of the crash.  And anyway, because the value of personal injury cases is based on the injuries to the client and not on the conduct of the negligent party (in the vast, vast majority of cases), having the police officer as a defendant didn’t add one dollar of value to the case.  In fact, I told him, I could make a strong argument in favor of his case being worth less to a jury with the police officer as a defendant than it was with the guy he was chasing as a defendant.

Still, his primary goal was to hold the police officer accountable.  A noble cause, to be sure.  But my primary goal is to get my client’s as much money as possible in as little time as possible.  I viewed the route against the police officer as more costly, more time consuming, and ultimately less fruitful.  I was unable to convince him otherwise and we parted ways amicably.

The number one thing that I make sure to ask every potential client during the initial phone call, after they’ve told me the story of their case is,

“OK.  And what can I do for you?”

Frankly, most people are a little bit taken aback by this.  I can hear them silently thinking “You’re a lawyer.  I’ve been in a car crash.  You can help me.”

But the truth of the matter is that not everyone who has been in a car crash needs my help.  And there are many people who have been in a car crash who I don’t want to help.

I use that question – What can I do for you?  As a screening tool to make sure that the crazy people (“My case is worth $100,000 because my neighbor got $50,000 and he wasn’t even hurt.”) and to at least get the sane people to start thinking about the ultimate goal in their case.

In my experience, too many service professionals think that they know what the client’s goals should be without even asking them.  Here, I am thinking of those salesmen in the financial services industry with the one-size-fits-all sales pitch or the doctor who has learned a new modality that he believes is as a fix-all.

Hell, we’ve gone to school for 4, 7, or 10 years.  We know way more than these people, right?

Maybe.  But the time that you spend convincing them that you are correct is wasted energy.  Better to spend that time on cases and clients who you like, who like you, and who’s goals were aligned with yours from the start.

Setting Up an Emergency Fund

The emergency fund is a staple of the advice given by the personal finance community.  Suze Orman says that you should save enough to cover eight months of living expenses in your emergency fund.  Dave Ramsey says that you should save at least three months of expenses in an emergency fund if you have a double-income family and as much as six months if you have a single-earning family.

ambulance architecture building business

The sad fact is that many Americans cannot weather even a minor emergency.  CNN reported in May of 2018 that some 40% of American households aren’t ready to handle a $400 emergency.

As a personal injury lawyer, I’ve seen it with my own clients – some of whom cannot afford the additional cost of physical therapy co-pays to the tune of $25/visit three times a week.  That simple additional drag of $325 a month is something that they just can’t keep up with.  They sometimes have to resort to signing away a portion of their claim to loan-sharking lawsuit lending companies.

Your bank account needs to be built to be able to take a punch.  The question is where to store the reserves.

I like to keep mine in separate buckets outside of my regular savings and checking accounts.  Since law school, I have maintained separate online savings buckets with Capital One (formerly ING).  These online accounts serve two purposes: First, they pay significantly more than brick-and-mortar savings accounts do.  Even with the paltry rates of 2018, 2% is better than 0.2%.  Second, they serve the function of keeping your emergency money separate and apart from your regular money.

I have “buckets” set up at Capital One for an Emergency Fund, but I’ve also opened separate accounts for things like home improvement savings, vacations, and saving for the down payment on the next car.  By compartmentalizing our funds like this, we don’t have to “remember not to forget” that the $4,000 we’ve been putting aside for vacation is sitting in the checking account.

If you don’t have an emergency fund, the best way to start one is in an online savings account, separate from your regular account and to set up an automatic online investment that pulls the money out of your regular account just as soon as it goes in.  I love this method of paying yourself first.  If you are funding an emergency fund with whatever is leftover at the end of the month, you are not likely to get the bucket all the way filled.  By paying yourself first, and then making it through the month on what’s left, you are!

The added bonus of this is that it creates a snowball effect.  Once you’ve filled your emergency bucket with auto-withdrawals, you can set up an auto-withdrawal into a brokerage account or increase your IRA or 401(k) savings with the amount that you were putting into the emergency fund.

IRA Limits Increase in 2019

For the first time since 2013, the amount that you can contribute to an IRA (Individual Retirement Account) will go up in 2019.  Regardless of whether you contribute to a Roth IRA or a Traditional IRA, folks under 50 will be able to contribute $6,000 in 2019.  Those over 50 and eligible for the IRA “catch-up” will be able to contribute as much as $7,000 in 2019.

However, income limits remain in place for Roth IRA contributions.

Roth IRA Contribution Limits

Roth IRAs are funded with post-tax dollars.  Once the money is in your account, it grows tax free and you can withdraw it in retirement tax free.  However, not everyone is eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA.

For a single tax filer, the phase-out begins at $122,000 and those who many over $137,000 may not contribute any funds at all to a Roth IRA (at least directly.

For the married tax filer filing jointly, the phase-out begins at $193,000 and you are entirely ineligible to contribute if your family earns more than $203,000.

The beauty of the Roth IRA is that once the money is in the account it is never taxed again.  If your funds were sitting in a regular brokerage account, you would be liable to pay taxes on dividends each year as well as capital gains taxes on any stocks or mutual funds sold.  In the Roth IRA, the funds are never again taxed – not even in withdrawal.

abundance achievement bank banknotes

Traditional IRA Deduction Limits – Spouse Covered By Retirement Plan 

Contributions to a Traditional IRA are tax-deductible in the tax year during which they are made.  Funds in a traditional IRA are considered tax-deferred.  You do not pay taxes on the funds during the year in which they go in and you do not pay taxes on dividends or capital gains during the growth of the money, but you do pay taxes on withdrawal.

In withdrawal, the money coming out of your IRA is considered income.  In many cases, however, you will be in a lower tax bracket in retirement than you are today and so you are effectively paying a lower tax rate on the deferred income that you otherwise would.

However, the IRS does not allow you to deduct taxes on your traditional IRA contributions in all cases where you or your spouse are covered by a retirement plan at work.

If your spouse is covered by a retirement plan at work, the non-covered spouse can deduct his or her entire traditional IRA contribution with joint earnings up to $193,000.  From $193,000 – $203,000, only a partial deduction is available.

Traditional IRA Deduction Limits – Taxpayer Covered by Retirement Plan

In cases where the taxpayer himself is covered by a retirement plan at work, there is still an opportunity to deduct contributions to a traditional IRA if you make below certain salaries.

A single taxpayer may contribute to both a 401K plan and may deduct his traditional IRA contributions if he earns $64,000 or less.  Again, a phaseout allows people making up to $74,000 to take partial deductions.

Married taxpayers filed jointly who are both covered by 401K plans or otherwise at work may still deduct their traditional IRA contributions if their earnings are less than $103,000.  And they may take a partial deduction as long as their total earnings are less than $123,000.


Is Law School Worth the Cost in 2019?

The costs of law school have swollen in recent years.  But the cost of school is not just the face value of tuition.  One of the first things that my Contracts professor taught us in school is opportunity cost.  (Confession: as a philosophy major, I had no idea what he was talking about).

On day one of Contracts, our professor began pontificating on opportunity cost.  This was all part of a longer speech on “do you really want to do this for the next three years of your life?”  Even if you are going to a public school and paying in-state tuition, the average cost of tuition and fees in 2017-18 was $26,864.  (The average private tuition was $47,112!).  Living a lean lifestyle in a moderately priced city will cost you about another $20,000 a year and so, for the average in-state school you’re talking about roughly $46,000 a year without any tuition money.  That means taking out about $150,000 in loans to get you through to graduation and then perhaps another $10,000 to pay for your bar review course, exam fees, and food/rent/car for the summer after you graduate.

But the opportunity cost of going to law school is even higher than that.  You aren’t just starting out $150,000 in the hole, you’re also missing out on three years of salary which you didn’t earn while you were in school.

In 2018, the average college graduate secured a job paying $50,390 a year, according to CNN.  It’s worth noting here, that if you’ve followed my advice and you’re going to the right type of law school, you are likely above-average anyway and would have been earning more than this.

This means that the average law student will be $300,000 worse off than their same-aged counterpart who did not go to law school right out of the gates.  Now, there are plenty of ways to catch up and pass the non-lawyer, but it will take time.

There is not meaningful “average” starting salary for lawyers.  The distribution of salaries coming out of law school is bimodal.

2014 Bi-Modal Distribution

This graph shows the starting salaries of 4,600 members of the Class of 2014.  There is one peak at $160,000 (then the starting salary of just about everyone in a major city working for a BigLaw firm) and another set of peaks in the $45,000 – $60,000 range.  Even adjusting for inflation since 2015, these salaries are not considerably higher than the $50,390 earned by a college grad.  AND you’ll likely be dealing with crushing student loan debt.

In 2006 and 2007, when my law school class was interviewing for jobs, the skies were blue and the sun was out and we were all but promised $160,000 jobs.  Markets were so good in the early 2000s that loads of new law schools began cropping up – some not even accredited by the American Bar Association.

Then, the bottom fell out of the credit markets.  In 2008 and 2009, BigLaw firms began cancelling summer associate classes, laying off associates, and rescinding offers.  Many of the folks who went to the lower level law schools after having been promised huge salaries ended up filing lawsuits against their schools because the school had misrepresented employment data and no one wanted to hire them.

You need to have a full grasp of what you’re getting into going to law school.  Personally, I cannot see myself doing anything else.  I love being a trial lawyer.  But if you are on the fence and are going to law school because you don’t know what to do or because your parents are pressuring you, you probably are not going to enjoy law school and you probably are not going to be financially better off on the other end.



How to Choose a Law School in 2019

If you are a bright young college student aspiring to go to law school who stumbled onto this site looking for the answer to the question “should I go to law school?” the answer is probably “no.”  Law school is not a good idea for most people and if you are asking yourself this question, you are one of the many for whom it is a bad idea.

By way of background, I am a practicing attorney who graduated from William & Mary Law in 2008.  William & Mary is a solid regional law school, consistently ranking around the top 30 schools in the country.  I transferred to William & Mary from a school which consistently ranked outside the top 100.  Transferring was, without a doubt, the best move I made for my career.  (The best financial move I made was continuing to work part-time during law school).

Going to law school is expensive.  There are no two ways around it.  My school has become considerably more expensive since I graduated.  When I attended, tuition was around $15,000 annually.  Since that time, Virginia stopped subsidizing post-graduate tuition with taxpayer dollars.  Tuition at W&M has swollen to $34,000 for in-state students and $43,000 for out-of-state (at least in 2018).

Given the outrageous cost of going to law school, my advice to anyone who is considering going is that you should only go to school if:

  1. You go to any Top 20 Law School
  2. You go to the best regional Law School in your state AND you want to practice in that state
  3. You get a full scholarship to Law School

Top 20 Law Schools

These schools are consistently the best.  If you watch the U.S. News and World Report rankings, the Top 20 doesn’t change very much.  You might see #15 slide to #18 and #19 move up a few spots, but you won’t see wild swings like a school dropping from #19 to #45.  These are the schools where the best law firms recruit.  If you are paying list price at a top flight school (or really at any school), the only way to pay off student loans within a reasonable amount of time and get on with the rest of your life is to slave away at a BigLaw firm for a few years.

Sure, there are public service debt forgiveness programs, but they require 10 years of work.  Oh, and the program denies 99% of the people who apply for loan forgiveness!!   99%!!!!

The Best Regional School in Your State

The caveat with this advice is that it doesn’t go very far if your state is New York, California, DC, or some other major hub.  But, if you are looking at going to law school in a state like Mississippi, Iowa, or Kansas AND practice in that state, you will be fine going to the best regional school, and being in the top flight of students at that school.

As another aside – this advice won’t get you very far if you are in the bottom half of the class at the best regional school in your state.  In law school, all of your classes are graded on a curve and you will receive a class rank on your transcript.  Some schools are more forgiving than others and after 51%, they don’t put a class rank or even an approximation on the transcript.  Trust me, employers know why yours doesn’t have one but your colleague’s does.

Any Law School That Gives You a Full Scholarship

This is controversial advice, but I think you should go to any school which will let you attend for free.  One of the mistakes that I made was turning down an offer from a school in the mid-west to let me not only attend for free, but pay me a $10,000 stipend and elected to go to a Big Ten school (the one outside the top 100) at a 25% discount.  This was probably a $30,000 difference, especially since I transferred out after the first year.

The reason that this advice is controversial is that you (1) fewer employers are going to come and interview at your lower level school and (2) these scholarships are often a loss-leader for the school.  Schools may give out 50 full scholarships for 1L year on the condition that you can keep it if you are in the top 10% of the class.  Naturally some non-scholarship students will get into the top 10% and the school will only have to give out 15 scholarships during the 2L year.  You, haven fallen outside the top 10% may now be staring down a $40,000 tuition payment at a low level school.

Life comes at you fast.  Work hard.


In my humble opinion, if you do not get in to one of these three kinds of law schools, you really should stay home, go to work for a few years, and try again later.  It does not make any sense going to a mid-level school in Utah if you want to practice in Massachusetts.  In all likelihood, that just won’t happen.

Laurel Highlands 2018 Race Report – 70.5 Miler

It has taken me almost three weeks to sit down and try to put into words my Laurel Highlands Ultra experience.  This one was hard.  Mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, you name it.  But the thing is, it also wasn’t that hard… my race day at Laurel Highlands was filled with contradictions.

I started this blog, in part, because I’ve gleaned so much from other people’s blogs regarding other races.  In fact, leading up to Laurel, I think I read just about every other race report I could find twice.  There’s even a guy on YouTube who has made a series of videos hiking from mile marker to mile marker on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail.  I watched a couple of those.  I mean, how bored can you be to watch some dude hike on YouTube?  I’d just heard so many different things about this race – it was hard, it wasn’t that hard; it was rocky, it’s not that rocky; it’s all hills, it’s pretty flat – that I had a really hard time figuring out what the course was going to be like.

Photo credit: Mike McNeil

In this post, I’d like to give back some of that wisdom, maybe with a little more clarity, to someone else who is fumbling around the internet 4 hours from the trail wondering what their day might be like.

Some perspective helps.  This races takes place the second Saturday in June in western Pennsylvania.  It starts in Ohiopyle and traverses the entire 70 mile distance of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail up to Seward.  For good measure, the race starts about a half mile from the trailhead, so you get 70.5 miles.

The race prides itself on being “old school.”  It is one of the few remaining races with a mail-in entry.  If I recall, entry opened shortly after Thanksgiving (true story – my entry into this race was borne of a drunken discussion the Friday after Thanksgiving).  You ship off your application and a check for about $180 and hold your breath.  If your check gets cashed, you’re in!  A race roster gets posted sometime later in the Spring.

One thing to note: If you are not from the area and do not have a crew, logistics are hard.  We were fortunate enough to stay with some friends in nearby Johnstown and they were kind enough to drop me at the finish at 3:30 a.m. so that I could catch the bus to the starting line.  Your options for getting to the 5:30 start are to do that or to have someone drive you down to Ohiopyle – difficult in its own right because there doesn’t seem to be a direct, highway route from one end of the trail to the other.  Either can make for a really long day if you’re doing this on your own.  I was up at 2:15 a.m. and didn’t finish the race until about 1:15 a.m. the next day.  Without a crew, your options at that point are to sleep in your car for a bit or drive it back to whatever hotel you stayed in.  Both manageable – but something to keep in mind.

From the start, you get punched in the mouth with three big climbs in the first eight miles.  You go up 800 feet, descend about 700, go up 600, descend 700 or so again and then hit a big 1200 foot climb to the ridgeline.  I am better at climbing than I am at descending and I’m a middle of the pack runner.  It was hard for me to find much space to run in the first eight miles.  Some of the downhill is runnable, but it is slick, rocky, and root-y.  I started very conservative and was trying not to fall before the first aid station (at the race briefing the night before, the RD told us that our goals should be to not blow up in the first 19 miles).

Of course, I fell on my ass at mile 5.  Hard.  I had been leaning back and applying the brakes on a downhill, rocky section and my feet just went out from under me in the early morning dew.  I had a bruised ass and a golf ball sized knot for a solid two weeks.  I took a few minutes to walk, shake it off, and pick my ego back up off the ground before picking up to a jog again.

As I said, I had a really hard time pre-race trying to figure out what the terrain was going to be like.  Here it is: after the first 8 miles and with the exception of a 400 foot climb just before the mile 19 aid station, this whole course is runnable on fresh legs.  There are places with very nice, well groomed single track.  There are places with some rocks and roots, but I don’t think I would describe anything after the first eight miles as “technical.”  On paper, the elevation profile looks really easy after the first few miles.

Each grid line represents about 300 feet of elevation.  Just get up on the ridgeline and cruise, right?  Hell, there’s even a spot from like 52 to 57 that looks downright downhill.  The elevation profile is very deceptive – it’s easy to forget that you’re running a 70 mile race and that the little ups and downs are relentless in this race.  And of course your legs aren’t fresh the whole way.

View from the Ridgeline

Another thing that makes this race deceptively hard is the spacing of the aid stations.  You get aid at 11.6; 19.3; 26; 32.3; 39.1; 46.4; 57.1; and 62.  Those are some long miles in June.  It is important to carry enough food with you between aid stations.  I brought my own ziploc baggie (though I think they had them at most aid stations) and filled it with quesadillas and cookies (at different times – of course) to eat between aid stations.  One novelty at this race is that every single mile is marked with a permanent cement pylon.  I played mental reward games with myself where I’d get to have another cookie when I got to the mile marker.  I found this was an easy enough way to space out some of my food and make sure I was popping 80 calories or so every other mile.

Mile 46-ish. I was definitely not feeling “thumb’s up” here.

I can report that ice at the aid stations was plentiful.  You can’t appreciate this enough and you don’t get it at all races.  I wore a pack with a 2 liter bladder and carried a water bottle.  My general plan was to have Tailwind in the bladder and water in the pack.  I’ve found that I can only tolerate so much Tailwind.  But the feeling of ice in your pack on an 80 degree day is unbelievable.

There are also several stream crossings in this race where you can dip your buff or hat.  

The course itself is beautiful.  There are several huge rock formations that you get to run through.  Either because of the shade or because of the ambient temperature of the rocks, any time you are running through these the temperature goes down about 10 degrees.  Though I don’t have any photos of them, towards the end of the course there are enormous fields of ferns.  Just bright green ferns as far as the eye can see.  Really neat stuff.

For whatever reason, this day just never really came together for me.  I can’t put my finger on why.  I felt like I had the pre-race jitters starting about two days before the race and didn’t resolve until about mile 19.  It took me a really long time to get over the feeling that I just didn’t want to be out there.  After mile 19, I ran pretty well through the late 30s.  I did a particularly good job of staying on top of hydration and calories, but the relentless hills, humidity, and heat were getting to me.

I found myself sitting in a chair at the mile 46 checkpoint just starring into the abyss and not feeling like going forward.  From mile 46, the next aid station is 11 miles.  Really hard at that point.  Frankly, if this were a looped course or if I were closer to home, I probably would’ve called it a day.  And that would’ve been a mistake because I wasn’t hurt, I wasn’t dehydrated, I wasn’t behind on calories… I was just mentally tired.  Luckily, I figured that if I called my wife to pick me up, it would take her at least an hour to get to the aid station from Johnstown and I’d have to suffer the indignity of waiting around in the aid station just sulking.

I decided it was probably better if I sulked on the trail instead.  So I filled my bottles, grabbed some to-go food and downed a coke.  Once I’d made that decision and started moving, I actually felt pretty good.  I met up with Simon, a runner from Ohio, who pulled me along through the next several miles. We were hiking strong on the uphills and cruising on some buttery downhill singletrack.  And things were going really well, until they weren’t.  At some point, my body just decided it didn’t want to be hiking hard anymore and I started dryheaving.  Thinking back, it was probably lactic buildup that caused it.  Nothing came up, but I had to back off the gas for a while and ended up hiking by myself through to the next aid station.

I made it into 57 feeling pretty happy to be there.  Just 13 miles to go!  I picked up my headlamp, downed some cold Gatorade and some chicken broth, and promptly threw up the chicken broth.  Exact same thing happened at Umstead and one of these days, I am going to learn not to mix warm chicken broth and cold drinks during races.  I grabbed a little bit more food to go and figured I just had to lug myself to the mile 62 aid station and get some more calories in there.

I’d caught back up with Simon and we’d made two other ultra-friends for the long slog back to the finish.  I made a mistake at 62 and didn’t eat nearly enough.  I also didn’t fill my pack with water – just the bottle.  I was ok immediately coming out of the aid station, but the last few miles were really tough.  Again, on paper, the last few miles look great:

All downhill, right?  Wrong.  There are several “little” uphills after mile 65 that just add up to a miserable time.  At this point, the cement pylons are mocking you… “oh, you though it was downhill after 66?  Well here we are, still climbing these fucking hills!”  Finally, the last three miles are actually all downhill, but they are rocky and just steep enough in the dark that we elected not to run until the last mile or so.

There are few feelings in ultras like hearing the aid station in the distance or seeing that first glimmer of light from the finish line.  I was really happy to get to the finish here.  I finished in 19:47:45.  64th of 131 starters.

This race is tough, tough, tough.  But at the same time, I can’t remember any particular part after mile 8 that was difficult.  The course is just relentless – which is what you’ll need to be to finish it.  Good luck and I hope this helped.

2018 Farm Park Challenge – 6 Hour: Race Report

The Farm Park Challenge takes place up in Derwood, Maryland on the trails of the Montgomery County Agricultural Farm Park.  This is a timed, looped event with a twist.

In most timed courses, you get to run as much as you want in a given time period.  These events are perfect for people new to ultras who want to get their feet wet in a “safe” way where your food, water, and car are never more than a few miles away.  I also believe that they’re great at introducing people to the atmosphere of an ultra.  In a looped event, slow people get to see fast people and vice versa. And everyone cheers everyone else on.

So here’s the twist with the Farm Park Challenge: you don’t get to finish your loop, refill your water, and head back out on the course.  You must finish your 5.12 mile loop in 60 minutes or you’re “out.”  And if you happen to finish your loop in, say, 42 minutes, your reward is that you get to sit around and wait for 18 minutes until the top of the hour.

The race features many different divisions: 3 hour, 6 hour, 10 hour, marathon, and “fun run.”  I ran the 6 hour event and banked 30-ish training miles on one of the first really warm days this Spring.


My goal was to finish each lap with enough time to refill my water, get some food, and not have to stand around very long.  This proved pretty easy on the first four laps or so, as the course is exceedingly runable and it wasn’t difficult to keep a pace just over 10 minute miles.  Things got hard for me around lap five.  This was one of those days that stayed overcast the whole day, but had almost no wind.  Temperatures hovered right around 70 with mild humidity and it rained a couple of times for maybe five minutes – not enough to cool you down.

I have always struggled with running in the heat and I’ve tried to expedite my acclimatization this year with some extended sauna sessions, but I’m not quite there yet.  The fifth lap was a strugglefest.  I knew that all I really had to do was get back to the starting gate in about 58 minutes to have enough time to get something to drink and head back out there.  But I was feeling sapped of motivation and the beer tent was calling.  Luckily, I teamed up with Paul at the turnaround and we worked together to get back to the start/finish in time.  We ended up getting back to the start line in 57 minutes.

Lap six was really rough.  The way that this race works, your last lap is your “race.”  Since everyone starts each lap at the same time, the only way to rank runners is to mark who comes in first during the last lap.  I had no delusions that I’d be “racing” anyone on this day and I ended up coming in DFL of the official finishers.  But, I finished.

Woah. Need more heat training.

I ended up getting behind on hydration a little bit on lap 5.  I had been doing really well finishing a 20 oz. bottle of Tailwind on each loop and consuming some extra water while waiting for the next lap.  But on lap five I only finished about half the bottle.  I chugged some water at the start line and then decided to just leave my pack and bottle for the last 4.9 miles, figuring I’d be a little less hot if I didn’t have the wear the vest.

Splits (to make things a little more confusing, laps 1, 3, and 5 were a 5.3 mile out and back; laps 2, 4, and 6 were about 4.9 miles)

Lap 1: 54:03

Lap 2: 51:34

Lap 3: 55:06

Lap 4: 53:15

Lap 5: 57:00

Lap 6: 57:20

Continue reading “2018 Farm Park Challenge – 6 Hour: Race Report”

2018 Mt. Tammany 10: Race Report

Before I race, I make it a habit to read every race report that I can find online.  The Mt. Tammany 10 is every bit as brutal as the internet says it is.

This race takes place in the Delaware Water Gap in late March.  It hadn’t snowed much in 2018 (must’ve been saving it up for race week).  The forecast for race week: a foot of snow in New Jersey.  The snow rolled in about 48 hours before the race and dumped eight inches on the mountain.  Ironically, this timing worked out pretty well.  Mt. Tammany is covered by rocks and the snow actually made the downhill more runable than usual.  At least for the first half of the race.

My wife is from Easton, PA, so the race being about 40 miles from her hometown perfectly situates us to take the kids for a visit to the in-laws and for me to get a day on the trails.

I arrived on-site about 5:45 a.m. and headed over for packet pickup.  I got a warm greeting from Alex at Athletic Equation for being the only Virginia entrant in this year’s race and headed back to my car to start setting up.  I strapped on my brand new Yaktrax (purchased on Amazon 48 hours before and shipped directly to the in-laws) and debated whether or not to start the race with a headlamp.  With the sun due to rise about fifteen minutes after the start, I decided I didn’t need it and left it in the car.


The race features 10 assaults on Mt. Tammany, a 1200 foot tall, rocky beast.  From the start/finish you head out on the road for about a third of a mile,  head up the mountain for 1.3 miles on the Red Dot trail, run along the ridge for a while, and then head back down the mountain on the Blue Dot trail.  Once you reach the bottom of the mountain, you head right back up and do it all over again.  Every other loop you return to the aid station to check in and get some food and drink.  The official cut-off is ten hours, but the RD is lenient if you are making good time and are on pace to finish before dark.


My training leading up to the race featured a lot of time on a stairclimber, but not a lot of time training downhill running.  This was a mistake.  By the second loop, I knew I had neglected my quads and should have spent more time doing lunges.


The view from the top is beautiful.  And for the first four laps, the climbs were not that bad.  The descents weren’t that bad either.  The Blue Dot trail, which goes back down the mountain is notorious for lots of medium size, ankle biting rocks.  But early in the day, where the eight inches of snow had been packed down by a day or two of hikers and the front-runners, it was smooth sailing down a snowy trail.

As the day warmed up and the snow became more and more packed, the trail iced over and the smooth sailing turned into skiing.

Going into the day, I thought that if I could finish six ascents on the mountain, I would finish all ten.  After all, what’s the point of doing eight loops and going home?  But by the time I got to the top of lap seven, I knew I wouldn’t make the time cutoff for ten.  I did turn myself back up the mountain for number eight, but it was a long, hard slog and I had to stop and rest against trees several times.  I was resigned to walking the ridgeline on lap eight, as by that time the sun had done its work and melted all of the snow off the mountain and all of the rocks were out in their full glory.


When I returned to the aid station after loop eight, Alex told me I had to turn and burn.  I told him I was already cooked and was going to call it a day.

I’m not sure what I could have done differently in training.  Frankly, I probably managed more miles than I should have because the snow made the Blue Dot trail so runable.  This is a graduate-level course.  You could tell by the folks who showed up: lots of fast-looking 20- and 30-somethings (many with OCR backgrounds).

Training on the mountain would help and many of the other racers I chatted with lived nearby and told me they had done as many as five or six loops in training.


A DNF for me.  But at the end of the day, I was really proud of this effort.  More vertical than I’d done before in a race and I didn’t give up until I was really done.  Which is more than I can say for my brand new Yaktrax.



Lap 1&2: 1:51:21

Lap 3&4: 1:57:38

Lap 5&6: 2:13:04

Lap 7&8: 2:34:41