Friday, September 25, 2015

I’ll Fly Away: Run Rabbit Run 100, September 18th, 2015

Find a good rut and stick with it.
-Sandi Ashley

“Thirteen miles to the finish.”  I stared at the volunteer, frantically calculating, then burst into tears.  I was ninety-plus miles in already, and I’d been running at threshold for the past two hours, desperately trying to make up time against the possibility of missing a thirty-hour finish.  “Someone told me it was seventeen,” I sobbed, “and I just lost my shit”.  She stared back at me with that ‘maybe I need to pull this guy from the race’ look.  Through the tears I said, “No, I’m fine.  Really, I’m okay.  Thank you for being out here.  It’s just so hard.”  I ran away before she could tell me I had to stop.

There were a lot of tears shed in Colorado last week.  I’d planned the trip almost a year ago, in part to race the Run Rabbit Run 100 mile, but mostly to have a chance to spend time with my Grandmother, the last member of her generation in my family.  Instead I arrived just in time for her memorial service.  I started my eulogy by saying that I would try to tell some stories from her life, but that if I broke down, people might have to think of their own stories for a while.  They almost had to.  The other members of our family kept it together better than I did.  Beautiful stories were told, and beautiful music was played.  One piece we didn’t sing was “I’ll Fly Away”.  As my sister recounted, Grandma hated that song because they always played it at her friends’ funerals.

What I didn’t say at the service, and would only slowly come to accept, is that my Grandmother had also given me an incredible gift by her passing.  All the members of our family came together in Colorado to celebrate her life.  It gave us a chance to reconnect with each other, and it gave us time to remember who we were and how we came to be.  It meant that we were able to share our history again and, with the travel already made, it meant we could spend a few days together in the mountains.  For me, selfishly, it meant that my whole family would be with me when I needed them most.

After doing what little we could to help settle affairs in Fort Collins we drove through the mountains toward Steamboat Springs.  We stayed at the little ranch cabin Dave and Sandi and Jan had built in the 1970’s just before I was born.  It sits on an open plateau of grass and sage seventeen miles from town.  It has a huge picture window with a view all the way to the mountain.  When we first arrived the mountain was enshrouded with dark and angry-looking clouds, but the next day, as we drove to town, the storm broke.  We were greeted with first a solitary rainbow, then a pair.  They were the brightest I’d ever seen, and at one point even the space between the two seemed streaked with color.  As omens go, it was pretty hard to beat.  It seemed as if my Grandmother was giving us one last goodbye, a beautiful, joyous farewell.  It turned the page for me, leaving me to focus on the race.

At our family pre-race meeting on Thursday night we went over the course and the aid stations, the pace estimates and gear.  We covered who would meet me at each of the crew access points and what I might want there.  And we talked about focus and motivation.  Olivia took a black marker and wrote on my left forearm ‘This is what you came for’.  On my right arm ‘Not all pain is significant’, and on my hands ‘Be Somebody’ and ‘Experience Joy’, all visible reminders of how to keep my darkest thoughts at bay.

At the race start Friday morning, 8 AM, I started in the back.  The course contains four thousand feet of climbing in the first four miles.  I knew I’d be walking all of that, and I did.  I checked my watch, keeping my heart rate below my target of 132 bpm, ten beats below MAF.  At first the clouds spit sleet and rain at us, but soon the sun broke through, bathing the mountain in light, though not warmth.  The sight was incredible, green spruce and fir surrounding stands of aspen that had turned not just yellow and gold but even red.  Blue sky and gray rock and the tiny stream of brightly garmented runners climbing slowly up the face.  At the top of the gondola I met my family for the first time, exchanging quick hugs and handing off my rain jacket before hiking along.

We soon came to the Mt. Werner aid station, well above ten thousand feet, where the course levels and contours along the ridge.  I was frustrated to find that I couldn’t keep my heart rate down at anything above a slow jog on the flats, and that even the slightest climb or descent required walking.  I began to repeat what would become my mantra for the first day, a quote from Mark Allen: "Total Commitment plus Total Surrender equals Great Significance."  I hated watching others, clearly less fit, run by, but I knew the fastest way to destroy my race was to overexert my sea-level trained body at elevation.  I have a plan, I thought, and that plan will work.  Total commitment to that plan.  I was probably placing somewhere around 190th of the 211 starters, but I refused to care.

On the descent to Fish Creek Falls my body could finally begin to move without spiking my heartbeats.  I passed a few runners on the smooth early sections then danced by the crowds that had slowed on the rocks.  My East Coast technical trails were finally coming in handy.  As I skipped over the stones the song my Grandma hated filled my mind.  I began to sing softly as I ran down the trail, then more loudly – I’ll fly away, Oh Glory, I’ll fly away in the morning, when I die Hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away – and I smiled as I gathered strange looks from all the hikers who must have thought I’d lost my mind.

My brother-in-law Chad met me above the Fish Creek aid and ran me down the road through town.  We chatted about the day and the race, and he showed me a video on his phone of our family cheering for me.  The miles clicked by quickly until we met the whole crew at Olympian Hall.  I got fritos and coke and a calf massage, and I picked up a trucker hat full of ice.  I spent too much time there, but it felt good.

On the loop out to Cow Creek I stuck with my plan, repeating over and over again: Total Commitment.  Chelsea from Vancouver caught up and eventually passed me, along with a pair of Japanese runners, Kara from Steamboat, and a few others who were in no mood to chat.  It was the heat that was slowing me now, and I thanked God and my Dad for the trucker hat full of ice.  I’d learned my lesson at the HURL, and I wasn’t going to overheat again.

At Cow Creek I refilled on ice, gels, and hugs.  I hit my first real low of the race on the gentle road climb above the aid station.  I walked along, letting my body settle, fighting off the negative mentality.  Once I hit the single track I felt better, and soon my energy returned in full.  I began to see runners ahead, and for the first time I let my competitive impulses push my boundaries.  I became the hunter, picking off runners one by one and in groups.  I whistled songs aloud as I approached and passed, flaunting how relaxed I was, how far I was from oxygen debt.  I road that high all the way back to Olympian Hall, making up time against the clock.

Chad ran with me through town again, keeping with me in the gathering dark.  He asked me how I felt about having to run through the night, sunset to sunrise, and I said I was worried.  He asked me my three favorite things about running by headlamp.  I couldn’t think of any, but I could see he was doing his best to help me.  That alone was enough.

The night was hard regardless.  I passed more runners, and began to be passed by more and more of the elite “Hares”, who’d started four hours after we “Tortoises” were on the course.  In the dark the high country air was icy.  I felt tired, sleepy.  I wanted to lay down, to cover myself with the space blanket from my pack, and it was so hard to keep up any reasonable effort.  I would check my watch after what seemed like hours only to see that we’d moved less than a mile.

Back at Long Lake Jenn Shelton was tending to runners and handing out shots of whiskey to anyone who was willing.  Andy Reed caught me there.  He was moving well, but he said his stomach had turned badly.  I followed him out of the aid station, nauseous as well, and watched his headlamp disappear into the dark.  He was still at Summit Lake aid when I arrived, but he said his stomach had recovered.  He showed me a note card his wife had slipped into his drop bag: “Embrace the Pain”.  We laughed about it and about my HURL race report, about how he knew I was cooked long before I did, and we tried to help another runner whose knees and hips were betraying him.  Soon Andy disappeared down the trail again, this time for good.  I followed along slowly until my friend Karen Holland, another elite starter, caught me, then kept time with her for a few miles before my energy crashed completely.

I struggled into Dry Lake, where the love of my life met me.  I told her I wanted to quit.  We talked for a minute, and then she told me I’d passed my lucidity check.  She told me to quit my whining and get out of there, but she tempered her hard side with hugs and a hot mocha.  I left the aid station and within moments, at 2:30 AM in the freezing dark, received the most incredible jolt of energy I’ve ever felt in a race.  Her strength and warmth propelled me down the trail to the Spring Ponds turnaround, then back up to Dry Lake with Chad in tow again.  It was the most amazing feeling.

At the second pass through Dry Lake we hit our one hiccup of the race.  My faster pace and the crowded shuttles meant my parents hadn’t arrived at the aid station, which meant that I didn’t have the warm clothes, bottles, and headlamp batteries I needed before I climbed back into the high country.  For a moment I sat, bewildered, as Chad frantically searched for a spot with enough cell reception to find out where everyone was.  I was freezing, stuck, and my stomach had turned sour again.  I could almost see the mental demons slithering over the frozen ground toward me, stalking me.  Then, unbidden, a quote from Nickademus Hollon’s Tour des Geants race report exploded into my brain: “I accidentally kicked a rock hard with my right foot then. The pain opened my eyes right up and I repeated to myself:  This is the best possible thing that could possibly happen to me right now.”[i]

This is the best thing that could possibly happen to me right now!  I stretched my fingers out in front of me, made fists, then relaxed.  I got a cup full of hot salted broth from the woman at the aid counter, then a second.  My stomach began to settle – the best thing that could happen right now.  Chad worked his hands over my calves, and a few of the knots began to loosen – the best thing that could possibly happen right now – then he moved me to a warming tent.  My fingers thawed, and I stopped shivering.  The best possible thing that could possibly happen to me right now!  Hollon’s statement is not true in its essence, but it can be made to be true.  My parents arrived, and the gear transition was fast and seamless.  I hugged them hard.  Those hugs were the last thing I needed before vanishing into the dark.  This is the best possible thing that could possibly happen to me right now.

I climbed back to Summit Lake as the world slowly brightened.  At altitude my energy evaporated again.  The aid station was supposed to be eighty-two miles in.  I’ve learned over many races that even at my worst, even at altitude, I can still walk consistent twenty-minute miles.  My aspirational goal of a twenty-four hour finish was long out of reach, but I still had my sights set on a sub-thirty hour buckle.  The course was supposed to be one hundred three miles, meaning the remaining twenty-one miles would take me at worst seven hours.  It was 6:58 AM.  I would just make it.  To reassure myself, I asked a volunteer how far it was to the finish.  He looked at his sheet, adding up distances from one aid to the next.  “Not far now,” he said.  “Twenty-five miles to go.”

In that moment I felt the world closing in.  I rebelled.  There’s no fucking way I’ve worked this hard to miss a thirty-hour finish!  I have to make up a fucking hour twenty over then next twenty-five.  That’s seventeen minute pace, no, 16:48.  Shit.  10,000 ft for the next 15, and the next two aids will cost you time.  Damn it.  I don’t know if I can do that.  Fuck.  Go, go, go!

The battery of my heart rate monitor had died hours earlier.  I clearly wasn’t going to make it at 132 bpm anyway.  I gave up on my plan and started pushing, hard.  I ran everything I could, and climbed as fast as I could when I couldn’t run.  My hands started to swell, and I started to see things I knew weren’t there – a coyote that was really a stump, a blue shirt that was really a flash of sky through the trees, a bizarre dragon-like creature that was really a pile of rocks.  I was loosing sodium balance, but I didn’t care.  Fine.  I’m not drinking til the end.  I can do that.

I kept it together emotionally until the return through Long Lake, eight miles later.  I’d made up half the time I thought I needed, but it had cost me.  I was hurting, badly, and I didn’t know if I could keep it up for another seventeen miles.  I checked with a volunteer again “How far until the end?”

“Thirteen miles.”

I almost fell over.  I started crying, hard, wracked by the intensity and the relief and the knowledge that I still couldn’t rest.  I tried to pretend that all this was normal and no reason for a forced DNF.  I left as fast as I could to make sure she wouldn’t pull me from the race. 

After a while a sense of normalcy, or something resembling normalcy, returned.  I stabilized my effort, walking the ups and running the downs.  I didn’t know what I should do on the flats, but there weren’t enough of them to worry about anyway.  Eventually I caught up with Karen again.  We walked together for a moment, and she said she was hurting.  I said not to worry, we’d just run the downhills together.  At the next pitch I skipped down the rocks and she called from behind “Your steps are so… dainty”.  It made me smile, and I needed that.  Karen didn’t follow, though.  She was solidly in forth place, third far ahead and fifth far behind.  No need to risk injury or overreaching.

I carried on, up to Mount Werner, where I pretended my swollen hands and visions were nothing of concern, then down the long cat track toward the finish.  Three miles from the end I found my sister.  She sent a simple text message to our family, two words.  “Got him.”

We ran most of those last three miles, pushing forward and picking off a final few competitors.  They didn’t even try to follow. As I neared the finish the announcer joked that I looked like a 5K runner, and that my tan lines matched my shorts.  I stopped just before the line to pick up my son and my niece, then carried them across.  I hugged the designated hugger, officially completing my journey, then collapsed on the grass in the shade of a card table.  I’d finished 19th overall in the tortoise division, and while 38 of the elite hares would have faster times, I even picked off a few of them.  Not to mention the 30 elite DNF’s.

I stood up to cheer Karen across the line, and she soon took my place lying down in the grass.  I was so proud of her.  She had just crushed a course that had felled the likes of Michele Yates and Tim Olson, and finished fourth among the elite women.  It was an incredible performance.  Later we exchanged messages about where to meet up next – maybe the Georgia Death Race or the Cruel Jewel 100?  We’re both looking for UTMB points, and who could turn down another 108 mile “one hundred mile” race?

Post script: Execution vs. Plan
In the corporate world where I spend my days there is much discussion of execution vs. plan.  How did earnings compare to projected earnings?  Has cycle time been reduced as expected?  Have we come up with an appropriate metric to measure our number of metrics?  You get the idea.

For this race, though, I did have a very specific plan.  Most of it was heart rate based.  I had aspirational time goals, but the primary point was to run as fast as I could at an effort that I could sustain for one hundred miles.  I defined that effort in advance as an average heart rate of 132 bpm, 10 beats below my MAF heart rate, and I added an additional cap of 142 bpm.  Looking back over the data I violated the high end cap routinely but never for long and, amazingly, my average HR when the battery gave out at 71 miles was exactly 132.  I’m sure it was much higher over the subsequent 32 miles, but I’m okay with that.  At some point in a race you have to take risks – just don’t take them too early.  That said, in the future I’ll likely plan somewhat more aggressively regarding effort.  Based on my experience here I think I can sustain MAF – 5 for a full day, and a MAF + 5 cap is reasonable if not violated for long.

Other key points of the plan were around temperature control.  I bought my TRN trucker hat specifically for the purpose of keeping ice on my head during the heat of the day.  I taught myself to run with it on, even though I hate having anything on my head while running.  It worked.  Granted it wasn’t 97 degrees this time around, but the impact of the afternoon sun and heat was minor and mitigated instead of major and goal-crushing. 

The cold in the high country at night was a whole different ballgame.  For the early part of the night I carried a wool shirt, light rain jacket, gloves, and beanie in my UD vest, slowly putting them on as the temperature dropped.  It was enough, but carrying the vest was frustrating and likely unnecessary; I eventually dumped both bottles just to stop hearing the sloshing.  After the second Dry lake pass I added a heavier jacket and gloves, ditched the vest, and picked up my handheld again.  The heavier jacket was nice in that the pockets allowed me to stow hat, gloves, buff, and headlamp after morning rendered them unnecessary, but by midday I felt like I had the Spanish Armada tied around my waste.  As a person who naturally runs hot, I plan to carry substantially less cold gear next time around.  There is some risk with that plan, but barring disaster, fighting off cold with movement and body heat seems better than carrying too many coats.

Post post script:  Reevaluating myself as an athlete
Coming into this race I really wanted to break 24 hours.  There’s something magical about the idea and phrase “100 miles, one day”.  I raced nearly as well as I could have and ended up at 28 h 15 min – not close.  Part of that is the course in question.  The Run Rabbit Run course record (which is legit, given that Tim Olson and Rob Krar have failed to break it!) is 17:15, as compared to 14:46 for Western States and 12:44 at Rocky Raccoon.  The larger reality, though, is that I’m not the runner I wish I were, at least not this year.  If I actually want to run the times I’d like, I need to make major changes to diet, training consistency, and, most importantly, reduction of life stress.  Job-related stresses destroyed at least a month of key training this year, and I’m sure I suffered more because of that.  Add on an occasionally laissez faire approach to eating, sleeping, and running, and I’m four-ish hours off of where I want to be.  Luckily, all of those things are fixable.


Thursday, September 10, 2015

Scheming, plotting, and planning: Crew instructions and gear list for the Run Rabbit Run 100

I’m a little stressed out about running 100 miles for the first time, so I’ve been planning.  Kind of.  It's a little hard to plan effectively for something you've never done before, but I'm giving it my best shot.  Below are a few of the practical considerations I’ve put together for myself and my family (aka Crew.  Thanks family!).

Gear list and crew instructions for the Run Rabbit Run 100

Side notes
  • Daylight: Sunset 7:13 pm, sunrise 6:50 am (11 h 37 min of headlamp running)
  • Temperature: Average high 71 F, average low 35 F

Start gear
  • Shoes, socks, calf sleeves, shorts (TNF), shirt (InkNBurn), arm sleeves, trucker hat (TRN)
  • Watch, heart rate monitor
  • Handheld, gels in each pocket
  • Bandaids, body glide, and sunscreen applied

Night gear 
  • New shirt (UA)
  • Vest containing

o   Two bottles
o   Wool shirt wrapped in light rain jacket
o   Ziplocked wool hat, gloves, buff
o   Space blanket
o   Ziplocked paper towels
o   Headlamp + extra battery, backup headlamp (Fully Charged.  Remember charging cables!)
o   Note: Night gear to be provided by crew on second trip through Olympian Hall (41.6 miles, est 3:30 – 5:30 PM) or second trip through Fish Creek Falls (45.6 miles, est 4:30 – 6:30 PM). 

Crew gear/provisions
  • Bag 1: New shirt (UA), new wool shirt, new shorts (Brooks), new socks, new shoes, bandaids, body glide, sunscreen, dry towels
  • Bag 2: Heavy rain jacket, tights
  • Bag 3: Dry towel, street clothes, deodorant
  • Food bag:  Fritos, Coke, stinger honey gels, pocket fuel
  • Night gear vest
  • Ice (daytime)
  • Hot mocha (nighttime) 

Contact points, time estimates, and crew responsibilities
  • Start:  8:00 AM

o   Get me there awake, fed, and geared up by 7:20 AM

  • Top of the Gondola: 8:40 AM

o   Optional, ride the gondola, cheer and spectate, just for fun
  • Fish Creek Falls 1st pass: 11:30 AM – 12:00 PM (Shuttle from Olympian Hall)

o   Optional, moral support and gel resupply
o   Optional pacing from Fish Creek Falls to Olympian Hall, just for fun

  • Olympian Hall, 1st pass: 12:00 PM – 12:30 PM

o   Sunscreen reapplication
o   Ice, Fritos, Coke, gel replacement
o   Access to Bag 1 if requested
  • Cow Creek: 1:00 PM – 2:00 PM

o   Optional, moral support and gel resupply
  • Olympian Hall, 2nd pass: 3:30 PM – 5:30 PM

o   Lucidity check
o   Access to Bag 1 and Bag 2
o   Exchange for night gear if late Key Decision Point.  Alternative requires Crew to take Night Gear to Fish Creek Falls immediately after I leave via shuttle from Olympian Hall
o   Optional pacing from Olympian Hall to Fish Creek Falls, just for fun
  •  Fish Creek Falls, 2nd pass: 4:30 PM – 6:30 PM (Shuttle from Olympian Hall)

o   Night Gear required if not obtained at Olympian Hall
o   Otherwise optional, moral support and gel resupply
  • Dry Lake, 1st pass: 9:00 PM – 11:00 PM  (Shuttle from Olympian Hall)

o   Lucidity check
o   Access to Bag 1 and Bag 2
o   Hot Mocha
  • Spring Creek Ponds: 10:00 PM – 12:00 AM (1 mile hike from high school)

o   Optional, maybe best to just stay at Dry Lake
o   Note:  It will be cold in the night.  Crew should bring parka, hat, gloves, etc if planning to stay at Dry Lake between 1st and 2nd pass.
  • Dry Lake, 2nd pass: 11:00 PM – 1:30 AM

o   Lucidity check
o   Access to Bag 1 and Bag 2
o   Hot Mocha
  • Finish: 7:00 AM – 11:00 AM

o   Pick me up!
o   Put me back together
o   Access to Bag 3
o   Beer.  Lots.  Maybe.  Or maybe not.  We’ll see.

Plans and considerations
  •        Goal pace: 24 hours
  •      Average Heart Rate target: 132
  •      Heart Rate cap: 142
  •      Watch plan: HR and total time only, GPS tracking off
  •      For the first 70 miles, walk the uphills – even the easy ones
  •      For the last 30 miles, pray that I can still walk the uphills – even the easy ones!
  •      Walk into and out of each aid station, but be efficient in the station
  •      Thank every volunteer I meet
  •      Thank my crew every time I see them
  •      Find runners with similar pacing.  Run with them.

  •        Left forearm:  This is what I came for
  •      Right forearm:  Because I want to run here
  •      Humility
  •      Pride
  •        In the first half, don’t be an idiot.  In the second half, don’t be a wimp.
  •      One hundred miles, one day

That’s about it.  Wish me luck!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Humble Pie: HURL Elkhorn 50 mile, August 1st, 2015

On Saturday night after the race my dad showed me a list of “things to bring backpacking”.  He and my mom have been working off that list for the last thirty years or so.  It contains a lot of the obvious, though easy to forget, things, like “toothpaste”, “warm hat”, and “sunglasses” along with the essentials like “tent, sleeping bags, and pads”.  It looks very responsible until you read the margins.  Those contain underlined phrases like ALL parts of the stove! and HIKING Boots, NOT JUST Flip-flops!  Margins always contain the echo of life’s unforgettable moments.

The HURL took me 13 hours, but there’s no need for 13 pages of detail.  The short story is simple and should suffice.  I didn’t eat or drink much before the race.  I forgot my water bottle at the start, ran back to the parking lot for it, and so ended up last on the early single track.  I climbed back to the lead by mile 12, blew up at mile 18, and fought off heat exhaustion for the next 9 hours, 35 miles, and 9,000 ft of climbing (yes, Steve Engebrecht’s 50 miler is 53 miles long).  At the finish I narrowly avoided puking on poor Steve, my parents, their car, and my three-year-old niece while waiting for my body to reestablish thermostasis.  The race felt a bit like one of those trains derailing off a trestle bridge over a gorge in an old movie, except the scene stretched on for the better part of a day.

Reflecting back on how and why things went poorly led someone to coin the phrase “eating humble pie”.  Given that I’ve blown up in three straight endurance events, some deeper reflection seems in order.  Bear Mountain appeared to be the result of stress and sadness.  Whiteface gave an obvious excuse with the extremes of Skyrunning.  But now?  I’m beginning to think that the problem is right between my ears, which makes “humble pie” seem ostentatious.  The consideration of my summer is more like sitting down to a plate of humble liver, or maybe humble spinach.  It doesn’t look good, but at least I’ve managed to pull out of it a list, a bit like my dad’s, of things to read before racing again.

Notes to self:
-If the forecast shows 97 degrees and full sun, drink more than a cup of coffee before the race (HURL).

-If the course has twice as much vertical gain - and loss -  as your last month of training, maybe don’t bomb down that first descent (Whiteface).

-If you’re undertrained, race like you’re undertrained (Bear Mountain). 

-The Maffetone approach is great for flat road triathlons, but it doesn’t build muscle worth a damn.  You need some specific intensity before racing a course that has 45° climbs and descents (Whiteface again).

-You’re not some Zach Bitter ketogenic wonderboy type.  Eat some damn carbs before running all day.

-The ultra is a brutal thing.[i]  It will respect you far less than you respect it.  So you’d better respect it one hell of a lot.

-Focus doesn’t start with the gun.  It doesn’t start the night before, or the day before, or the week before.  Focus starts a full training cycle out, or, better than that, many months earlier.

-I know falling asleep before midnight is hard, but the race start is 5 am.  Figure it out.

-When passing someone, ask yourself “are they slow, or am I dumb?”

-When you’re running downhill faster than the people around you, ask yourself “is this my good technique or their good judgment?”

-Saving a minute in the aid station isn’t worth 9 hours of dehydration.

-Saving a minute in the aid station isn’t worth 9 hours of hypoglycemia.

-Heat sucks.  Figure out how to carry ice.  Lots of ice.

-2 of your 3 best races came when you weren’t trying to compete.  3 of your 4 worst races came when you had serious time/place goals.  Consider:  what will my process actually accomplish?

-Eric Orton said that if it feels like work, you’re going too fast.[ii]  That’s crap.  The reality?  If it feels good, you’re going too fast.

-Ken Chlouber got it wrong too.  You’re not as good as you think you are, and you can’t pull off nearly what you think you can.[iii]  Start the race with some perspective and humility.

-It’s good to remember your place in the world.  As Antje Duvekot says, “You can ask the mountain, but the mountain doesn’t care”.  Again, start the race with some perspective and humility!

I’m not sure if these notes will really help me, but with a hundred mile mountain race rapidly approaching, I need all the reminders I can get.

A side note on food: humble spinach.
Joking aside, I actually like spinach.  I like the flavor, and the folate, iron, zinc, and vitamin A complex are crucial nutrients supplied in high levels.  I eat spinach in quite a variety of dishes, but the most common is my typical morning fare.  In honor of getting wrecked by another tough course I’ll call it “humble spinach”.

What I use
-4 small cremini mushrooms, diced and sautéed in olive oil for about 7 minutes.
-1/2 cup diced onion, added with the mushrooms.
-2 pressed garlic cloves, added with the mushrooms.
-Red pepper flakes to taste, added during sautéing.
-Spinach, sufficient to cover the top of the skillet, added at 7 minutes and sautéed with the other vegetables until wilted (about 2 minutes).  Note:  this is about half a bag of baby spinach.  It will look huge at first, but wilts down to a reasonable volume quite quickly.
-1/2 avocado, diced onto a plate.  Pour the sautéed vegetables over the avocado.
-2 eggs, fried for about 3 minutes on one side then 1 minute on the other, placed over the vegetables.
-A simple tomato/onion salsa to top.

This is a high nutrient, low carb, high fat, moderate protein dish.  Caloric load is best modified to match training load by subtracting or adding an egg and changing the amount of avocado while leaving the vegetable sauté constant.

[i] As noted by Scott Jurek in Eat and Run.
[ii] Born to Run.
[iii] Yup, another Born to Run reference.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

How to make ultra running (even more) awesome: An open letter to The North Face Endurance Challenge Series

How to make ultra running (even more) awesome:  An open letter to The North Face Endurance Challenge Series

Let me begin by saying that I have deep philosophical disagreements with much of what I’m about to write.  I feel, on a visceral level, that the greatest things about running in general and ultra running in particular have to do with running’s participatory nature.  What moves me is watching runners come face to face with their personal limits, struggle, hurt, fall down, get up, and push against those limits as hard as they possibly can.  It’s awesome to see regular girls and guys who are going to come out of a race a bit wiser and a bit tougher than they were before – to know that, in however small and irrelevant a way, they will have experienced the triumph of our human spirits over our weak and fallible bodies.  It’s cool to know they will come out of the race with a story to tell, and to know they will most likely tell it repeatedly, no matter how much it annoys their non-running friends.

That was a long-winded way of saying that I don’t give a crap about what happens at “the pointy end” of the field.  The experiential nature of running that interests me seems to be less and less prominent as a runner becomes more and more proficient.  The experience and exploration of self is replaced by base competition, and to be frank, you don’t need to run 50 miles to have a competition.  A few hundred meters will probably do.

Instead, I’ve always liked romantic amateurism, but as Sally Edwards recently pointed out on a podcast with Trail Runner Nation, romantic amateurism is a truly stupid business model.  Money in sports is all about spectators, and you won’t find many red-blooded Americans with the patience to watch skinny people in baggy shorts jog for half a day at a stretch (case in point, curling is a far more popular spectator sport than ultra running).  If you want spectators to be interested in distance running, you need something more special.  To address that need, Edwards pointed out five things she considered to be critical for generating interest in a race, specifically used during her creation of the California International Marathon.

1) TV coverage, which is potentiated by
2) Celebrity athletes, who join the race because of
3) Prize money, which is given by
4) Corporate sponsors. 

Oh, and apparently it’s important to have
5) A great course (fortunately, “great” is in the eye of the beholder.  Seriously, who wants to run toward Sacramento?)

Given that I’d heard of the CIM before listening to the TRN podcast, I have to grant that Edwards is probably close to the mark.  On the other hand, given that the only runner I recognized on the 2014 finisher list was 10th place David Laney, whose name I only know from his ultra results, I’m not sure that the Celebrity Athlete criterion holds much water.  More to the point, the lack of fame on the finisher list reminded me of a truism from Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball.  Fans don’t come to games to see their famous players play; they come to see their winning teams win.

From the athlete’s point of view, ultra running is a solitary endeavor – the notion of team is essentially absent from the sport.  However, it’s quite possible for a team mentality to be generated in the mind of a running fan.  The typical high school cross country scoring system (one point for first place, two for second, etc., team with the lowest overall point total wins) allows fans to cheer for one team of runners in competition with other teams.  Our natural human propensity for tribal in-group / out-group psychology feeds right into that support.  That support could create great interest in ultra running, if only someone could create teams to match a part of our personal identities.  Enter The North Face Endurance Challenge Series.

One key to human identity is our sense of place.  There’s a reason that the Yankee’s, for all their success, still primarily draw fans from New York.  Part of this is certainly the ease of access – if you want to see a Yankees’ game, it helps to live in New York – but the identity of place is probably a larger influence.  New Yorkers consider themselves to be part of New York.  They consider the Yankees to be part of New York.  And so, despite wild differences between million dollar baseball players and the denizens of The City, New Yorkers consider those players to be part of their tribe, and they support them accordingly.

The Endurance Challenge Series is perfectly placed to take advantage of this primal aspect of human nature.  In order to create teams that draw from the identity of place, the ECS need simply invite the top six women and top six men from each of it’s regional races to compete as a team in the December championship race outside San Francisco.  Instantaneously, and for the paltry fee of a few plane tickets and hotel rooms, the ECS would have Team Washington lined up to race Team New York, Team Wisconsin against Team Ontario, and the dark horse Park City Team thrown into the mix.  Perhaps add in international teams from Trans Gran Canaria, UTMB, or the Australia 100K.  Play the team identities properly through social media, and people from Denver to Salt Lake would get excited about the Team from the Rockies.  Midwestern runners would start trash-talking Team Canada.  Everyone could be happy that the Mason-Dixon line still separates The District from The City, and we could all stand back to watch the US vs. Europe argument rage.  Add in prize money for the winning team, and you have enough drama to get traditional media deeply interested.

There’s another key aspect to team racing that could raise spectator interest in ultra events and shorter distance races as well.  From a spectator’s point of view, the typical distance race is half over the second it becomes clear that the leader won’t set a world record.  It’s perhaps 95% over as soon as the winner crosses the line.  Interest lingers a bit as the second and third runners finish, but then drops to zero while the vast majority of athletes run through the end.  A focused team competition, with team prize money, would break the myopic spotlight on the records and the first finisher.  All of a sudden the fates of leading teams depend not just on the first or second or tenth finishers, but possibly on the finishing place of runners struggling and bonking deep in the mid-pack, a scene that elicits drama for hours rather than minutes. 

Further, the team focus could span years much more smoothly than the focus on single athletes.  There’s no reason to think that Sage Canaday and Dakota Jones will both be healthy and interested in battling it out at the championship race this year, much less next, but every championship race for the next twenty years could feature Team Wisconsin battling Team Australia.  The decade long rise and fall of one team could be discussed and analyzed.  The consistent presence of a runner on another team could be noted and admired.  The possible end of a third team’s long also-ran status could be argued and debated.  Teams easily allow long-term story lines in a way that single athletes rarely do, and those long-term stories are compelling.

Now for the cynical part: the great thing about this scheme is how little it costs The North Face in return for how greatly it could increase the stature of the Endurance Challenge Series.  The North Face doesn’t have to pay the athletes in question, much less sponsor them.  You don’t have to care if the same athletes make a team year after year or if a stream of new faces appears – media can make a story either way.  You don’t even have to be responsible for maintaining or managing the teams; the regional races automatically create the teams anew each year, and the top runners who might make the teams will be managing their own training already.  All you have to do is continue your existing races and at worst pay for travel expenses, warm-up suits, and prize money for a few runners.   At best you could get the teams sponsored by local businesses (the Goldman Sachs Bears!) and the prize money covered by advertising dollars.  Also, while most of these benefits are aimed at raising the profile of the championship race, the competition to earn a spot on the regional teams should raise the profile of the regional races as well.

While I’m not entirely comfortable with the evolution of ultra running into an increasingly professional sport, I was struck by one more of Sally Edwards’s arguments.  She claimed that the increase professionalism of triathlon had given rise to an increased number of races and level of interest, which had in turn elicited a much higher extent of participation amongst amateur triathletes.  I’m not sure if the correlation is actually indicative of causation (does the NBA increase the number of high school basketball teams, or simply feed off them?), but the argument is convincing enough for me to propose the ideas above.  Regardless of how these sorts of changes might impact the culture at the top level of the sport, an increase in access and encouragement for regular runners is worth pursuing. 

So, The North Face ECS, if you want these ideas, I’ll sell them to you for a penny.  Note: actual penny not required to complete transaction. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Other Ten Percent: Bear Mountain 50 mile, May 2nd, 2015

And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy.
-Kahlil Gibran

Just before 5:00 AM I stood in the cold dark by the Bear Mountain Inn, surrounded by tiny pockets of light thrown by headlamps and fire rings and strings of electric bulbs.  As the clock ticked down the announcer called for the first wave of runners to gather at the starting line.  I positioned myself at the back of the corral, my shoulder blades quite literally touching the cold metal barrier.  My plan was to go out softly and try to run easy all the way to Anthony Wayne at 41 miles.  I wanted to arrive there without feeling too beat up.  If I managed that, then I would race hard over the last ten miles to the finish.  It wasn’t much of a strategy, but it was what I had.

Coach Jimmy Dean Freeman is fond of saying, “An ultra is ninety percent mental, and the other ten percent is in your head.”  What he means is that a runner’s physical capacity is fully determined well before he or she reaches the starting line, and that virtually everyone on that line has the physical capacity to finish well.  The deciding factor between running well or failing from that point forward is the mental – or more importantly, emotional – strength required to push the body into the depths of that physical ability for hours and hours.  A race of this distance on this terrain is virtually guaranteed to provide plenty of physical pain and exhaustion.  As runners, it is up to us to float above that pain, grind our way through it, or succumb, and all three are possible.

My mother is a psychologist and councilor.  She told me once about a training course she took that covered psychosomatic strength and weakness.  In one of the sessions the participants held out their arms at ninety degrees from the shoulder and gripped a heavy weight in the extended hand.  They closed their eyes and told first a truth, then a lie.  With the truth, they could hold the weight steady.  With the lie their hands trembled, or even dropped.  The cognitive dissonance confused the brain and interrupted the neural signals that keep the muscles firing in their arms. 

The psychosomatic test is a distilled version of what I would face over and over during the race.  Over fifty miles I would take between seventy and ninety thousand steps.  If my brain could convince just a few extra muscle fibers to fire on each of those steps, I would fly through to the finish.  If it couldn’t, I would slog along, the effort building with every step.  What determines whether on not my brain would perform are all of the ephemerals: happiness, confidence, resiliency, and adaptability facing off against sadness, confusion, loneliness, and rigidity.

I’ve run both ways in the past.  Just two weeks earlier in the North Face DC marathon an aid station volunteer had chided me for making the race look too easy.  I was twenty miles in, in third place, gliding along and chasing down the leaders.  It actually wasn’t easy, physically.  I was running against the edge of my ability, hot and tired and hurting, but I was running with the joy of visiting my sister’s family, the beauty of the day and the positivity of the other runners.  It must have showed.

I wouldn’t have that advantage in this race.  Just three days before I’d gotten the news at my job.  Not getting what I wanted was hard, but for many reasons it became far worse than that.  Hearing through the rumor mill hours before anyone got around to telling me directly made me angry.  It devalued the months of managing uncertainty and the effort of creating a base of support.  The patronizing consolations and realizing how deep the breach of trust ran finally shattered the thin veneer of civility I’d been able to maintain to that point.  I felt shocked, hurt, and adrift.  I try to remember how badly I lost my temper in the ensuing conversations, but the exact words refuse to arise from memory.

Afterward I drove to my refuge on the Watchung trails.  I burst immediately into a reckless sprint, no warmup, and burned over the first mile.  I stopped suddenly, wanting to scream.  Too suddenly.  I’m prone to cerebral hypoperfusion when I stop an intense effort, as my body maintains blood flow to the muscles and forgets about the brain.  My vision turned blue, narrowed, and I fell to the ground.  I bizarrely got up and started running again before coming to, only regaining consciousness as I crashed through a thicket and slammed into an old oak.  Blood dripped from my elbow, and I cursed it as it splashed on the ground.  Then I finished the loop.

With the Bear Mountain 50 mile coming on Saturday I knew I was in for trouble.  I couldn’t get my mind right.  I cancelled our reservation at the Bear Mountain Inn; I didn’t think I could run the race.  Then on Friday my buddy Andrew Siegmund texted, asked if I was ready to crush it.  I told him I was mentally wrecked, and he understood.  He told me to do it anyway.  I told him I would try to run, just to see if I could go fifty miles on spite and anger.  He told me to fly like Peter Pan instead.  I asked what he meant, and he reminded me: happy thoughts.

I set my alarm for 2:30 am on Saturday morning, but woke up at 2:20.  I was quietly thankful that the alarm wouldn’t wake my family.  I drove north, and there were no distressed thoughts or worries this time, not like last year.  There was only a yawning, empty sadness.  I wanted the black night to be comforting, but looking out at it only felt like looking in a mirror.  I saw grey hair and stubble, blank eyes and a wrinkled face.

I caught the last shuttle from Anthony Wayne to Bear Mountain, arriving at the start/finish at 4:20.  I milled around, picking up a bib and arranging my drop bags.  I tried to be sociable, honoring the connections I made with Lena in DC, Sue and Maya at the Skydive Ultra, Adam and Eric at the Hurl Elkhorn, and Karen at Cayuga Trails, but mostly my attempts fell flat.  I did chat a bit with an Ironman triathlete named Rob, who has a two-year old daughter and another on the way.  We joked and commiserated about the difficulties of parenting while training for ultras, and glorified the hot coffee offered up by volunteers in the predawn chill.  The conversation felt almost human and almost real.

At the 5:00 am start I jogged off behind the first wave of runners.  I had no intention of overrunning the early miles.  I held back on the first rocky climbs, and soon the lead racers from the second wave came streaming by, their headlamps shining through the dark.  I let them go.  I knew I would see most of them again, and I did.  Over the first twenty miles of hilly, broken ground I passed each one of them and many others, one by one or in bunches, the race unfolding exactly as I intended.  I still felt sad, but I felt strong.

On a different day, after a different week, I think I could have kept it up.  I wouldn’t have won – the talent in the field was far to deep for that – but I might have had a chance at the top ten or fifteen.  On that day I would have been mentally strong and happy.  I would have waved at the photographers, maybe clowned around and flexed the muscles on my thin arms.  Instead I could barely smile.  When the pain came I gritted my teeth and forced my way through it, but I couldn’t float above.  Half way to Anthony Wayne I realized that my strategizing was already lost.  I slowed, and on the way into the Camp Lanowa my legs cramped in a strange way behind the knees, hamstrings and calves betraying me together.  On the way out of the aid station the volunteers cheered and clapped.  They told me I was doing great and to keep up the good work.  Secretly I wished they would stop cheering.  I felt so worthless, and I wished they would turn their backs and shun the useless creature before them.  I covered my mouth with my hand, hoping they wouldn’t see my expression.

By mile thirty I was walking.  It was by far the easiest section of the course, on a paved road of all things, smooth and only slightly uphill.  The runners I had passed earlier passed me back.  One asked me if I was okay, and I told him I was walking back to Anthony Wayne to drop out.  He told me I’d feel better in while, and to keep going.  Another told me it wouldn’t last, and a third told me he’d see me again when I caught up.  Then a young guy gave me a chunk of ice he’d kept in his hat, to cool my hands and face in the growing heat.

It was the kindness of the other runners that finally broke through my sadness and shame.  These were the people who were facing the same struggle I was, and that commonality allowed me to hear and feel their support.  In their presence I was not alone.  I began to jog behind a trio of European runners, letting their energy pull me up the hills and over the rocks.  I felt like the end car of a freight train, no longer responsible for my own motion, but filled with the inevitability of that movement.  I was no longer competing, but I was running.

By the return to Anthony Wayne I felt a small measure of strength again.  Many families and friends of the racers were there, cheering on their runners and laughing and smiling.  Amazingly my own family came running across the parking lot, looking beautiful and clean and not at all like the beaten down lot of us who’d been running for eight hours.  I told them that I would be slow on the last ten miles, that it wasn’t a good day for me, and they said they would meet me at the end.

Amazingly, I beat my family to the finish.  They were at the park, playing, when I came across the line.  Alone, I bent over and buried my face in my hands.  For so many, this would be a moment of victory, a chance to celebrate the accomplishment.  I stayed bent over and let the anger and shame and sadness wash over me for another minute.  I felt the pain and exhaustion in my bruised and broken body, then I straightened up.  I walked through the finish festival to a pine tree and lay down on my back in the shade.  I thought about the race and the pain, my failures and my partial recovery.  I thought about mental strength and emotional weakness.  I thought of what Christopher McDougall said: “If you don’t have answers to your problems after a four-hour run, you ain’t getting them.”  I asked myself why I felt the way I did.  At first there were no answers, but slowly I gained a modicum of understanding.  I felt like I'd been led on.  I was ashamed that I fell for it.  I felt betrayed, and I felt embarrassed to see my raw ambition paraded so publicly about.  I looked in at the core of my self and saw the shriveled, seething mass.  It stank of base arrogance, petty selfishness, and foolish wounded pride.  I recoiled from it.  It was my worst self, but I couldn’t escape it.  It was part of me.

In the end I knew that nothing had changed, not in the ten hours of the race and not in the week before.  I was the same person, living the same life, albeit much more bruised and scraped and sore now.  Only my perspective had shifted.  That morning Bear Mountain had glowed crimson in the sunrise; now it glittered green in the afternoon light.  Soon night would fall, and it would loom ominously in the gray dark, but it was the same mountain.  I was getting to see a different side of my life from the one I usually enjoy, a darker, more ominous side.  I would have to get used to its presence, but I knew I had to stop letting it consume me.  If spite and anger weren’t enough to fuel me for fifty miles, they certainly wouldn’t sustain me for months or years.  I would have to find the freight train of runners in my real life and join in, become part and parcel of that support and inevitable motion, and refuse to allow the unstable rocks a place in my foundation.

By the end of the day my wife and son had lifted my spirits.  Together we dragged my body back to the truck, and I followed them home.  I began to mentally rebuild the veneer of civility.  I began to take back my right to feel good about the better parts of who I am and how I conduct myself.  I began to prepare for the difficult part.

As always, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the volunteers at the start/finish and the aid stations, particularly to the girl at Camp Lanowa who kept me focused on taking one section at a time and to the woman at Tiorati who sunscreened my burning skin.  Without these people, and without the organization provided by The North Face, I wouldn’t have been able to start the race, much less finish.  My thanks and my wish of blessing for each of them.

I would also like to acknowledge Dave and Paul, who, in the midst of their own tough moments, let me walk along with them, and Ryan, who may have managed to run every step.  My memory will always keep the images of them, along with the aforementioned European trio, the guys blaring heavy metal from their truck outside Anthony Wayne, the matching red shirt family, the passing cyclists, my buddy Chris and his family who found me at the finish festival, the pacer wearing heart emblazoned socks to match her runner, the hiker who made way in honor of his own many competitions, the WTC girls at Queensboro, and Karen Holland, who called out my name as I closed on the finish.