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October 31, 2007

Into the Fire

And now for what has to be the least suspenseful announcement in the history of this blog:

You have successfully completed the Western States Endurance Run Entry and will be included in the WS Lottery. All 2008 participants will be selected at the WS Lottery, to be held at 9 a.m., Saturday, December 1, 2007 at the Placer High School cafeteria in Auburn, CA. You are encouraged to attend the lottery. All applicants selected in the lottery will be posted on the WS website (www.ws100.com) immediately following the lottery. Once you have been selected, your credit card will be charged the full amount of the entry fee. Once you are selected in the lottery process, there is a no-refund policy.

So there you have it: my name is officially in ultrarunning’s Goblet of Fire. We’ll know how things shake out in about 5 weeks. Since I wasn’t picked in last year’s lottery, I’m not exactly brimming with optimism about the outcome this year, but there’s nothing I can do about it now but to wait and see.

Last year, I had a rock-solid back up plan if I wasn’t selected for WS: doing an Ironman. This year I’m not nearly as certain. I told myself (and more importantly, my wife) that I wouldn’t return to Vineman again next summer, so that’s off the table. From a financial and travel standpoint, any M-Dot Ironmans are completely out of the question. So while my 2008 race calendar will probably include a triathlon of some sort, I have no idea what or when.

The rest of 2008 is equally up in the air. Basically, I’m waiting to see what happens on the first of December, and then I’ll compile my race schedule accordingly. If I get into WS, the focus will obviously be biased towards ultras instead of triathlons. In the meantime, I’m not going to worry about next year’s schedule one way or the other.

Finally, let me say this about the entry process: peer pressure is alive and well in the blogging community.

After my Firetrails report, when I expressed some apprehension about entering the WS lottery, I got dozens of comments and e-mails. They were nearly unanimous in recommending that I submit my name. Not one single person said anything reasonable
like “You know, running 100 miles seems a little crazy. The training takes a ton of time and wears you down. Your time would be much more productive doing something else. Besides, your family will probably miss you.”

Granted, I was standing on the precipice and getting ready to take the plunge anyway – but those collective remarks were enough to give me a nice firm shove over the edge. I haven’t heard this much encouragement to engage in a potentially self-destructive activity since junior high school.

So, um … thanks, I guess. But I’m reserving the right to be ungrateful if this whole thing ends up going terribly wrong.

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October 29, 2007

Ultra Goblet

“Anybody wishing to submit themselves as champion must write their name and school clearly upon a slip of parchment and drop it into the goblet” said Dumbledore …

“Finally, I wish to impress upon any of you wishing to compete that this tournament is not to be entered into lightly. Once a champion has been selected by the Goblet of Fire, he or she is obliged to see the tournament through to the end. The placing of your name in the goblet constitutes a magical, binding contract. There can be no change of heart once you become a champion. Please be very sure, therefore, that you are wholeheartedly prepared to play before you drop your name into the goblet.”


- from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling

**
Does anybody care to guess what kind of analogy I’ll be drawing from this quote? Something to do with entering an enormously challenging contest, perhaps? I swear, sometimes these pop culture comparisons just fall right into my lap.

But before we get to the announcement … are we all OK with the big news about Dumbledore last week? It was a little bit unsettling to me – not (to borrow a famous phrase) that there’s anything wrong with that – but rather, it was the seemingly arbitrary, postscriptive nature of the disclosure that somehow struck an unusual chord.

I mean, why weren’t we made aware of this all along? Why wait until now, after our relationship with the character has run its course?

Moreover, what’s to stop anybody else from going back and retroactively “outing” other beloved childhood characters from our past? After all, Bugs Bunny was a frequent cross dresser (and I’m a HUGE Bugs Bunny fan – unquestionably the best cartoon character of all time. I won’t even argue this.). C-3PO was overwhelmingly effeminate (and, come to think of it, quite affectionate toward R2-D2), Caspar the Ghost seemed awfully friendly at times, Batman and Robin spent an unusual amount of time together, and PBS never really clarified that whole Ernie and Bert situation. Who’s to say that all of them are in fact the characters we thought they were? All of a sudden, it’s like this huge cloak of ambiguity has been cast over my entire childhood. Yes, I worry about these things.

But I think what bothers me most about the Dumbledore thing is the missed opportunity to foster awareness. Over the course of seven years, the students of Hogwarts dealt with dating and romance, racism and class discrimination, betrayal and death, all in the context of their greater struggle of good against evil. We had mixed-race characters (Hermione) and underclass characters (Dobby) prominently featured – so why was there a need to be more secretive about the gay character? Dumbledore could have been a positive role model in the same way (even greater, really) those other two were – but his emotional identity now seems merely an afterthought in the development of an extrordinarily compelling personality.


Anyway … I had an announcement for this post, but I think I’ll change my mind. I’ll just let today’s post stand alone on the subject of Dumbledore, and come back once I’m a little better focused on the subject at hand.

(Which shouldn't really be a mystery by this point, anyhow ... I think we all know where this is headed.)

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October 23, 2007

Out From the Wild

"My shadow runs with me - underneath the big wide sun
My shadow comes with me - as we leave it all, we leave it all far behind ...

Subtle voices in the wind - hear the truth they're telling
A world begins where the road ends - watch me leave it all behind."
- Eddie Vedder, "Far Behind" (on sidebar mp3)

*
It’s been more than 10 years since I thought of Chris McCandless – but like many others, I’ve been dwelling on his story quite a bit lately.

McCandless is the subject of Into the Wild, a movie based on Jon Krakauer’s book of the same name. The film (not exactly a documentary, but very true to events per multiple reports) chronicles the life and untimely – some would add foolish or misguided – death of a very enigmatic young man.

(The movie also features a remarkably touching soundtrack by Eddie Vedder – two tracks of which are embedded in this page. Think of it as a buy one, get one free mp3 day at R&R - except in this case, the first one is also free. That's just the way I'm rolling today.)

Shortly after graduating with honors from college, McCandless abandoned his life of privilege, gave away all of his belongings, and wandered the country in search of adventure.

His ultimate destination was Alaska, where his emaciated body was found several months later by a group of hunters. What happened between his departure and his demise was pieced together by Krakauer for his 1996 book.

Our collective knowledge of McCandless’s wanderings comes primarily from a handwritten journal he kept along the way, whose sporadic entries are alternately profound and rambling, lighthearted and terrifying. The single unifying sentiment throughout the book is McCandless’s fierce self-reliance, even in the face of danger or despair.

When I first read the book over 10 years ago, I viewed McCandless with a sort of morbid admiration. Like many young adults, the idea of setting forth into the world accountable to nobody, to experience life and nature on my own terms, held a fascinating allure. I identified with the self-determination McCandless demonstrated, and wondered if I would ever make any decisions in life that were anywhere near as bold as the journey of self-discovery he undertook.

Eventually, I put the book back on the shelf, and went about my straitlaced, conservative life. I took on grad school, a career, a family, and other responsibilities that anchor most of us to our relatively mundane daily existence. Gradually, thoughts of McCandless eventually faded away, and I grew to enjoy – even depend upon – the myriad small comforts of life.

The rugged individualist in me never quite disappeared, however. In fact, you could make a case that I’ve been feeding it more and more over the past several years. It comes to the surface most frequently in the midst of my training – whether I’m 6 hours into a nine-hour trail run, or halfway through a 110-mile bike ride, or when I blow off my friends and coworkers to get an extra workout during my lunch break.

Granted, there’s a huge difference between navigating the trails of a regional park somewhere, and fending for survival in the Alaskan wilderness. But it’s only when I’m in those places – alone, willing my body onward, struggling against whatever external forces come my way – that I feel my individual actions have true purpose. And traveling a remote trail on foot, or riding a lonely rural road through the countryside, or swimming through frigid open water, are the best ways I have of communing with the natural world around me anymore. There are very few places where we become free from the influences and annoyances of modern society – so I often find myself clinging to those places and seeking them out as often as possible.

I also think that endurance athletes have a tendency – for better or worse – to believe that the more physical accomplishments they achieve, the less reliant they become on others to assist them towards their goals, or with any other aspect of their life. Either that, or once our weekly mileage gets high enough, the time that's left to spend with friends or family is sadly inadequate. Whatever the reason, many of us frequently grow more isolated from those around us when we excessively dedicate ourselves to our training or racing regimens.

In other words, many athletes continually engage in individualism, isolation, and dismissal of the support systems around us … which brings us back to Chris McCandless.

I picked up my tattered copy of Into the Wild again last week. Flipping through the pages, I realized that the past 10 years have given me a profoundly different viewpoint of the idealistic drifter than I initially recognized. I can’t say I feel admiration anymore – instead, all I feel is a lot of sadness.

Sadness - because as a father, I know what a struggle it is to provide for your children, to help them develop a passion for something, or to give them opportunities to succeed in life on their own terms. To then have a child reject all of that, and willingly set off on a path of self-destruction, would probably be more than I could bear.

Sadness – because there were clearly many gifts bestowed upon Chris that were never used for any greater good. Escaping into the wilderness is noble in some ways, but greatly irresponsible in others. How much positive change could someone with his fortitude and strong convictions have affected working within society, instead of holding it at arm’s length? It’s the great tragedy of unrealized potential, told again and again in various forms, each one as regrettable as the last.

Sadness – because self-reliance is generally a good quality, but when it’s forged by way of isolation from everyone around us, we lose the greater benefit of friendships and connections to others. What good is it to live for an ideal, if you eliminate any possibility of ever sharing those ideals and dreams with anybody else?

This last item was the big red flag for me upon my second reading of the story. You know that stuff I wrote about six paragraphs ago, about how endurance athletes isolate themselves? Honestly, I have no idea if that’s true for anybody else – I just know it’s especially true for me. I’ve gotten myself into trouble at times, and let relationships die that I wish I had maintained, solely because of a single-minded focus on the next workout, the next race, the next Great Challenge. It’s easy to say that there should be a balance between our athletic exploits and our other interests and responsibilities; it’s an altogether more difficult task to actually maintain such an accord.

(And while we're here ... in regards to my recent hand-wringing about entering the Western States lottery, this post shouldn’t be taken as an indication of a decision being made one way or the other. It’s just a collection of thoughts that came to me when I revisited a story I thought I knew, but came away believing I had it all wrong. Trust me - if and when I enter the lottery, I won't keep it a secret.)

10 years ago, I saw aspects of myself in Chris McCandless, and it was a point of pride for me. I still see bits of myself in him today, but now I feel ashamed.

I guess I’ve traveled quite far in the past decade – and thankfully, it didn't require an epic journey into the wilderness.

*
"Such is the way of the world, you can never know -
Just where to put all your faith, and how will it grow ...

Gonna rise up - Burning black holes in dark memories
Gonna rise up - Turning mistakes into gold."
- Eddie Vedder, "Rise" (click to play)

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October 17, 2007

Firetrails 50 Race Report

“Oh, father of the four winds, fill my sails, across the sea of years -
With no provision but an open face, along the straits of fear … “
- Led Zeppelin, “Kashmir”


Before we get to the Firetrails recap, here’s some free advice I learned last Saturday: if you’re ever looking for a good steady guitar riff to echo through your mind during a long run, it’s hard to do much better than Led Zeppelin’s classic “Kashmir.” That song was playing on my friend’s car stereo as we drove into the parking lot on race morning, and those repetitive chords bounced around my head for most of the next nine hours.

Now on to the race report – but first, some background as to why exactly I was running this ultra in the first place.

As I’ve said many times, 2007 was all about triathlon for me. And if I hadn’t done any other race besides Vineman, I would have considered it a successful year. But I never relinquished my longtime desire to compete in the event that passed me by this summer: the Western States 100-Mile Run.

The catch, as any ultra runner knows, is that you need a qualifying race in order to enter the WS lottery – and if I didn’t do an ultra this year, I couldn’t apply for the 2008 WS race. So Firetrails was basically a means to that end for me – nothing more, nothing less.

Truthfully, I knew I probably wouldn’t have a great race. I was fairly lazy in the weeks after Vineman, dragging myself through a lot of uninspired workouts, trying to coast on the aerobic fitness I had built up over the summer. I banged out a few long trail runs, but otherwise did very little in the way of focused preparation for this event. I figured that my residual fitness combined with a smart, conservative race strategy would get me through Firetrails somewhat comfortably, and earn me the WS qualifier I needed.

At least, that’s what Smart Donald figured. Unfortunately, Idiot Donald had a different plan.

I’m not sure how to explain it, other than to say that whenever I put on a race number, there’s some crazy transformation that takes place, like Bruce Wayne putting on his Batsuit. I get this unshakable urge to push myself as much as possible, to test the limits of my ability on that particular day, regardless of whatever sensible plan I had come up with beforehand.

It wasn’t really the idea of running fast enough to qualify for Western States that screwed me up; I was fairly confident that I could come in well under the 11-hour standard. Rather, it was the fact that I had done this race before that caused me to throw my sensibilities out the window. On some level, I knew that if I ran slower than I had two years ago (8:56), it would feel like a disappointment, whether justified or not.

So that was the story of the day: it wasn’t one person against 50 miles, or against a WS qualifying time, or even against several weeks of laziness - it was Smart Donald vs Idiot Donald.

(OK, we’re getting to the race report now, I promise … )

When I did this race two years ago, I intentionally walked just about every incline on the course, including the first several miles. My plan was to do the same thing this year – but it only took about 10 minutes before Idiot Donald started trying to get a few minutes in the bank by jogging up some of the hills I had walked in the past. I kept what seemed like a conservative pace, but pushed into slight discomfort at times in hopes of lowering my overall pace when averaged with the larger climbs and slower miles that lay ahead.

The first realization of my overexuberance came at about mile 10, as I was alongside one male and one female runner who each had “the look” – you know, the type of bodies you notice at the start line and think to yourself, that guy (or girl) is the real deal. A brief conversation confirmed my guess that they were both top-10 caliber ultra runners. Then we had the following exchange:

Girl: OK, so I know if I’m pacing well … what time are you guys aiming for today?

Guy: I’m thinking sub-8 – going real easy now, and I’ll crank it up after about 30 if I’m feeling good.

Girl: Yeah, that sounds right - I was hoping for 7:45 to 8:15.

Me: Um … it’s been nice running with you two. I’ll be fading back now. Have a great race.

In hindsight, that little conversation was probably the best thing that could have happened at that point of the race - because as I compared my effort level to theirs, I realized there was no way I could hang at that pace for 6 more hours. I guess humility is a good thing sometimes.

I purposely slowed my pace, and shortly found myself in a group of 6 or 7 similarly-paced guys who stretched out and regrouped like cyclists over the next 10-12 miles. But even after my early warning, I found myself running harder than I wanted to, just to hang with the group.

Here’s how ridiculous I was acting: on any portion of the course that wasn’t singletrack, I tucked in as close as possible behind whichever guy was ahead of me. That’s right – I was drafting. In a 50-mile race. Is my idiot moniker making any sense yet?

The net result of this effort was that eventually, I started to feel terrible. Beginning at mile 22, there is a 4-mile downhill stretch to the turnaround point of the race, and it was all I could do to keep jogging through this section of the course. My muscles were aching all over, and there were long sections of mucky mud that made it feel like I was wearing ankle weights. The wind was completely out of my sails, and I couldn’t muster any forward momentum. Additionally, all of the people I was pacing with seemed to glide away from me, and I was feeling discouraged and frustrated about my foolish approach to the first half of the race.

In other words, Idiot Donald was kicking Smart Donald’s butt.

I finally made it to the turnaround point aid station, and spent nearly ten minutes there trying to drum up some enthusiasm to return to the course. I really wasn’t in the mood to run another 24 miles (the turnaround is at mile 26), but I somehow resigned myself to heading back up the long hill I had just descended.

I walked almost all of the 4-mile hill, and felt certain that people would start passing me in droves. This was the darkest stretch of the course for me – so bad that I even started questioning my rationale for being out there.

I have always told myself that I want to run Western States. But as I was struggling up that hill, the thought of doing another 75 miles on top of what I had already traveled so far seemed absolutely impossible. And if this was the way it was going to feel, I didn’t want any part of it.

In the midst of all this frustration, the two Donalds had an internal dialogue that I’ll probably look back on as a turning point if I ever decide to run 100 miles:

*

Idiot Donald: This sucks. Why are you doing this?

Smart Donald: So I can get into Western States.

ID: What makes you think you want to run Western States? That will suck worse, and for more than twice as long.

SD: Because it’s a challenge.

ID: Yeah, well, so are getting a law degree or rebuilding a car – but you don’t have any interest in those things, right?

SD: But I love trail running.

ID: You love THIS? This sucks! You feel like crap!

SD: Yeah, but … for some reason I think it will be different. It won’t be like this.

*
And that’s when my mindset shifted – when I realized that if things were going to be different, I was the one who had to make it that way.

The key question I pondered was, how would I run Western States if I ever got the chance? I certainly couldn’t survive the “damn the torpedoes” approach that I left the start line with this morning. I’d have to slow way down, parcel my effort out much more incrementally, and stay focused on the long term task instead of collateral developments from one hour to the next. I would need a complete mental overhaul - and the second half of Firetrails seemed like a pretty good place to start.

Basically, I set everything aside during that long climb: my finishing time, my overall place, my expectations of what parts of the course I should run and who I should be able to hang with. With no provision but an open face, I let it all go, and decided to simply enjoy the day.

(I know, I should have come to this realization about 30 miles sooner, but really – this is what it takes for me to practice common sense sometimes. Remember this if you should ever feel like envying me.)

Before I knew it, I had crested the hill, and broke into a little jog towards the Steam Trains aid station at mile 30. From that point on, the race became more enjoyable with each passing step. I was still aching, and I was still tired, but I was completely in the moment, and blissfully ignorant of all the other concerns I had carried to that point.

My sails were filled again, and I was in a much brighter mood when I rolled into the mile 33 aid station, which is where I heard the following exchange between two volunteers – one of whom was making PB&J sandwiches:

Sandwich guy: Hey, do we have any tri-berry Gu over there?

Other guy: No, but we’ve got a bunch of others – does someone over there need them?

Sandwich guy: Nah … it’s just that I’m out of jelly. I was thinking I could use Gu instead, and they’d never notice the difference.

I couldn’t help laughing out loud, for the first time all day. And that laughter at mile 33 was one of the best feelings I’ve had in a race for a long time. It was like an affirmation of the positive mindset I now possessed, despite feeling like a dead man walking just a couple of hours earlier.

(But for the record, I declined the PB&G sandwich – that just seemed a bit too strange, even for an ultra.)

Whether coincidence or not, miles 33 through 47 were the best miles of the race for me. The course passes through beautiful single track trails, then underneath a redwood canopy that provided shade for most of the day, and I spent most of these miles running in quiet solitude. In other words, it was everything I love about trail running.

The race didn’t suck anymore. And Smart Donald was having a great time.

That’s not to say I didn’t want to reach the finish line as soon as possible, though. The miles gradually wore me down, and the last few miles were a struggle against a body that was loudly protesting the continued effort I was asking of it. But eventually I crossed the line, unlaced my shoes, and sat down in the grassy sunshine of the finish area to watch some other runners come in, and to take in the scene around me.

I was satisfied with my effort during the race, and my ability to come through a pretty rough patch – but the lingering question in my mind was whether I would ever want to go out and run another 50 on top of what I had just done.

It was a frequent topic of conversation for me at the post-race barbecue, as I picked other runners’ brains about making the jump from 50 to 100. (Predictably, everyone there was in favor of it – let’s just say that common sense isn’t in abundant supply among a group of ultra runners). It was discussed among the three other Monterey County runners who traveled to the race with me (two will probably apply, the other won't).

But what freaked me out the most was when I couldn’t sleep the night after the race. After driving three hours to get home, taking a shower, having dinner and watching some TV, I finally crashed into bed, but was too tired and sore to even fall asleep. Sometime after 1AM, I glanced at the clock, did some quick math, and suddenly realized: Wait – if I were doing 100 miles, I’d still be out there! At that point, the whole idea seemed unfathomable.

And yet, the following morning, I printed an application to Western States that now sits blank on my desk. Whether it ever gets filled out and mailed is still somewhat uncertain. Of course, Idiot Donald now thinks it’s a great idea, while the rational side of me says I should probably find something better to do with my time.

I haven’t officially decided yet … but if you know me at all, it should be a foregone conclusion about which side will prevail.

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October 14, 2007

2:38 AM

I frequently get insomnia after big races. My legs feel restless, my stomach cramps up, and my mind continually flashes back through the events of the day.

That's why, as my friends and I were driving home from Firetrails last night, we had this conversation:

Friend: I'll bet we sleep well tonight.

Me: I can only hope so.

But alas, it was not to be. So after tossing and turning for a couple of hours, I figured I may as well flip on the computer and report that I ran the Firetrails 50 in 8 hours, 45 minutes yesterday.

The race itself was great, but I'm not quite sure what to make of it yet; in some ways, I came home with more questions than answers about this crazy sport of ultrarunning. I'll start sorting all of those thoughts out soon, and hopefully post a coherent report here in the next 2 or 3 days.

In the meantime, I'm headed back to the bedroom soon, in hope that I can finally get some sleep.

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October 12, 2007

PSA

A public service announcement brought to you by Running and Rambling:

If you happen to find yourself in the Lake Chabot area or the Tilden Park district of Northern California on Saturday ...

And if you happen to see a guy who looks like this running your way ...

(me at the 2005 Firetrails 50)

Please try to say something nice to him. Because he might like to hear some encouragement in the middle of a pretty long day.

That is all. You may now return to your regular blogging activity.

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October 10, 2007

Guilt by Association

“And Sally and I did not know what to say –
Should we tell her the things that went on there that day?
Should we tell her about it? Now what should we do?
Well … what would YOU do if your mother asked you?”

- Dr Seuss, from The Cat in the Hat


*
Everyone says that honesty is the best policy … but what if you end up getting screwed by the honesty of others?

That’s the question that faces a handful of female athletes in light of the Marion Jones saga – at least, presumably so. And the answers, as you can imagine, aren’t nearly as easy as we’d like them to be.

By now, nearly everyone has weighed in on Jones’s staggering fall from grace. I’m not interested in exploring the whole issue of drugs and athletics anymore – after all, I beat that horse to death in a series of posts last year.

The angle that intrigues me more is the fate of Jones’s fellow relay runners – in the 4x 100m and the 4x 400m events - who won gold medals with her assistance at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. This week, Jones returned her medals to the US Olympic Committee.



All of which creates a dilemma for her former teammates – as detailed by the Associated Press:


-
[USOC Executive Officer] Jim Scherr and USOC Chairman Peter Uberroth both have encouraged the other Americans to give back their medals.

Jearl Miles-Clark, Monique Hennagan, Tasha Colander-Richardson and Andrea Anderson all won golds as part of the 1600m relay. Chryste Gaines, Torri Edwards, Nanceen Perry and Passion Richardson were on the 400m relay team.

Both Edwards and Gaines have served doping bans since the 2000 Olympics.

“It’s our opinion that when any sporting event is won unfairly, it’s completely tarnished and should be returned. The relay events were won unfairly.” Uberroth said. “It’s very unfortunate, but your result involved cheating, so the result is unfair to the other athletes of the world.”
-

The wording is deliberately vague as to whether the women will be forced to turn in their medals, which means that – at this point at least – the USOC is making an ethical appeal to the women involved. And while it’s not unfounded to believe that the other women on the relay were using drugs, there is also a distinct possibility that at least one innocent woman is being asked to relinquish an Olympic gold medal, more than seven years after the fact.

For just a moment, put yourself in the place of Jones’s relay teammates, and consider the following scenarios you now face:

1. You are innocent of any wrongdoing, and are being asked to voluntarily forfeit the greatest achievement of your career, one that you spent upwards of 20 years working toward. Think of how rewarding it felt to earn your first marathon or Ironman finisher’s medal, multiply that feeling by about 100, and then think of how you’d feel seven years from now if somebody told you that your accomplishment was “tarnished.”

2. You are guilty of doping, but the main reason you did it was to level the playing field because you knew for certain that many of your competitors were doing so – in which case, the result wasn’t unfair to the other athletes at all. The only difference between your team and the Jamacians, Bahamians, Greeks and Russians is that one of your girls decided to finally come clean – even though she never actually tested positive. Forfeiting the gold medal doesn’t by any means assure that it will be awarded to a clean team of athletes.

Like anything else in this drug conundrum, the more aspects you consider, the more complicated the situation becomes. And in the same manner that I finished my series of drug articles last summer, I don’t have any simple answers for the dilemma. So I’ll make like Dr Seuss, and finish with a series of questions instead.

If you were a relay runner, and asked to give back your gold medal from the Sydney Games…

Would you know what to say? Would you tell of the things that went on there that day?
Would you tell us about it? Now what should you do?

Well … what would YOU do if the USOC asked you?


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October 8, 2007

Rodeo Clown

Here I am, poised and confident, ready to take on the mechanical bull ride at our church’s annual Fall Hoe-Down yesterday.


Here I am, getting thrown from the bull approximately 12 seconds later.

On the surface, a 12-second ride is nothing to be ashamed about. After all, professional bull riders spend their entire careers aiming for an eight-second ride on top of the real thing. So 12 seconds on a mechanical bull seems fairly decent at first glance.

Decent, that is, until I tell you another small detail: the bull was set at level one.

Apparently there are six levels of increasing difficulty on this contraption. Level one is the newbie/baby/beginner level. It’s also the same level that my 3-year-old daughter rode for over 20 seconds, and my 6-year-old daughter rode for over 30. My wife was able to ride it for 40 seconds, then hung on for another 10 seconds after it switched to level two.

To repeat, clearly for the record: level one threw me in 12 seconds. On a related note – it’s hard to tell for sure, but in the second picture above, I’m fairly certain the bull operator is laughing at me.

My performance was so dismal that even my normally-compassionate wife felt compelled to tease me. Which led to the following exchange:

Her: I did a lot better than you on that bull.

Me: I know … but I’m not used to riding anything that doesn’t have aero bars.

It wasn’t my snappiest line ever, but it was the best I could come up with on the spot. But the triathlon analogy may not be too far-fetched – because …


Here I am participating in the cricket spitting contest. Guess how I did in this event?

Truthfully, I did terrible. But in comparison to my wife and daughters, I did great – because for some reason, they decided against putting live crickets in their mouths, and chose not to compete. So score one point for me in the cricket category.

I’ve often said that to be a good triathlete, you don’t have to be excellent at anything – you just have to be willing to muddle through three disciplines in a halfway decent fashion. You can’t let your weaknesses dictate your level of participation. And that's exactly the point I was demonstrating at the hoe-down.

At least, that’s the way I’m deciding to spin the events of the day. It helps me to overlook the more glaringly obvious lesson – namely, that I’ll NEVER be mistaken for a cowboy.

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October 4, 2007

Visions of Garland

“This city is my jungle gym … “
-Jack Johnson, “Jungle Gym”

Considering the countless times I’ve run through and written about Garland Ranch Regional Park in Carmel Valley, I feel somewhat irresponsible for not posting photos to substantiate my descriptions. It’s like if I were to tell you over and over again how beautiful Minka Kelly from Friday Night Lights is, but never provided a picture, you might think I was exaggerating.

The problem is that I almost never run with a camera. But when my wife and I took our kids on a “treasure hike” (more on that later) in the park last month, I capitalized on the opportunity to capture some of the images that I enjoy at least twice per week.

So at long last, here’s a guided tour through a portion of my hometown playground:

The main entrance sign. Notice that bikes aren’t allowed where horses go, and horses aren’t allowed where bikes go. Which is probably as it should be, really.

The bikers get the short end of this bargain, though, as only a small fraction of the park is designated for bikes. For the time being, it’s plenty of terrain for my 9-year-old son, but pretty soon he’ll outgrow it, and we’ll have to drive about 10 miles away to another park to give him a more challenging ride. I guess that will be a good news/bad news milestone for us.


These are posted just beside the main entrance sign. I call it the “If anything terrible happens to you here, you can’t sue us” sign.


During the summer, this footbridge is placed as an accessory entrance to the park, leading directly to the visitor’s center.


The footbridge crosses the Carmel River, which occasionally turns up on lists of the most endangered rivers in America. Local development has drained its watershed, and whenever there is a significant winter drought (as this past year was), it’s possible to cross the river in several locations without getting your feet wet. It’s kind of depressing, especially when you consider the next two photos …


After crossing the bridge, the lower acres of Garland Park comprise a flood plain for the river. This view looks east from the visitor center; people who have lived here for 30 years or more will tell you they’ve seen this entire area underwater in the past. I’ve lived here for about 12 years, and I’ve never seen the river rise that high.


This is the flood plain looking west. One cool story about this photo: Click on the picture to enlarge it, and look at the ridge of the hill framed by the two trees. You can faintly see an American flag flying proudly.

That hilltop was undeveloped prior to September 11th, 2001. After those attacks, the guy who owns that land decided to develop it just enough to establish an access road and place a flagpole for the Stars and Stripes to wave above the valley. I always feel a bit more patriotic seeing this flag than just about any other.



See this bench? This spot serves as the start/finish area of the Carmel Valley 50K trail race each year. The first 50K I ever ran was here - and after the race, I probably spent a full hour sitting on that bench, resting in the shade of the oak tree, slowly replenishing my fluids while wondering how on Earth I was going to manage walking back to my car. On that day, this was the most comfortable spot in the world for me. I really loved that bench.

Nowadays, whenever I pass by it, I feel like a hospital patient going back to visit the intensive care nurses who saved his life. And if it seems strange that a guy would feel forever indebted to an inanimate object like that ... well, I guess I wouldn't argue the point. But that's part of the charm of this place.


Much of Garland Park was formerly the ranch and dairy property of early pioneers. This dairy barn was built in the 1870s, and is one of the last remaining connections with the old farming days of Carmel Valley.


I could tell you the name of this trail, but it really doesn’t matter; probably 90% of Garland looks like this. Dense oak canopies above, and meandering trails below, combining to form a cocoon of tranquility. It’s been more than ten years, and I’ve never grown tired of this scenery.


Part of our hike reaches this “Siesta Point”, a small rocky outcropping overlooking the valley. This is the view from the Siesta Point looking west.


The view looking east. If you had a super-duper-duper magnified view, you could see my house near the convergence of the two ridgelines – it sits about 4 miles from this point.


Our kids love hiking to this spot: an old homestead site from early Valley settlers. They’re not so much interested in history; as the next photos will explain.


Another view of the homestead. See the small brick fireplace in the background? That’s where our kids inadvertently found a box of toys that were stashed by a geocacher. It’s funny, because …


We were actually looking for a hidden letterbox, which was located at the base of the large tree at right. Apparently both the geocachers and letterboxers thought this would be a good hiding place. So in a park of over 4000 acres, these two “secret” locations somehow ended up less than 50 feet from each other.


This is the geocache. Looks like they mean business, doesn’t it? I’m afraid if someone from the Department of Homeland Security stumbled across this, we’d have a forced evacuation on our hands.


On the other hand … the letterbox folks apparently take themselves far less seriously. Here’s what their stash looks like. I mean … there’s nothing remotely threatening about Tupperware, right?


Returning from the homestead, we hit my favorite section in the park for running: the Buckeye trail. It’s less than one mile long, but it’s one of the most enjoyable places I know of.


One reason I like this trail so much: it’s all single track, but with smooth footing and a gentle grade. When I open up my stride and gently accelerate on the downhills, it really feels like I’m playing around in an oak-strewn jungle gym.


Here’s my best story about this tree: I’m 6’2”, and have to duck my head slightly to dip under the branch across the trail. One of my training partners is 5’4”, and doesn’t have to worry about it. Of course, that doesn’t stop me from yelling “Watch your head!” every time we approach the branch, just as a friendly reminder of who’s taller.

We must have run this trail 50 times together, and I’ve yelled out “watch your head!” all 50 times. Sometimes I’m surprised that I still have training partners.


Emerging from the Buckeye trail, we approach what my kids call the “woodpecker tree”. At just about any time of day, you’ll find the birds pecking away in search of bugs to eat – and if you enlarge this picture, you’ll see the hundreds of holes they’ve created up and down the trunks. Predictably, when I stopped to take this picture, the birds all scattered. I hate it when wildlife doesn’t cooperate with me.

Speaking of which …


Over the years, I’ve encountered just about every kind of native animal imaginable here, with the exception (thankfully) of a mountain lion. Deer, coyotes, bobcats, rattlesnakes, skunks, foxes, and raccoons all call Garland Park home – but on this day, the most menacing animal I could come up with was this cottontail rabbit.

Some days are just like that. Other days are different – either due to wildlife sightings or the weather or the seasonal changes of scenery - which ensures that every run through Garland is a unique experience.

The only constant feature is this: I know that I love this place every time I run here.

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