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April 21, 2008

How We Got Here (Western States Diary)

A few random notes before today’s post …

*I got hit by
Thomas to do the 6-word-memoir post that’s going around – but seeing as how I haven’t followed through yet on the last tag (in particular, my promise to do a random post about a well-known comic strip), I’m going to file this one under “things to do later”, and come back to it when I run out of things to say. In other words, it could take a while.

*It’s neither here nor there, but … everyone realizes that the little Archuleta kid is going to win American Idol, right? He’s not the one I originally predicted in January (that would be Kristy Lee Cook, who’s now hopefully riding her old horse again somewhere in Oregon), or the one I’m currently cheering for (David Cook, who seems to have compromised himself the least throughout this whole silly process) – but it just feels like there’s an inevitability about this season. Don’t ever underestimate the power of millions of preteen girls armed with cellphones.

*Finally, on the sidebar … The Bravery. For no reason other than I’m digging this song a lot lately. Besides – doesn’t a song called “Believe” by a band called The Bravery seem like the perfect accompaniment to an ultrarunner’s blog? I thought so, too.


On the same day I ran Diablo, the Monterey Herald printed the second installment of my Western States training diary – but since I was in such a hurry to post a race report, I felt like I had to let the WS article sit on the blog’s back burner for several days.

Until now. This one is subtitled “How We Got Here”, and was written to address the predictable choruses of “100 miles? Are you crazy?” reactions that the first article triggered among my everyday acquaintances who didn’t know I was doing Western States (as I’ve said before, I typically keep these things pretty close to the vest.)

My goal here was to explain in general terms how it is that someone evolves into an ultrarunner, but it turned out to be a nice recap of my personal training and racing over the past several years as well. I also managed to sneak in a couple of analogies about Britney Spears and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which really shouldn’t surprise anyone by this point. The last few paragraphs might sound familiar, as they're basically a retelling of a post I wrote immediately after the WS lottery in December. And of course, I spent far longer than I should have getting all introspective - I swear, sometimes I can’t help myself.

Journey of 100 Miles: A Western States Training Diary
Part 2 – How We Got Here

“Any idiot can run a marathon … it takes a SPECIAL kind of idiot to do an ultra.”
- Popular ultrarunning expression

A guy doesn’t just wake up one morning and decide he wants to run 100 miles. That would be crazy.

Instead, the decision evolves gradually. It’s a succession of minor goals that become progressively more ambitious from year to year, as each small accomplishment lays the foundation for a larger one to follow. Keep this up long enough, and actions that once seemed unthinkable eventually enter the realm of possibility.

Think of it this way: even Britney Spears was normal once. She was simply a cute girl who sang catchy songs and became famous for her, uh … precociousness. Then she started making questionable life decisions, her behavior grew increasingly irrational, and before we knew it, she was shaving her head and flunking out of rehab. It seems obvious now that she went completely off the rails – but we forget that it took her quite a while to get there.

In other words, craziness is very much a slippery slope - one I’ve been sliding down for a number of years. And now I’m the special kind of idiot who thinks that running 100 miles seems perfectly reasonable – but it took me a while to get here, too.

Sure, I was normal once. In my younger days, I started running to lose some weight, and soon thereafter thought that a marathon would be the ultimate challenge I could set for myself.

One marathon turned into several per year, which eventually became more than 40 overall. For the last decade I’ve also branched into triathlons of increasing length, including the ironman distance. My marathon habit slowly gave way to 50K and 50-mile trail races, which I’ve done on a regular basis for the past few years.

So while entering a 100-mile race seems like the athletic equivalent of a pop star shaving her head, to me, it just seems like the next step. (I almost used the phrase “logical next step”, but didn’t think I could sell it there. See? I haven’t totally lost it.) I’ve known about the Western States Endurance Run for many years, and always knew that I’d try to enter it one of these days.

Having said that, there were two other critical criteria I used to determine whether I was ready to enter Western States. They are decent guidelines for anyone to use as a general rule of thumb.

First and foremost is that you have to enjoy trail running. This sounds obvious, but it’s absolutely essential. In fact, I should emphasize it better: you can’t just like trail running, or even love it – you have to LOVE it. Here’s what I mean …

Picture your favorite activity. Maybe it’s golfing, or playing cards, or watching TV – it really doesn’t matter. Chances are, the longest continuous duration you’ve ever done this activity is somewhere in the neighborhood of several hours. In those situations, you’d probably take short breaks for meals, or (if it’s an outdoor activity) turn in when it gets dark outside, or call it quits when you feel like grabbing a few hours of sleep.

100 miles of trail running takes most people somewhere between 24 to 30 hours. Those hours are straight through - taking meals on the go, adapting to nightfall and whatever extreme weather conditions you encounter, and without sleeping. There will undoubtedly come a point (more likely, several) where any rational person would decide to simply call it a day - unless he is doing the one thing he would rather be doing than anything else in the world. And that’s where love comes into play.

Over the past few years, trail running has gently crept its way into my soul. There’s almost nothing I enjoy more than experiencing the beauty of nature while testing the capacities of my body on a remote, secluded trail through the wilderness. On the trail, I feel an inner peace and serenity that make each run a spiritual revival. It’s addicting, compelling, and empowering - and hopefully, it’s the kind of love that will get me through 100 miles.

By comparison, the second criterion for running 100 miles is much simpler, and much more trivial: namely, you have to pass the laugh test.

Politicians use this to determine whether they have a realistic chance of winning public office. They mention their plans to a casual acquaintance, then gauge that person’s response. If you tell somebody “I’m running for President,” and his first reaction is to laugh, you probably shouldn’t consider yourself a legitimate candidate.

As I described, I’ve participated in endurance events for many years. I’ve built up my activity tolerance to the point where 50-mile runs are relatively unthreatening. And to my delight, when I finally started discussing my Western States aspirations with my training partners, none of them burst out laughing. So I took that as a sign that maybe the time was right to give this thing a shot.

Obviously, it took an abundance of preparation over an extended period of time to convince myself that I was ready to enter Western States. However, even after all those pieces fell into place, I still needed to tackle what is becoming one of the greatest challenges of all in regards to the event: getting selected in the race lottery.

With a handful of exceptions, everybody who runs Western States gets in by the same method: their name is selected in a random drawing held on the first Saturday in December. However, two issues have become increasingly problematic over the years: 1) the race is limited in the number of runners it can allow (typically about 400), and 2) each year, more and more people enter the lottery.

Consequently, a runner’s odds of being selected grow smaller every year. So I wasn’t really surprised when my first attempt to enter the race (for 2007’s edition) was unsuccessful. Then once I learned that over 1300 runners had applied for the 2008 race, and after a friend of mine calculated my chance of acceptance at roughly 16% (factoring in a number of automatic entrants), I didn’t exactly have high hopes this time around, either.

Somehow, my name was pulled from the hat – and now I feel like Charlie Bucket holding Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. After years of waiting, this summer I’ll finally get to see the place I’ve heard so many magical stories about.

Have you ever had something happen to you that was so great, you halfway expected to find out that there was some sort of mistake? In the aftermath of the Western States lottery, that’s exactly how I felt.

Even after seeing my name on the online list, I must have hit the “refresh” button at least 20 times over that first weekend, just to make sure there hadn’t been one final update where I got bumped in favor of somebody else. It hadn’t quite sunk in yet that this whole process was actually starting.

Those thoughts were quickly put to rest the following Monday, when a large envelope from the race committee arrived on my doorstep. Inside it were a little bit of swag (a pair of arm warmers), and the race participant’s guide.

It was less than 2 days after the lottery. I guess no one will ever accuse the race committee of procrastination.

As far as the participant’s guide goes, it’s a 42-page affair with trail descriptions, pacer and crew guidelines, and about 100 different variations of saying, “This is a very dangerous race.” Some of the topic headings include Altitude Sickness, Getting Lost, Signs of Renal Failure, Leaving the Canyons on a Medevac Helicopter, and How Will I Know If I’m Getting Heat Stroke, as well as the overly descriptive title Why Can’t I Stop Puking?

All of this in addition to the race logo displayed prominently on the front cover: a mountain lion perched on a rock, as if waiting for the next weary runner to drop.

Well ... OK then. Message received. It’s a dangerous race.

If nothing else, flipping through the participant’s guide helped reassure me, finally, that this thing is actually happening.

Yes, it’s a crazy event, and it puts the fear of God in me, but there’s no turning back now – I’m fully committed.

Now all I have to do is train like a lunatic between now and race day.

Read Part 1 of this series here.


Gretchen 4/20/08, 11:06 PM  

The fear of God is excellent motivation, wouldn't you say?

RunBubbaRun 4/21/08, 3:46 AM  

Yes, definetly getting the golden ticket your 1st time out..

Like the steps to a 100, I can so relate to it.. Luv of trails is definetly a 100% must.

Really look forward to follow your journey to WS100..I'm sure you'll rock the course..

ps. sad to say they just shot a cougar in the city of Chicago. Definetly scary to know they might be on the trails...

21stCenturyMom 4/21/08, 9:38 AM  

Crazy is as crazy does
-Forest Gump's cousin, Sierra

I talked to a guy yesterday who did WS-100 some years ago. He got started in distance trail running when he got lost in the woods in Oregon and ended up running 6 hours on trails. Different path - same crazy :-)

Jeremy 4/21/08, 9:40 AM  

Any post that incorporates a Britney Spears metaphor gets a double Thumbs Up.

Makita 4/21/08, 9:50 AM  

Crazy, perhaps. Motivated, definitely!

Dying Water Buffalo 4/21/08, 10:26 AM  

Laugh test :) I like it! Happy to be on the journey to crazy with you!

olga 4/21/08, 3:11 PM  

Donald, I am loving your production! BTW, I refreshed the acceptance list 20 times that December 2003 as well, screamed a few times, and didn't pass a laugh test. However, the race itself, which I dreamed of almost every night since that lottery, and especially in details after the Memorial Camp, lived up to every expectation. I can't wait to read about your run there. Oh, wait, you need to run it first:)

Rainmaker 4/21/08, 6:31 PM  

Great post! A race packet 2 days after announcing the lottery. That's just plain damn impressive. We need those people running every race.

robtherunner 4/21/08, 9:01 PM  

Great article, Donald!

SLB 4/22/08, 11:38 AM  

Great article; including Roald Dahl just adds that element of fantasy, don't you think?

I am looking forward to Part 3.

Annette 4/22/08, 12:46 PM  

Way to go, Charlie Bucket! Just don't take grandpa with you. ;) Ahhh, the laugh test. We've all done it - thanks for naming it.

If you're comparing this gradual slide into "crazy" with Britney's -well, what's in store after Western States? Running rehab? ;)

triguyjt 4/22/08, 3:43 PM  

so...britney is kinda crazy...so should we assume she will get into ultras???

thanks for the excellent post as always....

Addy 4/23/08, 7:00 AM  

Great writing :) I love your description of how that progression works!

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) 4/23/08, 6:56 PM  

Thanks for the cool song video, the sexy Britney shot, and a great quit read (all I have time for right now) giving me another way to think about my crazy addiction.

My Life & Running 5/14/08, 1:48 PM  

Only you can relate the trangression to 100miles to Britney's career. Thank you for the layman's terms & allowing me to understand. :)

(&& I wonder what your version of rehab is going to be...)

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