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March 31, 2008

My Kind of Business

I’ve never been crazy about business travel – but if there’s one place I ever have to visit, I’m glad that it’s Washington D.C.

People are sometimes surprised to hear that I pack my trail shoes whenever I visit our nation’s capital. And while it’s true that the most popular running soutes in the city are along the breezy banks of the Potomac, or amidst the stately monuments of the Mall, my tendency to be an “off the beaten path” type guy draws me to the quieter, more remote areas of town.

Most people come back from D.C. with pictures of the memorials and government buildings; I come back with pictures of dirt, rocks, and trees. That’s just the way I roll.

Furthermore, if you start in the right area of town, it’s quite easy to spend almost an entire run in the dirt – as the following pictures will attest.

Before we get to those however, I’ve neglected to mention the first run I took after reaching the city last week. Rainmaker was gracious enough to offer me a running tour from the District into northern Virginia. We covered almost 12 miles together, and I tacked another 4 on either side of meeting him to make it a solid 20 miles for the first night.

(No, I don’t have pictures of the meet-up, and I know what that means in the blogosphere. You’ll just have to take my word for it: it happened. And I was the mystery friend mentioned in this post of his. It’s circumstantial, but I can build a case around it.)

One other note about that first run: if you ever have the chance to run with Rainmaker, be sure to take him up on the offer. He’s a great host and very easy to talk with on the run. Just bring sure you bring your fast shoes with you – he’s become pretty speedy lately.

The second day was the 5-hour affair I described in the previous post, which left me one final day to take an easy recovery run – and to snap a few more pictures along the way.




The first 4 miles were the same as the day before – north on Rock Creek Parkway and into the park. There’s a dirt path that parallels the creek and roadway, so it’s fairly easy to avoid asphalt on this stretch.




Inside the park, a side trail navigates through a narrow canyon, heading up toward Connecticut Avenue. It’s hard to see the trail in this photo, but it’s fairly easy to follow on foot – as long as you’re willing to climb over some tree trunks and hop through some stream crossings.




After a mile or so, the trail emerges in one of those idyllic-looking D.C. neighborhoods north of Georgetown that I love running through, because the architecture is so different than anything I ever see on the West Coast. (There’s good reason for this, of course: brick crumbles like a house of cards in an earthquake. But it’s hard to match the aesthetics of homes like this.) This picture is from Upton Street, heading west.




It only takes 10 minutes and a couple of intersection crossings to reach another greenbelt trail that heads south toward the Potomac. Although there are buildings in close proximity on either side of this path, the surroundings make it easy to forget that they are there. However ...




The southern terminus of the trail is this tunnel under Canal Road, which is a somewhat jolting reminder that you’re actually in a big city.




Luckily, I got here before the sun had set too much – because going under tunnels like this at night often gives me a case of the yips. I’ve just heard too many bad stories, which I won’t disturb you with here.




The tunnel passage was uneventful, and here’s what awaits on the other side: the Potomac River and Key Bridge. The bridge crosses to the Virginia side, and is only a few minutes north of Roosevelt Island, if you haven’t had enough trails by now.




But on this night, I’m headed back to the hotel – which means following the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal back through Georgetown. If you’ll notice, it’s still a soft dirt surface.




The path finally gives way to brick at the end of the canal, which is less than 5 minutes away from my hotel. This run was about 10 miles long, and probably 90% of it was on dirt. Combined with the long runs of the previous two days, it gave me an approximate total of 60 miles for the three nights of my visit.

As I said before, I’ve never been crazy about business travel – but if you tell me that I’ll also have the opportunity to run 60 miles through beautiful scenery while I'm there, the prospect of being away from home becomes much more tolerable.

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March 27, 2008

Home Away From Home

Before today’s post, a couple of updates are warranted …

First, I need to ask for a continuance on the comic strip article I offered in response to this survey from a few weeks ago. I thought for sure that I could have it done by the end of the month, but a couple other topics muscled their way into my plans, and all of a sudden I’m looking at the final days of March. I will get to it soon, I promise … but maybe I’d better not give myself another deadline to potentially break.

Second, I mentioned that I’ve been shopping for a new camera, and last week I finally bought one. Just in time, too – because the freebie camera made by a toy company that I described in this post suddenly stopped working after the third or fourth time I used it. At least I got one post out of it – so I guess I got a little more than what I paid for.

Anyway, I got a Nikon Coolpix L11 – a solid 6 megapixel camera with all your basic features, that is compact enough to fit into the side pocket of my camel pack. It was released just a year ago, and it’s already two generations removed from the current 8MP model – which means that bargain shoppers like me can find one for under 100 bucks.

And with that, we’ll start the post …

**

When my new camera arrived, I thought it would be cool to bring it to Toro Park and take some photos to compare to the ones I took with the cheapie camera last month.

There was only one problem: Toro Park was 3,000 miles away. Instead, I took the camera here:


Rock Creek Park, District of Columbia. I spent most of the week here on business, and logged a lot of mileage in my off hours – so many, in fact, that I’ll probably make two posts out of the trip.

For today, I’ll give you a photo tour of Rock Creek Park, which I’ve come to think of as my home away from home over the past few years. So let me show you around …


I approach the park by running north on Rock Creek Parkway, a thin greenbelt that parallels the roadway all the way up from Pennsylvania Avenue. You don’t see as many cherry blossoms as you do around the mall, but the few that dot the creek banks really stand out.

Speaking of remarkable trees, take a look at this …


On windy days, there are quite a few of these trash trees lining the creek in various places. You know, everybody talks about the D.C. cherry blossoms, but these trash trees are just as distinctive. Yet for some reason, you never see them on postcards, or mentioned in tourist brochures. This city hosts a Cherry Blossom 10-Miler every year; I see no reason why it can’t have a Trash Tree 10K.


Also, on a similar note …


This is why you won’t be seeing a Rock Creek Triathlon anytime soon. Or - if you see one - this is why you shouldn’t enter it.



About 4 miles into the run, I reach Pierce Mill. Apparently it’s kind of historic. More importantly to me are two other details: 1) I know my way back to the hotel from here, and 2) it’s a landmark that most locals know about. This way, if I come across somebody when I’m lost in the forest, I can ask him to point me in the direction of Pierce Mill, and get oriented in the right direction. Yes, it’s happened a few times.


A small waterfall at the base of the mill. The fence in the background is Beach Street, which is the last patch of pavement to cross before entering the main portion of the park.


After crossing the street, it’s like entering a completely different world, where the sights and sounds of the city vanish into the trees. Once you’ve run a few minutes into the woods, it feels just like any other wilderness area. In fact …

Every now and then, you’ll encounter a few of these guys. These east coast deer always look odd to me with their long, fluffy white tails – by comparison, their California cousins have very short brown tails. Of course, when I tried to get a picture of this doe’s tail, she was more intent on smiling for the camera. I hate it when wildlife doesn’t cooperate.

Next it was my turn to smile for the camera. You’d laugh if I told you how proud of myself I was for figuring out how to use the self-timer on my new Nikon. I also surprised myself in capturing a picture where I didn't cut off my head or look like a complete goofball in fewer than 10 attempts. Not many fewer, but trust me – it’s an accomplishment.

For the most part, the trails run parallel to Rock Creek, which meanders to and from the road as you make your way on the east side of the park towards Maryland. There are several rustic bridge crossings in places where the water intersects with the roadway, with the trails ducking underneath the arches.

This doesn’t really make sense to me: there’s no apparent reason for this boardwalk to be situated in the middle of a flat, clear, dry area of the forest. I always wonder if a local Boy Scout troop built this as a project to earn a merit badge or something. At least they got the boards flat, so I guess that’s a good thing.

Further north, another wildlife encounter awaits:


The sign says it’s an amphibian breeding area - but don’t let those Beltway semantics fool you. This is nothing more than a frog brothel. It’s where the high-income New York frogs secretly come when they want a wild weekend away from the missus frog.

(By the way, will there be a statute of limitations on Eliot Spitzer jokes? I can see myself going to that well quite a few times in the future. It’s almost too easy.)

You may notice that I’m running out of daylight in these photos – and I didn’t plan ahead enough to bring any lights with me. So …


Once the trail gets too dark, the technical sections like this become pretty dangerous. Luckily, I’ve run through here enough times to know where many of the exit trails are, so I’ll cling to the dirt as long as possible until the lights go out, then make my way out to the road to finish the run.

On this night, I had a 5-hour run on the schedule, and I was able to enjoy about 3 and a half of them on the trails. The last 90 minutes were spent winding my way back towards Georgetown through the northeast part of the District. I was pretty exhausted, and everything was dark, so I didn’t pause to snap many pictures along the way. But here’s one place I was glad to see:

The lobby of the hotel that I had to walk through in my sweaty clothes and muddy shoes, more than 5 hours after I started the run. I hope I didn’t freak out the piano player too much on my way to the elevator.

With that, I was glad to call it a night. I did a couple more evening runs in D.C. that I’ll talk about next time – but since the Rock Creek route holds a singular place in my heart, it seemed only fitting to give it a singular post.

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March 25, 2008

Journey of 100 Miles

Admin note: In regards to the previous post, I’m going to place a sidebar link soon to keep attention focused on the meet-up event between now and the Big Sur Marathon at the end of April. In the meantime, go ahead and spread the word to anyone you think might be interested.

As for today’s post – it’s a long one, so let’s get straight to it …

**

Shortly after I was accepted in the Western States lottery last December, I received the following relatively innocuous e-mail from my editor: Let’s talk about you writing a training diary for the paper leading up to Western States.

My initial response was, yeah … right.

At first, I was quite reluctant to share this little quest of mine with the world at large, especially in the pages of our local newspaper. As much as I pondered that thought, I just couldn’t imagine how anyone would possibly care about it.

Newspapers are a lot different than blogs. People read the sports section to find out who made the Sweet Sixteen, to see how many strokes ahead of the field Tiger is, or to check the high school baseball standings. For the most part, they don’t care one bit about some idiot spending an obscene amount of time running around on local trails.

Remember – while all of this ultra talk seems normal within this little on-line endurance sports community – the other 99.9% of the population considers the events we describe absolutely crazy. And those are the people who read the local newspaper.

So I wasn’t exactly wild about the idea, but I can’t say that I really dug in my heels to resist. Then last month, my editor and I talked on the phone, and by the time we were finished, the training diary seemed like a fantastic idea (he’s a very encouraging guy). I can write as frequently as I feel like - probably every other week - on whatever topic or theme I’d like to discuss related to the race, with articles of whatever length feels comfortable (I know – I couldn’t believe it either).


Basically, he’s giving me a blank slate, with one exception: his only specific instructions were “Just don’t send me 1000 words on snot rockets.” I guess I can’t ask for a better situation than that.

And besides … it’s not like I wasn’t going to write down a ton of contemplations on this race over the next three months anyway. If my editor wants to transfer some of it to newsprint, I guess that’s OK by me.

However, I’m still caught up on the idea of making the articles somewhat interesting to everyday readers - the guy perusing game recaps over coffee and a doughnut, or the housewife flipping through the sports section on her way to the opinion pages. So that’s the challenge I’m putting out there for myself with this series – although I’m still not quite certain how to accomplish it.

For the time being, I’ve decided to simply start telling the story, and welcome anyone who would like to follow along with me. The first installment appears below.

**

Journey of 100 Miles: A Western States Training Diary

Part 1 – Introduction

Each year, on the last weekend in June, the world’s toughest endurance runners gather in the former Olympic Village of Squaw Valley, California.

Over the next 24 hours, they race each other on foot over 100 miles of the historic Western States trail, through some of the most rugged terrain of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They climb more than 18,000 feet, and descend more than 23,000 feet while traversing deep canyons and high ridgelines on their way towards the finish line in Auburn. It is one of the most grueling physical and psychological challenges many of them will ever face.

And this year, I’ll be right there with them.

The Western States Endurance Run is the most prestigious race in the burgeoning sport of ultrarunning, which is defined as any footrace longer than the 26.2-mile marathon distance. Most ultramarathons are contested on trails instead of roads, and the most common distance is 50K (31 miles). However, the number of 100-mile races across the country has gradually increased over the past several years – and every one of these races owes its existence to the success of Western States.

If running 100 miles over unforgiving terrain through frequently ferocious weather conditions sounds crazy to you, rest assured that you’re not alone. In fact, the contest was originally designed not for people, but for horses.

Western States started out as a race called the Tevis Cup, which originated when a bunch of old-time California cowboys decided to compare the toughness of their horses to legendary steeds from the days of the Pony Express. Each horse and rider who covered the 100-mile trail in a single day and night were awarded a silver belt buckle to recognize their accomplishment.

For the first two decades of the Tevis Cup’s existence, the thought of anyone travelling the 100-mile trail on foot was inconceivable. Then in 1974, a 27-year-old cowboy by the name of Gordy Ainsleigh learned that his horse was suffering from foot problems and was too lame to attempt the ride.

Ainsleigh was a bit of a maverick – so instead of dropping out of the ride, he laced up his running shoes and lined up alongside nearly 200 horses to take on the trail singlehandedly. He not only finished the course, but did so faster than the 24-hour cutoff, thereby earning himself a silver buckle.

With Ainsleigh’s unfathomable effort, the 100-mile trail race was born. Today, there are no fewer than 60 such races across the United States. And while some races take place at higher altitudes, and others feature greater changes in elevation, Western States remains the crown jewel among this fanatical subset of endurance events.

Western States is unquestionably the biggest event of the year in the ultrarunning community. It’s like Augusta National (without the azaleas), Daytona (without the smell of motor fuel), and Wimbledon (without the strawberries and cream) all rolled into one. What’s more, it affords a select few “regular” runners - such as your author - to compete alongside the world’s best.

Regardless of their ability, all of the participants who meet in Squaw Valley each year realize that they are competing at the very pinnacle of the sport, following in the footsteps of legendary champions who have gone before, while sharing the course with modern-day heroes of ultrarunning. It’s an alluring combination of circumstances – to such a degree that the event struggles to manage the burden of its own popularity.

Each year, an increasing number of ultrarunners clamor to enter Western States – and each year, more and more are turned away. Because the race passes through protected wilderness areas, the US Forest Service limits the number of participants allowed on the trail on race weekend. And while rational folks would find it mind-boggling to hear that a 100-mile trail race actually has to turn people away, that’s exactly what happens with this event.

Consequently, Western States uses a lottery system to select applicants for the race. A portion of the slots are reserved, such as the top 10 male and female finishers from the previous year’s race, runners who have unsuccessfully applied for two straight years, and a handful of sponsored athletes who are given automatic entry. (Another automatic category called “pioneers” includes the now-legendary Gordy Ainsleigh, the man who started it all. Now in his sixties, he still lines up at the start line each year, and has finished the Western States course more than 20 times.)

In December, the lottery “winners” – seriously, that’s the word we use - are notified, and immediately spend the next six months preparing for the hardest day of running they will ever encounter. They do so with equal parts excitement and overwhelming fear, knowing the challenges that await them on race day.

A short list of potential dangers includes altitude sickness, treacherous snowpack in the high country, furnace-like temperatures in the lower canyons, waist deep river crossings, wildlife encounters (mountain lion and bear sightings are not uncommon), and ten or more hours of night running. That’s in addition to all of the medical complications that can derail a runner on race day, which contribute to a 30-40% annual dropout rate.

There’s no prize to speak of, as the race doesn’t award prize money. The highest honor one can earn is a silver belt buckle, awarded to any runner who completes the course in less than 24 hours, just as Gordy Ainsleigh did on the day he decided to race the horses. Otherwise, the only reward awaiting runners at the finish line is a firm handshake, a chair to finally rest upon, and the satisfaction of accomplishing a remarkable feat.

That’s not much inspiration to keep a guy running for 100 miles – so there must be something more that enables him (or her, as the case may be) to get through the most difficult stretches of the weekend. Something internal, something intangible … and something I hope to tap into over the next few months of training.

The what, when, and where of the Western States 100 are the easy parts. The why and how are harder questions to tackle. Between now and June, I’ll be looking for answers on the trails of Monterey County, during one long training run after another.

When I come across something noteworthy, I’ll be sure to let you know.

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March 21, 2008

Big Sur Marathon Meet-Up

So before we get to the main announcement, a quick question: are we all enjoying R.E.M.’s recent return to radio prominence?

I’ve never really been a diehard fan of theirs, but primarily for superficial reasons. When I was in college, it seemed like R.E.M. was absolutely everyone’s favorite band; you couldn’t go into a dorm room without seeing a poster, and couldn’t go to a party without hearing one of their CDs on the stereo (on that note - if you ever tell me you went to college in the early ‘90s, and claim you don’t know all the words to “The End of the World as We Know It”, I’ll know you’re a big fat liar. Two words: Leonard Bernstein!). So for some reason – probably a na├»ve sense of being counterculturally hip – I was always reluctant to embraced them like I did other bands.

But here’s the thing: even back then, and moving forward after college, almost every time I heard one of their songs, I’d think to myself, “Wow, these guys are awesome – why haven’t I listened to them more often?” When they released Monster during my grad school years, it became one of my favorite discs of that whole era, and I dutifully purchased most of their CDs from that point on. I guess what I’m saying is, I eventually came around.

That’s why it’s kind of nice to see them back in the spotlight (and why their new video is now playing on my sidebar). It’s a subtle reminder that some of the things I feel certain about today might change over a period of time - and that acquiring a different viewpoint isn’t nearly as terrible as I sometimes think it will be.

For example, I never thought I’d write a post about why I’m voluntarily skipping the Big Sur Marathon (See? It almost always comes back to running around here.) – but that’s exactly what’s happened. In other words, it’s the end of my marathon career as I know it … and I feel fine.

**

As to the event that I mentioned in the previous post, here it is in a nutshell: we need to have a blogger meet-up on the Monterey Peninsula during Big Sur Marathon weekend.

My suggestion is to have dinner at a local restaurant on Friday or Saturday before the race. We’ll enjoy some good food, swap stories, and I’ll be as generous with misguided advice about the marathon as anyone would like me to be. And we can finally attach some faces to blogs (and in some cases, to alter egos).

I know that readers frequently stumble across this blog when doing Big Sur Marathon searches, so let this serve as an open invitation: if you’d like to gather with a group who’ll be talking runner talk, feel free to join in. Even if you’re not doing the marathon, don’t feel too intimidated to stop by. And don’t worry about not knowing anybody – everyone else will be in the same boat.

(In fact, I’ll even invite any of you lurkers to show up and join us - and here’s how you can participate: find out what restaurant we’re dining in, then take a seat near enough to us so that you can hear all of our conversations, but not so close that anyone would notice you’re watching. Then as we walk out, look away and pretend you don’t even notice us. It’s just like our cyber-relationship, only up close and personal. It will be fun! )

I’ll pick a spot and make reservations for however many people would like to attend, and request special accommodations in advance if necessary (depending on how many people show up). I’m tentatively thinking of an Italian restaurant on Friday night, but I’m willing to change plans based on a general consensus.

However, I need feedback to gauge the interest level of others who plan on attending – so please contact me by a comment below (with an e-mail reply address), or use the e-mail address in my profile. In particular, let me know:

· If you plan on attending, and how many other people will be with you.
· Which night of the weekend (Friday or Saturday) you prefer.
· Any preference besides Italian food for dinner
· Any special accommodations (dietary restrictions, etc) you might need from the restaurant.

I’ll keep e-mail addresses and send out final decisions along with more specific instructions as race day gets closer. In the meantime, feel free to forward this post on to anyone who might be interested.

Finally, I’m happy to answer questions from anybody about the logistics of marathon weekend, or any other considerations in regards to traveling here for the race. It’s not an inconvenience – I just think of it as my little contribution to an event that has given me a lot of great memories.

Best wishes to everyone who is preparing for Big Sur, and I’ll look forward to hearing from you!

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March 19, 2008

End of the Affair

Actual conversation between me and a coworker from a few days ago …

Her: So are you feeling excited yet? It’s getting close.

Me: Uh … what is?

Her: The Big Sur Marathon – you’re doing it again, right?

Me: Oh, that. Well, actually …


And that instigated a brief conversation which I’ll elaborate upon here, on the subject of why I’m not running Big Sur this year.

Logistically, it’s a no brainer. I’m running a 50-mile race two weeks prior to, and a 100K six days following Big Sur. For the first few months of 2008, I’ve completely shifted into ultrarunner mode. I haven’t done any speed work or long tempo runs, and I’ve run on pavement fewer than 5 times since the start of the year. It wouldn’t make any rational sense to throw a road marathon into what has been a very calculated buildup to Western States.

Emotionally, it’s a whole different story.

This will be the first time in a dozen years that I won’t be lined up at the start line in Pfeiffer State Park, watching the sun battle the fog for supremacy of the day (and praying like crazy for the fog to win), gathering my nerves before testing the limits of body and spirit on the long, hilly road north to Carmel. And when that many memories are involved, it can be hard to say goodbye.

Big Sur is the race that made me fall in love with marathon racing. It’s also the race that has left me broken and humiliated, before inspiring me to train harder than I ever thought was possible. Over the years, it’s tested me with some of the greatest challenges and most intense struggles I’ve ever faced. Accordingly, my successful races there immediately became the proudest accomplishments of my athletic career.

In other words, Big Sur has made me a stronger runner – and probably a better person as well. And for that, I’ll always owe it a debt of gratitude.

Over the years, I’ve described my feelings about Big Sur in a manner very similar to a comfortable long-term marriage. I’ve also logged a TON of mileage with an analogy comparing the sport of triathlon to a sexy mistress that eventually destroyed the stable relationship. In that regard, last year’s marathon was more like going back for a booty call than an indication that the relationship was healed. (On that topic, here’s a free tip: if you want to get a lot of Google hits, use the words “booty call” in your post title some day. Trust me on this one.) In the context of that metaphor, I guess I’d say that skipping Big Sur this year officially marks the end of the love affair.

The ironic part is that the final breaking point wasn’t the presence of triathlon in my life – it was the ultras. Then again, perhaps that’s not so far-fetched: like most failed marriages, this one fell apart not specifically because of what I was doing outside the relationship, but from all the things I perceived to be lacking inside of it. Besides, once I’d demonstrated the willingness to stray, the likelihood of doing so again with somebody else increased dramatically.

(In fact, if I wanted to continue the crazy mistress analogy, I could argue that I now have two mistresses: triathlon is the $5000 per hour Emperors Club hardbody that needs me to keep spending money on her [on bike gear, wetsuits, etc] to prove my commitment, while ultrarunning is the down to earth, cute-but-not-flashy escort service girl who just enjoys spending a lot of time with me. That is, if I wanted to continue it – but honestly, we’re all probably better off if I don’t.)

The fact that Big Sur’s proximity took me by surprise is probably the most telling illustration of how I’ve more or less moved on with my athletic pursuits. Normally, on any given day in February through April, I can tell you exactly how many days remain before the race, as well as how many more track workouts and long runs I had scheduled before race day. This year, I know the race is out there somewhere, and I know it’s doing well … but it doesn’t really impact my day to day thoughts or plans.

(Incidentally, the marathon seems to have moved on as well. Last month I sent both the Chairman and Race Director e-mails telling them I wouldn’t be at Big Sur this year, only because I had other conflicting plans, not due to any dissatisfaction with the race itself. Basically, I played the “it’s not you, it’s me” angle up as much as possible, and thanked them for allowing me to participate [I did a pre-race benediction each of the past several years], as well as for all the work they do to create such a world-class race. I never heard a reply from either one of them. Clearly, the race will continue along just fine without me.)

However, as I said at the outset, I’ll always owe Big Sur a debt of gratitude – so I’ll never turn my back on it completely. I’ll definitely run the race again in the future, but only as it complements whatever other plans I have for the year, instead of merely to maintain appearances, or to keep a streak of successive races intact.

I’d also like to be a small part of race weekend, and help other runners get to know Big Sur in the way I have over the past 12 years. I’d welcome the opportunity to provide someone a small measure of the satisfaction and pleasure that I’ve always enjoyed with this event.

(And if this starting to sound like a creepy guy trying to pimp out his ex-wife … well, that’s why I stopped the analogy early a few paragraphs ago.)

I figure that the easiest way for me to contribute is to organize some kind of gathering for any bloggers who happen to be in town for this year’s race – so that’s exactly what I’m going to do. But seeing as how you’ve already plodded through over 1000 words, I’ll hold off on details until my next post.

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March 17, 2008

Return to Madness*

*only this time, it's not about running ...

**
It's a poorly-guarded secret around this blog that I bleed UCLA Bruin blue and gold.

I'm a UCLA alum. I wore their uniform in intercollegiate competition. I met my future wife in my freshman dormitory. I trained for my first marathon running endless miles around the campus. You could say there are some memories.

Throw in the fact that I'm an enormous sports fan, and this time of year is obviously an exciting one.

Two years ago, I wrote this post during March Madness, recalling a brush with college basketball royalty I was fortunate enough to have as an undergraduate. Then UCLA promptly went out and got crushed in the final game. So of course, I figured I must have jinxed them.

Last year, I kept all of those Bruin thoughts to myself, so if they lost, at least I wouldn't share any responsibility for it. Not only were they bounced again, by the same team (Florida), but it happened one round earlier than the previous year. In other words, my silence didn't do them a bit of good.

So this year, I'm back on the megaphone. Allow me one quick shout out today, and we're back to regularly scheduled running and rambling on Wednesday. And now, without further ado ...

Let's go Bru-ins! Clap clap clapclapclap!

OK, that's enough - I'll stop there. Thanks for indulging me. I feel much better.

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March 14, 2008

Running Contradiction

Admin note: today’s post is a brief one, as I’m juggling some other writing commitments this week. Part of it is kind of exciting, which I’ll explain in more detail later. For today, let’s get right to it …

**
“I have no belief –
But I believe I’m a walking contradiction –
And I ain’t got no right … “
- Green Day, “Walking Contradiction” (click to play – explicit lyrics)


Get this widget Track details eSnips Social DNA

It’s hard to tell by looking at me – but I’m pretty much a walking contradiction when it comes to my athletic pursuits.

For somebody who usually writes two posts per week on subjects related (however tangentially) to triathlon and ultrarunning, I clam up like a frightened turtle when it comes to actually talking about those topics.

Here’s a case in point: last week, I stopped into our local running store to stock up on some Sport Beans and Nuun caps, which have become staples of my longest training runs. The clerk was a cute, friendly twenty-something year-old girl in cotton tights and a 5K t-shirt. We made a bit of small talk, and as she was running my credit card through the machine, she initiated the following exchange:

Her: So do you have any upcoming races that you’re training for?

Me: Um … I’m just, uh … doing a few trail races this year.

Her: Oh, cool – that sounds like fun.

Me: (long, awkward pause) Um … yeah. Is that ready for me to sign?

And then I took care of my receipt and said goodbye. I’m not exactly Mr Smooth with the ladies nowadays.

I know it seems crazy, but in everyday conversation, I never voluntarily bring up the races I’m doing – and the bigger the event is, the less inclined I am to discuss it at all. I probably skated around the girl’s question for one of the following reasons:

1. I’m very much an introvert, and making small talk of any kind frequently terrifies me.

2. I know a truthful reply will lead to a barrage of follow-up questions that I’m not really eager to answer (see reason #1).

3. I’m afraid of getting the “Oh my God, you’re crazy” reaction from someone who doesn’t know the whole backstory of how I’ve gradually built upon progressive goals to get where I am.

4. I’m not always proud of my athletic exploits, in that I recognize their inherently selfish nature, and understand that the commitment is a hazardous sea to navigate.

Or, on second thought, maybe it’s just that …

5. I’m a borderline sociopath.

I could make a strong argument for any of those choices. The funny part is, each item on the list above would seem to preclude somebody from having a blog – yet here I sit, plunking away my life story for anyone who happens to stop by with the click of a mouse.

Furthermore, in this space, no subject is too trivial, and no conversation too tangential. It’s like my own little Batcave, where the same guy who can’t be bothered to answer questions about upcoming races in person transforms into some kind of caped crusader of trail running (or triathlon, as the case may be). I’m more than happy to talk about my workouts or races or goals, and eager to hear feedback from anyone who’d like to offer it.

And rest assured, you’re going to hear a lot more about Western States in the near future – because that’s one of the side projects I’m working on. With any luck, the posts will come across as something more substantial than the ramblings of a crazy person.

But for obvious reasons, that’s not something I’m prepared to guarantee.

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March 11, 2008

Dancing in the Dark

Admin note: I wrote this post more than a month ago, but didn’t get around to posting it for a few weeks, by which time the subject matter didn’t quite fit the daylight circumstances. However, with the recent time change and the temporary return of dark mornings (I turned my headlamp off at 7:05 AM on Monday), the post rings true once again.

I know none of this makes sense now, but it will after you read the post.

**

“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”
- Muhammad Ali

I spend a lot of time running in the dark – an inconvenience that just goes with the territory.

For the past decade or so (coincidentally, about the same length of time that I’ve been a father), running has always been a “do it early or don’t do it at all” proposition. Most of my weekday runs are completed by 7:15 AM, although on weekends I’ll stay out a little later.

But no matter how high my training volume gets, I've always considered it somewhat irrational to devote an entire weekend day to a workout. Between home projects, birthday parties, sporting events, attending church, or just good-old-fashioned family time, there are simply too many things going on to spend several hours away from the house for the frivolous sake of race preparedness.

Consequently, on most weekends I’m home from my workout by 9:00 AM. Under normal circumstances, this allows plenty of time to get in whatever mileage I need for the day.

Unfortunately, training for an ultra isn’t usually considered normal circumstances.

Over the last several weeks, my long training runs have stretched into multiple-hour jaunts through the hills and canyons of Garland Ranch. And the longer I want to run, the earlier I have to leave the house.

As a result, on most Saturdays or Sundays (or, with increasing frequency, both) I walk out the door into pitch darkness, equipped with lamps to light my path once I hit the trails.

Running in darkness has some practical application to ultras: developing balance and dexterity on unpredictable terrain; gaining confidence and familiarity with various lighting systems that I’ll rely upon to get me through the night of race weekend; or learning to accommodate the uneasy, ambiguous possibility of becoming a mountain lion snack somewhere deep in the forest (honestly, I haven’t fully accommodated that feeling yet). But more than anything, it’s a chance to experience the solitude and isolation that runners constantly grapple with throughout a 30-hour event.

That’s why I don’t mind setting out on my own into the darkness – well, that, plus the fact that it’s hard to convince people to wake up at 4:00 AM to run on dangerous trails in the dark. And I have to do what I have to do.

The main entrance to Garland is a 4-mile drive from my house - but an alternate entrance sits less than one mile from my street, from where I can access trails that eventually connect to the park’s visitor center. The only catch is that you have to go up a couple of ridgelines, and down into a couple of canyons to get there.

After entering the park, my first climb takes me about 1400 feet (since I’m not a GPS guy, guess how I know these numbers … by topo maps! Have I mentioned before that I’m old-school?), and this is the view I’m rewarded with once I reach the ridge:

In other words, there isn’t any view. But if you look closely, you can see a few lights flickering to life in the homes of all the non-crazy residents of Carmel Valley.

Descending into the canyon before sunrise always seems to take about 10 times longer than it would in the light - mainly because I’m terrified of falling and breaking an ankle in the dark wilderness (that whole lion bait thing I mentioned before). But eventually I bottom out, and start climbing over the second ridge that will take me to the park entrance.

This climb levels off in a meadow about 800 feet up, and as I hit the open space, I see the first signs of daybreak:

It doesn’t look like much, but that sliver of daylight on the horizon is one of the most welcome sights I ever see in the middle of a long run. No matter how tired I am, daybreak always energizes me to the point that I feel like I can run forever. Sometimes, I’ll continue climbing another 1000 feet to the ridgeline , where the views get even better:

I love seeing Carmel Valley from an early-morning vantage point like this. (And if you look at this picture closely, you can see my house – it’s the brown one by the little hill down there. Can you see it? Doesn’t it look great with the new deck we’re building? I think it complements the surroundings nicely.)

After the second climb, it’s another long descent towards the main entrance, and a network of wide, flat fire roads trails circumnavigating the visitor center and the Carmel River basin. By the time I get there, the sun has come up, and I finally see other souls who woke up early to enjoy a peaceful journey through the park.

I see the old guy with walking poles heading out for a long hike. The twenty-something couple jogging, each one with headphones. The chatty group of Asian women who always smile and wave. And a lot of people taking their dogs for a leisurely stroll.

As I’m passing, there’s nothing that really distinguishes me from the rest of the crowd. With my flashlight tucked under my jacket, and my headlamp stowed away in a pocket, there’s no indication that I awoke any earlier than the rest of this group. With several miles on my legs, my cruising speed remains very pedestrian – for all practical purposes, I look like some big, slow guy who rolled out of bed to jog off a few beers from the night before.

Which is just the way I like it, really. I don’t need witnesses to understand the kind of tasks I’m undertaking right now. These sunrises at Garland aren’t the lights that I’m meant to dance under. I remind myself that all the hours I spend laboring before dawn are merely preparations for the larger battle that awaits me this June.

So I circle the lower trails anonymously, then turn and climb back into the hills to start the long return trip home. This is where my fight is going to be won - behind the lines, out there on the steep climbs and deep canyon trails of this park, in solitude and under cover of darkness.

And when the time comes for Western States, I’ll be more than ready to dance.

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March 9, 2008

Runners Wanted

Believe it or not, this is a real photograph:


It hasn’t been photoshopped or digitally modified – it’s just a plain old (yet amazingly cool) picture taken by a guy named Thomas Peschak, for an article called Shark Detectives in the September 2005 issue of Africa Geographic.

It’s a good example of how a still photograph can be even more captivating than a video, as the uncertainty of what happens next is mysteriously intriguing. At the very least, it’s an effective way to capture the attention.

That’s why I inserted the photo into an e-mail to my Friday running group.

For various reasons, the weekly gathering of my training partners on Friday mornings has dwindled significantly over the past several weeks. Injuries, illnesses, work/travel schedules, and general ambivalence have gradually taken their toll – and instead of drawing 4 or 5 other runners on a regular basis, I recently find myself thankful when anyone shows up at all.

So on Thursday, I sent the picture along with the regular reminder, as well as this message:

“The man in the kayak is you. The shark is complacency. Who’s in?”

I figured the symbolic kick in the pants, not to mention the pleasantly early sunrises we enjoyed last week, would get a few more people out to the 6AM start. The e-mail went out to a group of about 10 runners.

The result? Exactly one person showed up. So much for capturing anyone's attention.

Apparently I don’t have quite the persuasive power of a shark - but at least the two of us managed to have a nice run. And I was able to evade the predator of complacency for still one more day.

Finally, in a related story: I’m currently in the market for some Friday morning trail runners. If you happen to know of anyone in the Monterey area who might be interested, please tell them where to find me.

(P.S. in case you're wondering ... the shark didn't attack the kayaker.)

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March 6, 2008

35 Going On 50

A few administrative notes to follow up on some previous posts …

First: thanks to everyone who offered kind or sympathetic words in response to the post about my sister. It’s comforting – but more than a little disheartening – to hear that sibling issues are so prevalent.

To update the story - I spoke to her again on the phone last week. It was a nice talk, although I wouldn’t say there was any sort of meaningful shift that I could detect. So it seems like business as usual – although maybe one of these days I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Second: the polls from the Choose Your Own Adventure post have officially closed, and (using my best Wolf Blitzer voice here) I’m ready to make a projection – the comic strip story prevailed. Thank you to everyone who commented or e-mailed me. I went strictly by popular vote, so I don’t have to worry about superdelegates throwing the election to the second place finisher, which was tentatively titled “Why I taught my son the F-bomb”. Although, as a few people pointed out, several of those suggested topics will probably find a way to seep into a post one of these days anyway.

Finally: the promised Foo Fighters post will come along in the near future as well – but in the meantime, answer me this: is anyone making more creative videos than the Foo Fighters lately? Their latest is on my sidebar – and whenever I see it on VH1 while I’m getting dressed for work, it’s far and away the best four minutes of my morning (or 12 minutes, if you count me rewinding it twice on TiVo). The title of the song is a little ominous for an ultrarunner to have on his sidebar, but what the heck - I’ll roll the dice with these guys any day.

That's all for now. On with the post …

**

In a previous post I described how I’ve made a habit of doing underwater laps after each swim workout, just to keep an element of playfulness in the regular routine. I typically do 2x 25 yards underwater, and if I’m feeling particularly strong, on the last attempt I’ll stay under and push off the far wall again, extending the interval another 10 yards or so.

I frequently do these intervals by myself, but sometimes the other swimmers in my group will join me, and that’s what happened one day last week. We did our first underwater rep, and the group waited about 30 seconds before dipping under the surface for the final interval. I lagged behind a couple of seconds longer to draw one more deep breath, then followed suit.

Approaching the far wall, I tapped it with my fingers, turned my legs around, and pushed off in the opposite direction. I managed a couple of breaststroke pulls and frantically kicked my way more than halfway across before finally coming up for air, completely wasted from the oxygen depletion.

Treading water in the middle of the pool, I slowly turned towards the wall where the others had finished, just a brief second before they turned around and saw me 15 yards behind them. It was the farthest I had ever traveled underwater.

Just then, as she was climbing out of the pool, the ringleader of our group initiated the following exchange:

Her: What happened, Donald?

Me (gasping): I ran out of air.

Her: Yeah, sometimes it goes bad like that. Don’t worry about it.

And with that, she turned and walked toward the locker room, and the others started climbing out of the pool as well.

It took my oxygen-starved brain a couple of seconds to realize, Wait - I'm facing them right now ... they think I only made it 10 yards underwater! By that time, everyone was headed to the showers - but I didn’t have enough breath to shout a response back to them anyway.

Once I finally made my way to the locker room, the thought briefly crossed my mind to track a couple of guys down to say “Actually, fellas – I went 35 yards, not 10.” But then I questioned exactly what the point of that would be, and ended up just keeping my mouth shut.

I know what I did, and that’s the important part. What’s more, the underwater effort pushed the envelope of my maximal ability to this point – and it stoked a small fire to blast completely through the barrier at some point in the future.

I think I can make it 50 yards underwater someday, so now I’m putting it out there as an official goal. This will be a fun one to chase (that is, if oxygen debt and prolonged episodes of sheer panic are your idea of fun – I’ll have to write more about this sometime). I'm not putting any deadlines or pressure on myself – it just seems like a cool challenge to go after from time to time.

Of course - knowing my luck - when I finally reach up and grab the wall at the same place I left it after swimming two lengths below the surface, someone will probably wonder out loud why I never left the wall to start the interval.

I’ll be way too far out of breath to correct them, but that won’t bother me one bit.

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March 3, 2008

I Report, You Decide

I guess there’s no getting out of this one.

I’ve been tagged – not once, not twice, but three times - to tell you seven random things about myself. It seems like an interesting premise – until you consider the fact that I describe random stuff about me nearly every day on this here blog. I mean … random is more or less my M.O.

You already know that I’m a good igloo builder, that I frequently shave my legs, that I got hooked on Lost over the past year (on that note – I just realized that I’m an idiot for predicting Desmond in an earlier post. He wasn’t even on Oceanic 815. The lesson, again: never listen to me.), and that I have a crazy/sexy crush on Shakira. Those kind of tidbits just come with the territory around here.

I usually justify inclusion of the random stuff by crafting very tenuous applications to endurance sport training and racing. But today, I’ve decided to take this tag in a different direction: I’m listing random stuff that has absolutely no relevance to the world of triathlon.

Any one of these topics could be a full-length post in its own right – and to prove it (and to throw another wrinkle into today’s mix), I’ll pledge to do exactly that with one of them later this month.

Your job is to vote for which topic you want to read more about. I figure if I have to go through this tag thing, I’m dragging you all along with me. Think of it this way: at least you don’t have to pay text messaging rates like when you vote for a contestant on American Idol. And I won’t make you read through a separate results post that takes a full hour to tell you what can be said in three minutes.

Got it? OK then - pick something from the following list, and the item with the most comment votes gets its own piece. You could find out …

1. Why I consider myself a Christian, and I love rock music – but I can’t stand Christian rock music.

2. Why I made my 9-year-old son a mix CD last summer that includes a couple of songs with the F-bomb in them – and my somewhat defensible reason for doing so.

3. How Salinas, California became one of the most illiterate cities in America – and how it’s directly connected to the town’s mistreatment of John Steinbeck.

4. What my backup plan is for channeling my competitive nature in the event that I ever become a quadriplegic.

5. How I inadvertently contributed to the early demise of one of my favorite comic strips in the 1990s.

6. Why I had to bite my tongue multiple times to avoid making a scene in front of schoolchildren inside the Carmel Mission last month.

7. Why the Foo Fighters are the best rock band of the past decade – and why their story should be a mandatory part of elementary school education.

Actually, the more I consider that last one, I’m starting to think that I can work a triathlon angle into it – so I’ll go ahead and write that post someday. And I just made your job 1/7th easier, because now you only have a list of six to choose from.

So those are your options. It’s like one of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books, only in blog form. Comment or e-mail your preference, and let’s see what page we end up on next.

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