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Monday, September 19, 2011


It has been a long time since I wrote on here, mainly for two reasons: first, I haven't had much to write about; and two, I've been very busy with a huge change in my lifestyle.

After running the White River 50, my life got thrown in a blender set on 'liquefy', sprayed through the air with a firehose, and is just now settling back down in my new home, Dallas, TX. I moved here in August, and am still getting a lay of the land and learning where I can and can't find good places to run (so for there have been more of the latter than the former, which is unfortunate). On top of that, I started a new job which commands an enormous portion of my time. So, new place and new lifestyle have meant little running beyond maintenance and up-keep types of workouts.

And I am fine with this downgrade. I'd been training vigilantly for about 17 continuous months going into my last race, and now am enjoying having nothing to worry about or prepare for. Some mornings I feel like 4 miles, some mornings 10. The great thing is, it doesn't matter - I do what I feel like doing without consequence.

As for my future, that's all up in the air too. I've thought about setting a goal completely orthogonal to my ultra-long distance goals and see how fast I can run the mile. Alternatively, I've submitted my application for the 2012 Boston Marathon, and if I get a spot in that race, I'll have no choice but to run it. Until I hear on the status of Boston, I have no idea, and really no concern, about what I'll work towards next. For now, I'm a lazy treadmill runner, and that is OK with me.

Maybe when I get back on the training horse and am working towards a new goal, I'll have something to write on here. For the time being, however, there is nothing interesting to say about running on a treadmill while watching CNBC. Nothing.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

White River 50 Race Report

There's a dumb joke I like that goes like this: An old fish swims by two younger fish in the ocean. "Hey boys, how's the water?" says the old fish as he passes by. Once the old fish is gone, the two young fish look at each other, and one says "What the fuck is 'water'?" 

This illustrates my mental state during the running of the White River 50. It's very easy to take one's surroundings and circumstances for granted once they are accepted as 'normal', and we spend most of our lives with part of our 'normal' being physical stasis; prolonged periods of inactivity punctuated with moments of movement towards the next station of rest and inactivity. For this race, I had to reverse this relationship, and make my accepted state of normality one of forward progress and running so that when someone asked me five hours into the race "how's the running?", my reaction would be "what the fuck is 'running'?" Thinking about resting, relaxing, and not-running would just be a discouraging waste. Instead, my focus had to stay solely on moving forward. The passage of time and my progress on the course were irrelevant at any given moment until I finished. The only beneficial thought was to keep moving ahead, regardless of proximity to my final destination.

View from the starting area, looking up at one of the mountains on the course.
The race started at the Buck Creek campground in the middle of Mt. Rainier National Park. When I drove in, I immediately felt a blow to my ego as I had stayed in a hotel the night before, but it looked like I was coming into the Tent City at Woodstock. The 300 other runners milling around didn't necessarily look like superior athletes or born ultra-marathoners. They mostly had the physical dispositions of someone you’d see loping around the park at 7:00 AM on a Saturday – capable and hearty, but not intimidatingly so. More than anything, they just looked poised and ready; which was appropriate because I later found out that about half of the field had run this race before, and thus, were better mentally prepared than I was for what was ahead.

Despite my lack of specific experience, I had studied the course description, and I had trained on similar mountainous terrain. I felt I knew what was ahead. Whats more, the weather was ideal, starting in the high 50s, and climbing up to the high 70s in the afternoon, without a cloud all day.

We began a little after 6:30, and not with a starter’s pistol from an honorary guest or with any kind of fanfare, but instead, with a shout of “GO” from the race director standing at a chalked start line. Fortunately, the field was experienced enough to not let the excitement of the start take over and impact the pace on the beginning 4 mile stretch of flat trails. I won’t go into a detailed section-by-section description of the race here, but will include one below.

course elevation changes
Elevation Profile

I started focusing on this race over half a year ago, almost as soon as I had recovered from the Rock & Roll Arizona Marathon. In the frozen depths of the New York winter, I regularly put in 75 mile weeks through the single-digit windchills and blowing snow. In the Spring, I tuned-up my conditioning with a ‘training run’ at the North Face Bear Mountain 50k over a nasty, gnarly mountainous trail that gave me the confidence to build a foundation on. In the summer, I moved to Boulder, CO to expose myself to altitude, mountains, and a more serious caliber of runner. Three seasons of preparation for a single day, and finally, I could do something about it.

That inspired my central mantra for the race. When my mind began to drift away from the task at hand or get intimidated by distance ahead, I told myself “just keep chipping away”. Every day since January, I knew I had 50 miles of racing left before I achieved my goal. Now, with each passing moment I was a little closer to the end – just 49 miles to go, 40, 30, and so on until I could think about it in terms of feet. After spending 7 months with the gauge stuck at 50, it was thrilling to have it finally change. And I thrived on this change.
Corral Pass - Mile 17

I never reached a significant low point, and I credit that entirely to the planning and execution of my nutrition strategy. Starting with the aid station at mile 17, and at everyone thereafter, I tried to choke down about 300 calories, diversified across the glycemic index. This meant watermelon, boiled potato, and Peanut Butter & Jelly sandwiches, plus an electrolyte tablet to ensure I could absorb enough water. I feel this kept my energy levels high and mental state strong. My stomach was what did me in during my last 50 miler, but was a complete non-issue this time.

I also kept from getting too low by telling myself that this would be the last time I’d ever subject myself to this kind of suffering. I had to say to myself that I was done with ultra-marathons after this race, so no matter how unpleasant conditions became, I’d never have to do it again. I've used this trick before in marathons & ultras, and each time I believe it to be true, even though it has never been before.
Sun Top Mountain - Mile 37

[Insert cliche-laden paragraph here about how beautiful the course was - trees, high altitude views, Mt. Rainier, woodland critters, bright happy sunshine, nature, nature, nature, etc....]

I never let myself sit. An inviolable rule I made for myself was no sitting and no stopping; Relentless Forward Progress. Once I exposed my body to rest and relaxation, I’d give it a taste for something that I’d have to continually deny it until the end. Instead, I just eliminated the option of ceasing forward momentum. An extension of this rule was the development in my training and in my strategy of making it an involuntary reaction to run when the terrain was flat or downward sloping, and only slow when the course took me uphill. Again, I kept myself from being lazy when the temptation to slow down would have been counter-productive and unnecessary. If you give a mouse a cookie…

The moment when I really felt that I had ‘won’ the race (morally, not literally) was at the Sun Top Mountain aid station. That marked the end of an 8 mile climb, and the beginning of perhaps the 13 easiest miles of the whole race. From there, I just had a 6 mile downhill run, and 7 miles of shaded, flat trail to traverse. Each step cut down on the gap between me and the fruition of a long-term ambition - 50 miles was becoming more of a reality than an obstacle.
Steps away from the finish
I wish I could say I crossed the finish line (after 10 hours, 23 minutes) with fireworks and fanfare; but instead, it was a few dozen people politely clapping for a stranger and a race volunteer handing me a souvenir water bottle and trucker cap. The gratification upon completion came from the completion of my work and the camaraderie with other finishers as I recovered in the finish area. This is my favorite aspect of the Ultra community and what separates Ultra Runners from every other breed of runner. It didn’t feel like we were competitors at the end of a battle to establish a pecking order (though we were); but rather, the last few left standing after a terrible shared ordeal that few can relate to. Rather than being the castaways voting each other off the island in Survivor, we were the cast of Gilligan’s Island after they got rescued.
To the victor goes these spoils. Not quite a finisher's medal, but I guess I'm supposed to manifest my satisfaction 'within', or whatever.

I ate BBQ with the two people I ran most of the last 6 miles with (see below: Candice and James), met Barefoot Ted of Born to Run fame, and shook hands with Uli Steidl, the winner of this year’s race and former course record holder. I didn’t know any of these people 2 hours before, and I’d probably never see them again, but we all were linked through a common ordeal, and felt a connection as such. It was like the 50 miles we had just run was a really good mutual friend between all of us (or perhaps more appropriately, a common enemy), instantly validating the other as worthy and respectable in each other’s eyes. Not many people know pain, fatigue, and psychological stamina as intimately as someone who had just trained for and run a 50 mile trail race; but the finish line of such an event is the rarer-than-rare occasion when there is a critical mass of these people. I was awash in a sea of my own kind, which made the achievement simultaneously euphoric and pedestrian. I was OK with this.
Finishers Board - making it official.

Cast of Characters

I met a lot of people out on the trail. Some were my companions for hours, some I only spent a few miles with. But their differences highlight the kinds of people who undertake these sorts of challenges.
  • Bird Nerd – I remember her most for her proclamation of how excited and relieved she was when the course turned upwards. She thrived on the climbing. I wasn’t sure if I should have been impressed or concerned for her. At one point close to the end of the first ascent, she was running behind me and started talking about the ‘beautiful thrush song’ she was hearing. I had no clue what she meant and thought it was a little early for her to be speaking in tongues, but it turns out a Thrush is a kind of bird, and she is an ornithologist at the National Parks Service. She quipped she was a ‘bird nerd’ as she mentioned this, and the name stuck. We’d leap frog a few times over the next 40 miles, with her finishing just a minute or two after me.
  • Blue or The Tough Old Man – Late in the second climb, I heard someone behind me say “I’m too old for this”, and I thought I was witty when I replied “I’m too everything for this.” 5 minutes later I looked behind me, and felt embarrassed when I saw it was the Tough Old Man whom I'd said this to. He first passed me early during the second ascent. I was hiking, and he was running. I estimated he was probably in his late 50s and dressed completely in blue. I lost sight of him after he passed me, but caught and passed him about an hour and a half later as the relentless climbing had taken its toll. We hung together for the next few miles of climbing towards the top of the second ascent, then for the first few miles of the subsequent descent. I got to see him finish about half an hour after me – he looked hurt, but I admired him for struggling through and defying his age.
  • Beeper – This guy was fast. He passed me going the other way on the out/back portion of the course between miles 11 and 22. He was probably in about 3rd place overall, and I just remember him because as he was approaching me (and everyone else going my same direction), he’d yell “BEEP BEEP!”, as we were on narrow switchback trails, and we needed to get out of the way. Strange, but effective.
  • Potato Chip Girl – I ran behind her for the second half of the first ascent, and she provided me a great service by being my rabbit and helping me keep the pace up. All I remember was her backpack, and that she carried a bag of potato chips in her left hand the whole time.
  • The 100 mile couple – Candice and James. The three of us left the last aid station together, and they kept me honest during the home stretch. They’d get a few dozen yards in front of me, and I’d put my head down and try to catch up. I talked with them a lot more after the finish, and learned James had just run the Hard Rock 100 (which explained his jovial disposition in miles 44 to 50), and Candice was training for her own 100 miler a month away. Before I knew this about them, I made myself look weak when I said I couldn’t imagine ever running anything longer than 50 miles. Candice taught me a lot about perspective and ambition, which I hope to expound upon more in a subsequent post.
  • Barefoot Ted – The eccentric figure from the book Born To Run, and he lived up to the reputation. I’d seen him at a few aid stations early on, but didn’t realize who he was. He ran the race wearing compression shorts, some kind of leather backpack/satchel, and sandals. Repeat for emphasis – he ran the race in sandals that he made himself the day before. I talked with him a little afterwards, and he explained that his preparation for this race and the Leadville 100, which he’ll run in 3 weeks, consists of maybe a few 2 or 3 mile runs a week, plus maybe a casual 20 miler, maybe. No more than 25 or 30 miles a week, tops. He called it ‘experimenting’ with his own physiological limits, I called it F’ing amazing.

Barefoot Ted and Me. I look a little too excited to be getting a picture with a sweaty shirtless guy, and I regret that.

I really would rather never wash the dust of these guys.
  • Saucony Peregrine Trail Shoes – these guys were all-stars. I wore them in the Bear Mountain 50k, all my training trail runs, and this race; all without a problem. They’re light, neutral, have great traction, and drain/dry out within only a few miles after stepping in a creek. The best thing I can say about them is that after the race, everything from my hips down screamed except my feet.
  • Nathan Handheld Water Bottle – Have you every carried anything that weighed about a pound and a half for 10 hours? It better be comfortable, and it better be easy to hold. This thing did the trick.
  • Zeal Maestro Sunglasses – After 10 hours, the outward-flexing springs on the hinges provided a huge relief – no constant pinching on my skull meant no annoying distraction from the already uncomfortable task of running. Super-light too.
  • Zensah Calf Sleeve – I've occasionally worn one of these on my left calf since I had a blood clot in my leg 18 months ago. Usually during a hard workout (either fast or up hills), my left calf muscle will bind up and get extremely tight. I wore this as a preventative measure that worked perfectly. I also like to think it gives me a cool signature look that all the crazy ultra-endurance running kids will emulate someday, kind of like Allen Iverson’s elbow sleeve.
Section by Section Description

Section 1: Start to Camp Sheppard; 3.9 Miles – 37 Minutes
Flat, easy start. I, like everyone else, was just trying to keep it relaxed and easy. The field was pretty dense this early, like a comment I heard some guy behind me say “ Buffalo, as far as the eye can see.”

Section 2: Camp Sheppard to Ranger Creek;  7.8 Miles – 1 Hour, 37 Minutes
The first climb started immediately after this aid station, about 2900’ before the next aid station. It was mostly on runnable single-tracks and switchbacks, but also usually too steep to run. I didn’t want to burn too much energy here, so I kept a mix of running and hiking.

Section 3: Ranger Creek to Corral Pass; 5.2 Miles – 1 Hour, 5 Minutes
400’ more of climbing before the course evened out and ran along a ridgeline with some awesome views. There were some remnant snow drifts for about a mile and a half in this part, which made the footing much less stable. Also, as the elevation got higher, the view of Mt. Rainier got grander as it got taller and taller, peaking over the adjacent mountains. Eventually, it was almost blinding to look at as it was so massive, and so white with the reflection of sun on the snow.

Section 4: Corral Pass to Ranger Creek; 5.2 Miles – 1 Hour, 1 Minute
This backtracked the last stretch, and was much more fun going down than it was going up.

Section 5: Ranger Creek to Buck Creek; 5.1 Miles – 58 Minutes
Shady, very runnable switchbacks, all downhill.  This was fun to do on tired legs.

Section 6: Buck Creek to Fawn Ridge; 4.5 Miles – 1 Hour, 13 Minutes
After the aid station, the trail meandered for about a mile on soft and flat paths before the second ascent began. It may have been the burden of 30 miles already on my legs, but at times the trail seemed like it went straight up the side of the mountain. This was the beginning of what would turn into a long, steady, upward, and sunny march to the summit of Sun Top Mountain.

Section 7: Fawn Ridge to Sun Top; 5.3 Miles – 1 Hour, 28 Minutes
Same as before, but with a lot more unfulfilled hoping that the end was near. My entire mental stability was built upon the objective of getting to the top of this climb, because I knew everything after the Sun Top aid station would be much more runnable.

Section 8: Sun Top to Skookum Flats; 6.4 Miles – 1 Hour, 1 Minute
Almost entirely downhill on a partially shaded forest service road. I felt like I was flying, but in reality, I suppose I only kept up about a 9:00 pace. I had very little contact with other runners on this stretch, I passed one guy, but barely saw anyone else.

Section 9: Skookum Flats to Finish; 6.6 Miles – 1 Hour, 20 Minutes
The home stretch was a shady, winding trail along [what I think was] the White River. Ordinarily this would have been a blast to run, but there were times when I couldn’t muster more than a fast walk.  Eventually, the course popped out onto a road, then went another 0.4 miles into the start/finish village where I finally got to sit down and take a rest.

Monday, July 25, 2011

White River 50 Race Strategy

In doing my game-planning for the White River 50 this weekend, I like to break down the course in mentally digestible, conquerable sections. This makes it easier to approach the distance, thinking about just doing a handful of six-to-eight mile runs instead of one 50 mile run. It’s like the baseball adage  ‘don’t try to hit a 5-run Homer’, meaning you have to string together singles and doubles to climb back from a grand deficit instead of biting it all off at once. That’s how I feel one must approach any race from a half-marathon on up.
An accomplished field ran in 2010; including eventual winner Tony Krupicka, Ultra-legend Scott Jurek, and 2011 Hardrock 100 runner-up Dakota Jones.

The White River 50 course lends itself well to segmentation, which makes my strategizing (and hopefully, my execution) easier.

course elevation changes
White River 50 Course Elevation Chart
Section 1: Miles 0 to 5.5 – The Warmup
This should be an easy, flat ‘warm-up’ stretch, run mostly on open road and wide trails before the course funnels into the single-track. This will be early enough that the weather should still feel balmy and cool, which will be nice. My idea for this beginning is that I can’t run it slow enough. I want to start at the back of the pack, and if I’m in middle-to-back of the field by the end of this stretch, I’ll be happy. I just want to get through this stretch with as little damage as possible.

Section 2: Miles 5.5 to 13.5 – The First Climb
Here comes the first, and largest, sustained climb of the race. I’ll go up more than 3000’ over the course of 8 miles, which will be a challenge for me as climbing is the weakest part of my running. I’ll gladly adopt a run/power-hike strategy here, and am hoping that my training in the altitude of Boulder will help me generate more power during my ascension.

Section 3: Miles 13.5 to 21 – Ridgeline Running
Next up is a reward for the climb: single-track, ridgeline trails with beautiful views (see below). This is where I hope to pick it up and gain some ground on the field, but still be mindful of saving as much in the tank as I can.

A scene from mile 17

Section 4: Miles 21 to 27 – The First Descent
What goes up, must come down, and here is the longest descent of the race. I’ll go down single-trail switchbacks, peppered with some steep drops. Again, I look to make up some ground here as I feel I have very good downhill strength.

Section 5: Miles 27 to 36 – The Second Ascent
This section begins at the start/finish area, which will be a little challenging mentally. I’ll probably be hurting pretty well by this point, and the thought of leaving this sanctuary for another 23 miles will be tough. However, once I get going, the course starts climbing again. According to the official course description: “Don't worry, it's the last hill on the course and it will only last 8.5 miles [and go up 2500’].” Oh good.

The only redeeming part of this section is the view of Mt. Rainier, which the race photographers are sure to capitalize on to try and garner $40 from me later on.

Section 6: Miles 36 to 43 – The Last Descent
The beginning of the end. Again, I’ll hope to tap into my downhill speed.  I’ll be exposed to the sun and running on dirt roads here, but that will just motivate and enable me to get it over with quicker.

Section 7: Miles 43 to 50 – The Finish
I’ll pass through the last aid station at mile 43, then I’ll be able to smell the barn. If I have anything left in my legs, this is where it will come out. There aren’t any major ups or downs, and it’s mostly shady trail. Some parts are technical and have tough footing, but that may be a legitimate reason to ‘gear-down’ and regroup for the next stretch of runnable trail. If I have to crawl these last 7 miles, I’ll do it happily.

Macro Strategies

Nutrition – The best advice I’ve heard about ultra-running nutrition is that this is a ‘calorie deficit sport’, meaning while I will be burning about 600 to 700 calories an hour, my body can only absorb 250 to 300 calories an hour, creating a larger deficit with each hour. Thus, the best thing I can do on race day is eat early, even if I don’t feel I need it. This will keep me out of greater calorie debt later on. On top of that, I’ll take one or two electrolyte tablets an hour to make sure I’m absorbing my water, and be sure I stock up at each of the 7 aid stations before the finish.

Pacing – As I mentioned earlier, I want to start slow.  If I can average 9 to 10 minutes/mile on the flats, 8 to 9 minutes/mile on the downhills, and maybe 14 to 15 minutes/mile on the climbs, I’ll be happy.

Gear – Trying to go as light as possible, so all I will take with me on the trail will be my handheld water bottle, sun glasses, and MAYBE a hat. Anything else will just weigh me down.

Motivation - I have invested a LOT in preparation for this race. I’ve averaged 65 or 70 miles/week for most of 2011; I’ve moved to Colorado for the summer; and I’ve given it most of my mental energy and attention in my free time. When I’m at my lowest on race day, I have to remember that all of that was for a reason. That the fact that I could showed up to the start line of the race says a lot about myself, and crossing the finish line will say a lot more. There aren't a lot of people who do these races, and for good reason.

Most importantly, I get the luxury of reminding myself that this is my last ultra. That’s it, I’m done after this race. Thus, I might as well expend every last mite of energy I have, even if it makes me hate running for the rest of my life. So what? I’m not running again anyways. I tell myself this towards the end of every hard & long race I do, and I tell myself I really mean it every time, but this time, I really mean it. I’m done with Ultras.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mountain Running Roadtrip: Arches National Park (Part 2 of 2)

After my short and improvised experience of running in the 10,000’ elevation of Leadville, I hit the road again and continued westward towards Utah and Arches National Park. I didn’t have much a plan for this leg, I had just been told that if I really wanted to take advantage of my time in the Rocky Mountain region, then I should be sure to visit this place – and that advice turned out to be spot on.

The drive from Leadville to Moab was a drab 4 hours, especially once I crossed into Utah, where it was all dark highway and no signs of civilization in any direction. After spending the night in Hotel Audi[i], I woke up at 6 AM Monday morning to get a jump on the activities[ii].

The entrance to Arches National Park is almost as if it were designed by a landscape architect on a biblical scale and with a flair for dramatic reveals of incredible vistas. The entering road curves up switchbacks carved into the side of a red standstone cliff that rises at least a few hundred feet. Once one reaches the precipice, the road turns into a vast landscape of valleys, rock spires, and geologic formations that look more like a backdrop on Tatooine[iii] than anything earthly. 
Stillframe from the 1999 Star Wars spoof: The Phantom Menace

From there, I drove about another 20 minutes on windy park roads, past incredible rock shapes formed from eons of wind and water erosion to the point where they looked geologically and structurally impossible, until I reached the trailhead I’d picked out before my trip: Devil’s Garden.

Having beat the crowds, I had the trail all to myself. I’d learn later this would be partially a very good thing, and partially irrelevant. Also, partial clusters of clouds on the horizon distorted the rising sun, both keeping the temperature cool, and creating some beautiful sunrise scenes. Thus, I set off on my run, looking to just embrace and enjoy my setting.

The first section was very well manicured and smooth trail to the extent that they could have won ADA approval and made it wheelchair accessible. This passed a few large rock faces protruding from the ground, which made for majestic views up close, but limited the kind of far reaching vistas that this park really excels in.

Landscape Arch and another smaller arch in the background

The fun really started once I got past the ‘tourist friendly’ section of trail[iv] and got onto the ‘primitive loop’. Very abruptly, the trail went from flat, hard packed dirt to a sequence of semi-smooth rock faces that just happened to not be perpendicular to the ground, thus constituting a ‘trail’. Consequently, my average pace slowed by about 5:00/mile at this point. I was working down a trail spur that was supposed to lead me to ‘Double O Arch’, but soon came to a point where the school bus-sized boulder I was climbing over came to a straight down 30 foot drop, and I saw no way around it[v], forcing my turn back.
Dead end. (The rock drops about 30 feet past where you can see from here)

From there, I turned onto a soft dirt wash[vi] that twisted through a valley created by the surrounding sandstone cliffs and populated by menacing desert vegetation that piled 10 feet high on both sides. 

A view of the wash and vegetation from above

This ‘easy’ section of the trail again quickly turned into a prolonged stretch of climbing over boulders, scaling steep rock faces, and just trying not to get lost in a remote section of desert with only half a bottle of water and one Gu to survive on. The trail was marked not with signs or any other man-made objects, but instead, with small piles of rocks; almost as if they were left behind by some pioneering hiker, erecting them as he went deeper into the remote expanses of the park so as to either find his way home, or lead the rescue party to his final resting place. 

This picture doesn't convey how steep and slippery this rockfaces that constituted the trail were. You can see the rockpile 'trail markers' in the foreground.

Some All of the views were amazing, and I had to force myself to lift my gaze up from the 7 feet of terrain ahead of me to take in the scenery.

By this point, I was about 5 miles in, and had done a substantial amount of vertical. Thankfully though, my energy levels only climbed[vii], giving me one last boost in the homestretch back to the trailhead. I was back on the soft-sandy wash, but running faster than I had all morning. I was blazing up hills, and propelling myself with vigor despite the soft, giving surface. Once I got back on the ‘handicap accessible’ main trail, with its smoother surfaces and surer footing, I really accelerated. There was a slightly higher degree of difficulty now as the tourists had started crowding the trail, and they were completely oblivious to everyone and everything beyond their digital camera’s viewfinder. My last mile home was almost a dead sprint, as I felt a stronger connection to the wilderness around me than ever before.

I’ll venture from my mostly objective recount of the experience to try and convey the primitive and savage form of elation that I felt overcome with at this point. I’m a firm believer in the naturalness of running. I believe that we, as a species, evolved and survived thanks largely to our ability to run long distances and effectuate the persistence hunt[viii]. We may have ostensibly lost this connection to nature with the proliferation of treadmills, ultra-cushioned running shoes, iPods, and Big Macs; but it’s still present deep in our DNA and in our most innate emotions. To get off the asphalt and onto the trail is to blow past all modern contrivances and satisfy many of the instincts we have suppressed with civilization and technology[ix]. This is what I felt on the trails in Arches – alone in the wilderness, with an overwhelming urge to move forward and explore, and nothing else mattered. It was an intense focus-on and connection-to the ground underneath me, one that I've rarely felt before, and reminded me that I’m an individual actor, but one in complex and vast ecosystem. I was essentially a dependent of nature at this point, as I was more aware than ever that it was providing me with the sensation of my heart beating and the air I breathed. The best thing I could have done was to embrace the energy and translate it into my run.

With that, I returned to the trailhead and reached the end of my run.

[i] The backseat of my car.
[ii] Travel tip: get to the park before the Rangers report to work (about 7:30 AM) and you can get in free – saves $10.
[iii] Nerd reference: Star Wars planet.
[iv] About 1 Km.
[v] This boulder was wedged at the base two massive rock walls, effectively making it dead end unless I was able to either drop 30 feet onto hard rock without breaking my legs, or scale the rock walls like Spiderman.
[vi] VERY soft and muddy from the preceding night's rain; almost like running on sand.
[vii] Partially due to the adrenaline rush after one instance where I thought I was completely lost and started thinking about what last message I’d write in the sand to stand as my last words, only to find my way back onto the main trail shortly thereafter.
[viii] Basically, our ancestors in Africa may not have been able to outrun a gazelle over two or three miles, but they could over twenty or thirty, which they did.
[ix] I hope this doesn’t make me sound like the Unabomber – I don’t hate technological and cultural advancement. I’ve waited in iPhone lines for hours and have debated the redeeming qualities of the Twilight Saga. However, I do believe in balancing the modern layer of our society with our most basic instincts – the perpetual adventure in nature for survival.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Mountain Running Roadtrip: Leadville (Part 1 of 2)

This past “weekend”[i] I took a little road trip to the west. I want to be sure I take advantage of my (now limited) time in Colorado and be sure I hit all the destinations that I consider sacred – and my judgment of sacred is likely quite skewed. The plan was to go to Leadville to pace a friend for the last 15 miles of the Leadville 50 Mile Trail Run, then continue westward to Arches National Park in Utah for some scenic, red dirt trail running. Read on to see how strange I am.


The first stop of my excursion was Leadville, CO to pace my friend Tony for the last 15 miles of the Leadville 50 mile trail race. Our plan was to meet at an aid station, then climb about 1400' over the next 4 miles before we had a mostly downhill 10 miles to the finish. Tony’s goal was to finish under 8 hours, which would have easily been a Top 10 finish. His ambitious goal (and track record to justify it[ii]) combined with the respect I have for any linear stretch of earth with the appellation "Leadville" before it, made me apprehensive that I'd be able to get through the last 15 miles without being left behind by my friend – who would already have accumulated 35 miles of damage on his body.

Let me make an aside to convey to you why Leadville is the Pebble Beach [with Beth Page Black layered on top of it], of trail running. Leadville is an old mining town 10,000’ feet up in the mountains of Colorado. It used to be known for two things: mining and brothels. Once the brothels were shut down, the Army moved in and discovered that the mountains in the area were great for training its 10th mountain division. To put it another way, the U.S. Army surveyed the rugged terrain and said “Great! This looks like a perfect place to make our highly trained, elite soldiers suffer”, then set up camp. Move ahead to the early 1980s, and the local mining industry is all but shut down[iii]. With the town slowly suffocating from economic ruin, a local man sought some new means of resuscitation. Creating one of the hardest footraces in the world was his solution, and thus, the Leadville Trail 100 was born. As described in the book Born To Run, first imagine the Boston Marathon course and take away all the spectators and crowd support. Now dump a whole bunch of rocks and roots on the road. Run it twice, but throw in a mountain pass at the end of the second repetition that will take you up 2,000’ and back down. Now, put on a blindfold (to simulate the total darkness of night in the forest), turn around, and do it all again. Oh, and you do this with a sock in your mouth since the air is so thin at 11,000’ you can’t exactly breath well.

Back to my weekend. Unfortunately, Sunday was just 'one of those days' for my friend Tony - the kind that shows up unannounced, unexpected, and at the worst possible time - like Cousin Eddie in the Griswold's driveway. About an hour before our expected meeting time, I started getting texts from Tony saying that his legs were ‘shot’ after 24 miles, and he was feeling nauseous. I tried to do my best ad-hoc pep talk via text message[iv], but to no avail. He dropped after 30 miles, and I drove up the backroads of Colorado mountain country to pick him up. Needless to say, he was more than disappointed, as this was only his second career DNF[v].

The lesson from my Tony’s experience? No matter how much of an endurance junkie you are, don't run 65 miles the week before you attempt a 50-Miler. Respect the taper, and respect the distance. 

Given this abrupt change in plans for the afternoon, I needed to get some miles someway, somehow. This run was supposed to double as an key workout in my taper to my own 50-miler two weeks away[vi]. I still needed to get some miles in for the day, and found myself at the race's start/finish line, so off I went into the out/back course. I wasn’t going to do a full 15 – I just didn’t have the mental agility to wrap my head around a 2+ hour run by myself at that altitude, and on that terrain. Instead, I did 3 miles outbound on the race course, and felt like I was at a good turnaround point. As I was heading out, I passed the leader in the race and the second-place runner on their way to the finish. This was a small thrill of its own, but as I was about to turnaround to go home myself, I saw the third position runner heading my way.

My thought process at this point was probably something like a good herding dog – I came to Leadville to help somebody get to the finish, and damn it, I was going to do it even if it was for a complete stranger. So as the third-place runner approached, I asked if he minded if I ran with him. I don’t blame him for being surprised, as this was an odd and perhaps creepy request. However, once he realized I was serious, he seemed very receptive to the idea. It turns out his name was Joe (you can read his running blog here), and he had won the 50 mile mountain bike race on the same trail the day before. He says he was struggling at the time we crossed paths, but I have to say the man was running very strong.

So off we went down the home stretch. When the trail was wide, I tried to stay a few meters ahead of Joe to be his rabbit; his target to chase. However, when the trail got narrower, I didn’t want to block him in any way or obstruct his vision of the terrain ahead, so I got behind and tried to apply a little ‘pushing’ pressure. As we neared the last turn of the course, I told Joe I was dropping back to make sure I wasn’t anywhere in the background as he approached the finish[vii]. Then, in maybe the coolest sequences of spontaneous synchronicity I’ve ever been a part of, Joe said ‘Thanks’, waved his water bottle at me, then flipped it 12’ straight up so that it would come back down to Earth, ready to be caught, just as I ran underneath it, which I did. With his hands free, Joe was ready for his perfect finishing photograph. I have to commend him on his power and determination over the three miles we ran together, he really showed me how to zip up your Man-Suit and finish like a pro.

With 6+ trail miles at 10,000’, I felt like I got a sufficient enough workout for the day, and said goodbye to Leadville. I can’t say for certain if I’ll ever go back as a racer and not just spectator/pacer, but I have to say the idea doesn’t strike me like the certain death that it once seemed to be.

To be continued: My run in Arches National Park.

[i] I don’t have a job, so in reality, every day is like Saturday for me. However, the purposes of this post, my ‘weekend’ was Sunday/Monday.
[ii] This guy is a marathon running machine; spending most of his weekends leading 3:10 or 3:20 pace groups in marathons across the country. He seems to only have a vague understanding of the words 'limitation' or 'sanity'.
[iii] By then, the town had become mainly reliant on the mining of Molybdenum, a mineral used in the making of stainless steel. The early fruits of these mountains were prescient of the hardening and refining of runners that would someday tackle their trails.
[iv]U R GOING TO DO GR8”, “WTF can't quit!”, "GIT'R DUN". I didn't actually say this, but I can imagine that there are people who would actually send messages like this to somebody who had just run 24 miles and felt like crap. I am highly suspect of their effectiveness.
[v] It's fair to note that he has probably started at least 75 races of marathon distance or longer (rough estimate), and the first DNF (and only other) DNF was a 200 mile relay race he tried to run by himself.
[vi] White River 50 on July 30.
[vii] I’ll concede that all runners at this distance (yours truly included) are at least narcissistic enough that if there’s not at least one finish line picture that looks like it could be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the entire race is slightly tainted for the rest of eternity. Such is the permanent void created by the absence of good photographic evidence.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Article Response: Chuck Klosterman on the Limits of Human Speed

Original Article: Is the Fastest Human Ever Already Alive? (

In his article, Chuck Klosterman[i] didn't take an opinion one way or the other, but an idea purported is that there are limits to human speed, and the fastest a man can possibly run 100 meters is 9.44 seconds. That’s it, no faster. I think that's a load of bull because it fails to acknowledge two propelling forces that will enable people to continue exceeding standards set by their predecessors: increasing global mean standard of living and the continuing evolution of our species. 

Standard of Living
If you know 19th c. British literature, then you know Oliver Twist; and if you know 21st c. network TV melodrama, then you might know J.D. McCoy. These two fictional characters have almost nothing in common, and that's exactly my point. Oliver Twist is the iconic street urchin of pre-Industrial Revolution England. He subsisted on a regiment of gruel and emotional neglect. His life may not have been the 'typical' life of a child in that time or place, but he certainly wasn't an outlier either. Conversely, if you haven't seen Friday Night Lights
[ii], J.D. McCoy is the uber-coached, uber-put-upon son of a dad trying to live out his Joe Montana-dreams vicariously through his moody, hormonal son. There's lots of ways to benefit from the luxuries of the American middle class lifestyle-Joe McCoy (J.D.'s father) just chooses to do it by making his son run stadium stairs until the boy developed something Oedipal[iii]. The kid turned out to be a helluva QB, though.

Now, imagine putting Oliver Twist and J.D. McCoy on the same high school track team today. Poor Oliver's feeble, malnourished musculoskeletal system wouldn't even be able to cover 100 meters before J.D. McCoy crossed the finish line, drank a MetRX protein shake, and tweeted about how much he hates his dad. I have no evidence to indicate the genetics of these two characters differ in any appreciable way, I just mean to demonstrate this: the world today is richer, allowing us to focus on more frivolous pursuits such as running from one point to another with no obvious or productive purpose
[iv]. J.D. McCoy didn't have to endure the hardships of life as a street-urchin. Instead, he spent his summers at passing camp and playing Madden. 

Meaning: with the same 'equipment', our world today can achieve better physical achievements on average than in the past
[v]. It's a safer bet to assume this progress will continue than not. 

Evolution and Genetics

As a species, we will continue to evolve and accumulate better genetics for athletic pursuits, and we have the incestuous hook-up culture of individual sports tours to thank.

Though they swear they won't force their kids into playing tennis, would you ever bet against the Steffi Graf-Andre Agassi children in a junior mixed-doubles match against Jaden and Willow Smith? No, of course not. Even if the spawn of Graf/Agassi have never seen a Tennis court in their lives, the instant they pick up a racket would be like Harry Potter gripping a magic wand for the first time[vi]. These kids may not be guaranteed tennis deity, but they have a better chance than your kids. 

And with the closed social networks and high school social politics of international, dual-gender tours of international sports (tennis, track and field, swimming), it's only natural that more of these world-class athletes concede to the inevitable and produce super-mutant-freak-athletic babies bound to dominate the sporting world in ways we haven't seen. Andre Agassi/Steffi Graf, Ryan Hall/Sara Hall, I'll even throw in Maria Sharapova and Sasha Vujacic

None of these children will be surefire record-beaters, but they will increase the probabilities of a super-Usain Bolt being created. And this effect of mutual attraction of high caliber athletes will trickle down to lower levels with the aforementioned proliferation of recreational sports. The more our relative global affluence allows one to do ridiculous things with one’s free time like run marathons, the better one can identify those with superior genes in these sports; and the better one can identify a genetic peer in the opposite sex, the more one will be compelled to jump their bones
[viii]. For example, it was obvious from the very beginning that the “Saved By The Bell” wedding would be Zach and Kelly instead of Slater and Jessie
[ix]. Opposites attracting is B.S.

Other examples of mutual attraction of athletic attributes:
  • A very fast-running woman who I work out with sometimes is married to a very fleet-footed man whom she met in college, and whom also ran collegiate track . She described her initial attraction to him as noticing his ‘cute legs’. What other type of person would think this, let alone be attracted to a male’s lower appendages?
  • My friends Matt & Emily (married). Matt had already run a few marathon when they met, then ran with Emily as she finished her first 26.2. How could you not prove yourself as ‘spouse material’ after that experience together?
The consequence: More mutually-athletic couples -> Super-genetic babies -> Higher probabilities of Usain Bolt 2.0.  These improvements in the gene pool won’t be quantum leaps[x], but almost imperceptibly incremental. Don’t think about going from Henry Ford’s Model-T to a Lamborghini. Instead, think of going from a Lamborghini to a Lamborghini with slightly modified headlamps that reduce the drag coefficient by 0.1%. The progress is slight, but it’s still progress.

Putting It All Together

More athletes with good genetics + Better resources and knowledge of training = continually increasing athletic performance.

This trend will only stop once:
  •  The entire world has achieved such affluence that robots take care of all our needs, freeing us up to engage exclusively in recreational activities[xi], and 
  • We’ve bred out all of the ‘fatties’ in the gene pool.
Barring an epic technical revolution (like Google colliding with a Star Trek Warp Drive in the Large Hadron Collider) and Nazi-style eugenics coming back in style, I don’t see either of these conditions becoming satisfied anytime soon. Thus, 9.44 seconds for the 100 meters isn't an asymptotic boundary for performance. Rather, there aren't any limits until a human comes along that can literally launch himself from the starting blocks past the finish line in a single, 100 meter-long leap that nears the speed of light. However, the Sun will likely swallow the Earth before this happens.

[i] The best writer of the MTV generation.
[ii] And that is virtually everybody, which is a shame.
[iii] Author’s conjecture.
[iv] The idea of expending so much energy for ‘fun’ would sound as foreign to Oliver Twist as ingesting Uranium would to us.
[v] Or rather, we are more likely to be born into a family situation with the resources of the McCoy's today than we were 150 years ago. In fact, 150 years ago, the concepts of 'weight training' or 'sports nutrition' didn’t even exist. Who knows what we are completely ignorant of today that will be commonplace in 75 years? The article even notes that we have no idea why a sprinter applies as much force as they do against the ground. Maybe we'll figure out some day that is because of superior neck muscles, leading to a revolution in neck-exercising routines? Point: we just don't know, and what we don't know, we can't improve. 
[vi] I’m assuming. This can’t be proven because we all know magic isn’t real. Tennis genius, however, is.
[vii] This baby will surely be freakishly tall, feminine looking, and imminently unlikeable (a dominant genetic trait from the father). 
[viii] Term of science.
[ix] Oops, spoiler alert. Also, I seriously doubt Jessie could shoot a basketball, making her a poor match for BMOC A.C. Slater. This proved prescient as A.C. went on to host Extra and various shows on Animal Planet, while Jessie Spanos is MIA after she moved to Las Vegas and took her clothes off for money.
[x] The type purported in X-Men, which made the movies completely unenjoyable for me.
[xi] And we all know how that ends: Skynet.