Saturday, June 20, 2009

Out of the Canyon


Question: what should you expect if you take your 7-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son on their first overnight backpacking trip down 4000 vertical feet into the Grand Canyon on the unmaintained Hermit's trail in mid-June?

Within 30 minutes of beginning the 9-mile hike from our campsite at Monument Creek back out of the canyon, Catherine threw her hydration pack off her shoulders, let out a big sigh, and starting swinging the bite-valve around, flinging out precious water. She dragged her feet, ambling at about a half-mile per hour pace.

She had held up pretty well on the hike down. It had been unseasonably cool. She did ask how far we had to go a lot. A couple of times she sat down abruptly on a rock. I wasn't sure she would get back up. She did.

Today promised to be hot. We got up at 4am. I gambled that we would make the spring on Hermit's trail in good time, and packed minimal water to save the weight. We packed, had breakfast, and left a little after 5am. I assigned Gavin to lead the first section. I planned to have Catherine lead the first real climb up toward Cathedral Staircase.

She hadn’t eaten much. We packed exactly the food we needed, so when she rejected what we offered her, there were no options.

Now we faced a tough, and potentially dangerous, hike. I pictured baking in the midday sun, short-roping Catherine, and running out of water. I grabbed her bite-valve, lowered my face to hers, and told her she could cause us all potential harm.

She didn’t speak to me for a long time after that. I walked behind her while she moved convulsively in front of me. It was like she was of 2 minds. One wanted to let loose and stride down the slight hill to catch her brother and mother, the other seized her legs with every step. The result was an odd, straight-legged gait, like she was wearing leg braces.

When we started the climb, we put Catherine in the lead. She dragged for a little while, but gradually picked up speed. We were quiet about it, but she put distance on us a few times when we struggled with our packs up some technical sections. Catherine loves rock-hopping. Back home in the high country of Virginia she has proved herself by running from Massie to Rhododendron Gap and back, a distance of about 5 miles. The only catch – we have to let her take her shoes off. More than anything she craves freedom. So we left her alone as she assumed the lead. She turned a few times, told us to get moving.

Well, she never slowed down. We climbed out of the canyon in 4 ½ hours. The hike down had taken much longer. Robin asked what had changed. She said she started singing to herself.

We’re in Williams, AZ. We’ve been too busy with our own adventure to worry over the rest of the world. We are pausing for a few minutes today en route to hotter climes. The elevation phase of my acclimatization plan is complete. Now I need a few days of heat. Gavin likes to gamble, so we’re heading to Vegas.

The final evidence I needed to confirm the efficacy of my altitude training came on the Thursday we left Colorado Springs. I did the team CRUD tempo run for the second time. My first attempt at climbing to within 7.8 miles of Pike’s Peak took over 51 minutes. On my second attempt, after I’d had 2 more weeks to acclimate to the altitude, I was able to run the same climb in just over 47 minutes.

Bring on the heat.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Why?

I spoke with Robin on the phone on Saturday. She had traveled to Bedford, VA, for a half-marathon trail race. She has run recreationally for the last couple years, with periodic trail races including one full marathon. She was down. The run hadn’t gone well. It was hot and the course was muddy. During the run she repeatedly asked herself: “why am I doing this?” The age group award was little consolation. Robin thinks she was the only woman in her age group. She didn’t feel good at the beginning, middle, or end of the run. She didn’t enjoy any special recognition for having run. Is there any reason left to explain her participation?

My friend Dave is breaking his promise to me. He’s traveling to California to pace me for the last 32 miles of Western States. The last time he paced me I made him promise never to let me run another 100 mile race. I went out at the Vermont 100 in 2006 with all guns blazing. I had decided the downhills of this runnable course were the key to a speedy race. So I blistered all of them, for the first 70 miles. It took about 7 ½ hours for me to run the first 50 miles. About the time Dave joined me, I was reduced to a walk. My quads were shot – every step I took sent a jolting pain from my knee to my hip. And we had 30 miles to go. During the death march Dave struggled with his role. Should he try to talk to me, fill the space, he asked. Should he leave me to my quiet despair? Doesn’t matter, I said. Just don’t let me do this again.

We say lots of things, and think a few more. These things are like the bugs around my house. The ants show up when even a trace of food is left on the counter. The rafters hum with carpenter bees every spring. The first year, when I saw the little piles of sawdust on the deck, I got to work. I fetched the ladder and went to plugging the holes. The ants were menacing to Robin, so we equipped a spray bottle with bleach and kept all the pheromone trails clear. We can’t win, of course. Bugs, like thoughts and words, can be distracting. The best we can do is manage them. They don’t constitute our real motivations.

We think and speak as if we have intentions, but for the most part we fool ourselves. All the real work is done under the surface. We imagine ourselves at the helm of a stalwart ship, charting a course, assessing the wind and waves, and making the necessary adjustments. The ship is actually a toy row boat, and the rudder and oars are dangling uselessly above the water. The bottom of the boat is buoyed not on the water, but on the back of a truly mighty whale. The whale starts to turn, and we move the rudder. The whale picks up speed, and we struggle with the oars, maybe splashing a little water. Depending upon the relationship of the man to the whale, he is pitiful, funny, or tragic. He cannot free himself from the whale. In the face of any real test, there is but one way: the whale’s way. In the quest for freedom there is only one condition: be the whale.

The whale is running Western States. What I think or say about it makes little difference. I will articulate reasons anyway, because that’s what we toy boat captains do. I appreciate most the messages that can’t be completely made up. Everything is made up except when we speak for the whale. We speak for the whale only when we know the whale. The whale reveals itself indirectly. Our intuition may be a conduit for understanding, or for deception. The best way to know the whale is by experiment. Test it. Feel it bump against things. Race it.

Knowing the whale is not the only reason to run long. It is not a static object whose properties exist to be discovered by something else. The introspection – for that is what it is – exerts its own effects. We know ourselves, and in so doing, become something different. More able-bodied. The test reveals our own efficacy. Our thinking can, if not distracted, serve a purpose. We have to work methodically, over time, but we can make a difference. The difference made is a reflection of our human autonomy.

Our friend Jim Harrison was at the finish line when Robin finished. When she expressed her angst, he said simply that he didn’t do things he didn’t WANT to do. Like most ultrarunners, I have a more complex relationship with my motivations. Running 100 miles is not a simple pleasure. Neither is it a perverse pursuit of pain. The challenges faced that day – only a pale reflection of the lifetime of challenges that preceded it – represent what is possible relative to human ambition. Because of the real and unavoidable difficulties, we reveal, by our performances, the human capacity to do better.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Western States '07

The downhill section of trail let’s my stride unwind. I’m in a groove – not comfortable – but steady. My eyes focus on the rocks and roots about 15 feet in front of me. My legs steer a path of least resistance through the obstacles. I am aware that I am approaching something before I hear the unmistakable sound of distant voices through the woods. It’s the ambient rhythm of intonation, inflection, exclamation, and laughter that echo through the trees even when words are lost. As I approach someone yells “runner!” and there’s a slight shuffling as volunteers assume their positions. I actually accelerate toward the table as I unholster my water bottle. A woman calls out as I approach: “what can I get for you?” I hold out my bottle and ask for water as I come to an abrupt stop. I barely look at the bounty on the table – jelly beans, potato chips, pb&j quarters, oranges – as a younger woman asks what looks good. The first woman still has my bottle so I pick up a potato chip and put it in my mouth before I take my bottle back and simultaneously chew the chip, screw the lid on my bottle and begin to run again. “One chip!!??” the girl calls out to me as I quickly resume my pace.

I’ve run about 50 ultras and so have likely passed through about 500 aid stations. Most of those have been some variation of the scene described above (which is an actual recollection; I just can’t remember which race). When I don’t have a crew that trades me a full water bottle for my empty one, I stop only long enough to fill my bottle. I consume calories while I run, either through a powder that gets mixed into the water or through little snacks that I carry with me, so there is no need to stop for food.

During my first 100 mile race – the Mohican in northern Ohio – I did sit down briefly at one aid station. It was about 50 miles in and the plantar fascia on my right foot had started to hurt. I decided I needed to tape my arch. As I dashed into the aid station, I was greeted by a large crew that included my wife, kids, mother, father, their spouses, and my two half-sisters. I issued the request for the tape I had packed and a chair. While someone grabbed the tape, a boy scout working with his troop at the aid station offered me a hamburger – which I accepted. By the time I took one bite my tape arrived and I taped my foot, around my sock, myself. In a jiffy my shoes were back on and I shot out of the chair like a cannon, carrying my hamburger with me to eat along the way.

Then there’s Western States. The exuberance of the huge crowd at the Robinson Flat aid station (mile 30) has carried me for about 2 more miles. Then the cellular machinery has ground to a near halt. The trail between miles 32 to 38, though offering no obvious impediments, has laid waste to my ambition both times I have run it. My limbs feel like they are filled with the sandy soil I’m dragging my feet through. Runners catch and pass me. My one time teammate Guillermo Medina passes me, his slight physique still and steady, his stride short and light. He encourages me to run with him. It is all I can do. At Dusty Corners (mile 38) I look for something that will help, but I have already lost any desire to eat or drink. What my body wants is to stop.

By the time I get on the scale at Last Chance (mile 43), I answer honestly when they ask how I am doing. It nearly tears me apart. My self-constructed world has been shattered, and I’m not even half way. I try to eat something, and I refill my bottles. I lumber away from the aid station.

The climb to Devil’s Thumb (mile 48) is interminable. Because I am walking, it’s easy to put my fingers on my neck and feel my pulse, which is shockingly rapid despite my languid pace. More runners pass me, either power-walking or mixing short bouts of jogging in with the walking. The climb is too steep to run. When I get there I drag onto the scale, not even relieved to have gotten off the climb. I tell the lady I’m having trouble, and she pulls in another volunteer. He suggests I take a break and talk with him. I take a chair while he gets me a cup. He sits down to talk with me. His sympathy, while measured, is almost more than I can take. I am on the verge of a complete breakdown. He suggests I let myself recover for a few minutes, sip on my drink. It is hard for me to fathom going on, but it is impossible for me to fathom stopping. Eventually the man suggests I keep moving, take things with me. He says he has seen plenty of people in my state again, when they get to the finish line. I accept what he says. He has no way to know that this isn’t me. My plans, my expectations, are gone. My body moves to get up and out of the aid station, but I don’t care anymore.

I have already been stripped bare, but the push to Michigan Bluff (mile 56) empties me. I get the deep ache of utter exhaustion, dehydration, and hunger. As I emerge from another canyon to houses, cowbells, and the sounds of human commotion, I am passed by runners buoyed by the approaching scene. I drag behind, trying to muster the brainpower to think through to the method that will get me moving again. For now I can only turn myself over, once again, to the aid station chair and another man who will tend to me. He gets me to sip on broth, urges me to take on more salt. The camera crew approaches us. I tell everyone that I cannot imagine going on. I’ve got nothing left. I can’t eat – can’t swallow. Drinks don’t feel or taste right. I sit, and drink the broth.

It takes a while, but I start to recover a bit. I will be able to go on. My crew is at Foresthill (mile 62). I feel I can make it there: one (relatively) small canyon between here and there. My wife Robin, who has traveled with me, her friend Melody, my pacer Bradley Mongold, and his friend Kavara are all waiting for me. As I very gradually pick up speed leaving Michigan Bluff, I feel lighter. I’ve shed a lot. It no longer matters how fast I run, who has passed me, or who is behind me. I will have to accept what is possible, not based on anything I might have hoped for or accomplished before, but based on the conditions as they are. The surrender gives me some peace, and I can start to find a rhythm.

By the time I make Foresthill I am running again, and I can eat a large cup of soup. My crew gathers around me. They have not become impatient – though I have made them wait hours longer than they expected. They are not disappointed – though I will not be competing among the frontrunners. They are immediately focused on the task at hand – to get me across the next 32 miles. We take the necessary time, and no more, to strategize before Bradley and I take to the course.

Though far from heroic, the run in from Foresthill was fairly steady. I ran on the edge of what was possible to maintain. I finished well under 24 hours, and placed in the top 50 (45th?). That means very little to me. The meaning of Western States ’07 emerged after I had given up. I wasn’t strong enough. I was powerless. The first 40 miles of the race took everything from me. What emerged in my place, though, was a handful of people. They applied themselves to my project. They didn’t just invigorate me, they became me. I have always thought of the gratitude shown by runners toward their crew as clich├ęd. That’s because I like to imagine myself as strong, independent, and even unaffected by the influence of others. While that illusion may prove a helpful trick to advance some of my ambitions, it has been burned to ashes in the furnace that is Western States.

If you’ll recall with me one of the many great songs from Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang:

“Grow the roses, grow the roses, from the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success.”

My rose, my wife Robin, will arrive with my kids tomorrow. Our epic trip across the desert will begin on Thursday. I won’t be ruminating as much. That’s probably a good thing.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Turnaround on Pike's Peak

I don’t like to change course; least of all to turn around. Why cover the same ground? Maybe my motor is generally set to explore. If I run ten miles I want to see ten miles, not five miles twice. Changing course is like that, too. I don’t ever like the idea of wasting work that I’ve already done. I want to use it in getting somewhere – even if it’s not the place I originally intended. I like to think of this trait as “openness” to new experience. This is, in fact, the positive end of one of the five primary dimensions of personality measured by psychologists (as opposed to neuroticism).

No complex human trait exists without a reason, though, including neuroticism. My willful insistence on charting new courses, avoiding route changes midstream, and never (I am a guy) asking for directions, has gotten me into some tough places. At times I have been left with no choice but to get bailed out. The time when I went for “a 15 minute run” in the Red River Gorge at dusk and came back several hours later, I had actually finally stopped at a small house to ask for help. I chose it because it had a swing set out front. I asked to use the phone to tell my wife that I was alright. As the woman put the pieces of my story together – and realized the distance for me to get back – she insisted on giving me a ride.

One afternoon I left work to run a loop from Damascus, VA. I had been looking for ways to connect the Appalachian Trail going south with the Iron Mountain Trail coming back north. These two great trails roughly follow parallel mountain ridges. On a previous run, my buddy Nick Whited and I had descended the AT at Backbone Rock, stumbled around and found a forest service road and some jeep track that ascended back to the IMT. The run took us about 3 hours. My intention that afternoon was to try and replicate the route. It was getting dark by about 7:30, so I made sure to leave work at 4:00 so I could start the run at 4:30. I packed a small penlight “just in case.” The run was proceeding according to plan, and I was making good time. I found the IMT, though at a slightly different place. I threw down the hammer, to make sure I made it to Damascus before dark. As dusk approached, I expected to be descending off the mountain. Instead, I was climbing. My altimeter indicated I was over 4000 feet! I stopped. I took out my Clif Bloks and chewed on a couple to get some glucose back to my brain. It didn’t take long to figure out that I’d done a 180: went the exact wrong way on the IMT. I was deep into Tennessee and it would be dark soon. I was almost out of the small supply of water and food I had brought. And it was getting cold. It felt absolutely wrong to go back the way I had just come, but I had to make up the five miles I had just covered in the wrong direction, and then cover the five miles left to Damascus. In the dark. I tested the penlight. It worked, but the beam was still faint in the ambient evening light. I slowed, to conserve energy, to find my way on the trail, and to watch my footing on the semi-technical terrain. The night was closing in around me. I could feel the faint haunting of my absolute vulnerability -- a wisp as ephemeral as morning mist. Meanwhile I proceeded unhesitatingly in my method. I move fast enough to stay warm, slow enough to make my way. I ration my remaining food and water. I finally turn on the penlight, and hold it low so rocks and roots cast a shadow.

I find the intersection where I went wrong. I see the way to Damascus: five more miles of technical ridgeline in the dark. I’m cold. A sign indicates the trail to the right intersects a highway in 1.5 miles. I take it. I want to run instead of walk, and I think I can at least let Robin know that I am alright. My descent is rapid, and I’m soon at the promised road. Lights show me the way to a handful of houses. I look for something promising (like signs of kids). As I approach a house a large unfriendly dog checks my progress. No luck. I decide to run toward Damascus. The road meanders along the foot of the mountain. More dogs greet me, but they are wagging their tails. Folks inside already know someone is out here, I think. I start to run on, but it’s late, and I want to call home. I turn back, and climb up the steep drive toward the house. I stand out in the drive where I can be seen. A couple of dogs are caged up and continue to bark. A couple more dogs hang around me.

Finally a young man emerges from the house with a spotlight. He’s shining it around, though I’m standing where I can easily be seen, far enough from the house so I’m not mistaken for an intruder. It takes me quite a while to clue him in. Everything I say seems puzzling to him. But he’s hunted on the mountain, and when I describe the trail up top he makes the connection. At first he says he doesn’t have a phone, but I press the case of my worried wife. Finally he gets his mother’s cell phone from the house. I call Robin. It turns out she wasn’t worried. She’s gotten used to this kind of thing. I don’t let on though. I carry on the conversation with the young man listening. I describe what I’ve done so far to her, and how I will “try to find a way” to run back to Damascus, so that he will better understand my situation.

When I get off the phone, thank him, and start – slowly – moving away, he offers to drive me to Damascus. “That’d be really helpful,” I respond. He takes me in his mom’s minivan. I’ve learned to pack a little cash along with my food and water, so I give him money for gas. He doesn’t expect it, says not to worry about it, but I insist. When I finally get home, Robin tells me she got a call from the Mom. She wanted to know who her son was riding around with late in the evening. Robin has a hard time convincing her.

While I’ve been in Colorado Springs, I’ve had come to terms with the out-and-back mentality. Nippert and I have been running together in the afternoons. Nippert doesn’t like loops. He wants to get the minutes right without any guesswork. What do you do at the end of a loop if the time isn’t right? So we run up the canyon and back. He gives me my workouts, and since I’ve been out here, many of them have specific routes; out-and-back routes. He’ll have me go 10 miles out along the Sante Fe Trail, then turn around and come back. I will rarely do that on my own, but I try to follow my training schedule.

Yesterday my workout was an out-and- back, but one that I have been looking forward to since I got here. I was supposed to climb Pike’s Peak via the Barr Trail. I’ve been watching the mountain daily, though, and it has been blanketed in snow. Last Tuesday white-out conditions near the peak turned back all four of the trains that carry counted-on tourists to the top. Yesterday morning’s paper (that I didn’t read before I left) warned hikers against climbing the peak, calling the route a technical climb in these conditions.

The brilliant sunshine bode well for my run, though, and I set off at 6am from near the Cog Railway station. I was determined to get “as far as I could.” The elevation at the start was 6700 feet. I ran the initial climb through the W’s conservatively, knowing it would be a long day. It took a little over an hour to run the section of trail that took 51 minutes during my “tempo run” over a week ago. I didn’t have to burn my lungs and legs to do it, though. I stopped briefly at Barr Camp; they said it was clear to the timberline. I was up over 10,000 feet. My breath got shorter and quicker, and I walked for a few stints, but the impact of the altitude was markedly less than on previous forays up high.

Above timberline the sun was blazing. Even with the strong winds, I felt warm in my t-shirt and shorts. In less than a mile I found myself in snow, and lost the trail. I found a way up toward the top, and stumbled again into the trail, which had switched back to head west toward “the cirque” a large scale erosion gully that scoops down from the center of the mountain. A single hiker was out, trying to make the summit. He looked reasonably equipped. He was making slow progress, post-holing through the snow. I caught him quickly by running lightly on top of the snow. This crust held my weight as I contoured around the slope, moving upward somewhat, guessing the approximate location of the trail underneath. We talked briefly. Like me, it was his first time on the summit approach. We discussed strategies for crossing the cirque, which was completely enveloped in deep snow. The pitch was steeper, and the drop off below it was menacing. He was post-holing with every step. I was beginning to break through the crust myself. The ice scraped at my bare ankles. Snow got in my shoes. Every step sucked the energy out of me.

I decided to go up – instead of across. There were rock outcroppings above us that I hoped would promise better footing. I scampered on all fours for 20 yards at a time, and then had to stop to catch my breath. My altimeter indicated I was over 13,000 feet. I was only 1000 vertical feet from the summit. I could hear the train whistle at the top. I wanted so badly to fight upward – to complete my mission, to see what it was like up there! I had ascended nearly 7000 feet, I didn’t want to waste that. The boulders were spaced apart, though, and immersed in a sea of snow. When I looked down at my own tracks I knew the descent across the snow would be a lot more difficult than the ascent had been. I had started post-holing about every third step. I had been out over 3 hours.

I turned around. I followed my own footsteps backward. For a moment I despaired the lost bid – then I realized the difficulty of my downward traverse. The added downward velocity of every stride caused me to either post-hole or slide – two bad options. For this inexperienced and ill-equipped mountaineer, my best (and safest) technique was the crab walk. I scampered on my feet and hands, keeping my feet pointed down the mountain. I was able to walk the horizontal traverses in places where the snow crust was thicker. In a reasonable amount of time I was back at the 12,700 foot sign, marking the big switchback in the Barr Trail. I was able to get running again. The descent from there took about 90 minutes.

My good friend Dave should be proud – he’s been encouraging the development of a 100 mile “temperament” as I approach the Western States. This is an interesting word, because it honors the dual virtues of stable character and pliable resilience. Those of us struggling to do something difficult surely need this potent combination: unwavering determination and adaptability. I may not have made the summit of Pike’s Peak yesterday, but I had a good adventure, and I turned around in time to ensure that I could tell the tale.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Fair Advantage

Nippert and I were descending from Cheyenne Canyon on an afternoon run when he dropped back about 30 feet behind me. This is about how far I’d have to be, he said, to blah blah blah. I said he was to far back to hear, so he caught back up and explained the new USATF policy about “pacing” at the national 100 mile trail championships that it sanctions. Pacers aren’t allowed, Nippert told me, because they provide an unfair advantage. [Pacers are runners that aren’t registered competitors, but run along with competitors, generally in the later stages of ultramarathons.] In the interest of safety, competitors may have “safety runners” who must run at least 10 yards back of the competitor. The use of pacers has been much discussed among ultrarunners. I won’t rehash the debate here. I would like to explore the broader question of fairness in sport, though, in particular what constitutes a fair advantage. I am training in Colorado Springs, after all, and so are many other aspiring athletes, including those at the Olympic Training Center. We are here because training at elevation provides an advantage during competition. It is a legal advantage. Does that make it fair? Don’t worry; I’m not feeling twinges of guilt at my strategy. The race I’m training for is at elevation, and I (now) have convincing evidence that those who don’t prepare for this are at an unfair disadvantage.

I grew up three houses from the railroad tracks on North Bayly Avenue in Louisville. The neighborhood has sprung back in the time since we moved out, but in the 1970’s it was on the rough side. My brothers and I cruised the streets on our bicycles, teaming up with other boys for games of bike chase. There were older bullies lingering on the fringes, but for the most part, we settled things among ourselves. My best friend through elementary school was Mike Grabhorn. Like me, he had a dinnertime and a curfew when he was due home. Otherwise, we were on our own. Our families were unusual in the neighborhood. Other kids had fewer things to count on. He was a year older, and had another friend who was the same age named Will Church. We all got along well enough. We organized games of baseball or kickball in the street in front of Will’s House. We played rough at times. Disputes came up, and had to be settled. First we yelled, and then we got in each other’s faces. If that didn’t take care of it, we fought.

We were inflamed by anger or injustice, and likely engaged with all available passion. Still, we knew the rules. We escalated until someone gave up. I remember a fight between Mike and myself. Will hovered nearby as a sort of referee. We were fighting methodically, looking for clean body blows. When Mike threw a roundhouse and caught my cheek I became enraged. “You hit my face!” I screamed and dove into him, tackling him to the ground. We didn’t do head blows. There was no point. A fight between kids, just like the ritualized competition between the males of almost any species, is circumscribed. While our immediate motivations may be visceral, and our means distastefully violent, there is an unspoken goal to preserve the peace, and each other. We were settling disputes, not perpetuating them. There were no tricks to winning. We needed to settle the question of dominance.
Imagine if Mike pulled out a rag soaked in ether. While we grappled Mike could easily have covered my mouth and nose with the rag and incapacitated me, “winning” the fight. That wouldn’t have settled anything. The outcome only makes sense to the extent that the fight was fair. The results aren’t even interesting otherwise. Among kids of my generation there was such a thing as a good fight, and it was a fair fight.

Footraces are as primal as fist fights: open battles for dominance. Good races settle the question. We did these as kids too: across the schoolyard. I was never the fastest sprinter. It didn’t occur to me to prepare to run faster. I already knew where I stacked up compared to the other kids. None of us prepared. The races were fair. We got the information we needed: namely, who ranks 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.

What is it about a boy that determines his place among other boys? Is it his talent? How about his determination? Is it different for a fight than for a race? How does that change with the more elaborate, and mature, contests between adults? Most of us will probably say that a schoolyard sprint is mostly a test of God-given speed. There will be variation between kids, and those differences will remain pretty consistent. In the case of fighting, we may want to say “physical talent” (whatever that is) plays a role, but another element is added. Because fights, as I have described them, escalate until someone submits, a fight can be won by the person more willing to risk injury (or at least to bluff that he is!). That willingness, I propose, is the precursor to the “will to win” in modern, adult, athletic competition.

Willingness to risk injury is a kind of commitment. I was stronger than my younger brother, John Leigh. I could pin him, holding his arms down with my knees. I remember using my knuckle to grind into his head (we called this a noogie). There wasn’t much point, though, because no way was he going to submit and “cry uncle.” That’s determination, and it compels respect from others. It says: I’m willing to suffer injury rather than submit to you or your wishes. Athletes show this kind of commitment. Aren’t we compelled by the players who dive to make the save? Not only do they retain possession, but teammates are uplifted and the opposing team is deflated. How can you win against someone who will risk everything? Of course, if they really risked everything, then sometimes they would lose everything. While this may be true in adult fights, sporting contests have evolved to ritualize, and spread out, the risk.

Athletes play with risk. They train to the precipice of injury, and then stay as close to the edge as possible. They constantly break their bodies down with grueling workouts. They prepare rigorously so that during the contest, their performance seems more risky than it really is. For career athletes, risk is managed. The preparation is a way of accruing an advantage over opponents. It is compelling because of its relationship to commitment. We admire, and honor, the commitment that athletes make. It shows the will to win – and it can determine the winner. Wouldn’t it be more fair, though, if we disallowed preparation for athletic contests? Imagine that every contest was something completely unexpected, so that you couldn’t prepare. Wouldn’t that put everyone on more equal footing? I think the answer is yes. I also think that we don’t want fair contests. We want to see who has created the greatest advantage – by his or her commitment. This is the advantage inherited from the willingness to take greater risk than one’s competitor.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

you get what you give

The night was black. We carried flashlights, but never used them. The walk from the dining hall to the cabin was about a half-mile. We followed a wide trail from the parking lot. We were accustomed to getting by with the faintest light – generally by looking up and noting the faint gray gap in the tree canopy. We made the walk every night, after cleaning up from the night activity and meeting to de-brief. This night there was no light. We knew to use our peripheral vision. There was no point trying to see our hands in front of our faces by looking right at them. But we couldn’t detect the movement of our hands anywhere in our field of view. We only knew where to walk by the feel of the trail under our feet. We were mesmerized by our heightened sensitivity to everything around us, even while nothing around us was visible. If we spoke, it was quietly – respectful of our amplified perceptions. When the distance felt right, we felt for the narrow gap in the forest leaf litter that was the narrow trail to our cabin. Mildly surprised at our own intuitive capacities, we entered our cabin and turned on a light.

The days at Otter Lake Conservation School were long, absorbing, and exhausting. Each instructor was assigned a group of 8-10 sixth-graders, who we took responsibility for through the majority of the day. Kids came to us excited and energetic. We matched that energy and raised it. Our kids slept well at night. We took turns sleeping in the dorm. It was one room packed with side-by-side bunk beds. The lights went out at 9:00 for story time. Story time was simple. Start with a vivid description of a comfortable scene and something animate [the sand dunes rose and fell in the distance. A small green lizard warmed itself on a smooth rock]. Allow enough movement to carry the scene, but branch continuously into superfluous details. Speak evenly and slowly. [Ivan, the lizard, turned its head side-to-side. He lifted his left front leg and right rear leg at the same time, and held them in the air. He put them down, and lifted the opposite two legs. Ivan looked left and right again]. Before Ivan could even get off the rock, someone would start to snore. Within a few minutes, he was joined by a full chorus.

Instructors had a short amount of time off just before lunch. This was a good time to collapse after the always-busy morning. It was also a good time for a light jog. Our persnickety nurse said to me one day as I jogged past: “where do you get the energy to run?” Most runners have likely heard a similar question from non-runners. Like me, you probably thought something along the lines of: “running gives me the energy to do everything else!”

Nippert drives the 30 minutes to Cheyenne Canyon almost every afternoon. He does his workouts in the morning. The canyon run is auxiliary. I’ve been joining him for those runs while I’ve been here. We run slowly, but climb out on the Columbine trail for about 1000 vertical feet and then come back. Each afternoon last week we ran to Gold Camp Rd and returned for about 1 hour total. This week, because we have both started to taper, we turn earlier for a 45 minute run. I wrote about yesterday’s delayed workout. I waited until about 9:30 to run a workout that included a handful of surges. The weather never did improve. I wrote my story through the wet afternoon and mechanically put running clothes back on when 5 o’clock rolled around. We drove straight toward the mountain, though all we could see through the rain-soaked windshield was a huge dark grey pillow where the mountain used to be. My eyelids drooped as I slumped back in the passenger seat. Nippert got out at the canyon. I just stayed in my seat, looking forlornly for a break in the clouds. “Let’s go!” Howard had to remind me.

The first few steps were by far the hardest of the whole run. It was like a tug-of-war, but the twist was this: one team had lashed my body with thousands of thin, stretchy filaments that bound me up like a fly in a spider web. The other team tied a rope around my waist and started to pull. I suppose you’ll want to call this my “will.” [and why not the other, inhibiting team?] Over the course of the first 10 minutes, thankfully (and predictably) the filaments stretched, broke, and fell away. By the time I trotted back to the jeep I felt completely revived.

I often have the experience of gaining energy from a run. I don’t think it is the same as an endorphin rush. There is something else that happens, best described as a sense of well-being, either during or immediately after exercise, that I think is related to endorphins. That is often a cue to relax. I get wound up and uptight before big runs or events. Afterwards I feel good, in a peaceful kind of way. That, I think, is endorphins. The energy gain is something different. It is more like two teams, stagnation and effort, have settled their dispute in the tug-of-war, and effort has won.

My runs during the week at Otter Lake were like that. At the time most suited to retreat, the battle was escalated instead. Those runs were of insignificant length and intensity. They kept effort on top, though, so that I’d be ready on Friday after the busses pulled out. Moments after watching our kids, often tearful, waving from the bus windows, I returned to the cabin to change into my running clothes. I ran out the long drive for the camp, and crossed the road toward Crotched Mountain.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

whatever the weather

Two school buses pulled in to the large dirt parking area. Jon Dery, our charismatic program director, climbed on one of them. A few minutes later the buses were gone and 60 to 100 sixth grade graders formed a circle around him, joined by 10 instructors. I was a recent graduate, as were several others. A couple more were taking time off from college. For the time we were outdoor instructors at Otter Lake Conservation School in Greenfield, New Hampshire. It was the most formative experience of my life.

School groups came to stay at camp for the week. Except for a month around the Holidays, we operated throughout the school year. The snow, like the rest of nature, became an object for our instruction and experience. The kids were quickly divided into groups and assigned to one instructor for the week. With as few words as possible, I took my group into the woods. I wound my way around until I found a familiar opening, so we could create our first circle and review the few simple rules. Stay together. No throwing rocks. No swinging sticks. I had to get to the rules quickly, because otherwise the boys would inevitably begin throwing and swinging.

At the end of the week, we had our final circle. I told each in turn how I saw their role in the group, how well I thought they did, and something I thought they could work on. Then I asked them to give me their thoughts about the group and their instructor. Someone would always speak for the group and confess that when they first saw the instructors, they had hoped for a different one. Once we were in the woods, though, playing match-my-steps, or doing trust activities, or facing team challenges, they were really glad for how things worked out. I wasn’t serious, or stand-offish, or boring, like they thought at first glance. Actually, I really got into stuff.

That’s what happened. I challenged my group to go a little further, push a little harder, and take any hardship as an opportunity. And they challenged me. I paid attention to personalities, negotiated, prompted, and facilitated. I tried to give them the minimum input I thought was required so that they could take the initiative, and therefore the ownership, of success at whatever task we had given them. Most, but not all, of the tasks we had contrived as part of the program. One of the culminating activities had the group prepare and eat lunch on their own. We provided the raw ingredients, a pot, and 1 match. The group had to choose a private place in the woods on the opposite side of the lake, and when they were done, leave absolutely no trace. On the next day, we hiked to the summit of Crotched Mountain – whatever the weather.

If it rained or snowed, we dressed for it. DeWayne, the director, taught us a diddy to pass on to our kids: “Whether the weather be sunny, or whether the weather be not, whether the weather be cold, or whether the weather be hot, we’ll weather the weather, whatever the weather, whether we like it or not.”

We liberated our middle school students, not just by going outdoors, but by constraining the options available to them. We defined the groups and instructors. We gave them a fixed set of supplies with which to accomplish challenges. We were determined to do our activities, no matter what.

People often confuse freedom with freedom of choice. Choices are not inherently liberating. We are either led to make the best choice (a matter of calculation) or we stubbornly make a bad choice (and do worse than those who are smarter). If we made calculated, rational choices, these could be bought by the highest bidder. That’s not the kind of freedom I want. It is a central paradox of human experience that we are most free when we give ourselves the least latitude to change our minds. We make ourselves resistant to the temptation of a bidder who would like to influence our behavior. We also make our behavior independent of circumstances more broadly. These can be called “environmental conditions,” or in a word, the weather.

When I woke up this morning, I burrowed more deeply under my covers on the futon. I could hear the wind blowing outside. Rain was spattered against the window. My workout for this morning was 70 minutes with four 2-minute surges. I put on my running clothes, and stood at the window. I allowed myself to imagine cold water pelting my warm skin, with my head hunkered down against the wind, while I struggled to extend my stride for an honest two minutes. I thought of lessons learned from Otter Lake Conservation School and I proceeded to… eat breakfast. Yes, I delayed my run because of the weather. What about my freedom, my resistance to outside influence? Even as I write, I recall the moniker given me by my friend Kristin Duncan in high school. She called me “the stone pillar.” I was unwavering.

I injured my knee playing indoor soccer during the winter of my senior year. I had to wear a cast that immobilized the knee joint for 6 weeks. I “crutched” my afternoon runs. I could actually cover some serious ground with a 3-legged hop-skip-crutch pattern. I gave myself a destination in another neighborhood – frequently it was Kristin’s house. I was attracted to Kristin because she was, in many ways, indifferent. She was interested to have conversations, and she loved to laugh. But she didn’t need to convince me of anything. I was wary of girls – especially the ones well equipped to lure boys. I suppose I perceived any temptation as a threat to my autonomy. I didn’t often go to parties, and I certainly never drank. I went to bed (as I still do) at 9:15.

Have I grown soft, now that I allowed a little sprinkle to delay my workout? Have I lost a little of my freedom? I want to say no, and you can call me out if you think I’m rationalizing, but here’s why. All freedom is measured. We are mistaken when we imagine freedom to be something floating above the physical world – as if it is a set of choices not influenced by natural forces. Our behavior can only be caused by natural forces. Forces can be harnessed in opposition to predictable temptations. This is manifest, for example, by the “whatever the weather” mantra. If the rule against yielding, however, is absolute – like the stone pillar – it is no more liberating than succumbing to the original temptation.

I like to think I can be reasoned with. My schedule in Colorado Springs is flexible. I can eat first, then run, as easily as I can run, then eat. In fact, I want practice eating then running because I will have to run with food on my stomach in order to complete a 100 mile race. There are things we should be determined to do, no matter what. Right now it doesn’t have to be to run first thing in the morning – in nasty weather.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Peak

There is a looming presence in this town. We are under threat all the time. We are also reassured. We know where to look for orientation. We know how to find our way. We know what’s important. Ultimately, we are drawn upwards; by the looming massiveness, by the promise of a better perspective.

Three weeks ago I first approached Colorado Springs from the East. Pike’s Peak appeared suddenly on the horizon as I drove the gradual slope up from Kansas. As the road meandered slightly north or south, my focus remained centered on the mountain.

Left to my own devices I likely would have found a way to proceed all the way to the peak by now. I met with Nippert first, though, and he gave me a schedule. Not until June 6th does it say: run up to Pike’s Peak and back from Cog Railroad. He had reasons for me to wait. I needed to acclimatize to the altitude, for example.

Even the first several easy runs at 6400’ left me more winded than I would have guessed. After 10 days, my first climb up to 10,000 feet was a real wake-up call. Climbing at these elevations is hard work for lowlanders. After two weeks I was lured up the Barr trail to the 7.8 mile sign. That means I still had 7.8 miles to go to get to the summit. Paul DeWitt calls the timed event a “tempo run.” I call it a lung buster. My diaphragm was still sore as of yesterday. Two and a half weeks in, we went up to 9000 feet for my long Sunday run. I would circle Rampart reservoir twice, and add a side-trip to Nichol’s reservoir.

Though still exhausting, the run at that altitude didn’t have the edge of earlier runs. I didn’t struggle to catch my breath as I had on earlier runs. The most striking element of the run was the continuous view of Pike’s Peak. Its stare, at times inviting, had become an icy glare.

The biggest reason for me to wait to climb Pike’s Peak, it turns out, is the snow that still covers the trail over the last 4000 vertical feet. Each day the warm temperatures melt snow. Each afternoon, and several nights, precipitation falls across the peak, and often in the form of more snow. At midday I can look up to the mountain and see where the snow has receded. The whiteness is less monolithic – brown fingers reach up and point to the summit. When I look again the next morning the mountain has brazenly donned a fresh coat of snow. The gleaming reflected sunlight pierces my ambition to get to the top.

This past Sunday I received an e-mail update for Western States 100 runners. The theme was: welcome to your taper. I have written before about the downsides of tapering. As little credence as I give to the power of mind, it may be a useful way to look at the attitude problem created with the “four-weeks-to-go” window. Namely: what do I have to look forward to? Yes, I have a race in less than four weeks. It will surely pose a challenge, and I do look forward to it. But what’s everything about between now and then? It’s about doing less and less, less and less intensely. It’s about staying safe, not getting hurt, and recovering. That’s not exciting. That’s not conducive to a racing state of mind. A mind ready to embrace flow needs immediate challenges. We have to reconcile the real need to recover from months of hard training and the need for the “mind” to be occupied and challenged leading into a peak competition.

I’ve got three things in mind. One is the peak. I check it every morning. This morning it is still shrouded in clouds after being pilloried all night. I want to climb it. I look forward to climbing it. It will require over 7000 feet of vertical ascent in about 12 miles. I’ve circled around the base of about 270 degrees of it. The singularity of Pike’s Peak makes it especially regal, as does its white crown. I will run the course of the widely renowned Pike’s Peak Marathon. It starts in Manitou Springs and runs past the Cog Railroad station. The initial climbing is marginally runnable. The wide path switches back and forth as it ascends what are called “the W’s.” I would like to see how much of the climb I can run. I am curious about how difficult I will find it to breathe and fuel my muscles as I approach 14,000 feet. The weather will be different at the top. The wind will pick up, and afternoon rain is likely. I will have to carry a jacket. The run down will feel like a relief at first. The constant quad pounding will take its toll, though. I’d like to see how my legs hold up. I need to bang up my legs.

The other thing on my mind is the Team CRUD tempo run. This is the one organized by Paul DeWitt up the Barr Trail. Last week I could only manage to run it in 51 minutes. It wasn’t my assigned workout, and Nippert wasn’t thrilled that I had gotten mixed up in it. You don’t need to be able to run fast up the side of a mountain, he said, to get ready for States. He’s right, of course. But Scott Jaime ran it in 48 minutes. I want to see how much difference two weeks at elevation can make. Doing the run again will give me a good measure of my acclimatization. And more importantly, it gives me something to look forward to.

The third thing is reuniting with my family. Robin, Gavin, and Catherine will travel in our van from Emory Virginia to Colorado Springs Colorado to pick me up next week. We will proceed on our first cross country road trip. I look forward to watching my kids scramble around the boulders and feed the jays at the crags. I look forward to seeing them race down the sand at Great Sand Dunes National Park. I want to show Gavin the Hoover Dam, because I know he is fascinated by marvels of engineering. Robin and Catherine will especially appreciate the fragile desert wildflowers.

A spirit of adventure leading up to and surrounding an event will help create a mindset for optimal performance. One of my favorite running adventures to recall was my trip to Japan with a combined Brown-Harvard-Dartmouth alumni team. We were invited to compete against Japanese collegiate teams in a championship Ekiden. These are long-distance relay races. Eight-person teams ran legs of varying lengths to cover about 100km. So much of the experience was new to me: chasing the sun on a transpolar flight from the west coast, the vast but low-slung cityscape of Nagoya, lavish attention from gracious hosts, a culture that honors long distance running. We were picked up from the airport in a bus with “Happu” written boldly on the side. For us it was the Happy Bus. We soaked in the novel sights and sounds, and enjoyed the company of the interpreters who had been assigned to us. We spent several days before the race in Japan. We weren’t worrying about how to correct for jet lag, or how to get our digestion on track. We were caught up in the moment, embracing the adventure.

It rained most of the day of the race. We rode sheltered in the Happy bus, though, until it was our turn to run. I ran the anchor leg, the longest of the race at about 21 km (13 miles). Yukiko, my interpreter, got off the bus with me and held her umbrella over my head while we waited for my teammate to enter the transition zone. There were about 20 teams that had qualified for the championship. Going into the anchor leg we were in the middle of the now widely spaced teams. I saw no one close in front of us. My teammate handed me the purple sash and I started running – cheered away by the rest of the team and our Japanese hosts. I was quickly in the rural countryside. I can still recall the faint smoky smell, not unpleasant, of backyard incinerators. I soaked up the miles of road, like I had everything else in Japan. When the Happy bused passed, I waved back at all the smiling yelling faces behind the windows. I ran alone, neither passing nor passed by another runner. Still, when I charged up the final climb to the shrine that marked the finish I found myself in the middle of cheering throngs. I had run a strong leg.

My adventure now lies to the West. Snow-capped Pike’s Peak most immediately, then the desert sand and the Grand Canyon. I’m looking forward to it.

Monday, June 1, 2009

soccer

Four neighborhood kids crammed into the back of the Sinai’s Volkswagen bug. I had long legs, so I got to share the front passenger seat. Luckily we were both skinny. One of the older Sinai sisters drove barefoot down to the Louisville Water Company fields at the Ohio River. I pulled my socks up to my knees.

Our coach was a ding dong. And he could get angry. I didn’t mind to let him know what he was doing wrong. When he got angry with me I would pull my socks up. Repeatedly. Like all kids, we loved to play, so we worked it out. One time during a game he got frustrated and told me that if I thought I could do better to go ahead and coach: call the substitutions for the game. So I did. At halftime everybody came to me to get in the game, and tell me what position they wanted to play. I was trying to get it straight, which was admittedly difficult, when our coach stepped in and said he was taking back over. Although I could have pulled it off, I was relieved for both of us.

Three men that I got to know growing up represent how I now think of integrity. The first was the referee for Crescent Hill soccer. He had dark hair and a tidy dark mustache. He dressed sharply, with his striped jersey tucked into his black shorts, and his black nylon socks pulled up to his knees. He ran to keep up with play and knew just how to move to stay out of the way. He called the game the way he dressed: crisply. He wasn’t detached, though. He was generous with guidance and compliments for players, once the play was called. One thing I feel sure of in retrospect: he wasn’t thinking of anything else on Saturday mornings.

I was riding my bike down Payne street one afternoon when I saw our referee mowing his yard. The yards, like the houses along there, are tiny. I was surprised at the modesty of his home, but not at the care he took of it. He waved and smiled when he saw me.

Although I didn’t think of it at the time, I reckon now that the referee noticed me because of the way I played: effortfully. I could be gangly and awkward. I wasn’t the quickest, nor did I have the best ball skills. I did not give up on plays, though. I chased down balls that others let go. I ran the field to cover offense and then ran back to cover defense. I don’t know if there was any other way for me to play. Several of my friends who went on to be good at soccer played a more intermittent style. It’s like the difference between the hunting technique of dogs and cats. Cats are sneaky; they get into position and spring with mighty and fearsome speed. Dogs run, in the open, and just wait until their prey is worn down.

Fernando was the best soccer coach I had. A group of us formed an indoor soccer team toward the end of middle school and the beginning of high school. He put me in to run the field at halfback. Run behind the ball to support the forwards on offense, he told me, and run after the ball on defense to give our defenders a place to put the ball forward. On both ends of the field the other team ended up feeling dogged.

It seems obvious that soccer, especially the way I played it, helped to develop a strong foundation for the running career that developed when I started high school. I was already fit when Coach Worful called a preseason one mile time trial for freshman. In preparation, I wanted to see how fast I could run a mile on my own. I knew that it was “a mile” from my house to Field Elementary, where I first went to school. So I started where my street intersected Frankfort Ave and ran as hard as I could to the turnoff for Field. It took a little over four minutes. I told coach my time and he said, “that wasn’t a mile.” When we ran the time trial on the track behind the school I ran about 5:40. He didn’t make any fuss about it, but I know now that any high school coach is going to get excited if a freshman just shows up before the season and runs a 5:40 mile.

It may be a little less obvious that I played soccer, in the style that I did, because of my capacity to run. Understanding this has to go beyond a simple accounting of the volume of oxygen that my lungs can utilize, or the type of muscle fibers in my legs. But it can’t go as far as a mysterious netherworld in which my spirit somehow takes over the controls for my body. I don’t want to say that I played soccer and later ran just because I have an unusually high VO2 max, and so I am not really due any special credit. I also don’t buy that I decided to play soccer the way that I did, and later to train and run competitively, and therefore I should get all the credit.

After cross country my freshman year I had a real choice. I could continue to run and compete in track and field, or I could play soccer. I don’t think the outcome was inevitable. Had some things been moderately different, I might have made a different choice. For example, I had friends on the soccer team. They were good friends, but what if they had been very close friends? What if one of them had made a very strong appeal for me to stick with them? Like many of our choices, this one sat at a fork in the road. One step left or right determines widely divergent destinations.

That we make decisions with real consequences does implicate a being who should take responsibility for those decisions. This doesn’t mean, however, that all options are open. In fact, my decision to run instead of play soccer was based on my relatively low status among soccer players. Other players were quicker and more skilled – likely due to factors beyond our control. Our manipulation of factors that we can control relative to those we can’t gives us the only kind of freedom we can hope for – natural freedom.