Wednesday, July 29, 2009

My First Ultra

Each knee drove forward, propelled by the fully extended leg on the other side. Even my toes extended, milking all the climb possible out of every stride. Horton’s advice for first time ultramarathoners: power walk the steep climbs. Buck Mountain in the middle of the Mountain Masochist 50 mile Trail Run counts as a steep climb. It starts at a reservoir about 24 miles in and climbs a couple thousand feet. When you hear the theme from Rocky thumping in the distance through the woods, you are getting close to a break in the climbing. If your legs weren’t completely wrecked, you could actually run along the double track as it contours around the mountain before a final, lung-busting, mile-long ascent up a steep gravel drive to “The Loop.” I am on this final climb, driving my legs for all they are worth, when I see the race leaders in front of me.

It makes me laugh now to read the names of the top five finishers at the 1998 Mountain Masochist. At the time the names were completely meaningless to me. Now I know them as icons of the sport – Courtney Campbell, Eric Clifton, Ian Torrence, Tom Possert, and Scott Jurek. I had recently completed a thru-hike along the Appalachian Trail. David Horton’s name, still echoing around the trail from his speed-hike record, was the only way I knew that there was any such thing as ultrarunning. I had a good running resume from varsity track and cross country, but near-zero knowledge of this fringe, but enticing, sport. I have a true love for the mountains of Appalachia, and for extreme exertion. Combining the two was an obvious choice. I looked up the information on Horton’s big 50 mile race, held in October along the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia. I had eased back into running after completing the AT in August. The event seemed like a perfect way to combine the trail fitness I had earned hiking with my college running background.

I might still have believed I was right after the first 32 miles. Much of the course, up to that point, is runnable forest service road. And save for the steep uphill sections, I had run it. Well past the middle of the race, at the end of the longest climb on the course, I was within striking distance of the leaders. My lesson was about to begin. Ultrarunning eats egos like tattered flesh in a school of piranhas.
The Loop is notorious in Mountain Masochist lore for several reasons. Like many sections of the course, it is longer than advertised. Horton will tell you it is four miles, course notes list it as five miles, but it is probably closer to six miles. It is relatively rocky single track – the most technical terrain on the course. The Loop, like many challenges at Masochist, is primarily difficult because of when it happens. The course, for example, is easy in the beginning, and gets more and more difficult as the runners are less able to deal with it. The aid stations come frequently at first, when the runners are fresh, and then in the final 20 miles, when the weather has turned hot and the runners fatigued, the aid is so spaced that participants are reduced to a desiccated crawl before they reach the next one. Finally, when runners legs have been completely battered by the first 50 miles of running (yes – the run is actually about 54 miles), the course descends a harrowing rock-strewn erosion gully down the side of the mountain into Montebello, where, if they have managed to stay upright, runners stumble across the finish. [note: the descent into Montebello has been tempered since 1998 – it now takes a more contoured, if longer, trail.]

The Loop occurs at 33 miles into the run, and after the biggest climb of the course. As soon as I got off that climb, I knew that I was in trouble. My calves went into spasm. I couldn’t use the front part of my feet to pick my way along the rocky trail. Every step tore like a dagger through the back of my calves. I was reduced to hobbling on my heels – tricky business on a technical trail. I hobbled helplessly as the leaders advanced and those behind me passed. There was nothing I could do. Put one foot in front of the other – try to stay above sensation, like a sponge completely saturated but still floating in a deep pool of pain.

In the final eight miles the course ascends to an old section of Appalachian Trail above Montebello. As I scooted along the ridge, Ed Kostak inched up alongside me, looking equally angst-filled. Each of us gave company to the other’s misery, so we stayed together through the finish, in eighth place for the race. I cared very little, having been reduced by the course to wanting only to complete what I had started.

I didn’t run again for 2 years. It’s probably an overstatement to say that the race caused my early (if temporary) retirement from running. I didn’t walk right for 2 weeks, though, and I prefer to avoid disabling damage to my body. The truth is I had met my future wife, and we soon got married. I worked on, and finished, my work on a doctorate. We started our family. I had other priorities, and running seemed superfluous, even silly. I remember seeing joggers on the road in front of our house and silently asking “why do that to yourself?”

Suffice it to say that I am now eating those words. More than 10 years and 50 ultras later, I have experienced a range of difficulties – and triumphs – only hinted at during those final 20 miles at the Mountain Masochist, my first ultra.

Friday, July 17, 2009


Those stormy and feverish nights after Western States revealed my desire to run again. My training cycle had extended long and deep, and frankly, I was fit. Even a well prepared body will show the wear and tear of a mountain 100, and other than a sore ankle and toe, I felt unscathed. Had the ankle recovered, I would have entered the Burning River 100, scheduled for the first Saturday in August. I was determined. I know, of course, that scheduled downtime is a wise, and generally necessary, component of a sustainable training schedule. The nature of the freedom that I seek, however, sometimes requires a purposeful obliviousness to reason. I was going to run again – period. I am not so free as I would like. Within a few minutes of jogging I’m struck immobile – like Achilles – from a sharp pain in my heel.

Mood disturbances notwithstanding, it takes very little imagination to see this as a good thing. My body is enforcing a perfectly reasonable downtime. I’ve trained long and deep, and run one of the toughest mountain 100s anywhere. I covered 85 miles on a sprained ankle, much of it in blazing heat. I pushed through a difficult late evening of near-delirious dehydration and possible hyponatremia. My reserves were depleted, no doubt, and need time to recover. So what is the problem? Whether I am bound by good reasons, or by my injury, I feel constrained by the binding. Shelter is safe, and comforting, but once you have lived outside for a while, the containment is jarring. It reminds me of times during my AT thru-hike when I passed through town. It just didn’t feel right to pee inside. Can you see how resting right now is like peeing into a toilet? To most people it seems perfectly reasonable. But to the guy who’s been relieving himself amongst the expansiveness of eastern forests for weeks, it’s disconcerting.

When I do start running again I won’t be as fit as when I left off. That doesn’t concern me. The ramp-up to good fitness is the most motivating phase of a training cycle. I remember last year at this time. I hadn’t been able to run for many, many, weeks because of a calf strain. I started back in July. A few later I ran the Christopher Todd Richardson Memorial 10K run. This was a first annual run put on by Jennifer Nichols. It goes out and back along the Virginia Creeper Trail. Good grief, I felt the burn. I was completely racked by the time I passed through the finish. With a few more weeks of training, though, I was able to run nearly that same pace for several miles within my 50 mile race at Tussey. If for no other reason, we should take downtime so that we can be motivated by the improvements as we return.

And that brings me once again back to the only kind of freedom we really have. Motivation isn’t something drawn from a magic well by those blessed with the will to win. We structure into our routines those small steps that create motivating environments. Fortunately, if paradoxically, for me – I’m being involuntarily led through those steps now.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


I put the bread down in the toaster after I crack the eggs into the pan. I’ve got the timing worked out, starting with boiling water for the French press. I’m back on the caffeine. It’s a small bump of joy in the midst of an otherwise flat routine. Other than habit, there isn’t much to compel me to eat.

In the mornings, I open my eyes to daylight, and they close again. No thoughts press in against my senseless dreaming. To get out of bed I feel like I have to reach down, grab my leg below the knee, and pull it from beneath the cover. I have to pull my eyelids upward against their tendency to close again. Even the slog to the bathroom is a chore.

With some effort I can recall the mornings – they seem so long ago – in the spring. I’d wake up before dawn and bolt out of bed like a jack-in-the-box. I’d soon be out the door trotting down the road for the first of two runs scheduled that day. Motivation has the paradoxical quality of dispensing with its own need. Getting out of bed was effortless. I didn’t need to “motivate myself,” I already was. My legs propelled themselves down my drive and across campus. During my training in Colorado Springs, I climbed up toward Pike’s Peak several times. I didn’t have to beat on drums, or slap myself, or imagine myself in any way an external motivator. It flowed like water from a spring.

Where is the water now that I need it? How can I – the one lacking motivation – exert a force on myself? If part of me was up the trail a ways he could cast me a line and reel me in. Instead I have the rod in my own hands, and the line just runs straight and hooks into my own britches. I can imagine the uncomfortable pull – but the physics don’t work out to get me anywhere. Kind of like being in the bumper cars after the electricity has been turned off. You try slamming your body against the inside of the car to keep moving.

Mongold says I need another hobby. This is it. I analyze. I had oral surgery yesterday. I knew the surgeon would inject a local anesthetic, and that I would not feel appreciable pain after that. I got hung up on the injection part, though. That would hurt. A needle in the palate is never comfortable. When I was young, I took pain personally. It hurt me. As I became older, I began to feel pain as happening to my parts. My toe hurt from the bee sting. This is a reassuring stance. It provides some distance, and resilience, to circumstances. Despite my injuries, I will endure. Too bad this is a conjurers dream. Useful in the short term, we will eventually snag the set and be forced to deal with the reality beyond its walls.

I’d like to be able to feel the bite of the needle the way that I feel the exhaustion of a 100 mile run. Not something in the roof of my mouth. Not something either happening to or belonging to me. The feeling, the sting, the bite, the utter exhaustion: that is me. I won’t pretend that I can sit in a chair while a doctor stands over me and pushes a needle into the roof of my mouth and just be the pain. But that is what I’m striving for. It’s similar to the mindset necessary for the “low flow” I described in an earlier post. It’s an important kind of surrender.

Yet here I am, wallowing in my own doldrums. If I am my feelings, how can I ever get the leverage to pull myself up by my bootstraps? I’ve noticed that people who are depressed have trouble realizing that given a little time, they will feel differently. The aphorism among ultrarunners is that “things never always get worse.” That is a handy, if grammatically awkward, reminder. At a given time our feelings are all- consuming. Yet feelings change. What seems hopeless now can often change for the better – and we are wise to provision little reminders for ourselves. Things never always get worse.

I can’t lift myself out of my own feelings as if I had a magical fishing rod. I can, however, be reminded that things will change – that I just need to wait a little while. We know better than to make important decisions just after a major event. You shouldn’t think about the next 100 that you’ll do right after the last one. Don’t do anything rash. Sleep on it. I’m down because I can’t run right now. OK. That’s me – for now. I shouldn’t be pressed for any big decisions. I know better. Give it a while. Let’s take it a day at a time and see how you feel.

Monday, July 13, 2009


I sat on a kitchen chair. My right foot was buried under the cubes in a cooler of ice water. My left foot soaked dreamily in warm saltwater. I can handle ice water, though it is never comfortable. I submit to it just like the other “good” pains of training. I did wonder, though, how the competing hot/cold sensations would reconcile in my nervous system. This strikes me as an interesting experiment in phenomenology. If you want to participate, stop reading and go try it yourself. That way my results won’t confound your experience. OK. Stop now.

If you are like me, you should have gotten a nice surprise. I was more aware of my warm left foot so that the sensation in my right foot was more tolerable than usual!

The saltwater soak was an attempt to relieve the pain in my left big toe. For the first time I hurt a toenail during a run. The nail turned white in the week after States, and some fluid had leaked out from the nail bed at the top. I suspected pressure under the nail was causing the increasingly acute pain. So I heated a paper clip on the stove top until it glowed red and then bore a hole in the middle of my nail. I expected a spray of fluid as the pressure found an escape, but instead I felt the heat of the metal. Had I cauterized the hole and closed it prematurely? If so, I hoped the concentrated salt water would draw the fluid out. I know just enough to be dangerous. After the soak the pain only intensified. So much for armchair physics. The good news is that my toe has finally stopped hurting.

The right foot was cooling off to counter the pain in my heel that started so early at Western States. At the time I thought the pain would probably shake out after some running, but it persisted and got worse, so that I took aspirin when I met my crew at the Duncan Canyon aid station. This seemed to help the pain for a couple of hours, but I had to take more pain relievers later. I didn’t consider it at the time, but in retrospect I probably added to the burden placed on my system with the anti-inflammatories. The pain in my ankle required it, so I didn’t give it a second thought at the time. I was able to manage that pain effectively, but I may have contributed to the later difficulty in managing my food and fluids.

Even after the run, as my ankle became tender again, I expected that a few days of rest would remedy the injury. After more than two weeks I am still unable to run. The bad news is that I partially ruptured my Achilles in that ankle. It’s now clear that I will have to rest it for several more weeks before I start training for fall races. If I recover and retrain in time I may enter a couple of 50s before a late fall or early winter 100. I’d entertain any suggestions.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


Uncle John opened my door, and I awoke. I stood up, my head perfectly clear. We were going hunting. It was my first hunt. I dressed quickly. We drove into the Ozarks in central Missouri. We hiked in before dawn. I sat by myself on a hillside from dawn until dusk, sucking on the bag of hard candies Uncle John had given me. I didn’t get a deer.

Last Saturday I awoke with the same sense of anticipation. My alarm was set for 3 am, but I woke up at 2:45. The stars glistened through the mesh across the top of our tent. I proceeded methodically, as I had the morning of the hunt some 30 years before. I fried 2 eggs on the cook stove. I mixed apple sections in with plain yogurt. Every action was deliberate and in service to the project, finally imminent, upon which I embarked so long ago. Any agitating thoughts, those that circulate and press urgently into consciousness were displaced by the simple demands of getting ready. Those demands occupied me clear through to pinning a small black ribbon on my race shirt just minutes before the 5 am start. There was no question of my taking this time. I calmly looped the minute strip of material and stuck it through with the safety pin. Dan Moores had embraced his perfect rest. It felt right to honor him during this event. There were hundreds of us; each with our own story. What we were doing demands that. There is no inherent value to completing the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. We were each seeking something that we had invented for ourselves; something resistant, or antagonistic, to the normal pushes and pulls of life on earth.

The goal is elusive. We are governed, after all, by immutable natural laws. I climbed to Michigan Bluff, over halfway through the run, with Erik Skaden. He told me the temperature wasn’t high compared to other years. Meanwhile his face glowed red, sweat dripped from his shirt, and he gulped steadily from the large water bottles gripped in each hand. There was no escaping the work of that climb, nor the need to dissipate the heat generated by that work. We were escaping something else though: the expectation of middle aged men on a hot summer Saturday. I might have been taking my kids to the water after a few chores around the house. If we were feeling adventurous we may have traveled somewhere for the weekend. What no one expects, when they ask about your weekend plans, is that you will be running 100 miles. There is a freedom in that – short lived though it is. I met Gordy Ansleigh in the Auburn Raley’s on Thursday night. He looked well. He smiled and chatted easily. He broke expectations when he completed, on foot, what was then a 100 mile horse race. That was better than 30 years ago. Thousands of people have completed the run since then. We have created our own expectations, and we can’t escape those.

The experience itself creates plenty of temptation to stop or change course. To plan and prepare is certainly a commitment, but it is no guarantee against what will come up. I was on Lyon Ridge within the first two hours of running. I caught myself focused intently on the rocks just in front of my feet. It felt tedious, and I deliberately lifted my eyes 15 feet ahead. I stepped on a rock wrong and popped my foot forward, pinching my Achilles. The pain wasn’t intense, but it was sharp and persistent. That pain would haunt me for the next twenty hours. On the descent into Deadwood Canyon, 45 miles into the run, the big toenail on my left foot began to separate from the rest of my toe. The ensuing pain and tenderness would inhibit all my downhill running from then on.

At Auburn Lake Trails, 85 miles into the run, I was stopped for weighing 7% less than I had at the start. I was forced to drink, and it made me sick. For the next several miles I struggled to steady my eyes on the trail. It constantly shifted horizontally. I knew I was dehydrated. I suspected my blood sodium was low as well, and that any fluid I consumed was stuck on the wrong side of cell membranes, and some of that fluid was putting pressure on my visual cortex causing my perceptual irregularities. I searched the side of the trail for a gap in the foliage in which to curl up. I thought of the aid station workers who would be sent back with a gurney. They would have to hike many miles to the nearest road crossing.

Canadian Gary Robbins caught up with me while I tried to recover my senses at Brown’s Bar, 90 miles into the run. He had staggered from Ruck-A-Chucky, where 78 miles into the run I passed him seated at the aid station, pale, feet badly blistered. He seemed incapacitated except for his voice, which rung out clearly: “I won’t quit!” And here he was 22 miles on, his body like an abused rag doll, his voice still ringing like a church bell: “come with us” he said. I got up, dredged from my own misery, and started moving out of the aid station. Robbins is a guy that men would follow to their deaths.

That is our ultimate hedge against natural forces. We persist, no matter what. Damage to our bodies is the converse of physical pleasure. It represents a natural force that would dictate our choices – except that we have denied that possibility. We won’t be swayed. There is a freedom in that. The finish line at Placer High School looked like a MASH unit. I lay down on a cot next to a young woman, pale and gaunt, hooked up to an IV. I sympathized with her, though I wasn’t as bad off. I had stopped trying to drink in the last 10 miles, and had recovered my stomach and perception. Shortly after I stopped at the finish I was able to drink and absorb my drink mix. After I slept briefly, and the sun came up, I recognized the woman on the cot next to me. Krissy Moehl had pushed the last 15 miles and finished 2nd among the women, behind another brilliant performance by Anita Ortiz.

We think of freedom as the breadth of choices given to us. I can make an abstract connection to that kind of freedom – mouth my gratitude for the blessings of being born into this time and place. That isn’t the kind of freedom I have sought, though. One definition of freedom is “the capacity to achieve what is of value in a range of circumstances.” I can make sense of that. I placed a value on striving for my best performance at Western States. I had a wide range of resources available to prepare myself, not the least of which was the quarter-century of my own running. I am disappointed. I prepared and ran the best I knew how. I took time away from my family to train at altitude. I did not achieve as I had hoped. As much as we pursue it, freedom eludes us.

I was subdued, once again, by the relentless vicissitudes of the Western States course. It wore me down to a murmur, and left me on the floor of my cell. In those confines, though, the echo of that murmur has resonated into a booming chorus that won’t let me sleep. My blood has been agitated into froth. In the first quieter hours I thought to myself that the hundred isn’t for me. I should rest, regain myself, and train for a couple of 50 mile races in the fall. I’m good at those. That would make sense. Meanwhile the waves of unrest were building, steadily washing across the boundaries that life is so good at preparing for us. I couldn’t compose my experience. The story didn’t sound right in my own head.

We spent the night before last in the mountains just west of Denver. We arrived, and slept, in the clouds. The mist persisted through the night. We left early for the long driving days across the heartland heading east. We camped in Lawrence, Kansas. The thunderstorms were interminable, racking my fitful sleep. The gnats clung to the underside of the pop top of our van. They infested the campground, swarming all the buildings and sites. The hum was audible from a distance, resolving into a buzz only when single gnats found their way into our ears. Swatting them was pointless. They don’t live as individuals. Better to think of them as cells of a large and fluid organism.

A lot of things are that way – significant at a scale we don’t discern. Even our choices, so seemingly intimate with the person we think ourselves to be, cannot always be understood at face value. I have characterized my thinking in the past as “rational.” That is, I applied reason in the pursuit of valued goals. I fooled myself. Of course I can, and do, try to calculate the risks and rewards of my choices. What has always mattered to me, though, is the freedom to smack down the easy choice right in front of me. I will not quit. A strange relationship I have with myself – impossible really. I can’t choose, but I do. I have to calculate, but I don’t. I should put hundred-milers out of my mind, but I can’t. No, no. I will run another hundred. And another. Until I get it right.