Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Across the Highland Sky

I'm running on the Road Across the Sky. I've got five pringles in my left hand, and one in my right. I try to keep my lungs full, exhaling about half the volume with each breath. The painful tugging runs from my ribs to my belly just right of mid line. I know my ileo psaos is cramping. I push the single pringle in my mouth and chew. It soaks up the little saliva in my mouth and turns into a dry chewy clump. I grab my bottle from my waist pack and fill my mouth with water so I can swallow. I'm able to get through three more chips this way. I pitch the last two.

Brian Schmidt runs alongside. We don't talk much. Not because it's a race, and we're battling at the front. We have emerged after more than 20 miles of steep, rocky, mountain single track. After miles of ankle-twisting, body-jarring scrambling up, down, and back up the lush mountain, I eagerly anticipated the chance to run out in the open. Now I feel overexposed as we run across the highlands. The road stretches out interminably in front of us. I welcome a companion through this inviting, yet inhospitable, place. Within our quiet is a shared focus -- to maintain ourselves.

Very long runs will inevitably require attention to maintenance: to hydration, electrolytes, and fueling -- and usually in that order. Running well for many hours requires successful management of these elements. Failure is felt as exhaustion, cramping, nausea, bloating, light-headedness, and other unpleasant sensations. Ultimately, failure to manage is felt as a complete loss of motivation to continue. It usually takes an ultramarathon to get to this point, though, because under normal conditions we have a couple hours buffer built in -- the reserves stored in our bodies. Experienced ultrarunners carry water bottles, salt tablets, and high-energy snacks to supplement those stores. Of course, conditions aren't always normal.

Courses can be set that are challenging by design. Highland Sky is like that: a couple of fast road miles to lure you in, a huge climb to drain your stores, a precipitous descent to bash your quads, then more climbing to rock-strewn boulder fields that take all of what is left of your mental focus. And then, still less than halfway through, you are left to bake on a wide open stretch of road across the top of the mountain.

That's where I am when I'm confronted with demons of races past. The painful abdominal cramps that caused me to drop from a race for the first time. The cotton mouth that I've experienced many times in warm weather races. The deadly potential of low blood-sodium that I experienced twice before I knew what it was. Even considering the difficult course, and the summer heat and humidity, I should not have been struggling after only three hours.

I slept little the night before, and got up with intestinal distress. Some of that is typical race stress -- but this was disproportionate for me. I drank some of my homemade energy shake, a concoction of yogurt and blueberries that was untested as a pre-race meal. For the run, I packed several packs of Clif Bloks in my waistpack, along with my water bottle and salt tablets. I methodically emptied my water bottle between aid stations, and took an S-cap each hour, but the Clif Bloks went untouched for 20 miles. It was time to take stock.

I had benefited from the work of other runners up to that point. Sean Andrish led up the big climb, taking some of the sting out of the nettles, and setting a strong steady effort that contoured to the terrain. Sean's vast trail running experience was evident. Jeremy Ramsey has also paid some dues, and was able to take over pacing duties throughout the most technical sections of the run. He established himself as one of the three best rock runners I have run behind. Clark Zealand, who gapped me on through those same sections seven years ago, dances across rocks like a kind of forest spirit. Dave Mackey runs through rocks like a locomotive. Jeremy just picks the most economical line possible and scoots through it. To the extent I kept him in sight, my best strategy was to follow him. We all knew that a shake-up was likely. The Highland Sky course, perhaps more than any other, changes abruptly. We didn't just go from technical single track trail to open dirt road. We went from forest canopy to exposed meadow. We went from hazy shade to glaring light. And an aid station where my wife waited. She couldn't believe I hadn't eaten. I traded Clif Blok flavors around -- it didn't matter though -- I would only eat one pack the entire run.

I finally led the way down that first section of road. I choked down two Bloks. I backed off the intensity in response to the cramping and dry-mouth. At the next aid station I grabbed the short stack of pringles. Small bites of savory snacks, interspersed with sips of water, help me keep it together. The race became a lesson in management. Small bites, small sips. Short strides up hill. Arms lightly swinging, hands loose. Recognize the despair, chalk it up to low blood sugar and dehydration. Manage it. Small bites, small sips. Flow across the ground.

I proceeded across and down the mountain in that way, resolutely clinging to the edge of what was possible. Technically, at every point of the race I could have tried harder. My sense, then and now, is that if I had tried harder, at any point of the race, things would have turned out worse. Had I resisted the truth of the situation, or imagined I had any special power to buoy myself above it, my flight would have melted like the wax of Icarus' wings. What I did have, and use, was the experience of countless prior moments. I do mean the sort of technical expertise to manage fluid and fuel consumption. More importantly I mean the management of my motivation, or will, to carry on with what is ultimately a recreational activity.

You have this notion that there comes a point in the race when the strongest runner willfully separates himself from the pack. I suggest another explanation: the strongest runner prepared to separate himself. The work was done across time, and in other places. Successful athletes prepare by training, of course, but also by establishing habits of mind. No one has a special lamp for conjuring the personal genie who can levitate us to the finish line. No one can decide to just go for it. While some athletes might gain by perpetuating the myth of a spectral puppeteer, I think the first step to real willfulness is admitting our own powerlessness. How do you do that? I can recommend a little race across the Highland Sky in West Virginia...

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Tyranny of Comfort

It's not hard to imagine that we are living in a cloud. I opened my eyes early this morning to the softest, grayest, most diffuse light that daybreak can offer. I turned on to my back and closed my eyes, picturing a vase-like shape that I use as a kind of visual mantra. I stride on its interminable surface until it curls back into itself. That was enough to allow me some extra minutes of precious rest. When I emerged again into full consciousness, the air on the other side of the window was completely saturated: light and fog everywhere. The clock said 6 am. I rolled out of bed, slipped on some clothes, and laced up my running shoes.

I don't try to take any special credit for the discipline required to train at high levels. We call it "will," and imbue it with a mysterious, supernatural quality. We admire people who have it. We think it helps athletic performance. Our conception of will goes well beyond a desire to win, though. It works to get us up early, while the rest of the household still sleeps. It works to keep us on the track doing extra laps after the rest of the team has worn down. Most of all, it works to push at -- and exceed -- our own limits. Therein lies the biggest clue that we have misconceived the will.

The limits on athletic performance derive from laws of nature. People do go faster than they used to, but not because they evaded those laws or exceeded those limits. When Paul Biedermann swam faster than Michael Phelps at the World Championship, we didn't say it was because of his "will to win." We said it was because of his swimsuit. The suit helped him to decrease the friction between his body and the water. So he swam faster. Why are other advances less nakedly obvious? Why has Phelp's success been parlayed into a book titled, "No limits: the Will to Win?"

I think we like to preserve some of the mystery of athletic performance so that we can credit the athlete -- the person -- with the "stuff" that it took to make it happen. And the athlete may perpetuate the myth by maintaining some of that mystery. In the run-up to this year's Western States 100 mile trail race, Geoff Roes, fellow Montrail athlete, reports that he trains as he feels -- taking a daily invitation to run in the mountains of his Alaska home. When they aren't so obtuse, athlete's blogs document seemingly inhuman efforts. Anton Krupicka, training for the same event, reports running 200+ miles per week, running having become "first nature" to him. These two inspire awe with their performances. How can mere mortals hope to achieve what seems to belong to a different realm?

Some people do seem couch bound. Who doesn't like to recline into a soft cushion, legs extended and feet propped, cold beverage at one hand and savory snack at the other? And given the opportunity, why shouldn't we avail ourselves of such creature comforts? Running in a world without imminent predation is totally discretionary. And generally uncomfortable. A recent blog post by another Montrail teammate, Gary Robbins, captured well the angst of finding oneself completely miserable while running a race. He was running Miwok when he found that all he wanted was to stop. What can you do? He stopped. Tellingly -- he felt badly afterward for what seemed to him a failure of will. I don't think willpower is like that -- something you can activate when needed -- like at mile 38 of a 62 mile race. I don't think it is something that some people just have. Tiger Woods may have the most disciplined of golf games -- but his power of will obviously didn't extend into his personal life. Will is a social device -- something we use to hold each other accountable. Willpower develops in non-mysterious ways among people who don't like excuses.

That brings me to the ultimate source of my will: a compulsion to be free. I value freedom more than comfort. I scoff at happiness. Every invitation to do what feels good has the potential to sway me, and in so doing, become me. To the extent we are swayed by inclination, we have no autonomy to decide for ourselves. We can neither be praised nor punished for how we proceed. We have a ready excuse -- it couldn't be helped. Strong groups depend on the banishment of excuses, and the emergence of individuals who decide for themselves. Training for and competing in ultras is a declaration of this kind of freedom.

Determination doesn't just happen. I'll have to elaborate on the mechanics of willfulness in later posts...when I can discuss them in context of what happens at Highland Sky on Saturday?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Whose Race to Run?

I haven't raced since February, so I'm excitedly counting down the last week and a half until Highlands Sky on June 19th. I've written some about competition, but I thought it might be useful to drill down into some of the strategic race psychology I've developed over the years. Pay attention competitors! I will give you all the information you need to turn my own psychological ploys against me...

If you enter a race, you have your reasons. A common reason is to give yourself a goal. Once you have target race, your day-to-day runs are structured to prepare for that race. You may find out, however, that the daily preparation means as much to you as your actual performance come race day. You may fall short of your goal, but still feel satisfaction from having worked hard for all those weeks or months. You may be happy to feel more fit, look better, or have more energy. By signing up for a race, you play a little trick on yourself. You know that it probably wouldn't work to wake up each morning and make yourself get out of bed for a run so that after 8 weeks you will be more fit. So you enter a race. Of course you have to put some stakes on it, or the trick wouldn't work. You'd wake up and say to yourself: "I don't really care about that race anyway," and then fall back asleep. No, the trick depends on making yourself care. It seems odd to talk about ourselves like this. Playing tricks on ourselves, making ourselves care. Does it really work like that?

Competitive runners care about how they finish compared to other runners. If I want to motivate myself to train hard, I need to race against other runners at my level. I think most runners are competitive. Most people are interested to see how they compare to others of some related group -- like other women, or others of the same age. Some runners are avowedly non-competitve, however. They say something like: "I don't compete against others, I compete against myself." Now that seems even more far-fetched than playing a trick on yourself. What kind of duality does competing against yourself take? Is there a you-in-January that can be compared to a you-in-June? If so, doesn't one of you always lose? And if you-in-June runs faster, who's to say that you-in-January wasn't sandbagging? (That would be more like playing a trick on yourself. I do that with workouts sometimes -- go conservative the first couple intervals so I feel like a big man when I can do the later ones faster).

Even for competitive runners, a good strategy is to "run your own race." You hear that a lot, along with "run within yourself." We know what these strategies mean, even if their articulation is problematic. The intent is to encourage a kind of willful ignorance of what other runners are doing, especially in the early parts of a race. When we race the temptation is to assert our desired position relative to others from the start. Others will tend to do the same. If each of us tries to get in front of the other, we'll escalate until the speed is unsustainable. If everyone followed that temptation, we might still have an interesting "battle of attrition," though probably not the best performances possible. If someone has the "run within yourself" strategy, though, and goes out at a more sustainable pace, that runner will be more likely to run strongly for the whole distance, and attain a better performance.

The idea to "run your own race," however, is not always the best one to have in mind. It is a cerebral strategy, requiring a dispassionate assessment of the conditions and oneself. Once disengaged from the race, and other runners, some participants may lose motivation. They may get into a sustainable groove, but it may be slower that what is possible. We are notorious for miscalculating what we can really do. We may perceive our exertion to be at a maximum, and then find "another gear" when someone we feel we should beat passes us. The strategy to keep us involved, and exerting ourselves maximally, can be called "mix it up." A runner employing this strategy should focus on other runners of similar caliber. Lead some or follow some, but stay attuned to what others are doing, and respond appropriately.

So what is the strategy of the runner who bolts to the front and runs "wide open" from the gun? I can think of two possibilities. One is to challenge the other runners. If I take off at a foolishly fast pace, other runners have to either match match my pace or let me go. If they match my pace, they will have to suffer the consequences of that foolish pace. Even though I will also suffer, the fact that I chose the pace potentially gives me an edge. It may seem to them that I feel stronger -- simply because I am in front. I can wait for them to fade, defeated, and then slow to a more manageable pace. The other possibility depends on deeper pyschology. Running from the front assumes an alpha position -- one that a competitor may be loathe to give up. The desire to maintain high position may help keep the runner at a maximum exertion.

So what should you do? Run your own race, mix it up, or run wide open? What do I do? Well, you could probably guess, I'm not going to say. The best strategy depends on the strategies of other runners in the race, and on your relationship with yourself. My goal with this post is to challenge your idea about whose race it is to begin with.

We fall into one or both of two traps when we think about whose race it is. Trap 1: each runner has a specific, physical, potential based on variables like VO2 max, muscle fiber type, or glycogen stores. The race is between those runners with the best attributes, provided they fulfill their poential. Trap 2: at least within certain levels of competition, the race is determined by willfulness -- ie., who wants it more. This way of thinking about persons is intuitive, but unhelpful for a lot of reasons. If we fall into trap 1, we think the outcome of races is determined by factors mostly out of individual control. That makes preparing and racing superfluous. If we fall into trap 2, we think that wanting it badly should be enough. When we don't succeed in our goals, we are led to the conlusion that our will wasn't strong enough. I don't think combining the two approaches helps much, either. We are neither completely constrained by our physical attributes, nor freed by more spiritual seeming ones.

We are multiple, though. I started this post with the anecdote about signing up for a race in order to convince yourself to train. I talked about tricking yourself, competing against yourself, running your own race, running responsive to others, and going out hard to convince yourself to hold on to that position. But who are you, to convince your self? Well, you can't just do it. You have to negotiate, cajole, and trick -- yourself. From one time to the next. From your anticipation of what is coming -- you prepare -- get in position. You enter the race, and then watch yourself prepare. You go out front, and then watch yourself hang on. You can't bluff it -- there are physical laws, and everything you do obeys those laws. But still, you do, and it matters. You are the combined effects of your oxygen carrying capacity, your preparation, and your strategies. It looks like will -- but it wasn't free -- you earned it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

High Country 3-Day in Review

The Cross Mountain Crew

The run intensity was low by design. Think of it as five 4-hour runs, back-to-back, on technical mountain single track ('cause that's what it was). I designed it to give me some information -- mostly about my readiness to run a 100 mile race in three weeks. I got some information. Maybe I'll share it, along with some flashbacks to my early running career. Maybe not.

I generally take a distant view on things. Always one step removed. Thinking. Some might call me aloof -- does that mean I am? I run alone a lot. I planned the logistics of this 3-day so that I could manage it alone. I cached supplies in Damascus and drove my van to the north end of the course. I ended days 1 and 2 in Damascus and day 3 at my van. I had food and overnight gear in Damascus. I was prepared to "go it alone." That sort of mindset may well be an asset to an ultrarunner. We have to run lots of miles -- and many of them are going to be alone. We have to know and trust in ourselves. But still.

OK, here's a flashback. I started my AT thru-hike in June of 1997 at Springer Mountain. Most hikers start in early spring. That meant I hiked alone. A lot. I can still hear myself creating rhythms with hiking poles, bouncing pack, and shoe strikes. I might add a little beat box, or whistle a melody over the rhythm. I remember the long mental ramblings. I build homes in my mind. I embrace time alone - sail along in my own world, and soak up the miles under my feet. So what happens when I see another hiker, headed the opposite direction? I still remember some of them. A pair of Canadian hikers, southbound. A young couple. We all stopped, immediately occupied with a chance encounter. Someone to talk to, share with. We swap information about the trail ahead, but mostly just spend a few minutes in each others' company. And then we part, refreshed. Someone else we know, even if only in that one brief encounter.

I let a handful of people know about the high country 3-day. Byron Backer had run the Tour De Appalachia I hosted a few years back, and he threw his hat in for this one. I spoke with Annette Bednosky, another veteran ultrarunner, during the Trail Days Half-Marathon in Damascus two weeks ago. She expressed interest in running some mountain trails with me in preparation for her run at Western States. And Fast Girl. Jenny Nichols jumped in with both feet. She's been running trails, and now ultras, for about a year. She's into it. She'd run Saturday and Sunday and help with shuttles and supplies. "I'll have a whole spread!" she told me. Well she did. She had so much that she was able to feed all the thru-hikers who passed while she waited for us.

The surprise was David Horton. He calls me Thursday night to find out what I've got going on for the weekend. So I tell him and he says he will probably show up and help crew (!). Well he did. Crews and takes me and Beth Minnick (who, along with Joey ran the second 4 hour run that day) out to dinner after day 2. That's where it gets really good, because we sit next to a bevvy of thru-hikers at the Whistle Pig in Damascus. Horton loves thru-hikers. A big part of his trip here is to meet and offer "trail magic" to them. Weeks of resisting gravity puts people in a state of perpetual deprivation. Hikers are especially grateful for things most people take for granted -- like a cold soda. Or cookies. But mostly Horton just likes to talk to them, tease them, find out what they're up to. Ultimately, he loves to give -- everything. No one accuses Horton of holding back.

I'm not so wide open. I do hold back. I analyze. I postponed scheduling this trek for weeks because I was unsure about the strength of my achilles. The results should help me decide about Mohican and Burning River -- two summer hundreds I may run. I could relate my thinking here, but honestly, I have not been inclined to think much about it. I've mostly thought about the people I ran with over Memorial Day Weekend. Of course I'm grateful for the help through a rigorous set of runs. Someone accompanied me, after all, on each of the five parts. And I did enjoy the interactions and conversations we had. Mostly, though, I have this sense of elevation. And not just from being perched on Buzzard Rock. I've been buoyed by a spirit of boundlessness -- one that seems especially at home in the body of an ultrarunner.