Thursday, May 28, 2009

Running Solo

Wednesday, May 27

The snow crunched crisply under my feet as I walked from the tent to the car this morning. I had to give the door a yank to pop its frozen seal. I blew on my fingers to keep them warm enough to set up the camp stove, light it, and get the water on for oatmeal. The sky must have finally cleared, I thought. When I got into the tent last night it was still raining. I watched tiny raindrops pelt the fly over my head. It was early. I lay awake for quite a while before I drifted in and out of sleep.

I would have to get moving after breakfast, just to get warm. I was reminded of mornings on the Appalachian Trail. I’d drape the blanket I used for sleeping around me long enough to cook and eat breakfast. I perfected the quick getaway out of necessity. I guess that was one more good reason to pack the absolute minimum.

Last night I camped off of FS 383 in the Pike National Forest. I wanted to spend some time above 9000 feet. And the Mountain kept staring at me. The weather, which seems to emanate from the Peak, has daily dared me to venture upward. The sun will shine for a couple hours in the morning and then gray clouds build across the mountain. Thunderheads fly from the mountain as if from Zeus himself.

When I took off from Colorado Springs Tuesday morning, it didn’t take long to settle in with my most familiar companion: solitude. I’m not actually anti-social. I can genuinely empathize with most everyone that I spend time with. I like to cook and eat with others. Occasionally there’s even something that I want to say to someone else. Inevitably, though, I feel I can never be quite myself around others. Social emotions exert a strong pull on me. Feelings like sympathy and embarrassment have haunted my development. Most notably, I feel oddly compelled to shun outside influence. What some call stubbornness I consider personal responsibility. If no one else caused me to do something – than I must have caused it myself.

Out for a solo adventure is the closest I come to being myself. Not even bad weather can deter me. I found a site that suited me Tuesday afternoon. It had clearly been used many times before. A wooden bridge spanned the creek that runs between the site and the road. Adjacent to the site is a large boulder – maybe 18 feet high. I set up my tent yesterday evening after my initial foray south and west on the Ring the Peak Trail. I climbed enough to get into snow, and the going was slow. I was soaked by the rain from above and by the sloppy snow from underfoot. I wrote yesterday’s story and waited for the rain to break before I set up the tent.

Because I wanted to eat and get moving today, I walked the first hour. Again I followed the Ring the Peak Trail, this time north and east toward Catamount Reservoir. The trail descends in this direction, and once I was below 9500 feet elevation I was out of the snow and into the sunshine. I shucked my pants and long sleeve shirt, tucked them behind a tree near a prominent boulder, and started to run. In no time I was alongside the reservoir on a service road. “This is money,” I thought. I had wide open running on dirt roads up high and in the sunshine. I wanted to loop around the reservoir. Signs posted showed a trail on the south side that would allow this, but it looked like I’d have to bushwhack for a short stint between two trails.

I got off track. Had I been with anyone, I likely would have conferred and turned around conservatively. On my own though, I tend to forge ahead, look for new routes, and see if there is something unexpected that I might like to find.

All of my biggest adventures have been launched this way. When my family went to Red River Gorge for a New Year’s get-together, we arrived after the long drive shortly before dusk. I needed to stretch out so I said I was going for a quick 15 minute jog. Of course I didn’t take anything, but just started on a little trail that led into the woods. I should have just turned at 7 ½ minutes and come back. Instead I tried to loop around and find a different way back. More than 3 hours later I got back. That was my wife’s first real experience with this penchant of mine, and she was worried sick.

After crossing the Presidential Range in New Hampshire during my AT hike, I looked at the map and decided to take a shorter route to the ridge. I bushwhacked to a gully and followed it upward. No one had a clue where I was. I had made considerable progress up the side of the mountain before the gully became treacherously steep. By the time I was convinced to descend, I couldn’t. The climbs that had been touch and go on the way up were prohibitive going down. I had to go sideways, through gnarly brush. By the time I reached the ridge, I was completely drained, and sobered.

Thankfully my detour this morning was short. I found a new route around the reservoir, and located the clothes I had ditched on the way out. All that was left was to return the way I had come. It’s just not in my nature to make it that easy. I thought I’d try a side trail instead, and circle around the Mennonite camp I had passed during the drive in yesterday. Before long I was climbing a grievous pitch, and realized I was headed up a mountain. I remembered seeing Raspberry Mountain on the map, and that it only had one trail leading to it.

I had most of the water and snacks that I had started with. That’s another advantage of starting right after breakfast. So I decided to see what the top of the mountain looked like. I’m glad I did – it was the highlight of the trip. A metamorphic outcropping at the peak (like a bunch of raspberries?) yielded a true 360 degree view, including my best view yet of Pike’s Peak. The bright sunlight was dazzlingly reflected by ample snow against the blue sky. I’m scheduled to climb the Peak a week from Saturday, but I will be surprised if enough of the snow has melted off.

Most of my training is alone. It makes sense, given that ultrarunners spend a lot of miles running alone during events – even the events with hundreds of participants. Given the large distances and the relatively small numbers of participants, this isn’t too surprising. The difficulty of route finding, however, and the dangers of running alone should encourage runners to stay close together, so why don’t they? Some ultrarunners do run with others, either because they planned it that way or because they happened upon someone who was running about the same pace and who they happened to get along with. On these occasions, however, the runner is generally not performance minded.

I’ll give you three reasons that performance minded runners will run alone for a significant portion of any ultra. The first two are flimsy, the third is tougher to refute. One: if each participant is striving to do the best possible, everyone will have a unique pace and strategy toward that end. Trying to run in groups could only confound that calculation. Two: runners need to focus – on the terrain, on strategy, and on hydration and fueling. Other runners can be a distraction. Three: we compete to sort ourselves out. Competitors will strategize to ensure that groups of runners cannot stay together.

Dave Mackey was somewhere out in front of me, and I had let him go. We were probably about 17 miles into the Mountain Masochist 50+ miler. I had chased Mackey for a while but started to settle into my own pace. At the beginning of the descent toward the reservoir, a couple of guys came cruising past me. I feel like it was Sean Andrish and Paul DeWitt, maybe because they can both roll downhill. I picked up my pace again and ran with them. We were hammering. Climbing out from the reservoir toward the major highway crossing, we caught sight of Mackey. The pace had taken its toll, though, and I had to drop back once more. I didn’t see Mackey again until the finish line. That’s my illustration in support of reason one.

Run for the Hogs 3K was a low-key race with a history of hot competition. It was always on a Thursday night in August in the Butchertown neighborhood of Louisville, KY. One summer I “hopped in it” casually, just like every fast guy around. The blistering pace left me behind, as I played out my typical “smart” race. After the turnaround, and with less than a mile to go, Barry White motors by me, striding long, smooth, and strong. I just fell in behind him; changed my pace. It didn’t kill me. In fact, I found a new, faster groove. I was able to maintain it to the finish, and a spot on the podium. Although maybe this scenario is less likely in an ultra, we can be mistaken about our own capacities. Running with someone else might give us another perspective, and free us from our preconceptions. I don’t think this is likely with experienced runners, but I wanted to include a counterexample to reason one.

In a prior post I described the start of the Stump Jump 50K in Chattanooga. I was running with two other guys around a maze-like set of trails. I followed them off course. Had I been running alone I probably would have been more attuned to following the markings. I would not have been able to depend on others. I could describe many similar situations from other ultras. Running alone forces us to pay attention not only to the course, but to ourselves. We need to eat and drink at regular intervals, and notice any signs that an intervention is needed. Good support for reason two.

On the other hand, I may well not have finished the Hellgate 100K (+) in 2005 if not for the cooperation of the eventual winner, Serge Arbona. Snow and ice covered the course. Many roads were closed, preventing the trail marking crews from accessing early portions of the course. The race starts at midnight, so we were in the dark. The headlight I wore was not up to the task of spotting occasional flagging meant only to clue in the crew that was to hang glow lights. Serge and I traded turns in front, spotting the tree flagging. The person in the back searched alternative routes. When we hit the trail, we yelled to let the other one know. I’ve had similar experiences at other ultras in which route finding was an issue. Zach Miller and I helped each other through Dances with Dirt in Michigan. Sometimes the nature of the challenge, or the shared misery of a tough event, can draw runners together who might otherwise compete. That’s why I will also hedge on reason two. Reason three is more resilient.

At American River in 2006 I ran with the lead group for the first 24 miles. A sharp pain in my knee caused me to walk for a period until the course moved to soft surface. A sizable gap had opened between me and the first two places. Over many miles I closed the gap and then took the lead with about 10 miles to go. When Phil Kochik caught up with me I was indignant. I felt like I belonged in the lead. My attitude was: well if you’re going to make me, I guess I’ll race you to the finish. Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t run as fast as Phil over the last two miles. The huge climb out of the canyon in the sun had gotten me overheated, and I just couldn’t keep up. Phil’s move was smart and well played. It’s also pretty unusual. Most races reveal a set of places early on that don’t change much. The biggest drama is typically someone dropping out. That may change the results, but it technically avoids a change in relative place.

The whole premise of competition is to determine a winner, as well as the relative places of everyone else. We want to compare ourselves to others in our demographic. The race is a set of ritualized fights, like rams butting horns. Some go out fast, daring other runners to try and keep up. Others bide time, and make challenges late in the run. Some runners may charge up the hills, challenging others to try and hang. The point, ultimately, is to prevent our running together. The competitive runner wants to know who is first, second, and third. I was indignant at American River because (in my oxygen deprived brain) I had established my place throughout the run, and deserved to win (I realize that this is actually determined at the finish line, BTW). We will strategize to make sure that everyone can’t stay together. Some competitors will routinely exceed their own capacity early (and be forced to slow down or drop out) rather than allow themselves to run together with others who may have similar fitness.

I realize you may just run. You may not think about why you end up alone, and yet you do. Nature has its own reasons. Good ultra runners must be able to handle solitude. We need to know what to expect as the miles and exhaustion make either mutineers or mutes of the voices we so often depend on.


  1. I sure don't want to be reading about an Aron Ralston type of experience you've had. I hope you're informing Howard of your whereabouts on these solo adventures. from a concerned wife and mother of your two children :)

    I like how you present an argument for and then offer a counter-argument to your reasons for running alone in ultras. You continue to build a compelling narrative for how your life experiences have led you to today's adventures.

  2. Grossman, your points are valid. I am a better human and runner by running solo. I've learned to embrace the woods and the solitude. The time alone gives you plenty of time to reflect. I like to think of it as a distilling process for the human spirit.
    Be safe out there bushwhacking!