Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Grossman Motivation Series

My blog, like my running, has been quiet of late. Last Thursday I had a hernia repaired (yes, seriously).

My hiatus from running has not hampered my writing, however. In case you haven't already stumbled over it, you can check out my weekly motivation series for Running Times at:


Part 8 is posted at the top of the homepage.

Motivation and will power are good topics to consider as we begin the season of staying indoors and eating large portions.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


A thin sheen of stratus clouds gives shape to the faint glow of the predawn sky. I run eastward on a road that descends along a ridge at about mile six of my new morning route. With the gradual illumination of the convex horizon coinciding with my downhill acceleration I can sense, better than at any other time, my place on a celestial object hurtling through space – my speed adding to the vectors of earth’s rotation and orbit.

I welcome the buzz in my gut that wakes me up in the morning. I can’t remember the last time I set an alarm clock. For several weeks after Burning River I slept in. I had to rest and allow my hamstring to heal. Of course I didn’t just rest. I sought, and got, good treatment advice. My rehab routine took a little over an hour each afternoon. I’m happy to share the details of the program, gleaned from an orthopedics journal. The gist is to engage in dynamic neuromuscular work – not stretching or massage. Six weeks later my hamstring is strong and fit for another ultra. My anticipation of the Great Eastern Endurance 100K Run, along with the daily demands of shepherding children (mine) and young adults (at the college) causes me to wake me at about 5 am each morning.

I have been striving, since last summer, to run 100 miles well. The disappointment of a DNF could be cause for despair. It did cause me to reevaluate my fall schedule – which had been devoted to a steady stream of 100s. My thinking had been to simply run that distance until I did it right. [Doing a 100 “right” is the subjective experience of owning that distance. Its converse is the experience of a ragdoll tied to a beagle by a little girl; found, washed and wrung out by her mother; then gutted, filled with firecrackers, and exploded by her brother.] My new schedule puts off the 100 until next summer. The irony is that I feel more excited now. I’m running GEER in a week and a half followed by the Mountain Masochist 50, the North Face 50, and Bandera 100K. Instead of dread I feel a sense of urgency. I want to run fast.

I bounced off my injury at the national 100 mile championships and onto a new trajectory. So why don’t I feel like a flea unwittingly jangled onto the back of an elephant who was only scratching his head on my tree? Running 100s was an existential exercise for me, designed to prove that I am a prime mover. If my choice of race was dictated by comfort, or talent, or circumstance – then I didn’t choose it. That’s a problem for people. We imagine moving ourselves – all the while stuck to the back of an elephant itself spun by the earth itself spinning haplessly through space –every movement determined by the laws of physics. Yet there is something to being me that makes me want to try anyway.

Ultimately, my new race schedule leads me back to the real source of my angst: the Western States 100. Mountain Masochist and Bandera are both Montrail Cup races. Following those in the spring I could enter American River or Miwok with the same purpose: to win one of the few coveted slots that allow runners to avoid the low probability of a lottery pick for Western States entry. Why should I aim to run a race that has given me little except cut-to-the-bone pain? You can get a sense by reviewing the history of posts to this blog. It’s something between the two trite responses given to the question “why climb Mt. Everest?” by George Mallory and Joseph Poindexter respectively.

Because it’s there… and because I’m here.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


We were off course for a second time. I cussed -- a treat I allow myself on just these sorts of occassions. We had arrived at a T in the trail, with neither choice marked. We took the one more traveled. Wrong choice. The trail circled the small lake and brought us to within earshot of the aid station we had just left. They seemed as clueless as us. Intersections.

A week ago Tuesday I debated two distinct choices. I could run my final tempo workout alone, as usual, or I could enter a small 7-mile trail race in Kingsport TN. I chose the trail race. It felt like a good workout until shortly after the finish -- when I tried to jog for my warm down. My right hamstring had tightened and a dull but persistent pain emanated distinctly from the muscle belly. That isn't the sort of signal you want to get 10 days before a bid for the 100 mile trail national championship.

The trip, unlike my physical condition, was set. We had reservations at campgrounds from Ironton to Sandusky Ohio. My 8 and 10-year-old children were absolutely counting on big days at Cedar Point amusement park. We were going, and I was going to run, regardless of any signals I was getting from my right leg.

I took 3 days completely off, and then came back slowly. By last Thursday, I was able to run 8 minute miles pain free for an hour. I hoped for hot weather on Saturday even though I don't run especially well in heat. In steamy conditions we would all have to run slower, and that would have put less stress on the hamstring.

As it turned out, Saturday was as cool as any this summer. The Burning River 100 course begins with 10 miles on relatively flat roads, and then proceeds onto a mix of wide trail, towpath, and paved recreation trails. I responded to the conditions, and 20 miles in I found myself plucking along with 100K road specialist Todd Braje.

The hamstring kept me informed of its distaste for my selected activity. As Braje and I began to separate from the other front runners, the pain became more insistent, and I wondered if I would be able to run another 80 miles. But we hit some trails that slowed our pace somewhat and the pain subsided. And we got off course. That slowed us for about 4 minutes while we found our way back. We kept our heads and returned to our established pace while we caught up to the lead group that included Mark Godale. The Cuyahoga Valley and the Buckeye Trail in particular are Mark's training grounds, and he has won twice here on his home course. Given that he is also just downright friendly, I determined that I was going to hang around and run with him until I felt like I could follow the course on my own.

Only gradually did Todd and I ease back into the lead. The course markings had tightened up, and we continued to have (relatively) cool and overcast conditions. I was able to eat and drink everything that I needed, and I felt fluid and efficient. About 4 hours in, though, and things inevitably start to wratchet down. My stride shortened as my muscles began to query my brain about the wisdom of continuing indefinitely on my present course. Todd must have had the same internal conversation because we both slowed simultaneously to about 9 minute per mile pace. Even so, my hamstring raised its voice again, enough that I was convinced to try the compression sleeve I had been wearing during runs since the original strain.

I pulled on the thigh sleeve at mile 40, and chased after Todd who had just donned an ice vest. Although the trail was mildly technical, we may have picked up the pace slightly. I wasn't hot, but I would guess that by cooling his core temperature, even slightly, Todd may have been convinced (subconsciously) that he could run a little faster with no additional burden. This is a topic for another post, but there is some interesting research that suggests pacing is regulated by our apprehension of the potential to overheat. In any case, within 10 minutes the pain in my hamstring intensified. I was concerned that the compression sleeve was making things worse so I pulled it to my ankle and continued running. Almost immediately the hamstring seized, making it impossible to run. I walked, took the ibuprofen I was carrying, and hoped the pain was a spasm that would pass. I ended up walking 3+ miles to the next aid station. I tried several things, but it was clear that I had injured the muscle beyond what it would tolerate. The only way I could cover the next 55 miles was walking, and, well, that's not what I came for.

I withdrew from the race and met my family at the Boston Store aid station, a central location the runners pass at mile 49 and again at mile 55. We hung around, visiting with other runners' crews and helping cheer folks through. I enjoyed getting the perspective of a full swath of participants, from those toward the front for whom seconds are precious, to those toward the back who took the time to enjoy the people who had come to support them. Although I had my own very attentive group around me, I was struck by the level of committment shown by family members, coaches, volunteers, and friends that gathered around runners as they came through the aid station. These folks care!

A young boy, maybe 5 years old, with dark hair and fair skin, approached me. His eyebrows furrowed with concern as he asked, tenderly but plainly, if it made me sad that I had to drop from the run. We had a nice exchange. I tried to reassure him -- I had done many races, and a lot of them turned out very well. The image of him, his dark eyes peering up to meet mine, has stayed with me. I think it must have been the sort of unjaded compassion that children have that prompted him to talk to me. I am disappointed. The conditions were good, the competition was good, and in many ways I was fit to run. Just not in every way.

So I'll soak it up. Wait to let the next moves take shape. Given my immediate goals, I made a wrong turn at the intersection. Now I'm in a different place, though, and a different set of things may be possible. Pity for others may be a helpful emotion -- as the runners tended at Boston Store will attest -- but self-pity is not. We can usefully reflect on lessons learned, and move forward, without wallowing in weighty disappointment. I do feel ready to move -- to where I'm not sure. I'll keep you posted.

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.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

HIgh Country 3-day in Progress

The picture is from midday of day 2 -- about 43 miles in. We ran another 20 miles to get back to Damascus on the Iron Mountain trail. In an hour I'll start the final push from Damascus north over Whitetop and Mt. Rogers.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Distance-Only Experiment

About 40 minutes before the start of the 1982 Trinity Invitational in Louisville, KY, coach Worful took me aside, looked me in the eye, and said: "I talked to the coach at Floyd Central. He told me about two of his freshman. He said they're animals." I absorbed the information, like most things, with little more than a raised eyebrow. Coach Worful, who I can call Steve now, already knew me better than most ever have. He knew he didn't need to say much.

It had been his idea to enter me in JV meets even though I would have been 3rd man on the varsity team. This was my first freshman-only race, and he knew -- even if I didn't -- that it would be important for me to see how I stacked up with others my age. The 3K course started with a loop around a baseball field, proceeded across a valley and back, and then looped around a large flat rectangle of a park. In the middle of the long side of the rectangle, with about 3/4 mile to go, I was running in front. One of the "animals" pulled up beside me and said "you're dying boy." I turned my head toward him, furrowed my brow, and retorted, "the hell I am." Then I picked it up.

In the summer before my junior year, coach gave me a training book by Arthur Lydiard. I soaked it up. We conferred about workouts, but I generally planned the training for myself and teammate Dave Lawhorn. In retrospect, I see that he expected it was my time to shine -- and that I'd be out front at the varsity level. The season opener, as always, was the St. Xavier campus run. Several strong seniors from the region took it out hard. I cruised, well off the pace. I made up a lot of ground in the same final 3/4 mile that had marked the end of the freshman 3K. I did not win, however. Again, coach took me aside. He told me about how much he thrilled in the showdown races between Joe Beuchler and Jim Sapienza, who graduated the year before I started high school. Neither was content finishing behind the other. They pushed each other to remarkable performances. I didn't need to respond; coach had not criticized my race. Still, the image of Joe and Jim racing gnawed at me -- exactly as Steve had intended.

The next big invitational race was Covington Catholic in Cincinnati. The race attracted runners from a wide area -- so we could expect good competition. The start was one of those high school monstrosities -- stretched across a vast field of thick grass. The start strategy for front-runners in high school cross country is fairly simple. Get out fast enough to stay clear of the stampede. I did that, along with a small group of others with the same strategy. I didn't have to think, "oh, time to take control of the race." But I found myself in front, and unwavering. I didn't bring to mind the footsteps behind me, or my willingess to go into greater oxygen debt. I just felt my fingers tingling, and heard the steps behind me grow fainter.

Coach approached me after the race, smiling. He said he had looked at my face when I passed him along the course, and that "he knew." Steve was expert at knowing. He had good success as a coach - because his main concern was knowing his athletes.

He knew the conventional wisdom about training, too, and was relatively conservative about sticking to it. Conventional training wisdom went (and still goes) something like this: on some days run longer and slower than race pace, and on other days run shorter and faster than race pace. So like every other high school cross country program, that is what we did. Daily runs of 6-9 miles alternated with interval workouts. Long run on Sunday.

We were talking one afternoon -- as we always did -- when coach wondered outloud, "what would happen if your training consisted only of distance runs?" He knew I did not readily accept convention of any kind, including training wisdom. I did, however, accept most of his carefully reasoned and articulated arguments. And his answer to his own question was one of these. Considering the success I was enjoying, he argued, it wouldn't be worth the risk to answer the question with an experiment. That reasoning has held for me ever since.

Until now.

Things work a little differently after the age of forty. First -- I've got kids, and the first two are getting big enough to start carrying the torch. Second -- I've got a professional life. I work with young people who are ready to launch teaching careers of their own. Third -- my connective tissue has become persnickety. That means it reacts quickly to overwork and slowly to rehabilitation.

If you've read this deep into my post, you probably have kept up enough to know my achilles tendon woes since Western States last year. Yes, I've had nearly a year of difficulty dealing with the connective tissue at my heels. I've tried lots of things, and actually trained a fair amount in the intervening time. In my quest to find habits that will allow me to keep running, I've eliminated speed. I've not run faster than 7:30 minute/mile pace in months. I've resisted all temptation to run fast, including by avoiding races. My first race since February will be the Mohican 100 in June.

Even though Mohican is a very long race -- and performing well does not depend going fast at any point -- it will be the first time I have entered a race having trained with distance runs only. Steve and I will finally have some data pertinent to the question he asked a quarter century ago. And I will report those data here.

Why do people train for races by sometimes running faster and shorter than the race? Why not just train at race pace? Well, I'm not really going to answer that here -- because better technical explanations can be found elsewhere. [Try "The Lore of Running" by Tim Noakes.] I will comment, though, that I have valued variety in my training, and that the most simple variable is speed. So in the past I have made sure to do workouts with sprints, workouts with tempo running, quality distance runs, and slow distance runs. If for no other reason, varying speed keeps running fresh, fun, and motivating.

Speed isn't the only variable, though, and I have had to focus on different kinds of variety the last few months. I have run more gravel roads, found new trails, run more pavement, and of course, traveled to "the mountain" a couple times each week.

That brings me to my original intent in posting today: tomorrow a small group of us will start a 3-day 100+ mile run through the high country north and south of Damascus. We will cross White Top, and circle Mt. Rogers, the highest peaks in Virginia.

View High Country 3-day in a larger map

We will be running slowly, but the terrain is varied and interesting, and I haven't done a stage run since the "Tour De Appalachia" several summers ago. Byron Backer came along then, and is back to run this "3-day high country 100." Annette Bednoskey, Jenny Nichols, and Jenny Anderson are coming along for at least parts of the run -- and I'll report back on the results.

I look forward to spending a few days on the mountain. The days are long, the sun is hot, and the air is thick. The trees promise shade, though, and the valleys water, and the mountaintops wind. And I will add thousands more strides -- all slow -- to the experiment posed by my high school coach.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Testing and worthiness

The nasty twinge about half way down my back on the right side has abated today. I was forced to curtail my wood splitting session yesterday because of the pain. The remnants of three big locust trees are stacked in a line along the edge of our property. I felled them because they were dying and infested by ants. Now they are dead -- and infested by ants. I need to split and dry the good wood, and burn the rest. The large logs resist my efforts to move them, though, and sometimes they win. We love our home -- built in the 1960s by a professor at E&H. He built it on the ridge at the edge of the woods at the perimeter of the college campus. He built it out of timber salvaged from a Saltville train trestle. We are surrounded by trees. The sun is already raging this morning, but we are protected by our trees -- their leaves like countless miniature umbrellas hoisted above us.

To me trees are the most majestic of nature's creation. I feel most connected when traversing a trail deep in a mature forest. Everything feels buffered by a stand of big trees. They are also a big pain. Every season has its own kind of tree litter that we have to deal with: pollen, flowers, leaves, and branches. The ants and termites that live on trees also try to live on and in our house. Simply because of their height and mass, trees are dangerous. This brings me to my main point (and, I will eventually relate that point to running) that the height of trees is, in at least one sense, a waste.

Trees live on sunlight. Trees grow upward to reach the sunlight. The light is just as potent at ground level, though, as 50 feet up. So a tree can just as effectively harvest sunlight at the ground as 50 feet up at full canopy height. And staying low would be a more efficient use of the tree's resources. It could commit more of its energy to making leaves and reproductive organs and less into making wood. Never mind that people generally like trees better than bushes, bushes are more efficient organisms. So why don't trees settle for being bushes?


A tree doesn't settle for being a bush because trees beat bushes. A bush is literally overshadowed by a tree. You've probably heard of ecological succession. An exposed hillside will become populated with nice, humble, efficient bushes. Eventually, though, slow-growing organisms will invade and begin to build big, fancy, tall trunks upon which, eventually, a mighty canopy will rest. The stature-challenged bushes will be displaced, and the shadow of the large trees will cover the forest floor. That's not the end of the story, though.

Trees don't really win. The competition is ongoing, it's just between trees and other trees, or trees and their parasites. Trees have to strive to get taller and taller, and more and more vulnerable, just to obtain the same resources. The escalation is a biological arms race. Organisms adapt to their immediate environment, including the competition. They don't have a long-range view. We are in a special position to see that trees would all benefit if they could just agree to cap their height at something reasonable -- say 25 feet. They can compete through other means -- make more efficient leaves, or really agile spermatophores. This business of growing to dangerous heights could all be contained -- and everyone would be better off! (Again, I'm not concerned with the aesthetic appreciation of tall trees, which has its own biological explanation).

OK, so trees compete, and runners compete. Is that all I got? What's the connection? First, another digression...

Did you take a college entrance exam when you were in high school? Maybe you took it seriously, maybe you didn't. If you were blessed, as I was, with benignly negligent parents, you probably didn't worry about preparing. Do you know what kids do now?

Maybe there are some tests that seek to answer a simple question, something like: has this person learned what they need to know? A driving test is like that. You get an answer, up or down. Some state licensure tests might be like that -- for plumbing or electric work, say. These tests have passing scores, so you either make the grade or you go back to study some more. College entrance exams may seem to be like that, but they aren't. Like most tests, they are designed to show differences between people. Colleges compete for the best students, and college entrance exam scores array students hierarchically. Colleges can most easily compare students using the scores on a college entrance exam.

'In the beginning' the test was a measure of the capacities of students as they had developed through the standard K-12 school curriculum. Assuming students have similar classroom experiences, the test will accurately reflect the variation between students in readiness to continue schooling through college. Students (and their families), like trees, adapt. There are test-taking strategies, after all, that can bump your score up a little. Simple things like getting a good night's sleep and eating a wholesome breakfast. Just slightly more strategic things like "go ahead and guess if you can eliminate two of the choices." Not only might those things raise your score, but if you do them, and others don't, you will probably score a little higher than others -- even if they are equally ready to continue schooling through college. When it comes to college admissions, you will have an edge over your equals.

More power to those kids, you say! The motivation to do well on tests is all part of it. Maybe it means they actually are better prepared for college -- since they know how to be at their best for a test. I think that's a stretch. Call me traditional, but I think the valuable stuff in school is experienced in class when there is no test, and no test looming. A good test would measure that stuff -- not the ability of the test-taker to prepare. Come on, you say, we're just talking about common sense stuff -- like getting a good night's sleep! Everybody should do that anyway. Fair enough.

The students in school now who care about college, though, go way beyond that. They take dual credit college courses while in high school, and they take test preparation courses. They buy books, take practice tests, go to tutoring, etc. The intent isn't enrichment. The point is to improve one's score on the test. Again, we can respect the effort that young people make toward improving themselves. The unfortunate consequence that we also need to recognize, however, is that other students will be compelled to prepare to the same extent. And when they do, no one will have gained, and everyone will continue to pay the added cost in time and energy of test preparation. It's a treadmill.

Finally, running. If you are like me you will run headfirst into a menacing thunderstorm before you'll go to the gym and get on a treadmill. Even if you can get a good workout that way -- it just doesn't feel right to run and not get anywhere. Getting somewhere -- even just experiencing the natural world for an hour -- is a virtue. It's worth it, even if nothing else is gained.

Much of what athletes can do to improve performance is like the test-preparation that students use. The common sense stuff is even the same -- eat and sleep well (if possible). The use of performance enhancing drugs is a problem because it escalates the kind of preparation that others must make, just to stay even. We want athletes to prepare, and try to separate themselves, through hard work. If they all have to work harder, so much the better. There isn't much to value about athlete's figuring out the best steroid recipe. Likewise with a test-prep course. We value the application of energy into one's studies over the course of years -- not the strategic memorization of strategies and likely questions in the weeks before a test.

Some kinds of striving are worthy. The simple test goes: "I did it, but didn't achieve what I hoped. It was still worth it." I couldn't say that about taking a test-preparation course. I couldn't say that about taking performance enhancing drugs. I can say that about the 5 weeks I spent running in Colorado last summer to prepare for Western States, and about every run I am doing now. Especially the ones under the grandest trees in the mountains of southwest Virginia.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Chris Rock did a routine calling out women for wearing high heels and bras. "You ain't that tall!" he said. He called women liars for trying to pull one over on us. "When you date a woman," he went on, "you don't date the woman, you date her agent." The routine was funny. The charge, though, is serious. He exposed systematic cheating -- by a whole sex!

I remember when I was in middle school and the girls were starting to wear makeup. Feeling helpful, I explained that I preferred natural beauty. Well, responded the girl still willing to talk to me, I wear makeup for me. It didn't help to point out the flimsiness of the argument. Isn't it obvious that girls make themselves look pretty for boys?

Boys and girls are expert at arranging hierarchies. Boys figure out who's dominant and girls figure out who's pretty. They make lists. It's pretty straightforward in elementary school. Clear skin, straight teeth, symmetrical features, etc. determine prettiness. Boys settle dominance with sports and/or fights. The boys know who is the fastest, strongest, best. Girls know who is prettiest.

Having the opposite sex arrayed from least to most desirable helps define your aspirations. It may not be in your best interest, however, to have your own position fixed. That's where middle and high school comes in. Those unhappy with positioning within a group can move to another group, or start a new one. Cliques form around some definable subcultures: preps, punks, nerds, jocks, etc. As they reposition themselves within groups, young people tinker with self-improvement. A kid in band might take private lessons and practice routinely. A skater may spend every afternoon working on tricks at the concrete steps down the road. A young lady may take medicine for acne, get braces for her teeth, and spend Saturdays shopping for the style that fits her best.

And, some of us take up a sport.

If you were like me, you ended up in a sport in which you were most likely to excel. I spent middle school playing soccer. I had a reasonably defined group of friends who also played. I was not among the best players. When I started high school, I didn't immediately have to worry about going out for the soccer team because soccer was a spring sport. The cross-country coach was recruiting runners, though, so I went out for the team. It was clear from the start that I would be among the best runners my age. In the spring when I had to choose between soccer and track, I chose track.

We feel that it is wise to choose activities that play to our strengths. It enhances our standing by defining a group with whom we favorably compare. I gave up being a mediocre soccer player to be a top runner. We respect decisions like that.

Suppose that my high school didn't have a cross country team, and so, at age 14, I continued to play soccer. Further, imagine that I have an uncle who is wealthy and an avid soccer fan. He takes an interest in my play and offers to pay for private coaching, soccer camps, and a personal trainer who manages my overall conditioning and nutritition. I enjoy the attention of my private coach, I love going to soccer camp, and my personal trainer gives me great tasting shakes that keep my hunger down and my energy up. My play improves, of course, and as a sophomore I start for the varsity soccer team. Only one other sophomore starts. The rest of the group, among whom I had been mediocre, is now relegated to start behind me.

Again, we respect that kind of self-improvement. I may not have figured it out on my own, but I did put in the time. It may not have been a struggle (my coaches and trainer were pleasant people) but it certainly took energy to complete the assigned tasks. Something troubling, however, lurks behind this imagined scenario. I'll describe two monsters -- one an insubstantial ghost -- but the other, I think, more threatening.

I can imagine two versions of myself as a soccer player: one who emerges with the help of my uncle (and his cadre of professionals), and one who develops without that intervention. It seems safe to say that, at least at the level of high school sports, my standing among the team is significantly altered depending on which self we examine. So which one is the "ghost" and which one is "real?" You may be tempted to say both are me, because the real person is deeper than athletic performance. Let's be mindful of the effects of athletic performance, and particularly athletic standing, on other life pursuits. We have hierarchies for a reason. Which me is going to have a better chance at dating the homecoming queen? Which me is more likely to pursue a high paying career? I think it matters whether I get the help of my uncle. I don't think it's a threat, though, to how real my improved self is. We are all improved versions of who we might have been. We don't worry that our improved vision is pretentious because we had to get prescription eyeglasses.We don't worry that our improved health is false because we immunized ourselves against debilitating diseases. Our pursuit of self-improvement is, in fact, one of our defining qualities, and one that we value in ourselves and others. Our improved attributes are as real, and worthy, as any.

The other monster is more problematic. That is: what will happen when the other soccer players catch on? They see me improving, after all, and not just in absolute terms. I'm improving my standing relative to them. One used to beat me in a one-on-one drill, and now I beat him. Another used to start at left-mid, now I start at that position. Even if the kid can shrug it off, what about his helicopter parent? The dad casually asks my mom "what are you feeding him?" It gets out about my coach. So a couple of the parents, who can afford it, hire the same coach. My friends ask about my soccer camps -- and that summer several show up with me. It doesn't take long to create a monstrous regime that kids will embrace to stay competitive. "All for the better!" you might say. Everyone improves. To what end? If everyone employs a similar training regimen, no one gains compared to the others. It's an arms race.

The most obvious examples of pointless escalation come in the equipment used in some sports. Consider the bodysuits used by swimmers to decrease drag and increase bouyancy. The invention of the suits spurred a flurry of new world records. German swimmer Paul Biedermann beat Michael Phelps and afterwards readily admitted "it was the suit." If the suits had not been subsequently banned, all swimmers would have had to wear them to be competive. So Phelps' coach announced he would not compete unless they were banned. Professional cycling is replete with arms races. Newfangled bikes, for every kind of condition faced even in a single road race, are rolling out all the time. Why don't they issue stock bikes and just compare riders?

One response is that we value innovation and the can-do spirit that motivates people to push at the boundaries of what we think is possible for them, and for a sport. The "me" who showed up first with a personal trainer and coach showed some spunk. That is worth something, even if ultimately it levels back out. And who knew kids could get so much better with a little training?

In that spirit, though, cyclists find potent means of self-improvement. Floyd Landis is back in the news admitting to an entire professional career based on use of performance enhancing drugs. He says he spent $90,000 a year on treatments that included EPO, HGH, and blood doping. Wrapped into that expense is a program for covering up the drug use. If drugs are used in the same spirit of self-improvement as aero-bars, though, why are drugs banned, and aero-bars allowed? If cyclists really just want a level playing field, why don't they all agree to use the same equipment?

When we compare athletes, what attributes do we value? We know Lance Armstrong "has a big engine." We can measure his maximum oxygen consumption, and compare that to other athletes. But then why race? There are many variables during competition, and some things that are hard to know in advance. Don't we value athletes who put it together when it counts, especially when we didn't see it coming? Don't we love it when athletes come from behind, or win in an upset? Athletes need to be able to rally resources in new and unexpected ways. They demonstrate what is possible. Landis' ride to overtake the field when he won the Tour De France was thrilling. So how did he become cycling's pariah?

Drug use is problematic, in part, because we can't know for sure who is doing it. Riders sign on to a ban, I think, because it increases the chances that others won't do it. If they are smart enough to do it, without others knowing, it gives them an advantage. This is like if the fictitious soccer-playing me had been helped by my uncle, but I kept my regimen a secret. The other kids might never have caught on, and I could have maintained my improved standing. Landis blew it. Not by taking drugs, which seems to be ubiquitous at the top levels of cycling, but by getting caught.

The girls who are prettiest in elementary school should prefer that the others never discover the world of enhancements that open up in middle school. And guys like me (at the time) might prefer that girls remain unadorned for convenient comparison. Those girls won't comply, though, and they shouldn't. By tinkering with shoes, clothes, make-up, and ultimately themselves, they keep shuffling the deck. That makes the game less predictable, and more interesting. At least until we get married.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Whether or not you know it by this name, you are familiar with the hedonistic paradox. If you try to be happy, you won't make it. Virtue ethicists from Aristotle to the present have noted that you are most likely to attain happiness indirectly, as a result of your worthy pursuits. You should aim to better yourself, therefore, and you will find yourself happy in the process.

'Fine', you say. What you really wanted was to run faster. Who was so concerned about happiness? Happiness is not on my mind when I'm on a mile-long climb on a sun-baked gravel road in the middle of a national forest 21 miles into a 24 mile run. I'm squinting because every drop of sweat burns my eyes. I'm holding my butt cheeks together because of painful chafing. I'm keeping my stride short and light because my left achilles is marginal. Any utilitarian ethicist is going to have to take a step back and scratch his head while ultrarunners pass by. Happiness is not our standard of measure.

The problem for hedonists, however, is no less a problem for those of us who readily dismiss the false allure of happiness. That's because the parodox arises not from trying for happiness; it arises from trying -- for anything.

Many of us are outcome oriented. We talk about goals. We write them down. We sign up for events. We set a training schedule. We shoot for a target pace. We try to PR on a known course. Most running events are contained enough that the flaws in our thinking go unnoticed. If something doesn't go as expected, we "had a bad day." If we get injured, it's because we didn't stick to the plan, or we didn't have the right plan to begin with.

Running ultras is not so contained. The premise is that runners are going beyond. We like to think of ourselves as defiant. People think the marathon is the pinnacle of endurance? Well check this out! We don't just want to defy other peoples' expectations though. We want to run further and faster than we ourselves thought possible. Is it possible to try to defy our own expectations? Wouldn't that mean we really expected we might be able to do it? It doesn't take much introspection to run (so to speak) into some conceptual difficulties with the meaning of 'effort.' It will be more sensible to illustrate.

I spent the summers of '97 and '98 thru-hiking the AT. As I've written here, the original plan called for me to run the length of the trail (self-supported) just that first summer. I started in Georgia. No sooner had I gotten past Springer Mountain (the southern terminus of the trail) than I was confronted with the physics of the situation. That is, the time required to traverse the distance. This is the appeal of sports. I live for the moment of revelation that all sports ultimately provide. Our ideas, our plans, our ambitions, our thoughts -- they can stray away from us like feral cats. Performance is the domesticator. When I strapped 35 pounds to my back and climbed a couple thousand feet on a rocky winding trail my thoughts were rightfully tethered. My initial thought was something akin to "Oh shit." Over the course of a few days, though, I adjusted my goal and "decided" to shoot for Harper's Ferry, and put off the second half for the next summer. A better way to look at the phenomenon, though, is through my relationship to my wild ideas. They settled down around my house. They took the food put out for them. They were tamed. I had claimed them, said they were "my plans" when they were wild, but they weren't really mine until they settled for something more fitting.

Ultrarunners know well the moment of revelation that almost inevitably comes during an ultramarathon. We don't celebrate that moment -- though if handled well -- we do celebrate the protracted recovery that becomes the raison d'etre for our participation. I'm talking about the moment during the event when our plans collapse. My first Mountain Masochist subdued me during the infamous "loop" at about mile 34. Both my calves seized up and I was reduced to hobbling. I raced the Minnesota Voyegeur on an especially hot day and had to drop at mile 45 of the 50 mile race. My ears were ringing and my vision had darkened to a narrow tunnel. These occasions had the immediate effect of deflating my ambitions. They were also both part of my edification as an ultrarunner. They were part of the humbling of my ideas.

Good performances require submission to factors outside our control. Long events will eventually grind down and quiet overbearing parts of our mind. My first Hellgate took me as low as I have been. One knee felt locked up from the incessant overnight toil of breaking through a thin layer of ice on top of several inches of snow, step after step. I was reduced to a crippled plodding as other runners passed me. I had to give up concerns about pace and place, and just submit to the situation, before my pace could quicken and I could make up the places. Many of my runs have been like that -- though less dramatically. We have to get out of our own way. We have to stop forcing it -- stop trying -- in order to, paradoxically, do our best.

But where would we be if we stopped trying? Why get out of bed? Sometimes getting started on a run feels hard. Our muscles are sore, it's raining out, and we feel tired. It certainly seems that we have to rally to exert ourselves. We need goals, target paces, and the possibility of PRs to stay motivated, right? Those seem like good things. And yes, I think they are -- to the extent they are within the fold. Our minds are a lot like our intestines. Digestion depends upon a variety of bacteria that live symbiotically in our guts. Thinking depends upon a variety of ideas that live symbiotically in our minds. Indigestion occurs when wild bacteria infect us and displace our bacteria. Bad thinking occurs when wild ideas infect us and displace ideas that have been calibrated to work for us. Fortunately for ultrarunners -- in either case -- continue to run and it will work itself out.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Run from the Tracks

I grew up on the railroad tracks. Ours was actually the second house down the street on Bayly in Louisville, KY. We were drawn to the deafening -- yet rhythmically mesmering -- passing trains. My brothers and I stood close enough to feel the shifting turbulent wind. We played on the tracks. We put coins on them as a train approached. After the train passed we ferreted our coins out from among the rocks to marvel at the flattened, distorted figures of past presidents. We walked the tracks to get places. The Crescent Hill pool was one mile up. We would see how far we could get balanced on a rail. The neigborhood bullies used the tracks too. Tommy Shooster was older, and much bigger, than us.

We were playing on the tracks after school with Mike Grabhorn, my best friend when I was nine. My parents were still at work. Mike's parents were home, but his Dad was best avoided for a while after he got off his shift. We saw Shooster and his gang approaching, but we didn't want to give ground. It probably started with shouted words, but soon enough we were throwing rocks. They were advancing, and they were promising to do us serious harm. We realized we were in over our heads. I ran for help. I ran like my life depended on it. Not panicked -- just absolutely committed. I ran clear to Mike's house, about a half mile away, and got his father. He threw his baseball coach's bag, and me, into the car and raced back down the alley to chase away the bigger boys. Then we went back to Mike's house, where his father sawed off a bat for each of us to carry.

As kids we routinely played chase games, either on foot or on bikes. We played kick the can or capture the flag at night. We played team tag across wide swaths of neighborhood. I can almost recall the kind of psychological immersion a child gets when fully engaged in such physical pursuits. I might have paused long enough to notice that I could not only feel, but see, my heart beating in my chest. Yet, physical facts seemed completely secondary. I had to get out of sight. We were playing, but the state of mind struck the sort of familiar note that let's you know -- I'm made for this. For a kid, play is as real as it gets.

I can only recall one adult experience that strikes me as similar. I went with my wife and two young children to a gathering near Harrodsburg, KY. The group, all young and outdoorsy people, hiked some distance to a swimming hole. We were deep in a river valley and didn't see the thunderstorm until it was nearly upon us. We retreated rapidly toward shelter, but we were still a couple miles away when the storm unleashed its full fury. We ran for it. My stout brother-in-law carried my five-year-old son and I hoisted my three-year-old daughter to my chest. She threw her arms around my neck and her legs around chest and clung to me like a baby monkey. I ran along the river bed, up the steep bank, and through the woods with absolute singleness of purpose. All of my capacities were committed to covering the distance between my family and safety in the least time possible. The challenge was all the more demanding because we were bushwhacking in unfamiliar terrain in a torrential thunderstorm. I would not, and could not, wish threatening circumstances upon my family. The state of mind called upon during such urgent situations, however, is best described as "ecstasy."

I put challenges in front of myself all the time, of course, and "rise to the occasion" to a greater or lesser extent. This morning I got up and ran four miles, still half asleep. Day before yesterday I ran through Slagle Hollow in Steele Creek Park in Bristol, TN, for the first time. I let myself get to places where I was uncertain which direction was back. That got me moderately engaged -- I had to focus and decide which way to go and run through some nasty overgrowth and climb in some steep terrain. That took about two hours. I'm currently planning a trek for Memorial Day weekend. I want to take three days to cover 107 miles. I will do a 50K, 50mi, and then finish with a marathon. That will be difficult, because it is on trails in the mountains around Damascus, VA. I likely will not have support. To finish, I will have to rise to the challenge. At some points, it will require an engaged and focused state of mind. I have committed to doing the event, so at some level I must find these states of mind rewarding. They are like the states I experienced as a child and then as a parent, but something is different.

I run for sport. While engaging, sports are always bracketed and placed outside real-life activities. Participation is optional. I've run into potentially life threatening situations during races, but the fact is unavoidable: I brought it on myself. How miserable can I let myself feel? On the flip side, when I run masterfully and overcome difficulty to achieve a great result, how ecstatic can I let myself feel? It is, after all, just a game.

Compared to other sports, running is at least stripped of many modern contrivances. A race demands little more definition than a start and a finish. The simplicity of running helps it resonate through my body like an echo of ancient proclivities. If I cannot always achieve that blissful connection in my races, I can at least take some solace in my childhood recollections. Speeding through the alley behind my house, completely ignited by my imperative, I ran for all I was worth.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Claim Freedom -- Deny Opportunity

This spring my sails have opened along with the leaves. Take Sunday. I start slowly on a random greenway in Knoxville, Tennessee. It’s called “10 mile greenway” and we bump into it near the hotel where most of my son’s soccer team is staying. We’re not actually staying there ourselves, but Gavin is hanging out before his game and while I run. I’m thinking a 10 mile greenway is perfect, because I would like to run 20 miles. I can just go out-and-back. So I put on my shoes and a waist-pack with water and start jogging. The paved trail meanders pleasantly along a creek, for about a mile and a quarter. That’s it. “10 mile” apparently doesn’t refer to the length of the greenway. I find a “road connector” to another greenway, which runs another buck fifty. After that, I take to the road, and head uphill. I run in a generally easterly direction, judging by having to squint into the morning sun. I’m not accustomed to running on roads, and I start to flow as effortlessly as runoff along the curbs.

I hadn’t meant to run long in Knoxville Sunday. Nothing about our trip, in fact, went exactly according to plan. I make a plan, I like to stick to it. If something sways me from my plan, I lose something. I want to argue that I lose my freedom. We sometimes associate freedom with spontaneity. What is spontaneity? I ran long Sunday because it didn’t work out when I tried to run long Saturday. The list of conditions that intervened on that day is long, but it started with a sleepy wife, had some marital strife in the middle, and ended with an imminent thunderstorm. The result: my run ended after 40 minutes. So I “spontaneously” ran Sunday after Gavin’s first game and before his second. I hadn’t planned to run long then, but ultimately I “had to” if I wanted to get it in. That’s not so free.

The last couple of weeks I have felt the surge of energy that you get when fitness builds on fitness early in a training cycle. After weeks of trotting 30 minutes every other day and focusing on the rehab of both achilles tendons, the bar was set low. That may sound like a frustration, but, in fact, the joy is in the ramping up. The motivation that comes from improving is facilitated by letting yourself get out of shape first. My recently renewed vitality does have a downside, though. I’ve begun to look for opportunities to race – and soon. I’m tempted by The North Face races that pit regional 50 mile race winners in a December championship. There happens to be a regional in Virginia in June. I could be ready in 6 weeks. I can run pretty fast for 50 miles. It would be fun to see what I could do. But what about my freedom?

I set a course for myself after the Western States 100 last year. I did not finish as I had hoped. That particular run has had its way with me 3 times now. What I want – what would prove to me that I have some measure of freedom in this world – is to have my way with the 100 mile distance. Last June I decided to race 100 milers -- until I got it right. I have figured out the 50 mile distance. I’ve got nothing left to prove there. My record at 100 miles is considerably more spotty. I’ve got some work to do. Running 100 miles is not fun for me. I don’t look forward to grinding through the hottest part of the summer day, choking down food and fluids that make me nauseous. I’m not tempted by the competition or the “fame” that come from running 100 mile races. I shouldn’t want to run the things. And that, finally, is why I will. The temptations of the world cannot sway me. I have set my course, and I will run 100s. If I take opportunities that arise to do otherwise, I will be at the mercy of contingencies instead of the master of my own fate.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Is youth wasted on the young, or is wisdom wasted on the old?

My small duffel bag was packed with just the items I would need on race morning. The black tights I have had for years, wind-briefs I have had for almost as long, a long sleeve thermal shirt, my orange team jersey, the Smartwool socks Rob Shoaf sent me, my Nathan waste pack, 4 Clif Blok packs (2 orange flavor with caffeine), bodyglide, and of course my favorite pair of shoes, the Montrail Mountain Masochist. As we chatted over a light breakfast of plain yogurt, my lifelong buddy Dave Lawhorn asked about my preparation. I told him it was down to a science. I’ve gotten myself ready to run an ultra more than 50 times. I’ve awakened to about 500 race mornings through my lifetime.

I know that I can eat breakfast at 5am for an 8am race if I avoid simple sugars. I know that I can load my bottle with 300 calories from the start because the ratio of water to calories needed for the first 90 minutes will be low. I don’t have to think about it – because I’ve thought about it, and sorted it all out, before. I don’t have to think about the 50 kilometer course that loops through the Jefferson Memorial Forest just south of Louisville, KY. I plotted it out myself after logging many miles of training when I lived a short drive from there. I created the race. I don’t have to think about who else could show up looking to win. I don’t assume that I’ll be 1st, but I do know that I’m already tuned to respond as the situation demands. My playbook has been written.

Admittedly, I was surprised at mile 14 when I asked Joan Wood how far ahead the 1st runner was. Only a mile before I had been mildly surprised to find that I wasn’t myself in 1st place. The 15 mile course had finally diverged from the 50K course, and lo and behold, I was still following tracks in the fresh snow. When I saw Joan, who has helped with the race since its inception, she told me he was a long way ahead. I later adduced that Keegan Rathcamp had an 8 minute lead at that point. I had run the first 14 miles about right, though. The course is difficult in good conditions. There is very little level ground, and more insidiously, the trail meanders as it climbs and descends. Runners are constantly accelerating just to keep the same pace. Compounding that challenge was the unique set of conditions on February 6. The soil was completely saturated from rains the previous week. Then three inches of wet heavy snow fell through the night and early morning. No shoes or shoe device, save long spikes, could have provided a purchase in that slick and soggy mess.

As I began my climb to the ridgeline across which the Siltstone Trail runs, I found myself unusually stirred by the distant scent of a lone front runner. A lifetime of pounding can’t purge the primal instinct to give chase. My attention became riveted by that single purpose – to catch my quarry. All my perceptual apparatus became dedicated to fluid speed. I didn’t “think” about where to put my feet, but they landed in the best possible spots. My body bent, ducked, and swerved along the undulating trail. For about 7 precious miles I dissolved into my body and its purpose. Keegan was coming back to me. I knew it because of where my feet fell compared to his footprints. I was making up 8 inches with every stride. I could feel him on the trail in front of me. Tiring. Slowing.

At the beginning of the 3-mile Scott’s Gap loop, about 21 miles into the race, he was 3 minutes ahead. That loop is a soul killer. I have only done it once before. It winds up a mountain, and descends into a swamp. It was part of the original Love’n the Hills course, but the loop was closed for years, and the course re-routed, because of blowdown from a tornado. Cynthia Heady, who has taken the mantel of directing the race, aptly put the loop back into the course. I ran into it carefully, methodically, with less abandon than my ridge run. The bottomlands toward the end of the loop had the worst footing of the race, and this is where Keegan had become ensnared. As I approached he looked back toward me and said, “this is no joke.” I agreed, and as I passed him I said, “this loop will kill ya’.”

Keegan and I met properly at the finish. I was glad to see him. He had found his survival pace and run it all the way in to finish 2nd. He is buddies with another young runner I have just gotten to know – Michael Owen. They are both part of the running program at Shawnee State University in southern Ohio, although Keegan recently graduated. These guys beam with raw enthusiasm for running and racing. As Keegan explained to me at the finish, and later on his blog, he just went for it. He knew the course would be tough, and he knew that I could be lying in wait behind him. He just wasn’t intimidated. Michael likewise tackled the 15 mile version of “lovin’ the hills.” I think he easily outdid his similar performance at Frozen Sasquatch on January 2. The passion these guys have goes all the way down. You should check out their blogs. The commentary they offer is incisive and inspiring and I think we’ll be hearing more from them in the future.

Competing with Keegan I felt like the wily veteran. Armstrong got 40 seconds on Contador in the 3rd stage of the ’09 Tour by virtue of his experience. Contador had his youth, though. He was so passionate, and so strong on the climbs. Is it a shame that youthful energy cannot be applied more strategically, by someone who could really handle it? Or is it the bigger shame that those with youthful passion don’t manage it as well as they might? Or, and more likely the case, is this a classic dilemma, where movement toward one is necessarily movement away from the other?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

What are the odds?

Thursday was the last chance for a good workout. The forecast indicated the potential for heavy snow, once again, on Friday. A low pressure system from the west was set to perfectly intercept moisture from the south. I usually snicker at the meteorologists who seem to perfectly hedge their bets by confining their predictions to chances between 30 and 70 percent. We could all benefit by responding in this way to requests for information.

“Will you take out the garbage?”
“I’d give it a 70% chance.”

“You won’t forget to call, will you?”
“Oh, there’s a 30% chance.”

It was quite reassuring that in this instance, by contrast, the chance of snow was reported at 100%. That’s heavy odds. Nothing “potential” about that – it was a done deal. I was not nearly so sure about the status of my heels, both of which have been grieving me. Unless I lie there and stretch them first, my first steps out of bed are stiff and painful. I slap the ground awkwardly for the first 20 minutes of every run while my Achilles tendons warm up. I’ve been icing both heels obsessively for a couple weeks now. They have given me problems, off and on, since I started back running in late October. For several months, due to my ankle injury, I turned to the bike. And when I say turned to it…

Cycling is a great outlet for endurance training, and, well, braggadocio. Get a group of reasonably fit guys together on bikes and you’ve got the perfect combination of cohesion and status. You cruise in a well coordinated pace line along the flats, and then try to explode the lungs of every other guy on the climbs. The climbs. Man, I love the climbs. The image of myself as an oxygen burning machine is enhanced by the rhythmic stroking of the pedal cranks, and the radial flashing of the spokes. I hesitate to shake the bead of sweat off the end of my nose because it seems like part of the lubrication. The strain on the bike is apparent in the creaking of the bottom bracket. Less apparent is the strain on my Achilles. The range of motion required of the ankle is greatly reduced on a bike, and I’m guessing that mine adjusted by thickening and shortening.

With the cold weather and my return to running, I’ve once again asked my Achilles to adjust, so I’ve tried to accommodate that by varying the terrain of my runs to include more road and more flats. I have been able to continue training, for the most part, though I have backed off for a few days at a time to curb a downward trend and encourage healing.

Despite that, my last two long runs have finished with significantly sore Achilles. I ran for 3 hours and 3 ½ hours on the last two weekends, respectively. The pain bothered me for 20-30 minutes, subsided for the next 2 hours, and then returned to haunt me for the remainder of the run. So I backed off for a couple days afterward, generally shooting for one tempo-style workout mid-week. Last Tuesday I ran easy in the morning and then again in the afternoon over to the nearby high school track. I did 4 times 400m at a comfortable fast pace. I think of these as long striders – a chance to increase range of motion and turnover without incurring significant debt. I jog an easy 400 between each.

My heels were predictably tender Wednesday morning. Ideally I would have worked out on Wednesday afternoon, run something hilly Friday, and then something long(ish) on Saturday. Instead, Wednesday had to be easy. I might have waited for any kind of workout until Friday, except for the certainty expressed by the 100% chance of snow. In comparison, I was just mildly dubious that my tendons could handle a workout on Thursday.

For the past several weeks my training has been predicated on a series of ultras for the winter and spring. The next in the series is Louisville’s Love’n the Hills 50K on February 6th. I know the course well (I made it up) and it is a good test of an Achilles tendon: short, steep, and constant hills. I have to allow my body some rest beforehand. I’m not going to run a long run or a workout in snow or on a treadmill this close to the 50K. So it was decided: my last workout, both in length and speed, would be Thursday.

I’ve got a new favorite course for just this sort of run. It’s a horseshoe configuration – so I get the feel of a point-to-point with nearly the convenience of a loop (I have to get a ride across the gap). It has 3 clearly definable and balanced portions: a 30 minute warm-up to a turn, a ridge run with a climb at the start and descent at the end that takes 30 minutes of hard driving effort, and a 30 minute warm-down on "the salt trail" to finish it.

I almost bailed out after 15 minutes of running. My heels hurt. I blithely stuck it out. I’m glad I spent 30 minutes warming up. The ridge run was pain free. I went slower than I wanted – it took 32 minutes. But I completed the workout without, I think, setting myself back. And sure enough, the snow hit Friday – if a few hours late. If I can hold out, today will be my third day off. My heels are much less tender now. I can pinch them without wincing, and I don’t have to hobble to the restroom when I get up in the night.

Contrary to the message of my prior post – I’m adjusting to the circumstance. I’ve avoided running in this snow and I’ve backed off to let my Achilles heal. It doesn’t feel like the stuff of human freedom. I would like to be able to take a principled stand and run, no matter what. Problem is, I’m not that certain.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Is it cold enough?

This has been some winter. I’ve had to field the question: “what do you do in this weather?” many times. We’ve had several snows, ample cold, and frigid wind. We’ve had many days of just-shy-of-freezing rain. My students find walking to class uncomfortable, and they know that I run regularly, so they ask me thequestion. My coworkers, many of whom exercise for health reasons, have moved their fitness regimes indoors. So they ask me the question. There may even be ultrarunners who enjoy a break from running during the harsh winter, who would ask me the question.

Here’s the thing. I laid off last fall because of injury. I’m my own doctor, and I had not prescribed a time to start back running. I was ambivalent about starting back. Then the bad weather hit. I remember the afternoon well. The temperature dropped steadily into the middle thirties while the rain was driven nearly horizontal by the wind. My first thought? Time to go for a run.

Finishing the aptly named Frozen Sasquatch 50K on January 2. Next up: Love'n the Hills on February 6.

I’m not a mutant amphibian. I dislike running in cold wet weather as much as anyone. My hands get cold easily – and they are impossible to keep warm in those conditions. So why would I choose to start running when the weather is at its worst? Well - supposing instead that I started back on a sunny “Indian summer” afternoon. What caused me to run? Was it the best time to resume training? Or did I start back because the weather was good? The problem should be clear: if the weather determines my running schedule, then good reasons (like actually being ready to start back) don’t. So I needed truly unappealing weather to prove to myself that I really was ready to start back.

I lived and trained in Louisville, Kentucky for many years. The Olmstead Parks there are truly a blessing for outdoor activity, and many runners take advantage of them. I always relished the onset of cold weather, though. The number of runners and cyclists would drop precipitously around mid-November. And on the nastiest days only a very few -- the hardcore -- remained. I enjoyed having the roads and trails to myself. You might jump to the conclusion that I enjoyed proving myself tougher than those who stayed home. I think something else was at work. My family will say that I’m stubborn. I say that I place a high value on my autonomy. When I am alone (or nearly alone), doing something difficult or uncomfortable, I have reason to feel that I’m not being swayed by outside forces. Outside forces are, by definition, outside of my control. Many of these are contingent and variable – especially the weather! I do not want to make myself subject to those forces. When the forces of the world seem to have conspired to prevent my run – pull back your window shade and I’ll be hunkered over on the horizon.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Training Routes

Here’s a dumb thing you hear pretty often: “he’s got so much talent – if only he used it!” That same idea has many, equally misconceived, manifestations. Like the idea that some people lack talent but make up for it with hard work. I guess we have Descartes to thank for the dualistic thinking that continues to generate faulty notions about what happens with endurance athletes.

In case you missed my attempts last year to comb through the phenomenology of long distance running, don’t worry, I intend to keep beating that horse at least through August 2010. That’s when I’ll once again throw myself to the wolves that gather in eager anticipation of my imminent breakdown in the last 30 miles of a 100 mile race. This time my target is set on the Burning River 100, the site of this year’s national championship. Unlike the athletes of other sporting contests, ultrarunners cannot pretend to be uplifted by their events. We are routinely humbled and in fact (and ironically), have to embrace our own powerlessness to ever perform very well.

OK, let’s take this one sacred cow at a time. Untapped talent. Huh? So where is the talent stored? You want to say “the legs,” don’t you? But that’s just a metaphor for the body, right? And you want to say that the talent is tapped by the mind, don’t you? And where is the mind? Oh, it’s just sort of floating between the synapses, I guess, of the body. Yes, I’m making fun of the position that says mind and body are separate. And really, is it tenable? We line up and run a race to see what we can do. If someone does more poorly than expected, we are tempted to attribute that to poor mental performance. Conversely, if someone does better than expected, we might talk a strong mental performance – as in, how much they seemed to want it. Is this a good way to look at things? Is it true?

Have you heard that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve greatness? Based on a study of violinists at Berlin’s academy of music, those who practiced more were better. And those who practiced 10,000 hours were great! Before you start plugging away at your yet unmet dream of joining the orchestra, though, let’s break down the experimental design. This is a classic case of correlation not proving causation. Yes, the study established that hours practiced correlate to virtuosity. It did NOT prove that practicing causes virtuosity. It might just as well be the case that a third (unmeasured) variable causes violinists to practice more and become virtuosos.

One of my favorite hobbies is to explore new areas for training routes. Part of it is that I like to learn new terrain, and then to share that knowledge with others. Several times this tendency has culminated in a running event (“race”) on a course that I have mapped out. Case in point: I’m set to return to my hometown in Kentucky next month for “Louisville’s Love’n the Hills 50K.” Thankfully others have picked up directing duties and this year’s event is led by Cynthia Heady. I “discovered” Jefferson Memorial Forest, the venue for the event, just south of town when I was beginning my ultrarunning career. (Several ultrarunners in the area had been there for some time before me: Javier Cendejas and Brenda Gutman come to mind.) When I moved to SW Virginia my hobby found plenty of space to expand. The nearby high country has yielded many training loops (see picture) and combined with the trail mecca of Damascus was the inspiration for the Iron Mountain Trail Run.

Runners of these events will, of course, follow well marked (!) tracks. The early stages of exploration, however, can be a messy business. I’ve written previously about some of my forays into the woods. Many ultrarunners can relate to the training run that starts with modest ambitions in a new area and ends, many hours later than expected, having learned much more than we thought we wanted to know! I’m still alive though, and still compelled to try out new routes.

My compulsion to explore is part of what makes me a good ultrarunner. It also makes me put in a lot of hours on the trail. It may seem like I cause myself (?) to go run new routes, thereby put in more hours, and thereby become faster at running trails. I doubt that is a good way to look at it, though. Why can’t my need to explore, and my running proficiency, just be me? If I didn’t have that particular attribute I wouldn’t be as good. Period. The ability to tap your talent, in other words, is your talent. Talent is not somehow separate from your mind – it is your mind. The person who grinds out mile after mile, even if they seem lead-footed compared to their peers, has a good talent – namely the motivation to run! The person who seems quick-footed, but doesn’t put in the miles, lacks an important talent. The violinist who is motivated to play 10,000 hours has a very important talent for becoming a virtuoso. And let’s face it; we are only going to put that kind of work into something that is paying off. Those who don’t see the payoff will stop practicing sooner, and end up with fewer hours practiced.

Maybe another kind of dualism would be helpful here. There are two of “me.” One is the subject writing to you. He thinks, plans, sets goals, and starts races. He decides stuff. He is the one who evaporates like the fog on my sunglasses about 2/3 the way through an ultra. The other of me is the only one left to finish.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Continental Drift

You likely have heard that continents move. Two related facts strike me as important. First, almost nobody believed this was possible until the late 1960s. This is the GROUND we walk on, and we were WRONG about it – even as we’re landing on the moon. Wow. Second fact, continents move about the same speed as toenails grow. OK, you heard it was fingernails. Same speed though, and this is a post about ultrarunning. We frequently talk about toenails. As it happens, I lost my left big toenail last June during the Western States 100. It hurt. Nothing earth-shattering, nor was it particularly significant to my run. I also sprained my right ankle, though. It hurt too. And kept hurting – for the last 90 miles of the run – and then for the next several months. I was forced to layoff of running. I tried to rush my return and was repeatedly repulsed. I finally relented and took up cycling for the fall. Riding hard up a mountain is almost as fun as running up it.

As you can tell from the picture, my toenail is back. Six months – 1.25 centimeters. And while a transatlantic flight hasn’t gotten appreciably longer, enough of my bodily tissue has regenerated that I can run again. I trained through November and December, in fact, and marked my official return to ultramarathons last Saturday. This inaugural event was aptly named Frozen Sasquatch. The hearty West Virginians were unfazed by the blustery conditions. Volunteers cheerily handed out Heed slushies at the aid stations. First time RD Mike Dolin contrived a 25K loop through the Kanawha State Forest in Charleston. The ultra option was 2 loops, of course. For front runners, this provided more variety than you might guess. On the first loop we got to break trail in the fresh snow, and on the second loop we did our best to stay upright on the compacted – and icy – steep slopes.

In the midst of my hiatus from running I realized that I want to do more local and regional events in 2010. The lure of big national events and great competition has gotten me to cross the continent several times in the last couple years. I’ve enjoyed many runs in California – Quad Dipsea, Miwok, Way Too Cool, American River, and of course Western States. I’ve missed the runs that got me into ultras to begin with, though. Homespun events in the Appalachian States are still my favorite. I felt right at home with Sasquatch. About 100 runners. Narrow single track winding crazily through the woods. Plenty of climbing. Nervous bantering with friends beforehand and relaxed bantering with friends afterward.

Here’s what I like about ultras. We leave our warm cozy homes before dawn on a bleak winter day. We gather together in the woods until someone says “go” and then proceed to chase down two-foot strips of blue flagging hanging from bare tree branches. We climb brutish slopes until every panted breath blows spit that freezes to our chins. After several hours of extreme exertion we wind up right where we started with nothing gained but a voracious need to replenish ourselves. And it feels natural.

The continents drift. That’s how we get volcanoes and mountains and mid-ocean ridges. People run. We use it to show our specially developed talents, yes, but we can do that because running is the birthright of any healthy person.

I enjoyed standing around the finish, trying to stay warm by a small fire, and watching runners finish. They may have been cussing all the way down the remarkably treacherous last descent, but now, to a person, they celebrated. We call it “accomplishment.” I think it represents the collective and emphatic demonstration of what suitably determined people can do. Just give it time (2-3 cm per year).