Monday, August 6, 2018

Not A Mountain Runner

I never expected to fall in love but it happened nonetheless. I've mentioned in previous posts about discovering new places and things thanks to running. Andorra was a place I likely would not have visited without the prospect of running a difficult 100 miles race. The race may not have gone as expected but the overall experience has had a great impact on me.

Ultrarunning teaches many lessons. This race gave me a well needed dose of humility. Since finishing the Order of Hrimthurs last year I feel like I have been coasting along and not making much progress. Training has become stale, which was a main reason I decided to run a road marathon in an effort to change things up. This helped somewhat but I did not give this race the respect it deserved. The lack of proper training was evident from the start.

I arrived in Barcelona a couple days early, which gave me a chance to do some sightseeing. It had been 20 years since I had been in Europe. I still had the same feeling getting off the plane. The weather was hot and sunny. I wandered around the city looking for museums and historical churches.

The main attraction was the Sagrada Familia, which is the still unfinished basilica designed by Antoni Gaudi. The exterior was chaotic and rough looking but the sculptures were very interesting. Stepping inside the design flipped to be very smooth and sleek. The stained glass windows were stunning, red dominated on one side and transitioning to softer blue tones on the opposite.

The next day was spent wandering the Gothic quarter and going through a Picasso and then a Joan Miro gallery museum. Barcelona gave the impression of being an art and culture oriented city and taking pride in that. Both museums very interesting. I was particularly fascinated by some of Picasso's work from when he was still a teenager, which you would think was the work of a much older, conventional professional artist.

Medieval alleys
Race HQ in Ordino, Andorra
The drive to Andorra was only 3 hours and not much over 100 miles away. It was my first time driving a manual in quite a while but it felt good, like I was driving for real again. Arriving in Andorra, the mountain roads and roundabouts made it interesting and slow going but the scenery was becoming more and more beautiful. The roads wound through the mountains, coming to village after village tucked into each valley. It was all like a setting from fairy tales. The buildings were all made from local mountain stones. Narrow alleys wound behind the buildings, hiding little creeks and small green spaces. Very idyllic. Small fields of grapes or vegetables were made wherever there was available space between buildings. Remove the automobiles and you'd swear it was a medieval town.

While stepping out of my hotel to check in and pick up my bib, I met two runners from China and gave them a ride into town. We talked about the race and how difficult it would be. I offered them a ride to the start line the next morning, which thrilled them since they could avoid the mile plus walk into town before the race. Once again, through running I have the opportunity to meet people from all over the world and share in great experiences.

International relations are easy

After seeing the landscape surrounding the town, I was getting more and more nervous about the race. 105 miles with over 40k feet of climbing and another 40k descending. If those numbers mean nothing to you then I will tell you that a profile like this is very, very difficult. That is close to an Everest and a half from sea level and then right back down again. I still couldn't get my head around it as I laid down to sleep the night before the race.

The nerves were biting me a bit and I had some trouble sleeping. The lady outside my window, arguing with who I assumed was a boyfriend of husband, in Catalan at 2 AM didn't help my sleep situation. I still woke up a before my alarm went off and started preparing to race.

The start line for my first European race was a strange experience. On the way into the chute, volunteers were checking for a random item on our list of mandatory gear. A team of drummers was making music while effigies of some sort of royalty were carried around. Fireworks and lots of noise were too much this early in the morning. Finally all the festivities were done and the race was under way.

We briefly ran down some pave roads circling out of town and then quickly transitioned to single track trail going up and up and up. From this point forward there was not a single flat area on which to run. The climb never seemed to end. We would climb and turn into another climb. There may be a brief descent but that would not last. Occasionally the trees would clear and I could look down on the town where we started. We climbed steadily through the woods for a couple hours before emerging to an open valley with views of mountains and ridges in front of us. More climbs to come.

It was at about this point that I met a runner from Romania. He said we should team up as that would make the time go by quicker, which it certainly did.  We continued to make this first big climb together, talking about our experiences. We would continue this for the rest of the day, which helped get through some difficult sections.

The first climb finally ended. A couple more miles crossing the ridge and descending through a valley led to the first aid station. This was approximately the 20k mark (12 miles) and it had taken me nearly 6 hours to arrive. This pace would mathematically get me to the finish but I would never be moving like this at mile 95. I wasn't worried as I had been told by multiple people that the most difficult climbs were in the first half of the race. Still, I was already feeling much more fatigued than I knew I should be.

This was also my introduction to the European ultra aid station. I was concerned about what food and drinks would be available. North American stations are full of fruit, candy and PB&J sandwiches. Coke, Gatorade, ginger ale are all standard. I looked down at this table and saw chunks of cheese and hard salami. Nuts and olives with fizzy water to drink. I tried to eat what sounded best but ended up leaving the station unsatisfied.

My shoe with only 100 miles blew out very early

The next station was about 12 to 14 km away at a ski resort. Based on the pace so far, it would be a long haul. A long climb followed by several small descents and then more climbing. I was now fully aware that I lacked and training or natural ability to move efficiently through the mountains. By the time we reached the next station, I was resigned to the fact that I would not make the cutoffs coming later. I just couldn't move fast enough.

Looking back down at Arcalis station with some regret
The volunteers at the station let us know that we were now the last runners to come through as everyone behind had dropped. I laughed. Of course I was last While sitting there refueling I had been thinking about when would be the best time to pull the plug. My Romanian companion came up and asked if I was going to keep going and that he would do whatever I decided to do. I just said," Might as go to the next station" and off we went, climbing the ski slopes while wondering if I had made a good decision. Clouds were low and ominously rolling in over the peaks and obscuring the path ahead.

I fought the urge to turn back only a couple hundred yards away from the station. I kept hoping my Romanian companion would say, "let's just stop here." The next section was reportedly 10 km yet took us 5 hours. There were two peaks to climb and a long steep descent into the station. This was the most scenic section I had seen so far but also the most technical. We wound over passes and around mountains and lakes. There was a narrow rocky descent followed by a slide down a small snow field.

Evening in the Pyrenees
The sun hung on the edge of setting for what felt like hours. I only had to use my headlamp for the last hour or so of the trek. The sounds of the cowbells echoed between the mountains. We descended a long final valley before approaching the foot of the highest peak in Andorra. This would be the end of my attempt.

After some confused cross language conversation I was sent on what must have been a 2 mile walk, down into the nearest little town to meet the van and ride back. This was the first time I really felt negative all day. That may sound strange since I had failed so miserably, I mean, I only made a quarter of the distance, barely. All day I had enjoyed the scenery and experience so much, I didn't care about the time or not being able to finish. The race was secondary, only an excuse to be here and take all this in.

Ubiquitous Spanish beer
Here I was back at the start/finish after only managing a quarter of the distance and no place to go since I didn't book a hotel for the days of the race. Since I would get into one until the next afternoon I walked back to my car, leaned the seat all the way back and tried to sleep. I did manage to get a few hours of sleep before the sun was up and made it too hot to sleep in the car. I tried to clean up as well as I could with no shower access and then hung around the cafes near the race HQ.

The day was spent eating, laying around watching the World Cup and wondering how those that remained in the race were doing. Early in the afternoon a rather nasty thunderstorm moved through. I later learned that the storm had caused the organizers to stop runners at checkpoints and eventually cancelling the race for those who had not reached a certain distance due to lightening and large hail. This would have meant that even if I had kept going and miraculously made the cutoff, I would have had my race end anyway.

Some consolation was gained when talking to a few runners with serious resumes and they stated that this race was one of the most difficult around. I certainly didn't help myself with my training. The one true regret I have is that I didn't get to see the rest of the course. The portion I did see was beautiful and distracted me from any of the usual ultramarathon suffering. Then again, I didn't last long enough to reach a typical suffering point.

It was an extremely memorable trip. I finally got to see Barcelona. I met a whole new group of runners from all over the world. I learned about more races. I visited and explored in a place I never would have gone otherwise. Andorra was beautiful and I am looking forward to coming back to finish this race one day.

Even my trip home was memorable. After 10 days, I was looking forward to being home. I had to get up around 1 AM to make the drive back to Barcelona for my flight. Dinner at my hotel didn't start until 7:30 so that did not leave much time for sleep, which I only ended up getting an hour or two. Driving through the mountains and roundabouts in the dark at 2AM with little sleep was a bit stressful. I couldn't wait to get to the freeway. When I was almost out of Andorra, I saw a person up the road swinging what looked like a flashlight. I assumed it was a stranded driver until I saw the lights on top of the car. They signaled for me to stop. Rolling down the window, I said hello. "You speak English?" the policeman asked me.
"This is alcohol screening" and then they proceeded to hand me a package with a mouthpiece in it, and directed me to plug it into the device he had.
It was now I though about the one beer I had at dinner 6 hours ago. What was the law here? Was any trace at all too much? I kept my eyes on the digital screen as I blew into the mouthpiece. 0.00 and I was on my way. I had avoided Andorran prison, at least for now. I eventually made it home after 30 hours of car driving, plane flying and train riding. Much longer than I lasted on the course

I've struggled to run much in the time since, almost as much a I have struggle to write this recap. The decline since finishing the Order of Hrimthurs has not appeared to swing back yet. I was happy with the marathon training but overall I'm finding it harder and harder to put in the work needed to perform at my best at these events. Maybe I'm not really cut out for this. Maybe I'm not being honest with myself over why I attempt these races.

The thought of giving up on this has crossed my mind very fleetingly but even that is jarring. There is so much I feel like I want to try to do but is it worth the physical and mental toll? I don't know. Maybe a short break is needed to reset. However, the idea of training to build endurance back again from zero is not pleasant.

I am still very excited about Iditarod and will be working towards that for the remainder of the year. First though I have the Bigfoot 200 this coming weekend. Perhaps it will be the catalyst I need to get restarted and invigorated. Either way I will try to enjoy it, work hard and make it a positive experience.

Random photo section:

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Ronda del Cims Preview

Once again I feel like the time has slipped away from me. After my last race at Grayson Highlands I felt like I had plenty of time to finish preparing for Ronda del Cims in Andorra. I had visions of all I felt I should do to be ready and, like always, I end up doing only a fraction of it. Either way, the race is almost here and it will turn out however it turns out. I feel a little unprepared but I care much less about that than I usually do. This race is going to be ridiculously hard, perhaps the most difficult race yet, but I'm going into it relaxed and without expectations.

My current assessment of my fitness
The Principality of Andorra is a micro-nation nestled in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. Ronda del Cims is one of several race distances offered and the longest solo version. It follows the border around the entire country, which covers around 170 km (105 miles) and has over 80k feet of elevation change. The course is mountainous and technical which makes it one of the select few races to be a Hardrock 100 qualifier. The altitude is not as severe as Hardrock but will still be a factor for a Midwesterner like me.

It took no more than a couple messages from Scott and I was signing up for this race. The pictures and videos were breathtaking. I have since heard nothing but good things about this race. Despite vowing to do fewer races this year, here I was signing up for another one. The fact that it was in Europe made it even crazier. The opportunity was there so I am taking it.

Right now, I feel like I have a different attitude and outlook compared to previous races. I know it is going to be very hard. I know it will be beautiful and memorable if I finish or not. Maybe I am maturing in this silly hobby and not taking race results as seriously as I once did. I'm never going to win or place high but I still want to feel like I ran as well as I could. I've come to a place where truly enjoying the overall experience is most important. I'm learning more and more that having the experience is the most important part.

The weeks since my last race have been filled with events that have helped finally reach this new outlook. I had been moving in this direction already. Celebrity suicides brought mental health issues out as a topic of discussion and contemplation. I have watched as many of my running friends grieved the loss of a young lady from our ultra community, who I didn't know but wish I had. The sudden traffic death of a former co-worker who had survived cancer and whom I had just spent some time reminiscing a few short weeks prior. All these things have made trivial things seem even more trivial to me. It has also made time with friends and family much more meaningful.

This past week was Western States week, which is probably the biggest week of the year for ultrarunning. Everyone is watching and following the race. For some reason, it seems that every year this week brings out the best and worst in the community. There are lots of positive things that happen related to that race. Tons of encouragement and relating of inspiring stories. There are those with criticisms of the race or the hype around it, much of which is valid. However, it also seems to bring out petty grudges and jealousies. I've been noticing more and more of that recently around ultra social media which is disappointing. I choose to just run when and where I want to and not worry about the other garbage.

I've said it, and many others have as well, so I'm not really breaking any ground here. It's just running. It is something I do that has provided an outlet. Right now, it is providing me an opportunity to run around some weird European country left over from middle ages. I can go into with an expectation to perform to some unrealistic standard I expect of myself or what I believe others expect, when in the end, I'll be the one with the memories and a my finishing time won't matter to anyone, including me.

Anyway, my training has been mediocre. It should still be enough to get through this run. I'm counting on experience to get me through the worst parts. As always, if I just keep moving forward and try to keep the attitude positive, I'll do just fine. In the end, the race is just a small part of the whole package. It is a reminder that whatever we are facing at the moment is just one thing that will pass onto the next thing, good or bad.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Pacing at Lighthouse 100

The starting point

While creating my schedule for this year, I had considered running a 100 miler in late May or June as a step towards Ronda del Cims and Bigfoot 200. The one that seemed to fit in well was the Lighthouse 100. The timing was decent and the location in northern Michigan was convenient. I was close to running it but decided I should concentrate on specific training for my upcoming races and avoid possible burn out. However, the opportunity came up to be a pacer and I couldn't pass it up.

All this time in ultrarunning and I have finally had the pacer experience. I have seen plenty of fellow runners with their pacers late in races and occasionally have been jealous. I've never had a pacer and this was the first time I have paced. It turned out to be an excellent experience.

Perfect day for a run

The Lighthouse 100 is in its 2nd year. This year the course was reversed from the inaugural year, running from the tip of Old Mission peninsula, down through Traverse City and on to the city of Petoskey, basically following along the coast of Lake Michigan. The whole course is almost exclusively on paved roads with some stretches of paved bike path. The weather was perfect for this type of race. There were aid stations spaced about 10 miles apart with some water drops in between for runners without crews. This was also the first time I had experienced a race with this type of road crewing, where the crews would just move a 2 or 3 miles ahead, along the road and meet their runner.

So the opportunity for me to be involved was in the form of a Facebook post asking for a pacer nearby. Usually I would not respond to such a request but I decided to step out of my comfort zone and go ahead and give it a try. The runner has much ultra experience, which gave me a chance to learn. Also, she is a multiple finisher of a race that has some interest to me. How could I pass this up?

It was strange watching the race start and not be in the pack disappearing up the road. We made a couple stops in the first 9 or 10 miles, which wound through the vineyards and orchards of the Old Mission Peninsula. At this point I jumped in to start my pacing duties, which I would be sharing with one other. There was no real plan as to how we would go about this but ended up just running until we felt like we needed a break and then would switch off. This race had no restriction on when a pacer could join in, which is commonly around 50 miles, give or take. This meant I would get plenty of miles in.

I was nervous about being able to be a good pacer. I wasn't sure if I was fit enough to keep up or interesting enough to keep a runner company for many hours. The alternate pacer was just coming off a recent illness and was not at 100% which would increase my miles a little further. He did a decent number of miles despite not feeling well.

There were many stories told, many about races or people we've met at races. I mostly listened and tried to absorb the knowledge. The talking kept my mind off all the running. The pace was consistent. We would reach the crew vehicle every half an hour or so which made the going seem very easy. Watching her and her husband, who was the crew chief, work at the stops was an education. The organization and efficiency was amazing. They had a system developed over many years that worked very well.

Running through the sunny afternoon, I began to realize how quickly the miles seemed to be passing by. We were into the late 60s and early 70s by the time the sun set. The pace slowed but the relentless focus was still there. The day was not too hot but the sun going down allowed temperatures to become even more comfortable for running.

Eventually the miles are whittled down to single digits remaining. We passed through a couple towns, getting strange looks from the locals wondering who these weird runners with headlamps on were. The final section was nearly all a paved path which was much less stressful than running on the side of a busy road. We began to anticipate the finish around every corner and finally there it was.

I ended up running about 60 miles and felt good. My runner finished with her second best 100 mile time ever so I felt good to have, perhaps, helped make that happen. It was strange to run so much and not be a "finisher" in the race but being able to help someone else reach a goal was very satisfying.

The whole pacing experience was very good. There was much to learn from watching the race from this perspective. The mental approach and attitude I was able to observe hold valuable lessons to apply to my own running. Hopefully I can apply these very quickly as I have two big races coming up shortly. I will be looking for chances to pace again. It seems I have been missing out on a fun part of this whole ultrarunning thing. Maybe I'll even consider having a pacer myself in a race some day.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Breaking News

A few posts ago I hinted at some pending exciting news to come. Well, today is the day to report on that. I'm very excited about this journey ahead for myself and the others I know who are taking part. At the same time I am humbled by the task in front of me.

Last year, I completed the Order of Hrimthurs, which was the hardest thing I had ever done. It included the life changing 160 miles of Tuscobia, the legendary and iconic Arrowhead 135 and, finally, Actif Epica which I appreciate more as time passes. When I started running ultras 6 short years ago, those were all races that were unreachable and impossible to imagine starting, let alone finishing. The lesson learned is that by taking a chance, you find out you can do much more than you think.

Early last month I decided to take another chance on something that long seemed an unattainable dream. After going back and forth as to whether I was ready or capable, I submitted an application to what had become a bucket list race for me. Yesterday I received this...

I've only known about this race since I started running ultras so to say this was a lifelong dream would be vastly overstating it. I have had a fascination with Alaska since I was 8 or 9 years old. It was a place of mystery, freedom and adventure. I've always wanted to go and now I will have the chance.

My previous races qualified me to enter the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350. I will have 10 days to make the 350 mile journey from near Anchorage to McGrath, along the Iditarod Trail in February 2019. And now I am officially on the roster.

I have plenty on my plate to keep me focused this year but as of now, everything is work towards ITI 2019. There is a ton of work and research in the months ahead but this will be an adventure to remember. Stay tuned!

PS: Congratulations to fellow Hrimthurs, Paul Schlagel and Jeff Rock for also getting in. Knowing they will be there will make this experience even better. 


Friday, May 25, 2018

Am I A Brony?

Several years ago, I learned about this crazy race down south called the Georgia Death Race. With a name like that, how could I not want to run it? It was (and still is) a very tough run through the mountains of north Georgia. In the weeks leading up to the race I was amused by the antics of race director, a guy named Sean "Run Bum" Blanton.  Then I was impressed, when due to permitting issues, he had to change the direction of the course at the last minute. Not only did he pull this off but he then, at what I am guessing was his own expense, had new race shirts made so the text matched the new course. The race and everything about it was enjoyable (except maybe a few of the long climbs but that is what I signed up for). I looked into his other races and found one in western Virginia that had as the main feature, wild mini ponies. Being a grown man that is not afraid to admit that I really wanted to see the ponies, I finally was able to sign up this year.

The Grayson Highlands 50k takes place on the trails of Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia. Driving in to the area, I was reminded of the topography at Georgia Death Race but maybe not as severe. The location was remote, leaving me with zero to very small pockets of minimal cell phone coverage, which was just fine with me. This allowed me to relax the evening prior with a book and get well rested.

The forecast was calling for the strong possibility of thunderstorms and rain during the race. However, that morning was overcast but the rain seemed to be holding off and the temperatures were looking good. Just before we were sent off at the start we were informed that the night before they had decided to change the course to a low, unexposed route to avoid lightning issues, but had last minute changed it back and Sean was out at that moment running to reset the course markings. This ensured that we would run the route mostly likely to encounter the ponies.

The race started at the park visitor center that basically sat at a high point in the park so this meant the start was all downhill. My first two miles flying down the road clocked in at low 8 minutes per mile, which included a stop to retie my shoe. Crazy. We made a quick turn and then the splits became more real and familiar.

The course was much more rocky and technical than I expected, however, I wasn't really concerned with how much it was slowing me down. There was some good variety in terrain which included open runable sections, technical climbs and descents, and a section along a river that required some scrambling on all fours.

I felt good most of the day considering I had run a fast (for me) marathon just two weeks prior. Compared to that, this pace felt like a crawl but I didn't care. I kept telling myself to enjoy the scenery and the day. I think I did. Mostly, I just refused to feel bad, even when I started getting tired and wanted to be done. It was, I think, a good lesson in attitude to bring to later races. The idea of preparing for these races and then just wanting them to be over is strange when you consider the logic. Being in the moment and finding the joy is the point.

I was concerned for a bit early on since I had not seen the ponies. Eventually we came upon them and it was very cool. The first small herd was mixed in with some longhorn cattle, which I heard may also be up there. It seems we crossed the highlands several times and each time came across some ponies, closer on each encounter.
Real life mini ponies!!

The final section was a long climb back up towards the visitor center that felt like it would never end. When it did, the course passed right by the the finish but we weren't done. There was still another short loop to run. Cruelty.

Almost finished thumbs up
photo credit: Appalachian Exposures

I finished in a time of 6:40 which means it took me a full 3 hours longer than the marathon 2 weeks ago. There weren't even that many extra miles as, at least according to my GPS, the race was around 28 or 29 miles, not the full 50k advertised. The climbs and technicality more than made up for those "missing" miles. Overall, I had a great time.

As always when I travel a good distance to run a race, I meet new people and get to hear about races I had not heard of. This trip was no exception. Everyone was very friendly and interesting, making the time and miles pass by easily as we talked. Of course, now I have a bunch of new races to look into and add to the growing list.

Now the days are rapidly counting down to my next adventure at Ronda del Cims in Andorra. That and more coming up in the next episodes.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Glass City Marathon Recap

The day of reckoning always arrives, creeping up slowly at first and then suddenly it is front of you, regardless of your state of preparedness. I was relaxed going into the final tapering phase, which is rare for me. I was much more confident about being able to accomplish my main goal but had plenty of remaining doubt as well. I tried to keep my plan simple. I would go out running slightly under the overall pace I needed to meet the goal time and hold it as long as possible.

The weather race morning was near perfect. The sky was mostly clear and the temperatures in the low 40s, meaning the heat would not be a factor even after the sun rose completely. I wore shorts and singlet and some cheap gloves I could pull off as I warmed up.

I found my way to the assigned start corral and soon heard my name called out. Lewis and Brian, who had completed the Midwest Slam of Ultras with me a couple years ago,  were calling me from the close to the front of the crowd, so I moved up to join them. After listening to the anthems and speeches about the race, I took of with them.

The first few miles did not feel too bad as I tried to settle in to the pace as we circled around the University of Toledo campus. It was a strange feeling to start a race running that hard, or even just running that hard at all since I never do it. I began to think there was a possibility of pulling my goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

The course ran mostly through residential neighborhood streets and on a paved path through a park. I quickly realized that running at that tempo made even the smallest change in elevation very noticeable. The "hills" that I would barely even acknowledge in a trail race now seemed to drag me down, even though a quick look at the watch showed a minimal drop in pace.

Once I reached 8 or 9 miles, I started to struggle to keep the pace up. I tried to relax and just keep moving, hoping to keep up. The mile splits were getting longer and longer. By the time I was at 11 miles I knew they would continue to drop and the "A" goal was probably out the window. This was a bit disappointing but not unexpected. I was still moving much faster than my PR race pace and that goal was down to a matter of by how much would I improve.

I reached the half way point in a time close to 1:42, which if I could repeat in the second half would mean I could reach all my goals. However, my splits were still falling even when I felt I was pushing harder. It wasn't happening today.

The second half was slow. I just settled in and let the miles click off. I was not having fun and wanted to be done. The thought of jumping on one of the relay buses back to the finish crossed my mind very briefly. When this idea formed I quickly laughed to myself. I had forgotten how much a road marathon hurt. I was feeling a little miserable but was finally uplifted by a few spectator comments about my hair late in the race. Always good for a laugh.

So I had the remaining 13 miles to think about the failure to meet my goal. It would be very simple to have beat myself up over this but I soon made the realization that my goals only really matter to me. Any pressure that was created, was created by me, on myself. Whether or not I succeed has no bearing on anyone's day. I always appreciate any and all encouragement and I'm very happy if taking part in these races inspires others to try new things. It is hard to not compare myself to others and expect that I should be able to do what everyone else seems to do effortlessly. The fact is that these thing are hard for everyone, in their own way. Trying to meet an expectation based on what others are doing, that only matters to me is fruitless and in the end is meaningless.

The cliche is that it is the journey is what matters. I know this and still have to be reminded periodically. The work I did prior to this race was intended to change my focus and try to regain my joy of running. It did this by forcing me to do difficult things that I had avoided before. I'm very sure this will help my in my training for future ultras.

The final mile felt like I was dragging an anchor. The course wound around the football stadium before finally turning onto the field and finishing at the 50 yard line. I crossed the line in 3:40, which was well over my top goal but was my best ever marathon time by 4 minutes. The first half would have been my best ever half-marathon time. I should be and I am proud of the result.

The recovery over the last week has been good. I was fairly sore for a few days. I did go out an run the following day which I normally would not do. It did help and I have run every day this week. I am ready for the next challenge.

That next challenge is the Grayson Highlands 50k down in Virginia on May 5. Only 2 weeks between races so I will not do anything crazy as far as training goes. That will have to ramp up quickly following this next race since Ronda del Cims is coming quickly. I'll be reporting back shortly to cover the next race.

Monday, April 16, 2018

On The Road Again: A Quick Glass City Marathon Preview

All the training work is done and it is almost time to run the Glass City Marathon in Toledo, my first road marathon in almost 4 years. I'm not sure what to think about my readiness. My last few speed workouts went reasonably well. I mean, I didn't feel like I was going to die. The truth will be revealed somewhere around 16 to 20 miles in. Maybe sooner. I don't know.

My plan is to set my pace slightly ahead of the goal and then just try to hold on. The overall goal is to qualify for Boston, which for me is 3:25. To actually get into next year's race will require at least a couple minutes faster than that. So the goal hierarchy goes something like this:

  1. Qualify fast enough to register for 2019 Boston  (3:23ish)
  2. Qualify (3:24:59)
  3. Marathon PR (<3:44)
  4. Finish and don't get hurt
I'd be very happy with the first 3 and perfectly fine with just a finish. Based on the training feedback, I believe a PR will be nearly certain without an injury or illness. The qualifying will be a close call and I'm sure, very taxing towards the end of the race. Those last few miles will show exactly how much that goal actually means to me. I'm looking forward to learning the answer.  

The change up in training has provided a bit of what I was looking for when I decided to do this. It has renewed my enjoyment of running and made me appreciate it more. It has showed me that working on those things I'm not good at can be very positive. I should do more of it and will try to do just that. Hopefully this has taught me to be more aware of falling into a comfortable groove and that getting out of that groove requires hard work but it is rewarding work. I suppose this can apply to more than just running. 

I am looking to moving back to the trails and will do so very soon after this race. The work I have just done should help there but I will have to begin my focus on the mountains. A different world but I'll get to that when it is time. Until then I will make sure to enjoy the race in front of me, the best part of which may be seeing others finish their first marathon.

In the meantime, some exciting things are happening that hopefully I can share soon. In the last couple of weeks there has been so much anticipation and some tough descisions. We will see how everything turns out soon but I have again been reminded that you have to take chances and face what scares you in order make dreams come true. 

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Reasons and Randoms

Everyone has their reasons for running. Not everyone knows those reasons. I have been trying to figure out what my reasons are. I thought I knew them but maybe, like all things, they evolve and they change.
Last year I went from a high to a low. I complete the Order of the Hrimthurs feeling I could do anything and went on to fail in 3 out of 4 races. I didn't work hard to prepare. I didn't make myself suffer enough during the races to finish. 
This year I decided to change it up and set a goal that would require a different focus and approach. Instead of just racking up miles and time on my feet, I would do the dreaded speed work. I haven't run a road marathon in nearly 4 years. Easy when compared to an ultra right? It's so much shorter. However, it is different. It is intense. It is another kind of suffering that I am not accustom to. Once again the whole game is so much more mental than physical. 

I've found the races I do the worst in are the one where I was stressed for one reason or another shortly prior to race day. My best were those that I went into with no expectation or concerns. It all speaks to the role of the mind in accomplishing physical tasks. 

The speed work does not scare me a  much as it once did. It is beginning to become familiar. It is still very hard and not comfortable. The race is just over 2 weeks away an I feel pretty good about it though not 100% confident. Physically I will be ready, but I worry about other factors. 

Word salad and expressing vague thoughts. That's all any of this is. Fear of over-sharing, well maybe not exactly that, but of making others uncomfortable with what I choose to share. In the past, I would have said nothing. Selfishly, I feel better when I say it, even if it is uncomfortable. However, as you may have realized, I have come to believe that it takes a bit of discomfort for growth and improvement.

While getting more comfortable with the discomfort of speed work, personally I have been struggling with some abrupt changes at work that seem to have triggered me to seriously evaluate the choices I have made. I am coming to realize that I really don't like what I do, what I chose as a career. I am finding no satisfaction in my work. It has been making me more negative and increasingly unhappy. Well, that's not completely correct as it is much more complicated in my mind. I suppose I'm just feeling unhappy even though I truly have nothing to complain about. From all appearances, my life is in a very good place, and it is. I have wonderful family and friends, a great paying, secure job, and zero tragedy in my life. That is what makes feeling this way even more frustrating. I know there is no real reason for it but here it is, sitting with me constantly. I can't just will it or reason it away.

I have found some relief and an outlet in the structure and effort in training to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Running has felt very good again for the first time in quite a while. Last year I reached a point where I found no joy in it and this showed when I made my attempt at the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. I had no drive or desire. That place within me, that I can physically feel myself reach into when I'm struggling was completely spent. For me this place is located somewhere deep in the abdomen, roughly between the belly button and the rib cage.

Remarkably, that place seems to be full again at a time when I am struggling making it through a work day. I suppose I should try to look at it as a low point in an ultra, make some decisions about how to address it and eventually things will get better.

So back to the question of why I run these races and what gets me through them. Well, it seems that it teaches me about myself and ways to deal with life issues. It gives me confidence that even when I don't feel my best, I am still able to do much more that I think I can. Also, I honestly feel like I have a need to prove to others that I can do more than they think I ever could as well. That really shouldn't matter but it does, so there.
I've also been thinking about some of the people who have told me that my running posts and blogs have inspired them to do x or y. That is probably the coolest part of any of this. I'm hoping there are few more I haven't heard from and I hope there are more to come. Overall this seems like the best reason why and it's the one I'll stick with.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Zones of Comfort

The minutes seemed to tick by way too fast. I was approaching 20 minutes which would mark the end of the warm up portion and kick off what had been on my mind all day. Speed work. Specifically, 1 mile at 10k pace repeated 4 times with 5 minutes of rest in between. As the time came closer and closer, I felt myself tensing up. Emotions were welling up. I desperately didn't want to do this. It was nearly overwhelming. I was fighting the urge to give up and leave this for another day.
The entire day I had been obsessively thinking about this upcoming work out. I had to keep reminding myself I would be fine. It's a 9 or 10 mile run in total. No problem. I am 2 weeks out from finishing the Arrowhead 135. Why would running 10 miles fill me with dread?
Last year during my deep running funk I came to the conclusion that I should switch things up this year and have some new goals. One that I have been putting off was running a Boston Marathon Qualifying time. These are based on age and gender. For me, the time required is 3 hours 25 minutes. My personal best in the marathon was over 3 years ago in a time of 3 hours 44 minutes. To accomplish this new goal, I would have to run nearly a minute a mile faster. That is quite the obstacle to overcome. This marathon goal is just an arbitrary thing. It has no bearing on my value as a runner or person. It is just a target to work towards. The things that happen between now and then and how I deal with them are what truly count.
In order to run 100 miles or further you basically just train by running as many slow miles as you can. Even then I believe you can get by on mental will alone. Being physically fit helps but you suffer either way and just bear it for long time.
Running a "fast" marathon (fast being relative to each person's natural ability) is a different kind of running. The intensity is ramped up much more. The time is much shorter than an ultra but the average level of discomfort is much higher.
The training requires getting into this uncomfortable zone and, at times, into even more intense, painful zones. My running over the last 4 years has completely avoided this. I've gotten comfortable and, likely, complacent, running on the base I've built up and not pushing anything too hard.
To put it bluntly, I've been afraid of pushing myself this way. I mean actual fear. Running hard and fast hurts in a different way than running slow and long. I've grown comfortable with running slowly for long periods of time. It has become familiar. I was looking for any reason to put this off and not do it. I was afraid.
The time for the first interval arrived. I ramped up the treadmill to the my 10k pace and tried to keep my feet moving fast enough to keep up. I tried to relax and breathe. The seconds seemed to tick by slowly but I was doing it. I watched the time creep by, telling myself I only had 2 minutes to go, 1 minute to go, then it was over. 1 down, 3 to go.
By the time I reached the third and fourth, I would get a minute or two into it and my mind would be screaming out to me to stop, offering a litany of reason why it was ok to quit. I was struggling but I was still moving. I would think to myself, "what will happen if you just keep going?" and I would. I felt like I was balancing on a blade between quitting and continuing on. Finally the end came, as it inevitably does, and I had faced down my fear, at least for today. 
For the next 10 weeks I will be facing this fear of being very uncomfortable in a different way. I will be trying to practice what I preach about doing things that scare you. I will do my best to remain consistent and do what the training requires that day. That will mean facing fear and doubt in myself. None of this guarantees success but I think the trying is where personal progress is truly made.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Arrowhead 2018: Snowy Smoke Kittens and Other Delights

Last year, sitting in the pre race meeting in International Falls, I felt like I didn't belong. This year I felt much more comfortable despite my apprehension about what lay before me. The faces were more familiar. I had come to know many of these people over the year that had elapsed. I was beginning to feel like I was part of the Arrowhead family.

My finish at the 2017 race showed me that what I thought was impossible, can be possible. It was a very difficult race, especially coming off the Tuscobia 160. Finishing gave me an immense boost of confidence. However, this confidence did not translate into much success last summer. Perhaps it was a fluke. Maybe I just happened to get lucky in a relatively easy year for the race. I needed to prove to myself that this wasn't the case and I got all I could handle. I decided to give the unsupported option a try this year, meaning I could not refill water, get food or go inside for warmth at the checkpoints. This would be an added level of difficulty.

The all important weather reports leading into the race showed a low of around -10 F at the start which would then trend upward to 20 F the next day. After spending over 20 hours near -20 F at Tuscobia a few weeks ago, this would almost feel balmy. Having the same gear since last year's race gave me assurance that I would not have to worry too much about the weather {foreshadowing!!}

I slept somewhat fitfully, having recurring dreams of myself dealing with one problem or another on the course, but still felt good when I rose to put on all my gear. Sometimes, thinking about the fact that I will be living in those clothes for the next couple days puts the event in some perspective. Knowing that I would have to be out there for two days and nights in order to finish can become overwhelming. It often hits me most when putting my shoes on. "When I finally take these off", I say to myself, "my feet will likely not be in great shape."
Before. A little terrified. 

I checked in at the start and then had a series of hugs, handshakes and words of encouragement with my fellow racers. I tried to relax and get in the proper mindset. The fireworks went off and the waves of bikes and then skiers left before those of us on foot set off. I tried to walk quickly to get warm.

The first couple miles, similar to Tuscobia, had me waiting for my feet to warm up. Once they do get up to temperature I never seem to have any issues. I was wearing a new pair of gloves since I somehow lost a mitten at Tuscobia. I tend to believe mittens are better for keeping the fingers warm since they are bundled together and not seperated as in gloves. Early on the new gloves appeared to be working well.

The sun rose shortly after the start, revealing an overcast sky and some very light snow. The trail was hard and fairly smooth, making the footing nearly perfect. The early hours were spent with the usual chatting with other racers and moving along happily with no worries. However, for whatever reason I was already yawning and feeling a little sleepy 3 or 4 hours in. This was not a good sign but I would just have to deal it as it came. I was also struggling to find a good temperature balance. I was constantly adjusting jacket zippers up and down. I would pull a bluff over my cold face only to feel like I was being smothered, so I would pull it back down. This constant battle would be slightly aggrevating but it also gave me something to do instead of think about how much futher I had to go.
Early on with fellow Hrimthur Randy
credit: Burgess Eberhardt

As I approached the first checkpoint (Gateway Gas Station/Store) at 36 miles, I tried to decide what I would do there, if anything. I still had plenty of water but thought maybe it would be a good time for a hot meal since I couldn't go inside to warm up. I reached the checkpoint nearly half an hour sooner than last year, checked in and immediately headed back out on the trail to find a good place to my stove out and melt some snow to cook a freeze-dried meal. The stove lit reluctantly as I scrambled to do so without too much exposure of my hands to the cold. The flame was very low and eventually quit. I tried a couple more times to get it going but I ended up deciding I was wasting time with a stove that was not going to work at these temperatures. I was a little dejected by this but I hoped that with the warm up that was forecast, that I would be able to get things going and keep my unsupported status.

The next section from Gateway to MelGeorge Resort is around 34 miles. The previous section is basically flat the whole way, not a single hill to climb or descend. The hills begin to appear here. For me this stretch has always happened directly between sundown and sunrise. I probably wouldn't even recognize it in the daylight. The sky had cleared and a nearly full moon allowed me to go for a good amount of time with turning the headlamp on.

Shortly into this section, probably only 7 or 8 PM, I was struggling to stay awake. My eyelids became very heavy and I would find myself drifting from side to side, held up only by my treking poles. I would stop to eat or drink some water in an effort to wake myself up. This happening so early on the first night was not a good sign. Based on previous experience I knew if I fought and got through to the sunrise, I would feel better, at least for a bit. Easy to say but when you have 11 hours of hills, cold and darkness ahead of you, the feeling of helplessness looms large.

The hours and the hills passed by slowly. I began to struggle to stay warm. I would try to speed up but this helped little. I bundled up and put on as much clothing as I had with me. At a road crossing about half way through this section, I met Todd, the man with the snowmobile who will save your ass if things get real bad. Talking with him, I joked that I thought it was supposed to start warming up. "Yeah", he said, "it's -25 right now but in an hour or two it will start going up a degree an hour." This explained why with every piece of clothing I had on that I could not warm up. I started to have thoughts about whether or not I would realize I was freezing to death.

I was moving well despite the cold and fatigue, arriving at Elephant Lake an hour earlier than last year and before dawn. In those last couple of hours I had made a decision about my unsupported status. Since my stove refused to work it was probably prudent to be safe and get water at the next checkpoint. Also, spending several hours thinking about the grilled cheese and warm beds at MelGeorge was too much to resist.

The lake crossing felt shorter this year, as I knew what to expect. I followed a red blinking light moving far off in front of me and in less than 20 minutes, pulled my sled up in front of the checkpoint cabin.

Inside the cabin is chaos but oh so warm. There is gear scattered in every open space. I found an open chair, stripped off layers and piled them up in front of me, while volunteers kept bringing me warm food. The grilled cheese was excellent as always. 2 or 3 of these, a bowl of soup and a couple cookies later I moved upstairs to find a place to lie down. I found a spot on a queen bed where another racer was already sleeping on the other half. I'm not one to just sleep in a bed with a strange man but I was exhausted. Still don't know who it was.

After tossing and turning for 15 minutes trying to make the cramping stop, I fell asleep for a good 45 minutes. I looked at the time and tried get myself moving to get out of the cabin before I became too comfortable. Some of my gear was still a little damp but dry enough. I mechanically put piece after piece back into place. I felt like I was stretching the process out in order to avoid going back outside, but then the big parka was on and it was decision time. I was little surprised at the resolve I had to go back out but then it had to be forceful or I never would have stepped back out. The cold quickly swarms over you as you turn your back on all those warm friendly faces inside.

Back in my sled harness I started the 40+ mile trek to the Surly checkpoint. It was 9 AM and the forecast snow had started to fall. Fall may not be the right word. It flew perpendicular to the ground due to a strong wind, directly into my face, stinging my cheeks and eyes. The firm footing of the previous day was replaced by a layer of loose, powdery snow.

Overnight there had been a few of the typical hallucinations due to fatigue and the shadows created by the moon and headlamp. Now, going into the second day, they really started to kick in. Gazing down wearily at the path ahead of me, I would become transfixed by the footsteps of runners in front of me. The foot impression in the snow became a bowl of swirling white smoke. I then began to see the faces and paws of equally white snow kittens climbing out of the smoke bowls. This was getting interesting.

Miles crept by and I was reminded of my thoughts last year when I wondered where all these legendary hills were. They did come and were not quite as bad as I remember. They were still long and relentless but I just tried to avoid negative thoughts, put my head down and keep climbing until there no climbing left to do, repeat. Over and over.

Eventually the course levels out and I knew I was getting close to the final checkpoint. I kept expecting it around every turn but I just kept walking. I began worrying I had missed a turn. Time kept ticking on but after nearly hour over my calculated arrival, the familiar teepee came into view. I stepped inside and tried warming up with a backpacking meal. I sat for nearly an hour with my shoes and socks off and set next to the wood stove in an attempt to dry them out.

The combination of sweating during the climbs and the temperature finally rising had started to get my gear a little damp. At this point last year my feet were blistered and pickled pretty bad but were only just beginning to get uncomfortable here. At least I seemed to have figured that puzzle out.

Leaving Surly was not so hard as it meant that I was in the home stretch with a short flat section of only 23 miles. Not even a marathon. Of course it starts off with the longest, steepest climb of the whole race. What comes next though is what makes this climb worth every second. The sled ride down Wakemup Hill. This is longest and fastest ride down. Just like last year, I reached a speed that made me rather uncomfortable but I appreciated the fact that I was covering distance with little to no effort.

The remainder of the course is basically dead flat with long straight stretches. By now the sun had risen on me for the third time and I just kept my head down, chipping away step by step. I also needed to keep my head down to maintain some sense of reality. Whenever I looked ahead, I would see people, houses, parking lots full of vehicles through the trees, only to find out on arriving that they weren't really there. Nothing I saw could be trusted to be real.

I'd like to say this section went by quickly, and compared to others it did, but it was still a good 8 to 9 hours of struggle. The turn taking me off the Arrowhead trail signaled that I only had 2 miles to go. It was nearly over. I could feel the emotions rising and then falling, being to tired to sustain any constant thought. The finish line that I felt at times would never come, appeared and I had repeated the thing I had once thought I could never do.

After. A little sleepy.
Often during the later stages I would think about what I was doing and why I was doing it. I felt at times like I was carrying a huge black demon on my back. A demon personifying all my failures and insecurities, telling me I'm wasting my time and effort and weighing me down. Overcoming and finishing doesn't solve any of life's problems. What it does is make facing that demon bearable. It proves that even when things are difficult, patience and determination are what I need most often.

Hotel room aftermath
Here's the thing about a race like Arrowhead. It draws a very unique and special group of people. They are humble, kind, generous and friendly but also some of the toughest people on the planet. The shared experience of suffering brings them together. I just wrote a bunch of words about this race but unless you have been there and done it, words can never fully capture what one of these events is truly all about. Before and after the race, we tell our stories to each other and we understand beyond words. We learn from each other and are inspried by each other. I do the best I can for myself but also to honor what they do as well.

There were several first time finishers and many who have multiple finishes. There were those that didn't make it all the way for one reason or another, but had the courage to give it the best effort that day would allow. There was Kari and Kate, who started at the finish line the Thursday before the race, did the whole course, turned around and started with the rest of us, accomplishing the mind boggling Double Arrowhead (Article). Every single person involved has an amazing story and I will always do my best to be back.

Post Arrowhead tradition: A Grain Belt or two