Friday, October 16, 2009

The Last Step

My first 50-mile ultra marathon event couldn't have been a better experience even if the world's most celebrated race directors spent years of planning to put on the event. There were no crowds, no cutoff times to meet and no expectations to fret over. There were just a hand full of folks who met at Cafe Wren, Luck, Wisconsin, to go out for a day of touring the Ice Age Trail on a beautiful early fall day. The 50 miles of rolling, forested countryside was mostly moderate to casual trail running in terms of difficulty and glorious in its scenery, making the miles flow by. The true tests of the days challenges lay not in the physical demands, but in that place where the hardest adversaries dwell and the most violent, drawn out battles rage: in the mind.

The morning of the run started at a 4 am alarm and followed with a nice egg, bacon, cheese, Tabasco, English muffin sandwich, a banana and a home brewed latte. Shit. It's official. I'm an urban professional. So be it. Surprisingly, I got a very solid night's sleep and wasn't feeling nervous about the day. That all started to fall apart en route, however. I drove and drank 1 quart of Accelerade to keep my mind off the imminent pain that would ensue after the 1.5 hour drive and half hour pre-run meeting. As we crossed the MN/WI border, the nerves were in full blown alarm status. I've never run further than 26 miles before, let alone 30, 35, 40, 45 or anywhere near 50. Thoughts of shoes, blisters, the cold, wet weather, upset stomach, nutrition and the inevitable wall(s) that I was about to deal with circled through my mind, now nearly completely unchecked.My crew for the day, my wife Nancy and boy, Rowan, were already supporting me during this pre-run limbo I was confined to. Nancy kept talking and Rowan cooed and slumbered in his carrier seat sending me as much comfort as a 5 and half month can. Even so, my head was beginning to swim and my stomach was getting sea sick as a result.

We made it to Cafe Wren in the nick of time: I think if there were another 15 minutes of travel time I would've blown chunks. I didn't even recognize Peter with his newly-shaved head and everyone else gathered around the tables in the cafe were complete strangers to me. I was to be the day's newbie and was feeling very much so as I looked at the shear amount of sinew per linear foot of muscle gathered around the table. This was a different crowd than the somewhat heftier muscled climbing crowd I've grown accustomed to over the past decade and I suddenly felt heavy in spite of the 20 pounds I dropped in the past 9 months of training leading up to this day. After a debriefing by our illustrious leader of the day, Pete, we loaded up the vehicles with loads of mobile drop bags/bins to be delivered to us by Pete, Nancy and Rowan every 6-8 miles or so at road crossing aid stations.

I didn't know exactly what I was expecting for the start of the run but what happened was probably an indication of the mood for the entire day. Some casual banter between stretches and last-minute carb/water intake, some review of the initial leg's route finding and then, without warning, overt signal or anything suggesting we were about to do something highly unusual and demanding, everyone just began sauntering off into the woods ever so nonchalantly. To most people, I would guess this would be seen as somewhat anticlimactic. To us, even me, the greenie, it was perfect. The conversation began at mile 0 and didn't end until nearly 13 hours later.

I glanced down at my Garmin wrist computer's GPS-driven data to see that, yes, we were moving at 9-minute mile pace for the first 3 miles. I thought Pete said we'd be slower than molasses, topping out at 12 minute miles most of the time with bursts into the 10 minute range? Didn't the leaders of our pack get the memo? I was fine at this pace, for now, but doubted that 50 miles of it was anywhere near my abilities. Soon after that first 3 miles of likely excited energy-driven pace, we backed off to a more reasonable pace through rolling hills and then into a beautiful beaver pond. We crossed along the beaver's 100-ft long dam and on into some of the most beautiful woodland and wetland habitats I've seen in some time. We rolled through aid stations joking, laughing and sharing stories of other outdoor adventures: other long runs, adventure racing, climbing, canyoneering, biking to name a few. This band of 8 runners was starting to get to know each other and their running personalities, which would serve us well later in the run.

Somewhere around 18 miles my knees started to get a little sore. I had taken the 2 weeks leading up to the run off to fully recover from a 27-mile run at Afton State Park. When I take more than 2 days off from running, my knees and left hip start acting up on me, so I was glad things were going so well as to not have suffered any pains up to this point. But somewhere around 20-25 I began hitting a wall. Expressed physically, the mind so often sets walls for us. On the drive it was the nervous stomach. Now it was the thought of surpassing 26 miles into the unknown. I limped into the aid station at around 25 looking and feeling poor, to say the least. I was down and out, just a bit shaken and uncertain about the up and coming "part 2." We had covered nearly half the distance and my knees where stiff and sore, my energy starting to fade...far too early in the run for this to be happening. I downed 2 Pop Tarts and drank up, stretched a bit, then played with Rowan a bit. His playfulness and energy, along with the Pop Tarts, began to charge a new energy source within me. I mentioned to Nancy the the rest of the run was going to be a stout challenge and was likely going to be very painful. We set off for the beginning of the way way home, now stepping into the second half of the run. All down hill from here as they say. Never have those particular words been so loaded as in this moment.

I stiffly gimped off down the road out of the Aid station and I heard Peter yell out to me "you're limping, Shawn" and all I could think to say was "I know." Not profound to the casual bystander, or maybe even to Peter, but to me, at the time, those words that fell from my lips had weight. The acknowledgement of the failing body and the resulting pain followed by continuing on without any more discussion somehow lifted my spirits a bit and my legs began to loosen up again. The pain started to dampen as I moved from walking to running again, and we veered off into the woods just as we reached the 26.2 mile Marathon distance. I was now truly stepping into another world where everything was new to me.

The next 8 or so miles were supposed to be the crux of the day given the steeper, longer, more frequent hills. However, I was now high on pushing into a running distance that was new to me PLUS running over terrain that I love and train on with some regularity. But perhaps the greatest influence on my mood and energy level at that point was the infusion of sugar from the luscious Pop Tarts. I moved to the front of the pack of now 5 that headed off into committing to the full 50 miles.

I was in absolute heaven, regardless of the sore knees. Old growth pine forests growing over steep hills were run on exquisite single-track; the best I've ever seen (which isn't saying much given my lack of experience, but trust me, it was top-notch). As I pushed through my favorite running environment I noticed that the conversation that permeated the day up to this point had completely disappeared and it was dead quiet other than my soft foot strikes in the dirt. I looked back to everyone to see a group stone-faced. I took this as a cue that my inexperience had allowed me to lose track of my ultra pace and I was now regressing back to my solo training run pace; a pace that would probably jeopardize our chances at gracefully, or otherwise, reaching the true end of the trail back at Cafe Wren. A quick inquiry back to the very elegant and strong runner/guide for the day, Joel, produced the reply I fully expected: slow down a touch and stop running the uphills. Damn. I had lost myself in my surroundings and had fallen into my playful mode of running rather than keeping the long run in mind. I quietly chastised myself and adjusted the pace to an appropriate rate of travel.

Towards the end of the hilly section of trail, my knees came back alive with pain as we climbed over barb-wire fences and up onto elevated bridges over trout streams. When we finally came into the aid station 12-15 miles from the end of the run, I was beginning to enter that part of the run that my stomach was anticipating on the drive to the Wren that morning. That part of the run which was what I came here for. Where the muscles, tendons, nerves, even the bone marrow began to experience the task at hand in earnest. It was the real wall that needed surmounting when every handicap I have was brought to the surface. The point where the "rat" was being fed and its ravenous feeding fenzy threatened to destroy my chances of reaching the end unless I handled him with the kind of fortitude I could only hope to one day achieve. That was why I was here. That is what I came here to experience. Could I push through this horrendous, glorious task in spite of the pain and soon-to-be-profound suffering?

I knew I could. And not in a superficial, talk-yourself-into it sort of way. I knew it to be truth. I didn't doubt it but for one brief moment back around 20-25 miles. Even now, as darkness fell and my ability to want to talk or stay awake faded and my myopic vision focused to a point defined by my headlamp, my belief that I would make it did not fail. I began suffering and hurting more, but I was truly loving the experience. All that being said, I dreaded transitioning to walking and then back to running again. I wished I had the energy to run the rest of the way, to not have to experience the jolts of pain that came when my muscles were forced to loosen back up into running mode from walking; where they had nearly locked themselves into tight ropes. When we finally hit the last 4 mile stretch, a horridly flat, even, straight and level bike trail built on an old railroad bed, the whole day fell away and everything avalanched, emotionally and physically, down to this last bit. The entire day leading up to this point served as the means to which I was now about to meet the real challenge.

One would think that moving into such casual running terrain after all the hills and uneven footing would be a relief, but it was pure and utter hell. Even in the dark one could see forever. At least in the rolling, meandering, hilly terrain you could only see 100-200 feet in front of you most of the time. We were now forced to look off into the infinite, towards a finish line that might as well have been another 50 miles away. I resigned myself to running 1 mile and then walking, so I checked my watch and then starting running. After what I thought was about a mile, or 15 minutes, I looked down to see that I had covered 0.20 miles. I was was absolutely dumbfounded. I confirmed the distance with others and was heart broken. The next 4 miles consisted of what seemed to be a Twilight Zone existence where time did not exist and the miles felt, honestly, much more like 20 road miles on a training day at 10K pace. Only I was averaging 20 minutes per mile, including running and hobbling. Whenever I started running again after a walking break, my knees, quads, calves and hamstrings protested with sharp pain as they tried to loosen back up again.

I turned off my headlamp, put my head down, and turned inward, deeper down than I can remember. Deeper that my first climb of the Grand Teton where we spent 3 days on the climb (from the climbers ranch and back) and got severely dehydrated. Deeper than last year's ascent of Mount Moran when Sue and I were forced to bivy overnight on the top of the route in response to the impending lightning storm and darkness. We slept on top of our flaked ropes in the gravel of a ledge with only space blankets to keep the night cold and wind off us. We slept after climbing for 12 continuous hours on 1.5 liters of water, three energy gels and two power bars each. We spent the next day doing 12-15 rappels into the unknown without water or food and were forced into a Zen trance needed to keep composure in such a hostile environment and after the exposure and energy drains required of the classic route. We got to the base of the mountain and still had the second half of the day to bushwhack out to the Lake and canoe and portage back to the car. We were spent, drained, tired, sore and very, deeply satisfied; albeit potentially a little irritable and smelly, but otherwise overjoyed with our coup. On this 50-mile run I had to dig deeper than our attempt of Edith Cavell in the Canadian Rockies in piss-pore conditions, neither summer or winter conditions, just crap. We bailed at the midpoint shoulder of the massive mountain and spent the rest of the 24 hour continuous climbing day rappelling, down climbing, sliding, and eventually walking back to the hut.

On this 50-mile run I was forced into a new depth within. This is why I came here, for that final step and all that it had to offer me.

The last step of the run came and with it too came an immediate release. The pain stopped, the continuous movement that the13 hour day demanded (we spent 22 hours moving and 2 hours at aid stations since it wasn't a race) all immediately and profoundly came to an end. So to did the immense struggle for the last leg of the run. And then the realization that a significant portion of the suffering was derived from my mind, not the physical demands. Certainly, the rigors of the day were great, but not so great that I didn't immediately start wondering when I could run 50 again; when would it be beyond the "too soon to be safe" period? How much more training would be required to do 100 miles at altitude in the mountains? I didn't reach my ultimate wall of suffering on this run, so what will it take; howmany miles and what kind of terrain? When, where, with who, how, but never did I ask myself why. That part has always been known to me since I was a child. I've never suffered trying to determine why I challenge myself in these ways in the wilderness. I'm fortunate, very gifted and grateful for that.

The shower back at Pete and Jen's place was likely the best, most amazing shower ever had by anyone in modern history. Of that, I have no doubt. I went in looking, and feeling, like my essence was drained from my body leaving a wrinkled raisin of a human, only to emerge full of joy, life and energy; well, at least much more than I could have expected given the day's demands. We all enjoyed a tremendous spread of food and even managed a beer. The smiles were plentiful even though most of us, except Joel, walked as if our Achilles tendons had been calcified and needles were injected into our soles. I probably looked like a really old man as I moved, but I felt so very alive and full of joy and good fortune. What a privilege to have the opportunity to train and then run an ultra marathon. If I had the ability to provide this experience for everyone in the world, I would drop everything and make it happen.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Mountain, Revisited

The feelings and emotions I'm experiencing leading up to my first 50-mile trail run are not new. Sure, doing 50 miles certainly is for me, but the upwelling, primordial charge of anxiousness is pure electricity. It courses through my nerves, spreading through my body with a relentlessness I can only hope be harnessed this Saturday.

The first time I went to Devil's Tower I arrived after sun down. We were on a 2-week road trip to climb in several places. This was my first time to this landmark of the rock climbing world and I was now sitting below it under the stars. I could swear I felt its gravitational pull as I tried to ascertain whether the seemingly impossible black mass in the sky was made of rock or anti-matter. The feeling I had there reawakened the feelings of my first days of climbing. Nervous energy fed from that which creates all fear: the unknown.

Contemplating running 50 miles for the first time has now given me that gift another time and I'm pleased to the core. I'm so looking forward to tackling this new mountain and continuing to experience that old one, the overcoming of nerves, fear and uncertainty.

Now if I can just ward off this damned looming cold virus before Saturday...

Monday, August 17, 2009

Growing Wings

Watching your children find their center in nature is a wonderful, no, overwhelmingly rewarding privilege. Maya (5 yrs old this month) has been exposed to some magnificent vistas, has been shown the merits of expelling uncomfortable physical effort towards some distant point in the challenging landscape, been privy to such rich and varied aural and culinary experiences that many adults I know seldom take the time to enjoy, and is coming to understand the significance of it all. Watching my 4 month old boy, Rowan, open his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth to his environment and his hands and skin take in all of the fascinating textures in our world is only surpassed by watching his cognitive powers explode in their growing capacity like ever increasingly powerful super novas.

OK, maybe I'm romanticizing a bit about the abilities of my children, but the feeling I get watching them develop and respond so positively to nature's gifts is nothing short of pure joy. If humanity could simply focus their meditative efforts onto children for half the time they spend fretting about the bottom line our collective intellectual and spiritual trajectories would surely far surpass our limited imaginations.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Day of Firsts

I'd like to hear about a memorable "Day of Firsts" that you've had. Share with us a day when you surpassed your expectations and what it felt like.

Here's one to start things off:

I wasn't intending on sending hard at the local sport crag yesterday, I simply wanted to just get out and get a few choice routes done, metering out my efforts so as not to negatively affect my scheduled 18 mile run later in the day. But my plan started to fall apart shortly after the warm up route. I intended to simply put the draws up on a pseudo-project of mine, Advanced Birding, 5.12b, so as to work out the moves for some other day's Red Point attempt. After needing to hang at the lock off crux I realized my upper body strength has diminished recently due to the demanding volume of running and lack of protracted climbing sessions of the summer. However, after that hang's recovery period I went on to finish the route clean meaning, perhaps, if all went well and with a bit of luck, I might be able to actually go for the Red Point next try rather than next week.

So, after some recovery belaying Ruben on another route, and some refueling, I retied in and began climbing the project. A nice rest for 2 minutes before the meat of the climb allowed me to clear my head and then something wonderful happened. My belayer, then several on-lookers, unknown to me, started shouting up words of encouragement. A young climbing enthusiast named Jack, maybe 9 and sending 10's that day, started shouting up "come on, Shawn! Come on!" Something about the unsolicited encouragement from a complete stranger, especially a youngster, provided me the little extra sustaining power I needed to clear that demanding lock off, bring my lower extremities up and over that first roof pull, then through the second and to the chains, thereby completing my first lead of a sport 5.12b. My exhaling relief was apparently audible 50 feet lower and under the two roofs by Katie and her comment about its wonderful quality, one of deep satisfaction, was rewarding as well.

I then moved on to one of my favorite 5.1o trad routes (No Whippin' Boys) and one of my favorite sport 5.11b/c's (Doctor Limit) and sent both without too much effort sealing off a wonderful, albeit somewhat abbreviated, day at Red Wing.

The day's rewards were not too soon over. After a bit of refueling back home, the Asics road running shoes were tied on and water bottles filled and off I went for the longest proposed continuous run I've done. Suffice it to say, that after the day's climbing my legs were a bit fatigued from the get-go and my reserves were pretty drawn down. All but maybe 2 miles of the 18 that I then ran were fought for. Even at mile 5 I was beginning to think that maybe 18, after climbing, was too ambitious. Part way through the run I had an opportunity to bow out and take another bridge across the river and back home, thereby cutting the run to 13 miles, but, regardless of the doubt of completion and the prospect of unknown quantities of assured suffering, I decided to forgo that bridge and pressed on. I made it to the midway point, the intended bridge, and crossed the river. Its viewshed provided my a glimpse into the next 4-5 miles of running back towards home and my heart sank at the distance knowing that there was another 4-5 to do even after that seemingly endless, visible distance. From that point on, every half mile felt heavy, slow and too much like a drudgery. The negative voices started flowing in earnest. I heard myself beginning a vocalized dialogue against the voices around mile 12 and wondered how long I had been talking out loud and how many passers-by heard me. In the end, I completed the full 18 miles through the suffering and negative voices to accomplish my longest run to-date. Most often, after I do this, there is some elation and sense of joy, even a longing for the next run. This time, it was nowhere to be found.

Regardless, I learned plenty about what I can overcome yesterday. I learned, again, that one's initial assessment of ability in the face of challenge, pain, suffering, or fear is almost never 100% accurate. In both my climbing day and my running experience that day I remember saying to myself that the challenge was not going to be met on that occasion; that I would need to simply get a day's worth of practice in and then come back and do it again when I'm fit enough. In both instances, I was far off the mark. Sometimes, it's great to be wrong.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Your Favorite Running Area

My Garmin GPS wrist computer's data on my PC screen provides all I need to explain why, as I try to hobble my way down the stairs this morning, my back is so sore, my achilles tendons are taut like steel cables and my arches are tender. Afton's 25K course, and my few off-track wrong turns, provide more gnarly hills per linear mile than most any other place I frequent (barring the north shore). That's terrific, since I love hills. Granted, to make the full 16 miles I walked most each and every one of them except all but the tamest. Afton has tremendous single-track, beautiful, diverse plant communities to run through (ranging from floodplain forest, through hardwoods forest and into the high and dry savana) and several stream courses to follow and cross in its web of trail options. The views of the St. Croix from several vistas are magnificent and the trails never seem overly busy. The real treat is that all of this beauty makes the challenging running all worth while. It propels me to push and meet, or even surpass, what I think I can do in a way similar to the mountains or a paticularly aestheic rock or ice climb. This time it meant finishing 16 miles of its trails in 2:58:13, 11:08 min/mile with 3500 ft of elevation gain...peanuts for accomplished runners, but this pace is faster than what my 3 mile, paved and flat urban running pace was last January, so I'm lovin' life right now...I doubt that my pace would have been as fast in any other trail I run with lesser beauty.
So here's a call out to all you trail runners: let's hear about your favorite trail runs and why they are so special.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Ultimate Cross-Training Weekend

There comes a time in every wannabe athelete's carrier where it all comes together. The penultimate point in space and time where all of sports academia meets execution. This weekend was no such marriage.

The following outlines a highly designed, researched and effective method for cross-training as peformed by one amatuer, not to mention any names, this past weekend. Optimal target goals for maltodextrin, fructose, electrolyte, amino acids and maximum water uptake were calculated versus the execution of three forms of exercise prescribed over specific durations and intensity. The expected outcome for the participant's body was expected to be complete draw-down, without the experience of too much pain, suffering and otherwise unglamorous, outward physical, and apprently mental, appearance.

Day One: Start the day off right with a nice fried agg and cheese sandwich, washing down the wholesome goodness with a latte, as any urbanite would do on any given day. Follow this with a nice quart of water to rehydrate and prepare for the day ahead. Next, shovel out 1.25 yards (1.75 tons) of soil in your backyard and spread across new tiered landscaped area nearby. Be sure to stay on a steady, moderately-paced effort with no breaks. Next, trim an overgrown Lilac hedgerow, remove all of the existing landscaping and plants in the new yard area and load all the biomass into a truck and unload it at a local compost/mulch yard. Follow this, with no more than a 10 minute rest (best taken in-transit) by getting 1.25 yards of sand loaded into the truck. Bring truck back to the house. Next, build, in 2 hours or less, a cedar sand-box permimeter around the previously excavated hole. Quickly ingest a sandwich, 2-3 cookies and more water being sure not to rest for more than 15 minutes. Next, transfer the entire 1.25 yards (1.75 tons) of sand from the truck, via two 5-gallon buckets (60 lbs each) each trip, into the sandbox. Be sure to not move the pallet of new landscaping materials that are in your way, making the 25 foot distance awkward and mentally-challenging. The entire day should take about 10 hours with two quick breaks that should simulate an Ultramarathon's aid station maximum time commitment. Congratulations, you are now ready for a quick shower, dinner and sleep.

Day Two: Sleep in, you desreve it. Casually saunter to your local sport climbing crag alone and hook up with friends for a short day of intense climbing. Start out by leading an 11a for warmup. Then move on to an 11d...feel free to fall once. After completing the route, lower to the ground, belay a friend on it, then Red Point the route on what should be your 3rd try overall. Cool down on a 10b and eat a banana, some gel and finish off your quart of water. Mix a new quart of water with Electrolyte sports drink and drink this while driving home. Get home, eat one small piece of frozen pizza (cooking it is optional) and head out for a 14 mile run with 2 quarts of water in your backpack. Never mind the fact that your legs are so stiff and tired from the earth moving portion of your workout that you have a hard time getting out of the car. Make it to the 7 mile turnaround point and put your head down and keep moving. Get to mile 10 and start counting down by half miles to keep yourself motivated. Get to 2 miles from the finish and listen for someone groaning behind you...NOTE: you may come to realize its actually you. Get to the end being sure to leave yourself 1.5 miles short of your 14 mile goal. This will be the mental coping training portion of your weekend. Turn around and head 0.75 miles back up the trail again and turn around and head back to the finish. At this point you may want to count down in 0.10 mile increments to keep your legs moving. Be sure to have a few windfallen trees to try and get over as your legs will appreciate the extra effort of having to be lifted, by hand, over them.

Complete your weekend's efforts with a quart of recovery drink followed by popcorn or anything else your body will actually accept at this point.

NOTE: It is recommended that you take the day off from work the following day.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Interstitial Spaces

My back bent, thighs screamed and mind faltered as I trudged my 60 lb, external frame Kelty backpack up the seemingly never-ending switchbacks. My footfalls were carefully selected to avoid the jutting rocks and loose soil to avoid any turned ankles or trip-ups. The trail rose in switchbacks between false summits that made the ice fields I sought to spend the night out on elusive. It was only going to be 3 miles, or so, but the mountain slopes rising from the Ocean rose abruptly and unforgiving. The Alaskan coast also enabled thick temperate rainforest vegetation to grow rampant and wild. It clawed at the damned exposed backpack frame, threatening to toss me ass-over-tea-kettle down the trail, or worse yet, off the trail and down the glacier. I vowed to buy one of those new, sleek internal frame jobbies when I got back home. When I was a child, my parents called me their “little mountain goat” due to my uncanny ability to bound over 3rd class terrain (talus and boulders) with ease and confidence. What happened? My protesting knees, aching from another backpacking excursion earlier in the trip, were beginning to question all of this damned abuse, so I stopped for a rest over my trekking poles. I envisioned looking something like a Salvador Dali figure at this point; a thin, transparent, damned apparition being help upright by grotesque crutches. It was at this point a thunderous report of kinetic energy rushed down from above. Being bear (read: enormous) country, I was immediately panicked, but to my surprise and bewilderment it wasn’t a Brown Bear rushing me. Instead something far more absurd seemed to fly down the trail. Three young men free falling—no, running—down the mountain, while laughing, blazed past me completely unencumbered. They had run up the Exit Glacier trail I was crawling up, turned around, and then headed back down for home. Running this trail seemed completely out of the realm of possibility to my close-minded 1980’s backpacking mindset. It was the era of heavy, slow and over-armored clothing and heavy boots, not “light is right.” At least not for the contemporary backpacking world. I set my ridiculous backpack down and began re-evaluating my approach to movement in the mountains right there.

Setting out to run a 13.3-mile section of the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) is really no big deal for accomplished trail runners. Apparently, I’m not accomplished, yet. I have set my feet down on the majority of its segments, some sections several times, so am much acquainted with its rigorous nature. Its vertical relief isn’t as impressive as the Coastal Ranges, the Rockies, the Alaskan Range or even the Appalachians. That is, if you were to look at it via a coarsely-scaled topo map. Its verticality is measured, as far as the hiker or trail runner is concerned, in a finer scale of nearly continuous, repeated, steep, ups and downs. Most of its single-track is littered with uneven footing; the result of a tremendous amount of rocks and roots jutting through the soil. My hiking experiences on trails throughout North America, especially the SHT, taught me how to move effortlessly through this sort of terrain at around 3 mph throughout the day. I was about to learn that none of this mattered when the hiking shoes are replaced by running shoes. Neither was my level of fitness and confidence related to the urban trails and paved runs of the Twin Cities.

I had a tremendous few weeks leading up to this weekend. Trail runs at Afton SP, Fort Snelling SP and my road runs were getting faster and easier by the run. In fact, my 10-mile pace at the demandingly hilly Afton were breaking 10 minutes (I felt great for a beginner like me) and my hills and speed workouts on the pavement were really improving. My urban exploits were tough efforts and very productive. Since I was planning on going to spend time with my Father, Step Mother and family at the cabin on the North Shore, I was excited test my fitness on the familiar, challenging ground of the SHT. Of course, I have heard from other trail runners that the SHT is a monster and considered to be very technical and physical, but hey, it’s an old friend of mine and I was feeling pretty good about my progress.

Shit! I left that extra 20 oz’s of Electrolyte/Carb/Amino Acid drink mix in dad’s truck and he’s already pulled off through the woods leaving me at the trail head with my measly 12 oz’s of mix, 3 shots of Hammer Gel and 2 liter water bladder. OK. It’ll be tougher in this 80+ heat, but it’s training, so this extra suffering will serve well at some point. Some nervous, token stretching, some excited pacing and then I’m off down the nearly hidden trail towards the Temperance river 13+ miles distant. That first 1.5 miles is always a little tough for me as my body slowly relaxes and softens up to the effort. This time, however, the heart rate doesn’t seem to want to taper back down to its distance pace after the “warm up.” Probably due to needing to concentrate my whole body on preparing for each chuck and jive around the roots and rocks I’m encountering. Man, this section’s track is really narrow. The sedges and grasses sometimes completely cover my view of the running surface…gotta slow down a bit, no, a lot or I’m taking a header, for sure. Running on this terrain is NOTHING like hiking. The trail is a completely new animal now. I dug deeply for that little mountain goat deep inside me as I focused my attention to reacting within a split second to the consistently variable running surface (no, that’s not an oxymoron).

I picked this section of the SHT because it supposedly started out high, eased over some terrain, crossed the Cross River Valley, then rose up and over the ridge down into the Temperance River Gorge. It was supposed to be relatively casual for SHT, but I must have forgotten about how convoluted this trail is. It was designed to bring you through terrifically varied terrain and up to as many vistas of the landscapes as seen from high as possible. That frequently means a whole lot of up and down action and I was being reminded of this fact over and over again. Ah yes, training. Find those spaces between the obstacles and avoid tripping up. Get over the fact that it’s too damned hot to be doing this and the electrolyte levels in your blood stream are too low to help you assimilate water that you need to run the Kreb’s cyle that will enable you to get to the end of the run. Ignore the burning thighs and calves on the steep uphills…oh yeah…I should be walking these! Try to will your rubbery legs to support your controlled falling on the downhill runs. Drink, Gel, drink, gel….there goes the last of the electrolyte mix. There goes mile 10 and finally the Cross River. Now suck it up and work up the slopes of the gorge to get to the top of the next ridge overlook. How the hell did a friend of mine just do the entire 205 miles in a little over 4 days? That’s an average of 50 miles/day for 4 days over this horrendously rocky, rooty, narrow and steep up and down brutality! She must be superhuman. But I’ve seen her fail at things just like us mortals…either way, superhuman or just really gifted and fit, I’m blown away by what she’s done on this track.

I'm suffering now and it’s not an unusually long run for me. It is, however, the hardest run I’ve ever done. I remind myself to enjoy scenery and to relax by trying out some mantras on in and out breaths. I try to say out loud “focus on the fun, not the negative” knowing well that this part of my training is likely 200% more important that the physical side. In doing so, I’m avoiding the pitfalls of mental rocks and roots poised in my path to topple me or hut me down. I need to find that firm, welcoming footing between the mental obstacles. It’s working again and my body physically rewards me with a little more energy and less intense revolts from dehydration; although the water deficit is becoming almost alarmingly apparent. I am reminded of my first trip the Tetons where a slower partner set our summit day at 24 hours of effort resulting in severe dehydration by the time I got back to the climbers ranch the next morning. Shit, I don’t want that to happen again…get a move on and get over this ridge so you can get down the slopes to the Temperance and the van.

Now the long, steep, loose descent to the Temperance was even demanding. I hoped for things to ease off a bit as I was about to run out of water and I wasn’t feeling so well, but this was one long descent on rubber legs. I watched my Garmin report the news like an ongoing news flash. My 10 minute pace, long gone, was slipping past 12. Crap! I haven’t been this slow in over a year. Now it’s approaching 13 min/mile…is there anything I can do to salvage my pace? Nope. By the time I reach the Temperance I’ve slowed to 13.3 min’s/mile and it’s all I can do to run the bedrock trail downstream to the van. I run past sun bathers and swimmers along the river. Tourists and families, out for a beautiful day hike off Highway 61 up to the deeply cut channel of the Temperance, either nervously smile or reluctantly step aside as I make a desperate attempt at salvaging my pace and composure. I was really salty. I wondered about my face and how wretched it must have appeared.

I resolved myself to picking my tired body up and shouldered that damned heavy load up and over the last bluff leading to the ocean of ice that formed the ice fields hanging above Seward, Alaska. I worked a ways out onto its expanse and marveled at the surrounding peaks whose summits rose out of the sea of ice. I drove 12-inch barn nails into the ice and cracks in the rock so I could fasten tarps over my crappy little tent as I expected some unstable weather ahead. For the next twelve hours, I held that tent together in a storm that ravaged with near hurricane-force winds and sleet. I came here for the experience. I prepared for it. Perhaps a bit naïve, but seasoned enough to withstand the demands of the situation. I had to force my mind to look for those places where there was firm footing and to focus on the experience without attaching good or bad connotation in order to see clearly and persevere.

It seems that the most important accomplishments are not those measured by the obvious trophy (e.g., the summit, the finish line, the big contract), but, rather, those little moments of pure clarity where the footsteps and efforts fall with precision when they could have either led to falling or were simply not taken at all due to the arduous effort. Choosing to do something then finding those choice footfalls between the dangerous obstacles may lead to a seemingly big goal, but each of those instants is the real reward. The SHT redefined what “hard” running is and adjusted my reference for what effort really means. I’m grateful the experience came at this phase of my training as everything from this point on will be measured against it and be that much easier, or drive me to push that much harder.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Dirt Behind Me

The miles are slowly, but consistently, accumulating behind my heels. It's funny how lofty goals make the preparation's magnitude change. A friend of mine did the first ascent of an ice climb in Canada and named the route "Einstein Said It Best," presumably in response to a partner's exclamation of its difficulty. I couldn't agree more. The relative difficulty of a task is surely defined, almost entirely, by the relative perception of the person who's charge it is to complete it. Perceive the task as enormous, intimidating and beyond our mortal capabilities and it will be. Leave behind perceptions altogether and instantly accept the whole pie, savoring each smaller piece one bite at a time and eventually you're rewarded with an empty pie tin. The job is done, there's no trophy or parade; just the empty pie tin and a satisfied hunger after the "doing" is done.

As I careen my body's inertia towards my first ultra marathon this coming fall, I find the greatest challenge not being the physical demands set forth in training and for the eventual 50 miles of effort, but, rather, the training of the mind. It's far too easy to let that 50 miles seem almost Himalayan in magnitude. Who am I to be so audacious as to think I can do that? B.S. I've already done similar things in the mountains and many of my friends have as well; for that matter, so have many other folks, and several far further and over more difficult terrain and conditions than I can expect for my first experience. I'm not them, but my psyche is very similar. Perhaps that's one reason they're my friends..."birds-of-a-feather."

So as the dust builds up on my calves and the single-track throws roots, rocks and branches at me through the rolling hills of Minnesota and Wisconsin, I let my body build and focus my biggest effort on controlling the mind's nay-say tendencies. Perhaps that's the real Himalayan task and the dirt that needs to be set behind me.

Monday, June 1, 2009


Oh, how I envy their awareness, their purity and their vast reservoirs waiting, yearning to be filled by the world's experiences. The awestruck moments when their synapses spuriously erupt causing that humming buzz of epiphany that I seldom feel any more; that I almost have forgotten. Their soft joy of unprejudiced sensation! Could there have been a time in my own life where observations of my environment were so uncluttered by preconceived notions - a point where reality wasn't rendered down to, rather, an interpretation for my convenience or comfort? Now, the real trick isn't enabling envy to take hold or for sorrow to immobilize me for the sake of lost aptitude or, heaven forbid, capacity. The challenge is drawing from this, these effortless, natural born abilities, to re-pioneer into that state of being that permits unencumbered absorption of what truly is and matters in that moment. Then, maybe, I will feel again what it is to truly have wings.