Western States: meeting the course and a champion

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With Ann Trason in her home gym in Auburn

Health, disconnectedness, exploration, connectedness, natural beauty, quiet, solitude — of the many reasons to run, several came together the other day. I was visiting Auburn, a town not far from Sacramento. It’s nice and sleepy and hilly, reminding me of the small cities in New England.

The reason I went there was Ann Trason. Basically, over the past couple of months I had convinced Ann to see me for a conversation about running. The more I’d learned about her incredible life and running career, the more certain I became: she needs to be featured in my new book.

She agreed to see me, warning about her “crazy” dogs. (They turned out to be no crazier than our Charlie, ultimately sweet and just needing attention.) So I got to spend a wonderful afternoon at Ann’s home, asking the legend all sort of questions — some appropriate, some less so. She answered kindly.

IMG_2224I felt lucky to learn and listen, while the happy puppy Hazel contributed to our chat with her squeaky toy.

Before meeting Ann I explored the final miles of the Western States course, a race almost every endurance runner dreams of. It rained. The air was cool. The mountains seemed to envelop me. Realizing some of the greats raced down these trails to finish strong in Auburn — including Ann, who won here an astounding 14 times — was humbling.

What a lovely training run on the deserted trails. Meeting Ann Trason right after, as we enjoyed hot chai, made the day just perfect.

 

Fifty miles of gratitude (and some pain)

IMG_0628 (1)After 25 miles something shifted in my mind. It felt good to still be running. Food was staying down well, the legs felt surprisingly strong, the weather was exquisite. Just under a marathon to go. That’s when the old question —can I do this?— changed.

Now I asked, how fast?

There’s also, always, that little issue as to why? But during the beautifully organized North Face Endurance 50 mile challenge, earlier this month, the answers to that question were everywhere. In the steep mountains, the silent forests, the breathtaking views, the gait of friends at different spots. On Kelly’s happy face at every aid station. In my own grateful heart.

The evening before the big run my body was tense with happy nerves. It’s a physical manifestation of my readiness, something I have come to accept since I first experienced it before small New York races some ten years ago. Sleep was hard to come by. I rose at 3 a.m. At 5 o’clock Kelly kissed me as I turned on my headlamp. The horn sounded and were off, into the pitch-dark morning on trails that immediately began to climb.

IMG_0653 (1)Two hours in I felt warm and loose. Just then the first light began lighting up the green hillsides. As the sun turned the ocean blue, warming the air, my heart felt full. We climbed. I chatted with runners around me. The pace felt right. The next downhill was quick and light, and I realized I was smiling involuntarily. Why do we run? For those moments, out in the wilderness, when the smile cannot be denied.

IMG_0667 (1)The NF50 is not for the untrained. Barely a mile is flat on the northern California course. So we climbed, power-hiked, sighed, yelled, reached barren hilltops, picked up speed, flew down curvy single tracks, ate potatoes dunked in salt, gulped down cool water, and felt free. We ran. And ran. Kelly’s hugs and words pushed me forth.

IMG_1305Seeing my new running friend Annie Weiss lifted my spirits, as well. Her comeback to ultra running was impressive; running with her the day before and around mile 30 was a privilege. (Her great race report can be found here.)

Forty-four miles in I felt elated, exhausted, and emotional. Kelly waited at the last aid station she could reach, jumping and yelling. I felt like crying, my mind and soul over-flowing with gratitude for the ability to do this, here, now, with her, testing the limits of my endurance alongside my wife. We hugged, I cried.

Then she sent me on her way.

“Just another 10K”, she whispered.

I swallowed and tried to focus on the climbing trail ahead. “One loop in Central Park”, I said. “I can always do one more loop.”
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During the final miles my legs hurt while my face felt crusty with salt. I looked up and the views took away the little breath I had left: the Golden Gate Bridge, downtown San Francisco, the hills and the ocean, all in one  stunning wide vista. Why do we run? For this.

Maybe, just maybe there’s an issue with addiction here. In an interesting recent story on ultra running, the New Yorker put it like this: “I wondered if, like an addict, he had developed a tolerance to running, and now required an ever-greater dose to reach the same runner’s high.”

But I still wince when I or someone else uses the word “addiction” in this context. It seems to suggest harm and evoke negativity, whereas my running is simply good. Not painless or harm-free, of course. In that sense running is like life — it can hurt and fulfill and suck and lift-up, all at once.

On that note: wishing everyone a peaceful year filed with love, happy runs, and muddy shoes.

Readiness

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Why is this man smiling? Because he finished his first 50 miler!

  1. read.i.ness
    willingness to do something.
    the state of being fully prepared for something.

Am I ready? Ready for 50M (80K), Saturday on the trails north of San Francisco?

Well, I feel strong and healthy. Stronger en healthier than ever, perhaps. With some love and careful maintenance the aging body is holding up quite well, like my mother’s Dutch bike. A recent 50K on the trails down here went awry — a DNF in the final miles. But after the disappointment faded I realized I’d made a good call. I had decided to heed the warning signs, stay healthy, and allow my body to recover quickly as I continued to train for Saturday.

I have prepared well, with the help of friends old and new.

I know I can run the distance, for I’ve done it, finishing smiling. I know I love testing the limits which I know are soft and ever-changing, not hard and absolute. Mentally I am ready, as K said this morning. It is my choice to be.

How about the lingering doubts and patches of mental fog, occasionally clouding the views? I accept them. They have always been with me. What I must and do remember are the times when this age-old insecurity fueled me to joyful, speedy 15Ks, half marathons, marathons, and 50Ks. And that first 50 miler.

Over time running has helped me tame the dark monster inside, I wrote it in my book. Saturday, he can come out, say hello, and guide me forth.

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A runner turns 1

IMG_1052Charlie has always been fast. But today I’m surprised. On her birthday she wants just one thing. Trails! So after a short climb we hit a gradual downhill in Will Rogers State Park. I push and reach a sweet sub-6 minute pace. Then I look over at Charlie. She barely seems to be working. This is a jog. Maybe. She looks up at me with a face I know so well. It basically says, “Hey dude, you call this running? Let’s go and chase that bird before it takes off.” Then she shifts gears and runs what must surely be sub-4 pace.

The bird never waits for Charlie to reach her.

Our girl turns 1 today. She is still as wild and free as the day we picked her up. Still as sweet. And sometimes shy. Always a bundle of pure energy. Increasingly a decent listener. And when she is all tired and worn out she can let go.

Here are some images in chronological order — Year One.

A Grand Summer of Running: Mammoth

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Life has been interesting of late. A dog named Charlie joined our family. We got married. My back healed quickly after surgery. And I was lucky enough to run in some superb places. This is a chronological series of impressions from the trails I explored in the summer of 2015. One installment every Friday, for a while.

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On the last day Deena Kastor spoke the words that, looking back, perfectly capture the spirit of her running camp, and of herself. “Catch me if you can”, she called out casually over her shoulder in that kind, singsongy voice. Then she took off, like a deer, running lightly — practically sprinting — up the mountain. Leaving us behind, gasping and battling our way up, looking a little bit less like light-footed deer.

It was a hazy Sunday morning. The group had started at the Mammoth Mountain Main Lodge, to run the Ezakimak course; that’s ‘kamikaze’ spelled backward. A quick 5K, yes, but also a brutally steep 2153-foot ascent to end at Mammoth peak: over 11,000 feet high.

IMG_0198Deena set the pace, of course, a skinny pink blur moving alongside us. Breathing hard in the thin air, finding any sort of rhythm was tough. Still, the group moved well. Then those words from the Olympic marathon medalist / American Masters record holder on many distances: “Catch me if you can!”

None of us could, naturally, but competition was not the point of Deena’s first Running Escape, held last September in this wild and lovely part of California. Instead, the goals as I saw them:

  • Focused training on a variety of surfaces and courses, under the kind direction of Deena and her husband and coach, Andrew Kastor.
  • Building confidence and a positive attitude toward self and running.
  • Making new friends.
  • Eating really well.
  • Laughing.
  • Enjoying time off the grid in the mountains I had ever visited before.

The quiet trails and the excellent oval track the Kastor’s helped build, provided the perfect terrain as my training for couple of fall ultras was just taking off. The hotel served tasty and wholesome food, and it opened the kitchen for Deena to teach a cooking class as well.

It makes you wonder why some people seem to have all the talent: speed, strength, confidence, health, joie de vivre, and cooking as well. The answer may be that it’s only partly talent. Being around Deena for a few joyful days made it clear that she works hard and happily at all she does as a champion runner, mother, wife, thinker, cook, coach, and Generally Good Person. Her success in running and life is a choice, it seems. That message came shining through during our group runs, Sound Mind workshops, dinners, bus rides, movie nights, chats, and walks.

I found it hard to believe this was her first running camp. Deena knows how to organize. With the help from Andrew and her sponsors, she created a perfect getaway for runners of all ages and backgrounds. I highly recommend it to anyone remotely interested in trail running. But you will not catch her.

A Grand Summer of Running: Kauai

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Life has been interesting of late. A dog named Charlie joined our family. We got married. My back healed quickly after surgery. And I was lucky enough to run in some superb places. This is a chronoligcal series of impressions from the trails I explored in the summer of 2015. One installment every Friday, for a while.

Finally, I set foot on Maui. The name Hawaii has always excited me. As a boy I would stare endlessly at photos from Maui’s windy east coast, printed on the glossy pages of windsurfing magazines. Now we are here. K and I will sail and hike, eat and drink, relax and be quiet.

And I will run!

From Maui we go on to Kauai and K points out that one of the world’s most gorgeous and “dangerous” hiking — i.e. running — trails is right there. The Kalalau trail weaves its way over the rocks, through the jungle forests, over the mountains, across wild rivers, and back again. One way it’s 11 miles. I think about it. For about 4 seconds. Yes, I think: let’s run that, all 22 miles. Fun!

We get up this Saturday in August before 5 a.m. We eat, hurry out the hotel door, drive in the dark, and get to the trailhead as the first light reports for duty. We can hear the ocean is to our right, but we ignore it. Slowly we start up the quiet trail. Not a soul to be seen.

IMG_0158We climb and sweat, marveling at the thick, lush vegetation and the stunning views. Sorry to grab that cliche, but if anything is stunning, it’s this mountainous jungle trail.

K and I kiss each other good bye at mile 3. I take off, a hand-held bottle in each hand.

I feel like I’m flying over the rocks, through the mud, stopping to drink and take in the eye-popping beauty. After a while the quiet is broken now and then by campers rising, laughing, eating. They say they admire my guts, running this trail. In their eyes I can see what they really think: this dude is nuts.

At the far end of the trail I stop at the beach. A power bar is my second breakfast. The wild ocean washes away the layers of sweat. A kind father of two hands me half a liter of his filtered water to drink, after a worried look at my handhelds. I drink it gratefully, get into the waterfall to cool off some more, and worry just ever so slightly about my tired legs.

Just 11 more miles, the way I came.

IMG_0185The views are so different but equally mind-blowing. It’s lighter and busier now. The sun is beating down on my running hat. I catch a few rain drops. Boats on the water below pass me, the passengers waving. A concern about my fast-depleting water supply keeps popping up in my brain. I don’t know what to do except run on, chat with kind strangers, sip conservatively, and run more. There’s a bottle I hid under a brush at mile 4/18. Finding it feels like excavating a treasure. But a mile later I truly am out of any and all liquid.

The struggle to the end is real in this heat. Running becomes jogging, which turns into fast hiking. Light-headed and depleted I find K in the final yards. She did 14 miles herself, my powerful new wife.

I am proud of her, and slightly worried about me. How did I not bring enough fluids? Why do I keep underestimating rough terrain and circumstances, maybe over-estimating my own abilities?

After gallons of water, a cold coke and a solid hamburger I realize that a little crazy is simply part of me-the-runner now. Without it, I wouldn’t have considered running the magnificent Kalalau Trail. But I did, and I will never forget this grand summer adventure on our honeymoon.

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