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.

 

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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A Grand Summer of Running: Boulder

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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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Covering stories everywhere, I am lucky to have traveled all over the country for the past twenty years. Where ever I go, I don’t tend to get nervous. Now I’m in Boulder. A friendlier, more laid back town is hard to imagine. Still, I feel some butterflies.

It may be that I will soon meet and run with a terrific ultra champion, Timothy Olson. Or that I don’t know what to expect from the other participants of this running retreat. Will they all be semi pros nonchalantly ticking off 30 miles a day at altitude while I struggle?

The vibe at the Adventure Lodge is utterly mellow. After we settle in, the group meets on the grassy field near the stream, where will basically live, eat, talk, laugh and try impossible (for me anyway) yoga poses over the next few days. Runners of every age and size gather, shyly chatting or quietly stretching. Tim welcomes us, as we also meet his wife Krista, and her parents, Bob and Debbie. Later, the rambunctious toddler Tristan will bounce around in the group, too.

Then we take off for a first, quick 5 miler. Up and up, to a spot with lovely views and space to meditate. Mindfulness is the key, the goal, the central tenet of this camp. For a few minutes we sit mindfully, before heading back down. Dinner is fresh and healthy, prepared by a wonderful couple running RAD (Read Athlete Diets), a company worth checking out for anyone interested in delicious wholesome food to sustain a mountain runner or anyone, really, who likes to think about what she puts in her body.

IMG_1268The next day we eat early, then hit the trails for 18 miles. Some real climbing, some tricky technical stuff. My new and improved back holds up well. Food and water going down fine. Worries about work and my aging body vanish as I myself seem to vanish in this vast open landscape.

On the run I connect with a hyper fit father and runner named David (we share a great taste in hair style); a fast and strong young marathon runner, Annie; a deceptively laid-back southern trail guy on destroyed old Brooks, Keith; Derick, a tattooed LA dude laughing his way up the trails; the young and speedy Argentinian Mauri; and Billy, who’s filming Tim and us as he bounces up and down the trails as if it’s a short track workout.

We share quiet hours and intimate stories. Connections are forged as we struggle up Bear Peek. David hands me his head band to cover my bloody hand after a quick fall and perfect roll. A rattle snake rattles us. Wide open vistas takes our breath away, as if the brutal climbs weren’t enough.

As the different sub groups reconvene at night, on yoga mats on the grass and later by the fire, I learn about broken lives being healed through running. About battles with age, in which the run is a key weapon. About old addictions, rotten relationships, seemingly insurmountable challenges that we — many of us — overcame by doing what humans have been doing since the very beginning: one foot in front of the other. We run.

After the outings around Boulder Tim talks about his running, his life, his family, his struggles. It’s inspiring to peek into the mind of a two-time Western States champion. The usually shirtless retreat leader, soft-spoken en clear-headed, is of course more than a runner. He has a fascinating past. He, too, used to lead a life of depression and self-destruction. He also found salvation, perhaps redemption — though that’s my word, not his — in the solitude of these long mindful hours in nature.

In Dutch there’s a nice phrase for that melancholic feeling after an intense, intimate experience with strangers. It’s called a kamp-kater: a “camp hangover”. When I hug some of my sinewy new friends at the airport, after a near-miss with a tornado about to touch down on our car, I sense  that “hangover”.

We say good bye. Actually, it’s “see you later”, for we say we’ll run together again. And I’m convinced that’s true, thanks to this magical time in the mountains with a few dozen mindful folks on worn-out trail runners, who seem to think it’s great fun to nearly kill oneself running up a 9000-foot peak.

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A Grand Summer of Running: Nijmegen

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Life has been interesting. Charlie the dog joined our family. We got married. My back healed well after surgery. And I was lucky enough to run in some superb places. This is a short series of impressions from the trails I explored this summer.

Come on, he’s just a guy. It’s necessary ro remind myself. Thomas Dunckerbeck is one of the best ultra runners in the Netherlands, in the world — a giant in the world of trail running. But I know him because he was the kind physical therapist helping my mother after she broke her ankle. I’m visiting my parents this June and, with some prodding from my mom, I’d reached out to him. A little run perhaps?

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That’s him: my mom’s PT and one of the best runners around. Photo: Barbara Kerkhof

My surgery to fix a herniated disc is about ten weeks ago and I’m only just running again, gently. Thomas knows this. He’s kind enough to start very slowly as we pass my old school, de Klokkenberg, at dusk. Past my favorite soccer field, into the quiet we move, slowly weaving our way through the hilly woods between Nijmegen and Beek.

Basically, I watch and learn. His stride is so light, his posture perfectly upright with a slight lean. As I work and sweat, gasp and struggle to land quietly — my physical condition is frankly pretty rotten — he chats and moves. Thomas turns out to be an amateur WWII historian, too. He shows me hidden spots under the trees where brave allied soldiers held off the Germans, almost 70 years ago. Allowing me time to recover, he chats and points and teaches.

Yes, he’s just a guy. But running with a modest legend is a little different. At this moment, as I’m trying to feel what my new and improved spine can handle, it’s inspirational.

We have beers and roasted nuts when we come home in the dark after a solid — read: challenging — 8 miles. Later, a thought creeps up when I go to bed. It’s a happy thought, I realize, channeling Arnold: I’ll be back.

Old friends in new places

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E has known me since I was six months old. Our close friendship is about twenty years old. He’s my cousin and soulmate, friend and brother I never had. A good guy, clearly.

E is old — younger than me, but old as in “been around, been around me as partner in crime”. Meanwhile, LA is still new, historically and in my life. The Santa Monica Mountains trails are pretty familiar, but still possess the newness to stir up excitement, a sense of exploring and discovering. When Miss Charlie and I disappear from the city into the wilderness just north of the city, it always feels as if we are forging new paths.

And so two worlds came together yesterday when E, visiting from Holland, joined me on the trails. We walked, ran, talked. He and M were amazed to see this raw and lovely bit of nature right there, a short hop north of the city.

It was good.