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: 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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