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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Fifty miles of joy

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M i l e  0 . The headlamps of runners seem to be dancing in the cool, pitch-black morning. It’s 6 a.m. and there’s nervous tension, camaraderie between strangers. I fist-bump fellow runner Ann and wish her luck. I kiss K, my ride to the start who is also my love. Off we go. Easy up the single-track. We walk in the dark, up the steep hills. Ann is right behind me and she compliments me — for starting slowly, for not losing myself and my energy in those first adrenaline-fueled miles. Not this time.

M i l e  3 . I know this creek, but I have never passed it. There’s a road bridge a few hundred meters away! Whatever, they want us to cross though knee-deep, not-warm water. I worry for a moment: about cold, soaking feet and socks and shoes for the next 47 miles. Then I decide worrying is pointless. Onward.

FullSizeRenderM i l e  7 . Warmed up and excited I arrive at the first aid station. It was gorgeous getting here, on trails and fire roads I know so well, deep in the Santa Monica mountains. The rising sun blew my fellow runners and me away. It’s beginning to feel like a perfect day. I quickly eat some banana, the stomach feels surprisingly calm. K hands me a fresh water bottle. Another kiss. I am off again, into the wild.

M i l e  15 . A glance at my watch, a missed tree root, and down I go at a decent downhill speed. I roll, curse, jump up, check for any serious damage, wipe some blood off my knee. And… moving on!

M i l e  22 . How come I feel so good after what’s almost a marathon with huge climbs? I don’t wait for the answer and fly down the fire road toward the Bonsal Aid station, where my Trailrunners Club-mates and K will be waiting. But first I see my friend Matt and his friend Kristine on the narrow trail. This makes me happy. She is injured but he jumps on the trail. We run and chat. Matt’s a good guy, which I already knew, but he proves it, patiently waiting while I refuel and kiss K yet again. Then Matt runs another mile with me, nicely distracting me as a huge uphill section stretches out in front of us.

M i l e  26 . I know these trails very well. Still, this climbing is slow! If I don’t keep drinking, if I don’t keep thinking happy thoughts, I risk the all too familiar slide into self-defeating thinking. Instead I focus on the next aid station and the cup of coke I know will be there. Passing runners as we push uphill cheers me up; the coke at the station is even better than imagined. I also wolf down a piece of potato dunked in salt, some banana, and a piece of a PB&J sandwich. It fills me, but as I run my stomach protests. Oh no.

M i l e  32 . This is new terrain: I am wandering into the great unknown; I have never in my life run this far. The 50Ks I ran back in 2010/2011 felt short and easy. I realize my race really begins here, in the final 20 miles. Hey, there’s K. She has parked, walked up the trail and now she runs with me. Perfect timing. My GI issues were distracting and I was allowing some self-doubt. K forces me to focus, to talk, to smile. She gives me my new blue shell as it is now raining and misting and generally pretty miserable up here on the mountain. When she heads back to car I get yet another kiss. A runner behind me yells out: you should marry that girl, man. He has seen her caring for me. I tell him: you’re right, and I will.

M i l e  40 . Will my toe need to be amputated? The pain is excruciating, sending an increasingly fast moving series of SOS messages to my brain. I walk, drink, take some Aleve. The good news: I don’t feel my tight calves, burning quads or hunger pangs — just that toe. I imagine a bloody mess and decide not to take off the shoe and look. I imagine it would be the end of this adventure. Yay denial.

M i IMG_0044 l e  47 . Where’s that creek? I know it’s around here. Turns out I missed a well-marked turn after a long, steep downhill. I had run down the last huge mountain. After many miles in the 11-minute, 15-minute, even 18-minute range, it felt exquisite to go down at a sweet 6:20 pace. That’s when I knew my training paid off: downhill running can be tough, even dangerous when you are not ready for it, which is the reason I saw so many runners walk down gently and smartly. My descent on slippery, rocky terrain must have worn me out mentally, though, missing that turn. A kind fellow runner calls out, I follow, we cross the water. Now it’s one final push the last hill they call ‘the chihuahua’: small but mean, with a real bite. Come on, move! I channel my late grandfather Opa and tell myself to toughen up, lummel. Lazy fool, I think it meant — in the most loving of ways.

M i l e  50 . One more sweet downhill on the slippery switchbacks of Malibu Creek Park. I can hear K before I see her. She is proud, she says. I can’t speak. I swallow hard and run through the finish. Years of injury and frustration have ended right here, in this rain, on this quiet road, back at the spot where the headlamps danced around me this morning. That’s a wrap: fifty miles, fifty joyful miles, leading me home.

UPDATE (by request): the toe was absolutely fine. Not even a blister or damaged nail. I have no idea what caused that blistering pain late in the race. Can the mind imagine such pain? Why would it? Feedback welcome.

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A little film on the essence of running

Amsterdam was windy, grey, onstuimig, a Dutch word I love, meaning something like wild, unruly. The road seemed hard and unforgiving. The distance intimidated me. The silence I often love seemed ominous at this moment, at mile 7 in my first half marathon in years. I struggled with my breathing and posture, and wondered about this intimately familiar question: why?

In 2010 I conquered Amsterdam with a p.r. on the marathon. That’s how it felt, to return to my home country, skinnier en stronger and smoke-free, and run 26 miles in about three hours. Victory was mine. This time, my sister had a friend who had an extra ticket to start the half marathon. Of course, I blurted out “I’ll take it” before realizing whether my body and mind were ready.

They were, sort of. After going out too fast in the packed Amsterdam streets I settled into an easy pace, set by two strong runners running like clockwork. I followed and drafted, calming down as we glided toward the Vondelpark.That’s when I allowed myself to ask why. There is no answer, there are countless answers. My book is filled with them.

But the best way to look at the question —why run?— is in this beautiful little film. I’m late; it came out in 2013. But no matter. It’s amazing how these English filmmakers captured something like the essence of running. It will be well worth 11 minutes of your time.

How (not) to run a marathon

marathon1The first half went smoothly. Perfect 62 degree weather. A forgiving course along the Lehigh River in Pennsylvania. Trees and shade, air and wind, quick steps and sweat in the sun: there is, in my humble view, simply no better way to spend a Sunday morning. And so it was that I felt good, just good, for 13 miles at 7:30 pace, just as planned.

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It’s 7 a.m. and I’m filled with hope

At the halfway point, after miles of silence in nature, I found cheerful crowds. And Kelly. She handed me my Tailwind bottle, and told me I looked great. Maybe, I thought. But in truth my lungs and legs and digestive system were protesting. As in: refusing to keep that pace. Saying: we. should. stop. running.

A thought: I can simply pull out and give up, like two years ago. A counter-thought: no. I’d trained for this. Dreamed about it. Planned for it. Traveled from LA. After my surgeries and doubts and challenging recoveries I want this.

But first the stages of grief. Let me create the narrative right now, I thought after saying bye to Kelly. Hitting the trail again I slowed down. The denial (stage 1) was now behind me. I realized this was not the morning for anything like a personal best or a Boston qualifying time. Here was the anger (stage 2). I felt frustrated, cheated somehow by myself; how come I can’t hold this half-decent pace after all my hours of training and preparing? Bargaining (stage 3) was next: maybe if I slow down now, drink more, if I’m tougher on myself, if, if ,if. Around mile 16, a moment of shallow depression (stage 4) set in. I walked and felt my shoulders slump. I wondered how I might really stop and even disappear – from the race, from the world. I had to smile a my own ridiculousness. Kelly was at mile 20, I knew that, and that was where I was going. I remembered parts of the little list I had created for myself and tried to follow these simple tips from me to me:

Breathe calmly
Shoulders down
Back and neck straight
Head still
Swing arms back
Rotate hips
Lift knees
Controlled light steps
Land softly
Be a gazelle
Drink
One mile at the time
Don’t give up
Think of NYC 2010
Smile

Acceptance (stage 5) came, thankfully, as I made my way through the woods, following runners who had earlier passed me, passing walkers, being passed by faster souls, and opening my gaze to what was around me. I realized I was very lucky to be here, now, doing this. Speed was not the issue, this run in Pennsylvania was – nothing more and nothing less.

351I finished in a time that’s not worth mentioning. And I felt grateful: my knees an foot and back and mind were in good order, even after my first real attempt at the 42K in almost four years.

This was one of the most beautiful courses and one of the best organized races I have participated in. Lovely all around – including terrific volunteers and free beer at the finish. If you’re anywhere close, go run it. Fly in if you have to, like I did. You may or may not qualify for Boston, but you will have experienced something special along the Lehigh River.

Old is good (II)

There are times when a run brings me back to 1980, when I was sprinting across the soccer pitches of my Dutch hometown, Nijmegen. That light and joyful feeling is ingrained in my brain and muscle memory. Other times, I feel like a 45-year-old struggling to breathe and move. Sunday was such a time.

The day was perfect in San Diego. Sunny, breezy, with stunning views from the start of this half marathon in Point Loma. The course was even, fast and wide open.

After 5 quick miles at or below a 7-minute pace, my form and pace collapsed. The heat got to me, my breakfast seemed immovable inside of me, and a familiar sensation came over me: my vision narrowed to the 10 feet in front of me, banishing the views, the joy of running and racing, the other runners, and the future beyond this immediate misery. Perhaps it is self-preservation, but all I could do was put one foot in front of the other. Barely. And when I stopped about 10 miles I wondered: how about all of those, hilly, technical, brutal 15 to 19 milers I have been doing north of LA with the Trail Runners on Sunday mornings?

Yes, I felt my age. But I did not despair. I recently wrote “Old is Good”, about Meb wining Boston: mind over matter, training and experience over youth. Now the British track star Jo Pavey has done it again. At age 40, this mother of two won the 10,000 meters in Zurich. “Jo Pavey has finally come of age at 40, can you say that?” the BBC commentator said.

You can.

Here are the final laps of this inspiring victory.