Pre-Sean O’Brien 100K haiku

Today I am still.

But this peace is not quite real.

Inside, fire rages.

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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.

 

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: 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.

Solo yet connected in the mountains

IMG_0836The New York Flyers, the Trailrunners Club in LA, Miss Charlie and K all have something in common. They provide community and connection for the solo runner. While running the mountains is an individual endeavor, I often feel connected. Not only to the air I breathe and the ground my feet touch. Also to the people who begin and end with me, who are there, not always seen but always there.

I’ve never understood people who call running boring. These days I simply say “sorry to hear it” or “maybe another sport could work”. But I still think what I used to say to people: if you’re bored you haven’t looked, listened, smelled, felt. Anyway, my point is that I am loving these structures in which to run: the Flyers running club in New York, the Trailrunners in the Santa Monica Mountains.

K provides that sense of unwavering connectedness as well, during our walk-runs and in the marriage we are about to embark upon. Charlie the Vizsla is a great compagnon, too, when she roams the mountains with me, sniffing and sprinting her way up and down the trails, never losing sight of where I am.

We run alone. Our minds wander. The pain and joy of a 16-mile adventure —like yesterday— is often a solo experience. But I find comfort in knowing that my kind fellow runners, my wife-to-be- and our sweet dog will always be there on the other side.

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