Monday, October 20, 2014

100 Marathons and Ultras in Perspective

I will start by saying, I'm not taking any of this too seriously, and neither should you. I'm also not saying that reaching 100 marathons/ultras isn't something to be proud of. It is, but on the grand scope of things, running statistics, key word statistics, are trivial. It's like asking someone on their birthday if they feel older. Fair warning though, you'll get to see a bit of my analytical nerdy side in this post.

At an age of 33 years 119 days, I am now officially a member of the 100 Marathon Club of North America. Yes, it's a real "club". I am also the 12th youngest North American ever to reach 100 marathons. My first marathon/ultra was on November 20, 2004, and my 100th on October 18, 2014. It took 9 years, 10 months and 29 days. The moment came to fruition at 11:45am on a beautifully verdant, albeit unseasonably warm autumn day in Hollister, NC. The site was the Medoc Trail Marathon, a delightfully fun, smaller, and yet incredibly charismatic event. In retrospect, it was a far better setting than some larger race with more fanfare.

The 100 Marathon Club of North America currently has 450 members. However, I know there are more because I know a handful of others who qualify, but probably don't know, nor care, to be in the group. Safe to say there are probably 10% more people then what is listed, so roughly 500 total.

The top 12 youngest Americans to 100 currently looks like this, but I am sure in the next few years I will get bumped out, not that it really matters.

1) Brenton Floyd (18)
2) Joun Lui (24)
3) Laura Skladzinski (28)
4) Ian torrence (reached 100 ultras by 29, probably much younger to 100 marathons/ultras)
5) Justin Gillette (29)- Has the fastest average time for his 100 marathons
6) Matt Jenkins (30)
7) Hideki Kinoshita (32)
8) Leslie Miller (32)
9) Jonathan Young (32)
10) Keith Knipling- I have no idea where he would rank, but I'm fairly sure he's in the top 5-6
11) Dane Rauschenberg (33)
12) Me (33)

I will also note that one distinct difference, again it really doesn't matter, is that a majority (86 out of 100) of my marathons occurred while completing ultra distances of 31 to 103 miles. Only 14 were actual races of 26.2 miles, whereas most of the 100 marathon club members totals are soley from marathons. Based on the statistic of having ultras comprise over 50% of "marathons", only Ian Torrence and Keith Knipling completed their 100 faster. That's pretty good company.

One final crazy statistic is that in 100 marathons/ultras I completed a total of 4,198 miles, or an average race distance of nearly 42 miles. What is the significance in that? If I had run exclusively marathons, like most of the runners in the 100 marathon club, my 4,198 miles would actually be equivalent to running 160 marathons. Since 100 marathons, for most folks occurred at 2,620 miles (26.2 x 100), I was curious to figure out when I may have reached that total.

As it turns out, to the exact mile, I unknowingly reached 2,620 miles at the Crooked Road 24 Hour on December 6, 2011. The funny thing is the distance I chose to do that day was completely arbitrary, and I chose to run 62.7 miles because I had never done a 100k. Thus, I completed the equivalent of my "100th marathon" at age 30 years 168 days, which in 2011, would have made me the 5th youngest American to 100 marathons. Subsequently, after 2011 a handful of younger runners hit their 100 marathon milestones, hence why I am now 12th on the list.

I will say for certain that running as many marathons and ultras as possible has NEVER been my objective, nor ever will be. I simply run to have fun like anyone else, sometimes to push myself, and other times just to enjoy the freedom of the outdoors among friends. If I had really wanted to, I could fairly easily run a marathon, or two every week (like the Marathon Maniacs Club) and be somewhere around 400-500.

In all honesty, not that it isn't a big deal to do something like 52 marathons in 52 weeks, but most fit and experienced distance runners could trudge through a marathon any given day or weekend, but choose not to. Like me, they have a life outside running, and can't afford, or don't want to spend that kind of money constantly traveling and paying entry fees. They would probably also rather select a few focus races per year and keep the emphasis on quality over quantity. I also don't encourage, believe it is healthy, or admirable to run too many races. Running too much, especially before we physically mature in our early 20's, and even after, will no doubt lead to unforeseen health risks years down the road.

That being said, I've had tons of fun along the way and shared the miles with many cool characters. I'm looking forward to the next 100, but alas, as I alluded to before, it is JUST running ;-)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reaching 100

When I graduated from college in 2004, I could jog 2-3 miles, and on a good day I could push it for 3 or 4. At the time my only real bucket list item was to finish one marathon in my lifetime, but given my personal best for distance was six miles in an hour and seven minutes, it was a longshot. However, I figured if I kept at it for enough years or decades, I’d eventually get there and it would be something I could tell my grandkids about.

This Saturday I will be running my 100th marathon/ultramarathon. It is a statistic that nearly blindsided me as it had arrived one month shy of the 10 year anniversary of when I ran my first ultra. Sometimes I am humbled when examining what a span of a decade truly looks like. I am no longer the over whelmed, clueless college graduate toeing the line of his first ultra on a cool autumn morning. In the following ten years, that clueless guy who only ever wanted to run ONE marathon ran 85 ultras, 14 marathons, and enough total miles to circle the earth. Life, in a similar fashion as the many miles on trail, has transformed me in those years. Running has become like clothing in that it has come to mirror my trends, my mood, my culture and my expression. A hobby fit to be worn on the sleeve. As the athletic world, and running in particular, is enamored with numbers, times, and totals, it occurred to me that there was something drastically different about reaching 100. I don't really care about it....

For some reason, we always seem to have some grandiose idea in our minds of what it will look like, and what we will be like, when we reach a specific milestone. Will we celebrate it with a bucket list race, maybe among friends, perhaps try to PR a certain distance, or maybe have it align with an event that holds some special place with us?. We can often lose ourselves in believing we will ascend to some higher level of runner nirvana once we finish a certain race, complete a certain number of races, or run a certain distance. I, myself, would like to believe that after running as much as I have, that surely I would walk away from it with some profound new understanding of myself and the world. And yet, at best, in brief and fleeting flurries we will attain moments of clarity that only running can provide, but at the end of the day I am the same person with the same doubts, strengths and flaws. Maybe running just makes them clearer without the clutter of life’s peripheral caterwaul. However, arriving at the point of 100 marathons/ultras, maybe with some enhanced maturity, I’ve come to the realization that 100 is just a number. And running is just a hobby.

Don’t be mistaken, hobbies are important, and at times they can define us. They tend to embody the ideals that we strive for, ones that by their very nature are unattainable in the frenzy of the mundane daily grind. For the personality types that the lure of running attracts it can offer us everything that our wild at heart needs desire; adventure, danger, testing limits, comraderie, or just being outdoors. For those of us who have been fortunate enough, our hobby has grown to a place of such significance that it transcends the conventions of everyday life and forms a symbiotic relationship with life itself. Sometimes the boundaries of life and the “the run” dissipate into a place as blended as the horizon line of the sea and the sky.

As I type this, it’s become evident that maybe I have actually learned a few things. Do I attribute them to running, or just getting older, or perhaps the combination of both? Here are 12 simple things.

1) Failure is just as much a choice as success. Nobody’s definition of either matters expect ours.

2) In the end our successes and failures matter only to us. I’ve never once thought differently or disparagingly about a friend, or stranger, because of how poorly, or well they ran. When I run poorly, or well, I need to remind myself that others view me the same way.

3) Appreciate what your body can do. Sometimes our accomplishments get so dilluted and lost in the deluge of what other people are doing that we can forget how special they are. Remember that our friends who reguarly run 100 milers and a dozen ultras a year make up an incredibly small percentage of athletes, let alone runners. Remind yourself that completing the distances and races you do is incredible, no matter how many times you've done it. Some people struggle to run a 5k, and others a few steps. Keep the perspective. Keep the appreciation.

3) Running will provide as much companionship, or solitude as you seek.

4) Running will not fix anything.

5) Sometimes running is the problem.
a) Running should never be your only source of fulfillment, because the ability to run/walk can be taken away any given moment.
b) Running should never be your constant escape. We run ridiculously hard races to prove to ourselves that we can take on challenge, so why not have that attitude with things outside of our running life (ie. Marriage, work, sickness, family). Don’t be afraid to allow your passion to transcend boundaries into your everyday life.

6) Your body speaks to you all the time. Listen to it. I have only reached 100 marathons/ultras because I did a majority my races in my 20’s when my body was much more resilient. If I want to run until I’m 80 years old like Ed Demoney, I need to be a smarter more balanced runner now.

7) Keep it fun. Nothing sucks more than when the hobby you are most passionate about begins to suck.
a) Slow it down. This is doubly necessary for faster runners. Not every race has to be raced. Run a couple races just to have fun and enjoy the simple nuances that you might miss when in competition mode. Get to know your fellow runners and meet the volunteers. Plus, you’ll finally get to try some of that home cooked aid station food you were always curious to try, but skipped in favor of more gels. Doing this can make a, event you’ve “raced” many times seem like a whole new event.
b) Speed it up. If you always tend to run easy, and know you can go faster, try running an entire race at full effort. You might be surprised what you are capable of.
c) Try something new. Getting a 10 time finisher’s award might be cool, but take the time to try out new events. Some of the best events are small grassroots efforts.
d) Volunteer

8) Have a bucket list. Save something for later.

9) You will always run the way you train.

11) At some point we are all going to get older and get slower. We have no choice in that. However, how gracefully we do it is our choice. The ability to inspire is ageless.

12) It’s just running. Keep a healthy perspective on it. Running should help make life easier, or at least provide more clarity. It should never make it tougher, or less enjoyable, especially for those closest to you. The wide expanse of life will always entail triumphs and tribulations far greater in meaning and purpose than running.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Belmead Trail Fest

(Some of Belmead's lush greenery courtesy of Belmead Trail Fest)

A common theme that I have adopted over the past few years is trying to get the word out about smaller local running events. I have also gotten a lot of joy out of spontaneously showing up to first year events that nobody really knows anything about. I find that it keeps the running hobby fresh, full of zeal, and often directly supportive of the local community.

Belmead Trail Fest ended up being a delightfully low key and fun event with all the charm of a local race. The late September date means it likely won't be blazing hot, nor cold, and there's still ample sunlight to keep the 50 mile cut off time at 12 hours. Race day weather was in the high 50's at the start and hovered near 80 all day. While it felt plenty warm in the sun, about 70% of the course is on shaded single track trail, so it was quite comfortable most of the day. The event also boasts three separate race distances of 26.2 miles, 50k, and 50 miles that have a group 8am start. The 8am start is great for people like myself who don't necessarily like, or can't because of family, to get up at 4am to start a race in the dark at 6am. It's also nice to finally have an ultra option where you don't need to wear a headlamp for the start, though 50 milers who might take 11-12 hours would need to carry a light at the end.

As for the course, all three race distances run the same 10 mile loop with various add ons for the marathon and 50k. The 50 miler was simply five loops. The trail itself was both very runnable, but also surprisingly technical. Per other's gps accounts the 50k had roughly 1,840 feet of gain, which meant nearly 3,000 for the 50 miler. While the elevation gain for the course is fairly benign in comparison to a Mountain Masochist, all the twists and turns, roots, snakes, corn, and short little climbs made it slower than a course like JFK 50 where the elevation gain is about the same, but you have long flat sections to stretch out the legs. Still, on the grand scheme of things, I'd say the course is on par with running trails at Bear Creek Lake, Holiday Lake, Prince William Forest, Bull Run, or Lake Anna, all home to a lot of local ultra events. The course was also very well marked, though it didn't prevent myself and three others from going a mile off course.

The course itself race could be broken down into two main parts. Miles 0 to the 3.7 mile aid station (more like 3.0 miles?) were are on bridle paths that circumnavigated rolling corn fields. It may very well be the only race where the possibility exists to roll your ankle on the many ears of corn strewn on the bumpy grassy horse trail. In all honesty, while scenic, this was probably my least favorite part of the course and the only place where you are out in the sun. However, later in the day the sun shifted enough so that there were sections around the cornfield that became shaded. It should be noted that this 3 mile section will probably be replaced next year by trails that go down to the James River and the Belmead estate. Miles 3.7-10 were mostly singletrack through the woods and some wider service roads. These 7 miles were by far my favorite of the race as they brought you into some wonderfully green wooded areas with enough variety in the trail to keep it exciting, even after 5 loops. At the end of each loop you had access to aid and drop bags, so you never had to go more than 4 miles without support.

My personal experience at Belmead was very positive. I like the fact you feel like you are entering a civil war battlefield just driving to the start. The morning mist rising up from the fields served wonders to transport us back in time 150 years, even if for only 4-12 hours. In addition, I spent most of my day running alone and never really knowing who was running what particular race. In essence, it allowed me to let go of the race vibe and feel like I was on a nice long solo run in the woods. Since moving in January, I've only had limited access to trails, and run almost exclusively on roads, so for me a day in the woods was just what I needed. The finish was just as low key as the rest of the day. By the time I finished the 50 miler almost everyone doing the marathon and 50k had completed and gone home, and the only people remaining were still out on the course. So, it was definitely different to come in with just a handful of folks, but I didn't really expect otherwise. I loved the finisher's medals, which were hand crafted cross sections of wood. It was a pleasant deviation from the standard race medals, though I suspect next year they'll have something else unique and cool for finishers.

All in all, I definitely suggest giving this event a try. The entry fees are cheaper than most races, the course was fantastic (if you don't mind loops), and it's a great time of year to work it in as a fun run, or training run for a fall race. I hadn't intended on doing any more ultras until at least 2015, but the proximity and forests were just too tempting, and I was able to register on race day. The best thing is that all proceeds from the event benefit Francis Emma, the non-profit organization that maintains Belmead. The best way to keep history alive is to support it!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Forged in the Furnace: Becoming an Ironman

The road to the Ironman was truly a trial by fire. I was a novice swimmer who hadn't swam in five years. I was novice cyclist who hadn't been on a bike more than three times in the past decade. I had never completed a triathlon of any distance, let alone a full Ironman. The task at hand was daunting and loomed large, but the task was simple. As a child growing up, and even as a young adult, I had considered athletic feats like the fabled marathon and Ironman to be in a realm far beyond my natural abilities. But, as I got older and took on endurance challenges head on, I realized how false my misconceptions were about my own personal limits. After years of setting aside the notion of attempting an Ironman, I decided that 2014 was the year I was finally going to make it happen. In February 2014, I took the plunge and entered Ironman Louisville.

The training for an Ironman was a much needed reality check, and due my spring running schedule, I only had four months to spare. In the early stages, the idea of completing a 2.4 mile swim seemed overwhelmimg as I struggled to swim even a couple laps in a pool before needing to rest. Learning how to ride a road bike wasn't much better as I found myself stiff and sore from riding only 30 minutes. For the first time in a long time none of my running experience mattered, none of my marathon times matter, and none of my ultras mattered. Swimming and cycling were completely different beasts, and they couldn't care less how many races I had run. This was not running, and at times I wondered if I was in over my head.

But.....I was patient. I picked up good advice, practiced, and kept practicing. I went at it day after day, week after week, and month after month. Slowly but surely I could ride 30 miles comfortably, then 40, 50, 60, and 70. My swimming efficiency also improved as I increased my workouts from 500 meters, to 1k, to 1 mile, 1.5 miles, and then 2 miles non-stop. But, it wasn't some amazing overnight transformation. After grinding it out for months and months, I could start to see the triathlete being born, and eventually witness myself becoming more than just a runner. All was going as well as I could have planned, and then on one of my final long rides my IT band completely gave out and forced me to cut my ride short by 30 miles. One of my big fears had been realized as I was now only two weeks away from the Ironman and my IT band was shot. The doubts began to rear their ugly heads, and I began to wonder how on earth I could complete Louisville's notoriously hilly 112 (actually 115) mile bike course, when I couldn't even do half the distance without pain on a flat bike path. I trained my ass off for four months and it came down to this? The questions mounted. Did doing the rim to rim to rim at the Grand Canyon three weeks earlier jeopardize my chances at completing my Ironman, and did I virtually sacrifice one bucket list item by doing another too close? Only time would decide, but one thing was for certain. I owed it to myself to at least show up to the starting line.

On August 21st, my dad and I made the long 700 mile drive from Virginia to Kentucky. The hustle and bustle of race weekend could have been a blur, but I took the time to enjoy it and enjoy some quality time with my dad. The weather forecast was ominous as an unusually hot heat wave was predicted to blanket Louisville through race weekend. On top of that, race day temps looked to be the worst, as the heat index would reach 103 degrees with very little shade. In the mean time, I shifted my focus to doing last minute gear adjustments, trying to relax, and also enjoy a bit of the town.

Race morning was a bit surreal to wake up knowing what would transpire over the next day. In that sense it was much like any other race morning trying to absorb the great expanse of physical and mental things I knew I would experience by the time I would be back in my hotel room. From a race perspective, I had waited six months to do this event, and it always seemed that race day was some far off event that was just out of reach. The reality sank in as I acknowledged that that very day had arrived, and in essence it was a day that I had been waiting not just six months for, but rather many years.

The early morning was still dark, but alive with energy from the spectators, athletes, crews, and thousands of volunteers. I made my final round dropping off gear bags and walked to the swim start with my dad. The sky was beginning to lighten and the the energy was building up to a palpable frenzy of focus and nerves. The only real glitch of the day occurred when I was misdirected as to where to line up for the swim which cost me 2 miles of walking and also had me being one of the last athletes in the water. I shook off the incident, made my way to the dock, and waved to my dad one last time before jumping into the water and officially starting my Ironman quest.

I knew the swim would be the toughest leg of the race mentally, and I was right. Having never done an open water swim of any kind, I freaked out as soon as I hit the water. Visibility was non existent and I was experiencing the bumping and nudging notoriously associated with triathlon swims. This was made considerably worse knowing that it was the point of no return, and there was only one way to go, and that was forward. For some reason, it brought me back to learning how to swim as a child. I would stand at the edge of the pool, my dad would hold out his arms and tell me to jump, I would take a leap of faith, swim as hard as knew how, and eventually get scooped up in my dad's arms. This, by comparison, was like the first time I had to jump in a pool without my dad there. I knew I could swim, but the proverbial safety net was gone. The Ohio river was not a pool where I could rest at the wall every 25 meters if I had to. Somehow I quickly collected myself and remembered to apply the smooth swim techniques I had practiced over and over in the pool. My breathing calmed down, my muscle memory found itself, and soon I was passing a number of folks in the water. At the turn around I took advantage of the generous current and gained some much needed time before the crux of my day, the bike portion. I popped out of the water, ditched the wet suit, waved to my dad, and made my way into transition one.

I knew the bike was going to be my weakest link. IT band issues had cut several important long rides well short of their intended distances. I had also feared the rolling hills, which I couldn't train for on the flat Dismal Swamp bike path, would flare up my already iffy IT band. Conservative would be the name of the game, but I would learn that even a conservative 112 mile ride is still hard work. The first 10 miles were fairly flat and sufficient cloud cover meant the temps rested in the mid 80's. However, the comfort was short lived as the sun would come out for the remainder of the day and the hills would begin and not relent for another 90 miles. Per usual, the beginnings of Ironman carnage began to show as bikes began to break down and then the athletes themselves. Two loops of the bike course meant you knew what hills to expect the second time around. Both good and bad. For most of the bike portion I was passed by quite a few folks. For most sports, I believe the gear does not make the athlete. An expensive pair of running shoes, or golf clubs mean nothing if the person using them has no skill. However, though I have a fairly nice bike that retailed for $899, there was absolutely no way I could compete with folks on triathlon bikes that cost upwards of $2,500-$5,000+. One sad reality of triathlons, and specifically Ironman events, is that they cater to an audience that has a high level of disposable income. I would have to make do on my bike, and realize that sometimes you can't always have what others have, and that's the way the playing field goes at triathlons. Much to my chagrin, my bike was going to take an hour longer than my goal time, but at least the final 10 miles back to transition two was flat.

Finally off the bike, I was now in familiar territory. The run. From here to the finish, those fancy $5,000 bikes no longer gave an advantage, and the only thing we had to project us forward were our feet and a pair of shoes. I welcomed back the even playing field, but alas the 103 heat was undeniably present. While the bike provides a constant breeze, running the downtown streets of Louisville was unforgiving. There was no shade, no wind, and only the heat resonating from the pavement and buildings like a furnace. Water stops were plentiful, the course now flat, but the toll was heavy on many of the weary athletes. I was only managing a light shuffle with walk breaks to hydrate and fuel, but it was still faster than many of the folks reduced to a lethargic 26.2 mile "death march". After reaching the outbound turn around, I made my way back to the city and to the end of loop one. In a most cruel fashion the end of loop one literally brings you a hundred yards from the finish line cheers and coveted Timex finish clock, but then directs runners to veer right to endure another 13 miles of pavement.

Those last 13 miles are a gut check, and for many it's where Ironman dreams either live or die. As the sun set, the temps remained in the 90s, but even the slight cool down gave me renewed energy. If anything, I wanted to make sure that I finished my Ironman experience feeling strong and looking strong. I found my stride and passed mile markers 20, 21, and then 22. It was the homestretch with less than four miles to go, but with persistent heat even at night there was still no room for error. I continued to hydrate, take my gels, and dump water on my body as I had the entirety of the run. With 5k to go I accelerated, with a mile to go I pushed even harder, and with a half mile to go I flipped the switch to a full out sprint. I negative split the marathon by 11 minutes. A quarter mile from the finish I saw my dad, made a left hand turn, and finally a right toward the electric 4th street finish pavilion. I blasted down the final hundred yards, urged the crowd to make some noise, and arrived at the finish line in a place I had envisioned being for many years. As I crossed under the clock a voiced boomed over the loudspeakers "Mike Bailey, you are an Ironman!".

It had happened, and it happened on a day that saw the most DNF's ever at Ironman Louisville. One of my lifelong dreams had finally become a reality. I WAS an Ironman. While it was a sweet victory in itself, it was made even sweeter by having my dad to share it with. While my family hasn't had the opportunity to witness many of my running events, it harkened back to a time where they saw me become a black belt, play baseball, win my first ultra, and finish with my sister at her first marathon. While in duration, the road to the Ironman was only six months long, with four months of training, it was a road far longer in length. Thanks to the many volunteers on the course and my #1 support crew, my dad, for being there the entire way. Here's to many more adventures along the way.

Afterthoughts: In 2005, a friend of mine discussed which was harder, an Ironman or an ultra. Having now done both, an Ironman is much harder than a 50 mile ultra, or even 100k ultra. However, it does not beat you up nearly as much as a 50 miler, and definitely not as much as a 100 miler. Ironman training is more demanding and stricter as you are training for three sports. When doing solely running, you can have high mileage weeks and still work in rest days. Rest days are almost non existent in triathlons because you are always rotating sports. The only real soreness I have from the ironman is in my glutes, neck, and shoulders, which is entirely from the bike portion. My quads only have moderate tiredness from the marathon, and it doesn't appear the swim caused any soreness.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Inya'a, Hala, and Aha- A Journey of Rim to Rim to Rim

For nearly a millenium the Havasupai Indians have inhabited and wandered a place of ancient marvels and lore. For much of the world the Grand Canyon only exists as a photograph in a magazine, or as a photo op on along a bustling tourist route. But, long before Europeans stumbled through the great red sandstone rocks, the Havasupai graced a landscape that mirrored the meaning of their very name which is translated as “the people of the blue green-waters”.

For me running and hiking rim to rim to rim was not about conquering a particular distance or terrain in a specific set time frame. In the world of running, we all too often limit our experience through the gripping confines of clocks, splits, placement, and competition. The Grand Canyon, as I perceived it, was far too venerable and noble to reside within the cages of the race environment. And as I would learn, the greatness of the canyon in its own expansive form, does not allow itself to be held on a level so miniscule as to be cluttered with races. The Grand Canyon is above racing, and although the Rob Krars of the world have run it in 6:21, and maybe one day under six hours, the expanse of the canyon is bigger than any FKT and any one athlete. I believe anyone who has ever completed R2R2R, no matter how fast, how slow, or what utter lack of reverence they began with, ultimately climbs out of the canyon knowing this. The Grand Canyon serves as a warm womb where a metaphorical rebirth tends to occur as people incubate within the living breathing hearth that is the red and verdant canyon walls. While I personally did not experience anything like this, I ascended out of the great canyon knowing that I was tied to a place and experience that few humans on earth would ever know. Part of writing about this is that some people by choice, or by circumstance, will never have the opportunity to see what I have, and reading this is one way I can grant to others some level of empathy of the rare things I have enjoyed.

It is August 4th, 2014. Along the South Kaibab trail a dark glittered night sky turns to navy, and then a spectrum of deep reds and light blues. On this particular dawn, I am going to complete a solo self supported double crossing of the Grand Canyon. Flashes of fiery orange give way to the golden sun and then the light begins to dance around the seemingly endless miles of the canyon walls. Myself and a handful of others, some turning back after just a few brief miles, are just visitors among a primitive world forged from the forces of the earth over the past 40 million years. As I drop lower and lower into the canyon I am simultaneously traveling back in time mimicking the colored transitions and textures in the rock faces. Intense beams of sunlight radiate into the dark confines of the canyon and make the early morning shadows retreat with the evening. I pass through sandstone, limestone, shale, and the myriad of paleozoic elements that remind me just how small of a speck the human life span is on the scale of earth's own creation.

The trail seems to have a rhythm of its own as it snakes around the bends in the rock. It creates an aesthetic pattern of switchbacks down to the river floor and serves as a gateway to the Colorado river. After seeing a few dozen folks near the South rim, there are but only a handful of hikers on the trail scattered once every few miles. After seven miles and 4,800 feet of elevation loss from the South Kaibab's 7,260 foot rim, the river signifies the end of the first, and easiest, leg of R2R2R. After crossing the Colorado river by way of bridge, in its own way symbolizing my crossing of the Grand Canyon, I am welcomed by mules trains en route to nearby Phantom Ranch. It is here I leave the South Kaibab trail for good and unite with the North Kaibab trail that will bring me to the North rim in 14 miles.

I am now at the geographic low point of the day, as in the lowest elevation of the R2R2R route. After Phantom Ranch I enter The Box, which is narrow section of the canyon that follows along the light chocolate colored Bright Angel Creek. It actually reminded me a lot of the chocolate river from the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, though the last thing you would want to try and drink would be that. For the next five miles the canyon rose straight up thousands of feet to my left and to my right. I was taken off guard by the pleasantly surprising abundance of lush greenery that coated the basin with a quaint floral aroma. In contrast, the steep walls of The Box were an ominous presence as I knew they concealed the enormity of the task at hand. After several small bridge crossings, and just beginning to feel acquainted with my new friend Bright Angel Creek, the trail pops out into an exposed valley of cacti and shrubs. It is here, near Cottonwood Campground, that the identity of the North rim comes into view and you realize just how far a mile of elevation gain looks when you see it from below.

The climb up the North rim keeps you honest. The bright white colored granite near the top of the rim served as a constant reminder how far you still have to go. The trail here could be defined by one word, majestic. Though it starts off rather benign, the North Kaibab trail has been known to make even the heartiest of souls feel a little queasy in their stomachs. At certain junctures the trail is only several feet wide and right along sheer cliff drops, and yet I felt fairly relaxed. My mind was simply more occupied by the beauty of my surroundings, and though I exercised good judgement, my brain had no vacancy for irrational fears. Nearing the North rim, as expected, I began seeing a lot of people, and again it was a great reminder that most people don't get to experience much more than 1-5% of the Grand Canyon. But not me.

As I reached the North rim, there was no celebration, but rather a brief moment of pause to rest and have a quick lunch. Though 22.8 miles were completed, more than half of the adventure still lay ahead. The trip down North Kaibab was energizing as I passed many of the hikers I had seen in the previous hour. I passed through the narrow ledges, down the mule worn rutted steps, and as time seemed to float by I was already back at Cottonwood campground. Once again I refilled my pack with the most vital nutrient I could have on this long journey, and that was water. Though only 54 degrees at sunrise and high 70's at the North rim, the temperatures of the canyon floor had gradually risen to 110 degrees. The "dry heat" is deceptive, and I knew it. It can lull people into a false sense of comfort, they push hard, and then before they realize it they are broken down. The heat is why over 200 people are rescued in the canyon every year, why even elite runners have died there, and why many choose the early spring to attempt R2R, nor less R2R2R. Though water was available roughly every 7 miles, I still chose to fill my 3L hydration pack to full capacity. My logic was simple. I'd rather carry more weight and move slower, 16 lbs total, than not enough and end up in deep deep crap.

From here, I retraced my way back through The Box, which I could have then aptly been named The Oven. The red rock acted like a heat conductor and even in the shade it radiated the absorbed warmth from the intense afternoon sun. Fatigue is starting to set in, as expected after nearly 6,000 feet of quad jarring descent wearing 10x more weight than I would normally carry during a race. But, again, this was no race, and I had to remind myself that in this place, where you are now is just as important as where you will end up. The time it took was not a relevant matter in this excursion, and in a world fixated on speed and instant gratification, I wanted to savor this. With a few hours of sunlight left I arrived back at Phantom Ranch and now made a right hand turn back over the Colorado river, but now on the Bright Angel Trail. For the first few miles the trail falsely climbed a few hundred feet, only to drop back to the river. This was a bit unsettling since I knew I would soon be making up all the elevation gain at some point. On paper, the climb to the North rim is said to be steeper, but in reality the net gain from the base of the South rim climb is actually more. Eventually the climb in earnest began and the miles got slower and slower. 20 minute miles gave way to 30 minute miles, and 30 second rest stops become several minutes. But again, time need not exist in this place, or at this moment for it held no value amongst the composition to earthen hues.

In the reverse order as they had appeared in the morning, the bright blue sky became yellow, then amber to rose to blush. Night had fallen on the great Grand Canyon. Now instead of being able to see for endless miles, my world had shrunk down to the 50 feet illuminated ahead of me by my headlamp. The South rim, which had seemed unreachably far like the unreachable star was now shrouded in black. I was Don Quixote slaying windmill giants, but now the giant existed on as the small lights of grand canyon village in the distance. The trail continued into the night, one turn followed by another, then another, and another. This continued for hours and then I could hear the faint chatter of tourists and the clamouring of cars and children. Out of the dark a single bobbing headlamp arose from the mighty canyon and back into a modern world of gift shops, restaurants, post cards, and hi speed wi-fi.

I was done. Rim to Rim to Rim. Solo.

As I reflected on the day's events it reminded me how small of an expense humans choose to live in comparison the large literal expanses like the Grand Canyon. Part of me knows the Grand Canyon, among many other places, are the physical and geographic representation of what some like myself embody in personality. It's why we are drawn not necessarily to the challenge, but also in knowing that we are seeing the natural world not just from a lens, but from a more complete perspective. My relationship with the Grand Canyon will always be shaped after events like my R2R2R experience, and I hope to continue this paradigm shift in a culture increasingly diluted with "technologies" that suffocate the human experience. Though somewhat curious, I don't think I would ever want to see how fast I could run R2R2R, as I believe it would negate the value of such a magnificent place. I wouldn't sprint by Michelangelo's David, the Pieta, or the Mona Lisa with just a quick glance would I, so why do the same with nature's most impressive art?

One of the great ironies is that during the hottest and toughest parts of my R2R2R all I could think about were luxuries like having an ice cold drink, being back in my air conditioned apartment, and having a cool comfortable place to sleep. In the ensuing days, once I was back at my apartment with the amenities I had day dreamed about, all I could think of was being back in that beautiful hot abyss of the Grand Canyon. But, as I sifted through my dirty laundry from the trip, I could still smell the canyon as I shook the red dust from my clothes. As much as the bright red dirt had encrusted my shoes and clothing, I realized that the Grand Canyon as a whole had soaked into myself just as much. Even 1,800 miles away, I had brought the canyon back home with me.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Road to the Ironman

Over the past 10 years, I have completed many distances, but all by way of foot. It wasn't long after completing my first 100 mile race in 2007 that the notion of moving onto other sports came to mind. After all, I had just completed a 100 mile run, and though there were certainly longer and tougher races, I had basically decided it was the most I'd ever want to do. My bucket list for running feats up to that point was fairly slim. Within my lifetime I had wanted to complete a marathon, a 50 miler, a 100 miler, and run 100 miles in under 24 hours. While none of these individual tasks is terribly difficult on their own, for a middle of the pack runner, they still stood as decently imposing challenges. Thus, in 2007, my third year as a runner, I had checked off my entire short list of running goals. The big question then was what was next?

Before I was ever a runner, I had set goals for a multitude of other sports and wanted to revisit that. I became a tae kwon do black belt at age 9, bowled my first 200 game at age 12, climbed my first 5.10 at age 24, and threw a baseball from home plate over the outfield fence of my old high school baseball field (308 feet). It seems that setting and achieving goals has always been a part of my nature, hence after my first 100 miler, I decided that the Ironman was the next big fish to catch in my sports life. I was Captain Ahab and the Ironman was my Moby Dick.

However, the years shuffled by and it never happened. I never caught the big fish, or even cast a net. Much of this was due to the fact that the lure of trail ultras kept calling me back, and the fact the cost for training for an Ironman was extremely high. Even after I finished the Western States 100 in 2011, my all time bucket list race, I continued to postpone my Ironman aspirations. Understandable since, in the sport of running the only major cost is shoes, which can be bought for very cheap, and race entry fees, which compared to the $625 for an Ironman looked much more wallet friendly. The third major drawback of pursuing the Ironman was knowing how much work lay ahead. It was a road I knew would be paved with more dedication and focus than any of my ultramrathons. Consider I had only marginal experience in one of the three athletic disciplines needed for just a general triathlon, no less the full Iron distance, one could empathize the monumental task at hand.

In February 2014, after seven years of procrastinating and making excuses, I finally made the leap and signed up for Ironman Louisville. With only a handful of spring races on the calendar, and nothing beyond April, I knew that 2014 looked to be the ideal year to make my attempt at the elusive Ironman. Louisville was the best fit for event since it did not require air travel, was not until August, and the climate would be the most similar to the Virginia climate I would be training in (ie hot, humid, not in the mountains, or at altitude). It was logistically also the easiest way for my dad to join in the adventure, which will be very special for the both of us. Lastly, the timeframe also gave me six months to prepare for the event, though I did not intend to begin triathlon training until the end of my spring races, which gave me a full 16 weeks to train. The big question remained, would 16 weeks be enough for an experienced runner who had essentially no experience in swimming, or biking? I suppose, that will be answered in two months.

So, going into the Ironman my only "strength" was in the running discipline.....but, I had never run 26.2 miles after swimming 2.4 miles and riding a bike for 112 miles. Then there was the fact that I hadn't swam in nearly five years, and nothing longer than 500-750 meters in a pool compared to the Ironman's 3,840 meter open water swim. The funny thing is, I had always regarded myself as a decent swimmer. I mean I did lifeguard (cough, paid to twirl a whistle and tan) for 7 years, so I had to be a good swimmer, right? Um, no. In my 7 years of lifeguarding I never had to swim more than 50 feet to rescue anyone, and in most cases I was saving small kids who were drowning in shallow water I could easily stand up in. So, in reality was I a good swimmer? Not by a long shot. Oh, and then we have the sport of cycling that I have to learn. Yeeaaahh. Bikes probably make up 90% of the cost to participate in triathlons. There were literally so many things I had no clue I had to buy in order to use a bike for a triathlon and to not look like a total idiot on a bike. The latter is still up for debate.

So, how would I describe my biking experience? A tad more than zero sounds accurate. I did have a bike in college that I road maybe 2-3 miles per week to class, and I also remember going on an epic long bike ride with a couple friends which turned out to only be 7 miles when we finally measured the route in our cars. Yup, 7 miles was my longest ride ever from 2001 until 2011 when a friend dared me to do a century ride with him. A week before the century ride, on a my friend's borrowed bike, we did practice rides of 8 and 14 miles so I would be familiar with the bike and gears. Then I rode 100 miles to PR my distance ridden on a bike by 86 miles. It also took me over 7 and a half hours, and I definitely can't afford to be that slow for 112 miles. In reality it wasn't much different than how my first ultra went, and it's very similar to how I'm going into the Ironman. Go big, or go home, then figure out proper training later. Motto of my athletic life. However, now 3 years later, I have not been on a bike since.

Well, it's now been over five months since I signed up for Louisville and I am 10 weeks into my training with 6 weeks to go. I had decided early on that despite being a beginner cyclist and swimmer that I wanted to train the best I could and go into the event somewhat prepared. My respect for triathletes has grown tremendously and especially for Iron distance triathletes. The time it takes to learn three skill sets, no less master them with any speed, is an immense undertaking. As a novice, I am not only learning two new sports, but also having to build up endurance at the same time so I can conquer the full distance.

Thus far, it's been trial by fire, but well worth it and humbling. I finally bought a bike, a wetsuit, tri gear, and pretty much exhausted whatever money I had set aside for upcoming running events for the sake of the triathlon. The total cost for the Ironman including entry fee, bike, bike accessories, tri gear, motel, and travel has been exactly $2,000. The cost could have been $1,000 more had I not bought most of my items on ebay (ie. $899 bike for $479, $100 aerobar for $50, $250 wetsuit for $35, $150 tri suit for $75 and so on). I also learned that triathlons are significantly less forgiving for the ill equipped and unprepared. More so than in ultras where, as long as you keep moving forward, you can be untrained and even out of shape and still finish well within the cut offs. Training schedules are also much more demanding, whereas potential rest days are often replaced with works outs for swimming and cycling, since each sport requires several days of training any given week. With running your off days are off days, but in triathlons an off day of running means you are either on the bike, in the pool, and vice versa. Interestingly though, while my overall training routine is more structured and stricter than running alone, I find that I don't feel nearly as worn out as when all my mileage is solely running. I suppose switching up the muscle groups really does lessen the singular impact of just doing one sport all the time. That being said, I am trying to get used to the fact that my weekly running mileage may only hit 30-40 miles per week, low by my standards, but that the addition of 100+ miles of biking and several miles of swimming takes up about the same amount of time as a 75-85 mile running week would.

In the remaining six weeks the plan is to refine my race strategy and to gain some speed. I have mostly been training to become more efficient in the water and on the bike, and often focusing a lot on technique versus trying to go fast. Trust me when I say my first swimming and biking workouts were rough. I was stopping every couple of laps in the pool to catch my breath and I couldn't ride a bike for more than 30 minutes before my neck, back, hips, butt, and legs got sore. But, I sought sound advice, was patient, and tried to improve just a little bit more every time I got in the water, or hopped on my bike. I had also intentionally made workouts harder by swimming in non streamlined gear and waiting to use clip in shoes on the bike. I figured if I increased my efforts without any performance aids, then it would make me stronger, albeit slower in the early stages of training. Now that I can confidently knock out a 2 mile swim and a 70 mile ride any given day, though not fast, I think the time is right to start using cycling shoes and a wetsuit to see what speed I can gain from here on out. If I had relied on these things from the beginning of my training, I would have worried that they may have become a security blanket and I would rely on them too much. I still have a lot to learn, but gains are gains.

Finally, I decided to set some goals, which was something I was hesitant to do early on. Obviously, the primary objective is just to finish. Given that it is my FIRST triathlon, and it just so happens to be Iron distance, I am not putting a ton of pressure for a particular time. Realistically, even if I improved a good bit on the swim and the bike, I probably would not cut more than 30 minutes off my total time at this juncture in my triathlon life. I do think I can break 13 hours, probably 12:30, and on a good day perhaps go under 12 hours. But, like any long distance event, there is a lot can happen in the 140.6 miles that we will cover. As long as I can cross that finish in under 17 hours, I will be an Ironman.

(Ironman Louisville finish line)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Break, or a Break Up?

Last weekend I DNFed my fifth 100 miler in thirteen attempts and it felt amazing. Quite frankly, that is the point. It appears my rocky relationship with 100 mile races has come to a much needed halt. I am simply tired of beating up my body, which is a well known requisit of 100 mile races, for the sake of a buckle. In all good conscience I walked away from this past race happy and healthy. Had I been feeling terrible and made the same choice, I would have left uncertain if my decision was influenced by a bad day, or by personal conviction. Thankfully, it was the latter, as I ended my day feeling good and even running with a few friends as they continued their long day and I ended mine.

So let me be clear. I did not drop because I gave up, or lost my mental toughness. That's just naive assumption right there. I absolutely could have kept running, but that is not something I feel the need to prove to myself, and certainly not others right now. I did not drop because I was hurt. In fact, it was probably the best I have ever felt at that point in a 100 mile race. I am not burnt out. Quite the contrary, I will continue running on a regular basis, but without the prolonged recovery and potential damage that is often the aftermath of 100 mile races. Right now my focus is on other sports, other hobbies, and having a social life. Let's be honest, I'm not as conditioned for longer events running 30-40 miles of flat roads every week, compared to when I was living in the Shenandoah Valley running 80+ miles per week in the mountains. At this juncture in life, from a work/social/hobby balance point, I do not want to exert the time, money, and training that is needed to be more successful at 50 to 100 mile races.

I have run 84 ultras and 12 marathons in the ten years I have been a runner. Given that I am still in my early 30's, that is a lot. Also, keep in mind that the total distance of the races I have done is 4,050 miles, which is the equivalent distance to running just over 154 marathons. Seriously, how many 32 year olds, especially ones that didn't start running until after college, do you know that have run that much? My body has covered more miles than many avid distance runners do in their entire lifetimes. I may be 32 and still in good health, but there are times I can tell my body does not appreciate running 50 miles the way it did 5 years ago. This might make me sound like an old fart, but the reality is I want to avoid having my "runner age" catch up to my actual age. While I have no issue doing races to prove to myself I can go faster and be tougher, I'd rather not do them at the potential expense of my long term health. Given that life already deals us a number of unpredictable things that may affect our health, why not be smart about one of the things we do have power over.

All too often, especially on social networks, I see people applauding others for their feats of endurance, but it is a sentiment I feel is misguided. Trust me, I get that the positive intent is derived from encouragement and amazement. However, I read about people dropping due to serious physical stress, or "persevering" through an injury to finish and the first comments are always something like "way to go!", "so badass", "you're so tough", "way to stick it out", etc. While I believe testing one's limits is respectable, it's one of my own reasons for doing sports, pushing those limits to the point of jeopardizing your health is foolish. I know, because I have been that very fool before. Not even the top marathoners in the world will run to the point of injury, or at least not on purpose to prove something, and these are actually people who make money off running. We don't. That being said, I will always support my friends who take on these endeavors, but there are times I wish some of them would step back and see the big picture. I'd rather myself and my friends run for 30-40 more years healthy, rather than another 9 hours injured to get some buckle, medal, or feeling of achievement. Feelings of achievement, while wonderful now, will not regrow your knee ligaments and damaged joints 20 years from now.

This is also not a recent revelation for me. I have debated the future of my relationship with 100 mile races a great deal over the past year. Similar sentiments have echoed in my posts, and most dealing with a lost desire to run 100's, but more so a lost desire to keep inflicting the physical toll that 100 mile races will always have on the human body. Aside from a very small few, running many, or even a moderate amount of 100 milers will inevitably cause some form of overuse injury, and I see no point in going through life with constant nagging aches and pains due to extreme distance events. I've seen too many runners over the years deteriorate from relatively athletic and healthy to basically hobbling through every race they enter. I'd rather not go that route, and not end up like David Horton, who despite his former dominance as a runner, is now resigned to riding a bicycle and walking. Of course, while moderation in any facet of life can lead to longevity, I question whether 100 milers by their very nature can ever be done in moderation. Running 100 miles even once is not a form of healthy moderation, though there are physical outliers like Gary Knipling who can run 100 miles at age 70, his son Keith who has finished all 50 of the 100 milers he has started, and the legendary John DeWalt who completed the Hardrock 100 at age 73. While good health, good training, and wise scheduling is a factor, it is far fetched to assume anyone who trains/lives a similar lifestyle will reap equal results. Karl Meltzer, at age 46, still beats younger faster runners with insane training routines in 100 mile races, and even sometimes when he claims he hasn't been running more than a few hundred miles per month. Sometimes it's just genetics.

I have now DNFed three of my past five 100 mile races, and the two I actually managed to finish were pretty miserable slogs. I also spent a lot of time training for those five crappy races and in hindsight it just feels like lost time, as I question how much the training even helped. If anything, I lost a significant amount of speed, and felt marginally beat up most of the time. Prior to Old Dominion I withdrew my entry to the C&O Canal 100, because deep down I knew I was not interested in running 100 miles. And yet I still showed up to the start of Old Dominion two months later, because I had to know for myself if those feelings would fade in the heat of a 100 mile experience. They did not.

So does this mean I will never attempt another 100 again? Definitely not, but if I do another 100, it will have to be during a period of time I can genuinely dedicate myself to training for one. But again, I'm not sure I will want to do that with my schedule any time soon. There are obviously still 100 mile races I would like to do, but there is no reason to rush into them, and to be honest there are fewer and fewer races I consider bucket list races. If I want to run through beautiful mountains somewhere, I don't need to participate in a race to do it. It's not like I wear any of my buckles anyway.

Lastly, don't think I am discouraging anyone from running 100 miles. Completing my first 100 miler in 2007 in under 24 hours is still one of the highlights of my running life. Running 100 miles will always be a special accomplishment. Injuries, fatigue, and discomfort will always be part of the experience, and overcoming them will be one of the things you remember most. Just be aware of the potential long term trade offs that overcoming those things will have, and whether its something you need to continually prove to yourself, or to do for fulfillment. Afterall, you only get one body to work with, be a good steward of it, and maybe you'll be running for decades to come.