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 ancient 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 an ancient 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, cough....got 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.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Babel Commence

"You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself."
-Walt Whitman "Song of Myself"

(College graduation with my late grandparents. May 7th, 2004)

Like the great tower of Babel, the languages of the world, what we hear and choose to hear, scatter with the sands. We ebb and flow, and those languages lost and retrieved. They are the languages of our dreams, our doubts, our courage and fears. Time is an ephemeral gift, but that which we all too condescendingly take for granted. It effervesces into the singularities of the cosmos, and yet we are the dot on the line in the cube. We fill our brave new worlds with makeshift goals and aspirations, and as the zealous years dwindle and race by we find ourselves walking across stages, stages of life and learning.

May 7th, 2014 marked the 10th anniversary of my college graduation, and I somehow can't always grasp that a decade has passed. Five years before that I graduated from high school, a period of time in its own right that encapsulated a full quandrant of my life. Each graduation was marked by its own pomp and circumstance, and purposefully seguewaying into another realm of adulthood. Adulthood, nor maturity, however, can be simply stamped onto a single sheet of celebratory paper that we call a diploma. No, the diploma is not an ending, but rather the symbolic ticket of the beginning of a paradigm shift into the world of self sufficiency and self reliance. Ironically, we move along from one system of institutionalization to another, all at the risk of losing grip of why we pursued higher education in the first place. Was it because it was what was naturally expected of us after high school? Was it to eventually land us the highest paying job, or perhaps it was to fulfill obtaining a job placed upon us by the most altruistic intentions. Above all these, did we really study countless hours to do what we wanted, to discover what really wanted, and just as importantly discover what we thought we wanted. My own contentions fall into the latter.

In truth, life after college is the real classroom, and all our scholarly endeavors are no more than a preamble to the lessons that lie ahead. But, sadly I feel education leaves its hosts desperately unprepared to tackle the onslaught of a world that does not care about what you've learned in a book. I will spare you the details about all the crazy odd jobs, all the places I've lived, all the people I've gained and lost, leaving home, and now calling home all the once foreign places and faces. And, I could pretentiously romanticize my post collegiate world glowing in the golden hues of 1980's Hallmark commercial, or pair it with the surrealistic oddity of a Salvador Dali self portrait. But, as there is a grace in the demure workings of ten years of living, growing, and aging, life's occurrances are only counted at face value.

So, where did I see myself five years after college? Well, I went to college and initially studied quantitative finance in order to become a stock analyst on Wall Street. Not because I thought I would enjoy it, I was sure I wouldn't, but because I was enamored with the idea of making a lot of money. My shameful naivety as a late teen and early twenty something at that point still associated wealth with success, but that would soon change. Then on the morning of September 11, 2001 the notion of being a stock analyst literally and metaphorically came crashing down with the World Trade Center. That was the fall semester of my junior year, and the end of my pursuit of a lucrative corporate life in quantitative finance. My studies shifted towards more humanitarian interests, and long story short I found myself with a degree in political science instead. Five years after shaking the Dean of my school's hand, I saw myself working as a political adviser in the Virginia capital, and then moving on to the federal government, and maybe even the White House.

Nope. The first gubernatorial candidate I had planned to work for missed delivering his campaign petitions by several hours, and was deemed ineligible to run for office. Well, great....So much for where I saw myself in five years, no less ten.

The moral of the story, not that there even is a moral, is that life is almost guaranteed to not go as planned. They never tell you in college how hard life can really be, but conversely they also don't tell you the great rewards that are birthed from great risk. The world does not revolve around our schedules, though the scale variance in our finite minds ignores this. There is no crystal ball, no warning, but simply life evolving at its constant rate of seasonal change with us at the mercy of the winds, winters, and springs. My life did not go as I had expected, and yet the surprise of the myriad of twists and turns has compiled itself into a wondrous book better than any I could have written. Along the classroom of life 101 I've learned to let go of that which we cannot control, which is the lion's share of life, and to know that these inspected elements are greater and finer than what we can truly see. That which we can control we should embrace with humility and generosity as it often finds itself growing as the seed of someone else's uncontrollable world. There we can find clarity and solace in the things that we perceive as not going as planned. Humans by very nature do not have the complete foresight to comprehend in all necessary fullness the truths that are self evident.

I dare not think I would have done all that I have done, if I had done all that I had sought to do. As a 21 year old holding a diploma, I would have never dreamed I would see the places I have seen, done the things I have done, nor do enough to even merit such pastimes as keeping up a blog like this to log some of my life's adventures big and small. I think as younger people we do a great disservice to ourselves by limiting our parameters and definitions of success and abundance. To understand that wealth is not money, and luxurious things are not luxury I think frees us to find more fulfilled countenance in vast other treasures of the world. Where did I see myself 10 years after college? Not where I am, or have been, and all the better for it.

Sometimes the life you didn't plan ends up being better than the one you did.

Monday, May 12, 2014

2014 Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Predictions

(The coveted MMT100 Buckle. Photo courtesy of run100s)
*(5/20/14)Just added the prediction results to the bottom of the page so you can compare what I guessed to how it actually played out.

It's that time of year again! Time for the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 miler. Arguably one of the toughest, gnarliest, and definitely rockiest races in the United States. I learned last year just how tough the course is first hand, and although it was my slowest race ever, I redeemed my 2009 dnf to join the club of MMT100 finishers. Unfortunately, due to scheduling with my new job, it is unlikely I will be able to participate in any capacity with MMT for a while, or at least until race weekend and my school's graduation weekend are on separate weeks.

Onto to the predictions. The forecast is calling for unseasonably cool weather, with high's near 70 and lows in the 40's. It does not look like rain is in the schedule and the course should be also be dry. In other words, the weather is going awesome, and I expect to see some super fast times and a lot of PR's.
*5/16/14 Weather update. The course will be wet from Thursday and Friday rain, but race day looks to be rain free. Temps still look ideal, if not a bit cool considering it will be in the 40's at night.

The Women's Race:

Eva Pastalkova- 2011 champ and course record holder. One of the strongest female mountain runners in the country. Predict another win in 22:15, but not a CR. She will likely win by a margin of over 2 hours.

Sheryl Wheeler- 2010 champ who also has two 2nd place finishes at MMT. Per her strength, I suspect she will hang back for the first 30-40 miles and gradually move up the field and overtake most of the women by Byrd Knob. I think this will play out a lot like 2011 and she will take 2nd. Predict 24:30.

Kathleen Cusick- She's trimmed down,toned up, and faster than ever. Ran a 50 mile PR of 7:21 at Tussey Mountainback last year and just won Bull Run Run on a hot day in 8 hours flat. Has more MMT finishes than any of the other women. However, any other year I'd choose her to win, but Eva is running. Predict 25:20. 3rd.

Amy Rusiecki- Probably the second fastest lady to Eva, and with considerable experience. But, like her husband Brian, she's never run on a course as rocky as Massannutten. Predict a top 4 in 25:40

Holly Bugin- One of the fastest females in the field, but with no 100 experience. Predict 27:45. Top 5.

Elizabeth Carrion- No doubt she will be in the hunt for a top 5, but probably not until after Camp Roosevelt. Predict 26:10.

Siobhan Leonardis- My sleeper pick for a top 7 finish. She has really improved her speed in the past year at all distances, and her spring season has been strong. Predict 28:30.

Kari Brown- I can't rule out the seasoned MMT veteran. Kari ran 27:38 at last year's MMT finishing as 5th female. It was also her best time on the course. She could definitely sneak into the top 5 or 6 again, Predict 28:30.


The Men's Race: (4 former champs running)

James Blandford- I'm calling for a rare repeat win. James won last year's event in a blistering 18:30. Only Karl Meltzer has runner faster, and by a few minutes, on the current course. Blandford has really dialed it in during the past three years. Predict 18:12, for a win and course record on current course.

Karl Meltzer- Speaking of Karl. Karl is known for being able to come off stretches of little running and still knock out 100 mile wins. Any other year and I'd give him the nod for the win, but for some reason, I think Karl's presence will only make Blandford run faster. Though I will never rule out the man with the most 100 mile wins in history, I predict a close second for Karl in 18:25.

Brian Rusiecki- One of the top runners in the country. He ran a ridiculous 14:54 to win Vermont in 2012, and he's been unbeatable at Bull Run. Rusiecki has also shown strength in the mountains by winning Cascade Crest. However, he doesn't have the experience on the technical courses like Blandford and Meltzer. Predict 3rd in 19:30.

Jason Lantz- Won the 2012 race in 19:33. He also had an impressive win at Vermont over guys like Ian Sharman, Nick Clark, Brian Rusiecki, and Chad Rickleffs. He will keep Blandford and Karl company for the first half, but they will pull away after Habron Gap. Predict 20:45. 4th.

David Frazier- 3rd overall in 2011 in 21:25. First person to break 5 hours on the rugged Elizabeth Furnace 50k course. Predict 20:45 and a top 5.

Jon Allen- One of the fastest guys in the field and good experience at 100 miles. He's run as fast as 15:16 at Umstead, and showed he can also throw down in the mountains with a 20:49 at the Bear 100 with 22,00 feet of climb. He's won a good number of ultras and finished near the top of most races. Predict a top 6 in 21:30.

Todd Walker- The 2008 champ is back after laying pretty low in the race scene the past couple years. It doesn't look like he has raced much, but his experience on the course may make up for lost speed. Has done well in all his previous MMT's, so I will say he runs near 22:15 and ends up somewhere in the top 6-7 in this deep field.

John Dennis- Just crushed the Umstead 100 in 13:47, but it's a non technical course. Has all the ability to go fast, but I think the rocks will slow him. Predict 22:15. Top 7.

Julian Vicente- 6th overall last year in 22:39, and 10th in 2012 in 23:17. I suspect he may PR again and get close to 22 hours. Predict top 8 in 22:25.

Adam Wilcox- (Withdrawn from race. Get better Adam!)lots of speed and has run 23:17 at MMT. Predict a new PR of 22:45 and a top 10.

Rande Brown- Rande has run under 24 hours the past two years, and has run as fast as 22:11. He's really proven to be a strong runner on Massanutten's course, and I think he will be near 23 hours again, and perhaps crack top 12.




Others to watch:

Justin Contois- Had solid runs at Bull Run(7:51) and Stone Mill(7:46). Also ran 19:29 at Vermont. Potentially a sub 24 hour guy.

Danny Mowers- Has had some good races recently. Would not be surprised if he dipped under 24 hours. Predict 25:20.

Matt Bugin- Has yet to finish a 100, but I think he is due. Predict 25:30, though he is capable of much faster. He may also be running the whole race with his wife. Top 15.

Ryan O'dell- Has run sub 17 hours for 100 miles. Predict 24:45.

David Peterman- Finishes near the front of most of his races, but has never run under 28 hours at MMT. Perhaps this will be a breakthrough year.

Dante Simone- Another guy who has run under 17 hours for 100, so you can't rule out a possible solid run. Predict 25:00.

Jim Harris- Nobody runs as steady as Jim, and I think he'll be going near 26 hours.

Keith Knipling- Anything from 23-26 hours seems reasonable for the veteran. Predict 23:45. Top 12.

Jack Kurisky- Has improved dramatically in the past couple years, and to think he was already very fast. Predict 23:30. Top 8.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Results and prediction comparisons

Even a broken clock is correct twice a day, and sometimes a blind squirrel finds a nut . That being said, I didn't do too bad with this year's MMT100 predictions, considering I have not stayed up to date with the ultra scene lately. On good years, I have predicted within 5 minutes of several elite times and have come close to nailing the order of finish, but I didn't quite get there this year. Given all the variables in a 103.7 mile race, especially one as rugged as Massanutten, guessing within an hour of someone's finish time is a rare feat. Cool weather and low humidity also made for significantly faster times, and aside from wet feet from higher water crossings, conditions were prime for a lot of personal bests by several hours.

First things first, I should have never doubted Karl Meltzer's ability to run fast, and comfortably beat two other former champs in the process. Not that there was any question, but this is yet another reminder that even at age 46 Karl is still king of the mountains. My prediction of 18:25, however, was still fairly close, and only 15 minutes off his actual time of 18:40. On the women's side, I was way off in all my predicted times, and completely overlooked Angela Shartel who may have run one of the most impressive performances ever in a 100 miler. She beat one of the most dominant female ultrarunners in the country by two hours and knocked 37 minutes off a course record that was thought untouchable by anyone other than Eva Pastolkova herself. Boy was I wrong. Notable female drops included Elizabeth Carrion and Holly Bugin. Other surprises included 4th place Pierre Loic Deragne of France, who flew under my radar due to his foreign results, but alas I completely missed the fact he won the Zion 100, Ozark 100, and got 6th at Pinhoti. And then there was flat lander Gregory Brant from Virginia Beach who finished 8th and showed you don't need to live in the mountains to crush a mountain course. Todd Walker did not start.

My closest predictions:

Really, on second glance I didn't do too bad. Meltzer, Rusiecki, and Blandford were all in the top three as myself, and I'm sure many others, would have picked. Just not in the order I picked. I was 15 minutes off Meltzer's time and 24 minutes off Rusiecki's. I then predicted Jason Lantz in 4th in 20:45 and Jon Allen 6th in 21:30(which he was until David Frazier dropped). Lantz finished 5th with Allen in 21:00, so I was only off by 15 minutes and 30 minutes respectively, and the finish order still pretty accurate. I predicted a top 12 and sub 24 for Rande Brown, and he finished 13th in 23:42. Jack Kurisky was a tougher pick, because he's never run terribly fast at MMT, but he's run so strong lately, I figured he was due and predicted a 23:30. He finished in 23:54. For the women, I correctly predicted 3rd place for Kathleen Cusick, 4th for Amy Rusiecki, and a top 5 or 6 for Kari Brown (she was 5th). However, of the entire women's race, I am most pleasantly surprised that my sleeper pick for a top 7 for Siobahn Leonoardis came to fruition with her top 6. And since my predictions included Sheryl Wheeler who did not start, Leonardis actually finished exactly where I had thought.

Again, this is all for fun, and honestly the number of predictions I get super wrong will always outnumber the ones I come close with. Like I said, even a broken clock is correct twice a day.











Thursday, May 1, 2014

Minority Report and Ted Corbitt

(Ted Corbitt circa 1957)

If you were to ask relatively new ultrarunners who the pioneers of American ultrarunning are you might get some varied answers. While most younger people in the sport, perhaps my age and younger, would have a hard time naming anyone before Dean Karnazes' book came out in 2005, some might still be able to identify Scott Jurek, or David Horton. I, myself, must admit that I did not realize people were already accomplishing great things internationally in the world of ultras long before it became more mainstream in the US in the mid 2000's. If you were also to poll a large group of ultrarunners and ask if they knew who Ted Corbitt was, they likely wouldn't know, and would probably be even more surprised to find out that he was an African American.

Ted Corbitt is to American ultrarunning what Yiannis Kouros is to European ultrarunning, and yet so few people know this. Mr. Corbitt's accomplishments include competing on the US marathon team in the Helsinki Olympic games and having the athletic range to win road marathons and also hold national track records in almost every conceivable distance from 25 miles to 100. Corbitt was also notorious for his intense 30 mile training days, 200 mile training weeks, and sometimes running as much as 300 miles per week. But, unlike some runners who peak and fade within five to ten years, he remained competitive into his 50's and even completed 68 miles at a 24 hour event at age 84. So the big question is why, despite Corbitt dominating the long distance scene from the 1950's to 1970's, did American ultrarunning fizzle out? Was it because of the resurgence of the popularity of the road marathon in the 1980's, the rise of European ultrarunning on the shoulders of greats like Kouros, or simply the fact that Corbitt's feats slowly became forgotten in the dusty lore of ultrarunning cannon?

In case you were wondering, here are some of Ted Corbitt's personal bests: Marathon 2:26; 50 miles 5:35; 100 miles 13:33, 24 hours 134.7 miles(at age 54). It's amazing to think with all the faster times we are starting to see as runners are specializing in certain distances that Corbitt was able to run a 13:33 100 miler in 1969.....at age 50.

For some reason ultrarunning continues to associate the Western States 100 as the birth of North American extreme distance events, but it's far from the truth. The first years of Western States running events were held on an 89 mile course, and did not become an official 100 mile event until 1985. Thus, the Old Dominion 100 in Virginia is technically the oldest true 100 mile course, given that it's measured distance of 100 miles came six years before Western States . But, again people like Corbitt had already been running fast 100 mile events several decades earlier without the pomp and circumstance of some more current athletes who would have you thinking nobody has ever done the distances they have.

This brings me to my second thought.

Where are the minorities in our sport? Is it on par with the ethnic breakdown of Americans as a general population, or is it less? Road running, while dominated by mostly African Americans, attracts a fairly yuppy demographic. Even more specifically with ultras I see more of the same kinds of people. Most are college educated, have better than average incomes, and are also most likely to be upper middle class Caucasians between the ages of 35 and 60. While I agree the personality types and sociopolitical beliefs of ultrarunners is quite diverse, the trend is that regardless if they are bearded long haired, craft beer drinking hipsters in Boulder, or suit toting lawyers in DC, they will probably be white. And in terms of growing up in an urban environment and possibly living in a lower income area, I don't see that as a barrier to running ultras, which from experience tend to be one of the least expensive sports to have as a hobby. Another unique aspect of ultras is the plethora of "fat ass" events and bare bones events that cost anywhere from under $50 to completely free. If you can afford shoes, you can participate, and due to the growing popularity of barefoot running, you may not need shoes either. Ultras are also growing in number and are more accessible than ever to people from various localities.

But, alas in my ten years running I rarely encounter more than a handful of minorities at ultras. There might be a couple Asians, a couple black people, maybe a Latino, or Indian, but in a race of 300+ runners, I would be shocked to see more than 10-15 minorities combined. Per 2010 census data, 72.4% of the US was classified as white, which means if a 300 person race held the same percentages there should be roughly 82 non white runners. I'm sure I could write extensively on the cultural attraction, or non attraction to the sport, but it seems like minority participation has grown in almost every major American sport, except running/ultrarunning. Football and basketball are inversely majority African American now, baseball has attracted more Asians and Latinos, soccer globally attracts all ethnic groups, and even golf is more diverse now than it was before Tiger Woods. So if breakthrough minority athletes like Tiger Woods, boxer Joe Louis, Yao Ming, Jeremy Lin, Hideo Nomo, the NBA's Earl Loyd, Jackie Robinson, Fernando Valenzuela, and many others have opened the gateway to other minorities entering their respective sports, why didn't it happen with Ted Corbitt? It's most likely that as gifted and respected as he was, the sport simply did not have the mainstream limelight to make any resounding noise between cultural barriers.

I certainly hope we can see minority participation increase, or at least see some elite minorities enter the fold. Unless they travel from other countries, it seems the US doesn't really have any elite minority participants aside from maybe Joseph Gray, Yassine Diboun, Jorge Pacheco,David Goggins, Oswaldo Lopez, Jorge Maravilla, and maybe Sage Canaday who is half Asian. If we look to elite female minorities the numbers are basically non existent.

Speaking of elite female ultrarunners, I have witnessed a dramatic decrease in the number in the mid Atlantic. Not to take anything away from the women that are winning local ultras, or ultras in Virginia, but the talent pool has shrunk dramatically in the past 7-8 years. Some of this is due to the top runners leaving for the West coast like Amy Sproston and Jenn Shelton, but others seem to have fallen off the grid entirely. In the mid 2000's the mid Atlantic had both Amy and Jenn, Justine Morrison, Annette Bednosky, Anne Lundblad, Michele Harmon, Regan Petrie, Bethany Patterson, Sarah "Space Cadet" Johnston, and a slew of other fast ladies. A lot of these women were competitive on a national level and could show up to any given race in the country and win. While some of the women still make appearances at races, and still do very well, the overall depth of women's competitive fields has decreased. For every new fast female like an Eva Pastalkova, Holly Bugin, or Martha Nelson, it seems we've lost several others. While the decrease in top female runners is not in the same category as the low number of ethnic minorities, it does make you wonder why the mid West and West coast own most of the female ultrarunning talent in the country.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Too Much of a Good Thing


Learning from past mistakes only works if you don't make the same mistake twice. Sometimes my gift is my curse. When I am actually feeling healthy and generally fit my exuberance for seeing what I can do at races can be amplified to a fault. After all, when you know your running is going well and your body is feeling good, it becomes incredibly tempting to want to go full out at every single race. This normally wouldn't be bad, except sometimes I forego better judgement and race too often. Can you blame me? Races afford me the opportunity to experience new surroundings, test my level of fitness, and often catch up with many old friends all at the same time. But, over racing has gotten me in trouble in the past, and with a little maturity I prevented myself from going overboard this early in 2014.

In 2008 and 2009, I sometimes ran an ultra , or a marathon on four to five consecutive weekends. Regardless that some were not at even at racing effort, the cumulative mileage added up to the point where my body had yet to fully recover from the previous weekend, and then here I was doing another race. Slowly, but surely I was showing up to races 95% recovered, 90% recovered, 80%, and finally to the point where just finishing felt like a slow miserable slog. Thankfully, over racing has never lead to injury, but it has lead to less than desirable efforts and hurt my enjoyment of running. From a personal perspective, the high number of races was more about me wanting to be part of something fun and adventurous as opposed to trying to rack up as many races as possible. But, even that has its trade offs. The end result in 2008 and 2009 was that I sacrificed potentially good runs at my focus races because of all the other runs I did in the months and weeks leading up. This is the main reason why my results over the years have been all over the place. In 2010 and 2012 I was a little better about not over racing, and my performances improved significantly, though I still should have cut back with the quantity of events at the end of 2012 which lead to a dismal 2013.

So, now at the end of April, 2014, I found myself very close to brink of over racing again. Thankfully, with a bit of self diagnoses and having more mature decision making I think I may have dodged the proverbial bullet. My dense schedule of spring races was mainly due to being antsy about hitting the race scene at full health, which is something my body hadn't been capable of in nearly 18 months. Again, the first couple races went reasonably well as my body was shaking off a little rust. This was followed by two decent road marathons run within two weeks of each other, with the latter being a personal best. Admittedly, setting a marathon PR two weeks after another marathon PR gave me a false sense that I could continue doing races very close together will no ill effects. That concept, however, got shattered at the Bull Run Run 50 Miler.

Bull Run wasn't even on the docket for my spring races, but getting off the wait list ten days before the event was tempting, as well as the fact it was the only older ultra in Virginia I have never run. Needless to say, I could feel residual soreness in my legs within the first five miles of Bull Run, and by the halfway point my legs were feeling pretty shot. When fully rested my legs have a familiar lightness and bounce that usually lasts a good way into an ultra, aside for maybe the last 10-15 miles as in the case of a 50 miler. 50 mile trail races can be tough as it is, but even tougher when you know you aren't going to be able to your best from the get go. Thus, instead of having a potentially strong showing I was reduced to not only walking small uphills, but also the downhills. I ended up finishing in a respectable 8:27, but it was well off my intended goal range of 7:30-7:45. It was one of those days where you almost feel bad when people congratulate you on a good race, when in reality it was a pretty crummy day as far as performance goes. That being said, though my race was fairly lousy, I enjoyed the event as a whole very much. I will certainly be back, and hopefully much better rested. After the race my legs literally felt worse than they did after some 100 milers I have done. It was a clear indication that I should have stuck to my original plan of NOT doing Bull Run, and to take some time off from races. My original strategy was to do a couple ultras in the winter to build endurance, two road marathons to gain speed, and then leave a month to recover before the C&O Canal 100 in April.

For the first time in a while I exercised some grown up judgement and withdrew from the C&O Canal 100. Part of me regrets not being smarter about my races so I could have raced C&O and attempted to break 18 hours per my original spring goals, but another part of me is slightly relieved at not running 100 miles. A 100 mile race would have taken a large chunk out of other potential training time, and it would have hurt some of the speed I worked to gain back all winter. I had also considered running my 6th Promise Land 50k as a replacement race for C&O, and because it's "only" a 50k, it wouldn't set back my training. But, again, I opted to take the smarter route and bowed out of racing that too. Now I have a full seven weeks between my last race and next potential race, though I may forego that as well in order to focus exclusively on Ironman training this summer.

In a bit of a paradigm shift, I am newly convinced that I am going to return to a more moderate schedule of races, which is what I did my first few years as a runner. It's no coincidence that my growth from a newbie runner to somewhat experienced ultra runner from 2004 to 2007 occurred because I limited myself to 3-4 races per year. Perhaps I will dial back to a couple ultras a year, a couple marathons, and probably no more than one 100 miler every six months to a year. Speaking of 100 milers, for the first time in a while I am not that interested in doing any 100 mile races. As I am getting a bit older, the novelty of running 100 miles (for me) is wearing off, as well as that blinding allure of panning for shiny new buckles. That certainly doesn't mean I wouldn't love to run Western States again, or volunteer at 100 mile races, but it means I'm not going to do a 100 unless I am 100% invested in the race.