Monthly Archives: June 2010

The Truth…

Damn this rain, damn this sleet, damn this wind, damn these mountains and damn this whole damn race.

Thirty-something miles into another trail race, with another dozen or so to go, and I was as miserable as I’d ever been in my life. It seemed like the only positive thing I’d been able to find since waking up at 04:00 is that the quad muscle I’d injured a few weeks back hadn’t flared enough to make me stop. A cappuccino at a small cafe back in Haight seemed much nicer right then. Nevertheless, I was doing what every ultra runner does —  try and forget about the triviality of pain and keep grinding out the miles.

I’d also managed to bluff my way through the last couple of aid/medical stations without getting pulled for “medical reasons”, but I knew very well I was probably in a little trouble with some mild hypothermia issues and my left leg was starting to rebel a little…but not enough to stop. However, when I’d stop for something like trying to figure out which fork of a trail to take, I’d shiver uncontrollably. I’d also seem to drop anything I tried to hold, including the food given to me in the aid tents. My calves would cramp so hard sometimes when climbing steeply that they’d almost pull up behind my knees. The wet cold only exacerbated the tight muscles. My shins and hands were still sort of bloody from crashing on a muddy, steep, rocky downhill about three hours earlier. At least the rain kept the blood somewhat rinsed and from looking worse than it was. Push on. Just push on.

I admit I was almost giddy as I came off a high ridge of the coastal mountains and finally saw the Pacific Ocean again, sort of. I knew that once I got down those next steep, slick and sketchy switchbacks and touched the beach, I’d only have two more difficult climbs ahead of me and I’d finally be able stop the pain-a-thon.  Compartmentalize it. Mini goals.

I also knew the first climb would be the worst.  1,000+ vertical feet of steep water breaks and mud as slippery as snot, but no different than what I’d been doing for the last six or so hours. Just more of the same. Just another 1,000 feet of the 8,800 total. Once I got that climb out of the way it was on to an easier cruise down into a valley  where at least a few trees might cut the bitterly cold wind. After that, another steep but shorter climb of six or eight hundred feet and then I’d have four miles of downhill to the finish.

Baby steps Barry. One mini goal at a time. First get down to the beach without crashing, again.

Finally, the beach. I looked up through the mist and fog at the climb before me. The wind was whipping the rain, sleet and mist like a washing machine. No order to the madness, just chaos. It seemed colder down there on the beach, more miserable. Hard to believe. The thermometer on my watch said 33-degrees. My bare legs were soda can red from the cold. Even though I had on gloves, they were soaked through and I couldn’t feel my fingers…hadn’t been able to in a couple of hours actually. Shivering again. Damn it. Get moving. Nothing seemed fun about this, nothing.

My heart and lungs were hammering at my chest as I methodically “ran” up those steep steps. Enough. Walk it from here. This is too painful, crazy. Save the energy. Halfway up. Damn it. I was totally worked, totally. Not only was I exhausted but I’d scrape five pounds of mud off my shoes and one step later it was there again. What’s the use? I turned and looked at the water lapping at the sand 500 feet below. It was gray, choppy and cold…just like my mood. Look up. Steep. More water breaks. Stop whining, go.

Before I could catch myself I was face down in the mud and cold water. My left quad felt like someone’d stuck a red hot railroad spike through it. I tried to bounce up as quickly as possible but my leg wasn’t having it. I rolled over and sat up, trying to massage out the baseball sized knot that was about four inches about my kneecap. It was extremely painful to touch. Excruciating to massage. Stand up. Nope, not happening. Damn it.

Five minutes, still sitting. I was panicked a little, confused as to what I could do. Maybe nothing. I had Tiger Balm in my running pack and tried using that on the knot, but the rain just spread it onto unsuspecting skin and made a bad situation worse. I could do nothing but start wondering if that was it. Was I done? What now? Wait for another runner to come by and send them for help? That thought made me more nauseous than I already was. I’d never quit a long distance race. Besides that, I probably hadn’t seen anyone in over an hour. Maybe everyone else had come to their senses and quit at mile 25 when we crossed back through the start/finish area. Maybe I should’ve done that too.

Five miles back to the last aid station. Five miles to the next one. Sh#$%. I was right in the middle. I was freezing, bottoming out mentally.

Ten minutes. Okay, get up and go. My leg was killing me though. It was swollen down into my knee and there was little I could do without feeling the hot burn of pain shoot straight into my core. Why was this happening? I’d done everything right. Hydrated lavishly. Eaten well. Paced myself for the long haul. Why was it so damn cold in California? How could I let months and months of training come to this? Where did I go wrong? Damn it.

There it was, a fifteen minute freefall to the bottom. I’d never felt so helpless in my life. Crashed on the rocks. Despite the months of diligent training, my body had failed me.

Within a minute of hitting that devastating mental bottom, I got pissed off enough to realize that I could sort of “push” with with the busted leg, just not really climb with it. That meant I could go backward up that hill. Bingo. Looked stupid and pathetic. So be it. Still hurt like hell, but at least I wasn’t sitting in the mud feeling sorry for myself. I was at least fighting back, a little.

Moving helped. Once I did start moving the pain let go enough to where I could almost dog trot down the valley. Two other runners caught me just as I was getting within striking distance of the aid tent. I was glad that I hadn’t waited back there and let them see me crashing to what could have been one of my lowest points ever. I’d never been crushed like that. New ground on a personal level. I couldn’t even think about it. It was something I didn’t want to think about. All I wanted to do was bring this misery-fest to an end. The medical tent was now only a hundred yards away.

It was hard to describe how good getting out of the wind, rain and sleet felt. As soon as I walked under the tent flap, a nice, high school-aged girl handed me some noodle soup. I immediately set it down knowing that I’d dropped the last one at the previous aid station. As glad as I was to be at this aid station, I still wasn’t willing to reveal that I was going hypothermic and my hands weren’t working quite right. Then a young, 30-ish something guy, who I assumed was a medical type, asked me to sit in a chair. This was it. What’s it going to be Barry? Call it, or sack up and finish what you started. Who are you? Here’s the raw truth.

Looking me in the eyes (or trying to anyhow), the medico guy asked me the typical questions…

How you feeling? Anything hurt?”

“Cold, but otherwise fresh.”

“I saw you limping down the road. Everything good with this leg? Looks swollen.”

Okay, here it is Barry. What’s it going to be?

“Just a little cramping. It’s all good. I’m ready to get this over with. Can I go?”

“Yeah. You sure you feel good enough to finish?”

“Never felt better”.

Five steps out of the tent and I had serious doubts whether that last statement was true, or at least “true enough”. Sitting for only a few minutes had caused my leg to stiffen up, a lot. I didn’t care anymore. The die had been cast and I was leaving. This was one of those few moments in my life where I had a personal choice to make. This would mean absolutely nothing to anyone else on earth, but it would mean absolutely everything to me, everything. Let’s bring what’s inside of me out into the open and take a look. Give up, or give it all. Black or white.

The wind and rain seemed much colder. Still 33-degrees.

The last hill, only a mile long and 800 feet or so of elevation, took me forty minutes. The cramps in my leg were absolutely punishing and I’d have to stop every few steps and massage out the knots. I hate to admit it but the pain had me in tears. I desperately wanted to go back down the hill to the last aid tent and call it…but I was only four miles from finishing. Call it Barry. Call it. F#%#$^!!!!! Two more people passed me, then another. They looked miserable too, but at least ambulatory.

Now that I was back on a high ridge the rain and wind seemed to pummel me without mercy. My teeth were chattering and my body was shivering constantly. I knew I was dehydrated after so many hours of running and despite shoving an entire baked potato in my mouth at the last aid station, I was only running on fumes. The mud was like grease and with my leg basically rigid now, I found myself on the ground more times that I could begin to count. Frustrated and approaching desperate doesn’t even begin to describe my frame of mind. Quit whining and go. That’s the answer in ultra distance running. Just shut up and go.

I slowly got down the last steep hill. Only half a mile of flat ground to go to the finish and it would mercifully be over. Another person passed me.

When I crossed the last little wooden foot bridge along the beach I could finally see the finish line no more than 200 yards away. I’ve never walked across a finish line in my life and this wasn’t going to be the first, so I ran (sort of). The pain was there, but at the same time, not. I think my body had had enough and was simply refusing to register anything at that point.

One more step. Done.

I was shivering from head to toe. I was completely depleted. Nothing left. Shelled. Nothing seemed real anymore. I couldn’t even feel the pouring down rain, the cold, the sleet, the wind. Nada. Senses turned off.

In the finish tent Donna held my soup while I pitifully chased the noodles around in the warm broth with my spoon. Honestly, I wanted more than anything to just hold the warm cup and restore some feeling in my fingers. Useless. I wanted, needed, to get dry clothes on and get warm, fast. Donna had to help me with that too. Just having dry clothes on helped, some.

I was mentally destroyed. When I crossed the halfway mark of the race I was in sixth place overall and running comfortably well despite the deplorable weather. Then, to have those few minutes of euphoria swept away in a flood of pain and anguish was absolutely crushing to my psyche. I’d never been so physically beaten and felt so utterly helpless like I had when my leg failed me. All I wanted was to get in the warm car and go back to our hotel in San Francisco and forget about this entire day. Shower and sleep, my next mini goals of the day.

For weeks I felt the heavy burden of disappointment, almost driving me to the point of pure anger. But one morning on one of my long training runs, I had an epiphany of sorts about the race. Until then I had felt that the experience was a mark of failure, that I’d let myself down and not performed as well as I could have…should have. Maybe I’d not trained properly. Not hydrated properly. Not fueled sufficiently. Maybe I didn’t have the mental capacity to run ultra distances. All these things were so untrue, but in some ways I was letting the circumstances define me. No, not define me, limit me going forward. It had handcuffed me. Sure, I still wanted to run, but never that distance again, ever. I started to believe that maybe it was simply beyond me to go that distance again.

It was almost exactly five months after finishing that race in California that I finally realized the race hadn’t defined or limited me at all. In fact, I realized that it only showed me that there is so much more to me than I ever could have known otherwise. I had peeled back another layer of the onion and found that deeper level.

Had I not pushed past the point where I could have easily said “enough is enough”, I never would have known how much physical and mental pain I could endure…enough to finish something extremely personal and important. Not pretty, but I finished what I started. I had expanded, exponentially. I’d found the truth about who I was. Sitting there in the rain and mud, crying and feeling sorry for myself, I’d actually found myself. The entire race and experience was nothing less than an exercise in spiritual clarity and growth.

What I thought was the worst day in my long history of endurance running was in retrospect the best day I’d ever had. It showed me the “why” of ultrarunning. It showed me the truth about who I was.

Within eight months of that race I had signed up for and finished another ultra distance event. This time I ran well throughout and finished with a time that allowed me to automatically qualify for entrance into the Western States 100 (but that’s another story for another day).

I’m an ultrarunner. Always will be.

Run long. Climb high. Paddle far. Live big.


Dirt Bag versus Goody Bag, A Trail Runner’s Dilemma

This past weekend I ran the first road race I’ve done in over a decade.

For the past ten years or more I’ve done nothing but trail races. They’ve varied in length from 13.1 miles all the way up to 50 miles. My main criteria when choosing an event is that it must have less than 250 people, be at least 50% on singletrack trails (the rest can be on fire roads), it’s got to be really hilly and be as self-supporting in nature as possible. When I say self supporting, for example, it would mean that a race would need to have no more than two, maybe three aid stations over a marathon length course…and you may actually be required to find them in order to use them.

The people who are usually at the start of these races are definitely a different lot. Most are wearing running clothes that look as if they’ve been slept in for the last week (and probably have), they typically don’t have one piece of material that matches in color in any way and their beefy trail running shoes have multiple layers of mud coating them. And given the typical early starts of backcountry running events, most of us standing around the start have on raggedy looking fleece jackets and are sipping coffee or tea to warm up until right at race time.

Long distance trail running requires a different mentality altogether. Sure, there are people who will torch a course regardless of whether the distance is a half marathon or 100 miles. But the majority of people who run these things are generally looking for something above and beyond the typical gigantic  mainstream road event. I mean c’mon, you have to be a little “different” to go out and run 50 or 100 miles knowing that the bulk of the time you’ll be running alone in the backcountry, have limited access to any kind of support other than your own and know for sure that extreme physical discomfort is as probable as another plastic surgery is for Joan Rivers.

For those of us that choose these events, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Even if we aren’t the first person to the finish line, it’s still feels like a huge personal accomplishment to fight through the mental and physical aspects of long distance trail running and emerge knowing that you can do tough things under tough circumstances. We certainly don’t train for these things just to get another t-shirt and a goody bag filled with hundreds of coupons and race applications. If you do happen to get a goody bag at a trail event, it usually has gloves for cold morning starts, a Clif Bar, some mole skin and a toenail maintenance/extraction kit…which are certainly used from time to time. Many of the trail races here in Rockies involve rocky singletrack trails with insane amounts of elevation gain, stream/river crossings, boulder hopping and a nauseating lack of oxygen for those of us choosing events that take us over 10,000 feet above sea level. It’s why many events will never see more than a hundred or so people.

I saw a shirt one time that said, “Trail Runner’s Credo: If the bone ain’t showin’, keep on goin’”. Sounds funny, but it’s actually pretty true. Pain is a given with trail running. You’re going to fall eventually and most likely where you fall is going to be on rocks. Therefore, scabs and scars are just part of the trail runner’s uniform in many respects. When you run steep hills, up and down for hours and hours, the toenails are going to take a beating and get kind of manky so sometimes it’s better just to pull them off instead of letting them flop around inside your socks. Trail running is definitely a dirt bag sport that requires us to forget about keeping up proper appearances.

The way I kind of wound up doing this road half marathon is that Donna and some of her work posse decided they were going to run the Taste of Louisville 5k. I wasn’t that interested in doing that race per se, but they did have a half marathon option. Since I had planned to go out to run fifteen or so anyhow, I thought it’d be fun to do a “fun run”, then hang out with everyone afterward. So, it was Friday afternoon when I found out I’d be participating and the race was Saturday morning, about 18 hours away. That also meant that we’d need to run down the hill to Louisville that evening and sign up in person because the online option was no longer available.

When we walked over to Pirate’s Park to sign up, it was definitely a walk down memory lane. There was an ocean of tanned and toned, cleanly shaven legs and everyone’s attire was pretty much color coordinated. Many were wearing their corporate athletic logo hats or had on an official t-shirt from their last event. There was also considerable chatter about the difficulty of the course, whether a PR could be attained, how well the latest GPS watch worked, hydration prepping, carbo-loading, racing flats vs. trainers, etc. etc.

Man alive, I thought I was just signing up to run around town for a few miles and have some fun. I really didn’t know I needed to worry about hydration and route finding like I would in the backcountry. I kind of just figured that if things got too crazy out there I could just use someone’s garden hose for a little drink or if I got hungry I could just drop into the Circle K for some Pop-Tarts.

I got in line to register as well as get my commemorative t-shirt, race number and official timing chip. Definitely haven’t used one of those things in a while. Usually it’s just some dude who’ll get out of his camp chair and come tell me how long I’d been out on course. Okay, sometimes there are official digital clock type things but I’m usually so tired when I pass under them that I don’t really look at it. And a good estimate of my time is  generally good enough for the moment. Seriously, after eight, nine or ten hours of running through canyons and across mountain ridges, who really cares about exact seconds or 100th of seconds?

After I filled out the entry form and was waiting for the tanned fella behind the official registration table to collect all the things for my goody bag, I looked around again and saw so many people who totally looked the part of sleek, fast runners. Some of them already had on their sparkly clean racing flats and wearing all those “fast” looking pre-race clothes. I sort of felt like I was Oliver Twist standing in the food line in my tattered clothes waiting for a bowl of gruel…”Please sir, may I have another?” So I got my goody bag filled with “goodies” and we went to dinner with our friends.

The next morning I awoke bright and early and my first thought was that sake probably hadn’t been the best choice the previous evening. Tasty for sure, but wicked stout and not a nice after shock. As I was putting on my well worn trail running shorts, muddy trail shoes, nondescript North Face tech shirt and extremely sweat stained running hat, I was also thinking to myself that the day was probably going to be a disaster. I was totally going to get my ass kicked by all these road racing people. However, the $65 entry fee I’d paid pretty well convinced me that I needed to go.

When we got to the race, there were lots of people sprinting up and down the road getting warmed up and primed for the big race. Others were in the park doing various forms of stretching and yoga-type things. I, on the other hand, was sitting on a picnic table about half way through my Starbucks coffee, wondering just how savagely that sake was going to backfire on me later in the race. But to my benefit, I did manage to bring my little single bottle hydration belt.  I assumed the late-ish 08:00 start meant it was going to be pretty hot toward the finish. If I drained that bottle, I always had my garden hose and Circle K back up plans in place.

When the starter’s gun fired, everyone took off at a full sprint. It was complete mayhem as everyone charged down Main Street through Old Town Louisville, jockeying for position at the front. Still having the slow-out-of-the-gate trail running mentality as my only strategy, I ambled down the street wiping the eye boogers out of my eyes and tried to shake the sake cobwebs out of my head. Why bother running fast? I was going to get totally smoked in this event anyhow.

Then a funny thing happened, something I remembered about my old road marathoning days. At the first hill (a very small one) the enthusiasm shown at the first of the race started to collapse. I heard one guy already saying that this was the toughest course he’d ever been on. Huh? Isn’t this only mile two, with about eleven still to go? I heard a lady say that the first aid station should have been at mile one instead of 1.5 miles because it was  very important to hydrate every mile. There were several people walking the hill and huffing so hard that you could see their heart beating through their sweat soaked shirts. As I casually passed some 20-something guy while climbing the “hill” he said in a half out-of-breath voice something like “good work man, you’re looking great”. Again, this was mile two.

The next few miles brought more of the same. Most all the people who had sprinted away at the start had now begun to walk or at least be slowed to a quasi walk/jog. At least one person had even thrown up on the bike path. Then, at mile 8, when I finally got to a real hill that rose maybe a full 200 vertical feet, it looked like a massive train wreck. A couple of people were standing around with their hands on their knees, gasping for breath and in my opinion, sweating a dangerously large amount. I heard one person who was struggling up the hill tell his partner that this was the “monster” hill he’d been warned about. Those were his words, honestly.

I just knew that someone was going to have a heart attack out there. I actually asked a guy, who didn’t really look all that unfit, if he was okay because he was red-faced and looked in real trouble. He assured me he was, but I had my doubts.

At mile eleven I had to cross back over the “monster” hill and a volunteer high-fived me and told me “to pace myself because this was the tough climb”. He was right, it did take me a little more than a minute or two to climb it so it was indeed the toughest climb of the day.

From there the last mile and half was downhill to almost dead flat so I just relaxed and let it fly. When I got closer to the finish I saw Donna standing out in the park so we waved and chatted as I ran by. When I crossed the finish line the race worker quickly cut my timing chip off and told me to stick around because I may have been one of the top finishers. Yeah, right.

So Donna and I sat around for a while and ate some of the food the race officials had provided, the best thing being oatmeal cookies! As we did, it was interesting to listen to other runners coming off the course talking about how “brutal” the course was, how it didn’t lend itself to setting PRs, how it was the toughest course they’d ever run, etc. etc. A couple of guys were intently discussing which post race hydration mixes each used and which energy bars worked best. I was pretty much content eating my oatmeal cookies. Oatmeal cookies always make things better by the way.

In the end I did finish first in my age category, and 14th overall, although my finishing time was very pedestrian in the grand scheme of things. There were some really good runners there who did in fact totally kick my ass. A couple of those people I found out later were some pretty studly trail runners who had won some recent long distance trail events. I’m always amazed at how fast some people can run, including the roadies!

When I got home and looked at the little trophy I’d won, I got kind of a bittersweet feeling about it. I really didn’t work all that hard, in fact I kind of coasted, and in the end I kind of felt cheated on a personal level in that I wasn’t as physically demolished as I maybe should have been.

I’ve never gotten a trophy at a trail event but I’ve always felt like a “winner” because I know I’d worked insanely hard for several hours and accomplished something personal that was really tough. For some reason I didn’t get that from this race. On really tough trail runs I sometimes find some sort of deep place in my mind during the race and need some time afterward to reflect on the experience. After this one all I wanted to do was get the yard mowed before it rained and then go have a margarita at the Rio.

I don’t know, this was pretty fun I guess but it just wasn’t all that satisfying in the end…at least not $65 worth of satisfying. I also realized that I don’t really fit in with the fast paced, color coordinated road crowd anymore. And I’m pretty sure I caused a stir amongst a lot of hard core fitness folks with my post race oatmeal-cookie recovery program. I’m also sure that the fact that I meet the Boulder Trail Runners Club over at Sherpa’s on Thursday nights from time to time because they have $2 Sherpa Ale would totally blow my credibility as a true fitness type! That’s another beauty of trail running. You’ll burn an insane amount of calories so pretty much anything and everything can be on the training diet…within reason of course.

As I mentioned, it’d been ten years since I last ran a long(er) road race, now it looks like it could be another twenty or so before I do another.

The goody bag thing was cool I guess, but I think I’ll just stick with the dirt bag races.