Monthly Archives: June 2011

Life in exclamation points

I’m always amused when “Why we run” theories pop up and almost routinely the author launches into some anthropological treatise on survivalism and running long distances to track down prey. Maybe, just maybe, there is some validity to these theories, but whether putting one foot in front of the other is connected to some primal urge to avoid starvation or not, that is certainly NOT the reasoning I cite when asked why I run. Never do I imagine some ghostly prey (animal or human) just around the corner as I run down the canal, salivating at the thought of getting closer and closer, living out some imaginary primal hunter/hunted scenario. Nope, not even close.

I run for two words and two words alone. Exclamation. Points.

Long ago, in my more formulative and angst-ridden years of life’s considerations, I faced the inevitability of my mortality and after much struggle, casting off the absurdities of my catholic upbringing, I emerged with a reborn and intense new vision of the world, one where every second counted. Death lurks around every corner and all the same, so does life. I meant to take advantage of every moment.

From there I expanded on many of my already established extremist interests, understanding them to be an unconscious longing to make the most of my days, unwilling to give in to the passivity of daily drudgery and the oncoming days of adulthood. I revolted against stagnation, passivity and silence.

I started living in exclamation points.

I embraced my life with a newfound confidence, flaunting everything as if it would be my last chance. Politics. Music. Relationships. Activity. There was no reason to hold back….and it all still holds true. These extremisms took many forms as I moved through the years of my life, but always remained loud, exclaiming their reality to the world.

Most notably, my exclamation points were screamed through microphones as sweaty kids climbed and clamored on top of each other trying desperately to be heard at so many music venues and basement shows. We were the hardcore/punk scene and did everything as loud as we could. We screamed loud. We played loud. We loved loud. We fought loud. But unfortunately, as I grew older and perspectives became refined, those screams seemed more of desperation than passion and I found myself drifting away, seeking something else to fill that emotional release. I came up empty again and again.

The music still filled my life and the volume always stayed high, but the emotional release was gone. The politics remained as vigilant as ever, but the practices became tired and burdensome. Punk was dead and so was Anarchy. They just stunk of so much confusion and complexity and the exclamation points that made them so attractive seemed to be more play-acting than honest expressions of life and living. I needed to scale back.

Then suddenly I put one foot in front of the other and a rebirth took place. My body screamed, in pain, but my heart was screaming in joy, an exclamation I had long since forgotten. What was a fundamental part of my childhood joy growing up was lost to so much soul searching and attempts at finding something deeply genuine and passionate in the cerebral realm, when all along the life most lived remained purely in the physical.

I ran 5 miles with my breath rhythmically exhaling a pattern I hadn’t heard in 13 years, music to my ears. My lungs stretched in desperation and my legs resisted violently. My torso ground against itself like an antique machine breaking its rust free. But the emotional release that built and then spilled from its trappings as my body responded to a repetition long dormant was overwhelming. Something inside was screaming.

And it never quieted. To this day, 4 years later, I run for the intensity of the entire experience, the physical exclamation, the mental exclamation, the emotional exclamation. Because no cerebral success can ever match the intensity of a gaping mouth gasping for breath as lead-heavy legs turn over repetitiously and just when you think the end is imminent, you surge again to find a well of energy that seems almost superhuman, and your mind finds it impossible to comprehend the new boundaries of your body. This is when I feel most alive, when I know I’ve taken the bone of the day and sucked every last drop of marrow from it’s core, when I know in SOME way I’ve screamed as loud as I can.

This is every run, every physical effort that leaves me either filled with adrenaline or sprawled out in exhaustion. That is a life lived in exclamation points, loud and unceasing. And for me, there is no other way. I refuse to go quietly.

And THAT is why I run. To say I made the most of every opportunity available and played it as loud as I could.

I hope you do the same. Never trust the quiet ones…they always have something to hide.

Run loud. Live loud. Life in exclamation points.

Geoff Roes video

The following link leads you to a great video of 2010 Western States 100 champion Geoff Roes. In relation to my last post, I was surprised to hear he runs anywhere from 80 – 120 miles per week, without really setting definitive mileage goals outside of just running on feel. It’s certainly working for him.

New running, new training

Training for my last two marathons involved an incredible amount of rigidity and inflexibility in perspective. There was one unbroken, unspoken rule among myself and teammates, which was Run Every Day. It didn’t matter what else was going on in your life, it didn’t matter how daunting the upcoming workout was, it didn’t matter how your legs felt, it didn’t matter if it was raining, it didn’t matter if there was 2 feet of snow on the ground. Nothing mattered except running EVERY DAY. Sure, among those runs were the standard two speed workouts a week, long run and recovery runs, but beyond all that we held to the mantra Run Every Day, because we walked a very fine line of success, being that our goals were so lofty (sub 2:19) and the worry that taking just one day off might ultimately end up as a few seconds over 2:19 at the finish line. The mental torment of coming so close would always fall back to “that one day I didn’t run! That must have been it! If only I would have ran that one day!” Whether we want to be that honest in stating this perspective, it was certainly there, because if the responsibilities of life did force us to miss a day, we agonized over the perceived missed opportunity to get better and we berated ourselves when we saw other runners, no matter how slow, out running on the day we weren’t. We can’t deny that.

And god….it was exhausting. Running EVERY DAY, with the speed workouts, with the long runs, with the recovery runs never under 10 miles was SO. INCREDIBLY. EXHAUSTING. In my personal experience I was not only putting in mileage that rarely dipped below 85 miles a week and maxed out around 110, but also getting up at 6 am every morning to go to work where I was on my feet most of the day, then coming home to take part in family life and other responsibilities. There was NO BREAK. No naps, no massages, no sleeping in, no nothing. Just running and life responsibilities. Nothing got in the way. If I was traveling to North Carolina to see my son, I would wake up extra early and get my run in before work and before jumping in the car to drive through the night. It got near dangerous. Then in North Carolina I chose our hotels based on sufficient workout rooms and always got my runs in on the treadmill, whether that was a long run starting at 10pm or a recovery run the very next day starting at 6am. There was no leeway. And, again, it was EXHAUSTING.

I remember sitting at my computer at work, closing my eyes for just a second and falling asleep immediately. I would duck into the boiler room where I had stowed away a chair and no matter how comfortable the position was, if I shut my eyes, I was asleep before the sheep could even see the fence to jump. I was always running on empty, but there was no give. The goal was uncompromising.

It was just too much…and so I “retired”, as everyone likes to say. Then they joke about how little I’ve actually retired. Just the other day a friend said to me, “I’ve never met someone who quit running…by running more than ever.” It’s true, sort of. I’m running a lot, without trying to qualify for the Olympic Trials anymore…I’m just running for the love, well, it started out that way, and then this whole Vermont 50 thing came into the picture and suddenly my wife was training as much as I was, but her on the bike and so everything kicked into full gear again…almost.

This time around it’s very different. I know the loads I can handle, while pushing new boundaries, but I also know what a fire-eyed inducing goal does to me and I haven’t forgotten the exhaustion of my previous training methods where not a single day was left to chance. I know what it did to me, to my performance to work, to my mood at home, to everything. It wasn’t a drug addiction, but the almost unnoticeable slide into becoming a different, all around unpleasant creature has its similarities. So this time I’m doing things very different….and loving it.

It’s true, I’m hitting big mileage again, rarely dipping under 90 miles a week and hitting consecutive weeks of 100 miles, while pushing for bigger weeks in the coming months, and I’m also putting in speed work, hill running, intervals, track workouts and all the other fun stuff related to my past marathon training, but this time I’m also doing it with a greater sense of awareness to my family and…here’s the big change….not only allowing myself to miss entire days of training, sometimes 2 or 3 days at a time, but also reveling in and appreciating it, even viewing it as fundamental to my performance advancement. Part of this change has to do with the nature of trail running itself, in that mileage is so much more difficult to track in the snaking wilderness that you have no other choice but to simply run, on time if you must have a defined endpoint, but most often on feel alone. Every run in the woods is a workout, no matter how slow you go, due to so much climbing and descending so running on feel often defines how and how far you go each day and it’s this running on feel that I’ve carried into my more traditional road training.

I’m getting big mileage, but I’ve also adjusted my goals for the day based on how I feel before and during the run, knowing that the rest I allow myself will pay off further into the week during either a solid speed workout or, more importantly, a long long LONG run. I no longer worry about getting in EXACTLY 10 or 15 miles on a specific day, knowing that backing off then will allow me to hit those 20 – 30 mile runs later in the week, making up that mileage and still getting the benefit of the long runs I’ll need so badly during the Vermont 50.

I’ll tell you this as well…it’s sooooo nice. It’s so nice to be able to just run, knowing I’m putting in big mileage and putting in hard work, but not feeling so over-stressed when I need to somehow juggle my days to get a run in or stressing out my family when I put everything aside to take off down the street. I’m even beginning to think this is a BETTER, MORE EFFECTIVE way of getting fast. These days off are not only giving me a full body recovery, but also giving me a mental break as well, allowing me to recharge fully and never dread heading out the door just to get that seemingly undebateable run. This new, less stressful, less demanding training regimen has me questioning the way I was doing things in the past, when no matter how tired and exhausted I felt, I would still get out and run. I wonder if I was really breaking myself down over time, or if not breaking down, then really limiting my potential by inadvertently missing full recovery.

As a potential support for my hypothesis, a few weeks ago I ran a track workout with my teammates and although had not done anything like this since before Chicago (October) last year and had NO clue where I was at fitness wise, especially due to the doubt I had by not adhering to my training like in the past, I still managed to knock down our first mile in 4:44. I was hoping I could put in a 5:10 and not feel too dejected afterwards. Needless to say, I was pretty damn satisfied I pulled that off leading into the rest of the workout. Something was working. I was and still am proving that I don’t need to be so rigid in my dedication to running every day, that missing a day or two here and there is not only NOT detrimental to my overall speed and fitness, but quite possibly an aid to my development. And beyond that I don’t feel so defeated every day. I don’t feel like I can’t walk up a flight of stairs if I have to and I’m not falling asleep every time I sit down to work at the computer. I have energy, I have strength (admittedly sometimes weakened), and I have the drive to continue on, whether that is a 10 mile recovery run or a 30 mile long run or 20 mile runs back to back to back.

Like the unpredictable nature of the trail, my training has followed suit and I’m constantly adapting to the twists and turns that show up in my day, getting my runs in whenever possible and making the most of my days off….but in all staying fit, staying fast, staying strong.

Over time I’m developing a greater and greater, while always reserved, confidence for what is to come in Vermont in September. I’m training smart, training fun and training relaxed and expect only great returns from this new perspective.

My heart is in the woods.

Since entering back into the running world a few years ago, the majority of my training has been on pavement, or at least the stretch of soft dirt that lies just next to the hardened surface. Sometimes I’m running on asphalt roads, sometimes it’s the paved Monon trail, and other times it’s on a track. My races have also taken place primarily on leg breaking roads, inflicting deeper muscular damage the further and faster I run. I hardly give it second thought. Running on these surfaces and in these environments is just a part of the culture and I enjoy it immensely.

But nothing, absolutely nothing, can compare to the sensation and familiarity of flying down an undulating and twisting dirt trail deep in the woods, the trees flying by you in a blur of green and browns, chipmunks flittering in and out of sight like flashes of lightning, inclines pulling the lungs from your chest, descents threatening to throw you down unforgiving ravines, rocks and roots hiding in waiting to end your previously seamless run. It’s an absurd picture I’ve painted and not very enticing I’m sure.

Still, no matter how accustomed I’ve come to toeing the line at road races, throwing down mile repeats on our local rail-trail, mixing it up with the big boys in Chicago, and road racing culture in general, nothing ever compares to the sense of comfort I have when I step into the woods.

I’ve had a history with the woods from a very young age as my childhood neighborhood was lined with a deep and seemingly endless wooded area that served as my best friend and my go to when no one else was around to play. It was our untouched haven to write our tales of victorious battles, discover unchartered lands, make daring rescues and all sorts of other exaggerated imaginings kids our age came up with. It also gave us a familiarity with an environment others grow to fear as they get older, absorbing tales of bugs, bears, getting hopelessly lost and just losing the creature comforts of more deliberately created territories. The mislabeled “chaos” of the woods really messes people up.

We, however, embraced it. We became comfortable exploring endless pathways through low-hanging branches, soaking our shoes during errantly stepped creek crossings, wearing virtual veils of spider webs that strung across our trails, knowing the pain of both a nettle sting and wasp alike. Getting lost was our intention and finding our way back out was ultimate victory. We became so comfortable and knowledgeable of our woods that we had to stay out longer and longer in order to get lost, coming out of the woods in areas of town that our parents would have grounded us for finding, which began happening when we started missing dinner times and other events as we lost sense of time and direction. The woods became part of me as much as running did at that age.

Which might explain why I run so well in the woods. I remember always looking for the woods when my high school cross country team warmed up on the course before our races. As I began to learn more about courses the more I ran them, I became more excited and ran better when I knew a course contained a portion in the woods, no matter how short. And it just so happened our home course had a quick little jaunt into the trees. As much as I enjoyed those quick runs in the woods, they were still so fleeting I was always left wanting more.

It was only when I started running again as an adult that I had the opportunity to experience those feelings of getting lost in the woods again, but I’ll tell you, the second I started up the mile long climb on my first trail training run…it all came back immediately. The silent trail under my feet, the tree trunks blowing by my face like stoic spectators, the spiderwebs veiling my face, the forced breakneck pace of rolling downhills and overall the sensation of being completely alone while doing something physically amazing. My emotional state towered over my physical.

It’s easy to describe trail running as euphoric or epic and those are certainly genuine descriptors, but primarily it’s just FUN. Just plain fun. It doesn’t matter how depleted I may feel on the trail, how destroyed my quads may be, how much further I may have to go before I can fall to the ground in exhaustion, I’m ALWAYS having fun. The extra challenges that come with finding sufficient footing (by the way, I didn’t do that yesterday, which is why I’m NOT on the trails right now and nursing my tweaked ankle), climbing when you think you have nothing left to climb anymore, staying upright while blasting downhill on rubbery quads, no matter what they are all tempered by a foundational sense of FUN, even though you may be getting a better and more brutal workout than you initially intended.

In September I’m running the Vermont 50 Ultramarathon Trail race. 50 miles in the woods (mostly), with 8900 feet of climbing and although that distance is incredibly intimidating and I’ve never done anything like this before, there is an odd sense of comfort and familiarity in the decision too. Doing something like this doesn’t feel as unfamiliar as I thought it might, because I know it’s in an environment that feels as much a part of me as distance running does. If this was a 50 miler on the road, well, that would be something entirely different. I would probably be approaching it with a level of excitement that closer nears dread than the excitement I’m going to Vermont with.

I have run so many road miles that I stopped counting years ago and I’ll continue to run so many more, experiencing both massive highs and depressing lows, but they’ll never compare to what I get when I’m in the woods, feeling both liberated and whole. It doesn’t matter how comfortable I get on the roads, in the big races, or lacing up my bright racing flats, whenever I put on my trail shoes and take those first steps onto the dirt path that will take me away from everything else, wandering and winding into a world most familiar, I always know where my heart is most at home.

Ultramarathon. Ultramistakes.

Training has begun.

Michelle and I staked out on the computers 15 minutes prior to the Vermont 50 registration and signed up the second it was available. We both made it into the race just fine (a concern for her as the mountain bike portion sold out in just over an hour) and have now begun finalizing preparations for the trip itself.

And training. And let me tell you, this is a whole ‘nother world. Granted, it’s super exciting and I have regained that wide-eyed sense of starting fresh ¬†with this whole running deal as I’ve had to relearn so much in order to properly prepare for both this distance and terrain. Besides putting one foot in front of the other and running lots of miles, there isn’t a lot that is similar to normal marathon training.

First there is fueling. You can’t expect to run fast and get to the next aid station with your glycogen stores still firing away as you fill them back up for the next stretch like you do in a normal marathon. No sir. You need to be prepared for varied efforts depending on the hills and conditions and, even more, the time spent out on the course. In a normal marathon you can bet everything goes south at 20 miles and the last 6 will be a fight to best use your depleting glycogen stores, but if you haven’t prepared for an ultramarathon and your stores are bottoming at 26…well, you might as well throw in the towel right then and there. You’ve gotta fuel heavily (or so I’m understanding) to keep pushing past 26 miles and way past 26 miles. 26 is halfway.

For my training runs I’ve been strapping gu’s to my shorts like I’m loading up for a serious marathon attempt and taking em down every 3 miles, trying to get my body accustomed to processing that necessary fuel on a repeated basis each run. I’ve also been taking a hand held water bottle on every run, just trying to get used to the annoying imbalance, but such necessary hydration, in one hand.

Then there is the gear. Do I use a hand held water bottle? Just one or two? Do I wear a fuel belt? And what kind of shoes do I wear? I’ve been intently studying the various types of trail shoes to figure out which will work best for me, something that will be race-light, yet supportive enough to take the pounding I tend to inflict on my legs during trail runs. I know minimalist shoes won’t work for my aggressive stride, but I can’t afford to have any excessive weight wearing me down later into the run either. I’m still undecided what I’m going to choose until I do a little more testing.

Then, most importantly, there is training. I’m really lost on this. The little research I’ve done into training has shown that the mileage and types of runs I’m doing now are at the peak of the recommended mileage logs for running an ultra…but I’m also not training to just finish as the logs are designed. I’m training to run fast and far and hopefully, with a massive amount of luck, finish on top, though I say this never having run this distance before and ESPECIALLY not on this type of terrain. Just like my first marathon, I have no idea what this is going to do to my body during the run…but I’m going to find out!

Speaking of finding out and ultramarathon ultramistakes. I went for a trail run in Southern Indiana at the beginning of this week and decided, literally, at the beginning of the run that I would run for 4 hours. Why? I don’t know really…just because I know other ultra runners do the same and I need to up my TIME spent on the trail instead of worrying about mileage. The problem is though, I don’t have enough experience running so long and so forget to temper my pace at the start of the run, instead just blasting myself up and down the hills like I normally do. Well…that doesn’t work. Not only was it incredibly humid during the run, but I was also pounding myself at an unsustainable pace, which necessitated a bit of walking towards the end and a very slowed pace to finish. I even took a massive flying fall on the last 800 downhill as I was unaware that I wasn’t lifting my legs as high as I though I was. I finished the run at 3 hours and 36 minutes, far under the 4 hours I was hoping to go….and now 2 days later the muscular pain has set in and I’m unable to run….though I am going back out on the trails tomorrow to work this out.

So anyways, I’ve got a lot of learning to do this time around and no matter the mistakes I make, this is exciting. New frontiers, new efforts, new terrain, new preparations…and if I get this all worked out by September 25th, maybe a new completed distance and PR.

Please, if you have any solid advice for me to consider, do send it my way.