Monthly Archives: September 2011

Vermont 50 2011 race report

The insultingly loud alarm on my cell phone screamed into my ear and jolted me awake, then just 1/2 a second later Michelle’s followed in suit. The sky was still cloaked in night and only a couple stars were visible through the cloud cover, but after all, it was only 4 am. We both pulled ourselves upright from our reclining seats and fumbled in the early morning blindness for our headlamps. We had slept in our car to get ready for the race without the hassle of driving and navigating a state that wasn’t ours while entirely sleep-deprived. Rather quickly we managed to change out of yesterday’s clothes and into our race gear, myself sliding on running shorts, shoes, a singlet and my fully loaded camelback while Michelle squeezed into her mountain bike kit and accessories. The teeth were brushed, the coffee made and shared in the parking lot as scores of other racers came filing in, also getting ready out of the backs of their vehicles. Still fully engulfed by the weight of our sleep we picked our way down the grassy ski slope to the race tent where the 5:15 morning meeting was to take place, giving us no new information we didn’t already know. Standing around we surveyed the various runners and bikers, sipped then threw away some terrible coffee, took down some ibuprofen at pre-determined intervals, went to the port-a-potty, went back to the port-a-potty, went back to the port-a-potty again, and generally just waited out the minutes until the first wave of bikers took off the line. The sun was finally turning the dark to a hazy grey with each successive wave.

For those that read my blog posts leading up to this race, you know I was dealing with a very problematic leg “condition” that threatened to end my race as soon as it started, hence the repetitive downing of ibuprofen pre-race. As expected, the chemical concoction entered my bloodstream and I felt nothing walking up to the start area, but my concern was further into the race when the masking effects would begin to wear off. Still, I was just happy to be able to get off the line and give it a go.

Michelle’s wave of bikes, the last of them all, went off 10 minutes before the 50 mile runners stepped to the line. I gave her a kiss and she gave back an excited, but apprehensive look, unaware of what perils might meet us in this foreign land, far from the expansive horizons of our beloved Hoosier state. We were in mountainous regions now and had enough driving the past two days to fully introduce us to the terrain we would attempt to conquer by body and bike.

The line of runners stood a few feet back from under the Start banner like middle schoolers at their first dance. No one wanted to be as brazen and make the first move of confidence before the race started and so we shuffled aimlessly until called forward. A group of us moved up and received some last minute, almost inaudible, instructions from a race director. No one takes run outs at the beginning of 50 miles, so we stood shaking out our legs and arms, some of us dead quite, while others chatted amicably. The course record holder stood to my left and talked it up with other runners, in a tone that seemed less enthused and more obligatory about the race than I expected. I heard him sigh, “Well, here we go again.”

Then with little fanfare, a 5 second countdown was given and we moved off the starting line without much urgency, which considering the distance to be covered and the terrain on which it lay, made perfect sense.

I was out front. I expected this. The first mile was a slightly downhill stretch of pavement that led us into the first hill…well…into the course itself, which just happened to be ONLY hills. To say “the first hill” is to imply that there were maybe 3 or 4 big hills on the course like most runners expect of a “hilly course”. Not in Vermont. A “hilly course” means “a course of hills”. I knew the pace would be slow to start, as it should be, and did my best to run with a complete lack of effort. No matter, my hoosier muscles still pulled me ahead of the first chase pack. There was only one other runner with me who asked if this was my first ultra and if I knew what I was doing with the pace. I told him, yes, it was my first and, no, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just running as slow as I could get, well within my means, without expending the energy it takes to restrict my stride. Still…I was out ahead, but not by much.

Then we hit the hill and started the climb….that would never end. Immediately the road turned off onto a flattened back dirt road that rose drastically, which is what I expected. I put my head down and started picking my way up the hill, not trying to force anything, but just get to the top where I could turn my speed back on and try to make more distance on the group behind me. My heart rate rose with the incline and I kept everything under control as I started passing mountain biker after mountain biker, who were either spinning precariously balanced in a granny gear or leaning forward as they pushed their bike up ahead of them. We swallowed them up one by one and the top of the hill came closer and closer, that is until I realized the “top” of the hill was just a turn onto a road that continued to rise even more with just as much incline. I read a sign placed on the side of the road that said, “Vermont is NOT flat!” I could only think, “Whoever said it was?!”. I put my head back down and continued to pick my way up the top of the hill.

Cresting that first speed sucking obstacle, I expected the course to level out and run along a ridge line or maybe enter into some twisting singletrack, but no, actually what happened was the road turned and shot straight back down to the bottom of the hill on the other side. I learned, rather quickly, that this is what is meant by a “hilly course” in Vermont. There is no recovery at the top of a hill or any sort of meandering downhill, but rather once you get right to the top of the hill, you turn and go right back down. And then when you are at the bottom of the hill, you turn and go right the hell back up!!! Wash, rinse, repeat. Welcome to Vermont. Shit.

Oh well, I pushed on. To my surprise, running down the hills became more problematic than running up the hills. Running up was just a matter of keeping my head down and picking my way through the mountain bikers while making sure I wasn’t maxing my lungs out too much. Running down however, was quite chaotic. Not only do the hills descend as far as they climb, but they do so with the same incredibly steep grade, which would send me careening down a paved or dirt road trying desperately to keep pace with my momentum, while at the same time trying slow myself down into less dangerous territory. If I would have just let myself go with the speed I would have easily lost control of my body and crashed to the ground, without a doubt. What I had to do then was work to keep my balance and ultimately brake the whole way down, pounding my quads into a pile of mashed bananas. This was not going to be good, but hell, I was still in the lead.

Soon enough we entered the woods where the single track was washed away from the recent tropical storm and exposed little rivers of water, stair steps of various sized rocks and a number of other hazards that made difficult climbing that much harder. Fun!! And that’s not mentioning the rosary bead string of mountain bikers stretched out up the same climb, forcing the runners to pick back and forth across the trail to either avoid the slick rocks or the slicker mountain bikes. And don’t think the climbing got any easier in the woods….oh no. The climbs rose just as severe as the roads, the only difference being that when you flew down the other side you had massive sole sucking (soul sucking?) bogs of mud waiting for you at the bottom from all the previous mountain bikers who left no path of travel untouched for you to traverse. It was either step into the ankle deep mud in the middle of the bog or the ankle deep mud on the sides. Take your pick. The slop was so thick in some spots that I saw mountain bikers fly down the hills and then get stopped dead in their tracks within 3 feet of entering the mud pools, only to topple over and unclip just in time before immersing one whole side of their body in the mess. I won’t say I didn’t find it a touch amusing.

By this time, about 5 miles in, I was still running alone and now soaked in sweat from the mid-60’s start temperature coupled with the significant humidity. To be honest, it was taking its toll on my body, but I never paid attention to it as I was so much more concerned with the effects of the hills. I continued sipping from my camelback and taking down Powergels every 30 minutes to keep my pistons firing. Then, of course, it was time to go back up a dirt road hill. I looked up and saw the crest far off in the distance and reverted back to my new strategy…take a quick peek up, look back down and never lift your head until the top of the hill shows itself. It was working well as I wasn’t just passing mountain bikers, but really moving pass them with some velocity. Enough speed to warrant some expressions of genuine shock at the effort. I wasn’t tiring, but did notice my quads talking to me a little more than usual when I got to the top of the climbs. In hindsight, I think they were saying, “Don’t you dare go back down that hill you asshole.” But hey, that’s where the course went. What else was I supposed to do? So I headed back down, listening to the mountain bikers blaze by me with such intense speed and pounding my legs over and over trying to maintain control of my balance.

Then a mile later I was picking my way back up a long stretch of single track that started getting more and more difficult as it continued on. Then without warning I heard something behind  me that was not the sound of a chain chattering mountain biker. Another runner! An incredibly svelte runner came up behind me and started pulling off my effort, but I lost momentum behind some mountain bikers and he took the line to my right and moved ahead. I got my line back and jumped right behind him, noticing that he was going completely unsupported. No camelback, no hand helds, not even any gel packets. For a while I was debating whether he was actually part of a super fast relay team, but as it turned out, this was the eventual race winner and new course record holder. I wasn’t done yet though and we both started cresting the hills, crashing through massive mud pits, half-cursing, half-laughing, and illiciting more statements of incomprehension from the mountain bikers as we pushed and pulled each other through the up hill and back down. While climbing though, I noticed he was at much greater ease than I was and knew he was feeling strong, so during the next climb when he started moving away I just let him go. I allowed myself to look back down a long incline I was working up and was surprised to see no one else coming, so just continued to work and work on the course, repeating the same pattern as before. Go up. Go down. Hear the quads talking up. Feel them fighting back on the way down. Surprisingly, despite the continued degeneration of my leg muscles, we hit the Skunk Hollow Tavern aid stop, which was a quick stretch of flat land and I suddenly felt really strong, able to find my stride and pace with ease as the crowds lining the barrier cheered strongly. I was infused with their exuberance and found more drive to fight back up the hills that kept coming at me, and kept wearing me on the way back down.

I was running alone and it was still nothing but hills, and at this point I had NO idea how deep into the course I was. For all I knew I could have gone 10 miles or 13 or 15. I just didn’t know. All I knew was I had a ways to go when I looked at the time elapsed on my watch and I just hoped the course would ease up on my legs at some point. Not to be. Another long, painful climb. This time, about halfway up I heard a familiar noise and looked over to see two runners come up on my side and just slowly move past me up the hill. I continued hard enough to move past the mountain bikers, but these guys looked smooth and continued to get away as the hill rose. I looked back one more quick time and also saw last year’s winner, Brian Rusiecki, coming up the hill as well. It took him a little longer to catch up, but soon enough he did. He wasn’t looking as strong as the other guys, but continued to move away from me with relative ease despite my continuous efforts to keep climbing. Then it was back down again…myself now in 5th place.

We blasted down a hill and I felt my quads go weak with the effort, struggling to find a way to slow my pace down, which I noticed as I moved closer to Rusiecki on that downhill. I was losing breaking power, only putting more strain on my quad and calf muscles.

The course turned into some quick rolling single track that was patterned with more mud bogs and here is where I had my first physical sign that things were about to get ugly. Approaching one of the bogs, I put all my weight onto my leg and leaped into the air to clear the mud completely, but when I stretched my leg out over the messy pit I felt a familiar sensation, like a rubber band stretched to its limit and then dipped in liquid nitrogen. A cramp. I landed on the other side of the mess and felt my calf refuse to contract back to its relaxed state until I stopped putting force on it. I took a few shortened steps until it worked itself out and then continued on, but realized the heat and humidity and effort must be taking more of a toll than I had thought. I took a couple powergels ahead of schedule trying to stave off the cramps, but felt the cramping every time I cleared a bog. I was concerned to say the least.

Continuing through the woods, we then turned up onto more single track and I watched Rusiecki pull away as I started yet another climb. Fortunately, he was still in my sight and I used him to pull myself forward on the trail as the it meandered out of the woods and up a beautiful grassy hillside, switching back a couple times into an aid station that overlooked the surrounding mountains. It was a beautiful sight, but I was only concerned with getting some liquid electrolytes in my system from the previous cramping episode. I squeezed in between all the mountain bikers, grabbed the lone cup of Heed off the table, downed it quickly and then bounded out of the station to words of encouragement from the bikers and volunteers working the stop. Then just as I was pulling away from the mass of people behind me I heard one important message shouted my way, “That was mile 19!”

Whoa, awesome. Not only did I know where I was in the distance of 50 miles, I was also further along than I thought. Of course, it wasn’t lost on me that I was losing my initial placing, feeling my muscles weaken and now just started feeling cramps. And to add insult to injury, as I moved further down the trail my stomach was filled with nausea like I’ve never felt before during a run. I was sure I was going to puke, but assumed it was just the Heed mixing with the Power gels and continued on until the feeling passed. Still, it wasn’t an encouraging moment.

And here…well….everything continued on the same, except for, surprisingly, getting passed. I don’t know what else to tell you except that everything became a massive blur of uphills, downhills, mud pits, single track and roads. That was it. There were climbs that rose all the same…straight up and non-stop….then went right back down. Each one taking more and more fight out of my quads as I tried to keep from tumbling down the road. I was just amazed that no other runners were in sight behind me and I held to my 5th place position as I continued up the course.

Then after 3 1/2 hours of running I found the final nail for my coffin. I came blasting down one of the single track declines only to feel my legs continuing to cramp and my quads now weakened and actually hurting in deep muscle damage. I was losing all control of my lower body functions. Just then the trail turned and linked up with the 50k course, giving me a little more incentive as I was able to run alongside and pass other runners for a short while. I realized though, there was no way I was going to make 50 miles at the condition I was in and decided I would probably call it a day at the Dugdale’s aid station where my drop bag lay at 30 miles. That was going to have to be it. My muscles were non-operational for the rest of the course. There was one problem, I had no idea how far away that was. I asked some of the runners where Dugdale’s was, but the most informative response I got was “not too far”. Ok, um, how far is not too far on hills like this?

I had no choice, but salvaged what was left of my abilities and continued a run walk up a long road climb to, yes!, an aid station. Dugdales! Wait, nope. This was Margaritaville….a Jimmy Buffet themed aid station, which was a touch of an insult to my injury. I came into the aid station in 5th place, discovered that this lay at the 27 mile marker, just 3 miles away from Dugdale’s. I hadn’t dropped out yet, so I took down some oranges, Heed and banana slices while debating in my head if it was worth it to continue to mile 30. Being the stubborn ass I am, I moved away from the food tables and started a light jog up the hill to mile 30. Then I felt a very familiar sensation…as if I had just completed the Chicago Marathon in ’09, where as soon as I stopped running past the finish line my legs froze up and unleashed their pain into my body. And that’s what happened. My quads were in pain. I couldn’t run on them. That was it. Just the thought of running 3 miles on these muscles was absurd.

I walked over to the race official and told him I was dropping out.

And I didn’t regret it. Yeah, it sucked, but I didn’t regret it. It would have been one thing if I was just tired of running or if I just wasn’t having a good day, but this was something else. This was my body just physically not able to continue on. There was nothing I could do about that but call it a day. So I drug myself over to the “drop out van” and climbed aboard with a 50k runner and a few mountain bikers, discussing our various reasons for throwing in the towel (lack of training, mechanical failure, etc.). I kept up conversation until I felt another familiar feeling wash over me, the terrible need to puke. The shifting van didn’t help my nausea, but we made it back to the start/finish just in time for me to get out of the van and take care of some business. Ah, what a way to end the experience. Man, I’m tired just writing about this.

To summarize the experience…I had a blast and got blasted. Seriously, it was really fun despite everything going very unsmoothly and I’m not completely disappointed in my effort. I just realized I’m NOT built for that terrain. I can run hills and I can run them fast. I can run distance, even on trails, and do it fast. But put massive climb after massive climb then massive descent after massive descent into the mix and I just can’t handle it. My quads are not built to take that kind of pounding. The Hoosier State just doesn’t create legs for that sort of terrain. I’ve had a number of people ask me if I will go back and try again, and to be honest, I don’t think so. It’s not that the experience was terrible, but I just don’t know how I would train for something like that. I could find the one or two huge hills we have in the state and run them over and over and over again for hours, but the practicality of that is absurd as the act itself. So yeah, I learned a lot during this run. I learned that my training has its limits in terms of geography and I’m simply built for a different type of running. It’s not much more than that really.

That, of course, still leaves the ultramarathon door open for me, just on different terrain. For now though, I’m going to take some time to recover (today I didn’t have to use the handicap bar to get off the toilet!!!) and then work my way back up to the fitness I had a month before this race when I felt unstoppable. See you when I get there.

Haunted Animals

And following up on the last post…please watch this as well.

Animals in captivity

In a break from the running world (temporarily), I am posting this interview with an ex-Sea World employee regarding Killer Whales in captivity. Most people have more empathy for “show animals” in that they provide direct entertainment for them and so feel a vested interest in protecting their well-being, but let’s not forget about the millions of animals held captive in factory farms, fur farms and other cruel institutions who experience the ravages of captivity on an even greater scale. The solution to removing your part in this process is simple, go vegan. (Link)


On Sept. 19, a federal hearings began on the safety of keeping killer whales in captivity. Convened by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration in the aftermath of two fatal attacks on trainers, the hearings won’t consider the safety of killer whales — but according to former SeaWorld trainer Jeff Ventre, the two issues are inseparable.

An animal-loving Florida kid who majored in biology and rose to trainer stardom in Shamu Stadium before being fired, Ventre says the attacks that killed Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld and Alexis Martinez at Loro Parque are manifestations of stress, even madness, in animals forced into miserable, unnatural conditions.

“Killer whales don’t attack humans in the wild,” said Ventre. “What we’ve seen in these injuries to people is a direct byproduct of the stress associated with captivity.”

Ventre was fired in 1995. SeaWorld says it was for being careless; Ventre says it’s because he’d become critical of the industry. Wired recently talked to Ventre, who has since become a medical doctor and cetacean advocate, about his work.

Wired: When did your feelings about keeping killer whales in captivity begin to change?

Jeff Ventre: When I started, I was just happy to have the job. It was amazing to see dolphins and sea lions and killer whales, despite the fact that they were in captivity. I thought there was going to be a lot of science, too. I’d grown up with Jacques Cousteau programming. Over time I found out there wasn’t much science going on. It was just a different version of the circus. Over time, that wears on you.

I did two different tours of duty at Shamu Stadium. The first time I was there, I was an apprentice. I did a lot of bucket-scrubbing, blue-collar type work, and had only a little water experience. Then I went around to the other stadiums, where they had dolphins, belugas and false killer whales, and honed my waterwork abilities. Then I was brought back to Shamu Stadium in 1994, where I spent my last two years. It was that second tour of duty that was somewhat enlightening.

By that time I’d learned enough about killer whales that I began to realize that what we were telling students coming in for education shows was at odds with what was true.


Wired: Give me an example.

Ventre: We were telling people that the animals lived to maybe 20 years old. But in reality, I knew that females lived to be 50, and males to be 30. That was a red flag. I also began to realize that all the killer whales in captivity had broken teeth. That seemed odd to me, because we were feeding them dead fish.

It’s because, when you put on a live public performance, or do a training session, you have to separate the killer whales with steel gates. These have horizontal bars on them. If you’ve ever seen two dogs on the opposite side of a fence barking, this is two orcas on the opposite side of a gate. Sometimes they charge the gate and bite down on the bars.

This knocks off the enamel and exposes the pulp of the tooth. This fleshy pulp is then drilled out by a veterinarian. What you have is a hollow tooth, creating a corridor down into the jaw itself. So for the rest of that animal’s life, they need to get their teeth flushed two or three times a day. In humans, it’s known that poor dentition leads to heart disease, kidney disease and stroke. These orcas are essentially left with a diseased mouth.

Wired: What are other ways in which killer whales are poorly suited for captivity?

Ventre: In the wild, they typically swim 80 to 100 miles a day, primarily in a straight line. This helps sculpt a straight dorsal fin. In captivity, because the pools are so small, and the killer whales tend to swim in a counterclockwise pattern, it creates an asymmetrical force. You get dorsal fin collapse. In captivity, 100 percent of all male dorsal fins are collapsed, and most of the females, too. In the wild, it has a prevalence of less than 1 percent and it’s associated with pathology.

Wired: What does it actually do to them?

Ventre: It’s not clear, but it’s a byproduct of captivity. And when we look at all the killer whales that have lived and died in captivity, their average life expectancy, once they enter that environment, is 6.6 years. If you add all the living killer whales — there are 42 in captivity now, including six who’ve made it to over 30 years old — it only pushes the average life expectancy to 8.5 years. And what John Jett and I tried to get across in our report is that, since the advent of captive breeding, things haven’t gotten better. Modern methods haven’t improved the situation. Though killer whales are now bred in captivity, a few — like Lolita, captured in 1970 in Puget Sound, and Tillikum, the orca that killed Dawn Brancheau — are old enough to have been caught in the wild. What would that have been like for them?

Ventre: Extremely traumatic. Those trappers were using seal bombs to drive these animals into cove-like areas. They had boats that ran nets behind them, trapping them. Then they got these giant lasso-like devices around the torsos of the animals, and used manpower to separate the mothers from babies. That’s how they got the first collection for SeaWorld.

Wired: Is it still going on in the wild?

Ventre: It’s suspected, but there’s no way to prove it. There’s a lot of hearsay and rumors. I believe there are potentially orca collections going on in China and Russia.

Wired: At least the captive-born killer whales aren’t going through that.

Ventre: They won’t have experienced that traumatic event, but there’s no evidence that orcas born in captivity live equivalent lives. They die much earlier.

The goals of marine parks are different from the goals of wild whales. SeaWorld is trying to fill its pools. Sumar was taken away from his mother before he was one year old, because Taima was such a terrible mother — and one reason for that might have been that she started popping out kids at a very young age, and was never trained to be a good mother. In the wild, mother orcas have their first calves around the age of 14 and have one every 5 years; Taima had her first calf at age 9, and was pumping out one about every three years.

Wired: And Taima was born to two killer whales caught in the wild. So even the killer whales born in captivity are descended from an original population that’s been broken and perhaps driven mad.

Ventre: Absolutely. It’s a sad situation.

Wired: You believe that attacks on trainers, such as Tillikum on Dawn Brancheau and Keto on Alex Martinez — and other incidents that haven’t received so much attention, or didn’t end in death — are the animals acting out their stress.

Ventre: Yes. They don’t attack humans in the wild. I’ve personally kayaked and been in many boats alongside them. They ignore humans in the wild. They don’t hurt people. What we’ve seen in these injuries to people is a direct byproduct of the stress associated with captivity.

Wired: Is there a way to make captivity ethical and safe for killer whales?

Ventre: No. It’s just a function of their size. All killer whales in the wild are essentially athletes. Their home is their pod. When you extract them from the ocean, where they swim 100 miles a day, and drop them into a fishtank, you’re taking away their ability to exercise. You’re taking away their food choices. Most of them are living in northern altitudes, up in Oregon or British Columbia or Alaska or the Arctic, and you’re asking them to live in Florida. They’re breaking their teeth and eating carrion.

Wired: Is there any way to make the captive situation safe for people?

Ventre: Ultimately the safest choice is to not get in the water with killer whales. As we’ve just seen in the press, the individual killer whale profiles that SeaWorld released indicate that aggression is common with all the animals, not just Tillikum. You can go along for many years without having an injury or death, but at some point, because these are free-thinking creatures, there’s no way to control them when they act out.

Wired: Why have you only spoken out recently? If you feel so deeply about it, why didn’t you speak out when you were a trainer?

Ventre: I think my opinions are what got me terminated from SeaWorld. I was questioning the system from within. This isn’t anything new for me. It’s only become an issue because Dawn Brancheau was killed.

The absurdity of the one-legged ultramarathon

(no disrespect to those who actually run ultramarathons…or run period!..with one leg).

I suppose I should be more worried if things were going EXACTLY as planned. This is an ultramarathon after all, a level of absurdity beyond expected levels of absurdity. As a coworker aptly put it, “I’ve never even HEARD of such a thing!” 50 miles…on trails…in the mountains. I love this kinda shit. There is something liberating about throwing all “supposed to’s” and “should be’s” out the window, embracing the absurdity of such a challenge and just having at it. In a way, the pressure is nearly completely deflated and all you have left is the pent up excitement about crashing around the next blind turn, wondering what sort of obstacle is going to stare you down, daring you to overcome it. This isn’t any ‘ol normal road marathon where you calculate splits ahead of time, pinpoint locations to fuel, demand the weather to hover between 47 & 54, and basically draw out the ideal race before you even run it.

No. This is an ultramarathon. You plan nothing.

Ok, that’s an exaggeration, but you get my point. Here, you prepare to deal with anything that comes your way, whether through the physical aspects of the race – water, fuel, clothing, etc. – or the mental – time, distance, hills, mountains, weather, etc. You not only expect the absurdity, you WELCOME it.

So I suppose I should feel a little relieved that I feel like I’m running on a ghost leg right now. I should feel a little less pressure that I start out all my maintanence runs with a limp. I mean, who runs ultramarathons with BOTH legs!!!? Weak sauce! If we are going to do this, let’s do it right….meaning wrong!

Let’s not stop at legs though. Let’s also drive clear across the country to get to the race. And hey, let’s make it rain THREE days prior to the race as well! Not enough?! I know…let’s stress out said race participants by running over a nail on a brand new set of car tires, necessitating a frantic bout of calling around town trying to find one tire, just ONE tire, that matches the others, which apparently is a brand and model that can’t even be found in the state, potentially setting back the drive departure another day. Yeah, let’s do THAT!!! (yeah, that happened today).

But hey, we are making it to the start line. And hey, we fixed that little tire snafu (we think…I’ll believe it when the tire is on the car). And hey, what’s a little rain but a nice way to shower before the race has even ended? And although one leg seems to be a floppy wet noodle, let’s just assume the other is 3 times as strong.

Bring on the ultra-absurdity. After all, this is an ultramarathon. We’re only trying to do it right.

See you in Vermont.

We die hard.

T-minus 1 1/2 weeks to the Vermont 50. 3 weeks ago I was storming the woods in Southern Indiana as if the oxygen was doubled and gravity was halved, nevermind the precarious pain I had built up in my legs at the beginning of the run, allowing adrenaline to work that minor annoyance out. I was flying, ceaselessly. The next week I struggled to feel my right leg while knocking out speed workouts on the track. I’ve been here before, haven’t I?

Just over a year ago I had another “condition”, same leg, lower on the totem pole though. The weird sensations had built day after day, despite knocking down the fastest workouts and tempo runs I had experienced to date. Sub 5:18 / mile 10 mile runs with plenty left in the tank at the end? No problem. What shooting pain in my leg? Two weeks later I was on a stationary bike on my porch, dripping with sweat and trying desperately to conjure up some motivating story about running to keep the boredom at bay. Down for the count. That time I had no races coming up, so it was just a matter of managing the injury, this time around I’m flirting with a frustration that may drop further than the Vermont 50 course climbs.

115 miles a week is nothing to take lightly. 100 miles in six days is no laughing matter either. Put some speedwork on top of that, throw in some hills, and you have a crucial need to pay close attention to all functioning systems. You can’t just run and expect your body to handle all the other business on its own. We runners are a delusional bunch, duped by our seemingly superhuman capabilities, thinking running more will only make us stronger, which at times it does, but at the same time exacerbates the smallest “imbalances”, both figurative and literal.

You can run 115 miles with relative ease, not having to manage any sort of “issues” with strength, conditioning and stretching if you are one of those idyllic humans with equal leg length, perfect stride and the daily freedoms to come and go as you please. I am NOT one of those humans. I have one leg mildly shorter than the other…or is it longer, I forget. I don’t get enough sleep with a 7am work arrival. I have family obligations. I am, in short, doing it all “wrong”. Of course, I’m not a professional runner, so paying attention to all those little “extras” holds even greater importance. As evidenced by the less than enthusiastic nature of this post.

I am broken. My leg / groin / something is in a state of overexertion, or strain, or weakened to the point of uselessness, and worse yet, is refusing to right itself with the normal prescribed rest I’m forcing myself to take. I want to yell at it. I want to punch it. I want to abandon all sensibility and give in to monk-like devotion to prayer. 1 1/2 weeks I tell you! 1 1/2 weeks! Get your shit together!

I’m left spinning like mad on the fat-bottomed seat of a stationary bike, growing impatient and moving to the elliptical machine, trying to lose myself in the thoughts of an aggressive and triumphant race, but just feeling lame for being on a bike that goes nowhere despite my furious pedaling. I do it all more just to keep my mental game on, and maybe hope the activity wakes my muscles from their slumber in time for race day.

Oh yes, I’m not backing down. Maybe I should, but I’ve put too much effort training for my first Ultra, talked a big game (to myself anyways), psyched myself up, paid too much of an entry fee, etc. I’m counting on one thing…the power of adrenaline to cure what ails me. And if that doesn’t work, I’m resorting to ibuprofen. I’m going to start this damn race…..and I better finish it as well. There will be no holding back. I will run through pain until the physical machinations of my body prevent me from doing otherwise (I just hope it’s further in the course and not the 1st mile). After all…it’s just a weak leg. I’ve got another strong one! And really, in the grand scheme of things….what’s a debilitating bit of leg pain? After all….THIS GUY DID THIS….

He had more reason to back down than I do. Let’s not get too ridiculous though. Don’t practice what I preach. Study the methods of THIS GUY and do it right…

Ok Vermont. Let’s do this.

Regroup and strategize

Just a quick update….I have no idea what is going on with my leg. It feels like the muscles aren’t so much tight as they are shortened. They seem to feel weak and contract when my leg is extended, instead of the normal pain that occurs when I put weight upon it. Anyways, blah blah, whine whine. The summary is that my confidence has been shaken to its core. Where 2 weeks ago I was beyond excited to race Vermont, now I’m just hoping I can make it to the starting line without concern! I’m hitting the stationary bike (yeah, you heard me) to keep cardio going and see if that has any negative effect on my leg, then hopefully get some basic running in before the race. We’ll see how this goes!

I have other more applicable thoughts about my leg “condition” that I’ll share another time (shhhh! I’m at work!).

Also, the course in Vermont is being re-routed due to the flooding that took place after Tropical Storm Irene made landfall. A number of people in the area lost everything (houses were swept away), so if you feel inclined, send some basic supplies their way. They could really use it. The race is taking up a collection of items for the locals and we plan to contribute as much as we can. If you live in the Indianapolis area and want us to take some goods along, let us know and we’ll make the pickup. Thanks friends!

More to come.

The New Ethic

Quick leg update: After 2 days off from running and lifting, starting on the 3rd, my leg has improved drastically. There is minor tightness that comes and goes and my normal gait is returning quickly. Rest, it seems, is all I needed. My family will be heading to North Carolina today to visit my son, so I’ll have another day or two of rest, maybe with some light jogging to keep the muscle memory intact, and then one day of trail running with serious hills. This should give me a good measure of where I stand, literally, with effort. Overall though, things are turning around quickly. It’s funny how NOT running is such a crucial component to running well.


I’ve been rather enamored with surf culture lately, which I know is absurd since I’m surrounded by cornfields and pigeons instead of wave breaks and seagulls. Still, spending a week or two every summer in Ocean City has introduced me to surf culture in a more direct manner that has resonated with me more than just watching Point Break 50 times. I think, if I lived in the right environment, I could develop the “surfer” identity with relative ease. I came to this awareness through the development of a seemingly inherent trail runner identity I’ve come to appreciate. The similarities are rather obvious to me.

"Bring your filthy big city ass to our ocean again and we'll set the dolphins loose on you!"

The culture of both is incredibly relaxed and appreciative. Trail running, compared to road running, is more about camaraderie among runners than it is driving competition into the ground. And as in surfing, it involves a direct interaction with the natural environment, not just acting through it, but within it. The varied terrains, altitudes, animals, rocks, roots, etc., require a symbiosis one doesn’t find in road racing, or the surfing equivalent, skateboarding. The alternatives lean towards a battle against the environment rather than in concert. Ultimately, I think this interaction develops an awareness and appreciation of the natural world that tends to span both cultures, whether that is an almost religious worship of the sea or an equally spiritual anthropomorphism placed upon the forest and mountains. Or on the other hand, maybe our individual appreciation of the natural world draws us to activities like surfing or running almost naturally. Regardless, the result is the same – a supportive relationship with the natural world and a desire to protect its value.

Hesitation Point rock garden

Flipping through a surf magazine the other day I came across a couple ads promoting a “save the oceans” type cause, but didn’t give them much thought, thinking it was nothing but an expected appeal  to a crowd with a vested interest in the cause. I think, subconsciously, I felt the surf culture was too laid back  to care much about devoting their time to a liberally attempt at “saving the oceans”. I assumed they might be verbally supportive, but disconnected from the actual nuts and bolts that go into both protecting the oceans as well as resistant to involving themselves with actually fighting against the industries that are wreaking havoc on the ecosystem itself. I could see them putting “Save the Dolphins” stickers on their boards and bumpers, but not doing much else. Then I read further into the magazine and came across an article and photo montage that highlighted surfers involvement in not only supporting environmental causes involving the ocean and its inhabitants, but even taking charge as “activists”, whether that was through campaigning, lobbying or other measures. This wasn’t even a “save my playground” type of approach, but acting on behalf of the oceans inhabitants for their sake alone. It was relatively selfless, fully informed and even more passionate. I was thrilled to see this sort of involvement and developed an even deeper appreciation of the culture

Naturally, I found myself considering the role of trail runners in our environment and what our potentials and possibilities might be to have a positive effect on the forests, mountains and inhabitants alike. Are we, as a culture,  involved in environmental causes? Do we truly care about the well-being and expansion of the forests inhabitants? Do we engage in causes to protect our interests or the interests of the entire ecosystem itself?

Without much extensive research and going on gut instinct alone, it feels like we as trail runners have a lot of potential to involve ourselves in important environmental struggles, but often do not. I’m certainly aware of trail building gatherings, casual discussions about the beauty of the forests, trail etiquette, shutting off trails to allow regrowth and similar topics, but those all seem to be selfish interests dealing only with our involvement in the ecosystem as a playground or escape. What about our potential to have a voice (or hands or pick axes) in issues dealing with waterway pollution, clear cuts, mountain top removal, herd culling, ecosystem balance, etc. etc.?

Nice work assholes.

What if, and here comes the big WHAT IF, we established a new ethic of SYMBIOTIC STEWARDSHIP of the ecosystems we interact with as trail runners, so that to be a trail runner involved not only running on trails and developing an appreciation of the environment, but also going beyond that and WORKING to protect that environment as well, not because it is our “playground”, but because we exist with it and within it as a smaller part of a greater whole? What if we went beyond picking up GU wrappers and broken reflectors, getting together for trail-building seminars, staying off trails after heavy rains and instead showed up in masse at land bids, stood in the way of industries hell-bent on clear cutting the forests, defended the animals in the forest from hunting (and widened our protection of animals on the whole and went vegan), campaigned for anti-highway groups in the area? What if being a trail runner opened one to the possibilities for much larger and more important endeavors related to protecting our crucial forest and mountain ecosystems? Seriously, WHAT IF we created  a new ethic for our culture? One where beer was consumed post-run, but while discussing how to get involved with the campaign to stop turtle slaughter in Southern Indiana. What if our races ended with a table of food, but one that didn’t contain the bodies of tortured factory farm animals? What if our meetups at the trail head began back in the city where we carpooled to the woods instead of all driving seperately (who says I don’t know about baby steps?)?

All animals are wild.

I know, I’m not resonating with a lot of you on this, but this is the potential I think we really have as a large community of relatively like-minded individuals. The surfers, with all their diversity, still have an underlying ethic of respect and appreciation for the ocean, but took that respect and appreciation to its logical extent by involving themselves in the fight to protect their second home. There is no reason we shouldn’t do the same.

The question that follows, of course, is HOW. How do we imbibe our culture with a new ethic of “symbiotic stewardship”? At the very least…we start the conversation.

I’d love to hear your voices in this conversation.

Symbiotic Stewardship

The body speaks

I’ll never learn.

I’ll never learn that minor painful sensations are quiet whispers, mercifully instructing me to back off for a day or two. I’ll never learn that 115 miles a week of running, no matter how good it feels, is a SIGNIFICANT amount of mileage, enough to cause SIGNIFICANT muscular damage if not managed appropriately. I’ll never learn that I can’t run through pain that increases day after day after day, just because I WANT it to go away.

Of course, I DO learn this….always too late.

We are officially 2 1/2 weeks out from Vermont and I’ve stopped running completely, because of my inability to learn from my past mistakes. Do yourself a favor, don’t listen to me. I’m driven more by obsession than grounded perception. I’ll run 115 miles a week because it sounds great. I’ll run on trails for 4 hours, back to back, despite a piercing leg pain at the trailhead because I’m convinced I’ll run it away.

Now it’s time to regroup. 2 1/2 weeks out is NOT where I want to be when my leg “condition” finally holds more sway than my apparently oxygen deprived brain. I’ve got a race to run…a long one…on lots of hills. So I’m backing off now, confident that I’ll be able to run strong on the 25th if I can turn this “condition” (that’s what we call debilitating pain that developed over time…not an “injury”) around by then.

I should have listened to the dead spot in my quad. Then I should have listened to the post-run groin pain. Then I should have listened to the sore foot. Then I should have listened to the tight ITB, then hip flexor, then etc. etc. etc. I should have listened to all that chattering bouncing around my right upper leg like it was its own Facebook group. But I didn’t.

I listened to my heart rate that remained strong as I plowed up hill after hill in Southern Indiana. I listened to the self-congratulation going on in my head after putting in back to back 4 hour runs on the hilly trails without fatigue. I listened to the beeps on my watch that rattled off progressively faster times on our 800 intervals during the Tuesday Night Speedwork sessions. I listened to the tired story in my head that talks of triumphant victory, that talks of ceaseless running and the need to work harder than my competition. I listened to all that stupidity and here I am. Where is that exactly?

2 1/2 weeks out and I’m listening to my body, that stopped whispering and started screaming, that made just normal walking problematic. I also listened to the calendar staring at me in the face. If I can’t turn this around soon, I’ll begin losing all that hard fought for fitness and struggle, moreso, through the 50 miles of hills on the 25th than I hoped for. So I’ve got a plan.

For the next 3 days I’m taking off. Not an ounce of running. Not an ounce of lifting. Just complete rest. Then, if my leg has started talking to me in quieter, more relaxed tones, I’m getting on the bike and continuing my cardio. I won’t let go of the ballooning I’ve filled in my lungs because I’m going to need that desperately, and then when my leg has repaired its flesh pushed beyond use, I’ll integrate basic running to keep my strength at manageable levels, while letting the rest of my body come back into equilibrium.

Then when the 25th rolls around I’ll be primed, rested and ready to unleash on the course.

That’s my plan anyways.

All the while my head will be to the rails, listening for any oncoming trains that might derail me from my course. My leg may be weak, but now my ears are much stronger.