Monthly Archives: November 2012

No Thanksgiving

I may very well have already posted this years back, but hey, some things bear repeating.

Every Thanksgiving my city hosts a number of races, but the Drumstick Dash is the highest profile, attracting the most runners and the fastest runners. And every year I’m asked by friends, teammates and coaches if I’m going to race. Depending on the circumstance I tend to reply with either a,

“Nah, I might do one of the xmas races”, or more honestly,

“Nope. I’m morally opposed to running that race.”

The second response, understandably, raises eyebrows. I mean, it’s just a little running race, right? It’s almost more a roving party more than a physical struggle as tons of friends and families gather to run into a negative caloric balance before gorging themselves on food later that day. It’s even for a “good cause” some will say.

Here’s the thing though. The very name, “Drumstick Dash”, is offensive to those of us who recognize the sentience of the animals raised in torturous conditions and slaughtered during this ritualistic time of year. The name alludes to eating the leg of an animal that spent its life in tragically cramped conditions, subjected to pain, disease and unable to exert its natural instincts, quite literally “going mad” before getting herded into an even more cramped cage and going through the industrialized killing process, which is a whole nother set of adjectives I’ll abandon for now. The entire process is morally INDEFENSIBLE.

And yet we joke and mock the entire tragedy. This particular race associates the killing with “humorous” imagery of pilgrims chasing down the animals with muskets, flippantly naming itself after a piece of the animal unnecessarily consumed, awarding winners of the race with a dead animal of their own, sending a turkey costumed runner out ahead of the pack to be chased down for additional prizes, and so on. So yeah, as an ethical vegan, it’s not difficult to understand why I might not want to be a part of this.

Though I can hear some eye-rolling from here. “Come on, it’s just a little fun. Maybe it’s not the prettiest life for the animals, but we’re all just having a good time…and it’s not like you’re actually killing the animals.”

This defense is posed so often in various arguments regarding our society’s depiction of animals and their subsequent usage, and it drives me nuts. True, no one is entering this race thinking, “I’m gonna go support the killing of some defenseless animals! I want them to suffer and die!”. I know this, but it’s this very LACK of awareness or LACK of consideration regarding these issues that allow them to continue and flourish. I don’t look at a race like this and necessarily see a good time, unfortunately. I look at this race and see a cultural permissiveness. I see thousands of people subjected to a depiction of an animal that is anything but the reality. The disproportionally sized turkey running from the goofy pilgrim, the humor of watching runners chase after a turkey-costumed runner, the prizes awarded of the turkey’s bodies that tell nothing of their existence up to that point, all serve to desensitize and lend a permissiveness to their unnecessary life and death. This is all a reinforcement that ALL THIS IS OK. It is a reinforcement that we can take all this lightly. It is a reinforcement that anyone who tells you different is just a buzzkill and resents the fun you’re having.

Ultimately, it’s all part of a cumulative effect of our culture. A Thanksgiving day race disingenuously depicting the lives of sentient creatures slated for a life of torture before death is not THE problem…it’s a PART of the problem. It’s a part of the continuous onslaught of false images, desensitization, separation from the reality of factory farming, a denial of animals’ emotional lives. It’s a part of our culture’s very functioning, but that doesn’t mean we can’t address it every chance we have…and, of course, those chances are ALWAYS there.

So for me, I choose to opt out. I choose to NOT be a part of that gathering of runners lending an inadvertent permissiveness to the overall tragedy. Permissiveness, after all, is the way we shape our cultures and shape our lives. When we decide to “opt out” and take our bodies, dollars and voices elsewhere, we make functions like this weak. We make it so they can’t continue. At the very least, we allow ourselves to sleep well at night, knowing we did not contribute to that permissiveness that results in the unnecessary deaths of so many individuals.

So, again, I will NOT be running this race, because the permissiveness towards the unnecessary killing of sentient animals is simply NOT OK. And any social function that makes light of this should receive none of our support, no matter if they organize this under good intentions, for a “good cause”, or any other inadvertent distraction.

I know the pull is great this time of year to gather with friends and families, and I know as runners we are often compelled to join in these races, but I urge you to opt out of any race that expresses the permissiveness outlined above. I know there are other races that focus on the Fall season, the giving of thanks, or even rescuing the Turkey’s instead of killing them and I certainly urge you to seek out and join those as an alternative.

Let’s continue to make this an enjoyable time of year for EVERYONE.

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The Rewards of Recovery

The Rewards of Recovery, written by someone who doesn’t take his own advice….or his coach’s.

Following up my last post regarding the mental anguish of missing two whole days of running, trying to allow my leg to recover/heal itself of the increasingly worrisome pains I was feeling…I woke up this morning dreading what may not happen. I woke up worried my leg would still be “locked up” as it was feeling yesterday, shooting needles into my groin, and sending pains into my hip with every extended rotation. I woke up expecting all this, but just hoped it would have subsided enough that I could get in an easy 10 miles, if not a full 20.

Imagine my surprise then when rising from bed I felt nothing. At all. And when I walked to the kitchen to get my coffee, I still felt nothing. And when I got up from checking email/facebook/etc., I STILL felt nothing. This was odd. More than that, I also felt both an almost physical pressure and a hyper-exuberant drive to get out the door and run. I wasn’t just feeling ready to run, I was feeling ecstatic to run, so before anything could dampen that excitement I pulled on all my running clothes and headed out the door and down the street.

Heading down the undulating sidewalk towards the paved trail 3 miles away, everything felt fine. So far so good. I tempered my excited pace, but couldn’t help notice that everything was rolling smooth, feeling strong and unexpectedly easy. So I just went with it.

I wasn’t trying to push. I wasn’t trying to run fast, but when everything in your body is working like you want it to…things just happen. You feel smooth, you feel strong, and all that sends signals of positivity to your head, which sends that positivity back into your body, and soon enough you’re absolutely cruising…without effort. This is for me, above all else, the greatest feeling in running. Feeling powerful. Superhuman. I seek this every time I head out the door….so when I have it, I capitalize on it.

Now let me get on topic here. Although feeling strong and powerful on a 20 mile run, where the day prior I didn’t make it around the block, it wasn’t lost on me that I had essentially “cheated”. That’s what I told myself anyways.

“Technically, you cheated your way into this run. You took TWO FULL DAYS off before starting this long run, so you BETTER feel good.”

It’s true. And even though I wisely took those days off, seeking recovery and avoiding deeper injury, it was obvious the ease in this run was due to that recovery and not necessarily some “breakthrough” in fitness….or was it. More on that in a sec.

I found myself hitting a groove about 9 miles in, finally getting fully comfortable and noticing my pace only INCREASING at halfway. I checked my watch at the 10 mile turn around point, expecting to see a 1:07 or 1:08 split, but looking down at my wrist it read 1:03:30. A 2:07 finishing pace. Holy crap. I was running MUCH faster than I had even assumed, which was weird considering that it felt so EASY. My legs weren’t taxed. My form was solid. And my breathing was still fully in control. Knowing my pace always picks up the second half, I was immediately filled with an excitement that I might hit a 2:05 finishing time without putting in too much effort.

I kicked down the trail some more, probably motivated into a little more effort in hopes of hitting that negative split upon completion. Still, I kept telling myself, “This is still sort of cheating. This is like taking two days off to be fully prepared for a race.”

No matter though. When you’re feeling it, go with it. So I did. Pushing into mile 16 I started concentrating on my form as I felt my legs start to give in to the effort and I didn’t want to put uneven stress on any specific muscle, digging deeper into that injury whole. I ran into mile 17 and turned off the trail and onto the sidewalk that would lead me up a gradual 3 mile incline back to my front door. I finally had to start working to hold pace running up that incline, but knew I was nowhere near the point of blowing up or complete muscular breakdown. I continued knocking out the last miles, turned down my street and hit my watch in front of my house. 1:03:58. Damn. I was pretty stunned. I wasn’t stunned that I ran that time, because I know I can do that whenever called on, but I was stunned I did that on an easy run…facilitated by two full days of recovery.

And then it started to FINALLY sink in….the reward of recovery. No matter I’ve been competitive running since ’07. No matter I’ve had a coach since ’10. No matter I’ve been told over and over again to “take the easy days easy”, to “get everything out of the recovery days”, to “let the body build itself on rest days”. No, see, that’s all GOOD advice, and I’m a self-absorbed, obsessive runner who thinks running slow is counter-intuitive to running fast. I mean, “train fast to race fast” right? Right, but 3 days a week of fast running is certainly plenty and the other days are for recovering and allowing you to run fast. Duh. So why didn’t I ever internalize that?

I have this problem of wanting to overachieve with running. I want to do what it takes to reach my goals, whether that’s hitting 100 mile weeks, 120 mile weeks, twice a day running, strengthening, fast running, etc. Whatever it takes, I want to do it, so when I’m told to run easy on recovery days, I do that…sort of. I go out and run, without totally taxing myself and dying for it to end like we do on workout days. That’s “easy”, yes? No. “Easy” or “recovery” need to be more defined depending upon your individual fitness level.

I would go out on easy runs and do 6:30 – 7:00 pace, occasionally dropping into 6:15 – 6:00 pace if I was really feeling it, because 6:30 pace is not 5:30 pace. It feels INCREDIBLY easy compared to that…but that’s not enough. A truly easy run is having to actually make an effort to hold back. I tend to run 6:30 to 7:00 pace easy runs because I’ve discovered it’s the natural rhythm of my body. If I go out to run for no other reason but running, that pace is where I feel most comfortable without even trying. Running slower than that takes a conscious effort to ease up, shorten my stride and just generally slow down. It’s just my biological makeup is all.

That natural running rhythm, however, is not enough. It’s not slow enough. It still taxes the body in very small forms that are initially unnoticeable, but begin to show themselves with accumulation, through tired legs, slower workouts, energy deficiency, etc. See, the goal with running easy is to allow us to get the most out of our speed workouts and long runs, because that is where we get better. Those three hard runs a week are where we build PR fitness, but if you have limited your ability to put in 100% effort because you spent just a little too much on each easy run, not making them easy enough, then you’ve compromised your strength for the hard workouts. You’re not getting out of them what you want. (And when I say “You”, I mean “Me”…you may run how you’re supposed to…I obviously need to work on that).

And though it’s kind of embarrassing to admit, this most recent long run after 2 complete days of rest really drove home the reward of easy running and how I really need to take those days easier. 7:00/mile pace just isn’t going to get me where I want to go. I need to run SLOWER to run FASTER. I can hear my inner obsession cringing from here.

Here’s the other consideration that arose today. Did I run well because I had two full days of rest or did I run well because I had a breakthrough in fitness recently? That’s hard to say, but I think it’s probably a matter of both. Leading up to big races we always have a period of tapering, scaling back our mileage in order to let our bodies fully recover while staying primed for race day. During that period our bodies regenerate and gear up to really throw down at the start line, and it’s then we get to experience the breakthrough in fitness we HOPE we’ve achieved. That same principle applies in training and that’s what I hope has happened after today’s run. I’ve been so focused on managing my leg pain that I may have been overlooking a developing speed and endurance all the while. I’ve FELT like I had some breakthroughs recently, but I wasn’t entirely sure, and maybe I’ve just not been letting my body rest enough to show it. With this forced two days off, I might have allowed my body to cash in the work I’ve done to this point and enable me to run that 20 miles with minimal effort. Ultimately, I don’t know, but now that I’m going to internalize the recovery lesson learned today, I hope to see similar progress moving forward from here.

In conclusion, Take your easy days easy. Run slow to train fast to race fast. And don’t take my word for it…listen to your body’s.

Obsessive Compulsive Destruction

Let’s talk a little bit about Obsession. I mentioned it in the last post because I decided not to run yesterday after feeling a little bit of pain in my upper leg, well, more than a little bit. Enough to cause concern, to convince me that I should probably take the day off and let it heal for my long run the following day. I don’t mind missing a recovery day for the sake of recovery, but I hate missing workouts or long runs. Those are the runs that count the most, so I didn’t mind curbing my obsession for the sake of getting in that 20 miles.

But I didn’t. I woke up today, felt issues in my leg as soon as I started to get out of bed, but hoped they were just episodic and would go away with a little bit of running. I put on my shorts, shoes and cold weather gear to head out the door and up the street. Instantly my gait felt awkward and some periodic pains shot up into my groin area, but instead of running down the street and seeing what happened further into the run, I decided to go around the block. I circled back to my house and after not much had changed, I called it. Probably this was a somewhat unconscious decision before it became a conscious one, but the end result was the same. Obsession or not, I could just tell trying to run on that for 20 miles, no matter the numbing effects of adrenaline, would just not be a good idea. I told myself I was at peace with my decision, but that was just a defense mechanism.

I decided to take a shower instead, eat a banana with peanut butter, check Facebook and then see what happened. I did all that and suddenly my obsession had taken over again. I put all my running clothes back on, checked email again before heading out, but as soon as I stood up I could feel the issues again. I gave up and made cookies.

Of course, it’s not that simple. The whole time I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should have kept running the first time, constantly doubting whether the leg pain was truly problematic or I was just wussing out, unwilling to give the run the time it needed to get comfortable. And that scenario ping-ponged in my head all morning. You should have ran. You shouldn’t run. You should go out and run. You can’t go out and run. You could have kept going. You wouldn’t be able to keep going.

It’s like a feedback loop of obsessive stupidity.

Ultimately, I didn’t run (and am not going to today), despite how much more NOT running makes me want to. Building fitness, or just experiencing that daily release, is like a pressure cooker of obsession. Each day it builds until you let the top off and go for a run, but if you miss a day that obsession builds upon itself making the next day ‘s pressure to run even greater. Miss TWO days and it’s almost unbearable.

Normally, this isn’t a big deal. A run is a run and if you miss it, you’ll make up for it later and everything will be back to normal. If, however, you miss it for an injury, well, then the obsession becomes problematic. It becomes problematic because no matter how much you SHOULDN’T run, that desire (to put it nicely), that obsession (to put it truthfully), begins to strengthen its persuasive powers and push you to run when you probably shouldn’t. That’s when obsession becomes compulsion becomes destruction.

The problem is that damage (muscular, nerve, etc.) is done deep into the run….when it’s too late. So that obsession was driving me this morning, telling me a second time to get out there and run, telling me that I didn’t stop because of my leg but because I was not inspired. That obsession was telling me that I was just lazy, just letting the effort of running lull me into coming back home and making cookies without actually TRYING. And I could have listened, and could have gotten back out the door and started down the street, continuing to tell myself that I’m not lazy, not just uninspired, not just fearful of putting in the effort, not just letting my leg heal, and MAYBE that all would have been true. But as mentioned above, the problem is that I would have found out too late.

If running is going to aggravate my muscular/nerve/whatever issue even more right now, I wouldn’t truly know until either deep into the run when the damage is really being done or afterwards when I can’t even get out the door AT ALL. That obsession would ruin me, as it has done in the past.

Fortunately, I didn’t listen to it.

I didn’t let the obsession become compulsion become destruction. That doesn’t mean it is gone, of course, because that pressure is still building. The lid on the pressure cooker wants to shatter into a million pieces right now, and maybe the only way I’m preventing that is by writing this. I know that obsession is still there because I can’t help but go through the same motions I always do when running has been abandoned for the day. I doubt myself. I doubt my motives. I doubt my fitness. I doubt my strength. And when I ride my bike up the trail I cringe with frustration and embarrassment every time I see someone else running. Come on, we all do it (at least, tell me we all do it). Honestly, I don’t care if that person is 100 lbs overweight, plodding along at a walker’s pace and just out for their own fitness, it kills me that THEY’RE running and I’m NOT. I wanna throw my bike to the side of the road and just start sprinting down the street for not doing it earlier. If that’s not obsession, I don’t know what is.

Ultimately though, it’s the obsession that makes us who we are as runners. It’s the drive that gets us out the door in painfully cold temperatures, that enables us to run to exhaustion, that convinces us to sign up for absurdly long races, that overcomes the siren song to sleep in, drink coffee, make cookies, take a nap, and do anything else that isn’t running. Although obsession is diagnosed as problematic by normative culture, distance runners are anything but normal, so to us it is one of our greatest assets. That, however, doesn’t mean it is without challenges, and achieving that balance of obsession and temperance is how we keep it from becoming destructive.

T-Day / Break

The reason I’m writing this from in here is because I’m not running out there (nods towards the window). I’m not running because I’m taking a break…today. Just today. Because I need it. Actually, because my leg needs it. As my mileage and workout intensity has been increasing, I’ve noticed some “trends”, as my coach says, in my leg pain. Specific pains in specific areas of my leg have been showing themselves again, sometimes only in the morning and other times later in the day. There isn’t much rhyme or reason as to why it’s happening, but it is, and I need to pay attention to “the signs”. This is all known as good runner advice, of which we often NEVER listen to. We’re always told to back off when issues start to arise, but we never do, letting mind take over matter and hoping for the best. The obsession is just too powerful.

Right now though, I’m feeling pretty confident in my upwards trajectory and am not that concerned with taking a day off to let some things heal up as necessary. I actually feel somewhat ridiculous even saying that, as if I should EVER be concerned with taking a day off. Like, OMG, a DAY. As if my muscles are going to dry up and fall of the bone or my lungs are going to explode like a popped balloon. What will probably happen is the stress of repetition will subside for a day and my legs and lungs will breathe a sigh of relief, rebuild themselves and prepare for the next pain-free run. Ok, that’s what I’m telling myself anyways. Regardless, it’s ok to take a break every once in awhile, and yes, sometimes it takes a verbal affirmation to make that a reality.

Speaking of breaks, today starts the T-day (thanksgiving, no thanksgiving, etc. etc.) break at the school where I work, giving me a full week of free-time to pursue running on my own schedule, add in a sufficient dose of strengthening and, well , get ready for T-day festivities. As a runner, this means something. As a vegan runner, it means something even MORE.

Runners have sort of adopted Thanksgiving as their own, which I’m guessing stems from our inherent weight management program through getting out and putting in the miles every day. We love to take every opportunity to rub it in that we can eat whatever we want (within reason) whenever we want (again within reason) and not have to worry about weight gain. So while everyone else is pre-starving themselves for a big dinner or signing up for a gym membership in anticipation of stupidly absurd weight gain, we’re just going about our days, running T-day themed races, doing our thing and not at all dreading the desserts and extra food coming our way. Despite not taking part in the traditional foods of Thanksgiving, I’m no exception.

With that in mind, Thanksgiving is also one of my least favorite holidays. I’ll ignore the issue with colonialist origins and focus on the expected, which is the ritual of eating turkeys. Granted, people eat animals every day, but the turkey is such a fundamental icon of Thanksgiving that focusing on eating them specifically  reeks of an even greater disconnect between the cause and effect of animal agriculture. It’s one thing when people talk about eating a meat substance that looks nothing like the individual it once was, but it’s something entirely different when they depict it as the creature it is and still kill and eat it without any consideration as to it’s sentient life. Our culture sells cutesy imagery of smiling, dumb turkeys, feather motifs and any other number of surprisingly realistic depictions of turkeys as living creatures, just before ceremoniously cutting their bodies up at the dinner table. And somehow, it’s all an amusing, quaint ritual that gets smothered in the ideals of giving thanks and sharing with family and friends.

I guess I have more tolerance for the daily onslaught of killing when the naivety of eating a substance instead of animal is more present, but when the turkey is and obviously WAS a turkey, I find myself both less forgiving and more affected by the blatant disregard for the animal’s tortured existence up to that point. But hey, don’t worry, the president pardon’s one every year and that appeasement makes up for everything else, right?

On the other hand, being vegan has transformed the Thanksgiving holiday into something else entirely, something far more positive and rewarding than the other rituals I would participate in with my family awhile ago. As the ritual dinner is so central to Thanksgiving, we, as vegans, find ourselves creating a necessary alternative, and in a way upping the ante. The vegan pitch-ins I have been a part of during Thanksgiving have always been far superior to the turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry offerings of traditional gatherings. Oh no, Thanksgiving is sort of our turn to shine and gloat (just like the runners), because it’s an excuse to bring our culinary A-game, whether that is to wow our carnivorous families or just share amongst friends.

And for us, we don’t rely on the boring central component to the traditional meal (the turkey), but prefer to fill our tables with MULTIPLE main courses. We’ll bring side dishes as supplements for sure, but most of the time we’re setting the table with all kinds of foods, relying on our diverse set of ingredients that aren’t confined to the American staples. No, we go all out, and only rarely offer simple alternatives to turkey (tofurky) and the other norms. We do it RIGHT.

So yeah, couple veganism AND running, and…well…I’m golden. I get to eat guilt-free meals because I’m not subjecting a sentient creature to a tortured existence before it’s premature death, and I get to eat guilt-free meals because I don’t have to worry about unhealthy weight gain fostered by a life of passivity.

Here’s the best part….you can do the same. Go vegan and get active.

Sorry to leave this on a downer…but truth trumps all.

D.IN.O 15k Trail Race Report – Running Scared

Seeing this was my first race back since the Personal Best 5 way back in August, seeing this was my first race back since being down and out with an injury, seeing this being my first race back and it being a 4 out of 5 on the difficulty scale trail race, seeing this was my first race back and I have not been feeling fast or strong in my workouts….seeing all that…I wasn’t feeling all that confident about stepping to the start line. I was nervous, yes, but I was also scared. Scared of going out too hard, running a pace I USED to be able to handle instead of my current fitness level. Scared of getting rolled by the competition. Scared of experiencing that muscular dying feeling that absorbs me after being conquered by the hills. Scared of…well…just stuff. The normal stuff I suppose. The stuff I’m always scared of. But no matter, I signed up for the race, was at the start line and ready to let the course sort all my fears out for me.

My body was poised in attack position and my muscles were taut like a stretched rubber band, ready to shoot me down the course into the woods, hopefully out front where I prefer to be in a trail race. The race director gave the “Runners Ready!” and the bullhorn siren jolted us off the line and down the 800 meter stretch of paved trail before hitting the leaf-covered grounds of the woods. I got out front as I had hoped and comfortably rolled into a quick start, a much younger and naively eager runner holding pace next to me for the first 200 yards before dropping off the back. My teammate Lucas and two other runners he has been fighting with throughout the series were just behind me as expected and we pounded down the seemingly non-stop downhill into the course, leaving the pavement and entering into the groomed, but leaf-covered trail that camoflauged a number of precarious ankle-twisting (breaking?) rocks and roots.

The beginning of the course continued to stretch downhill, saving the strength in our legs for further into the course, but sending our lungs into redlined territory as we beat further and further into the woods. I continued out front with Lucas a handful of strides off my back and the other two runners somewhere close behind. We picked our way over some short rock gardens, a bridge or two and took some meandering turns through the first mile and a half. I resisted looking over my shoulder so early in the race and decided to keep pressing on, expecting Lucas to hang with me as we ate up distance. And he did.

After bottoming out for a little bit the course took some short inclines that had us back off our lungs and start laying into our legs, but nothing too problematic. I wondered if Lucas would stay with me as we climbed, but continued to look ahead and not back as we ran on, though I heard his footfalls in earshot and I knew he was hanging on, much to the disappointment of the inherent competitive spirit that takes over and consumes me in the heat of the race.

I didn’t want to look back, but after a hairpin turn I had no choice but to catch sight of Lucas pushing right behind me just a few seconds back. It was at this point that I was running scared, redlining it in my legs and lungs, but trying to make enough of a gap between the two of us that he might start to fade. The only consolation I had at this point was knowing that 3rd and 4th, Lucas’s old competition, were nowhere in sight. We had pushed the pace hard and they blew up rather quickly, never in reach of making an attack if they had it in them. It was just us two out front continuing to eat up the course as quickly as we could.

And quickly we went as the trail opened up onto a gravel road that dropped severely down the course, pounding our quads into mush as the weight of our bodies tried to keep up with gravity or brake our momentum into a pace a little more in control. It was a relief when the trail turned by the river, a topographical marker that we had no more quad busting downhills to manage at this point, but obviously a precursor to climbing back up the hills we just descended. I took the turn at the river and caught a glimpse of Lucas still just hanging off my back, not losing any ground at all…he was killing it and with every section of the course he held onto, I was growing increasingly scared that he was going to take me over soon.

We ran along the bottom of the ravine, over a respite of flat and bouncy boards build over a floodplain, through a foot soaking creek with dangerously positioned rocks and then….up. And up. And up. We were warned about this hill.

The trail rose sharply and continued to rise as our momentum dropped exponentially, turning our blurred legs into freeze frames as we picked our way up the hill, and continued to pick our way up the hill, and continued to pick our way up the hill, and continued to pick our way up the hill…until it leveled out for a second…before getting even steeper at the very top! Those kinds of hills are the WORST. But we both made it and worked our way through a couple paved campgrounds before being spit back into the woods, slowly descending back towards the river and fighting through roots, rocks and a number of other ankle destroying and speed sapping obstacles. I stayed just ahead and Lucas stayed just behind as we met the final obstacle before having to loop the course a second time to the finish. That final obstacle?…..Stairs. Endless stairs that climbed to the  outer reaches of infinity, or so it seemed.

See, when a trail has to build stairs, it says something about the general topography of the area. It says the grade of the hills are so steep that you can’t even cut switchbacks into them to get out….you just have to build stairs that take you straight up. There is no turning, no platforms to rest upon, just stair after stair after stair.

I reached them first and started the climb, trying to figure out which was most efficient – running them individually, running every other one, yanking myself forward using the railings as I walked every other one, or doing the same but walking every step. I heard Lucas mutter,

“This is brutal!”, and I responded with encouragement, “Come on Lucas!”

But we could only make our way up at an embarrassingly slowed pace, using the handrails more than anything else as we picked our way up, not even looking to see what progress we had or hadn’t made. I finally reached the top and felt a weight and fatigue fill my legs like I hadn’t in a long time, muscles I forgot I had exerted to their maximum, threatening to buckle under me as we started getting back into our groove on the flattened trail at the top of the course. I kept picking through the rocks and roots with varying degrees of success and Lucas  stayed just off my back, continuing to force me forward…still running scared and waiting to be overtaken.

We ran by the finish chute and the race director called out through the microphone,

“Here come our race leaders, Scott Spitz and Lucas McCabe, running all alone at this point.”

We crossed the start line for the final time and headed back into the course for the long downhill that would stress our legs, but give our lungs a bit of needed relief. Honestly though, at this point I knew Lucas was going to make a move on me and take me down once and for all. I was going to be defeated just halfway into the race. I prepared myself to conceed him the race and encourage him to take off towards the finish, in effect leaving me behind to fight the course into second place. But as I used the benefit of a paved trail and gravity’s power, I stopped hearing footfalls behind me, though I wasn’t at all convinced he wasn’t right behind me. A couple spectators hiking the woods cheered me on and I listened to when they would do the same for Lucas, giving me a sense of how far he lay off my back….but I heard nothing. I bottomed out at one hill and took a sharp turn, inadvertently looking back for his bright yellow jersey, but saw nothing in sight, though a large tree sat right in the direction I looked and I could only assume he was passing behind that tree just as I looked back. Whatever was going on behind me, that’s what I told myself.

The second time through the course was going to be a fight, no doubt, but there was something assuring knowing what obstacles we had ahead and their severity, allowing the consideration to ease up in preparation to take on the downhills and uphills. Still concerned about Lucas coming up behind me I found the drive to push on and despite feeling like I had been redlining it in both lungs and legs up to that point, was relieved to be able to find a rhythm and some speed when the course let up and allowed me to do so.

I tackled one of the uphills, leveled out for awhile and then dropped the long, precarious gravel road to the bottom of the river, overshooting the turn when I lost focus of the course while trying not to step in the washed out gulleys in the road. I kept pounding my quads into mush down the trail when suddenly I found myself considering my strategy after realizing Lucas had fallen out of sight.

“You should ease up on this flat, get comfortable and save your strength for the climb and stairs.”

But before I could even consider that even further, my true racing voice interrupted and took over.

“What the fuck! You attack the course and continue to attack the course! THAT’S how YOU race! Wise or not…that’s how YOU do it!”

And just like that, I hit the flat and found myself pressing on harder, using the relief of the level ground to keep up momentum towards the long climb that would eat my body up….and I loved it. I jumped over rocks, picked my way through the creek, double-jumped roots and attacked the course like I said I would. And when the hill came, I slowly picked my way up, refusing to put my hands on my legs and letting both my legs and lungs redline themselves all the way to the top.

Then soon enough I found myself facing that long stairclimb to the top of the ravine, knowing that once I passed that annoying monster I was home free to the finish. I knew if no one had come up on me by the time I reached the stairs that I had the win locked. I put one foot up on the first step, grabbed the railing, and started that obnoxious and slow ascent to the top of the course, finally reaching the last step before informing the volunteers waiting at the top with water,

“God, that’s ridiculous”, and then shooting back down the course to the finish.

At this point I wasn’t worried about how strong I felt running towards the finish, but I was quite surprised at the burst of excitement and adrenaline I felt when realizing I only had a relatively short and easy path to the line. My pace even quickened as I called out to the other runners in front of me finishing up the 5k course,

“Runner back!” and “Runner back!” and “Runner back!”

I made the final turn up a small incline and passed one of the course volunteers who I swore said, “Only 1 more mile!” when I was sure it was only 100 more meters. I could have easily run another mile if necessary, but I was mentally prepared to finish, so that was a small punch in the gut. I was quite relieved to hear the race director call out my name through the bullhorn and confirm my finishing sprint. I pulled up into the chute, crossed the line and let the tidal wave of relief and calm wash over me as my heart rate dropped precipitously and my legs let out an almost audible sigh of relief. I had did it. I held off Lucas, the two other runners of concern, fought a brutal course to its very end, completely thrashing my body in the process, but most importantly, building a massive base of race confidence to work from as I move on towards deeper training and more racing. Stronger and Faster.

One more thing…it should be noted that Lucas has been vegan for a few months now, so that made a 1, 2 vegan victory at this race. Were you saying something about vegans being weak?…yeah, didn’t think so. 😉

————-

15k (Garmin’s read 9.7 miles)
1:04 and change
1st place

 

The Swarm

I missed that feeling. That unmistakeable flurry of butterflies that fills my belly with just the thought of toeing the start line again. It happens at any time, anywhere, no matter, just as long as I think about the upcoming race and my apprehension at running fast and far. It hit me today, merely an hour after completing my registration online, as I rode my bike down to the Y to get ready for my easy 10 miler. I simply thought about the race Saturday and, bam, my stomach was all aflutter.

Yes, Saturday. My coach proposed the race to me a week ago as I continued to run out of the injury and my workouts started to show improvement. I told him I wanted to hold off until after Saturday’s long run workout to see how that and the subsequent recovery went. Well, it went good enough as I signed up for the race today.

I’m not as confident as I would normally be in signing up for a race, but it’s been too long since I last put it all on the line, which was before the recent injury put me down. So I’m doing this race just to get my head back in the competitive game and get a little taste of that fire.

The race is a 15k trail race, the last in a series, on a course I have never run before, which will only add to the excitement of it all. As I’ve run this series before, I expect this to be a pretty brutal course and my body should receive a pretty significant thrashing. All part of the fun though, right?

I’m not placing any definitive expectations on my effort at this point, as I’m just not race confident and unsure what to expect from my legs or lungs in a competitive environment. Sure, I’ll go out hard, but I have no idea if I’ll be able to keep pushing or hold on if necessary, but I’ll find out! I only hope to put in a good effort and get in a solid 15k hill workout on a mild (upper 40’s?! Come on!!) and camaraderie-filled Saturday morning. Count on a race report…and probably a reignited fire that will have me scouring the local race calendars for another go at attacking my decaying list of PR’s.

And butterflies. Of course, more butterflies.

Dying Thoughts While Fully Alive

I started my 20 miles with speed workout at a controlled and reserved pace as coach advised me. The first four miles were merely a warmup to the workout itself, just getting the legs turning over, the muscles stretched and loosened and all the other systems firing. I took my time down 10th street, exchanging good mornings with bus stop strangers waiting under the darkened sky, before turning onto the trail that would lead me into my workout and pull me back into the city for my cool down. I didn’t know what to expect from myself for such a long speed workout while still running out of a recent injury, so I kept the pace around 7 minute miles and tried not to get too jumpy for the anticipated workout that lay just another mile ahead.

I was feeling unexpectedly positive and powerful during the warmup and my mind was clear, not struggling with any personal issue or creating any fictional race scenario to give me motivation. It was simply prepared to run.

I came up on the first cement marker off the side of the trail and kicked into a set of 3 miles, prescribed to me as “steady” by my coach, which for me meant putting a reserved dose of effort into propelling my body off the ground, but keeping my breathing in a rhythmic and controlled state, merely heating up all the systems instead of trying to tax them. This, after running through the first couple miles amounted to a sub-6:30 pace. I certainly could have dropped it further, but was more concerned with having the strength to fight the workout on the last set of 3 miles and complete it more than post up low pace per miles. Today’s victory would be in a solid completion over a progression of time.

Rolling steadily through the last mile I hit the cement marker that began the next 3 at a “comfortably hard” pace, which meant throwing down significantly more power through my legs, laboring my breathing to a quickened and precipitous level and having to concentrate on holding form, all the while knowing that I have another gear in me to extend into the next 3 without blowing up. My mind remained clear and focused on the task as I held solid form and continued to, as I describe to my coach, “kick out the jams” down the trail, passing all the other runners, and some cyclists, doing their own training. I was pushing at my boundaries for sure, but still maintaining a level of control before leading into the last 3 mile interval, hitting my watch at the turn around point to read a sub-6:00 pace.

It was at that point I knew the fight was going to begin and the real benefit of the workout was about to kick off, beginning what was to be a “hard” pace. I turned at the marker and headed back down the trail, letting all reservations go along with my controlled breathing. I let my heart rate soar and worried less about holding form than keeping my trajectory as straight as possible as my weakened legs were nudged along the dirt path next to the paved trail. My arms swung out in front of me in a rhythmic fury that matched the sped up metronome within my chest, and continued to “kick out the jams”, gaining confidence that I could hold this near-redlined pace all the way to completion. I passed the first mile marker at 5:32 and started up a long, gradual incline towards the next, consciously trying to make up for the noticeably increased grade with more speed. Passing the second mile marker I looked at my watch to read yet another 5:32 pace, sending a final shot of confidence and relief through my body as I kicked on to finish the workout.

Then something unexpected happened.

Despite pushing my systems to their near maximum, depriving my brain of the necessary oxygen to form extended thoughts, I was suddenly overcome with a feeling I hadn’t experienced in awhile.

I could die.

Not die from running….but just die. Just have my life end….and be ok with it. I know this sounds weird and romanticized, and maybe it is, but I’ve felt this before and however morbid it may sound, it’s more an indicator of contentment than desperation.

The last time I felt this I was working as a bike messenger, blasting through the streets of Indianapolis and subjecting myself to some pretty absurd risks, but loving every second of it. I felt, more than I ever had, alive. I felt alive, not because I was experiencing a momentary satisfaction from cheating death, but because I was feeling it consistently. I was moving, dangerously, on the edge, and doing it every day. My life, on the whole, was exciting and it felt very much how I wanted it to be, always infused with action, physical exertion, a sense of danger, and just overall enthusiasm. THAT, to me, is living…and subsequently allowed me to be ok with dying, because if something out of my control was going to take my life, then at least I could say everything up until that point was how I wanted it to be. I took every opportunity to maximize every moment I had.

I felt my shoe nick the side of my leg as it swung rapidly by. I felt my right arm swing across my body as the left stayed straight. I felt my body try to correct itself as a weakened push off the right leg threw me off balance. I felt my heart rate double beat as it struggled to keep up with the rhythm of my body. I felt everything start to fall apart as I passed the last half of the last mile…and I felt like I could die.

As failing as my body was feeling, my mind was loving every second of it, fully aware we were going to have victory in the workout and simultaneously suck every ounce of excitement from life in that moment. Nothing else I could think of would be able to offer such a reward, such a satisfaction, than bringing my body to the edge of physical collapse and somehow continue pushing on. THIS was living and which, in turn, made dying ok. I know this because I felt it, because if I was hit and killed by a car on the way home, I could say leading up to that point I was doing exactly what I should have been doing. I was following my deep passion and creating a whole life, both mentally and physically.

I am satisfied, content.

Straightening my back and concentrating on correcting the swing of my arms and legs I pushed down the trail, stealing a couple quick glances at the mile marker that lay in sight ahead. Still finding one more subtle gear I “kicked out the jams” for the shortened finish and pushed all the way to the end, hitting my watch just as I crossed the imaginary line. 5:31. Victory, in many ways.

The last 7 miles brought me casually home to reflect and relax on a job well done, a life well-lived, a trail well run.