Coach Spencer Runs in the Woods

Coach Spencer Runs in the Woods

Friday, December 13, 2013

Summer Mountain Odyssey Needs a Write-Up

I haven't written on here in 6 months. Not much of note has occurred for most of that time. Another injury, some laziness, not as much running as there should be. But I have done my Summer Mountain Running Odyssey a disservice by not writing about it. The whole blog thing is a little self-absorbed for even me- who cares what my experiences are? BUT, the mountains & trails I ran this summer- they deserve being talked about. About 3 weeks of 3-6 hour runs each day. Chased by wild boar, up over 6000' most days, camping, meeting weirdos, seeing so many totally awesome things... that has to be talked about or at least shown in photos. I'll do that very soon. I still remember every detail of every day it seems.

Derby 50K & Health Scare

The folks at Mangum Track Club put on excellent events... or at least I've always heard. Hinson Lake 24 Hour Run is the only one I'd ever done & it, of course, is excellent. I've always wanted to get to some others but they've either not fit my schedule or they filled up before I could register. I was happy to put the Derby 50K on my schedule a few months ago & looked forward to it.
For the past 2 years, I've struggled with injuries which have left me perpetually out of shape & 35 pounds heavier than I was 24 months ago. Frustrating. I thought I'd kicked it but in July, I had another setback with a serious achilles injury. Life & laziness got in the way of decent training once I was able to. I was able to get in some good long runs, but haven't put in the consistency I should've. I was looking forward to really racing Derby a few months ago, but would settle with finishing comfortably.

Derby, NC really is in the middle of nowhere. Open farmland. The course is three 10.5 mile loops- which I really appreciated. I like knowing what's ahead. The long runs I've done have all been on single track trail, so adapting to the (attempt at) even pacing on roads was a challenge early on. Later in the race, it didn't seem to matter. The hills & wind were a little more than I'd expected, but I did enjoy the course & organization.

I had some of my usual GI problems but it didn't ruin my race. Threw up at MILE THREE of the race- I think from nerves more than anything. I was actually tired 3 miles into it though! Experienced quite a bit of general fatigue but no other problems. I was VERY slow, finishing in 5:09. My PR from 2 years ago was 3:54, so this race was a humbling experience for someone already in doubt. But it was also affirming that- hey, at the worst shape you're going to be in (other than injured & unable to run), you can still finish a 50K. Races like this- the first one back after a stretch- also serve to inspire. "I'm going to get serious now."

I didn't run for a couple of days so I could recover. That Tuesday, I didn't run because we had a track meet & I felt like I was getting sick. Wednesday, I didn't run because I experienced some shortness of breath & chest pain. Thursday, I ran 3 miles & struggled to breathe. Late that night, some nurse & EMT friends on Facebook told me it sounded like pulmonary embulism- a blood clot in my lung. Of course, that was worrisome & I decided to go to the ER. 3 days of chest pain isn't something to take lightly, I guess. Spent the night in the hospital & was told my tests looked OK, but not to do anything- to go home & stay in bed for a day or two and then no physical activity for a couple of weeks. Sigh... Went to my regular doctor this week & she gave ruled out heart issues & gave me an inhaler. It's worked wonders. No more symptoms. Not sure if I'm sick or if its some asthma-like symptoms, but just happy to be breathing & running again.

So now, in worse shape than I was in before Derby, I'll run the Table Rock 54 Miler tomorrow at Linville Gorge... or I may drop to the 50K... or I may stay home. I'm on the fence. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Summer Odyssey of Mountain Running

Let's face it- I am slow and heavy right now. I thought once I got over my year & a half of injuries, I'd be able to get back into shape more quickly. Hasn't worked out that way, but I am pleased to be able to complete long runs. I've had several 15-65 mile runs in the past 2 months. I have zero speed but can manage to get these runs done. At this point, that's good enough & we'll see if we can combine the distance and speed down the road. I'm patient.

Being slower, I've enjoyed getting back to plodding through the woods and seeing majestic sights. This summer, I'm planning on going to see as much natural beauty as possible and using running as an excuse to do it. In the past three weeks, I've gone on a terrific family backpacking trip, gone on a backpacking trip with friends & ran 40 miles in the mountains. I planned a 10 day journey of running on mountainn trails- every day beautiful and challenging. Most of the places I'll be running, I've never been before. Something came up and I'll have to break it up into 2 different trips, but maybe that's better. The grind of doing it for 10 days might prove to be too much. These are all tough, tough trails, visiting some of the highest peaks in the Southern Appalachians- many days over 6'000' in elevation.

This is sort of an internal quest, but I'm certainly open to some company. Not being around people for long stretches does funny things to a person. Here's my schedule:

Friday, June 21- Art Loeb to John Rock- 19.5 miles
Art Loeb is a tough 30 mile trail. I've only run the few easternmost miles. I have run to the top of John Rock on another trail. It's a large rock face overlooking another.

Saturday, June 22- Art Loeb to Shining Rock- 15.9 miles
Black Balsam, Tennett Mountain and Shining Rock is the most well known section of the Art Loeb Trail with some balds. Then running over to Devil's Courthouse.

Sunday, June 23- Bartram Trail & AT to Cheoah Bald- 10.5 miles
Getting a shuttle ride from Wesser, NC a few miles to Winding Stair Gap, running up the Bartram Trail to Cheoah Bald, hitting the Appalachian Trail & then back to Wesser. Should be great views and old growth forest.

Monday, June 24- AT to Mt. Leconte & Charlie's Bunion, Day 1- 15.5 miles
Tuesday, June 25-Mt. Leconte, Day 2- 14.1 miles
Trails in GSMNP over Mt. Leconte (over 6,500') to the AT to Charlie's Bunion & then sleeping at Freezing Water Shelter and running back out on a slightly different route the next day. I'll have a tent, food, sleeping bag, etc. with me. Fully loaded pack weighs less than 14 pounds with water. Lightweight stuff.

Wednesday, June 26- AT to Big Bald- 12 miles
Out & back on the AT to another bald. I'll be running on a lot of open mountains this summer.

Monday, July 1- AT- Roan Balds- 26.2 miles
My favorite place.

Tuesday, July 2- AT to Mt. Rogers- 10.3 miles
Hopefully running with someone I coached 8-10 years ago to the top of Virginia's highest peak.

Wednesday, July 3- Snake Mt/Rich Mt Bald/Elk Knob- 15.5 miles
This will be an adventure. I've run Elk Knob many times. Short & steep. It's got the best long range view I know of. Snake Mountain is supposed to be better and has a long narrow rocky spine you go over. The bigger challenge may be finding my way to the top. Snake Mt is on private land and there's supposed to be a lightly used path- not a well established trail. Rich Mt Bald is even less than a trail. Both of these two will be a hike/scramble rather than a run most likely. I'm looking forward to it!

July 5-7- Backpacking trip with Wren at Linville Gorge

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

40 Miles at Beech Mountain


Last week, I ran 40 miles at Beech Mountain. I'd say 40% trail, 40% dirt road & 20% road. Even ran up a ski slope. I've been coming to Beech Mountain for 30 years & ran places I've never been, includ
ing the most beautiful spot on the mountain (I think). Unfortunately, my phone/camera had died by then so I couldn't get pictures of the Lower Pond Creek Trail, but the waterfalls & old growth Hemlocks were beautiful, even if that mile section of trail was way too steep, rooty & rocky to run much.

The run, though... so very difficult. There is no flat spot at Beech Mountain at all. An hour into the run, I was tired. Two hours into it I was really tired. Three hours into it, I wanted to stop. A mile from the end, I went up one of the impossibly steep roads, wondering how it could possibly be so steep. I came very close to sitting down in the middle of the road & crying. For the past few miles, I had been moaning and verbalizing my exhaustion. It was a struggle, but I kept pushing it & went super slow (as if there was a choice) and finished up the 40 miles in 8:18. Actually, I'm guessing on both the mileage & time. My phone & GPS watch both died. Time is correct within 2 minutes. Mileage was no less than 38.5. I seriously doubt I underestimated the distance. :)

40 miles was my absolute limit given the terrain. Broke me down but I'm
pleased to have completed it.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

C&O Canal 100 Miler + Self-Analysis

C&O Canal 100 Miler in Maryland was 2 weeks ago. What's to say? Tons of injuries for over a year & most recently, a back problem that had me in bed for the better part of 5 weeks. I'd only been running again for 4 weeks. Got in a 20 miler & a 33 miler and felt fine but slow. I treated this "race" more as a exercise in psychology than athleticism.

Felt good from the beginning and I've really concentrated on quicker, shorter leg turnover lately. I've noticed I tire a lot more quickly with slower, longer strides. It's easy for that to break down, but the short strides make me feel like I'm zipping along even if I haven't been this slow in many years. Felt very smooth.

Started fading a bit around mile 18 but still OK. Ran & talked with a guy from Ohio for a few miles. Felt confident at 50K and reality started setting in that this was going to be a 22-24-maybe 26 hour thing. I relaxed and stopped worrying about the pre-determined paces I thought I would hit at various stages of the race. I knew better to begin with.

Started throwing up at mile 40. Not good. Continued to be sick but kept moving. At 52- at the end of the first loop, I sat for 30 minutes deciding what to do & letting my stomach settle. Kept going on 12 mile out & back & dropped out at 64. Last few miles, everything cramped up- calves, hamstrings, shoulders, stomach, forearms- even my hands. With no calories & fluids in me, I didn't think I had a choice but to drop. The course was actually long- 105 miles. Psychologically, that made a huge difference. Somehow 41 more seemed like way more than 36.

If I went that far, couldn't I make it 41 more miles?? C'mon, that's weak right? Eh, having already run 24 miles throwing up every 15 minutes, I just didn't think I could keep going. I am frustrated I had to drop out, but don't regret the decision, given the circumstances. I'm actually pretty proud I made it that far on such little training.

The bigger issue is WHY this has been happening to me for the past 12 years or so.

I looked back over my history and I was kind of astonished I've attempted 100 milers or 24 hour races 10 times now. I have made it 100 or more 3 times + 90 once & 92 once in 24 hour races. I consider those 5 to be completions. 50%. 

  • One of those DNFs- Black Mountain Monster 2010- I had been suffering from major dehydration for several hours and was hallucinating. I should've dropped way earlier, but went home after 66 miles. Zero choice there, though I did receive some flack for dropping on that one. When you see sharks & sea turtles coming out of your chest for 30 minutes, what choice do you have?? That was truly the dumbest I've ever been in this whole ultra thing. Continuing for 66 that day & running on a horrible achilles one year at Frosty 50K are the only things I can say were the wrong decision. So dropping out at BMM 2010, I'm completely OK with. 
  • One of the DNFs was 2009-10 Freedom Park New Years 24 Hour Run. Quite honestly, I was bored of running around a paved loop in the 35 degree rain for 70 miles. After ringing in the New Year, I decided I was done. No excuses there, but also no shame. I was OK with 70. I just didn't want 100 that day & I guess that's OK.
  • A year after that, at Freedom Park, I was cruising along fine until mile 74 when something snapped in my foot. Went from running well to not being able to walk. Nothing I could do there.
  • Hinson Lake 2012- Nursing a broken big toe & I dropped at 27 miles. What can you do? Running that far on it & altering my stride screwed up my ankle & I couldn't run for 2 months afterwards. I probably could've made it 50 miles that day, but was in significant pain every step from the start. I was happy to drop at 27 than invest much more into it and still have to drop. No way I could've run the whole thing.
  • B&O Canal 100. Stomach problems. What can you do?
So, when you break it down like that, in my ten 100 mile/24 hour attempts, I've completed 5 & there's only been 1 where I had any control over dropping out of.

And in looking at these past races, I'm very surprised at what I'm seeing. I feel like my race history from marathon up is always plagued by horrible stomach issues. It is, but what I'm seeing on paper here is that this is the only time it's caused me to drop out of a race. I wouldn't have guessed that without looking back over the race reports.

I'm not sure what to do about the stomach stuff though. It's not just as simple as throwing up either. I get way overheated. My face turns bright red, my skin is way too hot even when it's not that hot outside, I get a rash on my chest, I get extremely salty (everything chafes as a result), I feel almost like I'm experiencing motion sickness... restless & feel like I'm moving at aid stations when I'm standing still. ...and maybe it is motion sickness. It would stand to reason that you are moving constantly hour after hour... I'm beginning to notice a connection between the nausea, overheating & saltiness. Seems like some electrolyte imbalance. When I start getting hot & salty, it's just a matter of time before the nausea kicks in. I've tried everything:

  • I used to eat big meals before races but figured out that was a bad idea several years ago. I don't think the problem is pre-race food.
  • I've tried cutting out simple sugars in races. Doesn't seem to matter.
  • I typically drink most of my calories & can only stomach maybe 200 calories an hour. I've tried eating more solid foods. Doesn't seem to matter.
  • Recently, I tried only drinking water, not taking electrolyte pills & using gels & solid food for calories. Same results with the nausea but maybe not the other symptoms.
  • Tried more electrolyte supplements thinking, "If I am sweating all of this salt out, I must need to put it back in." I am going to keep experimenting, but I don't think this is correct. It makes logical sense, but in my personal experience, I think it makes it worse.
At B&O Canal, I didn't feel nearly as bad as I have before. I'd run 6-10 minutes, throw up, walk a minute & be back to running. I felt more... clean than I usually do & that's really the best way to describe it. Feels like there's a toxic stew inside me usually as I overheat, get salty & feel sick. Drinking just water, and washing off my face & arms as much as possible, I felt much better than normal, but without being able to keep anything in, I couldn't continue for 105 miles.

I've learned a lot about what my body can handle over the years & I think I'm starting to pinpoint what's causing the problem here. Hopefully, I can finally figure out what works best for me & move away from this.

Oh- and for a simple review of the race itself- B&O Canal was very flat, which is not necessarily a huge advantage. No time to coast & no obvious walk breaks. 54% finish rate with good weather tells you for whatever reason, it wasn't easy out there. Organization was a C (and the course distance was my biggest gripe, but not the only one), but that will hopefully get better after this first year. Parts of the course were pretty, along the Potomac, but as you got away from the river it was a little monotonous. Not bad though. I made it to nightfall, so it would've all been dark the rest of the way anyway. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

From Couch (or Bed) To 100 Miler in a Month

Tens- maybe hundreds of thousands of runners have read books or been part of an organized program to get you from "Couch to 5K." The 5K gives people a needed goal far off in the distance to work towards. Many of these people haven't exercised in years and start off with something as simple as walking a mile or jogging a minute, running a minute, repeat, repeat. I feel like I'm planning something similar. I'm positive it's unconventional, but I think I'll be OK.

I was out for 5 weeks with back problems. Teaching Wren to ride a bike, hunched over and- OUCH! Doctor says bulging disc. I'd get better & then something simple like getting in the car set it off again, there in the middle of that 5 week period, I was able to run 3 times, but got worse after that. I called in sick 7 days in those 5 weeks and spent most of my time not at work in bed or on the couch- mostly in bed. I can't stress enough how inactive I was. I'm not talking about my training not going well. Not talking about just not running. I'm talking about only moving to roll over or go to the bathroom for several days at a time.

6 days ago was my real first day back & the first step I'd run in 3 weeks. I was in the mountains for several days and my first run was an hour long struggle on single track trails. Felt like my lungs were going to explode but back didn't hurt. That trail is difficult when healthy, so I'm not sure how much of a measure it was. After that, I was able to have some more successful runs.

I ran two runs that were both around 14 miles at Moses Cone. Better each day. One of those long days was with Wren. She hiked 6.4 miles & I ran back & forth, never more than 200-300m from her. It was a good strategy & fun for both of us. We also had a treacherous hike through the ice and snow at Elk Knob State Park this week. She's a tough one.

I'm planning a 20 mile run Saturday, a 33 miler next Sunday & 2 weeks later will run the C&O Canal 100 Miler I'm signed up for. When I decided to run it in early January, I was coming off another injury, planned what I needed to do, intended to lose some weight & really be ready to go in late April. Hmm... not how it ended up, but I think my body will hold up & my mind will have to push me through. I was slow 2 months ago. Slower now. In January & February, I was very happy with my endurance & didn't care much about the lack of speed. I'm encouraged I'm still able to churn out back to back 14 mile runs after what I've been through recently.

Though completely silly, I'm planning on making the 33 miler a big deal for myself. Pre-established route (most of my long runs are improvised). Driving up to Moses Cone just to run. Thinking about making a homemade shirt for myself. Dumb, I know. Strange as it seems, I need something like that to legitimize what I'm doing. I almost felt like I was faking my back injury- like I should be able to turn it off at will. But of course, I couldn't. Feels like if I just go into the woods & come back out a few hours later, it
doesn't really mean I ran 50K+. I could be faking it. I don't know why I think I'm lying to myself, but for whatever reason I need some structure to what I'm doing. So next Sunday, will be the 1 person Rich Mountain 33 Miler. :) Up & down the long way 4 times & add on if needed around Trout Lake.

So yeah, from complete inactivity to a 100 mile race in a month. Yep. I can do it. Time won't be what I had hoped, but I'll just have to keep chugging along.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Pilot Mountain- What'd I Do To You?

"Pilot Mountain Payback," they call it. The question I kept asking myself is what I did to the mountain to deserve such harsh retribution. Dang. It was rough & totally unexpected.

The worst part is it was my own fault. I completely underestimated despite having been to Pilot Mountain, knowing the area, seeing the elevation profile... Still, I thought, "Yeah, but come on- it's not the real mountains." "Yeah, but come on- I go to State Parks all the time. The trails are usually wide with no rocks. They say this course is rocky. Yeah right." And the most arrogant of all, ""Yeah, but come on- it's just a marathon. I've done 100 milers, run Mt. Mitchell, run hour upon hour on the Appalachian Trail... this will be nothing." I honestly expected a well-manicured crushed gravel path for most of the course. There was about a mile or two of that & it was a pretty decent climb. Looking at the profile, I expected miles 9, 11 & 12 to be tough, but thought everything before that was gradual uphill & gradual downhill. I could not have been more wrong. I am an idiot for thinking otherwise.

Pilot Mountain Payback is the hardest race I've ever run under 50K. It's way harder than Black Mountain Marathon (if both are run in equal conditions). And, I'm going to say something here that people who have run MMC will shudder at, but without the incredibly harsh conditions at Mt. Mitchell, I don't think the Mt. Mitchell is significantly harder than Pilot Mountain. WHAT?! Hear me out. Pilot Mountain is 4500' of elevation gain over a marathon. Mt. Mitchell is 4300' over 40 miles. Though there are some steep ones for sure, most of the climb at Mt. Mitchell is long and gradual. The Toll Road there is completely runnable. There were several hills at Pilot Mountain that were too steep for me to run. Mt. Mitchell has a scrambly rock section you (or at least I) can't run. Pilot Mt. does too.  I see those sections as breaks more than actually being hard. Mt. Mitchell was has had incredibly brutal weather & running it, I've wondered about survival, which was never even close to crossing my mind yesterday, but the courses themselves on equal conditions... I just don't think Pilot Mountain is a joke by any means. Eh, maybe I'm just out of shape & maybe the last race is always the hardest, so my judgment could be clouded on this, but I dunno.

There was supposed to be a wintery mix during the race. It snowed pretty hard as a I drove up, but we only got a little snow at the beginning and no rain. So glad there was no rain. Cold rain is the worst. ...but we did get wet. I got to see my good friend of 25 years, Brendan Gannon. I have run with his brother Konrad many times, but first race Brendan & I have been in together since the State XC Meet of 1988!

50 meters into the race, you cross the first of 12 water crossings. Nice way to start. Even nicer was a steep climb on the other side. 1 minute into the race & I'm gasping for air. Great. At this point I was very conscious of how many people were ahead of me. A year ago, I would've tried to place Top 5 in this race. I was still in that mindset. I know I'm not in Top 5 shape, but was shooting for top 25 out of 100 or so. The whole first 8 miles to the real climbing was a series of ups & downs. Again, not what I expected at all. No flats. For the first 4 miles, I'd run at a decent pace up the hills, maxing my HR out and then instead of recovering on the downhill, I'd push it & hit the next uphill, the whole time, very aware of who passed me & who I passed.

After 4 miles, I literally stopped in the middle of the trail, let a group pass & had to tell myself, "Relax. Have fun. Run within yourself. You've just run a 4 mile tempo run. You can't keep that up." From then on, I did just that. Started talking to people. Appreciated the fantastic scenery & had fun. It was much more enjoyable and I would've blown up if I had kept the pace I was going.

At mile 8, the trail got incredibly rocky and started going up. The entire trail was a scattering of 12" rocks. Not anything you had to use your hands on & not gravel. Just really unrunnable sharp rocks you had to try to bounce between. This went on for 2-3 miles as it went uphill. I think my slowest mile was 19:00. Oh, and I disrespected the course so much, I decided to wear Brooks Launch- a lightweight road shoe. They were fine for most of the course, but I finished with a hole in the side of them from all the rocks.

Around mile 10, you came out on a wide, groomed path & got to the summit and went around the pinnacle. This was a neat section with a rock face on your left. From there, you descended an uneven set of hundreds of rock... steps isn't really the right word, but I guess you could call them that. My calves were shot from going up. Going down, my quads & knees were shaky. If there was any hope of a "fast" time, it was lost here. I was having fun. That was good enough. Also around this time, I developed severe stomach issues but they only lasted for about 5 miles. Kept me stationary for 10 minutes total.

The trail back to the finish was kind of lonely. I didn't see anyone until I started passing a few people towards the very end.

I felt good the last few miles and came through the last water crossing about 200m from the finish. It was the deepest one & you can see the finish line from there. I guess it was the cold water or the fact that I was running a little faster, but my hamstring cramped up. I couldn't move for 4 minutes, with the finish line in sight. People said, "It's right there- come on." Yeah, but I couldn't move. So I stood there yelling- more like exclaiming really for 4 minutes & then was able to half run across the finish line. 4:51:01. 39th out of about 100 starters. Ehh, for now, OK.

I was so completely dumb, when estimating my finish time, I thought, "OK, my fitness is not so great & I've got all of this excess weight right now... I think I could run a flat road marathon in 3:45. Add about a minute per mile to that for the trail & I'll be about 4:10." I can't begin to explain how horrible that logic was. If it were a flat trail race with moderate rocks & roots, I should add a minute per mile. Add to that, the elevation change & the rocks, bathroom break, hamstring cramp & yeah, I'm fine with my time.  But this race should've never been about time or place. It was about getting back out there, enjoying myself and using this as a stepping stone for something bigger. It had a humbling effect but also gave me motivation to keep working. I will surely put this race on my 2014 to do list. I know I'll have a better showing next year & be able to run more of the hilly & technical sections.

Today is the start of that renewed work. We got 3" of snow at home yesterday & I guess I have to go take advantage of that by an hour long trail run at ASC. And by "hour" I mean 4-5 miles. :) I'm sore, but it'll feel good to be out there!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Night Running & Feeling Lucky

I had a lot packed into today including some dental work & I couldn't manage to get the run in until late tonight. Ran 90 minutes on my favorite local trails at Anne Springs Close Greenway in Ft. Mill with a headlamp (Probably not supposed to be there at night. Shhh.). New shoes. Light rain. Felt magnificent. I hadn't felt good all day. Felt sick & sleepy. I could've given myself the day off, but I know I ALWAYS feel better after running if I feel lethargic. Tonight was no different.

Injuries always make you love running more. Always give you new perspective & make you appreciate what you have. I haven't run as many days per week as I should lately, but the 4-5 days a week I run are almost always 1-3 hours. I'd like to get the regularity thing down, but life gets in the way. I'd MUCH rather put the longer days in than run 30-40 minutes everyday... and part of that is the endorphins generated on these longer runs. I feel incredibly alive. I smile. I think. I don't want the run to end. I feel lucky to be able to do this stuff.

(The Brooks Pure Grits were amazing too!!! I saw a prototype at a Brooks Coaching Camp they sent me to in central Washington about 18 months ago. I was really impressed but never got a pair until today when the original Grits & the Grit 2 arrived at my doorstep. I tried both on... wasn't sure I would like the bigger lugs on the outsole of the original Grits (why I haven't picked any up yet), but that wasn't an issue once they were on my feet. Fit like a glove & felt more nimble than my trusty Cascadias. If I get a couple more good runs in them, I'll wear them for Pilot Mountain Payback Trail Marathon Saturday.)

I stopped in at a convenience store after my run and had to wait in a long line. The 3 people in front of me- none of them together- each bought cigarettes, alcohol & lottery tickets & the people behind me had beer in their hands too. Maybe this sounds judgmental. Maybe it is, but once again, I felt lucky to do what I do. (Note the not so subtle use of the word "lucky" in a paragraph that also mentions lottery tickets. Did you catch that? :)  )

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Character Defining Long Runs & Thoughts

In the past month, I've put myself through some difficult longish runs of 1.5-3 hours. In an 11 day stretch, I put in 6 runs of at least 2 hours including one nighttime 20 miler. Keep in mind I was running 0 miles for a 6 week stretch in October & November due to injury. All of these longer runs have been on trails and most have been in really challenging conditions (i.e. cold, snow & mountains). I've been lucky enough to get in 2 four day trips to the mountains in the past month, taking advantage of a 4 day weekend that ended yesterday.

I stayed with my parents in Beech Mountain around New Year's & one day was much colder & windier than the rest. My dad, a runner himself asked, "Why did you do your longest run of the week today when it's so bad out & why did you only run 45 minutes the other day when it was kinda nice out?" I was shocked he would ask such a thing. "Dad. It's BECAUSE it was miserable out that I did my longest run today. I planned it that way." He didn't understand as I explained how much I love days like that for several reasons: 1) The intrinsic value of knowing, "Yeah, I could've curled up on the couch by the fire, drank hot chocolate and watched college football all day, but I didn't. I had the will power to go out and suffer to achieve my goals & maybe in the process learn something about myself..." That's immense; 2) The confidence gained from knowing I got through such a hard run makes more pleasant conditions seem like a piece of cake; 3) There's something thrilling about not being certain I'll make it back alive. Call it masochistic, reckless, self-loathing, or whatever, but I really get something out of not knowing exactly where I am, not knowing if I have enough clothing on, not knowing if a wild animal will attack me, not knowing if I have enough food & water... Makes completing the run all that more of an accomplishment. It's not like I set myself up for failure by purposely going without water or anything, but the danger involved motivates me.

My dad responded, "You're a weird dude." My mom worries about her 39.5 year old baby. Neither will understand, but then again, I don't think many people would. It kind of goes against our basic desire for comfort. Oh well.

I'm not one to get all "quote-y" and dazzle people with my "book learnin'," but I stumbled across a book by a psychologist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl. Two quotes stuck out to me & I'm pretty sure he never ran for pleasure a day in his life but I think they have everything to do with running... and I'm paraphrasing here:

1) When we find meaning in suffering, it ceases to be suffering.
2) All that shines must endure burning.

I used these with the team I coach. Not sure it spoke to them, but that sums up running to me pretty much. For me, the meaning & lessons learned are not in the PR times run. Race day is almost insignificant to me. It's the process that matters to me. I can have good races & bad races. That's one day when, because I've paid my entry fee, I'm sort of forced to race at 8 AM on a particular day. Doesn't take into account how much I slept the night before, how my stomach feels that day, if I'm injured, how much training I've put into it... To define my running or myself on even a higher level, based on race performance is silly to me. To me, it's about what I did to get there. It's about the long, lonely days in the woods. It's about sacrifice, determination and hard work. When kids tell me, "I don't understand why I didn't do better in the race. I really tried," I kinda chuckle. Of course we try hard in the race. It's not about effort in the race. It's about effort leading up to it & the same goes for my personal running.

SOooo, yeah, I had a wonderful 4 day weekend this past week. It snowed maybe 4" in Boone and more at higher elevations. I ran twice for 2 hours each time at Moses Cone. Up to Rich Mountain was quite snowy. Down to Bass Lake was spotty. The 3rd day, I ran on the closed Blue Ridge Parkway to the Tanawha Trail. Conditions varied from dry road to extremely icy road & from 6" of snow on the trails to sections that were just a little muddy that I could move a little faster on.

The 4th day, I knew would be the most brutal conditions. When I got to Roan Mountain, it was 6 degrees with 40 mph winds. -22 wind chill. This is the coldest I've ever run in. Mt. Mitchell Challenge a couple of years ago was a close second and honestly felt more severe. Maybe it was because yesterday was sunny and clear but very, very harsh. The Roan Balds are one of my favorite places on Earth & I've been there in some really bad weather. The snow wasn't nearly as deep as I expected & I was able to run as much as I wanted.  I ran up Round Bald, Jane Bald, Grassy Ridge Bald & then turned around and ran up the park entrance road once I got back to the car. 36 hours later, my face is still a little numb. Nothing else was particularly cold. Overall, I was colder the day before, finishing up at 30 degrees and windy but wearing shorts. I was bundled yesterday.

A couple of nights ago I talked to a young friend of mine. We talked about, you know, life stuff and I mentioned the running I'd done. She's wise beyond her years and though she doesn't run (or at least not much), she said some things that made me think... Why am I doing this? Why do I seek out the "worst" conditions possible? Is running 2+ hours a day for 4 days straight really the best thing for my body? Does the running define me or do I define it? Am I running towards something or away from something? Hmm...

Every 6 months or so, I put in a big chunk of mileage (for me at least, I know some people who put in much more than I do even during these weeks), run through incredible beauty and have a lot of time alone with my thoughts. Before this week, the last time was driving and running through Oregon by myself last summer. Often I figure stuff out. Sometimes I'm left with more questions. But I thought about what she said. Yeah, running helps me balance things out in my life, helps me gain perspective, gives me time to think, gives me a sense of accomplishment & reduces stress. But why am I doing it to the extremes that I do (again, not as extreme as some and I'm not bragging here)? At times, I have felt out of control. Most of 2011 was one of those times. In December of 2011, I was doing a track workout after several days of going hard and I was going absolutely as hard as I could, picking myself up off the ground after every interval. Why? To get better? That's what I said, but you don't run for decades and read shelves of books and still think training works that way. I'm no Gerry Lindgren (though I admire the training he put in). I think I have a healthy focus now and to be honest, just being healthy enough to run again makes me want to do all I can. I'm still too scared of "failure" to attempt anything faster than a tempo run and I suppose it's because I don't want to know how slow I'm running that I haven't run on roads or flat greenways lately, but it'll come... or not. At the moment, I'm more than satisfied. In 2008-09 when training for Rocky Raccoon 100 Miler, I overtrained and did so because I thought I had to. It was a bit of a chore. I think there was a 5 week period where I ran solo training runs of 30, 40 & 60 miles & ran a 50K race. I'm running long now because I want to. Big difference. It's fun.

Maybe my dad was right. Maybe there's something a little weird about someone who runs for hours in the snow with a huge smile on his face.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Back. With a Race Schedule Even!

I haven't written much on here in the past year because I haven't done anything that's remotely noteworthy. Several people have contacted me out of the blue in the past couple of months telling me I inspired them to start running, start doing ultras or run a particular race or trail. I never think anyone reads this, but it's good to be proven wrong.

Rough rough 2012 from a running perspective. One injury after the other. Was only able to run 40% of what I normally do for the year... if that. In November I hit sort of a running rock bottom. Longest I'd ever been without it & didn't see how a return would happen. My first month back felt extremely awkward. I wouldn't run around people because of the weight I'd gained during the time off and because my arms & legs just didn't want to work properly. I had to think about every step and it was a lot of work. I can't tell you how out of control my limbs felt.

5 weeks ago, I finally realized there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Things started clicking again but running was still hard. 3 weeks ago, I put in a 50 mile week. The week after that, 60. I spent 4 days running at Beech Mountain and ran at 5,000' elevation in 4" of snow, 20 degree temps & 30 mph winds. Ran 2 or more hours 4 times that week. Good week last week too. These recent solo runs have brought me more joy than you can imagine. I was running around lost with ice crusted onto my leg hairs with a huge smile on my face... and other days have been quite similar. Finally feel like a real runner again so it's time to make plans.

I feel during this period of dormancy, I have not only let myself down but have also not lived up semi-sponsorships with Brooks & TrySports. A periphery goal will be to be able to fit into the TrySports singlet again (I swear those things were too snug to begin with!). A year ago, I truly felt like the TrySports "Believe. Achieve." motto was something I lived by. Since then, I suppose I've been a positive influence through coaching but my own running was wrecked. I am thankful that Brooks & TrySports have continued to help me out and see me as an ambassador for the sport & their brands. Time to go big again and put the work in to attain these goals.

Race Schedule for the next 4 months:
Saturday, February 16- Pilot Mountain Payback Marathon, Pilot Mt., NC
Saturday, March 23- Gator Trail 50K- Lake Waccamaw, NC
Sunday, April 7- Mountains-to-Sea Trail 50K, Durham, NC
Sat-Sun, April 27-28- C&O Canal 100 Miler, Knoxville, MD

I feel like I could get through a 50K or whatever distance now but the time would be slower than I became used to in 2011. I am very purposely not running road races this spring where I might be disappointed in not setting PRs. I'll let the speed come later, but for now, I'll set very challenging goals of endurance. 

When I first started doing 24 hour races, I liked the feeling that I could bailout at 60 miles, 70, or whenever. Now that I've done a lot of them, the willpower to keep going is extremely tough. Knowing that you pass your car every 15 minutes wears on you. I think I need the idea of a definite finish line the 100 miler will give me.

Really looking forward to working hard these next few months & see where it goes!