Tuesday, September 30, 2008

(How the Hell Did I Wind Up as the) Anchor Man

After a tag from Michael "Wood Frog" Keene, Valliant begins the final 19.8 miles of the Vermont 50-mile relay from Dugdale's aid station.

I was supposed to run the middle section. Until some re-routing switched leg distances, and the final leg went from 16 miles to nearly 20. I had logged the most miles, I tend to run like a madman on the downhills, which were most plentiful on the last leg, and so I ended up running the anchor leg of this beast.

If you want to boost your runner's ego (at least at first), run the final leg of a relay, where most of the runners are running the full 50 miles themselves and already have 30 miles of brutal hills on their legs. It's a bit unfair. And as your passing runners on the trail, and they are out of breath, shaking their heads at your fresh legs and spring in your step, and congratulating you on doing such a great job, you can only reply, "Nah, I'm just running the relay...you've gone A LOT farther than I have."

One of the great things about trail running though, is everyone is out there for themselves, and to be out there, and they still cheer you on with a smile and words of encouragement.

My leg of the Vermont 50 was the most challenging, most scenic, and most fun terrain I have run on. From rolling hard-packed dirt roads, to tree-lined climbs, to roller-coaster downhills, and switchbacks, I was a kid running in the woods and playing in the mud. I never got bugs in my teeth, but did smile pretty much the whole way.

I ran most of the way by myself, encountering many frustrated mountain bikers, pushing their bikes up hills and moving to let unencumbered runners climb past. And the aforementioned full 50-milers, working their way forward toward the finish. In ultras and long trail runs, aid stations are always an oasis/smorgasbord, with good eats and encouragement. Along the VT 50 trail, there is also a porch/deck party going on, with rabid mountain folk cheering runners and bikers, offering water (and beer to some) and judging form. I rated a "9.4" giving a good pace up the switchback, and loud cheers and laughter for an MC Hamma-like spin on the trail right in front of the deck (even funnier since the spin almost aimed me off the trail and into the foliage!)

As we were waiting for Katherine Binder to get to Skunk Hollow to set Keene in motion, I took a picture of a guy whose whole demeanor and impressive beard caught my attention.

The easy-ambling, long striding bearded mountain runner. As it turned out, 25 or so miles later, we ran in sight of each other for a good stretch of the last several miles of the course.

Running on through the woods, through streams, and up hills, I took in the scene, trying to be an actual part of the surroundings--to breathe it all in, even while beginning to tire. I kept a good pace up, even slowly running uphill roads and climbs most were walking. I started to have a bit of cat-and-mouse going with a guy who Keene's wife Carita and I pointed out earlier in the race--the archetypal bearded mountain runner. Watching him run (generally away from me), made my running feel both easier and more clumsy. Everyone has seen those runners who seem to run effortlessly along the trails (sort of like Landy) without putting out energy.

After running up a long dirt road, I caught up to him on some winding singletrack and downhill sections. After trailing him for a bit, he said, "Just tell me if you want to pass." He was running a pace that felt good, so I hung back and traded a couple comments. He then pointed out a row of tapped maple trees, with a system of clear rubber tubing connecting each tap and dripping to a common barrel. "See that? That's American ingenuity for you." Funny thing, I wouldn't have noticed it at all, or thought about what it was if he hadn't pointed it out. Now it's one of the sharper memories from the run.

My feet felt light and downhill legs felt fresh, so I asked to pass and scooted by. I'd see him again later.

A problem I tend to have during longer distance trail runs, is that I have too much fun. I run and enjoy the course, and don't pay enough attention to nutrition or hydration. I was carrying a hand-held water bottle, which I started with with NUUN, and added a tablet here or there at an aid station with water. I ate three Honey Stinger gels during the run, and a half of a banana. But I had no S-Caps (hadn't been using them during the last parts of my training runs), didn't take in enough calories for a body that isn't acclimated to running hills, and went for too long without drinking enough, just having fun running.

I passed through three aid stations during my leg, and walked in to the last one, which meant 4.5 miles to the finish, starting to fade fast. As I walked up to the table, I saw Kate Porter, the product designer at Ibex, who told Keene about the race, and ultimately got us up there. Kate was also running the relay and had started her team's final leg 10 minutes before Keene arrived. I had closed a 10-minute gap in about 15 miles. We chatted a bit and I set out ahead, feeling a familiar, unwelcome twinge in the legs and queasy running stomach.

I kept moving across fields and down singletrack, and in about a mile or so, my calves started cramping. Occasionally I was able to talk them down and visualize oxygen and blood flowing freely through them (please!), but they would come back to me, and I'd come to a tough uphill, where having to walk actually helped me out.

Then came the mud. Two sections of shoe-losing, ankle-deep suction mud, which created 10 pound shoes coming out of every sink hole. When we hit the second, longer section of mud-hopping, I joked with another runner that I had just manged to run my shoes clean. We slipped and high stepped through the section.

With probably two miles to go, Kate caught back up to me and asked how I was doing. "Ehhh, alright, except for the wicked calf cramps!" She asked if I wanted her to stick around, but I told her I'd get through it fine and to run her race.

As we came across a field and into a last wooded stretch, race volunteers had decorated the woods with plastic skeletons and signs like "Have you ever asked why you are doing this?" Which was shortly answered by another, "Because you can!" The next sign to come across was a hand-written sign that said "1 Mile to go!"

I couldn't get my calves to let go, but could make them run brief sections, then hop-step to others. The course finishes by zig-zagging you up a mountain, slowly, through the woods, only to send you down a ski run at the Mt. Ascutney Ski Resort (that's what it's there for after all!). With a sign that said "1/2 mile to go!" we had started the sidelong descent.

It was then that the bearded mountain runner re-appeared. I hadn't seen him since the last aid station, but he came quickly by me and said, "Way to go, man. You're almost there...seriously!" (since you can hear spectators at road races telling you the same thing with 6 miles to go).

Words of encouragement, the proximity of the finish line, and downhill gravity threw me down the grassy slope, passing more cautious runners as we got to the chute and in the winding chute as well. I spotted Keene and Carita cheering, then saw Robin further down, slapped her a high five and said hey to Rob and Katherine, with a half smile, half grimace, as my calves were completely bolt knotted and each pounding step hurt like hell.

Pain is irrelevant, and even enjoyable, when (and only when, perhaps) crossing the finish line. They had hay bails at the bottom of the chute to stop any overzealous mountain bikers who came screaming down the mountain, and I was thankful I didn't need the bails myself. I hobbled out of the chute, and was congratulated and knighted with a medal by race volunteers. I grabbed two more for Mike and Katherine and waited with the volunteers for the rest of the RUR crew to cruise down.

Our finishing time was just over 9 hours, which was good enough for 3rd overall relay team out of 13 teams. Full results and splits can be found here. Of that, Katherine was roughly 2:22 for the first leg, Keene 3 hours for the second, with me at 3:38 or so for the last section, and I told Robin between 3 and 4 hours. I moved well enough before cramping to still pull that off.

The next couple hours were spent reminiscing the various legs and wonders of the course, the folks we encountered, ducking under tents to dodge spot downpours, enjoying Harpoon I.P.A., a cookout, live band, and more laid back and happy people, kids, and dogs than we could count.

So our RUR relay Vermont adventure is in the books, but still fresh on the brain and in the legs. Finishing a race of any distance, I don't generally want to think about running. But within a couple hours, I knew I'd love to come back and try some or all of it again. Awesome volunteers, organization, course, and a high energy, highly effective race director. I highly recommend making a trip to Vermont next September, whether for a relay (smart), 50K (teetering on the brink), or 50 miler (cashews). Who knows, next year, maybe we'll have two Rise Up teams!

Robin is thinking, "Uumm...yeah, he is sweaty, muddy, and kind of stinks...do I have to get that close to him?" ;)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sweet Inspiration...A Fab Five(ish)

It's easy to be inspired out on the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains. Since I can't always pick up and go, I also look to the examples of a number of inspirational folks to remind me to follow my own passion.

What's a dream worth? What about a dream in action, or rather a dream acted upon? That's where the value comes, in my book. Having a vision or a passion and working to bring it to life.

How many of us live lives we consciously create? Do we spend our time the way we would choose if money, mortgages, etc. were not a part of the picture? More likely we make compromises--we give up some of our time towards work, to be able to spend other parts the way we want.

For me, time spent exploring a trail on the run is a connection to something that has been a part of me as long as I can remember. A sense of adventure and in being outside and being active. Writing gives me that same sense, as now does seeing our girls light up playing with them or seeing my wife laugh a belly laugh--the kind where other cares fall away. Those are moments in a day, where I am living fully.

I try to make those moments occur as frequently as I can. That's part of the reason I get up to run or to write--to be connected to my life being lived fully. It's a part of who I am. We live in a time and place though, where what or who we are is largely thought of in terms of what we do for a job. What we do to make money, or how we spend our days to earn a living. In many cases, this is where a compromise comes. We justify doing something with our time that is not exactly what we would choose, say, if we won the lottery. But by working a particular job, we are able to spend what free time we have pursuing our passions.

Marginalizing our passions can be a slippery slope. By the end of the day, we are beat, or busy, or distracted. Before you know it, you don't even realize where the time went and you hit a mid-life crisis and buy a Harley and ride across the country...;) Okay, so maybe you don't but that kind of crap-what-happened-to-my-life crisis can manifest itself in many ways.

I prefer the idea of preventative medicine/action when it comes to the mid-life crisis. The kind of action that says keep your dreams/passions close and actually make strides toward them, even if baby steps at first. Sometimes that's tough. And it's during those times, I dig looking toward/at people who are out there doing it. People who are walking the walk every day. In some cases their example provides a model. More often, and equally important, they provide inspiration. Here are a handful of folks and companies that are sweet inspiration for me--not that I want to be doing what they are doing (though in some cases, sure!), but that their example and their passion inspires me to follow mine.

Atayne - Jeremy Litchfield and Mike Hall are making clothes out of trash. Not just any clothes - performance running gear. They didn't like the way they saw things being done, or the wasteful and inferior running apparel they had to buy. So they set out to change the game. Their story is inspirational--check out their website and go to "learn" to get an inside look. The environmental example alone is stellar. But what good is the story unless their product performs? I've been wearing one of their shirts, and it does perform and more. I've worn shirts from a number of different companies, and in terms of comfort, staying dry, staying odor free, Atayne has it dialed in. If you're looking to outfit yourself for training or an upcoming race, give them a shot. You'll be glad you did, and sleep better knowing you also made a good choice for the environment. Double bonus!

Rise Up Coffee - Tim and Abby Cureton have a similar environmental ethic. They've taken something that inspires them, coffee, and approached it giving thought to ecology, economy, community, and of course quality. In the mornings, the Rise Up Coffee drive-thru stand in St. Michaels serves everyone from the superintendent of Talbot County Schools to watermen, carpenters, CEOs, and parents taking the kids to school. Tim, Matt Sevon and I share an admiration for Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard's stellar corporate history and philosophy, "Let My People Go Surfing." A read through that book will help you redefine what it ought to be like to go to work. A stop through Rise Up is an inspiration and a treat. The company name is an homage to a Bob Marley song and a connection to our Rise Up Runners group.

Andrew Skurka on a cross country route through the Snaefellsnes Peninsula during his 550-mile traverse of Iceland this summer. Skurka has turned long distance backpacking into a vocation, as well as an avocation. Photo courtesy of www.andrewskurka.com.

Andrew Skurka - Imagine graduating from college and rather than finding a job in a nice cubicle somewhere, you decide to hike from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific--some 7,778 miles. Then imagine that you find sponsors, figure out a way to let the world know about your trip, and figure out a way to turn your wanderlust and perseverance into a full-time job. If this is you, your name may well be Andrew Skurka. Skurka has gone from his original pioneering journey as the first person to hike the entire Sea-to-Sea Trail across North America, to become the first to hike the Great Western Loop (6,875 miles); he's walked across Iceland; circumnavigated Yellowstone National Park; and this summer completed his first 100-mile trail run, finishing second in the tough Leadville 100-mile trail race. I interviewed Skurka for the article I did on fastpacking for Trail Runner magazine and you can't help but get inspired listening to, or reading about his adventures, knowing he has found a way to shun a conventional "career" by turning his passion and talent into a way of life.

Rob Brownlee-Tomasso - RBT is an artist, a graphic designer, a cyclist, a British car restorer, and a vegetarian, among other things. He is one of the most hilarious and unhypocritical people I've met. As frequently as he can, he rides his bike 29 miles to work (to St. Michaels from Denton) and then 29 more back home, often hammering more than 30 mph when he gets cranking. Rob's example is frequently a call to action for me. It is common to hear him say, "I rode my bike home yesterday and finished a painting last night." To which I think, damn, I should have done more with my evening or day! It was actually working with Rob and watching him do his thing cycling that pushed me to return to running more than four years ago now. He never said a word, but being around someone pushing himself the way he does, motivated me to do the same, and changed my life as much as any adult decision I've made.

I can't come up with just one person who combines writing, adventuring, and the environment the way I hope to, so I offer a medley here. People telling stories by the examples of their lives and their own adventures. One who comes quickly to mind is Amby Burfoot, long-time editor-in-chief of Runners World magazine, former Boston Marathon champion, and still senior editor and writer at RW. His book "The Runner's Guide to the Meaning of Life" is one of the most rewarding and inspiring quick reads out there. Ultra runner Dean Karnazes figured out how to leave his day job and turn running, adventuring, and writing about it into a full-time gig. His feats of endurance are limited more by imagination than physical boundaries--he comes up with uncanny ideas and does them. He has become the most visible and controversial ambassador to his sport, motivating hundreds of runners and would-be runners to follow his example.

Tim Cahill, is a wonderfully hilarious and thought-provoking writer, who is a founder of Outside Magazine. He was the only writer at Rolling Stone magazine who loved writing about the outdoors, and ended up taking that passion into founding one of the most recognizable outdoor magazine in the country. Bill McKibben is a conservationist, environmentalist, cultural historian, economist, and great writer. He is someone who, when you read, can change your worldview and cause you to act and approach the world differently. I've often said I'd like to have Mitch Albom's job, just based out of Baltimore instead of Detroit. Albom writes for the Detroit Free Press, does commentary on ESPN's great show, "The Sports Reporters," and then expanded his world exponentially when he wrote the runaway non-fiction bestseller, "Tuesdays With Morrie." The world is Albom's oyster.

Basecamp Communications - I've worked in PR, marketing, and communications for the past 10 years. I read and enjoy pondering branding, brand strategy, various media, and stellar PR. But the folks at Basecamp Communications figured out how to turn PR into a dream job. I first encountered them because they handle PR for Backcountry.com and have been running the whereskarl.com website for Karl Meltzer's Appalachian Trail thru-hike. These guys and girls have come from various backgrounds to focus their talents and time on promoting outdoor adventures and companies. They use PR and communications to highlight the stuff they dig and inspire people and/or call them to action. That's the way I'd like to do PR!

That's my very incomplete short list of various folks and companies that inspire me personally. When I feel like some of the things that get me the most charged are relegated to fringe status, and I think about following a passion, and if it can be done, I check back in on what some of these folks are up to and/or I think about their example. OR, maybe I go for a long trail run :)

There are plenty of other inspirational folks out there. Who are some more? Who inspires you? What are they doing? Let's add to the list.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Run For the Hills...

Hills and mountains are a challenge when you train on Maryland's notoriously flat Eastern Shore. At the end of the month, Sunday, September 28, to be exact, we take our Rise Up Runner team of Mike Keene, Katherine Binder, and myself to the Vermont 50 miler, to have a go at the 3-person 50 mile relay.

Katherine takes the 12-mile lead leg, then I run the 22-mile middle leg, before passing the figurative baton to Keene for the 16-mile anchor leg. You can check out the elevation gain and losses (aka climbs and descents) clicking above. Here's a course description from the VT 50 website:

"The Vermont 50 Mile course starts at Ascutney Mountain Resort in Brownsville, VT . For the first three miles racers will follow down a gentle downhill on gravel roads. After an easy road climb the course turns onto snowmobile - ATV trails, which it follows through gentle rolling terrain for the next 3 miles. Shortly after leaving the ATV trails, the real climbing and descending starts. The course will follow ATV and jeep trails, single track and roads through the top of the highest hill in Hartland, where racers will get an incredible view of Vermont and New Hampshire. From about mile 40 to mile 46.5, racers will have a nice snowmobile trail over rolling, mostly downhill terrain, before hooking onto the cross country ski trail system at Mt. Ascutney for the last 4 miles."

In terms of distance/mileage, training is on track. This past Sunday I logged a 21+ mile run to the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry and back to Easton in 3:12, followed by a 10-mile day with negative splits, ending up on about 8:00 minute mile pace for the last several miles of the run. We've even been throwing some speed work in for good measure.

Hill training though, still needs some work over the next couple weeks. We've had a decent streak of Tuckahoe State Park Sundays, even throwing in some hill repeats, and I think there is more in store there.

We certainly want to get up there and look respectable (for a bunch of flatlanders :), but the main thing is to go have fun running through the mountains. Vermont in the fall is beautiful. A new state to run trails in, and with good friends. That's what running trail races is all about.

And races keep me getting out there for long runs. Tomorrow, I'm hoping to go out and survey Tuckahoe, post-Hanna. Perhaps I should take along a life jacket! ;)