Wednesday, December 31, 2014

...and I would run 500 more...

1000 miles. A year ago this wasn't a goal. I'm not even sure it became a goal until a couple of months ago. How I got there is the story, and it's not really a running story.

In January I targeted a 50k race. It was to be my first ultra distance effort. And then work intervened and I couldn't get to the race. I didn't run again until early March sometime, maybe the 8th. I was unmotivated, and so it was work. At the very end of March, after a somewhat symbolic run (symbolic in that I survived it without breaking anything) I knew I needed a goal of any sort. And there it was...Ragnar Cape Cod. Team leaders had two days tp make changes without a penalty. It was a total impulse decision; I posted a message offering my services to any team needing a runner. It wasn't about being fast. It wasn't about being some "stud" runner. It was all about breaking the routine. There were a number of offers made, and I messaged a few of them and the first response was from Jenn McLaughlin. A second response came in shortly after, but I went with Jenn for no reason other than some gut instinct to do it. That decision altered the course of my year because on Cape Cod something truly amazing happened. The "Ah ha" moment was alone in Dylan's tent sometime in the middle of the night. I was truly enjoying this, the whole thing. I loved running. I loved being with people who loved just running. No heart rate monitors. No zone targets. No plans. No 'A' races. Nothing but raw, primal, instinctual movement, the most basic of all animal sport. I had lost the love a few years back, at Coeur D'Alene, Idaho actually. Not because of my housemates. They're mates for life. But the race itself seemed a perversion of what I experienced in 2003. And I never got the love back. The over-structure of the coaching culture only amplified the negative for me. I was never faster, but I had been much happier.

Ultra running is not speed oriented. Even the fastest runners aren't running speeds that would impress anyone but another ultra runner. But as you slow down you notice things. The first thing you notice is you get hurt a whole lot less. It's even okay, in fact encouraged, to walk once in a while. And I started taking pictures when I ran, making more lasting memories. And I noticed the birds of prey and the coyote tracks in the snow. A veil had been lifted. Don't get me wrong, speed is nice, but once in a while. But truly fulfilling running, for me anyway, is distance regardless of speed.

Anyway I began to run more regularly and after some encouragement from a friend, actually a friend I met in Coeur D'Alene, entered the Vermont 50. I also impulse registered for a 50k in August because I knew enough to know I had no idea what I was doing! The closest I had come to an ultra was seeing posts for my friend Deano on Facebook, and following Anna Frost.

And still 1000 miles was not the goal.

After Vermont I took a couple of weeks off completely and then started running a little bit again. I wanted a goal but there weren't any races which fit with my work and family schedule for the remainder of the year. And then I noticed my year to date total on Strava. It was up there, as high a total as I remembered having in a year. I would need to get focused but maybe I could get to 1000 miles. November went by pretty quickly without huge mileage gains. And then I took Thanksgiving week off. I didn't rack up big miles but I did finally resolve to get it done. I'd need to string together 32+ mile weeks the rest of the year. And I did.

So here we are. I have a new lifetime achievement and some great new friends. And I've rediscovered joy.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Do Coyotes eat grapes?

I was cruising along the trails today and noticed a "pile". "Hmm, looks a bit chunky. Sure seems like grape..uh..pulp...and seeds." I was next to Newport Vineyard, so "processed wine grapes" seemed a logical conclusion. The trails are popular with dog walkers, both real sized and not-so-real sized dogs. There's a bit of horseback riding on them as well, and that's another issue. Why do horses get to drop these massive loads, sometimes stretching it out a quarter mile, and nobody has to clean it up? Try letting your dog do that and those same people up on their high horses would be giving you the stink eye for sure! But back to the grapes. First thought was a random dog walker. But then there was another, and another, and another...  We don't have packs of dogs roaming our little island, but we do have packs of coyotes. I just never figured them for the fruit eating sort. I did a search and indeed there are posts of coyotes eating grapes from vineyards. And then I got this funny image as I reconstructed the scene in my head:
The pack is wandering along between the vines. "Hey Sam, try the cabernet. It's pretty good. Ralph there's a malbec over here to die for. Oh not me... had those last year and they didn't agree. Oh shoot someone's coming, let's get out of here."  As they are trotting along away from the vineyard Sam stops to let one go."Come on man. Oh damn...I told you not to eat so many." And then twenty yards later Ralph, "oh boy..." and Fred... and Roscoe. Like the bean scene from "Blazing Saddles." Could one of them have been named Mongo?

Saturday, October 04, 2014

The Vermont 50

I distinctly recall looking at my watch at 7hrs and 30min into the race, around 12 miles to go. I simultaneously felt elation that I could really do this, and laughed in dismay (yes laughed) because I had ONLY 2 more hours of running to go! From a duration standpoint the heat (80s) had knocked the starch out of me by mile 26, so while the distance seemed reasonable the duration was agonizingly long. Thus the gameplan was: stare at my feet, don't do anything stupid, and just focus on intermediate goals; 40min to the next stop, 5 to the hour pop two salt capsules, top of the hour a gel packet, fluids every ten minutes, don't get ahead of yourself, etc... In the end it paid off. I hit the target I had set at mile 31.5, break 9:30 (the sub-10 was prerace...recalibrated based on in race performance). I also had a little mantra during that last 18.5miles; every step I take is further than I've ever gone. Really kept things in perspective. Hard to disrespect personal bests. Can't say I'm not the athlete I once was, because that athlete had NEVER done this.

Mile 18.2
Rather than a traditional race report, here's a random sampling of things that ran through my head during the event.
1) Wow, electrolyte pills really make a difference. For the first time in my life I hit them like a crack head hits the pipe. No cramps. Clear head. Made me wonder how my Ironman results might have improved had I gone a bit more all in on this. Ultimately they were at least important than the gels.
2) Sh-t these hills are steep.
Road section early around mile 15.

3) The playlist in my head...very eclectic. Everything from "Black Widow" to "It takes two". Classic rock to today's top 40, "Back in Black" to "Fancy". Don't judge.
4) Interesting who and what I thought about. Not too much day dreaming (good way to fall on your face), but definitely thought about some folks. Some of you reading this were on the list.
5) I thought about my oldest brother Dan a lot. He and I connected, perhaps for the first time in our lives, this past June. We bonded over an interest in Ultras. He's not a runner, but wants to become one. He's had a hard life but has kept going. Really an Ultra would be easy. I dedicated this run to him.
6) I face planted only once! I had just come through a long stretch of single-track and saw a road crossing. Relaxed and picked my head up about 10 seconds too soon. Stupid! (I yelled that out loud!)
7) The intricate web of hoses and black PVC for tapping maple trees was really cool. Must have taken a long time to set up.
Maple sugar production.
8) My legs hurt but I never "lost" them. I was running conservatively, waiting for the wheels to fall off, but they never did.
9) The energy was so supportive. You got the sense that almost everyone was there for a reason. Maybe not specifically for this race, but they started ultra running for a reason. That most if not all had a story, just as I have a story. The extraordinarily average guy from the last blog post was out there, but so was the machine v2.0. A new machine with compassion and emotion.
10) Not once did I think, even afterwards, that I'm never doing this again.
11) Somebody owns a really friggin' big dog. It was a dire wolf. It was part German Shepherd, part Black Bear. And it's running at me! I think I can make the woods before it crosses this field and I only need to be faster than the guy next to me! (As it turned out it was well trained. Hit the property line and just stared everyone down!)
12) Vermont in fall is gorgeous. Screw that "run your first 50 miler on a flat easy course." This was the perfect course in that it embodied why I wanted to run a trail ultra in the first place.
13) The logistics were easy. Show up. Put on shoes. Run. Yeah had to calculate some food needs, etc... but nowhere near as annoying and stressful as the logistics for an Ironman, and at the end of the day the satisfaction over the completion of the event was just as great. Don't ask which is harder. It's a stupid question.

and 14) My greatest motivation for racing/finishing with all limbs intact was being able to be a functional daddy...and can you blame me!

Saturday, September 27, 2014


Perspective is a huge part of my (and your) life, both professionally and personally. In short it deals with the fact that the same factual event can be interpreted differently by different people or at different times. So given my current time and place, here's my perspective on me.

1) An outlier.
2) Uninspirational. An after-thought.
3) Too undisciplined to ever reach my full potential.
4) Critical of others when I see my own flaws emerge in them (right kids?).
5) Extraordinarily average. (yes seems to conflict with point #1).
6) Reasonably smart but not even the smartest in my family.

Seems pretty negative, but influenced by time and place. I'm about to attempt something I've never before attempted. I'm aware by many measures I'm woefully unprepared. So I need to really focus, focus on me. Be conservative. Acknowledge my weakness. Try to overcome.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Quitting is not an option...yes it is.

  • Quitting is always an option. It's the ramifications of quitting, the part that lives on long after the decision to quit, that can be truly intolerable.
  • Failure is not an option. Correct. Failure is a result not an option, not a decision. It is a result of quitting.
  • A lot of people fling around the term commitment. Real commitment is sticking with something even when you may never be the direct beneficiary. It's driving towards an ideal in the face of realism. 
  • Understand the difference between losing and being beaten.
  • Understand the difference between rights and privileges. Just because you want something or are able to do something today, doesn't make it a right.
  • Never confuse sacrifice and indulgence. Giving up something because of something you want more is indulgence. Letting something go even though you want it more is sacrifice.
  • You can't give 110%. If you did it means you underestimated what you were actually capable of doing.
  • And finally: If you aren't satisfied with yourself as a person without the medal, you won't be with the medal either.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Roots, Rock, just needed the Reggae

I have completed my first ultramarathon. Just 50K, pretty much the shortest race you can do and have it qualify as an ultra, but I did it. Just 50K. On trails, mostly single-track. What an event.

First, those who regularly go I had huge respect before. You hundred milers...awe.

The race was the TARC (Trail Animals Running Club) Summer Classic 50k. It was held in the woods only about and hour and 20min from my house. First impression...very low key. I didn't even know I was in the right place until I got there. Just the basics, just people there to run and run and run. I saw signs for a wedding, and thought "Oh there's a wedding in the park as well." Well actually the wedding was for two of the runners; the bride in white running gear, the groom in black. They got to go first and lead us into the woods. Then there was the race meeting: Follow the markers, don't be littering pigs, we're guests here. Pretty much summed up what you need to know at any race. And then the fun began...

3x10mile laps plus a 1ish miler extra tacked on to the beginning. The first lap I played the role of naive rookie runner.  I had started pretty far back and had to work a bit to move up, or so I thought. In retrospect there was ample time to do that and it was stupid to do what I did. This isn't road running. People stop, people let you by. I did settle in with 3 other guys and had a nice comfortable pace. And then all hell broke loose as a swarm of the worlds largest hornets (think Hunger Games!) attacked. They were huge. As one victim said, "I went to swat the one stinging my head away and it felt like I was hitting a bird." He wound up in an ambulance but was later returned to the finish to cheer. The hornets or wasps (or Tracker Jackers maybe!) were in a section of the course we had to go through 4 more times. As confusing and disorienting as the course was, EVERYONE took a mental snapshot of that area. It was weird hearing the screams in the woods every now and then as other victims were claimed (hell I was waiting for a canon to go off at times!) but to the best of my knowledge only one other runner didn't finish.

The biggest impression made on me was just how "unnimble" I am as a runner. I stumbled...a lot. I hit the deck 3 times, once on the first lap and twice on the last lap. I had MANY other near misses where only a desperation tree grab kept my on my feet. And then there were the cramps...good lord I got cramps in places, like my left hip, that I have never gotten in my life.

But let me tell you something I learned about the ultra community firsthand yesterday: they all help each other out. More so than in any other sport in which I've participated. When I hit the deck the first time I was on a downhill and my thigh slammed onto a ball of tree roots, my knees and hands on to rocks. It hurt..REALLY hurt. Well all 3 guys stopped and came back. They helped me get to my feet and made sure I could move myself forwards before they set off again. We were in a race, but they all stopped. When I got to the start/finish area after the first lap, bruised and bloody, everyone, be they spectators volunteers, what have you, was ready and willing to help. I had had momentary thoughts of not being able to finish, but with this kind of support out there, I knew I could/would.

Lap 2 was largely uneventful and the first lap where I think tactically I started to do things correctly. Clearly slower than lap one, but I had stayed upright and hadn't burned too many matches so to speak. The last lap saw me eat pine needles two more times, because muscle control was failing, once within 10yds of the tracker jackers. I had visions of writhing on the ground getting stung into submission, but by that point someone had come out with wasp spray and eliminated the nest. No the hardest part was getting back off the ground. Each time I fell my calves or hip or something cramped so severely I was uncertain how I'd proceed, but I did. I developed a technique where I rolled over into push-up position, walked my hands and feet into downward dog, and then was able to stand. Once standing I could walk and then "run." Two people past me on the final loop, but I finished while still maintaining some semblance of form. The cramps had subsided largely due to the help of the volunteers at the aid station. Watermelon dipped in salt...lots of salt. Pretty much a gagger, but chase it with some bubbly soda to keep you from throwing it up and 10min later all was good in my world. Salt. Fabulous. I thought I had been getting enough, but clearly I needed more. Fabulous find.

It was an important day for me as an athlete. I had not finished an endurance event since the Quassy 1/2 in June of 2012. After the first wipeout I had a momentary concern that another DNF was in the mix, but then it clicked and I was once again that person who would continue to move forwards regardless of physical discomfort. Time and place didn't matter, the goal had been to learn what an ultra feels like. I had no mental image to use to help me wrap my brain around 50miles in Vermont at the end of September. I do now. I can imagine a 50miler. And tactically I know what I need to do. Take the approach of lap 3, when I was on vapors, cramping, light-headed at times, and use that right out of the gate. Once you feel you're in a good rhythm and going slow enough, slow down.

There's always debate over which is harder: an ultra or an ironman. It's a very type A triathlete debate, as I did not get the sense that the ultrarunners are driven by that kind of ego. I'm going to say, it's a stupid debate. It really depends on the course and how you as an athlete are wired. I've only hurt like I hurt this morning a few times in my life. Each time was after the first time at a new distance/event. I've never been bloodied in an Ironman.

Ultra running can seem a very individualistic venture. Hey, I had been concerned I was going to Vermont by myself, that I'd be alone. But I learned you are anything but alone out there.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

You do the Hoka Pokey...

I thought I'd share a couple thoughts on my recent purchase of the Hoka One One Stinson Trail.
My Hoka Stinson Trails, from REI, on closeout.

First, I'm running in last year's model. Why? I'm cheap that's why. Seriously, I was definitely on the fence about these and with a retail price of $160+ I was having a hard time justifying the experiment. My track record with running shoes priced over $110 is perfect. I have NEVER had a successful experience with them.  (*Note:I've never tried Newtons (see skeptical/hard time justifying cost), the only other super high-end shoe I've considered.)

Why even experiment? I mean I've run in fairly minimal shoes for the last 2 years. It's a valid question, and while I might say "because the cool kids are doing it" there is very clearly nothing too cool about the Hokas, either from an appearance standpoint or quite literally the temperature of your feet (more on this later). What has been clear, though, is as much as I like the "swift" feeling of minimal shoes, they do have their mileage limits, at least on my feet. I would race a marathon in my Pure Connects, but the operative word is race. You can put up with a lot of discomfort in the name of speed on race day. Training? That's another matter. I do take them on 18-20mile training runs on pavement, and do okay, but there is some wear and tear. Were the Pure Connects competent on trails, I might be tempted to try them up to 50K, but alas they are not. Wet grass=Ice rink. Enter the Pure Grits. A reasonable trail shoe with okay forefoot padding and good traction, but the weight distribution in the shoe is a little funny (too much forefoot making them feel heavier than they are). I have run long in the Pure Grits and my feet were at their limit. In fact that run in fact got the ball rolling on this Hoka experiment. The run in the Pure Grits went well but at the end, my feet, hamstrings, and butt were all objecting. And when I projected the discomfort out another 25miles, well, I needed a plan 'B'. I want to complete a 50miler, but I don't wish to redefining suffering in the process. Maybe I'm going soft in my older age, but comfort, cushy, squishy foot love even at the cost of some weight and maybe speed, it's worth it. I'm not running to beat anyone. I'm running to prove to myself I can.

So how was the run? Well, first I was tall. Like 6'2". Made me feel stronger in a weird way. I also was a bit clumsy...well maybe we'll say less agile. I only had one instance of a stumble where I almost face planted, but I recovered and kept going. Much of the experience was similar to what others have experienced: toe box a little narrow, uppers a little warm, stability a little iffy at times, but... those are all fixable. More miles. Lacing the shoes a bit differently, and the warmth didn't actually bother me while I was running. I noticed it but put it out of my head.

As for the positives: I've found I can carry speed much better in these than other trail shoes, especially when the terrain changes. It allowed me to keep my lower body more relaxed. And maybe it was in my head, but it seemed much easier to run through the grassy pasture/fields. I know people think running on grass is easy, and it is if you're talking nice manicured lawns. Pasture is tough, deceptively tough. Holes, pushing your feet through stiff, dense, tall grass, and it always seems wet. At the end of the run, 22.4 miles in 80 degree heat, I had a few small blisters but nothing major. And the money question, how do I feel? Definitely less stress, less damage. I know this because, 1) my third lap splits were almost the same as my first two (a week ago this was not the case), and ... well ... I can walk around the house right now! That's not to say I was a wreck on previous runs, I wasn't, but the lack of pain in my hammies and butt tell me the cushy, squishy, foot love did it's thing and that was the idea in the first place.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Rising from ashes

I last raced an event of any distance two years ago. It was my only DNF of my long distance triathlon career. 13.1 miles to go, torn calf muscle, end of story.

Strings of injuries, long bouts with depression, numerous attempts to drive forwards again either professionally or athletically have made for some challenging times. And somewhere along the line I stopped forcing it. I became resigned to being on a very difficult consulting engagement for ever. I became resigned to never again being a competitive athlete. Instead I tried to just find a little bit of solace out on the roads or trails from time to time, and an attentive Dad to my kids and mentor to my employees. And I resolved to find enjoyment again in something simple like running, my first athletic love.

That was late March 2014, almost a year to the day from when I tore up my right foot running in slush and mud. But this year I was whole, albeit slower. I noticed online that the Ragnar Cape Cod entries were closing in a day or so. And on an impulse I put up a post asking if anyone needed a runner. Any distance. Any kind of team. I just wanted to be a part of something again. There were a number of responses, and for no reason other than she replied to my message first, I went with the group organized by Jenn McLaughlin. What a perfect fit, at least for me (my van-mates may have other thoughts!) Totally random, but in retrospect seemingly by design. And in that weekend I rediscovered joy on the roads. I did some fast-ish running at times, but far and away my favorite run was the leg I ran with van captain Roselle Flannagan. It was so peaceful.

Since that weekend I've been running more and more, farther and farther. I still have moments where I'm disappointed that I'm no longer as fast as I once was. But yesterday that disappointment was replaced by a different realization, and really that realization is the inspiration for this post.

I'm 48yrs old, and for the first time in my life I covered ~70miles in a week of running. I ran high teens mileage on consecutive days (18 and 20 actually). I logged my longest training run ever yesterday, 26miles. Yes I've run farther, but always in competition, never in training, and really no more than 1/2 mile farther. And I've done all this while remaining healthy. The secret? I've slowed way down! I just run for time, not pace. It allows bad days to be not so bad. And all this as I prepare for some new firsts. In two weeks I'll run my first ultra, the TARC Summer Classic 50k. My time may suck but I expect to finish and you know what? If I finish it'll be a PR! 48yrs old and still setting PRs! And then at the end of September, 50miles on Vermont trails at the Vermont 50. I'm still having trouble even wrapping my head around the distance. But if I finish, another PR! Pretty exciting!

The machine may have broken 2 years ago, but I'm okay with what's emerged. More than okay, actually. I'm having fun and have some wonderful new friends.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Thank you Dad

When pinpointing significant moments in my life, the tendency is typically to go right to the traumatic events leading to the "birth of the machine." However, another moment, more positive in nature, came back to me this past week.

I was 16yrs old and very much a teenage boy. Growing up I had been my Dad's buddy on fishing, camping, backpacking, and canoeing adventures. And yes they were adventures. My Dad had a knack for planning the big trip down to minute details, but struggled when the plans got derailed, often opting to attempt to stay on the schedule despite circumstances. I, on the other hand, had more of a knack of adapting on the fly (thanks Mom!). It made us a pretty good team. Well during my 16th summer my Dad had planned an ambitious canoe/camping trip in Algonquin Park (Ontario) with a good friend of his and a number of other people. He asked me if I'd like to go and I said yes...until I decided to go all teenager. I mentioned I was 16, right? And you know about girls, right? Well I had a girlfriend, maybe, I thought, I don't know (I was 16). Camping with Dad...not cool. Hanging Sorry Dad, can't make it.

As I sit here typing I can't believe what a douche I was to my Dad. This isn't a day trip around a local lake. This is a week roughing it in Canada. My Dad must have been obsessing on the details of the trip for months. It had to be a huge event for him (he'll deny this). I know, because if I were to plan a similar trip now with Dylan, it would be a huge event for me. A coming of age kind of event. And here was some 16yr old dismissing it like it was nothing.

My Dad left for Canada without me, and my "girlfriend" dumped (can you be dumped if you're not really going out?) me. And it dawned on me that I had made a big mistake. And yet the story didn't end there... adapt to the moment. As it turns out my Dad's friend John knew of one member of the group who was joining late. Pittsburgh was a slight detour for him, but these were good people (better than me at that time) who cared about others. We reached him (no cell phones kids, so this was no small feat) and he detoured and picked me up. We met up with the rest of the group around Buffalo I believe.

It was a physically demanding trip. You only had what you could carry. You carried your canoe between lakes. Lots of paddling. Lots of walking. Lots of carrying. The first couple of days I could not carry a canoe by myself. By the end I could. By the end I would run the trails with the gear then go back and get a canoe so others wouldn't have to make two trips. I had started to think about assisting others, not just taking care of myself. I also had begun to appreciate that my Dad, a week earlier the source of endless embarrassment, had some skills and had indeed taught me many of them. In some of the more technically challenging sections of water, I discovered that my paddling skills were as good if not better than anyone's, except Dad. And while he still had his "moments" (searching for his Instamatic camera while we floated into a HUGE bull Moose in the Tim River comes to mind!, trying to just flat out pull a very large leech from between my toes...salt helps...and fire!), he was really the leader of the expedition and someone I wanted to make proud.

So while it's more than 30 years late, thank you Dad. Thank you. Thank you for your patience with a me. Thank you for teaching me. I still hope to make you proud.

Love, Joel

PS: Sorry about Thanksgiving.