Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Golden Mean: Searching for the perfect Distance

It’s the rhythm of breathing fresh air deep into my lungs as I work up a hill and the sound of my feet as I float down its back. The open space and restorative solitude, no telephone poles or cement—just two valley walls cradling a river and a trail. It’s getting up before the sun and starting the day with endorphins and inspiration; I run in the mountains because it is free.
I’ve never considered myself a runner. I’m not built like runners in the magazines and jogging was always a means of punishment in organized sports growing up. Late to practice? Four laps. Lost the game? Plan on extra running tomorrow. I also went through a long period of adaptation where I had to convince my large frame that it too could learn to be efficient. It all stems from a desire to gain insight from challenge. My career began on a Friday night after my best friend and his dad, both marathoners, invited me out for one of their ‘tempo’ days the next morning. Mid way through the ten miler my body gave up—I’ve been fascinated by the simplicity and challenge of going long ever since. I don’t think anyone’s perfect distance can be prescribed but you know it when you’re there; the mind and body pump life through your arteries in unison and the rest of the world becomes irrelevant.

Nate and I first met in Halong Bay Vietnam, near the China border. He was on Cat Ba Island to climb the limestone pimples jutting from the water; I had just ridden my bicycle from Burma and needed somewhere to sort my thoughts. We were both confused and fresh out of University, taunting a nine to five from the other side of world. After running in the jungle and crashing a moped twice, we made plans to meet in the Cascade Mountains for a traverse of the Stuart Range. In mid August the following summer, Nate finished teaching his last outdoor education class in Yosemite and drove north.

“It’s not a question of whether or not we’re off route, rather, how off route are we.”
I heave and flop to meet Nate on the ledge and respond by peering off in the direction he’s been leading out, there’s nothing but a thermal draft pushing up a thousand feet of shelved rock. The crevassed glaciers look like dry cheese being forced to bend.
The first look over the escarpment, even if one is accustomed to the vertigo of mountains, is shocking. In a nanosecond the eyes gauge the fantastic drop, the mind imagines the plummet to death, instinct secrets a warning into the blood and the body recoils.
Turning my back to the wind and facing the wall I begin stemming out off the ledge, my right leg wanding out into space before landing on a fridge size boulder. The whole block teetering as I weight it. Looking forward to re-establish on a fixed point I catch a glimpse of Nate, already out of ear shot and buzzing up the ridge. Neither of us are moving quickly but my ego is dwindling and I can tell he wants to keep pushing.

It made perfect sense when I learned both Nate’s parents are doctors, he loves to problem solve. When we met he was carrying around a rebuilt circa 1970s point and shoot camera with slide film. He’d snap a photo, put on a pair of wire frame spectacles and eventually announce the picture had in fact been captured after tinkering around for awhile. His backpack looked well traveled with cuts and scrapes from mountains all over the world, with a couple home-made patches holding on the sun faded shoulder straps.
I took all this as a good sign. The older the gear, the better. People with new gear scare me: the scanty wear-and-tear of their equipage is too often indicative of the scantiness of their experience, which means you don’t want to go on a hike with them, let alone traverse an entire range together.
Other long distance junkies I’d met before our traverse had a propensity for self improvement, which I can relate to. There always seemed to be some deep seeded dissatisfaction becoming more transparent as they would tire. Ironically, the more lost and worked we were the happier Nate got; it drove me nuts. Some innate ability would keep him from losing composure and, more importantly, the connection with his body’s limits. His pacing technique a micro chasm of his healthy training philosophy; work within yourself and listen closely to your body’s feedback.
One good measure of an adventurer is how he acts when he is uncomfortable. Does he whine, keep quiet, or revel? The former is unforgivable, the second acceptable, the last admirable.

Finally catching my breath and balance on the rock I scream in frustration:
“Stop moving God damn you!” I laugh a bit as Nate turns, surprised he can still hear me. He doesn’t respond, just motions to come meet him on the high point of the ridge.
The landscape ahead undulates, getting tighter and tighter constricting from the width a small house down to the size of a sidewalk. Beyond Nate is a vertical stair case of granite leading up to what looks like the summit block. The running and scrambling isn’t technical but the exposure off either side would bite back. Steep boulder fields on one side and a sheer drop on the other—take your pick. Most of the granite is shelved and makes for easy ascending but backtracking feels like a slip and slide covered in Crisco.
I reach Nate and immediately notice his sunken eyes from dehydration. We both look at each other and laugh; I must look just as bad. We’ve been above a water source for a couple hours and still have a long section until we drop off to the Teanaway River Valley on the south side—saving my cheeky remarks about his orienteering skills I say nothing and take the lead.
My footwork feels weak and powerless, fatigue working from my core out to my limbs. I’m out of sync and lumbering to keep pace, my mind drifts back to the last time I felt this deprived.

I drove up to Penticton, British Columbia, missed the race briefing and slept in the back of my car as close to the race start as possible. I didn’t have disk wheels or a carbon bike and fueled most of the race on Snickers Bars, but I knew the distances and how they felt. In the months leading up to the event I would see the finish line with my eyes closed before falling asleep; imagine the toll of ninety degree temperatures during the marathon on chilly morning runs and simulate the feeling of crossing the finish line with a smile after swimming a couple miles, biking a century and running a marathon.
Three miles from done at Ironman Canada I drifted back to the strong finishes I imagined, the early mornings I’d sacrificed for lonely open water swims and started to repeat my training mantra—“Rhythm and Speed.” I crossed the line happy and embraced the long awaited experience. An hour or two later I crawled back in my rig with a gallon of water and three pieces of pizza—the race was just as I’d imagined, but with 3,000 extra people.

Reaching the high point of the traverse with Canada still fresh on my mind and lagging synapses, we were met by a clap of thunder and the priceless question anyone who has ever laced up a pair of running shoes can relate to—ought we turn back? It doesn’t matter how long the run is, eventually there comes a time when you either turn in hopes of getting home quicker by retracing your steps or press on into the unknown and risk things getting worse.
It’s that moment of regret; a run that starts smooth and fast, runner’s high just setting in, birds chirping, sun on your back, then a huge bug flies into your eyeball. Or you’re out on the easy loop in your neighborhood and need to go number two, no bathroom in sight, half way to home with a friendly looking lady waving from her garden; you do everything you can to look normal. Regardless of the distance, eventually there comes a time when elements beyond your control call for judgment.
Turning to see sheets of rain stained pink from the sunset marching in with flashes of lightning. We’re at nine thousand feet, fifteen hours from the car and need to make a decision, quick. This is the first time I’ve seen Nate with a confused look on his face.

We were on the trial by 4:30am after a parking lot bivouac, getting the tail-end of the stars as we started running. Leaving a car on the south side the previous day, the idea was to do a single push and the plan was to keep moving. The trail left the gravel parking lot seven miles up from Icicle Creek, and the access road out. After rolling along the valley floor next to Mountaineers Creek for a couple hours we reached a marsh and our first glimpse of the Stuart Range.
Mt. Stuart is the centerfold for the central Cascades. Every year thousands of outdoor enthusiasts from the city parade into the range, permit in hand, and spend three or four days breaking in the trails through alpine plateaus and meadows; by late August the trails are in perfect running condition. Two hanging glaciers pronounce the north ridge, eighteen pitches of stair cased granite. From the apex a craggy east flank reaches out with two more summits before reaching into the alpine plateau of the Enchantments, a pristine assortment of alpine lakes, streams and rock towers.
Before running smack into the base of the mountain the terrain is carpeted in second growth furs and pines with shawls of moss covering the granite lumps, turning to scree fields then crack and shelve systems up the wall.
Something primal turned on when we ducked off trail. We’d run the equivalent of a half marathon and a couple thousand feet of gain on coffee and whisky burps from the night before. By the time we were leaping over small creeks and ducking under fallen trees I was high—everything around me stopped and the only thoughts were “Go. Faster.”
I imagine I’m chasing or being chased by a bigger animal; I picture myself in a strong and efficient body. When I find this meditation in races I don’t focus on other competitors or challenging terrain, just working within myself to move as fast and relaxed as possible. Time goes away, synapses fire and endorphins pour—it’s more intoxicating than any drug on earth.

“What do you think?” I ask.
“I think it’s going to rain then get dark and cold.” Nate responds plainly. Now shivering on the summit block.
“Descend and retrace or push to the car?” I ask knowing he’s already decided.
“Probably have more fun looking for the trail in the dark.” He chirps while shouldering his pack.
Following the cairns (rock-piles to mark the trail) from the high point on the ridge, we descend like a tornado down the Cascadian Coular. Arms flailing and feet sliding, we hit the Teanaway Valley floor to the south yearning to be back on trail while we can still see it. The rain had caught us and a sheet of dark was starting to pull over the west rib.
Within twenty minutes we intersected the trail paralleling the range, tension immediately lifting. I started to stomp puddles and lead a fast pace in the final couple miles to the car thinking about an old fashioned milk shake and my hammock; I felt like a kid again. The distance was perfect—there had been doubt, discomfort and flow. Though it is not to say that all runs and races need to be forced epics, a bit of adventure and crisis reminds me how fun running can be.
It wasn’t until I loosened my grip on forcing out mileage and starring at my heart-rate monitor that truly began to enjoy the miles. Running became more meditative when I drew awareness to my body’s feedback; some days I need twenty miles in the mountains, other days all I want is three around the neighborhood. In an over prescribed culture, take some of the tension off your mind by listening to your body.

The Joy of Camping

The Joy of Camping

It’s 5:30am and I’m working down my third cup of coffee while other campers are milling around the food like chipmunks stowing away for a long winter. The arid climate has my throat feeling like wet sandpaper and each nostril like an air duct at Costco, another sip of coffee. Brendan, a Cycling House staff member, saunters from his room heading straight for the banana and peanut butter. Spread, bite, spread, and then announces the van heading to the pool will leave in fifteen minutes. I glance at the whiteboard with the days eating and training schedule, which is methodically thought out and provides a glimpse of what my week will be like.

The Cycling House is a sanctuary for endurance people; a place to escape from soggy weather, train hard and have fun. Living any place with seasons eventually spawns a depressing winter morning, usually a rainy Sunday, when spring never sounded better. I remember flying out of Seattle the same day this feeling hit rising above the clouds and descending into Tucson—the cyclist’s endless summer. The Cycling House crew and location stand on a world class podium; run by a group of friends from Missoula.

Gathering in the living room the first night, walls decorated with race photos and dirt roads trailing off into sunsets, ten guests joined five hosts for introductions: Andy and Sam Schultz, pro mountain bikers and in-house chefs. Elite triathletes, Brendan Halpin and Jen Luebke, are the ride, trail-run and swim leaders. And the guy that holds it all together, camp director Owen Gue, an elite road cyclist since he could drive. The camp draws people looking for more than supported training. A model Gue created with Evan Lawrence of 53x11 Coffee, The Cycling House lends itself to a lot of interaction and non-moving time where athletes are able to learn from and get to know one another. It’s a unique place where a mid-pack aficionado like me can learn years of trial by fire in a matter of days.

The beginning of the camp was memorable because I was in a new place meeting people from other training circles for the first time. Owen set the tone for a productive week: “This is going to be a lot of fun, but it’s also going to be very challenging. I strongly advise pacing yourself and saving a bit for the end as it will definitely be the most difficult.” The light hearted staff sitting with us on the couches as Owen began, “For most of you, this will be more training than you’ve ever put into one week, don’t overdo it on day one.” In the moment of pause I introvert my thoughts and set an intention for the week, almost as if Owen intended it: have fun and do your best.

Over the course of the week Brendan and Jen took on a pretty creative approach to training. Days are centered on a longer ride with swim and run options before and after. With the rides focusing on building up base endurance, the swimming and running sessions are a great opportunity to improve technique and efficiency. Having someone critique my style for six days strait changed my swimming permanently. With enough sessions and down time together to see my body work when it’s both fresh and tired, the coaches were able to pinpoint and discuss areas to improve on.

The second day looked like this: early morning swim and a couple sets of barefoot running drills on an adjacent soccer field before breakfast. After digesting we rode bikes out to Saguaro National Park where some folks raced criterium style around an inner park loop then cooled down on the ride back to the house. Others threw gear in the sag vehicle for a tempo run in the park before riding back to the house to jump in the unheated pool and start recovery as the sun set before dinner.

Mid-week there is a rest day or optional trail run. For me running is a pure way to experience the mountains, I couldn’t resist. As a runner from the Northwest, seeing wild pigs and boulder hopping through dried up river valleys took my training experience to a whole new level. Sandwiching a fifteen mile mountain run in between long rides at elevation also took my experience to a whole new level.

With dozens of other camps to choose from in the Tucson area, the homegrown staff is what sets The Cycling House apart. As the birth place to the Adventure Cycling Association, harsh seasons and a thriving triathlon scene, the motivation to create a familial dynamic between athletes of all abilities started at home.

“Owen and I totally fed off each other as kids” recalls in-house chef Sam Schultz with his warm smile. “We’d get all bundled and go race each other on the trails or on the road in the middle of cold Missoula winters. We were the only ones out there and people thought we were crazy but we didn’t care; we loved every minute of it.” It’s a dream come true for these guys, now in their early twenties, to have created a place where people feel comfortable bringing out that inner child while doing something they love.

Schultz started mountain biking like any other kid, using his bike as a tool to explore his surroundings and gain freedom. After his uncle Charlie, of Anecortes Washington, introduced him to the rhythm of the trails Schultz quickly earned a spot on the World Championship team and now rides professionally for Subaru-Gary Fisher. Sam’s motivation underscores the entire endurance community; people aspiring to do their best and enjoying others doing the same.

I clearly remember the last day of the camp. Staring blankly at the cement off my front wheel, like an arthritic dog waiting for someone to throw the ball; unsure what’s next and growing tired just thinking about it. Looking around at the group I could tell I wasn’t the only one feeling it—growth—the surge of adrenaline from morning swims, scenic rides at five thousand feet and a pre-dinner run as if we were chasing down our meal.

Everyone huddled shoulder to shoulder around Brendan as he started out: “I will be leading, Jen is riding sweep and Owen will be following the group with sag support,” someone hands me the queue sheet. The elevation profile on page two looks like an Olympic ski ramp.

The road tape wormed its way to 9,000 feet on Mt. Lemmon in the Catalina Mountains. Weaving through high desert ponderosa pines, craggy ridge lines dotted with drip sand castle rock columns and hills puff painted with cacti the size of telephone poles. After the first night of introductions and long day that followed, all the training seemed to mesh together. The only measure of time was lying on my back every night after the sun tucks in behind a pastel sunset and counting the stars—not a cloud in the sky. Work, family, and holiday stress was gone. All my energy focused on being as efficient as possible.

Beyond the meals built from scratch and more lasting than sore quads is coming home invigorated by learning about another athlete’s journey. The most rewarding thing about solitary endurance sports is the people I meet through the pursuit; Owen has captured the essence of the endurance community and put it under one roof. At The Cycling House it’s not just one person after an event or a moment in passing, it’s an entire week of learning about other athletes from around the country. We had athletes from Florida, Mississippi and Oklahoma. The Cycling House is an all inclusive training destination for people driven to improve and willing to learn. Back dropped by the mountains just outside Tucson and hosted by some of the most down to earth professionals in the business, it is the perfect place to calm an active mind.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Dodgy Lama

I was five minutes off the front, sixty miles into a one-hundred mile running race, and breathing thin air at over 12,500ft when the lama took off. In the middle of the Rocky Mountains tree-line fades into a sub-alpine zone. Comprised of sharp rocks, roots, and not nearly enough oxygen for someone from sea level--this section of trail is a dopey stumble through broken glass.

Hope Pass is the crux of the run. Racers start 50 miles north in the retired mining town of Leadville, run South down the spine and turn in the ghost town of Winfield. I'd made the turn and had just reached the summit of Hope Pass for the second time when I heard her cry.

"Damn you, Ted. Get your ass back here"

The woman's face told the story of a good life. Deep wrinkles from the sun, the worried brow of a farmers daughter, and a relaxed smile.

Tiny running shorts, shirtless, and dehydrated, I must have looked the least threatening of the bunch, never mind this silly running race--"Go get in front of him!"

The frame was classic. Herds of tired racers slogging up the backside of Hope Pass dodging off trail to avoid this huge quadruped in complete control.

"Get him off trail and put up your arms," she instructed as we both started to chase.


The Hope Pass aide station is perched just below the saddle at about 12,000ft and 3,000 feet above the nearest jeep road; pack-lamas are the means of transportation for the aide station perched on the wind protected side of Hope Pass.


All of a sudden the race went from a lonely pain cave to a primal chase after an animal twice man size.

Delirious runners slogging up the pass dodged sluggishly.

A couple folks with obvious experience put their arms up to slow the lama, Ted simply ducked around them.

Chasing, I managed to loop below him and grab a couple sticks. Holding them out arms extended Ted and I met eye to eye in a treed ravine. He grinned his teeth and made unforgettable Lama noises.

At some point we descended down into tree-line and I had him cornered surrounded by trees; again, obviously not threatening he practically jumped over me and was down the trail again, sending groggy uphill runners stumbling off the trail.

A powerful looking dude with trekking poles extended himself and sent Ted into an area surrounded by thick trees, slowing his progress and providing time for the cow-girl to catch up. We we formed a semi-circle around him and held the line.

Before she set out on the chase from base camp she must have instructed a peon to bring down a female lama to lour Ted in. Teeth grinding and weird noises on both sides went on for the longest five minutes of my life until the peon showed up with the female.

Ted mellowed out, the peon and I witnessed the cow girl more-or-less tackle Ted and get him clipped into a harness.

Watching this unfold, sticks in hand and arms extended I watched the South African zip by and take the lead of the race.

He went on to win to hold the win for over 60 miles. With a beefy resume of self supported desert races and this being his first 100 miler his win was well deserved and entertaining to watch from behind.

Anyone who completes the Leadville 100 derserves the utmost respect.

Angels Staircase Ultra Marathon

The following is a race report from a run on dirt in the Chelan Sawtooths:

We started on single track somewhere outside Carlton, WA in the Chelan Sawtooths. There were about 120 people milling around the crowded parking lot waiting to use the plastic restroom, register, and slam down the last sip of coffee.

Because the venue is remote and trail exposed, the gun must go off early; 25k, 50k, 50M all starting on single track at 6:00 AM.

With all the emails and updates on the Rainshadow website regarding the challenge of the terrain and distance from the nearest hospital it seemed that James wanted people to have a good race but at the same time acknowledge the location makes it Class IV. If you get hurt out there--human power or helicopter is the only evac. option--and even then it's a long way to urgent care.

Hard to tell who was there to race and who was there to finish but I recognized several fast people from the old Seattle Running Company crew. Ultra runners are tough to read, not as abrasive as most triathletes but no less intense when they race.

"Fuck it, I'll start near the front, escape the bottle neck, and slow down once the pack thins." Easier said than done.

I took a trip down memory lane and did some lackluster circa 8th-grade-basketball box outs, but alas, still ended up with a slow moving ass in my face as we worked up the hill strait out of the gates.

The race is not flat. It is up, then down. 5,000ft of climbing to a ridge-top with a stake in the ground that says "turn-a-round."

It's not every day we get to run at 8,000ft in Washington. It's even more rare that we get on trails as scenic as Angels Staircase, beautiful in a Colorado meets North Cascades type of way.


My breathing was uncomfortable and fast, smashing my legs up and down waiting for my feet to find good rhythm. Stayed efficient and worked through a couple groups, tail of lead pack still in sight. Turns out it's hip and trendy to wear your number on your leg if you run ultra's. No ink on the calf to see who you're chasing. But think about it, when you are about to pass a person, are you so hyper-focused on the fact that they are in your age-group that you forget to acknowledge how fresh or torn up they might look?

In trail running races I approach much more primal. I sit in and study for a minute. Are they slouching due to exhaustion? Is their rib cage inflating and deflating as fast as a scared chipmunk or as calm and collected dopey puffer fish? When numbers aren't visible a person is forced to pay attention to more important things; are they totally composed or totally out of control?

Very soon after the start I snuck by a couple folks forming a chase pack. The lead pack looked like about 5-8 people. The trail kicked up, sweat started to rain, and I backed off and watched the assholes glide effortlessly out of sight.

Someone had jumped on my heels from the last group I'd worked through; already too tired to turn around, looking at my watch instead, I was slapped in the face by the total time elapsed; it's only been 20 minutes!?


I think a lot of this racing stuff is part physical and a lot mental. Is a person competing with their ego or people around them or the clock?


The shadow and I popped out of the treeline and caught a glimpse of the future, probably at around 6,000 feet now and opening up into a huge meadow. We were both working hard. It was here that we spoke to for the first time. I'd been running in front of this complete stranger for over an hour and seen no one else. I had no idea how he looked like, whether or know he was carrying a load (mandatory for 50km and 50 milers on this course). His presence had been nothing but the sound of breathing. It'd been fast and loud on the hills and dead silent when I tried to drop him on the flat tetchy section littered with roots before the last climb.

We broke treeline into a huge meadow about the length of I-90, in the distance was a condescending ridge wearing a cornis for a top-hat. It looked ages away but was probably only another 2,000ft or so up. I turned looking at his feet first.

He was wearing Brooks racing flats. FUCK!

"Going long?" I asked.
"25km, you?" He sounded fine.
"Oh, 50km but we'll see." Yes, I lied. I registered for the 25km (my first attempt at the distance actually) and had no intention of going a step further.

A couple 5am early starter diesel engines popped up in the distance. I fixed my eyes on a orange shirt motoring up to the scree field at the base of the ridge.

The front runners weren't bluffing and were nowhere to be seen. The drain/trail in the meadow was sunken and narrow, if you stay on trail your in a mini knee high ditch with occasional big rocks, forcing you to skip as if on a balance beam. If you run beside the trail it's tall alpine grass with land mine marmot holes.

I tested my luck off trail, my feet started to land properly. I dropped Shadow and slipped into a wheezing pain cave, putting in max effort before the turn-a-round which had been described as being at the top of the ridge.

Looking up the final 2,000ft of Angle's Staircase the trail makes a big "Z" through scree and grass; two tight switchbacks and a lot of climbing strait up a head-wall; hence the name Staircase. I reached the final turn, more or less running on the ridge now, when a tall bearded man zipped up: "turn arounds' just over there." The asshole wasn't even breathing hard.

I came out of my pain cave, smiled--"cheers, buddy." Then he was gone. Descending down the same 5,000ft we'd just worked up.

I turned and realized I was in 2nd place.


The Descent:

No falls down through the meadow. A lot of gravity, hooting, and high fives. A lot of people heading up hill, "You're 4 minutes back" "Your 3 minutes back"

Reached tree line, nice looking woman, "you're just 2 minutes down, pick it up!"

The descent was pure joy. A tightrope walk between going primal falling flat on your face.

The tall bearded man in 1st was an elite ultra runner from Austin, TX who'd brought out a group of athletes he coaches. He fully deserved the win.

2nd Overall and a great day in the hills.

Put this on the calendar for next year or do the route on your own--it's not everyday we get to run at 8,000ft in Washington--

Good luck to those doing Canada.

Your pal,