Saturday, August 27, 2011

Twin Sons From Different Mothers

"The Fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm is terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore" - Vincent Van Gogh

As I was lacing up my trail shoes not long ago at Oak Mountain, I noticed that whenever I'm there, there is an intermingling of the runners and mountain/road cyclists at the trailhead. We usually don't talk, just a friendly wave or a "how-ya-doin' " nod of the head. Half the bikers will roll on down the paved roads on their carbon fiber bikes that are probably lighter than my trail high tops, while the other half get on their huskier bikes and disappear into the woods. As I began my footed travails through the forest, I began to think about my biking brethren and about when I dipped my toes into the cycling sea. Although we are all in this endurance thing together, we really are in separate worlds in relation to our sports. I feel a camaraderie with them as I do with any endurance athlete, however, I'm always amazed by how much work goes into riding a bike.

About 25 years ago, I decided to buy myself a 40th birthday present and got a bike - I think the brand was Nishiki - surely not American made - and cost a mint. Something like 300 bucks! Then I had to get special shoes that "clipped-in" though I had no earthly idea how to clip-in, or more importantly, how to clip-out, especially in the millisecond it takes from when the bike comes to a complete stop to the "oh-crap-I'm-going-down-because-my-damn-foot-is-stuck-in-the-pedal" moment. Then there was the helmet (obligatory for the aforementioned clipped-in accidents) and special cycling pants, which I never got used to because of their extreme snugness and that area of "extra-padding". Add to that the extra gloves, tubes, cycling computer and tools, and I was getting away for under a grand for the whole biking experience.

Now, I got pretty serious with the riding for about 6 years, though never giving up my long distance running. I was pretty much a fair weather & weekend rider, but I even progressed to doing six century races (100 miles). Funny thing about those - I NEVER got the same thrill as I did when running a marathon or longer. It seemed like the rides were much more laid back without the urgency of a race. And Good Grief...I have never seen a group of athletes eat so much during a competition. We'd come to an aid station and I would be used to flying through, grab something and keep flying. Other riders would get off their bikes, stroll around, fill their jersey pockets like they were going to be stranded in the woods for a week and finally get going again. Like I said, the urgency was missing.

But, compared to running, which I have always enjoyed, biking to me seemed to be either end of the Bell Curve. I mean there were aspects that I loved...the mailboxes go by a lot faster, screaming 55 MPH down a hill is a white-knuckle experience I'd never get running, and actually learning how to use 15 gears was somewhat fulfilling. But, the other side of the Bell Curve was totally unpleasant. A flat tire can ruin any good ride. Riding in the middle of who-knows-where, and Psssssssss....flat as a pancake! Then you have to go through the whole show of taking the tire off, getting the old tube out, then either patching the tube or getting out a replacement tube. Here comes the real fun that I never mastered - getting the new tube back in the tire. This would invariably happen on a 95 degree day and of course I would pick a Fire Ant bed to kneel in to change the tire. Even on days when nothing went flat (tire), broke (spoke), rubbed (brakes), or fell off (chain), I still had to load my bike on a carrier on the car, drive someplace, pump up the tires, oil the gears, and I can't remember what else before I finally was rolling down the road to fitness.

When I rode, even when it was wicked hot out, I could create a breeze and it felt good. I could eat and drink to refuel while I rode without it bouncing around in my stomach. And I can coast down a hill to recover. But no matter how hard the "up" side of the hill was, I could never get over the feeling that it did kind of feel like cheating when I was rolling down without doing a doggone thing.

I outraced dogs, I rode with my son through long country roads, I freaked myself out riding in a lightning storm, and I carried my bike down 7 flights of stairs when our hotel in Gulf Shores had their fire alarm go off in the middle of the night. I have some biking memories for sure. But the big difference in them and my running memories is I think the biking memories have long reached the finish line, while I still have hope for more to bank in the running log.

To those of you who bike, to those of you who swim, to those of you who have your own individual endurance loves, I'm with ya! Running is my love, biking was a passing friend. All the pieces just never clicked between us, but when I see you bikers at the trailhead, or on the road, as Dan Fogelberg once sang, we are "Twin Sons of Different Mothers."

I'll see you all on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Saturday, August 20, 2011


"It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves".
Edmund Hillary

I'm often asked what I consider my proudest running accomplishment after more than 3 decades of running. Let's see, there's the first time I ran Boston, and I got a pretty big charge out of running 100 miles for the first time (well, every time actually). As far as racing, doing 50 miles under 7 hours was a HUGE thrill for me, and I will always be proud of finishing 13th in the USA 24 Hour Championships. But, when I look back through the 60,000 or so miles I've pounded, I am still most moved by the 26 miles I put in doing the Pikes Peak Marathon. Being that this weekend marks the 55th running of that marathon, I thought I would recall how this flatlander handled one of the Rockie's tallest peaks.

For some unknown reason, one day I was sitting at my computer and got this wild hair of an idea to run the Pikes Peak Marathon - Yep! THAT Pikes Peak. The one that sits majestically 14,115 feet above the surrounding countryside. Thank Goodness, the entries were closed that year, but I figured that gave me about 13 months to prepare (or come to my senses).

I read everything I could (and there is a ton!!), and trained pretty hard and consistently to prepare for the uphill grind. The trail ascends at an average of 11% for 13.3 miles.So, I found steep, mostly 8%, hills, to do repeats on. I did awful treadmill "runs" at 11%, and for altitude training...well, the climb to the 1010' summit of local Oak Mountain was going to have to do. I thought about putting a paper bag over my head and smoking a cigarette while running up the OM trails, but that was a little radical.

My wife and I flew out to Colorado on the Friday before the Sunday race. I had read you either go out to altitude to acclimate at least a week before the race or 1-2 days before the race, I guess to try to catch your aerobic system by surprise before it realizes what you've done.

We flew to Denver and had about 60 miles to drive to Colorado Springs. On the way, I kept trying to pick out which one of the "higher than Oak Mountain" peaks was the right one. I was always wrong - Colorado has 54 peaks above 14,000 feet!

On getting to the beautiful little town of Manitou Springs, we picked up my race number at the expo, which consisted of about 3 tents. It sort of bothered me that one of the tents was the "El Paso County Search and Rescue". Late that night, there was a huge thunderstorm on the mountain and on Saturday morning, the peak was covered with 5" of snow!! In August! Fortunately, I wasn't running till the next day, but that morning was the Half Marathon ("The Ascent"), so for those folks, it was slippin' and slidin'.

The Marathon is run completely on trail that weaves it's way from Manitou (elevation 6,295') to the 14k+ summit. I must admit that, honestly, looking up to the top the day before, I asked myself often "What in the world made me think this was a good idea?". The nervousness I felt was more than the normal pre-race jitters. I really wondered if this was a gold-plated stupid idea.

Race day dawned warm (50 degrees) and clear. My nervousness was as high as the mountain and strectched a little higher when the Race Director said "It's clear on the summit now, but severe storms are predicted for around noon". Great, that would be about 30 minutes after I hoped to get to the top.

The race starts on 1.3 miles of uphill road, and the rest is a mixture of dirt, gravel, rocks, and boulders. The next 4 miles is a 15% grade that severly takes the starch out of your legs early. For those of you in the Birmingham area, the incline from Lakeshore Drive up Columbiana Rd to Shades Crest Rd is 8%!! There are some parts of the course that actually levels off running through the forest, but the 11% average UP for 13 miles is a pull.

Gradually, the trees got shorter and someone turned the air off! At 10 miles, trees and greenery ceased to grow because they realize you need oxygen to live. Above the tree line, this Alabama bumpkin knew he wasn't home anymore. It looked like the moon. The last 3 miles gains 3000 feet (20% incline) and everything works in slow motion. I tried to take a Powergel at 12-13,000 feet, but didn't have the strength to open the stupid packet.

With two miles to the top, I looked towards the summit and felt like I was looking at a sand-colored brick wall. Then, way up there, I saw small lines of runners snaking their way up the switchbacks and prayed they weren't in the same race I was! There was no way I could get up there. My pulse was around 200, my legs were absolutely dead, and I was in the "just move forward" stage. This strategy doesn't get you to the top very quickly, but I was still passing rocks like they were standing still.

The last half mile is something called the Sixteen Golden Steps. Doesn't that sound magical? Well, it's 16 (or 100) switchbacks from hell across the final cliff of Pikes Peak. You can see the turnaround, you can hear the (few) people at the top, but it never gets closer!

The time/distance continuum has little to do with running on Pikes Peak. I hate to admit this, but with 2 miles to go, I looked at my watch and it said 4 hours exactly. When I got to the turnaround, their clock said 4:48. My first thought was "Either their clock or my watch is way off". Then I looked down at my watch - 4:48!! It had taken 48 minutes to do the last 2 miles. UGH!! Actually, I was damned proud of it.

The turnaround is really somewhat comical. All you want to do is put both hands on your knees and thank God for being alive. Instead, it's rather unceremonious - they tear a tag from your race number, spin you around, and pretty much give you a push to get you started downhill. No lollygagging here!

I carried a disposable camera with me and did stop to take a picture from the top. Despite all the toil, the gasping for air, the frequent rock sitting, and the questioning of my limits, it all became so worth it. The view from the top makes you realize both how significant and at the same time how insignificant we are. Supposedly, the song "America, The Beautiful" was written from the summit. Stand up there, and you understand why. I had two thoughts - "Thank God I can run and do this" - and "I can't breathe. Get off this mountain". Three and a half hours later, on blistered feet, I jogged into town, crossed the finished line, and cried like a baby. I mean I was bawling!! My wife said it was a release of emotions and stress. Maybe it was happiness that I had finished the toughest run of my life. I clutched the finishers medal so tightly in my hand that I had an imprint of the mountain in my palm!

As the promised thunderstorms were cracking the summit above like a whip, I couldn't have been more proud of what I had accomplished. I didn't beat the Peak, but the Peak didn't beat me either. We just shared a day I'll never forget.

I'll see you all on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Where Will I Go Today?

"Explorers have to be ready to die lost" - Russell Hoban

Summer is an interesting time to train because of the humidity and heat. The fall, on the other hand, brings welcome relief and easier running to all leading up to the marathon season. But we are not in the fall, are we? No, when you go out at 5am to beat the heat, you're not beating anything of the kind. It's 78 degrees out and it's 90% humidity. Your only hope is to get done before the sun is high in the sky. When it's so blummin' hot, and you go out for a solo run, most of the time you're going to slow down and take it easy. No use charging up (insert name) Hill by yourself. No use doing telephone pole intervals when nobody is pushing you. No point trying to do an awe-inspiring tempo run, when there is nobody to awe. No, we run with ourselves, and who better to run with? When we run alone, we can be in any location or any situation we want. And as a long slow-distance runner, Walter Mitty never had it so good.

If I'm petering out on a run, like the non-wonderful run I had this morning, and I feel gravity making it harder and harder to lift my feet off the pavement, there's a good reason - it's because I'm in the last 10 miles of the Badwater Race in Death Valley. Instead of being sucked into the black hole of the Giant Bonk Abyss in Alabama, I'm holding together remarkedly well for 120 miles in 115 degree temperature. Trudge on Al. Relentless Forward Motion is the key!

If I'm trying to keep a fairly steady pace in the last part of a difficult training run, all of a sudden it's the last mile of the Olympic Marathon. The damn Chinese are gaining on me, but I'm USA, damnit, and they ain't gonna catch me.

Running on the Oak Mountain Trails alone becomes the most desolate part of The Western States 100 Mile a rainstorm. No cheering throngs. Just trying to click off the forest miles to the finish. No runners ahead to be seen, but I know they're there. No runners that I can see behind, but I know they're there.

Running allows us to be as we are in the moment. You can be wherever you want and whoever you want on your runs. In some cases it is where dreams are born out of thought or possibly even where they die out of reason. I am me on my runs. By myself, I run voluntarily and freely. The mind of a runner sure can work in strange ways. We carry on conversations with ourselves. When running alone, how else can we run at a conversational pace? We can try to concentrate on the mechanics of the run itself, but mostly, on my solo runs I am my partner and together we are crossing the United States, running rim-to-rim at Grand Canyon, or doing the Appalachian Trail.

They (there "they" are again - always popping up) say that you will get bored and burned out if you run the same courses all the time. Well, I've been doing basically the same roads and trails for the past 33 years. Funny how my mind is so scattered that I never get bored. It's like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates - I never know what I'm gonna get. It's not that I'm trying to divert my mind from thinking about the run. It's that running is so ingrained in me, my mind is free to go where it wishes to go and I just have my legs follow.

Many times, me and myself can solve all the problems of the world. The solutions are so simple. The fly in that soup is that as soon as I stop, those solutions fade like smoke in the wind. At the beginning of a run, I can convince myself that the thought of doing another 50 mile run is not so crazy, while an hour later down the same road I'm wondering how I ever did one in the first place. But it's me that's listening to this often repeated Comedy & Tragedy play. I'm ad-libbing the script as I go along. Who knows where a seemingly innocent run will take me? Here, there, and everywhere...that's where.

Ok folks, enough meandering for this week. Hope you all have a good week and I'll see you all on the roads, wherever they take you - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Oprah Did What?

"Great spirits often encounter violent opposition from mediocre minds."
- Albert Einstein

The other day on Facebook (which I've previously stated I'm not crazy about), a friend of mine posted a picture of his new shirt. The shirt read "Ultrarunning, because Oprah ruined the marathon". I commented that I didn't get it. Afterall, she did run the whole 26.2 miles (in a very respectable 4:29). His only comment to defend the shirt was " I didn't have a personal chef and full time trainers and coaches". That's it? Now, don't get me wrong, I am not a fan of Oprah, though she has done a damn good job spreading her vast wealth to some very needy and destitute programs. For some reason, this form of silent hatred has twisted my chain that I had hoped most runners were immune to. How the hell did she ruin the marathon? I just don't get the animosity towards her doing something we wish everybody did. All the runners I know are kind, generous with praise, and encouraging. So, where did this come from?

Was it that she was a celebrity and we silently wish all celebrities to fall flat on their faces? But she didn't just write a check. She was up in the dark of the morning, like us, pounding the pavement when I'm sure she wasn't crazy about it. She ran Marine Corps in November, so I'm sure she trained in the heat, like us. She trained with others, she trained alone, like us. She did the training. She obviously held down a very busy day job. How did she ruin the marathon? She had lost a ton of weight and wanted to do something she never thought she could do. When we ran our first marathon, we all wanted to do something we never thought we could.

Lance Armstrong - did he ruin the marathon? I'm sure he had a personal chef and a gaggle of trainers. Plus he had celebrity pacers with him the whole 26 miles when he ran New York. Sure, I was hoping he wouldn't break 3 hours, but that was the same ill will I wish on the Yankees - I hope they lose, but they probably won't. But when he did come in at 2:59, it never crossed my mind that he ruined the marathon. He was just better than I wanted him to be.

How 'bout Jeff Galloway? He preached heresy by advocating walking DURING the marathon...good God!! Say it ain't so!! I began running marathons in 1979 and you only walked when you had to (usually sometime in EVERY marathon for me), but when he came out with the run/walk programs, he didn't ruin the marathon. He opened a whole new world to semi-couch potatoes, that saw they might be able to do this unattainable goal. No "Jeff Galloway ruined the marathon" shirts for him.

John Bingham? Now, I never read where anybody said HE ruined the marathon. The Penguin didn't even want you to do the best you could do. He just cared that you finished in front of the balloon lady or the sag wagon and had a good time doing it. It has absolutely no effect on runners finishing 3 hours ahead of him.

When I began training marathoners for Team-in-Training in 1995, I was sure this group of non-runners wouldn't be able to do the training, nevermind finish the whole daggum thing. Most of the participants came in with a backround of "Well, I did a 3 mile mini-marathon last year". I had been training seasoned runners to do the old Vulcan Marathon for 11 years when I joined TNT. You know what? They did super. They followed the tailored training program to a "T", and finish they did. I was more amazed then they were. Through the years, there have been many barbs thrown towards slower runners "dumbing down" the sanctity of the marathon, but these are mostly by crotchety veteran marathoners. This gets my blood a-boilin' too, but here's my take on that - Those complaining about the slower folks feel much less significant about themselves when the slower runners at the end of the marathon cross the finish line, because they’re forced to face the fact that most anyone that sticks to a 20 week program can do it. It’s not the exclusive, life achievement they made it out to be. They’re forced to face the fact that it really doesn’t take a lifetime of dedication – only a few months of consistently following a plan. They can no longer brag to anyone who will listen about the immense amount of dedication it took, or the endless hours of running 8 days a week, or what an elite club they just joined, since the non-athletic, non-running, not-so-in-shape person who followed a canned, off-the-shelf training plan just finished the same race they did. As soon as they realize that someone with no athletic backround can finish the marathon they trained years for, with about 20 weeks of training, bye bye feeling significant about what they just accomplished. Put simply, they lost their feeling of being special when they discovered that anyone can do what they just did.

The facts are that Oprah ran a 4:29 marathon in a driving rainstorm in 1994 after losing a lot of weight, and 17 years later there is a shirt that she RUINED the marathon. I just don't think Oprah's getting a fair shake. I don't think it's any coincidence that the big surge in registered marathon entrants has come primarily from the slower ranks and from females. I don't know if I'd go as far as to say she caused the surge on her own, but the fact that she did it made a lot of these people suddenly realize that they could finish a marathon. They decided to give it a go.

What's ironic is that, despite some folks thinking she ruined the marathon, there is another, hopefully larger, faction that because Oprah is an icon for many people, both male and female, her marathon time has become a new goal for many instead of a more challenging BQ (Boston Qualifying) time..."Hey, I beat Oprah!".

I'm proud of all who lace up their running (or walking) shoes and set out to achieve any kind of fitness goal whatsoever! I must admit that I admire anyone who has the courage to get started, stick with it and run the race...whatever that race may be! If more of us Americans would commit ourselves to exercise - marathon, or not - as a society we would go a long way toward preventing some of the diseases (obesity, diabetes, certain cancers, etc.) that are killing us in droves. If Oprah had something to do with this, then she certainly didn't ruin anything.

Ok guys, that's the rant for this week. Hope you all stay cool this weekend, and I'm glad you are all out there. I'll see you on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"