Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Running...What's It To Ya?

"You're in pretty good shape for the shape you're in!" - Dr. Seuss

This past weekend, I "celebrated" my birthday and as a birthday present to myself, I ran a tough 12 mile trail race that will literally suck the air out of your brain. Actually, it has nothing to do with a birthday present, it's just that the race was scheduled the day before my birthday, so I figured I'd close the old year with a bang. Running that race, and the other solo runs of the Holiday weekend put me in a reflective state--thinking about my life, what's important, where I came from, where I am and where I'm going. That's what having another birthday does! I mean, c'mon, this was the 67th anniversary of me coming into this crazy world. From the moment I was born, I guess the majority of my plans have taken a right or left turn from their intended destination. Oh, not a hard, 90 degree turn most of the time, but rather a wide turn like a giant steamship trying to avoid the iceberg up ahead. Oh, there was nothing deep about my reflectiveness...nothing with a large meaning, but just
After running for over 3 decades, I think often about where running has brought me. It's about far more than lacing up the shoes and putting one foot in front of the other in pursuit of my own goals. Running has helped make me who I am. Running is not me, but it is definitely a major part of me. I've said often in this blog that running (or whatever your interests are) can't help but define your very nature. Running brings peace amid the occasional chaos of life. I remember when I worked in a clinic that allowed me to run at lunch, how much I looked forward to that escape. When I'm out the door, problems can disappear, even if only for an hour or so, and I return with a new sense of calm and better perspective. 

Running provides quiet times of reflection. Life often gets so busy that simple reflection takes a conscious effort. When I run, I have time to reflect. I often think about my dad. He never saw me run and passed away in 1982, one year after I did my first ultramarathon. As the years pass, he gets bigger in my mind, and thankfully, those memories stay crisp. I think of him often because I want to think of him often and running on a smooth single track trail provides the perfect opportunity for me to do just that. 

Running provides friendship. Most of my closest friends today are fellow runners who I see every Saturday and/or Sunday. But it's more than that. Like any runner, I can go to any race and even if I don't know anyone there, I'm still surrounded by friends. I meet folks that I've jabbered with on Facebook, but never officially met "in life". I'll introduce myself to folks more often than not with "I'm sorry, but I don't remember your name". At least these days I can blame it on age! We all share the many threads that make up our running selves.

Running has allowed me to figure out what I'm made of. Whether at mile 20 of a marathon, mile 35 of a 50 miler or mile 80 of a 100-miler, I always learn at these critical junctures in a race what's deep inside of me and will it keep me going forward. Oh, it's not an instant revelation of "So, this is what I'm all about", but rather one that hits you sometime long after the race has finished. You think about those dark moments in the run when the thoughts of quitting really didn't sound that bad, but something said "Ha, that's a good one" and on you pushed. One's character often comes out in times of great stress and suffering. And I've come to realize that, amid my flaws, I must have a strong character and the courage to endure because as much as I usually want to, I will hardly ever FULLY pack it in. But man, I sure can whine a lot during a race (just ask Moha). 

Running allows me to plan my day. My early-morning run  before the sun rises takes off the edge, making me just tired enough to focus on what's in front of me. My job as a Physical Therapist is not necessarily hard, but trying to convince some of these folks to exercise when they have no more desire to exercise than the Man in the Moon can be taxing, especially to somebody like me who loves to sweat! On the mornings I run, I can approach my patient load with a "Get-through-them-one-at-a time" attitude. 
Running brings emotion. Not the wide swing of emotions, but the ones that catch you by surprise. Running doesn't usually make me sob, although some of my runs have been pretty sad, but I remember when I finished my first Boston Marathon in 1995, I had a very unexpected, but controlled rush of happy tears. It just meant a lot. It was a different scene when I crossed the finish line at the Pikes Peak Marathon...instant uncontrolled sobbing. Not sure if it was just a release of emotions from finishing the toughest race I can remember being in, or if I was just relieved to get off the damn mountain before the thunderstorm got me. Another emotion is just one big "WOW". This happens every time I come to the top of a trail ridge where you can see what seems like forever. We have one such place here at Oak Mt called King's Chair. If you're blessed enough to make it to the top of the Blue Trail, you can literally see for 40 miles across the valley. If you don't say WOW to that, your heart is harder than the stone that King's Chair is made of!
Running brings out my competitiveness. I know, I'm 67 years old, and I pretty much finish last or daggum close to it in every race. I'm not racing anybody, but I get out there and think I'm moving along pretty good and although it might be pushing times I could clock with a sundial, I am running with (not against) my younger self. In the race I did Saturday, climbing up the 15-20%, one-mile long, White Trail (twice) is a killer. Back in the Day (God, I hate that term), I could run up at least part of it. Saturday, I looked like those newsreels of climbers taking their last steps before the conquering of Everest. But, I wasn't trying to conquer the trail this time. I was competitive to the point that if the mountain gave me anything, I would take it and give a big Thank You back. 

So I run knowing running makes me a better person, at least to myself. Those of us who have such a pursuit--be it painting, cooking, building model airplanes, etc.--I guess we're the lucky ones. We have an inner call that has to be answered. I don't want to make it more than it is, but to many of us, it is more than lacing up our shoes. 

I'll see you all on the roads and trails - AL

"One child lost is too many...one child saved can change the world"

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Doing It By Memory

"Sometimes distance running is as effortless as floating. Other times it's like giving birth" - Katie Arnold, ultrarunner

Surprisingly, mostly to myself, I managed to run another ultra a week ago, completing the Run For Kids 50k at Oak Mt. I meant to post this at least 5-6 days ago, but I was mired in a much too unfamiliar bout with bronchitis. More on that later. Ok, back to this 50k thing. Now, don't get me wrong, I wasn't blazing it and my only goal was to finish the daggum thing in fairly good shape. The RFK50 is run on what I affectionately call the "Sissy Trail". Oak Mt can have some significant long mother climbs that seem to go on forever at about a 15% grade, but this 3.3 mile loop has about 90' of elevation each loop. Just some constant PUDS (Pointless Ups & Downs). On those tougher runs with those long mother hills, the walking sections are pretty much determined for you..."I've got to walk this hill"..."I've got to walk. There's a hill coming up"..."I see a hill way out there. Think I'll walk now". But, on the Sissy Trail, you're reduced to walking when you get the first wave of  fatigue (or the first wave of imagined fatigue). Without it being set out before you, it's damn embarrassing to walk a piddly incline that's barely more than you'd see on a residential driveway. But, there it is.

So, this run is basically 10 loops through the woods, which to some sounds incredibly boring. But, if you set your head right, it really is quite pleasant. The main (and only) aid station is never far away. You really don't have to carry anything at all. I chose to carry a water bottle because I always train on the trail with one and would feel positively nekked without it. By the 6th loop or so, you pretty much have every rock and root memorized and know how far it is from here to there. That makes it cozy mentally. It's pretty impossible to get lost...Well, almost, as Moha, my invaluable running partner, actually ran off course during the 8th loop. If I wasn't right behind him, he would have merrily ran his way into the next county.

I'm not going to give a loop-by-loop account of this race, because that WOULD be incredibly boring. But, here are some of my observations from last weekend:

I've gotten extremely slow in doing these runs, but it's amazing how satisfied I feel that I'm doing them. I think I said to Moha during the race "Why do I feel so good about doing these when we suck so bad?". Actually, the only thing that sucks is my speed when I compare it Days of Yonder. But, that shouldn't come as any surprise...I'm a hundred years old, I've got two ankles out of warranty, and most of all, for the past three years, I've only averaged about 25 miles a week in training. But, I find great delight (and surprise) that I can slowly cruise through 31 miles where I'm not really going THAT much slower at the end than I am at the start. So, with all this, I guess you can pretty much do this by memory as long as you have a good base and don't expect more out your body than is realistic. I really think the most important part of trail running is that most races are going to have some steep hills in them, so you better train on the hills. I think this is more important than putting in God-awful mile upon mile for hour upon hour.

My nutrition during this run was pretty straight forward. Up until about mile 25, I drank strictly water, and had one Peanut Butter Gu each loop. I used to be Gatorade junkie, but the more I read about hydration, it seems that there are better ways to get electrolytes in you than Sugar Water. I carry some Nuun tablets with me if I feel my electrolytes are tanking, but I didn't use any in this race. You just add these to your water bottle and are purely electrolytes. The last two trips through the aid station, I drank Coke (I know, the Ultimate Sugar Water), which I wish was de-fizzed, and a bite of great Ham & Cheese wraps (plus the Gu). As I do more of these runs (this was #141 over 3+ decades), I seem to have discovered Coke, both as a late-in-the-race drink and as a go-to drink immediately after the run. I'm not saying Coke as a brand name, but as a generic sugary soft drink. Anybody else find that this really works quick to pick you up? Guess it doesn't matter if it's in my head or not, but I'm convinced it helps, so I'll keep it up until I crash on it someday and then I'll find another miracle.

Friends are invaluable. I've posted many times about my runs with Moha. We run basically the same pace, fatigue at the same points, argue enough about everything and love the game of European Soccer. We basically have a good time for a whole day in the woods every time we run. But, in addition, on a course like this, we are constantly being passed by the front runners. This race also had a 12 Hour Run going on, but unless you saw the color of their bib (which is pinned on the front, making it hard to see when they come screaming on you from behind), you mostly didn't know what race they were in. But, I will say that, without a doubt, every runner that passed always had a friendly word to say, be it encouragement, friendliness, or concern (as in "Are you OK? You're moving mighty slow"). When you finish the race, the leaders are on their 3rd beers, but they still take the time to clap and offer a genuine form of "Good Job". It seems like at the end of most races up to the marathon, the first question other runners ask you is "What was your time?", but honestly, when you finish one of these, time just doesn't seem that important. A hand shake, a fist bump, or a good ol' slap on the back is what you want and it's what you get. Yes, friends are invaluable.

Usually, I recover pretty quickly from these runs, but this has been a little different. The weekend before the race, somehow, my Superhuman immune system allowed it to be taken over by some alien strain of bronchitis, stopping my running for a week...Crazy tapering! So, I reluctantly made a trip to Dr. Doc-in-the -Box, got a shot and anti-biotics and was able use smoke and mirrors and finish the 31 miles through the forest. Can we all say relapse? I wasn't as sick, but these coughing attacks brought about by what feels like a hairball of feathers in my throat is driving me nuts. I went out for something this morning for 8 miles, but it sure wasn't what I call a run. Holy cow! I felt like I was in the last stage of a stress test. Oh well, I've got two weeks before my next race. The Crazy Taper continues.

Ok, finally, a word of praise for a couple of fellow BUTS (Birmingham Ultra Trail Society) buddies. 100% of the proceeds of this race went to Camp Smile-a-Mile, an Alabama camp for children with cancer. Donna Arrington, still coming back from foot surgery, raised over $2000 doing over 54 miles in the 12 Hour Run. Great job Donna. And then there's Suman. Surely you remember him from a few posts ago...he's the one that bumped UP from 50 miles to the 100 miles at the Lake Martin Ultras the night before and finished his 1st hundred miler in 25 hours! Well, he did it again...get this...bumping up from the 10k to the 12 Hour the day before. He did 60.5 miles! I saw him this morning and he sounded like the 60.5 miles pretty much did him instead of the other way around. Quite a string of performances Suman. He swears he's cutting back for a while...yeah, right!

Ok, and now I have to figure out the antidote to this Kryptonite poisoning and get my Superhuman powers back. Until next time, welcome the warm weather, run smooth, force fluids, and be sure to wash your hands.

I'll see you on the roads and trails - Al

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