Changing Plans

Sometimes when you think life is done throwing you curveballs for a while, sometimes the biggest one is yet to come.

Please forgive my subsequent melodramatic musings. They’re certainly not intended to be written with an air of self-pity and I hope they don’t come across that way, but I’m a verbal processor and to write things out makes them make more sense sometimes. More importantly, I know that I have learned a lot from other people by listening to or reading about their struggles and setbacks when they’ve been honest and transparent enough to reveal them. Sometimes it is easy to think that everyone is all-optimism and all-success all the time. But it’s just a facade, all of it.

We tend to all have a semblance of a plan–or a script–in mind for our lives, things rarely happen precisely according to that plan though, so hopefully it’s a fluid plan, but a plan nonetheless.

I went up to Vail last week to have a chat with the doc who had scoped my knee for a fairly minor meniscus tear a few years ago. I had struggled again pretty consistently with the same knee since early last fall, and it had taken all the fun out of running and training, being tough to ignore with its aggravatingly sharp pain every time I landed on my left leg.  I decided that two months in the pool and on the bike should’ve been adequate enough to set things right again. Since that didn’t appear to be the case however, I decided to consult him for some added insight.
We chatted briefly and shortly thereafter I found myself laying in the banging, clicking, clattering, and not to mention expensive, Tunnel of Truth (for better or worse), also known as an MRI. Later that day, he took a look at the images. Words and phrases like “articular cartilage fissuring,” and “subchondral edema,” and “microfracture surgery” were thrown around, and I walked out a few minutes later feeling sucker-punched and with a lot to consider.
If you know anatomy, then you know that none of the aforementioned things in that particular highly weight-bearing area of that particular body part bodes all that well for any of us who want to run miles and race for years to come. Realistically, it is not a truly repairable issue, at this time there is not a 100% effective fix–particularly for the long-term–and what “fixes” are available carry a relatively high likelihood of significantly altering your running or eventually obliterating it altogether. So it’s a conundrum: some people rebound and run and race for many more years, a lot don’t, there are definitely success stories, but it seems for the most part it’s a crapshoot. Somehow, we can fly to the moon and explore the depths of the Mariana Trench, but we can’t fix our own cartilage. I really didn’t expect anything all that significant at all, but rather something along the lines of some stubborn tendonosis or what have you, accompanied maybe by a prescription for a hard core anti-inflammatory that basically eats your stomach lining and dissolves your liver, and orders to keep pool running for a couple more weeks before gradually building back up, but that just wasn’t the case.
Standing outside the clinic in Vail Village and looking up at the snowy ski slopes that I ran up many times the last couple of summers, thoughts of a stellar, much-anticipated upcoming mountain season played through my mind like a movie reel just as they had when acting as the “carrot” to spend hours cross training over the last few weeks. I had to push them aside for the moment, and I sort of wished that I had not made this appointment. Sometimes you’re better off with your own preconceived notions.
It’s always easy to downplay and trivialize our own feelings about things, and it’s easy enough to think, “It’s not the end of the world so quit being a wuss,” but that’s not really fair to do to ourselves. Just because something is not the end of the world, just because it might not make so much as a single dent in the lives of the eight billion other people on this earth, doesn’t make it trivial. It doesn’t mean it can’t feel like the end of our world.
But in putting my emotions aside in an attempt to think more rationally, practically, and clearly about the situation, I’m optimistic, but also realistic. While I certainly trust the folks up at the Steadman Clinic and believe that doctors and surgeons for the most part in most places have our best interests as athletes and people at heart, I also know that surgeons sell…well, surgeries…and we all have to pay the bills. So given that, there is a certain proclivity to jump to certain conclusions, so I take some of it with a grain of salt and plan to get plenty of advice and do my own research and go with my own gut along the way. I am not about to put blind faith in anybody to pull the trigger on something with a questionable outcome that I cannot undo without first trying every other conceivable option. Furthermore, you have to be careful, because once you become aware that a problem exists, it can be easy for your mind to make it 100x what it really is. The great thing about MRI’s is that they show a lot, but the bad thing about MRI’s is that they show a lot. Maybe what appears to be your problem is not really your problem, but because you’ve seen it, it’s assumed to be the problem. At any rate, keeping with the assumption that the problem really is what it looks like the problem is, it is a knee problem and not a death sentence. If done right, it’s also quite possibly not even a death-to-running sentence, and even if it was, runners do crazy shit and defy expectations and odds all the time everyday, just take a look at what Dave Mackey is up to, the guy has one leg for God’s sake.
When it comes to addressing these types of issues in athletes, currently it is more about finding the “least worst” treatment option, but there are amazing experimental treatments taking place, so there are a lot of options to explore including the possibility that with time and patience, nothing may need to be done for a long while and many more miles. It will be a lot of waiting and seeing and experimenting and improvising, but I will figure it out.
The best could very well still be yet to come, that’s what I’m planning on anyway. Although I have no idea
what the path from here to there looks like right now. And if I am deluding myself, then so be it. If your supposed “delusions” are what keep the fire burning, then by all means keep them alive. I think we all have a reason for having it within us to pursue a certain something–whatever that may be–relentlessly, even if we can’t always quite pin down the “why” behind it all. Whatever that thing is, it can and will mangle your heart to shreds sometimes because you won’t be able to help but to care a little too much about it. There’s a fine line between naivety and optimism though, and it would be naive of me to ignore that the reality is that I might have to come to grips with what I will do and be without running–which has in many ways more or less directed the course of much of my life for years–and that it is not okay, yet it has to be. It is so much more than simply having to “find other interests.” It is a weird sense of being faced with a mortality of a different sort. But it ain’t over till it’s over, and when it is, we’ll know it’s over.
 A few months ago I got this super weird and totally awesome print of a “mouth painting” by Drew Graham (read his story here. Seriously, take 3 minutes and do it.):
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It sounds so corny, so bear with me please, but I saw it several months ago when I was creeping on his website. It would be incomprehensible to even begin to compare this young guy’s ordeal to anything I or most others that I know have ever had to face, but when I saw it I had to have it. I got it to remind myself that the most seemingly senseless, unjust, and unexpected things can happen, and you won’t understand it at all. The path that you had in mind for yourself can change at the drop of a hat, and you might have to completely reinvent yourself by no choice of your own. But you can still take that situation and make something crazy and beautiful from it. Even though very few people may ever really “get it,” in the process you can give those people much more valuable and meaningful things to take away than you ever would have if your script had played out exactly as you had planned.
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The Next Right Thing

Mountain season ended on a high note back in September at Mt. Baldy in California, despite a less than stellar showing at Pikes Peak a couple of weeks earlier. Aside from slightly tumultuous life events taking place at the time, running-wise I was feeling pretty great. I decided it was time to resurrect the XC spikes, and my (very limited) leg speed–gone dormant from months of running straight up–so I started getting the legs turning over again on the flat, fast gravel of Monument Valley Park and the Santa Fe Trail, excitedly anticipating Club Cross Country Nationals, where Pikes Peak Elite Track Club would make its team debut (side note: turns out just about everyone was hurt, or rebounding from marathons, or both, so Amanda was our lone representative. Maybe next year). I love cross country, and I’ve missed it, and often I’ve really missed having a team to race with too.

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Old and new faces at the Mt. Baldy Run-to-the-Top last Labor Day.

But when will I learn? I think a large part of the reason, if not THE reason, that I’ve stayed relatively healthy for a the majority of the last two years (a post-college PR!) is that my mechanics do well with lots of variety in regards to terrain and pace, and exceptionally so with climbing. I’ve joked with people that whenever I do long runs and workouts that are all uphill, that’s pretty much the only time that only the things that are supposed to hurt actually hurt in the way they’re supposed to hurt. There are rarely any unusual aches and pains to stave off, I’m pretty sure the slower velocity and the resulting decreased necessity for as much stability and coordination has more than a little to do with it. But toss me onto the roads, track, or even a flat dirt loop to do speed work for even half the mileage I run during mountain season, and I’m beat up on the reg.

So what do I do once I feel like I’ve gotten some long lost momentum back from stringing together several healthy months (finally)? That’s right, go right back to doing what kept me perpetually injured on and off for years! Duh. Like a dummy. And what is it that they say? If it’s not broken don’t fix it? Yeah that.

Like 800-meter runner Phoebe Wright said once, when it comes to running, you better “get wise before you get old.” I’ve definitely noticed that a sub-30 year old body responds a bit differently to poor running choices than does a 30-plus year old one. It’s like glimpsing your own mortality. Crap.

Long story somewhat short, it seems that a few weeks of faster running followed by a race with some college kids at the CU Shootout last October awakened an old nagging knee issue, that started back in late 2012, which turned out to be a meniscus tear, which I then had an uneventful surgery on in late fall of 2013, and then proceeded to come back way too fast from to get ready for…well, Club Cross Country in Bend that December. Worth it? Eh…debatable. It’s been a bit finicky ever since, but not typically problematic and more or less forgettable. At any rate, here I am, a month after scrapping any real running in favor of a lot of time on the bike and in the pool, but to not much avail so far. I’m admittedly getting somewhat concerned.

Beyond just running, to say that the last few months have been a test of ones’ ability to rebound and persevere would be a slight understatement. In short, I lost a job–a dream job, to me at least–late last summer a couple of days prior to Pikes Peak. I know, I know, it happens to many people and most of the time it isn’t personal. But that doesn’t stop it from feeling personal. I’ve seen it happen to other people, but I had never given it much thought, thinking they’d easily bounce back and land on their feet doing something else that they’re good at, and maybe even be a lot happier. In hindsight, I’m disappointed in myself for trivializing their struggles, because now I know that it ain’t that easy.  What makes it tougher is that often in the corporate world, people seem to equate “professionalism” with “being devoid of humanity,” where everything is simply a business transaction, and that’s just not true. You can certainly pretend like it is, but that’s its own kind of hustle. But that’s just how it goes sometimes.

It brought to mind a day my junior year of college, when our coach was let go to be replaced, and the stunned, resigned, monotone voicemail he left me saying, “My services aren’t needed by the university anymore, I’m really going to miss seeing and working with all of you guys everyday, and I wish you luck.” I was sad for him, but recalled him sometimes talking about retiring so I didn’t think he could really be that upset. But I guess it’s much different when you get to do that on your own terms. I didn’t quite grasp what he was feeling.

Regardless, it was so blindsiding and unexpected that subsequent weeks felt, and often still feel, as though there is a cinder block in my stomach. Sadness, confusion, denial, and admittedly pride, kept me from telling too many people aside from those who might offer further employment opportunities. With a somewhat perfectionistic personality, common to so many of us in this sport, it is difficult not to internalize something like that as a tremendous failure–like seeing a failing grade on a test that you expected to ace, or finishing dead-last in a race that you ran a huge PR in–and you go over things in your mind trying to figure out what you should have done differently or better to prevent such an outcome, even if it really wasn’t preventable at all. The result: anxiety. Stress. Constantly. Lots of it. Over the future, over your perceived shortcomings, over your source of income (or lack thereof), over everything. The kind of worry where when you go to bed at night, you hope you wake up and find out it was just a bad dream. I tried to convince myself that it was okay, maybe even a blessing in disguise, and that it would all work out. And it will, eventually. But in any case, the cliche adage of denial being more than a river is indeed true. I got stressed out, I was angry, I tried to “run it off,” in addition to suddenly trying to train differently, and now I’m hurt, and so it goes.

As an aside, numerous studies have correlated high stress levels and resultant negative mindsets to upticks in injury rates. By all means, run hard and blow off some steam, but please run responsibly. It’s science. PSA foreclosed. Take heed, and if you take nothing else from this post, at least take that.

It seems like the same few people always turn up in my life every time I’m metaphorically shooting the flare gun and Morse-coding S.O.S. for the rescue chopper to come save me (again) from my own ship that I somehow managed to sink myself. Or maybe I subconsciously seek them out. Either way, God bless ’em. When you’re balling, everyone is balling with you, but when you’re not, things can get a little dicey with only your worst thoughts for company. One of the aforementioned people is my friend, veteran mountain runner extraordinaire and physical therapist Simon Gutierrez, who has weathered more than his own fair share of running sh*t-storms. Truth is, as far as running goes, there is nobody I’d rather talk to when the crap is hitting the fan, and I’ll never be able to repay him no matter how much exotic booze I get for him to add to his liquor cabinet. He has a way of convincing you that, whatever is happening and come what may, it will be okay. You will be okay.

Conveniently, he is getting his dry-needling certification and needs willing participants, so I went down to Alamosa to be his voluntary pin-cushion for a few days, in an effort to alleviate, or rule out, a muscular issue. And I tell you what, there is no better combination than whiskey, Christmas carols, and dry-needling, all together at the same time, to cure your achy-breaky heart…even if it doesn’t cure your achy-breaky body.

I don’t know if it’s a bad or good thing that by now, such setbacks seem routine enough to really not be off-putting, you just get used to it; feel the sting of disappointment, accept it, then shoulder it, bite the bullet, come up with a game plan, and start grinding away doing what you still can do, in the hopes that when the stars do align again, you’ll have done everything you could do to create the best possible outcome so that you’ll never have to wonder. You will, after all, someday not get to do this anymore. Besides, you don’t get to control much in this whirlwind of life besides what you put into it with the time that you have, so get after it. The worst handicap you can give yourself is a victim mentality.

In the running realm, 2017 was great for the most part, and I want 2018 to be better. I’d really, really like to be on that team to go to Andorra next year for the World Mountain Champs. 2018 is an up-year, USA’s is at Loon Mountain next July, and geez do I ever have some unfinished business with that course, and with myself.

“Just do the next right thing,” my buddy Tim “Bergy” Bergsten said to me last week while I voiced my present bewilderment over everything from jobs to running to everything in the news to life in general.

“The next right thing might be going to work, it might be drinking more coffee, or it might be going for a run,” he continued. “Just do what feels like the next right thing.”

Black Canyon, Mt. Washington, USA’s, Pikes Peak…they all seem so many months away, yet way too soon at the same time. There are so, so many things that could change between then and now, and some things I just want to be shut of. But life can change–or even end–on a dime, as I feel like I’ve seen a lot of this year, and again, you control surprisingly little of it. So in trying to stay in the present so as to not find myself in over my head in my own head, I guess I’ll just do the next right thing. I’ll admit that I’m not entirely sure what that thing looks like right now, I just know that it doesn’t look like apathy, or despondence, or quitting.

Until next time folks, Merry Christmas and “Illegitimi non carborundum”: don’t let the bastards get you down.

 

New Starting Lines?

“How do you know when it’s time to hang them up?”

Over recent years, I can recall a couple of my far more talented running friends wonder aloud this very sentiment that has been quietly–or sometimes not so quietly–festering in the back of my mind now for the last several months, or perhaps even longer. Either way, I finally had to acknowledge to myself the presence of such a question, even though it’s the one that I think that any runner at any level who has relentlessly pursued any goal–however realistic or not–are all most reluctant to say aloud, because there is always the question of are you giving up, or simply moving on? The latter is acceptable, the former is not, but it can sometimes be surprisingly hard to tell the difference. And then there is the question of do you really, truly, want to move on? Do you? Or is it just a rough patch in life making everything else seem rough too? I struggle sometimes with compartmentalizing things in life. Often, one thing effects many others, even though they’re seemingly unrelated. On top of that, it’s embarrassing, for lack of a better word, to acknowledge that we might have found some kind of limit, whether physical or mental, and that the energy to continue just isn’t there anymore for whatever reason.

It’s not as though I have ever made a living off of this sport. It’s not, and has never been, a “career” in the sense of providing a livable income. Mostly, I just love doing it, and that’s always been the primary motive. Certainly, over the years I’ve been lucky enough to always have my shoe/gear needs taken care of, and very often race expenses as well, but I’ve only ever really been “sponsored” by a job and my own debit card. Still, that doesn’t detract from the mental, physical, and emotional energy that has been invested in toiling after goals that never really have a guaranteed outcome. As much as we all love the process, occasional great outcomes can definitely serve to reinforce that love to a degree. When the outcome is the desired one, it is so worth it, but when it’s not, and often repeatedly not, especially when you start “getting on in your years,” it can leave you wondering how to continue to justify your particular obsession, or if perhaps you’re just grasping at straws, and maybe it is time for a new starting line.

There is an old FloTrack interview featuring Kara Goucher, when she wrestled with the question of retiring from professional running several years ago. The question that made up her mind for her was when she was asked, “How does it feel to think about life without doing this?” (“This” being running for a living) and her response was:

“It makes me sad.”

Although her situation is obviously much different from most runners’ given that it is much more for her than just a passion and the pursuit of goals for the simple sake of seeing how good she could get, I think the feeling is pretty universal if you care at all about whatever you’re doing.

“It makes me sad.”

Yes, it makes me sad to think of not having having goals to chase after and the gamble of putting in effort in the hopes of eventually having your day, and then having it. Half the joy lies in that gamble, and I have yet to find really anything that provides the same satisfaction and that subsequent cathartses-induced inner peace, short-lived though it may be. I think that’s why so many of us keep at it for so long. Part of the beauty of this sport is that as long as the body allows you to keep going, you can, and there is always more to chase. And it makes me sad to think of not having that race day nervousness of anticipating seeing all of your hard work–that, better yet, never really felt all that much like work anyway–hopefully come to fruition, and it makes me sad to think of becoming a NARP (Non Athletic Regular Person), and it makes me sad to think of that huge part of my life maybe no longer being quite so huge anymore, I can’t really imagine life without it. And also wondering if there really were stones left unturned along the way that might’ve made all the difference. But, no answers can really come to that last question, and in any situation, I guess you can really only ever do what you know how to do with the information that you have at the time.

But the other side of the coin, the side that refuses to let “it makes me sad” be the answer, is one of frustration and a general feeling of complete ridiculousness. Frustration at how much you might be limiting other opportunities in life just by obsessively wanting to maintain a situation that creates an environment so that you might be able to have just ONE more good go at what you want to accomplish, frustration with the fact that it is always a gamble, frustration perhaps with an annoyingly slightly less-than-durable body, and all enveloped within that feeling of complete ridiculousness that you’re no longer fresh out of college with the running world as your oyster, so why are you endlessly trying to recreate that time of life?

And mostly, frustration at not knowing when it’s time to move on, because this thing made you YOU, and it is hard to cultivate a whole new identity. And even harder perhaps, is knowing that there is the possibility that you still have unfinished business that you might one day regret not attending to.

Shucks. I got so much better at not overthinking this running/life thing for a while there.

Maybe my melancholy musings have been brought on by post-mountain-season blues, maybe I left my mojo up on Pikes Peak a few months ago or something, or maybe there have been too many solo runs on dark and cold mornings lately, or maybe it is this prevailing feeling of being adrift and perpetually anxious and uncertain about a future that I thought I was finally starting to figure out, or the somewhat worrisome, persistent, niggle in my knee that cropped up a few weeks ago that’s begun to suck the fun out of every recent run, all exacerbated by frustration at bearing witness to so much unfairness lately that it has made me wonder if it’s really worth ever fighting for anything…but now we’re just getting way too dark, so we’ll back on out of that particular rabbit hole. I should just stop reading the news. These other things are, after all, mostly fixable and temporary things experienced by nearly everyone at some time or another, and I know that I am lucky to have ways of fixing them, even if those ways involve one of my least favorite activities: being patient.

Regardless, lately running has not been the comforting friend it has always been. Rather, it is shrouded by a pervasive and uncharacteristic feeling of “going through the motions” just to create some feeling of normalcy. I don’t recognize that in myself, and I don’t know why it’s there, or how to fix it, and it’s made the question of whether or not to “hang them up” rattle loudly around in my skull. Because what else do you do when the thing that normally allows you to figuratively and quite literally run away from your cares suddenly just seems to mysteriously amplify them?

I keep hoping for some sign or some divine intervention, even if it’s in the form of a divine swift kick in the ass. I keep thinking maybe if I close this door, a million other doors might open in its place, it wouldn’t be the first time.

But the thought of closing that door makes me sad, so maybe that’s the answer right there.

IMG_3539.JPGThe “bright side” to those dark, early morning runs.

Shades of Green and Gorillas

    Nearing the end of my 31st trip around the sun, I’ve found myself in possibly the most peculiar season of life that I have ever encountered. I won’t go into great detail here, partly because I try to make these things relatable for like the two or three people who read them by “painting with broad strokes” if you will, but also partly because, truth be told, I would have a great deal of trouble articulating exactly what I mean. Furthermore, a blog is for public consumption, and we all have to draw the line somewhere.

    I run nearly every single mile totally solo. Not because I’m anti-social by any means, but because I savor solitude, and that solitude is also part of what keeps me excited and willing to spend the majority of every day interacting with people virtually non-stop. It also affords an opportunity to mull things over, chew on things, or sometimes just “run away” from things altogether for a little while. You know, like going running with your demons, and then they have an asthma attack a couple miles in, so then they leave you alone for the rest of the run. It’s great. There are few things in this life that running through the woods or mountains can’t solve, at least for a while. Whatever whirlwind you find yourself in in your life, it’s rare that running can’t bring you back to center.

    But for the last several weeks, being out on the trails and spending that time in my own head, which is normally my favorite part of the day, has felt more like running with a 500 pound monkey on my back (I believe that is otherwise known as a gorilla) just chattering away and slapping me with his stupid banana peels until I pay attention to him. He even comes along for races like a big a**hole, somewhat muting the extra bit of “umph” that gives you that extra gear in a race or workout. I hope he leaves soon.

    I am generally able to look at situations in life that maybe didn’t pan out ideally or at all how I expected them to, but still be able to find the positives. No matter what happens, there are nearly always silver linings, or at the very least, something to learn, even if the lesson is a painful one. That’s life, it’s not a merry-go-round all the time, and that’s okay. But sometimes, albeit (and thankfully) very rarely, a situation or thing has no real positives, no matter how you spin it. Just watch the news to see numerous examples in action. Perhaps something that seemed completely benign, even beneficial, ended up impacting your life in ways that never would’ve foreseen, and not for the better, and you’re left reeling and trying to figure out which way is north, and now with a gorilla on your back slapping you with banana peels like a big, furry, bastard. What makes it tougher is when you get real with yourself and realize that, while you initially may have only been guilty of things like naivety and perhaps an idealistic view of people and the world around you, you created said situation, however unwittingly. It is so, so easy to excuse ourselves and take no ownership when things go wrong; you screw up in a race and it’s tempting to blame a coach, you screw up in life and it’s tempting to blame circumstances out of our control. But at the end of the day, we make our own choices, for better or for worse. Sometimes you have to look in the mirror and realize that you dug your own grave, and that can be one hell of a bitter pill to swallow.

     We are all guilty of always looking for the very greenest grass. It’s human nature to believe that the grass is always greener on the other side, or that everybody else’s grass is greener than ours. But I am starting to think that’s hardly ever true. Sometimes the grass is greenest right where you’re standing, even if there are some weeds to pull, and even if it’s not the exact type of grass that you thought you’d have. It doesn’t matter, if you find yourself with a plot of that grass, you water and fertilize the s**t out of it and see what grows anyway. Roll up those weeds and smoke them if you have to. If a wonderful opportunity is given to you on a silver platter, even if the platter has a stain, don’t throw it away for a silver platter that looks shinier, because it’s probably fake silver. Don’t fall for it.

      We all make mistakes, some bigger than others, some longer lasting than others, some more fixable than others, and you have to make peace with them and move on. You can either move on in bits and pieces, or rip off the Band-Aid all at once and bleed for a while until there is a scab, then try not to keep picking at the scab. I haven’t quite figured out which way is better, and I’m not particularly good at either.

    Dear Lord, enough with the melodramatic metaphors already. Somebody slap me. Just please not with a banana peel.

    At any rate, I’m thankful for health and for running and for the beautiful place that I get to live and run in, and for the second chances that seem to always materialize in some form or other eventually. In the meantime, if you see me running around with a gorilla on my back, don’t panic. In fact, feel free to join…and by all means bring your own gorilla.

Post-Pikes Post

‘Tis the most wonderful day (in Colorado Springs) of the year!

Seriously, I always liken PPA/PPM weekend in Colorado Springs to what the Boston Marathon weekend must feel like in Boston. Obviously this is much smaller scale, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. Starting just about as soon as the snow melts off the summit of Pikes, no matter what day you’re up there, you’re likely to run into dozens of familiar faces flying down or climbing up Barr trail, and it’s all that’s talked about in the COS running world. Yep, it’s one helluva season.
Last Saturday, Ascent day dawned bright and sunny and was the perfect late August morning, with just the tiniest hint of fall in the air (for like the first half hour of the race anyway), with an awesome sunrise over Manitou while we all jogged and pranced around nervously near the starting line, taking way too many nervous-pee trips, and generally doing things that would normally be looked at with puzzlement and maybe disdain in any situation besides that of preceding a race.
I didn’t come into the race knowing much about who would show up. I deliberately avoid looking at start lists and have done so since college, because I admit to getting overly nervous about basically everything, and that doesn’t ever help anything. But I knew plenty of talent was bound to show up regardless, and I never count anybody out or write anybody off (including myself). You just never know will happen, you never know who will have a great day, or who will have a rough go, and Pikes never seems to cease tossing curveballs.
Anyway, after lots of good luck wishes thrown around at the start line, the A wave got lined up, the gun went off and, wanting to not get bottlenecked in at the start of the W’s, mixed in with the men I ran with Anna Mae and Brandy Erholtz, slightly behind Addie Bracy and further behind the eventual winner, who I didn’t recognize, and we got out well but not crazy by any means.
It’s always fun running through the streets of Manitou with lots of spectators lining both sides of the street. It’s quite the electrifying environment. After we climbed Ruxton and hit the trail, we sort of lollygagged–but at a decent clip–up the W’s, since it can be a tricky section where you’re fresh enough to push hard, but its not a great place to go totally bananas and waste energy, because it’s steep and there is a looong ways to go. It was awesome to see Kim Dobson cheering at one of the turns early on, she had a baby in May, so she wasn’t here for us to chase this time.
I had set a goal of just being better than 2014. That is to say, I wanted to place higher than 3rd, or go sub 2:40, or both. But, turns out that I did neither. Interestingly, the ol’ lungs and ticker felt pretty darn good from start to finish (I mean, good for Pikes) I was working, but not down in the bottom of a deep, dark well, which sometimes happens up there.
Training and racing on Pikes is the only time in running that I ever experience any type of cramping. Generally though, if I’m running from base to summit, it’s right around A-Frame, and by that point, who even cares? Just suck it up for the last 5k. But today, it started riiiiight about…mile 4.5, shortly after the W’s. Which seemed early. Uh-oh.
First my calves got twitchy, then took turns knotting themselves up into Charlie horses every time I took a misstep, plantar flexed an ankle just a bit too much, or took a big step up onto a rock. It would last a few seconds where I’d hobble like a peg-legged pirate, and then would go away and then I’d run like a normal human again. It was more annoying than anything. And in a way, it took my focus off of the actual racing-hurt, because I was more concentrated on where and how to step to avoid making either calf decide to irritatingly spasm.
Oh good, only 9 more miles to go!
But whatever. Definitely manageable and aside from that, I was feeling good. Still, all I could think of was that at packet pick up the day before, I declined a free sample bottle of Hot Shot, like a big dummy. Soon, I watched the Salomon pink forms of Anna Mae and Addie gradually frolic away through the woods like tiny blonde forest-dwelling elves with flowing locks as we approached mile 5 or so, and I figured my goal of top 3 might not happen, but I wasn’t really worried, there’s still a ways to go so keep fighting the fight and never say die! Anything can still happen.
I snagged Gatorade from the volunteers (BLESS THEIR SOULS!) at the Barr Camp aide station, and it helped quite a bit for the climb up to A Frame, where my hip flexors were starting to join the party, which is normal for me at that point in the race, and I grabbed more Gatorade from the volunteers (BLESS THEIR SOULS!) at the A-Frame aid station.
Nonetheless, the crampage-rampage escalated a bit running through the “kitty litter” like sand that comprises the majority of the final 3 miles. I was lucky enough to catch up to Jesse Mascarenas and another gentleman who I didn’t know and ran with them the majority of the way to the summit, it would have been so much tougher in no (wo)man’s land, so I owe those boys big time. Still, breathing-wise I felt good enough (again, as good as one can feel up there), and my brain was actually decently functional enough to register a kazoo, a t-Rex, and Anna Frost. Brain functionality over the last couple miles was definitely not my jam last time I raced this. And while I was certainly tired by this point because this race is a real ball-buster, more than anything I was just frustrated that the legs weren’t on board with the brain, and I’m pretty sure the guys I was running with were slightly surprised every time my calf or quad seized up and I yelped out the F-bomb (probably 20 times over the course of the last 3 miles…sorry guys). Jesse, meanwhile, was high-fiving spectators right behind me like a champ. After all was said and done, it was a fourth place effort in 2:52-high. 
Afterward, while I was laying in the parking lot (yes I did) in Glen Cove down below with my friend and PPA veteran extraordinaire Simon, waiting for the ride the remainder of the way down and likely appearing strung out on those cool shrooms growing up by Barr Camp (what was really in the Gatorade at that aid station?), I picked apart some stuff. Rather than post-race in 2014 when admittedly my thoughts at this point were, “I’m probably not doing that again,” this time I was devising ways to do it again and better.
I wasn’t disappointed so much, I mean, sometimes there isn’t a whole lot else you can do, but I was still looking for errors. Maybe I didn’t spend enough training time on really steep stuff? Maybe I didn’t do enough long runs? Maybe I should’ve eaten more gosh darn bananas that week? Maybe it really was as everybody said: the barometric pressure! The impending eclipse! The planetary alignment! No, seriously I think maybe I had some training oopsies and/or shouldn’t just tank up on water for two days preceding the race. But who knows? It’d be cool if every race was a guaranteed great one, but that would eliminate half the battle, and that’s no fun.
So, like I said, Pikes is tough and throws curveballs and keeps you on your toes and that’s why we all love her. Although I seem to vaguely recall a friend asking me at the finish if I needed anything, to which I replied, “Yes. My soul. I think I lost it down near A-Frame.” Before that interaction, the first words out of my mouth to Tim B. after crossing the line were, “This mountain is a real son of a b****.” No but seriously, we really do love her in some twisted, maniacal way. Why else would we keep coming back?
So, maybe it wasn’t the day that I wanted. Truthfully, I really believed I could win the thing and went in with that intention, knowing it was anybody’s race. But you can only do what you can do and that’s just how it goes and you roll with the punches and be grateful for what went right and learn from what went wrong, and plenty of things have gone right. On top of that and maybe more importantly, having spent this season following numerous peoples’ “Pikes Peak Quests” if you will, I realize that my bad day would be many peoples’ best day. And I don’t mean that in a bragging sense, so let me explain. Running well takes a great deal of hard training, but it also takes a great deal of luck, opportunity, God-given talent, and, let’s be real, genetics. I don’t consider myself to be an “elite” in this sport, but I still know how fortunate I am to consider my day to be sub-par, because somebody else would be completely over the moon for it. I know so many folks who were happy just to finish, and I see their excitement and gratitude at accomplishing it, so I’m just gonna be amped that I’m healthy and running and thankful for another Pikes in the books. It was as amazing of an experience as it always is, podium or not.
Still, me and Pikes have some unfinished business now, so I guess I’ll have to have another crack next year.
Keep fightin’ the fight folks, it’s all you can ever do. Always better days ahead.

‘Tis the Season

bighornsI remember my first trip up to train on the summit of Pikes back in the summer of 2014 one morning shortly after Mt. Washington, and glancing up to see my first bighorn sheep up close as I was picking my way across the Cog Railroad tracks up top to descend on to the trail below. On my first trip up there this year, there wasn’t just one sheep, but a whole herd, complete with baby bighorn sheep (bighorn lambs?). If I believed in omens, which I don’t, I would hope that would be a sign of bighorn sheep caliber mountain running prowess to come. Regardless, every trip up the Peak is always an adventure.

This season hasn’t seen quite the number of trips up Pikes as my last go-around training for this thing. Work obligations have often whisked me away to other areas. But hey, can’t run up Pikes Peak? There’s always Aspen Mountain, Vail Mountain, or even Sandia Peak in the event one finds oneself in New Mexico, and others. So, it’s easy to improvise wherever I find myself. Although the slightly more obsessive side of myself was initially annoyed at the fact that I might not know every inch of the course this year, I’ve found lots of solace in the fact that last time I raced this, the two ladies who trounced me (hi, Allie and Morgan!) spent minimal to no time up there. And having only raced it once, I’ve been told by numerous veterans that they in fact raced better the years they didn’t spend as much time training on the mountain.

But I figure I should make the most of the time that I do get to spend up there. I did a slew of workouts up there training for this last time, at least two a week for the couple of months leading up to the race, but I really don’t recall what all they were or what times I was shooting for or ended up running or what, so…blank slate to work with here. All I really remember is that I was a hurting unit starting at about 12,000 feet during the race.

I’m certainly no exercise physiologist, and I “coach” myself, for better or for worse. In an effort to avoid overthinking, I decided that I should just do a bunch of hard things at that elevation and above and see how it works out. I mean, at the end of the day that’s the name of the game right? Run hard uphill up high. I think I can already run uphill, but can I run uphill when there is no air in the air? I struggle. But don’t we all. So let’s work on that.

So there’s been a lot of things along the lines of: start at summit, warm up running down to A-Frame (during which time I acquire even more respect for those brave souls willing to tackle the Marathon. Running downhill is hard.), run hard back up to the summit, go back down to A-Frame, run hard from 3 to go to 2 to go, recover for 3 minutes or so, then 2 to go to 1 to go, recover again, and finally 1 to go to the finish. Or my other favorite: start at summit, run the 6 miles down to Barr Camp, tempo run the 3 miles back up to A-Frame, recover for a few minutes, then do second half of the previously mentioned workout to the finish. Whatever. Just run uphill hard at the elevations you struggle the most.

The same thought always crosses my mind up there:

“Can’t tell if suddenly really out of shape, or trying to run hard up a mountain at 14,000 feet. Eff.”

Another thing sort of messing with my head (let’s face it, is anything ever going to not mess with my head?!) is the overall less volume of mileage run this time around in comparison to a couple years ago. Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of miles going into the bank, but in spending the last several months reassessing how to train a bit better without always winding up perpetually banged up, sometimes you have to think up other ways to skin the cat. In this case, running just enough miles–no “fluff” miles and no running for running’s sake just because I can’t control myself–and then spending several additional hours a week cross training pretty hard. I have no idea how this will translate, or even if it will, and talk is certainly cheap, but regardless, I feel darn good. But maybe too good. And what if I shouldn’t feel good? Oh crap. We’ll see. We are each an experiment of one I suppose.

Anyway, however much I love being on the mountain, my old friends the Sixteen Golden Stairs are as annoying as ever. Yes, scrambling over a pile of boulders a couple hundred meters from the finish sort of cramps my style (that’s really just a nice way of saying, “Help. I’m really uncoordinated and fall on things a lot.”), and I know on race day it will be even more of a booger given the added state of hypoxia combined with the 13 uphill miles that will already be in the legs by that point. I can always think of numerous adjectives to describe said stairs, none of which would be “golden.” Also, I still think the name is misleading and it’s a bit of a mystery to me as to how it acquired such a namesake. I believe one of the following would be more accurate:

  1. Stairs?
  2. Leaden Legs
  3. Elephant on Chest
  4. Rocks.
  5. No air, don’t care! JK yes I do.

I jest. I’m not really a big whiner. At least I try not to be. It just wouldn’t be our beloved Ascent without looking up to see the finish line (or in the Marathoners’ case, the turnaround) after conquering those Golden Stairs.

Yes folks, ‘tis the season! May the marmots keep on chirping and the bighorns keep on grazing. T-Minus-Less-Than-A-Month and it’s go time. I’m excited. Run on, fellow mountain goats!16 golden

On Super Mario and Mt. Washington

I really thought that I would have loads to say after Mt. Washington a few weekends ago. It was, after all, anxiously anticipated by me for weeks. And months. And to sort of a weirdly obsessive extent. There have really only been a couple of previous occasions where I was as nervous as I was on race day this go-around, given that the ultimate goal for the last couple years was to win it again, and one only has so much control over an outcome.

So pop quiz: what do Super Mario and Mt. Washington have in common? About as much as you may think. In other words, nothing really. But, descend with me for a moment, into the black hole of lunacy otherwise known as my imagination.

For months this race loomed in my psyche in much the same way as—bear with me for a moment here, I’m trying real hard to convey the feeling adequately—the inevitable duel that Super Mario knew that he would eventually be subject to with King Bowser in level 8 of the original Super Mario Brothers. Mario spends level after level fighting small fry mariovillains: those little turtles and evil mushrooms (I’ve never understood the recurring mushroom theme in that game) and Venus fly traps and whatever else (I really don’t remember, I mean, this was the 90’s folks, and I was like 5 years old.) all so that he can take on Bowser and rescue the Princess!

Now to complete my weird analogy: I ran a bunch of workouts and local races (that is to say, I fought evil mushrooms and winged turtles, metaphorically speaking) for several months, with some good ones in there that buoyed me up like an Extra-Life, and a few bad ones and occasional bumps in the road that necessitated going back and starting the level over again, all in the hopes of ultimately defeating King Bowser (Mt. Washington).

And I did, and I didn’t die and get a Game Over, and finally I rescued the Princess instead of being thwarted by a diaper-wearing toadstool:princess

Forgive me. I really had to reach for all of that. But that is what it felt like.

No but in all seriousness, let’s talk reality for just a sec, even though I suck at that. Although I promise to spare everyone an actual mind-numbing race recap.

Race day was a wonderful day accompanied by the usual abundance of wonderful humans who always seem to be a part of that particular race, though with a  notable few missing (Kim Dobson and Peter Maksimow to name a couple from the usual crew of Coloradoans). Times were a fair bit slower across the board for everybody, likely attributed to the warm and somewhat muggy conditions of race day. I’m also told there was an “inversion.” I don’t know what that means. For a mountain that boasts the highest recorded wind-speeds on earth, there wasn’t a puff of wind to be found either above or below treeline. Still though, it’s always easy to say you could’ve run faster if this or that, and that might be true, or it might not be. Because really, if it wasn’t hot and humid, it could’ve been hurricane-caliber winds, or snow, or who knows what else. Everyone fights the same conditions, all you can ever do is show up and throw down. Bowser don’t care.

Cool. So now I just said all of that right after I began this post with the claim that I didn’t really have anything profound to say regarding the race. Super Mario analogy aside, I suppose the reason I feel that way is because I anticipated it so much for so long, and felt like I had so much to prove to myself (namely, to prove to myself that I still had “it.” Whatever “it” actually even is.). I suppose I thought that accomplishing what I had made a pact with myself to achieve about this time last year, would somehow be a total game-changer. And I did feel pretty good about it, it’s always comforting to find in this sport that yes, you can have a crummy year or two or five, but you can always get back on the horse and keep fighting the fight and you’ll be A-Okay, and maybe this shouldn’t be so surprising when it happens.

While I enjoyed it, and was happy about it, and thankful for it, and I appreciated it, and I fully intend to do it again, I went back home afterward and it was business as usual. While I’m sure Mario’s winning the heart of Princess Peach following his epic battle might have altered the course of his pixelated life, a much-anticipated race followed by an equally anticipated outcome does not. At one time, a good race result certainly would have dictated how I felt about life, but now it doesn’t. Perhaps that sounds like a bad thing? It’s not. Hooray for personal happiness and self-identity not being inextricably intertwined with a race outcome. That’s how I see it at least. So, I suppose that there was at least one slight epiphany that resulted from the experience.

But, for anybody else who was a child of the late 80’s/early 90’s, we all know that Bowser just never really seemed to die and he just kept popping up in every sequel to kidnap the Princess again.

And sometimes, more often than not, as it turns out, we find that we are our own “Bowsers.”

Onward to the next level!bowser.png