January 31, 2016

Bandit 50k - Time to Play Again

They were only halfway through their pasta when I asked them. I knew the answer before I asked, but I needed to hear it said out loud.

“So, what do you girls like better, playing in a game or practicing?” Their response was unrehearsed, harmonic, and matter-of-fact. “Playing the game, of course! We hate water polo practice. It’s boring. Games are more fun, by far.” My daughters stood up and walked into the kitchen. I just sat there staring at the empty bowl in front of me. I realized, it was time for me to play again.

The last time I ran an official ultra was 14 months ago. The last time I ran in a 50k was over five years ago. I forgot how painful 31 miles can be. I got a refresher this weekend at the Bandit 50k.

Described as “one of the toughest trail runs around,” the Bandit 50k takes place in the Santa Susana Mountains east of the Angeles National Forest. The course is challenging but runnable, boasting 6’500 feet of ascent with a good mixture of smooth and technical single track mixed in with fire road.

I’m not sure what is better, signing up for a race months in advance or showing up at the race directors home to sign up the night before. I think I like the later because any race director that invites runners into their home has this sport figured out in my book. I knew it was going to be a good race when I showed up at Randy and Sarita Shoemaker’s home after 7 pm and they happily gave me my race packet. They even recommended I eat at Hook Burger, which turned out to be a great choice for a pre-race dinner.

Oh yea, the race. It was a fun day! One of my most memorable moments was high fiving 16 year old Felix Lawson near the turn around close to mile 15. As I reached out I saw him slowly remove his water bottle from his hand so he could give me a proper high five. We exchanged a couple of “good jobs.” He went on the win the race. Yes, at all of 16.

As I approached the turn around, I counted the runners in front of me, then made the turn and caught a glimpse of those behind me. I’ve learned not to dwell on other runners when running these races, but it keeps it interesting to watch as things play out. Anything can happen, and it usually does. By this time I was running in 5th place overall. The runners in front of me looked strong, I tried not to think about the runners behind me.

As the first 20 miles ticked away, I felt amazing, and started to muse that I’d found some secret form of training. Then reality set in. My lower back, left IT band, and both feet (Hoka-less) started screaming like spoiled brats to slow down. I came upon my friend and former running coach John Loeschhorn who was running the 30k. At 71, John was running strong as usual passing runners half his age.

The Bandit Ultra races include 50k, 30k and even 15k distances. Despite a staggered start time, runners merge on trail after mile 20. It was several miles after when I gazed upon the top of the long climb in front of me and noticed one runner in the distance who looked familiar. Could it be the one I saw at the turn around? I put my head down and climbed.

When I reached the aid station at the top of the climb, I noticed the runner sitting down. Knowing most of the remaining miles were downhill, I told the spoiled brats to shut up and deal with it. They didn’t, so I tried my best not to listen to them. By the time I reached the finish line, my body felt like it was slowly disintegrating. But I kept it together long enough to finish in 5:07 for 4th place overall and first in my age group.

I guess I found my playground again.

If you have never run the Bandit Ultra Trail Runs, I recommend you give them a whirl. You won’t forget the misty clouds that float over the Santa Susana Mountains near the top of Rocky Peak. The race, which started in 2009, has that old-school ultra charm and is supported by a group of over 100 die-hard and enthusiastic volunteers. It must be why sixty-five percent of Bandit runners are “repeat” and come back to run the course again.

January 11, 2016

I'm Stepping Through The Door - My Tribute to David Bowie

That he said this said so much. It’s there, in all of his songs, sewn into the musical fabric like a dark thread in his brilliant quilt of hits, ballads and esoteric masterpieces.

"My entire career, I've only really worked with the same subject matter," Bowie told The Associated Press in a 2002 interview. "The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I've always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety — all of the high points of one's life."

The first time I heard David Bowie was in third grade. My friend Brett J, three years my elder, went to a Bowie concert and came back obsessed. I didn’t see the magic –at the time.

But slowly, over the years, I found myself going back to him. Listening to the lonely sounds of songs like Major Tom. These days I ask myself if Tom was abandoned. Or just on a mission, like all of us, trying to “make the grade” while hoping our “spaceship knows which way to go.” If you put aside the mental handcuffs for a minute and really think about it, Tom is really you and me, stepping through the door so we can, hopefully, float in a most peculiar way.

Because, we all know, if we don’t step through the door, nothing about life is peculiar, a concept which lurks inside the lyrics from Ashes to Ashes...

I never done good things
I never done bad things
I never did anything out of the blue,
Want an axe to break the ice
Wanna come down right now

To say what he actually said, well that says it all. That isolation, fear, abandonment and anxiety are really the highpoints in life. Is this because it is only then that we are really living? To anyone who has run 100 miles, there is a connection here. For those who have not, well, you might need an axe to break the ice.   

R.I.P. David Bowie. You will never get old.

December 28, 2015

My Apathetic Confessional. Sort of.

It started out as it usually does, 180 degrees from where it is now.

This post, that is.

Yes, it started as an apathetic confessional. The year 2015, the first year since 2007 I haven’t run an official ultra. Then it swerved off topic when I saw a picture of my two daughters standing in front of the White House, a short stop we took during a college trip in February for my oldest. Would I see her much next year after she goes away to college? I wonder. Is this why I chose to spend less time grinding out the miles on trail this year? Could be.

I ask myself, after being away from it for over a year, will I ever go back to running ultras? The thought has crossed my mind. But then I came upon a picture at the finish of the Catalina Marathon in March with my friend Mike F. I remember meeting Mike a long while ago on St. Patrick’s day at the Harp Inn in Costa Mesa, California. I’ll never forget that night because Mike told me about the South Coast Road Runners. I went out to run with the group the very next week and met some interesting peeps. Some of them told me about ultra running, and I’m still running with these characters to this day. Would I be running ultra’s if I never went to the Harp Inn that night? Hmm….not sure about that.

Taking time away from running (or from anything) is good for the soul, or so I’ve written in the past. But is a year too much? I started to answer this here, but then I came upon a selfie I took this Spring wearing my Western States jacket with San Gorgonio Mt. in the background. I remember telling myself to never lose this jacket and, no matter what, to be careful when I use it. I received the jacket for winning my age group at WS 100 during my Grand Slam journey last year. Where it is now will be the subject of a future anguished post.

What is the big deal about racing anyway? Isn’t just being out on trail what counts the most? The thought was solidified when I scrolled to the picture of Cracker and Rob M in Cracker’s ’92 Toyota Forerunner. We were on our way back from our road trip to run rim to rim to rim in May. The trip was a highlight for me and a reminder that it isn’t just about starting lines, aid stations and race times. It’s about watching Cracker blow up on us because we forgot to remind him we would be in the bar at the top of Bright Angel Trail when we finished.

I’ve heard it said that taking time off from running can preserve your legs. This is a concept I started writing about until I saw the picture I took of my family on bicycles in Berlin with my wife shamelessly checking her emails. It was a long summer, and the first summer I can remember I didn’t run a single mile. I’ve since learned that magnesium depletion and the Achilles tendon are a dreadful couple, and can cause major strife to a runner’s tranquility.  Fasting on coffee and wine doesn’t help much with this matter.

When I really think about it, I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t a runner. I think I would be drowning in a sea of narcissistic tsunamis. The thought continues to linger, until a grin sweeps across my face when I see the picture of Bino M’s white ass move into full view of my virgin lens.

No, I don’t know what I would do. But as runner, at least I’ve got a life raft to hold on to during these turbulent times.

Happy New Year Runners!!

December 22, 2015

Yucca Psychology

I wasn’t aware of this until I walked through a forest of Joshua trees yesterday, but it turns out there is certain moth that spreads the seed of yucca plants. It’s called, surprisingly, the yucca moth. What I find interesting is this moth lays its egg in the flower of the yucca. It is here where the larva feeds on the very seeds that the moth delivered, but leaves enough seed behind for the plant to reproduce and the species to perpetuate. I guess this moth knows something?

Now, when I was walking through this forest, I noticed how incredibly sharp the bayonet-like leaves looked on these plants, and I grimaced at the thought of how painful it would be to fall on top of one. I mean those shards could do some real damage.

Ok, enough of that. I’ve never fallen on a Joshua tree before, or even a yucca plant, so I'm wondering why the thought even crossed my mind.  I know some runners who’ve been stabbed under a toenail or fingernail by a yucca shard, but I haven’t. I guess the thought was passed on from an ancestor who fell on one way down the line.

Poor guy.    

December 19, 2015

The Circuitous Route

Thing is, when I walked out the door today, I knew where I wanted to finish my run, I just didn’t know exactly how to get there. What the hell. I figured I’d figure it out along the way. What good is a run without some form of doubt lingering in an anal retentive state of mind. Let’s just call it therapy.

I tried to keep the gear basic. Old school hand-held with water only, ball cap and headphones. The shorts with no pockets were new for me, but I was able to stuff the wad of TP under the elastic belt around my waist. Emergencies? Not a problem. All good until I glanced at my shadow on the trail and saw the TP flickering like a five foot birthday streamer from my ass. Why were those people laughing at me?

Ok, I have to admit it. I hate being passed by other runners. I don’t care if I’m doing an hour-long tempo run, or a five-hour long run. I just can’t let it go. So when this portly guy and his yellow lab ran by me on the way up the climb out of Buck Gully, I told myself to remain calm, to not get worked up. To consider this just a form of therapy.

As soon as he stopped to walk, I seized the moment and sprinted by him and refused to look back. Therapy assignment blown.

It wasn’t more than an hour later when I was startled by the sound of more feet seeking to dethrone my appointed pace. I know the term neurotic might be entering your mind now, but give me a minute here. There were three of them, two men and one woman, and they blew by me like a freight train. It happened so fast I just shook my head and told myself to ignore it. Why ruin my long run by chasing them, I thought to myself.

Then I looked up and noticed two of them were wearing Hoka’s, and now I was just a couple of feet behind them. None of them were carrying water. They surged ahead again, but I stayed with them. Next thing I know I’m running next to the lead runner complementing him on his pace. This, I assume, provoked the hammer to be thrown down by him, which meant the race was on. We quickly dropped his friends and continued to pick up the pace. I guess my training is working because, again, I refused to look back. Now that was therapeutic.

By now I realized I’d blown my goal of going easy and long. Today was, well, just long. And I still had not made it to my destination! Turns out I had to hit some city streets to make it all the way to this gem. But when I arrived, I realized all the neurosis was worth it.

From Newport Beach to Swallows Inn, San Juan Capistrano, 26 miles via the circuitous route.  Try it sometime, you just might obsess on it.

Keep it real runners.  

December 7, 2015

The Window Opens

I can't say how many times I looked up and saw it right there. Sometimes blanketed in snow, other times covered in clouds. Its prominence is the signature of the landscape I've come to appreciate in my own back yard. Yet, until now, I had never been there.  

Travis C hiked quickly. Being just a few feet behind him, I stared at the back of his shoes and didn’t look up. It’s not that I didn’t want to, I just knew it would be futile to do so. Being an hour late for this run/hike, I was resolved to just keep my head down and not think about what was about to unfold. The top of Mt. Baldy is exactly 10,068 feet elevation, a scant 6’000 feet above us, and 6 miles in front.

The window opens, just enough for the truth to sneak in. It starts as just a passing thought. Then it recurs, and returns again, more formidably. Images, memories, an understanding, they all connect the dots. Revelations are just that way. They are what we see when something is revealed to us that has always been there. 

We reached the summit of Mt. Baldy and I looked across the horizon. I saw Saddleback Mountain to the south, and San Gorgonio just east. High clouds buffeted the sky, but made way for a glimmer of sunlight that cast a purple haze upon the horizon.

Jung said that routine breeds boredom, which leads to discontentment and, potentially, a loss of meaning during life’s journey.

Running towards Saddleback - 8'000 feet. 
If there is one thing I've learned along the way, it is to just run. Because it makes me content. It breaks up my routine. I use it to squeeze a little more out of life. To defeat boredom, even bring a little meaning through diversity. I realize, too, that if I'm looking for answers (which I always am), I'm more apt to find them on a mountain looking down from 10,000 feet on the Pacific Ocean.

The window opened, and then it occurred to me. It was just a passing thought, but more formidable now.

Cat (aka Mountain Kitty) far right.

November 25, 2015

Oh, To Be Drunk on Writing!

Ok. It’s been a record three weeks of zero blog posts here folks. My longest streak in eight years. And it’s not like I don’t have anything “running” to write about during this time. Quite the opposite actually.

Like, for example, the running of the 12th annual Saltwater 5000. An annual trek from the Pacific Ocean to Santiago Peak, the highest peak in Orange County. The hour we spent on the top of the mountain could be the highest I’ve been in a long, long time.

Or, for that matter, the pacing of a friend at Chimera 100 miler, where I watched my runner sink slowly into the darkest abyss after coming within 20 minutes of not making a cutoff. She struggled to breathe. She couldn’t move any faster. So we sat, briefly, to talk, and to curse the race director. She didn’t give up. It wasn’t an option. As daylight broke, so too did the darkest abyss, into many pieces.

Bradbury wrote that you must get drunk on writing so reality doesn’t destroy you. I’m either suffering from a writing hangover or just fallen off the wagon. Yes, prose may betray me for now, but not forever.

Keep it real runners.  

October 31, 2015

The Vision Thing

Sometimes it is hard to find a reason to write in this blog. After all it’s a running blog. Truth be told, I don’t always think about running. Hard to believe, I know. In fact if you read this blog with any frequency, you know I’ve been writing less and less. Maybe because I’ve been running less and less.

But something happened to me today that was pretty cool. I was out on a remote trail I’ve never run before. And my mind started to wander. It’s possible that the trance music had lulled me into a Buddha-like frame of mind, but I actually began to visualize myself running a really long distance somewhere in the mountains, maybe even in a race.

It has to start with this. To visualize. It's the magic wand from the hand of my guardian angel. It’s the flickering light that glitters at the top of a mountain. I want to hold it in my hand. So I keep moving towards it. I don’t know why I keep doing this shit. It’s magnetic. It’s emotional. It’s everything I want to have every minute of the day, but thankful to touch it whenever I can.

Visualization. There is no other method…for me anyway. I’m interested to see where this goes. I hope you are too.

Boo! Happy Halloween.

Go Bino!

October 16, 2015

Coffee. The New Water

Can’t believe it. For years I’ve heard it sung from mountaintops. The scriptures. Even the Gospel.

Water. Drink it. Lots of it, or else. It’s the Kool-Aid served by health nuts and medical practitioners on every corner. Eight glasses a day. One half your body weight in ounces. Do this or bad things will happen. Bad skin. Bad sleep. Bad health. Bad athletic performance.

I don’t drink enough water. There. I admit it. Last weekend I saw a dead lizard and a dead scorpion on trail, and I wondered if they, too, didn’t drink the Kool-Aid. I passed on refilling my camelback about three hours into the run as the temperature crept into the 90s. I paid a hefty price.

I admit I tend to learn things the hard way. Give me advice on something and I will nod my head politely, then return to my deranged habits. Lets face it, most of us are just a collection of life long habits influenced by our fear of going to detention in the third grade.

Then I read this Wall Street Journal article suggesting coffee is a legitimate way to hydrate. I guess it pays to swim upstream.

Coffee. The new water. 

October 7, 2015

Is It Just Me?

"If the shoe fits, buy another one just like it"

                                           George Carlin

September 18, 2015

This Quote Says It All

I just played the sport because I loved it. And because of the work that I put into it, the next thing you know, success was kind of bestowed upon me, without me actually chasing it. 

It just happened.

I didn’t think I would ever be this successful.

Michael Jordan

September 7, 2015

The Nuance of Need

When I looked at the bug it looked back at me, hovering. So I just walked away. It was a weird, flying, bug. It really was looking at me.

I’ve run this peak so many times now. It reminds me of the field. The one behind my house where I explored as a kid. Sometimes barefoot. Sometimes not. Into its grass that grew above my head. Down to its stream with the frogs and tadpoles. The playground. It never got old, just familiar. Then one day we moved. And it was gone.

We all have our needs. Sometimes we don’t recognize or understand them.

So I just climbed. For two and half-hours. Into the dense Manzanita plants and overgrown fig trees. I glanced at the towers above me, wondering if I should turn around or resolve to sit among them. I couldn’t decide, so I just kept moving.

Then it occurred to me. I understood. 

August 23, 2015

Coca Cola. Merchants of Doubt?

Every once in a while I stumble upon an article that really gets my goat. And the only way I can get it back is to write about it. So here I go…

Early this month the New York Times published an article about how Coca Cola is funding a newly formed non-profit research group that argues the lack of exercise, not diet, is the primary reason folks are overweight in the US. The so-called independent group is called Global Energy Balance Network, and its website is gebn.org.

On most days I would have just skimmed over the article on my way to the sports page. But on this day I was vacationing in Europe and the only sports to read about was European voetbal (soccer), which I disdain.

So I read on. And on. Until a light starting blinking in my brain. “Bullshit!” Bullshit!” The more I read the brighter the light became.

The leaders of the Coke funded group are influential scientist in their field and they are pushing a message in medical journals, conferences and social media. This is a quote by the chief proselytizer, Steven N. Blair, an exercise scientist, taken directly from the article: 

“Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is, ‘Oh they’re eating too much, eating too much, eating too much’ — blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on….And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”
We’ve all grown up with Coca Cola and a lot of us remain avid consumers of the brew, particularly us ultra runners looking for that extra boost late in a race. I’m a big user of the Coca Cola and Mountain Dew once I reach mile 70. The stuff is like rocket fuel, I can feel its power within minutes of it touching my lips, especially this late in a race.
It’s disappointing, however, to hear the company is operating with smoke and mirrors when it comes to obtaining “independent” research which seems to always downplay diet as part of the obesity problem. It turns out Coca Cola has not only provided funds to establish the Global Energy Balance Network, its also been funding GEBN scientist’s pet projects for many years – to the tune of more than $5 million. The ultimate laugh, as I see it anyway, is that the Network’s website GEBN.org is not only registered to Coca Cola, the administrator of the website is Coca Cola.
We can’t overlook the fact that Coca Cola is the largest producer of sugary drinks in the world, and the company’s primary purpose is to sell more product and generate profits to its shareholders. I’m the first to argue that there is nothing wrong with making a profit! But Coca Cola seems to have crossed the line from making a healthy profit to systematically promulgating misinformation to intentionally dupe the public in order to sell more of its product.
It’s not surprising that this is happening at this time. After all, as the evidence linking obesity to the consumption of sodas and fast food continues to mount, there is rising pressure on cities to tax sugary drinks and on schools to eliminate them from their menus. In the mean time Coke’s sales are slipping.
Regardless of your position on this issue, what is telling is Coca Cola’s response to the New York Times article. In an OP ED published by the Wall Street Journal on August 19 (10 days after the Times article was published) Coca Cola CEO, Muhter Kent, stated that:
“I am disappointed that some actions we have taken to fund scientific research and health and well-being programs have served only to create more confusion and mistrust. I know our company can do a better job engaging both the public-health and scientific communities—and we will.”
“…We want to get focused on real change, and we have a great opportunity ahead of us. We are determined to get this right.”

He goes on to describe in more detail the changes that are underway at Coca Cola, including their efforts to sell low sugar drinks, diet drinks and water. While I applaud Mr. Kent’s words, the beast still has to be fed. Like the tobacco companies that need to keep selling nicotine to smokers, unfortunately Coca Cola needs to keep selling sugary drinks to diabetics and the obese.

Which leads me back to point made I made earlier with more emphasis. Companies like Coca Cola ($9.3 billion profit in 2014) and cigarette maker Philipp Morris ($7.7 billion profit in 2014) do not exist to serve the public. They exist to serve their shareholders by making money. Full calorie Coke is the largest soft drink sold in the world accounting for 17% of the total market share. The sad fact is, regardless of public relations, it’s just not in the short term or long-term interest of Coca Cola to get people off of what might be killing them.

Of course there is also an argument to be made that it really isn’t the company’s responsibility to ensure people act responsibly. In other words, if people - children and adults - drink too much of the sugary stuff, they should be prepared to suffer the consequences. Everyone needs to take individual responsibility. I whole heartily agree with this, and it’s really the parents that need to be responsible for the kids.

But this isn’t a case of individual responsibility. It’s a case of corporate responsibility. When I read the article, one of the most poignant comments I saw came from professor Barry Popkin from University of North Carolina. He described Coke’s use of prominent researchers as reminiscent of tactics used by the tobacco industry, which enlisted experts to become “merchants of doubt” about the health hazards of smoking.

I think I’ll stick with my Mountain Dew at mile 70 (and beyond).

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