March 22, 2015

Thank You Alto Vista Peak – You’ll Do Just Fine!

Alto Vista - The One

Being bitch slapped by the mountains is kind of a double-edged sword. On one hand, you have a plan – meticulously crafted by the ego – that choreographs your grand summit. Here simple alpine fundamentals take a backseat to visions of self, standing high upon a pinnacle overlooking mankind. Then there’s reality. Or all the little details that spring-up while you dwell in fantasy during your trek. Wait, what? Oh, I didn’t think of that.

For us Southern California flatlanders, San Gorgonio is kind of a Grand Teton. Even though we can’t see it from Orange County (unless standing on Santiago Peak), it’s always beckoning. So when I signed the day hike permit, the vision was simple. Get to the top. The pinnacle. What else is there?

I began to look a little more into the details. My route from South Fork to the summit and back was 21 miles with around 5,000 feet of ascent. No big deal. Hell, I’m an ultra runner, I thought. I’m invincible!

San G - The Elusive One 
The first couple of miles were amazing. Meandering single track with some great glimpses of San G. I was so sure to bring my Olympus Pen camera that I hung it around my neck so I could get the best shots without having to dig into my pack. The pictures I was getting were amazing! I’m not sure if was the 10th or 11th shot when I noticed something blinking in the view finder. “NO CARD.” “NO CARD.”

Santiago Peak - The Flatlander's Vantage Point
Whatever. Since I didn’t have my GPS, I was calculating my distance by landmarks along the way. Two miles, four miles. What I didn’t calculate were the snow drifts. A step here. A slip there. A contorted epileptic move here and there. Finally I reached Dollar Lake Saddle at 10,000 feet, 7.4 miles in. It was covered in snow. Hell, I thought, this is where the real climbing will begin! After taking a few shots with my phone, I moved further up the snow to get to the trail. Wait, what?

From Alto Vista Peak
No trail? I looked around feverously. For footprints, snowshoe tracks, coyote droppings, anything. But there was nothing. Then it hit me. The two and a half mile trail to San G summit was completely buried under several feet of snow. Details.

Wait. What? 
At this point my vision of pinnacle grandeur was fading into just bagging any old summit I could find. So off I marched, heading due west, the opposite direction of San G, but toward the many peaks along the 10,000 foot ridge. I finally found one. Alto Vista Peak. I stood on the “pinnacle” for a few minutes, soaking in everything I could.

Thanks Alto Vista Peak. You'll do just fine.

March 20, 2015

Catalina Island Marathon - A Video

It started out as just a fun weekend. Somehow it turned into a quest to use my GoPro for the first time to film my first experience running this epic 38 year old marathon. Thanks to Chris C for sharing all his wisdom while playing it so cool.

It was a blast out there and I hope you enjoy the video!

Catalina Island Marathon from Will C on Vimeo.

March 8, 2015

Memories capture a space in time. But laughter helps reveal

When we finally pulled up to the farm, it was well past 10 o’clock at night. The air was bitter cold. We drove a rusted-out, orange VW Thing with no heater and a cracked windshield. Why I agreed to accompany my friend on this 2,000 mile road trip from Chicago to California, I will never know.

We weren’t more than an hour out of Chicago when the car began to sputter and violently backfire. The mechanic at the next gas station just shook his head. “Not much I can do for ya boys,” I remember hearing. We just kept driving. Clueless about what could happen, naïve enough to keep going. We were headed towards a small farmhouse in Gravity, Iowa, home to my Aunt Carol and Uncle Jim.

When we finally rolled onto the farm, I had never been so cold in my life. We’d been driving for 10 hours in what felt like a convertible on a Siberian expressway. Every part of my body was either shaking, shriveled or had gone completely missing. I wore everything I had – a parka, layers of shirts and socks, gloves, a beanie. I even had an improvised face mask made from an extra sweatshirt, used primarily to keep my nose from freezing, but also to protect my face from lacerations if and when the windshield blew out. 

I don’t think Aunt Carol and Uncle Jim could’ve been more entertained as when they saw us. They couldn’t stop laughing as we peeled ourselves from this frozen tin can. That was many years ago. That we made it all the way to California against such odds was never discussed at family reunions. But the improvised face mask? Jim would never let me forget it. His laughter when we reminisced, well, it said it all, and reminded me of how absurd my excursion really was.

This last weekend our family attended Uncle Jim’s funeral near that small farm in Iowa. During my stay I was able to see some sites, hear some great stories and run a bit on the rural roads. I got a little flavor of the lifestyle that drew him back from California to the little town in Iowa where he grew up as a child. A place where he tended to horses, built barns, refurbished classic cars and generally lived life on his terms.

Memories are the glue that keep families connected, and they capture a place in time. And it’s the laughter that helps reveal these moments.

Thanks Uncle Jim, for your laugh. We will miss you.

February 28, 2015

Guest Post - Why I run

By: Greg Z
North Carolina 

A rare winter storm in southeastern North Carolina left the area enveloped in ice Wednesday morning. For me as a runner, any kind of abnormality in the weather is a stimulus to get me out the door, and into Mother Nature's fold.

I was surprised when I entered the Carolina Beach State Park. There was so much ice covering the trees, and conditions didn't seem nearly as bad in town. Numerous smaller trees were bent across the trails from the weight of ice on them, creating an almost tunnel like course in sections of the park.

But when I got into a bit of clearing in the woods I was able to behold the beauty of what the storm had produced. The tall straight pines, the young saplings, the small bushy trees that grow in the marshes, the bare deciduous trees, the clumpy swamp grasses...were all covered in a layer of whitish, gray if one shook up a snow globe and let the contents ever-so-softy land on top of what lay beneath.

I felt like I was witnessing something rarely seen – an artist's rendering left out in the open, for us mere mortals to be momentarily immersed in its grandeur. I looked with child-like awe every which way as I made my way back into the woods.

On the trail spur by the Cape Fear River I heard a seemingly desperate squawking as an egret took flight from the marsh and circled past me and out over the river before returning back to land. I took notice that the reeds were coated in ice as well, and looked like thousands of ice picks frozen into the ground. I would be disturbed too, I thought, and I felt empathy for the large bird as I carefully crossed an icy, wooden foot bridge.

Later in the run the sun began to poke through the thick ceiling of smoky gray clouds. As it did the ice started to melt, and fall! Rounding a bend on a trail, I heard a loud cracking snap, as a huge pine branch snapped off and crashed thru the surrounding trees onto the forest floor. Time to get out of here I said to myself.

This is ultimately why I run. And why I continue to run. To be a visceral part of days such as yesterday. To witness firsthand.

February 19, 2015

Freezing Ass In Washington D.C.

 National Cathedral

Who would have thought? A trip back east from sunny So Cal to Washington D.C. And wham! A snow storm and the coldest day of the year. 

Icicles Under Washington
Frozen Potomac 

Frozen Creek - Whitehaven Trail

I sucked it up for the first few days, snow running in 14 degrees along the Whitehaven trail and the streets of D.C. Made it to the National Cathedral, down to the C&O canal, and then to the frozen Potomac River. Icicles, bone chilling wind, black ice. Even a stop by my old stomping grounds, the Russell Senate Office Building, where I worked as an intern for Sen. Ted Kennedy (many years ago). What more could one ask for?

Senate Office Building - What Was I Thinking? 

Turns out the forecast for tomorrow is 0 degrees. I’ve never run in 0. But I’m going to give it a go. A pair of sweats for my scrawny legs, compression socks and shorts. A higher pitched voice. I’m in.   

I just hope I can breathe in 0 degrees. TBD.

February 12, 2015

Marijuana and Ultra Running? Just Keep Digging.

Published in UltraRunning Magazine (2/13/15)

Pot. Toke it or leave it. That is the question. Unless you were baptized by a celibate priest, chances are you’ve toked, like everyone else around you. Heck, even if you haven’t, surely you’ve caught a buzz from the second hand smoke at a Neil Young or Nicki Minaj concert.

The Wall Street Journal published an article this week covering a debate within the ultra-running community, about using Marijuana. A quote from the piece gives the perspective from a 22 year old “professional” runner – If you can find the right level, [marijuana] takes the stress out of running. And it’s a post-race, post-run remedy. The article’s subtitle asks: For Ultramarathon Runners, Marijuana Has Enormous Benefits—But Is It Ethical?

It took me a while to find my voice on this one. I think it was because, initially, I couldn’t see beyond my own jaded experiences on the topic. Starting with seeing my best friend’s house burn down in 6th grade, and freaking out at Scott S’s house over a bag of Chips Ahoy in 7th grade. And, possibly, ending in 11th grade when I stood on the bluff with several hundred people looking down on the Pacific Ocean, and wondering why.

I want to be careful here. Because the topic of marijuana is, by itself, a lightning rod for controversy and judgment. Throw ultra-running and performance enhancement into the conversation, and we have the potential for an electrical fire. Deep breath here people….

I saw the plume of smoke from 5 miles away. I could see it when I got on the school bus, and it grew larger and larger as the bus drove closer to my home. It wasn’t until I ran away from the bus until I knew it was his house. I saw him laying in an ambulance and I just remember being really scared. I wanted to talk to him, and ask him if he was ok. He was my best friend. But he was surrounded by paramedics working on him, and on the third degree burns caused by the fire started while he was making hash oil. Then the ambulance drove away, and took him away from me.

We all have our own reasons for doing what we do. In the end, it is what we take away from these experiences that we call our own. Why do people run ultra-distances? Ask 100 ultra runners and you’re likely to get 100 different answers. So, to get through this, I will write only what I call my own.

It’s well known that marijuana numbs pain, helps minimize nausea and alleviates fatigue. It is often prescribed for people with chronic conditions arising from ailments out of their control. It has been an effective remedy for cancer patients going through the agony of chemotherapy. I love that cannabis helps those that are suffering from disease. I can’t think of a better use for it.

But for ultra runners? Really? The question no one seems to be asking isn’t why a runner would want to mask pain or nausea. After all, it is human nature to want to minimize suffering. The real question is, why would anyone choose a sport like ultra running then turn around and choose to experience less than the real thing? It would be like choosing to be a doctor, but not willing to see human blood. Or choosing to be a boxer, but not willing to take a punch to the face. Are you really what you say you are? Really. What are you?

It was totally unexpected. But what isn’t when you’re in 7th grade with a new set of braces? When I took a bite of the chocolate chip cookie, I noticed the pain from the tightened metal on my teeth was gone. I chewed and chewed and chewed, in total bliss, smiling from the numbness of what we smoked.  Until I realized...I couldn’t feel or taste anything! Something was moving down my throat, but I knew this only because I watched my hand put it in my mouth and reach for another. What happens if I choke? Would I just stop breathing? Paranoia sets in.

I now move to the real question. Why do we choose ultra running? I think this is the crux of the issue. For me, it is the risk of coming face to face with my own limits – be it pain, fatigue or fear – and moving through these limits by relying on my own strength. It’s a big part of why I do this stuff. Some of the most memorable moments I’ve drawn from the sport were the most difficult ones, when I’m suffering.

There is a concept in mountaineering called topographic prominence. Peaks with high prominences tend to be the highest points around and are likely to have extraordinary views. These are the peaks that stand out among the rest, not because they are high in altitude, but because they are surrounded by deep, deep canyons and valleys.

The same concept exists in ultra running. And I will call this sensory prominence. And it means if you want to experience the highs, you have to be surrounded by and experience the lows. And these lows, in my humble opinion, should never be numbed or neutered.

He was one of the best in elementary school. A buddy to all of us. A teammate in little league. But when I picked him up hitch hiking on the PCH, he didn’t say a word. We were in high school now. But something seemed odd. He was so quiet in the car. When I heard the news months later, I didn’t put the pieces together. But now I know. He became a stoner. He was coming home from work, late at night, and he rode his motorcycle into the back of a parked car.  Then we stood there, on the bluff, wondering why.

It all comes back to what I’ve said before. Ultra runners are really just normal people. But they want something more in life. Something real, not material. Something they have to dig deep within themselves to achieve, and the deeper they dig, the more satisfied they are.

Smoke pot during an ultra? I think I'll just keep digging. 

February 5, 2015

Run. Look around. Run some more.

Once in a while, I think, it’s good to go somewhere you have never been before. And Run, look around, and run some more. Maybe smile. I did this last weekend. Up a mountain trail I had never been on before.

When I approached the top of the trail, I could see the ocean for the first time. And the cotton white  clouds. And the steel blue sky. I stood there thinking how amazing the picture I was looking at really was. Surreal. But real. I was so glad to be there! (ok I had to tap one of these for the masthead). 

Was it worth the effort? I don' know. You be the judge.