May 26, 2009

Western States Training Camp 2009

After last year's oh-so-soggy training camp I was a little reluctant to sign up for another memorial day retreat into the Auburn foothills. Now that I'm back, I will say it was worth every minute. Even though it was just three days, I got in 78 miles of running, learned a ton about the trail and race day strategies, saw some old friends and made a few new ones.

Day One: Robinson Flat to Foresthill. This was the most valuable day for me. I have never been to RF before (last year the buses couldn't get access) so just seeing and running this part of the course for the first time was worth the trip for me. Simple subtleties became roaring realities, such as the mile long climb out of RF that rises to over 7,100'; or the winding, rocky single track trail out of RF that I did a face plant on; or the nearly 4,500' decent over 15 miles from RF to the base of Devil's Thumb; even the three pb&j's, several paydays and brownie I ate at a single aid station that made me feel like bloated chicken ready to blow on trail.

Day Two: Foresthill to Rucky Chucky: This was another helpful day, but it went by quickly. By the time I hit this section of the course on race day I'll be sitting on 60 miles and hope to have some legs left. After beating myself up last year on this section of the training run I calmed down a little. This must have helped as I felt strong right through to the finish including the 3-4 mile climb out of the canyon that we had to do to get back to the buses. I even tacked on a 6+ miler after this run by running the last 3 miles (out and back) of the course that afternoon.

Day Three: Greengate to Finish. 20 miles. This section of the course will be run in the dark and it's the last 20 miles of the course. Oh well, not to worry. After running 58 miles the two previous days, I still felt human. I have no idea how I'll feel at this point on race day so I'm not going to invest a whole lot into what I learned here. It was just a good day running and chatting with others on trail.

For the record, running the Western States Training runs is much more than "training" for the actual race. Its more about getting to know other runners, getting to know and really appreciate the trail, and, ultimately, getting to know yourself. Having come by myself I was able to reflect a bit more on how things worked, or didn't work. I also feel really fortunate to even be in this thing, and running with so many other people I've met along the way makes it all the better. Yes, I had the opportunity to talk and/or run with many: Michelle Barton, Kyle Hoang, Brian Krogmann, Kevin Sullivan, Jen Shelton, Luis Escobar, Jean Suyenaga, Stacey Bunton, and so so many others. I wish Rob McNair, my pacer, was here over the weekend, but sometimes even life gets in the way.

Keep it real runners!


May 11, 2009

Born to Run - An Interview with Author Christopher McDougall

Do you wonder, sometimes, why you run? Have you ever felt "in the zone", that you could just keep running when you thought you had reached your limit? What about after a run, have you ever felt on top of the world? According to Christopher McDougal, author of Born to Run, these are simply signs that you are human, and as a human you are born to run. You're equipped to run longer distances than other mammals that run this earth, including dogs, wolves, hyenas, and antelope, to name a few. I recently caught up with author Christopher McDougall, who captured this and a few other very intriguing angles on ultra running in his recently released book Born to Run. Here's what we discussed:

Will -- I was impressed with the breadth of the story you told, particularly how you stayed within the boundaries of endurance running. The personalities, culture, events, science, products and of course your own running experience, you touched on all of this. How did you put all of this together inside one cover?

CM -- Mostly by blowing deadlines. I delivered the manuscript a full year late, an appalling delay even by my tortured relationship with time. The problem was trying to figure out how to cram 3 books into one. Any one of the three main stories (the adventure tale of Caballo’s race, the history of the Tarahumara, or the thrilling research into human-running anthropology) could have easily gobbled up 300 pages on their own. In the end, I realized that this was really Caballo’s story, so he became my navigation point.

Will -- It's been said that endurance is at the heart of all your stories, and you are an ultra runner yourself. Why do you write about endurance sports?

CM -- Man, we can either go facile or very Freudian here. Since I’m constantly butting into either people’s heads and trying to psychoanalyze their buried motivations, maybe I deserve a taste of it myself. So: the snappy answer is that I’m probably attracted to tales of endurance because they’re our great American heritage. Endurance has always been America’s defining national characteristic. Long before we became the world’s tough guys, we were famous for toughing it out. Plymouth Rock, Valley Forge, the Pony Express, the Gold Rushers, the outgunned battlers of the Bulge... our country was founded on the wonderfully democratic notion that anyone could be a winner, even if they lost, just by gutting their way to the finish. That’s why Rocky was sequeled for the 57th time; not because he wins, but because he “goes da distance.”

Every book is some form of autobiography. My grandparents were immigrants from Sicily, Scotland and Ireland. My father was kicked out of the house at 17, joined the Marines, and beat all odds by becoming an extraordinarily successful attorney. You want to talk about endurance, he was running a race with zero margin for error

Will -- Why do you run ultras?

CM -- Same reason as every other ultrarunner: for fun. Sheer fun. Ask any ultrarunner (and by the way, I only qualify for that title by the most generous of standards); anyway, ask any ultrarunner on earth and I guarantee you’ll get the same answer. What could be better than flying through the woods in the dark with the wind cooling your sweating skin? Sheer sensual pleasure.

Will –- The Tarahumara Indians are an integral part of your story. What did you learn from them as runners? As people?

CM -- Take it easy. It’s that simple. That was also the first lesson I learned from the great lone wanderer of the Copper Canyons, Caballo Blanco. He taught me: “Focus on easy, because it that’s all you get, that ain’t so bad.” As runners, most of us are way too focused on the absurd obsession over whether we run 4hours in the marathon or 3:59.59. What difference does it make? That is something you instantly learn from the Tarahumara – their running is communal, playful, efficient and fun. That’s why I think ultras will ultimately be the salvation of recreational running. Once people learn to stop bashing themselves as hard as they can from start to finish and learn to enjoy those middle miles – the way both ultarunners and the Tarahumara do – then I’m convinced more people will really learn to love to run.

Will -- In one of the most intriguing chapters of the book you discussed that man was born to run. This chapter tells us how a biology student, a professor and a paleontologist conclude that we as a species are equipped to run very long distances. They suggest that the evolution has given our bodies very specific characteristics that make us uniquely qualified to run far. This seems like ground-breaking stuff. How did you find these guys?

CM -- lots of legwork and phone calls. The best part of the story occurred when I first called Dr. Lieberman at Harvard. I was desperate to interview him and check out his lab, but he was totally swamped with his own research at the time and said he didn’t have time. Then all of a sudden he goes, “Wait a sec. Do you know a one-armed runner who runs with his prosthetic attached? Most run without it because it sways around. You find me a one-armed runner, and you can come up for an interview.” Turns out, Dr. Lieberman was in the middle of a really exciting experiment on body torque and needed to check the difference between running with an arm and without one. Took me – no lie – 15 minutes to find his guy. 2 weeks later, I was in his lab with “One Arm Will” Stewart, an awesome athlete who holds the course record for the Catalina Marathon.

Will -- Does this theory hold water in the larger scientific community?

CM -- it’s still controversial, but so far bulletproof. No other evolutionary theory resolves so many long-lasting paradoxes about human behavior, like why women get stronger as distances get longer, and why older folks can run as fast as teenagers for ultra distances, and why we somehow feel this urge to congregate by the tens of thousands to run 26.2 miles.

Will -- You interviewed the "young guns", or younger ultra runners, for this book. What did you learn from this group?

CM -- Here’s something that trail great Susannah Beck said about Jenn Shelton: “She’s a barbaric wood sprite. Jenn is happier going for gorgeous epic runs than making some of the tedious choices involved in going for individual glory. I think she is aware that ultrarunning is kind of a goofy sport and winning isn't the most important or interesting thing about it.” That’s the lesson I’ve tried to learn from the Young Guns – go for the gorgeous, forget about the tedious side.

Will -- You talked about Dean Karnazes in your story, a controversial personality in the ultra running community. I've often wondered how one draws the line between enlightened ultra runner and basic capitalist. For example, would you say an accomplished ultra runner who promotes a running shoe, a gel, or even his or her online coaching gig for some form of monetary gain is different from a guy like Karnazes who promotes his own book or other ventures? Where would you draw the line?

CM -- I wonder about that a lot myself. Not so much about dean, who is a far better runner than I’ll ever be, and I sort of suspect he’s a better person. I saw him at the Vermont 100, and he won for all the right reasons – because he was happy go lucky, relaxed, chomping sugar cookies at aid stations, having a ball. I wish I were as genuinely friendly as he is. But one thing I puzzle over is how the running industry, and by that I mean the magazines, shops, and sponsored athletes, can sort of skate by the growing body of evidence that a lot of the stuff we’re told to buy is complete junk. Not just neutral junk, either, but really dangerous stuff.

Will -– Its counter intuitive, but logical, that running shoes can actually increase injury to runners by over protecting their feet. You discuss this at length in your book. Are you a believer in barefoot running? Have you tried it yourself?

CM -- two people I’ll never doubt again: Barefoot Ted and Caballo Blanco. Over time, I’ve realized that everything they’ve told me has been dead on the money. I thought Ted was a little extreme in his insistence on wearing nothing (or very next to nothing) on his feet. After three years of personal experimentation, I’ve learned very convincingly that he’s absolutely right. While writing the book, my old plantars fasciitis came back. I made the same old round of doctors and podiatrists, wore the sleep splint, stretched my calves, blah blah, but the only thing that cured it was going barefoot and re-learning my biomechanics. Now, I’m literally afraid to put running shoes back on my feet.

Will -- Where do you see the sport of ultra running in 10 years?

CM -- the most exciting thing will be not the races so much as the ethos. Go to the Leadville Trail 100 some time, or even better, Caballo’s race with the Tarahumara down in the Copper Canyons. You’ll be infected with a spirit of camaraderie and fun that will change the way you run every mile afterward. I think the ultrarunning approach, if not the races, will come to dominate recreational running.

Will -- You have had a successful career writing about endurance sports. Are there any words of wisdom you can share with those looking to break into this field as a writer?

CM -- blow kisses every day to the internet. Anyone can now go online and practice the art of storytelling without waiting for an editor to give you the go-ahead first. Believe me, I spent a lot of years grinding out tiny little 200-word assignments before anyone was willing to pay me to chase ghosts at the bottom of a canyon.

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May 3, 2009

The 2009 Orange County Marathon--A Volunteer's Perspective

Today I completed my obligatory 8 hours of volunteer service for Western States. While this was an obligation, it certainly didn’t seem like one. I chose to volunteer as a “trash collector” for the Orange County Marathon (what can I say…it was the only job I could find with a long enough shift!). Turned out I did a little more than trash collecting. I handed out finisher medals, carried signs, opened up boxes, stacked crates, moved pallets, lifted boxes, high fived runners, took photos, picked up trash, changed out trash bags…and ate some bananas. This was a very fun and enlightening experience. Having run some 14 marathons and several ultras, it was good to give back a little.

Another great part of the day was the people I met and the friends I saw, many of whom I haven’t seen a long time. Like Mike Friedle, a old running buddy who I shared the podium with (years ago) as a member of team Jimy Jamm, a misfit running team he and I were on that beat the Navy Seals 3 times at the vaunted Volkslauf mud run years back. Great to see you Mike, Chickie and kids, and great 5k run Mike! Kevin and Joe, who ran the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim with me last November, both finishers of the marathon. Cindy Dabic and her friend Tory, finishers of the ½ marathon. Debbie Okano, who I haven’t seen for years but to whom I had the pleasure of bestowing a finishers medal for the ½ marathon. Great job Debbie! And of course the ubiquitous OC ultra crowd made an appearance, including the glamorous Greg Hardesty, Alexa, who captured a sub 4 hour pr, Kirk Fortini, running as the official 4:30 pacer for the event, and the Eveready Fred Pollard, our 69 year young Ultra Running Statesman who simply doesn’t know the word REST! He ran Old Goats 50 mile in March, Leona Divide 50 mile two weeks ago, PCT 50 next week and yes, my friends, Western States 100 mile in June. Rock it Fred!

But meeting all the volunteers, I must say, was the biggest treat for me today. It started with Randa Helmers, Volunteer Coordinator “Extraordinaire” who, despite some tense moments, always seemed to have a smile lurking in the face of adversity. Kathy and Kelly, the always smiling sisters, Mayieanne and Kathy, the OC diva runners; there were simply so many people that made this event happen that, as a runner, I never realized but should have. Thanks to all the volunteers that shared the load with me today and made this such a great event for all the runners!

Rock it People!