April 25, 2010

Taming Dragons at the Rocky Road Endurance Run

It’s been said that a challenge is a dragon with a gift in its mouth…and if you tame the dragon, the gift is yours.  I began my weekend with an obligation—a 10 hour volunteer shift at an aid station for the Rocky Road Endurance Run—something I wasn’t exactly looking forward to. I ended the weekend with new understanding of ultra runners, their dragons and their unique gift.

When I arrived at the starting area at 5 a.m., well before the doors open at Starbucks, I couldn’t figure out how the race could be started in less than an hour.  Runners we’re slowly beginning to arrive and race director Charlie Alewine was just starting to pull supplies out of his van.  Working in the dark, fellow volunteer Jannay Oiknine and I gathered supplies for our aid stations which still needed to be setup along this 15 mile loop course in the ritzy, Southern California horse community of Coto de Caza.  Not knowing exactly how and where I was supposed to set up my station, I got on my way with just 15 minutes before “start” time.  “Just look for the porta potty on the side of the road” I remember hearing Rob Cowan saying as I sped away in my Jeep.   

I set up the Sawgrass aid station with the enthusiasm of a child but the supplies of a pauper.  Table?  Well….no, but boxes will work!  Chairs?  Gosh, thankfully I had a couple of beach chairs in my vehicle usually reserved for my 6 year olds’ soccer games.  Tent?  How about the hatch back of my Jeep?  Shanty town meets the Housewives of OC?  Based on some of the befuddled looks I got from many a passing Mercedes, I would have blended in more on the side of an interstate off-ramp.

But all of my apprehension melted away at the site of the first runners.  Galloping by me without missing a step were early 100 mile front runners Brian Krogmann, Rudy Montoya and Rob Cowan.  Following them were dozens of other 100 mile runners, 50 mile runners, marathoners and half marathoners.  This was an out and back course that consisted of horse trail and, for the 50 and 100 mile courses, a brief but technical single track loop along the west ridge boarding this exclusive community.  With runners passing my station every couple of hours, I got the opportunity to talk with them often, and hear their stories as each labored to tame their own dragon.

Roxanne and Yolanda


After a staggered start, a few marathoners and half marathoners got off on the wrong course and ended up on the technical single track trail.  Like Monica and Leticia who get extra credit for the smiles they brought to so many runners and volunteers.  Another marathoner, Yolanda Holder, was running the event in an effort to gain a world record for the most marathons run in year!  But as the day wore on, it was only the 50 mile and 100 mile runners who remained.  It was then, as the sun reached its highest peak and doused us with its sinister heat, I began to hear their story, and learn more about these people that run long distances. 

Like Rudy Montoya, who stopped and talked with me several times, as he worked through bouts of nausea and cramps and told me he would like to run the Badwater Ultramarathon one day, a 135 mile route from the hellish depths of Death Valley to the lofty perch at Mt. Whitney Portal.  Rudy was a pacer for the second place runner at Badwater last year and understands first-hand the misery such a race can unleash on a runner.  “Why do you want to do it?”, I asked him.  “Just to take it to the next level, for the challenge”, he replied.  I was drawn to his calm demeanor as he moved through the course, solidly holding on to second place during my shift, all the while fighting a dragon that wouldn’t go quietly. 

Brian Krogmann

Ahead of Rudy, running in first place for most of the day, was Brain Krogmann.  Words from and moments with Brian were few, but they each painted a candid picture of a runner moving toward a higher place in this sport.  I met him a year ago at the Western States training camp, one week after he won the Keys 100 Mile race in Florida then proceeded to saunter through 70 miles of Sierra Nevada trails like a 5k warm down.  “Are you hydrating enough”, I asked him at one of his brief stops at my station.  “No, I never do” he replied with a wry smile.  He quickly moved through my station each time, asking what kind of a gap stood between he and Rudy.  Brian was taming his dragon, but was about to encounter another, more ominous beast very soon, because he's been accepted to run this years’ Badwater Ultramarathon. 

David Jordan

As the day continued to wear on, runners were wearing down.  But it’s natural, I have come to learn, to feel the anguish of putting your body through 8, 12 even 30 hours of non-stop physical exertion, especially when the pain starts early and you can’t seem to escape from it.  Twenty-two year old David Jordan was carrying this burden early in the race.  He is a working college student who serves part time in the Navy and runs ultras and Ironman triathlons.  Where does this young Type A find the time to train?  Keep laughing, David, while immersing yourself in physical torture.  It is a skill you have come to master at an early age.  Did you see him smile Leticia?   

Chris and his girls

Chris Peters, running 50 miles, reminded me that running ultimately is a family affair.  His daughters joined me at the Sawgrass station for a while to root him on. Sometimes we have bad days, but then there are good days.  Two smiling daughters on the path to taming your dragon?  This was a good day for you Chris and I hope you had a Bloody Mary to celebrate.   

I began the weekend with an obligation -- to fulfill my volunteer service requirement for Western States.  But my obligation soon gave way to something I never expected -- the chance to experience others working through their own challenges, one dragon at a time.  Thanks for the gift runners! 

Eric Kosters 

Troy Lesovsky

Rob Cowan and Masahiko Tamakammi

Max Welker

Jeanette Quintanna

Race Director Charlie Alewine

April 17, 2010

Old Dog, New Tricks?

They say you can’t teach ‘old dogs’ new tricks.  There is a ring of truth to this cliché for us runners.  That is, until we push ourselves out of our comfort zone.

One of my good friends—also an ultra runner—is one old dog.  With no disrespect to his 30 year running career, when ever I ask him to run a trail outside of his regular repertoire, I’m quickly rebuffed.  “No, I’m just going to do two loops of the xyz trail”.  XYZ trail being the same trail he’s run a hundred times before.  With him I’m now convinced of one thing: if it aint that dog’s hunt, that dog aint gonna hunt!

Which brings me back to this old dog.  I used to believe that I would never be a morning runner during the workweek.  I detested getting up early, rushing to get ready, then throwing myself outside to get though a workout.  Knowing I needed to be at work before 8 am, I always felt rushed, with no time to warm up or cool down.  The result?  For the last 20 years, most of my training during the week has been in the evening hours, after work.

Enter Family--The Great Teacher of New Tricks.  Last week I was on spring break with my family.  Since we were in the mountains to snow ski, I had to make a decision.  Should I run after spending most days on the slopes with my daughter, or get my training done before hitting the slopes, like early in the morning when the temperature was pushing 22 degrees?  With several hours of running per day on my plate, I opted for the morning.  The first 30 to 45 minutes of these runs where challenging, but manageable.  Though while making my way along the solitary Pacific Crest Trail during one of the coldest mornings, the nozzle on my Nathan hydration pack froze solid.  Uhg! 

I also used to think training for ultras was a sacrosanct affair.  Once I registered for an event and had my eye on the prize, nothing could take me away from my beloved trails on southern cal. 

This week I was summoned yet again to the east coast for work.  Business travel and ultra training aren’t natural companions.  But I’m learning they can co-exist.  When I woke up in Portland, Maine at 7 am, I knew I needed to put in 10 miles before my meeting.  Not a big deal, but when my return trip was re-routed on account of a last minute meeting in Columbus, OH, it meant tacking on 7 miles in New York City the same night.

Hell, I thought to myself as I was running through Times Square at 9 pm amidst throngs of tourists, why don’t I touch the Hudson River, then run across Manhattan and then touch the East River?  Determined, I made my way over some rickety steel pipes hovering above the dark, foreboding Hudson.  Hidden below me was an abandoned pier.  I leaped across a wide gap, then made my way to the river’s lapping edge.  As I reached for its cold touch, I couldn’t help but smile as my mind wondered.  If not running, where would I be?   

New tricks?  No, not for this old dog.  It’s just my own hunt.