December 31, 2013

What I Learned About Ultra Running in 2013

Pacing my friend Larry R to an AC 100 finish
Giving Back 

Once I was on a run with a couple and we were talking about church. I’m not sure how it came up, but they mentioned that running was their church. Really?, I said to myself. Isn’t church about giving back? What have we runners become? Then I started running ultras. And before long I volunteered at the finish line of a race. Then I spent a weekend doing trail work, and then I paced a fellow runner through a 100 mile race. It’s not a lot, but it's something. Something that, when I look back, I’m just as pleased with as I am with finishing my own races. Unlike running 5ks or marathons, or doing triathlons or riding criterions, ultra running asks for something more. It asks you to give back. And this, I’ve come to learn this year, is what I like most about our sport.

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E=FP Squared.

This one is still work in progress, but I felt it worthy of mention because I believe it’s had a big impact on my running the last few years. It’s taken me until now to realize, through my own experience running 100 mile races, that the equation is real and not just my imagination. What is it? “It” is not meant to be a scientific formula, but rather a kind of ultra aphorism. To break it down “E” is for energy, while “F” is for fat and “P” is for Protein. Which means, of course, that when it comes to running long, and I mean really long--like 100 miles--that there is no substitute for fat and protein to produce energy in the human body.

Of course there is much to write about on this. There is the scientific perspective, which I will spare you here but will address more so in the weeks to come as I begin to explore the OFM (optimal fat metabolism) diet with my training in the coming season.  To summarize this point, if you are still sucking down gels and carbs by the mouthful to get through your racing and training, you are not only polluting your body, you’re blocking it from tapping into its own natural, deep and efficient energy stores.

In the End, It’s the Journey that Matters.

Relaxing atop Mt. San Gorgonio before Leadville 
If I could only write about just one thing, it would be this. Mainly because, when it comes to ultra-running, it is easy to get caught up in the hype of the event. Whether it’s a personal record, a do-or-die commitment to finish an extreme race, or some other kind of goal, we all tend to get obsessed with the event itself. And when we do, we forget about the importance of the journey that gets us there. And when we forget that, I believe we become slaves. Slaves to our ego and to our obsessions.

Sure, we are all motivated for different reasons. And I’m still trying to figure out what motivates me. But there is one thing that I have learned along the way. And that is that if I am unable to appreciate what I’m doing while I’m on my way to doing something, then I’m not likely to get there. Let me just leave it at this: stop every once in a while. Smell the pine trees. Look at the horizon. The clouds. Take off your earphones. Then listen.

Happy New Year Ultra Runners!

December 20, 2013

Are We All Flawed Characters?

Ultra runners are an interesting breed. As one myself, I believe we are an obsessive, compulsive, selfish, narcissistic, stubborn, ego-driven group, to mention a few descriptors. Oh, sure, you aren't one of these types, right? Wrong. If you've strapped on a pair of shoes and trained for a 50 mile race or longer chances are your character is flawed by some or all of these tendencies.

But there is more to the story here. If you are an utlra runner, you've probably run next to someone during a 100 mile race, pacing them toward the finish line while they struggle from mile to mile and through highs and lows. Or chances are you've spent the better part of a day working at an aid station helping other runners through challenges non-runners couldn't begin to understand. Or maybe you've spent hours on a 30 mile long run hanging back with a buddy who was struggling to hold his cookies.

Running. It's all about the yin and the yang.

Happy holidays to all you flawed characters out there!

December 6, 2013

JFK 50 Miler - A Run Through History

When the sun finally pierced the cold night’s sky, I could feel the early morning air pressing against my cheeks. The temperature was dropping into the low 30’s and a cold, northwestern wind was blowing over the Appalachian Mountains. “These are downright balmy conditions,” a local runner said boastfully. Really? I thought to myself. As one of the few runners from California, I quietly pulled my running cap over my ears, slipped on an extra sweatshirt, and made my way to the starting line.

I was in Boonsboro, Maryland, a rural town nestled amidst the historical crossroads of the American Civil War. I was here with the original running Elvis and my pal Jeff Padilla to run the JFK 50 Mile endurance run, the oldest ultra-marathon in the United States. Inspired by John F. Kennedy, who extoled the benefits of physical fitness, the event was first held in 1963 and originally intended as a challenge for the United States Marine Corps. Today, 50 years later, the call to complete 50 miles on foot has evolved into an ultra-marathon that attracts military and civilians alike.

On November 23, 2013, exactly 50 years and one day after President Kennedy was tragically assassinated, I stood with more than 1,000 runners to take up the late president’s challenge. Surrounding me were people from all walks of life: active and retired members of the armed forces, civilian men and women, athletes and non-athletes, fathers and sons, the young and the old. Despite this diversity, we all had something in common. Each of us had our own reason for being here.

Antietam Battlefield
The chant began just before 7 a.m. 10, 9, 8…and grew louder and louder…7, 6, the starter lifted his gun…4, 3, 2, 1...bang! We ran for several miles on a paved road until we reached Turners Gap, where General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate troops engaged Union troops advancing under the command of General George McClellan over 150 years ago. From there we turned onto the Appalachian Trail, known universally by hikers around the world as the “AT.” What ensued was 15 miles of jagged rocks hidden under autumn’s fallen leaves—a virtual minefield for runners. One misstep, one brief lapse of concentration on the AT, and we would be sent hurtling to the ground.

As I’ve said before, running ultras is like riding a roller coaster. One moment you can be on top of the world, and the next you can feel like you’ve got the world on your shoulders. Elation and exhilaration that flow through your veins one minute are usually overcome by suffering and self-doubt the next. What I’ve learned most from running ultras is patience. Patience to know that when things get really difficult, if I just accept my situation and keep moving forward, eventually things will get better.

My concentration lapsed somewhere between mile 12 and 15 when I rolled my ankle then took a sharp fall on the trail. I had just begun to utter the first of a few words of encouragement to another runner when I found myself hurtling face first to the dirt below me. Fortunately I’ve become pretty skilled at a contorted tuck and roll maneuver in these situations so I got up and brushed myself off pretty quickly. Not in time, however, for the other runner to miss my impromptu circus act. “You okay?” she said. “Sure, I just have to watch my mouth,” was all I could muster in reply.  

From high on the Appalachian ridge we made our way down to the C&O Canal, the 184-mile water highway once used for commercial trade and as a supply line for the Union Army. Flat and scenic, this section of the course gobbled up 26 miles, a full marathon. Then we made our way just north of the historic town of Harpers Ferry, site of the infamous John Brown raid which was the catalyst of the Civil War, and into the town of Williamsport.

When I turned the last corner and caught sight of the finish line, I could see the clock and the people gathering to greet the runners. My heart raced and my pace quickened. I could feel the weight of the day on my shoulders as I approached. Finally, after seven hours and twenty-eight minutes of highs and lows blended with a slice of American history, I crossed the finish line. The weight lifted from my shoulders and, at that moment, exhilaration seeped in.

Keep it real runners!