Saturday, December 21, 2013

That's a Wrap


"To possess one's own experience rather than be possessed by it, to live one's own life rather than be lived by it-in time to become all you are" -Dr George Sheehan from "Running & Being"

The morning started like many others recently, rolling over in bed, sleep still stinging my eyes as I searched for the motivation to leave the warmth of my quilt.
So I made a deal with myself, I turned on the Grateful Dead album 'Without A Net' and told myself that as soon as the song 'Althea' was over I had to get up and that's what happened, running tights, jacket, hat, mittens and shoes on quickly and out the door into the chilly December air.
The day before I plowed through the snow and slop for 9.5 miles, and today was going to follow it up with an easy five around Calhoun that would put me over the 1,500 mile mark for the year.  That was an unofficial goal but one that I was now excited about accomplishing, a byproduct of staying healthy and motivated much longer than I had in years past.
As my feet searched for footing, sliding through the loose snow on the greenway, I thought back over the miles of this past year, many along this same path, Calhoun, Isles, Harriett, Cedar, Brownie lakes, I have run them so many times I know all the distances and how to string together 5, 7, 10+mile runs whatever I needed on a certain day.
Picking my way slowly on to the path by Calhoun the Nike+ voice broke through the Dead in my headphones 'One mile completed, time 7:59' and I flashed back to a run months ago in similar conditions.  Slipping, sliding through the snow I had started out with no particular route in mind, and frankly no idea how long I wanted to go. 
I had looped Calhoun, headed to Cedar, then up over the railroad tracks to the dirt path that leads to Brownie, a light snow began to fall, the sky steel gray, the ground a dull white making finding footing pretty difficult, but fun.  Smile on my face, Railroad Earth in my ears, I hopped back onto the Cedar Commuter trail after circling Brownie, headed down to the River, into North East, back over, through downtown and then towards south Mpls, snow still falling and starting to accumulate, getting a little nervous, I hadn't brought any water as it was winter and it tends to freeze and I was getting hungry.  Wandered down to the Salvo bridge and onto the greenway, finally stopped at the bike store there to use the bathroom & get some water, chatted with the person behind the counter and headed out, making it home with 20 miles banked but more so a chance to see all the different areas of Mpls via foot in beautiful falling snow. 

'Two miles completed, time 16:01' said the voice, nice to have the distraction of my head phones something I have been straying away from more often lately.  Enjoying instead the silence that winter brings how the snow mutes everything from cars to your shoes hitting the dirt or pavement.  Reminded me of being at the Cabin this spring, polishing off a cup of coffee and heading out the door to finally do something I had been thinking & talking about for years.  Running down to Honeymooners Bluff, I headed out and was surrounded by silence, my feet hitting the dirt road the only sound as there was still a lot of snow up there, running down the road which was absent of cars, seeing huge moose prints in the soft dirt shoulder. 
Pounding up the stairs cut into the back side of the bluffs, my breathing turning to panting, skipping over the stones along the path and finally making it to the top, looking down at the frozen lake from a few hundred feet up.  Eating a power-bar while enjoying the view before heading back home for a total of 14 miles with lots of evidence of Moose but no sightings, until days later in my car (which was okay by me) 

"Morning!" boomed the voice of a runner, startling me out of my daydream, his face covered with a mask and hat, only his eyes visible, I smiled and answered the same, always amazed at the number of people out running in the Twin Cities no matter the weather.
Made me think of the people I have met along the way, the running community is a relatively small one and the Ultra community is even smaller, you constantly run into the same people at different races.
Like Paige and Aaron Reeves, two people I have gotten to know quite well after meeting Paige at a Triathlon years ago and running into them at other races, this year pulling into the Afton parking lot for the 50K only to have them pull into the parking spot right next to me.  Great people who are doing great things, or Jim and Val a couple I cross paths with at races and in random training runs through the woods, always recognizing them by their gait.
And it's not just the new people I have met but using running to reconnect with old friends like Greg, Mitch, and Cano guys I haven't seen in years but now we spend time running races, talking training, nutrition and planning adventures.
Getting to spend time, whether on the roads or in the woods, with my brother's Alex and Paul, having my Mom, Dad and Gramps on the sidelines cheering, and all my other friends and family who put up with me complaining about how tired I am, while in the same breath talking about how great that last run was and how I have so little time and how hungry I always am...
Not to mention all the gnarly folks I see at races year in and year out but have not gotten to know outside of a shared conversation at some point in the race, the 60 year old men and women who are my inspiration, passing me because they never make a mistake and are just steady and even all the time.
"Three miles completed..." the voice interrupted my thoughts again, the south side of Calhoun, I looked towards the downtown Mpls skyline thinking how lucky I am to live in a major city yet just blocks from my apt I can circle these beautiful lakes, and blocks from my office downtown I can hop on a path along the river that makes you forget you are in the middle of a major metropolis.
I had now crossed the 1,500 mile mark for the year, my hamstrings feeling a little weak from pushing through the snow the past few days, not to mention the first cross country ski session of the season a few days back. 
Chill in the air wasn't bad but my mind did drift to a warm apt and hot coffee that I knew was waiting for me, plus a day off today which, after working until 1am the night before, meant a nap in my chair at some point.
But rest and relaxation has never been my forte, instead pushing until the body gives out and exhaustion forces me to the couch has been my recipe...though in recent years I have tried to take the advice of many a veteran runner and 'listen to your body' taking breaks as preventative maintenance instead of crashing and having to rebuild.  That being said active recovery is much more up my alley, taking days off running, but spending them skiing, biking, hiking, lifting, or just moving.  Like I was today, these were probably junk miles, tough to do anything really serious when the footing is so bad out there, but just moving makes me feel good, which is why after the Surf The Murph 50K when I told myself I would take November off I knew I was lying...tough to stop moving when you're so used to it.
"Four miles completed..." this run was almost done, circling off Calhoun and back on to the Greenway to head towards home, always a bummer to end a run (well not always but more often than not) and for weeks now I had been telling myself once I hit 1,500 for the year I was taking the rest off, be it a week or a day whatever. 
But as glided down the semi-plowed path I didn't think so much about the end of the run, but more about when the next time I could get out would be...

"Five miles completed, time 40:52..."

Final Race Notes for 2013
April 20: Hyland 50K - 5:21:14
May 5th: Lake Minnetonka Half -1:39:09
July 6th: Afton 50K -7:14
July 27th: Voyageur 50miler -12:28:41
Sept 21st: Patagonia 63K -7:05:20
Oct 6th: Twin Cities Marathon -3:52
Oct 26th: Surf The Murph 50K -6:22:53 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Piles of Miles



"Do not follow where the path may lead.  Go instead to where there is no path and leave a trail"
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

A busy summer turned into a busy fall and suddenly its winter without any warning...Been meaning to write a race recap from the Surf the Murph 50K but honestly there wasn't much to write about.  It was dark and cold when we started, I met up with my old buddy Mitch at the start, totally expected him to dust me as I was running my third marathon plus in the past five weeks, but he was coming back from an injury and we just settled in and spend the next 6:22 keeping a steady pace, and catching up on everything that had gone on in the years since we had last seen each other.
There was never a moment of doubt about finishing, there wasn't any sort of adversity, we just settled in and rolled along happily from aid station to aid station, seeing his wife and kids from time to time, grubbing on cookies and candy, catching up on people from grade school and high school, as well as sharing stories of races run since then.
The weather couldn't have been better, beautiful sunrise, warm temps as the day wore on, soft trails, rolling hills, great convo, and it was the perfect way to wrap up a long summer of running.
Once we finished, and headed our separate ways, Mitch with his family, me up north to my good buddy's house to help him cut down trees at his new place, I had some time to reflect on the past five weeks....
Going to Chile, the whole experience, my body somehow recovering on the fly in order to run the Twin Cities, the support of the crowds, blasting from that right to work, watching the Lynx win their second WNBA Championship in three years, wrapping up the parade and trophy presentation by getting up at 430 and bombing up to my cabin with my good buddy Sparky for a quick weekend hiking and canoeing, blasting back in time to get him to the airport, then turning around to run Surf the Murph. 
Whenever I feel like I am too tired to do something or too lazy, or busy, I only need to remember that stretch, riding a wave of good vibes, and adrenaline to undertake a string of adventures that seemed out of reach and make them all happen.
After spending that next day cutting down and clearing trees at my buddy's place, I decided to take the rest of the month off and start training again in December but a funny thing happened when I got home...I just felt really good and didn't feel the need for an extended recovery, instead I just kept running, sure I had some knots and soreness to work through but my body just loved the feeling of being in motion and so I kept right on rolling, and last week added up my mileage for the year shocked to find I was closing in on 1,500 miles run.
The past few years I had topped out around 1,200-1,300 and always in the back of my mind thought 1,500 would be a cool milestone but after the fall season I always just fell off and didn't get out much.  But this year I was able to keep it going and now am less than 60 miles from accomplishing that goal.
I have run through everything the past 12 months,  snow, rain, heat, mountains, woods, downtowns, good times, hard times, bitter cold winds, and swampy humidity, run with a clear head and a full heart as well as a full head and a heavy heart.  Every step taught me something, showed me a little more about myself or my surroundings, opening my eyes to what is possible and how the only limits we have are the ones we place upon ourselves.



Thursday, October 10, 2013

From Tierra del Fuego to Tierra del Lagos

'My feet are my only carriage, so I've got to push on through...'- Bob Marley

Just a few days after arriving back from Patagonia I couldn't believe it was already time to run the Twin Cities Marathon.  Originally I hadn't planned on doing this but after getting swept up in the excitement of my brother and a couple of good buddies running I decided I was in, who cares if it was 7 days after running the Patagonia 63K and traveling all the way back from Chile, I would gut it out and be able to run with some of my really close friends. 

That was the plan anyway.
 
The weather forecast all week was showing doom and gloom for Sunday, cold, windy, rainy, figured if we were gonna do it might as well make it hard.
But when I walked out of my apartment Sunday morning to meet my brother, the weather was cool but not cold, the sky was clear and it looked like we were in for, if not a beautiful day, at least a beautiful start.  And that's exactly what we got. 

As usual the starting corals were a zoo, Alex and I found a spot in coral one, last year he had ripped off a 3:22 marathon, myself a 3:32 so we were allowed in the first wave.  This year neither of us really knew what to expect.  I told him before, as this was my chief concern, that I wasn't going to get caught up in the way he runs.  He's fast, pushes hard and survives on his guts and heart to put together amazing races.
I am the tortoise to his hare.  Slowly but surely making my way along, keeping an even pace, trying to run negative splits, and avoid the blowup as much as possible.  On the car ride down I told him we can start together but if I feel like you're pushing me I am gonna have to drop off, as much as I would have loved to run the whole way together I knew it wasn't realistic. 

As the gun went off and we started through the streets of downtown Minneapolis, I realized that I was about at top speed after the first mile which we completed in around 9 minutes.  I could tell Alex wanted to go; he was like a young colt straining at the reigns.  Just past the one mile mark I pulled off to use the Biff, Alex kept going as I told him I'd catch up.
But there was a long wait and by the time I finally got moving, I decided to give him a mile of hard running to see if I could catch him, if not we were on our own. 

I bulldogged up the hill by the Walker, down towards Lake of the Isles trying to spot his black visor-clad head, but he was nowhere to be seen.  On a turn by the lake I thought I spotted him and picked up the pace again but I was mistaken and dialed it back after that not wanting to blow up.
By mile six my legs were gassed, I began to wonder if this was a terrible idea.  I have had some epic marathon blowups, and even suffered a pretty brutal one earlier this year in the Afton 50k and didn't want to relive any of those episodes.  

Moving around Lake Harriett things seemed to pick up, legs and body found a rhythm, mind went blank, I kept my head up, a smile on my face absorbing the cheering through this packed section.
Had to laugh at one point thinking to a week prior when I was in the middle of the Torres Del Paine, top of a hill surrounded by snowcapped peaks and scrub desert, and not hearing a sound.  Surrounded by total silence, no wind, no birds, bugs, nothing.  Now here I was in the middle of the 'Most Beautiful Urban Marathon' surrounded by screaming fans and elbow to elbow with other runners. 

On Minnehaha Parkway I was taken aback for a moment when a huge crowd of runners surged past me.  Don't know that I have ever been passed by that many people that early in a race, but I looked at my watch and realized it didn't matter; I was still on my pace of getting in under 4 hours. 

I plowed along to River Blvd, my feet pretty sore at this point but everything working well outside of that. 
As I picked 'em up and put 'em down I realized I was doing some solid 'Old Man Running' never going too fast, never going too slow, keeping an even steady pace, running smart.  Maybe all those races of being passed by those type of runners and studying them from a distance was finally paying off. 

By the time I got to the 20 mile mark I was hungry.  The one big difference in Ultras and Marathons is you don't get to eat real food during a marathon, it's gels, water, PowerAde and that's it.  I wanted a cookie, or at least a Clif bar. 

As I neared the 21 mile mark I spotted my parents and my Gramps.  My favorite part of the race, getting to see my little cheering section and always getting to hear a funny line from my Gramps (and always after I leave them thinking about the story Gramps tells of running a marathon in fatigues and boots when he was in the Army)
Sure enough as I pull up and gave Gramps a hug and slapped hands with Big Tom, Gramps says 'Can I run the rest of the way with you?' I started laughing and said of course, and my mom reached in her bag and handed me a cookie.  Never been so happy in my life. 

The cookie hit the spot and carried me up to Summit Ave.  Once there the cheering of the crowds, which seemed to be three deep on either side of the road, carried me up the Summit hill.
But here I started to get worried.  I hadn't slowed down at all through this race and with 3 miles to go wondered if I had enough to finish it.  I just put my head down, cleared my mind, blinders on, not hearing or seeing the crowd, just putting one foot in front of the other.  

This was work I thought, still fun of course, but this was one of those moments where you reach back to early morning training runs when you didn't want to get out of bed.  When you pushed yourself through something and proved something new to yourself.  I called upon all of those experiences, knowing the whole time I could do it, it was just not gonna be easy. 

As I rounded Summit and the Cathedral came into view and the Capitol building and finish line I began to get chills.  Not the chills of almost finishing the race, but chills that this was the culmination of a hell of a couple of weeks.
The trip to Chile, the race in Torres, the 27 hours of travel back, jumping right into work & now almost finishing this thing.  It was chills of setting a goal that while I knew it was attainable, was previously out of my reach.  Of doing something that people said, while not impossible, was crazy.  The chills were for the support that I had through it all, from Patagonia to the Twin Cities, from random people screaming for me to finish even though they had no idea quite what I was trying to finish. 

I flew through the finish at the speed of smell, accomplishing my goal of under four hours with a 3:52, medal around my neck found Alex who beat me again (never have I ran faster than him) and our parents, and it was off to stuff our faces with breakfast food, a TCM tradition.
And in what is becoming another TCM tradition it was off to work after that for game one of the WNBA Finals, a Lynx win was a great way to cap an incredible two week span.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Patagonia



My watch glowed 1:45 in the darkened dome as I lay huddled under heavy, woolen blankets that felt like I was sleeping under an x-ray blanket.  I knew it wasn't 1:45, it was 3:45 (I never change my watch when I travel) and that my alarm was going to go off in 15 minutes.
As I turned on my headlamp I was surprised to see a stream of steam flow from my mouth with every breath, my goodness it was cold.
Finally forced myself up and started getting ready for the Patagonia 63k.
I had arrived in Chile nearly a week prior.  Spending one day in Santiago, exploring the big park in the middle of the city and the 40-foot statue of the Virgin Mary, then flew to Punta Arenas, located on the Magellan Straight, where I spent 5 days at the end of the world.
In Punta Arenas I toured the Tierra Del Fuego (land of fire) saw the King Penguins, went four-wheeling in the snow-covered backcountry, learned the history of the land and the region but yesterday finally made my way to Torres Del Paine where the race was to be held.
Pulling into Torres, I was dumbstruck by the beauty in every direction.  The sun was setting as we made our way to Eco-Camp at the base of the Torres Towers.  The Dome I was staying in had skylights opening up to those towers and to more stars (and the Milky Way) than I ever thought were possible.
Now though, all that beauty was shrouded in darkness as I followed the beam of my headlamp to the dining dome for breakfast.  A bowl of yogurt and granola with a small cup of coffee would have to suffice, there was not much else offered.  There were only four of us running the 63K, Claire a woman from Orlando who had multiple 100 mile races under her belt, Norbert a guy from Australia who had recently finished the Caballo Blanco 50 miler, and another guy from Brazil who spoke no English.
After breakfast we piled into a van for the hour and a half ride to the start, it was a dark, twisty, bumpy and silent drive except for the radio which occasionally pumped out American pop music which seemed fitting at times.  The Beatles 'Long & Winding Road' and Dire Straits 'Brothers in Arms' were two that stood out to me as I sat in the back eyes closed trying to catch any extra sleep I could.
We were dropped at the start about an hour and a half early because they had to close the roads to traffic which is great but that meant an hour and half standing around (mostly outside) in temps that were near or below freezing.  The upside was watching the most beautiful sunrise I had ever seen come up over the mountains.
Finally it was time to go; the race directors lead us on a 2k walk through the woods to the start at Lago Grey.  Lago Grey is a glacial lake at the base of a massive mountain, there were giant icebergs floating in the blue green water, which was like glass as we had been blessed by a day with little to no wind.
By now my hands and feet were completely numb, I was talking to a guy named Marcus from North Brazil, he was so cold that his face was bundled up like a bank robber. 





What the start enjoyed in beauty, it lacked in pomp & circumstance (which is one of the reasons I love ultra & trail running) just a yellow line in the sand with two banners and a bunch of people hopping up and down to stay warm.  The race director counted us down in Spanish (a trip because I normally count to ten in Spanish going up, down was difficult) and boom we were off.
Trudging through the sand/gravel we had just walked, we made our way eventually to solid ground (for a moment) then onto a long swinging bridge.  This was a challenge just to walk over but to run, with frozen feet, I felt like a drunk!  Swaying from side to side, trying not to run into the sides I finally made it across and let out a sign of relief.
From there the first 20K was relatively flat, and the views were breathtaking.  We headed out away from Lago Grey only to wrap around and see the mountain range that helped contribute to that glacial runoff, the snow covered peaks seemed to just go on and on and on, no end in sight. 
I would run for a while, stop and take pictures, then run only to be overwhelmed by beauty and be forced to stop again.  Pretty sure the people I kept leap-frogging were getting annoyed but there was just no way I could not stop.
After a little more than two hours we wound our way to the start of the marathon (which went off 2 hours after we started to just missed them) and again the beauty stopped me in my tracks.  A massive mountain, framed by a pale blue sky, was reflecting off the green blue glacier lake, mirror images.  I stopped to take a picture then flipped it upside down and couldn't tell which the original was.  




By now the cold of the morning was gone, I could feel my feet and hands again and inspired by the natural beauty around me felt ready to take on the hilly section of the course that lead from the 42K mark down pretty much to the final 10K.
A little ways beyond the start of the Marathon I noticed a figure walking up a hill in front of me and recognized the backpack of Connie, an American I had met earlier in Punta Arenas during our tour of Tierra del Fuego, she was from California and had planned on walking the entire 42K.
I caught up to her and we walked the hill talking about the race and what we had seen at our different hotels.  It was great to see a familiar face and to catch up for a bit, we snapped a picture and then I took off, opening up on a downhill and flowing right up into an uphill, just rolling along with mountains and the lake to my left, the scrub-brush & dry hills off to my right.
Running into Connie got me thinking about how lucky I had been.  Not just to have the support of my family and friends who helped make this dream come true, but also the people I had met since getting to Chile.  After a few days of stumbling through encounters in Spanish, trying to communicate with my hands and limited vocabulary I had met Connie & her sister in-law Claire (who spoke fluent Spanish) and was able to chat with them & understand what was being said thanks to the translation.  Then on my way to the park I was fortunate enough to meet Chris, Nick & Blaire.  Three American's who were living in Uruguay and traveled down for the race.  Over the course of our five-hour bus ride & subsequent lunch & dinner conversations I got to know them and they helped to translate the race briefings and other things to me.
Blaire was running the Marathon (her first) so I kept an eye out for her but doubted I would see her, and kept rooting that she & Nick and Chris (who were running their first half-marathons) would have a great experience and want to stick with distance running.  For me, my first marathon was a disaster, but I kept coming back & am so glad that I did for thanks to this sport I have been able to do and see things I never thought I would and meet such great people along the way.
An aid station cropped up around 32k, these aid stations were so different from any that I had come across in any marathon, ultra-marathon or triathlon I have done.  They consisted of a jug of water and that was it, occasionally you would come across one that held a box of half apples and bananas but for the most part my nutrition was in my hydration pack, three Clif bars, some goos and shot blocks, I was also carrying a hand held bottle that I would drop a Nunn tablet into but that was it.  No cookies, PB&J sandwiches or cups of trail mix along the way. 




Along the way I offered 'Hola's' to runners always getting one back in return, sometimes we would stumble through a broken Spanish or English conversation but for the most part the stretch from 42k to 28 was pretty quiet, just taking in the scenes and keeping my feet moving, making sure that if I was going to walk up a hill that soon as it leveled I was running again and relishing the downhill's where I let loose and just bombed, around 28k I met back up with Marcus, the guy I met at the start.  He spoke good English so we kept a running commentary for around 10k, he told me how a good pair of shoes in Brazil could cost him $500, or how his hand-held bottle (same as mine) cost him $50 even though we both bought ours at REI but his shipping and taxes sent it through the roof.
He told me how had been really into Team Adventure Racing until overheating one day during a race & being forced to withdraw cost his team a victory.  After that he picked up smoking again and got out of shape until he decided that he was going to recommit himself, found this ultra (it was his first) quit smoking and got after it training.
Marcus was a beast, he didn't walk the hills unless his heart-rate got above a certain level, and he attacked them with a warrior's mentality.  He had a race plan and executed it to perfection (I bailed after a while, I needed to run my race & running up those hills expended more energy than I wanted) finishing in just under 7 hours like he hoped.
Once I let Marcus go on a hill and settled in again, the heat began to reflect off the dirt road making it quite warm.  I had finally left one mountain range behind me knowing that soon I would crest a hill and see the Towers signifying the finish.
At the crest of every hill I searched the hills in front of me for the Towers and finally with about 11k left I realized they were off to my left, I pulled into the 10k aid station, filled up and knew that my next 3-4k were all downhill.
Opening up I let go, let the road carry me to the bottom, flowing over the loose gravel and pot holes all the way to the bottom, passing a number of startled people who were crushing their quads trying to slowly make their way down the hill. 




My momentum carried me all the way to the bridge when I finally ran out of steam, walked across the bridge then ran to the next hill and recovered walking to the top.  I was feeling good just about 5k left when I hit a hill that just wouldn't end, it seemed like it shouldn't be as big a deal as it felt but I finally had to pull up and hoof it, after 58k it was harder than it would have been normally.
Eventually I wound my way around to the hotel where the finish line was and after navigating the twists and turns that made up the finishing chute I crossed the line in 7:05:20, a medal was draped around my neck and for the first time since I got out of the van that took me to the starting line at 6:30 that morning I sat down on a bale of hay.
Rising I walked out of the finishing chute and found Chris, Nick and Blaire sprawled on the grass & joined them as we recounted tales from the trail, warm sun shining down, surrounded by mountains and great people there's not another place I would have rather been. 




The next day everyone felt good enough that we went hiking/biking to Laguna Azul, a beautiful lake that offered another spectacular view of the towers and saw a water fall that the blue-green glacial water flowed over making the rocks look like marble countertops. 




No one seemed to want the trip to end, dinner that final night lasted until near midnight, we were like kids at a summer camp sharing stories, rapping Snoop & Biggie, wanting to hang on to those final minutes before having to head back to real life.   



Saturday, September 14, 2013

When Not Having A Plan Becomes The Plan


My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning, and yet I'm happy.  I can't figure it out. What am I doing right? - Charles M. Schulz

Over the past few months I have experienced a change when it comes to training...it doesn't feel like training anymore, it just feels like fun.  There was a stretch when I was talking myself out of bed, tricking myself into putting on my shoes and if I did it fast enough, found myself out running before I could come up with an excuse.

Now I feel like a young puppy, straining against his leash, scratching at the door wondering when I can get out and for how long.

The mindset used to be that training was work; you go into each workout with a goal in mind and try to execute that goal.  I am going to run for 5 miles at an 8 minute pace with pickups every 4 minutes, or today's run is 18 miles with 10 at marathon pace, then go home and log those numbers, compare them to last year's, see progress or decline, try to figure out why.

Not so much this summer, this summer has become all about just going, listening to the body and going by feel, and honestly enjoying every minute of it.   

Now when I find myself heading out the door my thoughts are not on what else I wish I was doing, but rather on how excited I am to get to do what I am about to do.  I invented the 'John-A-Thon' this summer, hopping on my bike and riding for around an hour or until I find some woods or a suitable hill, then running for an hour and riding back home.  Sounds like a workout, but I can't think of a more fun way to spend an afternoon.

Some people spend a Saturday playing 18, I like to spend it running 18, heading into the woods with a backpack full of water and maybe some food and just going.  There's no real rhyme or reason to my training this year, as there is not really a pattern to the races I have done, and that's fine with me.  For the past few years, summer months have been spent dialed into training for specific races and goals.  This year I didn't have a plan, knew there were races I wanted to do but no real pattern emerged as in years past so I just decided to do it all.  Hasn't always been pretty, or fast but it sure has been fun and interesting.

At the beginning of the year with my race schedule in flux, I tossed away any sort of training plan I would normally follow and just decided to get miles when I could, rest when I needed to and see what sort of a workload I could take on.  After an early season bout with hip flexor strains, and Achilles/knee issues I found a workload that fit and just went with it, since then the nagging injuries have gone away and the outlook went from 'have to do this' to 'get to do this'.

Now we'll see if it worked or not, in a week I head to Chile for the Patagonia International Ultramarathon, running 63K on September 28th, planning to follow that up with the Twin Cities Marathon the following Sunday and who knows what else I can tack on to round out the month of October.


Sometimes having no plan turns into the best plan...


Monday, July 29, 2013

Voyageur 50


I was burned out from exhaustion buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes and blown out on the trail
Hunted like a crocodile ravaged in the corn
"Come in" she said
"I'll give you shelter from the storm"- From Bob Dylan's "Shelter From The Storm"



The sky looked like cold, grey steel when we got to Carlton high school around 530 in the morning, the air was cold, right around 50, a wind blew through the trees and the smell of rain was in the air.  A week ago it was 90 and humid and on this morning it felt like we should be getting ready for Halloween not looking forward to the start of August.
Cano, who traveled in from Florida, and I shivered as we walked into the high school to meet up with the other runners for the start of the Voyageur 50 mile race.  We debated wearing pull-over's, or long sleeves but in the end decided we would warm up as we ran and the weather was supposed to get a little warmer, at least into the 60's...but it never did.
We met up with my buddy Greg who was running without any sleeves on (probably why he ran so fast) at the start line which I am pretty sure was just a crack in the road.
They sent us on our way and we were off, into the relative unknown for me (having only run a small section of the course in a training run) and the total unknown for Cano.
After a short section of pavement we hit the trail, scrambling slowly over rocks along the shore of the St. Louis River, after that found some level ground and our pace and the conversation turned to catching up on what was happening with the rest of our buddies from Ohio University.  We laughed about stories of our friends kids, who was married or gonna get married, weddings we attended or planned to, old stories from Athens, great memories.  Along the way we passed some gorgeous scenery, despite the dark clouds pushing down on us.  We picked our way through prairies, waded through shin-knee deep creeks, wound our way along a beautiful stretch of river and then hit the first of the power-lines.
It wasn't too bad, just two of them, very steep but the ground was still firm as the rain hadn't started yet so up and down we went then back to the rolling hills, eventually popping out on a long gradual downhill stretch of pavement. 
After that we had to climb to the top of a ridge, literally pulling ourselves to the top by grasping trees, digging our feet in sideways and finally gaining the ridge, calves screaming with the effort.  Now we were into it, ups and down, hopping over roots and rocks, walking the steep uphill's, opening up on the downhill's, picking our way over streams and eventually coming to the 16 mile aid station.  Load up your packs as the next 4.8 miles were gonna take a while, the real power-lines were ahead.
It had been misting on and off for much of the morning, and when we hit the first of the power-lines they were a little muddy but not too bad, we slowly made our way down, then power-hiked back up the other side, bending low into the hill to avoid falling, up and down we went, the section resembling the printout of an EKG. 
We finally made it through that section with the knowledge we would be going right back into it shortly after the turnaround.  



With the power-lines behind us our next challenge was Jarrow's Beach, a section of massive up-turned rocks you had to slowly pick your way across, they were covered in moss and thanks to the mist, which was slowly turning to a rather steady rain, we took our time being extra careful through that section, making sure we had solid footing before making the next step, the rocks just punching through your shoes making your feet feel like they had been blasted by a hammer over and over and finally made it to the turn-around.  Out in 5:22, we gave ourselves a chance to crack the 11-hour mark, which was one goal, but our main goal was make it through without blowing up, so far so good. 
Between our hydration packs, salt tab's and each of us making sure the other was eating, drinking and taking gels, we were both feeling pretty good.
Turned around and were out at 528, made our way back through Jarrow's beach (which seemed faster this time) and to the aid station prior to the power-lines.  When we got there it was really raining, we stood under a tent and ate the food we stashed there and then began to pick our way down to the lines. 
I remember stopping before the first one and turning back to Cano, we two-belled and said 'Let's do this!' having no idea what we were getting into.
The trails going up and down had turned into mud slicks, there was no footing at all, we slid down the first one got to the bottom and caught up to a group of people slowly crawling up the next one, on their hands and knees, pulling at the small trees and roots sticking out, taking one step then sliding back again.
We made it to the top, shins and knees covered in mud only to have to go down again.  This time we pretty much glissaded down, crouched in a seated position with your butt a few inches off the ground, arms out to balance we slid to the bottom, waded across a stream and went back up again it was slow going, constantly trying to find footing, or a hand hold, hands covered in mud, palms bleeding from getting caught on a tree or root, shoes so caked in mud they felt like lead weights.
Get to a stream and try to wash them off but knowing you were going right back into it.  I was laughing the entire way; it was like being a kid again, running in the woods in the rain, playing in the mud.  Like back when we used to play army, yes it was hard and at times frustrating but that's all part of it.  Trail running is all about embracing the trail and the elements.  There is nothing you can do so you accept them, enjoy them and know everyone is going through the same thing.  The others scrambling up the hill with us were making cracks and laughing at times, slipping and sliding all over the place.
Not sure how long that section took  but eventually Cano and I made it to the final uphill and celebrated (somewhat restrained knowing there were still two more ahead) and then ambled down the trail to the next aid station.
By now it had been raining pretty steadily for quite some time and the trail had turned to either a deep, shoe-sucking mud, or a hard-packed slick mud that would just throw you right on your ass if you weren't careful with your steps.
We slowly picked our way along, holding trees to stay upright, leap-frogging this dude Mike who was struggling with IT issues and running in minimal shoes which just looked miserable.  We kept our spirits up with stupid jokes, running when we could, walking when needed, and personally fueling myself with nothing but cookies over the final 3-4 hours. 
We had lost a lot of time trying to navigate the power-lines and the goal of an under 11 hour finish was gone but we were having fun and the goal of not blowing up was still alive and well.  Took our time at aid station chatting with the volunteers, who were the real badasses for standing out in that weather all day making sure we had water, food and anything else we needed.
Smiles all around as we headed into the final aid station.  Just 2.9 miles to go, the last section along the river, we were still running along the gravel road to the trail and once we hit it had to slow as again we picked our way over slippery rocks.  I got a little frustrated here, my feet were killing me and I wanted to just keep moving but the rocks wouldn't allow any sort of momentum so we were reduced to just walking until the trail finally turned away from the river and we could get some traction and run.
The last section was on pavement again and we power-hiked it (or just walked, it felt like power hiking but really I think it was more of a stroll) turned onto the street and began to run finishing together.
50 miles in 12:28, we never blew up, never cramped, spirits high the entire time, loved it, just running and playing in the woods.
I feel like every time I run one of these events there are lessons learned, last year I had a great year of running, the weather was perfect for every race, I set new personal best's each time out and things were easy.  This year, I have run a 50K through a couple feet of snow, another through 90 degree heat and humidity and another through the cold, wind, rain and mud of Northern MN. 
Learning to accept the conditions, work with them, enjoy them even, helps make things so much better.  Yeah it's harder and at times can be frustrating but you have the ability to make that decision, do I let it get to me, or do I embrace and attack it with enthusiasm?  Pacing and taking care of yourself is huge too, there were many an older man or woman who passed us and finished ahead because of their experience.  They don't push, they flow along the trail, never doing too much or too little, just steady, all day every day.  They just dial in and get it done, then hop in their cars and head home to get ready for the next one.  Those people are an inspiration to me, people who are passionate about trails, embrace the conditions, dial in and just get it done.
12:28 is the longest I have ever run, but it's also the best I've ever felt after a 50 miler, so proud of Cano for battling through the conditions to complete his first ever Trail Ultra.  He picked a tough course, with tough conditions and rolled with it all day long.  Great to see the smile on his face when we crossed that finish line.
So far I've seen the snow, the heat, the rain, who knows what Patagonia will throw at me in September. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Flow Rida

"Flow occurs when you're in a situation where you're doing something extremely difficult & have the skills to meet the challenge & focus to ignore all else."

A 430 alarm clock, followed by a 5am bus, flight at 715, finally back in the cities and headed home by 930 but the urge to keep moving was strong.
Dropped off my suitcase, grabbed my backpack and tent, threw some food in a cooler, packed trail running shoes and gear, back in the car, heat pounding the tan leather.  Windows down, radio up, navigate through the Sunday afternoon traffic, find the highway, point the Silver Fox north, cruise control, tension leaves the temples & shoulders as rubber meets the road with the right rhythm.
After two and a half hours, the big lake comes into view, no matter how many times I see it, that first view always stuns me.
The road begins to wind down toward the lake, out of memory pick my way along to the campground along the St. Louis River.  Check in with the hippie guy who runs the joint, grab some firewood and head to my site, a little walk in spot close to the river, away from the giant RV's that are tethered to their power supply's.
Within moments the tent is set up, and I realize I need bug spray stat.
Back in the car & headed to downtown, wander around the waterfront for a while, watch the ships, walk to the lighthouse, observe the tourists, of which I guess I am one.
The sky  gray and hung low in the sky over, dark clouds spilling over the hill and tumbling towards the water so close that looking up it was like looking at the underside of a giant ore ship.
A table for one on the balcony, strange look from the hostess, but the view was perfect.  Eavesdropping through dinner... people have a lot of complain about.
Apricot wheat at Fitgers, pickup bug-spray, build a fire despite the fact it was in the high 80's, just seemed right.
Eventually fell asleep on top of my sleeping bag to the sounds of the slow moving river.
Birds, lots of loud birds, better than an alarm clock, more sound, light rain peppering the tent, pack quick as I can dodge drops & mosquitoes.
Cup of coffee, follow directions to the trailhead.  Shoes, hydration pack, visor, food, drop into the woods on the trail.
Quickly find the rhythm, the flow, let myself go to the trail, it carries me south, hopping rocks to cross multiple streams, finally path flattens out.  Follow signs to Superior Hiking Trail, lots of climbing, smiling, power-hiking.
Tall, wet grass cleans my shoes, cleanses my mind, picking up the feet to avoid tripping, views of nothing but trees, broken only by small lakes or streams.
Skies clearing, temps rising, pop out on crest of a hill, nothing but woods in every direction, body feels strong, energized, drink, eat, drop back onto trail, fall into the flow.
Loop around, look at watch, been two hours, where did the time go?
Begin journey back even though don't want to...find power lines, up then down, then up again...my goodness they weren't joking these are going to be a challenge, but man right now they are a lot of fun.
Trail ejects me out onto a paved bike path; look around confused in search of where it picks up again.  Get weird looks from middle-aged tourist bikers.  Realize how dirty I have become in past two and a half hours, laugh, find trail and now power back up to the Silver Fox.
Find it, not ready to be done yet, cross road, roll along trail over old railroad bridges, find an old railroad tunnel through the rock, remember it from a race last year, hike up to the top of Ely's Peak.
Sit, I am at the same level as the hawks floating on the wind gusts, far to the east Lake Superior, to the south St. Louis River, 360 degree view, woods broken by the occasional road, turn north, sun on my face and skin relaxes every ounce of my being.
Sun, silence and scenery, mind clear, body relaxed yet energized. 
Can't wait to be back here in two weeks for the Voyager 50miler.




Sunday, July 7, 2013

Death Before DNF




 The weather hit me as I walked out my front door, it was 5am and already it was warm, bordering on hot. There would be no cool start with the temps rising; it was going to go from hot to hotter at the Afton 50K. The first loop went relatively well, I could feel the heat, my shirt and shorts already soaked through just six miles in, I was drinking constantly and taking in water and Nunn at aid stations hoping that I could stay even, but when I ran down a hill and could hear my shoes squeaking with sweat I knew I was already behind
.
Slow down I thought adjust your pace to the environment, going into this race I felt I could crack 5 hours, I knew it was going to be a challenge but my training on the course had me thinking that was possible if I had a great race, this was not turning out to be a great race. By mile 13 at the top of the 'meat grinder' I was already starting to feel the cramp in the back of my hamstring that I normally don't get until the last few miles of a 50-mile race, I contemplated dropping at the halfway point. I hammered up to the 16mile halfway mark and talked to another runner who said 'This is the hardest race I have done, I think I'll quit.' Sounded good to me but I had just finished that loop in 234 and thought there was still an outside chance I could get close to 5 hours if I held that pace on the second loop...I didn't.

On the second loop I started taking S-caps (like salt tablets) but the cramps kept hitting my hamstring, and moved into my calf by the time I got to mile 20. They weren't debilitating, just enough to force me to slow down even more and adjust my stride to make sure I didn't irritate them. Around mile 20 I realized that I had been so focused on hydrating that I had hardly eaten anything all day, but looking at the spread of food nothing looked good, my stomach was turning sour but I just couldn't bring myself to eat.

I stumbled into the mile 22 aid station, sat down, drank ice cold water, stretched my leg, calmed my stomach, thought about dropping but talked myself into 4 more miles, I would end up at this same aid station and if I needed to drop it was fine & closest place to walk out. As I left there I walked up a long dirt road, stomach flip-flopping, hoping walking would calm it down and allow the little food I did eat would be absorbed. At the top of the hill I felt better rolled along the ridge & down to the river only to start back up a massive 2-part hill. It was here the wheels totally fell off. I trudged up with some guy, complaining about my stomach, the heat and told him I was done at 26, this was stupid, the air so hot and humid it was like walking though soup. At the top of the hill I found a bench, lay down to settle my stomach for a bit then kept moving, marching, just one foot in front of the other. I attempted to run but my left leg wouldn't allow it. I marched through the camp grounds and then down a massive hill to the 26mile aid station. I sat and drank ice cold water, held ice on the back of my neck. Ate some food, not enough I am sure, but all that I felt comfortable with. I talked to a worker about how I drop, they would need my chip and my race number then I would have about a half mile walk out to my car. A girl rolled in a few minutes after me and just handed off her chip and number just like that she was done.

Here I was debating the question over and over in my head. I had never walked off the course before, and couldn't really imagine just quitting. I knew I could, I wasn't out to prove anything, I have run this distance many times, and today was just a bad day. But there was something in the back of my head that just wouldn't let me go. Physically I felt fine (In that I had the strength to go on, my legs and feet felt good, outside of the cramps hitting from time to time) mentally things had been tough from the get-go, the heat always does that to me but I am stubborn enough to handle that. It was my stomach that was the concern, just couldn't seem to get it to settle. I sat, thought about leaving and whether I would be able to handle that.

 Then I stood up and just started moving, I walked out of the aid station, I picked up my feet into a modified run (think Fred Sanford shuffle) a line from a DMX song played over and over in my head 'Hard-headed mother f--- always get it'. Made it running to the 'meat grinder' hill, then my running days were over. I hoofed it up there, pausing to sit and settle my stomach, got to the aid station there, less than 3 miles to the end. I sat in the shade while a young 6-year old worker helped me with ice, water and encouragement, I walked out of there, attempted to run and decided it wasn't happening, so I just marched. It took forever but I just kept marching, up the last hill, around the bend and finally off in the distance saw the tents of the finish line, with about 50 yards to go I went back to my Fred Sanford shuffle, crossed the finish line and laid down in the shade. 7:14:33...the first loop took 234; the second loop 4:40...yikes.

It was not my best race, probably one of my worst, did I go out to fast, should I have been drinking more, eating more, maybe just skipped it all together? Maybe, but in the end I finished. Nearly everyone I talked to out there that day had a rough one, I was no exception, and I need to learn to adjust to the environment. As The Dude said in the Big Lebowski, "Sometimes you eat the bar and sometimes the bar eats you" the bar ate me at Afton but I made it to the finish line and learned some valuable lessons along the way which I will apply to future races.

 At the finish line-


Sunday, June 30, 2013

Doc C & The Dojo

For most of my life there have been two constants outside of my family; the Hamiel's and the Culligan's. The Culligan's are longtime friends of my grandparents, while Matt Hamiel and I have been best friends since we were five and over the years I have grown quite close to his family as well. Last week Doctor John Culligan, a very close friend of my Grandpa's passed away. In my mind (and I think it's pretty accurate) my Gramps and Doc C were friends since the age of five, they played on the same baseball teams growing up (Gramps as the catcher and I believe Doc C was the second baseman) their little league box scores were in the paper the day after games (as Gramps tells me all the time 'There wasn't much else to cover back then'). My Grandma was the maid of honor to Shelia in their wedding, and Grandpa was a groomsman, as they grew up their families remained close. One of my earlier memories is waking up at Central Medical after surgery to get tubes in my ears and my mom giving me an Ironman action figure (the comic book guy) and then we had to swing by Culligan's house and I played with Ironman on the banister of their staircase. Then there were the Christmas Eve's when we would swing by their house to drop off gifts and chat, running into the family at church and dinners. My best friend Matt and I met in Kindergarten, we played on the same basketball, baseball and football team's, got into a lot of mischief (as I imagine Gramps and Doc C did as kids) and now that we are older I swing by his parents house on Christmas eve to drop off gifts and catch up with the family. On Saturday I went up to Matt's new house in Mora, MN, a dream spot right on the lake where we continue our adventures as kids into our adult lives. This past weekend we held the First Annual Dojo Invitational, a quad-rathlon plus one. We woke up early and biked the 8.5 miles around the lake, dropped off our bikes and then ran four miles to the beach and back, hopped in kayaks and paddled around the island and then swam to the neighbors dock. That completed the quad part of the athlon, then we squared off for a game of competitive croquet (which Matt won handily as he has for years now) and when we finished Matt handed out the T-Shirts he made for us. Throughout the 'race' we told stories and laughed, had serious discussions and planned out other adventures we wanted to attempt later that summer and beyond. The race was much more about catching up than it was actual racing. When my Gramps had eye surgery a while back and was staying at our house during his recovery he was forced to sit in a chair, almost like a massage chair, where his head was down and he had to stare at the ground. One day Doctor Culligan got dropped off to spend some time with him and the two of them sat in our back room, Gramps staring at the floor, Doc C sitting upright in a chair talking all afternoon, laughing at old stories and I imagine planning upcoming adventures. I feel very fortunate to have known Doctor Culligan (and not just because he diagnosed my appendicitis at my Grandma's funeral, although that was awesome) and his wife Shelia; who always reminds me of my Grandma as they were very close. Over the years many of my friends have moved on from the Cities (as I did for a time too) and my college friends are spread all over the country making it hard to stay in as close touch with them as I would like to. My Grandpa is very lucky to have the connection to the city of St. Paul that he has. Friends he grew up with stayed here as well and they not only grew up together but many of their families did too which only strengthens the bonds of community. The past few months have been hard ones for my grandpa, longtime friends of his have passed on and his community has gotten a little smaller. These men, from my Gramps to Doctor Culligan, Harold Craig, and Doctor Tom O'Kane, were renaissance men. They served their countries and their communities and set a high standard for how to live your life. A standard that I hope myself and others of my generation can live up to. And as one life passes on, another begins...this weekend Matt and his lovely wife Shayna announced they are having a baby.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Day Dreaming

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to." "I don't much care where –" "Then it doesn't matter which way you go.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Patagonia, the brand? No the land...

A while back I became an ambassador for the Patagonia International Marathon which will take place in Chile in September. The goal of the event is not just to bring people together from all over the world for a race (or in this case multiple races as there is a 63K, marathon, 21K & 10K) but also to raise awareness for the conservation of that beautiful land. My ambassador page can be seen here, and through that webpage you can learn about the race and the conservation efforts to plant native trees in Patagonia. http://www.patagonianinternationalmarathon.com/john-focke/ I am extremely honored to be an ambassador of this event and now thanks to some very generous folks (and some part-time work) it looks like I am going to be able to take part in this event too. My plans (while still in flux at the moment) are to run the 63K race (roughly 40miles) the first time they have offered such a distance. Not only will I head to the bottom of the world to run, but also to experience the land and to write about the importance of the ongoing conservation efforts in the region. Wild spaces and running are two things that I am very passionate about and to be able to combine them, along with the conservation efforts, in such a rugged beautiful place is like a dream come true. I'll write more about this incredible adventure as I get the plans finalized, if you would like to contribute to and become a part of this journey just let me know-

Pictures From A Trip