Monday, May 19, 2014

Running vs Racing

Ever since I started running ultra-marathon's I have really struggled with the concept of racing...when I first got into this sport all I wanted to do was go fast.  See if I could beat my times, those of my friends or brothers, and during races pick out people who looked fitter than I was to beat.
But that competitive mindset doesn't really suit me, beating those people or times never really made my race feel better, or gave me a sense of accomplishment that lasted.
Moving to Ultra's allowed my mindset to shift from trying to beat the course and the other runners, to trying to survive in a sense.  How far could I push my body, my mind?  What is the breaking point?  It became less and less about them and more and more about me.
I learned about myself, what worked, what didn't...what my limits were, and how I could extend them.  As my Dad, Big Tom, always says when he comes to see me finish, 'It's not a race, it's a run.'  And for me it was.  It's a race in the sense that there is going to be a winner, but when you're pushing yourself through 50 miles of trails and hills in the pouring rain for over 12 hours, it becomes much less of a race and more a run, an experience. 
I also don't go into Ultra's with a mindset of winning, or placing or anything.  I go in with zero expectations except to finish.  When I was starting out and racing 5-10K's, Triathlon's, even marathons, I would always check the results right away to see where I placed in my division, how many people I passed and so on.  Now I just check my time at the end and say 'Hmm better than last year' or 'Hmm worse than last year' or 'Damn I'm glad that's over.'
But this past Sunday I actually gave myself a chance to race as I took part in the City-Trail Loppet, a 10-mile race combining paved stretches and trails around Minneapolis which ended at the Sculpture Garden.
Waking up that morning I was tired from a long week of work and travel, being just over two weeks removed from running the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim, and just had the general soreness that accompanies someone who sits too much at their job. 
Ali and I arrived at the starting line and I had no idea what to expect, would I even be able to make it the full 10 miles or would I have to slow way down due to the variety of things cropping up in my legs/feet.
Ali was running the 10K so she had to wait a half hour for her start, as the horn sounded to signal the start of my race, I tried to settle in, letting the first mile or so work out the kinks.
I found a decent rhythm and some people who had a good pace I decided to hang with, slowly my legs working free of their knots.
Turning off the paved road onto the trails, got my juices flowing, letting my body flow over the rocks and roots, up the small hills, and down I felt my mindset shift from run to race.  My watch beeped after the first mile, 7:27, not a bad start; let's see what I can do.
It became tough to keep that pace as we moved into the single track and things got bogged down but whenever I saw an opening I would shoot past a few people to try and gain some ground.
Three miles in as I weaved around and over downed trees, still holding a steady pace, pushing myself when there was an opportunity.
Over railroad tracks, under bridges, along a dock that spans a lake and into familiar territory, knowing the terrain I decided to push even harder, attacking the downhill's, flowing over the rocks and roots, picking off runners in front of me, the goal becoming 'If I pass them they can't pass me back.'
Pounding across 394 and dropping down to Brownie lake, a route I have done a million times, over to the Cedar Lake Trail and into the woods towards Hidden Beach, catch the guy in front of you, move past, spot the next one, reel them in, pass, breathing heavy now, get behind a runner to slow the heart rate down for a minute or two, then pass and push.  Keep pushing.
We crossed under 394 and the end was close, less than a half a mile, push through some single track up a short hill, breath in short bursts, catch a guy in the 10K, pass him, keep him behind you, push harder now that you're on the pavement.
Entering the Sculpture Garden I was pushing pretty hard, turned the corner and ran through the finish line as the PA announcer mispronounced my name.
1:19:38, passed 21 people, got passed by 1, 44th out of 258, nothing spectacular but it wasn't about time, it was about mindset.  I could have taken it easy on myself.  It had been a long week, not much sleep due to travel and stress of starting a season, but I chose to push and never let up.  Very happy and proud of the effort, it wasn't expected but I find that often times the ones we surprise the most are ourselves.

Monday, May 12, 2014


The task ahead of you is never greater than the strength within you-

Waiting for my alarm to go off, that's what I was doing instead of sleeping that morning.  After a night of tossing and turning, running over the logistics and the glimpses we had seen of the Canyon that afternoon, I was keyed up.  Nervous, excited, but mostly just trying to prepare my mind for the unknown, not knowing what we might stumble upon the next day and trying to make sure I was mentally prepared for whatever.

Finally it went off and we all got up, Greg, Mitch and I have known each other for a long time.  Mitch and I went to grade school and high school together while I met Greg in 6th grade playing football and we also went the same high school.  Both those guys, along with myself, had a number of Ultra marathons under their belts, but none of us had attempted a self-supported run like this, across the Grand Canyon to the North Rim and back again, a grand total of around 45 miles and 21,000 feet of elevation change.

In the hotel room we loaded our hydration packs with water, food, sunscreen, gels, and tape for blisters whatever we could fit in there that wouldn't make them too heavy and then we headed out.  It was chilly and dark as we arrived at the visitor's center and hopped on the first shuttle of the day.  At the back was another group, dressed somewhat similar to us, who were attempting the R2R2R but they were doing more of a fast-pack hike, not a run.

We chatted with them at the trail head, and then dropped into the inky black of the canyon, following the bob of our headlamps as we skipped over the awkwardly placed logs that dot the first set of switchbacks down South Kaibab trail.  The darkness was complete, wrapping us in it and swallowing the light of our headlamps but the path was wide enough that we had plenty of room to maneuver as we made our way down to the first landmark, Cedar Ridge.

Here the sun was just making its way above the Northeast Rim of the canyon and we stopped to gauge its progress before moving on, following the light of our lamps another mile or so we stopped at O'Neill's butte to shed our jackets as the sun had already risen enough to warm our skin.  Jackets and headlamps put away we followed the ridge along the butte to Skeleton point where Mitch realized he had cell service and gave his wife a call to say we were on our way.  The service didn't last long (as would be a running theme throughout this adventure) and we were off, winding down switchbacks on the side of this mesa.

After a series of long switchbacks we rounded a huge plateau and caught a glimpse of the Colorado River far below.  Its bright green color standing out in contrast to the dark brown rock it flowed through.  From here we looked up to see where we had come from but couldn't even see the top of the canyon due to the number of buttes and mesas we had passed that now loomed large blocking our view.  We left the viewpoint and ran into the sun for a few minutes before dipping once again into a series of switchbacks that led down to the river.

Greg had gotten ahead of Mitch and me as he ran down the switchbacks and was waiting at the river when we arrived; we passed through a short, dark tunnel and on the other side were standing on the suspension bridge, the Colorado passing strongly beneath our feet.  We walked across, jaws dropping as we took in the scene around us.  The river still bright green, the walls of the canyon rising up, a beautiful white sandy beach, the colors of the upper canyon walls as the sun hit them, it was almost too much to process.

From there we made it to Phantom Ranch, everyone feeling good and refilled with water and some snacks.  I had tried to send a text before we took off but it wouldn't go through so at Phantom I tried to make a phone call to let everyone know we were off and well but the phone was not working so we just loaded our packs and took off for the longest stretch without a landmark of the run. 

From Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood Campground it's about 7.5 miles, from the map we had been using it looked very runnable.  We moved into what is known as the box, a tight canyon with walls stretching straight up and tight curves that wrap around Bright Angel Creek.  Greg set a good pace out from Phantom, it was too quick for me this early in the run so I dropped back, taking photos and trying to find my rhythm after 7 miles pretty much downhill.  The path, which looked relatively flat on our maps was actually at a gradual incline and had a number of rolling hills.  After trying to run hard the first few miles we all fell into a routine of running what we could and then power hiking up the hills to save our energy.

The Box would eventually open up as the canyon walls moved back from the river and the sun began to shine down.  We were still in the shade but you could tell this next stretch was going to be hot on the way back.  The sky was so blue it was dizzying to look at, the sun hitting the red rock walls of the canyon made it look like it was on fire in certain spots and we plodded on, chatting and listening to the sound of the creek moving down toward the Colorado.

At Cottonwood we stopped to fill our water and ran into a couple from Breckenridge, Colorado.  They were out backcountry camping and we shared a quick snack with them before we headed out to our next water stop, the Pumphouse.

We crossed what looked like an old railroad bridge to get to the pump house, by now the sun was shining brighter and hotter, as we stopped in the shady yard of the Pumphouse Mitch sat down and said 'Guys I'm beat.'  He looked gassed too; the heat and the fact that from Phantom we had climbed nearly 2,000 feet had taken its toll.  Greg and I waited while he took in fluids and ate some food, and then the three of us formulated a plan for the next 5 miles to the North Rim.  We would power hike it, as it was too steep for us to run, and use it as recovery time. 

When Mitch was ready we leaned into the climb and within a mile or so he was back, faced down the darkness and came back stronger than before, it was really impressive.  We climbed and climbed, the walls of the canyon looked like layer cake.  Each layer a different color, some of the rock had been around for nearly a billion years and each era clearly marked by the line of rock, each a different color. 

As we climbed to the North Rim, I began to not feel great.  A belly full of water, climbing nearly 6,000 feet, sun beating down and despite the beauty surrounding me I wasn't enjoying it at the moment.  I stopped off in a shaded area and took down a gel, sat for a few minutes to get my breathing under control, turned on the Grateful Dead in my headphones (which were attached to my pack not in my ears) and then began to feel better as I leaned once more into the climb.

I caught up with Mitch and Greg and the three of us got some great news from some hikers we passed.  The Park Service had turned on the water at the North Rim, something we hadn't been expecting.  It allowed us to stop trying to ration our fluids and take down as much as we wanted during the climb knowing that we could refill there and not have to wait until we got back to the Pumphouse.

Eventually the red rock and scraggly trees gave way to white rock and Ponderosa Pines and looking up I could finally see sky behind the trees not more trees and then we were at the North Rim.  We met some people up there, chatted for a bit, and took some time to make sure we had all the fluids and food we needed, but didn't spend much time there.  The bugs were really bad, and the trees so tall there was nothing really to see.  I drank two bottles of Nunn water, refilled my pack and ate some food realizing that after nearly 8 hours of running we were not quite halfway done.  Our trip out was 21 miles, while the trip back up Bright Angel was 24 miles, but the climb out of the Canyon was less steep and featured water stops nearly every 1.5 miles.  We decided that Greg would run ahead at his own pace and hopefully get back in time to catch the shuttle to our car, and Mitch and I would stick together to get to the end.

Greg took off and then it was my turn...I love running downhill's, just attack them, trying to let my body flow over the trail, trusting my eyes to see obstacles and my feet to act on them and roll down like water to the bottom.  As I got ready to drop in I felt like a snowboarder must at the top of a half-pipe, a smile on my face ready, excitement tingling through my body.  Off I went, eyes scanning the ground a few feet in front of me, legs hopping over logs and stones, mind totally clear and focused only on what I was doing, totally in the flow, whipping through the switchbacks, feeling free and unleashed for the first time during the run.  I would stop at a few major landmarks and wait in the shade for Mitch, the adrenaline coursing through my veins until it was time to jump down the trail again.

What took us over 3 hours to go up took just over an hour to go down and suddenly Mitch and I were back at the Pumphouse.  We filled up with water, sat on the benches and chatted a bit before embarking for Cottonwood, the sun was at its peak now and the canyon was hot, we made it to Cottonwood, filled up again and realized the next 7 plus miles were going to be a challenge.  Neither of us was real good in the heat and considering it had been above 60 twice in the past 9 months in MN, running in temps nearing 90 degrees was going to be difficult.  We headed out, I turned on Wilco's Kicking Television on my headphones and we made the best of it. 

Stopping in the shade of rocks and trees when we could find it, but basically just moving as best we could.  I got out in front as I kept attacking the downhill's, using them as momentum to propel me further and eventually waited for Mitch at the start of the Box.  Here there was solid shade but we had been running for a while and I was getting low on water.  We headed out and I took off, hoping that I could make it to Phantom Ranch before I went dry, but the walls of the box kept popping up, one after the other and it was like being caught in a maze.  Sometimes it would open up and I could see the South Rim, thinking I must be getting close to the river but then I would turn a corner and bam, another canyon wall.  Finally I was totally out of water and my running was reduced to a walk as frustration began to build.  I tried to keep the darkness at bay but with each turn, another wall and without water I was losing the battle.

Finally I made it to Phantom Ranch, ran into a guy we had been leapfrogging with all day, he said Greg was doing great and had passed him a while back.  I sat down, in need of fluids and food, hoping that Mitch would come along soon in good spirits to pick me up.  I finally got the phone down there to work and called home to tell my parents that it was going to take a while longer than we had anticipated.  I sat back down and drained two more bottles of Nunn, some almonds, a cracker or two and for the first time in the run felt exhausted.  We had been at it for nearly 13 hours at this point and that last stretch left me feeling really depleted.  I turned to Mitch and said 'I think I can get us a room here...' Mitch looked at me and said 'If we sleep here, there is no way I am gonna be able to walk out tomorrow.'
I agreed and we got up and began to walk out of Phantom Ranch.

Everyone we met there was so nice, offering food to us, wanting to hear all about it and as we shuffled out of there a whole group cheered us on, it was really touching.  We followed Bright Angel creek to the bridge and crossed over as the Canyon walls began to block out the sun.  I was trying to take in more food and fluids on this stretch to get caught up and it was nice to just walk along a somewhat flat path that followed the Colorado while Mitch kept up a steady stream of conversation behind me.  We eventually passed the ranger station at the river and turned to head up the slot canyon that Bright Angel trail followed, my body pretty shot, just picking up one foot and putting the other down, moving and nothing else.  Mitch asked at one point 'Do you want to keep talking or just focus?' Just focus I said and he replied 'Wow never thought I would see the day when John Focke didn't want to talk' we laughed but I had to just keep moving and taking in fluids at that point.

The sun went down and we took our headlamps out, following the beams along the switchbacks as we began to climb.  The stars were amazing, the silence total, it seemed like Mitch and I were the only ones out there, chatting, looking up from time to time only to see nothing but darkness then stars, knowing that darkness was what we had to climb.  We made it to Indian Garden and ran into some folks we had seen before; they offered advice and said we were doing great.  We filled up and headed out, now looking up we could see a string of lights moving down through the darkness...people starting their hikes at 10pm as we moved to finish ours.

Past three mile rest house, then to 1 1/2 mile rest house, my feet feeling like ground beef as rocks punch up into the bottoms of them.  Knowing we were close but also realizing that a mile and a half of this was nothing like a mile and a half we were used to.  One foot in front of the other, a chilly wind whipped up, forcing us to put our coats back on, stopping on rocks to rest.  Literally falling onto them as our quads were so shot we couldn't lower ourselves down.  Through one short tunnel, not knowing how many more there would be, then finally a long switchback brought us around so that wall was on our right and I knew we were close.  One more tunnel and then there it was the end.  We walked up and out of the canyon, to nothing.  No fanfare, just a few security lights on, we stopped our watches, high fived and then went to find Greg.  He had been following our headlamps progress from the South Rim and when he saw us said 'Man it's good to see you guys' we felt the same way.

18 hours and 53 minutes for Mitch and I, Greg made it in around 16 hours, the next morning we were moving slow, really slow but we had all made it and were in good shape outside of moving at the speed of smell.  Can't thank Mitch enough for keeping me moving at Phantom Ranch and having such a great attitude when I needed him on the climb and for Greg for blasting through and getting the car so we could pile in and head straight back to the hotel.  It was a team effort and we had a great team, can't wait for the next adventure.