Thursday, October 23, 2014

10,000 Hours and the Agony of Untold Stories

I quit my job last Friday.

It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made, because I have the kind of job that I’ve spent my entire young life working to get. The kind of job that’s taken me to heart-pounding waterfalls in Iceland, to the tops of volcanoes in the Canary Islands, to the beaches of Oahu, to the finish line of Colorado’s Leadville Trail 100, to the San Juan mountains to camp out and hike with one of the coolest families I’ve ever met. The kind of job that has let me meet, connect with, work with, run with, learn from, write about and write for thousands of amazing people all over the world. The kind of job that has people routinely commenting on my Facebook page with comments like, “Holy best job in the world!”

How does one decide to quit a job like that?

When I was in Hawaii last year to run and write about the XTERRA World Trail-Running Championships, I crossed paths with a wonderful woman named Kim Rogers—whose full-time job was as a travel writer for Outrigger Hawaii. This essentially meant a salary and expense account to traipse around the Hawaiian islands, hiking and surfing and kayaking and meeting wonderful humans, photographing her journeys and writing about them all in meaningful ways.

And, several months ago, after six years at that job, she quit, too.

I doubt if I can articulate my own reasons as well as she did in this blog post entitled "Why I Quit the Best Job in the World," but in it, she shared a wonderful quote attributed to Maya Angelou: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

When I was in elementary school, I understood this. In fact, it’s probably what got me through elementary school. I was young for my class, shy and socially awkward, an easy target for the innocent but nevertheless piercing sort of cruelty that children are capable of. In other words, I often felt grateful to escape school and go home. Though I loved learning, my favorite part of the day was composing stories in my head on my walk home each afternoon, then dashing up to my bedroom to start writing. I was brimming with novels and short stories, and they came rushing out of me with a ferocity I dream of someday recapturing in my adult life.

In his oft-quoted book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that mastery in any field requires approximately 10,000 hours of practice. I have no idea how many hours I’ve racked up putting pen to paper, or clacking away at a computer keyboard under the yawning emptiness of a blank Word document, but I can say this—despite majoring in creative writing in college and building a career thus far around writing-related jobs, the majority of those hours were between the ages of 7 and 17.


And I was confident back then, too. At age 10, I told my parents I wanted to publish my first book—a 50,000-word novel I’d written called Mrs. Graud. It was about a young girl befriending a hermitic, unpopular woman in the neighborhood who turns out to be quite kind, then reveals she has cancer, so the protagonist begins a fundraising campaign for the woman’s treatment. (On a sidenote, I recall drawing inspiration for this story from the Berenstain Bears Trick or Treat, in which Brother and Sister Bear bravely trick-or-treat at the house of an old woman rumored to be a witch, but who actually turns out to be very nice, as well as flush with caramel apples—which are better than Dum-Dums or Jolly Ranchers any day.)

Anyway, rather than resorting to stock responses like, “OK sure sweetie, you can do anything!” or “Haha, publish a novel at age 10? Hilarious!”, my parents told me if I was serious about getting published, I should do some research on what’s really involved.

So, I put together a 10-page (single-spaced, even) research report on how to publish a novel—preparing a manuscript, submitting a query, landing an agent, securing a contract, working with a publisher. I could learn a lot from my 10-year-old self. The report is filled with useful advice like, “An agent learns how to get the most from the publicity department, examines an author’s royalty statements, makes sure the author gets paid properly, sells subrights and licenses for a book, and is basically an author’s book’s greatest advocate. Agents are also helpful in the way that they can complain and yell at the editor about the things the author wants changed, so that the author himself won’t jeopardize his relationship with the editor.”

Outside magazine recently published a thought-provoking article by Ben Hewitt on the case for “unschooling”—a radical approach to childhood education that involves taking kids out of the classroom completely and letting them learn everything organically, “out in the real world.” It’s not in elementary school curriculum, for example, to have fifth-graders do research reports on book publishing. Not that I was ever “unschooled,” but how cool is it that I was encouraged to do something like that when I was young?

Every summer, though my parents always asked whether I wanted to attend camps or summer programs, like other kids did—and I did some (thank you YMCA in Estes Park for instilling in me a love for the mountains!)—above all, I just begged for free, unstructured time with which to write. And, I do wonder: Would I be the writer I am today without the thousands of hours I spent holed up with my imagination, exploring the characters I’d created, honing my understanding of language?

I still feel nostalgic for the reckless abandon with which I wrote when I was younger—not worrying about profitability, not worrying about how many clicks or shares something gets on the Internet, not ever doubting for a moment that my name would be on the bookshelf at Borders (RIP) by the time I hit middle school. Or high school. Or college.

Someone texted me earlier this week to say she’d heard that I’d quit my job. “Was this a long time coming?” she asked.

On one hand, no; when I took the job with Trail Runner, I certainly thought I’d stay longer than two years. I wouldn’t take back a moment of it, for I’ve grown immensely in these years—as a writer, as an editor, as a human being. And, I still plan to write plenty for Trail Runner—hopefully even more than I have the time for now.

On the other hand, yes, it was a long time coming in that I’ve spent the last two decades of my life talking about wanting to publish a book. Though I’ve been fortunate enough to tell many meaningful stories in my time at the magazine, I still have dozens more inside of me—ones longer than magazine format, ones not necessarily about trail running, ones waiting, if not demanding, to be explored.

Last week, I’d already made up my mind to give notice at my job when this happened: Midway through my 18-mile commute to work on a two-lane road, I came around a corner and had just barely enough time to swerve out of the way of a car that had crossed almost entirely over into my lane. We missed hitting one another head-on at 50mph by a matter of inches. It was just a few miles north of the spot where a young woman was killed in a head-on collision less than two months earlier. As I felt the adrenaline course through my body, my first thought was one of outrage—not at the careless driver who’d drifted across the highway, but at myself. I thought, “Damn it, if that car had hit and killed me today, I’d be so pissed that I never got to tell the world all my stories.”

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Dark Places We Visit in Pursuit of the "Perfect" Race

Last year, at Trail Runner's first annual Photo Camp, I had a terrific conversation with Jason Schlarb and Jen Benna, two elite ultrarunners who'd come to run and "model" for the camp. Over beers and a post-run hot-tub soak, we all chatted about the dreamy pursuit of "the perfect race," that magical experience in which the stars align and everything unfolds like a dream.

Jen had experienced just that earlier that year at the Zion 100, which she ran many hours faster than any previous hundo she'd done, handily won by over an hour, and smashed the previous women's course record by nearly four hours. A month after our Photo Camp, Schlarb also set his own 100-mile personal record and bagged a dominating win at the hyper-competitive Run Rabbit Run 100. He also not only won, but broke the course record, by well over an hour.

Well, I'm no elite athlete, but that doesn't mean I'm not competitive with myself and my own goals. Granted, I tend to favor realistic expectations over ambitious ones, and until the Bear 100 last weekend, I'd never approached a race of that magnitude with a true time goal, other than just to not quit and make it to the finish line.

But, I trained hard this year. For my third 100-miler, I felt ready to graduate from the "just finish" mindset to the "race a wee bit" mindset. So I set a goal of finishing in under 28 hours, which felt ambitious for me on the Bear course (22,000 feet of elevation gain), yes, but also plausible. Nevertheless, it's scary to admit goals like this aloud, because if things don't go as planned, it's nice to be able to cop out and say, "Oh, I didn't really care about my time anyway."

But, here's the problem: I did.

Or, perhaps more accurately, I cared about my goal of wanting to nail "the perfect race." Or even, less ambitiously, to just not fall apart. I wanted to run hard and feel (mostly) good the whole time, or as (mostly) good as it's possible to feel during a 100-mile race.

And I felt pretty darn good for most of the race! Photo by Annie Murphy.
I wanted to be able to look back on the 2014 Bear 100 and say something other than "Everything was great until the sh*t hit the fan between the miles of 70 and 75," which has been the story of the other two 100s I've run.

In hundo #1 (2012 IMTUF), around mile 70ish, massive blisters bloomed on every available surface area of each of my toes. I went from being briefly in the women's lead to spending 25 miles wincing in pain with each step and missing the race's already-generous cutoff of 36 hours by three minutes.

In hundo #2 (2013 Leadville), I got exactly 1.5 hours of sleep the night before the race and thus, by mile 70ish, was literally falling asleep while running/hiking. I stopped to nap on the ground or on aid-station cots many times over the last 25 miles and, like a zombie, crawled over the finish line in 29.5 hours.

Last weekend, I was careful to sidestep the issues of #1 and #2wearing toe socks (no blisters the whole race!) and getting plenty of sleep (didn't even need caffeine to get me through the night this time!). I felt great.

Feeling psyched around mile 20. Photo by Annie Murphy.
Nonetheless, come mile 70ish, something vicious found a way to rear its head. In this case, around 5 a.m., the skies unleashed a holy terror of freezing rain. The final quarter of the course turned into a muddy slip-and-slide, an outright waterfall in places, that slowed me to a necessary walkwhich, in turn, chilled me to the bone.

Stubbornly, I'd wanted to run the Bear without a pacer. And I did just that, which, for the most part, I enjoyed. I can't tell you what exactly I thought about during my long, lonesome hours through the night, but I can tell you that I felt calm and joyful. There's magic to be found in solitude in the mountains. Furthermore, people are far more likely to approach and start a conversation with you when you're aloneso, all day and all night, I enjoyed sharing a few miles at a time and great conversations with strangers.

I crossed the state line around 4:30 a.m.

... and utterly failed to take a selfie with the sign. But posting this blurry photo to show how happy I clearly still was at that point in the race!
But, come the apocalyptic rains, my solitude took me to an especially dark place. I grew cold. I slipped several times, falling and hitting my head against the ground. All the moisture from the rain caused significant chafing on my back and thighs, rubbing my skin raw and bleeding in places. I cried some. I distinctly remember repeating the words, "I've never been this miserable in my life" inside my mind like the refrain to some terrible song. By the time I stumbled into the aid station at mile 85, every one of my layers of clothing and gloves and cap soaked through, I'd convinced myself I had hypothermia, so was fully prepared to quit and go home.

I wept there, too, disappointed in myself for giving upbut equally certain that I was, in fact, experiencing a medical emergency that warranted quitting. And yet, when I got there, my crewmy boyfriend and my dad, who also helped see me through Leadville last yearwas nowhere to be found.

I couldn't imagine doing anything but sitting, swaddled in blankets next to a campfire, so that's what I did. Nearly an hour passed as I sat, shivering and semi-conscious, before I overheard one of the volunteers mention that the road to the aid station was impassable for two-wheel-drive cars.

And so it dawned on me that my crew wasn't coming. There would be no piling into a dry, heated car and being gently lulled to sleep on the drive back to a warm hotel room. There was nothing but a 15-mile expanse of mud, rain and cold fog awaiting me. Impressionable as I was by then, thanks to the gentle but firm encouragement of a fellow runner and his pacer—thank you, Nate and Ben!back out I went.

Other than the mud on the trails, which only grew worse, everything improved from there on. The rains calmed. My body regained warmth as the coldness of night fell away and I was able to keep up a steadier pace. At the next aid station at mile 92, I happily fell into the arms of my crew, changed into dry clothes and took off for the finish line, thrilled to be "gettin' 'er done."

Cruising down the finishing chute, happily outfitted in dry clothes, shoes no longer identifiable under cloaks of mud.

Finisher swag.
Post-race portrait. Thanks for the snap, Jeason.
Am I satisfied with my race at the Bear this year? Of course I am. There's no being disappointed when you finish a 100-mile race! But that "perfect race," at least for me at the 100-mile distance, remains elusive. I've experienced it in a 50K; I've experienced it in a 50-miler. I'm just still hungry for it in a 100-miler. (It typically takes me only a few hours to go from "What the hell was I thinking, running 100 miles is the worst idea ever" to "When can I sign up for another one?")

Once again, this sport has thoroughly humbled me. Every time I get the teensiest bit of an ego about my running, something comes along to tear it down. And, for that, I have nothing but gratitude. Ego doesn't belong in the mountains.

Thanks for reminding me of that, Bear! Other than my own rambling, self-indulgent reflections here, I have nothing but good things to say about the race organization, beauty of the course, volunteers, aid stations, fellow runners ... truly a top-notch event I'd heartily recommend to anyone. Thank you to everyone who was a part of the 2014 Bear for making this an unbelievable experience! (And, for a far better photographic and video representation of the race's beauty and mudfest alike, check this out.)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Is ultrarunning—or any other great passion in life—sustainable?

Scenes from running Colorado's infamous Four Pass Loop last Sunday.
Fall is no doubt in the air here in Colorado. The aspen leaves are paler than ever after a summer basking in the sunshine, faded from their original deep green to a sort of lime-y yellow, well on their way to the fiery hues that bring “leaf peepers” from all over the world to Colorado in droves come late September. I’ve been waking up and seeing my breath in the air in the mornings, and nearby, the tops of our local 14ers in the Elk Range have already seen their first dusting of snow.

Frost up on the trails near Aspen early in the morning on Sunday.
I admit I’ve been dreading the end of summer. Don’t get me wrong; I adore fall—if only it weren’t followed by Old Man Winter. As previously mentioned, winter in the mountains has proven rough for me, since it invariably means the end of trail-running season here, and the beginning of a six-month stretch during which I must find other sources of the things that I typically glean from running in the mountains: endorphins, stress relief, meditation, a sense of community, empowerment, goals to strive toward, races to look forward to, excuses to eat lots of food.


Because I’ve been training for months for the Bear 100 (now less than three weeks away), like any good ultrarunner I’ve been geeking out on just about all forms of data and media about the race that I can find to consume ahead of time … race reports, spreadsheets of results, photo albums, and most recently, this documentary, ‘Dancing the Bear,’ which covers the 2004 Bear race.

Here’s what struck me about the film: many of the runners featured are no longer running ultras.

(Thanks to the fairly comprehensive resource, ultrasignup.com, it’s possible to, however creepily, track these things; please note that all my following observations are based on Ultrasignup results, not on rigorous, journalistic research; if I’ve made any erroneous conclusions here, please let me know.) The winner that year, Larry O'Neil, for whom it appears the 2004 Bear was his first 100, ran one more hundo in 2008, a couple shorter-distance ultras in 2010, then nothing since then. Chris Estrem, who took second that year, never ran another ultra again.

Of the two women the film followed—who both spend much of the film waxing poetic about their love for ultrarunning, discussing how essential the sport is to who they are—one never ran another ultra after that year. The other continued running ultras (though only one more 100) sporadically until 2010, then again, no more. Another runner the film featured, then-15-year-old Jimmy Wrublik, ran a few more ultras, but stopped after 2007.

There are, of course, plenty of ultrarunners who’ve been in this sport for decades—including three who also show up in ‘Dancing the Bear.’ The first: Betsy Kalmeyer, who started running ultras in 1988, won the Bear twice (including in 2004) and most recently, at the age of 53, took second at the 2014 Hardrock 100. The second is Errol "The Rocket" Jones, who's been running ultras for more than three decades and, at age 64, is still going strong. The third is Hans Dieter-Weisshaar, who ran his first 100 in 1999 and has since bagged more than 100 100-mile finishes, including, just last year, over the span of a few months, Hardrock, Leadville, Cascade Crest, Wasatch and the Bear—at the age of 73.

We champion these inspirational figures—and rightfully so!—as proof that ultrarunning can be a lifelong sport. After all, you don’t see too many football, soccer or basketball players still competing in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

And yet, sometimes I question whether ultrarunning—particularly 100-milers—is such a sustainable sport after all, at least for most of us. I understand this is relative blasphemy for me to utter, as I am myself extraordinarily passionate about the sport. I have dozens of ultrarunner friends older than I am, who’ve been doing this for many years already, and inspire me to no end—but indulge me for a moment here.

Having not spoken to any of the 2004 Bear runners featured in the film who are apparently no longer doing ultras, I can only speculate on what made them walk away from the sport. But, consider this: even for a low-mileage (relatively speaking) ultrarunner like myself, I typically spend 10-15 hours/week running on trails. I don’t have kids or many obligations outside of my job. Though many of my ultrarunner friends have young kids and seem to make it all work, I have a hard time imagining how I could ever, on a longterm basis, balance parenthood with ultrarunning and work and other priorities in my life, like being fully present in my relationship, having time for friends and family, getting enough sleep, eating well (by making food from scratch rather than relying on processed foods), writing, reading books, traveling, and keeping some modicum of organization and cleanliness to my living space. At some point, some aspect, somewhere, has to suffer.

Trail and ultrarunning, of course, has improved my life in a myriad of ways which I’ve already expounded on at length on my blog. Yet, as a still-starry-eyed relative newcomer to the sport (I’ve only been running ultras for a little over four years now, after all), I can’t help but notice that, for many, the actual shelf life of this sport seems to be about as many years as I’ve already invested in it.

Two things stuck out to me from my interviews last year with accomplished ultrarunners Jenn Shelton and Scott Jurek for an article in Trail Runner about the folks who appeared in the bestseller Born to Run. One: when I asked Jenn what she thought the future of ultrarunning was, she was very quick to tell me that she doesn't think it's a sustainable sport for most people. She was probably the first ultrarunner I ever heard express this out loud, since most of us like to talk about how of course ultrarunning is exploding in popularity and will continue to do so indefinitely because, duh, it’s the best sport in the world. But Jenn … Jenn just said, “It's hard to say anything without looking like a jerk, but I'm not sure it's meant to be a really popular sport. The time commitment to properly train is well beyond most people's lifestyle."

When I spoke with Scott, he spoke at length about the personal burnout he feels surrounding racing: “Do I get as much out of racing, to go after a time or a win anymore? I don’t know. It’s harder to have that ego now. I’ve enjoyed that pressure in the past, because it’s pushed me beyond boundaries, but at the same time, it gets harder as I’ve gone to the well so many times.”

This is probably what I find most compelling—the sheer time and mental energy we devote to plodding through the mountains for hours, sometimes days, on end. How deep are our reserves, and what do we do when they run out? How long can we find meaning and purpose in doing, essentially, the same thing over and over again? How long can we make running our highest (or almost highest) priority, at the necessary expense of other aspects of our lives? And, if we someday find we’ve lost some of our passion, how do we renegotiate whole identities that have been built upon a foundation of running?


Every run (as with all activities we choose to participate in) is, ultimately, a decision to not to do something else, whether that means relatively unproductive alternatives, as many drug-addicts-or-alcoholics-or-otherwise-turned-ultrarunners can attest to—or whether it means valuable ones, such as spending time with our families or (non-runner) friends.

I'm grateful to have this guy's support!
My friend Jenn Hughes recently grappled with this very issue in a beautifully written, heart-wrenching blog post about running the Fat Dog 120 in Canada. At the start line, her 7-year-old son, Colin, protested to her: “You’re always leaving me.” Haunted by those words for all 120 miles until the finish, she writes, “I crossed rivers, ran through fields of heather, met new friends, and graciously accepted handmade food made from far flung aid stations … but it all felt like a game, a silly diversion … It was the most empty, neutral, underwhelming race finish I could have ever imagined, devoid of any excitement after all the pain I had just gone through. What exactly was the point?”

While poking around on Google for beta on the Bear 100, I also stumbled on the blog of Shawna Tompkins, who used to race up to a dozen ultras a year—and win most of them. I was surprised to learn she hasn’t (as far as I can tell, from Ultrasignup) raced any ultras since her second-place finish at the 2012 Bear. In the most recent entry on her blog, from August 2012, she writes about DNFing at both White River 50 and Cascade Crest 100 that summer, after having won the San Diego 100 in June: “I am not really sure what is going on, but my inner strength seems to be laying on the trail at San Diego or something …  I cannot figure out my thoughts!  Sure not good at this stuff.  Work hard, be tough, it all pays off.  What do you do with yourself if you don't feel like working hard?  Where does that satisfaction come from then?”

It’s hard for me to read things like this, because I’m currently so enamored with the idea of making a lifelong go of this and continuing to draw the joy and meaning from it that I currently do—but who can know? Maybe it’s not bound to be a lifelong sport for many of us, after all. Maybe it’s just something that grabs hold of us for a while, takes us for a wild ride, teaches us strength and resilience, connects us with a slew of amazing fellow humans, then lets us go again, scattering us back out into the world like dandelion seeds to apply to the rest of our lives everything we’ve learned on our sleep-deprived stumbles through the woods.

Or, maybe there's middle ground to be found. Perhaps the solution lies among the yellowing leaves fluttering to the ground outside my window right now. Last fall, my editor colleague at Rock and Ice, Jeff (who loves climbing more than anyone I know) mentioned that, much as he laments the end of rock-climbing season here, he embraces winter, too. It grants him the opportunity to turn inward and focus on other passions for a season—in his case, music and writing.


So, maybe winter in Colorado is just the universe stepping in to help protect me from running burnout—telling me to chill out, take a necessary breather for a few months, reallocate those 10-15 hours/week to other passions so that, come spring, I may return to the trails with a full and eager heart. Absence, after all, makes the heart grow fonder.

But, in the meantime ... I can't help but be anything but psyched for the Bear a few weeks from now.

Standing at the edge of Logan Canyon, home of the Bear 100, after a course-scouting training run last month.

Monday, June 23, 2014

San Juan Solstice 50 Race Report

Is there a better way to spend the summer solstice than playing all day long in the mountains?


I think not.

At the risk of assuming knowledge, here's a quick primer on the San Juan Solstice 50 (formerly the Lake City 50) that happened last Saturday:
 - 50-mile loop course through remote terrain, starting and ending in the town of Lake City
 - 12,856 feet of vertical ascent
 - Low point of 8,671 feet
 - High point of 13,334 feet
 - 16-hour cutoff
 - Sometimes called "Mini Hardrock"
 - Course profile:



San Juan Solstice fills up months in advance, literally within minutes of online registration openingso, on the recommendation of my friend Annie who'd run this one in the past and thought I'd enjoy it, I registered months ago without really doing my research. (These "moments of optimistic impulse," particularly in relation to ultrarunning, are not out of character for me.) Sign up now, ask questions later.

My first inkling of what I'd signed up for came at the Sageburner 50K in Gunnison a couple months ago, when a racer from Lake City mentioned that the snowpack there was unusually high this year and that he wasn't sure the original course would be runnable by mid June.

Somehow, this possibility hadn't really crossed my mind. There's still snow above 11,000 feet on the trail out my back door right now, so I'm not sure why I thought there wouldn't be snow at 13,000 feet in mid-June somewhere else in Colorado, but somehow that just didn't click. Sure enough, then came the pre-race emails from Race Director Jerry Gray, saying we might need to run a modified course at lower elevation to avoid the obscenely high creek crossings and deep snowfields plaguing the true SJS 50 course last month. He'd monitor the snow melt and let us know.

It wasn't until six days before the race that we got final word: things were still crazy up there, but the snow was melting fast, so we'd run the original course, creek crossings and snowfields and all.

Hmm. For the first time since I'd registered, I read the race website more carefully and learned all sorts of interesting things: in fact, there'd be roughly a dozen icy, knee- to waist-deep creek crossings in the first few miles. There'd be bushwhacking and scree-field surfing and post holing and glissading and all sorts of other verbs that, in years past, I'd considered only vaguely related to trail running.

A few of the images that can be found on the San Juan Solstice 50 race website.
Furthermore, there are pieces of advice on the race website like, "If it goes electric, get off the ridge!" and "It is a very wise idea to buy a CORSAR [Colorado Search and Rescue] card ... that will help pay for your rescue."

Also, this running-at-13,000-feet thing. In my head, beforehand, I think I was all, "Oh yeah, I live at altitude in the mountains in Colorado; I'm pretty much made of red blood cells now, so no problem."

Haha.

Turns out, 13,000 feet is still a heck of a lot higher than 7,000 feet. The lowest point (metaphorically) for me on Saturday came shortly after the highest point (literally) in the race, the 13,334-foot Coney Peak. At this point, mile 24ish, we'd already done the bulk of the race's major climbing and now faced roughly 13 more miles of staying above 11,000 feet. As one of the race's more Colorado-appropriate mottos goes: "Get high, stay high."

High did not feel so good to me, though. Not one bit. In fact, aside from the glorious views and the nice folks I met along the way, very little about the first 30 miles felt good to me.

Let's begin with the creek crossings, which were every bit as icy and raging as promised. The first couple of them were excitingall "Whoo, we're splashing through a creek, it's the summer solstice, isn't this awesome?!"but then, as my legs got progressively more numb with each crossing, the novelty wore off. The crossings got deeper and more harrowing. Some had logs or ropes to hold on to, but the deepest one of all (which, I was told later, nearly swept away at least one or two smaller-bodied runners) had nothing at all to assist with a safe crossing, save the kindly, patiently extended hands of the runners in front of and behind me, including my wonderful friend Annie.

By the time all the creek crossings were over, my legs felt like popsiclesstiff and frozen. My heart (and I mean this in a physical sense) also felt very cold, like it couldn't pump oxygen fast enough to the rest of my body. I was sluggish until we made it through the first major aid station, popped out above tree line and the sun began peeking through the morning clouds, bathing us with its rays.



Here, it was evident who was a San Juan vet and who was a starstruck newb. Falling into the latter category, I was brimming over with oohs and ahhs and the occasional disbelieving, ecstatic profanity as every switchback took us higher, and snow-capped peaks rose up around us like castles in the sky.


From the beginning, my stomach had been grumpy and I felt a bit dizzy, but otherwise, I was doing all right. The first downhill was a huge boonoff I went, unleashed, and to my tremendous delight, the first runner I flew by called out after me, "Wow, wow! Like a GAZELLE!"

Day. Made.

I would have liked to have stopped to tell him that I like to think of the gazelle as my spirit animal, and that, in 2012, I named one of my personal projects for the new year "The Gazelle Project," which had everything to do with devoting my life more wholly to the sport of trail running.

One of the things that struck me most about running the Leadville Trail 100 last year was how grumpy and even antagonistic some runners were toward one another, including several who made nasty comments to me as I passed them on downhills. (My favorite: a sarcastic, "Nice work trashing your quads!")

The runners at San Juan couldn't have been more different. In my experience, even those of us suffering deep in our individual pain caves throughout the day were still kind and decent to one another. (Thankfully, like nearly every other trail race I've ever run ... )

When I made it to the top of Coney Peak, a fellow runner who was stopped at the summit asked me if I wouldn't mind stuffing his jacket away in his pack for him. I was more than happy to do so, then I asked if he wouldn't mind taking a photo of me at the summit with my camera. Unless one of my parents reminds me of some long-forgotten adventure when I was a wee one, it's the highest elevation I've ever been in my life.


As the runner was snapping a shot of me, another runner (if my admittedly fuzzy memory of the moment serves me right, it was Lucky, the owner of the Raven's Rest hostel in Lake City) approached the summit and said brightly, "Oh, are you two together? Do you want me to take a picture of you both?"

What a gentleman, even as the first runner and I laughed and shook our heads.

On the way up to Coney, I'd leapfrogged with two of my friends, accomplished runners and fellow Pacific-Northwesterner-for-a-while-turned-Coloradoans, Ben (well, Steve's friend whom I've co-opted, who now lives in Telluride) and Annie (OK, Annie's a Colorado native originally, but she did a solid stint working in Olympic National Park before moving back to the homeland near Aspen.) Annie's husband, Jeason, also a former Northwesterner, was much further up in the pack, getting in a solid training run before Hardrock next month.


Ben leads the way.
Annie, trekking poles up, in her perpetual great mood.
Annie and Ben kept me in good spirits on the climbs, as did the runners around usseasoned SJS 50 vets like the indomitable Roger Jensen with his epic beard and tie-dye shorts and 11-time SJS 50 finisher Annette Fortune, as well as a handful of newbies like myself. At some point on the second climb, the man who'd called me a gazelle caught up to me again, and we fell into stepBill and I continued to chat away about writing and editing and goodness knows what else for several miles. So many good, friendly people; much as I love my solo runs and adventures in the backcountry, the trail-running community has always been, first and foremost, what I love about this sport.

Then along came the stretch on the Continental Divide. Following a heck of a lot of climbing, it offered a huge section of runnable, net-downhill (albeit very rolling), relatively non-technical terrain. I was psyched and feeling pretty good for the first time all day.


Then, out of nowhere, after a steep descent through scree, a wave of intense nausea overtook me.

I guess there was a "trail" in there somewhere for getting down.
All of the sudden, I was on my hands and knees, dry retching onto the tundra. Fortunately there was enough space between me and the next runner that no one had to witness this display, which lasted about one minute in total. After about a dozen dry heaves and a mild panic attack about my body rebelling so violently and so unexpectedly, I calmed myself, ate a blueberry rice cake (thank you, FeedZone Portables cookbook), sipped some water and Acli-mate, got up and started running again. Just like that, I felt better.

Some further gratitudes: there were no lightning storms on Saturday. This was my worst fear going into a race like this that takes place so much above tree line. The skies went dark for a moment in the early afternoon and it rain/snow/hailed on me for approximately 20 seconds, but that was really it as far as inclement weather; by the time I'd yanked my jacket out from the bungee on my pack and pulled it on, the "storm" was already over. The rest of the day, we lucked out with intermittent sun and generally cool, overcast skies.

Remember in my last blog entry, last week, when I wrote about how I'd be happy if I never had to post-hole another day in my life? Hahaha.
Steve and Carmel, the hero crew team responsible for seeing me and Ben through our respective races, greeted me at the 40-mile mark at Slumgullion aid station with big smiles and a plate of salted avocado and bananas. Pacers are allowed for the final stretch, so Steve jumped in to run the last 10 miles with me. I was already feeling (relatively) like a million bucks at this pointdry socks and shoes, no more nausea, no more getting above 11,200 feet, and feeling in the home stretchbut it was especially terrific to have Steve's company for the final 1,700-foot climb and descent through Vickers Ranch and back into town.

Like a bat out of hell, I went crashing out of Slumgullion, so utterly stoked by how strong I felt at that point that I blasted right past a flagged turn in the course. (Sound familiar?) Go figure; it wouldn't be a real race if I hadn't gotten lost at some point or another, despite the course being perfectly well marked the whole way. I fortunately dead-ended at a creek almost immediately, realized I'd missed a turn, ran back up to the turnoff and got back on course.

The last 10 miles were nothing but fun. No, really. Just as had been my hope for this race, I felt strong and properly trained and, above all, joyful. I cruised hard on the technical descent back toward town, and was delighted to cross the finish line in 13:15ish (still not sure my exact time), at least an hour or two faster than I was expecting.

Last year, I ran just two trail racesthe Transvulcania 83K in Spain's Canary Islands, and Colorado's own Leadville Trail 100. On a personal level already discussed at length here in my blog, both races kicked my ass; it was my hope that this year I could finally experience feeling good at the finish line of a race again, rather than just destroyed.

Happily, mission accomplished.

On a more general level, Leadville and Transvulcania were each special and amazing in their own ways. Ultimately, though, with 1,000ish runners apiece and massive fanfare (or as "massive" as fanfare gets in the ultrarunning world, ala balloon arches, sound systems, media coverage, etc), neither race in its modern rendition has much in common with the low-key, laid-back races that made me fall in love with this sport in the first place. (To name a few, my first volunteer gig at Ben Holmes' PsychoPsummer 50K, my first trail race at James Varner's Orcas Island 25/50K, and my first ultra at Bruce Cyra, Kevin and Claudine Kim-Murphy's Vashon Ultra 50K.)

I was happy not to see a speck of litter, not even a lone GU gel tab, anywhere on the SJS course. In my experience, runners were friendly to one another, cheering each other on all day long, offering helping hands at the creek crossings, stopping to check in with those pulled over in pain or exhaustion on the side of the trail.

The aid stations were unbelievably dialed, filled with some of the most wonderful volunteers I've ever met; my drop bags were delivered without asking, my bottle/hydration pack refilled to my specifications in a matter of seconds. With 200+ runners on course, I usually had company if I wanted it, though toward the end, Steve and I also enjoyed some glorious miles entirely on our own, so spread apart had we racers become.

All the race proceeds went to benefit the Lake City Volunteer EMTs.

Bravo to all the folks who made this race happenthe RD, volunteers, runners, crews, sweepers, Lake City locals and morefor putting on such a wonderful, challenging event in some of the world's most beautiful mountains. I feel blessed to have been a part of it all.

Our base camp for the weekend: Wupperman Campground overlooking Lake San Cristobal,  just a few miles outside of Lake City proper.
Sucker for swag: Finisher's cap, age-group award dog tags, plus a sweet cutting board from the Lake City general store and a bottle of Syrah donated by Elkhorn Liquors that I scored in the post-race raffle.

Nothing but gratitude for another glorious day in the mountains.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Winter Survival Guide to Colorado

I'm pretty sure I used to like winter, once upon a time. When I was a kid (in Kansas), snowboarding trips out west were a treat I looked forward to all year long. Sledding, snow-fort-building, snowman-making, Christmas, Sinter Klaas, snow days, snuggly days spent indoors with blankets and mugs of hot chocolate and books ... all good things.

Then I moved to a small mountain town at 7,200 feet in Colorado. In theory, this should make me like winter more. People here don't just like winter; they love it. From November to May, my new(ish) home is a snowy paradise, surrounded by the best of the best (a) inbounds skiing/snowboarding terrain at Aspen Mountain, (b) hike-to backcountry bowls outside of nearby Marble, and (c) endless cross-country and snowshoeing trails in every direction. And yet, (a) a season pass to Aspen is prohibitively expensive, (b) the chance of being buried in an avalanche is at odds with my general enthusiasm for being alive and well, and (c) sure, but I still can't help but spend the winter thinking, "When is all this damn snow going to melt?!"

Our back porch, circa December-May.
I blame it on being a trail runner. What's more excruciating than being surrounded by hundreds of miles of gorgeous running trails that are, in fact, only accessible for a few months each year? (First-world problems, but the answer is: not much.) Of course, other trail runners in Colorado have managed to make this situation work for them, swapping their running shoes entirely for skis or snowshoes for six months every year--but, problem is, I really, really like trail running. Like, more than pretty much everything else.

If I never have to post-hole another day in my life, I'll be happy.

Since trail running is relatively non-existent here until May, I find other ways to entertain myself. Hiding out indoors all winter, by the way, is not an option when you live in a mountain town; live in one of the most gorgeous places on earth, and people will no doubt find ways to drag you outside and make you appreciate your good fortune.

All this positions May and June well to be my favorite months. I mean, spring is a terrific season pretty much anywhere you go--but, in the mountains in Colorado, it's the absolute best. I can't overstate my enthusiasm for these warm (but not hot), sunny months of long daylight hours, blooming wildflowers, awakening wildlife, growing gardens, roaring rivers, and (finally!) snow-free trails.

Running with some lovely ladies after work last Thursday. Is it hard to understand why I miss this during the half of year when it's not possible here? Photo by Ann Driggers.
Given my six-month absence from my blog (yikes), here's a look at my life through the past half year, with specific regard to my (emotional/mental) survival techniques for Colorado winters. (Watch how I sneakily transition from strategies of embracing the snow to ones of increasing levels of snow avoidance ... )

Winter Survival Technique #1: Buy a pair of old, beater cross-country skis and get your ass out on the snow before hitting the office. Morning sessions at the local XC trails = heavenly.

Also good for longer excursions ...

... to gorgeous places. Colorado's most photographed mountains, the Maroon Bells, in the background!

Winter Survival Technique #2: Play (or, in my case, watch) broomball. Not talented enough on ice skates for hockey? No problem. Wear your tennis shoes, slap on a helmet and some knee pads and hit the rink for some broomball league play.

Winter Survival Technique #3: Swiss Bobbing. I have no photographic representation of this, but here's what's entailed: Strap some Yaktrax onto your running shoes and a Swiss Bob plastic sled to your back, hike/run up the ski mountain at night under a full moon and in the company of far more hardcore mountain town folk on skis with skins or on fat bikes ... then plop down on your Swiss Bob and sled all the way back down to the bottom. Repeat as needed.

Winter Survival Technique #4: Hot springs soaking--no doubt, one of the most glorious aspects of where we live. No matter that this amazing natural hot springs in the Crystal River is right off the road; it's four miles down the river from my house, so I feel robe and slippers are appropriate attire for visiting. Photo by Annie Murphy.

Winter Survival Technique #5: Put on a silly holiday-themed costume and run the local Jingle Bell race. Photo by Colleen O'Neil.

Winter Survival Technique #6: Hike and ski/snowboard the bowl at Aspen Highlands. A little hard to see in this photo, since the bowl (on the left side of the photo) is totally blown out, but this is a killer hike up to the avalanche-controlled, tip-top of Aspen Highlands--some of the best inbounds skiing and snowboarding there is, and if you're badass enough (I'm not, by the way) to skin up/hike all the way from the bottom, you don't even need to buy a lift ticket to access this magical place.
Winter Survival Technique #7: Pretend the snow doesn't exist and go running anyway. Pretend that neighborhood streets are trails.

Winter Survival Technique #8: Invite people from Kansas out to visit. There's nothing like a vacationing flatlander to remind you that holy hell, you are a lucky dog and live in an amazing place. Thanks for the ski visit, Dad!

Winter Survival Technique #9: Run away to the desert. There are few winter blues that a little weekend road trip to Moab can't fix. Here (February), I show my enthusiasm for wearing shorts for the time in many months and for not being able to see a speck of snow anywhere. My friend Jeason is excited, too, but maybe not as excited as I am. Hard to tell.

I mean, really, the fact that Arches National Park is a day trip from where I live is pretty special. Annie and I were happy girls, the day after running the Moab's Red Hot 33K.

Duh. :)
Winter Survival Technique #10: Start a local women's trail-running group and run away to the desert. Again.

Winter Survival Technique #11: Use SkyScanner to find the cheapest plane ticket you can to a warm place (say, Costa Rica) with zero chance of May snowstorms. Hop on that plane, go, wear T-shirts, swim, sweat, lie on the beach, be merry.

Winter Survival Technique #12: Take grumpy selfie on mid-June trail run when all you want to do is get up into the high country, but snow's still thwarting your ambitions.

But! If you can survive the winter in Colorado, the rewards are bountiful. Trails and wildflowers are everywhere. Our CSA (community-shared agriculture, i.e. weekly box of produce from a farm down the road) starts up again this week. The grill's been dusted off. On various adventures in the past month, I've seen: a bear, mountain goat, coyote, lynx, elk, deer, snakes and marmots. And, this Saturday, I'll run my first 50-miler of the season down in Colorado's San Juan Mountains! (Which will, ironically, involve copious amounts of snow, thanks to our spectacularly high snowpack this season, which is still abundant at the altitude at which this race takes place.) Wish me luck.

Morning runs before work offer spectacular light and views of Sopris. Photo by Ann Driggers.

More Sopris. Can't help taking photos of her majestic summit. This one from a solo weekend adventure.

Coal Basin trails across the street from our house.

All that snow has to go somewhere. Creeks and rivers are raging this time of year.

Afore-mentioned trail running club's latest excursion to Thomas Lakes last week, below the summit of Mt. Sopris. Photo by Ann Driggers.