Saturday, December 29, 2012

Sayonara, Seattle - and other exercises in letting go

Six weeks ago, I wrote this on my blog here:

I think one of the great things about transitions, whether you're initiating them yourself or struggling to adjust as they're thrown your way, is that they offer the opportunity for radical transformations. What's more invigorating than giving yourself permission to be seven again, dream big, and believe anything is possible?

Even if I don't always go into specific detail, there are often deeper things going on in my life that inspire me to blog about the things I do. Though I couldn't write it publicly at the time, the impetus for that particular musing on change was this: my dream job had just posted online, I knew I was going to apply, I knew I'd have a reasonable shot at it, I knew that getting it would mean moving to Colorado, and between the lines of that entry, I was asking myself, "Where will I find the courage to leave Seattle?"

Seattle as seen from the top of Mt. Si, Photo by Angelina Kovtun
Seattle, my favorite city in the world. Seattle, my home away from home, my circle of friends and colleagues and running buddies who have become like family. Seattle, with its glittering bodies of water, mountain range frames, majestic bridges, hills, hidden stairways, spectacular summers, and plethora of gourmet ice cream shops. Seattle, with its cat people and tea drinkers and book lovers and tech nerds and musicians, its beards and flannel and coffee. How do I say goodbye to a place that feels more like home to me than anywhere I've ever lived?

How do I leave the friends who play banjo by the river in the summertime, who go on rainy, ridiculous night hikes in the wintertime, whose idea of a good time is flying over the Cascades on Google Earth Flight Simulator? Or constructing Seattle icons out of gingerbread? Or donning union suits to snowshoe to a backcountry hut with a front-seat view to Mt. Rainier?

High Hut Trip 2012, Photo courtesy of Cambajamba
How do I say goodbye to my tight-knit circle of lady friends, with whom I've shared uncountable brunches, lady hikes, and evenings of putting on our eating pants and trading head massages? How do I leave the amazing runners with whom I've shared hundreds of miles of mossy, fern-laden trails, strangers I've carpooled to races with who became quick friends, the various crazies I've bunked with pre-race at Orcas Island each year? How do I not run all my favorite Northwest trail races in 2013? 

Angel's Staircase 60K in the Methow Valley
How will I miss my friend Brant's annual Time Travel Bike Ride from 1 a.m. to 1 a.m. each November when Daylight Savings ends?

TTBR, 2011 - Photo retrieved from the time space continuum
How will I miss the annual July 4 Cavalcade of Revelry, watching a thousand fireworks shows along the horizon from the theater of the Cascadian wilderness?

Cavalcade of Revelry
This place has been exceptionally good to me. My mother's jaw hit the floor when I told her over Skype that I'd applied for a job in Colorado. "You'd leave Seattle?!" she exclaimed.

"Only for this job," I said.

This job. If you'd asked me a year ago what my dream job was, I'd have told you, "Editor at Trail Runner magazine." And now, here it is. Here I go, bound for one of the only jobs in the world that will allow me to combine my two greatest passions - writing and running (trail running, even!) Everyone in my life has been unequivocally happy for me, even down to some of the most diehard corporate types I currently work with. Even they have beamed at me and said, "Yitka, if you have the opportunity to go do what you love, do it. And don't look back."

I cannot embark on this new adventure without paying proper homage to the experiences and people that have led me to this moment. When I first moved to Seattle, I'd had a few outdoorsy experiences. My parents, after all, are both lovers of the great outdoors, and had taken me on plenty of summer hikes in the Rocky Mountains, windy camping trips at KOAs in the great plains of western Kansas, canoe trips down the Missouri river, ski bus trips to Keystone and Breckenridge. But these adventures were few and far between - twice, maybe three times a year.

To get to the point I'm at now - having built a day-to-day life, social world, career, and identity even out of my love for the outdoors - took a lot of little perfect storms between then and now. It took meeting my best friend Seyeon at a summer program when I was 16; she'd grown up in Seattle, and had an inkling by the end of that summer that I'd thrive in this place.

SLC snowboarding with Seyeon, 2007
It took the editor and publisher of Outdoors NW magazine in Seattle taking a chance on a total stranger (me!) who emailed her for advice on breaking into the world of outdoor journalism. Thank you, Carolyn, for believing in me, for publishing my writing before anyone else would, for valuing my thoughts and ideas, and for being equal parts mentor and friend.

It took getting utterly lost in the streets of Seattle in my first month here, back in 2009, to stumble upon the flagship REI and impulsively ask for a job application. It took a friend of a friend, and a lucky coincidence, to learn about a Meet and Greet REI was holding to hire new employees. It took making quick friends with my coworker Tom early on there, and having him talk me into signing up for my first trail run.

Tom and I atop Angel's Staircase (Neither our first trail run together, nor our last)
It took other early REI friends, Cam and Jeff, taking me out for epic hikes and bike rides, and constantly inspiring me with the unmatched authenticity of their passion for the outdoors.

Mountain biking with the boys, circa 2010
It took my first manager at REI, Jamie, believing in me, inviting me to join the Outdoor Industries Women's Coalition, and passing my name along to REI Corporate when they needed a copywriter. There, I temporarily filled in for a woman who'd also soon become a close friend, and the big sister I never had. Thank you, Jeannette, for Googling my name when I applied to fill your shoes during your sabbatical, and for convincing the powers that be that I'd be a good fit. A thank you, too, to the head editor of the REI blog, Steve, who gave me a chance to write about running for a national audience for the first time.

It took another boss-turned-mentor-turned-friend (with 'running/training buddy' thrown in the mix, too!), Lauren, to help me find my path this past year. As anyone who's been fortunate enough to work with or for her can say, she has a true gift for putting air beneath the wings of your dreams.

It took many miles with many friends in the trail running community here to crystallize my love for this wonderful sport - amazing, peaceful, soulful miles with Elodie, Tom, Glenn, George, Deby, Jenn, Ben, Van, Ras, Kathy, Tim, Angel, James, Jonathan, Linh, and so many all have inspired me beyond words.

It took a chance encounter with a guy who walked into the Seattle REI last May in need of new hiking boots, whom I serendipitously ran into on a mountain trail again months later - and eventually, who sat with me for the better part of a Saturday helping polish my cover letter for said dream job. Thank you, Steve, for your unyielding support, encouragement, and enthusiasm.

There are so many others who've helped me along the way; I couldn't possibly name you all in a single blog entry. At the end of last year, I declared that I wanted to make gratitude a priority for 2012. I intend to carry this tradition into the years ahead, and so I hope I continue to give thanks to all of you who've thrown me a stone, helping hand, or otherwise to help me navigate the waters of my life.

So. It's scary to leave people, and places, behind. Leaving Kansas was hard. Leaving Ohio was harder. Leaving Seattle will be the hardest yet. It's scary to go somewhere new. And yet, above all, there is something dazzlingly wonderful about changes. This is going to be a good one, I know.

Mt. Sopris. My new Mt. Si?
See you soon, Carbondale.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Sayonara, Sallie Mae - and other exercises in gratitude

Despite making gratitude one of my projects for 2012, I missed writing a Thanksgiving blog entry this year. Not intentionally...just was busy, I suppose, making the most of a holiday spent in sunny southern California. There were beaches to run barefoot on, trails in the Santa Monica mountains to climb, copious amounts of food to be enjoyed. Life is good.

This year, I have so much to be grateful for - good health, an able body, amazing people in my life, a lovely place to call home, many powerful communities that I feel fortunate to be a part of, a career in which I continue to learn new things every day, a great boss, awesome coworkers who are tolerant of my quirkiness - including, but not limited to, my desktop terrarium (thank you, Camba!), oversized headphones, mason jars with green smoothies, and a propensity for running long distances.

Lest I allow my blog to sugarcoat my moods, though, I must confess: I've been seriously crabby and down the last few days. It's probably part catching a cold, part not running enough, and part life miscellany. So, on a sidenote, a special thank you to those who've had to put up with know who you are. Thank you.

In no particular order, I am also grateful for: dark chocolate, endorphins, train travel, cousins, persimmons, Spotify, donation-based yoga classes, the Seattle Public Library, my juicer, Skype, earl grey tea, down jackets, and the fact that my freezer is broken so I have an excuse to eat all the ice cream I just bought.

And tonight, a very special shoutout to my parents - to whom, as always, I pretty much feel I owe the world.

This week, I paid off the remaining balance on all my student loans. Since I spent my last dime moving myself out to Seattle three and a half years ago, I have been slowly socking away money to work toward this goal. Now that it's a reality, I have this to say to my parents:

Indeed, there is much to be grateful for. As always, choosing to focus on gratitude makes even a long, stressful, exhausting day a good one. Amazing how that works :)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Reclaiming sea changes, endorphins, and my lunch breaks

Autumn has been my favorite season everywhere I've ever lived - the changing colors, the crisp air, the hearty seasonal foods, the excuses to wear hoodies and drink tea and curl up inside with a book. Perhaps above all, what I think makes me love it is its fleeting nature. The leaves are such fiery colors for such a short period of time, you can't help but be dazzled by their ephemera.

Glorious autumn hike in Salt Lake City last month
I haven't always been so fond of fleeting things like fall. (Metaphor alert!) I'm pretty sure I can pinpoint gaining my appreciation for transitional times to my blissful, liberating summer at Stanford. Following that, at 16 years old on the plane back to Kansas, just a few days shy of my reluctant return to high school, I wrote this in my journal:

I need to not be afraid of letting myself LIVE and fully experience the things and situations and people that bring me joy, no matter what the rest of the world has to say about it. If this summer has taught me anything, it is probably just more selfishness - life is way too short to let fear of risk bar you from truly living. It's too short for wallowing or complaining or ruminating or reliving the past. I am not going to waste another moment of my life complaining about "life in Kansas" - what a waste! 

Rachel wrote me a letter where she talked about wanting to put our angst aside and jointly make senior year our best ever - and reading that made me think, 'Hey yeah! That's within our power!' I want to have outrageously high expectations for this year, just like I did for this summer, because I do believe that many times in life, you get as much out of something as you put into it.

I am on my way home, leaving something behind perhaps, but I have too much to look forward to in the future to dwell on this particular ending. Life is full of endings, of final chapters, of goodbyes, and we cannot let ourselves dwell in them, or we will never appreciate the innate beauty of new beginnings. Even in giving up certain aspects of our pasts, we take with us (consciously or not) the things we have learned, the memories we have made, the experiences we have had, the emotions we have allowed to shape us. The doorways are open everywhere, just waiting.
A photo I took from the plane window as I was writing that journal entry
I think one of the great things about transitions, whether you're initiating them yourself or struggling to adjust as they're thrown your way, is that they offer the opportunity for radical transformations. What's more invigorating than giving yourself permission to be seven again, dream big, and believe anything is possible?

It's why I'm a sucker for New Years.

Those who know me know I'm also a sucker for the Space Needle :)
It's also why I often observe the new moon by burning a candle and writing in my journal about areas in my life I'd like to focus my energy on in the coming month. (Many thanks to my lovely friend and mentor in Ohio, Monique, for introducing me to this tradition.) And it's why, even when the world feels like it's spinning wildly out of my control, I think back to a fable my mom always told me when she'd remind me, "You never know if something is good news or bad news."

(Turns out, it's almost always good news.) On January 1, 2012, I wrote in my journal, May this year be filled with positive and necessary change! I guess I asked for it this year. As 2012 draws to a close, I've been reflecting a lot on the changes that have happened - and also on the ones I'm still working to initiate, on the coattails of larger transitions in my working life and personal life alike.

Life, as always, is a work in progress!

One of those changes is finding innovative ways to temper a busy, full-time work schedule with enough adventure to keep me sane. The last few weeks of October this year saw at my indolent worst. After IMTUF, I went for a grand total of three runs the entire rest of the month. Yikes! And I'm ashamed to report I've eaten lunch at my desk most days, rather than taking a moment for myself to go for a run or read a book or just sit still and breathe.

Jason, a friend of mine who came to work in marketing for REI after many years in a high-pressure, high-stress corporate environment, gave me this (paraphrased) advice before I started my new job: "Take your lunch breaks. Go for a run, or ride a bike, or work out. If you set that expectation on day one, people will just accept that you're the kind of person who goes running on her lunch break. If you wait too long before setting that routine, you're more likely to get stigmatized for trying to take a moment for yourself in the middle of the work day."

At the time he gave it to me, I felt convinced I'd follow his advice to a tee - but once I got started in my new role, I absolutely got wrapped up in the work-around-the-clock mindset. It's tough, when you're settling in to a new place; you don't want to be perceived as the slacker among a crop of hard-working folks. And I'm not! I'm a hard-working Midwestern girl; slacking is not in my nature. But here's the catch:

I am so much happier, calmer, and more productive when I get outside and get my endorphins regularly. So these past couple of weeks, I'm happy to report that I've made big efforts to re-prioritize that in my day-to-day life.
  • I signed up for a gym membership (with a lap pool!) in my office's building, so I can work out on my lunch breaks - and I found a lunchtime workout buddy in my coworker Rachel.
  • When the weather is decent, I'm biking the 26 miles roundtrip to work, instead of driving. (If I did this every day for a year, I would save over $4000 on tolls, gas, and wear/tear on my car!)
The scenery's not too shabby either
  • I'm reclaiming weekday sunrise summits on Mt. Si, before hitting the office. Always worth it.
7:30 a.m. this morning
  • Steve and I are doing a power vinyasa yoga class once a week (and biking to and from it!).
Life is good. I feel fortunate to be alive and healthy. I don't know what yet lies ahead, but I am optimistic. I've felt an awakening in my soul, and will conclude this rambling entry with my favorite quote, from Howard Thurman:

Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Farming in Flannel, or Weekend WWOOFing

First and foremost, thanks to so many of you for the wonderful comments on my last blog entry. I've never had so much positive feedback on anything I've ever written. In many ways, getting to share my story with you all and receiving so many wonderful responses has pretty much been on par with the happiness I got from crossing that finish line :) So thank you, thank you, thank you. May we all continue to share our stories with one another - and be stronger, wiser, more joyful, and better connected because of it! 

(In the interest of sharing, here's one of my favorite inspiring reads of the past few years.)

Second of all: let's talk about how awesome Vashon Island is. Several months ago, I wrote about Vashon here on my blog and said this about it: A perfect little getaway from the city, Vashon boasts a lively community of folks, including many artists, musicians and, evidently, runners. It's always a treat to visit this rural, small-towny oasis.

The context in which I've visited Vashon (three times, prior to this weekend) has always been for the annual Vashon Ultra in June - my first 50K ever, back in 2010, and an event for which I feel a strong affinity and sense of loyalty. Every year, I've vowed that the next time I visit Vashon, I'd actually spend a decent amount of time there, seeing something other than the road from the ferry landing to the race start, and the 10-mile loop of trails that comprises the race.

This past weekend, I finally made the pilgrimage - with a weekend of work trades set up to structure the weekend. Steve, who's been interested in WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms - learn more here), coordinated with a small farm on the island to exchange a couple days of manual labor for a weekend of room and board. I had set up my own work exchange elsewhere on the island on Saturday (thank you, Claudine!) to trade writing/website assistance for an amazing massage/bodywork session - before meeting up with Steve at the farm for a little taste of WWOOFing.

So let me state for the record that I'd be a liar to say that I truly experienced WWOOFing this weekend. More or less, I pretty much just mooched off the labors of Steve. While I was off drinking tea with Claudine and getting a 5-star massage, this guy was hacking through blackberry bushes, shoveling (literally) horse shit and seaweed and grape leaves into compost bins, and assembling a large-scale rainwater-collection system.

I did show up in time to participate in the grand adventure of digging up potatoes. Quite the treasure hunt in the dirt! After much shoveling, we finally unearthed some good ones - which were promptly boiled, mashed, and set out on the dinner table.

Our kind hosts, Scott and Andrea, cooked up a storm for us on Saturday night. It felt like Thanksgiving - with foods that were almost entirely grown in their garden. Salads filled with homegrown sprouts, apples, spinach, cucumbers, tomatoes, and sunflower seeds - all harvested that day (or that week, at the very least). Mashed potatoes, mashed squash. Unbelievably tender pork from a locally raised pig. Berry cobbler for dessert, with fresh blackberries from their yard. Heaven? Pretty darn close.

Scott and Andrea are very focused on simple living - making and building things from scratch, repurposing everything, bartering whenever possible, spending less money rather than racing to make more. At the risk of over-romanticizing the island life, I will say that there was a stark contrast in the pace of their daily life from my own - even just the notion of having time to sit down together three times a day for a genuinely relaxed, home-cooked meal...that was nice. (Surely I can, at the very least, afford to reclaim the lunch breaks I've already begun to lose sight of in my new job? Starting tomorrow!)

The weekend's takeaway, for me, was similar to that of the delightful "Team Sprout", whom Seyeon and I stayed with during our first foray into couchsurfing years ago in Austin: time is money; money is time; live humbly, and you can experience a different kind of wealth entirely. 

Much like couchsurfing, this experience made me hope to someday have a home (and garden!) big, warm, and welcoming enough to host strangers. I love the idea of meeting travelers from all over the world, sharing fresh food and terrific home-cooked meals, learning about one another's habits and beliefs and life experiences. It's an amazing thing to be welcomed into the home of a perfect stranger, and be given a glimpse into their daily life.

In the morning, after a hearty breakfast with Scott and Andrea, we put on our work boots and hit the garden again for a couple hours. I'll be the first to admit: for as passionate as I am about food, I know astoundingly little about gardening/farming. It was awesome to see what broccoli looks like growing on a plant, before it's been harvested. I loved seeing how enormous the beets were in the dirt.

The stems of the Swiss chard were such a brilliant pink. 

The tomatoes in their greenhouse, of course, were ten times more flavorful than anything you can find in a grocery store. I wish small-scale food production was part of our educational system. Sigh.

They were kind enough to send us away with bags of fresh greens and vegetables, a big bouquet of hand-picked flowers, and a bottle of wine (which will be eligible for opening in 70 days...) from the Andrew Will winery where Scott works.

We spent the afternoon exploring Maury Island Marine Park (connected to Vashon), which was gorgeous - and even made us feel like we were on a real beach on the ocean, tidal waves and all! :)

Although this entry has been almost entirely focused on food, I've neglected to mention the two other ridiculously amazing dinners of the weekend. It would do my blog, and the meals themselves, a serious injustice to leave out mention of them entirely:

  1. Delicious dinner at the Preston household, featuring bacon/mushroom pizza, squash soup, blackened chicken in cream sauce, and creme brulee. My friends got fancy!
  2. Sunday shabu-shabu dinner at Deby's house: traditional Japanese hot pot meal with virtually endless bowls of rice, noodles, meat, shrimp, gyoza (dumplings), tofu, and vegetables...all followed by copious amounts of homemade mochi, filled with red bean paste. Yummy.

One thing is for sure: I died and went to food heaven this weekend. It was a bit of a rough transition back to Earth today...

A big thanks, as always, to everyone who made this weekend a stellar one. I shared so many wonderful meals with people I only just met this very weekend, or a few months ago, or in the case of a select few (Cam and Avey, this means you!), a full 3+ years ago now. All of you, in my relatively brief time thus far in this beautiful corner of the world, have become like family to me. I thank you for bringing color to my life!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

IMTUF 100 Race Report: Some Things Were Beautiful, Some Things Hurt

The strange dichotomy of my life continues! As I'm finally sitting down to write about the 36 harrowing hours I spent running through the rugged backcountry of Idaho last weekend, please note that this entry is brought to you from the luxury of a plush hotel room, complete with room service, in Salt Lake City, where I'm on business (and, soon, play) for the next few days.

In sharp contrast, last weekend, I was a filthy wreck of a human being, coated in dirt and sweat and Duct tape.

I suppose I need to start at the beginning - dinner with Deby after she finished the Pine to Palm 100 in Oregon three weeks ago. Deby is one of my badass-ultrarunner-mom-extraordinaire friends. She's run five 100s in the last couple of months, which is ridiculous, amazing, and thoroughly inspiring all in one. Though all my epic runs and pacing gigs this year have undoubtedly stoked my enthusiasm for knocking out my own 100, there was something in particular about seeing Deby's strength on the beautiful trails at Pine to Palm that really got into my pores.

So, despite the fact that I've said all year that I wouldn't try to run a 100 until 2013, there we were at dinner, and I was busy on my fancy phone researching potential 100s for the remainder of 2012. Sadly, though, there was not a one that really appealed to me. They all had issues: too far away from home, too flat, too many loops, too many leaves, already sold out. Grumble grumble; first world problems, I know.

So I dropped my pipe dream. For a week, at least. Then I took a look at the website for IMTUF (Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival), the 100 that would be Deby's 5th this year. There were reasons to be cautious: the entire course is at significant elevation (5,000-8,000 feet). It would be an inaugural race, which could mean poor logistics or course markings. Then there were the race directors' ominous disclaimers: "It will be a loop course of uncompromising quality and difficulty through the Payette National Forest. You are highly encouraged to have a mountain 100 under your belt before you attempt this race." And: "This is the high Rockies and these giants make their own weather."


But no matter; I was already seduced. IMTUF boasted everything I wanted: tons of elevation, almost exclusively singletrack trails, a generous 36-hour cutoff, a hot springs at the start/finish line, sexy laser-engraved finishers' belts, and perhaps best of all - a race far away and mostly full of strangers, so I could sneak away and give it a try without hardly anyone in my life knowing. Deby and I were the only Washingtonians in it. Somehow, given the sheer impulsiveness of my decision, I really wanted the opportunity to run without the pressure of anyone in my life knowing what I was attempting. To be honest, mostly it was because I felt wildly uncertain I'd be able to finish, and well...I guess I wanted to protect my ability to DNF (Did Not Finish) if need be. I worried that if I knew all my buddies at Seattle Mountain Running Group were tracking me, I might explode from the pressure alone.

So I sent Deby a quiet email: "I got this spontaneous, harebrained idea in my head that I might want to try IMTUF. Please don't tell anyone. Am I crazy?"

She promptly wrote back: "You already know how to be tough and to get it done. So no, I don't think it's crazy and am all for it! Check with your boss and start dreaming Sister."

So, asked for the days off from work: Check.
Asked Steve if he would be interested in coming to crew/pace for me: Check.
Registered on Ultrasignup at 2 a.m., six days before the race: Check.

The following Friday, Steve, Deby's crew/pacer Erin, and I got up before the crack of dawn and hit the road for Idaho. Nine hours later, we rolled up at the woodsy paradise of Burgdorf hot springs.

We met Deby, and the four of us shared a cozy, primitive cabin with no running water or electricity. We cozied up by the wood stove, which proved infinitely valuable through the well-below-freezing nights.

Which brings me to the start of IMTUF: 6 a.m. Saturday morning. The temperature was 8 degrees Fahrenheit. The drink tube on my hydration pack froze almost instantly (and didn't thaw out until three or four hours into the race). I had a handheld, too, but that, too, froze quickly.

The first few dark miles of the race were absorbed almost entirely with hydration maintenance. Every time I wanted a sip of water, I had to breathe heavily on my handheld for at least a minute to thaw it enough to unscrew the lid to drink. Then the moment I took it off, new water froze inside the grooves of the lid, making it impossible to screw the lid back on. I devised a plan: run for several minutes while holding my open handheld upright so as not to lose any water, and with the lid clenched between my teeth, so my breath would melt the ice in the tracking grooves. Then I could screw the lid back on and run for another mile or two before getting thirsty again and repeating the whole laborious process. The water itself rapidly became a slushy, ridden with ice chunks.

Early on, I fell into line with Brandi - an Idaho local, fellow 100-virgin, and also the race director Jeremy's wife. We more or less ran the first twenty miles together, cruising along the gently rolling terrain at a 10 or 11 minute mile pace, chatting it up, chasing the sunrise, having a great time.

The course was rugged and beautiful from the very beginning. The fall colors were stunning. My body felt fantastic. My mind was high already.


The course began the first of many brutal climbs shortly after mile 20. I fell away from Brandi here, and had my first "Oh $%&#, what was I thinking trying to run this thing?!" moment. My lungs seared at the thin air on the first big climb. The first 20 miles had felt so effortless, I'd forgotten that the zen-like runners' high was more an anomaly than a standard and that, in fact, most of this would actually hurt quite a lot. Humbled already.

I planned my blog entry: the subject line would be IM(not)TUF(enough). 

Around the 50K mark, we runners got briefly dumped out on a road. Against my mind's willing, I found myself walking - even on an easy downhill. I counted down from 5, then picked up my feet and began running again. Right then, Steve and Erin came barreling around the corner in their crew vehicle, honking their horn like crazy, and nearly giving me a heart attack. They were on their way down to meet me at the next aid station; I was running about an hour ahead of my very loose time projections, but already feeling tired and a little discouraged. It was definitely a boost to see them both.

Such a boost, I guess, that I forgot about paying attention to course markings, and missed a giant orange sign that would have told me to hop the guardrail and veer right into the woods. I could see the aid station on Payette Lake that I knew I was supposed to be headed toward, but as I continued down the road I was on, I was moving beyond it. 
Then, the orange ribbons guided me left into the woods - the opposite direction from the aid station. In my already slightly dazed state, I was only vaguely aware of the fact that something seemed off. I ran a half mile or so up the trail before finding a welcome outhouse at a trailhead that I dashed into. When I emerged, Steve and Erin had pulled up in their crew vehicle, and were frantically waving me down; "You missed a turn!" they told me.

So I turned back around and retraced my steps. Embarrassingly, the race director Ben happened to be driving by and saw me running the wrong way on the road. He tried to get me to turn around, but I explained that I hadn't been down to the aid station yet, because I'd missed a turn, so I still needed to get down there before running onward. He was dumbfounded, "Didn't you see all the orange flags and the the giant orange sign?"
When I did get down to the aid station, the other RD Jeremy pulled me aside. "Ben told me what happened. Didn't you see all the orange flags and the giant orange sign?" he asked me. :P Silly, already-delirious, 100-newbie me. User error! And only 32 miles in, oi vey. It was going to be a long race. I was so shaken up by my wrong turn and the RDs' mention of potential disqualification (obviously, they didn't disqualify me, because I'd made the effort to retrace my steps and probably even ran a bonus mile or two - but their use of the word at all spooked me) that I blew out of that aid station, completely forgetting to drink or eat or restock my pack. Steve and Erin hadn't been able to find a road to drive down to the aid station to meet me, so they weren't there either. I dashed out in a hurry, and only realized a mile or two later that I had about 30 oz. of water and 150 calories in my pack, to last me the next 12 miles (roughly 3 hours). 

The day had heated up. The air was thin and dry, my throat already full of dust. I felt parched, hungry, low on energy. The terrain was rugged. I was stressed about my wrong turn, then forgetting to drink or eat at the aid station. My mind got stuck on a self-defeating broken record. I couldn't stop beating myself up for my mental fuzziness, for careless errors that might well cost me the opportunity to finish. I was pretty sure, at this point, that I'd be DNF'ing - perhaps later rather than sooner, but as my water and food ran out and I started to feel dizzy, a DNF already seemed inevitable.
In Eat & Run, Scott Jurek wrote: "The ultra distance leaves you alone with your thoughts to an excruciating extent. Whatever song you have in your head had better be a good one. Whatever story you are telling yourself had better be a story about going on. There is no room for negativity. The reason most people quit has nothing to do with their body."

Although I had mostly been running by myself for the past ten miles, a couple runners had passed me during that long stretch, and taken the time to chat a bit before moving onward. Any kind of social contact offered a terrific mental boost. When the next aid station at Foolhen Meadows finally showed up - happily, earlier than expected! - I was finally able to change the soundtrack in my head to a positive one. I gulped down water and HEED, ate liberally, jammed a thousand calories inside my pack, and instantly felt better.

Then, just a couple miles more, and I arrived at the spot where pacers could jump in for the first time. Steve and Erin were both there, smiling brightly, positive and encouraging as ever, geared up, and ready to run. The greatness of the mental boost I got from Steve joining me cannot be overstated. I'll go ahead and say it now: there is absolutely no way I could have finished this race without his company, conversation, camaraderie, and coaching. I have renewed appreciation for the role of a pacer. In all four of my pacing experiences this summer, I'm not sure I ever served as a genuine savior/race-salvager to my runners, at least not on the level that Steve did for me in this race. Indebted is an understatement.

The sun went down shortly after we left the mile 44 mark. We kept each other as lively as we could through the night. I'd said beforehand that I'd like to keep conversation going as much as possible, to help the miles go by. We'd also agreed beforehand that, short of a true medical emergency, both of us would keep running - no matter how much it hurt, no matter how appealing stopping might seem. Steve had never run longer than a marathon - but being the avid hiker and backpacker he is, and knowing that I'd be moving slowly anyway, I was confident he'd do just fine.

At some point, he asked innocently enough, "So, um, is this much walking pretty typical in an ultra?" And there I'd been, thinking proudly that I was running quite a bit more than I'd expected to by mile 50! I laughed. Steve added that if he'd known trail running was really just glorified hiking, he'd have hopped on board a long time ago. 

From mile 50 on for quite a few hours, I felt fantastic. Definitely caught my second runners' high. Saw a shooting star, made a wish. At mile 58, there was a fire roaring and the AS served chicken fingers and the most delicious instant mashed potatoes I'd ever tasted. Life was good.

Then came the inevitable crash. The stretch between Blackwell Lake (mile 68) and North Crestline was supposed to be 10 miles; however, the Garmins of several other runners indicated it was actually 14. Mentally (and physically), I was ready for the aid station about two hours before it actually turned up. Steve and I were rocking a steady run/walk over the mountains - yet this section wound up taking us 5.5 hours.
This was, by far, the most challenging part of the entire race. Sleep deprivation set in. My toes had begun blistering horribly. My legs, miraculously, still felt strong - but that was pretty much irrelevant, given the abrupt, excruciating pain of every step on my blistering feet. I was wincing - and eventually moaning - in pain, with every single footfall. Steve put up with my grumpy bitterness like a champ - even as he crossed into his own uncharted waters of ultrarunning. Let me tell you: if you can be so fortunate as to land yourself a rowing coach/coxswain for a pacer at your next hundred, you will not regret it. He knew all the right things to say to keep me putting one foot in front of the other.

Mentally, it was extraordinarily hard to feel as though we were chasing down an aid station that would never come. I started sobbing pretty uncontrollably, while running, around mile 75. The finish seemed so impossibly far away. My feet hurt worse than they'd ever hurt before. It was brutally cold out. Runners had already dropped due to nausea, altitude sickness, hypothermia, hypnoatremia, sheer exhaustion.

Worst of all, I was disappointed in myself for so thoroughly falling apart. My biggest question, going into this experience, was whether the distance would break me. I'd seen it break so many. Beforehand, I felt convinced I'd be stronger than that, that I wouldn't be broken. I told Steve, "I want to be grinning and doing cartwheels at mile 80, not grumpy and crying and talking about quitting." But there were no cartwheels.

Let's put it this way: even if Glenn had been there, I wouldn't have been able to muster a jump. I simply felt I had nothing left to give. And I still had nearly 25 miles to go. (The IMTUF course is, in fact, long by several miles.)

The aid station at North Crestline, when it did come, was a godsend. There was a cozy tent. There was real food. A kind man wrapped up all my raw, bleeding, torn up toes in Duct tape. Unfortunately, I'd slowed down so much overnight that I had gone from being even at mile 70 with the eventual first-place woman to being right up against the cutoffs. (Granted, first place woman Emily Berriochoa eventually finished in 34:23, just about an hour and a half ahead of the cutoff...just to give you some perspective on how tough this race was.) I still very much doubted my ability to finish - which felt heartbreaking.

But we started off again, awake, refreshed, and now with some time barriers to keep us moving. The sun was up; it was a new day. My feet felt (slightly) better, all taped up. My mantra was from Slaughterhouse Five: "Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt." On cruise control, we blazed into the aid station at mile 87 with smiles, a half hour to spare to the cutoff there, and jetted right back out to tackle the last big climb of the race, up to Cloochman Saddle at 92.6. The climb was a challenge, and certainly got my muscles screaming - but it was gorgeous.

The ladies working the aid station at Cloochman were awesome. We sat down to enjoy some watermelon and no-bake cookies, and wait for Deby - who had been a half hour to an hour behind me for most of the race - to catch up to us. Unsurprisingly, she was in solid spirits. The three of us took off for the final home stretch together. 

Unfortunately, the altitude, sleep deprivation, mild dehydration, along with the whole running 50+ miles thing on pretty much no training whatsoever, caught up to Steve at this point. As we ran along the very sunny, very exposed, and very high-altitude (at least to us Seattle flatlanders) ridge, he started to feel extremely dizzy. I thought it very sneaky of him to fall apart right then, because it yanked my own mind out of the pity party it had been in - and I shifted all my focus to making sure he was okay. We did slow down; I waved Deby on ahead while I sat with Steve, got some water in him, and gradually got us moving again. It was wildly distracting from my own misery at that point! Well played, coach - a good trick for the pacer book, to be sure. 
When we finally dropped off the ridge again into the woods for the final final home stretch, we were both pretty wrecked. Nothing was beautiful, and everything hurt. That last stretch of downhill trail, which ordinarily I would have loved bombing down, felt like a death march to Hades. I was looking at my watch, knowing I was rapidly approaching the 36-hour cutoff. As we tumbled painfully down the never-ending trail, I felt my heart sinking.

I knew that we were supposed to pop off the trail at some point onto a forest service road for the final 1.5 miles. When I finally reached the road, I let out a whoop, and found power in my legs I didn't even know I had. It was a total Hollywood moment. I knew Steve had nothing left to give at that point; I could hear him cheering and whooping behind me, yelling at me to go for it and beat the cutoff.

Something primitive was unleashed in me; I roared. I sprinted down that road. I was beyond all pain, all exhaustion. For anyone who saw Bob Satko run out the final fifty yards of his 200-miler at Pigtails earlier this year, I felt exactly like that moment. I was ecstatic as I went flying down that road. I could hear the echoes of Steve's cheers fading behind me as I flew.

The non-Hollywood part is that I missed the cutoff by three minutes. But let's be real; did I care? Hell no. I ran 100 miles! :) Ben and Jeremy were there to cheer me across the finish line, award me my finishers' belt, and invite me back to, as they suggested, "run a 32-hour race next year". 
I'll be back for sure. This race was unbelievable. Ben and Jeremy were some of the best race directors I've ever seen - so involved, so present, so supportive, so awesome. They had everything dialed. The course was ridiculously well marked. The aid stations were fabulous, the real food delicious, the volunteers amazing. Idahoans are some of the friendliest folk I've ever met. The hot springs at Burgdorf were the perfect way to soak exhausted muscles the following morning.

Group shot of the inaugural IMTUF's runners, crews, volunteers, and RD's:

Thank you to everyone in this picture for making my first 100 experience as incredible as it was! Once again, I'm overwhelmed with gratitude for the people who've brought so much richness to my life. I thank you all for believing in me. I couldn't have done this without you. Love, love, love.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Pants, metaphorical tsunamis, and my new gig

Too many adventures to write about, too little time! Let it be known that over the past few weeks, I have donned a variety of pants - literal, figurative, and otherwise. I've taken turns wearing my fancy pants, my mountain pants, my eating pants, and of course, my running shorts.

(Please note: If you're tired of reading about mountains and running, you can find a brief interlude from those themes buried in the middle of this entry: just look for Cee Lo Green!) 

So, two weekends ago, I went to Oregon with my friend Deby for yet another crewing/pacing gig. While Deby knocked out her umpteenth 100-miler this year, I tagged along for the road trip down to southern Oregon and a long weekend of rich conversations, glorious meals, evening hot-tubbing, and sleep-walking mountain miles.

The race, Pine to Palm, is Oregon's only 100-miler. After cruising for two days around the backcountry roads there to support Deby and the other runners, I'm definitely adding P2P to my Ultra Bucket List. Beautiful part of the country, great trails, tons of runnable single-track, thoroughly challenging course. The time cut-offs, unfortunately, were rather aggressive early in the race; paired with intense heat on a lot of exposed ridges and a couple aid stations running out of water, the conditions caused many runners to drop out in the first half of the race.

Strong, steady, and determined as always, though, Deby cruised through like a champ. A little before midnight on Saturday, I jumped in at Dutchman Peak to run the last 35 miles with her. The thin air in the Siskiyou mountains got to us quickly. Around 3 a.m., while trudging up a long section of service road, we both began drifting into walking sleep. It's the strangest sensation, to be moving, to drift off for a second or two, and come to stumbling along in the darkness...your legs still walking, but your mind completely shut down. We curled up on the side of the road for a short nap, but found neither of us could actually sleep - so we marched onward. When the sun came out, it proffered a welcome energy lift.

Perhaps the most amazing moment of the weekend came in the form of a kind stranger at the finish line, who let us borrow her car for several hours to go retrieve our own from Dutchman Peak. Prior to her generosity, we had hit a bit of a panic, realizing suddenly we were not on our home turf in Washington, where we're both accustomed to knowing a good chunk of the people there and could count on hitching a ride with someone. The two other runners and crews we knew had both dropped out in the middle of the night, so we were essentially stranded at the finish line, with no friends, no prospects, no money (left our wallets in our car at Dutchman!), no cell phone reception...and certainly no energy to backtrack 35 rugged miles on foot to get back to our own vehicle. Disaster! Thank goodness for the kindness and trust of strangers. We live in a good world.

All the time I've been spending doing this sleep-deprived rambling around in the mountains has been good processing time for my little heart. 2012 has undoubtedly cast some tidal waves of change in my direction. Metaphorical tsunamis, for better or worse, require a good amount of energy to handle.

As many of you know, I recently accepted a new communications job with a mobile start-up. It was a difficult decision to leave REI, as for 3+ years it's been an absolutely amazing company to work for. Ultimately though, I'm really excited about this new opportunity to further develop my skill set - and hopefully make a bigger impact than I felt capable of making in my old role.

I wake up every day with new tasks to tackle, whether they be drafting letters, writing video scripts, designing newsletters, or in the case of last Friday afternoon - greeting, schmoozing with, and being the face of my company for 400+ members from all over the country. I met good folks from New Orleans, Tulsa, Salt Lake, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and beyond. Really cool experience. Then jetted over to Seattle's EMP in the evening for our official launch party...rocking out to Cee Lo, scarfing hors d'oeuvres, and sipping Sprites at the open bar like the classy lady I am.

But putting on my fancy pants (or dress, as it were) didn't prevent me from totally shifting gears and donning my mountain pants again at 7 a.m. the following morning.

We've had a truly beautiful summer here in the Northwest. 40 consecutive days without rain, and more sunny, blue-skied, 70-degree days than I could count. It's a shame to reach mid-September without having tromped around even once in the stunning North Cascades - so this weekend, with the help of my new friend Steve, I rectified that. There was a tremendous amount of fog, but happily, we enjoyed the little island paradise of Mt. Forgotten, rising above it all at 6000 feet.

It was a rigorous hike that began in deep fog - but the upshot was getting the mountain (true to its name!) all to ourselves. We ditched our packs for several little exploratory scrambles around. Tasty Ramen mash, mountaintop Scrabble, and cliff-side naps in the sunshine sweetened the whole experience. Not to mention obligatory post-hike milkshakes.

North Cascades for the win.

And...I like my life! Thank you to all who continue to make it a good one.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

In the spirit of sharing

Just a few songs, articles, websites, and videos out and about on the internet that I've been loving lately:

 - Angus & Julia Stone: Australian brother and sister folk duo (Their Flash website is amazing!) My favorite tunes are "Yellow Brick Road", "The Devil's Tears" and "Living on a Rainbow"
 - Meditation Oasis podcasts: Great for clearing my mind and helping me fall asleep at night
 - This goofy, awesome song and music video by Seattle's own Macklemore on thrift store clothing
 - Codecademy: Learn how to program online for free
 - A conservative argument for marriage equality (thanks for sharing, Sara!)
 - The Jubilee Project: A few guys I went to high school with who are making videos for humanitarian causes...completely amazing. Go Jason, Eddie and Eric!
 - This tasty summer salad recipe: Corn and blueberries, who can say no?!
 - Someone else reflecting on why being > doing
 - Bop-Life! My friends Lauren and Ben just launched an IndieGoGo campaign for their website and mobile app project to help travelers better explore new cities on foot
 - Blackmill: Incredible dubstep music, perfect for running, writing or meditating
 - A sweet blog post on "JOMO": The joy of missing out
 - You ran that! Paul Ryan Marathon Time Calculator

Sunday, September 2, 2012

On the glorification of busyness

This morning, I met up with a good friend and went for an early (but not crazy early), long (but not crazy long) run in the mountains outside of Seattle. As many of my one-on-one runs with ladies go, we wound up talking a lot about our lives.

At some point, she shared a mantra she's focusing on in her life: Stop glorifying busyness.

This, coming from a woman who works full-time at a fairly stressful job, but in a compressed schedule that gives her four days off each week to devote to things like raising chickens, growing vegetables in her garden, making jams and canning pickles, traveling, neighborhood bartering, and having some awesome running adventures here and there. To someone like me who hardly finds time to cook dinner once in a blue moon, she absolutely gives the appearance of someone who's figured out the balance thing in her life.

But, in our different ways, we confessed to struggling with this same issue of glorifying busyness.

What an apt phrase, I thought. I'm sure my mother would agree...I have an insidious habit of overcommitting my time and energy. Facebook friends and readers of my blog sometimes ask me, "Are you even employed? Where do you find the time for everything?"

I find it, of course, the way most everyone else in our fast-paced society finds it - by cramming it in. I multitask. I sleep less. I sacrifice time with friends. I'm a zealot for to-do lists. As I've blogged about here, I do things like read books while I'm on the treadmill, listen to podcasts while I cook, run up and down mountains between work and evening classes, or watch TED talks while doing crunches on my bedroom floor at 11:30 PM. I've gone from being an avid journaler who filled entire notebooks in a couple months to someone who hardly manages a few pages of written introspection each month.

Generally, I take pride in my productivity. I work hard; I play hard. "How have you been?" people ask me. "Pretty good," I say, "but busy!"

But does busy always equal awesome? Many times, yes; I wouldn't trade my adventures for the world.

Pacing at Cascade Crest 100: Photo by Glenn Tachiyama

But sometimes, awesome is also just a weekend at home, with no alarm clocks and absolutely nothing on the docket. For the past 12 consecutive weekends, I have had big (awesome!) things going on: being out of town for a race or all-day hike, having out-of-town guests stay with me, or staying awake for 40 hours straight to volunteer and run in the mountains. Of those 12 weekends, eight involved ultramarathon-distance runs. The last truly "unscheduled" weekend I had was June 2, and even then, it was two days before moving to a new apartment...hardly relaxing.

Part of it, I'll write off as an affliction of living in the Pacific Northwest. When so many nearby beautiful places are covered in snow for 80% of the year, I think it's natural to want to go soak up every hour of sunny summer daylight playing outside. But part of it, too, is indeed my tendency to glorify busyness. As if being constantly doing stuff somehow gives my life value. As if a to-do list can be an identity.

Where did that come from?

When I was growing up, I begged my parents not to schedule up my summers. Aside from our annual June trip to Colorado, where I happily attended a week of day camp to play in the mountains, I wanted my summers clear. I had novels to write, magazines to design, books to pore through, art projects to do, bike routes to explore, treasure hunts to design, and yes, I'll admit it, one summer, a virtual kingdom on Neopets to develop. (That was the year I had to explain to my parents and pediatrician that yes, I still had friends in the real world, too.)

Don't get me wrong: to-do lists have their place in my life. As I learned this morning, I'm not the only one who makes them on my fancy phone in bed at night. Oi vey. But how productive am I, really, when I put relentless, often exhausting, pressure on myself to do, do, and do more? Isn't it okay to sometimes just be?

This weekend I gave myself permission to just be. What a gift. Did I do nothing? Of course not; I read books and took naps and went for walks around the neighborhood and met up with good friends for tea, sushi, and backyard salmon grilling. I watched some Seinfeld over a pint of Haagen Dazs. I spent an entire morning in my PJ's honing my elementary programming skills. But none of it came from a list; it was all what I felt like doing spontaneously, in that moment. I feel calmer tonight than I have in ages, and am no longer panicking that I burnt myself out on running this summer. It's not the running per se that did me in; it's busyness in general that's left me metaphorically gasping for breath.

So. To my blog readers, to the bottom of this evening's mug of tea, to the almost full moon out my window: I am pledging tonight to stop glorifying least for entire summers at a time.