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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Why a Runner? pt 2


There are two other aspects that really attracted me to ultras (other than impressing my co-workers), the distance and the scenery.

Why do these 'crazy' distances attract me? Lots of reasons, but predominantly because distance is the great equalizer. There is absolutely no way to fake your way through these long distance ultras. Nobody walks up to a 100 mile race and says "Hey, this looks like fun, I think I'll give it a shot" and does well.

There is simply no way short-cut it. There is too much involved; the training, the research, trial and error. The will power. You need to figure out what kinds of shoes work, nutrition, hydration, what kind of weekly mileage you need to get ready for it... It takes serious dedication and time to complete the distance (not to mention money and support).

The distance is real and finishing is a REAL accomplishment. In our world of instant gratification and comfort, where we expect everything to be handed over or disdain anything that takes effort there are very few things that we can do that are truly an accomplishment.

That's why people react like ultrarunners are 'crazy', because ultramarathons are so far out of what society considers 'normal'.

Of course, the other amazing aspect of ultrarunning is the scenery. Every race website I've seen is full of photos and videos of amazing athletes performing amazing feats in the world's most amazing vistas. Want to travel to cool places and see cool things? Take up ultrarunning.

After all, in a 100 mile run there has to be something cool to look at.

Why a Runner? pt1

I was re-affirmed as a long-distance runner yesterday at work, an interesting episode I had to write about.

There is one co-worker who shares my love of running (and minimalist-barefoot running), she's training for the Marathon in December and we frequently talk about training tips, gear, nutrition, etc.

At the end of our shift we were all sitting around waiting to be released and I passed her a sheet I'd worked up with my goal splits for the upcoming 100k. The Peacock has some pretty epic climbs that I was worried about and I'd wanted to see how much I was going to have to compensate for the time spent walking up them. After messing around with the numbers I figured out that even with plenty of time set aside for the climbs the average pace to complete the course was still pretty doable. I even figured in some degradation over the course and still had a pretty good buffer before the cutoffs.

Another co-worker, as bored as us, was listening in an asked how long the race was.

I replied that it was 100k.

I could see the math-gears churning in his head, then it clicked and his eyes bugged out of his head.

"62 Miles?!?! Why would anyone do that?!? It's crazy!"

We went back and forth a bit, I told him that his reaction is exactly why I wanted to do it. It IS crazy and none of you runners out there can deny it. It's crazy, it's extreme, it takes so much time and effort just to train to run that distance... which is why so few people do it.

I ran in a 15k when I lived in Jacksonville, which was a fun race experience that I shared with about 15,000 people (it's the largest 15k in the US). I ran (very poorly) in the Honolulu marathon a few years ago, a cool race experience shared with over 20,000 people.

It's pretty awesome to run a marathon and I have absolutely no intention of taking anything away them (I plan on trying to make up for my past Honolulu Marathon debacle this year), but there are aspects of them that turn me off a bit. I've seen statistics that say 1 in a 1000 people has run a marathon. So it's awesome, but it's not that far out of the ordinary. They're also pretty well attended and almost entirely run on roads. Neither of which appeal to me. I'm more of a slow-pace runner who hates crowds, lines, and bored almost immediately whenever I have to run on a road.

Which is why I wasn't all that interested in running until I heard about Ultras.

More to follow, stay tuned for pt 2.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Family Fortunate

My Wife of eight years and I got divorced at the beginning of this year. To many people this would have been an incredibly traumatic event, a minefield full of emotional, financial, and mental issues.

I consider myself extremely fortunate, however, we somehow managed to avoid all those pitfalls and move through it pretty painlessly. Our daughter was our priority, making sure that whatever our issues we maintained a healthy friendship for her sake. We went through the process without even having to consult lawyers or go before a judge. To any considering divorce I really recommend doing whatever it takes to avoid the lawyers as they seem to make everything even worse (and more expensive). We settled our issues amicably and the rest was just filling out some paperwork.

I am extremely proud and pleased to report that we still support each other in every endeavor, the most recent of which is my upcoming Peacock 100k race. Neither she nor my daughter have been to any of my races this year, usually they start extremely early in the morning were over pretty quickly. So, I wasn't sure what her reaction would be when I ask if they wanted to meet up during my race.

The Peacock consists of two loops of a little more than 30 miles each and I figured that it would be really cool to see my daughter and Cari at the finish of the first loop/start of the second loop. Failing that, having them be there for the finish would be really meaningful. They didn't have to hang out for the entire race, just getting to see them at some point would really lift my spirits (and inspire me to keep moving when I want to give up). I should also mention that the race takes place on the other side of the island so it would involve a minimum hour and a half round trip drive.

That was where it got interesting. I called her up and Cari was instantly supportive and wanted to know what else she could do (even volunteering her new Husband as a pacer for the last ten miles and he immediately agreed to do it). Over the course of the conversation the plan blossomed into everyone camping out Friday night a short trip from the starting line, then making an entire day out of the race.

How cool is that? Seriously! It would have been enough to have them pop in for a quick visit at some point, but to have her jump in head first really, really means a lot. When I finish the 100k, it will be in no small part due to her.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Two Miles to Humility

(Originally Posted 4/7/2008, Writing Room and Runners World. It's one of my favorites. This was written when I first started really enjoying running and racing.)

Two Miles to Humility

Disclaimer: I write this now to empathize with the men that have remarkable wives, and to let women know how miserable their remarkability can make us.

I’d like to think that I have reached the point in my life where there aren’t too many big life lessons left to learn. However, it’s when you think you don’t have much left to learn that you end up being forcibly shown how little you actually know.

My wife, Cari, is an amazingly gifted woman. I say this with some confidence because I’m fairly gifted and she is far more talented and gifted than I am. When applying for a University, eight years after High School, I was required to retake the SATs. I studied for two weeks and scored a 1390, two hundred points higher than I had almost a decade before. I’ve learned through the years that given a little time and effort I can truly accomplish anything I put my mind to. My wife, on the other hand, can match any accomplishment of mine almost instantly and with little discernable effort.

At the beginning of our marriage we used to do “game nights”, where we would break out board games or cards or whatever paraphernalia we’d accumulated that week. This was before we had a daughter and overnight vital game pieces would go missing to parts not yet discovered. Many of those games I had been previously familiar and adept with, while she’d never played them. A typical night would include a first round, which I would win while she was still familiarizing herself with the play and rules. Then, while polishing her nails or watching TV, she would sweep the rest of the rounds effortlessly. Monopoly, Risk, Brainiac, etc. After a few weeks I resorted to games of chance rather than games of skill and she still managed to defy all laws of statistics and win at least 90% of the time.

I’d like to think that “game night” was discontinued due to challenging work hours but it was more likely that I was sick of losing and she was bored with the lack of any challenge whatsoever (and tired of my snotty responses to constantly losing).

We were both very competitive but it was obvious only one of us could compete, through no lack of effort and cheating on my part. There is no doubt in my mind that Cari could master neurosurgery if given a couple of days of instruction before getting bored with it and moving on to something more challenging – like rocket science. If given the reins of the current economy she would have it fixed up in a couple of days to where the national debt would be gone and other countries would owe us money instead. Unbelievable? Only if you haven’t met her.

In more recent years Cari has made a career out of one of her passions, the fitness industry. She teaches classes and is a personal trainer for half the gyms in Jacksonville. She cycles and lifts weights and is a highly certified Yoga instructor (as well as 13 or 14 other certifications). About the only thing she hasn’t done is taken up running.

I took up running. Possibly there was some mischievousness on the part of my subconscious in making that decision, I’m sure the psychiatrists could make something of it. So I was very surprised when Cari signed up with me for the 10k (6.2mi) Fun Run this past weekend. She’d never run more than two miles at a time in her entire life so this was a little out of the ordinary. On the other hand, I’d been running seriously for almost three years with the goal of working up to marathons. I typically run 15 to 20 miles a week, a 10k was a pretty normal run for me.

I smiled. If she wanted to jump in head first than who was I to discourage her, I thought smugly. After all, it wasn’t like she could beat me.

All the way up to the race she kept saying how crazy she was for signing up, that she was going to finish last, etc. All the while I listened, heart full of anticipation. My wife, the fitness master, was about to embark on the only journey that I could, without a doubt, best her at. I was already composing the encouragement and condolences I would give her when she finally crosses the finish line, “You did good, you didn’t end up coming in last!” “That was a good run, honey. When you want pointers for the next time you know where I live!” “You beat the power walkers by almost five minutes!”

I was comfortably enwrapped by these glowing feelings of “it’s about time!” through the start of the race and the first mile and a half. I ran with her, easily matching her pace, chatting to her panting. At that mile and a half marker she slowed a little and told me to just continue on at my own pace. I gleefully took off and she was out of sight within moments. The next mile or so I spent passing slower runners and reveling in triumph! It was petty, I knew, but there are few things in this life I’m really good at and I could count on one finger of one hand the number of things I’m better at than Cari.

At two and a half miles I sprained my ankle. I was doing a normal run, nothing out of the ordinary, and my left calf started to ache. I thought it was a muscle cramp. I tried rubbing it, resting it, massaging it, but the next thing I knew I couldn’t put any weight on it. I tried a slow jog that sent bolts of agonizing pain up my leg. Finally I just hobbled on, a halting walk all I could manage.

Cari caught up to me at the halfway mark. She had apparently found a groove and with all her other conditioning was actually running quite well. She asked if I wanted her to walk the rest of the way with me but I had sunk to a wallowing 13 different levels of self-pity and I didn’t want the company. Only I could so thoroughly snatch defeat from the jaws of victory! From such great heights I fell!

I wanted to crawl off the road and die in an anonymous bush somewhere.

The race was a big loop and I had to limp the last two miles, each step painful physically and equally depressing. My non-runner wife had passed me, then the aging slow joggers passed me, then the lady pushing her mother in a wheelchair, and finally the obese power-walkers until I was the only person in sight… in either direction.

I cried out to myself! How many thousands of completely injury free miles had I run in the past few years only to be laid up now!

At the last half-mile mark a volunteer who’d been directing traffic away from the race asked me if I was the last one. I wasn’t positive, but I had a sneaking suspicion. How total the irony! After Cari had expressed that fear only two hours previously!

The volunteer was a very kindhearted woman and decided to walk with me to the finish line (since we were both pretty sure I was the tail end of the disheartening race). I ended up spilling my guts to her, telling the story of my wife and the whole debacle. I told her about the irony of coming in last in this one of oh-so-many races.

She laughed and told me there was some sort of big “last finisher” celebration at the finish line. Bells, whistles, and maybe even a certificate of some sort. I had to fight the urge to pull off my race number and pretend I was just a bystander. How complete the embarrassment! Images of laughing faces filled my head. I picture Cari, arms crossed, smirk on her face, waiting patiently to see my disgrace.

By this point we were within sight of the finish and Cari saw us making our way. She ran back to us. I was saved from some portion of shame by passing the finish line and finding out there were indeed two people behind me (PS: one ended up in the ER and the other had dropped). It had taken me an hour and forty minutes to finish, only twenty-five minutes of which was actually running (I’d finished a race three miles longer two weeks before with a faster time). Cari had finished in 114:00, 13th in her age group the first time she had ever run that far.

When Cari walked us to the line I expected some form of sarcastic comment, some form of gloating from Cari. She had beaten me at my own game. Instead, she chatted with the volunteer and me. She was encouraging and nice, saying things that I might have said were the positions reversed but without the mirthful sparkle in her eyes.

I felt baseless, shallow. I don’t think I could have been so kind to her as she was to me. All of those things that seemed so important to accomplish and so crushingly disappointing to not, seemed so suddenly superficial. Maybe she’d beaten me so many times that it was no longer an achievement. Maybe in addition to being a more talented, more remarkable person than me she’s also just a better person.

After all, is it her fault that she’s so who she is? Is it my fault I’m slightly less talented, less lucky, and less remarkable than her? I have a lot of questions I need to consider.

Whatever the answers to those questions are, I’m going to have 2-3 weeks in crutches to slow down and ponder them. The doctors said that walking two miles on the sprained ankle didn’t help it at all. Two to three weeks that I need to spend off my feet as much as possible.

Maybe it’s time to get out some of those old board games.

(PS: I later found out that it was actually a pressure fracture in my upper Tibia. It was missed for a long time because they kept x-raying my ankle and lower calf. It took three weeks to be able to walk on it, almost 8 months until I could even briefly run on it)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

DNF lessons

After my first DNF, at the Tantalus Triple Trek, I was more devastated than I thought. At the time I was disappointed and a little confused but not overtly upset. A couple of days later though, I was still pretty down. I felt like I had prepared well, was ready for the race, and yet I didn't finish. What was going on? I thought I'd done everything right.

What was really bugging me was not knowing what I did wrong. I had completed every race in the HURT trail series up to the Triple Trek, and the only race I had left in the series was the Peacock 100k, which I'd already signed up for before my Triple Trek DNF. After the Triple Trek I was seriously doubting my ability to run the 100k. If I can't finish a 50k than how in the world was I justified in competing in a race twice as long.

What started my mental recovery was reading a race report about UTMB and Western States 100. Over the years I've started to recognize and idolize many of the successful American Ultrarunners. Anton Krupicka, Geoff Roes, Scott Jurek, Jez Bragg, Topher Gaylord, Michael Wardian... and many others (there are plenty of inspirational female athletes as well).

As I was reading these race reports I noticed something that I'd previously ignored, many of these ultra-athletes have dropped during recent races. This isn't an unusual occurance, these people have intense schedules, intense training, and really intense races, it's not that unusual for a talented athlete to drop from a race.


I'd seen these reports before and just never really paid attention to the list of the names that didn't finish. Once I had my own DNF experience the names suddenly jumped out at me.

I would never equate myself to these amazing runners, that would be like a weekend pick-up player comparing himself to Michael Jordan.... there is no comparison. And yet it made me feel a little better to realize that even these supreme beings of the running world have had a bad day, have problems, have issues. It makes them more human, and therefor makes my own humanity a little more excusable.

One of the things that I've learned in the interim is how difficult it is to explain the mental aspect of ultrarunning. When you're hurting in a 5k it's pretty easy to rationalize pushing yourself through it, 'only a couple miles left', 'only ten minutes left'... etc. When you're running marathon and beyond it becomes a little more difficult.

I ran 20 miles in the Triple Trek and started to fall apart. If I'd had a couple of miles left it wouldn't have been too hard to push through it, but when you know you have AN ENTIRE LAP left, TEN MORE MILES (of mountainous, muddy trail= 3+ hours)... that becomes a little more difficult. Then you look at these amazing endurance athletes who run hundreds of miles, every little difficulty becomes harder to push through. The mental aspect is something that I've learned (now) that you can't do much to train for. If you aren't very used to running these extreme distances than mentally it can be very difficult on race day when problems pop up.

It's been said in many places that the effort it takes to run an ultra is not linear. If you can run 10 miles in 60 minutes than you should be running 100 miles in 10 hours, right? Yeah, no. Even the best athletes have their performance gradually degraded over long distances. The better the athlete the longer it takes, but it still happens.

In the time since the race I've been able to rationalize the race and my performance more. I figured out a couple of things, and in doing so realized some pretty large faults in my pre-race planning and training.

First, I was not mentally prepared for the distance... mostly because I had never run that distance on that difficult a course before. This also resulted in more knee problems because of my unfamiliarity with the difficulty and the distance. I pushed myself too hard too fast and my knees paid for it.

Secondly, after much internet research I have realized that I 'decouple' during these long difficult races. That is, after a while my heart rate was much higher than it should have been for the effort I was putting out. I had a feeling this was a cardiovascular issue but it wasn't until I found the books and blogs by Joe Friel ( that I learned some of the specifics of this issue and ways to address it.

I ran a lot, right? So, my cardio should not have been an issue, right? Except for the fact that I pushed myself harder on race day and therefor spent more time in my 'cardio' zone than in my 'fat burning' zone. Which meant that I wasn't training my cardio as hard as I should have been. Or I should have forced myself to slow down on race day.

After looking at some of the race reports and having some time to learn from my mistakes I am feeling a lot better about myself and my abilities. I've learned a lot about what I'm doing wrong and the things I could be doing better.

I'm looking forward to putting my lessons to the test, though I really wish I'd done better at Tantalus. I really wish I had the confidence of a finish behind me going into my next race.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Tantalus Triple Trek

Tantalus Triple Trek Race Report, Sep 3 2011- only three weeks after Maunawili

They were especially sadistic when they came up with the course for the triple trek. It was arranged in a ten-mile figure eight. The first three miles were pretty much 100% uphill, steep and unrunnable. The middle section was nice, rolling hills covered in mud but runnable. Then there was a steep downhill portion. The section were the figure eight crossed itself was close to the beginning, which meant it was uphill and pretty gross. It was my second least favorite part of the course and it’s position meant that we did it twice a lap. The last section of the eight was an extremely steep downhill section that was absolutely covered in roots, after each root was a drop off of six inches to a foot (or more)... so it was essentially a giant, uneven, set of stairs that went down for a three quarters of a mile.

The first lap was pretty easy, we were all kind of bunched up on the single track trail but I managed to get in a with a group that was running pretty close to my pace. We walked almost all of the hills and ran the sections we could. The only time I really started passing people was on the steep downhill sections, I had a lot of confidence in my quick feet so I could run down them pretty well. Especially on the last stair-like section, I left the group behind. Unfortunately.

I'm learning, slowly, that when others know the trail better than you, do what they do. Don't take off on the rough downhill to gain some time when everybody else is walking it...

The second lap was kind of rough, the long, consistent climbs were tiring me out. My legs felt pretty good but it was just mentally and cardiovascularly frustrating to be constantly going up and then constantly going down. When I could run I felt pretty good but otherwise I was sucking. I dropped back and got passed by most of the people I’d run with in the first lap. Eventually I met up with a woman who was running slowly and just decided to keep her in sight. This worked out pretty well, I felt like I was running really slowly but we were making good progress. So, I figured out that the pace I felt I should be running was too fast, tiring me out so I’d stop or walk, then go again. Running at her pace I could maintain for a lot longer, making better progress. Eventually, on the same section as before I passed her again.

I made it to the aid station half an hour under the cut-off for the third lap, which had been my biggest fear (and goal) of the race. I’d been pretty worried coming into it, it was a tough course and any miscalculations would make it really hard to keep up with their ambitious cut-off time. I figured that if I could finish the first two fast enough than my race was pretty much over, I could take as long as I needed to finish the last lap.

I set out for my third lap and pretty much immediately regretted it. My knees were bugging me a little but I was having a really hard time catching my breath on the hills or keeping a decent pace. This was the yucky uphill stuff at the beginning, physically I was exhausted and mentally I was just... done. I don’t know if it was partly being sick (I’ve been coughing all week), or what, but it was everything I could do to just keep walking. I kept hoping I’d feel better, but nope.

So when I got to one of the cross roads I turned back toward the start line instead of continuing up the hill. On one hand I was really disappointed that I wasn’t going to finish my first ultra but on the other hard the only way I could have finished was to simply walk the entire last lap and mentally I just couldn’t do it. If I wasn’t going to finish half-way decently then why suffer through three-four hours of walking? Just to say I finished? What does finishing mean if you walked the last lap and it took four hours?

It sucks to not finish. I didn’t hang out after I made it back, didn’t feel like chatting it up with anybody. I just walked back to my car and went home to find some ice-packs.

Later on I checked the race results and was a little disappointed that they messed up my times. They had listed that I finished the first lap around 2:30 and dropped after finishing the second lap in 4:20, which was wrong. It looked like I hadn't made the cutoff and stopped, but I finished the two laps in a total of 5:30 by my watch (under the cutoff), then started but didn't finish the third lap (accounting for the extra hour). It doesn't really matter, I know how it happened and I doubt anybody is going to be looking my times but me, but still disappointing. Kick a guy when he's down ;)

Maunawili Out-N-Back Report

Maunawili Out-N-Back Race Report, August 13 2011-

First off, I was really excited about this race. The Maunawili trail, personally discovered when I got lost one time, has become a favorite of mine. I'd run it multiple times point-to-point and was excited to run the Out-N-Back. Unlike most of the HURT races I was actually pretty familiar with this course.

The concept of this race was pretty interesting. The oldest female and male runners were given ‘piggies’, stuffed animal pigs, and set out fifteen minutes before the next heat, if they got passed then they would pass the piggy on to the next front-runner. Then they sent out heats of runners broken down by sex and age. Being a relatively young, male runner, I was in the last set, which left about an hour and a half after the front-runners.

I was running in my brand new La Sportiva Fusion’s, they fit really comfortably so I figured they would be good for at least a couple miles before I switched into my good-ol standards, New balance Minimus Trail (which I stashed in my camel-back pack).

We started at the Pali lookout, which meant we’d run eleven miles mostly down-hill then hit the turn around and do eleven miles mostly uphill back. My daughter had a soccer game seven hours after the front-runner start time, and my goal was to finish in time to at least catch the end. Which sounds silly, seven hours to finish 22 miles? But it's a HURT run which easily can double a normal runner's mph.

The first half was pretty straight forward, about two and a half hours down. I was the last runner and wasn’t particularly surprised about it. I'm definitely one of the slowest runners in my age group and we started pretty far behind everybody else. We were so divided after the start, I figured I’d start to catch up to the slower runners in the second half.

I hit the aid station, refilled my camelback. The Fusions were surprisingly effective and my feet felt pretty good, so I kept them on. The aid station volunteers were awesome and had me turned around really quickly.

Unfortunately, as soon as I started the uphill portion my knees started absolutely throbbing. I was seriously tempted to turn around and go back to the aid station, but I hoped that when I got to a more runnable section it wouldn’t be so bad.

Yeah, no luck there. Between the knees and the heat I was suffering pretty bad. I managed to run a few short sections but nearly the entire way back I was walking. What took two and a half hours down took four hours to get back. I swapped into the Minimus' to see if that would help, it didn’t.

I finished last. I didn’t mind that so much, but they were taking down the tents and stuff when I got back, they thought everyone had finished already. Made me feel kind of low, but everybody who runs with HURT is simply awesome and they had me laughing in no time.

Missed the game and could barely walk for the next week. I shouldn't have been too surprised by the leg issues, I hadn't had time to really get prepared for this race so it ended up being the longest run I'd had in the last two years. The next longest being 14 miles, so I can live with it.

Run With A View Report

Written after Hurt Trail Series Race, Run With A View, May 2011-

Last Saturday I awoke at five a.m. to the sound of a torrential down pour. Seriously, horizontal rain pounding against the window. I booted up the HURT website, assuming that it was going to be cancelled (I was too tired to think about the fact that it was being put on by HURT). No race updates on the site. I drove all the way across the island, through the half-flooded roads, assuming that when I got there it would be cancelled (not to mention the forty minutes I spent lost, having taken down bad directions). It wasn't. Instead there was a group of about a hundred runners, laughing at the rain, already soaked, waiting for the race start.

If I have learned anything about HURT from the few races I’ve participated in, it’s to never, never underestimate the sadistic side of the HURT race directors. Oh, it’s only a six mile run... through multiple stream crossings, ankle-deep mud bogs, and as many hills as they can find. They are extremely talented at finding the most difficult conditions in the most beautiful places. Which is why their races are so ridiculously hard and yet so addicting.

The race started out with about a half-mile uphill run through the suburbs to the Jeep trail at the top of the development. As soon as the pavement ended the mud began. Trails, lots of mud, uphill, downhill, even more mud. At several points the downhills were so steep and slick we were sliding down them on our butts, it was safer.

During an especially steep and slippery hill a piece of advice from my recently acquired "Relentless Forward Progress", by Bryon Powell, popped into my head; how to use your glutes instead of your quads to climb a hill. So, I focused on proper foot placement and I quickly learned that not only was this much easier on my legs but I was much more sure-footed over the extremely slick terrain.

In fact, I was feeling so good about my progress that I got a little caught up in the moment and pushed a bit to pass a fellow racer who wasn’t doing quite as well on the climb. Here’s a piece of advice (maybe add it to the next edition of the book)... unless you are doing extremely well, or the other guy is doing extremely poorly, do NOT try to pass while going uphill. I passed the guy, reached the top, and despite only pushing myself a 'little bit' harder could barely get my feet moving again. The cost to gain ratio is not a good one.

About half way through the serious hills slowly faded and the course became much more runnable. There were still patches, uphill and downhill, that were too steep or too slick to run but it got better.

This is the section where I was running alone. I was just enough faster than the people behind me so that they didn’t catch up but was just enough slower than the guys ahead of me that I couldn’t catch up. There was probably a good forty minutes of the race that I ran without seeing another person. This was a little nerve-racking because before the race the directors had joked about people getting lost. “Follow the green tape out, the orange tape to get back. Pink tape is for the boar hunters and blue is bad, don’t go that way.” The problem was that there were pink and blue tapes everywhere, at every crossing, and the orange/green tape was far and few between. It would feel like ten minutes of running, nervous that I’d taken the wrong direction, before I would see a good marker, then the cycle would repeat. Every time I saw green or orange I would throw my fist in the air. Small victories.

The views were amazing, despite the low cloud coverage and the serious rain, it was obvious that were we running in some of the most beautiful areas of the island. Ridge top to ridge top around these gorgeous valleys. In some areas though there were large telephone or powerline poles that made me nervous. I hadn’t seen any lightning but with the sheer number and proximity of the clouds...

Eventually I reached the end of the loop and reached one of the most painful moments, running down the half mile of pavement back to the finish line. My shoes and socks were full of mud, and the angle of the road was really awkward to run ball-of-foot first.

I reached the finish line of the eight mile run in just over two hours, averaging fifteen minutes a mile. For the conditions though, I was pretty satisfied with that.

There was a nice gentleman who was graciously hosing off the participants at the finish. I walked over and spent five minutes scrubbing my legs and shoes, then walked back to my stuff. A moment later I realized that my legs were completely covered in mud again. It took a minute to figure out there was a river of mud flowing downfrom my still caked shorts and shirt. I had to go back to a much more thorough hosing off before I was close to clean enough to get in the car.

All in all, a great experience and reminder that HURT runners are all crazy.

(A portion of this was sent to Bryon Powell in thanks for his advice on running uphills, check out his book “Relentless Forward Progress”)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Lost in the Woods

The hazards of trail running.

“So, Bill, you want to hear a funny story?” I ask over the phone.


“Ten minutes ago I was ready to call and tell you I was completely lost in the woods and needed help.”

It all started with a simple trail run in the Hawaiian hills.

Several months earlier I’d been researching good hiking/running trails and happened across a website for a park in Aiea. It had a 4.8 mile loop around the Halawa Valley and I’ve copied the description below:

This hike is not strenuous but involves some gradual uphill climbs with a steep switchback and stream crossing at the end of the trail. The trail may be muddy with sections of exposed tree roots. Give yourself about 2.5 to 3 hours for the hike and enjoy the plants and the sound of birds around you.”

It sounded perfect for a budding trail runner like myself, just long enough to get in a good workout but not so long or technical that I couldn’t finish it. I noticed that they told people that hiking it took 2.5 to 3 hours but assumed that half that time was sight-seeing or enjoying “the plants and sounds of birds”.

The Aiea hiking/running loop starts and ends in a state run campground. The only caveat to running here is that the gates to the campground are locked at 6:45 p.m. No big deal. It was, however, on the other side of the island from where I live but I figured one of these weekends I’d get over there and give it a shot...

I had plans today that took me to the ‘leeward’ side and I packed my running gear in the hopes that I’d have time afterwards to give it a shot. I printed out the directions, mixed up a couple bottles of Gatorade, and set out. Hell, I was thinking that if it was early enough I might even get to do the loop twice. I did a difficult trail race two weeks ago and though my pace was slower I was still running a 10 minutes per mile. The math is easy, 4.8 miles = 48 minutes. Even giving myself an extra 12 minutes, I should have been able to complete the loop in an hour pretty easily. I was confident, too confident.

I arrived at the park around 4:45, the sun was still high in the sky and the temperature in the shade of the large trees was perfect. The first warning sign that this simple trail run was going wrong happened shortly thereafter. I looked all over and finally had to ask directions to where the trail started. A maintenance man pointed me to a dark corner of the park where there was a tiny little sign and a trail almost invisible to the naked eye.

Thankfully, before I set out I grabbed my hydration belt. I’d been debating over whether or not I should take it. Did I really need it for an hour-long run? If I made it back quick enough to enable a second loop I could just stop by the car and get a drink. I decided that because I hadn’t done the trail before I’d play it safe. I topped off the two little bottles and set out.

Then I got my second warning sign, also unnoticed at the time. All of the hikers I saw on the trail were breathless and asked how much further it was. At this point in the run the trail was very gradual and their weariness seemed a little extreme for the minor difficulty of the terrain. Whatever, I thought, and continued on.

About a mile later, feeling good, I suddenly came to a fork in the trail. Both trails looked about equally well worn, there were no signs or guides… What the hell? Following the motif for the day, overconfidence, I assumed they all went to the same place and took the trail to the right.

About five minutes later I came to a second fork, though both of these trails seemed far less trail-like than the one I’d been on. Again, I took the one on the right.

Five minutes later I dead-ended into a chain link fence.

Twenty minutes of backtracking later I arrived at the original fork and took the one to the left. It turned out to be the correct trail and not the right one (If I couldn’t laugh at myself this would be a terribly boring existence).

Very quickly this simple run was turning into a headache. Not only had I already gotten lost, I wasn’t even positive that this was still the same trail I started out on. The doubts started to creep in.

The run itself was nice, though far more complicated than it’s description had implied. Large areas were washed out, trees had fallen over the trail in multiple places, and the entire thing was muddy and criss-crossed with animal trails that were nearly as well traveled as the main one was. If a runner wasn’t careful, there were also times that the thin trail turned 90 degrees on the edge of a large ravine.

I kept glancing at my watch as it started to get darker out. I’d been running for nearly an hour and, though the sun hadn’t yet set, the visibility in the dense woods was starting to decrease.

It’s all right, I thought, I’ve been out for about an hour and must be getting fairly close to the end. That is, if I was still on the right trail. My sense of direction had been thrown so completely out of whack by all the switchbacks and turns around the valley I wasn’t even sure I was heading in the right direction anymore.

Then I came up on a pair of female hikers. I asked the first one if she knew how much further it was. She looked around, and smiling, told me that I was about half way there. I checked my watch again, 5:56.

It began to dawn on me that it’d taken an hour to make it half way and if I didn’t finish the second half in less than forty-five minutes than I was going to end up sleeping in my car, locked into the campground. Well, I could live with sleeping in the car but taking another wrong turn in the dark woods… I briefly wondered how long my remaining Gatorade bottle would keep me alive in a survival situation.

I sped up, flying recklessly over downed trees and mazes of exposed roots.

Every once and a while there would be a downhill just long enough that I would get my hopes up that I was approaching the end. Then the trail would turn back upwards and I’d start to wish I’d decided to carry the flashlight that I’d brought but thoughtfully left in the car.

In the midst of this craziness I realized something odd. I was having fun. More than that, I was having a LOT of fun. It was a race against the darkness, a race against time, and if I didn’t put every ounce of attention I had into where I put my feet I was going to end up at the bottom of a ravine.

It was awesome. If someone could bottle up that mix of adrenaline, fear, and excitement they’d make a billions. I imagine Olympic downhill skiers would understand this version of living on the edge, the speed and the barely maintained control.

All at once my aches went away, my energy returned, and I started to really push myself. The next twenty minutes passed in a blur.

More sections of the trail were washed away. Several times other trails intersected with mine, the correct path obscured. Still I continued on.

At 6:25, the light mostly gone, I was composing the conversation I would have with Bill:

I’d say: “Hey, I went on a run up in Aiea and I’m lost in the woods. It’s dark. I decided not to bring my flashlight but at least I have some swallows of Gatorade left in one of my bottles.”

He’s say: “Ok, where in Aiea are you?”

I’d reply: “I started out on a trail from the park… but I don’t know if I’m still on it. I might have taken a wrong turn a couple miles back.”

Bill: “…”

That was as far as I got in the mental discourse. One moment I was running through dense forest, the next I was stumbling out of the woods next to the restrooms. Laughing, I ran back to the car and managed to scuttle out before they locked the gates for the night.

I pulled out my phone and made a call.

(Originally written September 27, 2009. Posted on Runners World and Myspace)